Sunday, August 30, 2009

Left Behind With Plenty of Kibble

Homecoming from Florida

E. is home from Florida. What *is* to be done about, or perhaps I should say with, mom? Almost seems the nursing home is trying to kill her, but that is true only some days and with some nursing home personnel.

E. and her sis, mom's caretaker, confronted some folk, did an end run by talking to the new head of nursing, "sneaked" mom out to see another physician -- which act was apparently considered disrespectful and even *unethical*.

(My reply to that idea was that not to have sought a second opinion when mom was in difficulty would have been immoral. Tomorrow in journalism ethics we'll talk about ethics v. morals. That's a kind of intellectual isometrics, pitting one muscle against another, static but strengthening.)

And so our phone conversations went: One day the plan was to change nursing homes, the next to figure out some way to bring mom home in spite of the fact E.'s sis has back and hip problems and can't shift mom without help. And the amount of money needed to get help is limited. And I'm not going to bankrupt us to eke out another six months of life for a 98.5-year-old mom.

Right now I'm thankful I'm pretty much indifferent to my mom in her nursing home in Tennessee, an indifference made possible by the fact my older sister lives nearby and keeps an eye on things. Shelley wrote a poem about love divided is love doubled, but he was rationalizing his unremitting pursuit of Baby Strange. His was sexy math, not the calculus of dealing with geriatric parents.

It seems a cruel kind of love to urge E. to think more of herself and less about her aged parent. It's also disingenuous, isn't it? I probably want her devotion all to myself. Well, let her practice on her mom then. Consider it a workout for the main event: me.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy, Existential Man

Jimmy Carter and Ronald ReaganImage by afagen via Flickr

By which I mean he exemplifies the whole existence-versus-essence paradigm. We are what we do, and given the mixed nature of reality we must not fall into the trap of saying here's a great thing because a Great Person says or does it, nor should we say the same of the Evil Person, though that's a shorthand category I find almost irresistible, particularly when Sarah Palin is on the television machine.

But I must resist. All the encomiums I am reading about Kennedy do fill me with admiration for so many of his accomplishments as a senator. It would seem that the longer he served, the higher the probability factor that if he pursued an aim, you could immediately buy in; you did not have to reason it through slowly and painfully before lending your support. It was worth placing your bet.

I suppose we must tweak our existential assumptions so that they read like a weather report: forecast is for continued courage with a 90 percent chance of wisdom. But I was slow in coming around to admiration of Kennedy because for a long time I resented his conduct in 1980 when he challenged Jimmy Carter, a sitting president, for the nomination.

At the time I thought it was a manifestation of raw entitlement: The country owed him the presidency, and Carter inconveniently stood in his way. I think I will now look for a good book on that period to explore the degree to which I did not understand the time nor the issues. Maybe Kennedy had done his own probability calculation and decided he could win and Carter couldn't, a cold view of things I might have sympathized with.

But I know that at the time Kennedy's challenge, and what I perceived to be his ungracious behavior at the Democratic convention, seemed -- at best -- a clear and simple example of letting the "perfect" be the enemy of the good, that Kennedy (in that familiar Utopian Democrat frame of mind) decided better to have Reagan for four years, if that disaster time would be followed by the Return of King.

We see how that all worked out, just like the Naderites rejection of Gore in 2000 worked out so beautifully. (It really is possible, you know, that eight years of Bush the Lesser may be the iceberg that sinks the old republic. How far below the waterline does the gash extend?)

But, as I say, Kennedy won respect from me as over the years he got things done in the Senate that I thought needed doing, and he at least tried to be a brake on Republican excess. I continue to resist calling him a Great Man, an attitude I know I should apply elsewhere: Watch closely. Look for tendencies, not perfection.

E. and I were talking about this the other day, about mutual trust. She said she sometimes wonders if she can really trust me. (It is true that a fat old man is catnip to the ladies. Santa Claus is only the first among many many examples.)

