Thursday, September 30, 2010

Collective consumer consciousness

There may not be any such thing as Intelligent Design in the Christian fundamentalist sense of it, but there sure as hell is in the consumer market!  For instance, there is an international agency that specifies exact colors and color combinations for all consumer goods.  *ALL* of them.  I know I read about this, and yet when I search for it on the internet, I can't find it again (I hate it when that happens). 

This stuff is so computer-interlinked by this time that when I bought a wool rug made in Europe, I marched straight out to Bed Bath and Beyond and bought drapes made in China that contained the same four shades, without even trying to search for a match.  The exact same shades, and with stripes to boot.

When I had to cover Cayley's cheap Walmart-bought, Georgia-made shag rug with a towel to catch the dog slobber, I bought a Swedish number at Ikea that is so exact in color that half the time I can't see where the rug stops and the towel starts, and so I trip over it.

Sometimes the specificity of the matching totally takes me by surprise.  Last week I found that the only WEPC-available Smartwool sock that fit my tiny feet was this godawful baby blue color, which would really show stains.  Initially I was bummed about this but I'm addicted to Smartwool so I bought them anyway.  It wasn't until I got home that I realized these socks had specifically been intended to go with my New Balance running shoes.

In fact they are so closely coordinated that, when both are donned, it's difficult to see what's shoe and what's sock.

Who needs nanobots when we have the "Design Borg" like this?!  It's a bit unnerving at times.  They do it to encourage the consumer to BUY, BUY, BUY.  Like there's a subliminal message in there:  "Look, it's an exact match!  We made it just for you!  We KNEW exactly what you needed even before YOU did!  Trust us!  This purchase was MEANT to BE!" 

Resistance is futile.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

MFAH, humbug!

Cayley is studying "SAT Words" (words that may eventually appear on the SAT, which is the US's most widely-used college aptitude test), and one pair of those words was "censor" vs. "censure".  I explained the difference this way: I have to be on my best behavior in social situations and in professional situations and in educational situations, and this is one of the reasons why I really do NOT feel obliged to act correspondingly sweet and civilized on my blog - I think that, rather than censoring myself, I'll damned-well say what I want to say!  And if anybody feels like they want to censure me because of this, they can kiss my Texas grits! (Well, maybe I'll censor myself just a LITTLE bit...)

Case in point:  Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) plainly SUCKS ASS!!  Hell itself will freeze over before I ever give those flaming idiots one thin dime of my nonprofit contributions!!

Let me explain.  Here's a sign you see while walking into the place from the parking garage:

And here's the art to which it refers... nice, although a propos of nothing in particular that I could see:

And that, my friends, is where all expression of creativity or freedom or simple harmless interaction WITH the art severely ENDS because, beyond that point, you're barely allowed to draw your breath in the place. 

I got into my first spot of trouble in taking this pic of a walkway between two of the museum buildings:

"YOU CAN'T TAKE PHOTOS OF THAT!" an attendant yelled.  I wanted to ask why not - it was a bloody walkway, not a priceless Renoir - but, of course, few of them are conversant in English.  They weren't hired to actually SPEAK to people or INTERACT in any educational sense - they were just hired to bark out mindless prohibitions.

Now, most museums have a no tripods, no flash policy.  This is quite understandable: you don't want to risk damaging the art with tripod legs or via the excessive light saturation from the flashes of thousands of art patrons. 

But MFAH has expanded upon that common-sense policy by enforcing no photography of any kind.  We specifically went there because Cayley is taking an art class in school, and she was looking for pieces of art to write up for a project.  When attendants in black suits start barking at 12-year-old kids taking grainy pictures with cell phones that don't even flash, something is DESPERATELY wrong.  Cayley was SO disappointed - this was a possibility that neither of us had foreseen. 

And it wasn't just us.  They were hassling other students also.  For taking crappy pictures of 300-year-old paintings with dinky little cell phones.  How do they justify the likes of that?  Nobody has copyright on the stuff.  Greed, I guess.  Avarice.  They want to keep it all for themselves.  Children are not privy to it - they are not even entitled to rotten facsimilies of no financial value, not even for personal use.

