Sunday, July 31, 2011

maybe you can help me out

I had this conversation on Facebook back on April 8th:
Dear women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and poor people: You know the Republican Party despises you, right? As in, doesn't respect you enough to tell you so to your face? As in, it will always, always, always end up screwing you over by working to take away your rights and any public services that might help you, for the benefit of industry and oligarchs, even if they told you they wouldn't?

One way in which I've found the Tea Party to be a breath of fresh air is that they've at least been pretty up-front about their hatred. That carries its own very serious problems and brings out the worst in voters, but it has the feel of suppressed urges being laid out on the table for everyone to have to acknowledge.
A friend responded:
I don't buy that the Republican Party "despises" non-whites, non-heterosexuals, and poor people. What I do buy is that the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party has drastically different expectations of how society should be structured, and that those expectations are not being met in the same way they were, say, 75 years ago. Their frame has virtually no overlap with the average liberal frame, such that their fighting/talking points come across as jibberish to a non-ultra-conservative, or in this case that they "despise" those groups.
That's a very generous, not to say politically correct, way of looking at it. That's useful for understanding how conservatives see themselves, but it strikes me as being of the same school as the media's "We'll report both sides, and who are we to judge?". I admit I'm making a value judgement, and "despise" is a strong word, when maybe "fear and disdain" would suffice. When the "frame" from 75 years ago, which they're trying to enact today, says that blacks and Latinos should have difficulty voting, or that women shouldn't have to be paid an equal wage, or that blue-collar (hence lower-income) workers shouldn't be protected from workplace that treating those people as full and equal human beings? The Republican Party, as a governing entity, constantly says through actions and often through words, "I don't consider you a full member of society because of your race/gender/sexuality/income. You do not deserve the full protections and rights that others do." If devaluing someone's humanity isn't despising them, then I'm not sure what is.
It's an interesting question, and really at the core of the divisions in American society, and our mainstream culture's painful addiction to what Paul Krugman calls the "cult of balance":

Think about what's happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating -- offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent -- because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

Krugman once said that if one political party declared the Earth was flat, the headlines would read "Views Differ On Shape Of Earth". It really is that ludicrous.

We're so far from being willing to declare that even the most basic things are wrong (even factually, not just morally or ethically) and not just a difference of opinion that I'm starting to think that with the current media environment we could never even have managed desegregation.

Yet, nothing is simple. Same-sex marriage is alive and valid in six states plus D.C, which was unthinkable just a decade ago.

What do you think? I'm pretty harsh on the Republican Party (and by extension, its supporters) because I find its actions despicable. What's another way to look at it? How else do I interpret things?

[Chile] best emails ever

[I wrote this on November 30th, and for some reason didn't publish it.]

More awesome messages from my friend at school that I feel compelled to share:
If I understand right, you're in Chiloé, and I'm envious. I imagine you are eating every strange thing they give you, and taking photos like a delinquent.

Since Christmas is coming, I would like a gift from there, but something specific. It could be a freshly made curanto [seafood stew], but as it would arrive cold, it's better that I ask for the following. Go get a pen and paper, it's detailed.

[instructions for the vegetable-dyed wool yarn I'm supposed to find]

I want to make myself a scarf or necklace of wool, and your support of my cause would be an act of mercy in my life. Here's a link so you know what yarn looks like and you don't bring me a sheep:

If you can't buy the yarn, you can leave me 5 dollars to buy my Christmas present.

I sincerely hope you're having fun in the South of my daydreams. Enjoy it for me, and post lots of photos.

I don't miss you and it's good that you're gone, and your profile photo is horrible.
And then today, in response to this photo:

mystery plant
I saw the photos, and your "mystery plant" is called nalca, and it grows in damp places. On my family's land, it grows by the shore of the lake, and has a taste like an acidic apple, and they make chicha [a sweet alcoholic beverage] from it. (Don't drink chicha down South there, you won't remember your name, or you might think you're kissing the pincoya [Chilote female water spirit] when it's actually a sheep.) The plant is good for salad, or to eat solo with salt if you're really, really hungry.

