Monday, July 21, 2014

Have you heard of this thing called Google?

Back when I was teaching, one of the predictable irritations each semester was the student who wanted the instructor to do all the work. You know, the instructor presents an essay assignment -- "Write a 1,000 word paper on a topic relating to X" -- and the student doesn't just want the instructor to hand over a precise, narrowly defined topic on a silver platter (complete with thesis statement and a detailed outline) he or she also expects the instructor to hold their hand every step of the way and basically write the paper for them. I always kind of wondered what happened to those people once they got out in the real world.

Now I know. They write to historical societies asking us to do research for them that they could just as easily do themselves with a couple of mouse clicks. Apparently there are still members of the general population that have never heard of this thing called Google. I'm one of the people who follows up on requests the county historical society gets from folks doing genealogy or other research relating to Baraga County. I've dealt with two in the past couple of weeks that had me wishing for the proverbial 2 x 4 with which to get the mule's attention.

One actually isn't too bad. The request came in the form of a hand-written letter. It's quite possible the person asking for research assistance is one of those rare individuals (and they do still exist, although they're becoming as rare as unicorns) who either doesn't own a computer or is sufficiently computer illiterate that even running a simple, preliminary search is something they don't know how to do. In any event, it turned out that although Google would have answered a couple of quick questions, it would not have yielded all the information the person wanted. For them, Google would have been a start, but they probably would have written to us anyway to track down things like photocopies of death certificates and marriage licenses.

The other request, however, really did remind me of the snot-nosed freshmen who used to annoy me back in my glory days as an academic. The person did a lengthy email laying out in excruciating detail what they hoped to find. After multiple paragraphs of verbiage, the bottom line was, in essence, a simple yes or no question: did a certain person hold a specific title at a certain point in time. WTF? Two seconds on the Internet and I had the answer. If you can find an answer using Google, why waste anyone else's time? And why on earth do multiple paragraphs of build-up to get to the question?

So how did I respond to the lengthy email with its stupid question? Did I answer it? Well, no. I was in a snarky mood. I reminded the person that the museum's website states clearly that we charge for research assistance. And, not only do we charge, we want money in advance before we do anything. Will the person send us $25 to get an answer that could be obtained for free with a 3 word search phrase and a mouse click or two? I don't know, but I'm kind of hoping they do. You can't cure stupid, but you can make it pay.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More adventures in cataloging

Pageant banner on the wall behind Chief Welsh's headdress.
Thirty-three pageant banners. Count 'em. Thirty-three. I promise the intern that once we start opening boxes from up in the attic we'll find "good stuff." What do we find? Thirty-three 1969 Baraga County Historical Pageant banners and a stash of really nasty and obviously really cheap black wigs. Lots and lots of flies and beetles had chosen to crawl into that stash of wigs to die.

Oh, and one priest's collar that was probably part of a costume from that pageant. Is it the one surviving "costume" from that pageant? Who knows. We have a lot of boxes left to go.

The wigs, incidentally, got classified as trash pretty fast. There's nothing quite like a zillion dead lady bugs to convince a person something isn't worth dealing with. The Intern and I could shake the bug cadavers out of the banners; we weren't going to try picking them out of fake human hair.

The big mystery for me, though, is why this stuff was right up in front in the attic. I would have expected them to be buried in the back. The position of the boxes suggest they were among the last things to get stashed up there -- so where did they come from? The historical society sponsored the pageant 45 years ago. The pageant material obviously went into storage somewhere, but not at the museum. The museum building is barely 22 years old; construction began in 1992 and it opened to the public in 1993. Had the pageant material been stashed with other historical society material at the Visitor Information building in L'Anse back in 1993, one assumes that any boxes or crates stored in closets and attics would have gotten moved at the same time as the exhibits. Apparently that didn't happen. Either that, or the pageant material was never at the visitor center. So where was it? Just who cleaned out an attic or a garage sometime in the past 20 years and found those boxes?

It's a mystery. Like so many other things relating to the history of the museum, I'll probably never know. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that these 33 banners are it, that no more are lurking in other boxes. It's nice to have a few spares stashed just in case the one on display in the museum develops dry rot, but thirty three is a bit of overkill. (Note: exhibit area no longer looks exactly like what's shown in the photo, but the banner hasn't moved.)

