Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Well, Here I Am

Even though I haven't been posting lately, I've been preoccupied with events and notions closely related to typical Farm content. The combined influences of Hurricane Sandy, the recent election (and the particular Texan brand of whining that accompanied the results), and my continuing ambivalence about where I want to spend the rest of my life have brought me to the point where I've just got to get some stuff off my chest.

As much as I sympathize with those who lost land and property as a result of Sandy and its aftermath (the "superstorm"), I can't help but wonder why we do this to ourselves.  Human beings seem incapable of choosing wisely where we live. We like mountains, we like proximity to water, and we like nice views--whether or not there's enough potable water to support a substantial population. So we live in earthquake- or avalanche- or fire-prone foothills and valleys, or even in cabins on mountainsides. Or we build lovely beach houses on earthquake- or hurricane-prone seashores. Or we build in sunny deserts with little or no water, and have to import it. Or we build in impossibly beautiful river valleys and suffer devastating floods.  Or we live in Tornado Alley.

Of course there's no perfectly safe place to live. Anywhere.  And civilization makes it even worse, because if we should happen upon an area with little potential danger from major disasters, we pipe natural gas into our houses, or build them with wood shingled roofs that catch fire when neighborhood kids shoot off bottle rockets on the Fourth of July.  Or we build a house on a prairie and then dig that up, precipitating a dust bowl in times of extreme drought. (Yes, I have been watching the new Ken Burns series.)

Climate change appears not only to be real, but really caused by us, and it looks as though we're going to suffer increasingly over the next fifty years or so, no matter what we do now to mitigate the damage.  Sandy, it seems, was probably a harbinger.

Before I began this post, I spent some time looking at YouTube videos of Sandy's impact on Long Island, where I lived when my son (now 36) was born.  We lived in a tiny town about halfway out toward the Hamptons, and later moved to a little resort house on  Lake Panamoka nearer the north shore.  We withstood a couple of hurricanes in situ without much damage back then, and the area doesn't seem to have been much harder hit this time. I could have lived there forever, in the middle of the Pine Barrens, on the glacial moraine that marked the outermost edge of a Pleistocene glacier.  But the necessity of work drove us to Texas, and (as Jubal Early says so poignantly at the end of the final Firefly episode) "Well, here I am."

I was born on a major earthquake fault, near some dormant volcanoes, and moved to others (Japan and Taiwan) as a child.  These latter islands presented a possible triple-whammy: earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons.  We never were in any danger of a volcanic eruption--even on Yangmingshan, near Taipei, which simmers visibly.  The mineral and sulphur springs that fed our bathtubs and made for luxurious soaks apparently vented enough of the volcano's energy that only minor earthquakes occasionally reminded us of what lay beneath.  I do have photos of post-typhoon flooding in Taipei, but in those days houses were built behind eight-foot stone walls, with three-foot forgiveness under the floors.  Folks seemed to know what needed to be done to keep the water from washing the whole city away.

Now, at the southern edge of the tornado belt in north Texas, the biggest danger we face is wind, hail, and other such weather-related damage.  During the renovation this past summer, we had a high-impact, fire-proof roof installed (paid for by our homeowner's insurance because of several years' worth of hail dings), but we still face the possibility of having a tree fall on the house during a storm.  Things would be a lot more worrying if we lived out in the open on flat prairie land, but the bit of topographical relief we enjoy in this area makes us slightly less prone to direct tornado impact.  So I pay for my relative safety by sacrificing my innate longing for big sky.  The house is surrounded by, in my father's estimation of any place not in the desert, "too many trees."

And I do long for the desert.  During my frequent romps into real estate porn ("owens valley california real estate" pops up in my search window if I simply type "o" into it) I can almost smell the granite sand of acreage in places like Olancha, Lone Pine, or Benton.  I can hear the crunch under my feet as I walk through clumps of sage brush and old jackrabbit bones.  Sometimes I ache for it--but never manage to arrange my life for even a visit.  I think I might be afraid that going home could make it even harder to come back.

So I do understand why people will rebuild in Rockaway, Staten Island, and on New Jersey's barrier islands.  The Beloved Spouse knows well that if I go to a beach I will wander off for miles along the shore, completely losing track of time and any sense of needing to be somewhere else for any reason at all. I've spent hours walking along beaches from Fire Island, to Tamsui (Danshui) near Taipei, to Galveston, to Virginia Beach, to Big Sur, to Bermuda (although I was so young there that I fell in the surf and almost drowned).  Even though I'd rather live in the desert, I could use a good long stretch of time on a quiet island in the middle of an ocean, and surrounded by sand.

Only, I live here. In north Texas, where a not-insignificant portion of the population now wants to secede from the Union and doesn't want to provide health care for the less fortunate among us.  But McKinney is also #2 on Money Magazine's list of Best Places to Live. It does, in fact, have some nice amenities, like an historic downtown and a decent used bookstore. It's also a little easier to live in, now that the house is painted, there's a perfectly delightful bathroom upstairs, and the living room has gone all wabi sabi  (I'll explain that in a later post). But I'm still coming to terms with the fact that my little half-acre oasis is just that: a tiny space in an intellectual desert without the charm of the real thing.  Sandwiched between hostile neighbors, we work (when we can) to shore it up, and hold out against the local universe.  But as long as my daughter's around, the dogs are happy, the Beloved Spouse has the tennis coaching to alleviate the pain of trying to teach philosophy, and I'm still (mostly) enjoying what I do to earn the mortgage payment, I'm okay.  For now.

When a colleague asked me yesterday how I was doing, with my usual snark I replied, "Well, I ain't dead. Any time I wake up not dead, that's a good day."  Fuss as I might, my troubles don't amount to much when compared to those whose house on the beach is no longer there.  I'm thinkin' that they should probably rebuild elsewhere, but I do understand why they might want to chance it one more time.

Image note: This was created in the kids' app, "Drawing Box" for the iPad.  I played around with two others--Paint Tools and Art Set--both of which are less silly, but I liked this one best.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Education of Desire: We are what we do, we are what we eat

Perhaps I'm a bit late in jumping on this particular bandwagon, because when I started searching for more information on a couple of closely related problems (obesity and food waste) I found more than I can handle in one post.  Other folks have also been thinking about the irony of this country's enormous waistlines and the equally enormous amounts of food waste making its way to the landfill.  We also hear talk of food deserts that help account for obesity among the poor, but I only recently began to wonder if anyone had been connecting the dots. Clearly they have.

This week's news media also reported on topics that are at least tangentially related to the waste/obesity problem: Herman Pontzer's articles in the New York Times,  pointed out that (as the Daily Poop version of the story put it) "It's the Sugar, Stupid," and that all the exercise in the world isn't going to make us as healthy as our distant ancestors if we're consuming crap. And in this week's New Scientist, the cover story ("Eat Your Way to Dementia") is about the relationship between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. 

The last two months of house-renovation have increased my awareness of food waste because the combination of beastly weather, minimal air conditioning, and odd sleeping accommodations has put the kibosh on cooking (I've been way too hot and tired)--with the result that I spent this morning cleaning out my fridge, ridding myself of spoilt food, shriveled limes and carrots, and a couple of mystery life forms.  Mind you, the compost and the Bokashi bins can handle almost all of this, so that I don't really have to throw much away.  But that's not the point. 

This stuff was bought at a premium, represents many folks' labor and time (from farm to market), and bloody well should have been eaten.  Not only eaten, but cooked well and healthfully.  What the news articles have done is to fortify my resolve to accomplish several items in a new program of food-consciousness. 

