Mr. Sandman's Sandbox

The musings of a Deaf Californian on life, politics, religion, sex, and other unmentionables. This blog is not guaranteed to lead to bon mots appropriate for dinner-table conversation; make of it what you will.

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Uncertainties, Part II

A quarter of the year gone by already. I envy little kids sometimes; it's nice to have time go by "slowly" and not feel like everything is starting to speed up day by day, until it becomes a blur.

In this blur that I call my life, I'm revisiting thoughts I expressed last month. Namely, what to do with myself. I'm still not sure if I want to go back to school or not. It's about 30% "yes," 70% "hell no!" and a smidgen of "maybe" in the middle. I still haven't found a job; some days I pound the pavement and look quite hard. Other days I barely make a pretense of doing so. The best I can say is that the house is in reasonable shape, the bills are paid, and except for the lack of money rolling in, things are fairly smooth on the surface. It's just frustrating being the age I am and still playing "what do you want to be when you grow up?"

I'm still toying with the idea of being a writer. I've had many people tell me that I should be a writer, that I have what it takes. Sometimes I think they're right, then other days I say, "Who am I kidding?" I read _Bird by Bird_ by Anne Lamott earlier this year, and she has a few good writing tips that I've taken up; one of them is to write every day, at least a little. If you've followed this blog very closely, you know I don't always post every day. But it is my goal, and I do consider it part of my exercise as a budding writer. But I also know writing is generally a lonely, underpaid craft for the most part, and I need a day job to pay the bills. I've written a couple of articles for SIGNews, and had one published last month.

I envy those people that know what they want to do, or are doing what they want to do. Even those who have a steady paycheck and are satisfied with where they are. I know some of my friends are reconsidering their paths, or looking for new opportunities, but it's a bit humbling for me, as I'm at the age where just about everyone I know is married, and most have at least one kid. Many have bought houses or are more or less permanently settled. I can count the number of single friends I have on two hands. My wife is younger, so her "generation" is still semi-nomadic, still figuring out their place in life. I can plan on attending a few more weddings yet. Some days I feel like everything will be fine, something will turn up. Other days I feel like life is passing me by.

Lest you think I'm in a deep funk, I'm not completely there yet. I'll let you know if I am. *grin* Not all is doom and gloom, even if I write about a variety of topics from a cynical and often pessimistic view. I have a lot to be thankful for. I have a wonderful wife, a healthy, generally happy family, and some really great friends. I'm in generally good health. I have food on the table and a roof over my head. I live in a good neighborhood. I live in a first world country in a great state with fantastic weather, in a century that is technologically and medically the most advanced thus far. I am overeducated, have all my wits about me (some might disagree, heh), and enjoy creature comforts, such as the computer I'm typing on now. I have a car that not only runs, but is paid for. Oh, and we have really nice neighbors. I consider that a perk. *grin*

So in short, I'll figure things out one way or another. But I do muse from time to time on what I'm doing, where I want to go, and how I get there. I just sometimes wish I had a better, more clear road map.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Living Beyond Our Means

It was just a couple weeks ago I wrote about the problems we're having with the environment. Today, splashed all over the pages of the Corporate Media and on internet sites everywhere is an article that acknowledges the elephant in the room. According to quite a few scientists, we're on the verge of potentially eradicating ourselves from the planet. Perhaps this is an exaggeration on my part, but I don't really think so; not when this report states that we've used up roughly two-thirds of our natural resources. It's mind-boggling to think that just a hundred years ago, there were areas of the globe that were still unexplored, or areas that seldom saw Europeans. It's only been 500 years since the Colombian Exchange and the "discovery" of the "New World." It was not all that long ago that the edges of Africa were accurately depicted on maps, and portions of it outlined in detail, but huge swaths designated as "unknown." California for a long time was thought to be an island. Until the 20th century, most of Amazonia in Brasil was untouched by Europeans or their descendants. Now we have GPS, National Geographic maps, satellites, and the world is more or less populated in nearly all corners. There's even a semi-permanent outpost in Antarctica, a station where a handful of scientists and other intrepid souls live for stretches of time.

At the same time, the population has just exploded. In 1800, the world had just approached the 1 billion mark in terms of global population. Even as late as 1960, the world total was somewhere around 3 billion. Today we have an approximate 6.4 billion people, and rising. China and India together account for 1 in every 3 people alive today. Somehow I doubt the planet was ever designed for that many people. It certainly doesn't help that Mormons and Catholics insist on having large families. It doesn't help that our gummint has a problem with allowing access to birth control and sex education in developing countries. Sadly enough, it also doesn't help that medical and scientific advances are part of the reason why we are living longer and surviving childhood longer than ever before. A lot of times, you read in history books and sociological studies about life expectancies in the past. A lot of these averages don't necessarily reflect the reality of the times. If you had a male population with a life expectancy of 50 years, you envision men dropping like flies around age 50; but that wasn't the truth. Some did die that young, but a fair number lived into their 60s, 70s, and even beyond. Life expectancy figures have to take into account childhood mortality, and until very recently, the most dangerous years of a person's life were the first five years. Many children died young; if a child made it past their fifth birthday, the chances improved that they would survive into adulthood and through to the end of their days at a more respectable age. Diseases that once felled hundreds of thousands are today tamed, under increasing control, or at least manageable. Smallpox, polio, rubella, and dozens of other life-threatening or disfiguring diseases do not haunt humans as they once did. Improvements in disease control, sewage, water supplies (in the first and much of the second worlds, that is!), and other similar aspects have dramatically raised the average allotted lifespan. Unfortunately it also means we have people who once would have been singing with the angels still sharing the earth with the next couple of generations. This makes for a crowded planet.

I haven't even touched other factors, such as the destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, and the gradual extinction of myriad species. There's evidence that polar bears, tigers, pandas, several species of apes, and many other mammals will vanish from the face of the earth within the next few generations. The few that are left will only be in zoos.

I remember when I was living in Utah, and I made friends with a deaf Mormon woman. She was a young college student, attractive and bright, and we flirted a bit, but since I was already in a relationship, and we had some major differences (such as there's no way in hell I'm converting, sorry, dear!), nothing would ever come of it. We did talk a lot about what we planned to do, what we wanted out of life, etc. She told me she wanted to get married and have ten kids. I already knew at that time I just wanted two kids, tops. One to replace me and one to replace my wife: more than that and you add to the population. I just smiled and said that was nice. Inside, I cringed. She got married shortly after I moved back to California, and no doubt with the encouragement of her church, is well on the way to producing those ten kids.

Ok, let's take those ten kids. First of all, you have to feed them, house them, clothe them. That takes a lot of energy and resources. They're going to have to live in a large house, be driven around in more than one car, consume tons of stuff, especially when they hit puberty. Each of these ten kids is going to have a good life, cuz they live here in America, right? They'll be taught the American dream, from the Mormon perspective. Once they get to college age, they'll start dating seriously and look forward to marriage and families of their own. Each of those ten kids will want a home of their own and ten kids of their own. Before you know it, wham, 100 grandchildren. Who want homes of their own... Last time I checked, Utah and the surrounding states were either desert or semi-arid regions; somehow I doubt that the American West can support that many people. Despite all the hoopla about immigration, overcrowding, and sprawl, the United States actually is growing at a slower rate than Asia. If you think it's a mess here, try visiting Southeast Asia sometime.

I don't know if we as a species and the planet as a source of life are past the point of no return, but I'd bet at best, we're teetering dangerously close to that flashpoint. All I know is that this century promises to be one hell of a ride.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bunnies and Chicks

Nope, I'm not talking about Playboy or girls at the beach, or similar stuff. Unless you're in a cave, you know today is Easter, the day when hundreds of thousands drag themselves to church for the only time this year, in a brand-new outfit they've put on their soon-to-be-maxed-out credit card. It's also time for the last sugar rush of the school year, at least until Halloween.

When I was young, Easter meant the Easter Bunny leaving a basket full of chocolates, marshmallow peeps, a toy or two, and plenty of jelly beans. There'd be an egg hunt in our backyard, and a breakfast of hot cross buns, hardboiled dyed eggs, and juice. If we were visiting my grandparents, I'd have a similar breakfast, with an egg hunt in and around the house, and afterwards we'd go to my great-grandmother's for her Easter party. She started having the parties when my mother was little, and there'd be tons of kids there, various relatives, family friends, and friends of my great-grandparents. It was pretty much the same when I was a kid. First would be arrival time-- that was somewhat boring, as it would be mostly grownups. There were fewer children when I was little, because most of the original children had by then grown up, and many of them hadn't had children yet, so it was a little boring for me, as well as being deaf. After a while, once all (or most!) of the kids were there, we'd have a basket or an egg carton ready, and we'd line up at the back door in the kitchen. The signal would be given, and we'd go out into the garden behind the house. My great-grandmother lived (and still lives!) in an old house on a hillside close to downtown, just north of Angelino Heights and Carroll Street (where the beautiful old Victorians are today). The house itself isn't that large, but the lot is a good size, and has a huge terraced garden in back, with a greenhouse, an aboveground swimming pool, and a smaller cottage in back. The cottage is supposedly the oldest house on the hill, and allegedly housed a shepard who took care of a flock of sheep belonging to the nuns who lived at the bottom of the hill at Sisters Hospital, which was once on Sunset and Beaudry.

Anyway, I digress-- the signal would be given, the door flung open, and we'd rush out and hunt for eggs. There were three kinds of eggs to find: confetti eggs, which would be empty dyed shells filled with confetti, with the top covered by tissue paper; painted eggs, which were rarer and very beautiful; and the "golden egg." My great-grandmother was an artist, and she would take these eggs, poke teensy holes in the end, drain the eggs, then after they had dried, paint/draw Easter and springtime scenes onto the eggs. I don't have an egg here with me, or a picture of one, but I'll try to post one at some point. They were really lovely-- with elves, fairies, bunnies, and all kinds of creatures on them. The Golden Egg would be a golden-foil egg, and considered the "prize" of the hunt. I don't believe I ever found it, but my mother did once when she was a child, and one of my sisters did one year. Some adults would be watching the hunt, others would be inside visiting or getting soused, and still others who had children would be accompanying them or monitoring them during the hunt.

After the egg hunt was over, we'd all troop back in, and we'd eat. There were two long tables set up with all kinds of food: a ham, platters upon platters of cheeses and meats, two or three different kinds of bread, two or three different kinds of salads, crudites, deviled eggs, baked goods, hot cross buns, punch or soda for the kids and plenty of wine and other booze for the grownups. Most of the non-relatives were interesting, although I didn't realize just *how* interesting until I was older. It was a mixed crowd of artists, long-time industry types, and denizens of old Los Angeles.

