Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas Blessings

It wasn't the best Christmas week on record. It included 1400 miles of driving, most of it in weather ranging from bad to "oh my god we're all going to die." Most of the clan (myself included) had trouble finding inspiration for gifts this year,* leaving those who really worked at it feeling somewhat taken advantage of. And the schedule was tight enough that there was only one day in seven that didn't include planned activities, and I was tagged to cook most of that day.

There was also the Christmas Eve Wine-and-Philosophy Slam, which led directly to The Hangover That Ruined Christmas. This was not my hangover, which was impressive in its own right. This particular prize goes to one of my relatives, who was already Christmas cheerful on the 24th when we arrived after an eight hour drive through Noah's flood. After getting me a glass of wine to calm my nerves, he continued to open giant bottles long after anyone with an iota of sense had gone to bed. My brother and I, not wanting to be rude, kept him company. I was the only one in the group that was up both before and after noon.

We spent the day after Christmas at an impromptu family reunion, which was both welcomed and ill-timed. I saw relatives I had not seen in years, and some I had yet to meet. I'm sure it will be the last time I see some of them in person. But it was clear that virtually everyone in the room was exhausted, and we struggled to do much more than smile at each other.

The second half of the week was spent at a combined Christmas and 50th wedding anniversary celebration with the in-law clan. The Wife found a great big house on a lake to rent in hopes that we could all spread out enough that we might not try to kill each other. Her plan was largely successful.

Throughout the week there were the inevitable slights, snubs, snide comments and bruised feelings that are part and parcel of family gatherings. Someone said a couple of weeks ago that our families are hard-wired to get on our nerves,** and this year was more evidence in support of this theory. Each holiday together features incidents or comments that are so bizarre or surreal that I wonder if they really happened at all, and immediately begin convincing myself that I must have misremembered or misinterpreted. These people are so like me in so many ways that normal social conventions and defenses don't work. But they are so different and "other" that sometimes it feels like they (or I) might be from another planet.

We drove home yesterday through light snow and then heavy rain, and The Wife is already showing signs of coming down with something. I won't even talk about the thing with the cat-sitter.*** It is easy at such times to swear never again and try to put the whole thing behind us. But someone way smarter than I am said once that life is too short to live in a way that makes us wish it were shorter, so I try to find some value and enjoyment in every experience.

My late father's best friend, and practically a second father to me, never saw this Christmas, and his wife and children spent the holiday mourning the loss of their patriarch. Another dear and lifelong friend spent most of the week in the hospital after her husband's surprise emergency surgery. They face tremendous challenges this coming year. We took group pictures at the family reunion, and the first shot was of my parents' generation. When my mother looked at the picture she said, "Surely there are more of us left than that."

The end of the year is a time for looking forward, but for me it is also a time to savor the fullness -- and yes, the bitterness -- of life. Every holiday season is an opportunity that will not be repeated, and I will try not to waste a single one. Time I spend with my relatives helps me understand them -- and myself -- better, and somehow makes me feel less alone. I learned things. I played in snow. I beat my brother-in-law at pool. I got an electric wine opener. It's all good.

Happy New Year, everyone. Say goodbye to the twenty-oh's. I predict this next year is going to be interesting.

* Think brightly colored carabiners and LED flashlights.
** I think it was Dr. Drew on GMA. I am very discriminating about where I obtain my medical information.
*** The cats are fine.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After the Crash

So, we watched A Crude Awakening last night. I probably should have learned my lesson from reading the food book, but I'm trying to anticipate the right moment to convert my 401K to canned goods and ammunition. The film gives a pretty early impression of being a Chicken Little hatchet job by people who hate America,* and that impression never completely one hundred percent goes away. But there's math, and graphs, and this dude that sort of reminds me of Ross Perot, with a cartoon voice and a bunch of graphs, who apparently predicted that America would stop being the world's top oil producer in about 1970.

People thought he was a nut job. Actually, he kind of seemed like a nut job. But he was right. And intercut between some hilarious old films about how great oil is for civilization, a bunch of old guys with chicken necks and pretty good credentials lay out some pretty disturbing facts. The two most disturbing facts are that oil production is very unlikely to ever increase significantly ever again, and that demand will grow by almost an order of magnitude over the next 20 years. Oh, the third disturbing thing is that the old film strips are right -- practically everything in our modern civilization is built on the assumption that oil is plentiful and cheap.

So, great. I'm not convinced that it's time to cash out, but I may start building some shelves for the canned goods.

Happy New Year!
* This group includes liberals, environmentalists, vegetarians, anyone who wears sandals, democrats, socialists, gays, muslims, people from New England and the poor.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's beginning to look smell a lot like Christmas

I walked into a major department store the other day and immediately noticed that the melange of perfumes typical of such establishments had blended with the holiday scents of candles and other items to produce the aroma of ... well ... vomit. It was more than a little disgusting, though faint, and the smell faded as I walked through the store. I had just begun to convince myself that I had imagined it, or that some poor unfortunate customer or employee had been having a worse day than me, when I walked into another store and was greeted by exactly the same scent. Actually it was worse, possibly because I was entering next to the cosmetics area.

You would think that someone would have noticed this unfortunate combination of scents, but maybe it's one of those things to which people quickly grow accustomed, in the same way that you can't smell the bar on your clothes until the next morning. And even if they notice, I'm not sure what can be done. I choose to think of it as a preview of New Year's Eve.

Oh, well. 'Tis the season, I suppose. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Free Spirit!

I've been fascinated by the Mars rovers ever since the Number Five-looking things made it through Martian Civil Defense and landed on the red planet. I know the word "hero" gets tossed around a lot these days, but if these little robots aren't heroes then neither is the person who calls 911 when they see someone in danger.

The nerds at JPL couldn't be any happier than I am that the rovers have lasted this long, or more worried about little Spirit getting stuck. So I've been following the effort to free the little guy for the last couple of months, keeping up with the rovers on Twitter, and generally irritating the crap out of my wife by telling her how much the right front wheel rotated on the last test, or making her look at pictures of what look like random areas of New Mexico or Utah.

So, does she ignore me, or tell me to grow up or get aggravated because I spend so much of my attention focused literally millions of miles away? Well, maybe a little. Can you blame her? But mostly she listens patiently, and looks at the stupid pictures, and then buys me this for Christmas.

So boys and girls, my Christmas wish for you is that you have (or find) someone who will give you things that make you happy, even when they know that they will have to look at (if not step on) the little pieces all over the house for months afterward. That's a real hero. Did I mention that she bought me a telescope as an engagement present to reciprocate for her ring? To be fair, I think my ex-wife gave me potholders or something the last Christmas we were together, and I gave her an emerald ring. I guess things average out.

Merry Christmas to me! Oh, and to the rest of you too, I guess.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Road Stories 3: Band of Brothers (and a Few Sisters)

If you have ever been part of a (good) team under stress, you have experienced some of the bonding (designated by Corporate weinies everywhere as "team-building") that can happen as a consequence of the experience. The ultimate case of this seems to be soldiers in combat, who will literally give up their lives for their buddies. The roadie experience was nowhere near as dangerous or intense as combat, but it beat the hell out of playing in a golf scramble or climbing a wall for building trust and mutual respect.

If you want to teach people to get along at work, jam between eight and fourteen of them into a van or bus, deprive them of sleep and basic comforts, and put them to work supervising a different set of strangers* every day from the crack of dawn to the wee hours. Keep it up for a couple of months, and then repeat the exercise with a different -- but probably overlapping -- group. And make sure it's an endeavor that cannot fail on any single day without potentially catastrophic financial impact and possible loss of life.**

The CliffsNotes version of this experience is to stick two people in a crew van and make them drive it across the country. This was often done when tours started on one coast or the other, and allowed management to avoid paying a whole crew to sit and do nothing but ride for two days or so. The speed limit was 55 mph in those days, and for several reasons which we will not discuss at this point we chose not to speed. Also, that was about as fast as the vans would go.

