So you think…?

A weather report for la longue durée

My dad writes a weekly outdoors column, and yesterday’s installment mentioned something I’ve been teasing him about for years: his almost-daily emails to the family always include a weather report. Typically we learn what actually happened yesterday (as opposed to yesterday’s email’s speculation), what’s happening now, and what he thinks is going to happen next. For Dad, this stuff matters. As he puts it:

Some people in our extended family think I’m a little strange because I’m always reporting on the daily weather. I plead guilty, but my weather fascination comes from growing up on a farm, where virtually everything that happens, good or bad, is weather related. My farm days were long ago, but when it comes to outdoor activities, it’s still the weather that makes the rules.

Mira replied with her reassurance that she should not be counted among those in the extended family who question it. To which I replied, “No, Mira, he means me–and the more I tease him about it, the more “extended” is the part of the family I belong to. Right, Pop?” 

And this blog post was born…

Because me, I just don’t get it. Growing up in the snow belt, I wanted it to snow, soon, often, and deep, with blizzards a plus. Ten below or forty, it was all good–although ten was certainly better for the rare tobogganing opportunity or routine fort-building exercises, and on an ice-fishing day, it might as well have been forty below, because after half an hour of looking at a hole in the lake not going anywhere, it was going to feel forty below no matter what the temperature actually was.

Winter wasn’t the only season, of course, just the longest and best one. By spring when you’re just sick to death of it all, and here I mean May, the important weather details are 30˚: over this, Mom lets us ditch the boots and get our bikes out. And 40˚: over this,  Mom lets us wear our jean jackets.

an acrylic painting by Kevin Vang

an acrylic painting by Kevin Vang

From spring until summer, the weather details don’t matter–not until the swimming pool opens, and cooler than 62 or so means that biking to the pool in the morning for lessons wearing only a swimsuit, with a towel around your neck, is achingly cold, and the pool is hard to get into. Rain matters but only a lot of it–a wimpy little summer shower means hurry up and bike to your lessons; only a full-on thunderstorm means swimming lessons are canceled. A thunderstorm also means that the plains feel electric, not just literally; the big prairie sky cooks itself up some drama to go with the bolts of lightning, which you’ve noticed in Kevin’s skyscapes. (My brother is a painter, and an example of his skyscapes is what you see here.)

Above 80 means it’s too damned hot. Clouds or blue skies don’t matter much when it’s too damned hot.

Well, above 70 means that, really.

Which brings us to fall. Fall is just a long, slow tease, where the evenings darken earlier and earlier until it’s just plain unfair that we’re still waiting for the first snowstorm. Fall rains are boring. Without the electricity of a good summer gullywasher, fall rains are just wet. Soggy maybe. The ground gets mucky, your feet get heavier, and yeah, on those other days, the leaves are pretty–and, oh, look! there’s Orion!–but can we just have a blizzard now and get on with it?

That, to me, is the yearlong cycle of relevant weather reports. The day to day details just change what it is you see outside while you’re inside practicing or at school wondering when it’s going to snow already.

Here in California–and now I’m writing to my biological family, not to you, Mira–the weather isn’t daily or even seasonal, so much as it is geographical. My neighborhood, cool and foggy, warmer in the afternoon, foggy and cold at night. For a month or two around the winter solstice, we usually get a lot of rain but rarely so much as a wimpy twig of lightning–just wet cold rain, and lots of it, except for the decades where we barely get any and have to think twice about flushing. This is the time of year it gets down into the 40s, and in our wimpy California clothing and poorly insulated houses with single-pane windows, that can feel darned cold. “It’s a WET cold,” you hear us protest, as if that means anything–because it does. Wet cold feels colder. It gets into your bones, so that nothing short of a long soak in a hot tub can warm you back up. I know because I commute through the fog, over the bridge, on a motorcycle, and certain times of year, that electric vest barely keeps up.

For a few weeks every summer, it gets warm enough that we plug in fans and worry that the critters in their fur coats might wilt while we’re in an air-conditioned office building.

Mira’s neighborhood? Pretty much the same, but a little cooler and foggier.

Other neighborhoods–many of them called “suburbs”–can get more of a summer going, pretty much year-round, except for the rains when they come. They don’t get the daily cloud-scrub we do, so their air is dirtier, and we don’t like to be in those places longer than we have to. There’s a reason we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we call it “The Fog.”

So there you have it, one weather commentary to cover the first thirty and the last eighteen years of my life.

What the next thirty might bring is the stuff of Mira’s nightmares. We call it “climate change,” and far from leaving us skeptical it’s freaking us the heck out.

 

Old Selvig family photos

I finally got around to scanning a box of photos I inherited when Gramma Selvig (Bernelda Neumann, m. Morris Herman Selvig) moved into the nursing home. I’d love to hear from anyone who has better details on these photos.

