December 29, 2003

Here we come a-waffling

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:49 pm

Did anyone see that Claymation Christmas special, where there were the geese (I think?) caroling, and they kept getting the lyrics to “Here We Come A-Wassailing” wrong? All I remember is that at one point they sang “Here we come a-waffling…” Does anyone else remember this? Am I making it up? Anyway.

I had a very nice Christmas, and did well both giving and receiving. As expected, the majority of my haul came in the form of nice clothes, which was actually pretty cool–I can now go from laundry day to laundry day without wearing a non-buttoning shirt. They also gave me a very professorial soft leather bag, meaning I’m ready to put my t-shirt and backpack days behind me. It was like a one-day Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, except my room is still a sty.

Having finally finished Moby-Dick, I’m reading Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Aside from being a great book in its own right, with a masterful grasp of character, it’s having a welcome and long-overdue effect on me: it’s gotten me doing pleasure reading again. You see, my ugly secret is that, since I started college, I’ve done very little reading outside of schoolwork. When I get home from class, or finish my homework, I unwind on the internet or the Xbox. Gradually, these aliterate habits have been extending into my school breaks as well; as often as not, I spend my lunch break playing Minesweeper instead of reading. Thank God I don’t have a Gameboy or I wouldn’t do any reading during my commute, either.

I think part of the problem is that I’ve been on a strict diet of classics for so long. Take Moby-Dick, for instance. I’m really glad I read it, and I definitely thought it was a Great Novel, with important things to say about humanity and how we live and what we believe. And there were passages that were genuinely exhilarating to read. At the same time, so much of it was so dry that I really had to force my way through it. I don’t think that’s Melville’s fault, I think it’s a question of time period and culture, but even so, you can see how I might not pick that up when I want to relax. It’s not a matter of reading books that are shallower, just more accessible. And I should be reading contemporary fiction as a matter of principle, anyway, lest I miss it when the Great American Novel is published.

So thank you, Alice Sebold, for your awesome and approachable book (and you, Julie, for the recommendation). If I keep up my end of the bargain, I can avoid that fate that might otherwise await me: becoming an English professor who never reads.


December 24, 2003

Our people make the difference

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 11:02 am

A couple entries ago, a few people voiced their amazement that I managed to live 22 years without ever going into a Wal-Mart. Part of the reason for that, it must be said, is geographic–Wal-Mart only recently made it up to Northern California, and is still far enough away from Berkeley (thanks in part to Contra Costa County, which voted to keep Wal-Mart out) that it’s never really been a viable shopping option (or “shoption”). And in Irvine my needs are pretty well served by a combination of Trader Joe’s and Target.

But I wouldn’t go to Wal-Mart even if I lived across the street from one. I want to try to convince you all (or those of you who haven’t already made this decision) not to go to Wal-Mart, not ever. I think that as responsible citizens, particularly as young men and women who have only recently entered (or will soon enter) the workforce, we have a duty to boycott Wal-Mart, and to fight its continued incursion into our communities. To ennumerate:

–First off, the workers are paid staggeringly low wages, starting at $7 an hour, without benefits. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Nickel and Dimed–in which she tried to support herself with low-income jobs, including at Wal-Mart, without success–met an employee who, after two years, had gotten a raise, and was now making $7.75 an hour. Now, $7 is fine for a summer job while you’re in high school. But Wal-Mart is not staffed by high-schoolers; it’s staffed by adults, for whom Wal-Mart is the only source of income.

Actually, that’s not quite true; a great many Wal-Mart employees, unable to support themselves on their salary, are forced to turn to public services and welfare. During the California Recall debates, Cruz Bustamonte noted that Wal-Mart is known to give Food Stamp application forms to its employees, since their salary does not permit for luxuries like food. That the nation’s largest employer is not paying its employees a living wage is outrageous. To make matters worse, the company is notorious for exploiting its workers further; in four states, Wal-Mart was sued for unpaid overtime. Workers who refused to work overtime without pay were threatened with write-ups, or even with docked pay.

