Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Poetry of HTML

I like fiddling with the inner workings of web pages.  Over the years I have created my website, instead of farming it out to a web-page developer.  True, my website is not as spectacular as many I have seen on the Internet.  But I have extensive and ever-changing content, pictures, text, audio, video, podcasts, and now this blog.

There were many reasons why I began to develop my own website years ago.  First, I really like to tinker.  Second, I’m a bit of a control freak, at least as far as my work is concerned.  Third, yes, I’m a cheapskate.  Fourth, I believe a certain amount of my work should be available free, particularly for those who don’t have much money.  Finally, I love to understand by myself how things work.  This gives me a sense of being autarchic, a country under its own rule.  Tinkering is about curiosity, in my mind, whereas independence is about enjoying being alone and working on a problem.  These traits certainly reinforce each other.

It’s a similar feeling I get when I chop my own wood in Connecticut, instead of buying it in neat bundles at the supermarket. When I am finished with a task, and I have done a good job, either by splitting the wood right so that it fits into my woodstoves and fireplaces, or by seeing the effect I wanted on my blog or website after tinkering with HTML, I know I have accomplished this feat.  I’ve learned something new.  I gain enough confidence to try something a bit more complex next time, to expand my expertise.

I’ll give you an example.  Although I have loved the different layout possibilities of Blogger’s blogs and templates, when I created a short video of reading my story, “The Abuelita,” for an anthology in which the story appeared, there was a problem.  I was able to embed the YouTube video at the bottom of my blog’s front page (with the latest three entries), but whenever anyone clicked on individual blog entries the video would remain at the bottom of the blog, out of sight of readers.  An enormous amount of white space was always left between an individual blog entry and the embedded video.  The Blogger template did not adapt to single blog entries, but remained the ‘long layout’ of the three latest entries even when readers clicked on separate entries.

I popped the hood of the template HTML, and began tinkering.  I found, after trial and error, I could override and then simply delete the right HTML instructions that pushed my video to the bottom.  Now as you can see, individual entries as well as the ‘long layout’ of the latest three entries both have the video immediately after the last words of any blog text.  For Garage Band podcasts, iMovie videos, favicons, sitemaps, slideshows, and so on, the story has been the same.  How do you do that?  Let’s try this.  I want to give up!  My head hurts.  Oh, my God.  Yes!  Hey, guys, look at this!  True, it’s not always a happy ending, but so often, as long as I’ve stayed on the case, I have figured it out.

Why am I this tinkering fool?  It really gives me a deep pleasure to figure it out.  There is a certain grammar to HTML, and once you begin to understand this grammar you can manipulate it to your heart’s content.  Strangely, I have begun to read poetry on my iPhone, Emily Dickinson’s collected works, and I have found a kinship between my tinkering with HTML and figuring out the lady of Amherst’s grammar, so to speak.  Invariably, every second and fourth lines in her quatrains rhyme and are trimeter, like a poetic hammer.  I have so much to learn, but in discovery there is an infinite joy.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Anger Magnus

There is so much to comment on, and so little to comment on.  I thought about Obama’s ‘slow-burn’ of political advocacy, as one friend described his style.  I had just criticized our president for not defending, more aggressively, the kind of change many of us voted for last year.  Obama, lay it on the line, and punish those who don’t support you, from the left or the right.  Be practical, be bold, but please don’t be gone.

I thought about the Senate-election debacle in Massachusetts, and how ‘democracy’ is not the great ideal it’s held up to be.  Do right-leaning Democrats truly think going back to George W. Bush’s deregulated, ‘pirate economy,’ as the New York Times’ Gretchen Morgenson aptly described it in last Sunday’s business section, will help this country create jobs, protect consumers, lower the boom on banks, big pharma, or wasteful government?  I don’t like high deficits either; what was Bush’s record on deficits, anybody remember?