Please keep publishing photos, and I will be a tourist from my chair.
The mystery plant is Chilean rhubarb, Gunnera tinctoria (unrelated to real rhubarb).

I do have good friends.

government deficit chicken

I've been watching the debt ceiling throwdown, since it's near the top of the list in even my far-reduced politics-watching.

What happens if the US defaults? Well, our interest rates will go up: no more short-term Treasury bonds at 0.00%. (Yes, the global economy is so bad that people are sometimes loaning the US government money for free. Actually, interest rates on secondary markets, re-selling after the initial sell by the government, have gone negative a few times, which is like saying "I'll loan you a dollar, and you only have to pay me back 98 cents".) Mortgages become more expensive as a result, which means more downward pressure on already-falling house prices, shattering the naive hopes of people hoping for a housing market recovery.

(For non-money nerds: government bonds represent someone loaning money to the government. Interest rates measure two things: (1) The lender's estimate of the risk in lending, and (2) Demand, represented by the lender's desire to lend [by buying the bond]. The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate from the lender. But if the lender really wants to lend [by buying the bond], they may lower their rates to attract borrowers. Government bonds are limited and can be re-sold, so there's a market, and interest rates fluctuate. On the "measuring risk" angle, the interest rates on 2-year Greek government bonds hit 29% last week. That's two-nine with no decimal point.)

A lot of concern involves the world panicking because there's then no safe place to put their money: the dollar has been the reserve currency of choice for such a long time. People predict a flight into commodities and gold and silver. Then the price of gold and silver continue to skyrocket, but it hardly seems like that can last, because they don't have any inherent value any more than a dollar does. In fact, I'd argue that in everyday terms, gold bullion is pretty much worthless, because I can't take a bar of gold and go buy a car.

(I guess I could try, with circulating gold coins, but I'd be surprised if anyone would take them.)

Here are the options:
  • Gold and silver. Meh. Maybe.
  • Oil. This is actually a good bet. All the things that make it an amazing economic input make it a good store of value: fungible, storable, and people want it.
  • China. Who trusts China enough to use them as a reserve currency? No one with sense.
  • Europe. Nope, the eurozone is disintegrating in slow motion. Once Greece defaults, there's Ireland and Portugal. And then there's Spain. As John Lancaster points out, "The ECB/EU/IMF 'troika' can write a cheque and buy the Greek economy, or the Irish economy or the Portuguese economy. But Spain is the world's twelfth-largest economy, and the ECB [European Central Bank] can't just write a cheque and buy it." And Italy. Did I mention Italy? It's all bad.
  • Non-China emerging economies. They're doing well, but they have crises and defaults every 10-20 years, economic inequality where the low end is profoundly bad, and periodic waves of political instability that make America look staid and mature.
Maybe the "safe" thing to do is to spread your bets across all these things. I think, though, that in reality the dollar will continue. For my part, if there's a default and interest rates go up, I'm going to buy Treasury bonds, which along with savings accounts have been a pretty lame investment recently.

A default would create incredible uncertainty. We're demonstrating very loudly to the world exactly how broken our political system has become: specifically, just how insane the Republican Party is, and how much power they're granted both by our system's assumption of good faith, and the Democratic Party's lack of resolve. We continue striking out for new lows, capriciously impeaching a president and then re-electing a thoughtless military adventurist with all the governing skills of a schoolyard bully. I'm honestly not quite sure what's kept the House of Representatives from impeaching Obama just out of spite.

