A Way of Life

I continue trolling thrift stores for interesting t-shirts. It’s a hobby; it keeps me off the streets. But once, I had other hobbies.

Celesticon 1

And that’s why I was so pleased to find a tee bearing a crudely-drawn picture of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (1701A) with the full original crew.  I emphasize “crudely” here.  It’s amateur hour all the way.

And above it all, the title “Celesticon 2013.”

Call it a phaser blast from the past: those three little letters that spell “con.” This tee invokes a whole subculture that I, and my wife, used to inhabit.  It’s called fandom, and for some it’s a way of life.  And if you want to understand it, you must go back, back to the past.. Where, in the time of  Coolidge Augustus, on the river called Hudson….

…there was Hugo. Hugo Gernsback.

Hugo published many magazines, among them Modern Electrics, and Science and Invention.  Hugo was a radio enthusiast himself. And besides, it seemed in the 1910s that every young man with an idea and copper wire and a soldering iron and a dry cell was trying to make a breakthrough.

You, know: to perfect the wristwatch television or the electric chicken plucker and Make Your Fortune.  In your garage. This garage start-up thing goes way back.

Or beyond that: perhaps, communicate with Mars.  Or preserve food with electrical impulses.  Or design giant radio robots to play ice hockey at 200 miles per hour.  Something.

Yes, it was the Dawn Time of the Geek, the rise of NerdNation: big ideas, grandiose dreams, large and fragile egos, awkward social skills, and all.  All these people needed was someplace to be: to be themselves, or somebody they dreamed of being.

This would soon be arranged.

Because it was All Good. Good for Science and Invention, certain.  And since Hugo’s readers were dreamers, and dreamers like a good story,  Hugo began to publish imaginative fiction in the back of the magazine — he called it “scientifiction.  About bright young men who traveled to other planets, and levitated magnetically, and rescued green princesses — all with the power of Electricity, and Rockets, and good old American spunk.

And this also was Really Good.  So good that Hugo started another magazine for scientifiction alone.  And it was amazing.  Truly: it was called Amazing Stories.  And around it grew a virtual nation of science fiction fans that eventually named itself Fandom.

Fans showed creativity, enthusiasm, an ability to organize, and a fetish for shortening words. (Like “scientifiction.” That didn’t last long.) They jammed Amazing’s letters column (“lettercol”) with their opinions.  Opinions about the stories, opinions about science, and opinions about other opinions.

And soon there were more science fiction magazines, local fan clubs, and sci-fi fan magazines (to be called fanzines, and later just ‘zines.) All this fan activity, or fanac, lead to bigger meetings of the “fen:” whole conventions of fen, everywhere.  And yes, they shortened the word to “con.”

The flagship science fiction con, Worldcon, launched in 1939 in NYC, and not long after came big regional cons like Boskone, Westercon, Norwescon, and then dozens of other state and local cons run by fans, for fans.  Because the fen were everywhere.

Some of the cons based themselves in one city; others, big ones like Worldcon and Westercon, change locations each year, and fan societies in different cities compete to host and run them.  Worldcon even leaves the country from time to time, and of course other countries host their own cons.

Girl Fan Tee 1And at these cons the fen would conduct much fanac: they would talk, and drink “bheer,” talk to authors, exchange ‘zines, feud with one another, and speculate about science and the future, After all, they were mainly young and male and had a lot of futures to consider.

A few women were there at the beginning, of course, because they dreamed, too, and not just about a house and a husband and 2.3 children.  Though if you wanted to find an intelligent young man in your life with a future ahead of him: well, the odds were good, even if the goods were slightly odd.Girl Fan Tee 2

Eventually women would reach parity in fandom, in power if not always in number.  I have a tee for a women’s science fiction community that proclaims women’s absolute equality, if not superiority, in geekish fandom.

Meanwhile, back at the cons: the fans brought their bad fan artwork (except for that which was very good) and competed in the con’s art shows; or their amateur Buck Rogers or Dejah Thoris costume  for the con’s costume competition.  And yes, wore them around the con, often.

Or sat up late at night sinking punny “filksongs” about science fiction — or other fans — which they’d written themselves.  They invented their own fantasy games, too; Dungeons and Dragons and the like evolved from fannish gaming.  As well as the themes that inspire modern computer games today.

All this because cons are a place for the geeks and the nerds and the dreamers to be themselves. Around people who are just like them, don’t mind, and might even applaud.

And don’t think that fans didn’t stay up late at night trying to make all this creativity and differentness into a career for themselves. And some of them succeeded, and are Guests of Honor of today’s cons even as we speak: as professionals producing science fiction and fantasy for print, video, movies, games, and beyond.  Others went to space or designed advanced technology..

Do you watch the television series Game of Thrones? Millions do. It is based on the works of the fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, who has been a serious fan since childhood. He climbed the whole comics/science fiction club/fanzine/con ladder into the professional science fiction magazines and beyond.  And there are others like him. From the zines to your screen: so much of what you watch and consume has made that journey.

And some fans achieved within fandom itself: the skills gained from active fandom are not inconsiderable.  My wife was in on the ground floor on Trek fandom and helped organize and run a Worldcon. She even founded a con herself: for ‘zine publishers. She ran it for two years and sent it on its way as a wandering convention that moves from city to city.  It’s been sustaining itself for 34 years now.

She also founded a public access TV show about science fiction, where I met her. We traveled to cons and pushed video cameras into the faces off big-time authors and showed the results to the indifferent denizens of San Francisco.  I remember interviewing a famous author at poolside at some regional con while a unicorn danced in his lap. Okay, it was a one-horned goat pretending to be a unicorn … but that’s even better.  Good times.

Persistent fanac like this is its own reward, because if you stay in Fandom long enough you’ll become a Big Name Fan (BNF), known and blogged about and respected by all.  That’s not nothing.  Some Big Namers stay in Fandom all their lives, even those who became professional creators of one type or another.

There’s an old fannish acronym: FIAWOL. “Fandom is a way of life.”  Truer words were never abbreviated.

Fandom is verging on 100 years of age, and it has never grown up; that’s the point. But it has become known throughout the land.  And the innkeepers of the land say, “Verily, these fen be tight with a dollar, but at least they don’t smash up the place like those Shriners, yea, it is written…”

And here’s where fandom has gone truly science-fictional: like some alien creature that reproduces by fission, it split up.  The tradition science fiction cons remains, big and small. But new fan groups and cons have appeared that specialize: they’re only about fantasy or horror, or only about costumes, or only about artwork, even only about filking, or only gaming, or only media.

The comics cons arose; the Trekkies organized their own cons as well, as did fans of other TV and movie franchises.  Some people even run cons as profit-making businesses, but noble committees of geeky volunteers still organize and run most cons.

And yet while fandom split, the pieces stay in alliance.  A fan might still go to the old school Westercon for traditional written science fiction action, where you might have found me, once upon a time.  But now they can also go to CostumeCon for the cosplay, or God help them even to a filking convention, or a gaming convention, or the World Fantasy Con or the World Horror Con.  Or acquire armor and a sword and join the Society for Creative Anachronism. There’s a feminist con, too.

Fandom has changed from one big department store to a gigantic mall of fandoms.  And you, you shy person who dreamed big, were welcome at all of them. And might see your friends there, or make new ones.

Which brings us to Celesticon, which is about gaming only: an entire extended weekend of nothing but gaming out on the far edge of Silicon Valley named Fremont. Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games; card games, board games; games in costumes and games without; giant strategy games played on beautifully-detailed dioramas with hand-crafted figures to make a model railroad fan gasp with envy.

And in your gaming, be who you are, or who you want to be:

Celisticon 2

Gaming all day. Gaming all night.  Gaming for the kids and yes, you can check the latest games out of the con library and play them without buying them — although maybe later, you should.

I had to grab the Celesticon tee shirts when I found them at Goodwill because frankly, most cons don’t issue tees.  Fans love printed tees, but they usually wear their own to cons, chosen carefully to express their chosen image or subgroup:

League of Gamemakers
I looked up on Celesticon online, and such a classic group of fan/geeks you’ve never seen. All the more classic because many had developed their own games and gathered groups to play them and give feedback. Fans create.

