Sunday, January 31, 2016

I guess there weren't any white actresses available

I've been watching with some bemusement the complaints about Joseph Fiennes being cast as Michael Jackson in an upcoming movie. The truly bizarre part, at least from a disinterested bystander's perspective, is seeing the side-by-side photos of Jackson and Fiennes and realizing that Jackson looks a heck of a lot paler than the white guy picked to play him. I can understand why black actors would be upset -- Jackson was, after all, African American -- but the reality is that between the make-up Jackson wore to cover up the blotchiness caused by vitiligo and the various plastic surgeries he'd had I'm not sure there's a black male actor on the planet who could play him. And I'm not sure any of the female black actors who might have the nose would be too thrilled with having to wear all that whiteface. One of the panelists on The Nightly Show suggested that Jackson's sister LaToya would have been a good choice, but I seem to recall that while LaToya may have paid for the same face as her brother, she's definitely a different body type. LaToya has curves.

Casting actors for roles in bio-pics is inherently tricky, especially if the bio-pic is about someone who's either still around or died so recently we all still have a mental image of what that person should look like. Whoever gets cast as someone famous should bear at least a superficial resemblance to the original person. Fiennes actually comes pretty close to looking like Michael Jackson: thin nose, strong chin, similar ears. He can also act, although his career must have been rather stagnant lately when all the references to him are citing "Shakespeare in Love," a movie that came out so long ago I actually saw it in a theater. In short, looked at from a purely rational perspective, Fiennes playing Jackson makes sense.

On the other hand, given the recent kerfuffle over the Oscar nominations, I find it hard to believe that somewhere in Great Britain (the movie in question is apparently a BBC production) there wasn't a young skinny unknown black actor who could have done a credible job. Who knows -- given the premise of the movie (a road trip that Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando supposedly took) maybe the whole point of the casting is to make things even more bizarre than the reality was. A road trip? Brando, Taylor, and Jackson? Which one of them drove? And why? And just who is the target audience for the proposed film? It actually sounds so weird that maybe black actors everywhere should be feeling grateful they never got a call from their agents about auditioning for this particular role. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A blogging question

Am I the only person who will update posts when/if a typo gets noticed? I'm not in the habit of going back to review my deathless prose, but every so often I'll be scrolling down the page kind of checking to see if any one bothered checking one of the little boxes at the bottoms of posts and a huge honking typo screams at me. Some of the stuff I manage to miss when I'm supposedly proofreading before hitting Publish does not speak well for my copy editing skills. Then again, I always tell people no one can accurately edit themselves: your mind sees what you think you put there and not what your fingers on the keyboard actually did.

I do know most bloggers will fix stuff if a reader points it out, whether it's a factual error or a typing blooper, but that's a little different than being sufficiently anal-retentive to go back and correct minor typos that may have been sitting there for a month without anyone else noticing. Maybe I really do have CDO . . .  

Friday, January 29, 2016

It doesn't take long to take stuff for granted

Today's example: tasers. I'm a fan of John Sandford's books so have been going back and trying to read the books in his "Prey" series that I missed when they were first published. The one I just finished, Silent Prey, came out in 1992. Having the characters depend on land lines and pay phones didn't feel too odd. What stood out was the introduction of a taser into the action -- and it was still so new that no one was calling it a taser. It was a "stun gun." The cops are trying to figure out just how the psychotic serial killer is overcoming his victims, but it's not until about the 6th body that someone notices the burn marks from a "stun gun" on a victim's neck.

After reading about the cops in the book talking about "stun guns" and what a novelty they were, I started trying to remember when I first saw one. I can remember a time when suddenly everyone was talking about how they were the thing to get for self-defense, I just can't remember when that time was. Had to be sometime in the '90s, but I can't recall if it was during my Virginia Tech days or shortly after. I do know that when someone did the heart-to-heart just-between-us-gals talk about the need to carry one for self defense, I declined. I know me. I figured out a long time ago that anything I carry for self-defense is far more likely to be snatched from my fumbling fingers and used against me than it is to deter a mugger or a rapist. If I were dumb enough to spend real money on a taser or a hand gun or even some cheap pepper spray, the low life harassing me would have no difficulty snatching my self-defense weapon up from where I'd managed to drop it in the process of trying to get it out of my pocket or purse. And if by some minor miracle I managed to actually hang on to the device, odds are I'd shoot or shock or gas myself before I did any damage to an assailant. 

Come to think of it, I guess I could wonder about just when pepper spray became common, too, because it does seem to go hand-in-hand with the taser. In my memory, both seem to pop up around the same time, the early to mid-90s. Which, now that I think about, correlates with the racist paranoia that popped up during the first Bush administration about "super predators" and amoral urban youth terrorizing the rest of us. So which came first, I wonder? The market niche (hyper-paranoid white people) or the tasers and pepper sprays? 

I have actually carried something for self-defense, but it didn't fit in my purse or briefcase. I was moderately paranoid when I lived in Washington, D.C., when I first got there so I did what a number of self-defense experts suggested: I carried a large umbrella, something big enough that it was real clear it could function as a club if necessary, and I tried to walk like I knew exactly where I was going. If you don't look like an easy target, you're less likely to be targeted. Of course, whether or not I would have been capable of flailing away at a mugger's head with the umbrella is debatable. More likely I would have done the sensible thing and just handed over my bag. Maybe. If anyone had tried snatching the briefcase with my dissertation research notes in it, serious violence might have ensued.

A small digression: during my time in D.C., two people I knew personally were mugged. One was a friend who was on her way to 7-11 to buy donuts at about 7 in the morning. She said she was really torn by the incident: she was mad as hell that she missed out on the donuts she was looking forward to but at the same time impressed by the mugger's work ethic. After all, no one expects street crime to happen just as the sun's coming up. The other one was a guy, someone I knew through the Smithsonian, who got mugged in the DuPont Circle area when he came up from the Metro. In his case, it was fairly early in the evening but still late enough that the big commuting rush was over and there weren't many people around. He definitely didn't fit the profile for a mugging victim (he was a physically fit young male) but he told us he was distracted, trying to figure out which way to go to get to a party he'd been invited to, and looking lost can cause giant neon signs saying VICTIM in flashing letters to appear over your head. (And it just hit me: all those people wandering around staring down at their smart phones instead of paying attention to their surroundings must be a purse snatcher's idea of heaven. . . which gives me yet another reason to avoid ever owning one myself.) 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What are you going to do when the lights go out?

I just finished reading Ted Koppel's work of pre-Apocalypse nonfiction, Lights Out. Koppel is worried about cyber attacks on the country's electrical grid, which is definitely a justifiable concern. Hackers with evil intent do exist; the electrical grid is vulnerable. It's a patchwork of thousands of power generating systems that's been fragmented in odd ways in the past few decades.

