Friday, December 31, 2010

Eleven for '11

My resolutions, in no particular order:

1. Pay attention to what other people tell you about yourself. They are bound to be more truthful and accurate than the voices in your head.

2.  Corollary to the above: take care of yourself, physically and mentally, no matter how difficult or annoying it is.  If these people are telling the truth, then you deserve it, and they deserve to have you around for as long as possible.

3.  Stop fantasizing and start dreaming -- and work on making the dreams concrete.

4.  Forgive.  Forgive yourself and forgive others.  With one exception, there is no one who has hurt you so much that you cannot forgive them.  Apologize.  There are people out there whom you have hurt. Tell them how sorry you are.

5.  Let. Go. Of. Outcomes. 

6.  Every once in a while, take a walk on the wild side.  You're not dead yet.

7.  Always take the detour for the chinchilla races.

8.  Finish the damn book, already.  Even if it is never published, heck, even if it is never submitted for publication, it deserves it.  And while you're at it, make sure you write or blog every single freaking day.  Period.

9.  Spend time every day in gratitude for the blessings you have in your life, and the people who surround you.

10.  Speaking of those people, reach out and rebuild or strengthen the connections you have, especially with your friends.  It's a funny thing, the Internet, which actually allows people to keep in touch with each other.

11. Become more purposeful in how you live your life.  Become the mother / wife / friend / writer /  person who you are meant to be.

Notice that "Become more organized" is not on the list.  Even I know a lost cause when I see one.

Navel gazing: WTF am I doing?

Okay, so it's after  11:00 1 a.m. and I am posting.  Sue me.

One of the things I am trying to wrap my head around is the extent to which what I do here is art, or a preparation for art, or a procrastination or avoidance of art.  I can't decide.

Elizabeth Bear has very good advice for those who would write a novel.  The first rule?  Butt-in-chair.  You have to write everyday.  I have not been doing that.  I have been closer to doing that this year in any year previously.

You have to see yourself as an artist.  I don't.

I am a blogger.  Is that an art?  The medium is closest to being an essayist, except that my essays are mostly very personal and probably of limited use to anyone other than myself.

Is this in fact a preparation for being a Writer with a capital W, or does it make me a writer in and of itself? I am not a novelist -- and if I really think about it, I have no interest in being a novelist.  But I do have an interest in writing nonfiction. So I need to... write.  And research.  And I am thinking that all of the time I spend on writing for this blog  takes away from the time I need to spend, you know, researching and writing in a format that will get me published someday.

Except... I like this.  No, I crave this.  Yes, there are far too many days when I let stupid things like a lack of a convenient computer get in the way.  And there are days when I slack off, and don't write because I don't think I have anything to say.  But I do write -- this year, for every month past June, save August,  I have had at least 20 posts.   A lot of those posts were short, but quite a number of them were substantive.  Even though there has been a lot of down time simply due to lack of convenient computer access.  (I keep telling myself that if I were a real writer, I would ignore and overcome that.)

So what is this?  Does anyone other than me care?  I clearly write for myself here.  If I cared what size my audience was -- or at least to any real extent, since I do care some and am happy when I know people are reading -- I would have stopped bothering with this a long time ago.  Because, let's face it, when your number of hits per day averages in the single digits (recognizing, of course, that that does not take into account people who read via Google reader or through the RSS feed) you have a negligible footprint on the web.

I will keep on thinking about these things.  More importantly, I will keep writing -- hopefully more consistently, hopefully about more general things.  I have spent the year in self-reflection; it is time to move beyond that.

In the meantime, there are several pieces I want to bookmark:

Elizabeth Bear's advice to would-be writers

Eric's rules for making art

Kevin Smith's "Be a filmmaker"


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Huzzah! Sort of.

Not to bore everyone with my computer travails, but...

The iMac now is functioning, which means I can write posts at sometime other than 11:30 pm.  (It also means I can check my email every hour obsessively.  Not necessarily good.)  I only have to kick all the people under thirty off the computer, since they are between school semesters and hence have no homework that they need the computer for.

Last night I received an email from the moderator of a Yahoo Group that I belong to telling me that she had just received three phishing emails from my account.  Ack! So I went into overdrive, changing all my Gmail passwords, and posting notices here, on Facebook and on LiveJournal telling people not to pay attention to emails from me.  I then get an reply from the moderator saying, "Um, I intended to send this to beadchick2003."  The irony of this does not escape me.

Jan is still gone.  We have not heard from the We-Fix-Macs place, and need to call them to find out what th heck is going on.  The Apple store guys basically refused to do anything with it, since it is now "vintage."  Apparently, computers become "vintage" after five years and obsolete after seven.  2005, it was a very good year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The tree of life

It's that time of year.  Today is the fifth day of Christmas (did you get your rings? I was so sure I sent them), and in seven more days the Christmas tree will be coming down.

