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Eulogized Egoists

The thing about eulogies is, despite your best efforts you can never be sure how they will handle your own. As much as we all have egos, we’ve imagined our funerals. It’s really the last grand foray into self indulgence. But that’s all it is, and at the end of the final day we have no idea or control over what will happen. Will we get one? Will anybody actually say anything? And if they do, will it come close to what we’d have wanted? When I’ve overheard or been in the presence of others talking about me, it generally falls into two categories: pointedly cruel and inaccurate, or overblown, grandiose, and exaggerated. In truth, these are the only two that register and I likely ignore the vast majority in between (“Did Rick eat the last piece of cake?”) But it applies to this eulogy thing. As much as “he ate the last piece of cake” would suffice, people tend to go overboard when speaking of the deceased at a funeral. The majority lean into the positive, but there are certainly examples of folks shuffling up to the podium, nodding in the stiff’s direction, and taking a final swipe.

All this thinking about how we’ll be remembered is going on in our own heads. It’s only in the ego of others, and how they wish to be perceived, that it will come to fruition. I have a friend whose ego lies squarely on the relative merits of his sense of humor. He’s spoken about making a video to be played at his funeral, an irreverent, brave, and above all hilarious final send off to be lovingly crafted by him. What he likely doesn’t get is that it’s just another vain example of ego indulgence. Even if he does this and his wishes are honored, people will react as people do. Some will indeed be thinking “my god, his wit transcends even this” while for others it will be “thank Christ this is coming to an end.” Implied ironic hilarity aside, there’s no getting around it. The only freedom comes in doing what almost none of us can do until the end: letting go.

There are exceptions. Unconditional love, ephemeral and elusive as it may be, transcends the ego. But it’s tricky and a large section of those believing they possess it are still trying to fill some self need. Like my writing this, it’s just another reach, another flailing stab at affirming that I matter. I had another friend, a short, combative individual who, interestingly, had a keen appreciation for my own brand of humor. His ego was so acute that he once asserted “the difference between you and me is that I have no ego.” I thought about it for a second and replied that, if this were true, he’d feel no need to say it. This seemed to stump him and, in deference to his ego, he replied “OK .. yeah.” An egoic Chinese finger-trap if ever there was one. All of which is to say it’s time to lay this post to rest. Please reserve all comments for after I’m gone.

Come They Told Me

Pretty thing, isn’t it?” – Bing to Bowie

I can now confirm that my infrequent posting here is the direct result of negotiations to sell this blog space to Elon Musk in early 2023. Not sure where he’ll find the time but I understand he plans on writing bi-weekly updates on my life, as well as sending reusable rockets to space, inhabiting Mars, improving his electric car, and putting a chip in everybody’s brain. There were signs that this guy might be an overachiever when he pulled off the first successful hair transplant in human history some years back (take that, Jeff Bezos) while simultaneously claiming the title of Palest African American. It’s true that nobody likes a show off but I don’t walk in lockstep with the anti-Elon crowd. His fall from grace may be inevitable given the sheer number of impossible challenges and powerful enemies he’s taken on. Still, it makes for enjoyable sideline viewing. A friend recently proclaimed him the “New Trump” but I’m pretty sure if you put those two brains side by side on the same stainless steel table, you’d notice distinct differences. (Beyond the prototype Elon Chip implanted in one of them.) It’s also fun to picture him in the Twitter building, pulling all-nighters in one of the worst San Francisco neighborhoods going (believe me, I know) whilst stepping out at three in the morning for a bag of pork rinds from Asad Market. He’s living proof that kicking it full-time on a Spanish beach just won’t cut it for some billionaires.

Contrast all of this with the lives of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who were paid $100 million by Netflix to dish the dirt on the royals and bitch about how tough they’ve had it. Both examples (Elon and the Sussexes ) are enveloped in narcissism but they move in distinctly different societal circles. Musk buddies up with Dave Chappelle and shares World Cup boxes with Jared Kushner while Harry And Meghan prefer brunching with Oprah, George and Amal Clooney, and Elton John. Though E.J. may be switching affiliation if Elon can show him a way around stapling that ridiculous hamster to his head. Elon and Elton may be separated by a single consonant, but the teams they play for are diametrically opposed. You can attempt to straddle the dividing line but these days it’s either pick a side or let someone else apply the label for you. It is required for even the most polite conversation or banal blog entry.

