Saturday, January 30, 2010

When did the U.S. become a nation of cowards?

I see New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is the latest politician to leap on to the sniveling cowards bandwagon.  He was on Good Morning America first thing yesterday whining about how New York's finest would be utterly incapable of providing security for the upcoming trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators. 

I've said it before.  I don't get it.  Okay, Al Qaeda got lucky back in 2001.  They succeeded in turning airliners into missiles, with results that far exceeded their expectations.  Since then, though, it's been pretty much a comedy of errors when it comes to attacks on the U.S.  Richard Reed and his bizarre attempt to blow up an airplane with his shoes?  And the more recent diaper bomber?  Let's face it:  Al Qaeda is coming across as having more in common with Larry, Curly, and Moe than with any of the fictional terrorists we see on "24."  Granted, there was that mass shooting at Fort Hood, but that one really sounds far more like something that's traditionally American  (the unhappy employee who displays symptom after symptom of having mental problems or being under a lot of stress while the bosses do their damnedest to ignore him, until one day he goes postal*) than any act of planned terrorism, despite the best efforts of the media and the right wing to paint it that way. 

The jihadists have also been consistently low tech, going back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 when they packed a Ryder truck with fertilizer and diesel fuel.  They have to be.  Al Qaeda and its various offshoots and sympathizers aren't exactly rolling in cash.  They used to get money funneled through various charities functioning as fronts.  That isn't happening any more.  They used to have sympathizers in various governments around the Muslim world.  That's been steadily drying up, too.  Both politicians and rich people tend to be pragmatic -- they don't back losers, and they see Al Qaeda and the jihadists in general as losing.  And, despite all the hyperbole about what a horrible, frightening threat Al Qeada is, they're losers.  If they weren't losers, they wouldn't be using suicide bombers.  Suicide bombers are the weapon of last resort, the weapon you use when you don't have the resources (financial or technological) to be sure of striking a blow in any other way.

So why are so many people in positions of power in this country so frightened by this handful of pathetic losers?  New York City always has been and always will be a target for various acts of mayhem -- why empower Al Qaeda by treating them as though they're something special instead of the low-life incompetents they really are? 

One of the answers is pretty clear, of course.  It's good politics.  Keep the sheeple nervous about a close-to-nonexistent threat and they're not likely to notice the numerous other ways government is busy screwing us.  It functioned very well as a distraction technique for close to 8 years under the Bush administration, but showed signs of being discarded under Obama.  What I don't understand is why Bloomberg felt compelled to join the parade -- he just bought himself another term as mayor in November 2009 so is relatively impervious to the whims of the electorate at the moment.  It's a mystery. . .     

[*Sorry, Val.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy

I'm not quite sure what to say about Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy.  Maybe Tony Hillerman ruined me for reading fiction set in Navajo country. Or maybe I'm just not too thrilled with books that have as their hero The Noble Savage. 

There was nothing overtly offensive about Laughing Boy.  If anything, the book is sympathetic toward the plight of the Navajo in the early 20th century.  It condemns, for example, the Indian schools that punished children for speaking their native language and that left the children existing in a cultural limbo:  cut off from their heritage but not accepted by the white world either.

Maybe the problem was the book just felt dated.  Even worse, I felt like I was reading a Zane Grey novel.  I read a lot of Zane Grey in high school and to say the books were formulaic is an understatement, cheap westerns where it's pretty much a case of if you've read one, you've read them all. Of course, if a person has never read a Zane Grey western, then maybe Laughing Boy will seem delightfully different instead of stale and cliche-ridden.

The basic plot line is the usual:  boy (Laughing Boy) meets girl (Slim Girl); they're instantly smitten.  She, however, has a Dark Secret, something in life that has given her a Bad Reputation.  When Laughing Boy goes to his oldest uncle to say he wants to marry Slim Girl (after knowing her for a day and talking with her one time), his uncle tells him The Family Does Not Approve.  No kidding.  At this point Laughing Boy hasn't even taken the time to ask her about her lineage -- which is one of the things about the book that felt wrong.  Laughing Boy is supposed to be so traditional he doesn't speak English, he's a total blanket Indian, someone who never attended a mission or Bureau of Indian Affairs school and who is totally immersed in the Navajo belief system.  So by not asking about her lineage, i.e., finding out her mother's clan, he's risking committing incest.

