Friday, December 28, 2012

Meanwhile, out here in the real world

I'm listening to the news this morning and once again (still, as usual) there's a lot of hot air being generated about the looming fiscal cliff and the horrible, horrible things that will happen if Federal Insurance Contributions Act (aka "payroll") taxes go back to the rates they used to be (6.2% instead of the current 4.2%). Now, I know there are some potential truly serious consequences if a budget deal isn't reached, most of which are completely unrelated to FICA, but I also know something that the inside-the-Beltway bloviating pundits and so-called experts won't acknowledge: most people either won't notice or don't care. Why won't they notice or care? I just spent a few days out in the real world out among people who do not spend their days wandering around the blogosphere. It was a good reminder that most people are not hard-core news junkies. The average person doesn't spend his or her days glued to Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN. They're not on the Internet obsessing over the latest posts on various political sites, and they're not reading multiple newspapers trying to glean the most recent bits of wisdom on current events. They may have a vague feeling Congress is busy being dysfunctional, but this isn't news. It doesn't touch them the way more immediate or local issues do, like whether or not it's going to snow enough to make it a good year for snowmobiling (tourist dollars) or if the price of gas will continue to drop.

Further, most people did not notice when their taxes dropped a couple years ago and they're unlikely to notice when they go back up again. Why? Well, although the pundits keep obsessing about what's going to happen to households earning more than $50,000 or $75,000 or some other number that allows them to say "Taxes will go up by $2000/$3000/whatever," the sad truth is that median household income in the U.S. right now is right about $50,000. That means half the households in the country have incomes low enough that any change is not going to be dramatic. Someone making minimum wage while working a part-time job might not even notice if his or her check is a dollar or two less than it might have been a couple weeks earlier, especially if the hours that person works vary from week to week -- and for a depressingly large percentage of the workforce, the hours do vary.

I can remember a few years ago when there was a lot of hype about the Bush income tax cuts. I don't recall exactly what I was earning then, but when I did the math, it turned out the tax cut worked out to the equivalent of one soda from a vending machine per week. Yep, my Bush tax cut was about $52 annually. No doubt it was nice to have a few extra coins each week, but if I hadn't been paying attention or if I worked irregular hours I might not have ever noticed. Would I have noticed if my taxes had gone up instead of down? I have no clue. Maybe, but maybe not. I noticed the Bush income tax cut because I was paying attention; the change in FICA withholding slid right past me at the time, and it involved more money.

Personally, I'm hoping FICA does go back to its old rate. Cutting it in the name of stimulating the economy was a truly stupid thing to do. FICA funds Social Security; reducing contributions to Social Security made no sense. All it did was play into the hands of the right-wing crowd that wants to eliminate old age insurance. By reducing the amount of money going into the Social Security trust fund, the right wingers positioned themselves for ratcheting up their claims Social Security is going broke. . . but that's a subject for a different post.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Good question


I knew I should have gotten an Xterra

The S.O. has posted about this, too, but what the heck, the more repetition the better. This blog doesn't get  a whole lot of traffic, but who cares? The bottom line is Ford Motor Company lies to its customers. We've been a Ford family forever, the few brand-new, fresh off the assembly line vehicles we've had have all been Fords, but never again. I had a minor issue with my Focus -- the battery died -- that according to the owner's manual should have been a no brainer. The company says they're so proud of their Motorcraft batteries they'll replace them free for 3 years from the day you get the car and will prorate a replacement for up to 100 months. It's in black and white in the manuals they hand you along with the keys.

When you read that verbiage, it seems pretty straight forward. Ford thinks their batteries are so great they'll stand behind them for a remarkably long time. Pshaw. That page is actually printed on Charmin.

Back in November when the S.O. discovered the battery had a dead cell, we figured we'd just have to plan on buying a new battery one of these days (he had a decent battery in one of his POS trucks so we stuck it in the Focus for now). Not long after that, he was looking at the recommended service schedule for the car and came across the page pictured above. So he called the Service Department at Copper Country Ford in Houghton. They told him that warranty doesn't apply to original equipment -- it's only good if you buy a replacement battery. Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if you think about it at all, because it's supposedly the same damn battery. Anyway, he got fed the same story when he called the Ford dealer, Fox Motors, up in Marquette.

So I called the national Ford Customer Service number. The first person I talked with started off doing the same speech as the dealers, but when I read her the verbiage and gave her the page number so they could look it up themselves, she put me on hold while she went to talk with someone higher up the food chain. When she came back, she said I was right and someone from the closest dealership (Copper County Ford) would contact me. Never happened, so I called back. Lots of apologies, a promise to expedite the case, and I'd hear from Copper Country Ford within 5 business days. Again, nothing happened. So I called back. This time it was back to the script the two dealerships had read from: "it only covers replacement batteries."

Well, it doesn't take a genius to realize there is absolutely nothing in the text pictured above to indicate it only applies to replacement batteries. It's a manual given to owners of brand new cars -- obviously, the guarantee is for original equipment.

Given that the amount of money involved at this point is fairly small -- and was in fact small to begin with (car batteries don't cost a lot in the overall scheme of things) -- Ford's complete unwillingness to honor their own written promise speaks volumes about the company. If they're going to refuse to cough up less than $100 toward a new battery, what's their reaction going to be if something major craps out on a car? If they won't honor the warranty on a battery, why should anyone believe they'd honor a warranty on a transmission or an engine?

Bottom line: if you're car shopping, stay away from Ford. I still love my Focus, but I know I'm never owning a new Ford again. And I'm really, really happy I never had to call for Ford Roadside Assistance -- I'd probably still be sitting by the side of the road somewhere waiting for help that never arrived.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A minor disappointment

A few years ago I thinned out my personal library. I'm not sure just how many books I owned, but it was a lot. I'd spent  several decades accumulating them and rarely discarded any. When the time came for the move from Omaha to Atlanta, though, the herd needed culling. I decided to get rid of any book that didn't pass the "I know I want to re-read this some day." This is a test the S.O. doesn't understand -- once he's read something, that's it. Doesn't matter how good the book was, once he's read it, he's never opening it again. I, on the other hand, enjoy going back occasionally and re-reading favorites. There are books on the shelves that are falling apart because I've worn them out through multiple readings.

Which brings me to my current reading material, A Game of Thrones. I am a huge George R. R. Martin fan. I started reading his short stories back in the '70s. Not surprisingly, I loved A Game of Thrones when I first read it back in 1996, and I've liked every other book in the series. I also like the HBO series. I've been meaning to go back and read the entire series (or what there is of it so far; Martin plans a total of seven volumes but has completed only five to date) ever since reading A Dance  with Dragons last year. Well, this week I finished everything I had checked out from the library, discovered said library is closed until December 26, so decided this would be a good time to re-read A Game of Thrones.

That's when I discovered a horrible thing has happened since 1996. Back then, once I started reading I had a hard time putting the book down. It was one of those novels where I'd start reading in early evening, get sucked into it,  and then discover the clock said 4 a.m. Now I'm having the opposite problem. The book has turned into a hard slog. Is it because seeing the series reminded me that Catelyn Stark is a stupid bitch, and I really don't care much about what happens to her or her self-centered, whining older daughter? Is it because I know Eddard Stark is going to die, and he's one of the few characters I actually like even if he is pigheadedly stupid? Who knows. The bottom line is that suddenly I'm looking at the other four volumes and wondering if hanging on to them was a mistake.

