Monday, January 14, 2013

Hey, alligators.

Hiatus: A gap or interruption in space, time, or continuity; a break.

I have been posting on this blog off and on for seven years.  In some years it has been more off than on, admittedly, but for the past three I have been posting frequently (for me), even if not consistently.

I'm taking a break.

I'm not sure how long of a break.  It could be days, weeks, months, years.... forever.  It might not even last longer than tomorrow, if I chicken out or find I can't live without the delusions of .... not grandeur... influence maybe? .... that I get from this thing.

I have been thinking about leaving for some time now.  At first, I planned to walk away completely.*  Just leave it sitting here.  I had thought in December that when I hit 1000 published posts, that would be the perfect time.  That deadline came and went.  Then I thought that the New Year would be appropriate.  That has passed.  I found myself thinking about giving blogging up for Lent -- I have a couple of times in the past -- but that would be intellectually and spiritually dishonest; Lent has little meaning for me anymore, which fills me with deep sadness.

I had planned to write this post this past weekend. Then I chose to wait until I could post about Aaron Swartz's suicide. That done, I am writing it now.

This blog is a time sink, a distraction, a temptation.  Not just to write, but to obsess over unimportant statistics. To see how many people (not many) follow me, or how many hits I get a day, or which posts are most popular. It becomes a not-very-healthy compulsion.

It might not matter quite so much if I didn't feel so unhappy about the quality of my blogging these days.  Writing is slow and hard. I know that blogging is not real writing, but I seem to be spending a lot of time writing very short posts about very little things.  Not that there have not been any I have liked or been proud of:  my post on mental illness and violence, "Dickens Fair," and "I wish you joy" stand out for me.  Whether they are good in some objective sense is, as always, difficult for me to tell, but I like them.

I have other things I need to do.  I have skills I need to hone. I have people I need to reconnect with.  I would like to take some courses -- online and in real life.  I have books to read; the only way to become a better writer is to be an accomplished reader.   I have other writing, even, that needs to take place beyond the confines of this space and which I would never place here. I am hoping that without this blog to tempt me away, I can get some of that done.**

I'm sorry, this has all become needlessly melodramatic.  Contrary to what you might think from reading The Wild Winds of Fortune, I do actually try to avoid drama. In this case, I don't need to tell you why I am doing this, but I do need to have this explanation down for myself.

So.  Take care of yourselves; be happy, be healthy, be wise.

I'll see you on the flip side.

*I developed the idea of a break rather than blog-death from Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow.  For those who have read it, I'm deadheading this blog for a while.  For those who haven't, I recommend it heartily, unless you don't like science fiction.
**Next up: facing my unhealthy Facebook addiction.

Sad. So sad.

In July, 2011, I wrote about the Aaron Swartz case.  It was with sadness that I read that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide.

From all I have read, Swartz was a sweet guy.  He was only twenty-six, having done more in that short life than most of us do with the entirety of ours. It staggers me that he was young enough to be my son.

Depression is a tricky thing, and at the end of the day the only person responsible for a suicide is the person who takes their own life.  To say or believe otherwise is to act as though they lack free will, that indeed they had no other option. In truth, there is always another option.

That said, severe stress can make people much more susceptible to depression and suicidality. By all accounts, his life was made hell by zealous prosecution of a theft from an company, JSTOR, that itself declined to press charges, or pursue a civil case.  A lot of questions have been raised about the actions of the prosecutor, to the point that a petition have him fired has been posted on the White House's "We the People" site which has received almost 17,000 votes.

I said in 2011 that what Swartz was indicted for was theft.  Having read a lot more about the case in the past few days, I may have been wrong.* I am still mulling it over.  I definitely think that the laws under which Swartz was charged need to be overhauled: a potential sentence of 35 years? Really?

We have a country in which torturers get off scot-free.  Financial barons who drove the country's economy into the ground with their reckless behavior end up with bonuses.  Yet a kid who commits what is in essence a victimless crime for an act which would be much better handled with civil litigation is charged and threatened with over three decades in prison.

There is something very wrong with this picture.**

*For me, there is an object lesson on making sure you understand all the facts and the context in which they exist before making grand pronouncements on things.  The entire world is contextual, and I forget this at my peril.
**There have been suggestions that the charges were driven as much by Swartz's political activity as anything else, which would make the entire affair even  more outrageous.  The prosecution may have also engaged in fishing expeditions with subpoenas aimed at Amazon.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Now if I can just win that stupid Powerball thing...