In any case, he ignores his uncle's advice.  The young couple elope, they live reasonably happily for awhile, and then Slim Girl's past catches up with them.    

In the forward to the book, the author mentions spending a fair amount of time in the early 1920s on the Navajo reservation (or close to it).  I got the impression, based on the content of the book, he was there long enough to learn about basic creation beliefs and Navajo religious ritual (sand paintings, etc) as well as some bits and pieces of the language so was able to weave those elements into the novel, but not long enough to really understand the clan system.  Does it make a difference in terms of the quality of the novel?  Probably not.  It set me up to be dubious about the entire book -- it's hard to get into a story when the author has started off with something that feels so wrong -- but other readers may not have the same reaction.

The book was made into a movie starring Roman Navarro in 1934.  If I were to cast it today, I'd put Adam Beach in the lead.  The character of Laughing Boy has that sort of clean-cut, upbeat persona that Beach seems to end up projecting regardless of the role he's supposed to be playing.  Slim Girl would be trickier -- although the title of the book is Laughing Boy, Slim Girl is the character it really revolves around.  Her life, her past, and her secrets make her a much more complicated character.  With Laughing Boy what you see is what you get; you know exactly how he's going to respond and why he does what he does.  And in the end, of course, in the fine literary tradition of the Fallen Woman Must Pay for Her Sins, Slim Girl's secrets cost her and Laughing Boy everything.

Laughing Boy earned Oliver La Farge the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for best novel.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bad rugs

I keep looking at that shot of Hank Snow a few posts down and wondering just what unlucky rodent died to create that toupee. 

Slitting one's own throat

False consciousness:  In Marxist theory, a failure to recognize the instruments of one's oppression or exploitation as one's own creation, as when members of an oppressed class unwittingly adopt views of the oppressor class. (definition from

It's also known as an inability to see the world the way it really is, i.e., being more than a tad out of touch with reality.

On a macro scale, we're seeing it demonstrated everyday by people who oppose things that would directly benefit them, like a single-payer healthcare system in this country.  On a micro scale, I'm seeing it evidenced daily at work by co-workers who just don't get that behavior that they view as demonstrating their commitment to the job or their loyalty to the agency is actually an active exercise in slitting their own throats.

Over the years I've worked with a number of people who would take work home to do outside their normal duty hours.  When you're getting paid by the hour, that's always struck me as a truly dumb thing to do because you're giving away about the only thing you've got to sell, your time.  There are a bunch of other issues involved, too, including things like the people who do this tend to build up a nice stock of resentment ("Here I am working my butt off on my own time and no one is recognizing me for it!"), but two things strike me every time, both from a management perspective:

1.  If people routinely put in unpaid overtime because the workload has exceeded the capacity of the staff to deal with it, the only way management has of knowing that is when deadlines start getting missed, production quotas aren't met, or something else goes wrong.  If staff keep scrambling and managing to keep up, there is no incentive to management to make any changes (reduce the workload, hire more staff, look for other efficiencies like upgrading equipment).  Problems only get recognized when someone shines a light on them -- and working unpaid overtime is doing the opposite.  It's covering stuff up.  It is a heck of a lot easier to fix a problem if it's pointed out when it's first starting instead of waiting until the proverbial last straw and experiencing a total melt-down.

2.  If a single worker makes a point of putting in hours outside his or her tour of duty, as a manager I'm not going to respond with, "Way to go, what a team player."  I'm more likely to wonder "Why?"  You know, if there are 6 people all doing similar work and 5 of those people get it done in their usual 8 hour shifts but one has to bring work* home to meet deadlines, what does that say about Number 6?  Easy answer:  he or she is incompetent.  Telling me you've worked on Saturdays or while supposedly on annual leave doesn't tell me you're a team player; it tells me you're not nearly as good as your co-workers who have the same workload but manage to get it done within the standard 40-hour week.  You may see your "sacrifice" as a reason to give you an "exceptional" on the performance review; from a managerial perspective it's more likely to yield a "less than successful" and trigger an improvement plan. 

