Monday, September 30, 2013

Local attractions: Covington Historical Museum

Yesterday I finally got around to checking out one of the other museums in Baraga County, the Covington Township Historical Museum located -- where else? -- in Covington. It's housed in the former township hall, a building that dates back to the early 1930s. They were holding their annual end of the season fall festival; they won't be open again until next summer except by appointment. As a person who thinks a lot about the National Register of Historic Places, I walked into the building and thought, holy cow, why isn't this place listed?! Other than stuffing the museum into it, I don't think the building's changed a whole lot since its original construction.
There have been some minor modifications to the building, but nothing major. The biggest change to the interior was the addition of the balcony along one side after the museum was established in the late 1990s. It was built to provide additional exhibit space, but is the type of modification that falls into the "adaptive re-use" category and no one really cares about anyway. The National Register gate keepers obsess about exterior appearances; having an unchanged interior is basically a bonus. Of course, the building isn't going to remain eligible much longer: township supervisors plan to do vinyl siding and replacement windows in fiscal year 2014. No doubt the window replacement job will include blocking a few off, too, in the name of energy efficiency. The historical society itself seems split on the issue: one fellow told me he'd really like to see the building listed and is opposed to the window replacement as currently planned; another member said she doesn't care as long because what counts is what's in the building and not what it looks like on the outside. An understandable sentiment, although not one I necessarily agree with. I did tell her that vinyl is really poor choice for a lot of reasons -- if they're going to do new siding, they need to go with a material that doesn't burn -- but in the end, it's up to the township board. They still own the building. 
In any case, on the main floor under the balcony the Covington Historical Society has set up spaces with specific themes: there's a workshop space with various tools on display, an office/school space, and a kitchen/dining space. There is the usual incredible clutter, the embarrassment of riches, many small local museums suffer from: people give you things so you feel obligated to display it all, which results in a space that doesn't really represent any specific era and can be a little confusing. The stove top shown above, for example has at least three meat grinders, two different types of irons, an old lunch pail, a double boiler, and a meatball maker all kind of jumbled together. A professional curator would probably suggest some selective editing was in order. On the other hand, most of the items are tagged: they have labels with the item's name and where it came from, i.e., "Donated by . . . ." People with roots in the Covington area can walk in and go, wow, there's my grandmother's rolling pin. We do something similar at the museum in Baraga, but it was pretty clear the Covington folks have a much better handle on inventory and keeping track of who gave what than we do. I was more than a tad envious of their organizational skills. 
I am moderately astounded I didn't spot the strange green thing when I was taking photographs; it's pretty bizarre as a partial object. Is it a lamp? An objet d'art? Who knows. . . but it looks like it should glow in the dark.  
Up on the balcony, the space is also organized loosely by themes. There's a nursery space, a living room, an area devoted to sports, and a space that is primarily bridal: there were multiple wedding gowns spanning about 80 years of Covington history. The oldest dress appeared to be a flower girl's dress from the 1920s; the oldest bridal gown was from 1940. 
The Covington museum is also blessed with a full basement. The building has a high foundation, so there's good natural light. They have a number of large items displayed down there, including the laundry equipment shown above. I have a minor quibble with the display: I'd have set it up in chronological order so you could see the progression from the copper boiler on the stove to wash tubs on a stand with a wringer to that amazing wringer washer with attached rinse tub to the more modern wringer to a 1990s washer, but maybe that's just my OCD kicking in. 
There is also, of course, a display of logging tools that includes these ancient power saws. Once again a little bit of museum envy crept in. Our county museum has a zillion buck saws and cross cut saws, but no one has seen fit (yet!) to donate a decent antique chain saw. Then again, we don't have one of these either:
The Covington museum is open seasonally, June through September, and is located one block west of US-141 in downtown Covington, Michigan. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pulitzer Project: Journey in the Dark

It's confession time. This was another Pulitzer winner that I flat out could not finish. I've reached an age where I figure life is too short to waste time on books that feel like work, and this one fell into that category for me.

It is a little odd that I found it unreadable. Martin Flavin was a competent wordsmith -- the book is well-written -- but Journey in the Dark just felt flat, very one dimensional. It was easy reading, but I just couldn't get into it. I made it through about the first third of the book, and that was that.

The book follows the life of Sam Braden from his impoverished childhood through adulthood. It's a classic rags-to-riches story. Braden's family is desperately poor. His mother came from a good family, but she married a man who was good at charming people but not at all interested in work. It's pretty clear the guy was a self-centered narcissist who really didn't care much for his wife or his kids. Sam's mother is the classic literary saint: she keeps food on the table by working as a seamstress and then dies tragically, slowly wasting away for years and then finally dying when Sam is 15.

