Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Since Elisabeth Fritzl Last Saw Daylight...

...Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet premier and ushered in glastnost. (1985)

the space shuttle Challenger blew up. (1986)

...I graduated from high school. (1987)

...Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, and certain Islamic clerics put out a contract on his life. (1988)

...the Berlin Wall fell, and Prince William Sound was covered with oil after the Exxon ship Valdez ran aground. (1989)

...Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years (three more than Elisabeth). (1990)

...apartheid finally ended in South Africa. (1991)

...the civil war in El Salvador, which dragged on for eight years and killed over a million people, most of them civilians, was formally brought to a close with a pact signed in Mexico City. (1992)

...the "don't ask, don't tell" policy went into effect in the United States military. (1993)

...figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by rival Tonya Harding's ex-husband shortly before the Lillehammer Olympics (1994).

...O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. (1995)

...Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," was turned in by his brother. (1996)

...Princess Diana died in a car accident. (1997)

...President Clinton denied having sexual relations with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky." (1998)

...Two teenagers killed 15 students and wounded 23 others at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. (1999)

...Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba after eight months in the United States. (2000)

...9/11 happened. (2001)

...Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his charity, Habitat for Humanity. (2002)

...Johnny Cash died at the age of 71. (2003)

...Photographs of abused prisoners at Abu Ghirab ignited a scandal for the U.S. military. In another inexplicable turn, George W. Bush was re-elected President. (2004)

...Pope John Paul II died after an amazing 26-year reign, and Hurricane Katrina, with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, destroyed much of New Orleans. (2005)

...Pluto was demoted to non-planetary status. (2006)

...the seventh and final Harry Potter book was released. (2007)

Sorry, guys. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.


A candle for Elisabeth

Leaves raked yesterday: Billions.
Playing on the iPod: Something from season III of "Doctor Who", sounds like maybe space rhinos on the moon

I dunno about you, but my parents never threatened to lock me in the cellar. We didn't have a cellar, for one thing. We had a crawlspace under a pier and beam foundation and it was plenty scary (think "attic" with more spiders) but to my knowledge it didn't lock. It had a low ceiling, probably no more than four feet, hence the term "crawlspace." It was also really, really unpleasant. I think most cellars/crawlspaces inherently are. There's something about humans where we just don't wanna be underground if we can help it. Certainly I spent as little time in there as possible.

So imagine, then, spending twenty four years in a cellar. Consider giving birth to children there, alone and unattended, and trying to raise them in the dark, by yourself. Imagine what it would be like to try to explain what the sun was to kids who'd never seen it. Think about what you'd do if you never knew what would happen when the door opened. Would the guy on the other side, who just incidentally is your own father, bring you food? Would he rape you again? Would he take one of your children to live upstairs, if it didn't cry too much? Suppose the guy went on vacation to Thailand and, I dunno, got killed in a plane crash. He's the only one who knows you're down there. You and your children, which are his children, will starve to death if he doesn't come back. What's more, there's no reason any of this is happening. You didn't do anything wrong, except turn eighteen and try to leave the house.

Look, I imagine stuff for a living (or I'd like to anyway) and I cannot, I mean it, I cannot get my mind around this. I could sort of imagine growing up in a polygamous family when that scandal broke because I served some time in Utah as a kid. No, most people in Utah are not polygamists, but they were around, you knew who they were, usually the kids who were dirt-poor and had a lot of "aunts" at home and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. But this--this is just beyond me. This is cruelty on a level I just can't fathom. My brain keeps going crinkle.

Leaving aside the sick dude who did all this (and apparently had planned it for years, undertaking elaborate construction of the soundproof underground cell with its electronic keyless entry in his spare time and without his wife and other kids finding out about it), what happens now to this poor kid, Elisabeth Fritzl? And her kids? She's 42. Her oldest kid is 23 and the youngest about 5. The Austrian authorities took her straight from the cellar to a "place of psychiatric care," whatever that means, and she and the kids are "all together" and "doing well under the circumstances." I dunno about you, but I don't think a locked cellar vs. a locked psychiatric unit is much of a trade. Well, maybe it's not locked. I hope it's not locked.

I wrote an e-mail to my ex-shrink to ask him his professional opinion but he hasn't gotten back to me yet. You hear these stories of "feral children" who were confined in similar crazy ways and grew up without human contact. Usually they don't do too well "re-integrating with society", whatever that means. Can they be happy, though? Can they have friends? Enjoy new food, walk outside in the wet grass and be pleased at the splendor of the world? I mean, if they can do that, who cares if they ever get a Fortune 500 job or drive a BMW or even learn to talk?

Elisabeth was 18 when she went in there. She had a life before. Her kids may have grown up in the dark, but they had her and they had each other. So does that mean this story will end happily? Again, forget the sick dude who's certainly going to jail for some period of time; a happy ending for Elisabeth and her kids, that's what I'm talking about. See above re: wet grass.

No, I don't know why this has upset me so much. I don't know why it's giving me nightmares. I don't know why I can't just look at the story, shrug my shoulders, say "Oh my God" or something equally useless, and just go on with my day. I don't know why, but I can't. I think about it all the time. I wanna run out there (to Austria, just across the pond from Dallas, you know) and give everybody hugs and make it all better. A friend of mine told me a story about how on 9/11 she was watching TV and crying, and her four-year-old daughter came up and asked her what was wrong. Mom said, "Something terrible has happened. A lot of people have died. It's a very sad day." The four year old said, "I'm a big girl, Mommy. I can fix it." Yep, that's about my level of perspective here.

The people of the town where all this happened held a candlelight vigil for Elisabeth and her kids, one of whom, the 19-year-old, is in the hospital in critical condition. Candlelight vigils in Dallas being kind of rare, I'm going to light a virtual candle for Elisabeth.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Danger! Inflated Sense of Self-Importance Ahead!

