Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hudson Riverdogs

Can I just holla about how tired I am all the time lately? This exercise business is really not so special once you reach the age of imminent codgerdom. As my high school pal R said last night over dinner at yet another bar, "At our age, life is about pain. Oh sure, after you leave the gym you feel great, but that only lasts a couple hours. Then you just hurt." True enough.

But while your pins are pumping and the bike is whizzing along and the fresh air is blowing bugs into your eyes, is there anything more terrific? After I picked up my bike at the shop again late this afternoon, I rolled off down to the river to watch the sun slanting in bright and golden over New Jersey. It was a glorious day. Spring allegedly manifested itself earlier this week, but for my money -- and that of all the blissed-out Gothamites soaking up the sun down by the Hudson this afternoon -- today was the season's true debut.

Locomotion was just this side of effortless on the flat boardwalk, and before I knew it I was up at 100th St., where folks get kind of ... individual. Don't get me wrong. A, I like individuals just fine, and B, most folks up there are straight shooters, run-of-the-mill types. But not the duo I saw clambering all over the rocks throwing sticks into the river for their three dogs to fetch. That was a rare sight. I pulled over to watch.

He: mustachioed Latino in a plaid jacket and slouch hat.

She: flinty, fading bottle blonde wearing fleece and jersey in bright colors.

Dramatis canidae: a cheery squat pit mix (brindle), a shaky older lab (yellow), and an undergroomed, overfed cocker spaniel (beige).

I stood there benignly observing while the guy wandered around picking up small logs and provoking the dogs with short unintelligible yells as he tossed the wood into the slow-moving river. The dogs were shivering -- fatigue? cold? -- and barking their protests, but wading out faithfully to fetch back the flotsam.

They both clocked me right away, but as I was just standing there with a smile on keeping quiet, they ignored me. Presently, she made her way up the bank and announced, "First day of the year for this!"

"No better day for it," I observed.

"Beautiful. And they love it," she declared.

"I've never seen dogs do this here," I said. "I'm from the West Coast, and we have beaches where dogs do this, but I've never seen dogs jumping into the Hudson."

"What else do we have? This is Manhattan. Everybody's out here with their dogs in the summertime."

"And it's not too cold now?" The older dogs were shivering and looking reproachful, but the pit mix was up on the grass happily splintering a log with her teeth.

"Stop that! No! No!" said the blonde, trying to disengage dog from log with a gentle but firm foot. "You'll get it stuck between your teeth and then you won't be happy." The dog was impervious to logic, cheerfully tearing off big coppery chunks of wood.

"No, they love it," she asserted.

"How old is that one?" I asked, gesturing at the lab, who was shaking and slipping as she tried unsuccessfully to climb out of the water over mossy rocks.

"Flossy? Twelve!"

Twelve is about the age my dogs went down. A twelve-year-old dog is like an 84-year-old person, more or less. I wouldn't have sent my grandmother out for a swim in the Hudson. My lab mix Cosmos would have walked or swum endlessly to please me, despite her arthritis. When I realized the pain she was handling just to keep up with me, I stopped taking her for long walks. That was a year or more before cancer did her in.

I tried to make the point that dogs will ignore and far exceed their own best interests to please their people. The lab looked miserable.

"What? We're not making them do anything. They're jumping in on their own."

I didn't much want to meddle, so, having said my piece, I clammed up. It's easier for an owner to willfully ignore a dog's discomfort than to accept that its age is about to force a change of habit. Dogs and humans form strange compacts, social contracts whereby some portion of each others' needs are met. Barring abuse, does an outsider have a right to meddle? Define abuse. Those two love their dogs and vice-versa. When she told me she was a dog rescuer and that I should get a dog, I said my goodbye and shoved off. Rescuers are generally goodhearted and strange. I turned around a few minutes later, and when I passed them, all the dogs were leashed and still shivering but heading for home.

Oh, why do I get involved with strange people? I should just keep pedaling.

