Sunday, May 21, 2017

And now for something different: Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area

Over the years the S.O. and I have been to a lot of National Park sites, National Forests, US Corps of Engineers campgrounds, state forests, state parks, county parks, even township parks, but until we spent the winter in Arizona we'd never knowinglyh gone near anything managed by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM oversees huge swaths of land out West -- big chunks of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and other states. But you know what I think when I hear "BLM?" I think grazing leases. Or mineral leases. Or truly barren ugly wastelands beloved by boondockers who are so anxious to camp for free that they're happy to ignore the fact the location that's free looks depressingly similar to the surface of the moon. You know, basically places that only starving cows and hard core rockhounds are willing to go.
Gila River. It's the longest river in Arizona and at various points has a fair amount of water in it. Every time I saw it, it looked  muddy and disgusting even though it is supposedly a trout stream.

I did not know BLM also does recreation, as in actual developed recreation. Day use areas with scenic vistas and picnic tables and the cleanest comfort stations I have ever seen. Real campgrounds with fire rings, ramadas over the picnic tables, and potable water available. Hiking trails, including hiking trails that are so developed they're handicapped accessible. Live and learn.
Paved accessible trail to "wildlife viewing area." The pavilion in the distance has several benches so you can sit, relax, and hope something other than a squirrel shows up. There are supposed to be bighorn sheep. We never saw any.

It turned out there was a fair amount of BLM land in the Safford area. There were areas that were open to dispersed camping (aka boondocking), and there were developed recreation areas like Hot Wells (an area south of Safford popular with people who have ORVs) and Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area on the Gila River northeast of town. We went out to Gila Box a couple times. You can canoe or kayak on the river, although I'm not real sure why anyone would want to (but maybe I just saw it at the wrong time of year), you can hike, you can picnic, and there are actual campgrounds. Dispersed camping is permitted, too, but when the daily use fee for a nice site within easy walking distance of a super clean privy is only $5 ($2.50 for those us with geezer passes) I don't much see the point of true boondocking.
Historic cabin restored (sort of) by the BLM.

On one of our trips to Gila Box, we visited the sites close to Safford: a day use area on Bonita Creek that includes a picnic area right down by the creek where it joins the river and a wildlife viewing area that's up higher overlooking the Bonita Creek canyon, and the Riverview Campground, which perches on a bluff overlooking the Gila River. I will confess the drive out to Bonita Creek made me a tad nervous. It was the first time I'd ever seen a steep hill warning sign informing me that the drop ahead was a 20% grade. Fortunately, it wasn't a particularly long hill.

Roads within Gila Box overall were in good condition, but were definitely narrow, winding, and with a lot of up and down. There were sections where you do keep your fingers crossed you won't meet any oncoming traffic. We did meet other vehicles a couple times, but in each case visibility was good enough that one car was able to pull over to the side and allow the other to get past the tight curve or steepest part of the grade before passing each other.
Old Safford Highway bridge. It's a really nice Luten concrete double arch built in 1918 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It does feel a bit odd -- the bridge looks great, but the road on either side of it is one lane dirt.

The old Clifton to Safford highway goes through Gila Box. It parallels the river, more or less, and has a nifty concrete bridge on the Clifton end. That road is now known as the Black Hills Back Country Scenic Byway. It's also one where drivers are warned not to take it unless they're in an ORV or have a vehicle with high ground clearance. When we visited the Clifton end to check out the day use areas and the Owl Creek campground, we did not go beyond the bridge. We were in my Focus, and I had no desire to try rock climbing with it.

Both campgrounds at Gila Box struck me as being pretty nice. Neither is very big -- according to the BLM web site, Riverview has 13 sites, Owl Creek has 7 -- but they're nicely designed. They're spaced far enough apart that even totally full it would not feel crowded, each site has a ramada over the picnic table, and there's both a fire ring and a grill at each site. I was surprised they weren't busier. If I recall correctly, Granville had one camper at the far end of the campground while Riverview had maybe 2 or 3 plus a campground host. The host's site struck me as being pretty nice. It was tucked off to one side instead of being the first thing you saw when you pulled into the campground, which means the host doesn't end up feeling like he or she is living in a fishbowl. That's a real positive when BLM hosts (just like NPS, Forest Service, and Corps of Engineers) are expected to sign up for longer stays than the hosts at state parks.
Camp site at Owl Creek campground

I don't know if we'd ever try camping at Gila Box. I know we wouldn't have any trouble getting the Guppy in to the Owl Creek campground, but can't think of a reason why I'd want to be closer to Clifton than to Safford. And the Riverview campground is nice, but there were one or two sections of road that come down a steep hill and almost immediately start climbing another steep grade. The Guppy is only 27 feet long, but there's quite a bit behind the back axle. I saw a school bus get hung up trying to climb a steep driveway into an apartment complex on Buford Highway. The back end of the bus hit the pavement before the whole vehicle was far enough up to keep moving. Not a pleasant situation for the bus driver -- if he tried backing up, he'd damage the bus, but he couldn't go forward. I had visions of something similar, or worse, happening if we tried bringing the Guppy out to Riverview. It's a bit odd -- it's one of the few situations I can think of where a Leviathan might be able to go where the Guppy couldn't simply because the typical Class A has a longer wheel base/less overhang on the back end..
View from one of the campsites at Owl Creek campground.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

What's the point?

I have noticed that following the firing of James Comey that talk about impeaching The Donald has migrated from the wishful thinking of the left-wing fringe to the main stream media. It's a tad bizarre.

Okay, I get why it's quite possible that in his blundering naiveté and insecurity The Donald managed to commit a high crime or two -- obstructing justice, providing aid to a foreign power, whatever. The man is impulsive and stupid, a definitely dangerously self-destructive combination. He's been a nightmare for White House staff to deal with because the man has spent his entire life surrounded by yes men (and women) so tends to ignore anything that contradicts whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment. What I don't get is why anyone would think his impeachment, even if it did result in his removal from office, would lead to some dramatic change in the political climate in Washington.

First, and most obvious, if The Donald leaves he'll be succeeded by Mike Pence, an extremely conservative Republican. The biggest difference between Pence and Trump is that Pence has enough experience in government to know how things actually work. He won't waste his time on photo ops of him signing meaningless executive orders; he'll put minions to work crafting legislation that could actually pass in the majority-Republican House and Senate. There would be no drama or 3 a.m. tweets with Pence; he'd just be quietly competent at implementing an extremely conservative agenda grounded in Christian Dominion beliefs.

In the highly unlikely event that Pence also got swept up by the colluding with the Russians charges, who comes next? Well, that would depend a great deal on whether or not a successor to Pence had been appointed before Pence's theoretical departure. Given the current levels of chaos and noncooperation prevalent inside the Beltway, it's quite possible the baton would get passed to the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Not exactly an improvement over either Pence or Trump.

In any case, speculating about which way the dominos are going to fall is kind of pointless. Whatever does happen, it won't be what the pundits might predict. All the so-called experts have been spectacularly wrong so many times in the past few years I'm amazed they still get paid to bloviate and/or write opinion columns.

Here's what I think is a likely scenario in the unlikely event the House does decide to pursue impeachment. The pundits are saying it would disastrous for the Republicans, that a Trump fiasco would hurt the party's chances in 2018 and 2020. I say pshaw.

If the Republicans were to vote to impeach the titular head of their party, they would then be in the perfect position to claim the mantle of true reformers. After all, they could brag that they recognized -- a little late, granted -- that The Donald was unfit for office. They'd cleaned house. They'd started at the top with draining the swamp.

