How the week began and why I yearn for its end

On Sunday morning, figuring I'd deal with the looming stack of bills that had gathered on my desk, I turned on my DELIGHTFUL, BEAUTIFUL NEW MACBOOK (total boot-up time: approx. ten seconds) and paid a visit to my bank's web site.

Imagine my utter lack of delight when I saw three transactions--one a deposit of $0.01, one a debit of $6.95, one a debit of $39.95--that looked mystifyingly unfamiliar, and all the more so because the transactor was listed only as a telephone number, not as a name. As I pay for almost nothing (save my $7-or-so-per-month Working Assets bill) by direct debit, I immediately had a small freak-out, which was followed by a larger freak-out when I actually called the number listed, discovered it was for an ACH (automatic check handling) processor, and further discovered that the offices for same were closed until Monday morning.

Though I didn't quite go into a tailspin (that would've required a larger debit and/or resultant bounced checks), I did spend an unhealthy chunk of time fretting over what the hell was happening, assuming the worst, and hieing to AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure there were no mortgages or AmEx black cards in my name. (Mercifully, there were not.)

Monday morning, I pulled myself out of bed and, still pj-clad, called my ACH friends. In my best I Will Sweetly Pretend I Don't Want to Rip Your F'ing Head Off voice, I told the rep who took my call that there appeared some odd transactions posted to my bank account. After some investigating, she asked if "Windel Raquipiso, efasting@aol.com, 225 Taylor Street, an SSID ending in 2485, or hornypapi.com" rang any bells.

I answered in the negative, by this point VERY thinly veiling my sputtering rage as I asked how it was that this company might allow someone with a different name, address, e-mail address, Social Security number, and ISP to use my bank account number to finance his hornypapi subscription. She could only tell me that perhaps he had the same account number at a bank with a different routing number, or, um, something, then promised that she would cancel the subscription and credit my account.

Thankfully, both of those things did happen, but still, that doesn't make up for shitty security checks. Why go through the charade of asking for someone's identifying info if you have no intention of actually verifying it against the account they provide? (That's a fairly rhetorical question, I know: the Internet--shock, horror!--is not always known as Scruplesland.)

This stupid mini-debacle has added a measure of annoyingness to my week that I really didn't need, as work- and PMS-related headaches were already doing a fine job of filling me with the desire to remain unmoving in bed for as long as I possibly could. Even the darling new MacBook has been able to make only a small dent in a mood I can only describe as generally un-good.

I hope (and trust) that the 10th Annual Em Wilska Holiday Party due to unfold on Saturday night will turn things around, because it's seriously exhausting to be relatively unhinged for more than a day or two on end. I'm ready to stop assuming that there are more crappy surprises lying in wait.

In the meantime, wine, iWeb, and massive, potentially unhealthy doses of Neko Case.


Darkness coming

Sunset over the Charles River,
midway between Boston and Cambridge,

Perhaps the most jarring thing about being on the east coast for Thanksgiving was the astoundingly early hour at which darkness fell. We're certainly not enjoying long, lingering days ourselves here out west, but at least some semblance of daylight sticks around until 5.

Not so in New England. At Mom and Dad's, I'd look out the window into what appeared to be at least 7 p.m., only to discover it wasn't even 4.45. In Boston, I took some photos of the sun setting as the Red Line crossed the river; when I got to Harvard Square, emerged aboveground again, and looked up at the bank clock over the station entrance, it read 4.31, and behind it was smudgy darkness, as if the remains of the day had been sucked down a drain.

My first thought as I stood in front of the venerable Out of Town News waiting for Paula was, Damn, I am no longer fit for anything like an actual winter. But then some relentlessly cheerful part of me piped up with a reminder that although we're on this steep downhill slide of light loss until December 21, once we hit bottom on that anemic day it's once again a sweet (if painfully slow) climb back into brightness.

I'm stunned, still, at how much night we have to slog through for the next several months, and at how the window of opportunity for daylight activities grows narrower and narrower. My kingdom for a chunk of sun-drippy June.


Miscellany: November Edition

English Bay, Vancouver (Look, CIC, are we not meant for each other?)

Inapt Colloquialism of the Month
Eric (after we've walked over the Burnside Bridge in a wildly roundabout attempt to get from Vancouver's West End to Granville Island): I'm sweating like a pig.
Em: Do pigs really sweat?
Eric: Actually, no. They can't sweat at all. That's why they have to roll in mud.

Confession of Vaguely Embarrassing Recent Additions to iTunes
So, look. It's true that I just burned the remainder of the iTunes gift card Mary gave me--and, further, went on to spend actual money--on some songs that would make me keep my iPod constantly under wraps if I had any musical shame whatsoever. Luckily, I don't, and can admit here to my extensive readership that, were you to look in my Recent Additions playlist, you'd find the following:

Take It on the Run--REO Speedwagon
Change--John Waites
Second Hand News--Fleetwood Mac
Do They Know It's Christmas?--Band Aid

I also tried to buy Shannon's Let the Music Play, but the iTunes store had evidently had enough of me by then, as it kept lobbing error messages my way. Don't think I won't try again, though.

At any rate, I've been listening to all of these tunes with a somewhat alarming frequency, and am overjoyed to find them either inscrutable or wildly overblown. Take the REO Speedwagon tune: is the guy on the side of his lady or the neighbors who've been telling him she's been messing around? You might think you know the answer, but take a closer listen to the song. He lays out his fears about her cheatin' ways, then disses the people he's heard the story from, then pretends he wants nothing to do with his lady if she does in fact "got a boyyyyyyyyyfriend" with whom she stays "out late every weekend," and THEN says he doesn't believe the accusations, "not for a minute." Is the song really an in-depth exploration of the complex emotions that arise when one is faced with the news of a partner's possible infidelity, or is it just utterly nonsensical?

Fantastic for entirely different reasons is Do They Know It's Christmas? I fondly remember wasting significant amounts of time at work with Stephen and Scott intricately dissecting and mocking the way overblown lyrics to this song. To wit:

  • "There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime." Really? No snow anywhere in all of Africa?
  • "Where nothing ever grows; no rain or rivers flow." (Except, um, the Nile.)
  • "Do they know it's Christmastime at all?" If they're among the continents millions of Muslims, probably not.
I won't even start in on Second Hand News (mainly because I still can't figure out what the hell it's actually about).

Analyzing lyrics of guilty pleasures from the 80's is surely a sign either of intellectual apocalypse or a keen and inquisitive mind. I will hope fervently for the former.

Why I Have a Serious Crush on that Tall Boy from Portland, Reason #37
Because the voicemail message he left me on Saturday morning began, apropos of absolutely nothing, with a minute-and-a-half mockery of/tribute to Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac."

European Things I Miss
Listening to Adam babble away happily in Adamish; the croissants from my favorite cafe in Florence; limoncello fatta in casa; climbing belltowers and stuff; wine at approximately every meal; and the unabashedly dorkwad thrill of seeing license plates from places like Monaco (yes, J, Monaco!) and Finland.


