Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Is there anything real about the fake duck guys?

I got into a minor disagreement with another blogger yesterday over the latest nugget of stupidity to drop from Phil Robertson's lips. Quite a few people are piling on Phil for his suggestion that guys would be smart to find wives who are still quite young, i.e., go dipping into the just-about-to-graduate-from-high-school pool and find women who were still trainable. This is seen by many of Phil's critics as advocating pedophilia.

Given that pedophilia by definition is being sexually attracted to children who have not yet hit puberty, that is, kids under the age of approximately 11, I thought labeling Phil as a pervert was going a step too far. Let's be clear. Phil is no doubt a sexist pig who's stuck in the dark ages when it comes to the role of women in general. However, no one's cause is being served when you resort to unnecessary hyperbole or gross distortions of the facts. When the actual facts are sufficient, why exaggerate? So I found myself in the bizarre position of defending a guy who I personally think is an ass. Phil may be a genius when it comes to marketing over-priced duck calls, but he's an idiot when it comes to giving anyone advice on how to live his or her life. Besides, I naively thought, Phil was merely advocating doing what he did: marry young. I have seen a zillion articles online about Phil giving Miss Kay a diamond ring for their 50th wedding anniversary. The math is simple: if he's 67 now and they've been married 50 years, ergo, he was a teenager himself when he got married. It worked for him; he figures it'll work for everyone.

Turns out I was wrong. I got curious enough about this whole plastic hillbilly clan to do more digging. Turns out that online good ol' Phil has multiple birthdates. One of them has to be real, because he did attend high school and college in Louisiana and there are solid references to that. However, it appears he married Miss Kay in 1966, which would mean that the marriage is only 47 years old, not the 50 as has been hyped. Okay, that means Phil is apparently 4 years older than Miss Kay, not the less than 2 than he initially appeared to be. Still not a pervert -- there were plenty of seniors at my high school in the '60s who dated freshmen. They were treated with a fair amount of scorn by their fellow seniors, e.g., the usual jokes about cradle robbing, but it wasn't too unusual. It's creepy when guys in their 40s hit on women who are just barely legal; it's age-appropriate behavior when the guy and the object of his attention are riding the same school bus.

In any case, based on when he attended LSU, of the multiple birthdates and ages given for Phil, it looks like the 1946 one is correct. But who knows? Depending on the source, Phil is anywhere from 67 to 71. Then again, considering how elusive the duck guys in general have been on providing biographical details about themselves, it's not surprising Phil's life is a tad contradictory. The S.O. and I were speculating that one reason Phil got married when he did was the typical 1960's reason, the one that arrives in diapers a few months after the wedding where the bride's father carries a shotgun. Which brought up the question of just how old is the oldest son, Alan, the minister who did not appear in earlier seasons of Duck Dynasty. Who knows? He's been preaching for over 20 years, and no doubt some serious sleuthing would uncover his age somewhere, but you're probably not going to find it in a quick Google search.

And where has Alan been preaching, inquiring minds want to know? At the church his parents attend, the same one where Phil gets up occasionally to do some lay preaching and run his mouth on the perversions of homosexuality or the proper place of women in the overall scheme of things. That's got to be handy for Phil, having a pet preacher on a leash who's going to agree with whatever bizarre interpretation of Scripture Phil may come up with. It's hard enough for a minister to disagree with prominent members of a congregation to begin with; what are the odds Alan Robertson is ever going to tell the man who's probably underwriting his salary that he's wrong about anything? Is Alan ever going to preach a sermon grounded in Matthew 6:24? Doubtful, especially considering that Alan has joined the ranks of the on camera plastic hillbillies himself, right down to growing the requisite beard. And I wonder if any of the die-hard Bible thumpers realize that when Phil says "I support my church" what he's actually saying is "I made sure my son has a job." Is it still tithing when the tithe stays in the family? Is it charity or simply money laundering to evade taxes when you donate a lot of money to a church a family member runs?

You have to kind of admire the Robertsons. For a family that has supposedly made their life an open book by appearing in a "reality" show, they've managed to keep their family life remarkably private. They've got a fairly large extended family, but only a handful of those family members ever appear in the shows. Eccentric Uncle Si, for example, managed to keep his family so thoroughly out of the picture that the show ran for four seasons without anyone realizing the man was married. Viewers know more about his favorite iced tea glass than they know about Si's actual life.

Of course, now that people are realizing there's a treasure trove lurking on You Tube and elsewhere of Phil Robertson saying dumb stuff, that privacy screen is going to get shredded. As long as the right wing nut jobs persist in defending Phil, he's going to be in the public eye. The more he's in the public eye, the more various journalists and gossip mongers will dig into his life, and the more damage gets done to the Duck Dynasty franchise. More video tapes are going to pop up, Phil is going to start looking more and more like a Cajun version of Warren Jeffs, and A & E is going to start wishing they had pulled the plug when the first clump of shit hit the fan.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

If you could live anywhere, where would it be?

Heard from a friend recently who's considering moving. She's been out West for quite a few years now but is getting burnt out on having to worry about getting burnt out. The last few fire seasons have been stressful. So she's contemplating packing up and relocating to a region where residents don't worry quite so much about going up in flames. She's thinking about the southeastern U.S. so asked for my opinion on Atlanta.

What can I say? For about two weeks every spring the city is gorgeous and almost livable; the rest of the year. . .? Well, I think the fact we moved before I'd even officially retired says something about just how fast I wanted to see it in the rear view mirror.

Fortunately, there's more to the South than Atlanta. I had no desire to linger in Georgia, but I'm reasonably sure some parts of the state are actually livable. Ditto the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and maybe even Florida. I'm sure that if she wants to change from western mountains to eastern ones she can find a decent retirement community. Personally, if I were going to move to someplace vaguely southern, I wouldn't go as far into the Deep South as my friend is apparently contemplating. I'd aim for the Blue Ridge and look in places like Hickory, North Carolina, or Blacksburg, Virginia. But that's me. My friend may not be as keen on college towns as I am.

She also asked a question I could not answer: if I could live anywhere, where it would be? We've traveled too much, seen too many interesting places that we'd be happy to go back to, but when you're limited to just one choice? I don't know. I still miss Omaha. Of course, I also wouldn't mind moving back to the Seattle-Everett area. Or Blacksburg. Or maybe Cape Cod. Or the Twin Cities. Too many choices, not enough lifetimes.

Friday, December 27, 2013

More thoughts on holidays

A Christmas classic:

As a joke, my brother used to hang a pair of panty hose over his fireplace before Christmas. He said all he wanted was for Santa to fill them.

What they say about Santa checking the list twice must be true because every Christmas morning, although Jay's kids' stockings were overflowed,  his poor pantyhose hung sadly empty.

One year I decided to make his dream come true. I put on sunglasses and went in search of an inflatable love doll. They don't sell those things at Wal-Mart. I had to go to an adult bookstore downtown. If you've never been in a X-rated store, don't go. You'll only confuse yourself. I was there an hour saying things like, "What does this do?" "You're kidding me!" "Who would buy that?" Finally, I made it to the inflatable doll section. I wanted to buy a standard, uncomplicated doll that could also substitute as a passenger in my truck so I could use the car pool lane during rush hour.

Finding what I wanted was difficult. Love dolls come in many different models. The top of the line, according to the side of the box, could do things I'd only seen in a book on animal husbandry. I settled for "Lovable Louise." She was at the bottom of the price scale. To call Louise a "doll" took a huge leap of imagination.

