Friday, December 22, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Elbow Room

I'm starting to think I might live long enough to read all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction after all. James Alan McPherson's Elbow Room won in 1978 so at this point there are less than 40 left for me to get to. Even allowing for the fact that a new one gets added to the list almost every year, if I read at least 5 per year I might manage to make it through them all before I take a dirt nap. Maybe.

Of course, I could whip through the list fairly fast if I didn't insist on using the public library to get them. I've whined before about how limited the collection is at the L'Anse Public Library -- if Danielle Steele or Janet Evanovich had won multiple Pulitzers I'd have no problem -- and the fact Interlibrary Loan is available only 8 months out of the year. I'd get the books read a lot faster if I was willing to actually buy them. (I miss DeKalb County every time I think about Interlibrary Loan. The DeKalb County library system was in an exchange with institutions like Emory University as well as other public libraries in the state. You name it and they could get it, and usually within 48 hours.)

Back to the subject at hand:  Elbow Room. Winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Elbow Room was the first work by an African-American author to win a Pulitzer, which surprised me. I have a hard time believing they passed over authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, but they did. In any case, Elbow Room was not James Alan McPherson's first collection of short stories, which had appeared in 1969. McPherson established a reputation for quality short fiction early in his writing career.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943, by the time McPherson was in his early 30s he was a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine and had been published in  numerous other top tier periodicals such as Harper's. He began writing short fiction while studying law at Harvard University. Success in literature came quickly enough that he never felt the need to practice law, although according to Wikipedia he did incorporate his legal knowledge into his fiction.

I didn't recognize McPherson's name when it came up on the list, but once I started reading the book several of the stories felt familiar. I probably read them when they first appeared in print, but when it comes to short fiction I'm terrible at remembering authors' names. If I had to sum up McPherson's work, I'd say he focused on intersections: the intersections between blacks and whites, working class blacks and middle class, wannabe gangsters and the real thing, folks who had left the South and their rural roots behind and the relatives and friends who still had, figuratively speaking, blisters from chopping cotton.

In the title story, "Elbow Room," an observation of an interracial marriage: a white man from Kansas meets a black woman from Tennessee while both are living in San Francisco. The narrator, who is black, admires both as individuals but thinks the marriage is a mistake. He doesn't believe the white man is strong enough to deal with the pervasive discrimination they'll face as a couple, he's sure the man's family will never accept the wife. He doesn't worry as much about the wife's family, which struck me as a bit odd. I've known a few black families that freaked out more over their kids dating someone white or Asian or Hispanic than the non-black families did about dating across racial lines, but maybe from the author's perspective the narrator's qualms and pessimistic predictions served as a surrogate for what the woman's family might be thinking. 

In another story, the narrator, a man who has achieved middle class status, reminisces about the last time he saw his lower class borderline gangster cousin, a man who works as a repo man for a car dealer. The narrator has become a black Clark Griswold, a person who now has a respectable job, a nice home, and in-laws who are pretty far removed from the deep South. The repo man is the narrator's equivalent of Clark's cousin Randy. When he shows up, you never know what's going to happen. Even if you dress him up in nice clothes and try to get him to act "respectable" just long enough to get through one evening with the in-laws, his disdain for being polite and his propensity for over-indulging in alcohol and violence will come shining through. We all have a cousin Randy, the relative who you hope won't use bad language in front of the kids or try to borrow money you don't have, so the story definitely resonates with the reader. The narrator is conflicted. He's appalled and dismayed by his cousin's behavior, but he's also awed. He keeps mentioning that rumor has it his cousin is dead, but you can tell he's trying to convince himself it's not true. It's a tricky balancing act for an author to pull off but McPherson does it smoothly.

Following the critical success of Elbow Room, McPherson moved away from writing short fiction. He went into academia, wrote several works of nonfiction, and was among the first group of people to receive a MacArthur award (the so-called "genius fellowship). He became known for his reticence when it came to talking about himself or his work (one article describes him as "he made Salinger look talkative"), but did write a memoir a few years before his death in 2016.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes. One or two of the stories struck me as a tad clunky, but overall the book is very readable. On the sliding scale from horrible to outstanding, Elbow Room lands close to the high end. It's not quite in the top ten percent, but it comes close.

Next up on the list? More short stories: John Cheever's The Stories of John Cheever. I am not feeling optimistic. I used to own the Cheever book. I got it in the 1980s from the Quality Paperback Book Club. It gathered dust for over 20 years until I decided I was never going to read it. It wound up donated to the Friends of the Omaha Library ten years ago. Now I get to do an interlibrary loan request and try again. Wish me luck.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The weirdness continues

About the same time we heard that Congressman John Conyers was being pressured to resign because of sexual harassment claims and his use of congressional funds to settle a complaint against him, it emerged that Conyers was not unique in his abuse of federal money. Texas Congress critter Blake Farenthold, a repellent toad in semi-human form who was elected multiple times by the not-very-smart inhabitants of Corpus Christi, had apparently engaged in similar behavior. In fact, it emerged that Farenthold's using congressional funds predated Conyers' abuse of the account. Farenthold, however, didn't seem to be going anywhere until things got weird.

It developed that not only was Farenthold a lech, he was (and probably still is) The Boss from Hell. He verbally abused his staff, he threw literal temper tantrums (staffers describe him as having sceaming fits, throwing things, and dramatically sweeping everything off his desk to create a mess the staff then had to clean up), and he had a potty mouth that came straight from a drunken kegger at a frat house. He was, in fact, such an abusive jerk that his male staffers had a hard time working for him, too. One of those male staffers, a man who had been hired to serve as Farenthold's communications director and tasked with trying to clean up his image, actually became physically ill as a result of the stress created by the hostile work environment

The staffer resigned from Farenthold's staff two years ago, but the recent surge in women coming forward to tell their horror stories may have prompted the man to go talk to the congressional ethics office. The incidents described included Farenthold telling the staffer to be sure to get his fiance to perform oral sex before the wedding because it wasn't ever going to happen after he said I do. Except Farenthold didn't phrase it quite that politely. It was a crude, vulgar remark made at full volume in front of multiple staff members. He also made suggestive comments about whether or not the fiance qualified for wearing white for the wedding. The comments were ones that had they been delivered by a peer could have led to a fistfight, or worse, but when they came from the boss? Just what is the appropriate reaction when your power tripping boss jokes in front of the entire office about your soon-to-be wife being a slut? The staffer had to stand there and try not to react, kind of the same way female staffers find themselves refraining from telling the boss where to shove it when he grabs their ass or tells them they have nice tits. 

One of the not-so-secret secrets about working for a Congress critter is that quite a few of the critters really are abusive asshats. The genial good ol' boy voters see on the campaign trail is not the tyrannical Lizard Person the staff gets to deal with. When I read an article about Farenthold's temper tantrums and general Prize Prick of the Year behavior, I found myself hoping that someone will find the guts to narc on Mitch McConnell. One of my friends worked for McConnell during his first term in the Senate, which makes it so long ago fresh dinosaur dung still littered the landscape. She went into the job really psyched because she'd been a huge McConnell supporter but left before the end of that first term feeling very disillusioned. I figure that if McConnell was one of those power-tripping bosses from Hell during his first term, just how horrible must he be now when he's in his 6th? The typical abusive louts do not mellow with age -- they get worse.

