Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Girl? Boy? Shetland Pony? A few thoughts on the social construction of gender identity

An acquaintance was second guessing herself recently over the name she'd given her youngest child. The name is one that is usually associated with being female, but the child is currently "presenting as a boy."

Holy wah. I knew gender identification issues have gotten weird in the past few years, but we're talking about a preschooler, a kid that probably can't tie his? her? their? own shoelaces yet. If a 3 year old wants to refer to their self as one gender or another, fine. And if ten years later that child is still preferring one gender over another regardless of perceived biological sex, also fine. (I say perceived biological sex because physiological sex is a lot messier than the average person realizes, but that's a subject for a different post.*)

As a social scientist I know that gender is socially constructed, not biologically determined, and can be fluid. I personally believe that in this particular case there's been a whole lot of unconscious in-house social conditioning to make the child prefer being a boy (two older brothers extremely close to the child in age, for example), but when the parents are doing their best to let the child be who the child wants to be, also fine. I'd much rather see parents let kids dress in what the children prefer and play with what they like instead of doing the usual freak out that occurs when a little boy decides to play with dolls or a little girl announces she hates wearing dresses.

I am, however, curious as to how a 3 year old can "present as a boy." Clothing? Have clothes really become so gendered that it's now automatic that if a child with a girl's name is not in a princess dress or midget hooker outfit from Walmart the assumption is that only boys wear pants and tee shirts? Toy preference? Doing what I do and demanding the boy toy in Happy Meals at McDonald's? Unless there's a movie promotion going on, the boy toys are always more fun, more likely to be action toys than the cheesy midget Barbies girls get stuck with. It's pretty easy to see why some girls would much prefer to be boys -- boys get to wear the comfortable clothes and play with the fun stuff.

There was a time in our not so distant history when up to a certain age there was no real way to tell at a glance whether a child was a girl or a boy. All preschoolers wore dresses. The child in the photo above? That's future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt presenting, I guess, as a girl. (His mother reportedly cried when those curls got cut.) There were certain rituals associated with a child growing older. At some point little boys would suffer through their first real hair cut, the dresses would be lovingly packed away in a steamer trunk in the attic, and the little boy would find himself in short pants. Not long ones. Long pants were associated with getting closer to adulthood. Little girls stayed in dresses, albeit ones that with shorter hemlines than the ones adult women wore.

I'm not sure just when the unisex dresses for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers vanished, maybe around 1920 or so. We have family photos of men born in the 20th century wearing those cute little toddler dresses for formal portraits, so in historic terms it wasn't that long ago.

Anyway, I can understand why strangers seeing a child for the first time dressed in a non-princess outfit could mistake that child for a little boy. Both of my kids were treated to that assumption when they were 3 or 4 years old -- it's like we're such a patriarchal society that male is the default setting for everything. No cute pink headband on the infant? Has to be a boy. No ruffles or a unicorn on the tee shirt? Must be a boy. Short hair? Would rather be outside looking for bugs and snakes instead of inside playing with Barbies? Must be a boy. . . There was a time when toys were also relatively nongendered: girls played with hoops and sticks like the boys did, boys had no problem having tea parties and playing house with the girls. Now some adults are so trapped in toxic masculinity and homophobia they don't even want little boys to have stuffed animals because cuddly toys might turn the boy gay. Seriously.

But, circling back to the specific example of the child who got me thinking about gender fluidity, I tend to discount the fact the child who was assigned a biological sex of female is now declaring that he's a boy. There is a possibility the child will turn out to be genuinely transgender, but the odds are against it. Gender identity can be remarkably fluid in children; researchers have found that little kids can move back and forth between saying they're girls and self-identifying as boys several times before puberty hits and adds hormonal pressures to the societal ones. Given the rich imaginations of small children and also allowing for the fact that this particular self-identification has received a good bit of positive reinforcement (if only in the sense of the parents telling the child they can be whatever they want to be without trying to express a preference themselves), I tend to view it with the same bemusement I felt when my cousin, a preschooler at the time, insisted that she wasn't a girl, she was a pony. That particular obsession didn't last long -- it turns out ponies eat a rather boring diet (no ice cream, for example) -- but part of me thinks that if something similar happened today there would be earnest young parents so desperate to respect the child's autonomy and sense of self that they'd be cleaning out a stall for her and saying it was fine to sleep in the barn.

As for the name, that's the least of the worries for the parents. Between parents getting creative with spelling, following feminist advice to give girls traditional boys' names so the kids won't be discriminated against when they go job hunting, and just making stuff up for the heck of it, a name really isn't much of a gender signifier any more, if it ever was. Plus, of course, within a few years no matter what gender identity the child prefers long term, the kid is going to hate the name on the birth certificate. If it's a common name, it'll be hated because it's too common -- I'm still annoyed with my parents for naming me Nancy. Supposedly it was only the 7th most popular girl's name the year I was born, but I swear the statistics are wrong because any time there's a group of women close to me in age there will be at least one other Nancy. If it's not at all common, the child will hate it because it's too different. If it's not an unusual name but you got creative with the spelling, they'll hate it because they're always having to correct other people who want to spell Lynnda as Linda or DuWayne as Duane. There are some things where the parent is always going to be the loser, and naming the baby is one of them.