Celesticon is a classic local con: 400 to 500 members, more or less nonprofit and volunteer-run, in a medium-sized city where nothing much happens.  This is where fans are at their best: if nothing’s happening, they’ll try to make something happen. And draw in like-minded people from the hinterlands for a gathering of the tribes.

Celestikids

And yet — there is no more Celesticon.  The organizers cancelled Celesticon 2016, because the con committee could find no venue that their fans could afford.  The price of rooms helps fund the use of the hotel’s convention space, and the local hotels’ quotes were sky-high.  The rising price of everything in the Greater San Francisco Bay proved too much for a small-timer like Celesticon.

And yet, there’s always hope.  The organizers keep the Celesticon website alive, just in case.  There are other gamer cons not too far away. And frankly the fen are nothing if not inventive. Something may arise.

For example: there’s an annual con in my town, at the university.  Its organizers would not call it a con. They call it a “social fiction conference” and got the university to sponsor it. Notice the letters “con.”

The  conference runs as an academic event using university facilities. The cost is small; ten dollars gets you two days of activities.  There are panel discussion of popular science fiction books and games and movies, and how they reflect modern society. There are demos of games; group role-playing games; “augmented reality’ games; an escape room; tabletop gaming; cosplay on the lawn with cookies and lemonade; and featured speakers on technology, sex and technology, and UFOs.

Yep.  It’s a con.  There will always be cons, because there will always be dreamers who need to be fans. And gather together.

The Great Library, Part Two: The Drudgery

(Note: Here is the link to Part One.)

I’ve been out in the garage a lot lately.  Kind of a guy place to be, if you’re manly and want to tune up your ’87 Taurus or make legs for that side table you promised to the missus. You know, guy stuff.

So what am I doing? Color-coding the necks of white plastic coat hangers with fifteen different colors of electrical tape.  Lucky for me, the definition of “guy stuff” expanded to include hand-painting lead soldiers and collecting old video game consoles.  I’m definitely in the groove.

By the way, were you actually aware that electrical tape came in fifteen colors? Me neither.  Actually, more than that, but my colorblind eyes can’t tell the difference between light gray and light pink or mild violet.  So I only use the gray.

All this knowledge comes to you courtesy of my colossal museum of t-shirts, which is  taking up more and more of my time — and my garage.  I’m moving hundreds of tees out of storage tubs and into wondrous, color-coded order on 40 linear feet of closet rod.  Here’s about 30 percent of it:

lotsashirt

This is not a one-weekend job.  I have to:

  1. Pull two storage tubs of tees out of the catacombs.
  2. Photograph the 100-ish tees, sometimes several times.
  3. Upload them into a photo database/editor.
  4. Crop and adjust 100+ tee photos, including fronts and backs. Name the files.
  5. Create records for each of the 100 tees in the database and code each according to a system of colors and letters of my own device.
  6. Import the 100+ photos  into the 100 records.
  7. For each tee, use electrical tape to code the neck of of its hanger with the color/letter sequence on file for it in the database.  The final color is always white, so that I can write code numbers on it with a permanent marker.
  8. Hang the actual tee on the hangar, cover it with a clear plastic bag, and throw it in the two-level clothing rack I built down one wall of the garage. I use the same plastic bags that your dry cleaning comes home in. Thank you, U-Line Products.
  9. Repeat steps 7 through 8, 100 times.
  10. When finished, return to Step 1 and repeat.  I figure the job will be done in ten cycles.  I’m on the fourth cycle.
  11. When all tees have been tagged and completed, organize them on the racks by their two levels of color-coding and two levels of alphabet codes. I should be doing it as I go. I don’t want to.
  12. What a nerd, eh?

But after I finish, I’ll be able to walk into the collection and head straight for tees from Santa Cruz (Orange, top level) from building or trades contractors (Yellow, second level) that incorporate humor (H, third level) and bad taste (B, fourth level). Because you never know when you need to find for someone a building contractor’s tee with a penis joke on it.

Not that those are rare.

It’s a lot of work.  I’d rather be doing something else. But I have to do it to get where I want.  Sometimes I wish I had unpaid interns to abuse: “Here, kid, wrapping electrical tape around coat-hangers will be valuable experience toward your career in biomolecular mechanics!” “Yowsah!”

Though it’s not completely awful.  There’s a rhythm to coding the hangers and hanging the shirts long into a weekday evening.  I also get to admire shirts that have been stowed away for years.  It’s like running into old friends at the supermarket.

And there’s entertainment. My laptop goes to the garage with me so that I can look up each shirt’s color/letter code in the database. At the same time, it streams endless ‘90s music videos from YouTube. It’s cultural enrichment: I heard tons of ‘90s pop on the car radio, back when I commuted to Silicon Valley. But I never knew what the songs were called, or who sung them.

workspace

Now I know: Smash Mouth, Ten Thousand Maniacs, the Cranberries, Blind Melon, REM, Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne…

And Sheryl Crowe. I hear lots and lots of Sheryl Crowe.  Not intentionally, but she’s in every playlist, to the point where her voice has actually colonized part of my brain.  I call it Sheryl.  When I’m trying to decide whether to do chores or just kick back, “Sheryl” retrieves for me the musical phrase “If it MAKES you HAP-PEEE…”

In a weird way, this drudgery does make me happy.  I don’t see the fun in collecting things I can’t see, can’t sort, and can’t share without immense effort.  The tee shirts that appeal to me most have stories behind them.  I’d like to tell the stories.  I tell them now, to anybody who’ll listen.  And they seem to like listening.

So, why not fully research those stories and write them down. From that I’ll have a full package of images and stories that I can, I dunno:  make a book out of? Post on the Internet? Exhibit at our local “kewl” museum?  All of the above?

I’m good at seeing things that others don’t — small things that are overlooked because, well, they’re small.  But show signs that they came from something larger.  I enjoy following the trail to that larger thing that birthed the small thing.

But, then what?

Remember my “Police Blotter Haiku” book? Haiku based on crime reports from small-town newspapers? I published a volume; it, well, underachieved with the public.  But it was worth doing, and I learned from a few mistakes that I made.  I figured out how to do it better. Yet I’ve been stalled nine-tenths of the way through Volume II for about two years.

This life pattern repeats:  I have a great idea, I work on it, but let it go if I hit a bump.  I lose energy; the project stalls and disappears.

Hey, I was once a minor hero on the early Internet.  I had a website that some considered so juicy that I was declared a god in Boulder, Colorado.  And no, I won’t explain.  But it was too much trouble; I didn’t keep at it. There was money to be made. And later I’d look at some satire website like The Onion and say, shit, I was doing that in 1995, and better.

It’s probably lack of self-esteem. Or focus.  Or organization. Some damned thing. At any rate, I do try to fight it from time to time, and I think I’m trying again. I think I’m unconsciously building my Great Pyramid of tees to up the ante: make such a huge bet on this collection and its development that I would never dare walk away. That I wouldn’t want to.  It would be too good to ignore.

If I fill an entire garage with a collection of stories in t-shirt form, collated and organized and tracked, even I can’t flake out. I will have made a black hole of small things, the things I love most to study and tell stories about.  I have hopes that their accumulated gravity will draw me in, so that I can no longer escape to indolence no matter how I try.  I guess that’s a way of saying that I really love this stuff.

And the black hole’s pull will only strengthen, because I can’t for the life of me stop buying tee shirts.  I’ll tell myself, damn, I haven’t found anything lately, and Rhumba will point out a foot-tall stack of tees that materialized over the past few weeks.

Luckily,  tee shirts leave my collection as well as enter, or I’d be neck deep in them.  Over time, my tastes change. Since I now value most tees for the stories behind them, I can jettison the tees that, on reflection, have no story — unless they’re just really cool. .