Even worse, I'm viewing the other books on the shelves, the non-Martin works, with suspicion, too. How bad was my judgement 10, 20, or 30 years ago? How disappointed am I going to be in a novel I thought was a keeper back in the '80s but turns out to be dreck now? How many books do I own that I've wasted time and energy toting around the country that could have just as easily gone to Goodwill? I'm going to try not to think about it. . .

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Do you know what this?

The logo pictured is one that I once would have assumed most people would recognize. Turns out I was wrong. We were watching the final episode of "Amazing Race" the other night, and two out the three final teams had to ask other people what it stood for. It was one of those jaw-dropping moments. I've got to admit, though, it was kind of fun to see a person wearing a University of Texas tee shirt asking a New Yorker just what the United Nations logo was. Ditto the Chippendale dancer with the good ol' boy accent -- way to go, guys, in perpetuating stereotypes about Southerners being dumber than the proverbial box of rocks.

In any case, one of the more depressing things to come out during every season of "Amazing Race" is just how appallingly ignorant the typical American is when it comes to anything that exists beyond the small bubble of their own hometowns. They find out they're going to Bangladesh and react by saying, "Great. I've always wanted to visit Africa." They're trying to find a location in Barcelona or Moscow or some other foreign city and get ticked off because no one speaks English. I would love to be able to say it's a generational thing, but the older contestants tend to be just as ignorant about geography as the 20-somethings. Ditto the cultural insensitivity and ugly American behavior traits -- seems like every season there's at least one team that's rude to the locals and then is baffled about why no one wants to help them.

Actually, I shouldn't be surprised at all that contestants on "Amazing Race" don't know much about the world. I'm willing to bet you could do a series that was a race around the United States, and there would be teams who couldn't identify any state other than their own on a map, thought Hawai'i was a foreign country,  and had never before been more than an hour's drive away from their hometowns. Despite being citizens of a country that was settled by pioneers, most Americans are not particularly adventurous nor are they very curious about anything that falls outside their comfort bubble.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Joys of rural living

We're heading down to Eagle River later today to visit the Older Daughter. We're going to do a little Christmas shopping, we're going to strategize about Christmas dinner, and I'm going to bring her an early gift: our trash.

One of the major headaches of living in a rural location is trash disposal. Back in the good ol' days, every little village and hamlet around here had its own dump, a totally unsanitary, unlined, and unsupervised landfill (usually an old gravel pit) that the locals dumped everything and anything into, from dead appliances to household garbage. Those local dumps were fun for scavengers, but an environmental hazard in the long run. Sooner or later, chemicals leaking out of that trash would find its way into local aquifers. So states started regulating dumps -- the small local ones vanished first, then the larger ones, and we're now to the point where one landfill in Ontonagon County handles trash from a multi-county area. This presents some problems for those of us who live far, far away from the landfill and have no local trash pickup.

Our personal solution, such as it is, has been to compost anything compostable, flatten metal cans and toss them into a junker that's eventually going to a scrap metal yard, wash glass bottles and eventually bring them to a recycling center, and burn anything burnable. End result is that it's taken us over a year to fill one 30-gallon trash bag with trash that doesn't fit into any of the above categories, stuff like burnt out lightbulbs and a dead coffeemaker. So today we're taking that one 30-gallon bag down to Eagle River, and it'll end up on the curb there. Alternatively, we could drive into town here and put it on the Arvon Transit & Disposal truck, but  I can never remember which days and times the garbage truck is at its designated pickup points.

I have been thinking about trash a lot lately, especially after seeing an article in the L'Anse Sentinel about a Michigan law that recently went into effect: it is now illegal to incinerate any trash other than paper outdoors . Apparently outdoor burn barrels are a significant source of toxins and carcinogens in the air -- translation: burning plastic milk jugs and styrofoam meat trays is now illegal. It hit me while reading the article that if we were to strictly observe the law, our less than 1 trash bag per year going to a landfill would climb to multiple bags per month. It also hit me that those of us who live in remote locations are going to find a loophole pretty damn fast -- and of course there is one. It is now illegal to use something like this:
Something like this is, however, totally legal:
The loophole is that while it is illegal to burn trash in what is effectively an open fire, if the smoke goes up a chimney or stack, you're fine. I cheerfully predict two things will happen if/when people start being cited for illegal trash burning: sales of barrel stove conversion kits are going to climb, and variations on a simpler mod (slapping a length or two of stovepipe on a barrel lid) will pop up pretty fast.

It occurs to me, too, that, compared to Texas, rural Michigan is pretty darn civilized when it comes to burning trash. We at least put it in barrels instead of just raking it into the roadside ditches and burning it there. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book review: Under a Flaming Sky

 Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 surprised me. I did not expect it to be a book that would cause me to read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was, after all, familiar with the outlines of the Hinckley story: the humongous wildfire, a firestorm, swooping down on the town, people fleeing for their lives with the fire literally at their heels, the hundreds of fatalities among those who found themselves with nowhere to run. I've been to the cemetery in Hinckley. I've seen the monument and the mass graves where most of the 496 known victims are buried. If anything, I thought I'd be reading the book slowly, forced to pause for a break from one horrific incident after another. Daniel James Brown, however, built the pauses into the book. Just as you think you're not up to reading about another victim suffocating in a root cellar or being burned alive while running for the river, Brown breaks away with an extended sidebar about forestry, logging history, burn treatment then and now, and other topics.

The emotional breathing spaces are in their own way rather horrifying, too. Each one is an explication of some aspect of the Hinckley disaster: definitions of wildfires and notable examples occurring before or after the Hinckley fire, an explanation of exactly how fire kills a person, burn treatment in 1894 and why most burn victims died, and so on. His descriptions, for example, of fire behavior now has me looking at the trees in our yard and the brushed-in  pastures and wondering just how many yards back I want to clearcut everything. A 40-acre lawn is looking good at the moment. Then again, if there ever was a fire of the type Brown describes, it might take more acres than we've got to create a safe zone. Maybe my disaster preparedness should include thinking of ways to get out of here fast if the one and only road is impassable.

The book is a straight forward narrative. The author explains his interest in Hinckley in the prologue: his grandfather had survived the fire. Later in the book, when Brown reveals his grandfather's name in the epilogue, we realize he did so by getting on to the one northbound train that managed to outrun the fire's progress. Brown begins the book proper with a description of conditions in the upper Lake States that summer -- unusually hot and dry weather that had persisted for many weeks, the fuel load in the woods (mountains of tinder dry slash from white pine logging) -- coupled with a rather casual attitude toward the possibility of fire. Small fires were so common that there had been haze in the air for many weeks; almost none of those fires near Hinckley had flared into anything so large it had been uncontrollable. A fire had burned Phillips, Wisconsin, to the ground in July, but apparently hadn't been seen as a warning sign elsewhere in the northwoods. Various residents of the Hinckley area are then  introduced: doctors, businessmen, housewives, children, farmers, millworkers, and railroad workers. As the timeline progresses, the fire inches closer to hitting Hinckley. Who lives, who dies is revealed as the narrative unfolds.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the book was the discussion of why people often respond irrationally in a disaster. One of the two trains* to make it out of Hinckley stopped at stations along the way to take on water for the boiler and to telegraph the railroad dispatcher in Duluth the news that Hinckley was destroyed and the railroad was now cut off from St. Paul. At each stop, the train crew and passengers, who truly looked like they'd just crawled straight out of Hell, urged the local people to evacuate immediately. Sandstone, Minnesota, for example, was only 11 miles from Hinckley. The people there could see and smell the smoke (it was already so thick the train crew wasn't sure the high trestle over the river was still there), there were embers falling, but when the train crew said, in essence, RUN!, almost no one did. The train was barely out of sight when the fire hit Sandstone and leveled the town. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that when it is most important that people think outside the box, they can't. People cope with fear by sticking to a familiar script.

