Friday, December 31, 2004

Archived Posts

Following (that is to say, preceding, I guess) this post are most of the posts from the original Xferen. I haven't altered any text or formatting, except to get the hyperlinks to work, so all the wit and wisdom is intact.

Business Life

Don't you dare PowerPoint that at me...

This week, the company where I work had its quarterly meeting, a strange event that unpleasantly blends the high-school pep rally (downside: fewer cheerleaders; upside: no fewer football players) with a badly team-taught lecture course. I know - rather, I hope - that these things are conceived with the purest of motives, but in their execution, I'm amazed again at their concentrated banality, so emblematic of business life. Slogans and catchphrases substitute for actual information. Key points are brusquely asserted rather than even halfway argued. Flawed assumptions buzz like flies. Discrete presentations stretch on so long as to annihilate even the best attention span.

They say academics are terrible presenters, but having seen a lot of bad academic presentations, I can say that the average business presentation is worse. At least a conference paper or a lecture has to have a focal point - the information or the argument. But business rallies needn't be constrained by a focus or even a purpose - apart from the subterranean one of inducing profitmaking. There's a bit of news, a wisp of praise, a smidge of humor, a dash of exhortation, a skosh of criticism. The only things that exist in abundance are mispronounced names and PowerPoint slides. God, the PowerPoint...

Jargoneering #2: "Wordsmithing"

Until I went to work in the private sector, I'd never heard the term "wordsmithing" except as a word used by writers to ironically compare themselves to, say, carpenters. Nowadays, my job as a writer puts me in position to hear the term a few times a week. Usually, it's used as a gerund or a verb with pejorative or at least dismissive connotations: "We'll worry about the big picture down and you can handle the wordsmithing later." "Don't wordsmith this to death." "This content is ready; we don't have time for wordsmithing." In short, any writing or editing that can be labelled "wordsmithing" is writing or editing that the speaker considers unnecessary or trivial.

Leaving aside my personal grievance at having my skills - which have required years to acquire and will require years to master - diminished in this way, the use of "wordsmith" indicates a deeply-rooted misunderstanding of what writing entails. Not to put too fine a point on it, but most business types view writing just like freshmen who don't understand why they got that C-: as incidental to the important stuff, as a sort of barnacle on their thinking and acting.

This is, of course, ludicrous. Writing is both thought and action. Getting words on paper is not only a deed, but a visible face of reasoning. And more often than not, especially in the "knowledge economy," one's thoughts and actions are represented only in writing. Usually, far more people can read the memo about what you did than could have heard you talk in that meeting or seen you serve on that team. "Wordsmithing" can thus help shape perceptions and memories.

This is all just philosophizing as far as a lot of people in business are concerned. They don't want to be reminded that they could think more clearly and argue more persuasively and even earn more money if they more carefully chose words, set tones, structured arguments, or established voices. No, instead their fear or ignorance of writing saddles them with a 10th-grade version of the notion that thought has some kind of existence apart from the words that represent it. The a priori assumption that numbers, especially simple ones, or even pictures are always better than words at conveying information is another symptom of this mental disease.

Even though it ain't so, "wordsmithing" is often left to the last minute, when it really can't be done well and when it can't do much to save shoddy thinking, poor plans, or unfounded assumptions. Which accounts, I think, for quite a bit of the trouble most businesses suffer.

"I would prefer not to."

There's not a lot of good fiction out there on the life and times of the "knowledge worker," past or present, but of the works in that genre, Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" is the best . It's 151 years old this year, but it still offers a meaningful interpretation of office life. And Bartleby himself? That dude was messed up.

A representatively great passage:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair...

Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the screen, was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him.

“I would prefer not to,” said he.

I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.

Bartleby's recalcitrance inevitably, eventually gets him fired, whereupon he is arrested as a vagrant and then starves to death, an imprisoned pauper.

Buzz, Buzz, Buzz

I am deeply fascinated by the underside of consumer culture: manufacturers' kickbacks to retailers for "slotting" items; the ludicrous scale and scope of Wal-Mart's operations; sex and violence as motivations for consuming all kinds of goods and services; the political-economic structures which have made China the postmodern workshop of the world; the arcane practice of "cool hunting" for the latest and greatest trends.

One classic topic in this domain is marketers' efforts to persuade consumers to consume - efforts which aren't always overt, like traditional advertising, and which seem, as the marketplace gets increasingly crowded by new and essentially redundant goods and services, to veer more and more towards the subtle, if not the outright alchemical. A good case in point is the use of shills who are unpaid volunteers with no stake in a good's promotion except a sense of being in on something cool. I've read a few accounts of this kinds of "viral marketing," but it's documented especially well in Rob Walker's new article in the New York Times Magazine.

Essentially a profile of a Boston firm annnoyingly named "BzzAgent," the article examines why 60,000 (!!) "BzzAgents" willingly plump for goods that the company sends to them or otherwise encourages them to try. These goods can range from sausage to books, and if Walker can be believed, they often get a good boost in the market from the agents' activities. I was dismayed to see that one of my favorite books of the past few years, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, was the subject of a buzz campaign. Trying to trade on life imitating art, Walker points out that this novel is "an actual paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful they can bribe flunkies to infiltrate your life and talk up products," but thereby misses the fact that this is Gibson's first book set in the present day, and thus probably reflects the novelist's own knowledge that companies like BzzAgent exist and succeed.

Ultimately, though, I don't think that Walker completely explains why the BzzAgents do the company's and the company's clients' bidding. He chalks the agents' interest in doing the company's bidding to wanting to be cool - to belong to a consumer elite: "Even in the small orbit of your own social circle, knowing about something first -- telling a friend about a new CD, or discovering a restaurant before anyone else in the office -- is satisfying. Maybe it's altruism, maybe it's a power trip, but influencing other people feels good." Further, "not only are its volunteer agents willing to become shock troops in the marketing revolution, but many of them are flat-out excited about it."