Friday, March 24, 2006

My Genius Bike Messenger Videogame Idea

As you might guess, I'm not a gamer. I don't game the system, I don't play (many) games people play, I don't gravitate to board games or cards or casinos, and I definitely don't play video games. Blame it on my age, blame it on whatever. Play the blame game. I probably won't join in. (It's not you, it's me. Honest, baby.)

But today, riding my new old bike up Sixth Ave. in midtown traffic, I felt like I was playing a video game. Badly. It's been at least 15 years since I rode these mean streets, and I'm just out of practice. You have to look for just as many things as a car driver does, but you have way more mobility and options -- and the consequences of failure are much higher. You have to pedal hard, observe harder, predict trajectories, and watch your back and everyone else's. In short, it's a huge rush.

Here's what it's like: You're in the three-foot-wide bike lane, which puts you within striking distance of every parked car on your left, whether it pulls out suddenly or its door opens, so you're watching for tires turning, taillights glowing, even for heads inside. The only safe car is an empty car. That's on your left. On your immediate right, cars stack up to turn left every two blocks, effectively cutting you off, reducing your visibility, and keeping you from traversing the intersection. Occasionally they're bumper to bumper, so if you don't plan well enough, you just have to stop and wait for all the busy walkers to thread through the minute gaps.

So you decide to get out of the bike lane and soar with the cars and cabs and buses and trucks. You can almost keep pace with them, but now you're watching lethal moving objects for lane change warnings (turn signal? What's a turn signal?), sudden stops, and those weird moments when two vehicles get so close that you can't get past and risk getting crushed. Which reminds me of the bus that honked at me today as it pulled past me right up to the curb, boxing me in. I slowed to let it pass so I could skirt around the back, but just as I was about to do so, there was its second half closing in too -- a double-length megabus. Nothing to do but hoist my bike onto the sidewalk and ride carefully past the people stepping off.

Speaking of people, let's talk pedestrians. Manhattan's motivated walkers like to step as far into the crosswalk as possible, so they can dart through the slightest break between cars. We bikers like not to hit things. Things such as overeager walkers who do not always look both ways, childhood lessons be damned. Traffic lights are only rough guidelines here. Even before they turn green, phalanxes have entered the intersection, striding purposefully toward their opposite numbers to create a thin but dangerous mesh of flesh that blocks the entire crosswalk. So you have to thread not between two cars but through herds of people moving erratically, an art as delicate as diplomacy -- if swifter and less memorable. Walkers don't move at a uniform speed. So if you're heading for an intersection and not planning to stop for the red light (yes, yes, it's illegal, we know), you have to guess how soon each walker will cross your path -- the hardcharger, the granny, the teenybopper, the oblivious, the crazy -- and aim for the gap you predict will exist between them at the very moment that you reach them. And remember -- cars are coming from the opposite direction. Look out!

(As a walker, you experience this as some huge idiot nearly killing you when he zooms past, seemingly unaware of your fragile existence. He is aware. He may believe himself to be better at seat-of-the-pants physics than he is, and he may not always be right, but he is aware. Or he could just be a reckless bully.)

So as I pedaled up Sixth today, watching canny messengers on bikes far faster than mine dart through scary traffic eddies and clots of walkers, I wondered if there's a videogame about being a bike messenger. I worked in that noble profession for a few months in my last summer of college (while my peers were naively wasting their time on internships and summer office jobs), so I know a little about the work. The more packages you pick up and drop off, the more work you get. Virtuous cycle. If you're slow, fewer jobs come your way. Vicious cycle. In any case, the dispatcher's favorites get more runs. Jobs that send you above 72nd or below 14th (I think) pay a premium. Flat tires mess you up. So do potholes, puddles, poop, and policemen. And those rare but real maniac cab drivers who try to run you down. You have to plot the most efficient course between ten points on the grid, factoring in traffic patterns and construction. You lose time looking for places to lock your bike. You lose more time when office workers keep you waiting. And all the dangers and terrors of riding noted above? They apply, but more so, because that's your environment all day long as you try to earn your keep. Your senses become sharper and your legs and reactions faster, but as you get cockier you make assumptions and then mistakes. And by the way, you get tired.