Enter Kenny. He and I were assigned to drive a crew van from Dallas to San Francisco. It is hard to imagine someone more different from me, who is still enough like me that we would expect to be able to relate. After all, we were two white American kids who loved rock and roll. How different could we be?

I was born and raised in Arkansas. Kenny was from New York City (I forget which borough). Before going on the road, his understanding of American geography was New York, then Pennsylvania, Ohio, some other stuff and then California. I thought the most relaxing thing in the world was taking off to the woods alone with a backpack. Kenny thought Central Park was a waste of space, and he was afraid of squirrels. He saw them as rats with furry tails.

My favorite music was Joe Cocker, James Taylor, Little Feat and Clapton. Kenny listened to the Kinks, Ramones and some Sabbath when he felt "poppy." His Facebook profile picture right now is a shot of him with Glenn Beck. My politics are somewhat unconventional, but suffice it to say I have no use for Glenn Beck, except possibly as some sort of filler material. In short, I thought Kenny was an asshole of epic proportions, and he thought less of me. So the prospect of being locked in a van with him for the better part of two days did not exactly set me all atwitter.

We left Dallas a little after lunch, so that we would be sure to hit El Paso when the Tony Lama factory outlet store was open. (I think Kenny bought a pair of ostrich boots. I didn't find anything I liked.) The first half day or so passed fairly quietly, with one of us driving and the other trying to sleep. As the desert unwound before us and the music choices got more aggressive, we started to talk. I couldn't really tell you what the conversation was about, just that it progressed like most arguments. Sniping gives way to bitching, bitching turns to accusation, the exchange grows more heated, and somewhere in there, if you're lucky and there is no way to escape, someone starts listening and some sort of understanding is reached.

By the time we were pulled over by Immigration south of Los Angeles, we were friends. I mean, it's not like I'm going to gay marry Kenny. In fact, I haven't really talked to him in many years. But I did learn to respect him as a full blown actual person with as much right to listen to crappy music and have stupid opinions as I have. I am confident that if we ever worked together again we would be respectful and effective, driving results, doing more with less, making it happen, etc.

I learned important lessons and acquired an impressive set of enduring skills during my three years on the road. For example, I can coil an extension cord better than you. Seriously, I can. Deal with it. But none have been more useful to me in my personal and professional life than learning how to understand and respect the people with whom I work, while encouraging them to do their best. After you've slept fourteen in a bus, sharing an office is really not that hard.

* The traveling crew usually formed about one-fourth or less of the labor required to set up a show. The rest were local stagehands, employed for the day, who had probably never seen this equipment before. They ranged from college freshman who were way too excited to be there to crusty and belligerent old union hands who were looking for maximum pay for minimum work. Most were hard-working, semi-professional*** people who did their very best to help and follow our instructions.

** While it wasn't combat or crab-fishing dangerous, people died doing this, either from falling or being crushed, or more indirect causes. We also took the risks to the audience very seriously, both from technical failures and the deaths that occurred more than once from poor crowd control.

** Not that they were at all unprofessional. It's just that this is not a full time job for most of the people who do it. They are usually cops or carpenters or wannabe somethings who work for extra cash.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Passing Away

There has been a fair amount of upheaval in my adult life, but my childhood was bedrock stable. I lived in the same house, went to the same church and lived next door to the same neighbors from the time I was born. And my parents kept one circle of friends the whole time.

The closest people in that social circle were E.B. and his family. He was my father's best friend. His wife was -- and is still -- a member of my mother's tight, inner circle of ladies who speak most every day, travel and shop together, and support each other in endeavors large and small. They had kids around my age. We went to the same church. Our families took several vacations together, and we spent countless weekends camping together, or at their cabin on the lake, or hanging by the pool. I was well past grown before I realized that it is not typical for two families of unrelated people to be this close.

E.B. was more like an uncle than a family friend. He and my father had an ever-escalating competition over who would pick up the check at dinner. He taught me how to pitch a tent, build a campfire, and how to tell a good ghost story.* With almost infinite patience, he taught me to waterski, refusing to surrender to my almost total lack of balance and grace. He pulled me around Lake Hamilton countless times, two skis or one, boogie board or barefoot, always bringing me in at just the right angle and speed to glide in to knee-deep water and step to the shore. He grilled a million hamburgers, and as many hot dogs for countless kids.

In recent years, his wife had not been well, and he spent increasing amounts of time and attention caring for her. He started a business with his son, and I think it took more of his time than he probably anticipated. He was working harder than an eighty-something year old man should, but he never complained. In fact, E.B. was the anti-complainer. It seemed the more lemons life tried to give him, the more cheerful he was determined to be. At a certain age we start to recognize this artifice in this approach, but it was as natural to him as breathing, and it worked for him. As Kurt Vonnegut said, we become who we pretend to be, and E.B. was quite simply the nicest and most beneficent man I have ever known. He was notoriously generous with his money, his time and his love.

Yesterday E.B. suffered a major stroke, and he is right now lying in the hospital on life support, waiting for the last of his children to arrive and say goodbye. Not surprisingly, he never let anyone know if he was feeling unwell, and this all happened without warning.

There is no way to describe how I feel right now. Hell, I don't even know how I feel right now. All I know is that the world is a poorer place tonight. My wife said, "I only met him a couple of times, and I love him." I am trying not to think of how hard this is, and is going to be, for his widow, and his children, and my mother and all of the other people who maybe never really knew how much he enriched their lives.

So long, old friend. I miss you already.
* His signature story was, "I want my tail." I heard him tell about a dozen versions of the stupid thing, probably fifty times or more, and he still managed to scare the piss out of me every single time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Michael Moore Part 2

I have gotten mixed feedback for calling Michael Moore a douchebag earlier, both in this blog and in conversations with friends and colleagues. I have to confess that this was a bit of a social experiment. My point was supposed to be that propaganda and the people who create it are the enemies of the type of critical thinking and reasonable discourse on which democracies thrive, and frankly I thought I might get a more reasonable response if I started by picking on Michael Moore than if I titled the post something like, "Fox News is Satan".

I was mostly right about the feedback. While I have gotten some agreement from those who tend to disagree with Moore's positions, most people have responded with gentle reminders that the situation may not be quite as simple as perhaps I painted it.

Michael Moore represents to me the worst of what can happen when someone lets their agenda overtake their integrity. But he also brings several things to the table that many of his detractors lack. First, he is an indisputably talented filmmaker. Roger and Me was brilliant, especially for a first time writer/director with very little training. It also exhibited Moore's tendency to push the envelope of documentary film-making convention to maximize emotional effect. His films routinely break viewing records -- set by his earlier films -- for documentaries. My own film credentials include a seven minute vampire movie I made in high school, so I feel entirely qualified to criticize this guy.

Michael Moore also tells stories that need to be told. In what has become essentially a one-party political system*, he dares to question the ultimate supremacy of economic growth as the single driver of our society. (That's a topic for another post.) And what Michael Moore does for a living requires a lot more talent, vision and planning than sitting around calling people names, which seems to be all that the most popular opposition figures seem to have the talent to do.

In the end, I guess it is more fair and balanced for both sides to be telling lies and half-truths, and for us to try to listen to all of them, than to continue to fight fear-mongering with reasoning. But I still don't think it's good for us, and it really aggravates me. I definitely have to stop watching the news.
* The Capitalist party. The two sides are more or less aligned with those who lend money (capitalists) and those who borrow it from them (industry and consumers).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blow me down -- I may owe Martha Connor an apology

I love to read. I don't read a lot compared to some of my more literary friends, or my wife, but I get the sense that it's a lot for general purpose 21st century America. Between all the Harry Potter and crazy food books and whatever else I stumble across, I try to read a classic every year or two. It helps me feel cultured and refined while I'm scratching my bits and grazing on old M&M's I find in the couch cushions.