On Christmas Eve, with the help of an old bicycle pump, Louise came to life. My sister-in-law was in on the plan and let me in during the wee morning hours. Long after Santa had come and gone, I filled the dangling pantyhose with Louise's pliant legs and bottom. I also ate some cookies and drank what remained of a glass of milk on a nearby tray. I went home, and giggled for a couple of hours.

The next morning my brother called to say that Santa had been to his house and left a present that had made him VERY happy but had left the dog confused. She would bark, start to walk away, then come back and bark some more. We all agreed that Louise should remain in her panty hose so the rest of the family could admire her when they came over for the traditional Christmas dinner.

My grandmother noticed Louise the moment she walked in the door. "What the hell is that?" she asked. My brother quickly explained, "It's a doll." "Who would play with something like that?" Granny snapped. I had several candidates in mind, but kept my mouth shut. "Where are her clothes?" Granny continued. "Boy, that turkey sure smells nice, Gran," Jay said, trying to steer her into the dining room. But Granny was relentless. "Why doesn't she have any teeth?" Again, I could have answered, but why would I? It was Christmas and no one wanted to ride in the back of the ambulance saying,  "Hang on Granny Hang on!"

My grandfather, a delightful old man with poor eyesight, sidled up to me and said, "Hey, who's the naked gal by the fireplace?" I told him she was Jay's friend. A few minutes later I noticed Grandpa by the mantel, talking to Louise. Not just talking, but actually flirting. It was then that we realized this might be Grandpa's last Christmas at home.

The dinner went well. We made the usual small talk about who had died, who  was dying, and who should be killed, when suddenly Louise made a noise that sounded a lot like my father in the bathroom in the morning. Then she lurched from the panty hose, flew around the room twice, and fell in a heap in front of the sofa. The cat screamed. I passed cranberry sauce through my nose, and Grandpa ran across the room, fell to his knees, and began administering mouth to mouth resuscitation. My brother fell back over his chair and wet his pants and Granny threw down her napkin, stomped out of the room, and sat in the car.

It was indeed a Christmas to treasure and remember. Later in my brother's garage, we conducted a thorough examination to decide the cause of Louise's collapse. We discovered that Louise had suffered from a hot ember to the back of her right thigh. Fortunately, thanks to a wonder drug called duct tape, we restored her to perfect health.

Louise went on to star in several bachelor party movies. I think Grandpa  still calls her whenever he can get out of the house.

Note: I tried to find the original source for this story, but had no luck. It probably goes back a decade or two because the first time I saw it it was a paper photocopy, which suggests it's pre-Internet.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bah, humbug

Read various blog posts today chronicling people's differing responses to Xmas. Personally, it's never been one of my favorite holidays. I tend to describe the experience as "slippers that are too big, a nightgown that's too small, and cologne that causes a rash." It's one of those holidays that's way too loaded with unrealistic expectations: we're all supposed to be the Cleavers and have a wonderful time decorating cookies, throwing tinsel on trees, and hanging out with family. Everyone gets the perfect gift and everyone is happy. Out here in the real world, of course, we're all a lot more like the Griswolds. If something can go wrong, it will. Typically, the woman of the household gets to work herself into exhaustion cooking, cleaning, baking, decorating, and trying to create the perfect holiday mood for the kids; the man of the house gets stressed out over money because the little barracudas have made it clear that the holiday will be a total washout unless they get whatever this year's favorite overpriced and hard to find widget happens to be; and the kids work themselves into a frenzy anticipating a Red Ryder BB gun and then get a pink bunny suit instead. It's not a pretty sight.

As a Marxist, I've had an almost visceral hatred of the Santa Claus bullshit for years, too. There's nothing quite like Santa to make class warfare real. If you're a rich kid, you can be the nastiest little shit on the planet and you're still going to show up at school after Xmas break bragging about Santa bringing you the gold-plated Class A widget; if you're poor, when you're little you worry constantly about being good and it doesn't make a bit of difference. You still get stuck with the 16-crayon box of Family Dollar crayons and a cheap coloring book. What is the real lesson of Santa and the Christmas season? Two things: Adults lie, and life isn't fair. But that's a digression.

I read a lot of advice columns. Most of the year the modern day Miss Lonely Hearts tackle divorce, infidelity, and typical family dysfunctions. When it gets to be November and December, however, all the holiday weirdos come out to play: controlling in-laws, stingy relatives, ungrateful spawn. Columnist Carolyn Hax does an online discussion, the Hootenanny of Holiday Horrors, where people share their pain: the uncle who dropped dead at the dinner table, the fruitcake that broke someone's foot, the druggie brother who decides to start detox the week before the holiday, the Christmas ham that burnt down the house. It's great. You read it and suddenly your own screwed up family is looking pretty damn good. And so was ours this year.

Our family isn't very large so Christmas is always fairly low key. We're not religious so church is almost never on the agenda. When we were in Atlanta, it tended to be just three of us: me, the S.O., and our younger daughter. One year she came to Atlanta, the other years we drove to where she lived in Texas. Since moving back here, we've been to the older daughter's house twice, in 2011 and 2012. This year we drove to Hurley, Wisconsin to have Christmas dinner at our grandson's -- he had been given a humongous ham as a Christmas bonus so decided to host the family dinner this year.

It was a nice afternoon. The weather cooperated for the 100 mile drive and watching the great granddaughter rip into her gifts was entertaining. Of course, so was watching her parents as they realized they could have gotten her ONE gift and she would have been perfectly happy. In fact, they could have gift wrapped an empty box and the child would have played cheerfully with the box. They'll learn -- unfortunately, as kids age, there's an inverse relationship between parents learning to budget and kids' expectations. I can't be overly critical, though, because I, too, gave the toddler multiple presents knowing full well she's still young enough to have absolutely no expectations regarding the holiday. Then again, I'm a grandmother. Spoiling grandchildren and great-grandchildren is part of the job description.

Because we're geezers, the S.O. and decided that our gift to ourselves would be a motel room for the night just in case there was lake effect snow -- we had no desire to be crawling along through whiteout conditions after dark on the way home. Been there, done that along M-28 way too many times when we were younger. As it turned out, the weather was fine, but you never know. We did delay our departure slightly this morning, but only so I could watch what struck me as being a great holiday film: "Alien vs. Predator." I've been to a few family gatherings like that: the different sets of in-laws and relatives who only see each other about once a century and then decide to kill each other on those rare occasions when they do get together. Backstabbing and acid spraying at its finest . . .

We noticed while driving through Hurley that another vacant lot is in the process of sprouting on Silver Street. A supper club that had seen better days managed to burn down last week. This one may have been an honest fire, though, and not caused by insurance. The ruin is still standing. There have been quite a few fires in Hurley where the rubble hadn't stopped smoldering before it was bulldozed (along with the kerosene cans) into oblivion. There have also been fires where the firemen showed up too soon and were sent home because the fire hadn't broken out yet. It's an interesting little town.

