Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Adventures in Weird TV
Last week I tivoed an episode of CMT's Controversy on the Johnny Paycheck song "Take This Job and Shove It." I suppose I could write something on the parallels between the late seventies and our present economic situation, with a hopeful note, something about how the Republican party can only go so long screwing the working man while still counting on their votes. But right now my brain is fried from seeing Ralph Nader on CMT, so that post will just have to wait.
So here's the pencil box:


And here's the quilt:
How I Chose My School (because it's that time of year, and because Patrick reminded me of the story):

My entire high school career, people were telling me how much I was going to love college. "It'll be so much fun!" "You'll learn so much!" "You can study whatever you want!" that sort of thing. Usually this was in response to my asking why I couldn't be studying something I was interested in, rather than doing the same busywork as everybody else. So when it came to applying for colleges, I applied the same conscientious effort that I gave to the rest of my academic career: virtually none. I test well, so I got info from a half-dozen or so colleges every week. And then there were the college fairs, yet another source of brochures.

Financial considerations made me limit my scope to Missouri schools, where I knew I could get $2,000 per year (the Bright Flight scholarship). MU sent me an invitation to come up for the weekend, so I did. They said, "would you like to attend a class?", and I did. Philosophy. 200 level as I recall. There were about 25 students in the class, and when the teacher asked a question of them, I sat back and waited to see what they'd say. Nothing. They looked at their notebooks, out the window, down at the floor, anywhere but at the instructor. Finally, I tentatively raised my hand. For the entire class, I, the high school student, was the only one participating. So MU was off my list. In fact, I put big question marks next to all the big schools on my list.

I asked around my circle of friends where they were going, but the answer I was really looking for was from a particular girl I was "just friends" with. She said "Northeast." I said, "Hmmm." My folks had heard good things about it, the price was right, and their brochures were very impressive. Lots of big words and pictures of people who looked like they were thinking very hard, but still happy (this is harder to pull off than it sounds). I sent off for an application from Northeast (BTW, Northeast is now Truman State) as well as a few other schools that made my short list. Unfortunately, deadlines aren't really my strong suit so I only made the early application deadline for one school: Northeast. A month later, I got the letter telling me I'd made it in, and that they were offering me a scholarship which, in addition to Bright Flight, would amount to a full-ride. Cha-ching! A week later, a $750 stipend. A few weeks after that, $2,000 from my dad's company. I read the fine print and, yes, I was going to be paid to go to college. What a country! Why bother even looking at other schools?

By this time it was nearly February of my senior year, and I'd never actually been to Kirksville. My parents gently suggested that a campus visit might be in order while there was still time for me to change my mind. We made the trek. It was a long drive, longer than I thought you could make and still be in Missouri. The land was flat as hell, but my grandparents lived in southeastern Kansas, so I was used to flat. The dorms stank. But the campus was fairly pretty, the people friendly, and there was a vibe there I felt fairly comfortable with. Since we were visiting on a Saturday, though, there was no chance for me to attend a class. After my experience at MU, I was just a little worried.

Our tour ended in the Administration/Humanities building. I was feeling the effects of a high fiber breakfast and lots of walking, so I left my parents to chat up the tour guide while I hunted down a restroom. I ended up in the social sciences division. The stalls were a pale off-white color that showed off graffitti quite nicely. My eyes were drawn to a column that started at about arm's reach and curved gently for almost three feet, terminating by the toilet paper. There were two handwritings and multiple pen colors in evidence as two people, apparently over the course of several days, if not weeks, debated the merits and flaws of the ontological argument for the existence of God.

The first words out of my mouth when I rejoined my parents were "I'll do fine here."

Coda: My first week at Truman I was in the library researching some damn thing or another when nature called. I sat with my pants around my ankles and perused my surrounding. Prominently featured on the inside of the door was "Buy a friend; join a frat!" and the erudite rejoinder, "You just can't hold your beer, fag!" Sort of a bait and switch thing, I guess. Oh, and the girl went to MU.
I'd like to wrap this year's Christmas up in a box with shiny paper and give it to you. There were exactly 24 hours of drama, and I got them out of the way nearly a week ahead of time. After that it was all cookies, companionship, laughter and lights.

No Christmas post would be complete without a catalog of gifts, so here it is: I got tools for the kitchen and the workshop, a couple of Sarah Susanka books I've been craving, and a flannel quilt that Christie made for me. It's soft, warm, made of rich, masculine colors, and makes me very happy. Quilts, like good furniture, are one of those things that seem to live primarily in the past, handed down or found at a swap-meet, maybe occasionally purchased new for exhorbitant prices, but so rarely coming from the hands of people we know. It's a nice reminder that history is still happening. On the giving front, I gave a pretty wide assortment, from an Airzooka and book for my brother to a sketchpad and colored pencil set for Christie, along with a case I built for them. Pictures of the case and quilt will show up soon, I promise.

But the gifts, so dominant in the preparations for Christmas, were peripheral at best. The real joys were experiential, like joining my parents for their traditional Christmas Eve trip to Pryde's (what's not to love about kitchen stuff and complementary margaritas), or watching my niece and nephew banter/bicker over pizza before they headed off to their choir concert. Christie squeezing my hand when we crested the hill on Wornall, and the Plaza lights came into view, or the way she held her program up to her mouth while she sang hymns at my parents' church. It took a while for my to find my niche, but in the end, I fell into the season the same way I found my key in the third verse of "Gloria In Excelsis Deo", and my singing went from labored and self-conscious to a simple, joyful noise.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Sedalina got me thinking this morning about planning. And faith. Anybody that can scroll down'll tell you that I had a bad day last Friday. But I took the night off and am feeling much better. I even made Christmas cookies with Christie on Sunday, and had fun doing it. Fun or no, eight hours of baking really takes it out of you, so when the last cookie was glazed, we collapsed on the couch for some HGTV. They were showing a renovation in San Francisco, the kind of renovation where you can barely even tell what the original house looked like, and at some point they mentioned that it had taken more than three years to complete.

"Three years?" the voice in my head said, "I can't imagine..." and then it went into that vague, tricky business thoughts can manage that language can't, where simultaneous and contradictory things piled on top of each other, but the whole seemed to make sense. Something about relationships, trusting your spouse to still be there, holding down a job, counting on being the same person, health issues, all the things that can go right or wrong to make planning pointless, and in the end it added up to "I can't imagine."

A friend of mine used to say the best way to make God laugh was to tell her your plans. And I've seen a lot of evidence for that over the years, as the rug got yanked out from under the feet of wonderful people by death, divorce, infertility, job loss, health problems, you name it. So if I stand back and look at myself objectively, it's no wonder I'm averse to planning. But my aversion isn't based in reason, it's based in fear. And I don't like being the guy standing on the edge of the pool saying, "Is it cold? It looks cold." while everybody else is splashing around and having fun.

I didn't want this to be a New Year's Resolution post, but it's starting to look that way. My goal for the next year, then, is to make God laugh. There are worse things to be than God's fool.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Finally, a quick and easy way to get rid of those pesky frequent flier miles! Go. Give. Seriously. Help a soldier come home for the holidays.
This is worth reading the next time you find yourself believing Newsweek. In their article on tort reform, they gave the example of Ryan Warner who ran a softball tournament in which someone was injured. According to the article, the tournament was cancelled for this year due to fear of lawsuits. Newsweek didn't mention that Ryan is actually immune from lawsuit, or that he works in the insurance industry. There's more here, if you're interested, like the fact that the "$70 million verdict" listed in the article, because it is being paid out over an extensive period of time, will actually only costs the defendants $8.3 million.

The media is broken.
Jeesh.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Bush finally does something right. Well, Bush and Blair. It's weird. I read this story and hear that our government actually worked hard, behind closed doors, to make the world a safer place. They actually got something accomplished something, and didn't brag about it until after it was over. It's almost like we have an actual government run by grown-ups. Weird.

Okay, sure, this is a brand-new story, and those almost always change, but for now it's kind of nice.
I was in a foul mood most of yesterday, and it stuck with me overnight. Yesterday was our annual holiday lunch, so maybe it was the result of eating slimy stuffing alone at my desk. Or the evil corruption they served us in the guise of pumpkin pie. But I think it's more that Christmas is coming, when the little voices go up to eleven, talking about things I used to have, or, more to the point, who I used to be.

I remember tossing the bow saw in the car and driving north of town to cut a tree. I remember gleefulling fashioning a tree-topper from a stuffed cartoon reindeer. I remember ornaments, garland and lights. And laughing. Sweeping up pine needles and smiling at the smell.