The last one I read was The Count of Monte Cristo, which was really cheating, because even though it's like a thousand pages, with about as many characters, it's been one of my favorite books since I saw the Mr. Magoo version on television as a kid. It has perhaps the most skillfully constructed plot of anything I have ever read, making even A Prayer for Owen Meany seem simple by comparison. Plus, if you've ever felt like you wanted revenge on pretty much everyone you know, The Count of Monte Cristo is the book for you. Also, excellent sandwich.

This time I decided to take on the leviathan. That's right, I'm reading Moby Dick. It's not my first attempt at the Great White Novel. I tried it back in high school, but I crashed early against the waves of irrelevant exposition and pointless descriptions of items of furniture, road signs and the buttons on the clothes of transient characters. I don't think I made fifty pages, and like the story's protagonist, it's a result I cannot abide. Many of the classic books simply lost my interest, or weren't my style, but I have always felt defeated by Moby Dick. So I strapped on my peg leg and took another shot.

It has not exactly been smooth sailing. I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the pages and pages of random cetacean-related quotations that open the book, but I persevered*, and before I knew it I was paddling along through a quirky -- if somewhat dull -- story of budding man-love between a grumpy sailor and his heavily inked heathen boy toy. It wasn't exactly a thrilling read, but a bit like canoeing a sluggish river. You wish there were a following current to lessen the effort required, but at least the water is deep enough, and it's more or less downstream.

Then I got to Chapter 9, "The Sermon." This chapter was not only seven pages of some of the best prose I have read**, but if I had ever heard a sermon like this one in person, I might still go to church. Melville manages to gracefully blend the fire and brimstone of old time religion with Age of Reason thinking to make the most compelling case for religion that I can recall hearing. And while a little heavily allegorical in both setting and tone, it's a compelling read. A gem like "The Sermon" will make the effort required to get through rest of the book worth it for me. The chapter seems somewhat fitted into the story, in that it doesn't really advance the plot to any significant degree, and none of our continuing characters speak a word. I suspect it was something Melville knew was too good not to work in somewhere.

So I think I may owe my twelfth grade English teacher an apology, even though she was kind of a bitch to me most of the time. I think she thought she was pushing me to excellence, but she was really just pissing me off. Oops, this is probably not how the best apologies start, but she's not going to read this anyway. Okay, here goes. Miss Connor, I'm sorry you were a bitch I told you that Moby Dick was the most tedious piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to attempt to read. That honor now reverts to Silas Marner.

I'm not apologizing to Melville. At least not yet. First off, he's dead. Second, the jury is still out on this book. So far we have ten percent brilliant writing balanced against ninety percent fishy-smelling tedium. Sort of like three weeks at a bed and breakfast in an old seaside village, watching someone inventory the whole town's possessions with their new video camera.

So now I'm back to the long search for the next sign of life. Melville just spent almost a page telling us that we can really only feel warm when a part of us is cold, while Ishmael shares pillow talk and wrestles with his new boyfriend***. Hopefully I will be able to endure. Who knows? If I get through Moby Dick, maybe I will take another shot at A Tale of Two Cities.
* I skimmed.
** At least old school eighteenth century type prose. I don't know that I would read Melville's blog if he had one.
*** Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Now I really can't go home again

I got an e-mail from my mother a few weeks ago informing me that my childhood home had been demolished. This wasn't completely unexpected, but still came as somewhat of a surprise. My parents sold the house in the mid-1980's to an attorney who had plans for it that apparently fell through, and it has sat empty most of the time since, slowly decaying. It had become both an eyesore and a hazard, and reminded me a bit of Miss Haversham's place in Great Expectations. While I was considering writing this post I realized that I don't have a single picture of the house or property. I'm sure I lost a few just being a young man who moved a lot, and the rest left with my ex-wife.

Unlike most Americans of my generation, I lived in the same house from the time I was born until I left home. And it was no ordinary tract home in a subdivision, though it was certainly not a McMansion, or any other sort of mansion. The house was a modern* split-level on a wooded two and a half acre lot that was essentially given to my parents by the man for whom the street is named. He owned a very large tract of land and "just wanted good neighbors." We had only two other houses within a half mile of us. It was practically wilderness when I was a child, surrounded on three sides by woods, with a small creek running across the property. By the time I graduated from high school, the street was four lanes, there were subdivisions on all sides and I could see McDonald's from the driveway.

The house was very unassuming from the front, but from the back it was two thousand square feet of glass overlooking a large brick patio and a small hillside. My father designed and built the house in three stages, using a combination of subcontractors and child labor. By the time he was finished we had five bedrooms, three baths, two fireplaces, a living room and dining room, den and game room with a pool table, poker table, seating area and a wet bar. He had also put in a large swimming pool with an outdoor kitchen, gazebo and dressing rooms. A friend told me one time that it was the sort of place that should have a name.

Our house was not only the center of our lives, but a frequent stop for a number of overlapping social circles. Between casual gatherings, band rehearsals, poker parties, pool parties, church socials and a ridiculously large all day Independence Day party every year, our house was known by people I didn't even know I knew. To this day, when I meet people from my hometown -- many of whom I may be meeting for the first time -- they are much more likely to ask about that house than about members of my family. In fact, just last week a friend I haven't really seen since high school mentioned the house in the first e-mail message we exchanged after being out of touch for almost twenty years.

It broke my mother's heart to sell the place and move, and I know she suffered watching it erode and finally fall. She raised all of her children there, and poured her own hopes and aspirations and pride into making it a showplace. For my father, I think the loss was balanced by the opportunity to build a better house and avoid some of the mistakes he made with the first. I feel it more than I thought I would, but it's a tragedy of much less than human proportions. After all, it's been twenty-five years since I've seen the inside of the house, and the memories are still with me, even if the building is no longer there.

There is a sort of diffuse, low grade sadness in knowing the place is really gone, sort of like hearing that an old classmate or neighbor has passed away, even if they were never that close and you haven't spoken since childhood. I guess it's just another reminder that time and entropy make fools of us all. Still, when I'm home for the holidays I think I'm going to have to drive by and see the hole. Maybe I will find that G.I. Joe I lost behind the wall.
* Modern in the 1950's architectural sense, with a flat roof, clean lines, natural materials and lots of glass. My father was a huge fan of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fun with graphs

I dare you to look at this graph and not have this song in your head for the rest of the day.

Okay, sorry. I know rickrolling is like, so last year*, but a student showed me this and it took me like a week to kill the worm. And we all know the rule: Chris does not suffer alone. Plus, it's a pie chart. And I love pie.

* I also realize that "so last year" is like, so five years ago. And the "like" thing started in the 1980's, when the Internet had about 5 users. I'm old, I can't help it. You're lucky I didn't say it was groovy.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

At home with Dorkfinger

So, I was browsing xkcd, the comic strip for people who think Dilbert is too artistic or not geeky enough, when I ran across this strip:

First sad thing: I think this is hysterically funny. Physics and James Bond are natural bedfellows, like firearms and alcohol.

Even more telling was what happened when I showed The Wife this strip. A discussion ensued on the exact nature of the centripetal/centrifugal debate, since we were born just the right number of years apart that we were told different versions of this story in school. This kicked off two hours of extensive Web searching, discussion and debate on rotational forces, velocity vectors and the best examples for explaining the concepts involved. If I hadn't been so late for work I'm sure we would have ended up at the whiteboard with something tied to a string on the end of my fish scale.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Little Red Riding Hood

I've been thinking about Little Red Riding Hood this morning*, contemplating its ridiculous plot as well as the obvious (to an adult) sexual overtones, and pondering what sort of life lesson a young person is supposed to take away from this story. I've always assumed it was something along the lines of, "the woods are dangerous and you girls should guard your goody baskets closely," but then I realized that all the action happens at Grandma's house.

