Monday, April 30, 2012

Monkey tails

At Graham's tae kwon do class on Saturday, they played monkey tails. This is the game where they put a little strip of cloth underneath the kids' belts in back, and then the kids have to run around and try to pull each others' tails out. The last one with a tail wins. Graham ran around quickly, avoiding the other kids altogether, not trying to take anybody else's tail, and by this tactic he was able to stay alive until the last 3 or 4 each time they played the game. So, a strategy of total risk avoidance -- just wanting not to lose -- took him a certain distance. In the end, however, he was defeated by a kid who actually wanted to win.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Round trip to Fayetteville

Graham and I road-tripped to the Special Forces and Airborn Museum in Fayetteville today. For those of you who haven't been: don't bother. Although the museum is free and housed in by far the swankiest building in town, it is small. In fact, there's no way in hell the size or quality of the collection justifies the expense of the building. We watched a 15-minute movie -- funded by Ross Perot -- in an entirely empty auditorium with seating for 150. The place is clearly optimized for the daytime school bus crowd. Actually, I might have learned more (though much of it focuses on D Day and I have by now read many detailed accounts of the goings on at Normandy) had Graham not been dead set on rocketing through the place, twice sending me into kniption fits when he disappeared while I was reading and I had to look all over the place. Certainly it was cool to learn that Ben Franklin was the first guy to think of paratrooping (from balloons, natch). It was nonetheless a pleasant outing, and I obtained my secondary objective of driving some NC backroads and getting a gander at some regions I know poorly. Fayetteville itself underwhelmed by any standard, with the portion of 87 that passes through Fort Bragg into town consisting of a really depressing array of skanky titty bars and scary motels, fast food joints, used car lots, and other junk retail. Need an iced coffee to drive home? No dice. I seemed to have memories of being in Jacksonville as a kid and being impressed by the variety of Asian food they had, Vietnamese for example. There was none of this low-level military cosmopolitanism in evidence around Fort Bragg. As we passed Sanford, it was very clear that we had come into another geological realm, that of sandy soil. It's hard to look at the shit and not think, "how the hell do you grow anything here?" But then, what do I know about agriculture? I was reminded of a conversation with a certain wise Swiss fellow recently, who said that some development specialists reckon the solution to poverty in certain American counties is to give residents a one-way bus ticket out. All in all, it made it clear that Jesse Helms did a great job of making sure that Eastern North Carolina got huge appropriations from Defense because, by God, it needed to get money from somewhere.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Back to mending wall

Some years ago I cryptically alluded to Frost's "Mending Wall" in a post.  Here's the poem in its entirety. Frost's point would seem to be that the function of the wall is not to keep property marked off in some literal sense, but just to have a wall.  I myself like the idea of just having a wall, because they look nice and gives notice of my somewhat atavistic connection to this one little acre of land.

Robert Frost "Mending Wall"

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Earning the rock wall

As I mentioned some time back, I am slowly building a rock wawall along the uphill edge of our backyard.  Until recently, it had consisted of rocks -- stones, if you will (Natalie was asking me about the difference recently.  I think it's mostly a class distinction, "stones" sounding older, more worn with age, more expensive) -- that were already loose in the yard and which I pulled up and carried over to the wall area. And part of me felt that using already loose rocks was tantamount to having a kind of unearned rock wall.

Then Mary got it into her head that we should do some serious landscaping in the front yard. More serious than what mom had put there over the years, which was, in truth, plenty serious for me. But, having time on my hands, I offered to help her -- some. So I've been digging some holes.  And there are, truth be told, lots of rocks down there in the soil, itself much more clay-based than the dark loamy stuff we had become accustomed to up in New Jersey.  And so, I have been digging up rocks, stones, if you will, and taking some of them over to the rock wall project staging area.  Over time, I will have to educate myself on how to put the damned things together to make a wall. And educate the kids too, as I view the wall-building as a multi-year process, not to be rushed.

Or, possibly, they will just sort of tumble and jumble there together, as they're not really shaped ideally to nestle together. As I look at the walls around town, the really neat ones seem to be held together by cement, and I can't help thinking that cement is for pussies.

ps. Mary tells me that voles -- the little nemeses that eat her plants, like to live in rock walls.  Hence she's happy for me to take rocks from the one in the front yard and put them in the back yard.  We'll see how long it is before that wall gets blamed for vole infestation in the patio garden.  I may be forced to disperse the rocks or cement them together.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Loyal Character Dancer

Just finished Qiu Xiaolong's second Inspector Chen novel, A Loyal Character Dancer.  It is a good mystery novel, and gives what I assume are reasonable pictures of life in China, though the author has been in the states since the late 80s.  Much of the dialog is pretty stilted. But one can basically read his novels for the food.  Here's a typical passage.

"What about a dumpling dinner?"
"A good idea.  It's the season for spring bamboo shoots.  We will have dumplings with three fresh stuffings:  fresh bamboo shoots, fresh meat, and fresh shrimp.  I'll fry some dumplings, steam some, and serve the rest in an old duck soup with black tree ears...."
..."I'll go to the market to buy a basket of really fresh bamboo shoots."
"Choose the tender ones.  Not thicker than two fingers.  We'd better mince the meat ourselves:  ground pork you can buy is not fresh."
Keeps you hungry. All this talk of food is interspersed with a little romance, a few corpses, some cultural history, and copious quotes from Chinese proverbs and poetry and the like.  The characters live as if suspended somewhere between their stomachs and an all-enveloping literary tradition, somewhat menaced by gangsters but not enough to distract them from the niceties of serving tea. I'll read more.

ps. the more I think of it, the more I think Xiaolong's focus on food is a sign of homesickness.  He apparently lives in  St. Louis and writes in English.  I'm sure he pines for the foods he describes.

