Monday, March 31, 2008
Some good books.
Just finished Under a Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown, which I heard of here. Oh man. Remember when you read Outlaw Sea, like I told you, and you stayed up late into the night because you couldn’t put down the chapter about the ferry sinking? That’s what this whole book is like. I cried for those moms fleeing with their babies.
I also really liked Prayer for a City, by Buzz Bissinger. I vaguely think I read Friday Night Lights, too, on a flight to Hawaii, but it was obviously the wonky book about Ed Rendell and his efforts in Philadelphia that I remember.
Oh! If you want to understand California ag, which obviously you do, you should read The King of California: J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman. Super good, a very hard look at the farms in the Tule Lake bed that are bigger than some states. Good technical stuff on cotton, a couple generations of flamboyant doers and a look at very modern ag. Thanks for lending me that, Teddy. Are you going to want it back?
American ground, unbuilding the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche was good, but very obviously three long articles stitched together. That’s cool, though. I’ll read anything he writes. In fact, I think I have. He lives in Davis. I should stalk him.
The Nine Nations of North America, by Joel Garreau. Good recommendation, Ari, better than Redemption : the last battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann, which was a good explanation of how the Reconstruction went tragically wrong but not, like, a fun story. Garreau plays fast and free with generalizations about regions of American and big trends. He’s a catchy writer, too. He’s practically a blogger!
The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street over California's Ancient Redwoods, by David Harris. Another sad book, about the bad guys winning in a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber. You see the same bad guys at the thick of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, so it offers a new angle on hating those fuckers. A very good story, well-enough written.
If you think you would like a book about freight transportation (trucking/container ships/trains) by John McPhee, then you would like Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. Not so much plot, but lots of interesting detail and characters.
Oh! Thanks, Kwindla, for Radio Free Dixie, which was itself a good read, but combined with Blood Done Sign My Name (both by Timothy Tyson) and Redemption have left me struggling to remember that there must be some good in the American South, that I can't happen to see at the moment but must exist.
I had mixed feelings about The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg. I liked Smilla's Sense of Snow a good deal, but thought it went weird in the end when it stopped being about understanding snow and started being a thriller. That was kinda how all of Quiet Girl was. Neat premise, that the guy can hear everything, and I expected to like it more seeing as how I am so disproportionately auditory. But it was kinda a thriller the whole way, with wrongdoing I couldn't exactly figure out and action I didn't really believe. But I read it all smoothly and think I liked it more than not reading a book. So maybe you'll like it too.
Light reads/young adult:
A couple good series:
I very much enjoyed Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty series, in which a contemporary werewolf has adventures and doesn’t leave out the sex. I found these through Prof. Shalizi’s booklists. I would now trust his tastes, except he recommended the Parker series of olde Japan mysteries which were utterly trite except for the annoying exoticism of Japanese honor rituals, which is a different kind of trite, I guess. Don’t read those.
I quite liked Jennifer Lynn Barnes' series about how it, like, totally sucks to have the Sight in high school. Golden and Platinum, so far. I predict a Silver because there is a third sister.
I just read Everlost, by Neal Shusterman, which was sweet and moved smartly along.
I think my favorite read in a good long time and my top recommendation is Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale. That was just great. It really was. The girls from a village of stonecutters get sent to a princess academy, from which the prince will choose a wife. They are not passive about this. I’ve very much liked all of Hale’s fairytale settings and re-tellings, but this one is my favorite so far.
My older recommendations here and here. Tell me more stuff to read, OK? My request list at the library is down to one book.
UPDATE: Heh heh heh. Since I posted this yesterday afternoon, two separate writers on this list have googled themselves and come by. Hi! Sadly, Langewiesche isn't one of them and he didn't invite me out to dinner to tell me how amazing my blog is. The world is bleak and unforgiving.
I'll add some unsolicited advice to one of 'em, since she's been back a couple times: Honey, you're good now and you're going to be amazing when you're grown. In the next few years, as you come into your strength, you're going to stop wanting to be treated like a precocious sweet thing. When you get to that point, switch your photos. No peeking out from behind your hair, no cocked head angle. The cocked head angle is a flattering shot, but it is for listening to taller men and is both sexualized and submissive. When you are ready to be peers with your public, look them straight on. Only smile if you want to. Cutesiness is a pretty good formula (especially if you are cute), but you have even better options. You have so much talent that when you are ready to use other methods, they'll come through for you.
Incidentally, I am SO DISAPPOINTED that Shane Claiborne switched his glamor shots. I suspect these are a truer depiction of his attention and affect, but he had three old ones that were spot-on imitations of the headcock and moue that women often use. Having a scruffy dreadlocked guy use them shows their full ridiculousness. Forcing anyone who wanted him to speak use those shots was even better.
Cesar Chavez Day, of course.
Friday, March 28, 2008
UPDATE: YOU SEE?! It would be like this, only international and FOR REAL. I hate every one of you who didn't go to this movie with me this weekend. Why are you living your life wrong?
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Yes, that self-centered.
But a weekend visiting my deteriorating grandfather now will save me entire depths of self-loathing and regret in the foreseeable future. I am so not brave, but we know what to do, right?
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
This made me purely happy.
Hardstyle, I'd say, although they're both impressive.
Sorta via ebogjonson
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
If you want to add more critical thinking, you have to create something as well. Offer a feeling or tell me an experience or describe something.
I owe bigtime for those two long posts, but for now I'll give you:
Stood in front of the thigh-high box, eyes wide. For all my life, jumping has meant ankle rolling. But she told me to leap and I pumped my arms twice to wind up and hopped lightly onto the box. I could do it again and I did! Lots of times, into a soft crouch, with clearance to spare. I could even jump down, forwards and backwards.
I'll show you "tediously long".