And, for what it's worth, this was one set of objects that went into PastPerfect under just one object number. There was no way I felt like individually cataloging each banner. They're all in the same container. If I could batch list headstones when I inventoried them for the Park Service, it must be okay to group objects now at a small local museum, especially when they're basically identical except for where the fold marks fall on the individual banners.

Now all I have to do is convince the intern that the next set of boxes will be more fun.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dumb and growing dumber

I have been thinking recently about the general dumbing down of American society. An acquaintance, a blog pal, a virtual friend -- I'm never quite sure just how to categorize people whom I know only through the Internet -- suggested that social media (e.g., Twitter) are responsible for our diminishing ability to engage in rational discourse or nuanced discussions. I disagree. I think the dumbing down, if that's what one wants to call it, has been going on for a long, long time.

As my two regular readers know, I volunteer at a local museum. Over the past few months I've been spending a fair amount of time working on cataloging various documents and artifacts. The museum didn't have a formal inventory system in place until last year so there's a huge backlog of material to wade through. That backlog includes personal documents (e.g., letters) and periodicals (e.g., 100-year-old Ladies' Home Journals). I think it's fairly clear the attention span of the typical American 100 years ago was a little longer than the attention span of today's multi-tasker with his or her smart phone in hand.

Using the example of the ladies' magazines, back in 1910 a typical article in Ladies' Home Journal would run multiple pages and be printed in a fairly small font on tabloid size pages. There might be one illustration, often just a drawing rather than a photograph. The magazine enjoyed a wide circulation nation-wide and its readership quite obviously could read. As of this spring, Ladies' Home Journal exists only online (the print edition is dead). Of the surviving hard copy periodicals, a typical women's magazine has articles (and I use the word loosely) that are one page long, printed in a large font with lots of white space, and most of the pages are taken up with graphics instead of text. The readership has gone from reading at a collegiate level to perhaps 4th grade. It also apparently has the attention span of a gnat if the publishers believe more than two hundred words of text is too much. And lest anyone think that I'm picking on women, other publications are just as thin. Compare a Smithsonian Magazine or a National Geographic published this year with one that came out a few decades ago. You don't even have to go back a full century. Not long ago I found a stash of Smithsonians from the 1990s. They're not even 20 years old, but have long, interesting articles, pieces that engage the reader and make you want to keep turning the pages. They're not as in-depth or as lengthy as the articles from a few decades earlier, but they're still weightier than what we find today. Pick up a copy of the current issue of Smithsonian and what will you find? Lots of one-page pieces that tend to make Twitter look good.

If you pay any attention to the people in the publishing industry -- newspapers, magazines, whatever -- they have a tendency to blame social media. One problem with that line of reasoning: the trend started long before Al Gore had a chance to invent the Internet. Back in 1985 Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death dropped a lot of blame on television: society was beginning to view everything more and more in terms of how entertaining it was. Candidates weren't getting elected to office based on their ideas but instead on how they came across on tv. We'd become a shallow people interested only in the most superficial images of politicians and political ideas. Okay, so we can't blame Al Gore and the Internet. Instead, we'll blame Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworkyin for inventing television.

Except, of course, if I'm going to use content analysis of various texts as a guide, the dumbing down started before television became ubiquitous in American culture. The periodicals of the 1940s are much less dense and have become more visual than the periodicals at the beginning of the 20th century. Can we blame radio? Too may episodes of "Little Orphan Annie" or "The Lone Ranger" and our brains collectively began to rot? Or how about environmental factors? I watched an episode of "Cosmos" recently about lead poisoning -- the lead that used to be added to gasoline to improve engine performance -- and if I want to go searching for correlations, that's a good one. Of course, I could also find correlations, spurious or otherwise, with a lot of other things: the development of an electrical grid, the invention of processed foods like Velveeta and Miracle Whip, or the widespread popularity of Slush Puppies at 7-11. It's a mystery.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bring on the torches and pitchforks?