That's all fine, but everybody knows most RPGs (role-playing games, not rocket-propelled grenades) involve guns. Fine! Mount a machine gun on the handlebars. This is a game, after all. Have some fun. When a walker is behaving erratically or threatens to cross your path, blow him away! Cab coming at you? Fire! Score points! But that's too easy. Walkers get guns too -- but not all of them, so you have to watch them as you approach. And if a cop sees you kill someone, she can come after you too. Running out of energy or cash credits? Call the dispatcher -- but not too often or he'll get fed up and stiff you for a while.

It's kind of like -- and excuse my quaintly obsolete references -- Doom, Sim Work, Asteroids, and Pac-Man all rolled into one. It would be fine to play on a couch, but amazing while riding an exercycle that linked your game speed to your actual energy expenditure.

My Genius Bike Messenger Videogame Idea may already be in the works, but if it isn't, and you create it based on this post, please buy me a new bike with your newfound wealth.

OK, OK, and I do like some games: backgammon, Balderdash, Scrabble, and Jenga.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sentenced to Semi-Celebrity

In 2004, Anat Zuria's divorce documentary, "Sentenced to Marriage," exposed the misogynistic theocracy hiding within Israel's democracy. Before its release, few people even in Israel knew that women have no rights when seeking to end unhappy, abusive, or bigamist marriages in the Holy Land. Because all Jewish marital issues fall under the rabbinic court's jurisdiction, a shockingly outdated set of standards applies in divorce cases -- not just for religious people, who choose to let rabbis make many decisions for them, but for secular Jews as well. The situation is so difficult because the courts are controlled by ultra-orthodox rabbis, who assert a rare and fundamentalist interpretation of the Jewish code of law, whereby men have nearly limitless rights and women have next to none. All this in a modern society charged with being "a light unto the nations."

Zuria grew up secular but married an observant man 20-some years ago and now lives as an orthodox Jew in Israel. She faced reactions of all kinds when the film came out, from relief and gratitude to opprobrium and censure. Her insider perspective on Israeli fundamentalism makes her films extremely powerful ... and very controversial within the orthodox world. This week in New York and surrounding areas, she’s facing audiences of all kinds as she screens the film at a variety of Jewish venues and festivals.

We met six months ago in Israel, and though we hit it off and her story intrigued me, I didn’t find the time to see either of her films (both are unavailable on DVD here). So when I saw her name in the Makor Steinhardt Center's catalog a few weeks back, I emailed to let her know I'd be in New York too, and we made plans to meet.

At Makor tonight, I arrived just in time to hear the last line of her introduction to the film: "I hope you won't enjoy it." We said hi on her way out, and I slipped into the last row as the lights went down. The hour-long movie focuses on three women's efforts to extricate themselves from marriages to men who have abandoned them. A legal aid organization run by religious women attempts to help each of them deal with the trauma of the judicial system. Though Kafka is probably forbidden reading for the ultra-orthodox, the judges all seem to know his work well. For reasons that are never explained, they repeatedly delay decisions and require women to return in one, two, three weeks, even when the absentee husbands are known abusers, are not paying child support, have formed entirely new families, and are wanted by the police (one court clerk lets a fugitive father escape out the back door to evade a cordon of cops).

Eventually, after numberless court appointments, negotiations, and police stakeouts, two of the women secure their freedom. Rachel, a religious radio producer with four children, does so partly by becoming hysterical in the courthouse corridor, renouncing religion and denouncing her husband and the judges in a chilling, otherworldly howl of rage that draws stunned listeners from all over the building. The outburst helps, but perhaps not as much as her private detective, who secures scandalous sex photos of her estranged husband. The creep folds, and she gets her life back after waiting five years. The other woman, Michelle, just seems to get lucky after her own five years of court dates and police stakeouts.

