Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dads needed

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, family relations, fathers

Tim Russert's release in 2006 of Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons caused quite a sensation. I can see why. It is the most touching book I've read in recent years. His earlier tribute to his own father, Big Russ & Me, prompted thousands of people to write to him with stories of their own, which he and his writing partner, Bill Novak, molded into shape as a tribute to fathers everywhere, of every sort.

Not all fathers were so great. As one man said to his brother, "He was a monster, but he is our monster." Russert has a chapter, "Forgiveness", about how some people dealt with their own monsters. And in another chapter, a woman starts out, "My father was a bad man," but relates that he was never bad to her, and managed to instill some concrete values.

Contrary to entertainment stereotypes, most fathers love their children, do their best to provide for them and train them in ways that are good for them. The luckiest people are those who, as adults, recall lots more good than bad about their fathers (and mothers), and have many memories rather than a precious few. They had fathers who were there. As my own father used to say, "Nobody on his death bed ever says, 'I wish I spent more time at the office.'"

I remember, as a young man, with many good memories of growing up as one of four boys, hoping I would have several children. As it happened, I married just a bit late (28), and it took more than twelve years for a child to come along. We have just the one, who is now twenty. I sometimes look back and thank God that he made me wait until I was capable of being a good enough father; I wasn't ready at 28, or even 38. I say "good enough", which is not quite the same as "good."

I share that hint of guilt with my own father. He has sometimes said he regrets being busy while we were growing up. But that's not how I remember it. He didn't travel much for his work, so he was at the dinner table almost every evening. We had lively discussions, the six of us. He could keep a conversation going, and he often had a new joke (he collected them; still does). I remember him teaching me the basic chords on a Ukulele when I was eight, and my hands were too small for a guitar (When my hands got big enough, Mom showed me what to do with the extra two strings). I still sing the first songs I ever heard him sing, including the strange ditty, "Show me the way to go home," a drinking song, and he a teetotaler!

I remember being taken along on some of his business trips. His business partner owned a small airplane. I remember going with the two of them to a customer's business, and being allowed to "fly" the plane (it was on autopilot) for a little while; I was about eleven at the time. Also, he had only one "big" trip yearly, and he'd take the whole family, adding a few vacation days so we could drive two days each way and add a few days for sightseeing after his convention ended. We did that seven years in a row.

I also remember when we took a walk in the desert once, that he and I took different routes, and I found myself stuck halfway up a small cliff. He made his way back to find me, then told me where to find footholds to work my way back down. He didn't betray any trace of fear, which helped keep me centered. He was a problem-solver. I went to Kent State for two years, a very hilly campus. A favorite winter activity was sledding on lunch trays. But one typically winds up going back-first. He worked out a way to sled downhill feet-first all the way. It is still my favorite way to slide on snow, whether on a lunch tray or a piece of cardboard.

There's lots more I remember, but I have to relate one of the key moments of being a father. Several years ago, bemoaning the lack of sports skills that meant I couldn't help my son practice his favorite sports, I said that I felt I'd let him down. He said, "You've always been there for me, and always backed me up." What could I say to that?

It is possible for someone who didn't have a father in his or her life to grow up well and do well, but it is harder. It is possible to be emotionally healthy in spite of having a bad or abusive father, but it is harder. As someone said, a boy needs a father to learn how to be a man. A girl also needs a father, to learn how to relate to a man. Some of Russert's correspondents, not having a father, were able to have a substitute "male role model."

In the Bible, there are a number of injunctions to "remember the fatherless," to take special care of them, for such children do have it harder. Tim Russert reminds us, in detail, of some of the blessings many, many of us have because we had a father.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A big step in the growth of American literature

kw: book reviews, fiction, anthologies, classics

The world really doesn't need another review of any of Theodore Dreiser's books. I read a story of his so long ago that I can't recall anything but his name. I do recall reading, years later, two things that have stuck with me. Firstly, his books were considered controversial, primarily because of his struggles against censorship in a time of Victorian and post-Victorian attitudes. Secondly, that he'd almost single-handedly given a unique perspective to American fiction.

The other day, I saw a book of his short stories in the library, so I took it up. Now, having read the volume, The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, I can understand a bit of what the fuss has been about, and why it is over.

It is not for his writing style that he is famed. It is not quite plodding, but is decidedly heavy. It induces one to read slowly, almost like there's less there than you think. It is, instead, that his themes are usually so commonplace, so parochial, and thus easily understood. The great bulk of the stories in this volume are a mix of journalistic reportage and self-conscious musing (or reportage about it), presenting quite ordinary people living limited and ordinary lives. However, Dreiser had more breadth than this assessment indicates.

The opening and closing stories of the collection, "Khat" and "The Prince Who Was a Thief", are told in an Arabian storyteller's voice and take place in Yemen. At first, I thought he hadn't done his homework, because his beggars implored, if not a rupee or a handful of annas, at least a few pice. But I did the homework myself and found that Aden and Yemen used the Indian rupee until 1951, six years after Dreiser's death. These two stories are as close to "adventure" stories as the volume offers.

One story is no fiction: "My Brother Paul" is a tribute to his older brother, a famed songwriter and entertainer during the 1890s and a bit later. Paul Dresser was famously generous, inducing Dreiser to write, "Take note, ye men of satire and speen. All men are not selfish or hard." Indeed, there is probably a bit of his brother to be found in the central character of "A Doer of the Word," a man presented by Dreiser as the quintessential godly Christian: charitable, helpful, trusting and trustworthy, faithful and full of faith, a man wholly contented to trust God.

Most of his characters are much less pleasant. The self-centered journalist of "Nigger Jeff", the regretful, aging widower of "Free", and the philanderer in "Convention" come to mind. The second and third of these bring up a frequent theme of Dreiser's, the unhappy marriage. He married, badly, twice, and tended to chase the young ladies. He describes himself in "My Brother Paul" as unpleasant and dyspeptic. The portrait that adorns the book jacket is quite unflattering, or at least I thought so, until I went looking for photos of him on the Web. He was quite plain, and never smiled, at least not for the camera. It is a wonder any woman gave him the time of day. Thus, he wrote what he knew.

He tried his hand at speculative fiction. "McEwen of the Shining Slave Makers" is a dream sequence of the protagonist as an ant. I found this story the hardest to read through. The style is not just heavy, but sludgy. But I have to give him credit, it is better than any fiction I've produced. A fella's gotta know his limitations, and I must stick with nonfiction.

A further characteristic of many of these stories is that the lead character goes nowhere. No growth, no self-knowledge (or just enough to be paralyzed), and the tendency to balk when any genuine adventure presents itself. While I generally deplore a pointless narrative, I can see why his stories resonated with people. Much of his writing appeared at dreary times in the American experience, and the first reprints appeared during the Depression. He died in 1945, just before that exhuberant period in which his influence was overshadowed by Hemingway's. I think it likely that the spareness of Hemingway's style was to a great extent a reaction against Dreiser's wordy heaviness.

