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.

Standing on a corner

The travelogue continues. I'm beginning to think that by the time I finish posting about our road trip to the Grand Canyon, we'll be back up on the tundra, but nonetheless, I persist. After we left Walnut Canyon, we stopped briefly at a commercial enterprise, Meteor Crater. It's located between Flagstaff and Winslow and not far south of I-40 so is easy to get to.

Meteor Crater is a rather impressive hole in the ground. The property is privately owned and managed, and they do a nice job of it. There's a small museum with exhibits explaining just what a meteor is, how meteors have been viewed over time, when and how scientists accepted the fact that the crater was indeed the result of a meteor strike and not formed by volcanic action, and what's happening in astronomical research now. I had been to Meteor Crater before when I went through Fundamentals, the National Park Service's employee orientation program, but thought the S.O. and The Younger Daughter might be interested. NPS Fundamentals included a visit to Meteor Crater so the students in the class could get a sense of the differences between the way a private company can manage a site and the way the Park Service has to. A private enterprise naturally has a lot more flexibility in being able to respond quickly to issues like staffing or maintenance emergencies. The up-side is you can make decisions quickly; the downside is that sometimes a decision made in response to a short-term problem leaves you with long-term headaches.

The crater is an interesting natural feature. Most meteor craters end up obscured by vegetation over time, but because this meteor struck in a region that's been desert for millennia it's still well defined.  Not surprisingly, because it is so close to I-40 it gets a lot of visitors. The parking lot was more than half full when we stopped, and there were quite a few people in the museum and in the outdoor viewing areas. Admission to Meteor Crater does include a guided hike along the crater rim, which no doubt could be interesting, but the wind was sufficiently cold that we passed on that opportunity. Instead we decided to get back on the road and look for a late lunch in Winslow, the next town down the highway.

One cannot visit Winslow without indulging in standing on a corner. This activity has proved so popular since the Eagles released "Take It Easy" decades ago that the city created a "Standing On the Corner" park, if a short section of sidewalk and street can merit that designation. There's a statue of a guy with a guitar (I have no idea if it's supposed to represent anyone in particular), a lot of bricks with people's names on them (donors to the park), and a flatbed Ford truck. The S.O. and the Kid both indulged in having their photos taken; I passed. A lifetime of hearing "You look so much better than your photos!" taught me a long time ago that cameras are not my friend.

Photo opportunity over, we went looking for food. The weirdest part about that whole Standing On A Corner park was the total lack of anything else designed to catch a tourist's eye located close to it. There were a couple eateries, both closed. There was a gift shop, also closed. About a block away there was a rather shabby looking Mexican restaurant, possibly open but not looking particularly inviting. And another block or so down Historic Route 66 there was a Church's Chicken. We opted for the chicken, primarily because there didn't seem to be anything else.

There was a historic hotel across the street from the chicken place, a former Fred Harvey hotel designed by Mary Colter, the same architect who designed a lot of the buildings at Grand Canyon Village for the Fred Harvey company, but I couldn't tell if La Posada was open or closed or if it included a restaurant. If it had been a little more obvious in being open for business instead of looking like it was mothballed, we might have done more than look at it through the window at Church's. It is, after all, a National Register property, and, as I have since learned, the last hotel the Fred Harvey company built.

The whole Winslow experience in retrospect seems like a typical Arizona experience. I swear every small town we've seen has the same ambience, that feeling of being post-apocalyptic with very few humans visible anywhere and businesses that have that ambiguous feeling where it's hard to tell if they're still open or if the owner walked away a year or two ago and just forgot to flip the Open sign over when he or she closed for good. Unless the windows are boarded over and there are dead weeds three feet tall in front of a door, it's hard to tell if some places are still in business or went tits up during the Reagan administration. It's a strange state.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Obvious unintended consequences: Grandma as a permanent houseguest

One of the things that I've heard coming up as part of the ambitions of the Trump administration is the desire to turn more stuff over to the states, like converting programs such as Medicaid into block grants. Medicaid is the federal program that funds health care for extremely poor people. You know, our fellow Americans who too many of us assume are shiftless, lazy, and unwilling to work. If you ask the typical right-wing conservative what they think of government-funded health insurance for persons living in poverty, the likely response is going to be "they should get jobs and pay for insurance like those of us who are willing to work do." Only one problem with that thinking.

