Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The opening scenes of Beasts of the Southern Wild introduce us to Hushpuppy, the cutest 6 year old that ever lived, and the harsh environment of rural poverty in which she is being raised. I say “raised” rather than the proper southern “reared” because Hushpuppy’s daddy, Wink, while he loves her profoundly, has no idea how to be a father. It’s not clear that he would have any idea how to be a father even if he weren’t an alcoholic, and, as it transpires, seriously ill.

John wanted to see Beasts of the Southern Wild because it was filmed nearby in Terrebonne Parish. “Terrebonne” means “beautiful earth” and the marshy landscape is starkly beautiful, and unforgiving. Hushpuppy, her dad and their neighbors live outside the levee that protects the parish from floods, on an island called “The Bathtub”. The name is a conceit of the movie, but a real island, Isle de Jean Charles, inspired it. Isle de Jean Charles is disappearing into the rising waters of Terrebone Bay.

Hushpuppy is going to school of sorts, and is being taught about global warming and its effects in her teacher’s inimitable style. (At least I hope it is inimitable. Lord knows it would have got me fired.) She also learns about cave people and the extinct aurochs, which Hushpuppy imagines coming to life as the global ice caps melt. The aurochs comes to figure more and more in her imagination and in the movie, the “beasts of the southern wild” that represent the real-life troubles that threaten to overwhelm her just as floodwaters threaten to take away her home.

At home, her living situation is, to put it mildly, unusual. She has her own house, actually a broken down trailer, next door to her daddy’s, but separate from him. Wink disappears for a few days without leaving any provision for her care, and Hushpuppy fends for herself while reflecting stolidly that “Children with no mommy and no daddy have to live in the woods and steal underwear” and “If Daddy doesn’t come back soon I’m going to have to eat my pets.” When he returns, a storm is moving in. Wink and a few neighbors ride out the storm rather than fleeing, and while at first they are able to join forces to find food and shelter, the reality of the effects of salt water on the local flora and fauna forces them to take desperate measures, which in turn bring them to the attention of the world inside the levee.

That world does not represent rescue for Hushpuppy, however, and neither does the woman she sets off to find who may or may not be her mother. Finally she returns to her world to face the reality of her father’s impending death. In a powerful scene, she literally looks her fears in the eye and says, “You’re my friend, sort of”. 

But then, the aurochs that haunts her imaginings is the least scary thing about this movie. 

Quvenzhané Wallis is the cutest child actor ever, but she is playing a six year old. I am tired of movies that feature precocious children, children who manage to have skills and philosophies at 6 that most of us did not have at 25. All over the world there are real six year olds who feel fear and confusion at parental neglect and abandonment, who feel deprived by poverty and who need comfort for their fears. These children are not as articulate and philosophical as movie tykes, but they are lovable and engaging, and they deserve to have their stories told. Maybe the people who make movies should try that some time.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Subscribe Later

A warning notice from my virus software keeps popping up on my computer. No, it is not a warning about some virus that is munching its way through my files in preparation for grabbing my address book and launching itself at all my friends and family. The warning advises me that my virus software subscription is about to expire.

To dismiss the warning notice, I have to select one of three choices: one takes me to their web page to sign up for another year, another says, “I have a subscription key” and takes me to the software itself to use said key, and the third is “remind me later”. There is no, “I don’t want to renew your software” option. The “later” in remind me later is not something reasonable, like a week or so from now, it’s “later” as in “whenever my computer wakes up from sleep mode”.

Last year I tried to disable the reminder feature. In consultation with my son, who knows his Macs, I deleted several preference files, to no effect. I decided to wait until the subscription expired, taking the reminder notice with it. The subscription expired. Weeks later, the notice still kept popping up. 

I finally renewed the software at the request of a group I email links to frequently, because they complained that they were getting buggy links from somewhere and wanted all of us who sent them to make sure our submissions were virus free.

I think I am going to need to contact the company to find out if there is any way to get rid of the notice. My first question is going to be, why do I want to renew a subscription to virus software that reminds me so much of a virus?

Friday, July 27, 2012


A recent post on thenewcivilrightsmovement.com about how Bryan Fischer of The American Family Association denies that HIV causes AIDS, led me to think about how AIDS got identified as a “gay disease” to begin with.

According to author Nathan Wolf in his book The Viral Storm

The history of HIV begins with a relatively simple ecological interaction - the hunting of chimpanzees by monkeys in central Africa. While people normally think about the origins of HIV occurring sometime in the 1980’s, the story actually begins about 8 million years ago when our ape ancestors began to hunt.
More precisely, the story of HIV begins with two species of monkeys, the red-capped mangabey and the greater spot-nosed guenon of central Africa.They hardly seem like the villains at the center of the global AIDS pandemic, yet without them this pandemic would never have occurred. . . One thing these monkeys share is that they are naturally infected with SIV, the simian immunodeficiency virus. Each monkey has its own particular variant of this virus, something it and its ancestors have probably lived with for millions of years. Another thing these monkeys have in common is that chimpanzees find them very tasty.

He goes on to say, 

No matter what the particular order of cross-species jumps, at some moment a chimpanzee became infected with both the guenon virus and the mangabey virus. The two viruses recombined to create an entirely new mosaic variant, neither mangabey virus nor guenon virus.
. . .The virus, now known to harm chimpanzees, would persist in chimpanzee populations for many years before it would jump from chimpanzees to humans sometime in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. And it all started because chimpanzees hunt.

 Wolf has a lot to say about AIDS, since The Viral Storm is about pandemics, and what aspects of human life and technology allow them to spread. Here’s a section about the first known AIDS patient:

The earliest historical HIV samples date from 1959 and 1960, twenty years before AIDS was even recognized as a disease. In an amazing piece of viral detective work, evolutionary virologist Michael Wirobey and his colleagues managed to analyze a virus from a specimen of a lymph node from a woman in Leopoldville, Congo (now Kinshasa, DRC).
The lymph node had been embedded in wax for over forty-five years. By comparing the genetic sequence of the virus they found in the specimen with other strains from humans and chimpanzees, they were able to attach rough dates for the first ancestor of the human virus. While the genetic techniques they used cannot pinpoint dates closer than a few decades, they concluded that the virus split from the lineage sometime around 1900 and certainly before 1930. They also concluded that by the time the woman in Leopoldville became infected with HIV in 1959 there was already a significant amount of genetic diversty of HIV in Kinshasa, suggesting that the epidemic had already established itself there.