As difficult as I find that heavy style, it is infinitely more facile than the writing of an earlier generation, particularly Hawthorne. I hated reading House of the Seven Gables when it was assigned in Junior High School, and I would have found Dreiser's style a welcome relief (if his books hadn't been blacklisted by school administration). Dreiser, a man whose personality is reflected in many of his melancholy characters, reminds me of the man who said, "I'm not particularly bright, I'm just persistent."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Had to miss it, didn't I

kw: observations, flowers

Not far south of here, the Mount Cuba Center in northern Delaware has a wildflower celebration each year. Twice in the past five years (since we heard of it) we've been able to go. This year we couldn't, and I'm told it was a stunner. Their most famous type of flower is the Trillium. There are numerous varieties, which are much sought after because they are rather scarce in the wild. Fortunately many varieties are available commercially-grown, even though it takes six to seven years to raise a plant to flowering age.

This specimen is from our yard. The former owner of this house must have planted it many years ago, for now the plant is robust, flowers every year, and has new plants nearby that have begun to flower. We have lived here fourteen years, and I don't recall seeing this plant in flower the first few years, but at that time we had never heard of trilliums.

Most varieties are white or off-white, of differing sizes and narrowness of petal. Some do come in other colors, like the next specimen.

This is someone else's photo. I wish I'd taken one as nice, when I was at Mt. Cuba last year. We typically learn about the date of each year's celebration a week in advance or less, so we too often have plans already.

Let's see; last Sunday in April this year, and a Saturday the last time we went, but also late in April. Guess it'll take blocking out a 2-week window around next year's likely date and hoping for the best.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dancing in the face of doom

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

Of all the reasons for children having pets, the saddest and most necessary is for them to learn that everything dies. The least "science-fictional" story in The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick is "Going After Bobo", about a boy coming to terms with the death of a pet cat, as he comes to terms with the unpleasant facts of his own family's existence. Though I'll be giving too much away, this story more than equals Guy de Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" ("Fat Ball") in its ability to induce profound sympathy for a prostitute, and it goes further to examine the woman's family relations.

All the stories in The Fate of Mice confront the inevitability of death, but even more so, they present a multitude of different ways one may live while knowing it is so. Whether the protagonist is an artificially-smartened mouse, an aging werewolf, a very ordinary woman coming to the end of a crushingly disappointing life, or even a freak whose heart is "out there" for all to see, life is soon to end, so now what? This deeply moving book is filled with eleven kinds of "now what".

I was going to stop there, but I just can't. Science fiction writers in general are not pious people. Very few are the SciFi stories in which physical death is not a final end. Even the zombies in Palwick's story "Beautiful Stuff" only get a very temporary reprieve from the grave. The hope of permanent resurrection that is central to the Christian message, and various kinds of "afterlife" message that inform other religions, are anathema to most writers of speculative fiction. They will have none of it. So what am I doing, as a Christian, reading SciFi whenever I can?

I certainly don't read it for spiritual edification. That's not what it is about. I am an idea guy. It is quite possible to be "too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good." The literature of ideas anchors me. The kingdom of God may be one of infinite resources and infinite time, but it hasn't arrived yet. At least in the Bible, the human race is exhorted by Jehovah to be good stewards of the planet. One verse warns clearly, "Those who destroy the Earth, God will destroy." (I find it strange that environmental activists never mention this.)

The science fiction I find most enjoyable follows John Campbell's dictum: "Pose a problem, then solve it." In much recent fiction, the problem faced is one of the ecological ones caused by overpopulation and over-exploitation of resources. Some stories are apocalyptic, about surviving the problems that were not solved. Some are more narrowly focused, on rescuing a specific situation or surviving a specific disaster. Others bring in powerful aliens who do things like put a moratorium on new births or new development, and then the stories are about living under the suddenly-changed circumstances.

In the stories in Mice, Ms Palwick poses the ultimate problem, but always adds a secondary problem: You can't solve the big one, but what is worthwhile that you can do instead? Can you smile as you face finality? Do you dare to birth children who will one day certainly die? Can you bear to care for a pet that you will surely outlive? In a world that is still finite, with an unknown time until the end of the age for which God's people hope, we need new ideas all the time.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A recycle day

kw: musings, activities, recycling

There is something about the first really warm day of Spring that gives a body extra energy. I've been accumulating failing and obsolete computer junk for years, and today we finally got rid of some of it. The recycle areas include an area for putting old electronics. In the past I've taken my old computers there (including a 10 Mhz PC-AT Turbo that's been gathering dust at least twenty years) and one defunct monitor. Of course, I remove hard disks and keep them. Before I decommission a computer, I make sure all my data is on the new one or on the big external drive.

So this time, it was three printers and a scanner. One of the printers was an IBM ProPrinter, one of the first really good dot matrix printers. I'd thought it gone a decade or more ago, but found it in a closet. The other two were bubble jets, and the scanner was an older one with a fluorescent lamp that has gone bad. All three have long since been replaced by a multifunction printer/scanner that uses an LED light bar, which is supposed to last lots longer than fluorescent lamps. So these heavier items went into the trunk first.

Next, also heavy, thirty years of National Geographic. I'd called the Goodwill Industries center, and they said they take those, though they don't take other magazines. The rest of the trunk was filled with more ordinary recyclables: cardboard, plastic bottles and such like. Gathering, loading and delivering took us up till lunchtime. I guess the sayings about "Spring cleaning" are true.

The afternoon was spent in yard work, including going over an extra-weedy section of the lawn with an old "Silent 700" human-powered mower set at one inch. (Almost an hour of sweaty labor; in yard work season, I don't need to go to the Y!) Cutting close takes advantage of the different modes of growth of grass and weeds, giving the grass a chance to squeeze out most of the weeds.

I expect to sleep better than usual tonight.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A philosophy for the thumbs of both feet

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, political philosophy

My mother used to love to read the columns of Wm. F. Buckley. Of course, she had to do so with a dictionary by her side. Due to her influence, and his, I picked up a huge vocabulary. As tricky as it is to read Buckley, his writing is at least accessible once you determine the meaning of some of the obscure words. When I find a text harder than usual to read, I check it with the venerable Gunning Fog Index, which estimates the "grade" of education (12 = high school graduate) needed to comprehend it.

I have found a book for which this test is not meaningful: Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism, by Bernard-Henri Lévy. Soon after beginning my reading, I looked for a page or two to which I could apply the Fog Index. I soon found that page-long sentences abound, that the author can rip off a 100- to 300-word sentence about as easily as most of us manage to append a direct object to a simple subject and verb. The problem here is not one of vocabulary; one simply cannot keep track of where a sentence is going, let alone a paragraph.

Second problem: Lévy refers to events and ideas that are so little known to Americans (his expected audience) as to make the bulk of the book wholly meaningless. So I'll cut to the chase. After elaborating the decline and morbidity of the traditional Left (AKA "liberalism" in the U.S.), he finds that what calls itself leftism is poorly-disguised fascism, a fascism of radical liberationism that sees no value in social compact of any kind, that delights in the politics of dialectical napalm, that is becoming the standard-bearer of a newer and more virulent anti-Semitism, and that destroys human rights in a vocal effort to "support" them.