First, it's really a good idea to plan one's meals and not rely (except on rare occasions) on serendipity.  My daughter bragged in a text message last night that she had planned a week's meals for two and spent $57 on them at Whole Foods. She's also tracking how they use leftovers--which isn't a bad idea either.  Simplifying food preparation in hot weather so that ingredients can be used more than once saves time, energy, and effort, and it helps prevent waste. So I'm going to set aside an hour or so one day a week (probably Wednesday morning) to plan the week's meals in time to shop on the way home from school on Thursday, when I have an early morning class. 

In addition, since before too long I'm going to be pinching food pennies again (i.e. when I retire, which could be as early as a year from now), I'm going to need to be considerably more mindful of how much I spend. I won't scrimp on quality, but if I end up paying $5 a pound for really good tomatoes, I certainly need to make sure that we actually eat them before they go off. 

My biggest challenge will be to address the issues that Herman Pontzer raises about what we've evolved to eat.  This is actually something I've been aware of for rather a long time, having conducted research on breastfeeding and maternal nutrition in hunter-gatherer cultures as a grad student.  I'm also really puzzled by what seems to be an increasing intolerance to the kinds of grains that our Neolithic ancestors domesticated for us.  Purely gathering cultures didn't eat these grains, which came along after people settled down and began to raise animals and crops.  Still, I do wonder if modern modifications to wheat varieties and increased refinement (the quest for gummy white bread) might be at least partly responsible.  I've already started using farro in pilaf and risotto-like concoctions; now I'm thinking of grinding some and trying it in bread. 

Another article, on the effect of modern European diets on Native Americans, makes a similar point,   as does a report on the Westernization of Asian diets. Both of these populations suffer mightily from diabetes in increasing numbers, and at least part of the culprit is radical dietary change over a relatively small amount of time in evolutionary terms.

It just seems like plain common sense to eat whole foods, high in fiber, low in--but not absent--fats, and free of transmogrified sugars and other chemicalized foodstuffs that have been developed to entice us to eat "food" that's not good for us. (See the 60 Minutes programs on "Tweaking Tastes and Creating Cravings" and the toxicity of sugar for examples of how we're being seduced into desiring what's bad for us.)

The simplest path to health seems also to be the cheapest: eat simply, grow herbs to enhance flavors and provide micronutrients, stay away from heavily processed stuff that comes in fancy packaging, and cook from scratch as much as possible.  New information about fermented foods seems to back up the practices of many simpler cultures (sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, cheese), so taking your dairy foods in the form of a good yoghurt doesn't sound all that bad.  Thanks to Mark Bittman, I've recently reduced the amount of cow's milk I drink and have since suffered far less from heartburn.  I haven't completely sworn off the stuff, because I love it (1%) in coffee, and am not fond of completely eliminating things that still offer some nutritional benefits.

While it's clear that eating more like an Archevore or following some version of a paleo-diet might well improve overall health, that's fodder (sorry) for another post. After all, if everyone suddenly abandoned wheat, corn, dairy foods, and minimized fruit consumption because of its sugar content, the American economy would collapse.  But we certainly do need to pay a lot more attention to what we eat and what we throw away, and make decisions that lead producers away from creating more and more junk.  Spending a bit of time reading Dana Gunders's position paper for the National Resources Defense Council, "Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill", or Jonathan Bloom's book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (the link is to his blog, Wasted Food) can go a long way toward raising our collective awareness of the ironies and inconsistencies in American food-life; obesity, hunger, plenty, over-indulgence, and waste are all tightly woven into a culture riddled with greed, inattentiveness, consumerism, and advertising designed to make us keep doing what we're doing. But we ought not to be doing it, else we will become it.

I vote we stop. Soon.

Image credit: Vincent van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows seemed appropriate for this post, not least because the crows can be seen as harbingers of his death.  I showed this in my Art History 2 class a couple of weeks ago, along with Akira Kurasawa's short film, Crows, via Biblioklept (from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams); the painting is from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


It may be a sign of age, but I do try to be moderate in most things (I lack "passion" some would say); every now and then, though, something really gets up my nose and a rant just bubbles up--kind of like a spit-take. 

It's not enough that both political parties are yanking stuff out of context to support "arguments" about what the other guys are doing. The most egregious of recent examples is being used by the Republicans to paint Obama as being "anti-small business" because he insisted that we don't do anything on our own in an unfortunately worded (i.e. longer than one sentence) comment about our dependence upon infrastructure. 

But the so-called "Liberal Media" (capital letters--as on the truck I occasionally follow down the highway to Dallas that sports a bumper sticker in the window that says "I don't believe the Liberal Media"), in their efforts to sound more non-partisan, occasionally feed the shark.  Last Thursday morning, in NPR's coverage of Romney's speech before the American Legion, a reporter on Morning Edition quoted one of the most blatantly racist remarks I've heard spoken publicly in some time.  A woman, when asked what she thought of Obama, said "I just don't like 'im; can't stand to look at 'im. I don't like his wife; she's far from a first lady. 'Bout time we get a first lady who acts like a first lady and looks like a first lady."

Say what??  How are we supposed to take that?  We'll never know, because the report didn't include any follow up.  Did the reporter ask her what she meant by her remarks?  (Note: Apparently Ari Shapiro didn't have time clarify; see the Wonkett post linked below).  But it's certainly a sound bite--one that rankled some folk other than me (the Obama Diary; Left In Alabama; Wonkette). What are we to make of this?  How can we not see this as racist, without more context? Unless, of course, she didn't think Laura Bush looked or acted like a first lady, either. Hillary Clinton was, of course, one of those uppity wimmin who didn't do much of anything first-lady-like, but somehow I doubt that this woman's remarks were directed at the most recent Mrs. Bush.

I usually applaud NPR for the length of its stories, but this one short bit, designed (I guess) to show how much support Romney has among older vets, failed miserably because it leaves so many questions to be asked--and answered.  Is NPR editing for effect?  Boy would I love to have heard what else that woman had to say; maybe she just didn't like all the sundresses and bare arms.

Every day, probably five or six times every day, I get requests from the Dems to fork over another 5 bucks to address some quip by some Republican.  I told the nice lady on the phone a few months ago to just take my name of her call list because 1) I'm not going to answer anonymous calls and 2) I'm smart enough to give what I can (or want to) when I can or want to.  I  pay enough attention to the news to know that whatever problems I have with Democrats pale compared to what the so-called Republican party wants to do.  My friends--and even my parents--thought I was a right-winger when I was a kid--but compared to those guys in Tampa, I'm a flaming Communist. This is not only not my father's Republican party, it's not even my own from 1964.

As the saying goes, everyone's entitled to their own opinion; but they're not entitled to their own facts (or, as C.P. Scott editor of the Guardian, reportedly once said,  "Comment is free, but facts are sacred").  The Republicans ignore factcheck.org and fundamental rules of logic at their peril, because what little faith I have in American intellect leads me to hope that most of the populace will wake up before the election and decide en masse that they don't want to joint the Stupidism movement.

A post-script:  I got a chance this morning to unload on a survey conducted by the Obama campaign; in my comments, I asked that the Democrats refrain from taking quips out of context and reporting or using any information that couldn't be verified as factual.  If anybody actually reads my remarks, I'll be happy; I'll be ecstatic if anybody actually pays them any heed. Also, as I was looking for an illustration for the post (knowing that I wanted something to do with the old "three wise monkeys" story), I ran across this on Wikimedia:

It's by Stuckist  artist Peter Absalom; whilst Stuckists are a rather laudable group (they oppose the kind of conceptual art that particularly annoys me), I was reminded by the picture that their name was chosen in much the same spirit as I've decided upon "Stupidism" to describe our present political malady.

