Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Retro garment for one of the grandkids

I managed to shake off the blahs enough to wander up to the Woman Cave and do some sewing this afternoon. I finished a project that used some of the fabric from the Thelma Stash, a flannel print that would cause most adults to recoil in horror but can manage to look cute (sort of) when used for an old-fashioned nightgown for a 4-year-old.

I still haven't figured out a pattern for the next quilt. I keep feeling the urge to start cutting pieces, but cutting pieces is hard to do when I have no idea yet as to what size, shape, or how many I'll need.  It'll come to me -- right now I'm thinking vaguely of doing something involving chevrons.

Mid-winter blahs

I seem to have a pretty good case of the mid-winter blahs. No energy, no ambition. Not exactly seasonally affected depression but kind of skirting the edges. I'm spending way too much time doing not much of anything other than staring at the computer monitor and playing mindless games. It's a good thing we're past the solstice or I'd be getting even less done than I am now. My energy levels always start to climb as the hours of daylight increase and we start seeing some sunlight. Theoretically, we'll start seeing sunlight soon.

December's always a really dark month here. Even when there isn't much snow falling the sky tends to be overcast. You know that Christmas full moon that kept getting mentioned in cyberspace? We didn't see it. We saw clouds. We see clouds a lot. It's overcast today, it was overcast yesterday, it's going to be overcast for the indefinite future. There are no bright sunny days showing on the 10-day forecast, just a whole lot of clouds and possible snow showers. There's nothing quite like a constantly gray sky to put a person into a constantly gray mood.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pulitzer Project: The Edge of Sadness

Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness is a book that I would probably never have picked up if I wasn't doing the Pulitzer Project. It's the 1962 fiction winner. The book covers less than a year in a middle-aged Catholic priest's life and consists of his thoughts and reminiscences about his life and what's going on around him. If I had been told in advance that the book described a man's descent into alcoholism, his physical recovery, and his spiritual re-awakening I'd probably have been trying to find excuses for skipping over it. As it was, I ordered The Edge of Sadness through interlibrary loan so didn't even have a chance to flip through it at the library before checking it out. With some books, I'm curious enough to do some advance research, but not this time. I went into it cold, a totally naive reader. No preconceptions, no idea what I was about to get into. All I knew was that it was the next book on the list.

I loved the book. It was amazing. I got sucked right into it. Whoever Edwin O'Connor was, he could write.This was one of those rare happy occasions where I went in with low expectations -- some of the Pulitzer winners have been, to put it mildly, total dreck -- and was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the basic narrative thread of the book doesn't sound particularly attractive (drunk priest flames out, goes through rehab, ends up assigned to a dead end inner city parish, experiences epiphany, and realizes he's actually in a good place), but O'Connor does the impossible: takes what could be a totally grim story and infuses it with enough humor to give it multiple laugh out loud minutes. Whether it's Father Hugh's own observations or the acerbic comments of other characters, O'Connor manages to drop enough witticisms into the book to take the edge off what could otherwise be a rather depressing story.

At one point, for example, an elderly character is on what might be his deathbed. He's had a massive coronary, he's requested that a priest be called in to perform Extreme Unction (aka "last rites"), and the man's adult children are sure the end is near. One of the man's cronies isn't convinced, despite the presence of the priest. After all, the octogenarian points out, Charlie's sister Julia isn't present. Why does that matter? Because Julia is better than a buzzard at sniffing out when someone is dying. He compares her to a vulture than can spot someone about to expire from, as he puts it, "a thousand miles away." No Julia, no imminent death. Sure enough, Charlie survives.

Eighty-one year old Charlie Carmody is actually at the heart of the book. He's introduced in the first chapter, when Father Hugh is surprised to receive a late evening phone call from the old man, and he's present in the last. Father Hugh has known Charlie since childhood; Charlie and his father were boys together. Through his father's stories and his personal observations of the old man, Father Hugh knows that Charlie is the master of the suck and stab as well as being a skilled manipulator and remarkably adept at always coming out on top. With Charlie there are no casual conversations, no idle social chitchat, so when Charlie calls, Father Hugh's first thought is to wonder just exactly what the old man wants. Charlie doesn't live in Father Hugh's parish, and although Father Hugh was a friend of the family, he hadn't spoken with any of the Carmodys for over five years. He also knows that Charlie enjoys playing a long game, taking his time getting to wherever it is he's going, so when Charlie tells him the reason he's calling is to invite Father Hugh to his 82nd birthday party, Hugh recognizes that the party invitation isn't the end of the game -- it's the beginning.

Over the next few months, Father Hugh becomes re-acquainted with the Carmodys -- Charlie, the patriarch of the family, his sister Julia, the three Carmody children (John, Dan, and Mary), the grandson, Ted, and two of Charlie's elderly cronies, P. J. and Bucky. P. J. and Bucky are the Statler and Waldorf of this tale. They provide a sardonic running commentary while throwing out occasional digs at Charlie or the world in general. We're also introduced to a few characters at Father Hugh's church, St. Paul's. There's the amiable but generally useless custodian, Roy, who shows up to work when and if he feels like it, the housekeeper and cook, who doesn't have a speaking role but makes sure Father Hugh isn't forced to do his own cooking, and a young curate whose enthusiasm and innocence can be exhausting. At times On the Edge of Sadness came so close to resembling either "Father Ted" or "Rev" that I found myself wondering if the developers of those shows had ever read this book. Probably not. The fact that St. Paul's bears a strong resemblance to St. Saviour's in the Marshes was pure coincidence; every city has a church similar to it -- the parish that time has passed by, the dwindling congregation, the changing neighborhood -- and I'm sure most dioceses possess a bishop who's a strong off-stage presence but is rarely actually seen in the poorer parishes.

As the book progresses, the reader learns what brought Father Hugh to "old St. Paul's," a church that has definitely seen better days. The rectory is large enough to house half a dozen priests, which the parish did need in the past, but when Father Hugh arrives, it's just him. He does acquire a curate, but the rectory is still much too large for just the two of them. The church itself is run-down. It isn't in desperate need of repairs, but it's shabby. As the bishop explains, the diocese has no plans to close the church, it still serves a need, but the money isn't there to do more than do the repairs needed to keep the place standing. Father Hugh arrives thinking of St. Paul's as a place he's got to pass through before he can go back to a "good" parish, a parish like the one he'd been pastor of before drinking himself into oblivion five years earlier. He'd done his time in rehab, he'd been rebuilding his life by filling in at various churches out West when a parish needed a priest for a short time, and now he was going to kill time at St. Paul's until the bishop realized he really was clean and sober and assigned him someplace better. He's going through the motions but not actually engaging with the congregation or doing what a pastor is supposed to do.

Eventually, of course, it does sink in that he's coasting. He never lost his faith, but he hasn't been living it. He has the requisite spiritual re-awakening, and life goes on. 

I was surprised I liked this book as much as I did. It was fun to read despite the occasional digressions by Father Hugh into expressions of faith or talking about how he'd never lost his belief in the church. On the other hand, I guess it's easier to read a book about a priest who actually believes than it would have been to read a book that went the other way, i.e., chronicled a priest who lost his faith. As for where I'd rank this book, I'd put it over on the high end of the scale. O'Connor could write, the book flows, it holds the reader's interest, and it left me feeling glad I'd read it.

As for just exactly what Charlie Carmody wanted, if you really want to know, you'll have to read the book yourself.

Next up, The Reivers by William Faulkner. Amazingly enough, according to the online catalog the L'Anse Public Library actually has it on the shelves. So now the question is do I jump right into it (i.e., pick it up when I'm at the library later today) or take the usual several week break between the most recent Pulitzer winner and the next one.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Student loans and a stagnant economy

For some reason, there were a lot of student loan memes kicking around on Facebook the other day. There are supposed to be areas in the oceans where conglomerations of trash mysteriously appear, places where things will drift to from thousands of miles away until they all end up in the same place. Maybe there's a similar phenomenon in cyberspace -- zillions of memes drifting apparently randomly but all ultimately popping up at about the same time as the result of various algorithms deciding a person really wants to see meme after meme similar to the one to the right. You click like for one and the next thing you know you're seeing dozens of memes telling you that the only friend for life that you're going to meet in college is named Sallie Mae or showing you pictures of wizened old men grinning because they finally made their last student loan payments or. . . well, you get the idea. Take out a student loan and you're going to be dragging that debt around forever.