It’s incredible to me the myopia, the forgetfulness, the stupidity of much of the populace, as well as the ‘news’ that isn’t news anymore, but loud and ignorant opinions.  I mean, is anybody else with me on this one?  What happened to not being a Democrat or Republican first, to not thinking about just ‘winning,’ or ‘us’ versus ‘them’?  What happened to us?  We’re on this death cruise together, and China’s eating our lunch.  They’re not the only ones.  Anyone want to stand together and fight back?  I am patriotic, and I do love this country.  But our politics are dysfunctional, Congress is a joke, and how we talk to each, the vapid ‘news’ of cable, talk radio, and the like, simply foments the same idiotic behavior that got us into this mess.

That’s right, I’m pissed.  We need practical people.  We need to stop the moronic dog-chasing-its-tale on television and radio.  In fact, if it were up to me, as a dictator, I would destroy all the television sets and radios, and force people to read.  Even the New York Post is thoughtful compared to cable.

The problems with our culture go beyond the national politics and media.  I see what's wrong on the street every day, whether it’s El Paso, New York City, Kansas City or LA.  I am often the strictest parent in their schools, my kids don’t fail to remind me.  What do I do?  I make sure my kids do their homework, every night.  I am there to help them, if they need it, every night.  I encourage my kids to read books, every week.  Friends who are wild, disrespectful, they are not welcomed in my house.  Period.  These are the values of my father and mother, Mexican immigrants.  These values work.  My kids are excellent students.  They work hard and achieve the highest grades.  They are proud of themselves, not for false accomplishments, but for true ones.  Isn’t everybody like that?  What happened to us?  Jeez.

I am angry at the Supreme Court.  What the hell is wrong with them?  The majority just made the little guy feel even smaller than before.  What happened to ‘non-activist conservative judges’?  These hypocrites just overturned decades of precedent, in favor of mega-corporations with billions of dollars.  Wave the flag for ‘free speech.’  Lower the flag for more influence for lobbyists and for rampant political corruption.  The little guy doesn’t matter to these clueless Solomons.  Sotomayor, you matter.  We just need more of you.

Work hard.  Take care of your family.  Save money.  Pay your mortgage religiously.  Love the variety of people you see on the streets of Manhattan every day.  And get kicked in the ass.  What a week.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Earthquake in Haiti and Charitable Giving

‘Heartbroken and shocked’ are the words to describe my reactions to the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  The bloodied children without their parents, running in rubble-filled streets.  A leg sticking out from under tons of concrete, while a young man next to it tries to dig out the teacher, trapped yet alive, under what’s left of a school.

Particulars, photographs and video, humanize this event in far-flung places like New York, London, Tehran, Shanghai.  We are responding, at least some are responding, to help.  I have sent money, which is not much, but it’s what I can do right now.

Some, instead of identifying with the human suffering in Haiti, are reacting in small, mean ways.  Rush Limbaugh cynically notes the catastrophe is to Barack Obama’s advantage: the president will gain cred with the black community.  Limbaugh quips, "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax."  How anyone who’s semi-moral can listen to this exemplar of excess and do-nothing claptrap is beyond me.  Yet Limbaugh has made millions, but not from an America that represents its most generous and open-minded citizens.

I hated CNN when Lou Dobbs dominated their spotlight, but last night, one day after the Haitian earthquake, Anderson Cooper was reporting from Port-au-Prince, while Fox News was lovingly focused on Sarah Palin’s musings with Bill O’Reilly.  There is a morality to reporting the news: what you focus on and how you focus on it reveal much about who you are and what you care about.  We’ve entered a Nietzschean moment on the news: the power of the people will decide what’s ‘truth’ and what’s ‘trash,’ and their decision may change (schizophrenically) every few years.

When I give to charity, I am indeed hard-nosed about it.  I want to give to charities which are efficient.  That is, whatever dollars I give I want to make sure the highest percentage, perhaps over 85 percent, goes to the purpose of the charity, not overhead, nor managerial salaries, nor more ads to entice more donors.  I want to give, but I want it to be effective.

So I’ve relied on a few sources, and three important ones are the ratings of the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), the annual Forbes list of efficient charities, and Charity Navigator.  One of my favorites charities, the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which awards scholarships to educate Latinos, uses about 87 cents out of every dollar for its programs, and garners an ‘A’ rating from AIP.