If you think anxiety can be pounded back into the woodwork by a few measly sessions on the meditation cushion, you are so wrong. Shortly after I stopped pounding my head against the keyboard and sent in the synopsis, the truck of Wholly Sheep What Did I Just Do pulled up in front of the house right on schedule and dropped off a crate. Pretty soon I was so nervous I started vibrating, the cats ran to hide and even the house cockroaches (there probably are some, it's an old house) thought of something really important that they had to be doing in, oh, say, Denton County.

Times like this I used to either drink an entire bottle of champagne by myself with no help, or go to Szechuan Pavilion and clean out the buffet. Now I'm both abstinent and annoyingly sober, so my most readily available nervous outlet is to bug hell out of Joan with stupid questions about what I could have sent instead, like, "Do you think I should have done X? What about Y? Hey, maybe Z would have been the best choice." This is the literary equivalent of changing your mind about what you're wearing once you're already at the party. At some point I started relating a story that someone in my writing group had told me and I started tapping on the table so the Devil wouldn't hear me. (Lengthy post on this particular superstition to follow at some point.) Joan said, "You aren't superstitious or anything, are you?" and I said, "Heck, no. It's not like I'm in a high risk profession." Joan gave me this look that makes me feel like I'm about six and covered with mud and said, "Jen, crab fishermen are in a high risk profession. You sit at a keyboard and type things."

Well hey, it's true. But it's not the fault of the crabs that they don't have keyboards.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A paragraph of the synopsis.

I finished this stupid thing last night and felt like I'd just done an eight hour shift breaking rocks on the freeway. When I fell asleep I slept for ten solid hours and only finally woke up because I was hungry. It's true that your brain uses 20% of your resting calories. Great minds think a lot. Anyway, here's a paragraph of the deathless prose I sent to the editor. Keep your fingers crossed for me. (Note, it's hard to type while doing that.)

After his mother’s mysterious death, twelve-year-old CAMERON and his stranger- father, STUART, go into hiding in Central America. They are staying with Stuart’s friend ILIANA, an art dealer in San Sebastian. Iliana has a tasteful, expensive home full of priceless breakables, and she doesn’t want a kid around. Stuart, a minor criminal, has also borrowed money from Iliana that he can’t repay, and they often have loud, angry fights about it. To make matters worse, Cameron is afraid of “men in grey” that he believes are stalking him in the shadows. Cameron’s anxiety is so intense that it can leave his body in a psychokinetic storm that breaks things and
makes noise and sometimes causes him physical injury.

Intrigued? I hope so. I hope the editor will be, too. I'll let you know what happens.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Okay. It's done. I sent it.

So everybody can relax now, hear? Geez, I'm tired.

Lawrence of Arabia

Playing in the background: Suzanne Ciani, "Neverland"
Meters swum today: 2200 (WOW!!)

So I was looking at yesterday's post and I thought, "Ya know, if I wrote a synopsis about something I'm not emotionally caught up with, ie, not the creator of, I might be able to figure out how, or at least come up with a template to follow." Star Wars wasn't really a good choice, so I decided to attempt my second favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia. Here's what I came up with. Warning, serious major spoilers ahead.

The story begins with the state funeral of English Great War hero Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who recently died in a motorcycle accident. After the funeral, American journalist Jackson Bentley, who once knew the colonel, is asked by another reporter what he thought of the man and describes him in glowing terms. When the reporter leaves, Bentley says to his companion, "He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey." Overhearing this, an English officer takes exception, saying, "It was my honor to shake his hand at Damascus." The officer admits he didn't actually know Lawrence, however, and Bentley says, "I wonder if anyone really did."

In a flashback, Lieutenant Lawrence appears as an indifferent and sometimes insubordinate soldier at an English post in Cairo. Partly to get rid of him, the post commander sends Lawrence to check on Prince Faisal's "Bedouin revolt" against the Turks in what is now Saudi Arabia. When Lawrence arrives in the desert, he befriends his guide, and gains the man’s respect by learning to ride a camel
and tossing out his army rations in favor of Bedouin food. They stop for water at a well owned by the Harith, a rival tribe, where the guide is shot and killed by Sherif Ali, a minor prince and leader of the Harith. Ali offers to take Lawrence to Prince Faisal but Lawrence, horrified and grief-stricken by the murder, tells Ali that "so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe they will continue to be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel." He then sets out to find the prince by himself.

Lawrence manages to find Prince Faisal's camp before he dies of exposure. He is surprised and upset to also find Sherif Ali, sitting at the prince's right hand. Some other English officers are also traveling with Faisal. One is urging the Prince to attack the distant city of Aqaba, thereby seizing a critical Turkish port. The other thinks the Prince can't do this without returning to Yenbo to pick up English
reinforcements and artillery. The Prince is curious about Lawrence and asks him what he thinks. Lawrence tells the Prince that if he takes on English reinforcements, he will also put himself under English rule. The Prince asks if all Englishmen think that the Arabs are "a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel." Embarrassed, Lawrence says he believes that the Arabs are and should be a free people. During the night, Lawrence comes up with a plan to take a small force to Aqaba and attack on the landward side. This will avert the need for artillery by taking the Turks' seawall guns out of the picture.

Sherif Ali denounces Lawrence's plan as "madness" but when it becomes obvious Lawrence means to try it anyway, he takes some of his Harith men and goes with him. Two orphan boys, Daud and Tafas, are fascinated by Lawrence and demand that Lawrence hire them as his "servants." The trek across the great Nefud Desert, called the "Sun's Anvil" by the Bedouin, is long and arduous. One of Ali's men, Gassim, falls asleep and slides from his camel during the night. When the lone camel is found the following morning, Ali gives Gassim up for dead, saying he will die within hours once the sun comes up; "so it is written." Lawrence says that "nothing is written" and goes back to find Gassim. As the sun gets higher in the sky, Daud, Tafas and Ali wait on the edge of the Anvil, each certain that Lawrence will never return. Just before noon, he finally appears, exhausted and depleted
but, miraculously, with Gassim, who is near death. Lawrence refuses water from everyone except Sherif Ali, who tells him, "Truly, for some men, nothing is written."