A few nights back, I went into the neglected corner of the basement where the decorations sit in plastic tubs, labeled with masking tape in a woman's handwriting. There were spiderwebs and dust, and scattered bits of fiberglass insulation from where the cat would sit on top of them and tear at the basement ceiling. The tub in front was labeled "Large Ornaments" which I set aside, unopened. Inside, I knew, were the hallowed Hallmark ornaments, each meticulously boxed and bagged year after year, such a contrast to my own mental picture of a tree like my parents' covered with clumsy, child-made ornaments. The next tub said "Small Ornaments, Garlands and Lights", and that one I set on the dusty weight bench and opened. The garland I wanted was at the bottom, as were the electronic lights she'd hated for their high-tech, flashy crassness. Once upstairs, I wrapped the one around the other with the set jaw of a convict braiding a rope from his torn up sheets, and hung them on the mantle in defiance of my own mind.

My thoughts are so loud these days that I walked flat out into a display at the hardware store last night. So loud that I can't structure the data queries I need to do my job. So loud that the characters in my head are drowned out, and I'm left unable to write anyone but myself. The novel is languishing as a result, as is my resolution to keep plugging away at it. But the gifts are purchased, soon to be wrapped, and some of the baking is done. The fact that I spend at least two days a week wanting to punch someone is just collateral damage.

I feel like this is something I should try and solve, but it happens every year as the demands of friends, family, and the season tighten around me. I worry that the people I love will read this and try to give me space, but when I get like this, I prefer their company to my own, provided I take the time to take care of myself. The problem is that I too often don't, which is why I usually end up with a migraine right after Christmas.

I feel like I'm writing a half-dozen entries at once, but I'm not sure my brain is capable of being coherent just now. Which means, I guess, that this dijointed entry is actually a pretty good evocation of what it's like inside my head today.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Watching you sleep, I can't quite believe
in the philosophers' German watchmaker god,
precision piecing our lives. But when
the wind is right I can almost talk myself
into a shade tree mechanic picking out parts
from an old oily crate, holding them one
to the other, scratching his head for a fit.

Categories:

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Overheard at the Mall
Him: Didn't we just pass Abercrombie?

Her: No, that was Abercrombie and Fitch, this is just Abercrombie.

Him: And the difference is what?

Her: Abercrombie is their kids store.

Him: And they had to change the name because Fitch isn't allowed within 100 yards of children?
Something new to get pissed about. It's a Salon article about police conduct during the FTAA protests in Miami. The headline says it all: "This is not America".

Monday, December 15, 2003

Is This the Right Room for an Argument?
I got into a week-long email argument with a friend last week. There were two threads to it: computers and politics. As always happens when I argue with Billie, I learned a lot, but I don't think either of us budged much, if at all, from our original perspectives. Rather, we settled in to our stances even more solidly. I'm a big believer that you don't really know what you believe until you're forced to defend it, so this was a valuable exercise. What did I learn? Read on, dear readers, for the story of how my head got lodged even further in my own navel.

Billie's a big proponent of defenestration, in the figurative, rather than literal sense. Most of us have experienced a yearning to throw a computer out of a window, but Billie wants to get Windows out of computers. He feels about Microsoft the way I feel about Wal-mart (i.e. the social costs are too large to be ignored, but often are), which gave us a common ground to work from. In the end, we agreed on quite a bit: that Microsoft is often a bad corporate citizen, that Windows isn't all it's cracked up to be, competition is good for software, and that Linux isn't just for hardcore geeks. But there were a couple of gaps we couldn't seem to bridge. For one thing, an old, dear friend of mine works for Microsoft and is vested there, so I want them to do well because I want her to do well. When I think of Microsoft failing, the first thing I think of is Michelle's retirement, and that takes all the fun out of my schadenfreude.

The other gap had to do with my personal behavior. In the abstract, I think Linux is great. But I bought a new PC a while back, it came with Windows XP installed, and I've left it that way. The fact is, I looked at Lindows PCs, I looked at blank PCs, I even looked at building my own from spare parts. The cheapest, best deal I could get was a Dell with lots of installed software, including XP. Of course, I could have wiped and partitioned the hard drive then stuck Linux on there, but I didn't. For the past six months or so, I had had a dual-boot system running Linux and Windows 98, and used Linux all the time. Or at least it seemed like I did. But when I took the hard drive out of that machine and stuck it in my new one, I had a choice: install Linux so that I could read the stuff I wrote to those sectors, or just wipe the drive after I took all the data I needed off the Windows partition. I went with door number two after realizing that there wasn't a bit of data on the Linux partition that I really cared about.

So, while I'd recommend Linux to someone setting up their first computer and to anyone for whom their computer is a hobby, I'm not sure about those of us in the middle. When I'm not at work, about all I use a computer for is writing and processing images (apart from the usual stuff like porn, stealing music, and games), and Linux doesn't have that much of an advantage over Windows in those areas. I'm sure it would use my computer's resources more efficiently, but I'm more concerned with my time and energy than my computer's and it takes a lot of time and energy to learn a new OS.

Let's say there are two ways of doing a thing, Method X and Method Y. If I'm already familiar with Method X, then Y better have some sort of competitive advantage if it wants my attention, because there's significant personal inertia to overcome. Linux' advantages are either abstract or aesthetic, which doesn't have enough pull to draw me over the wall from WindowsWorld, where I've been for many years. Reminds me of the old saw that it takes four times as much information to change a person's mind as it did to make it up in the first place.

Now, onto politics, and, again, too much personal context. Long time gone, I was doing advanced studies in literary theory at the same time the woman I was living with was doing advanced studies in molecular biology. It was a charming, magical time. We'd sit down for dinner, and neither of us would understand a word the other had said after 'So, what did you do today, dear?' I'm sure somewhere in my notebooks from that time is an attempt to merge our disciplines in a poem, rhyming mimesis with electrophoresis. But I digress.

We both had plenty of drama in our lives, but hers was about research results and grant proposals, maybe the occasional lab fire. Mine was all faculty feuds and ad hominem attacks. Nobody in Science called their opponent a bastard (the most they'd say is that their methodology was questionable), but PMLA articles got downright nasty. Having a sweet disposition at heart, I envied the collegiality of her chosen discipline, and wondered why English couldn't be that way.

In the end, I pulled a metaphor from biology and decided that it was all about available resources and territory. Biology, being an actual science, gets funding from government and corporations, while the humanities, for the most part, don't. So our resources were limited, and getting more so every year. Biology had the entire biosphere as its territory, and since each question answered produced five more that needed answering, the territory was expanding every year. The territory of literary theory, on the other hand, consisted largely of imaginary roads connecting castles built in the air. Or, at least, that was what we called it. In reality, the ivory tower we wanted to imagine ourselves standing atop was bricked with human beings, and it took a good deal of clambering and clawing just to hold your position.

And then there's the fact that biology is hard, while English is easy, so that there are many more English majors pumped out into the world than there are available resources for them. And since we don't taste very good, we were forced to cull our own herd. That's a recipe for a nasty and contentious environment.

All this is compounded by the fact that biology is, ultimately, grounded in a world that is very much real, while English is built of words on top of words, so that it takes quite a bit of digging before you hit terra firma. When two biologists disagree, they go to the data. If the data is ambiguous, they design an experiment to clear up the ambiguity. In literary theory, there is no unambiguous reality to which we can appeal, so we have two choices: attack the reasoning, or attack the person. And then the postmodernists discovered a wonderful technique: If someone attacked your reasoning, you attacked reason itself as racist, or classist, or whatever. That pretty much left the adhominem as the only available weapon, poor one though it is.

What's the connection to politics? Power, the resource politicians feed on, is bleeding into the media, technology companies, corporations and god knows where else. So we have diminishing resources. But the money is growing as our economy grows, which draws in the corporations, who hire lobbyists who are, in essence, unelected politicians, who then try to get their hands on as much power as possible so that they can then extract as much money from the system as possible. So we have a growing population.

But what's the territory? As we watch politicians comment on everything from commerce to education to entertainment, with side trips into technology, religion, medicine, etc., and it's pretty clear that the territory of politics is whatever the politicians say it is. In other words: words, words, words.

Sure, you could argue that there is a real world out there being effected by politics. Heck, I'd even agree with you. But our political reality is one that dismisses stories about the unemployed as "anecdotal evidence", discounts economic statistics as "fuzzy math" or cooks their own version of the books using wildly optimistic assumptions, invites industry-supported "independent" scientists to respond to decades of research by reputable scientists, or, if nothing else works, lie. And they've learned that if you tell a lie loudly enough, and get enough people to stand behind you and nod, then the media will report it with the weight of truth.

That's a recipe for some ugly fights, so it's no surprise we're getting them.
Not exactly a surprise.
For the Record
I'm glad we caught Saddam.
I'm glad we caught him alive.
I'm glad we're lettign the Iraqis try him (at least nominally).

Of course there's a "yes, but", but Josh Marshall lays it out so well I could just as well say, "Yeah, what he said."

We've got the most effective military in the world, and I never doubted they could find Saddam. I also have confidence we could find Osama Bin Laden if the administration made it a priority.