Nano-opera: Rigoletto by Verdi

Men are total assholes, and women pay for it every time.

(Nothing tricky about this opera; the trumpets state the premise in the opening notes, the rest of the overture tells the whole story, and then you get to sit around for three hours while they sing about it. If you heard SF Opera’s production last night, those were three hours well spent—some of the best duet-singing I’ve heard in years.)

Graduating from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership

On Friday, the plumber came finally to do a long-delayed project: replacing my shower mixers with the new thermostatic mixers I’d purchased a few years ago, intending to have them installed as part of the office-remodeling project.

We knew that it couldn’t be as simple as a one-day job. No, indeed, it was not. Naturally, something went wrong—one of the valves I’d ordered wasn’t quite right, so he had to come back on Monday with more parts to finish the job.

But wait, there’s more!

I also, it turns out, had a dying water heater. He was supposed to replace that yesterday, too, but the shower-mixer job from Friday took all of yesterday to resolve, so the near-dead water heater had to wait another day. That’s why I’m home again today, still babysitting the plumber, who is at this very moment using tools of a sort I’ve never seen before (that have astonishing hearing-damage capabilities) to wrest the old beast from its lair. Seeing it leave my house today brings me a certain perverse satisfaction as I recall its installation and my indoctrination into the never-ending anxieties of home ownership.

It was the fall of 1999. I had just bought and moved into this house that August, and one fine November morning I found myself taking a warm, then tepid, then suddenly cold shower; and then looking at cold, rusty water rushing down my driveway; and then using my dialup internet service to research water heaters; and then on the phone with Sears to order one. After that I found myself on the phone with all manner of people for several more days, trying to navigate all the headaches of converting from electric to gas, pulling permits, getting through inspections, wrangling recalcitrant service people, and fighting with the world’s worst customer service department. Three days later I finally had water again (let alone hot), and many exasperating calls after that I had a $500 gift card from Sears in apology for the multiple circles of hell I’d visited on my way to a hot shower.

The progressive wussitude of that Sears water heater in recent years meant that I was not terribly surprised when on Friday my plumber (here to do something completely else) noticed white plastic debris in the faucet screens and diagnosed its terminal illness:

“Dip tube failure!”

Turns out there’s a pipe in old-fashioned (“big ol’ tank”) water heaters that brings fresh cold water in through the top and down to the bottom of the tank where it is to be heated. It should then rise (recall your grade school physics lessons) to the top where it enters the hot water pipes supplying the house. The way water heater makers get us to buy new water heaters every ten years, now that tanks don’t rust out as reliably as they once did, is to make that pipe out of a white plastic that starts breaking down just a few months after the ten-year warranty expires. As it disintegrates, the fresh cold water starts leaking out, then trickling, and eventually rushing into the upper, no longer hot region of the tank, where it eddies and cools what used to be hot water, thereby sending merely warm, then tepid, and eventually cold water into the hot water pipes. It also sends its telltale white plastic debris to the screens of faucets, where wise plumbers can see that they’re about to get another call from a homeowner who is willing to pay overtime.

But when those homeowners have already learned that after a cold shower is the wrong time to deal with such a thing, and that Sears is the wrong place to call for it, they instead turn to said plumbers and say, “What kind of water heater do you think I should get, and can you put it in on Monday?”

That was Friday afternoon. Saturday I had a lukewarm shower. Sunday I had a cool shower. Yesterday I didn’t even try. Today I had a cold shower. The water heater knew, apparently, that its days were numbered and took advantage of its last opportunities to vex me. Tonight I shall pay the nice plumber whatever he asks and then mix myself a stiff martini and try to forget the number.

And that, my friends, is how I will graduate after twelve and half years from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership.

In the land of the olive orchards

I’ve been visiting the cave of the Sun Goddess in the land of the Olive Orchards. Vikings do things like that. Spend time. Get to know the natives. Borrow their best recipes. Learn the language. But this time, it’s a language made up of throat-clearing. Hairballs, and microscopic curly squiggles where some tidy angles would do nicely, and the like. My phlegm can’t get organized around the language at all.

The cave is snug, and I feel like Leif Eriksson. Need to set my legs and head aside in order to get through openings intact. Everywhere I turn is a door-knocker waiting to take out my forehead, a low passageway ready to bang my skull, a stack of chairs ready to grab my long, ski-like feet. The wine glasses hold four tablespoons, and the mugs are colorful, delicate things that hold barely enough water for me to gargle.

Everything’s dark and red and layered. Textiles everywhere; on the floors, on the walls, piled on the furniture, under the other textiles; the doors wear tassles, and the table gets a rug, a schmatte, a placemat, and another placemat. Mediterranean eclectic or with a capital E as well. Humble, worn, and warm. Layers of paint, and blood. Even the leather is green, and purple. Speckled porcelain tin plates.

