Friday, April 21, 2017

Home - finally!

At Moab Giants, Moab, Utah. Goofiest looking dinosaur I've seen recently.
We've actually been back on the tundra for several days now, but it took awhile to get the landline reconnected and the Internet service back. And we're still unloading the Guppy. I keep hauling stuff out of there thinking it's got to be the last item, but, nope, there's more. We were definitely bulging at the seams as we waddled down the road back from Colorado.

One thing I did figure out during the past 5+ months of living in that RV was that even before we stuffed the Guppy full of things from my mom's apartment we had stuff along that we did not need. I was way too ambitious in thinking what all I might get done in terms of sewing or other projects. I could have easily left half my project materials sitting in the Woman Cave and not lacked for handwork to keep me busy. And, despite having done some thinning after previous expeditions, we still have kitchen items  that we simply are not using. Ever. So why is it taking up space in the cabinets? Good question.
James M. Robb State Park, Fruita, Colorado

We did manage to time our return more or less perfectly. There was still snow across the end of the driveway, enough to discourage people from driving in but not enough to keep the Guppy out. The only fresh tracks on the road were from a moose. One of my fears whenever we're gone for awhile is we'll come home to discover we've been either burgled or vandalized. We've had both happen in the past, although it's probably been over 30 years since the last episode. One of the consequences of changing demographics locally has been fewer bored teenagers roaming the back roads looking for trouble to get into.

The trip home was relatively uneventful. We were a little smarter in how many miles we tried to cover each day so had more time to relax in the evenings. If I recall correctly, our original plans had involved staying at public campgrounds, but as it turned out looking for private ones (KOAs or similar facilities) was easier. In any case, we stopped early enough each day that we had some time in the evening to just relax and to dine at a normal hour. I should take the time to do some reviews on Campendium; every place we stayed was somewhere I'd be willing to revisit.
Camera shy rattlesnake at Hovenweep National Monument

We did have tire trouble in Missouri, but considering that the tires in question were probably 15 years old the fact the tread finally decided to let go wasn't a huge surprise. If a person just went by how the tread looked, you'd have thought the tires were fine, but we discovered when we went through the stack of receipts previous owners left in the RV that they hit puberty right about the time we bought the Guppy. They looked good because there weren't many miles on them, but considering how quickly rubber dry rots. . . We did replace the front tires not long after getting the Guppy because we figured that for sure we didn't want to chance one them blowing out. Didn't worry as much about the rear because the Guppy has dual wheels.We had planned to replace them this summer, but hoped to get back to the U.P. before being pushed into doing it.

The weirdest part about the tires deciding to die was they never went flat. The tread peeled itself off quite neatly, but the tires never lost air. It was bizarre.
One of the dead tires

Shout out, for what it's worth, to the Pulaski County branch library in Richland, Missouri. I wandered into it while the Guppy was at Larry's Tire Shop. It's a nice library for a small town, bright and airy and with a great selection of books on the recent arrivals shelf. Larry's was kind of cool, too, one of those small town full service gas stations and tire shops that you don't see very often any more.

I also have to say again that there are no bad state parks in Missouri. The tire episode meant we had to stop for the night before we got to St. Louis (well, we didn't have to; it just made sense to do so). We decided to try Robertsville State Park; it's located about 5 miles south of I-44. It's small -- only 27 camp sites, with a fairly even split between basic and electric -- but laid out nicely. What amazed me was it has two, count 'em, two sets of campground hosts. Two sets of hosts for 27 campsites. Holy wah. Maybe it's because it's so close to the city that the DNR wants to be sure there's always someone on site during the "on" season. In any case, it's another Missouri state park that I'd cheerfully stop at again.

And now we're home and I get to try to make the mental shift required to focus on museum stuff. The deadline for our heritage grant is May 31 -- everything we do is supposed to be done and paid for before then. I need to get the banners for the traveling exhibit scripted and ordered ASAP, we need to figure out just what we're doing for the permanent exhibit at the museum, and I need to start drafting the final report. The person who's been collecting the oral histories seems to have done a stellar job; it's just a matter of putting the final pieces together. The big challenge for me is figuring out how to condense a truly complex topic into the printed version of sound bits for the banners. Our project is supposedly explicating the history of Indian casinos in Baraga County. It turned out to be a lot messier than anticipated. Lots of "everybody knows" and everybody being wrong. Myth busting is never easy, and there are a zillion myths to be busted when it comes to Indian gaming.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Some people have rich fantasy lives

I was listening to Colorado Public Radio yesterday. The news segments focusing on regional topics spent a fair amount of time discussing the Trump administration's decision to roll back regulations on clear air requirements for coal burning power plants. In addition, federal lands will once again be open for leases for mining.

