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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Miss Universe 2005

Melina, Zed and I packed onto my bed to watch Miss Universe last night. I remember doing this with my aunt when I was ten years old! Back then, the girls had "talents" - I especially remember us snarking at the hog callers, lassoo artists, and baton twirlers - and they wore those soviet-quality Catalina swimsuits built around girdles.

This year the biggest sport was trying to decide which girls had breast implants and surgical tweaking of their faces. We've been studying at

The native costumes were fantastic and surprising. They were native, not to any actual community or country, but to the Las Vegas, Paris, and Hollywood girly shows of past eras. We loved them but they whizzed by far too fast. They reminded me happily of the days when "state costumes" of the Miss America contest had fruits and maps glued onto them.

The evening gowns, many slit up to the crotch, seemed to have been concocted by one mind, a mind with a preference for sickly pale shades of yellow and lime.

We were appalled to see that almost all the many, many judges were white, and that most of the contestants were white, and that all the finalists were white. White, white, white. Very few contestants from Africa, and of those, Miss South Africa was a blond. The girls from Latin America, who dominated the finals, were also white white white. Melina: "I thought we got past this a long time ago."

The short host kept trying to point out to us that he was a heterosexual, I'm not sure why he thought we cared. He seemed to have a lot of botox in his forehead - nothing happened when he raised his eyebrows. His blond co-pilot had a nasty, nasal voice and her dress had a sports-bra quality to it. At least it wasn't chartreuse.

I didn't know that Thailand could look so much like Las Vegas. I guess the point was to show us that luxury resorts were ready to take our money again after the disaster of the tsunami, which was mentioned briefly just before a commercial break so you could, at that point, decide to meditate on misery or watch a lady get migraine relief, your choice.

Here you can see a picture of a couple of the girls, captioned: "Miss Universe 2005 delegates appear in bikinis before sacred Buddhist temple, triggering anger and red faces."

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Excellent wedding poetry

The Mappamundi gang did a wedding at the rustic "Spruce Pine Lodge" yesterday. Did you know the new craze is to play badminton at the reception, by the way?

The bride had been very stingy with us - she underpaid severely, and we didn't get any food - but we did get to chuckle at a poem I have not heard read in a wedding ceremony before, to whit this one:

Tin Wedding Whistle
by Ogden Nash

Though you know it anyhow
Listen to me, darling, now,

Proving what I need not prove
How I know I love you, love.

Near and far, near and far,
I am happy where you are;

Likewise I have never larnt
How to be it where you aren't.

Far and wide, far and wide,
I can walk with you beside;

Furthermore, I tell you what,
I sit and sulk where you are not.

Visitors remark my frown
Where you're upstairs and I am down,

Yes, and I'm afraid I pout
When I'm indoors and you are out;

But how contentedly I view
Any room containing you.

In fact I care not where you be,
Just as long as it's with me.

In all your absences I glimpse
Fire and flood and trolls and imps.

Is your train a minute slothful?
I goad the stationmaster wrothful.

When with friends to bridge you drive
I never know if you're alive,

And when you linger late in shops
I long to telephone the cops.

Yet how worth the waiting for,
To see you coming through the door.

Somehow, I can be complacent
Never but with you adjacent.

Near and far, near and far,
I am happy where you are;

Likewise I have never larnt
How to be it where you aren't.

Then grudge me not my fond endeavor,
To hold you in my sight forever;

Let none, not even you, disparage
Such a valid reason for a marriage.

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

It's Not Always As Hard As It Seems

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Be good to the valet...

Bitter Waitress will remind you that what goes around comes around. It's easy enough to leave a decent tip. Otherwise, you may make it into the bad tippers' database at this website! Here are some reports:
Caroline Kennedy- A demanding, high maintenance person who needs to learn how to tip better. Very sad though, I feel kind of sorry for her.

Shirley MacLaine- Kind of a wack job, but so nice and cool :) Talked to me for a half an hour about theater. She likes her cappucino with lots of foam and Sugar in the Raw on the top. Always 25 percent from her. She likes to take food home for her dog.

Judy Collins- She was famous in the 70's for some shitty songs she wrote. She comes in with her asshole husband and sends us running all over the place. If she pays, she tips well. If he pays, we get 15 percent. She is so conceited it's ridiculous- especially when nobody knows who she is!!!

Cameron Diaz. She came in looking all ratty, no make-up (which someone with her skin should just not attempt. I think the moon may have less craters), and her hair was all skanky. I was very polite, did my job well, but will admit I did not go out of my way to fawn over her. Apparently she didn't like that too much because she was very snotty the whole evening and left me $6.00 for a $98 check. Bitch!

Several years ago, on the "Tonight Show" Gwyneth Paltrow mentioned that she wanted some (now defunct) Birkenstocks. A store in Lawrence, KS (Footsteps) contacted the Tonight Show to say that they had the Birks in stock. When the store was contacted, the owner quoted a price of ~$90. The owner was informed that "Ms Paltrow doesn't pay".

I work at the Foreign Cinema in San Francisco. It's become "a hot spot" here in sf. We've had many celeberties frequent our restaurant. The one that i remember was Sharon Stone. I was working as a runner and my good friend was serving her and her husband. She ran my friend ragged and after presening the bill of $139 she only left $9. On the way out she stiffed the valet.

Terri Seymour - I was not surprised to see another complaint about Terri Seymour's behavior in restaurants.I have served Ms. Seymour on several occasions and each time she has been throughly rude. She always demands items which are not on the menu or if they are on the menu she will fuss and make sure that she gets a smaller portion. If the size is not exactly right, she will send it back. She always contests items on the bill even though we have the records to prove that they have been ordered. And however large the check has been, she has never left more than a $2 dollar tip.

Terri and a friend came into the restaurant my friend works at and was a total bitch. She demanded loads and sent her food back three times and when my friend accidently spilled some water she shouted: "You stupid bitch!" She gave a $1 tip on a $60 tab.

It broke my heart when I encountered the biggest bitch of them all, Linda Carter. Of course, I knew there was no way that this woman could possibly live up to the near perfect image I had of her form the old Wonder Woman days. ... In July of 1998 she and her family stayed at the hotel for two weeks, the worst two weeks of my life. It was a constant stream of slaving over this family with the promise of great tips to come. I can still remember the exact moment when my false image of this woman was shattered. The family had six mountain bikes they had rented in storage in the lower level of the hotel. Early one morning, Linda Carter came to me and asked for the bikes to be brought up. I had to use the stairs for this task. So for the next ten minutes I was running down the stairs and back up with a bike on each shoulder. Three times. I was pretty tired at the conclusion, but still I expected something in the form of compensation. At this point Linda Carter turns to her husband and says (in the most condescending voice I have ever heard), "Give the boy a dollar, honey." When he handed me the dollar I let it slide through my hand and onto the ground and walked away. It still angers me to talk about her.

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

From "Overheard in New York"

Woman: How many slices are in a medium?
Pizza guy: 8.
Woman: How many slices are in a large?
Pizza guy: 8.
Woman: Can I speak to someone else?

--Pizzeria, 14th & 1st

Two proverbs...

From Swanktrendz:
"The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it." -- Chinese Proverb.

From Television Without Pity:
"Eating a salad at McDonald's is like going to North Dakota for some good Thai food."

Strawberry Shortcake the right way.

I'm going to tell you the proper way to make strawberry shortcake. When I was growing up, I thought there was only one way - the proper way - but now I live in the South and I see there is a different, erroneous method.

Here in the South, strawberry shortcake is often made with three extremely incorrect materials:
  • Soft yellow spongecake;
  • Strawberries covered with glutinous, gelatinous red gunk;
  • Cool Whip.

OK, here is the proper Yankee method (makes three).
  1. Go pick some strawberries. There are pick-your-own patches nearby, aren't there? Don't choose strawberries which are tough, tasteless, and big as grapefruits. Pick berries of a modest and proper size.

  2. Thinly slice the strawberries, a couple hours ahead of time - two or three times as many of them as you can possibly imagine needing - and put sugar on them so they make their own gravy.

  3. Make buttermilk biscuits (see below), one per person.

  4. Whip a half pint of whipping cream with a little sugar and vanilla. We are lucky enough to have Mapleview Farms of which J. Scott Wilson says: "Mapleview Farms, in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, is Jimmy Chalmers' choice for top of the heap. The owners are relocated Vermont dairymen, and feed the cattle a high-protein cottonseed-based diet that, according to Jim, results in a milk so high in butterfat it should be against the law."

  5. Cut the biscuits in half. Layer: bottom of biscuit, gloppy strawberries, whipped cream, top of biscuit (I turn it upside down), gloppy strawberries, whipped cream.