I, of course, have chosen the side of Good. It didn’t take much consideration. All formerly heroic indicators were pointing in this direction. Take David Letterman, a man brave enough to pull back the curtain and reveal the pompous reality of celebrity worship back in the early 80s. A guy who knew what mattered, and more importantly, what was funny. It didn’t concern him if the audience wasn’t quite in on the joke of Chris Elliott doing his Marv Albert impersonation and thanking his “musical director and long time friend Leo Sayer.” Dave’s instincts cut to the core of the relevant even in its most irreverent form. Same with these days. Caught him the other night doing one of his post Late Show spectacles, once again for the inseparably virtuous folks at Netflix. He’d flown to Ukraine (or is it “the Ukraine”) to interview the Great Zelensky in the grittiest of remote locations, an underground subway station. The lead-up footage showed Old Dave toting his modest duffel bag and wearing a workingman’s English cap while boarding a cramped, single train compartment. “Is this me?” he asks, and then “this is all I need .. this is all anybody needs.” All those years of studio apartment living have tilted him toward the appreciative. I think Peter Jackson may have been involved in the production; it somehow married all the authenticity of an eastern European underground with the flash of a late night network talk show. The sound of the rumbling subway cars was prominent but only occasional, and faded to perfectly mixed audio after they passed. And Letterman was sublime, fawning over this noble (if diminutive) man with proper humility and deference (much as our Congress would some time later.) It was all reminiscent of his first meeting with Cher, even if Zelensky didn’t call him an asshole. All was good, all was true.

Speaking of which, I lied. My infrequent posting isn’t the result of some rich guy taking over the helm but rather the product of age and discretion. I get the occasional idea (see the above) but quickly figure “what’s the point?” Not in a pathetic depressive way, mind you, but more in an accepting one’s fate and position way. I don’t have a sound crew to dial back the rumbling of trains in my head. Where to go from here? In this sense I’m not much different from Elon, once you get past the billions thing. And the genius, hair, ambition, and scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere things. And a few dozen other things. OK .. I’m nothing like him. Point is, we’re all just degreed versions of sorry bastards trying to see our way through. Or, if you prefer, enlightened Children of God tripping from one blessing to the next. It all works; it’s all good. Another friend and I were once discussing relative life philosophies and he said that he didn’t “trust the guys who go around acting like they’ve got it all figured out.” I don’t really trust anyone, so this distinction did little for me. Besides, I don’t think these guys are much different from the “look how wise I am” self-consciously cynical types. They’re just more fun to make fun of if you happen to lean in a certain direction. Then there’s the ladies, but I’ll leave them to the guys with everything figured out.

My dad, who died a while back, was a frequent reader of my blog. He’d give advice: “write more about other people and less about yourself”, opinions: “Bonds is a jerk but he’s the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen ..”, and comments: “enjoyed this piece but once people read what you said about me all hell is going to break loose.” Sure, he may have had an exaggerated idea of our respective reaches, but he cared. Once, when he was eighty and we were shacked up in a Marriott travel lodge during a family emergency, he told me: “I don’t know why I get up every morning and keep doing it. I think I’m just curious how it will all turn out.” I included this line eulogizing him. He was a guy who struggled with religion but if you ask me he had it down pat. I used to have some form of this same curiosity but it dissipated shortly after childhood. I also used to look forward to Christmas, so make of this what you will. Good place for a Chauncey Gardiner quote but I’ll hold off. Discretion, valor, ho ho ho.

Swimming Pools and Rocket Scientists

Deadlines and commitments,
What to leave in; what to leave out – Bob Seger “Against The Wind”

The Detroit Everyman really had something there, and he put it in non rocket scientist terms, which is central to this leaving stuff out theme. What good is art (music, writing, talking, loving, moving) if nobody gets it? Subtraction or an initially light touch are ultimately more important than delivering the goods with a knockout blow. Take Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” How many potential chords had to be eliminated before arriving at that plodding intro? Jeff Tweedy, the AntiSeger, put it well in his own mopey, depressive way: “The best song will never get sung / the best life never leaves your lungs.” Kind of a killjoy, no doubt, but even Senor Sunshine had to sing those words to make his point. What am I driving at? I think it’s best I don’t say. It only becomes apparent after years of playing guitar or putting brush to canvas (and I suck at both, relatively speaking.) Those who do it best know what to leave in, what to leave out. And lest you think these rules only apply to whispy, artistic types, the same can be applied to world class athletes. Watch some of those early Tyson fights (speaking of knockout blows) and observe what comes just before that beautiful moment of violent devastation (punching the ‘nose bone through the brain’ as Mike put it, just before getting dropped by Coca Cola.) There’s always a slight move left or right, a graceful shoulder dip, a slight repositioning of the body. The part he’s leaving out is any exaggerated move or demonstrative display. Any showing off or excessive effort. That’s the magic in those bouts .. the part that leaves you thinking “what did I just witness here?”