This is true, certainly. Walker adduces quite a bit of anecdotal and social-scientific evidence to the argument. But I think the impulse runs deeper, toward the fusion of material acquisitiveness and religiosity which Max Weber identified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904). (My ideas here are grounded in Jerry Muller's exceptional book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Early Modern European Thought [2002].) It's not simply that Americans consume things instead of believe in things, not a one-for-one replacement of spirituality by materialism. Instead, I hold - and I think that Walker's piece supports this idea - that consuming goods and services complements religious feeling, especially in the U.S., one of the most intensely religious countries in the world. Consuming is a behavior that makes real a religious quest for perfection, or even for the otherworldly Perfect. Getting a line on that great new cell phone, in other words, is a postmodern kind of prayer. "Maybe this is the one that will make it all complete..." Of course, it never does, except for the mystics - like the BzzAgents. By dedicating themselves to a seemingly bizarre chase after some impossible ideal of perfection, and, along the way, trying to convert a few heathens, they are postmodern eremites. BzzAgent will succeed or fail, as will the larger "viral marketing" schema, to the degree that it can reliably transform this basically religious impulse into services which serve a commercial, capitalistic purpose, that it can make the numinous into the lucrative.


The company where I work just launched a new brand, which I'm trying really, really hard to understand and embrace. (Okay, maybe half as many reallys.) So it was with some interest that I just read an article in the November 2004 Wired magazine on the decline of brands. James Surowiecki (an excellent business and economics journalist) sums up his argument thusly: "marketers may consider the explosion of new brands to be evidence of branding's importance, but in fact the opposite is true. It would be a waste of money to launch a clever logo into a world of durable brands and loyal customers. But because consumers are more promiscuous and fickle than ever, established brands are vulnerable, and new ones have a real chance of succeeding - for a least a little while. The obsession with brands, paradoxically, demonstrates their weakness" (p. 206). What counts more than the image or feel of a brand, in Surowiecki's estimation, is the concrete value to consumers of a company's product or service. And the cause-effect arrow is pretty much unidirectional, from product/service to valuable brand. Not even the glossiest, sexiest brand will long support a weak or shoddy product, but a solid product might have a long life even in the absence of all the apparatus of the modern brand.

I don't know if Surowiecki is right or not, but his argument sure feels right. Working where I do, I'll have the chance to watch a real-world test of his argument over the next few months. I'll post periodic updates in this space.

(The article's not yet online, but it's worth reading in hard copy, or you'll be able to find it here on 11/5/04.)

Mocking Biznis

Americans spend a lot of time mocking each other, but too little time making fun of business culture. Here is a witty exception to the rule.

(Thanks for the link, Matt! And look over the whole site: it's full of great stuff.)

B-School or Not B-School

The Left Business Observer, though I don't (yet) subscribe, always has an interesting take on modern American capitalism. This insider's look at academic life in a business school, though a bit dated, jibes well with the b-school types I've encountered at work and as a historian of business. For instance, this particular school "discontinued its ethics classes because they want to incorporate ethics into day-to-day activities." Now, there's some dean's brainstorm in action. The article predates Enron and Arthur Andersen, but given that "smugness and an unquestioning belief in the American Way are crucial parts of the curriculum" at this and most b-schools, I'll wager that the restored ethics courses are really just antechambers for courses on finance and international trade - you know, the important stuff.

The Panoptical Office

Working as I do in a warren-like corporate setting, I'm constantly rankled by the way the office is set up to minimize the privacy of the average worker and to maximize the privacy of the muckety-mucks. The three-sided cubicles are the most obvious manifestation of the panoptical office, but there are more subtle things in play, too, such as the way I can't set up my computer monitor in any way but one which allows any passerby to see my screen. This serious crimps my surfing of the lad-mag websites.

Contrarily, the individual offices - in which reside executives of one ilk or another - are arranged such that the denizens must arrange their computer screens to face away from anyone who's walking past. True, every office has at least one side that's essentially a big glass wall, but even so the office volume is shielded from the hoi polloi. Entering one, you're still separated by the one arm of the U-shaped desk from the other arm, whereas when you step into a cubicle - or even just approach it from the open side - you are equidistant from every desk surface and whatever might be on them.

I'm not really kvetching about the fact of these distinctions, though. I think they're worth having and worth keeping, and I can't wait to have an office with a door that can be shut (although my career path is such that this eventuality is unlikely). What irks me is that these distinctions contravene the tacit and explicit rhetoric about openness and equality in the office. Christ, ain't nothing equal about an office, notwithstanding the ubiquitous use of first names, allowances for a "business casual" dress code, or the prevalence of "teams." Why not openly acknowledge the fact of inequality? It is one of the bases of modern capitalism, along with the acceptance of institutionalized cupidity and the reflexive criticism of governments and of "bureaucracy." But then again, why would capitalists or managers meaningfully acknowledge inequality? Doing so might not open the door to a serious critique of modern capitalism itself, but it might allow the cubicle jockeys to insist on a little bit of privacy, and that could cut deeply into the bottom line.

Jargoneering #1: "Owning"

Along with urban black culture, business is our society's main source of new language. Unlike black culture, however, business rarely vomits up anything worth keeping. Not that newly-created business terms won't last, it's just that they shouldn't.