Though he takes his conclusion through seven arguments, it is his last that is most telling: that certain ideas are superior to other ideas, and that a genuine respect for personal rights, and complete intolerance for those persons and ideas that would trample upon them—particularly fascism from either "wing"—, are prerequisites for the survival of civil society. And in that, he is quite correct. There, I've saved you quite a slog!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The fantastic North

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, horror, anthologies

On a day I had to stay home, I had a mostly-enjoyable romp through Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction, edited by Claude Lalumière. The 21 selections cover the gamut of speculative fiction, fantasy and horror. I skipped a couple of them after the first page or so, as being too profane. Three of the stories stuck with me.

"Growing up Sam", by Melissa Yuan-Innes, explores possible implications of the total loss of habitat for the Bonobo: human-bonobo crossbreeding to produce a creature that can at least live in a human-dominated world. It reminded me a little of Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy", with a somewhat more hopeful outcome.

Catherine MacLeod's "Postcards from Atlantis" is a mini-collection of short-shorts, with unique twists. An example:

"Wait! Come back!"

Mrs. Riley grimaced as the vampire hunters pounded out of the church. She heard their truck go squealing down the street, and considered the bucket she carried ruefully. Too late. They would have been better off getting supplies in a church with a bigger budget, she thought, or at least a sturdier roof. this one leaked something awful when the snow piled up.

Well, she was only the cleaning lady, not a carpenter, and there wasn't much more she could do about it, now, was there?

Though perhaps a prayer wouldn't hurt.

She moved the baptismal font away from the leak and replaced it with the bucket, then whipped a cotton rag from her back pocket. She'd clean the font now. Father Thomas could fill it later.
(It takes a moment…) This is one of eighteen.

Lastly, consider a town in which the children don't age as far as puberty, with very few exceptions. Further, the Line, the boundary between it and a more "normal" place, is not to be crossed with impunity. One ages about ten years per crossing, in either direction. In "More Painful than the Dreams of Other Boys", Derryl Murphy explores this idea, in a police-drama setting.

Just three bits of evidence that there is no loss of imagination when one crosses the northern border of the U.S.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It is all just numbers

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, mathematics, computer science, social trends

Do you sit in front of a computer at work? At least part of the time? It is possible, though still a bit clumsy, for your company to track your work habits. If, as I do, you are in a "managed desktop" environment, there could be an app running in the background that logs your activity. While the times of "no activity" may reflect several kinds of "break"—think time, a pit stop, getting a snack or drink, a phone call or colleague's visit—the ratio of active/inactive is just the first ratio a logging program will produce. Perhaps the program also notes time spent in MS Word, Excel, your e-Mailer, surfing with Firefox (and the search terms you enter). Today's PCs have sufficient power to obsessively gather every click and keystroke and when they occurred, while running your applications, seemingly without noticeable impact.

Now consider: if you wear an RFID-tagged badge all day, as I do, it is possible to track your movements about the facility. The PC you are currently not typing at may not "know" why, but a building system could determine whether you really are in the restroom, break room, hallway, or in front of the screen (reading this), and prehaps if the phone is in use. The tag readers that I use to enter my building need the tag to be waved within six inches (15 cm). Who knows whether more capable readers are located throughout the building? I don't. One thing is sure: someday they will be.

Life gets easier once you get home. Off goes the badge. For most of us, the TV doesn't watch us back. But there are test being conducted, particularly for the sake of the elderly, of weight-measuring floor tiles, motion sensors with full-house coverage, perhaps widgets attached to refrigerator, stove and microwave, recording personal habits. When those habits change, or there is a sudden change in weight or in level of activity, someone can be alerted to see how the "subject" is doing. For many frail folk, this could be a godsend. At what point in your life would it go from being "they know too much" to "I need it"?

These are a few instances in which numerical modeling of data being continually gathered is gaining impact in our lives. How soon will it be that the grocery cart in your favorite market will recognize you and show you a route on a GPS-enabled screen, optimizing the route you need to take to fulfill your shopping list—and it already knows what your usual shopping list contains. You could tell it three extra items, and a new route will reflect your new list. It may also lead you past a display or two, calculated to entice you to make an impulse purchase that accords with your (known) tastes. How many people would run screaming from that store, looking for a Mom-N-Pop grocery with "dumb" carts? How many of their children would accept it without even a shrug? Give it time.

In his new book The Numerati, Stephen Baker makes these and other points, though a little less starkly, among his interviews with many of the leaders of the many efforts to turn everything that happens into data, and crunch that data on stacks of supercomputers. When will it be that there is a stack of numbers somewhere, that comprises a mathematical model of Polymath07, knowing my tastes and proclivities, my favorite color (and favorite vice), my favorite everything, my political tastes (or lack thereof), the kinds of people I prefer to be with, my favorite kinds of reading material (a summary of this blog will comprise that part), and whether I prefer having a cat or a dog (I'll never tell; let them find out), or both? What do I collect? Do I have house plants? What kinds? Do I mow my own lawn or hire someone? (Ha! You found out I have a lawn!!).

There was a time that "efficiency experts" such as Frank Gilbreth (of Cheaper by the Dozen) walked around the factory floor with clipboards, optimizing each worker's routines. We will soon be outnumbered by our virtual efficiency experts. Is that a good thing? After chapters showing what the Numerati are working on, in the realms of the workplace, the home, the hospital, the voting booth, national security, even dating services, Baker begins to tell us, Learn to use the numbers for yourself.

We won't all be mathematicians. But we do have some control. Don't like your bank selling your data? How about selling it yourself? From page 205:
One nonprofit organization founded in 2005, AttentionTrust, … provides Web surfers with the tools to amass their own data and sell if, if they choose, to advertisers.
Does that sound like a good idea? It may be. I looked for the organization, but the links are all dead. They may be defunct already. If they are, someone else will probably try soon. What else could one do?

It is hard to say. To date, most people have relied on "security by obscurity." Be ordinary, do ordinary stuff, don't get noticed, and you'll be ignored. Now that the computer power exists to crunch through all the data we all generate, all the time, that is less possible. An idea I like? Be just a little bit subversive. Do you have a "loyalty card" at the supermarket (or several – I carry five)? Get a second one at the same market. Use a variation of your name. Shop differently when you're using the alternate card. Use a different credit card, or cash. When the smart cart arrives, go ahead and follow its path. Then take some of the paths not taken; see what specials are being offered in the other aisles. Think: what does the grocer want from me? Shift your buying pattern to inject confusion into the process. You can extend such ideas into many areas of life.

You may find that adding some randomness and serendipity into your routines will make life more fun! Data-analysis routines are designed to figure out your predictable behaviors. Be less predictable. A side note: In my lifetime, I have taken training classes in several martial arts. The best advice I got was from Joe Begala, the author of the Army's 1940s "hand-to-hand combat" training material. He taught a "Self Defense" class at my college in the 1960s. He said, "If you have to fight, don't stand in any particular way. I can tell if a guy knows Karate, or Aikido, or Boxing, by the way he stands. Then I know something about him. I don't want him to know that about me." I can say this, his class should have been titled "Applied Street Fighting".

