Sunday, November 12, 2017

Please, writers, do some research

It's pretty much a given that any time I watch a television program I'm going to start muttering about how lazy, uniformed, or stupid the writers are. I watch the shows anyway because I figure all fiction is allowed some creative license, but some series are a lot worse than others.

For example, as a former federal employee, I find myself doing a lot of willing suspension of disbelief while watching shows like "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds." It's pretty clear no one on the writing teams for those particular police procedurals has any clue just how federal employment works. If you're wondering, my favorite rant tends to be about federal mandatory retirement ages for active law enforcement -- there is a nifty catch-22 in federal hiring rules for commissioned law enforcement that basically guarantees you're not going to see anyone past the age of 57 running around out in the field with a gun (LeRoy Jethro Gibbs should have either retired into being a fulltime basement boat builder or lateralled into a purely desk job long ago) -- but I could go on at length about other howlers in the shows. Ever notice what weird hours the NCIS team works? Has any one of them ever put in a normal 8 hour day, bitched about having to take comp time instead of getting paid overtime because of their grade level, or whined about "use it or lose it" in a holiday episode?  I also love the streamlined hiring process -- someone shows up on a temporary detail, Gibbs decides  he likes that person and, voila, instant hire. No posting the job, no hiring review panel sifting through applications and doing interviews, just instant employment.

It was not "NCIS" that got me to ranting last night, though. It was "Longmire." Holy wah. I can semi-understand the writers having a piss poor minimal understanding of treaty rights and how it relates to law enforcement (e.g., what local and state law enforcement can and cannot do on a federally recognized reservation) because that area can be a mess (some tribes, states, and local governments are really good about cooperating and doing cross deputization; others are not) but it would have been nice if they'd done a little research into the provisions of the Indian Gaming Act before they decided to make an Indian casino a key element in the show. A little time spent looking into typical tribal politics would have been useful, too, because they could have come up with far more colorful plotlines than just portraying the casino manager as some sort of autocrat with not a whole lot of oversight, either from a tribal council or from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Then again, maybe after talking with a few of the Native cast members (and "Longmire" does seem to have a decent percentage of actual Indians playing Indians) they decided tribal politics are too Byzantine to be believable.

I'm not even going to get into how bizarre it is that way too many of the Cheyenne characters in the show seem to have been stuck with names out of a Dickens novel: Malachi, Mathias, etc. I don't know if that's a scriptwriter's quirk or a problem that Craig Johnson (the author of the Longmire novels had; I've only read one Longmire novel to date), but I have a hard time picturing any parent, Cheyenne or otherwise, thinking Malachi would be a good name for a child born in the mid-20th century. . . unless, of course, that parent is a member of some weird fundamentalist cult and thinks the Old Testament is a good place to go trawling for baby names. Although I have to admit that Malachi fits Graham Greene's character better than a more typical mid-century name like Jerry or Rick would have. As names go, Malachi comes close to being the male version of Maleficent. But I digress.

Last night's WTF moment in "Longmire" came when Walt Longmire and his deputy went to talk to a school teacher about one of her students. The 10 year old had some significant problems. Her father was dead, an apparent homicide victim, and her mother was so wasted on pain pills she could barely talk. It was obvious there was stuff going on in the kid's life that she wasn't talking about. We the viewers got treated to several minutes of dialogue in which the teacher does a fair amount of tap dancing and dithering about confidentiality and worrying about what would happen if other parents found out she'd said anything about a student's home life.

I repeat, WTF? Obviously, the writers for "Longmire" have never heard of "duty to report" laws. Every state has them. In some states any professional whose job involves working with children is considered a mandatory reporter. That is, if a teacher suspects a child is being abused or neglected, that teacher must report it. Wyoming doesn't specify teachers -- they turn every adult in the state into a reporter. If you're an adult in Wyoming, the supposed location of the Longmire series, and you think something hinky is going on in the life a child, you are required by law to contact law enforcement or Child Protective Services. I found this out through the magic of Google, a technological marvel that most scriptwriters are apparently unaware exists. (I already knew about duty to report laws; I just didn't know the specifics for Wyoming.) In short, when the county sheriff showed up asking if the kid had any problems at home, the teacher should not have hesitated, or, if she did, it should have been a different sort of CYA dance.

It occurs to me that minor annoyances like that are possibly the reason we don't binge watch anything. If we did, the cumulative bloopers would have me vowing to never watch another episode of The Walking Dead/Longmire/Bosch/whatever long before we got to the end of the series. As it is, we move through the Netflix queue and what's on Amazon Prime at the proverbial snail's pace. By the time "Longmire" comes around again I'll have forgotten how annoyed I got at it this time.

The S.O. also has some pet peeves that come up while watching television or movies, but his usually involve aircraft, like if we're watching something that's supposedly a flashback to the Vietnam war and he spots wire-strike protection on the helicopters.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Signs of the Apocalypse

I went to a meeting hosted by the Archives at the Michigan Tech library yesterday. A strange thing happened. There was a surplus of parking. I came prepared to circle like a shark hoping to find a space or, alternatively, to park somewhere far, far away from my destination and do a really long hike. Instead I discovered a plethora of empty spaces within literal spitting distance of my destination.

Guys, this isn't normal. Parking at MTU (Michigan's Toughest University) has always been a bitch. Back when I was a commuting student it was horrible. It was horrible when I taught there and had access to faculty parking. It's been horrible whenever I've had to go up there for various events or do some research. It is like a law of nature. Parking at Tech is bad, an exercise in survival skills. To get there on a weekday morning and have an actual choice in where to park, to see not just one empty slot close to the library but a dozen or more? This is not normal. Any time now it's going to start raining frogs or a giant chasm (aka Hellmouth) is going to open where we least expect it, like in the middle of a Girl Scout camp instead of under the state Capitol.

As for the meeting, it was useful. The Historical Society of Michigan is encouraging the formation of regional alliances for the various local museums and historical societies in the state. The western Upper Peninsula alliance would cover Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Gogebic, and Iron counties. The concept makes sense. There are several dozen organizations within that geographic grouping, including everything from groups that do just one thing (preserve a one room school or a historic house) to more general purpose historical societies like the Covington Township Historical Museum. The thinking is similar to what led to the formation of the Northland Historical Consortium -- encourage us all to talk to each other, share ideas, pool resources occasionally. I think it's a good idea, especially if it's under the umbrella of the HSM it's got a more permanent foundation than the Northland consortium, which has had to rely on the support of essentially one person with an academic job.  However, I'd be a tad more sanguine about its possible success if there'd been more than four organizations represented. There were supposed to be more, but a number of groups that had initially expressed interest didn't send a representative after all.

Still, despite the low turnout, the morning session led by a guy from HSM was worth the drive. I learned a number of interesting and/or useful things. Then in the afternoon there was a workshop on archives. The focus was on techniques to use when introducing elementary and high school students to working with primary sources. Schools have focused so much in recent years on using the Internet for research that kids don't know how to utilize primary sources like hard copies of newspapers, old photographs, business records, and so on. They are blown away when they discover they can go to an archive and actually touch original documents like personal letters and hard copy photographs of historic events. In fact, until an archive does outreach to a local school, both the teachers and the students may not be aware a local archive like ours even exists.

The highlight for me was from a group of photographs from August 1913 showing Mother Jones front and center leading a parade of striking miners in Calumet. Mother Jones! A typical high school student's reaction would have been different, of course. Instead of going, wow, my hero! the student would (hopefully) wonder just why there was an old lady with a typical old lady's purse marching with a bunch of men -- and that would be the gateway to learning more about labor history in general, not just the strike in the Copper Country.
Photo from Michigan Technological University Archives

After we talked about introducing students to using archival material, we were given a tour of the actual archives. The usual wave of envy swept over me when I saw the gazillion flat files filing cabinets. I fantasize about getting flat file cabinets for the museum's maps and other oversize material. One of these years -- everyone talks about getting grant money for that type of purchase, but the reality is that grant money for storage/archival supplies is hard to find. Grants to underwrite activities and events (collecting oral histories, hosting a guest speaker) are common. Grants for supplies and/or capital improvements are like unicorns.