There are lots of examples of business-generated language - words, usages, terms of art, phrases, tropes - which merit derision, and I hope to conduct a running analysis of some of them in this space. A good candidate to lead off this heinous list, and a term for which I have special dislike, is "own." On a nearly daily basis, I hear this verb used in contexts where it does not mean "enjoy legal possession," viz. "I'll own that action item" ("action item" being another bad but at least serviceable term) or "Part of the project requires us to determine a permanent owner for the new process."

The obnoxious thing about these uses of the verb "to own" is that, in the context of contemporary American business, you don't own anything. Businesses are usually arranged in such a way that most employees own next to nothing (in the old-fashioned sense of "to own") and a tiny group owns everything. (If that: your boss probably doesn't own anything, either, and only maybe does the uber-boss own anything. Your company's probably "owned" by that faceless imaginary, the Market.) Actually acquiring ownership of something beyond the junk you hauled from home to your desk (a list which doesn't include key tools like computer) requires lots of capital - which you probably don't have, or you wouldn't have to take ownership of action items which will never pay a real dividend.

This sense of "own" is even more onerous right now because it harmonizes with the music from the Right about the need to create an "ownership society." So far, we've heard scant details from Bush or his advisors about just what this means, but if the MBA president is up on his business jargon, it will mean that the average citizen will actually own less and less but have to put more and more of what is owned at risk. In the modern workforce, you at best own your skills, but you have to risk them by combining them with others' (greater or lesser) skills and then seeing what results - a quietly completed project for which you'll receive little recognition and less renumeration, or a blazing fiasco for which you'll receive infamy and the
honor of being whispered about at lunch.

In the broader sense, the vapid idea of an "ownership society" will presumably mean that those of us who legally own little beyond our bodies, brains, health, home, a smattering of personal chattels, and so forth will have to risk those things in the market. Body, brain, and health, of course, serve as the means to enter the workforce, and stand as the possessions which can be worn down or even destroyed by work. But that's just a socialistic quibble, compared to the ludicrous natter about privatizing Social Security or introducing a flat tax. We'll have to wait to really understand what it will mean to own something means in an ownership society.

Unpopular Culture

Art I Like (#3 in an Occasional Series): Edith Piaf

Last night, on the spur of the moment (and on a faint recollection of an afternoon's high-school French class), I downloaded Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien."

Zut alors, but that's a hell of a song. She doesn't exactly belt it out - her voice is too controlled and, really, human for that - but she milks it for every beautiful syllable. When she hits those trilling r's in "rien," it is positively electric. And the musicianship is awe-inspiring: the fourth time through the main verse, as the music rises behind her, she waits a fraction of a beat before letting the "Rien de rien" line fly. One needn't even understand every word - I can't make out more than half the lyrics - to understand the defiance inherent in her clean, crisp tone. Even the cheesy musical accompaniment (horns and strings) can't detract, and actually adds to, her brilliant delivery.

[Edited, 9/30/04: emended with additional materials]

Hot, Steamy Action

It's the middle of September, and here in Minnesota, the air already tastes like a yellow-red fall and its white consequent. The early dusks, the cloak of cold air that settles on your shoulders, and above all the scent of wood-burning stoves make me, a good half-Finnish American, long for a sauna. This travelogue of a sauna tour through Finland only makes me want a sauna - the event or the place - more.

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan amidst lots of suomalainen-amerikkalainen, I was lucky enough to have saunas nearby all the time. I didn't know it at the time, but (according to the article above) the saunas were all the best kind, the ones Finns call a "smoke sauna."

For five years, I lived with my family on my grandfather's farm in North Ironwood, an district populated by Finnish-Americans who, like my grandpa, bought farmsteads with money earned from a few years of backbreaking labor in the iron mines. Next door we had the Estolas and the Niemis, across Pump Station Road were the Jarvis, and all around us were other Tassavas. For many of those Tassavas and for many of my grandpa's ancient "Finlander" friends, Saturday night meant coming over, "talking Finn" over some boiled coffee, and then taking a long sauna in the little square building behind the farmhouse, just at the edge of the front 40 acres.

Grandpa, or maybe my dad or his brother Marvin, started the stove up before dinner, stoking it with tinder and then adding logs they'd cut in the back 40 and skidded home with the old International Harvester truck and a modified Farmall tractor. The smell of that wood burning in the sauna wafted through the whole house: dry and hot and inviting. Depending on who came that day, my family went out to the sauna when we had the chance. I remember the dressing room always smelled of damp heat. Even in winter, there were often spiders climbing the walls, enjoying the heat and the moisture and sometimes falling into the towels you left out there with the boxes of Lifebuoy soap.

But the reason for being out there - the reason for being Finnish - was in the next room: that huge roaring stove, set on a concrete floor, paired with a tall cistern full of increasingly hot water, and blazing with the hours-old fire. You walked over a plank platform to get from the dressing-room door to the two benches along the wall opposite the stove. One of the benches was low, at about the height of a chair, while the other - where I loved to sit - was much higher, so that an adult's head nearly reached the ceiling of the sauna room. A special sauna thermometer hung on the wall about as far from the stove as you could get. I was always awed by the brutal honesty of that thermometer's round face, for it included "normal" temperatures - your fifties, your eighties - but soared all way up to 200 degrees, which occupied the midnight position on its dial.

You needed that upper range because the whole point of the sauna was the steam. After a moment of settling in and getting used to the immensely dry heat, one of us - usually my dad, a full-blooded Finlander, but sometimes my sister or me - would take a long dipper from the cistern and toss the water onto the heap of smooth Lake Superior stones atop the stove. The instant, satanic eruption of steam - , the loyly - was literally spine-tingling. My hair would prickle, sweat would pour out of my body, and that thermometer's needle would jump from 150 to 180.

