December 2003

Roadmarks II

Monday, 1 December 2003

Random observations and thoughts from the drive from New York City to Cleveland:

  • There are these signs along Interstate 80 in northern New Jersey that read, "UPGRADE - MAINTAIN SPEED." They come just before each hill, and I thought they very nicely captured what it's like to be a computer user.
  • Peppered along the Pennsylvania stretch of I80 (all six hours of it), there are signs that read, "BUCKLE UP - NEXT MILLION MILES." My first thought was, As compared to what reference point?
  • In the middle of Pennsylvania, we discovered that hunting season is underway. There were a lot of cars pulled off to the side of the interstate, and we saw quite a few men wearing faded camoflauge and bright orange vests, which seemed like the ultimate in contradictory clothing choices. Later on, we saw a truck with a deer carcass lashed to a platform extended from the back bumper, right underneath the rear window and its stickered slogan: "Life's a bitch - then you die."
  • I've decided that if you're a civilian and driving a Hummer, you're basically piloting a giant self-propelled declaration of just how big a jerk you really are. (I considered words other than "jerk" but this is, at least most of the time, a family site.) As a civilian, you have no reason to own one, and even less reason to have it on the road. That goes double for the H2, frankly.
  • On a very related note, I spotted a bumper sticker that said, "Supprt OPEC: Buy an SUV." No kidding! I can't tell you how pleased I was to learn that Saturn plans to introduce a gas/electric hybrid next year.

Gotham Goodness

Tuesday, 2 December 2003

Thanks to friends and family, we had a great weekend in New York City. There was barely enough time to breathe between each visit, but seeing everyone was a great way to recharge ourselves and remember all the things for which we are thankful. Adam Greenfield and Kat Meyer help Carrie decorate the Zeldmans' Christmas tree. It was also rather surreal to watch Adam Greenfield (whose picture I'd seen on not too long ago), his wife, and my wife help Carrie decorate the Zeldmans' Christmas tree.

Not as surreal as seeing the first part of The Two Towers played at one-eighth speed, mind you.

Back at the beginning of the year, Jeffrey proclaimed that every author wishes he (or she) were not writing a book, and I said I generally felt differently, that when a book was underway I was glad to be writing. Now I understand his pain. Until now, I was writing on weekends for the most part, with a nice long writing schedule, and had a full-time job to keep my brain doing other stuff during the week. Now writing and working are all mixed up together, and in a valiant effort to finish primary writing by the end of this year, I'm working on two books simultaneously. This means I spend at least a few hours of every day writing, and still put in a lot of writing on weekends. It's really wearing me down, and I have every intention of taking a nice long break from book writing come 2004. I'll get back to articles, I hope, but I expect that books will go to the back burner for at least six months. Well, except maybe for one that I'm thinking about co-authoring. But other than that, nothing else, I swear!

Ten Years On

Wednesday, 3 December 2003

It was ten years ago this evening that I marked up my first HTML document. I know this because I did the whole thing using Microsoft Word on a Mac laptop in the course of a Friday evening at the CWRU Film Society, and I put a "last updated" line on the document. I never really changed the page after that first burst of effort, because it wasn't long afterward that I started to get really busy with setting up and running the first Web-only incarnation of and, a short time thereafter, writing the first of three HTML tutorials.

A lot has happened to me in the last decade. Did you know I was the project leader for the online conversion of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and Dictionary of Cleveland Biography, and that it was the first encyclopedia of urban history to be fully and freely published on the Web? Or that I worked with some CWRU co-workers to create the Borealis Image Server in 1995, which led to a paper presentation at WWW5 in May 1996, where I saw the CSS presentation that changed my life? I could do those things because I worked for a university, particularly one as advanced (Internet-wise) as CWRU. I missed out on the dot-com bubble, I suppose, but it was worth it for the low pressure and intellectual freedom that an academic setting promotes.

Even in the real world, a decade is a long time; in Internet years, it's practically forever. So when I get, as I sometimes do, crabby and reactionary, just remind yourself that I'm ancient. Damn kids and your fancy-schmancy gigahertz chips and gooeys... why, when I was a young buck, we were lucky to have a command-prompt system that would compile PASCAL programs in under an hour, but did we complain? Hell no! We felt lucky to have so much computing power!