Alternatively, they could turn him into a martyr: look what the evil, evil Democrats did. The leftist socialist godless Commies lied, they cheated, they fabricated evidence, they drove a good man out of office. They'd blame it all on Obama, Hillary, and the minority party -- and the rubes would believe every word of it.

Either way, it becomes a win-win for the Republicans. Which route they'd take would depend a great deal on how worried they were about incumbents getting primaried by die-hard Trump supporters.

As for The Donald, at this point I think the best historical comparison is with Warren G. Harding, another pussy-grabbing President who kind of personified the Peter Principle in action, except Harding was self-aware enough to recognize his limitations. . .and Harding was a better golfer.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Intimations of mortality

Opened the paper recently and learned the woman who taught a belly dancing class in L'Anse back in the '70s is dead.

I had the usual mixed reaction that hits once you get to be a certain age (i.e., older than dirt). First there's the "holy wah, she wasn't that old" that hits when you realize someone who's more or less a contemporary just died. Then there's the vague sense of relief and rationalization: "but, hey, she was at least three years older than I am."(Translation: those aren't actually buzzards I see circling overhead.)

I hadn't thought about the woman in years. She taught a belly dancing class offered through the local Community Schools program. Forty-plus years ago the local school districts had actual money for community enrichment classes and offered a pretty wide variety: cooking, crafts, dance classes, photography, woodworking, you name the hobby and at some point there was probably a class. I took a few. There was a needle crafts sampler: we tried several different things like bargello (a type of needlepoint) and specialized quilting (yo-yos, cathedral window). My friend Cindy had enough ambition to complete several of the suggested projects. I think I did a bargello pillow and that was that. I tried a cooking class and acquired a few recipes I still use. I learned how to develop my own black and white photos, a hobby I enjoyed for a couple years but gave up when we moved out to the Seattle area in 1979.

And then there was the belly dancing class. One of the neighbors talked me into trying that. I was hesitant, but what the heck. It was an excuse to get out of the house one evening a week for a month or two. I have absolutely no sense of rhythm, never have been able to dance at all (not even that most ubiquitous form on non-dancing for white people, line dancing and the Texas two-step), but I made the unexpected discovery that I liked the music. So I went to belly dancing. (Side note: belly dancing was a brief fad 40 years ago. I'm not sure why. It is not the route to thinness -- in order to be a successful belly dancer, you need to have a belly. It can, however, be really good for your back as it tones your core muscles.)

It was an interesting mix of students. Don't really remember much about any of them now other than the instructor and one or two others, like the wife of a local businessman who confessed to the group that the reason she was taking the class was to spice up her love life. Her husband couldn't get it up unless they did role playing. I guess she decided she'd rather be a harem girl with sequins than a French maid with a skimpy apron. I haven't seen the dude in question in probably 30 years, but you better believe I still start laughing when I hear his name. 

As for the instructor. . . that was the only class I ever took with her, and, despite the fact we were both living in what is a fairly small town off and on for several decades, I don't think our paths ever crossed again. And now they never will. Vita brevis.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Okay, I know I just did a book review, but Douglas Preston's The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story was so good I can't help pushing it. It's Indiana Jones in the real world.

Preston is a writer and journalist (the two are not necessarily synonymous) whose work includes both nonfiction and fiction. He's had a lot of nonfiction published in National Geographic, New Yorker, and other major magazines, and he's written or co-authored quite a few books. His fiction falls into the techno-thriller or horror categories. The latter tend to have an anthropological or archeological connection: an expedition to explore a mysterious region of Amazonia meets with misfortune, people die mysteriously, crates get shoved into storage and are forgotten for decades, and then weirdness emerges. You know, the usual improbabilities that always result in lots of gore and general creepiness. Fun to read but not exactly Great Literature.

I had read several books Preston co-authored with Lincoln Child that definitely fall into the horror category. They were entertaining, but they had the effect of making me a bit skeptical about The Lost City of the Monkey God. One of my favorite authors, John Sandford, recommended it in a Facebook post a couple months ago, but I had a hard time believing it was actually nonfiction. Let's face it: The Lost City of the Monkey God is a cheesy title. It sounds like something you'd see on the cover of cheap pulp fiction back in the 1930s displayed on a rack next to some Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels. Tacking "A True Story" on to the title doesn't help much.

Then on a recent trip to the local public library there it was sitting on the New Books shelf. I couldn't resist. After all, Sandford had recommended it. Back before Sandford became a best-selling novelist, he was a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. He should know what good nonfiction looks like.
Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God

As it turned out, good is an understatement. The Lost City of the Monkey God was fascinating. It has it all: a multi-year search to find a "lost city" that's been featured in local folklore and legends for several centuries, a remote tropical rainforest location that's considered so isolated and dangerous that it is one of the few totally uninhabited regions in Central America, horrendous working conditions (seas of mud, humongous poisonous snakes everywhere, clouds of sand flies and hordes of chiggers devouring expedition members in their sleep), a government in turmoil, mysterious diseases striking expedition members months after their return to civilization. It does read like the plot line for The Lost World or an Indiana Jones movie. Except it's all true.

The lost city in the title was supposedly located in the La Mosquitia region of Honduras. It's a mountainous, treacherous region that is so isolated and inhospitable (snakes, chiggers, heavy rains, thick vegetation, you name it) that humans simply do not live there. There are indigenous groups living on the fringes -- the Miskito, Pech, and several other native peoples have villages and farms on the edges of La Mosquitia but the interior is basically devoid of humans. Logging and cattle ranching are nibbling at the edges and drug smugglers have carved out a few landing strips, but there are no land routes into the interior. Anyone going into La Mosquitia does it either by air or by boat. Vegetation is reportedly so thick and the threat of snakes (primarily fer de lance, a species known for its nasty attitude and aggressive behavior) so bad that it can easily take a full day to travel less than a mile over land.

Photo from The Lost City of the Monkey God
The region had been the subject of speculation since the time of the Spanish conquest. When Spaniards entered what is now Honduras, they heard stories of cities back in the mountains that had fabulous riches. Depending on who was telling the story, it was either referred to as La Cuidad Blanca (the White City) or the City of the Monkey God, reportedly because there were numerous statues (idols) of a monkey-faced god. The Spanish conquistadors never got around to looking for the White City, and if it existed its location got lost in time.

Stories about the White City surfaced again in the 19th and early 20th century. Discovery of Mayan ruins loaded with artifacts fired up treasure hunting impulses. Several would-be looters claimed to have found the Lost City of the Monkey God, but serious archeologists who tried to follow the clues the looters left never found anything that qualified as a "city." Most never made it very far into La Mosquitia -- conditions were simply too rough.

Then filmmaker Steve Elkins became intrigued by the legends. Elkins produces documentary films, and has been quite successful. In the mid-1990s he thought the White City would be a good subject and mounted an expedition to find it. His approach at the time was to try going up a river, which was how most previous expeditions had tried to get into the interior. He didn't find any trace of something that could be called a city, but he did experience an epiphany: seeing a petroglyph depicting what appeared to be a farmer made him realize that what is impenetrable rain forest today might not have been dense rain forest a thousand years ago.