What good does it do to visit an art museum if you can't have some degree of interaction with the environment?  Isn't the point to experience art??  How are kids supposed to present art research to their teachers or fellow students if they can't somehow represent the art visually?

I WAS allowed to photograph THIS piece in MFAH, and I think it sums up where they fall on our social equivalent of a phylogenetic scale:

SO, a great example of excessive and unnecessary regulation killing a whole experience.  Good luck with your future fundraising endeavors, you MFAH losers.  May you duly reap what you sow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Full frontal!!!

It's coming!!  It's coming!!

These were the breathless thoughts of anticipation surrounding today's big event, which is depicted here in this spherical projection due north from our work-in-progress back yard:
Do you see that eerie white arc across the sky?  No, that is not a blast wave, and downtown Houston did not, in fact, implode - that's our first cold front of the season!!!
You northern folk probably don't appreciate the significance of this, but each year, we patiently wait about five terribly long months for this milestone.  Do you see how the normally-stalwart federal government actually drew the anticipated position of the front in two successive temporal positions on that map above??  Even THEY were excited about it!!  (Or maybe they just wanted people to stop calling them and asking, "Is the front here yet?!?!?")

Especially this year, with landscaping in progress, I was literally counting the hours.  I have sweated my guts out over the past couple of weeks (statistically we should have cooled down before now, so Mother Nature's timing was off, not mine).  I was more excited about the arrival of this cold front than I was about the births of the last half-dozen of my friends' babies.
(Well, not really, but you get the picture). 

I'm looking forward to tomorrow morning when I will begin ripping sod for the main planter bed for a few hours before I start work of the consulting kind.  We've planted six Italian cypress thus far, but we saved the real heavy lifting (literally) for the cooler weather which is now thankfully upon us.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The neighborhood dog alarms went off at 3:30 a.m. last night. This clip-art is probably free because it depicts an obsolete scene, eh?  Who has a TV antenna these days??!
This is unusual - we can easily go two months here without hearing dogs barking at night; so far, it's more peaceful than other neighborhoods I've lived in.
In one sense, this is inconvenient for us because our dog alarm sleeps in a crate in Cayley's room - harder to ignore than an outdoor dog. I actually didn't hear her raise the alarm, but she woke Cayley up and I subsequently heard Cayley come in the room and whisper to Lawrence, "The dog is growling and I don't know why."

I was awake for quite a while trying to figure out what was going on. The trouble with dog alarms is the lack of specificity: the offending intruder could be anywhere on the seriousness continuum from an Armenian terrorist to a traveling tortoise (for some reason, tortoises really piss off dogs, and they do seem to migrate, squeezing under fences and generally proceeding in a straight line no matter what the deterrents).

By the time 6:30 a.m. rolled around, I had discovered nothing wrong with our property, but there was one outdoor dog still continuing to bark up a tirade. I did notice that a child's scooter had been left at the side of the street behind our house - not a location where I would expect a child to leave it (too dangerous - they ride on the interior streets, not the thoroughfares). So it's possible that we had some criminal mischief going on, people pilfering stuff from back yards, as that type of activity does plague this little city.

As for our dog alarm, she may yet justify her existence.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

One and a half

Nightmare scenario: two full-time employed parents.  I just don't know how people do it and maintain ANY quality of life. 

On those rarer days when contracts obligate me to work 8 - 12 hours, everyone in this house is miserable.  No life-business gets taken care of, and we eat whatever we can find in the way of leftovers.

On days like today when I only have to work 6 hours, life's a dream.  I got done with a meeting, which was in Seabrook, went straight to the fish market and the g-store, picked up the child at her bus-transfer school, drove child and food home, went to the gym, then fired up the WeberQ and grilled onions, potatoes, a red pepper plus the shrimp.  And had beets and beans on the side, outside on the patio in the midst of a developing landscape.
Our 12-year-old friend Annie says that we "eat very exotic food".  It's actually not - unless you count simple "home made" as exotic.  Maybe one day we'll revert to a social condition in which more people will perceive domestic performance according to the value that it provides (translation: down with Domino's and its obesity-promoting ilk).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One in hole

Moving right along with the back-yard landscaping, I dug my first big-tree hole this morning, and it was immediately claimed by the well-camoflaged dog (maybe we shoulda named her "Gumbo").
I'll tell you what: when the time comes, that dog is getting cremated, because I ain't digging any more of these damned things than I have to.

