Friday, December 28, 2007

Update on Marc Jacobs and the Swan

The Swan is gone. I was there on 12/26, and the snow has sung a swan song. I really wanted to take a picture of the pictures in the window as this was almost the oddest part, but you'll have to settle for this: the official photos from the shoot by TKE. Hundreds of people (and some dogs) with strangers, in a swan. SO weird. And Poetic & Chic weigh in, as they actually did this odd thing.

Carlos Eire: Waiting for Snow in Havana

The whole time I was reading "Waiting for Snow in Havana," I kept thinking that this was the Cuban male version of Sandra Cisneros' "House on Mango Street." Although I liked "Waiting," I liked "House on Mango Street" better. It's probably not a fair comparison, as I read the Cisneros book in middle school, with my favorite English teacher ever, but I think that in the long run, the Cisneros book, which is a novella of a young Chicana girl in Chicago will hold up longer. Eire's book is a memoir of his life in pre- and just-post-Castro Cuba and then just after he is sent to the U.S. in the Pedro Pan project. Cisneros and Eire use similar vignette style story-telling, hopping from story to story in a lose approximation of chronology. This works beautifully in "Mango Street" but falls a little short in "Waiting" as I was left wanting to know so much more about Eire's fragmented childhood.

In reading the afterward, I learned that Eire, portrayed in "Waiting" as a lizard-killing denial specialist (a man after my own heart, though only in the denial part), is a professor of religious studies at Yale. The book is his first attempt at trying to organize and deal with his past: the child of wealthy parents in Batista's Cuba forced to drop everything and become a refugee. The reader learns a lot about what it was like to be a child of wealthy (and odd- Dad thinks he is a reincarnated French king) parents, but very little about what happens next, except in fragments of memories. I found myself wishing this book was an either/or: either a memory of pre-Fidel Cuba or the story of getting forcibly uprooted. I understand that Eire was traumatized and that this book is a sort of spiritual catharsis for him, but it takes some of the power out of the book for the reader.

I liked the book and have decided it was worth reading. I have read so little about Cuba, and it seems like we're not on the fast track to getting any new personal insights, so this book was a rare gift in that way.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Since He's so Cute,

I guess I'll keep him.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Marc Jacobs and the Chihuahua Princess

I have never heard of Marc Jacobs. I do not know what Marc Jacobs is or what they sell. All I know is that if you walk down Fillmore St. right now, in SF, you will see this store with this bizarre window filled with a giant swan, and even more bizarrely, all of these pictures of people in the swan, and even MORE bizarrely, all of these people posed with the same two people in the same two costumes over and over and over. The man is in a kind of soldier/nutcracker costume, and the woman is in a kind of white ballgown. They're both kind of young- early 20s, maybe? It is very very odd. I am guessing that they are supposed to be from Swan Lake, but I don't know, and noone's talking. I have so many questions about this situation- do these people get paid to sit in the window with strangers? Do people who sit in the swan with these mystery people buy things from the mysterious Marc Jacobs? I tried to find a picture of this window online, but I can't. If it's still up the next time I walk by, I will take a picture.

Here is the only picture I have: Uma and the prince and princess.

The Heater and the Voices in My Head

I cannot be the only one who carries their parents around in their head. I mean, come on, there are whole cliches about it: "wear clean underwear in case you have to go to the hospital"- that is someone's mom or grandma talking, right? And don't forget about Freud and his decades of followers and modern pop psychology who have built whole theories and universities around the ideas of how we are our parents and our reactions to our parents. Yes, that is the over simplified version.

Anyway, the moral of the story for now, is that all winter, every winter, I carry my dad around in my head. He is the voice that says "Lauren, don't turn the heater on, it's not that cold." I don't remember what the rule was when we were growing up- was it no heater till December? No heater until it got below 40degrees? No heat at night? No heat during the day? What ever the rule was, I've internalized Dad's voice, and all it says is "No heat." And right now it's stinking cold. Ice on the windshield that takes 3-10 minutes to defrost every day cold. Need a blanket inside cold. Three warm-weather-layers outside and a hat with ears cold. And I can't get rid of Dad's voice. Even though I have this nice heater in my room that only heats my room, so it's not even that expensive. Even though my PG&E bill only hits about $35 each month, so turning on the heat would be affordable, even if it got up to the high high number of $50.

Maybe Dad wanted us to be tough. California tough. Some kids have to go camping and hunting, but we had to slog through the hoarfrost on our floors in Oakland. Maybe Dad doesn't feel acute cold the same way, and has never felt frostbite on his fingers and toes, even while sitting inside. I don't really care at this point, I'd just like to get rid of the voice in my head. Since it's Dad, though, I think I'll have to speak with some Freudians. I'm guessing it's not going to be an easy one to expunge.

The irony? I'm going to Mom and Dad's house tonight, where, so I'm told, the heat is on full blast. I'm going there a day early, partially to get warm.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In Honor of a Lab

My best friend has finally fallen for a Lab. Normally she readily admits that labs fall right before beagles on the "no way, Jose" list. But since she is this close to bringing home Miss Holly Berry, I thought I would offer World Best Kids a chance at the current best beagle. Pulaski is house trained, knows some tricks, likes small dogs, likes cats, and will never, ever be a lab.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mac Is De-Lumped

And I am stress-free. I checked my messages after work, and there was nothing. I girded my loins (figuratively) for a day of stress carrying my phone around and waiting for the worst. Then the phone rang after 6 and it was the vet who had just heard that the lump was not even benign or malignant, it was some weird hair follicle thing that had nothing to do with any tumor or cancer or anything.

I am so relieved. This guy gets to be my cancer-free dude for another while. He threw some toys around in celebration afterwards.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A DJ After My Own Heart...

I was informed after my Chinese Children post that my best friend will no longer be coming to me for music advice. Be that as it may, I would like to commend the Majority Whip on KALX 90.7 fm, my favorite radio station, for playing three (3) straight hours of Jesus songs today from noon till 3pm. Theme playlists are right up my alley, and there is almost nothing better than a religion playlist or a Jesus playlist. I have one or two of my own, but here is the Majority Whip's:

02:55 pm Dirty Dozen Brass Band - "Jesus on the Mainline" - Funeral for a Friend (Ropeadope)
02:48 pm Suicide - "Dominic Christ" - A Way of LIfe (Wax Trax)
02:45 pm Big Youth - "Jesus is a Condition" - Gathering of the Spirits (Shanachie)
02:42 pm ze keti & nadinho da ilha - "clementina de jesus" - casa da mae joana (Blue Jackal)
02:39 pm Van Dyke Parks - "On the Rolling Sea When Jesus Came to Me" - Out on the Rolling Sea (Hokey Pokey)
02:35 pm Cake - "Jesus Wrote a Blank Check" - Motorcade Of Generosity (S/R)
02:31 pm El Vez - "Lust for Christ" - Boxing with God (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
02:26 pm Flaming Lips - "Shine on Sweet Jesus" - In A Priest Driven Ambulance (Restless)
02:17 pm Robin Hitchcock - "Sleeping Knights of Jesus" - Selections from Box Set (Yep Roc)
02:14 pm Christian Death - "Jesus Where's The Sugar" - Sex & Drugs and Jesus Christ (Freud)
02:10 pm Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper - "Jesus at McDonalds" - S/t (RBI)
02:07 pm Austin Lounge Lizards - "Jesus Loves Me But He Can't Stand You" - Lizard Vision (Flying Fish)
02:04 pm Billy Bragg and Wilco - "Christ for President" - Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)
02:00 pm Woody Guthrie - "Jesus Christ" - The Songs and Story (Folkways)
01:54 pm John Prine - "Jesus The Missing Years" - The Missing Years (Oh Boy)
01:50 pm Violent Femmes - "Jesus Walking on the Water" - Hallowed Ground (Slash)
01:48 pm Minutemen - "Jesus and Tequila" - Double Nickels on the Dime (SST)
01:45 pm Big Star - "Jesus Christ" - Sister Lovers (Ryko)
01:43 pm King Missile - "Jesus was Way Cool" - Mystical Shit (Shimmy Disc)
01:40 pm Morrisey - "I Have Forgiven Jesus" - You are the Quarry (Attack)
01:37 pm Vaselines - "jesus dont want me for a sunbeam" - The Way of the Vaselines (Sub Pop)
01:32 pm Gretchens - "Phone Jesus" - Cover Your Ears (S/T)
01:29 pm Li Alin - "Jesus" - All In (Asphodel)
01:26 pm Dory Previn - "Jesus was an Androgyne" - Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign (Unite Artists)
01:23 pm Rickie Lee Lones - "Tried to a Man" - The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West)
01:19 pm Club 8 - "Jesus, Walke with Me" - The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming (Labrador)
01:15 pm St. Vincent - "Jesus Saves, I Spend" - Marry Me (Beggars Banquet)
01:09 pm The Slaughterman - "Jesuss Saves White Trash" - A Slab of Vic (Au-Go-Go)
01:07 pm Jayhawks - "Jesus in Driver's Heat" - Big Hits of Mid America 4 (Twin Tone)
01:05 pm RF7 - "Jesus Loves You" - American Youth Report (Thunderbotlt)
01:02 pm Suffocation - "Jesus Wept" - Live Death (Restless)
12:58 pm Ministry - "Jesus Built My Hotrod" - Psalm 69 (Sire)
12:52 pm Slayer - "Jesus Saves" - Reign in Blood (Def Jam)
12:48 pm Tom Waits - "Jesus Gonna Be Here" - Bone Machine (Island)
12:46 pm Blind Willie Johnson - "Jesus is Coming Soon" - The Complete (Legacy)
12:42 pm Congregation in Moving Star Hall, Johns Island SC - "Jesus Knows All About My Trouble" - Been in the Storm So Long (Smithsonian Folkways)
12:39 pm Swan Silvertones - "What Do You Know About Jesus" - My Rock (Specialty)
12:36 pm Sister Wynona Carra - "15 Rounds for Jesus" - Dragnet for Jesus (Specialty)
12:25 pm Lord Buckley - "The Nazz" - His Royal Hipness (Discovery)
12:20 pm Kris Kristofferson - "Jesus was a Capricorn" - Jesus Was a Capricorn (Monument)
12:18 pm Bobby Bare - "Drop Kick Me Jesus" - The Winner and Other Losers (RCA)
12:15 pm Martin Mull - "Jesus Christ Football Star" - A New Release For.. (Capricorn)
12:10 pm Prince - "The Cross" - Sign O The Times (Paisley Park)
12:05 pm Rance Allen Group - "Hotline to Jesus" - Best of (Stax)
12:00 pm Al Green - "Jesus is Waiting" - Call Me (Hi)