It strikes me as being one of those "no shit, Sherlock" moments. Anyone who knows even a smidgeon of history is aware that when the first Europeans arrived in the Americas there were a lot more people around before those Europeans introduced smallpox, measles, influenza, and a host of other diseases to the Native Americans. The pathogens spread faster than the Europeans could explore; the English, French, and Spanish all documented finding villages and towns completely deserted, empty except for corpses of the victims of disease. Even in temperate climates it doesn't take long for vegetation to rewild farm fields. In the tropics even a large city could go from obvious to totally covered with vines and trees in less than a decade.

Still, even though Elkins realized that the stories about the lost city were probably based on fact, he walked away from the search in the 1990s. He worked on other projects for a decade, and then he learned that the LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) system that had been used to find the lost city of Ubar on the Arabian Peninsula had progressed from being satellite-based to being used in aircraft for mapping and exploration.

You know where this is going. Elkins managed to arrange for a LIDAR survey of four sites in La Mosquitia that had a strong probability of being the location of a lost city. Skeptics said that LIDAR won't work, the rain forest canopy was too thick. LIDAR uses lasers so anything that can block light is going to reduce its efficacy. The skeptics were wrong. Results from the LIDAR scans clearly showed an extensive complex of man-made structures. Elkins then spent a couple years putting together a team and getting the various permits required by the Honduran government. The government proved to be extremely cooperative. Not only did it issue the required permits, the government arranged for members of the military to accompany the expedition to help with logistical issues (setting up a base camp, for example, and bringing in supplies) and provide security against drug cartels and wildlife. The site selected for an on-the-ground survey turns out to be so untouched that animals, including jaguars, have no fear of humans.

Preston documents it all, from Elkins's initial interest to the aftermath of the expedition. He untangles the documented history of past search, finding both serious scholars and con men in the mix, and provides a context for the turbulent Honduran political climate. Rather than giving in to the temptation to wrap the book up triumphantly when Elkins successfully ground truths the LIDAR scans, Preston details the aftermath: health problems expedition members experience, the strange backbiting highly politicized world of Mesoamerican archeology, and what the Honduran government was doing to try to protect the site.

When National Geographic published a short piece describing the discovery of the lost city, for example, several prominent archeologists who specialized in Mesoamerican cultures basically flipped out, denounced the so-called find as a fraud, ranted about the terminology used, and claimed that the expedition was an illegal treasure-hunting scheme bent on looting. The phrase "lost city" came in for a lot of carping, although as Preston notes how else would you describe a place that for almost 400 years existed primarily in rumors? No one knew where it was, so was it really a misnomer to call finding it a "discovery"? And was it really being sensationalist to call it "the lost city of the monkey god" when that's how it had been described for decades? From the perspective of this reader, the complaints of the archeologists seemed to fall pretty squarely into the "I'm really pissed you guys didn't ask me to be part of this" category, i.e., major professional jealousy.and a bad case of annoyance that a non-archeologist (Elkins) was the person who put the pieces together.

In any case. the book is well worth reading, but if you don't think you'll ever bother looking for it, National Geographic Explorer did the Readers' Digest Condensed version last fall. If for some reason the video doesn't want to play, a quick search on YouTube will find it for you.: 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pest control

We have mice in the Guppy. It's been parked for less than a month, and mice are already turning it into a condo.

I discovered that yesterday when I finally got around to stripping the bed. Between the top sheet and the bottom, smack dab in the middle of the bed, I discovered a stash of seeds of some sort. Tucked between two pillows was another stash. I'm reasonably sure neither cache was there the last time the S.O. and I slept in that bed. I thought I'd spotted mouse droppings on a counter; the seeds were confirmation the little bastards have indeed found a way in.

Now the big questions are where and how -- where is the gap they've found and are exploiting, and how do we plug it?

Until we do that, I guess I'll set a mousetrap or two. I'm not too happy about the idea because in an abstract way I like mice -- one of the kids had pet mice years ago -- but I don't want to have to live with their droppings or their annoying habit of chewing on fabric to get material for nest building.

We do have to stop the mice before they gain too much of a foothold in the Guppy. Mice are social critters. There is no such thing as one mouse. If there's one mouse, there's another one (or a whole herd of them) lurking in the wings. Mice are so social that they'll die of loneliness. All that sociability means mice have big families. You see evidence of one or two mice one week; the next week it's pretty clear they've multiplied. A lot.

Which means that later today it's going to be time to double check the Guppy, make sure nothing that's remotely edible is in a container mice can get into (although they're apparently not real picky in what they eat, considering that Lava hand soap is on their list of comestibles), do a thorough cleaning, and set the traps. Not how I had planned to spend the afternoon, but the alternatives (multiple mouse nests hiding in various corners) are a lot worse.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Saguaro National Park

Or, another installment in how I spent my winter vacation.

Saguaro National Park is located on two sides of Tucson, Arizona. The unit on the west side is supposedly mostly desert and a gazillion cacti; the east side includes the Rincon Mountains so has areas with higher elevations and a forested environment. Most of the Rincon unit is wilderness accessible only by hiking, which we didn't do.

Well, we did get out of the car and do some walking, but not much. When Saguaro was added to the National Parks system it came in as a monument and, like a bunch of others from the 1930's, was set up to encourage windshield tourists.

We visited the unit on the east side of Tucson. A road loops through a section of that unit that stops at various overlooks where you can get good views of the desert and the mountains. You also get an eyeful of just how far out the city has sprawled in the past 30 years. Suburban development is right up against the boundaries now; when we lived in Tucson in the early 80s both units of the park felt pretty far out from everything else.

In any case, the loop road is obviously popular with local cyclists -- there were a lot of people biking, and it was easy to see why. Because the loop was designed to provide variety in what people saw out the windshield, it packs a fair amount of up and down and winding around into not very many miles. It would definitely more fun to bike that road than to just get pedaling along the typical urban area bike paths, which tend to be pretty flat and boring. On that loop road cyclists might be sharing space with cars, but the speed limit is only 10 mph and the road's design ensures people don't go much faster than that.

There are stops at a couple of short trails where you can amble through the cacti, getting up close views of the teddy bear cholla and the giant saguaro, and read various wayside signs explaining to you just what it is you're seeing. We stopped at a handicapped accessible trail to check it out.

It's nicely designed. Does the usual switchbacking and weaving around the vegetation so it feels a little longer than it actually is and provides a variety of hostile shrubbery and cacti to admire from a safe distance. Arizona definitely has unfriendly vegetation.

Cholla cactus

Prickly pear

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Pulitzer Project: The Optimist's Daughter

I have never cared much for Eudora Welty's writing. The Optimist's Daughter did notthing to change my mind. I'll concede the book was readable -- I zipped through it pretty quickly -- but then it's so thin that I'm not sure it even qualifies as a novel. It's too long to be a short story, though, so I guess the publisher figured it could stand on its own.

Of course, considering my antipathy toward Welty, maybe brevity was a good thing. Welty was a Southern writer, her novels and short stories are all set in the deep South, and I've never been able to understand why so many critics loved her work. To me it smacks of a bizarre type of elitism: nonSoutherners gushing over a regional writer more because they're blown away by the fact someone from Mississippi is actually literate than by a true assessment of that writer's talent or skills. You know, it's like that old joke about a dancing bear: the wonderful thing isn't so much that the bear dances really well, it's that it can dance at all. In any case, over the years, various friends and acquaintances have recommended Welty's work, and over those same years I've looked at that work, muttered "This really sucks," and walked away. I always had the feeling people were reading a lot more into her work than was actually there. To me it seemed like she was trying to channel William Faulkner and failing.