Thinking about the social construction of identity, the whole getting enculturated with the prevailing norms and role expectations package, reminded me of another case, a kid who, to use a contemporary buzz word, presented as a beagle. Or maybe a collie. I'm not sure what type of dog the family had. The child was the first born of an introverted couple, a pair of soft-spoken quiet people who apparently did not engage in much small talk at home and had never been told there's a reason people "baby talk" to infants. Language development in the child was a tad slow -- and it turned out his first words were barks. When the child barked at the doctor during a routine check-up it became obvious  the family pet spent more time talking to the baby than the parents did.

*Perceived biological sex, aka the sex you're assigned at birth, is based on the external appearance of genitalia. Definite vulva, you're a girl. Definite penis, you're a boy. If you have ambiguous genitalia, you can be assigned a sex that does not match up with reality as you get older. Back when I was reading academic journals, I read an interesting report on intersex issues that posited that there might be as many as six distinct sexes based on endocrinology and genetics in addition to external physical appearance. Biology is messy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Will the weirdness ever end?

I've been volunteering at the local county historical museum for about six years now. Shortly after I began volunteering back in 2012, I asked the historical society president if it would be okay for me to work on organizing the archives a little. The museum didn't have any finding aids for the documents in its archives, and a finding aid -- or even a simple index -- is always useful for researchers. Being able to see at a glance whether or not the collections include material relating to the researcher's interest saves everyone a lot of time.

So I got started on figuring out the filing system. Turned out there wasn't one. There were five filing cabinets in the file room. One 4-drawer cabinet had a couple empty drawers, even though they were labeled "scrapbooks," and a couple drawers with some odd stuff in it (a softball scoring book, a couple unlabeled photo albums). Two 4-drawer cabinets appeared to duplicate each other. Lots of folders with similar names and similar material. One of the other volunteers explained that one cabinet was "Jim's stuff." Jim was the Society president. Okay, so I wouldn't touch Jim's stuff. The last two cabinets, a 2-drawer sitting on top of a 3-drawer, were also an odd mishmash of papers, books, and stuff that made little or no sense. But I got started, and gradually it all came together, more or less. It is definitely still a work in progress.  On the other hand, at least now things are generally in alphabetical order.

Of course, the archives keep growing because it turned out the filing cabinets probably contained less than 20% of the documents hiding in the museum or the storage building. As time passed, after we were able to purchase a new computer and I began inventorying the objects that were in the various display cases, more archival material started crawling out from odd spaces. We had a display devoted to Bishop Baraga: the bottom area of the case had several framed items (a lithograph of Baraga on his deathbed, a matted letter from Baraga to Captain Bendry, a portrait of Baraga as a young man) leaning against a shelf positioned maybe 8 inches up in the case. When I opened the case, I discovered the area under that shelf was stuffed full of documents of various types -- and when I say packed full, I mean stuffed to the point of practically bulging. There was enough stuff crammed into the space to fill a banker's box. And it was all material that anyone coming in to the museum hoping to use our archives to do some research on Bishop Baraga (a local high school student, for example) would have found extremely useful.

Banker's box: 24"x15"x10"
In the meantime, our "file" on Baraga in the filing cabinets, the actual physical archive, was maybe 1/4 inch thick. We had a treasure trove of Baraga material, but odds are that anyone coming in to ask about it would never know.

Now take that Baraga experience and multiply it. A lot. I opened a drawer on the Bendry desk and discovered every drawer was stuffed full of material, some of which related to Captain Bendry and most of which didn't. Stepped behind the railroads exhibit and found a Rubbermaid tote crammed full of material about railroads. Checked the storage area under a display case and found another stash of archival material. It took a few years, but I had finally reached a point where I figured all the unaccounted-for weirdness had been found. Oh, there are still boxes in the museum that need to be gone through, like that tote filled with railroads material, and for sure the storage building still has a couple dozen mystery boxes, but I was confident there were no more surprises lurking in the exhibit area.

I was wrong.

Does it look like it would have a secret compartment? 
As part of the ongoing painting project, we had to move a display case that contains items relating to schools and education in Baraga County. As long as we were moving it, I told the S.O. we should pivot it so it's oriented right. For some odd reason, maybe for ease of access, it was sitting backwards. What should have been up against the wall -- the side with the unlockable sliding doors -- was positioned as the front. Pivoting it meant taking out the objects in it so they would be turned around. The case had one shelf about two-thirds of the way up and one shelf sitting, for some odd reason, almost on the bottom. It was propped up by a couple inches but not much.

I get the case emptied and go to move the bottom shelf back to where it needed to be if we were going to pivot the whole thing. Oh f. . . .