If any reasonable reserve-currency option develops, I'm sure everyone will flock to it. In the meantime, mostly we just look like assholes.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

morning conversation

J and I often get some time together while Anna makes breakfast. This morning he was narrating some conflict at his school that he perceived as continuing into his summer camp, even though to my knowledge summer camp is a completely different group of kids.
"...and then I thought, I'm going to get those kids. I'm going to use those two aikido techniques on them."
"Well, aikido is really for when people physically attack us. For everything else, we use talking."
"I made them up, so they're not real aikido techniques."
"Even so, we use talking."
J growled and stuffed his head inside the pillowcase.
"I'm sticking my head in the pillow so I can't hear you saying things that try to make me use talking."
"Aw, kiddo. I just want you to live in peace with everybody else."
Anna called him to the table for breakfast.
"Grrr, I'm so mad about what you said, I don't think I can eat breakfast."
"Do you remember what I said?"
"So does it really matter?"
He gets up to go to the table.
"You don't own me, you don't get to decide what's important to me."
"That's absolutely true."
It's amazing what happens when you raise kids to communicate. It shouldn't be surprising when that's what they do, but it sort of is.

Monday, July 25, 2011

a voice gone silent

On Thursday night another resident of San Francisco Zen Center, David, was found dead. I assumed it was suicide, and his friend Brad Warner seems to confirm it.

Especially compared to the decades people sometimes live there, my time at SFZC was very short, just a few weeks in the summer of 2008. But what timing! A day or two before I got there, everyone had been evacuated out of Tassajara before the fires came, and its residents dispersed to either City Center or Green Gulch. I think the fires came the day after I got there, a story quirky and dramatic enough to have a new book about it: abbot Steve Stücky and 4 other monks stayed behind and risked their lives to (successfully) save the monastery. Back here, though, City Center was full of refugees, taken from their normal routines in a steep, un-electrified valley, and dumped in the middle of San Francisco.

David was one of the refugees. As you might guess, he suffered from mental illness, and had a bit of a mental break when he lost his home. So everything was pretty busy, with Tassajara having a crisis with the fires, City Center having a crisis trying to integrate the Tassajara refugees into the schedule and community, and David having a crisis of his own.

It's startling to me how much I remember of all those people I was only with for 3 weeks. Lou Hartman, impossibly old, but at 93(!) a model of dedicated practice, as the young people careened around him in the kitchen. The enigmatic, very large Jerome, silently shifting from his morning newspapers to putting on his big straw hat and venturing out into the world. And David.

I talked to him a few times when he got back from a few days in the hospital. I remember what everyone else remembers: kind, and smart, and funny. I also saw someone working so hard to be a part of the world, and maybe never quite feeling like he succeeded. I remember the subtle sadness behind his eyes, the shadows and fog of a fellow traveller. It's a special brand of hell, to experience life through that dull gray veil.

Really, I didn't know him that well, and I'm projecting a bit out of my experience. I just know that I found my way out, and he never did.

I often don't have much to say about these things. People die, and all at once we lose their participation in our world, and we get a brutal reminder of our own transience. It's rough.

On the han, the wood block used for signalling various events in a Zen temple, is always written a verse similar to this:

Life is short, and relationships are the only thing that matter. Go care about people.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cape Cod

After Philadelphia, we took the Amtrak Acela Express to Providence, where my parents picked us up and brought us down to their house on Cape Cod.

The train goes all along the Connecticut and Rhode Island coasts, and I had forgotten what a difference it is to have a coast that's actually accessible: estuaries and tidal inlets filled with boats! Marsh grass, clam shacks, New England beaches, the whole nine yards.


It's been a pretty epic trip. J put on his new glasses for the first time (video coming soon), and has done really well with lots of long stretches of travel. He and my niece E have gotten along famously, which is amazing to watch. She's almost 9, and I think being with J gives her a chance to just be a kid and not worry about being caught in the gravitational pull of her 11-year old sister S growing up. The sister has also been given to mood swings over the years, and as near as I can tell, one common dynamic with them is that S does the protective-older-sister thing, but E has always done a lot of caretaking to try and ease S's moods. Supposedly she's really good with the special-needs kids at school, and you can see that in her patience and humor with J. So they've spent many hours together, and J gets some experience of a cousin (and grandparents and uncles) a bit more...mainstream? From a family with fewer traumas, maybe.

