Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More of life's little mysteries

One of the duties of the campground hosts is to check the showerhouse in the evening to make sure there's adequate toilet paper in the dispensers, all of the toilets are functioning, the shower stalls are free of trash like empty shampoo bottles, and that things in general are in decent condition. Over the past month, I've found a few things campers have forgotten: a pair of gloves, a hand towel, etc. Last night, however, was a first. This was perched on a toilet paper dispenser:
Two questions: Who carries a tampon into the toilet and then forgets to use it? I know that back when toxic shock syndrome hit one bizarre theory was that women became infected when they forgot to remove tampons when their periods ended, but, speaking as a person with some experience in these matters, I found that theory shaky from Day One. Perhaps I was wrong to be dubious?

Second, when did they start printing pep talk slogans on feminine hygiene products? "Challenge yourself" and "Play to win" on tampon wrappers?! Seriously? Does anyone actually believe that a woman who's in the process of changing a tampon takes the time to read the pep talk on the wrapper?

Then again, I bought a pair of jeans at Kohl's a few months ago that have pep talk slogans printed on the fabric for the facings for the waistband and zipper. That struck me as pretty strange, too. It's a mystery.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Life (and death) in a delusional bubble

I've been reading The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. Nicholas was the last of the Romanov tsars to rule Russia. Except it's pretty clear that in a lot of ways he never did rule the country; he and his immediate family existed in a lovely bubble and were pretty much out of touch with any sort of reality.

I'm into the section of the book now where Nicholas and his family have been exiled to Siberia and are living under house arrest. They're only a few months away from being executed, but they're all cruising along as though everything is going to be fine. One indignity after another, more and more things stripped from them, and they still don't get it that they're heading down the same road as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They're given opportunities to flee the country, to go live in exile, sponge off some of their numerous royal relatives scattered around Europe, but they refuse to leave Russia. It's bizarre. I can halfway understand why Nicholas would decide to stay in Russia -- he really bought into the notion that the tsar was Russia -- but why didn't he try to get his kids or his lunatic wife out of the the country? He was reading the papers; he knew about the riots and social disorder. Did he really believe that because he had abdicated, they were now safe?

Then again, considering that he'd spent his entire life being passive, maybe it's not so surprising "Nicky" just sat back and waited for events to happen. Most of the time he was tsar he was pretty much oblivious to what was actually happening in the country or being done in his name. On the rare occasions when he actually asserted his authority, it usually wasn't his idea -- it was his wife's. And his wife was, to put it mildly, delusional. She was even more out of touch with reality than Nicky was.

And what were the underlying reasons for their happy, delusional life? There were actually two things. One was the Tsarina Alexandra. Nicholas and Alexander were that rare royal couple: they'd married for love against the wishes of various relatives, including Nicky's parents. They'd met as teenagers, Nicholas had fallen for Alexandra at first sight, and never gave up on the idea that someday they'd marry. His parents had consented only because they'd figured out that Nicholas wasn't going to agree to any other arrangements. His father had even tried the classic Russian aristocratic technique of hooking his son up with a ballet dancer in the hopes that he'd become sufficiently enamored of his mistress that he wouldn't care who his legal wife was -- it didn't work. Once Nicholas and Alexandra were married, they formed a self-sufficient bubble. This might not have been a problem if Alexandra hadn't been quite so insecure. She was easily offended and good at holding grudges. Nicky adored Alix so refused to do anything that might upset her. End result? Their social circle kept shrinking until it consisted of a handful of people who would tell the Empress only what she wanted to hear. If someone tried to insert an unpleasant truth, they'd find themselves cut off.

The other reason was religion. The tsar's only son, the heir to the throne, had hemophilia. The condition was diagnosed when Alexei was an infant. Alexandra's life became basically a search for a miracle cure. She absolutely refused to admit that her son had what was a terminal condition, that no matter how careful they were or how intensely she prayed, Alexei was not going to live long enough to be Tsar. It's not surprising that she fell for the lies told by Grigory Rasputin, a con man who was remarkably adept at telling Alexandra exactly what she wanted to hear. As anyone who's ever read any Russian history knows, Rasputin's influence on the royal family became widely known and despised. At the same time, articles and political cartoons in the newspapers openly suggested scandalous behavior -- Rasputin's public behavior away from the palace was, in a word, debauched so it was easy for ordinary people to believe the worst of the rumors circulating about the tsarina. Naturally, the worse Rasputin behaved away from the royal family, the less Alexandra was willing to believe she was being conned. Even when stories reached her about virtually public orgies, she just said this was proof of his holiness. Apparently there's a long Russian tradition of holy men indulging in remarkably outrageous ways and it somehow serving as proof not that they're perverts or degenerates but are instead especially blessed by God. I know -- it makes no sense, but Alexandra 's surviving letters and journals confirm that she believed it.

And then when you throw in World War I, the fact the Russians were getting slaughtered by the Germans, and Alexandra was a German princess who tried to meddle in politics by writing privately to her cousins? It didn't take many years of warfare and Russian losses for most of the country to believe Alexandra was a German spy and the tsar himself was betraying his country by not locking her up. I guess the biggest mystery when it comes to the last of the Romanovs isn't so much how they happened to end up lined up and shot in a basement, but why it took until the Bolshevik Revolution for it to happen. By the time Nicholas abdicated in 1917, he and Alexandra were so universally hated that it's moderately amazing they survived as long as they did.