Many people have tasteful trees.  Trees where the ornaments match, or at least don't clash badly. Trees with delicate glass balls and pine cones.

That's not our tree.

Our tree is eclectic, to put it charitably.  It is a mess of scattered styles and materials, the colors ranging through all possible shades of the rainbow (and then some).  We do not have any black ornaments, but that's about it.

Each year, our tree is a microcosm of our lives together.  I buy an ornament for everyone in the household save myself. The tree becomes a living testament to our history.

There are ornaments of this year: Rocket Scientist's polar bear, Echidna Boy's pink velociraptor, etc..  There are the trains from former years for Railfan, and the glass chili pepper for the Not So Little Drummer Boy, who has yet to find a food other than ice cream that he will not put hot sauce on.  There is every handmade ornament from school -- fading paper chains, cutout styrofoam trees with pictures on them, the tinsel garland with bananas and pineapples.  All of them fragile, dilapidated, and treasured (if not by the kids, then by their parents).  There are the cheap plastic angels that were part of someone's fundraising drive. There are the glass seahorses I bought on a trip to St. Croix, the icicles sent to us by one of my bridesmaids, the spun crystal angels I bought at York Cathedral.

Every angel we have ever had as a topper is on the tree: the pathetic one made out of yarn from the first tree after we got married when we could barely afford a tree, let alone anything to put on top of it; the larger one I made the next year with glitter wings and yellow yarn hair; and the one that now sits on top, the one with the yellow braids and pearls that I made fifteen years ago.  For many years I pleaded with the Rocket Scientist to let me have a store-bought glass angel, and he adamantly refused. We will never have one now, I suspect.

There are markers along various roads:  the brightly colored enameled balls we bought in Santa Fe on our way east, in a move that was going to be permanent, to Washington D.C.  And the glass balls with doves on a somber deep red background that we bought in New Orleans on the way back, after Al Gore had reorganized the government and us out of a posting.  There is the sterling silver gnome and the fiber ball with the MIT insignia on it, the first ornaments -- no, the first gifts -- the Rocket Scientist and I gave each other so many years ago.

The tree is a chronicle of our lives together, he and I, as friends, as lovers, as spouses, as family.

The tree is like all of us: crazy, chaotic, esoteric, somewhat messy, definitely unique.

And above all, loved.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ulysses's boat sprung another leak

I have all these things I'm thinking about, and once again, no computer.  Jan is back in the shop -- this time with a suspect motherboard -- and the iMac is likewise down with a blown power supply.  The only working computer is the Rocket Scientist's work laptop, and using it extensively is not a feasible option.  Maybe I should go down to the public library.

Oh, joy.

I am spending my time reading.  (I adore Stephen Sondheim, just saying.)  I am learning a little about writing lyrics for the musical theater.  a fair amount about Broadway history, at least for a certain swath of time and from a given viewpoint, and quite a bit about writing in general (by osmosis).  Sondheim  can be completely detached, and does not believe in sacred cows. Even Oscar Hammerstein, who was both an artistic mentor and a surrogate father for him, comes in a fair amount of criticism. (And praise as well: Sondheim saves his real ire for Noel Coward and Lorenz Hart.)  Nor does he hesitate to explain what is wrong either with his own lyrics or with the productions he was associated with in general.  It is refreshingly acerbic and honest.  I can hardly wait for Volume II: this volume left off in 1981, before Sunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods, or Assassins

I have been contemplating a couple of relatively recent Supreme Court decisions, but I don't have the computer time to construct a polished post on them.  (I refine my thoughts at the keyboard before publishing them.)

Finally, if there are more than the usual numbers of typos in this post, it is because I just got new contacts, and am trying to write this without resorting to reading glasses.  Damn, I hate growing older.

I'll see you later, when I can.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I am owned by a cat.

For years, I resisted having any pets on the grounds that I had kids, and the last thing I wanted was to be responsible for yet another living being. I resisted all pleas to get a cat, a dog, a parakeet, a monkey... (and no, BNL, I haven't always wanted a monkey).  Not to mention being allergic to both dogs and cats (and probably monkeys, although I haven't had enough exposure to find out).

Then, four years ago, right before he left for the Arctic, the Rocket Scientist trapped two feral kittens in our backyard.  In spite of my protests, we kept them.  Chocolate, the more friendly of the two, sadly died of a congenital heart condition at the age of three. (We later got Pandora, so named because she is beautiful - she is a Russian blue -- and prone to getting into trouble.  As it turns out, she has a tremendous fondness for boxes.  And no, I am not making this up.)

Penwiper, named after a kitten in my favorite science fiction book, was always more fiercely independent.  She wasn't willing to be cuddled by just anyone.  Which was fine by me, since I am not by nature a cuddly person.  So naturally, she decided that I must be the alpha human, and decided to adopt me.  She climbs on top of me when I am laying in bed and demands to be petted.  She will bat books down if I am reading, step on computer keyboards if I am writing, sit down in front of me if I am watching TV.  (Unless I am watching Animal Planet.  She particularly likes shows about lions.  I am convinced she thinks she can be one one day if she just tries hard enough.)

