Friday, January 28, 2011

In memoriam.


Francis R. Scobee
Michael J. Smith
Judith A. Resnik
Ellison S. Onizuka
Ronald E. McNair
Gregory B. Jarvis
Sharon Christa McAuliffe,

Rest in Peace.

High Flight

by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds...and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of...wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space...
...put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Also, the best speech Ronald Reagan ever gave.
On this day, twenty-five years ago, the world changed.

It is one of those "Where were you when..." moments.  Where were you when the planes flew into the World Trade Center?  Where were you when Kennedy was shot?  Where were you when...

Challenger blew up.

I have written about Challenger before.  In many ways, I'm not sure I can add to what I wrote then. But January 28 has a resonance for me that the other notable dates in what a friend of mine at Goddard Space Flight Center calls "dead astronaut week" don't.  I was too young to be affected by the loss of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire.  When Columbia disintegrated over east Texas, I was saddened, and worried about the impact, both professionally and personally, on people I or my husband knew, or on NASA in general, but its impact on me was more removed.

Challenger's destruction, though, terrified me.  Those twin spirals of smoke trailing off into the deep blue Florida January sky would crop up in nightmares off and on for years.

I was the wife of a man whose sole mission in life was to reach outer space.  The Rocket Scientist had wanted to  be an astronaut since the age of about four.  I have not met many people who have been so single-minded about a goal.

Even though I knew about his dreams, and knew at an intellectual level that spaceflight was dangerous,  I had not internalized exactly how dangerous an undertaking it was.  I was not alone: the fact that civilians  were being taken along shows how blasè we all had gotten about this space business.  (Senator Jake Garn* may have been a pilot, but that was not what got him his gig as the first sitting member of Congress to fly on the shuttle.) Christa MacAuliffe was on Challenger precisely because at some level it was thought a safe place for a teacher to be. 

Challenger changed all that.  As I looked at the television, and then looked over at my husband staring in horrified fascination at the smoke trails, I couldn't help but think "that could be him, in a few years time."  Even before asking him, I knew that nothing had changed.

I had a decision to make.  When someone you love desires danger, the time to figure out whether you can cope with that is not when they get what they want.  The time to decide whether you can stand watching your husband and best friend be strapped to a rocket and shot into the atmosphere is not when he is selected for a mission, or even when he is chosen for the astronaut corps.  It is before he even begins the application process.  

You decide to deal with it, or you leave.  Those are your choices.  Trying to change someone who has their eyes on the horizon, for whom the dream of space is and always will be their first love, even above you, is hopeless and cruel.  For both of you.

I stayed.  All through the years of applying.  There was a callback, which in itself, given the numbers of people who apply, is pretty good -- but in the end, my husband didn't become an astronaut.  And through all those years, every once in a while, the nightmare would return, with the smoke trailing off into the sky -- but instead of seven strangers in there, it was him.  The end of that dream brought its own issues -- he had to find a way to channel that first love into other avenues -- but at least the Challenger nightmares ended.

The day after Columbia disintegrated, I asked the Rocket Scientist (who at that point had passed the age where being selected for the astronaut program was realistic) if, having seen what had happened to Columbia, if he would still have gone in to space.  "I would go tomorrow," he answered without hesitation.  I mentioned this online to my friend at Goddard, who said "Of course.  We all would.  This doesn't change any of that."

And if my husband had that chance, even given Columbia, even given Challenger, I would do what every loved one of every astronaut or every astronaut want-to-be must do:  I would swallow hard, smile, and say "Vaya con dios, love.  The kids and I will be waiting for you when you get back."

So I find myself thinking today not just about the astronauts, but about their families.  About what it would be like to have experienced such a tragedy.  And about all those who send the ones they love into danger with a hug.**  And about the courage and conviction the families of those seven men and women showed in response to such heartbreak.***

And I salute them.

*Jake Garn was so spacesick on his flight, that a scale of spacesickness is named after him. [pdf. p. 13-35]  "One Garn" is the highest level of spacesickness an astronaut can experience.

**Not just astronauts: the families of soldiers, cops, and firefighters face this on an everyday basis.

*** The families of the Challenger astronauts founded The Challenger Centers for Space Education, a remarkable monument to their loves ones.

Monday, January 24, 2011

32 degrees and dropping. How much fun is that?

I am freaking coooooollllllddddd.  If I wanted to freeze to death I would have stayed in Massachusetts after I graduated Wellesley.  The next time I think, "Baltimore-D.C. in January, how bad could it be?  It's not like it's Chicago or Boston" please slap some sense into me? Please?

In the words of Jimmy Buffet, "I wanna go where it's waaaaarrrrmmmmm!"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Notes to Self

Eating at the bar in a hotel -- especially a nice hotel -- is freaking expensive.  Even if you did forego having breakfast at the hotel this morning in favor of Starbucks.

Being in a pissy mood is no reason to go out and buy not one but two books on crime, especially on murder.  And spending parts of today reading about serial killers.  You do want to be able to sleep tonight, right?

I am a very cheap drunk.  I had two (expensive -- if I had known they were going to be that much I would have ordered the house specialty drinks which were cheaper) Apple Martinis, on the grounds that I am going to the National Gallery tomorrow. (Don't worry, that last sentence makes sense, sort of, in context.) I did not have a third, and although a large part of my brain is screaming for me to call down for room service to bring me up an Irish coffee, the small portion of my brain which is in fact not inebriated at this moment is overruling it.  I desperately need to have more chocolate, however, and may go out in search of some, although, given the aforementioned inebriation, that might not be such a good idea.

I am writing.  This, under the circumstances is somewhat amazing.  I have to remember not to blog anything I would find embarrassing in the morning, however.  Of course, I may find this whole post embarrassing.

