Thursday, February 26, 2009

You Can't Fight the Water Authority

Our water authority is about to increase its rates. There's nothing surprising there; just another utility charging us more. The average increase is something like $0.72 a month for residential service. What's galling is the letter my hairdresser received yesterday, as he was giving me a cut. He clearly uses a bit more water than the average person, what with all the shampooing and rinsing and washing of towels, and this fact was not lost on the water authority.

"Congratulations!" his letter exclaimed. "Our records indicate that you are a Special Care Customer. Because water is essential to your business, we want to ensure that you will never suffer a loss of service." His letter goes on to explain that his bill will increase a bit more than mine so that infrastructure can be improved. "We care about you," says the water authority, "and because we care about you, we're going to make you pay us more."

OK, but I actually do know something about water delivery in my fair city. All of us, Special Care or not, are hooked up to one main or another. If a main fails, everyone - hair salons included - hooked up to that main loses service until the main is fixed or service is rerouted through another main. Besides, who wouldn't suffer without water? I may use less, but I need water to drink, cook, bathe, just as much as he needs it to wash hair. Marketing-speak cannot change that simple fact.

Here's another simple fact. Around a month ago a filter at the water treatment plant went down for about two minutes. As a result, "all" customers received a phone call telling them to temporarily boil their water before drinking, just in case. I never received this call. I did receive my water bill the other day, so they certainly do know where to find me when they really need to. Of course, I don't use enough water to qualify for Special Care. I suppose you really do get what you pay for.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Try Walking

Robert Frost claimed that good fences make good neighbors, but he was wrong. This might have been the case a century ago, but these days off-street parking makes good neighbors. To get even more specific, having off-street parking and using it makes good neighbors. Last night I endured yet another meeting, probably my tenth in five years, about the "parking situation" in my small city. 1960s radicals had it all wrong. If you want to start a revolution, forget the pamphlets, demonstrations, and bombs. Just mention parking.

Our central business district has been struggling for decades. The reasons for this are easy to see: urban renewal emptied the center of town of residents, businesses have also slowly decamped for strip malls, what retail remains are small, underfunded niche businesses that suffer from a lack of foot traffic. The real problem, according to merchants, isn't cultural and demographic trends. It's parking. The meters cost a quarter, the police ticket people who don't feed their meters, when it snows the parking spaces aren't plowed out, sometimes people have to park a block away from the destination, there isn't enough parking, there's too much parking, it costs too much to park, we should have Muni-meters, we need more lots, we need another garage. Who cares about the economy, the culprit is parking.

Emotions run equally high in our residential neighborhoods. Because we are an old city, many of our neighborhoods were built at a time before cars. What off-street parking exists tends to be a pad for one car, but because many units were subdivided into several rentals, and because these days each household has multiple vehicles, parking can be competitive. People think they have a divine right to park directly in front of their door despite the fact that they live on a public street. People blame the municipality, the public transportation system, the police, street cleaning, absentee landlords, and yuppies when they are forced to park around the block from their homes. If you live in a high-density neighborhood but don't talk to your neighbors, it's probably because of parking.

Suburban living does nothing to ease the tensions. Every home on my parents' cul-de-sac came with a driveway and two-car garage, but even so occasionally cars were parked on the street. When I parked on the street the neighbors across the street would get mad. When the neighbors' son would park on the street my parents would get mad. The last time I visited the old block all anyone could talk about were the new neighbors who didn't use their garage and always had two or three cars parked on the street. The only issue that even came close to the angst engendered by on-street parking was one neighbor's floodlit Christmas tableau featuring Santa, his sleigh, and all eight reindeer.

People have cars. People need to park their cars. Everyone needs to get over it, so that I never have to attend another parking meeting in my life. Thank you.

Friday, February 20, 2009

And the Winner is...Whatever

It's Oscar time again. How do you make a fluffy extravagance relevant in the face of hardening times? Make it about triumphs over adversity. I have no doubt that will be the theme of these awards, and I also have no doubt that for some reason I really don't care about who is honored this year and who goes home empty-handed. For the first time I've actually seen all five best-picture nominees, as well as most of the other nominated films/performances, and I have to say that 2008 was a mediocre year for movies indeed. Any of the nominees for best documentary are better films than the best picture nominees, which is saying something about the state of fictional storytelling in this culture. Having said that, here are my guesses:

Best Picture and Best Director: Slumdog Millionaire and Danny Boyle. This is only fine with me in that it prevents both The Reader and Benjamin Button from winning. I thought BB was Forest Gump with makeup (and that it will win for makeup), and a gross mismanagement of a terrific short story, and that The Reader just wasn't very good. If the decision were up to me the award would go to Frost/Nixon. It's hard to adapt a play for the screen, and this was a terrific adaptation. Slumdog, though, has the momentum, is a little film that had to fight to get distributed, and is in fact about the triumph of love and intelligence over horrifying odds. Feel good, folks, feel good.

