Wednesday, October 30, 2002

If you've ever gotten into an argument over whether it's "pop" or "soda" (for the record, you're both wrong), "basement" or "cellar" then participate in the Dialect Survey and tell the world how things are said where you come from.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

You ever have one of those weekends when all you want to do is kick back, chill out and have some fun, without having to learn anything? And then life intervenes? Last weekend was one of those weekends. Very intense, very emotional, a Twilight Zone ride into my own emotions and emotional baggage. It's very easy for a weekend like that to suck, to be painful and terrible and just way too hard to handle. The difference lies in what kind of people you're around when a weekend like that happens. Luckily, I got to spend Saturday night surrounded by some very cool people. I have great friends.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Normally, I can go out of town for a few days, skip the news and not get a paper, and I don't miss much. This was not one of those weekends, apparently. By far the most interesting factoid, I think, is that the balance of power in the Senate between now and January will be determined by a former professional wrestler with no allegiance to either of the major parties. And somehow, that seems to be to be a wonderful example of everything that's right about this country.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

A friend of mine once asked me, "Who am I, if I'm not my thoughts?"

It's a nice, tough question, but I still maintain that I am not my thoughts, because I have no control over them. They just come up, unbidden. If I've got to locate the self somewhere, I'd rather locate it in my choices.

Why the philosophy? Well, my grandfather died last night, and if I had to judge myself by the thoughts that went through my head as I digested the news, I wouldn't come out looking too good. Of course, that's assuming I could pick out any one stream of thought from thousand contradictory impressions flying through my mind.

I'll be honest: I don't have any positive memories of my grandfather from when I was a kid, just one or two negative ones and a whole lot of neutral ones. But I don't really feel entitled to have any opinion of him, because I never really tried to get to know him. On Thanksgiving, he'd sit in his chair, watching the game, while I sat in the recliner, reading my book, neither of us seeming much interested in the mass of family around us. But again, I never asked, so I don't really know. Maybe he was glowing silently with pride and joy and having us all there.

The dam started to break five or six years ago. It was Christmas, and we were all gathered down in La Cygne for the holiday. As usual, Grandma was at the piano, and she was telling us all about the shows she and Grandpa were putting on for church and at the local nursing home. Then Grandpa's on his feet, playing his harmonica along with the piano. The words Grandma was singing were a hymn, but I knew the tunes from old Woody Guthrie songs. I had a shocked smile on my face, watching my stern, silent grandfather playing Woody Guthrie tunes on his harmonica and dancing a jig.

Over the last several years, I saw more and more of that side of him. I rarely made it over to see him, but when I did, he'd talk for hours, laugh, joke, and play the harmonica, quite literally, backwards and forwards. At the same time, his mind seemed to be disappearing. When he recognized me at all, he thought I was my father. Paradoxically, our relationship improved dramatically when he had no idea who I was.

The last coherent sentence I remember hearing from him was probably a year ago, when he reacted to a birthday card my father read to him with, "Who says I'm 90?" But still, even in his last few months when everyone was a stranger to him, he was friendly, happy, and just a bit mischievous. Was that the real him? Was there a twinkling elf at his heart, unrecognizable and unseen until dementia stripped away the mental and emotional patina of a lifetime? If I had taken the time to look, could I have found it there?

No idea. Luckily, I find the questions more interesting than the answers, if there are answers to questions like these.

I don't know how (or even if) it fits with everything else that's bouncing around in my head right now, but a few years ago I inherited some of my grandfather's tools when they sold their house. Even though they've been in my workbench and up on my pegboard for a while now, they still feel like his tools, and I suspect they will for some time, if not always. But when I'm marking a crosscut with his try square, or soldering something that's being held in his vise, I can put my hand where his hand was and feel like, somehow, we understand one another.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Dan Savage on the O'Reilly Factor - I'm hoping to track down video footage of this, just because I want a recording of Bill O'Reilly saying, "I want to go to a gay bathhouse!"
Posting's been kind of light lately, but there's no particular reason, unless you count the fact that work has gotten kind of tight. I've been making an effort to get more organized, which means an actual to-do list, which means less time to slack (i.e. post). I guess I could post in the evenings, but I went and bought Buffy seasons one and two on DVD, and I've been catching up.