But I digress. Besides envying the cabinetry, I was surprised to learn that in some ways I've been doing a more thorough job with the museum's archives than MTU has with theirs. Granted, I'm working with a lot less material but I'm doing it part-time and as an amateur. When I went looking for advice on how to organize the museum's archives and to create finding aids, all the experts as well as the online advice said that first step is to figure out what it is you have. End result is that as I went through the files, I indexed it as I went. The goal was (and still is) to index and then go back to see if categories need to be expanded, compressed, or eliminated. There has been no taking a box of stuff, calling it the Local Important Person Collection, and shoving it on to a shelf. If documents haven't been indexed, they're not in our Guide to the Collections/Finding Aids.

As for other signs of impending Armageddon on campus, there were no parking Nazis visible. We were in a room with windows overlooking the parking area all morning and I never saw someone checking meters and writing tickets. That is flat out not normal. Michigan Tech loves writing parking tickets. Brace yourself. Thunder snow and frogs falling from the sky are going to happen any time now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Humboldt's Gift

Humboldt's Gift is an odd book. I had no trouble reading it -- Saul Bellow could write -- but I did kind of wonder why I was bothering. Humboldt's Gift  is told from the perspective of a successful writer, Charlie Citrine, a guy who is apparently somewhere in his 50s at the time. The narration shifts back and forth from the present (early 1970s) to memories of the narrator's friendship with a renowned poet, Von Humboldt Fleischer.

Referred to as Humboldt by his friends and wide circle of acquaintances, Fleischer enjoyed early success but then kind of stalled out. He's able to earn a living, has an influential position as an editor and as visiting faculty as Princeton University, but his poetry doesn't have the impact he desires. He's sliding into becoming irrelevant, one of those authors whose early work gets described as "ground breaking" or "seminal" while the still-living author gets talked about as though he's dead. As time passes, Fleischer abuses drugs and alcohol more and more, becomes increasingly eccentric and paranoid, and ends up dying alone and unrecognized in a cheap New York City SRO hotel.

When the novel opens, Charlie Citrine is living in Chicago, his hometown. Fleischer has been dead for awhile, long enough that he's become the subject of Ph.D. dissertations, so Citrine finds himself pursued by graduate students hoping for some special insight or biographical tidbits that will make their research stand out. Citrine really doesn't want to talk about Fleischer or their friendship. His own life is enough of a mess that he's not interested in taking trips down Memory Lane with strangers. He's in the middle of a messy divorce, his writing has kind of stalled out, and he's involved with a youger woman, a person he admits he's seeing primarily for the sex. He recognizes that her primary interest in him is the money she thinks he has. The truth is, of course, that between his lack of recent work and the efforts of his wife to suck every last dime from him in divorce proceedings, he's got a cash flow problem.

In any case, the book flips back and forth between Citrine's current messed up life and his memories of Fleischer. He recalls Fleischer befriending him when Citrine first came to New York as a young, naïve wannabe writer and how their career trajectories intersected. Citrine went from being unknown to successful; Fleischer slid from famous and successful into obscurity. Their friendship splintered as the older writer became increasingly self-destructive. Citrine remembers the last time he saw Fleischer on the street in New York. The sight of Fleischer looking like a down and out wino spooked Citrine so much he found himself unable to cross the street to talk to his old friend. Instead, he had a panic attack and dashed back to the safety of Chicago. Shortly after that almost meeting, he learned Fleischer is dead.

Saul Bellow has Citrine revisit this memory multiple times in the book. You can tell it preys on Citrine; he's carrying a fair amount of guilt around for losing contact with the man who had been his mentor and had encouraged his ambitions back when he was unknown and struggling. At the same time, he's trying to deal with his wife's legal machinations, his girlfriend's mercenary instincts, a borderline Chicago mafia type who inserts himself into Citrine's life over a gambling debt, and his increasing financial woes. Citrine is a mess.

He's also not particularly likable. He's basically your standard issue self centered middle aged white guy misogynistic racist pig. I kept hoping the minor league Mafioso would decide to shove Citrine off a high-rise construction girder or stuff him into a garbage truck. No such luck. Four hundred plus pages and the jerk kept breathing. There was no happy ending in this book, unless Fleischer getting moved to a grave in a better location counts as one.

After I finished the book, I did some Googling. I try not to do that before reading the books on the list because I try to approach the Pulitzer winners with an open mind. Turns out that Humboldt's Gift is autobiographical. It's a fictionalized version of Saul Bellow's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwarz. Given that I had never heard of Delmore Schwarz but was familiar with Bellow's name (although I hadn't read anything he'd written) it does appear there were strong parallels when it came to the rise and fall of name recognition/notoriety/success. I also learned that the first incarnation of Humboldt's Gift was a short story published in Playboy. How a short story goes from a few thousand words to filling 400+ pages is a mystery, but Bellow must have been feeling inspired.

Would I recommend the book to other readers? It's a toss-up. Bellow could write. The book does have a certain flow and some of the elements do suck you in -- why does the Mafioso type decide he wants to be Citrine's friend instead of fitting him with cement shoes? how did Citrine become a supposedly successful journalist with access to political figures like Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy when he's so clueless about people in his social life? -- but Citrine himself is sufficiently repellant that by the time I got to the end I was feeling like I'd just escaped from having lunch with Harvey Weinstein.

Next up on the list: Elbow Room, a collection of short stories by James Alan McPherson. This is the first book where I had to make a choice -- skip it or buy it because it was not available through Interlibrary Loan. I bought it, which means it won't get read for awhile.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Major archeological find

Back in 1992, we decided to build a deck by what is now the entrance to the Woman Cave. At the time, the structure was the back porch we'd added on to the Shoebox, the ratty mobile home we'd lived in off and on since the '70s. The kid did the excavating, the S.O. then built a decent sized deck using rough lumber from a local mill. He treated it with Thompson's Water Seal a few times, but basically the decking was cheap untreated rough lumber, mostly hemlock and spruce, that then sat there exposed to the weather for a couple decades.

Every so often one of those boards would decide it had suffered long enough, it was time to rot. We usually discovered this by stepping through it. Annoying, but not exactly life threatening when the drop was barely 6 inches. We'd slap a patch over the hole and move on. This summer we figured out the patches took up more square footage than the original material. The time for replacement had come. So the S.O. pulled up the boards.

Lo and behold! Major archeological find. I guess it counts as historic archeology because the artifact came complete with a date embossed on the bottom. That date, however, raises an interesting  question: the Big Mac Transformer is copyright 1987. The deck didn't get built until 1992. How did it get under there? Tammi did a really nice job of leveling the space; it was definitely bare dirt when the S.O. framed the deck.
I suspect, of course, that one of the cats carried it under the deck while playing with it. No chew marks on it so it wasn't the dog.

Minor digression: it just struck me that even a plastic Big Mac looks more edible than the real thing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Talk about shooting yourself in the metaphorical foot

Listening to NPR this morning. For a change, the most interesting news is international, like the troubled election going on in Kenya. Kenyans had voted earlier this year, but that election was nullified by the courts due to overwhelming evidence of widespread election fraud. I'd say this election is the mulligan, the do-over because they screwed up the first time, but it's apparently actually the third time this year that the Kenyans have tried to hold a nation-wide election.

Well, in what has to be one of the more bizarre opposition ploys I have seen, people who oppose the current government of President Uhuru Kenyatta are boycotting the election. You read that right. In order to register their opposition and try to bring about change to the existing government, they're going to stay home, just sit it out. The only people voting will probably be Kenyatta's supporters. Assuming, that is, that anyone at all votes. The latest report on the BBC mentioned violence and physical attacks on polling places, but it wasn't clear just who was instigating the violence -- the opposition? The party currently in power? Who knows. In any case, none of should be surprised when we hear that Kenyatta won re-election by an overwhelming margin.

I'd say people talking about boycotting voting in Kenya has to be the dumbest electoral ploy I've ever seen except it's not unusual. Not long ago the same thing happened in Spain. People who opposed the separatist movement sat out the election held in Catalonia to determine whether or not Catalonia should become an independent nation. Naturally, when most of the people voting were the ones who supported separatism the election results were in favor of independence. This happened despite the fact various polls showed that the separatists were a distinct minority in the region. If all the people who opposed separatism had bothered to vote Catalonian independence would now be a nonissue.