Wolf goes on to talk about why it took medical researchers so long to recognize AIDS as a disease, and then about the social changes that occurred in central Africa that led to the spread of the disease:

In 1892 steamship service began from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the very heart of the central African forest. The steamship service connected populations that had been largely separated, creating potential for viruses that might previously have gone extinct in local isolated populations to reach the growing urban centers. In addition, the French initiated the construction of railroads, which, like shipping and road lines, connect populations. This produced another mechanism for viruses to spread from remote regions to urban centers, effectively providing a larger population size of hosts for a spreading virus.
. . . Large groups of men were conscripted, often forcefully, to build railroads.Moore and his colleagues note that the labor camps were populated mostly by men, a condition that dramatically favors transmission of sexually transmitted viruses like HIV. . .

 It's much harder to see AIDS as "the gay plague" if you look at the entire history of the crossover of AIDS from monkeys to chimps to humans and not just at the first cases in the US. It's a fluke that the first person to transmit AIDS from Africa to the US was a gay male. Even if AIDS had never made it across the ocean from Africa, it would still be ravaging the African continent, killing women and children as well as men (as it does here).Whatever Bryan Fischer’s narrative would have been then, I doubt he would have blamed colonialism or hunting the way he blames homosexuality for causing the disease. He might even have been willing to accept that this disease, like many other diseases,  is caused by a virus. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

By the Sea, By the Sea

I grew up on Long Island. Long Island is 118 miles long and 23 miles wide at its widest point, which means that you are never more than 11.5 miles from the ocean or the sound. We lived a walkable distance from a small beach and about an hour’s drive or less from Jones Beach, and as I may have mentioned before, Grandpa F had a summer home on the water. So even though I was in college before I learned to swim, I love going to the beach.

The problem is, I live in Louisiana. Louisiana has 397 miles of coastline, so you would think we’d have lots of large, lovely beaches the way Texas, Mississippi and Florida do. Think again.

Louisiana also has the Mississippi River. The river has spent eons picking up dirt from further north and dumping it out in the Gulf of Mexico. That means that Louisiana has a highly irregular, marshy coastline that is wonderful for fishing and boating but not so much for swimming. If you look at the map here

you can see how irregular the Louisiana coastline is compared to the area to the upper right, which is Mississippi, and how much further it projects out into the Gulf.

So going to the beach if you live in Louisiana is a bit of a project. In the southwestern part of the state, near the Texas border, the coastline is more regular and there is a stretch known as “the Cajun Riviera”. The largest barrier island, Grand Isle, has a state park with a stretch of public beach, but it’s over 3 hours away through one of the country’s most notorious speed traps. The nearest beach to us is at Cypremort Point, over 2 hours away and in the vicinity of Avery Island. In fact, to get to it, you pass another salt dome, Weeks Island, part of which is used for part of the strategic oil reserve and part of which is mined by Morton Salt.

Cypremort Point State Park is a small stretch of land on Vermilion Bay, and the beach is miniscule. You can probably walk the entire length of it in five minutes. If “beach” to you means beach resorts with parasailing, beachside restaurants and bars, tacky little souvenir shops where you can buy all the stuff you forgot to pack, and a place to buy an ice cream cone, this is not that place. To find a restaurant or convenience store, you need to drive a half hour in one direction or another to New Iberia or Jeannerette. There is no life guard and a lot of the time you can’t go in the water due to high bacterial levels. (Well, they post warnings. People go in anyway.)

The same 2 hour or so drive can take you to Mississippi, and before casino gambling was legalized in Mississippi, that’s what we used to do. Now that casinos are up and down the beach, it isn’t as pleasant for us as it used to be. So if we want the beach life, it means an overnight trip further along the coast, either east or west. If we want a picnic and a dip, Cypremort Point State Park will do.

The beach looking right

The beach looking left

Picnic shelter

One thing I do enjoy about the park is that it has picnic shelters just a few steps from the beach, so you can escape into complete shade when you’ve had enough sun. What with all the rain lately, the shelter had become home to quite a lively crop of mosquitoes. We had packed insect repellent, but by time I found it a few dozen mosquitoes had had me for lunch.

There was no sign up signaling a too high bacteria count, so I was able to splash around while John fed bread to the crows. Somehow my idea of beach life does not include crows.

Driving home, we passed the sign that said “Otter Crossing”. I have yet to see an otter at Cypremort Point, although I did see one crossing the road at Port Fourchon.

“I am in otter disbelief,” I remark to John.

“What are you talking about?”

I explain about the sign.

“Well, maybe they are otter here. Maybe they went the otter way.”

We made it home in time to beat the late afternoon rain. If there is one thing Louisiana has, it is a lot of water. Just very little beach.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Really, Bill?

In all of the turmoil and grief over the Aurora shootings, surely our hearts go out most of all to the parents of the child victim, 6 year old Veronica Moser-Sullivan. At least, this is true for those of us who have hearts.

