Tuesday, December 27, 2016

torrents raging down from the mountains

The tally is at 99 books so far, and work is shuttered until the end of the year, so I expect it'll be 101 or so by the end. I've found I've been reading a bit much, and have diverted into watching...not TV, exactly, though I am very slowly working through Luke Cage and The OA, and occasionally Justified. The latter has, for a wonder:
  • a 15-year old playing a 15-year old, who...
  • is transgendered, and...
  • Asian.
American film and TV has been thoroughly appalling here, particularly about the latter two: transgendered roles are routinely given to cisgender actors, Asian characters are turned into white characters played by white actors ("whitewashing"), and, lest any permutations be left out, Asian characters are still nominally Asian characters, but are still played by white actors ("yellowface").
["Teenagers not playing teenagers" doesn't bug me much, since it doesn't erase an already-marginalized group. For an added twist, it also seems to date to early film days, as with 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, starring the then-18 Diana Lynn as the 14ish Emmy Kockenlocker. (You know I do not make these things up.)]
As if to scrub The Vorrh from my imagination, I've been binging through Julie Czerneda's Trade Pact Universe books.

I'm still reading J The Iliad at bedtime. It goes along for a while setting up the story, listing, as J put it, "everyone who ever thought about occasionally thinking about the Trojan War," and rather suddenly Shit Gets Real™:
Now Strife hurled down the leveler Hate amidst both sides,
wading into the onslaught, flooding men with pain.

At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder—
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war. 
Antilochus was the first to kill a Trojan captain,
tough on the front lines, Thalysias’ son Echepolus.
Antilochus thrust first, speared the horsehair helmet
right at the ridge, and the bronze spearpoint lodged
in the man’s forehead, smashing through his skull
and the dark came whirling down across his eyes—
he toppled down like a tower in the rough assault.
As he fell the enormous Elephenor grabbed his feet,
Chalcodon’s son, lord of the brave-hearted Abantes,
dragged him out from under the spears, rushing madly
to strip his gear but his rush was short-lived.
Just as he dragged that corpse the brave Agenor
spied his ribs, bared by his shield as he bent low—
Agenor stabbed with a bronze spear and loosed his limbs,
his life spirit left him and over his dead body now
the savage work went on, Achaeans and Trojans
mauling each other there like wolves, leaping,
hurtling into each other, man throttling man.
Soooo...that's horrifying, in a way that is totally appropriate to the poem, and less so for a high-anxiety kid to fall asleep to, even one who laughed at "Whichever contenders trample on this treaty first / spill their brains on the ground as this wine spills...!". Because, you know. Brains.

Anyway, Anna has always done on-the-fly editing when reading out loud, so now I skip over the (occasionally lengthy) verses of people dismembering each other. He does want to know who dies so he doesn't get confused later, though I'm pretty sure almost anyone who dies--Patroclus being the least escapable exception--is then forgotten for the rest of the story.

Iliad's gore obviously fits the setting, but above that, it's not the least bit casual. Homer bends his obsession with detail and mighty command of adjectives to paint a scene of human beings who suffer in ways we can recognize ("flooding men with pain," "Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath, / fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood," and the several lines describing each death), but are simultaneously dehumanized by the battle, at once contributing to and consumed by a bloody, impersonal, greater whole ("as two winter torrents raging," "like wolves, leaping, / hurtling into each other").

That's right, folks: my Computer Science degree came thickly wrapped in a liberal arts education. I'll be here all week.

If you read the above verses and think, "That is fucked up. Why aren't these soldiers traumatized?", then you'll be satisfied to learn that there is a persistent undercurrent of scholarship on just that topic. The marvelously-titled "The Rage of Achilles and PTSD in Antiquity" is a fine entry point.

Friday, December 23, 2016

further encounters with urban wildlife

There are rats around and about. We managed not to see any until recently, perhaps thanks to the various mostly-feral cats that have been around--cats which Leela does not appreciate and has made some efforts toward chasing off.

Then Anna found a dead one a month or three ago, with no obvious cause of death (thankfully before hitting it with the lawnmower). It was starting to disintegrate, but since I have the normal American relationship with dead things, I have no idea how long it takes for the skin to start sliding around. Underneath that rat was a rat skull, picked clean. I would have thought that would take a while due to not having the proper beetles in the area, but there was inarguably a clean rat skull, and Dermestidae has hundreds of species, so who knows? Maybe it was the pillbugs. (This graphic--"How do you clean the brains out of a deer skull? Around here, we use compressed air!"--time-lapse video shows the beetles at work.)

The questions only beget more questions, though. How does a rat die next to our front walk, with no apparent trauma? Directly on top of a solitary rat skull? Did it run outside, see the skull, and die of fright? And really, what took them so long to show up? (The house came with what Anna referred to as "mouse highways," but then we saw no sign of any.)

One night, I just happened to spot a rat running along the top rail of our fence. We started to hear chewing in the bathroom wall, a couple spots in the ceiling. After many sweaty hours spent cleaning out our scary attic (Tyvek suits don't breathe), Anna found rat scat. Based on the flatter, more mouse-like shapes of the actual rats encountered, we have the black rat (Rattus rattus, among my favorite species names), rather than the brown/Norwegian rat (Rattus norvegicus, no slouch in the species-name department). The brown rat appears to carry a different load of diseases than the black rat, though when it's Ebola vs. Black Death, I don't think anyone really wins there.

It turns out there aren't a lot of options that don't involve killing rats. You can conceivably live-trap them, I guess? And drive them to the park to release, or something--it certainly doesn't scale well if you have many rats. Glue traps seems cruel, poison is cruel and offers the potential bonuses of dead rats in your walls instead of your attic, and of poisoned rats going about where other animals will eat them.

Anna set to work, and since we didn't know for certain what was eating the house, she put out 2 rat traps and 4 mouse traps, all of the old-school wooden variety that we know from Tom & Jerry cartoons. (The technology has improved quite a bit, and I wound up getting a couple of those, as well as a battery-powered electric one.)

There were lots of rat-noises, a striking amount of skittering around, some very loud squeaking; and some thumps and more skittering. One of the locations had set off a rat trap and both mouse traps, leading to one dead rat and one sure to be hurting, if not maimed. I'd always been warned those traps will break your finger, and while that may be true for a mouse trap, the much bigger rat trap will clearly break your finger bones into many unpleasant pieces. Not even rats can become that squished and survive.

Based on the spinal trauma, I have to imagine that the rat died quickly, but it still had time to try and bolt down the wall, and only the trap itself stopped her. (The solution to that is--wait for it--secure the trap in place.) One of the mouse traps was also at the top of the wall gap, so I'm guessing there was a colleague.

Left the 3 un-tripped traps in place; put the electronic trap up there, but turned off, so they'd get used to it. All bait remains untouched. Turned the electronic trap on; still untouched.

Was there only ever one rat? Did the other rats see and hear and smell their companion die, and think "This whole 'house' adventure was Diane's idea to start with. Fuck this, we'll take our chances with the cats"?

Mostly just glad it wasn't raccoons.

Monday, December 19, 2016

NewJob, Inc.

I got a new job! It's so great that it has absorbed most of my intellectual energy. This is really helpful because I have a lot of intellectual energy, and now that I'm starting Week #5, it's easier to sleep. It's nice, after years in the wilderness, to have a job that hits all the right notes for me. It's shockingly not-draining.