The Optimist's Daughter was no exception. The book got Welty the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973 so obviously the prize committee liked it, although as usual I'm wondering why. To me it reads a lot like a first draft and not a final product.

The book has a pretty bare bones plot: the primary character is a woman originally from a small town in Mississippi who has been living in Chicago for many years. Her father, a retired judge, phones her and something about the conversation bothers her enough that she flies down from Chicago to go with him and his much younger second wife to the family doctor for a consultation regarding a vision problem her father is having. The doctor diagnoses a condition that requires surgery. For no obvious reason, this surgery leads to her father dying in the hospital. As far I could tell, the man dies from apathy. He comes through the surgery just fine, but then loses all interest in life. Doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to be read to, and isn't particularly interested in food. He becomes more and more inert and detached.

His current wife, the second wife, a flibbertigibbet (and there's a word I thought I'd never have a use for, but it fits) with all the emotional maturity and intelligence of an adolescent squirrel, finally flips out and physically attacks the old dude in his hospital bed. She claims later she was trying to drag him back into wanting to live. If that was her goal, it didn't work because he responds by dropping dead.

We then get to witness the funeral and its immediate aftermath. The daughter wants it to be closed coffin; the wife wants it open. Even worse, she's picked a casket with a vivid pink silk lining, one that matches the curtain and bedspread in the master bedroom. If Welty were a little better as a writer, that could come across as weirdly creepy, almost Faulkneresque. As it is, all it does is confirm that Fay (the widow) is definitely no class white trash. All the old family friends rally around the daughter while making pitying noises about the wife ("She's like a child"); the wife has her mother, sister, and assorted other relatives unexpectedly descend on the proceedings. Laurel (the daughter) is thoroughly startled because the wife had told her that she had no family, her mother, father, and siblings were all dead. Among her other charms, it appears that Fay is a chronic liar.

Following the funeral, the widow takes off for the weekend with her family. Under the terms of the dead guy's will, she gets the house so before she leaves she makes it clear to Laurel that she expects her to be gone by the time she gets back on Monday. Laurel goes back to the house and spends the weekend going through her parents' desks and burning every personal paper (letters from her father to her mother, letters from her grandmother to her mother, her mother's journals) she finds. Each piece of furniture she touches evokes memories, but, with one exception, apparently none of those memories are strong enough for her to want to argue with Fay about any of it. And, in the end, even the one exception is something she decides she can leave behind. When she gets on the plane to Chicago, you know she's not coming back.

So where does The Optimist's Daughter fit on the scale for the Pulitzer winners? Well, it's not terrible, but it's also not particularly good. I'd give it a 5; it qualifies as neatly mediocre. At the time it came out, Welty was in her early 60s; maybe the prize was actually more of a lifetime achievement award. After all, a few decades ago, once you hit your 60s, everyone assumed you weren't going to be around much longer. (Welty actually made it into her 90s; if it was a lifetime achievement award, she got it a little early.)

Would I recommend it other readers? Probably not. Life is too short to read bad books.

Next up on the list? The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which amazingly enough the L'Anse Public Library actually has in its collection. I will be able to continue plugging away at the Pulitzer Project for awhile yet even though the cut-off day for Interlibrary Loan has passed. ILL goes on hiatus when it gets close to the end of the school year.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Procrastination

Image result for procrastination meme

I should be working on banners for an exhibit the museum is supposed to setting up in time for the upcoming summer season. I have supposedly been working on the banners for the past six months. There are supposed to be a total of 5. So far I've managed to get the layout done for one. I'm not exactly setting speed records on this project. It's a bit odd -- I can visualize them. I just can't manage to get much of anything down on the figurative equivalent of paper. Oh well. . . there will be something up on the walls at the museum by the end of the month. How good it will be is debatable, but it will be there.

I had thought I could manage to get a lot done today because the S.O. isn't around to distract me. He's busy playing chauffeur driving an older cousin down to the VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain. He had to leave around 10 a.m.; I actually went out the door almost an hour earlier than that to run a few errands, planned to stop by the museum to put in an hour or so cataloging a few things, and then I was going to spend the afternoon back home on the computer working on the banners. Iron Mountain is far enough away that I figured it would be after 5 before he got home. The drive is something like 100 miles one way so it's never a fast trip. For sure I'd have a quiet afternoon with no distractions, no interruptions.

It didn't happen. The one hour at the museum turned into four. Granted, it was stuff that needed to get done -- there's a stack of stuff that came out of the attic that needs to get cataloged before it can go back into storage -- but it was a lower priority than the banners. On the other hand, it didn't require much thinking, just take a picture, assign a number, take a photo, attach an ID tag, and move on.

I did finish the last of the hats. Or at least the last of the hats that were in the attic. I know there's at least one more container, a large Rubbermaid tote, out in the storage building that's stuffed full of hats but I'm going to ignore it for awhile. Most of today was spent going through a tote that was labeled World War II but had the usual mix of weirdness in it: several crumbling newspapers with front page stories about "the Great War" (World War I) ending, some military stuff from the Vietnam era, a bunch of unlabeled photographs that were pretty much a complete mystery, a sheet of paper that identified people who were in a group photograph. . .  No group photo, of course. There never is when the ID was done on a separate piece of paper. It was apparently some sort of unwritten rule that the identification for anything had to be irretrievably separated from whatever it identified. It's been one of the big frustrations in sorting through stuff: lots of nifty labels and nothing that matches up with them.

Sorting through stacks of stuff like that always has me looking wistfully at the trash can. How much can I pitch? How many crumbling newspapers should we keep on the off chance they'd be good for including in an exhibit a few years down the road? They're not needed for research -- anyone interested in World War II can find plenty of copies of those same newspapers elsewhere -- so their only function would be as part of an exhibit, assuming they don't crumble to dust before then. Newsprint dry rots fast. Saving old newspapers is inevitably an exercise in futility. How many unidentified photos should go in the trash? Do we need dozens of photos of men in uniform when we don't know who any of them are?

I don't mean to imply there was nothing good in the tote. There were items of local interest: the flyer announcing when the Village of L'Anse was going to sound the siren as part of the celebration the war was over; a really nice stash of ration books, coupons, and posters; a stationery set that belonged to someone in the military (he or she must not have written home much because it didn't look like much was missing); and some other goodies. But most of it was, to be blunt, more trash than treasure.

 And now back to focusing on the provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, debunking myths about Native Americans and casino profits, and trying to explain tribal sovereignty in terms a 10-year-old could understand. . . . .

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Geology tip

I'm going to remember this tip for the next time we visit the Grand Canyon.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Pima Air and Space Museum

 Or, How I spent my winter vacation, part whatever.

We're back on the tundra, I should be writing about more current events -- what's going on down at the museum (not much at the moment), what's happening politically, exciting local news (two moose died in a vehicle/moose collision, someone wants to open a Dollar General store in L'Anse), you name it -- but after reading excerpts from The Donald's Associated Press interview the past is looking much better than the present. (I keep waiting for some little kid to yell "but he's not wearing any clothes!!" loud enough for it to finally sink in that there's a lunatic in the Oval Office, but apparently sane children are in short supply inside the Beltway.) So instead I'll revisit some of the highlights of snowbirding in the desert.

