Saturday, December 31, 2005

Friday, December 23, 2005


As part of the big cleaning and packing drive, I lugged the massive pile of coins on my dresser over to a local coinstar machine. I'd been lured by the promise of no-fee Amazon gift certificates. Unfortunately, however, this appears to be a bait and switch, since none of the machines in Nashville will actually do it. Having already schlepped many tons of coins over to Kroger, I went ahead and paid the fee to have them counted. To my astonishment, I discovered that I had almost $250 in change sitting around my bedroom. Even with the fee, I still cleared around $220, which isn't bad for 20 minutes work!

It was also fun to look at what the machine kicked back. Besides some severely-mutilated US coinage, there were things with a more interesting history. To wit: coins

  1. Deutschmark, probably left over from the exchange program trip I took to Germany in Summer, 1992. Perhaps a collectors item now, since Deutschmarks no longer exist!

  2. 50 Pfenig coin. Another collector's item.

  3. Random token with no cash value. Probably from Chuck-e-Cheese or somwhere of its ilk.

  4. Token from Buttons Arcade in Syracuse, NY. In college, I took a course called "Literature and the Working Class." To begin a discussion about class in America, the professor divided us up into groups and sent us out into the community to observe people and take notes. Our group decided to go to Buttons, an arcade in a seedy dying mall in North Syracuse. Pretty sure this token came from that trip.

  5. MBTA T token from the Boston subway. From one of my many trips to Boston. I should hang onto this to use in a few weeks when I arrive in Boston.

  6. 1776 coin. Don't know where this came from. I think it might have been part of a solicitation for some magazine published by the History Channel.

  7. 100 Pesos from Argentina. My dad's sister used to be married to a guy from Argentina. After living in Montana during the 1970s, they moved to Argentina during the early 1980s, and lived there for the rest of the decade. (Which is why my cousins all speak fluent Spanish.) This coin probably came from one of my grandmother's trips to visit them. Interestingly, claims that 100 Pesos are worth roughly $33 US dollars. But I suspect that the currency has been revalued since the 1980s, so I doubt this little coin is really worth that much. Maybe one day I'll get to go to Argentina and find out.

  8. 2 Mexican Pesos. Left over from my trip to Mexico in Spring, 2004. This side shows the eagle on the cactus eating a snake, which is the Mexican national symbol. The other side has nifty little prehistoric-looking heiroglyphs around the edges.

  9. Another German 50 Pfenig piece.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray

I'm in a foul mood today. Not entirely sure why, but here's one possibility:

I keep trying to actually finish projects and check them off my neverending to-do list at work. Lately, every time I take what I've done to someone, they come up with five more questions or action items that I simply must take care of before I can make the thing go away.

I just want to yell "Don't you know that I'm out of here in three weeks? Can't you let me just finish something for god's sake?"

Did I mention I'm in a foul mood?

Also, I had a phone interview for a graduate fellowship/assistantship in Boston this morning. I'm not even sure I want the danged thing. It has lousy hours, doesn't pay real well (although it does pay for a big chunk of tuition), and requires doing more of the frontline techy stuff I'm trying to escape. At the same time, I'm totally qualified and will probably be crushed if they don't offer it to me.

I won't know how I did until January when they make a decision. But talking about myself for 45 minutes to complete strangers has a way of pumping a healthy dose of self-doubt into my bloodstream.

Did I mention I'm in a foul mood?

Oh, yeah, and it's freakin' sub-zero in my office right now. I can't feel my fingers. I feel like I'm in a Jack London story.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Move update

Yeah, umm, well, that whole decorating thing hasn't really happened. Somehow in the last week it finally hit me that I really only have two full weekends between now and when I'm packing the truck. (I am flying up to DC next Saturday, and am going to stay there all week, telecommuting part of the time. After that, back to Nashville for two weeks, and then off to Boston.)

I now have most of my books and assorted other things packed up in boxes, and am slowly working through the rest of a long to-do list. I got glasses made. (Mandated by the fact that my old decrepit ones finally broke.) I keep bringing home new loads of personal papers and junk from my office at work, then trying to sort through them. I made cookies for the office party. I sent an obsolete U-matic video tape from college off to be transposed to MiniDV. I painted a shelf that I started stripping in 2000 and then never finished. I ordered bubble wrap and other packing stuff online. I inquired about my dental benefits and verified that I can make a dentist appointment after I leave in January. I arranged for the replacement of the malfunctioning computer monitor. I returned one poorly-fitting pair of shoes that had been sitting around for months. (I highly recommend for shoe purchases -- they have tons of shoes for hard to fit feet, and a easy return policy.) I returned another pair that had begun unraveling after hard use in Spain, and Propet is going to replace them for free. (Also highly-reccomend Propet shoes. While I had trouble with this pair after hiking around Spain, I have another pair of sneakers that has been great. And all their shoes have a "thousand mile guarantee," and good customer service to back it up.)

That's just the stuff I can remember off the top of my head. There are a million more things that have to happen between now and February 1. Ack!

Despite all that, sometime before I leave I'm hoping to find time to go down to Murfreesboro and learn how to print photos. While I've been an amateur photographer for years and have recently spent more time and effort improving my skills and equipment, I've still never actually done old-school printing. (I was introduced to darkroom work while in college, but only got as far as developing. There was less need to print at that point because we were already able to scan from negatives.)

I ran into a old friend/retired photojournalist at a party recently, and she offered to teach me the process in her home darkroom. She still remembers the first time she saw an image materializing out of nothingness on phoograhphic paper, and wants to share the experience. I really hope I can find time to do this. (Admittedly, printing photos this way is quickly becoming an anachronism, but it's still appealing to me.)

Just started reading "Better Off by Eric Brende, a meditation on a life with less technology. The author, an MIT grad student, conducts an experiment in simple living by spending 18 months in a (sort of) Mennonite community with no electricity. Very interesting -- may have more thoughts on this later.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Seeing red

I've been on a kick to get rid of stuff so that I don't have to pack it. Currently an entire corner of my dining room is piled up with things I think I can live without. Novels I'm never going to read again. Obscure literary theory readers from college. A blender with a missing blade. The Kermit the Frog that my friends won for me at Jillians years ago. A new garden hose, never used. Two obsolete computers. Pants that no longer fit due to the fitness regimen. And so forth. I have no idea what I'm going to do with all this stuff, but it's pretty liberating to get rid of it.

Along the same lines, last week I decided to get rid of my massive CRT monitor and instead buy a new LCD flat panel. I figured it would be a lot easier to lug to Boston, and would also give me tons more desk space. The good news is that the new monitor arrived today. It's big and flat and beautiful. Except for the fact that within its first hour colors went all loopy and tiny red stripes appeared all over the screen. So looks like I'm going to be on the phone with Samsung and/or Amazon tomorrow trying to get this straightened out. Yuck.

My boss finally officially announced my departure last week. It was pretty anticlimactic, since just about everyone knew I was a short timer anyway. But it somehow made the whole thing more official.

I also rented a truck. I really had no idea how much truck I would need. I settled on 24 feet, which might be utterly huge. But I figured it was better to have too much space than too little. The plan is to move the third week in January. I've convinced two brothers to come help, and volunteers at both ends have also stepped forward. So hopefully the whole thing will be pretty painless.

Right now I'm seriously considering decorating the house for Christmas. I figure that if I cover everything with greens I can go ahead and pack lots of stuff without making the place look totally depressing. Plus if I get really organized maybe I'll get arount to having some sort of Christmas/going away party. That could be fun.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

First amendment center founder?

A new article by John Seigenthaler, Sr. (A false Wikipedia 'biography') has been floating around at work and on library listservs today.

I just sent the following response to several colleagues:

I agree with the fundamental thrust of the article, which is that you should never take anything for granted from Wikipedia without checking against conventional sources as well.

But I have mixed feelings about the larger issue. On the one hand, it's obviously not a good thing that false information was published about Mr. Seigenthaler. But the main thrust of his argument seems to raise quite a few first amendment issues. He seems to feel that he should be able to sue BellSouth for libel or defamation, or that BellSouth should be obligated to hand over the identities of its customers anytime someone else claims to have been defamed.

Let's say that the offending text were in an anonymous pamphlet rather than an anonymous web page. And let's say that, by analyzing the paper it was printed on he was able to determine that it was photocopied at a Kinkos in Nashville on paper made by the Acme paper company. Should he then be able to sucessfully sue Acme paper company for libel? Or sue the Kinkos where the pamphlet was xeroxed? Or sue the electric company for providing the electricity to do the copying? Or demand that Kinkos turn over the identity of every customer who shopped there for the last six months?

This is really no different. If service providers (be they copy centers or ISPs) are held responsible for the content of their customers' speech, then they will be forced to hire censors to monitor the creative output of every customer. Is the benefit of preventing occasional character defamation really worth the cost of creating an army of private censors empowered to stifle speech that someone might object to?