I currently manage 6 people across 3 teams, and a 7th starts in January, and then I have 6 more open reqs, plus an additional one which is one of those special-case "hire them if you can and we'll figure out the budget afterward" kind of things. Round about Week #3 I counted up the 13 people I'd be managing if I fill every opening, because...it's too many, especially across 3.5 product teams (a complicated number due to a special project X' which is the same as project X, but with people's time dedicated to X'). If you have 8 direct reports, you should hope that's your only job and no one expects you to write much code any more; without preventive measures, your quality of service as a manager degrades sharply, until, as a famous Valley manager says:
"If you've got 15 people working for you, you're not their manager, you're just the guy who grins uncomfortably as you infrequently fly by the office, ask how it's going, and then don't actually listen to the answer."
My mentor-VP used to say that once your "team" is 6 people or more, you actually have multiple teams, you just don't know it yet. Let's take 13 people, and factor in 3.5 products, and we can round it up to at least 15 people's worth of managing. Probably more like 17. My NewJob boss said "Yeah, I'm glad you noticed that...", but all there was to tell him was that I can do that, but I will be delegating things left and right. I'm telling my friends that I'm going to name 3 people as project leads, promote myself to Director, and take up golf.

It's a joke. Sort of.

It has already challenged my organizational skills. I knew I was getting serious when I renewed my Remember The Milk Pro™ account. RTM is one of the tools that arose to try and make money riding the Getting Things Done movement. I've been half-assing my task-tracking skills--my work ones, that is, since my personal-life task-tracking has never been more than half-assed--since my last full-time leadership gig ended in 2013. Now I have more responsibility, and more still to come, and there's no way I could keep all the plates spinning in my head, even if I were dumb enough to try. I've even added some basic organization to my email (Read / Respond / Action Required), so if you needed my input over email in 2014, I should now have no trouble finding it, and you can almost certainly expect a reply by this time in 2017.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I like learning things.

As the year cruises to a close, I am fast approaching 100 books for the year. Those are what I finished (that being the only reasonable metric: I read many books at once, so the start date means nothing), and only one book (The Vorrh) that I actually regret reading. The latter is nearly unique; I've read any number of middling-and-below books, but I never really regret the time spent. Except for this one.

I am still reading The Iliad to the boy in small bits, seated on his floor, leaning back on his bed, with my phone in night-mode. I picked up a book titled Understanding Classics: Homer, which is basically a book-length college essay, but has all this great context for the Homeric epics.

As mentioned earlier, I'm also reading Through the Language Glass, wherein we learn that William Gladstone, that remarkable son of British politics, was also a full-bore classicist who wrote the 3-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Gladstone was a Homer geek, and among more conspicuous observations, he noted that Homer doesn't have a word for "blue," and the colors he does have come from some world-view where "violet" is the flower, the ocean, and sheep. "Green" is twigs, olive wood, and honey. It goes on like that for a while.

It's no fun writing a book about language, in English, without talking about English's long-ago ancestor Indo-European, whose mother language Proto-Indo-European is such a fun illustrative example of comparative linguistics that language geeks just say "P-I-E" for short.
[I say "fun," but I'm actually not 100% sure why it's the go-to case. It may be the breathtaking pre-colonial geographic range, from India to England, or the 3 billion-ish people speaking its daughter languages; it's also highly accessible to we phonemically-impoverished users of Roman script. It's hard for us to see the commonalities between Hebrew and Arabic when they use scripts that might as well be Greek (except that Greek is more familiar), written in a direction we're not used to (right-to-left), leaving out elements we tend to consider vital (vowels), using sounds we probably had no idea existed (what's up, Arabic?).]
Funny enough for a language from 6,000 years ago that was never written down, linguists have  reconstructed about 1,500 words of PIE by exhaustively mapping out the differences between the daughter languages. (Comparative linguistics usually takes authors a couple chapters to explain, which is when you find out that some of its foundational work was done by--and I cannot make this shit up--Jacob Grimm, of Grimm's Fairy Tales.) We have enough words to tell a short story:

(Related: languages generally tend to simplify over time, which is why most of us had no idea those sounds could come out of human mouths.)

The obvious next question is "who were these people?", and the gods only know how many dissertations and even more graduate seminars have lived and died on that question. I don't think it had ever occurred to me to ask, except that one or two ancient-history podcasts mentioned The Horse, the Wheel and Language, a fine book, despite its flaunting of the Oxford comma--though really, what should we expect from Princeton University Press? It's as accessible as a university-press book gets, which means skipping over details only relevant to the dozens of other people on the planet who think the author is absolutely over-extrapolating the dates of Tripolye C(3) from the available horse molars, leading to an error of at least a few hundred years

Computers are sometimes so predictable by comparison.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

so. many. black. ships.

As noted earlier, I finally finished Moby Dick (which is often hyphenated, but only the title) It brought me many a night of peaceful winding-down before bed. I read maybe a couple of pages at a time, with the luxury of not actually having to remember anything; I can scarcely fathom having to read it for school. I never did, and it's easy to see why English teachers wishing to awaken a love of literature in their students would shy away from what is surely one of humanity's greatest examples of soporific exuberance in art.

I said the Iliad "isn't long," which is...not exactly true. For the past few nights, it has helped J get to sleep if I read from the poem, and I've started to feel the rhythms Robert Fagles put in. Since I'm not actually a poetry person at all, this also gives it an exotic feel that seems fitting. I read aloud about 10 lines per minute, and the poem is over 15,000 lines long, so...not short.

I mentioned this to Anna and her techie brother over Thanksgiving, and it turns out her techie brother studied Homer in Greek at Harvard, as one does. Her other brother wrote a senior thesis on Classical Greek, and could read the New Testament in the original, so...that's a thing. He describes the original New Testament text as being in color, while all the translations are in black and white, so I was wondering what the Iliad sounds like in the original. Of course, we live in The Future™, so it's on YouTube.

Unless you know Greek, this is a sequence of mostly-meaningless syllables, which is why you should read this comparison of four different translations, and suddenly it's clear why the poems have lasted 3500 years.

The reason the Iliad itself interested me, since I've already consumed a lot of that era's history, is this fantastic Radiolab segment about Homer's deeply weird use of color (a total lack of "blue," for example).

I'm reading the interviewee's book, Through the Language Glass, and it is super interesting.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

mammal population restored.

We flew north for Thanksgiving this year, and we boarded the dog again: just like when we went camping, proper dog management would have made it miserable for all involved. She may yet settle down, but I'm not making plans around it.

Instead of the swanky Bay Area chain--where, no joke, you can buy your dog a room with a queen-size bed and Netflix, so they can relax after their spa day--the holiday crunch sent me to one of the local indie kennels. As expected, Leela panicked on the way in, settled down quickly for the duration, and then was hyper and yelping when she saw I came back. She basically ate dinner and fell asleep in her accustomed divot in the armchair's leg-rest, reassuringly squooshed against or on top of my legs.

Since I've been working from home all this time, we've spent essentially every day together for the 6 months since we adopted her, and it turns out I don't like being without my dog. The house is too quiet without the thundering of tiny paws, the snarling at squirrels, and mad dash for any sound that might be the crinkling of a bag of Trader Joe's White Cheddar Corn Puffs, her favorite human food. (In fact, she likes them so much that they are useless as a training treat: if she even suspects you might be holding a cheese puff, that's where 100% of her attention goes, so she can't focus at all on what you're trying to teach her.) She also knows that Anna and J are highly reliable sources of crumbs, so the Beagleshark makes a special effort for them.

There's this non-human creature in the house, with her own wants, preferences, and emotions, but also with a strikingly alien cognition, a very limited sense of the passage of time, no theory of mind, and behavior generally driven by countless feedback loops of basic conditioning (intended or not). She's one of the family, and--notwithstanding the horror of the damp nose--J has only gotten more comfortable since that first or second week, when he was eating at the table and started repeating "dog, dog, dog, dog, dog." We all express love in our own way.
"Hey, J, god and I are going for a walk."
"Okay. [pause] Wait. What'd you say?"
"I said, 'dog and I are going for a walk.'"
Our little conversation piece!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

seasons. sort of. moisture, anyway.

