31 January 2006

And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you...

Since it was raining and I had my "nice pants" on -- meaning I wasn't wearing jeans -- I took the bus into work today. For some reason or another, as I walked the few remaining blocks to my large ugly building on the campus of Real Estate U, I got to thinking about a decade ago. I suppose it was the walk past the English department's building in combination with my work on my dissertation last night. At any rate, I thought, "Hmm...1996..." and then everything went swirly in front of my eyes...

1996. I was beginning the second semester of my PhD program. I figured I'd be out of there by 1999 at the latest. Little did I know that in quick succession I'd be married, taking a job for health coverage, and buying a house. Then a kid. So the graduation date gets pushed and pushed and finally the graduation doesn't seem terribly important. Then another kid.

Anyway, in 1996 I believed in academia. To an extent I still do. It is, as Stanely Aronowitz argues, the last good job in America. If you can get a job, that is. But I was still in classes and still feeding off the energy that comes from being around a small group of people who share your interests and have time to drink after class.

Of course, when you don't finish your PhD and others do, you're left with a much reduced group -- out of classes, you don't know the newer students; your compatriots mainly move off to other cities; and you're left with a giant project lurking about you that seems every moment to be unravelling like a big ball of yarn.

Anyway, I wrote a few pages last night before I lost my thread.

30 January 2006

America is only an idea.

Being a philanderer: impeachment.

Misrepresenting intelligence documents to take the nation to war, leaking an active CIA operative's name, authorizing illegal wiretapping of US citizens: nothing.

Obviously, I've been getting this country's priorities wrong for quite some time. I was raised on the unfortunate assumption that the Constitution was a serious document and that foremost in the way we imagined ourselves as Americans was through the Bill of Rights. I was so obsessed with this view that I nearly made the mistake of joining the Libertarian party when I came of voting age (fortunately I realized soon enough that "civil liberties" and "libertarian" are two different things).

I'm trying to imagine what talk radio would sound like right now if it had been Clinton who was running around wiretapping US citizens or taking the country to war under false pretenses.

I made the mistake of listening to c-span radio yesterday, and they rerun the television talk shows ("Meet the Press," etc.), and I came to the realization that either most of the pundits are stupid or they are simply dishonest (OK - I actually know that the columnists are getting paid to say what they say, and a more honest George Will, for instance, would be an unemployed George Will). Then I listened to a call-in session from a rerun of c-span's own "Washington Journal," and I realized that there are several stupid people out there in the USA who call in to these shows. That led me to the understanding that if the people who care enough to follow c-span are that stupid, how dumb -- or to be fairer, how uninformed -- must the people who "don't follow politics" be?

Bill Frist was on "Meet the Press." How in the hell did this idiot ever get elected? Ethics problems aside, the guy comes off as a major-league asshole, to use Bush's phrase. He couldn't walk a straight line if you chained him to it. I can imagine him in the old days, calling for Galileo's head.

Now it also turns out that the Bush administration was leaking confidential material to Abramoff about federal investigations. If we can occupy two or three years of our national life to coverage of a blowjob, can we please devote a few months at least to the dirtbag now in power?

Must be the year of Cezanne.

I'm looking forward to the Cezanne show at the National Gallery. The day we went out to California, we visited the LA County Museum of Art (henceforth known as LACMA), where they were holding a great Cezanne and Pissarro show. I didn't understand before how closely linked those two artists' careers were, allowing museums a century later to display each painter's take on the same landscape side by side.

Other than the Cezanne/Pissarro show (and a small but intriguing exhibition on Gajin Fujita and Pablo Vargas Lugo -- esp. the Fujita stuff), LACMA was LAC-luster. Holy shit, I crack myself up. You realize how spoiled you are in DC for the free access to some incredible art collections. LACMA's permanent collection is either miniscule or hidden largely in storage; their gift shop prices in large part make the National Gallery look like TJ Maxx. Still, I took a few pictures (photos not allowed in exhibitions -- only permanent collections).

I love Lichtenstein. It's too bad DC has very little of his stuff, comparatively speaking.