Damn, that was good onion soup.  The jazz trio was very nice too, as was sitting right in front of the fire and eating good onion soup and drinking Apple Martinis and reading Criminal Minds: Sociopaths, Serial Killers & Other Deviants.  I now know who Edmund Kemper is.  Oh, boy.

I wish Mythbusters was on. I feel like watching a good explosion.  Also, Tory Belecci is a seriously cute geek.  Of course, as far as I am concerned, most geeks are seriously cute.  I have a penchant for geeks.  As my Facebook interests say, "Smart People Turn Me On."

I am trying to figure out what sort of trouble I could get into right now.  I feel like trouble.  Probably better just to go to bed with a good book. About serial killers.

'Night all.

Kelo: The aftermath.

An important five-year anniversary passed last June, and I failed to mark it.  June 24 was the fifth year since the Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London  545 U.S. 468 (2005).  It's odd to think it's been five years; perhaps because it was such an atrocious decision it is clear in memory -- it could have been only last week.

Very few  cases have engendered the outrage over the past ten years as Kelo has.  The Economist called it the worst decision of Justice John Paul Stevens career.  The aftermath stands as a cautionary tale about the limits of economic reliance upon private developers.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Susette Kelo lived in the Ft. Trumbull area of New London, Connecticut.  She had made numerous improvements to her property; it also had a view of the water.  Another petitioner in the case, Wilhelmina Dery, had been  born in her house in 1918, and had lived there her entire life.  Her husband, Charles, had lived there sixty years.  All told, five petitioners owned nine lots in the area.

New London had development plans for the area adjacent to Fort Trumbull.  In addition to other development, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer had a facility there.  The entire plan was designed to provide "economic revitalization" to the city. The private developers proposing the development stood to lease the land for $1 per year.  A great deal if you can get it -- especially for 91 acres of waterfront property.

Although the city had reached agreements with most of the landowners in the area, these five petitioners remained.  Since they were unable to reach agreement, the city exercised its right of eminent domain.  The landowners sued.

This was not a blighted area.  The eminent domain was exercised specifically to turn the property over to a private developer.  The city essentially acted as a go between, with the hope that the development would jump-start the economy.

The Supreme Court ruled that exercise of eminent domain for purely economic purposes was an acceptable public use under the Fifth Amendment's takings clause, prompting a stinging dissent by O'Connor, joined by Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas.  This is one of the rare times I agreed with the conservative wing of the court.

In the opening of her dissent, O'Connor wrote:

Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded—i. e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public—in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings "for public use" is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property—and thereby effectively to delete the words "for public use" from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. 

She was exactly right.

I am not a communist, nor am I prone to calling people communists, but this is, in effect, a communist idea: that property should be allowed to be used for what the government deems the "best" purpose, regardless of what the people who own it believe. That the entities who stand to benefit by this are developers and pharmaceutical companies does not change anything.*

What the city of New London ran up against, and what the Court ultimately dismissed as unimportant, was the attachment of people to the land they own.  A house becomes a home by loving it, by living in it, by accumulating history within its walls.  It is not true that "everyone has a price":  how can you put a price on eighty years of a woman's life?  There is a reason that eminent domains exists, and it is not only because people ask for more than the market values of the house.  People often hold onto their houses because of the meaning they have for them.  It is one thing for a house to be purchased for a road, or a park, or another clearly public use, but to be turned over to a private developer, even allegedly with the best interests of the city at heart, is appalling.

And even though it won in the courts, the story did not end well for the city.

In an move showing callousness towards the owners being displaced, the city originally announced it would charge the landowners rent for the five years the case had been winding through the courts.  Since they had exercised eminent domain, the theory went, the owners had been living on city land for five years and owed thousands of dollars in back taxes.  The case finally ended with New London paying a lot more for the landowner's properties, and agreeing to move Susette Kelo's house to a new location.  All of this freed up the waterfront for the development the city claimed it so desperately needed.


It never happened.  The developer couldn't get financing.  Pfizer, the 500 pound gorilla in this picture, closed its New London facility and moved 1500 workers, just  before the tax breaks from the city were due to expire.

And the place where Susette Kelo's house once stood is an empty lot. The city spent tens of millions on this enterprise just to see it evaporate.

I don't know what the moral is in this story, of if there is one.  Cities are supposed to be about the people in them.  And yes, jobs are important too, but the idea that a corporation -- any corporation -- can be trusted not to take the least expensive route -- or the route in its best economic interest, which may not be in line with the public's -- is naive.   And government at any level is supposed to protect its citizens from predations by private entities, not abet them.

*Somewhere in here is a ranting post about how the free-market system isn't, but I don't have the energy right now.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Restaurant Review

I rarely give reviews of any sort, but these people deserve it....

If you are ever in Baltimore, and you love beer, and you love burgers, you have got to go to Alewife. It has forty beers on draft (plus a lot of others) and a knowledgeable staff. The smoked tomato soup was wicked good. The Smoke burger (with smoked gouda, gruyere, grilled cippolini onions, and chipotle aioli) was, no joke, the Best. Burger. I. Have. Ever. Had. The fries are cooked in duck fat, and even the ketchup is amazing -- it's homemade. So. Good.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Last Saturday, The Red Headed Menace and I had an adventure.

It started out as a simple trip to the beach.  A cold gray morning had turned into one of those magnificent autumn/winter Northern California afternoons, where the sky is a deep cerulean blue except where the sunlight dapples through the tree leaves.

I know the way to the beach.  I know several ways to the beach, as a matter of fact.  My planned route involved taking the Page Mill exit onto I-280, then getting off and Sand Hill and taking the roads back to pick up California 84.  (I realize that for all of you who live in other places this makes no sense.)

Except... somehow I forgot to exit off Page Mill.  I'm still not sure why; my mind was on other things, perhaps, or just caught up in the beauty around me.  At any rate, I was about a mile up Page Mill before I realized, oh, yeah, I don't go this way.  Why not, I thought?  Page Mill runs through at least as far as Skyline.  So I kept going.... and then remembered exactly why I never took this route.

