Friday, February 28, 2014


“Getting older isn’t easy for a lot of us. Neither is living; neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable, and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old, changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama.” – Ram Dass, Still Here (©2000)
Back when I was younger, I used to laugh at my aunt Ingrid's reactions to the news that someone had died. If the decedent was older than her, she'd sound relieved. Yep, he's dead, but, heck he was two years, five years, ten years or more older so it was no surprise the old dude had bought the farm. Yeah, he's dead, but he was ancient; I've got lots of time left. On the other hand, if the dead person was younger there'd be a kind of surprised, almost fearful response: but she was so young! This is such a shock! Even if the age difference wasn't great, like if she was 70 at the time and the decedent was only 69, she'd start looking worried. Time was obviously running out. 

Well, now I'm in my 60s reading obits and seeing life spans shorter than mine -- and I'm starting to have a similar reaction. Oh, shit. I'm not going to live forever after all. It's one thing to recognize that fact intellectually when you're in your 30s or 40s, but it feels a little different once you start wondering if you really should buy those green bananas. You start to hope you're one of the lucky bastards who drops dead unexpectedly and inspires bad jokes (hit the ball, drag Harry) and not one of the poor saps tethered to an oxygen bottle at the nursing home. 

Most of the time I don't think about it much, but this was one of those months where I wound up having conversations with my primary care physician about glucose levels, cholesterol, weight, and all the other things health care providers love to fret about. My blood glucose was a number that is now considered too high: they moved the goal posts a few years ago, so what was perfectly okay a decade ago is now Ohmigod-you-need-to-take-metformin. Ditto the cholesterol. The numbers haven't changed in years, they always hover right around just over the line, but every time my PCP sees them it's ohmigod-you-need-to-take-Lipitor. 

Why? Am I going to live longer? Well, no. Lots of studies have been done showing that if you're one of those just over the line people treating a condition that's borderline doesn't do a thing to increase your life span. Will it reduce risk of heart attacks or strokes? Ah. . . no. There isn't a statistically significant difference in outcomes for people whose cholesterol falls in that just over the line area. Well, what about quality of life? Are they going to make me more physically fit, help with aching joints, make it a little less scary scrambling up step ladders or easier to get up if for some reason I've decided to kneel on the floor? Nope, not at all. The only thing that helps with activities of daily life is exercise to retain mobility and flexibility.  

In fact, there are no good answers that justify taking drugs for a borderline condition, at least not for me. You go from knowing your total cholesterol is just over 200 to knowing it's just under while at the same time enjoying all the fun side effects, like gas that practically makes you jet propelled, diarrhea that has you wishing you owned stock in Kimberly-Clark, and giving up foods you like because they can interact in a bad way with the drugs. You haven't actually gained any years; it's just going to feel a lot longer because you're miserable. The line between "you're okay" and OMG is a fairly arbitrary one; it had to drawn somewhere, but that area on either side of it is a fairly fuzzy one. 

I can understand why physicians and other health care providers are reluctant to face the truth and admit that the stuff they're prescribing might not actually do much: they're dedicated to saving lives. It sucks that they can't offer their patients immortality (or even a comfortable old age). Handing a patient a prescription lets them feel like they've done something even if they really haven't. I don't know if I'll bother arguing with my PCP about this or not; I might just let her write the prescriptions and then not get them filled. She's talking about leaving L'Anse anyway (the winters are pushing her away). Odds are that a year from now I'll be dealing with someone new so the current PCP will never know how thoroughly I ignored her advice. 

I figure that at my current age, if all goes well, I've got a 50% chance of making it to 86. If the odds are only 50/50, I think I'd prefer to spend that time enjoying a decent qualify of life instead of shuffling pill bottles and wondering if I should invest in some Butterfly Body Liners. After all, nobody lives forever. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This does not surprise me

Heard a report on NPR last night that Walmart is in trouble. Earnings are down, share prices are dropping. Why? More and more people are discovering it's not worth the hassle to drive out to wherever the House of Satan has located its latest Super Center. This doesn't surprise me. Walmart's been notorious for years for constantly shuffling store locations, moving them farther and farther out as the corporation pursues new tax breaks and subsidies from state and local government.

