Her 2011 TED talk, “The Sound the Universe Makes,” focused mostly about the increasingly rapid “heartbeat” of two black holes circling closer and closer together and the little anticlimactic, much less than cataclysmic “pop” of their joining. She also let the audience listen to the off-the-air-TV screen white noise left over from the big bang. So, thinking about this, I wondered what sound I might make if I were a universe or parts thereof (turn your sound up for best effect).
In her TED talk, Levin also talks about how space wobbles, pulled this way and that by the gravity of the objects passing through it. That of course sounds something like this. So then I wondered what would happen to us if every passing thing made us wobble. We might be arrested for public intoxication (except in Milwaukee where it’s legal). We might lose weight without buying a SlimVibe. Or we might turn into the Wobblies. Where was I going with this? Oh, would we be better off if we could hear the sounds of the universe? It might make us ignore the many small and petty things that often distract us if the sound of the Big Bang was buzzing in our ears constantly. It might act like a cosmic sound soother and help everyone relax, which is not a bad idea. Or we might just tune it out like we’ve learned to do with so many things. In that case, the only time we’d notice it was when it wasn’t there to be noticed anymore. Kind of like Elvis or pull tabs on cans or war.
Today’s Topic: Daylight Savings Time
In the wee hours of the morning tomorrow (Sunday, March 11, 2012), time springs forward (except for those in Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas Islands, that is, and, I guess, the most of the world). For anyone who doesn’t believe time travel is possible, this is the wrench that gets thrown into the proverbial works. We get to do it twice a year.
But where, as they say, did it all begin? According to National Geographic, Ben Franklin was the first person to conceptualize “daylight savings.” He apparently woke up in Paris one morning at 6 a.m. and thought, “Il est terrifié à la lumière déjà. Tout le monde devrait être en place et en enregistrant lejour.” (“It’s freaking light out already. Everyone should be up and saving the daylight.”)
It took World War I and Germany to figure out how exactly to “save daylight.” Germany adopted time changes to reduce artificial lighting and save coal for the war effort. The United States took on the practice in 1918 but made it optional for states. Between February 2, 1942, and September 30, 1945, the feds made it mandatory (war efforts play havoc with states’ rights it seems).
Then it went back to optional except during the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo, where we supposedly lowered our electrical use by one percent. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it now it goes from the first Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November. (Now, now, Congress always knows best.)
National Geographic also asks a relevant question: “Daylight Savings – Energy Saver or Just Time Suck?” The Department of Energy says we save 1.3 terawatt hours of electricity with DST. Terawhat? Of course, anyone who knows anything about DOE knows that any numbers it produces are, to put it generously, suspect.
And with that I’ll leave you with this thought from David Letterman, “Don’t forget it’s daylight savings time. You spring forward, then you fall back. It’s like Robert Downey Jr. getting out of bed.”
Today’s Topic: Kurt Godel
Why Godel, the Austrian logician, mathematician, and philosopher, you might ask? As it happens, I am reading a novel titled A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines where Godel and the English codebreaker Alan Turing are two of the main characters. The novel’s author, Janna Levin, is a Barnard College professor of physics who also writes science fiction. I happened to hear Levin speak and participate on panels during the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar “Yet Another World – Literature of the Future.” (I also lucked into sharing a dinner table during the seminar closing night party with cyberpunk icon William Gibson, but that’s another story.)
Both characters in Levin’s book were brilliant and insane. Godel, known for his incompleteness theorem, starved himself to death because he thought his food was being poisoned. (Turing, ironically, munched down a poisoned apple and killed himself after he was arrested and convicted of homosexual activities, things being what they were in 1940s England.)
My own incompleteness theorem has to do with IQ and personal wealth. I thought Godel’s must be a little more esoteric, so I went looking and I found this explanation from the Exploratorium:
“In 1931 the mathematician and logician Kurt Godel proved that within a formal system questions exist that are neither provable nor disprovable on the basis of the axioms that define the system. This is known as Godel’s Undecidability Theorem. He also showed that in a sufficiently rich formal system in which decidability of all questions is required, there will be contradictory statements. This is known as his Incompleteness Theorem.