She was so intent on remaining therein that Cayley couldn't even evict her.

However, a few well-placed shovelfuls of dirt finally convinced her to evacuate.  After the tree was planted and the hole filled in, she was genuinely morose, and she curled up on the spot with a characteristic hang-dog look on her face. 

I wonder where coyotes live in Houston?  I would imagine they'd prefer to dig dens, but every hole in this area promptly fills up with water.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

No middle ground (literally)

The do-it-yourselfers are doin' it again:

This cache represents a small part of our first wave of backyard landscape haulage... the van will swallow almost everything, but we needed a trailer for those 10-foot Italian cypress (cypresses?!).  

Instant gratification was a prerequisite for this job.  I was NOT going to build a house and then wait five years for the foliage to grow beyond being dinky little stubs.  We needed a yard that looks like it's about at the same stage of life as we are, so most of our plantings are starting out with 30-gallon root balls: not only is it big to start with, but it will grow faster, too.   

But here's the sobering part:  Lawrence (having had some experience with landscaping) figures that this job we are doing would cost somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 if we hired a contractor to do it for us.  Do-it-yourself cost:  about $1,000, even buying this more mature vegetation (it's late September so the local greenhouses are offering 70% off retail).  

In other words, you can pay $1,000, OR you can pay $15,000.  What you CAN'T do is pay anything in between for a partial job.  I would love to pay someone another $1,000 to help me get this stuff into the ground, but it's not available in that form, unless you want to hire one of Houston's half-million or so illegal immigrants which, as a legal immigrant, I am NOT inclined to do. 

This is yet another case where (like my car radiator) you either have the skills yourself, OR you get financially screwed beyond recognition. 

We haven't laid out the arrangement yet, but you get the idea, and the four cubic yards of topsoil I had trucked in and stashed on the vacant lot next door should make for some really nice contouring.  Cayley said, "What are we doing, installing our own forest out there?!?!"

And in this case, ya don't even need that many skills because Randy Lemmon has done all the headwork FOR you

Mostly what you need is a strong back, which I have.  And it's about to get stronger: landscaping is one of my favorite types of exercise because it involves natural movements encompassing the entire body.  I began the digging yesterday, but it was a miserably hot day so I did not enjoy myself much.  But I'm getting into the swing of things, and really enjoyed myself today, which was cool(er) and breezy due to rain bands thrown off by Hurricane Karl.  Out in the fresh air, breeze on my face, sculpting my bod... I do really enjoy that.  

More pics to come as we move this mega-project along.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Feigning ferocity

I'm routinely amazed by the intensity of the beatings that Cayley and Nyx inflict upon each other in their play-fights.  I can often hear thumps, smacks, thuds, and other sounds of mutual combat from clear across the house.  They're just horsing around, but it's genuinely rough.
There's a shot above of Cayley stomping Nyx's guts out, and check out the close-up of those snarling teeth!  Holy crap!!
And then when the mutual thrashing is finished, there's always a big slobbering scene of hugs and kissy-kissy:
This behavioral sequence must be innate and universal, because neither one of them have ever observed anything like it in this house!  There's never been any example for either one of them to mimic, so it must come from somewhere on the primal inside.  Maybe this is what happens when kids don't have siblings (?).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

From the mouths of babes

Cayley's Language Arts class is comparing utopian and dystopian fiction.  Here's a poem she wrote as an assignment today. 

I particularly enjoyed the reference to dust, because vacuuming is (shall we say) currently an unresolved issue in our house.
A Magical Place Called Earth

In the world of my imagination,
School is a fun vacation,
All animals would be cared for,
And starvation would be no more.

Nobody would try to steal,
People always came home to a warm meal.
Nature would be on our side,
And nobody in wars would have died.

In the world of my wishes,
I wouldn’t have to do the dishes,
There would be no diseases,
And no dust to cause sneezes.