After Christmas sales

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Are you an environmentalist, revisited

Photo from Grandcanyontreks.org/orphan.htm
Back when I worked for the National Park Service counting buildings and bushes for the List of Classified Structures/Cultural Landscapes Inventory (LCS/CLI), one of the scariest potential experiences I had came during a training held at Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA). The LCS coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Arizona, planned the exercise as a dual purpose activity: we'd all improve our knowledge of what was important to include in the database and we'd also collect data he could use in updating the LCS records for GRCA. The park had a number of sites that were inadequately documented or not in the database at all. Our group would survey them as part of, among other things, assessing their eligibility for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the sites was an industrial one, the Orphan Mine. 

The Orphan Mine perches quite literally on the edge of the South Rim. It's clearly visible from a favorite overlook on the canyon rim, and the South Rim hiking trail detours around it on the way to Hermit's Rest. When I saw the headframe from the overlook, my immediate reaction was, oh, shit, we're all going to die. Turns out the dropoff from the headframe isn't quite as dramatic as that angle made it appear, but it's still not a place to be if either heights or not-maintained-for-many-years equipment make you nervous. 
Orphan Mine headframe and other mine buildings
Fortunately, a decision was made that we lacked the proper safety gear (e.g., ropes and harnesses, hardhats, radiation exposure badges [the Orphan was a uranium mine]). We opted for assessing a mothballed waste water treatment plant* instead. All we had to worry about there was hanta virus: the rodent dung in one of the buildings must have been several inches deep. Hemorrhagic fever? Or death by falling a long, long way down while bouncing off miscellaneous rocks on the way to the river? I'll take the fever -- at least with it odds are a person will be too delirious to realize she's dying. 

And what, the curious reader may be asking, does this have to do with environmentalism? Not much, except that when people start talking about the pristine wilderness and unspoiled vistas in national parks and other "untouched" areas, most don't recognize that the wilderness isn't as pristine as most people like to believe. The Grand Canyon in particular is often cited for its spectacular unspoiled vistas; how people can not notice a uranium mine sitting next to a popular hiking trail is beyond me. Grand Canyon isn't alone -- many of the large "wildnerness parks" are laced with old mine sites: Isle Royale has copper mines, Buffalo National River has extensive zinc mines, North Cascades has prospector's diggings for various minerals, Wrangell-St. Elias has a humongous Kennecott Copper site, and those just happen to be the first four parks I remembered without having to think very hard. National parks, recreational areas, historic battlefields, and national forests all have former farmsteads and ranches, logging camps, railroad grades, quarries, fisheries, various abandoned industrial plants, ghost towns, and old roads. There are very few places in the lower 48 contiguous states that qualify as truly untrammeled or pristine. 

Almost seventy years ago John Bartlow Martin wrote, "Go into the woods today and when  you think you are in wilderness never seen before by man, you'll fall into a prospector's abandoned  test pit or you will stumble over the brush-grown ties of an old logging railroad. Struggle all day to breast the swamps and rocky hills and you may end up in a thicket concealing a rusty four-hundred pound stove that some forgotten trapper carried into camp piece-by-piece fifty or seventy years before you." Martin was describing Michigan's upper Peninsula when he wrote Call It North Country, but his description could have applied to almost any region in the country. Wander around the open grasslands of the Great Plains where the land looks to be totally empty, and sooner or later you'll find abandoned sod houses, old fence lines, and, predating the Euro-Americans, tipi circles or the remnants of earth lodges left by the Pawnee, Ponca, or Lakotah. Decide to escape from civilization by hiking into the back country in the Cascades or Sierras and you'll stumble across old prospectors' diggings. Go walking in the Vermont woods and you'll find numerous remnant rock walls, cellar holes, and ancient orchards deep in what seems like virgin forest.  

Further, many places we think of now as being unspoiled or never populated were actually created by ejecting the residents. The Yosemite valley, for example, was home to native Americans, sheepherders, and prospectors when the US government decided to designate it as a national park. In what was to be the pattern for every national park created after that, Step One in turning it into a park was to boot the residents out and try to erase their history. The myth would be created that landscapes were pristine, they were purely the result of natural forces (ignoring the fact that the iconic meadows in the Yosemite valley existed in large part because sheep grazing had kept them open), and that the only resources and history that counted were those associated with the natural world, not humanity. In such an idealized natural world, people visit -- they do not live among the trees and scenic vistas nor do they work. The natural world, the "environment," is reified and turned into something we visit when we want a break from the unnatural world of the suburbs or city streets. This is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Because, as I've noted before, it means that way too often "environmentalists" will couch arguments against various developments in terms of aesthetic values or loss of leisure activities (e.g., don't put a pulpmill there; it will look ugly) instead of focusing on real problems: groundwater contamination, air pollution, depletion of an aquifer, etc. Even better, learn a little something about the history of an area before you start talking about pristine wilderness or the untrammeled great outdoors. Don't rave about the virgin forests when you're talking about stands that have been cut over a dozen times in the past century and you can still see the ruts from the skidders. Don't tell me how unspoiled an area is when you're standing on an old iron ore mining waste rock pile and the hiking trails are abandoned railroad grades. In short, do your homework before you get up on your soapbox, not after. 

[*Definitely National Register eligible, incidentally. It was one of the first treatment plants in the United States to treat waste water for reuse; the reclaimed water was used for irrigating the grounds around the hotels and employee housing.]

Some nerd humor

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My kid really knows me

The UPS truck just delivered a package from the Younger Daughter. It appears she drew my name in the family Xmas gift exchange. I guess there's an actual wrapped present in the box, but she could have stopped with these and I would have been happy.*
A Case calendar and Peeps. Life is good.

Update: Turned out the box was meant for both me and the S.O. -- the wasabi-flavored peanuts hidden a little deeper were a clue. I was blinded by the Peeps. Which now has me wondering. . . just who does have my name and what kind of strange sweater can I expect if it turns out to be one of my sisters?

[*And I know my kid. Right after she read that sentence she started figuratively dope slapping herself and wondering why she didn't just gift wrap the Peeps and call it good.] 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pulitzer Project: All the King's Men

The last few prize winners I've read had been, to put it kindly, duds. My expectations for All the King's Men were accordingly low. I had somehow forgotten (or never realized) that the author, Robert Penn Warren, is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. His other two prizes were for poetry. It shows.

All the King's Men flows despite -- or, more accurately, because of -- all the things the author does wrong. It's loaded with run-on sentences that should make a card carrying member of the grammar police run screaming in horror but instead mesmerize the reader. Where was his editor? How on earth did he get away with constructing paragraphs that fill pages but are essentially one long sentence that just keeps flowing and flowing until you've been sucked in like a fallen magnolia leaf being slowly but surely washed to the Gulf by an autumnal Louisiana rain? It doesn't matter. You've been sucked in, you're as trapped by Penn Warren's words as his protagonist Jack Burden was by politician Willie Stark's charisma.

All the King's Men was heavily influenced by the career of Louisiana politician Huey "Kingfish" Long. Long was a populist who was elected to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928. For generations Louisiana politics had been controlled by big money -- the oil industry, railroads, logging, sugar and cotton plantations. Long went up against them all, courted the votes of the ordinary voters, and managed to shake up the established political machine. After becoming governor, he undertook an ambitious public works program that improved roads throughout the state, constructed public hospitals, and built a new state capitol building. To the man on the street Long was a hero. To the disgruntled political operatives and business interests, of course, he was anathema. He cleaned out one political machine and replaced it with his own.

In 1930, while still serving as Governor, Long ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat from Louisiana. Even after leaving the governorship, however, Long continued to lobby the state legislature and senate to pass bills he believed in. In 1935 Long was in the state capitol building pushing for a redistricting bill. He was shot by the son-in-law of a judge who would have lost his position had the measure passed. Long died in the hospital two days later.