Friday, December 12, 2003

2weird4words
This is cool. It's a video game based on bio-feedback. In order to move through the game, you have to be able to control your emotional state. And at $130, it's a lot cheaper than any of the other biofeedback equipment available. Steven Berlin Johnson has a column in Discover on the game if you want more of an introduction than the site itself gives.
Bits and Pieces
I. Cringely's got a nice couple of columns on the voting machines issue. Here's the first, and here's the second.

I just got word that Silvatica passed her thesis defense, and is now officially a geographer. Or a forester. Geoforester? Possibly a ranger. But definitely the Mistress of Her Domain, and not in a Seinfeldian sense. At least, not exclusively in the Seinfeldian sense. I wouldn't actually know about that, and if I asked, her boyfriend would probably give me one of those looks. Anyway, she's the closest thing I've got to a sister, and she's been working her tail off on this thing, so pop something bubbly and toast her success.

Another side to those job loss stories.

I'm sure there's more, but I'll be damned if I can think of it right now. Must be Friday.
My Mr. Picassohead (via kottke)

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

So, which do you want first? The funny news, or the depressing news? Okay, funny it is. Researchers have actually found empirical evidence that men become less rational in the presence of beautiful women. Well, that's the headline, anyway. Actually, the experiment just tested whether we're less rational after looking at pictures of beautiful women. My favorite part is that they used pictures from hotornot.com.

Now for the depressing. Texas leads the nation in the uninsured, and Galveston leads Texas. Well, things have gotten so bad in Galveston that they're actively rationing health care based on the ability to pay. A friend of mine in the field used to joke about "a negative wallet biopsy", but people in Galveston take bank statements with them to the hospital to prove that they can pay for their care. Or, alternately, to prove themselves "medically indigent".

Meanwhile, I'll just sit here, looking at hotornot.com and trying not to think about the good $87 billion dollars could have done on this side of the ocean.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Doug Neiwert's got a great post up on his transformation from a pretty typical rural conservative to the liberal he is today.

I wrote a couple of pages on this topic, and then deleted it because, well, it didn't say what I wanted it to say. Doug's post touched something off in me, and I'm going to have to sit on it for a while to see if I can make. Somewhere along the line, that changed. I don't know if it's me that changed, or politics. Doug's take on it is that a man can only be called a traitor so many times before he starts to take it personally. I think he may be on to something.
Here's a little something I almost got somebody for Christmas. I'm pretty sure my niece would have loved the bunnies, but I wasn't sure how I felt about her getting mail from a guy who also sells pickled mice*. And Christie's not quite a stuffed animal person. Oh, she's girly all right, just not in that way.

* Mice not actually pickled, just preserved. So please don't buy them, eat them, and then blame me for the intense intestinal distress sure to follow.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

On Monday, a friend send me the link to a Newsweek story on Dean's "records problem". It's a nice, impartial piece by Michael Isikoff with the calm, neutral headline, "What's in Howard Dean's Secret Vermont Files?" All in all, it's an example of everything that's good and right with our media today.

If you still care, here's a column on the topic by Peter Freyne, who's been in VT politics for years and knows the woman who got this story rolling by whispering in Isikoff's ear. I'm sure you'll be surprised to hear that she's a Republican and lost to Dean in two elections. Freyne also provides a nice bit of context by telling us what other states do with their comparable records:

"According to a 2002 study by Professor Charles Schultz, 28 states have a law requiring governors' records go to the state archives. Only 20 states, however, actually make it a practice. In Colorado they’re sealed for 25 years. In Maryland it's 30 years."

As for Bush, while his records are nominally available, they haven't been indexed, and since the only way you can access them is with a written request for a specific piece (which can be rejected for any of 29 exemptions to the open records law), that availability remains nominal rather than actual. In Vermont, however, any member of the public can go into the archives and rifle through the box, without even giving out their name.

I agree that, in an ideal world, Dean should release all of the records and let us make up our own minds about what's in them. Instead he made a political decision to keep possible ammunition out of the hands of his opponents. But Isikoff makes it sound as though sealing his records was virtually unprecedented, when it's more or less the norm.
For those of you in and around Columbia, MO, I've gotta put in a quick plug. Joe Benevento is reading at Legacy Art & Bookworks tonight, starting at six. I took his creative writing class in grad school, and he helped me sift through the jumble in my head and find the silver in amongst the tin. It's been forever since I've heard him read, but he was a hell of a writer back in the day, and I'm sure he's only gotten better.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert on lessons the Bush administration's learned from his recent jaunt to Iraq: "When it comes to planning...have one!" Watch the whole thing, it's worth it. The clip you want is "Thanksgiving Surprise".

Update: The video was down for a while, now it's back up (as of 4:15 CST).
Go. Read. Unless you're allergic to outrage, that is, in which case, STAY AWAY. Basically, we're about to release 140 prisoners from Guantanamo because, well, they're innocent. Turns out that driving through the countryside giving money to people for informing on their neighbors results in a lot of innocent people getting locked up.

And we're not talking about just 140 innocents. That 140 are just "the easiest 20 percent". Even so, the military told Time magazine that the administration was waiting for "a politically propitious time to release them."

Just so we're absolutely clear on this, our government, acting in our name, kidnapped at least 140 people with no evidence of guilt other than the word of a paid informant, denied them any contact with the outside world while, at the very least, subjecting them to regular interrogation (violence and torture have been alleged, but anybody can allege), and now, after two years, our government has acknowledged their mistake and plans to release these prisoners as soon as it helps them in their quest to get to do this kind of shit for another four years.

Morals and ethics aside, how is this helpful? I'm becoming convinced that we would have been better off if, after 9/11, Bush had just hid under his desk in the Oval Office and sucked his thumb for three years.

Monday, December 01, 2003

My kitchen and basement sinks have connected drains, so when something somewhere down the line got stubborn, and my kitchen drain got very, very slow, that meant water rising in the basement sink. Nothing bad happened, but I got nervous, and spent some quality time with a plunger and some Drano (not at the same time, though). This was last Wednesday, just before Christie and I left town.

The drain was still glug-glugging last night when I got home, so I ran to the hardware store over lunch and picked up more Drano and a plumbers snake. Put the Drano in the basement sink, and it cleared very quickly, but the kitchen sink was slow and noisy, so I went to work with the snake. Unfortunately, it seemed to get stuck a few feet in. I pulled it out, pushed it in again, but it still stuck in the same place. I gave it a good shove, and now not only would it not go forward, but it didn't want to come out, either. I opened up the cabinet to see if I could figure out where it was stuck, and there it was, sticking through the bottom curve of the trap.

So I know what I'm doing tonight. Yay. Plumbing.

The bitch of it is that these two sinks have never drained well, because the last person to work on them (before I bought the house) cut off the vent, presumably because it was easier than doing the job right. So now I have a choice: fix the trap without fixing the vent, or try and do both. One's faster and easier, but doesn't really fix the problem, while the other involves roughly twice the number of joints, including attaching PVC to a steel drain pipe, which I've never done before and have only a vague idea of how it is done. But how boring would life be if we stuck with doing what we know?
We could see our breath as we loaded the car in Mississippi, but it had been in the 30s and 40s all week, so I thought nothing of it. It was still chilly when we stopped for gas in Arkansas, but somehow St. Louis, our next stop, was 60 degrees and sunny. It was nice to get back up North, where it's warm.

You would think that four days in a town eight hours away (though only 350 miles as the crow flies) would bring out stories, but somehow this little string of moments never quite coalesced. Nevertheless, here's what happened:

We ate the bird. The mandated animal sacrifice was performed as our ancestors have performed it. As far as I can tell, there was no brining, and certainly no deep frying in peanut oil, just a turkey, baked competently and without fuss.

Shopping. The house was all atwitter Friday, as there was a soccer match in Memphis, making it easy to shoehorn in a visit to Target. I am happy to report that Target in Memphis is not noticeably different from Target anywhere else, except for a disproportionate number of people with southern accents. I was, however, disappointed to find a significant difference between the World Market in Kansas City and the one in St. Louis. Namely, the one in St. Louis had no Private Preserve, though they had all kinds of other silly stuff that I apparently needed. Still no Christmas presents, though. But that's a completely separate challenge.

Secondhand Nostalgia and "When Did They Build That?" Christie went to Ole Miss, and her uncle teaches there, so not only did I get the drive-through tour, but her uncle drove us around campus on his golf cart. I was in the bag seat, however, and could only catch about every other word, so please don't ask me to tell you anything about the history of the University. But I now have a visual setting for Christie's Ole Miss stories, which was, I think, most of the point.

Literary History. Oxford's got a little more of a literary pedigree than most small towns, thanks to Faulkner. Of course, I accidentally avoided Faulkner in my undergrad years, and purposefully kept it up in grad school out of a desire to distinguish myself from a doppelganger who had gotten his MA in the same program just a few years before (and wrote his thesis on Faulkner). I am in the book business, however, and Square Books looms large in that landscape. So we killed a few hours there, and I picked up a book of essays and a Moleskine. And, of course, there was dinner at City Grocery.