“In establishing these theorems Godel showed that there are problems that cannot be solved by any set of rules or procedures; instead for these problems one must always extend the set of axioms. This disproved a common belief at the time that the different branches of mathematics could be integrated and placed on a single logical foundation.”
Huh? Then I read the “Godel’s Theorem for Dummies” explanation of this formula and still went “Huh?” The best my simple brain can translate this into is a variation of “no one knows anything,” which is “no one can know everything.” Seems Godel went through a lot of work, not to mention mental anguish, to arrive at DOH!
After a long hiatus, it’s time for a fresh start — no novel (although that back burner is still warm), just thoughts (mostly random). I’m thinking right now, for no particular reason I can identify, of those assignments we used to write (or copy from encyclopedias) in junior high school. One teacher or another would say, okay, tomorrow, write 300 words on Ben Franklin or the polar ice cap or the Constitution or the meaning of the green light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby. So I’m also thinking, why not restart this blog that way. Pick a topic at random and write (not copy) 300 words on it. So here goes.
Today’s topic is (drum roll, please): Paz de la Huerta
Seriously, I did not know who this woman was before watching the first season of Boardwalk Empire on DVD. The IMDB bio on her notes she’s been acting since age 4 and has done movies and television since 1998. She was in The Cider House Rules. I saw that movie. I do not remember her, although granted she was 15 at the time and not a major character. Heavy D, Kieran Calkin, and Erykah Badu were in that film as well. I don’t remember them either. Nor Paul Rudd as Lt. Wally Worthington. I do remember Michael Caine’s elegant, if overwrought pronouncements (“Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England”) as well as Charlize Theron showing that she was into tans way before the 2004 Agent Orange Oscar appearance. Almost no one remembers she won the Oscar for Monster that year.
143. Almost halfway there.
So, what was I writing about. Ah, Paz. If there’s a Hall of Pout Fame, she should be elected to it. In Boardwalk as Lucy Danzinger, Nucky Thompson’s girlfriend until usurped by the more refined Margaret Schroder, Paz shows that a full-on, full-lip pout can be more persuasive than a used car salesperson on crack. (Okay, she’s naked much of the time and that no doubt is a pout reinforcer.)
So, just for kicks, I googled “art of pouting,” which led to, among other things, a website called The Pouting Room, which advertises the services of a “boudoir photographer” and a poster for the zombie film “Night of the Pouting Dead.” The latter seems not to be a real movie, but an IMDB search revealed other interesting titles such as “Night of the Loving Dead,” “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” “Night of the Groping Dead,” and, believe it or not, “Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hellbound Flesh Eating Crawling Alien Zombified Subhumanoid Living Dead, Part 5.”
And that title gets me past 300 words. Thanks, Paz. I couldn’t have done it without you.
I picked up the phone and dialed 999-9999 (not the real number).
Me:Can you hear me?
Voice:Who is this?
Me:I’m calling about the pageant.
Voice:You’re crawling over the what? Well, stand up. You’re not a slug, are you?
Me:I said I’m calling about the pageant!
Voice:Bixby? Is that you? It is, isn’t it? I may be deaf but I never forget a voice.
Mrs. Golliver, my fifth grade teacher, who looks like Edith Bunker except she always wore Blues Brothers sunglasses, floral print muumuus, and paratrooper boots. She must be 84 by now. I’ve dialed the wrong number.
Mrs. G.:I know you’ve always been a shy boy, Bixby, but it’s not good practice to call someone up on the phone and then not speak to them.
Me:I wasn’t trying to call you, I was . . .
Mrs. G.:Don’t interrupt when I have a train of thought going. I swear, didn’t I teach you anything?
Me: I’M SORRY!
