Monday, July 31, 2017

Pomfret Towers

I am pleased to announce that I found an Angela Thirkell novel that I actually liked. I've been slowly reading my way through her collected works, and finding each book to be worse than the last. Trooper to the Southern Cross, Demon in the House, O These Men, These Men!, The Fortunes of Harriette, and Summer Half were all pretty bad, so Pomfret Towers (1938) was a pleasant surprise.

I got my copy at the public library

First of all, most of the action happens at a weekend party at a country house, and you couldn't ask for a more perfect venue for comforting British chick lit. Secondly, there are no children in this book, and children, as portrayed by Angela Thirkell, are particularly horrible. Thirdly Thirkell doesn't mock the servants or demean the lower classes. Instead, she aims her mockery at pretentious poseur artists and self-important authors, which is much more satisfying.

Here's a quick plot sketch. Alice Barton is the painfully shy daughter of a respectable architect. She and her brother Guy are invited to a weekend house party at Pomfret Towers, occupied by the local lord. Of course Alice doesn't want to go, but her mother makes her. And so we meet the usual weekend house party people: assorted sporty hunting people, a publisher, a professor, the lord's heir, and girl with a hyphenated last name who screams a lot. There's also a snobbish and officious "authoress" who's main object is to get her daughter married to the heir, and her son, Julian, a pretentious artist of dubious talent with whom Alice falls in love. These two get snubbed and humiliated in a variety of amusing ways.

Pomfret Towers isn't a perfect book by any means. If I had a ranking system, I'd give it 6.5 stars out of 10. Thirkell tends to pad her writing with unnecessary plot action: "She crossed the room and greeted her aunt and then sat down." Still, I enjoyed it enough to recommend that you check it out of your library, if it's in their collection, but don't go crazy tracking down a copy to buy, unless you can get it for less than $5.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Brensham Trilogy

I have an amusing little trilogy to share with you all today. The Brensham Trilogy by John Moore was written in the 1940s, partly as a reaction to the sweeping social changes that occurred in Great Britain after World War II. I added this series to my booklist after I saw it mentioned, in Austerity Britain by David Kynaston (reviewed here).  Kynaston says that the Barchester series by Angela Thirkell, and also The Brensham Trilogy, were written specifically to reflect on and criticize the changes that occurred in Great Britain in the period immediately following World War II. I read Austerity Britain nearly four years ago, so it seems it takes me four years from the time I add a book to my list until the time I actually get around to reading it.

I found my copy at UVA's Alderman Library

I was expecting a trilogy of novels, but these books are a memoir that reads like a novel. In the first book, Portrait of Elmbury, Elmbury is a fictional name for Tewkesbury, the town where John Moore grew up. This book is the most closely connected with Moore's life, describing his childhood in a beautiful Tudor house in "Elmbury," his school days, and later work in his uncle's auction house. Brensham Village and The Blue Field, are both about the village of Brensham, located about four miles from Elmbury. In these two books, Moore is more of an observer than a character, focusing on the characters of these villages and the complex social interactions and relationships that make up village life, and the unfortunate changes that come with modernity. A mysterious "syndicate" is menacing the village, slowly buying up property for "development." A man faces serious legal trouble for planting his field with linseed (the "blue field") rather than the foodstuffs the agricultural board has ordered him to plant. The villages and town are also overrun with weekend warriors and their noise, litter, and road-hogging buses. (Sounds a bit like Charlottesville.)

Unlike Angela Thirkell's books, these are not a ham-handed, snobbish longing for the good old days of noblesse oblige. The Brensham Trilogy is a sensitive examination of society and how even sometimes positive social change comes with a price. The characters are beautifully drawn and their stories are told with humor and love. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Progress on the Empty Nest Front

Yesterday I took Seamus to his freshman orientation. Would you like to hear how it went? No? I'm going to tell you anyway. First of all, we were late. Check in time was 9:00 a.m. and at 8:40, we were just pulling out of a McDonald's parking lot, sixty miles from our destination. (YES WE WENT TO MCDONALD'S. AND DIDN'T EVEN GET DIABETES LIKE WE DESERVED.) You can actually get to Richmond pretty quickly if you drive 80 mph most of the way.

