Friday, October 31, 2008

Spazzinersary Weekend

Happy Spazziversary Weekend everybody!

As you may remember from last year's posts or earlier events, it was two years ago tomorrow -- Nov. 1 -- that I seized out, leading Michelle to save my computer (and me) and to many other excellent adventures.

Last year we celebrated with a trip to the Oregon coast. This weekend we're spending on the Olympic Peninsula. First stop, tonight: lovely Port Townsend. Tomorrow a hike in the rain forest.

A more complete report, with Michelle's tasty photos, to come when we get home Sunday.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bad Trip*

(* Or, How I Kinda Halfway OD'd on the Wrong Meds)

Last week I was sick. It was a chemo week, so I expected to feel crummy, but this was worse than usual.

On Sunday, the first night of my five-day course, I woke up in the middle of the night barfing. All the next day and really for the rest of the week I felt either drunk or hungover: headachey, listless, loopy, uncoordinated, dizzy, sick to my stomach.

This is the 19th month now of the 24 months of chemo my doctors have scheduled for me so I'm used to some ups and downs. The side effects vary from month to month, but generally I can count on heavy fatigue, a general nauseous feeling and digestive troubles, lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks.

To combat the effects of the chemotherapy drug, Temodar, I take an anti-nausea medication, ondansetron, a couple of small, round, off-white pills, about half an hour before I down the pink and white chemo capsules. All that in addition to the oblong Keppra pills that I take twice a day to stave off seizures. You're supposed to take the Temodar right before going to bed, and my routine is to take the Keppra at noon and midnight, so on chemo weeks the last hour or so before bedtime is a flurry of ringing alarms and pill-popping.

No wonder that there might arise a little confusion, right? That's all I'm saying.

When the mail-order pharmacy sends me my monthly Temodar supply they always ask if I need more of the nausea meds. Over the months I'd managed to squirrel away a few pills here and there, and so for a couple of months in a row I declined the ondansetron refill and saved on the co-pay. In fact I rounded up several unfinished bottles of the nausea meds and put them together on the little desktop where I keep all my drugs so that when it was time I could just grab a container and go.

That was the mistake, I guess.

On Thursday, the last night of my chemo round, I reached for the nausea meds and happened to glance at the label. Wait. This wasn't ondansetron but Lorazepam, a muscle relaxant and anti-anxiety drug -- basically Valium -- that my doctor prescribed, before our big road trip, to take if I had a seizure and couldn't get to a hospital.

Damn! No wonder! Not only was I getting all the weird spacey "benefits" of Valium -- at twice the recommended dosage, since I normally take two nausea pills -- but I wasn't getting any of the anti-nausea medication.

In the above picture, the Lorazepam is the small white pill on the left; the ondansetron is the very similar (right?) off-white pill in the middle. The Keppra's on the right.

Michelle noticed that the prescription label says the original Lorazepam pill count was 15, but there are only six pills left in the bottle, so I must have been taking those suckers all week. What an idiot.

Michelle did me a favor and hid the rest of the Valium. Somebody lock up the Drano.

Friday, October 24, 2008

148 years of Times endorsements

At a time when many newspapers are debating whether they should make election endorsements, the New York Times not only presents its strong case for Barack Obama today, but also puts up a nifty online feature with every presidential endorsement going back to Lincoln's first, in 1860.

The page, "New York Times Endorsements Through the Ages," offers a timeline of those 38 elections, with color-coded squares indicating which party got the nod (and which was elected), a photo of the endorsed nominee, an excerpt from the endorsement and -- here's the real treat -- a link to the original editorial, usually in the .pdf format.

It's fun to look back and see where the Times was in sync with the electorate and where it wasn't -- no fan of Teddy Roosevelt, these guys.

Scanning through big batches of them you can see when the editors really believed in their pick (on Lincoln, "we shall have honesty and manliness instead of meanness and corruption in the Executive Branch"), and when, as with John Kerry in 2004, they were clearly holding their noses and making the best of a bad choice.

