Saturday, May 30, 2015

We're going to need a baler

It is amazing just how fast grass can grow when there's a little bit of rain. A few days ago I was telling the S.O. "Don't mow yet; the forget-me-nots are still blooming." I never want to cut the grass until the forget-me-nots have had a chance to reseed. Then we had a couple wet days. Now I'm wondering how lucrative the hay market might be this year.

On the positive side, when it does stop raining and we can fire up the mowers, we're going to get a lot of mulch for the garden.We have baggers for both mowers so most grass clippings end up as compost. It does make a difference -- we have lousy soil for gardening. It's glacial till, sand and gravel, so although it drains really well it's not particularly fertile.

We have been getting a fair amount of rain this week, which is good. It was a dry Spring; I know from working in the garden that we needed a thorough, prolonged soaking rain. Not sure just what the total rainfall has been in the past 72 hours, but each time we've checked our rain gauge it's been up around at least an inch. Not Texas level rains for sure, but definitely more than a drizzle.

Speaking of Texas, I've noticed as I've listened to NPR that the dread phrase "climate change" is being spoken out loud again. For years scientists have been saying that climate change would lead to what are euphemistically referred to as "extreme weather events." That's another way of saying summers will get hotter, winters could get colder, and when it rains, it won't just rain -- it'll make you start thinking owning an ark might be a good idea.

My personal, purely anecdotal, and totally unscientific observation when it comes to rain locally is that over the past few years we seem to be experiencing more storms that remind me of monsoons --  rain coming down in sheets, truly intense rain that dumps multiple inches of water in a remarkably short time -- and less of what I'd think of as a typical U.P. rainy day, which is cold and drizzly and nasty but not especially dramatic. You know, the type of rain where you're stuck inside all day because it's too cold and wet to do yard work but then when you check the rain gauge it turns out that in 24 hours barely enough rain actually fell to cover the bottom of the gauge. Yesterday the rain was coming down in sheets, really hard intense rain, and, yep, it was measurable in inches. Definitely not typical for this part of the world. It used to be we'd get one or two storms like that per summer; now it seems to happen almost every time it rains.

In other water-related news we finally called the Health Department to set up an appointment for them to come check the water quality on the new well, the one we weren't supposed to use until they'd run the tests to make sure the water was safe to drink. You know, the well we had drilled last August and have been using water from ever since. The Health Department guy was here Tuesday, took samples, verified that the well was indeed more than the required distance from the drain field for the septic tank, and said we'd get a letter in a few days with the results of the tests. He also said we'd hear from them fast if they found something nasty. Well, the phone hasn't run and there's been nothing in the mail yet so I guess we can assume the water we've been drinking for the past 10 months isn't swarming with fecal coliform bacteria. Not that we ever thought it might be. We're in the middle of nowhere at one of the higher elevations in the state. Everyone knows that in water supplies just as in life shit never flows uphill. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Whining white guys

Or, why everyone hates Jeff Gordon. I don't watch much NASCAR -- I tend to vanish when the S.O. decides to waste an afternoon watching cars go in circles -- but it didn't take me much time to figure out that I despised Jeff Gordon. Why? Because every time something went wrong on the track,it was someone else's fault. Gordon was the epitome of the whining white guy, although in recent years Jimmy Johnson's done a fine job of replacing Gordon as the king of that category.

Yesterday I referred to Jim Webb appealing to aggrieved white males, the guys who seem to think life would be just fine if we could just return to those halcyon days when women and minorities knew their place. For those whining white guys, whenever something doesn't go right or they don't get exactly what they want, it's always the fault of affirmative action or quota systems or those damn illegals stealing jobs. They're seemingly incapable of recognizing that you don't always get what you want or think you deserve. No matter how good you think you are, there are going to be times when  the other job candidates really are better qualified than you, your test scores are too low, or you lose out on stuff for no reason whatsoever other than sheer bad luck, like your application falls behind a desk or gets lost in the mail.

Thinking about whining white guys after reading Webb's book triggered a memory of one of my fellow grad students. He was in his final year, i.e., he was making final revisions to his dissertation and job hunting. He applied for a position at a major university, a Midwestern school that was the equivalent of Virginia Tech. He was totally convinced they were going to hire him because the posting seemed like a perfect match for his research interests.

I can't recall if he made it to the interview stage, but I do remember the ranting he did when he found out they'd hired -- omigod, the horror! -- a woman. He did a lot of pissing and moaning with his cronies about how affirmative action and political correctness were driving hiring committees to select applicants who had no apparent qualifications other than a vagina. What were the actual facts? Academia being a small world, it didn't take long for the rest of us to learn who had beaten out our colleague for the job.

The whining white guy in our program was ABD (his dissertation wasn't done yet), had zero publications, had done almost no presentations at professional meetings and had minimal teaching experience. The "unqualified" woman had her Ph.D. in hand (and it was from a more prestigious program than ours), multiple published peer-reviewed journal articles, and a book in press. She'd been out there building her c.v. and networking since her first day of grad school; the whining white guy had done what would have been normal behavior a couple decades before but didn't exactly make him competitive in the 1990s.

The fellow did manage to find work eventually, although it wasn't at the research university of his dreams. It would be nice to believe that sooner or later he grew up and recognized he'd simply lost out to a better qualified applicant, but I doubt it. He's probably still whining to his friends that he wouldn't have been stuck at Podunk U. if it hadn't been for affirmative action screwing him over. Once a whiner, always a whiner.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book review: Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America

Every so often I hear news stories indicating that former Senator James Webb is considering a run for the Presidency. Obviously, none of the people advising him have bothered to read his rather muddled, contradictory, and definitely autobiographical defense of the American redneck, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Not long ago one of the feminist blogs I read regularly had a post castigating Webb for some sexist, borderline misogynistic comments he made back in the 1970's. It annoyed me at the time because I figure that stupid stuff people said several decades ago shouldn't be held against them -- we all say dumb stuff, we gain more life experience, theoretically we get a little smarter, and the amount of dumb stuff we still believe diminishes.

