Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's official

The azaleas may be late in blooming this month, but the sound of the flip flop has been heard in the land.

And tomorrow morning the highwater pants (aka capris) move from the back of the closet to the front.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Speaking of clueless relatives

This morning the S.O. got another one of those e-mails bemoaning the evil, evil American Civil Liberties Union and its supposed attempts to remove crosses from military cemeteries.  It was the usual bizarre spiel, the one that proves that the person who wrote it originally has never, ever bothered to look at an actual U.S. military grave marker -- as I've said before, the traditional marker is a tablet.  It is not, no matter how much some folks might want to believe it, a cross.  I looked at the e-mail, and I didn't know whether the appropriate reaction was to laugh or cry.

Anyway, the first photo in the e-mail was this one illustrating the sort of hallowed ground that the ACLU wants to mess with by banning crosses:

It's not a particularly good image and tends to pixilate if you try to go much bigger, but, Christ on a crutch, it's a picture taken on a bloody beach!  If you look really close at those lights in the background you might recognize Santa Monica, California. 

It takes a special type of stupid to send out a photo of an anti-war protest installation set up within spitting distance of the Santa Monica pier and claim it's a military cemetery. 

The Arlington West site has a whole slew of much better photos, including this one by Debra Ruby:

But I guess the Bible-thumpers sending out the anti-ACLU spiels would be reluctant to use this one, because it acknowledges not everyone in the military is a Christian.

Jesus wept.

[The S.O. says there is some good news -- at least this time around the photo is actually from within the United States, even if the poster was so inept he/she pasted it as a mirror image of the original.  Usually that e-mail goes around with a scene from a military cemetery located in France or Belgium, where they do use crosses.] 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Taking a mental health break

I am immersing myself in P. G. Wodehouse for awhile.  Lots of Jeeves, maybe a visit or two to the Drones Club, and who knows what else.  There's a lot of Wodehouse on the bookshelves, and things are sufficiently depressing in the real world that escapism seems like a rational plan at the moment.  I may even start looking for Bertie Wooster dvds at the library and Netflix, both the Hugh Laurie and Ian Carmichael versions. 

Whatever I do, though, for sure I need to avoid books that are as grim as a couple I've read lately.  To call Greg Bear's Quantico dystopian would be like referring to Sarah Palin as merely intellectually challenged, a definite exercise in massive understatement.  It did not help that Quantico takes what feels like our contemporary political and cultural situation -- lots of unfocused paranoia, various fringe groups running around spouting conspiracy theories, government law enforcement agencies like the FBI and ATF (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) more interested in fighting turf wars and accusing each other of treason than they are in cooperating on anything -- and projects just a few years into the future when things are a whole lot worse.  Bear is a great writer, but for sure I'm hoping he's got all the predictive skills of a Jean Dixon.  Other than the Navy naming a frigate after Robert A. Heinlein, there isn't a thing in Quantico a thinking person would actually want to see happen. 

It did not help my mood at all, then, to turn on the television and see asshat Rick Sanchez waxing skeptical over Bart Stupak (former Michigan State Patrol officer [13 years] and an attorney) (the man may be a deluded fanatic on the subject of abortion, but he does know crime when he sees it) characterizing the various threats and vandalism directed towards members of Congress, including himself, as "domestic terrorism."  And I quote Sanchez, "What do you think, Wolf? Is Stupak right? Is it terrorism?"  What part of tossing bricks through windows, issuing threats of bodily harm, or vandalizing property does Sanchez think does not qualify as a terroristic act?  And why on earth is he lobbing rhetorical questions at Wolf Blitzer?  Asking Blitzer what he thinks about anything is a waste of everyone's time.

And then there are the brain dead relatives and acquaintances on Facebook.  The S.O. got so fed up with some of the crap one of his cousins was posting that he unfriended her.  She kept saying she wasn't political, but then would do post after post on Obama-the-evil-socialist and get-government-off-our-backs.  This is a woman who's spent most of her adult life as a Navy wife -- she doesn't want the government involved in healthcare when she's had the benefit of CHAMPUS (aka TriCare) for many, many years.  How does someone end up so mentally challenged that she'll insist on "no government health care!" when that's exactly what she's got and what she's had since the 1970s?  Definitely a classic case of "I've got mine; screw everyone else." 

So for a few days I'm going to just retreat quietly to the bedroom with my Peeps, Jarritos mandarina sodas, and Wodehouse.  Junk food and mind candy.  It's looking good.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

We're safe

Health care reform will not be repealed.  How do I know this, given that the airwaves are full of bloviating Republicans and teabaggers vowing to roll it back ASAP to ensure that cripples, kids, and the chronically ill can still be jacked around by the insurance companies?  Bill Kristol has weighed in on the subject. 

