Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tyger, Tyger, by William Blake

Feeling like I didn't have anything to say today, I thought I'd share a favorite poem. So I had to think of one. And the first one I thought of, I couldn't find a copy of it. This is the second one. This is actually not a poem that I love for itself, but I have a great deal of respect for it. That's because when I read it to a class of restless fifth graders, just average 10-year-olds, they stayed quiet and were mesmerized by it. So I know it's got something special, and I'll keep trying to see what it is.

Tyger, Tyger
by William Blake (1757-1827)

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand?& what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Monday, January 30, 2006

Exxon Mobil

The Washington Post reports today that Exxon-Mobil broke the record for corporate profits in 2005: $36.13 billion. Profits were up 43 percent from the year before. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina helped the oil companies' bottom line by contributing to higher prices. Can you spell R-E-G-U-L-A-T-I-O-N? Surely we could tax these companies a little more without danger of the slippery slope to socialism?

I remember when "my generation" understood the evil that the oil companies represented. I remember when it was taken for granted that they were the enemy. And I say that advisedly, knowing that oil company profits paid for my piano lessons and the food I ate as a child. Still, oil is a natural resource, like air or water, and there really is no reason why it shouldn't belong to everyone. At the very least, the government (that is, the people) should not tolerate profiteering of the type that allows oil companies to benefit from natural disaster. It's just common sense.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


I was thinking about "gay humor" the other day--what got me started was a New Yorker article that I thought was really funny, but Danielle didn't really get it, and then she said, "oh, is it that they are supposed to be gay?" and that made me consciously realize that the humor depended on thinking that the way gay men act--that is, the stereotype of the way flamboyantly gay men act--is inherently funny. And I thought, why does that seem wrong, because gay men themselves are the ones who created this genre of humor. It's gay humor.

Then I thought of minstrel shows. And Spike Lee's fabulous and underrated movie, Bamboozled, which is so brilliant I can't really sum it up, except to say that it explored the subject of the minstrel show in a very original way. And my thoughts on minstrel shows were, not only were they funny, but black people thought they were funny, and in fact, black people themselves invented the genre, it was "black" entertainment. And today it is pretty much universally accepted that minstrel shows are offensive and degrading to blacks.

Then I thought about Stepin Fetchit, and I was interested to find my brain compartmentalized to this extent: I know that the character is offensive and racist, but if I am honest, he is also very funny. And I realized with a start that I have said "There's nobody in here but us chickens!" within the past week, and people recognize the line and it is still funny, after more than 50 years and all the water under the bridge.

So back to gay humor. I am afraid that all the self-deprecation and stereotype exaggeration is a version of the minstrel show, especially when it is copied by people who are not gay (are white people in blackface more offensive than Stepin Fetchit?) and I think that in the future when gay people are finally accepted into society in an equal way, the face of humor will change.

But I need to think about this some more. And I will take this opportunity to recommend Bamboozled, with this caveat: watch it with an open mind. I honestly don't think Spike Lee is trying to offend anybody, although I guess he thinks if you are offended, it's your problem, not his.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Guest Blogger, ArtistAlice

People say that there are no seasons in Florida, but that’s simply not true. The unbroken summer grows to fit its own seasons: rainy season, hurricane season, tourist season, and off-season. It was during the off-season, a particularly dry month, that I first visited the Loxahachee River. My father and I woke up before the sun, packed a mass of egg salad sandwiches and seltzer water cans into a cooler and headed out west, hitting the highway that soon disappeared into a paved strip lost among swamp. The sun had risen by the time we reached the Canoe Outpost. There were peacocks, strutting and elusive, dotting the grounds around the low buildings and racks of weathered canoes. I found a feather that was fated to be lost in the murky river depths later in the day. We wrestled our canoe into the water, watched by creatures hidden behind the submerged logs and spindly cypress knees. It was not unusual to see a lazy alligator slide from the deep shade into the mossy brown-green water, minding its own business. The scene was reverent; choruses of insects droned content and far away from the shore. We launched the canoe, struggling to figure out the complexities of balancing strokes and rhythm of paddles against the swirling, sluggish water. Left, right, more on the left, quick!

