Friday, July 31, 2009

Whatever happened to the world of yesterday?

I've kind of kept quiet about this, but we're two weeks away from the 175th anniversary of the sailing of the brig Pilgrim for the coast of California, then a part of Mexico. Aboard this tiny trading vessel was a Harvard student, Richard Henry Dana, traveling as a common sailor.

His journal, Two Years Before The Mast, was a landmark not only in journalism but in human rights. To this day, most stories of the sea are told from the point of view of the officers, who tend to depict poor Jack as a brute, a comic figure or simply an interchangeable part in the greater drama. Dana's best-seller did for sailors what Jacob Riis's "How the Other Half Lives" did for poor slum-dwellers, but, unlike Riis, Dana was a participant and not simply an observer.

Not only did it inspire reform in the merchant fleet, but it inspired Herman Melville, who wrote, "if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle."

My own knowledge of the book came when I had a rare visit alone with my grandfather, a very wise man whom I generally shared with others. On this occasion, I was visiting his Pennsylvania home from Colorado and we went out to dinner and then talked for several hours about a variety of things. Before he went to bed, he went into his library and took down his copy of Two Years Before the Mast, handing it to me and saying that it was one of the most wise and formative books he had ever read.

I cannot imagine that I devoured the entire book that night, but I didn't take it with me and yet I read it, so perhaps I really did take it all in in a single setting. I think, however, that I had a second day before I had to catch a plane to a wedding in New York.

Whatever the case, I devoured it in the sense that I digested it and it became part of my body in a way few books have. While the events and sights he describes are rooted in the early 19th century, his observations are utterly timeless and I have quoted him and thought of him as often as any other author, philosopher or personal acquaintance I have ever known.

So, the blog: I intend, over the next two years, to post his writings in real time, but delayed 175 years, so that readers can enjoy his voyage in a blog format. I have added some backgrounders to the rail so that people can find the vocabulary and diagrams they need to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of seamanship, and I intend to add a map or two before the launch, but I hope folks won't fret over the difference between a jib boom and a marline spike, because the point is that Dana was a wonderful writer who would truly have made a great blogger -- engaging, insightful, inspirational and with a wit that remains sharp nearly 200 years later.

Please bookmark it and join me!

PS -- Shortly after posting, I discovered a problem with the URL and had to change it. If you have already visited, check the current links. The correct URL is

Monday, July 27, 2009

I hate using this cartoon again

As the dust settles, a little bit of good news. Apparently, the Cambridge Police are going to look into their handling of calls in general, not just the one that overshadowed health reform the other night. Well, good.

But, goddammit, here we are again. I first used Cory Thomas's brilliant cartoon back in November, 2006, when Houston Texan Fred Weary was followed, followed, followed by police and then stopped and, well, basically harassed into a reaction. Charges were dropped, apologies all around ... and then in March, 2009, Dallas police stopped another Houston Texan, Ryan Moats. His crime? He was rushing his wife to the hospital so she could be at the bedside of her dying mother.

What we have here is a cop demanding that a black kid produce his proof of insurance. The young man is trying to get to the bedside of his dying mother-in-law, and the cop is showing off his power.

Here's what you have to understand: The cops says, "I can screw you over. I'd rather not do that"

And that's all you have to understand. Because I've been the longhaired kid in this exchange. And I understand the position of the young black man in this exchange.

This is not new. And it is not right. And it is not fair.

Let us flash back 41 years, to May 1, 1968. There was a peace demonstration in Chicago, and I was there, not because of my opposition to the war, but because Cream and The Mothers of Invention were playing at the Coliseum that night. But I was also against the war, so whatthehell. A bunch of peaceful people with signs began walking downtown, chanting and singing.

And then, in a preview of the Democratic Convention three months later, the police rioted and beat the living crap out of everybody. I knew a guy who ended up with a broken collar bone, but the people who were with us remained safe and we went off to the concert.

And, as we walked away from the scene of the crime, young blacks in cars drove by, giving us power salutes and yelling "Now you know! Now you know!"

And yet we didn't, because all we had to do was cut our hair and put on some nicer clothes and we could slip right back into the mainstream and never have to deal with this again.

