Monday, July 29, 2013

The fabulous houses of Lake Lure!

So when we were up in Lake Lure for my mom's 75th we all went on a boat tour of the lake.  Things are kinda slow moving up there, so this sure promised to be plenty good family fun.

And our boat was guided, and tour narrated, by a silver-haired gentleman named Bob, I think, who surely had a wealth of knowledge about the lake.  No sooner had we left port then he slowed the engine and directed our attention to some 80s vintage condominia on the shore:  "So these are 1800-2100 square foot units, some of the end ones were listed back during the peak at around $700 grand, but have been recently listed at as low as $525 with no takers... but they're not building anymore!"  And so it went.  While he did fill us in a good detail of the history of the lake, which, like all lakes east of the Appalachians in NC, is man-made, and was indeed conceived and executed by a savvy developer, his heart was in the real estate and the dollar.

"That one has a wet bar and karaoke downstairs.....  How much do you think it would cost to mulch that slope... About $3500-4000!....  Those Adirondack chairs alone cost $1500 each!.... that restaurant has the best shrimp parmesan style you'll ever taste, they'll give you ten big shrimp for $12... just tell 'em Big Bob sent you!" and so on and so on.  I was somewhat less than shocked when he told us that HGTV was his favorite channel.

I tell you, it got mighty tiresome on the way out, when I was in the sun, but became somewhat less so on the shady side when we headed home. But I had to wonder, what would my kids make of this nonsense.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A pot melts in the Bronx

I'm currently making my way through Sonya Sotomayor's My Beloved World, and enjoying it. It is interesting to think about her path through the Bronx in the 60s and 70s, thinking back to Caro's The Power Broker  and his discussion of the role Robert Moses had in driving all that change. Sotomayor started out in the South Bronx, in a tenament neighborhood, where she was surrounded by family and a pretty tight community of Puerto Rican immigrants, then she moved to the Bronxdale projects, where at first she was isolated but then more of a community grew up as her kin moved closer -- even as gangs and junkies came to make the places nastier to live.  Then her mom moved her out to Co-Op City in its earlier days, and she also saw that transition from a bleak modernist enterprise to a better place to live (she alludes to the its later physical disintegration, but I'm only 100 or so pages into the book) and a pretty integrated place too. That's where she met her future husband, an Irish goofball and really started integrating with a broader swath of Americans.

So she wasn't forced to move from her original neighborhood by the construction of the Cross-Bronx or some other road or bridge going on around her, and she hasn't (yet) directly borne the brunt of any of the specific dislocations traceable to Moses's work, but I can see the fabric of the old New York neighborhoods crumbling even as Sotomayor benefits from some of melting of that very hot pot that was the Bronx and, indeed, the Borough, of the era.  I'll keep reading.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ominous geese

I went for a run this evening, and then hopped in the swim for a quick swim in the gloaming. As I made my way out to the floats, I saw what appeared to be imposing little shadows out there on it.  As I drew closer, my suspicion was confirmed. Geese.  Canadian, no less. I went within 15 feet of the thing, but they were having none of it. As best as I could tell in the limited light, they looked me square in the eye and taunted me.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Miss Pym Disposes

Just worked my way through this 1948 novel by Josephine Tey, whom my dad always praised.  It is the first mystery novel in which (spoiler alert) no crime occurs until the novel is maybe 85% done.  Instead, we have our heroine, a somewhat dowdy spinster, hanging out in girl's academy somewhere in verdant England, enjoying crumpets and tea and even other baked goods, while getting to know the students and speculating on their characters.  Much consideration is given to their faces, similar to Tey's other novel, The Daughter of Time, in which our hero lies abed in hospital pondering a portrait of Richard III, while digging into historical documents and writings about the same and working towards a solution to a centuries old mystery about the guy and his purported cruelties.  I could, truth be told, not push my way through that one.

I was in fact pulled through this one as much by the mystery of when something was going to actually freaking happen as by anything else. And the shortbreads and whatnot.  But I did, and, in the end, blood was spilled, so it was not entirely for naught, and there was at least at least a healthy brace of quaint diction, just to keep the brain fresh.