One thing I have always wondered about, though, is why the Reds felt the need to execute the grand duchesses -- the tsar's daughters. They had no rights of succession; the throne followed the male line. No one was going to rouse the populace by saying "Let's put Princess Olga on the throne." Then again, fanatics have always had a problem with overkill -- and the Bolshevik leadership definitely qualified as fanatics.

As I was reading this book, I found myself thinking about how easy it is for people in leadership positions to fall into the same trap Nicholas II did: just listen to the happy news, chase away anyone who tries to do a reality check, and then find themselves wondering why their company is going bankrupt or their favorite policies are failing. The sad thing is that there probably is no good cure for the problem: the more powerful a person becomes, the less willing other people are to tell them the unvarnished truth.

So would I recommend Nicholas II to other readers? I'm not sure. It's probably a good one for anyone interested in Russian history -- the author does look at various events from a different perspective than I'd read before -- but the structure of the book is odd. It felt choppy and tended to be a little hard to follow. For someone with only a casual interest, though, it's not a good choice.

It's too soon

I really despise the way our political system has degenerated into one long campaign. I swear the elections are barely over each year before the campaigning for the next one starts. In 2012 I don't think we went for even 24 hours before the chattering classes were speculating about who was going to run for President in 2016. We've spent the last couple years being treated to the news media anointing Hilary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee -- doesn't matter who else might be remotely interested in running as a Democrat, it's pretty clear the mainstream media aren't going to bother writing about anyone other than Ms. Clinton.

On the other hand, there's that rolling circular firing squad that calls itself the Republican Party. They've got the opposite problem from the Democrats: instead of having their most middle of the road, establishment candidate sucking up all the oxygen, they've got a dozen different far right fringe tinfoil hat types all clamoring for attention. We've been treated to speculation about Governor Goodhair (aka Rick Perry), Herman Cain, Ben Carson, Sarah Palin (is the woman actually crazy enough to believe anyone would believe she's still electable to anything?) . . . there are a couple semi-sane Republican notables (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush) but whenever their names pop up, they're quickly followed by explanations of why they can't win the nomination. And now one of the looniest of the loons, Ted Cruz, has made it official. He's announced he's running for President. This means that fairly soon other fools will make it official, too. The next Presidential election is over 19 months away, but we're already stuck listening to campaign rhetoric. No wonder the country is a mess and Congress never gets anything done.

I have a vague memory of hearing years ago that one of the good things about the parliamentary system Great Britain has is that elections are a lot more unpredictable. Or at least they used to be -- they were held when Parliament dissolved, which until 2010 wasn't on a fixed schedule. There's now a law that says one term of Parliament can't last longer than 5 years, at which time Parliament dissolves and a general election is held. However, the law doesn't say a session has to run for that full 5 years -- if there's a crisis of confidence, Parliament can dissolve at any time. Once Parliament dissolves, the time frame between that dissolution and the general election is blessedly short. No doubt the Brits also have political figures who spend a lot of time hinting that next time around they're going to run for office, but the period of overt campaigning cannot last for literally years. It must be nice.

It has also occurred to me that a silver lining of living in a country ruled by a dictator has to be that electioneering is never an issue. Sure, there's propaganda touting the merits of The Great Leader, but after awhile that has to all fall into the category of background noise. If it's always there, you stop noticing it. No one's going to be calling you for fund-raising or to bash The Great Leader's political opponents, and your mailbox (both IRL and online) is never going to fill with political spam. It almost makes a person wish President Obama really was the autocratic tyrant the delusional right wing tinfoil hat types think he is. If he was, we'd never have to hear about Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, et al. again -- they'd all have been locked up in FEMA death camps ages ago. A girl can dream. . .

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Time flies

This is our last weekend at Montauk. As usual, the park is close to full. It had been close to 100 % occupancy for the reservable sites, and, based on the numbers of people pulling in here yesterday afternoon, there weren't many cancellations. I was a little surprised -- the weather forecast was not especially pleasant with close to freezing temperatures for the lows and a prediction of a "wintry mix" falling from the skies today (which is indeed what's happening as I type). It's supposed to improve tomorrow, but of course most people are just here for the weekend. It doesn't matter much if the Sunday high is predicted to be around 60 if you've got to pack up your trailer and head back to St. Louis on Sunday morning. 

On the other hand, if you've invested in a humongous 5th wheel and paid for a campsite in advance, I suppose it makes sense to actually use both. Plus, of course, when your idea of fun is to pull on a pair of waders and go stand in close-to-ice-cold water for hours, maybe the notion of a wintry mix isn't that off-putting. 

In any case, the end is in sight for this installment in campground hosting. I have mixed feelings. I'd kind of like to stay longer, but have to admit that my patience for dealing with the public isn't unlimited. This would be a great place to be if it were only a little less popular. Some people are, to say the least, total idiots. Either that, or they've never had to deal with actual rules before. And they all lie: they'll claim the superintendent or the ranger or someone in the office told them it was okay to do something that is clearly against park policy; they'll discourse at length about how they've been camping here for many years and have never ever been told before that they have to keep their dog on a leash; they'll swear up and down that they despise the people who burn trash in the fire rings and then leave their own fire ring full of semi-melted Busch Lite cans. Liars, I don't know how people who have to deal with the public day after day manage to do it. I know I couldn't handle a career that required being polite indefinitely. Sooner or later (and probably sooner) I'd say what I was thinking. 

