Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Where I've been

Among other places, Zoo Atlanta: Yesterday was a gorgeous day, warm and sunny, so we spent it wandering around the zoo.
And of course we spent a fair amount of time gawking at the pandas:
In the past week we've been to the King Tut exhibit, driven to Alabama to visit relatives, gone to movies, done a little shopping, and today, if all goes as planned, we'll be eating fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Update: Tomatoes consumed; details later. Turned out to be another great day for playing tourist in Georgia.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Misogyny, self-loathing, and great writing

I've been reading Bill McKeen's biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Outlaw Journalist, and being quietly appalled by what an absolute shit the man was -- and from day one. He apparently emerged from the womb a fairly full-blown misogynistic racist homophobic sociopath with an over-inflated ego and a general feeling that none of the rules other people followed applied to him.

I knew the man could be an ass on multiple levels -- that came through loud and clear in everything he wrote -- but I'd never realized just how hard he worked at being that ass. I loved his writing so I guess I was hoping the total fucktard complete jerk persona was an act. No such luck.

Thompson apparently had more than his fair share of charisma -- from early childhood on he succeeded in charming various people into doing amazing favors for him, including keeping him from starving back before his writing career took off -- but that charisma definitely does not shine through in this book. No matter what the favor was, he consistently managed to pay it back by either destroying something his friends valued or by betraying a trust. His personality and ability to manipulate people has to qualify as one of those "you had to be there" things to understand because my reaction over and over to descriptions of his escapades was "why did people put up with that crap?"

Right now I'm only one-third through the book but, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about his long history of spouse abuse (the highlights include him routinely slapping his girlfriends/spouses around as well as his first wife having multiple Mexican abortions so as to not interfere with Thompson's writing career in the early 1960s), child neglect/abuse, irrational violent behavior, acts of vandalism, and just general assholery, I'm already looking forward to the suicide.

Update: Finished the book. Definitely a depressing biography. Thompson had potential, but squandered his talent. It could have been the drug and alcohol abuse, an underlying mental illness like bipolar disorder, or a combination of the two, but once he got trapped in his own "gonzo" image he was doomed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Critiquing Twilight

Fillyjonk has a great post up on Shapely Prose about what all is wrong with romantic comedies in general and Twilight in particular. My own reaction to the book was that it was teenage narcissism at its worst, well-written but essentially vacuous, but I'm not always good at seeing the big picture. Fillyjonk sets it in a more feminist context. Here's a piece:
Twilight horrifies me, but it mystifies me not at all; I know exactly what the appeal is, not just intellectually but viscerally. When I was the age of Twilight’s target audience, I hadn’t had any of those defining relationships, of course, but clearly I had the capacity to find disdain, paternalism, and misused power attractive.
Now go read the rest.

Having an out of focus day

I'm definitely having trouble focusing today. I started off the morning feeling annoyed with the world in general, definitely have a dash or two of "bah, humbug," salted in, and think I'm sliding rapidly into ennui. Or maybe malaise. Life in a cubicle with no actual work to do plays tricks on the mind.

We did get the Xmas tree up yesterday. (((Billy))) had an interesting post a day or so ago about being a cultural Christian, i.e., a nonbeliever who celebrates the holiday and/or season for reasons other than religion, and it probably describes us, too. Never did feel any religious fervor, having grown up in a household affiliated with no particular denomination, and recognize the historical foundations of the season without buying into any of the mythology or bizarre focus on supernatural events. If I were to overtly celebrate anything at this time of year, it would be the solstice, which means Christmas doesn't even fall on the right day. So I'm not really sure why we bother with a tree other than it's what I grew up with -- and I do kind of like gambling with the cats, e.g., how long will it take before one of them decides it would be fun to climb/destroy ornaments/eat tinsel and hack up hairballs?

It's already shedding needles like crazy, of course. There's tinsel all over the floor, too, and that's kind of a mystery. I don't think we've actually purchased tinsel in about 15 years. That stuff just kind of crawls out of an alternate dimension shortly after the homemade ornaments go on the tree. The Younger Daughter will be thrilled -- the heirloom hand-painted egg carton ornaments and hand-painted milkweed pods made back in elementary school are still around. (Note to self: watch Tammi carefully if she claims she wants to help take down tree. Intercept any attempted deposits into trash can.)