I said that after nearly 44 years of marriage, she probably could. If you are attentive to detail, probably is a very powerful word, and good enough.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Day of Reporting Class

So I take the class out to the little six-block enclave between upper and lower campus and explain this is our beat for the semester. A friend from Communication strides by. I intercept him, and he kindly agrees to be interviewed. You will notice my sly and subtle pedagogical methods.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And So to Bed, Feeling Better

The Good (Blondie).Image via Wikipedia
I have my goods piled by the door so I won't forget tomorrow's lecture notes. I have vowed to shave even if that spoils my Clint Eastwood moment at the beginning of class when I squint for a while before I start to speak.

I have even printed the names of my students in the grade book in full confidence I will not frighten any of them away first day, which has been known to happen.

Pens? Yes, I have pens.
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Offstage Waiting for My Cue, or Teaching as Performance (Plus the Florida Contradiction)

John Keats' tombstone, Protestant cemetery, Ro...Image via Wikipedia
Tomorrow is the first day of class, and I am anxious and excited, particularly about the journalism ethics class.

Let us consider Keats notion of Negative Capability:

'At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'

To me, that describes journalism its practice and its instruction, once you venture beyond the 'toolbox,' all those interviewing and newswriting techniques that any reasonably clever person with an inquisitive disposition can master in six weeks of close attention to how the job is done.

But to what end? Some rules would be a relief. What's the joke about the Ten Commandments, that they are not the Ten Suggestions? But when it comes to journalism ethics, I have only suggestions. No, you choose. It's up to you. Your facts are assembled in dread array. You can write it-- you certainly know how to write it -- but should you?

What delicious self importance. What exhilarating self absorption! How I loved it.

 Meanwhile in Florida E. tries to decide how to settle the question of  how her mother is to be allowed to die. And today Mom is doing better! The physical therapist says she's walking better. Why she could easily be mistaken for a child of 88, not 98, the physical therapist says! How much pain should we impose on her or encourage her to endure in the hope that she can push through the pain to.... What?

Uncertainty. Uncertainty. Uncertainty and the responsibility that comes with it. Sometimes it's fun. And sometimes it's not.

I need a good night's sleep.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Letting Go of Mother

Painful to talk to E in Florida. Well, they could put a feeding tube in Mom's stomach, but she's so weak the doctor at rehab doubts the surgeons would do it, though they might consent to do it without an anesthetic....

And when asked if it's likely a feeding tube would increase Mom's strength to the point Mom might start eating on her own -- and just maybe get enough strength to go home -- well, probably not, the doc said. So why are we talking about the fucking feeding tube?

E's sister Esther, their mother's caregiver these last six years, told the doctor, "But the tests show her liver is fine." The doctor said it's not this organ or that organ, it's the whole body, having soldiered its way for 98+ years on the farm, six years in Africa in the bush flirting with martyrdom for God's sake and always working, always working, she has a right to be worn out.

I'm far away from it all, complaining it's back to school, but glad for the excuse.. It's easy for me to say that Mom is in pain and I think also in woe. So step back and let her go peacefully. But she's Mom but not my Mom, so it's easy for me to say.

Such woe in E's voice. What to say? Come home. That's what I want to say. Come home. That would solve my problem but nobody else's.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

An Underheard Play: The Rest (and Too Much of the First) is Silence

Samuel Beckett depicted on an Irish commemorat...Image via Wikipedia
By which I mean Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" is a brain play, best suited to a small venue, cramped and intimate. The actress has all the lines, and she spends the first act buried to her waist in an earth mound and the brief second act buried up to her neck in the same dirt. (Dirt = death? Whatever it represents, it's winning.)

It's all voice and facial expression, all one big physical metaphor. The ideas behind it all are still true enough. But the play itself is transparent. We see right through it to those ideas, which makes it an easy play. (May I call it Powerpoint Drama?)