Will our grandchildren live in a world not just measured, but controlled, by the Numerati? The Numerati will try. It is up to all of us to keep them off balance.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bouncing back, inventively

kw: observations, innovation, lists

While gathering ideas for My Grandfathers' Depression, I was intrigued by a number of the inventions of the 1930s. I went back to gather more. Here is a smattering thereof:

  • Radar
  • Helicopter
  • Jet Engine
  • Air Conditioning
  • CRT Television
  • Analog Computer
  • Electronic Digital Computer
  • Transistor
  • Sulfa Antibiotics
  • Alka-Seltzer
  • Chocolate Chips
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Cheeseburger
  • Twinkies
  • Snickers (& a variety of candies and candy bars)
  • Birdseye Frozen Foods
Consumer Goods
  • "Monopoly"
  • Scotch Tape
  • The "15" Puzzle
  • Zippo Lighter
  • LP Records (33 1/3 RPM)
  • Nylons
  • Pinball Machines
I suspect it would not take much digging to multiply this list. It makes me a bit more optimistic that the dire predictions we are hearing from all sides are not the whole story of the near future.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Old London towne will get you if you don't watch out.

kw : book reviews, fantasy

Assume for the moment that a mechanism can affect magic. By the time you're halfway through Mind the Gap, by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, that's the first premise you'll have to accept. Then, based on the second, that "where magic is concerned, there are no coincidences", the most unlikely sorts of happenstance are seen as foreordained, or at least magically directed. By the end, I was wondering if the human characters were needed at all…until I remembered that, of course, the authors are in complete control, and I was just along for the ride.

Jasmine (Jazz) was raised to be paranoid. Supported by sinister benefactors since her father's death, Jazz has it drilled into her by her mother: trust only yourself; hide yourself. And when her mother is murdered, by those "benefactors", the last lesson, written in her mother's blood, is Jazz hide forever. She attempts to do just that, in (or under) the London Underground.

In a tale drawing together threads from Peter Pan and Oliver Twist, Jazz becomes an apprentice thief, a survivor among survivors. But she is also extra-sensitive to sounds and sights others don't notice, though everyone present notices the occasional "Hour of Screams", a deep-tunnel phenomenon that will drive a fellow mad who doesn't take precautions.

The aforesaid mechanism is intended to allay the magical torment that underlies the Hour of Screams, and Jazz has a central role to play in its use. Pursued by latter-day sorcerers who have learned to track her, helped by a fellow thief she is afraid to trust, relying on her own increasing sense of just where she needs to be, Jazz literally rushes toward the fulfillment of her purpose. As unlikely as the premises seem, the story hangs together well.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My grandfathers' depression

kw: observations, business, entrepreneurs

Helping an executive prepare a speech, I had occasion to gather a list of inventions and new technologies from the 1930s. There were many, from technologies like CRT television, helicopters, jet engines and sulfa drugs to new foods like Twinkies, M&Ms and the chocolate chip cookie, to consumer products like affordable refrigerators and air conditioners, "Tabu" perfume, Polaroid cameras and 35mm film, even new pastimes like electromechanical pinball machines and the Monopoly game.

My parents got together because of the entrepreneurship of my two grandfathers. First, my mother's father, who'd begun as a piano salesman in Oklahoma City, learned to tune pianos from colleagues in the business and set up his business in Fort Smith. In 1926 he moved the business to California, first Fresno, then San Gabriel.

When the Depression hit, people stopped buying pianos, and a few wanted to sell their old ones for ready cash. Grandpa bought a few of these and refurbished them, then offered them for long-term rental. He reasoned that people still wanted music in their homes. This was quite successful, and even after the depression ended, many people still preferred renting a piano. This built his fortune.

My father's father did reasonably well as a painter and maintenance man, plus some farming, until the dust bowl conditions in 1935 led to economic collapse in Missouri. He visited relatives in California who were doing better, and decided to set up a painting business there. By mid-1937 he was able to bring the rest of the family out from Malta Bend to Alhambra, and the business prospered. There was a lot of construction as millions of people moved to California, and all those new houses needed a coat of paint.

My father and mother met at Alhambra High School. Their marriage was delayed while my father was away to war from 1941-1945. Their fathers, taking the "kick in the pants" provided by Depression conditions, started businesses at which they prospered better than before. A depression is what you make of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pillars of existence

kw: book reviews, mythology, folklore, imaginative fiction

Having had a classical education, I am very familiar with the corpus of Greco-Roman mythology. I've had no prior exposure to Semitic mythology, knowing only what is written in the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. Of course, I've heard of Kabbalah and its panoply of demons and its numerology, but paid little attention.

I picked up The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six, by Jonathon Keats, as a wild card, not even knowing what "the 36" means. If these twelve stories in any fair way reflect the Jewish myths on which they are based, then I must conclude that my education is quite lacking!

The basis of the stories is the idea that thirty-six (Lamedh-Vov in Hebrew) righteous souls maintain the integrity of the world, but their identity is unknown, even to themselves, being known only by the LORD God. For one of their names to become known means he or she will lose their special status, and God must choose a replacement. Were all to become known, some kind of disaster would result.

The opening chapter is a bit of myth-making in its own right, setting up a scenario for a scholar to learn the identities of one set of thirty-six from a prior century. The stories of twelve are then proffered. They seem an unlikely mix of "the righteous", including a fool, a gambler, a clown and a murderer, even a fallen angel-become-human and a golem. In each case, the key is their very deep simplicity.

Nearly everybody would like to be a god. But to grow from the human to the divine has three steps: redemption, transformation, and glorification. I have yet to read a convincing story of glorification; even the Biblical accounts are cloaked in mysterious language. Most good stories lead us through, or let us observe, a transformation. While there is transformation in these twelve stories, they are primarily stories of redemption, each and every one. Not all have happy endings, but they all have Better endings. The stories are too well crafted for me to detail any one without giving away too much. Seek out this book, and enjoy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Does anyone NOT collect?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, collecting, autobiographies

The tendency to collect is a characteristic of the animal brain. For most vertebrates, at least, collecting is a life-and-death matter. I am not talking about food here, but of nesting materials: fish, birds, and mice, for example, either build nests of collected materials or line a suitable cavity with stones, leaves, hair, or something to make it more congenial. With collecting roots reaching into our evolutionary past at least 400 million years, it seems fitting that "person who collects" is a redundancy. To collect is to live. But each of us has a different focus (or many foci), and different levels of selectivity.

Just getting down to humans, now, we find some houses cluttered with things, accumulations that never get thinned out, while some are so spare that one might think, "Surely here lives someone who does not collect." Do a little digging, a little prying. An empty house does not bespeak an empty mind, but perhaps one whose internal collections suffice, and external things matter not at all. Certain experienced toastmasters collect jokes; some employ written collections, while others keep them all inside. Many, many people collect relationships, and name-drop relentlessly so that you never forget it.

But most of us, a little or a lot, have our collections of knick-knacks, statuettes, stamps, insects, shells, coins, rocks, jewelry, clocks, chairs, or cookie fortunes. Those with the money collect paintings, statuary, jewelry, even whole rooms (I think of the DuPont Winterthur mansion, a huge "house" that consists of a collection of over 100 whole rooms obtained from mansions all over Europe, disassembled, shipped, and reassembled).

Consider a category of thing, and someone, somewhere, has a collection of them: lead tire weights, lead or tin soldiers, juice bottles, soup cans or labels, cereal boxes, woven wicker chair seats…in a world of billions of collectors, any category of things will have numerous devotees.