Update: The S.O. helpfully pointed out a third management perspective, one I'm quite familiar with but chose not to mention on this go-round:  management knows perfectly well that there's more work needing to be done than can be accomplished in the time allotted, but isn't going to do a damn thing about it as long as people are stupid enough to be willing to work for free.   
*I am, of course, talking about ordinary work, the regularly scheduled duties that don't vary a whole lot from day to day, week to week, or month to month. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our theme song

Somebody asked me for my home address the other day, and I had to stop and think about it.  For a brief moment, Sepulveda Place, Rudasil Road, Whitmore Street, Russell Way, and half a dozen others from New England to southern California were all just kind of blurring together.  We've moved around a lot, first because of the S.O.'s work, and then mine.  I used to joke about selecting furniture based on how easy it would be to get into a U-Haul.  I never worried about spring cleaning -- we just moved instead, and it was almost never short moves.

The most frightening move we ever did, in retrospect, was from upper Michigan to the Seattle area in 1979.  We loaded up a 1971 Dodge Polara station wagon that the S.O. bought from his cousin for $150, parked the kids with my parents and said we'd let them know when we got settled, and headed west.  Did not know a soul in the Seattle area, had never been there, and did not have a huge cash reserve.  All we knew is that Boeing was there and the S.O. was an Air Force-trained airframe mechanic -- we figured that somewhere out there someone would be willing to hire him. 

One of the screwiest things about the move was it wasn't necessary for economic reasons.  By U.P. standards, we were doing good financially.  Obviously not rolling in the green stuff if our idea of a decent vehicle was an 8-year-old Dodge Polara, but not hurting either.  The S.O. had a secure job, I had cows, there was no obvious reason to pack up and leave -- but we did. 

We survived the move, and found along the way that it was one of the more psychologically liberating things we've done.  Back in the U.P. the labor market was unbelievably inelastic -- even truly horrible jobs would attract dozens of applicants when there was an opening.  When we got to Seattle, I discovered I could actually pick and choose:  every place I applied offered me employment.  There is something amazingly freeing about being able to look a prospective employer in the eye and say, "No thanks, I may be looking for work but I'm not desperate."  

We liked Seattle, or, more accurately, unincorporated Snohomish County a few miles north of the city.  We wound up living in a duplex (fondly remembered as Mildew Manor) that put the kids into the Mukilteo school district and gave us an Everett telephone number and a Lynwood address.  But, much as we liked the Pacific Northwest, we weren't fated to be there long.  About the same time the S.O. got his FAA airframe certification through Everett Community College, Lockheed California came up recruiting -- and in June 1980 we headed south to the heart of the San Fernando valley.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Joys of insomnia

It's another one of those mornings where I'm awake a lot earlier than I wanted to be, and for no apparent reason, but you know how it goes -- once you're awake, you're awake, and there isn't much you can do about it.  It does not help my already cranky mood to have the first piece of news I see be that Mr. Naked Guy, the Republican empty suit, won the special election in Massachusetts. . . so there goes the Democrat's supposed advantage in the Senate.

I say supposed, of course, because there never was a real numerical advantage.  Unlike the Republicans, who long ago mastered the art of fear of loss of party money and thus always voting in lockstep, the Democrats have been plagued all along with the DINOs like Ben Nelson (D-Mutual of Omaha) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Walmart), the so-called conservatives who sold their soul to special interests.  On every vote that mattered, one or more of the owned-by-corporate interests could be counted on to vote with the Republicans.  The filibuster-proof majority was an illusion hyped by the MSM and laughed at by everyone else.

It has been a week full of depressing news.  I've been consciously avoiding thinking about Haiti.  I'm familiar with that country's sad history, I've read Paul Farmer's books, and I knew Haiti had been devastated repeatedly by hurricanes in recent years.  When a country is so poor people were routinely eating dirt before this latest natural disaster, you just know that the aftermath of almost anything is going to be catastrophically bad.  From where I sit, the only positive action I can take right now is to send money to a reputable charity (e.g., Doctors without Borders, Partners in Health).  Given that U.S. meddling in Haitian politics for the past 100+ years has contributed significantly to Haiti being unable to pull itself out of poverty, I'd like to see this country do more to help -- but I know it's not going to happen. 