Vikings love such places. New lands to conquer, new peoples to seduce. Cultural identity on every surface. And in the fridge and freezer. The Sun Goddess knows who she is. She celebrates her identity. Maintains it in this Jewish Diaspora, and then goes and learns a few strains of Arabic besides—they’re all dark and warm and hairy and short, right? Even her tattoos speak to her identity. The alphabets on her divine hand. Her—well, her everything.

In this, she’s just like me.

But I’m a tall Nordic person. With sleek Scandinavian modern in my house. And beige Nordic foods. Like lefse (potato flatbread) and bockwurst (pork and veal sausage). Doesn’t get any paler than that.

We both eat gravet laks, however.

So. Here’s the deal. Vikings are committed for the long haul, despite the impossible throat-clearing. But what we want is to immerse in the other in her native ecosystem. That would be: delight in the warmth of the dark-haired, dark-eyed ones. Participant/colonization in the cave of the Olive Oil Peoples. I mean, how lucky can you get to have a gig like that? I myself am used to shoveling snow. Tall skiers. Not that dissimilar from me.

While we Vikings have long observed that there are no pure cultures (or not any more, at least) (and likely never were) (other seafarers, and all) (and trade) (etc etc) this comes as close to anywhere I’ve been to studying an intact culture.

And, miracle of miracles—she’s basically doing the same with me.

Mutual exotification.

She laughs when I call her exotic. She’s more used to hegemonic. Brunette and brown eyes and olive skin and olive oil and all that goes with it. Brass trays and ibriqs and gardening and harvesting. And long black sleeves and long black legs no matter how hot it gets. And Jewish of a certain persuasion. In my book, she’s a rare species of a fish.

I laugh when she calls me exotic. I feel more the snow-belt norm. Pale. And blonde. With good akevit. We Vikings ought to stick together, right? But no. I’m drawn to the Sun Goddess.

You know the old adage. It’s straight out of the sagas. Kristin Lavransdatter. Get the lilting tones right; they sound like your boat pitching and rolling and yawing in the wintry seas.

It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.

Because:

Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution.

We’re okay, if she’s the native and I’m the Viking. We’re okay, if the Sun Goddess’s making her yaprakas to bring along whither the tall Nordic adventuring goes.

But not build a home together?

Preserve and weaken pure systems?

The only way to even approach life is with an understated sense of humor. Wry, inscrutable grins, and a mischievous appreciation for the dramatic, exotic, differently-neurotic ones. Celebrate diversity and all that. Syncretism. Heterosis. Mix it up and depurify.

It’s the dream I had when I first learned about charoset and matzohbrei. College, as I recall.

All the people of the world would blend together. No more pure-blooded high foreheads. No more this-sea-is-my-sea/that-sea-is-your-sea. Hoist the sails, get rowing, mix it up. And we’d all be merely human.

But that would mean no more zaftig olive oil farmers with audacious noses, no more Sun Goddesses, and no more tall, pale, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Vikings.

I’ve never been able to figure it out. Have appreciated those who know their own identity. Who celebrate the intactness of their heritage, the chosen-ness of their people, the tribal identification of their spices. How wonderful, right? But I’ve admired more those who have the courage to set sail. Not the ones who misunderstand indigenous recipes and make everything beige and sweet. But those who bring together the best of multiple ways—and live it.

I’m balled up inside the argument. Patient at best. Syncretism leads to impossible conglomerations of furniture and way too many tchochkes. But pure systems lead to blandness and alcoholism.

Gardening skills can be borrowed just like a cup of flour

My kaddish collaborator sent me the dearest little bucket of brightly-colored plastic aleph-beit refrigerator magnets for Christmas, and since I need to write my thanks properly in ink on a dead-tree product, she has revealed to me her street address. In so doing, she mentioned that if, like her, I googled the address and used street view, I would see… Which I did, of course, and I discovered that I know her neighborhood quite well, because I used to live a few neighborhoods away and visited hers regularly.

But this is supposed to be a story about gardening; my point here is just that when she googled my old address, I told her to take note of a sad little shrub in front of the house, because I wanted to tell her about its glory days and the brief moment in my life when I had some gardening skills.

When The Chef and I moved in, all those years ago, that autumn, it was a ginormous hulk of a fallen-over mystery bush. Near the end of winter, when it finally stopped raining, I was so tired of having to walk around that mess that one surprisingly warm afternoon I grabbed the barbaric giant scissors I found in the garage and went to work. Hack, hack, hack, hack, hack. So that I could see what I was doing, I flopped it back upright over the banister and kind of spread it out, and hack, hack, hack, hack. Finally got it thinned down enough that I thought it had a chance of supporting its own weight, but it had been flopped over so long I knew it would need some help. I found some twine to fan out over the stucco and wound strategically chosen branches behind the string here and there. I just kept hacking and stringing, with no particular plan or competency, until I thought the poor thing might actually stay upright, whatever it was.