The last party was sometime in the late 80s, after I was well beyond the egg hunt stage. By then, most of the guests were very old, very dead, or otherwise occupied. A few of the original children were joining their Boomer counterparts in producing the next generation, and started bringing their own kids, but it had mostly dwindled to family and very close family friends at the last party I attended.

I've spent the last several Easters at different places, depending on where I was living at the moment. Since we moved to L.A., I've gone over to my grandparents for Easter, where the celebration is a mini-version of the parties at my great-grandmother's, and the guest list is just family. We headed over today, and it was nice to see family members again, most of whom I haven't seen since Christmas. Most of my cousins are quite young, with four of them at grade school age or younger, so there's an egg hunt again. Of course I don't participate, but I don't have too much to complain about. The Easter Bunny still leaves a basket for me, and it had a chocolate rabbit, some chocolate eggs, marshmallow peeps (you can't have Easter without that!), jelly beans, and a toy or two. Can't beat that.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Lady Day

Happy New Year! At least, it would have been New Year's until 1752. Today is Lady Day, one of the four traditional quarter days in Britain (the other three are Midsummer Day, Michaelmas, and Christmas), when rents and rates were due. On the Christian calendar, it's officially the Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas.

I kind of like the idea of starting the year when spring rolls around, instead of right before the dead of winter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Red + Blue = Purple

Not a lot of people who know me know this, but I am not registered in any political party these days. In California, when you fill out your voter registration form, you can check off "decline to state" as an option. I left the Democratic Party a while ago. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the overall, overarching reason is that the Democrats aren't the Democrats of old. I'm not sure what they are anymore. Some people call them "Republican Lite." To some degree, a lot of the politicians in this party could be called that, especially the people at the DLC. Many charge the Dems as not possessing a spine, or having any balls. I agree with that a lot of the time too.

I guess most of all, there's just no sense of principles left, and this is true for most politicians of all stripes. Then again, many may argue that most politicians, regardless of party, aren't all that principled. This is also true, but there are some that are true public servants, and have a sense of dedication. This is especially so for politicians of an earlier era, where public service was seen as a duty, sort of noblesse oblige, especially on the part of the upper classes. George H.W. Bush, for all his faults, viewed public service in this way, and his father, Senator Prescott Bush, definitely did. Nowadays it seems most people who enter politics do so for the sole purpose of power, and the money that comes along with wielding such power.

I read voraciously newspapers and internet news and political sites, ranging from decidely leftist sites to occasional forays into right-wing territory, such as Free Republic. Most of all, I seek some middle ground of truth, or what resembles the truth. Often I'll read the comments following articles or opinion pieces. While there are a lot of passionate, thoughtful, intelligent people out there, some of them with some interesting ideas or takes on events, I find most of the feedback to be "preaching to the choir." This is true on both sides of the aisle.

But I just recently read an interesting article, that although aimed at those on the left, it's definitely got some ideas in general that might be good for the country as a whole. What I see as one of the failures of the Democratic Party is the ability to articulate the values and beliefs that I suspect a majority of Americans hold. Essentials such as peace, prosperity, and fair play have not gone out of style; they've just been demonized by a faction of very vocal conservatives and theocrats. A sense of morals is inherent in most people. I believe that regardless of where they stand, most people want the same things: safe neighborhoods, good schools, a clean environment, the ability to make the best of your career and life as you possibly can. It's how to achieve those goals that reveals where people disagree. Yet the Democrats, progressives, and others on the left side of the political continuum either can't agree on a unified message, or they can't articulate what their core beliefs are. If you talked to a person individually, they probably could tell you what they wanted, what they believed in, and how to best achieve it. But when the leaders and politicians of a party can't do that, how can they inspire, educate, and develop the rank and file from which a party moves forward? The author of this article, Christopher Hayes, makes the case for developing a strategy around a potent issue to move the progressive cause forward by focusing on debt. The recent bankruptcy bill is going to radically change the economic structure of this country, and the only real benefit will be to corporations in an industry that made upwards of $30 billion last year. Yet the U.S. Senate permitted the bill to come to the floor, where it passed. It will soon pass in the House of Representatives, and be signed by our "president." Despite the voices of a few Democrats, fourteen voted to allow it to move forward, and the party as a whole made little noise about what is viewed by many Americans across the board as an atrocious bill and bad policy.

The Republican Party is being held hostage by the Religious Right; the Democrats are basically amoebas. While I agree with a good bit of the Green agenda, they're never going to get anywhere as long as we have a two-party system, instead of a more broad system such as many European nations possess, where coalitions can be built and change made by a number of groups. Additionally, they shot themselves in the foot by choosing Ralph Nader as their standard-bearer. None of the other parties appeal to me at all. Ideally I'd like to see a viable, progressive third party come into being, but it isn't going to happen. I'm not sure I could return to the Democrats, but I will continue to evaluate each candidate and issue on its own merits. I don't always vote a straight ticket, and I see a danger in doing so. I'd like to see more people in this country put aside their animosity and rigidity and start to discuss how to extricate ourselves out of some of the messes we're in now: the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the impending end of oil and other natural resources; the environmental crisises such as global warming that loom over us; and inevitable limits on economic growth and development, just to name a few. These are topics that should have some bipartisan consensus and have nothing to do with some of the hot-button issues politicians love to discuss and pander on, such as abortion, education, affirmative action, guns, welfare, etc.

In the meantime, as Hayes suggested, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Dems to look at how the Mormons recruit. One doesn't have to be dogmatic to be persuasive; you just have to have a set of principles and beliefs.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Where's George?

I never thought about where my money goes, although I do know where it comes from (not from trees, thank you). Usually I spend it for the most part on bills and expenses, with the occasional pleasure here and there, such as a dinner out or some treat for the two of us. Once it leaves my hands, I no longer have it, and it isn't my concern anymore.

Well, I just got a five dollar bill back in change the other day, and printed at the top in red letters were the words "Track this bill at" I was curious enough that when I got online, I typed in the URL. This is apparently a website that's been around for a while, although I hadn't really heard of it up until now. Here, you can enter the serial numbers of bills you have in your purse, wallet, pocket, icebox, bottom left corner drawer, fake sugar box, or what have you. If someone else who later receives the bill does exactly the same thing and enters the serial number, then you'll see where your money winds up.

Since the five spot I had was obviously already registered, I decided to go ahead and register at the site, and then enter the serial number, and see what kind of history my money had. Nothing shady, I hoped, but I figured I'd get at least one hit. I wasn't disappointed. The bill was originally registered online in July 2003, in New Jersey. In this day of airplanes and other such big traveling contraptions, this perhaps wasn't as exciting as, say, dropping a bottle in the ocean and hearing from someone in the South Pacific eons later, but it was still fun to know my five dollar bill had once been in someone's pocket in New Jersey.

I think it would have been far more interesting to know exactly what happened to the five on its way from New Jersey. Where was it the last 20 months? Which businesses did it visit? How long did it take before it got to the West Coast, or to put it another way, how long did it stay back East? Of course, there's no way to know that, and this website depends on others entering the travelogue for each piece of funny green paper. Although I know I probably won't get any results until I spend it, and then maybe not for a long time thereafter, I decided to enter the serial numbers of the remainder of the bills I had, and see if anyone else follows suit. I don't plan to do this all the time; there are better ways to waste time, and certainly far more fascinating websites where to spend the days of my dissolute adulthood, but I view it as an experiment. Sort of like the pen pals your teacher set you up with in elementary school, or the "Flat Stanley" paper dolls they mail out nowadays (I read the book long ago, and although I never mailed out a "Flat Stanley," I thought the concept was cool. Even today I think it's a shame I can't mail myself to Hawaii, or Europe, or somewhere a little more fascinating than West L.A.). We'll see what happens, and I assure you if my money ever makes it to Outer Mongolia, I'll be sure to let you know.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Laurent, SD

Years ago in college, I knew a guy named Marvin Miller. He graduated from the same high school my wife did, and worked on our college newspaper. He hired me as news editor, but instead of working under him, I left school for a while. When I came back, Marvin had himself left and moved on to other endeavors. I've only seen him a few times since; while we're always glad to see one another, we never have time to sit down and catch up.

These days Marvin is no longer in the world of journalism; instead, he's become a dreamer, a visionary, and quite well-known. His latest dream is to establish a town in the middle of the prairie in South Dakota, a town that will be for sign language users. Yesterday's New York Times carried an article about the proposed town of Laurent, South Dakota.

While I find the subject interesting, and you can learn far more about Marvin's vision for Laurent here, I have some serious doubts about the town's viability. Still, I read the NYT article with a great deal of interest, both professional and personal. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. For one thing, the article's first quote and perspective on Laurent other than Marvin came from someone at the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. For starters, it is an association that is *FOR* the deaf; this implies paternalism. More seriously, the article/writer made no mention of the fact that AGBAD is pro-oralism, and that it does not encourage the use of signs in communication. Hardly the appropriate group to canvass for an opinion! Naturally, I can't see AGBAD supporting the concept of Laurent, even if 100,000 people were to live there.

Second, by including AGBAD in an article on Laurent, the author either assumes everyone knows about oralism v. manualism, or invites mention of the controversy in order to clarify the differing perspectives in the article. But the article makes no mention of the history of oralism v. manualism, the history of AGBAD, or does anything to include resources or guide its readers on where to educate themselves as to the historical/sociological/cultural background of why a town like Laurent might even be proposed. The author does briefly touch on Martha's Vineyard, but again, mentioning this particular community lacks the context neccessary. A more appropriate community to compare would be the deaf community in Akron, Ohio, in the mid-20th century. Mention is made of places like Rochester, D.C., and Sioux Falls, SD (but omits Fremont, CA), but doesn't really explain how the presence of a large deaf population impacts and influences the community around it, or how the experience of living in such a community prompts many to believe a place like Laurent would be viable.

Last, a lot of the commentary in the article is slanted towards the fallibility of Laurent: locals in McCook County, SD, don't see Laurent as a workable concept; others quoted cite the dwindling numbers of deaf people in the future thanks to cochlear implants, gene therapy, and the like. While I share those same concerns (but most likely for different reasons!), I concluded that the article was not as balanced as it could be. It also cried out for expansion, because there is so much information necessary to even begin to understand why Marvin first came up with this epiphany. It's laudable that the NYT would want to cover this subject, and I'm sure Marvin welcomes the publicity, but it was not the best possible article that could have been written.