Remember when I promised a list of the U.S. hotels* I want to stay at when I win the lottery?  This is it.  I chose hotels I am personally familiar with; there are many just as exclusive places -- certainly much more expensive ones -- to stay in this country, but I was not going to go hunt down lists of the most select hotels just for this post.  For example, I really want to go back to Hawaii, but I don't have a particular resort I dream about.

Here goes:

Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego, California.
Really, I could just stop here.  I have loved this building since the first time I saw it.  For some reason it reminds me of some older Florida architecture -- The Grand Floridian at Disney World is modeled on the Hotel Del and looks completely at home in its surroundings. I want to stay at this hotel more than any other in the country. Maybe any other in the world.  And it's right on the beach! How can it be more perfect?

Vinoy Renaissance, St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Vinoy is a wonderful addition to downtown St. Pete, and I remember just how close it came to being demolished. I always love historic preservation efforts that succeed -- in Florida there are too many cases where they don't.

Waldorf-Astoria, NYC.
It's the freakin' Waldorf, dude.  (Although I would love to hang out at the restaurant in the Algonquin, inspired by the ghost of Dorothy Parker.)

The Bellagio, Las Vegas.
I love the Bellagio's refinement in contrast to some other Vegas casinos (at least those that were around when it was built -- the Venetian looks pretty good, as well) -- and, of course, there are the fountains.

The Breakers, Palm Beach.
Doesn't every Floridian want to stay at The Breakers?  In addition to the luxury and the architecture, oil and railroad magnate Henry Flagler made South Florida, for good or ill.

Hay-Adams, Washington D.C.
I had the good fortune to eat at the restaurant at the Hay-Adams; The Rocket Scientist and I had our tenth-anniversary dinner there.  It would be great to actually sleep there.

Little Palm Island, Little Torch Key, Florida.
Just look at the pictures.

Greyfield Inn, Cumberland Island, Georgia.
I have to admit, the main reason I want to stay here is that I love Cumberland Island, but I am completely over camping, and the Greyfield Inn is the only other option.  The fact that it is a) historical and b) luxurious, does not hurt.

Ahwhanee Hotel, Yosemite National Park.
See my comment about the Greyfield Inn, above.  I have seen the lobbies of several National Park hotels, but Ahwhanee is the best.  Gorgeous. And it's in Yosemite.

Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Once again, history has its attractions: Greenbrier was founded in 1778 and has a long and storied past.

I am sure that I might get a chance to stay in a couple of these sometime down the line (although as long as we are paying college tuition, that's pretty unlikely).

So I have my U.S. tour all mapped out, with National Parks and resort hotels.  I think that covers everything.

*There is another list of international hotels I want to stay at -- starting with the luxury hotel located on Easter Island.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

My new bucket list.

Since I am close to finishing my art museum list, and inspired by Ken Burns' series on the National Parks, I am creating a new list.  There are fifty-eight national parks (fifty-nine if you count Pinnacles which will be one very shortly), but I don't want to see all of them.

National Parks I have seen:
Crater Lake
Carlsbad Caverns
Grand Canyon
Great Smoky Mountains
Petrified Forest
Rocky Mountain

National Parks I want to see again:
Yosemite: in spring, when the falls are full, and in winter.  I have only seen it in summer and fall.
Carlsbad Caverns
Grand Canyon
Great Smoky Mountains
Petrified Forest

National Parks I have never seen that I want to see (with appropriate emphasis):
American Samoa
Bryce Canyon
Dry Tortugas!
Glacier Bay
Hawaii Volcanoes!!
Mesa Verde
Mount Rainier
Virgin Islands!!!!***

I think the twenty-two parks mentioned in those last two lists should be good for years of traveling.  And that doesn't include any of the hundreds of National Monuments, National Battlefield Parks, National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites, National Memorials...

I want to head out and hit the highway.

Next up, a pipe dream:  the ten hotels in the United States I want to stay in if I win the lottery.

*Legislation passed the Senate upgrading Pinnacles from Monument to Park December 31st. -- it heads to the President, who is expected to sign it.  Apparently, the Senate took time off from dealing with the fiscal cliff to deal with another type of cliff.
**Yes, I know.  I grew up in Florida and I have never visited the Everglades.  My kids have grown up in the San Francisco Bay area and except for the Not-So-Little Drummer boy have never visited Alcatraz.
***I have been to St. Croix.  The National Park is the island of St. John.
I really need to pay attention to things when I make stuff up when cooking:  the totally kick-ass cranberry sauce I made with star anise, crystallized ginger, and chipotle powder has just been pronounced by the Resident Shrink to be the "best cranberry sauce ever."  I made it an hour ago, but I can't remember how much of each of the three ingredients above I used.  (I also substituted orange juice for half the water in the recipe.)

