To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Where we moved from

Where we are now

I happened to look at Madison, WI today ... you know I turned down that job last November ... at 10:30 AM our time it was -5°F.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Here is an article about Professor Donald Hindley of Brandeis, who is being punished for something he said in the classroom: Shhh! Free speech crackdown on campus.

Brandeis University, named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (a famous champion of free speech), just insisted on sensitivity training and threatened to fire a professor after one student - maybe two or three - complained about the professor’s speech. In a Latin American politics class, professor Donald Hindley, 74, who’s taught at Brandeis for nearly 50 years, used a word he’s used many times - “wetback” - to explain the nastiness aimed at Mexican immigrants who entered the United States over the Rio Grande.

The student(s) complained. Anonymously.

The administration launched an investigation into his “discriminatory” remarks, never telling Hindley what those remarks were. In one statement provost Mary Kraus praised the “courage” of the anonymous student(s) “to speak up against discrimination.” She also said three students suffered “significant emotional trauma” as a result of hearing the remarks.

FIRE took up his case, which may be why he wasn't terminated outright.

But here's a bit more about what he actually said:

At least one complaint appears to have stemmed from Hindley's reference to the term "wetbacks," a derogatory expression used to describe illegal immigrants who have crossed the Mexican border. Hindley defended his discussion of the term, saying he had used it to describe racism of a certain historical period."Throughout American history, he said, 'When Mexicans come north as illegal immigrants, we call them wetbacks.'"

Prof penalized for alleged racist remarks

Now, I don't think any reasonable person would think that HE was calling illegal immigrants "wetbacks" in that sentence. But may I point out two things: In his scolding disapproval of American racism he did say "we", which means he is taking on corporate guilt in the use of that term; and he played into the victimization politics that is the source of complaints like the one made against him. So perhaps it's not surprising that those complaints were made.

I remember that when I was a little girl I heard the word "wetback" and I asked my dad about it. He responded that it's a rude term used about Mexicans, assuming that they came into the country illegally by swimming the Rio Grande. I learned (a) who the word is used to refer to, (b) the etymology of it, and (c) not to use it. Had Prof. Hindley responded to questions about the term in this straightforward and objective manner, I doubt anybody would have batted an eyelash.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tsiporah says she's having trouble commenting. I'm going to turn off the word verification. I'll have to turn it back on if I get comment spam but maybe the bots will take a while to find me.

Anyway, so Tsiporah thought "The Lady's Maid's Bell" had an abrupt ending and she wasn't sure what happened. I emailed this to her:

Yes, "The Lady's Maid's Bell" did have an abrupt ending. I didn't get it right away. I made R and F read it, and my sister, sister-in-law and mother, so we could all discuss what happened.

I asked R why Mrs. Brympton didn't want to ring the bell to call Hartley and he had to explain that to me - whenever she rang that bell, Emma Saxon answered. Much as she liked Emma, she really didn't want to see her ghost. That's why all the other maids had left, of course.

Emma wanted Hartley to warn Mr. Ranford not to come to the house, but she couldn't explain to Hartley what she wanted.

My sister had to explain this part to me:

At the end, Mr. Ranford had come through the garden to visit Mrs. Brympton secretly at night. Were they having a physical affair? Don't know - Hartley was surprised to see that Mrs. Brympton was still clothed b/c she thought she'd gone to bed. Looks like if it was an actual affair she'd have had some of her clothes off! Brympton had smelled a rat and only pretended to leave, and had doubled back to the house to catch his wife with Ranford. Emma stopped him at the door of the dressing room to give Ranford time to split. She must have cared about Ranford b/c he cared about Mrs. Brympton. Unfortunately, it was all too much for poor Mrs. Brympton's heart.

Ranford limped at the funeral b/c he hurt his foot or ankle jumping out the window. Brympton knew but he couldn't prove it.

So it's kind of a thriller in a dark, subdued way.

One thing that "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and "To Build a Fire" have in common is a driving plot that pulls you along. You know something is going to happen. They both set up an atmosphere - in TLMB it's the gloomy house and the dripping woods, in "Fire" it's the extreme cold.

Here's another Wharton story but it's very different.


It's about some women who are trying to be cultured; they're trying too hard and they don't have a clue, and the free spirit among them tries to rescue them but they're too dull to see it. It's pretty funny, and it's one of my favorites.

Friday, January 25, 2008

If you've wondered about the Irish/Gaelic roots of bluegrass music, wonder no more.

This is awesome.

You know your cat is an alley cat when ...