Halloween party circa 1999. The "best costume" award was ours when we walked in the door.

Since I can't really abide a fairy tale without a clear point, I'm making a list of potential "morals of the story." This is what I have so far:
  • Girls who wear red are whores.
  • Even good girls will succumb to a wolf with big enough "teeth."
  • A man who wants to eat a girl he just met is probably Big and Bad.
  • If you get in trouble, you had better hope that a big lumberjack type happens along that can get you out of it.
  • Men who wear flannel and carry axes are good guys, but they are not getting with the Hood.
  • Grandmas get way more action than most people realize.
  • When you sleep with someone, you are sleeping with everyone that person has ever slept with, probably including your grandmother.
  • Your grandma might be a furry.
This is one screwed up story. I can't believe they tell this crap to children. So, any thoughts on which of these is the real moral? Any I've missed?

Happy Thanksgiving.
* This is why I never talk to people before I've had coffee.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Did you ever notice* how some periods of your life are happy and sweet and would make a nice montage, while other times it seems like entropy is having its place fumigated and has come to stay at your house for a while? I've been having one of those second kind of times lately. Thankfully, the major components of my life -- marriage, career, health -- have so far been largely immune to this phenomenon, though there was some craziness with the ex a couple of months back. It's just been little annoying things, one after another.

I think it started with computers. A few months ago my Sony laptop started performing so poorly that I was sure it was infected with something. It wasn't until this week that I realized it is only recognizing half of its memory and there is no way to fix it. It turns out I am part of a class action suit against Sony over the design of this particular motherboard. But of course I won't get anything from the settlement. This would not have been quite so upsetting if my Toshiba laptop had not suddenly decided it was only going to boot every third time or so that I turn it on. The Wife went through a similar process with her Toshiba, and it doesn't end well. My Dell desktop is "venerable" by computer standards, so this pretty much left me without a useful home computer**.

Then there are the tools. I burned up a table saw pretty early in the shed replacement project. It was a donation from a friend moving to California, and he had used to it put concrete siding on his house, so I wasn't really that surprised. But it was something else to be dealt with. Then last week the motor on the planer/jointer quit working suddenly. We don't even use the thing that much, so I am really not happy about that one.

The kicker came this past Monday when I backed my car into the wife's truck as I was leaving for work. No major damage to either vehicle, but enough to require some repairs to both. It was really not my best day.

This has all happened against the backdrop of broken light fixtures, mailbox posts, vacuum cleaners and blenders that are a natural consequence of a modern American life. Maybe the possessions are trying to get back at me for talking bad about material things. If so, I take it all back.

* Did you ever notice how old men all eventually start talking like Andy Rooney? I'm looking forward to rocking eyebrows larger than my head.
** So I have three computers at home. Plus two at work. Sue me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wocka Wocka

It has been called to my attention on several occasions recently that I am, in fact, a nerd. Or a geek, there is some dispute on the exact nature of my condition, but I am definitely some flavor of poindexter. This was confirmed today for the eleventy-millionth time when a student pointed me to this:

and I determined that it was possibly the coolest thing I have ever seen. That's right, it's a Pac-Man game built from Roombas. And the laptop he is running it on looks just like my oldest one, which needs to be repurposed, anyway. This could get ugly, though I suspect the cats would enjoy it immensely.

The part that will make some of you jealous, and the rest of you* sigh with pity at the way I like to spend my ever-diminishing spare time and disposable income? Part of my research is ways to make computing physical, so I could potentially kinda-sorta say this is work-related.

It's probably going to take me a while to gather the materials and clear time in my schedule. If I am in your house in the next few months and you own a Roomba, you might want to check for it after I leave. I'm just saying. In the meantime, Ida brought us unexpected clear weather for the next few days, so I guess I had better drag out the telescope again. This nerd business is an around the clock occupation
* I'm pretty sure The Wife is a member of that second group.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Move over Taylor Swift

I've never really been what you would call a "joiner," or "social," or "a productive member of society." I tend to go my own way, praise my own cooking, laugh at my own jokes and more or less ignore everyone else. So it shouldn't be a surprise that I'm typically somewhat Scrooginesque about blog awards and memes and such, though that's probably mostly because I never win anything.

But Amy, who writes I Wonder Wye, is not only a dear and true friend, she is a professional writer and one of the best story tellers I have ever encountered, including my late Grandpa. She also has ridiculously high standards for practically everything, but don't tell her I told you that. So when she presented me with the coveted Over the Top award, I was not only truly humbled, I was for once motivated to answer questions that I did not ask myself.

I am apparently supposed to answer each of these with a single word, which makes it harder on me, but probably considerably easier on you. So, here goes:

Where is your cell phone? Pocket
Your hair? Deserting
Your mother? Sweet
Your dad? Missed
Your favorite food? Spaghetti
Dream last night? Unremembered
Favorite drink? Cabernet
Goal? Learn
What room are you in? Lab
Hobby? Hobbies
Fear? Time
Where do you want to be in 6 years? Tenured
Something you aren't? Nimble
Muffins? Blueberry
Wish List? Long
Where did you grow up? Arkansas
Last thing you did? Lunch
What were you wearing? Jeans
Your TV? Habitual
Your pets? Cats
Friends? Important
Your life? Sweet
Your mood? Comfortable
Missing someone? Usually
Vehicle? TL
Something you're not wearing? Stetson
Favorite color? Undecidable
Last time you laughed? News
Last time you cried? Friday
Best friend? Irreplaceable
Place you could go over and over? Mountains
Person who em's regularly? AGL
Favorite place to eat? Home

I'm going to pass this one on to Rassles, because I can't think of anything she will hate more, and to Daisyfae for pretty much the same reason. (Have I mentioned lately that I am an ass?) Oh, also because they are both great writers. And to The Wobbler, because he needs an excuse to post something, and because he introduced me to blogging in the first place.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Last one of these (for now)

I knew last night was going to be the last night I would have clear skies for a while, with a near-hurricane in the Gulf and real November weather on the way, so I rushed home yesterday from the most incomprehensible lecture I have attended in years and set up the big scope one more time.

Jupiter travels behind a giant tree in my yard by about 8:00 this time of year, and the Moon and our bellicose neighbor Mars are rising late and staying mostly in the trees, so I found myself out in the yard around 11:00 just sort of cruising the sky for something interesting. It's a bit like the cruising we did in high school, but it burns a lot less gas. The chances of getting lucky are about the same.

About the time I had determined that Andromeda and Triangulum were too directly overhead for the scope to reach, I noticed that Orion was coming into view so I decided to see if I could get a shot or two of M42, the Orion Nebula. I had already failed to get any usable pictures of several other deep sky objects, so it would be hard to imagine my surprise at the end of a five-minute exposure when this picture popped up on the little camera screen:

I know ways I can get better shots, but I will need more new toys. And there is more I can do with software in post-processing once I learn how. But for the moment I am just going to enjoy the rare, pleasant surprise of success without preparation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Maybe it's that global warming I've been hearing so much about

The weather here has been quite strange this fall. A former girlfriend called October "convertible month," but this year it rained practically every day. November has been surprisingly clear and mild so far, giving me an opportunity to get out for a little stargazing the last couple of nights.

So Sunday I finally got a chance to put the new camera on the big telescope and take a tour of the sky. We have a large number of big trees and a lot of light pollution, so there were only a few items of interest visible and I can't really do any long exposures, but I had a good time.