It really is astounding sometimes to look at the amount of damage the U.S. has done to other countries in the pursuit of corporate interests, particularly in the area of agriculture and a nation's ability to feed itself.  NAFTA opened up Mexico to Archer-Daniels-Midland's cheap corn and so effectively undercut the Mexican farmers that they couldn't make a living -- and guess where a lot of them wound up?  Standing near a Home Depot somewhere in the U.S. In Haiti U.S. trade policies and agricultural subsidies managed to destroy rice farming, making the country dependent on imported food where they used to grow their own.  And that's just recent history.

Actually, considering that whenever we do go into a country to supposedly "help" them we seem to end up making things worse, maybe wishing for more official U.S. involvement in a Haitian recovery is not a particularly good idea.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Where has all the peanut brittle gone?

You'd think that in a state famous for peanuts, it would be easy to find some peanut brittle.  Apparently not.  I wanted some to send to a friend who lives in Finland, but have been failing to find any in stores I've checked.  I'm beginning to think I'll have to resort to making it myself. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book review: Growing Up bin Laden

Osama bin Laden, jihadist plotter and breeder of giant sunflowers.  That's one of the odder images -- Osama wandering through the fields cutting sunflowers for his wives -- presented in this absolutely fascinating book.  At the same time bin Laden was plotting with various fanatics to strike a blow against the infidels corrupting the Muslim world, he was trying to grow the biggest sunflowers in Sudan.  The man loved farming, and apparently some of his happiest moments came when he'd pile the whole family (all four wives and his zillion kids) into cars to go out to the farm, first in Saudia Arabia and later in Sudan.  At the same time he was laying the groundwork for Al Qaeda, he was promoting innovations in agriculture as a way to lift Sudan out of poverty.   

This book is not academic history, meticulously researched, nor is it political analysis.  It may provide some insight into what motivates Osama, but that isn't the intent of the book.  It's oral history on the family level, life inside the bin Laden family as seen by Osama's first wife, Najwa, and his 4th son, Omar.  Najwa married Osama when she was 15 and he was 17, and by her account it was for many years a happy marriage.  They were first cousins so had been childhood playmates and friends long before the idea of marriage occurred to either.  They had what within the well-to-do Muslim world was a rarity:  a love match.  Still, most marriages are arranged, generally by the mothers, and Osama and Najwa's was no exception.  If the marriage hadn't been agreeable to both sets of parents, it wouldn't have happened no matter how the young people felt about each other. 

According to Najwa, marrying young and first cousin marriage are both extremely common in Islamic countries, particularly among wealthier families.  Cousin marriage is a way to keep the wealth and control consolidated.  Whether or not it's had any effects on the gene pool in terms of inherited diseases or simple-mindedness is debatable; Saudi society is sufficiently secretive that there could be whole herds of crazy relatives locked in the figurative attic and no one would know.  In any case, another odd image in the book is evoked by Najwa's happy description of herself as a newlywed in Jeddah fixing breakfast for her husband and being proud of how handsome he looked in his high school uniform before he headed off to school. 

As the book progresses, it struck me several times just how totally alien Saudi (and maybe traditional Muslim in general) society is compared with what we're used to in the United States.  The bin Ladens lived in a traditional manner to the extreme:  Osama was intensely devout from a young age, and spent many hours reading and memorizing the Koran.  Najwa said that many of their happiest moments as newlyweds were spent sitting together reading religious texts.  Osama's fundamentalism inspired his desire to live very simply, no decadent Western inventions in the home, which meant no air conditioning, no television, and, rather bizarrely, no refrigeration.  That last quirk presented challenges for Najwa because it meant food spoiled quickly.  Fortunately, she did have servants who could shop daily -- Najwa herself lived in purdah, leaving the house only when accompanied by a male relative such as her husband or her father (or, once they were old enough to be considered adults, one of her sons).  The only western invention or luxury Osama indulged in was automobiles:  he always drove the latest and fastest models.  Najwa doesn't seem to have resented being trapped in the house, though, especially once Osama married additional wives.  She not only describes the wives as becoming her good friends and sisters, but actually selected wife Number 3 for Osama.  Omar describes his mother as "naive," and no doubt she was -- but it's also clear she viewed her marriage as successful and, at least for the first decade or so, quite happy. 

