Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Vicksburg National Military Park

We spent the morning of December 24 at Vicksburg National Military Park.  It was a bit of an odd choice of a place to be on the day before Christmas, especially when I'm notoriously lukewarm about the cannonball parks, but we had the time, and I was curious.  We weren't sure if the park would be open -- it was a federal holiday -- but as it turned out that, although the Visitor Center and USS Cairo Museum were both closed, the tour road was open. 
The tour road, of course, is one long string of markers of various sizes, shapes, and styles, from the truly monumental, like the Illinois state memorial shown above (for a sense of scale, if you look close you can see the jogger at the top of the stairs), to fairly low key, like the Kansas marker shown below.  It dates from 1973, so uses rather simple symbolism rather than relying on the classical allegory popular in the early 1900s, which is when most of the monuments were erected.
I've never been much of a Civil War buff -- when I think about the war at all, it's usually in terms of what a colossal waste of life it was, all the people who died just because a handful of rich white guys couldn't stand the idea of giving up a source of cheap labor.  Now that we're sliding into the 150th anniversary of the mess, the attempts at revisionist history are cranking up, billboards are popping up all over the South commemorating their glorious boys in butternut gray, and there's a lot of stupid blather about it all being about states' rights, not slavery. Of course, that blather comes from the descendants of the guys who started the war by firing the first shots against Fort Sumter and then turned around to call it the War of Northern Aggression, so it's fairly clear Southerners have always had a tenuous relationship with reality. 

Try asking one those states righters sometime just exactly what rights they were talking about, though, and they start to stammer.  Why?  Because there is no answer other than the obvious:  slavery.  Back in 1861 there was no income tax, no estate tax, no interstate commerce commission, no federal highways program, no labor department, no environmental protection agency, very close to nothing, none of the things Civil War apologists, Tea Partiers, and their ilk bitch about today, nada, no federal meddling at all.  The federal government consisted of the War Department (aka the Army), the Navy Department (self evident), the State Department (which dealt with other countries), the Post Office, the Treasury (which minted money and collected excise taxes and tariffs), and not a whole lot else.  So just exactly what states' rights were there to protect other than slavery?  Then when you toss in the fact every single one of the individual states' acts of secession explicitly name the right to practice slavery as a reason for seceding. . . 

As for Vicksburg NMP, if you're into monuments, it's a treasure trove.  It's chock full of books on sticks, stone markers, interpretive tablets, you name it, in a wide range of styles. Most date from the early 20th century, but there are more recent additions -- the newest was dedicated in 2004, and is shown at the top of this post. (It's dedicated to Union troops who fought at the battle of Milliken's Bend.) There are multiple obelisks, like Michigan's
columns, like Wisconsin's --and that is indeed a giant eagle perched on top of the thing.  The statuary at the base is all much, much larger than life size, too.  There was obviously no shortage of bronze circa 1900.
I always joke about the cannonball parks being littered with chess pieces.  Well, there actually is one at Vicksburg, for an Ohio unit:
Does it or does it not look like a rook?  Ohio also has a dildo:
Okay, I know it's supposed to represent ammunition of some sort, but it sure looks like a dildo to me.
The park does the usual color coding for the books on sticks so you can tell at a glance where the Union forces were positioned and where the CSA troops were.  At the site pictured below, the two overlapped:
Vicksburg NMP includes Vicksburg National Cemetery, which has approximately 17,000 Civil War dead buried there, almost all Union troops.  After the cemetery was established, Union dead were disinterred from temporary graves throughout the South and buried permanently at Vicksburg.  Many of the graves are marked Unknown (the low stones in the photo) because by the time the bodies were moved, nothing remained that could be used for identification. 
The USS Cairo Museum is next to the cemetery.  One of these days I may go back just to check out the artifacts and interpretive displays.  As it was, all we got to see was the Cairo from behind the fence.  The obelisk in the upper right background is a Navy memorial.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Orphan sign

Along I-20/I-59 in Meridian, Missippi.  The only thing left of whatever used to be here is a section of brick wall.  No hint of what the business might have been or how long it's been gone -- I first noticed the sign back in 2007, and nothing's changed near it since then.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Holiday spirits

We had our holiday party at work on Thursday.  It wasn't nearly as entertaining as the one in the cartoon, just a fairly low-key lunch where the strongest beverage served was coffee.   

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Made in the USA?

Is anything still made in the USA besides F-22s and cars with foreign brand names, like Mercedes and Kia? Every year my cousin Terttu sends me goodies from Finland -- like a reindeer candle holder -- that are either made in Finland or very clearly symbolize the country.  And every year I go slightly crazy trying to find something -- anything! -- for her that (a) isn't made in some Asian sweatshop and (b) symbolizes either the US or wherever I happen to be living (like Georgia) in a reasonably tasteful way.  And every year it seems like the pickings get slimmer and slimmer. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

TMI, or, here's a quarter

Started off the day with a remarkably detailed e-mail from a co-worker containing way more information than any of her fellow peons really wanted to read or know. Is it just me, but doesn't over-explaining why you're calling in sick throw up a huge red flag with "I'm actually at the mall!!" embroidered on it? It reminded me of the lies little kids tell, the ones that are increasingly elaborate for no apparent reason other than guilt. 