But the absolute final straw came last week.

At 4 am one night,  Penwiper climbed on top of me and started meowing very loudly.  She did this until I got out of bed to follow her.  She usually does this when she wants to be let into the garage -- but generally not in the middle of the night.

She walked into the living room, turning around every few steps to make sure that I was following her.  She walked over and sat down in front of the Christmas tree. She then commenced practically howling until... I plugged in the Christmas tree.  She then turned around, started staring at the lights, and purring.

I have got to start enforcing limits with this damn cat.

As the spirit moves

One of my favorite songs from the 80s is Mr. Mister's Kyrie.  The chorus features the phrase "Kyrie eliason," which is from the Roman Catholic mass and means, in Greek, "Lord have mercy."  The entire song, which speaks of longing and "the road that I must travel," is nothing less than a prayer.  It is heartfelt, and meaningful, and somewhat surpisingly in a decade not known for deep reflection, went to #1 on the BIllboard charts.

I was thinking of this song today in contrast to the empty posturing of Madonna.  Madonna's music is shallow, and void of true emotional content.  Where she uses spirituality or religion ("Like a Prayer" comes to mind), she does so manipulatively.  Her faith, whatever it may be, has no more significance than the rosaries she wore as jewelry at the beginning of her career.

I have no problem whatsoever with the explicitly sexual nature of Madonna's music.  So what.  Sex happens.  It is an important part of the human experience, one which is as deserving of being celebrated in song as any other.  Except, once again, she often uses it shallowly and for shock value.  Sex can be many things, from an deeply emotional undertaking, to funny, to empty pleasure-seeking.  The issue I have with Madonna's treatment of sex is that she manages to make it seem tawdry even as she seems to be attempting to represent it as something else.
Terry Prachett quote most likely to appear soon on an episode of Criminal Minds:
There are all kids of darkness, and all kinds of things can be found in them, imprisoned, banished, lost or hidden. Sometimes they escape.  Sometimes they simply fall out.  Sometimes they just can't take it anymore.
Unseen Academicals, Sir Terry Pratchett, HarperCollins 2009, p.1.
It was a good Christmas.  No travel, little stress.  (This is going to be a boring post.)  Going in with little to no expectations proved to be a winning strategy. 

One advantage of the kids being older is that at least some people in the house can sleep in.  I didn't -- I had turkey duty, and it was  not until I was well and truly awake did I realize that we had purchased a twelve-pound turkey instead of our usual twenty-five pounder, and therefore it needed far less time to cook.  I used the time to bake pies instead: pumpkin and the sour cream chocolate pie I wrote about earlier.

The Rocket Scientist and the Not So Little Drummer Boy were up very late, so they slept until 10:30.  It was a far cry from days when all of us would be up by six. (Even today, were we at relatives, we would be up at about 7:00.)  After breakfast of Hobee's coffeecake, we gathered around for presents at a staggeringly late 11:00 am. 

The kids loved what they got, even though in two cases it was an IOU for a gaming system that isn't scheduled to be released for another three months.  There was a lot of laughter.

For me, it was a Christmas for a lot of books:

Prisoner of Trebekistan, by Bob Harris, a gift from a friend earlier in the week. Harris is a very funny, humble guy, and a lovely writer.  My friend had informed me that, having been on Jeopardy! I absolutely had to read this book, and he was right.

The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe, from other friends -- a lovely, leather bound volume, that is as tactilely delightful as the stories are disturbing.

Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre.  A serious look at a not necessarily serious subject.

Speaking of not necessarily serious subjects: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.  I wish I could tell you more about this book, but it was immediately snagged by the teenagers in the house, who are now in the middle of reading it.

Little Bee from my mother.  I don't read much fiction, but this looks lovely.

The Mammoth Reader: Super-size stories and Incredible Information, from my sister-in-law, the Georgia Paramedic, who knows that my mind collects small shiny pieces of information the way that magpies collect tin foil.

And finally, the much-lusted-after Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim.  I love Sondheim.  He is one of the true geniuses in any cultural medium we have today.  I have seen interviews with him, and he also witty, sly, and snarky.  (He tops my list of "five people I would dearly love to have dinner with" along with Alan Rickman, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett and Mark Twain.)  (Any man who can have a Prince sing about Snow White  "They lie there for years / As we cry on their biers" is my kind of human being.) My one complaint about the book is that it is too short, and does not discuss Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, or Assassins.  Clearly, Sondheim needs to release a second volume, and soon.

I also got a gift certificate, which I have already marked out for The Autobiography of Mark Twain. And not quite a book, but printed material anyway: my kids renewed my subscription to Games magazine.  

My mind will be occupied for quite a while.  I am looking forward to it.