Even if they are only asked to retroactively identify customers who allegedly defame someone, this means that they must keep detailed records on every customer, what they posted/copied, and how to contact them. It would no longer be possible to publish anything anonymously. It's a safe bet that under this sort of legal restriction, many of today's most exciting communications developments (blogs, for example), would never have come about. Do we really want to stifle the next Thomas Paine to prevent someone from writing falsehoods about a public figure?

The current system provides recourse in the form of anonymous lawsuits. It forces the complainant to demonstrate to a court that there is actually a credible legal case in need of resolution before asking a service provider to violate the privacy of its customers. This seems like a fairly reasonable position to me.

Sorry for the minor rant, but I was somewhat surprised to read this article coming from the founder of the First Amendment Center.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Big steps

Sometimes when I disappear from the blogosphere for a while, it's because nothing interesting is happening in my life. Lately, however, it has been quite the opposite. In fact, I've probably haven't had more big changes underway in a single month since I graduated from college 8 years ago. To wit:

Turning 30

This happened, with almost no fanfare, on Nov. 3. I spent the day -- from dawn to dusk and beyond -- working on one of several huge projects we've had going down at work. (Part of my penance for the three-week trip to Spain, I figure.) So I've basically avoided any serious ruminations about aging and the meaning of life. Probably a good thing. Although I have begun to notice some scalp peeking through when I see pictures of myself from behind. Yikes! (Unfortunately, this may be destiny at work. My mother's brother, cousin, and grandfather were all follically challenged.)

Leaving Nashville

This is a long-term work in progress (some would say 7 years in the making.) But it started to feel real this month, beginning with the fact that the entire office basically knows I'm leaving -- even though it has yet to be officially announced. When I first told the big boss earlier this year, he wanted to keep it under wraps, probably to avoid blunting my supposed "managerial effectivness." However, nothing spreads faster than a good secret, and enough people knew that word began to creep around the office. Within the last few weeks I've answered numerous queries about it, and found very few people who didn't already have an inkling of my imminent departure. My assistant has already begun dropping hints to the bosses about how great he'd be for my position. (As well he should, since he rocks -- go you, J!)

And all that was just a prelude to the last few days. In which the following happened:

Friday - Flew from Nashville to Syracuse after an all-nighter on the afforementioned huge work project. Despite 3 hours of sleep, managed to stay up until 4 AM chatting with college buddies. Talked about topics like mortgages, kids, potential engagements, and other weighty topics that show an almost scary level of maturity for a group whose crowning achievement during our Syracuse glory days may have been stealing the "No Sledding" sign from Thornden Park at midnight! (If the Syracuse Police Department is reading this, the preceding is most certainly a joke, and should in no way imply criminal activity. Especially criminal activity that might have taken place at 901 Ackerman in 1996.)

Saturday - woke up late, and after more friends arrived we took a nostalgic trip to the Dinosaur Barbeque, Syracuse's very own "honky-tonk rib joint." Since we also nostalgically stood in line, the trip ate up a good chunk of the afternoon. The weather was unchacterisically balmy, so the wait outside was not all that nostalgic. We got over it.

We then took another nostalgic trip, this time to the Super Wegmans in DeWitt. If you have never been to the Super Wegmans in DeWitt, then let me just say you have not experienced grocery shopping as it was meant to be. We're talking wider and more diverse selection than I think I've seen in any other grocery store, ever. The 24-hour store was a staple of late-night food and beer runs in college. This time, we focused mainly on ingredients for homemade pizza (Jay even devised a recipe for whole wheat squash pizza, which turned out to be remarkably good!) Just for old times sake, though, we threw in a 24-pack of PBR and a 12 pack of Genny Cream.

After the Wegmans trip the rest of the evening was a blur of freezing cold Beer Pong, lots of homemade pizza, out of tune singing, and various other drunken silliness interspersed with a bit of interpersonal drama. Some things never change.

Sunday - we again woke up late (staying up 'til 4 AM playing cards will do that to you). A local friend brought over her 2(!) very cute kids, so we spent a while playing with them. I was presented with a belated birthday cake (not so surprising since I was there when it was purchased.) We then split up, and after the requisite hugs and goodbyes half of us went up to campus to relive our glory days. We (nostalgically) parked illegally near the security office and nostalgically wandered across the quad (and found Aaron's funraising brick in the new "Orange Grove"). We visited the old APO APO office in Schine, and were happily amazed to discover that a moistened gummy bear propelled toward a concrete ceiling at a high velocity will stay there for at least 9 years. (Don't let it be said that we didn't make our mark on SU!)

We then nostalgically snuck out through the service entrance of Schine, nostalgically purchased greasy food on M-Street while perusing the The Daily Orange, and nostalgically bought sweatshirts at Shirtworld.

At the same time, though, a lot of things had changed. The creative problem-solving program where I worked and spent a good portion of my junior and senior years has been shut down after being run into the ground by its somewhat clueless director. The communications school where I spent another big chunk of my time just broke ground on a major expansion. There is an entirely new management school building where we used to horse around behind the Catholic Center after APO meetings. But most of all, the students all look so... young! A few years ago when we went back we pretty much blended in with everyone else. Now we're starting to look like those roving groups of homesick alumni that show up on homecoming. Wierd.

After all the campus nostalgia we could handle, I joined the Boston contingent in a very packed car for the next phase of my journey. Which brings me to...


Unless you're new to this blog, you already know about my plans to move to Boston and go to school for a dual Masters degree in Archives/History. But this week was really the first time I've taken a more-or-less irreversable step toward this goal.

To start with, I stopped by the college on Monday and registered for classes. Despite a scary diatribe I overheard in the student lounge (about how the school was lying when they said the program could be completed in a year -- something that I was never promised anyway), I remain super-impressed by how up-close and personal Simmons seems. Maybe it's just because I did my undergrad and first masters at large schools, but I am still bowled over by the fact that the heads of the History and Archives programs recognized me from my brief visit 8 months ago, and both immediately whisked me to the appropriate authorities to ensure that my registration was taken care of. The head of the history program even offered to help with my apartment search. I like the fact that I'm more than just a student number. We'll see if the honeymoon lasts, but so far I have a good feeling about this.

I am now signed up for three classes next semester -- a basic archives class that includes an internship, a "Information Organization" class, and a history seminar on Cold War Culture. Should be a pretty manageable schedule, and I'm looking forward to the work.

The other reason I came to Boston was to apartment hunt -- the idea was to finalize my housing plans in three days so that I could return to Nashville and know what I should move and what I should pitch. Apartment hunting in Boston is a daunting task, especially because anything you can find is bound to be 2-3 times more expensive than the same thing in Nashville. I spent much of the last two days driving around aimlessly, perusing CraigsList, and making unreturned phone calls to potential landlords. Thanks partly to the wonders of the Internet and digital photography, I only ended up looking at three apartments. Unfortunately, the first one I saw was so nice it basically spoiled me for anything else I came across.

The good news was that it was a massive apartment (almost as large as my current house, beautifully restored, and with a modern kitchen). The bad news was that it was about 75% more than my current rent -- and keep in mind that I'm quitting my relatively well-paid position as part of the whole 'moving to Boston' plan. So I was pretty freaked out about the cost. Furthermore, while many larger apartments have the option of roomates, it would be difficult in this one because the only bathroom adjoins one of the bedrooms. So a roomate would have to walk through the other roomate's room to get to the bathroom. Not ideal.

That said, I admit that I fell in love with this place -- and we're talking severe crush love. The truth is, while the cost was more than I'd like to pay, in the crazy Boston real-estate market it's actually a bargain given the space and amenities. So after looking at other places that were nearly as expensive and a lot less cool, I finally convinced myself that I could swing the payments -- at least until August when the lease will run out. So I went ahead and applied for the apartment.

The landlord wanted a copy of my credit report, which I happened to have on my laptop thanks to the "free credit report" law that went into effect earlier this year. So I stopped by the house to drop it off. When he wasn't there, I called him, and it turned out that he was tapping away on his laptop at the coffee shop around the corner. So I walked over and he promptly bought me a coffee and sat me down at a table while we chatted. He is a very interesting guy -- turns out that he's originally from Uruguay, and is now making a living as a contractor, partly by fixing up and renting old apartments. (He's in the middle of gutting and refurbishing the place above mine -- I got to step across rafters to look on Monday.) He's an avid traveler, and just seems like an all-around nice guy (again, we'll see how long the honeymoon lasts). After looking over my credit report and resume, he said he would take the matter to his wife tonight, and they would make a decision on whether to rent to me. (They'd already had another applicant.)

I went back to my friend's apartment, bought her some new printer paper and ink to replace what I had used, and then sat around. A little after 5 I got the call from the landlord, who told me that they wanted to rent me the apartment! So we're meeting first thing tomorrow to go over the lease, after which I will be the proud renter of a severely-overpriced but very cool apartment in the Powderhouse Square neighborhood of Somerville, MA.