Tammi is driving here from Texas to spend a few days enjoying urban life -- no doubt rural Sabine County is going to be looking good in January after doing the dance of death through Atlanta traffic, but right now she's talking about how much she's looking forward to getting out of the sticks for a few days. I've been trying to figure out how we can cram hitting tourist highlights (Martin Luther King NHS, the Margaret Mitchell house, Zoo Atlanta with its baby panda), going to the Tut exhibit, dining at six or seven different ethnic restaurants, shopping at IKEA, and visiting my sister and her family up in northern Alabama into one week. Maybe that's why I'm experiencing malaise -- the kid isn't even here yet and I've already exhausted myself trying to plan the entertainment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cane River Creole National Historical Park: Magnolia Plantation

A few posts ago I mentioned visiting Cane River Creole National Historical Park, one of the newer units in the National Park system. Cane River Creole is located in northwest Lousiana south of Natchitoches. The park itself consists of two plantations, Oakland and Magnolia. The Oakland unit includes all the surviving buildings, including the main house, associated with the plantation; Magnolia includes numerous ancillary structures -- slave quarters, plantation store, blacksmith's barn, overseer's house (shown above), slave hospital -- but does not include the main house and the grounds immediately surrounding the main house. The main house is still owned by the family that operated the plantation beginning in the early 19th century. It's located to the left of this line of live oaks shown below that marks the boundary of the park and is so thoroughly surrounded by oaks and other vegetation that it was impossible to determine something as simple as architectural style, let alone photograph. The little house in the distance was the cook's quarters -- it's located about midway between the overseer's house and the main house.
The photo below is a view of the overseer's house as seen from the general area of the slave quarters.
One of the more interesting aspects of the history of the Cane River area is the role that free men and women of color played in the local economy. I'd read Barbara Hambly's historical novels set in early 19th century Louisiana, but had never really thought about the legal basis for the existence of hommes de couleur libre until visiting Cane River. The park has an excellent fact sheet on the "black codes," the French laws that dictated the responsibilities of owners and the rights of slaves -- and slaves did have rights under the French.

Probably key to the hommes de couleur libre was the fact that it was illegal for a French citizen to have sexual intercourse with a slave. If a white man wanted a colored woman as a mistress (or even a one night stand) she had to be free. He could keep a mistress; he could not keep a slave for purposes of concubinage. As a result, if a free man was attracted to a woman who was a slave he had to buy her freedom. Once the woman was free, any children she bore after receiving her freedom would also be free.

Not surprisingly, many of the women who attained their freedom proved to be quite entrepreneurial, as did their descendants. A number of historic plantations in the Mississippi delta region can trace their ownership back to hommes de couleur libre, including several in the Cane River area. Melrose Plantation, located close to the park but not part of it, began as 68 acres given to an African woman in the 18th century. By the time she died in 1817 the 68 acres had grown to thousands, her children were rich, and the ones who inherited from her owned quite a few slaves themselves.

Also not surprisingly, given Southern history in general and the tendency of local historical societies everywhere to engage in revisionism and hagiography, the spin the local bluehairs put on the history of Melrose Plantation is that the woman's owner freed her out of the generosity of his heart and not because it was the law. As usual, the popular mythology also includes the line "he would have married her if society had allowed him to."

And, speaking of slavery, the buildings below are the surviving slave quarters at Magnolia. They're brick, and were built by an owner who moved to Louisiana from Virginia in the early 1800s. They're one of the best examples I've ever seen of someone imposing an architectural style totally unsuited to a climate. No doubt the man took great pride in them, and they would have been totally appropriate in the Shenandoah Valley -- but in Louisiana? The windows are small, circulation is poor, and for half the year the folks stuck living in them must have felt like they were being baked alive.
Nonetheless, the historical record indicates the brick quarters were considered the high status quarters. The slaves who lived in them were the skilled craftsmen (blacksmith, for example) or worked in the main house. Magnolia was a large plantation, and at one time had over 70 buildings for slave quarters. About one tenth that number survive today. According to the park guide, quite a few of the quarters buildings were torn down and the brick used to reconstruct the main house following a fire in the 1890s.

