March 31, 2003

36 today, although I don’t feel a day over 32. For some people, birthdays seem to be the cue to ruminate over all that hasn't been accomplished. Not me--looking back, so much stuff has happened that it’s a miracle I’ve gotten anything else done.

It’s not possible to do a timeline of everything that’s happened, of course. I wouldn’t want to write it and you wouldn’t want to read it. But since the blogworld is all about technology, I thought I’d sum up a few personal technological highlights of the last 36 years:

1975: Given first typewriter, on which I bang out a number of stories and “novels.” Many of these are lost to posterity (and they intend to stay lost, thank you).
1984: Take Basic programming class at community college. Instead of meeting '80s-style protocyberfreaks, sit next to two elderly ladies who are, it turns out, friends of my grandmother. We all agree the programming seems like a lot of trouble for not very much outcome.
1987: College friend insists on sending something called “e-mail” to her dad, an East Coast professor. This involves setting up a “modem” in the dorm which ties up the “phone line.” It's not very interesting to watch, frankly, and the appearance of the modem usually spells the end of the party.
1989: Witness first use of e-mail for social interaction as college friend e-mails (clueless) guy to ask him to come over and watch movies, or play euchre (or whatever other fascinating things we did). This involves leaving the house and waiting in line at the computer cluster on campus to “log on.” I am stumped, because it seems like it would be a lot easier to just use the telephone.
1990: First use of Macintosh at campus computer cluster, to lay out our zine, Bears on Text. Ben of early Animal Review gives me my first lesson in DTP. I spend hours there keying stuff in and formatting. Back in the real world, I then go home to “paste up.” Then we “photocopy.”
1991: Join my first listserv, for fans of Robyn Hitchcock (maybe the Fegmaniax?) . Can’t wait for the release of Perspex Island.
1994: E. and I take the reins of the Indie-List. Grumpy Sean shows us the ropes. Offhand "dwarf toss" joke follows me into posterity.
1994: Take introductory HTML class. Leave with rudimentary understanding of coding. Nine years later, realize my understanding is still rudimentary.
1995: E. and I crash computer at my office trying to install “Web browser.” I get the dreaded “dead Mac” symbol. Woe is us!
1995: Move to Chicago, get new job. Must learn to use PC.
2000: QAX Project site launches.
2001: Read first “Weblog” which I think was probably this. Could have also been this.
2002: B&W launches, and it’s all history from there.

With a few notable exceptions, I’m very lucky. My life has been been ridiculously sheltered and pampered, compared to a lot of people. I have a job, a nice place to live, good friends and a husband who makes everything possible. There are some things I might change but the bottom line is, all’s well today. Pass the cake!

Posted at 09:20 AM
March 29, 2003
The Weekend Starts Here

I used to work across the street from The Drake, and sometimes when the office politics got too bad I'd go over and sit in the lobby until I cooled off. Hadn't been back in a while, though, so it was fun to go and join the Chicago bloggers at the bar for martinis and birthday cake. Here's a roll call (and a photograph of the bar tab).

Then it was over to the MCA for this event, which included an ECC performance. A harried organizer informed us there were only about 20 minutes left (who knew they'd run the show on time?) and kindly showed us back into the darkened theater, which smelled like a dirty sock. We'd missed seeing Mark, but saw part of a performance by the TV Sheriffs, whose ensemble included a performer dressed in a pink ape costume.

Eventually we managed to locate Mark and trundled his gear outside. Mark drives a hearse, which, remarkably, he'd found a parking place for on Chicago Avenue. It's a nice ride, although I've never found it particularly agreeable to sit in the back for more than a short ride.

Here's Eric in the wayback, more or less comfortable.

Here's me in the front seat, glad not to be in the back. Mark is trying to reattatch his stereo, a process that involved blown fuses and a lot of wires.

And then we were driving through the rain on Lake Shore Drive, sailing along in the hearse. I wish my neighbors had been awake to see it, but the neighborhood was sleeping.

