Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Don't Get It

OK, get ready for some complaining. I continue to be amazed by the relatively high traffic to my website and the relatively low number of requests for essays (excerpted on the site on pages that get a lot of hits), questions for the Q&A, and book purchases via the site. A marketing friend told me that people like interactivity and suggested I put up a short survey for people to click on and complete. So I did that. The survey has 7 questions; you could easily do it twice in less than 90 seconds. Hundreds of people have visited my site since I posted the survey link on it last week (in 3 places), and 8 people have taken the survey. My sincere thanks to those 8 and a respectful "What's up with you?" to the rest of my site visitors.

I don't consider this most recent attempt to understand my audience a complete waste of my time since I had fun creating the survey (Survey Monkey is great), but what the hell? Am I forced to conclude that I have the most passive website traffic ever? Is every site's traffic this passive? Are my hosting company's Site Hits Per Day and Page Hits counters cooking the books?

I'm feeling rather last-ditch-effort about all of this, so now I'm making a specific request. If you're a reader of my blog and you haven't yet taken the survey, click here and throw me a bone, would you? I'll be eternally grateful.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I had the kind of great day yesterday that one can only have in Las Vegas - certainly in February and maybe any time of the year. A Chicago friend of mine who is visiting family in San Diego decided to fly in to have lunch and spend the afternoon with me. She, like other Midwesterners, has been enduring an epic winter, so she was pretty happy to get to San Diego where, although rainy, it was 60 degrees. She was overjoyed to get here where it's 67 and brightly sunny.

I picked her up at the airport after her 1-hour flight over the very beautiful scenery between San Diego and Las Vegas.
Getting in and out of McCarran Airport is unusually easy and convenient for a busy airport. Long-time locals will tell you it's terrible compared to how it once was, but they say that about the traffic too and, let me tell you, if they think the traffic here is a problem, they would think the traffic on the Kennedy in Chicago was other-worldly.

I had decided on lunch at the Bellagio because it's the most lovely, if not the most spectacular, of the Strip properties. ("Spectacular" is most definitely not a synonym for "lovely" where Las Vegas is concerned.) We had a fabulous lunch at a gorgeous restaurant overlooking the ridiculously named, but dazzling Lake Bellagio (yes, the one with the fountains and the music that you remember from the end of Ocean's Eleven). Eating in Las Vegas is a treat: there are countless superb restaurants. I've been eating here for three years now (and I have a lot of wonderful memories and, unfortunately, a few extra pounds to show for it), and I've barely scratched the surface. Dining in Chicago was great, too, but its restaurant scene lacks two of the best features of the restaurant scene out here. In Chicago, there was not a concentration of magnificent restaurants all located on one boulevard (with easy, free parking everywhere) within 20 minutes of my home, and nothing good is open 24/7. We don't crave great restaurant meals in the wee hours or on Easter very often, but it's a kick to know that, if we do, we're in business.

While my friend and I were waiting to be seated, we sat just outside the Bellagio and enjoyed the balmy weather, the mosaic tile floors, and each other's company. After lunch, we decided she couldn't spend an afternoon on the Strip without gambling a bit. At the Bellagio, high-falutin' establishment that it is, you can't play blackjack for a reasonable minimum bet without playing at a table with one of those monstrous auto-shufflers. I know suckers exist to be exploited, but come on - the game already favors the house without skewing the very mechanics of card delivery to further that advantage. So we retrieved the car from the valet and drove over to the Venetian, my favorite place to gamble on the Strip. There, we sat down with some very nice people and a dealer who remembered me (a phenomenon I'm not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed by), and I taught my friend to play blackjack. We only had half an hour to play before I needed to get her back to the airport and, obligingly, she got a couple blackjacks and drew to 21 a couple times in that short time. As we walked back to the car, she sounded just like a real player and I'm confident I've found (created?) a new gambling buddy.