It's mid-November, so here in the Bay Area, winter is coming along with the kind of brisk punctuality you can expect from a semi-desert that used to be Mexico. Prompted by the occasional frigid 55º morning, leaves are starting to turn brown. And we got measurable rainfall for the second time since...I don't know, really. April sometime?

The Figpocalypse is long finished, and with the rain, the entire carpet of figs on the driveway burst simultaneously with scary-looking white mold, before decomposing into a merely life-threatening lubricant. The apple tree put out some pretty good apples, this year! We got to taste a few that the opossums or raccoons didn't want. There were some pomegranates, but since we don't really eat or drink pomegranates, mostly we let them go. (And we're still not 100% sure when they're ripe.)

After 17 years in California, I still find it weird that some fruits literally ripen in February and can happily stay on the tree through June and beyond; that said, the orange tree looks content.

With the first rain, I got to experience several dog-walks culminating in a wet dog. She was not a fan of this whole "water falling from the sky" concept, and seemed even reluctant to go outside on her own to pee. I started considering a dog-raincoat, and a friend said, "Oh, you've got a princess!". Thinking it through, two thoughts came up:
  1. If she's 2 years old and has spent her life in California, she will have had very little experience of rain. (Even young kids have trouble adjusting: when my friend's son was 4, they were in the car and he said, "Mommy, what's that rattling on the roof?" because he didn't know the sound of rain on a car.)
  2. If I get the dog a raincoat, there should be less of the damp-dog smell in the house.
 The other bizarre thing about "winter" around here is that this is when plants do their growing, because this is when water abounds. (We still don't quite know where things like our Zombie Rose get water in the off-season.) The mash of leaves I haven't cleaned up on the patio, under the bird feeder, seems to have decayed enough to support sunflower seedlings. I'm always impressed by the formation of soil in places like gutters.

And, of course, the compost bin is full of writhing balls of earthworms, which is usually a sign I need to at least turn it.

Earthworms are actually an invasive species! Which...too bad. There's a lot of them.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

reading rainbow

I haven't been blogging so much, mostly because when I feel like it, it's already 9:30pm, and then I'm up all the way to 11 writing, and then I don't sleep well. And really, I have enough problems.

I have been reading, which is how it's early November and I've finished 85 books this year. Taking books out of the library and reading them via the Kindle service means that they're accessible and synced on my Kindle, iPhone, and iPad, which means that at any moment, I have, immediately accessible, all the books I'm in the middle of.

Related: now that my books-in-progress count is not limited by paper--storage, cost, portability--I am discovering some limits to how many books I can actually productively be "reading" at one time, in the sense that I can dip into a book and remember what was happening when I last put it down. I think it's somewhere in the 15-24 range. I have about 500 books available in the wings still, so there's plenty to keep me going. (90 or so are books I labeled "work," often lightweight stuff by consultants that I will skim quickly and possibly never finish. Some are labeled "boring," which means I'll either read them before bed to settle my mind down, or I'll just never read them.)

I finished Moby-Dick! It wasn't a bucket list item or anything, but when I was in Chile and we read whatever books were available, I read a few things I would not have otherwise: Reading Lolita In Tehran, Siddartha, The Alchemist, The Shack, and East of Eden. All good in their way, and all with serious flaws, except for East of Eden, which felt like the kind of pure clear jewel of a book that an author should win the Nobel Prize for.

I'm not sure how to hedge about Moby-Dick. It's not...interesting, exactly. It's very good, in its way, but the reader must let go the idea that a "novel" is a "story" where things "happen." Having done that, you can then roll with the endless digressions, which start right at the beginning and continue through to the last chapter, which is the only one that has a white whale actually on-screen. The narrator doesn't board a ship until 25% of the way through, and this is not a short book. Character-free discourses on whale behavior, anatomy, and flensing occupy, conservatively, a full third of the book. You get the idea. It's fine bedtime reading.

Somehow J started reading the The Iliad, and since I've never read it and needed a new bedtime classic, I've added it to the rotation. I had been thinking Don Quixote, I got bogged down picking a translation. Meanwhile, The Iliad isn't long, and the opening sets its hook in you:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, 
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, 
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, 
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, 
feasts for the dogs and birds, 
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. 
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed, 
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Right? I assume the Greek is better, but read that out loud and hear how Robert Fagles makes this a story you'd hear over the fire, back when humans had to be afraid of the dark. (Back when Europe had lions!)

I'm curious now why I read The Odyssey in high school instead, while my older brother read The Iliad; maybe I'll read The Odyssey later. (He did take some kind of Classics class, since I also remember his copy of Virgil's Aeneid kicking around; maybe he took Latin also? It wasn't something we discussed as a family.)

I chewed through 5 sci-fi novels by Peter Watts. First the two Firefall books (Blindsight, Echopraxia), then the Rifters trilogy (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth). His writing is kind of cold and bleak, so it's just as well I need to move on to something else.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Yeah. Still listening. Same song and performers, but with scrolling sheet music. Around 14 seconds in, the basso continuo ensemble is informed they will be playing this single phrase, briskly, for the next 114 measures.

Recall from the other day that the continuo is anchored by this monstrosity on the left, that looks like a giant lute.

It's a theorbo. It's basically a giant lute. It lives in a long tradition of taking a perfectly good string instrument and tacking on a bunch more strings.

There's an extensive quote discussing the piece, and its historical and musical context; as one hopes from such a thing, it improves the listening.
Although it is sometimes performed in a "straight" manner, it is most frequently interpreted as a comic parody of madrigals as they had evolved by the early seventeenth century, particularly the mannered conventions of the seconda prattica, in which the musical setting is largely driven by the text, and dissonance is used with extreme freedom as an expressive tool.
I first heard about this stuff when I was going to school with this devilishly handsome fellow, long ago. I've always thought of Henry as whatever the modern world can serve up as a polymath: with a handful of dedicated acolytes, he cared for the numerous large fish tanks in the science building, and has many stories of--and I would never have imagined this--operating on sick fish.

(I remember him with a genuine humility about this, as though it were barely worth mentioning that yesterday he anaesthetized a tiny fish from the South Pacific, removed a tumor, sutured it, and ended the process with a fish which was not only not sick, but also still alive.)

Above and beyond fish-doctoring, Henry was a gifted musician with a passion for early music. He was one of just a few students who were allowed to touch the harpsichord, and had a key to the pipe organ. Bless his heart, he tried to tell me about figured bass and improvised continuo; but I've always been slow where music is concerned, neither he nor I had the patience for other humans that we no doubt have now, and there was no Wikipedia to look things up in! (We had a library, but I had way more than enough actual work to do.)

I see that Henry settled just up the coast in Seattle--maybe he has a day job requiring easy access to fish?--but his website hasn't been updated since last year, so I bet he had a kid. It'd be a trip to see him play, although an organ recital is almost enough to make me play video games.

Anyway. Thanks, Henry! I did understand what you said. Mostly. Just...later.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Often the new songs I listen to on repeat are catchy classical numbers; there's no denying that I have a favorite bass line. In a fit of listening to various Bertali Ciaccona renditions, YouTube gave me this amazing Monteverdi by the L'Arpeggiata ensemble.

Which, of course, has my favorite bass line. (Unrelated: I've listened to just about every recording of this on YouTube, which gives a new appreciation for how incredible this ensemble is. In particular, that weird black wind instrument next to the lead violinist is a cornett, or cornetto, not to be confused with a cornet, coronet, or a corneto. I think I may have at last internalized the correct spelling. Regardless, Wikipedia is plagiarizing someone's book somewhere that says it's a devilish hard instrument to play, which explains why maybe 5% of the YouTube performances have one.)