Letting it be swallowed up outdoors with half the audience straining to see and to hear -- which was my own experience at the CalShakes performance this afternoon -- invents difficulties that present no rewards.

Robert Hurwitt likes it better than I do, though I agree with his praise of actress Patty Gallagher -- who parachuted into the role when celeb Marsha Mason dropped out (and don't get me started on aging stars yearning for one last ego trip down Sunset Boulevard).

Gallagher really is excellent. Hurwitt says that, "Buried up to her neck, it's remarkable how well her expressive features and Beckett's words can fill so large a space."

Except they don't. Game try, though, in what I, as eyewitness, now have the right to describe as one of Beckett's lesser efforts.

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I Wonder if Max Payne is the Worst Movie Ever Made? (As in: It Inflicts 'Max Pain' on the Audience)

When my wife is out of town, my sleep is fitful, and even the worst cable movie postpones the sheet wrestle. Mark Wahlberg has this little Munchkin face in this little Munchkin body. And he's the 'killer ap' cop?

Good news is I can give it one star at Netflix, which will make future choices there more like to satisfy.

No wife, no kitty. My sleep satisfaction is at least tolerable when there's a warm cat body nearby, preferably two or three. Last kitty I slept with died, and at the moment we are Catless in Gaza (a Biblical reference and also Huxley reference, I think, and thus as inviting to most readers as a slap in the face).

But back to cats. Come January we'll get a basketful.
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Friday, August 21, 2009

I Thought I Could Tell the Difference Between a Male Cat and a Female Cat Two Times Out of Three

I thought I saw a puddy cat....Image by law_keven via Flickr

But I was wrong. Here's the test. A half dozen friends have taken the little quiz, and someone equalled my 11 out of 20, but no one has topped it.

I guess I project or reify or anthropomorphize. I certainly fail to pick out the actual gender.
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Thursday, August 20, 2009

USF's Peer Group in the U.S.News Rankings

From a Michigan Tech press release:

Overall, Michigan Tech is in the top tier of national universities, ranking 121st along with Arizona State University, the University at Buffalo-SUNY, the University of San Francisco and Catholic University of America. National universities are defined as institutions that offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master’s and doctoral degrees and emphasize groundbreaking faculty research
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Today I am Contractually Obligated to Return to Campus to Prepare for Fall Semester, Which Officially Begins Tuesday

John Greenleaf WhittierImage via Wikipedia (Can you say dead ringer?)

It will be nice to see the students again, everyone else not so much.

Couldn't sleep. Got up early, with the sun, or -- I should say -- with the sun wrestling the fog. A gray morning. A dim morning.

Brings to mind these lines from John Greenleaf Whittier's "Snowbound," which came swirling into mind, unbidden but insistent.

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of grey,
And darkly circled, gave at noon,
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy.

We are talking mood more than external facts, but mood is an internal fact, is it not?

Editor's Note: Well, that wasn't so bad. For lunch, there was cream of garlic soup in the cafeteria.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obama's Final Solution (Minus the William Shatner Ad for Priceline, Which I Rather Enjoyed)

Timothy Noah at Slate Explains Why Public Option *Is* the Straw that Stirs the Drink

Here's the link. Here's the essence of his argument:

Why is the public option so vitally important to health reform?

At the broadest possible level, the public option is necessary simply because it's impossible to identify a successful health system anywhere in the world based on a for-profit insurance model. If profit-driven health insurance could be made to work, then surely somebody would have figured it out by now. Paul Krugman, in an Aug. 17 New York Times column, likens health reform to the reforms Switzerland instituted in 1994: "[E]veryone is required to buy insurance, insurers can't discriminate based on medical history or pre-existing conditions, and lower-income citizens get government help in paying for their policies." But there's a significant difference. In Switzerland, private insurers are required to provide basic health coverage on a nonprofit basis. Under Obamacare, private insurers will continue to seek profits, and it's quite possible that the new regulatory restraints imposed on them (take all comers, don't punish the sick with higher premiums, don't seek out fine-print reasons to cancel policies after policyholders get sick, etc.) will inspire them to find ever-more-ingenious ways to avoid payouts. President Obama often says that a public option will help keep the private insurers honest. What he doesn't say, but surely knows, is that private insurers' duties to their shareholders may be irreconcilable with their duties to their customers.
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Stumbled Across 'Fade to Cat' - and Now Oliver's Gone