It's been a long while since I have white-knuckled a road.  It's been even longer since I white-knuckled a road in broad daylight.  This one had all the elements that scare the crap out of me: twists with blind curves, oncoming traffic that had a tendency to drift over the line, no shoulders, and freaking insane bicyclists.  Oh, yes, and the late afternoon sun hitting me in the eyes.  I kept telling RHM to enjoy the view, because I sure couldn't.

After an eternity, we reached the major crossroads.  Hurrah! "But mom," he said, "The sign says to go to Pescadero to go straight." "No way, " I said,pulling a sharp right. "From here it gets worse."  So we drove north to 84, took that to 1 and drove south to Pescadero. The whole disaster probably costs us an additional forty minutes.

But when we got to the coast...

It was about forty-five minutes to sunset.  The late-afternoon sun hit the waves, turning them golden. we drove along in the cool, soft, mist-laden air towards Pescadero.  RHM and I talked about how, even though people say the ocean is blue, it often is not -- being gold, or steel gray, or green.  To be with my son, on such an afternoon, was joy itself.

We decided to go to the Arcangeli Bakery in the town of Pescadero.  (If you are ever in our neck of woods, it is worth not merely a detour but a trip.)  Although we were in the store for only a few minutes, the golden late afternoon had been socked in with a thick blanket of clouds.  Ah, coastal California.  Wait five minutes and the weather changes.

We still went to the beach.  That's why we were there, after all.

Alone among our family, RHM and I are ocean people.  We will go to see the ocean in a driving rainstorm (barring lightning) or, in the case of yesterday, in a cold overcast with winds that drove through my two layers of sweatshirts like they were chiffon.

"I'm sorry the weather is so bad." "That's okay, it is still wonderful."

The best part of this was that, since the music player in the LGM (Little Green Mazda) was busted, we actually talked the whole way.  He said that when he was older he wanted to bring his wife/fiancee/girlfriend to the coast -- "Are there any B&Bs around here?  I would love to wake up with someone and take breakfast on the beach."  We talked philosophy. We talked about just why we were ocean people.

RHM is excited about the vast array of life that exists under the waves and along the shore.  Me, I am fascinated by the horizon -- by the wonderful thought that on its other side is a whole new world, and all you need is a boat to get there.

I am very blessed.  I know people whose teenagers only talk to them to ask for money or what's for dinner.  Without stopping being a parent (believe me, I get a fair amount of attitude and mete out a fair amount of discipline), I am a friend.

It was a wonderful experience, a reminder of how good life can be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Vote? Because it matters, dumbass.

Steven D. Levitt can  bite my ass.

In his book, Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt, the "rogue economist," includes a piece called "Why Vote?" from November 6, 2005.  In it he argues that any given vote does not really matter, since very few elections are decided by small margins anyway.  He then goes on to mention the 2000 presidential election:  "It is true that the outcome of that election came down to a handful of voters; but their names were Kennedy, O'Connor, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas.  And it was only the votes they cast while wearing their robes that mattered, not the ones they may have cast in their home districts."

He then posits three reasons for voting: 1) people are not very bright; 2) people tend to view the vote as a lottery: "you buy the right to fantasize how you'd spend the winnings -- much as you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy."  3) people vote out of some sort of civic pride.

He goes on to rather cavalierly dismiss the effect of large numbers of the population opting not to vote, analogizing it to telling your daughter not to pick flowers because if everyone did there would be no flowers left.

He also talks about the experience of the Swiss, who experienced a decline in voting rates following the move to all-mail voting.  In the end, he concludes that people vote because of social pressure to b e seen at the polls.


Firstly, he ignored a much more relevant example than the Swiss:  Washington State, which since 1997 has had vote-by-mail in all counties but one.  In 1996 general Presidential election, the turnout for eligible registered voters was 54.77%.  In 2000, it was 60.7%.  In 2004, it was 66.9 %.  In 2008 it was 66.5%  Even taking into account that the three latter elections were more hotly contested than 1996, it is still a marked improvement in turnout.  It is certainly not the case that, at least statewide, voter participation decreased.

Secondly, and much more importantly, whenever you are analyzing elections results, the issue is not just what the effect that individual votes cast have, but those that are not cast.  Until 2007, Florida did not allow anyone who had ever been convicted of a felony to vote.  Ever.  Given that a sizeable proportion of those (primarily) men were African-Americans, who tend to vote more heavily Democratic, that would have affected the outcome of the race.  And that is without taking into account the "purge list" of 173,000 names used by Florida officials to disenfranchise people who, it turned out, were only guilty of misdemeanors.  Hasty efforts to return individuals to the rolls before election day were imperfect, at best.

Those four men and one women were only allowed to determine the outcome of that 2000 election because so many people down the line had not been given a voice.  Ask any of those people how they felt about being not allowed to vote, and my hunch is a lot of them were outraged.

Ask any Proposition 8 proponent -- or opponent -- whether their vote "had some impact on policy."  Damn straight it did.  And this also completely ignores the effect on local races, which turnouts affect even more heavily.

Voting matters.  For all of us.  There is a reason why so many people have fought -- and in some cases, died -- to secure that right.  And it is not just so their neighbors will think well of them.

Elections are like streams.  They are chaotic systems.  Yes, removing one drop of water from the stream may not have an effect, but as you remove more and more, the stream changes course and power.  Since no one droplet can be identified as determinative, but removal of too many of them is disastrous, then each of them must be considered crucial.

It is hard enough to get people to vote.  (Especially young people; and two of the people who lauded this book to the skies to me were under twenty-five.)  The last thing we need is some "rogue economist" effectively dismissing its importance.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I've always wanted to be a top Google hit.  For something.  Silly, I know, but it's nice to have goals in life.