Unless you're Jim Webb, of course, in which case you work at taking all your racist, misogynistic, aggrieved white guy bullshit and wrapping it in a paean to your aggrieved white guy ancestors, the much-maligned redneckus Americanus, i.e., the descendants of the Scots-Irish who left Ulster back in the early 1700's. If Webb does formally enter the race, his opponents' researchers don't need to bother looking for pithy quotes from four decades ago. All they need to do is open this book to find Webb's thoughts on liberal elites, activists of various stripes, and the horrors of reverse discrimination. We all know what "reverse discrimination" is -- it's the rallying cry of angry white guys. You know, the ones who are totally convinced their life would be a bed of roses if only all the good jobs weren't going to minorities or, even worse, women. It's a shame Webb wrote this book over 11 years ago (it was published in 2004) because no doubt if it had come out more recently it would also contain a few homophobic jabs at gays for contributing to the continuing oppression of poor whites everywhere. 

Born Fighting is an odd book. It's rather incoherent, internally contradictory, and has a faint tinge of desperation. Not to mention that Webb seems to think that "culture" is one of those hard and fast, fixed in amber, never changes a whole lot concepts. He also seems to think it goes just one way. The Scots-Irish influence everyone else, manage to inculcate every group they interact with their cultural values, but apparently no one influences them. Anything good that happens in this country is thanks to the influence of the Scots-Irish and their fierce independence and warrior spirit; if bad shit happens, hey, not our fault. We're just the poor, downtrodden backwoods hillbillies that everyone else picks on.

Name a politician who's an icon in American history and Webb manages to find a Scots-Irish ancestor lurking in the family tree to use as proof of the Scots-Irish influence. For example, Theodore Roosevelt gets claimed as part of the Scots-Irish tribe because his mother, Martha Bulloch, had Scots-Irish in her ancestry. The fact that TR was raised in New York City and came from a wealthy family whose paternal ancestry went back to the original Dutch settlers is apparently irrelevant. It was the Scots-Irish ancestry and culture that imbued Teddy with his fighting spirit. That strikes me as a bit of a reach, to say the least. Besides, you could just as easily look at TR's brother, Elliott, an apparently lovely man with a major drinking problem who died a few days after trying to kill himself by jumping out a window, and argue that Elliott being a drunken sot can be blamed on that Scots-Irish link.

I'll confess that it's possible that one reason this book annoyed me as much as it did is because I was inclined to like Webb. Not only is he the author of what I still consider to be the best novel I've ever read about Vietnam -- Fields of Fire -- he's said some very sensible things about the need for prison reform, the plight of the white underclass, economic inequality, and other issues. He's also got a compelling life story. He was an Air Force brat; his father enlisted in the Army right after Pearl Harbor, got trained as a pilot, and, despite having only a high school diploma, eventually retired as a full colonel. Webb's grandparents were apparently dirt poor; he has what some people (like the New England elites he obviously despises) would refer to as white trash roots.

On the other hand, somewhere along the line the man picked up an incredible inferiority complex. Eleanor Roosevelt (using Webb's logic, yet another Scots-Irish person. She was, after all, TR's niece and Martha Bulloch's granddaughter) is often quoted as saying, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Well, somewhere along the line Webb consented. No one can spend as much time denouncing liberal, intellectual elites as much as Webb does without having a deep-seated inferiority complex. It's bizarre. This is a man who's a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served as a combat officer in the Marines in Vietnam (earning a Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, among other medals, in the procees), eventually became Secretary of the Navy, and successfully ran for the office of U.S. Senator from Virginia (although that last one happened after he wrote the book, not before), but he's still feeling compelled to decry elitism? Doesn't he realize he's part of the elite?

Then again, career politicians and lifelong Beltway bandits love to rail against career politicians and Washington insiders, and this book did come out when he might have been contemplating running for elective office. I could see it appealing to the good folk who live in towns like Grundy (a mining community in southwest Virginia that's buried so deep in the Appalachians it probably gets about an hour of sunlight a day) and Pearisburg. IIRC, Webb did a lot of appealing to his redneck roots when he ran for the Senate, trying to make himself sound like a Virginia native even though he was born in Missouri. He starts off the book by talking about the cemetery in the Virginia mountains where his paternal ancestors are planted, and that is definitely campaign material.

So what else did I pick up from this book? Well, Webb isn't the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to picking examples to cite. At one point he's whining about the anti-war protests of the 1960s and bitching about Neil Young's song "Ohio" as an example of how the left hates the military and then a sentence or two later refers to Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" as one of the positive songs about the military coming out of the country music tradition. News flash for Webb: 1. "Copperhead Road" is rock, not country. 2. It describes the grandson of a moonshiner who comes back from Vietnam to set up a marijuana grow operation and is clearly planning to kill federal agents if they interfere with his farming endeavors. It's a great song, but a tribute to the military? On what planet?

And then there's Webb bizarre take on religion. He seems to think that the fundamentalism rampant in the South today practiced by all those Biblical literalists is still following the same traditions as that of  their Presbyterian ancestors, the Calvinists who came from Ulster 300 years ago. WTF? One of the fundamental tenets of Calvinism is predestination: God decides who's saved and who's not. You're never going to see an altar call in a Presbyterian church. If you're raised Presbyterian, you don't get saved or find Jesus -- you grow up just knowing He's there and if you're reasonably successful in life it's proof you're not going to burn. If nothing else, the migration of southern whites from being Presbyterians to Pentecostals is nice, solid proof that the culture Webb views as immutable and fundamental to the character of low income Southern whites has changed a lot, and not necessarily for the better.

