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.