This blog has a top Google hit.  It turns out that if you Google the phrase "children ardent for some desperate glory,"  this post, which gives the poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen in full, comes up at the top of the list.  I have put up a disclaimer up encouraging people -- most likely students -- to seek out sites with more of Owen's poetry.

I feel vaguely guilty.*

*I also have a vague feeling that I need to check and see whether the poem is in the public domain.

Quote of the Day, sort of

"This is Lego being a corporate bitch."  The Red Headed Menace.*

*He and Railfan are massively invested in Lego Bionicles.  (Yes, I know that they're teenagers.  I don't get it either.)  They buy sets for the sole purpose of re-using the parts to create new figures. A little while ago, Lego replaced Bionicle with "Hero Factory," which looks similar, and which, apparently, Lego promised would be backwards compatible.  The two of them had gone out and bought two sets, only to find that the skeleton was not capable of disassembly and the rest of the parts wouldn't work with anything but the set they were bought with.  Railfan's comment was "You broke my childhood, you no good ....."

The level of dramatic utterances around the house right now rivals Off-Broadway.

Food for the heart.

 It was a cool (out of respect for my friends with snow I will refrain from saying "cold"), wet day yesterday here in my neck of the woods.  There was football on television and melancholy in the air.

Lately, I have craved soup.  I think the gray days have made me need something warm and comforting.  Soup is not usually one of my comfort foods, though.  My biggest comfort food is red beans and rice, by far.

I was born in New Orleans, although I really grew up in Florida.  My mom is not necessarily the best of cooks (sorry, Mom), but she made killer red beans and rice, having learned when we lived in Louisiana.  Since when I was growing up andouille sausage was not readily available where I lived, Mom used kielbasa, which worked wonderfully.  Rich, creamy, spicy bean gravy over white fluffy rice.  Hmmmmm.

I'm the only one in my household who likes proper red beans and rice.  The carnivores hate beans, and the vegetarians keep insisting that I should make a vegetarian version.  Just... no.  Real red beans and rice is never vegetarian, since it contains both bacon or pancetta (you use the fat to cook the "trinity" -- onion, celery, green pepper) and sausage, preferably andouille.*

It is more than a dish.  It is a reminder of someone who loves me.

There is such a connection between food and love, and food and places. 

My very earliest memory is of food:  when I was about three, and we still lived in New Orleans, I would go in the back of a neighbor's VW Beetle (the very back, behind the back seat -- next to the window, standing up looking backwards) to get sno-cones.  Sno-cones still make me smile.

I have written how my memories are tied up in music.  They are tied up in food as well.

Mom is red beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese.  Not the fake-orange type: Mom used to make macaroni the way I taught my kids -- make pasta, drain, dump lots of real cheese in, stir.  If you get the proportions right, and the timing, you get really wonderful mac 'n' cheese that only needs black pepper or hot sauce. And the best banana pudding ever:  the Rocket Scientist likes my cooking better than Mom's, except for the banana pudding.  When we're with her, she always makes it for him.  As I said, food as love.

Food as family: turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, ambrosia, relics of so many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with me and my kids, or with the Rocket Scientist's family.

Food as time and place:  Grouper, shrimp, scallops are Florida, and home.  As are tangelos from the tree and okra.  Egg noodles with parmesan cheese (we had a big box of them on my floor at Wellesley one year) are college, as is clam chowder (what I would not give for a bowl of chowder from No-Name's), as is oddly, sometimes, tea. I never really drank tea before college, but Wellesley is a civilized place, and every Wednesday afternoon we would have tea (no silver tea service, sadly) in the living room of the dorm.  There are the other school memories: graduate school and Georgia Tech was homemade bread** and fresh ground beef made into the best chili ever.  Law school was Jose's Caribbean food and Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream.

Food memories are made all the time:  jambalaya is not associated with New Orleans, but with my former parish and a parishioner who would make jambalaya and gumbo for Mardi Gras. Apple Martinis are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I had my first two (and was correspondingly buzzed) and wandered around looking at the paintings and giggling.  Latkes are my housemate, the Resident Shrink, who is Jewish and who, in what is becoming a tradition, makes them for the family the second or third day of Hanukkah.

Food brings travel memories, most of them almost stereotypical: tapas and churros con chocolat are Madrid; real vanilla ice cream and crepes, Paris; fruit-flavored beer, Belgium; fish and chips, London; meat pastries, Bath.

There is joy in creating other people's memories.  My brownies are making memories, for my children and others.  My chocolate pudding has become a comfort food of the first order for at least two people in my house.

My hope is one day, my kids will say... "It's a miserable day.  Let's make some brownies to cheer ourselves up."

I will be smiling in my grave.

*One of the members of my household who is most bemused about my insistence on non-veg red beans is a New Yorker who refuses to accept that either proper pizza or (especially) proper bagels exist outside the five boroughs.

**I have sourdough starter in my fridge that is older than my eldest son, that has been transported across country four times.  The pioneers would be proud of us.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The windmills of my mind

I missed an important anniversary yesterday.  On the other hand, at least one source says it is today.  In any case...

On either January 16th or 17th, 1605, the novel Don Quixote was published  (or at least the first half).

I do not know whether I stand up to the good knight's example anymore:  I tend to be a great deal more introspective these days.  "Writing about what you know" has led to far more personal than social or political posts.  The windmills seem to be standing all by themselves, without me jousting with them.

Still, the desire to engage in what seems like ridiculous endeavors still haunts me.

I  went to lunch with my friend PLD* today.  Towards the end of a lovely meal (if you are ever in Los Altos, California, go by The Cravery and grab a bowl of tomato-bisque soup), I talked about the crossroads where I find myself.

All I really want to do out of life is write.  And write this.  The mini-essay form (for what are blog posts -- good ones, at any rate --but mini-essays?)  is where I find my comfort zone.**  It's where I find love of the craft.  Where I find joy.  And, if not this, then other writing.  But writing is what I do.  I am not as thorough about it as I should be, and I place a whole host of obstacles in my own way, but I am a writer.