I don’t want this to sound harsh to anybody, but the reason that these children were in the theater at midnight to see Batman was because their parents didn’t want to pay for babysitters because babysitters are expensive. So they take the children, the children fall asleep in the movie and the parent watches the movie. And the (six) year-old girl who’s dead – the mother of the girl was shot in the chest – you just heard her father. She survived.…The story about this is that the mother, the father – and you heard the father – took the six year-old to the midnight movie. And they did that, as I explained, ‘cause they didn’t want to pay a babysitter, because babysitters are 15 bucks an hour, OK? OK? And there you go. 
I have found that if you feel the need to say “I don’t want to sound harsh to anybody”, you probably should rethink what you are about to say. If what you really want to sound is loving and sympathetic, then you don’t tell somebody it’s their fault a loved one is dead. That’s not the way not to sound harsh. You say something like, “Oh, this is horrible; this is dreadful. Your poor baby! I’m so sorry this terrible thing happened. It should never be.” That might still not be comforting, but it isn’t likely to get you accused of being harsh.
You know why parents don’t leave their children home with a baby sitter? It isn’t just the money. Some parents prefer to be with their children. They don’t want to turn their children’s care over to other people. That doesn’t mean they need to hole up with the kid in a cave. They go places and do things and take their children along, because they like being with their children.
Some people are afraid to leave their children with a babysitter. We hear stories of abusive babysitters. Even babysitters who are kind can have poor judgement. Your teenage babysitter may mean well but be tempted to take the opportunity to make out with her boyfriend on the living room sofa while the kids set fire to the house trying to toast marshmallows. Worries like that make parents  just feel safer keeping their children with them.
Do you think that kind of worry is a little extreme? Your chances of experiencing a reported house fire in your life are 1 in 4. The chances that someone in your household will suffer an injury in a home fire in an average lifetime are 1 in 10. The chances that someone in your household will suffer an injury in a reported fire in an average lifetime are 1 in 89.
Remind me again - what were the chances of being shot by an assailant in a movie theater prior to the Aurora shootings? For that matter, what are they now?
And if little Veronica had been left at home with a babysitter who turned out to be abusive or who panicked and couldn’t get her out of the house in a fire, would Bill O’Reilly be saying, “At least her parents didn’t take her with them to the movies where she could be shot by an armored gunman”? Yeah, right.
Why in the world would someone even think it is okay to talk about parents like this? They didn’t take their daughter hang-gliding or rock climbing; they took her to a movie. Yes, it was a midnight showing, but the worst they could reasonably have been expected to anticipate is that she would be crabby the next day. This goes beyond just the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; this is just plain cruel.
Really, Bill. You don’t want to sound harsh? Then keep your mouth shut.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Now and Always

Every month the Foundation for Historical Louisiana meets at the Old Governor’s Mansion and hosts a speaker. Last night’s speaker was Christian Garcia, who has just edited and published a book of letters written between his maternal grandparents between 1901 and 1916. His grandfather had been a state legislator and attorney and thus was often away from home working.

His family saved all the letters and Garcia was given them twenty years ago by a family member who hoped he would do something with them. The something he did is a book called Now and Always: A Louisiana Love Story. Garcia’s talk consisted of a short movie followed by readings of some of the letters, and then a summary of things he learned while researching the history of that period and compiling the letters. 

I went home wondering how it would be to have access to extensive correspondence between family members. My grandfather wrote to my grandmother once while he was visiting other family in South America. I know this because I sat next to my grandmother while my aunt translated the letter from Italian for me and my brothers. My grandmother greeted each term of endearment from my grandfather with some Italian words of her own which I didn’t exactly know, but the tenor of which were obvious from her facial expressions and gestures. I’m not sure what she was mad at him about, but it did make a nice change from the times I sat between the two of them while they competed for my attention. I would love to have that letter today.

My dad did save some of the letters my mother wrote to him while he was overseas during WWII. I remember they began with “my dearest darling”, which I thought was funny because who thinks of their parents being in love when they are little. I don’t know what happened to those letters.

I do, however, have a letter my mother wrote to my paternal grandparents in 1943. The letter was written from here in Louisiana, because my father was stationed at Camp Beauregard near Pineville, Louisiana (a few hours north of here) and my mother had rented a room in town to be near him. They had just been married the previous month and her coming to Louisiana to be with him was the only honeymoon they got before he shipped out. My dad had sent me the letter for me to read with the idea I was supposed to send it back but I sort of forgot, for that version of “sort of forgot” that means “didn’t want to”.

The letter begins with my mother explaining why my dad did not write himself.

 . . . [H]e is kept so busy that he can’t even write. Last week they sent him out on the firing range at another camp. He was there for six days. He was supposed to get Wednesday night off and also Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday. But he was out on the range and had no time off. When he came back he had a six day beard. He couldn’t even write to anyone.They gave him yesterday off and we went out. We came back too late last night. He wanted to write, but he asked me to. He will write the next time he gets off. You see, the reason he has very little time is because he has to go to school for an hour or sometimes two each night.

My dad was actually a good correspondent for most of his life. He was the one who wrote to me once I left home, and sent all the news of my brothers, sister, and eventually nieces and nephews. He kept up a long correspondence with a boyhood friend in California. I have only one letter from my mom (my stepmother) announcing my sister’s third pregnancy. So I imagine he actually did feel bad about not being able to write to his parents himself.

I went out to camp on Monday. I was watching him work. He’s good! [that was actually double underlined.] He’s the best officer there. I was allowed to go in his hut. Mrs. Adler (her husband shares a hut with Frank) was with me, so we went in and sewed the patches on their jackets and overcoats. That’s the first work I’ve done for Frank since we were married.

That’s my favorite part of the letter. My poor mama, a new bride living in a rented room while her husband lives in a hut, not even able to cook or clean for him. She must have felt as if her life had been interupted. And I don’t know whether my dad was the best officer there or not, but I had my own experience of her fierce loyalty to anyone she loved a few months before she died. My cousin and I had come home from the candy store with a box each of some kind of taffy. Terry could not find a chocolate in her box and I had two. She accused me of stealing hers, I denied it. My Aunt Nellie ordered me to give Terry one of the chocolate candies and my mother roared, “If my daughter says she didn’t take it, then she didn’t take it.” (Picture double underlines here.)

I moved into another room here. It’s nice and roomy. I have a three piece bedroom set, a nice easy chair, and a small vanity bench that I use as a table. I also have a sink in my room and space for my wardrobe trunk. It’s very pretty. It’s bigger than the other room I had and right off the living room. We can use the living room as often as we want. The people are all very friendly, so I don’t feel lonesome on the five nights Frank isn’t off.

She goes on to ask about other family members, then adds

Tell them we wish they could see the beautiful countryside down here. Oh, yes, down here you don’t need a license to drive and you can get enough gas to go pleasure driving if you know the right folks. Too bad we don’t have a car.