Back when the Younger Daughter was still living in Texas, on one of our last visits, we noticed the Many, Louisiana, Walmart had moved. At the time, she worked in Hemphill so would run over to Louisiana to shop occasionally. We'd been to Many before when we'd visited. Anyway, the Many Walmart used to be fairly close to downtown (such as it is; Many's not a real huge town); the last time we were there we discovered the Evil Empire had moved itself up the highway far enough that you pass a fair amount of farm fields and not much of anything else before you get there. This move was no doubt right over a legal boundary of some sort, like the city limits, so they could talk the parish into giving them tax breaks because the deal they'd cut with the town had run out.

It struck me then that it I lived right in Many, I'd be shopping at Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Brookshire Brothers more often rather than hop in the car to run several miles out to Walmart for cheap toilet paper. I'm not kidding -- when we headed north on US-171 out of Many, it was starting to feel like we'd hit Shreveport before we found the Walmart.* Once you make the drive long enough, the prices at the end had better be pretty damn low to justify burning the gas. According to the report, more and more people are concluding that they're not.

This is just common sense on the part of consumers, although sometimes it takes awhile to sink in. When the Houghton Walmart first opened, we did shop there a lot. Gas was a lot cheaper, there was a novelty effect, and it was back when Sam Walton was still alive and the company hadn't turned into the Evil Empire it is today. But you know, I don't think we'd shop there today even if it wasn't the Evil Empire unless we happened to be in Houghton for other reasons. It feels too far now to make it worth the trip on its own.

I do know a few people who will drive from L'Anse up to Houghton to shop at Walmart, but I really wonder why. It's got to be at least a 30 mile drive, maybe more like 40 or even 50 (it's about 45 for us, but we live about 10 miles east of L'Anse). Even with my fuel-efficient Focus, I'd be burning 3 to 4 gallons of gas every time I drove up there and back. That's (at current local gas prices) anywhere from $10 to $15 gone and for what? The opportunity to save a few cents on a package of toilet paper? What's the point? It's fairly simple math. Maybe my groceries are going to cost me a couple dollars more when I shop in L'Anse and Baraga, but I'm burning less gas. In the end I've saved more by shopping locally than if I gone up the highway pursuing bargains. Now multiply us by a whole lot of other [former] Walmart customers, add in the drop in revenue when Food Stamp benefits got cut (not surprisingly, quite a few Walmart customers rely on SNAP), and it starts becoming obvious why Walmart's got problems that go way beyond its public relations headaches over the company's personnel policies and reliance on third world sweatshops for its products.

*Walmart was the Younger Daughter's preferred source for dog chow. At the time, she thought The House of Satan had the best price on 50-lb bags (which is now a 42.5 lb. bag as pet food suppliers shrink the size of the packages to avoid raising.prices in a more obvious fashion, but that's a subject for a different post). 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Where have all the Girl Scouts gone?

I'd actually like to get some cookies, but the Girl Scouts seem to be an endangered species around here. I haven't encountered a kid peddling Thin Mints since we moved back to the U.P.

Odd thoughts in the middle of the night

Sometimes I wake up thinking about the most inconsequential things. Why? With everything that's going on in the world, why on earth would I wake up wondering how the parents in large families manage to come up with names for their children?

One of the things I do as part of volunteering with the local historical society is dabble a bit in genealogical research. People contact the museum asking for our help in tracking down death certificates, marriage licenses, and other records. Sometimes I'm able to find what they need; sometimes there's nothing. But in any case I have been noticing just how large some of the families were. We've had a couple requests come in for information on one of the local well-known pioneer families, a family that stands out for multiple reasons, but that I find particularly notable for the remarkably good health of the matriarch of the clan. The woman had at least seventeen children who survived into adulthood, or close to it. The matriarch herself was probably in her nineties when she died.

So do I wonder about how she managed that? Good genes, clean living, sheer dumb luck? Do I think about the changes she witnessed over her lifetime, which spanned approximately 1820 to 1910? No. I wake up wondering just how the heck she and her husband came up with names for the kids. The first couple of little barracudas would be easy. As good Catholics, they'd just do the usual Apostles and a Mary or two. But once they hit the 10th or 12th they'd be starting to run out of the better known saints. And by the 17th? I can't see a priest being willing to baptize "Jesus Christ Not Again."

Then again, by the time they hit the 17th, the older kids would be leaving home, so maybe they just started over from the top of the list.