At dinner he said, "I know I've only been here a few days, but I feel like I've lived here my whole life." Which is awesome, and clearly we'll have to make this a recurring thing.

My parents bought this place when I was 12 or so, and before that we'd come down every year and rented a place for a few weeks. Like any nice place to live, Cape Cod was a good financial choice for buying real estate 20 years ago, but it's harder to sum up the family experiences. Lots of sailing and swimming and biking the Rail Trail and spending a couple summers working here. I got to show Anna the sunset and take J sailing for the first time (he loves sailing and he's really close to swimming now).

It's nice to share that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

someone liked this more than I did

I took this photo last month at the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco:

San Francisco Catholic cathedral

I wasn't overly fond of it, because it felt unbalanced with the bright light on the left and the heavy dark wood on the right. But, someone added it to their gallery on Flickr! Go check it out, it's a cool collection of pictures.

(I think they liked it because they were collecting photos of strong geometric shapes, and there is a triangular outline of the roof going upward to the right over the organ.)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

showing up

I was coming back from the Mütter Museum, along Market Street, maybe around 20th. It's all office buildings, empty on weekends, so there was very little pedestrian traffic. I watched a car pull into a parking spot, and next to the parking spot was a bike chained to a post, and a guy crouched next to the bike. With bolt cutters. Cutting at something. He decided he was done, and put the cutters in his backpack.

It's kind of an awkward situation. I don't see people committing crimes much, especially not in broad daylight. I couldn't just let the guy walk away with someone's bike. I thought of a story my aikido friend Brandon tells, about someone being aggressive on the commuter rail, and Brandon just moved himself over to where he could watch. The guy stopped harassing another passenger long enough to demand, "What are you lookin' at?!" And Brandon calmly said he was just going to sit there and watch, and the guy's enthusiasm petered out.

There was a white couple in their 50s in the recently-parked car, and the guy had already walked over to pay the parking kiosk. The woman had the door open, but was staying in the car. I decided to walk over and say hello.
He stands up, a little wobbly, pretty shabby-looking: black, dark skin, scruffy white whiskers, baseball hat, probably in his fifties, about my size. Quite friendly.
"Oh! Hi."
"What's up?"
"I lost m'key!"
"Yeah, y'know, I lost my key, so I hadda cut the lock off."
Awkward pause as I can't think of anything to say that wouldn't escalate the situation. Do I call him a liar? Do I try to run him off? Then what: shouting match? fistfight?

The chain is wound multiple times around the front wheel and back wheel and through the frame, and he stares at it blankly, paralyzed by puzzlement.
"Say, is there a lot of bicycle theft in Philadelphia?"
"What's that?"
A bit slower--our accents are a little different and I slurred. "Is there a lot of bicycle theft in Philadelphia?"
"Oh! No, not much. Why?"
"Oh, I just noticed you've got the chain all wound through the wheels and the frame."
"Yeah, you know, the wheels, they'll take the wheels."
"Ah, yeah. That's a good idea. I'm from San Francisco, lotta bike theft there."
All this time he's been expecting me to leave and mind my own business, so he can attend to his. I have nowhere to go. I can stand there and watch him in awkward conversation for the next five hours, if I feel like it.

New tactic.
"Say, can you register bikes in Philadelphia? Like, if I went and found a cop, you could prove it was yours?"
He doesn't blink. "Nope, nah, bikes aren't registered."
"Ah, bummer."
The truth comes out.
"Oh--you think I'm stealin' it!"
"Well, yeah, actually. I do."
"Well, I ain't. I ain't stealin' it." Well, your logic is impeccable. That should make me go away!
"Huh. Okay."
"I'm just gonna keep gettin' this chain off, tryin' ta figure it out..."
"Mind if I stand here and watch?"
"Sure! Go ahead!"
It's hard to describe the awkwardness. Yes, I see you committing a crime there. No, I'm not going to stop you. I'm just going to stand here and pay close attention, and make sure you know I'm here.