I recognize the style, from years ago when I performed Monteverdi's Beatus Vir with a local chorus.

See? The round/call-and-response between voice sections, and the voice parts mirroring the instruments.

For some reason, I remember covering Renaissance music (Josquin, Palestrina, Praetorius) in Music Theory, and also Bach, but not Monteverdi, who apparently bridged Renaissance and Baroque music; so it makes a lot of sense that his music has elements of both.

That's all normal, right?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

on reading.

I gave up on a book recently: Apostle: Travel Among the Tombs of the Twelve, by Tom Bissell. The idea has promise, since a journey like that will take you all around the Mediterranean all the way to Rome, and conceivably in the other direction to India (where went my own patron saint, Thomas the Doubter). The author is an ex-Catholic, and his interest in the Apostles' tombs specifically is a little hazy, nor does he go into the fact that any tomb of impoverished sectarian outcasts from 2,000 years ago is probably as historical as King Arthur's.

The real flaw is that the book is dead. The writing is flat, grim; the writer seems to experience only despair and ennui, dragging himself along as though it were a self-inflicted punishment. Maybe he should have saved the money and taken a cruise ship to Bermuda, I don't know. You could scarcely ask for a more vivid and influential part of history to be traveling in, and there's no reason to do it with so little joy, let alone to inflict your joylessness on the world, with a book.

Life is short and I have lots of more enjoyable things to read. Plus Moby-Dick, which I will continue to recommend as the most high-quality soporific literature you can find. I remain ignorant of why anyone would heartily declare it the Great American Novel, but I do hear Shakespeare in the characters' mutterings. (The characterization per se has some issues: damned if I can remember anything to distinguish Starbuck and Stubb, from one page to the next.) Again, if you let go of any belief that a novel has a "plot" where "things happen or change," then the long, long, long, long sections describing whale anatomy, whale behavior, whale hunting, and whale butchery appear as educational signals to the reader that there's no story worth remembering here, so you don't have to worry about it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

shape categorization is hard.

The whole house has been reading the Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik, and they're quite consistently delightful: the world is one where the Napoleonic Wars are underway, but everyone has air forces made of dragons. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the size of the big dragons, though, which are sort of...mansion-sized.

I've been working with Leela on her ridiculous Cujo Mode she gets when she's on leash now. I'm glad we got a couple months' grace, and now the technique is to train her so the command Watch turns her attention to me--reinforced with chicken hot dog, which is a serious escalation in treat awesomeness--then when she alerts and starts heading toward Cujo Mode, I interrupt her as early as possible with Watch and hot dog slices, and eventually she makes the connections, and when she starts to alert, she looks at me instead. This has started happening, which makes walks less stressful.

I've been observing her responses to cats more carefully. She's essentially non-reactive to cats that are seated or lying down: sometimes curious, sometimes not, but low-energy regardless. We know that she's compelled to go grab hold of anything with a tail (I folded up a cardboard rat once to experiment with this). I finally noticed that she only gets amped up and tries to chase after a cat that is standing or walking. And she met a live pet rat once and found it pretty confusing. So the question is:

Does my dog's bred-for-work little brain think that cats up on all four feet are just really big rodents?

Monday, August 22, 2016

the wheel of the year.

I'm a few weeks back at work now, after a long medical leave. We got Leela on my first day away, so I've been sitting in my home office, having a pretty good transition back, but generally skeptical of this thing where I work all day instead of napping with my dog and taking her places on off-leash walks.

Work is quite a bit better; my old manager left right before I came back, and the new one is wiser, and as a result I am learning stuff again, which is fabulous. About half of it is stuff I want to know, even.

There's a concept in organizations called the Peter Principle. I first encountered this as a kid, where it was listed as "a person rises to the level of their incompetence," which never made any sense to me; but books and the Internet have since explained it. It suffers from imprecise language, even as English goes, and would be better phrased as "a person rises just past the level of their competence." Someone does a sequence of jobs well, or well enough to get by, until finally they get promoted to a role where they cannot perform well at all. No one wants to take responsibility for promoting the wrong person, especially if everyone involved is white men, so a person can just flounder along for years and years, in a job they have no hope of succeeding at. This is how good engineers wind up as bad executives.

I've been cranking away at some fantastic fiction books, but I've had a much harder time finding narrative non-fiction that holds my interest. I ended up with an overflow of emotionally-demanding psychology books, plus the ongoing projects A People's History of the United States and Anti-Intellectualism In American Life. Cubed and NeuroTribes are fine books, but they're not holding my attention quite fully. I started re-reading The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 and I plan to finish it this time, but it's a bit more academic, though nothing like The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

Things change, other things change more slowly. That's one of our functions as parents, maybe: the children change so fast that they can't see us changing more slowly, and that's close enough to real that we can be stable references points for them to stumble blindly into, forget about entirely, hang clothing on, or use for support, depending on the moment.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


[This is an old post from Chile, and I don't know why I never published it. Looks like I started writing it on August 25, 2010.]

Occasionally a student gets a little huffy that I don't remember her name. (It's always a girl, I assume because I'm a cute guy and being huffy is what 15-year old girls do. Anna says it's because they all have crushes on me.) They also complain that I have an easier time remembering the boys. I explain that not only do I have 270 students, who I see an hour a week or less, but there are fewer boys (about 5:1 in my classes), and they have a wider variety of names. Most of my girls (black hair and dark brown eyes, with a handful of exceptions) are named:


Karina (3 in one class)
Camila (4 in one class)

Javiera (3 in one class)

María José
María Paz





And Helen and Hellen get annoyed when I pronounce their names wrong.

Monday, August 1, 2016

back on the farm

We're just back from a week with my parents on Cape Cod. I've been lucky to have been going there my whole life, and it's interesting to see it from other perspectives that don't have decades of memories behind them. We rented our own place, and the rental agency wanted to give me piles of tourist literature. We always used to have it around when I was a kid, because when it's pouring rain out and you have 3 young children in a small 2-bedroom cottage with no privacy and no Internet--what's up, 1985?--you want a comprehensive list of every straw you can desperately grasp at. So we went several times to Sealand of Cape Cod, which I thought I might have glimpsed in the damning documentary Blackfish, though I don't think they kept orcas. We did see dolphins, seals, and sea lions every year, though I found the latter two indistinguishable until I moved to California, which, elephant seals notwithstanding, is mostly sea lions.

The niece I'm used to thinking of as "my younger niece" is now almost 14, and since her title was taken nearly 6 years ago, I may re-brand her as "Brunhilde," which I'm sure she'll find hilarious once she learns who Brunhilde is. She definitely will not roll her eyes yet again and text "omg Uncle Chris is so weird" to my wife.

(Funny enough, she does have a living-memory ancestor named "Borghild." Great-great-aunt, I think.)

It's summer, which means even more things are growing. Oranges ripen in winter, which I never bothered to learn until I had an orange tree, but the rest of the food on the estate comes in summer. (Even in California, at sea level apple season is not in August.) I can't really tell you when pomegranates are ripe, because we can't figure it out, and anyway the opossums eat them.