I'm trying to think of what would be the equivalent today in the U.S. of storming the Bastille. Granted, even back in 1789 in France it was primarily a symbolic gesture -- there were only 7 political prisoners in the prison at the time -- but even so. . . just where we would go if we wanted to do the equivalent today? Storm the prison where Leonard Peltier is held, whichever one that might be? Try to tear down the headquarters of the National Security Administration (they do seem to be spying on everyone)? Attack the White House? Riot at the Capitol? Is there any one place in this country that would be sufficiently symbolic to merit having a mob armed with the proverbial torches and pitchforks attack it? Even the most hated of government agencies (e.g., the Internal Revenue Service) are sufficiently amorphous that no one building really seems to capture the flavor necessary for a good symbolic act. Granted, the occasional lone nut will plot an attack on a federal building, but they don't seem to have much popular support. If they did, they wouldn't qualify as the occasional lone nut; they'd be leading a crowd of like-minded persons.

In any case, nothing is likely to be stormed by anyone any time soon. With a few exceptions, Americans are too apathetic to be outraged by much of anything. If they weren't, Occupy Wall Street would still be protesting and there'd be a lot more Moral Mondays happening around the country.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The migrant life draws closer

We now have a tow dolly to drag behind the RV. One of the difficulties in planning for an itinerant life style, at least one that may include stays of several weeks or months at a campground, is figuring out how you're going to do stuff like shop for groceries. Most campgrounds are not located within walking (or even easy biking) distance of a Publix. This is one reason you see a lot of RVs with cars in tow. If you're going to be parked somewhere for more than a couple days, it's a lot easier to run to the supermarket using a car than it is to go through the hassle of moving a motorhome.

We'd been looking for a used tow dolly since last fall. We'd figured out pretty quickly that a brand-new one was out of the question. As I have noted before, the S.O. and I are frugal people. More so the S.O. than myself -- I tend to see myself as relatively frugal while he's one cheap son of a bitch -- but both of us flinch in psychic pain at the thought of paying full price for anything if we can avoid it. Which means we've been spending a fair amount of time perusing Craigslist. Every so often a tow dolly in our price range (really, really cheap) would come up, but the timing was off or it was being sold by someone who lived just a little too far away. The U.P. Craigslist covers a fairly large territory; I wouldn't have been too thrilled with having to drive 280 miles to Drummond Island just to save a few bucks on anything.

I was, however, willing to drive 190 miles to Hayward, Wisconsin, yesterday. Hayward is less than 4 hours driving time away and has the added advantages of being home to both giant fiberglass fish and the original Famous Dave's. Neither of which we actually saw (although we did drive by the Grand Pines Resort on County B), but that's irrelevant. We came home with a tow dolly. Open road, here we come.

A side note: as part of the expedition to buy the tow dolly, we drove past the LCO casino operated by the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa. The parking lot was full. It was early afternoon on a gorgeous July day -- and people would rather be inside gambling than outside enjoying our much too brief northwoods summer. People are strange.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Story telling: ghost trains of Baraga County?

The local state park reached out to the museum recently with a request for a speaker for their Friday evening program series. Our original intention was to say No, that none of us were really up to it, but somehow, when I stopped by the park to tell them that in person, it turned into a Yes. I really need to learn how to say No more with conviction.

In any case, I looked over the topics other people were scheduled to cover and decided that the history of railroads in Baraga County would be a good one. There is another historian speaking this summer, but she's from the sawmill museum in Alberta so odds are her topic is going to be Henry Ford and logging. Logging is normally my topic, but railroads will do, especially when I can so easily slide over the line from straight forward history to speculating about paranormal phenomena, ghost trains, and mysterious noises in the night. The CN railroad tracks run right behind the park, although there's rarely any traffic on them (they dead end about a mile farther north in the Baraga Industrial Park), so it makes perfect sense to talk about railroading. As for ghost stories, isn't that what every kid wants to hear when camping?

There have been some spectacular derailments -- a number of trains had problems with the long grade down to L'Anse. For a railroad, the grade is steep, it's continuous for about 7 miles, and it ends with a sharp curve just before the Falls River. There have been multiple derailments on or close to that curve. In one case, the derailed train smashed into the L'Anse depot. In another incident, there were multiple fatalities. There's a lot of potential drama without having to indulge in any embellishments.