The next morning Lawrence finds that the men have burned his English officer's uniform and replaced it with Bedouin robes. They also give him a new name, El Aurens. Another tribal leader, Auda Abu-Tayeh of the Howitat, joins Lawrence's attack on Aqaba after Lawrence tells him there is much gold in the city. The next night a fight breaks out between two of the tribesmen, and a Howitat man is killed. "This is the end of Aqaba," Ali tells Lawrence as the two tribes prepare to go to war. To
save the mission, Lawrence steps between the tribes and says that he will execute the killer himself "because I have no tribe, and no one will be offended." Lawrence then discovers to his horror that the killer he must execute is Gassim, the man he rescued from the desert. After killing Gassim Lawrence throws the gun away and sinks into a deep depression, refusing to speak for days.

The attack on Aqaba is a triumphant success. The city is looted and burned, but Auda is angry because no gold is found. Lawrence writes Auda a promissory note "signed, in His Majesty's absence, by me" and sets off across the Sinai Peninsula to inform the Cairo command of the victory. During the journey Tafas falls into quicksand and drowns. Grief-stricken, Lawrence continues on with Daud, but seems to be losing his grip on reality; he talks about seeing a "pillar of fire" even
though Daud tells him "It is only dust, Aurens."

Back in Cairo, Lawrence realizes he no longer fits in with the culture of the British officers and their condescending attitude toward non-Englishmen in general and Arabs in particular. He tells his commander that he killed two men, and "there was something about it I didn't like. I enjoyed it." The new commander, General Allenby, sends Lawrence back to Arabia with instructions to disrupt Turkish railways and supply lines. During this mission Lawrence meets journalist Jack Bentley, who tells him that the Americans need "inspiration" to join the war effort. Bentley follows Lawrence on his exploits, painting Lawrence as a mythical hero, "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence, while obviously reveling in the attention, starts to believe his own myth; he tells Ali "They can only kill me with a golden bullet" and "I am invisible."
Lawrence's ideas of his own godhood are shattered when he is captured near the town of Derra and tortured by the Turkish commander. He escapes, but the experience makes him even more unstable and he announces to Ali that he's going back to Cairo. "I am just any man, and I'm going to ask for a job that any man can do."

In Cairo, however, the war in North Africa is winding down and the political situation is very different. Britain is concentrating on the war in Europe and France is now expressing an interest in the Arab territories. Lawrence learns about a secret pact to divide Arabia between France and England as soon as the city of Damascus is retaken from the Turks. Infuriated, Lawrence returns to Arabia again, this time to lead the Arab tribes to Damascus first and ensure their liberty.

The campaign is a military success but devastating for Lawrence personally. Daud is wounded in an explosives accident and cannot ride. “Salute Tafas for me,” says Lawrence, and kills Daud rather than leave him for the Turks. Later a retreating Turkish army crosses Lawrence's path, and Lawrence orders an attack instead of going around them. Lawrence goes on a rampage during this battle, killing men with their hands held up in surrender and finally collapsing next to a wagon, a knife in his hand and blood all over his clothes. Jackson Bentley finds him here and takes the famous picture of a world-weary Lawrence that causes a sensation in
the West.

The Arab army reaches Damascus several days before the British, but tribal infighting makes it impossible for them to hold the city. After days of trying to hold the feuding tribes together, Lawrence visits the military hospital where he finds thousands of wounded and dying Turkish soldiers without water, food or medicine. With no choice but to call in the Army doctors, Lawrence watches the British take over Damascus. Most of the Bedouin drift away from the city. Ali stays "to learn politics" and says of Lawrence, "If I fear him who love him, how must he fear him, who hates himself?"

Back in Cairo, Prince Faisal enters into delicate negotiations with the French and the British. Although the cause of Arab independence is lost, Lawrence can see that Faisal will be able to secure favorable terms for the Bedouin; "Someday," he says to Lawrence, "I must be a king." General Allenby promotes Lawrence to Colonel and gives him an honorable discharge. A jeep takes him to a ship bound for England. Rather than look forward to the ship, Lawrence turns around as they pass a tribe of Bedouin and looks after them. He has lived in two worlds, but he doesn't have a home in either one.

Pretty melodramatic, right? But it's readable. So let me give Mindbender another shot. I'm not procrastinating. Honest.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Still working on the synopsis.

And for the record, it still sucks, though maybe not quite as bad as before (I've torn up two versions already). Times like this I feel like if I could just get myself out of my own way I'd be unstoppable, or immovable, or something like that. As in, just crank out the sentences, Jen, and who the hell cares. Well, me, for one thing, because when I crank out the sentences and line 'em up I could put my own teeth to sleep. Nothing sounds very exciting in a synopsis. Life, death and the meaning of God sound about as thrilling as watching paint dry. Seriously, try writing one of these and you'll see what I mean.

And if you think writing one's bad, take pity on the poor soul who has to read it. For example: "A farm boy on a remote planet dreams of being a fighter pilot in the rebellion against the Empire. Then one day he finds a droid that carries secret plans for the Empire's new superweapon. He tries to return the droid to its former owner and meets an eccentric old man who tells him strange stories about his father. His aunt and uncle get killed, and he goes off with the eccentric old man to fight the rebellion against the Empire. Oh, and he falls in love with a hologram." With material like this, you gotta wonder how in hell George Lucas became a multibajillionaire. I mean, he had to pitch this to somebody. Somebody had to read that paragraph, or one kind of like it, and say, "Sounds good, here's $20 million."

(You think that's bad, try being David Lean. "A British soldier meets a band of Bedouin nomads. They march across the desert with a bunch of camels. They attack a city. Then he goes home." "Great, son, here's the money. We think there's an Oscar in this!")

Should I quit whining and get back to work? Of course I should.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

And The Father Is...

Meters Swum Today: 1700
Playing on the iPod: "Castles in Spain" by the Armoury Show (a classic!)