Personally, I figure any explanation is TMI -- unless you're going to be out of the office for more than a day, no one wants to know if it's because your body is rejecting yesterday's Chinese takeout or if you've just got a bad case of ocular hemorrhoids. The only thing anyone needs to hear is "I won't be in." 

I'm not sure just what reaction she was hoping to elicit from her co-workers (empathy?  the offer of a ride to her doctor's office?  mints on her pillow tonight?), but the collective response seemed to be a yawn.  Apparently I'm not the only heartless bitch in the work group.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pulitzer Project: Lamb in His Bosom

This was kind of an odd book.  Lamb in His Bosom is a Southern novel.  It's set in Georgia, in the area around Jesup and Baxley on the Altamaha River, in the antebellum period following the forced removal of the Cherokee, Creeks, and other Native American groups from the southeastern United States. The book features an afterword by historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, which notes the book's unique perspective, that of the yeoman white farmers whose holdings were too small or too poor to support the use of slave labor. 

The book revolves around the life of Cean Carver, from her marriage to Lonzo Smith until the birth of her 14th child almost 30 years later.  (Cean is pronounced See-Ann.) When the book begins, Cean is apparently about 16 years old.  By the time she's in her mid-30s, she's described as having hair that is almost totally white.  (Life on the frontier was hard; Cean's mother is a hopeless invalid and totally senile by age 60.)  Of course, popping out a baby every other year, including two sets of twins, and then seeing 5 kids die (including one that's burned alive) would age anyone. Cean's family lives on what is considered the extreme frontier inland in Georgia, an area just being settled by white families.  Farms are pretty widely scattered, and the nearest town of any size is Darien, a city on the coast that takes about a week to reach by ox cart.  Once a year the men trek to Darien to trade surplus produce (lard, honey, cotton, wool) in exchange for the things they can't make themselves.  Cean's parents had moved to the wiregrass country from North Carolina around the time of the War of 1812, drawn by the promise of cheap land and a climate that made it possible to grow crops all year round.

I approached Lamb in His Bosom with a fair amount of trepidation.  I'd just had the horrible experience of reading The Store, another Southern novel, and wasn't too keen on reading more dialect.  I was also a little worried because the DeKalb County Library system owned a zillion copies of the book -- every branch seems to have two or three listed, and they were apparently all circulating.  Discovering that a book is popular isn't always a good sign -- Danielle Steel books circulate like crazy, too.  Fortunately, Lamb in His Bosom turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The dialect, which struck me as as more than a bit twee, wasn't as distracting as dialect sometimes can be.  The book was surprisingly readable.  How authentic the dialect used was is debatable.  Fox-Genovese praises Caroline Miller for her meticulous research and seems to believe that Miller did a decent job of capturing actual speech patterns.  I'm always skeptical when people make sweeping claims for things that can't be proven.  Still, Miller was from southern Georgia and lived in Baxley.  She's described as having spent many hours going out into the countryside and talking with old folks as she worked on the book, and the book was (and is) praised for its historical realism. Miller presents a rare glimpse into the life of yeoman farmers in the time period before the Civil War, the subsistence farmers who had to rely on family members for labor, working the land with oxen because they couldn't afford to buy horses or mules. 

Lamb in His Bosom is rich with details about folkways and superstitions, like applying cobwebs to a wound to help stop the bleeding.  Cobwebs in the rafters were considered good luck, probably for that perceived first aid value.  Miller describes Cean and her mother spinning, weaving, cooking, giving birth and raising children.  The men in the book aren't as fully fleshed out, undoubtedly because it was easier for Miller to talk with women about the old days then with men.  Similarly, one of the weakest sections of the book is when one of the characters leaves Georgia after hearing about gold in California.  His fate is recounted in a few thin paragraphs while back on the farm Cean's recollections of processing sugar cane and how the young folk would flirt with each other become almost lyrical.  Miller would have known personally how cane was crushed on the farm and the cane sap boiled; California was a place she knew only from books.

Not surprisingly, given both the time period when the book was written and the era when it is set, some of the word choices and sentiments expressed in the novel can be a little jarring to the 21st century reader.  Fortunately, those passages tend to be brief. 

Fox-Genovese makes one claim for Lamb in His Bosom that had me slightly baffled.  She asserts that the success of the book led the publisher to go looking for other Southern writers, leading inevitably to Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind.  She makes it sound as though Miller's novel was some breathtaking breakthrough, like no novels set in the South had achieved national acclaim before.  Given that The Store, written by a native of Alabama and set in that state during Reconstruction, won the Pulitzer in 1933 and Scarlet Sister Mary, set among the Gullah of South Carolina, won in 1929, it's an odd claim to make. 

Next up, yet another book by an author I've never heard of:  Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson.  I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that in this one everyone speaks standard English.