Dysfunction Junction. The first two years out of college, Christie taught in a little Mississippi delta town, and yesterday she drove me through it. There's money in this town, as you can see right off the highway. But keep driving past the sprawling houses and pillared porches, and you quite literally end up on the wrong side of the tracks, where the school looks like a prison, and most of the houses are about the size of my bedroom. When the schools were desegregated, a private school sprang up, and the white school building was donated to them by the (all white) school board, keeping things exactly as they'd always been. In Christie's time there, state funds for the public (and therefore all black) school were still finding their way into the coffers of the private (and therefore all white) school. From the look of things, that hasn't changed.

I've seen plenty of poverty in my day, so it wasn't the poverty that struck me. Rather, it was that there was plenty of money in the town, it was just all in the hands of a small group of people. In _____, Mississippi, there are rich folks, and there are folks just scraping by, with few if any people in the middle. You can tell one group from the other not by the callouses on their hands, the clothes on their backs, or the way they talk, but simply by the color of their skin. This isn't a documentary on the History Channel, this is right now, and these are real people, working as hard as they can to stay alive and feed their kids, every drop of their sweat turned into money in somebody else's pocket.

This is no oratory, and so there is no exhortation of action. I'm just telling you what I saw yesterday in the hopes that it'll pop up in your head the next time somebody tells you that racism "isn't a problem anymore."


Okay, so maybe there was one story in there.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Just a few last-minute preparations, and I'll be on my way out of town. I'm headed for Oxford, Mississippi, for the curious among you. Christie's got family there, and apparently they want to meet me. She's obviously been telling them the wrong stories about me. Oh well, they'll find the truth out soon enough.

I have no idea what the schedule or net access will be like while we're down there, so blogging may be light, or it may be heavy. But I'm guessing light. In the meantime, it's Thanksgiving, so drive kindly and carefully, take care of strangers, and don't let the bastards grind you down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Back when I was a church-going man, I would spend the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at our "simple supper", a communal meal of bread and soup, usually both homemade. I usually brought a big pot of lentil soup (less than $5 for about a gallon of soup) and two loaves of homemade bread. I suppose the goal was for the austerity of Wednesday night's meal to stand in contrast to the ostentation of Thanksgiving, but the meal felt like a luxury to me, surrounded as we were with good friends and food made with care. And the cooking itself was a nostalgia trip, since I developed both recipes in the days when Carrie and I were living well below the poverty line.

There were two big differences between the poverty I lived and what I think of as "real" poverty. First of all, I was just starting out. I had a college degree under my belt and valid reasons to feel hope for the future. Secondly, I had a strong safety net made up of friends, family, and friends' families. If I'd needed help, the list of people I could go to for help was long and diverse. There was no way I was going to starve.

But that doesn't mean I was never hungry, nor does it mean I didn't economize. I learned to make bread because I could make it for $1.00 a loaf less than it cost at the store. Meat was a luxury, as was anything fresh. I always ate leftovers, and never threw anything away if I could help it. But I got very good at cooking from canned or dry ingredients, which could be bought on the cheap, often in bulk. Even with economizing, a trip to the grocery store meant first balancing the checkbook so I'd know how much to spend, then making a list based on what I could afford, and, finally, keeping a running tally in my head to avoid the embarassment of telling the clerk that something needed to go back. In a discussion with some friends on the nature of wealth, I was asked to define "rich". "Not having to check the bank balance before I go shopping," I said, "and impulse buys at the grocery store." That was a long time ago, and I've long since become rich, according to that definition (mostly by refusing to do the credit card thing).

A lot of folks aren't so lucky. A lot of folks are out of work, in debt up to their eyeballs, feeding their families on minimum wage, or otherwise at the end of their rope. Luckily for me, a group of local radio stations are doing remotes all over town, raising money and food for the Central Missouri Food Bank. I drive right by one on the way home, and I'll be stopping by and dropping off. It's not the least I can do (that'd be nothing), but it's the least I can do and still feel good about who I am and how I live.

This could be mistaken for charity, but it's a selfish deed, really, dressed in charitable robes. For one thing, I've received much more than I've given over the years, so this is just paying down that debt. For another, I never feel so rich as when I decide I'm rich enough to share. I call it Good Deed Therapy, and if you've never tried it, give it a shot. 'Tis the season, right?

Friday, November 21, 2003

Shorter James Lileks: Salam Pax lacks moral authority to say bad things to/about George W. Bush, because he didn't attempt to get rid of Saddam himself. I, however, have the moral authority to take on Salam Pax because three people from my state have been killed in his home country.

I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: Lileks is a hell of a writer, but he's got a screw loose when it comes to Bush.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Christie insisted we watch the Victoria's Secret special tonight. Thinking of their probable demographic, I'm thinking Dodge might not have been the best sponsor for this particular special. At least they should have chosen not to display their slogan at the end of the commercial breaks: "Grab Life by the Horns."
Read Nicholas Confessore in The Washington Monthly. It's a great expose of James Glassman and his 'innovative' blurring of the line between journalism and prostitution (my words, not Confessore's). If nothing else, it's worth reading for the phrase "idea laundering", which is one of the most apt I've heard lately.
Well, I lied. No good stories, and probably no poem, either. In fact, I've reviewed the entirety of my 26 hours or so in the city, and I'm not sure there are even any amusing anecdotes in there. We flew in, got stuck in traffic, ate dinner, walked around, went to bed, got up, took a cab, had some meetings, ate lunch, had some more meetings, hung out in the airport for a while, flew home. I wasn't aching to stay, nor was I in a rush to get home. It was, in the end, a day like any other, except it was in New York.

Now that I think about it, that's kind of exceptional. Usually when I travel, I meet at least one person with a story to tell or a reason to reach out to the world, but in the past two days I flew 1,800 miles (to Newark and back) sat in two different airports for hours on end, ate three meals, and made not one meaningful human connection, aside from the "_____, have you met _____?" of business meetings. Not that I don't get to work with some very cool people, but I've become accustomed to fortuitous meetings with strangers, and this trip had none. There are four possible reasons for this: 1. I was in New York, instead of somewhere else. 2. I was traveling with people, instead of alone. 3. I was carrying a 900 page word-brick instead of a notepad, and I had my nose buried in it a good part of the time.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

I've been a bad blogger, but I'm off to New York in the morning. It's just a fly-in; I'll be in my own bed by Tuesday night, but people will sit around tables and say things, and some of those things will be written down to be re-interpreted and somewhat acted upon in the coming weeks and months. Possibly years if we talk business over lunch. For my part, I promise to have a good time and try to come back with at least three entertaining anecdotes and one good story. Or a poem. And because it is the season of giving, I promise to turn these things into a blog post or two, unless the anecdotes are boring and the poem sucks.

Anyway, getting ready for these meetings (don't know what questions will be asked, ought to be ready to answer anything) has been kind of a pain, hence the late lack of bloggy goodness, as well as same Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

"There are layers to truth," he said, "like peeling an onion. Cut through all those layers, and what do you have?"

"Nothing?" I guessed.

"No," he said, grinning, "the base for a good sauce."
The front of my mind has been occupied with setting up my Tivo and a couple of particularly thorny problems at work involving the turning of data into information, but in the back of my mind I've been pondering "electability". William Safire sort of started it, I guess, by writing in the NY Times that Howard Dean isn't "electable" because he's too much like McGovern. Naturally, my response to this is "Huh!?" It's not that I don't think Dean resembles McGovern, since I frankly don't know squat about McGovern. It's that Safire's talking about an election that happened 30 years ago as if the world hadn't changed since then, as if the demographics of the nation had been held in place, as if it election results were legal precedent, rather than a snapshot of the will of the people.

Enough about Safire. The fact that he's unhinged doesn't resolve the question of whether Dean can win a national election for President. Personally, I think he probably is. He's never lost an election and has an air of "I'm going to tell you the truth even if I know you won't like it" that I think will appeal to voters starved by a diet of paper-thin truisms that all too often aren't. Frankly, though, I don't care.

I like Dean because he seems to have the kind of honesty, intelligence, and compassion that I'd like to see in the oval office. I like him because he's surrounded himself with people who give every appearance of understanding that democracy starts with individual people, not back room deals. And, I'll admit, that I like him because the established power structure of the Democratic Party doesn't.

These are the morons who have erred on the side of "electability" again and again, focus-grouping every question to be sure that it passes muster with the right demographic groups and kowtowing to corporations that made their coin at the expense of the commonweal (I'm looking at you, Tyson) because it kept the party's coffers full. Based on their track record, they're the last people I'm going to trust to tell me who's electable and who isn't, because their track record stinks.