Best Actor: No one has overcome more than Mickey Rourke, so he gets the Oscar. His performance was the one interesting thing about a mediocre film, so there is that. Frank Langella should win this, but he won't.

Best Actress: Kate Winslett for her body (of work). Not for The Reader, although her performance was predictably good, but because she's overdue. Melissa Leo should take this, but she won't. Feel good, Kate's finally getting her due.

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger overcomes death. The Dark Night should get cinematography, editing, and a host of other technical awards. It should have been nominated for best picture. Oh well.

Best Supporting Actress: Nate Silver thinks this will go to that woman from Benjamin Button, and he's usually right about things. However, since overcoming adversity is the theme, I'm going to predict Penelope Cruz overcoming the fact that she was nominated for a Woody Allen film. Plus, she was better.

Screenplays: I'm too lazy to double-check who's nominated. In an ideal world, Frost/Nixon for adapted, Frozen River for original. And maybe this will be the case. Frozen River is, after all, a little film that could, and screenplay is the category where little films that could get recognized. It would also be a feel good award.

Best Documentary: Man on Wire has momentum and was one of the best pictures of the year. This is a competetive category, though, and Herzog will probably get the Kate Winslet treatment. He's overdue, and it would be an award we can all feel good about.

A bunch of other awards will also be handed out, but I can't bring myself to care. My final prediction, and the one that will absolutely be true: someone will be wearing a dress so awful, so cringe-worthy, that the hours of my life spent watching the telecast will have been hours well-spent.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Solve Everything

Accusing someone of keeping "banker's hours" is to insult his or her work ethic, since the phrase intimates a short work day. Bankers never actually worked less than other people, though; before banking became computerized, a certain number of hours needed to be spent counting money out to get ready for the public, and then reconciling accounts manually at the end of the day. Banks were only open to the public from 10 to 2 or 3 because it took the rest of the day to keep track of things.

I just drove 11 hours in two days, and during long drives random thoughts tend to crop up. For some reason I began contemplating banker's hours, not why banks were once open only at the most inconvenient times, but what the net result of those hours might have been. For example, when banks were only open to the public five hours a day, a run on a bank could only last five hours. Today, a panic can go on 24/7, as people electronically attempt to withdraw their funds whether or not the branches are open. In a way, the short hours probably helped keep the system stable.

[And here, I present as an aside my main pet peeve about It's A Wonderful Life: As George and Mary are leaving for their honeymoon, they drive past a run on Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. A realistic scenario during the Depression, yes. However, the scene takes place in the late afternoon, and much is made about staying open until 6 PM. A bank open until 6 PM during the 30s? I don't think so.]

If not for banker's hours, we probably would never have witnessed the cliched free toaster for opening an account. Toasters and other small kitchen appliances must have been chosen as premiums because women did the banking, and women must have done the banking of necessity in the post-WWII period because the men were off at work during the hours when the bank was open. Men may have taken the mortgages and paid the bills, but it was women who deposited their checks in the bank. Banker's hours in effect helped keep American toaster makers in business.

Banker's hours perhaps also contributed to a higher rate of savings. The lack of easy credit and the absence of credit cards undoubtedly had more to do with this, but the fact remains that, in the past, if you spent all your cash Friday night, you had no more cash until Monday morning. If you had five bucks to spend for dinner, that's all you could spend. Restricted access to your funds would keep more of your funds in the bank.

Perhaps one way of stemming our current economic crisis would be a return to banker's hours, not only for banks but for monetary transactions of any kind. The market would only have five hours in which to fall. People would only have five hours in which to rack up debt. Bankers would only have part of the day in which to package worthless debt into worthless securities. Toasters would be free again, and Americans would be put to work manufacturing them. Hey, this is as good an idea as any I've heard coming from Washington.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Which One Were You?

Happy Day, Presidents! I'm going out of town for a couple of days, and will be back Thursday. Oh, I was definitely Viola.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Sex Ed, The Final Frontier

This primer was written a mere 40 years ago. Oy vey.

What is male homosexuality?
Male homosexuality is a condition in which men have a driving emotional and sexual interest in other men. Because of the anatomical and physiological limitations involved, there are some formidable obstacles to overcome. Most homosexuals look upon this as a challenge and approach it with ingenuity and boundless energy. In the process they transform themselves into part-time women. They don women's clothes, wear makeup, adopt feminine mannerisms, and occasionally even try to rearrange their bodies along feminine lines.