The Hinckley fire and its aftermath, incidentally, is remarkably well-documented. A horde of journalists descended on the community right along with the relief workers, taking photographs and interrogating traumatized survivors. Newspapers as far away as London, England, published reports within 48 hours, and books with extensive first hand accounts appeared within a few months. In addition, a number of the survivors wrote memoirs and the local historical society collected oral histories. The Minnesota State Historical Society houses a number of collections, e.g., questionnaires completed by relief workers when they interviewed survivors, so there is a wealth of archival material.

As for the usual question -- would I recommend this book to other readers? -- the answer is Yes. It's well-written, fast-paced, and extremely interesting. Beyond that endorsement, I'll add that anyone who lives in an area where there is an urban-wildland interface should read this book and then start re-writing their internalized scripts. When someone says there's a wildfire heading your way, don't hang around telling yourself bad stuff only happens to other people or waiting to see if the firefighters are going to get it stopped before it gets to your subdivision. Just pack and leave.

[*One train was able to get through to Duluth; the second one was cut off not far out of town but made it to a small, muddy lake -- Skunk Lake -- and passengers and crew were able to survive by immersing themselves in the muck and water.]

Monday, December 3, 2012

Stuff

When we moved from Atlanta last year, we knew we couldn't just park the U-Haul in the front yard and unload it directly into the house here. This cabin was already fully furnished, right down to sheets on the bed. We'd have to integrate the Georgia stuff slowly while sorting through dishes, linens, you name it, and deciding what to keep and what to jettison. We rented a storage unit in town in October 2011, backed the U-Haul up to the door, and shoved everything off the truck into it. The process took a little longer than anticipated (doesn't everything?) but this past week we were finally put the last of the boxes into the car. No more storage unit.

The only problem, of course, is this place hasn't gotten any bigger in the past year. We also haven't really thinned things out much. Oh, a few boxes of dishes and miscellaneous household goods have gone to the St. Vincent de Paul store, but mostly what we've done is rearrange things. Organized them. Stacked the cartons neater so they fit into a more compact space. Nonetheless, we're still stuck with four or five U-Haul  Small Boxes stacked in the front hall while we try to figure out what to do with the contents. Two are labeled "dishes from china cabinet." I no longer have a china cabinet -- that was one of the items we did jettison in Atlanta.

I do, however, still have all the clutter and weirdness that used to live in it: the souvenir Coke can I picked up in DC one of the years the Redskins won the Super Bowl, my complete set of never-used Lord of the Rings goblets from Burger King, two Nestle Quik rabbit mugs, several hurricane-type drinks glasses from Macados in Blacksburg, a Copper Country dairy quart milk bottle, and a lot more stuff I sort of hate to acknowledge owning. You know, weirdness. This stuff doesn't fall into the category of "fine collectibles," nor does anything of it coalesce into a recognizable coherent collection of any sort.

You can justify having almost any amount of stuff if it's a "collection" -- there are a lot of people out there who will dedicate multiple rooms of a house to a "collection." Beer cans, Hummel figurines, Christmas pixies, you name it, if you own more than a handful, you can call it a collection. If I had a gazillion pieces of Nestle Quik advertising junk, it would be a collection. My Little Debbie dolls are a collection. Two mugs, on the other hand, are just weird. Ditto the lonely Redskins Coke can, especially when I loath the Redskins. And when you get a lot of little weird pieces, none of which relate to each other much, you start sliding into what can only be termed hoarding territory. So why am I keeping it all? Good question. At least the rabbit mugs are cute. Now all I have to do is figure out where to put them.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Alternatives to the Evil Empire

There's been a lot in the news recently about Walmart and the way the House of Satan (aka The Evil Empire) screws over its hourly employees: low wages, miserable scheduling, abusive working conditions, you name it. A number of people have tried to make various arguments why we should forgive the Evil Empire its sins, including variations on "but we po' folks need a place to shop for cheap shit," "it's what all employers on the low end of the wage scale do," and "it's not possible to turn a profit and sell for low prices simultaneously." Bullshit on all three.

Taking them in reverse order, there is the stellar example of Costco. Costco sells goods at remarkably low prices. Granted, you have to buy a membership, but that membership aspect isn't what makes Costco a decent place to work. It's the company's overall ethic and business philosophy. Sam's Club is also a membership discount retailer, and their human resources policies are classic House of Satan. What drives a business to treat employees like human Kleenex is an underlying corporate philosophy that values squeezing the last possible dime of profits out of every transaction -- a modest profit isn't good enough; the profit margin has to be ginormous. Granted, the corporate model in general lends itself to profit maximization above everything else; shareholders have been known to sue boards of directors and CEOs if they decide dividends have not been sufficiently maximized. That's a subject, however, for a different post. For now, suffice to say that Costco demonstrates it is possible to sell products cheaply and still pay livable wages, provide decent fringe benefits, and co-exist with labor unions. Businesses do not have to operate like Walmart; the ones that do have made a conscious decision to do so.

Second, the "all low wage employers do it" is pure nonsense. As a person who has labored in the trenches of low wage employment (at various times in my life I've been a nursing assistant, hotel maid, and dash waxer in a car wash) I know that the fact a job is a minimum wage position does not mean the workers also have to tolerate some of the garbage Walmart is notorious for doing. Example: I worked as a nursing assistant or restorative therapy aide at four different nursing homes. All four provided the same level of skilled nursing care, had similar numbers of patients and staff, and in each case the entry level wage was whatever the legal minimum wage was at the time. Two were decent places to work; two sucked. Why did two of them suck? Management. At one, management deliberately cultivated a climate of uncertainty: you wouldn't know from week to week just how many hours you were going to work in a week or what days you would be scheduled. Each weeks' work schedule would be posted at the last minute, making it impossible to effectively plan either your budget or your life. Working in a nursing home is stressful to begin with; adding stress was a good way to guarantee a higher turnover rate among employees.

From what I hear, Walmart does post schedules fairly far in advance. However, one of the games Walmart does play with schedules is to keep as many employees as possible as part-time workers. Most of their stores are open 24/7; nonetheless, most workers are there less than 30 hours in a week. Why? Because if they go over 30 hours in a week, they qualify for the Walmart health benefits plan. Instead of doing the decent thing -- scheduling to maximize full-time employment and thus allowing their human resources to benefit from the company health plan (not to mention avoiding the need to juggle multiple part-time low wage jobs) -- they go in the opposite direction. Walmart trains its managers to respond to requests for more hours of work from employees by steering employees to the local social services office to apply for Medicaid. Again, I will grant that the nature of the business requires that some workers will always be part-time -- certain times of the day or days of the week will always be busier than others so full staffing isn't always going to be necessary -- but Walmart's policy of trying to minimize as much as possible its number of fulltime employees has been well-documented, as has its policy of steering workers toward welfare to supplement work.