I am still a little freaked out about the price, especially since I have no idea what my earning potential as a part timer/freelancer/student is going to be. That said, I should have sufficient savings to absorb the hit from now through August, by which time I should have a better idea on whether I'm living beyond my means. If necessary I can move again at that point after a more leisurely apartment hunt. (Although I can barely imagine the hell of having to move twice within a year!)

From the social angle, I'm already feeling really good about my decision to move to Boston. I've managed to go out with friends both nights I was here (something I rarely manage due to job commitments in Nashville.) I've already met several new people, including a fellow grad student at Simmons who has been doing bar trivia with my Syracuse friends for months. And I still love the brainy yet super-diverse vibe in Boston, something that Nashville is just starting to get in small pockets.

So after the big lease signing tomorrow, I'm off to DC for Thanksgiving, followed by a quick jaunt to visit the two brothers now cohabiting in Richmond, followed by a return to Nashville, where I have to figure out a plan for packing and moving all my stuff in the next 8 weeks. It's going to be a busy and stressful time, but I'm really looking forward to the change.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween procrastination

So my big plan for tonight was to leave work, race by Kroger to stock up on candy, go home, and then dig into my homework (office-related and Spanish class-related.) However, I hadn't really thought this through -- nothing breaks your concentration more than having to jump up every five minutes to dispense candy to sugar-hyped whippersnappers. So instead I'll kill some time with a few cheers 'n jeers:

Cheers -- to Southwest Airlines, who sent me a cool birthday card today. Normally I don't much like corporate birthday cards. After all, it's not like there's really someone over at the airline who's handwriting these things -- all they really prove is that someone knows how to run a mailmerge. However, Southwest gets a thumbs up because the one they sent me is in 3D! That's right, it comes with punch out 3-D glasses, and when you put them on, there are 3-D peanuts falling out of the sky in front of a 3-D birthday cake and a 3-D pilot. So we here at NK like Southwest.

Jeers -- to all the other Southwest customers who bought up the cheap fares between Providence and Baltimore the day before Thanksgiving. When I first looked at that route, I could have flown it for $45. When I eventually booked it, the price had risen to $90. Ugh. This is part of what has turned into a weeklong-trip over Thanksgiving week, wherein I travel to Syracuse to hang out with a bunch of old college friends the weekend before, then ride with someone back to Boston, where I will hopefully locate an apartment costing less than the GNP of a small island nation. After that I will be taking the afforementioned flight back to DC for Thanksgiving with the folks, following which I will return to my regularly scheduled life in Nashville.

Cheers -- to the Nashville Fire Department, who evidently arrived on the scene and prevented a much larger conflagration after someone burned down the wooden gate behind my house while I was in Spain. When I arrived home, there was just a charred mess where the gate used to be. Quite strange.

Jeers -- to who, for some inexplicable reason, decided to ship my order for one book and three Canon printer ink cartridges in four different boxes. Cyan and Magenta both left the same warehouse on the same day, each occupying a large box filled with massive packing balloons. I'm no expert in shipping logistics, but doesn't seem real efficient to me.

Cheers -- to the Kleenex and Robitussin corporations, whose products allowed me to survive the last week of severe ickyness. After having kicked one cold in Spain, I returned to Nashville and immediately caught another. Yuck.

Jeers -- to the people behind the perhaps 40 credit card solicitations I had to wade through when I got back from my three weeks out of the country.

Cheers -- to my friend Josh, who just recently moved from Long Island to DC to take a job teaching school in Woodbridge, VA. He's already having fun teaching his second graders to be loyal little Yankees fans.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

suitcase on world tour

Yesterday evening was in Barcelona. This morning was in Madrid. Now in DC. Luggage not in DC. US Airways a bit hazy on where precisely it might be. Mucho jetlag. Just realized I can't remember password for work e-mail. (a sign of a successful vacation?) Back to the airport in the morning to head for Nashville. Maybe even with luggage. If we're lucky. Need sleep. More intelligent thought later. Urk.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Writing from Zaragoza, after a whirlwind two-day stay in Segovia followed by two great days in the land that the Internet forgot on the north coast of Spain, and a day on the road in a Parador where the coin-operated "Internet Machine" used dialup and some funky browser. Tomorrow we're heading down to the center of the city for a festival celebrating the alleged appearance of a virgin on a pillar hundreds of years ago. I've obviously fallen hopelessly behind in blogging the trip. I'm hoping to write some snippets to go with snapshots after I get back. But for the moment suffice it to say that it's going great. The cold is finally starting to ease up (after a lot of nose blowing and some pretty funny sessions with pharmacists in which I attempted to pantomime my various medicinal needs -- oddly enough we didn't cover the phrase "coughing up phlegm" in my Spanish class.) We're learning as we go along (for example, my new itenerary rule is never to plan stays shorter than a single night in a given place.) But by and large the trip has been a success. Watch this space for details later.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Sniffle, sniffle

Still feeling pretty iffy, but managed to drag myself out of bed yesterday and headed for the Prado. We pretty much agreed to split up and meet for dinner, which gave me a bit more flexibility. The museum was pretty amazing -- too much art to absorb. Also got a chance to walk through the Parque del Buen Retiro on my way back to the hotel.

Today we're probably going to hit one more art gallery (the one with Picasso's Guernica) and then head out of town toward Segovia.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


In Madrid now, after a whirlwind tour of Grenada and Toledo over the last three days. (The cathedrals and royal trappings are starting to blend together.) That's the good news. The bad news is that as of this afternoon, I seem to be coming down with a sore-throw-runny-nose-general-lethargy fall cold. Not at all good. Questions is, if I still feel like crap tomorrow should I give up one of our few days in Madrid and stay in bed, or try to go out sightseeing anyway. If I don't go out, I will probably miss out on seeing the Prado. If I do go out, I run the risk of making the cold drag on longer than it otherwise would. Ugh. Maybe it will all fix itself overnight.

Getting into Madrid was interesting. For the third city in a row we basically found our hotel by driving in circles for an hour or two. We've got to start researching driving directions better in advance!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lost on the Rock

Now in a big, somewhat touristy hotel in Grenada. Good news is that they have free Wi-Fi in the lobby! So (assuming I get motivated) you should hear a bit more from me soon.

I'll whet your appetite with a brief overview of today. After yesterday's combination of Roman ruins, old-town Tarifa, and hiking on a beach, we got up early this morning to hit the road. I first headed back down the street through Tarifa's massive town wall and into the old quarter, where I rounded up breakfast of pastries, apples, bread, Serrano ham, and orange juice from shops scattered througout the narrow cobblestoned streets and the tiny town market.

We ate breakfast in the tiled courtyard of our hotel, and then headed out of town past the massive electricity-generating windmills toward Gibraltar.

After parking our car in a dusty lot in La Linea (the line -- named for the line of fortifications built by the Spanish eager to take back the Rock from the Brits), we then flashed our passports and walked across the international border into the tiny British colony of Gibraltar. We hopped on a bus and were transported across the city's airport. The runway is built on a jetty in the sea and cuts across the only road into town. After arriving in the town center, we hiked past the town hall and down Main Street, past merchants hawking ape souvenirs and fish & chips. At one point the red-coated ceremonial guard marched by on its way off duty, looking like it had just stepped out of a revolutionary war pageant.

We arrived at the base of the cable car station, which transports visitors something like 400 meters up the rock. My parents bought into the spiel of a driver hawking minibus tours, while my brother and I decided to take the cable car up and then explore on our own. We agreed to meet up later in the town square.

The cable car ride up was fun -- but nothing prepared us for what we found when we arrived at the top. To begin with, the famed Barbary Apes of Gibralter were waiting in force at the top. One was perched ready to jump onto the cable car when we arrived, and others quickly stationed themselves nearby as we arrived. Despite the threats of massive fines, people still feed the apes food, and as a result they have lost all fear of humans and instead view visitors as a source of tasty meals. As I walked along the balcony, one actually jumped from above onto my shoulder and began unzipping my backpack! That was nothing compared to what happened to the woman who walked onto the balcony carrying two closed bags of potato chips. An ape came flying at her at lightning speed, launched himself at waist height, and grabbed the bags out of her hands. He then proceeded to open them one by one and eat the chips, while other apes jostled for position nearby to eat the crumbs. The apes have come to associate any plastic bag with food, so another ape managed to score a bag from someone's pack. He threw it away disgustedly when he opened it and found it contained nothing but Kleenex.

When they're not stealing from visitors, the monkeys generally ignore them, climbing around the rock, eating fleas off each other, and generally behaving like monkeys. My parents said that their tour bus driver actually knew them by name, and called one through the window into the bus for a short ride!

All this focus on the apes shouldn't obscure the other incredible thing about the Rock -- the view in all directions. It's easy to see why this has been considered a strategic stronghold for thousands of years. Standing on top of the rock, one could easily rain down artillery on any ship traversing the narrow passage between Europe and Africa. Even with a persistent haze we were able to see for miles.