Aren't some people just naturally that way?
Being naturally that way is one of the many explanations homosexuals grope for in an attempt to understand their problem...They prefer to consider their problem the equivalent of a club foot or birthmark; just something to struggle through life with.
This explanation is a little tragic. It implies that all homosexuals are condemned without appeal to a life some of them say they enjoy so much. Actually for those who want to change there is a chance.

If a homosexual who wants to renounce his homosexuality finds a psychiatrist who knows how to cure homosexuality, he has every chance of becoming a happy, well-adjusted heterosexual.

What do homosexuals really do with each other?
The usual homosexual experience is mutual masturbation. It is fast, easy, and requires a minimum amount of equipment. The chaps simply undress, get into bed, and manipulate each others' penises to the point of orgasm. Three to five minutes should be enough for the entire operation.

Surely there must be more to homosexuality?
There are dozens of variations but they all have this in common: the primary interest is in the penis, not the person. A homosexual may have as many as five sexual experiences in one evening - all with different partners. He rarely knows their names - he is unlikely to see any of them again. Besides, few homosexuals use real names. They generally go by aliases, choosing first names with a sexual connotation. Harry, Dick, Peter, are the most favored.
Some gay guys write their telephone numbers on walls...They go home and wait for the phone to ring. It never takes long. Another gay guy calls, they quickly exchange qualifications, and make a date. A few minutes later there is a knock on the door, penises are produced, and another homosexual affair is concluded. Elapsed time from portal to portal, about six minutes.

Isn't that kind of dangerous?
Homosexuals thrive on danger...

But all homosexuals aren't like that, are they?
Unfortunately, they are just like that. One of the main features of homosexuality is promiscuity. It stands to reason. Homosexuals are trying the impossible: solving the problem with only half the pieces...The homosexual must constantly search for the one man, the one penis, the one experience, that will satisfy him. Tragically there is no possibility of satisfaction because the formula is wrong. One penis plus one penis equals nothing. There is no substitute for heterosex - penis and vagina. Disappointed, stubborn, discouraged, defiant, the homosexual keeps trying. He is the sexual Diogenes, always looking for the penis that pleases.
That is the reason he must change partners constantly. He tries each phallus in succession, then turns away remorsefully...

What about all the homosexuals who live together happily for years?
What about them? They are mighty rare birds among the homosexual flock. Moreover, the "happy" part remains to be seen. The bitterest argument between husband and wife is a passionate love sonnet by comparison with a dialogue between a butch and his queen. Live together? Yes. Happily? Hardly.
The other part of these "marriages" that doesn't fit in with happiness is that the principles never stop cruising. They may set up housekeeping together, but the parade of penises usually continue unabated. Only this time, jealousy, threats, tantrums, and mutual betrayal are thrown in for good measure. Mercifully for both of them, the life expectancy of their relationship together is brief.

Are there any other parts of the body that appeal to the homosexual?
One more and possibly the most intriguing of all - the male vagina. To possess this organ, the essence of femininity, is the consuming wish of some homosexuals. To overcome the obstacles of genetics, anatomy, physiology, to finally become a woman, is worth anything. Precious few succeed.

You're perhaps wondering about female homosexuality. While the men have their own chapter, the women receive only a brief mention in the chapter on prostitution. That's right, lesbians are prostitutes. Again, oy vey.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cabin Fever

It's spring for a day. I sat on my porch and read the paper. I'm not wearing a sweater for the first time in months. I'm about to take Brody on a long walk by the creek. The sun is out. The ice has pretty much all melted. This won't last, so I'm going to enjoy the day. There's nothing else to say, is there? We can contemplate the state of the world tomorrow; today, it's spring.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two Burning Questions

We will finish our course in sex education tomorrow, but in the meantime two issues of great importance have come to light.

Number One: I was recently introduced to cave-aged Gouda, a cheese both incredibly delicious and ridiculously expensive. It comes in two types, one aged three years, and one aged five years. It's the same cheese, just aged longer and priced even higher in the latter case. Why is it that a cheese that can survive all those years in a cave, and then survive for God knows how long in the grocery store, begins to rot the second I place it in the climate-controlled cave-like environment that is my refrigerator's cheese drawer? If I buy the three-year version, shouldn't I have at least two years before it begins to spoil?