Friday began an extended celebration of my birthday, which is actually Monday. Celebrations have taken a strange turn today as I seem to have some sort of low-grade virus that is making me fall sleep every four hours, kind of like the cats.

Posted at 04:46 PM
March 28, 2003

Another job I'm glad I don't have: cleaning the gum off the sidewalks in front of the Virgin Megastore on Michigan Avenue (seen yesterday morning).

Posted at 07:35 AM
March 25, 2003
News Diet

I don't seem to have very much to say lately. Mostly because as expected, once the war kicked in, it's been freaky.

Life has been a little different in the past week, what with all the cops and protesters out in the streets. For me, dealing with bad news in 500-point type at 6 a.m. every day got progressively more difficult. I certainly didn't go near the hysteria-inducing TV news.

Things have been a bit better since I started my news diet, which means avoiding most of the war news, except for some analysis pieces. This is a trick I learned in the weeks following 9/11 when anxiety became a national hobby. As a journalist, I feel slightly irresponsible, but I appreciate getting some of the mental real estate back.

On the other hand, it's hard to understand why consuming the news 24/7 is an imperative these days. Pre-CNN, pre-Internet, people didn't get to keep up on every bloody inch of the news and it didn't seem to damage the civic fabric. Indeed, in the 19th century you had to wait for the mail to arrive to find out what was going on.

Irresponsible or not, I still need to participate in the world, make decisions, get stuff done, and not act weird as that upsets the staff. The less news I consume, the better chance of my success and the less chance of my randomly bursting into tears because we're out of Post-it notes. So, news diet. At least for now.

As a result, I am somewhat disconnected and this makes things seem a little surreal. Sort of like this passage from DV:

I'll never forget that afternoon, coming down the rue Cambon--my last afternoon in Paris for five years. ...I don't think I could have made it to the end of the block, I was so depressed--leaving Chanel, leaving Europe, leaving all the world of...of my world.

And then I saw this type coming up next to the Ritz, and it was my friend Ray Goetz, the most amusing man who ever lived. He had on a blue felt hat. ...

"Oh, Ray!" I said. "Isn't it awful about the war?"

He turned. He looked at me for just a minute--just a split second--and asked, "What war?" And with that, he walked right past, like a shadow.

How's always the same. Anyone can knock you over with a remark--or they can set you right up, which is what he did. I don't think I've ever been more grateful to a human being.

Posted at 08:57 PM
March 23, 2003
It's Here


Front yard, March 2003

And meanwhile down at Chris's, the crocuses have been out for a little while in Indiana. So spring is here at last.

Posted at 12:30 PM
March 22, 2003
The First Casualty of War Is Mousse

Seen via Media News:

The Washington Post reports:

The White House is vowing a strong retaliatory response after the BBC aired live video of President Bush getting his hair coiffed in the Oval Office as he squirmed in his chair and practiced on the teleprompter minutes before Wednesday night's speech announcing the launch of military operations against Saddam Hussein.

A "retaliatory response"? I love it. Maybe we should just launch some of those Fox commentators, like missiles, at the BBC. That'll show 'em!

A little bit of the video is here.

Posted at 03:07 PM
March 19, 2003
The World Is Bigger

When I was growing up, I learmed a coping trick. When things got too tense and I felt like my head was just about to explode, I would tell myself: The world is bigger than this room. The world is bigger than this house.

Today has felt like that, all day long.

The world is bigger than this country.

Tonight in French class we listened to "Il Est Cinq Heures, Paris S'eveille" (It's Five O'Clock, Paris Awakes) by Jacques Dutronc. It made me smile, because I remembered Paris in the morning.

Paris, 1993.

The first time we visited was 10 years ago, in June 1993. We saved our money and hoarded our vacation time and went away for two whole weeks--one week in Paris, then on to London.

I was never so excited to go anywhere in my life. Seven years of studying French, plus an overactive imagination fed on Brassai and Atget photographs, had built Paris up in my mind to mythic proportion.

I wasn't disappointed.

I just wanted to walk around, everywhere, all day, and so we did, with a few side trips to the Louvre and the Pompidou, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. And we made side trips to the cemetaries, leaving a pebble on Gertrude Stein's grave.