–In order to maintain the low salaries, Wal-Mart is one of the worst union-busting companies in the country (an elite group, to be sure). When Ehrenreich went to work for Wal-Mart, she and her fellow new hires were shown a video that explained why the employees don’t need, and in fact should fear, unionization. It described unions as obsolete and claimed that union bargaining could actually lead to lower salaries.

The hole in the logic is pretty gaping: if that were true, Wal-Mart wouldn’t be fighting so heavily against unions. Employees who make noise about unions are threatened with termination, and in fact are often fired, often for minor offenses like using profanity in the store. Wal-Mart has gone so far as to threaten to close a store altogether should its workers unionize. (Source: Naomi Klein, No Logo) This is why prices are lower at Wal-Mart than at KMart and Target: the latter companies, while hardly shining examples of capitalism, are unionized.

–Wal-Mart exploits underprivileged groups as a matter of policy. It is currently the target of the largest gender discrimination suit in history, which alleges that female Wal-Mart employees are systematically shunted into the lowest-paying positions and are kept out of management positions–despite making up more than two-thirds of Wal-Mart’s employees, women occupy only a third of management positions. (Source: United Food and Commercial Workers ) And just two months ago, federal agents raided sixty Wal-Marts across the country and arrested more than 250 illegal immigrants whom the company had knowingly hired for janitorial positions. (Source: New York Times) The arrested employees sued Wal-Mart for racketeering shortly afterwards, alleging that they were deprived of civil rights and labor law protections. (Source: Associated Press)

–On a more aesthetic level: being the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart has an incredible amount of power over the content of the products it sells. In order to maintain its reputation of being family-friendly, Wal-Mart insists that magazines, CDs, and so forth have inoffensive art and text on their covers; if they don’t, Wal-Mart simply refuses to sell them. The purchasing power Wal-Mart (and other large chains, such as KMart) represents is such that the entertainment industry censors itself, such as when a version of Nirvana’s “In Utero” was released with less objectionable cover art, and with the song “Rape Me” now called “Waif Me.” (Source: Klein) Of course, the purchasing power comes from the customers, so to boycott is to refuse Wal-Mart your portion of that power.

–And, of course, Wal-Mart’s business strategy relies on bankrupting independent businesses, who can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices–some businesses say they pay more for their goods wholesale than Wal-Mart charges retail. (Source: Klein) Wal-Mart, of course, can absorb their losses at a particular store long enough to drive all surrounding companies out of business. This leads to blighted, abandoned downtown areas and malls. And this isn’t just about having nice independent businesses to go to (though I think that is a factor), it’s about choice, as consumers and as employees. When you say that Wal-Mart employees are paid too little, people will tell you, “Well, they should get another job.” But if only the big-box retailers survive in a given area, what choices do the unemployed have?

I hope all of the above is reason enough to avoid Wal-Mart. Go out of your way not to give money to this negative force in American society. Drive a little farther, pay a little more, knowing that you’re not supporting anti-labor forces. Ehrenreich puts it better than I could, talking not just about Wal-Mart but about the working poor as a whole: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on–when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently–then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.” Don’t accept that sacrifice.

December 21, 2003

Spam in the place where you live

Filed under: Blogs Themselves — tomemos @ 1:26 am

The internet is FUCKING CRAZY.

Okay, check this out. About two weeks ago, I get an e-mail saying that a comment has been posted to “It Seems History Is To Blame,” which is (at that time) a month-old entry. The comment is: “We are healthy to only to the degree to which our ideas are humane,” which is completely irrelevant to the entry; what’s really odd, though, is that the poster has given the name of a friend of mine (who I will not identify); in the “Webpage” field, the poster has put the URL for a penis-enlargement site.

So I ask my friend what in the world she was doing. She responds that she didn’t post a comment, that she doesn’t even read my blog (thanks!), and that she’s a little weirded out that someone is posting comments using her name–especially since that comment is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”; it’s what’s written on Kilgore Trout’s tombstone. So there might be a moderately literate threat implicit here. I give her the IP address for the poster, we do some irresponsible speculation about who it might be, and eventually it’s bedtime.

Cut to about half an hour ago. I find that I have another comment on that same entry, from the same e-mail address––and with the same penis-enlargement URL, except this time the name given is “Allison Schwartz” (or “Schwartz Allison”), who I don’t think I know. And this quote is of a more directly creepy nature:

“Buildings burn. People die. But real love is forever.”