The third woman, Tamara, gives up. After her bribe attempt fails, she just accepts the idea that she'll never be free of her husband, despite his new wife and children, so she focuses all her energies on pets and making art. Her legal "pleader" tries to reawaken a sense of outrage, but the trauma has been too great. She's done fighting. The film's last shot focuses on Tamara's fingers slowly weaving long needles into a wedding day photo of her with her husband (who looks just like Osama Bin Laden, another fine fundamentalist).

After the final credits faded and the lights came up, Anat ducked back in to field questions. She paced as she talked, hunching in her overcoat and slipping involuntarily into Hebrew as the hour deepened. The small room was nearly filled, largely with women. The first questioner wanted to know about the visual technique in the courtroom scenes, when, because taping actual legal proceedings is forbidden, the handheld camera claustrophobically paces the courthouse halls as we hear unseen people speaking. She explained that just as several faces in the film are blurred to protect identities, actors had to rerecord the judges' voices to keep them anonymous. So in the film we hear the actual women arguing with actors spouting the judges' words. Like dubbing, but different. You can’t see the lips not moving.

Most viewers wanted to talk about how horrible these stories were, but Anat said these were "soft" examples; she'd found far worse. On the other hand, she added that these cases are the exception. Most men in Israel behave decently in divorces, but a few turn rotten when they discover the power they have and see how much they can abuse the system and their wives. As the night wore on, people started arguing with each other about the coalition politics and broken promises that permit this shonda (Yiddish for "shame") to persist. Anat said that in fact, "Sentenced to Marriage" screened two years ago to a full house at the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), and change is afoot as a result.

By 9:30 she'd grown increasingly terse and most of the seats were empty, but a core group of women dug in. Long after a tired Makor employee had cleared the screening room and gone home, they hovered in the hall. One stout woman with wide, round eyes and a wig of orthodoxy said she was experiencing an equally impossible marital situation right here in Rego Park. Could Anat help? Anat listened, took her number, and said she would pass it along to people who might.

Finally the lingerers numbered just five. I felt like a stage-door Johnny myself. We made a break for the staircase, and they all fell into step behind us. It was like a low-grade rock star situation, except the groupies were ... well, they weren't ... they weren't groupies. Not like in Hammer of the Gods, anyway. As we reached the front door of the building, one of them seized the last moment to thank Anat and tell her how meaningful the movie had been, because she too is a filmmaker and --

But Anat, jet-lagged and tired of talking, interrupted with a collective brush-off saying, "Thank you very much and I'm sorry, but my friend and I have an appointment, so please excuse me," and that was that. She'd been speaking for more than an hour, and besides -- people expect Israelis to be rude.

Her first film, "Purity" (2002), a documentary on abuse of power in mandatory ritual baths, is also unavailable on DVD in the US. It is seen less often, she says, because her producer absconded with the money and some of the rights. She doesn't pay attention anymore. She's chosen not to fight, and to focus on her art and future projects ... just like Tamara.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

'Private Thoughts' About Dateline

A week ago tonight, Lord Zim was on Dateline, representing those few brave blogs that have yet to be corrupted by corporate takeovers and subtler forms of co-optation. The Lord Zim name was clearly visible for a second or three, and the Dateline site on MSNBC featured a very visible link to this site.

Dateline. Prime time Sunday night on NBC. Why am I rehashing details so obvious to anyone who's either just come from MSNBC or has been reading Lord Zim this past week? Because this major "MSM" exposure yielded such minimal traffic. What would you guess?

Five thousand unique visitors?

Five hundred?

Try 50. That's how many people found this blog that night solely because of the show. Most just clicked on the MSNBC link, but some googled "lord zim." That number doubled the next day, dropped to about 30 on Tuesday, and has been eroding slowly ever since. Total Dateline-driven visits? About 250-300. You may be blasé, but I'm kind of amazed by this weak result. And not one comment. Is it something I said? Or didn't?

The funny thing is that Dateline invented "The Mank Blog" -- the brief weekly segment that featured LZ -- primarily to stimulate bloggers to write about ... Dateline. Contrived? Self-conscious? A shining example of fear and marketing replacing news programming with pandering? You bet. But what does it say that something designed to target bloggers and blog readers sent less traffic here in a week than the average successful blog records in an hour?

