Heart of Dorkness

OK, I’m a geek.

I admit it: I know a lot about computers: I build them, I fix them, I experiment with them, I try lots of different software and hardware, not all of it absolutely necessary to my survival. OK, almost none of it really necessary. OK, none of it.

Two or three weekends a month in my town, we have a humongous computer swap meet, a tribal gathering of hundreds of fly-by-night vendors*, thousands of bargain hunters, pocket protector types, retired engineers, students, geeks and cool guys like me, all searching for that hard-to-find ISA SCSI adapter, that one magical piece of software that will change their lives, or maybe a brand new computer because they have had it with the old one crashing all the time.

This mob crowds into exhibit halls at the L. A. County Fairgrounds, which is in Pomona, California, as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in Los Angeles County. Usually the “computer show,” as most people call it, occupies two high-ceilinged football-field size buildings at the fairgrounds, and despite the enormous space available the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder within minutes after the gates open at 10 AM, and it stays that way until closing at 5 PM. The treasures for sale are previous-version software applications, OEM peripherals, beige-box computers, off-brand flatbed scanners, oddball cables and adapters, motherboards, sound cards, hard drives and all the individual components needed to build a PC from scratch. On a good day it is a chaotic bazaar, a sweaty, shouting, frustrating, pushing and shoving experience. Saturday was not a good day.

On that day I drove forty miles of bad road through a torrential downpour to get to the fairgrounds. My mission: Find a software firewall to protect my home network (I said I was a geek), and buy it cheap. My home is a fortress, digitally speaking, and I guard my network jealously. The old firewall was, well, old, therefore possibly breachable, and I had planned this trip for more than a week. Who knew the Storm of the Century would be going on? OK, the century is young, but still. I could have called it the Storm of the Millenium, so lighten up. When I parked the car, the rain had let up a little, and I hopped out and headed for the gate.

For some reason, this was the day the promoters of the event had decided to tighten up security, and I mean they tightened it up. 600 mild-mannered technophiles were standing in line in the rain, while two rent-a-cops checked everybody for weapons! They had an airport-style walk-through metal detector and metal-detecting wands! Almost everyone had to go through two or three times, because, you know, this wasn’t fucking LAX, and no one was expecting to be scrutinized. Shucks, we were just there to shop, not hijack the fairgrounds. It took almost a half-hour to get to the front of the line, during which time the storm kicked up again, drenching all of us. A somewhat overly friendly older man with a striped umbrella struck up a conversation with me, and edged close enough to shield me from the rain. I was feeling a little nervous about this attention, but any port in a storm. Five minutes after the rain died down I had to remind him that it was OK to close the umbrella, and get the hell away from me. Call me a tease, or an umbrella whore, if you must. After a while we noticed that there were three lines, and the other two were going much faster than ours. They were the lines for the Easyriders Bike Show and the LA Tatoo and Body Art Expo ’05, which were taking place concurrently with the computer show. We passed the time debating whether it would be OK to stand in the faster, shorter lines, since it appeared that everybody ended up in the same place once past the gates, but the signage was clear — Computer Fair Here — and being the law abiding computer nerds that we all were (except me, I’m not a nerd), we decided to stay put. I noticed that all the babes were in the other two lines, and had to ask myself again “Where did I go wrong?”

Finally at the metal detector I emptied my pockets into a little plastic basket and went through the gate, which sounded an alarm because of… my belt buckle, maybe? But no matter, because the rent-a-cops had found my pocket knife in the basket, a miniature Swiss Army knife with a 2-inch blade, used primarily for cleaning fingernails and opening mail. They got so excited about the knife that they forgot to use their wand on me to find out why the alarm had gone off. They escorted me to a girl seated at a folding table and told me I had to give the knife to her, but that I could have it back upon leaving the venue. Thanks guys.

The girl took my knife and my name, and placed the former in a little ziplock plastic bag and the latter on a list of names. She tossed the baggie containing my knife into a cardboard box on her table, wrote my number on a card and let me know that I would have to present the card to her (and picture ID, please) to get my knife back. I was number 34, and I could see in her box that almost all the other “checked” items were knives like mine, in identical baggies with small numbers on them.

The fairgrounds are big — 487 acres, to be exact, and I walked about two blocks (through the rain) to the first of two exhibit halls. My elderly protector with the umbrella was nowhere around, probably having been detained by the guards for carrying an umbrella. I was getting wet, and I was no longer packing my weapon, but looking around at the bikers and the body art people I was relieved to know that we were all similarly disarmed.

Once inside the actual computer show, and confident that terrorists weren’t about to hold us all hostage by threatening to beat us with umbrellas or clean our fingernails with little Swiss Army knockoffs, I made quick work of my mission. I got the new firewall and headed for the door, when I noticed a disturbing anomaly: One of the largest booths, surrounded by one of the largest crowds, was selling knives! Buck knives, gut hook knives, fillet knives, carving knives, “police” knives, hunting knives, daggers, non-reflective stealth tactictal knives, “assisted opening” knives as well as a wide selection of samurai-type swords and shorter blades. Outside, the guards were confiscating knives. Inside, the vendors were doing their best to replace them. I had to leave my 2-inch blade at the door, but I could walk out with a fully functional switch-blade if I wanted to.