This is Almach, a double star that I discovered somewhat by accident when I was looking for stars to use to align my scope. You can see it these days rising in the eastern sky not long after sunset. You can resolve the two stars with a good pair of binoculars.

This is the wife's favorite picture of the moon, because of all the big craters that are visible out on the southern limb. The big crater in the middle is Tycho.

Last night it was clear again and there was a great full moon, so I brought out the little scope to get the whole thing in one shot. It's not as clear as the view from a mile high, but my Facebook friends seem to like it.

I tried to get some pictures of Jupiter before it went behind the giant trees in my yard, but I'm still trying to get the balance between keeping the Galilean moons visible and overexposing Jupiter.

I probably need to try eyepiece projection for planetary photography, which means I need to buy a tele-extender. Plus, I think I might need some filters. And maybe some new software. I guess I had better start with lottery tickets.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Road Stories 2: Asleep at the Wheel.

I've written before about my life as a roadie back in the day, but I don't think it's possible to communicate the level of physical exhaustion that went with that job. Our work days averaged between 16 and 20 hours, six or seven days a week. And we weren't exactly living on protein shakes and Red Bull. A breakfast of beer and doughnuts -- usually before an 8:30 am stage call -- was pretty standard, chased with any number of "supplements" to get the day going. The day might end as late as 3:30 or 4:00 the next morning, followed by showers and often breakfast at Denny's before hitting the road to do it all again. It was not unusual to do 29 shows in 29 different cities in a 31 day month, and I was on the road for as long as three months at a time. If we got a day off, it was because the next city was too far to get the equipment to overnight.

But as hard as it was to do the work, it was the driving that made it really exhausting. And dangerous. By the time I left the road in 1980, virtually everyone was riding tour buses with professional drivers, but when I started we were driving (and living in) converted cube vans that the boys in the wood shop had fixed up with couches and bunks and little reading lamps. After a few tours with six or eight guys living in them, they all smelled like smoke and stale beer and ass. And that was when we started the tour. They drove like shit and had to be filled up with gas about every three hours, but we didn't really care that much.

This is about 10 years newer than our crew vans, but it's pretty much the same vehicle. Add six bunks, a couple of couches, ice chests, ashtrays and six or eight smelly hippies and you've got yourself a party. They added a mobile home style door to the back for easy access, and to ensure that we got pulled over by Immigration at every opportunity.

So after working what seemed like our zillionth 18 hour day in a row, all of us would pile in the van and someone would have to drive while everyone else got some sleep. That someone was often me, because I figured out early on that whoever drove first was not expected to drive very long, and got uninterrupted sleep thereafter. I also usually loaded the last truck, so I was typically freshly showered and as awake as I was going to get.

We were on a George Benson tour in Vancouver (or maybe Linda Ronstadt, I really can't remember anymore), when the engine in our van burned up. The transportation arm of the company, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it would be better to ship the van home to Dallas on a train than to spend 2000 of those crazy Canadian dollars to get it fixed. In the meantime, we would carry on the tour in two rental cars, which have most of the disadvantages of the vans and no place to sleep. So we became even more exhausted*, which up to that point I would not have believed to be possible.

My wife's favorite road story happened about a week later as we were driving out of Toronto on our way to Ottawa. I was too tired to drive first, so I took shotgun in the rent car and told whoever was at the wheel to wake me up when they got tired**. I fell asleep about ten seconds later.

Some time after that, I remember opening my eyes and trying to figure out where I was. We were on a two-lane road in the middle of nowhere, it was pitch black outside and the car was just entering a fairly significant left hand curve in the road. But something wasn't right with our trajectory. We were definitely not going to make it through that curve with this approach. I recall distinctly thinking, "Who's driving this thing?" That thought was followed a split second later with, "Oh my GOD IT'S ME!!!"

Now I was awake. Gravel flew as I wrestled the car off the shoulder and through the curve. My heart was pounding and my eyes were as big as ... well, as big as my eyes get. Pants may or may not have needed changing. I drove for another ten minutes or so, until I found a safe place to change drivers and wake up the one guy who had slept through the whole thing.

Apparently, we had stopped and swapped drivers and I had never woken up. The first guy swore that I had been driving for ten or fifteen minutes down that dark country road in Canada. He had already been fast asleep when I woke up. I had a history of sleep walking as a kid, and was apparently capable of performing fairly complex tasks and carrying on simple conversations, but nothing even approaching driving a car.

I was too shaken up to drive for several weeks after that. Luckily, the powers that be decided a few days later that the late/drop charges on the rental cars were getting out of hand***, and we flew the rest of the tour. This sounds better, but it's actually worse, because there are cars and hotels and airports and too much time is wasted getting from one to the other.

We all fell asleep on the sidewalk at an airport somewhere in California a couple of weeks later, waiting for the guy who had gone to fetch the rent car. Later that same day I asked someone during our lunch break how long we had before we went back to work. He told me 11 minutes. I told him to wake me up in 9 minutes and went outside for a nap on the grass. It was the best 9 minute nap ever.
* We were also not keen on the idea of being guests of a foreign government for an extended stay, so the supplements were always left at the border. Except for Paul McCartney, but that's another story.
** This is telling of just how tired we were, since it was customary for someone to stay awake and co-pilot in the wee hours of the morning to help keep the driver awake.
*** We were supposed to return the rental cars in Vancouver the day after we picked them up. It was almost two weeks before anyone thought to call Hertz to find out what it was going to cost us to drop them on the other end of the country two weeks later.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Ben Bernanke gave a speech today about how America's trade deficit played a role in creating the financial crisis, and how once trade starts up again, it will probably go back to playing the same old role, unless somebody does something about it. As for America's part, now that the big banks are back to making money hand over iron fist, the Fed Chairman says we should really work on reducing our budget deficit.

None of this is new or surprising, except when he recommended that Asian nations help by getting their own people to buy their crappy products instead of shipping them to us. Bernanke suggested that one way for countries like China to do this was to increase spending on social programs like education and health care, thereby allowing people to save less and spend more. This is essentially the opposite of what the capitalist crowd would like to see happen in Washington, which makes sense given that we are on the opposite end of the cheap money. Except that many of these same people have talked about how important it is to get Americans borrowing and spending again. Maybe now that so many of the jobs are overseas, we have decided that consumption should follow.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Food, glorious food

A few years ago I went on the South Beach Diet. It was a great diet, the food was yummy, I lost a bunch of weight, and I should be on it right now, but it forbids drinking for the first two weeks and it's football season. Besides the weight I lost, I noticed three things about the diet:

1. I had to go to the grocery store all the damn time.
2. It was expensive and took time out of my day.
3. The only things I bought from the middle of the store were spices and sugar free Jello Pudding.

It turns out that this is not an accident.

My brother persuaded me to read The Omnivore's Dilemma a few months ago, and now I kind of feel like kicking his ass for making me want to be a farmer. And a hunter, and possibly a mushroom gatherer. (Not that I've never gathered a mushroom before, but that's a completely different subject.) If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it. It's not really like The Jungle, or Diet for a New America -- the type of book that will gross you out to the point that you never want to eat again. It's more like Super Size Me: Behind the Music. The author builds a compelling case that the American food industry is a perfect storm of government waste, corporate greed, environmental irresponsibility and petroleum use, and that we are all paying the price.

American food has been industrialized and commodotized so that it is cheap to produce, easy to transport, easy to store and easy to sell. Note that taste, nutrition and cultural considerations do not appear on the list. Would it surprise you to know that "natural raspberry flavoring" probably has no part of a raspberry in it? It surprised me.

The New York Times reported recently that the new Smart Choices food labeling program, which features a green check mark on the front of packaging so that busy consumers can know what is good for them even if their Mom is not there, considers Froot Loops to be sufficiently healthful to earn the mark. Defended by the President of the Smart Choices Board because its better than doughnuts, Froot Loops made the cut due to its added vitamins, and because the total sugars don't exceed the program guidelines.