The chain continues to foil him.
"I just gotta figure out...get this chain off."
"Yannow, I'm gonna look around for a cop. He can help you with the chain."
"Oh, sure, thanks...gotta figure out..."
A few seconds later, he stands up, says "Bah" and walks away. Leaving his bike behind! Amazing.

The woman got out of the car and said, "You handled that beautifully. Thank you."

I looked at the thick, galvanized steel chain and saw the guy's trouble: he hadn't cut all the way through the link, and even if he had, he would have had to cut the other side, because you can't bend a steel link open. So I guess he's not an expert. I left a note in the half-cut link explaining that someone tried to cut it and I stopped them.

This is part of the value of community: if we're alone, we can tell ourselves whatever story we want. Maybe the guy convinced himself the bike was abandoned, or the owner was rich and could afford a new one, or he needed the money more than the owner needed the bike, or whatever. With other people around, we have to see ourselves reflected in their responses. It's concrete, external feedback that's much more convincing than the stream of thoughts in our heads. The bike thief may have been afraid of being caught, but he wasn't bothered whenever I mentioned the police, and in reality there couldn't have been a cop within 4 blocks of us, let alone one that would care about a bike theft. I think he was just unnerved that I was watching him and knew what he was doing. (I would have physically stopped him from actually taking the bike, but why escalate things without need?)

Being present matters. If a person is in pain, sometimes they just need another person to be there and acknowledge their pain. Yes, I see you in pain there. I can't fix it, but I'm going to sit here and hold your hand.

When I was a kid, my mother told me 90% of life was just showing up. I'm not sure if she knows how right she was.


Stage One of our East Coast adventure, visiting Anna's friend and her husband and two kids. They were going to the arboretum, eventually. I took off exploring downtown Philly. It's a nice town.

30th St. Station

Functioning public transportation! I took the SEPTA regional rail there and back, and took a bus at one point. All pretty flawless and on time. (Buses can run on time! Who knew?)

It was nearing noon when I got in, so the first stop was Reading Terminal Market for lunch. Lunch is the wrong time to go on a Saturday, of course, since the place is wall-to-wall restaurants and grocery vendors, but I landed at Beck's Cajun Cafe and had a perfectly lovely jambalaya. Put their Devil's Dust seasoning on it, which is normal Cajun seasoning with some cayenne: they under-season the food a bit, presumably so tourists from Akron aren't put off by too much flavor.


Then across downtown for the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. I went in, and immediately realized I'm not intensely fascinated by medical deformities and oddities, and maybe $14 was a bit much to pay, all things considered. My friend Joe, who I saw later in the day, said that he's done that two or three times now. I'm glad I went, though.

Back downtown, to Elixr Coffee. It was the most hipster-sounding elitist coffee shop I could find in a quick scan of the Yelp listings. They make quite nice coffee, and for someone experienced in San Francisco coffee snobbery, I'd say they weren't very snobbish at all.

Then I got to see Amy and Joe! I'd totally forgotten until last night that they live here, but it was an easy bus ride to hang out for an hour and a half. I haven't seen them since they moved away at least 5 years ago, so that was awesome.

Tomorrow: train ride!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

liberal arts and learning how to read

In my search for things to read on my iPad without paying for them, i was naturally reminded of Project Gutenberg, which for years--decades, actually--has dedicated itself to releasing in accessible formats literature of any language which enters the public domain. The despicable copyright laws of the United States, where I believe copyrights will now help support a dead author's middle-aged grandchildren, means the pickings are slim in some respects: no Steinbeck for you, for example, nor Faulkner nor Hemingway. I'll have to check the data, but most of it, and certainly what interests me, is from the 19th century.

(The technically-unrelated Project Gutenberg Australia has some stuff unavailable in the U.S., due to different copyright laws: notably, Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, and H.P. Lovecraft.)

You may safely imagine that most nonfiction from the period is now of limited use: the translations of Buddhist texts are as colonialist as the histories, and even where science has not made the texts useless, there are always updated and easier-to-read modern treatments of the same material.