Naturally, there are a fair number of people in the Colorado coal industry now doing the happy dance. In the bizarro alternate universe in which they live, they believe the glory days of coal mining are about to magically return. It's odd how people can be given information but be unable to understand its implications.

First, there was a lot of talk about how new access to federal land would give western coal a competitive edge. It's cheaper to mine on land leased from the Bureau of Land Management than it is to try to negotiate leases or purchase agreements for private land. Translation: the coal industry has become so marginal that if it doesn't get subsidized by the government it can't make a profit. If you need welfare to survive, your industry is not particularly competitive.

Second, there are no new coal burning power plants being built. Whatever the domestic market for coal is right now, that's basically it. Coal mines have closed not because they lacked access to ore but because the market for that ore was saturated. The electrical power industry has figured out that natural gas is a lot easier and cheaper to work with. In fact, not only are no new coal burning plants being built, existing ones are being converted to burn gas or biomass. Further, despite the best efforts of the fossil fuels industries to slow down wind and solar power generation, both areas are still growing. Bottom line: there are fewer buyers for coal, at least domestically.

Third, one of the optimistic notes sounded by the coal people was the export market. Well, good luck with that one, guys, when the Current Occupant of the White House is busy ticking off most of the world. It's going to get harder and harder to export anything when other countries respond to Trump's protectionist policies by throwing up barriers of their own. Plus, of course, other countries that do use coal are much more grounded in reality than the U.S. is. Their politicians actually believe in science, which is why China now leads the world in manufacturing solar panels. They're working hard at moving away from coal, and they're not alone.

But, hey, one of the coal mines in Colorado just added 20 people to its payroll -- twenty! -- so obviously massive growth in mining is just around the corner.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Science in Action: The Lemon Drop Experiment

The last time we were in Grand Junction, my sister asked if we were interested in trying some "edibles." As the whole world knows, recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado. Local pot shops sell a variety of products, both edibles (gummies, hard candies, cookies, you name it) and the traditional weed. Except, of course, the traditional weed is nothing at all like we aging Baby Boomers may recall from our misspent youths. Some strains are now so potent that the Budtender* won't sell it to you if you can't convince him or her that you're an experienced smoker. But I digress.

Nerf said they had two lemon drops left, edibles sold as The Puckers. According to the label, each sour lemon drop contained 10 mg of THC. (And, yes, that is a child proof cap on the bottle.) The lemon drops had been purchased out of curiousity. She and her husband had given half a dozen to her father-in-law to see if they would help with his chronic pain. He reported that they didn't do much for the pain, but he did get a definite case of the munchies. Nerf's personal experience was that she felt really, really paranoid. Her husband's reaction had been, in essence, meh.

So we said, sure, we'll try them. The S.O. gets aches and pains in one leg, the one an Air Force surgeon left a foreign object in, so maybe it would help with that. And I do get occasional back aches. What the heck, what did we have to lose?

We were warned that with edibles it can take a couple of hours before you notice anything. The S.O. took one about 2:15 in the afternoon and then went out to read in the lawn chair for awhile. After some time passed, I asked if he noticed anything different. Nope. My observation was that he was sliding progressively lower in the lawn chair and seemed to doze off for awhile, but that was about it. He later said that he did feel kind of light headed when he stood up, but nothing too dramatic.

So then it was my turn. In the interest of science, I tried to eat the lemon drop about the same time in the afternoon as the S.O. Conditions were slightly different, though. I wasn't relaxing in a lawn chair; I was on a couch watching television. Both the Kid and the S.O. kept asking if I'd noticed anything yet. Nope. Nope. Nothing yet. Then Ellen DeGeneres introduced a guest on her show, a teacher and softball coach, who had suffered great personal hardship but still managed to keep coaching the girls' softball team. It was one of those tear jerkers of a story, a multiple-tissue tale, one that has the studio audience sobbing and tears running ankle deep in the aisles. You know, really heart-breaking but at the same time inspirational.

It was also the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I got hit by the giggles so hard I couldn't sit up. If I hadn't been clinging to the S.O. as I giggled uncontrollably, I'd have been on the floor. The Kid is always lecturing me about not drinking enough water. That's one day when she should have been really happy my bladder was empty.

After the giggling fit passed, I noticed The Kid's candy bowl was filled with Hershey's Kisses. I think you can guess how I spent the rest of the afternoon. Eat some chocolate, giggle some more, eat some chocolate, giggle. The expressions on the Kid's face were priceless. She kind of alternated between appalled and disbelief.