As long as the family lived in Saudi Arabia, the boys had some contact with influences other than their father and his circle.  They attended school, an experience Omar describes as having been pretty horrible -- Osama insisted his sons go to a public school, not a private one, but the bin Laden name meant many of their classmates and even their teachers resented them for their supposed wealth.  Omar describes suffering both verbal and physical abuse -- he and his brothers lived in constant fear of being raped by fellow students or their teachers; male rape is apparently a major problem in Arab countries, one of those things no one talks about, especially when male rape victims are treated as harshly as female ones.   The boys were targeted because everyone assumed the bin Laden kids were wallowing in luxury at home when the truth was they weren't even allowed to have simple toys, like cheap plastic cars.  The one "toy" Omar remembers his father allowing was a soccer ball.  Osama's daughters received no formal education beyond being taught to read by their mothers.   

Osama's involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s had made him a hero to the general public in Saudi Arabia, but his public disagreements with the royal family over U.S. involvement in the Gulf War threatened to land him in prison.  Before he could be arrested, he left the country and moved his family to Sudan.  Omar describes the initial time period in Sudan as being the happiest of his life:  the boys were enrolled in a school where no one knew anything about them, he was able to make friends, he and his brothers had a good time building tree forts in the garden at their compound, kept many pets, and generally were more relaxed than they had been back in Saudi Arabia.  This idyllic period did not last, of course.  Osama's involvment in radical jihad intensified, there was an assassination attempt that led to the boys being pulled out of school, and limited their contacts to only the immediate family and servants, and eventually the Sudanese government told Osama and his cohort to leave the country. 

After arriving in Afghanistan and seeing where Osama expected his wives and family to live -- a cluster of primitive stone huts at Tora Bora, buildings that had no running water, electricity, or even glass in the windows (the openings were covered with animal hides) -- Omar said he knew then that he would eventually break with his father.  It had become clear to him that Osama's single-minded focus on jihad and increasing fanaticism was dragging the family down and could never have a good end.  Still, he stuck it out for several years until he was able to persuade his mother to leave, too, late in 2000.  They went first to Syria, which was where his mother's family lived, and Omar appealed to the Saudi government to reinstate his Saudi citizenship and allow him to go to Jeddah, the city he considered home.  He was eventually able to do so, and an aunt, one of his father's half-sisters, helped him get re-established in Jeddah. 

I'm not sure what surprised me most about the book.  I had read elsewhere that Osama was noted for his devoutness and strict adherence to religious doctrine; I guess I didn't realize he'd taken it to the extreme of practically becoming the Islamic equivalent of Amish.  No refrigeration or air conditioning?  And his wives just say, sure, fine with us?  That was bizarre.  (One of his wives did divorce him, but it wasn't until after they'd had three children.)  Najwa's comments on clothing were intriguing -- her struggles with the abbayah, for example, weren't what a person would expect.  It didn't bother her to be fully veiled in public, something that wasn't common in Syria where she grew up, but it did annoy her that she felt so clumsy in the abbayah.  She wanted to glide gracefully like the Saudi women she saw instead of worrying all the time about tripping over things.  By the time they moved to Afghanistan, however, she'd gotten so used to the abbayah that she wasn't happy when Osama announced his family would now dress as the Afghani people did.  Given a choice between the abbayah and the burqa, she preferred the abbayah even if (and this was another surprise) the burqa is easier to wear because it leaves both hands free and also allows for the woman's eyes to be exposed so vision isn't as restricted as it is with traditional Saudi veils. Burqas can also be quite colorful, made from bright fabrics and decorated with embroidery while the traditional Saudi abbayah is black.  