You know where the bulk of Medicaid funding goes? It's not so to some kids or people of working age. It goes to keep old people in nursing homes. Observant readers may have noticed a proliferation of attorneys specializing in "elder law" in recent years. There was a time when only the wealthy worried a whole lot about estate planning or what was going to happen to their assets such as real estate once they hit their golden years. Since life expectancies crept up and more people started living long enough to develop the wide array of chronic morbidities that hit with age (i.e., diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, dementia, . . . ) families of the elderly began realizing that it was quite possible that whatever Mom and Dad managed to accumulate during their working lives was going to vanish as the medical bills piled up. Instead of inheriting the old family home or a stack of T-notes, the potential heirs realized they'd have to accumulate their wealth the old-fashioned way: earn it themselves. Unless, of course, they could shelter assets through estate planning. Hence the proliferation of elder law specialists.

Elder law specialists do more than draft wills to help prevent heirs from squabbling over who gets Great Grandma Clara's Wedgewood china. They help people with assets (real estate, cash, whatever) figure out ways to shelter it so that if the day comes when they've got to go into a nursing home the cost of their care is going to fall on society as a whole, aka taxpayers, and not on the individual elderly and their immediate family. The initial legislation for Medicare and Medicaid was passed in 1965. It took a decade or two, but people eventually realized that if their elderly parent qualified as "poor" that Medicaid would pick up the tab for the nursing home. The trick was making the parent poor enough, which is where the elder law attorneys enter the picture.

It can be a rude awakening for most folks when they discover (a) Medicare does not pay for nursing homes; (b) when the government says you have to be poor to qualify for Medicaid, they mean it. Absolutely bare bones no assets whatsoever worth mentioning. If you own real estate, if you can't sell it before you die, it's going to have a government lien on it when you do go. If you have a whole life insurance policy, you're going to have to cash that sucker in, although you will be allowed to use a chunk of it to pre-pay for a funeral. And, as any good elder law specialist will tell you, the earlier you realize those facts of life, the better. The government can go back several years searching for reimbursement for the cost of your care. It used to be three years; it might be more now. That particular aspect of Medicaid law is, of course, intended to prevent people from trying to milk the system the day after they require nursing home care.

So what happens if the conservative Republicans succeed in their plans to turn Medicare into a voucher system and Medicaid into a grant block program? I can tell you. I've seen it. I remember it. Back when I was young, in those days of yore when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when someone's elderly relative became too fragile or feeble to live independently, they took up residence with a relative. If they had multiple adult children, families would engage in "pass Gramps around." The old person would spend a month here, a month there, until whoever was hosting the old geezer or geezette would decide they'd had enough and pass the aging parent on to the next unlucky sibling. In some cases, PawPaw or MawMaw would become permanent houseguests. Family members would find themselves having to bathe and diaper their now senile and incontinent parent or grandparent. Without having to think about very hard, I can recall at least half a dozen friends who had a grandparent living with their families. For most, it was not a happy situation.

You don't find many elderly chronically ill people living with their descendants these days. They're in nursing homes. How many would be there if not for Medicaid is debatable. Until the reality slaps you in the face, the typical person has no idea just how incredibly expensive caring for the elderly can be. Back in the '90s I served as my aunt Thelma's financial representative. She had to go to a nursing home after she had a stroke following by-pass surgery. She was a frugal woman and did have the cash stashed away to be private pay. At that time, the basic monthly cost was about $3500 a month. It would easily be double that today.

So what happens when the greedy heirs who have pushed their parents into estate planning and signing away their assets discover that the reason for doing it -- Medicaid -- no longer is an option? Are they going to be willing to start liquidating the stuff they'd anticipated inheriting? (I'm guessing probably not.) And what about the elderly who were genuinely poor to begin with, the old folks who maybe have a small life insurance policy and not much else? Families have gotten smaller -- it's no longer possible to play pass the grandpa -- and most don't have the ability to pay for outside help, like an aide to stay with the senile parent while the adult child goes to work. What happens when Medicaid goes away and the nursing home tells you to come pick up your senile parent or grandparent because they're about to close their doors  because without Medicaid payments they can't operate and the old person has to go somewhere? Every so often there'll be a story on the news about an aged relative being abandoned at a highway rest stop or other odd location because the family hadn't been able to get that person into a nursing home but could no longer cope on their own. How much more common will that scenario be if Medicaid vanishes?

We live in interesting times. Here's hoping that enough politicians can be persuaded to look at real world consequences instead of blindly behaving like lemmings and following The Donald and Paul Ryan off a cliff.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

And the itinerary changes again

We just got back to Safford from Grand Junction, Colorado, where we spent a few days helping my sister Cheryl and her husband empty our mother's apartment. No need for condolences, gentle reader, my mother isn't dead. She said a couple years ago that she planned to live to be 100, and at the moment it's looking like she might do it.