Anna fertilized and calculated proper watering for everything, and I worked the irrigation system and the compost bin.
  • Both peach trees, the big gnarled one out back and the spunky little gnarled one on the driveway that seems like it should be dead, put out a wealth of fruit this year. Per Anna's suggestion, we stripped them both, and dried most of it. It turns out that peaches are mostly water and maybe 15 pounds of whole fruit became a few pounds of dried fruit. It's now a long way toward all gone.
    • The opossums when gonzo on the peaches, and good for them. Pretty funny to pick lots of good-looking peaches only to discover the skyward-facing half has been eaten out.
  • The plum tree took the year off again, but has very kindly continued leafing and providing shade.
  • The pluot is our real success story, with pounds and pounds of amazing fruit that is easily twice the size of our first year, and better tasting. 
    • It's still too much of a pain in the ass to process and save, though: it's very hard to separate the flesh from either the skin or the pit. (I have blanched, X-ed, cold-watered, warm-watered, pared, and food-milled in every combination. It all sucks.)
    • I'm not too sorry we can't save them, because I did get some dried last year, but the raw fruit is already so sweet that the concentrated sugar of the dried stuff literally hurt my teeth.
  • The apple tree is going gangbusters, but in addition to the normal variability of a tree's fruit year to year, the opossums like it, so.
  • Anna pruned the fig tree heavily, and in response it is...bigger than it's ever been. Possibly not with more figs, but Figpocalypse 2016 is gonna be a thing and you will hear about it.
    • (I have not finished the dried whole figs from last year, though I have some prosciutto ready to help me out.)
My garage may be held together by inertia and termite excrement, but the trees are all good!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

your day in court, episode 2.

I missed the first custody-related court date because, perhaps ironically, I had to watch the kid. We don't have him this week, though, which freed me to go observe, and to make Anna laugh by writing snarky comments in my notebook.

Really, nothing in particular is happening except for the evaluation that we knew was going to happen. Nothing happened at the previous hearing, either, except that everything was deferred until today, when everything was further deferred until after the evaluation. I have realized that while my lawyer-parented childhood does qualify me to read and write legalese without fear, and to see Law and Government as meta-concepts fluidly manifesting in a specific sociohistorical context--not sure if that's what Dad meant for me to learn, but whatever--my lawyer-parented childhood did not include actual participation in court cases. This was obviously for the best all around, but the things they don't show on Law & Order include the endless possibilities to delay and distract the judge and the other party, and the interminable legal hoops that might need to be jumped through before the case is allowed to actually treat the issues involved. Lawyers have scheduling conflicts that magically disappear! Someone stomped out of mediation? Go back and try again! Ask for an expedited hearing? Granted! Will I admit or read any of your evidence at this time? I will not!

The wheels turn more slowly than I could have imagined. I think I have successfully re-calibrated my expectations.

None of this means it wasn't the right thing to do, because it was. It has already had noticeable benefits, and if it traded in for some new suckage, the previous suckage was wholly unacceptable. You can't make an omelet without shaking a few trees. It happens sometimes that the most right course, or the least wrong, is simply to go Fuck Some Shit Up™, even if you can't predict the outcome or consequences.

Friday, July 15, 2016

high praise.

Anna was away this evening, so I did bedtime.
"Figure out what you want for bedtime reading?"
"Well, Mama's reading X and Y, and it's always a pain for her to find her place in those, so..."
"How about Z [which I was reading from]?"
"The thing is, I've read Z a bunch of times, and no offense, but you don't read that well."
"Okay. Pick something to read for yourself, and get tucked in."
Minutes pass. I check on progress.
"All I could find was this book, but I already read the e-book, so...it's not that interesting."
I scroll through my Kindle app.
"Hmm... Moby-Dick, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life...have you read all the Earthsea books?"
I just re-read the first three, and read the last two for the first time. The boy has only read #2, so I start in on A Wizard of Earthsea.

Third paragraph.
"Wow, you actually do have a good reading voice. I must not hear it so often, and I forgot."

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

an enabling technology.

My new-found ability to accumulate–"hoard" wouldn't be too far wrong–library e-books, in a private collection free of return dates, has fed my lifelong habit of reading a dozen books at once. I've only met a handful of other people who do this, and I appreciate why it's not common. For those of us who do it, it is our mood and setting that dictate what books we want to dip into, and in what order. There are occasional books (and series!) that I will chew through without a break, but those are less common.

To look at the books I've finished so far this year (ending with The Fast and the Furriest), it's mostly fiction, because non-fiction just takes longer. (And some of them, like Unnatural Selection, are not exactly sparkling.)

These lists don't count various books I've given up on because they sucked.

Books For Falling Asleep
  • Dog Sense
  • Cat Sense - John Bradshaw
  • Anti-Intellectualism In American Life - Richard Hofstadter
  • Quiet - Susan Cain
  • Moby Dick: or, the White Whale - Herman Melville
  • Cubed - Nikil Saval
  • NeutroTribes - Steve Silberman
  • The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  • The Horse, the Wheel, and Language - David W. Anthony
  • A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn
  • The Fall of Hyperion - Dan Simmons
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Confederation Handbook - Peter F. Hamilton
Books Not For Falling Asleep
  • Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men - Lundy Bancroft
  • Self-Compassion - Kristin Neff
  • Children of the Self-Absorbed - Nina W. Brown
  • The Highly Sensitive Person - Elaine N. Aron
  • 10 Minute Obedience - Amy Dahl
  • The Gifts of Imperfection - Brené Brown
  • Drive - Daniel H. Pink
  • Peopleware - Tom DeMarco
20 books! All of which I carry around in my phone everywhere I go. And this isn't the full full list. I don't really miss the physical paper. Is that a good thing? My best guess is that it's good because I'm reading more.

Monday, June 13, 2016

dog, dog, more dog, and also dog

I'm still on leave from work, so life is still mostly Dog and Emotional Processing. The dog helps, in unexpected--to me, because I've never had my own dog--ways.

I've been bad about taking her for morning walks, but then in the afternoon (not very smart, because it's hot) I've been motivating to take her on excursions. Saturday and Sunday we went to the two closest off-leash areas, and she did great! She was tired.

(On the right there is a standard Jack Russell Terrier sleeping position.)

I'm not sure how her obedience is with other people: she's very focused on me, very much My Dog™. She's excited to see me, and when she's most excited, she doesn't actually want anything except my company and attention. Faced with that daily onslaught of unconditional love and patience, I could possibly start believing I deserve it as much as I think everyone else does.

It's hard to know what her story is. Clearly she started out well-socialized and cared for, and then later encountered abusive people, and spent time as a stray. People with lots of rescue-dog experience say she's settling in really, really fast, relatively--I guess rescues often try running away, so it's a while before you can have them off-leash. On the first day, she did check the yard perimeter and had a short go at digging under the fence--good luck digging there without a pickaxe--but we started obedience class the day after we got her, and we're kind and gentle and take good care of her, and she's super smart, so trust and communication have been happening quickly. When I took her off-leash on Saturday, I started training her to come immediately to a dog-whistle, and she got it super fast. ("Ooh, the whistle means food and scritches! Lemme check that out!") It's a tool for rare use, just for interrupting squirrel chases or if she's stalking someone's picnic.

I tried her out with doggie daycare a couple times last week, and while she made it through without incident, she was clearly unhappy overall. After some discussion, we realized that she and I would both be happier if we bring her along to the East Coast next month, instead of boarding her. That's its own little project, though luckily she can ride in the cabin. She will hate it, since it's 6 hours of not being able to stand up, but (although she lacks the temporal consciousness to make the connection) she will hate it less than not being with us.

(Someone is ready to come back inside. Or wondering if I'm coming out.)

She's good company.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

when eugenics succeeds.

Dog breeds are weird.

Humans have had a fair bit of trouble trying to classify our differences. At its most benign, doing so cloaks bigotry in the language of science, giving a false veneer of impartiality to our natural tendency to dehumanize others based on cultural differences. And, of course, once you've convinced yourself--using only the finest scientific analysis, obviously--that you know what "superior" and "inferior" look like, the logical next step is to start selectively breeding for human traits. As you do this, you can, naturally, assume that God is on your side.

This is eugenics, which has caused suffering ranging from forced sterilization, to genocide, to the various Khan Noonien Singh crises. It's bad stuff.