We would make a loyly periodically throughout our stay in the sauna, spiking the temperature again and again. Being a nerd then and now, I often took a volume of the World Book encyclopedia into the sauna with me (a juvenile indulgence equivalent to, but less hazardous than, the couple beers my dad often took in with him). My mom still has all the volumes, and you can still see the steam-warped pages. Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably no more than thirty minutes, we all washed off with soap and hot water from the cistern. Back to the dressing area to towel off, back into our clothes, back along the path through the cold night air to the farmhouse. After a sauna, sleep is an onrushing inevitability, because your body temperature dips and your consciousness plunges with it. But the sleep is peaceful and very, very warm.

Alas, it's unlikely that I'll get to indulge myself anytime in the near future. Unless, that is, the New York Times wants to send me and my family to Finland for a look at sauna culture in Helskinki, Espoo, Lahti, and above all, Tassavanlahti , which is apparently my family's ancestral home near Keitele. Heck, at this point I'd be happy with a long weekend in Embarrass, Minnesota, which is one of the most Finnish towns in America . But someday, that empty half of the garage will be walled off, two benches will be installed opposite a big cast-iron stove, a few cords of wood will be stacked up along the wall, and I'll be able to sauna again.

(A final note: If you're like most Americans, you've probably been pronounced "sauna" like SAW-nah. Stop it, or at least only say it that way at the freaking health club. Sanaa is a city in Yemen , not a kind of steam bath. The word is pronounced SOWW-nah.)

Art I Like (#2 in an Occasional Series): William Gibson

William Gibson, the science-fiction novelist, has to be numbered among the most important fiction writers of the 1980s and 1990s. His frequent books are mostly set in a near American future, but a couple are set in the imagined past or even the present, which makes him an especially accessible - and debatable - SF thinker. Not for him are wacked-out alien worlds of Kim Stanley Robinson or the sheer weirdness of Neal Stephenson. Rather, Gibson likes to imagine life in San Francisco after the Big One, or, more radically and importantly, the social effects of the rise of a worldwide computer network, which he famously called "cyberspace." Not a bad word to have coined, or idea to have, in a real sense, invented.

Gibson's novels are loaded with fascinating ideas and increasingly well-rounded characters (including quite a few women who are actual people, not a male writer's fantasy), but he also has a knack for the set piece that just blows the reader away. The best example of this is a scene in his first novel, Neuromancer (originally published in 1984 - tellingly). The sorta-protagonist, Case, is trying his damndest to elude an artificial intelligence named Wintermute, which is doing anything it can to attract Case. At a crucial point, the computer goes all teenage-suitor and calls him up:

The phone nearest him rang.
Automatically, he picked it up.
Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like wind.
"Hello, Case."
"Wintermute, Case. It's time we talk."
It was a chip voice.
"Don't you want to talk, Case?"
He hung up.
On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.

That is good stuff. The overtone of HAL from 2001 is true and clear. Of course, cigarettes will still be around in 20-whatever. And so what if Gibson picked the wrong telecom technology here, relying on pay phones to do the computer's dirty work here. Big deal. In an age whose sound track is composed of cell phones omnipresently ringing and where the radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip is capitalism's tech du jour, the spectre of a computer tracking Case through a hotel lobby (a Hilton, too, Paris and Nicky!) is dead-on perfect fiction writing, realer than our reality.

[Note: the excerpt above appears on p. 97-98 in the 1984 Ace paperback edition of the novel.]

Art I Like (#1 in an Occasional Series): Bill Evans

Though I'm a pretty untutored listener, I like jazz a lot. My favorite moment in all jazz music is a point about two minutes into "Autumn Leaves (Take 1)," from the album Portrait in Jazz by Bill Evans and his trio. Evans starts the song with some of his smooth, sharp piano playing, but soon the song slows and turns into a conversation between Evans and Scott LaFaro, playing bass. For almost a minute, Evans plays a figure and LeFaro responds, with the snatches of music slowly getting more and more complex, going somewhere you can't quite fully anticipate. When the tension's built to near-unbearable levels - at least for me - Evans takes the briefest pause, really just long enough to give me the same sensation that I get when I almost but not quite stumble. Then, in the nick of time, Evans rushes to tie together all the bits and pieces of the melody, his avian piano floating momentarily without accompaniment before Paul Motian's snare and hi-hat catch and roll and LaFaro's bass falls back in. For the rest of the tune, Evans plays a soaring melody line that repeats some of what's come before but also expands the song in the most brilliant, heartwrenching, and inspiring way - and suggests autumn leaves blowing around an empty yard. That little pause/start section never fails to make me smile like a fool, marveling at Evans' ability, his trio's skill, and at the subtle beauty of jazz.

Churchisms: Fake Wisdom and Weak Wordplay

The silly but cleverly worded aphorisms which churches often place on their outdoor signs are worth recording, but not because they're smart. As I read them, there're attempts to convince actual and prospective congregrants that, wouldn'tcha know it, Christianity can offer non-Biblical or at least non-Christian wisdom. The trouble, of course, is that the proverbs and saying aren't very wise. Here's my first bit of proof:

"Too many people stop looking for work when they find a job."
8/28/04, Asbury United Methodist, S. Bloomington Avenue and E 45th St., Minneapolis

Uh, yeah. This one tries to trade on the synonyms "work" and "job," but in an opaque and, frankly, kinda stupid way. Is "work" supposed to be "spreading the Gospel"? No, probably not: too in-your-face. More likely, "work" is supposed to be "vocation." But of course, people with true vocations don't think of them as "work" in the sense of "job." They think of them as fun or duty or something - certainly not the tiresome thing from which one flees on coffee breaks. So that weak link dissolves, and poof! We're left with something better suited to be the sign-off of a crummy local radio call-in show.