That, my friends, is the critical difference.

I can stop being a hippie. Can you stop being black?

I'm willing to concede that Professor Gates was an obnoxious, self-important, born-again black sonofabitch.

In fact, I'd make book on it. He's a college professor, after all. It comes with the job title.

But let me ask you this: So what? So the hell what?

Let me tell you something about being a cop: If there were a bank robbery and the machine guns and shotguns were going off, I'd wade right into the middle of that.

But that's not really what cops are paid to do. I watch "Cops" and I promise you, I would never have the patience to deal with all those semi-delusional drunken idiots that local cops deal with time after time, hour after hour.

That's why we give them great health benefits and good retirements -- not for the shoot'em-up moments, but for the unbearable tedium of dealing with idiots. And god bless'em for undertaking that thankless task.

The case of Professor Gates and the Cambridge Police is one of those cases where your task is to sort out this jackass from that jackass. It's not a robbery-in-progress call. It's an idiot call. And so here's what I find most offensive about the whole thing:

I don't want to hear the opinions of a bunch of middleclass white jackasses who have never been there, never seen that, never dealt with that.

I've been a tourist in that world. But I've never had to live there. And I've read about black men throughout the country, talking about how they were carefully taught how to behave in a situation where a cop with the power of life and death had decided to screw with you.

White boys cannot possibly understand that world.

Bloviate to your heart's content. But understand that you don't know what you are talking about. And you don't have the grace to shut the hell up.

Please. You are embarrassing me.

Shut the hell up.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Can't believe they still do this

There are certain things you just assume don't happen anymore, and having large chains of pet stores continue to support puppy mills is certainly one of them.

I've long had a policy of refusing to buy anything from a store that sells puppies. I continue to be uncomfortable with stores that have exotic tropical fish, because I know there are serious problems with that market, though I think there are laws that control birds and some other small animals. (And I suspect that the economic incentives of cheating do not often outweigh the costs of getting caught.)

But puppies are my area of concern, and, in their case, it is a no-brainer. Anyone who investigates for 30 seconds knows that purebred puppies in pet stores come from puppy mills, regardless of what they tell you. If they can't give you the name of a local breeder, they are lying. (Often to their own employees, by the way.) I've never seen the pet store that takes puppies on consignment and sends them home each night if they didn't sell that day.

What I have seen is this: People who can't resist that cute little puppy and end up with massive vet bills because, whether as a result of genetic issues or because of a lack of prenatal and early care and nutrition, it has enormous, life-long health problems, ranging from incurable skin diseases to tumors requiring removal of eyes to psychotic behavior requiring euthanasia.

That's only within my own small circle of friends, and most of my friends wouldn't fall for that "doggy in the window" -- they realize that rescuing that puppy simply provides a profit to the store and puts another pathetic little wretch in the same position a week later.

I've also seen examples of major chains that figure it all out. Whatever you think of Sam Walton, Petsmart has become an advocate for dogs. When I was in Glens Falls, I shopped at Petsmart where not only did the humane society have an adoption area to help place their pound animals, but there were constant fundraisers for the society, including holiday photo sessions that produced some truly ridiculous pics.

It made me more loyal to Petsmart and more grateful to them, which is an odd way to feel about a Wal-Mart spin-off. Whether they do it out of social consciousness or good marketing is not my concern. I don't buy motivations, I buy results.

Apparently Petland doesn't get it. And as much as I think a lot of animal rights groups go over the top, the American Humane Society's campaign to shut down puppy mills is not such a case. In fact, while I'm willing to understand that small, independent pet stores can be as unscrupulous and sleazy as any other individual or business, it's hard to fathom why a chain like Petland hasn't gotten the message.

Well, except that apparently they are "a chain like Petland." They offer partnerships with adoption programs, but they continue to sell puppies. And pet store puppies come from puppy mills. You cannot offset cruelty with kindness. The way to end cruelty is to end cruelty.

The HSUS has a petition at Facebook, which I have pointed out to some but not all of my "friends" (my loathing for puppy mills competing with my loathing for spam). But there are other ways to help them try to hammer home the message, if not to the deaf execs at Petland, perhaps to their customers.