I had a dream last night that I was pregnant (!) I was working for some weird company that didn't allow pregnant women into one of its divisions because of some chemicals or something that might endanger the baby humans (the women were, I guess, disposable). They tested all the women every six weeks to make sure none of us were pregnant. It was kind of a joke because we were all gay, so I was chatting up the cute queeny guy who ran the blood tests when the machine suddenly went "Bing!" He said, "Congratulations, Mommy, here's your transfer to Division Six." (Presumably at the same rate of pay; UAW, et al. v. JOHNSON CONTROLS, INC. U.S.C.No. 89-1215 and all that.) I said, "Wait a minute. I can't be pregnant." (This is some of the old semi-lucidity again; there's always some tiny corner of my brain, in a dream or hallucination, that knows Something's Not Quite Right Here.) The guy said, "See that light? Means you're pregnant." I said, "Then it's a false positive." "Oh, no. We sometimes get false negatives, but never false positives." (More semi-lucidity. This is true of most over the counter tests.) He hands me a packet. "See you in nine months, Mommy."

So I go to see my doctor, the Anti-House. In real life she's like this, too. She doesn't like to run tests or play "What's My Diagnosis"; if you get better, that's just grand, and she doesn't much care what made you sick. She agrees with him that I'm pregnant and runs a sonogram. "See that?" she says, indicating a fuzzy blip magnified x100. "You're eight to ten weeks pregnant." "That's impossible," I tell her, which it is in real life unless I've been pregnant since the Summer Olympics in 1996, the vaulting finals. "Well, it may be impossible, but there it is. Who's the father?" "That's the million dollar question," I tell her, and go home to tell Joan about this.

Joan, predictably, hits the roof. Joan does not want kids. Joan has never wanted kids. By now I'm getting pretty upset myself. How could I possibly be pregnant? But it seems that I am. My pants are tight. I'm kind of roundy in the tummy. Later Joan comes in and says she's sorry, she didn't mean to yell at me, we can even keep the kid if I want to. I tell her I'm thinking of giving it up for adoption and we have this Big Discussion. "Who's the father?" she asks, and again, I'm kind of stuck for an answer. Isn't there a TV show like this? "Who's My Baby's Daddy" or something like that?

Anyway, I woke up not-pregnant this morning (whew) and I'm pondering What This Could All Mean. One of my friend's daughters just had a baby so I guess it could be something to do with that. Maybe all women who are pushing forty and haven't had kids and never will start having dreams like this. Sort of a biological wake-up call: "QUICK!!! Get knocked up or forever lose your place in the gene pool!!" Er, no thanks. Every time I've ever had the urge to give birth I've gone to SuperTarget during a big anniversary sale and that took care of it for quite a while.

It's probably about the book. Isn't everything? Wild Child sent me a "thanks but no thanks" on No Accounting for Reality (made it up to the chief editor, though, whoo hoo!) but said they'd take a look at anything else I might have. I never know if they say that sort of thing just to be polite or if they really mean it. Well, I decided to take them serial and I do have something else; Mindbender, to be precise. Genre-wise it's about as far from No Accounting as a book can possibly get (Light-Hearted Fantasy/Comedy, meet Darkly Serious Thriller, Darkly Serious Thriller, meet--etc) So I wrote them back and told them about it and they want to see it and part of what they want to see is Ye Olde Synopsis. Oh great. I wrote a synopsis for it once. It sucked rocks. I wouldn't send this thing to the Library of Congress. I'll have to write a new one. So that's my mission for today; write a synopsis that doesn't suck rocks. On my lunch hour. Yeah, that's kind of like giving birth, come to think of it. Hey, if anybody wants to be the baby's daddy, get in here and help me. I'm serious.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I'm gonna talk about the polygamous thing again.

Playing on the iPod: William Eaton and Friends, "Far East Mid West"
Meters swum today: 1700

So skip this if it's boring. An Idaho TV Station is running a short but telling story about the four hundred plus kids seized from the ranch in Eldorado. In it, a guy calling himself "Rulan" says that "the sect members are reconsidering whether girls under 18 should be having sex with adult men." Um, how convenient. It's not like that's against the law in most states or anything. What's next, a divine revelation from "The Prophet" that "because his people have been unfaithful, God will no longer allow girls under 18 to marry"? Don't laugh. When Utah's statehood application was being held hostage by Congress back in the 1860s, "The Prophet" (I forget who it was then) conveniently had a "revelation" that God had ordered "his people" to abandon polygamy. Which they did, on the surface at least. In practice it continues to this day, and not just in isolated communities of multiple women and children. See this book by Deborah Laake. Mormon men can be divorced and remarried multiple times and not lose their status in the community. A divorced woman, on the other hand, is automatically suspect.

Look, I think the whole having more than one wife thing is just weirder than weird (I can barely keep up with one wife), but hey, if everyone's a consenting adult, I'm not gonna argue. A lot of good Muslims have more than one wife and as long as they are able to support them, it's not an issue. Gay couples live together around here in the States (gasp! I'm one of them!) and I actually know a couple that was once a group of four; her, her female sweetie, her female sweetie's husband and the husband's female slave. Weird? Yes, absolutely. But. We have split families and blended families and all types of families. Again, as long as everybody involved is a consenting adult, I don't have a problem with it.

In case anybody's wondering, polygamy in the history of the Mormon church actually started out as a thing of near-necessity. By the time the LDS got to Utah, they'd been burned out of their homes about five times by their good Christian neighbors in New York, Missouri, Illinois, and two other places that escape me at the moment. Lots of the men had been killed in the violence. The church members tended to have large families, and there were scads of widows and orphans around. Somebody had to support them and they weren't supposed to remarry outside the faith. The obvious solution? Marry somebody else's husband. A lot of tribal societies where men were frequently killed off in hunts, wars or other kinds of violence had similar practices (and some still do). The idea is to take care of your own. Unfortunately, in this case some of the men seemed to have gotten a taste for the multiple wife thing (Joseph Smith was said to be a bit of a pervert who preferred young girls, and some records show he had over a hundred wives; Brigham Young, another somewhat less than stellar historical figure, had twenty-four.) When everybody was farming and lots of bodies were needed just to get all the work done, having this many people in a single household made sense. It kind of doesn't anymore.