My very favorite gift, though, was a blue canary night light.  Unfortunately none of our light switches have outlets by them, but I plan to put it in as prominent a place as possible, so it can watch over me. It's not quite the only bee in my bonnet, though.

The rest of the day was spent reading -- either in my new books, or my second-favorite Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time, which the Rocket Scientist had discovered while cleaning out next to our bed.  Or eating; Christmas dinner was lower key than it has been in a long time. The food was, as it always is at our holiday meals, quite good.  The only glitch was my failure to make the cranberry sauce the night before so that the flavors had not had a chance to mellow out.

The evening was spent in a heartfelt discussion around the dinner table, followed by a hysterically funny game of Apples to Apples. Echidna Boy won, showing a level of psychological insight into the rest of us that is a little unnerving.

I recognize how blessed I am, not only in material goods, but in the joy and laughter we were able to share with each other.  We generally like each others' company, and I know many people who do not feel that way about their family. My only regret is that I had been feeling too poorly from a cold to attend a Christmas Eve church service.  It is the first time in a very long time that that has been the case.

As I said, a good Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Well, rats.  The days are going to get longer from here on out.
It was wondrous.

The moon, usually a silver-white disc, was... three-dimensional.  Instead of a coin, it was a golden marble to be picked out of the sky.  The face spread and dissolved into the jagged irregular maria.

Men walked up there, I kept thinking.  There are footsteps in the dust; I can't see them, but they are there.  I am looking at the farthest reaches of our collective first-hand adventures in the universe.

And I also remembered the words of Richard Feynman:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

With great Power(Point) comes great responsiblity

Last week, I had a class in the 2007 version of PowerPoint for Windows.  Heh heh heh.

It was a lot easier than either Word or Excel.  By the time I got to PowerPoint, I had a pretty good idea where things would be on the ribbon.  (May I just say right now that I much prefer the structure of the Windows 2007 version of Office to that of the 2008 version for the Mac?  I hate pull-down menus.) While there were some things to learn, I was generally bored the first two days.  So much so that I checked out, and spent ten minutes (while the instructor was explaining find and replace and other commands common with other Office programs) creating a slide show for a friend.

Ahhh, but then we learned animation.  Heh heh heh.  I took my slide presentation and added several animation elements to each slide.  The original slide show took ten minutes to create; I spent two hours hunting through animation effects to find the ones I wanted.  It is a classic example of overkill: it has an animation approximately every two seconds, with multiple effects per page.  A six slide presentation had somewhere between 24 and 30 animations. I had an absolute blast.

For someone like me, who is very visual, and fascinated with creating complicated designs, PowerPoint is a drug. (Even worse than Word, although I have been known to spend ten minutes on a three-word sign ("Norton Gallery upstairs") trying to find the exactly right font.)  The temptation to try to overwhelm, to dazzle, is almost too strong to resist.

I am going to have a lot of fun with this, although I suspect  potential employers will not necessarily appreciate my mad skillz. Creating presentations that are so complicated that they become difficult to follow is not a good thing. And as the Rocket Scientist points out, it is often the case that the more complicated the presentation the worse the data.  Oh well.

So, I've done a simple (except for the insane animations) presentation.  Now, if only I can do a presentation which requires a 3-D exploded pie chart.  I love 3-D exploded pie charts....

Edited to add: I just, um, added two slides to my simple presentation, involving 8 more animations.  One of those was, er, a totally bogus 3-D exploded pie chart. *hangs head in mock shame*

Sour Cream Chocolate Pie

The pie I just made:

One graham cracker pie shell, either store-bought (what I use -- yay for the Keebler elves!) or homemade

2 cans sweetened condensed milk

3/4 to 1 cup good cocoa (in this case, Ghiradelli), sifted

3/4 cup sour cream

1/4 tsp. salt

2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix together all ingredients except the pie shell until smooth. Pour into pie shell.  I am still playing around with the cooking time: 30 minutes seem to work.  It will still be jiggly when you remove it from the oven.  Let cool for a few minutes, then place in refrigerator for at least two hours, until thoroughly chilled.

Next up: Chocolate pie without sour cream but with 1/2 tsp of cinnamon and probably 1/2 to 1 tsp of ground chipotle peppers. Probably not today; there is only so much pie one can eat.

ETA:  Oh, my God, is this good.  Very rich, but good.
ETA, 11/25/11: The Not-So-Little Drummer Boy put peanut butter on his piece.  It was good.  I put marshmallow fluff on mine, and it rocked.

Singing for our lives

I sing.  At home, in the car.  Not in public, though. Show tunes, classic rock, country, folk. I am fond of Rent and the work of Steven Schwartz, and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. My kids get after me for my singing, but I do it anyway.

My father sang, at home, in the car.  Show tunes, some big band, some country. He was fond of The Sound of Music and Marty Robbins.

There is something freeing in song.  It takes you out of yourself. For me, it calms me and clarifies my mind.  It reflects -- or sometimes changes -- my mood.