Philip Caputo: Equation for Evil

Although I have been straying in my project to "read every unread book on my shelves A-Z", I am really still trying. This book is still in order- I'm still on the C's, but it's another little detour- I picked it up at Red Hill Books in Bernal Heights a couple of weeks ago, even though the initial project guidelines clearly stated: "read all unread books A-Z prior to bringing any new unread books home." However, I added some fine print to the guidelines when I saw that Red Hill had a couple of Philip Caputo books that I haven't read, and decided that it was okay to buy them as long as I put the newly acquired books in the pile of "to be read next" books, which is where this one belonged, anyway, as it started with a "C". (Oh, the rules and regulations of an obsessive-compulsive... that's for another post.)

Anyway, I guess Philip Caputo has been around and writing great books for awhile. I didn't know this until a few months ago when I stumbled on his 2005 book, Acts of Faith and totally loved it. "Faith" was a fictional book with real life issues. Equation for Evil isn't quite that serious. As best as I can figure, it's a California version of Bonfire of the Vanities view of mid-90s malaise/malignancy turned into a thriller. It's a pretty great book if you, like me, don't read many thrillers. A special agent and a forensic psychologist are called in by California's state Attorney General to do a forensic autopsy after a horrible crime is committed on some kids in San Joaquin. The turn up- probably predictably if you read thrillers, but surprisingly for me- a whole lot more than they bargained for. The two are the odd couple- an assimilated 5th generation Chinese-American special agent and a down on his luck psychiatrist who is on the cutting edge of figuring it all out (in his head) about how nature and nurture work together.

The book, written in 1996, takes place in 1993, and California, especially the central valley and southern California, was a racial mess then. Caputo throws this into his thriller with charm, and doesn't hit the reader over the head with it. The crime is initially thought to be the work of neo-Nazis, but the crime fighters and the victims are dealing with much, much more systemic racism than a few skinheads.

My favorite insight is as follows, from page 194. Think about it, and tell me if there isn't something disturbingly accurate here:


Christopher Coumbus Transcontinental Highway

The Sign appeared at the city limits. Nearly three thousand miles away, I-10 ended in Jacskonville, Florida. The plague seemed to have struck worst in the two states joined by the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway. Disney World in the one, Disneyland in the other, sunshine and random violence in both. Perhaps there was some mysterious connection between overbright skies and Mickey Mouse, some evil synergy between warm climates and fantasy that drove young men to kill without reason.

If that's not genius in the guise of a thriller, well, I'm going to keep reading anyway to find out, but this one comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Recent Favorite Pictures

(that I've taken)

It's not easy to take pictures of black cats! I took these yesterday at Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society where I once worked and now take pictures for the website. If you're in the market for cats, I would highly recommend these guys. They're even better in person.

Baby Purr (this girl loves people and shoelaces- it is so hard to get her out of your lap and into the frame!)

Ara (super playful, especially with other cats. I think she doesn't know her own strength!)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Michelle Tea: Rose of No Man's Land

I am a Michelle Tea fan and this book left me a little disappointed. She uses that gimmick "whole book happens in one day" which never quite does it for me. "Rose of No Man's Land" takes place in 48 hours, but all the good stuff takes place in a hyperactive, mood-swing kind of 24 hours, or maybe even the last 6 hours of those 24 hours. Readers also get the added gimmick of "protagonist's first drug trip" for the majority of that really exciting 6 hours, so everything kind of goes loopy during the really exciting part of the book, making it seem like an awful dream sequence from a mediocre movie. A third gimmick that sometimes works and sometimes flops the attempted use of the 14 year old's voice for the narrative. Sometimes her narrative is convincing and then sometimes she slips into adult Tea voice and I slipped out of being convinced of the narrator or really anything else that was going on.
All of this being said, I really wanted to like this book. Tea tells stories that most authors don't- of lesbians and genderbenders doing what they do- nothing exciting or abnormal, just "being". These books are hard to find.

The narrator, Trisha, is a 14 year old who supposedly has not had a single friend in her whole entire life. Her older sister has just finished vocational school and is obsessed with being on MTV's "Real World" so she follows every bit of her life around with a camera. She is the essential "girly girl" with a twist- she is the only motivated person in Trisha's life. Trisha discovers something about herself when her sister forces her to hold the camera to film key moments of Kristy's life. Tea did herself and the book a disservice by not exploring this more, but it wouldn't have fit well into two of three gimmicks: tell the whole story in 14-year old voice and sandwich whole book into three days. Ma is a hypochondriac so worried about getting ill that she can't find the strength to get off of the couch but somehow has found a boyfriend willing to live with her and help her get the welfare straightened out. (I have to admit, I frequently wondered how Ma got off the couch to pee, but again, you don't worry about details like that in a book that takes place in one day.) Then Trisha meets Rose, and for 6 hours, we go along with a totally new world.

Tea is a spoken-word artist, and it shows in this book. There are some awesome creative moments where the reader is taken outside of herself altogether and totally transported into Trisha's bizarre world. The writing is fast-paced, and the book is a fast read. The work is visual- you can totally see everything that is happening. If this were my first Tea book, I think I would be hooked. Since I've read others, better ones, I was left wanting more.

Check This Out

When I was younger, I loved those Absolut ads. I still think that is one of the most creative ad campaigns in history. It's not all about naked women and fast cars. Someone I "know" from a forum posted this- a photoshop project he did for a design class. Make sure to check out his website: Ariel Payopay. This combines this awesome ad campaign with one of my other favorite subjects- graffiti.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Am Totally Not Guilty of This

Who Invited the Dog? (New York Times)

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER Your pet may be part of your family, but isn’t asking your hosts for that glass of wine going a bit far?

Published: December 13, 2007

IT was a dark and stormy night — actually four stormy nights — when Jayme Otto, 31, and her husband, Ryan Otto, 33, drove 1,200 miles from their home in Boulder, Colo., to her parents’ house in Cleveland for Christmas.

“We traveled all this way to bring our yellow Labrador, Cody Bear, home to spend time with his grandparents,” Ms. Otto said, “grandparents” being dog-person-speak for her parents.

Besides wanting Cody Bear “to participate in his favorite yearly activity of unwrapping gifts and destroying all the boxes,” as Ms. Otto put it, they wanted the dog to meet her brother’s fiancée.

But on Christmas morning, a commotion ensued: the fiancée was allergic to dogs and broke out in hives.

“The dog was banished to the guest bedroom and we were unable to share our Christmas morning with Cody Bear,” Ms. Otto said bitterly. “The family blowup between my brother and I over the dog resulted in my mother not speaking to me for two months and my brother for four.” This Christmas will mark the first time that the Ottos will not be returning home.

Where, one might ask at times like these, are the elegantly embossed cards people really need, ones reading: “I can’t believe I could have been so insensitive.” Or better yet, “I can’t believe you could have been so insensitive.”

They might also include a sketch of a sophisticated, well-traveled pet. Something for an animal that understands, even if others do not, that it is a valued family member. And of course a handwritten note, the tone bemused but firm.