Important Phone Care Note

From the user's manual for my fancy-ass new Razr: "Don't try to dry your phone in a microwave oven."

I'd like to meet the person who prompted this warning.


Thanks, Part 2

San Gimignano. Yeah, it's like that.

After I left Slovenia, I went by train to Florence, where Monique fetched me from Santa Maria Novella. My train ride--which required a transfer in Mestre--more or less encapsulated the Italian portion of my vacation as far as language went: I could more or less sort of vaguely kind of understood what was said to me ("Is that seat free?") and could more or less sort of vaguely kind of stammer and/or gesture something back, but if the interaction required me to use a verb, forget it. I don't do Italian verbs.

Luckily for me, Monique does, and did, which saved me a number of blank, grinning stares (I have no idea what you're saying, sir, but I can smile and nod) and ensured that we were able to do things like eat, rent a car, and secure housing when needed. She also put up with my mockery of "interesting" historical facts, braved the experience of driving standard not only on Italian motorways but also into the zonas pedonales of San Gimignano and Siena (not--I repeat, NOT--recommended), gamely tagged along on various wine tasting excursions, did the whole sightseeing thing in Tuscany even after a night of violent illness and general sleeplessness, and was good enough to celebrate my small linguistic successes (such as ordering a panino and purchasing gelato--again, sans verbs).

So thanks, Monique, for housing me, and skillfully operating that stovetop coffee maker, and pleading our case to the carabiniero in Siena, and translating Con Air for me a second time, and basically saving me from being one of the tourists I tried so hard to avoid. Mille grazie! (For the record, that's one of approximately twenty-seven things I know how to say in Italian; next trip I'm upping that count to at least forty-three.)


For Mike Zarkin, Wherever I May Find Him

It started like this: Val went on MySpace to look at Isaac's music page (or something) and somehow managed to find the page of someone who looked ridiculously like Bryan O'Neill, with whom we'd gone to high school and who Val had dated for a while roundabouts junior year. The page didn't use the creator's real name, though, so she showed it to me to get my take on whether it was actually Bry or not. (My assessment: yes. Yes it is.)

I then said, well, maybe he's also on Friendster and we can gather some additional clues. So I signed in and we searched for profiles that included "East Lyme." Bryan wasn't among them, but we did find a few other familiar faces, including Tracy, who had managed to find me and make me a friend sometime last year. (Are you following this? Good.)

So we looked at Tracy's page, and, this being the point of Friendster, looked at Tracy's friends--one of whom appeared, at least in cyberland, cute and charming in that delightful tallskinnyalternaboy way that I'm such a sucker for. We clicked through his photos and read his profile before signing off for the night.

I was surprised the next day to find notice in my Inbox of a message from this boy waiting for me at Friendster. He, of course, could see via the annoyingly addictive Who's Viewed Me that I'd looked at his profile, and he began his message, "Hello friend of Tracy." I replied. He replied to my reply. Continue that line.

He mentioned in one of his notes having just visited the source of our connection (i.e., the aforementioned Tracy), which led me to wonder how she's doing and where she is, and, in that moment of curiosity, to crack open my copy of the 1992 East Lyme High School Valhalla to see if she had signed it (no, at least not from what I could tell), and then to do a quick browse of photos and messages scribbled across pages.

And here's where Mike Zarkin comes in: there among the inscriptions from friends and classmates and acquaintances was a message from Mike, who, as I recall, was one of the school's resident conservatives, and a person with whom I frequently butted heads. We had many of the same classes, which gave us ample time to drive each other nuts, me the President of the ELHS Chapter of Amnesty International and Mike the one member of Don Bodwell's Poli Sci class who would stick up for the Republicans.

This is what he wrote:

Battling with you for the past four years of high school history and English has been great. It's always been a pleasure having you for a friend, even if we don't see eye-to-eye. I wish you all the best for the future, and I'm sure you'll go far. May you always see a thousand reasons to rejoice.
Mike Zarkin

Maybe it's PMS, or the jumble of emotions that always comes from looking backwards, or wondering whether the bits and pieces we heard about Mike after graduation (a tough time at college, a difficult exit from the closet, a return to East Lyme) were true, or some combination of the above, but reading his note made me sniffly.

I got sniffly because although one should never read too much into yearbook scribblings, I do believe that there was sincere benevolence in his words, and I can only hope (though I sort of doubt) that I had the maturity to write something even half as kind in his book.

I got sniffly because something catches in my throat when I wonder who and what I'd find if I went to one of my high school reunions--and who and what I wouldn't.

I got sniffly, Mike Zarkin, because although I've dodged my share of life's slings and arrows, I'm still amazed at all I have to be grateful: friends and family who love me fiercely, the chance to traipse around the globe, a strong and growing business, a gift with words, an intriguing boy in Portland, more goodness than I can really comprehend.

I still see a thousand reasons to rejoice, Mike, and wherever you are, I hope you do, too.


Thanks, Part 1

John, Adam, and Magda on Kanin

I recently returned from a two-week jaunt in Europe, the first portion of which I spent in Slovenia with my friend John, his ass-kickin' wife Magda, and their unspeakably cute son Adam. J and I had blazed a trail across much of southern Europe in 2002, and he was kind enough to offer to serve as host/interpreter/tour guide/source of entertainment this time around, too.

A damn good thing, too, as there's simply no way I would've survived in Slovenia without la famille Stephens. Not only don't I speak the language (beyond words which would allow me to call for ice cream, a stroller, an elephant, wine, or help), I don't drive standard, which would put me at the mercy of public transport, a sketchy proposition given my aforementioned lack of language skills. I also would've had to fend for myself in terms of shelter and foodstuffs, not to mention price computations (how many tolars is too many tolars?), sightseeing, and general cultural competence.

So J and M, try to imagine (can you imagine?) how grateful I am to you for your willingness to fetch me from Malpensa, ferry me back across the border, house me, feed me, drive me around the country, speak for me, entertain me, and generally welcome me into your home as if I well and truly belonged there. Thanks for being so unstoppably generous. I hope someday you'll bring the brood to SF/Vancouver and I'll be able to even begin to return the favor.

And to you, sweet little Adam, thanks for being the most charming and adorable howler monkey an auntie could ask for. I miss you to bits and pieces.


A thought

My upcoming international air travel has set a tiny, tiny seed of worry in my belly. I mean, the news from the world of aviation lately is not good; if it's not potentially deadly toiletries, it's an odd change to runway patterning in Kentucky that ends in disaster. J assures me that the hoo-ha over flying is much more subdued in the rest of Europe than it is in the UK, let alone the US, and adds that he's sure my flight from Frankfurt to Milan will be wildly uneventful. Fingers crossed, then, for the SFO-Chicago and Chicago-Frankfurt portions of my journey.

Anyway, I read a quote in yesterday's Times business section from some travelling businessman or other in which he said, essentially, that if airlines were ever to ban the use of laptops and other electronics on board, he'd need to be forcibly sedated in order to fly. This led me to think about the preponderance of laptops on any given flight, a good number of which must surely be either Dells or Macs. Given the recent spate of battery woes with both companies' machines, does it not follow that the probabilty of a laptop bursting into flames due to a faulty battery would be far greater than the probability of my (or anyone else's) shampoo or toothpaste serving as the base of an explosive?