And aside from every other reason, cataloging the collection is just — something to do. Right now I don’t do much of anything except the necessary.  Don’t even blog that much anymore.  So this is — something.  But it’s a lot of something.

I had to figure out how I was going to hang the collection by adapting an old shelving system we already had and not spending an arm and a leg.  I now know the cheapest place in America to buy closet rod center-support brackets.  Thank you, Midlands Hardware of Grandview, Missouri. You’re a third the cost of Amazon.

I had to figure  out how to keep dust off the tees.  I bought the same system that dry-cleaners and tailors use to slide a clear plastic bag down over your sport coat. I’m actually pretty good at it now. Hey, it’s another skill. I hung a few shirts up in the garage over the moist, rainy season to see if the plastic bags kept them clean and dry.  They did.

I spent weeks devising the color-coding system: what colors, what medium (beads, plastic disks, colored tape). I settled on tape, and for weeks prowled websites like Identi-tape and Tape Planet, “a brave new world of tapes to explore.” Do you know how many kinds of adhesive tape this world holds? Dozens. Hundreds.  I had a false start with paper labeling tape — many colors, but it didn’t stick well to the hanger necks  — and settled on electrical tape.  I field-tested it, too.

coding

I had to pick a database, something for the Mac.  Something cheap and easy that stored photos as well as text.  I could have spent a zillion dollars for FileMaker or almost nothing on some free SQL-based database that would take all my time for a few thousand years.  Fortunately, an independent Canadian programmer named Brendan up in Calgary  made a simple — thank God — and cheap database that would do everything I wanted, including hang graphics files and documents off every record.

And then I had to learn the database, at least on a primitive level.  At this point, I have no more patience with people who complain about current affairs and rant, “Why doesn’t somebody (somebody else) DO something?” Dude, do you have any idea how much work it is to DO anything?  From scratch?”

Now some of the (few) people reading this blog have built small businesses from scratch, restore antique airplanes with their bare hands while playing the guitar, and are possibly running some component of the global financial system with an iron first.  No doubt, as you read this words,  you’re all serenading me with the world’s smallest violin. If you got this far.

But I’m just some guy who sits around thinking goofy thoughts and, sometimes, writing about them.  All I really want in life is something to research, something to write about, and someone to bullshit about it all with.   I’m just bummed with, sometimes, how much work you’ve got to do just to get there.

And I’m doing it.  But I tell ya, Interns are looking better and better.  Though then you’ve got to stand over them and make sure their iPhones don’t suck out their brains.

And yet, and yet… in a few months it’ll be done, or done to a point where the archive is functional.  And I can start doing things with it.  As I’ve always wanted to.

(“If it MAKES you HAP-PEEE…”) Cut it out, Sheryl!

The Golden Mirage

I am waiting for my sandwich at the only good deli in town.  The front of the store opens to the outside; warm air wafts in on the sunshine.  The weather is perfect: absolutely perfect. We get that around here.  Actually, we get that a lot.

I have a paper slip with my order number on it.  Near me, holding the same, stand two Cool Moms and their only slightly gawky teenaged sons: 19 years of age or so.

The mark of a Cool Mom is that, at first, she looks like her teenager’s sister. This requires a certain attitude, good genetics, time for diet and exercise, hair and skin care, and money to pay for.it all.  You can read money on the boys, too: well over six feet, flawless skin with good color, perfect teeth.

Only through laughter do the Cool Moms prove that they’re moms after all. Their smooth faces crease into smile lines — as much a sign of experience as age. And then you notice that their skin isn’t quite so pudding-smooth as their children’s, and that their facial features are larger and better-defined.

The four of them settle at an outside table and chatter like school pals, relaxed with one another. My eyes turn to a middle-aged Leonard Nimoy, drinking artisan cherry soda at another table. He frowns down at a small blue book which, apparently, contains no pictures.  There is no way for me to read the title; I so want to, though.

The street itself is calm.  This is the downtown business district, but at 3 pm on a weekday most of the citizenry are stuffed away in concrete boxes doing things for a paycheck, here in town or 30 miles away in Silicon Valley.  No sunshine and cherry soda for them. Meanwhile, a couple of muscle-bulging 50-somethings jog past the deli together.  They have tattoos.

I am doing what I love most: people-watching, and telling myself stories about the people I watch. My wife Rhumba enjoys doing this with me, but she’s down the street buying a cheese slicer.

It’s only because of Rhumba that I can indulge myself on this fine afternoon: when I should be in my office slaving away at tasks that do not suit me. Rhumba is retiring from her job of many years, and we had to go to the Social Security office to sign up for Medicare B.  Rhumba doesn’t drive, for a number of medical reasons.

Her co-workers never stop marveling at her imminent departure  “It’s time for her to enjoy life!” one of them told us as we headed for the door.  “What’s she going to do with all that time?”  Apparently Rhumba’s empty schedule is a source of puzzlement.

They don’t take appointments down at SS, so we both took three hours off and hoped for the best. You know bureaucracy: lines; packed waiting rooms.

At least I though I did. When we got there, we found nothing but solitude: rows of empty waiting-room chairs, and not a worker in sight save the security guard.  Cheaply-framed photos of President Trump and Vice President Pence hung on the wall, tilted slightly. They seemed ill at ease .

“Enter your name and social on the ticket machine, and it’ll give you a number,” the guard told Rhumba.  She did; the machine spit out a ticket: number 135.

Instantly someone shouted, “Number 135!”  A man popped up from behind a counter, grinning.  And the paperwork began.  Documents passed back and forth.  The counter clerk could obviously do this in his sleep.  He could probably grin in his sleep, too, because he never stopped.

Save for us, the office kept on being empty. “Did we pick some special, magic time to come here when no one else does?” I asked him

He shook his head. “It’s completely random.”  He passed the final piece of paper, grinning of course. “There you go.  Now you can enjoy life!”

Ah yes, enjoy life.  The golden years.  I do wonder why most of us have to wait so many decades for them while we run to a schedule, doing tasks we don’t particularly care for and scrambling to pay bills.

All this, for the promise of a few years at the end doing what we want, while our powers of mind and body diminish. And while we spend increasing amounts of time in doctors’ waiting rooms.

If we make it that far. I’m in my early ‘60s, and it’s kind of amazing how many old acquaintances didn’t make it this far.   I could die tomorrow, or Rhumba could.  That’s true every day of your life.  Deferred gratification: is it prudence? Or a trap?

Some people “make it that far” by 60 or less. Sometimes much less. They’re lucky, or good with money, or both; I don’t hold it against them. I’m watching them in the deli, hanging out in the sunshine and nibbling on muffuletta while our fellow citizens sit in cubicles or stand behind counters robotically saying “Have a nice day” to people who, in the majority, are not having one.

If a young person today were to ask me, how to plan for the future, I would say: don’t wait for the golden years.  All years are golden.  Follow your dreams now.  Take risks; learn; fail.  Be golden.  Stay out of debt — if you can.

Because you could spend your whole life in harness and not make it far enough to reach that distant, shimmering golden vision.  Or find that your hard-earned pensions and funds vanish in a financial crisis or predatory fund management. I no longer have faith that the present is the future.

I have a pension.  I have funds.  I have Social Security. Will I have them in five years?  Anymore, in a system so rotten as ours, I cannot rest easy in that regard.  And so I can’t tell a young person to follow my path, because it might lead off a cliff.  And I am absolutely sure that, for better or for worse, their options in older age will be completely different than ours.  This system won’t last that long.

But in the meantime, Rhumba’s ready to launch, is in fact having her retirement party this week. And I’m going to do my bit to make her time post-workplace as long and golden as possible.  And join her there as soon as I can. Maybe there’s a way to accelerate my schedule.

Because the only possible answer to the people who ask, “What are you going to do with all your time” is… “everything.”

Our Bright Commie Tomorrow

(This one’s a little loopy.  I’ve had the flu.)

Greetings, Comrades!  The capitalists are now so entangled in their own greed that the end of the corporatist, globalist world order can be clearly seen.  The means of production will be freed from theownership classes and their running-dog lackeys, and given to the people. They will be equitably used by all, and for the good of all. And soon!