As for why you don't see staffers complaining publicly, e.g., going to the ethics office or its equivalent and doing some whistle blowing, it's because they all know full well that if they do lodge a formal complaint anywhere they're never going to work on Capitol Hill again. Or, for that matter, any place else where your old boss's reference can make a difference. If you're a young, not long out of college staffer with a degree in political science and a desire to be in politics, you're going to keep your mouth shut, eat your Xanax, Valium, Prilosec, and whatever else it takes to get you through the work week, and hope you're able to move on to something better.

Anyway, back to Farenthold. Following the latest revelation about his asshattery, he's announced he's retiring at the end of this term. His staff only has to put up with him for one more year. Poor bastards.

A small digression. Farenthold would come up in the news occasionally, usually for making some comment that made Alex Jones look sane or Jenny McCarthy look smart, I always wondered just how thin the candidate pool was in that part of Texas. Surely there must have been at least one other person in the Corpus Christi area whose IQ was not in single digits who wanted to run for office? Apparently not if an escapee from "Animal House" like Farenthold was the best they could do.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A joint project

The S.O. and I generally operate in different spheres. He likes to spend time tinkering on mechanical stuff; I lean towards working with fabric and fiber. Once in awhile, though, things overlap. Like with these chairs.
Back in about 2005, The Kid picked up four metal chairs with padded vinyl seats at a yard sale. She had plans to clean up the metal and replace the seats. She never got around to it. The chairs sat in the barn for awhile, then they got moved to the great outdoors for a year or three -- the outdoor move resulted in some pretty nice moss growth on the vinyl seats. I'm regretting now my failure to document the mini-ecosystem. It would have made a more impressive "before" photo than the naked metal frames do.
We finally decided it was time to do something with them. So the S.O. removed the seats, stripped the moss-covered padded vinyl off one to get at the wood base to have to use as a pattern, and tossed the others on a burn pile. He used the pattern to make some new seats, which I polyurethaned before covering to make the wood a little more rot resistant if the chairs get rained on. He then sandblasted the metal, repaired some welds that had come loose, and painted the .metal.
I did the easy parts. I picked the paint color, a choice based primarily on what types of upholstery fabric remnants I knew were in my fabric stash, and then covered the seats. End result?
Best part: they fit perfectly on the deck of the guest cabin. I have no idea how comfortable they'd be to sit on for more than a few minutes but, damn, they look good.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

So what's new at the museum you ask?

Well, you can no longer tell that a window ever existed in the wall where we took one out, at least not from inside the museum. A local contractor who specializes in plastering finished mudding and sanding a few days ago. That wall is now as smooth as the clichéd baby's butt. It is ready for painting so one of these days I'll probably prime it. Maybe. Given that the museum has hardwood floors as well as a lot of stuff we really don't want paint splatters on, that may be another task that gets contracted out. If I take a brush or roller in hand, we will end up with mystery splatters landing 30 feet away.
In any case, now that the plastering is done, we can do some shuffling and use that particular space as a staging area while we get to work in the hallway creating a doorway to improve the traffic flow and dissuade visitors from cutting through the office. Once that door is in, then we will paint for sure, both the newly drywalled space, the hallway, and exhibit area side of the wall we cut through. The doorway creation should be fairly fast and easy unless we run into weirdness with the way the electrical lines run through the wall. And you know we will run into weirdness. The past five years of volunteering at the museum have taught me that.
The toy in the foreground is a Buddy L steam shovel from the 1920's.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

And another one bites the dust

Make that two. I started off typing about Matt Lauer. Had to step away from the computer for a few hours, came back, and Garrison Keillor had joined the list. My lede required a rewrite. 

Matt Lauer. Holy wah. Matt Lauer. That one surprised me a bit. I don't pay much attention to the morning celebrity gossip showcases so did not know Lauer had a track record of being an ass and a philanderer. Garrison Keillor? Not so much of a shock. I've always thought there was something a tad creepy about Keillor. Still, based on close to 70 years of observing men in action, I've been saying all along that the number of men who have never been guilty of playing grab ass, saying something openly offensive, or being generally boorish toward any woman who isn't either their wife or their daughter is depressingly small. The combination of testosterone poisoning and peer pressure can turn almost any dude into a total jerk at least once in his life. And now that boorishness is coming home to roost -- every time a woman comes forward to say, hey, it happened to me, you know other women are wondering if maybe they should finally tell their stories.

Like every other adult in the country I've been observing miscellaneous men getting unmasked as  creepers of varying degrees, from the mildly disgusting -- the ass grabbers who want to hug just a little too long while letting their hands drift south -- to the blatantly pervy, like Roy Moore hanging out at the local mall while trolling for barely legal teenyboppers. I have, of course, Had Thoughts.

The most obvious thought is that heads are going to continue rolling for awhile. Payback Time has arrived; women who have kept their trauma and their disgust bottled up for decades are going to take advantage of a changed climate, as they should. Way too many men have been blatant pigs, abused their power as supervisors or celebrities, and it's about time some karma caught up with them.

I also had the usual thought that once again men in general were demonstrating how totally clueless most of them are about what a woman's life is really like. As Louis C. K. once said (when he wasn't busy whacking off in front of women who weren't real interested in seeing his dick or how proficient he was at self-love), when men meet women through dating sites, their biggest fear is that the woman will turn out to be fat while women fear that the man will be a psychopath who will kill them.

And, yes, it is more than a tad bizarre that a man who actually seemed to get some of the things that make women's lives a heck of lot more stressful than most men's was also so clueless that he thought it was okay to masturbate in front of women who until they got treated to the unwanted floor show had viewed him as being one of the good guys. (I keep hearing that he asked the women if it was okay if he got naked/choked the chicken. Just how does one phrase that? "Mind if I beat off while we chat about the craft of writing good jokes?" "Is it okay if I get totally naked while fondling my dick and pretending this is a normal conversation?") Nonetheless, what the man said is true. Men worry about a lot of stuff when it comes to women but the possibility of getting raped and killed by a lady they've just met usually doesn't make the stress list. The Elaine Wuornos of this world are few and far between.

I get reminded of this truth, incidentally, about the unmentioned but always present paranoia of women whenever I listen to Stephanie Miller on satellite radio. One of her major advertisers is Tiger Lady, the company that makes an easy to carry self defense device that mimics a cat's claws. You carry it in your hand when walking or jogging. It has retractable claws that emerge when you clench your fist. The claws are curved and hollow to ensure that sufficient skin will get collected to make a DNA match possible. Every ad lays it on thick about what a great device this is for women. When was the last time you heard an ad telling men they needed to invest in something they can use to defend themselves? Yes, it's true you'll see and hear ads telling men to buy guns or install security systems, but it's never for their own personal defense. It's to protect the man's family, his defenseless wife and kids. Or the weapon will be so he can be the good guy with a gun when some maniac menaces the public. It's never personalized, like the man is in danger of bad stuff happening to him.

And, speaking of clueless men, you've got to love the way so many guys are emerging as apologists for their fellow creepers by spouting lines like "If I pat a woman's ass, it's a compliment" or "Catcalls are a type of flattery." These are generally the same dudes who have homophobic fits over the vague idea of some other guy checking their equipment out in the men's room or maybe randomly grabbing their junk -- you know, being objectified and treated the way they treat women. Which means they know damn well what the problem is, but only in some mythical world where they're the victims and not the perpetrators.

Moving on to a final thought, it hit me that the whole Roy Moore saga would have played out a lot differently if the distinctly creepy Moore had been, let us say, a janitor instead of a lawyer. How fast do you think the police would have gotten involved if the creeper was a blue collar worker instead of a white collar one? Would it still have fallen into the category of "Oh, don't worry about it, that's just Roy. He likes younger women." Or would the blue collar guy found himself being hauled off to jail for being a public nuisance or worse?