Makes three (3" diameter)

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons butter
about 1/2 cup buttermilk

Dump dry ingredients in a bowl - forget that nonsense about sifting - grate the butter onto the dry ingredients - squish the butter in with your fingers. Add enough buttermilk to take up every last bit of the dry stuff. Roll it out about 1/3 to 1/2" thick, cut into rounds 3" in diameter. Bake at 425 about 12 minutes.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Silver threads

I run a "Rise Up Singing Circle" at my house on Thursday nights. My job is to play piano, sing loudly and in tune, and to facilitate the remembering of old songs - it's typical that my group remembers the beginning of a song and sings it with gusto but runs its boat into the rocks after a couple lines.

If there's a song they want to sing but they don't know it very well and I also don't know it, I look it up and we do it next time. Tonight's "new" song was Down By the Old Mill Stream, written in 1910 by Tell Taylor.

I discovered (thank you, Google) that there are verses to this song, not just the chorus. As I typed them up I was thinking a song like this will never be written by someone of my generation.
My darling, I am dreaming of the days gone by,
When you and I were sweethearts beneath the summer sky.
Your hair has turned to silver, the gold has faded too,
But still I will remember where I first met you:

Down by the old mill stream where I first met you,
With your eyes of blue, dressed in gingham too,
It was there I knew that you loved me true,
You were sixteen, my village queen, by the old mill stream.

The old mill wheel is silent and has fallen down,
The old oak tree has withered and lies there on the ground,
While you and I are sweethearts the same as days of yore
Although we've been together, forty years and more.
Because it's like this:
  • How many of us knew our current sweeties at the age of sixteen? My ex-in-laws did, but these days?

  • How many of us are going to be with our same sweethearts for forty years?

  • How many of us are going to let our hair turn silver? I have, but I know I'm in the minority. I actually have a friend a bit older than I am, with flaming red hair a la the Sweet Potato Queens, who says it makes her ill to look at my silver threads.

  • How many of us would allow the words "faded" and "withered" to be used anywhere in our vicinity?
I would like it to be ok to get old. So far, thankfully, I am hale and hearty, can take long hikes and dig deep holes and sleep on the floor, but I would like it to be ok to look my age, as they used to say, and sometimes maybe even make the little "oof" noise when I sit down after an exhausting day.

Here's a line I love from another ancient song, When You and I Were Young, Maggie: "My face is a well written page, Maggie, but time alone was the pen." People used to say: "I earned these wrinkles." Why isn't that ok any more?

I'm tired of the quest for eternal youth. It starts so early, isn't it weird to see actresses in their 30s with botoxed foreheads? Isn't it upsetting when actors and actresses suddenly get a lot of plastic surgery and don't look like themselves any more?

Wouldn't it be nice to grow old with the people we were young with?

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Reminder from Woodie Guthrie

From This Land Was Made for You and Me:
As I went walking, I saw a sign there
On the sign it said NO TRESPASSING
But on the other side it didn't say nothing --
That side was made for you and me!

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Almost like the good old days

It's wonderfully noisy here, with Melina and Zed in residence for a while. Teenage type music is playing all the time, there is shouting up and down the stairs, there are hundreds of shoes at the bottom of the stairs. Like the good old days.

Melina's new jalopy - procured for free for the summer - is chock-a-block with boxes full of her stuff. The boxes are starting to come out of the car but have only made it as far as the front hall.

I stared her in the eye and said: "Promise me you are not bringing anything home you will not come back for within a reasonable period." We'll see.

She's leaving for Mississippi in ten days, to go take oral histories from old Jews. Anybody know any old Jews in Mississippi she should interview?

I designed this house for the family we were at the time - a mom and two kids who liked to hang out together. The kids' bedrooms are small because I didn't want to encourage them to stay in those rooms with the door closed as I had when I was a kid; my room is just as small because I didn't feel like a master and had no need for a "Master Bedroom" - also because my previous bedroom had been so large and full of projects (my ex's clothes on the floor, my sewing machine and drafting table covered with stuff) that it was NEVER tidy. This room I live in is small and simple, easy to keep tidy, with lots of windows in every direction.

I used to lie in bed here and look out at deer chomping the trees, bushes and flowers - I'd leap out onto the balcony and yell at them but they just stared up at me with stuff hanging out of their mouths, still chomping. Then I built the wonderful deer fence and now I just listen to the birds.

Because the bedrooms are small, there's lots of common space upstairs, full of windows and light (and, well, mess). For a week and a half we will be (sort of) that same little family I built this house for. We lounge around together with our computers, books and projects.

Zed, with his tender back recovering nicely from the spinal fusion, is sleeping on an air mattress stacked on the futon right there in the middle of the action. Last night, after we had salad and strawberry shortcake for dinner, we piled on his mattress and watched Six Feet Under (from Netflix) and then the season finale of Desperate Housewives on tape.

By the way, every single person in both of those shows is cranky and obnoxious. Why don't they make shows about people who are polite and nice to each other? They could still tell jokes.

More souvenirs

From Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti, some definitions:
  • Barratry (The practice of exciting and encouraging lawsuits and quarrels.)

  • Champerty (The prosecution or defense of a suit, whether by furnishing money or personal services, by one who has no legitimate concern therein, in consideration of an agreement that he shall receive, in the event of success, a share of the matter in suit; maintenance with the addition of an agreement to divide the thing in suit.)

  • Maintenance (An officious or unlawful intermeddling in a cause depending between others, by assisting either party with money or means to carry it on.

And from The Little Professor, Advice to students on the fine art of requesting a higher grade including:
  • Please wait at least 48 hours before firing off an outraged missive. If nothing else, this will give you adequate time to cool down, thereby saving yourself from inadvertently self-inflicted doom.
  • Bear in mind that a "B" is not a bad grade. Excessive hysterics over the receipt of same will not materially advance your case.

  • If your instructor told you that you needed to do X in order to improve your work, and yet you didn't do X, then perhaps you might wish to reconsider having this discussion.

  • As a general rule, most of us are not especially sympathetic to the claim that the price of your tuition somehow entitles you to an "A"--especially since that line of argument implicitly concedes that you yourself haven't done anything to merit said grade.

  • Please also refrain from mentioning that your mother is a lawyer or that your father sits on the board of trustees.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Women and Competition

This absolutely rang true to me. I absolutely would rather earn 50 cents per math problem than be in a tournament. In fact, I think my life path has been determined by my aversion to competition. I am one of very few singers of Jewish, Irish, Serbian, and Greek music in North Carolina, and I like it that way.

Excerpted from
What Women Want
by John Tierney for the New York Times, May 24 2005

Suppose you could eliminate the factors often blamed for the shortage of women in high-paying jobs. ... Would women make as much as men?

Economists recently tried to find out in an experiment in Pittsburgh by paying men and women to add up five numbers in their heads. At first they worked individually, doing as many sums as they could in five minutes and receiving 50 cents for each correct answer. Then they competed in four-person tournaments, with the winner getting $2 per correct answer and the losers getting nothing.

On average, the women made as much as the men under either system. But when they were offered a choice for the next round - take the piece rate or compete in a tournament - most women declined to compete, even the ones who had done the best in the earlier rounds. Most men chose the tournament, even the ones who had done the worst.

The men's eagerness partly stemmed from overconfidence, because on average men rated their ability more highly than the women rated theirs. But interviews and further experiments convinced the researchers ... that the gender gap wasn't due mainly to women's insecurities ... It was due to different appetites for competition.

"Even in tasks where they do well, women seem to shy away from competition, whereas men seem to enjoy it too much," Professor Niederle said. "The men who weren't good at this task lost a little money by choosing to compete, and the really good women passed up a lot of money by not entering tournaments they would have won."

Now that so many employees (and more than half of young college graduates) are women, running a business like a tournament alienates some of the most talented workers and potential executives. It also induces competition in situations where cooperation makes more sense.

The result is not good for the bottom line, as demonstrated by a study from the Catalyst research organization showing that large companies yield better returns to stockholders if they have more women in senior management.

Some of the best-paying jobs require crazed competition and the willingness to risk big losses - going broke, never seeing your family and friends, dying young.

The women in the experiment who didn't want to bother with a five-minute tournament are not likely to relish spending 16 hours a day on a Wall Street trading floor.

For two decades, academics crusading for equality in the workplace have been puzzled by surveys showing that women are at least as satisfied with their jobs and their pay as men are. This is known as "the paradox of the contented female worker."

But maybe it's not such a paradox after all. Maybe women, like the ones who shunned the experimental tournament, know they could make more money in some jobs but also know they wouldn't enjoy competing for it as much as their male rivals. They realize, better than men, that in life there's a lot more at stake than money.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Some weekend souvenirs

Got home last night and this morning the "cable guy" showed up to replace the equipment that got burned out by lightning last Thursday - leading to a paucity of posts! - it was a two-dollar switcher, I could have fixed it myself.

So what did I learn this weekend? Two favorite quotes:
  • This one was offered by Yale's new Dean, oops I can't remember his name, but he's got a gigantic black moustache and a cute smile, and he rocks up on the ball of his feet for emphasis. Frequently! From "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White:
    The best thing for being sad ... is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails.