I could’ve left half of the above out, but there’s something to be said about moving on, too. Going back to the non rocket scientist terms, it reminds me of an incident with my pool man. Sounds kind of gay, no doubt, (and please, hold your cards and letters until after I’m gone .. there’s nothing homophobic about that quip if you think on it for a minute.) The fact that I have a pool man is kind of gay, though, and that remark would qualify. It was either this or learn how to add chlorine and remove leaves myself, which was clearly out of the question. Anyway, the original guy stopped doing the job himself and hired a crew as his business grew, and things got sloppy. More than once the water was left on while filling the pool and excess poured down my street. Wasting water in Marin County is akin to being the last guy on the block with a Ukrainian flag or BLM sign. People start to stare as you back out of the driveway. So I had to find a new guy. My neighbor, who used the same pool guy as me, found herself in a similar situation.

We thought we’d found our man with the second guy we interviewed (let’s call him “Bob.”) Bob was a tallish white guy with a new truck who seemed to know what he was doing. His delivery was a bit laconic, but again, sometimes it’s the words you leave out. My remark to the neighbor (which I later forgot) was “well, you probably don’t want a rocket scientist for a pool man.” Bob worked out well at first. He showed me how I could reduce my pump speed to conserve energy and kept things clean and neat. (Please note the lack of homophobic follow-up on that one.) But as the weeks passed, he started missing days. I was OK with that, actually. The truth is you don’t need a pool man to come every week; it’s just one of those scams they pull on rich people to make up for the bigger ones they lay on everybody else. But then Bob dropped out entirely and the neighbor and I were back to square one, as the people dealing in squares often say. It all led to this remarkable bit of conversation:

Me: “Well, looks like it’s back to the drawing board.”
Neighbor: “Like you said, you don’t want a rocket scientist doing your pool.”
Me: “I said that? I mean, it sounds like the kind of wiseass thing I’d say, but I don’t remember.”
Neighbor: “I still don’t know how you could have guessed ..

She went on to explain that he was, in fact, a rocket scientist. He was an engineer who worked in jet propulsion at Lockheed-Martin before his young wife died and everything fell apart. He turned to booze and took the gig cleaning pools to make ends meet. It was a longer story than that, and by the time she finished I was curious how she’d grown so close to the pool man in such short order. But I was tapped-out and we moved on to finding yet another candidate. I did explain how the “rocket scientist” quip was a standard refrain, but I don’t think it sunk in and she remained convinced I was some kind of obscure career clairvoyant. There’s a sentence better left out, but who has the time? The comeuppance, as they say, is that we got a new pool man named Lowell and he’s worked out swimmingly. (Insert Mike Tyson punching my nose bone through my brain.) Lowell has a few life stories, too, but I’ll leave those out in deference to today’s theme.

Kinder, Gentler Rivers

I’ve been inactive for a while. Still moving my limbs, and occasionally exercising my mind, but largely inactive as far as these posts go. Something the Fresh Prince of Bel Air said in his Oscars acceptance speech moved me to move my typing fingers. “I’m being called on .. to be a river to my people.” It’s a deep sentiment and actually originates from Anthony Quinn in “Lawrence of Arabia.” I have to give him both irony and chutzpah points. Leaning into the “self as river” thing minutes after slapping one of his people across the chops takes some serious stones. It’s true, rivers do have twists and turns as well as the occasional rock, twig and snake. The preposition “to” may be the key to everything. “From” or “between” would have been a different river entirely. Will Smith feels he’s being called on to get something down river to his folks. I don’t think it’s more Chris Rock jokes, but nothing is impossible.

Actually his professed calling and river metaphor feels suspiciously like something one says when trying to elicit favor from a largely sympathetic crowd. Apparently it worked. They gave him a standing ovation despite his having just smacked the shit out of a fellow performer. Which goes to show that people will buy any bullshit in the moment as long as they think you’re on the right team. For a Hollywood crowd, that team would be Team Kindness. You hear it everywhere these days; it’s as ubiquitous as a mask icon or Ukrainian flag on one side or Old Glory and an eagle on the other. But what does it mean .. “can’t we just be more kind?” Typically it’s translatable to “why can’t you just think more like me?” Kindness is inextricably linked to outcome, and how to arrive at optimum outcome seems open to debate. Might be something best discussed over a cooler of beers on a warm day floating down the River Smith.