I could go on, but I know from talking with my kids that anyone who started to read this gave up a couple paragraphs ago. Bottom line: If you're ever tempted to read Born Fighting, don't bother.

Although I shouldn't be too hard on Webb. After all, he's given me an excuse to embed this (sarcasm warning} stellar example of country music:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Is my subconscious trying to tell me something?

Once again, I'm awake an hour or two earlier than I would prefer. I seem to have developed this bad habit of waking up at dawn, which isn't that horrible when it's January but definitely annoying when we're sliding into summer. For a change, I woke up from a dream that I can actually remember. Usually there'll be a vague feeling that I was dreaming, but I can never remember what the dream was about. Or worse -- I'll be wide awake at 5 a.m. for no apparent reason whatsoever.

This particular dream was weird, kind of a mix of apocalyptic science fiction -- parts were vaguely reminiscent of the television show Falling Skies, one of the cheesier endeavors Noah Wyle's been involved with, and parts were more like fragments of memories. At one point the S.O. and I were apparently in the process of moving somewhere (a not unusual situation for us, given our peripatetic lifestyle) and wound up having to boondock at an Interstate rest area due to some emergency that blocked the road ahead. That's when it started morphing into Falling Skies. Very strange. but before the aliens (our new piscisian overlords?) could make an appearance, I walked out of a room at the rest area and into an office in a building somewhere. . . and there were a bunch of former co-workers sitting waiting to be interviewed for some mysterious reason. Okay, that's not too weird -- these were a group of people I liked working with so it's not odd that my mind would create a situation where we're all back, sort of, where we were 10 years ago. Except for one thing -- along with my former NPS colleagues, a former pen pal, a person I haven't written to for maybe 15 years, was sitting there as part of the group. And we're talking like she's always been a co-worker. Which is pretty odd considering that I actually have no idea what the woman looks like -- I don't think she ever sent a photo.

I woke up right about the time our division chief started telling us he was going to send us out on a special assignment, but instead of the usual GSA fleet van we were going to be driving Fiats so no one would recognize us as federal agents. That must have struck me as just a little too weird even for a dream, especially when we're all sitting there in full uniform, right down to the Smokey hats. Except for my friend Carol -- she was in a 1970's women's uniform complete with go-go boots.

Does it mean anything that the former pen pal's name is Karen Messenger?

Friday, May 22, 2015

The rhubarb experiments continue

I tried another rhubarb pie variation yesterday: rhubarb and pineapple. This time I will actually provide the recipe, which is from a sometime-in-the-1970's issue of a women's magazine. I clipped a whole bunch of rhubarb recipes back then -- Rhubarb Crunch, Rhubarb Betty, Rhubarb Flummery, Rhubarb-Apricot Soup, and many, many others -- and until now don't think I'd ever tried making any of them. Anyway, The Recipe:

Rhubarb-Pineapple Pie

All-purpose flour
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
Butter of margarineCo
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten
1 20 ounce can unsweetened sliced pineapple
1 pound rhubarb, cut in 1/2" pieces (3 cups)

To make pastry: Put 1-1/2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and the lemon rind in a bowl. cut in 3/4 cup butter. Mix in egg yolk and work pastry together quickly using hands. Chill.
To make filling: Drain pineapple, reserving liquid, and cut pineapple into 1/2-inch pieces. In large saucepan, mix 1/3 cup flour and 1 cup sugar. Add 1/3 cup pineapple liquid. Cook over low heat, stirring, 3 to 4 minutes. Add rhubarb and cook gently 2 to 3 minutes, or until rhubarb is soft but still holds its shape. (Do not overcook.) Add pineapple and mix lightly; cool. Roll about two-thirds of pastry dough on lightly floured board. Fit in 9-inch pie pan, trim edges and press to edge of pan with thumb. Prick with fork dipped in flour. Bake in moderate over (375) about 12 minutes; cool. Pour in filling and dot with two tablespoons butter. Roll remaining pastry and cut in 3/4-inch strips. Adjust on pie to form a lattice. Press a strip of pastry around the edge. Back 15 to 20 minutes, or until lattice is golden brown. Serve slightly warm.  

Confession time: I did not make the crust as directed. There was no way I was going to make a crust that rich when the verdict was still out on the filling. What if the rhubarb-pineapple combination tasted like crap? I'd have wasted a stick and a half of perfectly good butter and an egg on a pie neither of us wanted to eat. So the pastry crust was a perfectly ordinary pastry crust (flour, shortening, and enough water to hold it all together), sort of. I did substitute lemon juice for some of the water I mixed it with. I didn't actually think the rhubarb-pineapple mixture would be inedible (we do have rhubarb-pineapple jam sitting in the pantry; we like it), but you never know.

So what was the verdict? Maybe it's because it had never occurred to us that rhubarb and pineapple could be combined in a pie, but the conclusion was, "This is odd." It tasted okay, it's definitely edible, and we will finish the pie -- but I'm never going to make it again.

Next up in Adventures with Rhubarb? I'm thinking about trying the Rhubarb Flummery, if only because "flummery" is kind of a nifty name for a food. You never hear anyone talk about making a flummery; it sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel. Which may be why it sounds slightly more edible than the rhubarb-apricot soup even though going by the ingredients and instructions, they're the same type of food: a type of pudding that uses cornstarch as a thickener.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The search is on

I have begun the hunt for next winter's Volunteers in Parks gig. The first application done using the website has been submitted; a couple more should get done within the next few days. I think it's safe to assume that some locations are much more competitive than others when it comes to opportunities that combine an RV pad with No Snow. Ergo, if I spot a location that looks attractive it behooves me to get an application done ASAP instead of procrastinating. If we hesitate, the Dream Location will vanish fairly quickly.