I completely missed all of season one, and most of season two, since they aired before the WB came to town (but I was able to catch summer reruns of season two), so they're almost all new to me. It's particularly interesting watching them at the same time as I'm keeping up with the current runs of Buffy and Angel. New episode: Buffy's a counselor recruited by the new principle to help the new kids. Old episode: The principle's threatening Buffy with expulsion. Old episode: Cordelia's the queen bitch of the high school. New episode: She's a goddess, elevated to a higher plane because of the selflessness and love with which she lives. It's a bit like going to your high school reunion, in that everyone is so different, but somehow not very different at all. And, in the words of the great Joan Cusack, "It was just as if everyone had swelled."

I take it as a very healthy sign of age-appropriate attraction that I find the cast much more attractive now than then. Speaking of aging gracefully, I'll be turning 32 in a couple of weeks. How in the hell did that happen? It's not that I feel 16, or 22, or any other age in particular, it's more that I look back over my life, and most of my 20s are kind of hazy, like a Sunday afternoon where you don't do much more than putter and watch a little TV, but before you know it, it's dark outside.

But if this is how 32 feels, it's not bad at all. I may well be in the best shape I've ever been in, mentally, physically, and spiritually. My finances are coming together pretty well. I still get carded on a regular basis, and even my friends are surprised to hear how old I am. In fact, I have several friends, including one who's known me for years, who are surprised every time they hear it, which makes me seriously question their ability to retain information. My only worry is that I may end up being doomed to date women in their 20s because women in their 30s will think I'm too young for them.

I suppose there are worse fates.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

The story of love is about me - Frank Furedi starts out talking about trends toward people living alone, but, being a sociologist, he turns to the why of it and comes up with an interesting thought: Relationships, by their very nature, have to be about the other person, but as a culture, we pretty much see everything as being about ourselves. Or, as he puts it, "[A]s long as society fails to endow intimate relations with any meaning that transcends self-realisation we will all be singles - whether we are in a relationship or not."

It's an interesting conundrum. We can't be happy if we ignore the self and concentrate only on the needs of others, but if we focus solely on the self, we're trapped in a lonely dungeon of solipsism. All this means is that life is about finding the right rhythm between the two, making life more of an art than a science. On a related note, Slate has an interesting discussion going on the nature of happiness.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

As much fun as the RenFest was, the high point of my weekend had to be the unsolicited opinion I got from the large, 40-something black man wearing a mechanic's uniform that the soundtrack to Once More With Feeling (the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode) was "tight."

And it is, by the way.
We got Pitchers! - I went to the Renaissance Festival with some friends last weekend, and there are pictures up to prove it. Highlights include an angry elf, a wannabe hipster, and a big dork. Honestly, I find it difficicult to imagine that these pics would be interesting to anyone outside my immediate group of friends. In fact, I think most of them would be bored, too, except maybe for the folks who were there. But then again, I don't get much traffic beyond my immediate group of friends, and it's entirely possible that the rest of you might find some voyeuristic charm in browsing the digital detritus of my life.

Monday, October 14, 2002

Evolutionary Criticism - An article on bringing evolutionary psychology to bear on works of literature, specifically, The Aeneid. The authors on occasion step too far, such as when they suggest that evolution is (or could be) an organizing principle for all of literary criticism, but they have some good points. If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend Ellen Dissanayake's What is Art For? and other books, which deal with art not as objects but as a set of behaviors, behaviors which she argues increase our 'fitness' in the Darwinian sense of the word. Where, then, does that leave literary criticism? Well, I for one think that it's interesting to look at stories in terms of their behavioral effects, which allows us to examine why given stories are, or are not, adaptive for certain cultures at certain times.

Piers Plowman bores the daylights out of most of us, but so many copies of it exist that we know it must have been popular in its day. Why? Why was this story so resonant with the people of its time? I don't know enough about the era to even hazard a guess, honestly. But I believe in stories as an active force, so I believe that it was because the story was somehow useful to them.