“Rex is truly sorry he sent Granny to the emergency room with the oxygen mask, but it isn’t like anyone told me she was allergic. All is forgiven, see you next New Year’s. Leaps and Gloppy Drooly Kisses — R.”

Difficult guests are no longer limited to humans. The boundaries between humans and animals have been so eaten away by pet therapists, pet designer outfits and pet bar mitzvahs, that it has reached a point where devoted owners, who treat their animals as privileged children, lose all perspective on the pet’s role in their social lives.

More American households have pets than ever — 68.7 million of them in 2006, according to a new survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association, up 12.4 percent from 2001.

Among dog owners, 53.5 percent considered their pets to be members of the family, the survey found. For cats, the number was 49.2 percent.

And the term “family member” should not be used lightly. Ari Henry Barnes, who works in a New York law firm, is so devoted to his cat, Romeo, that he wipes the animal’s behind every time he does “a stinky boom boom.”

When the cat became an extended houseguest at the home of good friends, Mr. Barnes found it stressful, because despite his wishes, the cat was allowed outside. “I think anybody who is taking care of someone else’s child or pet, they should protect the parent’s wishes.”

Many four-legged family members are routine travelers.

Derek Welsh, the president of, a “pet-friendly” hotel and lodging directory, estimates the number at roughly 10 million a year.

Mr. Welsh also said that in a Bring Your Pet survey of 100,000 self-selected pet owners, 38.5 percent said they had difficulty finding pet-friendly lodging.

This means there’s a very good chance they may be visiting soon. And so, for animal owners and those on the hosting end of the equation, a guide.


A legion of two animal experts interviewed agreed that taking an unexpected animal to a party is impolite. “You never spring a doggy or any other uninvited guest on a host,” said Claudia Kawczynska, the editor in chief of Bark magazine. “If you do get a green light, bring a lot of treats for both your dog and the human host.”

What if the owner cannot bear to leave the dog at home?

“Many pet owners exhibit hyper-attachment,” said Victoria Stilwell, the British host of “It’s Me or the Dog,” a show on the Animal Planet network. But that is not fair to the dog, she said, because it may suffer intense separation anxiety when it is left alone. Also, she pointed out, “If you allow your pets to become hyper-attached, you’d better understand that it will limit your human relationships.”


Her name is Elisabeth Montoya. She is a 30-year-old lawyer who lives in Bozeman, Mont., with her husband, Johnny, an architect, their 2 ½-year-old son, Jack, and their 88-pound golden retriever, Diego del Mar de la Joya Montoya.

Before her son was born, Ms. Montoya admits, she was “really annoying” with the dog. “We nearly expected him to be given a place setting at the table.” Even now, she remains a dogaholic.

“The first time we brought Diego to my mom’s house was a disaster,” Ms. Montoya said. “He walked straight to the white-carpeted living room and proceeded to lift up his tail.”

The dog dragged himself perhaps 6 to 8 feet. “He left a noticeable brown streak in his wake. Horrifying.”

Now, Diego is even worse, Ms. Montoya said. He even bolted off the porch and bit a passer-by the other day.

“I babied him so much,” she said. “That’s why he’s like this.”

“We used to bring him to other people’s houses,” she said, “but now we don’t bring him around. He’s the cover dog for the worst dog ever.”


Ms. Montoya appears farther along the road to recovery than the couple who attended a catered dinner for out-of-town wedding guests with their puppy.

The setting was not far from Aspen, Colo., in a home so lovely it is frequently featured in shelter magazines. The name of the puppy — a truly out-of-control guest — was Dude.

“It was unbelievable that good friends of mine and good friends of the parents of the bride would even consider bringing this dog,” said the hostess, a photographer and amateur landscape gardener named Sally who, perhaps because of the trauma, would not permit her last name to be used.

“The first thing Dude did was jump into the outdoor pond,” Sally said. “He shakes off on the grass lawn, then promptly heads inside and leaps onto the white couches, leaving a trail of pond scum. Then he runs outside, jumps onto one of the dining chairs, jumps on the table and helps himself to the hors d’oeuvres and fillet.”

A week later Sally received a note of apology, suggesting that she let bygones be bygones, signed with a paw print. Sally did not respond, which, she said, very much annoyed Dude’s owner.

This happened five years ago, and they have not spoken since.

The owners declined to discuss the matter with a reporter, but sent a comment through the bride: “Dude categorically denies everything.”


Problems can also occur when the guests assume that if the hosts have dogs, they, too, can bring theirs. This was the case with Donna Engelson, a 65-year-old former clothing designer, and her husband, Mel Engelson, a hardware manufacturer who for a time shared a Southampton home with Mr. Engelson’s brother and business partner, Larry, along with his wife, Tina, and Tina’s golden retriever, Cooper.

Although Donna Engelson had had asthma as a child, she did not worry about the dog. Her sister-in-law kept the house vacuumed and the dog upstairs.

One summer, the couples had a big Labor Day party. Since the Engelsons had a dog, friends brought theirs. After the third dog, Donna Engelson wound up in the emergency room. “It was very scary,” Ms. Engelson said. “My breathing capacity was 65 percent of what it was.” The couples are still close, but they have their own houses.


There was the time Rosi Kerr, today a 32-year-old New York energy advisor, then a teaching intern in an elite boarding school, brought her golden retriever puppy, Gus, to a meeting with the school’s director, who happened to be a cat owner. Ms. Kerr wanted to extend her stay at the school, but had a feeling the director did not feel the same.

She certainly had not planned to bring her new puppy, but she was running late.

“I sat in the living room trying to keep an eye on my dog as he wandered and sniffed,” Ms. Kerr said. “Somewhere along the line, I lost track of Gus. As she described how I was not a very good listener, I frantically craned my neck looking for my puppy.”

Gus reappeared just as the director told Ms. Kerr she was being dismissed and dropped a large, kitty litter-encrusted deposit at the director’s feet.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Steve Coll: Ghost Wars

This book is so long and complicated, and took me so long to read that I cannot even begin to describe the timeline, or the key points. I can say that it Steve Coll is one of the New Yorker authors that can write a full-length book (I would go so far as to say a full-length-plus book) successfully.

When 9-11 happened, I was in college, and hung out with a group of ultra-liberals. I would say "lefties," but lefties in the sense of leftists like anarchists, communists, etc. I was the closest in our group to a conservative, and I am far from conservative. Anyway, my point is that many of my friends truly believed that 9/11 was a USA-backed conspiracy. I hope they all read "Ghost Wars," because they were right, but not in the way that they thought at the time. "Ghost Wars" follows the money and the politics through the Cold War literally to the eve of 9/11, and if Coll doesn't prove that the U.S. brought 9/11 upon itself, then I think I just saw pigs fly out of my butt.

Coll doesn't have to do a whole lot of explaining in this book- he just has to follow the paper trail that the CIA left behind. Clearly, the research that went into this book is enormous, and overwhelming, and at times I was left shouting at the book like I do at the TV sometimes: "no, don't DO that! Stop, don't give guns to that guy!" But of course the CIA sped ahead with their ill-advised course of action: arming the fundamentalists against the communists, and then taking no responsibility for the muck they created after the Cold War, which led to the upswing of the men they had armed in terrorist training camps. Hey, on the plus side, at least there are only 50 stinger missiles unaccounted for...

Coll is evenhanded with Democrat and Republican administrations- he finds factual faults with them both. He dwells extensively on the CIAs innerworkings without talking about the much-discussed failure of information sharing between the State Department and the FBI. This is really investigative journalism, and for all its length, Coll is clearly an expert in this field. I would have liked an epilogue, or some closure with policy recommendations. We know what happened, now what does Coll think? For this, it's back to the New Yorker.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Birthdays Are for Looking Back?

Well, I've looked back, and decided that we should have known.

Monday, December 10, 2007

For Those Who Aren't with Us Anymore

This could be another "look what I got" posts, but it's not, because a) I'm not really as material as I've been seeming on this thing lately and b) it's much much more than that. My awesome parents gave me a cool combo printer/photoprinter/scanner thingy for Hannukah yesterday, and my first task (besides printing out a form I need for insurance) was to scan some of my favorite pictures of my family members that aren't with us any more.

Here they are in the order that they've left.

Bernadine ("Babe") Harris aka Grandma, d. 10/23/99.

This picture was taken at my cousin's wedding about 2 weeks before my Grandma passed away. Grandma had been sick for about 15 years- she got sick when I was 4, and the wedding, also the last time I saw her, was the fall of my freshman year of college. Call me crazy (you wouldn't be the first one), but I really believe that Grandma held on to see her oldest granddaughter get married. Grandma was a fighter and never gave up- even if it meant getting out of her bedroom so she didn't have to stare that "damn crack in the ceiling" anymore. Grandma played by her own rules, for better or for worse- she was stubborn, creative, and inappropriate. And of course, a giant lover of chocolate. Thanks for passing all of that on, Grandma, I think of you daily, as I also, am all of those things.