The one thing with implications beyond insights into Osama bin Laden's personal life was the references  to Pakistan.  Over and over Omar bin Laden mentions Pakistan as being Osama's fallback, the place he can go if things get too hot in Afghanistan.  Pakistan is the country Osama's friends, allies, and supporters flew in and out of (they'd fly into Pakistan and then drive across the border to Afghanistan), it's the country Osama ducked into when he was feeling paranoid, and it's where many people believe Osama fled in the fall of 2001.  He obviously had safe houses and bases established there.  So why, then, are we still bombing the shit out of Afghanistan? 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My co-workers are idiots

And that's putting it kindly.  In the past year the workload has increased approximately 25% -- the journal went from averaging 40 articles per issue to averaging 50 -- without a commensurate increase in staff.  If anything, staff has gone in the other direction, from 6 fulltime copy editors to 5.5 (5 permanent fulltime regular employees and one half time contractor).  So how have my co-workers responded to this work load?

By doing the absolute, dumbest thing any worker who gets paid an hourly wage can do:  taking work home to complete it in the evening or on the weekends.  They are, in short, donating their own time.  Unbelievable. If you only have one thing to sell, you don't give it away.  A colleague mentioned at our most recent editors' meeting that she has been routinely spending her lieu day (she's on a 5/4 schedule) working from home.  Another logs in to the system in the evening to work on his own time.  When I asked how on earth management would ever realize we had a problem if they kept hiding it, I got blank looks.  They won't even ask for credit hours or comp time because, and I quote, "[the managing editor] doesn't like people asking for credit hours."

People are becoming increasingly stressed out and it shows.  A colleague has a cold she cannot shake and is becoming more and more accident prone, one has become so hypercritical when she does 2nd and 4th edits that she's driving the rest of us crazy, and another fellow who used to be notable for his jokes and truly horrible puns now looks distracted all the time and has begun snapping at people (and shouting obscenities at his computer; he's next door to me so I can hear the frustrated "what the fucks?!" pretty clearly) . . .

You know, I don't get it.  I can understand this type of behavior in work environments where people are terrified of losing their jobs, like out in the private sector, but we're federal employees!  Job insecurity is not one of our fears, especially if everyone on the editorial staff stuck together. (It's easy to berate one person for failure to meet deadlines, but when the entire staff is late?)  But, as usual, there are a couple people who are still naive enough to believe that someone will notice their self-sacrifice and reward them for it.  Given that they're already at the maximum promotion potential for their current job and have absolutely no desire to go elsewhere in the agency (a couple have had chances to do so), just what do they think that reward will be?

And how am I coping, you may ask?  By looking at the calendar, thinking about the retirement bunker in the U.P., and telling myself I'm now so short I can walk under doors.  I hope the arbutus are still blooming when I get to the farm in May. . .  

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Happy birthday, Nerf

Photo of my younger sister, Cheryl (aka Nerf), the middle sister in the family, taken not long before she turned 5.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The month of magical thinking

I went ambling through Target last night after work.  My mission was a simple one -- pick up a gallon of milk -- but being a good American consumer, I had to make a loop through the entire store, not just the dairy section, checking out the clearance shelves and bargain hunting in a rather unfocused way.  The store had Valentine's stuff on display, but that's such a minor holiday it doesn't take up much space.  Instead, the corner of the building where they go all out with "seasonal" merchandise appeared at first glance to have no unifying theme.  There were displays of storage containers, an aisle full of exercise equipment, another aisle with a zillion bottles of Tide and other cleaning supplies . . . and then it hit me.  The marketing geniuses at Target have figured out that January is the Month of Magical Thinking.

January is the month where we all make resolutions:  I'm going to lose weight, eat better, finally clean the house, get my stuff organized, make various lifestyle changes, walk the dog more often, finish writing the Great American Novel, change jobs, go back to school, . . .  and whatever the resolution might be, Target had it covered. 

Going to straighten up your messy house?  Buy some of these plastic storage tubs and organizers.  Want to tone up and exercise more?  Here are the videos, exercise mats, weights, water bottles, and whatever else you might need to do that.  Feeling the urge to spring clean a little early?  Take home some giant bottles of Tide and Lysol. 

