Dear John: Many thanks. Dave Barry.
…the above being the entire text of a hand-written postcard I got from Dave Barry today! Hooray! Dave was writing in response to a postcard I sent him telling him that I thought his novel “Big Trouble” kicked ass (and letting him know what the Ultimate Water Gun has been up to since he borrowed it in 1996.) Yay!
Month: September 2001
Dear John: Many thanks. Dave Barry.
Good Guys Wear Black
(and they do the “bunny hop”)
I studied a lot of Tae Kwon Do in college, and ended up taking a year off to run a local karate school: the “Oriental World Martial Arts Studio” in Richmond, Indiana (“Richmond’s oldest and largest martial arts studio!”) The school was on the first floor of an old dressmaking factory with oak floors and pressed tin ceilings. The deal was that I got to live on the second floor, in a loft fifty feet wide by maybe three hundred feet long. The loft had seen a lot of use as an indoor paintball arena, and my friend Todd Pugsley and I renovated it. We pulled up the carpet, stripped the floor, bought roller skates, and lived the high life. Todd had colossal parties, with stages for bands and boxing rings taped on the floor. I built a bed eight feet wide and twelve feet long, painted red with gilded molding. I parked my Land Cruiser in the alley in such a position that I could jump out the mezzanine window and directly into the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, I planned karate demonstrations at the local mall in which we smashed stacks of cinder blocks. (Also, a ninja would come out and wave his sword at a banana. Then I’d peel it to reveal the fruit sliced into neat pieces. We signed up a lot of kids that way.)
Anyhow, the think I liked about the school was that people took the karate seriously, but they didn’t tend to take themselves seriously. Unlike the “Cobra Kai”-style school down the street, when people walked through the door they stayed people; they didn’t metamorphose into glowering Bushido warriors with secret fantasies about pulling your heart out and showing it to you as it stopped beating. It was a nice, family-style school with good training. In the seven years since I’ve taken karate, I’ve been looking for a school like that. Unfortunately, everything I’ve found in New York has been big on attitude. Plus I wanted to take a Chinese style, because tae kwon do was starting to mess up my knees.
So I was really psyched to discover a Hsing Yi class on Church street in Tribeca, where my friend Steve Farrell teaches. It’s on the second floor of a nondescript building with an unmarked buzzer (add points for secret Kung Fu coolness), above a warehouse where Sabrett hot-dog vendor carts are kept overnight (add additional points for true New York grit.) The people are friendly, and the kung fu is absent of silly macho-ness. Last night, we spent two hours doing “frog jumps”, “duck walks”, and “bunny hops”: exercises I could never see Ralph Macchio’s opponents doing. Of course, they were grueling, and I’m as weak as a kitten today.
Which is a good thing; in the seven years since I was into martial arts, I’ve, er… changed. My black belt no longer wraps twice around my waist, I can’t put my palms on the floor, and frog jumps make me see spots. My ballet days are definitely behind me. However, I’ll confess a secret ambition: I’ve always wanted to be like William Sadler (“Death” in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), doing kung fu in his hotel room in the beginning of Die Hard II.
I’ll let you know how it works out.
Play “Planetfall” right here and now!
Planetfall is one of my very favorite games of all time. It’s an Infocom game, published in 1983. Go on, try it — it’s not addictive, I swear.
By the way, your browser security settings probably won’t permit you to SAVE or RESTORE games. If you get hooked, I’d recommend downloading the game and playing it locally.
Need hints? Go here for an online version of the old invisible-ink “Invisiclues” booklet.
See you in two weeks!
I’m slowly making progress on my book project, The Time Traveler’s Handbook. For those of you that I haven’t told about it one bazillion times already, the book will be the one reference you need to rule the world at any time in the past. Lists of winning lottery numbers, blueprints for industrial breakthroughs, even (of course) lists of dates, places, and times of major solar eclipses. Now I just need to talk my brother Oliver into creating some cool illustrations. My favorite idea so far is a nice period-style oil painting of an eleven-year-old kid Tasering a knight in armor.
Also, of course, I have to embark on a colossal research project. I’ve already found some cool source materials, and have an idea to start interviewing college professors and other interested parties.