All this stuff that we correctly abhor with humans, though, we very successfully do with domesticated animals. For the fully-urbanized 90% of us who didn't grow up around farms, dogs are the best example of this. (Cats aren't quite domesticated, nor are most of them carefully bred.) And the breed of dog matters, even more than I thought.

I first encountered this when I lived with a girlfriend and her family and their two Old English Sheepdogs. The younger one was dumb as a post, but at one point my girlfriend referred to the older one's "herding certification." I asked if they'd taught him herding, and she said no, that's what they're bred for, and by and large you can just turn them loose on a bunch of sheep or flightless ducks or whatever, and they'll do their herding thing.

My parents' dog could only be described as "deep yellow, even the eyes," and while he was friendly and patient like a Lab, his temperament was really sui generis, since you could not get him to chase or play, for love or money. He was easy to narrate, and any attempt at playing Fetch always had him looking at you with a distinct "Why are you throwing that ball? Are you going to get the ball? I'm not getting the ball. I'm going to sit here, where I'm comfortable and not moving" kind of gaze.

My brother had a pair of Springer Spaniels, because Reasons™ (I was not a fan), and true to breed, they grew out of their Puppy Phase after a decade or so.

Then, in our dog search, we met Luca, a curious small dog reported as half Italian Greyhound (never heard of it) and half Tibetan Spaniel (never heard of it). Greyhounds are "sight-hounds," which means they basically can't smell all that well and they were bred to track things visually. I'd never spent time with such a thing, but we went on a walk with Luca, and sure enough, he was all eyes, constantly looking around, only rarely stopping for a sniff.

So Leela, as best anyone can tell, is some majority of Jack Russell Terrier, then some Beagle, and then some Chihuahua. She has a Beagle's tail, ears, and articulated wailing that can sound like human syllables, but most conspicuous is the Jack Russell, because when she plays with something floppy, like her stuffed gorilla, she looks just like this:

And she runs around like this, on the rare occasions she plays:

And she sleeps exactly like this:

On the Beagle end of things, besides the tail and the face, she gets her piteous wailing:

To say nothing of keeping the head down and following a scent, conceivably into the road or running off somewhere they can't find their way back from.

My friend Jess told me a little bit about prey drive a while back, but mostly in the context of how her dog is a bit of a challenge to work with. I didn't know that the energy of working dogs--and their need to work somehow, or else destroy your house out of boredom--actually comes from breeding to emphasize different aspects of prey drive. Herding dogs have a genetic drive to herd things. Leela has a genetic drive to grab something rodent-sized and shake it to break its neck.

Think about how remarkable this is. All our experience with humans tells us that every population of Homo sapiens has more or less the same distribution of innate abilities, and while there are still plenty of people who will say "Oh, you adopted your daughter from China! I bet she'll be good at math," the number keeps shrinking.

With dogs, though, this is an actual thing. The most freakish of greyhounds won't out-smell a normal beagle, and you cannot reasonably expect a purebred Labrador Retriever not to be eager to please, kinda dopey in their enthusiasm (hiding other kinds of intelligence), and really excited to chase things.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

all dog, all the time.

For various reasons, just as Anna is the primary parent for J, I'm the primary parent for Leela, which mostly means I'm the Feeder, the Trainer, and the Scary Gender. All at once! She tracks my movements a lot, partly because we're pals, but--and this is inseparable where training is concerned--I give her food. I'm not sure if she's always hungry, but the shelter says she spent time as a stray, so it may just be a survival-mode "eat everything you can while it's available" thing. She tracks my movements pretty carefully, when not doing her Beagleshark patrols, back and forth across the house looking for food dropped on the floor.

J is adapting to her, and she to him. She licked his hand this morning, and he was so grossed out he had to leave the morning snuggle to wash it; on the other hand, this morning I coined the name "Beagleshark," which made him laugh, and then he was singing "Beagle, Beagle, Beagle, Beagle" in the bathroom, an honor reserved for things he likes. And he started out the day saying "Hi" when she was 10 feet away from him, and now says "Hi, Leela" when she's more like 5 feet. And, while it's difficult to gauge these things in doggy brains, she seems to have stopped sniffing at his feet, which he doesn't like.

I'm getting the hang of dog training, at least for a relatively uncomplicated case like Leela: she's pretty bright, and if she's not exactly eager to please, her apprehension makes her attentive, which is useful enough. She knows her name well enough that today I actually interrupted her progress toward exploring a new room. We've been doing some "Sit," and experimenting with "Up" and "Down": I used "Down" to get her off a bench at the dog park, and realized that if she can learn those as "move up/down one level from where you are" that they then have applications beyond getting her on or off the furniture.

It's a good time to be on leave from work.

I'm still worried about her getting bored and seeming to be unable to really have fun: as much for her happiness as the fact she can't be left unsupervised, lest she destroy things. A friend pointed out it will take some weeks for her to really settle in to this being home, and that seems very wise.

She is very much like everyone else in the household: traumatized, dealing with it as best she can, and healing. Last night we watched the first-ever episode of Doctor Who, and when men (not women) started talking on-screen, she got all rigid and started growling and barking. (She has the cutest growl, which you might expect from a dog with a head the size of a Little League baseball.) I took her to the back of the room and soothed her as best I could, and she never really relaxed, but she did stop shaking and barking.

Tonight, we watched the second episode, and voilá! Not only no growling, but the TV barely got her attention.

It's nice to provide a safe space.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

so this happened.

This is Leela. We adopted her from Pets In Need on Monday night. She's supposedly 2 years old, she's definitely 13 pounds, and she looks like either a Beagle or a Jack Russell Terrier, depending on the angle. (If you get to hear her mournful wailing of sadness, it is clear she is part Beagle.)

We've been talking about this for months, and I've met some dogs, but finding Leela herself was rather sudden, so we're a bit overwhelmed today. While she is not not-mellow, exactly, she does turn out to have more energy than she displayed in the shelter, and no well-established toy or chewing habits, which wasn't one thing or another until she chewed through the cable (luckily not the 120VAC side) of Anna's MacBook Pro power supply. So she can't be unsupervised even in the dining room/living room area that we've gated off from the bathrooms: she clearly gets bored, but she also doesn't like to play, and there's no great signal that she's bored. Maybe we get a Pack 'n Play for dogs and confine her to a smaller area when we need to. It's a little stressful right now.

She was clearly abused at some point: she often shrinks from me putting her harness on or picking her up (which has to happen all the time because she won't jump in or out of the car right now), and she'll shrink from anyone who looms over her too closely. Last night she was growling whenever the stereo played something too much like talking; tonight we were watching the first-ever episode of Doctor Who, and she got rock-stiff and growled and barked, and could barely be induced not to. The 3 of us here know something about being wounded and being triggered, so we have a lot of empathy for her. We trust she will have empathy for us, once we're all less focused on freaking out.

This is all new to me. I knew my parents' dog, but really I got to know him after Mom had socialized him properly, got him to stop jumping on people, got him to respond to his name if he felt like it. Before I can train Leela in basic-sounding things like "sit," I have to teach her her name, because a dog can't listen to you if you don't get her attention first. Luckily we started obedience classes last night, and the instructor covered it (besides Leela, a couple of the 5-month olds were none too responsive to their names either). Leela is beyond food-motivated, so we worked on it at the park today, and eventually she got it pretty well. At home I built on that and mostly taught her "down" as applied to putting her front legs on the couch. She wasn't even crabby that I don't give her a treat when I call her name. (She may not remember, exactly? Doggy brains are not like our brains.)

Anyway. Lots of stuff like that. It's a shock to the system.