The quarters built as duplex units were converted to single family following the Civil War and the introduction of share cropping and tenant farming.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The economy, and other weirdness

"Good Morning America" showed a clip of an interview with The Prince of Darkness, VP Cheney, first thing this morning. Not my favorite way to start the day -- above and beyond oozing evil, that man resembles Montgomery Burns more and more, right down to the hand gestures. It's always very strange to see a human cartoon when you're not even a third of the way through the first cup of coffee.

Anyway, I've been thinking about the economy and how anemic it is. The proof is everywhere that things are a lot worse than the talking heads, the various paid experts, want to admit. The "Help Wanted" section in the Sunday Atlanta Journal Constitution has shrunk to being a super skinny section with the equivalent of 1 and 3/4 pages with a scant handful of box ads for the specialties that are always in short supply (e.g., nurses). This is for a metropolitan area with a population of approximately 5 million. The Real Estate section is also pitifully thin, and the difference in pricing now and a year ago is striking. To describe housing prices as having plummeted is an understatement. Housing values are definitely still in free fall, no matter how much the real estate industry would like to believe otherwise.

And then there are the malls. Sunday afternoon we drove past Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza on our way home from Piedmont, plus a bunch of smaller strip malls and specialty stores. This is Buckhead. We're not talking low dollar retail. Phipps houses Nordstroms, Gucci, Tiffany, and various other "not cheap" retail establishments; Lenox has Macys, Nieman Marcus, Crate and Barrel. . . you get the picture. Both parking lots had tons of available parking space -- that is flatout not normal, especially for Lenox. Once the Pink Pig is up and running (and eating up a huge chunk of upper level of the parking deck by Macy's) finding a parking space after noon on the weekend at Lenox is usually an exercise in frustration.

Then we went to the mall that falls more into my budget range, Northlake, to shop at JC Penney, Sears, or Kohls -- all stores where I know for sure if I buy a gift of clothing the recipient will be able to exchange it for something they actually like with no hassle. Once again, mid-afternoon on a Sunday less than two weeks before Christmas -- and the parking lot was half empty. No crowds, no long lines at the registers, no pushing and shoving to get the last size whatever on the rack. It was spooky.

On the other hand, we went to Lowe's last night to pick up a tree and they were just about sold out. The inventory was down low enough that they'd marked all the remaining trees down to $10 just to get rid of them -- so I guess it's a good thing we didn't make it to the Farmer's Market on Saturday.

Monday, December 15, 2008

And how was your weekend?

Mine started off okay. Got out of work slightly early on Friday, spent a reasonably productive evening puttering around the house, curled up with my book for awhile (The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I highly recommend), and fell peacefully asleep.

And then woke up just before midnight with a heart rate that, to put it mildly, didn't seem quite right. Really rapid. As in really, really rapid, and accompanied by nausea and vertigo and not showing any signs of slowing down on its own. It's one thing to feel your heart racing after you've had a good scare or you've just run a marathon -- but 160+ beats per minute when waking from a sound sleep? Not good, not unless it was the Sam Elliott dream again and I just wasn't remembering it. And even if it was, it should have started slowing down after I'd been awake for a minute or two and reality had sunk back in.

So I remembered all the speeches the Younger Daughter has given me and the S.O. about being in the prime heart attack years -- she's apparently been expecting either myself or the S.O. to drop any time since we turned 30 -- and decided to kick the S.O. awake. He looked, as he always does when woken unexpectedly, totally befuddled, but managed to find clothes and stumble out the door, play chaffeur, and get me to the Piedmont ER without running into anything. In triage the heart rate was 189 -- definitely not good. In nothing flat I was on a gurney in an ER cubicle with multiple leads and devices (EKG, oxygen level sensor, blood pressure, IV port) being attached to the body and blood being sucked out of one arm -- over and over. It's absolutely amazing how many quarts labs seem to need to check for cardiac enzymes.

