Monday, May 10, 2004

Soon, this page will be #1 for chair hanging sex

Mike's recent post about an experience with a hilariously outre spambot has, it turns out, propelled him from a Google ranking of 43 on a search for "chair hanging sex" to numero uno.

This has given me an idea for a new internet toy: You type in a URL, click "submit", and a perl script reads the URL, puts together a hundred or so random combinations of two or three words from the page, submits them to Google, and presents to you your Google ranking for each phrase--sorted numerically so that your #1 rankings show up first. For example, this program might be able to tell me that my blog has a Google ranking of #5 for the words evil CSN. It's fun!

All I need now is a catchy name like Googlewhacking or Googlefight, and to forget the whole idea because who the hell has time.

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Friday, May 07, 2004

A little pre-Mother's-Day appreciation

I gave my mom the address to my blog the other day (not, of course, without some slight trepidation), and her response to the nostalgiathon in my previous post was:

    Your mother would have blistered your bottom if she had known you were crawling around in that dirty creek. . . That's the other side of the reminiscence thing - if you could have properly appreciated it then, just think what I would have thought!

    . . . but on second thought, I don't think I'd have stopped you. Children need episodes such as these - you just grit your teeth & pray that any hurts are transient. Modern parents are unfortunate - they have to be so panicky about children alone - pick them up at school even when they are perfectly capable of walking a few blocks. Uphill both directions, of course.

Right on. And thanks, Mom. Thank you.

One of the difficult, and more than a bit creepy, aspects of parenting in this decade is the apparently widespread, paralyzing fear that Something Bad Will Happen. I was walking six blocks to school and back when I was five years old, stopping to watch trails of ants, float leaf-boats in the rain gutters, feel the sticky sap oozing out of a pine tree. But these days? Do five-year-olds still get to do that? It sure doesn't seem like it.

I mean, it was nice to see families playing at the Hidden Parks the other day, but you know what I didn't see? I didn't see kids playing unsupervised in the open courtyards of my old apartment complex, where thirty years ago there would have been armies of 'em. Nor did I see any children walking by themselves for the pure joy of it. And actually, maybe a casual observer wouldn't have seen those things so readily back in the 70s, either. Perhaps I only remember them as uibiquitous sights because I was a kid, and tended to be out and about when kids were out and about.

But I don't think so. I think America--at least the suburban America I'm familiar with--has undergone a real shift and become, in the words of Barry Glasser, a Culture of Fear [gratuitous partner link]. We fear insane things, ridiculous things, like Anonymous Lurking Kidnappers (who do, unquestionably, exist, but in such tiny numbers you'd be better off worrying about lightning strikes). And razor blades in Halloween candy (though nothing of the sort has ever happened).

And we fear cars hitting our children, so we keep the children in the back yard, or safely tucked away in the house watching TV, and we drive them to and fro in our SUVs and minivans, and the sidewalks become dead zones while the streets fill with deadlier vehicles. And you know what studies have shown happens when there are fewer kids along the sidewalk? People drive faster. Which makes the street even more dangerous, and discourages even more families from letting their kids play out front--and, probably, drives the sales of even more SUVs and minivans.

Now, one of the great joys of my life is acting snooty and elitist and superior and pretending I'm above the concerns of Ordinary Dumbshit Americans, but of course I'm not. I'm part of this culture too. I may intellectually know them to be irrational, but I still feel the same fears.

It's already a real challenge for me, and I know it will get harder as time goes on--to let go, restrain my control-freak instincts, and let my son have the mad adventures every kid deserves to have. It's a struggle. Ben likes to play with electrical outlets and plugs: Should I stop him? Yell at him? Slap his hand away from outlets? Inculcate in him a fear of something that is, properly handled, harmless? Or teach him the proper method of handling a plug, and just be ready to comfort him when he gets the inevitable shock?

Until a few days ago, he was afraid to go down slides at the playground. Wednesday evening, in a moment of sudden impatience, I plopped him down on his butt and pushed him down a slide. "Yes yes yes yes yes!" he said, all the way down, and has been sliding down slides fearlessly ever since. Before, I would have said that a parent who forces a child to play a game he clearly doesn't like is a fool or worse. . . but somehow it turned out to be the right thing to do.

I realized several things just then. Principally, that I'd been coddling him--and that helping him face and overcome fears is a better thing to do than helping him maintain them. But also, it dawned on me that he may well have gotten that fear from me. I'm afraid of heights myself (a fact I wasn't aware of until I learned to fly). I love heights and wide views, but I'm afraid of falling, and so naturally I'm afraid of my son falling. I tense up when I see Ben tottering high along a play structure, jerk my hands out to steady him. Surely he notices it. Surely it sends the message that he's not in a safe place, and that I don't trust him to keep himself secure. I must, I must, learn to stop doing this.

And, as he grows, I must face my own fears, and let him out of my sight more and more, so he can learn about the world without me acting as fretful nervous intermediary.

Given the incessant yapping of our cultural messengers of doom--Our schools aren't safe! Our streets aren't safe! Our food isn't safe! Is your child at risk? Film at 11!--it may be harder, this decade, for parents to overcome that fear than it was thirty years ago.

But you know something? It can't ever have been easy. It obviously wasn't easy for my mom.

And she still did it.

Thanks. And Happy Mother's Day. I love you.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Speeding Up Memory Lane

I was meeting Martin for a dinner date last night at a spot about halfway between where each of us lives. As it happened, the spot we chose was a half mile or so from the neighborhood where I'd lived from the third through fifth grades... and I arrived at the restaurant about 40 minutes early. So I took a little pilgrimage to see a fondly remembered place...