Gimme Three Steps (Straight Outta Kenosha)

AK-47 is the tool; don’t make me act the motherfuckin’ fool ..” – Ice Cube

Sage advice from Mr Cube, who also had this ‘equity’ thing figured out when he suggested it was a problem of class and not race. But I digress, and digression can get one killed or expelled these days. No digression, no white chocolate. (And that was Bill Murray, lest you all start reaching for your AKs.)

Sigh. Russell Brand posted to Twitter (ah, glorious Twitter) today, something about a monk who takes his boat to the middle of a lake to meditate, and, shortly after closing his eyes and clearing his mind, feels another boat crash into him. Angered and ready to monk-rumble with the offending captain, he opens his eyes and discovers an empty and unmoored vessel that has drifted from shore. There’s no one to be angry with. His epiphany is complete: anger comes from within. He returns to his monastery, grabs his gun, and sets off pursuing the careless absent boatsman. Just kidding with that last part, but it’s a parable so let’s go with it. What was the monk doing with a gun? What are any of us doing with a gun? Minding our own business, of course, and trying to survive and protect our families in a dangerous world.

And so it goes, round and round. (Ratt; not Bill Murray.) Stop the ride, I want to get off. Some day this war’s going to end (Duvall; neither Ratt nor Murray) but until then, the choices are our own. I wanted a BB gun when I was twelve and my old man objected, but eventually consented after a litany of rules were laid down. It was to remain in a locked room, if I ever pointed it at anyone I was done, etc etc. Things loosened up after I demonstrated responsibility. I never pointed it at anyone and I became a better shot. Interestingly, some years later, my dad obtained a gun himself for shooting rattlesnakes at his country home. He used it once for this purpose, filling the snake and a Weber bar b cue full of .38 holes. (Ronnie Van Zant; not Duvall, Ratt or Murray.) The country home sold and the gun remained in a locked safe. Dad, the Weber and the snake are all gone now. The gun may or may not still be around. Fuck around and find out. (Online meme; not Ratt, Murray, Van Zant or Duvall.) It’s a big, bad world out there with nary an honest voice left. Sometimes the outline of a large object in one’s pocket is enough, sometimes it’s better to be packing.

Some say the Chinese invented alcohol. They definitely invented gunpowder. Some inventions are like viruses; there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. No putting the vaccine back in the syringe. John Lennon said “I hope some day you will join us and the world will live as one.” Salinger wrote “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘fuck you’ signs in the world.” And Chapman was carrying Salinger’s book when he gunned down Lennon. “You’re all over the place — I don’t know what you’re trying to say.” (Meadow Soprano to brother A.J.)


Never Fazed

Some people don’t like baseball. I get that. It’s fine. The game can move slowly; the season can drag on forever. There’s a certain pretense, at times anyway, to those who describe its nuances, its “pastoral nature,” its status as the thinking man’s/woman’s game. It’s our game, as Americans, and that alone can cast it in disfavor.

For the rest of you, Buster Posey retires today. Posey is a catcher .. the anchoring position on a baseball diamond. If every baseball play begins with the pitcher, it’s the catcher who surveys the field, designs the play, and makes real-time decisions. The catcher tells the pitcher what to do before it all begins. He calls the game. Yes, there are times when a pitcher will reject what the catcher calls, but rejecting a pitch Buster Posey called for was akin to not passing the basketball to Michael Jordan for a final shot or taking the brush out of Picasso’s hand to make a few improvements. Posey called every pitch of Matt Cain’s perfect game in 2012. It was only the 22nd perfect game in major league history. Cain remarked that there were pitches Posey called in particular situations that might have raised an eyebrow or two, and yet .. a perfect game. “That’s what made him special,” Cain concluded, “he never got fazed.” Imperfect English, yes, but it cuts right to the heart of the matter. (And yes, it’s “fazed” and not “phased” .. I looked it up.)

Of all sports, baseball is most like life. Not for the literary, romantic reasons so many give. Yes, it “begins with the eternal, emerging promise of spring, and concludes in the fall when everything begins to die.” And yeah, it’s the one game where succeeding three out of ten attempts is considered ‘exceptional.’ (Buster Posey: lifetime .302 batting average.) But mostly, like life, it just drags on forever. It persists season after season, most of them unremarkable in any earth-shattering sense, while the largely imperceptible ravages of time accumulate and stack upon themselves. Buster Posey showed up in 2010, the first of the Giants’ three modern-day championship seasons. He was the common link for those three World Series titles, the singularly indispensable component. Names like “Bumgarner” and “Lincecum” will forever be tied to the current organization, but ultimately, even they came and went. Buster Posey was a San Francisco Giant for his entire career. He was the rock, the constant, the beating heart.