You got it. That tiny space, that section that was less than 10 inches wide and only a couple inches high, was full of stuff.

Shoot me. Just shoot me now. The weirdness is never going to end.

On the positive side, such as it is, the weirdness this time included a nice 1903 8th grade diploma.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Whatever happened to Jim and Margie?

My mind works in odd ways. I was wandering through the living room (all 8 square feet of it) yesterday while the S.O. was playing with the Amazon Fire Stick. We've had it for awhile now, but he keeps discovering new applications and updating old ones. He's managed to find quite a few viewing options through the Fire Stick, including many that let us watch stuff in real time instead of having to wait to stream it. If we want a news fix, for example, we can watch "The National" on CBC.

In any case, he had just installed something new and was cruising through the various offerings when he hit Penhouse HD. Being male and not dead, he had to click on the icon. Naturally, the first thing that popped up, so to speak, was porn. And not subtle porn -- we're talking porn so explicit there was no doubt whatsoever as to what we were seeing on the screen. Porn in High Def.

So what's the first thing I think? "Holy wah, isn't that some sort of workplace safety violation?" The setting was a garage floor, the naked dude was supine on a creeper (as in the device mechanics use to slide under vehicles, not as in the slimy dudes who slither up to women at inappropriate times), there was a car not far away. The dude is on a creeper! That implies the car is up on jack stands. Isn't it some sort of OSHA issue to have two naked people doing the nasty only a couple feet away from a vehicle that isn't solidly on the ground?

Second thought was, I bet that chick is serious about yoga. She was remarkably. . . limber.

And then I found myself wondering if the crab louse (Pthirus pubis) has made it on to the endangered species list yet. There were news stories circulating a year or two ago about how Western societies' obsession with removing body hair in general and pubic hair in particular was threatening the existence of the crab louse. Its preferred habitat, its specific ecological niche, was vanishing. What had begun as a few women worrying about their bikini lines had evolved into wholesale deforestation. The crab louse is an obligate sanguivore -- the only thing it can eat is blood -- that co-evolved with humans. It dines on blood and resides on body hair, preferably the hair found in the groin. Shave or wax the groin and you've just done the equivalent of clear cutting a forest and wiping out an ecosystem. Pity the ever shrinking populations of crab lice, done in not by the famous Blue Ointment (I wonder how how many people who used it knew it was basically a mixture of mercury and lard?) but by aesthetics. For sure no crab lice were going to colonize the couple on the creeper. They were both so thoroughly waxed that if there hadn't been obvious genitalia they would have looked as plastic as Ken and Barbie.

It is odd how a procedure once viewed as torture -- waxing an area that is remarkably sensitive to pain -- managed to morph into a routine trip to the salon that many people, both men and women, take for granted. Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away (Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1960s) my circle of friends included Jim and Margie. Jim was quite the young raconteur. He told remarkably amusing stories about the high jinks and mishaps of various acquaintances. This being Wisconsin at a time when 18 was the legal drinking age for beer, many of his stories involved pranks pulled on dudes who lacked the ability to stay conscious longer than their friends. A favorite prank, it developed, was The Torture of the Scarlet Scrotum.

I think the reader knows where this story is going. If some poor sap passed out at a kegger at the frat house, he wasn't likely to wake up a few hours later to discover a penis drawn on his forehead in permanent marker. No. What happened was that if he didn't wake up when his "friends" removed his pants or when they began dripping hot wax on to his junk, for sure he came to with a scream when they ripped that wax off. Hence, The Torture of the Scarlet Scrotum.

On the positive side, at least he didn't have to worry about dying from alcohol poisoning or choking in his own vomit.

As for the endangered crab lice, I also wonder if parasitologists are trying to maintain populations of them for research purposes. If they do, how do they maintain them? I have read of other researchers who deal with sanguivores who allow themselves to be dined on -- it's not an uncommon practice for scientists who work with leeches, bedbugs, and even vampire bats to offer an arm to their lab critters -- but it would take real scientific dedication to introduce crabs to one's crotch.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site

Bent's Old Fort is a National Historic Site associated with the Santa Fe Trail. When the S.O. and I planned a road trip to Arizona to visit the Younger Daughter, we didn't set out to do an Auto Tour of the Santa Fe Trail but that's the way it worked out. The last time we did the drive, we got on to US 54 in eastern Kansas and followed it down into New Mexico. It was not a fun jaunt across the Sunflower State. Between dropping a drive shaft from the Guppy and losing a wheel bearing on the tow dolly, I was nervous about taking the exact same route, like maybe the highwat was jinxed. I had no desire to see what might fall off my car somewhere in the middle of nowhere -- and there is a lot of nowhere along US-54.