Scientific conclusion: based on what is admittedly a statistically insignificant sample, it would be difficult to prescribe marijuana to cure specific ills. It's obvious every user is going to have an idiosyncratic reaction. The one consistent effect seems to be it does stimulate a person's appetite, which can be important for people who have trouble eating for various reasons, but other than that? The only way to figure out if it's going to work for whatever ails you is to try it. If you're lucky, it will.

Personal conclusion: now that we're back in Colorado, I may go looking the place that sells the sour lemon drops. If hard candy got me giggling at a man who almost died from a particularly painful form of cancer, maybe it can help me survive the Trump presidency.

*Genuine job tile. Honest.

Success!

This isn't exactly what I had in mind, but it is apparently the best I'm going to be able to do. It's not on linen like the souvenir tea towels of the past. It's printed on cotton that's more like old-fashioned flour sack material. But it comes close enough -- a souvenir towel at a reasonable price.

Even better, it's Made in USA. The towels are produced by a company based in Colorado. I found it at a trading post, the Pickle Barrel, in Globe, Arizona. When it comes to Arizona souvenirs the Pickle Barrel has them all, from the suckers with scorpions embeddded in them to rusty metal javelinas. I really wanted a javelina but decided that $75 was more than I felt like paying for yard art. (I did, however, do some heavy hinting to The Kid. She says they're too big and heavy to ship. I say no way, UPS can ship almost anything, especially when a life-size metal javelina isn't actually that big and the sheet metal is fairly thin.)

Anyway, in addition to the coasters and the shot glasses and the various other dust collectors, the Pickle Barrel had a selection of souvenir kitchen towels. There were several that could serve as souvenirs of national parks (e.g., Saguaro), one that just had cactus, and then there was the road runner. I figured road runners are definitely Arizona.

The towels are now on their way to Europe, along with some cactus tea and one or two other regional souvenirs. Naturally, the postage for each package came to more than the combined value of the items in them. I swear every time I go to the Post Office the price of mailing stuff out of the country has gone up -- but that's a subject for a different post.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Another installment in the ongoing series Why Businesses Fail

Also known as The Stupid, It Burns.

A while back the good people of Arizona approved a ballot proposal to raise the state minimum wage. Proposition 206 mandated that the state minimum wage, which had been set at $8.05 per hour, would increase to $10 in 2017 and will be raised incrementally to $12 per hour by the year 2020. If Proposition 206 hadn't passed, the minimum wage would still have gone up this year but only by a dime to $8.15. Arizona law already requires, thanks to a proposition approved in 2006, that minimum wage be adjusted annually for increases in the cost of living.

Naturally, many business owners had the usual reaction to this change in the law. They freaked out. They did a lot of posturing about how it was going to drive them out of business while all sounding as if each was a special case subjected to increased costs that none of their competitors had to deal with. This is typical. I've blogged about it before. The self-centered business owner totally ignores that fact that if he's having to pay his dishwashers or his widget assemblers an additional $1.95 per hour, so are his competitors down the street. The competitive playing field is still level; no one business has suddenly gained or lost an advantage over any other. It may be true that in the short term he or she will have to eliminate a position or two while they figure out how to compensate for the added expense in payroll, but it's going to be equally true that every other business is going to be doing the same thing.

So how have various businesses responded? Well, I've noticed a couple interesting examples lately of What Not to Do. Both examples are restaurants. In the case of one, a steakhouse, they've tacked on an 18% surchange to every meal to, as they helpfully explain, help pay for the increase in the minimum wage. Holy wah, the stupid, it burns.

You're telling me that because you're now paying the dishwashers in the kitchen $10 an hour instead of $8.05, my $25 steak dinner is now going to cost me $29.50? Joe Shmoe washing dishes gets an additional $1.95; No Longer Loyal Customer gets hosed to the tune of $4.50. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that charging every customer in the place an 18% surcharge goes way beyond compensating for a higher payroll cost. Plus, of course, no one particularly enjoys hearing a business owner whine about being so frelling stupid that they can't figure out a way to cover added expenses without standing up and screaming to the world that they're asshats who would prefer to pay their employees nothing at all if only they could figure out a way to get away with it.