Mrs. G.:Still apologizing, too. You were the sorriest little snot-nosed pathological introvert I ever saw. I would have hoped you’d outgrown it by now. Stop slouching!
Amazing. I sat up straight, checking the phone for any hidden telephoto lenses as I did. Nothing. The woman was uncanny. Imagine how she would appear to a group of fifth graders, and you’ll have a representative sample of the influences that did to me what we used to do to Wonder Bread — chew it just long enough to moisten it and then use the results to mold statues of our childhood heroes.
I once used a whole loaf to sculpt Flipper. When it was done, I sprinkled the foot-long sea mammal with the oil from ten cans of sardines to give it the requisite ocean smell and then took it to my second-grade class for Show-and-Tell. By the time I got there, I had 14 cats, three dogs, and a turtle following me along with a flock of sea gulls circling overhead (where the hell they came from I’ll never know). My teacher showed her appreciation by immediately pitching my Wonder Bread Flipper out the nearest open window, which resulted in three dead cats, two dogs with permanent limps, and enough sea gull feathers for a full Native American headdress. I think the turtle got away clean.
For those of you not old enough to remember Flipper, the show’s hero was the aquatic equivalent of Lassie (did you know that Cloris Leachman was Timmy’s other mother — before June Lockhart, who went on to become “lost in space” — I didn’t). Flipper’s dilemma and the drama came from the fact that Flipper was to humans what the Cray Supercomputer is to ENIAC and the dolphin could not communicate with people except through the animal version of charades. Lassie was in the same boat. Come to think of it, so were Tarzan and Rambo.
Well, each week Flipper’s “masters,” two kids named Sandy and Bud, would get in some kind of trouble — diving without checking the oxygen tank first, losing the boat motor with a storm coming on, snorting marine outboard motor oil, things like that — and Flipper, week after week, would rescue them, which casts doubts on the intelligent being theory of dolphins.
The only real facts I know about dolphins are these: they have the same body temperature as humans, the oil that comes from under their lower jaw is still used to lubricate watch mechanisms, they use echolocation to find dinner, and they have tongue-tingling Latin names like Sotalia fluviatilis.
So imagine, if you have the nerve, Mrs. Golliver reaching out her stubby little fingers for all those fifth-grade slices of Wonder Bread.
Mrs. G.:Presidents do not slouch, Bixby.
I had the right number after all.
Mrs. G.:Did you hear me?
Me:I heard you!
Mrs. G.:Show some respect, dammit!
Me:I heard you, Mrs. Golliver!
Mrs. G.:That’s better. So you want to enter.
What the hell, right?
Mrs. G.:I have to ask you a few questions. Please answer yes or no. You with me, Bixby?
Mrs. G.:Are you older than 30 years of age?
To save me the trouble of italicizing all my answers, please keep in mind that if a hurtling locomotive shot through the large, empty space between Mrs. Golliver’s ears, she wouldn’t hear a thing, and adjust your imagined volume for my responses accordingly.
Mrs. G.:Do you imbibe alcohol in immoderate quantities?
Mrs. G.:Have you ever used marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack, PCP, LSD, Angel Dust, uppers, downers, ludes, reds, glue, rubbing alcohol, or any other substance considered unwholesome or unhealthy.
Me:I like Twinkies.
Mrs. G.:That’s not on my list. Are you physically fit?
Mrs. G.:Yes or no, Bixby!
Mrs. G.:Do you practice safe sex?
Mrs. G.:Have you ever engaged in sodomy, oral sex, bondage, or the unnatural use of small furry animals?
Mrs. G.:Do you masturbate more than three times per week?
Mrs. G.:I’ll bet. Whom do you think of when you masturbate?
Mrs. G.:Very good. Do you look stunning in a thong bathing suit?
Mrs. G.:I’ll just check Verify next to that one, if you don’t mind. Do you smoke.
Mrs. G.:Can you name all fifty states and the capitals?
