Erratic Like a Fox

“Why did he do that?”

“How could she?”

“What was she thinking?”

Tsk, tsk.

We’re living in an age where we cheer the eccentric and boo the erratic, in equal measure. Same as it ever was.

I was prompted to write a post for today’s Word-of-the-day challenge about Erratic.  I immediately reflected on the past couple of weeks. Elon Musk and the joint. Serena pointing at the ref. Madonna, always controversial. What do they all have in common? Success, you motorscooters! Success, despite their seeming erratic behavior. Success which comes from their innovation, talent, and unpredictability.

Serena Williams serving
Serena beating the pants off her rival in the U.S. Open semifinal before losing in the finals, photo by Seth Wenig, AP.

The Erratic 85.49% Winner

Serena is the greatest tennis player in history. Winner of 23 Grand Slam titles, she now competes against teenage athletes who grew up idolizing her. About to turn 37 years old, with an infant at home, she blazed into the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. Although she lost both finals, her power and presence were remarkable given her recent circumstances.

She yelled at the umpire, who apparently is known for harshly judging players. She broke a racket. She then criticized the perceived unequal treatment for receiving penalties that she felt men had not been assessed in similar situations. The fickle public saw her both as underdog and as sore loser, and the controversy overshadowed the tennis, the play, and the win by 20-year-old up-and-coming Naomi Osaka.  Williams has lost matches before, in part, due to emotional reactions. Tennis is a game fueled by emotion.

Williams has also won Grand Slam singles tournaments. Twenty-three of them, more than any other woman or man since tennis went to the open (“professional”) era. Roger Federer, listed by some as the greatest player, cedes that title to Serena; Federer’s won 20 Grand Slams. Williams also has four Olympic gold medals and 14 Grand Slam doubles wins (Federer has one gold, one silver and no Slam doubles). Serena Williams: Greatest Of All Time.

By the time little Alexis is saying “mama badass,” Williams will have won another Final.  I hope it’s in the catsuit.

Madonna wearing Moroccan fashions
Madonna at the VMA awards in traditional Moroccan garb, photo from Thenationalae.

Express Yourself as Erratically as You Want

Another figure lambasted  for “bizarre” behavior is Madonna, who turned 60 this month. She’s always been controversial because she sets trends rather than follows them. Madonna’s been a full-employment vehicle for spin doctors who love to critique her fashion sense, singing voice, marriages, divorces, public speeches, political views, vegetarian diet, religious practices… all while wanting to know every intimate detail about what she’s wearing, eating, doing, praying, and saying.

At the recent Video Music Awards, scheduled to present Video of the Year, Madonna was asked before going on stage to share a memory about Aretha Franklin. She told a story about being inspired by Franklin and even sang a little before then presenting the award to Camilla Cabello.

However, VMA chose to put a huge photo of Franklin up on the screen as if the award presentation was always intended to be a tribute. Naturally, the Twittersphere and blog-o-universe was shocked! shocked! at how Madonna’s tribute to such a legend turned out to be self-centered. No doubt Madonna sighed and called her publicist, likely on speed dial.

Madonna also chose an outfit highlighting the beauty of Morocco’s Imazighen people, including a horned headdress, silver necklace, and colorful robes.  She was criticized for “appropriating the culture” rather than extolled for presenting it to a broader audience. When she was younger, critics whined about what she wore in similar measure. Then, Target and Macy’s started doing a brisk business selling knock-off Madonna outfits.

As she gets older, critics whine about how she looks older.  I like what Fiona Sturges said:

When she is told she should slow down, step back and act her age, she protests in the only way that she knows: in the public gaze… All hail to Our Lady, still fighting, still hacking away at the undergrowth, still clearing a path and changing the world for the rest of us.
Fiona Sturges in The Guardian

Erratic to the Moon

Some of this type of criticism at Serena and Madonna is sexist. Some is also aimed simply at those who are different and refuse to conform. Innovation drives the world forward, but often innovators have to pay a stiff price for any choice they make which doesn’t fit social norms. Take another giant on the cutting edge: Elon Musk.

Elon Musk smoking
Elon Musk appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast, photo at NBCNews.

Musk has been torn apart recently by the wolves in business journalism, most recently for appearing on a podcast smoking a joint. The Washington Post speculated about his mental instability in an article that suggested that “people are speculating about his mental instability.” Fortune complained that the military might have to rethink the SpaceX contracts.  Because there are so many other companies that make rockets which successfully take payloads to the International Space Station that the Air Force can just pick somebody else… Oh, I forgot, there aren’t.

Elon Musk started a payments business that turned into Paypal and, when it was bought by eBay, he retired at age 30. He began SpaceX out of his  desire to work on the colonization of Mars. He joined the board of Tesla, then helped press it into practical production.  It’s been a twenty-year slog to figure out all the gory details–sourcing large-scale battery productions, bringing the cars into mainstream, and advancing large scale solar cell production at the same time.