My mother is 94 and has been living in an assisted living facility for a number of years. Assisted living facilities provide a person with a fair amount of independence: depending on the facility, you may have an apartment that isn't much different than what you'd have in any regular apartment complex except the unit will have features making it handicapped accessible (aka more user friendly and safe for the elderly), like a shower stall with a built in seat or bench and grab bars, outlets placed higher up the wall than in most conventional construction. and so on. When my aunt Thelma was in assisted living, she had a studio apartment that included a pretty decent kitchenette so she could have cooked real meals if she ever felt like it. My mom's apartment is a one bedroom, but has less of a kitchen than Thelma's did: my mother just has a microwave and a dorm-size refrigerator.

Anyway, assisted living facilities operate on the premise that the residents are still basically independent but for various reasons no longer feel comfortable living totally on their own. Residents are supposed to be able to take care of most of the activities of daily life (aka ADLs) like getting dressed or going to the bathroom on their own. There may be aides who will help residents with some ADLs, like taking a shower, and there are housekeepers who do things like change the linens on beds, take out the trash, and vacuum, but in general you're still living pretty independently. And, just like in a typical apartment complex, the units come unfurnished. You get to bring in all your own stuff so it really does feel like your own home.

Well, a couple weeks ago my mother fell. She had been having an upset stomach for a few days, wound up dehydrated, felt light-headed, and did a spectacular face plant while walking to the bathroom. Through sheer dumb luck she did the face plant into a bucket instead of right on to the floor, which meant no broken nose, black eyes, or smashed glasses, but it still resulted in one of the more interesting bruises I've seen: a vivid, clearly defined semi-circle across her forehead. To use her own words, it looked like she'd tried painting on clown eyebrows. Bruises tend to take a long time to fade when you're in your 90s so the line was still highly visible as of 48 hours ago. 

Anyway, end result was a trip to the emergency room, a stay in the hospital that led to the discovery of another problem (like most nonagenarians she has a number of chronic comorbidities), several more days in the hospital, all while being totally bedridden, and now a stay at a rehabilitation center/skilled nursing facility. It is remarkably depressing to see how quickly a person's muscles atrophy and how weak one gets after only a few days of forced bed rest. The being on a clear liquid diet for several days didn't help much either. She's back to eating real food and a relatively normal routine, but she's still going to be at the rehab center for a few weeks. She can't go back to assisted living until she's strong enough again to be able to take care of basic ADLs like going to the bathroom without having help, and although the doctor is optimistic that she can rebuild her strength with physical therapy, it's not going to happen overnight.

Bottom line: she's not going to be able to get back into her current apartment before the end of the month. If she's not going to be in the apartment (and may never be able to get back to the apartment) there's no point in paying the March rent. So she told us to clean it out, pack things up, and then we'll all deal with what to do next when she's stronger. Cheryl has storage space for the furniture and other items that would be needed for a move back into an apartment so what we did was more of a thinning than a liquidation. The apartment had been a little crowded for its size so we figured do some editing and create a little more open floor space and provide a little more maneuvering room for her walker and wheelchair. A few things went to Salvation Army, but most just got carefully packed away for awhile. If it turns out the next step for our mother is permanent residency in a nursing home, Cheryl will deal with whatever furniture and household goods are left later in the spring. .

So what do my mother's health issues have to do with changes in our itinerary? Furniture. A couple of the items that will not be stashed at Cheryl's very long are bookcases my father made. Cheryl and Wally suggested donating the bigger one to Salvation Army. I couldn't do it. The thing is solidly built, it was designed to hold books, and there is actually a space in the Retirement Bunker that would be perfect for it. And the Old Man made it. I had (for me) a rare attack of sentimentality. The S.O. measured it and figures there'd be no problem (other than its weight and general awkwardness) in putting it up on the bunk over the cab and hauling it home that way. The smaller bookcase (also made by the Old Man) will fit on the back seat of my car.

Bottom line: instead of waltzing across Texas in March, we're going to Colorado. We'll hang out there for a couple weeks, doing stuff like going through old photo albums with my sister and (if we're lucky) helping my mother get moved back into assisted living, and then will figure out just what route we want to follow home. We'll have to talk with my other brother-in-law about highways and campgrounds. For various reasons he prefers not to get on airplanes so whenever he and my sister Valerie go to Colorado from Alabama they use their camper. By now, I'm reasonably sure the man knows every good spot to boondock between Grand Junction and the Mississippi.