All this talk of "electability" smacks of a profound distrust of the democractic process, not to mention your fellow voters. As in, "I like Howard Dean because of blah, blah, blah, but once the GOP gets going, they'll put up so much bullshit that no one will be able to see through it." That may be true, and given the last couple of elections I'd be the last person to upbraid someone for distrusting the process. Spin may sometimes cancel spin, but the best antidote to being spun is to stand your ground and call bullshit. Dean does that better than any of the other candidates all of whom seem better at throwing spin than taking it. And, frankly, I'm tired of elections with two candidates throwing bullshit around like Lambert's rolls.

Democracy provides us with a great test of electability - elections. Here's how they work: You pick the candidate you like the best, and a whole bunch of other people do the same. The one whose ideas, personality and presentation most resonate with the electorate wins. At least, that's the ideal. In practice there are all kinds of people trying to game the system with money, emotional manipulations, etc., ad nauseum. But you can't game the system back into alignment any more than you can quiet the ripples on a pond by patting them down with your hands.

My point, I guess, is that Howard Dean is leading the money race and most of the polls precisely because his ideas, personality and presentation have caught on with more people than anyone else in the race. This is what democracy is supposed to look like, and it gives me hope, while listening to chatter about electability makes that hope shrivel up and hide under the kitchen table.
So I bought the electric monk and I feel simultaneously like a self-indulgent yuppie fuck and the kid with the coolest toy on the block (who will probably grow up to be a self-indulgent yuppie fuck). I used to say that I was glad I only had one pet because I wasn't really that comfortable living in a household where the animals outnumber the people. Now that I have a Tivo, Roomba, and a PC, it suddenly dawns on me that I've been outflanked by the machines, and I never saw it coming.
If you think you've got a shitty job, well, it could be worse. You could be Scot McClellan, forced to defend the White House's decision to block funds to POWs tortured in the 1991 Gulf War:

"Q: [Is it true] that this White House is standing in the way of them getting those awards, those financial awards, because it views it that money better spent on rebuilding Iraq?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Again, there's simply no amount of money that can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering --"

I can see why Ari Fleischer quit.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

A few weeks back, I got lured into a fight about Iraq, presidential politics, and a bunch of other hoo-ha. Being me, I took the bait, especially when my opponent started saying there was no difference between Al Gore and George W. Being sick yesterday, I got to see a significant chunk of Gore's Sunday speech when C-Span rebroadcast it. I'd blog something long and involved, but Alterman said it better and briefer than I could.
Well, in grand tradition, I was sick for my birthday. But this time I had guests, so I was too preoccupied to notice until everybody left, at which point I realized that my "I'm not really hungry right now" was really low-grade nausea, and I hadn't had solid food in about 36 hours. So I either gave myself (and my friends) food poisoning with my basil roast chicken (let me know if you're feeling poorly, guys) or I picked up a tummy bug. Given that Christie had pretty similar symptoms last week, I'm guessing I picked up a tummy bug. Either way, I'm mostly better now, and I have incredibly cool friends who don't mind a lame weekend spent mostly watching movies and talking shit.

Which of course brings me to Matrix: Revolutions. I liked it. Good action, good visuals, good writing, and it tied up the trilogy in an intellectually coherent and aesthetically pleasing manner. No, it won't freshen your breath or wash your car for you, but it's a good movie. That is all.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Christie gave me my birthday present last night, and it's tempting to say that it sucks. But that'd be way too easy.

I was home over lunch and turned it loose in the house while I put away groceries, and I can already tell that I'll have much cleaner floors from now on just because it's so much more fun to Roomba than it is to Swiffer. Which gives me an idea for a Roomba casemod...

("Roomba casemod" is, by the way, almost a googlewhack, with only two results. Or it will be until Google recrawls my blog.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

So, um, Saturday's my birthday. I'm not a Big Birthday kind of guy, so I'm not telling you so that you'll send me presents, flowers, or even emails. I'm telling you because, well, just because. Well, mostly because I've noticed an extraordinary number of extraordinarily cool people born in early November. When I was a kid the only one I knew of was my doctor, but the list has only grown over the years. If I start naming all my IRL friends with birthdays close to mine, I'll forget somebody and they'll get mad. So I'll just name the famous folks, starting with the folks right square on Nov. 8th. Of course there's The Perfect Weapon himself,Jeff Speakman, but you already knew that. But did you know Parker Posey was born on November 8th? Leif Garrett? How about Ethan Hawke? Well, actually, he was born on the 6th, but in the same year as me, so I'm counting him. Two things triggered this post, actually. First was the Accordion Guy's birthday bio, which inspired me to think about possibly doing something similar one of these days when I have more time (maybe for my 35th), and Neil Gaiman's "I got my birthday present early" post. November 5th and 10th respectively.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta run. Birthday dinner to go to. No, not mine. One of those other very cool people with early November birthdays I was telliing you about. Although I have been told to expect a present, as Christie doesn't want hers getting lost in the shuffle on Saturday as gifts pour in from my admirers across the globe.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Well, the beer's bottled, and the frame's built. Whaddya think?
And if anybody out there can translate the characters, I'd appreciate it. Ignorant gwai lo that I am, I'm only about 75% sure that I put them right side up.
Other stuff on my mind...
This is the more concrete side of yesterday's coin.

Beer: Since I'm having a birthday party this weekend, I brewed the week before last. Shoulda been plenty of time, but this batch, for some reason, took almost ten days to fully ferment. So I'm bottling tonight and hoping it's ready to drink by Saturday. But it's been a recurring worry.

Kill Bill: I feel like I ought do a more robust review, but this is what you get: I liked it, which kinda surprised me. The only Tarantino movie I've liked before this was Jackie Brown. His previous flicks had too much casual cruelty and destruction of innocence for me to enjoy them. Kill Bill, on the other hand, was bloody as hell and violent as hell, but it all hung together very nicely. I never thought I'd like a flick with this much blood, but I had a wicked grin on my face throughout.

Wood: I'm building a frame for some calligraphy I brought back from Korea, and the whole process is somewhat experimental. Actually, extremely experimental. But I've learned something with every fuckup, and am fairly confident that I could build it right the first time if I started over tonight. Which bodes well for the next one of these I decide to build, but I refuse to start over until I have definitive evidence that this version isn't going to work.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Stayed late at work to write out what was on my mind, and walked out the door feeling light and hearing nothing in my head but an echo of the leaves blowing in the trees. I killed the stereo before it could start, just to keep it going. I looked to the right as I was going by our little landscaped pond, and a blue heron was just taking off. I picked my foot up off the gas and coasted, matching my speed to its glide. In the fading light, it looked like a piece of sky broken loose and drifting against a background of trees and sunset, but then it stretched out its legs and grabbed hold of the water by the shore and kept on rolling toward home, still enjoying the silence.
Ocupado
My brain's been churning lately, chewing on items crucial and trivial. Anyone of them could be a blog post on their own, but they're not quite resolving themselves out in any kind of useful way. So instead, you're getting a bunch of thumbnails:

1. Aging: A few weeks ago we had an awards ceremony at work, and I got my Five Year Tietack. It was a very touching moment. It is rapidly becoming obvious that, to the folks I work with, I am something of an institution. A go-to guy. And, increasing, an Old Hand. In my head, however, I'm still The Young Guy, so this is requiring some mental adjustment.

On a related note, my birthday is this Saturday. Last year I celebrated with a migraine and the year before I had one of those "what's it all about" conversations with my then soon to be ex wife. Of course, I don't really remember what I did the year before that, so if my recent birthdays have been painful, at least they've been memorable. Still. I'm a little nervous about what 33 has in store. And then there's the whole fact that I'm going to be 33. This is directly related to:

2. Planning: I learned from reading a dorm room door many years ago the life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. But I ignored that advice for many years, hitched my wagon to a star and ended up face down in the gutter when I flew too close to the sun so that she got the gold mine and I got the shaft. Or something like that. Actually, I'm doing all right, but I did get my heart broken and probably learned a few of the wrong lessons. Anyway, I quit making plans, and just concentrated on living life. It's been a fun two years, but there are some things it's better to do while you're young, and while I don't yet feel old, I'm starting to feel like I'm running low on young. So maybe something like a five-year plan would help. It might, for example, help me figure out what's going on in my head with things like:

3. Kids: I won't say it's an epidemic or anything, but if I go through my married friends in my head, half of them are expecting kids in the next 9 months. Of the other half, all but one couple already have at least one kid. At least one of those couples is in negotiations for another. For many years, my wanting kids was outweighed by my awe and terror at the responsibility of it. I'm a pretty seriously selfish guy, and I've always had a sense that having a kid would put a damper on that. But, selfish as I am, I don't think I'm much more selfish than your average bear. And when I go to the mall and look out over the great reproductive biomass that is the midwestern Target demographic, I am struck rather strong with "Hell, if these people can do it, how hard can it be?"

So my wanting kids is gradually growing, while the awe and terror is shrinking. In fact, it's approaching a tipping point. What the hell happens then?