Okay, so now, I’M the one being stalked. I figure I’d better find out who the hell this Allison is–a friend from high school? College? Of course, a Google search for a name that generic yields too much to sort through, so I do a Google search on the e-mail address.

The first thing I find is something for “Mike Cohen’s Weblog,” an entry entitled “Warning to” It begins, “I’m NOT interested in a bigger you-know-what and neither are the other people who read my weblog.”

Yes, some Spambot has been leaving supposedly philosophical comments on people’s old blog entries (for more, check this out), all of them linking to the same penis-enlargement site. The best blogger comment I found on this was from “El Weblog de Lubo”: “Esto es un puto spammer.”

This is so goddamn ridiculous I don’t know where to begin. First of all, these comments were posted to an old entry; if I wasn’t signed up to receive e-mails when I get comments, I would never even know about it. Second, to my mind, the kind of people who are interested in such “philosophical” statements are not the kind who are going to invest in penis-enlargement just because they clicked a link and found themselves there. How, exactly, was this supposed to work? “Ah, a Vonnegut quote! Let’s go to this person’s webpage and…oh my! Well, I have been considering something like this…” I mean, is a stereotype of bloggers and blog readers that we have small cocks? Maybe someone would have been kind enough to let me know?

It’s just more proof that spamming is the lowest form of advertising. If you fool me into going into a site, I don’t see why I would then decide to buy a product there, anymore than taking me to Ikea against my will would make me likely to leave with a sofa.

The one mystery in this sordid affair is how my friend’s name got involved. I mean, it’s not a generic name, not like “Mary Jones” or something (or “Allison Schwartz” for that matter). She’s never commented on my blog or anything. If anyone has ideas, let me know.

Anyway, if you have a Movable Type blog and are interested in preventing this from happening to you, you can block that poster. The IP address is, and the e-mail address is located above. Me, I may not block it just yet…since the posts are on old entries, no harm is done, and I’m pretty interested to see what other bon mots this Allison Schwartz has to offer.

UPDATE: On second thought, I’ve blocked the IP address. I’d rather not encourage spammers if I can help it.

December 19, 2003

The weather outside is fair to middling

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 1:41 pm

A couple notes from my holiday season (or, the Yule Blog):

–Went into a Wal-Mart for the first time, accompanying Karen as she bought a Christmas tree stand. There was just the massivest pile–more of a tower, really–of stick-on bows, occupying a 15-foot-tall cage. We decided that it’s where they dispose of the union leaders. The best part of the trip was that, as Karen picked out a stand, I got to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to get an illuminated donkey this year?” There it was, in a clearly-labelled box–Illuminated Donkey. For nativity displays, I sorely hope.

–It’s always disconcerting around this time to see that the newspapers are talking about “last-minute shoppers” and the ads ask if we need to do any “last-minute shopping.” It’s disconcerting because I’ve basically done no shopping. What is this “last minute” crap? There’s like six days left. Once it’s December 23rd, that will be the “last minute.” (At that point I still will have done very little shopping.)

–After talking about my Christmas list crisis on this space last week, I have another killer idea: who wants to make an Imaginary Christmas list? It’s a list of gifts you want that don’t exist. They can be completely fantastical or they can be feasible but unavailable. The flagship item on mine: A special edition DVD of “Airplane,” which would just like the original movie except it doesn’t have Johnny, that annoying guy who I guess is supposed to be gay.

December 13, 2003

Where my thought’s escaping, where my music’s playing

Filed under: Romance, Travels — tomemos @ 11:45 pm

My flight was at 4:30, and I had a window seat on the left side of the plane, which meant that for almost an hour I got to see the sun set over the Pacific. From the red horizon to the blue sky, it looked like I was looking at the color spectrum off in the distance. Some wispy clouds came between the plane and where the sun had been, and and the contrast made them look like grains of ash thrown on the orange sky.

But the most beautiful part came towards the end, when I noticed that we were coming into Oakland from the north, from Berkeley. I saw the Campanile, and the and the Berkeley Marina, and the Mormon Temple. The last thing I saw was the lights reflecting off Lake Merritt, where Julie lives, and at that point the eight- or nine-year-old boy sitting in front of me said, “Look at the lights! It’s really pretty!”