Over the years, since that first visit, I have returned over and over again--when the river was high and violent, with friends in tow. The things I love about the river are always the same: the thrill of an adventure, the sheer beauty of nature, and the joy of sharing the experience with someone. There are two sections to the bit of Loxahatchee that is readily accessible from the canoe outpost. The slow, winding section, passing leisurely through shady depths, and the wide open rushing half, under the bright sun. We opted, the first time, with the water tame and the downstream current mild, to travel to the edge of the wooded section, turn around, and come back. Leaving was easy enough – the water is deep and the river a decent width. But it was a dry month, and we were soon to realize it would not be all simple paddling. We reached the first submerged log with some bewilderment and cautious debate. Attempted to surge over, and failed. Attempted to pull back and maneuver around, and failed. It took chest-deep wading, precarious balance and a great deal of levering and shoving. That was the first of many. We were suddenly early explorers, forging through dangerous wilds, pitting our wits against the landscape and trying to keep the water out of our trusty canoe and out of our egg-salad sandwiches.

But the fallen logs were not the last challenge. It was the dam that did us in. It was a sudden drop, a miniature man-made waterfall made of slanted logs. There was a place to hoist your canoe and carry it on one side, and down a dry ramp to the other side. Ramps, surely, were for those other canoers. We were daring explorers. We capsized. We had to dive for our supplies and hats. The sandwiches, thankfully, survived in the ark of our blue plastic cooler. A few hours later, we took a break, and fished, tying hooks to fishing line, to long scavenged sticks, and casting out. We didn’t catch much. I jumped into deep parts of the river from a fallen tree, exalted at the danger and thrill of falling through the air into murky uncertain water, the cool slimy caress of underwater growth or a fish making me jump.

I have always felt a grand affinity for having adventures, and the river certainly always proved itself to be one. I am a city girl. Even growing up in the small, artsy island village of Key West, I am unaccustomed to landscape without hotels or McDonalds, or litter on the sidelines. The Loxahachee is always perfectly maintained. Maybe once or twice, during all of my visits, have I seen a soda can, or a piece of discarded paper. It is a wonderful setting to lose oneself in fantasy. Sometimes, through the stretch, we would pass houses. And once or twice, a highway would stretch out an overpass across the river, throwing a bar of shadow over the shimmering water, and adding the sound of automobiles to the drone of too many insects. Nothing is untouched by the modern world, anymore, not completely. But I do remember that it was so close I barely even noticed.

The Loxahachee River is protected by the government as a natural reserve. It is cleaned, protected, preserved in its current state. My memories, along with the thoughts and experiences of thousands of other humans, canoers, explorers, children and parents all nestle in the shady bends and wide stretches of green water. My father and I are both a lot older now, than we were then. He doesn’t have as much paddling strength, and I haven’t as much of my old spirit of adventure. But we both faithfully attempt – and try to avoid going when it is too dry, or too overflowing and wild. We leave our city life behind and bask in nature. I remember my adventures, I remember the trees and cypress knees and alligators, even if we only go for a few hours now, not the whole day. In the end, it is not about how much of the river we conquer. After all, the point really is the time spent with my dad and the memories we created together.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Cat

I'm not what you would call a cat-lover, or even an animal-lover. I like dogs when they are well-trained, but I wouldn't have one because I don't want to commit to The Daily Walk--even though I habitually exercise early in the morning, I like to think it's because I choose to do it, not because I have to.

My daughter really likes cats. She was much too young (2 1/2) when my husband brought home the first kitten. But she not only loved that kitten, she really became convinced that she was a cat herself. Maybe the way birds think the first large moving object they see is their mother, she saw that cat as a sibling on some elemental level. That kitten was given away after about 6 months when we moved out of state, but the idea was firmly planted in Danielle's mind.

I never supported the idea of having a cat, because I was always the one buying the catfood, changing the litter box, paying for the shots, etc. But Danielle always wanted one, and at some point during middle school I told her if she got straight A's she could have one. She achieved that goal about halfway through high school. She was thrilled to have her own cat at last, and was pretty good about taking care of her. Now, while Danielle is at college, the cat is all mine.

Lily. She's all black except for the tips of her paws and her whiskers, and a little white bib. She is a small cat, she's energetic but serene, independent but also cuddly. She's the perfect cat. She's on my lap right now while I'm typing this. But if I needed to get up, she would jump down and go on with her life, with no whining.