Bert Briskin d. 7/16/04

I have always loved this picture. I believe it is from my sister's Bat Mitzvah in 1997. Bert and Jackie did not have a dog when I was a little little girl, but he always told me about his dogs- I especially remember stories about huskies. He was sure to send me all of the James Herriot books- books I treasure to this day. There was nothing like seeing him at the dog park, where I'd take him when he'd visit, or the smile on his face as he "rested his eyes" with Pepi. Bert was always watching sports- horse races, especially, and I hear he was quite a warrior on the golf course. Or something. He was of course, a baseball fan. He was an amateur photographer, and his photos are amazing- I have a few in my house now. Quietly, I think Bert affects most everything I do.

Kozi d. 9/11/06

Kozi was the beginning for me, or the beginning of the end, depending on who you talk to. She was about 14 when she died, so I think I was about 11 when she was added to the family. You can see her full story on her Dogster page. I loved this dog (except for the few weird months where I hated her- don't know where that came from) and I think it's safe to say that I would never have become the crazy dog lady that I am now without Kozi. I think it's also safe to say that I would never have become a pit bull advocate without her for two main reasons: Kozi came from an ethical breeder, so I learned early what that means. Second, Kozi loved every human she ever met, and that became the personality that I was/am drawn to. She was indifferent to dogs, but never knew she had teeth. Probably the most stable dog I've ever met, she is a standard I hold dogs to. Mac is her successor in my heart, but will never replace her (contrary to appearances).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Devendra Barnhart: Chinese Children

This is one of those songs you can't help singing and can't help wondering... what the fizzle? But I love it, and I love that if you wait long enough, he even mentions Oakland. Here is a catchy little piece of it.

Devendra BanhartChinese Children

And here is a hilarious video of a family enjoying the song. They have Chinese children, too. (Remember, singing with your family keeps your kids off of drugs):

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Look what else I got!

Well, don't look, just read. On Sunday I was taking a nap, as is normal for me on pretty much any day that I am not otherwise engaged in normal paid routine. I woke up, and my computer was dead. Off, not working, closed, shut. This was not happy. It was on before I took the nap. I called my dad, previously mentioned, as he does not like to read in translation. I did not think he could really fix my computer, because not reading books in translation does not have any direct correlation to fixing mac's, however, he got lucky. "Plug it into a different outlet," he said. I did, and it worked! Then I stepped out of the room for a second, and it didn't work any more. Once again, the machine was off, dead, not working, finished. I called my dad, who still does not read in translation, and still doesn't really know how to fix computers. He was out of suggestions. He did, however, find a number for the local Mac store, which was good, since I couldn't turn on my computer to look (were IS that Yellow Pages?)

The next step was waiting on hold. And waiting, and waiting. I won't make you listen to the staticky ugly music that I listened to. You would never come back. Then I talked to a lady in another unidentifiable country- we were definitely speaking in translation- and she informed me that most likely I had a "dead unit". She did not elaborate on the definition of "dead unit," but I knew in my gut that this was ominous. She told me to put a different plug into my computer. I don't keep extra cords with strange ends in my house. So off to the Mac store, smack in the middle of the holiday rush went me and my "dead unit."

The Mac was indeed dead. That was the bad news. The good news is that I got a new one. And it is so big. It is a 24" iMac, and she is beautiful and fast and easy to use. I watched CSI on her, and she is lovely. I turned her on, and she is quiet and zippy and once I found the disc drive, all was good. She even sometimes spontaneously takes pictures of me, which is more than a little disturbing. Spending money was also a little disturbing, but I am forgetting it now that I have this nice toy. Oh, so nice. Turns out, the Mac died due to power surges. We had another after I got home, but fortunately I also invested in a power surge protector thingy. Hopefully 5050 jules is enough. It sounds like a lot!

Ok, you can look now!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Look what I got!

A friend gave me this awesome metal ad thingy. I love it.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Things I Never Knew: Dew Claws

I learned something yesterday- what they say about learning something every day is true- dew claws are not a random occurance in dogs. Rear dews, especially, are specifically bred into some dog breeds, and discouraged in others. A dew claws are defined as "superflous claw inside the hind leg just above the foot" by Charles Inglee (see Dog Dew Claws). These claws are sort of a vestigal thumb, or innermost 5th digit on domestic canines. One of the only articles I could find about the genetic causes of rear and double dew claws in certain breeds, from 1983, was off limits to me (and us, dear reader), as I do not have a subscription to the online version of the Journal of Heredity. The next best thing is this blog about Icelandic Sheepdogs, a breed which requires dews on all four legs and doesn't fault rear double dews. Interesting reading if you know the difference between penetrance and expressivity (I don't).

So, which dogs are supposed to have rear dew claws? Some breeds have been bred to specifically have no dew claws for so long that they never have dews. Others have been bred for so long that not having two extra rear thumbs would seen an oddity. Who knew!?
According to the following French website and my own research, the following Breeds should have rear dews, rear double dews, etc.

Rear Dews Required
Berger des Pyrenees

Rear Dews Allowed
Portueguese Sheepdog
Saint Bernard
Treeing Tennessee Brindle

Rear Dews Not Allowed
American Eskimo
Giant Schnauzer (should be removed)
Flat-Coated Retriever
Neopolitan Mastiff (must be removed)
Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Chesapeake Bay Retriever
Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier (presence should be penalized)
Low Chen (should be removed)

Rear Double Dews Required
Great Pyrenees

Rear Double Dews Allowed
Pyreneen Mastiff (Double Dews preferred)
Anatolian Shepherd
Icelandic Sheepdog

Front and Rear Double Dews Required
Catalonian Sheep Dog

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Amos Oz: To Know a Woman

I was born into a house of readers. I was also born to a dad with very strong opinions, and a dad who WILL NOT read in translation. (Capitals for emphasis.) I have my own strong opinions, and I am a Jew who has such strong opinions about Israel that I can barely stand to have conversations about the country, and have pretty much given up ever returning to a faith that believes in a country that is wedded to war. These two factors being laid out upfront, I should not be a fan of Amos Oz, but I am.

I was brought (dragged) to a lecture Oz gave at my college, and I was reluctantly converted: I realized that maybe, just maybe, there was gray, even in my black and white view of Israel and Israelis. That's what Oz says, at least. He is an amazing, passionate man, and his writing is true to form. It reads as though it was written in English, and his spoken English is lyrical and funny, as well.

"To Know a Woman" has the plot of a short story, and though it is the length of a novel, it is not boring. Yoel, the (anti?)hero takes early retirement from the Israeli Secret Service, potentially the best in the world, we learn. He retires due to a crisis in his family that leads to him moving and forming a sort of urban kibbutz with his daughter, his mother, and his mother-in-law ("the grannies"). Yoel makes all of his decisions with a retired spy's caution, and with a retired spy's inability to process the true emotional meaning behind anything. What is really going on with his daughter, Yetta- is she feigning her "condition"? How can he balance the alliances between the two old women? What do the mysterious neighbors want from him? And what is he going to do with his days when he runs out of things to fix around the house?

Yoel's brother-in-law once told him that "everybody has the same secrets. Whether it's really true or not I don't know, and I believe there's even a small logical fallacy there. Once you compare secrets, they stop being secrets, so they're ruled out by definition. But if you don't compare them, how can you know if they're the same or different?" Yoel is torn by this question, and spends much of the book ruminating on the nature of his and others' secrets. Oz is adept at leading readers into the world of secrets, and sameness, and difference.

Inspired by Bumpers (of fishing and midwives)

It is dangerous to think too much while driving. Especially if you are me. If you are me, you might be inspired to have "deep thoughts" like those ones that used to be popular in the early '90s, I think due to a Saturday Night Live skit.

Fortunately, my deep thoughts are awe-inspiring, and worth sharing. They must be, as they not originally thought by me- they were brought up by bumper-stickers and license plates on cars driving ahead of me. Therefore, other people must have thought them first, and thought them so profound that they *must share them all of the time that their car is in circulation*.

First car had a license plate that read "Let M Go." I have this compulsive need to decode vanity plates. This one seemed obvious at first- I read it as "Let Me Go." But looking closer, I realized that the plate had a frame holder from a catch-and-release group: the plate actually should read "Let 'em Go." Peppered on the Prius' bumper were a few other trout fishing bumper stickers. I had not thought about fishing in a long time. I specifically had not thought about catch and release fishing in an even longer time. The last time I thought about fishing was at an A's game- when the fans chose to watch fishing on the jumbo-tron instead of the other two sporting event choices (I always vote for "grass growing"). Apparently fishing is a sport now, as in a sporting event that people watch on TV. A bunch of guys were in a boat, and they were zooming and then floating around in a lake, trying to catch fish by a certain time. The last time I intentionally didn't think about fishing was when I skipped a John McPhee article in the New Yorker. He writes for them a few times a year, and I always skip his articles (which I rarely do with other articles): they are long and boring, and often revolve around fishing. I read one of his books once- it was also too long, slightly dull, and included fishing. The last time I actually went fishing I believe I was less than a decade old and we were at some resort with a stocked pond. My sister and I caught fish which were then grilled (or something) for us and we ate them for dinner. At least, I did. My sister doesn't eat fish.