We all know that class plays a role in how seriously crime (or perceived crime) gets treated. If some homeless guy ogles a teenager, he's going to get labeled as a pervert and a definite threat immediately. Society as a whole is going to make it real clear his attentions are not welcome. A dude in a suit and a well-respected position in the community, like a lawyer or a teacher, can be a serial molester but when girls or young women complain, they'll get the brush-off. "You're imagining things." "Oh, it's just Roy, he's a lawyer, he'd never do anything wrong." I wonder just how many teenagers Roy Moore had to hit on before it finally sank in with the mall management that what Moore was doing was definitely too creepy to allow to continue?

The whole Roy Moore episode, for what it's worth, brought back some disturbing local memories, like the elementary school teacher who got away with molesting dozens of students because no one wanted to believe a nice guy in a suit would hurt kids or the serial killer who didn't fall into the suspect pool immediately because he worked in the local Social Security office. Another nice guy in a suit. . . and perhaps the subject for a separate post on the many reasons women were reluctant in the past and remain reluctant today to report abuse that goes way beyond boorishness into outright criminality.

I guess the good news, such as it is, might be that the reluctance could be fading. Young women today should be a lot less likely to decide to ignore it when their boss plays grab ass or suggests that if they invest in some knee pads they've got a better shot at a promotion. Whether or not men's behaviors change will no doubt depend on just how many heads do roll before the current wave of outrage subsides.

Friday, November 24, 2017

What's the point of dick pix?

In an episode that almost serves as comic relief from all the other sexual harassment and sexual assault accusations swirling around in the news these days, a paunchy, over the hill, human toad of a Congress critter from Texas has admitted sending photographs of his genitalia -- dick pix -- to a lady friend. Congressman Joe Barton, a man who until he indulged in this particular form of stupidity was best known for opposing wind turbines because they'd "use up all the wind," decided to prove to the world that he is indeed even dumber than most of us thought.

I have never been able to figure out the fascination some men have with documenting their own genitalia. Do they think that if they don't provide photographic evidence women won't believe they actually possess a penis? Do they think we've never seen one before? Are they so in love with their own equipment that they believe women will be equally enthralled? Do they not realize that by sending out dick pix they're setting themselves up for mockery? Think about it, guys, do you really want women you know sharing the photo with their female friends while chortling about how pathetic your member is? Do you actually want your privates associated with lines like "Every time I look at this picture I'm reminded I need to shop for baby carrots?"

News flash, guys. Women are not interested in seeing photographs of dicks. It doesn't matter who it's attached to; a penis is not a visual turn on for the vast majority of women. It doesn't matter if it's the best looking dick on the planet, an organ that would qualify you for a career in porn, women still don't want to see pictures of it. She might be happy to check it out in person but trust me -- sending her dick pix is not the way to get her to want to do that. If you ask a woman what she thinks of male genitalia in general, most woman will tell you they think the typical penis is pretty funny looking. It's not a visual lure -- if anything, it's a source of comic relief.

As for the specific example of Joe Barton, the dude is now 68 years old, suffers from definite middle-aged (geezer?) spread, and is not a particularly attractive person no matter how you look at him. What was the point of his dick pix? To show his lady friend that, look, babe, the Viagra works?

I really shouldn't have typed that last paragraph. Reaching for the brain bleach and trying hard to think about other stuff for the rest of the day.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Please, writers, do some research

It's pretty much a given that any time I watch a television program I'm going to start muttering about how lazy, uniformed, or stupid the writers are. I watch the shows anyway because I figure all fiction is allowed some creative license, but some series are a lot worse than others.

For example, as a former federal employee, I find myself doing a lot of willing suspension of disbelief while watching shows like "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds." It's pretty clear no one on the writing teams for those particular police procedurals has any clue just how federal employment works. If you're wondering, my favorite rant tends to be about federal mandatory retirement ages for active law enforcement -- there is a nifty catch-22 in federal hiring rules for commissioned law enforcement that basically guarantees you're not going to see anyone past the age of 57 running around out in the field with a gun (LeRoy Jethro Gibbs should have either retired into being a fulltime basement boat builder or lateralled into a purely desk job long ago) -- but I could go on at length about other howlers in the shows. Ever notice what weird hours the NCIS team works? Has any one of them ever put in a normal 8 hour day, bitched about having to take comp time instead of getting paid overtime because of their grade level, or whined about "use it or lose it" in a holiday episode?  I also love the streamlined hiring process -- someone shows up on a temporary detail, Gibbs decides  he likes that person and, voila, instant hire. No posting the job, no hiring review panel sifting through applications and doing interviews, just instant employment.

It was not "NCIS" that got me to ranting last night, though. It was "Longmire." Holy wah. I can semi-understand the writers having a piss poor minimal understanding of treaty rights and how it relates to law enforcement (e.g., what local and state law enforcement can and cannot do on a federally recognized reservation) because that area can be a mess (some tribes, states, and local governments are really good about cooperating and doing cross deputization; others are not) but it would have been nice if they'd done a little research into the provisions of the Indian Gaming Act before they decided to make an Indian casino a key element in the show. A little time spent looking into typical tribal politics would have been useful, too, because they could have come up with far more colorful plotlines than just portraying the casino manager as some sort of autocrat with not a whole lot of oversight, either from a tribal council or from the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Then again, maybe after talking with a few of the Native cast members (and "Longmire" does seem to have a decent percentage of actual Indians playing Indians) they decided tribal politics are too Byzantine to be believable.

I'm not even going to get into how bizarre it is that way too many of the Cheyenne characters in the show seem to have been stuck with names out of a Dickens novel: Malachi, Mathias, etc. I don't know if that's a scriptwriter's quirk or a problem that Craig Johnson (the author of the Longmire novels had; I've only read one Longmire novel to date), but I have a hard time picturing any parent, Cheyenne or otherwise, thinking Malachi would be a good name for a child born in the mid-20th century. . . unless, of course, that parent is a member of some weird fundamentalist cult and thinks the Old Testament is a good place to go trawling for baby names. Although I have to admit that Malachi fits Graham Greene's character better than a more typical mid-century name like Jerry or Rick would have. As names go, Malachi comes close to being the male version of Maleficent. But I digress.

Last night's WTF moment in "Longmire" came when Walt Longmire and his deputy went to talk to a school teacher about one of her students. The 10 year old had some significant problems. Her father was dead, an apparent homicide victim, and her mother was so wasted on pain pills she could barely talk. It was obvious there was stuff going on in the kid's life that she wasn't talking about. We the viewers got treated to several minutes of dialogue in which the teacher does a fair amount of tap dancing and dithering about confidentiality and worrying about what would happen if other parents found out she'd said anything about a student's home life.

I repeat, WTF? Obviously, the writers for "Longmire" have never heard of "duty to report" laws. Every state has them. In some states any professional whose job involves working with children is considered a mandatory reporter. That is, if a teacher suspects a child is being abused or neglected, that teacher must report it. Wyoming doesn't specify teachers -- they turn every adult in the state into a reporter. If you're an adult in Wyoming, the supposed location of the Longmire series, and you think something hinky is going on in the life a child, you are required by law to contact law enforcement or Child Protective Services. I found this out through the magic of Google, a technological marvel that most scriptwriters are apparently unaware exists. (I already knew about duty to report laws; I just didn't know the specifics for Wyoming.) In short, when the county sheriff showed up asking if the kid had any problems at home, the teacher should not have hesitated, or, if she did, it should have been a different sort of CYA dance.