I think one month is just about the right length for us to be campground hosts. It isn't just having to be polite; it's also the fact you can never get away. The campground host is here so if people have a problem or a question at odd hours they've got a place to go. Which strikes me as being a Good Thing until it gets to be midnight and someone is knocking on the Guppy's door complaining about the loud drunks at the other end of Loop 2. The people who are following us are scheduled to be here for five solid months -- I think they're insane, but apparently they do these long stints all the time. They must really like living in a fishbowl. 

I have begun researching volunteering at National Wildlife Refuges. From what I can tell, one of the nice things about being at an NWR is the volunteers' public contact comes in more formal settings: working behind the information desk in a Visitor Center, for example, or serving as the guide for interpretive hikes. And a lot of the volunteer work doesn't involve the public at all: trail maintenance or assisting with research projects. The downside is NWRs want a longer commitment (usually 90 days), which might make it hard to find a situation that fits in with when we want to be home in Michigan. Oh well, I'll keep perusing volunteer.gov and see what comes up in the way of snowbird opportunities. Between Fish & Wildlife, the Corps of Engineers, the Forest Service, and the Park Service, we should be able to line something up for next winter. I wonder how stiff the competition is for a VIP slot at Fort Frederica National Monument? Or, better yet, Hot Springs? Hot Springs National Park would be perfect -- far enough South that it doesn't get much in the way of Real Winter combined with being a park and a town I already know and like. I really need to do some kissing up to the connections I still have in the Park Service and see who's foolish nice enough to let me use them as a reference. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Organizational skills, or the lack thereof

For some bizarre reason, people who don't know me well always end up telling me what great organizational skills I have. They assume that because I tend to be a little compulsive about a few things, like shelving CDs in alphabetical order by artist, that I'm well-organized in general. Pshaw. It is pure illusion.

The S.O. and I just returned from spending 3 nights at the Younger Daughter's place. We swapped days off with the other campground hosts because they need specific days off at the end of the month. End result was that we wound up with four days off in a row. That made the 100 mile drive to Farmington worth it.  So we decided we'd pack up our laundry and go bother Tammi for a few days.

Okay. Three nights away from the Guppy. How much time could it take to pack and how many bags could we possibly have when part of what we were taking was a week's worth of laundry? Common sense says it should have taken us about 30 seconds to get ready to depart: throw some toiletries in a ditty bag, toss it in a suitcase with one change of clothes per person, load suitcase and the laundry basket in the car along with Cleo and her food and insulin, and hit the road. Didn't even have to worry about bringing a litter box or cat litter because Tammi had both on hand. If only life were so simple. . .

Hitting the road turned out to require a lot more than just a simple change of clothes and our toothbrushes. We were going to be gone for 4 days so that meant rounding up all the chargers (cell phones, camera batteries, tablet) and making sure they came with us. After all, it would suck to get to Tammi's, be in the middle of playing Angry Birds on the tablet, and not be able to recharge the device when it went dead. Had to have my knitting, so that bag had to go into the car. Had to have the manuscript I'm editing -- I'm getting paid to do that and a deadline is imminent. Couldn't forget the empty 20-lb propane tank that we needed to swap for a full one. And so it went. Several hours later the car was finally packed and came close to bulging at the seams with the various odds and ends that we couldn't live without for a few days.

Coming back was worse, of course. Suitcase, basket, cat and her accessories, propane tank, miscellaneous tote bags with my knitting, editing job, chargers, whatever plus the goodies I'd picked up at the Container Store in St. Louis -- because, you know, if I just buy enough totes and baskets and miscellaneous racks by god I will actually end up being organized -- along with our other retail therapy and flea market finds, like a major score on an Atlas canning jar with a zinc lid -- it's full of spools of thread, some of which are totally unused. I'm sure whoever sold it filled the jar with the thread to turn it into an objet d'art, but I looked at it and saw at least $12 worth of thread stuffed into a jar selling for only $7. What a deal -- nifty canning jar that I'll wash and use as a canister and all that perfectly good thread. And, on top of all that, we had to find space for groceries we knew we needed because we'd pretty much left the refrigerator empty except for condiments. . . and my days of mixing ketchup with hot water and pretending it's tomato soup are long past. By the time we got out of Farmington, the trunk was stuffed full and the back seat was piled high. And about half that stuff sat in the car overnight because we ran out of ambition after unpacking the most important stuff.

Small digression. I love the Container Store. I really do buy into the illusion. If a person just has the right combination of totes and baskets and shelving units, all the clutter in her life will magically disappear. I love walking through that store fondling the merchandise. I look at the almost infinite variety of storage boxes and other goodies and keep thinking "I could find a use for that." And I did find a really nifty basket/tray thingie that's going to be useful here in the Guppy. Sometime later today, probably while the S.O. is off fishing, I'll do a major reshuffling in the way I've got our groceries organized. Then tomorrow I'll get to listen to the S.O. curse when he can't find his cereal. Good times.