Just a thought.



A few weekends back, the founders of WebTV threw a 10th anniversary/reunion party for all of the company's original employees. It was amazing to see so many people who were once part of my everyday life, and to cast back to those years when the job was still really fun (our frequent complaining aside).

The day after the party, I started to do some (very soft) math, and realized that I can trace about 80% of my Bay Area friends (still here or far-flung) back to WebTV. Off the top of my head: Otis, Jed, DaveG, Jenney, Josh, another Josh, Geoff, another Geoff, Jeff, Eric, Renee, Erfert, Melissa, another Eric, yet another Eric, Stephen, Elissa, Kumi, Shayne, Daryl, Charlie, Sai, Sloo, Andy, Monica, Marcus, Joe, Jos, Chris, Scott, Adam, Deb.... No other aspect of my life--not childhood, not Vassar, not IFFCON, not NAPO--has netted me such a take.

Clearly, I had little enough love for what the company had become by June 2004 (which is to say, indistinguishable from the rest of Microsoft) to want out, and to make good on that desire. But it bears remembering that once upon a time, we got free lunch every Friday, and had knock-down, drag-out fun parties, and spent endless hours with our colleagues outside of the office by choice, and managed to hammer together a family of sorts here in SF that would become something so much greater than we imagined it would.

So thanks be to Steve, Phil, and Bruce. Thanks be to Braintrust for luring so many overeducated kids down to Palo Alto to answer phones or write e-mail. And thanks be to the dozens and dozens of people (you know who you are) who made the job what it was, and made it more than it might otherwise have been. In retrospect, I feel impossibly lucky to have been part of it all.


My vote for "Most Accurate Sound of Human Anguish, Troubador/Emo Category"

So, I know that Elliott Smith's "From a Basement on a Hill" was released posthumously, and may well have contained material that he never intended the world to hear. I also know there was (and may still be) some debate as to whether the knife-to-the-heart that did him in was self-administered or seen to by a second party.

But still: if there's any doubt that the poor guy was suffering some intense anguish, romantic or otherwise, before his demise, let a few listens to "Twilight" (off the aforementioned album) put it to rest.

The first couple of times my iPod shuffled the song to my attention, I thought, Sure is quiet (as well as Wonder if those are real crickets). Then it came into my ears during a run, and I actually listened to the lyrics. And damn if the combination of the dirge-like pace of the song, Smith's barely-above-a-whisper singing, and the words coming out of his mouth doesn't make for what might be one of the most angst-filled tunes ever.

There are countless downbeat songs out there, of course. (Did not master songster Billy Ocean once declare, "There'll be sad songs/to make you cry"?) But few of them sound like they've been pulled directly and painfully from someone's gut, and fewer still seem to be a desperate (if failing) attempt on the singer's part to stay on the good side of survival. "Twilight" does.

Elliott sings, "Because your candle burns too bright/Well, I almost forgot it was twilight./Even if I think that you are right/Well, I'm tired of being down; I got no fight." You can actually hear the desperate sadness, the achy giving up in his voice. I can't listen to the song now without thinking of it as a sort of unanswerable (and unanswered) plea, or a psalm of regret.


What you make of it

A number of factors lately (reading Flow, sighingly putting the whole K affair behind me, working with a client whose anger and sense that the world is against him seem to be the driving forces in his life, etc.) have increased my belief in the idea that, to a large extent, life is what you make of it.

That's an overly simplistic statement, to be sure, and you're free to lob at it whatever critical words you see fit, but in the end, it holds. There are so many things that are wildly beyond our control in life that in order to live with any sense of balance, purpose, and resilience, we really have to learn how to dust off our knees after a fall and get up again.

I spent a good chunk of the needs assessment I did with my client last night refuting (gently and constructively) his outright and implied claims that he's something of a helpless victim of the vagaries of his week. Normally, I don't go quite so heavy on the philosophical debating with clients, but this time I did--maybe because I was tired and my usual sense of restraint fell by the wayside, but more likely because any other recommendation I might make to him would be useless if he didn't let go of the world-against-me thing he seemed to be holding like a shield. I so strongly wanted him to start to understand that he has so much more power than he thinks he does to change what chafes.

At some point, I'm sure, I'll have to refer myself back to this post when I'm feeling like the rug's been pulled out from under me for the millionth time, or when I stumble upon a week filled with too many little glitches to deal with calmly and smoothly. But since last Thursday, when I officially watched something I'd been enjoying so much slip through my fingers, I've been more aware than ever that I can choose what to do here: flail and fight and rue what's wrong or get up and go on and find what's right.

I don't even have to think twice about it.



For a week, I spent the better part of each day in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops, and the light sweaters I carted everywhere with me when I went out came to seem ridiculous for their unnecessity. I basked in my big and crazy family--parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother--saw places I love, swam in the (still sort of cold) ocean, ate ludicrous foodstuffs, and generally forgot all that sucked here the week before I left.

But, of course, you can only stay blissfully away for so long, and last night I came home to a phone still on the fritz (small annoyance, but an enduring one), a To Do list that grew literally by the minute, the sinking (though not surprising) understanding that the days ahead must involve dealing with the K weirdness that cropped up before I left, and the even sinking-er sense that the chance of things turning out well on that front are anorexically slim.

As I cruised along the people mover in the United terminal as I headed out of town last Tuesday, something in me that had been unsettled and shakingly sad in the previous days started to calm, and I thought, Travel is a balm, always. And for me it is: regardless of where I go, a change in perspective almost always makes me feel whole again, at least for a while.

What I've yet to master, though, is how to come back home and keep hold of that wholeness, rather than splitting up again into so many parts. I don't know how to go about that, and I'm too busy to figure it out. So for now I can only do the next best thing: make it through the week, hope for some moments (if not hours or sweetly impossible days) of clarity, and look hungrily toward Europe in September.



Do not add to the list of Ways I Enjoy Being Woken up at 2.30 a.m. "wrenching stomach pain, necessitating fetal positioning on the bathroom floor, which reminds me that I should spring for a new bathmat." What socked me so hard I can't say for sure, as last night was a laughably calm one that featured little more than perusal of last Sunday's paper and an 11 p.m. bedtime.

It must've been something I ate (mustn't it?), because I was tired but otherwise fine for the rest of the day yesterday, and the last wine to pass my lips did so circa 11.55 p.m. on Thursday. But cause be damned: I only know that dragging my sorry self around today has made me appreciate more than ever the fact that I'm normally functional, and can do things like finish an entire cup of Blue Bottle coffee or eat anything at all without fearing an unpleasant return.

Granted, being kicked on my ass has meant that I've essentially had a free pass to recline on the couch for hours with all but the merest soupcon of guilt, and it means I can return to that position shortly in the name of full recuperation, but still. I'm desperate to believe that I'll wake up tomorrow and this will all have passed, that my innards will settle down, that the thought of cheese or a burrito or chocolate or even a plum will not immediately send my stomach upside down. Here's hoping for a swift return to the gastrointestinally living.