Finally, there's the "where will we go for cheap crap?" rationale. Well, depending on just what type of cheap crap you need, there are places like Family Dollar, Dollar General, and so on. Family Dollar is almost everywhere, thanks to the low start-up cost for the franchise, and they're cheaper than Walmart on a lot of items -- you just have to learn to shop carefully and recognize that the inventory at Family Dollar or Dollar General is not going to be as huge as that of a Super Walmart. Aldi is a good cheap source for groceries -- the chain has its own in-house brands and a limited product line, but, depending on what you need, they're cheaper than Walmart. Target has been beating Walmart's prices lately, so have various regional or local chains. Before assuming Walmart is your one and only option, look around.

I never have understood the fascination with Walmart and the belief so many people have that everything there is a bargain. Back when I was in grad school at VaTech, a new Walmart opened in Christiansburg. People were so excited about it that there was actually a shooting in the Walmart parking lot over a parking space. We waited until the initial insanity died down a bit and then checked it out. I did get a good deal on a television set, but when I took the time to comparison shop for stuff I was buying on a more routine basis, there were better deals at Rose's, Hill's, and Kmart. Nonetheless, Walmart did a nice job of snuffing all three of those chains. Advertising does indeed work wonders when it comes to consumer perceptions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

You are what you eat?

The MSN news feed has a story about some poor sap who choked to death after winning, I kid you not, a cockroach eating contest. The post-mortem exam found that his airway was "blocked with arthropod parts." Apparently those creepy little legs and nifty shiny wings don't slide down as the gullet easily as hot dogs or other more typical eating contest treats.

You know, I'm not a believer in an afterlife, but if there is one, it won't matter where this guy ends up. Can you imagine spending eternity being razzed about dying because you ate cockroaches?  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pulitzer Project: In This Our Life

Every so often I'll read a book and find myself mentally casting the movie, but it usually doesn't happen immediately. The 1942 Pulitzer winning novel, Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life, was an exception. As soon as the author introduced two of the characters, it hit me: this book was a Bette Davis movie. The physical description of the younger daughter, Stanley Timberlake, just screamed Bette Davis. So did the personality of the character. Of course, it helped that the book is a classic soap opera: a family that at one time had been wealthy but is now just barely getting by; a head of household who's been married for many years to a hypochondriac that he doesn't especially like, let alone love; two sisters with radically different personalities who end up in love with the same man. Soap opera at its best.

In This Our Life  is set in the 1930s in a Virginia city not far from Washington, DC. The Timberlake family had actually come out of the Civil War in pretty good shape but by the 1930s had hit the economic skids. Asa Timberlake's grandfather had owned a tobacco factory that was doing quite well but then was somehow squeezed out by a larger firm; Asa saw the family go from being one of the wealthiest in town to his mother having to take in boarders. Unable to afford college, as a teenager Asa went to work at what had been his family's factory and was still there almost 50 years later. Despite his own penury, he had managed to marry a woman with a rich uncle. It was thanks to the uncle that the family had a decent house, among other things. At the time the novel opens, Asa's  three children are adults: his son Andrew is married with children of his own; the two girls, Roy and Stanley, live at home, although Roy is also married. Roy and her husband, Peter, are living with the Timberlakes to save money until Peter's medical practice is more solidly established.

There had apparently always been a strong sibling rivalry between the two girls. Roy is described as being a quiet brunette; Stanley is an extroverted, perky blonde. Stanley is also the spoiled one. The rich uncle dotes on her while basically ignoring her older, quieter sister, Roy. Uncle William showers Stanley with lavish gifts and even treats her to a Grand Tour of Europe after she finishes school. (Uncle William has a thing for blondes; it's mentioned in passing several times that he kept a blonde mistress in New York.) Despite being everyone's pet, Stanley is never satisfied. Anything Roy has, Stanley wants. When they were children, Stanley would snatch Roy's toys away. Now that they're adults, you guessed it -- she wants the husband. Stanley had been in Europe when Roy married Peter, but once she's back under the same roof as her sister, it doesn't take long for old patterns to resurface. The soap opera begins. Before it ends, we're treated to a jilting, an adulterous relationship, a suicide, a terminal cancer case, a fatal hit-and-run, a wrongfully accused black chauffeur (played by Ernest Anderson in the movie), and a second jilting. It must have been a blast for the actors involved in the film -- lots and lots of opportunity for scenery chewing (and Bette Davis was one of the great scenery chewers; Olivia DeHaviland, Billie Burke, and Hattie McDaniel were no slouches either).

In This Our Life definitely does not qualify as Great Literature. It's soap opera, a fine tradition in American letters but not exactly material that spawns academic dissertations or conferences devoted to the life of the author. It's competently written, albeit a bit odd in places (female characters named Roy and Stanley?), and qualifies easily as "light reading." It's the equivalent of a beach book, although its discussion of race relations and the unfairness of the justice system does introduce a serious note about society as a whole. I've no idea why the Pulitzer judges decided this was the best novel they'd seen that year. Maybe its normalcy appealed to them. The previous winner, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, has to set some sort of record for being one of the most depressing books of all time. Maybe, given the social climate (in 1942 the U.S. was embroiled in a World War) a best seller that was basically fluff held a lot of appeal. The Timberlakes have their problems, no one is really happy, but in general they're surviving.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Probably not. It's not bad, but it does feel dated. It's better than some of the other Pulitzer winners -- I was, after all, able to finish it -- but not by much.

Next up on the list, Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

49 years ago today

Forty-nine years ago today.

The Mother of All Yankee Candle Stores

Okay, I know I've grumbled about this before, but why can't the authors, scriptwriters, filmmakers, and anyone else who dabbles in post-apocalyptic fiction get it right? I think the last book I read that was reasonably accurate in its descriptions of Life After Armageddon (aka Life After the Grid Collapses) was Alas, Babylon, which was published in 1959. In that novel, things did fall apart fast once electricity vanished, right down to (if I recall correctly) the main characters noting that the pace of life changed dramatically without electric lights: they muse about the fact that now when the sun goes down, they go to bed. There was none of that sitting around the living room while burning the equivalent of a Party Lites dealer's entire stock of decorative candles.

What brings on this morning's grumblings, you ask? Last night the S.O. and I began watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. Yes, I know we're late to the party. The series is now into (or perhaps past) its third season. However, when it first premiered, we were still living in Atlanta, which is where the series was being filmed. I didn't need to watch a television show to know that Atlanta was a shit hole full of the walking dead. I worked with them. I was also stuck in traffic with them on a regular basis. You think that scene of the Interstate with the outbound lanes totally full of immobile cars is a bit of creative fiction? Ha. That's I-85, I-75, or I-20 leading out of town on any Friday afternoon.

But that wasn't what inspired this morning's mutterings. Nope, it was the three survivors, two adult men and a  little boy, sitting around the living room after sundown with the room lit up like a 19th century German Christmas tree. Not content to have candles burning on every conceivable surface, the set dressers also had 2, count 'em, 2 gas Coleman lanterns blazing away. Once again I ask, what did they do - find the Mother of All Yankee Candle stores to raid? Just how frigging bright do these filmmakers and tv series producers think people need to have a room in order to see to have a simple conversation? I know it is possible, through the magic of filters, specialized lighting, and various technical tricks, to film people in rooms lit with as little as one candle, so why don't these post-apocalyptic series ever do that? Instead they do set dressing that makes it look as though the characters can just stroll down to the mall (or call the Party Lite dealer) to restock anytime. And that b.s. with the two Coleman lanterns was just overkill. One Coleman lantern would be the equivalent of a good table or ceiling light. In lumens, a Coleman set on high is brighter than a 75-watt incandescent bulb, so there's no way a person would need two of them plus several dozen candles just to sit around the living room chatting about the how and when of the Zombie Apocalypse.