All too often we think of music as the province of professionals.  We share songs, but it is records, or videos, of other people singing. We do not share our own voices.  Except for church or carols at Christmas ( and for some people, not even then) or, for some brave souls, karaoke, we are silent, we reserve our music for ourselves. It is not good enough, we think. Oh, we many of us sing, as I do, to ourselves, or only to those close enough that we don't care what they think.

Harry Chapin wrote poignantly about this in "Mr. Tanner." A man sings beautifully, to the delight of his friends and neighbors.  At their urging, he makes a professional debut, only to be savaged by the critics.  He never sang again, except quietly to himself.

We need to reclaim our voices raised in song for ourselves.  Music is one of the things which make us human.  (Although is is not exclusively human: many mammals sing, after a fashion.) It is as important as speech.  I only wish I had more occasion to sing with my friends.

A few minutes ago, in my kitchen, I was singing "Barcelona" from Company (one of the few Sondheim songs I can actually sing).  I stopped, and listened: both of my two elder children were singing quietly to themselves.  The Not So Little Drummer Boy was singing a song from, as is typical for him, a relatively obscure band I had never heard of.  Railfan, to my delight, was singing "Wilkommen" from Cabaret.

I seem to have passed along a family tradition.  I am so proud.
One of the downfalls of blogging (especially late at  night) is that sometimes you shoot off your keyboard and realize the next morning that what you have written is uninformed, badly reasoned, and, quite frankly, you knew better.

So then the question becomes, what to do? In my case, I edited my standing post so that it becomes somewhat less stupid.  (I eliminated the discussion of Prop 8.  I think that's a very worthwhile subject, but I am going to see how it plays out a bit more before writing about it.) I am going to keep the post up though, if for no other reason than the object lesson involved.

Note to self: blogging while tired is not as dangerous to one's physical well-being as driving while tired, but it still carries with it the possibility of embarrassment.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The second (or third -- or fourth) time around

I was listening this morning to the Smash Mouth version of "I'm a Believer."  There's no way around it:  this is just better than the Monkees version.

I know a lot of people with  bias for performances by the original songwriter or performer.  This makes sense, since they wrote it, the original writer* would be more tuned in to the meaning and emotion behind a song, which would  make their version more authentic. And better.  Except...

Well, there is Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan is one of the greatest American songwriters of the second half of the 20th century.  His voice is also the aural equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.  There are very few Dylan songs that I can stand to hear him sing, let alone prefer to hear him sing.  (The only exceptions that come to mind is "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,"  and "The Times They Are A'Changin," either of which I cannot imagine anyone else singing.)  The Birds made their name, at least early on, by covering Dylan's work.  Their versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages" are poppier, more intelligible than Dylan's. (I know for a lot of people that's not a feature but a bug.)  You can hear them without cringing.  And many performers have made lovely versions of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."  (My two favorite may be Johnny Cash's and Eddie From Ohio's.)  And of course, Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" is iconic.

I also have a preference for the Bangles' version of "A Hazy Shade of Winter."  It contains an edge that is only hinted at in the Simon & Garfunkel original.  It's not simply a matter of "pretty" either:  Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" and Willie Nelson's cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" are not pretty, but they are evocative and beautiful.

Then there is my all-time favorite "cover": Eric Clapton's Unplugged version of "Layla."  It fascinates me that an artist can come up with two such different versions of the same song, with such different nuances:  the original was a young man's song, full of passion and desire.  He is going to die if he does not get this woman, and he thinks he means it.  The newer version sounds like a man who has been around the block more than once: yes, he finds this woman desirable, but if she rejects him, he won't die, he'll probably just hit on the next pretty face at the party.

Actually, I am wrong.  My really all-time favorite cover is the Benzedrine Monks reimagining of  "Smells Like Teen Spirit": Nirvana performed in the style of Gregorian Chant.**  I loved it, because aside from the amusement value, it was the first time I had clearly heard the lyrics of the song.

So, what do you think? What songs are better when they've been recycled?

*It should be noted that "I'm a Believer" was written by Neil Diamond.  I have never heard a version of the song done by him, so I can't know if it is better than Smash Mouth's or not.

**There is also Luther Wright and the Wrongs bluegrass version of Pink Floyd's The Wall, but the less said about that the better.
Recently I have been thinking about a twenty-year old Supreme Court case,  and I have the writers of Criminal Minds and the proponents of prop 8 to thank for that. Just to get them out of my head, here are my somewhat disjointed musings on the topic:

In the first season of Criminal Minds, the writers penned an episode ("Riding the Lightning") revolving around a woman going to her execution who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a son she (and ultimately the BAU team) knew well was still alive, as well as involvement in murders committed by her lover. The team find evidence of her innocence.  A large part of the plot involved the team finding out where the son was, and trying to talk the woman into admitting that he was still alive. She refused, because he had been adopted into a good home, and she was afraid that finding out who his mother was would destroy his life. 