Mrs. G.:You’d be surprised how many people answer yes to that, thinking we’ll believe them. Can you drink tea properly?
Mrs. G.:Do you have any problems with being sociable with people of other countries and other races?
Mrs. G.:True or false. On the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Nell was in love with Dudley DoRight.
Me:False. She loved his horse.
Mrs. G.:Very good. You’ve passed the preliminary exam. Bring $25 and a statement of why you’d like to be president in 25 words or less to The Main Spot tomorrow at If it were anyone else but you, Bixby, I’d wish them good luck. Good-bye.
The Main Spot. I was planning to eat breakfast there in the morning anyway. What the hell.
At the time I was contemplating entering the presidential arena (the term “political” was long defunct, obsolete, dead), I lived in Montana, which is also where I kicked and screamed my way into the world, grew up, lost my virginity, was educated, and stepped on and crushed my glasses while hiking in the Bitterroot Mountains.
Frank Zappa made Montana famous through his song “Moving To Montana Now,” which one of my former roommates (I didn’t always live at home) would play repeatedly at 9.8 on the Richter Scale volume. Frank was going to become a dental floss tycoon (in the song, anyway). To my knowledge, there aren’t any dental floss ranches in Montana. There are cattle ranches and wheat fields. If you’ve never been to the state, it has scenic wonders such as Glacier Park, Flathead Lake, Yellowstone Park, small mountain ranges with whimsical names like Sweetgrass, Judith, Little Snowy, Little Rocky, and Crazy, and the part of the state west of the Continental Divide.
It also has some of the ugliest landmarks in the country, most of which we are responsible for: these include the open pit mine at Butte, the copper smelter at Anaconda, the oil refineries at Billings, the clear-cut sides of once pristine mountains, and the coal strip mines at Colstrip.
If you’re into history, Montana has the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Custer Battlefield National Monument (one wonders why they didn’t name it Little Bighorn), Big Hole National Battlefield (the site of another Native American “victory”), and gold-rush ghost towns like Virginia City (fictional home of Ben, Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe Cartwright).
Most popular beers in Montana: Olympia and Rainier. Most popular activity: going to Rawhide Night at the Trading Post Saloon in Missoula, where women of all ages, shapes, and sizes perform amateur stripteases for $25 (what they got for entering) and the hope of “winning” the grand prize of $75.
I lived in Missoula, which is not the capital but is the home of the University of Montana. This institution’s claim to sports fame includes basketball star Michael Ray Richardson, who went on to play for the New Jersey Nets and develop a serious white powder proclivity (causal relationship?) and coach Jud Heathcote, who defected to Michigan State where he and Magic Johnson won the NCAA championship over Indiana State and Larry Bird. On the literary side, there was Richard Hugo, Madeleine DeFrees, Bill Kittredge, and James Welch. Ring any bells?
As I was saying, Mom is to blame. You probably want to know what she looks like. Well, this is a writing problem area for me, too. So I’ve decided to approach descriptions like this: use a famous person as a template and then add a few relevant details. So here goes. Mom looks like Sophia Loren except she’s five inches taller, ten pounds heavier, and has blonde hair and a bust size that’s two letters smaller than Sophia’s. How’s that?
We were having breakfast. Froot Loops® for me. Crumpets for her. It was one year and four months ago. For those of you who share what I consider to be the near-religious experience of eating your favorite breakfast cereal, it may interest you to know that religion had something to do with its origin. During the 1860s, a group of Seventh-Day Adventists decided they wanted something for breakfast that was healthy and not flesh. At the time, they ran a sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, where they began producing a cereal food by grinding up and rebaking sheets of thin dough. Guess who was a patient at the sanitarium at the time? C.W. Post. Guess who lived in Battle Creek at the same time? W.K. Kellogg. Post observed the process at the sanitarium, hooked up with Kellogg, and, voila!, Cheerios®, Wheaties®, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles®, Count Chocula®, Shredded Wheat®, Raisin Bran®, Crackling Bran®, Breakfast with Barbie®, and so on ad infinitum were born.