Even at 4:45, the short drive to the airport was a breeze and so were my car trip back home and her flight back to San Diego. It was a perfect day. The weather here is undeniably a big draw, but it's only the tip of the enjoyment iceberg.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

...The Harder They Fall

Why is it that once we've built someone up into a hero, we have to knock him down, preferably as quickly and sleazily as possible? I've written about this before in the context of the once luminous New England Patriots, and the phenomenon is raising its ugly head again in the context of Barack Obama. Even as the press continues to polish his halo, it's also starting to sour on him. I expect to see more and more articles like this one as he inches ever closer to the nomination.

Why does our cult of heroism carry within it the seeds of heroism's destruction? Are we so sure disappointment is inevitable that we seek to create it preemptively, so as to diminish its sting at least a little by asserting some measure of control? That's so perverse. If you believe, as I do, that a tremendous amount of what you get flows from what you give, and that you tend to see and experience what you expect to see and experience, then this assumption that nothing is as good as it seems creates far more disappointment than it forestalls.

Or maybe we're just perverse in general. In sharp contrast to the press turnaround on the once high-flying Pats and senator from Illinois, we have the surprising delicacy of the media coverage of Heath Ledger's death. Leaving aside the sexism inherent in this delicacy - can you imagine similar restraint had it been Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan who overdosed? (If you can, read this story; it'll set you straight) - I was surprised by the respectful judiciousness. And I'll admit to some possibly perverse cynicism myself: when I read that the medical examiner had declared Ledger's overdose accidental, I wondered if there were now a way to poke around in brain tissue with a scalpel and reveal evidence of intent. Since I'm sure there is not, I'm left wondering why our inclination is to fit out our heroes with feet of clay as quickly as we can, but to erase those feet of clay, equally quickly, when someone beats our assumptions to the punch and falls on his own.

Monday, February 18, 2008

As Good as Fiction

I complain often (including here and here) about the stupidity of the scripts underlying movies and TV. Fabulously intelligent and scintillating writing rarely characterizes popular entertainment. This irritates me because, the success of certain dumb shows to the contrary notwithstanding, I don't think people are as stupid as most programming would indicate and it's offensive to be treated as if we are. I also think the more you expect of people, the more you get, and that it is not necessary to pander to some demeaning notion of the lowest common denominator.

The Wire is, in my opinion, in an extraordinary class by itself on TV, and for every snappy moment on an old Frasier or Will & Grace episode, there are hours of lame, idiotic and often sexist garbage. Or at least I assume there are, by virtue of the bad shows I've seen and the ads for others I TiVo through, which purport, I presume, horrible as they are, to be the best parts of the shows they're peddling. Similarly, movies are too often characterized more by explosions, scantily-clad women and unpleasant vocabulary choices than by scintillating writing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across Stranger than Fiction, a beautifully and perfectly written movie. Who would have imagined that a movie starring Will Ferrell would be intelligent, poignant, gripping, thought-provoking and still vividly occupying my mind two days later? (It also stars Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal, so there you go, but still...Will Ferrell??) The movie is about writing, which of course appeals to me, but it's also about what life should be compared to what it often is. And I challenge you to watch it without needing to bake cookies as soon as possible after you finish. It's a glorious movie, with amazing performances (including by the aforementioned WF), striking visuals, and a script that absolutely crackles with brains, humor, charm, and depth. See it immediately, if not sooner.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Necessary to the Security of a Free State"

As I read about the horrific shooting at Northern Illinois University yesterday, which, I learned, was the fourth school shooting in the last two weeks, I wondered what it will take to prompt local, state and federal governments to disarm people in the U.S. How can anyone argue that school shootings are merely a tragic byproduct of any legitimate right when someone opens fire in a college lecture hall or a 14-year-old shoots a 15-year-old to death in a California school? The ready availability of guns to any adult or child who wants one is terrifying - for the obvious reasons and also because it creates a detachment between killer and victim that I suspect makes killing easier. Knives, fists, blunt instruments, ropes and the like require a close proximity and a strength (intentional as well as physical) that must make it more difficult for even the murderous to kill.