Obama: …It's all around culture wars and it's all ... even when you discuss war the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works."…
Digby: …I certainly understood why Senator Obama would take the technocratic approach and say he was about "what works" rather than about ideology or civil rights. …
I don’t think Obama is talking about a technocratic “what works”. I think he’s talking about a far more difficult “what works”. I think he is talking about the state you get into when the conflict is so intractable and so urgent that the stories that people have been telling themselves about right and wrong stop being interesting. You stop trying to judge fairness or weigh grievances, because that is some long, knotty, unresolvable work. Not only is it maddening work, but you only have to do that work if you intend to punish. If you don’t have the authority for or the interest in punishment, or if your goal instead is to make things better, the real substance starts with “what will work?”.1
The more you listen to every side, the less patience you have for people’s rock hard notions of fairness. People tell a good story to themselves and to you, about the way that thing was totally unfair. They’re often right. That was really unfair. But you go talk to the next person, who offers another perspective on how it happened, and who thinks that the important part was when an unfair thing happened to them. Wow. That was unfair too. You know, there’s a whole lot of unfairness here, unfairness enough for all the players to wallow in forever. Which they do. When people start telling you about the unfair things, they almost always get a tone2. Their voice gets rehearsed because they are walking the rut that injustice has carved in their mind. They have thought it and thought it and made complicated reasons for every piece of it and they understand every single tendril of all the ways it hurt them. They tell you this in this closed, justifying, inauthentic voice that is recognizable as soon as it starts. As soon as it clicks in, you know you’re dealing with someone’s self-protective righteousness. Everyone loves their own precious jewels of mistreatment, but when you see a few of them from the outside, they start to look remarkably alike. When you’ve seen a lot of them, they get repetitive, predictable and eventually uninteresting.
As long as people are in that mode, that thinking and justifying and accusing mode, you cannot get anywhere new. You can’t argue them out of it, because they have been thinking of every possible angle on it for years. They will tell you the most convoluted explanation for why they were right and those people were villains. They will simply disregard contradictions in their story or facts that don’t support them or reasoning that challenges them. You do not reach people in defensive mode by argument. Instead, you lift them out of that mode by listening and showing them they were heard. Only after their story, the one they’ve polished in long nights of thinking, has been heard can you move past it to the real problems.
That, in fact, is what happened after Obama gave his speech on race. He showed white people2.5 that he had heard their story; he quoted their emotions and content back to them3:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.And some people were so shocked they’d been heard that for the first time in a long time, they openly went on to the next part4.
On the other hand, I am sick to death of black people as a group. The truth. That is part of the conversation Obama is asking for, isn't it? I live in an eastern state almost exactly on the fabled Mason-Dixon line. Every day I see young black males wearing tee shirts down to their knees -- and jeans belted just above their knees. I'm an old guy. I want to smack them. All of them. They are egregious stereotypes. It's impossible not to think the unthinkable N-Word when they roll up beside you at a stoplight in their trashed old Hondas with 19-inch spinner wheels and rap recordings that shake the foundations of the buildings. . . .
Here's the dirty secret all of us know and no one will admit to. There ARE n*****s.
Perhaps you are revolted. Maybe you are offended by the open racism. But my reaction was “Oh thank god. Now we’re getting somewhere. If this is the real problem, we can work with this.” Look, in his howl, this dude finally told us his real problem. But they wear their pants funny! They listen to the wrong music! Too loud!! Dude, this is the heart of it?5 Oh mister, you’re on. This deal is done. If I had two sides sitting down, both wanting a new reality, this one is ready to go. So, in exchange for an end to discriminatory sentencing guidelines and the over-incarceration of black men and an end to predatory lending and free college for any black takers, our young black men will pull up their pants and listen to Mozart once a week? I think I can sell that deal to both sides. Toss in a program to reverse the effects of redlining and I bet I could get them to tuck in their shirts. This is so do-able. The break-through came from the new emotional information. The rest is details and negotiation.
You do three things to get to a new stable arrangement that gives all sides what they want most. You listen, to move people past their reinforced defensive stories. You offer them a vision of a new reality that is even more tempting than self-pity, one that addresses their core wrongs. You change your frame of reference from judging right and wrong to “what works”. Sen. Obama is absolutely consistent on those three fronts. He’s going at our problems in a way that American politics has never tried before. He is doing it in a way that works. I think you’re going to like it.
1 You parents know this. When your daughters are squabbling and you ask what happened and the stories of hair-pulling and line-crossing and doll-touching and book-stealing and ball-slamming and seat-taking go back to the cradle (when they were so sweet and quiet!), you come to the realization that justice simply isn’t an issue here. The issue is the current resolution and please god, make it last a few hours.
2Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, when they sound as shocked and hurt and raw as when it first happened, pay even closer attention. This could well be a rare thing in extended conflicts: an innocent. The other roles, of redress and punishment could apply here.
2.5He told the black stories as well, but I
3Look how elegantly he did that. For those of you who thought I was talking crazy talk, go back to that quote and look at all the words about emotions: anger, “don’t feel … privileged”, anxious, “feel their dreams slipping away”, resentment. He nailed that and because he got both parts, the emotion and the content right, everyone knew he’d understood them.
4I haven’t read or clicked on the original. I’d be more worried about libeling that guy if I thought such a thing were possible. Instead, I’m linking to a woman who quoted him. I’d like to point out that her gut response, a sincere one that I agree with, does two things that won’t help the problem at all. First, she tells him his feelings don’t matter, because they are despicable. I agree that his feelings are despicable, but unless we intend to wait until he’s dead, to solve racism by generational replacement, his feelings are the ones we have to work with. They matter a lot. Second, she argues with him. You can’t argue. Remember? There is no persuading people in the defensive mindset. Every instant spent in the realm of arguing defensive thinkiness is wasted time. Feels satisfying for a while, but it is waste.
5This is probably not the real heart of it. The real heart of it is probably fear of black men, immediate physical fear and fear of them being with white women. That is some fucked up shit. I owe you another painfully long post on fear and trust. Sadly, I’m pondering yet another equally abstract post on grace.
You're going down, strawmen.
Sen. Obama is glossing over problems and pretending they don't exist.
No he isn't. Listen to him. He'll describe any policy problem you choose thoroughly and precisely. He understands the causes and effects. But that's not where his attention is, re-hashing problems and figuring out what was unfair when. Past unfairness gets treated by a full airing, by listening and acknowledgement, and it informs our choice of solutions. But it doesn’t stop us from doing something that would work and offers gains to all parties. When Sen. Obama talks about moving forward, he isn’t glossing over the past or pretending that problems don’t exist. He just wants to fix them the only place they can be fixed, from here on out.
Sen. Obama's pretty words and speech-making aren't a plan.
Y'all. You can read Sen. Obama's policy plans in his policy statements. By most accounts, they're solid and much the same as Sen. Clinton's or Edward's. But that's not what you mean. You're all, "hope" and "change" don't happen because of pretty speeches. People keep saying that he is being airy-fairy, head in the clouds, buy the world a Coke and sing in harmony. He’s not. He is methodically following the mediation playbook to address the real problems. It only sounds abstract to you because you aren't familiar with the elements of mediation and you haven’t seen it work. But I have. It isn't that I have secret insight into this guy. Anyone who is trained in mediation sees each techique he uses. Active listening is where you say the emotion and content of both sides back to them. Y'all were all "ooooooooh, what juju did he use in his race speech?!" and I was like, active listening. Refusing to demonize people. Believing that we will live up to the better sides of ourselves. Offering a vision that is better than what people can get without mediation is the heart of his campaign. His emphasis on "what works". He himself is not magic. He is a skilled practioner of an approach that has a ton of power to resolve problems. If you knew that approach, everything he does would look familiar to you.