Apparently opponents of the existing government in Venezuela also did something similar a few months back -- decided they weren't going to dignify the socialist regime of President Maduro by participating in the election -- so, wow, what a surprise, Maduro is still in power. The country is a mess, but at least the opposition has its dignity intact.

We saw something similar happen in this country a year ago. Lots of people who didn't like either candidate very much, who claimed that they didn't want to vote for the "lesser of two evils" opted to not vote at all. We saw how well that worked out.

The stupid, it burns.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Speaking of planning

One of these days I need to learn to plan better

The S.O. and I have been involved with some remodeling/renovating at the museum. I mentioned a few weeks ago we were going to pull out a window and then drywall that section of wall. Well, the window came out a couple weeks ago, and the hole got covered from the outside. At the time, we were thinking the drywall part would be easy.

Why would it be easy? Because the space was basically 12 feet wide and not quite 9 feet tall. All we had to do was get two 12 by 4 feet sheets of drywall, put them up horizontally, and that would be that. So when the S.O. and another historical society member framed in the hole where the window had been, a space that was 5 feet high and 8 feet wide, more or less, they didn't worry much about the spacing on the studs. They set them at 24 inches on center. When the dry wall seam was going to be horizontal, it didn't matter much what the spacing for the vertical studs was.

Well, then we did the shopping for drywall. That's when we got reminded that stuff is heavy. Even the lightweight stuff weighs quite a bit. I knew it was going to be me and the S.O. hanging that drywall. The more I thought about it, the less enthusiastic I became about the idea of having to lift a 12-foot long sheet of drywall on to the top half of the wall. We're old. We're not quite feeble, but we're getting there. Trying to lift a large awkward chunk of something weighing well over 100 pounds did not strike me as a fun way to spend our time. I started having visions of us being flattened by a sheet of drywall, pressed like oversize butterflies on to the museum floor. So when we were almost to Menard's I asked the S.O. for his thoughts. He didn't take much persuading. . . and once we were in the store and cursing as we got the actual sheets of drywall on to the cart, shifting to using the 8 foot lengths looked even more attractive. If we had trouble getting a 8 foot sheet on to a cart a couple inches off the floor, trying to lift a much longer sheet up almost five feet on the wall would have really sucked.

Of course, when it came time to actually hang the drywall, we discovered that we could not simply set the 3 sheets vertically. Nope. The studs in the hole didn't line up right. Coming over four feet from one side of the wall put the edge of the sheet about a foot too far from the framing. That's when the S.O. got to be creative. Three sheets of drywall wound up as six pieces, each one a different size, and multiple short seams instead of one long one. But at least it's up and we can move on to the next step.

I suppose we could have rented a drywall jack and that would have solved the handling problem for the longer sheets, but it seemed rather silly to spend more on rental fees than the material we were installing cost, especially when it would have been needed for just one sheet.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your tax dollars at work

Given that the typical VA patient, at least based on what I've seen in the waiting rooms in Iron Mountain and Hancock, looks like he or she is older than the proverbial dirt, I find it oddly reassuring that the Veterans Administration thinks they have clients who can still use this particular product. I picked up the brochure at the clinic in Hancock where it seemed like everyone other than the S.O. was definitely mobility challenged.

Then again, just because a person's knees or hips have decided to stop working doesn't mean that everything else has closed up shop. (And if it has, the VA also prescribes Viagra.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

It's still Amateur Hour at the White House

Ever wonder what life would be like if Cliff Clavin got elected President? I thought not. Most of us don't waste much time fantasizing about could happen if an annoying character from a 1980's situation comedy wound up in a position of power. Maybe we should have, because that's basically what the American populace allowed to happen when Donald Trump made it into the White House.

For those of you who aren't up on American television trivia, Cliff was the know-it-all postman who was a permanent fixture at one end of the bar. Cliff was a font of trivia -- you name it, he was sure he knew all about it. And even if he didn't have a clue, he refused to change his mind. Once he'd said it, whatever came out of his mouth had to be true. Sound familiar?

Back in January I told a friend that I thought a major problem with The Donald was that he had no idea how government actually worked. Coming at it from the outside, he had the same misguided view of the role of the executive that most of the public does: he thought that being President of the United States was like being the CEO of a corporation. The CEO issues a directive; minions immediately scurry around making it happen. You know, like Picard at the helm of the Enterprise.

The reality, of course, is that the Presidency comes close to being a figurehead, someone who has to work closely with Congress if he (or someday she) wants to get anything done. Can't really fault Trump for not understanding that when he entered office because most Americans are equally naïve -- we attribute all sorts of power (and blame) to the President when most of the time we should be recognizing that Congress is responsible for whatever we're complaining about.

But it turned out The Donald's ignorance didn't end with simply no working knowledge of how the government actually functions or who's responsible for what. Nope. Turned out he's amazingly, astoundingly blissfully clueless about just about everything. After witnessing him thinking the U.S. Virgin Islands are a foreign country, I'd be willing to be that if you asked him to list the fifty states, he'd draw a blank after rattling off the ones that have Trump hotels or golf courses.

And then there's been this most recent debacle. This was the week when we learned for sure that The Donald has the people skills of a rock. Tone deaf is an understatement. How hard can it be to offer condolences when someone dies? The stock phrase, the one that every adult should know, is "I am sorry for your loss." Period. No embellishments. That's all he had to do -- tell the widow he was sorry her husband was dead. You'd think that would be impossible to screw up. You'd be wrong. How can someone who starred in a scripted reality show manage to not parrot a few simple platitudes is a mystery, but The Donald did it. Whatever he meant to say, the way it came out registered as remarkably insensitive.

And then instead of having the simple courage to admit he'd tripped over his own tongue, he declared war on the widow and her friends.

Okay. I was wrong. The American populace didn't elect Cliff Clavin. They elected the annoying barfly, the aging frat boy who runs his mouth constantly about how wonderful he is and is oblivious to everyone else, the armchair warrior who hangs out at the VFW cloaking himself in stolen valor by waxing nostalgic about risking his life in rice paddies in Vietnam when he actually spent his years in the Army manning a typewriter in Louisiana. You know the type -- the dude who manages to bluster his way into the chairmanship of the local Eagles club and then drives the rest of the membership away. The mediocre but loud woman who insists on being put in charge of the Parent Teacher Organization and succeeds in persuading the other parents that maybe their kids would be better off in a different school. First they bluff, then they bluster, and finally they rant and blame everyone else on the planet for whatever went wrong.

Anyone want to make book on how much longer General Kelly is going to last as chief of staff? It must be exhausting trying to work with the world's oldest toddler.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book review: The Red Line

Anyone who's ever wondered why their immigrant ancestors came to this country needs to read this book. I know quite a few third or fourth generation Finnish-Americans who have made the pilgrimage back to the old country, been blown away by what a lovely place Finland can be (especially if you're a tourist), and wondered why on earth their grandparents or great grandparents ever left. Track down an English translation of Punainen viiva (The Red Line) and it'll be crystal clear. When your kids are going barefoot in Finnish winters and you're surviving by mixing pulverized pine bark with flour, the uncertainties of the New World had to look like a much better deal than anything Finland had to offer at the time.

The Red Line is set in rural Finland right after the Finnish national assembly passed legislation in 1906 granting universal suffrage. There was a literacy test, but other than that all adults age 24 and above could vote -- men and women, landowner and tenant farmer, rich and poor. Finland was, in fact, the first country to give women the vote. The literacy test, incidentally, was not much of a bar to any adult voting. Even Finns living in abject poverty who tended to view newspapers as something primarily used to line walls for insulation were literate. They had to be. You couldn't get married if you weren't a church member, and you couldn't be a church member if you couldn't read the Lutheran catechism. Despite Finnish being an extremely difficult language for non-Finns to learn, it's actually pretty easy to read for a native speaker. Each letter has a unique sound. Once you've mastered an aapinen* you can read anything by sounding it out. You may not understand what the words mean, which becomes clear as the protagonists in The Red Line try to figure out just what an "agitator" is (they have no clue whether it's a good thing or a bad one), but you'll know what they sound like.

