Pieces of my brain #3

On a cool windy evening in San Francisco, we found ourselves at the corner of Fell and Van Ness. Across the street, there was the brightly lit condo tower.  We decided to investigate, partly to get out of the wind, partly because Tracy’s near-legendary curiosity leads her almost anywhere a  human can go without encountering armed guards.

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TJ at work

The lobby was in that high commercial modern style favored by builders going after millennials, particularly tech-enabled milliennials. Lots of clean blank walls; a lobby desk shaped like an emaciated shark.  There was a tree growing out of a hole in the desk where the shark’s anus would be.

There were perhaps 30 people in the lobby, clustered in conversational groups or checking their phones. We entered, bringing with us a gust of cold air. Everybody turned towards us. It was like one of those science fiction movies where almost everyone (except our hero) is controlled by an alien intelligence. They all looked at us without expression. A telepathic whisper went through the room: Old People among us. Try to stay calm.

We walked around a bit. We tried to make eye contact, but no one would look up. They were afraid the old was contagious. You don’t want to get the old on you; it can decay your teeth and turn your hips into bone-on-bone battlegrounds. No matter how hard you scrub, the old lingers.

This is not the first time my gray beard has provoked silent horror in young people. Many are kind (the old enjoy kindness), although they often feel the need to explain to us things we already know. “The white zone,” they will say considerately, “is for loading and unloading only.” Sometimes that’s entirely charming.

Sometimes: Not.


Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in a stairwell of an old second-floor dance studio. We were waiting to be let in to the space, now repurposed as a theater. Once again, we were the oldest people in the building, but this time we were ignored. Everyone was ignoring everyone else, in the manner of people standing in an elevator. I stared at my phone for a while, but I didn’t want to text anyone. I was just being pretentious.

On the steps below us, four people played a version of charades. One held up a phone to his/her forehead. On the phone was a word. The others tried to get the phone holder to say the word, using only gestures. Splendid idea; this is technology we can believe in.

Then the door above opened, and we poured into the space.

Many years ago, I spent some time as a non-sexual groupie of The Committee, a now-legendary improv comedy group started by Alan and Jessica Myerson, late of the Second City in Chicago. Unlike the Second City, The Committee did not turn out famous comedians who went on to  success. Still, I thought Larry Hankin was the funniest man alive, and Gary Goodrow was a comic genius. Anyway: What I saw in that large room reminded me of The Committee.

Imagine six extremely energetic humans. Imagine a bare stage, minimum props, primitive lighting.  Imagine lots of running around and yelling and standing still and whispering, all at break-neck pace. The players are known collectively as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists.  Their show is called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” It is not improvised;  each of the “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” is written and rehearsed, although a lot of the writing process does seem to have to do with improvisation. The show is funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it’s also poignant and angry and surrealistic.

What reminded me of The Committee was the sense of possibility. The Neo-Futurists have been around since the 80s, but I don’t think the people in the cast can make that claim.  There’s talent up on stage; more importantly, there’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of theater. Ryan Patrick Welsh is clearly the first among equals, but every performer is  enthusiastic and committed.

Here are some of the play titles: “David Mamet’s The Little Mermaid;” “Robo Libido Fugue State:” “Questions for a Twinkie;” “How I Bore Mission Bartenders;” and “WHAT I ASSUME GETTING YOUR PERIOD  IS LIKE ACCORDING TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD  OF TV ADVERTISEMENTS”.

You could spend your entertainment dollar on Meryl Streep pretending to be somebody or other, or, for just a little more, you could see The San Francisco Neo-Futurists. Come early, stand in the stairwell, laugh unreservedly. There’s a soupcon of audience participation (nothing embarrassing, although I was asked politely to eat one bite of a dreadful sandwich, which I did, for which I was called a “hero,” a double-decker sandwich joke) but mostly not; this is not some Vegas hypnotist’s show.

Out by 11. Steps away from BART. Everything perfect.


Last time, in pursuit of happiness, I published a few jokes I’d picked up here and there. (I found 500 banjo jokes, none of them funny). My friend Carol Carr sent me a few she’d saved over the years. If you hang out with the science fiction community, you may know Carol, or have heard of her. She is not, by the way, the Carol Carr who killed two of her sons. Just clarifying.


What do you get when you cross an elephant with a peanut butter sandwich?  Three elephants that stick to the roof of your mouth, and one peanut butter sandwich that never forgets.

What do you get when you cross a Mafia hit man with a performance artist?  Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand.

“I just learned the answer to the question asked in Hamlet, “What is he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him?”  Answer: “The shortest volumes in the encyclopedia.”

A Jew gives a blind man his first piece of matzo.  The blind man takes it and rubs his fingers over the surface for several seconds, then says, “Who wrote this shit?”


This very morning, I was driving home from random errands (grocery store, bank) when I thought: I bet Pancho is in my wire basket now. He’s there most every morning; you can set your watch by it. And then I thought: I really do think a lot about Pancho’s habits.

His smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs, are second nature to me now.

And that’s strange, don’t you think? I can see the point in petting a cat, snuggling with a cat, watching a cat doing cat antics — sure. That’s pet ownership: The cross-species exchange of affection. But I think I have something different: The cross-species crush.

When  I was a young man and subject to crushes, everything about my love object was fascinating. Her handwriting, her lunch preferences, the books she read, the music she listened to, her feelings about insects and aviation and deep soulful kissing. And maybe I would bicycle by her house, not in a stalking way because I didn’t actually stop, except that one time I saw her watering the lawn. “I was in the neighborhood…” I said, which was true. I was in the neighborhood.