How do I know this?   Because today’s capitalists, most of them, won’t make a microwave oven that lasts five years.  Not can’t do it — won’t do it.  At least that’s what it looks like from where I sit. We got our first microwave in the mid-80s: an Amana of moderate size and feature set.  Even in those days microwaves had a million modes — of which we used maybe three or four, as most do today. Fast-forward 25 years.

The Amana finally died.  It didn’t really have to — we had a decent appliance repair shop back then, and the techs found the problem.  But the (inexpensive) part that we needed was no longer available.  The faithful Amana went to recycling.

And in the seven years since, we’ve bought  three more microwaves.  They die in two to four years. We just got our latest.  They all look like the Amana; they all have the same feature set.  Their magnetron tubes are a little more powerful,

But they don’t last.

They all cost about $140; pay more, and you get power and features and size that we don’t need.  The Amana cost about $260 back in the ‘80s — I remember this, because I was and am cheap.  Inflation-adjusted, in 2018 dollars, it cost us around $550.  So you get what you pay for,right? In 1986, sure.  But not now.

If you spread that $550 across 25 years, the distributed capital cost is about $22 bucks per year. If you spread the $280 we’ve spent for two ‘waves that died in the seven years since, the distributed cost is $40 annually. We’re paying more for microwaves now — not less.

It wouldn’t cost much to make microwaves last longer; somewhat better parts, slightly better engineering. If they’d lasted even seven years each at $140 a unit, the cost per year would match the old Amana’s.  But then the corporations wouldn’t sell as many microwaves. They wouldn’t keep the factories humming — factories sited in the cheapest possible labor markets. And people who buy microwaves would hang onto money that they could be giving to the stockholders of the world.

So: thirty years of technological advancement have NOT been applied to make microwaves cheaper and better.  In fact, they are now expensive and worse.  And more waste is produced: the endless stream of shoddy microwaves has to be recycled.

Intentionally inferior goods, waste of resources, regulation flight, the decline of first-world manufacturing, and higher prices: this is what globalism has brought us.  While it has created and fattened a surfeit of billionaires who want to buy the governments of the world, and are doing a good job at least at that.

So I’ve got this new, really cool-looking stainless-steel Panasonic microwave that will probably be dead in just over four years.  I know this because the retailer offered to sell us a “free return” insurance policy on the oven — for up to four years.  Everybody knows.

Your mileage may vary, but if a modestl microwave can’t last last at least seven years, after decades of microwave production, somebody’s doing it wrong.  On purpose.

And the world can’t take it forever.  It can’t waste the resources.  The people can’t continue to be paid less for their labor but pay more for the goods that they must buy.  The swelling billionaires cannot hoard the wealth of the world at a time when we’ll need that wealth to save the world.

Left to itself, it will all collapse.  But people are starting to catch on. This past Year of Trump has mobilized progressives and Democrats (there is some overlap, he said with a bit of sarcasm). And it has caused honest conservatives to consider the difference between true conservatism and a shameless, honorless kleptocracy which has stolen conservatism’s name.

Let’s hope this year’s elections at least kill the momentum of the kleptocrats and rock them back on their heels.  It’s for their own good, after all. Because if the people aren’t taken care of by the system, they will eventually take down the system itself.

All it would take is for Americans to start asking themselves: “If somebody works hard all their life, or as hard as they can, isn’t that enough? Should their worthiness to survive depend on knowing how to invest?” Americans believe in “fair;” if things get bad enough, we have the mindset to act on that.

And the Glorious People’s Revolution will come at last! I remember a quote attributed to hero socialist Eugene Debbs: essentially, that the United States will be the last advanced country to go socialist, but the first to go communist.

We do tend to get overenthusiastic when we buy into something new.  I see a wondrous wave of all-American communists spilling across America in red electric SUVs with gun racks, wearing t-shirts of Karl Marx hoisting a beer glass and shouting, “To each according to his needs!”

It’s so American.  And the capitalists and their lackeys will be issued blue uniforms and s be put to work building low-income housing or teaching underprivileged children to read.

Believe me: it’s much, much better than the tumbrils.

The Great Library

It’s a little-known fact that the fabled Library of Alexandria had an annex for a small but select collection of t-shirts.

Sarajevo ParkTees were an integral part of Graeco-Roman culture. When Caesar led his army to Gaul, his vanguard of muscular young Legionnaires wore the message VENI VIDI VICI block-printed on oversized tees (to accomodate their armor).

No visitor to ancient Greece would ever return home without WHAT HAPPENS IN ATHENS STAYS IN ATHENS written across his back on a fine tee of Egyptian cotton: beige for the masses, purple-dyed for the upper classes. Or the ever-popular PLATO DID IT WITH LOGIC.

Clutch Couriers PhillipsThen as now, people wore t-shirts to make a statement.  Roman t-shirt shops were busy printing tees with the cultural and political statements of the day.  Woe on the man wearing a POMPEY THE GREATEST tee shirt in an alley full of Crassus’ supporters. But a VISIT BEAUTIFUL VESUVIUS tourist tee would get no one in trouble.

Tragically, the fabled tee shirt archive vanished with the rest of the Alexandrian Library collection.  And the tee itself vanished from western civilization for 1500 years.

But it’s back.  And I’ve taken it upon myself to rebuild the Library.  In my garage.

Sanford Marial Arts Savage BuddhaFor years now I’ve been chasing this mutant white whale: the meaning behind t-shirts.  Not the ones that people sell to make money, but the ones that people make to represent themselves: tees for business, sports, causes, personal events, hopes, fears, and particular times and places where — something happened.  Or was supposed to.

Tees are powerful. If you don a tee with a message on it, you become the message.   Everyone around you will see you that way. There’s almost no other medium that makes people into walking memes  with their full cooperation.

Ride 4 Life on Bone MotorcycleWhy do people make these tees? What are they saying? What’s the word they want to get out? And why do people happily slip a meme-on-cotton over their heads and wear it off to the Olive Garden?  Or, and this is the kicker, even pay for the privilege of doing it by actually buying the tee shirt?

I’ve been chasing meaning ever since I picked up a tee at Goodwill for a Minneapolis beer ba, one that read FEAR THE CHEESE across the back in dire block letters. What the hell did that mean? It was like a secret message. You had to be there, to know.

Unnamed CA Gang Task Force 2009 Tee 1I took it home and found out over the Internet.  And I’ve been taking them home to find out ever since.  Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.  Sometimes there’s little to know.  Sometimes there’s a lot. And sometimes it’s a trip to Oz, only — and here’s the important part — the people who made the shirt think they live in no such place.  They might wonder, doesn’t _everyone_ live in a place nicknamed HogSkin County? What’s there to be curious about?

Eel River Organic Brewing Drink Naked 1I’ve got tees from the Guantanamo Bay prison guard detachment. From the poor devils who spent years in Iraq looking for the weapons of mass destruction.  From some tiny town in the Carolinas that held a Collard Greens Festival because they had nothing else to boast about.  I got a tee from a bunch of musicians who gathered in a quake-ravaged city to set a world record for the most people to play “Shake, Rattle, and Roll!” at one time. Outside, among the ruins.

Justice for Janitors 1And more: surfing carpenters, apes in hard hats swinging drywall hammers, Sarah Palin in a dirndl serving beer (for “Sarah Pale Ale,” and yes, it’s real). I’ve got tees from the godfsaken base where  death drones launch themselves to terrorize Yemen, and from the bar with the only decent margaritas on the Persian Gulf. Heartfelt memorial tees for teenagers who died young, or for firefighters who died in 9/11 — standing with one foot on the bar rail while Jesus mixes their drinks.

Asleigh Swain Funeral Shirt, 2011And many more that I can’t remember.  See, that’s the problem.  Most of these shirts are stuck in the Catacombs, a shack out back filled with  towering stacks of silver-brown 30-gallon plastic storage tubs (available from Target at the low everyday price of five dollars plus tax). Every one of those tubs is stuffed with tees.  Some of them have been sealed for years.