By now several hours had gone by, and the thorns of the slain beast had shredded my arms, shoulders, face—I looked like I’d lost a fight with a wet cat, and I was dirty and sweaty. And the woman with the shock of gorgeously silvering grey hair from across the street wandered over for the first time to say hello, but what she said first was, “You’ve done a beautiful job of espaliering that bouganvillea! It’s going to be glorious when it starts to blossom.”

I asked the attractive woman her name (Veronica!), mumbled my own, wished I looked less catastrophically catastrophic, and then asked her to translate whatever it was she had just said to me, because I hadn’t understood any of it.

She cracked up and explained that the bush was a bouganvillea and would be displaying beautiful magenta blossoms in a few weeks. And what I had done—entirely by accident, I swore to her then and I swear to you here now—was accidentally reinvent a time-honored method of managing bouganvilleas by splaying them out and training them to climb up walls. She said I had actually done it quite well; the murderously brutal surgery I had performed was exactly what it needed, and although wire was more common, my fan of strings was the usual way to get an espalier started.

I confessed that I’d had no idea what kind of bush it was and didn’t have the first clue about bouganvilleas. (I grew up in the snow belt! What did I know about Mediterranean plants?) I had no idea that it was traditional to espalier them, nor even what that was. I must have seen that done somewhere, but it wasn’t even my intention—I was just trying to get the damned thing to be vertical again! And since I also didn’t know the first thing about pruning, I figured I had probably killed it and in a few weeks I’d be back out there with the barbaric giant scissors cutting all the dead vines and strings off our staircase.

She chuckled through my tale. Several times she reached over with a spit-dampened thumb to wipe a bit of blood off my shredded arm or neck, perhaps once even my cheek, and if I’d been single at the time, this might not be a story about gardening. But I wasn’t, and it is, so she patiently explained to me all about “boogs,” as she called them. How they need ruthless pruning, the more barbaric the better. How and why they’re traditionally espaliered—something about the more sunlight the better, I think. How you see boogs crawling up all the houses in Spain and Portugal (aha! that’s where I’d seen it done—in Lisboa, which I’d visited five years earlier on a business trip!). How this boog wouldn’t need any watering; that its annual winter soaking would be plenty to get it through our foggy summer.

Veronica was right: a few weeks later, my new friend The Boog was a riot of magenta.

It took a while to reform The Boog’s slouching ways, so every so often I would be back out there with my string and my screwdriver and the giant barbaric scissors. My combatant was a worthy adversary, always extracting its share of my blood while I hacked away at it. I learned to wear heavier, longer-sleeved shirts for these skirmishes, but The Boog sharpened its thorns and remained undaunted. As I bled over my labors, the neighbors would wander over to say hi, and that is how over the next several years I got to know Veronica and her mother from across the street, and the creaky, squeaky woman from next door whose brain managed to hang onto her vast knowledge of gardening even as all the rest of her marbles rolled away.

I grew fond of Crazy Lady during our growing-season chats. Occasionally her social needs were more than a little inconvenient, but she always seemed genuinely delighted to greet me and tell me the latest installment of her saga of the redwood behind my house—how its cones and needles littered her backyard, and something I never quite managed to follow that had to do with space aliens and that giant tree’s service as their antenna. I found that it was best to smile a lot and wait for her to circle back around to the things on our planet.

She was generous with her plant wisdom. It was she who encouraged me to weed-whack the little area to the right of my house and scatter a packet of wildflower seeds that she then plucked out of her apron and handed me.

It wasn’t my patch to garden, you see—it was over the property line, on Boo Radley’s lot, fronting his ramshackle barn that we hoped wouldn’t fall over onto our rental house. Boo’s unkempt weeds were an eyesore stealing The Boog’s spotlight.

I did as she said—I surreptitiously weed-whacked while Boo slept one off, and then I nonchalantly waved the packet over the stubble. For a few weeks I had bad aim when I rinsed off my stucco with the garden hose I’d found out back. Sure enough, the snail-infested weed thicket was soon transformed into a colorful, tiny meadow. It was just the right thing to do with that funny space that wasn’t mine: lovely, accidental, nature’s spontaneous victory over dilapidation. Genius, that Crazy Lady.

Boo Radley must have died finally, because the house has been propped up, and our little guerilla meadow is a tidy, deliberate-looking gardenlet now.

Crazy Lady’s house looks the same, and if she’s gone off with the space aliens by now, I know she’s happy when she sees that her birds of paradise out front are their same outrageous selves.

When I bought my house in Montclair a few years later, I brought along to the East Bay a small cutting of The Boog that climbed all over that staircase, and I planted it in the sunniest spot I could find, but it was no use. The Boog had not made the move with me.