But it's not her best novel.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pushy woman at Larkspur Landing

So there we were, the whole family and I, with our lovely host, John Fox, sitting in a little outdoor eating area at a kind of upscale open air mall in Marin County, waiting for our reasonably-priced locavore Mexican food to arrive at our table, when out of his keen eye John did espy that a most Marin-like specimen of wildlife.

Some small children were dipping their hands into a pretty little round fountain, resplendent with ferns and other flora, when of a sudden they were accosted by a rather large-boned middle-aged woman with tousled hair a long skirt and -- most likely -- Birkenstocks.

"What are you doing to those turtles?" She asked them "How would you like it if some large creature were to reach down and toss you about like that?" and so on and so on.

John noted that this was most Marin-like behavior.  Meanwhile, the kids had gone back over to where their parents were sitting, and had alerted their dad to the encounter. Now the father, I'll have you know, conformed to fewer Marin stereotype, a big, cut dude with a buzz cut and an AC/DC T-shirt, and he goes over and speaks to the woman.  And, as he's coming closer, she sees him and starts to pack up her stuff (looked like she had a honking big old Thinkpad or something) to get out of there, but she was too slow. So he says something to her, and she starts going "Don't try to intimidate me, why don't you go beat on your own wife, you wife-beater..." as she high tails it out of there.

Later, John spoke to the dad, who, it turned out, was a totally nice and normal guy.  "My kids love to come here and play with the turtles, it's their favorite place to come, and she's telling them that they have bad parents because they're molesting the turtles."

Anyhoo, it was a lovely day in Marin.

Monday, July 08, 2013

White and free

My friend David was down from Princeton for the weekend of the 4th, and naturally we went to pick up some fireworks at the tent set up outside of Whole Foods. I was, to be clear, a little surprised that we could buy fireworks at all in North Carolina, as that was a franchise I thought we had granted, in our most estimable benevolence, to the benighted citizens of South Carolina. What I learned when I went into the tent on Thursday was that one can buy fireworks in NC now, so long as they don't have some sort of rocket system that sends them soaring into the sky.  At best, these fireworks promise "showers of sparks" or "fountains of sparks" (which ended up being not all that bad).

In any case, it was warm in that tent, and I would imagine it could get a little boring, so the friendly proprietors had set up an air mattress for themselves, as shown below, with a fan blowing air across it and boom box blasting out the very best of classic rock.

So, as we were checking out and buying an amusing assortment of incendiaries, David and I naturally engaged the guy at the register -- a friendly sort with a beard, some tattoos, and a pickup truck with a "Got Truck?" bumper sticker -- in banter. And, as it was our great nation's birthday, the conversation naturally wended its way around to the topic of liberty. The guy asked where we were from, and David let on that he was from NJ. The guy said "I know a guy from Manhattan. He's working a tent for me over in Winston-Salem.  And he's actually an OK person."  We were relieved to learn this.

Then, after I had walked towards the car, he shook David's hand and shared a significant moment with him in quiet tones.  When we were in the car, David, enjoying a little giggle, informed me that the guy had said to him:  "We're white and we're free, what more could you ask for?"

And, indeed, what could be better than to share in the glorious cultural patrimony of our shared whiteness on July 4.  God Bless America!

Friday, July 05, 2013


I have been learning a fair amount about erosion as we try to dig out from this crazy rainstorm.  Let me not make it sound too bad:  we weren't hurt bad at all, some gravel went down into one ditch, killing some grass, and some mud slid in another one, partially blocking up a pipe.

But it's interesting to observe what's happened. I moved a bunch of rocks out of random places in the back yard (I have written about this epic effort before).  This has meant a couple of things:

  1. In the massive rain (5 inches in 3 hours, for those of you out of the Triangle who didn't experience it), leaves washed down the rain and stopped against the wall, which apparently created a little dam of sorts.  The water ran down the dam till it found a low spot, then it went over.  This created a hugely concentrated flow of water down the backyard, completely wiping it free of leaves (exposing mud) and pushing years of leaves that we had pushed down to the steeper part of our yard (which goes down to a creek maybe 50 vertical feet below).  Just scoured it.  On the one hand, it protected some stuff Mary had recently planted.
  2. On the other, removing rocks from where nature and earlier farming and construction projects over however long people have lived and cultivated this hill actually encouraged erosion.  Which it took down the hill, to Booker Creek, and eventually out to Jordan Lake.
Moral to the story, once more:  you can't win in densely populated areas. Mother nature is deucedly clever.  All you can do is try to lose more slowly.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Hackers run wild

A story in the Journal this morning on whether Snowden and Manning are anomalies or new norms. Hacker culture is not receptive to authority, yet the organs of authority need hacker skills to assure us of security.  What's a poor security apparatus to do?