What good is a collection you can’t see and search? Can barely even remember? For all I know, the concentrated presence of all those message tees ripped the fabric of the universe, so that alien tees from strange dimensions are spilling into the Catacombs even as you read this.   Peek  inside one of those tubs, and you can’t say it’s not true.

Master of Cloning 1So over the last few months, a plan has materialized.  The garage walls have been painted and patched.  Racks sufficient for a thousand tees have been constructed on one wall.  Hundreds of hangers have been purchased, and protective plastic sheathing. A database has been created, and a system of color-coding by which each particular shirt can be located. There’s even a heat pump in the garage now to keep things from getting too cold, too hot, or too damp.

Kong 1Now all I have to do is unpack, photograph catalog, color-code, and hang 1000 tee shirts.   It’s slow going. Talk to me in six months.    At which point the Great Library will stretch out before me, and I will be able to find for you an Italian restaurant tee shirt illustrated in the low-art style of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth with the flick of a key or a sharp eye for the right color code on a clothes hanger.  Or a U.S. Army basic training tee with homoerotic themes. Or a tee commemorating Sarah Pale Ale  Or a tee memorializing the life and death of a local tee-shirt artist.  How meta can you get?

Greenway Santa Cruz Marijuana Dispensary 1Why dot this? Why not? I want to show off.  I love this stuff.  I love the stories behind the tees.  So many things in this world come, go, and leave nothing behind but a tee to say that they were even there.  Tees are a small thing, but I like to find the big in the small.  It’s in there, somewhere.

And after the Library is in order, I’ll write up the history of every single tee, as best I can.  It’ll be, practically, a book.  And then, who knows? Put it all up online and let the world have a shot, I’m thinking; I could call it “The Tees of Mystery.”  Californians will get the joke.

Hillary 2016 Bayside 1Because four out of five people hear about what I’m doing and go cross-eyed with puzzlement and boredom.  But the fifth smiles oddly and wants to know more.  Here’s to the lucky fifth, and I’ll see you on the Internet someday. In the meantime — stop in for a tour if you’re ever in the ‘hood.

Send in the Calaveras

My wife Rhumba and I went to a movie a couple of months back: “Coco,” the latest animated film from Pixar, and the first Pixar flick in a while that isn’t a sequel.  “Coco” is about Mexico and the folklore of the Dia de Muertos.  It’s beautifully conceived and animated, respectful to Mexican traditions and to the Mexican people.

And it’s about 20 minutes too long.  Rhumba dropped off twice.  “You okay?” I asked.  Her eyes were closed. “Oh yeah, it’s a quality picture…. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”  She’s an easy sleeper, but her eyelids drooped not at all for “Wonder Woman” or “The Martian.” Still, it was hard to leave the theater, and “Coco’s” warm and endless Mexican night.

But no worries: we stumbled out of the theater into… a warm Mexican night.  Seventy-five degrees, humid as the tropics. Five hundred miles north of the border.  In late November.  It reminded me of Costa Rica.  Later I’d check the weather forecast for downtown San Jose (Costa Rica), and find it similar.

Rhumba must walk with walking sticks these days. They glow: she wrapped them with strings of multi-colored LED lights, battery-powered. Citizens turned and smiled as she strolled past, and called compliments.

The night was indeed merry. Visitors and locals in lightweight clothing crammed our downtown streets .  Music gusted out through open doors, rose from the street musicians and spiraled up into a black-velvet sky.  Long lines of cars cruised by at walking speed. No one seemed in a hurry.

Calavera Revels

We were almost, it seemed, in “Coco’s” dark but colorful city of the dead: full of spirits who let no little thing like death ruin a good time. I saw no calaveras, of course, those skeletal spirits of Mexican lore. No bony specters strode down the boulevard or danced to the music as they did in life, and in “Coco.”  But in a way, they’re always with us. And we are always them.

KatrinaCalavera figures — skeleton figures in wood, maiche, wax, and on paper — are popular around the Dia de Muertos in Mexico, and increasingly in the States. They remind us of who’ve gone on before us. Who never really die, as long as they’re remembered.That’s “Coco’s”  main plot point.

I think about the past around Thanksgiving.  You can’t give thanks without remembrance.  If I built an altar to long-gone friends and relatives, as is common around the Day of the Dead, many would be the calavera figures and drawings:

Couple CalaveraThere would be the calavera of a short woman and a tall man, holding hands tightly.  The woman will smile anxiously;  the man is a skeleton that does not smile.  That’s no mean trick; but I’d expect it of him.

Nearby, the calavera of a plump old woman tells dirty jokes in Portuguese and laughs at them herself. A skeleton in a polo shirt holds a bottle of beer in one hand and offers a beer to you from the other.  He stands next to a horseshoe pit. There are tools in his pocket.

Nearby a fat calavera in chef’s whites and a short beard offers food to the living and the dead.  He draws on a joint. The calaveras of long-gone aunts dress a table for Thanksgiving, while my many dead uncles — bonier than in life — puff cigars and pipes until they vanish in the haze. One of them, the drunkest, falls into the horseshoe pit.

Farther back, the calaveras of dead lady friends primp and beckon. Skeletal  co-workers from long-gone companies wander the streets with PC keyboards strapped across their chests like bandoliers. A tweedy calavera, elegantly bearded in silver,  sits at a bar and toasts me with a G&T.

And a hundred others besides. I’m old, I’m old.  I remember too much.  But that’s okay: if you remember long enough, you’ll always find something to smile about.

AdmiralEven death.  What’s death but part of life, to be acknowledged and enjoyed? Mexican culture has a nuanced view of the matter: death is omnipresent and inevitable. But… why not have some fun with it?  Hence the calaveras, in drawings, in sculpture, in candy.  Skulls and bones meant not to intimidate, but to celebrate.  American culture has warmed to this idea. Ask the Grateful Dead, among others.

The master of the calavera was a Mexican lithographer named Jose Guadalupe Posada, active from about the 1870s into the early 20th century.  He produced a flood of engravings for all sorts of popular publications, including cheap broadsides and pamphlets for the masses.

Quixote

His calaveras were famous: they both celebrated the dead and mocked the pretensions of the living. In the end, Posada’s calaveras said, we are all bones: but that truth makes life no less sweet.  I’ve scattered some of his calaveras through this article: calaveras of the revelers, of the warriors, of the great and exalted and pretentious.  Even of the cats.

El_Guapo CalaveraA woman in these parts does wonderful — and affordable — calaveras painted in on ceramic tiles.  Some are original, some not. She offered me one that looked for all the world like — me, as a calavera. At least, I saw it that way.  (A handsome devil, to be sure, long and lanky in a blue hat with a colorful serape, much like the aloha shirts I wear.  And smiling, of course.  I took the painted tile home and hung it on the wall.

Don’t ask me why.  I’m not dead.  Don’t want to be, either: I plan to go at  age 114 in a traffic accident.  And yet, it tickles me to see myself as bones.

Later, the woman offered us more calaveras: my favorite was that of a cat, and again I had to have it.  It is the prettiest skeleton you ever saw.  Like our cat: she’s a cutie, even in her old age.

And kitty’s had a hard year:  three times now she’s clawed at the scratching post of death.  She’s not in the greatest of shape even now, though she’s sitting next to me, purring, as I type this.  The next week or two are… uncertain.

Pretty Calavera

Perhaps for that reason, I’ve not put her calavera on the wall.  I might mount my own calavera while I’m alive, for my own amusement. But not someone else’s, not even a cat’s.  Not until it’s time.

She will probably be our last cat. As Rhumba and I age, taking care of only ourselves will be more than enough work. And so when our cat passes, the calavera will go on the wall to honor her, and also all the other good old cats who’ve come and gone from our lives but not from our fond memories.

And then I will put up one more calavera on the wall:  one of her and I together, or seemingly so.  The artist even got my shirt right.

Calavera and Cat

Remembrance: it keeps the past alive, and the present more precious.