I don't read a whole lot of fiction normally, but what I do read is often science fiction and fantasy...which have their roots in the 1800s. It dawned on me that Wells, Burroughs, Stoker, and Shelley were all 19th century. And Twain, Conan Doyle, Carroll. Inching back a bit, we get Defoe and Robinson. More obscure, H. Rider Haggard, creator of Alan Quatermain, and H.P. Lovecraft of the Cthulhu mythos. Branching out to highbrow literature, Henry James! Everyone seems to love Henry James. I must know why.

I'm reading all these things essentially because they're free in every sense of the word. I don't have to pay money; I don't have to cart around a book in addition to the iPad; I don't have to finish it by a library return deadline. I have however many dozen novels I feel like downloading, and I can read whichever I like, whenever I like. Had enough Dracula for the day? Daisy Miller (very obviously the namesake for Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan) is a good change of pace, or Huckleberry Finn or Sherlock Holmes for brain candy. Someday I'll plow through Robinson Crusoe: the first paragraph alone is excruciating. I started re-reading Treasure Island, too, which showed up for free in the Kindle app.

(Regarding Kindle books, I did buy Brad Warner's books: he needs the money and I wanted to read them. I may buy The Inheritance of Rome and A People's History of the United States, too, since they're both physically and intellectually dense, making for long reads. Mostly, though, I object to paying full price for digital media that I'm not free to copy, as extremely well-done as the Kindle service is. I'm sure my views will evolve with time.)

You get the idea. Ultimately inspired by the marvelous Bookslut blog and enabled by technology, I'm chugging through various classic titles and authors.

Despite my calling as a software engineer, I actually had a liberal arts education. And you know, somewhere in there I learned how to read: asking questions about character experience and motivations, and what was the author's deal? Where did this book really come from? What's she trying to say? I just started Frankenstein, and you know his name doesn't appear until Chapter 3? Is Frankenstein a Jewish name? He claims he's from one of the noblest families of Genoa: how would that work with the whole Jewish thing? The book came out in 1818 and is strikingly modern compared to the soul-sucking turgid prose that bogs down so much of the century's literature: Thoreau's Walden, highly quotable but badly written, is a good example. What makes Frankenstein so unusually awesome?

Did you know Bram Stoker was Irish and had never been anywhere near Transylvania? Me either.

People who censor Huckleberry Finn are idiots.

I'm very grateful for an education that sharpened beyond all necessity my natural tendency to ask questions and learn stuff. It's how I make a living, but it's also just more fun.

happy half-birthday, J

J's birthday is around Christmas, when it's impossible to get any kids to come because they're all doing Christmas things. So he manages to have several birthday parties, and this is the big one when we invite whichever friends from school, plus his lifelong friend S who's the son of one of Anna's college friends.

There were ponies, and Anna made a pretty awesome scavenger hunt for the kids to work on: there were two ponies and six kids, so they went scavenging for cool stuff like "a blackberry leaf" and "a Y-shaped stick" when they weren't riding, and then using their combined results to solve a puzzle at the end.

J's dad did extremely well with having me around: he seemed pretty relaxed, and looked me in the eye and called me by name several times. I have every hope that someday we will have an actual conversation, although maybe not on a day where a kid looks at him and says "I didn't know J had two dads!".

Unusually for a social event J was glowing with joy when everyone was standing around singing "Happy Birthday". It's a lot of fun to watch him grow. A lot of my contribution comes indirectly, from giving Anna hugs and ideas when J isn't around.

For example: J had a special drama-queen week where on four or five different days I came home and Anna explained that J had declared today "the worst day of my life". Growing up in a family of mostly-loving mockery, I thought the obvious thing to do was to write on the calendar every day it was the worst day of his life, and eventually point out to him the clear evidence that he was being ridiculous.