My friend looked at me, and said, baldly and matter of factly, "You need to just do it.  Find a way to make it happen. Don't worry about pleasing everyone.  Don't worry about making it perfect."

He referred me to Seth Godin, for which I am very grateful. He told me about an exhibit he had seen about Tim Burton, about how many ventures Tim Burton has been involved with that went nowhere -- that we never hear about precisely because they went nowhere.

He left me thinking about possibilities.  About how fear so often gets in  my way.  About how I do worry about whether or not people are listening.  About fearing success as much as failure.

After all, once you subdue the windmill, what do you do with it?

The time to ask that question, though, is after you have the windmill at your mercy.  Sometimes the first -- and most important -- windmill exists mainly in your own head.

*No, those are not his initials.  No, I am not going to tell you what they stand for, other than to say it is in no way suggestive.  Mind out of the gutter, folks.

**There is of course the question of the extent to which moving out of my comfort zone would cause me to grow as a person and a writer, but that's a different issue for a different day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A few minutes ago, while driving home, I saw a dog off-leash crossing the road. In the crosswalk. He waited for a break in traffic, then trotted across, staying between the lines the whole time.   I stopped, of course, because in California pedestrians in the crosswalk have right-of-way over motorists.

Nothing says those pedestrians have to be human.*

*No, I would not have hit the dog in any case.  What sort of person do you think I am?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

This should be interesting.

Lately, it occurred to me that no one in my family outside my husband and occasionally one of my kids had ever read my writing.  My mom never uses a computer, neither do my sisters or eldest brother, and while both my younger brother and my brother-in-law use computers extensively, they have never been told about the existence of this blog.

So I am compiling a book for them.  Although I am not including everything, I certainly am including a lot of political/social posts.  I am far, far more liberal than the rest of my family. (The closest I have gotten to a political discussion in the past five years was with my eldest sister who was explaining to me how global warming was a load of hogwash.  I ended the conversation because her daughter was getting married and as mother-of-the bride she did not need the extra stress of arguing with me.)  There are other issues in my life that I do not blog about that I may discuss with them as well -- I have not decided. This is a sort of coming out, as it were.

I expect that at least one of them will not be talking to me when this is all over.  My mom will be talking to me -- if for no other reason than to tell me she's praying for me, but then she does that anyway.

I plan to do it anyway.  I am far too old -- as are they -- for me to be hiding who I am.

Friday, January 14, 2011

That social network thingie...

I am seriously considering giving up my Facebook account.

It's not that I don't love all my friends -- I do.  It's just that I find that I rarely post anything of substance, merely repost interesting links I find.  I do post links to this blog sometimes, sending along posts I am particularly pleased with or proud of.  I don't talk about what is going on (in part because there is nothing interesting going on that I care to talk about).  I am more likely to post information here than there -- if for no other reason that the character limits drive me crazy.  (Same reason I don't use Twitter: it seems I am constitutionally unable to say anything in 140 characters.) Delicate issues, to the limited extent that I talk about them, are reserved for a small filter on my LiveJournal.

It is a time sink of the first order.  I have managed to break my Bejeweled addiction (losing the computer it was stored on helped a lot with that one), only to replace it with Facebook.  I don't have time for this -- it is hard enough for me to get things done without following links to Sarah Palin speeches or excerpts from the Daily Show.

The people whom I got it for -- the people who I am most interested in following -- are too busy living their lives to post about it.  The difficulty is that there are some among my friends who use the service in the best possible way -- letting people know about important aspects of their lives.  (Not to mention the Rocket Scientist, who tends to post things like the fact that he landed safely in wherever, which helps my peace of mind.) I don't want to give up that connection, especially to friends who are far away.*

It exacerbates what I see as my greatest failing:  my absolute difficulty in getting things done in the absence of externally imposed structure.  I need the structure of someone telling me "I need this by Thursday" or even "I needed this yesterday, can you help me" to be effective.  I can move mountains, if I have to, to meet important deadlines. (Yes, I tend to procrastinate -- I still get things done.)  I thrive in academia, in large part because there are such deadlines. (And that someone has to be a concrete entity or person, not simply "x is going to happen to you personally." I have far more of a sense of responsibility towards others than towards myself. Or my family, unfortunately.) I am somewhat tempted to make a comment about it being in keeping with my newly discovered Pisces orientation, but then again, not.

I have been working on imposing my own structure with mixed success.  I guess that's the part of being a grownup I've never really mastered.  Maybe it's time to grow up some more.

* Yes, know you can use filters.  I can never figure out whom to put on them.

What do you mean I'm not an Aries?

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars ,
but in ourselves, that we are underlings... 
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

I'm sure you've seen the news: because of shifts in the earth's rotation, the old zodiac no longer applies.  There is a new sign "Ophiucus"* and most of the other signs have had their dates changed.

Apparently all this is due to a statement by an astronomer at the Minneapolis Planetarium, who explained that in fact the sun did not move through the constellations which corresponded to the zodiac, but in a different pattern.  Which means we've been doing it all wrong.

This is tragic news.

I'm not an Aries anymore.  I am not strong and dynamic and full of leadership.  I am not independent and athletic. I'm a .... Pisces, given to directionless dreaming and compassion for others and a tendency towards self-pity.

Thing is, I want to be an Aries.  Aries are, as far as I am concerned, some of the coolest people on the earth. Maya Angelou is an Aries.  So is -- or was -- Rachel Maddow .  (On the other hand, Adolf Hitler was an Aries, and both Michaelangelo and Dr Seuss are Pisces.)  It always annoyed me that I was never more like the Aries described in the astrological manuals.  But if I am completely honest with myself, I do tend a lot more towards the so-called Piscean traits.

And I am a water person --- and a winter person -- much more than a sun and spring person.  So maybe there is something to this after all...