Same old Louisiana (although now you do need a license to drive).

She signs it “Love and kisses, Julia”. I’m pretty sure the name on her birth certificate was “Giulia” because that is how it was spelled on her wedding invitations, but naturally she would have Americanized it as soon as she could spell. 

Ten years later she was dead, of a rare blood disease that turned into blood cancer. My maternal relatives would frequently say, “I guess you don’t remember your mother”, but I do. I remember the time she defended me to my aunt (although looking back , I suspect I did take my cousin’s candy, not out of larceny but out of sheer inattention.) I remember one afternoon I sat with her in the living room while she read a book. Every time she looked up, I smiled at her and she would smile back. I began to worry that she would get tired of smiling back, but she didn’t. She smiled back every time. I remember the time I had an abscessed tooth and Dad let me sleep in their bed the night before my dentist appointment. I couldn’t sleep and kept pinching her back so she would know I was there. The next morning I asked if she knew I had slept in her bed and she said, “Sweetheart, I knew you were there.”

So I kept the letter, because it is her, just the way I remember her, now and always.

My mother and I when I was 3 or 4.

It's a Miracle!

I don’t know if the news has spread to your neck of the woods, but we have a miraculous bleeding statue here in River City. The statue is of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as we Methodists are most likely to call her, known to Catholics of course as the Virgin Mary or the Most Blessed Mother. In the neighborhood around St. Thomas More co-cathedral, life-sized and near life-sized statues of Mary abound, and the owners of one of them noticed what they consider to be blood on the statue’s head about a week or so back. 

Skeptical souls consider the substance to be droppings from a bird who had either been eating berries or had blood in its stool due to illness*. Cynics suspect the homeowners of perpetrating a hoax. Selecting the most parsimonious explanation first is actually what the Catholic church recommends in such cases, as expressed in the saying, “God does not multiply miracles.” It is a human failing to reach for the most exotic explanation over the most prosaic. I remember riding on a bus one night next to a woman who insisted that a bright light visible in the sky must be a UFO. I could not convince her that it was actually the planet Jupiter, a very well known object and one that is not flying.

I suggested John come with me to see the statue, out of idle curiosity. The homeowners have put up a tent and chairs for people who wish to come and pray. The statue itself is covered with a large umbrella and surrounded by pots of flowers and some candles. There were two women sitting and praying when we arrived, and three more on foot who walked around, read the posters on the garage wall and left apparently unconvinced.

I could see from comparing a picture of the statue taken when the “blood” was first discovered to the statue as I was looking at it that the “blood” is wearing off, not surprising given that we have had two weeks of afternoon showers. Apparently whatever caused the deposit to appear is not an ongoing event, more indication that this event has a prosaic explanation.

I have my own hypothesis. It is, after all, summer. Kids are out of school, curfews are later, and they have no homework.

“No religion, either”, my husband chimes in. I’m not so sure about that. If this is a prank, I suspect it would be most likely to occur to a Catholic. Be that as it may, today’s internet savvy youth can easily Google “how to make fake blood”. It’s more logical than “Mary has a head wound”.

On the other hand, as I said, there are a lot of these statues in that neighborhood. Would someone young enough to think that this is a cool prank also recognize that stopping at just one makes it more convincing? Or would that person want to decorate every statue in the neighborhood? I don’t know.

Here is the picture I took. See what you think.

Maybe the baby hit her with a rattle?
Click to see full size.

*If you follow that link, be warned. Gendered and ablist insults, NSFW pictures and off-color language are the norm on that board.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Red Hot

John and I have been given a free trial membership to a retirees group sponsored by a local hospital. In addition to getting discounts from local merchants, we also have the opportunity to go on trips with the group. Yesterday we went to Avery Island and New Iberia, to tour the Tabasco factory and Shadows on the Teche.

Avery Island is not an island. It is one of a group of salt domes in southeast Louisiana which look like hills in the wetlands surrounding them. Jefferson Island is another such salt dome nearby, as is Weeks Island, once the plantation of the Weeks family that built Shadows on the Teche

Avery Island is home to the beautiful Jungle Gardens and Bird City, but we didn’t get to tour them yesterday. We only got to tour the Tabasco Sauce factory and country store before heading off for lunch and our tour of the antebellum home.

Since this was not our first trip to Avery Island, not seeing the gardens was only a minor disappointment. I have pictures from prior trips.

When you go to visit the factory, you get a history of the invention of Tabasco sauce, its early manufacture, and how its produced today, from both a tour guide and a video. Then you get to walk through the bottling plant and a one room museum, before walking over to the country store.

The so-called country store is really a gift shop, selling Tabasco brand products. You can taste a lot of the products, including their pepper jellies, chili made with Tabasco brand chili sauce, and their ice creams. Yesterday they were giving out samples of their new Raspberry Chipotle ice cream. 

When I first visited Avery Island, over thirty years ago, they didn’t have the video, and there was a real country store, further down the road that leads to the Jungle Gardens. I bought cold drinks for Neal and me out of one of those old time coolers. That road is now closed to visitors and presumably so is the old store. The first time I visited the Tabasco sauce factory, the tour guide pointed out in the display scrip that used to be paid to the workers to use in that country store. It hasn’t been mentioned on subsequent visits. I suspect they don’t want you associating the abuses of the old “company store” economy with their product, although considering how isolated Avery Island must have been from its surroundings in the early 1900’s, a store on the island was a necessity, and I have no reason to believe that their prices were exploitive. I wish they had kept the old store.

The McIlhenny family that makes Tabasco brand products apparently have been running a green business before anyone ever heard of the term. When the first Mr. McIlhenny made his pepper sauce, he bottled it in old perfume bottles to give his friends. Tabasco sauce is brewed in oak barrels that are obtained from distillers like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. By law, the distillers can only use the the barrels one time, but the Tabasco factory can use them until they fall apart. When they do, they are chipped up and the chips sold to use in smokers.