I give Danielle full credit for choosing Lily out of all the possible candidates at the animal shelter. I've known different cats--some are all over you all the time, waking you up when you want to sleep, getting between your feet when you want to cross the room, climbing the curtains, undecorating the Christmas tree. Some are shy and standoffish, won't let anyone pet them, disappear for days at a time. Some do nothing but eat and sleep. Danielle picked the right one. I wouldn't miss Lily if she weren't here, but I don't mind having her hanging around. She's a good cat.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I'm Sorry

An article in today's paper includes a picture of two U.S. Naval officers bowing to their Japanese counterparts in apology for some crimes committed by American servicemen in Japan. The article says, "it is hard to overstate" the importance of the apology in Japanese culture. My friend Setsuko and I may not agree about polar bears and penguins, but we do agree about the importance of apologies. A few years ago, the U.S. bombed a Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, then said it was a mistake. The reports I'm reading now all say the U.S. issued a full apology. But the way I remember it, there was some delay while NATO/U.S. considered their options, and there seemed to be some doubt as to whether an apology would be forthcoming. I remember this because I wrote my own apology and sent it to the Chinese embassy the day after the bombing.

This afternoon, I crossed a street in a crosswalk in front of a truck that was at a red light waiting to turn right. As I started in front of him, he started to go, and for a second it looked like he would hit me. Luckily, he stopped in time, and as I continued on, I said, "Sorry!" Anytime somebody bumps into me, I always apologize. In English, I'm sorry can mean, I regret my actions, or I regret the situation. In French, I would say, "Je suis désolée"--I am very sad. In Spanish, it's "lo siento"--I feel it, it hurts me. Anyway, it's not an absolute statement that the person apologizing is guilty of something. It's just courtesy, and I think it's the right thing to do, apologize right away, and you can always argue later about whose fault the situation was.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I guess one reason I read so many books as a child was because I didn't have so many great magazines as I have now. I had subscriptions, first to American Girl, then Seventeen. But now, every month, I generally read Smithsonian, National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Wired. And that's not mentioning the New York Times and Washington Post weekly Sunday magazines. And not even starting with Salon.com, or the recently discovered (by me) online version of The New Yorker. It is a wonder that I ever read a book.

But I don't know how much the magazines are a cause and how much they are a symptom. My increasing attention to the internet and multitasking as a way of life seems to have decreased my tolerance for sitting still, focusing on a single narrative for long periods of time. I have recently found it more difficult to read books because I am impatient to get on with the next activity, whatever it might be. I kind of hope this is just a phase I'm going through.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cute!!! (Not)

There was a story in the newspaper today about a snake and a hamster in a zoo in Japan. The zookeepers put the hamster in the snake's cage for it to eat. But the snake didn't want to eat the hamster so they became "friends," with the hamster even cuddling up to the snake and sleeping on top of it. I knew my friend Setsuko would love that story. She thinks the March of the Penguins is the best movie ever made, except maybe for this other movie she saw recently about a man who raised a polar bear from a cub, and it was so cute, and also wasn't it so great when the tortoise made friends with the hippopotamus after the tsunami, and so on...

I find the snake and hamster story disturbing. I'm sure the snake will eat the hamster when it gets hungry enough. I don't know what makes me different from people who can appreciate "cute," but I know J.D. Salinger understands, because he has Seymour Glass, his most highly-esteemed character, explain it to his young wife, Muriel. "I mentioned R. H. Blythe's definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it. I said (sententiously?) that God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws."

I think they should show that cute polar bear movie as a double feature with Grizzly Man, the movie about the guy who sentimentalized grizzly bears and got himself and his girlfriend killed and eaten as a result.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sunday at the Homeless Shelter

My interfaith organization, JAM & All, did a service project at our local homeless shelter yesterday. The concept was pretty simple. We collected personal care supplies in tote bags, so that each bag had a complete set of soap, towel, shampoo, etc., and brought them to the shelter, and then we had crafts and games for the kids and served refreshments. It was pretty successful, I'd say; we had a good turnout. Of the JAM members that showed up, most were Muslim, but there was a good mix, including some people who came from the community because they saw the notice in the newspaper.

I spent my time with a little five-year-old girl named Jalisa. We talked and read some stories and poems and made a bag with her name on it. She was very smart and sweet. I told her mother, "I used to have a little girl, but she grew up." The people at the shelter, especially the women and children, seemed far from hopeless. Having children is a kind of handicap women have that makes it very difficult to get a job, because daycare costs money and you don't have money until you work, and you can't work if you don't have daycare. Why we don't have government daycare, that's a mystery, possibly explained by the predominance of men and rich people in government.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Random Blog-Surfing

I just clicked on "next blog" and found a nice site--Bina007 does movie reviews from a British viewpoint. She has reviews of movies I haven't even heard of. She has strong opinions and doesn't hesitate to express them. I'm probably just in a very accepting mood today, but that's good, too. I'm putting Bina on my blogroll.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


In 1984, Tocci and I visited Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We spent four weeks on Hispanola; we meant to go to Jamaica, too, but Haiti was so interesting we stayed there longer instead. We had adventures and learned about life in the third world. We gained an appreciation for what the necessities of life are. Food, shelter, water.