Nor had, would it seem, any gardening skills. They must have been on loan from Veronica and Crazy Lady just while I was their neighbor. Since moving here I have killed not only Boog, Jr. but a set of rhubarb roots, two and a half dwarf Meyer lemon trees, a Eureka lemon treeling, an extravagantly flamboyant spider plant, a mother-in-law’s tongue, and dozens of pots of herbs. The only plant to survive my malevolent neglect is a jade tree in a pot that I’d kept alive since my junior year in college, in five cities and eight dwellings. When we arrived in Montclair, it began to droop and mold. I moved it from room to room, trying to find one with enough sunlight to cheer it back up, to no avail. It died. Too busy to deal with depotting it, I moved the pot out onto the front deck and forgot about it.

Over the next several years, though, a sprout volunteered from that jade’s grave and decided it liked Oakland. It grew tall and stout, and it edged its leaves in red. Silly Northerner, I’d thought it was a green indoor plant, but Little Jade knew better. It lives on, joyful at last to be living outside in a forest where it knows it belongs.

optimism in the face of reason, or: another kaddish for new orleans

Mira wrote about having a grudge against optimism recently in an essay that has left me wandering lost in my own mind. See, I agree with just about everything she wrote. I largely agree with her worldview. But I am a persistent optimist.

I am an optimist in the face of considerable clear evidence that optimism is irrational.

I am the most rational person I know. I am a skeptic. I am an empiricist. I do numbers. I annoy people who ask me what my sign is by responding with a lecture they find humorless (I disagree). Do I do this because I’m a Virgo, or because I have a second-grader’s grasp of how gravity works and can therefore deduce that astrology is horseshit? Yeah, must be because I’m a Virgo.

I think Mira’s right when she lists five faiths driving optimism and abandons each of them as hopelessly fluffy, along with hope itself. I have my own issues with faith. We’ve already been over this (see “on playing kaddish“). Faith is a pretty big deal for Lutherans, but I’ve never had any.

Yet I am an optimist, even though I should know better. The biggest heartaches in my life have followed in the wake of my unshakable certainty that people will do good, choose well, act honorably. I keep managing to forget somehow that healthy people who grew up bathed in unconditional love in functional families are a scant minority, and the far more probable case is that any given individual is too broken to recognize a good choice let alone find the strength to act on it in the face of adversity.

Perhaps this optimism comes from pragmatism. On some level I do realize that many people will disappoint me, frequently, and usually without good reasons, but does it help for me to assume that they will? Does it hurt for me to assume that they will not?

In my management career, I’ve seen people trying hard to meet my expectations, which are high. Yes, they disappoint me frequently, but when they fall, they get back up. They try again. They get better. They surprise themselves—and me—with success.

So, Mira’s #1, faith in others: nope. She’s right; I assume incorrectly when I assume people will do the right thing. I get better results from communicating clearly what I think the right thing is.

In #2, Mira dismisses faith in self in favor of preparation. I think she’s right. Her devastating essay yesterday about the water going out in New Orleans has had me thinking about this:

Chicago, where I used to live, was routinely brought to its knees by less than an inch of snow.

Minneapolis, where I used to live, was routinely undisturbed by a foot of snow.

Jane Byrne famously unseated the incumbent to become Chicago’s mayor for basically one reason: the other guy couldn’t get the snow plowed. He talked about it, though. He’d get on radio and TV and go on and on about how he had all the snow plows out and working overtime, and nobody was quitting until the job was done. And it was true.

The difference? Minneapolis had a lot more snow plows than Chicago.

Preparation.

Which costs money. Taxes are the cost of infrastructure we expect. Disastrous failure of infrastructure we ignore is the price of tax cuts. Minneapolis had a big bridge collapse a few years back, and we’re lucky we haven’t seen a lot more headlines like that one, because not maintaining our interstate highway system is one way we’ve been paying for all those big tax cuts. But I’m getting ahead of myself—this is my lack of faith in society, Mira’s #3.

Back to faith in self, #2: not really. I have a surplus of self-confidence in most of what I do, but that’s only because I either see to it that I’m well prepared or I avoid having anything to do with it. I can walk out on stage and play horn because I’ve worked ridiculously hard at horn since I was nine. I’m not good at sports, so I won’t even watch other people play them. Right—preparation.

Which brings us to #4-5, faith in the planet and universe. Where do I even start? Let’s just say my nocturnal insomnial hours look a lot like Mira’s.

So why am I an optimist?

Let’s go back to Minnesota. And New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman has probably the most depressing beat in journalism, the Middle East, with side trips to economic globalism, and yet he describes himself as an optimist—a description that anyone who follows his column in the New York Times would be hard-pressed to refute. The guy even managed to find cause for hope in Dubya’s plan to get back at Osama bin Laden by bombing Saddam Hussein to kingdom come. I may be an optimist, but that plan had “insane” and “quagmire” written all over it.