In any case, having survived a couple of months of co-existing with the S.O. in the Guppy this Spring, we now feel confident that we can do the longer commitments required by federal agencies. Unlike the Missouri State Parks system, which is happy to have volunteers commit for a mere one month, federal agencies want you for at least 90 days, sometimes longer. The Corps of Engineers, for example, asks people to sign up for 6 months at some locations. The National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife, and the Forest Service aren't quite that demanding. Three months is generally sufficient, which is basically what we're looking at for next winter.

So what parks, forests, or wildlife refuges are we looking at right now? There are a couple parks that we've actually been to -- Fort Pulaski National Historic Site in Georgia, for example -- that have announcements up on There's also the strong temptation to try to go someplace we've never been, like a wildlife refuge in southern Arizona or a national forest in Florida. Fort Pulaski would like to find some VIPs who are interested in doing living history, including using Civil War weaponry, although they'll settle for general help, either clerical or maintenance. When we there a few years ago, the VIP pretending to be a CSA soldier struck me as a great example of how desperate the Confederates were for cannon fodder (the man was a geezer) so it's pretty clear that the living history volunteers do not have to be young. Still, I can't quite see the S.O. with his Yooper accent managing to be very convincing as a Confederate soldier. 

None of the announcements I've looked at so far have been for campground hosts. The application I just did was for a Visitor Use Assistant, which is the job title for the people who stand behind the counter in Visitor Centers and tell you where the restrooms are. Well, they do more than that, but I'm sure those people have days when they feel like the only question they're ever asked is where the ladies' room is. I'm contemplating responding to an announcement for another park that might involve working on interpretive materials. That could be fun, even if the park is a Civil War one and I'm generally not keen on the cannonball parks. Would we do campground hosting at a federal site? Maybe. . . .although it would depend a great deal on just which federal site it was.

Besides looking on, I really should do some emailing or phone calling and contact a couple of my favorite parks directly. I'd love to be a VIP at Hot Springs NP, for example, so really shouldn't just hope that one of these days they show up on the website.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

How is your day going?

This is how ours is starting off. The lilacs do not look happy.
The weather forecast lied.It said "no accumulation." Granted, it's not deep enough to inspire a person to get out a shovel, but it's still a lot more snow than anyone wants to see on May 19.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Yesterday I attended the spring meeting of the Northland Historical Consortium. The Consortium is a loose affiliation of local museums and historical societies located across the western and central Upper Peninsula and northeast Wisconsin. There's a fair amount of variety in the membership. Some groups are focused on preserving a specific town or area's history; some are tightly focused on just one structure, e.g., a one-room school or a historic house. I did notice one thing, though.

The group that is doing the best in terms of having the largest overall membership and strongest financial base is the Keweenaw County Historical Society. In terms of dues-paying members, they're huge. Really huge. They're also big in terms of sites they preserve and manage: they have eleven separate museums/historic buildings throughout the county: a lighthouse, a church or two, a schoolhouse, and other sites. And they represent the entire county. There are no little groups where it's a handful of elderly people trying to preserve just one farmstead or old schoolhouse.

The other consortium members are a different story. Lots and lots of people who are totally sincere in their love of local history and their desire to preserve it, but  are also totally balkanized. Instead of one big umbrella county organization, there are half a dozen or more small groups that are often in competition for the same small potential volunteer pool. The host organization for the meeting -- the Ishpeming Historical Society -- is a classic example. They're a fairly new group that spun off from an existing museum (the Cliffs Shaft House Museum) a couple years ago. They now have a nice space in the old Gossard factory building in Ishpeming and have put together a decent little museum in a short period of time. The question I have is why? Why separate from Cliffs? They've now got two groups in a small town with a huge amount of overlap between the histories. They're definitely competing for the same visitor pool and the same group of potential volunteers. What does having two separate organizations in the same small town gain them? Not much.

I could say the same thing about Baraga County. We're not immune. At one time, the Baraga County Historical Society was The historical society for the country. It had a large membership and a lot of committed volunteers. Then it started balkanizing. Some members got involved in preserving an old Finnish farmstead. Did it occur to anyone to keep it as a site managed by the Society as a whole? Apparently not. It got spun off as a totally separate organization, one that's now been around long enough current members don't even realize the Baraga County Historical Society is the reason it exists -- I know its administrative and legal history because I've spent the past two years sorting through files at the Baraga County Historical Museum and read the various pieces of correspondence and meeting notes, but with most of the original players now dead, I doubt if many other people know. End result? There are a lot of people with an interest in history who focus all their energy on that one site and never think in terms of the bigger picture.

Ditto Covington: there were people out in Covington who used to be involved in the county society. At some point an opportunity arose to convert the old Covington Township Hall into a local museum. So they formed a Covington Historical Society and now have a nice museum. Just like with the farmstead, a number of the people who helped create that museum had been active in the Baraga County Historical Society. Once the museum was in progress, they left the BCHS to focus solely on Covington. Did either group gain much from it? Not really. Just like with the farmstead, there's now minimal communication or coordination between them and the county historical society. We're all weaker because of the spin-offs, not stronger.

There are days when I wish I'd never focused on organizational sociology way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I did my dissertation. I know only too well what kills volunteer associations. Too small a membership base is definitely one of them, and the various local historical societies and museums are definitely suffering from that. It's no surprise -- our county has a population of approximately 8,600 people spread out over a fairly large area (1,069 square miles). We also have (at last count) 8 historical societies and museums, not counting the Alberta Sawmill, which is managed by Michigan Tech so isn't reliant on volunteers for survival. And we're all competing for the same pool of volunteers.