They had water in barrels that didn't seem clean enough to wash with, and that was their drinking water. They washed their clothes in the river that they dumped the city sewage into. We spoke to a man who had lived in Canada for a few years. He said he had no problems drinking the water in Haiti, when he lived there, but when he returned from his time in Canada and drank the Haitian water, he became very sick. We drank bottled water. The locals mostly couldn't afford that, and in fact the bottles were themselves valuable enough that kids would follow us to get the empties when we were done with them. All over the country, in developed areas, there was plumbing but no running water, and that made it seem even more of a deprivation, because you could see they used to have it, like having a well that has run dry.

When we flew back into Miami, we looked down from the plane and we saw, from horizon to horizon, back yard swimming pools. Private pools with hundreds--thousands--of gallons of water that was a higher quality than anything the people of Haiti had access to. And our two countries are so close to each other; these people are not on the other side of the world. They are our geographic neighbors. I could never look at a swimming pool or a tap the same way again.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Art in Everyday Life

One test of art is whether you get tired of it after a while. The best art is not tedious or tiresome. This is a painting we've had in our living room for a while and I like it better all the time. It is pretty large, about 40"x50" and it is painted on cardboard.

The use of color is minimal, and the light is very interesting. The subject matter is strikingly original--it keeps surprising me every time I look at it. It's a pear, looking off the edge of some sort of girder, into the chasms of a city. There is light where the pear's face would be; is that hope? The artist assures me that the pear is not suicidal, or even sad. The Writing on the Wall is somewhat ominous, basically, "Creative Poetry by the Numbers" and blah, blah, blah. The buildings are cold and impersonal, at the same time that I want to anthropomorphize them and think of them as watching the scene, because the pear naturally appears to have consciousness, since it is the center of attention and seems to be leaning out over the depths.

I am soothed by the warm browns and the regular lines, and the girder seems to offer a pathway back to the world for the protagonist, once he has finished contemplating his situation. I really like this painting. I think I'll keep it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Practice Makes Perfect

Today I spent some time thinking about why I'm writing on this website every day. I decided it it the perfect combination of obscurity and accountability because

1) I can be pretty sure that almost nobody will read what I write, and so I don't have to be self-conscious or worry about creating a world-wide scandal; and at the same time,

2) Anybody in the universe could read it on a given day. Hundreds of people have been provided with the link, including some people who know me and whose opinion I value, and so I'm motivated to keep the quality at a reasonably high level, and not to be lazy about posting.

I hope that the more I write, the easier it will be to put my thoughts into words, and to remember the fleeting ideas that pass through my head every day, to capture them occasionally and get them into paragraph form.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

E Prime

Imagine, if you will, a version of the English language that has no passive voice. A language that also does not assert any unsubstantiated opinion or observation as a fact. A reasonable person would surely support such a language. It exists, and it goes by the name E Prime. Or E-Prime.

This subject doesn't really lend itself to unfettered ranting, because I feel constrained without my state-of-being verbs. My mind keeps trying to revert to its old habits, and can only be kept on course by continual vigilence that inhibits verbosity. On the other hand, the average number of syllables in the words I use increases when I write in E-Prime. Whether readers find that desirable or not, who knows. The density of the prose definitely increases.

Some scientists like to use E-Prime for their reports. I don't think it will catch on in literary circles. I have considered converting this blog to E-Prime only, but I don't make any commitments yet.

I believe I can restrict my Achenblog comments to E-Prime; at least I can keep it going as long as Joel can. He has the harder task: E-Prime humor. I look forward to seeing whether he can do it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

1599. The book of this title by James Shapiro is a mixture of history and literary studies. Shapiro spent fifteen years researching a single year in history, with a focus on a single individual's place in and reaction to the events of his time. Today I reached what is probably the climax of the book: Shapiro's analysis of Hamlet. He makes a convincing argument that Hamlet is a microcosm of the conflicts wrenching England in 1599. The Catholic Church had been defeated, the age of chivalry was over. Elizabeth was old, surely soon to die. The date itself, 1599, marks the end of an era as the cosmic odometer gets ready to turn over to 1600. The English were trying to subdue Ireland, but they were failing, and the Spanish Armada was a looming threat. The character of Hamlet, torn between an old style of life, characterized by chivalry (represented by the revenge of his father's death), and a new way of life that he can't fully imagine, is paralyzed on the brink of action, just as England seemed to be powerless in the grip of history at that moment.

