Friday, November 30, 2012

City Bus Adventures #1: "The Definite Article"

This morning after sparring with my employer over my latest missing paycheck (Fresno Unified School District has a shameful nation-wide reputation for losing paychecks and shorting employees; they never answer their phones and frequently slam down the sliding metal shields at the service windows during office hours when they sense irate and desperate personnel approaching), I hopped on the northbound bus toward my favorite library, a branch tucked into a strip mall next to a kickboxing academy and a liquor warehouse.  This library, one of the last remaining quiet spots in cacophonous, screeching, gut-bellowing Fresno, is where I'm writing on one of the branch's newly acquired Google Chromebooks, available for 4 hour stretches to card-holding patrons.  Last night one of the librarians said to me, "I think getting these computers is turning out to be a big mistake.   They're attracting the wrong element."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know--library haters.   And Google is evil."

"Of course."

The bus ride to the library was uneventful until the last mile or so, when the rather striking and commanding female driver wrenched the bus over to the sidewalk--not at a designated spot-- where a disabled man waved limply, head lolling, from his powered wheelchair, over which a trio of shocking pink and green visibility flags bobbed atop bendy white stalks sprouting from his seat back.

"There he is!" she shouted.  "He ain't never in the right place!"

"Shit, man, just don't pick him up!"  This was from one of two other passengers besides me, a caballero in dark round shades and phony lizard-skin, lounging beneath his stylized wrangler hat near the front of the bus.   Behind me  another passenger, a snoring, marshmallowy lump, had been struggling to hold his head up above the metal seat bar in front of him.

"I gotta pick him up, brother."  She pulled a lever that started the beeping and squealing extrusion of the vehicle's handicap ramp.  As it tilted up and over, she executed a balletic hop-and turn-away from the passenger door to land on her booted feet facing us--me, the caballero, and the sleeper--in a vaguely menacing crouch, arms curving out and down.  She flipped back her long hair--a beautifully gold-streaked forest of straight strands and thin, tight braids.  A combat-ready air hung about the bus interior, coming from her strongly leonine face and her stance. "You men know how it be.  Man gotta help man."

"That's the way of it, for sure," said the caballero.

Normally I stay out such discussions, but she hopped again, shifting a bit and staring right at me.  "I know you can hear.   I see you on my bus all the time.  No! No! Don't turn around!  I ain't talking about Punky back there!"

"Okay," I said.  "It's all good.  Pick him up.  I'm in no hurry."

She started to answer but turned back to the door and the ramp.   "Dammit!  No!  I told you before!"  She leaned out over the ramp.   From the middle of the bus where I sat I could just make out that the man in the chair--a thin fellow with an ultra-white crew cut and round shades exactly like the caballero's--was stuck on the ramp.

"You stuck!  I always tell you you gotta go backwards!  You can't drive no wheelchair--here her voice turned snarly and whiny--no ASS-istive tech-NOLOGY!!!--up no ramp going forward!"  She turned back to us.  "He got them little spinny front wheels hung up.   Again!   I can't go out there and push."

She looked at me.  "Somebody got to go lift his ass up and unhook them wheels."    I was sitting right behind the mid-bus exit, my usual spot.   I started to squirm up, but the caballero sprang up and reached the door before I rose an inch.

"Watch that green light go on then push that door open!" shouted the driver.  "Touch the yellow strips down low!   Yellow strips down low, I said!"

"I know how to push the strips," said the caballero.  He hopped out and started tugging at the handles on the chair.

"Everybody know NOTHING!"  Now she had me fixed in her gaze.   "Man out there can't drive no car, can't walk, can't ride a bike,  ain't no preacher gonna slap his forehead and make him get up and walk, so he better learn to drive a wheelchair backward up a RAMP!  Huh!  Yeah?"

I thought for an instant of the fairly advanced technology installed on city buses like this one--little sparkly domes of multi-directional cameras studded all over--goggling and sound recording every bit of this scene.  The driver knew this very well but didn't care.

"Absolutely," I said.

After a moment's fuss, she and the caballero finished directing the man up the ramp and maneuvering him into  place in one of the bus's two wheelchair bays.   She straightened up after buckling the last safety strap around the chair.  The occupant's white head resumed lolling.   She faced her passengers again, arms akimbo, placid smile stretching, and sighed.