Neko, live

Jenn and I went to see Neko Case last night at Bimbo's, and she didn't disappoint. I loved her when I saw here there last fall with the New Pornographers, but it goes without saying that there's a very different vibe to her solo stuff. Not having heard Neko sing before, Jenn turned to me after the second song and said, "Oh my god. I'm mad at so many people now for not making me listen to her earlier." I could only smile, pat her arm, and say, "Well, now you know."

Though I would've given a limb (well, ok, a toe or two) to hear "South Tacoma Way," the set list was impressive nonetheless:

A Widow's Toast
Favorite [immediate goose bumps]
If You Knew
Set Out Running
Star Witness
Dirty Knife [even creepier live]
I Wish I Was the Moon [momentary lapse into sniffles]
The Tigers Have Spoken
Maybe Sparrow
Margaret vs. Pauline
Buckets of Rain
Deep Red Bells
That Teenage Feeling
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
[something about Kansas and Utah, evidently by Randy Newman]
Furnace Room Lullaby
Hold On, Hold On
In California
I'll Be Around
Lady Pilot
[something about a fathom unknown by Shelby Lynne]
[Wondering when you'll come visit me]
John Saw That Number

(You can hear a decent approximation of a live Neko show at NPR's All Songs Considered, which features a show recorded in DC earlier this year. The whole R. Kelly riff may be one of the funniest inter-song rambles ever.)


Laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was warm

The two stunning days (and nights, even) of hot, sunny, actual summer-like weather we had last week were delicious and wonderful--and, of course, are now long gone. Yesterday morning was bright and blue but windy. We left the house in layers, and even before we'd gone the two blocks to Citizen Cake I was buttoning my jacket up to the collar.

It's just in me, I think, to ache for a summer that involves things like temperatures above the low 70s and the ability to wear sleeveless shirts and that wonderous and mystical thing called a warm breeze (rather than a pummeling arctic blast). Summer #10 here in San Francisco and still I chafe at having to put on another sweater when the night turns cold or forge head down through the wind tunnels that are the streets of the city.

So those sweet, rare days of heat, unadulterated sunshine, sticky skin, and exposed limbs are as precious as ever. Here's hoping for at least a few more of them before we ooze into fall a few months down the line.



Jenney, Mike (Otis), Shayne, and Em post-dip; Ocean Beach, San Francisco, September 1999

Late summer 1999 was a rough season. Jos had died (unexpectedly, tragically, heart-wrenchingly) in August, the bloom was long off the rose as far as work was concerned, and I had stumbled through one too many impossible romantic relationship-type-things over the course of a few months.

Then we found out that DaveG was moving back to Baltimore, and whatever torn seams may have started to mend in my little world threatened to tear again. I didn't know at the time that his departure would be the first of many in the years to come; I only knew that it meant a quiet end to the particular flavor and feel and flow of the everyday that I'd grown used to.

His leaving meant no more Em-DaveG-Otis show at work and on weekends (not the SF version, at least), no more late-night donut football, no more marathon sessions at Mario's, no more of so much that we had come to take as a given. It was a crappy thing to contemplate.

There were a number of send-offs, including a particularly besotted evening at Dalva and Ti Couz, but the most memorable by far was the cable car on wheels party. Credit (or blame) for the idea goes to Dave's friend Will, who made sure we were all sufficiently plied with drinks both beforehand and onboard so we wouldn't protest too loudly about how riding on a cable car on wheels was such a touristy thing to do, and so far beneath the overeducated and erudite 20-somethings we were at the time.

Will's plan worked: we didn't protest. In fact, we had a great time. The sequence of the evening blurred somewhat between the Golden Gate Bridge and Twin Peaks, but at some point we stopped at both the Cliff House and the Beach Chalet (which, for the non-San Franciscans, are about a quarter of a mile apart overlooking Ocean Beach). At the former site, a spilled drink (whose? how?) led to sticky hands, which I then insisted we wash off not in the restrooms at the Beach Chalet but instead in the ocean.

How it happened that I convinced Jenney, Mike, Shayne, and Daryl to join me in this ridiculous plan, I can't say. Nor do I know anymore what possessed us to decide that a swim would be a fine idea--but we decided precisely that, and as it was still nominally summer and we were in San Francisco, we were dressed in warm and copious layers. The only option, of course, would be to take them all off.

So we did, and went running into the surf, shouting to each other across the waves and straining to see fellow bobbing heads in the (mercifully dim) moonlight. The water was, unsurprisingly, freezing, but I coaxed myself through the cold, thinking, This is for Jos, who did so much in so little time. Thinking, Let this be my new mantra: the more you live, the less you die. Thinking, Your mantra is from an ad for snowboards. Thinking, Well, what the hell.

Thinking thoughts I couldn't even fully form: What I know is changing, always. Something about endings, beginnings, letting go, dammit this water is cold, time for another beer.

We shivered ourselves back onto the beach, back into our clothes (pausing for a photo, of course), back onto the cable car on wheels, where our fellow passengers looked at us in disbelief. Snapshots from the rest of the evening show us grinning hugely, as if we had been snapped into pure happiness for a while by our bare, icy dip.

That swim, of course, didn't change the fact that Dave soon left--or that Shayne, Daryl, Jenney, Jed, Otis, and so many others would eventually follow. Nor did it kick my life in another direction, or bring me astounding clarity about things that seemed murky, or stitch up seams that were splitting.

All it did was net me a funny photo, a good party story, and the realization that sometimes there's nothing more worth doing than streaking boisterously into the unknown.


Walking in LA

Val and I went down to LA last weekend for a posh hotel evaluation, and when we weren't running through various tasks designed to test the reaction impulses of the hotel staff, we spent some time exploring the city.

We drove out to Santa Monica and Venice on Wednesday morning, strolled along Abbot Kinney Boulevard and sat in the sun in the courtyard of a sweet little cafe, drinking iced latte and tea and making a breakfast of tiny little French macaroons. Venice may be a hotbed of freaks, but we saw precisely none. Perhaps they're confined to the beach and the boardwalk, blocks and blocks away from the sleekly designed shops, offices, and restaurants that line Abbot Kinney and Main. Which was fine with us, as the Haight is always at our disposal should we feel the need for some hippie time; on the day in question, we did not.

The afternoon unfurled poolside (really, a hell of a way to while away the hours, and one I recommend, especially if a fancy lunch and a glass of rose are involved), and in the early evening (before the required visit to the lounge for the required two rounds of drinks), we turned ourselves out onto the streets of West Hollywood to forage for dinner.

We walked. We walked as briefly as possible down Sunset, then broke off onto a side street, which was impossibly, unexpectedly tree-lined, quiet, warm, sweet-smelling, and generally pleasant. We went quite a way, picking up La Cienega partway, which meant an end to the tree-lined-ness and all, but made up for it on the way back by avoiding major roads altogether.

