Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A problem of generations

As noted in the previous post, this past weekend I attended the Upper Peninsula History Conference in Munising. It's one of three meetings sponsored annually by the Michigan Historical Society; the other two are held in the Downer Peninsula. It was a good meeting, I learned some interesting stuff, and I enjoyed chatting with people from other organizations. There was just one problem.

Demographics. When I looked around at the people who, like me, were representing various volunteer associations -- local museums and historical societies -- once again I was one of the youngest and healthiest people in attendance. That shouldn't be true. I'm a fat, out of shape 68-year-old geezer. But most of the other attendees were in their 70s and 80s. I felt downright youthful in comparison. One lady got up when we did brief reports on what was happening with our groups to brag -- brag!! -- about the fact the four officers for her group ranged in age from 78 to 94 but they were still doing more than the younger people.

Holy wah. Bragging about the fact your officers are all teetering on the edge of the grave doesn't strike me as being much of a positive. I know involvement in historical societies does tend to be something that people dive deeper into when they retire, but even so. . . no one lives forever. You shouldn't have a group where a majority of the members are using canes or dragging little oxygen canisters around. Yes, it's great to stay active as long as possible, but there has to be a younger generation involved, too. Multiple younger generations, in fact. People across a wide age range, not just old folks who can wax nostalgic about the first time they saw Elvis (Presley, not Costello) on tv or how much they loved watching Crusader Rabbit.

The Big Question is, of course, how do you recruit them? Sometimes there are structural reasons for an organization having a membership cohort that all falls within the same fairly narrow demographic window.  The Baraga County Historical Society is a classic example of an organization that screwed up back in the 1960s when it didn't build a requirement for turnover among its officers into its constitution. Anytime an organization allows the same person to serve as president indefinitely, that organization has basically signed its own death warrant. It just doesn't know it. No turnover in leadership equals stagnation; stagnation is a slow death.

Then when you add in the fact that way too often and hand in hand with the no turnover at the top, there's active discouragement of new ideas it's easy to see why organizations have aging memberships. That is, all  too often younger generations have been chased away by older members who can be more tenacious about clinging to the illusion of power or control than a banana republic dictator denying the existence of the mob howling outside the palace doors. The group's elders shoot down proposals ("We can't do that. We tried that once, and it didn't work"), resist new ways of doing things ("Facebook? We don't need to be on Facebook"), and occasionally have a bad habit of talking loudly about how their particular organization wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for their own heroic efforts. You want to turn prospective members off fast? Be a martyr. (This is advice I need to follow myself; it's a real easy pattern to fall into.)

I heard examples of all three Kiss of Death behaviors at the conference: the president of one historical society pooh-poohing the efforts of younger members to establish a presence in social media, a director for another complaining about newer members who want to hold events or collaborate with other groups that she knows will fail because they tried it once 20 years ago and it didn't go well, and a whole bunch of people doing the "I'm indispensable" speech. Christ on a crutch, ladies. No one is indispensable. If you were abducted by aliens tomorrow, you'd be missed, but life would go on. If you really cared, instead of nattering on and on about how the organization would curl up and die if you weren't there you should be making sure that when you do get hit by a bus no one gets stuck wondering what the password is for the computer or where to find the key to the post office box.

So how do you get organizations to change that have trapped themselves in a death spiral by failing to recruit younger members? Good question. We're slowly rebuilding our local historical society -- we have significantly more members now than we did when I joined in 2012, our profile is creeping back up locally -- but we still don't have nearly enough younger, active members. We are on Facebook, but really should be doing Instagram, too, and our website needs to be rebuilt. We need more bodies, and we need more people who are able and willing to take on leadership roles. And for sure we need to revise our constitution to make sure that once we have more members, we have more turnover. No matter how nice, talented, or enthusiastic a person is, no one should  end up being the Society's president for more than two decades ever again.   

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bay Furnace Campground, Christmas, Michigan

After purchasing the Guppy a couple years ago we discovered the battery charger didn't work right. It didn't seem to know how to shut itself off so would keep trying to charge the RV battery even after the battery was fully charged. End result? An overheated battery and way too much voltage going to the lights and other devices that run on direct current. Also as a side effect, because things weren't charging right if we did have to rely on the battery, like when we boondocked in a Walmart parking lot, it went flat fast.

The S.O. replaced the charger, but we hadn't had an occasion to test it to see just how much of a difference the new charger made until this past weekend. The Historical Society of Michigan's annual Upper Peninsula History Conference was scheduled for Munising, a city that is technically within easy driving distance (less than 100 miles), but nonetheless struck me as being a good excuse to use the Guppy. Besides, although the bulk of the conference took place on Saturday, there was a workshop on fund-raising scheduled for Friday morning. Ergo, we had to plan to be at a campground for at least 4 nights: arrive on Thursday, do conference-related stuff on Friday and Saturday, play tourist in the Munising area on Sunday, amble home Monday. So I went online and reserved the last available space at the Bay Furnace Campground.