"This is all about . . . Man helping man.   Or should I say Man helping Mankind.  You know the difference I mean?  Because you men can see I ain't no man."

"No, you ain't," said the caballero.

She whipped her head toward me.  "Don't you worry, youngster!  We ain't behind schedule!  I keep a sharp-ass watch over you all!   You know who Neil Armstrong was?  Neil Armstrong!"

"He was the first man to walk on the moon," I said.

"That's right!  You know that because you an educated man!  Shut up!  I see you over at that library every day!"

I had only seen her on the bus.  "You go there?" I asked.

"Neil Armstrong wasn't riding no backwards-driving wheelchair he got free from the state up a RAMP was he?  He was flying a SPACE module!   And you know what he said when he stepped out on the moon?  You know how he messed up,  I mean MESSSSSED UP!  Huh?"

"He said, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'"

"And what did he leave out?   Shut up!  The definite article!  Thought I didn't know?"

"Not at all," I said.

"He should have said A man," said the caballero.

"That's right!  So we all clear?  When I said it's about man helping man I was speaking very very loose to mean women and men and everything in between, whatever the hell you all are.    But I ain't driving no SPACE module on a historic occasion so I didn't MESS anything up the way old Neil did for all time and posterity, now did I?"

She let that hang and stared directly down the center of the bus at no one in particular.

"Okay, then, precious cargo--Let's roll!"

So we did.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Some Kindle Samples of Books about the Homeless

Because I write a "homeless" blog--whatever that is--I thought I'd peek in on what other writers were doing along the same general lines.

A Gift of Hope by Danielle Steele

In this book, Danielle Steele, who is line-by-line the worst writer of popular novels of all time (any one of her books is a great help to any struggling writer of fiction: look at what she does, then at all costs avoid doing the same thing), reveals that for eleven years she and a team of ten helpers went out "night after night" and "dealt with whatever we found, served three hundred people a night, three or four thousand a year," giving them high-quality clothes, umbrellas, and healthy food.   Main Idea:  Danielle and her van-driving team stopped a lot, jumped out, and handed enough bags of supplies and goodies to last "for weeks or even months."   Best Part:  Danielle claims that "for one shining instant, [the homeless] knew with total certainty that someone cared, and fell out of the sky [my emphasis] to help them" immediately after writing that she and her team jumped out of vans.  Also Danielle claims that her acts led the homeless to believe that things like this would happen again.  Maybe so.

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski

First off, Mike tells his readers that even though street people use four letter words frequently and in creative ways, he won't include them in his book.  After much prayer and pondering, Christian Mike and his friend Sam  decide to take a sermon's challenge to "Be the Christian you say you are" and voluntarily go on a grand six city, six month tour across America living as homeless men.  Best Part: to their credit, Mike and Sam admit at the outset that they "would not actually be homeless.[emphasis in original]  Any time things get too hairy they can hightail it home for more church and ice cream socials.  Main Idea:  Mike and Sam realize there are more ruined and hopeless people out there than most people can imagine, but this gives them hope because that gives God that much more work of redemption to do and makes him an even greater God.  Also:  While these guys set themselves strict rules--no credit card, bus fees only from pan-handling--all the talk of God and hope and redemption and miracles is just a smokescreen for an elaborate stunt.

Breakfast at Sally's: One Homeless Man's Inspirational Journey  by Richard LeMieux

Right off the bat, Richard tells a man he meets in a park that he's writing a book about "Homeless people . . . People I've met--interesting people.  People living, laughing, crying, struggling--people dying."   He's writing the book on a manual Underwood typewriter a kind man in a secondhand store gave him--along with some paper--free of charge when he told the man his dream of writing his story.  Best Part: After Richard ruins his typewriter by leaving it out in the rain, the very same man he met in the park surprises him at a church charity meal with another typewriter and some paper.  Richard takes this seeming coincidence as a sign that he must keep writing.  Main Idea:  As a general rule, being homeless (actually, so far in the sample this guy has a van, money to keep it rolling, and a dog for company) brings out the cliche'd worst in people's style, a kind of vacuous, slack-faced smiling trudge through the banal with plenty of unneccessary adverbs and exclaimation marks.  Also:  Any book that opens with a hitchhiker called "C" pulling a book by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers out of his rucksack and reading from it aloud is off to a wretched start.