Image credits: The Three Wise Monkeys relief decorates the Toshogu temple, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites at Nikko, Japan. The Peter Absalom work is noted above, but I also got that from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Little Utopians

We've begun to put the interior of the house back together as things get finished off one by one. On Saturday, as I was replacing some family photos on one of the shelves flanking the fireplace, I noticed a book I hadn't realized that I had.  During the living room paint job, the books remained on these shelves (I'm going to paint them later), so I hadn't had to move them--else I'd have noticed the book a couple of months ago.  I have a rather large collection of books for various ages of children, most of which have been passed down through generations of my family.*  But I still buy books I don't already have, by authors I have loved well, and especially if they're artfully illustrated.

Rather recently, I think (although with the current state of my memory, who knows), I happened on a Ten Speed Press reprint of Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.  It's a lovely facsimile edition, complete with the black and white plates of the original facing the first page of each story.  Most folks are only familiar with The Wind in the Willows (and probably because of the Disney film rather than the book itself), but Dream Days is the collection of short stories that contains the inspiration for another Disney film, "The Reluctant Dragon."

The astonishing thing about this little book, and its predecessor, The Golden Age (also "profusely" illustrated by Parrish), is the view of children as curious, inventive, literate, engaging people, bent on building their own little utopias within their own landscapes.  Grahame, who appears to have been just such a child, reminds me of J. M. Barrie, whose Peter and Wendy is just about the wittiest book I've ever read.  Both Barrie and Grahame seem to be writing both for the children themselves, and for the parents who would be reading the stories to them.  We see this same phenomenon today in clever animated features clearly meant to engage different audiences (Rango comes immediately to mind), but the "literature" I see on the shelves for kids today seems not to be nearly as well tuned.  Mind you, it's been quite a while since I actually bought a book for a child that wasn't a copy of an old childhood favorite, but their section of the bookshops is so over-stuffed with toys, games, movie tie-ins, and other trumpery that whenever I do want to buy a book-gift for a new baby, I have to search through the Times children's book reviews and order online to save myself the angst of wading through the mire to look for a new title.

But yesterday, I spent a little time in the kids' portion of Half Price Books, looking for a copy of The Golden Age, to no avail.  I did see a few copies of The Wind in the Willows (most had the Disney art on the cover), but nothing else, so I went to the Nostalgia section to see what might be there.  I yearned for two Tom Swift books, but had already latched onto a tenth-edition copy of  Tom Brown's School Days, and a My Book House collection of Tales Told in Holland--both for the quality of the illustrations and prose.  Once again, early twentieth-century children were clearly exposed to far more literate and instructive reading material than their early twenty-first-century counterparts are.

At some point I'll have to post a rant about this condition on The Owl of Athena, and talk about other of  Grahame's books on Owl's Cabinet. But for now, the fact that the children he writes about would undoubtedly fit in quite well with those who populate More News From Nowhere makes an account of this week's literary adventures fit best on The Farm.

*Owl's Cabinet of Wonders posts on some of these: The Peter Patter Book, October 2008, and Fiddling Away the Summer, August 2008.

Image credit: The Maxfield Parrish illustration for "Dies Irae," 1906, from Dream Days by Kenneth Graham (the edition I mentioned was published by Ten Speed Press in 1993. ISBN 0-89815-546-0); the image is from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery of Maxfield Parrish's work (Image ID: 1698241).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Skywatch Friday: You CAN Take the Sky from Me

A view of sky and snow from bygone days
The theme song for my all-time favorite television show, Firefly, was written by the writer/director/producer Joss Whedon and performed on the show by Sunny Rhodes.  I just love it--an anthem to the kind of independence and freedom that attracted fans from both ends of the political spectrum:

Take my love, take my land,
Take me where I cannot stand;
I don't care, I'm still free,
You can't take the sky from me!

But those of us who don't have Firefly-class transport ships to tootle around space in, and who've moved to the 'burbs in search of peace and quiet, may be in for a rude surprise. 

New neighbors, it seems, absent zoning codes that prohibit them, can build 6.5 foot privacy fences and block what was once a rather nice view.

Now, I've only spoken to this woman once, so I don't much know her; but then, I don't really care to, either.  She aimed the arse-end of the fence at me (metal support posts on my side), and put up a cheesy plastic garden shed that shows about three feet above it.  We then hired her fence guy (bad decision) to build a Craftsman style short picket fence and gate to open up our side yard (despite our snarkyness, we do try to make the best of things).  It looked okay, but was badly designed; we should have insisted on cedar 4x4s instead of boxed in metal posts, and they didn't finish the top, so that the nubs of the posts showed.  Our own contractor's fence guy has finished it up so it looks right, but our solution to a problem caused by someone else will end up costing us as much as a space-shuttle toilet seat.

I used to enjoy looking out the window in the breakfast room as I poured my coffee, at the twin-gabled house next door, which bears a passing resemblance to Kelmscott Manor. The air flow between the houses helped to mitigate the heat of a summer afternoon, and kept everyone from broiling.  Now, however, it's up to me to construct the view from that same window. There will be no more fairy-tale winter views of the Tudor; instead, we'll see (if it ever does snow again) something entirely different, and it will depend on how well we furnish the side yard. The fence will become the backdrop before which we stage our own tableau.


It's much the same in the back yard, where I'll no longer be able to shoot unobstructed sky shots, like the one that opens this post. There is now a sense of increased privacy that's only enhanced by the newly painted garage, and the promise of uncluttering around the yard. But the trees below are the same ones that appear, covered with snow, in the opening photo.

This doesn't do much to enhance the sense that we belong to any kind of a community around here, stuck as we are now between the isolating fence and the "We Don't Call 911" and Confederate flags  on the other side.

On the other hand, the compliments on the house we've received from other local folks walking by have been encouraging, and we've met some interesting new people who stop to chat about their experiences fixing up their old relics.  This is, after all, an historic district, and its existence is why we're here in the first place. 

After all the work is finished on the house, and the weather has cooled down enough to sit on the front porch (having dutifully sprayed ourselves down with insect repellent), we're looking forward to further community engagements. Perhaps home improvement might make us a little less hermit-like and more neighborly ourselves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Last Bookstore Utopia

Warehouse #4: Music, Cookery, Anthropology
This has been a week of unfortunate demises, including the death on August 6th of my all-time favorite critic, Robert Hughes (of whom I will probably write later), and last Thursday’s announcement in the Daily Poop (front page, no less) that Larry McMurtry was closing Booked Up and putting most of the stock on the auction block. Hell, the story even made the New York Times.

In years past the Beloved Spouse and I, along with sundry colleagues, had made more-or-less annual pilgrimages to the ou-topia (no-place) of Archer City, Texas to spend money we didn’t have on what was housed in the four warehouses that lined the Jack County courthouse square.  We’d start out early in the morning and head west, stop for local Denton honey along the way, eat lunch at the Green Frog Restaurant in Jacksboro (I have the tee-shirts to prove it, and a mug or two) and spend the afternoon among books. When we got to Booked Up, we’d split up and head in different directions, aiming for whichever warehouse would satisfy our particular desires. My companions and I would occasionally meet as our paths crossed (we’d all end up in the literature section at some point) and then converge on the main building to have our treasures tallied up and checked out before we headed back to the Big City.

Except for Half Price Books, a used bookstore in Denton, and our local antiquarian shop, the Book Gallery, there are few true bookstores in this part of Texas.  The new-book purveyors in the area are increasingly crowding out actual books with toys, games, gimmicks, and cooking demonstrations—which is why I seldom bother to visit them anymore.  New books are more easily bought or downloaded from online sources.