At the same time, it's all tied together electronically to ensure that if a generator drops off line at one power plant, another generator will come on line at another to keep the overall amount of electricity coursing through the wires balanced. It's an odd mix of super smart and super stupid -- and from what Koppel describes a lot of the super stupid isn't in the computers or the generators; it's between the ears of the people managing it all. Too many of them have an almost religious faith in the "resiliency" of the grid. In short, it wouldn't take a whole lot of effort to take big chunks of the national electric grid down and keep it down for an extended period of time, possibly many months. All it would take is a deftly targeted attack on a few of the humongous transformers that step voltage down from the high-tension power lines (the 660,000 volt ones) to more usable voltages to be distributed on smaller lines. The humongous transformers tend to be custom made for specific installations, are difficult to transport to wherever they're going to be installed, and take many months to manufacture and deliver. Somewhere along the line Koppel started thinking about the vulnerability of the electrical grid, which led to a book asking when the lights go out what are we going to do?

Koppel starts off by asking the people who should have the answers: FEMA, Homeland Security, state and local government emergency preparedness personnel. As one might expect, he encounters a lot of vague bureaucratese where terms like "resiliency" get tossed around a lot and straight answers are really hard to come by. Every so often, though, he hits someone who's honest. And what is honest? Basically, if the power goes out and stays out for much over a week in places like New York City or Chicago, a whole lot of people are screwed. Current disaster preparedness tells people to have food and water for three days. Three days! When Hurricane Sandy hit, some areas were without power for ten days. It's not that uncommon for power outages to last for a week or more, especially following a natural disaster. In those cases, though, the areas without electricity go from being widespread to just a few spots here and there pretty quickly. So what happens when those three days are up, the water's still out for many blocks around you, the bodega down on the corner has run out of everything, and people are starting to panic because it's not just a few blocks or a few square miles that are without power but multiple states?

One person that spoke with Koppel said that the immediate most practical thing to do in urban areas was to call in the military to get emergency power to the water and sewer systems. If you can get the pumps running to get water to people, they can survive fairly well while various agencies work on getting food and medical supplies to people who need them. The biggest problem would be communication -- if the power is out, the grid is down, how do you get information to people so they don't panic? It's an interesting question. The book didn't provide an answer.

Koppel did talk with people in the "prepping" movement, including some of the big names in the business. Interestingly enough, the people who supply the individual preppers aren't really set up to deal with a major emergency themselves. They don't keep a lot of stock on their shelves; people do pay attention to expiration dates so no one wants to buy old MREs. The typical MRE has a shelf life of 5 years; the better bet is to get freeze-dried food (the dehydrated crap backpackers invest in before starting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail). Freeze-dried lasts up to 25 years. Of course, so do a lot of other dry foods. Lots of packaged foods like pastas and dry beans and rice have "best by" dates on them; those dates don't mean the food is no longer edible. It just means you should pitch it and buy new stuff from whoever is selling so they keep making money. Canned goods are little iffier; a lot depends on the specific product and how it was canned.

In any case, some individual "preppers" do seem to have a decent grasp of what it would take to muddle along without electricity. Koppel spoke with one guy who lives in St. Louis who also has a rural property. The country place is set up to be off the grid -- solar and wind power, for example -- and includes features like a man-made pond that's been stocked with pan fish. The fellow who owns it would like to live there full-time once he retires; his wife isn't quite so ready to give up the amenities that come with city life unless and until it actually is a matter of survival. Nonetheless, despite having through things through better than average, the man is making some of the same mistakes that always inspire me to laugh a bit scornfully: hoarding gasoline, for example. Way too many people don't realize gas can go bad pretty fast.

Koppel also found a few people who weren't preppers at all but just through personal choices and lifestyle would manage just fine if the lights went out. Not surprisingly, they already lived in rural areas, like a rancher in Wyoming.

Not surprisingly, the one group that is well-prepared to survive off the grid for long periods of time are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn't exactly news that Mormons in general aren't going to worry when the shelves go empty at the closest Kroger. It's official church doctrine to be prepared. Church members are expected to have a well-organized pantry with enough edibles in it to last a minimum of 3 months, although a full year is the preferred target amount. There are guidelines as to how much of what you need to have for your family size; there are instructions on rotating things so nothing ever it hits an expiration date. What was news to me was learning just how much infrastructure the LDS church has in place to back up individual preparedness. The Mormons are remarkably well-organized. The lowest level of organization is, of course, the home. Each household is part of a ward (the equivalent of a parish maybe?), wards are organized into stakes, each stake has a bishop's storehouse. The storehouse can function like a food pantry -- families that fall on hard times can get vouchers (a bishop's recommendation) that allows them to go to the storehouse and get what they need. In a widespread emergency, the storehouse is the backup to the individual homes. The Mormons also draw on them when they participate in disaster relief:  when there's a hurricane or a flood they'll load trucks with supplies to send to affected areas. In many cases the LDS is on the scene with relief supplies before the Red Cross or the government. (A small digression: Koppel heaps a fair amount of scorn on the Red Cross. In recent years it's become clear the national organization is far more interested in fund-raising than it is in doing any actual relief work.)

And how are the Mormons stocking those storehouses? Well, they have a food and other supplies system in place that's comparable to anything run by Walmart, including owning a trucking company. They have their own farms and dairies, canning plants, you name it. In ordinary times, they're selling on the open market what isn't needed to keep the storehouses stocked; in the event of a wide-spread disaster anything they grow or raise would go into the church's supply chain. I found myself thinking that maybe those nice young men, the "elders" going door-to-door trying to persuade people to read the Book of Mormon, should consider mentioning that a good way to survive the Zombie Apocalypse is by converting to Mormonism. If only they were willing to drink coffee. . . 

So what are you going to do when the lights go out? I tend to agree with Koppel that it's not a matter of If, it's a matter of When. Obviously, how grim it would be hinges a lot on which part of the country gets hit hardest and what time of the year it is. The national grid isn't actually a national grid -- it's at least three separate ones -- so it's not like the entire country would go black at once. If the power goes out in the upper Midwest in July or August, it's not that big a deal. Refrigerated and frozen food is going to spoil, of course, but the weather isn't likely to kill you. If it's January, on the other hand, and your sole source of heat is furnace that requires electricity, you've got a problem. Conversely, no power in Texas in July or August would mean no air conditioning -- and heat stroke is going to do in anyone who's afraid to open windows. Every year old people die from heat stroke in urban areas because they're more afraid of burglars than they are of the heat.

And what about simple things like basic sanitation? How do you flush a toilet when there is no water? One of things they always recommend in prepping for a natural disaster (ice storms, hurricanes, whatever) is to fill your bathtub or other containers with water before the disaster hits. Well, a cyber attack on the electric grid isn't going to give any advance warning. If you don't have a container with some water stashed as part of routine household preparedness, you're out of luck. So maybe the first step in thinking about preparing for the lights going out would be to make sure you've got some water stashed -- you can go a long time without food or a functioning furnace, but you can't survive without water.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

So how long is it going to take me?

Every so often I get asked how long it takes to hand quilt a quilt. I'm never able to come up with a good answer because it's not like I sit down, start quilting, and just work straight through as though it was an ordinary job with a set schedule. I quilt while watching television, which means it's for an hour or two at a time during the evening -- but not every evening. Out of curiousity, I decided this time that I'd keep track. I'll record the hours each day on a calendar. And then sometime later this year I'll have an answer.