    You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.

    There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

    Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.

  • "Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought" (Attributed by the Master of Morse College to Coleridge, but according to Google, Samuel Johnson is the source.)

Then there was Eleanor Holmes Norton. I had been interested to hear from such an august veteran of the Civil Rights era, but she was a disappointment, first griping that she had only gotten lunch from the burrito cart, then reading a speech which appeared to be recycled from an earlier occasion - five years earlier, I would guess, considering that she extended congratulations to the class of 2000. The theme of her speech was: Who am I? and she then, in answering her own question, told us self-aggrandizing things which did not seem to relate to the business at hand.

Melina had spent this year living in Lutheran House, a dimly lit and very quiet building. This was the first time we hung out in the living room, where I discovered that contrary to the gloomy impression left by her somber-looking roommates, there must be somebody there with a sense of humor - they had two bobble-head dolls, one of Martin Luther and one of Jesus, standing on the sideboard next to the order of service.

Monday, May 23, 2005

"Class Day"

They certainly make a big deal of graduation here. Yesterday was funny hat day. It reminded me of how I've never had a good head for Hallowe'en costumes although I appreciate them greatly. I particularly remember one year seeing a half-dozen people dressed as a six pack of beer and a couple dressed as shifting tectonic plates and thinking, this is genius of a kind too rarely seen...

Melina went the classic route, a wide-brimmed straw hat with large tropical flowers she sewed on to it and trailing silk ribbons. Others ran the gamut from Shredded Wheat boxes crafted into shapes never seen on earth to an entire moose. There were many vikings and many Darth Vaders. One large hat was connected to a computer keyboard and as the kid typed (with one hand) his hat said scratchy incomprehensible things. A crocheted snood with many balloons trapped in its cascading net. Lobster haberdashery.

Last night Melina conducted her last concert with the Slavic chorus, in one of Yale's gothic chapels that certainly must have seemed pretentious when they were new but now have enough age (and urban soot) on them to look feasible. It was beautiful. My brother whom I haven't spoken to for two years was there, and Zed, ecstatic to be past his surgery and able to enjoy all the fun, and all the ex-in-laws, and all was well.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

"The Cuban Diet"

From Bill Totten's weblog, a fascinating essay about Cuban agriculture since the "Special Period," "the point in Cuban history where everything came undone. With the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba fell off a cliff of its own." The essay is very long - I've excerpted it somewhat - but I urge you to go back to his blog and read the whole thing.
Castro spent three decades growing sugar and shipping it to Russia and East Germany, both of which paid a price well above the world level, and both of which sent the ships back to Havana filled with wheat, rice, and more tractors. When all that disappeared, literally almost overnight, Cuba had nowhere to turn.

Cuba became an island ... an island outside the international economic system, a moon base whose supply ships had suddenly stopped coming.

Without oil, even public transportation shut down - for many, going to work meant a two-hour bike trip. Television shut off early in the evening to save electricity; movie theaters went dark. People tried to improvise their ways around shortages. "For drinking glasses we'd get beer bottles and cut the necks off with wire", one professor told me. "We didn't have razor blades, till someone in the city came up with a way to resharpen old ones".

So much of what Cubans had eaten had come straight from Eastern Europe, and most of the rest was grown industrial-style on big state farms. All those combines needed fuel and spare parts, and all those big rows of grain and vegetables needed pesticides and fertilizer - none of which were available.

In 1989, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the average Cuban was eating 3,000 calories per day. Four years later that figure had fallen to 1,900 ... The host of one cooking show on the shortened TV schedule urged Cubans to fry up "steaks" made from grapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs.

Now ... Cuba had learned to stop exporting sugar and instead started growing its own food again, growing it on small private farms and thousands of pocket-sized urban market gardens - and, lacking chemicals and fertilizers, much of that food became de facto organic.

[Cubans] have created what may be the world's largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture, one that doesn't rely nearly as heavily as the rest of the world does on oil, on chemicals, on shipping vast quantities of food back and forth. They import some of their food from abroad ... But mostly they grow their own, and with less ecological disruption than in most places.

There's always at least the possibility ... that larger sections of the world might be in for "Special Periods" of their own. Climate change, or the end of cheap oil, or the depletion of irrigation water, or the chaos of really widespread terrorism, or some other malign force might begin to make us pay more attention to the absolute bottom-line question of how we get our dinner (a question that only a very few people, for a very short period of time, have ever been able to ignore).

Before the "special period" began, Cuba had a few demonstration hydroponic gardens, quickly abandoned when the crisis hit. The name now means urban garden.
There are thousands of organoponicos in Cuba, more than 200 in the Havana area alone, but the Vivero Organoponico Alamar is especially beautiful: a few acres of vegetables attached to a shady yard packed with potted plants for sale, birds in wicker cages, a cafeteria, and a small market where a steady line of local people come to buy ... for their supper.

Sixty-four people farm this tiny spread. [Their manager said] "This land was slated for a hospital and sports complex ... but when the food crisis came, the government decided this was more important."

Most of his farm is what we would call organic ... [he's] planted basil and marigolds at the row ends to attract beneficial insects, and he rotates sweet potato through the rows every few plantings to cleanse the soil; he's even got neem trees to supply natural pesticides. ... He doesn't use artificial fertilizer, both because it is expensive and because he doesn't need it - indeed, the garden makes money selling its own compost...

For the last six months, he said, the government demanded that the organoponico produce 835,000 pesos' worth of food. They actually produced more than a million pesos' worth. ... Salcines predicted that the profit for the whole year would be 393,000 pesos. Half of that he would reinvest in enlarging the farm; the rest would go into a profit-sharing plan. It's not an immense sum when divided among sixty-four workers - about $150 - but for Cuban workers this is considered a good job indeed.

The Vivero Organoponico Alamar ... [is] incredibly productive - sixty-four people earn a reasonable living on this small site, and the surrounding neighbors get an awful lot of their diet from its carefully tended rows. You see the same kind of production all over the city - every formerly vacant lot in Havana seems to be a small farm. The city grew 300,000 tons of food last year, nearly its entire vegetable supply and more than a token amount of its rice and meat...

... the country redistributed as much as two thirds of state lands to cooperatives and individual farmers and, as with the organoponico in Alamar, let them sell their surplus above a certain quota. ... It's a lot like sharecropping, and it shares certain key features with, say, serfdom, not to mention high feudalism.

Fidel Castro, as even his fiercest opponents would admit, has almost from the day he took power spent lavishly on the country's educational system. Cuba's ratio of teachers to students is akin to Sweden's; people who want to go to college go to college. Which turns out to be important, because farming, especially organic farming, especially when you're not used to doing it, is no simple task ... To a very large extent, the rise of Cuba's semi-organic agriculture is almost as much an invention of science and technology as the high-input tractor farming it replaced, which is another thing that makes this story so odd.

In the town of Nuevo Gerona ... there is a statue of a cow named White Udder, descended from a line of Canadian Holsteins. In the early 1980s she was the most productive cow on the face of the earth, giving 110 liters of milk a day ... Fidel journeyed out to the countryside to lovingly stroke her hide.

She was a paragon of scientific management, with a carefully controlled diet of grain concentrates ... from abroad ("this is too hot to be good grain country", Funes said).

White Udder's descendants simply died in the fields, unable to survive on the tropical grasses that had once sustained the native cattle.

"We lost tens of thousands of animals. And even if they survived, they couldn't produce anything like the same kind of milk once there was no more grain...", Funes said.
Agricultural scientists crossed the country trying to figure out alternatives and engineer a recovery.
"Our work is really about preparing the fields so plants will be stronger..." It is the reverse, that is, of the Green Revolution that spread across the globe in the 1960s, an industrialization of the food system that relied on irrigation, oil (both for shipping and fertilization), and the massive application of chemicals to counter every problem.

I remember visiting a man in New Hampshire who was raising organic apples for his cider mill. Apples are host to a wide variety of pests and blights ... pesticide companies like Monsanto fund huge amounts of the research that goes on at the land-grant universities. But no one could tell my poor orchardist anything about how to organically control the pests on his apples, even though there must have been a huge body of such knowledge once upon a time, and he ended up relying on a beautifully illustrated volume published in the 1890s.

In Cuba ... [agriculturalists are] looking at antagonist fungi, lion-ant production for sweet potato weevil control, how to inter-crop tomatoes and sesame to control the tobacco whitefly, how much yield grows when you mix green beans and cassava in the same rows (60 percent), what happens to plantain production when you cut back on the fertilizer and substitute a natural bacterium called A chroococcum (it stays the same), how much you can reduce fertilizer on potatoes if you grow a rotation of jack beans to fix nitrogen (75 percent), and on and on and on.