I've seen his website and the list of those who have signed up and indicated a preliminary commitment to living there; it's a mix of unknowns and Deaf community Who's Who types. It'll be interesting to see in the coming months just who puts their money where their mouth is. Personally, I see problems with the idea; the first being, "South Dakota?!?" The second is the viability of jobs. Are people going to be willing to move from established communities, good job markets, and families and friends just to move to Laurent? Third, as the article mentioned, who's going to be financing all of this? Marvin and his mother-in-law are taking a big gamble on this succeeding; it might work, and then again, it might not. While they might get enough people in to set up something, its the durability that will show whether this is an idea whose time has come, or whether it is a pipe dream of a brilliant dreamer. Make no mistake, Marvin is a smart man, friendly and very hard-working. I admire him. I truly hope for his sake it succeeds. But with the weakened state associations of the Deaf, the demise of Deaf clubs, the proliferation of techonological aids, medical advances and the like, the Deaf community isn't the same as it was even twenty years ago, not to mention forty, fifty years ago. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next year or so, as things move from paper to some sort of reality.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


We've been mostly vegging out this weekend, as it is the beginning of UCLA spring break at the law school. I believe it's the end of the quarter (or just about so) for the undergrads as well; med school students get their break the following week, or something like that. It rained Saturday as well, and it's supposed to rain on and off all week. *sigh* Dunno if or when we'll be able to get to the desert, but it is on my agenda of things to do fairly soon.

Today was nice-- mostly sunny, but *very* breezy. Decided it'd be a good time to get outside and just enjoy the fresh air (or what passes for it!). Took a walk for an hour, out to Westwood proper and back. Heading up Westwood Boulevard towards Wilshire, we saw tons of people on the sidewalk. I figured it was a combination of it being a nice day, and possibly people going to or heading back from church, as it is Palm Sunday. Then we saw ahead of us even more people, mostly Persians, and in the distance, green, white, and red balloons. Soon we saw the street had been closed off for a full block, mostly in front of Persian/Iranian stores (there is a "Little Persia/Little Iran" on Westwood Boulevard, with bookstores, restaurants, and the like). There was a huge crowd of people, mostly Persian, with a stage. We managed to navigate through the throng, and once we escaped the human maze, wondered what was going on. Turns out it is Norouz, the Iranian New Year. Since it was rather late in the afternoon when we got there (3 p.m.?), it's possible we missed whatever festivities were taking place. I've always enjoyed ethnic festivals, gatherings, and celebrations, but I'd never heard of Norouz before this.

The flowers are fantastic- considering the amount of rain we've had, they should be nothing short of spectacular. Still, it was appropriate, given today is the first day of Spring. I've always loved Spring, and the only gripe I have with the season is that I usually have allergies, which make their presence known sometime in February, and don't go away completely until June. This year I've managed to keep the sneezing and watery eyes to a minimum thanks to medication, but there are times when I need the nearest Kleenex box.

The big news splashed all over this weekend is the Terri Schiavo case. I thought it would wind down, and I previously wrote about this sad case. By now I'm sure you've read or heard everything you wanted to about this poor woman, but I am furious with Congress for politicizing what is at its heart a private family matter. Regardless of what you or I may think about her husband, Michael Schiavo, I agree with him that Congress is really overstepping their bounds here. This kind of situation is best handled by the family and individual family members; the court has its place only if needed. In the Schiavo case, this is exactly what happened. Her parents aren't innocents either, as they pushed to have the matter brought up in the political system, first by the Florida legislature and its governor, and now by the Feds. Between the steroids hearings and Terri Schiavo, Congress doesn't seem to want to handle its primary responsibilities these days. The main purpose for Congress' existence is to pass bills and approve the federal budget. I don't see a whole lot going on there concerning their real jobs. I see a lot of grandstanding going on.

It also worries me, because what Congress is essentially doing is circumventing the courts and in essence saying that the judges, juries, and the court system as a whole don't matter. Don't like that verdict or decision? We'll help change it for you! If this kind of thing continues, where do you draw the line? What boundaries are there between jurisprudence and the political arena? The subpoenas bother me as well. Once you open the door to allowing anyone to be subpoenaed like this, where does it stop? Even more disturbing is the legislation being fast-tracked even as I type this, to permit the Schindlers (Terri's parents) to see redress in federal court. Ostensibly, this is all about Terri and only about Terri, but it becomes a slippery slope. Sure, it's all focused on one person, but what about the thousands of other Terris out there? Maybe their parents will think, "Gee, they did this for Terri's parents. They'll do it for me too!" Out comes the PR machine, and presto, another appeal to Congress to do this "for my son/daughter." It is NOT Congress' job to supplant the courts. Congress theoretically has plenty to do on its own (although it often seems like they'll do everything *except* their duties), and our system is predicated upon the existence of checks and balances. Unfortunately, our executive and legislative branches seem to want to weaken and bend the will and power of the judiciary to whatever political needs they have as of that moment. Even more appalling since I first blogged this, ABC (in a rare moment for the Corporate Media) has obtained a set of "talking points" regarding the legislation. The jerks that call themselves Republicans see this as something that will excite their base, and that it is a "great political issue." It makes me so nauseated; this is a person's LIFE we're talking about here, and all they can think of is that it's a great way to rally the faithful and stick it to the Democrats??? It's so hypocritical of these hacks to proclaim their concern for Terri Schiavo, but behind the scenes salivate at how they're gonna score points. Further proof our gummint leaders have no shame...

Back to the principals: I really hope that the conclusion is that a resolution is reached as quickly as possible. Here's an excellent timeline of the whole matter: the parents and husband have been litigating this for TWELVE years, and each time, the judges have sided with the husband. You'd think after twelve years and numerous trips to court, someone would say, "Gee, maybe it's time to throw in the towel." You'd also think that maybe people would realize that this is something most of the public, not to mention the press and our *cough* "esteemed" politicians, was not aware of up until two years ago, when the Florida politicians showed how little shame they had, setting the stage for a similiar shameless political display at the federal level. If you remove the emotion from the whole debate the facts are this: Terri Schiavo has not improved, her condition hasn't changed in fifteen (now going into sixteen!) years; majority medical opinion is she's *never* going to get better; and regardless of who's in charge of making decisions, her parents or her husband, the Terri they knew isn't going to come back. At this point, it's too late for Terri to have the privacy to "live" or die as it may be; but I hope that the parents can come to their senses and resolve this issue on their own terms without going to the courts or politicians again. It's terrible to outlive your child, yes, but it is such a waste of time, energy, and money when nothing's going to change.

This subject will no doubt dominate the news for the next few days, at minimum. I just hope that this lapse of judgment on the part of our politicians was a one-time thing, or we're going to face some very serious conflicts of interest and control issues sooner than later.

Friday, March 18, 2005

#@$%* Rain!!

Well, I'm betting before the weekend's out, that L.A.'s record for the rainiest season ever will have been broken. I know I sound like a broken record, but I... am... sick... of... rain. This is semi-arid area down here, so it isn't even going to be of the greatest benefit to us. It would be a lot better if it rained like crazy far to the north, where the mountains and rivers are, so that the basins and lakes and dams are replenished, and the runoff this spring is spectacular. As I've previously said, we're getting Seattle's water, so it's going to be a dry year in some ways anyway.

On the other hand, it's supposed to be spectacular out in the desert areas. I was hoping to go out there sometime this coming week, as UCLA is having its spring break (along with tons of other campuses across the nation), but it's supposed to rain on and off. Not exactly conducive to getting out of the car and wandering around, enjoying the wildflowers. We'll see what happens. I still hope to get out there, even if it's not to Death Valley, then maybe to Joshua Tree or even the Mojave.

For now, I'm just sitting here glowering at the window. Rain. Rain. Go. Away. Come again. Another. Day...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Erin Go Bragh!

For the 24 hours that constitute today, we're all Irish. For me, St. Patrick's Day has never been an excuse to head out to a bar and get wasted. I have been guilty in past years of wearing a button that says, "Kiss Me-- I'm Irish!", but I'm all in favor of kisses. The more, the merrier. *wink* I think if people spent more time kissing each other, we'd have fewer problems in this world of ours. That goes for hugs too. Feel free to give me a kiss/hug anytime. *wink*

Seriously, today is a day to celebrate the culture/heritage of Ireland, and by extension, Irish-Americans as well. I'm in this group, so it's somewhat personal for me. I'm at least a quarter Irish, with some Welsh thrown in, and a bit of Scots, so there's a fair amount of Celtic ancestry in my background. This doesn't mean I go to festivals and watch clog dancing, or wear kilts (not part of a clan, for one thing), or go about singing "Molly Malone" (despite what people may think, "Danny Boy" is NOT a traditional Irish song-- it was written by an Englishman less than a hundred years ago) or "The Star of the County Down." It DOES mean I dress in something green, have corned beef for dinner, and reflect on my Irish forebears. It also means I have shamrocks plastered all over my computer wallpaper, and I try to watch a movie with an Irish theme on the eve of March 17.

Now, I know corned beef is not a traditional dinner on St. Patrick's, and it's more of an Irish-American tradition, but it's a delicious (if fattening!) meal, and one that I usually have with potatoes and some sort of green vegetable. When I was growing up, we'd have corned beef, baked or mashed potatoes, and broccoli or something similar, or perhaps a salad. Sometimes my mother would make barmbrack or serve a similar Irish bread, maybe Irish soda bread. We kids always had a glass of green milk, and the table would be covered with a lace tablecloth, and green napkins. For dessert, there'd be something green, often mint chocolate chip ice cream. We always made sure we went to bed the night before covered in or wearing something green, so that we wouldn't get pinched, and it would be a big deal to catch one of our parents without a stitch of green on.

Tonight, I'm cooking the dinner. I've put the corned beef in to roast, prepared the new potatoes, and I've decided our vegetable will be asparagus- it's in season right now, and I just picked up a nice stand of asparagus for a dollar from the farmer's market this afternoon, along with new potatoes as well. For dessert we'll have a green pound cake with strawberries and cream.

As for the movie, it's getting a bit difficult to find a new one we haven't seen that's set in Ireland or with a major cast of Irish characters. There aren't that many to begin with. Last year it was The Secret of Roan Inish, and the year before that Darby O'Gill and the Little People. I've seen Circle of Friends and The Commitments, and even Barry Lyndon (the title character is an Irish lad). This year's selection is The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. I understand the entire film is set in Ireland, and the characters are Irish, so it qualifies. Plus it's got Maureen O'Hara. *grin* Not to mention an Oscar for director John Ford, himself Irish. So it promises to be a nice celebration.