Shapiro's analysis is really fascinating. One of the reader reviews on Amazon says, "...there is only one test of a book on Shakespeare: does it send you back to reread the plays." I look forward to reading Hamlet again with the new background information I learned from Shapiro's book.

Here's a little Shakespeare trivia: Hamlet has more different words in it than any other Shakespeare play. It's hard for us to read Shakespeare because the words are often unfamiliar to us. What I never knew before now is that many of the words were also unfamiliar to Shakespeare's contemporary audiences, because Shakespeare made them up, or used real words in fanciful contexts that expanded their use beyond the commonplace.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Eugene V. Debs

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them, because we still face the same problems and people haven't changed. Another great American whose words are still valuable is less quoted: Eugene Debs.

This is probably his most famous quotation:

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

--Eugene V. Debs, Founder of the American Railway Union

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Electronic Voting

Fred Grimm has an important message in today's Miami Herald. Bottom line: voting by computer is not a reliable method in the absence of a printed verification. I'll let him tell it.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Merchant of Venice

I just watched a dvd of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. It was better than I had expected. I had a copy of the play in my hand as I watched, so I know it was edited quite a bit, to replace unfamiliar words and leave out some scenes to make it shorter. But they added in some very good dramatic action, and the scenery, costumes and cinematography were excellent. The issue of anti-semitism was dealt with in a completely self-conscious way, very Hollywood-liberal. The director went out of his way to make Shylock a sympathetic character.

From just reading the play and various commentaries, I was willing to believe Shakespeare was anti-semitic; after all, he couldn't help being a product of his culture. But now I think it doesn't matter what he personally believed, because he wrote balanced accounts, with no particular ax to grind. He just wanted complex characters, a conflict and a resolution. The Merchant of Venice has all of those.

I suppose when I finish reading A Year in the Life of William Shakepeare, I should read James Shapiro's earlier book, Shakespeare and the Jews, and then I will know more about the issues brought up by The Merchant of Venice.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

I had the day off from work, and went on an outing with the family. We drove to the south end of Interstate 95 and then kept going south for a while and then east and there we were at the Fairchild Gardens. It is an enormous plot of land dedicated to the study and preservation of all kinds of tropical plants. Right now the gardens are also the site of an exhibit of glass art by Dale Chihuly. We took a lot of photos, so I'm sharing pictures in lieu of trying to describe the artwork.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have no illusions about being able to write anything that is worthy of Dr. King, but I want to remember him here on the Read-Think-Live blog today, since his holiday is coming up on Monday.

Dr. King was assassinated 38 years ago. He was only 39 years old when he died. If he hadn't been killed, he could have still been alive today. That's all I'm thinking about today, how young he was, and how much more he could have done.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Weird Habits

Thanks again to the foma master for giving me something to write about. Yellojkt, I guess I should apply for membership to your SAO-15. [uh-oh, Achenblog in-joke]

I am not really a big "habit" person. I like to do things differently every time. Of course, I don't succeed, but if I notice I've done something the same way a few times I will make a conscious effort to change it. My next-desk-neighbor at work is just the opposite. She eats exactly the same food for lunch every day, at exactly the same time. She does her weekly shopping, cleans her house, puts gas in her car, calls her mother, and so on, the same way every time. I tell her I'm going to lunch at a different time every day to convince her I'm a Wild and Crazy Gal. You know me, I say, I'm crazy, you never know what I'll do! Lunch at 11:45, at 12:10, at 12:17--whew, I really live life on the wild side.

So I don't know if I have five weird habits. But I know I have one, so we'll start there.

1. When my daughter was a baby, I never gave her a pacifier or a bottle without putting in my mouth first, to "clean" it. When she got older and started drinking out of cups, I continued the practice by taking a sip out of her drink before I gave it to her. She complains, but I still do it, and she's 18 now. I think it's a healthy practice, that I'm giving her antibodies. She has enjoyed good health all her life, so I feel vindicated.

2. Whenever I pass by a house, I imagine what it would be like to live there. What would the world look like from that porch? How big are the bedrooms? Would I change the landscaping? I'm kind of obsessive about it. It's a remnant of the days when I believed home ownership was forever out of reach for me, but now I do own a house, so the fantasizing is less poignant.