It is cruel of him to offer a hope that doesn't exist.
Dude. It better exist. Some big scary stuff is coming our way. The rest of the recession. Bringing our troops home from war. Climate change. Rising costs of living. The persistent effects of racism. Three trillion dollars in household debt. The war debt. We get to deal with these simultaneously. That's gonna be awesome. Those are coming and they will be resolved by meeting them and solving them, or they'll be resolved by our people living in poverty. There had better be hope.
That brings me to thoughts on pragmatism. It seems to me that there are a couple different places to be pragmatic. Some people say that pragmatism is admitting that something won't work. Or they accuse me of hopeless idealism, refusing to be pragmatic. This surprises me, because I think I have plenty realistic assessment of what things are really like. Then I figured out that I am pragmatic at a later stage in the game. For me, the first step is a decision that the problem is solvable. This IS solvable, so what will the solution require? That's where the pragmatism comes in. OK, for us to solve climate change will simply require that our population rapidly understand science, decide to change their individual choices of convenience, re-design the American dream, spend a trillion dollars adapting and mitigating our infrastructure and stop treating the natural world as something to dominate. Cool. Is that all? Oh wait! Develop clean cheap energy, too.
It isn't that I have unrealistic ideas about what solving the problem will take. I know perfectly well. It is just that I've skipped the step where people say it can't work. It has to work, because not-working will suck worse. Bad as the solution is, the problem really is worse. So I don't want to hear that kind of "pragmatism". I want to hear how we're going make the next steps happen.
I'm sure I had more. But I'm also sure you've had enough.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Good work, Mayor Villaraigosa.
Until now, truckers doing short hauls out of the ports were doing contract piece work. They’d call a dispatcher who had an order for a hundred boxes to go to Target warehouse and get in line at the port gate to pick up a box. They owned their trucks, and these aren’t nice trucks, and try to get in a few trips a day. If something went wrong, they bore the full brunt of hitting traffic, of the box not being available, anything. They have no health insurance, no guarantee of employment, no retirement; they have to maintain their own trucks; they’re competing with each other, driving down the per-trip prices. Their time isn’t valuable to anyone else. My source says they spend hours in lines of idling diesel trucks waiting at the Port gates.
I asked her who was actually going to hire the drivers and she says those trucking companies don’t exist right now. Either the shipping companies will form those companies or maybe an independent trucking company will form. Either way, the drivers want this. When there’s a company, they can unionize. Besides, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have a Clean Air Action Plan that commits them to replacing the truck fleet. The current truck fleet is a big source of local air pollution and the Clean Air Action Plan says that nearly 17,000 trucks must be replaced within five years. There’s just no way the individual truckers working as independent contractors could buy new clean trucks. I asked my source, who laughed “oh, they’re not even like the long haul truckers who drive across country and sleep in their trucks. Those are nice trucks. These are trucks that have done everything else, and now you hope they can make it ten miles to the warehouse.” The new companies who step into this will have to provide modern, less polluting trucks.
I asked my secret source if there are any other alternatives than trucking boxes. She says there is local cargo and discretionary cargo. Discretionary cargo goes to the hinterland by rail; she says they can pick any port depending on how the costs work out. There is a new port up in Prince Rupert designed for only rail transport. It can be cheaper to get stuff to Chicago from Canada by rail than use a closer port on the east coast. I asked if it would be worth it for Los Angeles or Long Beach to switch some of their trucking transport over to rail, but she says that people don’t particularly like having railyards in their neighborhoods either. Local cargo (few hours radius) pretty much has to be trucked.
Anyway, this is great news. These truckers are very poor people who subsidized the price of container shipped goods with their health and quality of life. They won’t have to pay that for us any more.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
There will be no pictures.
Kind, sweet words:
form follows function, I guess
I see you made this by yourself.
how resourceful! to use our scrap lumber thusly
right angles aren't everything
I get tired of commercial perfection.
Probably better than the four year old could have made.
I'm so proud that you tried.
Cruel, hateful words:
Dear god, what is that?
I'll hope for no strong winds.
Did you plan it like this?
Tomato cages are cheap.
We have a tape measure, you know.
Perhaps if you had sketched it first...
My sister'll be home from Santa Cruz in a couple hours. Then we'll see who she really is.
UPDATE: "Does it have to look like that?" Now we know...
I will admit that it is pretty out of scale to the yard. But I think it is going to be the right size for the tomatoes.
By my ownself!
I could buy tomato cages, but the little fold-y ones are too weak for the monstrous tomato plants I predict. The ones for my community garden are made from the six-foot concrete reinforcement mesh, which I fold into circles and dig a foot into the ground. I have not had a cage tip in years. I don't have room for that here, and besides, I don't really want circles of tomatoes. What I'm really looking for is a solid wall of cherry tomatoes, to serve as a sacrificial perimeter defense of my garden. The perfect nephews have moved on from my arugula to my peas. I'm pleased they understand the purpose of the garden, and blah blah blah connection to their food. Whatever. They're especially cute locusts. I'm hoping that if the first thing they come to is cherry tomatoes (Sungolds, Sweet 100s and maybe one other kind. Not the yellow pear tomatoes. Those aren't that good.) they won't continue to the rest of my garden.
So! A long rectangle, posts and cross bars at two and four feet high, hammered together by me! I will build this! Right now! CAN!
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I wasn't sympathizing.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
I'll leave overshot gates as an exercise for the reader.
...Dana Perino on women in defense:
Some of the terms I just don’t know, I haven’t grown up knowing. The type of missiles that are out there: patriots and scuds and cruise missiles and tomahawk missiles. And I think that men just by osmosis understand all of these things, and they’re things that I really have to work at — to know the difference between a carrier and a destroyer, and what it means when one of those is being launched to a certain area.
because men do have an inborn understanding of the difference between a Tu-95 "Bear" and a Tu-160 "Blackjack".
Dude. It took me forever to learn what everything meant in irrigation. It was so hard. I didn't know. I didn't know what was a category and what was a specific name, so that if you misspoke you were actually conveying something else. I wasn't sure what was a brand name and what was a model type. People weren't consistent! Different growers would call the same thing different things. People would say the same thing, but mean different things. "Foot" could be a volume of water (the implied area is an acre or maybe the field we were standing in, whatever), or a flow (short for cubic foot per second), or the pressure (vertical height unimpeded water would rise to for that lbs/square inch). I couldn't always tell what the speaker meant.
