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February 28, 2005

A new attitude

One of the reasons I started Shades of Mediocrity last July was to give myself a reason to write every day (or almost every day). I've fallen down badly on that score lately, but I need to conquer my laziness. I felt like I had an excuse during the long, draining, haul through December, January, and February, when I wrote and thought constantly at work (and usually worked far too many hours) -- not that anyone would actually want to read my work writing, unless they had to. Well, I can't let it go any more. I need to remind myself that I'm doing this not primarily to entertain my many readers, but to keep the cobwebs off the thought processes, and to keep the prose flowing through the fingers onto the screen.

So I'm determined now to write about something, no matter how trivial, banal, or navel-gazing, almost every day. I'd warn you all that the Shades are about to get a lot more mediocre, but I hardly think that's possible.

Today, because it's late, and because I've just anesthetized my brain with a couple of hours' immersion in Summerland, Michael Chabon's fantasy novel for children, I'm too scattered to write about anything other than my resolution to write more often. (I highly recommend Summerland, by the way, though I haven't finished it yet. But if you're over 16 and you haven't already done so, you should probably read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay first.) So watch this space -- or don't, it's your choice -- for more tomorrow. I mean that!

Posted by at 10:24 PM

February 26, 2005

For ages 8-12?

I've always loved Legos, and one of the major disappointments of my childhood was that my brother had Legos while I did not -- and for some reason, no amount of asking for them ever resulted in my receiving my very own Legos. So I had to beg for permission to play with the Legos -- and permission was frequently refused. When my beloved sibling did deign to allow me to handle his brightly-colored, clicky plastic building blocks, there were always a host of conditions and limitations to which I had to agree to before he would let me touch them: restrictions on what I could build, which colors I could put together, how many of the blocks I could use at a time, and of course, a time limit. This was almost worse than if I had had no access to Legos at all, and my childhood sense of Lego deprivation has manifested itself in my adulthood as a continued fascination with all things Lego. (As proof, I offer my reaction to Dr. Dregs's birthday gift to me a couple of years ago: the Lego Hogwarts Express. Doc Dregs was a little taken aback by my enthusiasm for the gift, and a little bemused by my need to assemble it immediately. It is now proudly displayed in our dining room.)

So I had to post this, just for those of you who may be curious about the outcome of Legos meeting M.C. Escher. Enjoy...and not that I'm fishing for presents, but should you want to buy me one, I'd love to have the Knight Bus.

Posted by at 12:09 PM

February 24, 2005

Ooh! I want some!

ThinkGeek has all sorts of amusing toys, but I've never been tempted to actually buy anything there until now, when I ran across The Cubes Cubicle Playsets. Although my workplace is nowhere near as repressive as the fictional one of The Cubes, it's still pretty easy to identify.

As long as we're on the subject of cubicles, I'll comment on yesterday's page from my page-a-day calendar, which describes good cubicle etiquette. Most of the advice is common sense (keep your voice down when you're on the phone, avoid strong perfume or cologne), but one of the recommendations caused me some nasty flashbacks to the time I spent in my former cubicle: refrain from backing your chair into the cubicle's common wall. In my previous location, the photocopier (used by everyone working on the first floor of Wilson Library) was located on the other side of one of my cubicle walls. Although I quickly learned to tune it out as a matter of maintaining my sanity and a semblance of productivity, the constant whine of the copier, the slamming of its lid, and the sudden sharp noise of its stapler drove me nuts.

Ah, the small indignities of office life. I'm far better off now in my new location -- still really a cubicle, but a very large one, and without any office appliances on my outside walls. It's amazing how much of difference in one's outlook and attitude having a comfortable, quiet workspace makes.

And if I had a few of The Cubes, I'd have something to play with, too -- my work environment would truly be complete.

Posted by at 9:40 AM

February 19, 2005

Cleaning house

I have a long history of being, shall we say, less than completely on top of keeping my space tidy. As a child (especially as a teenager), I was particularly awful: getting from the door of my bedroom to my bed usually involved wading through knee-deep piles of clothes, books, and papers. Whether and when I would clean my room was a perennial topic of negotiation between my mother and me.

When I went off to college and had my own dorm room (or at least, half of a dorm room), I became much neater. Something about having a space of which I felt more the "owner" than my room in my mother's house caused me to change my cluttered ways. The necessity of spending so much time in my little room also encouraged a higher level of cleanliness on my part.

But as I have moved through a series of apartments and finally to my own home post-college, the urge to keep my space neat has not stayed with me. The problem has been especially acute over the last four or so years since we bought our house. Sure, I would like my house to be clean all the time, but I just don't seem capable of keeping it that way. First, I'm easily overwhelmed (and frequently discouraged) by the sheer amount of space there is to keep clean. It isn't as if my 1700 square-foot house is so cavernous. I'm not trying to maintain a mansion, after all. But still it's frequently too much.