Student loans are an interesting category of debt. It's one of the few debts that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Doesn't matter how dire your circumstances, you can't get out from under the burden of that debt. Ever. If you can't pay, you'll go to your grave still owing money to the lender. And then they'll try dunning your heirs for the balance. In some cases I've read about, survivors have been dunned because they co-signed the loans, making the debt collection legal if not in particularly good taste, but in others? If the student was the sole signatory on the loan, when he or she dies, the lender can make a claim against the estate, but, let's face it, if someone dies still owing student loan debts the odds are the "estate" has no assets. Ergo, the debt should die, too.

But that's kind of a long digression from what I was actually thinking about. I've been wondering for quite a while now just how much of a drag on the economy all the student loan debt is responsible for. You know, the cost of college keeps climbing so students are taking out bigger and bigger loans. They're graduating with loan balances that will result in monthly payments that make car loans and mortgages look trifling in comparison. And then they look around and realize that in many cases the only jobs they can find are ones that (a) pay just above minimum wage and (b) have absolutely nothing to do with what they went to school for. Or, even worse, they figure out that in order to do what they really want to do, the 4-year degree they just went into massive debt to obtain isn't good enough. They have to earn a Master's. So they sign up for another two years of indebtedness.

And, yes, I know no one is twisting people's arms and forcing them to take out loans, but higher education in this country has reached an interesting point. It's become so massively expensive that if you want to get a college education, it's hard not to graduate without some debt. Oh, it's doable. One option is to enlist in the military, serve the required period of time, and then use veterans' benefits to pay for college. Another is shop around and find a school you can come closer to affording than attending a high dollar one. Figure out a way to be a commuter student, i.e., live at home with your parents so you're not stuck with dorm fees and meal plans (not as easy to do as one might think, incidentally, many universities have a requirement that freshmen live on campus and it can be hard to get a waiver).  The trouble is many of the students taking out the loans are, to put it kindly, young and naive, and their parents can be almost as bad. Too many of them view the options noted above as "last resort" rather than as first choices. If you're a reasonably bright student and you've spent most of your high school years (or maybe even earlier) with both you and your parents fantasizing about you attending (to use an Atlanta example) Spellman or Morehouse you're not going to be real happy about hearing a suggestion you go to Georgia State University or, even worse, do a year or two at Perimeter College instead. Given a choice, even a hideously expensive choice, you and your parents are going to opt for Spellman. Besides, you and the parents are thinking, once you've got the degree from the elite school, paying off the loans will be no trouble at all.

So let's say that the typical student does actually manage to find a steady job once he or she graduates. What then? We hear a lot about the rising default rate for student loans, but what about the unintended consequences of people who are making their payments? How could that possibly be a problem? It is. Think about it. If you're making monthly loan payments of many hundreds of dollars, that's money that isn't going into the economy. You're not buying a car, you're not buying a house, you're not hitting the shopping malls for the fun of it. You're scraping by, probably sharing a rental of some sort instead of being able to live on your own. At a time when you should be celebrating becoming an independent, gainfully employed person by replacing your POS used car with something new, you're actually wondering if you should give up the car and start biking to work because a bike doesn't require insurance. You're shopping at Goodwill instead of Nordstrom. And that's your life for the next 10 or 20 or 30 years. You're not helping to grow the economy by being a good consumer; you're just barely scraping by while servicing a debt.

Granted, servicing a debt isn't quite a negative -- it's not like you're actively sucking money or jobs out of the economy. Banks employ people. Somewhere someone gets to verify the data when you make a payment, someone hits an occasional key to keep everything running smoothly, and someone gets to man the phone banks that make the calls reminding people they're drifting into default. But the multiplier effect of a dollar sent to Sallie Mae for a loan you took out ten years ago has to be a lot smaller than the multiplier effect of you being able to buy a new car now. End result? If not a drain on the economy, at least a drag.

Whenever the subject of student loans comes up, without fail someone who attended college 30 or 40 years ago will mention that he or she didn't have to go into debt way back when. This is quite true. I personally had the experience of attending the University of Wisconsin back in the 1960s. I dropped out pretty quickly because I had no idea what I actually wanted to do with my life back then (I still don't, come to think of it), but I do recall that between the scholarships and a work study job (10 hours a week in the Student Activities Office) I had enough money to pay for tuition, books, and room and board -- and that work study job meant I had money coming in every two weeks. By the time the Younger Daughter went off to college in the 1990s, that was no longer true. No-strings-attached financial aid packages shrank, tuition climbed, expenses in general were higher. Loans were becoming a fact of life, and it's gotten worse since then.

Then toss in creeping credentialism (jobs that you could get 20 or 30 years ago with just a high school diploma now require a college degree) and you've set up a situation where student loan indebtedness is inevitable. Kids get told that if they don't go to college, they'll end up working at McDonald's. So they go to college, acquire massive debt, and then discover that they're still going to end up working at McDonald's (or the equivalent) because the part of the economy that's growing is the service sector. . . and unless you're a nurse or a plumber, service sector jobs don't pay much. I cheerfully predict that the student loan default rate is going to continue to rise because I don't see any way that it can't. More and more debtors have decided to just say, screw it, I'll default and learn to live with the specter of collection agencies garnishing my wages.* The New York Times ran an op-ed piece not long ago from a person who's made a conscious decision to default. I wonder how many other people are now planning to do the same thing? After all, what's the worst that can happen? They repossess the degree that hasn't helped you find a job?

*Waiting for garnishment can sometimes ease the burden. There are legal caps on the percentage of a person's wages that can be taken through garnishment, and those caps can result in having much lower monthly payments than trying to work directly with the lender. You can also petition the court for hardship relief where you make a fairly small payment as a token of good faith. Judges can be a lot more understanding than collection agencies. End result may be that  the loan never gets paid off, but at least you've now got a payment you can live with.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

What's with all the flavored booze?

The S.O. and I are not particularly into alcohol. We both went through the party hard stage in our misspent youth but never did get into hard liquor much. Oh, there were a few years where I had a strange liking for metaxa but at some point when the bottle I had ran out it never got replaced. Ditto whatever rum or vodka happened to be in the house. At the moment our liquor cabinet, such as it is, holds two bottles: a decanter of Kentucky bourbon that is a zillion years old but still at least 1/4 full and a bottle of cheap tequila. The only time the caps come off either is when a recipe calls for one of them as an ingredient. The Old Fitzgerald gets made into sauce to go with bread pudding; the tequila is used in a grilled chicken recipe. I don't think either of them has ever been consumed as actual booze.

In short, we don't go wandering the aisles in the liquor section of the supermarket very much. We have no reason to. We have, however, noticed a strange trend: flavoring stuff that never used to be flavored. I think it started with vodka, which kind of mystified me. Why buy flavored liquor when the whole point of doing mixed drinks is to mix booze with something like orange juice? And, given all the concerns about people abusing alcohol, why add flavors that would serve only to encourage people to do straight shots? But, okay, I get it. Vodka tastes a lot like kerosene so flavoring might persuade some consumers that the crap was actually drinkable after all.

And then last night the S.O. and I saw an ad that just totally baffled us. Crown Royal Regal Apple. Why on earth would distillers of a premium whiskey feel the need to introduce a flavored product? Have younger consumers gotten so used to everything they drink being loaded with sugar and artificial flavoring? Does everything have to taste like a soft drink? And then there was the Guinness ad. . . that was really strange. I'm still not sure if it was pushing beer flavored whiskey or whiskey flavored beer, but in any case it was odd. Do they think people have become too lazy (or cheap) to drink a boilermaker the old-fashioned way? There is hop-flavored whiskey being sold by a number of distilleries, so maybe boilermakers really have become passe.

Personally, I'm thinking that maybe the flavoring is a distillery's way of getting rid of the stuff that for whatever reason didn't turn out to be as good as it was supposed to be. You know, the swill that failed the quality control tests so really shouldn't be sold at all except maybe as paint remover. But what the heck -- if it's not good enough to sell straight, then dump a lot of spices and artificial flavors in, give it a nifty name, and gullible consumers will buy it. But then I tend to be cynical about marketing in general because all marketing is intended to separate gullible consumers from their money.