Whatever nationality you are, or what your plans are for today/tonight, Happy St. Patrick's Day! Erin Go Bragh!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Raping Gaia

I probably could have saved this title and post until April 22, but the Senate just allowed drilling in ANWR out of the starting gate. Just about everyone who's halfway rational about oil and the environment knows drilling way up there isn't going to do a whole lot of good. Not only is it destructive to the environment, wrecks subsistence hunting by the original residents, and wreaks havoc on the cycle of nature, by the time we get the benefits from whatever oil is up there, the energy situation today is going to look like Paradise in hindsight.

Although the so called "mainstream media" (often referred to as MSM in blogs, etc.; I call them the "corporate media" (CM). It's *much* more accurate) has done a poor job of educating people about what's happening, there is a steady trickle of information for those who care. What articles, essays, and investigative pieces have appeared paint a picture of a planet in trouble. In the June 2004 issue of National Geographic, for example, is an excellent article, "The End of Cheap Oil." While the writers and editors hedge their bets on when the inevitable day will come that we no longer have oil, it's an excellent view of how things have changed and are changing. If you haven't read this article, I recommend you do as soon as possible. The photo on pages 82 and 83 is especially revealing. While I've known for years that oil is an essential ingredient in producing plastics, a lot of people aren't aware of that. They just take for granted what they have and what they get. Now, stop for a minute and think about all the things that are made of plastic, just those things that are within your view right now. Let's start with the computer-- the casing is plastic, so is the keyboard. Check your fridge. Half of the cartons and containers in there? Plastic. Dustin Hoffman's Ben may have had a crisis of faith that was shared by his generation, but his parents' friend gave him great career advice. "Plastics" plays an essential part in our lives, from the mid-20th century up to the present. It's not just automobiles that will change once petroleum supplies shrink; it's a lot of things that make up modern life.

National Geographic published a series of articles in their September 2004 issue on the topic of global warming. Our "president" and his administration notwithstanding, this is an issue that is here to stay. I personally don't think it needs any more "studying," I think it's a crisis that should have far higher priority than a lot of other issues on people's plates. You can disagree on a lot of different topics, from all the social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action, to whether defense merits more of the federal budget than Medicare and Social Security. But you know what? If there isn't a planet left for us to live on, all of these other things become meaningless. When you have the famed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro shrinking rapidly (and slated to disappear in a matter of decades); glaciers crumbling and shrinking in Peru, the Arctic, and even in Glacier National Park in Montana; permafrost wearing away in Canada, Russia, and Alaska, leaving the possibility of an actual Northwest Passage opening up; and coral reefs dying everywhere, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Caribbean, which upsets the natural food chain, you know you've got a problem on your hands.

Granted, the Kyoto Treaty just scratches the surface, but I find it damn irresponsible that our gummint isn't taking one damned step to even try to alleviate the problem. It's been said elsewhere, but to me, Junior is our Nero, fiddling while Rome (in this case, the world) burns. It disgusts me that "environment" is a dirty word to Republicans, and that the extremists on the far right don't give a hang because they think they're going to experience the Rapture, so who cares? I don't see how the home of over six billion people is ours to trash, especially since in decades, we'll either be old or gone and it'll be a new generation's home. Each succeeding generation in this world likes to bemoan what they've done, then express hope in the next generation's ability to fix what previous generations fucked up. Well, I think it's time to stop passing the buck and start shouldering some responsibility for what happens.

Returning to the topic of oil, there was an excellent article yesterday in Salon magazine, online, about the predicted peak of oil availability. If you aren't a subscriber, you should read it anyway: all you have to do is watch a commercial for a couple minutes, then you get a day pass. It's a rather sobering piece, and made me realize I'd better enjoy all my traveling in the near future, because it's gonna get far more expensive and difficult as I get older. As it is, I doubt we're ever gonna see "low" gas prices ever again. Right now, the average gas around here in L.A. is about $2.35 a gallon (the cheapest I've seen so far is around $2.25-2.29); in some areas, for full-service, premium gas, it's already over $3 a gallon; since I first wrote today's blog, a gas station on PCH in Malibu is now pricing its lowest gas at over $3. It's funny to look back and remember, just less than ten years ago, gas prices were the lowest they'd been in years. I was living in Utah then, and a friend and I were marveling at the cost of gas at a station just south of the Idaho border, where prices were just above a dollar a gallon. Now we're heading in the other direction. As it is, gas prices have been at or hovering close to $2 a gallon here for at least a year now. So much for our gummint's prediction that we'd be bathing in low oil prices, and that Iraq's oil would pay for the war...

Lest this all seem doom and gloom, the hybrid cars are a step in the right direction, and I expect interest and demand in alternative fuel cars will pick up. It's just a shame that Detroit and American companies aren't at the forefront of this movement; so far its been companies like Toyota and Honda that have been innovative and more far-seeing than Ford, GM, and their ilk. If it's any consolation, European auto companies aren't doing a great job either. If we have the money, the next time we're in the market for a car, I'd like a hybrid.

As far as Mother Earth goes, she's definitely being raped. We're gobbling up farmland like crazy, destroying the habitats of thousands of species, from mammals down to insects and fungi we haven't even found yet in places like the Amazon. The equivalent of three or four football fields a day are cleared in the Brasilian rainforest. Elephants, tigers, and other large mammals are threatened, on endangered lists, or heading inexorably towards extinction. Vast aquifers of water have been slowly drained, while places like Las Vegas add approximately 6,000 new residents each month. It's the *desert*, for heaven's sake, people! It's not designed to hold that many people. Despite all the rain we're getting here in L.A., there's a drought over much of the West, with states like Wyoming and Montana suffering the brunt of it. As it is, we're getting the weather patterns that are normally heading over Washington and Oregon states, so this year they've got water troubles. What that means, of course, is that this summer is going to be a potentially big year for wildfires.

The destruction of farmland especially bothers me, as a native Californian. This is one of the most fertile areas in the world; before WWII, Los Angeles County was tops in agriculture production. Even as late as the 60s and early 70s, there were plenty of farms spread out around the county. Now its all asphalt to asphalt. Orange County got its name from the citrus farms. Now it's wall-to-wall with immigrants from southeast Asia living next to towns filled with rich Republicans in their McMansions on what used to be orange groves. The average house sixty years ago was anywhere from 800 to 1200 sqare feet, with 1200 being the upper level. Now we've got houses with more than 2,000 sq ft for sale everywhere. Just how much space do we really need? It's not just L.A. that's the problem; towns all over the Central Valley are growing by leaps and bounds. I grew up in and around a town that when my family first moved there, was about 20,000 to 25,000 in population. Not small, no, but not all that large either. Now it's pushing 75,000 people and threatening to merge with the cities north and southwest of it into one big blob. Since humans haven't initially situated themselves in inhospitable places, this means that growth that takes place everywhere is taking place on the land that is supposed to sustain all of us. Towns and cities built on or near farmland, rivers, oceans, and other sources of life are now threatening the water and arable land we have.

I could go on and on (and I think I already have!!), but I think I've made my point: at some point, caring for the planet we live on, managing (and if possible, reducing) our population, and becoming smart about how we live are issues that can no longer be ignored. That day is rapidly approaching, if not already here.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Doesn't Seem All That Long Ago...

Seventeen years ago today, I. King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, and one of the few successful student strikes ever in U.S. history came to an end. Deaf President Now! took place nearly twenty years ago, and it really doesn't seem that long ago to me.

The sad thing is, it was long ago enough that the minute-by-minute events of that week are starting to elude my memory, but I certainly remember enough that it's fresh in my mind. I remember that I was still fairly new to Gallaudet and Deaf culture, so all the hubbub surrounding Lee's resignation and the choice of his successor went over my head for the most part. Oh, there were rallies and demonstrations prior to the board's final decision, but since I had classes during those times, I didn't go. Looking back, I regret that now. But then, who knew this was going to become part of history? I think often when historical events take place, most people aren't acutely aware that history is taking place, that it is something that will go down in the books. Obviously important battles, seminal events, and the like are history in the making, and people are quite conscious of it. But there are millions of other things that happen that aren't on the surface, history. But they end up becoming part of our common knowledge, dissected and analyzed by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and the like.

My first real sense that something momentous was happening was when I saw tons of people rushing around like crazy, dashing this way and that, and a feeling of electricity in the air (cliche, I know, but that's what it felt like!). I stopped a friend to ask what was going on. She excitedly replied that the board had chosen Elizabeth Zinser, the hearing candidate, as the next president and that the announcement had galvanized students to take matters into their own hands. By the time I found out about the impromptu march to the Mayflower, it was too late for me to join. Still, I found people who were in the know enough, and quickly got myself up to speed.

That night, there was the first of what would be many meetings in Hughes Gym; all of us on the old wooden floor, with some people sitting up in the bleachers, watching Greg Hlibok, Jerry Covell, Tim Rarus, and Bridgetta Bourne, the four student leaders, telling us what was going to happen: we would boycott our classes and shut down the university.

I've heard Gallaudet is a bit different now, but that school year (1987-88) was the first year that there were more mainstream students in the entering freshman class than there were matriculates from the residential schools.hat year and the next few years following it constituted the high-water mark for total enrollment as well; the dorms were close to bursting. The social echelon was still heavily dominated by Deaf kids from the state schools, from Deaf families, from the Deaf world; this was before e-mail was popular, text pagers existed on the scale they do today, few students had personal computers, smoking was still allowed on campus, and more than 80% of the students lived in the dorms. People socialized a lot more in the Abbey (now back to Rathskeller) then, hung out in the dorm lobbies, went to on-campus parties, and generally talked to each other face-to-face.

But there were also sharp divisions. The cafeteria was like a high school: the big "D", strong Deaf/residential kids tended to cluster together in the middle of the cafeteria, close to the salad bar, out in the open. The rooms on the edge had their own little clusters: a mix of graduate students, signing/culturally-aware mainstreamed kids, and the theatre/intelligentsia crowd in one section; the blacks and Asians in another corner; the oral kids and non-Deaf culturally attuned mainstreamed kids in another section. That year, there was an overflow in the cafeteria because enrollment had been so high, so some graduate students and the NSP kids often sat upstairs. The cafeteria merely reflected the same balkanization we saw in the dorms and around campus. While it wasn't a "Romeo and Juliet" atmosphere, there were definite lines here and there.