It occurs to me that minor annoyances like that are possibly the reason we don't binge watch anything. If we did, the cumulative bloopers would have me vowing to never watch another episode of The Walking Dead/Longmire/Bosch/whatever long before we got to the end of the series. As it is, we move through the Netflix queue and what's on Amazon Prime at the proverbial snail's pace. By the time "Longmire" comes around again I'll have forgotten how annoyed I got at it this time.

The S.O. also has some pet peeves that come up while watching television or movies, but his usually involve aircraft, like if we're watching something that's supposedly a flashback to the Vietnam war and he spots wire-strike protection on the helicopters.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Signs of the Apocalypse

I went to a meeting hosted by the Archives at the Michigan Tech library yesterday. A strange thing happened. There was a surplus of parking. I came prepared to circle like a shark hoping to find a space or, alternatively, to park somewhere far, far away from my destination and do a really long hike. Instead I discovered a plethora of empty spaces within literal spitting distance of my destination.

Guys, this isn't normal. Parking at MTU (Michigan's Toughest University) has always been a bitch. Back when I was a commuting student it was horrible. It was horrible when I taught there and had access to faculty parking. It's been horrible whenever I've had to go up there for various events or do some research. It is like a law of nature. Parking at Tech is bad, an exercise in survival skills. To get there on a weekday morning and have an actual choice in where to park, to see not just one empty slot close to the library but a dozen or more? This is not normal. Any time now it's going to start raining frogs or a giant chasm (aka Hellmouth) is going to open where we least expect it, like in the middle of a Girl Scout camp instead of under the state Capitol.

As for the meeting, it was useful. The Historical Society of Michigan is encouraging the formation of regional alliances for the various local museums and historical societies in the state. The western Upper Peninsula alliance would cover Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Gogebic, and Iron counties. The concept makes sense. There are several dozen organizations within that geographic grouping, including everything from groups that do just one thing (preserve a one room school or a historic house) to more general purpose historical societies like the Covington Township Historical Museum. The thinking is similar to what led to the formation of the Northland Historical Consortium -- encourage us all to talk to each other, share ideas, pool resources occasionally. I think it's a good idea, especially if it's under the umbrella of the HSM it's got a more permanent foundation than the Northland consortium, which has had to rely on the support of essentially one person with an academic job.  However, I'd be a tad more sanguine about its possible success if there'd been more than four organizations represented. There were supposed to be more, but a number of groups that had initially expressed interest didn't send a representative after all.

Still, despite the low turnout, the morning session led by a guy from HSM was worth the drive. I learned a number of interesting and/or useful things. Then in the afternoon there was a workshop on archives. The focus was on techniques to use when introducing elementary and high school students to working with primary sources. Schools have focused so much in recent years on using the Internet for research that kids don't know how to utilize primary sources like hard copies of newspapers, old photographs, business records, and so on. They are blown away when they discover they can go to an archive and actually touch original documents like personal letters and hard copy photographs of historic events. In fact, until an archive does outreach to a local school, both the teachers and the students may not be aware a local archive like ours even exists.

The highlight for me was from a group of photographs from August 1913 showing Mother Jones front and center leading a parade of striking miners in Calumet. Mother Jones! A typical high school student's reaction would have been different, of course. Instead of going, wow, my hero! the student would (hopefully) wonder just why there was an old lady with a typical old lady's purse marching with a bunch of men -- and that would be the gateway to learning more about labor history in general, not just the strike in the Copper Country.
Photo from Michigan Technological University Archives

After we talked about introducing students to using archival material, we were given a tour of the actual archives. The usual wave of envy swept over me when I saw the gazillion flat files filing cabinets. I fantasize about getting flat file cabinets for the museum's maps and other oversize material. One of these years -- everyone talks about getting grant money for that type of purchase, but the reality is that grant money for storage/archival supplies is hard to find. Grants to underwrite activities and events (collecting oral histories, hosting a guest speaker) are common. Grants for supplies and/or capital improvements are like unicorns.

But I digress. Besides envying the cabinetry, I was surprised to learn that in some ways I've been doing a more thorough job with the museum's archives than MTU has with theirs. Granted, I'm working with a lot less material but I'm doing it part-time and as an amateur. When I went looking for advice on how to organize the museum's archives and to create finding aids, all the experts as well as the online advice said that first step is to figure out what it is you have. End result is that as I went through the files, I indexed it as I went. The goal was (and still is) to index and then go back to see if categories need to be expanded, compressed, or eliminated. There has been no taking a box of stuff, calling it the Local Important Person Collection, and shoving it on to a shelf. If documents haven't been indexed, they're not in our Guide to the Collections/Finding Aids.

As for other signs of impending Armageddon on campus, there were no parking Nazis visible. We were in a room with windows overlooking the parking area all morning and I never saw someone checking meters and writing tickets. That is flat out not normal. Michigan Tech loves writing parking tickets. Brace yourself. Thunder snow and frogs falling from the sky are going to happen any time now.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Pulitzer Project: Humboldt's Gift

Humboldt's Gift is an odd book. I had no trouble reading it -- Saul Bellow could write -- but I did kind of wonder why I was bothering. Humboldt's Gift  is told from the perspective of a successful writer, Charlie Citrine, a guy who is apparently somewhere in his 50s at the time. The narration shifts back and forth from the present (early 1970s) to memories of the narrator's friendship with a renowned poet, Von Humboldt Fleischer.

Referred to as Humboldt by his friends and wide circle of acquaintances, Fleischer enjoyed early success but then kind of stalled out. He's able to earn a living, has an influential position as an editor and as visiting faculty as Princeton University, but his poetry doesn't have the impact he desires. He's sliding into becoming irrelevant, one of those authors whose early work gets described as "ground breaking" or "seminal" while the still-living author gets talked about as though he's dead. As time passes, Fleischer abuses drugs and alcohol more and more, becomes increasingly eccentric and paranoid, and ends up dying alone and unrecognized in a cheap New York City SRO hotel.

When the novel opens, Charlie Citrine is living in Chicago, his hometown. Fleischer has been dead for awhile, long enough that he's become the subject of Ph.D. dissertations, so Citrine finds himself pursued by graduate students hoping for some special insight or biographical tidbits that will make their research stand out. Citrine really doesn't want to talk about Fleischer or their friendship. His own life is enough of a mess that he's not interested in taking trips down Memory Lane with strangers. He's in the middle of a messy divorce, his writing has kind of stalled out, and he's involved with a youger woman, a person he admits he's seeing primarily for the sex. He recognizes that her primary interest in him is the money she thinks he has. The truth is, of course, that between his lack of recent work and the efforts of his wife to suck every last dime from him in divorce proceedings, he's got a cash flow problem.

In any case, the book flips back and forth between Citrine's current messed up life and his memories of Fleischer. He recalls Fleischer befriending him when Citrine first came to New York as a young, naïve wannabe writer and how their career trajectories intersected. Citrine went from being unknown to successful; Fleischer slid from famous and successful into obscurity. Their friendship splintered as the older writer became increasingly self-destructive. Citrine remembers the last time he saw Fleischer on the street in New York. The sight of Fleischer looking like a down and out wino spooked Citrine so much he found himself unable to cross the street to talk to his old friend. Instead, he had a panic attack and dashed back to the safety of Chicago. Shortly after that almost meeting, he learned Fleischer is dead.