(The above photo, lifted from Wikipedia, is of John M. Palmer, the National Democratic Party nominee in 1896 whose candidacy wasn't helped by the Times endorsement. He lost to Republican William McKinley ... and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Not for the first time ...

As regular M&M readers know, "unprecedented" is one of those words that drives me crazy. I've managed to read right over it nearly every day for the past year or so, since I last registered my gripe, without complaint.

But my kettle boils over. After finding two instances of "unprecedented" today in the same story -- an otherwise excellent essay by Time's Joe Klein about Barack Obama -- I've decided to start a new M&M category -- unprecedented -- to track appearances of this misused word.

The rules: I won't go looking for "unprecedented" but if I run across it I'll note it here.

That's some stare decisis shit right there, so other writers should get with the program. You might have to go back to Marbury v. Madison to find a decision of such significance.

So with that, I present Exhibit A, from Klein's "Why Obama is Winning":

But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge. Unlike George W. Bush, who had given Petraeus complete authority over the war — an unprecedented abdication of presidential responsibility (and unlike John McCain, whose hero worship of Petraeus bordered on the unseemly) — Obama would insist on a rigorous chain of command.

And Exhibit B:

But one of the more remarkable spectacles of the 2008 election — unprecedented in my time as a journalist — was the unanimity among Democrats on matters of policy once the personality clash between Obama and Hillary Clinton was set aside.

Two unprecedenteds in one story. Not unprecedented, but not a good example.

More to come, usage geeks and fellow crabs.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Silly Movie of the Week

A man in flames goes flying down the elevator shaft.

"Jesus Christ! It's one of our men!"

"Oh God!"

The dialog is very cheesy. The effects are cheesy.

"It's pretty bad," Mark says.

"It's an inferno. It's a towering inferno."

In the pocket

I've never been a big believer in the liberal-media conspiracy.

Despite conservative complaints now as predictable as lousy voter turnout, the vast, vast majority of reporters and editors work hard to keep any kind of bias out of their stories, particularly in election coverage. If anything, liberal bias is more likely to creep into coverage of tangentially political topics, like environmental reporting.

I say that even though I do believe that most reporters and editors, in their hearts, lean to the left, and I think that many influential editorial boards are liberal, even if their mega-corporation publishers are not. Same goes for most TV news. But political reporters are equal-opportunity skewerers. The bigger problems among this lot are pack mentality and conventional-wisdom-itis.

And yet. Sometimes I'll see something in the paper that makes even me slap my forehead. Something I know will give the media-bashers some well-braised lib loin for their conspiracy stew.

Take today's Seattle Times. Given the placement, the headlines and the lead paragraphs of all the A-section stories about the presidential race, I don't see how a John McCain supporter could help thinking the paper was in the pocket of Barack Obama.

On the front page is a top-of-the-fold story headlined, "U.S. tax formula already spreads wealth." Here's the lede: "John McCain's condemnation of Barack Obama's call for shifting more wealth from richer Americans to poorer ones wins applause at campaign events, but it ignores the nation's long tradition of redistributing huge amounts of wealth through tax and spending policies."

That Associated Press story jumps to A3, which also features a large "CloseUp" centerpiece takeout story by McClatchy Newspapers under the hed, "Socialism: It's part of America's fabric." The top of this story: "'Make no mistake,' Republican activist John Hancock told a John McCain rally in this St. Louis suburb, 'this campaign is a referendum on socialism.' Republicans have been pounding that theme in recent days, even though Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama hardly fits the classic definition of a socialist."

A boldface pullout quote in the middle of the page underscores the point: "The answer is clearly no, Senator Obama is not a socialist."

Turn the page for more election news on A6, a feature about Obama's sick grandmother, "Toot," as she's called in the headline. "Barack Obama's mother was an adventurous woman who took her son around the globe," says the lede. "His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the American roots that would ground his teenage years as well as his career in politics."

Finally, on A7, some news about the Republicans. Two stories in fact. "McCain's Pennsylvania push not paying off." And, "Alaska paid for travel of Palin kids."