As economic necessity may have started polygamy, it may also end it. Many of the polygamous wives are on some kind of public assistance, as they're unwed mothers, legally speaking. Crack down on that and the church has lost much of its income. It's already lost the land it supposedly owned in the Short Creek community, which, under allegations of fraud, has been taken over by the state of Utah. If the men in these relationships had to actually generate enough income to support all those wives and kids, the polygamous lifestyle would probably die out all by itself.

DNA testing is underway out Eldorado way to find out what kids belong to what mom and dad. Can state actions to collect child support be far behind?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Another quickie, this time on art and food.

As I may have mentioned, Joan and I are planning to go to Russia in 2009. We're probably going to do a Volga River cruise. The one I like the best and is probably the most affordable stops at the Hermitage, but only for one day. I was thinking about how that kind of sucks and you can't possibly see the Hermitage in one day when it suddenly occurred to me: It's not about how much you see. It's about how much you can enjoy what you do see.

My mom, my aunt and I went to the Arboretum today. We saw flowers. I have no idea what kind of flowers they were but I enjoyed them very much. Later we had an amazing dinner at Afrah, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Richardson. I have no idea what I was eating, but it was all very good.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A quickie on a subject that does not interest me and involving a substance I no longer consume.

Meters swum today: 1900. (I'm at 54 miles for the year! YAY!!)
Playing in the background: Exuvaie, "Answers from Nowhere"

I'm at work cleaning up a tremendous mess dumped on me by a departing lawyer, but just for a little while because I'm on my way up to the airport to get my aunt Betty. On my way in to downtown, I saw this billboard (in Dallas on a Saturday traffic is light enough that you can actually look at billboards) for Coors Light Beer. It said something like, "New vent! Makes for a smoother pour!" with an illustration of the aluminum can with its little vent and of course the beer, if it can be called beer, pouring "smoothly". A little farther along, there was another billboard for the same brand of beer. "When the mountain turns blue, it's ready to drink!" this one announces. Apparently there's a new high-tech can design (amazing what they can do these days, isn't it?) that allows the mountain to turn blue when it's at the optimum temperature for human consumption.

Now, I do not drink beer, or anything else alcoholic--haven't for about three years--but I have this hazy memory of Coors Light Beer. I believe we referred to it in my circle as "mouse piss" or "carbonated water." There's a line from a song by one of my favorite singing groups, the Corsairs, "Don't wash your trotters in the port wine tub when we've got Coors Light Beer." There's even a joke: "Why is Coors Light Beer like having sex in a canoe? Because it's fucking close to water."

Then, today, all these billboards about their new, improved can. Now, I don't drink the stuff anymore, hopefully never will again, but I still gotta wonder: Wouldn't it be easier to just make a better beer? I'm just asking.

Off to the airport now...

Confidential to Kellum: The cats are alright. The lizard didn't come out. His eyes were still beady, however.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Kids and Kids And Kids Are Alright

Playing on the iPod: Steve Roach, something from "World's Edge"
Meters swum today: 1600

Okay, gang, we have the largest child custody case in the history of Texas about to start down San Angelo way. In case you've been hiding under a rock again, here's a quick recap: Child Protective Services raided what's being called a "polygamous compound" in west Texas and bused out 416 kids, along with some undetermined number of mothers. Most of the mothers have since returned, some have gone to a domestic violence shelter, and the state of Texas goes to court today to argue that the kids are in imminent danger of harm if they go home. The state is asking the court to grant temporary custody of the kids to Texas, and unless something seriously weird goes on, the state will probably prevail. If so, kids and parents alike enter a murky twilight zone of family law for something like six months to a year, where much hand-wringing will go on as to where, exactly, the kids will be growing up.

I used to work at a general-practice law firm and did a couple of family-law cases, some in which CPS was involved, some not. Here's how CPS works. They can't just show up at your house and grab your kids because, say, you didn't buy Suzie an iPod for Christmas. They have to have some kind of complaint, which usually comes from a teacher, doctor, neighbor, or someone else who sees the kid often enough to know something's not right. Sometimes one parent rats out the other one, or a stepparent does. On rare occasions the kids themselves ask for help. CPS investigates, and if warranted, it goes to court and says, "Here's the evidence we have that this kid is at risk of serious harm. What do you think?" Nine times out of ten the court agrees, the kid is picked up, usually placed in a foster home (though there's some talk that most of the younger kids in this case will be kept together, possibly at a local summer camp, which may be the best thing for them), and the court sets out another hearing for six months to a year away.

Then what happens? Well, for the kid, hopefully nothing. Hopefully they keep going to school, see their brothers and sisters often, maybe meet with social workers or therapists, but to the greatest extent possible, the idea's to let them live a normal life for a while. For the parents, on the other hand, this is where it gets hard. Unless the abuse is sexual or otherwise so egregious that both parents are likely going to jail, the judge or caseworker will set up what's called a "reunification plan" by which the parents, after meeting certain conditions, can get the kids back. Usually that means anger management or parenting classes, sometimes counseling, psychotherapy, whatever. If the household itself is dangerous, say, a house in a poor state of repair, they'll have to fix it up and provide evidence it's been fixed. If there's a dangerous person, like a mentally ill older sibling or something living there, he or she will probably have to move out. If the abuser is showing reluctance to change, the other parent may have to divorce him or her, or at least he/she will have to move out. The common denominator here is that something major has to change. The court won't return kids to their parents if everything's exactly the way it was. If you're a parent, your kids were taken away by CPS, and you want them back, probably the very worst thing you can possibly do is stand on your front porch in front of rolling TV cameras and sob that everything was just fine fine fine.

So guess what a bunch of the mothers did on the news the day before yesterday.

Yeah. And here's where we're at. These moms, and probably also dads, are going to be told they have to get counseling, attend classes, sit down with a social worker and draft a reunification plan, and subject themselves to periodic CPS inspections pretty much until their youngest kid turns 18. This in a community that deliberately shuts itself off from the rest of the world, thinks outsiders are evil, is apparently in the habit of marrying off its female children as young as twelve or thirteen, and claims everything it's doing is the Lord's work. Hands up who thinks this is likely. Uh, right, that's what I thought.