The first general election was scheduled for March 1907. The months leading up to the election witnessed party advocates fanning out across the country. A socialist party worked particularly hard at turning out the rural vote, getting the dirt-poor crofters and others at the bottom of the economic scale to buy into their campaign promises. Never having gone through a truly general election before, voters tended to be a bit . . . gullible. To them, the campaign promises sounded like magic: vote for the socialist candidate and the whole system that kept poor tenant farmers in rags while the rich dressed in silk and had coffee every day would be overthrown instantly. The characters in this book truly believe that things would change overnight. If they vote socialist, their lives will see an immediate improvement. Instead, after agonizing over whether or not to believe the agitator and vote against the monied interests, they draw the red line, go home, and slowly realize nothing has changed. If anything, things get worse -- Fate (or, more accurately, the author) has some nasty surprises to throw at them before the snow is gone.

The red line, incidentally, refers to the mark, a diagonal red line on the ballot, voters made and not to the socialist party.

I found The Red Line interesting, but I did have some quibbles. I think the author kind of went overboard in his descriptions of the desperate poverty of the crofters. Yes, I believe there were poor farmers who lived so close to starvation at least part of the year that they had to resort to pine flour** to survive. Famine was a recurring problem in a country that practiced slash and burn agriculture and had an astoundingly short growing season. On the other hand, in this book the farmers are practically starving and worrying about every bite when it's still more than a month until Christmas. They're also short on hay for their animals (a cow, a calf, and some sheep). It struck me as a bit unbelievable that the farmers would be running out of hay barely a month into winter.

I was also more than a bit skeptical about the descriptions of the farm house/hovel as being filthy. I'm not sure why so many authors seem to conflate dirt-poor and dirty, but it happens all the time. Don't have any money? Than obviously you also don't know how to use a broom or to wash the communal stew bowl occasionally.

On the other hand, the cockroaches living in the filth were amusing. They were better read than the humans, although one does lament the fact he can't read Latin.

I will not claim to have read this book in the original Finn, although I wish I could have. The author includes dialect (Finland has a bunch of regional dialects) and I'd love to read Finn well enough to be able to pick up on the way a Karelian accent gets rendered compared with an ordinary crofter's and the more educated characters in the novel.

*aapinen -- children's primer used to teach the alphabet

**pine flour -- literally made by drying and grinding the inner bark of pine trees. The S.O. remembers a Lutheran minister describing it to his catechism class back in the early 1960's. Many rural families survived by mixing pine flour with wheat, rye, or barley. It didn't provide any nutritional value because humans can't digest cellulose, but it stretched the grain flour supply and helped stave off hunger pangs. There were good reasons many Finnish immigrants never felt any nostalgia for the Old Country.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Another day, another crap donation

Every so often someone will ask me if there's anything valuable in the museum. Well, it depends on how you define valuable, I guess, but if they're thinking in terms of something you could haul to a pawn shop and get Big Buck$ for, the answer is No. There are some nifty items in the museum, but in general we get the stuff that's left when the estate sale is over, the chipped Depression glass, the rusting kitchen utensils, the crap no one wanted to buy but, hey, it's old so of course the museum will love to have it. We get to dig through a lot of fertilizer in the hope of finding an occasional pony.

Anyway, yesterday the S.O. and I went to check out a possible donation of some old farm equipment. I should have known. It had been talked up lovingly in the email proposing the donation. When we got out to the now vacant farm to pick the stuff up I discovered that once again someone was attempting to stick the museum with the crap that didn't sell at the estate sale. Apparently not even scrap metal buyers were interested in a rusting hulk of mystery gears and wheels that had been described to me as a "plow." Yeah. Right. I could be wrong, but I tend to believe that for something to qualify as a "plow" there should be at least one visible mouldboard. You know, the thing that cuts into the soil and does the actual plowing? I have no idea what the pile of scrap iron was used for originally -- it had obviously been towed behind a tractor but there were no mouldboards or discs or harrows or anything else attached to it. I kept staring at it trying to figure out just what it might have been once upon a time, but despite having grown up in farm country and spent a lot of time around farm equipment, I had no clue. Neither did the S.O. In short, in terms of it being a useful museum piece, it wasn't.

Another donated item still had a price tag on it from the estate sale. When I say the museum gets the crap that doesn't sell, I'm not joking. I did recognize this particular piece of rusting metal-- it was a row cultivator, more or less. It, too, was missing pieces but at least was still recognizable. Not recognizable enough for me to want to toss it in the back of the truck, not with a bunch of parts missing and the wheel broken, but no mystery about what it had once been.

Allegedly there was a third piece of equipment lurking somewhere on the property, a riding dump hay rake, but we couldn't find it. We walked out into the field where it was supposedly parked but never spotted the thing. Which is probably just as well, considering what poor condition the first two pieces were in. No doubt if we had found the hay rake we'd have discovered the wheels were missing (those high metal wheels are real popular for incorporating into fences or to make gates with) or most of the teeth were gone from the rake.

On the positive side, it was a nice day so wandering around an old hay field looking for derelict farm equipment wasn't a bad way to spend part of the afternoon. We even stumbled across an actual wild crab apple tree. Never did see a hay rake, though.

The down side is I now get to write a note to the donor telling him in as polite a way as possible that it turns out the museum can't take his rusting pieces of scrap iron  valuable family heirlooms after all.

Moral of the story: never ever say yes to a donation, especially one that involves using a truck to move it, without inspecting it first.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cold water Tide, Granny panties, and life in general

I was doing laundry the other day, thinking it was probably the last time I'd be able to do laundry using the line dry option because October's almost here and we've usually started worrying about the hose from the pump freezing by now, and I found myself once again musing on the subject of women's underwear.

A year or two ago I mentioned the mystery of why my Joe Boxer panties have pockets in the crotch. I'm still wondering (to stash mad money? a spare car key? your phone set on vibrate?), but doing laundry got me to thinking about two other mysteries: why are the most commodious, the garments that include the most fabric, called "briefs?" Women's undies come in various forms ranging from butt floss (aka thongs) to hip huggers to briefs. Technically all underpants are briefs, but when you're looking at packaged unmentionables in the store "Briefs" is the label that gets used for the granny panties: undies that go all the way up to your waist and beyond and leave not a bit of ass exposed. They're on the opposite end of the scale from thongs -- thongs leave nothing to the imagination; granny panties leave everything. (They're also the undies one buys when one hits a certain age and decides comfort counts more than it did 20 or 30 years ago.)

But that wasn't the only one of life's great mysteries I was pondering Thursday. The other was what goes through underwear manufacturers' minds when they select fabrics for the aforementioned granny panties, or underwear in general. Being a cheap frugal person, I buy my underwear in packages of a half dozen or more. I tend to be particularly fond of the offers that tell you that two free bonus pairs are included, even though I know that those bonus pairs will be made from fabric that will be painful to the eye. Maybe the reasoning is that in most cases the only person paying much attention to the underwear is the person who puts it on so color and/or print don't really matter? Whatever the rationale, unless you buy a package that contains nothing but white unmentionables, it is guaranteed that in any multi-pack of underwear there will be at least one pair* that hurts your eyes to look at. The last time around I got treated to a pair that is glow in the dark traffic cone orange. I made the mistake of mentioning them to the Kid. She didn't really believe me. I whipped them out of the drawer to show her. She's been begging for brain bleach ever since.

This most recent laundry day was also the day I finally got around to test driving Cold Water Wash Tide. I'm really happy it was on sale and I had a coupon that cut the cost even more. My usual detergent of choice comes from Family Dollar and is not Tide. It works remarkably well, all things considered, but because I'm doing laundry using truly cold water (it's getting sucked out of the ground from an aquifer left by the glaciers and is one step away from forming ice cubes as it leaves the hose) I decided to try a product supposedly designed for cold water. Pshaw. False advertising. Tide apparently defines cold as cooler than what comes out of a hot water heater but not by much. It was a definite disappointment. Live and learn.

I am also rethinking the possibility that last Thursday was the last outdoor laundry day. The temperature here was hovering around 90 yesterday, and is supposed to be almost as warm today. It is supposed to start cooling down, but it's still supposed to be in the low 60s into October. No frost at all shown in the 10-day forecast so if it doesn't rain, I guess a few days from now I'll be line drying again.