Too much star anise?  Not really a problem.  Too much crystallized ginger, if there can actually be such a thing? Not a problem.  Too much chipotle powder?

Big problem.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Rocket Scientist in McMurdo, from yesterday:


He's the small speck of white (those are his pants) in front of the blue building.

He wrote yesterday that it was warm (34 Fahrenheit!) and that he had seen an Emperor penguin.

I think he's having fun.
Today, the Rocket Scientist has Antarctic "Survival School."  He's excited.  I'm not.

Before scientists are allowed to go into the interior to do their research, they have to demonstrate that they can handle the conditions.  They are tossed on the ice (with appropriate gear, of course) and left to survive on their own for forty-eight hours.

I know he'll be just fine.  I will too, but hopefully I can get through the next six weeks without developing an ulcer.

I know that he will have a lot of support while he is in Antarctica. Scientific research has been going on a long time there, so that there are a lot of things in place to help scientists.  In fact, it is some ways safer than going to Devon Island, which has only had research going on for fourteen years, and which is a much smaller operation.

Also, there are no polar bears in Antarctica.  He won't have to carry firearms, so there is no chance of him being accidentally shot by someone else.  He's easily a match for a rogue penguin. (Just joking; scientists are prohibited from interacting with or disturbing the penguins.)  He's too smart to develop hypothermia.  And there are no ATVs for him to ride, so there will be no possibility of one of them flipping over on him.

In fact, except for the possibility of his plane going down, all the items on my nightmare list for when he goes to the Arctic don't apply.  As I said -- less dangerous.

So I shouldn't worry, right?  Everything's going to be okay.

But I worry still.  That and the loneliness (mine, selfishly, not his) will make this a rough field season.

Ten days down. Depending upon the conditions and how his work goes, six weeks to go.

Oh boy.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Musically speaking, I tend to be well behind the curve.  I was late to the party that was gangnam style -- I still don't get it -- but I love this parody: NASA-Johnson Style.
The Rocket Scientist just texted a picture of him and other scientists in the plane that will take him from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo Station, Antarctica.  They have been prevented from going for days, and yesterday they got an hour out and had to turn back because of engine trouble.  He left on December 29, and will be back in late February, having spent weeks on the Antarctic ice testing drills and drill automation software.

I love the man enough to respect that he needs to do things like this, that he has a unique job that requires him to be away a lot in far off places, but I swear...

Sometimes I wish he were an accountant.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

But I was good.

My sister and her family gave me a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas.* Today I went to redeem it.

I was good: I did not buy very much.  I bought Les Miserables, because I want to reread the book (all 1000 pages of it).  I bought The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean.  I bought a Simon and Schuster Mega Crossword book (S&S crossword books are great because they have perforated pages which are easy to remove). Along with those, I am rereading Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise.**

They did not have in stock the other books I wanted -- Wolf Hall by Hillary Manet (they had the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, but I wanted to read the first book in the series) or The Particle at the End the Universe by Sean M. Carroll. I decided to wait on the Errol Morris book about Jeffrey McDonald until it comes out in paperback.

So I have reading for a little while.  I didn't want to buy too much -- I do want to actually live in my bedroom, after all.  I need to get rid of three books.  (Five actually:  I got two books for Christmas.)

Although I don't have a Kindle, Nook or iPad, I can certainly understand the attraction of ebook readers.  (I use my phone to read when stuck in long lines, but the screen is too small to read for a great length of time).  You still can't take them in the tub -- or to the park, if it looks like rain, dog-ear the pages or write comments in the margins, though.

Books.  Mmmmm.

*In a case of like knowing like, I had gotten her and her husband Barnes and Noble gift cards as well.
**Non-historical nonfiction books I read once pretty quickly.  If the book is interesting (The Signal and the Noise is), intelligent (definitely), well-written (very much so), and if the author does not say anything egregiously stupid (Silver doesn't), I reread it to more thoroughly understand and mentally respond.  I may do this more than once:  I read The Tipping Point three times before I decided that Malcolm Gladwell had too simplistic a vision of the world.  Freakonomics did  not get reread even once: I was all on board with what Steven Levitt was saying, until I hit the chapter on voting (which is in the revised edition).  Levitt epically failed (as my kids would say) the "egregiously stupid" challenge and I decided I didn't trust what he was saying on other issues.