I'm all for personal freedom, but in a society personal freedom has to be balanced with public policy concerns. We already tolerate lots of fetters on our personal freedoms. Many of them - like laws prohibiting suicide or those requiring the use of seat belts or motorcycle helmets - offer relatively attenuated benefits to society as a whole. Gun control seems far more important as a public policy matter and it would offer far more direct societal benefits. Conversely, it's impossible to articulate any benefit stemming from the right to bear arms that is compelling enough to outweigh that right's tragic and escalating consequences.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dubious Holidays

I don't understand all the hype about Valentine's Day. It's always seemed to me (post-elementary school) to be an agreeable little day when you say something nice to your sweetie, buy your kids a cupcake or a cute stuffed animal, and generally go about your life as if it were any other day in February. When did it become this fraught-with-meaning-and-potential-disaster romantic juggernaut? I read this morning that people are expected to spend $17 billion commemorating the day one way or another, and that it has all the earmarks of looming catastrophe for couples (unmet expectations), singles (loneliness) and anyone who wants to eat out tonight (packed restaurants).

Valentine's Day isn't alone in this distressing regard either. Other throwaways like Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day also clog restaurants and phone lines and pressure celebrants to find the perfect gift/activity/sentiment. They're all so silly and wasteful. Relationships susceptible to falling apart if one of these Days fails to go flawlessly have to be in pretty sad shape. Is there really any benefit in trying to shore them up with the perfect celebration?

I think this might be a form vs. substance thing, in addition to yet more evidence of how incredibly influential media hype can be.
If you treat your significant other and your parents properly in the first place, there's no need to get crazy on some commercially prompted day in February, May or June. But if your relationships are tenuous or they feel more like chores than delights, I suppose making a production out of one day a year could be a way of pretending or even feeling like everything's solid. For my money, though, there's no contest between the day-in, day-out pleasure of good relationships and nothing special on these holidays vs. a blowout holiday and nothing special the rest of the year. Give me the substance over the form any day.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Way We Were

I saw a snippet of a program on the impact of alcohol at NFL games and what the NFL is doing about it, and I was struck by how misguided the response efforts are. Designated driver programs, barring obviously inebriated fans at the door, alcoholism awareness info (which reminds me of the hilarious "Do you have a gambling problem? Be responsible!" stickers posted on the ATMs (the ATMs!) in casinos) - it's all like slapping a Band-Aid on a tumor.

The people behaving badly at football games may well be drunk, but alcohol is not the fundamental problem. There's always been drinking at football games and there have always been a few sloppy drunks. But the bounds of decent public behavior once stopped even drunks from grouping on stairways and screaming at women to show their breasts (a recent lowlight at the Meadowlands) or shouting no-holds-barred profanities at players or flinging drinks at fans for the other team.

People in my grandparents' or even, I suspect, my parents' generations seemed to believe in a social contract that no longer exists
relative to public behavior. Yelling out the car window or flipping someone the bird in traffic, cutting in front of people in line, talking too loudly in restaurants or theaters - for that matter, being sloppily drunk in public in the first place - were simply not done. Language was far more refined, too. People did not consider acceptable for everyday use the F and C words that HBO would have us believe are routinely used in every avenue of society, past and present. (I watched Deadwood once; somehow I doubt the language actually used in the Old West was so juicily Chaucerian. I can also confirm from personal experience that, with the exception of law firms when no clients are present, the language in business is still far more refined than Hollywood would have us believe.)

And it wasn't just a matter of manners. I don't think people in the past merely held themselves in check better. I think they really believed certain
behavior and language were impolite, inappropriate, and not characteristic of decent people. Even at sporting events, peer pressure operated to quell rather than to permit or even spur really egregious behavior.

I'm not quite old enough yet to favor a return to the attitudes of the past. Given how restrictively sexist those attitudes were, I'll probably never be old enough to favor any sort of wholesale return. But I do wish we still had a widely-believed code of decent social behavior and individual responsibility. Instead, we have only the usual misguided palliatives. They won't stop the bad behavior at football games or anywhere else; they'll only make life even more annoying for the rest of us as we wait in yet another long line to get in.