Eiffel Tower, 1993.

It was hotter than I'd expected, and we'd leave the windows open in our hotel room at night, and the noise from the street would go on until the late hours.

In the morning, we'd go down the narrow Rue de St. Andre des Arts and buy some pain au chocolat and some Orange Volvic. We'd dodge the street sweepers and the shopkeepers starting their days.

Brassai photographed Paris by Night, and I liked that, too. But I loved Paris in the morning.

Happy wanderer in Paris, 1993.

Posted at 09:06 PM
March 18, 2003

I have been ruminating a lot, mostly about the impending war. I don't believe, however, that I have anything new to say on the topic today.

And my sense is that perhaps we all could use a break from it.

So today, here's "How Chee-tos are made" courtesy of 13 Laboratories, one of the many entertaining Chicago-based blogs I'm discovering.

You, examining the back of the bag, whistle thinking "180 calories from fat if I eat the whole bag". You then eat the whole bag. You miserable thing! You could have eaten half the bag, because you knew the bag said it was 2 servings, but you ate it anyway. You are quite possibly a very bad person.

Posted at 06:47 PM
March 17, 2003
Yet Another Picture of Round Food

Pizza is one of the few things my dad really liked to make. Most Sundays when I was a kid, he'd be found out in the kitchen, crashing pots and pans and scattering flour. He'd put me to work too, grating cheese or chopping pepperoni. It was a process that fascinated me.

So, to this day, when I feel at loose ends, culinarily speaking, I make my dad's pizza.

1 cup water
1 packet yeast
1 TBS sugar
1 tsp salt
2 TBS olive or canola oil
3-4 cups flour (sometimes I mix whole wheat and white flour)
4 oz tomato sauce
4 oz mozzerella
other toppings such as pepperoni, bell pepper, onion, garlic, banana pepper, fresh basil, etc., to taste. (These are my favorites, but the sky's really the limit here.)

1. Allow warm water and yeast to sit for 5-10 minutes. Stir with fork occasionally.
2. Add salt, sugar, and oil. Beat well.
3. Add flour to form ball. Knead and add extra flour until dough is no longer sticky.
4. Allow dough to rise in 200 degree oven for five minutes. Knead again, adding a little more flour.
5. Oil pizza pan. Spread dough on pan and add whatever toppings you want.
6. Cook 25-30 minutes in top of 400-degree oven. Save some cheese and put on top in the last 10 minutes of baking.
7. Allow to cool, slice, and enjoy! Don't forget to save some for breakfast.

Posted at 09:22 PM
March 15, 2003
Out & About

It was fun to see the Trotts in person Thursdsay night at their presentation in Evanston. A whole cadre of Chicago bloggers were out in force. There's various reports of the event, many of them cited here. While the presentation didn't tell us much we didn't already know, the promise of future upgrades gave me some hope that we might be able to use MT effectively for the long-postponed QAX Project.

Day off on Friday for some long-postponed down time. I found what every woman wants at a bargain: cashmere sweatpants. Perfect for lounging and hibernating.

Of course, it's warm and sunny today, so this purchase was not all that well timed. Gotta get E. moving so we can enjoy this early taste of spring.

Posted at 12:24 PM
March 12, 2003
Quel Fromage!

I was aware of the flap over "Freedom Fries" vs. "French fries." I was not aware the House of Representatives cafeteria ban also extends to "Freedom toast."

In my opinion, the French ambassador has handled this in exactly the right way, which is to point out quietly that French fries originated in Belgium.

And isn't it interesting that the president considers some rubes renaming French fries a "backlash" but thinks thousands of people marching in protest are are no more meaningful than a focus group? Who's kidding who here?

Perhaps the thing to do is to celebrate the foods of our allies. Hooray, English breakfast tea! Cheers for Spanish olives! Hats off to the Bulgarian...hmm. Bulgur wheat?

...I'll have to get back to ya on this.

Here's a funny link about a movement earlier this month to get people to buy French products and signify their support. Citizens for Spreading the Cheese.