It worked! Once Anna showed him the calendar, he started switching to "the worst day of my life this week" or "the worst day of my life recently," with finer distinctions like "second/third worst day of my life this week." Anna has also been progressively demoted:
  • Worst Mama In the World
  • Worst Mama In the State of California
  • Worst Mama In the State of California This Month
  • Worst Mama J Has Known In the State of California This Month
Luckily her friend Lupin has been granted the superlative position by her son.

At any rate, it's pretty awesome to see J loosen up his thinking a bit and start to acknowledge the world's complexity.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

changing things that weren't working

On Tuesday I decided to pull the offer on the house. Last week a comparable house--smaller, but 3-bedroom and a bigger lot--went on sale for 13% below our offer price. And a couple other houses are listed for 20-25% below. I was expecting a price drop, but not that steep, and I'd hoped it would at least come over a period of years, instead of losing money right at the start. Given the amount of my savings going in (a 20% down payment around here is a ludicrous amount of money), I decided this was all a bad idea.

Because it was a short sale and the seller's bank took forever to do anything, we weren't even in escrow yet after more than 2 months, so I don't lose any money: the deposit check hasn't been cashed. (Or, if anyone tried to cash it, it bounced.) Backing out was just a matter of telling my realtor, who told the seller's agent.

Tuesday night we went to look at a pretty cool condo for rent, and once the owner confirms she has a rental place to move into (she's moving to another town so her daughter can use the better schools), we'll sign the lease on it.

I was also supposed to take the GRE this Saturday, but realized I wasn't going to be ready, so I pushed it out to September.

To recap, on Tuesday, I:
  1. Avoided throwing my life savings into a bad investment.
  2. Canceled an enormous standardized test I wasn't ready for.
  3. Found a place to live where we'll have a bedroom! And a couch!
I feel much better.

Obama *always* looks bad when he's working

Like everyone else, I've been disappointed in Obama's public wishy-washy-ness, his pathological desire for compromise and consensus with a lunatic opposition. Time and again it looks like he backs off and backs down and the Republicans run roughshod all over him, when he could make a different choice to stand up stronger, speak up earlier, or use the language of a more forceful conviction.

I don't want to deny his moral failures: on any number of anti-terrorism practices (government surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, the PATRIOT Act, ad infinitum), or the financial meltdown. On the other hand, despite superficial appearances, he has clearly been working against DADT (the Pentagon's "no gays" policy) and DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex relationships): these are clearly going down. Yesterday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government's feeble defense of DADT and lifted its stay, meaning the military had to stop enforcing it immediately, rather than "as soon as we're certain it won't impact operations." The administration's "defense" of those laws has been hard to judge: one Justice Department brief on DADT, in particular, was viciously homophobic. In retrospect, it looks more like the administration has been giving everyone cover and saying "okay, well, we tried to defend it, we failed," while the courts rightfully eviscerate them. It's been a long and complicated game.

So it's depressing to watch what looks like him getting batted around on the debt ceiling issue by the GOP, like a budding sociopathic child pulling the wings off a fly. But it wasn't all that long ago that we were saying the same things about him during the health care reform process, which most of us were surprised to find ending in the passage of an imperfect bill that nonetheless puts us well on the road to truly universal health care.

Several times now, Obama has played Rope-a-Dope, allowing himself to suffer bad political optics while playing more subtle games to successfully accomplish his goals. To be honest, I think he's earned a little benefit of the doubt. Let's sit back and let the man work.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

bedtime conversation

"Time for a snuggle?"
"I guess. Do we have to?"
"No... You can always lie there by yourself and listen to me cry."
This is how you know you found the right girl.


Monday, July 4, 2011

back where it began

My grandmother died a few weeks ago, so last week we converged on the small town in Western New York where my family is from. Let's call it England, New York.

My family has been there longer than they've been anywhere else: 70-80 years, I think. My grandparents raised their family there, and my uncle stayed, so my cousin's three kids are now the third generation to grow up there. There's a pretty strong family resemblance, so if I'm wandering around town, people will say "Hey, you're one of them, aren't you?" and of course I am.