*And why are pants, whether it's underwear or jeans, referred to as a pair when there's only one garment?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Michigan's highest and most crowded parking lot

Benchmark at the top of the hill
The S.O. and I finally got around to playing tourist in our own backyard. We went in search of the peak of Mount Arvon, Michigan's highest point. As state high points go, Mount Arvon kind of falls in the middle of the pack in terms of both height and difficulty of access. You know if you go looking for the highest point in a state like Florida you're not going to be scaling an alpine peak -- you'll be doing good to find something that actually qualifies as a hill.

On the other hand, if you're out in Colorado or Wyoming, it's a given there's going to be some serious climbing involved -- no short, easy hikes or driving up to paved a parking lot or discovering benches waiting for you at the top. Wikipedia notes that anyone planning to bag the Wyoming high point should plan on a 4 to 6 day hiking trip; it's considered a difficult ascent.

So where does Mount Arvon fall? Well, it's not as easy to get to as the state high points that are also state parks, like in Alabama. No nicely paved road culminating in a large, paved parking lot. Still, there is a road, sort of, that does end in a parking area.

Not that we were able to park in said lot: it was crammed full of ORVs. Those machines are like snowmobiles, apparently genetically engineers to always travel in packs. You know, I get the attraction of being the lead dog in one of those ORV caravans: you get to see the trail in all its splendor, you're the first one through the mudholes, you don't eat anyone's dust. But if you're the last in line when there are several dozen ORVS ahead of you, all kicking up rocks and splattering everyone with mud, what is the point? (Actually, I know what the point is -- ORV trails, just like snowmobile trails that often follow the same routes, are always conveniently located to loop past watering holes with malt beverages on tap. It's not the time on the trail people crave; it's the time at the bar.)

Back to Mount Arvon. The road is dirt, and the last 400 feet or so were not something I'd particularly want to go over in a low-clearance vehicle, but it is a road. You go from well-maintained two lane gravel to more like single lane gravel that winds a bit to something that's one step above a two track. The route ambles through mature hardwood forest, some of which is currently being harvested -- saw a  John Deere forwarder in action that has to be one of the niftiest machines I've seen in awhile (the rotating cab has to be one of the coolest features of all time) -- and is pretty typical U.P. backwoods, although no doubt more well traveled than most. There is a way to get to Mount Arvon from where we live that would involve only backwoods roads but we opted for the tourist brochure drive.

The route is clearly marked -- each time we were confronted with a choice of routes, there was signage to indicate turns. Dito when we got to the top of the mountain: there was a large sign in the parking area showing the layout: there's a short hiking trail that loops from the parking lot to the high point, from the high point down to an overlook that on a truly clear day would probably let you see right over Point Abbaye to the Keweenaw, and from the overlook back to the parking lot. There's a bench and picnic table at the high point; there's another bench at the overlook. There's also the obligatory logbook so you can record your name and the date.

I was never quite sure what to tell tourists when they asked at the museum about the drive out to Mount Arvon. Now I know: don't do it in low-slung car, at least not all the way. Watch for logging trucks. And if you're really lucky, you'll get to see something like this in action:

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Would you like some cheese with that whine?

A friend asked me the other day why I hadn't done much with this blog lately. No matter what weirdness emanates from Washington and the Human Yam I've been silent. She was surprised I hadn't expressed an opinion on the current movement to remove Confederate monuments.

Well, to be honest, I really don't have one. Granted, most were erected for deplorable reasons -- if they were truly about honoring the bravery of the CSA soldiers and officers, we'd see statues of General James Longstreet all over the South -- but I tend to view them as a local issue. If the majority of residents of Richmond or Durham or Birmingham or wherever want to shuffle Bobby Lee off into the dustbin of history, I figure they should be free to do that without interference. Are they contributing elements to a cultural landscape that shouldn't be messed with? Nope. Culture changes; landscapes evolve. I've never been real keen on preserving anything just for the sake of preservation.

Plus, of course, we don't need large tacky oversized lawn ornaments to remind of us history. There are these things called "books."

I've also actually been far more bemused by the spectacle of young, well educated white guys whining about how oppressed they are. I can understand where some of the bitter old men are coming from -- they've finally had to confront the fact they're never going to be rich, never be famous, and never have a chance to buy a trophy wife -- but when you're a 20-something dude who's still in college? Where's your reason for feeling oppressed, dude? Didn't get rushed by the frat you fantasized about joining? Feeling butt hurt because you went from being the smartest kid in your calculus class back in Podunk and are now the mediocre student learning for the first time that all the other smartest kids in their high schools are now packed into the same college lecture hall as yourself? Not enough Solo cups to go around at the kegger? Can't get laid? It must be the fault of the Illuminati or black or brown people or some vast Zionist conspiracy. It can't possibly be because the dudes need to learn some social skills or maybe take a bath once in awhile.

The tiki torch bros in their white polo shirts, in fact, reminded me of a clueless doofus I knew in grad school. He'd hit the point where he was ABD (all but dissertation) so had begun the job search. He'd done a bit of schmoozing (aka "networking") when our department had guest speakers in for a seminar series so he felt like he had an "in" at one of the schools where he submitted his c.v. He was sure he was a shoo in. After all, his research fit in with what the target department was known for. If memory serves, he did make it past the first cut (preliminary phone interview, maybe) despite the remarkably thin resume (no published papers, no book contract, maybe one presentation at a professional conference, minimal involvement in progessional associations, no Ph.D. in hand yet).

And then the dream department, his sure thing, hired someone else. Even worse, they hired a woman. The doofus went around ranting loudly about affirmative action and tokenism and how terribly, terribly political correctness was running amok. There was no way in hell a mere woman would be better qualified than he was. A few of his fellow students made sympathetic noises, or at least they did until word came through the grapevine as to just who the "underqualified" woman was. She was a person who had (1) a Ph.D. in hand; (2) several publications in peer-reviewed journals; (3) a book in press; and (4) currently held a post-doctoral research fellowship at a top tier institution. Only in the mind of a poor deluded loser unwilling to admit he'd been beat out by a much better qualified candidate would anyone blame tokenism and the evils of affirmative action.

It goes without saying (but I'm saying it anyway) if the winning candidate had been male the loser's response would have been a resigned "Oh crap. No way I could top that dude's record."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Marketing genius

It's gotten to that time of year where we're harvesting new potatoes from the garden. We didn't actually plant any potatoes this year -- what we're digging up are from feral spuds, plants that sprouted from potatoes we missed when we cleaned out the garden last year. There aren't a huge number of plants, but that's okay. We don't eat as many potatoes as we used to because we're supposed to be watching out potassium (one of the joys of aging is you start having to worry about stuff that not many years earlier you were blissfully unaware could ever be a problem). Usually two-thirds of the garden is potato plants; this year we've got a large section that's planted in clover and is going to be fallow for a year or two.

Anyway, because we're just digging up a plant or two at a time, I'm basically picking everything that looks big enough to count as an actual potato. You know, tubers that are bigger than marbles, although in some cases not by much. Picking those midget potatoes, the tiny stuff that if this was a normal year and I'd planted potatoes on purpose I'd be tossing over the fence for the chipmunks to enjoy, reminded me of an example of marketing genius we spotted at Econo Foods a few weeks ago.

Anyone who's ever grown potatoes know the little ones are a fact of life. Doesn't matter what variety of spud you're trying to grow, there are going to be some midget tubers when harvest time rolls around. Those used to be the ones that got shunted to one side to be fed to the cows or marketed to companies that process spuds into instant potatoes. They did not get sent to the supermarket to be sold to ordinary consumers. The assumption for decades was that people wanted potatoes big enough to actually look like potatoes, not marbles.

Then some genius decided, hey, how about if we quadruple the price over what ordinary potatoes sell for and give them a cute name? End result: what used to be the reject potatoes, the ones that were culled from the production line before the spuds on the belt got to the baggers, are now the high dollar specialty potatoes, the gourmet "gemstones," "baby" potatoes that merit being sold for $5.99 a pound. Or maybe a little more. According to the Melissa's Produce website, that tiny one-and-a-half pound sack of infant tubers goes for $11.99 online. Plus shipping, no doubt.

As for just how large those gemstone spuds are, the first photo is of similarly sized babies I pulled out of our garden  the other day. Of course, the midgets were in the minority -- most of  our spuds were a respectable size instead of resembling dirt-covered marbles.