Bay Furnace is in the Hiawatha National Forest, which means it's managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Sort of. It's one of the campgrounds the Forest Service uses a concessioner on, Recreation Resource Management. RRM pays people to serve as campground hosts or area managers; camping fees get paid straight to the corporation, not to the Forest Service. I have no idea just how the mechanics of the deal works other than people who do it get some financial compensation in exchange for having a place to camp for the summer. I do know the Forest Service wound up semi-privatizing public campgrounds because the agency's budget for recreation, the people who maintain campgrounds, trails, and other facilities, kept shrinking. Given a choice between closing campgrounds because there was no money and no staff to maintain them or bringing in a concessioner, in many locations the Forest Service opted for the latter.

It's an arrangement that annoys many people, going by some of the discussions I've seen in various forums, because it means someone is going to be right there asking you to pay a fee. One of the favorite gripes is that "camping used to be free." Nope. With some exceptions, it wasn't free. It was on an honor system: you put your money in an envelope and dropped it into a piece of pipe that might not get emptied until several days after you'd been there. Any time it's on the honor system, you know there are going to be people who go, "Oh, good. Free camping" instead of actually paying. But, as usual, I digress.

If Bay Furnace is a good example of RRM in action, they do a decent job. In addition to the area manager at the entrance to one loop of the campground, there was a campground host in the other. The campground was neat, all the sites were mowed, the privies were clean, and in general everything you'd expect to be done was being done.

The campground is in Christmas, Michigan. It's on the site of an iron-smelting town, Onota; the only structure left from its ore processing days is the Bay Furnace ruin, the remnants of a blast furnace. It's an impressive ruin. The Forest Service stabilized it and did some reconstruction about 20 years ago, and, to be blunt, probably hasn't touched it since. There is interpretive signage saying the plantings around the base of the furnace are "native" and providing illustrations of numerous different types of flowers. Well, it's solid goldenrod now. There may have been a couple dozen types of flowers in there originally, but one type obviously won the war when it came to which one was going to dominate. I don't think it's particularly good for a ruin to have trees taking root between the rocks either, but I could be wrong.

Rock dove in a semi-natural environment.
It is a rustic campground -- no hookups -- but there are multiple potable water taps so a person doesn't have to walk far to refill a water jug. And, unlike some Forest Service campgrounds, Bay Furnace actually has a dump station for the convenience of people with RVs. Because it is a rustic campground, there were a fair number of people who were tent camping or just had pop-up campers. Most of the spaces are back-ins; we wound up with the only pull-through and that was by accident, not design. It was the only space left when I did the on-line reservation. After we got to the campground, I figured out why: the online map indicated it was located between the privy and the dumpster, which turned out to not be true. That same map also failed to convey just how large each site is. There was a pretty good buffer zone between us and the facilities, such as they were. All the sites are decent size and spaced so that you'd never feel crowded; most have enough vegetation (trees and bushes) between them to give you a lot of privacy. The only way to tell just how many sites were occupied was to drive around the loop -- you couldn't tell by just looking in the general direction of where the other sites were.

If you look closely, you can see tiny trees (the orange flagging) that will eventually form a visual barrier between the campsite and the privy.

Although the campground is managed by RRM, the Forest Service does do interpretive programs (aka ranger talks, campfire programs). According to a schedule on the bulletin board, there's a live raptor program every Saturday evening during the height of the camping season. We missed the one held while we were there, but did go to a talk about owls in Michigan on Sunday evening. In the case of the owl talk, the guy giving the talk (a seasonal intern) walked around the campground telling everyone he saw that there was going to be a program because it wasn't posted on the board. It was pretty interesting; I found out there are owls in Michigan I didn't know existed. I wasn't sure if the kids who were there were listening or not, but when the talk ended and they had a chance to open some owl pellets themselves, they were pretty eager to do so. (Who knew there are companies that will take the stuff owls puke up and sterilize it so it can be used in science classes and ranger talks?)

The campground is right on the shore of Lake Superior and has a lovely sand beach. Depending on where a person is in the campground, the beach is a pretty short walk away. The only negative thing that I noticed at was traffic noise -- M-28 is really close so you do hear traffic out on the highway. It is a popular campground. It was 100% full on Saturday, and I imagine it'll be close to full during the week once it gets a little later in the summer. Overall, we thought it was a pretty nice place and may camp there again -- it's far enough away from home to feel like a real break from the normal routine, but close enough that the Guppy can get there and back again on one tank of gas.

As for how much of a difference the new charger made, the answer is A Lot. We figured out, more or less, how long we can behave as though we have a limitless supply of power (e.g., not worrying about playing the radio for several hours at a stretch) before things might start to go dim, and it's a dramatic improvement. And we did figure out that our cordless toaster actually works.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hartwick Pines State Park

A switch from the usual rock with a plaque
I'd been curious about Hartwick Pines State Park for several years. Once or twice a summer a fellow who said he volunteered at the park would stop by the Baraga County Historical Museum to see if we'd unearthed any new material on the Thomas Nester Lumber Company. He said he'd been researching Nester for a number of years. Nester had a huge logging operation in the Upper Peninsula but got his start down around Muskegon or Saginaw. We weren't able to be particularly helpful -- our Nester files are remarkably thin despite Nester being a huge presence locally for several decades -- but we tried.