This episode annoys the hell out of me, for the simple reason that it is impossible.  Firstly, there is no way that a court will provide relief: the strictures on the production of new evidence found in the AEDPA and state statutes (the case in the episode was in Florida) would mean that it would be thrown into the lap of the governor.  Any governor with with a view to his political life would never pardon a woman who was viewed as complicit in the murders committed by her lover, whether or not she actually was.

But the bigger issue is... even if the BAU team found the son, so what?  The woman was dead set against appeal.  Which makes the whole issue moot due to a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Whitmore v. Arkansas (495 U.S. 149 (1990)).

Whitmore was a case that I followed for a paper I was working on for my Advanced Criminal Procedure class.  (Yes, I know.  I ended up a real propery/land use attorney. Considering I got an A in Advanced Crim Pro that might not have been all that good a career choice. On the other hand, I did also get an A- in Land Use.) It was a fun paper to write, involving a fact set that came straight out of a torrid crime novel, and interesting (and I understand completely that "interesting" is a relative word here) questions of law.

I chose it out of all those available to research because it had the best story.  I am by nature a lover of stories; it is one of the things that most attracted me to law school.  The facts were horrendous, if fascinating: Ronald Gene Simmons killed all fourteen members of his family in various ways, including his granddaughter by his daughter Sheila, and then went into Russellville, killed two people and injured one more. He was one of the worst "family annihilators" in American history.  (Why yes, I am fascinated with serial killers, why do you ask?) He was speedily convicted and sentenced for execution.

At his sentencing, he stated his refusal to appeal either his conviction or his sentencing. Other inmates in Arkansas sought to appeal.  On of the issues raised on appeal was the constituionality of  Arkansas statute which provided for mandatory appeal (the higher courts had to allow appeal of the conviction or sentence by the defendant -- all states are required to do so) rather than automatic appeal (the higher courts automatically reviewed the sentence and/or conviction -- depending upon the state, the procedure at that time by all states except Arkansas).

The Supreme Court decided the case on standing issues.  Although there might be some Constitutional issue about the difference between mandatory and automatic appeal, the only person who had standing to appeal was the defendant himself: the one person who was always allowed to appeal in cases of mandatory appeal, and who was not going to appeal otherwise.  It is a true Catch-22.

Simmons was duly executed, his death warrant signed by the then governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. Although I am generally opposed to the death penalty, I am the first to admit that if there is a death penalty, Simmons clearly deserved it.  I did not mourn or regret his execution.

Standing is one of the legal issues (like land use) that most people are bored to tears by but which is in fact extremely important.  Standing determines who gets access to the courts:  limit it too stringently and people with possibly legitimate interests are stranded on the sidelines looking on in frustration as their interests are defended by someone else (or not, in the case of the prop 8 proponents and the state of California.) (One of the small satisfactions of the case winding its way through the courts is that I can read about and discuss standing issues with my friends and their eyes don't glaze over.  Much.)  Don't limit tightly enough, and people with nothing really at stake are clogging up the court system. Determining where to draw that line is tricky. In many cases, it is a matter of statute. 

Standard IANAL(A)* disclaimer: standing, both criminal and civil,  is a complicated subject which I have not studied since law school. My interest here is philosophical, really, since I have been out of the legal arena for close to two decades now.  For professionals, these questions may be much more obvious; for laypeople, which I now consider myself, they are anything but.

What defines an interest?  In the case of a defendant who may have plausible grounds for appeal but who chooses not to pursue it, should others have the right to step in?  If outside considerations rather than their guilt or innocence cause a defendant to refuse appeal (fear for one's family, shame at conviction, despair or desire to avoid having to live on death row) , does refusing to allow others to appeal for them rise to allowing state-assisted suicide?

I ask these not as legal questions (as I said above, I am too far fallen away from the practice of law, and I have not kept up with developments in these areas) but as philosophical ones.  For me, in this case, it boils down to a simple question: Am I my brother's keeper?

The answer I find myself coming back with is no.  I am not.  The world is not perfect, nor fair.  At least theoretically, people could go to their deaths who really should not, by their own choice.**  To do otherwise in the latter case is to violate the most important attribute we have as human beings: free will.  It has taken twenty years, but lately I have been wondering whether the Supreme Court came to the right decision in Whitmore after all.

In the resolution penned by the writers of Criminal Minds  free will triumphs.  The woman convinces the team members to leave her son in peace and allow her to be put to death.  

I just wish that, given that the writers chose to approach the issue of capital punishment, they would have selected a more reasonable legal scenario. The subject deserves it.

* I Am Not A Lawyer (Anymore).
**This would be in fact a very rare scenario. In almost all cases, the question becomes "Is someone going to be executed who should not be, in spite of all their efforts to avoid it?" As I said, Ronald Gene Simmons surely fit the definition of the sort of monster that most people envision the death penalty as being appropriate for, so his refusal to appeal really did not do much other than save him time on death row and the state some money in not having to fight protracted appeals.
The Not-So-Little Drummer Boy is home from college for the Christmas break.  Which means...