This particular family was so large that the descendants who are several generations away from the original pioneer couple do not realize that their great-great-grandparent was one of 17 siblings. I don't know why that surprises me -- with one exception, I have no idea how many siblings three of my grandparents had, and I actually knew one grandmother -- but it always does. Maybe it's because the family is so well known in local history that it always seems odd that more information didn't get passed down in family folklore after the descendants moved away.

I've always kind of wondered about naming traditions in general. I've known people who were determined that each child have the same first initial, there are others where one particular name seems to get repeated over and over, and of course we've all seen the sorry influence of soap operas, movies, pop stars, and cultural icons. One of my friends was named Mercedes, and, yes, it was the car that was the inspiration. Even better, the family mispronounced it.

I can't get too judgmental, though. Both my kids have names inspired by books, and relatively obscure books at that. My older daughter is still annoyed that I happened to read Zuleika Dobson when I did, and the younger daughter has spent half her life telling people that no, Tamar isn't Biblical, it's a river in a Victoria Holt novel. I keep telling them to count their blessings. I could have been reading Podkayne of Mars when the nurse asked me what to put on the birth certificate.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

So what does real winter look like?

We needed to restock the stash of firewood on the back porch a couple days ago.
Now that it's Winter, we have a plastic sled that we use for moving firewood from the woodshed to the house. The S.O. snowshoes over, fills the sled, and drags it back to the porch.
The first winter we were back, he tried keeping a trail open using the snow thrower. He figured out pretty fast that it wasn't worth it; snowshoeing was easier.
And here he is, back at the porch about to step down so he can start unloading the sled. Off to the right (hiding behind the open storm door) we've got a small covered area that will hold about a week's worth of firewood. If truly nasty weather is predicted (like the blizzard that's supposed to hit sometime later this week), the S.O. makes sure there's enough wood stacked there to last through any storm. The porch is raised; when the ground is bare, there are three steps up to it.

We finally had some above freezing weather yesterday. It got to be almost 40 outside. Things turned slushy downtown. Up here on the rock we call home, though, I don't think one day of warm weather made much of a difference. Driving up from town was still like doing a reverse bobsled run, and the snow in general is still, as the saying goes, asshole deep on a 10-foot Indian.

Product plug: The snowshoes are Alaskans made by Iverson right here in the U.P. If you ever need (or want) some snowshoes, I recommend going traditional and getting some Iversons. If nothing else, when you get to be old and feeble and can't snowshoe anymore, the Iverson snowshoes are going to look a lot cooler hanging on a wall than the modern aluminum and polyurethane models.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The persistence of binary thinking

I was watching "Real Time" the other night and it hit me again how trapped we all seem to be in thinking that for every problem there are only two answers: The Right Answer and the Wrong Answer. The panel was discussing the Obama administration's use of drones for targeted assassinations of possible terrorists. There are huge problems this whole notion, of course, ranging from violations of international law and the moral repugnance of planning to kill multiple innocents ("collateral damage") in an attempt to take out just one mastermind, but those aren't the subject of this post.

No, what struck me was Bill Maher's persistence in framing the discussion as an Either/Or question. You know, we either use drones to blow up someone's house or we do nothing. In Maher's world view there was only one Right Answer. It was like Maher was trapped thinking in Basic: for him everything was either a 1 or a 0; there were no other numbers. Dylan Ratigan kept pointing out that there were alternatives to drone strikes, such as special operations teams (e.g., Seal Team Six), that could be sent in to extract high profile human targets. Jeremy Scahill was being quite persistent in reminding everyone that drone strikes are not particularly effective. Among other things, they do a really nice job of recruiting new persons into supporting anti-U.S. terrorism. Blowing apart a wedding party or a gathering at the local coffee shop with a U.S. drone strike is a really good way to persuade the survivors they want to sign up with Al Qaeda or the Taliban after all. A more effective strategy might be to come up with ways to reduce support for terrorism, not bolster it. Maher wasn't having any of it. In his mind, there were two possibilities: doing nothing or using drones.