Except I am who I have always been.  Changing my sign did not change me (perhaps unfortunately).  And for every person trumpeted as a "typical" Aries, there are others who were more like Pisces, or Scorpio or Sagittarius.  (I personally know Sagittarians who are far more Arian than I am. Lucky them.)  And a lot of those "typical" Aries will become Pisces by this realignment just as I have.  And they will be no less full of fire and leadership than they ever were.

This is not news.  The stars have been aligned the way they are for a while now.  We are who we are, for good or ill.  I cannot blame them for my lack of focus any more than I can laud them for my sense of compassion towards others.

Which just goes to show what all of us who believe this is complete and utter hogwash were right all along. I'm not necessarily happy about this -- there is something reassuring to feel that the reason we are the way we are is because of stellar influences far beyond our control.

I think I should have Weird Al have the last word on all this.  [Warning: seizure/migraine trigger for sensitive people.]

Now if I can just shut up all the people who claim that their life is going to hell in hand-basket this week because Mercury is in retrograde....

*Ophiucus is "The Snake Annoyer."  How cool is that? Personally I think he should be represented by Harry Potter, but Harry was born the wrong time of year.  Pooh.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The universe, in the form of other people, might be trying to tell me something.

In the past month, I have had someone tell  me that I am beautiful, fascinating and complex.* (They also said something completely flattering about my writing, which is so amazing I am not going to repeat it here.)  I have had other people tell me how valued my service is.

Today, a person in a group that I participate in told me that she was impressed and moved by my participation.  She told me that I had influenced her in positive ways, and she was grateful for my presence in the group. She said she got annoyed when other people talked over me because she felt that I always had something wise and worthwhile to say.

I don't know what to do with this information.  I have spent so much of my life feeling... inadequate.  I fail to recognize that sometimes just being who you are and contributing makes a difference in other people's lives.

I have a husband who is one of literally a handful of people in the world who do what he does.  I have friends who have done mind-boggling things.  And I have often wondered about the extent to which I have squandered the opportunities -- educational and otherwise -- which I have been given. It is hard for me to feel as though my contribution to the world has been anything but insignificant.

And yet... the Rocket Scientist says I am often his muse.  I am the one who keeps the home-fires burning.  I  help people. I share what I know.  One at least one occasion, I have been told by someone that something I had written had changed their life and made it possible for them to heal from old wounds.

My goal these days needs to be to remember this.  To keep in mind that my life, while so mundane, has helped others live better lives.

I am disallowing comments to this post because, while I am writing it here to keep it where I can see it, I am in no way trolling for comments about how "wonderful" I am.

*Note to self: you should really decide whether or not to use Oxford commas.   Switching back and forth is ridiculous.
Regarding the last post:  I think it's great.  Of course, I'm his mother, so I am a rather biased.  (I particularly like the "not wanting antagonism impaired" line:  I think it shows a good understanding of human nature.)

A poem


Scared of the clouds of rain that go to ya
There are no gathering storms
There are no people above the norm
Just phobia.

Scared of the earth that builds love
Slaughtering people foreign lands
Letting innocent blood flow in the drifting sands
It is just

Phobias just filter out doves
Keeping us scared of the victims
Homogenizing human horror
Phobia makes us say sh*t to 'em
It is what it is
Just phobia

Scared of the radiant beautiful outside world
Curled up not wanting antagonism impaired
Wishing for war
While not ready for dystopia
It takes a truly evil mind
To try to undermine
The destruction of phobia.

By the Red-Headed Menace, age 14.  (For a poetry slam at school.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

I have been trying to postpone posts on hot-button topics until I can form coherent sentences about them.  Occasionally, this means waiting until I calm down enough that I am not frothing at the mouth.

Antonin Scalia gave an interview to the California Lawyer.....



Nope, can't write the post yet.
Dear Jonathan Larson, wherever you may be,

I love your work, man. Rent should have been the opening act of a career that would have staggered the world. That it was a swan song is heartbreaking.

But, and I realize that I am picking the smallest of nits here....

"Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred" is not the number of minutes in a year. It is merely the number of minutes in 365 days. The actual number of minutes in the year is Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Nine Hundred and Sixty. Those extra 360 minutes? They are the reason we have leap years, to realign the calendar.

Yours truly,

A geek.


Dear Pandora People:

I have been listening to your "Classic Broadway Show Tunes" for about ninety minutes. During that time you have played four different songs from Les Miz -- and "On My Own" twice -- three songs from Phantom, and you played Julie Andrews singing "The Sound of Music" from two different and nearly identical recordings back to back. Not to mention playing two different versions of "All That Jazz." And while Josh Groban is magnificent, he is not singing show tunes here. Neither is Straight No Chaser.

You guys need to work on the randomizing algorithms, or get a wider variety of show tunes in your databases.

Edited to Add: And in what godforsaken universe does "Hey, Soul Sister" by Train (as much as I like Train) belong on this channel?



Sunday, January 09, 2011

I think this says everything I would want to say about the shooting in Arizona:

The Not-So-Little-Drummer Boy went back to school earlier this week. After several days of concentrated effort, I have mostly exorcised the inappropriate use of the word "like" from my vocabulary.

At one point while he was here, I challenged him to go an entire day without saying "like." "I can't do it," he replied. "I've tried." In frustration, I growled "You sound like a Californian!"

There was a stunned silence. Then my born-in-Palo Alto, raised-in-Mountain View son answered, "Mom... I am a Californian."

Oh, yeah. Forgot about that.
This is a retraction, sort of.