Despite being a pretty solid Rust Belt town, England is extremely well-preserved, with all sorts of buildings in pretty good condition from the past 150 years. There are about 15 churches in the downtown area, most being pretty nice to look at and with good stories. The Neo-Classical Wesleyan church building was built on the original designated site of the Episcopal Church; I don't know if the Episcopal Church came into some money or what, but they sold the site and the in situ building materials to the Wesleyans. The town of England hanged exactly one person, and I believe the Baptists were in charge at the time, and one guy got so mad that he donated land on Main Street to some other church (I believe the Catholics) with the proviso that they build such that the Baptist church couldn't be seen from the street. My uncle says he's seen the original bequest. It's that kind of place.

We had a nice memorial service for my grandmother. I ended up doing a reading, which I probably enjoyed more than was proper, because I like using my voice for people. It was a less-psychedelic (which is to say, carefully cropped) passage from Revelation, 21:1-7. I wasn't especially close with my grandmother--I visited her up north a few times a year before she moved into a nursing home back East, but we didn't have much to talk about--so it was good to hear how other people experienced her. The priest was a childhood friend of the family, and Nana had taught high school English for a long time too, so there was no shortage of stories.

Saturday night after dinner, the obvious thing to do was to head to the local dive bar with my cousin M and her co-parent. (They have two kids together, which is all that can be consistently said about their relationship: life is complicated.) This was actually the nicer dive bar, the old nastier dive bar having closed a few years ago. Supposedly it was karaoke night, once M's friends would show up.

The three of us sat down, waiting for my brother, and behind me one guy is saying to another, "Yeah, she came up for conjugal visits up until 2008 or so."

I looked at M. "Seriously?", I asked. "Yep," she said.

After Matt the bartender served the first round and meandered off, I said, "He seems nice."
"Yes. Just...don't ever mention any racial group in his presence."
"Yeah, some of it is what's expected from a small-town hole-in-the-wall bartender, some of it...well..."
Presently there was a ruckus outside, and then a police car blasting down Main Street with sirens and lights. Matt the bartender comes back:
"Them goddamn fuckin' nigger punks just beat up Andy and stole his bike!"
Andy turns out to be a slightly slow guy who everybody knows, and these two black kids came along and mugged him. This triggered some viciously racist commentary from Matt and the trucker and biker sitting behind me (of the "conjugal visits" conversation), and some talk of going out to find the guys responsible and beat the crap out of them. Things settled down, though.

The trucker behind me was telling stories to the biker that made it hard to concentrate on the genuinely cool conversation with my relatives.
"You use the walls of your cell to toughen up your fists, and then you gotta fight. He's not one for fighting, you know? He tries to avoid confrontation. But he's gonna have to fight."
No, I do want to hear how everyone's doing, I'm just distracted by this...
"So he calls me, and he's fuckin' cryin'. I said, don't you dare start fuckin' crying. I know where those phones are in Folsom, if anyone sees you cryin' you are dead. You stop fuckin' crying right fucking now or I am fucking hanging up on you. So I hear this choking noise on the other end. You got it together, I asked? Okay."
Yeah, the wedding's in November. Can you come? That'd be awesome. Your oldest kid is huge now!
"Them nigger punks trashed Andy's bike!"
More racist ranting. More family conversation. Another Tullamore Dew.
"When he called me, he said jesus, man, I just got transferred to Folsom. I said, well, you're fucked for the next ten years. I told him on the phone, once he stopped crying, you know how we used to hunt when we were kids? You know how you had to find that real cold place inside to pull the trigger and shoot that deer? You got to find that cold place again, and use that. Don't lose track of it."
I started to peter out about 11:30, which is just as well, because a group of guys in their 20s came in, and they were looking a little suspiciously at me and my brother. I'm not sure why, because my cousin's been hanging out there since she was in high school, but whatever. I was happy enough to leave.

The account is a little scattered because that's how I experienced it: the trip kinda wrecked me for a few days, because I never got a chance to sleep off the redeye flight. Awesome to see the immediate and extended family, though.

Rest well, Nana.