But then I missed the parking deck entrance and we got sucked into a vortex of one-way streets, all going the direction we didn't want to go in, plus NO LEFT TURN and NO U-TURN signs, so we had to make a massive eight-block detour and attempted the parking deck again. And then we walked briskly the three blocks to the orientation building, only to learn that check in was in a different building right across the street from the parking garage. So we got Seamus checked in (we were absolutely the last people to arrive) and I was immediately all, HOW LONG ARE PARENTS EXPECTED TO STAY? WHEN CAN I LEAVE? CAN I LEAVE NOW? BYE, I AM LEAVING NOW. WHEN SHOULD I PICK HIM UP? TOMORROW? SO SOON? HOW ABOUT NEXT WEEK?

So there I was, speeding on my way back to Charlottesville, feeling pleased that a whole day stretched before me in which I was not expected to appear at work, when I realized that all the paperwork that Seamus was supposed to bring with him to orientation was still in my bag; most importantly, the immunization form, much crumpled, but with proof of recent meningitis vaccine and actual signature of a nurse and even a coffee mug ring as an extra stamp of authenticity. I was still in the western suburbs of Richmond, so I pulled over to the shoulder and texted Seamus about the situation. Of course he didn't respond and I got back on the highway and drove all the way back to the school. And then I had a full blown panic attack in the car, while driving 65 mph on I95. As they say, keep calm and panic on.

As soon as I got back to VCU and parked I got this text from Seamus:

I'm in the tour group now. We're just leaving. It's okay, send me a picture of them when you get a chance and we can mail them late.

I rushed out of the parking garage, hoping to catch him anyway, and in the distance saw a group of orienteers walking away on a tour. (All the students had the same yellow backpack.) I managed to get close enough to the group to be fairly sure that Seamus wasn't among them. And then -- yellow backpacks everywhere! The students had broken out into small groups, for staggered tours, and I was surrounded by small groups of students, but I couldn't find Seamus, and at this point, I'm not even sure I would have recognized him. Admitting defeat, I texted him pictures of the documents.

Back in the parking garage, when I tried to pay at the pay station and it wouldn't accept payment because I still had two minutes left of free parking before I was expected to pay. Could I make it to my car and out the exit in under two minutes?

It took maybe twenty seconds to reach my car. I was so frazzled, I put it in reverse without depressing the clutch. I reached the exit with perhaps ten seconds to spare and it was blocked by a woman who was having some kind of issue with the card reader. She grimaced at me in her rear view mirror as if to say - what? "The machine ate my ticket." "I'm a hillbilly who doesn't know how to parking garage.""You're a jerk for pulling in behind me when I'm obviously having difficulty here." Who can say?

My two minutes expired while the lady in front of my was still trying to sort herself out, so now I had to back out of the exit and find a pay station, but of course, someone had backed up smartly right behind me. It was awkward, but I extricated myself from the exit, drove to the pay station, which now accepted a payment from me, escaped the garage and was on my way home, a full hour from the moment I'd realized I still had Seamus' papers in my bag. Incidentally, that's twice that I paid the garage yesterday. Parking fees were included in the $150 orientation fee, but I'd left the parking validation card with Seamus. This day was really full of win.

I made it home without further incident, but this fun day wasn't over yet because now I had to be photographed for the local weekly paper, which is including me and my yarnbombs in a story they're doing about Charlottesville. I am one of those people who looks terrible in photographs - stiff and unnatural with a big toothy frozen grin and eyes that always seem to be directed skyward and after my stressful morning, I was far from looking my best. Additionally, I had hoped to lose weight before the photo, but felt fatter than ever and being sweaty always makes me feel like I've gained even more circumference. I had the distinct impression that I was bursting out of my clothes. There were two photographers and I had to sit on a chair in the middle of the downtown mall and pretend to knit and it was the most awkward thing I have ever done. After the shoot, walking back to my car, I actually clutched my head in mortification a few times. Oh well at least I'm not Ann Coulter.


Monday, July 10, 2017

The KKK Come to Charlottesville

Over a year ago, Charlottesville City Council, at the urging of some local citizens, announced an intention to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park downtown. As a result, Charlottesville has become noticed by racist groups who are agitating to "preserve history." In truth, the statue is not really a historical monument. It was erected in the 1920s and its dedication was attended by leaders who were active in oppressing the black community in Charlottesville. It's fair to say that the statue can be seen as a symbol of oppression by some people.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Charlottesville. As you can imagine, there was much consternation, and a news conference in which the community was strongly discouraged from mounting a counter-protest. Instead, numerous alternative activities were planned. The argument for keeping people away was that the KKK just wants attention, so a protest is playing into their hands. In the weeks before the rally, police visited and intimidated local leftist activists. Other activists received phone calls or emails.  No doubt, the KKK get a perverse pleasure from being greeted with angry hordes, but to not show up, to me, implies complicity. Ignoring the KKK will NOT make them go away.