I will refrain from speculating too much about a possible relationships between the existence of peach-flavored whiskey (a real thing, unfortunately) and the End Times. It does, however, strike me as being just the sort of abomination that could bring on the Apocalypse. . .

Monday, December 21, 2015

I'm not a climatologist

but I do recognize when the weather is strange. We've been waiting for Winter to get here since early November. It's apparently still lost, because even though we've had some freezing temperatures (mostly at night) and there is snow on the ground, we seem to be stuck in what for us is more like early Fall.  I wish I had had a better camera with me yesterday because what you're seeing to the right are a couple guys fishing on Keweenaw Bay in a boat in December. What would be normal weather for this area in December would be for there to be so much snow and ice on the ground that even if the Bay was still open, no one would be able to launch a boat. There'd be snowbanks in the way. Not this year. The ground in L'Anse and Baraga is bare; there were several tow vehicles and trailers parked at the boat ramp in Baraga yesterday.

The thing that annoys me the most about the abnormally warm weather is listening to the weather forecast day after day and hearing the phrase "freezing drizzle." There's nothing quite like hearing over and over that it's possible that when you step outside in the morning that the car is going to encased in ice or that the roads are going to be skating rinks to make a person start thinking that being a snowbird isn't such a bad idea after all.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Random thoughts while waiting for the bedroom to cool down

The S.O. did too good a job of firing up the woodstove today. Even though we started letting the fire die down well in advance of our usual time for retiring for the evening, it's still warm enough up in the bedroom that I can't sleep. So here I am, thinking random thoughts while killing time for an hour or two.

Random Thought One: Why can't I find a decent book on Ojibwe history? I've got two things going on -- a grant application to write and an exhibit to update -- where a recent history would be really nice to consult. Surely there must be something more recent than William Warren's History of the Ojibway People. Granted, it's considered a classic, but it would be really nice to find something that wasn't based on stories the author's relatives told. So am I using the wrong search terms when I'm checking WorldCat, Library of Congress, Amazon, and other sites or have the Ojibwe really been that thoroughly overlooked by both academics and folks who write history for a lay audience? They're the 4th largest Native American tribe in the country -- why has everyone ignored them?

There are, incidentally, a fair number of memoirs, books written from the perspective of one person, but what I want is a general history.

Random Thought Two: Do we really want to do the campground host thing again? It hit me as I was lying there awake, sweating and giving serious thought to opening a window (a move I'd regret come morning when it's only 12 degrees outside right now), that we hadn't submitted our volunteer application to the Missouri State Parks yet. Last year I think I did the 2015 application within a week or two of getting home in November. If I keep procrastinating, we'll be SOL. . . but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Maybe I'll have it figured out by New Year's.

Random Thought Three: I'm still missing my cat even if I'm not missing the cat hair and dander. The area around my desk is actually staying clean after I sweep, no drifts of cat hair large enough to construct another cat from, no cat dander to gross me out. Cleo had the worst case of dandruff I've ever seen on any animal; super dry flaky skin is apparently one of the side effects of diabetes in cats. (Note to any cat owners out there: if your cat starts resembling a walking snow storm, get the beast's blood sugar levels checked.) Still, every time I crawl into bed I'm missing having that large furry lump purring by my feet.

Random Thought Four: The Apocalypse may be near. Christmas is 6 days away and I am done with shopping and/or frantically crafting (knitting, quilting, whatever). I still have two cards to mail, but that's it. I've never been done this early before. I'm the person who's usually in the store late in the day on Christmas Eve. Heck, there was one year when I did my Christmas shopping on December 26 (I figured the kid was so young she wouldn't notice). It feels very, very strange. I keep thinking there's more to do and then realizing there isn't. Spooky, very spooky.

On the other hand, it doesn't pay to get stuff done too early. I was looking in a drawer for something else when I found a toy we'd bought many months ago intending to give it to the younger great granddaughter for either her birthday or Christmas. Totally forgot about it and purchased several other things a couple weeks ago. The kid is going to make out like a little bandit this year, which is kind of a shame because she's still so young (just turned one) that she won't really appreciate all that loot.

Random Thought Five: Maybe next year I'll follow through on my threat to make one of the grandkids a bunny suit (as in the bunny suit seen in A Christmas Story). Or maybe just order one in the appropriate size. The grandsons wouldn't appreciate one, but either of the little girls would look cute in it.

Random Thought Six: It finally got cold enough that they can flood the broomball rinks at Michigan Tech. Now it just has to stay cold enough that once the rinks are flooded and frozen they stay that way. Why I'm thinking about broomball at all is kind of a mystery; even in my Tech days I didn't play it. The closest I came to ice was figure skating on my lunch breaks when I was a temporary secretary in the Athletic Department, although a couple of the other women working there did try to talk me into joining their hockey team. I was a lot younger and fitter then; I was actually tempted. Anyway, maybe I'm thinking about broomball because we drove by the forlorn looking rinks the other day.

In any case, we've had Real Winter for two days now, which gives a person hope that maybe there won't be much more driving on slush down the luge run to town.

And now I think I'll go see if the bedroom has cooled down to the point where it no longer resembles a sauna.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sadistic sociopaths in blue

SPLC Report, the newsletter from the Southern Poverty Law Center, was in the mail the other day. One of the items in it was a report on a lawsuit filed against the City of Birmingham Police Department to stop the routine use of pepper spray on high school students. Like a lot of school districts these days, the Birmingham public schools use regular law enforcement officers for security. It turned out those highly trained professional men (and, one assumes, women) were routinely using pepper spray on adolescents who engaged in normal adolescent behavior, i.e., getting a little mouthy ("back talk"). Or worse.

One of the incidents mentioned in the courtroom involved a teenage girl who was having a bad day. The Birmingham PD made it a lot worse. The kid had been harassed by a boy who had made "inappropriate sexual remarks" and had managed to reduce her to tears. She was walking down the hall crying when a cop on duty in the school saw her crying. He told her to stop. She didn't. So he pepper sprayed her and slapped some handcuffs on her. Holy fuck. What type of sociopath pepper sprays a child who's crying?! The normal, human response when you see a young person is upset is to ask what's wrong, do the comforting little speech about how things are going to get better, maybe offer that person a tissue. . . you don't pepper spray the child. When did crying become threatening behavior? (The normal human response is to offer a tissue; the cop response should have been to ask what was wrong, and if she reported harassment or bullying the cop should have gone looking for the boy involved instead of assaulting the girl.)

In any case, it turned out that over a period of several years the police had used pepper spray on students 110 times.  None involved an incident so serious it led to criminal charges against the students. In short, the pepper spray was not used to break up fights or to stop students who were threatening faculty or other students. In the incidents where pepper spray was used, 300 students were directly exposed (i.e., targeted) and over 1,000 were indirectly exposed. In no case did the police attempt any decontamination afterwards; the students were left to cope with the after effects of pepper spray on their own.

I read elsewhere recently that the state of Colorado is going to require that all applicants for law enforcement jobs undergo psychological screening before they can be hired. Isn't there a screening process now? Or is it a case of if you manage to pass a 2-year criminal justice course at a local community college you're in? A zillion years ago it was as simple as just passing a basic literacy test and a physical exam; now there's more education required before a LEO can be commissioned, various certification hoops that must be jumped through. But just how are applicants screened? I know the process is fairly rigorous (at least the training part is) for people who want to do law enforcement for federal agencies like the National Park Service. Prospective LEOs get sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. But before they get there, just like with any other applicant for a federal job, there's going to be a background check that will (theoretically) eliminate pathological liars. I'm not sure what the training itself involves, but every Park Service or Forest Service LEO I've ever met was a thorough professional as well as a decent human being -- but maybe just wanting to work for agencies like NPS or the Forest Service tends to self select for Not a Sociopath. Local law enforcement, on the other hand . . . sometimes you really have to wonder if some of those guys got their jobs simply because no one else applied.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reducing my online footprint

I am giving serious thought to backing away from the Intertubes, at least a little. I'm actually thinking about closing one of my email accounts. I've had it forever, which could be why it attracts spam the way chum draws in sharks. I checked it this morning: close to 50 messages, none of which are personal. It's all crap from various interest groups and retailers. I tried unsubscribing from some of the political groups, but it didn't help. The useless emails keep coming. It took me a little too long to learn to never give my email when a store clerk requests it. The occasional coupons received are feeble compensation for the deluge of advertising for current sales -- why on earth, for example, does Office Depot feel the need to tell me three times in the same day that paper is on sale? So maybe the thing to do is just get rid of that account.