I don't know why I bother thinking about this stuff. Having balkanized 10, 20, or even 30 years ago, it's real hard to reverse the trend. At this point, all any of us can do is keep reaching out to the other groups and reminding them that networking makes sense: we need to communicate better, learn to coordinate events, and maybe even try an occasional collaboration.

The Consortium, incidentally, was created for just that purpose -- to encourage networking among the numerous small groups. So how successful has it been? Good question. Out of the possible 50 or 60 historical societies and local museums that exist in the western UP, about a dozen had representatives at yesterday's meeting. Which actually isn't a bad turnout considering the distances some people had to drive. There was talk about getting a good website up and running that would help link the various groups so who knows? Maybe we'll all start to cooperate a little more in cyberspace even if we're not particularly good at doing it in the real world. I can dream.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Predator-prey relationships

There are apparently wolves roaming the streets of L'Anse. A friend had a status update on Facebook yesterday that noted wolves had been spotted at the upper end of the street she lives on, and the comments thread quickly filled with reminiscences and opinions from other town folk about the carnivores they'd seen recently (i.e., within the past year) right in town. One person mentioned seeing a wolf stroll between her mother's house and the next door neighbor's; another recalled seeing wolves ambling down the street not long ago. WTF?!

As I've no doubt mentioned a number of times, the S.O. and I dwell out in what our kids used to refer to as BFE, which is another way of saying the middle of nowhere. We've got 40 acres, more or less (mostly less, because the CN right of way eats up a little over 3 acres), of brush and swamp. In the many years we've lived here, I have never seen a wolf. I know there was a pack that included our area in its territory, but I've never seen any of them. The Younger Daughter said that she was always hoping to spot them during her morning commute back when she was duty-stationed nearby. She'd been told the pack included a white wolf -- and she really wanted to see that particular wolf. Never happened.

I assume that pack is still around and still utilizing basically the same territory, although the membership would have changed. Wolves in the wild can live to a fairly ripe old age for a canid (13 years or more), but most are going to die younger than that. If they are, though, I've never seen them. The closest I've come is seeing a few humongous paw prints in the sand in the driveway. So what are we doing wrong? If people sitting out on their decks in town quietly enjoying a cup of coffee are seeing gray wolves strolling through the neighborhood, why don't I ever get to see any out here in the boonies? Just what the heck are they doing in town that attracts these fairly savvy predators enough that they're ambling down Tuttle Street in broad daylight? And, secondary question, why aren't those people in town who see these wolves doing stuff to make the not-so-wee beasties stay away?

I can understand why some people would freak out at the sight of a wolf, or multiple wolves, right in town. I think I can even understand why wolves might wander through town occasionally. Whitetail deer are a  major nuisance in town; we know people who have given up trying to have vegetable gardens because they couldn't keep the deer out. If there are a lot of deer around, it follows that you're likely to have wolves. What I don't understand is why people are responding to the sight of a wolf by freaking out and dashing indoors immediately. Apparently no one is familiar with the concept of aversive conditioning.

What, you may ask, is aversive conditioning? It's a technique for changing predator behavior so they decide to go elsewhere looking for lunch. U.S. Fish & Wildlife and state conservation departments have been experimenting with aversive conditioning for quite a few years now. Wildlife biologists know that predators learn to hunt from other predators. Kittens are taught to hunt mice by their mothers, for example. In the Arctic, polar bears have been known to starve to death during the summer months because for thousands of years they've lived primarily on seals; they've never been taught that berries and fish are edible. Similarly, wolves learn what's edible, what isn't, and where to find food by observing the behavior of the alpha female in their pack. Teach the alpha female to avoid an area or not to go after certain types of animals (e.g., cattle) and it becomes a lot easier for farmers and ranchers to co-exist with wolves.

Wildlife biologists use shock collars for aversive conditioning out West. It's a little bizarre -- it's kind of like training dogs to recognize invisible fences, except they just radio collar the alpha female in a wolf pack and train her. That's obviously not an option for anyone living in town. But how about making the neighborhood a little less inviting? When you see a wolf, don't slink quietly into your house. Stand up, make yourself look as big as possible (the idea is to have your profile resemble that of a pissed off bear), and do a bunch of yelling while you back through your patio door. If it's really close, throw stuff at it. Invest in some spud guns. I have a hunch that if wolves hear an impressively loud noise accompanied by getting hit by a nice solid potato or golf ball they're going to rethink the route for their morning constitutional.

One of the commenters yesterday said he preferred actual bullets to spuds. Three problems with that solution, in addition to the obvious one of getting your ass tossed in jail for discharging a firearm in a residential area. First, it's always a really bad idea to use something that could potentially accidentally kill one of the neighbors when you're just dealing with a nuisance. Doesn't matter if you're the best shot on the planet -- there's always the risk of the bullet passing right through the animal and into something you didn't intend to shoot. Second, you've eliminated one animal. The lesson it's learned isn't going to get passed on. It's not going to be around to tell the other pack members that it's a bad idea to go into town. Predators are smart, but they're generally not smart enough to make the connection between being in a particular location and one of their packmates dropping dead.

The third problem is that way too many people have no clue what a wolf actually looks like. There is a fair amount of paranoia and hysteria about gray wolves since their numbers have increased in the past few years, and some people now see wolves everywhere. They think they're seeing a wolf when it's actually someone's German shepherd or husky running loose. If you Google "dog mistaken for wolf" you get hits from all over the northern part of the U.S. of incidents where someone shot someone's pet because they were sure it was a wolf. There have even been cases of people walking or skiing with a pet dog and having some idiot freak out and decide it was a wolf despite the presence of a human right next to it. IIRC, there was a case not long ago where the dog was actually on a leash and some moron shot it. So the question naturally arises of whether the people reporting seeing wolves in town are actually seeing wolves or if the critter (or critters) are merely dogs that bear a strong resemblance to wolves (malamutes, for example) and their idiot owner is letting them run loose? Just how stupid would someone feel if they do what they think is the manly thing and shoot a dangerous wolf and it turns out to be a Norwegian elk hound belonging to someone who lives a couple blocks away?

