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


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


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.