Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year's End

Having just lived through the Quarter from Hell, I've been absent from the Farm for some time. So one of my resolutions (many of which I actually keep) is to post on at least one blog a week in the new year, just to keep my brain from tangling up.

And things do look a bit more promising, especially in regard to my classes. The nightmare of teaching four different overlapping preps to a surlier-than-usual crowd of students, few of them particularly anxious to learn anything I had to teach, is over. I'll only have one new class, and it will be small; the others have been consolidated into two (although there are two sections of each level--Art History 1 and 2--with between 30 and 39 students in each) and I've spent my winter break trying to get lesson plans in shape. I somehow managed to take notes on what worked and what didn't during the Fall term, and have had a chance to address troublesome issues. So, if I can manage to seduce three or four in each section into learning instead of whining, I'll count the upcoming Winter a success.

If I sound like I'm whining myself, I probably am. But I've been gobsmacked by a surprising number of students who simply don't care how they spend their money or whether they learn anything or not. They want simply to get through the course with a D, and if they don't--well, what's another two grand and another eleven weeks with the old bitch? Without the handful of eager learners who did emerge, I might well have been tempted to give it all up, take the minimal Social Security allotment, and chuck what's left of the career.

I'm fully aware that many of my colleagues are out of work altogether, through no choice or fault of their own; I'm also well aware that I should thus be grateful for mere employment. But teaching is one of those professions folks don't go into for the money; we're often passionate and committed and convinced that we've got a mission, and that this country needs good educators. But teaching these days is becoming something of an exercise in head-banging because politicians who know nothing about what's really involved with educating children are making decisions in state, local, and national legislatures that make it almost impossible for teachers to teach and students to learn. Top all that with a growing cultural bias against intellectualism that replaces curiosity with the instant gratification of digital technologies, and we've got a recipe for an abyssal decline in the national intelligence quotient.

Just when we need smart, capable people to help us get along in the world of the future, we're raising a crop of incurious, distracted, artificially connected young people who will grow up not understanding much about history, culture, science, or how to fix their devices.

Nonetheless, I begin each new quarter with hope. Perhaps this time I'll end up with a couple of classes filled with eager, hungry students grateful for the opportunity to learn. Then I can keep on trying to offer opportunities to discover new ideas without having to dumb down my material to meet lowered expectations or lack of enthusiasm. I can also usually bank on getting one or two older students, returning after a military stint or to update their credentials in order to find new work. I guess I'm fortunate that it still takes only a few of these to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

I find myself thinking on a smaller, more local scale these days. Grand utopian visions seem a bit silly in this time of dearth and drought; but it's a new year. Anything can happen. I keep thinking of a character in the Nero Wolfe novel, Death of a Doxy. Julie Jacquette, a showgirl with an intellect of gold, gets 50 grand for helping Wolfe and Archie catch a killer. She uses it to go to college, and when she writes Archie with an update she ends her letter with "I wish you well."

It seems like an appropriate sentiment for New Year's Eve.

Image credit: uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Magnus Manske. Apparently taken in Norway on New Year's Eve, 2006.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Losing Languages

As I've posted elsewhere, I recently joined in a campaign through Kickstarter to help Tim Brookes realize his plan to display texts from endangered alphabets at libraries and museums in order to raise our consciousness(es) about impending losses. As a reward for my contribution, Tim carved the above plaque, which spells out the word for "owl" in one of those alphabets--Balinese. As many of my students already know, I'm something of a champion of language, writing systems, and the importance of translation as a model for how human beings think and create. Tim's project, therefore, afforded me the opportunity to participate in what I think is one of the more worthwhile creative projects I've come across in recent years, and the Kickstarter campaign turned out to be enormously successful. His book, Endangered Alphabets, is a treasure, and I've been sharing it with colleagues and students alike; if you haven't already done so, I highly recommend that you visit the companion website and its blog.

At Tim's prompting I looked into another Kickstarter effort, this one designed to help preserve the Balinese language itself: Balinese--A Language at a Crossroads with Endangered Script. The project is aimed at developing

the first multi-media materials for the Balinese language. Balinese script is already endangered and the spoken language is dramatically changing. These materials, which will be donated to nonprofit organizations, will provide a record of where the spoken and written language is now and will encourage the use of Balinese for the future.

The project was initiated by Alissa Stern, the Executive Director of BasaBali.org, which promotes the preservation of the Balinese language. Like many of the world's indigenous languages, Balinese is at risk of either being transformed irrevocably, or of disappearing altogether. Its script is arguably one of the most beautiful writing systems ever created. It was actually Alissa who translated "owl" for Tim to carve for me. I thought it especially suitable to photograph the plaque in one of the trees (our Bur Oak) the neighborhood owls frequent.

If you're one of those folks who's stopped buying holiday gifts from the Large Mart and have started donating to worthy causes instead, I highly recommend visiting the Balinese language project page; donation levels start at a buck, and there are only about five days left in the campaign.

One of the reasons I find this stuff so compelling right now is the growing evidence that our own language is rapidly evolving into something almost unrecognizable. More than once this quarter I've had to stop in the middle of a lecture or discussion to explain a word I was using: affable, contiguous, nefarious, wend. Good grief! I'm used to parsing words like Gesamptkunstwerk or pareidolia, not to mention more common words used in discussing art history (chiaroscuro, tenebrism, entasis--and the editor in Blogger didn't recognize any of those except chiaroscuro). But what I would consider ordinary parlance is increasingly being seen as elitist or (at best) just plain obscure.

Although colleagues indicate that they're noticing the same thing, the problem doesn't seem to be much on the minds of the country at large (perhaps because other issues loom larger). The only substantial article I could find on a quick search was one by Ian Brown in the Toronto Globe and Mail (Are we losing our lexicon?) from 2007. I thought it rather amusing that the same search ("losing vocabulary") brought me several hits about a French hip hop composer named Keor Meteor, with an album called "Losing Vocabulary." There does seem to be a hint of irony attached to that one.

But losing language actually presents some serious problems to public life. One of my big beefs about the Tea Party, for example, has to do with its collective insistence that it knows what the Founding Fathers meant in the Constitution. However, it seems unlikely that a substantial number of TP members possess the linguistic background (in eighteenth-century English, let alone Latin and/or Greek), or the contextual understanding of Enlightenment philosophy to wrestle effectively with the multiplicity of possible meanings contained in that one document. Nevertheless, we frequently hear people holding forth on how simple it all is: just read the Constitution.

I'm pretty well convinced that one reason my students don't read the same things I did is because some of the "classics" are not only "too long" (for increasingly shorter attention spans), but that they have "too many words." That is, they have too many words that students would have to look up in order to understand what's going on. It's difficult to imagine that many of today's young adults would spend an entire summer, as I once did, reading Thomas Hardy's corpus--or even take a stab at something like George Eliot's Middlemarch. I admit to having struggled through the first 250 pages of the latter--only to be rewarded many times over for my effort as I proceeded through the book.

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of one of the longest books I ever read: Moby Dick. Melville's opus still fascinates, as we see by Nathanial Philbrick's new book, Why Read Moby Dick?, and Sena Jeter Naslund's 1999 riff, Ahab's Wife.

Do many of us remember how funny Melville's actual novel is, beginning as it does with a tongue-in-cheek etymology of the word, whale? Even the first paragraph--containing, perhaps, the most famous three words in literature--is wryly humorous:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Mind you, I think sailing about the watery parts of the world would indeed solve a number of problems--so long as one didn't become obsessed by a whale in the process. But it seems unlikely that many young folk today will even embark on an effort to read the book.