... she eats unbuttered cornbread. With enthusiasm.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I don't understand the complaints from presidential candidates and their campaigners, about press and other candidates being ugly to them.

Have they not noticed how Pres. Bush has spent the last 7 years being called everything but a child of God? Do they truly think he called all that down on himself? I'm not talking about criticism of specific policies - I'm talking about people blaming him for Hurricane Katrina and wishing he'd choked to death on that pretzel, which I'd forgotten about till I saw that lovely sentiment expressed just recently.

News flash - whoever's in the WH is going to get it. Don't know why that is, and I wish it weren't that way.

But since it is, I think the candidates ought to view this time as a kind of boot camp. See what you're made of. See if it's more than you want to deal with - unlike the military, you can drop it now if you don't like it. If unfair criticism is keeping you up at night, do yourself and us a big favor and just stay on the porch. If you stay in, for pete's sake, pull your socks up and quit complaining about "he said X about me" and so forth. If you win the presidency - you ain't seen nothing yet. To act like you think what's going on now is egregious or unexpected makes you look like a naive fool.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

This is hilarious.

I have heard these things come out of my mouth:

"Everybody - out of kitchen! People - cats - out!"


"How come I am standing here washing ice cream bowls when I have not had any ice cream?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I think sometimes about how people change, individually, and how society changes. Human nature doesn't change, does it? But things that are socially acceptable become less so, or more so, over time. Are we getting better? Is it better that we don't (usually) openly make fun of mentally retarded people, or hide them away in shame? Oh yes. On the other hand, parents of children with Down syndrome report being asked by complete strangers why they didn't abort them, as though they had a duty to do so. That's not better.

And one has to ask what society is, anyway. I tend to think we each have our own society: people we hang with, in real life or on the net, people whose opinions we read in the newspaper or whose shows we watch on TV. So whether violent video games, for instance, affect society probably depends on whose society we're talking about. Unless I am the victim of a violent criminal who took his inspiration from those games, they don't affect my society at all. Except insofar as I care about people I don't have dealings with, as I am supposed to do, and fret about their societies.

Anyway, one of the things I think about is the changing acceptability of words. The n-word comes to mind, of course. There is a book I really like: Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. One of the reasons I like her work is that she draws her characters so finely, and includes such detail in her stories, that you can pick up all kind of social nuances that have disappeared since her day. (An example is in "The Lady's Maid's Bell", which is one of the stories I linked to in my previous post. The exchange between Hartley, the lady's maid who narrates the story, and Mrs. Railton, neatly illustrates how each of these women know their "place", yet they appear to like each other. They are totally comfortable with social distinctions we don't have now.)

So in Twilight Sleep there is a fairly tragic character in Nona, Pauline's daughter. Nona at 19 is the conscience of the book. She's never had any real spiritual guidance from her mother, although her mother would argue that. She's left Nona to develop her own spiritual/ethical compass as best she can, and Nona has done pretty well; better perhaps than her mother would like. For instance, Nona doesn't see the social distinctions the way Pauline does. Pauline's secretary, Maisie, has a mother who develops cancer. Pauline sees this as an inconvenience for herself, although she tries to push this down, and generously offers to pay for all of Maisie's mother's care. But it's Nona who goes to the hospital and actually sits with Maisie, and holds her hand, while her mother has surgery. Pauline worries that Nona is just a little too good, really. Here:

Pauline turned a tender smile on her daughter. "It's so like you, Nona, to want to be with Maisie for the operation - so fine, dear."

Voice and smile were full of praise; yet behind the praise (Nona also knew) lurked the unformulated apprehension: "All this running after sick people and unhappy people - is it going to turn into a vocation?" Nothing could have been more distasteful to Mrs. Manford than the idea that her only daughter should be not only good, but merely good: like poor Agnes Heuston, say ... Nona could hear her mother murmuring, "I can't imagine where on earth she got it from," as if alluding to some physical defect unaccountable in the offspring of two superbly sound progenitors.

You see here that besides being empathetic with Maisie, Nona has more insight into Pauline's "unformulated apprehension" than even Pauline does.

Yet here is Nona out on a date: "Isn't there a rather good little Italian restaurant somewhere near here? And afterward there's that n--- dancing at the Housetop."

How jarring that is. One thinks that when this book was brought back into print they could have changed that line: "afterward there's jazz at the Housetop" for instance. Because if Nona were a girl of today she would bite her tongue off before she'd say that word. On the other hand, it's interesting to see how the corporate view of what is or is not acceptable changes.