Our troubles began when we decided to see the other sites on top of the Rock, including the seige tunnels built by the British defenders over the last three centuries. Foolishly believing the maps and guidebooks, we simply walked out of the cable car complex at the top of the Rock and started walking. However, we quickly found a complete lack of signage and a bewildering array of closed roads and stairways scattered among the ruins of abandoned fortifications. We weren't the only ones having problems -- halfway down the massive mountain we ran into a group of Russians who were equally confused, and several other groups confirmed our confusion. My parents said that one of the couples on their bus said they had gotten hopelessly lost on Rock yesterday and decided to try it again today with a guide.

During our explorations, we did discover a bunch of really cool stuff, including a dark tunnel that we explored for 30 feet or so with the aid of a camera flash, a variety of abandoned concrete buildings and fortifications, and even an abandoned 1902 gun battery with the gun intact. The lack of touristic guidance leaves a lot of room for exploration by the adventurous.

My brother and I eventually decided that there was no point in trying to walk back to the top of the mountain to take the cable car down, so we instead slowly wound our way downward in the blistering sun using a combination of roads, trails, and stairways (high in the air with missing railings!). Hours later we emerged (sweaty but victorious) in the town, and met up with our parents, who had already returned from their tour, eaten lunch, and then waited for hours.

After we ate fish and chips at a pub for lunch, we headed back across the line into Spain and hit the road for Grenada. Despite lacking directions to our hotel, we eventually found it and checked in around 9:30. Tomorrow we're touring the Alhambra.

My Spanish

My Spanish is rapidly improving -- while I still often stare blankly when someone lays down a line of machine-gun Espanol, I am usually able to get my point across in basic travel/commercial situation, read signs and menus, and understand the gist of what folks are saying when they slow down and use small words. The two factors that are really helping are:
  • Motivation to learn: I am now motivated to constantly study and improve my Spanish. I was spending maybe 4-5 hours per week on Spanish in Nashville, but now I'm now constantaly pulling out my dictionary to look up words, perusing my verb conjugation crib sheet, etc. You are very motivated to do this when the alternative is looking like an uneducated ugly American. Now I at least look like an uneducated ugly American who is making an effort.
  • Constant reinforcement: It helps tons to have the constant reinforcement of people talking to you in real world situations and being surrounded by a world labeled in Spanish. For example, this morning, I saw a sign for a Peliqueria. Having forgotten this word I simply walked down the street, peered in the door. I saw hairdressers hard at work, and was quickly reminded (in a memorable way) that a Peliqueria is a place to get your hair cut.
All of this means that I think my Spanish should be markedly better by the end of the trip. And it increases my desire to figure out a way to go live/work in a Spanish-speaking country for a few months at some point, since I think that's probably the best way to move toward fluency.

no time to blog!

Now in Tarifa, on the Strait of Gibraltar. Can see Africa! Off to the Rock in a bit. Spent previous days sleeping on a pig farm and exploring hill towns and ruins. Much fun. Hopefully I´ll find somewhere soon with unmetered WiFi so that I can post details and photos.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Spain!

Writing this from an internet cafe in Seville. Got here last night after a marathon trip from Nashville via DC and Philly, using planes, trains and automobiles. We were still in a jet lag fog last night, but are starting to snap out of it now. Ate seafood at an outdoor cafe next to the river last night. My Spanish is usually good enough to make myself understood, but not good enough to understand the locals unless they slow down and purposely use preschool level words. I expect that after three weeks of trial by fire, things will improve, though. Dinner was especially interesting, because we didn´t cover the 20 varieties of fish in Spanish class back in Nashville. Everyone is looking to me for translations, so I was sitting there frantically thumbing through the dictionary...

Biggest problem right now is that I can´t figure out the phone number for my newly-activated GSM card. Anyone know anything about this?

gotta run now...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Not just the big easy

I just got around to reading a colleague's account of her travels through Mississippi last week. It's a sobering reminder that New Orleans is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hurricane damage.

In d’Iberville, the stench is horrible. I’ve had my air conditioning off to save gas and to vent the fumes from my gasoline cans, but I have to turn it on even as I leave the windows cracked. The smell just hangs in the air, almost palpable. It’s horrible, all things rotten and spoiled and decaying and decomposing. It feels contaminated, and it brings home health officials’ concerns about disease and infection. I wonder, will this ever be the same beautiful bay again?

Across the bridge into the city, I see massive steel commercial fishing boats tossed ashore like toys. Remnants of clothes and paper and who-knows-what hang high in trees and in fences, looking eerily like prayer flags strung in the mountains of Nepal, and a little like high-school kids had TP’d the entire area.

A line of debris lies pushed up onto the shoulders of the road. Wood, kitchen items, toys, paint cans, you name it. Unbelievable, but the storm surge reached here, more than a mile inland. Beyond, houses on block after block are open all the way through, showing the path of the surf and the wind. And again, smashed buildings, one after another. The Boomtown casinos is torn apart, with green-felt gaming tables lying in the muck outside.


The more I learn about what happened in New Orleans, the more ashamed I become of my own government. One of the things I wondered when the whole thing was first going down a week or two ago was why people didn't just walk out of the city. Obviously this wouldn't have helped the elderly or sick, but the masses of people in the convention center, Superdome, etc. with no food, water, or sanitation could have at least gotten out of the horrible conditions.

Well, it turns out the police officers and other first responders were occupying the bridges out of the city and were threatening to shoot people who tried to cross them, according to several eyewitnesses interviewed on this week's edition of This American Life. The show focused primarily on the experiences of two people -- a NOLA native who was stuck at the Convention Center, and a San Francisco conventioneer who wandered around with a group from a hotel eventually ended up camping out in a small community for several days on a highway median.

The witnesses told of police occupying two different bridges out of the city -- firing into the air and threatening to shoot into the crowd whenever a group of people moved toward them. One of the bridges was occupied by the sheriff's department from the richer suburban community across the bridge, and was quoted as saying that they didn't want the suburb to "become another SuperDome" -- a reference that could well be taken as meaning that they didn't want lots of poor black folks coming into their neighborhoods.

The contrast to 9/11 is striking. On 9/11, we remember the enduring images of dazed survivors walking miles to get out of the city, covered with dust. At the same time, the first responders were considered heroes, rushing the other way to fight fires and rescue trapped survivors. But in New Orleans it seems that the police -- the very people who were supposed to be protecting the city -- were actively preventing its citizens from escaping the unfolding crisis.

Forget this sham "bipartisan congressional committee" being pushed by the Republicans. This thing needs a full scale independent commission with subpoena powers, just like the 9/11 commission. 9/11 was, in some ways, a bolt from the blue. This was a much-anticipated emergency, and one in which government officials at all levels utterly failed to uphold their commitment to the people they serve. Someone needs to investigate this, ensure that those responsible are held accountable, and prevent it from ever happening again.

It also ticks me off that some conservative demagogues are already twisting all this around to support their own political predilections. Bill O'Reilly says that this is what happens to poor people who don't take personal responsibility for their lives. He has also stated that anyone who relies on the government to help them in a crisis situation will invariably be disappointed.

Did the government botch this? Absolutely. But to act as if failure was foreordained because government can't handle crises, or because poor people are destined to suffer, is to adopt a criminally negligent viewpoint. Governments, quite simply, are the only institutions with the resources to mobilize and effectively respond to a crisis of this magnitude -- and they have a moral obligation to protect their own citizens. Whether or not they are successful in this obligation is a question of planning, resources, and leadership -- not one of political philosophy. If governments are prepared, they will be able to respond effectively. In this case, they were not.

(The call for "personal responsibility" because of the failures of government is especially crass coming from people who have supported gutting key federal programs, replaced career disaster managers at FEMA with unqualified political appointees, and diverted massive amounts of money and resources toward fighting an unnecessary foreign war.)

I am shocked and outraged at the continuing revelations of just how badly this thing was botched -- and like it or not, one can't escape the twin factors of race and class. It's hard to imagine armed police officers threatening to shoot rich, predominantly white midtown Manhattan residents as they fled Ground Zero. But somehow this behavior was deemed acceptable when the victims had smaller salaries and darker skin. What does this say about our country?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A night at the shelter

Last night was my first shift volunteering at one of the Red Cross hurricane shelters here in Nashville. I worked the graveyard shift, from 1 AM until 8 AM. I am still processing what I saw.

I met an older diabetic man who toddles around with a walker. He likes his Cheerios with lots of milk and a single packet of Sweet 'n Low. He also likes bananas, but can't stomach anything to drink other than water. Definitely not lemonade, even if it's the good lemonade like they were giving out yesterday. He was rescued from his home by two men in a boat, but then he still had to wade through water up to his chest to get to a temporary shelter. He was eventually airlifted to Atlanta and then to Nashville. He thinks his niece is in Houston and is coming to get him sometime, maybe this week. In the meantime, he has fallen into the shelter routine, being escorted upstairs to the medical team three times a day for his pills and injections, and spending the rest of the time chatting with anyone who will listen.