And it's good practice for going after the small, independent shops that also need to get this message, one sleazebag at a time.

Rant mode off.
(But, of course, it isn't.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Back in the saddle again

Well, I'm employed, or, at least, I will be as soon as the start-up starts up, or, to be more precise, as soon as the spin-off spins off. Which means I can't say too much about what it is yet, in part for reasons of discretion and in part because I don't know all that much yet.

The guy at the head of the company is tied up in meetings with attorneys and accountants and we've only had two phone conversations, each about 45 minutes long -- one to say, "Okay, good, you're just what I'm looking for" and another to say, "The money is here but I don't have a bank account yet. Or a logo."

The latter was a joke, so I told him my theory that, as the Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Sioux circled the Seventh Cavalry, someone said to Custer, "We need a new logo." He laughed and said, "You're my kind of guy." Apparently he has also been asked about a mission statement, which he also doesn't have. (And the Dilbert Mission Statement Generator is no longer on-line, unfortunately.)

Now, there's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, but this seems solid and it not only does not require me to buy new clothing but doesn't even require me to move, since it all happens on line and can be done from anywhere. We'll get under way in about a month and, in the meantime, I'll quietly contemplate life, play with the dog and try to finish up a serial story promised for the coming school year while I still have the leisure to work on it.

And that's me on the left. In case you had any doubts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Go-fer wanted. College degree preferred.
(A look at what's out there. At least the job title is honest.)

Other duties as assigned
Midwest, United States
Job Status: Full-time
Salary: Not Specified
Ad Expires:
August 18, 2009
Job ID: 1046997

Here’s your chance to use all of your skills for a small daily newspaper in a rural Kansas community close enough to metropolitan areas to feel the competition.

We’re looking for a reporter with the skills to be a jack of all trades. Working a beat or two will be your primary reponsibility, but you'll also be copy editing for fellow reporters, laying out some pages, shooting photos, uploading to the Web site and doing generally anything that needs doing to give our readers all the news they want in a 24-7 multimedia news operation.

The ideal candidate will be someone who follows the stories rather than the clock. We’re looking for someone who recognizes news, understands the need to hustle to beat local and area competition and is willing to step in wherever needed.

A degree in journalism is preferred, but solid work experience will be considered, too. Additional skills, like multimedia and photography, are beneficial.

Evaluations of applicants begins immediately. Please indicate whether clips are online. If not, we will screen resumes and request clips.

(I'm packin' my bags, folks! Nothing I want more than to move to Kansas for a job with no particular pay range in which you are expected to do everyone else's job for a company that won't identify itself. What? Are they afraid the poor exploited idiot currently in this position will see the ad and become disheartened??)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Behind the Laughs

I have long linked Sandra Bell Lundy's blog on the rail, and I know some of my readers are also her readers (and one of my readers even writes the thing!), but here's a reminder, because you won't want to miss the current series of posts.

She's not writing them.

That's kind of a left-handed compliment, but Sandra has gone back to the Old Country (Newfoundland) and, while I can hardly wait for what she posts upon her return, she is, in the meantime, running interviews with other women cartoonist/illustrators, and they are wonderful.

In particular, I got a kick out of the current posting, in which cartoonist Kim Warp talks about her career and her work. Most of my contacts in the cartooning world are with comic strip artists, so hearing about magazine work is branching into unfamiliar territory -- always fun -- but, in addition, the story of how Kim got into cartooning is completely endearing and makes me wish my mother had covered the kitchen table with butcher paper, and that I had done the same for my kids. God knows we were all competitive enough.

Go now.
Read the interview. Then read the rest of them. And stick around for when the Mistress of the House returns, because she'll have more cool stuff then, too, I'm quite sure.

Oh, and you should also be reading Sandra's strip, Between Friends.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Anybody can steer the ship when the sea is calm."

One of the things I have discovered since I was fired six weeks ago is that former editors of the Connecticut Valley Spectator do not constitute a particularly exclusive club and that, within the local community, I was less apt to be asked, "What on earth did you do?" than I was to be asked, "What on earth are they doing?"

Given the beating your self-confidence takes when you are unemployed, it is some comfort now to be confirmed in my sense that the owner/publisher should not have gone into the business without a background in newspapers.