This is a situation we encounter all the time in our every day lives. We all know people who can't seem to figure out that for any situation there can be multiple responses. They decide that there is one Right Answer, and if for some reason that answer doesn't work out, they're paralyzed. The idea that there can be multiple right answers never sinks in. I'm not sure where this tendency comes from. It is the end result of being told over and over in school that there's only one right answer for any homework or test question? Have we been brainwashed by too many generations of politicians who insist publicly that there's only one policy solution to any particular problem? Are we humans just naturally lazy thinkers? We're always exhorting each other to "think outside the box" but we almost never do. It's a mystery.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The village continues to grow

Looking toward L'Anse and the Huron Mountains from the Baraga side of the Bay
While the rest of the country freaks out over Winter, local fishermen are rejoicing. I think there are fishing shacks out on Keweenaw Bay that hadn't been on the lake since the 1990s. There's also been a flurry of new construction. This isn't the area where the S.O. and his friend go fishing. They're more adventurous, more nomadic. They use tents and tend to head farther north up the bay past the Sand Point lighthouse.

The power plant putting out the plume of smoke is the J. H. Warden biomass plant. It started off as a coal-fired plant, got converted to gas, was mothballed for awhile, and now burns "biomass," an interesting term for shredded railroad ties and other weirdness. Oh, they also burn fresh wood chips, but for awhile it seemed like it was all old creosote-soaked railroad ties all the time. There's nothing quite like being downwind from a plant burning creosote-soaked wood chips to make a person start wondering just how many lies got told during the permitting process. Every time I catch a whiff of it, I'm glad we live way back up in the hills, just over the horizon, instead of in town.

And what is Winter looking like at our place? About the same as it did the last time I put up a grader photo. This one's from this morning:
Our snow levels haven't changed much. We got about 8 inches of fresh fluff overnight, but the stuff on the ground has been settling so it's still not super deep. I doubt if it's much over 30 inches, although the S.O. swears it's at least 3 feet.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's not a virtue if you had no choice

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” - Socrates

I noticed there's another one of those smug, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn memes kicking around the Intertubes. This one attempts to stake out the moral high ground by relating a story about an old lady chewing out some hapless store clerk when he suggests to her that she start using a re-usable shopping bag. Instead of simply declining the offer, she supposedly launches into an extended self-righteous rant about folks of her generation being green before anyone knew what "green" was.

Why were we geezers green before anyone had ever heard of Earth Day? Well, according to the crone, they bought their RC Cola in bottles that they returned to the store, they used cloth diapers instead of disposables, they watched tv on a 6-inch black-and-white Philco instead of 72-inch plasma Sony, they hung their laundry on the line instead of tossing it in a dryer, yada yada yada.

Give me an frigging break. You know why we geezers used cloth diapers? We had no choice. Ditto the tiny television and the washing clothes in a wringer washer. We got rid of both as soon as new and improved options came on the market. As for the pop bottles, you know why we hauled them back to the store? They had deposits on them. Back when the geezer generation had fewer candles on their birthday cakes than they had fingers, every little kid was happy to haul pop bottles to the store because that was like found money. We sure didn't worry about recycling anything else: juice jars, tin cans, you name it, it all hit the trash without a second thought. For that matter, quite a bit of it only hit the trash in the loosest sense: roadsides in this country were pretty disgusting until the 1960s when Lady Bird Johnson began her highway beautification programs.

In fact, if anything, today's geezers were the opposite of green. We all thought there were no limits, both on a personal level and as a society. Dump all the sewage you want in the watershed -- streams will clean themselves. Strip mining? No problem. This is a big country; we'll never miss sizable chunks of Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Wyoming, or Texas. Clear cutting forests? Go for it. The forests will grow back. Ever watch "Mad Men"? It does a pretty nice job of capturing the casual wastefulness 50 years ago of today's smug, self-righteous codgers.

In short, we weren't green. We were oblivious.

My kids are in their 40s now. I wonder what type of ridiculous crap they'll be passing around in 20 or 30 years to tout their supposed superiority over their grandchildren?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Happy Darwin Day!