And that's it, the sum of the day's presidential election coverage for Seattle Times readers. Now, I know that news decisions like where to play a story and what hed to give it depend on a lot of factors, like the timeliness of a folo or the availability of a comebacker on other campaign developments, and that the stories themselves, in this case, are all written or compiled by wire services rather than local reporters. And sometimes the news is the news and the chips fall as they fall.

Still, wire editors here can change, rearrange or accetuate with some care, and with more in mind than the one specific story on the screen in front of them. In this case, the A1 and A3 CloseUp stories seem redundant to me, and the "Toot" story could have been dialed way, way down.

I see why conservative readers might smell a rat.

In today's New York Times, two front-page stories offer a different but equally (at least) troubling injection of bias. In these stories the problem is reaching too far to convey significance.

The Times' lead story, about how consumers appear to be taking less prescription medication as a way to save money (interesting!), isn't satisfied to leave it there. Here's the reach: "The trend, if it continues, could have potentially profound implications. If enough people try to save money by forgoing drugs, controllable conditions could escalate into major medical problems. That could eventually raise the nation's total health care bill and lower the nation's standard of living."

Wow! From -- we learn later -- a less than 1 percent downturn in the use of prescription meds during the third quarter, our entire standard of living is at risk. Note to NYT: Yeah, it is anyway.

In the off-lede story, about a big investor selling off a large stake in Ford, there's a similar overreach: "The falure of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler would have far-reaching economic and social consequences. Together, the automakers employ more than 200,000 workers in the United States and provide health care and pensions to more than a million Americans. In addition, their operations are lifelines to 20,000 auto dealers and countless suppliers, and the source of major tax revenue to states and local governments."

Double-wow. Putting aside the fact that the story doesn't persuasively make the case that Kirk Kerkorian's divestment will kill Ford, let alone the other automakers, it feels like a pretty long stretch to the collapse of my local city hall.

This kind of stuff bugs me, and it would no matter whose political party or economic interest were getting gored or whored.

It's a tough time for newspapers and the news business, as we know. Readers are dropping by the hundred thousands. Untold news meeting hours are wasted counting clicks and tweetering twits in a vain attempt to win them back.

My idea for a simple (and inexpensive) way to earn back some trust: Tell the news straight. Leave the overanalysis and the overwriting for the doofuses on the editorial page.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Congrats, WSB!

Looks like Tracy Record of the awesome West Seattle Blog is about to be named one of Seattle's 25 most influential people.

Well deserved.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Do you have any McCains?

Franny invented a new form of Go Fish. Twos are McCains, Eights are Obamas, aces are MacGrubers.

That's what we get for making her watch Meet the Press and SNL.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Laurie Anderson and the state of things

It was a treat last night to see Laurie Anderson at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, performing all new material from her upcoming album "Homeland." (Thanks to Michelle for scoring us the tickets.) As always, Anderson was topical, political, philosophical, provocative, challenging and almost intimidatingly artistic and intelligent. When was the last time you were at a concert where Kierkegaard was not only a topic but the setup for a joke?

I find it best not to think too hard on any one aspect of her music but to let it all wash over me and then sift what I'm left with. At one point last night, in one of her spoken/sung essays, Anderson sighed, "Ah, the state of things," and that struck me as a pretty good distillation of her "Homeland" themes.

In that respect her central message hasn't changed much from the breakthrough success of "O Superman" and "Big Science" more than 25 years ago: a slightly sad, homesick review of present-day popular culture and politics, infused with unexpected moments of humor and hopefulness. Last night there were dreamy musical meditations opposing the Iraq war, torture, economic disparity and more -- all delivered with just enough imprecision of detail that they're likely to sound relevant in another 25 years -- along with funny observations about the ubiquity of TV/computer screens and advertising ("Underwear Gods") and our reliance on talking heads ("Only an expert can deal with a problem," unusually catchy).

The content certainly wouldn't be for everybody. I don't think Anderson will need to worry about John McCain illegally sampling her music for campaign ads. We saw several people get up and walk out, and I've read that the same happened in Europe where Anderson was playing near a military base and some in the audience objected to the Iraq message.