I will give my town friends the benefit of the doubt and assume they are indeed seeing gray wolves in their front yards. I am really curious, though, as to what makes the outskirts of L'Anse so attractive to wolves that they'll amble around there in daylight. Wolves are primarily nocturnal (it was the middle of the night when they ate the neighbor's pit bull), so why are they strolling around at a time of day when people are actually awake to see them? It's a mystery.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Another old adage bites the dust

You know that old saying to the effect of there are some things that once you've learned them, you never forget? Like riding a bicycle?

It's not true. I had a birthday this month and dropped not so subtle hints to the older grandson that the perfect gift for me would be a bicycle, something very retro with balloon tires, the type of bike that is popular with geezers who do a fair amount of RV-ing because that type of bike is perfect for cruising around campgrounds. We saw a lot of retro bikes, including ones with coaster brakes, at Montauk and other campgrounds, and I'd been suffering from a mild case of bicycle envy. I sold my last bicycle, a cheap mountain bike, at the yard sale we held when we moved to Atlanta. I had absolutely no desire to ever ride a bicycle in Atlanta. Omaha has a some nice bike paths; so far as I knew Atlanta had smog and killer traffic. So the bike got sold.

I did think a few times about replacing it. After I retired and we moved back to the tundra I would occasionally eyeball the used bicycles at the St. Vincent de Paul store in L'Anse. But until we camped at Montauk, it was more of a whim than anything else. Then the grandson made it clear he wanted to spend a lot more money on me than one usually spends on a gift for one's grandmother. After I walked him through doing his taxes on-line he apparently decided he wanted to do something relatively lavish. He was talking about buying me a new computer, either a laptop or a desktop. I really don't need a new computer. Granted, my PC died this winter and I do have days when I miss it, but I don't need a replacement. The S.O. and I have sufficiently different bio-rhythms (I'm a morning person, he definitely is not) that sharing one laptop isn't an issue. In fact, it's been kind of nice not having the PC -- I'm not wasting as much time as I used playing mindless games or wandering around the Intertubes reading stuff that ends up just annoying me. I also really didn't want him spending quite that much money. So I said a new bike would be nice.

Behold, my  new wheels. It is a really cool bike. Among other things, it has leather grips on the handle bars. (Yes, I am easily distracted by shiny objects.) It may inspire some serious bike envy in other little old ladies at campgrounds. There's only one problem. I discovered yesterday that the old adage lies. It is indeed possible to forget how to ride a bicycle. I took it for a test spin to check the seat height and discovered just what a terrifying experience it can be to go wobbling down the street with no training wheels. I kept thinking, well, this is going to be humiliating when I topple over and fracture my skull in front of the grandkids. I survived, but it wasn't pretty. No doubt a few runs to our mailbox (it's half a mile from the house) and back will cure the wobbling, but for sure it was not what I was expecting. After all, it had only been 8 years since I last peddled my ass anywhere; you'd think there'd be some muscle memory left. Apparently not.

The S.O. did discover that the minimum wage peon at Kmart did not do the world's greatest job of assembling the thing. He's going to make adjustments later today. We also discovered it's rather tricky getting it secured on our bike rack, so we're going to see if we can track down an adapter of some sort to make that task a little easier.

A slight digression: back when I was a little barracuda, one of my father's favorite jokes (and one that drove my mother crazy) was "Confucius say 'Girl who ride bicycle peddle ass all over town.'" When I was in grade school, of course, I thought she was annoyed because the joke wasn't funny. I have no idea how old I was before it hit me that it was a double entendre.

Friday, May 8, 2015

How many videos is it going to take?

I keep wondering just which century some cops are living in. Did they sleep right through the invention of videotape? Digital cameras? Smart phones? Seems like about once a week, maybe more often, we're treated to viral videos that show police misbehavior or to news stories with headlines like "Video Shows White Cop Kicking Black Man in Face." That was one of today's headlines that came up when I closed Hotmail and the MSN page magically appeared.

In this most recent case, which actually isn't that recent -- the incident in question occurred back in 2013 -- the beating was recorded by a cop car dashboard cam. That raises two different, albeit related, questions. First, just when are law enforcement officers going to figure out that anything they do might be recorded? Back when the Rodney King beating happened, the recording was a fluke. Someone happened to have a video camera. It was back in the days when recording devices were still relatively bulky and took tape cartridges. That was over 20 years ago, though. Recording devices have become much, much smaller. They're also everywhere. Even my cheap little Tracfone, a bottom of the line dumb phone, can do video. Granted, only about 30 seconds worth, but video none the less. Smart phones have a lot more recording capacity, and more and more people have smart phones. In addition, the courts have ruled that the public has a right to film anything they see the police doing. For awhile, cops were trying to keep a lid on things by confiscating cameras and erasing videos. Not surprisingly, the courts found they couldn't legally do that.

In addition to the most obvious source of video evidence, there are more and more surveillance-type cameras out there: the police dash cams, security systems in place at various businesses, red light cameras, traffic cameras, and so on. We aren't under quite as complete a security net of surveillance cameras as the British, but we're getting close.