Superbug

I’m an ordinary guy with a minor super-power: I rarely get a cold, or a sore throat, or even much of a cough. I have 600 hours of accumulated sick time, and rising.

For this superpower, I have to thank to the second-grade class that I student-taught, over a decade back.  The idea was to get a teaching credential and then switch careers.  It didn’t work out, but the memories will be with me always. And apparently, the immunity.

You know how kids are: they’re still building their defenses to the diseases of the world.  In the meantime, they sneeze, they spew, they drip, and they leak. And then they wipe it all up with their hands and borrow your white-board marker.  And give it back.  I had a head cold for four months.  More precisely,  I had head cold after head cold for four months.

Eventually, I had them all.  Every variety. There was nothing left to have.  I felt normal again.  Months went by and I didn’t get sick.  Then years. I was bulletproof!

More years later, the bullets are hitting a little harder than they used to; rhinoviruses mutate like no one’s business. But I remain mostly snot-free with the help of a few tricks: a slice of raw onion to suck on, for a sore throat; a tumbler of warm water spiked with tabasco for clogged sinuses.

And I learned to never, ever, ever touch your face unless you’ve washed your hands, first.  Ever. An old master teacher taught me that one.  Your eyes may be the windows to your soul but viruses and bacteria clamber through them — and your mouth, and nose — to get at your body.

I learned to go an hour without rubbing my eyes, no matter how badly they wanted me to. Horrible things lurked in the classroom: Flu. Impetigo. Noro. Rotavirus. Hep. Strep. Worms. And more. Someone posted a list of them all by the sink in the teacher’s washroom, under the command WASH YOUR HANDS. And I did. And I do.

So you might think I’ve kind of got it all handled, this infection thing. But I don’t.  In recent years I’ve had staph in one foot — it swelled up like a football.  Just from a tiny scratch.  They call it a skin infection, cellulitis. But if the staph had reached my bloodstream I might not be writing this.

A year or three later, I laid bare a leaking pipe by bailing water out of a hole in the ground.  I forgot to wear gloves.  A few days later I found myself on an operating table with a hand surgeon bending over me.  His mission: save my thumb above the knuckle, else I’d be nine-finger touch-typing for the rest of my life.  He succeeded.

Yes, I’m careless.  But those bacteria had help.  From all of us.

The urgent-care MD who checked my swollen foot was pretty sure it had a brand of staph called MSRA.  For safety she could assume nothing else because MRSA is a super-staph that looks at most penicillin -type antibiotics and laughs. It has jousted with our antibiotics for decades, and only grown stronger.

The MD gave me an old-school sulfa drug that she said still worked.  It did.  But does it still?

The bug that tried to take my thumb was some random form of strep, the tests said.  Or was it? The primary care doctor had dispensed some basic antibiotics that didn’t help one bit.  It wasn’t long before my thumb was dripping pus in the emergency room and pissing off the ER doctor.

Even after the operation, they kept me another day to drip vancomycin into my bod and hope that it would handle any nasties that might catch a ride into my system.  Vancomycin is the bad-ass antibiotic that used to the last line of defense against MRSA.  These days, maybe not.

Before I checked out, an elderly wound nurse came by my hospital room and said terrible things about bacterial adaption.  Your own backyard isn’t safe, she said.  Wear gloves, always, she said, in the backyard or even when cleaning house.  “It’s not the old days anymore,” she said gloomily.  “The bacteria are winning.”

On her way. out, she made a few cheery comments about hoping that she’d die before it all went to hell.  Pretty much in those words.

So the germs are winning.  Maybe antibiotics were always a loser’s game.  We were sloppy, and overconfident, and the bacteria had more tricks up their sleeves than we ever expected.  If bacteria have sleeves.

And yet, we’re not trying to keep up.  Few new antibiotics are in development. Big Pharma has walked away from the problem.  Oh, the job’s not impossible: but antibiotics are expensive to develop, and not wildly profitable.

After all, you only need antibiotics once in awhile.  The investors want drugs that you’ll need every day, forever. An anti-baldness drug? A better erectile drug? Bring it!

Funny, isn’t it?  I cope well with the common cold — with all the viruses that mankind never learned to cure.  It’s the viruses we did learn to cure  — and then treated lightly — that are coming back to eat us.

Good job, humanity.  You’ve painted yourself into a corner — again. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: I trust that we will collectively do the right thing…

..When all else has failed.

Bread and Roses

I found it at a thrift store: probably the most heavily prospected thrift store in the county. Collectors favor it; eBay resellers and flea market vendors do, too.

But if you go often enough, a treasure or two will drop into your hands.  It’s two blocks from my house. I go often.

Besides,“treasure” is a subjective sort of concept.  Treasure to my eyes is trash in the eyes of others.  And that makes me a lucky man.

I collect t-shirts with printed designs: not rock ’n roll tees, necessarily, or sports tees, or tees boasting a catchy phrase.  What I’m looking for is hard to explain; but I know it when I see it.

That day, what I found was a mint-condition Hanes Beefy-T, in red. It bore the image of a thorny rose and four heads of wheat; below that appear the words “Bread and Roses Festival of Music, October 7, 8, and 9. UC Berkeley.  Greek Theater.” That was it.

breadandrosest

“Bread and Roses:” the name struck a chord, old and rusty.  No year was given.  But to me it looked like a 40-year-old mint-condition concert shirt. Once you’ve pawed through 50 or 60,000 t-shirts, you can date some of them, roughly, by the maker’s tag inside the neck.  I’m fairly good with Beefy-Ts.

Age alone means little to a tee’s value.  But money value isn’t where I’m at.  The tee itself is just an excuse to go hunting on the Internet.  It’s a map, a signpost, the first line of a story — or the last. Here is what I found:

The story begins in 1912; the year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City burned 150 women to death thanks to management villainy.

That year, the pioneering women’s labor organizer Rose Schneiderman made a speech to a group of well-to-do liberals. She spoke on behalf of all women laboring in dangerous conditions for little money.  And yet, she told the crowd, they wanted more than mere money.

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Bread and roses. Sustenance, but also dignity: a life worth living.  That phrase became a labor slogan, and soon gave rise to a poem:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew —
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for Roses, too.

Decades later the folksinger Mimi Farina turned the poem into a song.  She later staged concerts in support of an organization she founded called — Bread and Roses.

The organization sends musicians and other performers to put on shows for inmates of prisons, hospitals, homes for the abused, homes for abandoned children — anyplace where the people are perhaps starved for beauty — and a few roses. It’s been 40 years now.

My tee came from the first big Bread and Roses benefit concert, in 1977. I confirmed this with an email to the Bread and Roses organization, which still exists.

The Bread and Roses Festival of Music was an all-acoustic music series, because Mimi Farina hated the music industry and had a grudge agains recording engineers who tried to make her sound like a lounge act.

The Bread and Roses people also sent me an image of the festival poster.  It boasted quite the lineup: there was Pete Seeger; Joan Baez, Farina’s sister; Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; Arlo Guthrie; Buffy St. Marie; Country Joe MacDonald (“Fish!”); Dave Van Ronk, who was all that Bob Dylan ever aspired to be; Hoyt Axton; Malvina Reynolds of the “little boxes” and much more; the Persuasions, the greatest a capella group you never heard of; and more. Robin Williams emceed.

I don’t have a set list, but articles about the concert said that Seeger, Baez, MacDonald, and Axton all “sang their classics,” which means that song of reform, songs against war, songs of the dispossessed and the land and of labor, all rang out across that stage.

And it’s an interesting stage: the Greek Theater at UC Berkeley is a replica Greek amphitheater of the classic era, built into a hillside. The Greek is all stone and sunlight and good sight lines to a stage that’s intimately close.

The Internet told me that the Greek  was built in 1903 by the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, when all was said and done, was no friend of the working man.  Or truth, beauty, democracy, or anything good.

So I get a warm feeling when I envision this crowd of populist folkies and street performers prancing atop Hearst’s concrete Greek ego trip a mere 25 years after they slid Bill Hearst into the ground.  At a concert that cost five bucks: inflation aside, an amount that was pretty easy to come by even if you flipped burgers for money and lived with your mom.

