Sunday, December 16, 2018

Pulitzer Project: Ironweed

William Kennedy's Ironweed was a pleasant surprise. Not only did the L'Anse Public Library actually have it on the shelves (no Interlibrary Loan delays), the book turned out to be readable. Definitely a bit strange, but readable.

Ironweed is set in Albany in the late 1930's. It describes a few days in the life of Francis Phelan, a self-described bum. Phelan walked away from his wife and family in 1916 when his infant son died. Phelan blames himself for the child's accidental death and so runs away from everyone and everything he knew and crawls into a muscatel bottle.

Phelan bums around the country, works odd jobs here and there, and eventually ends up back in his hometown of Albany, New York. At times he's hanging out with two friends, and at times he's on his own. Sort of. He keeps seeing ghosts, people he knew years ago and that are now long dead. Some of the ghosts are people he just knew, hung out with in hobo jungles or met while riding the rails, but several are people whose death he caused, almost all unintentionally: a fellow he tangled with in Chicago who cracked his skull when Phelan threw him and he fell back against a concrete bridge pillar, for example.

The book flows smoothly despite the frequent flashbacks to different episodes in Phelan's life and his conversations with people who aren't really there. It's one of those books where you find yourself wondering exactly why you're reading it -- after all, it's the life of a bum at the tail end of the Great Depression, a dude who's definitely leading a fairly grim life -- but the writing sucks you right in. This book for sure falls on the upper end of the scale in terms of readability.

When I did a Google image search to find a cover photo, I noticed it was made into a film back in the '80's. The book won the Pulitzer for 1984; the movie was released in 1987 so Kennedy's agent must have done a good job of peddling the screenplay. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep starred in the film. When I saw that my first reaction was "Why?!" The book is pretty damn grim, although Kennedy's writing is so good the plot doesn't repel you. However, I cannot imagine sitting in a theater for two hours to watch a movie about a drunken bum and his cronies lurching around from dive to dive and speculating about where they can find an abandoned building that would be safe to sleep in for a night. This is one movie that I will not look for online despite the superstar casting.

That said, I do recommend the book to anyone who appreciates good writing.

Next up: Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. I know Lurie can write; now the only question is whether or not it's going to be another Interlibrary Loan request. The L'Anse library really does devote way too much shelf space to Danielle Steele.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum?

All the talk recently about just how we all should remember George Herbert Walker Bush got me to thinking about the whole notion that we're only supposed to say good stuff about dead people. Why?

Is it so the family won't be upset? Bush the Elder was a politician. His kids and grand kids have been around politics their entire lives. They know the man was not perfect, that some of his decisions were based more political expediency than on principle, like when he was trying to get elected in a Southern segregationist state so publicly opposed civil rights legislation. He had definite moral failings. After all, he pardoned Oliver North after that treasonous swine negotiated with both drug dealers and the anti-U.S. Iranian government. He also apparently believed that anyone who became ill with AIDS deserved it, at least until hemophiliacs like Ryan White entered the public consciousness. .

Okay, so it makes no sense for the ordinary person (or anyone else) to try to pretend once a politician is dead that they had no flaws. What about when it's someone you actually know?

I had been thinking about this recently anyway. I've hit the age where if I go to a social gathering it's more likely to be a funeral than a wedding. The life expectancy for women the year I was born was only 69, which means if I go by the old actuarial charts I've passed my sell-by date (it's now 78.9 so I've got a ways to go before more than half my age cohort is dead). Not surprisingly, I see obits and funeral announcements for various acquaintances on a pretty regular basis.

So is it okay for me to mentally start singing "Ding dong the witch is dead" when I learn that someone I didn't especially care for has beaten me to taking the dirt nap? You know, someone where if I were male I might give serious consideration to pissing on the grave? Am I obligated to say something nice if or when her name comes up in conversation? Or can I continue to use my favorite terms for her, which might not be obscene but certainly have never been complimentary?

As for why I've spent the past 40 years or so thinking of the person as "that bitch?" It's simple. She was mean to one of my kids. It's weird. I have several acquaintances who worked actively to destroy my relationship with the S.O. They devoted a lot of time and energy to trying to split us up (which I'm pretty sure neither of them remembers now) but I've never felt the animosity* toward them that I retained for this stupid person who made my kid unhappy. It's not like I spent a lot of time brooding about it but if the woman's name came up, my reaction was consistently to think bad thoughts and to hope her life sucked. I think the old aphorism "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned" is wrong. It's more like Hell has no fury like a pissed off mother.