It always seemed like the men in my class knew. How did they know? I'd be confused and puzzling it out, but they were just moving on. Should I ask? Would everyone know that I didn't understand a thing about it?
Few things saved me. First, my irrigation professor would ask those kinds of questions. Front of a whole group of students, my professor who'd been in the field for decades, one of the top four or five people in the world at water projects, would ask the speaker what he meant. If there were a couple different interpretations, my professor would openly and immediately interrupt and ask. Oh thank god. If he could ask, so could I.
Second, I knew my problem wasn't 'cause I was a girl. My problem was that I was from L.A.. I didn't know how irrigation systems worked because I didn't work with them my whole life. There wasn't boy-magic to knowing this. You don't absorb the names of sprinkler systems through your cock. There wasn't any reason I couldn't know them, once they were taught to me.
Finally, it took me a little while to catch on*, but at least in water, things are often called things for a reason. Side-arm gates are radial gates, because they swing out from a radius or side-arm. Undershot gates are gates that water goes under. I wasn't always right, but the names could get me started.
In the end, I learned it. That was all it took, learning and repetition. The other thing I learned is that I don't fuck around with self-doubt and confusion any more. Those boys that just understood and nodded and moved on with the speaker? A couple of them were competition for the highest grade in our classes. Sometimes. Now, though, I ask. All the time. Soon as I don't understand something, I ask right away. If my professor could ask the most basic questions, so can I. I know it startles people when I ask like a four-year-old "what does that word mean?" "I don't understand, how does that work?" "I still don't understand. Could you please sketch what you're saying?" I occasionally get patronized for that. But never for long.
*Until I finally caught on, I was using brute force memorization. That's a pretty good technique for me, but it all got easier once I understood the family relations. Oh, those gates are all cousins because they rotate the same. Oh, anything that water flows over is a weir, and can also be other things too.
No need to name names. Scott, Peter and t_n. Teo, we'll discuss your attitude later.
I would explain this, and then I would quiz the class. "If you only write a definition, what would your grade be?" "If you only write an explanation, what will your grade be?" Then I would ask them what they should do to pass the test. You would think that this was too patronizing, too infantilizing, that they would resent this. BUT IT STILL TOOK THEM TWO MIDTERMS TO FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. Yes, no doubt this is how Dr. Schmidt's professionalism is maintained and enforced, and no doubt I am creating a little cohort of mindless direction followers. But I tell you what, potential blog commenters. If you don't accompany your analysis with a feeling or experience or creation, something that you witness or generate, you aren't getting through.
UPDATE: I didn't know this would be this hard. Like, tell me something that caught your eye. Or describe a feeling you had. Without analyzing it. Here:
Evening on a new porch with an easy book. Fizzy water with a strawberry cut into it. Good trees on this street. Purple ornamental plum in front of a budding-out elm, both bathed in late golden light. Wistful for the flowers at my own house, which are so beautiful right now.
UPDATE II: Justus, nope. -A, more feeling about Stupid Directions!. Scott, getting closer. Was the point that you're frustrated?
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Here’s the thing. The people who love to talk about how complicated maneuverings will influence other, less sophisticated voters, are people who want to live in a world of thought and information. Political bloggers and commenters live for this stuff. A dense hit of information! That they can process by their made-up rules! About something that is important, so they can feel like they are participating! But they don’t have to really talk to anyone! Or experience anything that challenges their intricate rules! This is a particular trap for symbolic analysts like us, who get addicted to constant information and seek out thought like junkies. It is so easy for us to get trapped in our minds. As long as the information keeps coming, we never have to experience our lives and feelings!
And then! The critical thought spills over on to everything. Every position that a blogger offers has to be picked apart. Is it true in every extreme? Is there a counter example that dodges the blogger’s careful qualification that could nullify everything she said!!!! Does the post secretly prove your point, if you look at it through the double-reverse periscope of this one thing that happened one time!!! (Odd how much of blogworld supports your original positions once you know how to look at it.) Did the blogger ever once say something that could be read to contradict her current position? She has no more credibility, ever, because the real world cannot possibly be nuanced and people cannot hold two contradictory thoughts, the which they acknowledge and balance to match changing circumstances. It is relentless. It feels like a barrage of this one type of communication, which is useful for some stuff, but is really a very limited mode of dealing with the world outside your computer screen.
I’m interested in the presidential election, but I can barely stand to read analysis anymore. I certainly can’t stand to read counter-analysis. If it is very good, I can handle a personal reaction presented through a very strong lens (like, here’s how studying paleobotany informs my interpretation of the presidential campaign!). That’s still interesting. But otherwise, I’ve mostly given up. All that thought, spinning and tangling with other thought, to no productive end. It doesn’t make anyone feel good, except the person who got the little hit of serotonin when he clicked on ‘Post’. Even that doesn’t last, so you have to do it again and again to compensate for sitting alone in a dark room, bathed in the light of your computer screen.
I’ve noticed that it is bugging other people too, this analysis and cleverness:
This election has turned into some kind of bizarre series of rituals, like an season of Greek theater where everybody knows the plot and the audience is left to judge the work on the presentation. The parade of comment, counter-comment, conference call about comment, distancing from comment, and major speech incorporating remarks about comment is the real distraction in this campaign, diverting from a looming economic recession (a recession at BEST) and a tragic stalemate in Iraq. Rarely does anything good for the country come out of this exchange.It is repetitive and not productive. It isn’t the only way to carefully hone thought. It is an addiction. It is going to be a long eight months until the presidential election.
So it shall be.
My first thought was: well, if the people who take to blog commenting are the same people who live by analytic thought, then we should see what the other people are doing. I debated asking the regulars to refrain to see if we could lure the lurkers into commenting. Lurkers, won’t you please comment? This isn’t a private conversation we’re having here, me and my friends. This is an open conversation, for you guys. Sometimes you write me and say wonderful things, and then I’m all, but why wouldn’t you say something so observant where everyone could admire it? Don’t stop yourself because you feel like you cannot write anything as trenchant and pointed as the others do. I am sick of trenchant and pointed. I’m looking for different stuff, at least until I fall back into old habits.
My second thought was: well, if I believe my model, that the aggregation of commenters reflects the blogger, and I don’t like that mode of commenting, then I need to fix the blogger. Maybe I should change the ways I communicate. But that’s just wild crazytalk and a dead-end.