I’m with you, kid.

That’s all I wrote

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:11 pm

Well, I’m done with the quarter. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. I say, I’m DONE WITH THE QUARTER. Yeah, I’m pretty thrilled. What’s funny about my elation is that this was actually a pretty un-stressful quarter, since I only had two real classes; it’s going to get much much busier from here. But, you know, everyone has that anxiety about their first term anywhere. At least I know I can probably do this. One quarter down, 17-20 to go…

My parents asked me for a Christmas list, and I had a lot of trouble composing it. I’d love to say that I’ve become less materialistic, but no–I had no problem telling my friends what I wanted. It’s that I’ve reached the point in my life where everything I want, they’re not likely to give me. My parents don’t like giving me books or CDs that they’re not personally familiar with, which I understand–if they got me a CD that they knew nothing about, just because I asked for it, it’d basically be like giving me cash. The problem is that, music-wise, I am now much much smarter and more sophisticated than my parents. So everything on my real wish list is either ludicrously expensive (an iPod), or something they’re not likely to get me (a book or CD they haven’t heard of, or a GameCube). You want to know how bad it is? This year, I mostly asked for clothes. And a cookbook. That’s how bad it is.

This entry is sounding really spoiled. But I’m not upset about this or anything, especially since my parents are really good at finding things I like. And to some extent it’s that, unlike my younger days, there isn’t a particular gift that would turn me into a happier person. (Except maybe that iPod.) But mostly I think it’s another sign of my changing relationship with my parents (the first sign being when they turned my room into the den). That is, as I become a more independent person, they get less of a sense of what sort of stuff I’m into. If things continue on this track, and I’m sure they will, eventually it’ll be like my parents’ relationship with their parents, who send cash to the grandkids and a birdfeeder to the adults.

Well, it’s time for me to put the finishing touches on leaving Irvine for a month. I hope to see some of you real soon.

December 11, 2003

The only thing that’s real

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 2:23 pm

I’ve turned off my phone. I’ve closed my e-mail program and signed out of MSN and AIM instant messenger. When I’m done with this entry, I’ll close my web browser, too. In front of me is a bottle of orange juice, a Trader Joe’s Middle East Feast, a fork, and this computer. Behind me, laid out on the bed and floor, are all of the reading materials for “Romanticism and History,” taught by Hugh Roberts. I’m about to start on my take-home test: one question for two hours, one question for one hour. I’ll turn on iTunes and listen to only melancholy music, like the Smiths and Nick Drake–the kind of thing Shelley or Byron would listen to if they were around today. As of right now, it is the late 18th and early 19th century, in England and France.

And awayyy we go!

December 6, 2003

And the daddy tomato says, “Ketchup.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 3:22 am

Just to get caught up on a few news items in my life:

I got my Joyce paper back, I got an A/A-. Yes, they give grades here; it’s a shock but probably a good one since I’m going to be required to give grades to my students so I should remind myself how the system works. There are a few revisions I have to make but nothing that’ll take up much time. Other than that, I have a small paper for my Romanticism class, as well as a take-home test (!!!) for that same class. Then I’m done with fall quarter. Since the major piece of work was done about three weeks from the end, and since I don’t have class next week (finals week), this one is ending with more of a whimper than a bang. Still, I’ll be glad to be done, and my review of the quarter is definitely Success.

As for next quarter, things are up in the air. I didn’t get into the Emily Dickinson class, and I’m waitlisted on my second choice–a class on technology and culture, which I think would be a great help for my blog paper. At least I’m in my third choice, on medieval romances, and I might still get into that tech class. Or I could audit it, although the idea of attending three classes while I’m teaching sounds insane; still, I guess I’ve gotten to the level where I’m supposed to do a lot of extra work just because I love it.