Getting back to the point of "catch and release": I have always thought, perhaps erroneously, that people do this because it is nicer for the fish. I'm driving behind this Prius and all of a sudden it hit me like a rock to the head of a trout- why on earth would it be nice for a fish to be caught multiple times? Here I am, little trout (or fish in general, who knows what kind of fish people do this with), swimming along, fooled into eating the bait, when OUCH, it hurts, there's something in my mouth that hurts like Hell, and no matter how hard I fight it, something is pulling me and pulling me, through my face, up and out of the water. So, I'm terrified, fleeing, can't get away, eventually hauled out of the water, where my breathing mechanisms don't work right, and handled by a giant two handed thing. He wrestles the painful thing out of my mouth, or tears it out of my mouth, while I still can't breathe very well, then throws me back into the water (i.e. more handling) so that I get a chance to do it all over again. What is nice about this? If we're going to catch fish, can't we just kill them? Sure, I'm an animal welfare professional, but I'm not an animal rights advocate (yes, they are different) and am not wholesale against the killing of animals. Would I go out and kill an animal for fun? No. But I certainly wouldn't advocate going out and hurting an animal for fun, either.

Per wikipedia, catch and release fishing is done with barbless hooks, without exhausting the fish, and potentially even without taking the fish out of water. The technique is practiced to avoid overfishing but still have the "fun" of fishing (I'm not even going there). Further research into catch and release shows that there are specific techniques to minimize stress for the fish. You should use pliers to get the hook out quickly (so add the image of the strange two handed person wielding a strange metal device in your face to the above picture from fishes' point of view). You should keep your hands moisturized.

Bottom line, I didn't invent this debate. I don't have an answer to this debate. Fishermen/women/people know this debate exists. If I were to go fishing (probably not going to happen), I would not catch and release. I would catch and kill. And eat my fish or feed it to a local pit bull, since I actually don't eat fish now (and not because my sister doesn't).

My next deep thought was inspired by a car pasted with bumper stickers about midwives (midwifery?). I couldn't really see into the car, but it was a person with short hair. I just assumed it was a woman, albeit a butch one. This led me to thinking about male midwives. What would they be called? Midhusbands? Is there such a thing? Before I could get home and use the all-knowing Google, I discussed this with aforementioned pregnant friend. She agreed: there may be male midwives, but she would not be seeking one out. No man is looking at my "vjay" she said! I countered, while blushing profusely, that this was not very PC: what if there were men who felt very connected with women, or women who felt more comfortable with men? There are many male OBGYNs, why not male midwives? Well, I am not pregnant, so I deferred to her answer, which was essentially "no way, jose."

But, I can defer no longer, now that I have access to the almighty and allknowing powers of Google. According to "Men Stuff" (try not to laugh) men could not be midwives in the UK until 1977. The first FAQ addresses my very own question:

1. Aren't you called a midhusband?
Answer: I then explain that midwife means "with woman", not "with husband".

The answer, then, is that a male midwife is called just that: a male midwife. And they exist, though barely.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bay Area Fiction

A friend of mine came up with an awesome Christmas present- she is giving her friend a stack of books that take place in the Bay Area. Being the compulsive reader and list-maker that I am, I have decided to take this project and run with it. I've omitted books I would never read (scifi, mysteries, romance, and "books in verse"). Here's what I've got so far:
(* denotes books I've read)

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
The Abortion by Richard Brautigan
Free Enterprise by Michelle Cliff
1906: A Novel by James Dalessandro
A Seahorse Year by Stacey D'Erasmo
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Phillip K Dick
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
Between Lovers by Eric Jerome Dickey
A Mistress of Spices by Chitra Divakaruni
*Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr
The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus
*The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
*A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
The Other Side of Haight by James Fadiman
The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler
All Tomorrow's Parties by William Gibson
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls by Oakley Hall
*The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler
The Night Garden by Pamela Holm
*Blue Shoe by Anne Lammott
China Boy by Gus Lee
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Changing Places by David Lodge
Martin Eden by Jack London
Tales of the City by Armisted Maupin (and the ensuing books)
Winners by Eric Martin
Coyote Moon by John Miller
Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
The Distance by Eddie Muller
*Six Out Seven by Jess Mowry
*Way Past Cool by Jess Mowry
Bone by Fae Myenne Ng
McTeague by Frank Norris
Fogtown by Peter Plate
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The Ultimate Rush by Joe Quirk
Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
*The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
*Valencia by Michelle Tea (ok, I think this is a memoir, but who's counting?)
The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredo Vea
A Single Stone by Marilyn Wallace
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Rachel Cusk: A Life's Work

I am never having children. I already knew that before I read "A Life's Work." Now I have reasons #1376-20386 why I will not be having a child. When I say having a child, I mean not conceiving a child, not birthing a child, and not raising a child. Rachel Cusk is eloquent and honest to the point of brutality on the subject. I have two friends who are recent mothers- one has an infant and one is pregnant- and while they are both eloquent and honest, this book leaves me wondering- have they both been brutalized in the way Cusk describes? I would not be surprised.

I am a feminist, and have been one for as long as I can remember (like, I read "The Beauty Myth" in elementary school). Feminist theory has been over the territory of deconstructing what is "natural" for women (i.e. having children). "A Life's Work," while not necessarily a feminist work, does a great work at deconstructing motherhood. Cusk clearly feels torn from herself- her body, her life, her work- everything that she knew was hers, before pregnancy. She reads every kind of book on parenting that she can put her hands on, as each step of motherhood seems to be a new trial that she may fail. What foods can she eat while she's pregnant? What kind of birth should she have? How is she going to get her baby to sleep? How is she going to get the baby to stop crying? Where should she live? ?How can she have friends? Who is she? Who is this baby?

And why, Cusk writes, do mothers not tell other mothers about this weird state that motherhood is? It's true, I feel torn, too. I'm so tempted to give this book to my pregnant friend, but then I feel like a terrible, child-hating misanthrope, determined to spread my "zero-population-growth" politics around. Cusk writes "I often think that people wouldn't have children if they knew what it was like, and I wonder whether as a gender we contain a Darwinian stop upon our powers of expression, our ability to render the truth of this subject." If people talked about what it's actually like- would people stop having babies altogether? Am I the only one who is actually freaking terrified of being a mother without reading this book?

I believe this is only one side of the story. I'm sure some mothers have a wonderful time the whole time they are pregnant, nursing, etc. And some have a good time part of the time. But this is the story that isn't always told. And Cusk tells it exceptionally well.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Courtroom 302: Steve Bogira

"Courtroom 302" was, though eminently readable, exceedingly depressing. The back of the book proclaims that fans of Law & Order will enjoy the book- sure, I liked the book and I enjoy the show, but the book is way more disturbing than any episode of SVU will ever be.

Steve Bogira spent a year in Chicago's busiest courtroom- 302- and he is not going to let readers off of the hook with any flimsy made-for-tv version of courtroom justice. Courts, justice, judges, jails, prison, the war on drugs are not what they've cracked up to be, Bogira shows in instance after instance. Justice is not blind when it comes to black people or poor people- he quotes an almost century old study that states that the "poor and the friendless" end up in jail. He profiles the public defenders and the prosecutors who work in 302, both for justice and for "other" goals. It is depressing.

The judge in room 302 is clearly one of the best judges in the courthouse. He works hard, he studies current rulings in death penalty cases (but never hands it out) and traffic court. Even so, he is caught up in the vicious cycle of plea bargaining which amounts to a tax: plea out on this charge (whether or not you did it) or go to jail. Jails, and "the system" in general, are so overcrowded that dispositioning cases is a must for judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors, who serve as a oiled machine to get as many people as possible through the system without a trial.

Bogira could have gone deeper than he did into the implications of his findings: the book is a good, touching, depressing piece of investigative journalism, but lacks some of the probative sociology work that I'm used to. He could answer more of the "why" or "now what" questions that he poses. I'm left depressed and hoping never to get arrested, as well as feeling extremely privileged to be born upper-middle class and white.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Beach

It's true, we recently returned from a vacation to the beach. It's also true that life *is* a vacation right now, since I'm unemployed and Mac's life is always a vacation. This vacation was special, as it was a family reunion. We tried for a family portrait, but some things never change- family portraits weren't in the cards.