Language, I like to remember, encompasses the essence of human being: it enables thought, speech, all manner of communication, understanding. Of course it changes--I'm not one of those who constantly laments over shifts in grammar (although I will admit that misplaced apostrophes annoy me). But losing perfectly good words and substituting irritating neologisms indicates a kind of linguistic laziness that impoverishes rather than enriches speech.

We're lucky, I suppose, that English isn't in any immediate danger of annihilation (even though it could one day be supplanted as the primary language of international discourse). Nor is our alphabet tilting on the brink. Instead, its pure simplicity enables it to be written in a seemingly endless multitude of styles--some of them quite beautiful.

Preserving the past, even if it's only for the purpose of not forgetting its mistakes, requires us to pay attention when we're losing cultural artifacts. Languages and writing systems should not be allowed to get lost in the shuffle of modernity precisely because they both mark significant moments in humanity's cultural and biological evolution: from becoming human in the first place, to becoming "civilized" when the very first syllabaries and alphabets were produced.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eleven

It's been nearly a month since my last post; things have been absurdly busy, confusing, and difficult to juggle, and I just haven't had the steam to even think about writing. But today is Veterans' Day, and I've been thinking of my father and other kin who've fought in wars or supported personnel who did. My daughter e-mailed me earlier today asking if I had any photos of her grandpa Tom in uniform, so I thought a post would present an opportunity to share my favorite. The above image was probably shot during or shortly after WWII, when Daddy was still in the Army Air Corps (at least that's what the wings indicate). What a handsome kid he was!

As I've undoubtedly mentioned many times on the Farm, my family's military roots run deep. Somewhere I have a letter from the Civil War, and there were Revolutionary War veterans on my Mother's side. Both of my grandfathers were involved in WWI, and I received a La Verne Noyes college scholarship on account my being a direct descendent of a veteran of that war. My father's war career spanned WWII, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. My brother fought in Vietnam as well. One of my mother's cousins was killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and my nephew was stationed on the USS Ronald Reagan in the Persian Gulf. The connections spread through three branches of the service and through three centuries of conflicts.

Although war is one human activity I would be glad to see end in my lifetime, I regretfully doubt if anyone ever will. Utopian dreams frequently envision its absence, but that single condition is what makes the word "utopian" synonymous with "dream" (or even "fantasy") in many minds.

But there is one positive aspect: even as it brings out the worst in some, it also stirs others to the most valiant of actions and the most selfless of acts. It enables men and women to embody the notion of honor in ways that no other endeavor allows, whether its causes are just, reasonable, or even sensible--or not.

I wish that whoever reads this post would spent a few moments today honoring the memory of those we have lost to war, those who have endured it on our behalf (including many of my students), and those who continue to serve. Were I able to hold only one hope for the rest of my life, it would be that at some point in a future not too distant, their service would no longer be required.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Welcome, Rain

At the moment, I'm doing something I don't usually even attempt: multitasking, by trying to write and listen to the Rangers/Tigers ALCS game at the same time. The only reason I can be doing this at all is because I'm stuck at school after an 8 am-noon class that will be followed at 6 pm by another four-hour stint of stand-up art history. I won't make the 60-mile, hour-long round trip home and back in the interim, so I've been using the time for prep and--at the moment--trying to get some writing done. And since I can't actually watch the ballgame, I've got the audio running behind Blogger on my laptop.

The main reason I feel compelled to post at all is that we've had rain: nearly three and a half inches over a period of two days (with a short stint of sunny day in between). I'm not sure I've ever been quite so conscious of rain as a gift, but after this summer it's a bit like a cool soak in a bubble bath after a hot, week-long backpacking trip. Tomorrow I'll get to spend some time out in the garden, and the soil will be dry enough to take a bit of hoeing, but still damp and workable. My garlic's going in late, but I still have time for a small crop.

With luck I'll also have a little time for a real post this weekend. I need to reply to the two lovely, thoughtful comments last week's screed about agriculture, and there's more to say about growth in other senses of the word. I miss the Skywatch Friday crowd, though, so thought I'd share these snaps. The opener shows the rain gauge with the two-day accumulation. The other two are pretty nondescript, but they show what the sky looked like to the south (cloudy) and to the north (clearing) after the rain stopped yesterday morning. All three were taken with the Nikon D80.

Back to the game. Rangers and Tigers are tied in the 6th. Have a good weekend, Folks.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Good Growth

Our local Whole Foods Market is decked out with pumpkins (some pretty big ones--that a person could sit on--for $50), and the seasonal squashes and other goodies are in, if not as plentiful as last year. The summer's heat blasted many local farms, with the result that Fall menus will likely feature veg from Mexico and Chile rather than from around here as many of us would like.

I had planned to have acorn squash at least, but that gave up the ghost long before Halloween decorations even made it into the stores. So I've got a few peppers coming in, and maybe some late eggplant, but aside from the herbs, that'll be it.

What this post is really about, though, is work. Real work: the stuff that needs to get done in order for people to survive. And the work of the season is harvesting. With the U. S. economy in the doldrums, and anti-immigrant fervor at a peak, one would think that farmers would have their pick (ahem) of potential hands to pull up the onions and pop the corn off the stalk.

Not according to this morning's New York Times, however--and this isn't the first I've heard of this problem. The upshot is that although America is a far fatter and less healthy nation than it should be, and even though the unemployment rate is embarrassingly high, farmers can't find nearly enough local workers to get the job done. I've heard more than one report of people signing on to harvest crops, and leaving after a few hours because they thought the work was just too hard.

I know I tend to romanticize farming; I even have the temerity to use the term "farm" metaphorically in the title of this blog. But farming lives somewhere at the center of our American identity (think of our pastoralist forefathers, amber waves of grain, and all that). Many of our ancestors farmed this land, or the land from whence they came. My own name even contains "farmer" in German (although we still haven't figured out how one could farm owls). But farming seems to have evolved into something different in recent decades.

The growth of agriculture has meant not an increase in the number of people who farm. Rather, it has morphed into fewer, larger farms owned by conglomerates. The idyllic-sounding "family farm" has become a memory to many, because small farms now find it so difficult to compete with Big Ag: Bigger machines, more oil (including fuel manufactured from corn, which--if I remember correctly--used to be a food crop), larger spreads of monocultures, genetically engineered species. Everything's designed to be more efficient and cheaper to produce, and then we hear complaints about how hard it is for mega-farms to make a profit. Heaven help the small farmer, unless she happens to live near a city where she can sell her fresh harvest to a restaurant or at a farmers' market.

I'm always amazed at the small-government advocates who don't seem to give a hoot about small anything else, because they'd rather buy their genetically-engineered corn at WalMart for pennies, rather than pay more for better food from more sustainable sources. Yes, I know the Large Marts all over the place are touting their local sources and organic produce--but all that's a piddle in a puddle when we look at the big picture.

The picture isn't pretty. After reading about farmers' trying to hire unemployed workers to fill in gaps from lower numbers of immigrant workers, and the unwillingness of the new hires to do the work after only a few hours on the job, I couldn't help but wonder about what we've become. Fat and lazy? Disconnected from the earth that sustains us? Softened by electronic toys and digital media that distort the very idea of farming ("Farmville," anyone)? Do any of these people really care about where our food comes from--what they put in their own bodies? It seems that most folks these days would rather work at Micky D for minimum wage than get out into the open air and get some exercise for the same amount of money per hour.

At my rapidly advancing age and stage of decripitude, I can't quite afford to give up my own job--despite the increasing stress afforded me and my colleagues as we watch beloved co-workers laid off, our own work-loads increase, and as we face the challenge of teaching students whose preparation levels seem to drop every quarter. But don't think for a minute that if the axe fell on me I wouldn't be looking for seasonal work in the field to supplement my meager retirement prospects. I'd certainly be a great deal healthier, sturdier, thinner, and freer of stress-induced belly fat than I am today.