So what does this all mean? Well, um, it probably means Texas has 416 more foster kids from now to who knows when, not counting the ones on their way (several of the older girls are thought to be pregnant) and the ones who turn 18 (the term is "aging out") in the meantime. That's okay, taxpayers have been raising these kids anyway (most of their moms were on welfare, and there's some evidence that the community was even getting multimillion-dollar government contracts.) But besides that, it means this community is screwed. History. Finished, at least in the state of Texas. And once again I'm not so sure that is a good thing.

Look, it's a big country. (Hm, familiar guitar strains, how odd.) We're all reasonable people. Isn't there some way we could compromise on this thing? Couldn't we make some agreement whereby nobody under the age of 18 is getting married in that community? (Come on, people, it's four more years, not a lifetime.) Where the parents agree not to beat kids with sticks, starve them or lock them in closets for minor offenses? Where social workers got to go in and check on things every so often, and let the young people know if they don't want to stay in the community, there are options? I mean, the Amish are clannish and insular, they don't trust outsiders either, you could sort of call them religious fanatics (they'd probably object), they don't even send most of their kids to school past the eighth grade, yet they've somehow managed to avoid child abuse since the 1600s, approximately. Oh, and they don't marry their daughters off en masse to older men before they're old enough to like Britney Spears. Not that they've heard of Britney, of course.

Jen defends polygamy. Good God, lightning is striking the building.

Well, anyway, only one thing is certain about this whole mess. The kids will be all right. Kids usually are. Get them away from a scary environment, let them be kids, and they usually recover from just about anything. Sometimes they need a little help, but that's what CPS is there for. It may be a flawed system (may be? Almost certainly is) but there's so much scrutiny this time. Nobody wants to screw this up.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Okay, that's it. I abdicate.

Playing on the iPod: "December" by the Waterboys
Meters swum today: 1700

Sorry, gang, but I just can't do it anymore. I've tried, in the face of considerable pressure, but alas, it's not to be. Someone new and better has come along and there's nothing I can do about it but go with the flow. I'm taking off my crown right now, as we speak.

Yep, that's right: I am no longer the Queen of Snark.

My dethronement was brought about by this guy: The Cranky Flier. Get right over there and read a few paragraphs and you'll see what I mean. I may be snarky, but there's no way I can outsnark this guy. Here's a couple of examples:

"If you haven’t heard, there’s been a steel cage match in Washington lately. In one corner, we have Rep Oberstar breathing fire and brimstone. In another corner, we have the FAA trying to pick up the pieces, and in a third corner we have Southwest claiming ignorance. In the fourth corner? Um, uh, Congressional pages? I don’t know. Let’s just say it’s a triangular cage."

"A friend of mine who frequently flies out of London/Heathrow wrote to me recently and wondered why my coverage had been so light on the new Terminal 5. I was just waiting to see when things calmed down. I mean, everyone has been talking about how horrible the problems have been since it opened, and I didn’t think I had much to add."

"I guess they didn’t want to shock travelers by having a baggage system that actually worked right away. That would have been too big of a change from the previous setup, so they must be easing people into it."

Now, there are those of you who might say that I should hold onto my crown because this guy is, after all, being snarky about the airline industry. The airline industry is a cheap and easy target for snark. Buddhism, on the other hand--that's a lot harder. How do you snark about happiness, freedom, joy and peace for all beings? Even if all beings include Dick Cheney, that's not easy to do. But I'm still stepping down. Sometimes ruling a country is hard work.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Coming to you live from 1893...

Meters swum today: 2000. Whoo-hoo!
Playing in the background: the soothing hum of electric clippers

Hello all, I am at Dallas Heritage Village where my time traveling neocraftsperson friends, Tammy and Tracy, are shearing sheep! I have enormous respect for turn of the century farmers. Merely catching one of the large obstreperous wooly things looks like work enough. Then you gotta get them to lie down (yanking their feets out from under them looks to be the best method), hold them still and run a pair of clippers all over their bodies. Meanwhile, it's not like you can tell them to hold still, so they kick and squirm and sometimes get nicked. Then they bleed and the troop of Girl Scouts watching this extravaganza starts screaming, "You're killing him!" A day in the life of a living history museum docent, I guess. And I complain when our server goes down and my monitor forgets which backdrop it was using.

Couple days ago we had a bad storm here and the power went out. Not in my part of town but points further north. Some folks still don't have electricity and you'd think it was the apocalypse from the tone some of the distressed residents were using with the reporters. "Oh, it's terrible, I have to light candles and there's no hot water for showers!" Uh well, ya could go to bed when it gets dark, and take showers at the gym, couldn't ya? I probably shouldn't say anything because we've never lost power for more than a few hours, and never in summer when it's brutally hot (winter wouldn't be so bad because we have a gas fireplace.)

We do take a lot of this stuff for granted, tho. You shear sheep to get wool to make blankets. You burn oil to turn big turbines to make electricity that travels hundreds of miles across power lines made of rubber and metal that come from factories that run on electricity so it can come to your house, or your living history museum, to power the electric clippers that shear the sheep.

(Yes, they did have electric clippers in 1893.)

Anyway, everything we use, from electricity to wool to Blackberries (like this here 1893 model), comes from somewhere. Things are made up of other things that come from somewhere. Somebody makes those things. That's somebody's job. Think about this for long enough and you see how interconnected we all are. We need each other. Everybody does something important, however small. Makes you wonder if the person to whom you give the finger on the freeway could be the guy who makes the component part of your engine that keeps it from leaping out of your hood in a big ugly mess when you slam on your brakes in heavy traffic.

There's only one thing for it. Be nice to everybody.

Sucks, don't it?

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Women and Children and Children and Children First

Playing on the iPod: Bach, Prelude and Fugue in H Major (okay, I don't know which the heck one it is)
Meters swum today: None. I did 1700 yesterday, though.

