Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What I'm reading now

A lot of people make resolutions about improving themselves at this time of year, and that usually includes a reading list. People will buy weighty tomes, books on self-improvement, or important and serious novels. I won’t be doing that.  

It’s not that I don’t appreciate serious literature, but it’s January. This is the month that I recuperate from the holidays, and I just can’t face Middlemarch right now. I'll come back to the serious reads, but for now, I want something light and funny. 

I haven't read science fiction in years. I burned my way through a lot of the genre in high school and sort of lost interest afterwards. It's not that I don't find speculating on the future interesting, but there are a fair number of sci-fi novelists who forget that the point of literature is to tell a story, not to numb me with detailed explanations of physics, number theory, or (yet another) dystopian future.  So it was complete chance that I stumbled on Agent to the Stars online, and after reading the synopsis I had to buy it. 

It’s about a junior Hollywood agent who has the ultimate PR problem: How do you go about introducing an alien race to the world? Without causing widespread panic and riots?

As an added complication, the aliens are really ugly and they smell. 

It also contains some sharp observations on the entertainment industry, and the negotiations are masterful. On one hand, he's a complete bastard, on the other, you can't help but admire how well he does it. It’s funny, intelligent, and I enjoyed it immensely. If you want a fun and satirical read, I recommend this one highly.

Bonus for the true sci-fi fan: the Audible version is read by Wil Wheaton!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Getting out of the House: Armand Bayou

I have two goals for this year:

1. Finish (or at least get some headway on) all the half-finished projects around the house.
2. Get out of the house on a regular basis, and work doesn't count.

Since I made some headway on goal one by framing my art prints, this week I focused on getting out of the house. I went hiking in Armand Bayou.

Armand Bayou is a nature preserve, close to Clear Lake and Pasadena. It is unique in that it was not set up by the state or federal government, but is actually a 501(c)3 charity. It is the largest urban nature preserve in the US.

This was probably not the best time for a visit;  it had rained only two days before, so there was a lot of mud, very slippery mud, around large puddles. A few in my group ended up falling into the puddles, because the trail was so slick. Still, no serious damage done, just a few bruised egos, and lot of wet sneakers.

Dampness aside, it was a beautiful day. That special kind of Texas winter day, when the sky is a cloudless bright blue, and the temperature is cool but not cold. I'd like to go back, when it's dryer, and see what it looks like when there are more leaves on the trees.

red tailed hawks (I think)

Turtles, enjoying the sun

Tree fungus

Purple fungus, but it looked burgundy with the sun shining through it

Tidal marsh, doesn't the tree stump look sculpted by the wind?

Red flower at the visitor's center

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Round Robin: Are we getting closer to racial equality?

If there was ever a topic I felt totally unqualified to answer, this would be it. But I agreed to write about whatever the group said. So here we go.

When I was a child, people of color (by which I mean Hispanic, African-American, Native American, Asian, basically anyone not Caucasian.) were only on television in bit parts, (think Al on “Happy Days”), or they were in a show about non-white people (“Sanford and Son”). If you saw an African-American in a commercial, that product was for African-Americans. If the advertisement was aimed at the American public at large, like Cheerios, the actors would be white.

Watching television this past month, I see a much more varied slice of humanity. The president of the US is African-American (and female!) on ”State of Affairs”; two popular shows on broadcast television (“Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder”) have African-American leads, and white significant others. My favorite canceled show of last season, "Selfie", was a retelling of Pygmalion - with a Korean-American as Higgins. And as far as the commercials go, the color barrier is long gone. I see African-Americans pitching everything from cholesterol-lowering drugs to banking services to milk. 

It may not seem like much, but the shift in casting shows that:
  • Hollywood doesn’t think it’s ridiculous to cast people of color in positions of authority. 
  • American business has realized that having non-white actors in their ads won’t alienate their audiences. 
That’s huge! It’s not peace, love and kumbayah, but it is money and power. And money and power are more effective.

That’s Hollywood, what about in the real world?

My little subdivision (120 houses total) has people of all races in it, and if there has been any protest, I haven’t heard it. I go to my local mall, and there are people of all colors (in fact, I sometimes feel a little outnumbered). And it’s just like every other mall: same bad pizza in the food court, same teenagers mooning over each other and wearing ridiculous clothing. My doctor is Vietnamese. I work with people of Vietnamese, Hispanic, African, Chinese, Cajun, and Croatian backgrounds – and I swear one of my biggest difficulties is getting input in atrocious handwriting.

And not to belabor the obvious, but the current President of the United States is definitely not white.

I’m not Pollyanna. I know that there are people (probably people I know) that harbor resentments, racist attitudes, stupid misconceptions, and the like. We do not live in a perfect world. But at the very least, being racist is no-longer socially acceptable. You’d get more positive feedback if you said you were in favor of corporal punishment. Improvement has been made.

Addressing the recent shootings:
  • It always takes conservative institutions the longest to adapt. Law enforcement is as conservative an institution as they come. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it may help explain some attitudes. 
  • Dead teenagers is a horrible way to bring issues up, but they are being addressed. The outrage is loud, vocal, from all parts of the country and all levels of society. These shootings aren’t being swept under the rug, or shrugged off with “that’s just the way things are.” Attention is being paid, and changes are being made to keep these scenarios from happening again. 
  • The shooters are not going to be able to go back to their lives as if nothing happened. They will be tarred for the rest of their lives for these actions. 
Change is happening, and change is good.

You can see other takes on this topic at: 
Joan Johnson: onefishtaco
William Pora:
Leslie Farnsworth: 
James McPherson:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Small accomplishments

Happy 2015. It's a new year. True, it's an arbitrary date, it doesn't really mean anything, but sometimes you just need a dividing line. Something that says "it ends here". And I really needed 2014 to end. 

I'm not going to go into detail, but 2014 was painful for me, and I need (even if it is just symbolic) to end it and start anew.

This year, I'm not making any grandiose plans. I just want to get my energy flowing again. So, in the spirit of clearing roadblocks, I present my first accomplishment of the year. The hidden art collection.

George appreciating art
I took all of these out of the various nooks and crannies where they have lain hidden and protected from curious cats, and framed them.  It was a two week process, because the larger ones had been rolled up for years, so I had to unroll them and weight them down for a week. They still roll a bit, but I'm hoping that now that they are framed, the paper will relax and become truly flat. 

In case you are inspired by my example, this is a great time of year to do this. All the art supply stores are having big sales, trying to get rid of last year's stock. The frames and mats were all 40% off. 

In my case, it helped my budget a lot that a few years ago, my mother took a course in framing art. Last weekend, when it was cold and rained all day, I took everything over to my parents' house where we measured, re-measured, remembered that it's been long time since any of us had to work with fractions, and finally got everything matted and in the frames. I've even hung them up.

As achievements go, it's not much, but you have to start somewhere.