And now I have memorized Pancho’s routine. He’s extremely predictable. Cats may be independent creatures, but they like their habits — as do most humans. Habits are comfortable; they free your mind to think of other things. Each night I close up the house, check the doors and windows, straighten up the kitchen, let Pancho in, turn out the lights. Pancho will inevitably check his food bowl, then amble up the stairs, where he curls up on the bed in Tracy’s office.

Once in a while, that doesn’t happen, and I worry that Pancho is sick. But no, he’s exercising his free will — when he remembers that he has free will. I have free will too, but I’ve lived in the same place for 35 years.

I brought the groceries in and checked. Sure enough:


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Find the missing number on the clock!


Photography by Tracy Johnston, except the one that obviously isn’t

Behind-the-scenes competence by Michelle Mizera



Another thing entirely

So, I was writing this insightful, magnificently structured essay on Hillary Clinton and the revolution that will not happen when she’s elected. The GOP is right about that; Clinton is the very embodiment of the liberal establishment — which is in some ways fine, at least the parts that have to do with equality and tolerance. But liberal solutions — public housing, welfare to work, urban renewal — have not worked, and we’re back in “now what?” land.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Magical thinking can be found in unexpected places. Currently, there’s a feeling among many in my karass that we must say nothing bad about Hillary Clinton because some voter in Pennsylvania will hear about it and convince 10,000 of his fellow citizens to vote for Donald Trump and therefore threaten the Supreme Court, Obamacare and all Muslims everywhere.”

And then I talk about foreign policy (largely unmentioned in the campaign) and poverty (ditto — instead the talk is all about middle class families and how they’ve suffered in the new kleptocracy; the poor have suffered even more, but no one wants to talk about them, because we have this notion that poverty is a character defect).

(Notice how the italicized paragraph reads a lot better than the one after it? I had wonderful paragraphs, adept turns of phrase, and a blog post that veered between the obvious and the obscure, with a little “just plain wrong” thrown in. That’s what I had: entirely bogus, yet well written, paragraphs).

No one wants to talk about the sad realities of American history. Whatever we say, we are a warlike people. We have the largest army  in the history of everything. We believe that it’s our God-derived right to tell other countries what to do. We have killed children and old people, doctors and priests and cab drivers and farmers. We committed genocide against our own native peoples. We continue to lock up the innocent; we continue to use torture to punish them. (Solitary confinement is torture; in our saner moments, we recognize that). And so forth: I tried to list our various sins, but I became too depressed and had to make myself a nice pot of tea. Herbal.

Against all that, the election seems to be pretty small potatoes. Both Trump and Hillary support American armed presence everywhere. They participate gladly in the fight against ISIS (which is a violent criminal organization, no question) but also things like the Saudi bombing of Yemen and the cold war with China over mineral resources in Africa. They both support unregulated surveillance of American citizens; indeed, Hillary participated in that policy.

I’m not saying “don’t vote”; I’m gonna vote, because the Donald is so ignorant that his policies are essentially incoherent, as opposed to the semi-coherent government we have now. But politics? A whole lot of fun to gossip about, especially in this Trumpian  world. On the other hand:

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Foreground: Tufa. Background: Sierra

Or perhaps:

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The baby next door, trying not to look at the cacti

 Or even:

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The late Joan Mankin. Her deep devotion to silliness is a model for us all.

Nature, babies, friends. The quotidian world. The things we touch every day, the emotions we feel, the goals we have. We are lucky; it’s true. We live in peace, more or less. And I think we have an obligation to enjoy that peace, to cherish those things that require cherishing. The lies of politics can be a distraction. Taken internally, they can be toxic.

We gotta dance, friends. Fixed income or not; aging body or not; the tragedies and failures of living or not; dance.

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Yeah, like that.

Of course we have to live in society. We have to be committed to social justice. Which means advocating, volunteering, donating. Political campaigns come and political campaigns go, but there will always be people who need our help, natural wonders worth saving. Lemme do a few links.

There’s the wonderful Alameda County Food Bank. There’s Oakland’s own beloved Fairyland. There’s the Southern Poverty Law Center. There’s the International Crane Foundation, which is admittedly an eccentric choice. There’s the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, another eccentric choice but I encourage eccentric choices. There’s good old Doctors Without Borders. And so forth. Feel free to post your own links in the comments section, including local ones.

So we do that, and we try to live our lives with grace and understanding, and we listen. Then we dance.


I thinks it’s time for a joke:

The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”
The graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”
The graduate with an accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?”
The graduate with an arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

Another joke:

How many Freudian analysts does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change it, and the other to hold the penis. LADDER. I MEANT LADDER.

One more:

A boy and a man sit on a couch together. The boy says to the man, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

Wait, I can’t help myself:

I said to the Gym instructor “Can you teach me to do the splits?” He said, ”How flexible are you?” I said, ”I can’t make Tuesdays.”

We only pass this way but once, so we won’t need a road map. Let’s breathe a little bit. Over there somewhere, Donald Trump is saying something astoundingly stupid, and Hillary Clinton is still refusing to do press conferences. Meanwhile, the gas bill is due, the car is making a banging sound, your boss is a douchebag, and there may be some sex in the near future if you play your cards right. It’s afternoon, the sun is bright, the cat is hiding in the long grass, and there’s still time for everything.


Birdwatchers just pick a spot and experience it.

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Advice that I am still not following by Michelle Mizera