Food stamps

I mentioned food stamps in passing in the previous post, and by coincidence Slate has an interesting essay up on the program's history.  As the article notes:
Of all the numbers quantifying this recession, few can match the grim precision of 42,911,042. That's the number of Americans, mostly children and the elderly, who used food stamps in September—521,428 more than in August, itself a record month, and 12 million more than in September 2008. In the past year, according to the Department of Agriculture, every state has seen its rolls swell—with increases ranging from 5.1 percent in West Virginia to 28.7 percent in Nevada.
It's an interesting piece -- the food stamps program is apparently one of the few social safety network items that conservatives actually like.  There are still a few who rail about it encouraging dependency, but the program is well-run with low administrative costs, it serves a direct need, and (although the article doesn't mention it) corporate giants like Archer Daniel Midlands and Cargill love it because it's basically an agriculture subsidy.   

I was happy to see in the article that USDA and state goverrnments are working hard at removing the stigma surrounding the the use of food stamps.  Back when the program started, Food Stamps were paper -- funny money that came in coupon books.  It was like going grocery shopping using Monopoly money.  It was also before the advent of smart cash registers, so shoppers had to carefully separate eligible from noneligible items, let the cashier ring the eligible up first, pay with Food Stamps, and then pay for the noneligible (anything not edible, like toilet paper and soap) stuff with cash. The paper funny money made it obvious to the whole world you were using Food Stamps, and also  provided ample time and opportunity for onlookers to editorialize about your grocery choices ("I can't believe she's buying Trix* for her kids with food stamps." [just give the urchins another bowl of gruel]) and perceived lifestyle ("She should get a job instead of leeching off the taxpayers.").  

Today, thanks to the combination of computerized checkout systems and the introduction of electronic benefit transfer cards, the public stigma is minimized, which in turn makes it lot more likely that the people who need the help food stamps provide will actually apply to receive them.  It's a government program that works.

The numbers do give reason to pause and wonder just how miserable conditions in this country are becoming:  14% of the populace is using Food Stamps, but it's pretty much accepted as fact that many people who are eligible will never apply to get them.  They're intimidated by the process, they don't want to be seen as taking a handout, they don't realize they're eligible, they don't want the visible stigma of using an EBT card at the grocery store. . .  

[*Another thing the poor aren't allowed to buy:  brand names. If you're poor, you must be content with generics or store brands.]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Let them eat cake

Just how fucking destitute do people have to be to qualify as "the deserving poor"?  I made the mistake of reading comments in the AJC not long ago, and learned that if you've got enough money to own a cell phone, you're obviously not impoverished.  Readers were outraged, absolutely outraged by images of people standing in line to apply for heating assistance while holding cell phones to their ears. 

Two words, morons:  Trac Fone. 

The reality today is that it's cheaper to own a Trac Fone than it is to have a landline.  You're a lot more limited in the number of calls you can make when you're buying your minutes in 60-minute bundles, but the upfront investment is a lot lower.  The image below is from the Trac Fone website, but I've seen them at Family Dollar for $14.95. 

But I guess even a $14.95 phone is a little too much luxury for poor folks to deserve.  Let's hope the haters never find out about Safelink or they'll really freak out.

[Over the years I've learned that other things the poor are not allowed to possess include automobiles that are not rolling death traps, digital tvs, clothing that doesn't look like it came from Goodwill, and decent shoes. They must also never ever allow any red meat other than the cheapest form of hamburger to cross their lips, they're not allowed to waste their money on soft drinks or ice cream, and god forbid they should ever use their EBT card ("food stamps") to buy potato chips.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Some F.A.S.T. fiberglass

In front of the Pioneer Restaurant in Westfield, Wisconsin

Both the restaurant and the "pioneer" have been around for as long as I can remember.  The parking lot used to be accessible directly from US-51, which is now I-39. 

Birth certificate located in the groin area.  
 Photos taken October 2010.

Restaurant was packed when we stopped for lunch.  Service is fast, menu is loaded with high carb, high calorie, nicely greasy comfort food (meat loaf sandwiches, fried chicken, "barbecue" [which is actually sloppy joes]), and prices are low.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Saturday poetry break

From One Beer Lover to Another
Once a month,
As predictable as the ore train
That used to run by his shack
Bushy Bill walks out of the Brockways
To cash the check he gets
From a grateful government
For falling drunk
Off a dee seven in Korea
Twenty years ago.
Moody, red eyed,
Smelling of wet newspapers in June
And fuel oil in winter
He goes to the A & P
And buys a months supply of Strohs
To be dropped off at his mailbox
On the Mill Road where he’ll
Pack them, one by patient one
Up to his tarpaper shack
Plastered with Playboy foldouts.
(i’d like to tell that
he’s writing the great american novel or
that he plays cool guitar in the michigan evenings or
discusses transcendentalism with a pet racoon, but, no
he just drinks his beer and pisses out the front door.)

        -- From Michael H. Johnson, Bottles in the Basement (Houghton, MI: Denim Press, 1972)