We do wish there was a better way to get from here to Grand Junction. In the Rand McNally (or even on Mapquest) US-191 looks like the most direct route. Well, we know that's not the best idea -- we've been over US-191 here in Arizona. There's about a 90-mile stretch of it going through the mountains from Morenci to Alpine where you average 30 mph or less thanks to all the switchbacks and hairpin turns. It's extremely scenic, a truly lovely stretch of road, but a royal pain to drive. The Guppy could do it (it's only 27 feet long; the road is closed to anything over 40 feet) but the S.O. has no desire to try it.

Because we'd heard that sometimes people will go over to US-180 in New Mexico and take it up to Alpine instead of driving US-191, we decided to check it out and came back that way, sort of. We drove down from Gallup on state highways and connected with US-180 near Reserve, which is east of Alpine. We discovered that route's not such a hot idea either. It's slightly less of a corkscrew than US-191, but it also felt much too empty. We went for a long, long way between Gallup, New Mexico, and here without seeing much in the way of gas stations. When you're driving something that sucks down petrol the way the Guppy does, seeing signs saying stuff like "Next services 95 miles" is not a happy prospect. It's a bit weird. I always thought of Maine as the "you can't get there from here" state, but apparently I was wrong.

On the bright side, if the most logical route north would be a slight variation on what we did last week (US-70 [Safford] to US-60 [Globe] to US-191 [St. Johns] to I-70 [Utah] to Grand Junction), it could mean camping for a night or two at Chinle, which would not be a horrible thing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Weirdness overload

Astute readers (all two of you) may have noticed I haven't had much to say about The Donald lately. I'm suffering from what is probably a common affliction these days: weirdness overload. I'll see the news first thing in the morning (the little bit of news I do see), think "Aha! That calls for a blog post!"but before I manage to start typing, something even more bizarre or outrageous or just flatout stupid has popped up.

Ivanka Trump's fashion line tanking and The Donald declaring war on Nordstrom. Kellyanne Conway violating federal employee ethics rules. The Donald indicating he plans to spend every weekend jetting between D.C. and Florida (and people had the nerve to complain when President Obama went to Hawaii once a year?). The Donald holding policy meetings discussing classified information in the middle of a public resaturant. Betsy DeVos. Michael Flynn and the Russians. Oprah scuttling a cabinet pick. Learning that he'd filed for re-election on what was basically his first day in office. Three weekends in a row of golfing in Florida after the man spent multiple years complaining about how much it cost taxpayers any time President Obama left Washington. It's a never ending shit storm. How the more political bloggers manage to deal with it all is beyond me.

Part of me has to wonder, as I've noticed a number of the more conspiracy minded types are doing, if the weirdness overload is all part of a nefarious plan, a deliberate attempt to keep everyone distracted while the truly evil stuff happens behind the scenes. I don't know. Is it really plausible that anyone, be it Vladimir Putin or Steve Bannon or whichever the puppet master you prefer, would deliberately set out to cross The Manchurian Candidate with a Three Stooges movie? I doubt it. (And I am now mentally casting movies about the Trump administration and trying to figure out which role Josh Rogen would be good in. And how on earth could any casting director mange to persuade any actor to portray a human toad like Bannon?)

As I noted in a previous post, The Donald doesn't appear to be a particularly smart man. He's a rich guy who succeeded primarily because he inherited money and has spent his entire life surrounded by butt snorklers and enablers who helped him survive in a gilded bubble. With one or two rare exceptions, everyone of his appointees and advisors falls into that same category: not particularly smart or talented, although some do possess a certain amount of avaricious cunning (his now irrelevant pick for Secretary of Labor fell into that category). Nope. In the case of the floundering, chaotic Trump administration, I don't think we need to look for conspiracies or grand schemes. Like the old saying goes, Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity -- and in the Trump administration there's definitely more than enough stupidity to go around.

On a positive note, it has been fun lately watching news clips of various Congress critters being confronted by their constituents. Anyone who thinks that showing up for town hall meetings and asking hard questions doesn't make a difference should take a look at the clips of representatives like Jason Chaffetz (Republican from Utah) freaking out as voters chant "Do your job!" and "Your last term!" Chaffetz was getting enough crap from the voters that he actually withdrew a resolution he had introduced that would have made it easier for the Bureau of Land Management to sell land. The resolution was actually fairly innocuous -- it dealt with lands that had been previously designated as suitable for sale and not as some activists seemed to think a wholesale auctioning off of national parks -- but given current public sentiment about keeping public lands public Chaffetz managed to stir up considerably more controversy than he'd anticipated.