This American Gripe

The world is, per custom, full of more serious issues and worthier subjects in my life and others, but sometimes you just have to put all that aside and complain. Listening to one of my several daily fulminations on diverse subjects, Kate said, “You should have your own show–‘This American Gripe.’ ” I like the idea well enough, but so far it hasn’t gone further than that (although I will note that as of this writing the exact phrase “this American gripe” appears exactly once in Google’s database and that is still available).

So, This American Gripe. Here’s one:

I mentioned recently that I got a call from someone in Oregon who wanted to use a picture that I took last year. Kate and I, with dog in tow, drove up to Eugene over Memorial Day weekend, picked up Thom and drove over to Florence, on the coast. A beautiful arched lift bridge carries U.S. 101 over the Siuslaw River there, and I took some pictures of it.

OK, then. I got a phone call about 10 days ago from a woman named Nancy who works for the Harley-Davidson dealership in Coos Bay, well down the coast from Florence. The town has a rhododendron festival, and the Harley place is making up a special T-shirt for the occasion. Nancy said they liked one of the pictured I took and wanted to use it as part of the T-shirt design. I was flattered. Naturally, I said they were welcome to do so; I just asked for a couple of the T-shirts in return for sending them the highest resolution version of the picture I had.

Since I had taken several bridge pictures that I put online, I asked Nancy to describe the one she wanted: It was an image that was obviously taken in the middle of the roadway with one of the bridge arches in the foreground and a car visible far down the road. From the group of shots I had taken, only one fit that description and I emailed the original to Nancy. I remarked that it looked a little darker than the online version of the shot; she agreed and asked whether I had a brighter version; I adjusted the brightness and contrast and color qualities of the picture and sent two more versions for Nancy to compare.

Then she said that the shot I sent her seemed to have been cropped–that the one she was looking at appeared to have been taken a little farther out from the bridge structure than the version I’d sent. I checked to see whether I had cropped the original. Nope. But at this point I suspected that we were not talking about the same picture at all and asked her to send me a copy. She did, and here it is (left–hers) side by side with the original (right–mine).

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Well, they are pictures of the same bridge. But if you asked for a copy of the one on the right, and someone sent you the other one, would you think for even a moment that they were the same picture? No, you wouldn’t. For her part, Nancy seemed reluctant to believe that the picture she had wasn’t my work, even after I told her it wasn’t.

Next time, I suppose the smart thing to do would be to ask for a copy of the picture in question before I start trying to hunt for something I don’t have.

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Our Dues

What a strange ritual April 15 is. I’m guessing that for most of us, paying taxes and all that entails is our most intimate interaction with our government. Some years, I swear I get the taxes done expeditiously. Not this year. And as tax years go, this one’s a little harrowing. My mind rests easier, though, knowing that I’m paying my tax dues to pay for plenty of this instead of dead-end ideas like this.

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Peace ‘n’ Love ‘n’ the Olympic Torch

The New York Times published an excellent piece this morning about the origins of the Olympic torch relay and how it relates both to the ancient Greeks and our enlightened 2008 world. The story recounts the invention of the torch-lighting ritual and relay especially for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Leni Riefenstahl‘s intended paean to Aryan culture, the film “Olympia.” I remember the movie’s opening sequence, but had no idea at all that I was watching the birth of the whole torch routine. In the movie, the Times’s piece recounts, “the torch is conveyed from one bearer to the next and ends in Berlin at a 110,000-seat stadium where it ignites an altar of flame. Through shimmering heat the sun itself can be seen, vibrating in sympathy. And Hitler salutes the cheering crowds. This passing of the torch thus demonstrates a lineage of inheritance — a historical relay — making Nazi Germany the living heir to Ancient Greece. A claim was being staked. ”

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Rewrite: An Editing Tale

It’s like this: a trusted reader went over that bike piece and pointed out a few things about it. I was reluctant to acknowledge the reader’s points, but eventually saw their merit. The new version of the piece has a lot in common with the first, but has jettisoned a lot of what I’ll call random rhapsodizing. I liked the rhapsodizing. I just found it didn’t work the way I thought it did. The rewrite: It’s after the jump.

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Today in History, and Why I Ride

[Reposted, slightly altered, after being killed]

Fifty-five years ago, Mom and Dad were married (I wasn’t far behind). Today, Dad had surgery on his second broken hip in six months (the good news is that he’s doing well and that he doesn’t have another hip to break). Tonight, Mars is in conjunction with the moon. Looking out from our front porch with 10-power binoculars, Mars is just to the left of the moon as it declines in the west, and the moon’s craters are beautifully visible.

But the principal news of this evening: I wrote a little piece on cycling for a friend’s newsletter. Without further ado, here”s the text:

Until Next Time

One year, growing up in the recently paved over prairies and peat bogs south of Chicago, I got a birthday bicycle. Someone may have thought I was too old for training wheels; maybe I was that someone. I learned to ride that bike, a red J.C. Higgins with fenders and big tires, through pure dumb gravity-assisted trial and error. I fell down a lot. After a couple of weeks of coaching and cajoling from my dad and mom and other adults on the block, I had wobbled around and toppled over so many times that both sides of the leather-like seat had been worn down to metal.