In return, the fellow gave me pep talks about restoring our logging high wheels. He said Hartwick Pines had a set they'd restored and it wasn't that hard, just time-consuming. He kept telling me that as long as we have all the iron, we can do it. He even sent the museum a copy of a DVD Hartwick Pines sells that shows the process a fellow went through in restoring a set of high wheels near Traverse City. Hearing Hartwick Pines had a set in good condition definitely piqued my curiosity. I've seen two sets of high wheels in addition to the collapsed mess the museum has, and in both cases the wheels were close to needing restoration work again (both sets have a pretty good lean, which means they're at risk of doing what ours did -- fall over and shattering).

In any case, as long as we were in the Downer Peninsula and had to go right by the park -- it's right next to I-75 just north of the city of Grayling -- I figured we might as well check it out. We stopped in Grayling for lunch at a Big Boy. I keep seeing that franchise mentioned on Facebook as a "remember when?" as though all Big Boys everywhere had ceased to exist, which has me wondering about people who seem to think that just because they haven't seen something for awhile it's gone forever, but that's a digression. Our ultimate goal in Grayling was Hartwick Pines, not strawberry pie, so that's where we headed, more or less. The main street through Grayling is currently under construction so getting out of town turned out to be a tad more challenging than driving in had been.
Why are the CCC guys in bronze always depicted as shirtless? Or, better question, just how many copies of this particular statue have been cast? Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, has one, too. Is this the official CCC guy, the exemplar for everyone who joined the Civilian Conservation Corps?

I had been thinking about the park primarily in terms of its logging museum, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, so didn't realize just how huge the place is. It's over 9,000 acres and has a big campground (about 100 spaces total, 36 with full hookups), miles and miles of trails, and a couple of lakes.On paper it sounds like a great place to spend some time. In our case, however, we knew perrfectly well we're never going to subject the Guppy to the indignities of spending time in the Downer Peninsula. No need to check out a campground we have no interest in ever using no matter how attractive the brochure makes it sound. We went straight to the Visitor Center and then ambled over to the logging museum.
The logging museum consists of two long one-story log buildings erected by the CCC in the 1930s. One log building has a blacksmith's shop on one end and displays of logging tools throughout; the other log building has a kitchen, bunks, dining area, and company store. There's also a belt-driven sawmill powered by a humongous steam tractor. The sawmill is in a pavilion that's enclosed with chain link fencing: you can see in, but you can't walk through.

Various pieces of horse-drawn equipment, like the swing-boom jammer shown above, are on static display. I noticed Hartwick Pines was having the same issues with outdoor storage of wooden equipment that everyone does -- things were beginning to look a little shabby, rot was starting to creep in, although nothing was looking too run-down yet. And their high wheels look great.
They actually have two sets. One pair is set up in the logging museum area; the other pair is right at the main entrance to the park. The set in the museum area is about the same size as the one we have in Baraga -- or about the size our set would be if it was actually intact instead of being piled in pieces on the ground, about 12 feet in diameter.
I thought they did a nice job with the displays of logging tools and other artifacts, too. Seeing their ax display definitely gave me a few ideas for the museum in Baraga, and for sure I suffered intense brand envy when I saw this:
We've got a few log branding hammers at our museum, but no where close to this many. We do have a nice collection of branded log ends, though, and one of these days should figure out a better way to display them.
The park does have quite a few miles of hiking trail, including some short loops right around the Visitor Center. You have to walk a bit to get from the VC to the logging museum; you can also do a loop around through some remnant old growth forest. The trails around the Visitor Center are paved and accessible so I'm not sure walking them counts as "hiking." It's more like doing some gentle ambling. Very nice, of course, but not particularly challenging. The park is popular with birders -- we encountered several people who were armed with cameras with telephoto lenses that could probably zoom in on a mosquito's eyelash from a mile away -- although the only wildlife I saw was a squirrel.  I'd recommend a stop at Hartwick Pines as a travel break for anyone stuck having to drive down (or up) I-75. It's close to the Interstate but far enough away to be an actual break. There is a day use fee (all Michigan State Parks charge entrance fees), but when the annual pass is only $11 for state residents, it only takes two trips to a state park and the pass is paid for. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

You get what you pay for

The S.O. and I made a quick trip to the Downer Peninsula this week. The Humanities Council had a mandatory meeting in Lansing for recipients of the Heritage Grants they're awarding; I got to go as the Baraga County Historical Society's representative. I wasn't really keen on attending -- Lansing is a long, long way from either Baraga (where the museum is located) or Herman (where I live). It is so far from where we live, in fact, that if I were to take the same number of miles and just head west I'd end up several states away, probably somewhere 20 or 30 miles west of Fargo, North Dakota. Here in Michigan, it's almost as bad as living in Texas. A person can drive for over 500 miles and never leave the state.