The kids and Mac agreed- treats are good. This also did not make for a stellar photo.So, to make it up to, well, myself, we went to the fanciest dog store around- Diggity Dog in Carmel, and bought mac a new collar an a surprise costume (to be debuted later). Trisha wisely abstained from the friggin adorable Mrs Santa outfits that Pocket tried on. Read more: Running With Dogs.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

John Brown Abolitionist: David S Reynolds

This book starts out strong. So strong, it was a biography of a dead white man that I couldn't put down! By the end, it was a biography that I couldn't wait to get rid of. David Reynolds has written a "cultural biography": "based on the idea that human beings have a dynamic, dialogical relationship to many aspects of their historical surroundings, such as politics, society, literature, and religion." He questions how John Brown was a reflection of his society, beyond his society, and impacted his era and beyond.

Great premise, and for the first half of the book, great execution. Reynolds rescues Brown from haters who think he was "just a terrorist" and from idolizers who think he saved the union and ended slavery (the subtitle is semi-ironic). Reynolds narrates Brown's unprecedented family life, his financial woes, his adventures in wild Kansas and eventually his plans to attack Harper's Ferry.

It is here that Reynolds gets off track. As Brown becomes famous, the book becomes a catalogue of every mention of Brown, pro, con, and indifferent in every newspaper in every state in the Union. In order for Reynolds to remind the reader what is actually going on in the book, he's forced to repeat himself after each chunk of what amounts to newspaper clippings. This reader remembered that Reynolds had already mentioned how Emerson had affected the North's view of Brown, for example. Three times.

The book drags on, and the ultimate historical and cultural points that Reynolds makes about Brown are lost in 500 underedited pages. Reynolds attempts to rescue Brown from obscurity and bad historians. He even claims that John Brown was an "influential individual," and without him, the Civil War would have been delayed, and much worse. Brown, and Reynolds' book would have been much better with a better editor.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


This article from the New Yorker has absolutely kept me up at night- which is ironic, since it's all about nighttime, and darkness.

by David Owen August 20, 2007

A time-exposure photograph of the Milky Way over the New Mexico desert. The word “galaxy” comes from the Greek for milk.

A time-exposure photograph of the Milky Way over the New Mexico desert. The word “galaxy” comes from the Greek for milk.

In 1610, Galileo Galilei published a small book describing astronomical observations that he had made of the skies above Padua. His homemade telescopes had less magnifying and resolving power than most beginners’ telescopes sold today, yet with them he made astonishing discoveries: that the moon has mountains and other topographical features; that Jupiter is orbited by satellites, which he called planets; and that the Milky Way is made up of individual stars. It may seem strange that this last observation could have surprised anyone, but in Galileo’s time people assumed that the Milky Way must be some kind of continuous substance. It truly resembled a streak of spilled liquid—our word “galaxy” comes from the Greek for milk—and it was so bright that it cast shadows on the ground (as did Jupiter and Venus). Today, by contrast, most Americans are unable to see the Milky Way in the sky above the place where they live, and those who can see it are sometimes baffled by its name.

The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see. Air pollution has made the atmosphere less transparent and more reflective, and high levels of terrestrial illumination have washed out the stars overhead—a phenomenon called “sky glow.” Anyone who has flown across the country on a clear night has seen the landscape ablaze with artificial lights, especially in urban areas. Today, a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building on a cloudless night would be unable to discern much more than the moon, the brighter planets, and a handful of very bright stars—less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope. Amateur astronomers sometimes classify nighttime darkness on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which is based on a number of criteria, among them “limiting magnitude,” or the brightness of the faintest celestial objects that are visible without magnification. The scale, composed of nine points, was devised in 2001 by John E. Bortle, a retired Westchester County fire chief and a monthly columnist for Sky & Telescope. “One of the problems I was addressing was that younger amateur astronomers, especially east of the Mississippi, had never seen a dark sky at all,” he told me recently. “People will sometimes come up from the city and call me and say, ‘John, I’ve found this fabulous dark site, it’s totally black, you can’t imagine how good it is.’ So I’ll go and have a look, but it’s always poor. They have no comparison to work against.”

In Galileo’s time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9, at the other extreme of the scale, and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. For someone standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on a moonless night, the brightest feature of the sky is not the Milky Way but the glow of Las Vegas, a hundred and seventy-five miles away. To see skies truly comparable to those which Galileo knew, you would have to travel to such places as the Australian outback and the mountains of Peru. And civilization’s assault on the stars has consequences far beyond its impact on astronomers. Excessive, poorly designed outdoor lighting wastes electricity, imperils human health and safety, disturbs natural habitats, and, increasingly, deprives many of us of a direct relationship with the nighttime sky, which throughout human history has been a powerful source of reflection, inspiration, discovery, and plain old jaw-dropping wonder.

David L. Crawford earned his Ph.D. in astronomy in 1958 and spent nearly all his professional life at Kitt Peak National Observatory, on a mountaintop fifty-six miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona. By 1970, he had noticed, with alarm, a significant decrease in astronomical visibility. Tucson was growing rapidly, and so was its sky glow. With a colleague, he persuaded the city to adopt an ordinance governing exterior lighting, and later they persuaded other Arizona cities and counties to pass similar regulations. In 1988, Crawford and another friend formed a nonprofit organization called the International Dark-Sky Association. “We’re sort of a nighttime Sierra Club,” he told me, during a recent visit to Tucson. He retired from Kitt Peak in 1995 and has worked full time for the I.D.A. ever since, often putting in sixty-hour workweeks. He has the complexion of a man who doesn’t spend a lot of time outdoors during daylight, and speaks in the modulated tones of someone accustomed to talking while others are asleep. “We’re on a mission to change the world at night,” he said.

The I.D.A.’s headquarters is a warren of small offices, accommodating a dozen or so staff members and a shifting group of volunteers and researchers, around the corner from a (non-related) store that sells light fixtures. Crawford and his staff devote much of their time to proselytizing for dark-sky regulations and working with manufacturers to improve lighting products. Hanging on a wall in a conference room is a map that shows the geographical distribution of the organization’s eleven thousand members. The states with the highest representation are California (fifteen hundred and thirty), Arizona (six hundred and seventy), New York (five hundred and one), and Massachusetts (four hundred and eighty-two). The I.D.A. also has members in seventy-eight foreign countries, including Iraq and Iran, where astronomy is a popular hobby, especially among girls and young women. Authorities in Sa’adat-shahr, about four hundred miles south of Tehran, periodically cut off all electric power in the town in order to improve visibility at nighttime “star parties” conducted by a local teacher.

When the I.D.A. began, Crawford’s interest in outdoor lighting was limited to its impact on observatories; today, the organization’s brief covers everything from advising law-enforcement officers to assessing the effects of artificial lighting on wildlife. On the evening of my visit, while Crawford and I waited for the sky to grow darker, we went to dinner at a relatively new shopping mall on Tucson’s outskirts. As we drove up, Crawford explained that the mall had been of particular interest to the I.D.A.: “The original lighting system for this mall was put in by somebody from out of town, and it didn’t meet the Tucson code, so the developer had to call in a consultant and change it all. Now it’s one of the best in town, and we actually gave them an award a few years ago.”

The mall’s large parking lot was fully illuminated—as we walked from the car to the restaurant, I had no trouble reading notes that I had scribbled in my notebook—but it was free of what dark-sky advocates call “glare bombs”: fixtures that cast much of their light sideways, into the eyes of passersby, or upward, into the sky. Tucson’s code limits the brightness of exterior fixtures and requires most of them to be of a type usually known as “full cutoff” or “fully shielded,” meaning that they cast no light above the horizontal plane and employ a light source that cannot be seen by someone standing to the side. These are not necessarily more difficult or expensive to manufacture than traditional lights, and they typically cost less to operate. Calgary, Alberta, recently cut its electricity expenditures by more than two million dollars a year, by switching to full-cutoff, reduced-wattage street lights.

Diminishing the level of nighttime lighting can actually increase visibility. In recent years, the California Department of Transportation has greatly reduced its use of continuous lighting on its highways, and has increased its use of reflectors and other passive guides, which concentrate luminance where drivers need it rather than dispersing it over broad areas. (Passive guides also save money, since they don’t require electricity.) F.A.A.-regulated airport runways, though they don’t use reflectors, are lit in a somewhat similar fashion, with rows of guidance lights rather than with high-powered floodlights covering broad expanses of macadam. This makes the runways easier for pilots to pick out at night, because the key to visibility, on runways as well as on roads, is contrast.