3. A habit I had when I was in college: I used to go to movies all the time, and I would always watch the movie through twice. Sometimes I would go to a multiscreen theater, watch one movie twice and then go to another screen and watch another movie twice. Harvard Square Theater used to have "A Different Double Feature Every Day"--I think it cost $1.00. I went there a lot, and I always watched both features, sometimes I watched both features twice. Now, I don't have time to do it anymore, but on the rare occasions that I am home alone on a weekend, I have been known to get three or four movies and watch them straight through.

4. When I punch out at work, the time clock says, "Beep, beep." And I always say, "Beep, beep." in reply, whether or not there is anybody nearby to hear me.

5. I like to eat my dinner one food at a time. Last night I ate all my fish, then all my potato and then all my green beans.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Bicycling Lifestyle

[Yellojkt, thanks for giving me a topic for today. I started to answer in the comments and it turned into a full length rant.]

I got a free copy of Bicycling magazine last month and they had an article about the "invisible bikers," these are people who ride their bikes because they can't afford cars or don't have a driver’s license. Apparently the magazine's target audience is largely unaware of the real world around them, and the existence of these people is news to them. One of the characteristics of these poor unfortunate invisible ones is that they ride inexpensive bikes, like (*gasp*) Huffys, that they buy at like, (no!) WalMart. Well, I guess I fall between the bicycle cracks, because I ride a Huffy one-speed coaster brake bike that I bought at Sports Authority for $99.99. I do have a car and a driver’s license, but when my car was stolen last summer I explored alternative methods of commuting to work and discovered that I really like riding my bike instead of driving. (My car was recovered, unharmed, after two days.) It’s about seven miles from my house to my job and most of the way I have dedicated bike lanes. The weather in south Florida is great for biking year-round. In the summer, I just have to wipe off the sweat before I change into my work clothes, and be sure to apply sunscreen. If it rains, I get wet; I just keep my work clothes in a plastic bag. That doesn’t happen very often.

This weekend I watched a short biography of Michael Palin, called “Comic Roots.” It showed his childhood home and schools, and it incidentally showed quite a bit of casual bike-riding. When Michael wanted to go from one place to another, he hopped on his bike. If it was cold, he put on his overcoat, and rode away on the bike. He is a living advertisement for biking as transportation. He has obviously been riding all his life and he is in excellent physical condition. That is the kind of bicyclist I would like to be. It helps that I lived in Key West for ten years or so, and never had a car when I lived there. We went everywhere by bicycle.

Up here in America, my biking behavior is considered eccentric, but I’m used to "dancing to a different drummer", so that's okay. Most of the people I work with are unaware that I ride my bike to work, just as they also don't know that I buy my "power suits" at Salvation Army. But that's another blog item.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Look, Up in the Sky...

When I arrive at the building where I work, I am mild-mannered Clark Kent: glasses, blue jeans, sneakers, no makeup. I go into the downstairs bathroom and when I emerge, voila, Superman: power suit, high heels, makeup, contact lenses, name badge, I'm good to go. The people in the office upstairs never even know the alter ego, bicycle woman. But now I have a question, after carrying my "gym bag" in and out of the building for six months or so. When Superman came out of the phone booth, where was his suit? His glasses? Did he just leave them behind and buy new ones every time? I can't believe that until I went through this myself, I never thought of it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Epiphany Sunday

Today's the day that the church commemorates the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus. It's a complicated, confusing story and I have never understood what the "epiphany" is exactly. But I do have an Epiphany story:

A few years ago, I was teaching Sunday School, the kindergarten class, and on the first Sunday in January, only one little boy showed up. I was kind of cranky anyway, what with the post-Christmas blahs and so on, and I just plowed ahead with the lesson about the three wise men. At some point in the lesson I got out the Bible and read the story aloud--it's only a few verses long. The little boy was listening, and towards the end of the story, he interrupted with a question. A big question. "Do you mean," he said, "that God is REAL?"

Now, that is an epiphany. I don't know what it was about the story of the wise men that prompted the synapses of his six-year-old brain to put that thought together. But somehow, it was the power of the scripture, I can't take any credit at all. I don't know where he went from there, either, but I think once you have had that thought, you can never really go back. I know I can't.


The story of the Magi, and for that matter, the whole Christmas story, depends greatly on people's receiving messages from God through angels and dreams. And this year, on the eve of Epiphany, I had a relevant dream, the kind you could easily say was a message from God.