Second example: ate at a local place that has a lot of vaguely Mexican food on the menu. I say vaguely Mexican because Safford has apparently suffered from the influence of having way too many snowbirds with timid tastebuds wintering around here. So far all the "Mexican" places we've tried have served salsa made with chilis that seemingly achieve the impossible: score a negative number on the Scoville scale. But I digress. Naturally, the establishment of which I speak does the bowl of corn chips and some salsa as an automatic freebie on the tables. Except the chips and salsa are no longer free. The server made a point of saying that if we wanted a second bowl, we'd have to pay for them. They've also stopped doing free refills on drinks. Why? Because minimum wage went up. Not quite as annoying or as in your face as the surcharge, but still annoying, particularly when the astute diner recognizes that chips and soft drinks are some of the items on the menu with the highest profit margins. A throw-away cup for a soft drink costs the restaurant more than the soda it contains. It costs the restauranteur literally pnnies to refill your Coke when the glass runs dry.

In any case, what the restaurant has done is taken two of the most visible and cheapest ways to curry customer good will (endless chips and free refills on soft drinks and coffee) and eliminated them, a truly dumb move when the competition hasn't done something similar. Again, the stupid, it burns.

So how would I, the ominiscient blogger, have dealt with the increased labor costs? First, of course, I'd have kept my mouth shut. Second, I'd have started preparing for it as soon as I heard the proposition passed and made various adjustments to the menu accordingly. No doubt some business owners were indulging in a fantasy that the state supreme court would rule the change illegal, but that hasn't happened, at least not yet. Besides, it was inevitable that wages would climb. Anyone thinking they'd stay static was living in a dream world.

Anyway, shifting prices up slightly across the board -- 50 cents here, maybe a dollar there -- would be a lot less noticeable than a huge honking extra charge tacked on at the end. People willing to pay $20 for a rack of ribs or a steak aren't suddenly going to turn vegan if the price shifts to $21.50.  Look for stuff you can eliminate. From watching Gordon Ramsey in action I know way too many restaurants waste food. They provide side salads no one eats and serve portions that are much bigger than they need to be. (Which could be the subject of a different rant: the unrealistic ideas people end up with concerning healthy serving sizes based on what they see heaped on some restaurant plates.)

A small example of eliminating waste: we've eaten at a couple of places locally that do the usual salsa and chips but with a small twist. They bring you the basket of chips and a small bowl. The salsa is in squeeze bottles so you can use as little or as much as you wnat; definite reduction in waste there. For that matter, restaurants could eliminate the chips and salsa entirely. People munch on them when the chips are staring them in the face, but quite a few wouldn't care if they vanished. It's always struck me as a little weird that restaurants would put out a free appetizer while also having half a dozen other types of appetizers listed on the menu.

I am thinking that I'll ask The Younger Daughter to keep an eye on how those particular businesses fare over the coming year. It'll be interesting to see if they're still around a few months from now. Their floundering attempts suggest their days are numbered, but you never know. Sometimes even the most inept business owners manage to survive despite their best attempts to destroy themselves.

As for finding some Mexican food that isn't so bland it could be served in nursing homes, I'm beginning to think that we'll have to venture south of the border. The Younger Daughter tells me that co-workers have mentioned there are good restaurants in Agua Prieta, although I'm not sure it's worth the hassle to go that far.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Not enough tinfoil in the world

I'm beginning to wonder just who's crazier: The Donald with his weird, paranoid fantasies about former president Obama or the pundits and others who treat those fantasies as though they have some basis in reality. You know, every administration has a tendency to blame some problems on its predecessor, do some pointing back and saying, in essence, we wouldn't be in this mess if it hadn't been for the previous president's failed policies. That's normal political behavior.

What isn't normal is for a current President to do bizarre rants or go on Twitter accusing his predecessor of actively conspiring against him now. One of The Donald's favorite themes recently has been that all the protests against him or his administration are being coordinated by former President Obama. Not content to fantasize about ongoing conspiracies in the here and now, The Donald then accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump's phones during the campaign.

Holy wah, the stupid, it burns! The man is so frelling insane that he can't see how totally illogical that particular bizarre delusion is. As a number of memes kicking around on Facebook have noted, this delusion of The Donald's posits that President Obama asked to have The Donald's phones tapped in order, one supposes, to gather dirt on Trump to help the Democrats in some fashion. Having gone through the effort of tapping the phones, Obama then does what? Nothing? Just sits back and allows The Donald to win? Or is The Donald trying to claim that look, the Democrats tried to find some dirt on me and failed? Is the whole wiretap claim a weird way of trying to deflect the contact with the Russians allegations?

I don't know. From where I sit, it seems like every day Trump does something crazier, something even more "the emperor has no clothes" in its obvious craziness, but almost no one in the media is willing to say so. Every so often there are hints, one or two brave souls who come right out and say something is lunacy, but they're still being drowned out by the enablers and the butt snorklers.