The canning jars filled with odds and ends seemed to be a thing at the antiques mall where I got the Atlas jar. Very strange. I probably spotted at least a dozen in various vendors' booths. There was another jar filled with sewing notions (old zippers, packages of zig zag tape, etc.), one filled with colorful scraps of cardboard, and a few others. All struck me as very strange. I'm guessing someone got the idea from Pinterest or some decorating magazine. I know there are several publications that specialize in telling people how to decorate with flea market finds. Thus, I'm reasonably sure that whoever sold the jar I bought never considered the possibility that a potential buyer would ever be more interested in the jar's contents than in the jar itself.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Heartbreak at REI

Stairway down to viewing platform at the Devil's Well. It's a humongous
sinkhole with an underground lake. Water from the lake flows through karst
formations to Cave Spring and into the Current River. 
The S.O. and I had a few days off from campground hosting this week -- more than usual because we swapped days with the other hosts -- so have been relaxing at the Younger Daughter's place since Monday. We've done some touristy stuff like visit the Devil's Well and Alley Mill at Ozark National Scenic Riverways, hit a few antique stores and flea markets, and gone up to St. Louis to do some serious shopping. And that's when I experienced heartbreak at REI.

REI no longer carries the Teva sandals I love. These are the sandals I live in for about half the year, depending on where we are. In the U.P. it's more like only a third of the year because even I have to admit that once there's snow on the ground it's no longer sandals weather. I'm not kidding when I say I love these sandals. They're super comfortable and last almost forever. They have, however, gotten to the point where forever is almost here. They're still wearable, but the end is in sight. They're coming up on their six-year anniversary, and pretty soon I'll have to bid them a fond farewell as they hit the trash.

The Alley Mill. Along with the Portland Head Light in Maine and the Mabry
Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, this has to be one of The Most
Photographed Buildings in the country. Your tax dollars at work: NPS
put a lot of work into it recently; it's looking really good. 
On the other hand, we did find a Lodge cast iron frying pan at REI for sale at the lowest price I've seen on them anywhere so we've added that to the Guppy's gear. Seeing various campers cooking over campfires at Montauk has inspired us to acquire a few items so we can get into doing that, too. Up until now, when camping and cooking combined in my mind, it was more like backpacking cooking: small, lightweight pans used with a buddy burner or a backpacking stove. But if we're going to be where there are actual fire rings and there's plenty of firewood, it makes sense to take advantage of them. One of our flea market finds on Tuesday was a cast iron dutch oven with minimal rust -- the S.O. is going to work on cleaning it up and seasoning it. Tammi tells me one of her friends is the Master of the Dutch Oven: he can cook or bake almost anything in one. I'll have to invest in a camping cookbook and see what we can manage to achieve with ours besides the obvious stews or chili. I can cook on a woodstove -- how much harder can cooking over a campfire be?

The S.O. admiring the Alley Spring. The turbine pit for the mill is behind him;
the mill was powered by a vertically shafted reaction turbine.
And, in one of those it really is a small world incidents, I had the experience of running into someone at REI who had been at Montauk the previous weekend. He and several friends had camped in the basic section for a night before heading out on a canoe trip on the Current. They had made the mistake of asking me for directions to the Baptist Camp put-in. Never having been there, all I knew was that after leaving the campground you turn right on YY and eventually you have to turn right again. I could not remember if there was any signage that would help them. I told them to consult the large map on the front of the shower house. He said they did consult the map and managed to get lost. They had to return to the park and ask at the office for directions. The question did inspire me to put a few Ozark NSR brochures into the shoe box on the campround host's golf cart so that next time (if there ever is one), I can just hand the camper one of them. (I also now know how to give actual directions, having just driven that same way on Monday and seeing for myself just what the road is like and where the turn to Baptist is.)

The mill as seen from the other side of the spring. Over 80
million gallons of water pour out of the Alley Spring daily. 
I really wasn't expecting to run into anyone who had been at Montauk at REI in St. Louis. Most of the campers at the park are more the Orvis store or Bass Pro Shop type of personalities. I have been half expecting to encounter someone here in Farmington, maybe at the local Country Mart or Aldi, because the bonfire crowd had mentioned being from Farmington when we got into the discussion about that trailer load of firewood. So far it hasn't happened, but it won't surprise me if it does.

As for the sandals, I did look in a few other stores hoping to find something similar. No luck. I may have to resort to an online order, something I really hate to do when it comes to footwear.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Relearning coding

Long, long ago in a galaxy far away in the days when personal computers and word processing programs were still a novelty, I attended a university that required graduate students to write their master's theses and doctoral dissertations using Script/GML on a mainframe computer. This didn't bother me much. I had attended Michigan Tech as an undergrad; MTU also encouraged students to write papers using Script/GML on the mainframe so unlike some of my colleagues I was already familiar with commands that created paragraph breaks or defined fonts. MTU, in fact, had a really nifty guide to Script/GML that had been written by an undergraduate in the Scientific and Technical Communications program. It was concise (under 50 pages IIRC), it was easy to follow, and it made perfect sense. Sufferers at VaTech, on the other hand, got stuck with a "user manual" that filled a 2-inch thick 3-ring binder and for all practical purposes was written in Urdu.

Within a few years, of course, the idea of using Script/GML for ordinary word processing was a thing of the past. Even at the time the university was telling grad students to use the mainframe, they were opening more and more computer labs where undergraduates and graduate students alike could use word processing programs like WordPerfect. Personal computers became more and more affordable, and unless a person was a total nerd and liked writing code for the fun of it (or worked in IT) most people forgot (or never knew to begin with) that GML had ever existed.

GML, or General Markup Language, is, of course, the ancestor of HTML, or Hypertext Markup Language. Those of us who blog know some bare bones HTML, like the commands for bolding text or inserting a link into a comment. Most of us would be thoroughly screwed, however, if we had to do anything that involved messing with the underlying architecture of a web page. What usually isn't obvious to the casual blogger or web site reader is that every web page is actually a table. Bloggers don't have to create that table: companies like Google or Yahoo or WordPress have already built basic templates that allow people with zero actual technical skills to create a web site, whether it's for a small business or for a blog, that looks good and doesn't require us to do much more than ordinary typing. We don't need to know how the cells on the table are defined; we're never going to have to worry about it.