On the other hand, speculating about ghostly train whistles at midnight does sound a tad more interesting than simply telling people that it used to be possible to take a passenger train all the way to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Having done straight forward history for so long, it is really tempting to go wandering down the supernatural path for a change. Michigan Tech students managed (or have almost managed) to eliminate the ghost stories explaining the Paulding Light; maybe it's time for a dead fireman to start haunting L'Anse. I've got over a month to put the talk together -- it'll be interesting to see just how much embroidery I do when the time comes.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A book review, more or less

I just finished reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain. It's one of those books that gets mentioned fairly often as one of the most influential works of the 20th century so I decided what the heck, everyone should read the autobiography of a Trappist monk at least once in their lives.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I missed something by not being a Catholic, but what I got out of the book wasn't some lost soul's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. It was more like Merton yammering on and on about how special he was and waiting for God to tap him on the shoulder in confirmation of his narcissism. But then a lot of religious teaching and prayer strikes me that way: "I'm so special I'm being singled out for special grace." Which, come to think of it, is a basic tenet in Calvinism: there are the chosen elect who are going to glory no matter what crappy thing they do on earth and then there are the rest of us, the poor schmucks who are going to fry no matter how much time we spend in church or on our knees. "Jesus loves me, but he can't stand you." But back to Merton.

For those not familiar with Merton, he was the older son of two artists, Owen Merton and Ruth Jenkins. Merton was born in France during World War I and shuttled between France, the United States, and England as a child and young man. Both of his parents died young; Merton was barely six years old when his mother succumbed to cancer and was a college student when a brain tumor killed his father. Raised as a nominal Protestant but not particularly religious, while he was in college he began drifting towards Catholicism. No doubt a Freudian analyst could have a field day with the motherless Merton's growing fascination with a religion that at times seems to emphasize the Mother of God more than God himself. Merton certainly provides a ton of material with his lengthy meditations on the Holy Mother and various female saints.

Eventually, in his early twenties, Merton takes instruction in the Catholic faith, is baptized, and takes communion. He becomes a fervent Catholic, sometimes attending mass multiple times in one day, and begins going on religious retreats, including one to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where he later decides to apply for admission to as a novice. A naturally gifted writer, Merton had once harbored ambitions to be a poet and novelist. It is his intention when he enters the monastery to give up writing and become a simple cloistered religious: a monk who spends his time either in the hard physical labor needed to keep the monastery functioning or in contemplation and prayer. The Trappists (more accurately,the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) are considered the most ascetic of the religious orders; the monks observe a rule of silence in the monastery, they are limited in their personal possessions, and they have little contact with the outside world. I get the distinct impression that not only was Merton seeking something his life had lacked -- a place where he could feel like he belonged, complete with some nice rigid structure -- he was hoping to turn off his brain. He'd just sink into the monastic life, let the rules of the Order guide him, and he'd never have to think again.

Unfortunately for Merton, upper management at the monastery had different ideas. Merton was well-educated, literate in several languages, and had taught English and composition at the college level. The Cistercians weren't going to waste his talents by having him spend all his time as a field hand cutting hay or picking beans. He did his share of physical labor as a novice, but found himself assigned to the scriptorium pretty quickly. He translated religious materials from French, he wrote pamphlets, and eventually he began his autobiography. At the time it was published, he'd been a monk for 7 years.

In looking at reviews of The Seven Storey Mountain, it appears the book caught a lot of people by surprise. It became a best seller, has gone through multiple editions, and continues to sell reasonably well today, almost 70 years after its original publication. I can see why -- Merton does a lot of self-flagellation over his misspent youth and his avoidance of God, but eventually does find salvation. It helps that Merton can write. I may have been skeptical while reading The Seven Storey Mountain, but I wasn't bored.