She also said the program was influenced by research into consumer behavior that showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them. So in other words, we want to buy what we were going to buy anyway but feel like it is good for us. I mean, come on. I've eaten my share of Cocoa Puffs, but I never tried to convince myself they were health food.

Apparently, one big driving force behind all of this is a system of government subsidies that pays farmers to produce more corn, and to a lesser degree, soybeans. While this sounds like a good thing for farmers, it actually drives the price of these commodity grains ever lower, putting the dwindling number of farmers deeper in debt. The only people who really benefit are food manufacturers like Cargill, ADM and General Mills. The current system of farm subsidies has been in place since Earl Butz*, Nixon's Agriculture Secretary, reversed the government's policy on farm subsidies and told family farmers to "get big or get out."

So is there any benefit to all this? Well, remember my list from the South Beach Diet?

1. Whole food is bulky and it spoils. Industrial food is compact, stable and keeps for a long time.
2. Whole food is not really more expensive to grow, but subsidies and cheap petroleum make industrial food ingredients (in the form of corn) cheaper to buy than "real" food can be grown.
3. Industry means growth, so manufacturers have to find new things to sell to get us to buy more and eat more. There is very little unprocessed food in an American supermarket. This leads to innovation and ever cheaper food.

There is a lot of evidence that the industrialization of food is at least partially responsible for many of the health problems that Americans suffer more than others in the world. And there is no question that it costs all of us in the form of taxes, petroleum use and environmental damage. It's up to each of us to decide if the trade-off is worth it. As for me, I'm making my own bread, shopping more at the farmer's market, and trying to think more about what I eat.
* Butz eventually got fired for telling an extremely (unfunny and) racist joke to a reporter on an airplane. This has to throw his judgment into question, if nothing else.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Oktoberfest on the North Shore

New Orleans once boasted a number of large breweries, and was well known around the region for its beer. Falstaff, Jax, Dixie and Regal were the best known brands. But beermaking in New Orleans went the way of beermaking in most cities, and only Dixie survived, holding on as a local sentimental favorite.

Beer-making in earnest returned to the area in the 1990's, in the form of Abita Brewing Co., which started as a brew pub in the 80's and is now something of a regional powerhouse. Abita Springs (where Abita is located) is north of Lake Pontchartrain, an area known locally as "the north shore." During the 90's and the first part of this decade, other small breweries sprung up around New Orleans and the north shore, and beermaking looked to be on the verge of a comeback.

Map from Google Maps

Hurricane Katrina sealed the fates of most of the new breweries, and the fate of the north shore in a different way. The 50 miles or so between the I-12 junction with I-55 and its eastern junction with I-10/59 has been growing fairly rapidly for at least 20 years, but the population of the area has exploded since the hurricane. I know a lot of people who evacuated from the New Orleans area to one of the communities there and never went back, and more who returned to New Orleans and then relocated to the north shore a year or two later.

Image from here

One of the breweries that opened without much fanfare around the turn of the millennium was Heiner Brau in Covington. Started by a German brew master named Henryk "Heiner" Orlik, the brewery has supplemented its own brands by brewing "store brand" beers for some well known area restaurants. They even brewed some Dixie beer in the aftermath of the hurricane. Over the last few years, the brand has really started to take off, and is available in a large number of local groceries and watering holes.

Being German, Heiner probably feels compelled to put on an Oktoberfest celebration, if for no other reason so that he and his family can attend one. The Wife first learned of the brewery because of the involvement of the brother of her BFF from childhood, so the BFF often comes down from the midwest and we roll over there for the party.

Image from here

This year's celebration is this coming Saturday. Munich it's not, but fun it definitely is. There is a 5K in the morning (no thank you), some family and shopping time in the middle of the day, and around 2 pm the oompah band starts up in the big tent, and the beer and brats start to flow. That's usually when we show up. The crowd's not too big, and the beer's not too expensive, and it's the only Oktoberfest for hundreds of miles that I know of. And if you hang around and look interested, you might get a tour of the brewery. It's small, but it's spunky. Oh, and did I mention the beer is excellent?

So if you find yourself within 100 miles of Covington, LA this Saturday and you feel like a polka*, you should drop by. Maybe we'll see you there.
*That's what she said.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The tyranny of things

I have a friend who still has the golf clubs and several pairs of golf shoes that he cleaned out of his late father's country club locker over ten years ago. He holds onto them, despite the fact that the shoes don't fit and my friend doesn't golf. He is not exactly a hoarder, but he has attached feelings to objects and the events they represent in his life to the point that there are definite paths to walk in his apartment. When we were discussing it one time he referred to it as the "tyranny of things."

The Wife and I bought our current home from the three sons of the late owners, who built the house and lived in it for over thirty years. The first time we looked through the house, the daughters-in-law were going through the treasures and trash left behind from full, rich lives lived well, and we heard continual exclamations of amusement and surprise from the attic and bedrooms.

"Wow! There are flashcubes up here! Some of them only have one or two flashes left!" (At no time did anyone discover a camera that could use them.) "How many brooches can one woman wear?" ... "I can't believe they kept all of this."

I have been somewhat fortunate in this regard. I moved a lot when I was younger, and tried to limit my possessions to a volume that would fit in my car. A divorce taught me that we don't miss most of the crap we lose, and five years in a graduate student apartment trained me not to bring anything into the house without looking for something to send out. I adopted a policy of maintaining a fixed space for sentimental objects, and when that space gets too crowded something has to go. On the other hand, I have a lot of hobbies, and I love books, and it turns out that furniture and artwork and clothes and coats and shoes have a tendency to accumulate.

My geographic location and position in the family shield me from a good deal of the "tyranny of heirlooms," though I have received a few of my father's possessions that are really of no use to anyone, but I know meant a lot to him. What am I supposed to do with an architect's seal, or World War II era Army discharge papers? Two separate friends have recently had the experience of going through deceased relatives' houses, and both lamented the things they had to leave behind, knowing that many of their loved one's most treasured possessions would end up with strangers, or in a dumpster somewhere. I don't know if you've ever been to a professionally executed estate sale, but it's not something you want to experience if the estate belonged to someone close.

In my own experience, the times when I had the fewest possessions have been in many ways the happiest. I'm not saying that being poor is better than having money, but that people are better company than things, and that there are many activities more fun and satisfying than shopping and organizing our stuff.

I'm afraid that, in the end, we become the possessions of our stuff. It holds us in one place, both physically and emotionally. A thousand tiny threads bind us to all that we gather around us, and we become like the hermit crab, carrying our lives on our backs. Emotionally, the tyranny of things is associated with everything from severe anxiety to weight gain.

So can someone tell me why we feel the need to glorify materialistic behavior in everything from what we teach our kids to the way we run our society? We judge ourselves and those around us by our possessions, and there is nothing our children desire that they should not have. Consumption-driven economic growth is king, and if you're not buying then you're not doing your part as a citizen. We are supposed to desire and then acquire. Maybe it's good that products are becoming more disposable. I guess if we get used to throwing things away we can work on the front end later.

Image from here

Tibetan monks create complex mandalas from colored sand, often spending days or weeks creating intricate patterns with colored powder to heal and purify the world. The paintings are typically destroyed soon after they are completed, symbolic of the transience of life, and the empty nature of all phenomena. I try to remember this whenever I find myself thinking that I can't get rid of something, or when I set out to clean a closet.

So that's it. I think I'm through with stuff, and I don't need anything. Just this ashtray. And this paddle game, the ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need. And this remote control. The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that's all I need. And these matches. The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control and the paddle ball. And this lamp. The ashtray, this paddle game and the remote control and the lamp and that's all I need...