So, Mr. Darwin, have you come to any conclusions yet? 
I read The Voyage of the Beagle in high school. In retrospect, the Saxon High School library had a solid selection of classics in the sciences. I read On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection while I was a student in Saxon, too. I think I read more science in the two years I spent at Saxon High School than I did in my final two years at Hurley. Of course, that could be because the fiction selections at Saxon ran heavily to Grace Livingston Hill, James Oliver Curwood, and Zane Grey. There's only so much formulaic fiction a person can read before one reaches in desperation for some well-written nonfiction, like Origin.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

And the quilting continues

Back of the quilt
 Sometimes I can be a slow learner. I've been quilting for many years now. With most quilts I machine piece the top and then hand quilt after putting the top together with the backing and the fill. I've quilted using both a regular quilt frame and a hoop; over 20 years ago I decided I prefer the hoop. It's less awkward. Plus, of course, it means that I get to wrap myself in the quilt as I work on it, which makes finishing a quilt the perfect winter activity.

Well, with every single quilt I quilted (with maybe one or two rare exceptions, usually when I decided to do something geometric with lots of straight lines I could mark with masking tape) I would bitch about how hard it was to mark the quilting pattern so I could see it. I tried everything: the pencils that supposedly wash out, markers with the fade-away ink, chalk (both in a pounce and tailor's chalk), even dressmaker's carbon. Didn't matter. There was always some fabric where the marking simply did not want to show up. I did a lot of muttering.

Finally, this winter, I had a flash of insight. Why not reverse quilt it? The quilting shows on both sides. It has to. The backing on my current project is plain muslin: no way would it be hard to see the marking pen on it. So that's what I'm doing. End result? As far as I can tell, you can't tell the difference between the front and back quilting stitches on the parts that are done. Even better, I think I'm setting some sort of a speed record for me on quilting this particular project, which is good because it's a queen-size. I may actually finish it before the snow is gone.

Front of the quilt
The quilt itself is a pattern called "Blizzard" on the quilting calendar I found it on so I'm using the quilting stencil I had that came closest to looking like a snowflake. Because snowflakes are random when they fall, so is my quilting pattern placement. I started in the middle and have been working out sort of concentrically from there. I suppose if I were really ambitious (a true artist?) I'd have made a snowflake stencil but I didn't think my drawing talents were quite that good. I was never particularly good at making simple snowflakes when I was a kid; I doubt if I've improved with time.

Doodle pattern
A small digression: the last time I went to a quilt show, there wasn't a single hand-quilted quilt there. Apparently hand quilting is becoming a lost art. There was a time when the typical quilt show would include at least one white-on-white quilt, i.e., a quilt done simply so the quilter could show off the quality of his or her hand quilting skills. Those days are gone. No one seems too inclined to put in the 100+ hours a typical hand-quilted large quilt requires. Every single quilt at the most recent show was labeled as "pieced [or designed] by X, quilted by Y" and the quilting was machine quilting, usually in what I think of as the doodle pattern.

I've used that pattern myself, but usually just as fill between other motifs. I think I'm becoming a quilting snob -- when I see an otherwise lovely quilt finished with squiggles, I tend to think the quilter was lazy. Surely there are machine patterns that could be used that would actually complement the pieced design instead of just functioning to hold the whole thing together. But maybe thinking that way is the quilter's equivalent of "You kids get off my lawn." I'm getting old. . . more and more often I find myself muttering that no one today has the patience for "real" craftsmanship.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Do I need to change the photo?

I wonder if I should change the banner photo at the top of this blog to reflect current reality. The moose crossing zone has expanded. The current photo was taken on US-41/M-28 east of Three Lakes. The moose crossing zone extended west past Nestoria towards the Covington Junction (intersection of M-28 and US-41). I noticed when we made a Menard's run yesterday that the moose crossing zone now begins just east of the Covington Junction and runs for 35 miles toward West Ishpeming. It terminates right about where the old Evergreen Drive-In was located. I'm moderately curious as to just how many car-moose collisions it took before MDOT decided to expand the zone. I don't think car-moose collisions are particularly common. We do have moose, but not huge numbers of them like they have in Alaska or Maine, but when a car-moose collision does happen they tend to be messy.

Genuine Yooper moose. Photo was taken along a local gravel road about 4 miles from where we live. I've never seen a moose near a paved road.  
Moose got transplanted into the U.P. from Canada in the 1980s. Canada gave us moose; I think Michigan gave the Canadians some wild turkeys. Every so often a moose comes wandering through our place, but usually all we ever see are tracks. For such huge animals, moose manage to maintain amazingly low profiles.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lighten up, people, the blogosphere isn't the real world

I had a rather bizarre experience this week. I had a brief skirmish in what might be termed a flame war. It was weird. A few weeks ago I had a fellow visit my blog, he left a comment, I checked out his blog and thought it was interesting enough to merit adding to my blog roll. Then things took a very strange turn: he did a post, I left a completely innocuous comment, and he decided I wanted to argue with him. I apologized for any misunderstanding, said no way was that my intention, and figured that was that.