Sorry, I drifted off there for a second.

So, want to see that first document of mine? It's right here, still serving after all these years. Does it validate? Oh dear Lord no, not even when you force the validator to use HTML 3.2 and ISO-8859-1 character handling. That was back in the wild days when I thought (as Bill Amend still does, apparently) that <p> was just a shorthand way of writing <br><br> and you could wrap any element around any other element, like putting a named anchor around a heading instead of inside it. I'd never even heard of a DOCTYPE, let alone "DOCTYPE switching;" my first exposure to CSS was still two and a half years into my future; and David Seigel had yet to show us how to create "killer" Web sites.

Back then, the killer browser was NCSA Mosaic. Mosaic Communications Corporation was being formed—it was only later that legal wrangling forced a change of name to Netscape Communications. I still fondly remember the slowly spinning panes in the upper right-hand corner of the first MCC betas, and I wish they'd just changed the "M" to an "N" and kept the animation. After the name changed, they replaced that interesting and aesthetic effect with a big ugly "N" that went from outset to inset and back, thus causing a mass coinage of the term "throbber" to describe the little animation that tells you the browser is busy doing something.

I also recall the day I found out that typing about:fishcam in Netscape's address bar would get you The Amazing Netscape Fish Cam. When I got to create a redesign for the Fish Cam page early this year, it was like a dream come true. Okay, not really, but it was a thrill. To remake a page that I remembered so clearly, that wowed me and intrigued me—that alone would have made taking the job at Netscape worthwhile. (If you're interested in seeing one of the camera feeds, you should probably go do that as soon as possible. There's no way to know when the Fish Cam, rather like Netscape itself, will suffer a pulled plug.) A close second was when I ended up taking the lead editorial and design role for DevEdge, another early site that I visited quite a lot.

Now that I look back, it seems like fish have been a recurring theme; after all, Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide has a pair of fish on its cover. Not only that, but they're different fish than were initially marketed, because I apparently pulled off the impossible in persuading O'Reilly's "Animal Lady" to dump the original design and use my idea instead. I didn't know it was impossible before trying it, which is no doubt why I succeeded... but that's a story for some other day.

You might think that after a decade I'd be sick and tired of the Web, but not so. I'm gearing up for the next ten with my new consultancy, including some awesome clients that induce the same thrills I had working at Netscape; working on a new forum for bringing detailed and useful information on standards-oriented design to you; contributing to an interesting new social-networking technology; and exploring some ideas for ventures that will build on what I've already done.

Professionally, it's been an amazing ten years, and I'm convinced the next ten will be even better. However much I might complain about writer's stress or proprietary solutions or what have you, I still enjoy what I do and look forward to doing it. I'm not always quite sure how I got to where I am, but believe me, I'm deeply grateful that I've had the chance to do what I do, and even more so that so many people have supported me over the years. Thank you, one and all, and I will do my utmost to continue earning your respect and trust in the years to come.

Now That's A Switch

Thursday, 4 December 2003

From macosxhints, via xlab: how to restore Mac OS X to a little more sanity in the form of switching the keyboard shortcuts for "New Folder" and "New Finder Window." Contrary to the tip's assertion, you will need to restart the Finder for the change to take effect, but it does indeed work. Also, since the tip is somewhat ambiguous about what you should have in your file when you're done, here's what I have:

	<key>New Finder Window</key>
	<key>New Folder</key>

Those seven simple lines are all it took to remove one of my last major complaints about OS X: now I can hit cmd-N and get a new folder instead of a new Finder window. I shed a tear of joy. All I have to do is figure out what to hack so all of my new windows open in minimized List view, and I'll be pretty much golden.

(As I also discovered, you can alter your shortcuts with TinkerTool's "Menu Shortcuts" panel, but I prefer directly hacking the OS. It makes me feel all tough and manly.)

Now for a tear or two of sorrow. Thanks to Jeffrey Zeldman, I went and read the New Yorker article about post-conflict Iraq, "War After the War." I'm pointing to the printer-friendly version, which should be a lot easier on the eyes than the narrow-column main article. It's a disturbing, disheartening piece that will likely not go over well with many in the right wing of the audience, but not because it's slanted left. It isn't. It's a factual, first-hand report of what's going on, in detail and from the mouths of soldiers and diplomats, in Iraq. Some of those mouths are already stilled forever.