Mom: “So whose turn is it?”
Mom: “You’re positive.”
Me: “Yes, it was my turn yesterday.”
Mom: “What the hell. I was having a bad day anyway.”
We take turns. That way we never argue over whose fault anything is. Maybe the auto insurance business should consider this. Or the legal system:
Judge: “Are you guilty?”
Perp: “What day is this?”
Perp: “That’s my day. It was all my fault, judge. I plead guilty.”
Judge: “30 days with time spent. Next!”
Before breakfast I had gone out to pick up the newspaper like I always do (yes, I still lived at home). I brought it in and set it on the table next to my bowl of yet-to-be-ingested pastel-colored and fruit-flavored cheerios (“New Flavor! Grape!”) and opened it, as I always do, to the most important page: the comics.
There, right next to Doonesbury and Robotman, was a large ad that read: “Are You Presidentail Material?? Call now! 555-999-9999. Missoula MT Local US Pres. Pageant.”
I got pinking sheers out of a drawer and cut the ad out. Then I ate my cereal. Then I decided to call. But it was all Mom’s fault. It was her day.
Me: Why do they put ads on the comic page?
Mom: Did I raise you stupid?
Mom: Then don’t ask stupid questions. What’s the ad?
Me: So what?
Mom: So enter.
Me: I didn’t say I was thinking about it.
Mom: You have a job?
While Mom is talking, she’s doing what people normally do when they’re in the kitchen and repressing their real reason for being there, which is of course throwing open the refrigerator door and sucking up everything that looks remotely good. In other words, she was wandering aimlessly, picking things up (cow-faced oven mitts, empty milk bottles, silverware, dishes, our three calicos — Mad Martha, Junkikitty, and Swampscatt — and whatever else that wasn’t nailed down) and putting them back. She was wearing a housecoat that resembled dried jell-o salad and slippers with battery-powered halogen headlamps in the toes. Right now they were turned off.
Mom: You looking for a job?
Mom: Are there any jobs out there even if you wanted one?
Me: Not unless you count the Bingo caller one up on the reservation.
Mom once told me that the word Bingo originated as the result of a romantic encounter between the well-known crooner and a very much less-well-known chorus girl. The scenario was reminiscent of a Popeye cartoon episode where Popeye has rescued Olive Oyl and Olive responds by kissing him repeatedly. Popeye, being of the Men Don’t Kiss club, cries out “Don’t!” and then “Stop” between each kiss. Olive speeds up her kissing, so the Don’t! . . . Stop! . . . Don’t! . . . Stop! gradually becomes Don’t Stop! Don’t Stop! According to Mom, while Bing, who used to have his ears taped down while filming because he thought they stuck out too far, was demonstrating hitherto unknown talents of his renowned vocal cords, the recipient of this attention was being equally vocal, crying out Bing! . . . Oh! . . . Bing! . . . Oh!, which gradually became . . . well, you get the idea. I think Mom might have made this up. But then again, it doesn’t seem entirely outside the realm of Hollywood possibility.
Mom’s favorite game is Bingo. She still plays twice a week, taking $25 (this figure must be significant since it keeps coming up) and driving up to the Flathead Reservation near Kalispell to play. She goes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which just happen to be Singles Nights. Before I became President and moved away, she would always tell me whether she’d scored well or not. (Down, Freud, down, boy! I’m sure she was speaking of how many games she’d won.)
I don’t know much about the game itself, other than it’s helped a great number of Native Americans build roads, homes, schools, and a sense of pride, whereas all we gave them was smallpox, the country’s worst real estate, and alcohol.
Mom: You know what your father would say if he were here?
Me: What the hell.
Mom: What the hell. The most eloquent man I ever met. Want to get married, John? What the hell. Want to have a kid, John? What the hell. Want to remove your lazy ass from my house forever, John? What the hell. It’s downright amazing how cutting down on how many words you use facilitates conversation.