Or maybe I should say hopefully sometime this year. . . the bit you see in the photo took about 5 hours to do. The problem with quilting while watching television is, of course, that if the action on the screen is particularly interesting, the needle in my hand stops moving. I've mentioned before I quilt using a hoop, which makes the work portable, sort of. This particular quilt tends to be a bit awkward to work with as it's about 110-inches square with a pattern running on a diagonal. Usually I start in the middle and work out toward the edges. This time I started in the middle but think I'll go all the way to the ends of the stripe I'm on before moving over to the next stripe. Maybe.

On the positive side, this is one quilt where I don't have to worry about the marking from the quilting template showing up. Even the print fabric is light enough that I'll be able to see the pattern.

I may have mentioned before that hand quilting on a large scale seems to have gone out of fashion. The only time I've seen it in recent years was on the micro-quilts, the little tiny wall hangings or placemats. Almost no one does it on big quilts anymore. Quilting catalogs still carry the pre-stamped "white on white" quilt tops but I always wonder just how many they're managing to sell. The idea behind a white-on-white was to show off your hand-quilting skills, but the last time I met anyone who had actually done one the lady was in her 80s -- and that was almost 30 years ago. She may have been the last person alive to bother. I do know that at the last quilt show I attended, every single large quilt had been machine quilted in a stipple pattern, which was weirdly disturbing. Not even the people who machine quilt are bothering to get creative. There are continuous line quilting patterns that allow a person who's machine quilting to loop around doing stars and hearts and flowers, but, nope, they're all stippling. It's fast, it's easy, and it's remarkably forgiving if you screw up.

The purple floral print fabric is from the Thelma stash. I'm not sure why my aunt Thelma bought it but she must have liked it a lot. There had to have been at least 20 yards of it. I've used multiple yards of it for quilt backs, Tammi recovered the seats on her dining room chairs with it, it's been used in smaller pieces in other projects. . .  I was beginning to think we'd never see the end of it.

Now that I've started quilting this particular project, I need to get serious about figuring out what to do next. I'm not real picky about the pattern, but it has to be one without points. I've never been very good at setting triangles neatly.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

It's been an odd winter

Considering it's January, there isn't much snow on the ground. I keep finding those weird little Japanese lady bug beetles crawling around on the windows. Usually we get a bunch of those beetles in the fall and then they vanish until the following year. Not this year. All that unseasonably warm weather has affected them, I guess. I keep wishing for some sustained actual winter weather, temps that stay in single digits for more than a couple days, maybe a blizzard or two with winds howling out of the north. I want to have weather cold enough long enough to do a realistic comparison of heating bills for the museum. We put that siding up; I want to see if it makes a difference.

The last two gas bills were dramatically lower than what they had been a year ago, but both November and December were not normal months. They were warm, really, really warm. Gas consumption for November dropped by almost 70 percent, December was down by about 60 percent, but how much of that was the closing of the holes in the walls and how much is weather-related? There's no way to tell. But if we'd have a prolonged definitely frigid spell and the numbers still stayed noticeably below what they used to be, maybe I could say with confidence the siding made a difference.

Of course, just not being able to see daylight between the logs has made a difference to what it feels like to work there in the winter. So did replacing the warped back door. No more drafts whistling, no more little snowdrifts forming in the hallway. . . It definitely feels cozier.

I'll probably be down at the museum for at least a few hours this weekend. We did some shuffling so I've got a couple of display cases to neaten up. No dramatic changes to any exhibits, but things did get moved and now have to be put back. . . and as long as I'm putting stuff back, I might as well try to improve the labels and overall interpretation. I'm not sure just how much attention most museum visitors actually pay to the labels and other interpretive material -- most people seem more interested in wandering down Nostalgia Lane and remembering the toys of their childhood or recognizing dishes like their grandmother had -- but that doesn't mean no one looks at the other exhibits. I'll confess, though, that I am kind of running out of steam. My enthusiasm is waning; I just can't work up the ambition I could a year or so ago. I'm not spending as many hours at the museum as I did when I'd go in back when I first started volunteering and I don't get as much done as I'd like to when I am there. Maybe it's the season -- too many gray days, too much in-between weather that can't make up its mind whether or not it's actually Winter. Oh well. . . as long as I can manage to get things back into some semblance of order before the end of May when we open for the 2016 season, we'll be fine. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Thoughts on blogging, sort of

Pulitzer Project: The Keepers of the House

The 1965 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Shirley Ann Grau's The Keepers of the House, is an odd book. The writing flows smoothly, the descriptions are almost lyrical, but the characters feel oddly flat. Grau is a Southern writer -- she was raised in Alabama in Selma and Montgomery and has lived in New Orleans for most of her life -- and she does know the landscape, both geographic and cultural. Where she's weak in this book is in creating characters who feel like actual people.

Grau's work is described as examining race and gender, and that's reasonably accurate. The Keepers of the House is the only piece of her fiction I can recall reading, but given that the book is set in a nameless Southern state that screams Alabama, two of the major characters are female, and the dramatic conclusion pivots around the discovery that a local wealthy white guy had secretly married his black mistress several decades earlier race and gender do seem to fit as pigeonholes.

I did a little research on the author because I'd never heard of her before reading this book. She apparently took a lot of heat for her fiction. She was, naturally, accused of portraying Southerners in a poor light, but I think she actually nailed them pretty well. My own experience is that Southerners are really good at maintaining a polite facade while being quietly nasty. After all, "bless your heart" is Southern-speak for "fuck you." I did have a few problems with the premise for the dramatic conclusion of the book -- it seemed like a bit of a stretch to suggest that the local townspeople would turn as violent as they did after learning about an interracial marriage that had taken place almost 40 years earlier and both the white husband and black wife were now deceased, one for over 5 years and one more recently.

If the family had been doing something like encouraging blacks to register to vote or hosting civil rights activists in their home,yes, then the violence would be believable. . . but discovering that a neighbor's black bastards weren't bastards after all? Especially when all of those "bastards" had been living up North for their entire adult lives? It struck me as a bit of a stretch. White racists in general, not just Southerners, can turn appallingly violent for some petty reasons, but the revelation that two dead people had been married? Not bloody likely. That's more the type of thing that would get a person snubbed socially -- people turning their back on you in church, not inviting you to their kids' high school graduation parties or weddings -- while generating a lot of local gossip ("Her family has always been a little strange. After all, after his white wife died, her grandfather actually married. . . "). It wouldn't inspire the local White Citizens Council to terrorize a white woman and her 4 small children; the worst it would do is cost her politician husband votes.

On the other hand, despite the gaping holes in the plot and all of its logical flaws, The Keepers of the House is very readable. Grau might have had an unfortunate tendency towards melodrama, but the book flows. It holds the reader's interest. It's not until you've finished it that you find yourself thinking, Well, that made no sense. Which means that it's a little tricky figuring out where to place this one on the bad to good scale for the Pulitzer winners. As far as the writing goes, it's up on the higher end, but the plotting flaws bother me. Maybe numerically on a scale of 1 to 10 it would be a 6 or 7. It falls on the good end of the scale, but it's not top tier.

Would I recommend it to other readers? Yes, if you enjoy books by authors like Jodi Picoult or Joanna Trollope. It definitely felt like something Trollope could have written, although her characters would have been more fully fleshed out. Trollope puts real people into cardboard landscapes; Grau put paper dolls into a real world. Not a bad book, in sort, but not not a great one either.