I have to remind him and his friends that they need to turn the stereo low and keep their voices down because I really do not want a visit from the cops at midnight.

"Like" and even occasionally "Duuuuuude!!!" have crept into my conversation.

I am forced to determine whether the noises from the garage are the cat screeching or simply something (I hesitate to call it music) coming from the stereo.  Thus far, it has been the latter. 

But most of all, it means discussing art.

The NSLDB interned with a couple of artists the summer before his freshman year, and has taken a number of college art courses, including courses on conceptual art.  On the surface, he is jaded, cynical.  He is especially contemptuous of the hype that seems to permeate the art world.

But scratch that surface, and there is passion.  Love, and knowledge, of the art itself.  Appropriate disdain for the pretension that reduces the art to nothing more than ego on the part of either the artist or the observer. An understanding of how art is, first and foremost, a means to communicate; absent that, it is insignificant or meaningless.

I do not know what form this love will take; it may be that he becomes an artist himself (although his first love has always been music), or at the very least he will go through his life appreciating the art he encounters.

But what I do know is that talking to him is a joy, and that something in me is very happy that I have raised a kid for whom art matters such a great deal.  I will be sad once he leaves for school again, and am reminded how soon it will be before he is gone, not quite for good, but for pretty much everything save holidays.  Although he is a Northern California boy through and through, I really do not expect him to return here once he is done in western Massachusetts.  I would be very surprised if he did not end up in New York or L.A.

It is usually said that children are gifts, blessings; it is lovely to have such reminders of how much he and his brothers mean in my life.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ulysses' boat has sailed into the harbor

Jan is back home from the "We-Fix-Macs" store.  In the past month, he has had his memory card and hard drive replaced and had a battery problem discovered (which resulted in having to replace the "new" but defective battery with the old and incapable of holding a charge of more than 15 minutes) and the power outlet realigned.  I haven't gotten a new keyboard, but since I went through three of those in the first eighteen months I owned him (the letters kept wearing off) I was hoping we are past that little hardware problem.

The system will not load properly: this weekend I will undertake a complete reformatting and reloading of the disk to see if we can't get this straightened out.  My job search folders are not easily accessible (make that at all), and vitals such as the latest versions of Quicktime and Adobe Reader won't run.  The Quicktime would not matter except that it is necessary to run iTunes.  No iTunes, no music.  Or at least music I can choose.  Pandora's great, but is not the same as having one's playlists at one's command.

System preferences won't pop up, which makes issues such as security and creating additional users impossible (not to mention little things like sound and display settings).  It is frustrating, to say the least.

On the other hand, I know have a computer I can sit and type at which is located at my proper level, so I don't have to perch on an uncomfortable (to me) bar stool or reach up to type.  Not to mention having to fight for access: while I am the metaphorical 500 lb gorilla, the 150 lb chimpanzees can make my life miserable, even if they can't actually kick me off the computer except for schoolwork. ("Are you done yet, Mom?" "Are you going to be done soon, Mom?" "Can I just check my Facebook to see if Wendy is on, Mom?" and so on ad nauseum. And I am sure they're not very happy about it either.)

I have net access.  I have Office.  I can cope.

There is something freeing about my laptop which I never fully appreciated until I lost use of it.  Being online has become a large part of my social network, my communication style, and most significantly to me, my source of self-expression and in some ways self-identity. While not having a laptop does not make any of those things less true, it does make all of them more difficult to deal with.

I blog, therefore I am.  Sadly.  I am very uncomfortable with the ways in which so much of my interaction is electronic these days: does it indicate increasing isolation on my part, or is it everyone else, too?

Is it a sign that I am too much in love with the sound of my own voice, metaphorically, or a sign that I feel stifled and unable to hear myself elsewhere?

Solipsistic? or Silenced?

It's hard for me to tell.  I may need to ask other people.  Probably my Facebook friends....

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pat's Greatest Hits?

In the past six months, I have introduced  a lot of people to this blog.  Personally, I think that's cool, but I find myself wanting to say... wait! you should have read what I wrote back then!

Not to mention that there are a lot of information about me locked away in things I wrote three years ago and have not revisited.  (I also believe I simply wrote better then, and that I need to work on reclaiming my writing chops, but I have heard divergent opinions on this from other people.)

So, if you will excuse this exercise in complete self-indulgence, herewith are a few of my favorite posts:

Out here with yellow lines and dead armadillos...

Play Ball!

Torture: Once More With Feeling

Mercenary Music

On Seeing Art

To the ends of the earth....

EchidnaQuest 2006, Part 1 and Part 2

Gold and Darkness

Walking the Path: Lessons of the Labyrinth

Twenty [More] Statements About Me. Plus One.   and its predecessor,  Twenty Statements. Plus One.