Saul Bellow has Citrine revisit this memory multiple times in the book. You can tell it preys on Citrine; he's carrying a fair amount of guilt around for losing contact with the man who had been his mentor and had encouraged his ambitions back when he was unknown and struggling. At the same time, he's trying to deal with his wife's legal machinations, his girlfriend's mercenary instincts, a borderline Chicago mafia type who inserts himself into Citrine's life over a gambling debt, and his increasing financial woes. Citrine is a mess.

He's also not particularly likable. He's basically your standard issue self centered middle aged white guy misogynistic racist pig. I kept hoping the minor league Mafioso would decide to shove Citrine off a high-rise construction girder or stuff him into a garbage truck. No such luck. Four hundred plus pages and the jerk kept breathing. There was no happy ending in this book, unless Fleischer getting moved to a grave in a better location counts as one.

After I finished the book, I did some Googling. I try not to do that before reading the books on the list because I try to approach the Pulitzer winners with an open mind. Turns out that Humboldt's Gift is autobiographical. It's a fictionalized version of Saul Bellow's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwarz. Given that I had never heard of Delmore Schwarz but was familiar with Bellow's name (although I hadn't read anything he'd written) it does appear there were strong parallels when it came to the rise and fall of name recognition/notoriety/success. I also learned that the first incarnation of Humboldt's Gift was a short story published in Playboy. How a short story goes from a few thousand words to filling 400+ pages is a mystery, but Bellow must have been feeling inspired.

Would I recommend the book to other readers? It's a toss-up. Bellow could write. The book does have a certain flow and some of the elements do suck you in -- why does the Mafioso type decide he wants to be Citrine's friend instead of fitting him with cement shoes? how did Citrine become a supposedly successful journalist with access to political figures like Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy when he's so clueless about people in his social life? -- but Citrine himself is sufficiently repellant that by the time I got to the end I was feeling like I'd just escaped from having lunch with Harvey Weinstein.

Next up on the list: Elbow Room, a collection of short stories by James Alan McPherson. This is the first book where I had to make a choice -- skip it or buy it because it was not available through Interlibrary Loan. I bought it, which means it won't get read for awhile.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Major archeological find

Back in 1992, we decided to build a deck by what is now the entrance to the Woman Cave. At the time, the structure was the back porch we'd added on to the Shoebox, the ratty mobile home we'd lived in off and on since the '70s. The kid did the excavating, the S.O. then built a decent sized deck using rough lumber from a local mill. He treated it with Thompson's Water Seal a few times, but basically the decking was cheap untreated rough lumber, mostly hemlock and spruce, that then sat there exposed to the weather for a couple decades.

Every so often one of those boards would decide it had suffered long enough, it was time to rot. We usually discovered this by stepping through it. Annoying, but not exactly life threatening when the drop was barely 6 inches. We'd slap a patch over the hole and move on. This summer we figured out the patches took up more square footage than the original material. The time for replacement had come. So the S.O. pulled up the boards.

Lo and behold! Major archeological find. I guess it counts as historic archeology because the artifact came complete with a date embossed on the bottom. That date, however, raises an interesting  question: the Big Mac Transformer is copyright 1987. The deck didn't get built until 1992. How did it get under there? Tammi did a really nice job of leveling the space; it was definitely bare dirt when the S.O. framed the deck.
I suspect, of course, that one of the cats carried it under the deck while playing with it. No chew marks on it so it wasn't the dog.

Minor digression: it just struck me that even a plastic Big Mac looks more edible than the real thing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Talk about shooting yourself in the metaphorical foot

Listening to NPR this morning. For a change, the most interesting news is international, like the troubled election going on in Kenya. Kenyans had voted earlier this year, but that election was nullified by the courts due to overwhelming evidence of widespread election fraud. I'd say this election is the mulligan, the do-over because they screwed up the first time, but it's apparently actually the third time this year that the Kenyans have tried to hold a nation-wide election.

Well, in what has to be one of the more bizarre opposition ploys I have seen, people who oppose the current government of President Uhuru Kenyatta are boycotting the election. You read that right. In order to register their opposition and try to bring about change to the existing government, they're going to stay home, just sit it out. The only people voting will probably be Kenyatta's supporters. Assuming, that is, that anyone at all votes. The latest report on the BBC mentioned violence and physical attacks on polling places, but it wasn't clear just who was instigating the violence -- the opposition? The party currently in power? Who knows. In any case, none of should be surprised when we hear that Kenyatta won re-election by an overwhelming margin.

I'd say people talking about boycotting voting in Kenya has to be the dumbest electoral ploy I've ever seen except it's not unusual. Not long ago the same thing happened in Spain. People who opposed the separatist movement sat out the election held in Catalonia to determine whether or not Catalonia should become an independent nation. Naturally, when most of the people voting were the ones who supported separatism the election results were in favor of independence. This happened despite the fact various polls showed that the separatists were a distinct minority in the region. If all the people who opposed separatism had bothered to vote Catalonian independence would now be a nonissue.

Apparently opponents of the existing government in Venezuela also did something similar a few months back -- decided they weren't going to dignify the socialist regime of President Maduro by participating in the election -- so, wow, what a surprise, Maduro is still in power. The country is a mess, but at least the opposition has its dignity intact.

We saw something similar happen in this country a year ago. Lots of people who didn't like either candidate very much, who claimed that they didn't want to vote for the "lesser of two evils" opted to not vote at all. We saw how well that worked out.

The stupid, it burns.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Speaking of planning

One of these days I need to learn to plan better

The S.O. and I have been involved with some remodeling/renovating at the museum. I mentioned a few weeks ago we were going to pull out a window and then drywall that section of wall. Well, the window came out a couple weeks ago, and the hole got covered from the outside. At the time, we were thinking the drywall part would be easy.

Why would it be easy? Because the space was basically 12 feet wide and not quite 9 feet tall. All we had to do was get two 12 by 4 feet sheets of drywall, put them up horizontally, and that would be that. So when the S.O. and another historical society member framed in the hole where the window had been, a space that was 5 feet high and 8 feet wide, more or less, they didn't worry much about the spacing on the studs. They set them at 24 inches on center. When the dry wall seam was going to be horizontal, it didn't matter much what the spacing for the vertical studs was.

Well, then we did the shopping for drywall. That's when we got reminded that stuff is heavy. Even the lightweight stuff weighs quite a bit. I knew it was going to be me and the S.O. hanging that drywall. The more I thought about it, the less enthusiastic I became about the idea of having to lift a 12-foot long sheet of drywall on to the top half of the wall. We're old. We're not quite feeble, but we're getting there. Trying to lift a large awkward chunk of something weighing well over 100 pounds did not strike me as a fun way to spend our time. I started having visions of us being flattened by a sheet of drywall, pressed like oversize butterflies on to the museum floor. So when we were almost to Menard's I asked the S.O. for his thoughts. He didn't take much persuading. . . and once we were in the store and cursing as we got the actual sheets of drywall on to the cart, shifting to using the 8 foot lengths looked even more attractive. If we had trouble getting a 8 foot sheet on to a cart a couple inches off the floor, trying to lift a much longer sheet up almost five feet on the wall would have really sucked.

Of course, when it came time to actually hang the drywall, we discovered that we could not simply set the 3 sheets vertically. Nope. The studs in the hole didn't line up right. Coming over four feet from one side of the wall put the edge of the sheet about a foot too far from the framing. That's when the S.O. got to be creative. Three sheets of drywall wound up as six pieces, each one a different size, and multiple short seams instead of one long one. But at least it's up and we can move on to the next step.