The Pima Air and Space Museum is located on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. When we lived in Tucson almost 35 years ago, the museum felt like it was way out in the middle of nowhere. Urban sprawl has since caught up with it. There's still a fair amount of visually vacant land around it because it's adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, but suburban development has filled in what used to be a whole lot of nothing to the east of the museum.
The S/O/ taking one of a zillion photos he'll probably never look at again after downloading them to the computer. .

The last time we'd been to the museum was probably in 1981. Long, long ago in what now feels like a galaxy far, far away. At the time I think the museum had one building, maybe two, but there were a gazillion aircraft, mostly military but a few civilian, on static display. Somewhere in our photo albums there is page after page of snapshots of various nifty looking pieces of aeronautical engineering. I was definitely fascinated back then by the fighters the Blue Angels flew.
SR-71
So what's changed in the intervening decades? Well, they've got more buildings now, which means the museum can do more interesting exhibits. If you've got a B-29 sitting outside exposed to the elements, i.e. desert winds and scorching sun, you're doing good to keep the paint job intact. You really can't do an exhibit that provides any sort of a context or includes much besides the plane. Stick it in a protected environment and you're able to provide interpretive signage that doesn't have to be as weather-resistant as outside signage would be, you can dress mannequins in flight suits or ground crew uniforms, you can do an exhibit that includes ancillary pieces of equipment. You can even stick a flying boat in fake water, which they've done. You can tell a much more complete story and know that whatever is in the exhibit is going to last for awhile.

I'm always intrigued (and more than a little envious) by the various methods that museums with money use for protecting the objects in their collections. Having heavy items (or even light ones) sitting directly on their suspension and wheels is never a good idea. Sooner or later the weight of the object causes things to break down. Springs get flattened, and wheels go out of round. We have two carts at the museum that have bad wheels now because they sat in the same position for too long. In any case, I was impressed by the stands for the aircraft. (I was also jealous of the chains and acrylic that kept the public from running its greasy hands over many exhibits, but that's true of just about every museum we visit.)

The S.O. and I had a good time wandering around the museum. Once again he pointed out the type of aircraft he fell off back in his Air Force days -- the fall resulted in a broken leg -- and once again I promptly forgot just what it was. When it comes to model numbers and airplanes, there are maybe 5 I can remember without having to think real hard: B-52 (aka BUFF), F-117 (Stealth fighter), SR-71 (aka Blackbird), U-2, and the Vought F4U (Corsair). I have an irrational love for Corsairs. Appropriately enough, the museum keeps its Corsair in a hanger. The boring piece of Vietnam era flying junk the S.O. fell off gets to sit outside and bake in the Arizona sun.
F101, aka Vietnam era junk
We decided to do the bus tour of the Air Force "bone yard," too. The military stashes old aircraft at Davis-Monthan. It's where they come to be parted out when their useful life is over. Anything salvageable gets salvaged and whatever is left turns into scrap metal. Aircraft that have had particularly interesting careers may end up sitting on static display for decades providing fodder for the tour bus guide. After all, a tour that consisted primarily of saying "And on your left are 50 C-131s" with no colorful anecdotes about how a particular aircraft was used would turn dull pretty quickly.
BUFF
I did learn the Air Force gives old aircraft away to museums and other nonprofits. They strip out all the electronics, of course, and anything else that could either make the aircraft operational or compromise military security, but if we wanted an airplane to just sit around taking up space and looking thoroughly out of place next to Lake Superior all the Baraga County Historical Society would have to do is figure out a way to transport it. Too bad we don't have the space to park a B-52. I could argue they fit our mission to preserve local history. B-52s used to practice flying under radar locally. They'd go over L'Anse at about 1,000 feet above sea level, which didn't thrill anyone in town (L'Anse is at about 600 feet above sea level), and they'd have to climb to get over us (we're at 1700 feet). Seeing a B-52 at treetop height is kind of a thrill the first time you see one, but it gets old fast.
Yard art?
I could see revisiting the Pima Air and Space Museum. We didn't see everything there thanks to taking the bone yard tour (it eats up a couple hours)  and both the S.O. and I do like looking at airplanes. It's one of those places that can easily turn into an all-day experience, especially when there is an on-site restaurant that serves pretty decent food at not-outrageous prices.
I love cutaways -- it is always cool to see the internal structure of technological devices.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Home - finally!

At Moab Giants, Moab, Utah. Goofiest looking dinosaur I've seen recently.
We've actually been back on the tundra for several days now, but it took awhile to get the landline reconnected and the Internet service back. And we're still unloading the Guppy. I keep hauling stuff out of there thinking it's got to be the last item, but, nope, there's more. We were definitely bulging at the seams as we waddled down the road back from Colorado.

One thing I did figure out during the past 5+ months of living in that RV was that even before we stuffed the Guppy full of things from my mom's apartment we had stuff along that we did not need. I was way too ambitious in thinking what all I might get done in terms of sewing or other projects. I could have easily left half my project materials sitting in the Woman Cave and not lacked for handwork to keep me busy. And, despite having done some thinning after previous expeditions, we still have kitchen items  that we simply are not using. Ever. So why is it taking up space in the cabinets? Good question.
James M. Robb State Park, Fruita, Colorado

We did manage to time our return more or less perfectly. There was still snow across the end of the driveway, enough to discourage people from driving in but not enough to keep the Guppy out. The only fresh tracks on the road were from a moose. One of my fears whenever we're gone for awhile is we'll come home to discover we've been either burgled or vandalized. We've had both happen in the past, although it's probably been over 30 years since the last episode. One of the consequences of changing demographics locally has been fewer bored teenagers roaming the back roads looking for trouble to get into.

The trip home was relatively uneventful. We were a little smarter in how many miles we tried to cover each day so had more time to relax in the evenings. If I recall correctly, our original plans had involved staying at public campgrounds, but as it turned out looking for private ones (KOAs or similar facilities) was easier. In any case, we stopped early enough each day that we had some time in the evening to just relax and to dine at a normal hour. I should take the time to do some reviews on Campendium; every place we stayed was somewhere I'd be willing to revisit.
Camera shy rattlesnake at Hovenweep National Monument

We did have tire trouble in Missouri, but considering that the tires in question were probably 15 years old the fact the tread finally decided to let go wasn't a huge surprise. If a person just went by how the tread looked, you'd have thought the tires were fine, but we discovered when we went through the stack of receipts previous owners left in the RV that they hit puberty right about the time we bought the Guppy. They looked good because there weren't many miles on them, but considering how quickly rubber dry rots. . . We did replace the front tires not long after getting the Guppy because we figured that for sure we didn't want to chance one them blowing out. Didn't worry as much about the rear because the Guppy has dual wheels.We had planned to replace them this summer, but hoped to get back to the U.P. before being pushed into doing it.

The weirdest part about the tires deciding to die was they never went flat. The tread peeled itself off quite neatly, but the tires never lost air. It was bizarre.
One of the dead tires

Shout out, for what it's worth, to the Pulaski County branch library in Richland, Missouri. I wandered into it while the Guppy was at Larry's Tire Shop. It's a nice library for a small town, bright and airy and with a great selection of books on the recent arrivals shelf. Larry's was kind of cool, too, one of those small town full service gas stations and tire shops that you don't see very often any more.

I also have to say again that there are no bad state parks in Missouri. The tire episode meant we had to stop for the night before we got to St. Louis (well, we didn't have to; it just made sense to do so). We decided to try Robertsville State Park; it's located about 5 miles south of I-44. It's small -- only 27 camp sites, with a fairly even split between basic and electric -- but laid out nicely. What amazed me was it has two, count 'em, two sets of campground hosts. Two sets of hosts for 27 campsites. Holy wah. Maybe it's because it's so close to the city that the DNR wants to be sure there's always someone on site during the "on" season. In any case, it's another Missouri state park that I'd cheerfully stop at again.