The personal downside is that, if you read the article all the way through—and it's a long, involved piece, so don't expect to rip through it in five minutes—you may have the same reaction I did, which is an almost overwhelming mixture of sorrow, anger, frustration, and helplessness. Even worse, I'm not sure anything can be done at this point; even replacing the current administration would likely be too little, too late... and that assumes that the Democrats put up someone I would regard as a better choice than Bush, which is by no means assured.

Meanwhile, the sister-in-law of a friend of ours just got shipped to Iraq on almost no advance notice. This person is a member of a National Guard unit that was classified "non-deployable." Whether or not such a distinction should exist, apparently it did. Now the unit is being deployed, the very thing she was told would never happen, which is the only reason she decided to enlist; she has a husband and three children that she had no intention of leaving even temporarily. When I hear such things, it makes me wonder if maybe the news from Iraq is more positive than the situation warrants. Why else would the military choose to deploy a "non-deployable" unit? That's the sort of act I associate with desperation.

Rolling On

Sunday, 7 December 2003

As an experiment, I've added a 'blogroll' to the home page of meyerweb. Those of you using IE/Win and the default theme (Eos) won't see it because of positioning bugs in IE/Win, and you'll get slightly incorrect display in a couple of other themes, but people using more conformant browsers should have no trouble. This isn't the list's final form by any means—as I say, it's an experiment. It's actually pushing me toward YAR (Yet Another Redesign), truth be told, one that compacts the sidebar content so that I can introduce new stuff.

Suddenly I have an idea for an update of the classic "Yar's Revenge." In this new version, you control a Web designer who runs around the screen avoiding validation errors, font-sizing bugs, table-layout fanatics, CSS-layout fanatics, wandering usability experts, and snarky bloggers while trying to collect as many design components, standards powerups, and "help points" as possible in pursuit of your ultimate goal: a new redesign that's accessible, attractive, and uses very lightweight markup. Every level is a new redesign, each one requiring more standards and components than the last one. Anyone who makes it past five redesigns without giving up in frustration earns the title "Web design guru." Once you attain that rank, you'll have about ten times as many bloggers trying to tear you down in subsequent levels. Have fun!

For some reason, I'm strongly reminded of the writing I've been doing this weekend. I said a while back I had one chapter left to write in the second edition of Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide. I still do, although said chapter is (at the moment) about 80% done. It's the chapter on table presentation, and let me tell you, it's definitely my least favorite chapter. I think I did a decent job explaining things, but the subject matter itself is... well, I don't like it. Both of my technical reviewers expressed their sympathies to me before I started writing it; that ought to tell you something.

Regardless, the chapter should be done by the end of the weekend. Then all I'll have to do is write/create the last few appendixes (no big deal) and go through the author review stage, where I look over the copyeditor and technical review comments and make any necessary changes. And then it will be really and truly done. I'm no longer sure how long it will take to finish up those last few bits, but I still hope we'll have the book on shelves before next summer. Keep your digits crossed...


Monday, 8 December 2003

Kat and I are now parents. Earlier this evening, we welcomed four-day-old Carolyn Maxwell Meyer into our home and our hearts.

Kat sits in a chair and feeds our new daughter for the first time.

We named her Carolyn in honor of my late mother, a plan which we conceived (so to speak) shortly after Mom was diagnosed with cancer. We kept it to ourselves for a while, hoping to make it a surprise. Last Christmas Eve, realizing that Mom would almost certainly not live to see our first daughter, I told her what we planned. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It was a tacit admission that Mom had only a few months to live, and that she would never, despite our best efforts and a good deal of medical intervention, get to be a grandmother.

The middle name, Maxwell, is in honor of Kat's late grandfather Max. It was he who gave Kat her middle name, and instilled in her a deep love of jewelry. Kat remembers him taking her for long walks through Brooklyn and talking to her like an adult, and how he would let her play with gemstones on black velvet workpads in his workshop. Both Kat and her mother loved Max very much, and Kat had decided to honor him with a namesake long before we even met.

We've had Carolyn home for just a few hours, and already the cat is annoyed. But she'll adjust. In the meantime, we're still trying to grasp that this tiny little person is actually ours, and that she'll be staying for quite a long time.