So with cameras potentially everywhere and stories of bad behavior making the news on a regular basis, why do the police still behave as though no one is watching? I know part of the answer -- because even with video evidence showing some rogue LEO behaving like a sociopath prosecutors almost never bring charges and police departments are reluctant to discipline anyone -- but that's not always true. The cop in this most recent video, for example, has been indicted for second degree assault. So if it's becoming more common for there to be actual consequences, why do some cops behave as though they're still living in the last century, not current one? Good question. Maybe it just takes awhile for some people to get the message times have changed.

Side note: in one of those weird coincidences that make a person wonder if Jung was right about collective consciousness, just as I was finishing typing the above paragraph, NPR did a brief report on a new app for smart phones. It was developed by the ACLU in California specifically for use in filming police misconduct. So far over 40,000 people have downloaded the application. That in itself is rather troubling news because for sure it's evidence that there are a whole lot of people out there who are expecting the cops to do something Bad. It definitely shows whatever trust the public once had in law enforcement is rapidly eroding. Which brings me to the second question: when the institution of law enforcement going to realize they need to clean up their act? More and more ordinary people are starting to view law enforcement as The Enemy. That solid blue line that tends to behave as though no cop anywhere ever did anything bad had better start crumbling a bit and start to police itself better. As long as they keep mouthing the line that "Officer Sadistic Asshat did nothing wrong" when the video shows Officer Asshat beating someone to death (or close to it), the public's confidence in law enforcement is going to keep shrinking.

Of course, considering just how many cops (male and female) I've met over the years who apparently went into law enforcement specifically because they were sadistic asshats and got off on power tripping, I doubt  things will get better any time soon.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A follow-up on the 990-EZ nightmare

I actually had a good experience with the IRS yesterday. Readers (all two of you) may recall that a few months ago I did some pissing and moaning about the fact our small county historical society, an organization that's got barely enough members to keep going and that operates on a shoestring so thin it could be used as a trout-fishing line, got hit with the requirement to complete the 990-EZ. The 990-EZ is not particularly easy; it's multiple pages long and entails an equally lengthy attachment (Schedule A, your income, sources of income, and expenses going back 5 years) which in turn apparently leads to the requirement to complete Schedule B (a detailed list of your donors and how much they gave). Not that we actually have to deal with Schedule B -- it applies only to individual donations of more than $5,000. Still, when doing Schedule A, you get to explain why Schedule B doesn't apply. Dealing with the mountain of forms last fall was kind of a nightmare. But it got done.

Unfortunately, at some point I checked a box on the return that I shouldn't have checked. One of the things waiting for me in the pile of mail when I got back to the museum was a letter from the IRS asking for More Paperwork, including completion of something called Part III on Schedule A and submission of Schedule B, which even if it doesn't apply to us still requires an explanation of why it doesn't apply. I spent the better part of a day making little whimpering sounds and resisting the urge to just curl up in a corner while asking the S.O. to find an institution to which he could commit me for awhile. I really didn't want to have to deal with this stuff anymore.

Finally, coincidentally after consuming more caffeine than I really should have, it occurred to me to call the toll-free number given on the form. I was reluctant. I'd heard the news stories about people being placed on hold for an hour or more and then never actually getting through to a human. But I picked up the phone, went through the usual menu of choices, heard a message saying the wait time was "3 to 5 minutes," and prepared to wait much, much longer than that. Except it wasn't long at all, 2 to 3 minutes tops, and the person I spoke with was actually helpful. Unbelievable.

Bottom line: he walked me through the return we'd submitted, explained what the mistake had been, told me how to fix it, provided an address with the mailstop number for the right department so it'll go straight to Exempt Organizations Accounts instead of passing through multiple other hands first, and also gave me advice on what to do for the current tax year. Tax-exempt organizations file on a different schedule than individuals, but I'd been a little unclear on just what the dates were for that schedule. Now I know. I also know what to do if we ever get a letter again. We're such a small and poor nonprofit that we should never ever have to do a long form; the 990-EZ is a form of torture reserved for groups who have budgets over $150,000 annually. So if we get a letter saying we have to file that form the first step is to call the toll-free IRS number for the EO Accounts. I could have saved myself a lot of work last fall if I'd done that when that first letter came. Live and learn.

The silver lining, and there is one, is that thinking I had no choice but to go back to 2009 in order to complete the 990-EZ forced me (and be extension the society as a whole) to look at our budget holistically. It was an interesting exercise and should have positive benefits down the road. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but you never know. . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The clown car is filling up

Just heard on the radio that former Arkansas governor and Fox News personality Mike Huckabee has announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President. He did so in his home town of Hope, Arkansas, which seems appropriate on multiple levels. It's always good to go back one's roots, even if the juxtaposition of "Hope" and "he doesn't have a prayer of winning" strikes some observers as a tad too ironic.

Yesterday the news was all about Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Dr. Carson went back to his roots, too, and made his announcement in Detroit. The clown car is filling up.

I can understand why Huckabee wants to take another shot at campaigning. He made a career of being a self-righteous hypocrite after his 2008 candidacy but enough time has elapsed that he's not the right-wing darling he used to be. Fresh faces have emerged. He needs to pump up his public profile again, do something that will help keep his appearance fees high and maybe even give his current book another press run or two. I can also understand why politicians like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have ambitions -- they managed to get elected to the Senate so they figure if they're electable in one part of the country, they're potentially electable everywhere. There's nothing quite like success at one level to encourage a person to believe he or she can rise higher. What I don't get is why Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson have decided to get into the race.