Next up on the list: Collected Stories by Katherine Ann Porter. Maybe it's because I'm finally moving far enough up the last to start getting into relatively recent (within my lifetime) publications, but this is another one the L'Anse Public Library actually has on the shelves. Maybe I'm going to be able to whip through the second half of the list a lot faster than I did the first half. Assuming I live long enough, of course. The way famous people in their 60s have been dropping dead lately makes me kind of glad I have no talent.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"They're coming to convert us"

A friend mentioned the other day that one of the reasons she's nervous about the Islamists in Syria and elsewhere is "they're coming to convert us." I had no good response at the time, and I also have no idea where she got that idea from. As far as I can tell, the fanatics associated with Da'esh (aka ISIS aka ISIL) are focusing their conversion efforts, if you can call them that, on the already converted, i.e., young people who are Muslims already but were raised in more secularized or moderate homes. They do a sales pitch on the Internet trying to persuade young people that Islam needs to be defended against the infidels; they're trying to turn run of the mill believers into fanatics. My friend and I are not the target demographic for Da'esh; they have no interest in converting little old ladies.

As for conversion in general, the S.O. and I have lived all over the country, including multiple major cities (Tucson, Atlanta, Washington, D.C.). We've had a lot of different "missionaries" try to convert us. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, Pentecostals, Baptists, even a few Buddhists. The weirdest one was probably The Process Church of the Final Judgement -- they always reminded me of the Satanist branch of the Salvation Army. Maybe it was the uniforms. Anyway, the one religion that has never in my lifetime tried to persuade me that I should take a look at it is Islam. I've known quite a few Muslims -- co-workers, college friends, students, neighbors, a landlord -- and not once has any of them ever shoved a Koran in my face and told me I need to read the good news about God. Both of my kids had good friends who were Muslim; those girls were the only ones who never tried to persuade my kids to attend religious services with them. We had Baptists, Lutherans, and Pentecostals all trying to lure my kids away from whatever church we might attend to go to their church services instead, but the Muslims apparently figured your religion was your own business.

I know the Nation of Islam, which is a thoroughly American institution, does missionary work in prisons and in the African-American community. We've lived in cities where Nation of Islam members can be seen selling their newspaper on the street. But you don't see Nation of Islam members going door to door ringing doorbells and trying to persuade you to let them into your house to discuss the Koran with you, unlike the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons who are so aggressive in their marketing missionary work that they've become cultural jokes. 

Yes, it's true that historically Islam did conversion by the sword. But so did Christianity. If you look back a few centuries, both religions did the "convert or die." I have, in fact, heard a few nominal Christians suggest that's what we should do now -- a few years ago, right-wing spokesperson Ann Coulter said basically that: tell Muslims to convert to Christianity and if they don't, kill them -- but that's not exactly mainstream thinking.  

In short, I'm not sure where the conversion fear comes from because it's surely not from being harassed by street corner imams passing out pamphlets and telling us to give up our sinful Western ways. It also can't be from observing Da'esh indulging in LARPing in the Syrian desert because thus far Da'esh seems more interested in terrorizing and chasing out non-Muslims than they do in converting anyone. Several million refugees fleeing the region doesn't exactly suggest that Da'esh is engaging in any meaningful proselyzation efforts. It's a mystery.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Another exercise in frustration

AKA Cyberspace Mysteries.

Since moving back up here to the tundra and deciding to live in the middle of nowhere, the only way the S.O. and I get to watch television is via streaming. Most networks now let you watch their prime time shows after a delay of anywhere from 1 to 30 days after an episode originally aired, which means we see stuff like "Survivor" a day later than every one else. We don't actually have too many problems finding what we want with one notable exception: sports.

It doesn't matter what sport it is, no one wants to watch an event after the outcome is already known. The S.O. has become quite adept at finding sites for watching NASCAR or football, although the quality of the streams can vary quite a bit. Once in a while he gets lucky and the network carrying the game or the race will live stream the event free. Doesn't matter if it's a sketchy site that's pirating the broadcast or the actual network, though. If it's a live stream, things inevitably get weird. The only way to describe it is to say the stream hiccoughs. It skips. It's like data packets drop out when the buffering slows down. Weirdness ensues. There'll be a hiccough and a race skips right over a couple of laps. Color commentators get cut off in mid-sentence. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's annoying. And last night?

I'm not sure if it was a kindness or an irritant, but the football game went from "We're in overtime. Kickoff in a minute" to a screen saying "Commercial break" to hearing an announcer say "and the Cardinals move on in the playoffs with a final score of 26." The S.O. went from hoping for an overtime miracle to sitting there dumbfounded muttering what the hell?? I'm not sure just how many minutes overtime actually took up, but the S.O. saw none of it. It felt kind of like when you're listening to an LP on vinyl, someone bumps into the record player, and you go from track 1 to track 3 with nothing in between. Very, very strange.

That whole thing with live streaming can be weird. We watch the local news as a live stream, but it can be odd. Sometimes there are commercial breaks; sometimes the stream starts a couple minutes later than it would if we were actually watching it as an over the air broadcast and the stream just runs straight through, no commercials at all. It's definitely a mystery.

Every so often someone suggests we spent money on DISH. I don't think so. With the live stream, there's the problem of hiccoughs. If we had DISH, right about the time things got interesting, the dish would fill with snow and the S.O. would miss key plays because he'd be outside with a broom. Either way, he ends up cursing -- and right now the cursing is free.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Another bizarre conspiracy theory

Did you know the federal government is actively conspiring to force all of us rural folk off the farm and into cities? I didn't either, but apparently the goal is to have us all shoved into urban hellholes by 2040 leaving the countryside empty except for park rangers and endangered species. You know, every so often I hear about about a conspiracy theory that has me shaking my head and muttering, "The stupid, it burns," but this one? Words fail me. Just how delusional do you have to be to make the mental leap from some grazing leases getting cancelled or modified in Utah or Nevada to believing that the feds want us all to abandon the countryside and move to a city?

Is it something in the water out West? Or maybe it's the result of the parents or grandparents of these delusional loons living too close to the Nevada nuclear test sites? Too many generations of fundamentalist Mormon inbreeding?  A lack of tinfoil? It's a mystery, but according to a discussion I heard yesterday this particular bizarre conspiracy theory is one of the things motivating the yeehawdists occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Vanilla ISIS (aka Y'all Qaeda aka Welfare Cowboys) members exist in a strange, alternate reality where rather than admitting that it's impossible to make a living ranching in a desert they believe their problems are the result of an active plot to make them give up their rural idylls, their pastoral paradises. They look out the window at an arid landscape and see a "ranch" where it's possible to raise cattle and make a living at it. Saner people look at that same patch of bone dry sand and creosote bush and wonder how anyone with more than one brain cell could believe cow critters could survive, let alone put on enough weight to be marketable, when the land has a carrying capacity of more than 40 acres per animal unit. Back when I was working on a special history project in Nebraska, I had ranchers in the Sand Hills explain that the absolute upper limit for raising cattle on range land was something like 15 acres per animal unit. If browse is sparser than that, the bovines have to do way too much walking.