Of course, there was also a lot of nothing along US-50 in Kansas, but at least nothing fell off the car

The Santa Fe Trail auto route does not follow US-50 in eastern Kansas -- it's a little farther north, along US-56 -- but out by Dodge City the highway and the original trail actually follow the same route, more or less, for quite a few miles. There are numerous historic markers, although no major sites until you get into Colorado and Bent's Old Fort a few miles east of the city of La Junta. Bent's Old Fort is a National Historic Site associated with the Santa Fe Trail.

The fort is an interesting example of a time period in the National Park Service that's unlikely to ever be repeated: the era of reconstruction and replication. NPS went on a rebuilding binge in the 1960's and 70's; a combination of lack of funds and a change in philosophy since then means the preferred approach now is to stabilize whatever ruins remain and put up markers showing where stuff used to be. Fort Bowie in Arizona is a good example of the latter approach. Bent's Old Fort is a total reconstruction dating from the tail end of the rebuilding boom.
The National Park Service got lucky with its reconstruction of Bent's Old Fort. Reconstructing former military installations, like Fort Learned in Kansas or Fort Union Trading Post in North Dakota, was fairly easy. The U.S. Army was a firm believer in standardization. If you've been to one 19th century military post, you have basically been to them all. The enlisted mens' barracks, the officers' quarters, the post hospital, the overall layout of the post, you name it. Standard plans across the country. The only thing that might vary is the building material (in the Southwest, for example, the Army used adobe bricks instead of wood frame construction). Bent's Old Fort, however, was privately owned. There was no standard plan involved. So how do the Park Service manage to get it so right?
Press used to flatten bison hides into compact bundles for shipment east.
 They can thank the Army. The military may not have built Bent's, but in 1845 and 1846 a U.S. Army officer, Lieutenant James W. Abert, became ill and spent many months convalescing at the trading post. To stay busy while he recuperated, he made detailed sketches, including measured drawings, of the post. Other visitors to Bent's Old Fort included Susan Magoffin and her husband, who were traveling to Santa Fe. Mrs. Magoffin's descriptions of Bent's survived and also helped in the reconstruction and interpretation efforts. Without the records left by Abert, Magoffin, and others, reconstruction would have been a guessing game.

The current fort was built on the site of the original, but by the time the National Park Service got  the site, what was left was archeological, not structural. Constructed by brothers William and Charles Bent and their business partner Ceran St. Vrain in 1833 and abandoned less than twenty years later, the adobe ruins had quickly crumbled and vanished. The three men established a trading post on the Arkansas River near the point where the Santa Fe Trail crossed from U.S. territory into Mexico in 1829. After deciding upon a site the men sent for workers experienced in using adobe for construction to build the fort.

Bent's thrived for about twenty years. The three business partners established good relations with local Native American tribes; William Bent himself married a Cheyenne woman. The trading post became a popular stop for travelers along the Santa Fe Trail as well as serving as a rendevouz point for both fur trappers and Indians.
The partners had established the post to capitalize on the popularity of beaver fur. Within a few years, however, the supply of beaver had dwindled along and, luckily for the beaver, so had the demand for its fur (had it stayed popular, the beaver could easily have been trapped to extinction). The focus shifted to buffalo hides.

Interestingly, the interpretive film at Bent's mentions that by the 1840's the Cheyenne were reporting that the buffalo herds were getting smaller and buffalo were becoming harder to hunt. In most histories I've read, the extirpation of the American bison in the United States is described as happening after the Civil War, but the history at Bent's suggests the process became visible a couple decades before, at least on the western edge of the Great Plains. I was reminded of a talk I heard over 20 years ago at an environmental history meeting -- a historian there suggested that Native American hunters would have driven the bison into extinction regardless of whether or not white hunters or government policy were involved. It caused quite a stink at the time -- no one wants to admit that the Native Americans could be wasteful or short sighted, but they were* -- but it appears that the Cheyenne had noticed diminishing herds even if they may not have realized the role they were playing in creating the problem. .

War with Mexico disrupted trade at Bent's. The fort became a staging area for the U.S. military as well as the site of a government Indian agency. Trade with the Indians fell off, and in 1849 Bent's Old Fort burned down. There was some suspicion that William Bent torched it on purpose. Whether or not he did, when he rebuilt it was at a different site near the Arkansas River. That site, Bent's New Fort, today exists only as ruins.

*Anyone who's ever read a description of a buffalo jump should know that Native Americans could be just as wasteful as any other group of humans.

Friday, March 9, 2018

It's not always tin foil hat time

As a rule, I tend to discount conspiracy theories, especially ones that involve the government. I'm a retired federal employee. I've seen first hand just how remarkably incompetent the government can be. Unfortunately, every so often an actual real world example comes along that can bolster the tin foil hat wearers' belief in a truly wide range of weirdness, especially when the real world example is something that has most people with two brain cells to rub together wondering how anyone anywhere could have believed what they were doing was a good idea.