But this is a philosophical as well as a practical concern. What have we become? Why is farm work, the foundation upon which civilization itself was built, held in esteem so low that so few people think it worth doing? When we talk about culture (that ineffable essence that describes what it means to be human) and cultivation (how we educate, nurture, and exercise our vast intellectual possibilities), we're using the language of farming. (Agriculture: ager = field, cultura = tending, tilling.) Even traditional American teaching cycles are arranged around the agricultural needs of our ancestors; kids get off in the summer because at one time they were needed in the fields. And shall I also mention all those seasonal festivals that arise at planting, tilling, and harvest times?

I'm going to be talking about the origins of agriculture in my first-level art history classes next week, because when we began to farm, we also began to create the monumental works that mark a culture and provide it with a physical identity. Turkey, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Bronze Age Greece--the makers of temples and tombs were all farmers first, and only later warriors. It was to help account for crops that writing was invented among some people. Some of the most enduring painted and sculpted images from antiquity depict farming or honor agricultural products and nurturing deities.

Lately I've also been thinking about growth. And although that's a post for another time, about the only really beneficial growth I can think of these days has to do with crops and kids. Most of the other senses of the word we're currently using are essentially unsustainable. But growing crops--and growing children both provide us with hopeful metaphors. It's not coincidental that some of the first formal schooling our offspring get is in kindergarten--a garden for children.

But schooling has little to do with gardens these days. Except in a few schools that actually cultivate garden classrooms (about which I've written elsewhere), we've taken our kids out of the fields and plopped them down into over-crowded classrooms, tempted them away from the out-of-doors with myriad electronic gizmos, and taught them to eat Happy Meals that will end up making them fat, unhealthy, and reluctant to do the real physical work it takes to harvest real food.

That Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry, has the right idea. We need to re-ground ourselves in the metaphors that arose from our nation when it was young. Before we became enamored of constant growth, upward mobility, and efficiency, we knew something about the cycles of things. I just hope we can remember them before it's too late.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

--Wendell Berry
"Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front"
From The Country of Marriage, 1971

Image credit: Ansel Adams, Farm Workers and Mt. Williamson, 1943. This is a rather idyllic photo taken at the Manzanar "relocation" camp outside of Lone Pine, California during the second World War. Despite their forced internment at the camp, the incarcerated Japanese occupants contributed to the U. S. economy by farming. A woman I met in Philadelphia, who had been at Manzanar as a child, told me that farming helped the internees maintain their dignity because it was honorable work. The photo is available through Wikimedia Commons, from the Library of Congress collection of Adams's photos of Manzanar.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pecan Equinox

Time was when folk would be out celebrating today, on the morning of the autumnal equinox, and the beginning of fall. Nowadays, of course, some might notice mention of the seasonal change in the morning papers or, more likely, hear about it on the morning TV show they watch whilst preparing for work. We don't get an actual celebration until the end of October, and then it's got less to do with fall than with other nonsense.

I'm still an odd bird, I guess, for checking my east-facing dining room window (my "house clock" of which I've made note before), to mark the last morning the sun will appear in that window until next spring. But I'm a great fan of seasonal moments, especially since the weather has cooled down considerably (it'll max out in the 80s today), and we've had a little rain. Things are greener than they have been all summer, and I've pulled up most of the dead things that had littered the garden. Soon, we'll be raking leaves for compost, as all those leaves begin to drop.

The fall equinox also marks the end of another quarter at my college, so I get to spend the first weekend awash in grading--at least until Sunday, when the Beloved Spouse and I will spend the afternoon at our last baseball game of the year. We like to attend the final home game, and this year it will be especially sweet, win or lose, because the Rangers should have clinched the Western division championship by then. Baseball is, of course, the quintessential summer game, but the heat has kept us away from all but one trip out to Arlington this year.

As I type this post, the roof is being pelted by pecans. Despite the drought, the trees (we have eight of various varieties) are loaded this year. But the tree rats are underfed and are having at the still-unripe nuts, nibbling bits and then tossing them aside. It sounds a little like a hail storm's going on, and I have to keep my clogs by the back door because I can't venture out of doors bare-footed any more, even for a few inches. Half-eaten pecans are no fun to step on.

Today's Skywatch Friday entries are nothing special. But the sky's blue, the light from the autumn sunrise looked pretty on those pecans, so that's what I shot. For the moment there's a bit of seasonal promise in the air: thoughts of harvest stews, squashes and pumpkins, baked apples, pecan pie, and all manner of goodies that couldn't be cooked all summer. I just wish, as a culture, we spent more time enjoying these moments, and less time rushing about. Any grading I do tomorrow morning will be undertaken out of doors, with the pups, among the birds and squirrels, and with a nice cup of tea. And a hat to protect me from pecan debris.

Have a great weekend, Folks. And happy fall!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The End, At Last

Over the years, I have tried to use the Farm as platform for extolling the virtues of community, and to suggest ways in which we can be better inhabitants of this planet.

I also grew up as a military brat, imbued with notions of honor, fairness, courage, and other virtues fostered and shared by the many soldiers, sailors, and airmen I met during my father's tenure as a non-commissioned officer in the U. S. Air Force. Being a good person became, for me, synonymous with serving one's country honorably. This didn't change during the Viet Nam war, even though I opposed it. It didn't change during the Iraq wars, even though I questioned one and abhorred the "reasons" for initiating the other. It hasn't changed since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, even though I think we betrayed that country when we failed to help them recover after the Soviet occupation. Soldiers don't make policy; politicians do.

And so this morning, when I received the following video in my e-mailbox from the Obama people, I could think of nothing better to do with it than to post it here. I should note that I try to consider as many points of view as possible, and receive mail from conservatives and No Labels people as well as liberals and progressives. But this video does a lovely job of marking this historic moment--this small step toward fairness and equality for everyone.



To the many gay and straight officers and enlisted people I have known through the years, and who taught me the true nature of patriotism, thank you, and congratulations. As much as I would love to live in a world in which your services would not be required, I appreciate what you do, and today I celebrate with you.

Friday, September 9, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different

The sky in north Texas has been decidedly uninteresting this week, but not so in other parts of the state. Much of the region is suffering wildfires brought about by drought and high winds, and skies have been filled with smoke and haze. This makes for lovely sunsets (we may see some on SWF), but causes enormous suffering for those whose homes are burning and whose lives are changing irrevocably.

On the coast, at east beach, Galveston, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee created the skies shown here, gifts from my daughter who was visiting family and friends with her beau. Like many of my own chance photos, these were captured with an iPhone 4, and unaltered. I particularly like the opening shot, which shows me that my girl has a good eye as well as a generous spirit.

I'm hopeful that the Beloved Spouse and I will have a chance to take the pups down to romp on the beach before too long, but in the meantime I'll be enjoying the beautiful cool weather here in the north--while it lasts. Although I've had the A/C off for a week now, the forecast promises century marks for later in the week. I'm decidedly ready for Fall!

This post marks my 250th on the Farm. Thanks to my regulars for sticking with me through my rants and musings--and welcome to any new folk who stray in, attracted by my daughter's "walk-by" photography.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Useful Work: A Labor Day Meditation

As I mentioned on Thursday, my query about the origins of Labor Day last week elicited no correct answers, which doesn't really surprise me given the general lack of historical knowledge evident among the rising generation. Coincidentally, I showed a video on art between the wars (Robert Hughes's "Streamlines and Bread Lines" from his American Visions series), adding to the number of synchronistic experiences my students and I have been noting this quarter. Students were struck by the similarities between current circumstances and those that produced the WPA--but we were pretty sure that nobody would be willing to do much to put artists to work today. Nor do art and craft as "useful work" (in William Morris's view, the opposite of "useless toil") quite fit into our current political preoccupations.