Posted at 09:20 PM
March 11, 2003
Riding the Metro

This reminds me of a scene I witnessed in December while riding the DC Metro on a Sunday.

Police officer, or maybe officer of the Metro, approaches homeless man sleeping on a train. They talk for a minute. Homeless man starts to get up, then officer tells him, "No, that's OK, you can stay there." Homeless man thanks him and lies back down.

I reel in surprise. In my city the homeless are hustled out of sight and strongly discouraged from sleeping on the trains or anywhere else, really. Maybe in DC they relax the policies on the weekends? Witnessing the high level of mutual courtesy and respect was pretty unprecedented in my experience, though.

I felt downright warm and fuzzy inside.

Posted at 06:50 PM
March 10, 2003
Kitty Joyce Logs On

The new Apple Powerbook is getting a lot of use by the whole family.

On a side note, some of our friends have received suspicious e-mails from Eric's address. This is probably why.


Posted at 08:38 PM
March 09, 2003
Reason to Believe

When the lights go out in the rest of the world
What do our cousins say?
They're playing in the sun and having fun, fun, fun
Till Daddy takes the gun away.

Good to see this article in the NYT Magazine about some of the organizers of the peace movement. Bad to see this quote from one of the organizers, which bothered me because while it reflects, to a degree, what I feel, it comes off as a bit vacuous:

The protesters saw themselves as defending Iraqis from the terrible fate that the U.S. was preparing to inflict on them. This assumption is based on moral innocence -- on an inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis live, and a desire for all good things to go together. War is evil, therefore prevention of war must be good. The wars fought for human rights in our own time -- in Bosnia and Kosovo -- have not registered with Pariser's generation. When I asked Pariser whether the views of Iraqis themselves should be taken into account, he said, ''I don't think that first and foremost this is about them as much as it's about us and how we act in the world.''

Sigh. While I think he's right, the broader subtext lacks real moral authority. There's just no there there, as Gertrude Stein said. It sounds silly and a bit fatuous, and more than a bit self-absorbed.

Maybe he said more, or maybe it was taken out of context by the reporter.

And yet it's pretty much what I tell myself every time someone brings up the suffering people of Iraq.

I don't know what the answer is. As a liberal, I wish we could come up with better alternatives, and a raison d'etre for all of this activism that was a little more proactive and a little less reactive.

In short, I wish there was more of a vision. What happens after the war, if there is one? Where does the liberal ideology take us? And what if war is averted--do we just return to the status quo?

On the other hand, maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. I find myself thinking that for years, Americans have been accused of enjoying the good life on the backs of people in the Third World, and enjoying peace at the price of war in other countries (see Billy Bragg lyric above). So, as Pariser says, when people finally stand up and say no to something their country is doing, is that a bad thing? Or is it finally accepting responsibility, acknowledging that we are citizens of the world, not just of America?

And if the answer is yes, then what?

Stay tuned.

All this political ruminating is getting me down. I promise to return next week to frivolity and lightheartedness. We'll party like it was 1998, I promise.

Posted at 05:32 PM
March 07, 2003
On a Clear Day

As a person who works with language, I found the president's words last night something to ponder. In fact, the way he delivered his message was more telling than his actual content.

For instance, he stays on message with almost hypnotic accuracy, with exception of that little tangent about prayer. In that respect, he's a PR person's dream.

Even more interesting was the kind of language he used. Short words. Short sentences. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Avoids using "war" when the euphemism "disarm" can do, as if it was just a matter of wrenching a fork away from someone. Cagy juxtaposition--has Iraq aided Al Queda or just "Al Queda-like" groups? Maybe it doesn't matter, because if you say it enough, people start to believe it, even if it has no basis in reality. Remember the poll that said that most respondents believed that some or all of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens?(Correct answer: none were from Iraq, most were from Saudi Arabia.)

It its way, it was masterful.

The same qualities that made it an ostensible success, though, also made me uncomfortable and a little sad.