Even with dedicated daily knitting, this is all I had time to make.

I attempted to organize local knitters and crafters to meet me in the park the morning of the rally, to hang "yarnbombs" and show the KKK that they are not welcome here. In the end, no one but me had time to knit anything. Still, a friend of mine went with me to the park that morning and another friend met us there, to help. It turned out that moral support would be necessary.

The scene in the park when we arrived to hang the signs. Those are the police who harassed me.

I was tying one of my signs to a tree in the park when two police officers approached and asked me what I was doing. I showed them the knitting and explained. I was lectured about how if I hang signs, then the KKK would want to hang their signs, and then there would be hateful signs everywhere and we can't have that, can we? I said that if the KKK wanted to hang signs, they have the same right that I do so what did it matter? The lecture was repeated, this time prefaced by "Don't you understand that..." (Copsplaining, apparently.) Then the cop asked if I had gotten permission to hang my signs. At this point, my friend had come to stand beside me. Ask for permission to hang little bits of knitting in a public park? It had never occurred to me to ask for permission. I asked if I was committing a crime and the police said that I was not.

At this point, a random man with a black lives matter t-shirt spoke up and said that it was my free-speech right to hang my signs. The police drew back a bit and said they would call their captain and ask if it was OK. A moment later, the verdict: the police captain said I could NOT hang my signs. The entire interaction was polite, but it was close to an edge. I am certain that a police captain does not have any authority to take away my free speech rights, but I was equally certain that if I resisted, I would have been arrested. So I said, "Fine, I'll hang them outside the park boundaries." And the police conceded that I could do that, so we hung them up around the park, where I think they got more notice than they would have in the interior.

Maybe I should have resisted? Let me tell you though, in the moment, it is not easy to defy a police officer. They have guns and pepper spray and tazers and handcuffs and you are defenseless. I do wish I'd had the presence of mind to use the ACLU app that I have installed on my phone. It records any incident and immediately transmits to the ACLU, so even if your phone is taken away, they have your footage. And even though the interaction was polite, I felt harassed. The police were in a position of power, they had the upper hand and they used it to bully me about some completely harmless signs. And, as my friend Becky pointed out, the KKK had permission to bring their guns. Why is their "right" to open-carry a deadly weapon more protected than my right to express my disdain for them?  What has happened to our society when knitting is perceived as more threatening than a gun?

Later in the day was the actual rally and counter protest, scheduled from 3:00-4:00 pm. I thought the counter protest would be low key, considering the pressure to stay away, the announcement that the KKK would be armed, and the numerous people who posted on social media that they would be staying away. I arrived on the scene at 2:30 and it was an absolute circus. Hundreds of people marching and chanting. There was music and a few dancers. It was more of a festival atmosphere, and no sign of the KKK.

The scene at around 2:30 pm. Below is a tiny video that I took.

A little after three, the crowd swelled (final count, 1,000) and people started to ask, are they here yet? Where are they? Police had set up a fenced-off  "free speech zone" where the KKK would be, and the rest of us were ranged around. A state police helicopter arrived and circled the park, over and over. At 3:30, they still hadn't arrived and it seemed like they might be a no-show at their own rally.  I did see a confrontation between a few of the crowd and a man with a confederate flag bandana.

Around 3:45, the energy changed.  I didn't actually see the KKK arrive in their pen because it was so crowded, but wedged in as I was, I could just make out their flags, through the leaves. We all shouted "RACISTS GO HOME" and other sayings of that nature. For many of us, (myself included) our motivation to see the klan was curiosity.  Indeed, the scene reminded me a little of the panda exhibit at the National Zoo. What in the world does a klansman look like anyway? OK, so it turns out they look like a bunch of grown men wearing cheap Halloween costumes. Rank and file klan members wear a uniform that looks a lot like a police officer's. The leaders wear silly robes, mostly white, but one guy was in purple and another in black. They wore hoods that looked comically similar to a bishop's mitre. Their faces were exposed. You will have to search the news sites for good pictures. Mine are all terrible. Check out The DTM's facebook page for a powerful picture of local clergy marching against the klan. (Other great photos there too.) Also, check out our friend Eze Amos' page. He's a local photographer and his photos focus on the individuals in the crowd. (Below is one I embedded from his Instagram.)