After dinner, Crawford showed me his home, in a subdivision of small, closely spaced, desert-colored stucco town houses. Tucson gives individual neighborhoods the right to choose whether they want street lights (and to pay for them if they do). Most of the newer, more affluent residential areas, and a number of commercial blocks, have elected to do without. Crawford’s subdivision, to his annoyance, does have street lights, and the fixtures, though technically shielded, have frosted-glass side panels, which diffuse the light in a way that turns them into glare bombs. Crawford pointed out a cluster of mailboxes across the street from his garage. The lighting near the mailboxes was of a type that Crawford calls “criminal-friendly”: it was almost painful to look at, and it turned the walkway behind the boxes into an impenetrable void. “The eye adapts to the brightest thing in sight,” he said. “When you have glare, the eye adapts to the glare, but then you can’t see anything darker.” The human retina contains two kinds of photoreceptors—cones, which react quickly to fine details and colors, and rods, which, though slower and bad at colors, are far more numerous and many times more sensitive to light. It’s mainly the rods that enable us to see at night, and they are so sensitive that they can take up to an hour to recover their full function after exposure to a light source no brighter than a desk lamp. Deer, which have an even higher proportion of rods to cones, have excellent nighttime vision but appear extremely vulnerable to temporary blinding by bright light—perhaps a reason that they have difficulty in getting out of the way of cars on dark roads. People may experience a similar phenomenon driving away from a highly illuminated outdoor area, such as a gas station with an intensely bright canopy.

Much so-called security lighting is designed with little thought for how eyes—or criminals—operate. Marcus Felson, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, has concluded that lighting is effective in preventing crime mainly if it enables people to notice criminal activity as it’s taking place, and if it doesn’t help criminals to see what they’re doing. Bright, unshielded floodlights—one of the most common types of outdoor security lighting in the country—often fail on both counts, as do all-night lights installed on isolated structures or on parts of buildings that can’t be observed by passersby (such as back doors). A burglar who is forced to use a flashlight, or whose movement triggers a security light controlled by an infrared motion sensor, is much more likely to be spotted than one whose presence is masked by the blinding glare of a poorly placed metal halide “wall pack.” In the early seventies, the public-school system in San Antonio, Texas, began leaving many of its school buildings, parking lots, and other property dark at night and found that the no-lights policy not only reduced energy costs but also dramatically cut vandalism.

Most people don’t notice bad nighttime lighting; if you do, it can make you slightly crazed. When I’m driving at night, my wife has to tell me to watch the road instead of looking back over my shoulder at a yard whose trees have floodlights in their branches, or at an empty parking lot so bright that you could deliver babies in it. The Connecticut town where I live was incorporated in 1779. Many residents are protective of the village green, and become agitated if anyone suggests doing something to it that they consider unhistorical, such as painting a house a color other than white. Yet the green’s focal point, the two-hundred-plus-year-old First Congregational Church, is lit up at night like a convenience store, and with two jarringly different types of illumination: the broad portico is lit with warm incandescent lamps, while the steeple and the clock tower are bathed in the icy glare of six mercury-vapor spotlights. A friend lives across from the church, and the lights give her living room a cold glow, as though someone had forgotten to close the door of a refrigerator. Obviously, Americans two centuries ago didn’t point spotlights at their buildings (and therefore enjoyed the extinct pleasure of seeing those buildings by moonlight and starlight), yet I would bet that most of my town’s residents, if they think about it at all, consider lighting up an old New England church not an offensive anachronism but almost a matter of civic duty.

I’m the chairman of my town’s zoning commission, and we recently adopted our first regulations governing residential outdoor lighting. The rules prohibit unshielded exterior lamps and limit the lighting of trees and other vegetation, but, like all our regulations, they apply only to installations made after the date of the change, and they will be difficult to enforce. It doesn’t help that the town itself is a conspicuous offender. A walkway near the town hall is lit by pole-mounted “Colonial” lanterns of a familiar type, with unshielded lamps and poles a bit less than six feet tall, so that most of the light is projected into the eyes of pedestrians. When the lamps are turned on, the base of each fixture casts a dense black shadow, about sixteen feet in diameter, onto the grass and pavement directly below it, as though the purpose of the lamp were to shed darkness rather than light. Some residents have objected that the new lighting regulations unnecessarily limit the freedom of individuals to do as they like on their own property. But photons don’t stop at lot lines. (If someone installed a basic Home Depot wall pack on the moon and aimed it at the Earth, you’d be able to see the light, when it wasn’t itself in direct sunlight, with a moderately powerful hobbyist’s telescope.) People who decide to illuminate their trees at night, or to install unshielded floodlights on the corners of their garage, shining into a bedroom in a house next door, are making a decision for their neighbors as well as for themselves.

My friend Ken Daniel is a lighting designer. About a decade ago, he told me something that changed the way I think about the night. It was early evening, and we were sitting with some other people in an unelectrified barn on Martha’s Vineyard and looking out at the ocean, and he observed that we were doing something that Americans almost never do anymore: watching it get dark. In the early nineteen-nineties, Daniel worked in Los Angeles and he and his family lived in Glendale. His wife, Gina, told me that the street lights and other lights in their neighborhood were so bright that their bedrooms never got fully dark at night, even though they had curtains. When the Northridge earthquake struck, in 1994, the first thing she noticed, after the shaking had awakened her, was that she couldn’t see. “The earthquake had knocked out the power all over the city, and everything was black,” she said. “When we got the kids and ran outside, we found all our neighbors standing in the street, looking up at the sky and saying, ‘Wow.’ ”

Growing numbers of us pass most of our waking hours “in a box, looking at a box,” as Dave Crawford put it: we spend our days inside offices, looking at computer screens, and our evenings inside houses, looking at television screens. Fewer and fewer of us spend much time outside at all, except in automobiles—and when we do venture outdoors after dark we are usually just stepping into yet another box, the glowing canopy that our lights have projected into the sky.

The twenty-four-hour day/night cycle, which is also known as the circadian clock, influences physiological processes in virtually all living things. Pervasive artificial illumination has existed for such a brief period that not even the species that invented it has had time to adapt, biologically or otherwise. The most widely discussed human malady related to the disturbance of circadian rhythms is jet lag, but there are others. Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, in Farmington, has suggested a link between cancer and the “circadian disruption” of hormones caused by artificial lighting. Early in his career, Stevens was one of many researchers struck by the markedly high incidence of breast cancer among women in the industrialized world, in comparison with those in developing countries, and he at first supported the most common early hypothesis, which was that the cause must be dietary. Yet repeated studies found no clear link to food. In the early eighties, Stevens told me recently, “I literally woke up in the middle of the night—there was a street lamp outside the window, and it was so bright that I could almost read in my bedroom—and I thought, Could it be that?” A few years later, he persuaded the authors of the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest and most rigorous investigations of women’s medical issues ever undertaken, to add questions about nighttime employment, and the study subsequently revealed a strong association between working the night shift and an increased risk of breast cancer. Eva Schernhammer, of the Harvard Medical School, and Karl Schulmeister, an Austrian physicist, analyzed the work-shift data from the Nurses’ Study several years ago, and wrote, “We hypothesize that the potential primary culprit for this observed association is the lack of melatonin, a cancer-protective agent whose production is severely diminished in people exposed to light at night.”

Although nighttime lighting has seldom been a priority of environmentalists—one of whom described it to me recently as a “soft” issue—bad or unnecessary lighting not only wastes billions of dollars’ worth of energy every year but also can wreak havoc on ecosystems. Migrating birds can be fatally “captured” by artificial lights, a fact that was made obvious a half century ago, when early versions of a common meteorological device called a ceilometer—which used a powerful vertical beam of light to measure cloud ceilings—sometimes killed thousands of migrating birds in a single night. Artificial light can be especially lethal to insects. Gerhard Eisenbeis, a German entomologist, has written that outdoor lighting can have a “vacuum cleaner” effect on local insect populations, causing large numbers to be “sucked out of habitat.” An earlier German study showed that new, brightly lit gas stations initially attracted large numbers of insects, but that the numbers fell rapidly after two years, presumably because local populations were decimated. One of the several ways in which light fixtures kill insects is by causing them to rest on the ground or in vegetation, where they become easy prey. In Florida, artificial lights have had a disastrous impact on sea-turtle populations. During the summer and the early fall, hatchlings, which emerge primarily at night from nests on Florida beaches, are often fatally attracted to street lights, house lights, and other sources of unshielded artificial illumination, dying after being drawn into open areas, where they are easily attacked by predators, or onto roads. The problem is that newborn sea turtles instinctively move toward the brightest part of the horizon—which, for millions of years, would have been not shopping malls and beach houses but the night sky over the open sea.

The day after Dave Crawford and I inspected nighttime Tucson, I drove five hundred and fifty miles north to Bryce Canyon National Park, in southern Utah. That evening, I joined about two hundred people, including many children, outside the visitors’ center, where telescopes of various sizes had been set up in the parking lot. Several were equipped with computerized tracking devices, which could be programmed to find and follow interesting objects in the sky. At one station or another, I saw the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter (tiny dots in a line), Saturn (with rings), a dense group of old stars, known as a globular cluster, a pair of twin stars (one blue and one gold), and the mountains and valleys that Galileo saw on the moon. With just my own eyes, I saw the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, which rapidly crossed the sky just before eleven o’clock, and, a little later, I saw the meteor-like flash of a passing Iridium satellite.