And, for what it may be worth, a slight digression. One of my right-wing acquaintances sent me a meme today that basically repeated all of Trump's delusions -- the millions of fraudulent votes cast, ballot box stuffing, wiretaps, you name it -- and then ended with a triumphant "And the Democrats still lost!" Which to me proves that Trump's supporters need the tinfoil as much as he does. Because let's face it, if the Democrats had actually done even one of the multiple things Trump claims they did, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House now.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life

Sabina Flanagan's Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life had been gathering dust on a bookshelf at the Retirement Bunker for years. I'm not sure where it came from; it's a trade paperback so odds are that either I or the Younger Daughter ordered it from the Quality Paperback Book Club back in the '90s and then never got aorund to reading it. We both like history and we both have a passing interest in the Middle Ages, although it's not an area of specialty for either of us.

Hildegard of Bingen definitely falls into the Middle Ages. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. There were a lot of passing pop culture references to her a decade or so back -- she apparently composed music which was suddenly influencing various New Age musicians -- and that may have piqued our curiousity at the time.

In any case, the book sat on a shelf for quite a while. Then in October, as I was packing the Guppy for an extended road trip, I went through the bookcases looking for books I either hadn't read yet or had read so long ago the details were now a blur. Hildegard of Bingen caught my eye. For a relatively slender tome, it turned out to be a remarkably hard slog. Having troubles with insomnia? I recommend this book. I don't mean to imply that it's necessarily a bad book. On the contrary, it's academic prose in full flower. Lots of speculating and theorizing and referencing other scholars' works. This is a book designed to garner a good time slot at academic conferences and to impress one's tenure committee. It is most definitely not written with the general reader in mind.

Why do I say that? Well, among other things, the age range dates provided above are about the only solid biographical details the author provides. Flanagan makes a classic mistake authors who are too close to their subject matter make: she knows so much about Hildegard of Bingen that she assumes the readers do, too. Similarly, she definitely glosses over the context. The book would definitely have benefited from a little explication of what exactly was happening with the medieval church, what the Benedictine rule was, and who some of the auxiliary players were. For example, she does a long explication on Abelard and Heloise and the perceived role of women in the 12th century. Well, if the only time you've heard those names is when they're a question on "Jeopardy" you may find the comments about women being assumed to be the weaker, dumber sex interesting but you're not going to really understand why the author chose to quote either of them.

Similarly, at one point Flanagan mentions that Hildegard was on the wrong side in the political maneuverings of the time, some dispute between the Catholic Church and Barbarossa. It probably would have been a good idea at that point for the author to have used the man's full name and title, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor. If nothing else, it helps ground Hildegard in time and place.

So just who was Hildegard of Bingen? As far as I can tell from reading this book, she was a German woman who got shoved into a cloistered life while she was still quite young. Flanagan reports that Hildegard was described as sickly so she theorizes that Hildegard's parents dedicated her to the Church because they figured they had nothing to lose, the kid wasn't going to live long anyway. She may have been as young as 5 or as old as 8 when she got shoved into a cell occupied by an anchorite, a female hermit named Jutta, and stuck there until Jutta died over 30 years later. Anchorites never left their cells; in some cases they were literally walled in (the door bricked over after they entered) with only a small opening left for others to pass food and other necessities in and for the anchorite to pass the slop bucket out. The anchorite's job, so to speak, was similar to that of other cloistered religious: spend the bulk on one's time in contemplation and prayer. In exchange for praying for other people, the anchorite got fed on a regular basis, although some would indulge in fasting and other mortifications of the flesh in order to get closer to God. It was apparently fairly common practice to build a cell for an anchorite, either male or female, as an ell on a church. There would be a small opening in the church wall to allow the hermit to listen to services.

Hildegard became known for her "visions." My take on the whole thing tends to be, yeah, I'd experience a psychotic break and start hallucinating if I was stuck in a dungeon at the age of 5, too.
Flanagan notes that Hildegard didn't seem especially saddened when Jutta died. My thought was why should she have been? She got stuck in that cell as a child and had probably spent her whole life functioning as Jutta's servant, doing whatever grunt work needed to be done while getting to hear various petitioners at the window asking the holy woman (Jutta) to pray for them or their loved ones. Rather than mourning, Hildegard probably did the Happy Dance because she was finally free of the cell and able to get out into the world more, even if it was just within the walls of a convent. No more listening to mass being celebrated next door; she was finally able to actually go into the church.

Freed from the life of an anchorite, Hildegard went on to leave the monastery where she'd been imprisoned as a child and established a new convent where she served as abbess. In her early 40s she began to share the visions she'd apparently been experiencing since childhood. She began writing down (or dictating to someone who could write; Hildegard's own literacy has been questioned) the various visions and what she believed God was telling her about their meanings. In almost all of her writings Hildegard was careful to emphasize that what she said wasn't her personal opinion; it was what God told her to say. Flanagan notes that by doing so Hildegard made it likelier her writing would actually be published and discussed. The low status of women in medieval intellectual life meant that if she had ever said "This is what I think" instead of "This is what God told me to say" no one would bother reading her words.