I will confess I lingered in the pilates section of the fitness gadgets and goodies.  I was sorely tempted by the exercise balls.  Then I remembered my experiences with the yoga DVD (still in the box, plastic as virgin as the day I bought it), the yoga books, the cardio-glide (it made a great clothes rack), the exercise bike (also a great coat rack), and the dust covered Richard Simmons "Sweating to the Oldies" video tape.  For me it's never been a full month of magical thinking -- it's more like five minutes between making the resolution and forgetting it.  From the size of the store displays, though, Target is counting on most people still being optimistic enough to believe they'll stick with something long enough to get it out of the box.  I'm just not one of them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Trips down Nostalgia Lane

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" -- Plato, circa 348 B.C.

One of those ludicrous e-mails that's been kicking around forever landed in my In Box the other day.  The subject line was "How old is grandpa?" (or something similar), and it ran through a long list of things that supposedly did not exist when Gramps was a boy (television, fast food, ballpoint pens), bemoaned the way social mores have changed (when Gramps was a boy, grass was something that got mowed, premarital sex was nonexistent, and there were lemonade springs where the bluebird sings. . . ), and then concluded with "He's 59!"  I laughed.  A lot.  The little trip down Nostalgia Lane obviously hadn't been updated since someone first scrawled it with a goose quill pen quite a few years ago. 

Think about it.  Someone who is 59 now was born in 1950.  People who are 59 now were teenagers in the 1960s and in their 20s during the 1970s -- the era when every male's ambition was to have a Penthouse letters experience.  (For the uninitiated, Penthouse letters were noted for men describing "I never thought this could happen to me!" sexual exploits: sex with incredibly hot twins, sex on Greyhound buses, sex in elevators, sex with strangers, sex with the babysitter, sex with watermelons, sex with kitchen appliances . . . you get the idea.) 

Then, by coincidence, I read Last Child in the Woods.  It's a great book with an important thesis, but it's got the same vein running through it:  things were better in the good old days.  The author, Richard Louv, waxes nostalgic over growing up in a close-to-rural area, building tree forts, messing around in the woods, getting dirty, and generally being able to live a vaguely Tom Sawyer-ish childhood.  He has a serious point to make -- Americans are increasingly disconnected from the natural world; we see nature as something we go and visit, but fewer and fewer of us are actually doing that (visits to national parks have dropped, fishing is losing popularity as a hobby, even the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are moving away from camping and other outdoor activities).  Louv sees the lack of connection with nature as contributing to a whole host of problems:  childhood obesity, crime rates, poor academic performance, social anomie, . . . you name the problem, and we can make it better by providing more opportunities for kids to enjoy unstructured play and explore nature. 

I actually agree with many of the points Louv makes, but think his perception of the wonders of a childhood where kids could flip over rocks, dig for worms, or build tree forts in a vacant lot as they wandered about in a carefree bucolic landscape is more than a tad skewed by his own rose-colored memories of his particular lived experience. (I'm also distrustful of the single cure for everything that ails us even when it's a cure I like, but that's a subject for a different post.)  He's doing the same stroll down Nostalgia Lane that the folks who pass along the "things were better in the old days" e-mails or call in to C-SPAN saying they want "their country" back do -- imagining a past that never was as good as anyone of them think it was.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blizzard of 2010, part 2

This is it.  The Great Blizzard. 

I'm tempted to give myself a snow day anyway.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The great blizzard of 2010

Okay, so it hasn't actually happened yet, but you wouldn't know that from the reaction locally.  A few snowflakes were briefly visible this afternoon, and the next thing I knew there was an e-mail from our Division chief turning us all loose from work 59 minutes early.  Guess she wanted to give us a little more time to break through those nonexistent drifts as we mushed our way home.  It is snowing in north Georgia, like up around Blue Ridge, but that's a long way from Atlanta. 