Today I went back and looked at the Fog Index, a tool that is sometimes used to measure how difficult prose is to understand. (Yes, I know the spoken word is a little different, but the president isn't cranking out much writing these days that I can find.) I used to have an application that ran the Fog index for everything I wrote, but there are ways to figure it out yourself.

Find the average number of words you use per sentence. Take a fair sample of 5 to 8 sentences. Count clearly independent clauses as separate sentences. Example: "By and by I ran; I jumped; I hid." This counts as three sentences. Calculate the percentage of words that are three syllables or more. Don't count proper names. Don't count verbs that make three syllables or adding -es or -ed. Add these two figures. Example: if your average number of words per sentence was was 15, and the percentage of words three syllables or more was 12%, you would add 15 and 12 to get 27. Multiply that sum by 0.4. The resulting number is your Fog Index, a rough measure of how many words of schooling it would take to understand what you have written. In our example, multiplying 27 by 0.4 equals a Fog Index of 10.8. The Bible, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and TV Guide all have Fog Indexes of about 6. Time, Newsweek, and the Wall St. Journal average about 11. If you find your Index soaring into the teens (or higher!) --- beware --- you've lost most of your audience in the dense fog.

I did the calculations on this random selection from last nights' comments. The Fog index: 5.2, which means they could be understood by the average fifth-grader.

I think first of all, it's hard to envision more terror on America than September the 11th, 2001. We did nothing to provoke that terrorist attack. It came upon us, because there's an enemy which hates America. They hate what we stand for. We love freedom, and we're not changing. And therefore, so long as there's a terrorist network like al Qaeda and others willing to fund them, finance them, equip them, we're at war. You know, obviously I thought long and hard about the issue of troops. I think about it all the time. It is my responsibility to commit the troops. I believe we'll prevail. I know we'll prevail. And out of that disarmament of Saddam will come a better world, particularly for the people who live in Iraq. This is a society, Ron, who -- which has been decimated by his murderous ways, his torture. He doesn't allow dissent. He doesn't believe in the values we believe in. I believe this society, the Iraqi society can develop in a much better way. I think of the risks. I've calculated the costs of inaction versus the cost of action, and I'm firmly convinced that if we have to, we will act in the name of peace and in the name of freedom.

For comparison, I also dug up some Clinton languge. Here he is in what was admittedly not his finest hour. The Fog index is 10.4, which means it could be understood by the average 10th-grader.

I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that. I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration, too. In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago, dealings I might add about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago. The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation. This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people. Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.

What does it mean that the nation's leader can only talk about a war that could potentially kill many innocent people in the language of a fifth-grader? I don't know the answer. E. says it has to do with lowered expectations. If you don't expect people to be as smart as you are, you talk down to them.

Here's a fun fact: while everything around us gets dumber, we get more educated (or, at least, we spend more time in school). According to the US census, "In 2000, 84 percent of American adults age 25 and over had at least completed high school and 26 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, both all-time highs."

The president presides over a nation that is better educated than ever. But we get less and less substance from our leaders.

Posted at 09:36 PM
March 06, 2003
Pocket Bob

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

--William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie"

I once had a professor we called Bob.

Bob was indeed his name, but we only referred to him that way out of earshot. I attended his classes in 20th century American literature, possibly as an undergraduate and a graduate. I remember some of the authors he particularly liked (the discussions of Robinson Jeffers seemed to take an especially long time) and my poetry books are heavily annotated around the ones he really liked: the "tattered heroism of endurance" of Edwin Arlington Robertson's Eben Flood, "we get no peace" in the margins of T.S. Eliot's "Gerontion"; "a party of the real in the face of death" next to "The Emporer of Ice Cream." It was a good class.

He was also a favorite of mine for his brief but interesting tangents, which would crop up depending on the mood. Charlie Parker, Madonna, and Stanley Crouch's Notes from a Hanging Judge, which had just been published, all rolled through the discourse that semester. I'm still not sure why except that they had captured his interest somehow and he felt like sharing. Look at all these things, he was saying, aren't they great? And you don't think they will fit together, but it's all part of the picture, and it's OK. Most memorably, there was a strange combination of intellectual severity and benevolence.