But there’s just nothing as good for the little grey cells as a browse through a bookstore like McMurtry’s, where the unexpected could be found tucked away where it might remain for years.  I can remember a pretty treatise on lilies that I’d seen at Booked Up one year, and it was still there two years later, when I finally bought it.  One seldom found a real bargain, because he knew exactly what he had and what it was worth—despite the thousands of books that passed through every year. But one never felt cheated, either, especially when the “find” was a personal treasure:  a copy of an Elbert Hubbard “Little Journeys” issue, a facsimile of the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a speech by Morris printed in his Golden type. Once, while I was ensconced in the art section leafing through another facsimile of a Limbourgh Brothers book of hours, McMurtry loped in with a box for shelving, glanced at what I had and said, “I’d forgotten that was here.” I bought it, for forty bucks, certain that I wouldn’t have a second chance on that one.

There were never many folks in town when we were there.  Archer City is remote (although just down the highway from Wichita Falls), hot, dry, empty, and attractive mainly to Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show movie fans—and ardent bibliophiles who don’t mind long car trips.  Although the main store is staying open, the contents of the other three warehouses were auctioned off in shelf lots last weekend, and we weren't there to bid. I do wonder what will become of the town, though; we’re not really fans of McMurtry’s books, so we’ll probably never go back.  I might pick up DVDs of the movies made from those books, if only to get a sense of what Archer City was like when he was younger. But I think I already know, to some extent.  I remember when Lone Pine had a movie theater, and I remember when it closed.  There are probably hundreds of little old Western towns like these, from Texas to California, that have teetered on the brink of extinction for a couple of generations or more. 

Most of these are no-places, but they might once have been good-places (eu-topias)—good enough, at least, for someone who loved them to memorialize them in novels, poems, films, photographs, or paintings.  What saddens me most is the real possibility that they might simply be forgotten by a world that no longer values memory--or even reading.  But Archer City will remain because one man thought well enough of the place that he would spend years turning it into a mecca for book lovers.  We may not go back to the town, but we won’t forget it, either.

Image credits: Alas, all of my photos from Archer City trips are buried under the detritus of renovation. So I'm thankful that Surgeonsmate was generous enough to post this on the Larry McMurtry article in Wikipedia.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Mars Day!

Work on the house is proceeding apace, but I'm waiting for the exterior to be completely finished before I go back to posting on the restoration.

Meanwhile, my space-groopieness is being rewarded handsomely with today's successful landing of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.  I might have liked it to be called Serenity instead, but Curiosity is more apt, and I'm glad it was a kid who thought it up.

I couldn't manage to stay up last night to hear the breaking news, but the NASA channel provided some information this morning (awkwardly, though, with audio from one end of the conversation and not the other), and as soon as the rover starts broadcasting in earnest, there should be mounds of pictures.

Wikipedia's article (from whence I pinched the opening image) is helpful for the uninitiated, but the faithful will be using the NASA mission website and/or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory pages to keep up. For the young at heart, who might want to play along with Curiosity, I highly recommend installing the Explore Mars software. It explains the mission and will enable us to go along for the ride as Curiosity starts its exploration of Gale Crater.

To celebrate the impending landing last night, we watched the so-so film Red Planet with Val Kilmer and Carrie Anne Moss (not to be confused with the other movie from 2000,  Mission to Mars with Tim Robbins, which was also mediocre and a notch up on the silliness scale).  I hope Robert Heinlein's estate got a bunch of money for the title, since the plot had nothing at all to do with his 1949 novel. This, along with Wilmar Shiras's Children of the Atom (which may have inspired the X-men stories), was one of the first SF novels I ever read--and it hooked me on the genre for a lifetime, even though I probably got the expurgated version of the Heinlein book (the restored edition is available through Amazon).

I'm a real softie when it comes to space operas in general, and nearby-planet stories in particular, but to the less fervent, there's a whole website devoted to Mars Movies, complete with garish web design. Ever since my father first mentioned to me, in 1957, that there would come a time when the sky would be full of satellites and we'd at least get to the moon, I've been hooked.  I follow space missions like a fan girl, and really do hope I'll hang around earth long enough to see folks actually walking around and doing science on Mars.

We're one small step further along the way, thanks to Curiosity, and the crew that got her safely to the Red Planet.  Congratulations to the entire outfit, the support facilities, and especially to the person whose own curiosity got this mission started in the first place.

Image credit:  This color image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows part of the wall of Gale Crater, the location on Mars where the rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT (Aug. 6, 2012 EDT). This is part of a larger, high-resolution color mosaic made from images obtained by Curiosity's Mast Camera. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Engaging the Inertial Dampeners

I have come to the conclusion that inertia is the strongest force in the universe--at least, in my universe.  Once I start doing something, my tendency is to keep doing it until acted upon by a countering force. To wit: once I got into the habit of writing on a frequent basis, and I kept on at it, somehow finding the time to get an essay or two or three a week posted on this or another blog.

Sometime in the last year or so, however, the forward flow was slowly counteracted by forces that seemed to be beyond my control.  My students are, for example, becoming more and more academically needy from lack of appropriate training, and much more difficult to engage.  I'm probably getting grumpier and more boring from lack of interest in the more time-consuming aspects of social media (still no Facebook, although I did sign up for Google Plus, visited infrequently) and even less interest in most popular culture.  I cannot, for example, even begin to understand the zombie thing.

The result of the change in inertial direction has meant fewer and fewer blog posts.  This is probably not a bad thing, because even I got tired of hearing myself grouse all the time about the sorry state of the galaxy.  Nevertheless, the Beloved Spouse and I have recently managed to get off our saggy duffs and begin something we've been needing to do since we bought our little house on the Texas prairie: renovate our sadly neglected bungalow.  It's about rutting time, since the poor thing turns 90 this year.  We kept thinking we'd do it ourselves, but never did.  And now I know why.

Mind you, we were spurred into action by a series of unfortunate events (what I now think of as an example of an inertial dampener--or, as some Trek buffs like to say, "damper").  Designed to keep spacegoers from slamming into the walls when a ship drops out of warp, these nifty devices compensate for the inertia that speeds the Enterprise and the rest of the Fleet through space.   In our more earth-bound sense, it refers to the proverbial kick in the arse that gets things moving.

The Kelmscott-Manor lookalike next door recently sold (finally, after well over a year on the market for about a half a million; I think it fetched around 400K) to a lady with cocker spaniels who clearly didn't want our mangy little bungalow to mar her privacy or her view.  So she put up a six-and-a-half foot wooden privacy fence that runs from the back of both properties to about where our front porch begins.  Suddenly, instead of the lovely twin gables and rose garden, we were faced with the ass-end of a fence, metal support posts included. 

On the plus side, we don't have to look at the bad concrete-step replacement with its adjacent concrete lions (the BS and I belong to neither the Cult of the Concrete Animals or the Cult of the Bronze Children, both of which seem to be rapidly gaining adherents in town).  It also cuts down the air flow and toasts our side yard in the afternoon. 

Instead of bitching and wingeing, however, we squeezed the lemons out, added limoncello and ice, and got the same fence company to build us a craftsman style four-foot spaced picket fence with a pergola and gate, and we're getting rid of the old wire fence that demarcated the back yard; the puppies are going to be ecstatic because they'll be able to get much closer to the terrifying babies and strollers and neighborhood dogs that Woody and Arlo are jointly convinced are out to get us.

The fence, in the end, was what finally got us serious about the renovations.  Thanks to a very nice re-do across the street, we found a contractor without the help of Angie's List (from which I'm going to resign shortly; we apparently don't like the same things that everybody else likes), and his crew is already at work prepping the house for painting, re-roofing, re-siding, re-glazing on the exterior.