Not that we had to drive 500 miles. That's what a woman from Hancock got to do. The S.O. and I drove a mere 464 miles one way before arriving in Michigan's capitol city. We were not impressed. On the positive side, I'm no longer annoyed at politicians sucking money out of the U.P. and spending it in the Downer Peninsula. I'm not sure just where that money goes, but it's not going into infrastructure any place close to Lansing. To describe the roads, both the Interstate and surface streets, as "bad" is to indulge in understatement. Granted, they weren't as bad as the roads I recall from a brief visit to Detroit a decade or so ago (the pavement there was so full of potholes you'd swear they'd been subject to mortar rounds; the city definitely resembled something out of a post-apocalyptic movie [or maybe a news clip from Baghdad]-- and that was before the bankruptcy), but they were bad. Lansing overall seemed remarkably seedy, very reminiscent of the Third World nation (aka DeKalb County, Georgia) we'd moved from a few years ago. I really hope the Humanities Council figures out that technology exists (Live Meeting, Go To Meeting, etc.) that would save us Yoopers from having to go slumming again any time soon.

Then again, my impressions of Lansing may have been colored just a wee bit by the bargain hotel I'd found on-line. It is part of a national chain, one that is known for being on the more basic end of the spectrum (e.g., rooms with televisions that are still the huge old analog sets, decor that's trapped in the 80s or earlier, no breakfast bar in the lobby), but as long as the rooms are clean and the beds are reasonably comfortable, the fact the drapes are 40 years old shouldn't matter.

On the other hand. . . when you have trouble finding the hotel because the current management hasn't gotten the old Days Inn signs totally obliterated yet and the new ones are one step above being done on poster board with Magic Marker this is not a particularly good sign. Neither is seeing a notice in the hotel lobby warning that any guest bringing a shopping cart (yes, like the ones you find in Kroger parking lots) into the hotel will be asked to leave. There are bargains. . . and then there are hotels that are leasing blocks of rooms to an organization that provides temporary housing to the homeless. Guess which one we found.

I shouldn't complain. The hotel itself actually wasn't bad. The fact there were notices for counseling services, free lunches, and access to clothing donations was not typical for a hotel, but as long as no one tried talking us into going to a church service on-site I didn't really care what flyers were taped up in the elevator. I was actually a little disappointed there were no Bibles on the table in the lobby -- there was note up telling people to take one if they needed one; apparently enough people felt the need that the supply was temporarily exhausted. I actually thought it was kind of cool that homeless families had a place to stay that was reasonably safe and not a total slum.

As for our experience, the room was clean, the bed was comfortable, and, despite the hotel having an  overall air of having seen better days, the room included one of the best televisions we've encountered in a hotel room in a long time. The fact it had a fairly limited number of channels wasn't a big deal; it was more of a positive than not considering there was no remote so we got to change channels the old-fashioned way: getting up and hitting an up (or down) button until we got to what we were looking for.

The amenities in the room were actually a little strange -- there was no clock radio, but there was that good tv. No coffee pot, no ice bucket, no waste baskets (I had to request one at the front desk), but  there was still a blow dryer in the bathroom. No luggage rack to set the suitcase on, but really good quality coat hangers. No plastic water glasses, but top quality shampoo and body wash. I will concede the peel and stick tile (or half of one) covering the hole in the wall where the tissue dispenser used to be was a little odd, but I've seen stranger. We were also easy walking distance from multiple good restaurants, and while I was at the meeting the S.O. found a Menard's a couple blocks away. In the end, overall it wasn't a bad experience, at least not for me. The S.O. may have a different take on it.

So, if I have to go to Lansing for a meeting again will I stay at this particular bargain hostelry again? Probably not. Being spitting distance from a great Greek restaurant is definitely a plus, but I am lazy enough that if I'm watching tv I want to be able to point and click.

I am, of course, hoping that I never have to go to Lansing again. Now that I know why all those trolls are desperate to vacation here in God's country, I don't need to repeat the experience.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Chipmunk Wars have begun

I managed to finish planting the vegetable garden yesterday. For a change, I'd calculated things close to perfectly -- no wasted space and no seed packets left sitting there unopened. So what's the first thing I see after I stand up to look around? A chipmunk. He was sitting on the pump house roof, no doubt scouting the garden and figuring out where to dig first.

The little furry bastards did a number on the garden last year. They dug seeds up before they could sprout, they started harvesting potatoes long before we could, and in general had me thinking dark thoughts about importing weasels. This year I'm firing the first volley -- I invested in a canister of something called Critter Ridder, a mix of various natural ingredients that will supposedly discourage varmints from eating anything that's been dusted with it. As far as I can tell, it's basically a mix of hot peppers. It felt like I was seasoning the soil as I wandered up and down the rows liberally dusting everything with a hot pepper mix. Now the only question is whether or not it will work.

I am moderately hopeful that the chipmunks won't be as much of a nuisance this year. I'm not seeing as many around so maybe weasels did wipe out a bunch over the winter. I hope so. Last summer was the first year they'd ever been a problem. In fact, until last summer I'd never noticed any in the garden at all. They'd always seemed perfectly happy subsisting on stuff that fell outside the fence, like spruce cones and chokecherries. Somehow I'd never pictured them as being interested in potatoes. Live and learn.