In All the King's Men politician Willie Stark follows a similar career trajectory with just enough differences for Penn Warren to be able to claim that although Long's story may have been an inspiration it wasn't an exact model. Long married a stenographer and had multiple children; Willie Stark marries a school teacher and has only one child. Long was elected twice to a state-wide office before winning the governorship; Stark's first political office is at the county level and doesn't last long. Long was elected to the U.S. Senate and served almost a full term before dying; Stark is gunned down while still serving as Governor.

The story overall is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former journalist who is asked by Stark to join his staff as an aide and researcher. Burden had trained as a historian and then worked as a reporter. When Stark wants to find people's secrets, he has Burden do the research. As Stark tells Burden, you never need to make up lies about an opponent because there is always a truth that will be more damaging:
And [Stark] said, 'Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.'  
And he told me to dig it out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen, dove-gray hide. It was the proper job for me, for, as I have said, I was once a student of history. A student of history does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past. He doesn't care whether it is the dead pussy or the Kohinoor diamond. So it was a proper assignment for me, an excursion into the past.
Everyone has secrets, things that they don't want the world to know. All you have to do is find out what those secrets are. Some secrets can destroy you, some secrets can set you free. The secret in All the King's Men is that even though you begin the novel thinking the story is about Willie Stark and the use and abuse of power, by the time you get to the end you know it's actually Jack Burden's story and the secrets he uncovers about his own life.

All the King's Men was made into a 1949 film starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark. I have not seen the film, but based on the synopsis provided by Wikipedia, the plot line of the film deviated considerably from the narrative of the book. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. A 2006 version starring Sean Penn apparently followed the novel much more faithfully but flopped with the critics and the public. It more than broke even at the box office, but not by much. Although a few critics praised it, the overall consensus was that it was "agonizingly dull" and "strangely lifeless." Both are available as DVDs through Netflix; maybe if they show up as streamable movies I'll try watching one or the other.

How would I rate this book? On a scale of 1 to 10, it gets an 11. I loved the wordsmithing, the long, convoluted sentences that rolled on and on, the imagery ("the bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve"), the narrative threads and subplots twisting and coiling and turning back on themselves as one secret unfolded to reveal another. The Willie Stark story line is a straight forward one -- power corrupts and karma's a bitch -- but the structure Penn Warren built around it is remarkably complex.

Next up on the list? Tales of the South Pacific, which I know I've read before but am feeling the urge to re-read. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Adventures in cataloging

I spent yesterday afternoon down at the museum. The backlog of scrambled files is slowly shrinking and I'm making steady progress on cataloging the collections. The hardest part lately is just keeping my hands warm enough to type: now that we're closed for the season, the thermostat is set at 50. It's a tad chilly in the building. I don't bother turning the heat up at all because I'm not there long enough at a time to make it worth it. I started off planning to spend at least 4 hours at a shot when I go in, the logic being that I might as well make the drive down the hill worth it, and it's devolved to more like 2 to 3. End result? The volume of space is large enough that by the time it would actually be warm in the museum, I'm done for the day.

The last time I went, however, I found something in the collection -- several somethings actually -- that could solve my cold hands problem. Now the only question I have is how did these things work? Did people seriously light something that looks like an oversized cigarette lighter and use it to keep their hands warm? Even more intriguing, do they still do it? After I started typing this, I remembered the wonders of Google and, voila, I discovered a company called Sundance (as in Robert Redford's Sundance) still sells them. They have a "Vintage 1962 Pocket Hand Warmer" for a mere $15. It looks very similar to the one pictured. As for the fuel? Apparently it takes ordinary cigarette lighter fuel and will burn for up to 8 hours.

I'm not sure just what the time period was for the ones the museum owns, but they must have been fairly popular because the museum has about half a dozen of them scattered through various displays. There were three in an exhibit that's otherwise all items relating to smoking (matchbooks, cigar boxes, information on the old cigar factory in Baraga, an art nouveau cigarette case that's so tiny it looks like it was meant to hold candy cigarettes instead of real ones) but no instruction booklets. I have a hunch that whoever set up that display didn't recognize them as hand warmers, although you never know. Maybe she did know and just thought they looked cool. I made a note and one of these days I'll do some serious research and figure out when they first hit the market. It's always good to include a little info with an artifact letting visitors know just what the object is, when it was first used, and if/when it went out of fashion or was discontinued. Most people I know now opt for the chemical hand warmers, probably because they're slightly more convenient (Grabbers makes warmers you can stuff in your boots) so there are bound to be more and more museum visitors who will look at the vintage warmers and have no idea what they are.

That same exhibit includes one item that really highlights how attitudes toward smoking have changed: an ash tray from St. Joseph Hospital in Hancock, Michigan. Can anyone imagine a modern hospital paying to have its name embossed on ash trays? An antique dealer told me a couple years ago that ash trays are going to be a hot item as a collectible in a few years because so many people are throwing them away now. I'm dubious, but you never know.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Maybe I'm overthinking things

A couple months ago the S.O. and I bought a used motorhome, a 1989 Rockwood, so we could pursue my fantasy of becoming VIPs (Volunteers in Parks) now that we're both totally retired. Seemed like a simple enough plan: we'd buy a motorhome, we'd do some research and put in some applications, and then we'd hit the road. Except maybe it isn't quite that simple. The date for hitting the road is getting closer and of course I'm starting to obsess.

We're going to be living in that thing for several months at a stretch. Just what exactly do we stock it with? What all do we bring along to amuse ourselves with? Books, dvds, my knitting and quilting stuff, the laptop, . . . the list keeps growing. It has occurred to me that this might be the ideal time to invest in a tablet, something even more portable than the laptop, and that we can always buy e-books and movies, but I'm enough of a traditionalist to want a few real books around. With a hard copy of a book you never have to worry about batteries going dead. On the other hand, having a tablet would mean the S.O. and I would not be competing for the laptop, and that's a serious consideration. We tend to do our wandering around the Intertubes at about the same time of day.

The kitchen area has me mildly confused at the moment, too. Just what do we actually need when it comes to pots and pans and dishes? We're unlikely to be hosting any dinner parties so will the bare minimum (two plates, two cups, two cereal bowls) be sufficient? Depending on where we are, we might not have a whole lot of water so avoiding washing many dishes might be a good idea. . . but I also don't want to be using tons of paper plates and throwaway plastic forks. I wanted to have a real oven, which this Rockwood does have, so does that automatically entail muffin tins and pie pans? How much actual baking will I do when the "kitchen" has about two square feet of counter space? Is there even enough room to roll out a pie crust?

And then there's the clothing question. How many pairs of shoes? What about seasonal stuff -- it's going to be winter when we leave here, but we're heading South so I'll need high water pants and sandals before we're home again. We're going to be stuck relying on laundromats so just how much clothing should we try to cram into the tiny closets and minuscule drawers? Some of the stuff I wear actually requires ironing -- if I bring the iron, does that in turn demand a real ironing board? What about stuff like lawn chairs and a folding table for when we're set up at a campground with the canopy out and the faux patio with its patch of astroturf waiting to be used? I'm already having fears one thing will lead to another, and we won't so much cruise on down the highway as waddle.