The yeehawdists talk a lot about "freedom" and the right of everyone to try to make a living, but they've never been "free" in the sense of self-sufficiency. Their so-called ranches could not survive without welfare in the form of subsidized grazing. The various fees that ranchers and others get charged to use federal land don't come anywhere close to the actual cost of the resources. The rest of the country has been subsidizing the welfare cowboys for generations, letting them suck off the government teat and allowing them to rail against the slackers in the city who collect Food Stamps when they're benefiting from a much more generous welfare plan. After all, if you're a city dweller who uses welfare, there's a cutoff, a 5-year maximum for how long you can rely on what used to be called AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and is now TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). If you're a Western rancher, until recently grazing leases were forever. No wonder the welfare cowboys turned delusional and started thinking they actually owned that acreage.  

They're also delusional, naturally, about just how important their ranching is to the rest of us. The sad reality for anyone who has a nostalgic mental image of western ranches is that more beef comes from east of the Mississippi than west of it. Or maybe it's east of the Missouri. But for sure it's not Western states like Montana or Arizona. It's not even Nebraska, even though Nebraska loves its image as Cattle Country. There are farmers here in the Upper Peninsula who probably have more head of fat, happy cattle on a couple hundred acres than the Bundys and their ilk can raise on many thousands.

Which brings me to another point. Don't the delusional loons ever talk to anyone outside their own little conspiratorial bubbles? On a per capita basis, yes, it's true, there are a lot fewer people living on farms and ranches now than there were 100 years ago. There are multiple social forces at work -- industrialization, economies of scale, demographics -- that have led to a natural migration from the country to the city. There really is a lot of vacant farmland in this country, places where immigrants settled decades ago, farmed for a few years (or a few generations) and then left. No one forced them to. Unlike the welfare cowboys, they actually owned the land; they just figured out they didn't want to live on it anymore.

The community where I live used to be solid farms, mostly dairy, but following World War II more and more people figured out there were easier ways to make a living. Enough people have given up farming, in fact, that the USDA actively goes looking elsewhere in the country for people who'd like to farm up here. Land is still reasonably priced and some vacant farms still have usable buildings (not all the barns and silos have collapsed). We have a fair number of Mennonites in the county now thanks to the efforts of an Extension agent -- he went down to lower Michigan and Ohio selling the idea of the U.P. to Mennonite farming families down there that were running out of land (you can only support so many adult children on the same patch of dirt). That's kind of the opposite of pushing people into urban areas. Oddly enough, the government has figured out that all those people living in cities actually need to eat -- and if you want to eat, someone somewhere had better be farming.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Happy birthday, Nerf

TMI. but who cares?

I went through the once-every-10-years fun of a colonoscopy on Monday Like everyone always says, the procedure itself isn't bad -- how could it be? You're unconscious for it -- but the prep really sucks. After Sunday's evening's torment, I never want to see Miralax again. Granted, the prep is a little more tolerable now because you get to mix the solution yourself so can actually drink something you like, but even so. . . I mean, I wound up missing most of both "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock." The S.O. and I had actually sprung for a motel room in Hancock so we wouldn't have to be on the road doing a 45 mile drive before the plows were out on Monday morning, and I didn't even get to watch much television.  I was not a happy camper.

But my personal hell spent huddled on the porcelain throne while puking into a wastebasket* is not actually what I'm thinking about this morning, or at least not much. What hit me at the hospital was what an assembly line they had going at Portage Health. Monday is colonoscopy day, and there were no empty cubicles in the Outpatient surgical area. I asked one of the nurses just how many procedures they did in a morning. They're not a very big hospital, so typically it's about 8. They cycle patients in on the half hour starting at 6:30 a.m. I have no idea what the charge is per procedure, but it's not cheap. Anytime you've got an anesthesiologist involved, you know there's going to be a comma in the price tag. Not that the price tag matters much -- colonoscopies are one of the preventive care procedures that the Affordable Care Act mandates be totally covered by every insurance plan. There is no co-pay or deductible. No wonder it's an assembly line procedure these days.

The first time I had a colonoscopy, back in about 2004, it was at the end of the year, not the beginning, because I'd already met part of the deductible for the insurance I had then. Even so, the co-pay wound up being high enough that I had to do monthly payments to the Nebraska Medical Center -- despite having a pretty decent job, I couldn't pay it off in one lump sum. Shoving a tiny camera up someone's butt is not a cheap procedure. But now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka the infamous Obamacare) quite a few people can be screened for colon cancer and not have to worry about a dime of out of pocket expenses. Given that (a) colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer (something like 133,000 new cases are diagnosed annually and (b) approximately 50,000 people die each year in the U.S. from colon cancer regular screening for it is undoubtedly a good thing. Everyone knows the earlier you find cancer, the easier it is to treat and the more likely you are to survive. And, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the number of people having colonoscopies has gone up considerably. Ergo, fewer people are going to die from this particular type of cancer.

It'll be interesting to see what happens if/when the Republicans succeed in repealing the ACA. Will cancer deaths start to rise again? Will voters freak out when they discover something they'd started taking for granted is no longer there? For that matter, will anyone even notice? We Americans are pretty good at distracting ourselves and avoiding reality.

*The fact the prep solution now tastes better doesn't guarantee you won't experience some of the side effects of Miralax, e.g., bloating, nausea, and vomiting. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano. . .

There are certain things in life that are predictable. The swallows returning to the mission at San Juan Capistrano, politicians citing the need to spend more time with their family when tanking poll numbers force them to drop out of a campaign, Oprah Winfrey announcing yet another weight loss/get back in shape plan. . . and haters crawling out of the woodwork whenever Jane Fonda is involved with a new movie or television project. Netflix started streaming "Grace and Frankie" and suddenly a couple Hanoi Jane screeds were once again wandering the Internet waiting to gull the gullible.

It's bizarre. First, I've never understood why Fonda wound up as the prime target -- was it simply a matter of her being unlucky enough to have gone from sex symbol to activist? Pete Seeger and Joan Baez both visited North Vietnam and spoke out against the war; I don't recall any garbage wandering the Internet recently about them being traitors. Even when the divisions in society over the war were the most heated, I don't think either Baez or Seeger were actively hated the way Fonda still is. Back at the time she was involved in the anti-war movement, Fonda was hardly alone. Hundreds of Americans visited North Vietnam as part of the effort to protest the war, but to see some of the garbage that floats around the Internet now you'd think she'd chartered a private jet and arrived in Hanoi solo instead of being part of a group tour. She did do some dumb stuff, like allowing herself to be photographed with a group of North Vietnamese soldiers at an anti-aircraft battery, but most of what she's accused of never happened. And some is flat-out stupid.