In any case, sheer genius on the part of Melissa, whoever she might be. Not only did her company figure out a way to use every single spud that came out of the ground no matter how tiny it might be, they figured out a way to charge more for what used to be the throwaways than for the normal sized potatoes. Only in America. . .

P. T. Barnum would be proud.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

So much for good intentions

I had semi-vowed to start scaling back on doing stuff at the museum. I was going to focus a tad more on other stuff at home and a tad less elsewhere at anything that involved lots of time and effort. No ambitious plans, no applying for large amounts of grant money, just some gentle coasting for awhile.

Well, so much for that plan. The building has an exterior window that was put in because the original design for the museum included at some point tacking on an ell. The door into it would go through where the oversized unnecessary window currently is. Or so I'm told -- the skeptical part of me says, well, if they'd planned to put a door through there they really shouldn't have run the hot water heating system along the base of the wall or run electrical wiring through it, but that's the type of skeptical thought I generally keep to myself. (The window is in the area to the left behind the switchboard pictured below; you can see the natural light flowing in. We are going to lose a great view of The Lake when that window vanishes. Of course, if we really want to see The Lake, all we have to do is step outside.)

In any case, once we close for the season, more or less (at our last meeting we voted to stay open on Saturdays September through May), we're blocking that window. Closing it off will eliminate a source of unwanted natural light (something that a museum should have a minimum of) and provide another section of wall for displaying stuff. Simple project. No big deal. Just need to get enough bodies together to be able to lift the humongous window out and moved out of the way. Once the window is gone, it won't involve much time or effort to plug that hole.

Except, of course, if we're removing the window, we need to get all the stuff that's in the general area of the window moved. As it happens, that's the museum gift shop area. Well, if we need to get the gift shop items out of the way, we might as well relocate it all entirely. We'll move it to the traditional gift shop location in a museum: it'll become the last space you walk through before exiting the building. That is the classic placement: you amble through the exhibit spaces and then get spit out right by the souvenir racks.

Which in turn means moving the objects that are currently in the space where we're going to put the gift shop. Okay, if we're moving them, what do we do with them? Some will go into storage, no doubt, but if we're moving the rest, what's the most effective way to use them? At the moment, we have no actual dioramas in the museum. We have exhibits that are collections of stuff, but they tend to be a hodge podge. You know, our logging exhibit has a lot of tools and photos and models and whatnot, but it's not like a slice into logging camp life. It's bits and pieces. Ditto everything else. We'd tossed around the idea of editing the area where the Monarch wood-burning kitchen range sits to make it look more like an actual circa 1900 farm kitchen, but then a better idea hit me.

We have a really old switchboard that belonged to Baraga Telephone (photo above). Baraga Telephone began in a local family's front parlor. We could take that switchboard, dress a mannequin in  Edwardian era clothing, set her at the switchboard, and do a for real diorama that highlights an important piece of local history and incorporates a lot of the stuff that as it stands now is just kind of there, i.e., parlor furniture and knickknacks that always make me feel like the ladies who set it up 10 or 20 years ago were having a good time playing house more than they were thinking about historic preservation or educating the public. We have a living room/dining room set up that's no particular time period or place but does have some really pretty tea cups on the dining table. The nice thing about the time period when Baraga Telephone was first up and running was the typical middle class parlor was rather cluttered. We can disguise a vaguely-Victorian looking 1960s arm chair with an afghan, set out the Franklin Mint collectible tea cups, and in general get the feel for the era without being 100% accurate. The key thing will be positioning the switchboard so it's the piece most visible to visitors. The rest is just set dressing to emphasize Baraga Tel started out in someone's home.

Even better, we can set it up in a way that keeps visitors from touching anything. I could finally get the exhibit of my dreams: one that is totally hands off. I'm psyched.
S.O. putting up pegboard to block off view of the attic.

Okay. Moving on. Blocking a window, moving the gift shop, shuffling things to create a diorama. Well, if we're shuffling stuff, why not take the logical next step? Let's make the path visitors follow a true circle. Let's put a door in the hallway wall so no one ever has to back track. The museum has an awkward floor plan, the result of changes in design as they ran out of money 25 years ago. As things stand now, if people want to look at a display of historic photos they walk down a hall that they then either have to walk back up or cut through the office to get back to main exhibit area. Way too many people opt for cutting through the office. Not good. So we'll cut a doorway into the hallway wall. It would come through close to the corner shown above. Not a big deal.

Except, of course, then we run into having to shuffle more stuff around, including rearranging the photos on most of that wall. Rearranging the exhibit area space near the proposed opening wouldn't be bad -- there is a display case that will have to be moved, but that's a fairly minor issue. And now that I'm thinking about moving the display case, other things are occurring to me. One thing does indeed lead to another. . .

I think my first step had better be creating some empty space in the storage building. We're going to need it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Headline I did not want to see

"Sanders keeping door open on 2020"

What the hell is wrong with these aging politicians? Bernie Sanders makes some great progressive arguments, by why would anyone who is barely a month away from turning 76 imply that he's just fine with being a candidate three years from now? I have the same reaction to Sanders hinting coyly that he might okay with running again that I do with every other geezer in Washington who refuses to admit it's time to step aside. I am really thoroughly sick of seeing the country run by a bunch of wrinkled codgers who are so wrapped up in their own ego trips that they can't take the time to cultivate a younger generation to carry on after them.

After all, Bernie isn't exactly unique. Dianne Feinstein is 84, up for re-election in 2018, and is still dithering over whether or not to retire. It's like the remarkably evil Strom Thurmond set some sort of precedent and ever since then, when the man managed to stay in office long after he looked like he should have been in the ground instead of being wheeled out occasionally to prove to the voting public he was still breathing, they all want to go for way more terms in office than any sane person should aspire to. Whatever happened to the joys of being the elder statesman who went off to make a fortune as a figurehead for a lobbying firm and got paid ridiculous honorariums for spouting platitudes and sound bites on Sunday morning news shows?

 I don't care what your political affiliation might be -- left, right, somewhere in the middle -- but if you actually care about the ideologies you supposedly espouse, isn't there an obligation to ensure that there are people coming along behind you who will also support those policies or ideologies? What's the point in being in office forever if you're not mentoring anyone or promoting the next generation of leaders and policy makers? One of the reasons I despised (and still despise) Hillary Clinton is she was more interested in feeding her own ego than she was in cultivating a younger generation. Instead of promoting her own eventual candidacy when she lost in the primaries in 2008, she should have looked at the calendar, done the math, and tried to build a bench for 2016. Did she do that? Nope. End result? A remarkably weak Democratic field and eventually a Human Yam in the White House.

I'm not much of a fan of term limits. We've had them for awhile in Michigan and the consequences have not been good. I am, however, beginning to lean more and more toward the idea of mandatory maximum ages for candidates and mandatory retirement ages for the geezers already in office.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Life's little disappointments

I had the first round of cataract removal done Thursday afternoon. It was remarkably boring. You don't actually get to see much when you're strapped to a table with a surgical drape over your face. 

Oh, the flashing lights and weird psychedelic effects in the eye that was getting sliced and having a introcular artificial lens implanted were moderately entertaining, but overall the experience made a person feel more like one of those chocolate bonbons in an old "I Love Lucy" episode than anythng else. I was halfway hoping to hear some Beethoven as the nurses adjusted the eye speculum and got stuff ready in the operating room but, nope, nothing but idle chatter about what the weather's been like and how ridiculously expensive ground beef has become.

It really was an assembly line operation. Patients checked in, were parked in recliners in a holding pen, had their vitals taken, eye drops to cause dilation dropped into whichever eye was about to be sliced, and were handed a Valium to mellow them out. Every 10 or 15 minutes or the occupant of a recliner would be led into the OR, be gone for not much time at all, return to the relciner just long enough for a blood pressure check, and released back into a regular waiting room. None of the recliners stayed vacant long.