During DPN though, those lines temporarily vanished, if only for a short while. Most of us eagerly jumped on the bandwagon, and the very next morning we made our way down to the front entrance to campus. For the following week, we were woken up by fire alarms constantly, attending meetings in Hughes Gym at odd hours (5 a.m. to 6 a.m. was a common time for meetings, but I also remember late night gatherings as well: 10 p.m., 11 p.m., and sometimes later, depending on events. As a historian in the making even then, I expected real confrontation, a tense atmosphere; something out of the textbooks on the 1960s. But it was almost like a festival of sorts. There were a couple booths selling food, t-shirts, buttons, and the like. The weather was mild and sunny, which for D.C. in March was something. People were chatting, moving about, enjoying themselves even as they were protesting. The presence of TV cameras, reporters, and the like just added to the carnival-like feeling, especially as the week wore on. One thing that helped us for sure is the fact that the campus was surrounded by walls and an iron gate, unlike most college campuses. This meant we could easily control the flow of traffic in and out, and didn't have to occupy campus building by building, as they did at say, Columbia in the late 60s.

That first night and the next night, there were tons of people at the phones, waiting to call home. I finally was able to use the phone, and called my parents. It was rather funny, as my parents, veterans of 60s protests, actually begged me to be careful and not to get arrested (this from parents who lived in the S.F. Bay Area and marched and protested in practically everything; I must have been one of the youngest protesters in the 1970 march in San Francisco protesting the bombing in Cambodia!).

I remember joining one of the various committees that formed-- a tree of committees spreading downwards, with various groups responsible for different things around campus. I helped one group guard the southwest corner of campus, by the transportation building. We took over a schoolbus, with flattened tires, that had been moved so that it blocked one of the gates. We were asked to make armbands so that we would be recognized, and to stay there until we were told otherwise. I think I still have my arm/headbands somewhere in a box...

I went another time with some people from the same group to check out all the gates, and make sure there were enough people manning them. There was a group of MSSD students holding their gate off of the Brentwood Parkway, with college students' trucks and cars in front of the gates, blocking the entrance. My best friend at the time had a pickup, and he was often asked to help out, either by using his car to help block the front gates, or to transport food and drink for the leaders and other "top brass."

On Wednesday night of that week, several of us decided to camp out on the sloping lawn to the left of the entrance. My friend had a pup tent that would sleep two, so we took sleeping bags out there and camped out. It was a rather cold night (remember, this is early March in D.C.!), and I don't remember being all that comfortable!

Each day we'd stand at the main gates, spread out along the sidewalk. Far from being hostile, the police were actually trying to be as helfpul as possible. One cop even asked us to show her a couple of signs, and what we were saying. I sometimes helped out with the "interpreting," since I have good speech and pretty good lipreading/guessing skills. *grin*

Our second big march was planned and prepared, unlike the first jaunt off to the Mayflower Hotel. This time, we went from campus to the Capitol. We were joined by people of all ages from around the area, and together we set off. A busload of NTID students came down from Rochester to join us, and some people even flew in from around the country. A lot of people marched together as a contigent with other people from their state, and many were carrying state flags. I walked with the California division, and again, it was a relatively warm, sunny, fairly low humidity day in D.C. We'd gotten lucky all week-- the worst it ever got was a partly cloudy sky once or twice. I don't remember the speeches in toto, but I do remember the energy. I remember being especially impressed by Jerry Covell; while the other three had speaking skills of sorts and were known around campus, Jerry had this inner fire, this way of reaching out and grabbing you-- he was the most effective speaker among the students that I saw that week.

We watched the news here and there when we could-- quite a few hung out during cafeteria hours so they could be interviewed live down at the front gates. Others decided to go and eat, but to eat quickly. We didn't really hang out and socialize as we normally did-- just grabbed enough for energy, kept our eyes glued to news reports, then went back to join the rest. Campus buildings were padlocked, hardly anyone was in sight-- it was a ghost town of sorts. I don't know about the other floors, but in my dorm, my dormmates got together that Wednesday evening to watch Greg Hlibok, Elizabeth Zinser, and Marlee Matlin all appear with Ted Koppel. I remember the feeling of elation as we saw Hlibok and Matlin shred Zinser to bits, and Koppel adding his own voice to the mix.

Even though we won one of our demands by week's end (the resignation of Zinser as the newly appointed president), it was becoming clear the protest could stretch out a long longer than any of us thought. The following week was spring break, and some students took off as they had originally planned. Quite a few others changed their minds, and decided to remain on campus, to prevent the administration and faculty from coming in and re-possessing campus. My friend and I decided we would go to his parents' house in Philadelphia for a couple days, then return and spend the rest of our break protesting. I was glad, as I had had very little sleep-- remember, the fire alarms were going on and off all the time, meetings were being held, marches were going on, and despite no classes that week, there was a lot going on to occupy our time and energy. So I agreed- off to Philly.

I was woken up by my friend on the morning of March 13, 1988-- I was exhausted, and was sleeping in a bit-- he was excited.

"It's over! We won! We won!" I woke up immediately, and throwing on a shirt and jeans, went out to the kitchen. My friend's mother joined in and between her and her son, I learned that Spilman had resigned, Phil Bravin was now the chair of the board, Jordan was the new president, and there would be no reprisals for student participation in the strike. We really had won... Thus I missed being present at the very beginning and the very end of DPN, but I was there for more than 80% of it.

Since any plans I'd originally had were scuttled, and there was no need for us to go back to D.C., we decided to spend a day hanging out at and gambling in Atlantic City, and then head up to NTID, where my friend had childhood friends going to school there. Once we arrived in Rochester and people found out we were from Gallaudet, we became instant celebrities, and asked again and again what it was like, what happened, was this true, did this really happen, etc., etc.

The feeling of a common cause, that we were all deaf together fighting for the same thing, wore off fairly rapidly. Within a month, we were all back to the same old grind, back to our social rankings and groups, back to being normal college students. Any sea change would have to wait a few years. But one thing I think it did accomplish, at least for me, was instill a sense of identity. I think DPN was as much a social movement as it was a political event. I know in later years I'd talk with people who weren't old enough for college, or who had gone elsewhere, and they would reference DPN as a turning point in their lives.

I wasn't in D.C. for the 10th or the 15th anniversaries, but it's possible I'll go back for the 20th. Regardless of whether I'm present or not, DPN will always be a part of my memories, and always a reminder that if you're secure in who you are and willing to fight for what you believe, you can win- even if you don't win everything, you can make a stand, and stake out your ground. That's a lesson I think a lot of people from the 60s have forgotten, and a lesson I plan to never forget.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Going Once... Going Twice...

I've always been curious about auctions, but never figured I'd go to one. For one thing, up to this point in my life, I've never felt I had the money to go to a legitimate auction, and second, as a deaf person, I wouldn't be able to know what the auctioneer was saying. The bid could be starting at $10, or I could find myself in hock for $10,000, and for something I didn't really want in the first place.

Well, tonight I got a chance to go to an auction. My lovely wife is on the PILF (Public Interest Law Fund) Board this year, and PILF has an annual auction. The first part was a silent auction, which is perfect for deaf people (or for anyone, really). Items or descriptions of items were placed on tables all around the room, with sheets underneath where you placed your paddle number, your name, and your bid. There was quite a range of material, from restaurant gift certificates to a night or two in a swanky hotel to signed scripts of TV shows and movies. I got into the spirit of things, and bid on quite a few items. But anyone can come back and re-bid, thereby upping the total bid price, and by the end of the silent auction portion of the evening, I had lost on all the items I bid on. Oh, well.

The second half was the live auction, where volunteer auctioneers from the law school population got up and gave their spiel about each item. Bidding went fairly quickly on the hottest items. Here, the lots up for bid consisted largely of big-ticket items, from golf outings with lawyers and judges, luxury box seats at Lakers games, a week in Vail, and the like. We had interpreters scheduled for this portion, so a group of us watched the auction and bid when we were interested. I bid on a few things, such as a week's hotel stay in Cabo San Lucas, a helicopter ride over Los Angeles, and a tour of the Playboy Mansion (this is donated annually, and is a perennial favorite). I was quickly outbid, as the bidding escalated into hundreds of dollars in most cases. It was funny though, as the majority of bidders for the Playboy Mansion tour were women, and the last two or three bidders were women.

While I doubt I'll be going to Christie's or Butterfield's anytime soon, at least I've had a taste of the auction experience. I also see it primarily as a fun thing for people who have the money to burn. Most of the items in the silent auction went for close to or almost at the cash value of the item, and in one case, actually exceeded the value (it was a restaurant coupon for $20; the closing bid was $22). Still, the money earned goes towards PILF, which provides cash stipends for summer interns in public interest, which is for the most part an unpaid internship. The monies doled out thus help keep students from starving over the summer. Unlike a regular auction, this one was for a good cause. If we're still around next year, I might go again. Who knows? I might win the Playboy Mansion tour, and I can take four people with me. *grin* Want to come?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Little Cat Feet

This morning was a rush; after staying up late to finish cleaning the apartment (got it in half-way decent condition, but by no means spanking clean), I tumbled out of bed groggily, got ready for the day, and drove to work instead of taking the bus. While public transportation in L.A. by no means matches, much less surpasses, that of Eastern cities, it isn't as bad as its reputation. One innovation of late that I appreciate is a digital readout above the driver's seat that indicates which stops the bus will approach next. It seems public transportation everywhere is adding touches like this. S.F.'s BART for quite a few years has had TV monitors indicating the arrival of the next train, how long it would be til said car arrived, and the length of the train. D.C.'s Metro system finally followed suit with similar train arrival announcements a few years ago. Boston and Chicago have yet to catch up with these two systems, and the centenarian NYC subway system isn't quite as modernized. Still, I expect in coming years these cities will play catch-up in their own fashion.

After driving over to Beverly Hills and parking at the lot off of Rodeo Drive, I walked over to the office and submitted my latest coverage and picked up my new assignment. One of my boss' clients is Anne Perry, so I'm now reading her work for the first time. I can see why she's popular - she has an engaging style. I have two books right now, so I'll read them and turn in my coverage next week.