On Orlando, I turned to Val and said, "You know, this lulls me into thinking that LA wouldn't be such a bad place to live." She concurred, and we went on to discuss the odd realization that we had yet to see or smell the grimy streets we're so used to at home. How could LA be so clean, so pleasant, so free of urine-stained sidewalks?

We went downtown the next day and found our answer: it isn't. As soon as we stepped out of the parking garage where we'd left our behemoth rental car and into the sunlight, we felt right at home. The sidewalks had that familiar patina of you-don't-want-to-know. We discovered that LA does indeed have a homeless population. The trees and explosively beautiful flowers and general sense of sweet SoCal charm we'd seen the night before were gone, replaced by concrete and shabby storefronts and odd smells. We could only smile and say jokingly, Ah, at last.

So we drove (of course, though it was a distance of a few blocks) to Little Tokyo, then got back in the car and headed once more for Santa Monica, passing what certainly seemed like the dirtiest and most run-down of the dirty and run-down on our way out of downtown. We had lunch in a cute, tiny cafe we'd seen the day before, then oozed into traffic to get to the airport and left all of LA behind.


In Which Our Heroine Narrowly Avoids Offending Her Fellow Californians

Having made my car a mobile advertisement by slapping some magnetic signs on the sides, I figured I'd step things up a notch by getting a vanity plate with something resembling my business name on it. I even picked out the special environmental plate, the extra fees from which would have benefitted eco-charities throughout the state.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I opened a letter from the DMV last week to discover that my request had been denied, because, and I quote, "California Vehicle Code, Section 5105(a), states, we must refuse any license plate configuration which carries connotations offensive to good taste and decency, or which may be misleading to some of our citizens."

The potentially offensive message I was petitioning to present? ORGLIFE. I have to assume here that the problem lies with the "org," which evidently brings to mind not "organized" (as I had hoped) or "organic" (despite our existence in what may well be the capital of same) or "organism" but "orgasm." So I guess there seemed to be a danger that my fellow Californians might see my tooling around in my very, very sexy '93 Toyota Corolla and assume that I was peddling unspeakable acts.

And, of course, we wouldn't want that, so I remain a randomly generated sequence of numbers and letters on a plain California plate, and the easily offended in the state can continue to frequent our highways and byways without fear.



My desire to do Rize justice by writing something even remotely smart or insightful about it is counterbalanced by my creeping exhaustion, the result of snapping awake shortly after 4 this morning and generally failing pathetically to fall back asleep. My eyes are burning and my fingers keep hitting the wrong keys and my brain pretty much shut off about an hour ago, but something has to be said about this film.

What saves Rize from being overwhelmingly feel-good treacle on the one hand or utter darkness on the other is both the believable humanity of its subjects and the excellent crafting of the film. The kids and young adults at the movie's core are determined to escape the bleak crappiness of what could be their fates as blacks in LA's less desirable neighborhoods not by means of drugs or gangs or violence but through an intensely physical form of dance.

It's amazing and uplifting to see them move; I often found myself watching with my mouth agape. They define themselves both by what they are--clowns/krumpers--and by what they're not--gangbangers, addicts, the parents who far too often let them down. For much of the film, it's possible to believe that something in the world is opening up to these dancers.

But Dave LaChappelle, the filmmaker, takes extreme care to temper that belief somewhat with proof that even the most transportive physical experience can't lift you entirely out of the mud. There's enough disappointment and senseless loss and heartache to bring you back from your music- and movement-fuelled high and remind you where the film is taking place.

Still, though, there is a sense of something unquashably hopeful here, as well as a familiar sense of awe at what amazing and creative and utterly new things can come from the worst of human experience. Just try to sit through the long, gorgeous, sunny final scene and reach the credits with dry eyes.


Musical Memory Lane

In what's become something of an annual event, I've spent a good chunk of today going through my cd's, copying to iTunes those that aren't there already, and posting the discs for sale on Amazon. As I'm no longer able to play cd's on anything but my laptop, I figure I should digitize all the music I want to keep and pass the originals along.

(Selling the discs is the lead-in to a complex justification of purchasing a 30G iPod to replace my trusty but out-of-space Mini, but that's a story for another day.)

It's fascinating to listen to some of this stuff again, especially since so many of these discs remind me acutely of specific times and places and people. That's a wildly unoriginal thing to say, I know, but it's also true. Poi Dog Pondering basically is Ian and Dave and 1990. Drivin' n' Cryin's Mystery Road so brings me back to countless hours of hanging out with Jeff and Chris in my room circa ninth grade that I can see the polka dotted wallpaper and can feel the eternally uncomfortable squishy red chair. And (What's the Story) Morning Glory? puts in my head a sharply clear picture of Ry and I editing our Hershey film in the basement of New England building late in 1995.

I feel like I experience this musical memory lane thing fairly often, so I should be beyond the point at which I'm at all surprised by it. But I remain sort of amazed by the extent to which my brain has, um, a mind of its own when it comes to music: with the first few notes of a song, my head just goes where it will, dredging up random bits and pieces from within itself that I doubt I'd ever come across again otherwise.

So Dookie is hours by the pool in Niantic with my first Discman--the kind you had to keep absolutely still and level at all times--and Ten is lying in the sun on Heather's floor in Seattle in March of 1992 and Murmur is spring break with G&P in Florida and all of it is worlds away, and right here with me.


Why He Hates Canadians

Having recently finished Will Ferguson's Why I Hate Canadians, I can sum the book up thus: he doesn't.

Oh, sure, he has some bitter things to say about separatist Quebecois, and cringes at the evident scourge that is general Canadian niceness, and relentlessly mocks Farley Mowat, and gets understandably pissy at those who rail against "hypenated Canadian identities" (e.g., Chinese-Canadian). But in the end, his real venom seems to be reserved for--wait for it--American Patriots.

Now, my grasp of American history is, by this point, fairly pathetic, and far be it from me to put up much of a defense of my country's oft-wrongheaded ways, but really? The Patriots? I suppose it would be anathema to American public school history class curricula to present a sympathetic view of the Loyalists, and perhaps that's why Ferguson's portrait of them seems so bizarrely soft, so weirdly one-sided. All I know is that reading his alternative view of the American Revolution raised in me the unusual desire to stand up against the Canadian view of things.

Why the vitriol? Is it because the Patriots were all truly the rich, misguided, raving assholes Ferguson makes them out to be, or is it because decrying the Revolutionaries almost automatically involves celebrating the Loyalists, who, not coincidentally, became some of the first European Canadians? Could it be that Ferguson doth protest too much?

I found the chapter on Loyalists-cum-Canadians especially irksome and amusing in light of the fact that it's closely followed by a chapter called "America Is Sexy," in which Ferguson outlines what he calls "the...five (5) axiomatic propositions of Canadian Nationalism vis-a-vis the Americans:
  1. Boy, we hate Americans.
  2. We really do.
  3. Really.
  4. I'm not kidding. We really hate them.
  5. So how come they never pay us any attention?"