(He was also a very nice man in person, calling me at home and saying "That's all right, dear," when I left a rasping message on his answering machine explaining why bronchitis had kept me from turning in my paper on time.)

In the years after I left school, I kept missing that quirky combination. I started telling my friends I wished someone would invent a "Pocket Bob" that I could carry around. It would be my talisman against boredom and stupidity and would emanate ideas and still, somehow, be comforting.

I returned to the idea of Pocket Bob upon reading this interview with Stanley Crouch the other day. The interview itself is kind of wooly, but the shock of recognition of his name was enough to bring me back to those days in the classroom.

It occurs to me that those days were pre-Internet, pre-Gulf War, pre-go-go '90s. In the intervening years, I wonder what Pocket Bob has told his students. On days like these, I wish I could have heard it.

Thanks, Bob. And good night, wherever you are.

Posted at 08:56 PM
March 05, 2003
You Are Here

Last week walking home I had one of those realizations that sound kind of stupid in retrospect but seem incredibly profound in the moment. I realized that I spend so much time waiting and planning and working around life's little inconveniences that I sometimes forget: My life is here, right here, right now.

And so am I.

And it ain't all that bad.

Photo to enjoy:

Don't ask me what kind of flower this is. It seemed to be all over the place in California. A Google search for "flower that looks like bird" is unhelpful.

Posted at 09:21 PM
March 03, 2003
Half Hearted

I've meant to write for some time to write about the cinematic version of "The Hours" and why it fell short for me. Turns out a lot of other people have been doing a better job than I would, including this article, written by Adam Nicholson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West:

[Woolf's] entire enterprise was to look for meaning in the here and the now and the actual, in what she describes in one letter as "the question of things happening", not the big romantic "other". This oversimplifying of a complex reality has a name: sentimentality.

It was the sentimental quality I felt uncomfortable with: on one level, with Hollywood-ization that turns a novel primarily about states of mind into a three-hankie weeper. But also specifically with the Virginia Woolf characterization that, while it took great pains to have the appearance of authenticity, seemed to miss the bigger picture of its subject.

During the big emotional scene at the railway station, for instance, there's tears and yelling--with accents, of course. I looked in VW's published diaries for this event and the closest I could come was this:

(October 15, 1923): ...I felt it was intolerable to sit about, & must do the final thing, which was to go to London. Off I rode, without much time, against such a wind...saw men & women walking together; thought, you're safe and happy & I'm an outcast; took my ticket; had 3 minutes to spare, & then, turning the corner of the station stairs, saw Leonard, coming along, bending rather, like a person walking very quick in his mackintosh. He was rather cold & angry (as, perhaps was natural). And then, not to show my feelings, I went outside and did something to my bicycle."

She gets her money back for the ticket and they go home; "all the time I was feeling My God, thats over. I'm out of that."

It's hard to make compelling cinema out of events that are primarily internal, but the film goes a little too far the other way, bringing our contemporary obsession with "feelings" into play in a way I suspected VW herself might not approve of.

On the other hand, perhaps I nitpick too much. It'll be a long time, I expect, before Hollywood again sees fit to depict the life of any author I actually read, much less one I admire. Feel free to remind me about all this kvetching this summer when I'm standing in line for "Fatal Velocity IV: Raw Turnips."

Because it wouldn't be B&W without me rabbiting on about awards shows, here's a very funny article handicapping the Oscars:

Aww, the ladies having problems with their lives. Academy loves that. Even Fake Nose can’t save the day.

Posted at 08:48 PM
March 02, 2003
Mmm, Liquid

Three beverage-related comments heard in Bloomington this weekend:

1. "Can you get me a glass of milk? I don't want to go into the stink-o-mania."
2. "You can get Jack Daniels-flavored toothpaste...."
3. "I want my goddamn root beer."

Photo of the weekend:

"It has come to our attention this machine is being abused. For your own safety please do not shake this machine."

Sign on vending machine in Indiana Memorial Union pool table room

Posted at 05:54 PM