Anyhow, registered the domain name timetravelguide.com today, and will have a new site up and running soon.
As you can sometimes see from my webcam, my desktop wallpaper for the past few years has been Pieter Breughel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. In the Metamorphosis, Ovid tells the story of Icarus’ flight and fall in dramatic terms, speculating that
“Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plow handle caught sight of them [Icarus and his father] as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment, believing these creatures who could fly through the air must be gods” (Metamorphosis 8).
The fisher, the shepherd, and the peasant are all present in Breughel’s sixteenth-century painting, but they aren’t standing stock still in astonishment. In fact, they don’t even notice the pair of white legs disappearing into the water, the small flurry of skin and feathers in the corner of the painting. This has always been poignant to me; the story unfolding in the painting will be told for thousands of years, and it sure as hell is the most important thing in the world to both Icarus and his father at the moment, but the rest of the world is just going on. Not callously, necessarily, and not with malice; it’s just continuing on oblivious.
W.H. Auden’s poem on the painting has always haunted me, and never more than now. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint why; it’s not that I’m angry that life goes on, and I certainly don’t think that this tragedy hasn’t received enough attention.
Musee des Beaux Arts (1939)
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The Nanobots Are For Your Own Good
I managed to make an appointment to give blood today. Actually, all the blood banks seem to be full-ish, so I made an appointment to give platelets. Platelets are used in the treatment of burn victims and leukemia patients: apparently, it takes six donations’ worth of whole blood to make up one transfusion, but only one platelet donation. So I went into the blood center on 67th and 2nd with my co-worker Steve Farrell and spent two hours with tubes in both arms, hooked up to an apharesis machine.
The apharesis machine takes your blood out of one arm, strips out about 10% of your platelets, then puts it back in the other arm! EEEwwwww! It looks kind of like an elementary-school projector, except instead of film, the machine is threaded with dozens of tubes carrying your personal blood around a maze of spinning knobs. During the course of a donation, it processes about four liters of blood (according to Yahoo, about 70% of my total supply: cool!) Frankly, I couldn’t wait to go through the procedure so that I could write about it here — the whole thing has this kind of B-movie science fiction panache. Maybe they’ll introduce nanobots into the tubing, giving me super powers! Maybe I’ll come out with laser-beam eyeballs, or X-ray vision!
Well, I didn’t gain any freaky cyborg abilities, but I did get to pretend, sort of. I spent the whole time talking on my wireless Bluetooth headset, because both my arms were tied down and festooned with tubes. I even got to be on TV doing it; Reuters came in to shoot some footage on disaster volunteers, and filmed me talking away, green light on my microphone boom flashing, knobs on the steel-and-enamel machine spinning in opposite directions, tubes jerking as the flow reversed periodically. Right on!
After this horrifying week in the city, I needed to get away and get some perspective. So this morning I bought a roast beef sandwich, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (and a P.G. Wodehouse book, in case I needed to cut the Merton), and took the Metro-North up the Hudson line to do a day hike on the Appalachian Trail.
I did this same hike in June, when the weather was hot, buggy, and sticky. Today was glorious early-fall weather; cool and dry, and the trees are just barely starting to turn. One of the things I like about hiking is that, unlike many workday pursuits, there’s no illusion of control. The hill is just there, and it doesn’t care if you climb it in ten manly minutes or fifty wimpy ones. It doesn’t care if you climb it at all, in fact, and there’s not even the presence of not caring; the hill just is. Usually, I like that because it’s a good antidote to a “type A” New York lifestyle. Today, it was a good antidote to the horrible human calamity that’s been the first thing on everyone’s mind since 9AM on Tuesday morning.
Every time I do this hike there`s something to make my jaw drop. Last time, it was a green bottle fly sitting on a rock at the top of Anthony’s Nose, above the Bear Mountain bridge. The sun caught it in a way that made it brilliantly, vibrantly green, as if this fly was a chunk of pure additive color.
Anyhow, this time it was a rushing sound like surf that I noticed in a field of cattails on the way to Manitou train station. The rushing sound got louder; I looked over and realized that it was a flight of thousands of tiny birds (sparrows?) wheeling and diving for insects. It sounded like a big nylon kite does on a windy day at the beach, except smoother.