Some people have sufficiently narrow focus, and sufficient discipline, to collect, say, only Japanese match box labels, such as these shown here. In such a narrow category, one may have some hope of a comprehensive collection. But of match box labels in general, that hope is rather remote. Just the labels from "match box cars", which came in a match box-sized box that never held matches, number in the thousands.

My wife is one that seems to have little interest in collecting, but she has a box of old photos that is as precious to her as the Queen's jewels. Photography itself is a kind of collecting. These days when a modest-sized hard disk can hold all the pictures of a lifetime, I suspect more digital photographs are taken each year than all the film snapshots ever taken. While I make about as many prints for my photo albums as ever, I take ten or more digital pix for every one I print.

Some things we collect on purpose, and we frequently purchase them. Other collections come to us gratis, as a bonus, like these fruit labels. This random image from the Web connects me to its creator, for I collect these labels also, though mine are not as nicely arranged. At various times, I've also collected stamps, coins, fossils, minerals, jar-grown crystals that look like minerals, insects (particularly butterflies), old clocks, and wallpaper images for my "photo show" screensaver.

Only one of my collected objects has been found to have value: at a "swap" meeting at the local stamp club, I brought in my European duplicate stamps. One fellow went through an envelope of German stamps in some detail, then came to me with one: "This one is worth eight dollars. What will you sell it for?" Since I'd got it for free, and had my own copy, we settled on a price well below eight dollars. It was a bit hard to do, though I'd come with the intention of selling unneeded copies for a nickel each. Though I did both buying and selling that evening, I could never be a dealer! Dealers don't collect, and vice versa. My collections are of little or no worth, then, but of great sentimental value to me.

Thus I have a certain kinship with Professor William Davies King, who has written Collections of Nothing. In this autobiography, King details a life of collecting things for which he expended mainly effort. Some tidbits are seen in this photo. The cover art on the book is from his collection of the linings of "safety" envelopes. He has about 800 varieties. This fact points up that humans are also inveterate creators. ONE kind of envelope liner would do, for all practical purposes.

Much of the bulk of the author's collections consists of the labels or cartons from decades of food items. While his initial impulse was to chronicle what he and his family consumed, he soon found himself buying all sorts of off-brands, for a broader scope. But as a collector of things that "ride along" with the main item purchased, and have no value in themselves, he truly is a collector of Nothing, or of Things worth Nothing. In that, he writes, "A collector of collectors would find me rare."

But collecting has two meanings; one is about gathering, the other about curation. Properly speaking, the things we gather are simply an accumulation until they are sorted, perhaps labeled, and ordered into some sort of structure. That is where the work is. When you have a few tons of small paper thingies, that amounts to a great deal of sorting. King asks us at one point to mourn the time lost to caring for his collections. I don't see why. What else might he have done with his time? Yes, he has two youngish children, but the greatest loss was not to his collections, it was to his divorce.

At times, we find out more than we bargained for. Stream of consciousness riffs often led to details I found embarrassing. And it must be just hell to get him to finish a goodbye. His sixth chapter, intended to be the last, is a long discursion on finishing the writing. Then he adds a quite appropriately short seventh chapter to actually close the book. Whew!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Words come from the strangest places

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, words, etymology

The book after this one is about collecting. Alphabet Juice is by an inveterate collector of words, Roy Blount Jr. Its subtitle, The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory, strongly hints at the level of his affliction.

This is not a book to read from cover to cover as one would a novel. Though I am just the sort to read a dictionary right through, this book is one to savor in random bits. It is linked together with bolded words and phrases, which one may take as hyperlinks to their entries. The book's content would make a great website (and perhaps it does, though I haven't found it yet). In his preface, the author presents the linguist's mantra, that "words and their meanings have an arbitrary relationship", as the straw man which he will knock about for the balance of the volume.

Indeed, beginning on page 23, he digs into arbitrary, soon stating, "Let's riffle through the dictionary: shrivel, shove, scribble …[I leave out the next 72 items]… scrounge, prestidigitation—if linguists can't hear any correspondence between sound and sense in those words, they aren't listening." Indeed, many a language would be immeasurably harder to learn if a word like mope bore no relation to the down-in-the-mouth mood it emulates. Try saying "mope" with a smile on your face. Not impossible, but it sure feels funny.

Blount doesn't just etymologize words for us, he frequently digs underneath the floor left by other lexicographers. Weird, which once conveyed fate-altering power, has become a popular synonym for strange; then he notes that it disregards the "i-before-e" rule (I have found that rule less than useful, being helpful only for Latinate-rooted words, and consistently flouted by Germanic words, which make up nearly an equal number. "Weird" is Germanic).

He discourses on the f-word, which along with the s-word was considered much less offensive in Elizabethan times, some four centuries back. It is odd that folks make so much of "4-letter words", when their siblings make up so much of common discourse: fool, snot, jump, dumb, crud, plot, sing

He sneaks a few people in, such as Blanc, Mel, the voice of a number of favorite cartoon characters. He tells of Mel's curious response when he was in a coma for a few weeks: asked if he was OK, he was silent, but when asked if Bugs Bunny were OK, he responded in Bug's voice. Mel said, "I was dead, but my characters were alive."

While many etymologies are of the more straightforward persuasion, such as larynx, which gets but four lines, Blount clearly prefers to dig deeply. He gives us two full pages on laugh. The origin of the word needs but a few lines, but then he begins, "It is hard to write humorously about people laughing," and he's off in a whirl of literary allusions and quotes, finally disproving the proposition.

Or not. Perhaps the few authors he quotes, when added to Mark Twain, make up the sum of those who've managed the trick. But Blount proves even the more that writing humorously about lexicography—when the greatest of them all titled a lexicographer a "harmless drudge"—is no drudgery indeed but is the playground of great minds.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The inexplicable attractiveness of bad men

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, law enforcement, undercover, organized crime

In Redneck territory, there is the phenomenon of "good old boys", men who never really grow up, who mainly hold blue-collar jobs, drink away all of their earnings, and relentlessly seek women in bars whether they are married or not. A sadly funny old country song states, "There wouldn't be one single good 0ld boy if it wasn't for the good old girls." Point one.

A girl we got to know well, from the age of thirteen was drawn to "bad boys". She had no interest in boys who didn't take serious risks with the laws (including the law of gravity). She isn't someone "from the wrong side of the tracks." The oldest daughter of professional people, very smart (in some ways), very pretty, she could not make a healthy choice for a boyfriend to save her life. She almost lost it. Point two.

I can think of a few other points, but they sum up to this: Human society doesn't just tolerate the existence of a certain number of criminals, it positively fosters them while fawning all over them. Organized criminals get the best treatment, and not just because of fear, but largely of adulation.

Jack Garcia lived in all parts of the underworld as an undercover FBI agent for 26 years. He details one segment of this in his book Making Jack Falcone: An Undercover FBI Agent Takes Down a Mafia Family, written with Michael Levin. While he tells us of his work with the Mafia—and gives us side lights of a few other cases he worked on—he carries on a secondary dialogue with the reader, on the subject, Why are so many people drawn to these evil guys?