So was Hildegard nuts? Was she crazy or just misinterpreting manifestations of a physical disorder? Back in the 12th century, of course, no one thought about psychotic breaks or mental illness in general. If someone had visions or started ranting about seeing angels or demons, that person either got labeled as a prophet (if she was lucky) or possessed by demons (unlucky). Hildegard was one of the lucky ones. She saw the "living light" and described her visions in terms that matched up pretty well with what the church wanted to hear at the time. She'd condemn corruption and abuses by the clergy but always did so in terms that were sufficiently general that no one ever felt personally attacked.

In the final chapter of the book, Flanagan discusses speculation that Hildegard experienced migraines and that what she interpreted as visions were actually some of the phenomena migraine sufferers see on a regular basis. I find that theory believable. One of the warning signs a migraine is about to hit is a visual shimmering, a distortion in your field of vision. I get an occasional migraine, although they've gotten rarer as I've gotten older, and when they first started hitting the visual shimmering reminded me of a dragon. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and was an Ann McCaffrey fan; dragons made sense to me. Hildegard was totally immersed in a Christian belief system; it would be totally logical for her to believe she was seeing the face of God or the wings of angels. Does the fact her body of work -- her lengthy writings on various subjects, interpretations of her visions, the advice she gave to people who wrote to her, her songs, etc. -- are somehow diminished? Probably not. She was sincere in her beliefs, and her readers at the time knew it.

What I actually find moderately amazing, and it's something that Flanagan doesn't touch on at all, is that Hildegard's writings survived. Back in the 12th century every letter, every manuscript, every document, had to be handwritten. If you wanted multiple copies, a copyist had to sit down with a quill and an ink bottle and do that copying. Given the number of wars that swept over Europe, the demolishment of monasteries and convents following the Protestant Reformation, and just the passage of time in general it's moderately astounding that any of Hildegard's work is still around after almost 800 years.

Bottom line: If you're fascinated by 12th century Catholic theological minutiae, you might like this book. In general, though, this particular work is one I'm strongly tempted to quietly slip into a recycling bin. I read it because, as I noted above, the book wasn't actively bad and once I'd started it I felt compelled to keep reading. I kept hoping the author would provide a little more social or cultural detail. It never happened, but there are worse fates than wasting an hour or two reading the lyrics to medieval hymns. I cannot picture anyone else doing that, though, so don't think it's even worth dropping into a St. Vincent de Paul or Friends of the Library donation box.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Petrified Forest National Park

Colorful rocks are petrified wood and they're a lot bigger than the photo suggests.
Last installment of the Grand Canyon road trip. Honest.
View of the Painted Desert

I have been known to toss out the occasional disparaging comment about "windshield tourists." Well, Petrified Forest National Park is a park designed with windshield tourists in mind. The park is meant to be toured by car: its scenic drive wends it way from north to south (or south to north, depending on which end you enter the park from) stopping at a number of overlooks and points of interest along the way. You start with views of the Painted Desert and end by crusing through the Petrified Forest, complete with giant logs, or vice versa.
Painted Desert Inn

We entered the park at the north end, from the exit on I-40, stopped at the Visitor Center there, and then ambled southward. At both the Visitor Center and at the Painted Desert Inn volunteers gave me a pep talk about being a VIP at the park. We noticed the park's VIP RV site close to the Visitor Center; it appeared to be more than adequate in terms of creature comforts for anyone volunteering there. You know, full hookups, decent parking pads, etc., and possibly even some natural shade in the form of trees.

Both volunteers I spoke with mentioned the park has a real need for help during the summer. No surprise there -- no one in their right mind picks Arizona as a place to be a VIP in July and August, with the possible exceptions of being tucked away in the mountains somewhere, like maybe campground hosting up in the pines at about the 7,000 foot level. To be honest, though, I'm not sure I'd want to be at Petrified Forest NP other than passing through at any time of the year. The landscape is a just a little too unearthly for me.

Anyway, north of the Interstate, the viewscape tends to be the Painted Desert. Very colorful and also very alien. At some of the overlooks, you look out at a landscape that appears to be pretty much devoid of life of any sort. No vegetation, nothing.