This is, like so many problems we face these days, fundamentally a problem of alignment.  If people don't feel aligned with what power wants them to do, they won't go with it.  And alignment is, in the age of media and societal fragmentation and the micro-segmentation of messaging -- and the distrust the latter arouses -- a fiendishly difficult problem.  How can the government convince enough people it's doing the right thing to stop them from undermining it?

There are no easy answers. The government must start first by doing the right thing. And people must talk to each other, and not just those who agree with them, but those who don't, to take in diverse opinions.  If we all live in our little cells and don't understand the other, rectitude becomes a form of masturbation, something done in strict isolation or, for the daring, in an exhibitionist way.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Deaths of the fathers

Listening to NPR the other morning about Mandela on his death bed moved me for a moment, because it took me back to the 80s, when I was coming of age, when South Africa and Mandela provided all of us with a point of absolute moral certainty.

And then I come in to work and my boss is talking about her dog, who has been fighting some mysterious illness for months and she and her husband (and kids) are wrestling with the decision of whether or not they should be fighting to keep the dog alive, given the questionable quality of life he might expect if he lives.

And that discussion took me right back to my dad's bedside in April, on that last day, when it became apparent that dad was dying, then, and we had to make decisions very quickly about what level of intervention to make to keep him alive, and I use the term "we" loosely because, of all his immediate kin, I was the only one who was there, then, with doctors swarming around feeding me opinions as to the probability that each given type of intervention might provide him with quality of life going forward. After weeks and months of unenjoyable life as his dementia kicked in and it was apparent to him and others that he had little to look forward to other than the sun rising the next day (which ain't all bad). So I was standing there at work holding back tears listening to my boss talk about her dog.

So the deaths of fathers and authority figures makes it all too clear that we are left occupying those same positions, when inside I feel not dramatically different than I did as a kid.  I suppose I look different, and project differently, but I'm intrinsically not all that different.  And a friend of mine is a leading bulwark against insanity in Raleigh and another guy I went to college with (and who seemed no smarter than your average guy) works closely with Obama every day.  Funny, that.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Kid wanting to race

Graham continues to work on his swimming.  Sort of.  He's been spending more time in the water, getting more comfortable.

So on Saturday he and I went down to the pool at the place we were staying, the pool at the Rambling Bald Resort on Lake Lure. For the most part it was the continued astonishing display of the decline of America into languorous corpulence:  I was particularly impressed by the aptly-named "lazy river", another way of  letting machines burn the carbon while letting people move around without doing any work. I know I'm old, but I can't help being astonished by the number of women getting tattoos above and around the top of their butt cracks, whaddayacall it, the love patch?

Anyway, so Graham and I are in there, and we did some water wrestling and jiu-jitsu, though with a strict rule against stomp kicking (of course), and then Graham wanted to try to do more focused swim practice, swimming from me to the other side of the pool and back.  And so he's doing that, and few would mistake his unorthodox floppy strokes for the young Michael Phelps, but in any case a young alpha boy appears at his side on the other side of the pool and says "wanna race?"  And I don't know what Graham said, but the kid takes off across the pool next to him, and finishes when Graham's about half way across, and looks at me like I'm gonna congratulate him.  And when Graham asks him to race again Graham demurs.

A few minutes later the kid finds another victim:  "Wanna race?"  And he dusts the other kid too and then looks at me and says "I kicked his butt," again, like I'm going to confirm his manhood for him with a firm high five. I don't say anything.

This reminds me that this is the world Graham is cruising into as he glides towards adolescence. God save those little punks if they somehow test into history or math class with Graham, where he will mutilate them mercilessly. Like I used to, until somebody somehow taught me some manners.