Several headlines screamed at us this week, scaring the bejeezis out of common folk, but reflecting the realities presented by today's labor market. The "news" that no new jobs were created this month should actually come as no surprise, given the fact that corporations have figured out how to squeeze more hours and more work out of fewer people, and for lesser-skilled jobs have opted to seek labor from beyond our shores from those who will work for pennies.

Why should any of us be shocked by this? Those Americans who have jobs seem to be so afraid of losing them that they will work extra hours at no increased pay. Nobody likes unions any more, it seems, and "collective bargaining" has become code for "socialist policy" (although few actually know anything about what socialism is except what the far-righties tell them), so the over-worked and underpaid will likely not find their lot improving any time soon.

His Holiness, the Governor of Texas (HHGT), who is now running for President, touts his job-creating record in the state, neglecting to mention just how many of these are minimum-wage (of which he disapproves) labor involving fast food and cleaning up other peoples' messes. Yes there are high-wage, high-tech jobs in Texas. But our fair state also boasts a miserable educational record, and had I more time to check into it, I might find that many of those graduating from higher ed institutions consist of foreign students who will be taking their skills back home.

I frequently snort, impolitely, that my students know how to use all manner of techno-gizmos, but none of them know how to fix them. So if something goes wrong, they've got to call "Peggy" in Mumbai for tech support. Should something major happen--like the big EMP I keep promising--there aren't that many people around here who could figure out how to get the grid back up, let alone manufacture the toys to which we have all become addicted and upon which we have all become dependent.

But instead of properly educating our students (to think both creatively and critically) and putting them to work devising ways to fix the country and save the planet, and instead of valuing trades like plumbing and woodworking and home repair, we seem to be training people to be CPAs and tax lawyers whose main job is helping people to get out of paying their share of keeping the country running.

It's worth noting that even though no jobs were created last month, many of the potential job creators were sitting on their corporate earnings (which are in many cases at record levels), presumably "jittery" about the market. The simple equation is this: people need jobs to earn money to pay for stuff, and the stuff is being made elsewhere rather than here where it's consumed. But the companies that make the stuff don't want to have to pay a living wage because it would cut into their profits. Americans, its seems, won't work for crap wages, so I guess it's our fault that so many are unemployed. You hear it all the time: there are jobs out there for anyone who wants one. Yeah. Try supporting a family on 20 grand a year these days.

All this has been said before, and I really don't have the answers because thinking about it makes my brain hurt and raises my blood pressure. Other people, like Paul Krugman and Juliet Schor and Warren Buffett, offer solutions that nobody wants to hear, but might help turn things around. My only suggestion involves figuring out a way to get investors to stop treating the stock market like a casino and start putting money into promising, necessary industries with potential to help rather than harm--like alternative energy, local farming, regional grids, and less destructive forms of transportation. But as long as Wall Street is fueled by fear, rumor, and hedge funds, nothing will change and things can only get worse.

The President is scheduled to reveal his plan to get Americans back to work on Tuesday. I have little hope that it will address many of these issues, and I'm absolutely confident that the far-righties will shoot it down like so many clay pigeons being flung across the skeet range.

What we really need is meaningful work that serves a genuine purpose, whether it's farming sustainably, repairing necessary equipment, managing waste, educating young people, building thoughtfully, manufacturing responsibly, or simply finding ways of promoting the common good. What we don't need is more fast food, more cheap and/or disposable tschochkes, more expensive toys, and more ways to speed up environmental degradation.

Here's to a future in which workers are paid what they're actually worth, rather than what some over-paid CEO thinks they should earn; where we focus more carefully on needs rather than on desires or on what advertisers try to convince us that we absolutely must have; where people live comfortably without reducing the probability that their grandchildren will have to suffer from smog, drought, or other hazards that could be avoided if we change our ways now; where our representatives actually recognize that no state is an island unto itself, and that what we spew into the air or the waterways affects us all; and where people think carefully, evaluating innovations and choices instead of simply adopting the next big thing.

Happy Labor Day--especially for those who remember why this day was set aside in the first place.

Image credit: "Fruit Store," a Works Progress Administration poster created between 1938 and 1941, via Wikimedia Commons. I thought it fitting to use a poster that promoted something I'd love to see more of: fruit stands full of local produce.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Looking Skyward

It seems as though I spend a great deal of time these days looking up: for clouds, signs of rain, tokens of impending change. But I'm tired of writing about the weather. It rained last Friday, providing a steady, sweet, cool respite from the heat that lasted for about an hour. The temperature fell to a balmy 103 F in the days that followed, and it should only get up to 101 today, according to the weather sources that have been wrong more often than not. From now on I'm only going to rely on the approaching equinox to signal change.

But not thinking about the weather leaves mental space for worrying about civilization and its discontents: war, famine, politics, economics, environment, health, education--with all their creeping dystopian possibilities.

So lately I've been taking refuge on a different planet. One called Phoebe, where the protagonist of my latest "old bats in space" saga (Petunia) has just disappeared. She finally reached that point after I'd spent several months thinking about how to get her there, and after I'd spent another several hours rereading what I'd already written and filling in the missing bits. None of this is for publication; rather, it's my own escape from here and now and a means for imagining alternatives to what ails us at the moment. Writing this stuff is fun, and Petunia's having fun, and it beats drinking as an avoidance mechanism.

I've also got several reads going: books that run the gamut from Sayonara Michelangelo by Waldemar Januszczak, to The Atlantis Syndrome, by Paul Jordan, to Robert Charles Wilson's latest, Vortex and John Scalzi's engaging but silly newest book, Fuzzy Nation (both just finished). Some of these I'm reading for my classes (Januszczak and Jordan), so they sort of count as work, but I don't actually have to read them. I do so mostly so that I don't deliver the same stale stuff over and over again and can add fresh material to my stand-up art history and mythology routines.

But I won't be able to avoid the real world for much longer, so for anyone who's interested, here's what's on the Farm menu for the near future: musings on cucina povera (fancy Italian for peasant food) and utopia, energy options, food deserts and obesity, creating an oasis, and coming to terms with advancing age. Probably not all at once, though.

In the meantime, here are this week's Skywatch Friday entries, all taken with the new iPhone (but not the Camera+ app, which I'm still trying to figure out how to use properly) in the early morning during the last couple of weeks. The bottom two were shot in parking lots at or near school.

For those who celebrate it, happy Labor Day weekend. But please take a moment to remember what it represents. When asked, none of my students knew. Their most frequent response was that it has something to do with having to go back to school. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Homer The Brave

Dogs are such a part of the good life for human beings that I can't imagine not having them around for any length of time. When we lose one we lose family--and some family are harder to lose than others.

Such is the case with Homer, my daughter's version of "Marley," who for a couple of years made us crazy, but then, when he finally felt safe and "at home" became the happiest, goofiest dog I've ever known.

Well, Homer died yesterday, after a long illness. Rather than telling the story myself, I'll let her do it. This is the letter she wrote to the adoption agency after he died:

I just wanted to inform you that Homer, who I adopted 5 years and 8 months ago, passed away peacefully yesterday at the age of 9-ish.