Well, the next post he did was one that got fairly heavily into making a teleological argument for why we exist as well as throwing in a pretty heavy dose of biological determinism. I minored in philosophy. Talking biological determinism was like dangling red meat in front of a hungry Doberman. So I wondered if he'd thought it through. If the sole purpose of man is to plant his seed and the sole purpose of women is to be mothers, where does that leave the poor saps who suffer from infertility? I attempted to start a conversation using the familiar gambit of asking a rhetorical question. I even labeled it as a rhetorical question, which to most people on the planet is a signal you'd like to have a purely intellectual discussion. You're not dismissing what the original speaker has said; you just want additional explication. I was, in short, looking forward to a lively peer-to-peer discussion of a philosophical question.

Holy fuck. There's no other way to put it. You'd have thought I'd just drowned kittens in his bathtub. Not only did he freak out in his reply to me, he devoted an entire blog post to ranting about how unnatural a woman I was because I had the nerve to not be blown away or absolutely riveted in awe by his deathless prose. My kids and grandkids would certainly be a tad surprised to learn that I had no interest in motherhood and that apparently I'd never learned to bake an apple pie. So much for the lively adult discussion and life of the mind I'd envisioned.

Okay. I got it. Some people need more validation than others. Maybe they didn't get enough gold stars pasted on their homework back in elementary school, maybe they're still smarting from the time someone kicked sand in their face at the beach, . . . who knows? It was a tad sad, but no big deal. It was now clear that whatever this fellow said was meant to the The Absolute Last Word on any particular topic. He didn't want readers or conversations; he wanted a cheering section. So I tossed out a parting shot, dropped him from the blog roll, and moved on. Life's too short to waste it trying to indulge in a battle of wits with an unarmed person.

But this is where it gets bizarre. He's still obsessing. I hear through other sources that he just devoted a post to telling the entire Upper Peninsula to kiss his nether regions. Why bother? Why is he wasting his time obsessing about a couple of comments from a person he's never met and never will meet? He seemed like a pretty nice guy until this weirdness happened -- why is he so upset about something so trivial? It's all very strange.

That poor bastard really needs to get a life. The blogosphere is not the real world. Yes, it's nice when people read your blog, it's validation of a sort when they leave comments, but (wash, rinse, repeat) It's not the real world. It doesn't matter if it's a compliment ("Nicely said"), neutral ("We like that restaurant chain, too"), or an insult ("You've got a fat ass"), it has no effect on your life other than the time it takes to read it. The healthy response would be a smile, a shrug, or a brief flare of annoyance and that's that.

As to why I'm wasting my time blogging about this weirdness . . . good question. Maybe it was that business about telling everyone in the U.P. to fuck off and die. That's just so sweeping in its megalomania that I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Why do you think they call it work?

My mother used to say some people would bitch if they were hanged with a silk rope.* I think she was talking about Republicans.

I was listening to the news this morning and learned that a report from the Congressional Budget Office indicates that one of the consequences of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is that the number of people working may drop. Apparently the statisticians are predicting that some people will leave the work force or reduce their hours because their income is no longer needed to pay for health insurance. For example, a person who is currently working multiple part-time jobs may realize he or she only needs to work one. Or perhaps a two-income couple will realize they can get by on one income now that they're no longer saddled with $1000 a month in health insurance premiums. In short, the Affordable Care Act could lead to more people experiencing less stress and financial pressure, i.e., some people are going to be able to enjoy more leisure time. This possibility is generating all sorts of sound bites from the right about what a horrible, horrible outcome this is and how it's yet another example of the rolling train wreck that is Obamacare.

I don't get it. How is people having to work fewer hours to survive a bad thing? Work is something people do because they have to. For most people on the planet, it's a necessary evil, a means to an end and not the end in itself. Even people who genuinely like their jobs would probably prefer to spend less time at the job and more time doing other things. If work was fun, you wouldn't see bumper stickers telling the world "The worst day fishing beats the best day at work" or "Retired - every day is Saturday!" So if the Affordable Care Act means more people get to enjoy time having fun instead of staring at a computer screen or flipping burgers it strikes me as being one more thing to be happy about.