And now we're home and I get to try to make the mental shift required to focus on museum stuff. The deadline for our heritage grant is May 31 -- everything we do is supposed to be done and paid for before then. I need to get the banners for the traveling exhibit scripted and ordered ASAP, we need to figure out just what we're doing for the permanent exhibit at the museum, and I need to start drafting the final report. The person who's been collecting the oral histories seems to have done a stellar job; it's just a matter of putting the final pieces together. The big challenge for me is figuring out how to condense a truly complex topic into the printed version of sound bits for the banners. Our project is supposedly explicating the history of Indian casinos in Baraga County. It turned out to be a lot messier than anticipated. Lots of "everybody knows" and everybody being wrong. Myth busting is never easy, and there are a zillion myths to be busted when it comes to Indian gaming.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Some people have rich fantasy lives

I was listening to Colorado Public Radio yesterday. The news segments focusing on regional topics spent a fair amount of time discussing the Trump administration's decision to roll back regulations on clear air requirements for coal burning power plants. In addition, federal lands will once again be open for leases for mining.

Naturally, there are a fair number of people in the Colorado coal industry now doing the happy dance. In the bizarro alternate universe in which they live, they believe the glory days of coal mining are about to magically return. It's odd how people can be given information but be unable to understand its implications.

First, there was a lot of talk about how new access to federal land would give western coal a competitive edge. It's cheaper to mine on land leased from the Bureau of Land Management than it is to try to negotiate leases or purchase agreements for private land. Translation: the coal industry has become so marginal that if it doesn't get subsidized by the government it can't make a profit. If you need welfare to survive, your industry is not particularly competitive.

Second, there are no new coal burning power plants being built. Whatever the domestic market for coal is right now, that's basically it. Coal mines have closed not because they lacked access to ore but because the market for that ore was saturated. The electrical power industry has figured out that natural gas is a lot easier and cheaper to work with. In fact, not only are no new coal burning plants being built, existing ones are being converted to burn gas or biomass. Further, despite the best efforts of the fossil fuels industries to slow down wind and solar power generation, both areas are still growing. Bottom line: there are fewer buyers for coal, at least domestically.

Third, one of the optimistic notes sounded by the coal people was the export market. Well, good luck with that one, guys, when the Current Occupant of the White House is busy ticking off most of the world. It's going to get harder and harder to export anything when other countries respond to Trump's protectionist policies by throwing up barriers of their own. Plus, of course, other countries that do use coal are much more grounded in reality than the U.S. is. Their politicians actually believe in science, which is why China now leads the world in manufacturing solar panels. They're working hard at moving away from coal, and they're not alone.

But, hey, one of the coal mines in Colorado just added 20 people to its payroll -- twenty! -- so obviously massive growth in mining is just around the corner.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Science in Action: The Lemon Drop Experiment

The last time we were in Grand Junction, my sister asked if we were interested in trying some "edibles." As the whole world knows, recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado. Local pot shops sell a variety of products, both edibles (gummies, hard candies, cookies, you name it) and the traditional weed. Except, of course, the traditional weed is nothing at all like we aging Baby Boomers may recall from our misspent youths. Some strains are now so potent that the Budtender* won't sell it to you if you can't convince him or her that you're an experienced smoker. But I digress.

Nerf said they had two lemon drops left, edibles sold as The Puckers. According to the label, each sour lemon drop contained 10 mg of THC. (And, yes, that is a child proof cap on the bottle.) The lemon drops had been purchased out of curiousity. She and her husband had given half a dozen to her father-in-law to see if they would help with his chronic pain. He reported that they didn't do much for the pain, but he did get a definite case of the munchies. Nerf's personal experience was that she felt really, really paranoid. Her husband's reaction had been, in essence, meh.

So we said, sure, we'll try them. The S.O. gets aches and pains in one leg, the one an Air Force surgeon left a foreign object in, so maybe it would help with that. And I do get occasional back aches. What the heck, what did we have to lose?

We were warned that with edibles it can take a couple of hours before you notice anything. The S.O. took one about 2:15 in the afternoon and then went out to read in the lawn chair for awhile. After some time passed, I asked if he noticed anything different. Nope. My observation was that he was sliding progressively lower in the lawn chair and seemed to doze off for awhile, but that was about it. He later said that he did feel kind of light headed when he stood up, but nothing too dramatic.

So then it was my turn. In the interest of science, I tried to eat the lemon drop about the same time in the afternoon as the S.O. Conditions were slightly different, though. I wasn't relaxing in a lawn chair; I was on a couch watching television. Both the Kid and the S.O. kept asking if I'd noticed anything yet. Nope. Nope. Nothing yet. Then Ellen DeGeneres introduced a guest on her show, a teacher and softball coach, who had suffered great personal hardship but still managed to keep coaching the girls' softball team. It was one of those tear jerkers of a story, a multiple-tissue tale, one that has the studio audience sobbing and tears running ankle deep in the aisles. You know, really heart-breaking but at the same time inspirational.

It was also the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I got hit by the giggles so hard I couldn't sit up. If I hadn't been clinging to the S.O. as I giggled uncontrollably, I'd have been on the floor. The Kid is always lecturing me about not drinking enough water. That's one day when she should have been really happy my bladder was empty.

After the giggling fit passed, I noticed The Kid's candy bowl was filled with Hershey's Kisses. I think you can guess how I spent the rest of the afternoon. Eat some chocolate, giggle some more, eat some chocolate, giggle. The expressions on the Kid's face were priceless. She kind of alternated between appalled and disbelief.

Scientific conclusion: based on what is admittedly a statistically insignificant sample, it would be difficult to prescribe marijuana to cure specific ills. It's obvious every user is going to have an idiosyncratic reaction. The one consistent effect seems to be it does stimulate a person's appetite, which can be important for people who have trouble eating for various reasons, but other than that? The only way to figure out if it's going to work for whatever ails you is to try it. If you're lucky, it will.

Personal conclusion: now that we're back in Colorado, I may go looking the place that sells the sour lemon drops. If hard candy got me giggling at a man who almost died from a particularly painful form of cancer, maybe it can help me survive the Trump presidency.

*Genuine job tile. Honest.

Success!

This isn't exactly what I had in mind, but it is apparently the best I'm going to be able to do. It's not on linen like the souvenir tea towels of the past. It's printed on cotton that's more like old-fashioned flour sack material. But it comes close enough -- a souvenir towel at a reasonable price.

Even better, it's Made in USA. The towels are produced by a company based in Colorado. I found it at a trading post, the Pickle Barrel, in Globe, Arizona. When it comes to Arizona souvenirs the Pickle Barrel has them all, from the suckers with scorpions embeddded in them to rusty metal javelinas. I really wanted a javelina but decided that $75 was more than I felt like paying for yard art. (I did, however, do some heavy hinting to The Kid. She says they're too big and heavy to ship. I say no way, UPS can ship almost anything, especially when a life-size metal javelina isn't actually that big and the sheet metal is fairly thin.)

Anyway, in addition to the coasters and the shot glasses and the various other dust collectors, the Pickle Barrel had a selection of souvenir kitchen towels. There were several that could serve as souvenirs of national parks (e.g., Saguaro), one that just had cactus, and then there was the road runner. I figured road runners are definitely Arizona.