Which, of course, leads to a variation on my Mother of All Yankee Candles rant: just where the heck did they find 2 Coleman gas lanterns and the fuel for them? You can find candles in any neighborhood Family Dollar store, but Coleman lamps and the white gas they burn are a little more specialized.

I'm not even going to get into the idiocy of the cop deciding to take a horse from the farm instead of looking for either a fuel barrel (if you've got a farm, odds are you've got a fuel drum somewhere full of gas for the tractor) or something to use to make a siphon hose. Instead he takes the horse and heads into downtown Atlanta. The S.O. looked at the street scene and speculated that he was heading for IKEA, god knows why (maybe he thought he could pick up some Swedish meatballs for lunch). If he was a Georgia sheriff's deputy and came down I-85, he had to know he'd passed the exits for the Centers for Disease Control (site of the supposed refugee camp) six or seven miles back.

And, yes, we're going to keep watching. If nothing else, the ensuing episodes should fuel lots more rants about people who write post-apocalyptic fiction being buried so deep in the device paradigm of modern technology that they can't effectively imagine life without it. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The stupid, it burns

I've been watching with some bemusement as the Republican Party indulges in denial, scapegoating, and various odd rhetorical exercises in trying to explain why President Obama is won the election. I am kind of wondering just how much longer this blame game will go on; the election was over a week ago and it does seem like the GOP should be moving on to the next stage of grief instead of being stuck in Denial indefinitely.

A few brave souls have admitted that (a) the GOP candidate was an unlikable rich bastard and probably not electable from Day One and (b) President Obama just flat out ran a better campaign. The Obama team had a better ground game, was better organized, and for sure had a much stronger grasp on reality. Those folks who are risking becoming pariahs within the GOP by speaking the truth do seem, however, to be the minority. Most are coming out with some really strange rationalizations. Like Paul Ryan.

The New York Times has an article in which Mr. Ryan notes that, in essence, President Obama won because he carried the urban vote. No shit, Sherlock. Cities are where most of the people are. If you can win in all the major metropolitan areas in the country, odds are you're going to carry the states in which they're located. That is, after all, the bottom line in winning elections: if more people vote for your candidate than for the opposition, your candidate wins. Complaining, as some Republicans are doing, that the "wrong" people voted,* i.e., people who happen to be gay or black or Native American or, heaven forfend, female (you know, the people most of us simply refer to as Americans), just solidifies the GOP's reputation as being the last refuge of desperate, aging white men.

Over at Bad Tux, a commenter provided a link to a graphic that takes the usual red states/blue states electoral map and adjusts it for population density. The graphic provides a side by side comparison of results by county, by state, and then with the population density adjusted by county. It isn't a cartogram that distorts the geographic dimensions; instead it adjusts the color based on population. And what do you see? Most of the red areas are so thinly populated there's almost no color there. You can't win a national election when the areas that support you have more cows than people.

*One of the more amusing aspects of listening to the GOP whine was hearing their so-called experts explain that no one expected that the same people who turned out to vote for President Obama in 2008 would vote again in 2012. Unbelievable. If I had the experience many first-time voters had in 2008 that not only did my candidate win, it was a mind-blowing historic moment, that alone would ensure that I'd be back at the polls in 2012. Did idiots like Karl Rove actually believe that Obama supporters were going to do a "been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, don't need to do it again" as though voting for President was akin to a trip to Disneyworld? The stupid, it burns. 

[And, yes, I do know that Paul Ryan pontificating about the urban vote is probably another way of saying "the wrong people voted," but I'd rather focus on how remarkably stupid it is on the surface than engage in deconstructions of the subtext.]

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My hopes have been dashed


Today's Washington Post. Not even 48 bloody hours!

Bring on the tinfoil hats

As one might have predicted, the right-wing's reaction to President Obama's re-election has brought the crazies out in full force. You know, after every election you know there are going to be sore losers, folks who are absolutely convinced that the only reason their guy (or gal) lost is the other side stuffed the ballot box. They'll rant about voter fraud and other shenanigans, but, other than a lot of grumbling that most of us recognize as being a way to vent after a disappointing result, they're generally reasonably sane in their responses.

And then there's the stunning cognitive dissonance displayed by the tinfoil hat types on the far right. We've spent the past 4 years hearing about how President Obama was an extreme left-wing radical socialist who was going to force us all to live in some sort of European-style socialist hell hole. So now that the President has won re-election, how are those tinfoil hat types reacting? The Southern Poverty Law Center reported on various reactions around the country and quoted this gem: “If you can immigrate to Europe you start making plans. … " You got it. The radical right spent 4 years ranting about the evils of Europe with its high taxes and heavy-handed socialist agenda, but now that their dreams here have been crushed, where should they go? Europe. 

Of course, part of the reason for retreating to Europe is the angry white base of the Republican Party is not at all happy about the shifting demographics in the U.S. They see their bubble of white privilege steadily shrinking and it scares the bejesus out of them. They can't handle it -- they keep talking about the country going to hell in the proverbial handbasket because whites will be a minority in a few decades. Apparently they think it's going to turn into Haiti overnight if old rich white guys stop running it. More cognitive dissonance (or perhaps denial). I've been hearing for years that there's no such thing as "white privilege," but now that it seems to be poised to vanish, lots and lots of white people are freaking out. Maybe it's beginning to sink in with a few of the bigots that actions have consequences. When you treat some people like shit for decades, odds are they're not going to be particularly inclined to be nice to you when the balance of power shifts. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

72 hours?

I give it until about Friday before the campaigning for 2016 begins.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Joys of Insomnia

I am a notoriously early riser, but 2 a.m. is a little ridiculous. Have no clue why, but here I am -- wide awake and apparently incapable of going back to sleep for awhile. No doubt I'll feel ready to crawl back into bed right about the time the sun comes up.

If I were smart, I'd take advantage of being up to do some work. There are two projects taking up space on the desk with mid-November deadlines, and so far I seem to be doing a fine job of ignoring both. One is a grant application I volunteered to write for a local nonprofit. The instructions that came with the form were perhaps the vaguest I've ever seen for a funding opportunity. Maybe the best time to write an equally vague application would be when I've only had a couple hours sleep and am operating in a mental fog.

But will I do anything that productive? Probably not. Instead I'll just wander the Intertubes, reading celebrity gossip and solving online jigsaw puzzles.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Literary influences


Over at Possum Living, Tracy did a post a few days ago with a photo of a reserved parking space at a law firm in Grand Junction, Colorado. His post reminded me that back in the '60s, when I was still young and impressionable, there were several books that were "must reads" among my more literate friends. The big three were Stranger in a Strange Land, Lord of the Rings, and Atlas Shrugged. Some of us read them all, some read only one or two, but I'm pretty sure everyone I knew back then recognized every book as being pure fiction, the equivalent of Peyton Place or Hotel but with (perhaps) slightly more literary merit. I don't recall anyone viewing any of the novels as laying out some core philosophy on which they planned to model their lives. Oh, some of us went through a phase where we'd talk about "grokking" something, and at one point a friend and I actually wrote notes to each other using Tolkien's runes. None of us, however, ever took Atlas Shrugged seriously. 