Also, with the exception of "Only an Expert" these aren't songs you're likely to walk out of the theater humming to yourself.

If you don't know her music Anderson can be hard to describe. She came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a performance artist, although that term, which I've never liked, feels like it shorts both her art and her performance. She doesn't sing her songs so much as speaks them melodically, using an incredibly expressive and elastic voice, sometimes supported by electronic tricks including looping, doubling, echoes, reverb or digital alteration. She performed last night behind a small keyboard or digital console of some kind, with a laptop (a MacBook Pro, I think) to her left, and accompanied by a woman playing cello and three men on violin, bass and keyboards. Anderson herself, who is known for inventing electronic instruments, occasionally played what looked to be a miniature electric violin or ukulele, and she pulled out a microphone contraption that turned her head into a booming percussive instrument. Trippy.

The stage was minimalist groovy, with a dozen naked bulbs hanging from above almost to the floor, perfectly matching the tone and brightness of a sea of candles surrounding the musicians. A large, lit backdrop bathed the stage in mood-setting colors.

Musically, with the strings and the psychedelic wash, the pulsing rhythms and vaguely techno feel, the overall effect was something like David Byrne meets the Moody Blues or Kronos Quartet by way of the Eurythmics. Philip Glass would dig it.

I know Michelle and I did.

Before the show we ran into P-I art critic Regina Hacket in the lobby. I was happy to see she quickly posted a review on her blog, by about 1:30 this morning. (Note to P-I: Why not pull that out and promote it from the home page?)

For more Laurie Anderson background, here is her official site and Wikipedia entry. Also, check out the video of her signature piece, "O Superman":

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Poker and politics

A week or so ago, after the first presidential debate but before the veeps traded winks and gaffes, I sat down at the poker table next to Lynn, a 60s-ish regular player who always wears an oversize Barack Obama campaign button. Well, I said, how do you think he did?

She knew immediately that I was talking about Obama's performance in the debate and didn't miss a beat.

"He was OK," she said, "but I think it was a missed opportunity."

That had been my take too, just as a nonpartisan political reporter type, and I was struck that a true-believer fan would reach the same conclusion.

Our little exchange -- and that's about all there was to it -- touched off a few minutes of political table-talk, which is unusual in a poker game. At one point, a bit later, someone called the dealer Wilma by name but sort of mumbled it.

"Did you call me Obama," she asked. "Am I that bad?"

That led to a few oohs and ahs and a cross-examination of Wilma, who reversed course and said she liked Obama a lot; in fact she had just registered for the first time in her life so she could vote for him.

A few minutes later, as the conversation continued, Wilma seemed a bit embarrassed about having revived the topic.

"I'm probably going to get in trouble," she said. "They tell us there are three subjects we're not supposed to talk about: politics, religion and ... I can never remember what the third one is."

At that, a 20-something kid -- kind of an angry-looker with a little hipster stache/beard and barbed-wire tats on his biceps -- volunteered the missing subject. "Prolly women's rights," he said, and he got up to go have a smoke.

Uh, that would probably qualify as politics, I said as he walked away. Wilma, nervous: "Yeah, that wasn't it."

Whatever training the dealers get, this week the players again had politics in mind. Or at least the economy. In one game I asked my casual friend Stan, a financial adviser, how the market collapse and bailout were likely to affect his business. "People are nervous," he said. "I think it'll be good for business; everyone wants a new financial adviser. In fact, I should be at the office right now instead of playing cards."

That prompted a bit of speculation around the table about the economic elasticity of the casino biz. "This place is recession proof," someone said. "No matter how bad it gets people will think they can get lucky and win it all back."

Nods of agreement. Tales of woe. Someone mentioned the progressive bad-beat jackpot in the poker room, now up to an enticing $40,000 or so. The middle-aged grouse in Seat 9 looked at the number flashing on the screen and shook his head.

"Even if I won it," he said, "it wouldn't make up for what I lost in the market this week."

Everybody sighed. I was having a losing session, and after a couple of big winners got up and cashed out it seemed like everyone else at the table was stuck.