Although it probably wouldn't help for long. Sooner or later I'd sign up for announcements or news on a different account and the same thing would happen all over again.

I do think, though, that I'm going to close out my LinkedIn account. It makes no sense to have it now that I'm retired. And for sure I really don't care when former co-workers add new contacts or when other Michigan Tech alumni get a discussion going about almost anything. It doesn't matter what the topic is, sooner or later the thread will be hijacked by a bitter white male. MTU has more than its fair share of misogynistic and/or racists asshats who are sure their own careers are being stifled by political correctness promoting women and minorities ahead of them. There lots and lots of bitter engineers out there who thought they'd be running General Motors by the time they were 40 and instead they're stuck making incremental improvements to widgets at a company no one's ever heard of. So it's probably past time to back away from LinkedIn. And once it's gone, a tiny percentage of the crap that had been showing up in the in box for one email account will be gone, too. It's a start.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Can I avoid listening?

I'm a little wary when it comes to turning on the radio this morning. The Republicans held a debate last night. We avoided listening to any of it, which was pretty easy to do when we have to stream television. The more hassle that's involved in connecting to something, the stronger our desire to watch it has to be. We have zero desire to ever see Ted Cruz or Donald Trump in anything longer than a 2-second sound bite (and 2 seconds is pushing our tolerance levels even when it's on "The Nightly Show") so everything we know about the debate will be secondhand.

One part of that secondhand will be, unfortunately, the local NPR station. I'm not quite sure just what's happened in terms of the quality of their news writers and readers, but, holy wah, the stupid has been running deep with the current line-up. "Morning Edition" has morphed into an audio version of the "Today" show. Lots of breathless fawning over celebrities, hyping of various musicians' latest albums, and just a general vacuousness where it used to be possible to catch an occasional hint of actual news. I'm leaning more and more towards tuning in the local classic rock station. Granted, I'll get to listen to the same Tom Petty song 3 or 4 times in less than two hours, but at least when they break in with news or comments, it's not as likely to have me yelling "How fracking stupid are you?!" at the radio. After all, it's pretty hard to have a banging-head-on-keyboard moment when the morning deejay is hyping the meat special at Pat's IGA or announcing the date and time for a local high school Christmas program.

I've never understood why there are right-wing tinfoil hat types out there who are convinced NPR is part of the liberal media. There are no mainstream liberal media, not on radio, not on television, and not much in print. There are small pockets of liberal media -- in Atlanta we were lucky enough to be able to listen to Radio Free Georgia, for example, and you can hear Thom Hartmann, Stephanie Miller, and a number of other progressives on Sirius XM -- but in general the news media are pretty far to the right, and that includes almost everything on NPR. And that shouldn't be a surprise. After all, they're as dependent on corporate funding as every other media outlet. They're not going to rock the boat and chase away the money from major corporations and the big foundations.

On the other hand, would it really be rocking the boat that much to occasionally point out that Ted Cruz is both flat out crazy and one lying son of a bitch instead of just breathlessly gushing about his poll numbers going up? 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

More proof people are idiots

The Texas plumber whose used truck wound up in video footage of Daesh (aka ISIS) fighters in the Middle East is suing the car dealership that took it as a trade. Apparently the man has been receiving death threats and his business has suffered since the video appeared on the final episode of "The Colbert Report" earlier this year.

And why has he been receiving death threats? Because some people are such idiots they believe the guy gave his truck directly to Daesh. You got it -- there are dim bulbs out there who apparently think that a small businessman in the Houston area could just drive directly to northern Syria and hand the terrorists the keys to his used work truck. The stupid, it burns.

What actually happened, of course, is the dealership sent the truck to an auto auction where it became part of a group of used cars and trucks shipped to Turkey. From Turkey, which appears to have a pretty wide open borders trading agreement with Daesh, the truck made its way into Syria. The thing I'm curious about is whether or not the seller in Turkey did the custom work of mounting that anti-aircraft gun in the box of the pickup or if Daesh does that type of thing in-house. And is it permanently fixed in place or can it be slid in and out fairly quickly?

As for the truck itself. . . .look at it. Not a speck of rust anywhere. It obviously had high enough miles and/or enough years on it that the plumber figured its useful days were over for him, but, wow, it's in good shape compared to trucks of a similar vintage here in the U.P.

Monday, December 14, 2015

I don't think Don Draper came up with this one

I was listening to the Thom Hartmann radio show as I was coming home from running a few errands earlier today and heard one of the oddest ads that's slithered past my ear drums in a long time. It was a pitch for life insurance.

The target audience was supposedly older men. It said, in essence, hey, dude, look at you with your three ex-wives and now Trophy Wife Number 4 is getting on your case about life insurance. She says you need more. So have we got a deal for you -- we can help you afford that million dollar policy she'd like your ass covered for. What the. . . ? What brilliant marketing genius came up with this one?

Maybe it's just me, but if I were a 60-something dude with a hot young babe of a trophy wife and that hot young wife was nagging me about upping my life insurance coverage, I'd get a tad nervous. I wouldn't be thinking, yes, I must make sure she's well compensated if I happen to take a dirt nap. Au contraire, I'd start wondering if she had something going on with the pool boy and taking a closer look at salads containing fresh mushrooms.

Besides, by the time you get to Wife Number 4 if you've got any money at all (and surely you do have money if you're a geezer but have a Trophy Wife) you're familiar with the magic words "prenuptial agreement." You've looked at the statistics; you know that much younger wife is likely going to outlive you, so why on earth would you worry about whether or not she's going to get a million dollar payout when you croak?

All in all, a very strange ad -- and more proof that people working in advertising don't live on the same planet as the rest of us.

Here's an idea for Squatlo

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More wildlife news

The museum has beavers. The S.O. and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather yesterday to finish installing the half-round siding on the east end of the building. Siding installation had come to a screeching halt there back in September when time and ambition ran out more or less simultaneously. We were, in fact, both so thoroughly burnt out on that siding project that a couple weeks ago I talked with a guy who does handyman type stuff, small projects most contractors don't want to mess with, about finishing the work for us. In addition to needing to do the last two rows on siding on the east end, there's also the south wall that needs another 14 sheets or so of T1-11 put up and a delaminating door on the west end of the storage building that should be replaced. Not a whole lot of work but enough to keep the guy busy for a day or two. He promised to get back to me ASAP with a price; I'm still waiting for that phone call. I told the S.O. he should look into doing odd jobs -- the guys who advertise as handymen must be doing okay if they can be as cavalier about following up on requests as the couple I've dealt with since getting involved with the museum.

Museum as seen from the southeast. Yes, I know the placement of the storage building door makes no sense. When they moved that garage, it's like they set it up backwards. The truly stupid thing is they put it at the extreme end of the concrete pad so it's just ordinary dirt and sod right in front of that door. Totally, totally illogical. Anyway, the pavilion the Baraga High School construction trades class is building for us is visible to the west of the storage building. The trusses are all up and the students should start roofing soon. 
In any case, it was decent weather and I really wanted the siding done. Finishing the siding would mean no 14-foot long pieces on the floor in the storage building that I'd have to step around every time I went in there. It would also mean we could clear out the pile of scrap pieces, all the short odds and ends that had been left over but we couldn't discard until all the siding was up. And now it's up and the odds and ends have moved to our woodshed -- I anticipate a future for them as kindling. I'm not sure if that siding is pine or spruce, but it definitely burns really easily.

Looking across the wetland/pond across the Bay to L'Anse
I am, incidentally, still feeling a bit smug about how close I came on estimating how much siding the museum would need for that job. We ran out of long pieces with two rows to go (another thing that brought the siding to a halt in September; the last 4 long pieces didn't get delivered until just before we had to leave for Missouri), and there actually wasn't much scrap left over. We filled a cardboard box or two with really short pieces (i.e., chunks under a foot long), but there weren't many that were more than 2 feet in length.