I suppose we could have rented a drywall jack and that would have solved the handling problem for the longer sheets, but it seemed rather silly to spend more on rental fees than the material we were installing cost, especially when it would have been needed for just one sheet.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Your tax dollars at work

Given that the typical VA patient, at least based on what I've seen in the waiting rooms in Iron Mountain and Hancock, looks like he or she is older than the proverbial dirt, I find it oddly reassuring that the Veterans Administration thinks they have clients who can still use this particular product. I picked up the brochure at the clinic in Hancock where it seemed like everyone other than the S.O. was definitely mobility challenged.

Then again, just because a person's knees or hips have decided to stop working doesn't mean that everything else has closed up shop. (And if it has, the VA also prescribes Viagra.)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

It's still Amateur Hour at the White House

Ever wonder what life would be like if Cliff Clavin got elected President? I thought not. Most of us don't waste much time fantasizing about could happen if an annoying character from a 1980's situation comedy wound up in a position of power. Maybe we should have, because that's basically what the American populace allowed to happen when Donald Trump made it into the White House.

For those of you who aren't up on American television trivia, Cliff was the know-it-all postman who was a permanent fixture at one end of the bar. Cliff was a font of trivia -- you name it, he was sure he knew all about it. And even if he didn't have a clue, he refused to change his mind. Once he'd said it, whatever came out of his mouth had to be true. Sound familiar?

Back in January I told a friend that I thought a major problem with The Donald was that he had no idea how government actually worked. Coming at it from the outside, he had the same misguided view of the role of the executive that most of the public does: he thought that being President of the United States was like being the CEO of a corporation. The CEO issues a directive; minions immediately scurry around making it happen. You know, like Picard at the helm of the Enterprise.

The reality, of course, is that the Presidency comes close to being a figurehead, someone who has to work closely with Congress if he (or someday she) wants to get anything done. Can't really fault Trump for not understanding that when he entered office because most Americans are equally naïve -- we attribute all sorts of power (and blame) to the President when most of the time we should be recognizing that Congress is responsible for whatever we're complaining about.

But it turned out The Donald's ignorance didn't end with simply no working knowledge of how the government actually functions or who's responsible for what. Nope. Turned out he's amazingly, astoundingly blissfully clueless about just about everything. After witnessing him thinking the U.S. Virgin Islands are a foreign country, I'd be willing to be that if you asked him to list the fifty states, he'd draw a blank after rattling off the ones that have Trump hotels or golf courses.

And then there's been this most recent debacle. This was the week when we learned for sure that The Donald has the people skills of a rock. Tone deaf is an understatement. How hard can it be to offer condolences when someone dies? The stock phrase, the one that every adult should know, is "I am sorry for your loss." Period. No embellishments. That's all he had to do -- tell the widow he was sorry her husband was dead. You'd think that would be impossible to screw up. You'd be wrong. How can someone who starred in a scripted reality show manage to not parrot a few simple platitudes is a mystery, but The Donald did it. Whatever he meant to say, the way it came out registered as remarkably insensitive.

And then instead of having the simple courage to admit he'd tripped over his own tongue, he declared war on the widow and her friends.

Okay. I was wrong. The American populace didn't elect Cliff Clavin. They elected the annoying barfly, the aging frat boy who runs his mouth constantly about how wonderful he is and is oblivious to everyone else, the armchair warrior who hangs out at the VFW cloaking himself in stolen valor by waxing nostalgic about risking his life in rice paddies in Vietnam when he actually spent his years in the Army manning a typewriter in Louisiana. You know the type -- the dude who manages to bluster his way into the chairmanship of the local Eagles club and then drives the rest of the membership away. The mediocre but loud woman who insists on being put in charge of the Parent Teacher Organization and succeeds in persuading the other parents that maybe their kids would be better off in a different school. First they bluff, then they bluster, and finally they rant and blame everyone else on the planet for whatever went wrong.

Anyone want to make book on how much longer General Kelly is going to last as chief of staff? It must be exhausting trying to work with the world's oldest toddler.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book review: The Red Line

Anyone who's ever wondered why their immigrant ancestors came to this country needs to read this book. I know quite a few third or fourth generation Finnish-Americans who have made the pilgrimage back to the old country, been blown away by what a lovely place Finland can be (especially if you're a tourist), and wondered why on earth their grandparents or great grandparents ever left. Track down an English translation of Punainen viiva (The Red Line) and it'll be crystal clear. When your kids are going barefoot in Finnish winters and you're surviving by mixing pulverized pine bark with flour, the uncertainties of the New World had to look like a much better deal than anything Finland had to offer at the time.

The Red Line is set in rural Finland right after the Finnish national assembly passed legislation in 1906 granting universal suffrage. There was a literacy test, but other than that all adults age 24 and above could vote -- men and women, landowner and tenant farmer, rich and poor. Finland was, in fact, the first country to give women the vote. The literacy test, incidentally, was not much of a bar to any adult voting. Even Finns living in abject poverty who tended to view newspapers as something primarily used to line walls for insulation were literate. They had to be. You couldn't get married if you weren't a church member, and you couldn't be a church member if you couldn't read the Lutheran catechism. Despite Finnish being an extremely difficult language for non-Finns to learn, it's actually pretty easy to read for a native speaker. Each letter has a unique sound. Once you've mastered an aapinen* you can read anything by sounding it out. You may not understand what the words mean, which becomes clear as the protagonists in The Red Line try to figure out just what an "agitator" is (they have no clue whether it's a good thing or a bad one), but you'll know what they sound like.

The first general election was scheduled for March 1907. The months leading up to the election witnessed party advocates fanning out across the country. A socialist party worked particularly hard at turning out the rural vote, getting the dirt-poor crofters and others at the bottom of the economic scale to buy into their campaign promises. Never having gone through a truly general election before, voters tended to be a bit . . . gullible. To them, the campaign promises sounded like magic: vote for the socialist candidate and the whole system that kept poor tenant farmers in rags while the rich dressed in silk and had coffee every day would be overthrown instantly. The characters in this book truly believe that things would change overnight. If they vote socialist, their lives will see an immediate improvement. Instead, after agonizing over whether or not to believe the agitator and vote against the monied interests, they draw the red line, go home, and slowly realize nothing has changed. If anything, things get worse -- Fate (or, more accurately, the author) has some nasty surprises to throw at them before the snow is gone.

The red line, incidentally, refers to the mark, a diagonal red line on the ballot, voters made and not to the socialist party.

I found The Red Line interesting, but I did have some quibbles. I think the author kind of went overboard in his descriptions of the desperate poverty of the crofters. Yes, I believe there were poor farmers who lived so close to starvation at least part of the year that they had to resort to pine flour** to survive. Famine was a recurring problem in a country that practiced slash and burn agriculture and had an astoundingly short growing season. On the other hand, in this book the farmers are practically starving and worrying about every bite when it's still more than a month until Christmas. They're also short on hay for their animals (a cow, a calf, and some sheep). It struck me as a bit unbelievable that the farmers would be running out of hay barely a month into winter.

I was also more than a bit skeptical about the descriptions of the farm house/hovel as being filthy. I'm not sure why so many authors seem to conflate dirt-poor and dirty, but it happens all the time. Don't have any money? Than obviously you also don't know how to use a broom or to wash the communal stew bowl occasionally.

On the other hand, the cockroaches living in the filth were amusing. They were better read than the humans, although one does lament the fact he can't read Latin.