The U.S. government does have, if not a long list, enough examples of really stupid projects and policies that they either pretended didn't exist or tried to deny once they were uncovered to make you wonder if some agencies have reverse IQ tests they use for hiring managers. Like the Tuskegee Experiment, an exercise in medical malpractice that served absolutely no useful purpose and sentenced innocent participants to suffer and die in particularly nasty ways. The supposed justification for the project was to observe the progress of untreated syphilis, a truly stupid rationale when the disease course of syphilis had been well-documented for decades and its final outcomes were extremely well-known.

The Public Health Service began the study in 1932 at a time when the treatments for syphilis could be as bad as the disease itself (injections of mercury or arsenic into the urethra, for example), but once penicillin became available a few years later the ethical thing to do was to stop the study and treat every participant. Except they didn't. And then they lied about it for decades.

Ditto the drug testing military intelligence did during the Cold War. For years there were rumors that the government had administered various hallucinogenic drugs to enlisted personnel without their knowledge. Oh, sometimes the men involved were aware they were part of a medical experiment.  Note the word "sometimes." What they often weren't aware of was what drugs were involved and when and how they might be administered. One poor sap, for example, had LSD slipped into his coffee and totally flipped out in public when he began hallucinating. Another committed suicide. Many suffered flashbacks and psychological problems for decades.

At the time the weirdness was going on the military did its best to keep it all super secret, but rumors did creep out. The S.O. and I even know someone who may have been a victim of the military's bizarre experiments: he wasn't in the Army very long, wound up with a medical discharge, and now collects a disability pension. He came back from the military with some odd personality quirks, and suffered enough "episodes" that he did a stint or two in the state mental hospital. If someone calls him crazy, he can say, "yes, I am, and here are the papers to prove it." He swore for years that the Army had experimented on him with LSD. We all laughed and made jokes about how he was crazy before he went in so how would he know the difference?

Except then we found out the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency both did a lot of experimenting with hallucinogenics and other drugs in the 1950's and '60's. Maybe our slightly odd neighbor wasn't lying after all.

Which brings me to the 1980's, Iran-Contra, and the tidal wave of cocaine that swept over the United States about thirty years ago. The S.O. and I just watched Kill the Messenger, a film based on the life of journalist Gary Webb. Webb was an investigative reporter in California who stumbled across another U.S. government operation that was unbelievably misguided and wound up doing lasting major damage to the country. Webb had been digging into stories related in various ways to drug dealing and drug trafficking.

After Webb had a story published highlighting the way local, state, and federal government benefited from forfeiture laws (i.e., the seizure of any and all property that could have been obtained using illegal drug trafficking money) he was approached by a woman whose boyfriend was about to be tried as a drug dealer. She had a copy of the transcript of grand jury proceedings that indicated a key government witness was a paid informant who had gone well beyond simply observing drug dealers in action. The prosecuting attorney's minions had screwed up and inadvertently included the document in a stack of other material requested during the discovery process. The transcript indicated the informant had been an active participant and worked with U.S. government agents in transporting cocaine from central America into the United States.

Webb was intrigued and began digging into it. It didn't take him long to discover that the story was even worse than the initial clues suggested. Turned out the U.S. government in the form of the Reagan administration and the CIA were so focused on helping the Contras fight the Sandinistas in Nicaragua that they were willing to engage in multiple levels of shady dealings. Congress didn't want to provide funding for a covert dirty war in Central America so the CIA got creative. They actively facilitated smuggling thousands and thousands of pounds of cocaine into the United States and then passed the proceeds from the sales of the drugs on to the Contras in Nicaragua. End result? A cocaine and crack cocaine epidemic in this country. Dealers told Webb that there was so much cocaine coming in the market was saturated. They had so much to move they had trouble selling it. When the price of crack cocoaine dropped so low it was cheaper to get than a few 40-ouncers from the corner liquor store, you know the number of users is going to climb. In short, the CIA created the crack cocaine problem in America's inner cities.

Webb spent a lot of time investigating the story, tracked down various sources in Central America, and in general did a stellar job of journalism. His reporting was published as three part series in the San Jose Mercury News. So what was the reaction? The CIA freaked out, of course, and set out to kill the story and destroy Webb. They did a nice job of doing both. They managed to get the mainstream media -- both print and broadcast -- to paint Webb as someone who had a past record of shoddy work, that the story itself was unverifiable and basically a work of fiction, and no way, no how would an agency of the U.S. government ever do such a thing. Terrified of being cut off from the pathways of power inside the Beltway, the major news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times fell all over themselves trashing Webb instead of doing any in depth investigation themselves.  Somehow the fact that all their sources claiming Webb was wrong came from folks either inside the CIA or with ties to it wasn't a problem for them. Webb's career went down in flames, he wound up resigning his job with the Mercury News, and never worked as a journalist again. He died in 2004, becoming, so far as I know, the only suicide victim to manage to shoot himself in the head twice. (So, yes, there are quite a few people who believe Webb was whacked by someone doing wet work for the CIA. It would have been a delayed payback, but no one has ever accused the government of moving fast on anything.)