Short answer to the question of do I have to say nice stuff now that she's pushing up daisies? Or, more accurately, do I want to? Nope. Depending on who's around, if her name comes up she's still going to be "that bitch."

*To be honest, there might be no ill will because they failed. As to why they tried to begin with? It's a mystery. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Yet another thing that never fails to annoy me

The misuse of the word "miracle." It pops up in headlines and commentary way too often. Saw another one this morning: a reunion between a family who lost their home in Paradise, California, during the recent wild fire and the family's dog. The dog had gone missing during the evacuation. The people had managed to get one of their dogs into the car but not the other. They initially fear the beast was dead.

Like many pets, however, the beast had survived. I might be willing to let the use of the word miracle slide if the article had referred simply to the beast not becoming barbecue, but, nope, his survival wasn't the miraculous part. It was the reunion between him and his humans, or so the headline proclaimed.

Turns out there was absolutely nothing miraculous about the reunion. It was not a case of the couple going to view the heap of ashes that used to be their house and being stunned to find the dog waiting there. Well, the dog was waiting there, but it wasn't actually much of a surprise. Animal rescue volunteers had been working for weeks to find and rescue pets that had been left behind but managed to survive. They've been putting out food and water and working with owners to try to reunite pets and people.

In the case of this particular miraculous reunion, the animal rescue people had spotted the dog fairly quickly after they were allowed into Paradise to look for lost and injured pets. They had been able to identify his owners, they were leaving food and water at the house site for the dog. So when the owners got there and were reunited with the beast it was neither a surprise nor a miracle. The reunion was the result of hard work on the part of people. The owners knew (and had known for awhile) that the dog was fine. So why the hyperbole about miracles? I don't know. Click bait maybe? After all, it worked for me. I clicked on the link to read the story even if afterwards I was muttering about crap headlines and reports that focus on the wrong things.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

An urban legend that refuses to die

Encountered another person on Facebook who's confused his life with that of a fictional character. In the 1982 film "First Blood" Sylvester Stallone's character, John Rambo, is a Vietnam war vet who does a rant about being spit on by "maggots" at the airport. The character of Rambo has been singled out to serve as a target for police brutality, apparently because he appears to be a harmless drifter, another down on his luck loser so the local cops can beat the crap out of him and no one will care. His rant encapsulates all the frustrations he felt as someone who should have been treated like a hero but instead was unappreciated, ignored, and insulted. It was an epic rant that apparently resonated with quite a few movie goers. It's been over 35 years and there are still dudes channeling John Rambo and confusing the abuse he suffered in the movie -- greeted by organized protesters who spit on him instead of showering him with vacuous platitudes ("thank you for your service") -- with their own lives.

Historians and folklorists alike have studied the "military personnel getting spit on" question for close to 30 years now, and guess what? Prior to that first Rambo movie there were no reports. Following the movie? By the end of the '80s it had become common knowledge that members of the military were spit on when they returned from Vietnam. The researchers who have studied this phenomenon have never been able to find a single verifiable incident -- it's always "it happened to a friend of a friend." You know what you call something that's attributed to a friend of a friend? If you're kind, it's an urban legend. Or, if you're me, you just call it bullshit.

The author of the book shown, incidentally, interviewed hundreds of people who initially claimed to have personal knowledge of spitting happening but in the end there was no corroborating evidence (e.g., news reports in print or on television) and it turned out the person making the claim was actually repeating "a friend of a friend" story.

Actually, some of the stories that get cited as "evidence" by the people who swear the spitting happened are so totally bizarre that it's amazing anyone believes them. One story, for example, claims that when service members arrived in Los Angeles, they'd duck into restrooms to change into civilian clothes to avoid being abused by the public. So many uniforms were removed and discarded that trash cans were overflowing with jettisoned Class A uniforms. WTF? If these service members were still in the military and were en route to a new duty station, they were going to need those uniforms. If they'd already been discharged and were heading home, they would have been in civilian clothes. If they were still in the military, sooner or later they'd need their Class A uniform, the one with the most expensive pieces, for some occasion. On the pitiful pay personnel got back then, no one still in the military was ever going to throw a uniform away because they'd have to pay real money to replace the various pieces. Classic sign of an urban legend: it contradicts common sense.

(Side note/minor digression: the uniform story reminds me a lot of the anti-Jane Fonda story about her betraying POWs by getting them to tell her their names and service numbers and then passing that info on to the North Vietnamese. Whatever moron thought that one up apparently forgot that when the POWs were captured they (a) were wearing dog tags with name and serial number, and (b) the one thing every person in the military is told is that when they're captured the only thing they're supposed to tell the enemy is their name, rank, and serial number. Fonda did ask guys their names but it was so she could let their families know she'd seen them and they were okay. She also carried letters from POWs back to the States to mail for them.) 