After the protest
These three had style

And then, perhaps half an hour after they arrived, the police escorted them away. Some of the crowd raced away to follow them to their cars and I was tempted, but I also was really craving a glass of wine. Most of us dispersed and I went to the pub where Jon had been the whole time, and had a lovely chilled glass of Sauvignon blanc. It's a good thing I didn't follow the protesters who stayed behind, because they were tear gassed by the police. Official media accounts say that they were tear gassed because they blocked the road and refused to let the KKK cars pass. Eyewitness accounts of people I trust say that protester were peacefully mingling after the KKK had gone, did not immediately disperse when ordered to by police, and were gassed. Seamus, who had been at the protest with his friends, was in the vicinity of the gassing, but farther away and doesn't have a clear account of what happened.

Please know, if you hear that the protest in Charlottesville was a violent Antifa demonstration, you are being lied to. People brought their babies and their dogs. The local clergy were there in force. While there were certainly protesters from out of town, overall this was a community protest. There is a disappointing amount of local disdain about the protest. It is embarrassing and shameful, apparently, that people chose to shout down a hate group. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read these disparaging remarks about an event I enthusiastically participated in and support.

To recap: in a city that is self-styled the "capital of the resistance," residents were pressured not to protest the KKK, activists were visited by and intimidated by police prior to the rally, KKK were allowed to bring their guns, but I was not allowed to hang my knitting, KKK was allowed to overstay their permit by about twenty minutes and were given police escort to and from a safe space created for them, and peaceful counter protesters were gassed by police and criticized as shameful and embarrassing.

Monday, July 03, 2017


Just a quick update, because I have posted so much negative stuff lately. Things are looking up! Sancho, our dog, who became paralyzed, has responded to prednisone. There's still something really wrong with his gait, but he has improved enough that we can get him outside to relieve himself without any drama. He's currently tapering off the steroids, and I'm not sure what will happen when he stops them completely. (Ugh, not sure why blogger won't let me turn off the center justification here.)

The city paved the muddy ditch in our street, which is a massive improvement in our quality of life. Even the dead bird situation is better because the city entombed it under fresh asphalt when they patched the holes in our driveway. (Although Phoebe is extremely interested in the margin between patch and the original paving.) Furthermore, we used 1,000 fewer gallons of water since the city hooked us up to the new line, so perhaps there was a leak somewhere? Maybe it's a coincidence, but I don't usually see such a dramatic drop in water usage unless we've been away on vacation.

The Big Scary Go-Live happened over the weekend. Since I'm now exclusively responsible for regulatory stuff (MIPS and Meaningful Use) it turns out I wasn't expected to work cutover night, nor do I have to be in the command center over the coming weeks. I know there's an issue waiting for me that I'll have to investigate and figure out how to fix, but it's not super critical.

Yesterday evening, I spotted this bit of craftivism in the square where the KKK is planning to have their rally and it really cheered me up. It says DISARM HATE.

Finally, Brigid made it safely to New Orleans, after spending twenty-five hours on the train. I thought that our going away party last weekend would be our last opportunity to see her before she left, but I was wrong! The train to New Orleans passes through Charlottesville, but not Richmond. Amtrak sent her to Cville on a bus and she had a nearly two-hour layover here on Friday evening. Jon and Ian and I met her at the station and we all went out for one last dinner together before seeing her off on the train. I wasn't satisfied with not being able to say good bye at the point of departure, so I'm really glad we had that opportunity. We got an update from her last night - they went swimming and met new friends. Brigid had sold her bed, but the new one she ordered from Amazon is arriving today and she and her housemate are going to have a domestic day setting everything up. (BTW, it's LIFE CHANGING that you can buy a mattress and box spring set from Amazon.)

Jon and Brigid - she did the embroidery on that cape.

Waiting for the train

Below, we thought this was Brigid's train, but it turned out to be a freight. Her train was very late.

Jon took this picture of me as the freight train passed.

Brigid's train at last.