As we all now know, Webb was right. The CIA was indeed deeply enmeshed in peddling drugs to Americans so the Contras could fight the Communist scourge in Nicaragua. Webb's article caught the attention of Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other urban leaders. Various rocks got flipped over, and the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan. Within a few years, everyone who bothered to pay attention knew that Webb's accusations were dead on: One agency within the U.S. government had actively worked with drug smugglers and contributed in a major way to the same drug epidemic other agencies claimed to be fighting. There is a certain bizarre irony in the fact that while Nancy Reagan was busy telling America's young people to "just say No" Ronnie's boys at the CIA were hauling coke in by the C-130 load.

It is also worth noting that as in true in just about everything the CIA touches, in the end nothing good came of it. Inner cities in this country still haven't recovered from the crack epidemic. Americans were given one more reason to never trust anything our government tells us. If the CIA was willing to sell crack in Compton, why should we believe them when they say Area 51 doesn't exist and that they're not implanting RIF chips in people's butts?

And, despite all the money funneled to the Contras, the Sandinistas still won elections in Nicaragua-- the country has had a progressive, left of center, democratically elected government for a couple decades now. The country has in fact become one of those places that shows up on "Househunters International" occasionally as a destination for Americans looking for a safe and cheaper lifestyle than what's available in the U.S. (It looks nice. If it wasn't for the active volcanoes and devastating earthquakes, it might not be a bad place to live.)

In any case, if Congress was serious about cutting waste from the budget and eliminating unnecessary agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency would be a good place to start. They're consistently wrong on just about everything they do and they leave a trail of domestic wreckage and trashed international relations wherever they go.

Final thought: Kill the Messenger is worth watching. It's not great cinema, but it is a compelling and interesting story. Depressing, because you know that poor sap Gary Webb is just going to get totally screwed at the end, but nonetheless interesting. It also evokes waves of nostalgia in anyone who's ever worked for a newspaper -- it's a sad reminder of the glory days a mere 20 years ago when newspapers still had multiple reporters and relied on them for local news instead of conning unpaid local writers into contributing free web content.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Pulitzer Project: The Executioner's Song

It's confession time. I could not read this book. It wasn't just the subject matter either. The book stinks. It is a steaming pile of fecal matter. Or worse.

I have absolutely no idea why the Pulitzer committee thought this thing qualified for the prize for fiction. It reads like a rough draft, a bunch of only semi-connected notes. It felt like the author had just dumped a bunch of jumbled pieces of wadded up paper covered with scribbled comments -- the preliminary sketches a writer might do before getting down to actual work -- on a typist's desk and asked to have the mess transcribed into one long document. Did the committee fall for it because the events were so recent? Was it the force of Norman Mailer's personality? Or did they confuse quantity with quality? The book does run over 1,000 pages in the hardcover edition I tried to read.

In any case, the choppy, disjointed style, the stand alone paragraphs separated by wide swaths of white space (triple spacing between the paragraphs? Why, dear God, why?), the writing that seems to be targeted toward readers who are stuck at about a third grade level, . . . it's a mess. I know there has always been a tendency of critics to love literary works that are so bad the critics get suckered into thinking they're good*, but surely someone on the committee must have realized that Mailer put this mess together while so drunk he was doing good to remember how to spell his own name. Or maybe he was stoned. The '70s were, after all, when the literati discovered hippies and weed.

As for the book's subject matter, the narrative is a loosely constructed description of the last few years of Gary Gilmore's life. Gilmore gained national attention in the 1970s after being convicted of homicide. There was never any question about his guilt; Gilmore was a remarkably inept criminal. Gilmore himself requested the death penalty and asked that a firing squad carry out the sentence. When Mailer wrote the book he took a lot of heat for trying to make a psychotic jerk look good, but I'm thinking no one who actually read much of The Executioner's Song would come away with a positive image of Gilmore. It doesn't take very many pages in for a reader to pick up on the fact that Gilmore is totally self-centered, has no clue how to behave around anyone who isn't a fellow ex-con, and is so quick to anger that he's pretty scary.

I did feel a little sorry for the bastard -- somewhere along the line in his childhood he went off the rails -- but about the only positive thing I can say about Gilmore is that he had enough balls to decide enough was enough. He'd spent most of his adult life behind bars, had been thoroughly institutionalized and could not function as a normal human being outside a prison, and he knew it. He also knew he didn't want to spend the rest of his natural life as a guest of the state of Utah.

Given that I've deemed this book unreadable, I think it's obvious what my recommendation would be: avoid this sucker. Life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Next up on the list: A Confederacy of Dunces. No surprise. It's another one that's going to be an Interlibrary Loan Request.

*James Joyce supposedly once confessed that much of the idiosyncratic spellings and creative word choices that critics praised in his writing was actually the result of him being a terrible typist. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

So what's new at the museum you ask?

Nothing dramatic.