In fact, since the pressure is always on to reduce the use of expensive techniques, there's a premium on old-fashioned answers. Consider the question of how you plow a field when the tractor that you used to use requires oil you can't afford and spare parts you can't obtain. Cuba - which in the 1980s had more tractors per hectare than California, according to Nilda Perez - suddenly found itself relying on the very oxen it once had scorned as emblems of its peasant past.

There were perhaps 50,000 teams of the animals left in Cuba in 1990, and maybe that many farmers who still knew how to use them. ... Veterinarians were not up on their oxen therapy.

Rios's institute developed a new multi-plow for plowing, harrowing, riding, and tilling, specially designed not "to invert the topsoil layer" and decrease fertility. Harness shops were set up to start producing reins and yokes, and the number of blacksmith shops quintupled. The ministry of agriculture stopped slaughtering oxen for food, and "essentially all the bulls in good physical condition were selected and delivered to cooperative and state farms".

By the millennium there were 400,000 oxen teams plying the country's fields. And one big result ... is a dramatic reduction in soil compaction, as hooves replaced tires.

Most of the farmers and agronomists I interviewed professed conviction that the agricultural changes ran so deep they would never be eroded. Perez, however, did allow that there were a lot of younger oxen drivers who yearned to return to the cockpits of big tractors, and according to news reports some of the country's genetic engineers are trying to clone White Udder herself from leftover tissue.

If Cuba simply opens to the world economy ... it's very hard to see how the sustainable farming would survive for long. We use pesticides and fertilizers because they make for incredibly cheap food. None of that dipping the seedling roots in some bacillus solution, or creeping along the tomato rows looking for aphids, or taking the oxen off to be shoed.

For instance, consider Mexico and corn. Not long ago the journalist Michael Pollan told the story of what happened when NAFTA opened that country's markets to a flood of cheap, heavily subsidized US maize: the price fell by half, and 1.3 million small farmers were put out of business, forced to sell their land to larger, more corporate farms that could hope to compete by mechanizing (and lobbying for subsidies of their own). A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace enumerated the environmental costs: fertilizer runoff suffocating the Sea of Cortez, water shortages getting worse as large-scale irrigation booms. Genetically modified corn varieties from the United States are contaminating the original strains of the crop, which began in southern Mexico.

You can also ask the question in reverse, though: Does the Cuban experiment mean anything for the rest of the world? An agronomist would call the country's farming "low input", the reverse of the Green Revolution model, with its reliance on irrigation, oil, and chemistry. If we're running out of water in lots of places (the water table beneath China and India's grain-growing plains is reportedly dropping by meters every year), and if the oil and natural gas used to make fertilizer and run our megafarms are changing the climate (or running out), and if the pesticides are poisoning farmers and killing other organisms, and if everything at the Stop & Shop has traveled across a continent to get there and tastes pretty much like crap, might there be some real future for low-input farming for the rest of us? Or are its yields simply too low? Would we all starve without the supermarket and the corporate farm?

Farmers in northeast Thailand, for instance, suffered when their rice markets disappeared in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. "They'd borrowed money to invest in 'modern agriculture', but they couldn't get the price they needed. A movement emerged, farmers saying, 'Maybe we should just concentrate on local markets, and not grow for Bangkok, [or] for other countries'. They've started using a wide range of sustainability approaches-polyculture, tree crops and agroforestry, fish ponds. One hundred and fifty thousand farmers have made the shift in the last three years."

Almost certainly, he said, such schemes are as productive as the monocultures they replaced. "Rice production goes down, but the production of all sorts of other things, like leafy vegetables, goes up". And simply cutting way down on the costs of pesticides turns many bankrupt peasants solvent.

And what about the heartlands of industrial agriculture, the US plains, for instance? "So much depends on how you measure efficiency", Pretty said. "You don't get something for nothing". Cheap fertilizer and pesticide displace more expensive labor and knowledge - that's why 219 American farms have gone under every day for the last fifty years and yet we're producing ever more grain and a loaf of bread might as well be free.

On the other hand, there are those bereft Midwest counties. And the plumes of pesticide poison spreading through groundwater. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico into which the tide of nitrogen washes each planting season. And the cloud of carbon dioxide that puffs out from the top of the fertilizer factories. If you took those things seriously, you might decide that having one percent of your population farming was not such a wondrous feat after all.

Many environmentalists and development activists around the planet have grown to despair about everything the Green Revolution stands for [and] propose a lowercase greener counterrevolution: endlessly diverse, employing the insights of ecology instead of the brute force of chemistry, designed to feed people but also keep them on the land.

in a world where we're eager for the lowest possible price, it's extremely difficult to do anything unconventional on a scale large enough to matter.

Is it also possible, though, that there's something inherently destructive about a globalized free-market society - that the eternal race for efficiency, when raised to a planetary scale, damages the environment, and perhaps the community, and perhaps even the taste of a carrot? Is it possible that markets, at least for food, may work better when they're smaller and more isolated?

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Quick hello from New Haven

... watching all the family units in their traditional regalia assembling for graduation ceremonies this weekend. Flowing saris, African garb, some in the classic WASP pearls and suits. Some families looking blissful, some ready to explode. The poor graduating seniors, I can see the whites all the way around their eyes, they're trying to mediate, does everybody have an agenda?

I feel like I don't have any agenda now ... being here for Melina, just being able to get Zed here, tranqued up after his surgery, he's so euphoric it's adorable, that's enough for me. In the greasy spoon this morning: "this is the best breakfast I've ever had," Melina is peaceful and in a good mood, her boyfriend who has not taken on an alias yet is a pleasure too. So when the rest of the crew arrives, I can say: whatever happens is fine.

Unitarian Jihad revisited (because I can't keep up)

It's never too late to feel comforted by the Unitarian Jihad manifesto as revealed to Jon Carroll. His article appeared in April of this year and the movement already has a Wikipedia entry, from which you can follow many links and in fact join the jihad.

Here are excerpts from the article - link sent to me by Kimberly of Music and Cats:
Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Too long have fundamentalist yahoos of all religions made your head hurt. Too long have you been buffeted by angry people who think that God talks to them. You have a right to your moderation! You have the power to be calm!

People of the United States, why is everyone yelling at you??? Why is the news dominated by nutballs ... ?

Startling new underground group spreads lack of panic! Citizens declare themselves "relatively unafraid" of threats of undeclared rationality.

We are Unitarian Jihad. We are everywhere. We have not been born again, nor have we sworn a blood oath. We do not think that God cares what we read, what we eat or whom we sleep with. Brother Neutron Bomb of Serenity notes for the record that he does not have a moral code but is nevertheless a good person, and Unexalted Leader Garrote of Forgiveness stipulates that Brother Neutron Bomb of Serenity is a good person, and this is to be reflected in the minutes.

Beware! Unless you people shut up and begin acting like grown-ups with brains enough to understand the difference between political belief and personal faith, the Unitarian Jihad will begin a series of terrorist-like actions.

We will appear in public places and require people to shake hands with each other. ... Demagogues of all stripes will be required to read Proust out loud in prisons.

We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm.

Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up.

People of the United States! We are Unitarian Jihad! We can strike without warning. Pockets of reasonableness and harmony will appear as if from nowhere! Nice people will run the government again! There will be coffee and cookies in the Gandhi Room after the revolution.

If you want to have your own Unitarian Jihad name, here is a name generator. And another one.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

The lengths one goes to...

So, did you notice there was no post this morning?

In fact, lightning struck my cable line the previous afternoon and we were cut off from cyberspace. I had to leave for New Haven today without even checking my email! How can something we all did without for years have become so important? And then, of course, I couldn't feed my blog.

So one could say I flew to New Haven (with my poor drugged son Zed, reeling from his spinal fusion, in tow) so I could get online.

Hope you missed me!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Some Favorites

Tidbits from some favorite blogs today.

Early Modern Notes. Here's a sad poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in which she sounds like many women ready to give up on internet dating:
Oh! was there a man ... Not meanly would boast, nor would lewdly design; Not over severe, yet not stupidly vain, No pedant, yet learned; no rake-helly gay, Or laughing, because he has nothing to say; To all my whole sex obliging and free, Yet never be fond of any but me...
presentsimple is written by a woman from New Zealand who teaches English as a Second Language in Japan. She should write a book. I love her posts. In an uncharacteristically brief one about her (Japanese) husband preparing to go to a wake:
We practiced greeting somebody in a restrained way before he left. He was afraid he'd see his old friend and be overcome with joy and break out into cheerful, rude greetings without thinking.

As he was getting ready I asked him how much money he needed to take. You always take money to wakes and funerals in Japan.

He told me. I checked the envelope containing cash he'd just got paid for a job, and said,

"Well, how about that for good timing! There are some nice new bills in here."

"NO!" he said. "No new bills!"

"Eh?" I said.

I thought that in Japan you always had to give new bills. I'd been all ready to start ironing if we didn't have any.

"Not for a wake," he said. "For funerals and weddings, yes, but you shouldn't give new bills at a wake. It makes it look like you were ready for it."