I heard stories of evacuees who are claiming relief payments for non-existent family members. But I also saw first-hand the selflessness of many evacuees, who have taken it on themselves to turn the shelter into some sort of home. One man spent almost the entire night wiping down tables, emptying trash, and doing other chores. "Didn't he need some sleep?" inquired a staffer. But he was used to working hard at night -- his job in New Orleans was delivering the Times-Picayune in the wee hours of the morning. Another man took at upon himself to begin vacuuming the common area, and another lanky, well-spoken man in coveralls had clearly become something of a spokesman for the residents, advocating for their needs with shelter staff.

One woman, perhaps mentally ill, was worried about her children, who had evidently been hitchhiking away from New Orleans for the last week. Her son finally called her during the night, and she came running into the room desperate for someone to tell him how to get to the shelter. I talked to him for quite a while. Evidently he had caught a ride with someone in Alabama who was headed to Tennessee -- somewhere. His benefactors were asleep at a truck stop, and he wasn't sure what road they were on. In the end the best I could do was tell him which interstates came to Nashville and recommend that he call back when we could talk to the driver.

Another extended family staying at the shelter had to leave for the hospital in the early hours of the morning after the medical staff determined that a young child was running a fever of 103. The nurse called an ambulance, but the family then decided to take their own car, and the ambulance went away empty.

I quickly realize that the well oiled humanitarian machine that I learned about in my two days of training bears only a passing relationship the situation on the ground. In a smaller, more local disaster, the Red Cross' thoroughly-planned management strategies might work perfectly. But it is clear that the system was simply never designed to handle a disaster of this magnitude and complexity. Shelter staff have been dutifully filling out shelter registration cards for every client. But it's unclear whether these have actually been entered into a database to help reunite families. Furthermore, clients have left the shelter without signing out or providing a forwarding address, so even if some names could be matched up there's no guarantee that the person sought would still be there.

Americans everywhere are desperate to help -- a staffer who had worked the evening shift talked about the incessant calls she had been taking from people hundreds of miles away who were desperate to offer housing. The Red Cross is put in an awkward position by these requests. It is the official policy that all Red Cross services must be provided on an equal basis. (IE, someone can't come in and buy a steak dinner for one person in a shelter unless they buy a steak dinner for everyone in the shelter.) Furthermore, there are clearly unknowns and risks related to sending vulnerable evacuees off to live with unknown people in unknown conditions. So shelter staff are instructed to simply take these housing offers and post them on a message board, not to recommend them to specific clients. Many clients are already dazed and overwhelmed by their surroundings. The scraps of paper piling up on the message board are just one more input to their already overloaded brains. They are not yet able to consider life-altering decisions about where they will be living next month or next year.

The lack of response to offers like this has resulted in criticism that the Red Cross is somehow walling off evacuees from help. This is clearly untrue. While members of the general public are not permitted to come inside the shelter (for good reason -- there is enough organized chaos already), they are welcome to be in the parking lot. Residents can come or go as they please. Technically, they are supposed to sign in and out to help with communication and record-keeping, but this is pretty loosely enforced -- especially for the smokers who periodically retreat to the patio to light up. Evacuees inside the shelter have access to daily newspapers and television, as well as the bulletin boards full of housing and job offers. Daily shuttles are provided to places like the downtown Red Cross headquarters, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. Phones are available to make phone calls. Despite what you may read in the City Paper, this is not a concentration camp. It is simply a shelter whose management is trying to provide at least a small level of privacy to its residents.

It is impossible to generalize about evacuees -- the floodwaters clearly affected anyone with the misfortune to live below sea level. But it is evident that the hardest hit are those who are least able to reconstruct their own lives. Those with money, connections to other parts of the country, or simple resourcefulness are gradually moving out of shelters and picking up with life in their new surroundings. Increasing numbers of those left behind are elderly or ill (either physically or mentally). Some have never before left Louisiana, and they are baffled by the situation in which they find themselves. A staffer told of one woman who kept asking why she was at the shelter -- after all, she was sure she had paid her rent on time. Working with these people would be challenging in any environment. Add in the combined stress of seeing homes destroyed, neighbors killed, and then being forcibly evacuated hundreds of miles from anything familiar, and the challenge becomes almost unimaginable.

Friday, September 09, 2005

And the Potentate of Tonga also called...

The assistant to one of the enior bigwigs at our company just sent out the following broadcast e-mail. I am muchly amused, though I can't quite put my finger on why...

From:[bigwig's assistant]
To:[Just about everyone]

Call me immediately at x1234 if you have a meeting at 10:45 a.m. w/the Governor of Nigeria. He is downstairs in the lobby.

On neologisms

Does anyone else find it odd that the spell checker built into Blogger doesn't recognize the word "blog"?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Whole lotta nothing...

So, yeah, I've pretty much dropped off the face of the earth when it comes to keeping this blog updated. This is pretty much an annual occurrence -- I somehow just don't have the energy to blog during the dog days of summer. However, suffice it to say that nothing new and earth shattering has occurred. Here's a quick rundown of the mundane garbage I might have posted had I been in a posting mood:
  • I've continued my weekly sojourns to the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute, where I've been taking Spanish classes since January. I think I'm approaching the fluency level of a semi-literate two-year-old, but it's been enough to help with...

  • ... continuing to plan the trip to Spain. I've never really trusted travel agents, having found that I can almost always find cheaper or more palatable deals on my own. However, after numerous attempts to locate a car somewhere on the Iberian Peninsula that was big enough to hold four people and their luggage and had automatic transmission, I gave up and got the travel agent involved. I ended up having her do the train reservations too -- got tired of trying to understand cryptic price quotes from RailEurope's website.

    I have booked the rest of the trip directly, however, thanks to the wonders of e-mail and intercontinental faxes. I'll try to post an itinerary sometime soon for those who are curious.

  • Meanwhile, at work, I've been buried in the usual pile of sludge created by high school sports. Actually worse than usual this year because we were rolling out code we wrote to other branches of the company. Things are more or less stabilized, but it's been an exhausting month.
  • Nothing new to report on the getting out of Nashville plan, except that I feel like I'm starting to come down with a mild case of senioritis. It's not that I'm working any less than usual, but now that I've made the decision to split it feels like I'm just prolonging the agony. Oh, well... the paychecks are nice. (Truthfully, I'm toying with the idea of trying to sell myself as a part-time telecommuting consultant after I leave. The downside of this would be that I'd get to take some of my existing stress with me to Boston. The upside would be that I'd have a well-paying consulting gig right off the bat with none of that pesky inteviewing and kissing up to potential employers. Hmmm. We'll see what happens.)

  • In family news, brother number 2 is still living in Richmond, and wants out of his job. Brother number 3, after a summer as a camp counselor, is now talking about moving to Richmond and living with brother number 1. Unclear exactly what he'll do when he gets there, but hey, it's a start.

  • Fitness plan continues, although I've definitely found that weight loss slows down when I don't log calories. I purchased a program for my Palm phone that makes this fairly easy, but you still have to be pretty disciplined about entering everything you eat. Even with the occasional lapses, I'm still working out 3-4 times per week, and am now about 60 pounds lighter than when I started back in April. So I guess I'm doing something right. Only real problem is that my pants are all in danger of falling down.

  • After watching the total cluster that was the New Orleans disaster response, I've been trying to figure out how I can become part of the solution. Today I attended two classes at the local Red Cross chapter, and am now qualified to engage in basic disaster response work. They recommend taking a bunch more classes to truly learn the ropes, so I'll probably try to sign up for some more book learnin' soon. The Nashville-area Red Cross is trying to fast-track volunteers through the process because Middle Tennessee will probably be hosting several thousand evacuees from the New Orleans area (There are already two shelters open, and they will be adding more.) It's unclear exactly what my role might be in all this, since they have a "don't call us, we'll call you" approach to new volunteers. But given the amount of stuff they have on their plate, I expect I'll pull duty sometime in the next few weeks. (They are doling out shelter work in 12-hour shifts, which will be a bit rough with my regular job, but is probably do-able.) Based on what I've learned so far, I think I'm interested enough in the disaster response program to continue training beyond the immediate Katrina-induced crisis.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Listening to 'Mile 8'

Mmmmm... Jack's BBQ

Mucho cerveza

Blogging while intoxicated at Nashville Brewer's Festival. Ain't technology grand?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Dell Hell

Turns out I'm not the only person to have frustrating experiences with Dell customer service. Some guy over here compiled a dossier:
# of Dell people I've talked to ... 14
# of times I've heard 'now this will fix the problem' ... 15+
# of new, larger problems created ... 6
# of times any problem was fixed ... 2
# of copies of an email Dell sent me in one day ... 62
# of minutes spent on the phone with Dell ... 320+
# of hard drives my computer now thinks it has ... 3
# of times I've restarted the PC during this process ... 65+
# of Google results for "Dell customer service problem" ... 2.6M
# of hours of paid consulting work I've missed @ $100/hr ... 5
# of times Dell support finally agreed to replace it after it was dead -- then changed their mind and want me rebuild it with them ... 1
# of times Dell sales called to sell me DSL for my dead PC ... 1
# of dollars I spent on Dell's optional high-end warranty ... $280

And that's just the beginning.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

A lawyer, an orator, and a monkey

My mom is still in town, and for a change of pace we decided to leave Nashville and head to Dayton, TN to see a reenactment of the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, which pitted famed orator William Jennings Bryan against well-known attorney and ACLU crony Clarence Darrow in an attempt to enforce a Tennessee state law against the teaching of evolution in biology classes. Interestingly, it turns out that the whole trial was more-or-less for show. The defendant volunteered to be the "test case," Bryan had publicly stated that he wanted to defend the bible in court, and the local Chamber of Commerce mainly saw the trial as a way to bring in tourists and attract national media attention. (Not realizing, it seems, that they had for all time condemned their town to become a poster-child for irrational religious fundamentalism.)