And so....

I find myself self-employed once again, at once blissfully unshackled from a job that wasn't doing much for me beyond paying the bills and giving me a short commute and driving me crazy and making me unable to sleep. Being infinitely fortunate in that I am debt free and financially secure for the near to immediate term, I'm trying to take time to breathe and scan the horizon, yet everybody keeps asking me: "What are you going to do next?"

This is the last thing I know, as my mind wanders in the space of minutes.  At one minute I am pondering the low carbon-footprint virtue of not traveling at all and drinking in the sheer richness of everything that's available within my immediate vicinity and indeed my walls (the books I've brought home from just the thrift store in the last month could keep me busy for weeks), and then I open a statement from American Airlines frequent flyer program and discover that I've got 75,000 miles (many more than I would have thought) and I wonder, could this get me to Russia for a quick jaunt? Reading Paul Muldoon's review of Philip Larkin's collected works reminds me that I really do need to find a good biography of Wallace Stevens, but also that I should have a look at Larkin himself, but in the middle of it I can't help but read a review of Frank Langella's travelogue of Hollywood's beds and make a mental note to come back and read John Gaddis's review of a book about Eisenhower.  Between a trip with mom to Roxboro and a fascinating talk by Jim Johnson of Kenan-Flagler I can't help but ponder the actual and desired trajectories of both rural and urban North Carolina.

In short, my mind bounces off walls in altogether good ways, possibilities are endless, I just have to select one and hunker down and bring it to fruition. But, honestly and thankfully, there's no huge rush right now.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Two gripes

  1. The Wall Street Journal app for the iPad sucks.  I've downloaded a few new versions over the last few months and but keep having problems loading today's edition.  I have to toggle over to the Asia or Europe edition then come back to the US one to trick it to go out and find the current one.  They should fix this.
  2. Checked out Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts out of the library last weekend after having pawed Rebecca West's massive Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and been daunted by it.  I should have taken the fat one. Kaplan's book is monotonously focused on the idea that the Balkans are always already about to blow up, that blood lust hides behind every door. It gets old quick.  The idea that Clinton read the book before deciding a course of action to take on Bosnia is a little depressing. Policy should not be formed at high levels by such flimsy crap.  The idea of any kind of cultural history of the region being written without any reference to Dositej Obradovic or Vuk Karadzic is just silly.  I'm taking this book back to the library pronto.  It is gonzo reductivism run amuk.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Let sleeping cats lie

For those of you who enjoyed the saga of Leon's departure and return, here's an update.  Though we still sometimes hear hissing and growling in the night, they have been getting along a good deal better. Natalie recently spotted Leon cleaning Rascal which, back the the days before his flight and return, would never ever ever have happened.  By and large, we're back in business.

Sling blade?

For some reason the guy who mows our yard hasn't showed up recently, and, as Mary has slaved assiduously in the yard digging holes and planting plants in accordance with the garden plan we had drawn up by some master landscaper lady, the grass and weeds up there have grown up a lot.  Now, as regular readers of this blog may recall, I am not the enthusiastic of suburbanites about on the topic of mowing (check out some earlier posts).  However, our little plot just looked shitty, and after pouring N-thousand dollars into our renovation somehow I didn't like how crappy it looked.

I don't even own a lawnmower, but down in the basement I found this old tool which is clearly used to swing and cut grass or plants or somesuch.  Not a scythe (though I love scythes, used one at somebody's dacha outside Moscow back in '98 to cut nettles), not a sling blade ("some people call it a kaiser blade, I call it a sling blade.."), but something one swings and it cuts grass.  Even though its old and rusty.

So I took this thing out on our little patch out front and cut down the most egregiously offending tufts of grass and weeds, even as Mary rolled her eyes at me, surely thinking I should be helping her with some project in her garden.  And it looks considerably less bad now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cryptic silence

Natalie often asks us things, usually to do with eating fairly luscious foods, and then we pause before responding.  I myself pause because Mary is the primary arbiter of dietary policy in our household, and Mary pauses because she is not always the quickest decision maker.  Here's how it went last night:
Natalie:  "Can I have ice cream for desert?"
(silence as described above)
Natalie:  "I'll take your cryptic silence as a yes."

This "cryptic silence" phrase has become one of her signature phrases here in recent months. Gotta love it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Moving to the frisbee

I have been playing frisbee more with Graham of late, actually, basketball, soccer, and frisbee, but lets just talk about the disc for now.  Graham is not only catching and throwing better, he is, perhaps most importantly, beginning to anticipate where the disc might go and trying to get to it. Sometimes he gets there, sometimes he doesn't.  And, in the end, so much of life is about just that. It is immensely gratifying to see it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Like magic

Natalie hurt her foot yesterday in PE going over a hurdle.  She was up at 3:15 this morning because it hurt so bad, but then she got back to sleep. In the morning I gave her some kids' ibuprofen, and it felt better immediately, as in, in seconds. 

But not enough to walk to school or go to Pacers this evening.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Checklist Manifesto

I keep trying to read Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto, but am continually put off by the fact that there's so much blood and guts and stuff.  I could never be a freaking doctor.  

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Fernando Torres

Sometimes I think the guy is a pretty boy whiner, but I must say it was good to see him break his drought yesterday against Aston Villa.  All told, I must say I am warming to Chelsea. Used to not like them, especially John Terry, but I find myself rooting for them to make it through Champions League and into the mix for next year. I surely love Drogba. Even Terry shows spirit, though he is a lout.