The barrels are used for fermenting a mix of crushed Tabasco peppers and salt for three years. The barrels are topped by another layer of salt and holes drilled through to let out gasses. The salt comes from the salt mine on the island. Our guide told us that the used salt is used as salt licks for the animals that live on the island.

Once the pepper mash is finished fermenting, it’s mixed with vinegar and salt for 30 days. Then the pulp and seeds are strained out and the sauce is bottled.

The remaining pulp and seeds still have work to do. That byproduct is sold to other companies and is used to give the heat to many cinnamon flavored products, including Red Hots, Trident and Dentine gum, cinnamon gummy bears, and Close-Up toothpaste. Waste not, want not.

I used to flavor my cinnamon apples with melted Red Hots, but now that I am using cinnamon extract instead, I think maybe I should add a drop or two of Tabasco sauce. John bought some of their newest flavor, Raspberry Chipotle. I bought some Kosher salt from the Avery Island salt mines. I’m sure I could have found Kosher salt cheaper in the local grocery, but I keep forgetting to buy it. I also bought myself a chocolate-Tabasco bite. It tasted like ordinary chocolate at first, but has quite a kick at the end.

If you are ever in Louisiana, think about visiting our salt dome islands. The gardens, both on Avery Island and on Jefferson Island, are gorgeous, and where else are you ever going to taste Raspberry Chipotle ice cream?

Tabasco pepper plant

Barrel used to ferment the sauce

Buddha statue in the Jungle Gardens

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Even More Fame

Ah, fame and fortune. Okay, scratch the fortune part. The book that I wrote about last August is finally out, and I have my copy. The book is called Lost in Translation: The English Language Taken Hostage at Home and Abroad, edited by Chris Stone. It’s a picture book showing humorous mistranslations, misspellings, and abuses of grammar in English signs, menus, and other documents seen around the world, and two of the pictures are mine.

I had almost forgotten giving the author permission to use the pictures in his work. Yesterday we were checking the mailbox and John found a large envelope addressed to me. “Are you expecting something?” I am, actually, a T-shirt from LL Bean to replace one that wore out in a few months time, but not this soon.

“It looks like a book. Are you expecting a book?” As I said, I had forgotten all about it, so until I opened it, I had no idea what it was.

My pictures are numbers 16 and 89.  You have to count them to figure out which is which because there are no page numbers, just a picture on each page and captions. I haven’t looked through the entire book yet, but my husband has, and I heard laughter. 

Anyway, here are my two contributions:

Taken in Hungary, April 2010

Taken at Barton Springs, Austin, Texas

To see the rest, buy the book.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Color Code

Well every person you can know,
And every place that you can go,
And anything that you can show,
You know they're nouns.
If you ask me to explain who I am, I will use nouns. I am a woman; I am a citizen of the United States of America; I am an Italian-American; I am a speech pathologist, even though I am also a retiree; I am a feminist; I am a blogger; I am a Baby Boomer; I am a senior citizen, even though I prefer the term old broad.

Each of those terms describes something related to my identity. Most of those terms relate to something permanent about me, except perhaps the ones regarding my age, but even then, my birth year is something permanent. It doesn’t fluctuate wildly. Some of them relate to choices I have made and values I espouse; others relate to choices made on my behalf or sheer chance, but they all are part of who I am.

This morning, I went to the drugstore to drop off a prescription from a doctor whose patient I am. I took my car, so on the way there I was a driver. Years ago there was a drugstore closer to my house that I could walk to, making me a pedestrian. Later, I treated my husband to lunch and he drove, so I was his passenger.  At the restaurant, I of course was a diner and customer. We conversed at the restaurant, so sometimes I was the speaker and mostly I was the listener

The nouns in blue are different from the ones in red. They don’t tell you anything intrinsic to my identity. If you asked me to tell you something about myself, you’d probably be confused if I said, well, sometimes I’m a pedestrian and sometimes I’m a passenger, and also I’m a diner. There are some senses in which being a speaker can be a job description, but not in the sense I used it here. Of course, one can be a bus driver or a race car driver, but there again, that’s a specialized sense of the word. The words I highlighted in blue are words that label my role in a specific, usually temporary interaction. They aren’t my hobbies, my occupation, my identity.

So why am I babbling on about this (in color, no less) you ask. 

I am thinking of an incident that occurred when Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sex crimes. A reporter on location made reference to “victim number 7” and was interrupted by someone back at the station saying, “I don’t think we should call these young men victims. I think we should call them survivors.”

For a moment, picture a red box filled with nouns like the ones I have highlighted in red, the ones that label people's occupations, hobbies, religion, political identities, values, ethnicity and anything else they might choose to use in constructing their identity. Then picture a blue box filled with nouns like the ones that I have highlighted in blue, filled with nouns that label a transient role you might play in a specific interaction before moving on to something else. In which box do you place the word “victim”?

To me, “victim” belongs in the blue box. It’s a label for a role in a specific, usually temporary transaction (if sadly not always temporary enough). It’s not a hobby, an occupation, a political affiliation. It’s not a choice I made about how to live my life.

Unfortunately, the word “victim” seems to have crept out of the blue box into the red box. Too many people act as if being a victim is a choice the victim made or a core part of a person's character. A sense of shame has become attached to the status of victim like the sense of shame that should attach to being a bigot or a thief or a murderer (a few other red box words). It has become a name to call someone. After all, there are no passengers, only people who flunked driver’s ed.

To get away from this shame, we have replaced the word “victim” with “survivor”.

I am not going to argue that we shouldn’t do that. If you have had an unfortunate experience at the hands of a predator or even at the hands of impersonal fate (say in the form of a weather event or a fire) and if calling yourself a survivor is part of what helps you cope, I will respectfully use your calling customs. It’s the least I can do for you.

I just think that whether we use the word “victim” or the word “survivor” or something else, we need to grab that word “victim” out of the red box and return it to the blue box where it belongs, with its little blue friends.

It’s a perfectly respectable label for a transient role in a specific, usually temporary interaction, not a name to use to stigmatize someone.