The Valium, incidentally, was the only sedation. I had a vague memory of the S.O. being given more drugs to mellow him out, but maybe not. I was relieved. I always dislike the rohypnol variety of sedation, the stuff that keeps you conscious at the time but leaves you with a blank space in your memory. Mellow, strapped down, but mentally present was fine with me. They dripped enough numbing material into the eyeball to block any pain that might be associated with the actual surgery, and that was the important part. For that matter, there may have an injection of something, too. If there, things were already numb enough that I didn't notice.

The S.O. netioned having some pain after his cataract removal, but about all I noticed was more of a dull ache, kind of like my eyelids were protesting having been forced wide open for longer than they would have liked. On the 1 to 10 pain scale, it was way over on the low end. An annoyance, not actual hurting, and it didn't last long. Now that it's been almost 48 hours, about the only thing I'm noticing is a vague dry, itchy feeling, which hopefully won't last much longer. I'm keeping the eye shield on 24 hours a day until that vague itchy feeling goes away. I got told to wear it while sleeping for two weeks, but I'm paranoid enough about accidentally rubbing the eye too soon that I'll live with it on all the time. I sprang for the high dollar intraocular replacement lens in the hope that I'll be able to do counted cross stitch without wearing glasses. I have no desire to screw that investment up.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

No winemaking this year

Concord grapevine reachng for the sky
Once again the deer are now doing a nice job of trimming the grapevines. Things have finally dried out enough that we've been able to do some weed whacking around the grapes and some other plants. It was immediately clear that the deer have not lost their taste for grape leaves. The vines are in no danger of dying, but they're also not likely to bloom and produce grapes.

Oh well. I can live without stomping my own grapes. And if I really want to make grape jelly from scratch I can always buy a few pounds of grapes from the fruit stand later this summer. They usually get some locally grown Concords in, although not a huge amount. The U.P. is not exactly Napa Valley. Summers are a tad too short here for grapes to do well. I may fantasize about getting some home-grown grape juice, but I'll be happy just manage to train the vines to grow along wires and form a natural-looking fence. The Concord doesn't seem to grasp that concept. It prefers to send a zillion vines rocketing off in all sorts of directions. Last summer we kind of lost control of it, and I swear it had decided to try blocking the driveway. It grows like crazy, but not in the way I'd like it to.

In other gardening news, the peonies are finally blooming. Yep, it's the second week in July and I have peonies. Every where else peonies are a late spring, early summer flower. Here they're midsummer. Or do they count as autumnal because it's after the 4th of July? They're doing the opposite of the grapevines. They're trying to kiss the ground. As soon as they're in full bloom, the stems decide the weight is just a little too much for them to bear and they flop over. What is the point of breeding flowers where the plants can't support their weight? I've got some daffodils that do the same thing -- they were bred to have amazing double blooms, but once they're in full bloom they flop over. It makes no sense. . . Unless plant breeders love slugs, because that's what blossoms attract as soon as they touch the ground.
Slugs may like peonies, but deer don't. The deer change their preferred browse every summer -- one year they love Asian lilies; the next summer they ignore them and eat phlox instead -- but they've never eaten peonies. They're also smart enough to avoid the foxglove, and have never shown any interest in annuals like snapdragons and petunias. 
 My mother used to have an amazing flower garden every year. She planted all sorts of old-fashioned stuff I can't find seeds for anymore: bachelor's buttons, baby's breath, nasturiums, ordinary pink cosmos. You can't even find the seeds for some of the old-fashioned flowers in catalogs, which strikes me as odd. Why would bachelor's buttons go out of fashion?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Holy wah, the stupid is running deep

I screwed up recently. I joined an RV discussion group on Facebook.

Now I already knew, thanks to having been a campground host, that some of the people who take to the road in motorhomes or drag travel trailers around aren't the brightest examples of humanity on the planet. We've seen people do some remarkably stupid stuff in campgrounds. To be honest, we've done some dumb stuff ourselves through inexperience or ignorance, although I'd like to believe nothing that comes close to plumbing the depths of stupid I'm seeing in the questions people ask.

For example, it floors me to read posts from people admitting in a public forum that they just dropped $150,000 or more on a leviathan (class A motorhome) but they have no clue how to back it up, level it, or even figure out what some of the cabinets are for. Here's a clue, people: if it's an empty storage space, you use it to hold stuff you don't want sitting around out in the open. For some people, that might be board games and DVDs. For others, it could be extra bedding. The whole point of an empty cabinet is that you can fill it with whatever items you personally need to stash somewhere. You don't need to ask the Internet for permission to use any empty cabinet to store your Captain Crunch, your DVDs, or your sex toys.

But I digress, at least a little. In the last 24 hours I have seen a person ask about getting a 50 foot extension cord to connect a 50 amp service because they can't back into a space and there aren't any pull-through sites, another person inquire about jacking up a leviathan to "get the back wheels off the ground and level the motorhome," and a third blockhead inquire about whether or not a 1-ton diesel pickup was powerful enough to tow the giant 5th wheel trailer he plans to buy. The person who wanted advice on leveling was apparently unaware that the brand new motorhome she'd bought had self-levelers. She was at a Corps of Engineers campground so there couldn't have a whole lot of slope to the site. The self-levelling should have been more than enough. For sure she didn't know you can buy plastic blocks to place under your rig's wheels, kind of like adult legos, at any Walmart. How can anyone invest in an RV and not even know where to buy accessories for it?! (Personally, we carry pieces of scrap lumber, but the S.O. and I are notoriously cheap frugal. We are, after all, the same people who decided a free used llama stall mat makes a great patio rug.)

In any case, these are all people who are apparently planning to go straight from never having owned an RV into playing around with the largest, most awkward to use equipment they can find. No intermediary stages of owning a pop-up camper, a conversion van, or a small travel trailer. Nope. Straight from being couch potatoes to living the good life in the biggest RV they can finance.

And then having made that decision instead of actually going to an RV dealership and talking with experts, you know, maybe looking at the 5th wheel of your dreams and then asking the sales rep "Just what does it take to tow something that big?" you decide to consult the collective ignorance of a Facebook discussion group.

Jesus wept.

On the other hand, the cheerful ignorance does explain why there are so many ads out there for not very used equipment, leviathans with only a few hundred miles on them and travel trailers that were used for less than 4 months. If you go into something not having a clue just what it is you're doing, it's not going to take you very long to decide it was a colossal mistake.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Time to build an ark?

I don't know if it's been raining more than usual lately, but I do wish we'd get a long enough break between the deluges for things to dry out enough for the S.O. to mow. It's getting to where instead of the bagger he should be dragging a baler behind the mower. We have a lot of area to mow, and most of it needs it now.

I was thinking we'd manage to get some yardwork done this weekend. A few days ago the long range forecast was showing today as partly cloudy and tomorrow as actually clear and sunny. Now today is something like 80 percent chance of rain and tomorrow is partly cloudy and looking ominous. So is Tuesday. And Wednesday. I shouldn't complain. Rain and temperatures in the low 60s definitely beats the day after day of temps well over 100 the Southwest is experiencing, but it would be nice if it stayed sunny long enough for things to dry out enough for it to be safe to use the electric weed whacker.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Is the insurance industry working on making itself extinct?

I've been following -- sort of -- the discussions about repealing most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The one thing that seems guaranteed no matter what version of a montrosity of a bill eventually wends its way over to the White House for The Donald's signature is that the end result will be that health insurance costs will climb even more.

Economists have been saying for quite awhile that the current system isn't sustainable. There's a simple reason why: The more costs climb for a product, the fewer people there are going to be who can afford to buy it. It doesn't matter what the product is -- unless you're giving it away, there will always be people who can't afford it. We all know there will alwys be a lot more people around who can afford to wear Faded Glory* than to wear Versace. In a rational world, if you want to make money you've got basically two choices: sell a lot of widgets at the lowest possible price that still allows you to make a reasonable profit, i.e., go for quantity and make your money based on volume of sales, or sell just a few at a super high price. Mass production versus artisanal.

For various reasons, all predicated in some way on the fact that trying to buy good health is a lot less of a discretionary purchase than picking up some new tee-shirts or even a new car, the healthcare industry -- insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, doctors and hospitals -- have been busily jacking up prices to the point where fewer and fewer people can actually afford them. Back when the Affordable Care Act passed, the insurance companies viewed it as a giant gift. So do Big Pharma,. most doctors, and almost all hospitals. It provided them with guaranteed customers. Even better, the ACA included guaranteed payments -- to ensure that people could actually buy the insurance they were being mandated to acquire, the ACA includes subsidies.