Kristol is, in fact, predicting a fast repeal.  Kristol, the pundit who has never been right on anything (other than his political orientation) in his entire career. 

I have a lot of reservations about the reform as passed.  It is, among other things, a massive gift to the insurance industry, although from the gnashing of teething and tearing at hair on the right you'd never know that.  On the other hand, it is, as even Dennis Kucinich has admitted, a start. 

As for efforts to repeal it?  Lots of luck with that one, teabaggers, when the items that kick in first are the ones that are most popular with the public, like being able to keep your college student kids as dependents on your insurance plan until they're 26 or being able to get health insurance in the first place for your asthmatic child.  It's going to be rather tricky campaigning in November on a promise to do bad stuff to sick kids -- although I'm sure a fair number of Republicans will try.

Friday, March 19, 2010


So where did we go, you ask?  First, one of the most livable cities I've ever seen -- Portland, Oregon -- and then a few places within a few hours drive of that city, like the Columbia River gorge and some of the Pacific coast.  Portland is an amazing place.  There's seemingly a brew pub on every other corner, even the sleazy parts of town are clean, and the mass transit system works.    

We went to Portland because I'd had a paper accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, so some of my time was eaten up by sitting in meeting rooms listen to historians drone on about stuff that was almost as boring as my own research -- it's been awhile since I'd been around academicians and I'd forgotten just what a stuffy bunch of pretentious twits they can be. Fortunately, since I'm no longer much interested in "networking" (a euphemism for desperately sucking up to tenured faculty in hopes that somehow it will help starving grad students find work) I was free to avoid the meeting's truly hideous aspects (like the over-priced banquet) and just enjoy being in Portland with the S.O.     
It helped a lot that we'd chosen to avoid the conference hotel (the downtown Hilton) and opted instead for an Econolodge perched on the edge of the Portland State University campus.  The place was small, but  clean, quiet, and well-managed.  The managers really knew the city, too.  They were able to provide clear directions to every place we asked about, and also gave good advice on where to eat.  And, despite the fact the breakfast bar area was not much bigger than a postage stamp, they even managed to set out a decent continental breakfast.  I'm always moderately cautious about Econolodges (they're at the low end of the Choice Hotels empire), but this one was a place I'd go back to any time with no hesitation. 

We engaged in some typical tourist behavior in the Portland area -- browsing at the Saturday market under the Burnside Bridge, eating street food, visting the Japanese Gardens, driving along the historic highway through the Columbia River gorge with frequent stops to walk our feet off admiring waterfalls (including, of course, the best known, Multnomah, shown above) -- and then headed for the coast. 

Pulitzer Project: Years of Grace

I had the oddest feeling as I started reading Years of Grace, the novel that won the Pulitzer for a novel in 1931, that I'd accidentally picked up a book by Louisa May Alcott.  The first chapter or two were highly reminiscent of Alcott's Under the Lilacs with a few hints of Little Women tossed in for good measure. The feeling passed, but it's obvious (and probably not surprising) the author was influenced by Alcott's work.  Until recently, it was a rare American girl who was not familiar with the March sisters (the Moss siblings are a little less well-known).

Years of Grace was the first novel written by author Margaret Ayer Barnes, and is one that appears to some extent to be highly autobiographical.  Like Barnes, the heroine, Jane, was born in Chicago in the 1880s and attended an eastern ivy league women's college.  Where their lives diverge is that Barnes completed her college education and had a professional career, whereas Jane leaves college after her sophomore year and ends up married to a banker from Boston and living in the Chicago suburbs.    

The novel follows Jane's life from her early teens, the point at which her older sister is about to make her debut into society, through middle age and into grandmotherhood.  Jane is a good girl, so, with the notable exception of pushing hard to be allowed to go east to college rather than being sent off to a finishing school like several of her friends, she generally does what she's told as well as conforming with conventional societal norms.  She might be tempted to run off with a childhood sweetheart or to have a mid-life fling with a friend's husband, but she's not likely to follow through on either impulse.  She spends every summer quietly resenting being stuck at the beach house with her aging proper Bostonian in-laws, but it never occurs to her to complain at all to her husband about being bored and/or miserable. 