Friday, January 04, 2013

It has been several weeks since the Connecticut shooting, and I taken the time to reflect.  My thinking has evolved from my early knee-jerk reaction (how crazy was this guy?), which I think is a good thing.

On the page of posts I linked to about the tragedy, I included a quote from a friend of mine, Rebecca Wald, "why are Americans so profoundly concerned with proclaiming the right to access guns, and so profoundly unconcerned with the right to access mental health care?"   Then I also linked to When You Tie Shootings to Mental Illness by Kate Donovan.

These are not contradictory.

The conversation around mental illness needs to be taking place all the time.  The discussion about gun control needs to be taking place at the same time.

The two discussions should not be linked, except in the most tenuous way.  To do so taps into the worst stereotypes about the mentally ill, doing them a disservice, while failing to address the underlying problem of gun violence.

In many places in this country in this country,  those with illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder face significant stigma.  (A friend of mine once rather offensively referred to these as "scare the neighbors" diagnoses.)  When society immediately identifies mass shootings as the act stemming solely from mental illness as opposed to other causes, that stigma deepens. People become even more afraid of mentally ill people than they may already be, even though the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

I have people close to me who suffer from mental illness, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and schizo-affective disorder.  I know the extent to which stigma has resulted in difficulty in them finding jobs, how they have lost would-be friends and community, how they have needed to keep important parts of themselves secret from others.  When you are mentally ill, to be honest about who you are often requires a great deal of courage.

Because if people think schizophrenics are violent, then how likely are they to let them into their home?  What if a business owner thinks a bipolar person may walk into their widget factory and kill other employees? How much liability would that businessman think they would be facing if they knowingly hired a person with bipolar disorder, regardless of whether that person in fact presents any risk?

In many parts of this country, it is less problematic to come out of the closet as gay than to come out of the metaphorical attic where the mentally ill reside. Bigots may detest LGBT people, but they don't usually fear them.

This is not to say that mentally ill people do not sometimes commit atrocities.  Andrea Yates, whose doctor had practically begged her not to have any more children before her last pregnancy, was very, very sick when she killed her kids.  Seng-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, had been adjudicated mentally ill and ordered to attend treatment. There is a reason that federal gun laws prohibit anyone who has been found mentally ill by a court or who has been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility from purchasing or possessing a firearm.  Advocates for the mentally ill need to admit that these acts -- and violence on a smaller scale -- sometimes occur and stem from psychiatric causes.  The rest of us should be recognize that not all such tragedies fall into this class.

The tendency to classify all mass killers as mentally ill comes from a need for answers, a need to know why someone could do something so horrible.  If we could only identify these people we could protect ourselves.  We can force them to take medicine,* we can preemptively institutionalize them.  We can absolve ourselves of any responsibility we may have in the tragedy.  We can ignore the extent to which our failure to insist on decent gun control contributed to the death toll. It's not our fault -- they were crazy.

Yet that damns us on the other side of the equation.  If it is only the paranoid schizophrenics or those suffering from bipolar disorder or severe depression that walk into a school campus or workplace and open fire, then our collective willingness to reduce mental health budgets and make access to psychiatric services more difficult -- if the only way to afford the care you need is to be hospitalized, e.g. -- demonstrates a callous disregard for the potential violent death of innocents. And isolating and stigmatizing individuals makes it less likely that when a mentally ill person is in a dangerous state of mind someone will be in a position to intervene.

We need to restrict access to certain types of weapons, and increase access to  services. Each is independent of the other. Maybe if we attack both at once, we can reduce the possibility of large-scale massacres on the one hand, and improve the lives of suffering people on the other.

We have a moral imperative to try.

*This is a large and complicated issue.  Having watched people struggle with significantly  life-altering side effects (such as weight gain, significant cognitive effects, tardive dyskinesia, and others) from drugs which can lose their effectiveness with little warning, I view the "let's just force-medicate everyone with little regard for their wishes or quality of life" with an extremely skeptical eye.

In defense of "adorkability."

In its list of word we will be glad to never see again, the Today Show included "adorkable."  They're dead wrong about this.  "Adorkable" is a great word: it neatly encapsulates a concept I have been trying to describe for years.

You know these guys*:  brilliant, awkward, often shy.  They were the geeks.  Then they grow up, get their Ph.D. (s), some of them -- others just become experts without bothering with that education business. Some of them slim down if they were pudgy, add a few pounds if they were skinny.  They may cut off the hair that obscured their face, or grow out the odd looking buzz cuts to be long and shaggy.  They exchange the round glasses that often made them look like owls confused by the sunlight for contacts, radial keratotamy, or skinny frames with Transitions lenses. They grow into the angles of their face.