I'm not sure why. We were definitely nerdy, which seems to be a prerequisite for being seduced by Ayn Rand and Objectivism. It's obvious there are a lot of people out there (Congressman Paul Ryan springs immediately to mind) who were deeply influenced by what now strikes me as being a godawful novel with turgid prose, improbable plotting, clunky characterization, and truly boring, boring, boring wordsmithing (I'm thinking now the only reason I ever read the entire thing to begin with was I had too many hours of study hall my senior year and, bad though the book was, it beat doing trigonometry problems). Even stranger, not only do they read it, they think it lays out a reasonable philosophy for running a country. I don't get it. Why fall for the philosophical musing of Ayn Rand and not some other author? I know that by the time Congressman Ryan was an adolescent, the "must read" list of novels had changed. He graduated from high school in 1989 during an era when Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy were dominating the best seller lists. Why didn't he have Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan fantasies? What on earth was the attraction of Atlas Shrugged

For that matter, and fine-tuning my bafflement a little, what on earth was and is the attraction of Rand's atheist philosophy, Objectivism, to persons like Congressman Ryan who claim to be devout Christians? One of Objectivism's core tenets is a belief in reason and science, which is essentially the antithesis of religion. A belief in Objectivism and a belief in God strike me as incompatible -- you can have one or the other but not both. For that matter, how do you square a philosophy that advocates selfishness (objectivism) with one that advocates charity and social responsibility (Christianity)? It's a mystery. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interesting visual history

If you go to the original website, you can see it full size there. Enlarging doesn't seem to be working here. It's worth taking a close look at.

Politics

The election draws closer, Hurricane Sandy is all over the news, and I'm wondering just how long it will take for the tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists to decide that President Obama and NOAA deliberately caused the Frankenstorm just to make the President look good right before the election. It would be totally in character for the wingnuts; they alternate between asserting that President Obama is an incompetent loser who hasn't achieved a single thing during his time in office and ascribing almost superhuman powers to him. I've always wondered how people can manage to function without their heads exploding when they spout two completely contradictory ideas simultaneously, but they do it. It's also pretty much guaranteed the same Tea Party fanatics who were working themselves into a frenzy over Obamacare and too much big government will be first in line looking for government help when the storm blows itself out.

On the local level, as the election approaches we're being buried under an avalanche of paper advertising. At least two print shops are doing very, very well this year. The Republicans are determined to convince us to vote for three specific candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Democrats are determined to convince us that Matt Huuki (our current state representative) is more interested in raping the environment and lining his own pockets than he is in the legitimate concerns of his constituents. I keep expecting the next flyer to denounce Matt as the Anti-Christ -- the graphics and text are growing more dramatic with each mailing. He does seem to be much too cozy with Rio Tinto for my taste, though, and was one of the legislators who basically handed the Upper Peninsula to the mining companies and said, in essence, "Rape away and don't worry about cleaning up the toxic mess you leave." He may not be the Anti-Christ, but he's definitely a corporate tool. He does a lot of cheerleading for mining interests, but doesn't seem to get it that extractive industries are never the route to long-term economic stability. It doesn't matter what the mineral is; there's going to be a finite amount of it. Sooner or later, every mine closes, the mining company moves out, and the local people are left with the sediment ponds, tailings dumps, and beaches black with stamp sand.

In any case, I really wish Michigan allowed early voting. I know there's going to be a line at the polls next week; I am looking back nostalgically at Georgia. There were lines there, too, even with early voting, but it definitely eliminated some of the congestion on election day itself. I know some politicians dislike the idea of early voting (it eliminates the effectiveness of last minute electioneering), but it's a boon to the voters.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Sequoyah's Cabin

Sequoyah apparently searching the sky for inspiration while working on his syllabary.
After the S.O. and I decided we'd take the long way home through Oklahoma, I checked to see what points of interest might fall close to US-259/US-59. There were several possibilities, but the two that struck me as most intriguing were Spiro Mounds and Sequoyah's Cabin, both of which are state historic parks. Given a choice between the two, I opted for the latter. I've seen lots and lots of piles of dirt, and, yes, it's interesting that various mound building cultures built mounds, and, yes, the artifacts looted from those mounds and now displayed in on-site museums are interesting, too, but it's always rather impersonal and vague. Sequoyah, on the other hand, was an actual person, someone with a known history and compelling narrative.
Structure built by the WPA in the 1930s to protect Sequoyah's cabin
Sequoyah, who was also known as George Gist or George Guess, was born sometime between 1770 and 1776 in eastern Tennessee near what is now the city of Knoxville. Much of his early life is unknown; his mother was Cherokee, and, depending on the source, his father was either a British fur trader, a Scotsman, or the half-Indian son of a fur trader or Scotsman. Similarly, the source of Sequoyah's disability is unclear. He was lame in one leg, but whether this was the result of a birth defect or an early childhood injury is not known. The lameness is, however, probably the reason for the unnatural position Sequoyah has assumed in the sculpture shown above: it's the artist's attempt at indicating one leg was weaker than the other.

Sequoyah's cabin
When I was in elementary school, I read a book about Great Indian Leaders. It was, in retrospect, a thoroughly sanitized version of their lives, but I do remember being fascinated by Sequoyah. He was, of course, presented in heroic terms first for overcoming his handicap (the bad leg) to become a skilled silversmith and then for his invention of an "alphabet" for the Cherokee. I'm not sure just how much of a handicap the bad leg actually was -- Sequoyah was a veteran of the War of 1812; he served as a warrior in the Cherokee Regiment at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend -- but creation of the Cherokee syllabary was indeed a remarkable invention.
Interior, Sequoyah's cabin. The spinning wheel supposedly was made by Sequoyah.
A syllabary is a system of writing that uses a unique symbol for each sound in a language. Once you learn the symbols, you can sound out any document written in Cherokee phonetically and, if you speak Cherokee, know immediately what it means. This puts the Cherokee "alphabet" into a different category than the Roman alphabet we use for English writing. English has numerous combinations of letters in words that can look similar but sound differently -- tough, though, and through spring immediately to mind. Theoretically, that can't happen in Cherokee. Not having any first-hand knowledge of it myself, I don't know what type of possibilities for confusion lurk in Sequoyah's syllabary, but it would appear to be a much easier written language to learn than English is.
Typewriter with Cherokee keys donated to the State Historical Society. 
Sequoyah's invention of the syllabary was greeted with skepticism initially, but once he convinced a few influential leaders that it worked and that anyone could learn it, it spread quickly. In 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper, began publishing using the syllabary, and the syllabary remains in wide use today. The existence of a written language has been credited as helping to maintain the ethnic and cultural cohesion of the Cherokee nation.
Sequoyah's Cabin state historic park was, not surprisingly, a WPA project. After Sequoyah died around 1844 (the exact date is not known), his farm was sold to a family named Blair. Sequoyah had built the cabin shortly after moving to Oklahoma; the Blairs added on to the original cabin after they bought the farm. In 1936 the Blair family transferred the property to the State of Oklahoma. To protect the cabin, the State Historical Society used WPA funding to construct a building around it. The cabin is on its original site, but is now completely enclosed by another building. This is a preservation approach I have real mixed feelings about -- it's saving the structure by putting it in a bubble, but it's significantly altering the context.
Visitor Center, Sequoyah's Cabin 
The addition built by the Blairs was removed and rehabilitated for use as the Visitor Center at the park. Considering its remarkably good condition after being subject to the elements for over 70 years, I have even more mixed feelings about the stone bubble around Sequoyah's Cabin.
In addition to the stone bubble, the WPA workers built some nice stone walkways, a wall enclosing the park, and some other structures. Overall, it's a nice little park, beautifully maintained, and with a pleasant picnic area (something you don't always see at historic sites). Going by the number of signatures in the Guest Book, the site doesn't get many visitors, which is a shame. It's an interesting place and does a nice job of describing Sequoyah's life and the importance of his syllabary.
Stump carved into a bear in the picnic area.
Admission to the park is free, but there is the usual donation box. Given the sad state of park budgets everywhere these days (the Oklahoma state parks website warns visitors to call ahead to make sure a park is actually open because limited funds can mean hours of operation can get cut back unexpectedly), if you do go, be generous. Sequoyah's Cabin is located about 10 miles northeast of the city of Sallisaw on state highway 101.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Obesity Epidemic Explained