Last night, I dreamed that the pastor of my church presented me with a bill, for a whole list of things that I had promised to pay for and the church had spent money for on the strength of my pledge. In the dream, I remembered doing it, it was a legitimate bill. The emotional content of the dream was gratitude, I was so grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to pay what I owed. I did start to reach for my credit card, though, and he said, no, you need to write a check. In this "real world," of course, what I owe to the church can't be settled with a financial donation. They need me to be there and participate in the program. So, even though it was cold* and I was depressed and grumpy, I got dressed and rode my bike to the early service today. And I feel better for it.

God is great.

*okay, it's relatively cold, in a South Florida sort of way: I wore a turtleneck and a sweater--it's about 55 degrees.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Banned Achenshirt

We've been talking about Achenblog t-shirts for a long time on the blog, and I probably designed the first shirt before anybody brought up the subject. It was during an early phase of the blog when we were discovering our collective interest in language for its own sake and Star Trek was getting more references than either Seinfeld or Monty Python. There was a day when we collaboratively came up with the phrase, "...to boldly blog where no blog has blogged before..." and I thought that would look good on a t-shirt. I asked my daughter to design the shirt: on the front it would say SAO-15, in stencil-lettering, like a government-issued label, very mysterious, with a DC vibe. Then on the back, "...to boldly blog where no blog has blogged before..." and under that, "Achenblog." In another incarnation, the front had the SAO-15 and underneath it had my slogan, "We Know Who We Are." All these designs remain unrealized because the artist daughter never found the time to create the necessary graphics files. But when Achenfan came up with "We click." as a slogan, I asked for that as a belated Christmas present and the kid came through. She even thought of making the word "click" look like an activated hyperlink, which made it so much better. I offered the shirt to the kaboodle through Cafe Press, but Joel didn't cotton to the idea, so I took it offline.

Pixel thought Joel was actually angry, and jw was "sure he was joking." I did an intensive analysis of the kit in question and determined that overall, Joel was Not Amused by the idea of the Achenshirts, but I believe him when he says that he doesn't have the energy to get himself worked up over it. Logically and rationally he can see where he should take umbrage, but his personality just doesn't have an active 'rage department. I guess he's like the city of Atlanta, "too busy to hate."

Meanwhile, everyone except Joel seemed to love the shirts. Five people bought them in the brief time they were for sale, and people were begging Joel to find some way to provide them with Achenstuff--they would pay extra to charity, they would come up with the designs themselves, and so on.

I hope that Joel, upon reflection, will realize that the Achenshirt is entirely an homage to Himself, meant as an offering and a tribute, and that the kaboodlers only want to own and wear the Achenblog logo because he has created this great place in cyberspace where we can meet and laugh and share thoughts. When he says he has no control over the kaboodle he is wrong, because, in fact, we will do anything he says (except go away).

Update, 1/8/06: Joel clarifies:

[In-blog news: Just to be perfectly clear for once, I actually liked the Achenblog T-shirts and the We Click motto. I was pretending to take umbrage. That was the "fake umbrage" voice. Also I am hoping we can also find a way to merchandise some Carbucks coffee mugs.]

Friday, January 06, 2006

East of Eden

Here's a book I resisted for a long time--I thought it was that story about the two brothers that they made into a James Dean movie. That movie was nothing special.

Imagine my surprise to find that the novel is a big, brawling, philosophical tome, a passionate dissertation on the fourth chapter of Genesis and the question of free will. I read it through, all 602 pages, and then I opened it up to page one and read it again. I think this is the only book that has ever had that effect on me. I don't know if it is significant that the key passage is EXACTLY in the middle of the book, on page 301, where Lee tells Samuel about his study of the Genesis passage, and spells out the theme of the book. Steinbeck is kind to his readers. He's friendly. He tells you the story and he even tells you what the story is about. I appreciate that. It may be that the whole book is perfectly symmetrical--someday I may do a study about that. In the meantime, I'm satisfied that it is nicely balanced, and crafted by a master.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Franny and Zooey

J.D. Salinger is a master of the written word. His short stories are wonderful, and his short novels are great, too. I'm glad Catcher in the Rye made him rich and famous, even though it's my least favorite of his books. For some reason, his other books didn't reach people en masse; they are, what, too esoteric for the general public?