A year or so later I went to the Greek to hear Randy Newman songs of society and its follies. I wonder what the ghost of Hearst thought about the words to “Political Science.”

The ‘60s and early ’70s were good times, at least on the West Coast.  If you were the right color and gender, there were plenty of roses to go around. Work was plentiful, school and houses were cheap. And there was hope that someday soon, color and gender wouldn’t matter so much. And everyone would have roses.

But that time was soon to end; it was beginning to end even the day of the concert.  A month or two earlier, housing prices had started to rise in Silicon Valley.  People couldn’t believe that a three-bedroom house in Silicon Valley could go for — $80K.

A co-worker and I talked about this era at lunch a few days after I bought the shirt.  He’s a grinning leprechaun of an old hippie in wire-rimmed glasses and a blue cotton work shirt rolled up to the elbows.  I asked him if he’d been to the ’77 Bread and Roses Concert; we’re not very far from Berkeley, after all.

“God,” he said, gazing off at yesterday.  “Who was there?” I named them; he couldn’t remember.  Too many concerts, too much music, too many yesterdays.  He might have been, or not.

He’d been a music promoter for awhile and hung with the greats.  We talked about that, but what we mainly talked about was the university we both work at.  It has a counterculture reputation, not these days so much deserved; but in the 70s, it was a quiet and magic place, newly built in the middle of a redwood forest.

“You could walk across the entire campus and not see anybody,” he told me.  ‘It was that peaceful.  And the town was just this sleepy little place.  But people were standing in the streets playing music.  A sleepy little town — but with music in the streets.”

“Times were better then,” I said, and he agreed. Old men always like then better than now.  But this time, we may be right.  Because life is harder for our students, and the the people in the town, than it has ever been.

We took our eye off the economic regulations that kept all the money from piling up in a few hands.  Soon the economy turned from a rose nursery to a series of self-assembling traps that stripped wealth and power off the common folk.

Want to go to college? Well, it costs more now, because government support was pulled. Because taxes were lowered. And there are few grants anymore; you could be indebted for life by private-industry loans with tricky and subtle penalties, that can ambush you like a blow to the back of the head.  It’s especially bad for women and minorities.

But you need a degree to get a good job, see, because the good non-degreed work was allowed to flee overseas.  Of course, compliant foreign tech workers can be imported cheaply to work here because of “shortages.” Yeah right.

Just take away restraints and regulations, and capitalism naturally makes traps. You can dance the same dance about healthcare, retirement, housing, consumer protection, antitrust laws…. in our once sleepy town, the university is jammed and students pay $800 to share a bedroom.  It’s a Silicon Valley bedroom town now, and a lifestyle playpen where the weathy have second- or third homes that stand empty 350 days a year.

Most service workers work two jobs just to survive. There is less music in the streets than ever before. Roses grow in small gardens with high admission prices.

The Bread and Roses organization still exists, as I said. Its core mission has never changed: It still brings light and music to the institutionalized These people will always need more roses in their lives.

But as the world outside becomes more rose-less, Bread and Roses looks only inward. It is a noncontroversial community-based cause, and nothing more.

And that’s fine.  But while the populist folksingers of the first festival danced on William Randolph Hearst’s marble stage back in ’77, Hearst had the last laugh after all. Because in a very strong sense he is now the president of the United States.

To learn about Donald Trump, read a even a simple biography of Hearst.  The telltales are the same: inherited wealth, grandiose ambition, boundless narcissism, underlying disrespect for democracy, and astoundingly bad judgment. I’m not the only one who thinks this, I was surprised to learn.

Now you understand what I’m looking for in a t-shirt: a story. A story that can be assembled from all the facts and circumstances and ideas that left behind a t-shirt to give testimony that once upon a time, something happened.

This is not a nice story: it’s a story of battles won, and lost again.  But it has a lesson: no battle against an unfair system is ever won forever.  It must be fought again and again, or the bad system will reassert itself, as it always has.

And there will always be apologists among the comfortable class who are sorry for the bad things that happen, but don’t really want fundamental change. They were the people that Rose Schneiderman talked to.

So we will fight again, and with luck we will win again.  And maybe this time, or next time, we will break the trap-making economic machine for good and all.   And bread and roses will be the base right of all people everywhere. Forever.  As the old poem reads:

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days —
The rising of the women means the rising of the race —
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes —
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

The Drug Addict at the Knitting Club

I had expected a quiet evening.  And yet somehow I found myself outside in the dark and wind, guiding a short convoy of emergency vehicles into the church parking lot. Beyond it lay a man who might need their help.

The farting klaxon of the paramedic engine, the warbling siren of the ambulance, the flashing red lights: they all lent urgency to the scene. Never mind that these screaming, flashing vehicles were crawling along at 10 miles an hour, trying not to overshoot the church’s driveway from the ill-lit boulevard That’s why the deputies sent me out there.

All this effort for a guy that nobody cared about until he looked to be dying. And so a call went out, and programmed caring kicked in.

Step back a moment: my wife’s knitting group meets each Thursday evening at St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church.  The knitting group is open to the community, and nothing much is discussed except yarn and the knitting of it. And there is tea and banana bread, and a knitting DVD on the church flatscreen.

I don’t knit. I stay around to mind the door and walk the knitters to their cars. The church neighborhood is industrial: dark and deserted at night.  Homeless campers come around when night falls, because almost no one is here to care.

Some sleep on the church grounds. That’s not so much an issue; except when they set up camp right in front of the main door.  Or try to come inside the church  uninvited.

The “main door” is actually in the back of the church, by the parking lot.  At first glance, a camper might judge the doorway to be a good flop: secluded, with a covered porch.  But it’s not, as campers find out when cars roll up for evening meetings.

You might say: you’re a church.  Why won’t you give them shelter?  Why won’t you give them help? And I’ve yielded to that very human impulse a few times over the years.

It has never worked out.  Never. The clear-headed ones just move on.  They want quiet, not trouble.   Do they really leave, or just move to some shadowy corner of the lot? We don’t care.

But the ones who refuse to move, or want to get inside, have too many demons for me to cope with.  Or for them, for that matter.  The last time I let someone stay camped in front of the door — it was going to rain that night — she eventually stormed inside screaming,  because she was sure that the voices in her head were the knitters, laughing at her.  And the law came to drive her off .  It did rain that night, and hard.

After that one, the pastor asked us to lock the door during meetings.  Seemed to help. But in a way, nothing does.

A couple of months later, the knitting group again did not lock the church door.  We couldn’t; a volunteer group had booked the big hall for a night of training, and some of them were making cell calls in the church parking lot. I kept one eye on the front door and the other on my laptop.   But I expected no issues.  Not with so many people around.

Heh.  I walked down the hall to the bathroom and found a guy sleeping on the floor.  He’d wrapped a blanket around himself and wedged himself against the wall between a bookshelf and a tub of preschool equipment.  You know how messy churches can be; I almost didn’t notice him.

He was sawing serious wood: a lean, battered guy in his 40s in a tee and jeans and reasonable shoes.  And now I remembered seeing his face as he walked in: tired, distressed.  But that’s in the normal range these days.

I sought his attention for a few minutes, but he wasn’t having it.  I thought about shaking him, but couldn’t bring myself to touch him.  And I had a problem: all the people would leave the church within the hour. There was no staff in the building to take over. Just me. I needed him out of here.

So I called the sheriff, and told them he wasn’t causing problems except by being there, and that he wouldn’t wake up.  They promised a response, and I gave the score to the knitters and the volunteer group and asked them not to freak. They didn’t. This happens.

But I resented him.  I resented that he disrupted my  orderly evening.  I resented having to see to him instead of relaxing.  I resented being bothered.

Two deputies showed up in reasonable time, and I led them in.  Both were linebacker-sized in clean brown uniforms, backs as broad as love seats.  One was older than the other, and led the festivities.  Neither was interested in my opinions on anything; so I just showed them the gentleman.