So what has the Republican Congress decided to do? Jerk out the financial props for the ACA. People are still going to be told to buy insurance, but they're not going to get much help doing so. And you know something? Despite the fantasies of some politicians on the right, telling people they're going to be fined if they don't buy insurance or punished in some other fashion isn't going to make a bit of difference. Premiums are going to climb, fewer people will be able to afford them, and the customer base for private insurance is going to shrink. You know why? Because if you don't have the money, you don't have the money. Some people will give up on the idea of health insurance reluctantly; some will struggle to find a way to buy it; and some will just run the numbers and realize they're screwed so they might as well learn to live with uncertainty.

I'm not going to get into moral issues or the healthcare is a right debate or even the obvious need for a universal government-funded and managed system ("Medicare for all"). Nope. I'm just wondering why no one in any of the walnut-panelled office suites for Big Pharma or Aetna or any of the others has sufficient brain power to realize their customer base is shrinking. Instead of pushing for ever-higher prices, they should be working hard on trying to lower costs. Their short term greed has blinded them to the reality that the system they've created is doomed to implode. It's not going to happen any time soon, unfortunately, but give it a few more years and the fecal matter will hit the fan. I just hope things don't get too unpleasantly dystopian before the paradigm shifts.

*And isn't it a sad commentary on my life that the Walmart store brand is what immediately sprang to mind when thinking about something cheap? So much for my posturing that I never shop at the Evil Empire. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tonto National Monument

Or, how my kid tried to kill me by dragging up a hill to look at a cliff dwelling.

Okay, so maybe she didn't actually try to kill me. Going to Tonto National Monument was my idea, not hers. It was March, it was Spring in Arizona, flowers were blooming, the sun was shining, and we were going to be hitting the road to Colorado soon. So spending one last Saturday collecting NPS Passport stamps seemed like a good idea.

Tonto National Monument is near Lake Roosevelt more or less north of Globe. It's about a two hour drive from Safford. The S.O. decided to pass on accompanying us on this particular expedition. He had hit the point where one crumbling pueblo or cliff dwelling looked pretty much like every other crumbling ruin we'd seen.
I, on the other hand, had spotted a flyer at the Canyon de Chelly (another NPS site I'll do a post on one of these days) the previous month noting that among the many events happening in Arizona in honor of March being Archeology Month was an Open House (translation: no admission fee) day at Tonto National Monument. I do not object to paying admission fees, in fact I will sometimes pay them even though the S.O. has a geezer pass because I believe in supporting the National Park system, but I am also half Finn -- and every so often the incredibly cheap frugal Finnish side emerges. So the kid and I decided we'd do Tonto on the free day.
At this point I thought we were getting close. I was wrong.
Tonto is an interesting little park. It has two noteworthy cliff dwellings, one fairly close to the Visitor Center and one that's a little farther away (approximately one mile). The latter site is usually accessible only as part of a ranger-guided hike that you have to make an appointment for. For the open house, however, the trail was going to be open all day. You did not have to go as part of a group at any specific time. Sounded good to me.
Teddy bear cholla
So the kid and I filled our water bottles -- I actually used my CamelBak pack, having gotten a new water bladder for it at REI a few weeks earlier -- and headed for Tonto. It was a gorgeous day, the park had attracted enough visitors that cars actually had to park along the roadside on the way in. We got lucky, though, by arriving late enough that earlier visitors were already exiting the main parking lot. We were directed to a space close to the Visitor Center. We checked that out first so we'd have some idea what we were about to do and then looked at a few outdoor displays before heading up the trail. When we got to the park, a group of Apache kids were just finishing up dancing so we didn't see much of that, but the various displays and demonstrations were interesting. The Tonto National Forest (which surrounds Tonto National Monument) had an archeologist there who does experimental archeology of some sort (and I'm now blanking on exactly what it was so it couldn't have been too exciting) and some local hiking club or birdwatching group had a booth pushing other parks and trails in the area.
And then we headed up the trail. The ranger at the trailhead checked to make sure we had water and decided we were good -- they were handing out bottles of water to anyone who didn't have water already. First part of the trail wasn't bad. It followed a little creek that runs though the bottom of the canyon so there were a couple minor water crossings. We'd been warned to watch for bees, and indeed there were a few places where lots and lots of honey bees were taking advantage of the stream. We ignored them; they ignored us.
Then the trail started to climb. We emerged from the shade along the creek, looked up the hill, and there in the distance, looking like it was a long, long way from us, were the ruins. That's the photo at the top of this post. And then the switchbacking began. We'd walk a couple hundred feet on a gradual climb up in one direction, then there'd be a tight switchback, and we'd do another couple hundred feet in the other direction. . . and so on. . . and on. . . and on. At about the midway point there was a bench occupied by a park ranger and a large water cooler, one of those 5-gallon ones. I did not envy the park employee who got to tote that sucker up the trail to that point. (Nor, when we finally reached the ruins, did I envy the rangers who carried up the cases of bottled water.) I think my kid (aka The Amazon) could have jogged up that trail with no problems, but I found it a tad more tiring than anticipated. I don't do well on hills.
Lake Roosevelt as seen from the ruins
In any case, what would have been maybe a 20-minute walk on level ground turned into about an hour creeping up hill. We paused a lot as I resorted to ploys like "I want to get a picture of this teddy bear cholla" (so cuddly looking and so vicious if you're unlucky enough to come within 3 feet of one; cholla are known as jumping cactus for a reason) or "Wow, what a great view from here!" Not to mention, of course, the classic "Wait a second. I need to get a sip of water." Which I actually did need to do, a lot. It was a gorgeous day that must have hit 90 by mid-afternoon. Heat was a real issue, so was dehydration, which was why the Park Service was pushing water at people like crazy.
Looking at the trail before starting back down.
Eventually, of course, we did get to the ruins. It was worth the climb. Being able to see them up close definitely beats having to view ruins from behind a fence (e.g., the White House at Canyon de Chelly) or from across a canyon (Mesa Verde). A VIP and a ranger were at the ruins to answer questions and to pour water on or into people who needed it. And the view of the lake from the ruins was amazing. I'd do it again despite managing to come dangerously close to actual heat exhaustion. I did stay hydrated but was still feeling borderline nauseous and having chills by the time we got back to the Visitor Center. I am definitely not a warm weather person.

On the other hand, at least I was smart enough to know it. There were a few people who arrived at the ruins while we were there who really should not have attempted the hike at all. No water worth mentioning and wearing footwear more suited for strolling around a shopping mall or a beach than for going up a moderately rough trail in rattlesnake country. We didn't see any snakes, but there were signs up warning people to be careful. (In the 5+ months we were in Arizona we never saw a snake; the one and only rattlesnake I saw in the wild was in Colorado at Hohvenweep National Monument)(and, yes, eventually How I Spent My Winter Vacation will get there, too).

As for how the Ancient Pueblo People (or whatever the preferred term for the long dead indigenous inhabitants happens to be at the moment) coped with living a long way up from where the water is, there is a walled, cistern-like area inside the ruin where it's possible water running off naturally from the top of the cliff was collected. A minor change in weather patterns that caused that water source to dry up could be the reason the cliff dwelling was eventually abandoned.

In addition to the ruins, Tonto has a nifty little Visitor Center. The exhibits are fascinating. They have actual textiles! Pieces of woven cotton material that are about 1,000 years old. Dry climate, sheltered location, and even fabric survives. Apparently quite a few artifacts were looted found back in the late 19th century. At one point the area along the Salt River had been heavily settled, lots of farming activity, so there was a rich archeological record when researchers like Adolph Bandelier* became interested in the area. It's hard to picture that area as agricultural now, especially when most of what was right next to the river is now under Lake Roosevelt, but if the inhabitants were weaving with cotton and grinding corn for flour, they were obviously growing crops somewhere.

Tonto's a little out of the way and it's not real big so visitation there is probably lower than at some of the more iconic parks. It's worth going looking for, though, if a person has a chance to.

*Yes, that Bandelier, the dude Bandelier National Monument is named after. He's better known for exploration and research in New Mexico, but he got around.