A Multitude of Blessings

Tuesday, 9 December 2003

First off, our deepest thanks to everyone who's linked, commented, e-mailed, or has otherwise expressed happiness over our happiness. We may not respond right away, but your good wishes and blessings for Carolyn have meant the world to us, and one day will to her, as I'm keeping a copy of everything for her memory box. So watch your language!

The first night with Carolyn went very well; she let us sleep for a few hours at a time, and only woke us when she was hungry. It's obviously too early to say what kind of baby she'll be, but so far she's pretty quiet, fairly mellow, and just as precious and cute as every parent fundamentally believes their baby to be.

Lest you wonder, this isn't going to turn into a baby blog. I won't ignore her presence, of course, but I'm not planning to have her take over this journal. Much. I have plans percolating in the back of my head to set up a page for Carolyn—what else would you expect?—where we can put up pictures, share the latest baby news, and all that kind of fun stuff. I never had a page about pets or babies, even when I first started out on the Web, so I guess this is my chance to make up for lost time.

I haven't quite decided if I'll come up with a unique design for Carolyn's page-to-be, but if I do, I guess I'll have to use CSS like Jay Allen proposed (and which was just too darned funny; why didn't I think of that?).

I'll have to think carefully about what I post about her, though. Derek Powazek pointed out to me a few weeks back that today's kids are really unlucky, because anything they do that's posted on the Web gets archived and preserved pretty much forever. So if I write a post about the contents of her diapers or something similarly stupid and personally embarrassing, it could end up printed out and taped to her high school locker. And all of her friends' lockers.

Maybe by then kids will be so used to the lack of historical amnesia that it won't bother them, or even occur to them to try such tactics. Maybe my concerns will seem as dated and goofy as parental concerns about their children being persecuted over the family's having emigrated from Germany instead of Poland in the late Thirties. I can hope, but in the meantime, I have to act as though it will continue to be a concern for decades to come.

I'm used to taking a long-term view, but the focus of that view has certainly changed in the last twenty hours.

Appropriate Selections

Thursday, 11 December 2003

Okay, a lot of you have managed to come up with puns and jokes similar to the one I first saw at Jay Allen's site, and Dunstan Orchard has taken the whole theme to the (il)logical conclusion. One of the most common puns I've seen is:


Amusing, yes, but here's the problem: that describes any element with an id of ericmeyer that is the first child of another element. Now, I can be described that way; I am the oldest of my parents' two children. But it doesn't describe Carolyn, unless we accept the convention that a child's id should be given a value with his or her father's name. Such a convention would limit every father to one child, which might make for excellent social policy but seems unnecessarily restrictive from a structural point of view.

So, while this particular little joke validates, it doesn't do what the author(s) intended, probably due to the widespread lack of understanding about what :first-child actually does. A closeup picture of Carolyn, showing her hazel eyes and shock of dark hair to full effect. You're supposed to be describing her, people, not me! Every time you write an inappropriate selector, it makes the Baby Carolyn cry. You wouldn't want to make her cry, would you?

A selector that does describe her is:

#ericmeyer :first-child

...which is functionally equivalent to:

#ericmeyer *:first-child

Both will select any element that is the first child of another element and is also descended from an element with an id of ericmeyer. This would also select the first children of any children that I have, so first grandchildren (and so on) would be members of the same set. Thus, it might make slightly more sense to use the following:

#EricMeyer > :first-child

...which is to say, any element that's the first child of an element whose id is EricMeyer—more precisely, any element that is the first child of another element and is also the child of an element with an id of EricMeyer. I suppose that this particular selector could describe many children, as I expect I'm not the only 'EricMeyer' (and yes, the capitalization matters) in the world to have had a child. But it should, at least within the confines of my docu—er, my family tree, select Carolyn uniquely.

Here endeth the lesson.

At another time of year, I might have struggled with what kind of music to play for Carolyn. Big Band? Classical? Hard rock? Some blues, maybe? "Weird Al"? Fortunately, there is no dilemma, as we're pretty much playing holiday music front to back. Jiminy Cricket sings "From All Of Us To All Of You" about twenty times a day. Good thing I have a fondness for that record. I'm still going to get Handel's "Messiah," Bach'sBeethoven's "Ode To Joy," and a few other pieces from Bombastic Dead White Guys into the mix. Plus "Santa Baby" as sung by Eartha Kitt. May as well start with the confusion early!