He had been diagnosed with Leiomysarcoma (cancer of the smooth muscle tissue) in November of last year. He had surgery in December to remove the tumor, however it was too intricately entwined with his ureter and too close to his spine for them to be able to remove it. We went home with Homer on "pallative care", with the vets only expecting him to live a short time. My sweet boy held on for almost 9 months. 8 months and 30 days to be exact... He was a fighter and loved his life so much he didn't want to let go. My vets were all amazed by his attitude and his determination to keep on keeping on.


Sunday night he could hardly walk, and by Monday morning he showed me in his own special way that it was time. He was tired of fighting, and he was ready to let go. Two of his favorite aunties and my boyfriend came over to say goodbye, and we all loved on him for a long time before we took him in. His passing was a true testament to his life - he was pure love down to his last breath. He was surrounded by love, and even my vet cried. He actually had to leave the room afterwards because it was too much for him. For a dog to have that much of an impact on a vet speaks volumes about Homer's personality and gentle soul.


I just wanted to say thank you for saving him, and thank you for keeping him until he picked me as his mom. I loved him so much, and he changed my life.


He was the best dog in the world, and when I am ready for another dog, Lexee's is the first place I will look.


It's fitting, I think, that Homer is still the "poster dog" on the Lexee's Legacy home page.

We'll all miss him, but I can't tell you all how proud I am of my kid, who took on a task that many had already refused. But the only thing she refused was to give up, and Homer gave us many happy years as a result.

Image notes: These are the last two pictures Esther sent me of Homer; the opening shot was taken the night before he died. For things like this I'll be eternally grateful that we've now both got iPhones.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Been Hot So Long It Seems Like Cool To Me

With humblest apologies to the late Richard FariƱa, the title of this post has been running through my mind since the temperature dropped from 108 a few days ago to the balmy 103 of yesterday. The 1980 record will be tied on Friday if the weather holds, and even the smidgin of a possibility of rain (if the front along the Red River pushes south at all) probably won't affect that.

But this morning I went out to check the wreckage of the potager, and to get some photos for this post, and amazingly enough it was cloudy! Even though the clouds have now moved off, the temperature's only 84 (forecast is for 100 later) and it practically feels like spring. I may well be able to haul myself out of doors for a bit of exam-grading on a lawn chair when I'm finished here.

Unfortunately, the entire garden could qualify for disaster relief. I've learned an enormous lesson about soil and mulch, and next year's efforts will be focused on deepening and enriching the planting areas. My big mistake this year was to pretty much dump the chippings from the old woodpile onto the garden as mulch, without realizing that the bits might cement themselves together and form an impenetrable barrier. I've since busted up the mats and mixed soil in, but I've got a lot of compost-management (mostly occasional watering to keep the bins active; right now they're just sitting there desiccating) and enrichment to do before next spring.

Dead beans, dead tomatoes

The woody herbs are holding up pretty well, but basils, pepper plants (which have stopped setting fruit altogether), and eggplant are looking limp and sad. The tomato plants are going into the compost this weekend, and since heirloom varieties from local farms are readily available now, I'm giving up for the rest of the year.

What's left of the herb/veggie garden

My lettuce/strawberry pot, which has afforded me few nice snacks and pretty salads, is all but dead. The froggy rain gauge I stuck in there has been empty for weeks, but it helps me measure the water I add to what's left of the lawn once a week. The pecan trees overhead, which sported a promising number of baby nuts before the heat came, are dropping stunted little pods all over the place. Even the tree rats are discouraged. I've started putting critter food out for them and the neighborhood possum and raccoon so they don't start digging up the herbs to look for goodies underneath.

The strawberry/lettuce pot

But walking through the house in the afternoon, I've noticed that the heat is less oppressive, in part due to the fact that I haven't opened the curtains for a week, so the few degrees or relief are actually making a difference. The humidity dips as the day goes on (from 60% in the morning to 29% at 5 pm), which makes it possible to sit under a tree with a cold beer or a nice glass of vinho verde in the evening.

I'm actually thinking of hitting the Large Mart for an on-sale kiddie pool to soak in--although filling even a small one would probably cost a day's salary. Water prices are rising (with good reason; the drought gets worse by the minute and all the rain is falling in Oklahoma), and neighboring cities have finally put restrictions in place. McKinney ("Unique By Nature") keeps them in effect all year, which makes us feel pretty smug.

I just wish it didn't take impending disaster or serious price hikes to get people to conserve both water and electricity. But the folks who insist on keeping their central A/C at 75 degrees are seeing power bills between $400 (for an apartment) and $700 (for a 2500 square-foot house) a month, so the thermostats are probably being adjusted as I type.

Since I started writing about the heat I've noticed that my tolerance for it is rising; the only time I'm really uncomfortable is when I have to face the furnace-blast upon exiting my decidedly over-cooled workplace. Several of my students wore sweaters while they took their exams this week, but as they left the building there was a veritable strip-tease show going on as jumpers and hoodies came off to reveal the skimpiest of tank tops.

In a blink--only a month and a half from now--it should all be over. The autumnal equinox will be especially welcome this year, even though it marks a transition to what may turn out to be a winter like the last, with its abnormal snowfall and lower temperatures than usual. And then we'll all be grousing about how cold it is, and what the ice storms are doing to our gardens.

It may actually be enough to convince Texans that climate change is actually happening, but it'll take more than a few hot summers and cold winters to make them believe that they have anything to do with it. The real test of lessons learned will come next summer, when we see how many folk have installed geothermal heat pumps.

Happy Skywatch Friday to all, and think cool thoughts.

Post Script: About an hour after I finished this post, I went to peg out the wash and was met by looming clouds sneaking down from the north and west. The temperature has dropped 6 degrees (it's now only 90, at 2 pm) and were it not for the dead baby pecans raining from the trees in the wind, I'd be out frolicking. This shot was taken at about the same place (with less magnification) as the opening photo.

Advancing storm?

I'm not particularly optimistic about rain, however; I left the laundry on the line.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dog Daze of Summer

Anybody who ever reads the Farm is probably sick to death of my grousing about the weather. Last winter I was fussing about how Texans don't know how to handle snow (a fact that lead to abnormal numbers of missed school days), and for the last several weeks I've been on about the heat. My comment du jour is "I made it through the summer of 1980, with a one-year-old, a four-year-old, and a VW bus with no air conditioning." I think I even had a tee shirt proclaiming the fact.

And we did survive. The four-year-old is now 35 (living in Seattle, where the temperature doesn't seem to have risen past the mid 70s all summer), the one-year-old recently turned 32, and the bus is long gone (most recently replaced by the lovely hybrid Vera, whose mileage is down to 52 mpg, apparently because of the heat). Mind you, in those days we had a well air-conditioned tract house, in contrast to the ageing bungalow with virtually no A/C the Beloved Spouse and I have occupied for the last decade, and I had no garden to speak of. Now, the potager that showed so much promise last spring looks as if someone did it in with a blow torch, and the lawn is a lovely shade of straw.

Of course, I'm not the only one harkening back to 1980. Daily Poop columnist Jacqueline Floyd is ten years younger than I am, and wrote this week about trying to survive that summer as a college student in Austin--pointing out that poverty is one of those conditions that weigh more heavily when the weather turns surly. My lack of air conditioning stems from my own philosophical peculiarities, but it's a choice. Many in this country are suffering deeply (and, yes, dying) because they can't afford the luxury of chilled air.

The "wallpaper" that currently occupies my computer desktop features a bulldog snoozing on a pile of ice. It makes me smile, and keeps my crankiness level lower than it might be. But since warmer temperatures are forecast for the future, it occurs to me that we really ought to start adapting to the change.

