Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hurricane Preparation, Boston-Style

In North Carolina, where I used to live, during the days before a hurrican, you made sure your weather radio worked, bought water, batteries, non-perishable foods and (depending upon your inclinations) bourbon.

Yesterday I went to the nearest grocery store. The shelves were fully stocked with bread and bottled water. They had plenty of batteries.

I did notice, however, that the store had run out of low-fat yogurt.

Hurricane Preparation,

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quote of the Week

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.
--Leo Tolstoy

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"It Was A Dark and Stormy Night"

I don't know how I missed this, but the results of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Contest were announced almost a month ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the BLC, it's a contest sponsored by the San Jose State University English Department. Competitors strive to write the worst conceivable opening sentence for a novel--a tribute to the contest's eponym, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). Bulwer-Lytton was quite an accomplished man--the portrait at left was painted when he was Britain's Secretary of State for the Colonies, in which post he oversaw the development of infrastructure in the Crown Colony of British Columbia. He also played a minor role in the career of Charles Dickens, persuading him to change the ending of Great Expectations to something more upbeat than the original.

But sadly (or not, depending on your point of view) it's not Canadian bridges or Pip and Estella's connubial bliss that he's known for. Bulwer-Lytton is known for really bad writing. In addition to making sure Canadians had roads and bridges and telling Dickens how to end his novels, he also wrote novels of his own. One of them, Paul Clifford, begins:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Many of you probably recognize the first clause of that sentence as the opening for many of Snoopy's forays into fiction. But I digress. Without further ado, the winners of the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton contest:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler--who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne--or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.

You can read the others here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Week in Food: The One-Day Late Edition

Okay, so it's not really food, but this history of vodka in the U.S. is a great read.

All you wanted to know about tomatoes.

E. coli: it's what's for dinner.

To this resident of Jackson, Mississippi, not all pizzas are create equal.

Food prices and the Arab Spring: the shape of things to come.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't Rush into This

For several days now an online petition has been making the rounds urging the Sesame Workshop to let everyone's favorite muppet odd couple, Ernie and Bert, tie the knot.

Frankly, I think this is ill-advised. The wedding would be a horror show. Think about it: Cookie Monster would devour the wedding cake if he couldn't find any cookies (the guy's got an obvious eating disorder). When the minister says, "If any here present know any reason why these two should not be wed, let him speak now or forever hold his peace..." do you really think Oscar the Grouch is going to keep his mouth shut? There's also a rumor Ernie and Bert would make Gover the ring bearer. Can you imagine? He would either be in one of his totally manic phases, twitching or running down the aisle or he would trip and fall on his face. The guy's completely spastic. And then Count von Count with his out-of-control compulsion would start counting the guests out loud.

But let's look beyond the fiasco-waiting-to-happen that would be their wedding. These two have been sleeping in separate beds for forty years. Something is wrong with that relationship that a wedding can't fix.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Southern Dispatch

As a native Southerner, I sometimes point out to friends from other parts of the country that racism and idiocy are alive and well in throughout the USA (e.g., the New York Republican congressional candidate who wrote an essay denouncing interracial relationships), and that the South is a far cry from what it used to be (for example, a lesbian Latina is sheriff of Dallas County, Texas).

But reading the news from down South, I've been forced to admit that during this growing season the most popular crop seems to be craziness. Last Saturday Texas governor Rick Perry held his "national day of prayer" in Houston. The avowed goal was to invoke God's help for America, which I imagine will do about as much for the economy as a planned prayer walk on Aug. 21 will do for test scores in Jacksonville, FL public schools. Most pundits speculate his prayer rally is a bid to win over the evangelical base prior to announcing a presidential run. I find it odd that Perry would want to be president of a nation he has previously been in favor of dismantling. Nevertheless, he mightily impressed fundamentalists nationwide. One attendee said, "I feel that God moved him to do this." Another said, "He showed that he's sensitive to the Lord's leading." And Perry brought a choice bunch to Houston to bolster his evangelical credentials: members of the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Mississippi-based band of lunatics political organization that never seems to have grasped the principal of separation of church and state.

Among Rick Perry's other partners in godliness: a self-proclaimed 'apostle' who thinks the Statue of Liberty is a pagan idol, and a former seminary faculty member who thinks this year's earthquake in Japan was caused by the emperor having sex with a sun goddess.