Indeed, it seems that the trial was accompanied by the sort of media circus we've come to expect when famous people have their day in court. In a technological coup, WGN radio in Chicago provided a live broadcast from the courtroom during the trial, newspapers wrote about it incessantly, souvenir vendors hawked trial memoribilia, and someone even brought a trained monkey to town and exhibited him playing piano, using a camera, and smoking a pipe.

The reenactment boils days of trial down into a two-hour play, but it gives you a pretty accurate idea of how things went down -- the History Channel has been filming this week's reenactments for an upcoming documentary.

Overall, it was a pretty fascinating experience. I took a ton of pictures, but unfortunately I left my camera cable back in Nashville so you'll have to wait until I get back to see any of them.

Friday, July 15, 2005


My mom is visiting town, so I've had an excuse to do all the touristy things I never get around to. A few days ago we visited the Frist Center, the beautiful new art museum carved out of the old art deco main post office. The showpiece exhibition right now is Renaisance to Rococco. But buried in a small gallery at the back is Twilight, an exhibit of stunning photographs taken by artist Gregory Crewdson. The photos are surreal, elaborately staged tableaus depicting a warped version of American suburbia.

This photo doesn't do the exhibition justice -- the actual prints are 6 feet across, making an astonishing level of detail visible to the naked eye.

My favorite piece -- Untitled (Dead Cow Discovery) -- depicts the discovery of a dead cow in the midst of an generic subdivision. Police and ambulances have been sommoned, and emergency workers in yellow slickers have fanned out across the landscape, searching for, umm, I guess the perpertrator. A detective stands near the cow and stares at the sky in a perplexed way -- was the cow dropped from a passing airplane? Another fireman has climbed a ladder to the roof of one of the houses, and stands near a suspicious-looking scorch mark -- or maybe just water stained shingles.

The whole thing is enchanting and disturbing at the same time. While looking for a copy of the photos, I found them being used to illustrate this article by James Howard Kunstler, a champion of New Urbanism and critic of the faceless sprawl endemic in modern American suburbia. I've always been a fan of this school of thought -- and perhaps that's why these photos appeal to me on such a visceral level. In addition to being beautifully executed, they hint at suburbia's strange, disturbing undercurrents.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Fat Man Walking

Steve Vaught, The Fat Man Walking I am in awe of this guy. The Washington Post ran a story today about Steve Vaught, a 400-lb man who simply got up one morning and decided he was going to walk across the country. He started near his home in San Diego about 13 weeks ago, and is currently crossing through the Arizona desert, roughly following the old Route 66. His original plan would have put him in Missouri by now, but he continues to make good progress and has already dropped 50 pounds.

Steve and his wife April are chronicling his journey on a website,

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Originally uploaded by D-.
Awoke to find a smashed window on my truck. Turns out the same person apparently hit 9 other cars in the neighborhood early this morning. In my case, as near as I can tell the only thing missing is change from the ashtray. What a pain.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Life before google...

...must have been unbearable, because if you got home and found one of these
house centipede

sitting on your dining room wall, you might have no way to find out that it is a House Centipede (known aliases Scutigerida Scutigeridiae and "big scary bug with lots of legs) and furthermore that said bugs are supposedly beneficial because they eat other less agreeable bugs like spiders, termites, cockroaches and silverfish. Which is not to say I'm happy to see such a creature on my wall. But thanks to modern technology I at least know what this two-inch bundle of legs and feelers is actually up to.

(Note that I snagged the above photo from the Wikipedia article. I tried to take my own, but while I was focusing the resident feline batted the bug off the wall and proceeded to chase it around the kitchen. It was last seen heading for sanctuary under the stove.)

Another sign from the gods?

My sleep cycle is all out of whack right now, and I stayed up late working on some stuff for work. I then went to bed to try to get in four hours of sleep before my 8:30 conference call. Unfortunately, though, I had trouble getting to sleep. After tossing and turning for about an hour, I glanced out the window and realized that the sun was coming up. Since I wasn't getting anywhere on the sleeping thing, I decided to go for a walk. I pulled ou sweats, grabbed the iPod, and headed up the street in the general direction of Lockeland Springs. I'd gone about a mile when, all of a sudden, the heavens opened and it began pouring rain. I turned around and started heading back, but by the time I got to the house I was sporting the drowned rat look. (On the bright side, I got to see the sun coming up, which isn't something I do on my normal schedule.) Now I'm trying to decide if I should go back to sleep for a while or just power through the day and go to bed early tonight. Hmm.

Independence Day. Whee.

Nashville Fireworks 2005Usually I take the opportunity to escape Nashville for Independence Day. For the last three years (2004, 2003, and 2002) I've headed home to DC, which of course is a good place to be for patriotic-type activities. The year before that my two brothers came to Nashville for the 4th, and the year before that I went to Boston. In fact, except for when my brothers came, I've only stayed in Nashville for the 4th one time since I got here -- and that was the month after I arrived when I was sleeping on a mattress in an empty apartment due to extreme poverty.

Last week a bunch of my friends decided to meet up in Boston again this year, and I was really hoping to find a cheap flight and make it up there. But the good flights were booked solid, and I would have ended up spending over $500, which seemed silly since I'll be moving there full time in six months. I then considered going to DC again, but even those flights were approaching $300. Plus I was just there a month or so ago and my Mom's coming down here in a week. So given that I'm supposed to be saving for my future life as a starving student, it didn't seem like a good use of funds.

Nashville Fireworks 2005As a result of all this, I was in a pretty "bah humbug" mood about the whole holiday, and spend most of today knocking around the house and telecommuting to get some stuff done for work. Around 9:00, after watching a bit of the riverfront festivities TV, I finally got into the spirit of things. So I grabbed my camera (and new wide-angle lens) and walked down to the river for the fireworks. My original master plan had been to climb up on one of the bridges to watch the show, but the cops had closed them down for the duration. (They had two mounties guarding the entrance to the pedestrian bridge, and based on the accumulation of, er, horse leavings, I'd say they'd had it closed for a while.)

So instead I scrambled around trying to find a place in the coliseum parking lot that still had a photogenic view. But pretty much everywhere I could find was obstructed by a tree or light post. Furthermore, I was too lazy to lug my tripod with me, which I've decided is really a required item for shooting fireworks. So most of the photos were so-so, but the show was still pretty good.

Walked back to the house, dodging homebrew firework displays all the way. Fireworks are supposedly illegal in the city, but you couldn't go 10 feet without a few going off. Growing up in Takoma Park, the cops pretty much had a zero-tolerance policy for fireworks, but I guess the big city police in Nashville have better things to do with their time. While I'm sure people are probably putting their eyes out right and left, it's still pretty fun to walk around amidst the constant noise and sparkle of firecrackers and sparklers.

When I got back home I grabbed a pile of bills and set to work paying them, at which point I discovered the insurance mess described below. So that pretty much got me back to my original state of bah-humbugginess.

In other news this weekend, I went to a wierd Argentine movie by myself on Saturday. (I'm still not really able to keep up when they speak, but at least I recognize a lot of words as they go by.) Then I grabbed groceries at the nice but overpriced Harris Teeter in Hillsboro Village, and ran to the gym for a quick workout.

On Sunday did some stuff for work, and then went out to dinner at Basante's with a friend. After dinner we headed over to the electric whorehouse and saw War of the Worlds. Measured against your typical summer action/sci-fi blockbuster flick, it was pretty good. (Although I hate the idea that I'm helping Tom Cruise maintain the standard of loopiness to which he has become accustomed.)

Tomorrow I have my customary 8:30 AM Tuesday conference call, followed by a day of mindnumbing tedium. Yum.

Fast times

It was bound to happen, I guess. The insurance company apparently noticed the whopper of a speeding ticket I got last summer in Oregon, and my insurance premiums are going up by about $216/year. I'm sure they have facts and figures to back up their assertion that people caught speeding are inherently unsafe. But since I've never had an automobile accident in my life it's still a bit frustrating. The only insurance claim I've ever made came from someone trying to break into the car while it was parked on the street.