I have an idea, I said. At the end of the night let's see if Congress will pass a new bill and bail us all out.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The great thing about Americans

I stopped at our favorite Junction bakery tonight before dinner to pick up some bread, and for the first time since it's been open I was the only customer. So I asked the guy at the counter how business has been.

Fine, he said. Really, the global economic meltdown hasn't crippled the croissant market?

"The great thing about Americans," he said, "is that they don't think. They just want to eat. I think we'll be fine."

Monday, October 6, 2008

'Our Times'

Highlight of the weekend, following Kaye and Val's departure, was our excursion yesterday afternoon to see my friend Denny Heck's play, "Our Times."

The play is a reflection on Washington state history from 1975 to 2005, a period that includes my years as a newspaper reporter covering state government and politics, so I was very interested from the get-go. One nice touch: Playing me onstage was Brad Pitt. (I guess Denzel was booked.)

OK, that last part isn't exactly true. In fact it's a one-man play, with Denny playing an older version of himself, 30 years in the future, and looking back on his time in Olympia. Although I don't make an appearance as a character in "Our Times," I felt like I could have been there. A lot of the people and big issues Denny recalled -- Linda Smith, Booth Gardner, the Initiative 601 budget restriction, the rise of women in state politics -- were also my reporting subjects. As personal work history alone, it was a fun trip down memory lane.

The pleasant surprise for me, though, was how well the show worked as a show. Denny's wife Paula, who is credited as producer and director, made a short speech before the play began thanking the audience and reminding us that Denny is neither a professional actor nor playwright. She needn't have apologized. The writing was tight and engaging; and Denny -- dressed, made-up and acting like an old guy -- made for a very effective storyteller and a totally believable version of himself.

"Our Times" uses a very simple set -- a couch where Denny does most of his reminiscing, and a screen for nicely coordinated yet unobtrusive slides -- and a simple, straightforward structure: The old Denny receives a letter from a college student doing research, and the memories start flowing. There's just enough humor and light moments to keep the material from sounding like a classroom lecture, yet none of it is tarted up or exaggerated to stroke egos (including Denny's) or to settle old political scores. It feels true.

I was struck again by how involved Denny has been in so much of the state's late-century story, by how many people he knows so well and, as Michelle pointed out afterward, by what a modern Renaissance man he is. Government, politics, public television, journalism, the tech boom, fiction writing and now play writing and acting; he's a guy with wide interests who seemingly just decides to do something and then goes out and does it. Very cool.

There were a couple of funny moments in the performance we saw in Tacoma, which is likely to be the show's last. One of the politicians singled out for special praise in "Our Times" is Norm Dicks, a longtime congressman and truly one of the state's political giants. Dicks is a big man -- famously a former Univeristy of Washington linebacker, which helped launch his political career -- so it was impossible not to notice him in the audience, a head taller than his neighbors, as Denny talked about him and his picture appeared on the big screen.

I'll bet he never misses a performance, I said to Michelle.

The other cool thing is that this play has been solely a benefit for various charitable causes, including a fund established by the Hecks to help Olympia school principals buy basic supplies for their students (I believe Paula is a middle-school principal there). So far the play has raised $26,000 for charity.

Yesterday's wrap-up performance was a benefit for the Obama presidential campaign. As working and semi-retired (but maybe not forever) journalists, Michelle and I didn't feel like making a political contribution, so we wrote our check instead to the Olympia school fund, and we were happy to do so. If either of us ever winds up covering the Oly school district we'll remember to declare our conflict of interest.

Thank you to Denny for a wonderful afternoon and for many years of rewarding friendship.

(Above photo from photographer Bill Cawley, via Denny's official "Our Times" site.)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A natural politician

Bruce could out-debate any of these clowns. Out-speech 'em too. Not to mention singing.

This is from a rally yesterday in Philadelphia.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fish Nazi and The Unabomber

With Kaye and Val in town, we went yesterday afternoon to one of our favorite West Seattle hangs, Sunfish on Alki, for a lunch of oysters and fish and chips.