I Used To Believe is not exactly a blog but it is updated regularly.
In the apartments where we lived when I was little the drain was kind of slow I guess and the bottom of the tub would fill up with a couple of inches of dirty soapy water. I would stand as far away from the deeper end of the tub as possible because I thought evil fairies riding fish would come up through the drain and bite me and poke me with little sticks and things

I used to believe that my parents relied on me to make the traffic lights green. I would do this by absorbing the green from trees and grass with my eyes and beam it into the traffic lights. If i was given enough time I had a 100% success rate.

Miguel at Rarely pure and never simple has drawn me in. I tried to find something to quote from his post on starting a rose garden when he was a boy, but really I'd have had to quote the whole thing, so just go over there and read it.

Lynn at Reflections in d minor is a generous linker who shares a lot of interesting blogs and shares a lot of my interests. She wrote a letter to Congress about the Illegal Operations her computer has been committing.

Go Fug Yourself is a guilty pleasure, like reading about aliens impregnating congresswomen while standing in line at the supermarket. They post pictures of Beautiful People dressed like asses. Go feast your eyes on Goldie Hawn:
Nothing says I Got Hammered At El Compadre Before My Book Signing And Thought It Would Be A Great Idea To Wear The Tablecloth In Case It Got Kinda Chilly At Book Soup like a radioactive stripey poncho.

There are of course many blogs which link to exotic cult sites but growabrain is different - and better.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Keeping up with the Joneses

I'm not sure why this article focused on Utah; debt is not a problem unique to that state.

Also, I'm bothered that it failed to reflect the reason many people max out their credit cards: healthcare disasters.

I am particularly frightened by statistics that more and more people are choosing to finance their new homes with "interest only" loans. That shows an awful lot of faith in the future, that "something" will come along ...

My dad raised me on the Franklin aphorism quoted here. Even if the article is perhaps obnoxiously holier-than-thou, I thought it worth posting.

(Maybe because I feel defensive about driving a beat-up 1994 van and buying my clothes at Goodwill.)

Excerpted from
Lagging Behind the Wealthy, Many Use Debt to Catch Up
By Bob Davis, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2005

In 1757, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
Better to go to bed supperless, than wake up in debt.

More and more Americans are turning to debt to pay for lifestyles their current incomes can't support. They are determined to live better than their parents, seduced by TV shows like "The O.C." and "Desperate Housewives," which take upper-class life for granted, and bombarded with advertisements for expensive automobiles and big-screen TVs.

Financial firms have turned credit for the masses into a huge business, aided by better technology for analyzing credit risks. For Americans who aren't getting a big boost from workplace raises, easy credit offers a way to get ahead, at least for the moment.

Since 1990, income for the median American household has risen only 11% after adjusting for inflation, while median household spending has jumped at 30%, according to an analysis by How could the typical family afford to spend so much? Median household debt outstanding leaped by 80%.

Last year, 28 of every 1,000 Utah households filed for bankruptcy, twice the national average and nearly triple Utah's rate a decade earlier.

Thomas Monson, the [Mormon] church's second-ranking leader, said he was "appalled" at advertising for home-equity loans that is "designed to tempt us to borrow more in order to have more." He repeated the words a Mormon elder spoke during the Depression:

Interest never sleeps nor sickens nor dies.... Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night.

Americans spent half the money from refinancing their homes in 2001 and early 2002 to pay for home improvements, cars, vacations and other consumer expenses, the Federal Reserve reports. Many other consumers relied on credit cards. U.S. households with at least one credit card owed $9,205 in 2003, a 23% increase from five years earlier after adjusting for inflation, says Inc., which tracks the industry.

Cornell University economist Robert Frank sees house sizes, which have grown 30% since 1980, as an indication that middle-income Americans are battling to keep pace with the wealthy homeowners who build king-size McMansions.

In an earlier era, many people had no choice but to save first and spend later. Now, with credit, they can spend right away. For many young people, it's realistic to expect their earnings to rise.

Yet many fear credit has spread so widely that many Americans are overextending themselves, leaving a growing number anxiously in debt and, increasingly, bankrupt.

Concern about out-of-control credit is especially prevalent in Utah. Last month, Jay Evensen, the editor of the editorial page at Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News, wrote a column blasting "people who wield their Visa cards like swords as they cut through the jungles of greed on a shopping crusade."

Robert Head, a Utah mortgage broker, reflects the state's ambivalence toward debt. He specializes in interest-only loans, which sometimes can leave people in over their heads. But at the same time he complains that too many Utahns suffer from what he calls "the Nephite syndrome," referring to a clan described in the Book of Mormon that was reduced to poverty through greed.

... using debt to try to move ahead has as many pitfalls as promise. Growing up in a small house crammed with as many as 11 kids, Winford Wayman, a 30-year-old construction worker, longed for privacy and open spaces. But he and his wife, Kristin, a 26-year-old bookkeeper, fell behind as they borrowed to buy pickup trucks. Mr. Wayman has purchased or leased four since 1999.

"I like trucks. They make them so damn good-looking. I see a good-looking truck and I have to have it," says the slender, goateed Mr. Wayman.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Travel Agents for the Dead

Excerpted from
How Funeral Directors Earn Free Flights
Carriers Offer Incentives To Transport Deceased
by Anne Marie Chaker, Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2005

A long white box was carted to a refrigerated room at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It contained the body of Murray Belkin.

Mr. Belkin, of course, didn't qualify for any frequent-flier points on this trip. But the Florida funeral home that scheduled the shipment did.

That's because mortuaries that book corpses on the New York airline are entitled to a free round-trip ticket after about 15 "ship-outs."

"The yield on transporting human remains -- I want to be sensitive when I say this -- is definitely worth our while," says Dale Anderson, director of mail and cargo for JetBlue. "I have to move close to 1,000 pounds of general cargo to equal the revenue of one human remain."

Continental Airlines [flew] about a dozen Florida funeral directors to its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport "to show us how they track and handle the deceased." ... The funeral directors and their wives stayed free of charge at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and were treated to dinner and a show.

The most coveted airline perks are what some in the industry refer to as "frequent-dier programs": the free flight coupons funeral directors earn after a certain number of body shipments. Delta's SkyMiles frequent-flier program lets funeral directors charge the shipments to their SkyMiles credit cards and rack up extra miles. The flights are paid for by the families of the deceased.

Under US Airways' "TLC" program, funeral directors receive a free round-trip ticket to anywhere in the continental U.S., Canada -- and in some cases the Caribbean -- after 30 shipments.

[JetBlue] has "really focused" on beefing up the business ... Besides introducing its loyalty program, it has set up a toll-free hotline that allows funeral homes to make travel arrangements at all hours of the day and night. Dave Eaton, mail and cargo supervisor, calls it the "death phone."

Sales agent Cheryl Silvey, who answers the line, calls herself "the travel agent for the dead."

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from "Overheard in New York"

Terror Alert Level: Indifferent

Guy: I think Ground Zero is kind of interesting. There's nothing there, but it's kind of cool. Also, if you walk along 5th Avenue there's a lot of cool stores. --V train

Fat lady: Well, this was worth the cab ride, I guess. --Ground Zero

Foreign tourist: Excuse me, where is the World Trade Center?
Woman: Um, they're gone. --Church & Warren

Monday, May 16, 2005

Goodbye to the hospital

We're home. We both smell a bit rank, but that can be fixed. It's good to see the sky again.

What you get when you grab a book in a big hurry to take to the hospital:
"I had always been fascinated by these cactus plants, with their burden of thick red dust, because for me they were the truest product of the Mexican soil. Unforgiving, bitter and reluctant, they etched themselves against the dark blue sky and stood like gaunt cathedrals. ... I studied the cactus for some time and wished that I had absorbed a little more of its unyielding vigor..."

I kept trying to hoard plastic spoons, because when they bring Zed pudding they don't bring a spoon. Spoons are kept behind a password-locked door. Various people kept discovering my cache and sweeping the spoons away when I wasn't looking. "You cannot use a spoon twice. You must discard it after one use," I was told.

What you get more of than anything else in the hospital: ice which gets poured in a pitcher and melts immediately since it is only at 32 degrees when they bring it to you.

Many people come in, in all the different hospital garbs. I know the clothes are hierarchically graded, as with the old-fashioned sumptuary laws, but I never learned the code... Many of these people ask: "How are you?" but when Zed starts to answer, they inform him they are only interested in how he reacted to the anesthetic, or whether we need more half-melted ice, and any other answer must be referred to some absent individual (probably in different garb).

On the TV there are several channels featuring people having medical procedures, or who are visiting their doctor's office. Who is lying in a hospital bed wanting to watch somebody else lying on a hospital bed on TV?

I don't have a lot of complaints about this hospital, other than the clumsy way they treated Zed's pain - give him nothing for a while, then when he starts to pass out give him every narcotic in the place so he sleeps all day long, then say "no more narcotics." The best thing about this hospital: free parking.