But let’s get back to this “never fazed” thing. Those with fewer words at their command often say the most. (See “Berra, Yogi.”) Matt Cain hit the proverbial ball out of the park here. Yeah, you’ll take a catcher with a .302 lifetime batting average, seven-time all-star, National League MVP, three World Series titles, etc etc etc. But the “unfazed” thing is what it’s about. Baseball, as we all know, is about coming home. And since 2010, the San Francisco Giant who stood closest to home was Buster Posey. This is quite the exalted position. If you doubt it, consider the irate response from typically unflappable manager Bruch Bochy when journeyman Florida Marlin Scott Cousins ended Posey’s 2011 sophomore season with a bone-shattering home plate collision. Bochy, a former catcher, saw what was to come in Posey, and the idea that some wheel-cog in a Marlins uniform might alter this was unacceptable. It was as though somebody had showed up at Bochy’s front door with a gun while his wife and kids were inside. Like someone had threatened his home. Great as he was, you don’t want Barry Bonds standing guard at your front door .. you don’t want Gaylord Perry. You want the unfazed guy. You want Buster Posey.

I could go on quite a while describing how solid Buster Posey was. How “central” he was. But I’ll conclude with two somewhat obscure facts that do it for me. The first is that he walked away from a $22 million option for next season to retire on his own terms .. to do it the right way. Retired at the end of the year to avoid the fanfare and gift-giving ceremonies at other ballparks. Chew on that one for a moment. The second, and perhaps most important: he was my mother’s favorite Giant. My parents were the last of the hardcopy newspaper generation and the San Francisco Chronicle graced the driveway almost every morning of their lives. My mom was no die-hard sports fan, but having three men in her house meant she checked the section daily. Whenever a photo of Buster would appear she’d say “I like that boy .. such a lovely face.” Good enough for me. Best catcher and biggest franchise-player I ever saw. In the discussion with Bench, Piazza, et al, for greatest to ever play the position. The biggest and (along with Brandon Crawford) last remaining puzzle piece of the greatest Giants era ever. Hell of a ride.

Meta Chapter, Verse and Check Swing

Facebook is changing its name to some closely-guarded secret. No, this isn’t an early-stage revamping or dropping of “The” from in front of “Facebook.” This is a nod toward .. wait for it .. the Metaverse. And what, dear luddite, might the Metaverse be? According to those in the know, it’s a “shared virtual 3D world, or worlds, that are interactive, immersive, and collaborative.” It’s an alternate universe where the physical and biological can be uploaded and upended; tailored, altered and improved. It’s like the Internet minus the option of killing the screen and walking away. Put simply, it’s a place where Mark Zuckerberg can get laid.

What could possibly go wrong here? We’re already navigating an increasingly hostile digital landscape where falsely generated dopamine is tied to shitting on the other guy then waiting anxiously for validation from phony followers. The last vestiges of human interaction are being quarantined, passported, and doxxed. The walls of democracy have been bulldozed and remaining framework left hanging by poorly-nailed two by fours. What better flashlight to stumble upon in the dark than Zuckerberg, a  squirrelly dude who’s less than totally transparent when being grilled on his internal policy. Sure, he’s thrown a few of his billions toward hospitals and the like, and, depending upon your slant, put the ‘adults’ back in the D.C. room. But this is something else entirely. This is putting a cupcake on the nuclear trip-switch and trusting Adele to stick to the diet. This is handing Alec Baldwin a movie set gun based on prior displays of anger management.

On the other hand, it might mean I still have a shot at 1973 Wickerman-era Britt Ekland. So there’s that, too. Fully immersive digital reality minus the physical consequences feels like the last step before a completely shattered mind. Sure, maybe we’ll still exercise our bodies to keep the brain regulated, but why go outside or to the gym when all interaction can be simulated? There will be no vanity-based motivation. In the Metaverse we will all have perfect physical characteristics that can be altered at will. Our earthly selves will be rendered obsolete and we’ll be reduced to brains in boxes navigating this new dimension. Until the Zuckerberg brain box decides to digitize the rest of us and pursue his ultimate Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone librarian destiny.  OK .. maybe got a little out of hand with that last bit. Point is, I don’t care for it.