The prime example: one of the claims made in the emails and web posts denigrating Fonda is that the POWs she met with gave her their Social Security numbers so she could get word to their families that they were alive. The claim is either, depending on which version you read, that she then handed those numbers over to the North Vietnamese or that she personally shredded them. This is nonsense for multiple reasons, but I'll mention just two: First, the most blatantly obvious to someone who actually is a Vietnam era veteran and can put their dislike of Fonda on hold long enough to think the claim through: If you were in the military you never thought about your Social Security number as a form of identification. You thought about your serial number, which was a totally different number at that time. My USWAC serial number bears almost no resemblance to my Social Security number. In addition, those numbers would not have been some deep dark secret from the North Vietnamese: they're on dog tags and they're what military personnel are trained to recite if captured by the enemy (name, rank, serial number). It's been almost 50 years since I enlisted, and there are still days when that serial number comes to mind more naturally than my Social Security number does. Update: The S.O. tells me that the military switched to using Social Security numbers for serial numbers in 1969, after I was discharged, so I never experienced that. The point still holds, though, The North Vietnamese wanted to use the Hanoi POWs for propaganda purposes so never made a secret of who they were holding. They wanted the families to know where their men were so the families would put pressure on the U.S. government to end the war.

Second, in any case, this particular line of saying see how horrible she was really falls apart in view of the fact she hand carried letters home that POWs gave her. She trashed social security numbers but carried real letters? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense -- it says, in fact, that the story about the notes getting shredded is nonsense. And why would the North Vietnamese allow Fonda to carry letters? At the time, there was no mail service between North Vietnam and the U.S. so it was common practice for foreign visitors (journalists, activists, diplomats) to accept letters to put into the mail elsewhere. The anti-Fonda screed says she tore up half a dozen notes; the reality is she carried out over 200 letters. But that's the reality -- and reality is always so boring compared to a melodramatic lie. And, despite whatever mythology some people might like to believe, the North Vietnamese had o problem whatsoever in letting the U.S. military and the U.S. public know who they were holding as POWs and where they were in Hanoi. There were POWs held in isolated areas, especially in Viet Cong controlled areas in South Vietnam, who were listed as Missing In Action for months or years, but the ones who were in or near Hanoi? They were human shields -- or so the North Vietnamese hoped. They wanted the U.S. to know that if they bombed the city they might be bombing U.S. personnel. It was in their interests to advertise how many POWs they held and who they were. Did it work? Good question. . . and one of these days I'll see if I can track down a book or two that takes a good look at the whole conflict from the perspective of what was happening in the North to see if I can find an answer. Most of the books I've read look at the mess happening in the South. (Want to thoroughly depress yourself? Read A Bright Shining Lie.)

I don't know. . . the whole Fonda obsession baffles me. Are people annoyed that despite their dislike she's had an extremely successful career, including winning two Academy Awards for Best Actress in a feature film (Klute and Coming Home)? Or are they annoyed that despite being 78 she still looks drop dead gorgeous? Is it simple misogynism, i.e., she's a woman who had the nerve to express her opinions? Who knows. But then a lot of stuff baffles me. Like why anyone who was a Vietnam vet would be more pissed off at a powerless movie actress than they would be at the politicians who led the U.S. into a war we couldn't win. If I were to waste time hating anyone involved in that war, I'd hate people like General Westmoreland, who kept demanding more cannon fodder even though he knew the war was unwinnable, or Richard Nixon, whose sabotage of the peace talks in 1968 is well-documented. He didn't want to the war to end before the election because he could use it against Hubert Humphrey in the campaign. Then he dragged stuff out for another 4+ years so he could use the war again in 1972. There was a lot of blood on Nixon's hands, but I don't hear many Vietnam vets railing against warmongering politicians. 

Or, if they wanted to aim a little lower in the power hierarchy and they're still pissed about being treated shabbily when they returned from Southeast Asia, how about aiming some scorn at the ancient codgers at the VFW. Today the Vietnam veterans are the backbone of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, they've become the old dudes running the organization, but back in the '60s and '70s the "greatest generation," the World War II vets, didn't want Vietnam vets to join. They didn't think Vietnam was a real war anymore than they thought Korea was a real war. The only war that counted was the big one, WWII, the one they fought in. It wasn't until the VFW as an organization realized it had to recruit new members or die that suddenly they were putting out the welcome mat for guys who had been sent to Vietnam. It's definitely more than a bit odd. Guys in my general age range who bitched back in the 1970s about what a bunch of dicks the old guys at the VFW were are now super happy to be part of that group. When did they get co-opted and become the dicks themselves? It's a mystery.

A slight digression: anyone who allows their dislike of Jane Fonda to cause them to forego watching "Grace and Frankie" is missing a good show. The S.O. and I are almost done watching Season 1 and were quite happy to learn there's going to be a season 2. It's one of those rare shows where I find myself thinking about actually going back and rewatching it from the start to see what I missed the first time through.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Publishing mysteries

Every so often I stumble across a book that leaves me figuratively scratching my head and wondering how on earth the author ever managed to snag a publishing deal. The Keepers of the Library by Glenn Cooper definitely fell into that category. The whole premise behind it is so mind-boggling in its bizarreness that I'm still not sure why I bothered to keep reading. Maybe it was because the book is competently written albeit riddled with logical holes big enough to drive a tank through. Even more mind-boggling than the existence of this particular book, though, is the fact the author apparently managed to peddle several others that are based on the same notion: a library exists that contains the birth and death dates of every person currently alive on the planet and for every person who's going to be born in the next several centuries.

It is, to say the least, a truly bizarre idea. The background premise is that at some point during the Dark Ages, an idiot savant monk began writing down birth and death dates. For some reason, the abbot of the monastery where this happened decided it was a sign from God; ergo, the monk needed to be protected. Even stranger (and even more unbelievable) that ability to write down the days when people not yet born were going to die turned out to be a heritable trait -- although how they discovered that is not spelled out in the book. All the reader is told in The Keepers is that by the 14th century the monastery had several dozen monks laboring away in an underground chamber (sunlight apparently bothered them) where they'd do nothing but write, eat, sleep, and occasionally relieve themselves. The supply of monks was perpetuated through a breeding program: they'd bring in poor peasant girls with "good hips" and let the monks impregnate them. If the child was a boy, that kid was destined for the cellars and a lifetime of scribbling on parchment. Then they screw up -- they bring in a girl who's less than thrilled by the notion of spending years locked up with nothing to do but serve as brood stock until she's either worn out or dies in childbirth. She escapes while pregnant; the dudes in the dungeon promptly commit mass suicide.

A few centuries later, the library is discovered. The fact that it ends on a specific day in 2027 (which was as far as the monks had gotten before they offed themselves) leads many people to believe that's when the world ends. As that date draws closer, the belief the world is going to end leads to what one might expect: an increased rate of suicides, more people deciding it's not worth working, an increase in crime as lowlifes figure there will be no significant consequences, etc. Except it turns out that all the date in 2027 signifies is that the monks in that particular abbey stopped writing on that date. It doesn't mean the Library itself ended. The pregnant peasant girl founds a whole new line of scribblers, one that apparently relies heavily on incest for its efforts at perpetuation, although I'm not sure that thought ever crossed the author's mind. 