It is possible to go hiking and back country camping at Petrified Forest. In fact, a hiking trail down into the Painted Desert Wilderness starts near the Painted Desert Inn. The big question I have is "Why?" I can understand (maybe) the desire to do a hike that would take a person away from the tour road and out of hearing range of the Interstate (although it is astounding just how far traffic noises can carry when there's not much wind and no other competing ambient sounds) but why would you want to camp out there? It is, after all, an environment in which guessing wrong on just how much water to carry can get you killed. But maybe that's part of the attraction: the easiest sort of X-game to play, one where all you have to do to risk your life is underestimate how much water you're going to need to survive the trek back to your car.

Back, to get back to the tour, when you begin at the I-40 end, you start off by getting to stare at the Painted Desert and pause at the Painted Desert Inn, a popular tourist stop operated by the Fred Harvey company back in the heyday of Route 66. At some point the Inn faded into run-down shabbiness and closed in the mid-1960s; the Park Service came close to demolishing it in the 1970s. No doubt the completion of Interstate 40 and the overall increase in the speed of travel contributed to its demise. A lot of stuff by the side of the road vanished when people no longer had to slow down for every local intersection. In the case of the Painted Desert Inn, a campaign to preserve it eventually resulted in it being listed as a National Historic Landmark. It has been thoroughly restored and now serves as a point of interest in the park.

Like a number of the western parks, Petrified Forest had a local artisan working on (and selling) traditional craft items, jewelry in this case, at the Inn. I fear I'm enough of a cynic that I find myself thinking of those people as the token Indians. Hey, we stole your country from your people, but here's a spot to set up your table to sell trinkets to the tourists and we'll maybe acknowledge that Kit Carson was a genocidal asshole and include a panel or two on a wayside that mentions the Long Walk. Maybe.

Then again I don't have the type of personality that would find it rewarding to work on anything with an audience staring at me so have a hard time imagining that someone else might actually like being in that position. And for sure if you're making jewelry to sell it is kind of nice to have the customers come to you instead of having to hassle with placing it in stores or going to craft fairs.

Moving on from the Painted Desert Inn, there are a couple more overlooks to enable more staring at alien landscapes before you hit the Route 66 exhibit on the north side of I-40. This being Arizona, I tend to think the addition of a dessicated skeleton and a vulture or two ("it's a dry heat") would improve the wayside, but I doubt the people who design interpretive displays would agree.

South of I-40, you hit a couple points of interest and overlooks that highlight Native American history and Puebloan culture. There's the usual pueblo ruin -- I must confess I'm getting to the point where I tend to think after you've seen one set of crumbling rock walls you've seen them all; the only big difference is in the color of the local stone -- as well as some interesting petroglyphs. One site has a spiral petroglyph that is hit directly by the sun on only one day of the year (the summer solstice), as well as a lot of petroglyphs of what archeologists assure us are images of mountain lions but to me always look suspiciously like lizards, maybe because of the exaggerated claws. Petroglyphs are drawings carved into the rock, usually on surfaces that were covered with "desert varnish" so there's a contrast between the dark surface and the underlying lighter colored stone.

One of the overlooks is at a site called Newspaper Rock. Supposedly there are a gazillion petroglyphs carved into the stone below the overlook. I don't know if it was the angle of the lighting when we were there or if a lot of them have just eroded or faded through time, but there didn't seem to be enough of them to merit having a special name and dedicated overlook. Then again, maybe the engineers who laid out the road calculated they needed overlooks or stops of some sort at certain intervals to keep traffic appropriately slow for a scenic byway and the petroglyphs happened to be the most interesting thing available at that particular point. I wasn't the only person underwhelmed by Newspaper Rock. A fellow who was traveling north stopped at the pueblo ruin and said the petroglyphs there were more numerous and easier to see than the ones a couple miles down the road.

After Newspaper Rock, the road gets into badlands and the actual petrified forest. Once again, it's a thoroughly other worldly landscape, very arid and empty but with these humongous chunks of what used to be trees, really big trees, millions of years ago. The trees were buried by mud, the mud hardened into sandstone, various minerals migrated into the trees (I have no idea how that process would work, but it obviously did). The petrified trees wound up being harder than the surrounding soft sandstone so as the sandstone erodes, the trees are exposed. In a few cases, some remarkably long intact pieces remain, but in general as the sandstone eroded and the trees dropped they fractured into pieces that look so neatly done that you'd swear they were cut on purpose. Nope, just a trick of nature and the natural fracture lines in the crystals.
Note large petrified log perched on top of eroding hill.
There are a couple examples of long logs that were in danger of dropping and breaking in past decades that the Park Service stabilized. Current literature notes that if a similar situation were to develop today the policy would be to just let it happen, allow natural forces to proceed unimpeded, and simply update the interpretive material. On one level, a person can applaud that decision. Yes, it is always better not to mess with Mother Nature, even if it just a case of preventing a stone log from rolling and breaking. On the other hand, and once again the cynic emerges, as the long as the object in question isn't a potential safety hazard, it's a whole lot cheaper to do nothing and then revise a trail brochure than it is to get a maintenance crew together, purchase materials, and build something to stabilize an eroding chunk of rock.