In one of my final nods to real-world activity, I attended the Giants-Dodgers do-or-die playoff game last week with my brother. This was game five of a five game series tied at two apiece. This was the Giants and Dodgers. This was two teams with 106 and 107 regular-season wins, respectively. This was unprecedented and on the heels of Covid-lockdown games with cardboard cutouts in place of fans. This was forty-one thousand actual human beings jammed into Oracle Park on a brisk October evening, all seemingly connected to the life and death importance of staying in touch with something of consequence; something that matters. It was also a game I had briefly considered not attending. After all, it doesn’t really “matter” by any humanly consequential measure. Life goes on afterward and, well, it’s only sports. A win would have meant brief exaltation and a sense of false stability, of all being right with the universe. And a loss would mean instant depression, a drop in testosterone, and an empty feeling likely to persist for the better part of the week.

Well, it was a loss. A close game, but a loss. In reality, I had no choice but to attend. This was pointed out by my friend Tom Myers, who said that I “had” to go. And of course, he was correct. I’ve constructed a life of avoidance when it comes to compulsory acts. And yet, they do arise from time to time. Had I not made the effort to get into the city, down to the ballpark, and in that seat, the thin line between me and Mark Zuckerberg’s pussy-ass utopia would have been obliterated.  Everything I’ve avoided in order to make my case that “this” matters and only “this” would have been meaningless. Every shred of identified “self” would have fallen away in favor of Metaverse Rick. Two inches taller, ten pounds lighter, and with Bryce Harper’s hair.

And so it was, my brother Rob and me, shuffling out of the stadium in silence after the last out ( a wrongly-called strike three on a check swing missed by the first base umpire.) A young Dodger fan in front of us taunted the crowd at large and there was that brief urge to hurt him, to make him pay for my own immaturity and inability to deal with disappointment. But this was still the real world and all that remained was the final required act of questionable adulthood: sucking it up and finding your way home. Rob and I didn’t speak, not for the slow climb up the steps, not for the shuffled walk among the deflated masses through stadium bowels, not until we emerged outside and he asked if I wanted a ride back with his wife, who was coming to pick him up.  We are different guys, as I noted at the parents’ funerals, but we share certain deeply connected truths. There was nothing to be said after a loss like this. “No,” I told him “I think I’ll walk home.” He opened his mouth, as though to offer some parting line, some obligatory, perspective-lending single sentence. But then he stopped. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” we both offered simultaneously. And I walked home to North Beach, the quiet crowd thinning and fading with each passing half-mile.

Normy, Normy, Normy.

Norm Macdonald, the comedian/philosopher/humorist/social commentator and present-day-horseshit-eviscerator, died last week at 61. He was loved by many, most of whom figured they got him in a unique, idiosyncratic way that the others missed. “Beloved” and being “laid claim to” are two different things, much as most of us would take either. Norm was both. Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, was so able to connect with the human experience that other cultures claim him as their own. Chinese scholars have asserted that he had to be from China. This was the kind of reaction Norm Macdonald could elicit. I shared this fondness for Norm. To quote from my last blog post, just weeks before the sad news: “Van Morrison, Clint Eastwood, Norm Macdonald, Dwight Yoakam .. I have few icons left and once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can’t alter who or what it is you deem iconic; it’s pretty much a one-shot deal at registration.” An overstatement, perhaps, but still a reflection of his select and personal appeal.

Ah, but Norm had a way of putting you in your place, even if you were some anonymous fan. With all of the heaped praise in the past few days, hundreds of Youtube clips being shared, jokes being quoted, etc, it was a token civilian who cut through the brilliantly banal for me and got to the essence of the man. This guy wrote on Twitter about how his dad, a union worker building sets for NBC in the 90’s, scored backstage passes for a Saturday Night Live episode. He was a kid at the time, eight years old, and didn’t know who any of the celebrities or comics were. Tim Meadows, a cast member and bit-player, rolled his eyes at the father as he signed an autograph, realizing that the boy couldn’t distinguish him from Adam. Of course we’re acutely aware of these things at eight years old and pick up on adult cues with great sensitivity. Then, he said, Norm Macdonald caught glimpse of this awkwardness before approaching and addressing him directly. “Don’t worry, kid.” Norm assured. “Some day when I die you can make it all about you.”