Friedman’s explanation for his optimism? He says he grew up in Minneapolis. He describes Minneapolis as a city that works in a state that works, and he thinks that is the source of his enduring optimism that places can work, that politicians can lead, that policies can do good.

I think there might be something to this.

I grew up in the snow belt, too, and I went to college in Minnesota about an hour south of Minneapolis. I found Minnesota politics more interesting, but I always voted absentee in North Dakota, because North Dakota needed my liberal vote a lot more than Minnesota did. Mind you, North Dakota is practically a socialist state, with its own bank and its own mill and elevator (a farm thing—don’t worry about it). At the time it was also the world’s fourth largest nuclear power, or would have been had it seceded from the union, so don’t tell me Reagan wasn’t worried about us liver-lilied liberals up there. But compared to Minnesota? Republican enclave.

Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Reagan was reelected in a “landslide” with all but thirteen electoral votes. I’m not sure how a 59%-41% split of the popular vote could be described as a landslide, or how a candidate that almost half the population couldn’t stand could be considered universally popular, but this isn’t supposed to be an essay about why we need a third political party and ranked-choice voting, so never mind that.

But those thirteen electoral votes that Mondale got?

Minnesota.

The map in 1984 showed the entire United States in red except for Minnesota, wearing a lonely coat of blue up there in the frozen north.

Minnesota is the state that sent Paul Wellstone to the US Senate, may he rest in peace. He was a poli-sci prof at the college across the river from mine. A rumpled tweed sportcoat kind of guy—probably with the elbow patches, even—a thoughtful liberal who made sense, cared about doing good, and quietly stole the election from the shoo-in who paid for it fair and square.

What does all this have to do with optimism?

There is an essential optimism to this kind of consistent progressivism. Linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives lose a lot of elections because conservatives frame politics in selfish, fearful terms where a strict father protects his family against the evils of the outside world. By contrast, progressives frame politics in empathic, positive terms where a nurturing parent teaches children self-discipline so that they can realize their potential and be responsible for others. That second worldview is a whole lot more optimistic, and optimism just doesn’t play as well on TV. Fear sells. Nurturance is wimpy.

Minnesota was a place, though, where that optimism crowded fear out. Perhaps I’m an optimist because I, like Thomas Friedman, grew up in that place that worked.

I think long winters and all that snow had something to do with it, too. You don’t get through six months of below-zero temperatures on your own. As Mira knew to share water in the Sahara, I knew that “neighbor” is the person whose sidewalk also needs to be shoveled out before you go back inside to warm up, and whose car might start when yours needs a jump.

As for New Orleans—well, I almost moved there.

Eighteen years ago, I won the assistant principal horn audition in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which was the co-op struggling to rise from the ashes of the New Orleans Philharmonic’s bankruptcy. I was ecstatic. This was the first audition I’d won for a real job—the job I’d been preparing for since I was nine, playing horn full-time in a symphony orchestra. And it was in New Orleans, a city I’d spent the weekend exploring and falling in love with. Where I’d enjoyed staying with a role model-turned-friend, whose company I could now have regularly.

I didn’t expect this, but within a few minutes of winning the audition, I knew I had to turn the job down. I asked about details of the wage forecast the job announcement had left vague and got grim answers. I asked about the schedule and learned details that ruled out any hope I might have of continuing my software work on the side. I asked about teaching work and chamber music work and learned that there was little demand in town for either.

I asked about the LPO’s financial situation and the factors that had led to the previous orchestra’s collapse and didn’t hear anything that had changed. I thought about the city I’d been enjoying and how I hadn’t seen one speck of classical music. For that matter, I hadn’t seen any music that was being produced for anyone but tourists, and I knew that tourists aren’t known for keeping orchestras in business. I hadn’t seen much of a local population that could afford symphony tickets. I saw an awful lot of people who couldn’t afford lunch. I saw an awful lot of dilapidation.

I knew what all these things meant: New Orleans was not a city that worked.

So on the long flight home, I had a big argument with myself, trying desperately to find any reason whatsoever to believe that I should take the job. All I could come up with was a variety of story-lines that all ended with me too poor to buy a plane ticket to an audition for a better job. (I also got a bit hung up on knowing I’d never be able to afford air conditioning.) The next day I phoned and mailed my decision.

Thing is, I didn’t give up the job out of pessimism about the LPO or New Orleans. I kept my job in Chicago out of optimism that I was on my way to winning a better horn job somewhere else and appreciation that the situation I had in the meantime was a good one.

A few years later I moved to San Francisco with the optimistic plan of trading software for freelancing—a plan that lasted only a few weeks, until a Rottweiler bit me in the face and I couldn’t play horn for the next four years or, for all I knew, ever again. I made the optimistic—and pragmatic—decision to carry on with software. Which is how it came to be that I watched Katrina on a big TV in a house I own in the beautiful Oakland hills.