In case you've been hiding under a rock lately, there's been this big news story about Child Protective Services going into a "polygamous compound" and hauling away 400-plus kids in Eldorado, Texas. Bunch of their mothers, too, apparently, some of whom were barely older than kids themselves. Seems a 16-year-old girl with an eight-month-old baby (you do the math) called CPS to complain that she was forced to marry a 50-something guy. When CPS went to court to get an order for their investigation, the judge suddenly decided every single kid that lived there was either being abused or was under immediate threat of abuse, and said, "Get every child under 18 out here to be interviewed." Hours later, there were still children coming. Something like 500 people are being housed in a Babtist church and a local fort, and the investigation goes on. Since then all 400-plus children have been placed in protective custody, and each one is apparently going to get his or her own personal private lawyer and child advocate.

These folks, the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-Day Saints, are sometimes called Mormons. That's kind of a misnomer. The real Mormons are pretty ordinary people, go to church, live in cities, interact with the rest of the planet. I used to know a bunch of 'em and apart from some of their children, who can be horrible, their one distinctive characteristic is that they're all really, really nice. So darn nice you get sick to your stomach from the sheer quantities of saccharine. Okay, I exaggerate, but really, they're nice folks.

The FDLS might also be nice folks, but they're often referred to as a strange cult with Mormon roots. They think the world's going to end any second, they prefer to live apart from the rest of the planet and of course they do this multiple-wife thing. One guy might have four or five or even as many as eleven wives, a range of ages, and scads of kids. This made a lot of sense when they'd been burned out of their homes four or five times on their way from Missouri to Utah, and a bunch of the men had been killed, leaving plenty of widows and orphans. These days it's kind of hard to pull off unless you keep marrying younger and younger women, which is what Child Protective Services is in such a dither about. It's illegal in Texas for a girl under 16 to marry, have sex or breed with any man of any age, much less a 50-year-old. I mean, ew. Hence the "raid" on the Eldorado Ranch.

I'm gonna raise my paddy skyward here and get ready to duck. I'm not so sure going in there and grabbing all the kids was such a hot idea. Okay, 50-year-old men and 15-year-old girls, ew, I agree, ew ew ew. Definitely should NOT be going on. But, does it make any sense to charge in there and haul away families? We're talking about kids here who have never seen TV, probably never been to school, don't know what an iPod is, think their fathers are the next thing to God and that everybody outside the compound (ie, the entire rest of the planet) is damned, evil, untouchable. Yeah, I want four or five kids like that (they're trying to keep siblings together) living next door to me in one of Texas's great foster homes. What makes CPS think they're gonna be any safer in that environment? They're probably better off where they are, under guard at an old fort and a Babtist church. Trouble is, hanging out like a refugee in a public building is kind of no way to live, as all the Hurricane Katrina survivors who were bussed to Dallas and Houston after New Orleans went under could probably tell you.

So what would I do instead, you ask. Well, my first thought is, why not haul away the men that are doing the abusing, and let the women and children stay home? I have a live or let live thing about other people, so I guess if you can't haul away the men, I'd have some precautions in place to protect the kids. Like, for example, CPS gets to go in there whenever they feel like it to check on the kids and make sure there aren't any pregnant tweenagers. Marriages would have to be registered and all the brides would have to be 18. In my humble opinion it's no less creepy to have a 50-year-old marry an 18-year-old, but it's technically legal, at least in Texas. As for the multiple-marriage thing, though, I think I'd be fine with leaving things alone. If these folks are freely choosing to live this way, what's the problem? Gay people live together in relationships approximating marriage (Joan and I are domestically partnered). I have a good friend who lived for several years with her significant sweetie, a female, the sweetie's husband, a male, and their "slave", also a female. I didn't ask and they didn't tell but it worked for them, I guess. (I know. Ew. Ew. But there weren't any kids involved.)

Am I too flexible? Maybe. But consider: The king of Saudi Arabia, with whom we have at least a friendly relationship, has three wives. (I think. Maybe it's four._ We don't call him a weird cult member. We call him "a fine example of the United States's positive influence on the Persian Gulf region." Money and morality start with the same letter. I'm just sayin'.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Battle of the Eco-Snobs

Playing in the background: The soft gurgle of the kitty fountain
Meters swum yesterday: 1800 (whoo-hoo!)

They're at it again. As gas prices continue to creep upward, my North Texas denizens are writing letters to the paper, slamming each other for various driving habits. While I think it's true that the one sure way to bring gas prices down is to frick'n use less of the stuff, people seem to have endless ideas about the best way to do that and they all think they're right. Which means everybody else is wrong. Which means they're behaving just like church people, which, seeing as it's Sunday, is totally appropriate.

Quick disclaimer: I do drive to work, by myself, most days. Roughly two days a week, Joan and I drive together, which saves us about 32 miles, or maybe a gallon and a half vs. driving alone. I live about eight miles from my office. There is public transit and I do use it sometimes, but it's not terribly convenient from here and takes twice as long. Throw in going to the pool and I'm more or less forced to drive by myself. Joan is not terribly keen on getting up at 5 am and hanging out at a Starbucks for two hours, waiting for me to drive her the rest of the way to work.

We have a Saturn Vue, which gets like 20 mpg, and a Toyota Corolla, which gets 28. Most weeks we're going through about half a tank in the Vue and maybe a quarter tank in the Corolla, the "other car." Which doesn't seem like much. I'm always after new and exciting ways to use less, though. If not for two really nasty hills I could ride my bike to the pool, and Joan could pick me (and the bike) up in the Vue afterward. So yesterday I browsed around on the Internet for an electric bike, which has a small motor that can push you up hills. I found a couple of options, but they all cost around $1000. So much for that idea. It might be an option in the future, though.

Back to the paper. Some guy writes in about how gas-guzzling SUVs are feeding the terrorists. Then some lady writes in saying, "Hey, I have an SUV because I car pool all the kids in my neighborhood, and you're driving your Mini-Cooper 45 miles to work one way, and how is that saving any gas, you moron?" Then some other guy writes in and says that they're both idiots and the best way to save gas is to live downtown in a walk-up. Meanwhile, my cousin Kyle, who works for BP and should therefore be the Deciding Word, sends around an email saying by far the biggest problem we've got energy-wise is how we've built all these cities sprawled out for miles and miles, and that's not going to be fixed any time soon. He advocates all of the above; moving closer to work, driving a fuel-efficient car, ride sharing and so on.