"No Daysleeper" (Julia's theme)

(With apologies to Berry Buck Mills Stipe)

Jenny Lind crib, 3 a.m.
My stomach is empty again
The lights are out
My parents are snoring
Even Beaner is calm

My eyes flutter open
Time to awake
Talk about sleep - this'll get 'em

I see the day through blue eyes
My night is colored spit-up grey
No daysleeper, no daysleeper, no daysleeper

The stars and the moon are hanging outside in the sky
They try to lead me back to my dream stories

I’m the snort, the grunt awake
I’m Julia, I eat at night

I see the day through blue eyes
My night is colored spit-up grey
Don’t put me to bed
No daysleeper

I cried the other night
I can’t even say why
But that’s just because I
Haven’t yet learned speaking

I’m the snort, the grunt awake
I’m Julia, I eat at night
I see today
Don’t put me to bed
I see the day through blue eyes
My night is colored spit-up grey
No daysleeper, no daysleeper, no daysleeper

The noise machine is set to 9
For mom and dad I’ll cry and I’ll whine
The milk is calling me
So tasty
I’m no daysleeper
No daysleeper, no daysleeper, no daysleeper

Laying a Baby Down

Laying a baby down is impossible. I do it every night at least once, and often several times a day, but good lord it's an difficult task. Julia, my fourteen-week old baby daughter, is, as they say, "not a good sleeper." I used to think that sleeping was like falling down: everybody does it, and in mostly the same way. Sure, insomniacs have some problems, but that's a detail. Julia's proven me wrong. She doesn't like to sleep, and especially doesn't like going to sleep. Since she's just over three months old, she can't yet have one of the meltdowns for which toddlers are famous, and I hope she never does. It's hard enough already.

Every evening, after Julia nurses and starts drowsing in an immensely cute way, I take her from my wife, Shannon, and head upstairs. I walk up our creaky stairs very slowly. The room's already set up with a dim light, the right blankets laid out in the crib, a humming white-noise machine, et cetera. I have to sit just so in the rocking chair in order to keep the squeaking to a minimum. Julia's making little groans and cries now, having been wrested away from mom. I turn her so she's sitting in my lap, facing the mostly-dark room, and start rocking gently. One of my arm's around her fat little Buddha belly, the other's along her left side as a kind of brace.

After about five minutes of backing and forthing, Julia quiets down and relaxes. After ten, she's slumping into my left arm, more limp than not. I listen for her breathing, and if it's steady and deep, I slowly tilt my torso so she slides to her left, down my arm, until I can bring my right hand around and under her butt while simultaneously putting my left hand under her head. If all goes well, she'll rustle a little but end up lying on my legs, her head at my knees. Rock rock rock for another five minutes until any tension created by the vertical-to-horizontal shift has dissipated. Slowly, I slide forward in the chair and then very gradually stand up. Julia's now awkwardly but trustingly being held out in front of me. I take several minutes to cover the five feet to the crib, trying to shield her from the bedside light that's now behind us.

When I finally get to the crib, I turn 180 degrees and bend from the waist so that I can put her down the right way. Her feet have to touch first, making her legs relax and flop down at about the same time her little hands, usually clenched and dangling beneath her, touch the mattress. At a gravity-defying speed, I lower her all the way down. She usually startles when her back touches, throwing her arms and legs back up into the air.

That shock fades quickly, though, and then I start slowly sliding my hands out from underneath her, one finger at a time. I try to get my right hand out first, so that I can use it to pull her blanket up onto her torso and then rest that hand on her chest while extracting my left hand from beneath her head and neck. Slide slide slide and it's free. Now I have to stand there for five minutes, my hand on her chest, while she settles into deeper sleep. Unless something startles her, in which case she might wake up and I have to scoop her up, retreat to the rocking chair, and start over. When she's definitely asleep, I walk slowly and lightly back across the room and down the creaking old-house stairs. Turn the baby monitor on, and I have anywhere from ten minutes to five hours before tending to her again.

Things I Would Not Eat

I'd never...
... eat eight-day-old leftover Thanksgiving gravy, after mistaking it for especially salty soup. Oops. I did. You mean those little meaty bits on the bottom weren't just lentil fragments?

No, but thanks for offering the...
... Swiss-cheese ale.

I would not...
... eat peanut butter potato chips or drink a dill cappuccino.

(These stomach-churners thanks to Elise.)


Best Football of the Year

I watched the best football game of the year last night - the Minnesota state championship "Prep Bowl" game between Minnetonka and Wayzata. Sure, I hated football when I was in high school and had to put up with the preening jocks, and yeah, this game featured two western-'burb rich-kid teams. But man, could they play: Big runs and passes, excellent offensive execution, crushing defense including several excellent interceptions, and, best of all tons of enthusiasm by the players. And this wasn't the showy fakery of pro athlete, with their rehearsed post-sack moves and touchdown celebrations. This was just kids happy to have made that tackle or this catch.

Game 7, Inning 9

The Yankees should be contracted this off-season, just to punish their fans. It's the top of the ninth and they're far behind, but already Yankee Stadium is half-empty. What a pathetic display, especially given the Yankee-Sox rivalry, the way last season's ALCS turned out, "The Curse," and the Yankees' perennial excellence. Yankee fans suck. If you're a baseball fan, you've got to love to see them choke on it.

The Greatest Collapse since Hitler's Germany

It's only the top of the fourth in the seventh game of the ALCS, but I am loving the game so far. The Red Sox are up 8-1 right now, and FOX keeps showing the uncharacteristically worry and even shock on the faces of the Yankees, especially Derek Jeter. How sweet this is! Can you just imagine how Steinbrenner must be right now, or what he'll be like after the game?!?