Though it is certainly the fuzziest, snuggliest shock to the system I've ever had.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Our epic Family Court filing, years in the making, finally happened! Effects have been immediate and dramatic, both in the boy's experience at the other house--better, though the bar is low--and in the quantity and toxicity of emails to Anna. We've had one close call, which made my pre-filing purchase of pepper spray look wise, but since no one actually used the pepper spray (or dialed 911, though both were minutes away), we'll chalk that up as a win.

J's third parent has dragged him into the middle of the thing, showing him the court filing (WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT) and ranting about Mama's sneaky lies and dishonest tricks employed in bringing things to this sorry pass.

And I've learned things about myself!
I have always encouraged your husband Chris to be a partner in J's Parenting,
Wait...that's not true at all...
and I am hurt and a bit frightened by Chris, "grunting" at me and semi lunging across the table at me at J's IEP Meeting at School today, 4/20/16..
I did whutnow? Since when do I have the energy to lunge across a table?
This was unacceptable aggression in an IEP meeting or any other meeting involving J's Education or parenting. This issue really MUST be addressed, or I will feel uncomfortable having Chris attend our IEP, Parenting Planning Meetings or any other meeting or mediation where Chris and I have to sit down face to  face.
Those don't happen too often, but you're welcome to bring bodyguards if the fact that you're bigger than me and surrounded by credible witnesses isn't reassuring enough.
Your husband Chris makes no secret of his years of martial arts training; so I DEMAND THAT HE ACKNOWLEDGE his understanding of the basic rules of conduct in regards to what might be interpreted as physically aggressive behavior.  His has a particularly strict duty in this regard.
Yeaaaaah so it wasn't me they were about to call 911 on...

Also he hasn't bothered to learn what it is I have a black belt in. Aikido isn't that thing where you suddenly go all Bruce Lee on somebody. Chuck Norris? Jet Li? Tony Jaa? Not aikido.

Good thing he wrote in ALL CAPS, though. The Internet assures me that imbues your words with legal force.
At this point I trust you both acknowledge that his recent aggressive behavior was inappropriate.  He is, after all, a guest at these conferences. No loud aggressive growling and aggressive lunging across tables allowed!
Isn't it great that we can all laugh about it? Especially with the passive-aggressive swipe that I'm just "a guest." 
I don't want to suggest anger management because I am loathe to interfere in your domestic relationship with Chris, but You can forward this email along to Chris if you'd like.
Thank god, I just got done being sent to anger-management classes by the last cowardly douchenozzle who couldn't handle it when I stood up to his violence.

There was a follow-up, of course.
As your Petition to Modify Custody is pending, I have to take a formal legal approach to this issue.  Chris has no legal right to confidential meetings involving J, that includes Mediation, IEP, parent-teacher conferences or any other school meeting not open to the public.  I am not comfortable with Chris attending any such meeting.
I hate be the bearer of bad news, but "formal legal approach" does not mean "declaring your unsupported interpretation of the law in email as though it were fact." You know how on Law & Order the attorneys are always communicating using carefully-typeset pieces of paper stapled to blue backing? You might start by Googling that. Also search for terms like "why won't the police just do whatever I tell them" and "why can't you practice law without going to law school."

(I get to come to any meeting Anna invites me to or delegates to me, subject to rules not listed in mean-spirited emails by random guys with no legal training.)
And just in case Chris was planning on attending any such meetings, you should know that the police and the courts would not look favorably on his trying to force entry into any such meetings.
This sounds like a really bad TV show. S.W.A.T.: Parent-Teacher Meeting.

Unless your last name is "Obama," no one is standing guard outside school meetings. Because they're boring. I will simply walk in and sit down, and everyone except the author will be happy to see me.

Because I am not a "guest." I am a parent.

Friday, April 15, 2016

pens pens pens

I'm processing some very deep emotional crap these days, and need a way to express what's going on with me. Visual art is sort of an alien language that doesn't viscerally satisfy, but writing does: just journaling, writing to write and form my thoughts, without much point.

I had a very large Leuchtturm 1917 notebook I'd accidentally bought when I thought A4 paper was close to 8.5"x11" (it's not), and it wasn't worth sending back. So I write in this enormous tome.

Then there's a question of the pen. My 25-year favorite, the Pilot Precise V5, worked okay, but there's a whole world of other pens out there. My friend Frank runs the Tokyo Pen Shop, so I trawled the Internet and found some likely candidates, and briefly switched to the Uniball Vision Elite. (Japan, besides just being Japan, has those highly-detailed writing systems that benefit from better-quality pens with finer tips).

But, I also ordered a Platinum Preppy fountain pen. I'd tried disposable fountain pens in high school, the Pilot Varsity, and I like the way they wrote, but the ink "feathered," meaning it soaked into the paper and made the written line all fat and fuzzy. I realize I was only using shit paper at the time, but right now the Internet said try the Preppy. It was really nice! There's a scratching physicality to writing with a fountain pen, and Leuchtturm uses excellent paper that just holds the ink rather than sponging it.

The Internet's next-step recommendations were the Lamy Safari and the Pilot Metropolitan, and hey, sure, might as well get both. They both feel so much better than the Preppy; the Safari is pure joy, if a bit light in the hand (I've since ordered the metal version, the Al-Star), and the Metropolitan is amazing to write with, but the line is puts down is crappy and feathered, so I've cleaned it out, to try with some sample inks I've ordered from Goulet.

I had always thought of fountain pens as being what are actually dip pens, but it turns out people had been annoyed with dip pens for a long time, and a couple centuries of science and engineering went into the comparatively painless modern fountain pen. Even with a low-end cartridge pen like the Platinum Preppy, there this nice connection with our quill-dipping past.

There is a whole universe of fountain pen nerdery out there, especially for people with disposable income. It's hard to imagine spending $200 on a pen, but that may just be because I haven't tried one yet.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

human connections.

We got back last week from a short-notice trip to Richmond, VA, to see some friends who needed us.

Somewhere in there, I lost my driver's license: I tend to keep it in a pocket with my boarding pass, and it must have gotten caught in the boarding pass and fallen out, somewhere from San Francisco security to the rental car counter in Richmond. I passed through a half dozen different lost-and-found bailiwicks, and someone might mail it to me, but it's easier to get a new one.

You can fly without a photo ID, without too much hassle, at least if you're a white male in the South-- to their credit, it looked like there's a very strict process.
  1. They want something with your name on it, preferably also with a photo. They seemed to prefer a prescription medicine label to credit cards.
  2. They type your name into some very limited government computer. I had a scan of my previous driver's license, but they didn't want it.
  3. Your bags go through the X-ray, you go through the body scanner.
  4. You get a regular quick pat-down.
  5. You get a full "check the crevices with the back of the hand" pat-down.
  6. They examine every item in your bags and pockets.
This whole thing only took maybe 20-25 minutes, since there were no passengers in front of us.

It was blessedly dull, except for the conversation I had with the big guy doing the pat-down, starting with my new cargo pants (made by a "tactical" clothing company, because that's who makes quality cargo pants).
"These pants look really comfortable."
"They really are. I thought they were nylon when I bought them, but they're 4% spandex."
"Oh yeah, I thought they were some kind of stretchy material. Great if you're doing a lot of--"
"--sitting. Or moving around. Lots of pockets. The pockets have pockets."
"Are they 5.11?"
"No, they're Propper. Probably half the price of 5.11."
"And they've still got the look."
It's nice to keep these things casual. However, knowing different brands of tactical pants is a signal...
"Oh, is this a small first aid kit?"
"Yeah. Useful."
"Yeah, I keep a bag in my car,"--I know what comes next--"with a knife, water, anything you might need to survive. Called a bug-out bag."

[Clearly he's on the survivalist/anarchy end of the disaster-prep spectrum.]