I will not claim to have read this book in the original Finn, although I wish I could have. The author includes dialect (Finland has a bunch of regional dialects) and I'd love to read Finn well enough to be able to pick up on the way a Karelian accent gets rendered compared with an ordinary crofter's and the more educated characters in the novel.

*aapinen -- children's primer used to teach the alphabet

**pine flour -- literally made by drying and grinding the inner bark of pine trees. The S.O. remembers a Lutheran minister describing it to his catechism class back in the early 1960's. Many rural families survived by mixing pine flour with wheat, rye, or barley. It didn't provide any nutritional value because humans can't digest cellulose, but it stretched the grain flour supply and helped stave off hunger pangs. There were good reasons many Finnish immigrants never felt any nostalgia for the Old Country.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Another day, another crap donation

Every so often someone will ask me if there's anything valuable in the museum. Well, it depends on how you define valuable, I guess, but if they're thinking in terms of something you could haul to a pawn shop and get Big Buck$ for, the answer is No. There are some nifty items in the museum, but in general we get the stuff that's left when the estate sale is over, the chipped Depression glass, the rusting kitchen utensils, the crap no one wanted to buy but, hey, it's old so of course the museum will love to have it. We get to dig through a lot of fertilizer in the hope of finding an occasional pony.

Anyway, yesterday the S.O. and I went to check out a possible donation of some old farm equipment. I should have known. It had been talked up lovingly in the email proposing the donation. When we got out to the now vacant farm to pick the stuff up I discovered that once again someone was attempting to stick the museum with the crap that didn't sell at the estate sale. Apparently not even scrap metal buyers were interested in a rusting hulk of mystery gears and wheels that had been described to me as a "plow." Yeah. Right. I could be wrong, but I tend to believe that for something to qualify as a "plow" there should be at least one visible mouldboard. You know, the thing that cuts into the soil and does the actual plowing? I have no idea what the pile of scrap iron was used for originally -- it had obviously been towed behind a tractor but there were no mouldboards or discs or harrows or anything else attached to it. I kept staring at it trying to figure out just what it might have been once upon a time, but despite having grown up in farm country and spent a lot of time around farm equipment, I had no clue. Neither did the S.O. In short, in terms of it being a useful museum piece, it wasn't.

Another donated item still had a price tag on it from the estate sale. When I say the museum gets the crap that doesn't sell, I'm not joking. I did recognize this particular piece of rusting metal-- it was a row cultivator, more or less. It, too, was missing pieces but at least was still recognizable. Not recognizable enough for me to want to toss it in the back of the truck, not with a bunch of parts missing and the wheel broken, but no mystery about what it had once been.

Allegedly there was a third piece of equipment lurking somewhere on the property, a riding dump hay rake, but we couldn't find it. We walked out into the field where it was supposedly parked but never spotted the thing. Which is probably just as well, considering what poor condition the first two pieces were in. No doubt if we had found the hay rake we'd have discovered the wheels were missing (those high metal wheels are real popular for incorporating into fences or to make gates with) or most of the teeth were gone from the rake.

On the positive side, it was a nice day so wandering around an old hay field looking for derelict farm equipment wasn't a bad way to spend part of the afternoon. We even stumbled across an actual wild crab apple tree. Never did see a hay rake, though.

The down side is I now get to write a note to the donor telling him in as polite a way as possible that it turns out the museum can't take his rusting pieces of scrap iron  valuable family heirlooms after all.

Moral of the story: never ever say yes to a donation, especially one that involves using a truck to move it, without inspecting it first.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cold water Tide, Granny panties, and life in general

I was doing laundry the other day, thinking it was probably the last time I'd be able to do laundry using the line dry option because October's almost here and we've usually started worrying about the hose from the pump freezing by now, and I found myself once again musing on the subject of women's underwear.

A year or two ago I mentioned the mystery of why my Joe Boxer panties have pockets in the crotch. I'm still wondering (to stash mad money? a spare car key? your phone set on vibrate?), but doing laundry got me to thinking about two other mysteries: why are the most commodious, the garments that include the most fabric, called "briefs?" Women's undies come in various forms ranging from butt floss (aka thongs) to hip huggers to briefs. Technically all underpants are briefs, but when you're looking at packaged unmentionables in the store "Briefs" is the label that gets used for the granny panties: undies that go all the way up to your waist and beyond and leave not a bit of ass exposed. They're on the opposite end of the scale from thongs -- thongs leave nothing to the imagination; granny panties leave everything. (They're also the undies one buys when one hits a certain age and decides comfort counts more than it did 20 or 30 years ago.)

But that wasn't the only one of life's great mysteries I was pondering Thursday. The other was what goes through underwear manufacturers' minds when they select fabrics for the aforementioned granny panties, or underwear in general. Being a cheap frugal person, I buy my underwear in packages of a half dozen or more. I tend to be particularly fond of the offers that tell you that two free bonus pairs are included, even though I know that those bonus pairs will be made from fabric that will be painful to the eye. Maybe the reasoning is that in most cases the only person paying much attention to the underwear is the person who puts it on so color and/or print don't really matter? Whatever the rationale, unless you buy a package that contains nothing but white unmentionables, it is guaranteed that in any multi-pack of underwear there will be at least one pair* that hurts your eyes to look at. The last time around I got treated to a pair that is glow in the dark traffic cone orange. I made the mistake of mentioning them to the Kid. She didn't really believe me. I whipped them out of the drawer to show her. She's been begging for brain bleach ever since.

This most recent laundry day was also the day I finally got around to test driving Cold Water Wash Tide. I'm really happy it was on sale and I had a coupon that cut the cost even more. My usual detergent of choice comes from Family Dollar and is not Tide. It works remarkably well, all things considered, but because I'm doing laundry using truly cold water (it's getting sucked out of the ground from an aquifer left by the glaciers and is one step away from forming ice cubes as it leaves the hose) I decided to try a product supposedly designed for cold water. Pshaw. False advertising. Tide apparently defines cold as cooler than what comes out of a hot water heater but not by much. It was a definite disappointment. Live and learn.

I am also rethinking the possibility that last Thursday was the last outdoor laundry day. The temperature here was hovering around 90 yesterday, and is supposed to be almost as warm today. It is supposed to start cooling down, but it's still supposed to be in the low 60s into October. No frost at all shown in the 10-day forecast so if it doesn't rain, I guess a few days from now I'll be line drying again.

*And why are pants, whether it's underwear or jeans, referred to as a pair when there's only one garment?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Michigan's highest and most crowded parking lot

Benchmark at the top of the hill
The S.O. and I finally got around to playing tourist in our own backyard. We went in search of the peak of Mount Arvon, Michigan's highest point. As state high points go, Mount Arvon kind of falls in the middle of the pack in terms of both height and difficulty of access. You know if you go looking for the highest point in a state like Florida you're not going to be scaling an alpine peak -- you'll be doing good to find something that actually qualifies as a hill.

On the other hand, if you're out in Colorado or Wyoming, it's a given there's going to be some serious climbing involved -- no short, easy hikes or driving up to paved a parking lot or discovering benches waiting for you at the top. Wikipedia notes that anyone planning to bag the Wyoming high point should plan on a 4 to 6 day hiking trip; it's considered a difficult ascent.

So where does Mount Arvon fall? Well, it's not as easy to get to as the state high points that are also state parks, like in Alabama. No nicely paved road culminating in a large, paved parking lot. Still, there is a road, sort of, that does end in a parking area.