Of course, I need to sample more of this stuff, but it doesn't look promising.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Enjoying the End--a Sampler

(Note: These Amazon Kindle Sample Reviews are ideal for the busy homeless.  Contrary to popular imagery of the homeless as parasitic slugs and sloth-like hangers-on, street people are busy as hell riding buses, filling out forms, running to government offices and labor exchanges before the work is gone, getting up at 3:30 AM to stand a bare chance of beating the recycling competition, standing in endless lines with dangerously impatient predators and hustlers.  My sample reviews are also ideal for readers at any societal stratum rushed for time and in need of cocktail party chit-chat and one up-manship ammo.  I'm proud to provide this service. Each review clusters around three deliberately simple--if not simplistic-- cheery "book report" devices, nostalic reminders of grade school assignments: Main Idea, My Best Part and an Also afterthought for bedtime contemplation)

                           "The best lack all conviction while the worst
                    Are full of passionate intensity."

                                             --William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Recently  I entered the darkened apartment of a friend to find him lying on the couch, visible only in the blue light of his laptop's power indicator, listening to Jim Morrison and the Doors performing "The End."  My friend and I had compared notes many years ago and discovered that our first exposure to this doleful epic of percussive jangles and down-spiraling guitar riffs had been during the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.   Francis Ford Coppola did some of his best work with the opening montage of napalm blossoming in the jungle, Martin Sheen melting down in a Saigon hotel, and wraith-like helicopters drifting across the screen--all of it given gravitas by Morrison's groaning but commanding vocals.  It all seemed tremendously profound at the time, but now seems slightly forced or sophomoric, and I wondered what what my friend was thinking or feeling having deliberately pulled up the song on his computer.

I sat down and waited for the song's conclusion before saying, "Mood music?"

"Naw," said my friend.  "Sometimes you just want a little bit of Jim and a little bit of downer, tiny taste of world-ending, all that shit."

Then he turned on the TV, took a couple beers out of the fridge, and we settled in for a World Series game.

I know just what he means about a "little bit" of apocalypse, the short, sharp pleasures of brief yet languid contemplation of collapse.   What better way to share the feeling than a selection of the many Kindle samples I've read lately that fervently wish for and revel in (no matter what the authors say to the contrary, no matter how tear-stained their tone) the End of All Things.  Get ready to wallow . . .

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Great New Party Game and a Couple of Book Recommendations

Recently I was reading a terrific book called Monkey Girl, a well-researched and gripping account of the famous Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trial in which Lisa Kitzmiller, a local mother, and ten other citizens sued the city school board for trying to introduce "intelligent design," a supposed "alternative" to the well-established theory of evolution, into the classrooms where their children sat and learned.    Judge John E. Jones III,  a conservative Christian judge appointed by George W. Bush, delivered a decisive ruling regarding intelligent design:  it is, he declared, a religious program and not science and has no place in a public classroom.  He also called the school board members "liars" and labeled their mischief "an act of breathtaking inanity," a phrase everyone ought to tuck into their argumentative toolkit.

Intelligent Design is simply renamed "scientific creationism" with a bit of pseudo-sciency biological misdirection called "irreducible complexity,"  the observation that complex processes and structures in organisms like the immune response or the molecular "machinery" of a single cell are constructed of interlocking parts and steps:  remove any one of them and the system ceases to function.   Thus, it is argued, the whole thing, cell or system, must have been created--ZAP!--at once by a foreseeing intelligence of some sort and could not have evolved step-by-step through natural selection.

This is just plain wrong, as many scientists have shown, but lots of people have fallen for it.  Intelligent design fails completely because it ignores the well-documented way evolution builds scaffolding underlying complexity step-by-step out of parts that are initially useful but later may be discarded as new functions and structures  develop.  The result looks like a magic trick (How did that big rock get all the way up there! Jeepers! Must've been aliens!) if you don't do the hard work of reconstructing the shape of the scaffold.  If you pull out the keystone of an arched bridge, the whole structure will indeed collapse, but that tells you nothing about the support mound that held the whole arch up as it was constructed stone-by-stone.