Owning this tiny group of small newspapers was a retirement gig for a smart, genial, retired paper mill owner but his lack of experience made communications between us a constant problem -- things that should have gone without saying not only had to be spelled out but then were not necessarily accepted. Decisions were made that someone with "ink in his blood" would not have made.

Well, I guess good-natured dabbling worked in the good times. Now, however, is not good times. As the video below suggests, when the seas are angry, you really need a tillerman who knows how to ride the waves.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When the "crisis" is in our attitude

"The culture of aid treats Africans like they're idiots, like they don't know what's best for themselves. We treat Africans as if, if we weren't there, they'd starve to death, because they couldn't figure out how to get food themselves."

Recently, I added a blog from Africa to the rail on the side. It had come to my attention by a sort of backdoor referral -- My mother found it through Xtreme English, a blogger who is a frequent visitor at Ronniecat's blog, and she passed it on because the young woman who runs the blog had featured several pictures of her Rhodesian ridgeback Sheba. (above)

As I poked around the blog, however, I was delighted and inspired by what this Norwegian-Swedish family is doing in Niger, helping local farmers to cultivate the food plants that naturally grow in the arid conditions of the region.

I have often read of the need to avoid making native populations aid-dependent, but always in the context of "Does aid work?" and not often in the context of "How can you help people without making them dependent?" The Garvi family's life work, The Eden Foundation, provides an answer to the latter question.

It begins with assuming -- not "accepting" -- the normalcy of their lives. Not "normal for them" but simply "normal."

We in the West have not yet left behind the cultural racism of the 19th century, in which we assume that non-Western people need to adopt our lifestyles in order to be whole. We see people living in mud or wattle huts, living a pre-industrial life, and assume that they would be better off if they had homes and tools and clothing like ours.

This toxic colonial attitude works in two ways: It is as condescending to assume that others should be like us as it is to assume that they should remain in their "picturesque" pre-industrial state, as if they were characters in a theme park that we should preserve for historic purposes. In either case, we are looking at them with the assumption that what they do is in some sense substandard and inappropriate when perhaps it is simply different.

At which point, our rush to help becomes not only a display of condescension but potentially harmful to those who we think need the intervention of the industrial world. And the attitude brings with it a sense of self-congratulatory self-promotion that is particularly galling to those who can see the situation from a point of view other than the height of a "superior culture."

In this documentary -- edited for YouTube into six 9-minute segments -- a Norwegian TV crew looks at the supposed famine in Niger in 2005, which both the BBC and the UN found shocking but which the local people, including the Garvi family, did not recognize as having occurred.

A couple of quotes from the documentary:

From Esther Garvi, on close-ups of dying children covered with flies (who, according to Doctors Without Borders, are dying of malaria, not starvation) : It's difficult to see dying children. It's not pretty. You can't think "This didn't happen. This child didn't die." You can feel the children's suffering in your heart. That reality isn't pretty, but it deserves some dignity. Not to show death right in your face. The flies and the disease. We wouldn't do this to our own children. There are limits to what journalists are allowed to do to our own people. But when it's Africans, it's okay. They can't read or write, so it doesn't matter.

And from journalist Michael Maren: The culture of aid treats Africans like they're idiots, like they don't know what's best for themselves. We treat Africans as if, if we weren't there, they'd starve to death, because they couldn't figure out how to get food themselves.

I realize 45 minutes is a major investment in the on-line world, but I think when you get about three minutes into the first segment, you'll want to finish the process.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Timothy Leary's Dead

(No, no, no, no -- he's outside, with the fish)

Maybe you have to watch a lot of cable to have this Visa commercial come up over and over and over and over and over. But I've had enough of it.

Thing is, I've got nothing against the Moody Blues, and I like aquariums and I like little girls, too. But when I think of fluorescent fish, fire-breathing seahorses and kaleidoscopic krill, set to "The Search for the Lost Chord," my associations don't involve being a good daddy.

(Candy, little girl?)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

If all a cappella arrangements were pulled off with the success of this Slovenian jazz choir's live shot, I'd be much more of a fan ... (here's what they are recreating).