It's Been 86 Years!

Behind great pitching by Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox beat the Cardinals tonight to go up 3-0 in the World freaking Series. Can Derek Lowe win tomorrow and end The Curse? God, I hope so...

Yankees Suck!

No, really, they do. Every year, you hope they tank, and (nearly) every year, they steamroll everyone on the way to the World Series. This year, they're once again destroying the Red Sox. I hope the Cardinals make it to the Series from the National League, because they seem to be the only team that could slug with the Yankees. Of course, the Red Sox supposedly had a more high-powered offense and better pitching than the Yankees, and as of this second, they're down 14-6 in the third quarter seventh inning of the third game of the ALCS. Oh - I take that back: they just scored two more, putting the BoSox down by a touchdown and a field goal. Sigh...

MNF'er, or, "How John Madden is like Paris Hilton."

Another week of regular-season football, another Monday Night Football game. Dallas at Washington is a rivalry that lacks a little bit of edge, since both teams stink. Apparently cognizant of this, ABC did its best to distract the viewer from the game, which actually got pretty exciting toward the end. Viz.
Five for Fighting's awful little segue from halftime to the second half. At least the falseness of the lead singer's falsetto matches the falseness of the game.
The constant hyping of next week's fair-to-middling matchup (Chiefs at Ravens would be a good unstoppable offense/immovable defense game - if it were 2003).
The homophobic "You Got Sacked" feature, in which Torry Holt was made to called for a fake photo shoot and made to put on outfits which were increasingly and stereotypically gay (biker gear, a ballet tutu) while two buffalo-like teammates watched and laughed on a "surveillance" monitor. And CBS has to pay a half-million for a nipple?

And that's just the halftime show. Would the producers of MNF die if they had to recount yesterday's games? Five minutes of highlights and analysis? Please! Last, we have the macrocephalic spectacle of John Madden himself. When was the last time he offered any real insight into a game? I don't doubt that he could do so at any time; given his experience as a coach and a color commentator (and video-game eponym), he probably has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. But Lord, more than anything, Madden like Paris Hilton: famous for being famous, not for having a demonstrable talent. At least Madden's easier on the eyes than the elder Hiltongenue. Sigh.

It's not Packers-Staleys, is it?

Lambeau Field is My Mecca

Okay, so last weekend I went to Lambeau Field with my friend Kevin to see the Bears-Packers game. This whole thing was Kevin's brainchild, and what a prodigy it was.

I'd never before seen a live NFL game, much less one at Lambeau, so I was a bit excited. Up at four, on the road at five, in the stadium at ten. The stadium and its environs are amazing. We parked in some Ashwaubenonite's driveway, which is What You Do when you go to a Packer game. Our parking spot was included in the ticket price, but I saw lots of kids, dressed in their Favre and Green jerseys, along the streets around Lambeau, holding up signs advertising parking for $10 or $20. The three-block walk to the stadium was fascinating: tons of tailgating was already occurring, even at quarter of ten, and the Green & Gold fans were uniformly happy. We walked most of the way around the stadium before going in, soaking up the un-Frozen Tundra-like 70-degree sunshine.

Lambeau Field itself was recently renovated, and it's spectacular, with wide, clean concourses; numerous concession stands and bathrooms; a few cool restaurant/pub areas; and many interesting displays of Packer history. When we finally emerged into open air, I was struck by the seeming smallness of the football field. Not that it's cramped or shrunken - rather, it feels very intimate and even kinda cozy. Aluminum benches to sit on, relatively gentle inclines to the stairs and the stands, and all the beautiful green grass. When we arrived, a knot of people were standing at midfield; my binoculars revealed that one of them was the great #4 himself. (Here, he's facing the camera, just to the right of the hulk in black - Tony Siragusa, Fox's sideline reporter.) Favre's graying, but he looked, even just standing there shooting the breeze, like a tough, capable athlete. I emitted a little awe.

Kevin and I killed some more time by walking around the stadium, then had an early and delicious lunch - bratwurst and a beer for me, naturally. It's Green Bay, after all. Then, gametime. The stadium went nuts when the Packers were introduced; my ears were already buzzing before Favre sprinted through the gantlet of teammates. Kevin and I had two friendly Bears fans on one side of us and great Packers fans everywhere else.

The Packers looked good on their opening drive, moving crisply upfield and using Ahman Green to slash at the Bears D.

They came away with only a Ryan Longwell field goal. The Bears' opening drive ended with an interception, which sent all of us in the stands into hysterics.

After the Packers missed a missed field goal at the start of the second quarter, the Bears methodically moved 65 yards to score a touchdown on a pass from Rex Grossman to his tight end. The Packers responded sharply, marching steadily downfield towards a seeming touchdown. In one great play, they even ran a left-side sweep for Ahman Green in which Favre served as a lead blocker! Alas, Favre threw an interception at the Bears' six. Hastened onto the field, the Packers defense stopped the Bears and got the ball back to Favre. A mix of passing and rushing seemed to put the Packers on the verge of a touchdown, but then Ahman Green fumbled and, disastrously, the Bears' opportunistic Mike Brown ran it back for a touchdown, making it 14-3 Bears at the half.

A long, long line at the concession stand meant I missed a long run by the Bears' Thomas Jones. Jones capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone. 21-3 Bears. Things looked ugly.