Here's a new party game you can play alone or with friends--no real limit on number of players other than space and time considerations.  I call it "Life Scaffold," but you can call it anything you want.  The only equipment is brains and an understanding of historian Daniel Boorstin's 1963 prediction that in the future "celebrities will be known for their well-knownness."   So if you know that Kim Kardashian has a colossal booty (I had known of her before I ever saw her picture or knew anything about her body), you already know more than enough to play.   The only firm rules are "don't resort to the supernatural or non-existent technologies" and "don't quote the Bible except for rhetorical and literary flourishes," by which I mean don't be an idiot.

Quick game sample,  starting at the highest skill level.   What event or sequence or confluence of events  would it take to slam Brad Pitt (or Bono, or Lady Gaga, or Bill Gates, or George Lucas--you get to pick) and Angelina Jolie into homelessness?  Homelessness is having to sleep outside under the stars or bridges (No shelters, no shacks, no shanties, no caves, no friends or relatives' couches, no dog condos, and no protection from the elements besides blankets and ponchos)

You and the other players have use your background knowledge of the world to find a plausible way this could happen.  In this case the scaffolding holding up Brad and Angelina as they construct the cathedral of their lives and careers is about as sturdy and intricately interlocking as it gets.  And like the building of a cell's machinery, much of its historical path is invisible.  But unlike a cell's molecular machinery or an arch, knocking out a single part might not do the trick.   Too many variables and societal helpers come out of the woodwork to help:  friends, family, fans, and the near invincible power of Boorstin's "well-known-ness" dictum.  Where do you start?  How to bring them down?

Your first impulse is to play the scandal cards allotted to you--mentally tallied--because the game has no physical props.  Scandal cards cost you a lot of points, especially the big easy Child Abuse Card.  And remember, you're trying make them homeless (the freedom!), not incarcerated felons.  Or you can simply list  the cards not permitted at all before the game starts and make sure everyone agrees.  Also, you can invent future events but you're not allowed any "Time Machine" cards to change the past (I haven't worked out all the details because I'm too lazy and I'm already giving you a wonderful free  idea to go over the back fence with, so you can hammer out the rules).

If you spend even a couple of minutes puzzling over the above situation,  you should see that without scandal cards that it's going to be super difficult,  especially in a world where celebrities' lives actually improve the more beastly they behave. In that case,  you might want to start at beginner level.  A few weeks ago we heard about Erin Moran, who was Joanie in Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, and her current incarnation as evicted trailer-park trash.  You don't have to strain much to picture the ways she and her bar-fly friends spent the 65,000 dollars she got not long ago by suing the producers of her old shows.

If you and your friends are brave enough, or you're alone some night, you can play a version of the game I call "Avoiding the FAED."  FAED is my own acronym for the Fundamental Attribution Error Demon.  Very quickly, the Fundamental Attribution Error happens when people watch other people screw up, wreck their lives and create poison chaos for others with seemingly obvious and doltish mistakes that you could see coming for miles.  What idiots.  However, when you screw up and find yourself flat on your back in the muck, it wasn't your fault, it was society, the environment, the system, the noise and distraction--the brutes!   Yes, you say, mistakes were made . . . but not by me.

That's the title of an excellent book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson which brilliantly explains the psychology of cognitive dissonance, the profound physical and mental discomfort felt when people try to hold mutually incompatible ideas in their heads simultaneously.  One of the ways they escape CD is invoking the FAE Demon, who is very useful at shifting blame and allowing you to always be right and never make a wrong decision.

Okay, let's wrap this up so you can try out the new party game with your friends or play the solitary version.  This involves fearless and meticulous (perhaps impossible in practice but not in principle) mental reconstruction of the scaffolding you and others constructed step-by-step that got you to your current peak or pit.  Unlike the proponents of intelligent design, you are not allowed to insert Providence as a explanation for successful life construction or blame a demon for slip-shod craftsmanship.   Enjoy!