(Edited to remove references to identity since Nick brings up a good point. I hope this makes my point clearer.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sweet or Unsweet

If you order iced tea in a restaurant in the south, you are likely to be asked, “Sweet or unsweet?”.  I am fairly certain that “unsweet”, in the sense of “not having sugar added”, is not really a word. I say that because my word processing program has it underlined in red, and when I look it up in my inline dictionary I get the answer “No entries found. Do you mean ‘unseat’?” Looking the word up on dictionary.com, I do get a definition:

unsweet adjective
1. (of champagne) moderately dry [syn: sec]
2. distasteful; "he found life unsweet"

I’m not sure either of these definitions fit iced tea, especially the second one, but you won’t convince anyone down south that the word they are looking for is “unsweetened”. Nonetheless, whenever I order iced tea in a restaurant, I specify “unsweetened” and add, “with no lemon” because I really don’t like lemon in my iced tea. Half the time it arrives with a lemon slice on the rim anyway, and then we have to do it all again. I suspect that in the restaurants we frequent, I am known as Her Again. Her Again is actually a good tipper, but it doesn’t matter, because most of the time my husband is paying for dinner. So I also suspect I get the same glass back minus the lemon slice. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone spit in it either, but I figure that’s why I have such a sturdy immune system.

I tell people that I live south of the tea line. In the north, at least when I was growing up in New York, if you asked for tea in a restaurant you would get a cup of hot tea, unless you specified iced tea. Down here, if you ask for tea in a restaurant, you get iced tea, unless you specify hot tea (which they might not even have). 

I ran into a similar distinction when I went to college in Buffalo, NY. Where I grew up, “soda” meant a carbonated beverage. In Buffalo, a carbonated beverage was “pop” and “soda” meant an ice cream soda. Down here, of course, a carbonated beverage is a Coke, or sometimes a cold drink.

I suspect in time “unsweet” for “unsweetened” will make its way into dictionaries. After all, it does fit a grammatical rule. I’m still going to take it with no lemon.

Is in the Eating

I’m not sure when exactly I started hearing the words, “The proof is in the pudding”, but I don’t think it was as far back as twenty years ago. Obviously a corruption of the old saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”, the words “The proof is in the pudding” are frequently used despite making no sense. They also make my teeth grit.

The saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” goes back to the days when the word “proof” meant “test”. The test of the pudding is in the eating. No matter how pretty it looks, or who made it, or how rich the ingredients are, if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not a good pudding. So by extension, the test of anything is how it performs its given function.

I say that the words “The proof is in the pudding” make no sense, but that is not strictly true. They obviously make sense to the people who use the phrase, and even I know what they mean. If you parse the sentence “The proof is in the pudding”, then it makes no sense. What pudding, where, has this mysterious proof? How would it have got in there? And why pudding, for Heaven’s sake, even if we grant that the usage is the British pudding, what we here in the U.S. call dessert, and not some form of blancmange. True, if you made some kind of brandy sauce for the pudding, the proof would be on the pudding, but that’s a different kind of proof. The logical way to shorten the old saying would be to take out the words “of the pudding” and say “The proof is in the eating”, but I’m sure if you did that, the response you would get is “Huh?”

No, I think the words “The proof is in the pudding” function as what the late Laura Lee (a speech pathologist and professor at Northwestern University) would call a “superword”. Dr. Lee derived a method of scoring syntax development in children, and noted that children who spoke at the word and phrase level would sometimes use sentences like “I don’t wanna”, or “I can’t [do that].” Her explanation was that children learned these sentences as “superwords” even before they had the ability to construct sentences using the independent elements. They knew what the sentences meant, but not how the individual words combined to construct that meaning. 

So it makes sense to me that a nonsensical sentence can function just as well as a superword, and I do indeed know what people mean when they say “The proof is in the pudding”.

I wish I had the talent to write books though. I’d love to write a mystery story in which a chef is murdered while preparing the final course on Chopped - Great Britain. The chef would naturally be in the full sight of the judges and audience when zie has a seizure and dies. At first it is taken as death by natural causes, but one of the judges is an amateur sleuth and finally unmasks the killer.

It turns out the proof is in the pudding.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Kitty Cat

“Catercorner” (also written “cater-corner”) is one of those words that spawns a lot of variants. It originated in the mid-19th century from the word “cater”, meaning the four on dice, derived in turn from the French “quatre”. It means “diagonally opposite”, and is quite a useful word.

It is pronounced “catty corner”, and that pronunciation has led to the mistaken association with the animal, and that of course has led to the variant “kitty corner”. In fact, if you look up “catercorner” on merrian-webster.com, it defines “catercorner”/"cater-corner" as a variant of “kitty-corner”, even though it then goes on to give the derivation as “alteration of cater-corner, from obsolete cater four + corner”.
The English language (and probably others as well), has a number of consonant sounds that are voiced and voiceless cognates: that is, sounds that are produced the same except that one of the pair is made using the vocal chords and the other is not. The sounds of “t” and “d” are cognates. Almost all speakers, at least here in the U.S., replace each of those sounds in the middle of a word with something called an “r-tap”. (Why it is called that, I do not know.) The word pairs “latter”/“ladder”, “mettle”/“meddle”, “matter”/ "madder” tend to sound alike and need to be distinguished by context. It’s quite common for phonetic spellers, therefore, not to know whether to spell an unfamiliar word with a “d” or a “t”. (Think of how often you see “congradulations” written for “congratulations”, or “congrads” for “congrats”.)

So we not only have “catty corner” and its sister “kitty corner”; we also have “caddy corner” and “kiddy corner”. Which one you say or write often has to do with where you grew up, but it could just depend on which variant your family uses. I grew up with “catty corner” and write “catercorner”, but a neighbor and close friend of my mom’s used “kitty corner”. They each grew up in different places.

So if you were wondering which version is correct, apparently one can use “catty-corner” or “kitty-corner” in place of “cater-corner” with propriety, but leave the caddies and the kiddies out of it, unless  the caddy is standing catercorner from your kiddy on the putting green, yelling at him not to touch the ball.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Brave was my husband’s choice of movie to see. “You do know that’s a Disney cartoon?” I asked. Yes, he knew, but wanted to see it anyway. I don’t mind watching Disney cartoons, either, although I was more prone to do so back when I worked with children and it was useful to know what they were watching.