They had a few works by Rivera, this one being the most impressive. They have it showcased by being at the end of a long hallway that you walk down to enter their Latin American Art galleries.

26 January 2006

Quick Hit: Street Scene in Santa Barbara

So we were outside a Borders on State Street (if you've never been to Santa Barbara, State Street is the equivalent of M St./Wisconsin Ave in G-town or any other corporatized somewhat upscale urban shopping area -- but State Street is much longer and more eclectic than G-Town), and a live band was performing in front of the store. A crowd had gathered to watch, including this fashion victim:

Now I generally don't do fashion commentary, as my favorite color is gray, but this getup begs for close reading.

First there's the "skirt that looks halfway like an apron over jeans" that I saw more than once on the streets of Santa Barbara. I'm guessing it's some sort of fusion hippie chic. Except you look like you're on your way to your shift at Papa John's.

Then you have the checkered top. It's hard to tell from the pic, but this is thick, like business attire -- the kind of thing you'd wear with nice slacks if you were a receptionist at an upscale dentist's office or a low end lawyer's office. But not with jeans and a skirt. In fact, I can't think of much other than a t-shirt you could wear with jeans and a skirt.

Finally, the boots. These are suede leather moccasin boots. They have tassels on the top. U-G-L-Y unless you star in the community theatre's production of Pocahontas. WTF.

The components are ridiculous, but the ensemble itself is greater than the sum of its parts. If you're looking for an example of synergy, here it is: these components together are far butt uglier than they ever were apart.

However, I have a prediction. Foolish undergrads at Real Estate U, where I work, will be sporting the jeans-skirt look in much the same way that the morons bought into the "bleach striped jeans" look a year or so ago. Mark my words. That and faux fedoras -- with a surf bum twist -- will also be in fashion this summer.

God help us.

Travel Repercussions.

My poor baby girl is ill. She has a cough and sniffles and needs to see the doctor. She's now 10 months old and aside from scheduled "well baby" visits, she's only been to the doctor's once. Our son on the other hand was a chronic sufferer of ear infections and spent a good bit of time overcoming those nasty episodes. Fortunately, he's been relatively free of those since he was 4 years old.

This illness of course comes on top of the jet lag we all suffer. It's one thing for adults to have jet lag, but kids are another matter entirely. They don't understand time in the same way. Our son at least fell asleep before midnight last night, and this morning he went to school only an hour late. Even so, I dressed him in his sleep, brushed his teeth for him as he was half-asleep, and then carried him to the sofa, where he slept another hour. He'd still be sleeping now if I hadn't made him sit on a stool to eat toast.

Our daughter has compensated for all of this disruption by demanding constant nursing. This development is of course much harder on my wife than on me, since I'm not qualified to complete the task. Like her brother, she would sleep much later into the morning if we were able to stay home with her this week.

Time zones, at least standardized time zones, are relatively recent, being developed in the mid to late 19th century. Interestingly, the impetus for standardizing time in many countries came from the then-state of the art mode of travel: the railroad. Train schedules by necessity had to keep to a unified time, and the timetables published by rail systems often were adopted by local government.

As Vonnegut might have it, it probably isn't so difficult to become unstuck in time.

25 January 2006

Flight History.

The first time I flew in an airplane, I was 27 years old. My family simply didn't fly. Even when we visited Arizona back in 1979, we took the train. Other than that, we drove. Imagine three kids in the vinyl backseat of a 1982 Ford Fairmont that has a faulty air conditioner on a trip from Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida, and you get the picture of hell.

I thought about this fact as I we packed the kids onto the plane for what seemed like the 100th time. For our five year old, it really has been close to a dozen trips. Maybe more.

I remember that first flight, because I was a starving graduate student and it was on Southwest Airlines and while Southwest may be fine for short hops, on cross-country trips they tend to stop you a few times. I vowed at that point never to fly Southwest again. And I haven't.

A few years later, I had a job that required occasional air travel. I flew to Kansas City, Houston, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. The first two were pits I never ever ever in my life want to visit again, especially Houston. Phoenix is bearable only because I have a good friend in Phoenix. Las Vegas on the other hand was tremendous.