Before I close out this rather long-winded account, I'd like to mention the sweet man who drove by the house a few weeks ago, with the improbable (but appropriate) name of Charlie Angel.  He had  been driving by occasionally, hoping someone would be out so he could stop and ask about the house he'd been born in--not brought to at birth, but born in!  He'd lived here as a child until his parents built another bungalow a few blocks away, but he had a child's happy memories of the place, which apparently hasn't changed all that much.  After a tour of the house (which was embarrassingly messy, but he didn't seem to see the dust and clutter) he left, a happy man, and we promised to have him back after the renovation is finished.

It's funny how this encounter reinforced my very conservative approach to restoring historical spaces.  The house may well end up looking even more like it did when Charlie was a little boy. For one thing, no granite is going in. Anywhere.  We're not even putting in air conditioning (that's a later project, because what we are doing has already taken up the budget).  Most of what's happening is conservation rather than renovation, with the idea of making the place more livable in case we get stuck in Texas for the rest of our lives.  The Beloved Spouse had already taken the summer off from teaching, and has begun the onerous task of clearing out the garage, carting stuff to the tip, arranging for "big trash" pick-up, and financing for the repairs.  So even though my tiny little holiday (two weeks) began on Monday, he'll be able to supervise the work over the summer and all I have to do post commentary on the progress of our new inertial direction.

Image notes: the photo is one I took this week, with the house in mid-prep (the construction debris trailer can be seen at left). The shot was taken with the Nikon D80.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day 2012, Part 2: Living Here, Living Now

 As an antidote to yesterday's depressing assessment of the State of the World, I thought I'd offer a second look. I seldom stay down for long, and it didn't take much to set me on a more optimistic track this morning.

After slogging though the Sunday edition of the Daily Poop, I picked up the February/March edition of Mother Earth News (in preparation for a day in the garden), and read this from the "News from Mother" column:

These days, if you find yourself feeling negative about the future of humanity, you may find some solace in looking at the past.

Well, looking at the past is something I do for a living, so the invitation is a natural for me.  In fact, my Art History 2 lectures just last week focused on conditions in nineteenth-century England at a time when folks like William Morris, John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites,  and other admirers of the Medieval world were all themselves looking to the past for better models of how to live.

As the Mom article pointed out, however, there are many aspects of human life that have actually improved since both the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century: life expectancies are way up, violence is (amazing, but true) way down, and we're generally kinder than at any previous moment in recorded history.  We don't hold slaves, we don't sanction cock fights, and we generally don't kill people we don't agree with (even though we might talk about doing so during election years).

The article ends with an acknowledgement that we've still got a way to go, but instead of throwing up our hands in despair (which is what I probably seemed to be doing yesterday) it notes that we actually have examples of how we've improved things in the past:

. . . looking at what we've achieved, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think we can solve present and future challenges. We can live on this planet in a sustainable way. We can preserve its health and vitality for future generations. And we can make the lives of future human beings even better than the lives we lead today--we have a track record for that kind of achievement.

So, instead of whining about what we haven't accomplished since 1970, perhaps it's time to note that some significant changes have occurred, and to relish them rather than keep complaining about what we still need to do. At least for today.

For example, when I first became a vegetarian back in the late seventies, I did so because I didn't like the way animals raised for food were treated.  I figured that if I couldn't take the responsibility for killing an animal myself, I didn't have the right to eat it.  Eventually, I relented when my kids started insisting that they were being deprived, but we still ate meat sparingly, and I did the best job I could in finding humanely treated animals.  Nowadays, we still eat meat infrequently, but when we do there are numerous outlets from which we can buy "happy" cows, pigs, and chickens.  I can buy eggs that are expensive but come from chickens raised more like the ones we had when I was a kid.  I'm quite willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it means that most of my diet needs to come from grains and vegetables (all organically and/or sustainably raised, some home-grown).  In truth, however, we could largely solve our national obesity problem by doing just that: changing our diets substantially, and weaning ourselves from overly-processed foods.

When I drive to buy my food, I can now do so in a fuel-efficient car that sips gas and causes far less particulate matter to enter the atmosphere than any car I've ever driven.  The good thing about high gas prices is, after all, that manufacturers are producing more and more automobiles with higher and higher levels of fuel economy and lower emissions.  These days I'm watching the highway fill up with hybrid cars, even though in this part of the world pickups will probably rule in perpetuity.

Advances in medicine, although expensive, mean that I got an extra twenty five years with my father, and have myself lived eighteen years longer than I might have done (and another three years than I might have from the valve problem).  New drugs have kept me essentially healthy, and will probably prevent my daughter from ever having to endure bypass surgery at all, even though she shares my crappy genes. Cures for various cancers are being developed, and we've already seen declines in occurrences based on improved ways of life; as drugs and diets and living habits improve, fewer people will have to suffer from them, and those who do may well see even more cures developed in the next several years. 

As much as I might rail against technology, I'm always aware of what I owe to innovation. We have lived in an old house (celebrating its 90th birthday this year) for the past twelve summers, relying on its solidly-built bones and dual attic fans to help keep us cool.  We've gotten by with three small air conditioning units for three rooms, and have stayed relatively comfortable.  This year, thanks to tax rebates and technological availability, we're hoping to install a geothermal heating and cooling system, in part to replace the aging gas furnace installed when we bought the house.  The plan is to wean ourselves as much as possible from fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, even ten years ago, this option would have been a mere pipe dream--so our fuel consumption options are improving rather rapidly.

These changes are, in truth, rather insignificant in light of the challenges that lie ahead.  Big Oil is still in charge, Big Consumption is still the economic model, and much of the world still has no access at all to any of the improvements we enjoy.

War, pestilence, pollution, and greed are all still there, lurking.  But we may be getting better at ridding ourselves of their threats--or we could be, if we can figure out how to meet the challenges of educating our kids well enough so that they can ensure their own futures.  As much as I complain about how little my students know, I can't help but think that they'll work it all out, as long as we can help them develop the tools. 

Image notes: this shot was taken facing east one evening last month with the Nikon D80.  We've had an abundance of rain this spring and the skies have been lovely.  Yesterday's post features a view west, probably taken later that same day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Earth Day 2012, Part 1: Hunkering Down

I can't say that this Earth Day finds me particularly sanguine about the future of this planet.  My puny efforts to shore up my half acre and shield it from encroaching doom seem almost like a bad science fiction novel about the end of the world.  Continuing efforts to learn to love the prairie (of which there is really very little left) aren't working especially well--and I frequently find myself indulging in "real estate porn," looking for affordable properties in the desert west.

In the meantime, the carbon sink is wilder than ever except for the patch I've cleared out for tomatoes. We'll have to do a bit of work tomorrow to open up a little more sunny space, but if I can remember to water them, they should do well enough.  But the abundant rain this spring, along with the lack of a true winter, have both meant that the whole place is lush and jungley. I'll have to clear out a mass of mint soon, because it's taking over the entire potager. A lettuce plant from last year has taken over the entire pot, is now nearly three feet tall, and has bolted, producing rather lovely yellow flowers.  The leaves, alas, are too tough to eat.  My Swiss chard is massive and not particularly tasty, but pretty to look at.  The few things I've planted seem to be doing well, and there will be banana peppers for salads along with the tomatoes--but I'm skeptical about my ability to get anything else in before it's too  late. But all this what's going well.