I’ve settled on the rules for the Universal Drinking Game; thanks to everyone who contributed. They are:

1. Drink whenever someone is bitten by a snake (or stung by a scorpion, etc.) in an embarrassing part of the body and needs someone else to suck out the poison.
2. Drink when one character says he or she has something to tell another character, but is prevented from doing so (by the other character saying, “Tell me later,” say, or by the sounding of the Emergency Alert).
3. Drink whenever a fruit cart is overturned, and an angry vendor shakes his fist. (The orange restriction suggested by Brian has not been adopted, although you can take an extra drink for oranges if you’re an alcoholic.)
4. Drink whenever anyone reverses the polarities.
5. Drink whenever foreshadowing occurs, in any form. Drink again when the foreshadowed event comes to pass.
6. Drink whenever someone gains access to a strange computer system without any knowledge of the passwords, or with only a “backdoor” password. Also drink whenever a character, by hacking a computer system, is able to control something that probably wouldn’t be controlled by a computer system (cf. the school sprinklers in Hackers, or the traffic lights in The Italian Job).
7. Drink when one of the principals asks the other if s/he trusts or believes him/her. Drink again if the other principal says, in essence, “I don’t know.”
8. Drink when a character doesn’t say “goodbye” when hanging up the phone.

I think that should keep us drinking through our movies for a while. Print the list out, take it with you when you watch a movie with friends. Get people involved.

That’s all my news. I’ll be back in Berkeley in a week, and that’s something I’m very excited about.

December 4, 2003

We are here to build a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude

Filed under: Uncategorized — tomemos @ 3:49 pm

According to the people over at , tomorrow, December 5, is National Ninja Day, and everyone is supposed to mention ninjas on their websites, blogs, etc. on that day. I mention it today, not tomorrow, since I don’t intend to take part; I don’t think it’s going to catch on. They’re clearly trying to make it the next Talk Like a Pirate Day–they say as much–but it won’t work because there’s no good way for the average person to evoke ninjas. Talking like a pirate is fun, but ninjas are known for being silent. Dressing like a pirate is fun, and is even a legitimate fashion choice, but people who dress like ninjas inevitably look like dorks in pajamas. I don’t mean to put down ninjas, or the comic possibilities therein– remains one of the greatest standards against which hilarity is measured–but let’s be reasonable.

So, if I’m not interested in the holiday, why I am I bringing it up? Well, it reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about recently. To whit: My aesthetic, or at least my humorous aesthetic, has gotten popular. It’s positively mainstream now. Take pirates. Pirates used to be a silly thing to be into, but the piratical genre has been completely revived. Pirates of the Caribbean is the obvious example, but it started before then; how else would Talk Like a Pirate Day have caught on so effectively when it was first just a couple weirdos on the internet? The pirate who sings the Spongebob Squarepants theme song is a Nickelodeon celebrity now. Or take monkeys, an example close to my heart. People used to think I was just into monkeys because I was weird, or because I wanted people to think I was weird (both charges had a certain amount of truth). Now everyone knows how funny monkeys are, from Mojo Jojo to the ubiquitous Paul Frank to the little pirate monkey in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Now, being into monkeys, pirates, ninjas and robots (forgot to mention robots) seems like a random collection of things to find funny. But my friends in college and I regarded it as one interconnected web of humor, and it is now essentially being packaged that way. If you don’t believe me, consider that comics have now given us both Monkey Vs. Robot and Pirate Vs. Ninja.

I’m not about to get all upset that my quirky sense of humor is no longer quirky. And I still find all of these things fun, and funny, especially when combined. At the same time, I’ll admit that the constant exposure to this stuff is kind of dampening my thrill. It’s exactly what happened with monkeys: when something simple makes you happy, especially a certain animal, you can look forward to getting a representation of that thing every Christmas and birthday. I now own four plush monkeys, plus a collection of monkey toys and games, and while it was fun for a while I eventually reached what my friend Lauren aptly called my “monkey saturation point.” This is not a unique problem: Apparently the Barenaked Ladies now have a song about getting tired of receiving monkeys as gifts, and when a nerd band is singing about having too many monkeys, it’s a sign that monkeys may have run their course.

I have a tinge of nostalgia for the days when owning a sock monkey (Bobo, Christmas 1998) made me an interesting individual. At the same time, all of this gives me a certain amount of pride. I was born too late for punk, and I missed the boat on Nirvana, but I can say that I was into monkeys before they were cool.

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