Another insightful Canadian shared something similar with me several years back, and I've always found it funny because it seems so painfully true. We Americans are apparently like the junior high school boys to Canadians' mature and sweet tween girls: they think we're overly loud and obnoxious and full of ourselves and immature and impoolite and sometimes kind of jerk-like and...hey! Hey! How come they won't sit at our lunch table? Hey! Where are they going? Don't they think we're cute?

Of course we think you're cute. But we're too enchanted by the brassy eighth graders who will laugh at our Beavis and Butt-Head references and make out with us behind the cafeteria during study hall to pay you much mind.

Ferguson's vaguely curmudgeonly reconsideration of the American Revolution (to which I can't help feeling the puckish desire to retort, Sorry, perhaps we, too, should still be tied to the crown of England) doesn't detract from the rest of his book, which is an insightful, interesting, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny ramble through various bits and pieces of Canadian history and culture. It was, all told, a painless--and even pleasurable--way to ingest some Canadiana, and I'm looking forward to reading his other stuff.


Two (Depressing) Views of the Sex Trade

Chugging along in my quest to catch up on good movies I've missed, I returned to Into Video last week and brought back Born into Brothels and Hustle & Flow. Only once I'd already checked them out did I realize they're both portraits of prostitution, though from radically different viewpoints.

Born into Brothels portrays a group of seven kids who, as the title suggests, were brought up in the red light district of Calcutta. Their potential salvation comes in the form of a photographer who believes these kids' lives are worth documenting in pictures and who gives them cameras and photography classes to that end.

Brothels won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2004, and rightly so, I think: it's a stunning and thoughtful look at lives that are often abysmal but not without hope. It's painful to see these kids interact with the adults in their lives, a shocking proportion of whom slap them with swear-laden invective time and again. But amazingly, and much to their credit, the children largely stand up for themselves: one girl, having been roundly berated at the brothel well by one of the prostitutes, simply expresses shock at the woman's dirty mouth and politely carries her buckets back up the stairs.

It's imperative, I think, to watch the "where are they now?" feature on the DVD after watching the movie itself, because the follow-up softens the somewhat harsh ending of the film, showing that a few of the kids that seemed most in danger when the filmmakers left them have since moved on to better things. But the film on its own is a testament to a sort of superhuman strength--emotional, if not physical--that can be tapped into under the right (or, as the case may be, utterly wrong) conditions. It's a tiny flare of hope in a world of so much grief.

So what to make of Hustle & Flow? I so much wanted to love it, both because I was impressed with Terence Howard in Crash and because I'd heard him and H&F's director speak really eloquently about the film on "Fresh Air." But in the end, presenting a pimp as a sympathetic character is a tough sell, at least to this crowd.

I watched H&F with Dana and Jenn, who, by the end of the film (and for most of the "Behind the Scenes" feature) sat with their mouths agape, aghast at what was happening on screen. The movie is unabashed in its wish for us to care most about Howard's Djay, more even than we care about the prostitutes working for him; in "Behind the Scenes," the filmmakers come out and say that the film is one in which the women are meant to stand behind their men.

Fair enough, I suppose--it is a film about a pimp, after all, and the next strongest characters are the men helping him record the songs he hopes will be his ticket to a better life. But if it's hard out here for a pimp, it's even harder for a ho, and the movie doesn't even begin to go there.

Maybe I'd feel more fondness for Hustle & Flow if I'd watched it on its own, rather than the night after I saw Born into Brothels, when that film was still so fresh in my mind. And maybe I expected to much of Terence Howard (and Ludacris, for that matter) after Crash. I just know that, although I was willing to suspend judgment and keep myself open to the possibility of feeling sympathy for an unsympathetic character, the movie let me down. Here's hoping it's not Terence Howard's greatest legacy.


I Love Kayak

Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and your ilk: I'm through with you.

Sidestep and Mobissimo: I still like you, but maybe we should take a break for a while.

The travel search site that's the new apple of my eye is Kayak, which kicks everyone else's ass. It's more flexible than Sidestep, returns more relevant results than Mobissimo, and doesn't levy any crappy fees like the mega-mall sites. It lets you search a whole mess of airlines (or hotels, or cars, or packages), then gently scoots you directly to the site of the provider you choose--with the flight or hotel you selected ready and waiting for you to buy.

And though, like all new and different and scruffy and irreverent stuff on the web, it's surely bound to be snatched up by some goliath as soon as it gets popular enough, for the time being it remains new and different and scruffy and irreverent. (Witness the Labs page, described thus: "This is where we release experimental stuff. Try it out and let us know which tools are useful and which ones are stupid." What's not to love?)

I'm sure there's all sorts of technically brilliant stuff happening on this site--compendia of results from other sites, crazy RSS feeds of several stripes, some sort of IM interface something or other--that those more electronically inclined than I will appreciate. All I know is that when all other sites failed, Kayak found me a cheap flight to New York that didn't involve leaving from San Jose and/or flying overnight. For that, and for its general kick-ass-ness, I am smitten.



Having sworn that my two-week European jaunt this September would pre-empt much of my other travel for the year, I now find myself to be something of a liar.

DC in May is still up in the air--maybe, maybe not, depending on the vagaries of my sort-of employer and the cost of plane tickets--but there will definitely be a New York excursion for about a week in early June, followed by a foreshortened Fam summer binge in July, followed perhaps by something Vancouver-ward if my bank account can bear it. So I've been spending inordinate amounts of time ping ponging back and forth between airline sites, trying to be wise in my ticket purchasing and ruing the fact that my $250 Boston ticket last month is a deal unlikely to be repeated for the remainder of the year.

Transportation logistics aside, I've also managed to lose myself for hours in researching hotels in Italy, which has made me realize that the (relative) grandeur of our 2002 accommodations is much less feasible in this post-corporate world I currently inhabit. But I'm looking, and making vague promises to myself about cutting back on other expenses (such as, um, well, something) to be able to fund another grand tour, and recalling fondly all of the amazing places J and I stayed last time around.

(For some reason, one of the memories that bubbles closest to the surface is our night in Nice, after a less-than-ceremonious arrival that included witnessing an attempted carjacking of the vehicle in front of us on our way into the city. But with wine and dinner and a stroll through the city, we got beyond that, and at the end of it all fell asleep in our stunningly nice room in a hotel whose name, if I'm not mistaken, included "Palace."

Still jetlagged, though--this was my third night abroad--I woke up early, spurred awake, no doubt, by the clamor coming from down the street, which filtered up into the room through the French doors that we'd left open for air. After tossing and turning for a few minutes, I got up to see where the noise was coming from, and determined that there were a clatch of workmen doing something or other involving jackhammers on the road below. I watched blearily for a while, then fell back into bed, and possibly back into some sort of sleep.

J woke to the same noise shortly thereafter, and, seeing my eyes flutter, asked, "What is that?" "They're doing some jackhammering down the street," I replied, to which he said, "How do you know?" "I got up and looked," I said. He then fixed me with something between disbelief and amusement. "I love that you got up to confirm the source of the jackhammering, and yet left the windows wide open.")