No more pollution of any kind,
Everybody had a powerful mind.
My utopia would be magical and sweet,
Everyday would be a treat!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Just plane weird

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, when four commercial aircraft were hijacked and you know the rest of the story, this is the sight to which Houstonians were treated for several hours (click photo to enlarge for detail):
Yes, a jet, flying in strange patterns over six million people.  I do realize that my spherical projections need serious work, but I wanted to show the sheer SCALE of this thing relative to the big Texas sky (for what it's worth, I think it trumps the lame thing published by Houston Chronicle).  That wee structure center-right of photo is our house. 

It turns out that it was just NASA doing high-altitude research, but one wonders what goes through their heads.  Sixteen years I've lived close to Ellington Field and I've never seen anything like this.  For them to perform this exercise on 9/11, on the one day of the year when people are especially sensitive to the potential for copycat crimes involving jet aircraft... well... it's just a little bizarre, I think.  It's reminiscent of the time when the federal government thought it would be brilliant to fly an Air Force One replica low over New York City, flanked by fighter jets

I'm an idiot for not framing this scene behind a half-staff American flag, which were displayed in abundance.  In photography as in life, hindsight is always 20/20.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The G spot

We're now half way to being identified on Google Maps, which means that, to the rest of the world, we almost truly exist.  That's us, photo center:
Maybe after they get the new streets actually named, people will stop ending up in Lower Slobovia every time they try to drive over here. 

But the little orange Google Maps man still can't be made to stand on our street, which means that the nine-eyed Googlewagon hasn't come through yet. 
I've half a mind to make a cultural contribution by placing some sort of symbol in our field of view so that we become Google-enshrined for all time... like the guy who was caught allegedly robbing a house, the guy who shot up a street in Chicago, or the nude sunbathers.  Or maybe something less racy, like a dog taking a dump (gee, that would be easy to stage!). 

But really, I should assign Lawrence to the task of developing an e-immortalizing G-statement for us.  His black ops brain is far, far better suited than mine for that kind of thing.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The "Schulstress" documentary was uploaded this morning and, following up on my last post where I describe the background and translate the summary in the blue box to the right of the video, I wish I knew the German word for "embed"...

The video will be posted for about a week at the URL below.  There's a small minute counter in the lower right hand portion of the screen, and our segment begins around minute 24.  You can actually grab the tracker and move it to whatever minute you want to see - you don't have to wait for it to play all the way through.

Lotta, lotta people interviewed for that production, and I know that Cayley will be bummed because they didn't use any of the footage that included her best friends.  But that's part of the whole media learning experience.  Again, I wish I could understand the narrative so I could get a better feel for the nuances of the presentation, but it was fun to do regardless!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Schulstress, Part 1

The documentary we helped to shoot back in March of this year aired tonight in Europe, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it, even though I can neither speak nor read a lick of German! 

Weltjournal / CNN correspondent Katinka Nowotny with (L to R) Waifa, Cayley, and Radia watching a playback of raw video footage in March

This journalistic foray is different from the ABC-TV segments we did in late 2008that was a story about factual events, whereas this piece is focused on the presentation of beliefs and values.  In a nutshell, the investigative reporting compares and contrasts child-rearing practices, especially with respect to educational choices and the division of responsibility between parents and children. 

As you know, we advocate a lifestyle that tends toward the free range end of the continuum and we petition where possible against the growing scourge of helicopter parenting

We also believe that the best educational option is public school with extensive family involvement.  I reject private school and home school alternatives because I believe they segregate children and send a message to them that the society that they will inherit doesn't measure up.  The question of whether or not society is "good enough" for our kids is a non sequitur of sorts: it IS our society - it's the only one we've got.  People should be striving to improve it by participating and contributing, rather than shunning it by fostering their own little divisive worlds, be they members-only "superior to the rest of you" childhood educational or religious realms or whatever.  I have little respect for attitudes to the contrary.

I digress.  The documentary is supposed to be posted on or near the URL given below for about a week starting this evening, but it's not up yet.  They mailed us a DVD from Austria, but I don't have that yet either.  In the meantime, here's the URL and, below that, I've posted my fractured translation of the teaser that's posted on it. 