Unless, of course, you find yourself in the awkward position of having to make updates to a website that was created using one host and then got transferred to another. That's when suddenly what you get to see are not nice neat blocks of text that would be remarkably easy to tweak. The days of being able to just log into Yahoo and make edits the way a person can log into Blogger and mess with blog posts are gone. Nope. The poor fool who's now the webmaster (mistress?) gets to use WinSCP to get into the bare bones of the website and work in HTML. What she gets to see is line after line of code defining first the table layout and then what goes into the different cells. A block of text that is multiple paragraphs on the website gets displayed as one line of text that goes off into infinity when it's displayed in HTML. That's when a person starts to wish that she had kept the Dream Weaver manual from a 2005 training instead of doing the ethical thing and leaving it at the office when she changed employers.

I am, in case there was any doubt, referring to the website for the Baraga County Historical Museum. Why the website had to move from one host to another is a long, unpleasant story. Suffice to say that what seemed like a good idea back in 2003, or whenever the museum's original website was created, turned out to be not such a hot idea eleven years later. The person who did the original work on the site became disabled so could no longer do updates, and there were problems with Yahoo. End result? The site is now hosted by Baraga Telephone (aka UP.net). If we have a problem with them, we can drive to the office and complain in person. Unfortunately, although they will provide some technical help, when it comes to the actual editing and updating that's our headache. Or, more precisely at the moment, mine.

Which is kind of why I'm wishing I remembered more from the days when I used GML. Not that it would help much -- HTML may have evolved from GML, but it has quite a few new elements. I had planned to work on updating the website while we're on the road. I can do that from any place we have an Internet connection. I'd also planned to have it all go faster than it actually has. I didn't realize until I actually got into the site to see the coding just how sloppy it all was (is?). Lots and lots of repetitive commands, for example, like multiple span definitions for no apparent reason, and other weirdness. It's been years since I had to do anything involving coding, but I know it should look a lot cleaner than this stuff does. HTML is very logical; this stuff just looks messy. In short, it's not just a case of fixing what's visible to site visitors; it's also a case of cleaning up the coding behind the scenes. The site was originally created using a Yahoo template; one can only assume that's where most of the sloppy stuff originated. I guess it's kind of like making a dress: if it looks good on the side people see, no one cares much about all the knots and snarled thread hiding on the inside of the seams.

On the other hand, the lines of code are starting to make sense, I've succeeded in cleaning up a few typos in the text (although there are still some huge glaring ones I haven't gotten to yet), I removed some dead links from a page referencing other sites relating to Baraga County, and I've begun improving the Publications page. (Take my word for it -- it's better now than it was a week ago.) Baby steps. If past experience is any guide, if I can manage to do a little bit every day or so, it won't take me too much longer to figure out what I need to do to clean up all of the problems.

In the meantime, if either of my two readers knows anything about HTML, take a look at the museum's home page and tell me what to look for to fix that annoying problem with the menu on the left. The background color makes it just about impossible to see the links to the other pages. It's a puzzle I know I'll eventually solve, but being handed a hint to speed the process along would be nice. Kiitos paljon.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How did we manage before?

I was doing some wandering around the Intertubes, researching campgrounds that would fit into the tentative itinerary the S.O. and I have been contemplating for the month of April, and it hit me: How did people do this stuff before? The answer is obvious -- before the Internet, they relied on publications like the Good Sam guides and the telephone. And before that, they'd just show up at campgrounds and hope there was space available on a first come, first served basis.

There are still campers who do that. Every time I help in the fee booth I see a few campers who just show up hoping there's space available. Montauk State Park still has sites that are non-reservable; they're filled on a walk-in (drive-in?) basis. Not all campgrounds are like that; more and more are going to a 100% reservable status. Which means the odds of someone who's doing a spontaneous camping expedition finding a space on the spur of a moment are getting slimmer and slimmer. There were a couple weekends in October where we wound up putting out the No Vacancy sign at the fee booth pretty early in the afternoon, and I'm sure the same thing will happen this month. If the weather forecast hadn't included rain and a flash flood alert, we might have had to do it yesterday: every single reserveable site, with the exception of one or two handicapped accessible spaces, was reserved. For some reason, though, the first come sites filled up slowly. There were still quite a few available when our shift in the booth ended. This weekend, incidentally, is typical of most weekends during the "on season" here. From now through October, most Fridays and Saturdays the reservable sites are already sold out. Montauk is a popular park. But, as usual, I digress.

There was a time when the spontaneous aspect of just wandering aimlessly and hoping to find a decent place to park the Guppy for a few nights would have appealed to me. I must be getting old because now I prefer a little more structure. I want an itinerary that includes definite stops, places where I know when we get there, we won't find ourselves driving around a campground, circling like sharks hoping to spot a slow or stupid seal, looking for an open site that isn't too muddy, too out in the open or (alternatively) right under a hazard tree, or too close to the sites next to it. I want to be able to stop at a campground's fee booth/check station and say those magic words: "We have a reservation." I find myself getting really annoyed at the campgrounds that have web sites that are basically just glorified Yellow Pages advertisements -- no interactive features, no online ability to reserve a site, just an 800 number to call. I want to be able to do this stuff at a time that is convenient to me (5 a.m.?), not between the normal business hours of 8 and 5. I don't want to have to deal with humans. Humans make mistakes. They misspell names, transpose numbers, and sell people's credit card information to their shady acquaintances.