In their field of expertise, they can be rock solid confident; outside of that, they can sometimes seem diffident.  They have a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, and are usually far more adventurous than you might expect. They occasionally can come off as goofy or off-centered.

"Adorkable" is not the same thing as simply "brilliant."  My friend Jane is brilliant.  She is also beautiful, tough, compassionate, funny as hell, and has never suffered fools gladly, even when she was twenty, which is when I met her. Quite frankly, I'm glad she's my friend, because otherwise I would find her really intimidating.**  She's never been adorkable a day in her life.

For my adorkable friends, I used to use the term "geeky cute," but that required explaining. "Adorkable" fits the bill nicely.  I would hate to see it go away.

Because then, of course, I would have to just use the word sexy.

*Both men and women, although tending more toward men than women.
**She's a business litigator who can chew up her opposition into little bits, all the while smiling pleasantly at them.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Les Miserables: A Review.

I have never been a fan of Les Miz on stage.*  It's bombastic, overblown, and repetitive.  I originally had no desire to see the movie when it came out, even though I generally go see every movie musical that arrives on the big screen -- as  much to provide support for the genre as anything else.  I also resented how the writing team had softened and sentimentalized Victor Hugo's original ending, making the plea for forgiveness from Marius and Cosette empty and nonsensical.**

The trailer -- specifically, Anne Hathaway's despairing, broken version of "I Dreamed a Dream," normally one of the biggest offenders in the bombast department -- changed that.  I was intrigued: besides, it had Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe as Javert.  (A very big question for me:  could Crowe sing Broadway?  It's not like this was a TOFOG gig.)

The verdict:  I loved it.

As been reported, Tom Hooper had all his singers sing live when filming.  This eliminated that awkward canned feeling that can occur sometimes even in the best movie musicals (even Singin' in the Rain, where the dancing overshadows the singing).  The music closely matched the emotions displayed by the actors, and allowed the actors to be, where necessary, understated -- okay, more understated than the original.  Had this technique (along with casting changes) been used with Rent, it could have been something memorable, instead of the somewhat tame mess it ended up being.  It makes me want to scream.

The acting of the cast was stellar.  The singing of the cast was... mixed.

Jackman, Hathaway, and Samantha Banks, a incomparable Eponine, were terrific, as was Aaron Tviet, who played the doomed leader of the revolutionaries.   All of those are established stage actors and singers, either on Broadway or in the West End.  Then there were the actors without Broadway musical experience.

Eddie Redmayne? Wonderful.  Amanda Seyfried? pretty, but tremulous and a bit weak. Russell Crowe? Hmm.

I felt Crowe's voice was too rough, and that his voice, suited for rock, was too ragged for Broadway.  I thought his singing sounded forced.  The Red-Headed Menace, on the other hand, felt that the gravelly voice fitted the character of Javert.

There was so much else:  the cinematography (it was a visually stunning movie), the set design, the crowd scenes... the child actors, who were so much better than child actors usually are, especially the urchin Gavroche.  And Colm Wilkinson, who was the original Jean Valjean over a quarter of a century ago, played the bishop who redeems Valjean.

I cried numerous times -- and I heard the people around me sniffing as well.  And not only at big denouements, but at little moments as well, such as when Javert surveys the bodies of the revolutionaries laid out reverently and lovingly and ... is visibly moved by one of them. It was a moment which humanized what otherwise is a stern and inflexible character.  (In fact, Crowe's performance as Javert, issues about his singing aside, was lovely and nuanced.  Crowe can put more depth into a stoic glare than many actors can into much more expansive gestures.)

I really hope I can have a chance to see this again.  I have a  hunch I'll like it just as much -- or maybe even more -- the second time.

*Okay, so I have never seen it in a theater -- I have seen it performed on television, and I used to have the entire soundtrack.  I got rid of all but a handful of songs because, as I said, I found them repetitive to the point of annoyance. I do think it is intrinsically possible to determine whether you like a work on the basis of a soundtrack -- for all the musicals where I heard (and usually owned) the soundtrack first (e.g. Rent, The Producers, Company, most recently The Book of Mormon), when I did see the work my opinion matched that I formed from the soundtrack.
**In Hugo's book the pair (well, Marius, really) do have something to feel badly about.  It's not the worst crime of this sort -- that dubious distinction belongs to the Disney version of The Little Mermaid -- but it is bad nonetheless.