It's good to be home.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

From the Nurse's Call Button

Yes, scoffing souls, you CAN access WebTV via this nurse's call button. It's hard to use and hard to see - but now that Zed can read his email and play Tetris (on WebTV this is an extremely sluggish game, but that's ok because convalescents are not at their quickest) things are better. Also, he has gone from looking like a torture victim to being a bored, crabby guy, which is a huge improvement.

We've had mostly great nurses, except for one yesterday who insisted on his standing up when he was feeling at his worst ("Doctor's Orders!" she shrilled) and then left me with him. He fainted in my arms and I stood there with my hands under his armpits trying to get the aforementioned Nurse's Call Button over to where we were with my foot. It took three more people to get him back in bed. Good call, Nurse!

Now I have to give the "comm" back. We should be home tomorrow.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Ha! Blogging from the edge of a hospital bed...

So is this, then "Web TV"? It's not so easy but the fact that it's doable at all is amazing. The nurse call button has a keyboard jack on it and if you push the magic buttons correctly - there you are! I have to squint like crazy to see the tiny letters way up high on the tv but I'm not complaining.

Zed is, though. This morning the beads of sweat were sticking to his face like the torture victims in the movies, and I was doing that Shirley MacLaine scene from "Terms of Endearment" where she goes raging through the halls trying to get enough pain medicine for her daughter. For all the medical advances we're always hearing about, pain management does not seem to be a very exact science.

Kung Fu Quotes

Thanks to everybody for their kind wishes about my son! I'm home from the hospital for a few minutes to grab some clean clothes and to send you this pre-prepared moment of good cheer from Joygreetings you will find "a list of actual English subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong--you know, those awful Saturday afternoon super-dubbed kung fu flicks where you know for certain that the translation has nothing to do with the actual Chinese dialogue. Here are a few of them. Site via Cynical-C:
  • I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.
  • Fatty, you with your thick face have hurt my instep.
  • A normal person wouldn't steal pituitaries.
  • You always use violence. I should've ordered glutinous rice chicken.
  • I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!
  • You daring lousy guy.
  • Beat him out of recognizable shape!
  • I got knife scars more than the number of your leg's hair!
  • Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Living Over a Bathing Establishment

I'm leaving shortly for three days in the hospital with my son. Not sure I'll be able to find an internet connection there...

On a newish blog called Fascinating History, I found this: Seneca the Younger, a Roman writer, complaining about his living situation.
"I live over a bathing establishment. Picture to yourself now the assortment of voices, the sound of which is enough to sicken one...

When the stronger fellows are exercising and swinging heavy leaden weights in their hands, when they are working hard or pretending to be working hard, I hear their hissing and jarring breathing.

When I have to do with a lazy fellow who is content with a cheap rubdown, I hear the slap of the hand pummelling his shoulders, changing its sound according as the hand is laid flat or curved.

If now a professional ball player comes along and begins to keep score, I am done for.

Add to this the arrest of a brawler or a thief, and the fellow who always likes to hear his own voice in the bath, and those who jump into the pool with a mighty splash as they strike the water.

In addition to those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, imagine the hair plucker keeping up a constant chatter in this thin and strident voice, to attract more attention, and never silent except when he is plucking armpits and making the customer yell instead of yelling himself.

It disgusts me to enumerate the varied cries of the sausage dealer and the confectioner and of all the peddlers of the cook shops, hawking their wares, each with his own peculiar intonation."
Thanks, Alterior!

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Loki the dog

A while back the word went out that Anna, who lives two doors down from me, needed somebody to walk her dog morning and night, because her husband is ill and she can't leave his side.

I decided to take this on, even though I don't like dogs and never have had one. I'm enjoying it but it's cutting down on my blogging time.

Loki is a 140-pound chocolate lab. He's what my kids call a "table dog," exceptionally broad in the beam.

When he hears me coming he starts with the woofing and then stands up on his gate and shouts and slobbers in my face. When he shakes his head, spit is thrown in every direction, it can't be avoided.

Anna straps him into a massive purple harness thing and slips a couple treats in my pocket (for him, not me) and off we go.

Perhaps Loki is a reincarnation of a mule or an ox. He has two speeds - a labored mosey and a businesslike trot - and then his specialty, the dead stop. I pull and pull and nothing happens. He weighs as much as I do and his center of gravity is low and supported by twice as many feet as I have. I've discovered if I slack the lead and then get a running start (backwards), I can budge him most of the time.

Sometimes a little black sausage dog comes along. This sausage dog, which is a free citizen of the neighborhood (no leash), evidently watches for me cause he comes roaring out from somewhere when I start up the driveway and dances back and forth in front of us the whole way around the block.

I thought maybe I'd be able to think deep thoughts on these walks, but getting Loki to put one paw in front of another, over and over again, in a somewhat timely manner, well that just takes all my attention.

We stop at each mailbox, of course, so he can check the day's doggie news and leave his own comments. He follows several of these canine blogs regularly.

There are stops for the actual business of the walk - and a treat is de rigeur afterwards. If I don't pull a treat out of my pocket, forward motion ceases. This reminds me of Bill Murray scolding Steve Martin: "Why isn't there a cracker today? When I did the trick earlier, there was a cracker. Yesterday, I did the trick, a cracker. Wednesday, cracker, Thursday, cracker, Friday, cracker. Why, today, no cracker?"

If I try breaking the treat in half and giving him only half, he noses in my pocket for the other half.

Zed calls Loki slothful. I say he's pacing himself. How's he going to live into the twenty-second century if he hustles all the time?

Today Loki's amble was so slow I began daydreaming about walking these streets long ago with my toddlers. Time stops. There is no longer a goal. Thinking about forward motion only leads to madness. With toddlers, it's special pieces of gravel and exploded bugs that are of absorbing interest. For Loki, it is particular patches of grass and forsythia patches - and each mailbox, of course.

If we were not traveling at such a glacial pace, I might not have noticed that the grass around the base of many mailboxes is greener from the frequent fertilizing. Why didn't I ever see that before?

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Fortune cookies

From this morning's New York Times:

Powerball lottery officials suspected fraud: how could 110 players in the March 30 drawing get five of the six numbers right?

But from state after state they kept coming in, the one-in-three-million combination of 22, 28, 32, 33, 39.

It took some time before they had their answer: the players got their numbers inside fortune cookies, and all the cookies came from the same factory in Long Island City, Queens.

The second-place winners were due $100,000 to $500,000 each, depending on how much they had bet, so paying all 110 meant almost $19 million in unexpected payouts, Mr. Strutt said. Of course, it could have been worse. The 110 had picked the wrong sixth number - 40, not 42 - and would have been first-place winners if they did.

"That's ours," said Derrick Wong, of Wonton Food, when shown a picture of a winner's cookie slip. "That's very nice, 110 people won the lottery from the numbers."

The same number combinations go out in thousands of cookies a day.


Caution: unsubstantiated factoids.

Carrots are native to Afghanistan. Seventh century carrots were yellow on the inside and purple on the outside. Other early carrots were red, black, yellow, white, and purple.

In Greece, carrot love-potions were quaffed to "make men more ardent and women more yielding." The Roman emperor Caligula forced the whole Roman Senate to eat carrots so he could see them "in rut like wild beasts."

In the 16th-17th century, carrots were bred to their modern color (via patriotic Dutch growers for the House of Orange) and elongated shape (via the French).

Elizabethans used feathery carrot stalks to decorate their hair, hats, dresses, and coats. The English brought carrots to America and were growing them in in New England by the mid-17th century.

Why do people eat carrots? the uninformed may ask. Little people eat carrots because big people make them. ... Many children have noted that while their parents force carrots on them, the parents themselves take their nourishment other ways - such as from olives soaked in martinis. As a result, many children quit eating carrots as soon as they are big enough to drink martinis. (Stephen Grover, Dec 1971, WSJ)

Since their natural shrimp diet would be far too expensive, flamingos in zoos are fed carrots to keep them from turning white.

Another in a long line of ideas I thought were dumb, baby carrots were once actually young. Now the same name is used now for whittled-down hunks of big carrots. This is "mutton dressed as lamb." I am very cheap, so it amazes me I'm willing to pay so much for these carrots. I must really hate peeling.

Don't you hate how full of water the "baby carrot" bags are? The carrot hunks get all slimy. That can't be good for us.

The British Royal Air Force hid its use of radar during World War II by bragging that the accuracy of their night sorties resulted from the excellent night vision of pilots being fed enormous quantities of carrots.

The Carrot Museum has examples of fine art depicting carrots (including a 17 foot outdoor "Soft Sculpture Carrot"), a link to another carrot museum -- and to the Jeff Chiplis collection of over 10,000 carrot items -- and many more factiods like these:
  • Unlike most other vegetables, carrots are more nutritious and contain more antioxicants when eaten lightly cooked.