When I think about publishing my thoughts on this, my mind always jumps to the opportunists in Congress that blame Hollywood whenever there's some sort of violent tragedy. It's the movies' fault, or music, or video games. But life is more complicated than that. Violent entertainment is cathartic, it purges violent emotion even as it evokes it. If we try and guess what stories will or will not be adaptive, we'll more than likely guess wrong. If there's one constant about human beings as a race, it's that we always seem to think we know more than we actually do.
On Why It Is a Good Thing to Stay in Contact With Your Ex - Because you still get to see her from time to time, the actual her, not the version of her that lives in your head, then suddenly one night as you're driving home, you realize that the woman you were missing doesn't actually exist anymore.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

What's Right With My Life - Moment One
Saturday I was buying some pastries at Panera when the very cute girl behind the counter stopped in the middle of her robotic pastry-selling spiel and said, "I forgot to ask; how are *you* doing?" and we had this brief but genuine conversation, and she gave me an absolutely killer smile that was like sunshine breaking through the clouds on a gray and foggy autumn day. Honestly, I think that if I could have a moment like that about once a week, I wouldn't ever need to date.

Then I went home and brewed a batch of beer for the first time in months, but that's taking us into another Moment.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Adam Gopnick on Willie Nelson - I used to joke that Willie Nelson was responsible for my proposing to my wife, and I could never understand why she didn't like his music. Now that I'm divorced, it occurs to me that maybe I do know why. Gopnick's written a nice portrait of one of the great amiable uncles of American music (Pete Seeger being another notable). It ends with a quote from Willie: "Well, you know what they say," he says. "The early bird may get the worm. But the second mouse gets the cheese."

Sunday, October 06, 2002

New Welch Column - Basically, it's about the impossibility of a truly unilateral war. If nothing else, we need a place to park our planes. I now have a new argument against invading Iraq: In order to wage a successful war on Iraq, we need to make nice with Saudi Arabia, and the ideas and ideologies manufactured in Saudi Arabia are more dangerous to the U.S. than any weapons manufactured in Iraq.

Friday, October 04, 2002

Why Am I Not Surprised? - The relevant facts:
  1. He's running for Senate.
  2. He's blue. Literally.
  3. It's from chemicals he consumed in preparation for Y2K.
  4. He's from Montana.
  5. He's a Libertarian.
  6. There's a picture.

Thursday, October 03, 2002

Dry Ice + Airplane Toilet = Bad (but funny) - "He turns and looks at the toilet. But it has, for all practical purposes, disappeared, and where it once rested he now finds what he will later describe only as a vision. In place of the commode roars a fluorescent blue waterfall, a huge, heaving cascade of toilet fluid thrust waist-high into the air and splashing into all four corners of the lavatory. Pouring from the top of this volcano, like smoke out of a factory chimney, is a rapidly spreading pall of what looks like steam."

There's that, and then there's this: "Jens stares. Then he turns to his young second officer and puts a hand on his shoulder, a gesture of both fatherly comfort and surrendering camaraderie, as if to say, 'Don't worry son, I'll clean all this up,' or maybe, 'Down with the ship we go, my friend.' He sighs, gestures toward the fizzing, angrily disgorging bowl and says, with a tone of surprisingly unironic pride: 'She's got quite a head on her, doesn't she?'"

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

I'm having one of those days where my brain doesn't want to think about what I need it to think about and I don't want it to think about what it wants to think about. It's very frustrating to have spent decades training this brain, filling it up with all kinds of useful and/or entertaining stuff, and now to be considering trading it in on a new model. Then again, I haven't really been performing the necessary maintenance, so is it really that surprising that I'm having problems?

Next time, I am definitely going to be changing my spinal fluid every 3,000 miles, even if the Car Talk guys say I could go 6,000.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

How to Spit - A part time wine critic goes to a pro to improve his spitting technique. A taste: "I am working on it, every chance I get. Even spitting out mouthwash has become an opportunity to practice. If all this strikes you as a bit asinine and pathetic, you may have a point."