Holy wah. That was definitely a what the hell moment. Talk about having to indulge in willful suspension of disbelief. Young woman recognizes that breeding scribblers is a horrible way to spend a life, manages to get out, and then turns around to voluntarily replicate the mess? And for what? That's actually the part that I didn't get. Just what was the point of the Library? What good was it? It was kept secret for centuries, no one actually got to know the date of their own deaths so it wouldn't help any individual do some long range planning. And, although there was a lot of blathering about strategic importance, just exactly how would governments use the information? Okay. Say someone gets elected President. The Secret Service checks the book -- the person who's going to occupy the White House is shown as surviving for two full time terms. Does that mean they get to slack off on the security details? No -- because just knowing when someone is going to die doesn't tell you a thing about their quality of life. A would-be assassin might not kill the President but could still put him or her in a wheelchair. So you have to keep doing everything you would anyway because all the Library actually does is tell you what we all know already: no one lives forever.

As for longer range planning, how would any analyst know who's going to be important 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future? Granted, there are conspiracy theorists who seem to think Marxists plotted back in the 1960s to hide the fact of Barack Obama's Kenyan birth so he could be America's first socialist President, right down to planting fake birth announcements in the Honolulu, Hawai'i, newspaper, but out here in the reality-based world, it's pretty hard to predict that someone who's in high school now is going to be in the Senate or heading the CIA or in some other position of power 40 years in the future. When Barack Obama was 18, by his own admission he was a dope smoking slacker. He could have easily dropped out of college and gone back to Hawai'i to be a beach bum. There are lots and lots of people with potential for great things, but only a few of them actually end up in the history books.

In short, this is a book that made no sense whatsoever. In fact, even me reading it makes no sense. I knew by the end of the first chapter that the book wasn't going to be very good: the author's wordsmithing skills are mediocre at best. His lead character is a retired federal agent who, despite his supposed backstory (super good FBI agent), seemed remarkably incompetent, was prone to impulsive behavior, and did most of his thinking with his dick. On the other hand, it was rather refreshing to see a male character portrayed as being as clueless as the female heroines in books usally are and doing the dumb stuff like ditching his partner and heading off into a potentially dangerous situation without doing much recon or letting anyone know where he was going. Still, I did read the whole thing -- and now am thinking, crap, that's at least 2 hours of my life I'll never get back. Once again I'm grateful I read fast -- at least when I make the mistake of reading dreck, I don't waste too much time on it.

For what it's worth, the author of this piece of mediocre fiction apparently has more fans than I would have thought possible: this book was the third part of a trilogy and he's written half a dozen other novels that apparently sold reasonably well. There's definitely no accounting for readers' tastes.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Well, that explains it

I'd been wondering about just what was going on in the heads of the yeehawdists in Oregon since that kerfuffle began. I've been observing with some bemusement the Nevada chapter of y'allQaeda (or should we call them yokel haram?) fearlessly occupying a wildlife refuge office building located in the middle of nowhere. Takes a lot of balls to take over a building that's usually visited only by senior citizens looking to do some bird watching. And, to top that, they've been sending out pleas on social media for their fanboys to send them Cheetos and winter jackets via the U.S. mail. The crazy doesn't run much deeper than the insanity of a group of "we don't recognize the power of the federal government" morons relying on that same government to deliver supplies to them. The stupid, it burns.

But this morning it all became a lot clearer. The news reader on NPR's "Morning Edition" came right out and described the Bundys as being part of the "sovereign citizen" movement. Sovereign citizens are, to say the least, delusional. They have some remarkably strange beliefs. They don't recognize the right of the state to register motor vehicles -- they'll make their own license plates, which is one of the ways law enforcement is trained to recognize them -- and they have this screwy notion that if you write documents using red ink you can nullify legal paperwork (divorce decrees, child support orders, foreclosure orders, you name it). I'm not sure where this particular strain of group insanity started, but the Internet has surely helped spread it in the past few years.

Had something happen to you in court or through some action of the government that you don't like? You know, are you annoyed that the registration fee for your SUV has crept up? Property taxes getting too high? You're notified your grazing lease isn't going to be renewed on a patch of desert because cattle damage the habitat for an endangered spcies?  Well, if you spend anytime at all online researching the thing that's annoying you you're sure to stumble across some other disgruntled types hanging out on Reddit or in other social media. Pretty soon you're reading nonsense that says, hey, the government is actually violating the U.S. Constitution. The government has no right to tell you to register your car or levy taxes on your land or require you to comply with any law you don't personally like. It feeds right into your wishful thinking, and the next thing you know you're stocking up on red crayons and making your own license plates. . . not to mention hoarding ammo and convincing yourself that when you do decide to shoot one of the oppressors in a uniform you're going to be hailed as a hero by your fellow lunatics. All it takes is a handful of other people telling you that you're not nuts, you're their hero, and the next thing you know you're sitting in at wildlife refuge in the middle of nowhere begging online followers to send you Funyuns. You're talking big about staying indefinitely and shooting anyone who tries to remove you -- the possibility of ending up dead yourself never enters your mind. You're a sovereign citizen, ergo, you're invulnerable.

Personally, I'm still in favor of that tyrannical government the Bundys fear coming down on them like the world's largest shit hammer and squashing them like bugs -- if incineration was good enough for the black MOVE followers in Philadephia, I see no reason not to treat vanilla ISIS the same way -- but then I take a very dim view of nutjobs with guns threatening to kill people who are simply doing their jobs. As it is I fear our spineless federal officials are going to let the Bundys slide on this one, too. A sane response on the part of the government would be to seal the complex off, let no one in, and promptly arrest anyone who comes out. Given enough time, it could end with no one getting hurt. More likely, the occupiers will continue to be allowed to have contact with the outside world and this mess will drag on indefinitely.

If the government does treat the Bundys gently because they're afraid of another Waco or a Ruby Ridge incident, then the government is even crazier than the Bundys. It doesn't take much thinking to realize that if they slide on this one, too, the next time it won't be a chunk of desert in Nevada or a chunk of desert in Oregon that gets occupied, it'll be a Fish & Wildlife or Bureau of Land Management or National Park Service office building in the middle of town -- and for sure people will get hurt then.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Reivers, a Reminiscence

Okay, I didn't wait. I grabbed The Reivers off the shelf when I returned The Edge of Sadness. Considering that I've had to request most of the Pulitzer fiction winners through Interlibrary Loan, I figured I could move up the list a little faster if I didn't pause long this time. It probably helped that I'm a Faulkner fan. This was a book I was looking forward to reading. In fact, I was wondering how I'd managed to miss it before.

Like most of Faulkner's work, The Reivers, a Reminiscence is set in  Yoknapatawpha County, a mythical place in Mississippi. Faulkner references characters introduced in his other works also set in Yoknapatawpha County, like Colonel Sutpen  (Absalom, Absalom) and Miss Reba (Sanctuary). The story is told in the form an old man recalling a youthful misadventure that happened when he was eleven years old. The year was 1905 when Lucius found himself helping one of his father's employee's steal his grandfather's car for a road trip to Memphis that quickly evolved to include his first visit to a whorehouse, a stolen horse, and lessons in how to fix a horse race.