The good news, after 9 hours in the ER, 24 hours in the hospital, and a long conversation with an electrophysiologist -- it wasn't a heart attack. The bad news, because the electrophysiologist got me to admit I've actually had quite a few episodes of a racing heartbeat and the episodes seem to be happening closer together, is I got to learn a new (at least in terms of it being applied to me individually) medical term, supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), and I'm also going to get to experience a new (to me) medical procedure, cardiac ablation, in the not too distant future.

Getting news like this is always a little tricky to process. Part of me was like, wow, cool, will I be awake so I can watch the monitor? I loved the echocardiograms I've had because it's not that often you get to watch your own heart beating, so watching it get zapped could be cool, too. And another part was like, sweetjesus, they're going to fry chunks of my heart. Little tiny chunks, true, but chunks nonetheless. And then, of course, there's the ultimate question: will I be able to live blog the procedure?

Bottom line for the weekend: Christmas shopping delayed, no trip to the Georgia Farmer's Market for a tree, minimal baking done, no gifts wrapped, no housecleaning accomplished. Nine days to go, and nothing mailed yet. Not good, but not a disaster.

Incidentally, I did learn one trick from the handouts they gave me at the hospital --if you ever have a racing heartbeat that doesn't seem to want to slow down on its own, plunging your face into a basin of ice water might shock it back into a normal rhythm. If it doesn't work, at least you'll be wide awake for the panic attack.

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's not over 'til it's over. . .

Today was my last day on the detail with the surveillance people. The Strategy document is done; it looks good. Theoretically I should never have to think about the content of that particular document again.

No such luck. Yesterday my team lead e-mailed me to say she'd just put my next editing job into my queue.

What's the topic? The same one I've been working on for the past four months. Who's the lead author? The division chief for the unit where I spent that time.

I guess the good news is that at least I'm not likely to be confused by any of the technical language in the paper.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two more days

The Strategy document is in the home stretch, last minute revisions and wordsmithing were being done today by a work group before being passed on to the division chief, he'll do his comments sometime between whenever he gets the document this evening (the work group was still fussing over it when I made my escape for the day) and tomorrow morning when he'll kick it back to me to do the final clean-up. That's when, of course, I plan to undo a bunch of the stuff that's been done by the workgroup, but they don't need to know that. None of them wants to believe that they collectively have the writing skills of a rock.

One of the key editorial skills I do possess is being able to clean up cumbersome prose without the authors realizing it's been cleaned up, a skill that's been sorely tested by the steaming pile of fecal matter that is the Strategy. There's only so much that can be done with an agency is determined to persist in speaking bureaucratese instead of English. There is good stuff in the Strategy, but it's going to take a lot of shoveling to find that particular pony.

Found out at yesterday's staff meeting the division chief has to hand carry copies to various players in DC on Monday (folks at the General Accounting Office, people with the Obama transition team, and assorted other "stakeholders" inside the Beltway) so whatever the document is going to be, it's going to be it by about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon to allow time for running it to Kinko's to have some spiral bound copies burned. After that, I should never have to think about it again.

Thinking about the economy

Monday, December 8, 2008

Vintage clothes and vanity sizing, an update

A few weeks ago I mentioned having some vintage (circa late 1950s, early 1960s) dresses that I've been considering selling through Etsy. They're all labeled with what I'd consider fairly large sizes (14, 15, 16) so the question was what's the modern equivalent.

The Younger Daughter suggested I bring them to Texas at Thanksgiving. She'd try them on, and we'd be able to extrapolate from her size to the dresses' sizes. So I did -- brought half a dozen dresses, and to say a size 16 from from 1960 is not a size 16 in 2008 is an understatement.

Both of these dresses are labeled as 16s. Tammi wears about an 8. The top dress, the pink polka dots, fit fine, although she did have a little trouble figuring out the mysteries of a side placket zipper (she'd never seen one before). (The dress has never been worn -- still has the tags from Gimbels department store -- but I have no idea why.)