I am also pleased with my 2006 and 2008 posts about voter registration, absentee balloting, and voter's rights, but those are really boring and no longer relevant.

There's a lot more, but I think my ego can let go of posting all of the others : )

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts for today....

It is diverting to look at the interests of one's Facebook friends, and notice how the different parts of your life meet up in a like of, say, bacon.  The thought of the individuals involved all in one room discussing bacon is amusing, particularly because they are otherwise such very different people.

I wonder if the chocolate pie recipe I developed a couple of weeks ago would be made better by the addition of sour cream or by the addition of ground chipotle and cinnamon.  (I don't think adding all of those would be very good.)  Maybe I will be forced (forced!) to make two chocolate pies next weekend.  My family will be pressed into service  as pie-tasters.  It's a tough job,  but somebody's got to do it.

I have just seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the nth time.  I am still  in love with Sean Connery.

Last night I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I can pinpoint exactly when I fell totally and completely in love with the character (and not just for the "it's not the years, honey, it's the mileage" crack). I fell in love with Indiana Jones when he stood on the ridge on the island, and was unable to destroy the ark.  I understood that totally: I would have done likewise.  There are things which lie beyond our importance as mere human beings. (I also believe that he understood that once his bluff had been called he wasn't going to get out of there anyway, let alone with Marian.)

I now know what the letters LARP stand for.  Why someone would spend time doing such a thing is beyond me, but that is probably a failure of imagination on my part.  I've never quite understood the allure of the SCA and Ren Faire and Dickens Fair, either.  (Do not get me started on the historical inaccuracies in those last two.  Just don't.)  I have studied the Renaissance a little, and more to the point 19th Century England as a history major, and you could not pay me enough to change places with those people. Even the wealthy gentry. ESPECIALLY not as a woman.

Last night, Echidna Boy tossed out his theory of were-lawyers: some people are struck by the full moon, and instead of turning into wolves or howling, they send out law school applications.

A friend of mine just sent me the song "Mammal" by They Might Be Giants.  This makes me wonderfully happy, and will delight Echidna Boy as well, I know: the song mentions both echidnas and monotremes in general. It has displaced "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" as my second favorite TMBG song, and gives "Birdhouse in Your Soul" a close run for its money.

I spent this evening cleaning off the top of my dresser, a task somewhat akin to Heinrich Schliemann excavating Troy.  I am appalled by the amount of stuff I cleaned away, and even more appalled by the amount of it that wasn't even mine.  Since when did I become the owner of a Dr. John CD?  At least I was able to find the DVDs to the Muppet Show season 1 and the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice,

Ah well, it is late.  My bed calls, for I have a class tomorrow to learn PowerPoint.  Oh, joy.

'Night, everyone, sleep tight, and don't let the were-lawyers bite.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Time to get demotivated...

I have always loved the posters from Despair, Inc. Every now and then I check their website. Here are my current two favorites:



Sunday, December 05, 2010

A little Christmas merriment

It's the time of year again for those wonderful sounds of the season... "humorous" Christmas songs.  I am by nature a lover of traditional Christmas carols, so secular Christmas songs don't necessarily do that much for me.*  Especially ones that are supposed to make me laugh.**

I really detest "Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer."  It's mean spirited and cruel.  The fact that the Rocket Scientist's grandmother died right around Christmas doesn't help, either.  And "Santa Baby" is just... blech.

I do have an odd fondness for the Chipmunks.  I won't give the title of the song, since it is such an infectious earworm that just seeing the name can cause discomfort, and I like all of you too much to do that to you.  I also like "I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas," which the rest of my family royally loathes.  I'm not sure if that makes me like it more, but it doesn't hurt. My kids like Weird Al's "Christmas at Ground Zero," which is the only Weird Al song that I not only dislike but actually cannot listen to. (It tends to wrap itself in a massive  Mobius strip with "Jingle Bell Rock" in my brain -- a loop from hell that goes around and around and WILL NOT STOP.)

The two very best comedic Christmas songs take dead aim at the materialism of the season, as displayed in the myth of Santa Claus and the competitive race to have the best Christmas lights. (Actually, that last sentence is hypocritical of me: I adore Christmas lights, wish they went up in July, and feel there is no such things as too many of them.  The guy who choreographed his lights to the music of the TransSiberian Orchestra is my hero.)

Herewith, the Barenaked Ladies ode to labor, "Elf's Lament":

And the wonderful send-up of those of us who believe that, when it comes to Christmas decoration, more is always more, "Fifty Kilowatt Tree" by The Bobs:

*Or contemporary religious songs, either.  Whomever wrote that godawful "Christmas Shoes" country song a few years ago should be taken out and have a stake of holly driven through his heart.  Or mistletoe.  Something suitably druidic and Yule-flavored.

**Except for Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."  Bruce rocks, in every possible sense of that verb.