I have a vague sense of being slightly late on finishing up planting stuff, but considering that we had a late frost it's just as well that the beans didn't go into the ground until yesterday. Our growing season is so short even in a good year that just about everything that goes into the garden now comes in seed packets that promise less than 2 months from planting to harvest. Either that, or it's a root vegetable like carrots and parsnips. I do have tomato plants in the garden, but I also know that when it gets to be late summer I'm going to end up picking most of them green and letting them ripen in the house. It actually amazes me that people (myself included) are willing to put so much time and effort into gardening, both vegetables and flowers, when we're lucky if we get to enjoy three full months of stuff growing and blooming.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thoughts and prayers

Surely there's a Democrat somewhere who's not on Medicare

I was listening to the Michelangelo Signorile show on Sirius XM as I was coming home Friday afternoon, and once again people were speculating about Elizabeth Warren as a possible vice presidential candidate. Same thing on "Real Time" with Bill Maher that evening. Without even getting into all the strategic reasons why it would be a really bad idea to have two women running together (at least at this point in U.S. history), all I can say is Jesus Christ, isn't there at least viable Democratic candidate who's not eligible for Medicare?

Common sense tells me (but apparently no one else) that if people who vote for Democrats really believe that Hillary Clinton is going to win in November then they should be thinking a few years down the line: who's going to be around to run in 2020 or 2024? Because, let's face it, no one is getting any younger. Hillary is going to be doing good to make it through two terms -- she's about to hit 69, not exactly spring chicken category. Elizabeth Warren is slightly younger, but not by much. Bernie Sanders, who the Berners would really like to see in the V.P. slot, will be 75 in September.

Okay, I can kind of see tapping Bernie for the V.P. slot. It would be a nice Retired in Place slot for him. The past year has to have been exhausting for him; he deserves a comfortable retirement. He could spend a few years kicking back, going to the occasional state funeral, nodding off in the Senate waiting for the infrequent occasions when the V.P.'s vote is needed to break a tie, and providing colorful curmudgeonly quotes for the media. Because that's the other thing: the Vice Presidential slot has to be the most useless position in government. Unless the President dies in office, the V.P. gets to spend year after year doing basically nothing. No power, no real influence, just kind of hanging out in the background trying to suppress their Frank Underwood tendencies. A former vice president, John Nance Garner, described the job as "not worth a boot full of warm piss." That strikes me as pretty accurate. So why pull an effective progressive Senator like Warren out of the Senate -- a place where she's become increasingly influential -- and stick her in a job where she'd become an instant nonentity? She's got more good years left in her than Bernie -- the dude is going to be 75 in September. Seventy-five! -- and could accomplish a lot more if she's left where she is instead of wasting time being Hillary's understudy.

So why not tap one of the younger Democrats who's currently at loose ends when it comes to politics? Like Deval Patrick? or Martin O'Malley? Actually, Deval Patrick would be perfect. He's really not that young (hitting 60 this summer), but he doesn't look like a geezer. And he's black. I think it's pretty much a given that the Democrats have kissed the angry white guy vote goodbye so why not go all out?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Indentured servitude

 I answered the phone at the museum the other day and got asked if we could use someone who has a community service requirement to fulfill. For quite a few years now one of the requirements for "welfare" has been that you earn your Food Stamps or your TANF vouchers by performing community service. This scheme is usually referred to as "workfare." At first blush, this does not appear to be such a horrible requirement.

Except it is. It's basically a punishment detail for having the nerve to be poor. The person I talked with said the work requirement was 35 hours per week between her and her partner. Okay. If a person worked for minimum wage for 35 hours per week, he or she would earn $253.75 before taxes. Figure roughly 4 weeks in a month and you're talking $1015. In Michigan, as of 2014 the average monthly SNAP benefit was $127 per person and $246 per household. If someone has to do community service for over 140 hours per month, that's a pretty steep price to pay for their food stamps. If someone is "earning" their welfare benefit, then they're working for quite literally pennies.

It gets worse. The workfare requirement was originally designed to help people transition into actual jobs. You know, help instill a work ethic. The plan was to push people who were unemployed into finding paying work. Except (and you know there's always an except) when it comes to this community service requirement it doesn't matter if you're one of the unfortunates who qualifies as "working poor." You can be part of a household where one spouse works full-time but the household is large enough and the wage is low enough that you qualify for SNAP. Guess what? The other spouse has to do community service. Workfare will quite literally force a family to put their kids into daycare or incur babysitting costs they otherwise would not need, all in the name of instilling a work ethic in a stay-at-home parent.

Workfare isn't particularly effective at moving people into actual jobs in any case. The organizations where a person is assigned to do their community service generally aren't interested in transitioning anyone into a paying position -- why should they when they've got the labor for free? -- and the work assigned rarely provides any meaningful training or experience. It also isn't effective in reducing the cost of anti-poverty programs. The World Bank, which has an obvious vested interest in supporting workfare, has done a number of studies that show that it's more cost-effective to simply give the poor cash benefits with no strings attached than it is to impose a workfare requirement. But if governments did that the punishment and humiliation aspects would vanish, and that would defeat the real purpose of the programs, which is to make welfare programs so unpleasant that no one applies for them.

In any case, I might actually buy into the notion of asking benefit recipients to do community service if it was calculated so the hours required matched up with a real world wage, but this bullshit of forcing people to work for pennies? It's dehumanizing, it's devaluing their labor. It's telling the poor they're worthless, or close to it. If their work had any meaning, the program would calculate the hours differently, make it a closer match between a legal wage and the amount they're going to receive. But when it's the equivalent of $1/hour or less? Then it's pretty obvious the work doesn't mean anything; it's the punishment part that's important.