I remember as if it were yesterday, though in fact it was late summer of 1976, a day when I'd strolled from our apartment over to the library to deposit my latest bolus of recently-devoured Hardy Boys mysteries, and stepping away from the book return box I was suddenly and inexplicably seized with eight-year-old wanderlust. There was a street on the far side of the intersection, tree lined and shady and filled with suburban houses and gardens and parked cars, and I'd never gone to see it up close! It was time to rectify that error. Off I went.

28 years away, I'm no longer sure what held my interest: I surely wasn't paying attention to the fine points of ranch-style architecture or admiring flowers, but something in me loved knowing the streets around my home intimately. In any case, after a flew blocks of wandering along Hacienda Avenue, I did something I might not have bothered to do if I'd been a few years older: I decided to walk to the end of each cul de sac I came to. And so I turned left.

And happily I strolled along, and then I noticed an oddity. There at the end of the cul de sac, off to one side, were two houses that had not one but two parallel fences dividing their yards from one another. What was between those two fences? I looked closer: it was some kind of alleyway. I walked into it, and a dozen yards on, I emerged into... a park.

A city park. A big rectangle of lush green grass, surrounded on all sides by tall fences and taller trees, a well-appointed playground in the middle--slides, jungle gym, half-moon swing, sand--benches and a water fountain and birds singing and nobody was there but me. There were no cars: There was no parking lot. The whole park was completely enclosed, and only accessible through a half dozen little alleyways just like the one behind me, each of them connecting to the end of a suburban cul de sac. In something like a daze, I stepped forward into it, and reverently walked around examining every detail of the place.

Now, you have to understand that when you're eight, and you're exploring, and you find something like this, you don't think Oh, a park! How nice of the city to build such a fine facility for the public's enjoyment! No, you think: I am the first person to discover this park. No one else has ever walked here before me. God put this place on Earth for me, and I am the sole keeper of its secret.

Some time later, I whispered my precious discovery to the woman who babysat me after school, and she said, "Oh, Hidden Park! Which one did you find?"

I don't remember what I said, but perhaps it was "Whahuh?"

"Why, there are two of them, you know."

Well! This was so interesting I almost forgot to be devastated by the news that I hadn't actually been the park's discoverer. So the next time I had a free moment I went looking for the other one, and in due course I found it, a couple of blocks away, concealed just as the first one was. Hidden Park 2 (as I always thought of it from then on) was, oddly, not as nice as Hidden Park 1--the grass was a little scruffier, the playground equipment not quite as nice, and it got more shade in the afternoon and felt colder--but what, I was gonna complain? Two parks!

So anyway. Yesterday afternoon, before my dinner date, I went to visit the hidden parks again. They're still there, still beautiful. The trees are bigger. In Hidden Park 1 they've replaced the playground equipment with the new, safe kind (alas, no more moon swing), and the sandbox was gone in favor of tanbark underlain with foam rubber. But I guess Hidden Park 2 is still a little neglected, though, because it still has the same old equipment I remember: The exact same jungle gym, exact same slides, I'm sure of it. One thing's clear: The parks have both got better PR now than they did 28 years ago, because they were populated: Happy families pushing kids on swings, a girl's softball team practicing throwing and catching, a fella chipping golf balls into an empty flowerpot.

I strolled around for a while, and then went to look at a few other childhood haunts: The library--now apparently closed, either for renovation or for tearing it down and building a new one--and the bridge over the shady creek where I used to scale down the almost vertical banks and catch tadpoles (and let's hear it for eight-year-old intrepidness, because I never realized until yesterday what a scary-lookin' place that was. Pretty, though).

And then I drove off to meet Martin, and as I drove I continued the nostalgiathon: Right about there is where the Sears used to be, and over there is where the movie theatre used to be, and here's the mall: These days it's a hideous shrine to consumerism and capitalist excess, but in those days it was the mall, you know?

And at that moment it came to me: One of the abiding problems of the world is that our nostalgia is out of sync with reality.

Think about it. It seems highly probable to me that when I was a third grader puttering around that neighborhood with its rosy-golden glow of childhood idyll, some thirty-six year old man was driving around thinking sadly about how great it used to be. And lord knows I didn't appreciate those days particularly at the time. Yet I'd pay big, big money to experience one of them again now.

The day before yesterday, surfing the net, I happened across a page about collectibles that discussed cute old signs from Sinclair Oil gas stations, with a friendly green brontosaurus logo. Sinclair itself went extinct in the late '60s, and now their signs are quaint. You suppose anyone thought they were quaint at the time? Of course not.

Here's what I think: We need to find a way to speed up the nostalgia process so we can properly appreciate now. How would this work? Bah, don't ask me: implementation detail. Perhaps a nice "soft focus" spraypaint. Or a pill!

Because someday, someone is going to look at an image like this:

...and think "Oooh, how darling! That takes me right back to 2004! Gosh, I wish I could go back there again and appreciate it properly."

And why can't they think it today, when they actually do have the opportunity to appreciate it properly? It would save so much time and trouble.

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Monday, May 03, 2004


Since it was announced on the first of April, I've been fascinated by Google's planned email system, GMail. So imagine my delight when I heard that people with Blogger accounts--such as the one I'm using right now to edit this post--were being invited to join the GMail beta program.

Then I discovered that they had to be active Blogger accounts, and apparently my highly infrequent posting (which I already felt kinda bad about) isn't enough to rate an invite.


Well, in the unlikely event that any person or AI at Google notices this post: Please? Please please please? Pretty please? Can I pleeeeeeeeeaaaaase have a GMail account?


UPDATE: A big thank you to Mike Taht; I now have an account. is now the email address listed at the left column of the blog. Somebody drop me a line so I can see how it works, eh?

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