We volunteers (the few, the proud, the underappreciated) continue to plug away at the renovation project. It''s one of those things where if we hired a contractor it could have been finished in a few days, but when it's dependent on volunteers it's taking all winter. One of the guys took care of spackling the numerous nail holes in the hallway as well as doing the taping and mudding where the drywall got cut and patched as part of cutting the opening for the new door. Yesterday the S.O. got one side of the hall painted and made a good start on the other. Sometime in the next 7 days he'll finish painting, and on Saturday, March 3, we'll get a large cabinet moved.

The cabinet we move, which is indeed substantial in size (5 feet wide and close to 7 feet tall), will be used to permanently house the museum's rocks and minerals collection. We've got a lot of rocks -- different types of iron ore, chunks of float copper, fossils from the local area  (which always surprises me; there's so much granite around here I don't expect to see chunks of limestone with obvious coral) -- but haven't displayed them in awhile. I am told that back before I started volunteering the museum did a rocks and mineral exhibit, but that was a decade or two ago. We're going to get the cabinet moved, one of the volunteers who actually knows something about rocks and minerals will make sure all the chunks of whatever are properly labeled, and if all goes well no one will ever to worry about them again except to maybe do some dusting.

After the cabinet is moved, we'll take advantage of it being gone to paint the drywall behind where it is now. Theoretically that section of drywall should be close to pristine (I can't picture that cabinet having done much dancing around in the museum before being placed where it is now), but you never know. Maybe the reason the cabinet is there is that at some point someone screwed up and punched a huge hole in the wall. The one sure thing with doing any project at the museum is that there's always an unpleasant surprise of some sort lurking in the wings.

The reason the hallway had a gazillion nail holes in the walls is there used to be a gazillion historic photos hanging there. Some of those photos will be going back up; others are going into a new display system. We are giving serious thought to putting up picture molding so we'll never have to put a hole in the wall again. As part of tweaking the hallway, we're also going to do one other thing that apparently got put on hold and forgotten: hanging the door for the file room. Not sure why that door never got hung when it's been sitting out in the storage building with all the hardware on it for years, but that's a pretty minor mystery compared with some of the stuff I've stumbled across in the past five years. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why civilized dialogue doesn't work

I've been getting sucked in some odd debates on Facebook lately. I know I shouldn't because it's generally a total waste of time, but I'm still enough of an idealist (aka naive idiot) that I believe that if the reasons why something is an obvious fake are made clear someone may have one of those dope slap moments, that brief instance of clarity, where they go "Fuck, how could I have been fooled by that?!" And having realized one fairly meaningless meme was actually a photoshopped piece of crap they'll be a little more critical the next time they see something that's a little too good to be true. Yes, I know I'm dreaming, but still I try.

Yesterday was a classic. The item in question was a badly photoshopped supposed official State of Texas marker that commemorated the Second Amendment. It included what purported to be a quote from George Washington. It was so wrong on so many levels that from the viewpoint of someone whose career (and personal inclinations) included spending a lot of time looking at real books-on-sticks ranging from the vintage wayside signage in cannonball parks to brand new historic markers put up by various states it was flat out laughable.

To begin, the only thing the fake marker got right was the general shape of a typical State of Texas historic marker. The underlying template was probably a photo of a really old marker -- maybe. The really early metal markers in Texas had a circular seal at the top with the outline of the state in the middle and 3 stars at the bottom but they changed pretty quickly to including two phrases in the border of the circle: Texas Historical Commission at the top and Official Historical Medallion at the bottom. Note illustration to the right. There may be some old examples standing that don't include the medallion as shown, but that gets us to the next clue.

That clue was the reference to the Second Amendment. Although it can seem at times like American society has been arguing about the Second Amendment forever, it hasn't. It's actually a recent debate. The National Rifle Association didn't start stirring up shit on this issue until the 1970s. Gun manufacturers were experiencing dwindling sales so the NRA (which exists to support manufacturers and not gun owners) begun pushing the importance of self defense. I'm not going to try outlining recent history, but trust me on this one. No one cared about the 2nd Amendment 50 years ago. It was not a hot political issue. After Lee Harvey Oswald used a mail order rifle to shoot John F. Kennedy, the federal government passed regulations making it harder to get guns that easily, but you didn't have high profile celebrities posturing about guns being taken from their cold dead fingers (that speech happened a mere 18 years ago).

In any case, supposedly commemorating the Second Amendment on a state marker is pretty bizarre in itself. That's clue number 3. It would make sense if it mentioned something that happened in Texas that had to do with the Second Amendment, but it doesn't. It's just weird when it comes to the general category of books on sticks. It makes no sense.

Clue Number Four: The purported George Washington quote and its anachronistic phrasing. It referred to "arms and ammunition." This is one of those points that a nonhistorian probably wouldn't pick up on, but back in the George's day that phrase would have been considered redundant. Arms were ammunition. So was everything else used in a military campaign. The word was still evolving; it hadn't yet come to narrowly meaning only what went into the guns.