Still, I did not say no to the offer of exploited labor. This is a small rural community; opportunities for community service are limited in number, and I have to give the people credit for having the guts to cold call the museum to ask if they could "volunteer" there. I will feel odd about it, but if it's something they have to do, I'm not going to make things even harder for them. (Side note: one of my pet peeves is the perversion of the word "volunteer." You're not a volunteer if you've been told the activity is required. A more accurate term would be "indentured servant.")

Oddly enough, I had been thinking about talking to the clerk of court to see about getting the other category of community service workers, the ones who end up paying for their DUIs or disorderly conduct by having to pick up trash or wash police cars. The one upside to this is we may get more competent help. With people sentenced to community service by the courts I figure we'd get guys who could do maintenance stuff (sweep, mop, wash windows) but probably not anything more complicated than that. Through workfare, we may end up with a "volunteer" who's computer literate.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Online marketing

macys kids and baby sale

I keep seeing ads for a "Baby Sale" at Macy's. I know the chain is in financial trouble -- people have lost interest in wandering through department stores so sales are down nationwide -- but didn't think things had gotten so desperate they'd decided to get into human trafficking. And why, I wonder, do the Facebook algorithms think I'm in the market for an infant? Or perhaps a toddler?

I must say the prices seem quite reasonable. Considering how many people there are who are desperate to have children, you'd think the going price would be a little higher. Then again, maybe it's like one of those infomercial deals where the product is totally free but you pay a gazillion dollars for the shipping.

Sometimes procrastination pays

I've been feeling rather guilty lately because (as usual) I've been really slow about getting the garden in. I got the broccoli and cauliflower plants transplanted along with half a dozen or so tomato plants and that was it before the rains hit. I should have known -- this happens every year. We'll have a stretch of nice weather, we get the garden tilled and ready to plant, I procrastinate, and then the skies open. Day after day goes by with conditions being too wet and muddy for me to feel like crawling around in the dirt planting beans.

Well, yesterday the rains finally tapered off. I started thinking about setting the rest of the tomato plants and getting this year's experimental sweet potatoes into the ground. Then I noticed the little red triangle for the weather app on the computer -- there was a frost advisory. So I decided to procrastinate for one more day.

So what's the current outdoor temp here at the Retirement Bunker? 31 and dropping. Will there be actual frost this morning? I don't know yet, but I am really happy now I didn't plant any beans a week ago. If I had, they probably would have sprouted by now -- and they'd all be dead.

As for the sweet potatoes, I have no idea how they're going to do this far north. They are definitely a warm weather crop, and it appears summer is off to a relatively cool start. Whether or not they'll survive, let alone produce anything, is anyone's guess.

And, speaking of gardening, I'm starting to get psyched about doing a native plants flower bed at the museum. Other projects at the museum are finally getting to the point where I can coast and do fun stuff like gardening. I've got the flower bed more or less mentally laid out. Now all I need to do is get the S.O. to help me put some treated timbers in place for borders and I can start moving stuff like lupines, goldenrod, and daisies into it. I need to find some wild blue berries to dig up and transplant, too. The trickiest part might be figuring out for sure what's a native plant (e.g.,Joe Pye weed) and what's an invasive wild flower (e.g., Queen Ann's Lace, aka wild carrot, which is not native to the Americas). I want the flower bed to be strictly stuff that's native to Michigan -- no invasives no matter how common they now are. It would be nice if it's also all perennials so once it's in, it's in.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Some people have rich fantasy lives

I was listening to the Michelangelo Signorile show on Sirius XM as I was coming home this afternoon. As might be expected, one of the topics du jour was politics and the California primary. Also as might expected, he was getting a few phone calls from folks who are seriously detached from reality.

There are a number of Bernie Sanders supporters who are quite vocal about their dislike of Hillary Clinton. They swear up and down there's no way they'll ever vote for her; they'll either sit out the election or vote for a third party candidate. I don't have much sympathy for the hard-core fanatics. I don't like Hillary much myself, but when it comes to voting for her or voting for someone who's sounding more and more like his kids would be trying to shuffle him off to a "memory care" unit if he wasn't (as he likes to remind us) really, really rich, I'll vote for the candidate who isn't showing signs of slipping into dementia. (And once again I'm bemused by the way you can say and do totally batshit crazy stuff and no one calls you on it if you're rich or already in a position of power, but that same behavior would result in shunning or getting tossed in a holding cell waiting for a pysch evaluation if you were poor.)

Anyway, those same "never Hillary" types do seem to be living in a fantasy world. One guy who called in was totally convinced that if Bernie Sanders would just throw his lot in with Green Party possible nominee Jill Stein the people would rise up and defeat both Hillary and the Donald. On what planet are these people living? Right now Jill Stein is polling about 5%. If she does indeed end up as the official Green Party nominee (they haven't had their convention yet so the nominee could turn out to be someone even less well-known), she might manage to pull off 1% of the vote in the general election. Studies of past elections indicate that about 80% of the people who support a third party candidate when responding to polls in the months leading up to the elections experience a reality check when the time comes to actually mark a ballot.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Was this a bucket list item?