Franny and Zooey is about the Glass family, as are all Salinger's books, in one way or another. All seven of the Glass siblings are geniuses. And they all have somewhat normal lives in spite of that handicap. Seymour is the most gifted and has the most difficulty in adjusting to the world, and in the end he commits suicide, but up until the moment he kills himself, he is striving to be happy, trying to live in this everyday world, and to understand how other people, who do not happen to be geniuses, manage to survive. Franny, the youngest in the family, is born when Seymour and Buddy, the two oldest, are on the brink of adulthood. They decide that the right way to raise her is to teach her about spirituality before she learns anything else. So now she is not only a genius, but a saint-in-training. Franny and Zooey is the story of how she completes her education, finally coming to an understanding that spirituality can be the key to happiness, when you can see how it connects with the real world. The story is told with great humor. I laughed, I cried, I came away with a slightly different perspective on the world. This is a book that I have used to help me make sense of my life.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

George Eliot

Continuing the theme of Great Novels I Have Read:

George Eliot is one of the authors who floats up near the top of my all-time favorite writers list, and it's because she wrote three books that have provided some of the most intense reading experiences of my life. First, The Mill on the Floss. I came across it in the NYU library when I was about 24 years old. I believe I had never read any of her books until then. The Mill on the Floss is a well-told, entertaining story, but the reason it struck me was the characters, especially the main character who was a girl with a free spirit, trapped in a tight-laced social environment, and her brother, who loved her but expressed his love mainly through oppression.

After I finished The Mill on the Floss I read Silas Marner. I had assumed that Silas Marner was a dull book, because it's one that high school students are often forced to read and they complain about it. I was so shocked to find that it is a nearly perfect short novel, touching and profound. It has been a book that I have gone back to many times and have enjoyed it each time as much as I did the first.

The third Eliot novel that I really love is Romola and it is quite different from the others. It is a historical novel and is less highly regarded by the literati. But the moral content is amazing. Eliot's insights into human nature are so incisive they can take my breath away. She just sets the stage, adds a few details, and then suddenly shows the truth in a way that it's never been seen before.

Eliot's accomplishments are even more impressive given the social environment she lived in--a world where it was deemed necessary for her to use a man's name in order to be taken seriously as an author. She is an inspiration to me on many levels.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Read More Novels

Hooray for January 2005, the month of Just Read More Novels (click on the icon for more information.) I don't know how many novels I'm going to read this month, but I thought I would weigh in for a few days on Novels that Have Changed My Life.

The first one that came to my mind when I thought up this theme (Hooray for themes, more on that later) was A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. I first read it in high school, I believe, and we read it for a class, too, after I had read it on my own. The images affected me very deeply: the child run down by the nobleman's carriage, and the careless way the aristocrat tossed a coin to the child's father; the wine running in the street, forshadowing the blood to come; of course, the women knitting by the guillotine. It definitely changed the way I conceived of social justice and politics.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Repairs for the New Year

Something to celebrate in the new year: We have our Florida room back. We got the insurance check just before Christmas and the work will be finished today. It is better than new, built in accordance with the latest building codes, with tie-downs on everything. I joked with the workers that next hurricane season, probably the whole house will blow away, leaving behind just this one section of roofing that they built, covering half a room, standing in an empty lot.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year

Yesterday, I checked out the Washington Post Sunday Magazine online, as I do mostly every Saturday. Achenbach's Rough Draft is funny, as usual ("The Year of You"). Weingarten has found a way to turn an interview with a doctor about butt surgery into a column, no big surprise there. And the cover story, the cover of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, is Dave Barry's big, annual "Year in Review" essay. Wait a minute! That's not a Washington Post story! That is a Miami Herald story. I was really ticked off when I saw it. It set me off again, ranting about the long-defunct Tropic Magazine. Killing Tropic was the most egregiously bad business decision the Herald has ever made. Look what has happened. Achenbach has moved to Washington, where he now plays golf with Bob Woodward instead of helping Floridians with our palmetto bug problems. Tom Shroder is at the Post, editing their magazine instead of breaking ground every week with a fresh, thoughtful Sunday Magazine from Miami. Weingarten has returned to the nation's capital, after his too-brief stint as editor of Tropic. He hired Dave Barry, for God's sake. How do you let a guy like that get away? And now, there's Dave on the cover of the Post Magazine. Carl Hiaasen is still in Miami, and he will probably stay because he loves it here. Ironically, he is the one guy who probably should work for the Washington Post, because his specialty is identifying lying, scumbag politicians.

I will cut this rant short, because this morning when I got up and took a look at the January 1, 2006 Miami Herald, I found that Dave's article is there, with illustrations, on the front page of the Tropical Life secton. So, okay. But they should never have shut down Tropic. That was wrong.


Fred Grimm's column in today's Herald speaks to the question of declining newspaper circulation and the future of newsprint.