Some of those questions would have been answered if we'd acquired the beast a little earlier in the year. We could have done a shakedown cruise of some sort, wandered off to spend a week or two camping here in the U.P. or northern Wisconsin and figured out what was going to work and what wasn't. As it is, when we hit the road in February, we're going to be learning as we go. It could be interesting.

At least one thing I shouldn't have to worry about. The S.O. should have no problems driving the beast, even with our car in tow. He has a CDL and used to drive over-the-road. If he could manage to maneuver a semi with a 53' trailer in to loading docks located in alleys not much wider than the trailer, he's not going to have any problems with this RV.

I know the feeling

I keep hearing the northern lights can be spectacular up here on tundra. I think in our many years of living here off and on, I've seen them maybe once. Whenever I hear a prediction they're going to be really good, it's a given it's going to snow that night.

Of course, the same thing happens every time there's supposed to be a meteor shower. One of my friends who lives out in Nevada always raves about the Perseid meteor shower. Every year I mark the calendar, and every year when I've been living where light pollution isn't an issue it rains.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

I should know better than to read the comments on anything

I wasted a fair amount of time today wading into the stupid on the Intertubes. One of the major news stories and ongoing themes on Facebook and in the blogosphere was the nation-wide fast food workers strike. The stupid, it runs deep. I'm lucky I didn't drown.

There are two major refrains that always run through any discussion of upping wages for the folks doing the scut work for society. The first comes from employers whining that it will mean raising prices and that's going to kill business. Here's a news flash for all you McDonald's/Subway/Burger King franchise owners: if the minimum wage goes up, it doesn't just go up for your store alone -- it goes up for everyone. The playing field is still level.

The second piece of stupidity that gets repeated ad nauseum is that all those people doing the scut work are just too damn lazy or uneducated to look for something better. What the minimum wage burger flippers need to do is get an education and improve themselves. Ditto the underpaid hotel maids and nurse aides and a whole lot of other people who work at the dirty jobs that keep this country running. I want to know what planet those people who spout that line live on -- have they bothered to look at the American economy lately? It's a service economy. Where are jobs being created? In retail and in health care, i.e., sales clerks and home health aides. No one needs a college education to qualify to run a cash register at Dollar General or to help old ladies take showers. Yes, it's great if you can get an education and find work as a software engineer or an investment banker, but there's a limited number of those jobs to go around. The reality is that there are a lot of over-educated people flipping burgers or changing diapers.

On the other hand, the fact that you don't need an advanced degree to make change or help old people bathe doesn't mean you don't deserve to be paid a living wage. Regardless of the job, if you put in a full day's labor, you should receive enough pay to live on. I can remember a time when that wasn't such a hard concept to understand. Apparently those days are long gone.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Weirdness in the spam folder

Like everyone who blogs, every so often I'll have a comment show up that at first blush appears to be from someone saying something nice about a recent post but is in fact spam. You know, it'll have a line or two complimenting the post and then a "this may interest you" with a link. If you click on the link, you discover you're at a site advertising something you have absolutely no interest in -- male enhancement products, office space in Bangalore -- but usually the spam comment is at least directly linked to something you wrote. Granted, sometimes the post in question is a really, really old one, but you did at least write it.

Well, I got one the other day that was stranger than usual. It referenced a post I'd supposedly done on a topic I vaguely recalled but had done so long ago it might as well have been on a different planet. I've never had a spam comment that reached back 2 or 3 years in time, so that made me curious. I went looking for the original post. I could not find it. The link in the comment that included the post's title was a dead link. Very strange. So then I did several searches of the blog archive using terms that one would think would either be used as labels or would show up in the text. No luck. So then I decided to read my blog backwards. I learned a few things that weren't exactly news -- among other things, I used to have a serious addiction to C-SPAN -- but I never did find a post with the title the commenter had used. Very, very strange.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Not a problem

Turned on the radio this morning and the first thing I heard was a report on the tragedy of the poor suffering store clerks at Target and Walmart actually having to work on Thanksgiving Day. Oh, the humanity. Give me a break. When was the last time you heard someone bemoaning the fate of the poor saps who work at 7-11, Circle K, or any of the other convenience stores/gas stations that are open 24/7 every day of the year? Or sympathy expressed for the nurse aides, orderlies, and janitors in hospitals and nursing homes? Does anyone ever think about the housekeeping staff at hotels, the ticket agents and ramp rats at airports, or any of a long list of other occupations that never shut down? But stores that used to be closed on Thanksgiving Day are now staying open and suddenly it's a problem. Unreal.

I agree it sucks to work on a holiday. Been there, done that. I've worked in nursing homes, hospitals, and hotels. If I think about it, I can recall years when I worked every single holiday, from New Year's Day right through to New Year's Eve. But so did a lot of other people, and, as a rule, we all agreed that working on a holiday and collecting a pay check beat not collecting a pay check. You know, I occasionally see the phrases "first world problem" or "white people's problem" used to describe things that don't really qualify as problems -- they're more annoyances than actual problems. Being homeless would qualify as a problem. Working on a holiday is an annoyance. And for sure bitching about having to run a cash register or stock shelves on Thanksgiving Day is definitely a first world/white people's problem.

On a meta level, the rampant consumerism and excessive focus on material goods in our society are problems, but that's a subject for a different post.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Missouri Road Trip

Small lake at St. Joe State Park, Park Hills, Missouri.
Photos are only tangentially related to the content of the blog post.
The S.O. and I got back a couple days ago from a short trip down to Missouri to visit the Younger Daughter. She got a promotion and a transfer to a different Forest earlier this fall; by early November she'd been in her new digs in Missouri long enough to have unpacked to the point of creating enough space in the guest room for the air mattress. So we went down to check things out.

As usual, we fueled up at the Pines in Baraga before hitting the road. The Pines Convenience Center is owned by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and invariably has the lowest gas prices in what seems to be a several hundred mile radius. People living in Baraga County used to pay some of the highest gas prices in the state; after the Pines opened, suddenly we were paying some of the lowest. I've no doubt the price-gouging owners of the Krist Oil station in L'Anse would cheerfully sell their souls to Satan in exchange for putting the KBIC station out of business. Sadly for them, based on what I've observed over the years about their past business practices, they sold out years ago so don't have anything left that Old Scratch would be interested in.

In any case, we made sure the gas gauge was on full for both tanks on the truck and headed south. The Kid is now living close enough that we could have made the drive in a day -- it is a mere 745 miles from the ranch to Farmington, but we're geezers. If I'm stuck in a car for much over 8 hours a day, I tend to get cranky. So does the S.O. It's amazing how quickly your butt starts to hurt and your legs cramp up once you hit the downhill side of 60. End result? We split the 745 miles into two days of driving, about 5 hours worth on day 1 and 7 hours or so on day 2.

Missouri Mines State HIstoric Site, Park Hills, Missouri
We've done that drive down I-39 into Illinois enough times that we know where there are some decent motels and we know a few to avoid, like a Motel 6 that has definitely seen better days. We've also reached the point were we feel like we've seen it all before, so it wasn't surprising that the S.O. wanted to throw in a deviation -- instead of doing I-39 to I-55 to US-67, he suggested we take Wisconsin 78 west from Portage and cross Lake Wisconsin on the Merrimac ferry.