Can I now say my life is complete (or close to it)? We had lunch at U.P. Chuck's bar in Kenton yesterday. We drive by the place all the time but it's usually not at a time of day when we're thinking about lunch. And even if it is the right time of day to be thinking about food, let's be honest. An establishment that features a drawing of someone upchucking on its tee-shirts doesn't strike me as being a place I'm real keen to patronize. But curiosity and hunger finally won out, so we pulled into the parking area alongside the building.

Note to anyone else who might contemplate stopping there: if you're driving a car, be careful when you park. The drop from the pavement on Federal Forest Highway 16 to the parking spaces is an abrupt one. You might not notice it in a truck, but in my little Ford Focus it felt and sounded like we'd just driven over a curb.

U.P. Chuck's is a typical small town bar. You kind of feel like you're stepping into a smoke-filled room even though smoking hasn't been allowed indoors in bars and restaurants in quite a few years in Michigan. I'm not sure what the building's original function 100+ years ago, but it's been a bar/restaurant/hotel as long as I can remember. The only thing that's changed on the exterior in the past 50 years is the name. There have been some updates to the interior: a new bar and tables in the past decade or so, but that's about it. The interior space was smaller than I expected -- the building is a decent size, but the actual main bar room doesn't take up much of the first floor. There is more space off to one side, but it looked like it didn't get much use, at least not in the summer. The lights were off and I got a vague impression of chairs stacked on tables. No doubt things get a lot busier during hunting and snowmobiling seasons. Most of the reviews on Yelp are from people who found it while hunting or sledding, although the place does get some summer tourists.

The menus we got handed were really short: just basic bar food like hamburgers, a couple of other types of sandwiches, a variety of deep fried snacks (the usual mozzarella sticks, mushrooms, zucchini, pickles, and whatever else Sysco sells breaded in humongous plastic bags), and pizza. This was a really good sign in place that had exactly one person working. I tend to get really suspicious when a small eatery has an elaborate menu -- that's a sure sign everything is coming off the Sysco truck pre-cooked and just gets microwaved in the kitchen.

Anyway, the S.O. ordered a Reuben and I got a cheeseburger -- a basic cheeseburger or hamburger is the test item I tend to order if we're eating someplace I've never been before. I figure if a place can make a decent hamburger, it's probably worth a return visit. So where did U.P. Chuck's fall on the decent burger scale? Kind in the middle. The burger was a decent size and it was cooked right -- sufficiently well-done that a person doesn't have to feel paranoid about E. coli or other food-borne illnesses but not so well-done that it's bone dry and bearing strong resemblance to a hockey puck. Normally it would fall into the really good category, but there was something ever so slightly off about the taste, like maybe the grill hadn't been kept as clean as it should be or the meat was hitting the end of its useful shelf life. Or maybe the cook decided to sprinkle on some seasoning I'm not used to tasting on burgers. Who knows? If I was a mustard user or had raw onions on the burger, that slightly off taste was subtle enough that I probably wouldn't have noticed it. Was it enough to keep me from eating there again? Nope, whatever the taste was it's been more than 24 hours and I haven't started upchucking. Still, the next time we stop there it'll be to try the pizza.

Downside to U.P. Chuck's: a couple moronic anti-Obama posters on one of the bulletin boards. I have a hunch this would be a good place to not talk politics because odds are Trump fans drink there.  

Like a lot of local establishments, there are framed photos (or photocopies of photos) of historic scenes hanging on the walls. Kenton used to be a good-sized town, thanks to a sawmill operating there. It was never a huge city, but it covered several blocks with businesses and houses. The main street had two-story commercial buildings for at least a block on both sides of the road; the town itself was big enough that it even had a wrong side of the tracks neighborhood, Finn Town. Finns were at the bottom of the social ladder back in the 1890s -- recent immigrants who spoke a stranger than usual language and practiced odd customs (e.g., sauna) -- so tended to end up clumped in the crappier housing. The photo above shows the main street in about 1910. I have no idea which one of those buildings is the current U.P. Chuck's (it might be the 5th one back on the left), but I do know that none of the other two-story structures have survived. And, considering how naked the hill in the background looks (that's a pretty thin line of trees) I think I know why Kenton faded into obscurity -- it's hard to keep a mill going once all the trees are gone.

Additional tourist information: there is a rustic (basic) US Forest Service Campground about 3 miles from Kenton, the Sparrow Rapids Campground. It has six sites and is free.There's also a nice wayside/picnic area on the north side of M-28 close to where the highway intersects with FFH-16.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Goldfinch

This one was an accident. Loyal readers (all two of you) know that I can be more than a tad obsessive about some things, including doing the Pulitzer fiction winners in chronological order. I started with the first winner (which, if memory serves, stank) and over the past 7 years or so have been slowly  working my way up the list. I'd actually gotten to 1969 when the ability to indulge in Interlibrary Loan vanished for a few months -- the L'Anse Public Library only has ILL during the school year. I figured the next Pulitzer winner I'd read wouldn't be available ntil sometime in September.