Training ourselves to endure higher thermometer readings is not only plain common sense, but it ends up having economic benefits as well. Setting the thermostat at 78 F or higher actually helps prevent rolling blackouts when the grid gets overloaded. Limiting the amount of energy we use not only saves money, but lowers the amount of particulate matter that enters the atmosphere and causes at least some of the warming.

It's likely that high-temperature summers will increase over the next decade, and unless we develop ways to rely less on energy-sucking technologies, we're going to find ourselves in a pickle--or pickling ourselves in the heat. But yesterday, as I walked around in the garden, surveying the damage, I noticed that as long as I wasn't taking the full blast of the sun I got used to conditions pretty quickly. Sitting under a tree wasn't nearly as unpleasant as I'd thought it would be. Granted, the kitchen's too hot for comfortable cooking, but if I stay there only long enough to fix a casserole that can cook itself (we have a well-insulated pizza-sized oven in the range that heats up quickly and doesn't let much of that escape) or throw a nice salad together, it's not unbearable. And then I get to go sit in a cool room and use my sweat to cool me off.

We've become a nation of sissies. We work in over-cooled offices and buildings where workers have to don sweaters to keep from getting a chill; we drive our cars with thermostats set at 70 F and then wonder why it's so bloody hot when we emerge from our commutes.

I'm here to tell you that if you set the car or house at 78 or 80 (and put the air flow in the car on recirculate), it's much easier to tolerate exterior temperatures. And even though 86 degrees overnight doesn't make sleeping very comfortable without air conditioning, it's quite pleasant in the morning, out of doors with a bit of breeze, a cup of good coffee (or a glass of iced tea), and a newspaper.

But the heat's no joke in the long run. This week we're set to break the 1980 record of 42 consecutive days registering over 100 degrees. The dogs are shedding what little of their fur they have left, and the birds walk around looking scruffy, "panting" with their beaks open. With heat comes drought, and water restrictions, so there's only so much I can do for them. I freshen the bird baths every morning, and water when I can (Mondays and Fridays before 10 am and after 6), but it's not doing much to keep the plants alive.

I do hope that eventually alternative ways of cooling us down--ways that don't involve building more nukes, burning more coal, or frakking for more gas--become viable. In the meantime, I guess I'll just order the new tee shirt: "I survived the summer of 2011."

Image note: The photo was taken near our house in Plano just before my son embarked on his first summer day-camp experience in 1980.

Other note: edited 08.11.11 to include a link to the new tee shirt; somebody beat me to it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Looking Backward

Temple of Apollo, Delphi
Forty years ago this summer, I took my first and last extended trip to Europe. Initial Spouse and I joined a charter flight from Penn to London, flew to Paris, took a train to Rome and later Naples, embarked for Greece from Brindisi on a ferry, disembarked at Patras, toured the Peloponnese by train, spent a little time in Athens, took a boat to Crete and back to Athens, flew to Rome and then to Copenhagen, took another train to London, and then rejoined the charter home to Philadelphia. We left in late May with $1200 in travelers' cheques (with prepaid Europasses and flights from Rome to Denmark), and returned on August 16 with about $600. Talk about frugality.

Last week I found the diary I kept, with painstaking notations about every bloody penny we spent. I have dim memories of hostels and roach-infested D-class hotels, lots of bananas and bread, and never-ending searches for cold milk. Fortunately for our pocketbook, I hadn't yet acquired a taste for wine, but by the end of the trip I'd become a connoisseur of Retsina and Danish beer. The best food was Greek (especially at one taverna at Pylos, where the proprietor led us into the kitchen to pick out our meal), and also the cheapest. That, (and the fact that at two different universities I had incredible instructors in Greek cuisine, both Greek wives of Classics professors) undoubtedly accounts for my abiding love for all food Greek and Mediterranean.

Toward the end of the Greek leg of the journey, on July 23, 1971, to be exact, we took a bus to Delphi. Here's the entry:

Caught subway to Liossion St. bus station (w/in a mile of it, anyway) which isn't really on Liossion St. but we found it anyway. Got to the station at 7:15 & got the last 2 seats for the 8 am bus. Some 4 hours after the bus left we got to Delphi--after the bus had to stop in driving rain so the conductor could tie a tarp over the top. It was reasonably clear at Delphi--we got caught in a brief downpour that lasted about 3 min. and that was it.

A little note on synchronicity (about which we've been talking in the myth class): Delphi was on the menu for the History of Art & Design I class this week, including the following sites:

We went first down to the area of the temples of Athena Pronaia and the Tholos. Not much left of the former 2, but they've set up three of the columns of the Tholos back into place and it looks quite nice.

Scribbling in the diary I didn't pay much attention to style. Lots of things were apparently "quite nice." We were also having camera problems (had been since Mycenae), but it seems to have been working here--which is why I've got these photos.

Then we went up to the main precinct and spent most of our time looking at the major stuff--the Treasury of the Athenians, the Stoa of the Athenians, Apollo's temple, the theater, and the stadium. Tim took off to look at some other things & I sat & meditated near the navel.

View from near the Omphalos, Temple of Apollo, Delphi

We went on to the museum to see the Charioteer (it was "nice too"), which was responsible for my having gotten into Classics in the first place, via Helen MacInnes's potboiler, Decision at Delphi. I guess we weren't allowed to take photos, else I'd have had at least one shot. (We were also stingy with our film.)

Another dim memory of the trip to the site involved holding a chicken for a lady who had too many to handle, but that didn't make it into the diary.

View of the Gulf of Corinth from Sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi

I used my new scanner to get the photos for this week's Skywatch Friday entry; they're a bit scratchy and I had to do some minor cropping, but I think they're rather lovely (or "quite nice"), considering my then-youth and inexperience. I was, after all, only 24 at the time--still an infant.

The marriage ended a year later, and I've only been as far as London again since. But the trip provided a formative moment in my life, and I'll always be grateful for having had the chance to visit Greece before it fell into such disrepair.

I hope everyone's surviving the heat, which now seems to be affecting almost the whole country. Locally, our only hope for change any time soon lies in the small possibility of out-fall from Tropical Storm Don. Otherwise we're on track to break the 1980 record.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End of Plutopia?

I wrote about the United States as a "plutopia" back in 2008, and what follows is my latest take on the subject.

Recent political shenanigans regarding the debt ceiling have brought some interesting responses from thoughtful folks who have somehow risen above the snark and recognized a very painful but evident truth: We cannot go on as we are.

Last Sunday's Opinion section in the Daily Poop ran a reprint of David Leonhardt's New York Times article on consumer spending and its role in the current economic stagnation. In it he notes the chicken-or-egg dilemma: which comes first? Consumers spend less because the economy's bad, or the economy's bad because of consumers' new-found frugality?

This has been a burning question for many, and for some time. I know I'm not spending as much and am putting much more into savings, paying down remaining debt, and being much more mindful about what I buy. But for me it's not so much a cash issue as an environmental/philosophical one. I'm trying to practice what I preach, especially in my consumption choices: higher quality, more sustainably raised food; adhering to Morris's dictum about not having anything in my house I don't consider beautiful or useful; being miserly about utility use. I can't tell you when I last went shopping without a particular item in mind, and I've lost track of the number of things I haven't bought because I decided (after much contemplation) that I really didn't need it. That's, in fact, why I'm typing this post on my three-year-old Gateway PC notebook instead of a nice shiny new iMac.

I do still slip occasionally, but mostly it's small change: an app for the iPad (now over a year old), a new DVD (we tend to watch movies more than once, and don't go to the cineplex much because of the cheesy background music you have to listen to and ads you have to watch before the feature starts), a few books from Half Price. In Whole Foods the other day, I made my first impulse purchase in quite some time--three bars of lavender goat milk soap. I fell for the smell.

