Environmental science, traveling, and the sociology of the unraveling American dream.


If you're looking for more about me, I'm pretty much hanging out over at my livejournal these days. I use this account for commenting on other people's blogs.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

No, they're really orange

Put on my orange suede shoes
and I boarded the plane
touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
in the middle of the pouring rain --

I went to Graceland today, or more specifically to the parking lot, and also to the gift shop, which was closed for inventory. Whenever I'm traveling and start seeing signs for something like this, I seem to find myself very excited about going there up until I find myself arriving, at which point I lose all interest.* I think it's a boredom avoidance method -- gives me something to focus on, but in terms of actually walking through Graceland... I went to the [open] gift shop next door. I have a parking receipt. I even have a piece of pink paper with a list of the things you can't bring in with you. And you know, I think I'm happy with that. (I did the exact same thing in James Dean's home town. Slogan: "Where Cool Went To School.")

*However, the fact that a ticket was $27 probably had a lot to do with it as well.

in Graceland, in Graceland
I'm going to Graceland
for reasons I cannot explain
there's some part of me wants to see Graceland

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Charlottesville, Virginia

Nestled into the hills of Virginia, Charlottesville has managed to avoid the McMansion sprawl that characterizes so much of America. Even the strip mall areas on the outlying highways have positive natural capital (environmental engineering class jargon for "they're pretty"), but the downtown is heavenly. Unlike most cities in the States, Charlottesville has taken the sensible route, the good route, and turned the heart of the town into a pedestrian mall with a parking garage nearby. The center of the mall is devoted to small stands selling crafts and outdoor seating areas for sidewalk cafes. I ate my lunch at an outdoor Italian cafe, and the food was as good as anything I've had in the North End -- as was the gelato I got at another shop nearby.

The people are friendly and helpful and altogether pleasant to be around, without being smothery and obnoxious. At the yarn shop, one of the women was nice enough to not only direct me to the best raglan sweater pattern out there, available for free on the internet, but also to take a look at my knitting and diagnose why my knitting in the round tends to slant peculiarly to the left. (Apparently I've been knitting into the back of the stitch. Who knew!) The rest of the shops are equally interesting, and I only wish I'd had the time to drop in. And their radio stations are great.

Those things aren't what make this city spectacular, though. Those are the icing on the cake, or perhaps the gilt on the lily. What really makes this a spectacular city is something much simpler, something I never thought I'd see, something that makes me wonder if I wandered into one of my more fantastical daydreams -- because this is a city that loves to read.

There were seven used book stores in just the part of town I walked through. Not small, musty used book stores with a few rare books as a claim to fame -- honest-to-God, solid used book stores of the daily use variety, multiple floors, multiple rooms. I only let myself go into one (Read It Again, Sam), but it was fabulous. Their mystery section took up a wall the size of most people's houses. Their science fiction section was massive -- I found another copy of the Book For Which I Seek directly -- and I had to get myself out of the store before I looked at anything else because otherwise I was going to have to buy a new suitcase. (Also, they were playing Dire Straits. I have a very hard time leaving a store that plays Dire Straits, especially live versions of Portobello Belle, and I figured it was just going to get harder to go.)

It isn't just the book stores, though. The library is the same way. It was an enormous three-story building in the downtown. It had shopping baskets to make carrying your books easier. It had a seventy-five book limit on what you could take out.
I saw kids at the library, hanging around, looking for books, talking to the librarians. In the science fiction section of Read It Again, Sam, I saw three middle schoolers out shopping for books. "I've read one of his," one of the kids said, picking up a book. "It was fantastic. I really want to find the first book in the series."

But what really drove it home was something that happened at the airport, as I was checking in to head home. As two of the security screeners went through my checked bag, they started looking at my books and discussing the authors. "We see a lot of him," one said, looking at a Clive Cussler. I laughed and said "Well, you guys certainly have a lot of used book stores here." "Yeah," one of them answered. "If you can get here in March, there's a book festival -- the Friends of the Library Sale. It's crazy. They have books going down to a dime each, or a dollar a bag. It's great."

You know what? I want every town in America to be like this, to know what reading can bring, to truly rejoice in it, to make it into a matter of community pride. But short of that, I want to go back.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Travails in Texas

I have just brought my woolly-headed Massachusetts liberal self back from Texas, where the skies are open and the developers roam free. It was a good trip, made rather entertaining and more than a little bit frightening by the election fervor -- after all, if any place can be said to be the exact opposite of Massachusetts... Also, the highways were large and open and scared me a bit. We're frightening in Boston, but there's never a sense that you'll be lost for the next million years or so. In Boston I find it's more that you're three blocks from your destination but will never actually find a place to park.

I was very bad about updating from Texas because I was ill with a stomach flu. I will say this: at least being on an airplane gives you an acceptable reason to throw up in public.
In no particular order, observations:

The scary church: A church I passed had a billboard out saying "How To Vote. Thursday, 8-9 PM." I hope they mean telling you how to go about it, not who to vote for. They do, right? Right?

One of the lunches I ate was at a Thai place, where they were very nice and inexplicably brought me deep-fat-fried Thai shrimp sandwiches instead of what I had ordered. (On flu stomach, when I was looking for chicken soup: ooogh. I'm sure they would have been excellent otherwise.) I was seated across the restaurant from a Bush supporter (but could nonetheless hear every word she was saying). Mainly, the woman was explaining why Kerry is evil and Bush will save America (what, like four years wasn't enough for the magnificence she attributed to him?) Among her arguments was one that went something like this: If Bush wins, the terrorists won't attack, because they know he'll be upset about it. But if Kerry wins, the terrorists will have to attack again, because they won't know what he'll do to respond. *waits for response from readers* Yeah, that's what I said. Right. The terrorists are aghast because they know that if they do something Bush is going to, what, get upset? Keep reading to schoolchildren? Because nobody else in the world would be capable of these things? I spent most of the lunch telling myself how pointless it would be to go over there and explain, well, anything.

There were some people with Kerry signs in their yards or on their cars. One of them, a good solid Liberal, had two Kerry bumper stickers. I gave him a thumbs up when my car was stopped next to his at the light -- you know, nice and friendly, solid support to show him he wasn't alone. He gave me a strange look and studiously looked at the light until it turned. Poor guy probably thought I was flipping him off. I bet he's gotten used to it.

I'm getting frustrated by the vilification of Massachusetts, though, and to be fair I'll point out that these are the extremes I'm picking out of the Texas experience, and by no means represent the state as a whole. (After all, we all know Bush's hometown paper isn't endorsing him.) Bush seems to think Massachusetts is some colony of [his version of] France, only rather more socialist in bent. Or in other words, I agree with Slate.