I was pleased that some young Texans showed up to protest Perry's open-air madhouse, but I fear they were outnumbered by the true believers.

In other news, I found this depressing pie chart that shows how much we owe the recent stalemate in Congress and the resulting Faustian bargain to lunatics from the South. The Tea Party likes to present itself as a national movement, but here's a breakdown of members of the Tea Party Caucus by where they come from:

Why do I suddenly feel like it's 1832 all over again?

Meanwhile, in Missouri—one of the quaintly termed "border states" during the Late Unpleasantness (my favorite name for the Civil War), a school board has seen fit to remove two books from the school library and reading assignments. One of the titles, "Slaughterhouse Five," is a perennial target of censors. Interestingly, many object to the book for its profanity and not for its central event, the 1945 fire bombing of Dresden by Allied forces.

Note for visitors to the South: swearing is bad, killing is okay. And some young people in Mississippi have taken that message to heart.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Week in Food

Georgia scared away its illegal aliens. Now they're wondering who's going to harvest the crops....

Happy 185th, Union Oyster House.

Forget about MOMA and the Statue of Liberty: here's the real reason to tour New York City.

No, this isn't what they have in mind when they say "fusion cuisine."


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Prison of Regionalism

My good friend over at A Brilliant Shade of Red alerted me to an online treasure for lovers of Southern literature: an audio archive of William Faulkner's talks to faculty and students at the University of Virginia in 1957. I had never actually heard his voice before. I know it sounds silly but I experienced a slight thrill as I heard Faulkner himself tell students how to spell "Yoknapatawpha" or answer questions about determinism in his fiction. But it was incredibly maddening and disappointing to hear him respond to questions about integration in the aftermath of Brown vs. The Board of Education. He essentially said that the court ruling should not be enforced:

I think that the Southerner, the—the provincial backwoods Southerner, will have to be let alone because he is—he is ignorant, he is proud, and he is—is limited to where he will let nobody tell him what he must do. It's a—a childish sort of recalcitrance, that anyone—when he is told that he must do something, he will do the opposite just to show them. He knows that he is—is wrong, that he has a condition which must be changed, and he has been trying to change it by his own methods. He's too slow about it. He should've known that this Supreme Court decision would be made. There was a—a lawyer in my town that told people fifteen years ago that sooner or later the Supreme Court would have to say that, but nobody believed him. They were—in their—their slow way, they were doing things to improve the Negro's condition. When the Supreme Court decision came out saying they must do it now, people that—that were working in their slow way toward it, took the other side. They say that the government shall not tell us what we will do, can do, must do, in our own country, with our own people, with our own culture and system.

Translation: "Yes, the South is wrong in this. Yes, segregation has to end, and we were trying to do it but we were too slow. The Supreme Court decision was inevitable. But the Supreme Court really screwed things up because it triggered Southern defensiveness so that now even the Southerners who were trying to end segregation are standing shoulder to shoulder with the rednecks against those interferin' Yankees. "

As for his contention that Southern whites were dismantling Jim Crow on their own, I know of nothing in the historical record that supports that other than the token admission of three black students to the University of Arkansas in 1948: two black men to the law school and one black woman to the medical school.

The notion that the South could and should handle the racial problem on its own is one of the themes of his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, which you could call the To Kill a Mockingbird of Faulkner's works. Lucas Beauchamp, a black man, is falsely accused of murdering a white man. He is acquitted, largely thanks to the efforts of two teenagers, one white and one black, who set out to prove Beauchamp's innocence. The mouthpiece for Faulkner's values in the novel is the uncle of the white teenager and Beauchamp's attorney, a lawyer named Gavin Stevens. Gavin talks to his nephew about what he calls Lucas' "shameful condition" (being regarded as inferior by whites and his subordinate legal status) and the sense of impending pressure from the rest of the country to accord full civil rights to Southern blacks (in 1948 an African-American had already sued the University of Oklahoma for admission; the novel was also published in the year of Harry Truman's executive order declaring an end to racial discrimination in the armed forces). Stevens says, in effect, "We [white Southerners] need to do this ourselves because we owe them [black people]." But then Stevens says, "if Lucas' equality is to be anything other than its own prisoner inside an impregnable barricade of the direct heirs of the victory of 1861-1865, which probably did more than even John Brown to stalemate Lucas' freedom..."