I was heartbroken along with everyone else. It took me a week to reach my friend. And I couldn’t figure out why anybody was surprised that a town that was known for tourists and poverty fell apart when a big storm blew through. The only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner.

About New Orleans I have no optimism. I never never, as much as I loved what I experienced in 1992—as much as I’d like to visit again now. A city that makes its money by being a place for tourists to get drunk isn’t spending any of that money on its infrastructure. Nobody’s flying in and buying tickets to see levies. New Orleans’ news-making entrepreneur post-Katrina is a guy who dispatches big, shiny black trucks to the tourism centers every single night to pick up the garbage and hose the vomit out of the streets with a pleasant-smelling detergent, and anybody who doesn’t find that depressing is delusional.

Nano-art criticism: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond

Today Mom, Victoria, and I went to Part 2 of the de Young Museum’s big exhibition of art on loan from the Musee d’Orsay, entitled “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.” It was much the same as Part I: an amazing exhibition but too damned crowded to be enjoyable.

I do, however, have several takeaways that Victoria likened to my “nano-opera” posts, the nano-scale opera plot synapses I write from time to time. She said, “Now we have nano-art!”

Here you go:

  • Georges Seurat invented LCD displays.
  • Paul Gauguin invented paint-by-number.
  • The Nabis invented the pattern-fill in MacPaint.

And it’s criminal what the de Young is doing to the experience of viewing spectacular art. Ask me more about this if you don’t mind my ruining your day.

Opinionated computer purchasing advice (updated)

People ask me about which Mac to buy often enough that I thought I might as well post here a recent reply I wrote to a friend who is looking at a career change from corporate programming to consulting, possibly, or another corporate gig, or who knows what.

Caveat emptor: I am a software professional. A way geek. My everyday work is computing intensive. I usually have at least six applications running at once, and not because I’m not paying attention but because my work requires it. Some of my applications require fast processors and huge amounts of RAM. I need a big-ass disk or several. My extracurricular activities as a professional musician who does some recording and composing are also computer-intensive at times, and I read the New York Times online daily with a Times Reader subscription–yet another computer-based activity. My work frequently requires travel, and even during leisure travel there is the possibility that I will need to work on some code or something else where my iPhone or a netbook wouldn’t cut it.

Normal people do not have such extreme needs! Normal people would get along just fine with the computer I was using five years ago.

Oh–and I’m a Mac bigot. I truly believe that Macs work better and let you get more done with less hassle. If you need to some particular software that’s only available on Windows or Linux or whatever, then buy Parallels or VMWare or try one of the open source virtualization programs to run those programs–and only those programs–in a window on your Mac. That’s what I do, and many of my clients are Windows-only shops, so it’s not like I can afford to be without access to Windows myself.

Still, people ask me, because they know I care and have researched these things to death, so here goes.

I love laptops, and I think that in consulting and/or uncertain job futures it’s best to emphasize flexibility. You never know when you’ll need to give a talk, or demo something at someone else’s office, or fix something while you’re on vacation, or work while you’re on the road. You can’t do much of that on an iPad or iPhone (except correspondence and basic iWork stuff). You can do it all on a laptop, and you also have a built-in uninterruptable power supply (battery!) in cases of lightning knocking out the power just as you accomplish something important that you haven’t saved yet. You also have, in a laptop, a built-in free primary display, and when you connect a big-ass LCD as your external display, you have tons of real estate when you’re at your desk.

And anything the iPad can do, your laptop can do, except for being light, sexy, etc. But you’ll have an iPhone for that. Get an iPad later when you can resist no longer. (I plan to usurp the one my wife bought this afternoon.)

My friends with iMacs love them, and one friend in particular who lives in a one-bedroom apartment uses his as his computer, TV, DVD, DVR, stereo, virtual aquarium, and digital picture frame as well as computer. He uses his iPhone on the go. He’s delighted with both. He does NOT make his living in software, though, and he doesn’t travel for same. He’s a musician who does Mac stuff at his day job, sometimes works from home, does a variety of things at home, and just needs basic iPhone apps when away from home. That said, I doubt he’d say no if somebody offered him their two-year-old MacBook–and I also doubt he’d get rid of the iMac.

I like a big screen and as much power and as many kinds of ports as possible, especially when a fair amount of work-away-from-office is expected, but even just when reading Times Reader. So, for me the top of the line MacBook Pro 17″ will always be the no-brainer choice. Next best for me is last year’s version of same, from craigslist or a bargain Apple refurb unit. That said, 17″ weighs a lot more than 15″ weighs a lot more than 13″, and unless you use a backpack, you want to avoid unnecessary weight. (And don’t forget it’s not just the laptop–it’s the cables, the camera, the books, the banana, the carrying bag itself, and everything else you schlepp around in your purse^H^H^H^H^Hbriefcase or backpack.