I only got as far as a third thought. Here it is, and the new policy. If you MUST make a critical observation (I don’t mean critical in the sense of negative, I mean critical in the sense of analytical.) because you MUST or you will DIE, then before you do, you must tell me about something affirmative. You must tell me about a feeling you had, or something you built or cooked or improved. Counter your relentless thinky-ness with a genuine experience of some sort. Something you saw. Something that actually happened and changed the world or moved you. Criticism is second-hand evaluation of something a different person did or felt or thought or made. No more of that unless you compensate by offering your own creation.
UPDATE: I'm serious. FROM THIS POINT ON, comments that violate this policy won't get through moderation.
Only peasants make fun of names.
My dad told me to never ever make fun of someone's name. He says that you can't think of anything funny to say about someone's name that that person hasn't heard in a lifetime of having that name.
That's totally true, but the more important reason to never make fun of an ethnic name is that it exposes you as shamefully parochial and ignorant. People with any breadth of exposure step up to learn new names with respect and a careful ear.
Via Obsidian Wings and Yglesias, respectively.
Monday, March 17, 2008
Mostly right on.
Oh man. Ditchriders are the men who make water districts work. Like the men profiled in the article, they drive their canals every shift, controlling water levels in the canal and opening or closing turnouts to growers. Being a ditchrider is a career. They do it for decades and they know their terrain. They are the people responsible getting water to every grower in time for their irrigation event while keeping a several miles long canal from emptying or overtopping as turnouts open and close. It takes years to get good at running a canal; a retiring ditchrider has to train the incoming kid for months or more. I was surprised that zanjero Curiel said that his dreams of flooding out a field went away after a year. The ditchriders I've talked to say they still get them after doing it for twenty years.
I asked my professor if he knew of any woman ditchriders. He said he'd never met one, although there are a few woman water district general managers. I applied to be a ditchrider at Arvn-Ed*son Water District, but they didn't think I was going to stick around for three decades. I would have taken that job too, so I don't think it was very nice of my father to refer to Arvn, Weed Patch and Pumpkin Center as the "tri-city area" and inquire how I was going to choose between them.
Safety and canal design:
Oooh. This picture from the article makes me hurt. No hand rail? No guard? Who designed that? Was he trying to kill the operators? They lean out over those check structures, pulling heavy flashboards out of the water, cranking gates, clearing trash. I have lots of faith in their strength and balance but I would sure like the engineers to give them some advantages.
I was also surprised to read that they collect so many drowned people from their canals. We were taught to put hand rails on both sides of our canals every couple panels. The very good slide show shows mostly unlined clay canals, so I guess there isn't anything to fix hand rails to.
Today, the zanjero is an endangered species, his craft too imprecise, his tools too crude to look after water in a region ravaged by drought.
I wouldn't go so far as "endangered species". In California, I'd say that automation is far more rare than manually-run canals. They are right that water districts are moving toward automation. In an ideal, elegant system, you build your canals with weirs that hold water level very steady and you use undershot gates, and your system is inherently stable. This requires less tending by a person and less automation. But you'll still need ways to control gates throughout the system, and a lot of districts will put in some automation.
So they put in SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), which I think were developed to control assembly lines in factories. You put water level sensors along your canal, which talk to your computer in the district office (or call you at night, if the levels change too fast) or tell gates to open or close. Talking to people about their SCADA systems usually ends up being a long conversation about which media they use for telemetry. You'd think they'd want to talk about exciting things like their displays and data manipulation, or their fancy new concrete, but I have listened to hours of comparing phone lines, lines of sight for radio, and getting in on some satellite time. I don't have an opinion about these, so I sorta let the jargon wash over me and watch the crops grow.
My irrigation professor is not one to reflexively promote automation. His main complaint about developing countries is that their water projects are overautomated. He says the canals never work like they were modeled, but operators are given very precise instructions about how to move the gates for every flow rate they measure. He thinks it should be way simpler. 'Paint a white line on the side of the canal.' he says. 'Tell your operator to keep the water level within the width of that white line by opening or shutting the gate as needed.' He says he's never met an operator who couldn't do that. If labor is cheap, put a person at every major structure and they can run that sucker tight as anything.
I love thinking about scale.
A.W. and Ezra, the representation of kids without health care is stunning.
Sister, check out the freight containers.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
At least we have the archives.
I don't know, guys. This might be the beginning of a new era 'round here. Obviously he's going to respect her preferences, but what will be left for us to discuss? If we aren't reading about his sordid adventures (no more videos!!!), the way he flits from freakshow partner to freakshow partner, the recreational drugs he does to enhance his extraordinary sex life and the parties that are the backbone of his "lifestyle", what the hell do we have left? Anand's shamelessness is the engine of our blog traffic. I can try to step up, but I don't think I have the stamina for the staggering debauchery that Anand lives and breathes. If he hadn't blogged it, sordid detail by convincing detail, on this very site, I wouldn't even think his exploits were possible.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
And I have high hopes for an Obama presidency.
The three stories the Sac Bee chose are a big jump in the cost of gas, the collapse of the west coast salmon fishery and former Governor Spitzer's wife's appearance at his press conference. I could have done without the last, on account of how I don't care, but how political wives act in scandals seems to interest lots of other people. The two other stories, on gas prices and the salmon collapse, will matter vastly more to Californians than anything that happened in the presidential race yesterday.
In fact, either of those stories will have more impact on Californian quality of life than the outcome of the Democratic primary**. Big jumps in gas prices are going to test whether gas price elasticity is as generous as it always has been. Since our housing patterns depend on that, lots of stuff in your daily life cascades from it. Size of house, length of commute, type of commute, city densities... or just the effects of the price of gas, like cost of food, cost of any trucked good, type of car you drive. In twenty years, you'll feel every piece of that much more concretely than any difference between a Clinton or Obama presidency. The story on salmon? Well, it matters a whole lot to the salmon industry, which will likely end this year. It matters a little to people who like to eat salmon. More than that, though, is the fact that the last time a fish species collapsed like this, Californians south of the Delta lost one-third of their water. Yesterday, the water wholesaler for municipal southern California raised their rates by 14%, and wanted to raise them by 20%. These news stories aren't abstract in the least. They point to the drivers that will shape us far more than political contests.