The truly depressing news has to do with oil and gas and tar sands and fracking. There seems to be no end to the American lust for fossil fuels, and the Obama administration is too interested in re-election to buck it.  I'm not sure anyone there really wants to anyway.  I do have to laugh at the far-right characterization of Obama as a Socialist, because he wouldn't know one if it bit him. Hard. On the nose. The Keystone pipeline has been delayed, for "further study," but the lower half of it has received a go-ahead. So now we can expect a large chunk of what's left of the prairie in East Texas to be plowed under in service of transporting oil to the Gulf for processing and (inevitably) to be shipped off to China.  So much for ensuring the energy future of the United States.

I truly long for some really convincing report to announce the arrival of Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas so that the oil industry (which is, of course, a Person, with rights equivalent to mine--or better) might finally put its mighty weight behind alternative energy sources. But it most likely won't happen in my lifetime, and I'm becoming quite thankful that I won't have grandchildren who'll have to deal with the consequences.

Last year's Earth Day post was far more optimistic, and I apologize for being so gloomy this time. But the evidence for climate change mounts daily, and its increasing rapidity is daunting.  All that old crabby utopian social-anarchists like me will be able do do in the future is to sit baking in our lawn chairs under the ravaged no-longer-bearing pecan trees and say "I told you so."

When I think back to that first Earth Day nearly forty years ago, I remember some of the cranky folk I knew then: long-haired hippies crying doomsday slogans and warning of environmental devastation if we continued on our wicked, planet-destroying paths.  For much of the last thirty years we've been wrapped in a cocoon of possibility, insulated against reality, and even gigantic oil spills (the most recent Gulf spill, as Rachel Maddow pointed out on her show last night, has taught us no appreciable lessons) and devastating weather can't shake us out of our complacency.

My only recourse seems to be to build a thicker cocoon.  I've already let the birds plant a perimeter forest around this small plot, and during the summer I can hide out in the back yard between teaching assignments. In the winter I can draw insulated curtains to hold out the cold, if it ever really gets cold again. In a couple of years I can retire and take a trip out west, because Vera's 56 miles per gallon  will probably be enough to make one last visit possible.  At the rate we're pumping oil, there should be more than enough for another decade, especially if the price keeps rising and fewer people drive. 

But it's difficult to muster any optimism at all when the real price of all this pumping will be smuttier skies, less breathable air, smoggier sunsets, and universal lung problems. 

Ever hopeful,  however, I'll spend Earth Weekend in the garden, communing with the bees and butterflies that are still around, enjoying the sultry southern aromas of spring, mowing down prairie grasses, re-reading Morris, and dreaming of utopia. 

May the next year prove me wrong and provide us with a path toward change.

Monday, March 5, 2012

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a whore

Almost lost in the reaction to Rush Limbaugh's recent diatribe against Sandra Fluke is the utterly stupid nature of his attack: Limbaugh simply doesn't know how birth control works. At least not the pills (unless he thinks that, like Foster Freeze's aspirins, they're used between the knees). Hormonal birth control is, as anybody with a modicum of biological knowledge understands, an ongoing process. It's actually the processual aspect of The Pill and its more modern cousins that makes it a valuable tool in women's health care. Regulating hormones through pill-use can ameliorate all manner of ills perpetrated on the female body by Mother Nature.

Now, as my little cadre of readers probably already know, I'm not generally in favor of messing with Mom. In my utopia, people manage fertility through body-knowledge and restraint. But I happily rode the wave of hormonal and barrier birth-control throughout my reproductive life, which ended abruptly at age 40 with a tubal ligation. And not once during all that time was I paid to have sex.

Instead, I paid for my participation in cutting-edge science when my first pregnancy occurred in spite of, and then was ended by, a little device called the "Dalkon Shield." I had switched to an IUD after a student walked into my office one day and asked, "How long have you been on birth control pills?" Impertinent as the question was, it alerted me to the fact that I bore a "mask of pregnancy"--a characteristic gathering of freckles under my eyes and across my nose caused by the hormones I was taking daily, and had been since 1968, when I married for the first time. So, on the advice of my top-of-the-line doctors at Penn, I switched to a nifty little fish-shaped device that was all the rage, at least until it caused millions of women to suffer the kind of bodily indignity I had: a late miscarriage which had probably not ever even been viable because I had conceived while it was still in place, and then had to have it removed. (I did not join in the suit against the manufacturer.) Fortunately for me (unlike many others whose fertility was compromised), my subsequent pregnancies progressed uneventfully and produced my now thirty-five year-old son and thirty-three year-old daughter.

On the surface, if you read some of the coverage concerning Limbaugh's tirade (like this article in Forbes), the argument seems to center on whether or not these guys should have to pay for contraception as a part of health care contributions (hence the "paying for sex" connection, however spurious). The ostensible reason for the initial congressional testimony had to do with the freedom of religious institutions to abstain from contraceptive coverage for reasons of conscience and/or belief. The financial aspect of this whole controversy is what I find most peculiar, because it assumes that none of us should pay with our hard-earned money for anything we don't believe in. So, if I don't believe in augmenting male sexual potency I shouldn't have to pay for Viagra if it's included in my company's health plan? Or, if I don't believe in capital punishment, I shouldn't have to pay for it with my hard-earned tax dollars?

But what if paying for contraception actually saves us all money? Family planning is one of those bugaboos of life that used to be something of a joke. For a long time it was downright illegal, and then it was chancy. Women had three choices: abstinence, diaphragms, and condoms. What the advent of birth control pills really initiated was a greater ability for a wife to reliably negotiate her fertility instead of relying on her husband's understanding and restraint (or the mainstay of the '50s, a set of twin beds); it most certainly didn't turn women into prostitutes--although it undoubtedly helped many prostitutes keep from becoming mothers.

Ever since men discovered that they had something to do with making babies (see my rant on this here), they've increasingly tried to 1) take credit for it all (by "planting a seed" in the womb) or 2) control reproduction by deciding when a woman would have sex, whether or not she wanted it. The only way women could reliably stay childless was to become a cloistered nun (and that probably wasn't a sure bet, either). Modern means of birth control ended all that, we thought, for once and for all. But in large part, men still control the pill-box by means of purse-strings, as we have seen in the last several weeks. And nothing makes that clearer than the photograph that opens this post (religious leaders being sworn in to testify in the Issa Committee hearings--all of them male).

The Republican presidential candidates all seem to have decided that men (religious men) really do need to be deciding for all women when they will have kids and how many. And their supporters are now willing to decide for all of us, regardless of how we understand the questions of "personhood" or the roll sex plays in human experience. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a display of religious and political bigotry as has shown up in campaign discourse these last few weeks.

This is the message these guys are sending to women: it doesn't matter how smart you are, how well you understand science, or what your religious beliefs are. If you don't follow our line of "reasoning," and if you don't buy into our particular religious doctrine, you're not only wrong, you're a wanton slut for wanting to have sex without getting pregnant.

You'd think these guys would be only too happy to let Lefties and Progressives have all the birth control they want, because in the end there would be far fewer opponents to reactionary platforms; they might have one or two--or no--kids, while Tea Partiers and more holy folk have seven.

I'm reminded of the old joke that made the rounds during some of the Roe v. Wade battles: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

The attitudes we're seeing during this campaign are eerily (and frighteningly) reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian reading of the future in The Handmaids Tale. At the moment, it's still just a thought experiment about what could happen if a particular group of men (and their complicit wives) manage to gain further control of women's bodies. What should be a question of women's health has turned into a proto-manifesto of some men's desire to decide what's best for us. Let's just hope that the more sensible and enlightened members of their gender can join with women to forge a better alternative.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Looking Backward(ly)

One, almost palpable, aspect of growing older is the increasing amount of nostalgia that permeates one's view of the world at large.