All of this allows me to compile a list of places I've flown to, some multiple times:

San Francisco
LA (but never to stay in LA)
Las Vegas
Cleveland (!)
Minneapolis (en route to Saint Cloud, MN)
New Orleans

Atlanta (I've driven there, too)
Kansas City

24 January 2006

Lessons learned in transit.

OK. I'll begin by saying that even though we wished to remain in California indefinitely, we couldn't because we work and apparently our employers seem to think we should actually show up at work occasionally. Both of us have extremely understanding and flexible workplaces, but my wife's office was holding its annual conference this week and she's heavily involved, etc. So we came back. For now.

Two lessons I've learned:

  1. Do not fly AirTran. It simply isn't worth it.
  2. Do not fly through Atlanta. It simply isn't worth it.
AirTran's configuration on the 737 or 757 -- honestly I don't know which it was -- is the cruelest I've ever encountered. The carry-on bag that I've taken on quite a few flights (a medium/large messenger bag) wouldn't fit under the seat without considerable forcing. The largest item in the bag was a laptop computer, and it wouldn't fit properly. Additionally the seats themselves were closer-set than any other seats I've ever been on and thinner (talking actual seat thickness from front to back). I'm figuring they managed to squeeze a few more rows on the plane through this innovation, which is all well and good in some QBA major's wet dream, but sucks incredibly if you're actually a passenger on this banana republic bus with wings. The plane was pretty well full leaving LAX, but the second leg of the trip, from Atlanta to DC, was at best a third full. Before that flight took off, we asked for a blanket for our son. The flight attendant (cue The Replacements' "Waitress in the Sky") replies that they were all out of blankets. How the hell can you be out of blankets on a ghost flight that hasn't even left the ground yet?

Of course, I'd be more forgiving if we weren't delayed by nearly five hours. Our flight from LAX, supposedly leaving at around noon, didn't get off the ground until after 3 p.m. AirTran staff in LA blamed Atlanta. Once in Atlanta, our new connection (having missed the original thanks to the 3 hour delay in LA) was itself delayed 2 hours. A trip that was supposed to end at 10 p.m. actually ended at 2:30 a.m.

Atlanta is apparently a hellish place to fly into or out of. An older couple who missed their connection due to delays informed me that their children told them not to fly through Atlanta because they're always delayed. As if that wasn't enough, the cabbie who took us from National back to Adams Morgan asked us how our trip was. As soon as we said we were delayed in Atlanta, he told us that Atlanta always has problems.

That's powerful knowledge when a cabbie who specializes in picking up travellers in DC knows that Atlanta is a bad airport. It tells you that he's heard the story quite a bit.

20 January 2006

quick one from the road.

Highway 101 is a beautiful thing to drive between Ventura and Santa Barbara. It hugs the coast, offering up the daily views of surfers and the occasional dolphin pod. Of course, further out you get the Channel Islands and a some offshore oil rigs. I've been spending a good bit of time in a hospice in Santa Barbara, watching my wife feed her mother and trying to keep the children from knocking the walls over.

Yesterday and today however the major task was taking care of a closet and drawers full of clothes and shoes that her mother will never again wear. It's a terrible thing for a child to have to go through his or her parent's clothes in that situation. We packed them in the rental and dropped them off at a thrift store. My wife cried the whole drive. My mother-in-law eats and drinks, but barely looks at you when she's even awake. Most of her time she sleeps. She hasn't spoken for quite some time. Her face in fact lacks any sort of affect.

We are coming back to DC Monday the 23rd, but there's so much unresolved out here, and as difficult as it is to sit in room with a parent who can no longer respond to you, it's even more difficult to return to DC and try to go about your business knowing she's lying there.

12 January 2006

Update on Alito and CAP

So now CAP's leader (who must be a wonderful gentleman) has provided a few boxes of CAP materials and "Alito's name doesn't appear in any of the documents," according to Arlen Specter. Specter seems to think this absence is a good thing. The 2006 Alito himself "can't recall" joining the group, even though the 1985 Alito thought they were cool enough to list on a job application.