His bio includes a stream of start-ups and flare-ups with his boards, arguing about whether PayPal should stay on Unix or go to Windows and clashing with the business community about whether Tesla should stay private or go public. But the car company started from nowhere with ideas that were deemed impractical and impossible and now the Model 3s, which will sell for nearly the price of a Toyota, are going into production this year.

Elon Musk is brash, outspoken, impulsive, a horrible role model, a great role model, a human being, and he’s made at least three companies successful by creating products that didn’t successfully exist. If we’re lucky, he’ll stay interested in combating climate change.

When thinking about what the press says about these innovators, who live on the cutting edge, I always go back to Bette Midler.

F’ em if they can’t take a joke.


Balance Restored: Ruby Slippers Found

An estimated eight billion people have seen the 1939 Hollywood film version of The Wizard of Oz.  Millions have viewed a pair of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film, on display at the Smithsonian. Hundreds more saw another pair on loan to the Judy Garland museum in Minnesota, until it was brazenly stolen by thieves unknown in 2005. Minnesota has been on watch ever since.

Recovered ruby slippers
Recovered ruby slippers via FBI + mysterious sequin, photo at

But intrepid G-men, those FBI who have been criticized so much lately, were on the case. They announced this week that the slippers have been found, and they are close to apprehending the miscreants. Callooh-Callay!

Before I pontificate further on a few engrossing details in the case, I will point out that as a child of the sixties, I viewed Oz a good dozen times in black and white before ever seeing it in color. My aunt also says that she was watching the movie with my aging, Alzheimer-stricken grandmother and that at the moment when Dorothy opens her sepia-toned tornado-struck house to the colorful world of Oz, my grandmother died. So there is some deep connection between my Minnesota genes and this movie. As with that scene, there is more to the case than meets the eye. Continue reading “Balance Restored: Ruby Slippers Found”

Last Night I Dreamed of Algebra and the Taliban

The subconsciousness is a strange device. It’s our human CPU, running subroutines in the background. When we shut down for the night, it keeps running, energetically trying to solve all the world’s problems.  How the universe was formed. Whether there is life on other planets. What x equals. Why cruelty exists.

American Conservatory Theater production
From SF American Conservatory Theater production of Khalid Hosseini’s book, photo from Playbook.

A Thousand Suns… Some Not So Splendid

Last Thursday, I sat mesmerized during San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater production of A Thousand Splendid Suns. This play, based on the best-selling novel by Khalid Hosseini, is the story of women enduring the Afghanistan Civil Wars and the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s. I choose the word enduring carefully because it is the core verb that women in the play use to express what must be done. Afghanistan under the severity of the Taliban interpretation of Sharia Law was as perilous a place for women as any; endure is what they must.

Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam….There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . . . It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.
–Nana in A Thousand Splendid Suns

I don’t know if Hosseini read his Faulkner.

They endured.
–Last line of The Sound and the Fury

Continue reading “Last Night I Dreamed of Algebra and the Taliban”

The Hypnotic, Horrific Jolliness of Mr. Trololo

The screen begins to undulate in a moire pattern of yellow, green, and orange. Purple drips start to appear, and just as your eyes start to scream No more!, jaunty waves of violins, punctuated with trumpets and cymbal crashes, chime in to assault your ears. Words appear. In Russian. The screen dissolves to a man wandering behind a curved iron gate in front of a honey-colored wall … crooning. What is he singing? Why is he so cheerful? Is that his real hair? And why is he singing like that?

20180110 trololo screen
YouTube Mr. Trololo, with English Subtitles

So many questions come to mind. You are transfixed with emotions you cannot name. Horror. Fascination. Amusement — no, Giddiness. Glee! Make it Stop! Never Stop! Continue reading “The Hypnotic, Horrific Jolliness of Mr. Trololo”

Facing forward, facing back


The turning of the year is always a time we treat ourselves to a new round of self-reflection and self-flagellation for what we have done and what we have not done. It’s a good time to take stock and make plans. But resolutions are flighty beasts. If you create them, do so with an eye towards success rather than suffering.

All of life can be broken down into moments of transition, or moments…of revelation. This has the feeling of both.
G’Kar, Babylon 5

Blame the Romans for emphasizing this act of two-faced reflection, this looking forward and looking back. Along with roads, sanitation, and language, they also gave Europe and the New World a workable calendar. Some tweaking was required; the original “Romulus” calendar was ten months long and began in March. Legend credits King Numa Pompilius — the dude in charge sometime after Rome’s foundation but way before the Republic and Julius Caesar — with adding two more months to help bring the lunar and solar year into synchronization. The new year was moved to start a week or so after the winter solstice on January 1st in a new month dedicated to Janus, the god of doorways, the god of looking forward and looking back. Continue reading “Facing forward, facing back”