I've just read, much to my confusion, that Diana Krall and Elvis Costello were married in Elton John's mansion, thus forming a Weirdness Trifecta. I mean, hey, if they're happy with each other, I'm all for it, but those just aren't names I would have put into the same sentence. Ever.


Monday, 15 December 2003

Put a human face on your linking: XFN. Originally designed for blogrolls, but useful in any situation where you link to a personal Web site, XFN is a grass-roots social networking tool that anyone can use at any time on any site. I'm using it on my blogroll right now, in fact.

The goal of XFN is, quite simply, to make it possible for links to carry information about the human relationships behind the linking. It lets you designate which links are to the sites of people you've met, which are to those who are your friends, which ones represent your sweethearts, and quite a bit more. Best of all, it does all this with just a few simple values that can be added to any link. The great thing, from my point of view, is that it adds a lot of interesting semantic value without being overly complex or difficult to understand. Check it out!

(Update: you might also like to see what Tantek and Matt, who were really the driving forces behind XFN, have to say about it.)

Friendly Discussions

Wednesday, 17 December 2003

We've gotten some interesting feedback about XFN, as well as a number of blogroll adoptions and even tools that offer XFN support! Two commentaries in particular drew me in:

  • Richard Tallent pointed out that XFN could be a key component of building trust networks between blogs. He also had some gripes about the syntax and scope, which is fine, as we don't envision XFN as being complete by any means and are very keen to see what people suggest. My responses can be found in the comments section of his post.
  • Leigh Dodds took me mildly and quite fairly to task for some minor inaccuracies in the XFN/FOAF comparison article I wrote, and also had some great observations and ideas regarding XFN. Leigh's comment that he finds XFN to be elegant was especially satisfying, because Matt, Tantek, and I worked hard to keep it that way.

One of the things I forgot to point out in my announcement yesterday is that not only can you add XFN values to your links, but you can do so and still have your HTML validate— see, for example, the validator report for the main page of meyerweb— because XFN uses an existing HTML attribute (rel) in a way that HTML itself allows. In other words, XFN enhances the Web without breaking it, very much in the spirit of Tim's original vision of interlocking technologies that worked together to create a social medium. That's an important aspect of XFN, and one I didn't want to overlook.

Of course, XFN isn't constrained to HTML. Any XML language can also use XFN, given the right hooks are included in the language's DTD. Thus, we've created something that works today as well as tomorrow.

We're still very interested in suggestions and constructive criticism, so keep those posts coming!

Hummering Past the Graveyard

Saturday, 20 December 2003

A couple of weeks back, I threw out a relatively strong opinion on civilians who drive Hummers. At the time, I didn't back up what I said, and fortunately I don't have to now. Seth Stevenson has explained it for me in his analysis of a recent Hummer ad. The three points in the middle of the analysis very nicely sum up my perceptions of Hummer owners. Just past that, Seth says:

Of course, some will love the shameless Hummer kid and his take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs individualism. Not coincidentally, these are the sort of people who buy Hummers.... The Hummer kid is a me-first kid, and the Hummer is without doubt a me-first vehicle.

That ties it up all together for me, providing a near-perfect summary of reasons behind my opinion. I'm all for individualism, but not win-at-all-costs individualism. Sometimes victory is not worth the cost, and that's usually when your victory damages those around you. Society plays an important role in all our lives, except of course for those of you living completely off the land—that is, no electricity, sewer, or heat utilities, and absolutely no trips to the grocery store for food—and those of us who benefit from society owe it some consideration and preservation in return. Express yourself as you see fit, believe what you want to believe, take chances and chart your own course... as long as it isn't needlessly harmful to others, or to society as a whole. Have some consideration for the people around you from time to time, and take the time to ponder how your actions might affect them, positively or negatively.

In other words, be a responsible adult—which, so far as I can tell, civilian Hummer owners simply aren't, and I find that irks me. I'm not about to call for the abolition of Hummer ownership or anything like that: everyone has the freedom to display their short-sighted wastefulness and arrogance as much as they like. I just wish we (as a whole) were a little more grown-up than that.

And don't even get me started on people who own more than one Hummer, let alone five.