I started to try to work on my freelance job last night, checking in on the websites’ server status. One of the boxes was running hot, trying desperately to pump out a huge backlog of mass e-mail. I tried to connect to the box, but there was a minor glitch in the terminal software. Which is when I realized that the server is located in the Puck building on Houston street, and I found out that the server farm had been evacuated.
So, wanting something to do, I talked my way through the police line around the Family Counseling Center in the Lexington Avenue Armory. The armory is on the same block as my office, sharing a wall with the building [My employer] is in. I had learned some buzzwords in my Red Cross training on Tuesday, and by repeatedly stating that I was a “Red Cross LDV”, “trained in Mass Care” and “ready to work the second shift”, I made my way into the cavernous space.
The Lexington Avenue Armory is the site where European art was first introduced to America in 1913. The room has a colossal arched ceiling and a wooden floor; in fact, my grandfather once played polo on the dress floor. Last night, however, it had been set up with dozens of folding trestle tables, each table with a landline phone and several police officers. A group of five hundred people sat in rows of folding chairs, waiting to describe their loved ones to the officers. The officers listened, wrote the descriptions down on paper forms. So far, out of 4,700 missing people, I don’t know of a single one that has been located this way.
The site was extraordinarily busy; I talked to the head Red Cross staffer, and looked around for stuff to do. My theory is that all the untrained volunteers (like me, frankly), tend to consume more resources than they contribute by needing constant managament. Ever worked with a new intern? Yeah, it’s like that. So I saw a colossal pile of garbage next to the food table and started to haul it, bag by bag, to the dumpster around the corner. Fighting the glow of conscious virtue that comes from doing the “dirty” job, I walked the bags back and forth through the police cordon. I couldn’t help it; I felt smug. The door was assaulted by waves of New Yorkers coming to volunteer; staffers thanked them politely and turned them away. Yet I moved trash, one of the chosen, without so much as a nifty Red Cross windbreaker or a name tag for thanks!
It was the sight of the single people on the folding chairs that really brought me down from my volunteerism high. There weren’t any hysterics; just people sitting by themselves with red-rimmed eyes; people that looked dazed and desparately unhappy. It hit me how uncertain their situation was. You’re a single, successful, young New Yorker living with your husband, your girlfriend, or your fiancee, the disaster happens, and…
…nothing. No uniformed officer comes to the door and takes off their hat, like in the movies; you just don’t hear anything at all. So you go to a big, hot, smelly government building and fill out forms. It was utterly, utterly horrifying.
One one of my trips, one of the bags I was carrying burst, spreading dozens of half-empty Poland Spring water bottles and banana peels across the sidewalk. The mess wasn’t actually all that nasty; the trash was so fresh that the water in the bottles was still cool. I was collecting the mess when I looked up and saw Governor Pataki walking into the building, surrounded by a cordon of plainclothes police. He looked like hell; like he hadn’t slept in seventy-two hours, probably because he hadn’t. He was tottering along in a navy-blue suit, being led by the hand by a young woman almost as tall as he was, maybe his daughter. People applauded, I think at least in part because he looked so exhausted. We want our civil leaders to look exhausted; we want to think that they’re working harder than is humanly possible, doing whatever it is that they’re doing to make things better.
Walking home from the Lexington Avenue armory, having spent the evening moving garbage at the Red Cross and Salvation Army mass care table. The scene was gut-wrenching – the armory has been set up as the city center for families to inquire about their loved ones. The people there by themselves were the ones that got to me the most.
The city is a bizarre mix of normal and catastrophic; everyone sees the pictures of the work going on in lower Manhattan, where the foot-deep drifts of concrete dust make the area look like a moonscape. From my desk at [My employer], I can clearly see the hazy plume to the south and smell the acrid, plastic-y smoke. Telephone kiosks are covered with missing person flyers. [My employer]’ building abuts the National Guard armory where families are trying to locate their loved ones; the streets are blocked off by troops, and Bill Clinton made an appearance outside the Staples next door, shaking hands while being trailed by television crews. At the same time, though, everything is open, subways are running, phones are working, and business is moving again. It’s like the disaster hasn’t stopped normal life in New York, but it’s superimposed itself onto it.