Then again, the S.O.'s ultra-conservative teabagger cousin recently hurled what he thought was the ultimate insult against the S.O.: "He only worked when he had no other choice." WTF? Isn't that what all of us do? If we didn't have to do it, it wouldn't be called work.

[*It always struck me as an odd saying. I think I'd complain no matter what type of fiber was used. What's the point? Silk doesn't chafe so the rope burn will be less dramatic? You're still dead.]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More Adventures in Cataloging: What is a Manly Man?

Illustration from Vitality Supreme, 1915.
I've been noticing while cataloging artifacts and documents at the museum that things have an odd way of forming clusters for no apparent reason. There'll be a whole string of things that all tie together in some way even though they were seemingly placed at random in the original chaos. This week's theme appears to be Virility and Clean Living.

Mixed in with old menus, service station receipts, and other weirdness like the pinup I mentioned a couple days ago were lots of booklets on healthy living: a 1930 brochure published by the Cleanliness Institute that explained why bathing is a good idea, a 1948 pamphlet on the evils of venereal diseases that was written for a teenage audience, a 1920's advertisement for a fitness camp, and similar items. By coincidence, a stack of books I was sorting through that day also contained a number of items that seemed geared towards young men, particularly two gems by Bernarr Macfadden, the Jack LaLanne of the early twentieth century. The books made me curious enough about Macfadden to Google him; he was an interesting man.

Like many fitness fanatics, Macfadden's philosophy was grounded in his personal experience. He had been a sickly youth, but living on a farm and engaging in vigorous outdoor exercise (pitching hay and similar chores) improved his health. As a young adult, he found a job that required spending the day sitting at a desk; he noticed he was turning into a weak, sickly person again and resolved to do something about it. Walking and other vigorous exercise combined with a healthy diet and clean living (no alcohol or tobacco) restored Macfadden's vitality. He decided to promote what he had learned. Over the following decades, he turned his ideas about exercise and health into a multi-million dollar fortune. He began publishing one small magazine; by the time he died at the age of 87, he headed an international publishing house. From his first spectacularly successful magazine (Physical Culture) he built a firm that published every type of pulp periodical, including True Story, Amazing Stories, and True Detective. It's the classic American success story: from 90 pound weakling to wealthy fitness guru and influential businessman.

In Vitality Supreme (published in 1915) Macfadden advised both men and women on how to achieve a vigorous and healthy body, one with a straight spine, strong lungs, and fully functioning alimentary system. The Macfadden physical fitness plan involved avoiding vices such as alcohol and tobacco, vigorous exercise (lots of walking), and a vegetarian diet. He also advised eating food in as close to its natural state as possible with raw food being preferred if it was feasible. He wasn't an absolutist, however. He did note that for some people a purely vegetarian diet was not possible; there were individuals who needed to eat meat in moderate amounts in order to remain healthy.

A few years later, Macfadden's book Manhood and Marriage counseled men that, among other things, masturbation did not cause acne but that nonetheless it weakened a person. It was a "dissolute" habit to fall into. Macfadden worried a lot about impotence and infertility and cautioned that mastubatory practices could damage the male reproductive system. I got the distinct impression he believed that the amount of sperm a man was blessed with was a finite number; if a man wasn't careful, he might run dry. In a number of sections of Manhood and Marriage Macfadden asserts that being excessively sexually active in your twenties could result in impotence by age fifty.

Actual sexual relations, on the other hand, were fine, as long as it was with the right woman. Granted, even in the marital bed one had to keep in mind that excessive passion was not good due to the debilitating effect that losing too much sperm could have on a man. There was a caveat, however. If a couple was well-suited and "the man and the woman cooperate there is an exchange of magnetism or vitality, call it what you will, which makes up for the loss."