I left early and came back here, and finished tidying up as much as I could in the few minutes I had left. My parents showed up, and after offering them a drink, taking care of a couple items of family business, we left to pick up my wife from classes. We decided to go out to lunch at The Apple Pan, since my parents had never been there, and my uncle has urged them to eat there. If you're ever in L.A. and in search of a great hamburger, you can't go wrong at The Apple Pan. It's been there for probably at least 60 years or thereabouts, on Pico, just a block east of Westwood. Inside it looks it really hasn't changed since it first opened. It's a lunchroom counter with stools arranged in a U-shape around a central grill/pantry. The walls are covered in dark wood paneling, and it's rather spartan. But the food... a very basic menu, akin to In 'N' Out-- just a couple choices of sandwiches, fries, a couple of sides, drinks, and pies. That's it. Still, it works. The hamburgers are made just the way they're supposed to be-- with a solid bun, a thick head of lettuce, a healthy slice of cheese, pickles, condiments, and a good sized patty-- not too large, but not skinny either, and cooked just enough so that it's not at all raw, but it's not charred either. The fries are a healthy serving, with a large helping of ketchup splattered on a paper plate by the servers. Until recently, they served sodas (soft drinks, pop, what have you) in paper cones, just like they used to do once upon a time. Now it's styrofoam cups. The pies are made on the site, from scratch. In the back on the right side is a huge picture window; if you look through, you can see an enormous pile of freshly peeled apples, next to wooden boards and rolling pins, all ready to be tossed into fresh crusts and baked.

It's not a fancy place, and they don't do gourmet anything. It's just like your parents (or even your grandparents) would have had when they were young. It's the kind of place Jughead would be hanging out in, waiting for Archie and the gang to walk in the door. Usually the traffic moves fast, and you don't have to wait too long for a seat. But if you do find the counters full, you just stand at the back of the room against the wall, and people do this, cheerfully, because this food is primo. It's across from the Westside Pavilion, which once upon a time was the site of the second drive-in theater ever in the country (the first one was in New Jersey or some such state, I believe- you'd think the first one would be in Southern California. As it is, I think there's only one or two drive-ins left in the L.A. area, out in Commerce or City of Industry or some other godawful town in the southeast part of the county, along the San Diego Freeway (I-5 to you non-SoCal folks)).

After lunch, we headed back to campus, to drop the gorgeous law student in my life off for a meeting, while I showed my parents around the older part of campus. The oldest buildings were build during the 20s, in an Ivy-League/European style, so that the buildings could easily pass for a campus back East. Because of this, film crews often skimp on their budget by filming at UCLA when they need a stand-in for a vaguely Ivy League-looking campus. Once we were all finished, we headed up to the Getty, as my father had yet to see the new Getty museum.

The Getty is perched above Brentwood, just off the 405, and is incredible. It's a huge, marble complex with long walkways, fountains, pools, terraces, and gardens. Parking is at the base of the hill, and you exit the parking area and go up a couple levels to a waiting area, where you take a tram. The tram trundles up the hill, giving you a view (especially on a clear day) of the 405, Westwood, the Wilshire Corridor, and areas beyond. At the top, you disembark on what looks like the entrance to some mogul's private home, built in a modern style. From there, you have your choice of the galleries or the gardens. At the edges of both gardens and from terraces, you can see all over L.A., as far as downtown, the Baldwin Hills, Palos Verdes, and on really clear days, far out to sea to Catalina Island, 26 miles off the coast of Palos Verdes. Below, around and behind you you can see Brentwood and Bel-Air.

What amazes me about the Getty is that there is no admission. Yep, you heard that right. The only thing you pay for is $7 to park your chariot in the parking garage. The tram, the galleries, and the gardens are absolutely free. The food, of course, comes with a price tag, and the artwork is in most cases priceless. But there is NO admission. J. Paul Getty's will stipulated that the foundations he established for the museum and such must spent X amount each year, to be drawn from the interest on the principal of trust funds he set up for this purpose. There is so much cash that they bought the land, built the museum, operate the trams, and employ tons of guards, staff, crew, etc. and still have no need to charge admission to keep it going. It's mind-boggling when you think about how much money a fortune based on oil brings in...

Unfortunately, today was the day the fog came in on little cat feet, and stayed. Boy, did it stay. By 4 p.m., the fog had advanced so far that it hovered right off of the terraces, surrounded the sun so that it resembled the moon, and made any vista backgrounds in photos impossible. We still enjoyed our visit anyway, and my parents plan to go back and visit again later, as all we had time for were the gardens. We were brought back here, deposited, said our farewells, and that was the end of our lovely day.

Before the fog came in, it was a delightful day in Southern California-- sun, temperatures hovering at 70 or slightly above, and clear skies. But then, the fog came in, on little cat feet. As I write, it's still on its little haunches, and probably won't move on until sometime late tomorrow morning.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Worn Out

Oy... it's been a hell of a week. First, those of you that are indentured to T-Mobile know that the Sidekick and all its variants (Sidekick! Color Sidekick! Sidekick II! Sidekick 3-D! Sidekick Magnum! Sidekick for Her! Sidekick for Him! Sidekick for the Socially Inverted!) have been on the fritz all week. But for me, it started this past Saturday, March 5. I woke up that morning, and nothing was really working. Now, I'm not that addicted to Sidekick, and I got it mostly at my better half's insistence, but since we both have a pager, it's become our communication lifeline. So it was kind of frustrating all week, since I'm her chauffeur. Not to mention it's a lifesaver at the grocery store ("Honey, is that one package or seven? Did you mean two pounds or eight pounds? This scribble here looks like Wonder Bread... Wonder Bra... so can you tell me what you really meant before I come home without it?"). It was a minor inconvenience, really. But that was just the start.

Then the cord on my wife's laptop wore out and shuffled its inanimate coil. Since I'm banging away as I speak on a troglodyte of a computer, while my wife's baby is at least from a later period, she couldn't exactly use mine. Not to mention this isn't a laptop, it's a rather more cumbersome desktop. Can't exactly strap it to her back and expect her to carry it to school with her. So a quick order online, and we wait for the delivery of a new cord.

Next up is our car. Our wonderful, reliable car, a definite lifesaver in this town. Our just-paid-off junior member of the household. The car decided its battery had outworn its welcome, and left us stranded in Echo Park at rush hour (for the uninitiated: Echo Park is one of L.A.'s oldest suburbs, and has long been a working-class to poor neighborhood; mostly Mexican/Latino the last few decades. It's now slowly gentrifying). Some very nice folks gave us a jump start, and we drove home. I was a bit troubled, but didn't think anything more of it. Two days later, the car wouldn't start. This was again at rush hour, just as it was getting dark. Luckily, I was home, so I just let it be. The next morning, I called Triple-A. I misplaced the TTY number, so I just called their number through relay. I rattled off what the problem was, explained what I wanted, then gave my address.

"I'm sorry, sir, this is the Northern California number. I'll have to transfer you."

I'm a bit annoyed.

"If my card is from Southern California Automobile Association, why does it have the NorCal number on it??"

"I really wouldn't know, sir." Ah, incompetence reigns.

After getting the correct number from him, he transfers me. The pleasant woman on the other end remarks, "I usually handle this through the TTY, but okay. Go ahead." I'm surprised. It's not often I get someone on the other end who not only knows what a TTY is, but uses it, and actually expects ME to use it. I give the same spiel, and away we go. The car gets jumped, and I jump myself to the nearest store to get a new battery.

Tonight I'm cleaning up as best as I can, shuttling between laundry, stacks of paper, and the dishes. My parents, who *never* visit, are actually coming here tomorrow afternoon, and I want the place to be half-way presentable. I think the only time my dad was ever here was the day we moved in, and the last time my mom was here was a couple years ago, when I was in the hospital for surgery. I'm also remembering a five-minute pit stop, to show my sister (who was visiting from Boston) where we lived and to make sure everyone had a chance to use our bathroom before they hit the highway home. It's so nice to be conveniently located, isn't it?

It's not the craziest week of my life, or the busiest, but it's certainly had its share of problems and moments. My Sidekick is finally functioning again, DHL delivered the new computer cord this afternoon, the car has a spanking-new battery, and our apartment looks halfway decent. Now I just gotta get through tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Anniversary Of Your Presence...

I'm not sure whether I will ever have children, but when and if I do, I know there's two or three months I would like to avoid as birthday months: March, September, and December. December is rather self-explanatory; I have several relatives, friends, and acquaintances with December birthdays, but I wouldn't want to put my child's birthday on or very close to Christmas. It just seems like Christmas overpowers everything else at that time of the year, and I'd want my children's celebrations to be as personal and individual as possible. Sometimes you don't get what you hope for though, and a December birthday is something you make the best of. If we wound up with a December baby, I'll do the best I can to make sure they know it's THEIR birthday.

March and September don't have such obvious connotations. But in my family, those are big birthday months already. When I draft my annual budget, I know in March, September, and December/January, I'm gonna pay far more than I planned, and I always make sure I have extra money at that time. In March, for the birthdays, there's my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, aunt, father-in-law, and cousin. There's a couple close friends with birthdays that month too, and my grandparents' wedding anniversary.

In September, there's quite a few birthdays: an uncle, my grandfather, two cousins, another brother-in-law, my wife, and myself. There's also two or three close friends with birthdays that month too. On top of all this, my wedding anniversary is in September. So that month definitely breaks the bank. Then again, with my birthday and my wife's and our wedding anniversary all in the same month, it'll probably be just our luck we have kids then.

American culture is pretty unique-- not too many other cultures/ethnicities make such a big deal out of the anniversary of the date you graced the world with your presence. Nowadays, you have to know your birthdate so you can fill out all kinds of forms. At some point, I anticipate the powers that be will just have each baby's forehead tattooed with their birthdate, so as to simplify things. It's not exactly a mark of freshness, or an "expire by" date (I'm not sure how many people really want to know *that* one), but given the way things are going these days, I figure at birth all babies will be tattooed with their birthdates and identification marks, and those that can hear will be implanted with a mobile phone. Or maybe they'll have some sort of attachment implanted, with an extension that can be changed for size as the person grows older, so that the newer extension can hold the latest mobile phone. I'm just jesting, of course... or am I??

Some cultures count taxi time before takeoff, so how old one is depends on your cultural views. Then again, what is age? How do you really measure age? Some people look older than they are, and others look much younger. When I was in college, I was rarely carded because even when I was very young and slender, I looked older than I really was. I haven't reached the point where I look younger than I really am, or even close to my actual age. Now that I'm greying, I doubt I ever will. In this town, there's tons of people who walk around with all kinds of plastic surgery, from face lifts to tummy tucks to botox injections. Inside, they may have the bodies of 65-year-olds, but outside they look like they're 29, or at least trying to look like they're 29. It's amazing to look around at all these mommies with their little darlings around them, and trying to figure out if they just plucked these kids out of their bellies fully formed before mommy's belly got too round and saggy. Most other places in the U.S., women who've had children for the most part look like they've had children, or at least look more realistically like mothers. There are always exceptions of course, but for the most part, that's true. Here, it looks like every other woman has given birth through the immaculate conception. You want to search for the Second Coming, come to L.A.