I think Kyle has the right idea. I think everyone else, including me, is missing the basic point. One could argue the whole history of Western exploitation of Middle Eastern oil resources and the geopolitics of global warming, business interests, declining production and investment capital for several years, but let's just consider this for a second; we got into this mess by not thinking. Not thinking about the environment when we built the cities. Not thinking about the length of the commute to work when we bought a house. Not thinking about the budgetary consequences, or the effect on the ozone layer, of buying a Hummer. Not thinking about how our actions, both individual and as a society, effect other people, other countries, other climates and other beings. Maybe the guy with the mini-Cooper is smarter than the lady with the Hummer, but at least they're both thinking.

So there's the task, the mission for the millenium. THINK. Be mindful of how you affect other people and things. Be aware that your purchasing decisions do have consequences. Consider that you might not have all the answers and it wouldn't kill you to listen to other people every now and again. Do what you can to save gas, but don't beat up on other people just because they save gas in different ways. If you're not driving your Hummer 45 miles one way to work by yourself, you're doing something right. And if you are--well, why are you? Think about that. In any case, quit writing letters to the paper bashing other people for their choices. All that ink and paper being used up to make somebody else feel bad. Honestly. Cut it out.

So when are they gonna put me in charge?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I Ran With a Lutheran Street Gang

Playing on the iPod: "Apartment Ledge," The Amaranth Signal
Meters swum today: 1600 (barely)

It's true; I was not raised a Buddhist. I don't think many of the not-of-Asian-descent Buddhists in this country are. Most of us seem to fall in the door around our mid-thirties or later, which is part of some trend or other by the Pew Research Center (I love that name! If their research stinks, they can always say, "Well, hey, our name is..."). Americans change religion like they change underwear, or, if that's too sacreligious, we move around a lot. For the most part, though, we move around different denominations of the Christian faith. A Presbyterian becoming a Babtist really isn't that big a stretch, though a Presbyterian becoming a Catholic (or the reverse) kind of is. Honestly, though, I don't know any Lutherans who became Pagans who then became Buddhists. I might be kind of unique there.

I was raised in a nice middle class Lutheran church by nice middle class Lutheran parents. You've probably seen Lutheran gangs at work; rampaging through downtown, pissing off elected officials, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, getting medical care to the uninsured, hugging little old ladies, writing "Jesus Loves You" on the sidewalk in erasable chalk--honestly, there should be a law. I think if I'd been brought up any other stripe of Christianity I'd have bailed on it a lot sooner. Hanging around with Lutherans was pretty cool, though, up until I wanted to get married and discovered I couldn't do it in the church. Not because my sweetie wasn't Lutheran, but because she wasn't male. Like that's her fault? She was probably born that way.

We were married by a Lutheran pastor at an unabashedly Lutheran ceremony, but it didn't take place in the church and I always felt vaguely cheated by that. It got worse when a few years later, the bishop backed off his "blessing of same sex unions is to be discouraged" stance and a gay male couple got married in the same church. Or maybe that's not the reason. Maybe it was 9/11, the millenium, the pastor retiring, George Bush becoming president, I dunno, but around seven, eight years ago I was in a position of no longer being terribly interested, yet also being terribly stuck (in the choir, on some committees, in charge of some things, etc.) It's hard to just bail on a church, never mind a whole religion. They find you. They know where you live.

Moving to Texas was the catalyist. No one can really complain about that. I mean, no matter how desperately they need somebody to make the paper flowers, not even the BBCs (broads with the big breasts and clipboards--yes, you know who you are) are going to insist you fly 2,000 miles to do so. Being a Lutheran in Texas wasn't easy, either; there aren't a whole lot of them, and what there is, is mostly Missouri Synod. But I'm not gonna 'splain what that means because synod politics is its own 5,000 page tome and this post is getting plenty long already. Let's just say that Missouri Synod folks tend not to care for people like me. And that's kind of the root of the matter. I've always been fond of Jesus (long haired radical! Held the Jewish men of his time to a higher standard than the law! Refused to do the popular thing when he could do the right thing instead!) but His fan club is something else again.

So we got here and I tried being a Pagan only to discover it was too much work. Reading? Studying? Rituals? Spells? Good God, is this high school? I'm glad I tripped over Buddhism. You have no idea how much easier it is to just sit there. And anybody who doesn't think Buddhists cast spells has clearly never hung out in Tibet very much. Still, I doubt that was a very typical religious progression. Don't tell the Pew Research folks about me. I might ruin their bell curve.

Ironically, the guy who got me interested in Buddhism in the first place, my brother-in-law, Mike, is now running with an Episcopal street gang. Well, the Lutherans and Episcopals are all friends now, so I guess that's okay. I've warned him about the BBCs. Forewarned is half an octopus and all that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jen's Review of "White Noise 2"

Playing on the iPod: David Sylvian
Meters swum today: Not so much. 1600 yesterday, though.

Two stars out of five. Didn't like it.

White Noise 2 is as much a sequel to the Michael Keaton thriller as Slither is to Serenity, but that's not why I'm giving it two stars. It only deserves the one, and that because I'm generous. There are too many laughably stupid moments to count, plenty of "But that would never happen" incidents (yeah, I'm sure the mental hospital where they're holding the man who shot your family to death won't have ANY problem with you coming by to visit him; heck, they'll even let you into his ROOM) and the scares, while sometimes effective, seem artificial and contrived. Nathan Fillion merits the extra star. His performance is by turns funny, tragic, driven and angry, and there's one laugh-out-loud moment that wouldn't be possible without his presence and his sense of humor. That said, you can see a much better movie in Slither and still get your Nathan fix. Still, if you're gonna insist on renting this turkey, you have been warned.