4. Love: The last time I was in love, I was very, very sure of myself. This was It, she was The One, life made sense, happily ever after, yadda yadda yadda and blah blah blah. As should be obvious from my tone, things didn't work out. And I haven't been sure of anything since.

Now, there's Christie. She's funny, smart, sexy, cool, crazy in all the right ways, sane in all the important ones, likes to work on the house, play in the woods and sit on the couch, looks great with paint chips in her hair, and she looks at me like I'm the only real man on the planet, and all the rest are pale imitations. She's not snobby, bitchy, mean, impatient, shallow, self-centered, flighty, or fake. She's interested in everything, has a fully functional bullshit detector but knows when to turn it off, talks trash like a sailor when she's playing Tekken 4, then giggles like a Manga schoolgirl when she wins. She's a better fit for me than anyone I've ever met in this life, and when I'm around her I feel happy and safe. But I'm not Sure, and when things get quiet, I can hear that doubt, like the tinny rhythmic grinding of a mouse gnawing on a floor joist, the sound echoing through the vents.

5. Work: I promised myself five years, long enough to be vested, to prove to myself I could stick it out, and now I wonder what, if anything, is next. But there aren't that many places here in town where I could do the kind of work that I do, so a change in jobs would generally mean a change in towns, and that's some heavy shit. But my brain seems to think, hey, as long as you're evaluating everything else, why not look at your job, too? And there's so much crap floating around in our culture that says that if you're not moving up, you're not doing anything. And then there's the whole city thing. I've never lived in a big city, and part of my wants to see if I could cut it in New York, Boston, Seattle, London, or wherever, in spite of the fact that I love my five minute commute, don't like crowds, and get stressed out every single time I spend more than about 3 days in a city of more than a million people. And while we're on the topic of work, let's talk about:

6: The Novel: I know where it wants to go, I've got an ending, and something that'll do as the beginning. I've got most of the first third figured out, and little bits here and there throughout. I can hear each of the major characters' voices in my head, and they still have plenty to say. But I started rereading Cryptonomicon to be ready to read Quicksilver, and that's a sum total of 1,800 pages. That's quite a break from writing. And then there are the usual projects around the house, which keep taking up time and energy. In other words, it's been a couple of weeks since I worked on it, and the characters are starting to nag me. I can hear the little bastards rolling around up there, muttering to one another. No fights have broken out yet, but given their history, it's inevitable.

Part of the problem is that I haven't found a good Third Place yet (warning: Columbia-centric post to follow). Lakota's got comfortable chairs, but the coffee's not that great, and the scene is too distracting. Das Kaffeehaus, on the other hand, isn't distracting enough. Coffee Zone is too smoky. Amsterdam closes early, while Cherry Street Artisan keeps doing those Dinner and a Show things that aren't conducive to just hanging out and writing. I'm on the verge of resorting to the chains. But is it possible to write an interesting novel at Starbucks? I doubt it. There's always the library, I guess. But I feel bad eating in there, and I'm an inveterate muncher. Any Columbians still reading, feel free to offer suggestions. My preference is for downtown, but I'm open.

So it bothers me that I haven't taken the time to write lately, and I know that's going to bite me in the ass, but I've started a lot of novels only to have them die out of boredom, so I'm happy to still be interested in this one.

Friday, October 31, 2003

I think I've had this conversation. (I was the one on the left.) (Oh, and here's the page it came from.)
Bookslut's blog has already covered this, but if you missed it there, here's another chance. In the Chronicle, Charles Johnson describes a creative writing course that's more like a boot camp than an encounter group. In other words, he focuses on exercises that build skills, rather than tackling the emotional side. Needless to say, I wish there were more like him out there.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Bryan and I are having a conversation across Jerrel's cubicle, and he's doing a pretty good job ignoring us until:

Bryan: One of their machines is set up to ping all of our servers every couple of minutes just to make sure the DNS is still working, but I changed the way the pages were generated, and the server was having to start a session instead of just serving up a static page. So I gave them a static page to link to instead.

Me: So what you're telling me is that we have a box over there and all it does is that it's the machine that goes "ping"?

Jerrel: Unnnnnnnnnnh.

Monday, October 27, 2003

You cry for your car and time lost in a tangle
of limbs in the headlights, the deer's momentum
carrying it thrashing to the shoulder.
The stink of antifreeze tells me we're going to need
a ride, though we're still an hour from home.

That's what friends are for, I think, as we start making calls
to insurance, wreckers and a rescuer
who immediately gets in his car because, after all,
that is what friends are for.

You dry your tears on my coat as I think about the time
lost and decide that it's instead a gift, time stolen out
of life too full at times, like the small town truck stop coffee
waved off with a "don't worry about it", and we spend the hour
in the classifieds, swapping dreams
of a place in the country with acres, and a barn.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Once upon a time I drove two hours with silence
to a little town in Illinois. I wanted it to be dramatic
with someone screaming in our faces on the walk to the door
but it was just a little strip mall parking lot,
though there was a car across the way
with pictures in shades of red and signs
with lots of exlamation points.
The woman behind the wheel didn't even look up
from her book as we went inside.

Waiting room magazines, muzak, and linguistics homework
keep me company until the nurse tells me I can go back
where silence is looking raw at the ceiling of a pastel room.
The nurse looks at me as she leaves and I want to tell her
it wasn't mine, that I'm the friend, the good man, the driver.
That the boyfriend is off not dealing in St. Louis.
But silence is looking at me now and I can't say a word,
except in my head, where I repeat that I'm the Good Man.

The tires hum grayly against the road the whole way home
and she is curled up against the far side of the car
under a blanket and my coat, eyes closed. Two hours
later I wake her up and take her inside, then go back home
next door to stare at the ceiling and hope that some day
she'll write a poem about today so I can know what she was thinking.

If she does, I never see it.
I got into a brief argument with a friend at work yesterday. He's young and brimming with certainty, having only recently left the shelter of a conservative Christian upbringing. He believes, for instance, that the United States is a Christian nation, and that George W. Bush is a hero and an honest man. It is an unfortunate fact that folks who believe as he does are all too often manipulated, so I'm trying to equip him with the necessary stores of cynicism and critical faculties to get him through life with at least a minimum level of autonomy.

Anyway, the argument was about 'partial birth abortion' and the Terry Schiavo case. Being the good liberal that I am, I felt the need to actually research and find out the facts. And I can sort of understand his perspective, particularly when it comes to outlawing intact dilation and extraction (the actual medical name for the procedure some call "partial birth abortion"). I spent a good part of last night talking with friends about pregnancy and birth (there's a small epidemic of pregnancies passing through my acquaintances), and I challenge anyone to go from the miracle of birth to the horrors of intact D&E without feeling nauseated. But every medical expert I've read agrees that D&E is the best way to deal with a pregancy gone horribly wrong, and an intact D&E is the safest form of the procedure. But it's viscerally disgusting, and if you've trained your brain to hear "baby" every time a doctor says "fetus", it sounds like something only a demon would do.

All you have to do is forget that we're not talking about women who suddenly decide, at eight and a half months, that they don't feel like changing diapers. We're talking about women who find out that their baby has a congenital defect and will most likely be stillborn, and that the process of giving birth could very damage their bodies to the point that having another, healthy child becomes out of the question. An intact D&E is their best, safest hope for having healthy kids someday, but now it's illegal so that some hypocrite in the Senate can tell his constituents that he's more "pro-life" than the other guy. Congratulations, guys, for drafting a law which won't save a single human life, but may well destroy a half-dozen or so, all for the benefit of political posturing.

And then there's Terry Schiavo. She's in a persistent vegetative state and has been on life support for 13 years. Her husband says she never wanted this, her parents say they never heard her say that, Florida courts have sided with the husband, and the executive and legislative branches have jumped in to keep the machines going. Moral, upstanding citizens across the country have stood up to say what they think is the right thing to do based on the five minute summary of the case they heard in church. I've heard just gems as "the husband already has a girlfriend..." and "do we even know how she ended up in a coma? I think it's suspicious that we're not hearing more about that."

Here are the facts: Her heart stopped in 1990 due to a chemical imbalance. She never woke up. Independent doctors have examined her and concluded that her brain damage is so severe that there is, barring a miracle, no chance of her waking up. And by "barring a miracle", I really do mean miracle. And as far as "he already has a girlfriend", well it's been 13 years since his wife went into a coma. Try that out for a while, see how you do.

A couple of years ago, my parents decided it was time for them to leave their church. In the middle of it all, my dad said something that really struck me, "Last week, at Calvary, the minister was talking about morality, and doing the right thing, and everything he was saying was about what 'they' should do. It was all about other people. This week, at First Lutheran, it was the same topic, but it was all about what 'we' should do. I like that a lot better."