The earliest showing we could get to was at 12:05. It turned out to be the 3D version, which is more expensive than the regular 2D version, but that wasn’t showing until 2:20. “What do you want to do?” asked hubby. I had actually never seen a 3D movie in a theater, other than the Muppet movie at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, so I was okay with the 3D version. Besides, he was paying. (I paid for lunch.)

We had a few moments of buyer’s remorse during the previews. Everything looked slightly blurry with the glasses on and even blurrier with them off. Fortunately, the projectionist got the focus right in time for the short animation, La Luna, which preceded the main movie. La Luna was charming, and did an amazingly good job of characterization even though none of the three characters spoke a word. 

Brave was also delightful. Tomboy Merida with her wild hair left me almost hearing my mother’s voice, “Get that hair out of your face!” I hadn’t read much about it at all before seeing it so the main plot point came as a surprise. From that point on, the movie was pretty predictable and the message trite, but I say this from the point of view of a 65 year old who has seen the original release of Disney movies like Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp as well as early re-releases of Cinderella, Snow White, and Bambi. Walt and I go back a long way. For the film’s target audience, the message that you can’t change your fate by changing another person is fresh and new and worth repeating.

Besides, the characters are delightful, the animation is spectacular, and the lack of a handsome prince is a refreshing change. 

One note about the 3D. As my husband noted, for a lot of the movie it didn’t make a difference. It was like looking at a 2D movie with occasional 3D interpolations.  You might prefer to save the extra money for popcorn.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Down By the Water

Every year on Independence Day, there’s a big fireworks display down on the river*. Literally down on the river, since the fireworks are set off from barges near the U.S.S. Kidd. The fireworks are at 9 PM, but there’s a day long festival with bands, activities for children, food vendors, and whatever else organizers can come up with.

July 4, 2008

This year we had a mock air raid on the Kidd staged by World War II vintage airplanes. The planes put on quite a show, complete with wing waves and a flyover in the missing man formation. A Navy cadet group manned the guns on the Kidd.

I missed the Baton Rouge Concert Band this year. Years ago, they held Independence Day concerts on the steps of the State Capitol Building. When Baton Rouge first got the U.S.S. Kidd, the band moved its concert to the area near the Kidd. They played their signature piece, The 1812 Overture, using the carillon from the First Baptist Church and the guns from the Kidd for the cannons. 

U.S.S. Kidd

I hope that if you haven’t so far, you someday get to hear The 1812 Overture played using a real carillon and real cannons, or the equivalent (not firing live ammo, of course). There is nothing to compare.

Since then, the band had played its concerts on a stage on the levee near the Kidd, but this year they went back to the State Capitol. We could have done both, but it would have meant a long walk.

The fireworks were accompanied by a sound track that included Celine Dion singing God Bless America. Nobody should ever be allowed to sing God Bless America except Kate Smith. Especially not Celine Dion, but really, nobody else. I’m serious about this. Yes, I know Kate Smith is dead, but there is You Tube. Make do.

*What do you mean “what river”? The Mississippi River, of course. Is there another one?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

This Is Your Last Chance

Every week, or even more often, I get the same phone call. It’s a robocall telling me that this is my last chance to get a more favorable rate on my credit card. You would think that a last chance would come about only once, instead of for weeks on end, but in the word of telemarketing, that is not so. It’s like particle physics, completely counterintuitive. 

I used to get a version of this call that allowed me to push the number 3 if I wanted to discontinue future calls (a strange option given that this is already supposed to be my last call), but now the only option I get is to talk to a live operator. I have toyed with the idea of connecting to the live operator and asking to be taken off their call list, but I worked as a telemarketer once, between my senior year and the start of college, so I try not to make their lives hard. 

Yes, before you ask, my number is on the Do Not Call list. It doesn’t seem to help. Twice in the past I mailed in a request to that address you send to to get your name taken off junk mail lists and I swear both times my junk mail increased. That may have been pure coincidence, but I’m not going to risk it again, or the telemarket equivalent.

Today I got a variation of the "this is your last chance" credit card offer. To take advantage of it, I would have to have at least $3,000 in total on credit cards and at least one card in good standing. I have zero dollars on my credit card at the moment and my husband has the tickets for an upcoming trip but that’s it. I’m really not their target market.

What worries me is that there must be people out there who respond to these calls, otherwise the companies that use them wouldn’t be doing it. The scare tactics (this is your last chance), misleading wording (making it seem like there is a problem with a card you already have rather than an attempt to sell you a new one) and sheer relentlessness work on somebody, and probably the somebody who can least afford to fall for these tricks.

Some people have no shame.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What You Pray For

I’m not the only menace to society I know. The good people of St. Anonymous have done their own share of trouble making, at least as far as my life is concerned.

It started years ago when my son was in his teens. I remember a gloomy week when a friend of my husband’s and mine died abruptly of a ruptured aneurysm in her bowel. While at her funeral, we heard that another mutual friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The next day, I developed a sinus infection, which must be why my son decided not to bother me with the news that he had been given his first traffic ticket, leaving me to find it in his room when I put away laundry. I was surprised because up until then I was sure the only way my old car could have reached that speed is if you had hoisted it up to the top of the State Capitol Building and dropped it.

The day after that I received a letter from the then pastor of St. Anonymous, informing me that during the week he had “lifted up [our] family in prayer.” When I next saw him, I told him what had happened that week and suggested that next time he felt the urge to lift my family up in prayer, he could just put us right back down on whatever dusty little shelf he found us on and pick on someone else instead. “That’s funny,” he said. “Usually when I tell people I’ve been praying for them, they tell me good things have happened to them that week.”

Pastor R left in a swirl of rumors, to be replaced by Pastor Steve and then Pastor Larry. Pastor Larry’s habit was to select a prayer family of the week for the whole church to pray for. Sure enough, the time came when our family was selected. I grumbled to my friends at work about how unlucky I had been the last time anyone at St. Nonny’s decided to pray for me. “It sounds like it’s even unluckier to be one of your friends,” my friend E observed.