Let me pause and say that of course one realizes this is fiction. At the same time, Nona is a very important character in the book, and her depiction has internal consistency throughout. If it had ever been brought to her attention that the n-word is rude and hurtful she would not have said it. Either it would not have been brought to her attention (very possible) or it simply was not the derogatory term then that it is now.

So the minor issue here is that one reads these books and is jarred by this kind of thing - Twilight Sleep also includes a much more problematic outburst of anti-Semitism by a less sympathetic character - and wonders whether the text should really be left as it is, which causes one to hesitate before recommending it to people it might upset.

The other issue, and the reason why these books should probably be left as they are, is that in many cases you kind of have to judge people and events by the standards of the day. Not every case, of course. Major things like murder and rape have always been wrong. And individuals or (hopefully) small groups always have and always will find ways to rationalize doing what they want to do, even when they know they're wrong. Use of words, though, don't you have to take that in context? There was a school somewhere that I read about a few weeks ago, that wasn't allowed to put on a play based on Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" because originally in England (never here) it was published as "Ten Little N---s". That was in 1932, as I recall. The story has nothing about black people in it. Isn't that a bit much?

Anyway, so acceptable use of words changes. Acceptable attitudes change - in "The Lady's Maid's Bell", Mrs. Railton notes that because Hartley can read aloud, she is educated above her station. I don't believe anyone would let that pass their lips today, but Hartley thinks nothing of it.

And we are reminded that well-meaning people have done things in the past that we reject now. The fact that they are now rejected doesn't necessarily mean that they were bad. The rejection itself may be a passing fad. Going back to mentally retarded people - look at the controversy over mainstreaming. Those children used to be excluded from regular classrooms. Then there was a push to mainstream absolutely all of them, because segregating them is BAD. But every now and then you run across the parent of a child with a severe mental handicap, or a teacher who has mainstreamed kids in her classroom, who question the wisdom of mainstreaming every single kid, or assert outright that some of them should not be mainstreamed. Segregating schools by race used to be wrong and bad, but we find Afro-centric schools springing up in places where the grownups are desperate to find some way of reaching the next generation of black kids. So I think it's useful to look at these things and separate out the things we have let go of, or need to let go of, because they're wrong; and things that we let go of that we need to bring back, like the idea that folks should get married before they start having kids, like they used to do.

When F was a little girl I gave her Little House books and Louisa May Alcott books to read along with her contemporary fiction. I wasn't trying to prepare her for life in the 19th century. I simply wanted her to have some perspective, to see that pop culture of today isn't all there is or has ever been, and to see that ideas like temperance and sexual morality didn't just spring up overnight among the people on the fringes of society. One of the ways I tried to be a bit proactive about helping her develop her own spiritual/ethical compass. Mine's still developing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Been worthless today. Well, I made soup for a few future meals. I told R about 10:30 this morning, in some dismay, that I wasn't dressed yet; how trifling. But as he pointed out, it's Saturday and I've had a long week.

F went back to school Friday, so we're back to the empty nest.

I've been thinking about the relevance of literature to life in general, partly because of a conversation on Erin O'Connor's blog. At some point before my boss left town to do his cancer treatment, he and I and one of the other managers were talking and I made reference to Jack London's "To Build a Fire". They both gave me blank looks. No idea what I was talking about. "I am illiterate", my boss said. At home that evening I found the story online and emailed the link to them. My boss read it and passed the link along to his true-love so she could read it too. The other manager said, "I read that story you sent - that was awesome!" Y'all, there's an entire world of literature out there.

What's relevant about it? Well, for one thing, there's this:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

Well, this is a very philosophical paragraph building you up to appreciate the main theme (HUBRIS, what a surprise), but it's true that being without imagination can cause people to do stupid things. I caught one of the operators in the plant without his eye protection and told him some very grim and dire things that I have unfortunately witnessed. And that he is very young, and should actually take pains above and beyond following the rules to protect himself b/c if something happened he would have the rest of his life to be disabled and to regret his casual attitude toward his PPE. What would happen, I asked, if he were on the catwalk over the tanks, and something splashed into his eyes? Suddenly blind, in a lot of pain, probably no one close enough to hear him cry out - how will he find the stairs and get himself down, and get to the eyewash station? These were new thoughts. He's had his hardhat and his eye protection on every time I've seen him since then. (Well, besides that, I told his boss and he was written up. Hey, if I didn't and he left off his PPE and got hurt, I could be liable.)

Some time back I emailed my mother, sister, and sister-in-law about this short story. We had a little discussion about it. I told my SIL that we probably ought to share stories and talk about them every now and then, just for culture's sake. "Oh, culture me!" she said. I thought we could call it the "Culture Me Reading Club". But we never did.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

I heard a new one today.