Clue Number Five: Two different fonts were used -- one for a brief phrase about the Second Amendment; one for the George Washington quote.

Clue Number Six: The extreme brevity of the text. It is amazing just how many words the people who put up the markers can fit on to one of the books on a stick. The people who write the content manage to cram a lot of information on to one metal slab. If you see a photo of a supposed marker that has less than 100 words on it, it's a fake.

Anyway, this was a case of attempting to have a dialogue with people where I didn't even get into the Second Amendment debate at all. I just pointed the photo was a badly done photoshop. Holy wah. First I got told that the reason the text was so terse (and badly written) was space considerations. Pshaw. I countered that one with a photo of a genuine State of Texas book on a stick. The response to that was that it was different because it was newer. So then I found one from 1962.

End result of this useless exchange? The person who was so insistent the marker was real trotted out his ultimate argument: he's almost 70 and used to live in Texas. He's seen a bunch of the markers by the side of the road so he knows for sure what they look like.

That's when I figured out it was pointless. The dude is so locked in to believing something that he saw on Facebook that even if it's something that doesn't really say anything at all he still refuses to believe it's not genuine. I guess it's true. You can't cure stupid.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

El Morro National Monument

And yet another extremely belated post in the ongoing series "How I Spent My Winter Vacation."

El Morro is an interesting little park in northern New Mexico. It's located on what used to be the main route between Albuquerque and points west because it has year-round water. The water is a natural pond formed by run-off from a bluff. No doubt in times of extreme drought the water could dry up, but in general the sheltered location -- not much direct sunlight and protected from the wind -- would slow evaporation. There was an ancient Puebloan village on the top of the bluff, and the site quickly became known to the Spanish explorers.

The rock bluff itself with its vertical walls and soft sandstone had become a favorite spot for graffiti long before European explorers arrived in the Southwest. Native peoples carved petroglyphs into the rock, some of which may have had symbolic meanings and some of which were no doubt the equivalent of "Kilroy was here." I tend to believe that a lot of what archaeologists attempt to read deep meanings into when they're studying ancient rock art today is actually the equivalent of doodling, people sitting around killing time before the evening meal or heading out to go hunting, and had no more significance at the time of its creation than the doodles I used to create while trying to stay awake in staff meetings.

I also tend to believe that's why so much of the ancient rock art that is found includes lot of "fertility symbols.*" Just think about high school for a minute or two and recall what the perpetually love-starved adolescent males used to doodle in notebooks when they should have been doing algebra problems. A biological imperative is a biological imperative. Lust is lust. And sometimes a fertility symbol is one person's fixation on getting laid and not an entire culture's expression of goddess worship. But I digress.

We stopped at El Morro in late February on our way back to Safford from Grand Junction. We decided to take a different route south than we had north so had aimed for Gallup, New Mexico. We spent the night there and then I suggested we check out El Morro as part of heading down to connect with US-180. It was a cold morning and had snowed during the night. When we checked in at the Visitor Center, the ranger warned us that the trail was pretty slick. We took our time in the Visitor Center to give the sun a little more time to work on melting the ice and snow and then walked the trail loop backwards to avoid having to go down a fairly steep hill. The trail loop is paved so once the sun hit it the snow and ice melted fast. Still, given a choice between sliding down an ice-covered sidewalk and crawling up one, I always figure the crawling up is safer. The only drawback was, of course, that we saw the interpretive signage in reverse order. Was that an issue? Not really. 

There are actually two trails from the Visitor Center. One goes down to the water and then along the base of the bluff past the gazillion rock carvings; the other goes up to the ruins of the pueblo on the top of the bluff. The snow and ice on the trails convinced us the smart move would be to save the pueblo trail for another time.

The carvings themselves are interesting. Some have become weathered almost to the point of being unreadable; others still look really sharp. A few experienced damage from well-intentioned but misguided attempts at preservation. The carvings go back hundreds of years with many predating the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico. Once the Spanish did arrive, being typical arrogant asshats the first carving they did was superimposed on ancient carvings. Visitors to the site kept right on carving on the rock until the site was declared a National Historic Monument and what had been a normal cultural practice for centuries turned into vandalism. I'm not sure exactly how recent the last "historic" carving is. The first Spanish one makes an impression; the last American tourist is a bit more obscure.

ELMO is located west of El Malpais National Monument, a park created to preserve and highlight its interesting geological features. We did not drive the few miles east to see ELMA, too, but may check it out the next time we're in New Mexico. It's not that far from the Interstate so would be an easy side trip.

In addition to the Visitor Center and interpretive trails, ELMO includes a small rustic campground. We did a drive through, and to me the sites looked small. It struck me as being a good place for tent camping or with a small RV or travel trailer. It's definitely not designed with Class As or humongous 5th wheel trailers in mind.

The pool is tucked in behind the fence where the people are standing. 

*Usually representations of female genitalia because they're easy to draw.