So where do beavers come into this story? After the S.O. was set up to work on the siding, I went wandering over to our wetland. There's a pocket park, a not-so-natural area between the museum grounds and Keweenaw Bay. It's a wetland that was created about 25 years ago as mitigation when a small marina went in just down the shoreline. It was planted with wetland shrubs and forbs -- speckled alder, willow, cattails, etc. -- and provides habitat for various critters. Every summer there are redwing blackbirds nesting in the area, we see occasional ducks and for sure we see geese (they do a pretty comprehensive job of fertilizing the lawn).
There's a beaver lodge starting to grow in that clump of cattails.
And now there are beaver. I had noticed some of the shrubbery was looking a little thin, that it was easier to see into the area than was the case in previous years. I put it down to higher lake levels drowning cattails. I may have been wrong. I think things are looking thinner because beavers are pruning the speckled alders. There appears to be a beaver lodge growing in the water, and there are a lot of fresh stumps. Given the ability of speckled alder to regenerate, I'm not too worried they're going to eat it all. I just hope that lodge keeps growing so it's more visible. One of these days we're doing a grant application to the Michigan DNR for money for constructing an actual short, accessible trail along the perimeter of that wetland, and it would be cool to have a beaver lodge to include in the interpretive signage.

The original application for the mitigation, the document that was filed with the U.S. Corps of Engineers and other interested parties, showed a trail completely circling the wetland. It included a pedestrian bridge over the opening from the wetland/pond to the lake. In the fine tradition of property owners everywhere -- I found myself remembering what ConAgra did to the City of Omaha a couple decades ago with their artificial lake -- the marina owner slapped a chain link fence up on that end of the wetland effectively killing any chance of a complete circle. Which is actually okay, because it means no reason to bother spending money trying to bridge the outlet; we'll plan a trail that dead-ends at a bench where one can sit and enjoy the view of the Celotex plant on the other side of the bay in L'Anse.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fears of a jihadi mail order bride? You're kidding, right?

It must be hard being a comic doing topical humor these days. It's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between parody and real life. The latest example? The "jihadi wife." There's been an incredible amount of air time being wasted on speculating whether or not the mail order bride in the San Bernadino shooting was part of a nefarious plot to ensnare American Muslim men into participating in terrorism by setting them up with radicalized wives. Government officials and various "experts" who really should know better were tossing around phrases like "This could be a game changer" and "we need to look at fiancee visas more closely."

The stupid, it burns. In one breath, they're talking about how both Sayeed and Tashfeen were expressing radical Islamic ideas online before Daesh emerged as a formal organization in Iraq and Syria. In the next, they're speculating about whether or not Tashfeen could have been part of a larger plan by groups like Daesh to lure lonely American men, some sort of "honey pot" scheme. You know, even if it was, it would have to be one of the dumbest, most inefficient schemes of all time. This is not something that should be inspiring fear. It's more like, "Are you guys shitting me? Your plan is to strike fear into the hearts of the American people by sneaking in an occasional jihadi bride? Just how much hashish have you guys been indulging in while doing your plotting?" Because let's get real -- the whole jihadi bride fantasy has so many uncontrollable factors involved that there's no way it would be worth the effort.

First, you've got to recruit the women. And, yes, it's pretty clear that there are women who would be willing to be recruited. After all, there are naive teenagers running away from home in England to hook up with Daesh in Syria and Iraq, so logically there must be women who would be willing to go in the other direction. Of course, if you're recruiting the potential brides from women who are living in Islamic nations like Pakistan, there's always the risk you're going to recruit women who will go along with the scheme not because they want to don a suicide vest when they get to the U.S. but simply because they want to get away from wherever they happen to be now. Then you've got to get them to set up reasonably attractive profiles on whatever the Islamic equivalent of Cherry Blossoms happens to be, all the while remembering you've got no control over the potential bridegrooms who may view those profiles. Toss in the "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog" factor, i.e., the possibility that the prospective bridegroom is lying his ass off to the potential bride because he's probably motivated a whole lot more by the desire to acquire a woman -- any woman! -- to share his bed than he is by any mutual interest in reading religious texts or making the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the odds of being able to get a bunch of radicalized potential terrorists placed in locations that would make sense strategically drops to effectively zero.

In short, what you're looking at is a remarkably awkward scheme. So why waste time talking about it as though it was a serious possibility? I'd guess it's because no one wants to say out loud that they don't have a clue as to what exactly led up to the shooting in San Bernadino. Speculating vaguely about convoluted plots sounds marginally better than admitting ignorance. In fact, if it wasn't for the inconvenient fact that the shooters were Muslim, San Bernadino would fit fairly comfortable into an American classic: the disgruntled worker coming back to wreak revenge on the co-workers against whom he had a grudge of some sort. Unfortunately, that particular narrative feeds the push for gun control and raises uncomfortable questions about why no one noticed the guy was disgruntled. It's actually a more uncomfortable scenario than the alternative: the long arm of Daesh reaching out to instill fear in Americans. Thus, the shooters were Muslim, we're at war with Islamist terrorists, ergo (and conveniently), the shooting had to be part of larger scheme. And if speculating about unrealistic, highly improbable plots helps it all fit into that larger narrative, then the experts will speculate away. Whether or not jihadi brides make sense is, of course, completely irrelevant.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Killer wildlife in our back yard

If you look close, you might spot one of the regulars in our yard, a varying hare (aka snowshoe rabbit, or Lepus americanus). The no-longer-wee beastie has been hanging around since early summer. It did a fair amount of lounging in the flower bed near the front door, and it would also loiter near the path leading from the back door to the driveway. It showed so little fear of us when it was a little tiny ball of fluff that I was sure it was going to be lunch for an actual predator any time. But, nope, it survived. And it's still around. As is typical of adults of many species, it's a lot more skittish now than it was when it was younger.

I always kind of wonder about the local wild rabbits, both the varying hares and the cottontails, because I see rabbits and hare tracks around fairly often, but almost never see very many of either tracks or animals. Like with this particular varying hare: it showed up when it was at basically the toddler stage. I know enough about hares and rabbits to be aware that there are usually at least 4 young in a litter. I also know that even though hares are born fully furred with their eyes open and able to be up and running almost immediately, they do keep returning to the mother for several weeks to nurse in the evening. So where was the mom? Never saw her. Also never saw any litter mates, just the one hare. But there can't be just one hare: it took at least two to produce the one we see all the time, and odds are that it wasn't an only child. Where did the rest of them go?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Political theater of the absurb

The latest high profile mass shooting -- the incident in San Bernadino a few days ago -- seems to have brought out record levels of The Stupid in various pundits and politicians. I was listening to the radio yesterday and got treated to a lot of blathering about maybe revisiting the idea of "threat levels" as well as working on ways to better monitor who's liking what on Facebook and other social media. Why? Because Tashfeen Malik and Sayeed Farook had liked posts on Daesh websites. Apparently if we can just magically monitor every Facebook account in the world and then place surveillance on every person who "likes" anything associated with Daesh or other terroristic groups, we'll be able to prevent incidents like the San Bernadino attack.

The Stupid, it burns. There are literally thousands of groups out there that advocate violence in some form or another. Then when you add in the millions of people who create memes using quotes from Chairman Mao, Lenin, Che Guevera, and others who advocated revolution, you're looking at a lot of server hours as various programs search for key phrases or names. If I quote Mao in a post, e.g., 'power comes from the barrel of a gun,' am I going to end up on a watch list or have FBI agents knocking on my door? Probably not, given that my profiles all indicate I'm an older-than-dirt white female retiree. But how would anyone know my profiles are accurate? Like they say, on the Internet no one knows you're a dog. People's profiles can be 100% fictitious. You may not be able to obtain a fake passport or a phony driver's license as easily as you once could out in the real world, but when it comes to creating fake personas in cyberspace? People do it all the time. Toss in the infamous "dark web" and various encryption programs and if someone is serious about hiding who he or she is, they're able to do it. Bottom line: bloviating about being able to protect us from fanatics of any ideological stripe is just that: bloviating. Sound bites meant to placate the public but almost utterly devoid of any practical content. I will concede that with sufficient personnel and computer equipment, it's possible to track down the dumber ideologues, the morons who do their plotting on devices sitting in their own living rooms, but intercepting the smart ones? Not nearly as likely.