Organized criminals, whether the Mafia or another group (there are many), demonstrate the epitome of the Biblical statement, "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." For the mafiosi, money is everything. You gain status by making money that you "kick up" to the organization over you. Make no mistake, "making money" is quite the opposite of "earning money". A few mobsters may run legitimate businesses, but even there, they find ways to squeeze extra money out of the system.

It is a fascinating story, how Garcia went to "mob school" to learn how to behave like a Wiseguy and earn the confidence of certain Made Men and their Capos and Underbosses. But I find it more fascinating, sadly, how many people were falling all over themselves to curry Mob favor. It really is true, "Power is the best aphrodisiac", and that attracting power is more general than just getting pretty women to spent one's time with. Garcia comments on this time and again.

Jack Garcia, as Jack Falcone, was on the verge of "being Made", inducted into the Mafia as a power in his own right, when the FBI management pulled the plug, shut down the undercover case, and began indicting more than thirty major players in the Gambino "family". A worthy haul, true, but one wonders what the FBI could have accomplished with one of their members as a Mafia Made Man, with the power to vouch for others…a much greater "hit" against the whole Mafia organization would have become possible. Can it be that both organized crime and organized law enforcement need one another, and feed off one another?

I could have stated as point three, the unusual popularity of "The Sopranos." I find it sad, this evidence of how far the human race has to go, to become an ethically mature species.

Friday, April 10, 2009


kw: travel, art, airports

[The last installment of my Airport Art images from my recent travel.] I came into a different terminal at Philadelphia than I left from, so after I left the plane, I got my camera out, hoping this terminal had some real art to display. I was not disappointed. This is one of two cases of Shelley Spector's figurines. They are about two feet tall. I don't know what they are supposed to represent (I didn't stop long enough to read the case notes). Given the stripey pants, it is fun to speculate that maybe they are golfers checking out the golf course.

I thought those would be it, but before I got to baggage claim, there was this nice surprise:

In the hallway between terminals I found a long display of innovative clocks. I snapped about half of them before rushing on to get my baggage.

Here are closeups (click for bigger image) of three of the clocks.

One thing about the PHL airport: they are pretty quick getting the baggage out of the planes. Sure enough, within a minute of my arrival at the baggage carrel, there was my suitcase.

It is a good thing I went on this trip for more than the art. Between plane fare, hotel and rental car, it had been a $1000 trip. Pretty expensive art venues…

Thursday, April 09, 2009


kw: travel, airports, art

On my trip home Monday this week, I had a layover in the San Francisco airport. Terminal 3 is a large, 3-armed monstrosity, and it has been graced with several sorts of art exhibits.

An atrium in the center of the structure sports several clusters of model airplanes. They are three to five feet in size.

One of the long hallways has a large exhibit of Russel Wright's homeware creations from fifty or more years ago. This is but one of more than thirty cases.

This modern, wooden reproduction armillary sphere is found in a bookstore. I didn't get the name. It caters to those with technical interests.

The girl who married an owl

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, natural history, biographies

If ever an owl deserved a biography, Wesley does. He was author Stacey O'Brien's charge, companion and confidant for nineteen years. In Wesley the Owl Ms O'Brien brings us his, and her, life with a remarkable richness of detail and delicacy of feeling. Having agreed to adopt the handicapped owlet when he was about four days old, she was told, "To that which you tame, you owe your life." While caring for the little bird brought Stacey to life, in the end she did indeed owe her life, her recovery from a debilitating brain tumor, to Wesley.

North American Barn Owls and a cluster of related species worldwide are in a genus distinct from all other owls. They have a distinctive evolution that converges upon similar hunting methods and nocturnal habits, but differ otherwise. They don't hoot, they scream; they also warble, murmur, chirp, and carry on quite a conversation with themselves or whoever is nearby whenever they are not silently hunting. Owls in general live in rich soundscape. Whereas humans (and all primates) devote about half the brain to visual processing, and a much smaller amount to sound, the opposite is true of owls.

Barn owls in particular have faces that funnel a large cone of sound to their ears. They can hear a mouse's heartbeat under inches of snow, and his footfalls even deeper. We must sound to them like chuffing locomotives. You can't hide from a barn owl. One of Stacey's friends tried. He and Stacey conspired to hide him under the blankets on her bed, peeping out through a small hole. Then she would bring the owl into "their" room and leave. Wesley went right for the little hole and spent the entire time threatening the man, who froze, terrified, until she returned. He was a large man; his heartbeat and breathing probably notified Wesley of his presence from three rooms away.

A barn owl eats three or four mice daily, swallowing them whole. An "owl pellet" is a "used mouse", consisting of skeleton and hair and not much else. When molting, the daily intake goes up to seven. Growing baby owls need six daily. Imagine the hunting labor required of Daddy owl when he and Mommy have five little ones! In Wesley's life, Stacey calculates that she prepared 28,000 mice for him. Barn owls cannot live healthily on anything but mice.

A couple of times in the book, the author mentions that Wesley helped her bear the "alone times". She relates her relationships with three men, and how each ended in disappointment. She learned early, "love me, love my owl", and no man could make the grade.

She was a research aide at Caltech when Wesley became her charge. After leaving Caltech, she remained in contact with her former supervisor. He hoped she would tape record some new owl vocalizations. Once Wesley reached the mature age of about four, this paid off big time. Wesley fell in love with Stacey, and did his best to make her his mate. She managed to record his courting and mating calls, and wrote down his behaviors. When the people at Caltech heard the tape, her mentor said, "I've never heard anything like that!!" Nobody had married an owl before. It was all new.

We are blessed, and cursed, with long lives. I think it safe to say that, for animals with body temperatures approaching 40°C, DNA's replication fidelity allows a lifetime of no more than 120-150 years (cooler animals, like some tortoises, may persist for 200 years). We outlive our animal companions; that is the curse. At the age of 18, Wesley was getting frail the way a 110-year-old human does. He barely lived past his 19th birthday (and I'll leave it to the author to pull back the curtain on the closing scenes).

Stacey's life nearly ended about the same time. It seems the emotional and practical work of writing Wesley's biography helped her beat the tumor that, for a time, debilitated her. What a superb story.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

ONT Airport Art

kw: travel, art, airports

I travel infrequently, so there is nearly always new art on display in the airports I use. I try to photograph most or all that I see, because it's the only chance of a lifetime. These days, the only way to get into the exhibit is by having a boarding pass!

The murals at the Ontario Airport in California are an exception. They are part of the structure. This one is at the east end of Terminal 2 (Although I was careful to photograph it straight on, I can see that there is still a bit of keystoning). It shows a view I haven't seen in the Ontario-Riverside area since the 1970s. The orange groves (and vineyards) are all gone, either abandoned or built over.

Other artwork is displayed in cases along hallways between gate sections, such as this fashion art. Most of the display is hats and handbags, but this case of necklaces was the most interesting to me. I like bead work and stone work. These cases were in the western hallway. The eastern hallway is currently blocked off, but usually also has artwork on display.

I like the Ontario airport. It is roomy and usually uncrowded, and is far enough from the built-up parts of LA and Orange counties to be easy to get to, even near rush hour. It is one of the few airports that you can still go to half an hour before flight time and be pretty sure you'll make your plane. I still go 1½ to 2 hours early anyway. It gives me time for photography and a call home before I leave.