In skimming these books, I was struck by Macfadden's permissive attitude for the time. He railed against the prudery that treated sex as something immoral and instead argued that "The sex instinct is the source of all that is sweet, beautiful and ennobling in the love of man and woman." He deplored the lack of practical advice young people were given when it came to "intimate relations" as he believed ignorance about human physiology was the leading cause of unhappy marriages. He denounced men who persuaded their sweethearts to engage in the marital act before the wedding and then jilted the girls for being immoral; Macfadden placed the blame on the men who had made promises the girls had believed. He also noted that if a woman was passionate before the legal marriage, this was a good sign she would continue to be so after the ceremony, thus reducing the possibility of physical incompatibility and long term unhappiness. In addition, what a man should look for in a potential mate was a woman who was as physically fit as he was, not some shrinking violet who worried about her figure and wasn't interested in healthy pursuits such as brisk walks in the park. One assumes the female model pictured in Vitality Supreme fits Macfadden's image of what the ideal woman would look like. By today's standards, of course, the lady is much, much too zaftig; she's obviously not a size 2.

Macfadden was apparently a strong believer in marriage; according to Wikipedia he had four wives (serially, not simultaneously). He saw nothing wrong with divorce if a couple was unhappy; his philosophy was that if a couple was incompatible, if their love was truly dead, then divorce could help rectify mistakes and allow both the husband and the wife to move on and possibly find happiness with a different partner. Not surprisingly, Macfadden's rather hedonistic attitude towards sexual intimacy and his emphasis that good health, vitality, and virility were all linked made him a convenient target of moral conservatives.  

These are interesting books. One thing that intrigued me was the way Macfadden carefully skirted describing explicitly various aspects of human sexuality. In Manhood and Marriage he devotes a chapter to abortion, including what would motivate a woman to get one, and notes that one problem could be that in the United States it was illegal to sell contraceptive devices or to counsel women on how to prevent pregnancy. He then does a eugenics pitch saying it's important to think carefully about bringing children into the world who might not be wanted, but he never directly tells the male reader to use contraception. If anything, he advises against it. However, at the same time he does describe the time of the month when a woman is most likely to conceive.It's an intriguing contradiction. Was he deliberately alerting men to the times to avoid intercourse? Given some of the other contradictions in these two books, who knows?

Of course, no one talked directly about sex at the time. One of the other items I cataloged this week was a mid-1920's booklet published by the U.S. Public Health Service that was purportedly the advice a mother would give a daughter as that daughter neared adulthood. The booklet is multiple chapters long, probably contains several thousand words, and is notable for its complete lack of any actual information. It's all euphemisms about behaving like a lady and avoiding intimate relations before marriage. What "intimate relations" are is never specified; for all a girl knew, they could be passionate kisses. It warns that unspecified nasty diseases exist but never comes right out and says "syphilis" or "gonorrhea" or describes how they're actually contracted. It's no wonder that, as Macfadden noted, many young couples entered the marital chamber for the first time having no idea just exactly what went where or that women often suffered sufficient pain and injury that their affection for their husbands turned to loathing.

Did men actually follow Macfadden's advice? That's another unanswerable question. He was a prolific writer who sold numerous books on multiple topics relating to health and physical fitness. The two books I found don't appear to be particularly heavily-read -- Vitality Supreme in particular looks like I was the first person to actually open it -- but that doesn't mean his physical fitness advice wasn't influential. At the same time, you have to wonder how long any person stuck with Macfadden's suggested diets or exercise regimens. The milk diet, for example, suggested a person subsist on a diet of milk alone; the dieter was supposed to drink 6 to 8 quarts a day. The only creature I can think of that would thrive on that diet would be a calf.

The little bit I did learn about Macfadden through Google has inspired me to go looking for an actual biography.The articles I found described him variously as an early feminist who empowered women to a thorough sleaze who took advantage of women much younger than himself. Those are interesting contradictions. There have been several studies of Macfadden's life published; I'm going to see if I can track down a copy of Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet by Mark Adams. It's the most recent so it may also be the most readable. 

As for the Macfadden books the museum owns, Vitality Supreme is going into a display that features a number of early 20th century artifacts relating to men: straight razors, pocketknives, hair brush sets, shaving mugs, and other paraphernalia. If I get lucky and stumble across some early exercise equipment, like some vintage hand grips, I'll include them, too. In any case, there will be an interpretive card explaining who Macfadden was and when the book was published. I'm not sure what to do with Manhood and Marriage. Stick it back on the shelf, I guess, and let someone else worry about it 20 years from now.