As we grow older, and as change becomes a significant feature of the presentness of the world we inhabit, we begin to remember the past almost as a physical space: houses, landscapes, objects, people. Historians and archaeologists probably suffer more than most, because we "remember" not only our own pasts, but those of others. Whether or not we bathe our visions in some kind of gauzy, golden light, masking difficulties, injustices, or even horrors, we nevertheless tend to paint our ideas of the future with the palette of the past.

Several recent events and observations have brought all of this to mind, the most recent of which is the Academy Awards ceremony (with its focus on early cinema), coupled with Pat Buchanan's departure from MSNBC.

Mind you, I've never thought much of Buchanan's picture of the world which, as Brian Stelter mentions in today's New York Times, is firmly rooted in the idyllic Ozzie and Harriet past that coincides with my own childhood in the fifties. But while my childhood was populated by multi-racial people and multi-cultural life, Buchanan's was white, straight, Catholic, and (in his mind, at least) hewed to those fine Republican values inherited from our Founding Fathers. In my case, although both of my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were of Canadian extraction, immigration wasn't really part of our background; both my father's and mother's families had been in North America since the Revolutionary War. I'm not sure how long Buchanan's people had been in this country, but like many of his fellow (Tea Party) Americans, he seems to think that early immigrations from Europe were somehow different from those occurring now.

Buchanan's beliefs and politics were informed by Catholicism as practiced in America the Beautiful, while mine were informed by Catholicism practiced in Japan and Taiwan, preached by priests from Italy and China, and were severely tested by Vatican II. By 1963 I had left the Church, primarily because it had rejected many of the traditions it had accrued through time (Latin masses, smells and bells) and that had kept me "faithful" for as long as I was. Having not grown up in suburban America, however, I never did form an attachment to its mythical elements. Not being exposed much to television probably helped.

I try to be a realist, and to ground my hopes for the future in a clear sense of what has actually happened rather than some imaginary Golden Age. In doing so, I am constantly reminded of the criticism directed at William Morris's Medievalist socialism. Whenever I mention his work (at least when the immediate response isn't "Oh, yeah, the wallpaper guy"), the comments that follow usually point out that the Middle Ages he so admired had been radically depopulated by plague, and, besides, who would want to live that way, anyway? And post-apocalyptic films and fiction play on the notion that "Medieval" equals "Stone Age." Get rid of what we have now, the novels all suggest, and we'll be wandering down interminable roads, eating one another, living in squalor, and/or we'll become victims of one or another rampantly repressive ideology. (Update, October 24: a terrific new example is the television series, Revolution.)

All of the above will, according to the Buchananesque prognosis, be caused by lowered birthrates among the middle class (due to the use of abortion as birth control), increasing immigration from third-world countries, rising diversity in the armed forces (gays, women, folk of color), godless humanists, and all manner of plagues and diseases brought on by our increasingly wanton ways. Liberals in general, and Barack Obama in particular, are "destroying America," as I've heard over and over again from participants in the Republican caucuses As Seen On TV. What can only follow is the end of Western Civilization, or at least of American Exceptionalism, as we know it.

Of course, I'm not at all convinced that this is a bad thing. A smaller, multi-racial, more culturally diverse populace might well lead to innovative solutions to economic and social problems. If the self-described Conservatives want smaller government, the only way we can accomplish it is to decrease our population. If we want to increase self-reliance, we need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, foodstuffs, and technology from foreign sources, and re-learn how to make many of the products we now buy from others, such as textiles.

Pat Buchanan's idyllic mid-century America was only half the size of the current one. Women were only just beginning to acquire the ability to pursue careers other than child-rearing, and Blacks were still being seated at the back of the bus. We were involved in or heading into an interminable series of conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan), and barely averted World War III more than once in subsequent years. Divorces were rarer (although not in my family), but perhaps only because they were harder to get. Infant mortality has declined significantly since 1950, but minority children die at a much higher rate than whites, and the overall rate in the US is rather embarrassingly higher than for any other developed country. The effects on BabyBoomers' lives may not have been as devastating as the Black Death, but neither are they all that laudable.

If nostalgia is, at best, an ambiguous condition, I'm not sure that future generations will be affected by it much at all. As I struggle to reach new crops of students by instilling an interest in the past and what it can teach us, I find myself swimming in a rip-current of apathy, if not antipathy. Fewer and fewer of my pupils consider the past as particularly valuable; instead, they wonder what it has to do with them, now. "How is this information going to help me in my career?" they ask. The question is genuine rather than churlish. They really do want to know what utility I can offer, but I'm never sure how to answer them. The old saws about how general education will make them better people, or how knowing the past will help them avoid making the same mistakes don't hold much truck with a group hell-bent on fame and fortune in the game or fashion industries. The best I can offer is that the past, especially in the visual arts, represents a gold mine of ideas and images. At least as long as you cite your finds properly.

From an archaeological perspective, the present is the surface, under which lie immeasurable treasures. Education provides only what amounts to a surface collection of odds and ends that indicate what one might find underneath. The more practical contribution schooling makes to our future lives is to provide us--if we're fortunate to have decent teachers--with the tools we need to excavate the past, connect the ideas and objects we locate there with our contemporary needs and desires, and interpret them carefully and fairly. My parents and grandparents told me stories about my ancestors that made me want to know more about "the olden days." But they also insisted on telling me how hard it had been, and ultimately how unfair things were for others who didn't fare as well as we had.

If real knowledge and wisdom don't somehow emerge from the massive piles of information being heaped on this generation, in their future nostalgia might simply become a dismal undertaking, rather than a potentially rewarding exercise in plumbing memory. Rather than longing for imagined, distant glory, we should be showing our kids how to reflect critically on what they remember in order to faithfully craft the stories they tell their own children.

Note: This essay has concurrently been posted on Owl's Farm.

Image credit: In truth, I don't know where I got this; it was just in my archives for use in class. But the image is a bas relief designed by Philip Webb and executed by George Jack on a cottage in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. I think the relief was commissioned by Jane Morris, in memory of her husband, and certainly captures his pensive demeanor. I have a copy of it at my desk at school.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fracking the Future

Americans seem to be so deeply mired in oil culture that we're never going to escape.

As I wandered through various websites on my Sunday morning catch-up-with-the-news efforts, several stories caught my attention--from Good, Grist, the Times, and other sites that keep me apprised of the world's goings on (since I can't really rely on the Daily Poop to cover much that doesn't happen locally). I tend to focus on energy issues out of habit, and a number of stories resonated with what I've been noticing about a general reluctance to take alternative energy sources seriously in this country.

I was watching Bill Maher's Friday night show on HBO, Real Time, only because there was absolutely nothing else on, and both the Beloved Spouse and I were too tired to do anything but veg. I find Maher mildly amusing at best, and more often irritating, but his guest was Alexandra Wentworth who is both very funny and married to George Stefanopolis. We stayed with the show until the end, mostly out of inertia. Maher's peanut gallery (consisting of Eliot Spitzer, Erin McPike, and Steve Moore) went on to comment on various news items as Maher brought them up. Moore (a Libertarian, co-author of Return to Prosperity) [note: I originally, and mistakenly, referred to this as "Return to Posterity], when talking about clean energy (wind and solar) kept insisting that it's "not economical" and we have to keep fracking and pumping in order to fuel (pardon the pun) future economic recovery. But as any good logic teacher knows, simply asserting something over and over again doesn't make it true; and Moore lacked the time to back his assertion up with any evidence.