So I really should be writing the articles that have been tugging at my sleeve for the past few weeks, or tending to some vague stab at spring cleaning, or doing any of the dozens of other things that are relevant and pressing now. But it's all I can do not to lose myself entirely down the rabbit hole of travel to come.


Ludacris Made Me Cry

Last night I shuffled over to Into Video and returned with Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Disc 1, and Crash (the 2005 version, not the crazy Cronenberg-Spader-sex-with-corpses version). I watched Curb first, figuring I'd coat my stomach with some delightful ridiculousness before the depressing punch of Crash. A wise move, as it turned out.

Crash was brilliant, and if there's ever been a more roundly damning portrait of race in America, I can't imagine what it might be. One of the extremely impressive things about the movie is that almost no one--with the possible exception of the locksmith and Sandra Bullock's Latina housekeeper--gets away without doing or saying at least something prejudiced, bigoted, or otherwise assholic. Almost all of the characters show an ugly side at some point.

Much of Crash is relentlessly depressing, but it's pulled back from the brink of being as much of a downer as, say, Amores Perros by a few moments of levity and by a small handful of vaguely heartening scenes. Time and again, things just don't turn out as you think they will, for better or (often) worse, and each of the characters confounds expectations by becoming either more human or less over the course of the film.

It's not giving too much away to say that Anthony, the character played by Ludacris, takes an unexpected turn from the moment we're introduced to him to the moment we see him riding on a bus toward the end of the film. Oddly, for all of the painfully sad or brutal or bleak events throughout the story, the only time I cried was when Anthony pulled his van--stolen under complex and fairly nasty conditions--to a corner in LA's Chinatown and opened the back door. I won't give away what happens or why it induced tears, both because doing so would spoil some of the richness of the intertwining story lines and because describing the moment in words doesn't do it justice.

Suffice it to say that the filmmakers don't let Anthony escape as a fully changed character--he's still a confused, hypocritical, messed-up kid--but they do let him feel a pinprick of something like mercy. It's a stunning, heartwrenching, almost hopeful moment.


Terrifying Offer of the Week

From an ad for the book Love Smart:

Ready to Star in Your Own Life?
Dr. Phil has written the script.

(Um, thanks, but I think I'd prefer something by Ionesco, or even Mamet.)

I should note that I came across this ad while reading--yes, it's true--O, the Oprah Magazine. For some reason, O has fascinated me for years now, though I only ever picked it up in the gym or during an airport layover when I could no longer bear the weight of The New Yorker and couldn't quite dip down to Us Weekly. But now I have my very own subscription, which somehow feels vaguely illicit.

It's a fascinating magazine. I assume that a good chunk of the readership also watches Oprah, which would suggest that a fair number of these women are stay-at-home moms with varying levels of disposable income. Yet O is *full* of products presented as "A few things Oprah thinks are just great" that seem well beyond the reach of many working families. These include a $200 Kate Spade gardening bag, $32 plates (yes, per), and $35 sets of cheese spreaders.

Perhaps the idea here is that there's a chunk of the magazine's audience who can easily afford all of these things (along with the heart-droppingly spendy purses, clothes, and shoes); a chunk who can shell out for a few of them; and a chunk for whom the magazine's product sections are purely aspirational.

Or maybe I'm the only one who finds a $168 t-shirt a ludicrous proposition, in which case I will vow from now on to avoid "The O List" and stick instead to Dr. Phil's tooth-achingly treacly column, Suze Orman's tough-love, you-go-girl financial advice, and the various other features of this rag that have such a mysterious draw for me.


Fame via Complaining

Yes! Witness my 7.5 seconds of demi-fame in KPIX Consumer Watch's Problem Solvers segment on license agreements. (Look for the clip called "Problem Solvers Tackles Software Issues.")

How suave I am as I note that it's not worth my precious drips of time to read EULAs when I install software! How charming as I maintain that I'd be happy to allow someone (or something) else to do the work for me, thereby freeing me up to pour another glass of wine and polish my seemingly spotless desk! And what impressive typing skills!

(Thanks, Joshy, for letting me be your star.)



Having done well for myself thus far this year, and itching as I am for a vacation that doesn't involve anything work-like, New England, or DC, I just bit the bullet and booked myself passage (in CONNOISSEUR class, natch--and free) to Europe for two weeks this September.

I haven't been out of North America since John and I went on our Epic European Adventure in the summer of 2002, and I'm achily excited at the prospect of returning to The Continent. Explaining to J recently why now seemed like a good time for a reprise, I wrote

You should know, J, that 2002 stands out as perhaps the best year for me in recent memory, in no small part because of my various travel adventures, including the Epic etc. Though I don't want to jinx myself or the ten months that spread out ahead of me, I will say that 2006 has been pretty swell thus far, and a return to EUROPE would only help this year clinch the title of Best Yet. I am determined to do what I can to get my ass on foreign turf.

It's true: though 2002 is still, in many respects, the year to beat, the past few months have signaled a possible return to balanced existence again after the annus rather horribilus that, by and large, was 2005. I hold out hope not that this year's trip to Europe will be a rehash of the memories I love so well of four years ago, but rather that it will bring a raft of its own stellar moments.

So, J, ass (&c) coming your way.


The California Dream

Before the Bay Area dipped into its (relative) cold snap a few weeks back, there were a few days that were so impossibly clear and warm--especially in the South Bay, where I've spent more than my fair share of time--that they made me wonder how I could ever even consider leaving.

Indeed, there's much to be said for our balmy mid-winter weather, which has always been one of my favorite things about living in Northern California. When it's possible to leave the house without a jacket, and perhaps to find yourself too warm regardless, it's easy to believe that you're living the sweet California dream, to fantasize about sun-soaked fields and genteel living and a sense of bright hope and all those other images that once made up the state's iconography.

The slightly less glittery reality, though, is that things are no longer quite as golden. You can still find the fields, but they're fewer and farther between, and broad swaths of the state seem to be losing them altogether. The genteel living is increasingly hard to come by as prices still (miraculously) climb, with no sign of drifting down. The hope sometimes seems to go as easily as it comes.

But maybe that's just the rain.



The Globe and Mail's Leisure Weekend newsletter appeared in my Inbox on Friday with this little bit of unrendered code in the header:

// ehhhhhhhh if (!d) { var d = document; }

My code-reading skills are beyond rusty at this point, but I'm guessing the end result here was meant to be a subtle Canadianism, or perhaps a variable particular to the Great White North.



I went into the Main Library the other day to scavenge for DVDs (slim pickings, though I did check out "Tanner '88," which sounds somewhat intriguing) and was stopped short in the main lobby by a poster advertising the display in the gallery downstairs: Jack Kerouac's original manuscript for On the Road. Thinking that they couldn't possibly mean the manuscript--that crazy long scroll of type--I went down to investigate.

And damn was I wrong: it was indeed the manuscript, (partially) unrolled in all of its wild, uncorrected, paragraph-break-less, nonstop glory. I won't go so far as to call seeing it a religious experience, but it was undoubtedly an amazing treat, especially as I vaguely recall reading, a few years back, about there being such disputes as to the manuscript's ownership that it was doubtful it'd be seen again in public. (Though perhaps I have that backwards, as SFPL's exhibit would suggest.)