This beautiful blue linen dress, on the other hand, although labeled as a 16, is more like a 6. Tammi was able to get into it, but it was obviously small -- among other clues, it flattened her chest into oblivion. Which was a shame, because we agreed it's a gorgeous dress. Fine quality workmanship, wonderful detailing (triple darts on the bodice), and a style that a person could actually wear into work today, if, of course, a person had an office job. Although it looks like a straight skirt, there's actually a deep pleat in the back that provides enough material to make it possible to sit comfortably.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cane River Creole National Historical Park: Oakland Plantation

It was a rather gray day when we visited the park last month, but here are a few photos from Cane River Creole National Historical Park, starting with a side view of the main house at Oakland Plantation, one of the two plantations that comprise the park. The modern structure to the side of the stairs is an elevator that allows the structure to be accessible to all park visitors. The house is a wonderful example of Creole architecture. There is a ground floor to the building, but it's the equivalent of a basement and was used for primarily for storage, with the exception of living quarters for the cook. There is an attic, but, although there are dormer windows, it also was primarily for storage.

The main house as viewed by visitors from the walkway from the plantation general store to the house. I thought the plastic walkway was a great idea for a wet climate. Water goes right through it, but no one ends up walking in mud. The garden in front of the house is known as The Bottle Garden -- the flowerbeds are outlined with wine bottles embedded neck down. It was kind of a neat effect, and I'm wishing now I'd gotten a better photo of it. The interpretive ranger wasn't able to provide much information (it was only his tenth day on the job so he was still learning the park; however, if we'd been at all curious about Natchez NHP he would have been a fount of information because that was his last duty station) but said he thought the Bottle Garden had been established in the late 19th century. Oakland was owned by the same family, the Prudhommes, for multiple generations, which is one reason it retained remarkable integrity and made it a good candidate for consideration as a historical park. They also drank a lot of wine so had lots of empties to work with.

View from the veranda looking down the live oak allee toward the main road and the historic approach to the house. I'm always fascinated by the resurrection ferns covering the oak limbs.

Outbuildings behind the main house include a laundry shed, chicken coops, and a carpenter's shop. The plantation also included a general store, slave quarters, mule barns, equipment sheds, a smaller house known as the Doctor's House which now houses administrative offices for the park and an overseer's house.

The overseer's house:

Having worked in NPS cultural resources, I still mentally do condition assessment for structures and landscapes when I visit parks. Cane River's had a fair amount of money and work poured into since its establishment in the 1990s. There are before and after photos on display in the store for a number of structures, and there are obvious stabilization and preservation efforts in place. There's plastic netting over the remnant wallpaper in the overseer's house to prevent what's left from being peeled off by vandals, and the exteriors of several buildings have rolled roofing sheathing the walls. According to our guide, the management plan calls for the house to reflect an early 1960s appearance, which struck me as a nicely pragmatic decision: the same family lived there for multiple generations; the 1960s is the last time any major changes were made to the interior (the kitchen was updated); it makes perfect sense to use that as a marker for telling the entire story of the property. In short, no major restoration headaches, just stabilization and routine maintenance.

Although the front of the overseer's house is wood siding, the side and rear elevations had apparently been sheathed with faux masonry asphalt siding in the past. That was apparently the last siding put on the house, so I'm kind of wondering if they plan to do a restoration on that.

Oakland's cash crop in the 19th century was cotton so the property at one time included numerous slave cabins. Following the Civil War the owners switched to a share cropping system that included (of course) debt peonage through the Prudhomme-owned general store. Only two cabins remain extant; both had been quite derelict when the park was created in 1994, but have since been stablized. This is one of them.
The exteriors are sheathed with rolled roofing; my assumption is that's a stabilization measure.

The park also includes Magnolia Plantation, but I think I'll do that as a separate post.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Who says there's no good news out there?

In today's AJC: Bill O'Reilly to end syndicated radio show

Welcome to my world

A small sample of what I'm currently attempting to turn into standard English:

"[the document](hereafter The Strategy) takes stock of current capabilities and opportunities to improve to steer a highly distributed nationwide effort that makes better use of our nationwide health information infrastructure to assure health security for all Americans."