So my take on the Schiavo case is this: My heart goes out to her husband, her parents, the doctors, the judges, and everybody else who has to come to some kind of decision. I'm grateful as hell I haven't had to deal with that kind of pain and grief, and I am steadfast in my belief that it's none of my damn business.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Sy Hersh paints a pretty damning picture of the Bush White House in its rush to war. There are strong lessons to be found here about what happens when you have a chief executive whose only source of information is his advisors, and those advisors have absolute faith in their own rectitude.

If you've ever gotten stuck talking to a dittohead at the company picnic, then you know the type: He's right; you're wrong, and any information source that contradicts his preconceived notions is wrong, usually because it's part of the liberal media. Now imagine a whole bunch of those guys running the country. No wonder things are so fucked up.
If you're interested in how our animal nature makes us human, how evolutionary biology is affecting the humanities, and other sorts of issues surrounding what it means to be a Cro Magnon with car keys, then you'll probably enjoy this article from the Hudson Review. It almost makes me wish I were starting my master's thesis (warning: 172 kb download) now instead of ten years ago.

Monday, October 20, 2003

My phone's almost two years old now, which means I'll soon be in the market for a new one, and probably a new plan as well, since Cingular no longer offers the "no long distance, no roaming, ever, anywhere" plan that I was lucky enough to get last time. I'm especially in the market for a new phone because Cingular's been upgrading their midwest network to GSM, which my phone can't handle.

So, being a web guy, I go to their web site to see what my options are. Oh, boy. Where do I start? I go to log in, and the log in screen asks for my phone number. Then it asks for my username and password. Like a lot of folks, I tend to use the same password for most low-security needs. But I can't do that here because Cingular limits your password to four characters. Fine. Annoying, but fine.

But there's nothing on the account page that talks about replacing your phone, so I decide to check the FAQ. I click on "Common Questions" and get a message warning me that they're about to log me out. What? Why the hell do you need to log me out just to show me the FAQ? Whatever. Fine. Log me out. The next page, then, asks for my zip code. WTF? Two pages ago, you knew my name, my phone number, address, and my mother's maiden name. Now you need to know my zip code just to show me a friggin' FAQ? Fine, here's my zip code.

Of course there's nothing useful on the FAQ, so I click over to "Phones", thinking that maybe they'll have something about upgrading my existing phone, you know, since I've already told them I have a Cingular account. Nope. In fact, they've already forgotten the zip code I told them two pages ago.

I knew Guy Pearce was conflicted about acting, but I didn't know he'd gotten work as a webmaster.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Just took a Zogby poll. I did my best to answer everything truly, but there's one question they could have asked that would have told them volumes about where I stand: "If the election were held tomorrow between George W. Bush and Spongebob Squarepants, who would you vote for?"
Intervention Requested
Since the very first time I read about the Tivo, I wanted one. There are a bunch of TV shows I like but never watch because they're on at inconvenient times. I hate that I have to choose between spending my Saturday afteroons working on my old house or watching This Old House, which comes on at 12:30, right when I'd like to have my hands full making sawdust. I don't want to watch Good Eats on Wednesday evening, when I'm busy watching Angel, but the only other times it's on are while I'd rather be sleeping. I suppose I could tape things, but that's a pain in the ass, and takes more time than I want to spend on what is, at best, a passive waste of time.

But I always put it off because it struck me as a waste of money. For what I'd spend on a Tivo, I could get a great new tent (got one), or even a bandsaw (want one)! Watching TV is not a hobby I'm proud of or happy about, but there are times that I'm just too tired to take on any of my more, um, active activities.

In short, I'm conflicted. On one side there's a resistance to spending money on an accessory to a habit I don't even particularly like having. On the other is the realistic notion that I'm no more likely to quite watching TV than I am to quit masturbating, eating junk food, looking at pretty girls with inappropriate thoughts in my mind, or any other long-standing hobby that I'm conflicted about. With Tivo at least I'll be watching shows I'm genuinely interested in rather than just whatever crap happens to be on. And I'll be watching them on my schedule, not theirs.

Plus Circuit City sent me a coupon, and it's my birthday in a couple of weeks. Oh, and my VCR's acting up.

Somebody, please, give me a reason not to buy a Tivo. Or tell me it's okay, and I won't lose my soul.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Alex has a great post up on Brokentype about the tiger in Harlem. There's a poem lurking just beneath the surface of his post, one about love, the kind that starts out cute and ends up too big to handle, but there's no one point where you can easily say "Now is the right time to ask for help" until it's too late, and for the rest of your life you walk with a limp.

It is, of course, possible that I'm reading into it.
Our head of human resources is apparently a Hill Street Blues fan, as he ended our sexual harassment training with "Let's be careful out there." Considering the circumstances, I'd say that's a much better choice than "Let's do it to them before they do it to us!"
I just got a piece of spam today with the subject line "How to get a girl in 10 minutes flat!" Not to be picky, but shouldn't that be "How to get a girl flat in 10 minutes!"?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

On Cleaning Out a Closet, Part II
I don't care how over her you think you are, when you're bagging up your ex-wife's stuff and run across a bunch of lingerie from the first year you were together, it's going to dredge up some shit.

Update: Better now. Newlyweds takes the sting off just about any romantic angst, particularly angst about your first marriage.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Dale Keiger's got a post up on a Guardian article which contains a throwaway line comparing Beowulf to Jaws. Not to be outdone, I thought I'd share my Beowulf theory. Or, more accurately, it's my Alien theory, since it's much more about Alien than Beowulf.

Beowulf fights three monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother (fought in her lair, an underwater cave), and the dragon, which kills him. Ripley fights three monsters: The Alien, the Alien Queen (fought underground), and the last Alien which, having gesticated in a dog, ran on all fours like a beast, mirroring the Chinese characterization of the dragon as midway between beasts and men, based on their having language, but running on four legs. And, like Beowulf, she dies after killing the last Alien.

I'd been promoting this theory for years when they decided to make a new Alien movie, Alien: Resurrection. My friends were convinced they were witnessing the death of a perfectly good theory, but I had enough of a background in critical theory to refuse to change a theory in the face of conflicting facts. Luckily, the latest installment featured a Ripley that had become more of a monster, thanks to DNA experiments gone wrong, and a monster humanized by the same process. The answer to my problem was easy to find.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

It's silver lining time. Apparently Arnold's given up his movie career for the duration of his term as governor. Now we just need to find a state that willing to elect David Spade.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Mini-Recommendation: The Hunted

Kali knife fighting techniques, and tracking/wilderness survival with Tom Brown as a consultant. Oh, and the movie's good too.
Shoelady: These Borns'll last forever.

Me: I had a pair before, but the sole broke right here, across the middle.

Shoelady: Really? Must be the way you were walking.

Me: Actually, I think it might have been the way I crouch.

Shoelady: Crouch?

Christie: Yeah, he doesn't really sit.

Shoelady: So how's the fit?

Me: It's good. No slip in the heel. I'm not sure the others would stay on that well. I jump around a lot, climb stuff, that kind of thing.

Shoelady: Jump around? What are you, a monkey in your spare time?

Christie: Yeah, basically.
Update on the Jack Schafer thing: We've swapped a couple of emails on the topic of his column, and it's pretty clear this is an "agree to disagree" thing. This is his argument (heavily paraphrased): Clearance is given on a case-by-case basis, so just because Wilson had a high-level security clearance doesn't mean he was cleared to know Plame's status. Therefore, Wilson's job with the European command and the fact of his security clearance are irrelevant, so, in the interest of brevity, he left them out.

Personally, I think this is a pretty lame argument. But Schafer offers it in what reads to me like perfect sincerity. And there are lots of folks on the right saying the same sort of thing: It wasn't a crime, and even if it was, it wasn't that bad because Plame's not really that much of a spy, and Wilson's a partisan jerk, and What's The Harm?

They aren't partisan hacks, or liars, or paid footsoldiers of Tom Delay. They're folks struggling with the basic conflict of fact vs. belief. They bought, hook, line and sinker, the "George W. Bush is a decent guy who's going to turn around the White House" line of crap in the 2000 elections. Or maybe, after 9/11 they went into "Benevolent Leader" mode. Either way, they have an image of the folks in the White House that does not have room for things like outing a CIA operative for political gain, even when it's to the detriment of national security.

It takes something like four times as much information to change someone's mind as it did to make it up in the first place, though that ratio obviously is going to vary from person to person. What we're seeing in the national media is not a dogpile onto perceived weakness, but the slow creaking of minds changing, as facts pile up describing George W. and his administration as dishonest and, to put it kindly, less than competent.