So I spent a long time down in the gallery, walking the length of the manuscript and reading bits and pieces as I went, checking out the related exhibits (Beats in SF, Ferlinghetti on trial for Howl, a map of North America with quotations from the book, a timeline of Kerouac's life), and grinning like a nutter. I find it so easy, always, always, to fall in love with the utter impossible romanticism of the whole Beat experience, and found myself looking longingly at the photos of North Beach in the fifties, thinking, I was born too late.

But that romantic ideal never holds for very long: the fifties in which Kerouac and Co. did good chunks of their writing were also the fifties in which a book like Howl could be (and, of course, was) confiscated for indecency, in which even San Francisco remained somewhat buttoned up, in which societal norms were worlds away from what they are now. And I can't imagine a better symbol of how the Beat dream imploded than the photo on display of a bloated and alcohol-weary Kerouac, circa 1967, looking years and miles away from his Sal Paradise heyday.

Still, it was amazing to see the original incarnation of a work that had such an impact on my early adult years (and that still makes me pine for a life I could never live), to look at the scroll (fragile now, but still legible, and still showing penciled-in markup) and lose myself for a while in imaginings of an era and a San Francisco and an artistic movement now gone.

It stayed with me--all of it--as I walked out of the gallery and back upstairs and out again into the relatively unromantic and un-Beat San Francisco of 2006.


We still need to create better software

I went to Office Depot yesterday intending to buy padded envelopes and managed to leave with three new pieces of software (along with a ream of paper, a flash drive, and the aforementioned envelopes), which I blame on the Turbo Tax promotion the store is currently running.

Though I haven't yet been able to psych myself up to actually install TT, I was excited enough at the prospect of being more anal than ever about my personal finances that I popped Quicken into the computer as soon as I got home. And, well, hmm.

Not having the benefit of much experience with earlier versions of the program, I can't say for sure whether Quicken 2006 represents much of an improvement, if any at all. I can say that it's somewhat underwhelming. The UI manages to be both too rudimentary and far too busy at the same time (a fact that's true, I might add, of perhaps a majority of applications on the market today), and though the start-up wizard did help me get my basic info entered properly, it still felt like it didn't take me far enough.

There are some odd quirks (slash bugs?), too. Why, for example, did something listed as a deposit in my bank register manage to morph into an expense category in the program's budget tool? How did Quicken surmise that I'll be $90K in debt by the end of the year? (I mean, yes, my rent is high, but not that high.) Why didn't it figure out that all "Usps" entries in my credit card registers should be standardized to "USPS," with an expense category of "Postage," after I told it multiple times?

I can write these frustrations off as part of a learning curve, and some of them, I imagine, will disappear in time. But what of QuickBooks, which I've been using for a year now with my business? Although I have Simple Start--which, as the name suggests, is as basic as you can go in the QB universe--I still find myself perplexed by some of its behaviors. Why, for example, does it list every invoice I've ever created as unpaid, despite the fact that I meticulously follow the program's prescribed formula for tying incoming payments to outstanding invoices? And why doesn't it recognize that credit card bill payments in my bank register are not new expenses in and of themselves?

When I mentioned to Otis yesterday that I'd installed Quicken, he replied that he'd tried to start using the program dozens of times and have given up in frustration again and again. Surely he can't be alone.

Nor can Intuit. How many creators of software (not to mention Web sites) track not just how many users they acquire, but how many of those people are actually able to use their programs for their intended purposes? Usability, user-centric design, and creating better user experiences may be the buzz, but how often are these practices truly and effectively put to use? Why are there still so many programs that are so full of small frustrations? (And why, dammit, does IE have such a problem with new windows stealing focus? It drives me to drink.)

I can't say I'm exactly aching to get back into the world of UX, but this morning, after wrangling with Quicken to download some credit card info, I found myself starting to design the personal finance program I'd actually want to use. And I began to wonder how many people I could lure away from Quicken (or Peachtree, or Microsoft Money)--how many people would breathe a sigh of relief at a program that focused on doing fewer things and doing them better (and more easily) rather than on doing a whole raft of things many people aren't interested in.

There are, I'm sure, millions out there who are drawn to bells and whistles, whether because they actually use them or because they merely think they should, or like the idea that they're there in the first place. But there also have to be millions more who want simpler programs that do basic tasks with a modicum of fuss. Who's designing for those people (yours truly among them)?



Better than 1996's photo, for sure. Posted by Picasa

While going through immigration in Vancouver a few years back (it may have been late 2001, in which case I sort of understand), I was grilled by the agent whose desk I'd approached. He asked me where I was headed, how long I'd been in Canada, what I'd done while in Vancouver (Um, do I have to answer that? In detail?), where I worked, what my job title was, and on and on.

He held my passport open in his hand and kept looking from it to me, then back to the passport and back to me. Finally, he told me he was so skeptical because the photo in my passport looked nothing like the present me. "It's the bridge of the nose," he said. "Usually, no matter how much anything else about you changes, the bridge of your nose will still look the same, and yours doesn't."

I resisted the urge to snidely comment that perhaps the policy whereby adult US passports are valid for ten years was not a good one, as any number of people were bound to look different


When is an Ektorp not an Ektorp?

I've lately come off of a home improvement bender of sorts, which was spurred on by a number of things, among them the discovery of something mildew-esque on the backs on my sofa cushions.

In the immediate wake of this discovery, I went at said cushions with a sponge and my hairdryer, then realized a.) I probably was doing nothing beneficial at all, and b.) it's beyond time to get a new slipcover for my sofa, anyway. So I braved the crowds at Ikea (not as bad as anticipated, but still) and found an impossibly cheap ($21!) blue slipcover for the Ektorp loveseat I own. How thrilling! How pleased I felt with myself, having scored such a serious bargain (slipcovers normally go for $100 and up--why, I don't know)! How excited I was to come home, strip my sofa down, and re-clothe it in something new and mildew-free!

How very wrong I was. Because who knew, first off, that the Ektorp loveseat is not the same thing as the Ektorp SOFABED loveseat? (Yes, fine, it should've been obvious, but I was blinded by what I may have mentioned was a heart-stoppingly cheap price.) I figured I could work around that first hurdle somehow, preparing to get out some scissors and make alterations as needed. But then I discovered that even if I were to do some creative cutting, the damn cover was nowhere near the right size.

I mean, OK, Ikea. You sell stuff that's hardly of heirloom quality, and your product names are generally impossible to pronounce, and there's always something new and different happening within your walls. But did you actually modify one of your products just enough that no post-2004 slipcover will fit my 2002 sofa? Or has the Ektorp loveseat always been three-and-a-half inches shorter than the Ektorp SOFABED loveseat? And why do the back cushions seem to be exactly the same size? The mind boggles.

Luckily, I scored equally good deals on my new Ringum rug (yes, it's round), Limbo lamps, and Lots self-adhesive wall mirrors. But still, how utterly bittersweet to come so close to something that could've been so good and beautiful and right only to find myself foiled by Swedes.