But now Favre went to work. Another well-executed drive, blending Green runs and Favre passes, ended with a beautiful touchdown pass to Robert Ferguson, a classic crooked-arm Favre toss that arched high over the Bears defender and found Fergie's hands in the back corner of the end zone. To have seen Favre throw such a beautiful touchdown was a moment of glory for me, and for the now-roaring crowd. (According to the Packers' account of the game, the pass made this game the 25th consecutive contest against the Bears in which #4 threw a TD, surpassing Dan Marino for the league record of consecutive games with TD throws against a single opponent.) 21-10 Bears, and the Pack looked resurgent with the fourth quarter about to start.

At this point, I was pretty much beside myself with excitement. Here it is a beautiful day at Lambeau Field, Favre's heated up, and the Packers are driving to our end of the field. Grossman seemed to fumble and give the ball to the Packers, but that call was overturned and the Packers D had to stop Chicago and force the punt. Favre threw three incompletions, but the Bears then gave the ball right back on an unbelievable gaffe by David Terrell, who fumbled a reverse and put the Packers O back on the field at their own 45. Two plays later, though, Favre threw his second interception of the game, utterly deflating the crowd. On replay, it seemed that the Bears' defender didn't control the ball before hitting the ground, but alas - no review or reversal. The Bears then mounted a weak drive and elected to try a long field goal, which Paul Edinger missed. With 2:28 now to go, there was just enough time for Favre to conjure up two scores for the win. Using five passes, the Packers moved from their own 27 to the Bears 11 but then the drive ground to a halt on an apparent facemask of Favre as he tried a touchdown pass with 1:18 left. #4 stomped off the field, angrily yanking at his helmet to show the referee what a facemask penalty ought to look like. The Bears burned the rest of the clock, and that was the game.

It certainly didn't end the way I'd have liked (though Kevin was pretty happy), but on the other hand I wouldn't have missed any of it. Even the walk back to the car - past all the same tailgaters, now more thoroughly lubricated - was fun, through a leafy neighborhood and amidst scores of Packers fans. A great time, I think, was had by all.

NFL Week 2

Week 2 had a few surprises - the Lions going 2-0 and the Chiefs going 0-2, for instance - but on balance the things that are supposed to happen early in the season did happen. Michael Vick looks like he's going to be his rookie-year self. Kurt Warner's apparently not dead, though he is playing at the Meadowlands. Indianapolis has an early leg up on its AFC Central rivals, having now beaten Tennessee and watched the woeful Dolphins suck it up. New England is playing its usual stifling defense and methodical offense, and is now 2-0.

More than any of those games or results, though, the striking thing about week 2 for me was the high level of hype. Like the advent of Christmas merchandise in the stores, the start of playoff hype (not just the usual preseason "anything is possible" talk) gets earlier this year. Sitting here in the Twin Cities, I was treated to breathless predictions that the Eagles-Vikings game was that chimera, "the playoff preview." If so, it's going to be a disappointing January for Vikings fans, for their team, predictably, got toasted on the road, thanks to Donovan McNabb, who looks like he's going to be great again this year.

On the other hand, the Packers lost, too, falling 21-10 to da hated Bears at Lambeau. Where I was watching. And cursing. More on that elsewhere.

A final note: In preparing for my big trip to Green Bay, I rewatched the Week 1 game between the Packers and the Panthers. I was struck again by the extremely heavy doses of military imagery. At one point in the fourth quarter, for instance, ABC actually cut over to a U.S. Army base in Kuwait, where several soldiers watched the game from their perches on an artillery cannon stencilled "Favre's Backup." Interestingly weird. The thing is, though, that football is much, much less like combat than it is like a kind of colliding ballet. Everything is choreographed down to the last detail, and only rarely does a play "break" in an exciting or meaningful way. The importance of game plans is visible in, say, the prevalence of the highly-scripted West Coast offense or in the attention to minutiae displayed by Bill Belichick in New England. The double emphasis in football on careful planning and on a rules-bound environment in which to execute those plans makes the game totally unlike warfare, where - as events in Iraq bear out day to day - success consists largely in being able to overcome the failure of your plans.

T Minus 13 Hours and Counting Till Lambeau

Just about thirteen hours from now, I'll be at Lambeau, eagerly awaiting the start of the Bears-Packers game. The weather is expected to be an un-Frozen Tundra-like 75 and sunny, but that's fine. The game will be a sellout, of course: every Packer game since the 1960 opener - a game against the Bears! - has been. I'm looking forward to sharing the game with Kevin and 72,567 others. Go Pack go!

T Minus 3 Days and Counting to Lambeau

Okay, so John Kerry can't say the stadium's name right (despite his alleged Francophilia), but I'm just Friday and Saturday away from the big trip for the Bears-Packers game at Lambeau. Reading up on the stadium today, I was amazed and impressed to learn that...
"City Stadium" was dedicated in 1957 and renamed Lambeau Field in 1965
Its present capacity of 72,569 is more than twice the original capacity of 32,500
It is the oldest stadium still in use in the NFL. (The Chargers started playing at their present stadium in 1967, making Qualcomm the second-oldest stadium in the NFL. But then, how many championships have the Chargers won?)
It is the third-oldest homefield in American pro sports, after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, which are both more than 40 years older.

NFL Week 1

I'll probably lack the drive to keep up, but I'd like to use this venue to track the NFL through its 2004-2005 season. You can't tell much after Week 1, in this or any season, but the key event as far as I was concerned was the Packers' win over the NFC-champ Panthers last night. Favre looked healthy and strong and Ahman Green was his usual dominating presence. But for a few defensive slip-ups late in the game, the Pack really made the Panthers look bad, and Jake Delhomme like the should-be backup QB that he is.