"Yep. I keep all this stuff in my pockets..."
"My wife says, 'Why do you carry all this stuff around?'"
"And then she asks you if you have it. Mine does too."
"I carry it around so when you need a tool, there it is."
"I know, right?"
So, yannow. Virginia.

Monday, April 11, 2016

all parents, all the time

I'm writing about the kid a lot, because I'm not interested in publicly writing about work or my well-being right now, and the kid is growing up in that way kids do where they suddenly get 3 feet taller and even more interesting to talk to (to the extent they'll talk to you). Because I acquired him partly-grown, after the bodily-fluids phase, I am probably not quite so astonished that he no longer weighs 15 pounds, but he was still 4 years old when we met, so, yannow. We've had some time together.

(I could write about the garage, I guess, and how it's mostly held together by termite vomit, so now we've bumped up the priority of rebuilding it, but zoning laws mean we can't build an apartment over it, only rebuild it exactly as it is, and then the cost estimate also had one more decimal place than we expected. But that's really the whole story in one sentence, and there's nothing funny or insightful about it.)

The boy is endlessly interesting, because we can scarcely imagine his experience of the world, and his brain is just a black box: we feed stuff in, and there is only failure in predicting what comes out, or when. He routinely repeats conversations verbatim from years ago, but then sometimes he'll be in the middle of a conversation and you'll have to repeat half of your second-to-last sentence, because not only did he get distracted by something inside his head, his distraction was so total and so short that he just checked out completely somehow.

At age 11, he is now differentiating from his parents, which (for many reasons) I've been looking forward to for years and years. This is about when the world starts treating kids like human beings with emotions and opinions, and kids get used to responding as such. (I think most kids are not treated like full human beings, and when I try to do that they get confused and it's all awkward because I've deviated from the script.) He's getting the hang of numerous social interactions, and is being duly prepared for the whole new level of academic and behavioral keeping-his-shit-together he faces in middle school.

Despite his concerns about managing some future life without his parents, he has not shown much urge to learn the necessary skills, so more and more we burden him with the parts of his dinner that involve taking stuff out of the fridge. He can take on the aggrieved air of a hedge fund manager who is forced to take a limo to the Hamptons, instead of a helicopter.
"I have to get the turkey and juice myself?"
"Next you'll be making me make the macaroni and cheese!"
"Someday, that's the idea!"
I'm sure he can imagine the table service declining to that point, but chooses not to dwell on it and hopes the issue goes away. And really, can you blame him?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

drinking, with science.

I was in Mexico for a few months once. It's a long story, involving a girl and a sailboat. The sailboat was neither mine nor the girl's, which was part of the problem, but not nearly so much as the lunatic combination of me and the girl.

Anyway. Mexico.

We were in Guanajuato--nowhere near a sailboat, I said it was a long story--wandering one evening, and we went into a bar.

6pm was far too early for Mexicans to be in a bar, but it was a pleasant place to sit, and practically shouted that it had been invaded by artists. The standard restaurant tables were brightly painted, and had matching curvy edges, so they would pair up in varied combinations.

It turned out to be run by some kid who was probably 19. He said his parents were opening a restaurant in the building, though that end of the space looked empty, so that may have been happening on Mexico Time (where mañana gets a range of new meanings, from its traditional "tomorrow" or "morning" all the way to "next week," "next month," and "I don't like you, stop asking").

We went back hours later, and it was all you could have hoped for, full of arty-cosmopolitan young Mexicans, and foreigners looking to avoid the "do any Mexicans actually live here?" vibe of nearby San Miguel de Allende. So we're hanging out with the manager kid, who speaks okay English, and some guy from Comfort, Texas who says it's a great place because a mob of Germans arrived in the 1800s and decided they would ban the practice of law inside town limits. The manager is pouring shots of tequila like there's no tomorrow: good stuff, and not charging us, just having fun. I watch him do the damnedest thing.

He says he's invented a drink, the Ráfago (which name surely resonates with Mexicans somehow).
1 tall skinny 2oz shotglass
1oz orange liqueur, chocolate liqueur, or both
1oz tequila
1 cigarette lighter
Drink half the shotglass, but do not swallow. Swish it around in your mouth.
Tilt your head back.
Dip lighter flame into your mouth until the alcohol vapor in your mouth ignites.
Enjoy the tickling sensation of the flames for a few seconds.
Close your mouth (make sure to seal your lips, to extinguish the flame) and swallow.
The main challenge here is that you can't see what you're doing, or whether you're getting the flame too close to your teeth (which have no external nerves). It's not rocket science, though, and it tastes much better with some of the alcohol burned off.

This worked more or less flawlessly at the time, and I was less able to reproduce it back home; but now that I am trying to find the burning temperature of alcohol vapor, I learn that an alcohol solution's flammability depends also on temperature and pressure, and Guanajuato is 6,600 feet above sea level, while the Bay Area is mostly at sea level.

It does sound nuts when I write it down, but I watched this other guy do it right in front of me, and he wasn't superhuman or anything. Also, delicious! With science!

Monday, March 28, 2016


J has an irrational rage about babies. It started with a weekend's exposure to one exceptionally loud and long-running baby 5 years ago, and while he no longer runs away as though they were rabid mountain lions, nor does he start walking over to pre-emptively shout at them before they can annoy him first. That's real progress, but he still gets annoyed at any talk about babies, to babies, near babies, anything he thinks is for babies, or any reference to the fact that he did used to be much smaller.

Anna's nailed down a cookie recipe that everyone can eat (gluten-free flour, no refined sugar, no chocolate) and with the irresistible d20 cookie cutter:

there's been a consistent stream of cookies. As yesterday's were baking, Anna said "C is for 'cookie'," which got the boy's hackles up and he made an annoyed growling noise.
"What's wrong?"
"Sesame Street is for little kids!"
"Actually, a big chunk of it is made for adults."
"No, it's for babies!"
"Seriously. Little kids will watch the same thing over and over,  and Sesame Street was made so that adults could watch it too and not go crazy, so there's all kinds of stuff in there that only adults can understand. That's why Blue's Clues came along: it's better for little kids because it's just the same thing over and over, and adults go insane trying to watch it."
Anna chimes in: "Blue's Clues, or Caillou. Ugh."
"My friends and I used to watch it back around 2000. We called it 'Stoner TV'. It was made for adults."
I turned to look at him. He was unhappy.

"NO! Stop being silly!"
"Hey. Hey. Look at my face. Is this my silly face? Look at the muscles around the eyes, corners of the mouth."

He looked and sounded exactly like this. It was uncanny.

  Learning is hard, sometimes.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

where does he get this stuff

J calls me "Chris," and always has; there's never been any question of calling me "Dad" or whatever. I've always been scrupulous about trying to respect the fact that J's father is his father, and I've never tried to be a father replacement. That's sort of happened anyway, because I'm a much better match for J than his father is, so "Chris" in J's mind occupies this huge father-space.

It's still weird for me, and I've talked about it with Anna a lot; it's just an inevitable part of being a step-parent, that you didn't have the kid in its larval stage, and you have to build a relationship like you would with any other sentient human. I'm not sure what he could have called me, since "Daddy" is taken. Maybe "Papa" or something?

We once did offer that if he wanted to use another name for me, he should say so, and that was years ago, but this morning:
"Um, Chris, is it weird for you that I just call you Chris? Do you wish I called you something else?"
"That is an excellent question, and I've thought about it a lot. I think that since 'Chris' holds for you all of the loving Chris-stuff, we should just stick with 'Chris.' Plus, as much as I think about it, I think I would find it strange for you to call me anything else."
Did he think of this himself? Did he overhear a conversation? Is it just the culmination of years of clues? I have no idea.