So that week, the acid reflux that had been gone for a whole year returned. Our new foreign exchange student, Erick, decided he hated us on sight and wanted to go home. And E’s car air conditioner, which she had just spent $800 fixing, broke the second it was out of warrantee. 

It gets worse. A few weeks later, the church prayed for all the teachers at the start of the school year. Hurricane Katrina hit, schools were closed for two weeks and when they reopened, it was with an influx of students from New Orleans whose records had mostly been lost.

Okay, once again, I understand none of this happened because of the prayers. I am well aware of the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. True, back when Pastor R was praying for us, I didn’t know about it until after all the sad events had occurred, but it’s unlikely I would have remembered most of them by now, let alone that they had occurred the same week, if it hadn’t been for the coincidence of that being the week R was praying for me. But when we were prayer family of the week, I knew about it in advance and was on the lookout for bad stuff.

And as anyone at St. Nonny’s would be happy to point out, we always pray for teachers at the beginning of the school year and rarely get hurricanes as a result.

So yes, what we have here is a chain of coincidence amplified by confirmation bias. I won’t argue about that.

What if things had been different, however? What if the first friend had had a stroke instead and been rushed to the hospital in enough time for treatment to give her a full recovery? What if the second friend had been given news that the biopsy showed that the lump in her breast was not cancer, but a harmless cyst? What if my son had noticed the speedometer and slowed down? (Okay, that one would have required divine intervention.) What if Erick had woke up one morning and said, “I think I was just homesick. I’m happy to be here”? What if  Katrina had taken a turn to the northeast as Camille did in 1969 and left New Orleans alone?

I suspect then no one but cranky Gnu Atheists would blame me for chalking all those events up to the power of prayer. Pastor R would have had another notch in his belt (not of the sort that got him kicked out). We would still have a chain of faulty logic based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning, plus confirmation bias, not to mention a willingness to ignore all the people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who would have been hit even harder by Katrina. Yet it would have been socially acceptable to indulge in all that bad thinking.

That bothers me. I’d like to think that I am clear headed enough not to be tempted into fallacious reasoning by peer pressure, but I’m not that special. I’m well aware of all the times I wake up determined to eat healthy food, only to catch a glimpse of a print or TV ad for junk food that sends me scuttling off for cookies. I’m aware of how often I buy a shirt or skirt or pants I don’t actually need because of how it looked on the tall, skinny twenty-something model when I, although a nice looking old broad with good legs, am none of those things.

I know I can be had.

So if I seem to be on the lookout for bad things to happen anytime the St. Anonymous prayer warriors are looking for ammo, I have a good reason. Reason.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Cure for Bad Analogies

‘What if I had the cure for cancer?” DP, the evangelizing history teacher, muses in the video In God We Teach, shown in the previous post. He goes on to ask rhetorically if he should keep it in a closet in case he ever needs it, or share it with others. The point he is trying to make, of course, is that he has knowledge as valuable as the cure for cancer would be, and so the only ethical thing to do is to share it.

So what is the problem, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t, because maybe you spot it as quickly as other people, myself included, have.) 

Think about what has to happen for DP to have the cure for cancer. He has to have the idea for something that could conceivably cure cancer. Once he has the idea, he can’t just spring it on the world and say, “I have the cure for cancer!” He has to test it, to be sure that it is in fact the cure for cancer. He has to test it first on animals and then on people, using double blind trials of sufficient sample size to be certain that his cure 1) kills cancer cells and 2) doesn’t kill patients in the process of killing the patients' cancers. He has to get FDA approval of his drug as a cancer cure. Unless he does, he can't call it a cancer cure. It’s an idea for a cancer cure, or a treatment that is in the experimental stages, or an old herbal remedy passed along to him by a shaman in a dream (in which case, keeping it hidden in a cupboard somewhere is the ethical thing to do, IMO), but it’s not the cure for cancer yet. That’s how science works.

All this costs money, a lot of it. DP will in all likelihood have to get this money through grants. I doubt very much that the people giving DP large grants to research his cure for cancer are going to give DP exclusive rights to patent and market it when he’s done. Tucking it away in a cupboard for his use alone is not going to be an option.

But let’s say that DP is a wealthy mad scientist who has the resources to carry on all the research and testing on this drug by himself. He still cannot legally test it on people without the approval of an Institutional Review Board. That means by the time he has established that this is indeed a cure for cancer, the secret is out. If he announces that he is not releasing the cure or the formula so that others can manufacture the cure, people will be begging him to change his mind. 

So let’s get back to the point of the analogy - if DP has knowledge as valuable as the cure for cancer would be, should he share it? Well, yes, if people are begging him for it, like they would be for the proven cure posited in the mad scientist scenario above. But DP was being accused of evangelizing to a captive audience of students in a public school history class, so not the same thing. No one ever said he couldn’t preach to the youth at his church where he is youth pastor.

What if DP has found the cure for cancer and decides not to hoard it all for himself? First of all, he cannot administer it to anyone. Even if it gets FDA approval, it’s not going to be sold over the counter at Walgreen’s under “Cancer Cures, for Reals”. It needs to be prescribed by a doctor, preferably an oncologist.

Second of all, what if an oncologist prescribes it for a patients and the patient says, “Nuh, uh. I’ve read up on the side effects and there’s no way I’m going to take that stuff” or “I’ve decided to try diet and herbal therapy instead” or “I’m 93 years old and you can’t keep me alive forever”? Unless it can be established that the patient is not competent to decide, the patient does not get the treatment. Even if it is The Best Stuff Ever, Proven to Cure Cancer in Five Minutes, the patient does not get the treatment.

None of this means I think DP's analogy is completely worthless. I think if he thought it through, he’d learn something about why he was being criticized for promoting his religious views in class. 

Which brings up a question for me. If I find the cure for lack of self awareness, should I keep it in a cupboard for myself, or share it? I know I need it, but I’m not the only one.