So that's why I said what I said, and why I've been careful to make it clear that I'm talking about civilians who drive Hummers (not all SUVs, although I think some of them are excessive as well). They're incredibly useful vehicles for the military, forest rangers, and other people who have to go where there are no roads and not much in the way of flat terrain. It's the people who think they need a forty-ton vehicle to pick up a double latté at the Starbucks down the street who could use a good whack with a clue-by-four.

My views on the relationship betwen the individual and society also explain why I have little patience for Americans who complain about the cost of gasoline and our income tax rates, and even less patience for people who think the way to revive an economy is through reduced federal taxation and increased federal spending. Pick one or the other, chief. Otherwise you end up with debts large enough to, you know, crush an economy.

Out Of The Cradle

Sunday, 21 December 2003

As someone who studied 20th Century geopolitics in college, I'm quite fascinated by the latest news from Libya, which I had long assumed would only change course when Gadhafi left office (one way or the other). To see a leader—any leader—take such steps is quite frankly astonishing; I feel like next thing will be Kim Jong-Il announcing that the whole nuclear-weapons inspection problem there was a big misunderstanding and he'd really like to get it all cleared up so McDonald's can start opening some Pyongyang branches.

I'm even more fascinated by two things that will probably raise my Total Information Awareness rating for even mentioning them:

  1. The willingness of the Bush administration to support IAEA inspections in Libya (and Iran) when it denounced them as being useless in Iraq. What's the difference, I wonder?
  2. It would appear that, given enough patience, economic sanctions do in fact work, contrary to the administration's claims when building a case for attacking Iraq. You have to be in it for the long haul, but in the end they pay off. After all, it seems that the sanctions imposed on Libya in the late Eighties were a motivating force in Gadhafi's recent decisions. Not the threat of attack, which Libya hasn't faced from the U.S. since Reagan left office. Just plain old exclusion from the global economy. (Dissenters might point to Cuba as proof that this isn't true, except Cuba is only excluded from the American economy, not the global economy.)

I'm not seeking to excuse Libya's role in the downing of Pan Am 103, but then I could hardly do so: they admitted to it earlier this year, and explained their motivations. Whether or not I agree with them is beside the point I'm trying to make here. The real point, at least to me, is that Libya is on a course that I could hardly have imagined a week or two ago. It gives me a smidgen of hope that humanity might be a little more grown-up than I tend to believe.

My deepest wish is that this starts a change in the way diplomacy is conducted in the future, and how nations choose to deal with the skeletons in their closets. Right next to that is my hope that America responds to these moves positively and with a willingness to negotiate, to compromise if necessary. We have to leave behind poisonous concepts like "unconditional surrender" and start working with leaders who want to act responsibly. Given the increasing ease with which massively destructive weapons can be created, the future of humanity could very well depend on it.

The Fix Is In

Wednesday, 24 December 2003

I feel kind of honored whenever I find out a browser's been altered (hopefully fixed) as a result of something I've done. Check out point (20) in Dave Hyatt's recent Safari progress update. Glee! I could also feel good about point (19), which I reported as a bug a while back, but I apparently they'd known about it long before I noticed it. To see that bug in action, drop by the XFN profile document.

My optimism on Sunday regarding Libya may have been misplaced, it seems—or was it? It's hard to tell, and CNN isn't much help, since it's provided information on both sides of the fence. In a summation article regarding an interview Gadhafi gave to CNN, it was stated:

Asked about his decision, Gadhafi acknowledged that the Iraq war may have influenced him, but he insisted he wanted to focus on the "positive."

For that matter, the title of the article was "Gadhafi: Iraq war may have influenced WMD decision." That was on Monday. I went looking for a full transcript, because I wanted to see exactly what was said, but didn't find one. When I went back again to look on Tuesday, the article had been updated and did not contain the above paragraph. It instead stated:

Asked about his decision to dismantle programs and whether the Iraq war or the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein may have influenced him, Gadhafi questioned why Iraq had to be his role model.

The title had been updated as well, now to "Gadhafi hopes for new era of U.S.-Libya relations." Still no transcript.

Notice that in neither case was Gadhafi's answer on the subject of the war's influence actually quoted. So in the absence of video of that segment of the interview, or else a detailed transcript, I'm left wondering just what the hell he really said, and whether or not I should retract some of the things I said on Sunday.