Like most children, Sam was blissfully unaware just how desperately poor his family was until he was in elementary school. He then has a couple eye-opening experiences and makes the leap fairly quickly from baffled naivete (Why didn't he get the nice sled he wanted for Christmas?) to seething resentment. He becomes fixated on the richest girl in town while sneaking off to bang a mulatto girl who's been his friend since early childhood. Predictably, the colored girl gets pregnant -- although that fact is never made explicit in the book -- and disappears from the story line for awhile, having been quietly shipped off to visit her ailing grandmother for a few months. Sam is so fixated on the unattainable object of his desire that he barely notices that the girl who actually liked him is gone.

And right about there I gave up. I'd figured out I didn't much care what happened with the main character of the book and all the others were drawn so shallowly that I didn't much care about them either. Maybe I'm a shallow reader, but one of my criteria for what I like to read is that I have to care a little about what happens to the characters. I have to be engaged -- and Journey in the Dark failed to engage me. I don't have to like a character -- I can be quietly rooting for someone to get hit by a bus; I don't require a happy ending -- but I do have to care a little one way or the other.

I'm not sure what I'd say if someone asked me if this book is worth reading. It's gotten good reviews on Good Reads so obviously some readers liked it. I just happen to not be one of them.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Incan grits

Several years ago I did a post on diets and eating and people's relationships with food. At the time, I lifted this quote from the New York Times: 

The kitchen was full of weird ingredients like quinoa and kale."

I remember thinking at the time "What the heck is quinoa?" I'd never heard of it, so I looked for it the next time I went wandering through Kroger. Question answered, but it raised another one: why tell people to eat quinoa when most consumers are going to look at the price tag and blanch? I have since heard various "experts" opine that one way to solve the obesity epidemic among poor people would be to get them to eat quinoa instead of rice or pasta. Maybe it's a good idea from a nutritional perspective, but I did a quick cost comparison using the prices on Amazon. If I can buy 60 pounds of macaroni noodles for what it would cost me to buy 9 pounds of quinoa, why should I go for quinoa instead? Especially when, let's face it, quinoa isn't a particularly appealing food. I'm willing to bet that in Peru they feed it to the llamas.

I finally tried quinoa today. We were gifted with a free box of Inca Red certified organic quinoa. My curiosity has now been satisfied. Straight out of the box, it looks like bird seed. After it's been cooked, it looks like bird seed that's been left out in the rain too long. It was like eating grits, sort of. Like grits, it has no discernible flavor. It just sort of sits there like a bunch of softened BBs on the palate. On the other hand, grits can be made edible through the application of generous amounts of butter, salt, and pepper. I'm not sure what would help quinoa.   

You know, I sometimes think there's a special division in marketing for the various food companies that devises "healthy" foods with high price tags that are specifically targeting that segment of the market -- the owners of Volvos in the parking lot at Whole Foods perhaps -- that associates "high price tag," "organic," and "tastes like crap" with "must be good for you." 

Cockroach of the sea

Actually, eating lobster doesn't strike me as analogous to eating spiders; it's more like eating cockroaches. Really big cockroaches.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Niche marketing in the publishing world

I discovered a new genre of fiction this week: the non-romance for menopausal women. It's like the opposite of a bodice ripper. Instead of a young heroine who spends most of the book fending off the advances of a studly cad who turns out to be a good guy, the middle-aged heroine of the non-romance spends her time remembering her love life (she gave great head), thinking about what a jerk her ex-husband is, suffering from hot flashes, and fantasizing about hot monkey sex with a seemingly nice guy who turns out to be a cad. The novel ends with the heroine lolling on the beach with a couple of female friends and agreeing that men are more trouble than they're worth, especially when there's always the adult toy store with its stock of industrial strength vibrators.

I found the book, in a word, Bizarre, but then I'm not a bitter divorcee whose spouse ran off with a pole dancer. Maybe if I were single and miserable,  I'd find a book that celebrates learning to live with the fact there are worse things than being alone a little more appealing. Then again, I'd have to be single, miserable, and "a woman of a certain age" because I'm pretty sure female readers in their 20s and 30s really don't want to read musings about vaginal dryness and chin hairs.  

Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch isn't a bad book. The writing is competent, if not great. Haywood Smith is unlikely to ever have to worry about finding space on the mantel for a National Book Award or even a Pulitzer, but she doesn't actively insult a reader's intelligence, which is more than can be said about a lot of the dreck taking up shelf space in public libraries. On the other hand, her protagonist is a remarkably shallow, materialistic woman. She spends a lot of time missing her stuff -- her $6000 coffee table, her lovely ormulu something-or-other piece of furniture, her antique Persian rug -- that she stashed with various friends back in Buckhead when her marriage fell apart. How much sympathy is the typical reader going to have for someone who sits around pining for the days when she lunched at high dollar restaurants and whiled away her hours by shopping? Or, for that matter, how much sympathy does anyone have for someone who apparently made it into the 21st century without mastering any computer skills?

I also wasn't too keen on the way the character's response to her elderly parents' problems -- her father is in the early stages of Alzheimer's -- has been to avoid going home until she suddenly needs a place to live. But even when she sees first hand how hard it's been on her mother, her initial reaction is to withdraw and feel embarrassed by her father's dementia rather than to try to figure out a way to help. The author keeps talking about what a nice person the heroine is, but, nope, that isn't how she comes across. She's nice to people outside her immediate family, the public type of nice that can be remarkably ego-stroking, but her response to family problems is Denial and Avoidance.

The character does grow, manages to develop some self-awareness and moves away a bit from being as self-centered as she starts off, but even so. . . this is not a genre of fiction that I can see myself dipping into again any time soon. I checked it out of the library thanks to the title, which does illustrate that the cover of a book makes a huge difference when the author is someone you've never heard of, but I won't be reading anything else by Haywood Smith.

This was another novel that happened to be set in an area I'm moderately familiar with. As usual, I had a few quibbles about geographic descriptions. Example: if you drive down Peachtree Industrial from the general direction of Flowery Branch (which I suspect is the real life equivalent of the Mimosa Branch of the title), you don't end up in Dunwoody. You end up in Doraville. But that's a minor quibble compared to the overall "meh" feel of the book. It's readable, but definitely not worth anyone taking the time to go looking for. If you find it sitting in a pile of free books, it's better than nothing. . . but not by much.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Leviathan of Our Dreams

Okay. So it's not quite a Leviathan. The Leviathans of the RV world are the Class A types, the beasts that are up to 45 feet long and tall enough that the drivers have to remember to check the height of highway overpasses. The beast we bought is a Class C that's large enough to have an actual bedroom but still small enough to fit into campsites at older rustic campgrounds at state parks and on national forests. Not sure just what the height of the beast is, but it's definitely lower than the true leviathans.

It is, of course, a used vehicle with a fair number of miles on it. It is not, however, a Randy Quaid/Cousin Eddie special. This one was clean and reasonably well-maintained. The guy we bought it from used it to take his kids camping -- sort of. It was more like a portable beach house. He'd park it at a local marina close to the swimming area for the summer. When we looked at it, one of the storage spaces was still crammed full of beach toys. The interior showed wear but was clean -- no evidence it had ever served as a party bus. It also fell right at the price point we had in mind, so once we saw it, it pretty much became a case of "cash or check?"

It does need some minor work, like replacing some latches on cabinet doors and figuring out how to keep one of the curtain rods from coming lose when the vehicle hits a bump in the road, but considering what we paid for it, we're happy. Now to start researching campground host/Volunteer in Park gigs for January-February-March.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I need to stop listening to the news

I've done a fairly decent job of weaning myself from the news. Moving to the tundra and away from cable television helped. We can watch MS-NBC and a few others via the Internet but usually don't bother. End result? We're not subject to endless blathering by experts who tend to be consistently wrong about everything. Nonetheless, every so often some piece of dumbness will slide through despite my best efforts to ignore it.

The latest example: David Brooks (why does anyone ever bother asking his opinion about anything?) and some other pundits opined on NPR's "All Things Considered" that President Obama consulting with Congress was a Bad Thing, a Major Tactical Error. Why? Because if Congress doesn't rubber stamp Obama's desire to drop a few bombs on Syria, it will have "weakened" the presidency. Would someone please explain to me why this would be a Bad Thing? We've had 30+ years of people bitching about an imperial presidency, about the tendency of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and now Obama to get the U.S. enmeshed in various dubious foreign adventures. How can weakening the President's ability to decide to play Global Policeman possibly be a bad thing? It strikes me as a pretty damn desirable outcome. I think it would be really cool if Congress developed sufficient spine to tell Obama "No" and to do so firmly and loudly. I don't think they will -- they like playing global cop just as much as whoever happens to be in the White House does -- but a girl can dream.