It's going to be a long day.

More adventures in bureaucracy

Yesterday was one of those Harlan Ellison days, one long experience in "I have no mouth but I must scream" as I suffered through two really long pointless meetings. The Document is coming down to the wire, the absolute drop dead date for anything substantive to get added was last week, on November 26, but minor comments are still trickling in -- and of course no one has the spine to tell any of these people, look, we gave you a deadline, you missed it. Your comment will be cataloged and considered when the Document is updated next year.

The formatting is still a mess, the pagination is not right, and I've got a project manager who thinks it's useful for me to spend endless hours in teleconferences debating whether or not "member states" should be capitalized when used in the phrase "member states of the European Union." She even had the nerve to put someone else on the computer to do the Live Meeting shared screen as we went through the document and to tell me to just "sit and take notes."

I also got to go back and forth with a scientist who wanted to use the phrase "countries with good public health surveillance capability, e.g., the European community, Canada, and Japan." The man has multiple degrees so must have taken an English composition course at some point in his career. He would have an absolute hissy fit if I were to say something like "infectious diseases, e.g., typhoid, influenza, and asbestosis.*" Didn't he ever watch Sesame Street?? One of these things is not like the others! Finally got him to agree to member states . . . and then we wasted another 15 minutes on capitalization. I finally got pushed into saying "You guys can have all the opinions you want on this issue, but if the Large Nameless Agency style guide says it's wrong, I'm going with the style guide. I won't argue science with you, don't argue grammar and punctuation with me." Jaws kind of dropped -- apparently support staff (and that's how the editors are viewed) aren't supposed to either argue or draw lines in the dirt.

Monday is going to be another day in hell -- nothing but meetings from noon to 5 p.m. -- but that should be it. Then I'll have 4 final days to clean up formatting and also clean out my office . . . Friday afternoon the document (or at least my association with it) is done, and the following week I'll be back in my cozy little cubicle dealing with one lead author at a time instead of committees and work groups.

I quite frankly don't understand why we bothered with the teleconferencing to "vet" comments at all. We received very few, and the ones we did get were extremely minor. One or two people suggested slight changes in phrasing, but nothing that altered the overall content or concept. I have, however, learned since arriving at LNA that the organizational culture here consists of endless second-guessing and fretting about minutiae. And there is a definite addiction to holding meeting after meeting to rehash stuff that's been discussed a zillion times before.

*Update/clarification: the first two illnesses are contagious diseases; asbestosis is a noncontagious condition caused by exposure to asbestos.

The Pulitzer Project begins

I started reading Ernest Poole's His Family last night. It was immediately obvious why I'd never heard of the book, the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize back in 1918. Calling it dated is an understatement. It may have been published in 1917, but it feels very 19th century. It's not actually a bad book -- I've managed to read worse from cover to cover -- but the style feels overly contrived and so far none of the characters are particularly appealing.

The central character, the "him" of His Family, comes across as a self-centered twit, a solidly middle class businessman with nativist leanings (he's appalled by the immigrants who are "ruining" his city), which may be intentional (Poole was a progressive journalist noted for his sympathies toward the labor movement and social reform) but it still makes it hard to get interested in either the primary character or the people around him. I'm already looking forward to 1919 and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I read Tarkington in high school, and have a vague memory of actually liking the book.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Speaking of luck

Update: If this was true, there's a woman in West, Texas, who would now be wealthy beyond her wildest dreams.

Depressing news

Woke up to the depressing news that Senator Shameless managed to get re-elected. There was some unintentional humor in the news report, though, as Channel 2 said "Chambliss will take some time off before returning to Washington in January. . ." As far as I can tell by looking at his voting record, he's been taking some time off since his original election to the U.S. Senate in 2002. He has proposed no note-worthy legislation, and has been a nicely compliant rubber stamp for aWol's misguided policies. There was a strong volunteer effort to get out the vote, but, as usual in run-off elections, participation fell way short of what was needed.

I hate to think that once again Chambliss's incredibly sleazy, low road, name calling politics managed to bamboozle the voters -- but it's obvious they did.