Of course, the meaningless blathering about monitoring cyberspace isn't the only example of The Stupid, It Burns. Once again we got to hear about the "arsenal" the couple had assembled. Arsenal? Compared to the weapons stashes owned by quite a few Americans, the "arsenal" Tasheen and Sayeed had was pretty patethic. Even the ownership of the assault rifles is no big deal in today's gun obsessed landscape. When the younger daughter lived in Texas, she had a couple of co-workers who were ammosexuals, a married couple that loved to take their Bushmasters out into the back yard and fire off a thousand or so rounds almost every weekend. They lived in a rural area so didn't have to go to a range. Hearing about their hobby made me happy we don't have any neighbors quite that enamored of assault weapons -- the worst we deal with is a neighbor who's into black powder so for a month or two in late summer we get to hear him firing off what sounds like a cannon as he practices for deer season. I always wonder just how much of the deer is left if he actually shoots one because it always sounds more like he's firing off a mortar of some sort than a long gun, but that's a digression.

The bottom line is that there was absolutely nothing unusual about the number of guns the San Bernadino couple owned. When you can step into Dunham Sports (like the S.O. and I did yesterday) and find gun safes on display that will hold 36 long guns, you know that it takes a lot more than a handful of weapons to qualify as an "arsenal." Maybe a reporter or a pundit who isn't into guns would view a grand total of four guns as an arsenal, but to anyone who's ever been around hunters? Four guns? That's it? That's not an arsenal. That's barely dipping into a hobby. You get out into rural areas, and the average household is going to have at least double that (a small caliber varmint gun or two, a couple shotguns, a deer rifle or two. . . maybe some hobby stuff, like a muzzle loader that uses black powder. . .) The attempt to read something sinister into the possibility that the couple actually went to a gun range to practice was pretty bizarre, too. Lots and lots of people go to gun ranges every day. Some just go occasionally to brush up on their skills; some are there every chance they get. Ted Nugent used to brag about going out in the woods on his place to cut down trees with automatic weapons; I'm sure there other gun nuts out there who do similar stuff. Does that mean that one of these days they're going to stroll into their workplace and off their co-workers? Probably not. (Statistically they're more likely to kill themselves or a a family member before they go after casual acquaintances or strangers.)

And then there were the pipe bomb components. . . yet another sign of just how out of touch with the real world the pundits and talking heads are came when I heard someone on NPR talk about how hard it would be to make pipe bombs because there's all the work involved in cutting a pipe into the right lengths or how technically difficult it would be. The man has apparently never set foot in a Home Depot or, for that matter, a local hardware store. Walk into the plumbing section and you can find lengths of pipe ranging from just a couple inches in length to many feet. Why use a hacksaw when you can buy stuff ready cut? Although I guess I should be glad no one apparently thought about that. If the talking heads had, no doubt we'd get to hear a lot of blathering about how law enforcement should start monitoring hardware stores for people buying plumbing parts.

The Stupid, it burns. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

How not to land a contracting job in one easy lesson

The other day the S.O. and I were down at the museum doing some minor stuff, like finally putting up street numbers near the front entrance. The Baraga Village Fire Department sent out a letter about 15 years ago reminding business owners and residents to put numbers on their structures to make them easier to find in an emergency, but just about everyone (including the museum) ignored the advice. I always kind of wonder how Fed Ex and UPS manage to find people because there are quite a few buildings without street addresses now.

Anyway, a few months ago I decided to invest in a set of numbers. If nothing else, FedEx would never have an excuse again for not being able to locate us. Naturally, given how busy we were with more important things, those numbers just sat on the table in the office for awhile. But we finally got around to putting them up. . . and while we were putting up the numbers, a fellow in an SUV pulled into the parking lot. I thought he might have a question about the contents of the museum or ask for a tour.

I was wrong. He had stopped to critique the paint job on the new siding. Did we, in essence, know that it looked like shit? This struck me as being a rather odd opening gambit for a conversation. Did the fellow not know that he might actually be speaking to the people who had done the painting? Apparently not, because telling him that (a) the work was done by volunteers who didn't get paid a dime, and (b) we knew it had to be second coated and it would be taken care of in the Spring did not stop him from continuing to tell us how bad it looked. It was actually a little baffling. I mean, it's been warm lately but everyone knows you can't paint or stain anything once temperatures drop below the mid-50s. So just what did he expect us to do now?

After he finally ran out of insulting things to say about how sucky the building looked, he volunteered the information that he's a contractor who does both carpentry and painting. I asked him if he had a card -- he had to do a little digging, but he found one. He then left, which I figured he'd do once we'd asked for contact information. 

I don't think he was even out of the parking lot before the card was confetti on its way to a trash can. If he'd had brains enough to just say that he'd noticed the museum hadn't quite finished the siding project before winter hit and let it go at that, he might have had a shot at hearing from us next Spring. But when I was one of the people who got covered with oil stain and wound up dismayed by the realization we were going to have to second coat? Yes, we know the coverage isn't what we had hoped it would be. Do we want some stranger rubbing that fact in? In a word, No. So good luck trawling for contracting jobs, dude, but here's a hint: next time figure out who you're talking with before you start running your mouth.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pulitzer Project: A Death in the Family

The 1958 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, A Death in the Family is unusual in that the novel was published after the author, James Agee, was dead. Agee had been working with his editors on the final draft of the novel, a fictionalized account of his father's sudden death in an automobile accident, when he died himself. Agee dropped dead of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1955.

Many of the events in the novel are told from the perspective of a young boy, Rufus, a character Agee modeled on himself. Agee was 6 years old when his father died. If this novel is an accurate reflection of how the adults around him behaved I can only say it's no wonder the adult Agee had major problems with alcohol. Among other things, instead of coming right out and telling the kids their father is dead, the adults start off by trying to sugar coat it with convoluted explanations and really weird phrasings: "God put your father to sleep."  Holy wah, even a 6-year-old knows what the word "dead" means even if they don't always grasp just how final it is.

A Death in the Family is a fairly slender book and proved remarkably fast and easy to read. Agee had a poet's way with words -- the prose flows. I picked the book up from the library on Monday and finished it Wednesday evening. The narrative is a little choppy, with flashbacks to Rufus's early childhood before his younger sister was born as well as a noticeable gap in the description of the reason his father was away from home with the car, but the flaws aren't much of a distraction. I am a little curious as to which version of the book I read. I didn't realize it until I Googled Agee to find his biography, but there are two published versions of the novel. Because Agee died before the final edits were done, his publisher completed the work with his editors at the time making assumptions about how the book should be structured. Then a number of years ago an Agee scholar decided to re-edit the book based on Agee's original manuscripts and "restore" it to something theoretically closer to the author's vision. The edition I read did include a foreword in which the editor explains that the book was incomplete at the time of the Agee's death. I am not, however, curious enough to go looking for both versions to do a side-by-side comparison.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Maybe. It is readable. It's another book that falls into the middle of the pack among the Pulitzer winners. It's not great, but it also doesn't stink. Some sections are quite good -- the contrast between the way the adults keep reassuring themselves that the dead guy never knew what happened, his death was from a freak accident and he never suffered, and the way Rufus's schoolmates keep embellishing the accident (they're all convinced Rufus's father was squashed by the car, totally flattened like a bug under someone's foot) was striking. It also seemed to be a pretty accurate description of the knack kids have for imagining the absolute worst and then making it even gorier. I liked the descriptions of everyday life in the days when automobiles were still a novelty and shopping involved going to stores where you'd talk to a clerk who would then get the items down from incredibly high shelves and wrap it in brown paper.

On the other hand, A Death in the Family does contain language that today's readers can find jarring. It shouldn't be a surprise that a book set in early 20th century Knoxville, Tennessee, would contain some casual racism, but I can see where this is yet another book where if a person were using it in a classroom today you'd end up having to do a little speech reminding people the book was published almost 60 years ago. Then again, if readers have to be warned that there was a time when people actually spelled out the N-word instead of tiptoeing around it, maybe those readers should stick to reading Harlequin romances.

Next up on the Pulitzer list, The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor, which won in 1962. I've already read the winners for 1959 (The Travels of Jamie McPheeters), 1960 (Advise and Consent), and 1961 (To Kill a Mockingbird) so get to skip a few years. I have finally made it to the decades where I read a number of the winners shortly after they were published. Maybe I will manage to complete the Pulitzer project before I die after all. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

It's time for some paranoid dreams to come true

Enough is enough. When it reaches the point where a person's only reaction to news of yet another mass shooting is to wonder wearily "where is it this time?" the time has come to make all the ammosexual paranoid fantasies come true. As long as the gun nuts are screaming that Obama's going to come for guns, how about if Obama actually does go after their guns? It's time to start focusing on that phrase in the Second Amendment everyone conveniently ignores: "A well-regulated militia." Fine. Let's start regulating it.