Perhaps more disturbing than Alito's lack of recall might be the question of falsifying a resume. If, as Specter so gleefully speculates, Alito may not have been a member of this group, then he lied about being a member on his White House job application. Falsifying credentials has been the downfall of many an applicant, whether for fire chief or football coach. I wonder if the same standard applies for Supreme Court justice.

Alito, FDR, and Me.

Alito will probably be confirmed. Supreme Court appointees may be the most lasting legacy a President can leave, although they aren't always what the nominating President might hope for. Rehnquist, for instance, influenced this country's direction for 30 years. Presidents at best get 8. Bush has managed one knock-out so far: Roberts as Chief Justice. Roberts could very well serve for 30+ years. Many Presidents have understood the power of the Supreme Court: FDR tried to pack the Court to ensure his New Deal legislation would be ruled constitutional (he was certainly inventive: the plan was to expand the Court from nine to potentially 13 members). That plan didn't work, but FDR eventually managed 8 court appointments due to death or retirement.

Again, proving that some legacies are best left unclaimed, it was FDR's reconstituted Court that ruled FDR's Executive Order 9066, calling for the internment of Japanese-Americans, constitutional.

Now we have Alito, the man who belonged to the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a group established in 1972 to fight against Princeton's then-recent policy of admitting women and minorities (when anyone talks about these eastern "liberal" schools, one might want to dig deeper and ask why it is that so many of them held retrograde admissions and social policies for so long). Not only did Alito belong to this conservative group, but also he listed it as a feature on his job application in 1985 for the Reagan administration.

1985, people.

As The Nation points out, in 1983 the organization's organ Prospect had published an article lamenting the inroads women and minorities had made:
"People nowadays just don't seem to know their place," fretted a 1983 Prospect essay titled "In Defense of Elitism." "Everywhere one turns blacks and hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they're black and hispanic, the physically handicapped are trying to gain equal representation in professional sports, and homosexuals are demanding that government vouchsafe them the right to bear children."

Wow. And Alito is listing this organization as a feather in his CAP, so to speak?

Alito of course claims he had no idea. Really, he is "shocked, shocked" that this conservative organization would be misogynist, racist, and homophobic. Let's take his word on that and then ask what sort of judgement a man must have to list something on his resume about which he knows absolutely nothing.

Certainly, these are dark days, but I step back and allow myself at least a small amount of faith in a progress narrative: conservatives have always lost in the end. It may take fifty years, it may take 100 years, but in the end the conservative bloc -- that group that defends upperclass white heterosexual male privilege -- loses (and by the way, underneath those signifiers lurks the end aim of conservatism: service to Capital).

10 January 2006

Build me a path from cradle to grave...

So right now my wife and daughter are en route to California. My son and I will be joining them on Friday. As adults we may be used to the jumble of our lives, being able to take trains, planes, or automobiles from this city to the next for a week, then back again, settling in for a day or two then hitting the road again. For children it's a difficult time. Young children like routine. They like to see the same things day after day. Stability in all things is beneficial to them: caregiver, mealtime, bedtime, home.

The strain of the past month and a half showed on my son's face this morning. As he ate breakfast he edged closer to me, until he was resting under my arm. He told me he missed Mommy. She'd been gone for about one hour. Since Thanksgiving, he's been in California and Pennsylvania as much as he's been in the District. It's hard to get back into a rhythm when you can't get settled.

But children are resilient. In the face of all this disruption, my son has begun to read. He started the week before winter break and has steadily recognized more words as the days have progressed. It would be nice if the only challenges children faced were the kind my son is facing: a temporary disruption due to family illness. So many children are left behind before they even get started: lack of access to schools and healthcare, lack of plain safe environments, the permanent disruption of living on the economic margins of society (whether in this country or another).