There is a Visitor Center at the south end of the park, too. It has a small museum area that emphasizes dinosaurs and fossil finds. A short trail behind the Visitor Center leads you through an assortment of giant petrified logs or log fragments. It was suprisingly interesting. You'd think that after you've seen a couple giant chunks of petrified wood you'd have seen them all, but nope, not quite true.
Humongous petrified log with concrete pad inserted under it to prevent its collapse.
We didn't spend quite as much time at Petrified Forest as a person could even if they are just doing the windshield route. It was colder, windier, and rainier than we would have preferred so we skipped or cut short a couple short trail hikes. It didn't help that the rain included hail. 

Where have all the tea towels gone?


I have been on a strange and, as of this morning, still futile quest for the past few weeks. I've been looking for tea towels. Not just any tea towel, of course, but tea towels with a theme. ISO tea towels that stand up and scream ARIZONA! Or at least American Southwest.You know, saguaros, chili peppers, maybe a gunslinger or two.

A tea towel, for the uninitiated, is a high class dish towel. It's made from linen or a cotton blend that resembles linen, rather than the usual terry cloth. Souvenir tea towels with designs reflecting various regions or themes used to be pretty common. You could get tea towels, for example, that had local historic landmarks printed on them or a map of the state. You can find vintage tea towels on Etsy with maps of Italy or scenes from Tasmania. Tea towels were one of those souvenir items that used to be as ubiquitous as postcards and shot glasses.

Not anymore. Somewhere along the line, the souvenir tea towel vanished. Of course, I hadn't noticed its passing into oblvion until I started looking for some. I wanted some lightweight souvenirs to send to a couple pen pals in Europe and tea towels struck me as perfect. After all, tea towels are (and more accurately it appears, were) one of the few souvenirs that might actually serve a purpose beyond collecting dust. If you have no real interest in retaining the towel indefinitely, you can always use it for drying dishes.

The image above, the photo of a genuine Arizona souvenir tea towel, comes from the Intertubes. That particular towel is actually available brand-new, fresh from some Asian sweatshop through Amazon.com. If I really wanted it, I could order it today and have it by Tuesday morning. But that would be cheating. There isn't much of a thrill of the hunt, a sense of accomplishment in finding the desired quarry, when you get it be pointing and clicking. I want to find the souvenir tea towels of my dreams lurking on a rack next to the state magnets, shot glasses, and souvenir spoons.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

My first quilt

To the best of my recollection, this is the first quilt I ever made. It was the early '70s, no one I knew was doing actual quilting, i.e., piecing traditional patterns like Burgoyne Surrounded or Dresden Plate. The Lutheran ladies "quilted" for World Relief, but what they did involved using large pieces of material, squares or strips that were sewn together quickly and then tied as comforters, even though everyone called them quilts. I bought a McCall's magazine with traditional (or close to traditional) quilt patterns in it and proceeded to teach myself, more or less, how to quilt. The pattern for my first quilt was, I think, called Night and Noon; 45 years ago the color contrasts for the smaller pieces were a lot more vivid than they are now. When I look at it now, of course, I can see the gazillion mistakes I made, the weird puckering with the border, the mismatched points, and various other problems. On the other hand. . .

I gave the quilt to my mother, and it's spent most of the past four decades on her bed. I guess somewhere along the line I should have given her a couple more so she could rotate them so this one wouldn't have gotten so thoroughly worn out, but for some reason I never did. I did knit her several afghans, but that's not quite the same thing.

Not surprisingly,  the quilt has gotten more than a tad faded. It's also worn threadbare in places. One particular fabric seems to have been particularly prone to sun bleaching and dry rot. It was bright red in a bandanna paisley pattern back in 1972; now it's threadbare and so faded it's hard to believe it was once red. It's a lot more faded in real life than it looks like in the photo. I took the quilt when my sister and I cleaned out our mother's apartment. I'll be spending the next several days patching the torn pieces and doing repairs as best I can. The batting has gotten flattened to the point of virtual nonexistence over the past 40+ years but there isn't much I can do about that with just a week or two to work in. We're going back up to Grand Junction later this month, and I'll bring the repaired quilt with me. If we're all lucky, my mother will get a few more years use out of it.