I shouldn't scoff.  I know people who rarely have to deal with snow have a hard time coping with it when the real thing actually hits.  I was lucky enough to take driver's ed in northern Wisconsin in January -- we practiced recovering from skids on a skating rink.  Literally.  We drove the driver's ed car on to the rink, spun donuts, bounced off snowbanks, and had a blast.  We also did slalom runs with the car on back streets in Hurley that hadn't gotten salted or sanded in awhile.  That early experience didn't keep me from parking various vehicles in snowbanks over the years, but at least I don't panic when it happens. 

In any case, I'm going to keep my fingers crossed we actually get enough slush tonight for tomorrow to turn into an administrative leave day.  If the kids around here can get a snow day just based on the promise of snow, it's only fair to let us adults blow off work, too, if some white stuff actually hits the ground.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is this my future?

They keep talking about a reorganization for greater efficiency at work, but no one seems to know for sure yet just what that means.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Kiddy lit

I started off the 2010 reading list in a rather odd fashion -- a Harriet the Spy book.  Harriet the Spy is a character created by Louise Fitzhugh back in the 1960s.  The books target a 'tween demographic, junior high school girls, so I missed them.  I'm part of the Trixie Belden and Ginny Gordon generation.  By the time Harriet hit the bookshelves, my reading tastes had become a tad more adult, I'd discovered science fiction, given up on girl detectives, and was into more  interesting characters, e.g., Valentine Michael Smith

So why did I find myself becoming acquainted with Harriet the Spy at this late date?  Because I'd run out of stuff to read, and The Long Secret was about the only book in the Younger Daughter's house that (a) I hadn't read, and (b) she wouldn't object if I took it with me.  It had been mixed in with a box of books she'd bought at a yard sale, and she didn't care if she ever saw it again.  I don't know if she'd read any of the Harriet books back when she was in the target age group; I do know she's not a fan now.  She read it and pronounced it, to put it mildly, lame.  She couldn't figure out why anyone would be interested in reading about two rich kids spending the summer in Montauk, and for sure she didn't get why anyone would be interested in anything Harriet did. 

After reading the book, I tend to agree.  The book was a lot better than I expected -- more socially aware than any of the Trixie Beldens and Ginny Gordon adventures had ever been -- but nonetheless baffling in its appeal.  I know the Harriet the Spy books were quite popular for awhile in the '60s and '70s.  What I don't get is why.  Harriet's both annoying and clueless.  She spends an inordinate amount of time spying on other people, peeping in windows, asking unbelievably rude questions, and being generally obnoxious and (in a word) stupid.  She may be only 11, but she's already as self-centered and completely oblivious to anything that does not relate directly to herself as any adolescent.

Tammi's criticism about the lifestyles of the rich and idle was accurate, too.  Harriet's own family seems typically 1960s nuclear with no domestic help, but her friend Beth Ellen gets driven around by a chauffeur and lives in a household that includes both a maid and a cook.  And Harriet is a summer person in Montauk -- her family lives in New York City but owns waterfront property in a resort community.  I've never been to Montauk, but something tells me it's not the potato farming part of Long Island. 

On the plus side, The Long Secret does a nice job of emphasizing that it's possible for women to have careers, of questioning organized religion (as in you don't need to go to church to be a good person and that a person's individual beliefs are their own business and no one else's), and of supporting civil rights and social activism, and manages to do so without getting preachy or making the messages too obvious.  Harriet's friend Janie wants to be a scientist, gets super-excited when she finds an intact swan skeleton, and patiently explains menstruation to Harriet and Beth Ellen (Harriet's best friend during the summer, although they apparently never see each other during the school year) while expressing her exasperation over adults who get squeamish about explaining basic biological facts.  I don't recall Trixie Belden ever bemoaning the fact she'd gotten her period or talking about possible careers for women, so Harriet was a distinct step forward in 'tween fiction.  It's just a shame that Harriet herself is so unlikable.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Things learned while traveling

Roadside architecture isn't dead.  The structure above is the Mellow Mushroom located at one of the Anniston, Alabama, exits on I-20.  It looks even more like a mushroom when viewed at a distance from the interstate instead up close in the parking lot. 

I don't know if Mellow Mushroom has any other buildings like this one; all the Mellow Mushrooms I've seen here in Atlanta are in repurposed space, not new construction.