Last night we watched the PBS show Frontline: Country Boys. Set in eastern Kentucky, the filmmaker followed two boys for 3 years, from the age of 15 to 18. The challenges these two boys have faced far outweigh any obstacles I ever had to overcome in my life. They sometimes make the same dumb decisions that most teenagers make, but without the social safety net that many middle and upper class kids have to catch them; they also make the same incisive comments that many teenagers make, showing at times a deep understanding of their situations. This side of America rarely gets an airing: 90210, The OC, Laguna Beach, Saved by the Bell, etc. do not come near the lives that these boys live.

The series continues tonight and tomorrow night on PBS.

09 January 2006

Total Flow

I decided long ago that I hated news trucks. I think it really came to a head during the huge non-event that was the Starr investigation/Lewinsky-Clinton impeachment fiasco. The news trucks sat down on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Judiciary Square area for months, their telescoping antennae looming ridiculously out of glorified panel vans, apparently waiting for something like a fire to break out in the hearing room.

This pattern is on endless repeat, from the Waco/Branch Davidian standoff to the Cindy Sherman vigil outside the idiot king's "ranch." This morning I saw it in action at George Washington University Hospital, where the vans were circled like vultures around the last known whereabouts of Dick Cheney.

It has been said that Dick Cheney's heart problems actually demonstrate that he does indeed have a heart. For my part, I believe it a clever ruse to treat a nonexistent organ.

The trucks are apparently waiting for news of Cheney's death. Each "reporter" down there would love to be the first on air, a background shot of GWU hospital framing their prepped face and hair, intoning solemnly, firmly, but slightly breathlessly that "Vice President Richard Cheney has suffered heart failure." Seriously, anything must be better to them than sitting around for a few hours to find out that after a checkup, the doctors sent the VP home. My friends, that doesn't move you from beat reporter for local TV to beat reporter for network news. Next week these jokers could be covering dog walkers in Glover Park.

But these omnipresent news trucks have the effect of reducing even the most mundane to a spectacle. What in fact is the use of having wall to wall news vans sitting outside a courthouse for months on end to cover of all things court proceedings? You measure this stuff with a sundial, not a stopwatch. There are actually two reasons for going to the expense of dedicating a van and its crew to something as fast-paced as a glacier, and these reasons are inter-related:
  1. Background shots of the location make it more "real."
  2. The news must be seen as an event unfolding quickly, almost too quickly, to be captured: blink and you'll miss it. The news as spectacle.
I think I've written before that there aren't 24 hours worth of news in a day. Given that fact, news channels find themselves filling the time not with broader coverage or even with more in-depth coverage, but with well-paid opinion jockeys endlessly arguing over the same 30 second clip of a press conference, a clip that itself will be played on endless loop throughout the day.

One might think that 24 hours of coverage of some event (Katrina, Clinton impeachment, etc.) might lend itself to in-depth reporting, but actually quite the opposite occurs. The facts -- the event -- as Nietzsche says of the French Revolution becomes lost under its interpretations. We are left instead with an interminable ideological war of attrition, of which the relatively recently cancelled "Crossfire" is only the most visible example. As Jon Stewart correctly surmised (here I extrapolate freely from Stewart's rightly famous attack on the show), no one actually learns anything watching these "news" programs -- these shows aren't about informing the public but rather about performance. They are tightly scripted acts in which each participant knows his or her (well, mainly his) role.

It's a ceaseless play of so-called "issues" of the day, which are really nothing more than the latest distraction from our lives: the runaway bride, Laci Peterson, Brad and Angelina, Merry Christmas v. Happy Holidays...Even the "serious" news can't be covered seriously and in fact is conveyed with the same even tones as the news above: Bush's spying, Cheney's heart ailments, Jack Abramoff's purchasing of Congress. More time on the airwaves will be spent with right-wing zealots espousing the themes of "everyone's corrupt" and "the Democrats are making this a political issue" than will be spent investigating and exposing the Representatives and Senators that Mr. Abramoff bought.

And so it goes.

06 January 2006

Taking extra work to the office.

These last two days have been unofficial "take your daughter to work days" and it's been interesting trying to navigate my various duties with a 9 month old child. On most days, I don't really have an excuse for not doing anything. Luckily, she provides a great excuse for not getting anything done.