The first school week begins. The race [to find] the best start[ing] place for… children in a globalized world stress[es] more and more parents. While the Austrian politic[ians] lose [themselves] in the dispute around teacher-competence questions, the demand climbs [for] private school place[ments]. In Germany, two new private schools open each week. For above all, parents of [financial] means [no longer] trust the public schools, [which] are often lower financed and overburdened, …to [prepare their] children [sufficiently] for life... For example, a [top] boarding school in the [desirable] area of Berlin costs 30,000 Euros per child. For this money, [a student-teacher ratio of 12:1 is never exceeded]. [Seventy] additional courses outside of the regular [public school curriculum of instruction] are offered. The school is run [by], and takes only, the best.
The trend to confront bab[ies] with [educational practices like these], in order to waste no valuable time, comes from America. At the Institute for Early Support in Philadelphia, [parents are recommended] to [enroll] two-month-old bab[ies] in [early education]. Three year-old Jake is instructed and can assign the names of the American presidents [by referencing their] pictures. His 6 year-old sister Cortney reads as a future management already out of the opera leader (??). Überfürsorgliche [Hyper-attentive??] parents drive [their] sons and daughters from activity to activity and plan [the lives] of [their] children in the appointment calendar [and worry that they are not doing] enough for the development of [their] children.
This phenomenon came from America [and is increasingly] noticeable [in Europe]. Katinka Nowotny, camera reporter [for] the World Journal, traveled to New York, Philadelphia, and Houston, Texas, and from Berlin to Torgelow in the German Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, to find out what parents do today… in order to make [their] children fit for life in a globalized world. In the USA, [there has been a rediscover[y of values that are] already [bucking the rigorous educational] trend: the movement 'Freerange kids' : These parents let [their children] freely run around, [and] remember… that the best school for life [is] still life itself.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Obvious obfuscation

With an iron will and guts of steel, I braved the cultural insanity of Toys R Us this afternoon.  As I was standing in the checkout line, an elderly gentleman in front of me turned round and, with a knowing wink said, "Grandson?" as he gestured toward my armload of boy toys.

In terms of preventability, that kind of social faux pas is right up there with asking a fat lady when her baby is due.  I'm afraid I could not spare him his crestfallen "Ooops - I just shit myself!" reaction as I grimaced and replied "Nephews" through clenched teeth.  A better woman would have been able to gracefully save him from himself, but I'm afraid at that moment I didn't have it in me.  

Twenty minutes later, still ruminating about how anyone could possibly interpret that I'm THAT old, I squared off against a sullen check-out clerk in Target (and, by the way, I maintain that Clear Lake is where the slang "tarjay" originated, for reasons to lengthy to discuss here).  Arms folded and eyes wandering everywhere but toward me, she flatly refused to capitulate to my protestation, "But I'll be forty-six in three more weeks!"   

So opened was the purse once more, and out came the driver's license.  And no, it was not a fluke, nor was an immigrant clerk ("They all look the same to me!") - I still get carded routinely, more frequently when I'm wearing gym clothing (which Lawrence says look like pyjamas).  It's a Bad Day in America when the sight of a fit older body is so confusing to the general population that they assume the only explanation is that it must actually be a young body in some sort of a freakish disguise, this despite the substantial evidence to the contrary presented in the face and the hair that would make Jaime Lee proud.

So in the space of twenty minutes I had one thinking I was older than dirt and one thinking I was younger than yesterday, which I suppose is a propos of nothing other than the fact that shopping is not one of my favorite activities.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cool technology, but where's ours?!

Nova Scotia Power's reporting system is so sophisticated that I can call a map of outages related to Hurricane Earl and see exactly how many people are without power, which streets are involved, and when it's scheduled to be restored on those streets.  I can immediately tell that Kathy should have power right now, although she is close to an outage area, and Dad should be in the clear.  Excerpt showing part of my home town of Sydney (population 24,000) and source link:

QUESTION:  Why the hell didn't we have this kind of efficient communication available to us during our arduous recovery from the third costliest storm in American history, Hurricane IkeNova Scotia, cultural outpost with total population 940,000, has this capacity, but the fourth largest city in America in the Great State of Texas 20 million people strong cannot manage something like this??  What is UP with that?!?  Geez!!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Three cheers

And three years!  This week, Lawrence and I celebrate the third "anniversary" of our unusual and unexpected relationship.
The happy couple circa 1975.