The towels are now on their way to Europe, along with some cactus tea and one or two other regional souvenirs. Naturally, the postage for each package came to more than the combined value of the items in them. I swear every time I go to the Post Office the price of mailing stuff out of the country has gone up -- but that's a subject for a different post.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Another installment in the ongoing series Why Businesses Fail

Also known as The Stupid, It Burns.

A while back the good people of Arizona approved a ballot proposal to raise the state minimum wage. Proposition 206 mandated that the state minimum wage, which had been set at $8.05 per hour, would increase to $10 in 2017 and will be raised incrementally to $12 per hour by the year 2020. If Proposition 206 hadn't passed, the minimum wage would still have gone up this year but only by a dime to $8.15. Arizona law already requires, thanks to a proposition approved in 2006, that minimum wage be adjusted annually for increases in the cost of living.

Naturally, many business owners had the usual reaction to this change in the law. They freaked out. They did a lot of posturing about how it was going to drive them out of business while all sounding as if each was a special case subjected to increased costs that none of their competitors had to deal with. This is typical. I've blogged about it before. The self-centered business owner totally ignores that fact that if he's having to pay his dishwashers or his widget assemblers an additional $1.95 per hour, so are his competitors down the street. The competitive playing field is still level; no one business has suddenly gained or lost an advantage over any other. It may be true that in the short term he or she will have to eliminate a position or two while they figure out how to compensate for the added expense in payroll, but it's going to be equally true that every other business is going to be doing the same thing.

So how have various businesses responded? Well, I've noticed a couple interesting examples lately of What Not to Do. Both examples are restaurants. In the case of one, a steakhouse, they've tacked on an 18% surchange to every meal to, as they helpfully explain, help pay for the increase in the minimum wage. Holy wah, the stupid, it burns.

You're telling me that because you're now paying the dishwashers in the kitchen $10 an hour instead of $8.05, my $25 steak dinner is now going to cost me $29.50? Joe Shmoe washing dishes gets an additional $1.95; No Longer Loyal Customer gets hosed to the tune of $4.50. It doesn't take a math genius to figure out that charging every customer in the place an 18% surcharge goes way beyond compensating for a higher payroll cost. Plus, of course, no one particularly enjoys hearing a business owner whine about being so frelling stupid that they can't figure out a way to cover added expenses without standing up and screaming to the world that they're asshats who would prefer to pay their employees nothing at all if only they could figure out a way to get away with it.

Second example: ate at a local place that has a lot of vaguely Mexican food on the menu. I say vaguely Mexican because Safford has apparently suffered from the influence of having way too many snowbirds with timid tastebuds wintering around here. So far all the "Mexican" places we've tried have served salsa made with chilis that seemingly achieve the impossible: score a negative number on the Scoville scale. But I digress. Naturally, the establishment of which I speak does the bowl of corn chips and some salsa as an automatic freebie on the tables. Except the chips and salsa are no longer free. The server made a point of saying that if we wanted a second bowl, we'd have to pay for them. They've also stopped doing free refills on drinks. Why? Because minimum wage went up. Not quite as annoying or as in your face as the surcharge, but still annoying, particularly when the astute diner recognizes that chips and soft drinks are some of the items on the menu with the highest profit margins. A throw-away cup for a soft drink costs the restaurant more than the soda it contains. It costs the restauranteur literally pnnies to refill your Coke when the glass runs dry.

In any case, what the restaurant has done is taken two of the most visible and cheapest ways to curry customer good will (endless chips and free refills on soft drinks and coffee) and eliminated them, a truly dumb move when the competition hasn't done something similar. Again, the stupid, it burns.

So how would I, the ominiscient blogger, have dealt with the increased labor costs? First, of course, I'd have kept my mouth shut. Second, I'd have started preparing for it as soon as I heard the proposition passed and made various adjustments to the menu accordingly. No doubt some business owners were indulging in a fantasy that the state supreme court would rule the change illegal, but that hasn't happened, at least not yet. Besides, it was inevitable that wages would climb. Anyone thinking they'd stay static was living in a dream world.

Anyway, shifting prices up slightly across the board -- 50 cents here, maybe a dollar there -- would be a lot less noticeable than a huge honking extra charge tacked on at the end. People willing to pay $20 for a rack of ribs or a steak aren't suddenly going to turn vegan if the price shifts to $21.50.  Look for stuff you can eliminate. From watching Gordon Ramsey in action I know way too many restaurants waste food. They provide side salads no one eats and serve portions that are much bigger than they need to be. (Which could be the subject of a different rant: the unrealistic ideas people end up with concerning healthy serving sizes based on what they see heaped on some restaurant plates.)

A small example of eliminating waste: we've eaten at a couple of places locally that do the usual salsa and chips but with a small twist. They bring you the basket of chips and a small bowl. The salsa is in squeeze bottles so you can use as little or as much as you wnat; definite reduction in waste there. For that matter, restaurants could eliminate the chips and salsa entirely. People munch on them when the chips are staring them in the face, but quite a few wouldn't care if they vanished. It's always struck me as a little weird that restaurants would put out a free appetizer while also having half a dozen other types of appetizers listed on the menu.

I am thinking that I'll ask The Younger Daughter to keep an eye on how those particular businesses fare over the coming year. It'll be interesting to see if they're still around a few months from now. Their floundering attempts suggest their days are numbered, but you never know. Sometimes even the most inept business owners manage to survive despite their best attempts to destroy themselves.

As for finding some Mexican food that isn't so bland it could be served in nursing homes, I'm beginning to think that we'll have to venture south of the border. The Younger Daughter tells me that co-workers have mentioned there are good restaurants in Agua Prieta, although I'm not sure it's worth the hassle to go that far.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Not enough tinfoil in the world

I'm beginning to wonder just who's crazier: The Donald with his weird, paranoid fantasies about former president Obama or the pundits and others who treat those fantasies as though they have some basis in reality. You know, every administration has a tendency to blame some problems on its predecessor, do some pointing back and saying, in essence, we wouldn't be in this mess if it hadn't been for the previous president's failed policies. That's normal political behavior.

What isn't normal is for a current President to do bizarre rants or go on Twitter accusing his predecessor of actively conspiring against him now. One of The Donald's favorite themes recently has been that all the protests against him or his administration are being coordinated by former President Obama. Not content to fantasize about ongoing conspiracies in the here and now, The Donald then accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump's phones during the campaign.

Holy wah, the stupid, it burns! The man is so frelling insane that he can't see how totally illogical that particular bizarre delusion is. As a number of memes kicking around on Facebook have noted, this delusion of The Donald's posits that President Obama asked to have The Donald's phones tapped in order, one supposes, to gather dirt on Trump to help the Democrats in some fashion. Having gone through the effort of tapping the phones, Obama then does what? Nothing? Just sits back and allows The Donald to win? Or is The Donald trying to claim that look, the Democrats tried to find some dirt on me and failed? Is the whole wiretap claim a weird way of trying to deflect the contact with the Russians allegations?

I don't know. From where I sit, it seems like every day Trump does something crazier, something even more "the emperor has no clothes" in its obvious craziness, but almost no one in the media is willing to say so. Every so often there are hints, one or two brave souls who come right out and say something is lunacy, but they're still being drowned out by the enablers and the butt snorklers.