As for birthdays, I've gotten most of the cards I need for this month, and I've been a dutiful son and gotten gifts for my parents. I have something for my sister, but I'm a bit stumped as to what to get my brother-in-law. I'd better hurry up though, as his birthday is next week, and I need to ship the gifts.

If today's your birthday, a very Happy Birthday to you! If it isn't, no cause for alarm; a very Merry Unbirthday, and many more! *grin*

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Walk Like an Egyptian

My life isn't all politics, the last several posts to the contrary. But it does seem like all I have to do is read the morning paper to find something interesting, or something that makes me blow my top. That's when I turn around and share it with you.

Well, among the various stories today was a particularly interesting one. Seems they've gotten the results from the scan of King Tutankhamun's mummy, and refuted a long-standing belief in how he met his demise. For some cool pictures and an article on this matter, see here. This is one of those instances where history comes alive, and is far more fascinating than in the textbooks. You can see this story as straight history: Tut-ankh-amun succeeded the controversial Pharoah Amen-hotep IV, aka Akhen-aten, who promoted a monotheistic religion centered around the sun god, Aten. When Tut succeeded Akhenaten, the Egyptian leadership returned to the pantheon that existed before. Tut was also fairly young, and died when he was only eighteen. Was he murdered for political reasons?

Of course, mention of murder turns this into a murder mystery. If he was murdered, who did it, and why? Historians, archaelogists, and Egyptologists have had their suspects over the years, although General Ay, who followed as pharoah after Tut, is often mentioned as a prime candidate.

Then there's medical history/immunology, and other factors. For example, Tut might have contracted a disease, and died of that. He had a broken leg, so perhaps it became infected and he died from that. Then again, the leg might have been broken when he was being mummified. Who knows? There's several different ways to look at this, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. It isn't just dates/times/places/names, it's also about how people lived, how they behaved, the politics, the environment, everything...

Technology today is amazing-- in the past, there would have been no way to do anything like this. Now with scientific advances, there are new tools to open a window on the past. The CAT scan of Tut's mummy is one example. Another is the recent excavation of Jamestown in Virginia. The historians/archaeologists working in the pits around the site of the original fort/palisade at Jamestown have found a grave that looks like it might contain the body of Bartholomew Gosnold. In order to prove this, they're going to make use of DNA. Just a generation ago, this wouldn't have been possible.

Forensic anthropologists also do a lot of work with historical remains in addition to their bread and butter, crime scenes. There's a fascinating book written by one such practitioner, William Maples. The book, _Dead Men Do Tell Tales_, is a great read. Maples provides some background on himself, what he does (or rather, did- I believe he's dead now), and then provides the history of several cases he worked on, from murders in Florida (he was affiliated with UF at Gainesville) to more notable instances, such as his work in Russia with the Romanov remains. If you have a library card and a few hours to kill, I recommend reading it. Of course, I'm sure he (or his estate) would be even more pleased if you bought it.

To me, this is the fun part of history. I've read more than my share of history books (and some are written poorly, contain lots of fancy language, and put even me to sleep), visited FAR more than my share of museums and historical sites, but it's neat to see it all come together in a way that we can all appreciate.

The news regarding Tutankhamen's bones comes at a great time, since there is going to be a huge exhibit of stuff from his tomb, the first such show since the big blockbuster show in the late 70s. My grandmother gave my dad two tickets, and we went to see it in San Francisco at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. I don't remember much of the exhibit itself, but I remember the line. It stretched all the way across the grounds between the De Young and the Academy of Sciences, and I remember passing the bandshell on my way to the front door. I remember being fascinated by the funerary mask. A few years later, when I moved to New York, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you want to do this place, reserve at least two or three days to do it all- it's HUGE!), and saw the Temple of Dendur (or rather, what remained of it!). That was fun, as I could sort of stand at a certain angle and "pretend" I was walking in ancient Egypt. While I've never been totally fascinated by Egypt, it is quite an interesting culture, and anytime there's a big show or noteworthy museum, I'll go. The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose has quite a collection of Egypt-related objects, but I think the more fascinating story here is the Rosicrucians themselves. The outside of the museum is cool though, as it's modeled on the ancient Temple at Karnak. This is definitely more interesting than the outside facade of your average museum.

A couple years back or so, there was a great exhibit in D.C. centered on Egyptian funerary practices, and they had duplicated an entire funerary chamber. It was really neat to walk around the oval-shaped room and view the wall paintings, understand the journey through the underworld, and get a more concrete sense of how Egyptian culture was so focused on death and the afterlife.

Last summer, we had just enough money to take a trip for fun, so we headed to Las Vegas for a couple days. I decided since Las Vegas is the kind of town you go to once, marvel at the neon, laugh at the phoniness of it all, then never return, that we should sample as much as possible. So instead of doing one hotel, I booked us into two for the three days, two nights we were there. We went first to Caesar's Palace, then to the Luxor. At the Luxor, they had a "museum" on Tutankhamun and Egypt, complete with fascimiles of the tombs and the like. It was actually kinda neat, and if you're ever in Vegas, you could do worse than stay at the Luxor. For one thing, it's among the cheaper set of rooms in the theme hotels, and second, you get free passes to the museum and discounts on other stuff there as well.

Now this summer and early fall, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is going to host the first showing of the new Tutankhamun exhibit, and I plan to go. Tut baby, here I come...

Monday, March 07, 2005

Curtain Call

When I originally planned to write a blog, I thought it'd be a great idea to do it every day-- good writing exercise for me, entertainment (?) for you. Somehow it hasn't always panned out that way. But I'm still gonna try. I do admit there are times when I can't think of what to write about. I'm starting to gain a little respect for newspaper columnists now!

Have been catching up on movies over the weekend, watching this and that. There are some films that are definitely period pieces. Others are dated, but still come across well. Then there are those films that either last, or have become classics regardless. Sometimes it's fun to watch films and know that while they might not be received well today, people enjoyed it for this reason or that. For example, "Holiday Inn" (which I mentioned in an earlier blog) has a scene about Lincoln's Birthday, where the song lyrics are somewhat racist. A lot of WW II era films have subtle or blatant messages, or pointed rhetoric aimed at wartime audiences. Cold War-era films are the most dated in some cases, while in others, chillingly matching today's reality. For instance, the original "The Manchurian Candidate" is still entirely plausible in today's climate, despite its overall Cold War tones. 60s and 70s films have their own hurdles: watching "Easy Rider" not only put me to sleep, but looked like something Jim Morrison would have made in film school. It's definitely a 60s period piece, and its sole redeeming feature for viewers today is Jack Nicholson's performance. He may have become a leering caricature of himself, but in this film you not only see the Jack you recognize today, but a different Jack as well- and you can see that certain je ne sais quoi that made him a star.

When I'm with friends who are film buffs, sometimes we talk about great movies, or things about great movies. Some of the fun discussions involve tossing out quotes, discussing and analyzing performances, and the like. I've been recently thinking about how movies end; some movies have conclusions that aren't memorable, while others have lines that sum up the movie, or put a dramatic finish on the plot, or are just damn quotable. Some examples:

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." - Casablanca (1942)
"After all, tomorrow is another day!" - Gone With The Wind (1939)
"Here's my hope we will all find our Shangri-La." - Lost Horizon (1937)
"Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home." - The Wizard of Oz (1939)
"There is no bad boy." - Boys Town (1938)
"Shane! Shane! Come back! Bye, Shane." - Shane (1953)
"Well, nobody's perfect." - Some Like It Hot (1959) [you'll have to watch this movie to really get this last line-- if you haven't... then what are you waiting for?!? Stop reading now and run right out and rent it! This is a true comedy classic!]
"What do we do now?" - The Candidate (1972) [This is a good example of one of those films that's still eerily relevant today.]
"Don Corleone." - The Godfather (1972) [Well, how *else* did you expect this film to end?? *grin*]
"Forget the Alamo." - Lone Star (1996)
"The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of." - The Maltese Falcon (1941)

These are just a few lines, all from movies I've seen and that I could remember off the top of my head (with some help from Google, of course *grin*). Some of these movies are just filled with quotes, like Gone With The Wind and The Godfather. I'm probably wrong of course, but I would think Casablanca is the most quoted movie of all time. AFI announced last fall that this year's theme for the AFI is movie quotes. I believe they'll have a TV special on this sometime this year. Seeing or reading stuff like this makes me think of familiar movies, and usually I'll want to see a movie again. Some people enjoy watching movies, but only once; I have a number of movies that I'll watch again and again. Some are movies I'll watch again once in a blue moon, while others I've actually bought, so I can save rental fees.

Now I've got a craving for popcorn. Think I'll go watch a movie. In the meantime, if you wanna share your favorite movie ending, or a memorable quote, go ahead. That's what the comment box is here for. *grin*

Friday, March 04, 2005

Debtor Nation

One of this week's biggest news stories is the planned overhaul of how bankruptcy operates in this country. I have a lot to say on the subject, but Molly Ivins does it best. While I have heard stories here and there of abuses of Chapter 7 and 13, I have heard of and know a lot more folks who had no intention of going bankrupt, yet they had to. These are honest, hard-working people for the most part, who were completely chagrined at what the choices were. They know their credit's shot, they know it hurts and that it's demoralizing. But often there isn't another way. Yet this bill is a real piece of work; it will really screw things up more, I think. It also pisses me off that as usual, our "noble" Congress is going to allow the rich to exploit tons of loopholes, and allow the rest of us to take the brunt of things. There is nothing "compassionate" about this bill at all, and it lets the credit card companies off the hook. I'm especially perturbed that at the very minimum, the companies aren't being required to indicate on credit card bills the amount of time and money it will take to pay off a balance when making the bare minimum payment. This is irresponsibility at its height.

It's also dangerous economic policy too. The greediness and shortsightedness present in both the corporations and lawmakers obscures the real possibility that by forcing people to go into hock to the credit card companies without the more solid foundation of actual cash and savings behind them, the whole thing becomes a financial pack of cards that could fall down on us all. It also ignores that there are real problems behind bankruptcy: namely, the cause of the bills. One such source is the rising cost of medical care in this country, and that's something no bankruptcy bill is going to fix. From personal experience, I can attest that medical costs are spiraling out of control, and that no matter how frugal a person is, how careful they are, one ill-timed illness, one extensive hospitalization, one medical setback can financially ruin even the most responsible person. I was lucky enough to be able to cover the majority of my bills, but it put me close enough to the edge to know that it can and will happen to others out there.