Me, I made up my mind about George W. three years ago when I heard him take credit for Texas' Patient's Bill of Rights when in fact he'd vetoed it then let it become law without his signature after the Texas legislature overrode his veto. And I've seen nothing in the years since to make me want to change my mind. Obviously, Schafer had a different experience, but now he's come face to face with a big, ugly fact that's not going away. It'll be interesting to see how he reacts as the story builds.
I was never a Superman fan, but I still think this is cool. Was doing some datamining today and ran across an address on Lois Lane in Lanham, MD. I'd imagine that's a street sign that get's stolen pretty often, though maybe not as often as the intersection of High and Normal in Kirksville, MO.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

For the Record: Slate's Jack Schafer is either an illiterate moron or intentionally out to deceive has an unusual take on the Plame/Wilson relationship. Last Friday, Jack wrote: "Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, told New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd this week that she surrendered her secret identity to him somewhere around the time of their first kiss! If Plame's been sloppy with her identity, should somebody go to jail for leaking it?"

Here's the Dowd column in question. This is the sentence Schafer read, followed immediately by the one he apparently didn't read: "At first she said she was an energy analyst, but confided sometime around the first kiss that she was in the CIA. 'I had a security clearance,' grinned Wilson, then a political adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Europe."

How hard is it to understand the difference between outing yourself to someone who's been cleared to know your status and outing someone else to a half-dozen reporters and columnists?

Monday, October 06, 2003

Braggy Home Improvement Post
Here's a couple of pics to give you an idea of what the library used to look like, back when it was called "the office":

Try to ignore the guy doing yoga.

Note the tall, dark shelves. This is a view from the door, so you can't really tell, but they really overwhelmed the room. It didn't help that there's just a hint of a tilt to the floor, which made them even more loomy.



This is the same view now, with the shelves repurposed (and no Theron doing yoga). I built a base to lift the shelves up off the carpet and get them above the molding, and because it looks better. Then I lopped the top and bottom off the shelf units (laminated particle board, so no high quality furniture was harmed in the making of these shelves), turned them horizontal, and put in holes for adjustable shelves.

I have a lot of mass market paperbacks, so I built tiered shelving for them. Three shelves with two tiers, and one shelf with three tiers. There weren't quite enough books to fill all the shelves, particularly once I stocked the reference shelf on my writing desk, so I built a little wooden piece to hold the partial shelf in place. This had the double effect of creating a nice tiered storage area and making sure that, as I acquire more books, I have someplace to put them.



Since I mentioned the writing desk, I'll go ahead and show it off:



It used to belong to my parents, but they didn't have a place for it anymore, and it was just too cool to pass up, with all those nooks, crannies, and drawers, not to mention that wonderful shelf, just the right size for whatever reference books I might want to put my hands on at a moment's notice. Finally, a permanent home for my Latin/English dictionary!

But an open-ended shelf needs bookends. I looked around, but everything I found was either too ornate or too expensive. I wanted something that looked halfway decent, but effectively disappeared. After all, there's not that much room. I had a perfect picture in my head of what I wanted. Brass, preferably, but any metal would do. A simple right angle with a brace across the back. Like this, maybe:



Notice how it disappears? Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything like it out in the world, so I went to the hardware store and bought two sheets of brass,two narrow strips of brass, and some two part epoxy. An hour or so of playing with the vice and some clamps, and I had what I was looking for:



Oh, and I put masking tape on the bottom so they wouldn't scratch the wood.

Finally, I moved a big comfy chair in from the bedroom, and a reading lamp in from the living room, neither of which was being used where they were, and sat down to read a nice book. Unfortunately, I had nowhere to set my tea. Not that I had tea, but I planned to have tea sometime down the road. What I really needed was a little tray, with short legs on it so that it could fit down over the arm of the chair. I'd seen that sort of thing on altars in Japan, so I thought maybe Pier One would have something like what I wanted. No such luck. I looked a few other places, but it was the same story.

It was time for another trip to the hardware store, where I bought a half inch dowel rod and a thick slab of pine. I cut off a piece of pine, then used the table saw to put a divot in the center of it. I wanted a rustic look, so I switched over to hand tools, using a plane to trim the sides, leaving the corners high. Then I took some 60 grit sandpaper to it. Somewhere in there, I mounted the legs, cut from the dowel rod.



The finish is a red oak stain, and it's sealed with vegetable oil. It's not polyurethane or anything, but it's foodsafe and gives me room to experiment with different finishes if I want to. Plus it gives nice depth to the wood, and refreshing the oil is a wonderfully sensuous experience, if you're as into wood as I am (I didn't mean that to sound dirty, but oh well).

There's one last thing. Longtime readers may remember the Frodo costume from last year. Well, I'd ordered a long-stemmed pipe, but it didn't come in time for the Halloween party. But I still have it, and have been jonesing for a place to display it. I had a little piece of fifty year old pine left over from making boxes a few Christmases ago, so I turned it into a stand:



It's not my best work, especially the copper fork, which didn't spiral quite as evenly as I'd have liked. But it'll do for now, and it'll be easy to replace it (the fork, that is). Oh, and the nail is just a galvanized roofing nail I use to tamp the bowl. If I weren't so damn cheap, or if I smoked the sucker more than four or five times a year, I might invest in an actual pipe nail. But I am, and I don't, so this'll do.

I didn't know it was Yom Kippur when I decided tonight was the night I'd clean out her closet, having been raised Lutheran. And frankly, I don't think Atonement has anything to do with this. It's just a coincidence.

And it's not really her closet anymore, either. Hasn't been for two years. Since then, it's been a place to stick things I didn't want to deal with, like the new foam we ordered for the couch. I didn't really like the idea, but the old cushions were too soft for her. They hurt her back. But once I knew she wasn't coming back, I put the old foam back in, and stuck the new stuff in her closet, where it company with her old dresses and clothes from before she found fashion. And the shoes. Good lord, the shoes.

I don't want to make this into something it isn't, but when I pulled out her kimono, there was a spider on it. The kimono her mother gave her that her biological father picked up in Japan before she was born, before he decided that a young wife and new daughter was something he didn't want. The father whose picture she kept on her mirror in the apartment she moved into when she said she wasn't coming home. The father she never met who probably didn't know he was just a link in a chain of men who didn't stay and might not care if he knew, if he's even still alive.

It's not symbolic that I shook it off onto the floor and stomped it, but not before I took a good look at it. It's not symbolic that I went immediately online to find a picture of a brown recluse, saw a picture and said, out loud to an empty house, yep, that's what it was. It's just a fact of life in this part of the country that when you come back to a closet that's been mostly shut up for two years, it's best to shake things out before you handle them too much, and keep an eye on the floor to see what drops out.

That's why they call them recluses.
Important Moments in History - Microsoft Word's grammar checker made a suggestion, and I took it.
It's been too long postless, but I've got a project to work on, so this may well end up one of those posts telling you about other, better posts that are coming sometime down the line.

1. I've been working on the office, which is now called "the library" because it's for reading, not working. Coffeeshops are for working, as is the basement. As a result, almost all of my books are in one spot for the first time in years. Previously, all too many of them lived in the basement.

In the process of building the library, I've often gotten a little picture in my head of something I want, haven't been able to find it, and therefore had to built it. For the most part, they've turned out well. I think maybe tonight I'll go around and take pictures of some of these things, just for grins. So expect a braggy picture post sometime soon.

2. Turning what was my ex-wife's office into what is now my library has created the first entirely Carrie-free room in the house, and I like it very much. Next step is the bedroom, which is already mostly Carrie-free, thanks to the bed I built. But she left some old clothes and shoes behind, to the tune of one closet and a drawer or so. After the bedroom comes the living room, which is arranged in much the same way as when she lived her, and includes a hutch which, frankly, neither of us much liked. This process, known as "despousing", is not about getting rid of Carrie, who has, after all, not lived her in over two years. It is about getting rid of ghosts, who make lousy roommates, as they never put things away in the right place, but if you say anything, they get all huffy and stop emptying the dishwasher.

3. The despousing is a highly rewarding process, as I was emotionally rootbound. But it does occasionally bring up emotional crap I'd rather stayed buried. There's also been some stress at work. Nothing job-threatening, just a conflict of personalities. The woman I'm butting heads with somehow manages to piss me off in a way nobody else can, or has for years. All in all, it drives home the sense I've had for years now that we are, to steal a phrase from an old friend, "Cro-magnon with car keys." Certainly we have a mind capable of rational thought, but we end up using it mostly to rationalize what we've already decided we want to do, based on more emotion that reason.

These days, there's a wolf inside me (well, two wolves), and sometimes he snaps when there's no need. But when that happens, I mostly keep my mouth shut, and nobody hears the things I don't say. Then, when I get the chance, I slink off to my cave to get my brood on, or out to the front porch to howl at the moon.

It's not ideal, but it's interesting.

4. One of these days I'm going to write a poem around the line, "I was 25 before I could forgive my mother for loving me" but it's not going to be today.

5. The Rundown is badly written (They Live bad, not Attack of the Clones bad.), and Seann William Scott's character is so annoying that I was rooting for him to catch a stray bullet or get humped to death by monkeys. But the Rock is fun to watch, the action was, for the most part, well choreographed, and there are certainly worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.

There's more, I'm sure, but like I said, I'm on deadline, and this is about as much procrastination as I can afford. So it's back to work.