That got me thinking. Prof. Rauchway is a historian, and for most of American history, resource contraints on our behavior didn't really exist. There was more land, more timber, more water, more coal, more everything. Sometimes you needed a technological jump to access a resource, but we solved those. In a place with no effective constraints, you might as well watch what people are doing. Their behaviors will determine what happens. That's not where we are anymore. We are at limits; resource constraints are closing in around us. People will get herded in from urban sprawl when they cannot afford their house and a tank of gas twice a week. People will come in from the desert when it is too expensive to buy trucked food and air conditioning. In this new system, it is entertaining to watch political contests, but they aren't going to matter much compared to the forces operating on us. The best we can do with our political contests is choose how well we transition and who bears the costs. Important stuff, but small compared to the forces our lifestyle has set in motion.
I am pleased with the Sac Bee's choice of stories. They've hit on what is going to matter. We're on a rollercoaster now, so I'm glad they're describing the route.
*Although I've felt some silly regional pride at the journalism coming out of national McClatchy Group. Their name is all over town.
**I'd say either is more important to how Californians experience life than the overall presidential election, except that McCain would continue to spend staggering sums of money to perpetuate endless war. That expenditure will one day come home in ways we feel.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Go to work!
Her piece struck me as a very good companion to this excellent, excellent essay on organizing between professional middle class and working class people. From Ms. Solnit's piece:
Of course dreadlocks and ragged clothes weren’t exactly diplomatic outreach tools either. I spent some of the 1990s with and around activists in the public forests of the West, and a lot of the supposedly most radical had a remarkable knack for going into rural communities and insulting practically everyone with whom they came into contact. It became clear to me that in their eyes the worst crimes of the locals did not involve chainsaws and voting choices but culture and what gets called lifestyle. It was a culture war that got pretty far from who was actually doing what to the Earth and how anyone might stop it.
And from Ms. Leondar-Wright's piece:
In professional-middle-class progressive culture, the axis of the world is mainstream versus alternative. The majority of us were raised in non-progressive families; the exceptions, such as "red diaper babies" and children of hippies, grew up aware of their families' outsider status. We grew up surrounded by expectations that we would maximize our income and status by conforming to PMC lifestyles and career tracks. At some point we made a conscious, life-changing decision to take a different course and to put some of our energy to work for a better world. We each place ourselves in a particular place on the mainstream/alternative continuum, contrasting ourselves with those more and less conventional than ourselves. One thing that virtually all of us PMC activists have in common is that we are proud of living a values-based life. It's our best trait — and leads to some of our most classist traits, such as culture-bound elitism. "More-alternative-than- thou" is not a helpful stance to take in building bridges with anyone, and it's especially unhelpful with people with a lot less social privilege than ourselves.
Heh. Solnit uses country music as a proxy for rural and ag-associated life. She describes liberal scorn for their "racist, reactionary, religiously authoritarian" ways. Yeah. That's one set of associations I've heard. I've also heard glowing paeans to agrarian connections to the earth and their humble, honest stewardship. Whatevers. I'll have you know that I lived and worked with those exotic creatures for two years and made up my own stereotypes.
The only thing I was sure of after two years amongst the sons of western agriculture is that all that work they did showed. Oh man, they were pretty. Really very pretty. All ripply and strong, with such pretty arms and shoulders and slim hips and also nice legs. Um. A very attractive people, those farmers' sons. Going to class was like being in a porn movie, where all the young men were gorgeous and needed the teachings of an experienced older woman, except that it was a terrible horrible sad porn movie, where the music never started and the professor kept lecturing. A childhood of work showed up in other ways; they were better at manipulating physical objects and working in groups than I've ever seen my city peers be. Those were the conclusions I came to after infiltrating the heart of the ag community. Attitudes towards environmentalism and minorities amongst this inscrutable tribe? They varied.
So, like, I know hippies. I lived for years amongst other college kids acting like hippies. I know how annoying some of the mannerisms are. I know. I left my co-op because one day I realized that I could not have one more conversation about whether we should buy bananas. I fully understand how the hippie sanctimony, whether it actually comes from a hippie or whether you're just assigning it to some longhaired target, grates on the soul. But here's the thing. Those hippies? They're fucking right. The reason they grate so is that you know they're right and they remind you of your compromises and since you don't want to look at those, I guess you better vilify the messenger*.
They're right. We should be gentle pacifists. We should care very deeply about the environment; we should be alert to its beauties and hurt by its destruction. We should eat consciously and low on the food chain. There is no harm in bounded recreational drug use and what does it matter how people choose to look and people's bodies are beautiful and we should live close in connected communities. We should even sit around a fire and sit along to a guitar. That way of living feels good and imposes fewer costs on other people.
So I'm tired of the meme that discounts opinions because hippies hold them. Get over that. It is as cheap and dismissive as any attitude discussed in either essay. Sure, small-minded hippies are annoying. Small-minded anyone is annoying and if you're dismissing things out of hand for being hippie-affiliated, that's you.
On the South:
So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.
I'm having a real hard time with the South recently. I'm on this reading binge about the South and Jim Crow and Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement. Honestly, it is very hard for me to not hate historical racist white fucks. It helps a little that they're a hundred years dead, except that, you know, it was pretty bad until pretty recently. Some were murderous and righteous, and a lot of other people thought that was their natural privilege, and if there were good ones they couldn't say much out loud. That is some fucked up bullshit, and I cannot comprehend what could be good enough in a southern heritage to overcome such pervasive viciousness and shame. So I'm trying not to hate, because it is rather pointless for me to get all exercised from a distance at this late date and how does that help anyone's life? And 'cause something something complex and not first-hand and something or other cast the first stone. Except, you know, I'm not really despising anyone for being poor. I'm fucking hating traditional southern racists for thinking their skin color made murder, rape, oppression and soul-killing a perfectly OK thing to do.
I'm on the fence about environmentalist-resource user coalitions this week. Most days I think they're the only things that can work. Then I read about them falling apart, and I'm not sure they can work either. Someone with the backing of the people should pick winners and losers and the world will readjust to the new drivers and constraints and in only a generation or so, no one will care so much? I dunno.
This seems like enough for you guys to work with. I'll expect your revised and improved versions back by Friday. You can only get full credit if you show your work.
Ms. Leondar-Wright's essay via Spungen at BobVis.
Ms. Solnit's essay via Crooked Timber.
*I don't want to hear it about trust-fund hippie kids. Yeah, it is infuriating that they can use the safety of their middle class lives to tell themselves they are adventuresome. If they're sanctimonious on top of that, that's really frustrating. BUT. Think of it this way. This is what people do when they know they are safe. These kids have felt safe their entire lives and trust the world, and what do they do with that? They choose a lifestyle of openness and gentleness, of connectivity and consciousness. When you know your whole life that you can have what you want, what they want is to be in a tribe and care about nature and spirituality. (Maybe they care about nature and spirituality in an easily accessible way, but as far as cheap philosophies go, it is a kind one.) This is also what impresses me about Burning Man. When privileged people have everything they want, the next thing they want to do is build amazing things for other people (and celebrate and be nude and beautiful). People who have never been scared don't want dominion. They want expressiveness and connection.