"Never seen nothin' like it. I been through two hog callin's and a county fair, and I ain't NEVER seen nothin' like it."

: )

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I didn't write about my Pennsylvania adventure. F says that my blog is my memoirs (are my memoirs?) and if that's the case I'm not updating as much as I should.

I went to PA on Dec 21 and came back on the 23rd. The company that was going to buy the plant where I work has a plant there. They are starting to outfit a small laboratory but they have no employees with any kind of lab experience. Back when we looked like being bought, I had agreed to go up there when they got their gas chromatograph in so I could train them on it. Actually, chromatography done right takes quite a bit of training, but a day and a half spent on training to do just one thing on a GC certainly beats nothing. By the time my trip rolled around it was clear that the sale was off but I went anyway. The people were very nice and very appreciative of what I was doing for them. I was a bit trepidatious of traveling that close to Christmas, after several people told me I should be, but I had no trouble.

I happened to have some experience with the off-brand GC that they bought, and had had extensive conversations with the manufacturers. The method that they sell this thing for requires cool on-column injections. More expensive GCs have inlets with programmable temperatures so that during the run the high-boilers get onto the column and out of the injection port. Also, more expensive GCs can be set up to have constant flow, rather than constant pressure. This one comes with constant pressure as the default but you can adapt it so that the pressure is programmable, and I'd done that before back in Memphis when my former employer had one of these creatures. The advantage of constant flow is that the high-boilers get pushed off the column with every run, even though they still pile up in the injection port. So one of the things we did in PA was to set up their GC for programmable pressure, and I fixed their run program to use that. And we installed a guard column - I'd given them a list of things to have on hand when I got there - and discussed how to tell when the inlet was contaminated and how to do the front-end maintenance. But upon getting the calibration done I had to call the manufacturers and talk to one of the people I'd dealt with before. He remembered me very well and upon finding out what I was doing, asked if I am working full-time. They are located in California and could really use an installer/trainer on the East Coast. Probably couldn't keep me busy full-time right now but if my situation changes I am to call them. You know, I'd probably like that now that I don't have a small child at home.

And yesterday we took F shopping. This town has a very nice mall. She needed a coat, and asked about getting a pea coat. Apparently this is the thing right now - who knew? But it's cool because pea coats are very practical. Classic design that won't look dated next year. We looked in several of the stores with no dice, but this mall has a Burlington Coat Factory and there we had success. We used to shop at the BCF in Memphis. This one is a lot nicer. She had her choice of pea coats to pick from, and ended up with a very nice one, stadium length, not too fussy or detailed. It's simple enough to go with dressy outfits but will be fine with jeans.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Tsiporah is turning 30. She has not met some of the goals she set for herself.

I wrote about setting S.M.A.R.T. goals here.

But I also think about a semi-autobiographical book I read once, that was set in a small town in Mississippi during the Depression. The family in the story, parents and two boys, were dirt-poor. The mom had two standards that she set for herself: She had to give her family biscuits, not cornbread, for breakfast each morning, and she had to iron their shirts and overalls before they wore them. (Ironing was done with metal flatirons that you heated on the stove, of course.) As long as she could do these things she felt that she could hold up her head. I think it was smart of this woman to attach her self-esteem to these things, which were mostly in her control, rather than to set her sights on things she couldn't have or do. And naturally, she was civilized in other ways: her sons had to be polite and respectful and use proper English, and so forth.

I don't know how possible it is to re-wire one's inner promptings. I am naturally a glass-half-full kind of person. I get down in the dumps every now and then but my spirit usually bobs back up like a piece of cork. Our income is a bit unsettled right now, although my job looks to be OK for the foreseeable future, i.e. the next few months at least. But every night that I lie down in my own bed, with food in my belly, my family OK, the cats OK, the bills paid, I think it was a good day. And we deliberately plan fun things to do, to make good memories and have something to talk about besides work and other grim stuff.

Anyway, happy birthday, Tsiporah. I think you'll look back on this time in your life and see that it was a time of personal growth and that you really were making progress toward your goals; slower than you would like, maybe, but unslacking and undeterred. And I hope you have lots of silly, happy memories of moments with your son and your friends.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy 2008, everybody.

2007 brought some real changes to our family. We never would have guessed, at the beginning of 2007, that we would pull up stakes and move to Florida. Very glad we did. Hope we can stay. I wonder what and where I'll be posting a year from now.