  • The Longest Carrot recorded was almost seventeen feet long. The heaviest was almost 19 pounds.
Strange Foreign Sayings About Carrots

Paul Cezanne: "The day is coming when a single carrot freshly observed will set off a revolution."

Irish Proverb: "Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot."

Yiddish Proverb: "Only in dreams are carrots as big as bears."

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Temple Grandin says we just don't see it

Sort of from
"What Do Animals Think?" by Verlyn Klinkenborg
May 2005 issue of Discover Magazine

"Say the words cattle, autistic, and woman, and a surprising number of Americans will come up with the name of Temple Grandin. Thanks to her writings, and those of Oliver Sacks, she is perhaps the best-known autistic person in America."

At the age of two Temple was diagnosed autistic. Her parents refused to have her institutionalized and instead sent her to private schools. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois in 1989. She is associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities.

She has written many books and more than 300 articles in scientific journals and livestock periodicals on animal handling, welfare, and facility design.

Temple Grandin says autism causes her to see the world as animals do, to see the things cattle see and humans don't. Her slaughterhouse designs reduce stimuli that distress animals. Even tiny things, like bits of litter or harsh light, can startle cattle. "Cattle handlers have to learn two things ... They have to learn that a Styrofoam cup, for example, lying in an alleyway will stop cow traffic dead because it worries the cattle. But first the handlers have to learn to see the cup."

(This reminds me of how many of us are "houseblind," inured to our messes, no longer seeing the piles of newspapers and - whatever - that clutter our living and working spaces.)

Grandin feels "normal" humans are good at seeing the big picture but bad at "all the tiny little details that go into that picture. ... normal human beings are blind to anything they’re not paying attention to ... and see what they’re expecting to see."

She points out how badly designed airport concourses and parking lots tend to be. The underlying fault is a lack of visual perception. "They just don’t see it," she says of the designers.

Grandin coined the word "abstractification" for the ability to "live in our thoughts ... cut off from tactile participation in the real, physical world. Klinkenborg: "We surround ourselves with television and computer games. We practically live in our offices ... We inhabit a cocoon ... a world divorced from nature."

"Driving through Fort Collins with Grandin, I found myself looking at a landscape that embodies a massive change in that direction. In the Rockies, there are the remnants of a wild world, and in the fields around Fort Collins itself, the patterns of an older, nonindustrialized agriculture. But to the south, reaching up from Denver, there lay an utterly abstractified landscape, humans living in suburbs and exurbs, surrounded only by themselves, lost in television and big-box retail and big-box religion."

Another of her key concepts is that, as we alter our world, we stop noticing it changing for the worse. She calls this "bad becoming normal" and uses as a one small example the wretched nervousness of pigs bred to be extra-lean. "If the only pigs you see are those pigs, then you don’t realize how bad they’re getting."

Klinkenborg mulls "our tolerance of the erosion around us." Crazy skinny pigs, endless parking lots and housing developments, fish poisoned by mercury, air we can't breathe...

We can get used to anything. That old parable about the frog that sits placidly in a slowly heated pot of water until it boils to death - wait, that's global warming ...

Lastly, I was very taken with a point which was peripheral to this article. "[Grandin] laments the way schools have dropped classes like wood shop and metal shop and drafting — the kinds of classes that saved her when she was going to school and failing classes like algebra."

By and large schools only cultivate a sadly impoverished pittance of the myriad of human talents and interests. Kids who are intended someday to be wonderful mechanics, jockeys, artists, musicians, instrument builders - how often during the school day are their passions addressed? Lucky are the kids who like breaking the seal on the test with their sharpened Number 2 pencils and writing essays. There are a lot more people - Temple is among them - who have a brilliance in them for ... something else.

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Monday, May 09, 2005

Happy belated Mother's Day...

I meant to post this yesterday.

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I'm in the middle of some busy weeks. Zed is finishing up his last days of high school and there's a lot of shuffling around for exams, review sessions, picking up forms without which he won't graduate ... he's going in for surgery on Friday so there's a lot to be done in preparation for that ... and we're all going up to New Haven soon for Melina's graduation ... I'm having end-of-season concerts to get through ... on top of that, I've been giving two long walks a day to a neighbor's dog ... this is cutting down on blogging time but I'm determined not to break my every-day-since-January posting streak ...

A gloomy man loses a friend

I recently finished "The Fortunes of Richard Mahony," a trilogy about life in nineteenth century gold-rush Australia. OK, I did gallop through the end of the third book, I must admit, because I couldn't stand the way the author put the screws to her hero: she finished him off with some kind of vertigo-Alzheimer's-stroke-insanity thing on top of his lifelong depression, grandiosity, and restless narcissism, which problems I thought between them made for enough of a punishment.

This prickly protagonist evoked an uncomfortable perspective on my own bad habits. I've been feeling sad lately about lost friends, missed opportunities, disappointments that become partings.

The whole book's online. Here are some excerpts from the first of the three books, Australia Felix, Part 4 chapter 7:

"In Purdy the one person he had been intimate with passed out of his life. There was nobody to take the vacant place. He had been far too busy of late years to form new friendships: what was left of him after the day’s work was done was but a kind of shell ... it grew ever harder to fit yourself to other people: your outlook had become too set, your ideas too unfluid. Hence you clung the faster to ties formed in the old, golden days, worn though these might be to the thinness of a hair....

"Better it would assuredly be to have some one to fall back on: it was not good for a man to stand so alone ... People came and went, tried their luck, failed, and flitted off again ... What was the use of troubling to become better acquainted with a person, when, just as you began really to know him, he was up and away? At home, in the old country, a man as often as not died in the place where he was born; and the slow, eventless years, spent shoulder to shoulder, automatically brought about a kind of intimacy.

"He had no talent for friendship, and he knew it; indeed, he would even invert the thing, and say bluntly that his nature had a twist in it which directly hindered friendship; and this, though there came moments when he longed, as your popular mortal never did, for close companionship. Sometimes he felt like a hungry man looking on at a banquet, of which no one invited him to partake, because he had already given it to be understood that he would decline.

"And even more than the friend, he would miss the friendship and all it stood for: this solid base of joint experience; this past of common memories into which one could dip as into a well; this handle of “Do you remember?” which opened the door to such a wealth of anecdote. From now on, the better part of his life would be a closed book to any but himself; there were allusions, jests without number, homely turns of speech, which not a soul but himself would understand. The thought of it made him feel old and empty; affected him like the news of a death."

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Drive Dull Care Away

A song for times when priorities need re-prioritizing.

English Traditional Song

Why should we at our lot complain, or grieve at our distress?
Some think if they should riches gain 'twould be true happiness.
But alas, how vain is all their strife - life's cares it cannot allay,
So while we're here with our friends so dear we'll drive dull care away!

Why should the rich despise the poor? Why should the poor repine?
When we will all in a few short years in equal friendship join...
We're all to blame, we are all the same, we are all made of one clay,
So while we're here with our friends so dear we'll drive dull care away!

The only circumstance in life that I could ever find
To conquer care or temper strife was: a contented mind.
With this in store we have much more than all things else can convey,
So while we're here with our friends so dear we'll drive dull care away!

So let us make the best of life, not rendering it a curse,
But take it as you would a wife, for better or for worse.
Life at it's best is but a jest on a dreary winter's day,
So while we're here with our friends so dear we'll drive dull care away!

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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Wedding Greed

Excerpted from
To Have and to Hit Up
by Jennifer Saranow For The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2005

Guests invited to the wedding of Wesley Puryear and Valerie Hernandez will be treated to a $51,000 nuptial extravaganza, with a serenading string quartet, a cigar expert dressed in Cuban garb to roll stogies and a blazing Venetian dessert. Some of them will have paid for these lavish extras themselves -- to the tune of $150 a head. That's how much the future Mr. and Mrs. Puryear hope to collect from their deeper-pocketed invitees to pay for the August wedding in New York.

"It's like wedding education for guests," says Mr. Puryear, a 25-year-old bond trader who plans to foot more than half the total bill himself. "They need to understand the cost."

Puryear says he won't be hitting some people up at all: For out-of-towners and friends he believes make less than $40,000, his invitations will include information about standard gift registries. For others, he's encouraging monetary gifts by sending "subliminal" messages, telling friends how expensive the wedding will be.

Given the spiraling costs of getting hitched, couples say they have little choice but to turn to their guests. An average wedding in the New York area costs about $38,000...

Some point to cultures where honored guests pitch in to pay for wedding expenses; others cite the recent spate of highly publicized ceremonies in which brides and grooms had their weddings funded in part by companies in exchange for publicity. And then there's the growing number of late-marriers, who say they've already accumulated a lifetime supply of dishes and toasters.

'Inexcusably Rude'

But specifying outright which elements of the ceremony you want your guests to fund is another matter ... Peggy Post, who writes about etiquette, calls asking guests to pay for elements of the ceremony and party "inexcusably rude..."