Let's institute the Swiss model: you want to own a gun? Fine. First you get conscripted into the militia where you'll get thoroughly trained in how to actually use a gun. The combination of mandatory military service and actual firearms training will do two things: it'll eliminate a huge number of accidental shootings because people won't be quite as likely to leave firearms unsecured (the death rate from toddlers shooting people should drop considerably) and military psychological screening might reduce the number of  truly dumb fuck Ted Nugent wannabes and borderline paranoid schizophrenics from the gun ownership pool. Because let's face it -- anyone who thinks they need to own a gun so they can personally overthrow a tyrannical government is not playing with a full deck to begin with.

What if you don't fall into the right age bracket for military service? Then you're either too young to responsibly own a gun, or you're old enough to have figured out that you don't really need a penis extender that badly. If you want a long gun for hunting, go through mandatory training and you can have one. Don't want to do the mandatory training? Fine, invest in a bow and arrows. Bow hunting's more of a challenge anyway. 

Although I don't know if anything would really help at this point. Part of me would like to see SWAT teams going door to door and just confiscating anything they find that's more than a single shot firearm. Another part says it doesn't matter what we do. We've become a culture that is so blase about senseless gun violence that we no longer blink an eye over incidents like a Waffle House waitress getting shot and killed by a customer when she told him the restaurant was nonsmoking (it happened in Mississippi recently) or some nut in Texas shooting someone for having the nerve to park on the street in front of the shooter's house (also in the news in the past week). When we've got people who think it's fine to kill people over petty annoyances, are we even salvageable as a society? I'm not sure. How do you turn around a culture that thinks violence is the solution for every problem? We may have gone so far down the road to a Mad Max future there's no turning back.

That said, I fear that because the latest mass shooting involved a man and woman with Arab names, the only thing that's going to result from it is more hate directed towards anyone Muslim, whatever the suspects' motives may have been. The little bit that's been on the news about the people involved makes it sound more like good old-fashioned American workplace violence (the shooter killed co-workers at a holiday party) than anything ideologically driven, but you never know. . .

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Thomas Jefferson, Republican or Democrat?

Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, is one of those historical figures that both modern political parties like to claim as one of their own. Franklin Roosevelt was so enamored of the idea that Jefferson was the equivalent of a New Deal Democrat that he pushed for construction of the Jefferson Memorial in the 1930s. Modern Republicans likewise try to lay claim to Jefferson and view him as an anti-big government hero. From one end of the political spectrum to the other, Jefferson apparently appeals to everyone.

Neither of today's major political parties existed during Jefferson's lifetime, at least not formally. At the time of the American Revolution, there was in fact a profound hope that political parties as such would never exist. The founding fathers viewed political parties as corrupt and prone to favoring petty interests and power-grabbing. Jefferson, Madison, et al. rather naively hoped that the citizens of the new United States would always be able to cooperate on governance without resorting to electioneering or factional squabbling. They were, of course, dreaming. Given the very different views of what the new country should be and how it should be governed, e.g., a strong central government versus a weak one, it was inevitable that persons sharing similar political philosophies would coalesce into distinct interest groups and eventually create formal party structures. The near unanimity that had existed when George Washington was elected as the first President quickly fractured. By the time Jefferson's name was put forth as a candidate in 1800, two distinct camps had emerged -- Federalists and Democratic Republicans -- along with hostility and nastiness that make 21st century politicking seem like a Girl Scout meeting in comparison.

Jefferson identified himself with the second faction. . . or perhaps the faction formed around him. As the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's insistence that the best form of government was no government at all carried more rhetorical weight than it might have coming from a less revered figure. In American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson Joseph J. Ellis examines Jefferson's opinions as expressed in writings that were publicly available during Jefferson's lifetime and private papers available now in archives and muses on how Jefferson's ideas continue to influence politics today.

Ellis refers to Jefferson as the American Sphinx because Jefferson's ideas and behaviors were often contradictory. What did he really believe? Is it possible to know? He'd advocate one thing while doing the opposite. The classic example is, of course, the contradiction between his public statements that chattel slavery was a moral evil and must eventually abolished and his personal reluctance to actually free any of his own slaves. Jefferson also preached austerity and cut the federal government's budget dramatically during his Presidency but lived his own life perpetually mired in debt while refusing to do anything that would reduce it -- no matter how many bill collectors might be figuratively knocking at the door, Jefferson always lived well beyond his means. He publicly ranted about the evils of a strong central government and an imperial presidency but then pushed through the Louisiana Purchase without consulting Congress. He talked a lot about democracy and the will of the people, but wanted to restrict the right to vote solely to property owners. He railed against lobbyists and factions and publicly decried the vicious slanders prevalent in political campaigning while at the same time secretly funding a journalist to write slanderous screeds against Jefferson's ideological opponents. He was, in short, the consummate politician: say one thing, do the other, and try not to get caught in your lies. .

I've read quite a few biographies of dead Presidents. Sometimes it's difficult to tell just what a historian thought of his research subject. He or she will wordsmith in a way that results in a pretty well-rounded portrait. You see the good stuff, but you also see the warts. And sometimes it's fairly obvious that somewhere along the line the biographer lost any pretense at objectivity: the dead guy either ends up walking on water or leaving a slime trail. Jefferson doesn't quite make it to garden slug status, but I got the distinct impression that more research Ellis did, the less he liked Jefferson. It probably didn't help when he realized that Jefferson's best known achievement, the Declaration of Independence, had big chunks that were cut and pasted from other documents, not all of which were written by Jefferson.

Of course, as Ellis points out, at the time the Declaration was written, no one involved had any sense that it was going to become as iconic as it did. The Revolutionary War didn't begin when the Declaration was written and signed; it had already been going on for over a year. Jefferson apparently got tasked with writing the document because he was viewed as one of the least important people at the convention in Philadelphia, someone young, inexperienced, and the perfect person to stick with the boring grunt work of having to sit down with pen and ink and draft something the other members of the convention could then do the final edits on, which they did. One of the things that they don't teach in typical American history classes is that the convention heavily edited the document, cut big chunks of Jefferson's draft, and pissed Jefferson off in the process. Like most authors with an ego, he didn't take kindly to editing. He was apparently still bitching about the edits 20 years after the fact.

Jefferson was out of the country serving as an ambassador to France during the crucial years when the Constitution was written, ratified, and the United States began to function as a nation rather than as a loose confederation of multiple independent states. He corresponded with Madison and others, but his influence on the proceedings was probably fairly minimal. Jefferson had a bad habit of seeing things in absolutes; creation of the Constitution required multiple compromises.

Jefferson's career, incidentally illustrates that the United States has a long history of rewarding incompetence. Jefferson was in France as the events leading up to the French Revolution unfolded. The one thing that becomes clear in looking at Jefferson's analysis of those events is that he was consistently 100 percent wrong. No matter what the issue, Jefferson was adamant that the outcome would be the exact opposite of what actually happened. Naturally, when Jefferson returned to the United States, he got tapped to be Secretary of State.

American Sphinx is an interesting book. Jefferson's inconsistencies and contradictions are intriguing, as are some of the author's. For example, Ellis didn't believe that Jefferson ever had an affair with the slave Sally Hemings (the book was written before DNA tests settled the question), claiming that Jefferson had a low libido. His evidence for the low libido? Jefferson was involved with very few women after being widowed fairly young. And how did Jefferson's wife die? She had 7 pregnancies in 10 years and died shortly after the birth of her last child. Each pregnancy left her weaker and sicker, but Jefferson apparently couldn't keep his fly buttoned long enough for her to regain her health before he knocked her up again. Jefferson's failure to remarry or to have physical love affairs with women of his own class doesn't indicate a low libido, especially when his household staff in Paris included his wife's 14-year-old half-sister Sally (who returned to Virginia pregnant with her first child).