Even my support for the wine industry is dwindling, because I recently realized just how much we were spending, and just how much sleep I was losing (and weight I wasn't losing) thanks to an extra glass or two above my supposed limit of one glass per night. So now we're opting for fewer bottles per week, focusing on the highest quality we can afford.

But that's just it. Frugality on one end breeds job losses on the other. Mind you, I don't think my old friend Matt Lavelle is going to personally suffer if I cut back on the fermented grape juice (especially since I don't have easy access to his wines). But if everybody got this stingy (or perhaps this thoughtful?), it would make a huge difference. Which is why I wish people would start boycotting the crap loaded onto shelves in supermarkets and demanding better quality, more nutritious, less environmentally degrading stuff.

"Wait!" they say around here. "If we stop buying our high-fructose corn syrup beverage of choice (the one with no nutritional value at all, and enormous cost to the rest of us in terms of land-use and consequential medical costs), what happens to all those poor folks who work for Dr. Pepper (or Frito Lay, or whatever)? They'll lose their jobs!" Not to mention the fact that doing anything to deter folks from buying said liquid uselessness (like taxing it) means more nanny-statism, more big gummint interference in my god-given right to make stupid choices.

Well, maybe not. The other day, having not had time to drop by Starbucks for my weekly venti non-fat latte (major indulgence), I went to the school bistro for something with a tad of caffeine in it to get me through the afternoon. For a while they stocked HonesTea, but that was gone. Ultimately, the only thing I could find that wasn't simply vitamin-enhanced sugar water or HFCS laden anything (or ginseng-augmented "energy drink"), was "all-natural" Snapple Lemon Tea. A bit too sweet for me, but it only had water (filtered, of course), tea, lemon, and sugar. I'd have been happier with it unsweetened (having long ago weaned myself from sugary drinks), but at least this offered an alternative to the rest. Snapple, of course, is owned by Dr. Pepper. And get this; the company has a manifesto ("social responsibility report") that includes, among their five year goals, "Continue to provide a full range of products, with at least 50% of innovation projects in the pipeline focused on reducing calories, offering smaller sizes and improving nutrition."

I'm a bit suspicious of their motives for offering smaller sizes, for which they will probably ask current prices, but hey. It's a step.

Frito Lay, another big local employer, has already started marketing more healthful choices, although I've yet to take them up on any new, more nutritious offerings. I'll have to wait until I run out of Clif bars and have to run down to a machine for a snack. At any rate, Frito Lay, too, has a section on their website devoted to "Our Planet," and it includes 43 things they're doing or going to do to help save the earth (they apparently started recycling their packing materials back in 1939), including using renewable energy sources and other fairly expensive investments. There's also a "your health" section which is somewhat less convincing (potatoes and corn, although "all natural," are, after all, pretty low-quality carbs to load up on--especially since we all know that "you can't eat just one" chip). You can also pretty much bet that the farms that corn and those potatoes come from are laden with chemical fertilizers.

Given that we're not, as a still comparatively wealthy population, going to give up ours snacks, I guess all this represents a small step in the right direction. Especially when one considers the under-served poor in areas where few supermarkets exist and a cheap way to fill your stomach is to buy a bag of Fritos or down a slug of Snapple from the local ice house (Texan for convenience store).

When we look at what confronts a large part of the world, however, we're still an absurdly wealthy country. For example, we don't generally die of intestinal diseases because almost everybody has access to a toilet and we don't have raw sewage running through our neighborhoods. I actually attribute my iron gut and resistance to tummy upsets to my childhood in then-underdeveloped Asia, where I was exposed to all manner of bugs I'm now apparently immune to. But appallingly huge numbers of children and adults elsewhere die every year of diseases that could be eradicated with decent sanitation (and it doesn't have to be water-hungry flush-toilets, either).

What I do want to question here is the basic premise that in order to be a great nation, or even a fully-employed nation, we have to keep buying stuff. And we have to keep employing people to make stuff. And this stuff should be big and/or expensive: refrigerators, cars, washing machines, dishwashers, houses, computers. But in order to keep these folks in jobs, we have maintain the whole planned obsolescence ethos we bought into, probably as far back as when Henry Ford started turning people into automatons on assembly lines. None of this big stuff can last so long that we only buy it once, or twice, or even three times in our lives. We have to keep buying new ones, the more frequently, the better.

Now, I can see trading in the old energy-inefficient fridge for a shiny new one with LED lights and that uses far less electricity. I can even see trading in the ten-year-old Civic that gets 35-40 mpg (if you drive like an old lady) for a new hybrid that gets 50-55 (again, if you drive like an old lady). But there are people who buy or lease a new car every couple of years and actually go through dozens of automobiles in a lifetime. These folks are also more likely to buy bigger, more expensive vehicles that get much poorer mileage on a tank of gas. But that's what the Plutopian economy requires: buy more, more often.

But alternatives do exist, and before I go off on this any further, I'd like to recommend that folks take a look at Juliet Schor's web page on Plenitude. Her suggestions are rather radical--for example, perhaps we should work less rather than more to create a better economy--but I think truly promising. I've mentioned her before, but I'm in the process of re-reading her book (the first one I bought for the iPad) and she makes even more sense now than she did a year ago.

Your homework, Dear Reader, is to go to her blog and meander through it. That alone should give us more to talk about . . . And while you're at it, check out this week's Owls' Parliament for a related article, and a superb comment by one of my former students. It offers me hope for the future, because these folks are the ones who're going to have to live in it.

Image credit: A US Food & Drug Administration poster promoting corn, from 1918. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Farewell, Wild Blue Yonder

It's hard for a space junkie like me to look at the sky these days. As I watched the last liftoff of Atlantis last week, I already missed the space program. At the moment, we really don't have anything to replace it, and it's occupied a considerable portion of my adult life.

Ever since, at an Angels game in Anaheim in 1969, I watched the cheesy animated graphics on the scoreboard that mimicked the first moon landing, I've been a devoted fan. I've had a NASA TV gadget on my desktop since I got this computer. The first apps I bought for my iPhone and iPad were NASA and/or space related. The newest app I have for the iPad (after the Star Trek PADD, which is seriously cool if not yet perfect) is a catalogue of exoplanets. I can't get enough of this stuff.

I can remember where I was and what I was doing when the two shuttle disasters took place, and when Columbia broke up over the Dallas area, my son immediately called me from Seattle because he knew I'd be inconsolable. I always regretted the fact that I'd been socialized out of science and maths as a child (girls weren't considered capable of either in my day, and I didn't yet know I could buck the system), because I think I'd probably have tried out for the astronaut corps otherwise.

And now, perhaps only for the time being, it's gone. Unlike many of my fellow citizens, however, I'm not going to rail against the President or anybody else for cancelling the show. Our holy governor is screaming about the jobs lost in Houston, while he hacks away at education and rails against clean air. Space programs cost money, and we don't really have it to spend these days, and nobody seems willing to pay the taxes it would take to keep it going, so that's that.

I will probably send letters shortly to our representatives, asking them to please raise my taxes, but I doubt that anybody else will. It's an empty gesture, I know, but I do realize that a country of damn near 300,000,000 people takes a lot of money to run and we all have to pay a share of that. You can't want to be the Greatest Country in the World if you're not willing to fund the programs that keep people safe, make sure their air is breathable, their water potable, their poor and sick taken care of. And you can't have leaders in science, engineering, or the arts if you aren't willing to build and support a superb education system with teachers paid in accordance with their responsibility to train the children who will one day have to run this country.