In short, what could end up determining the April itinerary is which state park systems and which private campgrounds have decent online reservation systems in place and which don't. At this point, avoiding burning up Tracfone minutes is trumping most other factors. The exceptions will come when (if?) it turns out the only campgrounds reasonably close to where we want to be in our ambles are still doing business using goose quills and parchment. I'm hoping I don't stumble across too many of them.

As for the itinerary, so far it's made it into Arkansas and Crater of Diamonds State Park. We've always been a little bit curious about a place where you can supposedly find actual diamonds in the dirt. I wasn't too impressed with the website -- it has only one photo of a campsite, and you don't get to pick a specific site yourself -- but it is an online reservation system so I won't complain too much about its flaws. The S.O. and I did kick around the idea of stopping in Hot Springs for a few days -- the National Park Service has a nice campground at Gulpha Gorge (first come, first served for every site, but I'll make exceptions to my preference for online reservations when it's an NPS campground) -- but we've decided to focus our amblings this Spring on places neither of us has been before.

And now back to the Internet and trying to figure out what looks good in Texas.

It has struck me that our amblings in the Guppy aim us in the opposite direction of most RVs with cold state plates in April. We're going South when most retirees will be heading North. The annual snowbird migration is beginning; we've already had a couple of retirees pass through here on their way north from Texas to Illinois. I guess the people going north now just don't realize that April is the best month of the year in Texas.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Camping rituals

We noticed during our first visit to Montauk last October that the campers who come here have an almost obsessive love of campfires. Although calling them campfires doesn't actually do them justice. I've seen smaller conflagrations lit in honor of Guy Fawkes Day or Midsummer. It is a bit unreal.

You know, at a typical campground that allows campfires, people who are camping using RVs will buy a bundle or two of wood and light enough of a fire to allow the kids to toast a few marshmallows or char an occasional hot dog. Not here at Montauk. Oh, there are some campers who are content to do that. There is a firewood concession in the park that sells a pretty decent bundle (bigger than the average campfire wood bundle) for, if I recall correctly, $4. For most campers, it's more than adequate. For a substantial subgroup, however, it definitely is not. I've noticed quite a few campers arrive for two nights at the park with a tier or so of firewood packed into the back of a pickup. A tier, for the uninitiated, is a pile of firewood that's 4 feet high and 8 feet long and one piece of firewood deep.

Once or twice last October we witnessed a tier or so of wood being unloaded at campsites. On one occasion we were working in the fee booth and saw a truck come in piled so high with wood park staff suspected the driver was selling wood in the park, which isn't allowed. The park has a contract with a concession to operate a woodshed; no one else is allowed to come in to peddle wood directly to campers. In the case of the truck last October, it was one campsite and the truck belonged to one of the campers. I looked at that mammoth pile of wood and thought, wow, that's a bit excessive. How on earth are they going to use that much wood in the short time they're going to be here?

Well, they managed it. A tier or more of firewood, enough to heat our house for a couple of weeks, gone in a remarkably short period of time. Wood, even oak, burns remarkably quickly when you're piling enough of it into the fire ring to incinerate a heretic or two.

And now it's March, the weather has improved to the point where people want to sit around outside staring into flames while drinking their bad beer -- Busch Lite remains the beverage of choice, if the semi-melted cans left in the fire rings are any indication -- and once again the bonfires of the trout fishermen are being built. There was a minor kerfuffle in the park yesterday because someone had arranged for a tree service to deliver a trailer-load of wood to his campsite. Park staff spotted it, and there was again the suspicion someone was selling firewood in the park. There had to be close to a full cord in that trailer (a cord is 4 x 4 x 8; it's a lot of firewood). As usual I found myself wondering if they were planning a hog roast.

Anyway, the way the rules are written, individual campers can buy all the wood they want outside the park but they have to haul it in themselves. Buying it and paying for delivery comes too close to treading on the firewood concession's toes. In talking with the campers, I learned that the firewood was actually being shared by a group -- several friends had reserved sites adjacent to each other and gone in together on buying the wood -- but it still violated the spirit of the park rules. The first reaction by park staff to the delivery trailer was to tell the guy he couldn't unload. But of course the camper was going to bring the wood in anyway -- if the guy who had sold the wood couldn't unload it, all that was going to happen was he was going to tow the trailer to a location outside the park where the camper would hook up the trailer to his own vehicle and drag it right back in. So the park superintendent reluctantly gave permission to unload accompanied by an admonition not to do it again.  

Later in the day, there was a similar delivery by a different guy. This time it was a huge amount of wood loaded on the back of a small flatbed truck. And once again it was a delivery to a site where there were actually 4 or 5 sites adjacent to each other where it's a group of guys who are planning to have a fun fishing weekend. I don't know. What do you tell campers who have been making similar arrangements for massive amounts of firewood for quite a few years? No doubt the people who have the firewood concession are annoyed as hell by these arrangements, but how different is it it from someone buying a load of firewood outside the park, whether it's one small bundle or a whole pick-up load, and bringing it in? Either way, they're not buying from the concession. All I could do in talking with the campers is remind them that if they haul it in themselves, it's fine, but they can't have it delivered. In turn, the campers promise faithfully that "next time" that's what they'll do. And of course what will actually happen is that next time whoever the campground host is will get to hear "but we've been doing this for years and there's never been a problem. . ."