I'm wondering if this is like the points on my license, where my rates will go down again after I go without a ticket for a certain period of time.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Showing my age

I'm still not entirely comfortable in a world where everyone has caller ID. From preschool onward, I was taught that one begins a phone call by saying something like "Hi. Is this Jane? Hi, Jane, this is John."

So whenever someone picks up the phone and says, right off the bat, "Hi, John," I have a wierd moment of cognitive dissonance. My brain just can't grok that I should begin the phone conversation without identifying myself. So about half the time I end up identifying myself anyway, which sounds kind of silly, and the other half of the time there's an awkward pause while I mentally regroup. I imagine that kids growing up today will think nothing of being identified solely by caller ID. Personally, though, I long for a simpler time when phone calls still had an aura of mystery about them.

For the good of science

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Banal Update # 1456

Another only marginally productive weekend. Mowed lawn. Did laundry, called the parents. Watched The Graduate, cleaned kitchen. Managed to have a wierd dream incorporating NPR content coming from my clock radio. Read most of A Short History of Nearly Everything, slept. Made homemade pasta sauce, had a spontaneous 4-hour,6-way conference call with friends in Syracuse, Boston, Long Island, Rochester, and somewhere on the Mass Pike. Briefly googlestalked someone who messaged me on Considered trying to escaped Nashville to Boston or DC for the 4th next weekend -- don't know if it will happen. (Stupid last minute airfares.) Planned to do more, but didn't get around to it. Among things I didn't do: Spanish homework (we're on break, but I have a pile to do before the next class in two weeks, and I haven't started it), returning e-mails to friends and acquantances, pro-bono website work, bills, filing, scanning family photos, Spain planning (although my Mom swears she's going to get interested in this in a few weeks when she comes to visit). No ER visit, so I guess it was a good weekend, all things considered.

During the week I've been doing my usual 10 hours or so of mostly-boring work each day. Now that I know I'm really leaving in 6 months, it's starting to feel a bit like senior year of high school. I'm still as busy as ever, but mentally I'm counting the days until I can move on to the next chapter of my life. I don't want to slack off -- if anything I'm trying harder to make sure I finish what I've started. But sometimes I wish I could just get it over with. I feel like I'm stuck in limbo right now.

Meanwhile, I'm keeping up my gym habit generally 3-4 times a week. Usually around midnight, but it's better than nothing. I'm mainly doing a 45 minute or so stint on the eliptical trainer, and a few sets various weight machines. Nothing killer, but my endurance is improving and I'm losing some weight. So I guess I'm achieving something.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Another weekend, another ER visit

Today's trouble started when I decided to go outside and tackle some of the thornier landscaping issues around my house -- a dead bush with a tree going up through it in the front yard, a massive weed tree growing up through a fence in the side yard, and a tree in need of pruning. I spent several hours this morning digging and cutting. I was almost done when I put my foot into some tall grass and discovered a board with four nails sticking out of it, thoughtfully left by the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none handyman my landlord keeps sending out. And when I say discovered, I mean that one of the nails penetrated my ratty tennis show and embedded itself into my foot.

After saying a few things that probably shouldn't be repeated in public, I removed the board, quickly tidied up my brush piles, and headed inside to ponder when I had last had a tetanus shot. Unfortunately, the last shot appears to have been while I was still riding a yellow bus to school every morning. Given that a booster is recommended every 10 years (more often if you routinely get stabbed by rusty nails), I figured it was probably about time. So I called the Blue Cross nurse, who once againt directed me to head straight to the ER. (One more visit and I'm eligible for the shopper rewards program!)

There wasn't actually that much pain involved initially, so I dawdled a bit before moseying into the familiar ol'B Baptist ER around 3:00. I then spent several an hour or two there, and was eventually sent home with a tetanus shot in my arm and a bottle of 40 pretty little red pills to take over the next 10 days. The moral of this story? Yard work is a bad idea.

Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot the incident on Thursday wherein my hand got stuck in a malfunctioning elevator door at work! No hospitalization on that one, although it seems like there easily could have been if the elevator had started moving.

I'm not sure I've felt this accident prone since the holiday weekend at a friend's cabin a few years ago when I sliced my scalp open and tore off a toenail in a two-day period. (Amazingly there was no hospitalization then, but only because we had our very own med student along and the nearest hospital was an hour drive.)

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Pain. Intense pain.

kidney stone After falling asleep over a book late last night, I woke up around 6:00 this morning with intense pain in my lower abdomen. At first I thought it was just your garden variety gastrointestinal distress, and for about the next hour and a half I paced restlessly, took a hot shower, drank a bunch of water, tried various yoga-inspired poses. The pain continued to intensify. Then came the nausea, sweating, and dry mouth. Finally, around 7:30, I decided it was time for drastic action, and I pulled on some ratty sweats and staggered out to my truck to head for Baptist Hospital (roughly 30 city blocks away).

I was making good progress until I hit Eighth Avenue downtown, where the police had stopped traffic in both directions to allow some sort of track and field event to pass by. Barely able to talk, I pulled around the line of cars and basically begged the police officer to let me through. After making several suggestions that I try to back up and find another route he eventually called his supervisor over, and they let me pass.

I arrived at the ER, parked, staggered through the door, and threw myself on the mercy of the woman at the desk. They immediately took me into the triage area, where I received the first "official" guess at what was probably going on. "Do you want to throw yourself on the waiting room floor," the nurse asked.

"Huh?" I grimaced dimly through the pain.

"I'm just asking because most guys who come in with kidney stones want to throw themselves down on the waiting room floor." She also told me to stop drinking from the water bottle I'd brought, because "you're going to start throwing up soon." This was bad, because my mouth felt as if it was stuffed with cotton. I continued to surreptitiously take tiny sips.

She sent me over to the office where they verify insurance info, where I merely gasped that they should already have my info in the computer. They then sent me back out into the waiting room, where the pain continued to intensify. Apparently two ambulances arrived around that time, and I got bumped down the list. So continued to writhe in pain, no doubt scaring some folks. An eternity later (well, probably only 20 minutes, but it seemed longer) someone finally arrived and took me back to an exam room, where at least I could lie down.

A while later a nurse arrived in the room. At this point, everything was more-or-less a blur, but he soon became my favorite person in the world after he started an IV full of very potent pain and anti-nausea medication. The drugs were a godsend -- the pain was still there, but it had gone from the "wild badgers are clawing through my guts" variety to the "scraped my knee on the playground" variety. A big improvement. The drugs, however, made me pretty loopy and I began to nod off in a warm, fuzzy stupor. Somewhere in there I remember being wheeled off to the x-ray area, where I laid on a freezing-cold table and had my abdomen irradiated. After that, they wheeled me up to the second floor for a CAT scan, which also involved a cold table. Then it was back to the exam room, where they hooked me back up to the monitors, reconnected an IV of some sort, and left me to float along in a happy drug-induced haze. Eventually a doctor showed up and told me that it definitely appeared to be a kidney stone, but since they were unable to find the stone on the x-rays they were pretty sure it was going to emerge on its own. So they gave me a perscription for Percocet (crazy strong anti pain medicine) and anti-nausea supositories (ugh), and instructed me to go home and drink tons of water.

Well, actually, it wasn't that simple. Apparently they've had problems with people on the happy drugs checking themselves out and then trying to drive home. So they refused to even let me out of the bed until someone arrived to pick me up. I duitifully called a friend, who showed up to bail me out. We then took a detour to the pharmacy and picked up the pain pills and a pile of bottled water, and she dropped me back at my house. I drank and dozed for a while after that. At about 1:00 I woke up thinking that I was actually feeling pretty good. That is until I tried to urinate. Suddenly the pain was back with a vengeance. I took a percocet, drained another bottle of water, and retreated whimperingly to my bed. Luckily the drugs kicked in, and I was able to doze off again.

The original plan was for my friend to drive me back over to pick up my car around two. But when she heard I was back on the drugs, she wisely suggested that we put off that expedition. So I stayed at home and continued snarfing bottles of water, until a bit later the culprit finally emerged.

From the amount of pain, I was expecting this thing to look like, I don't know, a lima bean. Or at least a pea. But the actual stone (or at least the one I recovered) was about the size of a small pebble. Doesn't seem possible that such a tiny thing could wreak so much havoc!

Since the emergence of the stone, the pain has basically disappeared. I'm still drinking water like a madman -- and I have a newfound resolution to drink massive quantities of water on a daily basis. But it looks like the worst of the ordeal is over now.

Not the way I'd recommend spending a holiday weekend.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Wild Wacky Roof Gizmos

I'm on a continuing quest to get my landlord to make repairs around the house. Even better would be if I could get her to make repairs with some degree of sensitivity to the fact that the house is located in a historic district.