On this trip, because my incoming flight had been canceled, and I landed at the John Wayne airport in Orange Country, I found that it is almost as easy to use and is just ten minutes from Anaheim. I guess, since my Dad has moved out of state, I no longer need to fly into Ontario, which is the best for getting to Arcadia and Pasadena. I'll probably be seeing more of JW airport, since I do have an occasional reason to go to Anaheim.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Are writers born, or made?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, writing, education

I am a writer. Sorry if that sounds trite, but to state it is one of Elizabeth Berg's suggestions in Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True. When I read (and reviewed) The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, I learned of this book, and decided to track it down.

I find I have written nearly 650 posts, about two-thirds book reviews. I write to please myself, though I find I'm quite tickled when an author likes my review and comments to say so. The proportion of book reviews has dropped since I began posting more often. I used to post about twice a week; that has about doubled. But I am still reading at about the same rate. In a sense, I am following Robert Heinlein's advice, who wrote, "Write a story every week. I defy anyone to write 52 bad stories in a row." He's probably been proven wrong. I am hoping I haven't written 600+ bad essays in a row! But I know, according to Sturgeon's Law, "90% of everything is junk." That's OK.

I have two places I write. One is the office of my day job, where I'll either write a post over my lunch break, or come in early enough to write one before the day begins. Perhaps someday I'll look over these two kinds of posts to see how they differ. The other is a dedicated "computer room" at home, where any posts I write in the evening, or at insomniac hours, emerge.

All of these accord with suggestions by Ms Berg. She also strongly urges journaling. I wonder if blogging qualifies. When I was very young (a pre-teen) I wrote daily in a journal, but in a cipher, being shy. I've lost those journals. This blog is as close to a journal as I have now. So, I don't have the paper journal that Ms Berg suggests writers use for private thoughts. I may have to remedy that, for she has a chapter that totally floored me: "If you're a man, be a woman: exercises to unleash your creativity". That's 33 pages of short suggestions that she fully expects a serious student of writing to take up, one by one (though not in order). At about ten per page, there are more than 300 of these suggestions! Here are a random dozen:
  • Getting a puppy
  • Describe three kinds of rain.
  • __________ children. [you fill in the blank, then write a page or few]
  • The worst date you ever had
  • Describe a scene by starting with a wide-angle view, the moving in for a close-up. Now do the opposite.
  • Your father begins by saying, "It's time to tell you something." Finish what he says.
  • The man is not crying, but you know his heart is breaking. How do you know?
  • What I always wanted most was his ____________.
  • Use these three words in a short paragraph: baseball, poetry, fortune cookie.
  • as likely as a trip to ___________.
  • Room by room, describe your ideal house.
  • your favorite cup
At the end of this chapter, the "homework" is to make up ten more of these.

Though there is a chapter, "Myths to Ignore", I find much of the book to be overturning myths and other faulty ideas. The prime focus is to define what a writer is. In short, a writer writes. People write for different reasons. My son, a good writer, primarily writes to fulfill his college assignments. Most writers enjoy writing. Those that don't mainly quit after a while. Some writers love writing, and it is these that we most enjoy reading.

I remember Isaac Asimov, among whose 400+ books, nearly 300 were nonfiction. He wrote for hours every day, keeping four manuscrips going at any one time, rotating among them. When asked, "What would you do if you knew you would die in two weeks?", he replied, "Type faster." His joy in writing shines through. To a critical eye, the quality of his writing is variable, but it is uniformly enjoyable to read. Elizabeth Berg has that same quality. She writes as she breathes, because she must.

Much of her instruction and advice is for those who wish to write fiction, particularly those who think they can't write fiction. It boils down to "Write what you know", and we all know more than we think we do. In particular, to be human is to be complex. You don't have to be insane to recognize that you have many strong facets to your personality, some of which can at times "take over" and operate independently (For someone who is Bipolar, as I am, it is like there are mainly two people in there, one cheerful, one rather morose or thoughtful, who alternate control). Every writer builds characters by mining this internal storehouse of personalities. I think, even when we write nonfiction in the first person, we use fictional story-telling methods.

Writing is not so much creating theme, plot, character, and so forth out of whole cloth, but of winnowing nuggets of passion and meaning from a remembered and imagined life full of events both precious and drab. When I remember a signal event, and want to tell the story, I know that I dare not recount every detail; that could take hours, and I have half a minute. I have to extract a few key details that support and lead to the conclusion, the response I want to elicit.

Just a couple of days ago, I was with one of my most long-standing friends. He lives a continent away, so we had decades to catch up on. We spent five hours together, and it went by so fast, I was astonished when I noticed it had got dark outside. Now, if he and I wrote down what we said, would it make something others would enjoy reading? I don't know, but I realized later that every life is rich with story material, whether I want to tell the stories as fiction or not. The brother of a rancher friend of mine in South Dakota is an English teacher and author. I read one of his books, and said to him later, "It sounds like plain fact told with different names." His red-faced grin let me know I had him pegged.

My favorite kind of fiction is science fiction. As I've matured, I've realized when I get away from the Tom Swift-style juvenile adventures for the sake of adventure and whiz-bang gizmos, that sci-fi is about people and how they grow, just as much as is "mainstream" fiction. The stories are told on a more speculative stage.

I don't know if I'll ever write for paid publication. My published work to date is technical, (except for a few poems printed in a rockhounding journal) and either unpaid or I paid the page charges. As much as I like reading sci-fi, I don't know if I could write any. I am most comfortable writing essays and opinion pieces. And a blogger doesn't need an agent to market the work or an editor to accept and prepare it. That suits my lazy nature. But I may try some of those 300 journal exercises…

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Couldn't eat on the train

kw: curios, travel

While taking a constitutional up and down the block each morning, I passed these boarded up train cars, that used to be set up as a restaurant. This morning I took some pictures. There are six cars, two lines of three, with passageways between them side-to-side, and a building attached to the side that doesn't show here, where the cooking was done.

I was told by a hotel clerk that the restaurant was quite popular, and is an unofficial historical landmark. People loved to eat in the train cars. There was not sufficient parking for both the hotel and the restaurant, so three years ago the owner opened a different diner elsewhere and closed this one down. Many local people hope it will be preserved in some way, perhaps turned into a museum, for it preserves the last remnant of the old Anaheim-Burbank train line. It is walking distance from the entrance to Disneyland.

Friday, April 03, 2009

What I did the other three hours

kw: travel notes, mishaps

I have to hand it to the Customer Service folks, at American Airlines: they did a fine job straightening out the mess. Kudos to them all.

As it happened, on the way from Philadelphia to the Ontario, CA airport, I had a four-hour layover in Dallas. After an hour wandering around photographing the floor art, I had a bit of lunch and read a while. Then I decided to check my flight. I had noticed, when getting on the Skyline train, that there was a lot of wind. It was a portent.

I went to the gate my flight was to leave from, and asked if the flight was still projected to be on time. I was told it had just been canceled a few minutes earlier, and the screens were not updated yet. The flight was on a S-80, a somewhat small jet, and jets that size were all grounded because of a windstorm that had come up. My flight was canceled, the next one to Ontario was also canceled, and my next chance to get there was the 8:20 pm flight, if there was space.