I'm glad the ISS is still up there, and I'm grateful to the Russians for maintaining a system to get the astronauts up to it. But I'm going to miss the launches, and the cute group pictures of folks floating around and smiling at the camera, and the glorious shots of spacewalks. And I'm certainly going to miss the boost to kids' imaginations that the space program has fostered over the last forty years.

Live long, prosper, and dream of better days.

Image notes: Taken with the iPhone 4 Camera+ app on one of the last cool mornings with clouds we've seen this summer.

Friday, July 15, 2011

iSky

Not much time for posting today, so I thought I'd share the weather. Hot. Hot. More hot.

Mind you, it's still not as bad as 1980, when I had a one year-old and a four year-old and an old VW microbus with no air conditioning. So far it's only thirteen days of over-100 degree heat. 1980 gave us 39 consecutive scorchers.

So, things could always be worse.

The two photos are among the first I've taken with the enhanced capabilities of the iPhone 4. I took the opening shot in the CVS parking lot, and represents just about the last time we saw serious clouds around here.

The photo on the left was shot at the Ballpark when my daughter and her beau took us to a game a few weeks ago. It happened to be the one in which Dirk Nowitski threw out the first ball (pretty funny; it was a basketball), and I think that's why the helicopter was hovering. But the sky was just sky; no clouds at all, and it's been pretty much that way ever since.

Said daughter is in Maine this week, on an island, near the sea, soaking up the fresh air and cool temperatures (it was 70 when she landed yesterday).

Happy Skywatch Friday, people. Rantings start again soon.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Water

The photo is a bit of a cheat to make it work for Skywatch Friday (note the sky reflection), but it's also a fitting illustration of elements from earth to air to fire to water. The "birdbath" is actually a former copper fire pit, which was rendered useless as such when a huge branch from our neighbor's tree fell on it. But it makes a nifty spa for the feathered folk who visit my potager, and the sundial makes a nice launching pad for frolics. Earth is represented by the rocks (from a cairn of Sierra samples my father pinched from some hapless geologist's cache many years ago). The air and water symbolism is rather more obvious.

The coalescence of themes in blogs and life never ceases to amaze me. Here I am, sitting down to prepare this week's contribution to the Farm and to end my recent attempt at theme-blogging (The Elements Project). But during this week I've also been updating a course I teach on myth, and water--the element du jour--keeps showing up as I select new readings and augment the slide shows. Water is a pretty powerful metaphor, after all, and it's a basic component of stories about origins and creation. It's also a topic I've written about frequently on the Farm (Good News and Bad News in the Water Wars, among others), and it'll probably creep into future posts as well. If I'm repeating myself, think of this as an update.

Yesterday I got tired of heat and work, and indulged in a bit of what I call "Valley porn": looking through the Owens Valley real estate offerings and fantasizing about winning lotteries and settling down on a couple of hundred acres, preferably with a trout stream running through. Water (and sometimes the lack of it), in fact, has been an abiding theme in my love affair with my home ground.

I probably need not remind anyone that the sprawling southern Californian megalopolis we call Los Angeles owes its very existence to water that once flowed freely through the Owens River Valley. LA would have been much smaller had William Mulholland not purloined the rights to water flowing between the Inyos and the Sierras and built the aqueduct that enabled population growth to the south. The old adage "blood is thicker than water" was transformed into "blood is water" when it comes to making a huge city possible on land that could not otherwise have supported all the millions that now occupy the region.

There are, of course, many sides to this story, but I've lived with it for long enough to know that every time I travel home I see signs of increasing dessication, and for fifty years I've watched the joshua trees from the south marching up the valley, harbingers of encroaching desert. It's always been desert--but the oases are becoming fewer and farther between.

In fact, I love the desert. There's nothing like dry, granite sand, sagebrush, and creosote bush to make one really appreciate water in the first place. I even harbor a special fondness for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which flows by the Cottonwood Power Plant where I spent summers and holidays until my grandfather died and my grandmother moved to town. The "Innapennants" (Firefly joke) in my family had harbored no long-term animosity toward the city of Los Angeles, and my grandfather worked for them for over twenty years until, as my uncle recently noted after a visit to the old plant, he "left feet first, as did the chief operator before him." My uncle also reported that the city had put up water meters next to the houses there--no more free water for anybody.

As I mentioned in the introduction to More News From Nowhere, the water situation in the Valley isn't all bad news--at least for the nostalgic few like me who are glad it didn't turn into one big long city on the way to Reno and Tahoe. The median income in the area is low, but there's work in the tourist industry, and a few ranchers and others make decent enough money to build half-million dollar houses up in the Alabamas (as I discovered in my romp through the properties-for-sale ads).

One of the more ironical aspects of valley life is that a fairly new employer has set up shop in Olancha, just south of Owens Lake: the Crystal Geyser water bottling people, who truck water pumped from underground snow-fed springs down to folks in LA who apparently don't like the taste of the river water.

As I've recently been reminded, the relationship between water and life shows up constantly in creation myths, and these stories have been around for as long as human beings have been around to tell them. Like fire, water has both its creative and destructive elements; although life comes from water, nearly every mythic system contains a flood story. When the gods don't get it right, they send a flood to wipe the slate clean so they can start all over again.

Every religion I've ever been involved in also uses water as a symbol of birth and rebirth. When I was six months old, I was baptized with water from the River Jordan (according to the certificate) in the First Congregational Church in Pasedena, California. In Japan, at age 7, I was re-baptized Catholic (my mother had converted some years earlier, and my brother had been baptized at birth), and then in my mid-twenties I got the Christian all washed off in a mikveh in Allentown Pennsylvania while three Orthodox rabbis waited politely behind a door to hear me say the blessing that made me Jewish.

Just a couple of weeks ago (in the Air post) I was grousing about how water has been responsible for the increased use of air conditioning by raising regional humidity, and lamenting our inability to use evaporative cooling instead of heat pumps around here. Thanks to my daily dose of Good, however, I'm now aware of a new technology that promises to reduce electric power use by 90%, and that uses a system descended from the old swamp cooler--and that "works well in both Gulf Coast humidity and desert heat." Systems like this could also make it easier to get off the grid, since (according to the Miller-McCune article), 14% of American electrical use goes to air conditioning.

As most of Texas continues to suffer drought ranging from severe to exceptional (except for our little area of north Texas where we've had enough rain this year to move us out of any category), the wild fires will continue to burn, and water shortages will make it harder to endure them. I feel a little guilty when I water the veggies, but try to make up for it by not taking showers when I don't have to go out in public. Only a year ago, I reported (in the above-mentioned post on water wars) that Texas as a whole was drought free for the first time in recent history.

If we don't get rain soon, we'll probably be nudged back toward the "abnormally dry" or "moderate" drought categories; but McKinney seems to have learned some hard lessons about water, and wise-use policies are now part of everyday life. Some fairly effective television ads from the Water IQ campaign have started appearing, too--with coins representing water, flowing, for example, into a storm drain. Even more evocative, I think, are the Save Water, Save Life ads that are showing up all over the world--one of which quotes Ben Franklin: "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water."

Lets hope that all those folks who're anxious to adhere to the tenets laid out by the Founding Fathers can be as frugal with their water use as they want to be with my tax money. The deficit that really endagers our children and grandchildren involves water, and I can't think of a better example of a public good than making sure we use what we have wisely.

Image notes: the photo was taken with the Camera+ app for my iPhone4. It doesn't quite make the smart phone into an SLR as it claims, but some of the features are very useful (zooming, for instance, and the cute borders). I'm really enjoying the higher resolution, which can be augmented even further by another app: 8.0 MPX Simulator.