For those who have openly disapproved of our partnership (and those who perhaps were not as thrilled with his choice as they had hoped to be, but who kept firmly silent about it), I've got a newsflash for you: I would not have been my first choice for Lawrence either! 
The happy couple circa 1982.

But guess what?   It turns out that Lawrence didn't want my first choice for him, or yours either - he wanted his own first choice, which appears to have been this.
The happy couple in 2009.

Our first date three years ago wasn't intended to be a "date" at all.  Having found rapport in online chat, we decided to go to Kemah Boardwalk for a 30-minute beer, just a friendly thing.  When we decided to expand the meeting into a dinner, we were startled to find that all the restaurants had shut down: unnoticed by us, five hours had passed, and it was already midnight.

The rest is three years of history the outcome of which you know: what we share proved to be more compelling than our obvious differences (of which age is the more minor).  

But here's something I bet you didn't know:  every great relationship has room for a bit of mythology, and ours centers on the mysterious deaths of a devoted couple who shared with us exactly the same age discrepancy.  Respectfully, I reproduce here a synopsis of of their story from the Texas EquuSearch website:

Bill and Martha disappeared into the waters just off Kemah Boardwalk several weeks before Lawrence and I unwittingly spent hours gazing out toward the exact place where they departed our physical world.  I later wondered if perhaps their spirits grew tired of haunting that choppy water and if perhaps they saw in us an opportunity that night.  Perhaps Martha saw us standing by the water's edge and exclaimed, "Look, Bill - a couple quite like us, who will raise eyebrows for some of the same reasons we did!"  And with that, their spirits rose up from that water, vaulted over the dock railing, and streamed through us as they departed on the last leg of their journey to the next place, and as they did so, they left behind in us some of the great love that they shared, for it was better for such spirits to touch the living than to remain in a restless bay.

Probably not, but it's a warm and enchanting bit of revisionist imaginative history.

Or is it??  I had to interrupt the writing of this blog entry to take Cayley to school this morning.  As we dashed out the door, I got a spectacular view of the pot of gold at the end of my existential rainbow.  Was it solely a meteorological phenomenon, or was it Bill and Martha's way of re-emphasizing??

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Not your parents' 1970's shag wall

The folks who work in corporate cubicles are going to consider me a complete pansy for this home office fetish I've got going on right now.  When I used to moan about working in a small room in a daytime-empty suburban wasteland, they'd look at me with crazed eyes and say, "But you have WALLS that go all the way to the CEILING!"  And I'd say, "Sure I do!  And those walls make me feel like the maid who gets banished to the back bedroom and who is only allowed out after-hours when she is needed for cooking and cleaning!"

Of course, that was a situation entirely of my own making, but so is the fetish born of it: the 220-square-foot dream office upon which we are currently putting the final touches, including my transom windows last weekend, and this addition last night:

The blank white wall behind the conference table fairly screamed for a major art piece to anchor that end of the room, and there it finally is, in all its 6.5 x 9.5 foot glory!

But what IS it??  A painting?  A mural?  Tapestry?  None of the above - it's actually THIS:

Yup.  It's an area rug that the three of us picked out.  And we didn't get this idea from some design show on HGTV - we thought it up ourselves, narrowed down the choices, and voted on both design and size, although this time, the vote was essentially moot because, of the thousands of patterns available, there was only one choice - this one, which is an abstract nod to the fact that I grew up in the Sydney Coal Field

Seed fern fossil,

Cramming a new office with new material goods wouldn't have much appeal if there were no deeper meaning being referenced, but every time I look at this, I see the unique geographic circumstances of my far-away childhood, the circumstances that inspired a hobby that triggered an education which brought me to America which evolved into to a career which required a new home where I found my loved ones Cayley and Lawrence, and there's nothing and nobody more meaningful than them!

And now, of course, comes the harder part:  I need to stop admiring my office long enough to actually get some paying work done in it.