Sunday, March 09, 2008
One put out cigarettes for guests? Awesome.
I got two benefits I didn't expect from giving up my car. First was that I found out that when I owned a car, I was always a little nervous about it. I lived on a busy street, and got a lot of foot traffic on weekend nights. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was really nice to no longer be worried someone'd bust my car windows just for fun. That was a small boost to my quality of life.
The big boost, however, is that my transportation makes me feel good. Walking, taking the train and biking all improve my mood, every single time I do them. Look. I'm an Angeleña by birth and upbringing. I love driving. I really do. I drive a stickshift, drive too fast and love road trips. But most daily driving is not good driving. I don't get out of the car at the co-op parking lot feeling any better than I did when I left the house. Mostly, I feel the same. But every single time I ride my bike, I feel better for the ride. Lots of times I think I won't. I think it'll be cold or hard. But the bike-feeling always lifts my mood. My very transportation, which is necessary and integral to living, improves my quality of life. Obviously, that isn't necessary. Most everyone gets along without that. But it sure is nice and you don't get it from driving a car.
Saturday, March 08, 2008
Ask me about the big black wolf spiders.
I'm totally curious about how they got the picture. I told you I spent a summer digging pitfalls for small rodents, herps and amphibians in Tahoe? I did. I was one of a group of about forty people doing a multi-species inventory of Tahoe. There were owlers and bat-ers, whom I never saw. Botanists. A rodent team. Two of the funniest guys I've ever worked with on the herp team. I couldn't believe their grown-up job was to go kick over logs and hope to catch a snake, but it was. They LOVED it. Birders. Did you know you have to take a hearing test to work as a birder? They want to know you're catching the high-frequency songs. The rock stars, though, were the carnivore team. They set cameras like the one that caught the wolverine.
The set-up was that they put a whole bunch (couple dozen?) of monuments at randomly chosen sites throughout Tahoe. Every crew, in rotation, went to the sites and did their thing. The botanists took transects on specific angles from the center. We set out three pitfall arrays, thirty, thirty and seventy feet from the center, on assigned angles. The birders walked in big circles around it. The rodent crews set out tens of traps in a big circle. Christ, the rodent team worked hard.
The carnivore team, though, had to be the hardest working. Their shit was insane. They'd hike in, like, a couple days in, sets of the heat-sensing cameras and bait. They'd nail the bait to a tree, set up cameras and come back for the film. The bait was frozen chicken breasts. We had a freezer full of them, which is also where we put the half-eaten shrews and mice we'd find in our pits. The chicken breasts were dunked in bearbait, which I was told was a mixture of skunk scent and chicken blood. There was a five gallon bucket of it in our supply shed, which I never went near. But the carnivore team would have to dip out a container of it, pack it with the frozen chicken breast and pack it in. The cameras and expensive stuff went in the pack, so the chicken breasts and bearbait was in a bag on the outside, slowly warming up for the two days they hike in. It didn't matter how gross the bait got, and they told stories of getting water in the bait bag and opening it to the slimiest, moldiest, grossest chicken breasts ever, which they then had to nail to a tree. Every one of them swore he would never eat chicken again.
Then they'd check the pictures. Got a lot of crows. A nice family of martens. Our fear, on the rest of the teams, is that we never really knew where the cameras were. It always seemed possible that they catch a picture of us visiting the ladies' room. I have to think that would have gone up in the dining room right away, though, so I guess they didn't.
Friday, March 07, 2008
It is so hard for me to get rid of my bike inferiority complex. I don't work on my own bike. I have Princess, for snooty fixed-gear cred, but I mostly ride Clara. I don't know about bikes, models or makes or designers. I don't have bike-themed stuff. Or bike gear. My bike still has her factory markings.
But here's the thing. I ride my bike. I ride Clara everywhere. If I go somewhere, it is on Clara. I ride at night and in the rain. When I'm with friends, we ride unless there's some reason to drive. I'm so smooth, locking her up. I bring her on trains and metros. I've been bumped by cars and driven off the road and still I ride. I've taken hard falls and know everyday that I'd rather be on my bike than in a car. I get the calm relaxation three or four strides into every ride. I steer with no hands. I hover at stoplights. I'm coming up on two years on my bike and still have no desire for a car.
I should believe that I belong in the bike community. I don't look like it. I don't know much about it. I don't race or build bikes or wear bike gear. Clara isn't special. But I ride my bike.
In one train ride...
Red winged blackbirds on reeds. I know they're an ag pest, but I can't help but love them.
The redbuds have burst on the Valley floor.
A train station full of Asian-Ams wearing red western wear.
Three times is an omen, but these are some obscure messengers. What could it mean? Does it mean that I should put on a tight shirt and deep red lipstick and go out in San Francisco tomorrow night? I THINK IT DOES.
Thursday, March 06, 2008
What a strange thought.
My bookshelves? My bookshelves are vast and impressive indeed. So vast that I can not contain them in my house. Instead, I have had built several buildings around this city that are full of nothing but books for me. I have so many books in these buildings that I also retain a staff to take care of them and fetch me books at my whim. This is lovely. I send them a quick note through the internets and they promptly inform me that my book is at the closest of my buildings. My people remember my name and greet me as I enter; they have also set out about the building very many other of my books, in case I feel like browsing on this visit. They change those books frequently. They are so attentive to my needs. I love them.
I suppose that my huge collection is impressive, to those that are impressed by quantity. But out of my innate generosity, I let other people also read my books. Sometimes I see these other people in my buildings and smile to myself, thinking how happy they look with the crumbs that fall from my table. Enjoy yourselves, little people, with literature! Better your minds with my books!
When you look at bookcases, you are deciding whether to be impressed? Really? You are not looking hungrily at the unread ones, trying to memorize titles and wondering if it would be rude to your host to take one over to that sunny spot and ignore her all afternoon? It would never occur to me to be self-conscious about my bookshelf. Do you have any idea how many books I read? And how small a slice of them end up on my shelves permanently? Any particular collection of books is going to leave out the rest, some of which were light entertainment and some of which were hefty and thoughtful. I used to be self-conscious about reading so much, because I got made fun of for that. But I am not self-conscious about which books I read. They're just books! Next week's will be different!