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kevin Drum, the Old 'CalPundit' on How the Public Option is Not the Sine Qua Non

His complete argument. He makes sense, I think -- that's what I want to think since the public option seems to be in trouble. But to be honest, on this issue I tend to agree with whomever I read last. I guess I'll put up Howard Dean's take on it al tomorrow....

As much as I'd like to have a public option (primarily for its ability to force more robust price competition), I just don't see it as something to threaten nuclear destruction over. If insurance reforms are robust and low-income subsidies are decent, that's a huge win for millions of people, and it's a win we can build on. And contra Atrios, social legislation does have a history of getting better after it's first passed. Just ask Henry Waxman.

There's more to say about this. For example: most European countries rely on regulated private insurers of one kind or another to provide universal coverage, and they've managed to make this work. And: a credible threat only works if the opposition is afraid you might carry it out. But as near as I can tell, the folks who oppose the public option aren't really all that afraid of the possibility that healthcare reform sinks completely. Plus: the only way to get it is via reconciliation, and various comments to this post make it pretty clear that trying to pass a huge healthcare bill via reconciliation is probably impossible.

It's worth fighting for a public option. But it's not worth sinking healthcare reform over it. That would hurt too many real flesh-and-blood people who need this, and a second chance wouldn't come along for a long time. We've failed on the healthcare front too many times to accept failure again.

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Mad Men: Season Three, Episode One

Following Don Draper on TwitterImage by stevegarfield via Flickr

Perfectly fine. I can't imagine someone parachuting into the series at this point -- that is, the Season Three inaugural -- and being all that attracted to the series. Too much backstory. Too many details that have resonance only in the context of the first two seasons. But for those of us who love the show so very much -- the booze, the broads, the delicious despair of sensual existential angst -- a fine and satisfactory beginning.

Oh here's one promising ambiguity: Don Draper has a kind of fantasy moment in which he imagines the sexual encounter that produced him, his own birth and his mother's death and how then he (the whore child) was given to his father and his wife. The midwife who delivers him says his name is Dick, suggesting the naming has something to do with his mother's dying wish, which we know was to cut his father's dick off, that dick having impregnated her.

Truth or fancy? Where does this dreamscape come from, from family stories overheard or from his own storyteller's sense of what his own ignominious backstory should be? We think of narrative techniques, of omniscient narrators, limited third-person narrators, unreliable narrators. A nice ambiguity, very literary you know.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bold Recommendations for Newspaper Survival Webwise (The Boldest in Boldface)

From the conclusion of Bill Wyman's provocative dissection of newspapers in their death throes.

If I were running a chain of papers, (Wyman says) here’s what I’d do:

1) Go hyper local; devote all resources, from reporting to front-page space, to local news. No one cares what the Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch has to say about Iraq.

2) Redesign the websites to present users with a single coherent stream of news stories and blog entries. Create simple filters to allow them to tailor the site to their preferences.

3) Tell the union you won’t be touching salaries, but that all work rules are being suspended, including seniority rights. Tell all reporters that they’re expected to post news if word of it reaches them in what used to be thought of as “after hours.”

4) Get out of the mindset of “nice” coverage. Tell the reporters to find the “talker” stories in town—development battles, corrupt pols, anything with a consumer bent. Monitor web traffic to find out what people are interested in. If a particular issue jumps, flood the zone. Make each paper the center of every local debate, no matter how trivial, and make finding and creating those debates the operation’s prime job.