Part of my problem is also that I can't overcome a sense of futility in cleaning. No matter how much junk mail I sort and recycle, another huge pile of catalogs and credit card offers will appear within days. I may dust and vacuum, but floors, tables, and furniture will have reacquired their usual coating of pet hair within mere hours. I may put the clean laundry away, but there's always another load that's just come out of the dryer. So instead, I tend to do these things only occasionally -- and then I hate myself because it takes an entire weekend to do them.

We are pretty good about keeping the kitchen clean. Both of us have high enough standards that we can't long tolerate a filthy kitchen. The thought of rotting food growing new and exciting life forms in the sink just gives me the willies. But beyond the realm of food preparation areas, I'm ashamed to admit that we tend to let things go for far too long in between cleanings.

The irony is that actually having cleaned the house is a very rewarding experience for me. I may not enjoy the actual labor, but I surely do appreciate the results. Upon dusting the last table, or vacuuming the last stair, I feel a real sense of accomplishment, and frequently resolve to do better, clean more often, keep things neat. I always fail.

In the end, like everything else, it's simply a matter of priorities and limited time. When it comes right down to it, I'd rather spend my precious free doing any number of other things: reading, listening to music, watching TV or movies, cooking, playing with the critters, blogging -- I could go on. I like having a clean house, but it isn't quite important enough for me to choose cleaning over other activities most of the time.

Of course, I could pay someone to clean my house -- I toy with the idea of doing so all the time. But having determined that it isn't usually worth my time to maintain a satisfyingly high level of neatness around the house, I also find when I really examine things that I also don't think it's worth the money. Just another way in which life really comes down to making decisions about how to distribute the too-finite resources of time and money.

Posted by at 11:22 AM

February 12, 2005

Oh give me a home, where diploma mills roam...

Apparently, the great state of Wyoming has become a haven for institutions of higher education of, shall we say, questionable credentials. This is because, true to the state's libertarian nature, Wyoming's licensing standards for post-secondary institutions are rather lax. Are these schools just diploma mills, or genuine players in the distance-higher-ed marketplace? It's hard to say for sure, but based on the evidence presented in the article, it doesn't look good.

Not that all of this should reflect in any way on the quality of the University of Wyoming, the alma mater of several of my very good friends (not to mention the husband). But it just can't be a good sign when quotations like "People start to giggle if you say `Wyoming-licensed school,' if you know about accreditation" are in the air.

Posted by at 11:42 AM

February 10, 2005

Four guys with guitars

Dr. Dregs finally got to enjoy one of his Christmas gifts last night -- concert tickets to a show featuring Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Lyle Lovett at the State Theater. We weren't sure what to expect, having bought the tickets because Dr. Dregs is a huge Lyle Lovett fan (both of us are only moderately interested in the other three). It turned out to be well worth the money: the show was mellow and funny -- just four guys with their acoustic guitars, playing together because they thought it would be fun.

The stage was set very simply: four chairs in a row, with small tables holding water bottles behind the chairs. All four musicians came onstage together and took their seats. They took turns performing (in "alphabetical order," they claimed, with Clark first and Lovett last), moving through six sets with a song by each musician, with one or two of the others occasionally dropping in with a vocal harmony or a guitar solo. At the end of the show, all four did a couple of Woody Guthrie tunes together: "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way," and "This Land is Your Land."

The simplicity of the presentation -- just the performers and their guitars -- put the focus strongly on the quality of the songs and performances. All four showed how accomplished they are as solo peformers, with Lovett and especially Hiatt turning in particularly fabulous interpretations of their songs. But the pure emphasis on the songs really turned the evening into a celebration of great (and often underappreciated) songwriting. Lovett mentioned early in the show that he considered Clark, Ely, and Hiatt to be his "songwriting heroes," and there was a special complementarity among all of the songs that enriched the whole performance even further.

In my experience, this kind of thing happens all too rarely in concerts by big name stars. While the performances may be dazzling in both production and execution, such concerts are often infused with a sense of fatigue for the material -- if not for performing itself. There was none of that last night; Clark, Ely, Hiatt, and Lovett all seemed genuinely glad to be performing, and the crowd knew it. The Strib reviewer called the show a love-in between performers and audience, which strikes me as just about right. It's proof that audiences can be trusted to appreciate substance over flash.

Posted by at 1:29 PM

February 5, 2005

A classic tale of micromanagement, or something more sinister?

I refuse to believe that the mayor of one of America's largest cities has nothing better to do than this. Mayor Bill White of Houston, TX has seen fit to order the Houston Public Library to place all of its copies of porn star Jenna Jameson's book How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in closed stacks, so that library patrons must ask for the book if they wish to read it (or merely browse through it).

It's hardly unprecedented for public libraries to place sexually explicit or otherwise controversial materials in closed stacks. In many cases, the closed-stack treatment is necessary just to keep the books from being stolen or defaced (many libraries faced this issue with Madonna's Sex back in the early 90s). Public libraries deal with controversial materials all the time, so most of them (especially large public library systems) have policies and procedures in place for addressing any complaints or challenges they may receive.