Yesterday I brought a bunch of her toys and a big blanket for her to sit on. She wasn't very happy. Today I brought the same things, but supplemented with an empty cookie tin in the office. She loves it. That and small plastic cups.

Still, it's almost a guarantee that among all of the "she's so cute" comments, you will get at least one jokester who makes a remark about "[insert occupation] getting younger all the time." Sometimes they're funny and sometimes they're worn out. We recycle humor all the time, from poop jokes to secret tapings. It's all in the twist.

Note for the future: staplers are not good toys. Neither are staple removers. Also, turn off paper shredder.

05 January 2006

ad infinitum

If I never see another ad featuring some extra from Deliverance "singing" along to an unrecognizable ringtone version of the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, I will be a happy man.

04 January 2006

The Tao of Football

I'm exhausted from watching the Orange Bowl. By the end of the game, I was shaking and my shoulders were tensed enough to curl me over. PSU football is about the only game that gets me in this twist. Of course, if they'd run away with it as it looked like they'd do early on, I would have been fine. It's just that nail-biting, expletive-inducing, shiver-generating close game that causes my body so much stress damage. Note to self: reread Tao te Ching.

FSU played very well -- they were clearly more focused and intense. After the first quarter, Penn State's offense played pretty much like they were afraid of mistakes, rather than making plays.

I am not sure how well Bowden and Paterno actually know one another. Maybe very well. Who knows. I do know this: Paterno and Bowden do not share the same values, at least not deeply. Maybe they're both politically reactionary -- although the Paterno Professor at Penn State is Michael Berube, hardly a conservative, and Paterno has given greatly to the library system (even having a wing named after him). FSU consistently hits late, hits out of bounds, and in general takes cheap shots. That's in addition to the trash-talking poor sportsmanship on the field. When an attitude is systemic, look to the leadership: such behavior is either taught or condoned.

It is best to do your work and then withdraw, or so says Lao Tzu.

03 January 2006

A few loose ends from last year...

I won't bore everyone with details of my New Year's Eve celebration (seriously: it's boring), but I will say that this year it included watching Elvis Costello on Austin City Limits. I don't know. After three and a half days of MLA saturation, I was exhausted. The MLA always reminds me that I actually like academia. I like the idea that you can research discursive strategies of Victorian dress styles mentioned in the Brontes and at least three other people will sit in a room to listen to your analysis.

Academia has the problems that plague the rest of the world population: a fair number of pompous assholes, careerist opportunists, impotent handwringing, and incompetent individuals. However, it also has committed individuals and brilliant analysts and provides hope that one day I too can be paid to read books and talk about them (and not in some glib way like a talk show host - who is generally paid to read a staffer's gloss of the book and pretend he/she has read it).

Speaking of books, the final day of the MLA was a frenzied search for bargain books, as publishers strove to unload all their floor samples so they wouldn't have to box them up and take them home with them. I found out that the hotel charged $90 for a hotel staffer to move a box of books from the exhibit hall to the shipping area. What a racket. I'm willing to bet the hotel staffer got to see about $2.00 of that charge. I was holding out for Grove to drop their prices to $2 bucks a book, but they stood firm at $3, so I only bought one: two novels in one binding by Robbe-Grillet. I did manage to snap up two texts from the Continuum series "Live Theory" for $5 bucks each.

For the first time at the MLA I saw the "Ayn Rand Institute" hawking their cult leader's relatively sparse output: The Fountainhead, Anthem, Atlas Shrugged. The new editions have beautiful, simple covers. However, that doesn't change the fact that inside those new covers the text remains pure shit. In a deliciously ironic moment, it appeared to me on Friday that the Randians were giving away (yes! for FREE as in "Free Lunch") stacks of the books. Even more delicious was that no one was taking them ("no one" meaning that huge stacks remained at the end). I suppose next year I'll see the Scientologists there hawking Dianetics.

Next year the MLA is in Philly. With any luck (OK, if you have to go to Philly already you're out of luck), I'll be there "on the market" as they say.