So, in deference to Norm, I won’t even try. We’re living in an undeniably divisive age. Laughter is a uniquely human reflex. Norm Macdonald’s powers in this realm were so acute that he was able to say things you’re not supposed to say, to hold opinions forbidden to public figures. Some of the people praising him loudest at present were those he busted on mercilessly. He espoused Christianity and defended the wit of political figures whose names can end careers with mere mention. He went back and guest-hosted SNL, the show that made him famous, and noted the irony in being asked to return after getting fired for not being funny. It wasn’t possible, he posited, that he’d “become funny” in the short period between losing his job and being asked to host. “Then it occurred to me,” he said live on-air in his opening monologue. “I haven’t gotten funnier .. the show has gotten really bad.” It wasn’t just a bit or Norm flexing his nerves of steel. He was right. The show did blow.

OK, enough doing what I said I wouldn’t do. If, in my select and small readership, there is anyone unfamiliar with Norm Macdonald, do yourself a favor. Go on Youtube and look up the channel “I’m not Norm.” Watch the clips. This guy was not just a comedian, not just someone with outsized balls who didn’t give a fuck and kicked back against the dying light. He was human in every flawed and remarkable sense and talented on that exceptional level that sneaks up on people and makes us come closer together in the subtle, shared realization that we’re all full of shit. And like all of us, he was vulnerable. I really liked the guy.

Plain Peanut Rant

The social stuff you’ve been doing lately is a good sign. You had me worried for a while .. every night playing country, drinking whiskey and eating M&Ms ..”

Got the above advice from a buddy this week, and I listened while sipping Glenmorangie with Johnny Cash spinning softly in the background. I’ve been trying to switch from M&Ms to all-fruit popsicles, which seems a positive nod to health. But the ‘social stuff’ .. I’m not so sure. Seems to me there’s been nothing gained from opening my mouth to state an opinion or two this past year. It’s only widened divides and cast me in a perhaps inalterable light for those of a more enlightened nature. Deplorable, delusional and deepening daily. Speaking of country, Dwight Yoakam is starring in the latest Clint Eastwood vehicle, “Cry Macho.” Clint is a hundred and seven now and Dwight’s put on a few el-bees since his butt-shaking Honky Tonk Man days. (Come to think of it, that’s also another Eastwood title.) But I couldn’t be more pleased. As a card-carrying member of the post-ninety brigade, Clint is officially entitled to do whatever it is that pleases him, up until his somewhat labored breathing and steely late-geriatric glint give way. Van Morrison, Clint Eastwood, Norm Macdonald, Dwight Yoakam .. I have few icons left and once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can’t alter who or what it is you deem iconic; it’s pretty much a one-shot deal at registration. Inevitably, and like you, they all get old, and the retort from punk haters always points as much out. To them I say “who’s your Clint Eastwood?” 2021 and those replies are still a long time coming.

But we’ve all got it coming, as The Man himself warns in “Unforgiven.” I put that reality off until a later date the other day, adroitly side-stepping an oblivious motorist on my daily jog. It was at an intersection under heavy construction where most pedestrians opt for an alternative path to the painted lines. I threw myself out of harm’s way as the driver hit the accelerator then barely regained my step and composure before the passenger — a ham-faced broad with more testosterone than that on reserve at a WWF event — screamed at me: “THE CROSSWALK IS THERE FOR A REASON, SIR!!” I’ve done a decent job since my mid-20s of keeping rage intact, having grappled with a sizable assholic temper up to that point. But something about the combination of nearly getting hit, a pounding heart, self-conscious instincts, almost tripping over a traffic cone as I steadied, and being berated by the same car that almost hit me, fueled old instincts. The vehicle sped off before I could say much besides “why don’t you come back and we can discuss it?” But I wasn’t coming down anytime soon.

Then, a few blocks down the road, I spotted the same car coming out of a driveway. I hadn’t made out the driver, an older fellow with a somewhat clueless expression, but there was no mistaking his belligerent sidekick. I stopped in front of them and walked calmly over to have a word as he rolled the window down. My words were measured but my blood pressure was still off the charts and I’m quite sure whatever expression I was sporting would not have made the cover of Serenity Today Magazine. “Look,” I said, in a seethingly calm manner, “you don’t almost run somebody down and then scream at them as they’re recovering.” I had a few other pieces of choice advice, all delivered minus any implied threat, but were I either of them I’d have been silently thanking California for its strict concealed-carry laws. The driver was a bit shaken but able to decipher that I wasn’t going to do anything and the woman in the passenger seat turned her head away in either fear or disgust. Then, as I continued past them, a few nagging questions persisted. “Was the car in question off-white or tan?” … “How many doors did it have?” … “Did the original screaming lady have on long or short sleeves?”