I have removed my post about the Gifford shooting as being premature: we do not as yet know motivations. That said, I stand by my statements about the invidious nature of the far-right rhetoric. If this guy was not influenced by the Tea Partiers, it is only a matter of time before someone is, as can be seen by the history of the most radical elements of the anti-abortion movement, with its singling out of doctors who were later shot by fanatics influenced by their hatred.
One of the recurring themes of fundamentalist American Christianity is how "persecuted" they are. They seem to have a personal investment in finding themselves persecuted, to the point where they define "not being able to establish a theocracy, and not being able to force our religious beliefs down everyone else's throat" to be persecution.

You want real persecution? Try the places in the world - Iraq, Algeria, to name just two -- where being a Christian can be a matter of life or death. In Egypt, for example, militant Islamists bombed a Coptic church on New Year's Day. Angry Copts responded with violence of their own -- understandable, but not necessarily helpful.

What is remarkable about this story is its aftermath: on Epiphany, thousands of Egyptians surrounded Coptic churches to act as human shields to safeguard the worshippers inside.

It gives one hope for humanity.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

And the Angels in the Architecture Danced...

He looks around, around .....
He sees angels in the architecture,
Spinning in infinity,
He says, Amen! and Hallelujah!

Paul Simon, "You Can Call Me Al"

Yesterday, my "planned pleasant activity" was a trip into the City to walk the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral.  Although I struggle mightily with faith these days, to the point where calling me a "seeker" would no longer be accurate, walking the labyrinth centers and heals me, if only for the forty-five minutes it takes for me to do it.

I need centering lately.  I have confusion to overcome, losses to grieve, fears to face.  I have people to forgive and people to ask forgiveness of.

When I walked into the Cathedral, I walked into a moment of wonder.  A liturgical dance troupe was moving through the sacred spaces carried along by the soaring piano strains of Copeland's "Appalachian Spring."  I stood entranced.

I have a somewhat jaundiced view of liturgical dance.  I have seen it done poorly -- painfully -- enough to distrust the concept.  But these dancers were professionals.  They managed to hit the elusive combination of art and spirituality.  They wove a clear and beautiful story through their movements.

I watched them as they finished their dance.  It was clear to me that I had stumbled upon a rehearsal -- a final rehearsal by the look of it.  The only other observers were the dancers, the pianist, and one or two other souls who had wandered in from the chill late afternoon air.

In many ways watching a rehearsal is better than watching the performance.  There is an intimacy, a groundedness that is lacking when there is an audience.  The dancers seemed to be dancing only for each other, and to the glory of God.  During the service, they were costumed in white silk, but during the rehearsals they were in street clothes.  They could have been anyone come in to dance, as David did, before the altar of the Lord.  They were not "otherwordly," they were us.

I have been in such spaces before.  In 1995, the Rocket Scientist and I went to Germany for a conference, on what I jokingly came to call the "Beer and Churches Tour."  We went to a lot of cathedrals, in various parts of Germany and the Netherlands.  Many of them were quite beautiful, and had been carefully maintained and filled with visitors who spoke in hushed tones.  Moving, if a little detached.

And then we saw Magdeburg.

Magdeburg is in what had been East Germany.  The outer walls showed the pockmarks where bullets had hit them during World War II.  It was a staggeringly beautiful building that had been allowed through all the years of Communist rule to lapse into some level of disrepair.  There was scaffolding indicating that there was renovation going on, but it still seemed to be in the future.  It was a Gothic cathedral, though, calm and strong.

When RS and I entered the cathedral, we were one of maybe four or five people in the church.  We were soon followed by a larger group - maybe thirty -- that filed in behind us.  We paid them no mind, and wandered off down the nave and the side aisles.  Back in the distance, we could hear small scufflings and other noises from the group.

Suddenly, the air swelled with song.  The group that we had been ahead of was a choral group from a university, who had chosen the cathedral to record their music because of the acoustical qualities of the space.  Even their warm ups sounded ethereal.  When they began singing hymns, it was as though the stone angels on the walls had opened their mouths. It was a moment to send chills down your spine.

It was magic.  And yesterday, as I stood and watched the dancers, I could almost hear the angels in Magdeburg singing to me again. I wanted to cry.

As Al would say, "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!"

Note to self

Definitely take the time to read the parking garage signs more carefully.  The garage at Grace Cathedral is not $2.50/hour, as you misunderstood it to be, but $2.50/every twenty minutes.

That ended up being a more expensive church service than you reckoned on. Not that you still wouldn't have done it, just that you would have been a lot more zen about things when the attendant told you that you owed him $22.50.  Or you would have expended a lot more effort in finding street parking.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Being true

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Hamlet, act I, scene iii 

 Last night, The Red-Headed Menace (RHM) was talking to the object of his affections on Facebook Chat.  I happened to glance over and catch part of their conversation.  They were discussing the upcoming semester in language arts.

RHM:  What do you think of the poetry unit?
OA: I hate it.  I hate writing.
RHM: I do too.

Wait, what?!  This is the kid that has always written poetry for the sheer joy of it.  The kid who wrote an actual honest-to-God sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet, with proper meter and rhyme scheme) when he was in eighth grade for some girl he had a crush on.  This kid loves to write. (He has more problems with prose: capitalization and spelling are not his forte.)

I broke in and asked him about this.  "Oh, I hate school-type writing," he said with a hangdog look.  Yeah, right.  I took the proper parental course of action and counseled him, much as Polonius did Laertes, to simply be himself. I told him that he needed to know that people liked him for who he was, not for some facade he chose to show them.

The truth is, though, is that so many of us do this.  We seek approval from others, especially people who love us, and sometimes that gets in the way of being honest about who we are.  We pretend to have attributes we don't, or to be less flawed, than we really are.  Maybe we don't lie, but we're less than revealing.  We become afraid that somehow we're not good enough.  So many of us suffer from "impostor syndrome." Or, alternatively, some of us dwell on our flaws, thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that it is better to drive people away than to be left.

Well we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger
Though we share so many secrets
There are some we never tell
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger?
Did you ever let your lover
See the stranger in yourself?