Had it been June, this would have struck me as a great idea. I've always wanted to ride the Merrimac ferry, a ferry that exists for no useful reason, as far as I can tell, other than to cut a few miles off the drive from one small town (Merrimac) to another (Lodi). I've been feeling the urge to ride the Merrimac ferry since the 1960s, but I never contemplated riding it in November. My favorite channel on local cable when we stop at a motel in the Portage area is Channel 15, the ferry cam, a live feed that showed basically nothing most of the time, just water lapping at the edge of the landing.

As it was, thanks to the combination of the time of year and the fact we had stuff in the back of the truck that we were bringing to the Kid, I had doubts. Strong doubts. Not so much about the ferry part of the proposed route, but what lay on the other side of the lake: WI-188 to WI-60 back to WI-78 and eventually US-151 to Dubuque, Iowa, and then various roads down into Missouri until we were approaching Farmington from the northwest rather than the northeast. I had a hunch that all those twists and turns and picturesque little towns along the way would turn what would be a 7 hour drive on the Interstate system into close to double that using the scenic route. I persuaded the S.O. that it might be better to do that route on the way home when we didn't have a cooler in the back full of frozen strawberries and Vollwerth's hot dogs. His counter argument was that nothing was likely to thaw when even the highs predicted for Missouri were hovering right around freezing, but he did eventually agree taking a new route would make more sense when we wouldn't be risking ruining the ring bologna.
Head frame and mill at Missouri Mines SHS. The site was the St. Joe Lead
 Mine and Mill. It's an impressive place. Unfortunately, they don't do
tours of the grounds, just the museum located in the old powerhouse. 

We stuck with the Interstate and did eventually get to Farmington. As predicted by the S.O., the drive was remarkably boring. After you've seen a few corn fields, you've seen them all. They're boring in the summer when they're green, and they're boring in the fall when they're brown and dead. One nice thing about crossing the Mississippi into Missouri is that suddenly the landscape stops being flat. Say what you want about Missouri, you can't accuse the state's viewscapes of being boring (with the possible exception of the drive straight across on I-70; that's always struck me as being slightly seedy and way overpopulated with adult novelty stores).

I knew more or less where the Kid was living, thanks to a number of trips down US-67 through Missouri. When she said she'd found an apartment in the Farmington area, I figured she had to be close to the car dealer with the pink elephants. Turns out the branch of the dealership I was thinking about is actually a few miles closer to St. Louis, in Bonne Terre, but I had the general area right: Missouri's lead mining district. A huge swath of the state in the Park Hills/Farmington/Desloges area is honeycombed with hundreds of miles of old mining tunnels, shafts, and stopes. The lead mines used the room and pillar method, and some of the rooms were (and probably still are) humongous. The limestone in Missouri must be pretty stable, though, because I've never heard anyone talk about a problem that's common here in the U.P.: caving ground.

Still, those mines must have contributed to one heck of a local death rate because it seemed like every time we turned a corner, there was another big cemetery. I know a lot of the miners in Missouri died young from silicosis, and I've no doubt fatal accidents caused by rock spalling from the roof of a stope were fairly common. Then when you add in the lead dust from the mill, one has to assume the local area is a significant cancer cluster as well as having more than its fair share of kids born with various birth defects and/or mental retardation. In fact, when I mentioned to a friend who lives in central Missouri that the Kid was going to be working in the mineral area, she suggested warning her to look for a place west of her duty station if she had any plans for future pregnancies. Although the St. Joe Mine and Mill closed in the early 1970s, there are still extensive waste rock and tailings dumps, which suggests there's probably still a lot of loose lead kicking around in the environment. The waste rock is supposedly sufficiently lead free that it's okay to process it into agricultural lime, but that strikes me as being one of those convenient fictions businesses and local governments tell to keep the peasants from freaking out. The Kid tells me there are old mining sites on the Mark Twain that are closed to the public due to the possibility of lead exposure; if a smelter that's been an abandoned ruin for decades is too risky for the public to go near, how safe can those mountains of waste rock be?

Hiking in St. Joe State Park
On the other hand, St. Joe State Park has many miles of ORV trails that utilize the tailings dumps from the St. Joe Mine. Would the state develop a trail system through the tailings if it wasn't safe? It's a mystery. . . I just know I have no burning desire to go tearing around on a four-wheeler when the trails are all looping around piles of waste from a lead mine.

St. Joe State Park was one of the other places we checked out. It is a lovely park with nice campgrounds and an extensive trail system. There's a paved trail for hikers and bicyclists, there are unpaved trails for mountain bikers and equestrians, and there are the ORV trails for people who don't mind breathing possible lead dust. The other trails don't go near the mine waste. The S.O. and I have applied to be VIPs in a Missouri state park in 2014; we put St. Joe down as an alternate choice if we're not able to get into the park we'd prefer. The park we'd prefer is more rural, farther away from major highways and close to Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

The other state park the Kid and I checked out was Mastodon State Historic Site. It was on the way to Kohl's so we figured what the heck -- you can see the park entrance gate from I-55 just south of Arnold so it's not very hard to find. Mastodon is an archeological and paleontological site; there's apparently an extensive bone bed with the remains of mega fauna (mastodons, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, etc.). The excavated area has been backfilled, of course, so you have to trust that the site map is accurate and you're not just standing on the concrete slab for an old station when you walk down from the museum to where the bone bed is supposedly located. The site became known for the mega fauna bones; after the bones had been sporadically excavated for decades, researchers found a Clovis point embedded in a mastodon bone. Until recently, the Clovis people were considered to be the earliest Paleo-Indians. Mastodon is interesting, but of course you can't help but wonder what all might have been found if the site's significance had been recognized before the area around it was so extensively developed. Of course, all that suburban development might be why the park was surprisingly busy for a Saturday morning in November; there were a number of families with little kids admiring the mastodon skeleton.

Eventually we decided to do the Kid a favor and get out from underfoot. For the return trip, we did do the scenic route. I could be wrong, but it's probably a bad sign when in order to get to that scenic route you end up driving due west for an hour when your final destination is located to the northeast. Remember the qualms mentioned quite a few paragraphs up? Turned out they were justified. The scenic route was over 100 miles and almost 5 hours longer. I have absolutely no doubt it would be a great drive in June or July, but southeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin really don't look like much once it gets to be after 5 p.m. in November. They're pretty much the same mile after mile: Dark.

About the only highlight of the final four hours came while we were zipping through Madison on US-151 and passed the Octopus ("Many Hands to Serve You") carwash* where many lifetimes ago I labored as a dash waxer. The Octopus was looking good. I quite frankly was amazed it was still there, considering how much has changed around it. A small digression about changing times: when my roommate and I worked at the carwash, we made minimum wage. With that minimum wage, we rented a  nice fully furnished apartment in a good neighborhood and had plenty of money to spare for the various pursuits two young and carefree women indulged in back in the 1960s: clothes shopping, movies, hitting the various nightspots (and Madison, being a college town, had a lot of them). We even bought food without worrying too much about what the total would be when we got to the checkout. We never felt like we were especially deprived or struggling from payday to payday. I doubt that the minimum wage dash waxers at Octopus today are living as well now as Noel and I did back then.

And now we're home. As expected, the snow was not nice enough to melt while were gone. If anything, it got deeper. It looks like the Farmer's Almanac might right: it's going to be a long, cold winter in the upper Midwest. Time to start planning the next road trip, one that aims South toward warmer weather.

[*Fighting the temptation to head over to YouTube and look for a video. . .]