Number Two: What is the show dog world's love of poodles all about? I've been watching Westminster for about 20 years, and pretty much each year at least one poodle is deemed "Best in Group." Because poodles compete in both the non-sporting and toy groups, not one but two poodles can end up fighting it out for Best in Show. Every year, more of the same: the standard poodle wins group, or the miniature poodle takes it. If that doesn't happen Monday night, then the toy poodle takes its group Tuesday. Winning Westminster always comes down to vanquishing the poodle.

What's so great about these poodles? I know, take away the haircut and you have intelligent, gentle, obedient, loyal companions, blah blah blah. What well-trained dog isn't all of the above? Brody has all of those qualities, without the haircut. Brody is a self-respecting Brittany who would not be caught dead with that ridiculous haircut. I know, the poofs are to protect the joints while hunting, or whatever. Most dogs were bred to hunt or herd, yet only poodles are groomed to look like Marie Antoinette. Why do judges keep rewarding this? The show world's embrace of the poodle represents the triumph of grooming, of style over substance. Everyone loved Uno last year because a beagle beat not one but two poodles.

Naturally, a standard poodle won the non-sporting group last night. Brody and I will be watching tonight, cheering on each and every other breed.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sex Ed, Continued

Today we consider a local favorite, prostitution. David Reuben, M.D. has much to say on the topic; this is the longest chapter in the book, perhaps because the prostitution chapter also contains information on lesbians, while gay men have an entire chapter of their own. Why? you ask. Obviously because prostitutes hate men and so do lesbians. Prostitutes are therefore lesbians. It's all very logical. We'll leave the lesbianism for our next lesson and get right to the trickin' and the whorin'.

How does a girl become a prostitute?
Most girls become prostitutes because they like it. The transition from a "straight" girl to a straight "girl" is usually a gradual one. It starts with run-of-the-mill promiscuity, maybe a divorce or two, then a job at a night club as a waitress or bar maid. Freelance sex with customers for gifts plus association with full-time hustlers who hang around the club often prompt a girl to put the pieces together and get in the life...

What causes the "demand"?
Let one of the girls tell her theory. Bonnie is twenty-seven; she has been playing for pay since she was nineteen.
"The only thing that keeps us in business is the American wife, God bless her. Those overfed, overdressed smug little bitches help me buy a new mink coat every other year. If all the wives woke up at once and gave their husbands what they wanted, I'd have to go back to waiting on tables at a beer joint. But I'm not too worried - business gets better every month. As long as the average woman thinks she has a golden vagina I'll be in good shape."

We next get a dissertation on the economics of the high-class hooker, how much she takes in versus how much she spends on hair, make-up, bedsheets, etc. According to our expert, after expenses she doesn't make very much.

If prostitutes don't wind up with much money, then why do they do it?
Virtually every prostitute is in the life because she wants to be. Obviously any woman who chooses to rent her vagina to a dozen men a day has a serious emotional problem...All prostitutes have one thing in common - they hate men.

Why is that?
The full answer is a complicated one related to the deep underlying emotional problems that drove them into the game. Basically, prostitution is an ironic form of revenge against all men, acted out on the johns...

What's a street whore?
Usually an overage hustler, an alcoholic hooker, or one that's on narcotics. They have become so dilapidated that they are willing to go for the price of a drink, a fix, or a cheap hotel room. They don't last long and are swept up by the police, usually within the hour.
Another class of prostitute works the bars; these hustlers are carefully segregated by the class of bar they frequent. The neighborhood girls hang around cheap corner bars; the club girls make themselves available at selected night spots. The more expensive hookers choose the more expensive cocktail lounges in fashionable hotels and motels.

What happens to prostitutes when they get old?
That's when things get tough for the girls. Some of the lucky ones have managed to save enough out of their earnings to go into a small business. One of the favorite lines is a ladies' ready-to-wear shop supplying fashionable clothes and fancy underwear to other hookers...

I'll never think of Victoria's Secret the same again.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sex Ed, Part One

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask was written in 1969 by a psychiatrist, and shows it. It's not a book anyone would turn to in our more enlightened times for any real advice or edification, but it is a book everyone can turn to for some comic relief. I picked up a copy of the first edition for a buck yesterday, and have been happily educating myself ever since. I thought I'd share some highlights.

My copy fell open to the chapter entitled "Sexual Perversion." Here's all you need to know about it:

What are perverts?
Anyone who isn't interested in the penis-vagina version of sex is often considered a pervert and shunned by normal people.
This often includes such types as exhibitionists, Peeping Toms, sadists, masochists, and those with similar tastes. They are thought of as wild-eyed drooling maniacs, lusting for an innocent victim. It just isn't that way.

Why not?
First of all, pervert is an unkind and loaded word. It is derogatory rather than purely descriptive. A better word is sexual variant...