But this general notion--that the only "economical" solution to our dependence on foreign oil is to pump more of our own, or find a "bridge" (like natural gas) to tide us over--seems to be embedded in the "conservative" world view at the moment (which doesn't seem all that conservative, upon reflection). Pundits and politicians alike consistently dismiss renewable resources as not cost-effective, or uneconomical. Then they bring up Solyndra as a whipping boy: see what happens when you fund this sort of thing?

Well, according to David Roberts's article in Grist from Friday, the whole Solyndra episode seems to amount to nothing more than a bad call on the part of the Obama administration. The year-long investigation into the loan has turned up, in Robert's words, "Bupkis. Nothing." All efforts to locate wrong-doing have produced nothing more than evidence that it was "a decision made based on merits, undone by economic shifts in the international solar market, with embarrassing political optics. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing. There is no 'scandal.'"

Opponents to alternative fuel sources seem to want this to turn out badly for purely political reasons. Prove that the administration proceeded with this deal for corrupt reason, and it'll tar (again, pardon) the whole industry.

Another story that gave me pause (and reminded me that folks are constantly trying to invent alternatives to fossil fuels) came from Good: Fuel Gets Fruity: Converting Produce Scraps into Gas. Biofuel made from readily available materials seems to be popping up all over the place. Someday, perhaps, we'll all have home scrap-digesters instead of LP gas tanks or natural gas lines running into our homes. As much as I like cooking with gas, I'm working on eliminating the need for it, since I really do think we're running out, and it bloody well terrifies me anyway. Recent evidence also points to the possibility that natural gas isn't as clean as we're being told it is, and is thus much less promising as a cleaner "bridge" fuel that can help us wean ourselves from oil and coal.

The recent move to take another, closer look at the Keystone pipeline drew the ire of the right (we need the jobs and the oil, they say, even though most of the jobs would be temporary and the oil itself would be exported). But according to another article in Grist, by Jess Zimmerman, anti-Keystone folks are finding new allies in the Tea Party: those who don't like the fact that if the pipeline builders can't buy your property from you, they'll just take it via eminent domain.

If only people could see that reliance on fossil fuels is every bit as dangerous to our rights as the taking of property against our will. Don't basic rights to clean air and water come under the notion of a right to life and liberty?

Perhaps because there aren't measurable price tags attached to the breathability of air or the drinkability of water, we can't see them in the more concrete sense that we can property values (even though these are tied to issues of clean air and water). And how do we begin to attach economic value to the ability of future generations to grow crops on land radically altered by changing rain patterns and mean temperatures, or to make a living from polluted fisheries?

What if the idea of prosperity had more to do with well-being than with cash? A transformation in the national psyche from a monetary model of the good life to one based on sustainability and long-term viability seems to be in order. But there seem to be only small glimmers of hope that our national preoccupation with the cash value of what we're leaving our kids (rather than the kind of a planet they're going to inherit) is going to change any time soon.

Image credit: The photo is of the Urban Planet building at Shanghai's Expo 2010. According to its designers, "The exhibition was characterized by a dichotomous structure illustrating the two-faced character of the city as both a consumer of environment and as a place for innovation and technology in the service of an ecological renewal for the future." (via Wikipedia)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bicentennial, Mr. Dickens

This is quite the year for anniversaries, so I thought I'd start acknowledging them both on the Farm (when appropriate) and on the Cabinet--beginning with Charles Dickens's 200th birthday. Dickens worked and wrote tirelessly about the appalling social conditions in nineteenth-century England, and many of the causes he championed were the same ones William Morris embraced.

If I needed any prompting to remember the date, Google's Doodle for today provides a cute reminder, along with a linked Google search on Dickens (coming up with the Wikipedia article first, of course, followed by Google Books editions of his works; you can get a better list using "Charles Dickens"). But since I try to encourage inquiry beyond the obvious, I thought I'd link a few choice bits here for anyone inclined to celebrate.

During my otherwise largely misspent youth, I binged for some time on nineteenth-century English novels, especially those of Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Dickens. My interest paid off, because when a grad student in the English department at Penn needed someone to type his dissertation on Dickens's serial techniques, I got the gig, and gave him a deal: 50 cents a page. I loved doing it, and took away a much deeper understanding of the man and his work.

The Dickens oeuvre is massive (online versions of his works abound, but go to Project Gutenberg for a list that includes audiobooks (the link is to the "D" page; scroll down). Folks like me, who prefer hard copy, can find numerous editions at Half Price Books, and occasionally snag nice old copies with pretty covers, like my People's Editions from 1883. Marks inside the covers show I spent between 50 cents and a dollar for each. I bought a good acid-free copy of Our Mutual Friend in London, and should probably begin again to remedy lapses in my library.

This week's news outlets are packed with stories, and many tout his social views: against slavery, supportive of "fallen women," and especially his identification with the poor and downtrodden: The Guardian (on literacy), The Christian Science Monitor (on the 19th century 99%), but not, alas, the Daily Poop, which has noted only what others are doing. My favorite bit is from The Guardian: A Fiendishly Difficult Birthday Quiz, for the true aficionados. And no, I haven't taken it, nor would I do all that well if I did, having not read the man's work for forty years. But that copy of Our Mutual Friend I bought in 1971 is next on my list of bedtime reading.

Some of the absolute best sources on Dickens can be found on the web. My favorite is the official Dickens Museum site, and the Dickens Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth (a late, dear friend of mine was also born in Portsmouth, and loved this museum). The Morgan Library and Museum's online exhibit, Charles Dickens at 200, is spectacular. If you're in New York, you can visit it yourself--although it closes February 12.

Huge numbers of films have been made of the books, most of which I have refused to see because Dickens's plots and characters are far too complex for Hollywood not to mangle. The 1946 David Lean version of Great Expectations is the only exception I can think of (mainly because I saw it when I was young and, as yet, untutored in things Dickensian; the link is to the Criterion Collection edition, which is beautiful)--although my husband swears by the 1977 serial television production of Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps on some dark and stormy night I'll relent and start collecting selected DVDs.

There was also a PBS biographical series on Dickens back in 2003. It's probably time to see if that's available, since his own life story is every bit as interesting as his fiction. Speaking of biographies, there's a relatively new one out by Michael Slater (2009), Charles Dickens: A Life Defined By Writing (Yale UP, 2009), which I haven't read but intend to get. Last November, David Gates reviewed two more in The New York Times (by Claire Tomalin and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst).

There are a number of good Dickens portraits available online (my favorite is the George Herbert Watkins photo that opens this post), in many media. A quick image search can locate dozens. But because Dickens was such an outspoken figure, he was frequently lampooned. The best of the caricatures is probably this one, by André Gill ("Dickens crosses the English Channel, carrying books from London to Paris" from the cover of the French newspaper, L'Eclipse. Gill was a prolific caricaturist, and many public figures relished being portrayed by him.

Not far from where I lived in Philadelphia, in one of the vest-pocket parks the city has sprinkled all over the urban environment, is this statue of Dickens and Little Nell, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop. I remember a lit prof once telling the class that ships passing one another while crossing the Atlantic as the book was appearing in serial form would call to one another, "Does Little Nell still live?" My, how things have changed.

I'll have to think of an appropriately Dickensian brew for the Beloved Spouse this evening, and raise a glass to a superb novelist with an admirable social conscience. He ought to be assigned reading for people running for political office.

Image credits: Photograph of Charles Dickens by George Herbert Watkins; albumen print, 1858. (National Portrait Gallery; also available on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons). The photo of Clark Park's Dickens and Little Nell statue is by Bruce Anderson, via Wikimedia Commons. The Gill cartoon is from the Wikipedia Article on L'Eclipse.