(OK, maybe Lord Zim isn't Pulitzer material. And it's not focused enough. Or revealing or insightful or funny enough. But heck -- it has its moments. And besides, people don't know what they're clicking on at MSNBC beyond the fact that Mank called this a standard non-corporate blog. Maybe the problem is that most people just don't care about "the private thoughts of one person," as the MSNBC link promises. I know I don't.)

Back to my semi-rhetorical question. If I may attempt to whip up yet more rhetoric, the lousy numbers say something like, "The blogosphere is self-contained and exists outside of and undisturbed by the MSM's efforts to co-opt it (even when that effort masquerades as an effort to expose how guilty other corporations are of co-opting it)."

OK, OK. I protest too much, and it's churlish to bite the hand that fed me 250 readers. Some of those newcomers actually spent time here, and maybe they'll come back. Besides, I liked seeing my copy on TV. I freeze-framed it and read a sentence aloud to my co-auditors in what seemed like a very modern moment of narcissistic indulgence.

But let's test my theory. What if one popular blog or other site did link to Lord Zim? Would the resultant traffic spike put Dateline to shame as I imagine? And er, would anybody care?

Clearly, I'm not above some pandering of my own.

Three Dog Night

As the doorman ducked behind a potted evergreen, he smiled and started to howl, head tilted slightly back and eyes half-closed, as if to improve the impersonation. I was running past on my way to the gym. A furtive, howling guy in a uniform? Smiling?

No sooner was the question posed than the answer came trotting toward me at the end of a leash. Fifty feet away and closing, a largish terrier type with floppy ears and a coat of assorted grays started to bark at the invisible provocation. The woman restraining him smiled broadly as dog and doorman harmonized. At about 15 feet I joined in with my own reckless chorus of yips, which prompted the dog to look up at me with a "who the hell are you" tilt of his head.

And then I was past him but we were all still at it, two barking bipeds and one aggrieved quadruped, making a racket on Sunday night in Hell's Kitchen.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Seigneur Zim!

In the aftermath of all this media hype I've been checking LZ traffic more than usual, and just moments ago stumbled across this delightful weirdness, thanks to an anonymous NY reader. Maybe all you blog connoisseurs already knew about this neat trick, but it's a new one on me. Regardez!

Le neat trick.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Happy Birthday, Lord Zim!

Yes, that's one candle per post. Almost.

Today marks a year of Lord Zim. Many thanks to all the faithful and even the unfaithful readers who have honored my ravings with your time and attention over the past 12 months.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Birthday Present

Yesterday was Lord Zim's biggest media exposure yet. Tomorrow will be Lord Zim's first anniversary. Today I'm hoping some irate megablogger, someone who has not just skin but guts and teeth in the game, will link to me with a “what the hell is THIS blog doing on TV?”

But why should I care? What good does increased traffic do for a blog that could well be described as "the private thoughts of one person"; i.e., the ravings of a deranged loner? Bigger audience? Who cares? I don't run ads. In fact, the bigger and more interested my audience, the likelier it seems to me that someone will put together all the pieces and figure out the mystery -- a mystery I have yet to identify or piece together myself. Vanity. All is vanity.

Speaking of surveillance, here's one of the more impressive, obsessive items on display at the Armory Show.

Each 3x4-inch b&w screen is fed by a tiny camera pointed out from the exact opposite point. It's called "The Invisible Sphere" or "215 Points of View." All the screens and cameras are mounted in a welded frame, the outermost points of which are radial spokes capped with rubber tips like those on canes or crutches, so it rolls. Though it's on a short cord. Read all about it here.

Greatest Hits

Today I'm meeting a cousin for lunch at Pam Real Thai, which you may have read about at some length below. We were supposed to go to Negril, a Jamaican place on 23rd, but he read Lord Zim and changed his mind. He's not the first person to read about Pam here and suggest we go there. First mom, then J (as you can see in his comment), and now C.

This prompts a cursory assessment of my most memorable and/or affecting posts.