In any case, I don't get the obsession with the bonfires. I can understand people who want to cook over a campfire -- the park does get a fair number of campers who have all the equipment for doing so and who really get into preparing every meal using the fire ring. The burning a tier of wood just for the sake of burning a tier of wood, though? That I don't get. Maybe it's because we heat with wood and I associate firewood with work: having spent time and energy creating a stash of firewood at home, it just feels wrong to waste wood, even at a park.

The guys with the massive woodpiles will use it all while they're here, too. It is astounding. They might only be here for two or three nights, but they will manage to burn every stick of firewood. Which might also be a "don't waste it" response. Having spent quite a bit of money to have that wood delivered, they're not going to waste any of it by leaving even one stick behind for other campers. People are strange. . .

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Planning to buy an Apple watch?

Given how many times I heard "Why would anyone want that?" while listening to discussions of the Apple watch yesterday, it's going to be another huge marketing success.

In fact, even I, the person who claims that she'd be perfectly happy with really basic, legacy technology (a goose quill and some parchment instead of a word processing program on a computer, a sundial in the garden instead of a clock, etc) is looking at the Apple watch and quietly lusting for it. No clue why, as I have absolutely no need for one. Maybe I was a magpie in a previous life and am irrationally attracted to bright, shiny things?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

When did vagina become a synonym for crotch?

One of my old high school buddies, a fellow who is now a renowned professor of art history, shared a link on Facebook to an article  that intrigued me, although probably not quite in the way most people would react. The big issue for most people would be the legal standing of the French court system to sue Facebook, an American company. No doubt it's an interesting legal question, as is the one regarding where you draw the line between art and porn, but that's not what caught my eye. Nope, what caught my eye was the way article after article (I did some Googling) referred to the image in question as a "painting of a vagina."

First, some background. According to the news articles I found, a man in France filed a lawsuit against Facebook when Facebook removed his photograph of a 19th century painting by the artist Gustave Courbet. The painting in question, "Origin of the World" is a realistic portrayal of an adult woman's crotch, the pubic region, her genital area. It is what in the parlance of porn would once have been called a beaver shot. Facebook considered it to be a pornographic image and therefore in violation of their policies.

By today's standards, the painting is remarkably innocuous. Thanks to the wide spread popularity of waxing, if a person just glances at the painting, what registers is not an explicit crotch shot but instead an image not a whole lot different than what you'd see if a woman was wearing a thong, except instead of fabric in the painting the external genitalia are rather obscured by pubic hair.* Courbet was, after all, a 19th century artist. The phrase "full Brazilian" did not yet exist, and for sure even the pornographers of his day never contemplated someday not just showing hairless vulvas, but doing such extreme close-ups of female genitalia that the line between an anatomy text and smut gets blurred. In short, nowhere in that painting do you actually see even a hint of a vagina.

If you look closer, of course, you can see that Courbet was a thorough Realist.** He did a really nice job of painting the individual hairs, and the labia majora are visible. Still, not a vagina.  The vagina is an internal organ, a passageway, it's not a crotch covered with fur. So why did all the news articles persist in referring to it as a painting of a vagina?

I don't know, but I have been noticing this shift in language. There are a number of words and phrases that would accurately describe what the painting shows, some polite (genital area, pubic region), some a little cruder (crotch), and some vulgar (twat, cunt). Vulva would be more anatomically correct -- vulva refers to the area around the vaginal opening. So why call a crotch a vagina? By definition, and I quote, a vagina is "The passage leading from the opening of the vulva to the cervix of the uterus in female mammals." It's internal, not external. Can I blame Eve Ensler? I've never seen "The Vagina Monologues" so I'm not sure. Is it just sloppy thinking? Lazy writing? Why use two words that have a more precise meaning when you can use one that's sort of related? It's a mystery. 

*It did occur to me that for many young American males the most shocking thing about that painting could be the discovery that women are not naturally as hairless as Barbie dolls. 

**After looking at a number of other paintings by Courbet, I concluded he was a lot better with nudes than he was with the outdoor and hunting scenes that seem to constitute the bulk of his work. Technically, he's quite good; aesthetically, however, he seemed to crank out some rather cliched images. And he definitely didn't handle light as competently as some of his contemporaries did.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Desperately searching for a scandal

I have been watching with some bemusement the latest attempt by the Republicans to find a scandal that will stick to Hilary Clinton. Apparently she didn't have an official State Department email account. Instead of receiving emails at what would seem to be a logical email address for the Secretary of State she communicated through a private account. This does strike me as rather bizarre. I can't imagine a government agency that doesn't automatically assign an email address to a person when he or she starts a job -- in  my case I was NMannikko@nps.gov when I worked for the Park Service and some weird combination of letters and numbers, something odd that had nothing whatsoever to do with my actual name (e.g., gnh4@cdc.gov) when I was at the Centers for Disease Control -- but I suppose it's possible. Every cabinet department is a little different in how its email is set up. Both NPS and CDC had .gov tacked on to their email accounts but the USDA Forest Service is Person@fs.us. Who knows? Who really cares?