I didn’t want to, though. I still had to get back to my home network with my new firewall, and it was raining harder every minute. So I beat feet back to the main gate, stopping to get my pathetic little pocket knife. By this time the girl had figured out that, while it was pretty easy to officiously confiscate and toss peoples’ stuff into a box, it was a little bit more demanding to retrieve said stuff and return it. She was frazzled from pawing through her box of identical-looking knives in baggies with tiny little numbers on them. It took way longer to find my knife than it had to toss it in the box, and while she was looking more people were pushing their numbered cards at her and asking for their stuff back. One guy suggested that we be allowed to look for our own stuff, but she didn’t like that idea, so we just had to wait. This part of the stupidity was totally her fault, but she was too innocent to harrass, and I was a little peeved at the guy who informed her about the brisk knife and sword sale that was going on inside and repeatedly asked “Are you aware of that?” as if she should do something about it, and pronto.

I don’t know why you’d set up a knife booth at a computer show. Maybe somebody misunderstood what the term “hacking” means. Or maybe somebody thinks that computer geeks need weapons, or want them. From the look of things on Saturday, they might be right. I also don’t understand why you’d want to frisk people who only want to shop — I thought the President said we had to shop, or the terrorists would win. If the terrorists’ goal was to cripple our country by making us all stupid, it looks like they are on to something out in Pomona.

In the meantime the real security is at my house, on my network. Just try to hack me.

*To be fair, the vendors at computer shows are honest and hard-working. I just wanted to use the phrase “fly-by-night.”

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Hot Tramp, I Love You So

Lord, take me downtown — I’m just lookin’ for some tush…

So I’ve got this MP3 player, and I ripped about 350 songs and dumped them all in there. It’s not an iPod – it’s better than that. 20 gigabyte hard drive (that’s 5,000 MP3 songs, yee-ha!), 14 hours between charges, plays like five different formats, has an FM tuner, creates MP3 files on the fly, has a built-in voice recorder (Note to self: Figure out some way to pay for this.), gen-you-wine leather case, comes with a remote control and about fifty little gizmos, adapters and attachments, hooks up to my USB2 port (is the cable included? Yes!), requires no special software – just drag and drop the music. It’s so fancy that it has a New York style belt clip: You have to unbuckle and thread your belt through it, so if anyone wants to snatch it and run they will have to take my pants off first.

I knew I was going to be doing solitary work today — stuff that must be done alone, mind-numbing stuff that I dread, so I took my player to work with me, got myself all hooked up, stuck the little buds in my ears, set the thing to play every song at random, and I was partyin’!! I was takin’ care of business, I was shakin’ it like a Polaroid picture, I was watchin’ the detectives, I was born in the U.S.A.!

The hours flew by, the work got done as if by someone else, while I rocked out in my own private stadium. And where else would you hear “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces back to back with The Heartbreakers’ “Room at the Top” followed by the classic Tom Waits “Filipino Box Spring Hog?” Sweeet.

Until I was 20 minutes late for the staff meeting because I couldn’t hear them paging me. I couldn’t hear anything, because I was rockin’. Someone finally came and got me, and I was busted taking the earbuds out — oh, that meeting. But in the immortal words of Keith Richard — or was it Pete Townsend? — “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

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Silent Night

My town is all lit up for Christmas.

Can we stipulate that there must be something deep within the human spirit that draws us to have a celebration in the the dead of winter? Don’t make me argue about it: For so many thousands of years, so many cultures have gotten into some kind of festival of lights right around the winter solstice. In the earliest versions, people apparently thought they had to pray and offer sacrifices or else the days would just keep getting shorter until there would be no light at all. Who wouldn’t do anything to forestall that?

I wonder how long that went on before somebody began to speculate what would happen if they didn’t have the ceremony, if the saturnalia party did not go on as usual. Every year we go through this charade, and every year everything turns out just fine — the days get longer, the sun gets warmer, the rains come, the rivers overflow, the earth is fertile and the crops are abundant. What the fuck? It must have happened eventually, but that guy (or girl) probably became the next sacrifice. When you’re talking about the possible advent of Eternal Winter, you can’t take any chances.

Ever since I learned the horrible truth about Santa when I was 17, I have had problems at this time of year. Problems with my soul, damage to my heart. I find myself out in the street at midnight, looking out at the huge blue-black sky, thinking how small I am, how small is my world, wondering what is the point of all this? In these silent nights I grow morose, the centuries invade my street and settle on me like fearsome dust. Face in my hands I cry, take away the darkness, touch my soul, heal my heart. Talk to me starless sky endless space between us touch us see us save us save me. I turn up my collar and stand in the street, and I let the night come into me, and I grow until I am the night, I fill the world, the sky is me. It’s my own little saturnalian outburst. I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe I need more sun, more light in my eyes, in my life.