I love the cod there, fresh and flaky, and the simple atmosphere of the small beach-side space. But there's something about the brothers who run the joint that always has reminded me of that famous "Seinfeld" episode, "The Soup Nazi" -- about the demanding guy with the perfect soup who would punish offending customers by shouting, "No soup for you!"

Here's a sample:

Nothing quite that extreme at Sunfish, but the brothers (I'm sorry I don't know their names) are pretty stern dudes, and woe betide the poor newbie who whips out a credit card or asks for more than one tartar sauce.

The last time I was there, a month or so ago, the owner was unaccountably nice to me. Nothing unusual by normal business standards, but he smiled and asked how my day was going. I even mentioned it to Michelle that night, that's how out of character it was.

So cut to yesterday. As I put in our order, the Fish Nazi smiled again (what?) and asked if I like to go to Las Vegas and play in poker tournaments. Wowie, he's looking into my soul! But then I remembered I was wearing my gray hooded sweatshirt with the World Poker Tour logo. When I said that yeah, I do like to play cards in Vegas, he got all excited.

"You're that guy with the sweatshirt, on the TV. With the name ... what is it?"

Oh, I said, you mean The Unabomber? That would be Phil Laak, the poker pro known as The Unabomber for his standard getup of hoodie and sunglasses. Other than the sweatshirt there's really not much resemblance and I told Fish Nazi that I'm not him, but he got all excited and asked a bunch of questions about poker and pointed me out to his brother, busy cooking.

"It's that poker guy."

Weirdly, the little episode of mistaken identity made my day. That and the fish and chips and the nice company. I went out to the Muck last night, while Michelle and Kaye were having a girl date, and nobody there mistook me for a poker pro. If anything I was the fish with chips. I lost nearly $150, never really got close to winning.

No soup for me.

Music deal o' the week

It's been a while since I've posted any music reviews, and it's too bad because I've bought a lot of great music over the past months (and a couple of clunkers) that I should be noting.

But this one is so good, and the deal is so good and so short-lived, that I want to pass it along right now. It's "Two Men with the Blues," the unlikely combination of Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter, and Willie Nelson, the great country crooner, troubadour and bitchin' pothead. Recorded live at Lincoln Center, part of Marsalis' regular jazz orchestra series there, the album is a wonderful mix of old-style New Orleans jazz and blues and Nelson's effortless lilt floating above.

I'm amazed at how well their styles blend. It has fast become one of my favorite records.

Now here's the great part. In an effort to nudge into iTunes' giant lead in the music store business, Amazon has started a really cool feature: Every Friday, it offers five albums for sale, via download, for $5. It's a great deal, I've downloaded several cool old records this way, but the thing is, each week's sale only lasts until Monday.

So go now, and check this one out. You can play short samples of the songs before you buy.

Four gliomas for sure. You can thank me later.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Photos: Our visit with Kaye and Val

Val made us a delicious dinner, we took long walks on the beach, and much fun was had by all.

For a slideshow with larger images go here.

The debate, you betcha!

We could go round and round on last night's VP debate -- as Kaye, Val, Michelle and I did last night over our conversation enhancers of choice -- but hell, this flow chart is so much better.

Thank you to Jason for passing it along.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

'You could literally register to vote ...

... while pooping.'

Martha Stewart living

The comedian Rob Becker used to have this bit about coming home from work one day to find his roommate scrubbing the bathroom. "What," Becker would say with concern, "we're moving?"

That comes to mind because I'm suspending the morning news meeting to spend a few minutes picking up crap and, if I get really ambitious, maybe break out a broom. No, we're not moving, but we've lived here for more than four years now so it's about time to tidy up.

Besides, our friends Kaye and Val are arriving tonight, part of the awesome Big Graze road trip they've been chronicling over at The Night Note. These guys, real foodies and high-life appreciators, could have their own show. They know how to travel.

The other night Kaye sent a note suggesting that Val, a tremendous cook, fix us dinner here at our house on Thursday. What, I said in my best Rob Becker imitation, you don't like Raisin Bran?

Stories and photos of their visit to come. First I have a few hundred newspapers to put in the recycling ...