I needed a good laugh

I have vented here before about some of the strange things authors do. Well, I stumbled across another howler last night. I was reading a murder mystery, Boundary Waters, by William Kent Krueger. It's part of a series set in the mythical Minnesota community of Aurora, a town that appears to be somewhere in the general vicinity of the real community of Ely, Minnesota (close to the top of the state and to the east of US-53 in the map provided below). The fictional town is close to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area and has, like much of northern Minnesota, become popular with tourists, especially since the local Ojibwe opened a casino. There's a lot to like about the Krueger's books: they're fast paced, well-written, and have sufficient plot twists to keep a reader guessing.

I do, however, have a quibble with the author, albeit a minor one. He is really, really lousy when it comes to thinking up names for his characters. Most of the time his efforts are just sort of clunky and unnatural feeling, but a lot of authors have similar problems. I can live with something awkward. But, please, Mr. Krueger, when you're grasping for names don't just look at a state map, spot a town name, and reverse the order. I swear that every time the victim in a cold case murder got mentioned, I started laughing. "Marais Grand." Unbelievable. Oh well, at least he didn't name her "Harbors Two" or "Bay Silver."

Boundary Waters does have a real blooper in it, but it's one of those things most people won't notice or care about. The main character's ex-wife is described as being a military brat, the daughter of a woman who was single and a captain. Well, the book is set in the late 1990s, the ex-wife is somewhere around 40, so it would be impossible for her to have a mother who was career military. Getting pregnant used to be an automatic out regardless of rank or marital status. Up until the late 1970s, women could get married and stay in, but they couldn't have kids. Krueger tosses in the supposed military background as part of fleshing out the ex-wife's backstory. It would probably bother me more if I thought the ex-wife's background was going to turn into a major plot element in the series, but given that the sample chapter of the next book implied he's killing the wife off soon -- it looks like she's going to die in a plane crash -- I figure it's irrelevant. Just another small example of no matter how much research authors do, there's always going to be something they screw up.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The new get out of jail free card?

When did being a drunk become a reason to excuse other excesses? First we've got the mayor of Toronto using being in a drunken stupor as an explanation for why he smoked crack cocaine, and now we're being treated to the sight of a Republican Congressman blaming his alcoholism for his cocaine use. When did Jack Daniels become the gateway drug for coke heads?

The Republican congressman in question, Trey Radel, is -- no surprises here -- the typical hypocrite, the usual lying weasel who claims to be a respectable family man complete with photogenic wife and toddler and who purportedly was fervently anti-drug and pro family values. Naturally, as a number of news reports made clear, Radel has supported drug testing for welfare recipients. Once again, we're seeing an example of why the first group of people we should be drug testing are the ones making the laws. Interestingly enough, one of the news readers on Headline News actually said that yesterday. Maybe if enough people say it out loud, it could happen, although I doubt that Congress will ever get serious about doing to itself what it wants done to other people.

Quite a few years ago, the S.O. wrote to our Congressman about this issue. At the time, we were represented by Bart Stupak. Mr. Stupak responded that he agreed that Congress should drug test its members and that Congress had authorized random testing in 1997. The relevant rule says the Speaker can order any member tested at any time, but of course no Speaker, either Democrat or Republican, has ever actually followed up on the authorization.

Weasels. They're all weasels.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Advantages of geezerhood

I read an article on Salon recently that made me realize (again) just how lucky my generation was. The article, "How not to make love like a porn star," described some of the perils of living in a time when porn is everywhere. Some people can watch porn and recognize it for what it is: pure fantasy. Other people apparently view porn and think they're watching a reality show. This can have some strange and depressing consequences, like young men being foolish enough to believe that what they see on the screen is what women actually want in the bedroom.

The author of the article points out some of the bizarre behavior that is common in porn, such as the man grabbing his hardened penis and beating it on the woman's body, an exercise that serves no discernible purpose (as far as this disinterested commentator can tell) other than to show the world that, yes, the male actor's dick is indeed hard enough to cut diamonds and that it is also large enough to be a serviceable substitute should someone require a baseball bat. This is the type of behavior that from a woman's perspective elicits baffled looks and exclamations of  "What the hell? Are you deranged?"

That, however, is not primarily why I say we aging baby boomers are lucky.  No, we're lucky because we geezers who are now in our 60s and 70s hit adulthood just in time to enjoy a decade or two of relatively carefree hedonism minus today's unrealistic expectations about body types and athletic abilities. There was porn, i.e., explicit photos and stag films, but when smut started going mainstream, films like "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door" featured actors who looked like ordinary human beings. Both men and women still had body hair, men did not look like they spent endless hours at the gym, and women were not expected to have identical genitalia. The word "labioplasty" was unknown.

If someone had told me 40 years ago that vaginal cosmetic surgery would someday become relatively common I wouldn't have believed it. In fact, I'm not sure I'd believe it now if I were a little less well-read. Apparently just as men are being indoctrinated by bad porn into believing they should wield their penises like wiffle bats, thanks to the pornification of society young women increasingly believe that the labia minora should never be visible, i.e., women are all supposed to have a crotch similar to that of a Barbie doll. This goes beyond bizarre -- feminists and human rights advocates are campaigning globally to end female genital mutilation in third world countries while at the same time supposedly well-educated middle class women in the United States are paying to have their genitalia mutilated. And, just like any other genital mutilation, they're experiencing the same risks: infection, loss of sensitivity, and months or years of pain. If it's barbaric when a young woman has her labia minora removed in Ethiopia for quasi-religious reasons, isn't it equally barbaric when a young woman has her labia minora trimmed because she thinks that men expect all women to look like a Mattel product? Why no feminist outrage and/or protest marches outside the cosmetic surgery clinics in Beverly Hills or Manhattan?

In short, thanks to what is aptly termed the pornification of popular culture, we have increasing numbers of men and women making themselves miserable and falling for sales pitches for "male enhancement" products or unnecessary surgery because what they see on the screen does not match up with what they're seeing in the bedroom. I am so happy I am old.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

When we pulled into the parking lot for Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site the other day, it seemed like there were a lot of cars. I was thinking, wow, pretty good visitation for a weekday in November. Turned out that initial assessment was a little off: everyone in the visitor center was either staff or a volunteer, and, going by the signatures in the guest book, the park hadn't exactly been mobbed in recent weeks. I have a hunch a fair number of the cars in the parking lot belonged to people who were jogging or walking Grant's Trail immediately adjacent to the park.
Ulysses S. Grant NHS as seen from Grant's Trail. The large yellow building is the Park headquarters and visitor center; the long brown one is a horse barn built by President Grant. It is now a museum.
If that was true, I hope at least a few of the joggers and bikers do stop by the park itself at least once. It's an interesting site. Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th president of the United States, from 1869-1877, and is a really nice example of how you never know what life is going to throw at you. In 1859 Grant probably thought his life was pretty much of a failure: he left the Army to try farming with his father-in-law, but within a few years he had washed out as a farmer and was struggling financially while working as a bill collector. Ten years later he was President of the United States. The country's bad luck -- the Civil War -- turned out to be a godsend for Grant.
Ulysses S. Grant NHS is a fairly new site within the National Park system. George H. W. Bush signed the enabling legislation for the park in 1989; formal establishment occurred the following year. At the time, the property had been out of the Grant family for over 100 years. It is moderately amazing that the house and a number of original outbuildings survived, although all required extensive rehabilitation. The masonry building shown to the left in the photo above, for example, housed the summer kitchen and laundry. At one point one long exterior wall had been demolished along with the interior wall separating the two halves and the building used as a garage. NPS reconstructed the building to bring it back to its original appearance so visitors today see the building the way it would have looked in the 1850s.
Wall exposed to show construction details.  
The slightly less than 10 acres that today comprise the historic site are all that's left of what once was an 850 farm belonging to Julia Dent Grant's family. The Dents purchased the land in 1820, and it's where Grant met his wife, Julia Dent. Grant and Julia's brother Frederic had been West Point classmates. After Grant was assigned to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, he visited the Dent farm frequently. After a long engagement, Julia and Grant married in 1848. According to the interpretive material at the park, both families opposed the marriage. Julia's father was unhappy about Grant being in the military; he knew promotions were slow and the life of an officer's wife meant moving from garrison to garrison. Grant's father was opposed because the Dents were slave owners and Hiram Grant was an abolitionist. Grant's parents refused to attend the wedding because the Dents owned slaves.