Okay, maybe not. It's probably a totally spurious correlation, but after doing some refrigerator shopping, I couldn't help but wonder: is there a connection between the U.S. population going from using this:
to using this:
26.5 cubic feet capacity refrigerator
The number of people in a household has been dwindling, with the typical family having fewer kids in recent decades than they did 50 or 60 years ago, yet the capacity of the refrigerators in our kitchens keeps growing. Why on earth would any household require a 26.5 cubic feet capacity refrigerator? Even when we had kids at home, I think the biggest refrigerator the S.O. and I ever owned was one with 14 cubic feet capacity. What do people fill those humongous refrigerators with? It has to be convenience food (aka junk) because it doesn't matter how big the fridge, fresh food (i.e., salad greens, meat) has a limited shelf life, and even yogurt goes bad eventually. What else can a person fill those multiple door shelves with other than soda or beer? No one has that many bottles of condiments. 

It is, however, remarkably difficult to find a refrigerator that actually matches up with your real world needs. Anyone who's ever seen "Househunters International" knows that quite a bit of the rest of the world manages just fine without the mega-appliances Americans insist on buying: under-the-counter refrigerators not much bigger than a typical dorm fridge here are the norm in European countries. But try finding a smaller refrigerator if you've decided that's what you need -- it's not easy. 

The S.O. and I found ourselves refrigerator-shopping right after getting home from a 3-week vacation the other day. We walked in the door Friday evening and discovered a puddle of Breyer's in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. The appliance had mysteriously chosen to die right about the same time we left Texas. We could tell it hadn't been dead long because the ice cubes were still basically ice cubes, but it was definitely dead. It made noises like it was working, but the temperature in it kept rising. I've had better homecomings.

We were limited in just what size replacement appliance we could buy; the old refrigerator (a 10.3 cubic foot Haier) lived under the stairs in a space that was basically built around it. This is a small house with a galley kitchen; there simply isn't the square footage for one of those mega-Frigidaires. Whatever we got had to be less than 24 inches wide; that considerably narrowed our choices when it came to what was available immediately.

We did toy with the idea of going even smaller than the 10.3 Haier and getting a 4.6 cubic foot refrigerator that would have been small enough that we could have put a base cabinet under it. I was briefly psyched by the prospect of adding more storage in the kitchen. In the end, though, it was the door shelves that decided the matter. The 4.6 models were all set up with a can rack in the door where you could stack your cans of Coke or cheap beer, and we had no use whatsoever for such a "convenience." We found a 12-cubic foot Whirlpool and hauled it home. I can tell already it's more refrigerator than we actually need, but it fits in the space and the price was right. 

According to the various pieces of information I could find on Whirlpool, it's possible this new refrigerator was actually made in the USA. The S.O. did a fair amount of cursing while trying to reverse the doors because the screws/bolts/whatever were actually American Standard instead of metric. He's gotten so used to everything being made in China or wherever that he automatically reaches for metric parts and tools whenever he has to work on anything these days. 

I keep thinking about the Kelvinator we jettisoned earlier this summer. It no longer worked particularly well, but it did still work -- and it was 70 years old. There's a Frigidaire at the museum over in Baraga that dates to the 1920s, and it still works. The made-in-China Haier died after less than 10 years; I wonder how long this Whirlpool will last? 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Random road thoughts

It's going to be hard to get used to driving 55 again after spending a few weeks in Texas. The State of Texas posts roads at 70 mph that would be 55 at best here in Michigan and that would, in addition, have caution signs on every curve warning you not to exceed 35.

There are some things Texas seems to do really well, and other things are just plain odd. Example of a good idea in Texas: if it's a state maintained road, the Texas Department of Transportation is in charge of providing a mail box post. You bring your U.S. Postal System-approved mailbox to the local DOT and they do the installation. It means all the mailboxes on the busier roads are on posts that won't turn into air-borne weapons if someone goes off the road and hits one, and it also means all the mailbox posts have highly visible reflectors on them. Much as I'm a fan of roadside eccentricity (mailboxes mounted on welded chain, old metal wheels, chunks of twisted wood, etc.), I've got to admit the Texas DOT had a good idea. Not only the mailboxes safer, there are no visual distractions.

As for the just plain odd, why are the breaker boxes for the power mounted on the outside of so many houses in Texas? Why put it right under the meter where the service enters the house? Isn't it going to be a real pain in the behind to have to go looking for a tripped breaker in the middle of the night or in the rain? Whatever happened to the concept of putting the service panel in a utility room or in a closet wall? Or this all just part of the personal freedom Texans enjoy from little constraints like building codes and licensing requirements for electricians and other contractors?

Not content to skin tourists at the casino, the Choctaw of Oklahoma are determined to get them at the gas pumps, too. Gasoline prices were relatively low and dropping all the way from Fairmount, Texas, up into Oklahoma. And then we hit Broken Bow and the Choctaw Nation. The highest prices we saw in that state were all within a few miles of the Choctaw casino. Came as a bit of a shock. Here in the U.P., the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is universally hated by all the private gas station owners and distributors because KBIC always has the lowest prices. If gas is $3.89 in L'Anse, it'll be at least 20 cents lower at the KBIC-owned station over in Baraga.

On the other hand, the drive up US-259 to US-59 to Sallisaw was quite scenic. Not sure if the Ouachita Mountains really make up for getting gouged at the pump, but it was a pretty drive.

Oklahomans really, really hate Texas. Evidence?

Speaking of politics, Claire McCaskill has some great ads running in Missouri. Here's hoping they help her. Other than McCaskill's ads, though, the political advertising in Missouri was bizarre -- there were ads being paid for by Republicans that tried to make it sound like Democrats are planning to do (or have done) all the things the Republicans actually want to do (privatize Social Security, for example) and ads being run by Democrats that you'd swear were written by Karl Rove. The typical voter in that state has to be thoroughly confused; the advertising in general was both dirty and misleading.

The amount of political advertising we saw while watching network television in motel rooms en route made me quite happy to be heading back to television via the Internet only -- it's not as convenient as being able to just turn on a tv and click around with the remote, but it does eliminate most advertising.