And, for what it may be worth, a slight digression. One of my right-wing acquaintances sent me a meme today that basically repeated all of Trump's delusions -- the millions of fraudulent votes cast, ballot box stuffing, wiretaps, you name it -- and then ended with a triumphant "And the Democrats still lost!" Which to me proves that Trump's supporters need the tinfoil as much as he does. Because let's face it, if the Democrats had actually done even one of the multiple things Trump claims they did, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House now.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book Review: Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life

Sabina Flanagan's Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life had been gathering dust on a bookshelf at the Retirement Bunker for years. I'm not sure where it came from; it's a trade paperback so odds are that either I or the Younger Daughter ordered it from the Quality Paperback Book Club back in the '90s and then never got aorund to reading it. We both like history and we both have a passing interest in the Middle Ages, although it's not an area of specialty for either of us.

Hildegard of Bingen definitely falls into the Middle Ages. She was born in 1098 and died in 1179. There were a lot of passing pop culture references to her a decade or so back -- she apparently composed music which was suddenly influencing various New Age musicians -- and that may have piqued our curiousity at the time.

In any case, the book sat on a shelf for quite a while. Then in October, as I was packing the Guppy for an extended road trip, I went through the bookcases looking for books I either hadn't read yet or had read so long ago the details were now a blur. Hildegard of Bingen caught my eye. For a relatively slender tome, it turned out to be a remarkably hard slog. Having troubles with insomnia? I recommend this book. I don't mean to imply that it's necessarily a bad book. On the contrary, it's academic prose in full flower. Lots of speculating and theorizing and referencing other scholars' works. This is a book designed to garner a good time slot at academic conferences and to impress one's tenure committee. It is most definitely not written with the general reader in mind.

Why do I say that? Well, among other things, the age range dates provided above are about the only solid biographical details the author provides. Flanagan makes a classic mistake authors who are too close to their subject matter make: she knows so much about Hildegard of Bingen that she assumes the readers do, too. Similarly, she definitely glosses over the context. The book would definitely have benefited from a little explication of what exactly was happening with the medieval church, what the Benedictine rule was, and who some of the auxiliary players were. For example, she does a long explication on Abelard and Heloise and the perceived role of women in the 12th century. Well, if the only time you've heard those names is when they're a question on "Jeopardy" you may find the comments about women being assumed to be the weaker, dumber sex interesting but you're not going to really understand why the author chose to quote either of them.

Similarly, at one point Flanagan mentions that Hildegard was on the wrong side in the political maneuverings of the time, some dispute between the Catholic Church and Barbarossa. It probably would have been a good idea at that point for the author to have used the man's full name and title, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor. If nothing else, it helps ground Hildegard in time and place.

So just who was Hildegard of Bingen? As far as I can tell from reading this book, she was a German woman who got shoved into a cloistered life while she was still quite young. Flanagan reports that Hildegard was described as sickly so she theorizes that Hildegard's parents dedicated her to the Church because they figured they had nothing to lose, the kid wasn't going to live long anyway. She may have been as young as 5 or as old as 8 when she got shoved into a cell occupied by an anchorite, a female hermit named Jutta, and stuck there until Jutta died over 30 years later. Anchorites never left their cells; in some cases they were literally walled in (the door bricked over after they entered) with only a small opening left for others to pass food and other necessities in and for the anchorite to pass the slop bucket out. The anchorite's job, so to speak, was similar to that of other cloistered religious: spend the bulk on one's time in contemplation and prayer. In exchange for praying for other people, the anchorite got fed on a regular basis, although some would indulge in fasting and other mortifications of the flesh in order to get closer to God. It was apparently fairly common practice to build a cell for an anchorite, either male or female, as an ell on a church. There would be a small opening in the church wall to allow the hermit to listen to services.

Hildegard became known for her "visions." My take on the whole thing tends to be, yeah, I'd experience a psychotic break and start hallucinating if I was stuck in a dungeon at the age of 5, too.
Flanagan notes that Hildegard didn't seem especially saddened when Jutta died. My thought was why should she have been? She got stuck in that cell as a child and had probably spent her whole life functioning as Jutta's servant, doing whatever grunt work needed to be done while getting to hear various petitioners at the window asking the holy woman (Jutta) to pray for them or their loved ones. Rather than mourning, Hildegard probably did the Happy Dance because she was finally free of the cell and able to get out into the world more, even if it was just within the walls of a convent. No more listening to mass being celebrated next door; she was finally able to actually go into the church.

Freed from the life of an anchorite, Hildegard went on to leave the monastery where she'd been imprisoned as a child and established a new convent where she served as abbess. In her early 40s she began to share the visions she'd apparently been experiencing since childhood. She began writing down (or dictating to someone who could write; Hildegard's own literacy has been questioned) the various visions and what she believed God was telling her about their meanings. In almost all of her writings Hildegard was careful to emphasize that what she said wasn't her personal opinion; it was what God told her to say. Flanagan notes that by doing so Hildegard made it likelier her writing would actually be published and discussed. The low status of women in medieval intellectual life meant that if she had ever said "This is what I think" instead of "This is what God told me to say" no one would bother reading her words.

So was Hildegard nuts? Was she crazy or just misinterpreting manifestations of a physical disorder? Back in the 12th century, of course, no one thought about psychotic breaks or mental illness in general. If someone had visions or started ranting about seeing angels or demons, that person either got labeled as a prophet (if she was lucky) or possessed by demons (unlucky). Hildegard was one of the lucky ones. She saw the "living light" and described her visions in terms that matched up pretty well with what the church wanted to hear at the time. She'd condemn corruption and abuses by the clergy but always did so in terms that were sufficiently general that no one ever felt personally attacked.

In the final chapter of the book, Flanagan discusses speculation that Hildegard experienced migraines and that what she interpreted as visions were actually some of the phenomena migraine sufferers see on a regular basis. I find that theory believable. One of the warning signs a migraine is about to hit is a visual shimmering, a distortion in your field of vision. I get an occasional migraine, although they've gotten rarer as I've gotten older, and when they first started hitting the visual shimmering reminded me of a dragon. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and was an Ann McCaffrey fan; dragons made sense to me. Hildegard was totally immersed in a Christian belief system; it would be totally logical for her to believe she was seeing the face of God or the wings of angels. Does the fact her body of work -- her lengthy writings on various subjects, interpretations of her visions, the advice she gave to people who wrote to her, her songs, etc. -- are somehow diminished? Probably not. She was sincere in her beliefs, and her readers at the time knew it.

What I actually find moderately amazing, and it's something that Flanagan doesn't touch on at all, is that Hildegard's writings survived. Back in the 12th century every letter, every manuscript, every document, had to be handwritten. If you wanted multiple copies, a copyist had to sit down with a quill and an ink bottle and do that copying. Given the number of wars that swept over Europe, the demolishment of monasteries and convents following the Protestant Reformation, and just the passage of time in general it's moderately astounding that any of Hildegard's work is still around after almost 800 years.

Bottom line: If you're fascinated by 12th century Catholic theological minutiae, you might like this book. In general, though, this particular work is one I'm strongly tempted to quietly slip into a recycling bin. I read it because, as I noted above, the book wasn't actively bad and once I'd started it I felt compelled to keep reading. I kept hoping the author would provide a little more social or cultural detail. It never happened, but there are worse fates than wasting an hour or two reading the lyrics to medieval hymns. I cannot picture anyone else doing that, though, so don't think it's even worth dropping into a St. Vincent de Paul or Friends of the Library donation box.