1. The 2,000-word report on Les Sans Culottes, back when they were splitting up (April)
2. All three donkey photo essays plus the wrap-up, "How I Became an Ass Man"(November)
3. "Night and Blog," about my nighttime romp in the celebrated/reviled gardens of the Getty Museum (March)
4. "Dead Sea Scrolling" about my extraordinary adventure at the Dead Sea and beyond, when I found the stolen luggage (August)
5. "How I Spent My Summer, by the Dog" (April)

There are others, but this is a good start for the casual reader. I'll post links to each of those tonight (done, as promised -- LZ), but now I have to go. Does blogging get in the way of life or vice-versa?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hello out there in TVland!

Yes, this is the site Dateline describes as "the private thoughts of one person." Nice to meet you too. Though these thoughts hardly seem private.

Look, I'd love to share more private things, but I'm going out to a movie. Scroll down -- I used to write funny things a few weeks ago. Pretend I'm offering you a drink, as if you were really in my living room.

And have a look at, my other blog. It's more celeb-oriented and therefore likelier to appeal to you, the avid TV viewer.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

Highlights for Kids

Today's highlights:
    * Waking up at 5am filled with self-loathing
    * Managing to fall back asleep
    * Bialy with whitefish salad and wasabi roe from Russ & Daughters
    * Walking in the rain to and seeing the Armory Show for the first time
    * Chancing upon Brian Dewan after 20 years and hearing about the Dewanatron machines he makes with his cousin Leon Dewan
    * Hearing that Lord Zim might be on TV tonight
    * Microwaving Mallomars (a first for K!)
Mallomars, as you know, expand and distort as tiny air bubbles in the chocolate-enrobed marshmallow expand under a bombardment of microwaves. Almost as exciting as TV.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Bread and Circuses

Two former work adversaries turned sociable lunch partners are munching on sandwiches and reminiscing at Amy's Breads, Hell's Kitchen branch. They sit at a small table in the very back of the store, right next to the rustic wood and glass kitchen door. The door is constantly in use and open, despite a hand-lettered sign that says "Please keep this door closed! Thank you!"

A rich tapestry of bakery aromas fills the air as the sounds of customers, clerks, and the cash register form a soft hubbub. Suddenly, a cataclysmic noise -- loud and wrong and horrible -- brings all other sound to an abrupt stop. One of the lunch partners leans to the right and sees, through the glass door, a very embarrassed kitchen worker standing above the very shattered remains of three glass gallon jugs of apple cider. He slumps in white clothes, the bushy mustache wilting above a shit-eating grin. At his feet, the jug tops still cluster together on the tiles, nothing left of them but white steel caps, chunky fingerholes, and funnel-shaped broken shoulders huddled together in a jumble of glass.

A tide of apple cider rushes across the tiled kitchen floor and spills into the wood-floored retail space, exhausting itself just inches from the lunchers. For the next 20-30 minutes, the mishap drives all kitchen activity. A frowning woman in high heels -- Amy? -- steps carefully through the mess to issue directives, then leaves, radiating annoyance like lines off a cartoon character. The guilty party and a blameless co-worker mop and sweep up gallons of juice and pounds of glass as a taller guy drops several freshly laundered white cotton aprons onto the floor, where they turn first the color of cider and then the color of dirt. Sheets of new cardboard flop down atop the sticky kitchen tiles as someone restacks enormous sacks of flour out of cider's way. Droplets dry on the door panes, ignored in the melee.

Back in the retail area, the ambient noise has returned to normal, but the sweet smell of apple juice is overpowering. The two lunchers speculate in their ringside seats about how the vermin will respond to this abbondanza. They agree that vermin would be a major concern at a bakery, but one avers that ammonia cures all ills. The other nods, wondering how to distribute enough ammonia to negate three gallons of splashing cider.

Meanwhile, eleven blocks away and six floors up, a woman attempts to reduce a stale baguette to bread crumbs using only a plastic bag and a hammer. Stymied by errant crumbs, she imagines cockroaches lined up in rows and cheering as her efforts go awry.