5) Create chain-wide coverage of all areas where it can be done. It’s sad, but it means laying off a lot more film critics and dozens of other duplicated positions. For such positions, do this. Hire two people to cover the beat for the chain. Make them into sparring partners, arguing about each new TV show, movie, CD, traveling Broadway show, concert tour etc. Get out of the business of being promotional. Give your readers sharply argued opinions, something fun to read they can’t get anywhere else.

6) Create local listings second to none. Create them from the users’ point of view. Don't use abbreviations. Overwhelm users with insider information that only locals know; where to park, where to sit, when to go, etc. Get rid of all the site navigation levels no one cares about. Put the information people want front and center.

7) Devote as much manpower as possible to creating must-read local news blogs. Tell the bloggers to work the phones and IMs, finding out about every personnel change, every office move, any tidbit. Support and cite local bloggers in the same areas. Yell at staff members if they are consistently being scooped by (unpaid) competitors.

8) Create and maintain a wiki designed ultimately to function as an encyclopedia for the town, from neighborhoods and politicians to every retail establishment. Let it become the ultimate guide to the area. Like Wikipedia, it will inevitably contain information that is controversial. Cover the controversies with alacrity.

9) Serve the community. Don't publish crap. Tell folks stuff they might not want to hear. Grow a pair.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tattoos, an Existential Post from Four Years Ago. It *is* a Classic.

American Federation of TeachersImage via Wikipedia

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Tattoo

Along about the fifth inning of the Giants game on Saturday, the kid in front of us took off his shirt. On his back was the outline of a cross, scapula to scapula, cervical to lumbar vertebrae. The extremeties of the cross were scalloped. I'm guessing it's a style with a specific name, and I did several google searches -- "cross glossary," "cross types" and so on -- and couldn't match the shape. My wife thought she'd seen crosses of a similar shape on rosaries. I don't suppose it matters, but the Internet does make you think there aren't more than three degrees of separation between you and every fact under the sun.

In the middle of the cross were the words Galatians 2:20. Many years ago I was familiar with the epistle to the early Christians in that part of what is now modern Turkey, but I'm long past remembering particular Bible verses. Galatians 2:20 was actually the first thing I looked up, even before the shape of the cross, because the guy had a pale scruffy White Power look, and I was curious to see if I was being invited to consider a piece of anti-Semitic scripture. Or anti-female. Or just patriarchal.

Galatians 2:20 is not such a verse. It's pro-Jesus, not compelling to an old lapsed Christian like myself but not irritating either. I remember being told when I was young that if you could but get an unbeliever to read certain verses the gospel would pierce their hearts. I recall the notion was that God would prepare certain hearts at certain moments, and you never knew when the susceptible moment and your proselytizing would intersect. That was why we were supposed to carry our Bibles to school so that the curious would inquire or the scornful would scorn, in either case giving us the opportunity to share a verse or two. John 3:16 was the verse of choice in these situations, and still is judging by the signs you see waved at the camera at athletic events. There was supposed to be a special moment, you see, and if through your timidity that moment was lost, then let the eternal damnation of that soul be on your conscience. That did not particulary concern me since my understanding was that there were no bad consciences in heaven, only eternal bliss. It did, however, seem somewhat unfair that God would prepare hearts to receive his message only at certain moments. Why not intrude into human hearts perpetually? Why intrude selectively? The subtleties of the operation of salvation always puzzled me.

Still, taking your Bible to school was one thing. Having your back tattooed seems quite another, a rather bold upping of the ante. That's a real commitment. Going back on your faith after having your back tattooed -- that would be turning your back on your back. That would be foregoing your tribal identity.