I'm going to cheerfully predict that Fiorina's candidacy will evaporate long before the primary season actually begins in 2016. She doesn't have much name recognition, and the recognition she does have is not particularly positive. She touts as experience as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard as a reason to believe she can lead the country. Unfortunately, she did such a great job of running Hewlett-Packard that she got fired. Hewlett-Packard paid her an outrageous amount of money to go away. That's not exactly a glowing endorsement of her management skills. Then when she ran for the Senate in California, her one and only venture into elective politics to date, she lost by a large margin. Why she thinks she's a viable candidate now is a mystery. The only explanation I can think of is she's pulling a Huckabee. She's trying to raise her profile enough to gain her more appearances on the "news" shows on Fox and elsewhere. That in turn would up the amount she could request in speaking  and consulting fees. Maybe she fantasizes about being as popular as Ben Carson. Dr. Carson reportedly collects fees as high as $250,000 to give speeches at various conventions and meetings.

Or maybe she's annoyed that she doesn't get as many phone calls from the producers at Fox News as she used to. In any case, at this point the only real mystery about her campaign is how long it's going to take for her to figure out that it's doomed, that Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have no interest in giving her any money, and without money there is no campaign. Who knows? Maybe the Republican candidate pool over the next few months is going to look more like a revolving door than a clown car as one would-be candidate after another enters, figures out he or she has zero support, and ends up exiting the race long before any ballots are cast. It almost makes me wish I still watched C-SPAN.

Fiorina, incidentally, provided an almost instant example of her lack of connection with the real world. She failed to lock up all the most obvious domain names that would include her own name. For someone who claims to be technologically savvy and a business guru, that's a rather glaring rookie mistake. Not that it matters much -- I have a hunch she'll have sunk out of sight long before the real election season gets here.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Adventures in cookery

I am not noted for my culinary skills. The S.O. jokes about the smoke alarm serving as a dinner bell with good reason. I have a bad habit of getting distracted and allowing things to become a tad crispier than they were meant to be. Despite that, I do like trying out new recipes occasionally.

Yesterday I decided to try a recipe for a Rhubarb Strawberry Jello pie. I've heard of people using strawberry jello in rhubarb pie, but I had never attempted it myself. My fallback recipe for rhubarb pie is the one my mom used -- it's the three ingredients one (rhubarb, sugar, eggs) that's so simple that after a person had made it once they never need to consult the recipe again. Still, I'm trying to use up last year's rhubarb before this year's gets big enough to be picked and frozen. Much as I like that pie recipe, doing the same thing over and over does get a little old. It seemed like a good time to try something different. So I did.

The recipe for the Rhubarb Strawberry Jello pie came from a community cookbook sold by the Aura Volunteer Fire Department a few years ago. The fact each recipe has a person's name associated with it sort of serves as some reassurance -- surely no one will contribute recipes that don't work when people will be thinking of that recipe as Martha Harju's Shoo Fly Pie or Jennifer Tikkanen's Killer Brownies. I'll be nice. I won't mention the name associated with this particular rhubarb recipe.

The recipe itself looked intriguingly simple. You dump the rhubarb into an unbaked pie shell and then sprinkle a package of strawberry jello over it. This gets topped with a mix of flour, butter, and sugar. I got the impression the topping would be a sort of streusel type of topping, kind of like what you find on some apple pies. Nope. It was more like a form of concrete. You shouldn't have to get out a chisel to cut a pie. It was definitely one of the stranger outcomes I've had in baking. The pie itself tastes fine, but that topping is really, really odd.

There are several other rhubarb pie recipes in that cookbook, including another strawberry Jello one, so next time I may try one of them. They're all over the map, though, on how much sugar is appropriate for a rhubarb pie. They all use the same amount of fruit (4 cups) but the sweetener? Anywhere from 3/4 cup to 2 full cups. I'll probably pass on that last one. Rhubarb is tart, but there's no way it needs that much sugar to take the edge off.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

No May Day baskets UP on the tundra

Yesterday was Vappu, aka May Day, aka International Workers Day. It's one of those holidays that gets celebrated in different ways in different parts of the world. A friend mentioned on Facebook that she can recall making May Day baskets when she was in elementary school and actually picking violets to put in them.

Here in the U.P., of course, we had a different tradition. I do remember making May Day baskets in grade school, but I always wondered why? What we were supposed to do with them? There usually wasn't anything blooming yet that we could pick. Oh, maybe crocuses were up in some people's yards, but more typically we were all still bundled up in cold weather gear and being depressed by the sight of filthy snow banks and dead grass. The big excitement in May usually involved kids indulging their inner arsonist, torching the dead grass, and waiting for the fire trucks to show up. I don't expect to see wild flowers like violets for at least a couple more weeks. IIRC, last year they bloomed around Memorial Day. There is, in fact, still snow on the ground in our yard. It's not as bad as last year, but it's there.

It's at this time of the year that I always kind of wonder why we want to live here. Winter lasts forever, Spring is brief, and as for Summer? Well, like they say about Summer in Duluth and Canada, if it falls on a weekend, we'll have a picnic. April in the Texas at Canyon Lake felt like July in the U.P. While we were in Texas, the S.O. called a friend, one his classmates from high school, to talk about the class reunion that's scheduled for sometime in July this year. The friend was in Florida where he was volunteering as a campground host at a state park there. He told the S.O. he used to go back to the U.P. around April 1, but last year and this he decided not to. In the U.P., April really is the cruelest month. Lots of horrible in-between weather, not winter, not spring, just wretched. This year it was apparently drier -- there's a burn ban on because the wildfire danger level is Very High. Enough of the snow has melted that the ground is mostly bare, but there hasn't been much rain so nothing's greened up yet. Hence, no Vappu bonfires.

I shouldn't complain too much. The high temperature for today is predicted to hit somewhere around 70 so maybe, just maybe, the last of the snow covering the flowerbeds will melt and I can do some gardening. Maybe.

In any case, having the yard mostly bare is a huge improvement over last year:
View from the front door, April 30, 2014