But, as usual, I'm ambling away from what was actually on my mind. Why do the GOP and Fox News even bother? Thanks to the relentless attacks on the Clintons while Bill was in the White House, Hilary comes close to being Teflon-coated. She went through 8 years of being attacked in a myriad of ways and was called a murderer when Vince Foster committed suicide. She still managed to get elected to the Senate from the state of New York. That, quite frankly, astonished me. She'd barely established a legal address there and she persuaded the people of New York to elect her to the United States Senate. She was a carpetbagger with dubious credentials, came complete with a husband who was a well-known womanizer and general sleaze, and the people of New York didn't care. And, yes, I will repeat, "dubious credentials." Her primary experience, other than being First Lady of Arkansas and then the United States, was as an attorney for a law firm no one had ever heard of before the Clintons entered the White House. Everyone talks about Bill's charisma. Well, Hilary must pack a pretty powerful campaigning punch, too.

And then, after one term in the Senate, she decided to run for President and came really, really close to capturing the Democratic nomination. My personal opinion is that the main reason she didn't was that Bill inserted himself into the campaign a little too much and served as a nice reminder of all the things the base of the Democratic party dislikes about the Clintons: they're corporate sellouts who never met a banker or a lobbyist they didn't love, not to mention the fact both of them will say or do almost anything to get elected. Granted, the latter is true of almost every politician on the planet, but there are limits to what a person is willing to stomach.

In any case, considering how many scandals the right-wing has dredged up or attempted to dredge up that appear to have minimal impact on Hilary's career trajectory, why are they bothering now? No one cares, especially when you start hearing about the sheer volume of the emails. She was Secretary of State for about 4 years. There were over 50,000 emails turned over to government archives. Fifty thousand! Think about it. If those are the ones that got saved for the government (Hilary has said it didn't include purely personal stuff, like planning for Chelsea's wedding), just how many emails was this woman dealing with daily? My calculations came up with an average minimum of 35. That's a lot of emails. Just when did this woman sleep? Or, to come at it from another angle, how many of those emails were ever actually viewed by Clinton and how many were routine memos sent out by staff? Who knows? And, once again, who cares? Unless someone can manage to come up with a specific email with something juicy in it -- Hilary trying to set up a 3-way with her, Bill, and Putin (and now I must reach for the Brain Bleach) -- no one will care. People hear "email" and their eyes glaze over. Trying to turn this into a scandal is another massive wasted effort on the part of any and all GOP strategists who are fantasizing that it'll derail Hilary's apparently inevitable candidacy. I can't decide if the Republican scandal machine persists because they desperately want her to be the candidate because they're delusional enough to believe one of their possible candidates (Jeb Bush? Ted Cruz?) could beat her, or if they're simply not familiar with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Which brings me to another question: where the hell are the Democrats with enough spine to try to derail the Hilary train? Why is the party just kicking back and allowing this elderly woman to be the de facto standard bearer? I don't give a rat's patoot about what anyone says about how the fact she's in her 60s doesn't matter. It matters. Ask anyone who's the same age (or close to it) as Hilary. She's 67 now. That's geezer territory. It's the age where you start checking the obituaries each morning to make sure you're not listed. It's the age where you wake up with mysterious aches and pains you apparently acquire while engaged in the strenuous activity of sleeping. No one who is 67 now should be making any serious moves towards running for President, but Hilary apparently is. Wasn't she paying attention to what it did to Bill? Or aWol? Or Barack? When you look at photos of recent presidents, you'd swear that Presidential years are like dog years: for every year you're in the White House, you age at least 5. But the media has managed to bestow such an aura of inevitability on Hilary that we don't even hear any names bandied about as possible vice presidential nominees. Unbelievable.

Monday, March 2, 2015

An odd experience

Note icicles hanging off the front of the Guppy. The snow did
start to melt yesterday.
I'm having trouble getting into a book I'm reading, Oscar and Lucinda. I'm not sure why. The writing is okay, and the underlying narrative is at least moderately interesting. I started it enough days ago that if I were breezing through it at my usual speed, I'd be done with it by now. Instead I haven't even made it to page 100 yet. For some reason, it's doing too good a job of mellowing me out when I crawl into bed.

My normal routine is to read for half an hour to an hour before going to sleep each evening. Seems like since we've been here at Montauk, that half an hour is more like 5 minutes. The only explanation that comes to mind is that dealing with the cold can be remarkably draining. We're staying warm, but there are a whole bunch of things that I tend to take for granted that involve extra work here. Because it's been so cold (well
The host's golf cart handles surprisingly well in snow. 
below freezing every night), we don't have the water connected to the Guppy. That means multiple trips throughout the course of the day to the frost-free faucet across the road (the one that would connect to the Guppy proved to be not frost-free after all and is frozen) to get water to make coffee, brush teeth, wash dishes, whatever. We hadn't planned on boondocking while sitting on a campground host's site so arrived here still in full winterization mode: the plumbing system was full of anti-freeze, not water.

I could be wrong, but it's one thing to go camping fully expecting to deal with "roughing it" and quite another to have it thrust upon one's self as a rude surprise. And, yes, my whining about being cold and inconvenienced definitely falls into the category of a first world problem. Somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa small children are trying to survive with no safe drinking water and praying UNICEF makes a food delivery soon while I whine about having to put on boots to walk to an outdoor faucet.

On the other hand, I bet those starving, thirsty kids are warm. . .
Photo taken before the snow started falling in earnest; by the time it stopped Saturday night there was probably 7 to 8 inches of fresh snow on top of what was already there. Yesterday temperatures hit the mid-30s and the snow started melting. It won't take long to vanish at this time of the year.