Notes from the Undercaffeinated
How a week in purgatory can remind you of the important things in life.
I don’t know who said that life’s a journey, not a destination—apparently no one else does either.
But before I continue, I should tell you that this “news”letter is also a journey and not a destination; because, like the guy who woke up in the trunk of a moving Buick said, I have no idea where this thing is going. If that’s not your cup of tea, I totally understand. Just bail out now, rather than sending me an angry email about how, like a basset hound asked to do the job of an English setter, I never got to the point.
See, I’ve had quite a week. And if I hadn’t missed the G-File last Friday, I wouldn’t be furiously banging on the keyboard trying to achieve what Fred Barnes famously described as one of the most desired qualities of any work of journalism: “Doneness.” And reaching doneness in my current ill-tempered, ill-informed, and just-plain-ill state, means letting her rip, like a single guy driving home alone after winning the Tres Frijoles Super Burrito eating contest.
I’m sitting here in Terminal B at the Houston airport with my daughter waiting for our plane like it’s the last chopper out of Saigon. I’m exhausted. That’s nothing new. But I’m also underfed, under-nicotined, and undercaffeinated.
Speaking of caffeine, the Starbucks here has a “No Coffee” sign, which feels like a “No Animals” sign at a zoo or a “No Tape” sign at the “Scotch Boutique.” And I just discovered that Peet’s Coffee won’t serve coffee, either. “We do have a large number of Coke and Pepsi products,” the Eastern European youngster behind the counter noted as if I hurt his feelings by asking for coffee from an establishment whose motto is literally “Coffee First, Everything Else Second.”
In this moment of agony, I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories.
Not long after my Fair Jessica inexplicably decided to marry me, we needed barstools for the kitchen of our new house. I had the idea of driving out near the Eastern Shore with Cosmo, the then-youthful wonderdog. There were a bunch of furniture outlets out there. We planned to make a day of it by getting lunch, letting Cosmo run on the beach, and buying some barstools. The thing is, we couldn’t find any good barstools. Some stores had a few, but nothing we liked. Most didn’t have any.
We were about to give up and decided to try one last store. We walked in. A pleasant-enough salesman made a beeline for us. We told him we were looking for the kinds of barstools you’d use for eating breakfast at a kitchen island. We don’t need leopard skin this, or sleek chrome that. “I’m sorry, this is all we got,” he said, gesturing to a handful of stools which were, if memory serves, chrome-y, leopard-y, or—like one of those liquid metal terminators caught mid-transformation into Charo—both chrome-y and leopard-y.
“Oh. Thanks anyway. Do you know of any other places around here that might sell barstools?” we asked.
The salesman thought hard for a surprisingly long time. He might have suggested one or two places we’d already been. We replied, “Thanks anyway,” and started to walk out. Right before we reached the door, the salesman said, “Hey, I’m not sure it's the kind of place you’re looking for, or if they even have what you want. But I know somewhere you could try.”
“Really? Where?”, one or both of us asked.
“It’s called, ‘Bar Stools Plus.’”
To this day, we laugh about it (not the salesman and I, he’s dead to me) because of the way the guy had to dig so deep to think “Bar Stools Plus,” the area’s largest bar stool emporium, dedicated to all of your barstool needs, as if it was a total Hail Mary idea. Some real outside-the-box, man-bites-dog, just-crazy-enough-to-work brainstorming was required to come up with “Bar Stools Plus” as a possible solution to the quest for [checks notes] bar stools.
Sometimes on long drives when I can’t stop talking and my family can’t escape my rants, I like to come up with similar scenarios: “Do you have any erotic Hummel figurines? No? Do you know where we might find some?”
“Gosh no. Nothing like that around here. [long pause] Oh wait. This is a longshot. But you might—just might—try ‘Hummel True Love Depot.’”
At least the folks at Peet’s Coffee have a good excuse for not fulfilling their top priority. Houston’s water supply has been befouled because the water treatment plant ran out of power. Meanwhile, in Austin, where we’ve resided in frozen purgatory all week, we got the notice that Montezuma was looking to make a cross-border incursion through the Texan infrastructure. My understanding is that this was Ted Cruz’s real reason for going on his fact-finding mission south of the border. I for one salute his patriotism in keeping his clandestine mission secret, despite the fact his cover story has caused him such problems.
I say it’s been “purgatory” because it’s been neither heaven nor hell. My daughter and I were lucky compared to a lot of people this week, and we got to spend a great deal of time together, evenly split between “quantity” and “quality” time. We just didn’t get to do many of the things I planned (the weather was supposed to be in the mid-60s), or to eat much of anything at all, never mind all the things we came to Austin to eat. Who goes to Austin with a plan to eat barbecue and Tex-Mex and still fails after eight days?
Talk about man bites dog.
Okay, since you asked, let’s do that.
The full version of the phrase goes something like this: "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
It’s been attributed to a lot of people, and my dad hated it.
For context, I should note that my dad sent me hundreds, perhaps thousands, of emails and handwritten little notes by mail in my early days as a columnist. You can get a flavor of some of them in the eulogy I delivered for him.
He once wrote me in an email:
I have seen front-page stories over the years about dogs biting men - whether because of a case of rabies, the Post Office complaining about this continuing hazard to their deliverers, or attacks on people by pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc, I have NEVER seen a front-page story on a man biting a dog. And yet, going back to my years at NANA [the North American Newspaper Alliance, where Dad launched his journalism career], we had distributed at least five or six stories about men biting dogs (either out of revenge, pure kookiness, or whatever).
Invariably, these were consigned to the inside pages as “filler,” usually run in the early editions, and dropped in the final editions when “real news” filled up the pages (like dogs biting men, perhaps?). The New York Times was a customer of ours then. They used a lot of NANA material, including two concerning men who bit dogs, as filler material in early editions, both of course dropped when the big stories started coming in on land reform in Peru (which everybody, of course, was waiting for). We even distributed several stories (spread out over a year, which was the time period he gave himself) about an Australian who ate his car (yes, including the engine, headlights, and all)!!!! Did the Times give this proper attention? Of course not. They didn't run any of them. And yet they used many stories on cars that destroyed people. So, when you hear the ‘man bites dog’ cliché, you'll know that it is just another big lie!
As I’ve written before, I think about this point from Dad a lot. As he demonstrates, this man-bites-dog thing was almost never literally true. But figuratively there was always something to it. The implied meaning of the phrase is that the media seeks out news that is surprising or counterintuitive. Of course, this is still true sometimes. But often it’s not. Indeed, the bias tends to run the other way on the stories that matter the most. The incentive to cover something shocking is very weak if the shock will anger or disappoint your own customers. MSNBC and CNN clearly don’t want to cover the shocking news that Andrew Cuomo might as well have delivered his COVID press conferences wearing a dark cloak and clutching a long scythe. And, as we all know, how many right-wing outlets didn’t want to dwell on the fact that Trump didn’t win the election and all that?
But we’re getting perilously close to substance here and, like fighting in the war room, we can’t have any of that. So thanks for tuning in. Assuming we actually get out of Texas, I hope to return to a more regular schedule next week.
Various & Sundry
And now, the weird stuff