People want their bookshelves to impress people? Why? Impressing people is just about the last thing I want to do. Impressing people is what happens by accident, if I let it slip about the graduate degrees or get provoked into a detailed rant or explanation. Up until I impress people, they're friendly and casual and open and tell me things. We chat along and I have what I want, which is to hear what people think. Once people are impressed, they get weird and start monitoring themselves or deferring to me, which does not get me the interactions I want. There are a few people who, once impressed, drop their filters and give me freer, more technical and astute conversations. But most people are less free, less forthcoming after being impressed. I am constantly on guard against that. Why on earth would I want my bookshelf to make the problem worse?
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Back on my bike! Almonds in bloom! Snow on the Sierras!
And now I’m home and everything’s right. I don’t know if it is worth being proud of, but my life is so complicated that simply pulling it off smoothly gives me a happy charge. My systems are working! It was easy to get on BART last night, because my BART ticket was right where it should be! I rode up to the train station with two minutes to spare and zero fear, because I had my ticket from before! I brought the right keys for Sacramento, so I could lock my bike! It worked this time, and that is enough for relief. This morning, I had time to shower**, pack breakfast, pick greens from my garden, stop for coffee, call Sherry, and pack, all with a nephew on my hip or underfoot. This means I am on a train with coffee and breakfast, watching the bay***, and writing to you and chair dancing to music in my earphones. Perfect!
Mostly, though, I think it is the daylight. So much beautiful light, from a sky that’s still a little thin, but getting bluer. Light to exhilarate my soul and give me the energy to do everything I think of. You can make fun of me for resenting a California winter, but it is dull and grey and you have to pull strength out of your self just to make it though your chores. Not spring and summer, though. In spring, the energy floods into you with the light. Waking is easy, with a mind full of happy plans for the garden and for picnic tables with chips and salsa and strings of colored lanterns and playing catch and swimming. Life is getting righter every day and not a minute too soon.
*I do like the idea of stacking rocks as a hobby. I like to think that if I were pagan and there were no internet to keep me out of trouble, I’d be out moving boulders around. I suppose there’s nothing to stop me, and yet I never do it. Maybe McKinley Park needs a menhir?
**The nephews like to watch people shower and the door doesn’t lock. It was a little odd at first, to look down and see the biggest sets of eyes ever, watching very intently. Well, hello. It is their great joy to bring you a towel when you finish. My sister says she finishes her shower, then says casually “I sure wish I had a towel”, at which they shout for joy and run to get her one. OK. Thanks, kid.
***Who are you freaks who think it is OK to sit backwards on the train? No no no no no. You sit portside, so you can see the bay for forty minutes, and you look forward, so you know if there’s going to be something to see, like a container ship.
I would pay it twice over.
Ma cousine has two step-daughters, almost six and nine. They are lovely, bright-eyed, sharp, energetic. The younger is something of a force. Last night she came out of her room, late. She cuddled in my lap, then told me in the saddest little voice that she was hungry. I felt terrible for that neglected little girl, so I let her lead me to the kitchen, where she mentioned that a bonbon would be just the thing, so maybe I could reach them down for her? Cookies would be fine, too. Now, I am an American rube, hopelessly naïve and eternally optimistic. I don’t pretend that I can match the sophistication of Old World guile, honed by centuries of Machiavellian politicking. But neither did I arrive in the last rain (as we say here in France), and I know that the answer to “can I have a late night cookie?” is “what would your papa say?” He did in fact come collect her shortly after that, and the last thing I heard as they walked back to her room was “we eat at the table.”
She is a relentless pest to her older sister. She puts her hands in her sister’s face, close as she can get without touching. She snuck into the bathroom while her sister showered, stole her pajamas, turned out the light and held the door closed from the outside. She provokes her sister into fighting, then runs to a grown-up for protection. Her technique is most excellent; I haven’t seen such a proficient and ferocious pest since I left Oakland. My sister doesn’t use her skills much anymore, but in her day, she was as good as any younger sister who ever lived. It was my sister’s great misfortune that I was born boring. I didn’t want to mess with my sister, pick on her or start fights. I just wanted to read and I was happy to read all the time. She says it made her crazy to watch me, just sitting there, reading some more, so BORING. Well, she could fix that.
The goal, of course, is the inarticulate howl of rage just before the charge. That sweet sound is the whole reward. The skill lies in how quickly you can get the older sibling to the howl. My sister still savors it, although indirectly. Watching on the playground, she’ll hear the cry go up and nod to herself. “That was a good one.” It is dangerous sustenance, followed as it is by a raging older sister. But when that is the music your soul feeds on, you get right up to the edge of violence and then you dance.
It isn’t easy, being the oldest. Some things come easy, like being most loved by your parents and the smartest and prettiest. That’s just natural. But having younger siblings makes life hard. There’s the fact that you get blamed for fights even when they totally started it*. Younger siblings can tell when your parents hold you responsible for whether all the chores got done, and they slink off, leaving the kitchen counters unwiped, even though that is their job and they know it. There’s the part about they get to tag along with you and be friends with your friends, but it doesn’t work the other way ‘cause who wants to hang out with a bunch of kids? There’s the terrible day when your parents tell you that if you want to keep doing tkd, you can never hit your sister again. Worse, they also told her. Mostly, there is the ceaseless, constant pestiness. The pestiness that never ends. Being pestered. For years and years.
There is consolation for the years of looking after and suffering from your younger siblings. They grow into interesting people, who do not steal the book you’re reading and run hell for leather to the bathroom, slam and lock the door between you and your book. If you’re lucky, she’ll become the essential invincible friend, the one who will stand by you no matter what happens, because you are sisters and you can’t ever not be sisters. That goes both ways, for youngers and olders, but if life works the way it should, you get one final benefit from being the oldest. If you are the oldest, you should die first, and you will never have to live in a world with no parents and no siblings. You will not be left in a world where no one remembers your childhood and that your parents were beautiful and where you used to play. If you are the oldest, you should not have to be alone in a world where your past left first. The thought of a world without my sisters and brother is so terrible to me that I’m not sure how you onlies make it through your days, but if nature works as it should, I’ll never have to face that. I can hope for that, knowing that it was worth every bit of extra responsibility and the endless torment of pestiness.
*You can check whether a woman has a younger sister by looking at her forearms. Turn her forearms up and check for a set of crescent-shaped scars that would fit a little hand. That’s where the vicious little brutes set their nails and gouge, drawing blood. They aren’t as innocent as they look. Do not be fooled by the big eyes.