What follows is a lengthy discussion of Peeping Toms and how harmless they are because everyone likes to watch. Peeping Toms often "graduate" to become exhibitionists, who "need psychiatric treatment" but are also "harmless." However:

What about female exhibitionists?
Most of them are professionals. Strippers and topless dancers are good examples. No matter what they say, most strippers enjoy their work. They derive sexual satisfaction from displaying their breasts to large groups of men. They don't need much encouragement to display everything else...
Predictably, strippers don't get much other sexual satisfaction. They usually have trouble attaining orgasm and never find much real pleasure in genital sex.
The same holds true in general for beauty queens. Their activities have more social approval, but the game is the same. They show off their breasts, hips, buttocks and a discreet outline of the vulva (through a bathing suit) to admiring men. Miss Artichoke of 1966 has a lot in common with Bubbles LaTour and her Magic Balloons...

What are transvestites?
Transvestites are individuals who wear the clothes of the other sex. There is no prohibition against women wearing trousers, neckties, men's shirts, men's shoes, or any other item of masculine apparel. Let a man appear on the street in a skirt and blouse with high heels and he is in the hoosegow before the polish is dry on his nails. The women are just following fashion, the men are "sex perverts."

After a discussion of fetishists (who really just like to collect things and so are somewhat misunderstood) we get to the heart of the matter:

What is pornography really like?
Most pornography can be divided into two categories, visual and literary. These days most visual pornography consists of photos, all basically the same. The beginner's collection shows naked women with emphasis on the breasts and genitalia. Since all females have identical equipment, if you see one, you've seen them all. Once the dramatic revelation that women have a clitoris, vagina, labia, and breasts sinks in, there are no more surprises.
The next category of visual pornography is men and women having sexual intercourse. These pictures bring home emphatically the fact that penis and vagina somehow go together. The complete collection of this group of "dirty pictures" constitutes ninety-six separate positions, most of which are unfeasible except for circus acrobats.
When the customer tires of peering at shots of naked gymnasts, views of heterosexual fellatio and cunnilingus may provide further diversion. That's about it. Since human anatomy is well-standardized, pornography quickly becomes boring and monotonous...

What about literary pornography?
It suffers from the same fatal disease as photographs - dullness...

David Reuben, M.D. concludes the chapter by stating that because porn is boring it really doesn't harm anyone. Children shouldn't see it and should be educated by parents rather than photographs. And so concludes the tour of Sexual Perversion, 1960s-style. Tomorrow: prostitution.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Big Read

As the snow falls yet again I'm ready to hunker down and spend the day finishing The Big Rich, Bryan Burrough's account of the rise and fall of Texas oilmen and Texas oil money. In less than a decade, various "independents" or wildcatters amassed incredible fortunes, and in less than a generation most of those men squandered those fortunes. Burrough focuses on four oilmen: Cullen, Murchison, Richardson, and Hunt. It's a fascinating story, and a fun read. In a time when if not fortunes then at least savings have been disappearing, it's a book that can provide solace. No matter how much you've lost in the past year, it wasn't billions, after all.

For a time, these men had enough money to do whatever in the world they wanted. Hunt became a bigamist, with three families. Richardson helped Eisenhower achieve the White House and came close to convincing him to dump Nixon in 1956. A related story is that of Glenn McCarthy, who in five years blew through over $50 million (mid-century dollars - probably a billion today), much of it spent on Houston's Shamrock Hotel, and attempt to make Texas the center of the universe.

Richardson and Murchison enjoyed going to the races at Del Mar in La Jolla, so Richardson built his own hotel nearby where they could stay for the season, having whatever food they liked flown in - BBQ from Tulsa, steak and duck and pheasant from Texas, whatever. These were the first businessmen to own private planes and private islands. These were the men who invented Texas ultraconservatism. For a while, Hunt owned his own mini-media empire, the Liberty radio network, a kind of proto-Fox News. His rabid support of McCarthy led to Liberty's demise, but for a few years he controlled a certain portion of the airwaves.

With the exception of Richardson, whose heirs (the Bass family) expanded the family fortune, the riches disappeared. The post-WW II opening of Saudi Arabian oil fields led to an influx of cheap imported oil, and the federal regulation of natural gas did away with profiteering. The fortunes were lost in part due to economic change, in part to the ineptitude later generations of Hunts, Cullens, Murchinsons. I don't want to give away the plot, but suffice it to say that the undoing is probably more interesting than the building of wealth.

So yeah, I'm quite tired of snow, but as long as I have a big book to read, I'll make do.