Elsewhere in the league, that ass Terrell Owens scored three TDs in his debut as an Eagle. Donovan McNabb and T.O. are probably, with four quarters gone this year, probably the biggest QB-WR tandem in the league. Their only real competition would be two players I love to hate, Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss. Culpepper - who possesses the weirdest big-play celebration in the NFL, that goofy arm-rolling gesture that's precisely resembles a basketball ref calling a traveling foul - threw five TDs in the Vikings' game against Dallas (which is a whole team I love to hate, ever since their annual thumping of the Packers in the early 1990s); Moss caught two of those TDs and, amazingly, accounted for more yardage on interference calls than on receptions. It's undetermined as to whether the Vikings paid the referees in cash or kind. The Vikings' win probably makes them the odds-on favorite to win the NFC Central, but then that was the case last year, too. At least the Packers are keeping pace so far.

The pundits are hyping next week's Eagles-Vikings matchup on Monday night in Philadelphia as the game of the season. Might be. I think the Vikings will get hammered in that outdoor game. But really, all I care about in Week 2 is the Packers' home opener against the Bears. I'll be at Lambeau for the game, which is literally a dream come true. More on my genetic predisposition to being a Packers fan later.

Am I Ready for Some Football?

I hate the NFL. The season started in earnest today, and I'm deep into my funk of loathing for pro football - the hype, the idiocy, the cliches, and especially the compelling games.

The season actually started on Thursday with a good game (Colts at Patriots) preceded by a ludicrous hour of pre-game entertainment: Destiny's Child, Elton John, Toby Keith, Jessica Simpson, Mary J. Blige and the Boston Pops. There were lots of pyrotechnics, cameos by various football types, and some flirtation with the Super Bowl's "wardrobe malfunction" - one of the Destiny's Child singers wore a flesh-colored bra beneath her white suit jacket. Beyond all those mediocrities, the show was notable for innumerable allusions and outright references to the military, including especially the old fave, the stadium flyover. In short, the pre-game show was absurd, laughable, and craptastic.

The game was better, and a second game on Saturday was good, too. The main run of games took place on Sunday, of course, and among other events, the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper threw five touchdowns and scored 40-some points for my fantasy football team. That this even matters to me only indicates the deep insanity and inanity of pro football. My Packers play on Monday night against the Carolina Panthers. I can't wait for that game, or for Week 2, or for Wild Card Weekend, or the league championship games. Oh, the promise of a new football season... I hope I'm entertained, moved, and disgusted. I hope later to write about the bizarre link between pro football and the military, a tie that I've never understood and that I'm now sure is completely meritless.

Next week, I'm making a pilgrimage to Green Bay, where for the first and probably only time in my life, I'm going to see the Packers play at Lambeau Field. And not in any old game, either. No, they're playing the Bears, with one of whose fans I'm attending the game. The oldest rivalry in the league, the greatest stadium, the best quarterback in what might be his last season... I predict a 38-20 victory for the Packers and a stomach ache from too much bratwurst for me. I can't wait.

Coach, Don't Speak

In the 9/17/04 sports section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, former Vikings coach and current Cardinals coach Dennis Green is quoted as saying, in an attempt to comment on the fact that the visiting Patriots had ten days to prepare for their game with the Cards but a bye week afterwards, "That really just assured me the sense of humor the NFL has in their schedule."

What? Not only can't this guy win big or even just important games, he's not too good with the irony.

About Xferen

The Blog

I've wanted to start a blog for a long time, mostly as a place to think out loud about issues that matter to me: the quality of public life in the United States, how history can shed light on contemporary events, what it's like to be a working adult nowadays, and those rare aspects of existence that make everything else tolerable.

A note on this blog's name: "Xpoferen" is how Christopher Columbus signed his first name, at least for a while. I've always liked the way the word looks (especially because my given name is so freaking long), and it seemed like this was a good place to use it.

The Blogger

It's probably worth saying a bit about myself, too. I'm 31, a husband to Shannon and a father to Julia (who's just shy of 12 weeks old as I write this entry). I live in southeast Minneapolis. I work full-time at Capella University in Minneapolis, but I also try to squeeze in some time to do history, so as not to waste that very hard-won doctorate in US history from Northwestern University.

More than anything else, really, I'm an interested observer and participant in modern American life, and I'm eager to use this blog to share my views on that life. I think, above all, that we're living in a time that's not only bizarre and (like all other times) unprecedented in many ways, but that will - fifty or a hundred years into the future - seem like a critical transformative moment. A "watershed," to a historian or a hydrogeologist.

Overall, I would sum up my perspective by asserting that
a) even though everything's screwed up,
b) it's always been so, and
c) it seems likely to always be so...
d) it is nonethelss well worth nonetheless trying to understand it all by fitting our own contemporary situation into the longer span of history.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Greatest Finn Ever

Finns have just named Baron Carl Gustav Emil von Mannerheim the greatest Finn of all time. "Marski" was quite an interesting guy, equal parts conservative militarist and welfare-state liberal - a sort of Nordic Bismarck. He served as a general in the czar's army until 1917, when Finland declared its independence. On returning home, Mannerheim defeated the "Reds" in the Finnish Civil War in 1918 and served as interim head of state until 1919. He spent the Twenties helping to found the modern Finnish welfare state, and then, beginning in 1933, served as commander-in-chief of the Finnish military. In the "Winter War" of 1939-1940, Mannerheim defeated the Red Army in battle. After Finland allied itself with Germany in 1941, Mannerheim had to fight the longer "Continuation War" against the USSR, which was lost in 1944. Named to serve as president, Mannerheim signed a peace treaty with the USSR which bound Finland to eject all German troops from its territory. In the "Lapland War," the Finnish army fought fiercely to expel the Germans. Partly by dint of their success, Finland held the distinction of being the only Axis nation to escape occupation by the Allies. Mannerheim resigned the presidency in 1946.