That's how I think of tattoos, as an act of tribal identity. That's why young people with extensive tattooing of any kind are objects of my concern. When I was 17 or 18, I certainly wouldn't like to have chosen a certain set of pictures to be bolted to the walls of my life, as it were, for the next 60 years. Tastes change. Tribal loyalties change. Even faith can change. Not so good an idea, I'm thinking, to lock in your identity so early on. I'm not talking about a butterfly on your shoulder blade or a nice "AFT" for American Federation of Teachers on your left buttock -- which would also be quite a sly little joke as well as a union label. A discreet tattoo would be the kind of ontological nuance a supreme court justice might be pleased to have. What worries me is using your body as a canvas at a time of your life when your taste -- which at that age is more a series of impulses than actual taste -- is still evolving. How will these gaudy impulses play out? If I were in my early 20s, rather than a tattoo I would get a video camera and do a hundred interviews with a hundred emphatically tattooed people my own age. I'd keep in touch with my subjects, and every seven years or so come back to them and try to determine the degree to which their tattoos have limited or burdened them.

Or liberated them. Possible in the short term. But it's the long term that intrigues me. We are a fluid culture. We aren't snakes. We can't shed our skins.

I'm imagining. It's a hot day and look at the beautiful woman in the turtleneck with the long sleeves. A tattoo is more than a bikini wax. You have established a new status quo.

If it's a verse you want, how about Ecclesiastes 3:1?

To everything there is a season.

In magic marker, I think, which washes right off.

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Rose, the Dog Who Came to Dinner (But Would Not Stay)

Reporter's Notebooks: Gross

They Call Me Mister Wallpaper, the Human Screensaver

The 'Glasses Apostle' in the altarpiece of the...Image via Wikipedia

This morning my wife finally noticed I had shaved my beard. She took a long look and asked if I was wearing a different pair of glasses. Full marks for that: I am.

At that point, I asked her if she could see any other difference. She stared for awhile and it finally dawned on her *that the elephant man had altered his appearance.*

And all these guys at work asking her to have lunch -- oh, she sends me the emails, saying, "Isn't that sweet?"

It's not easy being married to Cougar Platinum (for those times when Cougar just isn't enough).
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Bare-Faced Truths?

Shaved my beard off today, and my wife hasn't noticed.


I'm One Mad Man

Mad MenImage via Wikipedia

Only 14 out of 15 on the Mad Men quiz. I could kick myself. But first a cigaret, a drink, a sexist comment, a brilliant (but ironic in the context of my personal life) idea.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Big Pat and Rose, the Wonder Dog, Went Home This Morning

He says he's begun to recover from last weekend's surgery. He was a good houseguest, neat about his person, not much trouble, only ate with his fingers when I ate with mine. As he drove away, we ran after him yelling, "Shane! Shane!"

He never looked back.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

$47K to Attend Columbia J: A Guy Wonders If He Should've

Peter the Cook sent me the link to this Gawker piece.

Last week, the University of Georgia journalism school published a report about the horrible employment prospects and salaries awaiting j-school grads. As anyone reading this site knows, for the last few years media outlets have constantly been folding, firing people, and slashing pay. Things have gotten so bad in the media industry that some observers now say j-schools should be closed altogether. So, what are we all doing here?

But he's going to stick.
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The Healing Power of Laughter, or How I Became Department Chair

Nora the Cat *Plays*

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Trash the White Trash

Smart piece in Salon today on the fact white Southerners -- particularly white men -- are about the only group liberals (my own proud affinity group) can reflexively trash as the Brain Scum of the earth. God knows I do it myself even though when my California brethren hear my accent too many of them want to slap me across the face to hear me say, "My daughter, my sister; my daughter, my sister."

And writer Michael Lind says;

Here's how I see it. Liberals should respect and promote the interests of working Americans of all races and regions, including those who despise liberals. They are erring neighbors to be won over, not cretins to be mocked.

Monday, August 10, 2009

They Cut Big Pat's Throat

Vertically, not horizontally. They sliced his left carotid and rooted out the gunk. He's crashing at our place for a bit until his dancing shoes come back from cobbler. (That's a metaphor, specifically a kind of metonymy.)