For entrepreneurs, creating a registry where the bride and groom can solicit guests for specific items is a way of grabbing a slice of the growing $125 billion wedding industry. charges couples 7% of the money it collects and deposits in a couple's account on PayPal..., which launched last year, operates on a similar model, but charges couples a flat $9 fee after a month, then allows the betrothed couple to make specific monetary requests: Current ones include a $1,200 wedding cake, $450 for favors and a $250 pastor.

One of the first sites to test out the guests' chipping-in concept was, a wedding resource site, which launched a "create-a-gift" program in 1998. That service allowed couples to specify what they want to receive and to ask guests for American Express Gift Cheques in increments of $50 to pay for the items.

Not all guests comply with the requests, as Carrie Draghi found out last July. The 31-year-old was hoping to get friends and family to foot her approximately $4,000 photography bill. So she had her bridesmaids slip information into shower invitations asking guests to consult a registry with her photographer, Brian Ambrose. About six of 300 guests did so, for a total of about $600.

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Friday, May 06, 2005

Jane Austin does Schwartzenegger

From scribblingwoman comes news of the new Jane Austen action figure, it comes with a little pen and ink set. Also a link to a "lovely group-authored mash-up of, I kid you not, Austen and The Terminator"
The tall and handsomely dressed figure of Mr. Terminus stood a moment with an expression of resolution upon his features, as does a man contemplating a plunge from a precipice, or perhaps a proposal of marriage (the two carrying nearly equal terror to most). Then he began to relate the most astonishing tale Patience had ever heard.

"As you know, Miss Patience," he began, "I am, to a great degree, a machine; my exterior, and some portions of my interior, are made as are those of Mr. Connor and yourself, but the greater part is metal and other materials, some of which you would recognize, and others of which you and even the wise men of your universities would know nothing at all."

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Bass player offenses and fines

Bass player offenses/fines list
from via Melina.

My bassplayer ex-boyfriend used to say there are two kinds of bassplayers - the tall skinny gloomy ones and the plump cheery ones. Sadly, he was of the first kind.

Name of offender _____________________________
Date of offense(s) _____ / _____ / _______

Musical offenses
  • Sound-checking amp with funk slapping — $25
  • Loud cursing after mistake — $10
  • Playing high and fast after mistake — $20
  • Practicing 2-handed tapping between tunes — $20
  • Asking for "E" tuning note — $25
  • Playing E anyway when horns tune to Bb — $50
  • Writing note names over ledger-line notes — $50
  • Playing eighth notes — $5 each
  • Playing sixteenth notes — $10 each
  • Playing above 1st octave-immediate dismissal
  • Dragging fast tempo — $75
  • Dragging ballad tempo — $100
  • Blacking out during ballad — $200
  • Asking to borrow Real Book for All Of Me — $1000

Upright player offenses
  • Asking leader for a solo — $30
  • Accepting solo when offered — $50
  • Taking second chorus — $100
  • Playing solo arco — $400
  • Pretending to check tuning after playing out of tune — $25
  • Playing "A Train" ending on every tune — $200
  • Playing extended "A Train" ending on every tune — $500

Electric player offenses
  • Playing with a pick — $50
  • Tuning during ballad — $30
  • Attempting last word on final chord — $50
  • Achieving last word on final chord — $100
  • Long gliss down to final note — $200

Equipment violations—electric
  • Forgetting strap — $10
  • Forgetting to turn amp on — $40
  • Bringing amp larger than 1 person can carry in 1 trip — $50
  • Asking horn player for help moving amp — $25
  • Bringing custom-made bass — $100 per string above 4
  • Bringing more than 1 bass — $100 per extra bass
  • Skull decals on bass — $150
  • Bringing fretless bass — $500

Criminal bad taste and basic stupidity
  • Quoting "Birdland" — $25
  • Practicing scales during break — $25
  • Practicing scales during drum solo — $50
  • Practicing — $150
  • Continually asking "where are we?" — $25
  • Continually shouting "Yeah!" — $25
  • Taking cellphone call during 4's — $100

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Souvenir from the Webbies

At the Webby Awards, I found an addition for my impatient websites collection: The Four Word Film Review. Here are a few of the Top 100 (you can vote):

Titanic: Icy dead people

Kramer Vs Kramer: I bet Kramer wins.

Saving Private Ryan: Brother gets own bedroom.

Fahrenheit 9/11: Iraqnophobia.

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Les Choristes

Yesterday afternoon I was happy to get a call from a friend looking to play a bit after work. She came by and admired my well-populated birdbath and my just-completed gigantic weed-whacking job - the whole outdoors reeks with that nice new-mown-hay smell.

We went out to dinner and then saw "Les Choristes" (The Chorus), a French movie about a quiet middle-aged guy hired as prefect (a sort of overseer?) in 1949 at a postwar boarding school full of delinquent and orphan boys, many of whom had lost family in the war and were sad and angry and damaged.

The movie kept calling the prefect a "failed" musician but I found him to be brave, intelligent, and intensely classy. The boys insult him and test him but he does not quail. He responds with humor and steely equanimity. He decides to build a chorus and turns them into sweet constructive citizens.

Les Choristes was often compared to Mr. Holland's Opus. Although the two films are built to the same formula, I liked this one better.
  • It's not a Hollywood flick so the people look like human beings instead of replicants.

  • The cinematography is beautiful and the colors and lights and shadows are rich and subtle. The school - Fond de L'Etang, which I understand means "bottom of the pond" - is splendidly ancient and awful and its doors close with a weighty clank.

  • Gerard Jugnot makes Clement Mathieu - a plump, lost, introverted bachelor - way more adorable and sexy than the supremely irritating and obvious Richard Dreyfus could ever be.

This movie has of course been made and made again through the decades, to the theme from William Congreve: "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

Yes, it does. And it does have the power to redeem kids who don't seem to be good at anything else, or don't have the heart for anything else. There's a kid who, when she gets a chance to play the oboe, will catch fire and practice for hours until her mother makes her stop. She will play with incandescence and make audiences weep and be a happy woman some day. But in a school without a music program, how will tomorrow's star oboist fulfill her destiny? She may end up discouraged and second-rate at something else.

It's just too bad the people that cut arts funding and ax music programs in the schools don't care ...

This year I've been chorus teacher at the local Waldorf High School. Some of the kids were as wild, angry, sullen, unresponsive, irresponsible, and destructive as the kids at Fond de L'Etang. They themselves told me they had "burned through" quite a few music teachers already, and I was warned they didn't care much for music and had embarrassed the whole Waldorf community at assemblies in the past. I too stood perplexed as (in essence) spitballs whizzed through the air. I did not have the poise of Mathieu.

My theory on taking the job was that the kids were rejecting the angelic model they were being held up to. They couldn't stomach any more uplifting, doggedly ingenuous and methodically optimistic music.

I was determined to find music that would engage their suspicious minds. We started with Tennessee Ernie Ford's "16 Tons." After months of ups and downs, they finally "get" what we're doing together. By and large, they sing lustily and sound fantastic.

Now I, like Mathieu, have been fired. My replacement has the Waldorf training I lack. I've never studied anthroposophy, for instance. (Anthroposophy - I dare you to understand it.) My being outside the system has been a sticking point all along, even though everybody is delighted with the way the kids are singing ...

Back to the movie. Mathieu did some things with his group that bugged me. For instance:
  • He selected one boy to be his soloist and that kid got all the solos and Mathieu conducted right AT him while the other boys sang "oo." I'm too much of a populist for this kind of favoritism. Spread it out! Let others have a chance to rise to the honor!

  • When he asked each kid to sing something for him, one of the littlest kids said "I don't know any songs," and Mathieu instantly put him up on a table and said "you'll be my assistant." And the kid never got to sing all through the movie. Wrong! Wrong!

  • When another kid brayed somewhat tunelessly, instead of trying to help him Mathieu said "you'll hold the music" and for the rest of the movie the kid stood in front of Mathieu being a human music stand. Wrong! Wrong!
Both of these kids could and should have been helped to be part of the group. They should at the very least have gotten a second chance. Or Mathieu could have spared some of the time he lavished on his beloved soloist to help the ones that needed help more.

I taught a class called "Songs for Non-Singers" - for adults who "can't carry a tune" or are afraid to sing - for more than twenty years and I'll tell you, my students remembered moments of being told to "mouth the words" or "you can be one of the angels, honey, just don't sing" with undiminished humiliation and bitterness whether they'd heard them fifteen or thirty or sixty years before. But that's for another post.

Update:I'm raising this comment by Phoenix up into my post because it's so lovely:
All children should be given the chance to be the stars whether they are or not is not of consequence. It is the fact that they had their moment to shine and stand out that matters. I remember when I was in high school one of my most memorable moments was when I got to do the only solo in a concert for the school. I played bari sax and it really is not a solo type instrument. But there I was in front of the school and all the parents with a mike in my sax and I actually pulled it off with no mistakes. My moment in the sun will never be forgotten.

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