Then I pulled The Goldfinch off the shelf as part of my normal every-other-week trip to the library, recalled a friend had enthused about it a year or two ago, checked it out, eventually started reading it, and then found out it was a recent winner. My reaction was. . . oh, maybe a tad peeved at myself? I'd screwed up the nice neat order I was doing things in. I'm not supposed to skip around; it breaks my self-imposed rules. I consoled myself with the fact it was an accident -- there was nothing on the cover that would have warned me, and I hadn't looked at the list in awhile so how was I supposed to know?

So what exactly is The Goldfinch? For starters, it's really fat. This is not a book you pick up to skim on the bus on the way to work or to zip through on a weekend. It quite possibly is what might be termed a beach book, something you tote with you when you're looking forward to having a bunch of unstructured time to just kick back and read and not worry about how long it's taking you to get through it. It is a book with heft. In case of a home invasion, it could serve as a defensive weapon. It would also make a nifty doorstop.

It is also quite readable. Donna Tartt can write. She manages to wax almost lyrical when describing the trash floating in the canals in Amsterdam and the sand blowing through the decaying unfinished suburban housing developments in Las Vegas. If someone had told me someone could make descriptions of teenage druggies puking into trash cans readable, I wouldn't have believed it but Tartt pulls it off. How believable the scenarios are is another question -- I know adults can be pretty oblivious to the deviant behavior adolescents indulge in, but I find it hard to believe any two high school kids could show up at school day after day so stoned on alcohol and pills that it's a minor miracle they can walk. It's a rather implausible scenario. Then again, at that point the kid is going to school in Las Vegas so who knows? Maybe compared to his cohort, his behavior would have seemed pretty mainstream.

The Goldfinch is a coming of age story, sort of. The narrator is 13 when the book opens, mid-20s when it ends. It's his perspective on what's happened in his life since the day his mother died. It's been compared to Catcher in the Rye, but it's been so many years since I read that book that I have no idea if it's a valid comparison. I do seem to recall that Holden Caulfield didn't spend his time curled up in a fetal position from post traumatic stress while self-medicating like crazy and wallowing in paranoid fantasies, so I'm doubtful that the books actually have much in common. My memory of Holden is that he was pretty defiant; in contrast Theo (aka "Potter") spends a lot of time huddling under the bedclothes (metaphorically speaking) and having paranoid fantasies about being hauled off to prison in chains. He's pretty much a prisoner of his own fears.

The narrator in The Goldfinch, Theo Decker, is one of the oddest mixes of character traits I've seen in a long time. He's academically gifted, definitely book-smart, but remarkably naive when it comes to people. It doesn't help that with his own age group he has the social skills of a rock. Adults like him; his peers tolerate or bully him. When the book opens he apparently has only one friend, a sociopathic rich kid with a bad case of kleptomania, who drops Theo like the proverbial hot potato after Theo's mother dies. Theo also suffers from full-blown, total PTSD after surviving a bombing (vaguely ascribed to domestic terrorism) along with all the usual adolescent angst. The kid has one of the most wretched lives imaginable, loses his mother in the bombing, gets stuck living with his amoral alcoholic, drug-abusing con man of a father, and ends up living in a Las Vegas suburb that bears a strong resemblance to a ghost town. And it goes downhill from there. One horrible thing after another happens to Theo until he finds himself burning up with fever and freaking out from drug withdrawal in an Amsterdam hotel room. Then the author waves her magic wand, and, bingo, suddenly the thing that's terrified him for 13 years is no longer an issue. Even better, he's suddenly wallowing in huge amounts of money. To say this particular plot twist felt like cheating is an understatement. 

Maybe it wouldn't have felt so much like cheating if some of the horrible stuff that happened to Theo hadn't been his own fault. True, he was sadly orphaned in his teens and he did wind up drug-addicted, but that didn't automatically entail him to decide as an adult to sell fake antiques to gullible wealthy clients. The last chapter or so of the book really had me going, "That's it? All that weirdness and suddenly Theo gets a happily ever after? WTF?!" It felt contrived, formulaic, trite, you name it. It just didn't ring true. Then again, the same thing could be said of the whole book. . . so maybe it wasn't cheating after all; it was just the author doing an, "Oh, crap, I'm 650 pages into this sucker and no logical end in sight. Time to wrap it all up so my editor will stop harassing me about missed deadlines."

Bottom line: The Goldfinch is readable but odd. Tartt is sufficiently skilled as a wordsmith that the book flows smoothly; it's just a shame that when you hit the end you find yourself thinking she could have done it better with a lot less prose and some good illustrations. It feels like a graphic novel or the plot line for a not-very-good movie. You know, if it had actually been a movie and I'd paid to see it in a theater, I'd have walked out thinking, "Crap. Should have waited for it to be on Netflix." Except I'm not sure there's a Netflix equivalent for books -- does Reader's Digest still do condensed books?

Which I guess answers the question would I recommend this book to other readers? Not really. Once you start, the writing is sufficiently skilled that you get sucked into it, but in the end you just feel like you've wasted way too many hours of your life on a not very good book.

Next up with the Pulitzers: supposedly it'll be House Made of Dawn by Scott Momaby but having messed with the natural order of things with The Goldfinch, who knows?