It used to be extremely difficult to get a credit card in the first place. People didn't get their first one until they'd been working for a while, had established some sort of credit history, and were evaluated carefully by the card companies. Now high school and college kids are getting applications and being encouraged to sign up. Every fall, I'd see tables out by the student union with card applications, and promises of free phones, t-shirts, meals, and other enticements. I've managed to shut off the valve, but until recently, every four or five days, I'd get at least two or three unsolicited pre-approved applications in the mail. The whole thing has really gotten out of control. Not only are people with bad credit being given the chance to throw themselves more into debt, but the proliferation of pre-approval notices just makes it that much more easier for identity theft to occur. The past twenty years or so has been a bonanza for the credit card industry; they are definitely in the black, and not hurting.

As it stands, the bill is just a sweetheart deal for the credit card companies. We will pay the price for corporate hegemony.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Gates of Education

On Tuesday, an opinion piece appeared in the L.A. Times by Bill Gates, excoriating the current state of high schools. Considering that Windows needs a new patch, plug, or downloadable fix every week, I'm not so sure I'd nominate Bill Gates to be the one to fix our schools, or anything else for that matter. Still, he does bring up some valid points. The one that I agree with the most is that we are ignoring and marginalizing minority students in favor of pupils from a better "background" or socioeconomic status. This isn't fair, and certainly isn't an "American" thing to do. Our system was founded and predicated on the premise that we are equal, and that ideally, we have a meritocracy. Work as hard as you can and invest in yourself, and the sky's the limit. Of course, realistically, this isn't true. At best, we live in an oligarchy/plutocracy, that at times lately has been veering dangerously close to fascism. Often we don't get the best leaders we deserve, the smartest managers/employees, or the best possible talent for whatever endeavor, whether commercial, artistic, or what-have-you.

I also agree that we need to change the dropout rate. Once upon a time, getting an eighth-grade education was standard, and graduating from high school was a big deal. Then high school became the standard, and it was college that was the new bar for excellence. Nowadays, you can't do much with just a high school diploma, and a B.A. is rapidly becoming the minimum the way a high school diploma used to be. Now you need extra training, a master's, even a doctorate. Post-graduate studies, CEUs, CLEs, and all kinds of extra educational certification. Yet there remains a larger number than necessary of students who, for one reason or another, fail to finish high school. This adds an unnecessary strike to whatever other disadvantages might be present.

I agree with Bill that a good part of this current state of affairs can be traced back to our education system. There are quite a few things I disagree with, though.

Gates says: "...they die young because of years of poor healthcare, unsafe living conditions and violence." There isn't necessarily a correlation between lack of a high school degree and these things. Poor healthcare is in large part due to the way the current system is structured, where HMOs have the upper hand and the gummint is continually cutting back medical programs and benefits, especially for those who need it most. At at time when gaining just adequate health insurance is difficult even for college-educated white-collar workers, you know this situation isn't magically solved with a high school diploma.

As for "unsafe living conditions," I will agree having more education makes it more likely a person can obtain a job that allows them to buy a home in a decent neighborhood. Yet this problem is far more complex than the simplistic goal of obtaining a high school diploma. When corporations develop two-tier hiring programs that depress wages, as they did in the SoCal grocery strike recently, they take away the ability of the working class to achieve some modicum of a middle-class life. When corporations are allowed to outsource jobs overseas, it doesn't matter what kind of education you have: your economic opportunities decrease, and the likelihood you can't afford a decent place to live increases. When cities use eminent domain to destroy older neighborhoods and replace them with luxury lofts and condos, that doesn't really help the housing stock for lower-wage earners. When social ills overwhelm a community's ability to regulate itself, you have problems. When you have shoddy construction done with little regard to regulation or investment in safety factors, you have inadequate shelter. This isn't limited to the poor and uneducated, by the way. The recent rains here in L.A. have caused quite a few million-dollar homes to buckle in slides, simply because the appropriate geological surveys weren't done, and the necessary measures to provide a solid foundation for the home weren't taken care of. Perhaps the residents were lottery winners, but I'll safely bet these people that are now homeless have much more than a high school diploma in their educational background.

Violence. Ah, violence... an "American" value. When you have a society that allows guns of all kinds out on the streets (I don't recall too many hunters shooting Bambi's family with an AK-47, or someone needing to defend their family with bullets that can pierce the hulls of airplanes), that is okay with serial killings, gun battles, and all manner of violence on the TV set night after night, but is squeamish over anything more erotic than a chaste kiss, and racial and sexual inequality to simmer under the surface, it's pretty hard to suddenly link the lack of violence to possession of a high school diploma. Granted, there's a need to educate kids so they don't slip into these situations or vicious cycles, but it's rather simplistic to say that "they die young because of years of poor healthcare, unsafe living conditions and violence."

Another problem I have is what they are teaching in the schools today. There's way too many tests, too much drilling and rote preparation. Getting the best out of teachers and students doesn't mean training them to test well; it means getting them to THINK. Because there is so much emphasis on testing, a lot of other things get shuttled out of the way, never to be brought up. In one of my sections, I had students that did not know how to footnote a term paper properly. This shocked me: this is something I learned in 8th and 9th grades. It's a skill that should be taught at the beginning of high school, yet we have students in the tertiary system today who don't know how to do basic research. They don't attribute what they find properly, and pundits wonder why our newspapers and gummint research contains such shoddy work? Why plagiarism is rampant?

My next beef is Bill's solution. He says we should prepare all students to be ready to go to college. I disagree. As someone who was in school at least part-time without a break for 30-plus years, and as someone who has lectured in high schools and taught college courses, I can safely say that some people are not meant to go to college. I had a friend who went to college largely because of his parents; he was expected to get a college degree. Yet he took no interest in school beyond the social scene, floundered when he was capable of doing much more, and took forever to graduate. He has a college degree, but the kind of jobs he took while in college and since he graduated do not really require a college degree. I talked with him once about it, and we agreed he would have been better off going to a technical or trade school. He enjoys the outdoors, enjoys working with his hands, is quite an accomplished carpenter, and is not the kind of person who would enjoy being desk-bound. Yet he went to college because a) his parents wanted it, b) everyone else around him went, and c) it is now the "expected" thing to do.

I have talked with some of my students in the past who were drowning in my history sections. Why were they having trouble in class? What did they want to do with their time in college? More than a few indicated they'd rather be doing something else, but Mommy and Daddy had vicarious fantasies about junior becoming a doctor, or their darling little daughter becoming a lawyer, or being just like Mommy and getting a doctorate, or making a six-figure salary like Daddy. They felt trapped, stuck in a cycle perpetrated by their parents, their friends, their neighbors, their community.

I look at the kinds of jobs, past and present that have existed in our society. Some of our most noted buildings, bridges, and public works were built quickly, for a reasonable sum of money, and have withstood the test of time. Think of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. Today similar projects go into cost overruns, are dragged out for years, and develop flaws nearly instantaneously with the completion. Example A is Boston's "Big Dig." Some of the most essential or basic jobs in the service or public sector don't necessarily require a college degree. But you have lots of people out there with B.A.'s or B.S.'s who don't really know what the hell they're doing. They don't have the training, the experience, or the know-how. What they *do* have is a sheet of paper with their name on it saying they passed a set of courses at X College or Y University.

That doesn't mean, however, that I advocate a return to the days where just a certain segment (usually middle-to-upper-class whites) were groomed for college and beyond, while everyone else is shifted into tracks as early as junior high school. But it doesn't mean I think that everyone should be rigorously prepped for college, either. Not everyone is smart enough to go to college. Not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone SHOULD go to college. This is where I disagree with Sir Bill.

Instead, what I think should happen and be changed is that first, we do need to aim for as close to 100% high school graduation rate as possible. I think students should be free to make the choices they want; this is something that will never happen, as it involves changing the attitudes of parents as well as the community. I think where society could change its attitude is to celebrate diversity in employment. People used to be proud of the work they did, and took pride in their accomplishments. We don't seem to honor that today, unless you're a CEO who's snagged a multi-million dollar golden parachute for getting fired three years into the job. That's my new employment game plan, actually. I'll have no problem getting fired from an executive position; I just need to get hired. Then I've got it made. There is as much dignity to being a janitor, a factory worker, a maid, a nurse, a teacher as there is to being an executive, a small-business owner, a computer designer, a developer. Unfortunately, the monetary compensation doesn't always match the occupation. This needs to change. It's pretty sad when you have deans at the University of California making more than the President of the United States, or CEOs whose companies tanked walking off with millions in profits, or an overgrown adolescent in a baseball uniform making more money in six months than most people make in a lifetime.

We also lack today the apprenticeships and training programs of the past. This is where I diverge from Bill Gates. I think we need a return to the days where people had apprenticeships, where they learned their craft through established artisans and tradespeople. We need to develop, promote, and encourage programs that offer a mixture of basic liberal arts, mathematics, and the sciences with vocational training. Bill laments that not everyone is taking Algebra II. Now be honest with me: when's the last time you used Algebra II? When you did take algebra, geometry, or a similar course, did the teacher use practical applications? For example, geometry is actually very useful and people use it all the time. Parallel parking, for example, requires some knowledge of spatial geometry, as well as tons of practice. Educators and instructors should teach these courses and disciplines, but try to make it more relevant for the world we live in.

I also advocate a departure from the way high school is set up now. Most high schools are either 10-12 or 9-12, with a regular curriculum and a college-prep curriculum, with a handful of voc ed classes, like shop. There's no real preparation for anything else. What I'd like to see is a final year tacked on, but instead of educational courses, set it up so that for the year, the student has a choice of two semester-long or one year-long internship/apprenticeship. This would allow students to experiment with possible jobs and interests. It would give something back to the community. It would encourage business owners to become more involved with the educational system, with the children in their community, and possibly allow some to develop mentor-mentee relationships. It would also allow those who wish to do so the chance to start breaking ground towards an eventual job. Courses could be developed that would allow students to study, either in a classroom or independent study, more about the skills and responsibilities needed in their chosen internship.

There are other benefits too: it would allow teens an additional year to mature. Heading off to college at 17 or 18 isn't always the best option. Students who enter a bit older and a bit more mature are usually more likely to handle getting through college than younger kids. It would allow an extra year of savings for when they do go off to college (which brings me to another gripe: the cost of education. If Bill's serious about changing education and starting a dialogue, he needs to tackle how the current system is pricing all but the rich out of college).

These are just my ideas; some may be worthy, others might merely stoke discussion. There could be a huge flaw in what I'm arguing. But I think that's the biggest impact of Bill's editorial: it gets us thinking about how the gates of education are open to some and closed to others; whether our present system is working, and how it needs to be changed.