When Jefferson's rumored sexual relationship with Sally was used to attack his character during the 1800 presidential campaign, newspapers described Sally Heming as "sable" and with exaggerated African facial features (e.g., thick lipped), but the reality was she was 3/4 white and physically resembled Jefferson's dead wife. Still, Ellis is sure that given Jefferson's strong sentiments on the evils of slavery that the man would never willingly exploit Sally sexually. I think this is one case where Ellis was blinded by his own prejudices. Given other evidence of how Jefferson treated his slaves -- he did his best to make sure his household staff in France never learned that France had abolished slavery so his "servants" could walk away any time they wanted to (although he did pay them wages), he apparently didn't emancipate any slaves in his lifetime, and he freed only 5 (all of them members of the Hemings family, but not Sally herself*) in his will -- why Ellis thinks Jefferson would have qualms about screwing Sally is a mystery.

But enough about Jefferson's love life, or lack thereof. The bottom line is that Jefferson's writings and life contain so many contradictions that it's possible to use him to support almost any position, and not just political. I have Bible-thumping acquaintances who are convinced Jefferson is proof that the Founding Fathers envisioned the United States as a Christian nation, despite Jefferson's anti-religion statements. I know atheists who are equally convinced they can claim Jefferson as one of their own. Tea Party types love to quote Jefferson on the subject of the tree of liberty being watered with the blood of patriots, populists and progressives cite Jefferson on democracy and the will of the people and the evils of industrialization and big business. It's like a visit to Alice's Restaurant: you can get anything you want.

So how would I label Jefferson? I think asshat pretty much covers it. He was selfish, short-sighted, a hypocrite, irresponsible, out of touch with reality, and had an ego bigger than the Louisiana territory. He worked hard at cultivating his image and practicing revisionist history, he screwed up big time when he had a chance to actually help eliminate slavery in the United States, and he was a spendthrift. Although I will concede my opinion was strongly affected by discovering that he basically fucked his wife to death.

Would I recommend American Sphinx to other readers. I'm not sure. It did win a National Book Award for history, but it also has a number of flaws. Ellis tends to assume there's been so much written about Jefferson that the reader will be familiar with Jefferson's life already. This isn't true. For many readers, American Sphinx may be the first (or the only) book about Jefferson that they ever read. I know the public library I patronize doesn't have a real broad selection of presidential biographies; American Sphinx was the sole Jefferson tome on the shelf. He also skips over big sections of Jefferson's life, like the second term of Jefferson's Presidency and his two terms as Governor of Virginia. Still, it is readable. Ellis has a way with words as well as a sense of humor. He intends the work to be read by a popular audience, not an academic one, so isn't boring. At the same time, he does have end notes so you know what sources he used. In short, not a bad book, not a great one, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

*Jefferson's daughter sort of gave Sally her freedom by allowing her to live with her freed adult children in Charlottesville. Based on the sources I found, all of Sally's children passed as white after leaving Monticello. .

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Another been there, done that, never again

Black Friday.

I made the mistake of getting suckered by the Kohl's coupons. Not being totally insane, I didn't do the being there right as the doors opened on Thursday evening or even terribly early on Friday morning. Nope. I noticed the coupons and "door buster" specials were good until 1 p.m. on Friday so I said "as long as we're in the store before noon we're okay."


Well, sort of pshaw. We did get the special, special, super deep discount prices and I did find (more or less) everything I had thought about looking for. And, because it was Kohl's, there wasn't much pushing and shoving or fist fights over who got the last shopping cart.

On the other hand, I think we spent more time standing in line waiting to check out than I spent wandering the store looking for the stuff on my list. The checkout line made close to complete circle around the perimeter of the store. When the S.O. and I attached ourselves to the end of it, it was close to 3/4s of the way around and still growing. People were joking that Kohl's should have the equivalent of flight attendants serving snacks and beverages so people wouldn't keel over from hunger or thirst before they got to a register.

Then, to make that wait a little more annoying, we learned that anyone who didn't have a Kohl's charge card but was willing to apply for one got pulled out of the line and moved to the front. The grandson and his girlfriend had gotten into the checkout ten minutes or so after we did, but not long after we saw them trekking to the back of the store looking for the end of the line they came back to tell us they were done. Those of us who have been loyal Kohl's customers and already possessed the plastic were left shuffling slowly along, quietly despairing as we passed cheerful signs advising us that we were "30 minutes from the registers." I think some people actually cheered when the line rounded the last corner and we could see the sign saying "Checkout" in the distance.

In short, never again. 

This was the first year in a long, long time that I've succumbed to the advertising for shopping on Black Friday. It's also the last. Next year I'll either do most of what little shopping I do online or everyone's going to get the equivalent of home-made pink bunny suits.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Things are about to turn even messier in Syria

Just heard on the news that the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter that was doing bombing runs over an area of Syria adjacent to the Turkish border. The Russian plane apparently crossed the border so was in Turkish air space, at least briefly. It must have been mere micrometers over the line, though, because when the pilots ejected they landed in Syria.

This could get really messy.

Of course, it was messy to begin with. And it does highlight (again) the question of just whose side Turkey is on. One of the reasons Daesh (aka ISIS or ISIL) is able to function as well as it does is because they're selling oil and looted artifacts, most of which is apparently flowing pretty freely through Turkey. And now Turkey's gone one step further, from turning a blind eye to the smuggling to actively assisting Daesh. The icing on the cake? Turkey is part of NATO. So much for being able to count on our allies in eliminating hotbeds of terrorism in the Middle East.

The news report said that people on the ground in Syria cheered when the Russians got shot down, and they were claiming to have shot and killed at least one of the pilots as he or she was drifting to the ground after ejecting. That may be the last time they get to cheer for awhile. I have a hunch the Russians are about to carpet bomb that area into gravel. On the other hand, the local residents are ethnic Turkmen; they shouldn't have any trouble getting into Turkey as refugees. After all, if Turkey is willing to protect them by shooting down Russian planes, Turkey should be more than happy to take them in when their villages are totally destroyed.

NATO reportedly is holding an emergency session to try to figure out what to do. What can they do? Figuratively throw Turkey up against a wall and demand to know just how fucking stupid they are? It's blunders like this one that lead to real wars. The big question is probably whether or not Turkish leaders are willing to grovel enough to placate Putin. Based on what I've read about President Erdogan I don't think that's likely to happen, but you never know.

Monday, November 23, 2015

News from the Woman Cave

Once again I'm flipping through pattern books and trying to decide on what to do for the next quilt. A few days I finished piecing the most recent project. I still have to put the quilt top together with a batting and a backing before spending evenings for the next several months hand quilting, but that doesn't count. I always have multiple quilts in progress. Or at least I used to: one being cut, one being pieced, one being quilted, and usually one being made from upcycled denim. Right now all I have is the one that I'll start quilting soon. Nothing being cut, nothing being pieced. Back in the 1970s I bought a quilting magazine (McCall's All American Quilts, IIRC) and rather recklessly said that eventually I was going to make each of the quilts shown. The quilt shown came from that magazine; I think I've done 3 or 4 others over the past 40 years. Maybe it's time to consult the magazine again.

The quilt pictured to the right will be a slightly bigger than queen-size when it's done. At this point, it's a little over 100-inches square. Whenever I work on a big quilt, I can't help but wonder how people did back in the days when houses were smaller and held a lot more people. In order to spread it out so I could square it up properly, I had to bring it down to the museum and use the empty space where our Politics and Elections exhibit is going to go. That's where I'll lay it out to do the sandwich (top, batting, back), too. Our current living quarters simply don't have any spaces big enough for me to spread things out to the point where I can see the entire quilt easily. If there didn't happen to be that open space at the museum, I'm not sure what I would have done -- wait for a calm day and spread a tarp on the ground? Tried to clear enough clutter out of the way in the hay loft to use that space and hope I managed to avoid getting bird crap on it? I've seen some amazing quilts in museums that were pieced and quilted by women living in sod houses on the prairie in Nebraska -- how on earth did they do it, especially when most of them did the quilting using a frame. I use a hoop, which solves the space issue, although it does raise questions of how to keep it clean when most of it is wrapped around me and at risk of trailing on the cat-hair covered floor.

I need to keep track of just how many hours I put into the hand quilting. I get asked occasionally how long it takes and I always guess at it -- an hour or two a night four or five nights a week for X number of months. . . I've finished some quilts pretty quickly and others have taken over a year. It would be nice to finish this one before the 2016 county fair, though, as I haven't entered a quilt in the fair in many, many years.