Image from here

Monday, October 12, 2009

I've never really done this kind of thing before

I don't think I can link to another man's blog in two posts in a row without feeling like we're cellmates and he has the top bunk, if you know what I mean and I think you do. But I'm going to have to do it anyway. Because despite the fact that The Wobbler tried to get me to start blogging as far back as 2003, and The Wife implicitly encouraged me with her near-obsession with reading blogs -- often aloud -- a couple of years back, it was Johnny Virgil's post about the 1977 JC Penney catalog that finally got me interested in reading blogs, and eventually starting one of my own. Really, it's one of the funniest things I've ever read.

So when a Facebook friend posted this picture from his weekend newspaper circular,

I knew I wouldn't be able to let it pass. It's good to know that JCP is still helping losers get their asses kicked after all these years. I guess Every Day Matters because you never know how long you are going to last wearing their clothes.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Star hunter update

The wife and I took a trip around the Four Corners area a couple of weeks ago to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. It may have occurred to you that my acquisition of a new camera and small telescope was specifically timed to coincide with this trip, which is absolutely true.

It wasn't so much the beautiful landscapes or wildlife that motivated me to spend a bunch of money and haul thirty extra pounds of crap with me all across the West. It wasn't even the fact that we were going to be in Albuquerque for the first day of the Balloon Fiesta. (You will have to suffer through more of all that when I work my way through the 2 gigabytes of pictures I brought back.) No, the thing that I really wanted to see was the night sky.

This picture of Orion, taken from the parking lot of the lodge in Mesa Verde National Park, tells the story. There are several hundred stars visible in this shot. On the clearest night at home I can see maybe a dozen in the same area. I spent most of both nights at Mesa Verde in and out of the room, alternately looking at the sky and reconfiguring my equipment* for another series of shots. Luckily for the wife, our other nights were all spent more or less in town, so she was able to get some sleep eventually.

Focusing a long lens on specks of light in total darkness is harder than it looks, and several weeks of rain preceding our vacation kept me from getting familiar with the camera settings that would be best for various types of night photos, so this was as much a learning experience as anything. And it's not really practical to take very long exposures without a tracking mount, so I was limited in what I could try. But besides a couple of wide star field pictures like the one above, I got several really good pictures of the moon.

It's what all the cool kids are doing, anyway. Oh, I also got some really good bird pictures with the new scope, but that's another post.
* Heh, heh.

Cajun Town

I've lived in this part of Louisiana long enough not to think anything of it when -- as my co-worker did at lunch the other day -- someone says "We were going to get down, but no one was home." This is one of the many endearing and ridiculous phrases that are common down here, presumably originating in literal English translations of common French or Spanish expressions. When I first moved to this area, phrases like pass the broom, make groceries, hose pipe, neutral ground or bring me to the store were distracting to the point that I sometimes lost the train of the conversation as I tried to decide if I heard what I thought I heard, or tried not to laugh. Now I have a hard time remembering that they are not part of normal American speech. This is in addition to all the Cajun French terms that are part of normal speech here, like lagniappe and boudin. My friend was married for a time to a man from Bunkie, which is where she claims she picked up most of her coon-ass speak, though I hear a lot of it from people all across the Southern half of Louisiana.

This led to a discussion of my friend Boudreaux, his wife Marie, and his friend Thibodeaux. Cajun jokes are similar to Aggie jokes, Polish jokes, blond jokes or any other stereotypical cultural humor, with the special characteristic that they are usually told about a man named Boudreaux, and often his friend Thibodaux. If a female character is required in these stories she is invariably named Marie.

So almost twenty years ago I got out of college, started a job and became friends with Marie*, who was dating, and later engaged to, Boudreaux. A couple of years later I was invited to attend Boudreaux's bachelor party, planned and hosted by -- you guessed it -- Thibodeaux**. You know it's going to be a good bachelor party when the guest of honor is already throwing up in the bushes when you arrive.

In addition to planning the party and holding it at his house, Thibodeaux had procured the entertainment, which consisted primarily of two "exotic dancers" from a local "gentleman's club." The hotter of the two "ladies" was wearing a plaster cast on her left leg from foot to knee.*** The other one had to leave early to pick up her nineteen year old daughter from somewhere or other. The girls tried their best, but overall it was a pretty sad thing to watch.

Once the boys had gotten a taste of exotic entertainment, and because Boudreaux had long since drunk away what judgment he possessed, we followed up the party at Thibodeaux's with a trip to the Gold Club, where Boudreaux was thrown out after about ten minutes for conduct unbecoming. It was a fitting end to an excellent night. And apparently the party had the right mojo. Boudreaux and Marie are still happily married, though we don't see as much of Thibodeaux as we used to.

Oh, and "get down" means get out of the car and go inside. As in, "We passed by your house to bring you to the store, but we didn't see a car so we didn't get down."

* Her middle name, and not the one she goes by, but I swear this is really her name.
** I am totally not making this up.
*** Still not making this up.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rocky Mountain High

It's ironic that Colorado is such a haven for creationists, since they live among some of the most beautiful and compelling evidence of the Earth's geologic history. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison -- where 170 million year old sandstone (much of the tan in the desert's color scheme) sits directly on top of igneous rocks ten times as old -- has its two billion year history written everywhere you look. Fossils are everywhere. It's impossible for me to look at this stuff and imagine believing that the Earth is 7000 years old. I am no stranger to having faith in the face of contradicting evidence, but it's something I'm trying to do less of, not more.

It's a wierd vibe in Colorado, at least on the western face of the Rockies. If you haven't been I can't explain it. If you have, an explanation is probably not necessary. The conversations I overheard or engaged in while in Ouray, Silverton and Durango centered on wine, hiking, running, local commerce and different things one could do with chipotle. Overweight locals ate rare enough to notice. Every single television I saw in a public space was tuned to Fox News, with the exception of a reprieve for Monday Night Football. Virtually all the music I heard was pre-1995. I saw exactly one black person, which was one-fourth the number of people I saw wearing sunglasses with white plastic frames. The local book store in Ouray had as much space dedicated to Ayn Rand and John Wayne as to current popular fiction.

I know at least a half-dozen people who moved to Colorado for one reason or another. None of them lasted two years. On the other hand, I used to work for a company that was based in Denver and I knew a lot of people who were transferred around the country from various places in Colorado. Most of them talked about home, but as far as I know, none have moved back.

I have visited different parts of Colorado several times, and except for one sexual encounter on the Durango-Silverton Railroad when I was fifteen, I've never really been able to connect with people there.* They are nice in a way that does nothing to make me believe they really like me, and most interactions are dotted with what feel like non sequiturs to me. I get the feeling that many of the people I meet feel somehow inherently superior to the rest of us, which is of course impossible.

I realize that this is all gross generalization against a whole state, and there are probably a million people in Colorado who could easily disabuse me of my prejudice. Some of the natives I met at my old job were awesome people. But every region has a sort of default personality, and for me, at least for now, most of Colorado remains a nice place to visit...
* I think that girl was from Utah, or California or something, anyway.

Into Thin Air

I have loved the outdoors all of my life, and have done my share of hiking. As much as I enjoy the beauty of desert landscapes, I've never really felt the need to spend a lot of time walking in the red and brown country. For me, hiking has always been synonymous with woods and water, and my favorite trails look something like this:

But last week I spent a day in Arches National Park in Utah, and it may be the single most beautiful place I have ever been. Around every corner there was something else spectacular, impossible and breathtaking that managed to be different from everything else we had seen. I was reminded more than once of the landscapes described in Lord of the Rings.*

The highlight of the park is definitely the Delicate Arch, a precarious rock formation perched on the edge of a sort of large stone bowl at the crest of an inaccessible and formidable hill. The image of this formation is featured in virtually all of the park's literature, and adorns many of Utah's license plates.