He said the doc said not to expect a hundred new flowers of wisdom and/or inspiration to blossom inside his skull as the blood rushes in afresh -- he was down to one percent flow, though that one percent produced a pressure condition (or something) that allowed the surgery to be done. Complete occlusion and the docs would have backed away, so they told Pat. All the surgery did was prevent the inevitable stroke, death, decomposition, etc. It would have been very sad and messy, so the operation was worth the inconvenience.

But I don't quite see how all that grand new blood can fail to give the old thought box a jumpstart. E. told Pat that she had noticed how pasty he was looking in recent months, but that now he is an absolutely lovely pink.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Pour, He said. Talk If You Must But Certainly Pour

Kingsley AmisImage via Wikipedia

My old Chronicle chum Jerry Ozarks sent me a link to an Economist story about the mystery of how alcohol fuels literary accomplishment and how taking it away sometimes means a hand that no longer shakes but neither does it create. The conclusion is somewhat discouraging to one of my style and ilk about what happens when you shed the grape:

Minimalists tend to do better than maximalists. Flinty and workmanlike seem to win the day. (Elmore Leonard said that attending AA meetings had made him a “better listener”.) It is the self-proclaimed geniuses who suffer. Writers of long sentences seem to do worse than the writers of short ones—Faulkner’s and Hemingway’s endless clauses being the epitome of the drunken style. Comparing yourself to Tolstoy is a bad sign. (If it has to be a Russian, Chekhov is a much better bet.) Americans do much better than Brits (a recent biography of Kingsley Amis lists drinking under “Activities and Interests”). Americans from the north seem to do better than Americans from the South. Prose-writers fare better than poets. If you are an American poet from the South, you might as well walk into a bar right now.
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Friday, August 07, 2009

Letters from the Grave

Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursin...Image via Wikipedia

Drove Big Pat over to the hospital this morning so he could get one of his carotids rooted out.

He left his truck, his dog, his billfold, his keys, his medical power-of-attorney and an envelope of farewell letters in case things went wrong.

(They didn't. We dropped by intensive care around six, and he was looking positively beatific. There was some mention of morphine.)

About those worst-case missives he was most emphatic: Don't open that envelope. I have taken the preparation of these seriously, so take this prohibition seriously.

I'll be giving them back to him tomorrow or the day after. E. keeps a journal in which she writes most nights. I've never been tempted to sneak a look. If she were to die before me, I'm not sure I'd want to read it then. Any criticisms would wound, no matter what the overall ratio of pains to joys. The absence of criticism would make me wonder where the real journals were haha.

I do not disparage the idea of final letters, since many relationships are on hold because of distance or some slight misunderstanding never resolved because lives don't always run on parallel tracks. In most case, a summing up might be healing. But in the case of someone with whom you live day to day -- I mean E., of course -- I rather think you should assume your letter will go astray before being read, and there'll be no time for last words either, so that you better create memories more vivid than final sentiments.

A kiss. A joke. An apology. Life will make these sincere even if in the moment you think not, even if you are only putting them down on account, like a kind of emotional layaway.
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Thursday, August 06, 2009

My New Kenyan Birth Certificate is Already Paying Off

What else could explain this email?

Dear Beneficiary,
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD has selected 1000 lucky individuals from the 30 member countries to benefit from their recent economic empowerment programme.This email notification confirms you as one of the lucky beneficiaries of this year's draw. Each of the beneficiaries are to receive the sum of $300,000.00 USD.
Amongst the aims and objectives of this programme is to empower beneficiaries financially against the back drop of the global financial melt down affecting member countries and the other selected countries.
You are required to contact the Co-Secretary to the Board for quick processing and release of your funds to you.
Rev Tom Soyinka
Co-Secretary to the Board.
Tel: +234-813-828-9701
Buckley David
Programme Coordinator

In the Words of Brother Bob Wieder: Bush *Was* March Hare Batty

Read it and weep. Literally.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Good Day's Work Learning About U.S. Census Data

Map of populations by countryImage via Wikipedia

Because a smart teacher knows he must remain a moving target, this semester I'm going to assign the residential enclave between the University of San Francisco's upper and lower campuses as the "beat" for my reporting class. We're going to learn more about it: who lives there, why they live there, what they care about, how proximity to USF determines what they care about.