It became their turn to shout at him. They took turns screaming in his ear.  The man on the floor remained happily oblivious.

The older deputy sighed and slipped on a pair of blue nitrile exam gloves.  Then he leaned down started shaking him.  I felt a little better about not wanting to touch the guy.

“See the bruises down both arms?” the older deputy asked.  “These are typical of IV drug abusers.” He shook the man again and yelled in his ear again.  “Hello! Sir! Wake up!”  Then he noticed something.

“Look, he’s pissed himself. I’m going to call in a Code 3.” The deputies didn’t bother to explain anything to me; just asked me to go out to the street and guide in the emergency vehicles.

So there I was, waving the trucks into the parking lot.  Belatedly I realized that Code 3 meant “lights and sirens;” and that the deputy thought he might have an overdose on his hands.

The trucks rumbled toward the rear of the church. I trotted after them waving hand signals and, oddly, felt a little better.  Yes, the wandering man had upturned my evening.  But in his way he was just a man in bad shape looking for help on some visceral level: for warmth and light at least. Should he have overdosed out in the darkness, alone, where nobody could help him?  Maybe this was all happening as it was supposed to.

But in the end: not really.  I led the line of medics in the door to find the unconscious man surprising on his feet and answering questions.  The older deputy turned to me:  “Looks like I wasted the taxpayer’s money,” he called cheerfully.

The medics spread out around the man anyway and started doing business.  The deputies got the man’s name and point of origin out of him, and punched it all into handheld terminals.

“There’s a warrant out for him in Louisiana,” the older deputy said.  “But they don’t want him back.”

“What do you mean?” the younger deputy asked.

“They don’t want to send someone out here to get him.”

“Why not?”

“Money,” I said.

“That’s right,” the older deputy answered.  “It costs money to come get him, and it costs money to keep him, and Louisiana doesn’t want to spend it.”

The younger deputy looked bewildered. He must have been very new indeed.  But processing went on and soon the medics walked the confused man out the door to God know where, packed up their trucks, and left.  The two deputies thanked me for my assistance with mechanical smiles and handshakes of identical firmness.

And in a few days, most likely, the man no one wants will be out on the street again, a loose cannon rolling across an America that doesn’t care a thing about him — except that, wherever he is, he should be elsewhere.  And millions like him. More every day.

Don’t say that America doesn’t make things any more.  It makes men and women like him, out in those parts of the country where money is scarce these days.  Strip away the jobs, don’t fund the schools, bring the drugs to kill the boredom. Let them slip into degradation, become anti-social and unemployable to boot. Arrest them for something. Then drive them away with a warrant and make them somebody else’s problem.

Oh yeah: don’t forget to blame the victims.

No More Questions, No More Answers

I got up this morning and girded myself for battle as only a man of 60-odd must do.

I fed the cat.  I sat down at the rowing machine for 500 strokes, making sure to fully flex my lower back as I rowed.  I  stretched for 20 minutes.  I popped a couple of anti-inflammatory pills.  I ate a breakfast strong in protein and fiber.  And at last: I was ready to move heavy objects with some hope that my joints or spine would take no subsequent revenge.

Getting old is a process of constant negotiation with your own body.  When I was young, I could do what I wanted with it.  Now, my body has the whip hand. If I want to lift heavy objects, we have to talk.

Today’s heavy objects were store fixtures from a dying Radio Shack: big roll-around shelving units made from heavy-gauge steel.  They’re just what my wife Rhumba needs to build the crafting studio of her retirement dreams in our garage.  And they had to be out of the Shack by 5 pm, when it would close its doors forever.

Those suckers were huge, too. I had no idea how I’d load them into the pick-up I’d rented.  But  I drove over to the store and hoped for the best.  After all, things are never as bad as they seem they’ll be, unless they’re worse.

I backed the truck up against the entrance of the store and went in.  Locusts had stripped the place: nothing left but cables, batteries, and 90 PERCENT OFF banners.  It was going to be weird not having a Radio Shack around.  It’s that store you seldom go anymore but know that you’ll need at some point, for a cable or a coupler or even a resistor.  And now it’s gone.

I grew up with Radio Shack.  I never made friends with electricity, but I had my battery club card and bought my cassette tapes there. It was always the source of strange electrical gadgets and somewhat educational toys that made bleeping noises or just raced around in circles under remote control.  Whatever was electronic — components, TVs, music keyboards, test equipment, computers — they had.  It might be cheap and no-name, but they had it.

And sometimes, they had it first.  In the late 70s when personal computers were still expensive and mostly build-it-yourself, Radio Shack’s cheap TRS-80 computers were the first computers your average family could afford.

We called them Trash-80s, and they weren’t much.  But they got a generation of young people — and not so young — learning to code while Rupert Holmes crooned the Pina Colada song on the family stereo. A couple of years later Radio Shack rolled out the TRS-100, the very first portable computer worth a damn; some call it the very first laptop.  They sold like shaved iced in Hell.

And then the Shack went into IBM-compatibles and software, but still sold supplies and equipment for the home electrical dabbler,  plus light-up My Child’s First Circuit educational toys, and music systems and video and telephones and every damn thing.  A hole-in-the-wall Radio Shack might not count for much in the big city.  But in the nameless suburbs of America, it just might be the only game in town.

Radio Shack stores weren’t always wonderful; but if you looked hard enough, you could usually find somebody who knew what was what. They might be 18 and geeky, but who else would be genuinely interested in helping you pick the right video cable? At minimum wage? Some of those young people went on to manage data centers and networks, design chips, and write the code that America runs on.

Radio Shack rode the tech waves for decades, but they missed out on smartphones. Bad mistake. And of course e-commerce hit them hard. And now, seventeen years and two bankruptcies into the new millenium, the local Radio Shack was going down, and hundreds of others with it.  The only people in the store when I walked in today were there to strip it.

Like me.  The shelving units we’d picked out had been put aside for me. They were even larger and heavier-looking than I remembered.  “How are you going to load them?” the assistant manager asked.  He was a brisk young man, hairless but for a severely trimmed beard.

That was a good question. “I don’t know,” I said.  “Roll them out there, tip them up over the tailgate and hope for the best, I guess.’

“They do come apart,”  he said, and produced a screwdriver. And he spent the next five minutes showing me the basics.  I took over, but he came back to help several times between other duties.  It was honest-to-God classic Radio Shack service even as the ship went down.  The store manager wandered over to remind me that I could have ten removable shelves with each unit.  Then he wandered away, only to wander back again and tell me to take as many shelves as I wanted.

The assistant manager even helped me load the truck.  For my back’s sake it was good that we’d taken the display units apart, because even some of the pieces weighed 50 or 60 pounds.  Soon the pickup was full to the brim with miscellaneous metal crap, and my back remained happy.  Reassembling all those heavy components later would prove to be the real hell.  But I made it, and my back and body kept the deal we’d struck that morning.

It’s not that this town will actually suffer for Radio Shack’s absence.  We have a perfectly good electronics store a mile or so down the road.  It’s more on the serious side, but its employees will gladly tell newbies more than they’d ever want to know about anything electronic.  They’ll even build you a computer from scratch.

And the gigantic Best Buy next to the Home Depot will sell you any consumer electronics you want, from computers and peripherals to smart phones (and dumb ones) to music players to DVDs and even appliances and solar panels.  There are even geeks to help you with the stuff you bought — though you have to pay to see them.

But Radio Shack was an excellent starting point, where real electronics and cheap thrills overlapped. A lot of kids rich and poor made the transition from toys to tech at the Shack.  Now they’re left with e-commerce, which will sllt you anything you want, but can’t tell you why you should want it — or help you figure out what you bought.

To me, the real paradigm of retail is a pile of physical merchandise to handle, a counter, and a clerk who knows what they’re doing and what questions to ask.  The “best buy” is the one that gets you what you really need, with all the service included in the price.

And if that paradigm is simply outmoded, why is it still there for high-end stores and high-end products — but not for the rest of us?