The more I thought on it, the more convinced I became. I’d pulled the threatening psycho card on a couple of innocent bystanders. I wasn’t certain but there was enough nagging doubt to add “shame” for dessert to my raging, fearful entree. If there was a lesson to be learned from all or any of it, I’d pick something along the lines of “don’t scream at anyone, ever.” There are times it may be warranted, but you’ll never go wrong skipping it all together. As a matter of fact, don’t even speak to anyone in a heated or threatening manner, tempered or otherwise. While we’re at it, don’t voice disagreement with anyone’s opinions of a political or otherwise passionate nature. Ah hell .. just keep your mouth shut altogether. Clint Eastwood’s more or less made a career of it and he’s still kicking.

Runnin’ Around With The Rag-Top Down

“Gonna drive to Atlanta, live out this fannn .. ta .. sy” – Gillian Welch

I wasn’t thinking a rag-top, but this was the general plan: head south and do some charity work. Maybe rent a muscle car and play the out of town asshole. I checked out Habitat For Humanity and several others, and had the loose idea to teach writing in Georgia or Louisiana or some such spot. I know California, I know New York City. The south was the third piece of my personal puzzle. These plans were derailed by way of Wuhan, but things are opening up a bit now. It may require a vaccine passport and selling a bit of my soul but hey, I pursued British citizenship a while back for similar purposes. “Willie tells me that doers and thinkers say ‘movin’s the closest thing to being free.’ ” And all that good stuff. The South will rise again whether I ever do or not. That’s the thing about plans, they tend to change. You can head down to the station with a suitcase in your hand but best to have no expectations. That’s four somewhat obscure song lyrics before making it out of the first paragraph. A sure sign of lazy writing.

At least it’s writing. And at least it’s still Il Pollaio, my favorite Argentinian grilled chicken spot, operating on Columbus Avenue in North Beach. They’ve apparently now got a sister outlet in the Mission as well. And here I thought this pandemic would be the end of all that was familiar. Turns out to be a force-multiplier. I stuck my head in last week for the first time in over a year and my waitress asked where I’d been. “How long you been open?” I asked, and she looked at me strangely. “Long time,” she said, “I thought you left town.” Sure they’ve been “open” for takeout and sporadic outdoor seating but everything seems to operate in degrees these days. On this particular day there was an available indoor table so I walked in and pointed to the courtesy mask on my face, asking “Will I need this?” “Only walking to your table or the restroom,” she explained. Makes perfect sense. I can sit with fellow maskless diners, yacking away in this tiny hole in the wall bistro. But something about rising to my feet signals viral danger.

No worries, though. I’m fully vaccinated (though I refuse to brag on it or list it in personal ads profiles.) I’m no kid anymore, so I went with the “I’m no kid anymore” reasoning. This train of thought basically asserts that you’re more at risk from a lab-leaked Chinese virus than you are from a largely untested vaccine. But it’s a personal choice, at least for now. Can I see clear to not calling those who would balk at getting their five-year-old vaxxed selfish conspiracy theorists? Of course I can, but I’ve always been a little rough around the edges. A “plucky contrarian” according to one friend this week. I was quite satisfied with that until a few days later, when listening to Christopher Hitchens comment on the word in an interview. He was objecting to the title given one of his books by a publisher — “Letters To A Young Contrarian.” He said the word is often used in the same vein as “eccentric uncle” or “colorful kook.”  He also pointed out that we are in desperate need of real contrarians these days. (And this interview was quite a while back, as evidenced by the fact that he wasn’t dead yet.)

So I’ll take “contrarian” in light of the likely alternatives (“crank”, “asshole”, etc.) Maybe I can combine it with my delayed Dixie sojourn and write my memoirs. “Southern Contrarian” has a nice titular ring to it, inaccurate as it may be. These days, I seem to be testing my few remaining friendships left and right, but like my vaccine-reasoning I’m going with being the better of two self-determined personal evils: jerk or phony. (There’s another book title.) The chicken was a bit dry, and I’m chalking it up to the young, tattooed woman, womaning the grill. Il Pollaio has always had male chefs anchoring the cooking nook, usually south-American ones. Maybe they’re stretched thin, given the pandemic and new location in the Mission. I’m perfectly willing to give the young lady a chance, but it’s always been a “do one thing and do it right” kind of spot. After the chicken there isn’t much left, save questionable chops, fries and salad. All things in time.