I'm not sure how much the difficulty of getting to the base of the arch contributes to its popularity and mystique, but I'm sure it does. Granted, most of my hiking days were when I was less than half my current age -- and a somewhat larger fraction of my current weight -- but I still manage to get out every so often, and I can generally hold my own trudging up and down the hills. The hike to Delicate Arch was the hardest mile and a half I think I have ever covered.

In my defense, my house is somewhere around fifty feet above sea level, and this was about a mile above that. I discovered that we really take air for granted. It was also ninety-four degrees and we didn't have as much water with us as we should have. But the water thing was our own fault.

After a few hundred yards meandering through the sand and scrub, and a couple of modest hills, visitors are confronted with what appears to be a single slab of rock, sloping up at a moderate angle. Definitely uphill, but doesn't seem particularly steep.

Doesn't really look like much of an obstacle, does it? What isn't immediately apparent is that this rock slab covers the better part of a mile. Think of the tiny bumps at the top of the photo as three or four story office buildings and you will get some idea of the scale. Everyone we passed who was coming down gave us a knowing and sympathetic greeting. More than once I was reminded of Jon Krakauer's description of climbing Everest**. Of course, just as I was feeling courageous and intrepid for persevering, a Bavarian family cruised by laughing and joking, small children, grandparents and all. I'm sure they were laughing at us.

The trip got a little easier once we cleared what I came to think of as the south face, and the terrain became more reminiscent of Land of the Lost. I really would not have been surprised to see a T. Rex at any moment.

The area around the arch itself is very difficult to describe, and pictures don't even begin to do it justice. You will just have to go see it. There were twenty people or so scattered around when we arrived, and no one was speaking above a whisper. It felt like we were in a cathedral. We wondered whether this was a universal reaction, or whether it was just the people who visited that day. Perhaps on other days there is more of a party atmosphere, though I doubt it.

This is my proof that I made it. That tiny speck under the arch is me.

The trip down was much, much easier, and we truly came to understood the grins and waves that had been directed at us during our ascent. As we made our own descent past the small groups of miserable men, women and children struggling up the rock face, we wanted to encourage them, but knew that all that lay ahead was more hardship and less oxygen, at least until they cleared the slope.

I stopped to snap a picture at the crest of the hill. This is about a third of the way back from the arch. You can just make out the parking lot far below.

I know it probably doesn't sound like it from my description, but we had a great time at the park, and in Moab, the neigboring town. In its own way, Arches National Park is every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, and considerably less crowded. Don't miss it if you ever get the chance to visit.
* Nerd alert!
** If you haven't read Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, I highly recommend it. It is one of the most compelling stories I have ever read.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sleep tip

It is probably best to avoid watching 1408* late at night in an historic old hotel. Even if they do have free satellite TV. Trust me on this.

* 1408 is a John Cusack movie about an evil hotel room. Much better than I expected.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The more things change ...

I have an old friend who joined Facebook recently, apparently after months of urging by several people, me included. She admitted to me after signing up that two things had kept her from doing it before. The first was her daughter's absolute mortification that her mother would be joining FB, and presumably seeing the thousands of drunken photographs (WHOOOOO!!!!) that all college aged kids seem to feel need to be on the Internet.

The other reason was an old and deep insecurity that people would not like her. I was touched that she would admit this very personal and sensitive information to me, so I am posting it on the Internet. She's just lucky I don't have any drunken pictures of her from college.

Now, this person was not unpopular in high school. Besides being a cheerleader and some big muckity-muck on the yearbook staff, she was in about a thousand extra-curriculars and a bunch of honors classes. And in spite of all of that, everyone loved her. I mean, everyone. Boys, girls, jocks, townies, Sharks, Jets ... you name it. And still she is insecure, all these years later.

Between social networking, reunions, being around college kids, and (sadly) funerals, I have had many occasions over the last few years to reflect on the insecurity that seems to drive so many of us, and how no matter how rich or accomplished or otherwise secure we become, it only takes one ill-conceived comment or ignored friend request from the wrong person to plunge us back into that icy bath of teenage anxiety, wondering if our friends will still like us despite the fact that our mother wouldn't spend $12 for three-stripe Adidas.

It does get easier, though, and I think this may be part of the reason that social networking is gaining so much traction with the AARP crowd. We get a chance to confront the old anxieties with our grownup brains and experience, and hopefully vanquish them. There are several people that I have happily de-friended lately when I realized that I really didn't give a shit what they thought of me, and that if I met them at a social function today I would probably spend a good part of the ride home talking about what a tool they were.

Of course, now we get to start all over with our Internet friends. So you bitches had better leave comments and follow me and make sure my stats are up or I might have to go to my room and turn on the blacklight and listen to the Moody Blues on 8-track as loud as it will go.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Michael Moore is a douchebag

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not watched any of Michael Moore's movies, and I consider Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh to be bigger Dickensians than Michael Moore could ever hope to be. For me, it's not primarily Michael Moore's politics that make him a sack. He does seem to be trying to watch out for the little guy. I am descended from construction people and farmers, and many of my relatives still work with their hands in conditions that are much worse than what I enjoy, so I can respect the belief that working people need more government protection than, say, billionaires. And to some degree, I think Michael Moore came by his outrage honestly, where Limbaugh and Beck seem to have cobbled together their attitudes primarily from racism, willful ignorance, leftover teenage resentment and an overactive sense of accomplishment. Also, maybe ratings and pain medication play in there somewhere. Every time I hear someone complain about how hard it is to be a rich white guy in America, I want to stick a fork in my eye.

My main problem with Michael Moore -- as well as the Fox News crowd -- is that he is a propagandist. I will call them as goebbelers, since I haven't made up a word yet this week. My aim in politics -- to the extent that I have one -- is to view our society as a system, and to identify and address core issues that are making the system act in a way that we find undesirable. The goebbelers are intent on doing something completely different. They want to find some single aspect of a particular issue that they can cast in a popular light, and then try to make that aspect the central issue of the debate. In this way, their side wins, the other side loses, and we can all celebrate good times.

The problem is that this behavior takes us farther from a real solution to the original issue, and degrades our ability to think rationally. For example, I saw Michael Moore on a morning show this week arguing that capitalism is the opposite of democracy. I saw a sign from a Tea Party protest last week that said something about not cutting Medicare to create socialized medicine. While arguments -- however weak -- could be made for the validity of both sentiments, this kind of discourse is just making things worse. The worst thing about the Big Lie is not that it will be believed; it is that it makes future lies easier to swallow.

Take health care as an example. First, we're talking about medical care, not health care. And the question we need to answer as a society is whether we consider access to medical care to be a civil right, like due process, or whether medicine is a commodity like food, available to those who can afford it? Or is it somewhere in between, a part of the social contract, like voting? Answering this question honestly would clear up a lot of the implementation details, as well as telling us what to do about medical malpractice.

But questions like these are difficult, and require people to honestly pick a position on issues that matter. I mean, no politician wants to come out and say that poor people shouldn't get medicine, so they tell us that Americans deserve the best care, which can only be delivered by private industry working for profit. I'm not sure what makes us think we deserve the best just because we're American, but there you have it. On the other side, giving everyone access to medical care means that there will be limits to what can be provided, and we are already providing more than we can afford. Medicare does a good job containing costs and providing full service, but it's going broke at a frightening pace. If you dissect any single point that anyone is making in the current debate, you will almost certainly find it to be inaccurate, irrelevant or something that is already true.

If we continue to treat politics as a competitive sport, with sound bites used to score points, I'm afraid personal responsibility will continue to erode and our government will continue in the direction that virtually everyone agrees is not where we want it to go. On the other hand, people seem to enjoy it. Who am I to spoil their fun?