But rather than allow the challenge to Jameson's book to go through the established review process, Houston's mayor decided the situation was desperate enough that he must take action. This is a terrible precedent. Libraries and librarians must be allowed to make their own (carefully considered) decisions on these matters, in collaboration with the community. The mayor's actions demonstrate a lack of faith in the review process, and perhaps even a lack of regard for the ideals of intellectual freedom and access for all held so dear by the library profession.

Posted by at 12:00 PM

When "Because I said so" isn't good enough

Not only are abstinence-only sex ed programs rife with scientific inaccuracies and ridiculous generalizations, but as it turns out, they also don't work very well. The headline of this Reuters story pretty much says it all: in Texas, teenagers who had abstinence-only sex education became increasingly sexually active at the same rate as their peers who did not take abstinence-only classes.

I don't know about the rest of you, but this finding doesn't strike me as terribly surprising. Social pressures and teenage hormones being what they are, it seems obvious that simply saying to teens, "you really should wait" is unlikely to change their behavior. Even as adults, our best intentions can disappear in a cloud of emotion and instinct during the heat of the moment. Expecting teens to have better self-control than adults just isn't realistic. Plenty will abstain, for a variety of reasons, and I don't think there's anything wrong with presenting abstinence as the safest and wisest choice. But many won't abstain no matter what they're taught. It seems almost criminally negligent in this day and age not to inform teens of how they might reduce their chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and/or becoming pregnant. This is hardly a new insight for those of us living in the reality-based world -- but maybe studies like this one can change the minds of a few of those who've drunk the social conservatives' kool-aid on this issue.

Posted by at 10:55 AM

February 2, 2005

Great Plains Odyssey

Sorry about the relatively protracted silence, but Dr. Dregs and I just spent a few days in fabulous Rapid City, SD, our hometown, where we traveled to visit the Dregs ancestral home and play in a wind ensemble concert sponsored by the Black Hills Symphony Orchestra.

We make the 600-mile pilgrimage to Rapid City several times a year, usually traveling there and returning in the space of three days. As a result, we are bored, bored, bored with our usual route (I-90 from Rapid City to Worthington, MN, then MN 60 to Mankato, and finally US 169 into the Twin Cities). So on Monday, about 180 miles into our trip, with the whole day to get home and new roadmaps in hand, we decided to venture off the beaten path and see some new sights.

We exited I-90 at the tiny town of Reliance, about twelve miles west of the Missouri River. From there, we took SD 47 a bit north and across the Missouri at the Big Bend Dam. After passing through Fort Thompson, we picked up SD 34 to about 20 miles south of Huron, SD where we turned north on SD 37 toward Huron. At Huron, we headed east on US 14, which took us to St. Peter, MN, where we joined US 169, our usual final leg.

Over the course of our drive (which ended up taking not much longer than our normal route), we passed through many small farm towns in both states. The experience of travel on a deserted two-lane highway across the prairie always makes me feel especially desolate and alone, and this trip was no different. The combination of the sparse population with the vastness of the land brings home how alien rural life is to me. Even though I lived my early years in a small Nebraska farm town (pop. 5,600), I have no sense for what it is like to live in a town of just a few hundred souls, miles (perhaps even hours) from the nearest town of any real size. It's nearly unimaginable to me, and while I'm not likely to leave my comfortable urban existence behind to find out what it's like living out there on the plains, I am curious enough to wish I could get closer to the experience than simply reading about it.

Another thing we noticed with wonder as we passed from South Dakota into Minnesota on US 14 was how suddenly different the towns and the land are once you have crossed the border. The flat, open prairie is mostly left behind, replaced with gentle hills, small lakes, and many more trees. The towns are also different: in Minnesota, they are just as small, but there are more of them, and they are closer together. The Minnesota towns also seem somehow prouder: cleaner, better maintained, and generally just more attractive. Many of the South Dakota towns have a sad, half-abandoned, ramshackle quality, as if the inhabitants are simply too few and too tired to do more than they must. I suspect the reality is that these differences demonstrate the two states' divergent approaches to government services and taxation over the decades: South Dakotans have one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation, and their towns and highways show the neglect that comes of necessity from smaller state revenues.

Traveling on the billboard-littered interstate, it's just about impossible to get a sense for what the original white settlers of the Great Plains must have felt upon first encountering this vast, open space. An inkling of that can be had once you leave the well-traveled routes. Yes, even away from the main roads, you are surrounded by modern infrastructure: the paved highway, the endless power lines, the satellite dishes on every farmhouse. But it's easier to imagine how terrifying yet exciting the prairie must have been for the pioneers. To me, this is proof that as exhilirating as travel to distant, foreign places can be, it's hardly necessary to venture so far to realize how much I don't know and haven't experienced.

Posted by at 7:31 PM