I was advised to try to get on a flight to Orange County, the John Wayne Airport. For that, I'd have to go the opposite terminal. This required, if I didn't want to walk the skybridge, the longest Skyline trip that is currently possible. Luckily, it only takes ten minutes.

At the new gate, I was told I could indeed get on one of the flights to John Wayne. They could not guarantee whether my luggage would get properly transferred, however. I soon found out why. The clerk clicked keys for a couple of minutes, handed me a boarding pass, unlocked a door and took me right onto the plane. It was a flight that had been delayed for a mechanical problem to be fixed, and it took off ten minutes after I was on board. The clerk said as she left, that the baggage claim people at JW would take care of me.

Fortunately, she was right. I got to Orange County without trouble, and went right to the BC office. The clerk there said my bag would probably be on the 8:30 flight I'd decided not to wait for, and suggested we use the normal claim procedure. The earliest I might get the bag would be just after midnight. She gave me an overnight kit (toothbrush and toothpaste, razor and cream, and a few other amenities), and sent me to the car rental counters with suggestions how to get a good "out one airport, in another" deal.

I did get such a deal without problems, and for less than I'd been expecting to pay. After checking into my hotel, I went to the nearest Wal-Mart and bought the smallest quantities of underwear and socks I could find, and a $12 shirt. That was the right decision. I gave the night desk at my hotel instructions to wake me if the bag came in, and went to sleep.

I awoke at 3am and called AA's baggage claim people. They said the bag had been found and would be delivered after 8:30 am. Though I was on East Coast time, I managed to get some more sleep. Just as I was leaving for my first conference meeting (in my $12 shirt, but no suit), the courier called to tell me he'd deliver the suitcase before noon. I connected him with the hotel people and went my way. When I returned about 1 pm, there was my bag. The mischief the weather had done, several competent people in a row had undone. Now I can get on with the conference.

And why didn't I post earlier? I used up a lot of my laptop's battery editing the photos at the Dallas airport. But I could not get a free wireless connection. Then when I got to my hotel in California, I didn't have the charger cord (it was in the missing bag). Now, after the first day of the conference, I have a bit of time to get these two posts out before I crash for the night. I expect I'll sleep well! Thank God, and thank all the people who helped me the past thirty hours.

Art in only one Terminal

kw: travel notes, art

This post refers to Thursday, April 2. For reasons to be posted later, I could not get online until this evening.

Thursday was a travel day. I'm in California for a church-related conference. For some reason, the best connection I could make for getting from Philadelphia to the Ontario, CA airport required a 4-hour layover in Dallas. I was at the Philly airport plenty early, so I did what I usually do, wandered around looking for artwork to photograph. Except for a couple of clever advertising posters, there was nothing in all of Terminal A. I hadn't been in this terminal before, but it is the most Philistine of the terminals in this airport.

Once I got to Dallas, I was having trouble finding art at first, when I happened to look down. I flew into Terminal C and out of D, and in Terminal D I found these large mandala-like works, about a dozen of them, spaced among the gates. They are something like 20 feet in diameter, and not all are this kind of mosaic. This one was one I could get partway up the Mezzanine stairs for a better angle. However, I did distort the image a bit so it is easier to see the pattern. I resized it by 0.5x horizontally.

At one of the other pieces, I walked around it and took several nearly vertical images with a wide-angle lens. This is a stitched panorama of three of them. If it weren't so hard to get people off them for a photo, I'd have gone all the way around. Oh, well.

There are also a couple larger installations in the corners of the terminal. I'll save them for later.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Beliefs as diverse as the people who hold them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, faith, philosophy, essay collections

At my dissertation defense, I was presenting the results of my research, which were a bit controversial. One of the first questions asked was, "Do you really believe that?" The tone showed that the professor asking carried a lot of freight; it was inquisitorial. I replied, slowly, "I don't use the word 'believe' that way. I consider my hypothesis to be the most scientifically logical, the best explanation. But this stuff won't save my soul. I believe in Jesus."

Most people don't use "believe" in the divinely significant, soul-saving sense. The phrase "I believe" prefaces a great range of much more down-to-earth understanding. Yet somewhere between "I believe it might rain" and the Nicene creed, all of us have a core of some kind, a belief or two upon which we base our understanding of ourselves.

Several editors working with NPR have just published a second collection of essays that probe these self-defining beliefs, This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. The first such collection, a few years ago, took its title from a series of radio addresses by Edward R. Murrow two generations back.

If you agreed to write an essay that squeezed your most important core belief into 500 words, what would you write? It might be worth your while to visit and contribute an essay of your own. The editors are collecting as many such essays as they can.

How to articulate one's belief? Reading the book might be a good start. Learn by example. Here we find the whole range of humanity, from Nobelists such as Elie Weisel to the founder of Craigslist, from high- and middle-schoolers to the very aged, from nuns and priests to the nonreligious, examining what it is upon which they base their day-to-day life. My somewhat rude "I believe in Jesus" statement will not, by itself, do much for me (though I don't regret saying it).

My public persona is this blog. What do I believe; what lies behind the handle?

I believe people want to know what other people are thinking. For people like me, it is the main reason to read a lot of books. For others, it leads to endless small talk, even with strangers. Some spend a lot of time alone, figuring it all out while others party incessantly. No matter how, we are taking in information about others, or ruminating on what we've learned from them. Even the most self-centered people want to know what others are thinking, even if it is only to take advantage of them.

I have a friend who is among the brightest people I know. Not only has he a PhD, his parents do, his siblings do, and everyone in his family except one uncle who he jokes is the "black sheep" of the family. He tells of learning from his mother, "We are smarter than the others. Why should we care what they think?" What she meant, of course, was for her son not to guide his behavior by conformity to public opinion. As I've gotten to know her, I find her intensely interested in others, for a reason similar to one of mine: being able to anticipate reactions. This is not mainly to avoid offense, but to see it coming and plan for it.

People like this friend and I, and his mother, who tend to live inwardly, develop emotional intelligence rather slowly. It takes serious effort to learn social skills that more extroverted people seem to gain easily. For an introvert, being in any people-oriented line of work is a bit like being a prize fighter. You are going to be taking punches, so learn to take them when they get through your defenses, and keep on polishing your defenses.

But there is a second reason to learn what people think, that is equally important. Everything in the human world started with a thought. New ideas don't spring full-grown from the heads of geniuses. Geniuses have a body of older knowledge and understanding on which they base their ideas. Some say Einstein's genius was not in producing Relativity; others also did so. But he was the most adept at explaining it to others, using clocks, measuring sticks and railway carriages as metaphors for concepts others had only explained by equations. His genius was in knowing how other people thought, deeply enough that he could communicate the new thoughts to them.

Human thought leads to new ways of coping with the Universe. I believe that's worth plenty of study.

I got that into 420 words. Though quickly done and a tad clumsy, I think I'll send it along to the project. Some of the essays in the book are probably as spur-of-the-moment (though I've had a day or so of reading the book to let these ideas gel). Others seem much more thought through. I'll mention just one favorite: Sister Helen Prejean's "Living My Prayer" is about learning what she believes by observing her own actions. Such an exercise would benefit all of us.