I had a mixed reaction to this book.  It is gracefully written, and I loved the descriptions of Chicago changing over time.  The street where Jane grew up goes from being quietly residential with large, gracious houses on big lots to a busy commercial thoroughfare, for example, just as she goes from riding in horse-drawn carriages to driving her own car.  The contrast between Jane's conventional life in the early years of the 20th century and those of her college friends who stay in school is intriguing:  one friend becomes a successful playwright and another goes on to earn a doctorate and eventually serve as a college president.  There's a lot of discussion of changing social mores:  Jane's daughter gets a divorce, and makes it clear to her mother that the times have changed, the idea of a divorce turning a person into a Scarlet Woman is passe, and there's no longer any reason to stay in a boring or loveless marriage.  Years of Grace actually makes a fairly strong case for women being strong and independent rather than assuming marriage and a mythical happy ever after should be their goal.

On the other hand, I do prefer the central characters of the books I read to actually serve as the center of the action, not merely as a powerless observer of what's going on around him or her.  And Jane is very much an observer.  Things happen to her and around her, but she doesn't initiate much (if anything) herself.  She goes with the flow, and, even if it is an interesting flow, it's still a little too passive for my taste. 

Overall, this was one of the better books I've read so far from the Pulitzer winners list.  It does feel a little dated, but it is well-written and readable, which is more than I could say about one or two others that are better remembered and still referred to as classics.  I'm guessing that one reason it won in 1931 is that it reflected the public mood of the time wanting stability and a sense of survivorship:  troubling things happen to Jane and her family -- kids rebel, marriages fall apart, people die -- but in the end it all works out.  Barnes finished the novel before the full impact of the October 1929 stock market crash and the economic depression that followed would have been apparent, so it was probably coincidence that she managed to hit just the right combination of nostalgia and hopefulness to guarantee her first major work of fiction became a best seller.

One minor oddity about this book within the context of the Pulitzer Prize list is its almost complete lack of exotic others.  The prize winning novels in 1929 and 1930 were about locations and persons essentially foreign to the average U.S. reader (the Gullah residents of a South Carolina plantation and Navajos in Arizona, respectively), and in 1932 the prize would go to The Good Earth, which is about Chinese peasants.  In 1931, however, middle class white Americans leading comparatively stable, ordinary lives untouched by melodrama were apparently the protagonists that resonated best with the prize committee and reading public. 

Would I recommend Years of Grace to other readers?  Yes.  If I had to compare Barnes to a modern author, I'd say that if a reader likes works by authors such as Jodi Picoult, he or she would find Barnes to be a decent read.  Compared to Picoult, Barnes is a more innocent writer (she hints at things Picoult would have no qualms about describing directly), but she's equally readable.

Barnes, incidentally, is one of those writers who has fallen so far off the radar that a Google images search yielded only one very small (thumbnail size) photo of a cover for Years of Grace and one poor quality photo of the author herself -- and that was on the Find a Grave website.  She published several other novels as well as short stories in the 1930s, and then apparently stopped writing fiction.  She died in 1967, her remains were cremated, and her ashes were scattered on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Back from vacation

Will eventually get around to doing a post with all the boring details.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bring on the tinfoil hats

Sunday morning. C-SPAN.  Lunatics crawling through the phone lines.  Good times. 

And it's equal opportunity tinfoil this morning -- people calling in on the Republican line to foam about impending socialism, Democrats calling in to rant about the lack of a public option and Obama selling out to corporate interests, and various oddballs calling in on both lines to spin their 9/11 conspiracy theories.  Occasionally Teh Stupid manages to achieve new depths.  One of the highlights this morning was someone calling in to point out that "the government has never made a profit at anything."  Well, duh.  Government is by definition a nonprofit.  It's not supposed to make money.  That's why it's the government. 

There was also a call or two from folks teetering on the edge of senile dementia with their fears about socialized medicine ruining their Medicare or VA benefits, proving that some veins of stupid never stop flowing. 

The most bizarre part is seeing Rick Scott sitting there pontificating about reforming health care.  This guy is the sleazeball who was CEO of a company that got nailed bigtime for Medicare fraud a few years ago.  He's talking up the private sector, of course, and criticizing the proposed healthcare reforms.  It's so weird -- the man should be sitting in a prison cell somewhere, not sitting there in a suit being treated as a respected expert.  Fortunately, several callers have actually pointed that out.

I wonder occasionally just how thoroughly discredited a person has to be before he or she can no longer market him or herself as an expert on anything.  When someone gets called out on lie after lie, and also ends up being wrong over and over again, why does anyone bother listening to anything that person has to say?  And wouldn't it be nice if these various talking heads who serve as fronts for astroturf organizations had to wear coveralls with company logos on them like Nascar drivers so we'd all know immediately just where their vested interests lay?