It’s been a tough couple of years for many people, but after looking at what is happening in Haiti, I want to help.  I want to do something besides watch the unfolding tragedy on television.  Here are a few charities, and their efficiency percentages (i.e. what percentage of donations goes to their programs). They need your support now.  All figures are from Charity Navigator, the letter grades from AIP.

Doctors Without Borders, (87 percent; A)

CARE (90 percent; A)

Save the Children (92 percent; A)

International Medical Corps (92 percent; A+)

American Red Cross (90 percent; A-)

Dozens of charities and their hyperlinks are listed by AIP, and Charity Navigator is free, with an email registration.  Give now, do it intelligently, and help those who desperately need it.

P.S. On the subway today, I read this poem on my iPhone, from Emily Dickinson's complete works:

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God's residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Harold Hernesh

I am late sending out my holiday cards again, but I did remember to slip one under Harold Hernesh’s door.  Harold lives in our building on the Upper Westside, and our family, including my children Aaron and Isaac, befriended Harold when we rented a one-bedroom across the hall from him.  The following year we bought a co-op in the same building, but on another floor; Isaac was a mere three-weeks-old.  We have lived thirteen years in this building-qua-miniature-city of 350 apartments.

Harold, who is eighty-seven-years-old, always reminded me of my grandmother, Doña Dolores Rivero, a survivor of the Mexican Revolution.  Both were unbelievably tough, gruff and perpetually half-frowning.  Yet if you stopped to talk to them, and got to know them beyond their flinty exterior and garbled retorts, beyond their complaints about dogs or inept store clerks or greedy banks, these viejitos revealed a fearful vulnerability of what they had seen and what they had barely escaped.  Harold was eighteen when he was imprisoned at Dachau by the Nazis in 1941, for being a Jew.

I have given Harold copies of my books.  He doesn’t know it, but I made a version of Harold a hero in my story of violence and redemption, “Remembering Possibilities.”

Yesterday Harold stopped me in the lobby and handed me three lollipops, one for me and each of my children.  He always carries candy in his pockets, and hands it out to children, or their parents, every day.  I have a jar of Harold’s candies in the kitchen.  For years, Harold sat with his sister in the lobby of our building, chatting and introducing her to his friends.  But Harold’s sister died recently.  Harold is now, I think, alone.

So when he uncharacteristically asked me to follow him to his apartment, I said yes.  I had been to his place before, to fix his cable because he had forgotten he needed to have both the cable box on and the TV on channel 3 for the system to work.  Honestly, how do oldsters survive in this complex, idiosyncratic world?  I don’t know.  I battle with these things myself, and I can only imagine what shape I’ll be in when I’m eighty-seven.  Will I be able to manage an apartment by myself at that age?  Laura and I can barely do this now.

“The Lithuanians!  They were worst than the Nazis!” Harold blurted out, as he handed me a book to read, a story of another Holocaust survivor.  When Harold says words like ‘Lithuanians’ it sounds like ‘Lith-punians,’ and he half-spits every other word he says.  It’s possible Harold had a stroke a long time ago, but I’ve never asked him.  His blue-gray eyes wandered into the distance, and he recounted a story I had never heard before.  As he said, “The luk-thpiest daay of mai lifept.”  The luckiest day of his life.

A Nazi soldier and his Lithuanian collaborators had taken him to a field of mass graves, and ordered him to dig.  He would be digging not only his own grave, but the graves of other prisoners who would be shot that day.  His spade hit the ground, but it was frozen solid.  They beat him, and yelled at him to dig.  He smashed the shovel into the ground, but still the ground would not give.  They snatched the shovel away from him, and tried to dig themselves, to no avail.  “The luk-thpiest daay of mai lifept,” Harold repeated.  Bitterly cold and windy days like today, he said, have never bothered him on Broadway.

I don’t talk to Harold, nor did I ever bike fifteen miles as a kid to visit my abuelita on Saturdays, because I feel sorry for old people.  I listened to them, because I loved their stories.  I relished the bittersweet humor that came from hardscrabble or harrowing experiences.  They took me ‘there,’ wherever ‘there’ was, and I was captivated by and transported to another world.  For me, it was their gift.