On the other hand. . . I am definitely skeptical when it comes to Merton's motivations. Call me a cynic if you will, but there's just something a little too coincidental about Merton having a crisis of conscience and impulsively heading for the cloistered life when it's 1941, World War II is raging in Europe, and he's just gotten a notice to report for a second military draft physical. The military rejected him the first time he reported because he was missing too many teeth, but as war drew closer, they got less picky. He's a healthy single male, he's appalled by the thought of fighting in a war, and even the notion of serving as a medic was losing its charm -- the monastery must have looked really good. Did he consciously draft dodge? I doubt it, but you never know. The speed with which he got himself behind the monastery walls when he got the notice for a second physical was rather dazzling.

That said, whatever Merton's original motives may have been or how much his choices were influenced by his traumatic and unhappy childhood, once he decided he had a religious vocation, he didn't waver much from it, although I've no doubt his other writings include a lot of musings on remaining strong in the faith. In addition to his autobiography, he cranked out a zillion (okay, a couple dozen or so) books on spirituality, philosophy, and religion. Are any of them worth reading? I don't have a clue. I do know that Merton quotes show up in Facebook memes fairly often, so apparently there are some decent aphorisms lurking in his prose. Will I ever read any other books by Thomas Merton? Probably not. One dip in the pool of egoistic religiosity was enough; I've no desire to read anymore.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Van Riper State Park, Champion (or is it Michigamme?), Michigan

The Guppy finally left the safety of our driveway a few days ago. After completing various minor fixes (a leaking fuel line, a stuck valve on the hot water line, and a few other irritants), the S.O. announced we were finally ready to roll. So where did we go? What type of marathon adventure did we embark upon? If the numbers are right on Google Maps, we drove a whopping 41 miles to Van Riper State Park.
On the positive side, we did get out of the county. 

Van Riper is the park I always think of as "Champion Beach." Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a little barracuda, Champion Beach was the place my family would head to for swimming and a picnic.
The park is on the east end of Lake Michigamme and has a nice sand beach -- this pontoon boat is anchored a few hundred feet south of the swimming area. The lake is a little under six miles long from east to west; my Old Man always liked to do some reminiscing about how back in his misspent youth he once swam from one end of it to the other, although I can never remember if it was from the Michigamme end toward Champion or vice versa. I do know he liked to swim, which is why it's kind of a mystery that none of his kids ever learned how. But I digress. 
Van Riper has a huge parking area for day use visitors. On the days we were there, though, I don't believe I ever saw a car parked there -- it was a mystery. Beautiful beach, nice lake, air temperatures in the 50s -- that's pretty balmy for the U.P. so I'm not sure why no one was interested in swimming. 
I had reserved a camping site through the Michigan DNR state parks website, which (to my mild amazement) is a really good site. When you make a reservation, you get to pick the options you want (e.g., electrical service or rustic). The campground map shows you the sites that are available for the days you want to be there and has photographs. You don't have to take the computer's word for it that the site is level and shaded; you can see it in the on-line photo. You also get told the site's size (so many feet wide, so many feet deep), what all it includes (usually just picnic table and fire ring), how many feet, more or less, it is to the nearest latrine, and where the water faucets are. The only drawback to the site I picked was the pine pollen. I did not realize the red pine were blooming; after two days my car looked like it was back in Atlanta in April.  
Van Riper has a lot of camp sites; about two-thirds have electricity, including a few with 50 amp service. None have water or sewer, although there is a dump station. (We saw one dude towing a honey wagon over to the dump station -- I sincerely hope we never end up having to invest in one of those suckers. If the holding tank starts to get so full it needs to be dumped, I'll take that as a sign that it's time to hit the road again.) For people who'd like to camp but don't own an RV and aren't willing to tent camp, the park has several rustic cabins available for rent. 
I deliberately picked a camp site that was tucked back in the pines (also known as "as far from the playground as humanly possible while remaining within the park"), but there is a lot of green space at the park if a family's traveling with little barracudas that need room to run around without having to worry about tripping over tree roots. The S.O. did mention that if we decide to camp at Van Riper again, we'd pick one of the sites that we now know has more grass on it. Anyway, the pavilion in the above photo has been there as long as I can remember; the S.O. was speculating that it might be WPA work, but neither of us knows enough about the park's history to be sure. 
The interior certainly looks right for a possible 1930's construction date. 