I spoke with Chad Moore, the program director of the National Park Service’s Night Sky Team. “Many people who come to our programs have never really looked at the night sky,” he told me. “A woman once came up to me and said, ‘The moon was out during the day this morning—is that O.K.?’ ” Moore, who is in his mid-thirties, created the Night Sky Team in 1999. Its mission, he said, is not just to increase interest in stars but also to remind people, including higher-ups in the Park Service, that national parks don’t go away when the sun sets.

Moore and I met back in the same parking lot about three hours later, long after the other stargazers had gone to bed. The moon was going to set at about three-forty-five, and at that point there would be an hour of deep darkness before sunrise. We drove to another parking lot, near the rim of the canyon, and walked up to Sunset Point, one of a series of lookouts linked by a walking path. Moore said that he and his fellow-rangers usually have to urge first-time participants in the park’s nighttime programs to resist turning on flashlights the moment they step out of their cars, and to instead allow their eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. “When the moon is low in the sky like this, there’s about two-thousandths of a foot-candle of light on the ground,” he said, referring to a measure of illumination. (Full sunlight on a clear day has an intensity of about ten thousand foot-candles; nighttime city streets are typically lit to about one and a half foot-candles, seven hundred and fifty times brighter than the moonlit path.) “You and I don’t have supernatural vision,” he continued, “but we’re able to see the path just fine, because our eyes evolved to see in these conditions. I can see individual pebbles on the ground, and if I dropped a quarter I could find it.”

We walked north along the rim trail, on which the setting moon cast long shadows. The canyon’s edge was just a few feet to our right, but I could easily tell where the path ended and the abyss began. The canyon itself was transformed. In bright sunlight, Bryce’s orange-and-white limestone hoodoos, which look a little like enormous drip castles, are so vibrant that they almost shimmer; by night, the formations are virtually monochromatic, like mountains at the bottom of the sea. Nightfall inverts the park: the cliffs draw inward, and the sky becomes almost topographical, a canyon turned upside down.

At last, the moon disappeared below the horizon. I could see, at various compass points, little bulges of sky glow projected by a couple of nearby towns, by one or two more distant cities, and by Ruby’s, the famous, light-encrusted Bryce-area motel and campground, a few miles away, but the sky directly above us was very dark and was filled with stars. I had no trouble seeing the Milky Way, a broad, densely speckled stripe extending across the sky. Moore pointed out the Great Rift, a cluster of dark patches caused by clouds of light-blocking interstellar dust, and the constellation Sagittarius, toward the luminous center of our galaxy. I lay on my back on a bench and watched for meteors, which streaked past every few minutes: in a truly dark sky, shooting stars are too numerous to bother wishing on. We stayed until we noticed the first glow of the approaching sunrise. Stars near the eastern horizon melted away ahead of it, as though the darkness itself were dissolving.

The next afternoon, Moore and I drove across southern Utah to Natural Bridges National Monument, in the southeastern corner of the state, two hundred and seventy-five miles away. This past March, the I.D.A., relying partly on darkness measurements collected by Moore and his team, selected Natural Bridges as its first International Dark-Sky Park. (Additional sites will be chosen within the next year.) At the time of the designation, Christian Luginbuhl, an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory station in Flagstaff, Arizona, and a longtime dark-sky advocate, said, “In plain English, that means it’s the darkest or starriest sky they’ve seen while doing these reviews.”

We arrived at the park just as the summer sky was beginning to deepen, and toured the facilities with Corky Hays, the park’s superintendent. Hays came to Natural Bridges in 2004 partly because her previous Park Service posting, Death Valley, had begun to feel too cosmopolitan to her. “Our buildings were pretty dark already,” she said, “but Chad and his team have helped us make them even darker, by upgrading a lot of our outdoor lighting. That’s let us cut our energy use and operational costs, too, which is important, because the entire park is solar-powered.” Moore pointed out several newly installed full-cutoff light fixtures, and found a few older lights, which still needed to be replaced. He asked for the removal of two of the four tubes in a fluorescent ceiling fixture near some public rest rooms, which are kept open all night and are used by after-dark visitors to the park. “The darker the area, the less light you need,” he said. “People coming here at night will be dark-adapted, so having more light would actually make it harder for them to see when they leave.”

A couple of hours later, after the sun had set completely, Moore and I headed for Owachomo, one of the park’s three natural bridges—which were created, thousands of years ago, by fast-flowing streams that undercut the sandstone walls of their canyons. Owachomo, at its midpoint, rises more than a hundred feet above the canyon floor and is almost two hundred feet across. As we turned a corner on the path, it suddenly loomed before us, a startling black void against a field of stars, like a long, ragged strip torn from the sky. After checking the ground for rattlesnakes (we had encountered one already), Moore and I leaned against some big rocks and simply looked. If I stood still, I could see stars apparently blink off, as the earth’s rotation caused them to be occluded by the sandstone bridge, while, on the other side, others seemed to blink on. The park is so remote that there is little artificial noise, especially at night, and the silence deepened the darkness. Thinking about the incomprehensible distances above us made me remember nights forty years before, when I was twelve years old and lying on my back in a mountain meadow at summer camp in Colorado, watching for shooting stars in what was probably the darkest sky I’ve ever seen, or will ever see.

Moore and I stood like that, not saying much, for more than an hour. Then we returned to the visitors’ center and said goodbye. I drove east to the nearest town, where I hoped to get some sleep before continuing to Salt Lake City and my flight home. Moore, who had brought a sleeping bag, went out into the park to spend the night under the stars.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tracy Chevalier: The Virgin Blue

Unlike other readers, I found that this book got better as it went along. I was very tempted to put it down when I started: the book goes back and forth between 16th century and modern day France and I found the modern day narrator annoying. As the stories came together, I lowered my standards a little and let myself enjoy this bit of light reading. Historical fiction at its best this book is not, but if you need a bit of fluff to get you through a day or two, and you like "women's fiction," this book does the trick.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Richard Brookhiser: Founding Father

It's very possible that this is a wonderful book. It was never going to tickle my pickle, though as it is a number of things that I don't really appreciate: a) a biography b) a biography of a dead white man c) early American history d) history of patriarchy. Not really my thing. Even if it was the best biography of the most imporant dead white man in early American history that also happened to touch on the history of patriarchy, I probably wasn't going to be super engaged. I'm not convinced that this book was the best, though.

Interestingly, I also finished an old issue (August 6th, 2007) of "The New Yorker" today, which contained an article on biography by Louis Menand. biographies are popular, he writes, because "People enjoy judging other people's lives They enjoy it excessively." Fortunately, Brookhiser does not dally too much in the boring and typical "judgement" of typical biographies. He keeps his book relatively short, and has divided it up (in a way that reminded me of a college thesis) into three sections, each of these divided into three sections. He discusses Washington's career: as the Commander in Chief of the Revoluntionary War, as the President of the Constituional Convention, and as the first President of the U.S. The next section is about Washington's character- his Nature (the physical aspects, mostly), his Morals and his Ideas. Apparantly Washington was very into manners (morals) and not very well officially educated (ideas) but very well self-schooled. Brookhiser does a lot to distinguish his ideas from ones that were successful and not so succesful at the time.

The final section is what "distinguishes" this biography from biographies in general. Brookhiser discusses Washington as a "Founding Father": he looks at fathers in general (Washington's died young and he never had kids), patriarchs and masters as models for fathers, and Washington as father of his country. This is the section where Brookhiser did "ok" as a historian, but if were to get really really into this book, I needed him to act as a theorist. There was not a single discussion of gender, or of implications for patriarchy as a model here. There were tiptoing forays into discussions of slavery as a model for government, but even that was left way untouched.

I would not make a very good historian. I would not have put "rediscovering" in the title of this book. We were not "rediscovering" in the sense that Menand writes about: "the premise of biographies is that the private can account for the public, that the subject's accomplishments map onto his or her psychic history, and this premise is the justification for digging up the traumatic, the indifensible, and the shameful and getting it all into print." Brookhiser gets close to "rediscovering" in a more theoretical way, and then shies away- we're looking at too traditional of a subject to analyze it with more critical/theoretical eyes. Disappointing. If you're a historian and like dead white males, you'll probably like this book- it's fairly readable. If not, skip it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

Seriously, stranger things have happened, but literally, I'm pulling these books off of my shelf in random order in the hopes of finishing my "unread books, A-Z" project. I'm not reading the backs, I'm just reading the books. I believe i just read 2 books in a row about Sherlock Holmes, completely by accident. One was too long (Arthur & George) and one was too short (Chabon: The Final Solution). Both centered around a family with an Indian priest married to an English woman, and an English detective called on to solve a case. The unsolved cases were different, the modes of story telling were different, but the bottom lines were the same: Neither book was very good. At least the Chabon book was a quick read- more of a novella, really. I haven't decided yet if it is a good idea to read these books back to back or a better idea to skip them both entirely. Probably option B.