And now we're home, back at the ranch and getting ready to deal with whatever weirdness may have occurred during our 3-week absence. One more cup of coffee and I may have the energy to go looking for problems.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ennui, apathy, or lack of inspiration?

The Younger Daughter mentioned last night that I didn't seem to do much blogging lately. No kidding. I'm not sure why. I have moments when I think "That would make a good blog post," but by the time I get to the computer, the idea has passed. Maybe it's retirement -- back when I worked for Large Nameless Agency (aka the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), LNA provided examples of bureaucratic ineptitude for me to rant about on practically a daily basis. Ditto some of my idiot co-workers. Now I'm retired -- what can I bitch about? The S.O.? I don't think so. He has his annoying moments, but don't we all? The economy? Yes, it's still a mess, but that's old news. Politics? Ditto. I've been bitching about tinfoil hat Republican insanity for four years now; I think my well of outrage is running dry. Either that, or I need to start watching C-SPAN again. C-SPAN callers used to provide a fair amount of inspiration, but I seem to have kicked my C-SPAN addiction. Besides, there are a whole lot of other blogs, including ones I've got listed among my favorite time wasters, that do political analysis much, much better than I do. So what's left? Book reviews? Food porn? Maybe I need to get back to some of the stuff I thought I was going to do when I started this blog: roadside weirdness, national parks, and historic preservation.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Can't cure stupid

Lately the S.O. has been indulging in an exercise in frustration in trying to communicate with some right-wing relatives. He spends way too much time exchanging comments on Facebook while muttering about how fucking stupid some people are. This behavior tells me it's definitely time for us to hit the road back to Michigan -- he needs to be using that energy to finish filling the woodshed before the snow gets to be asshole deep instead of wasting it in cyberspace. He could type until his fingers bled and it wouldn't change anyone's mind. The relatives in question are the classic example of what I (elitist left-wing Commie that I am) tend to think of as the brainwashed proletariat -- they fret a lot about creeping socialism and President Obama being a Marxist without having a clue as to what socialism or Marxism actually are.* They just know that they've been told that socialism is evil so it's become a convenient label to slap on to anything and everything they've been told to oppose.

I don't know why the S.O. bothers. I figured out quite awhile ago that there are some people who like to talk but are incapable of listening, so it's pointless to try to engage in a dialogue. It's especially pointless when you're dealing with people who have trouble understanding some fairly basic concepts, like the difference between socialism and fascism, or who rant about the evils of big government while working for a corporation that depends 100% on government funding. When people are so oblivious or willfully ignorant that they don't get it that shrinking government would result in their own unemployment or eliminate their benefits arguing with them is a waste of time and energy. All you can do is walk away while being quietly grateful that the people in question are fairly distant relatives, not close ones, and that they don't live next door.

[*As an actual Marxist who has known genuine, ideologically committed Socialists and Communists, it always annoys the crap out of me to see the labels applied to corporatist politicians like Barack Obama who 50 years ago would have been Eisenhower Republicans.]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hodges Gardens State Park, Florien, Louisiana

Visitor Center and Gift Shop, Hodges Gardens
 Hodges Gardens State Park is a fairly new addition to the Louisiana parks system and is located in western Louisiana about an hour's drive from Natchitoches. The gardens were created in the 1950s by a businessman, A. J. Hodges, who  made his fortune in the oil and gas industry. Mr. Hodges hired Hare and Hare, a landscape architecture firm noted for designing municipal parks in the Midwest, to turn a site that included an abandoned quarry into a garden that took advantage of the irregular terrain. The property was part of a large tract of land Hodges had purchased in the 1930s. At the time, the tract was in sad shape following years of unsustainable logging. Hodges applied principles of modern forestry to restore the pine forests and then, after World War II, turned his attention to the gardens site. The gardens opened to the public in 1956, but were in private ownership until 2007 when the Hodges Foundation transferred the park to the state of Louisiana.
Observation tower, which isn't really a tower. but an overlook perched on top of a hill. 
The gardens  have a distinct mid-century modern feel. The Visitor Center and the observation tower (designed by the architectural firm of Walker and Walker, Shreveport, Louisiana, along with other structures such as a lakeside stage) are typical of the era, as is the rock work throughout the park. Materials used for walkways, bridge piers, retaining walls, and stairways are natural but not rusticated. The gardens are showing their age and the effects of what is no doubt a tight budget. Deferred maintenance was obvious in a few places, some water features were shut down, and there were locations were water was seeping over a sidewalk or down a stairway.

This staircase is an example of deferred maintenance. It's a double staircase with a water feature between the two sets of steps. The cascade was dry, but one stairway was blocked off and water was trickling down the steps, making it clear there was a plumbing problem somewhere. 

Nonetheless, the gardens with their numerous water features are lovely. The water for the numerous cascades is pumped from the lake, cycles through the gardens, and is used for irrigation as necessary.There is water running everywhere, over artificial waterfalls both big and small and through and through ornamental ponds close to the lake.


The gardens occupy about 700 acres of land; the park as a whole is about 4,700 acres. Today, the park includes a 225-acre lake, formal gardens, natural gardens, hiking trails, tent camping, and rental cabins. There is no area for RVs, and hopefully there never will be. There are numerous RV parks and national forest campgrounds close by that are open to RVs; Hodges Gardens remaining RV-free isn't going to inconvenience anyone.

The camping area and cabins are located on the opposite side of the lake from the gardens so campers would not be disturbed by tourist traffic to the gardens during the busier seasons of the year or for special events (this past weekend, for example, the park was showing the movie "The Lorax" on a lakeside stage). The trail system seems extensive (at least on the map) with varied terrain (the area is hilly) so people who like to hike or mountain bike would probably enjoy the park, the lake is open for fishing, and the park rents kayaks and canoes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dreaming


A distinct lack of enthusiasm

Could this be the year when they hold an election and no one bothers to vote? I'm sensing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for both major parties. We just completed a 1400-mile drive from Upper Michigan to southeast Texas. I think I could count the number of bumper stickers I saw supporting Romney on the fingers on one hand and have a few fingers left over. Not that Obama fared much better -- there were more Obama stickers, but most of them looked like they'd been on the vehicles since 2008 -- they weren't this year's graphics.

The same was true of yard signs -- they were close to nonexistent, and the ones we did see tended to be almost 100% concerned with local or state elections. In fact, the highest number of yard signs we saw were fairly close to here -- coming down Texas Highway 96, we saw a lot of signs for two candidates apparently competing for the position of district judge. Nothing for any other office seeker, though, on either a state of national level, and it was like that for most of the drive.

Missouri probably had the most signage out -- and it was unintentionally amusing. There'd be a whole clump of signs for Republican candidates for various state offices, like Peter Kinder (currently lieutenant governor and hoping to get re-elected), and then a few miles down the Interstate, well removed from all the other Republicans, there'd be a lonely sign for Todd Akin, the Republican running for U.S. Senate. Akin is, of course, the guy who made the mistake of saying what he was actually thinking by claiming that if it's a legitimate rape a woman won't get pregnant. It's a medieval belief that's apparently fairly common among some persons whose intellectual development stopped in about the 12th century, but it's also something most  Republicans are smart enough to avoid saying publicly. Since Akin opened his mouth, other Republicans have been treating him like he has leprosy -- and that apparently holds true even for their yard signs. Kinder et al. don't seem to want to remind voters they're part of the same party as Akin.