Slavery is in fact one of the major interpretive themes at the park. The issue of slavery was a source of tension between Grant and the Dents, although Grant did acquiesce in its use while he was living in Missouri. The Dents relied on slave labor to operate their farm, and Julia Dent Grant's memoirs and other records do mention various slaves by name. The interpretive signage does a good job of contrasting the lives of the Dents' slaves with the lives of the Dents themselves. I had some quibbles about some of it -- at times it felt like they were laying it on a little too thick, like when the interpretive material asserted that the slaves working in the kitchen didn't get to eat until after the owners had been served and then they got what were basically table scraps. Pshaw. I've worked in restaurants. I also had a brief adventure as a paid domestic servant. Anyone that thinks that kitchen staff, whether they're doing it because they're forced to through slavery or they're working for wages, is going to wait to eat breakfast until after the master is served is living in a fantasy world. Yes, slavery sucked. In fact, it sucked enough that there's no reason to indulge in exaggeration. The bare facts are bad enough.

The horse barn at the farm, which Grant built, has been renovated to serve as a small museum. Part of the building is configured as it would have been as a barn with a box stall for a horse and a carriage and farm wagon on display. The remainder of the building is more typical museum with exhibits on the Civil War, the Grant family, and other topics. I'll confess I didn't see much of the museum. I had mentioned to the park guide that I had worked in the Midwest Region Office in Omaha; after we finished our tour of the house, she must have mentioned that to an architect working at the park that I sort of knew. He came into the museum and we had a good time talking shop while the S.O. and the younger daughter wandered around being tourists.

I liked Grant; we'll probably go there again. I'd like to see it during a different season, and I'd also like to take a closer look at the museum exhibits. If you're going to be in the St. Louis area, seek out the park. It's worth visiting.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thoughts while traveling

When the coffee urns in the breakfast area of a motel are labeled Regular, Regular, and Double Strength, odds are the parking lot provides plenty of space for semis.

Okay, so that's only one thought, but who's counting?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Latest quilting project

A week or so ago Yellowdog Granny mentioned she would really like to make sure some nursing home residents had a decent Christmas. They had been living at West Rest Haven in West, Texas, and had their lives thoroughly disrupted when the fertilizer plant there blew up in April of this year. The nursing home was destroyed: windows blown out, ceilings collapsed. Amazingly, no one at Rest Haven was killed.

My first thought was to take the easy route: the next time we went to Marquette we'd stop at the Tourist Trap in Ishpeming and pick up something uniquely Yooper to send. But that seemed too easy, too facile. I've been to West, it's a nice little city, and shopping seemed a little too mindless. These old people went through an unbelievably traumatic experience, and it seemed like if I was going to do anything for them I should put a little effort into it. Then it hit me: the fabric stash. I've worked in nursing homes. I know one thing that residents can always use: lap robes. Making lap robes is like making crib quilts -- they're even the same size.

I've mentioned the fabric stash before. Thanks to my aunt Thelma's love of fabric sales, I'm never going to run out of yard goods. The stash includes everything from what appears to be an entire bolt of some fabrics to remnants of a yard or less. The one thing most of the fabrics have in common is they're prints that would have been popular in the 1950s, '60s, and maybe early '70s. There was also some odd stuff, like a stack of upholstery fabric samples. It's always kind of a challenge figuring out just what to do with some of it.

Well, the upholstery samples went into this one. I had been trying for a long time to figure out what to do with them (I'm too much of a fabric hoarder to ever throw anything away) because there weren't enough for anything big, but they weren't appropriate for the typical small quilts I make, which are almost always crib quilts. Combined with the corduroy sashing, the end result is a nicely masculine lap robe.

This little project barely made a dent in the fabric stash, so maybe over the winter I'll make a few more lap robes to donate locally. After all, they do say charity begins at home.

If anyone's interested in the technical details, the lap quilts consist of the usual front, back, and a batting. They were machine pieced and assembled without a binding: front and back were placed right sides together, the batting laid on top, and the quilt sandwich sewn on three sides and then turned right side out. They were ticked using crewel yarn and then the remaining open end was sewn shut. Here's what they look like on the flip side:

And, yes, we really do have that much snow (about six inches) on the ground now. I don't think it's going anywhere until maybe next May.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lake Effect and Its Consequences

The S.O. and I have been planning a short trip out of town for some time. The Younger Daughter has relocated to Missouri, we're curious about her new digs and her new duty station, and we have a couple pieces of furniture she's said she'd like to have. The Plan called for us to load up the truck and hit the road several days ago. So what's the snag? Lake effect snow. The damn stuff won't stop falling. We can't leave until we've got our new carport kit completely assembled and the boats parked under it, but that lake effect snow is turning what should have been a fast and easy project into one that's taking forever to complete.

The carport is one of those adult tinker toy sets, a VersaTube "pre-engineered DIY building with slip-fit connections." We got the frame up on Tuesday afternoon in less than an hour. It really did work as neatly as the advertisements all claim. Then came the fun part: the roofing. We picked up the sheet metal on Wednesday. It was snowing, but the forecast claimed things would be better the following day. Pshaw. It was snowing on Thursday, too. Still, we managed to get about half the metal up before it started getting too dark to see what we were doing. We were sure we'd be able to finish it on Friday. Again, pshaw. There was a break in the snow -- we actually got to see some blue sky for awhile -- but we got only two pieces of roofing up. It is positively amazing just how many screws one piece of 14' x 39" sheet metal requires to hold it in place and just how time consuming it can be to put those screws in when you have to keep repositioning ladders. So we tried again yesterday. One piece in place and the batteries on the drills went dead. They drain fast when it's cold outside. Of course, considering that precipitation at the time consisted of a nasty mix of rain and snow, we weren't moving real fast anyway. It's easy to walk away from a project when you're feeling frozen and half drowned.

So now we've got three pieces left to go and theoretically we're done. Sort of. The S.O. will still have to move the Crestliner, which is going to be a real joy to do when the snow is now about 8 inches deep and super slushy, and then we'll tarp the sides of the carport. Maybe I should tell the kid to buy a turkey because at the rate we're progressing, it's going to be Thanksgiving before we get there.

You know, this is one of those projects that would have taken the S.O. and I maybe half a day to complete thirty years ago. It's truly depressing how much slower everything goes once a person achieves geezerhood.