The house includes these wierd-looking tile things on the roof:

wierd roof things

Several of the tiles were broken recently. Gary, my landlord's favorite cut-rate jack-of-all-trades handyman, took one look and observed "well, you can't get them things at Home Depot." He had a go at the broken pieces with liquid nails, but I have little faith that this fix is going to last very long.

So I'm on a quest to find out where, if anywhere, you can still get things like this. So far my Google searches for "roof thingies" haven't been successful. Anyone have any ideas?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Platypus hitting the sauce

Another memory from the same batch of disks: Senior year of college, my roomate and I decided to try to create a new mixed drink. The basis was some sort of Jello-based dessert that I had made for a potluck. Jay was convinced that this could be turned into a mixed drink with a bit of modification. As I recall, the resulting beverage required Cool Whip, green food coloring, pistachio pudding mix, and some sort of liquor (maybe tequila.) We got it to the point where it was at least drinkable, christened it "Green Shit", and served it once or twice. I don't think it ever really caught on, but at some point (possibly hopped up on the stuff) Jay created illustrations on paper plates immortalizing the beverage. I apparently scanned them, and will now post them here for your enjoyment.
happy platypus
punch bowl guy

A slow goodbye

I've been sorting through old computer disks from college, and came across this essay I wrote for a magazine journalism class in 1998.
May I sit down on your bed?" I ask the woman, unsure of the house rules. We are in a generic room that could be a part of any modern housing subdivision. Personal momentos dot the shelves, and a the wool blanket I remember snuggling under as a child is draped over a chair.

"I don't care if you sit on it or shit on it!" the woman responds, cackling to her self as she hobbles out of the room.

This woman lives with my grandmother. But she doesn't know my grandmother. In fact, no one really knows my grandmother anymore. The tiny explosions that have ravaged the blood vessels in her brain have also destroyed her ability to remember, to converse, or even to dress herself. Her life is a progression from one bedtime to the next, with the occasional intervention of nursing home staff.

I have never before seen her in this setting. I have been away at college, and the last time I saw her was Christmas two years ago. At that point, her short term memory was gone, and, as usual, you found yourself having the same conversation twice in a period of minutes. But she was there. She had an interest in her surroundings, and I knew this was the same person who used to take me home after church on Sundays and eat Pepperidge Farm chessmen cookies with me in her dining room. The staunch member of the DAR, who took me to nearby Monticello when I was in sixth grade. The woman who agreed to marry my grandfather after he took her on a grueling hike on the C&O canal towpath.

That woman is no longer there. Instead, my grandmother stares at her lap constantly, and her speech is limited to the immediate expression of preference. "I'm cold." or "I'm not hungry." Her hands shake, and she can barely eat without assistance. She is the shell of a person.

The scariest thing about all this is that she saw it coming. It was not a sudden, debilitating condition that struck one day, leaving no time for reflection. Instead her brain began to fail her bit by bit, just like a trick knee might slowly impair walking. At first she would forget a few details of conversations. Then she would forget entire events. She knew this was happening. She began to compulsively keep lists of everything -- She would routinely pull a rumpled piece of paper out of her purse and read over it, trying to remember the obvious -- where she was, who she was staying with, where her family was. She began to lose track of the date, and she would routinely address us as relatives who died decades ago. When I stayed at her house in rural Virginia during my freshman year of college, she woke me up at 7:30 in the morning so that I wouldn't miss the school bus.

You sometimes hear senility called a "second childhood." But this facile characterization does nothing to convey the horror that one must feel as the brain begins to fail. To me, this is the most terrifying aspect of growing old. It is not the loss of bodily function. It is the prospect of losing the ability to think and understand -- and to know that this is happening.

When I graduate from college this Sunday, I will think of my grandmother, sitting in her small nursing home room 500 miles away, quite possibly unaware that she has three grandchildren in college. And I will wonder about the future.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Another low-productivity weekend

I spent most of this weekend reading Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, a fascinating account of events leading up to the massive 1984 industrial disaster in Bhopal, India that most likely killed tens of thousands of people in an instant. (The exact death toll has never been established, since most victims were poor and image-concious government officials stopped counting after about 1700.) This book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years because I expected it to be a dry account of the disaster with a lot of finger pointing. But the book goes far beyond the accident itself, providing deep insights into Indian culture and the corporate culture of multinational corporations. If there was ever an argument for the importance of strong and impartial environmental watchdogs, this is it.

Other than that, not much was accomplished this weekend. Cleaned up the kitchen a bit, did a load of laundry, went to Bongo Java and did my Spanish homework, sent a few e-mails, watched part of the very rainy Iriquois Steeplechase on TV, and went to the gym. Not necessarily in that order.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Spanish excercise

As a party game, Dolores has prepared slips of paper with cues and the names of party guests. Whoever picks the slip must ask a question using conocer or saber, and the person(s) called upon must respond.
Rafael / jugar al boliche.
Rafael, sabes tu jugar al boliche?
Si, se jugar al boliche pero no muy bien.
Boy, does that Dolores know how to party, or what?

Friday, May 06, 2005

My Pet Fat

A few weeks ago -- after only seven years of procrastination -- I finally got around to joining the fitness center at my office. My body includes a great deal of, erm, "safety padding," and I figured as long as I'm getting ready to quit my job and entirely uproot my life anyway, maybe this would be a good time to try to pick up a more consistent exercise habit.

Things have been going pretty well. Before this, my activity patterns tended to be very uneven -- IE, a month or two of couch-potatodom, followed by the occasional strenuous exercise, such as climbing pyramids in Mexico or playing snow football in Pennsylvania. Typically said strenuous exercise would result in aches and pains the next day. So I was expecting the same thing from the workout program. So far, however, I've been pleasantly surprised. Apparently using actual, approved workout equipment and a reasonable exercise plan avoids the stress of my former (in)activity patterns.

Pet Fat This is all leading up to a hilarious blurb I came across in today's paper. Inspired by the pet rock craze of the mid-1970s, it seems that New Jersey marketing specialist Jay Jacobs has come up with the idea of My Pet Fat as a motivational tool for those with abundant portable strategic energy reserves.

Pet fat is available in several sizes, with a 1 pound gob (representing 3500 calories) going for about $35. According to the article, "[t}hey are made of vinyl plastic, they are soft and pliable, they are slightly oily, they are amber-colored, with touches of red that suggest capillaries -- and they are gross."

(Note: while writing this post, I also came across this "virtual pet rock" software for MacOS. I've gotta get me some of that!)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Followed by possible vague left-wing paranoia of the week

Part of me wants to get incensed about the new "suggestion" that you give your birth date when checking in for an airline flight -- it definitely reeks of the reductions in civil liberties that have been brought on by the Patriot Act and its ilk.

But another, more rational, part of me says that this is a total non-issue for the simple reason that there's nothing new about it.

Here's why: You've been required to show your photo ID (drivers license or passport) at the airport for years. And every drivers license or passport has your birthdate prominently emblazoned on it. So this new policy is simply asking for information that the airlines and the TSA already had access to.

I suppose there is some additional risk to civil liberties from the government actually collecting the information. But probably not enough to make it worth making a scene by "refusing" to give my birth date.

(I tried this once when a clerk at Motel 6 demanded my birthdate in order to rent a room, but when she cited corporate policy and refused to budge, I caved rather than going in search of a new motel. Yup, I'm a pushover.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Right wing bonehead of the week

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: (Off Camera) But, sir, you have described this in pretty, this whole battle is pretty apocalyptic terms. You've said that Liberals are engaged in an all-out assault on Christianity, that Democrats will appoint judges who don't share our Christian values and will dismantle Christian culture, and that the out-of-control judiciary, and this was in your last book "Courting Disaster" is the most serious threat America has faced in nearly 400 years of history, more serious than al Qaeda, more serious than Nazi Germany and Japan, more serious than the Civil War?

PAT ROBERTSON: George, I really believe that. I think they are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together. There is an assault on marriage. There's an assault on human sexuality, as Judge Scalia said, they've taken sides in the culture war and on top of that if we have a democracy, the democratic processes should be that we can elect representatives who will share our point of view and vote those things into law.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: (Off Camera) But, sir, let me just stop you there. How can you say that these judges are a more serious threat than Islamic terrorists who slammed into the World Trade Center?

PAT ROBERTSON: It depends on how you look at culture. If you look over the course of a hundred years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings. I think we're going to control al Qaeda. I think we're going to get Osama bin Laden. We won in Afghanistan. We won in Iraq, and we can contain that. But if there's an erosion at home, you know, Thomas Jefferson warned about a tyranny of an oligarchy and if we surrender our democracy to the tyranny of an oligarchy, we've made a terrible mistake.

-- ABC News Transcript of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," May 1, 2005

Good grief. As Tom Regan points out, the difference between Pat Robertson and most of the rest of us is that he doesn't ever seem to realize when he's said something profoundly stupid.

MoveOnPac is running a campaign about this particular interview, and I was ticked off enough to sign the petition.