If you’re bent on an iMac and an iPad, maybe a good compromise would be an iMac for your desk and a refurb Air for travel, and a Dropbox account to be sure that the most important things are always on both. See the Apple store, lower right corner for refurbs etc.

Craigslist rocks. For retail, see if you have any friends/family with access to academic discounts, then check refurb, then check:

http://www.appleinsider.com/mac_price_guide/

http://www.techound1.com/blog/

Did I mention craigslist?

Nobody pays me anything for blogging about this stuff. Or rather, companies don’t. My friends and family repay me amply in ways too numerous to count. Thank you, all of you–you probably don’t realize who you are, but I do, and I’m grateful to be blessed with such an embarrassment of riches.

Update: iPads rock!

So I finally got an iPad a few months ago, and yes, I love it. For me it’s not a computer replacement, but it’s a wonderful new thing altogether. I haven’t gotten as far into it as I know I will eventually, but I already love it for:

  • reading ebooks
  • reading the New York Times
  • the NPR app
  • Epicurious for recipes
  • replacing bags and bags of dance music with a lovely, self-lit electronic screen, with tons of PDFs and the unRealbook app for putting tunes together into set lists on the fly
  • email, Twitter, and Facebook
  • online video (e.g. Google Videos for movies that aren’t available on Netflix or any other way)
  • Netflix streaming!
  • iPod

I’ve since encouraged a dear friend who doesn’t have a personal computer (only a work computer on which she isn’t allowed to do anything except work) to buy an iPad. She didn’t want to deal with paying for and learning how to use another computer, and she gets enough of staring at computer screens in her job as a high-powered attorney. In about an hour, I had her set up with wifi and a personal email address and showed her how to get around. It has changed her life. She says she absolutely loves it and has no idea how she ever got along without one. She’s playing with digital photos, email, videos, music, ebooks, and all kinds of other things. She carries it around with her all the time.

Just switch to Mac, already (updated for 2010)

We all have computer problems, and that doesn’t stop with Mac, but it sure gets easier. I find myself telling one friend after another to switch to Mac. Sometimes the objection is, “but I absolutely have to have Windows for my job” because of some Windows-only application or another.

If that’s the case, then you especially should get a Mac. Because face it, sometimes Windows goes south, and when it does, would you rather revert to the Windows machine you had yesterday that was running fine, or would you rather troubleshoot Windows for a week and still not know what’s wrong? Would you rather spend two minutes restoring yesterday’s virtual machine or two hours driving to a geek squad?

If you don’t need Windows apps, then you’ll be much happier on a Mac. If you do need Windows apps, you’ll still be much happier on a Mac, with Windows running as a virtual machine.

Meanwhile, just because you have one or two essential applications that are Windows only, that doesn’t mean you should have to put up with Windows software for everything else you do, like email, web, calendar, address book, photos, music, documents and spreadsheets, etc. Use your Mac for everything you can, and use Windows only as much as you absolutely have to.

You have at least two good choices: Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion. Both work pretty well and have roughly the same features. For me VMWare has worked a little better and the little problems I’ve had to figure out haven’t been as confusing on VMWare as they used to be on Parallels, but I’ve heard other people say the opposite.

If you want to try VMWare, I think this link will get you a discount. I’m not being paid for this blog post, but if enough people buy VMWare through this link, I get a $10 gift certificate to Amazon or something like that. But that’s not why I’m posting it–I’m posting this because I think people with Macs get more done.

My tech support policy for family and friends?

  • Mac: free, unlimited, anytime you can find me online or answering my phone. And since I can actually take over your machine and show you how to do things with screen-sharing in iChat, I can help you with your computer even if you live in New York. It’s a lot easier than the old, “Um, what do you see in the upper left corner, where it says File… can you click on the button that says…” routine, believe me.
  • Windows: you’re on your own, and next time please get a Mac.

So far my family and friends who have listened to me have sooner or later been glad they switched. Even my dad, who like me never admits when he was wrong about something, who fought this advice for years and finally got a MacBook Pro last year, who loves it. My mom was perfectly happy to make the switch and she loves hers, too. In a single year, you wouldn’t believe how many new things they’ve started doing (and enjoying) on their computers.

Why are Macs so much better? Because Macs make it so easy to do things—everything from basics like email to advanced tasks like photo manipulation and professional audio recording—that you will get more done. You’ll focus on your goals, not how to complete the tasks. Because things are easy, you’ll find yourself doing things that you never planned to do, like making custom calendars from your pictures. Like building websites. Like getting your finances organized. Like writing a book. Like making mix CDs for your friends. And on and on and on.

Still not convinced? Here’s my best argument. Go down the hallway of any office and look at the monitors on people’s desks. I bet you many beers that this is what you’ll see:

  • Windows displays that are covered with Post-Its with little reminders of how to do really basic things.
  • Mac displays that have at most one or two Post-Its, and they’re reminders about groceries to buy on the way home.