So I'll punt on the whole thing, and just share The Hoser with everyone. Merry Christmas, eh?

An Absent Voice

Friday, 26 December 2003

If she had somehow lived to see it, today would have been Mom's 60th birthday. It was always a sort of relief to Mom that her birthday came just one day after Christmas, because she could let it get lost in the shuffle. Usually, we'd give nearly all our presents for her on Christmas morning, and then each of us would give one present the next day. That suited her just fine. She was always much happier giving presents than receiving them. It's a trait I absorbed from her at some point; like she did, I feel a bit awkward about receiving a gift, even from family members.

For that and other reasons, neither Mom nor I enjoyed Christmas very much, except in the last few years, when Kat dragged everyone kicking and screaming into the holiday spirit, whether we wanted to or not. She's good that way. The joy and pleasure she feels over things like Christmas and Disney World is so pure and unbounded that it spills over into people around her. Sometimes I can't believe how lucky I am to have married Kat. In her last days, as we said our good-byes without ever uttering those words, Mom never once told Kat to take care of me, nor me to take care of Kat. She knew it wasn't necessary.

Neither did Mom ask me to speak well of her to my children, whenever I had them. In that case, she probably never even gave thought to her legacy, because it wasn't her way to think about herself. But again, it wasn't necessary. When Carolyn asks me about my childhood, I will tell her how Mom would read a chapter of a book to me and my sister every night, and how Mom wept every time Charlotte died. How she made toad-in-the-hole for breakfast after we'd read Danny, Champion of the World. The way she could admonish me with a look, the one we called the Hairy Eyeball, capitals and all. There will be warmth and love in my voice, but also wistfulness and loss.

I look at Carolyn, named in honor of the grandmother who never knew her, and try to imagine all the things she has yet to learn. I wish she could have learned some of them from her namesake, and indeed we have books that Mom bought for our children—some before the cancer was discovered, and some after. A few of them contain her name, in short inscriptions written years before they would reach their intended audience.

When I read those books to Carolyn and any future siblings, I think it will be hard for me to avoid tears, even though none of them is Charlotte's Web. Partly that's because I will regret that Mom wasn't able to give many more gifts to her grandchildren, gifts of books and learning toys and words of wisdom, but there's deeper reason. I will always read these few precious gifts to my children when they ask to hear them, but I will always wish that another voice, a softer and wiser voice, were reading them instead.

Distant Fires

Monday, 29 December 2003

As I took out the garbage this evening, there was a bright orange flare to the south, swelling over a few seconds and then fading quickly. It was bright enough that the ground was dimly illuminated; some time later, a distant roar could be heard. There were a few more white flashes that followed, and shortly thereafter I heard sirens as well. I honestly wondered if an airliner had crashed into one of the nearby suburbs.

Instead, it was a fire at a magnesium recycling facility about seven miles away from our house. As I write this, a few hours later, the fire is still burning, and is expected to continue burning for 24 hours or more. I've been hearing explosions several times an hour, some of them rather loud. According to news reports, there is a series of magnesium storage silos currently sitting just outside the flames. Every time I hear a new rumble, I wonder if it's the silos cooking off. In fact, I just heard a string of deep booms that could well be them.

In a weird way, this may be as close as I ever get to understanding what war is like. No, of course it's nothing like the same; I have basically no fear that I could be harmed by this fire, even if the storage silos go up. But the glows on the horizon, and the semi-continual thunder that no cloud produces, imparts some of the foreboding and dread that I suppose a nearby armed conflict must instill. It sounds like I always expected distant artillery would.

As a cold front moves through the area, the rain is picking up, clattering against the house with more force and volume. In almost any fire, this would be a welcome relief for the firefighters, but in this case it's almost the worst weather imaginable, as those of your who remember your chemistry classes will have realized. There's a horrible irony somewhere in there, especially given that it's the end of December and today was rainy and in the low 50s.

Tonight my thoughts are with the firefighters who will spend hours upon hours fighting simply to keep the fire contained, knowing that they can't try to douse the fire directly without making things worse. All they can do is fight a defensive battle, and that has to be incredibly frustrating. I only hope that they all make it through this safely, and are able to prevent any more damage to the area surrounding the plant.