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



Doodleman pinschers? Please.

Every year, in the spring, Tracy goes to Utah with a few friends, most notably Alison, her old high-school buddy, and Jane, the one who rents the house near Moab for six weeks.

Tracy and I would text or email from time to time, hers on the order of “had another wonderful hike today” and mine on the order of “more rain today; worried about the sump pump.” But we didn’t communicate much. She was out in nature, which is what she likes most on earth. She was having her David Brower-Edward Abbey moment of clarity.

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Utah. Note heartening lack of dogs

So imagine my surprise when she wrote me, “Skyful of stars tonight; Jane is researching poodle mixes.”

Poodle mixes! It was then that I felt the noose tightening. Even 800 miles away, surrounded by all the  majesty that southeastern Utah can provide — and that’s a lotta vistas — she is plotting what kind of dog to get.

I have already expressed reservations about the dog. I do not see why we need a dog. We have a cat; I’d certainly be willing to go to two cats. Three cats, even, if that what it takes to shut down this line of inquiry. But no. She’s fixated on a dog. A dog! Imagine.

Tracy has lot of allies. They come from everywhere. Just mention that you’re thinking of getting a dog, and they’re immediately on you, phones out, showing you photos of Butch or Lord Byron or Shaggypaws or Irene, each with insanely needy eyes, staring out and saying, “yes, yes, I will follow you anywhere and lay down my life for you if needed.”

If Musty or K-9 or Clover were a human being, it would be said to have serious boundary issues. They’re like stalkers, dogs — they really, really love you and nothing you can do will dissuade them from following you, because you are the leader of the pack.

Is that what you want? An animal that would follow a tree stump if it could perform the appropriate dominance rituals? A fickle, heart-on-its-sleeve, let’s-sleep-together-so-I-can-take-up-all-the-room-and-snore, pet-like entity? People actively seek that out? What does that say about people?

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People having fun without dogs.

A cat does not do that. A cat does not care who the leader of the pack is, because he’s in a pack of one and he’s the leader. A cat does not place any burden of expectation on you. Cat ownership is a series of one-night stands.

I have one committed relationship in my life, plus my daughters to whom I am also committed, and a few intense friendships — why do I need a creature from way down the food chain to bond with?

Tracy thinks the a poodle mix would be good. They don’t shed, I guess. And people who own them think they’re great, because people who own a special breed of dog think that it’s the specialest in whole damn world. The famous Jane came up with a poodle/dachshund mix (Poohund?) that is, quite frankly, the ugliest dog I have ever seen.

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The poohund. I mean, really?


A little googling reveals that poodle mixes are the most popular designer dogs at the moment. (Doesn’t your blood chill a little bit when you hear the phrase “designer dog”?) Among the species are Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Bassetoodles, Bich-poos, Cavapoos, Aussidoodles, Peekapoos, and the Doodleman Pinscher. Really? Peekapoos?

Great Dane is a dog. Peekapoo is a brand of lingerie.

Tracy makes many points. A dog would get us out of the house. (So would going to a movie). A dog is a lot more fun to play with than a cat. (Who said the need for constant play was a desirable trait in a pet?) A poodle is hypoallergenic. (So is an elephant; I don’t want one of those either.)  And, I dunno, we could dress it up and have pretend tea parties. (OK, she didn’t say that. But you could do it. Dogs are malleable.) (Need I say that a cat would never put up with someone dressing him in a cute pillbox hat. He’d be out of there, demonstrating the common sense of cats. Dogs and common sense: Not so much.)

And also, I have a pet. His name is Pancho. Just guessing here, but I don’t think he’d like a dog in his house. And my primary loyalty is to Pancho, who is a real cat as opposed to imaginary dog. Why would anyone want to torment him with a dog? Who could be that cruel? I can’t say for sure, but I am personally acquainted with a prime suspect.

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Pancho senses doom. Will the humans betray him?

But still, this conversation persists. People who think of me as weak-kneed and passive in domestic matters will have another think coming. Sure, my wife could convince me to hike five weeks in the Himalaya, but this is different. Yes, she managed to persuade me to invest in Berkshire Hathaway, although I didn’t see what the the big deal was about a shirt company. The stone circle in the front yard? It’s there, even though I mocked it. It looks pretty spiffy now, but…she can’t be right about everything.

The Cold War continues. The Vegas odds against my eventual victory are daunting, but I persist. I’m like Rocky. Perhaps I will buy a stuffed dog and bring it home, and every so often I would put it near Tracy’s face and say, “I love you so much, Tracy. Pet me please.” Wiggle wiggle. “Now I have to take a shit.”

No one is thinking, if only there were a dog here.



Photography by Tracy “just the pathetic screams of a loser” Johnston

General help by Michelle “No nickname this week” Mizera