Not that we were able to park in said lot: it was crammed full of ORVs. Those machines are like snowmobiles, apparently genetically engineers to always travel in packs. You know, I get the attraction of being the lead dog in one of those ORV caravans: you get to see the trail in all its splendor, you're the first one through the mudholes, you don't eat anyone's dust. But if you're the last in line when there are several dozen ORVS ahead of you, all kicking up rocks and splattering everyone with mud, what is the point? (Actually, I know what the point is -- ORV trails, just like snowmobile trails that often follow the same routes, are always conveniently located to loop past watering holes with malt beverages on tap. It's not the time on the trail people crave; it's the time at the bar.)

Back to Mount Arvon. The road is dirt, and the last 400 feet or so were not something I'd particularly want to go over in a low-clearance vehicle, but it is a road. You go from well-maintained two lane gravel to more like single lane gravel that winds a bit to something that's one step above a two track. The route ambles through mature hardwood forest, some of which is currently being harvested -- saw a  John Deere forwarder in action that has to be one of the niftiest machines I've seen in awhile (the rotating cab has to be one of the coolest features of all time) -- and is pretty typical U.P. backwoods, although no doubt more well traveled than most. There is a way to get to Mount Arvon from where we live that would involve only backwoods roads but we opted for the tourist brochure drive.

The route is clearly marked -- each time we were confronted with a choice of routes, there was signage to indicate turns. Dito when we got to the top of the mountain: there was a large sign in the parking area showing the layout: there's a short hiking trail that loops from the parking lot to the high point, from the high point down to an overlook that on a truly clear day would probably let you see right over Point Abbaye to the Keweenaw, and from the overlook back to the parking lot. There's a bench and picnic table at the high point; there's another bench at the overlook. There's also the obligatory logbook so you can record your name and the date.

I was never quite sure what to tell tourists when they asked at the museum about the drive out to Mount Arvon. Now I know: don't do it in low-slung car, at least not all the way. Watch for logging trucks. And if you're really lucky, you'll get to see something like this in action:

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Would you like some cheese with that whine?

A friend asked me the other day why I hadn't done much with this blog lately. No matter what weirdness emanates from Washington and the Human Yam I've been silent. She was surprised I hadn't expressed an opinion on the current movement to remove Confederate monuments.

Well, to be honest, I really don't have one. Granted, most were erected for deplorable reasons -- if they were truly about honoring the bravery of the CSA soldiers and officers, we'd see statues of General James Longstreet all over the South -- but I tend to view them as a local issue. If the majority of residents of Richmond or Durham or Birmingham or wherever want to shuffle Bobby Lee off into the dustbin of history, I figure they should be free to do that without interference. Are they contributing elements to a cultural landscape that shouldn't be messed with? Nope. Culture changes; landscapes evolve. I've never been real keen on preserving anything just for the sake of preservation.

Plus, of course, we don't need large tacky oversized lawn ornaments to remind of us history. There are these things called "books."

I've also actually been far more bemused by the spectacle of young, well educated white guys whining about how oppressed they are. I can understand where some of the bitter old men are coming from -- they've finally had to confront the fact they're never going to be rich, never be famous, and never have a chance to buy a trophy wife -- but when you're a 20-something dude who's still in college? Where's your reason for feeling oppressed, dude? Didn't get rushed by the frat you fantasized about joining? Feeling butt hurt because you went from being the smartest kid in your calculus class back in Podunk and are now the mediocre student learning for the first time that all the other smartest kids in their high schools are now packed into the same college lecture hall as yourself? Not enough Solo cups to go around at the kegger? Can't get laid? It must be the fault of the Illuminati or black or brown people or some vast Zionist conspiracy. It can't possibly be because the dudes need to learn some social skills or maybe take a bath once in awhile.

The tiki torch bros in their white polo shirts, in fact, reminded me of a clueless doofus I knew in grad school. He'd hit the point where he was ABD (all but dissertation) so had begun the job search. He'd done a bit of schmoozing (aka "networking") when our department had guest speakers in for a seminar series so he felt like he had an "in" at one of the schools where he submitted his c.v. He was sure he was a shoo in. After all, his research fit in with what the target department was known for. If memory serves, he did make it past the first cut (preliminary phone interview, maybe) despite the remarkably thin resume (no published papers, no book contract, maybe one presentation at a professional conference, minimal involvement in progessional associations, no Ph.D. in hand yet).

And then the dream department, his sure thing, hired someone else. Even worse, they hired a woman. The doofus went around ranting loudly about affirmative action and tokenism and how terribly, terribly political correctness was running amok. There was no way in hell a mere woman would be better qualified than he was. A few of his fellow students made sympathetic noises, or at least they did until word came through the grapevine as to just who the "underqualified" woman was. She was a person who had (1) a Ph.D. in hand; (2) several publications in peer-reviewed journals; (3) a book in press; and (4) currently held a post-doctoral research fellowship at a top tier institution. Only in the mind of a poor deluded loser unwilling to admit he'd been beat out by a much better qualified candidate would anyone blame tokenism and the evils of affirmative action.

It goes without saying (but I'm saying it anyway) if the winning candidate had been male the loser's response would have been a resigned "Oh crap. No way I could top that dude's record."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Marketing genius

It's gotten to that time of year where we're harvesting new potatoes from the garden. We didn't actually plant any potatoes this year -- what we're digging up are from feral spuds, plants that sprouted from potatoes we missed when we cleaned out the garden last year. There aren't a huge number of plants, but that's okay. We don't eat as many potatoes as we used to because we're supposed to be watching out potassium (one of the joys of aging is you start having to worry about stuff that not many years earlier you were blissfully unaware could ever be a problem). Usually two-thirds of the garden is potato plants; this year we've got a large section that's planted in clover and is going to be fallow for a year or two.

Anyway, because we're just digging up a plant or two at a time, I'm basically picking everything that looks big enough to count as an actual potato. You know, tubers that are bigger than marbles, although in some cases not by much. Picking those midget potatoes, the tiny stuff that if this was a normal year and I'd planted potatoes on purpose I'd be tossing over the fence for the chipmunks to enjoy, reminded me of an example of marketing genius we spotted at Econo Foods a few weeks ago.

Anyone who's ever grown potatoes know the little ones are a fact of life. Doesn't matter what variety of spud you're trying to grow, there are going to be some midget tubers when harvest time rolls around. Those used to be the ones that got shunted to one side to be fed to the cows or marketed to companies that process spuds into instant potatoes. They did not get sent to the supermarket to be sold to ordinary consumers. The assumption for decades was that people wanted potatoes big enough to actually look like potatoes, not marbles.

Then some genius decided, hey, how about if we quadruple the price over what ordinary potatoes sell for and give them a cute name? End result: what used to be the reject potatoes, the ones that were culled from the production line before the spuds on the belt got to the baggers, are now the high dollar specialty potatoes, the gourmet "gemstones," "baby" potatoes that merit being sold for $5.99 a pound. Or maybe a little more. According to the Melissa's Produce website, that tiny one-and-a-half pound sack of infant tubers goes for $11.99 online. Plus shipping, no doubt.

As for just how large those gemstone spuds are, the first photo is of similarly sized babies I pulled out of our garden  the other day. Of course, the midgets were in the minority -- most of  our spuds were a respectable size instead of resembling dirt-covered marbles.

In any case, sheer genius on the part of Melissa, whoever she might be. Not only did her company figure out a way to use every single spud that came out of the ground no matter how tiny it might be, they figured out a way to charge more for what used to be the throwaways than for the normal sized potatoes. Only in America. . .

P. T. Barnum would be proud.