Billy Joel, "The Stranger"

Billy Joel notwithstanding, the hardest thing I have had to learn in my *cough* forty-something *cough* years is to not lie about who I am.  I work hard on being myself around people.  This does not mean I divulge everything about myself, but it does mean that I do not let the fact that I have been told that I am intimidating and a bit scary make me change the way I am in the world.  If some people can't deal with me the way that I am, it's their loss.  I have come a long way from the girl who was counseled by her high school friends that she was "too smart," and who would have given her right arm to know how to act dumber so that people would like her.

I only hope my kid figures this out.  Because he is pretty damned amazing, and deserves to be surrounded by people who understand and appreciate him.

Blog FYI

EchidnaBoy has requested that his nom de blog be changed.  Normally I would have laughed at him and said, "Not a chance, Bub,"  but he does in fact valid reasons for asking.  So, in the future, my youngest son shall be referred to as ....

The Red-Headed Menace.

(He hates that one, too, but doesn't have any valid objections to it. His suggestion of Godzilla Kid failed to fly.)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dear Proposition 8 Proponents...

Asking a judge who has ruled against you and in support of same-sex marriage to recuse himself on the basis of his wife's activities is not going to fly.  I could have told you that.  As could have a lot of other people.

According to Scotusblog, "[Judge Reinhardt] described [his wife] as 'a strong, independent woman who has long fought for the principle, among others, that women should beevaluated on their own merits and not judged in any way by the deeds or position in life of their husbands (and vice versa).'  He said he shared that view, and suggested that the law does so, too.The challenge to him, he added, 'is based upon an outmoded conception of the relationship between spouses.'"

My kind of guy.


Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

  T.S. Eliot, "The Rock"

Tonight, the Rocket Scientist, our friend the Resident Shrink, and I went to a pub in San Jose and played bar trivia.  We won, handily.

It takes a certain type of mind to be good at this game.  A mind like a magpie, prone to picking up new pieces of  information and storing them in back recesses from which they tend to burst forth like springtime cherry blossoms at the drop of a proverbial hat.

There is something soothing in knowing facts like these.  They are verifiable, certain.  You can look them up.  They are  unambiguous. We live in a world where there is chaos all around and what we know seems to be built on shifting sands, and all too often the media treat scientific fact as a matter of "controversy" when there is none, simply because some religious zealots can't cope with it. In such a world, to know that New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, or what animal is called "ursine," or who drove the getaway car in "Bonnie and Clyde" seems like an accomplishment.

It is meaningless.

It is meaningless because these facts cannot change the world.  Knowing these facts can't cure cancer, can't discover life on Mars, can't help feed the hungry.  Knowing such facts can't help you change minds about the war in Afghanistan, or help you convince people that the Tea Partiers are dangerous and that most of the swill that they spout is an affront not only to the U.S. Constitution but to teachings of the God they profess as their Lord and Savior.

It can't help you function in the world. It can't help you get a job. It can't help you weather the economy.  It can't help you... do that much.  We can't all be Jeopardy! champions.

Such facts are merely information.

There are other types of minds: minds full of knowledge that can synthesize information into larger understandings of the world.  Minds that can discover, that can analyze. Or wise minds that can provide insight into the human condition.  Minds filled with depth and compassion.

Most days I feel I have a magpie mind.  I long for a mind which can discover truths.  A mind which can see deeper patterns. Hell, even just a mind which can master basic organizational skills and motivational techniques would be an improvement.

I long for wisdom, or failing that, knowledge. All too often, I think all I have is information.

That doesn't seem like enough somehow.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

That was the decade that was...

The first decade of the millennium is well and truly gone.  Thank God.

The past ten years saw the worst attack on American soil not inflicted by ourselves.  A date so horrible that it is not necessary to delineate the year when referring to it: "9/11".

It was a horrible, earth changing event.  It led to a vast array of changes; many, but not all, of which were desperate attempts to create an illusion of security in a bewildering sea of ill-perceived threats.

If you had told me ten years ago that we would have a country in which otherwise sane people would argue that it is sometimes acceptable to torture if you feel threatened enough, and where individuals that the government admits are not guilty of any crime are being detained against their will, I would have thought you crazy.  If you had told me that people would be arrested for disrupting the speeches of one president simply for wearing critical t-shirts, while protesters would march outside the public appearances of the next toting rifles, I would have thought you not only crazy but ceritifiable.

In 2001, "tea party" was a play date for your daughter and her stuffed animals.  Sarah Palin was mayor of an  unheard-of little town in Alaska.  Barack Obama was an Illinois state legislator and a professor of Constitutional law.  Guantanamo was simply a naval outpost in Cuba.*

People who are now called "socialist" and "communist" were called slightly left-of-center back then.  In the past ten years, it has been acceptable to call thoughtful, intelligent, patriotic Americans who simply disagree with the prevailing domestic or foreign policy "traitors."

And in other, less important ways, the world has shifted as well, although those have not been as seismic.

In January 2001, I had not yet gotten my first cell phone.  It was before the iPod, let alone the iPhone or iPad.  Most of the time I went to actual bookstores to purchase reading material. "Reality" tv was in its infancy: the words "voted off the island" had not yet become part of the American vernacular.  Matt Damon was a promising dramatic actor and screenwriter, not an action star.  Daniel Radcliffe was a child -- not yet a star -- who had just finished filming Sorcerer's Stone.  Peter Jackson was best known as the guy who made "Heavenly Creatures," for the not that many people who knew his work.  (LOTR zealots also knew him as "the guy we are going to have for lunch if his movie screws up our Bible".  Arguably, the films are much better than the book.)  3-D movies were gimmicks, not the wave of the future.

All of which is to say, the world has changed so much in ten years.  Life has become so much crazier then it used to be.

Here's hoping for a better decade ahead.

*The failure of the Administration to close Guantanamo, and its continued opposition to detainee releases, not merely infuriates me, it makes me ill.