The houses on my block, some of them, are decorated with brave bright lights and they warm the night. The people inside the houses dream of peace and salvation, of friendship and love and forgiveness. The planet will turn, the days will get longer. We will be forgiven. I shake it off and shove my hands in my pockets and walk back. I haven’t heard an answer, but I’ll forget that.

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On Knowing

“Do you think it’s possible to ever really know the real whole of someone?”

Because I have become enthralled by this girl, obsessively, time-wastingly poring over her blog, seeking like a smitten schoolboy to curry her favor, and because she asked and I can deny her nothing, I will herewith write my answer to the question. Of course I feel foolish jumping through this hoop. I imagine that she has a lot of guys jumping through hoops, and she probably enjoys it. Anyway, I would have a few for her to jump through if the occasion arose, so fair’s fair.

The question first appeared in the comment section of her blog, and it took me by surprise because I thought that she was mainly having fun with a goofy pseudo-biography I was spinning about Popeye the Sailor, trying to entertain her. Clearly she wants more than entertainment.

But I have thought about this for days now, until I have become fevered and delerious, and I really can’t answer the question with authority. So I will use the loophole contained in the question, and say only what I think.

I think it must only be possible to be in the process of getting to know someone. Whenever you hook up, you must take a crash course in Who They Seem to Be. In that first weekend you’ll learn a whole big lot of superficial stuff, and it will be the most fun ever. If it happens then that you have a genuine interst in each other, a trust might develop over time, and more might be revealed, and understood.

The whole time you are learning these tidbits, though, they will be shifting like sand dunes, changing into other beliefs, attitudes, likes and dislikes. I think this is natural for people. You can’t remain unchanged as Life bumps up against you, showing you its beauty, its pain, its joy and sorrow, its fear and its comfort.

If you are truly into each other, you will sense these changes and you will begin to improvise together a sort of soul jam, which embraces change and flows with it rather than trying to nail down any part of the music. The phrases will weave together more and more coherently until the song becomes so magical that it will seem that you are reading from the same chart.

You’ll never know the whole of the other, because it will always be developing. But every day there will be something new to ponder and to play with. And every now and then you will hit notes together that are in such perfect harmony that you will laugh and cry in wonder.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Last Flight

From March of this year:

Spring. The persimmon tree in my back yard has been getting leaves for two weeks, much earlier than usual. We expect a good harvest of persimmons this fall. I was out in the yard this morning, watching Molly the cat show off. She can climb the persimmon tree in about two seconds, and she likes to do it when someone is watching. She disappears into the bright green baby leaves and laughs at me standing on the ground. In a few weeks the foliage will be so thick she won’t be able to get out onto her favorite branch.

The pigeons, a dozen or so of them, are high on the power wires above the alley. It is nesting season, and they are making that gentle, sweet cooing sound that they make, probably suggestive remarks for pigeons. They are there because they know Marilyn across the alley has a weakness for feeding animals, and at some time each day she will toss a bunch of birdseed out there, and they will have a feast. Molly turns on her perch, 20 feet below the birds, and looks up at them. She learned long ago not to try and catch them. As a young backyard tiger, she has tried, and they have effortlessly made her look silly. She has stopped risking her dignity on the fruitless pursuit. The cat and the birds live together, on their different levels, in peace.

Later, driving during morning rush hour on a wide busy street, I am a half block from my destination when I am amazed to see a pigeon standing calmly in the street in the opposing lanes. He is blue and gray and black. He is not eating anything on the road. He is just standing there, recklessly daring the speeding traffic. A red 18-wheeler blazes toward him, trying to make the light. In my rear view mirror I see that the truck is going to come very close to the little guy. Too close. I can’t tell if he is hit by the truck, but the bird is moved, blown perhaps by the turbulent wake of the huge vehicle, and then I see nothing more.

A moment later I drive back the other way and I see him on the road, not standing now, but kind of sitting. As I pass within a few feet he is craning his neck around to look at his back side, confused, maybe, because that part of his body isn’t working any more. He won’t live very long now, injured like that on a busy street. I want to help him, but I have to go to work. It’s a big day at work, the last day of the month, and sales must be closed and reported, so I drive on by. He is off a little to the side, but someone will hit him, someone blasting down the road in a big machine, someone like me who has to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

Hours later, in my office, I can’t stop thinking about him. He should be up in the air, or on a wire, cooing, flying, waiting for Marilyn to toss out some birdseed, finding twigs for his nest and his lady love. But for some reason on this fine spring day he came down to our level, my level, where we have places to go and things to do, where nothing is more important than month-end sales reporting. He left his world and touched ours, and it was the last thing he did. I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to stop and give him comfort in his last minutes. I’m sorry to be part of a world that cares such a great deal about making a light. When I get home I will hug my wife and tell her I love her (and I really do), and let Molly the cat sleep in my lap for as long as she wants.

Mainly I just want to say, I’m sorry, little guy.

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Red Moon

Years ago I wrote a song containing the line “Talk to me now in the cold, red light of the moon.” I don’t know why I phrased it that way — it semed right at the time, even though I know the moon is not red. But tonight I looked up in the sky and saw that the full moon was being eclipsed, and as the shadow crept over it’s surface, the moon was turning red. I’ll take it as a sign.

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