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Pictobrowser: A Test

This is a post testing a Flickr app called Pictobrowser. It’s supposed to create a nifty little in-blog gallery. For the occasion, I’ve chosen my most recent Flickr set, which recorded the Code Pink-Marines foofaraw in downtown Berkeley a couple months back. Here goes:

Mark of Distinction

I got a phone call Tuesday from someone in Oregon who wants to use a picture I took last year. I’ll post more details if it happens, but I was tickled that anyone asked. It’s a nice compliment, is what it boils down to.

Actually, that picture call was the second call of the day I got from Oregon. The first was from my friend Pete, an old compatriot from newspapering and online news who, through his love of wine and winemaking, wound up working in that industry. He now is a rather senior-level marketing guy for a Chicagoland-based company called Terlato. Knowing that I’ve developed a fanatical international following–well, someone from Myanmar once came to this site after googling “blog” and “sex”–Pete had a favor to ask: Would I be willing to link to an announcement that one of Terlato’s wineries was making?

OK, so here’s the announcement, and it’s actually a pretty interesting possibility for anyone involved in a school or community or church group: Markham Vineyards, up in the Napa Valley, is offering two $25,000 grants to fund “tangible” projects that make a “visible, positive impact” on communities: a makeover for a section of inner-city schoolyard, for instance, or a community garden. Proposals will be accepted through June 14, and they need to be accompanied by a brief budget that shows how the cash would be put to work. Details for the Markham Mark of Distinction Community Grant Program, are available at

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On Saturday, Kate and The Dog and I went out on a little exploration of the area just south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The goal was to try to see some of the pumping facilities that the state and federal water projects use to, in essence, reroute the bulk of the Sacramento River into the San Joaquin Valley and beyond. We wound up at Bethany Reservoir, which in a sense is the headwaters of the California Aqueduct, which carries water all the way to Los Angeles. While we were walking on the reservoir’s northern rim, we found a brand new cross. On the side facing away from the lake, it bore some images with the legends “U.S. Navy” and “Dennis the Menace.” On the side facing the water, it bore the name Eric C. Wright; there was a birth date from 1975 and a death date, too, from two days before last Christmas. The story is here and here.


Undergraduate Notes

In my return to college, one thing I’ve wondered is whether the undergraduate population is as out of it, history and civics-wise, as the periodic headline-grabbing “our kids can’t find Washington, D.C., on a map” studies suggest. Honestly, I haven’t talked enough with my classmates to come to any opinion. As I’ve noted before, the only thing that has really caught my attention is the distractions people readily indulge in class, especially the online kind. In class last week, I was sitting behind a guy who was reading a graphic novel on his laptop while sporadically taking notes on the lecture. Across the aisle, a woman worked on her email most of the hour. No, it wasn’t a great lecture.

Actually, I’ve been noticing something else, too. I’m taking just two classes, so what I see is hardly a basis for sweeping conclusions. But, after 10 weeks I’m pretty sure about this one: most students don’t want to speak in class, period. In both my classes, I have instructors who are given to asking questions of the assembled multitude, then glancing around the room expectantly. Sometimes the questions are obvious, sometimes they’re obscure. It makes no difference: most of the times, these expectant queries meet with silence. No: an uncomfortable silence. Maybe that’s just me: I want to talk, and I love to answer questions (to the point of being a pain in the ass about it, I sometimes think). But in one class of about 150 people, the same three or four or five people seem to do about 75 percent of the student talking; in a discussion section for the same class, it’s the same three out of 15 who speak the most week in and week out. In my Irish history class, the professor designated one full class session to questions about an upcoming paper; when he threw the floor open at the beginning of the hour, the 30 people in the room just stared at him. He said he’d just as soon return to his lecture notes if that’s how we were going to be. A couple of kids finally cracked and said something. (In this case, the professor showed that his idea of a question-and-answer session was a 15- or 20-minute answer to a single question. That left room for about three questions for our 50 minutes together.)

I had to make an appearance in the history department office last week; the advisor, who got her B.A. in her late 30s or early 40s, I think, is pretty talkative. She asked me how things were going. I told her that things are swell–only a minor exaggeration—but that I was puzzled by the reluctance of so many people to participate in class discussions. “They don’t want to look stupid,” she said, and added that she had observed the same thing when she was in class a few years back. It makes sense to me. There are few things worse than looking dumb and uncool in front of your peers. I hate it. Still: to get to Berkeley, you have to be one of those students who does very, very well in high school. Thinking back to high school, many though by no means all of the brightest kids were pretty personable and willing to speak up. I don’t know whether something has happened since then–the competitive grind to get the grades, test scores and extracurricular laurels you need to get to the right school, perhaps–but I feel like something has changed.

And in conclusion: Earlier today I came across a column that touches on this subject (maybe tangentially) by a college journalism professor at Case Western Reserve. My impression is that you have to be pretty sharp to get in there. Anyway, the teacher, Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter, has some harsh things to say about the kids who show up in his class. He starts with an anecdote: how none of the students in his seminar on government secrecy knew what rendition (the CIA kind) means. He continued:

“That instance was no aberration. In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don’t know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.

“Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered” Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn’t pretty.”

But Gup spends most of the column trying to find a prescription for what ails a society that excels in this paradox: It turns out bright kids, many of whom are perfectly ignorant of the world around them. Here’s the link again: “So Much for the Information Age.”

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Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”


And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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