I have no idea how well this will work and what stories we will stumble upon, but I've already learned that in 2000 USF was located in census tract 157 and the little neighborhood between two campuses -- which USF students use as a thoroughfare and parking lot, among other things (which would get on my nerves) -- consists of census blocks 3013, 3012, 3011, 4000, 4001, 4002 and 4003. (Here's a map.)

The population in 2000? Here's the link. But I wonder what time of year the census was taken? That might make a difference about how many student renters were caught up in the survey. Every answer produces two questions -- if you're lucky.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Polling Science, or Framing Matters

Acceptance of gravity in the United StatesImage by Colin Purrington via Flickr

A nice bit from a Daily Kos regular. (Of course, you should read the whole thing, inspired by a Gallup Poll question about continental drift.)

The question is also framed in terms of individual "belief" in a scientific theory. This gives the impression that data are of greater worth when they're more popular. It's the kind of wording that not only garners bad responses, it encourages bad interpretation of the results. If 90% of Americans believe in the photoelectric effect, but only 20% believe in quantum theory, what effect does that have on electronic performance? Absolutely none. Asking the question as a belief question encourages a complete misinterpretation of what science is about. What you get when a question is asked this way confuses "is this true" with "do you like it." In short, a belief question is totally worthless in measuring American's knowledge on the subject or the value of the theory. It's a measure of a theory's popularity. And science is not a popularity contest. Worse, this kind of question intractably mingles favorability and knowledge -- it's not even a good test of popularity.

Finally, the presentation of the results is particularly egregious. "Only 4 in 10 Americans..." may reflect the 42% who voted "yes" in the poll, but it completely ignores the fact that this is the most popular answer in the survey, and by a broad margin. It would be a much better description of the results to say that "far more Americans believe that Africa and America were merged in the past" than it is to misuse the raw numbers in a form that makes Americans look, well, ignorant. The results show that only a quarter of Americans don't believe this well-supported theory, while a third of the population admits that they don't understand well enough to have an opinion -- a result that should shock no one. It is, in fact, the kind of number you should expect when asking about any scientific theory.

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Black People Make Me Nervous

Goethite (brown ochre)Ochre - Image via Wikipedia

As do white people, yellow people, red people and sometimes even ochre people, a thought that arises in the aftermath of the Gates arrest and Obama's hope for a "teachable moment."

Moreover, powerful people make me nervous as do fat people, ugly people, beautiful people, people with body odor, well-dressed people, really smart people, really dumb people, people who seem to be a bizarre amalgam of smart and stupid, people with white even teeth, people with no teeth and people who cover their teeth with their hands when they talk.

Indeed, I make myself nervous. I'm not all that comfortable being alone. Beer with the President? I'd wet myself. Confrontation with a white cop? I wet myself writing that sentence.

So, here's the baseline.:

* Zero degree of anxiety is a state I've never attained.
* One degree of anxiety. With my wife. She's very nice.
* Two degrees of anxiety. With myself, all alone, with the buzzing in my ears and the sudden movement at the corners of my field of vision.
* Seventy-three to eleventy hundred degrees of anxiety. Pretty much everybody else.

Here hyperbole shades into truth: It's degree of anxiety and management of anxiety that matters. So many degrees of overlay determine the final number. Is race/ethnicity a factor in this and do I need to be aware of my own semi-conscious prejudice? Damn well better. Autopilot, the unquestioned premise, is a dangerous thing.

But it's not simple, and I'm a teachable guy. As the President said, it really is all about calibrating the truth of the moment, not ignoring it.

Addendum: It's brown ochre, also known as Goethite.