So now you know everything of relevance there is to know about my father, who looked like John Wayne except for being bald, cross-eyed, and having one arm lopped off by a logger with an errant chain saw.
Me: So what do you think, Mom? Am I presidential material?
Mom: You left one of those purple thingies floating in your milk. Eat it or it won’t be a sunny day.
By now you’ve probably figured out that being President isn’t what it used to be. There are times, especially when listening to Maxine’s little endearments makes my toes feel like they’re growing together, that I wish for the old days before the 24th Amendment landslided through the country in 2004, abolished the federal government, and hired an economics consulting group to run the United States. The Capital Building is now the Capital Convention Center, where various groups meet seeking big business deals, nose candy, alcohol, and sex (in other words, not much has changed there). The other wing of the White House is now a combination Motel 6 and bowling alley. I can hear the pins smacking and clattering late at night when everything else is quiet. Being President used to mean pomp, circumstance, responsibility, and a certain amount of respect (at least I have childhood memories of this — Camelot and all that). Now there is pomp and circumstance but no responsibility (thank god) and, unfortunately, no…
My intercom: Buzzzz!
Maxine: “Lunch is here, dingle butt.”
…respect. But this isn’t about being President. You already have an idea of what that’s like and this is dragging. Pace, my creative writing correspondence course materials scream from the top of every page, pace is everything. This isn’t about being President, it’s about becoming President, which, as we’ve been told over and over again, is possible for anyone in this country. I can’t dispute that. Look at me. My advice is to go for it, if you like. All it takes is a congenial manner, a Pepsodent smile, and killer buns.
Before we go any farther, I want to say a word about the title. I don’t consider myself to be a chauvinist. I try to be sensitive to women’s issues and be fair and considerate in my official and unofficial dealings with them. But the title of this book is what it is. After all, I am President of the United States. I’m sitting at my desk in the Oval Office writing this while the machinery of the U.S. Federal Corporation hums smoothly around me. The title has nothing to do with the fact that I’m male and President. What it is, in fact, is the first words of the song sung by the Bert Parks hologram when I won the Third Annual United States Presidential Pageant in the year 2008.
Excuse me. My phone is ringing.
Maxine: “Ready for your appointment schedule, dearie?”
A note about style here. I’m an impatient person when it comes to writing. I have a very hard time forcing myself to do the “he said sprightly” and “she said, turning her head and looking peeved” bit. The way I see it, why spend hours poring over dictionaries and thesauruses looking for the right adverbs and adjectives when I have something much handier and much more effective: your imagination. So I’m writing the dialog as above, and will leave you to fill in the tone, facial expressions, body language, and any other nuances you might want to spoon out of your own particular gray matter soup. Have a ball!
The person on the phone is Maxine Fliedermaus, my personal secretary. She also is one-third of the White House staff, the other two-thirds being the groundskeeper, Olaf, and the security guard, Bruce.
Me: “I’m ready.”
Maxine: “Next Tuesday, you’ll be umpiring at the Shriners/Kiwanis softball game in Schenectady. On Thursday, you’ll be guest chef at Jim-Bob’s Flaming Death Barbecue Joint in Mobile, and on Friday, you’ll be at the Wal-Mart in Newark signing pictures.”
Me: “I hate the malls.”
Maxine: “Yes, dearie.”
Me: “Schedule’s pretty heavy, don’t you think?”
Maxine: “It’s the end of the summer, Bix baby. People have run out of fun things to do.”
Me: “Just my luck. Speaking of Flaming Death, you going out for lunch?”
Maxine: “I guess. You want the usual?”
Me: “Two cheeseburgers, small fry, small Coke. And no pickles.”
Maxine: “You gonna pay me now or later?”
Me: “Take it out of petty cash.”
Maxine: “Always the comedian. I’ll collect when I get back.”