Faulkner seems to be blaming slow progress in according full equality to blacks on efforts to change the condition of African-Americans by force. The Civil War, court rulings, all that does is impede black progress. What will work is for the right sort of Southern gentleman to come 'round and Do the Right Thing.

Faulkner's attitudes about civil rights illustrate the insidiousness of the Southern white persecution complex: it was capable of infecting one of the greatest literary minds of the past century, who peopled his fiction with strong and complex black characters, and who realistically and devastatingly portrayed the strength and destructiveness of racism in Southern life. And yet, once it stopped being him who was criticizing the South, but "outsiders," it was a completely different matter.

His attitude also reflects one of the more absurd strains of American conservative thought: that enforcing something necessary and just by legislation or court ruling is an infringement on our freedoms (during the Civil Rights era, white Southerners often declared their fight against the Civil Rights Movement as a defense of their rights).

Time and again during the effort to pass health care reform, I heard various conservative objections such as, there are doctors who will cut you a break on your bills, or people who are really hurt can go to the emergency room.

Well, just as hoping that a Gavin Stevens or an Atticus Finch will step up and save you from the noose isn't a substitute for having actual legal rights, hoping a doctor will cut you a break isn't the same as confidence that being sick won't bankrupt you, and knowing you can go to the emergency room when you're hurt isn't the same as being able to get regular exams that can detect an illness before it gets serious. Sometimes we just need laws to make sure justice is done.

And I will never understand why some people don't get that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Technology and Our So-Called Shrinking World

Recently my sister-in-law in Mississippi forwarded me and several other relatives an "Open Letter to President Obama" by a former VP of Proctor & Gamble. It included several of the Linkutterly wrong and paranoid claims about Obama common among people who watch Fox News or post to Free Republic: that Obama is "scary" because he wants to turn the U.S. into a "European style country where the government dominates instead of the private sector," that Obama is scary because "culturally" he is "not an American," that it's scary that the source of his wealth and the money that paid for his Ivy League education is mysterious, that Obama is scary because he refuses to "consider opposing points of view."

And yes, the letter actually is by a former Proctor & Gamble executive.

I've been getting wrong-headed, delusional email forwards from family members for years. And yet one simple phrase struck me: the auto-generated text that accompanied my sister-in-law's one comment "He scares me too:"

"Sent from my iPhone."

I realize that nothing I am about to say is at all original, but that simple phrase "Sent from my iPhone," made me realize anew one of the paradoxes of our times: we are theoretically more connected than ever before, theoretically the world is a smaller place than ever, and yet people are growing more isolated. In the age of the Web, smartphones, and social media, members of my family down South (and people throughout Red America) are as culturally isolated from someone living in Boston or the Bay Area as they would have been in 1948.

Yet at one time technology did break down barriers of culture and distance. Television was critical to winning national support for the Civil Rights Movement. And sometimes TV made small differences on the individual level. An on-line acquaintance told me that interviews with gay people on the talk show Open End in the late fifties and early sixties humanized homosexuality for her, leading her to question the prejudice she had been brought up with. My oldest sibling told me that seeing the TV show I Spy when she was twelve years old in Mississippi (this was in 1965) made her question all of her assumptions about race. For those of you who don't know the show, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby played U.S. government secret agents. They were partners. My sister told me it was the first time she had seen any portrayal of a relationship between a black person and a white person in which they were equals. After some initial confusion, she accepted it. She realized that after the initial surprise, there was nothing about it that was uncomfortable for her or in any way wrong. It just seemed natural. I don't doubt that for many people major changes in how they view the world have similarly small beginnings.

I'm not sure how often that can happen anymore. I would like to think that there are 12-year old kids with homophobic parents who watch Glee and find themselves questioning their parents' prejudices simply because of Kurt. I am hoping there are small white kids who will never share their parents' racism in part because they spent some of their earliest years seeing a black president on TV.

But what I see more often as a result of communications technology is isolation, people reinforcing each other in their preconceived notions. I read Salon and DailyKos. My sister-in-law watches Fox News and reads email forwards from the sort of people who post to Free Republic and Redstate. As I've probably written here before, in the early seventies everyone watched Walter Cronkite. When Walter Cronkite declared the Vietnam War a disaster, LBJ famously said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."

We don't have a Walter Cronkite anymore, someone everyone trusts. For news on Iraq and Afghanistan, I and my friends will read Juan Cole or listen to NPR. People like my sister-in-law will watch Fox News. There's no common reality anymore.

That's what I find scary.

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