Lucius's parents and grandparents have had to go out of town to attend a funeral in Bay St. Louis, which is at the other end of the state from Yoknapatawpha County, and Lucius and his younger siblings are supposed to stay with a relative who has a farm a few miles out of town. That doesn't happen. Without even talking about it, Lucius finds himself collaborating with Boon Hoggenbeck, a fellow who is technically an adult but seems to have gotten stuck mentally at about ten years old. Boon works at Lucius's father's livery stable as a driver and stable hand, but his true passion is automobiles. He fell in love with the first car he saw. When Lucius' grandfather, a local banker, buys the second automobile to be seen in their town, Boon becomes the chauffeur. Boon loves the car; if it were up to him, it would be in constant motion instead of spending most of its time in a locked carriage house. When he realizes that the car's owner won't be around for at least a week -- the funeral may have been in Bay St. Louis, but Boon knows that Lucius's grandfather will not be able to resist spending a few days in New Orleans before coming home -- he immediately plans to borrow the vehicle for a quick trip to Memphis.

Of course, there's no such thing as a quick trip anywhere in an automobile in Mississippi in 1905. Standard equipment in any car at the time included a couple of shovels, a block and tackle, and cable. It was more or less guaranteed that once you got out of town, you would end up in a mudhole. Memphis might have been a mere 80 miles away, only a little over an hour by train, but it was a two-day trip in a car. Still, they do eventually get to Memphis, having discovered along the way that another Priest family employee, Ned, had managed to stowaway in the back seat. They're happy to have Ned along when they hit some rough spots along the road; they're a little less thrilled when Ned trades the car for a race horse. That's when things start to get a little complicated, at least for Boon and Lucius.

From the reader's perspective, however, it's all pure fun. Boon, Lucius, and Ned are in constant motion, snatching a few minutes sleep here and there as they try to figure out how to get the horse to where it will do a match race with another horse -- a horse that has already beaten this particular horse multiple times so why Ned seems to think that a rematch is a good idea is a mystery, but Boon and Lucius don't have much choice but to go along with Ned's scheme if they want to get the car back and get home before anyone realizes they were gone. Boon's quick temper lands him in trouble with local law enforcement, Ned's attempts to fix the horse race have interesting results, and Lucius, to the surprise of everyone involved, manages to persuade a Memphis whore to stop whoring. Unfortunately, his good influence happens at just the wrong time. Right when they would all benefit from the use of some feminine wiles, the whore decides to get out of the business.

This is, in short, a comic novel. It is really funny. It has the usual Faulkner style -- the run-on sentences, the descriptions that go in circles and turn back on themselves, the hints at Southern weirdness and eccentricity -- but it's also laugh out loud funny. It was made into a film, The Reivers, starring Steve McQueen that was released in 1969. I'd like to see it. 

The Reivers was made into a film starring Steve McQueen as Boon. The movie was released in 1969, and I have a vague memory of hearing about it but never saw it. As soon as I finished the book, I checked online to see if I could find someplace. Amazon has it for sale, but only as DVDs or VHS, no streaming version. Netflix doesn't list it; neither does Hulu. It's possible it's hiding out there somewhere, but I haven't found it yet. There are clips, but no full-length film.

As for the book itself and the usual question -- would I recommend it to other readers? Yes. Because it's Faulkner, some people may find it awkward (all those run-on sentences, for example) but overall it's definitely up on the high end of the scale for a Pulitzer winner. Not quite a 10, but close to it.

Next up, another obscure one: The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau. It could be a little trickier to get than usual because according to the online catalog only three libraries in the consortium have it, and not all libraries are particularly eager to send books out on Interlibrary Loan. They're like people: happy to borrow but not too keen on lending.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Friday, January 1, 2016

Body shaming, misogynism, and other cheerful topics to start off the New Year

The S.O. and I have not yet seen the latest episode in the Star Wars franchise. Odds are that we're not going to see it for awhile -- the closest theater is almost an hour's drive away, it's Winter, we hate night driving, and there's no way we're going to a weekend matinee to sit through a movie in a theater filled with screaming rug rats -- so I can't comment on the film itself. I have, however, been intrigued by all the fuss being made over that fact that in the eyes of some male asshats Carrie Fisher has failed to "age well." Thirty-some years have passed since George Lucas put Carrie Fisher on a leash, and, holy wah, she's had the nerve to get old. Princess Leia no longer is a candidate for the slave bikini.

What the hell does that phrase even mean? Age well?! Is this a case of testosterone poisoning causing such serious brain damage that persons with penises don't realize that out here in the real world "aging well" consists of not dropping dead? Aging isn't a voluntary activity; it's not something where you get to have much say in the matter. You age or you die. And, as Ms. Fisher notes, what you look like as you get older is primarily a matter of genetics. Your future (at least as far as how you look) is driven by your family's past. Want to know what the future holds for you? Check out your grandparents. Was Granddad a fat old man with no hair? Congratulations. Odds are you, too, are going to be a fat old man with no hair. You can fight it -- put in many hours in the gym, watch what you eat, spend a fortune or two on plastic surgery -- but let's get real. There comes a time when it doesn't matter what you do, you're going to look (insert horrified gasp here) old.

Plus, of course, fighting the appearance of aging carries its own punishment. You go from being chastised for having the nerve to age naturally to being mocked for your botoxed wrinkle-free forehead or your obvious face lift. And if you're blessed with good genes and you manage to hit your 50s without obvious wrinkles or sagging body parts, you're treated to speculation about whether or not you've had a little work done. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. You can't win so why bother?

Of course, no one cares if men end up looking like old men, wizened close-to-mummified one foot in the grave types. At least almost no one does rants along the lines of "what the hell are they doing casting Ancient Actor as an action hero when he looks like he belongs in a nursing home?" Or, if they do, the rants don't go viral on the Internet. This bullshit about women not aging well is one of those teases that you see all the time lurking on web pages as click bait: "20 Famous Actors Who Have Not Aged Well!!" If you actually click, you find out it's not that they haven't aged well, it's that they have the nerve to look their age. Someone who was a hot James Bond girl 40 years ago is now (how dare she!) pushing 80 and looking it. The men who jacked off fantasizing about her based on her movie image are outraged that their fantasy has been shattered. She's actually human. She's gotten old. She's passed what Amy Schumer so aptly described as "The Last Fuckable Day." For actors, that day comes when they stop being cast as someone's love interest and start being cast as someone's mother or grandmother. That's also the day they start hearing "she's not aging well" or "OMG she's not a size zero anymore!"

And why should she? Everyone ages, men and women, so why do men get a pass on growing old and women get harassed? Why do women have an obligation to stay in shape, take good care of themselves, remain looking decorative, while men can "let themselves go" and no one cares? If you're casting a movie where some of the major characters are supposed to be in leadership roles, the type of position you get through experience or seniority, why not cast actors who look like they actually match up with reality? One of my pet peeves with movies and television in general is the unrealistic casting. You have male actors cast in roles where they're patently too old to be playing that part -- Mark Harmon is 64 years old; the last time I checked the mandatory retirement age for federal law enforcement officers was 57. Why is LeRoy Jethro Gibbs still toting a gun and running around out in the field getting shot at? -- and female actors in roles where they're much too young. On a regular basis, we see women barely out of puberty being cast as senior government officials or some other role that's totally out of sync with where someone that age could hope to be out in the real world. Of course, no one bitches when someone young and hot gets cast in a role that could appropriately be filled by an older actor. It's when the casting turns realistic that people get annoyed.