Although I tend to think of Van Riper almost strictly in terms of the beach, the lake itself is a favorite of fishermen -- there were a fair number of campers who had towed boats to the park and seemed pretty serious about getting out on the water at the crack of dawn. The park also has some decent hiking trails -- varied terrain, not short, and with interesting stuff to see in addition to the usual trees and squirrels. 
One trail is labeled "Old Wagon Road" and appears to run pretty straight on the map. Another one, the "Main Trail," includes a section that is pretty clearly old rail bed, either for a railroad or a mining tram. My guess is that it's a section of the old Iron Range & Huron Bay Railroad, especially as it goes right through an area where there are the remnants of iron mining. 
A short loop off the Main Trail is the Mining Loop. We did spot some possible mining ruins, what looked like old shafts, but did not get far before deciding to retreat. The S.O. and I had planned to hike longer, but discovered the Deep Woods Off was wearing off fast -- either that, or the mosquitoes were immune. When it's so close to home, one of these days we'll bathe in DEET and go try again. I would like to do the entire mining loop, not just a short section of it. 
The park also includes a tribute to the 1980s moose drop. There's an information kiosk that does side-by-side comparisons of deer and moose, right down to the size of the droppings and how much is produced in one "movement," and there's a memorial rock.
The Guppy didn't do anything surprising, everything functioned more or less the way it was supposed to, and even the cat survived camping. We did figure out we need to block off a few places the feline is currently able to get into, but fortunately she didn't do anything disgusting while exploring. We now have a better idea of what we need to add to the basic supplies and what we can live without. Next time we'll venture farther, and maybe by the time cold weather gets here I'll have convinced the S.O. we'd really like to go explore some of the Southern states for awhile. 
Cleo chilling out while camping. Like most cats, her motto is "Life is hard. Nap often."
Trivia note: Van Riper State Park is named after a Dr. Van Riper; he practiced medicine in the Champion-Michigamme area in the early twentieth century. One of the cabins at the park is the Cully Gage Cabin and was named in honor of Van Riper's son, Dr. Charles "Cully" Gage Van Riper, a noted speech pathologist and author. I'm blanking on the first name of the first Dr. Van Riper and am too lazy to Google it. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Is your stuff worth your life?

I was over on Facebook this morning and read a post about a canine hero. The dog, a pit bull, sprang into action after his owner refused to hand over his truck keys to two armed robbers. One of the robbers shot at the guy (a bullet grazed his forehead), and the dog responded by going after the gunmen. One guy ran; the other one got mangled pretty good by the dog. The dog himself was shot several times but is recovering nicely now.

You know, it is great that the dog protected his owner. It's something every dog owner hopes his or her own dog would do, spring into action and become a fur-covered avenger when the chips are down. At the same time, though, I'm thinking, in essence, just how unbelievably stupid does a person have to be to refuse to cooperate with two armed robbers?? Not just one punk with a gun, mind you, but TWO?! Dude, just how tricked out is your ride if you think it's worth more than your life? Trucks can be replaced. It's just stuff. If it's new enough to have comprehensive insurance, you could even end up with a nicer truck in the end -- I've noticed some car insurance companies advertise that they'll pay for a replacement vehicle one model year newer than whatever it is you have now if your vehicle is totaled or stolen. Just what did the guy think was going to happen when he said no, that they'd respond with, "well, okay then, we'll just amble off and steal someone else's car," doff their caps politely, and leave?

For as long as I can remember, the standard advice from law enforcement officers and self defense experts is that when someone with a weapon tries to rob you, cooperate. Just give them what they want and odds are that no one ends up injured or dead. Your life isn't worth your car or your purse or your jewelry.

My big fear, incidentally, when it comes to potential armed robberies, is that in the extremely unlikely event I was ever a victim, I'd end up pistol-whipped or dead because I so rarely have much cash on me and have nothing else worth stealing. Robbers would beat the snot out of me because they were pissed that I'd wasted their time. Then again, when I'm driving a Focus and have the fashion sense of a bag lady, I doubt if I'm much of a target to begin with.