Anyway, I can understand Vietnam era veterans feeling neglected and mistreated, but it was not by the general public. The people they should be pissed at are the paper pushers in the Veterans Administration who refused for decades to acknowledge the harmful effects of Agent Orange, who dithered about recognizing and treating PTSD, and who put up roadblocks to almost every disability claim. Nothing new about that, of course. Veterans have been getting screwed over by an ungrateful government since the country was founded. 

The same person who's channeling John Rambo also made the claim that during the 1970's service members were told not to wear their uniforms while traveling because of the low opinion the public had of the military. Again, bullshit. For a brief time members were indeed told not to wear their uniform while traveling on civilian aircraft but it was not because of any anti-military sentiment on the part of the general public. The '70s witnessed record numbers of hijackings; service members were advised not to travel in uniform so they'd blend in with the other passengers. Arriving in Cuba in a U.S. Army uniform would not have been cool. However, as a general rule, including during most of the Vietnam conflict, if the military paid for the plane ticket, you had to be in uniform. The government was (and still is) notoriously cheap so when you flew on a civilian plane, you flew stand-by. If you weren't in uniform, the gate agent stuck you at the bottom of the stand-by list. In uniform you were at the top.

I do feel obligated (as usual) to note that way too many of the people who tend to do the super patriotic thank you for service garbage are the same ones who never had the time or desire to serve themselves and who freak out at the suggestion that maybe their high school age kids think about enlisting. I'm still wishing I could have somehow preserved the horrified look on a supervisor's face in Omaha when I responded to his lament about his no-clear-goals adolescent by saying, "Well, what about the military?" You'd have thought I'd said, "Hey, Don, how about if your kid tries prostitution for awhile?" So please don't thank me for my service (I'm Vietnam era) and I promise I won't call you out as an elitist classist ass who thinks getting shot at by the Taliban is a chore reserved for the low-income kids from the sketchy neighborhoods.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Pulitzer Project: A Twofer, Rabbit is Rich and The Color Purple

I figured I might as well lump these two together because I couldn't make it through either one.

Technically John Updike's Rabbit is Rich is more readable than Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Updike could string words together in a way that didn't insult the reader. It's too bad the actual storyline was so repellent.

Rabbit is Rich is part of a series of novels Updike penned about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. In this novel, Harry has hit the dangerous mid-life crisis years -- he's described as having been born in 1933, and it's the Carter administration in the novel so he's got to be somewhere not far past 45 or 46. And he is so skeezy it makes a reader's head spin, the classic misogynistic sexist pig in a polyester suit. A young couple comes in to the Toyota dealership Angstrom owns and Angstrom is more focused on plotting how to get close to the girl (who's probably close to 30 years younger than he is) than he is on actually selling them a car. His college age son brings a young woman friend home and Angstrom is immediately thinking he'd keep her happier in bed than his kid can. He and his wife go to the country club for an afternoon and Angstrom is ogling every woman in the pool and visualizing what they might be like in the sack. Everyone knows that men tend to think about sex a lot more than women usually do, but most writers don't manage to make that obsession seem quite so sleazy and off-putting. Is there a word to describe the opposite of erotica? Smut that turns you off instead of on? If not, there should be.

Maybe if Updike had stuck to Angstrom's fantasies it wouldn't have been so bad, but it did not help at all that Updike managed to write an explicit sex scene -- Angstrom and spouse in bed -- that on the "ewww really gross scale" probably scored an 11. A younger reader could read that sex scene and think, "omigod, if that's what sex is like when you're pushing 50 celibacy is looking good."

It was actually a little bizarre just how badly dated this book is. Were the late 1970s really that horrible? The only thing missing (at least in the section I got through) was members of the Rotary swapping motel room keys. Didn't Updike see "Oh Calcutta"? Anyway, between the racist language and the protagonist's fixation on assessing all the women he sees (except possibly his elderly mother-in-law) in terms of their fuckability a reader finds herself hoping the book really isn't too heavily biographical. I'd hate to think that Updike himself was as much of a pig as his protagonist/ I do know that Updike modeled his mythical town in his novels on his home town in Pennsylvania so maybe he was, but it is a tad depressing to be reminded of just how disgusting middle class middle-aged men can be.

In any case, I gave up about a third of the way into the book. When you start hoping that the "hero" is going to drop dead of a cardiac event on the next page and you've barely hit page 100 in a 400+ page book you know it's time to cut your losses and move on.

Unfortunately, the move on was to The Color Purple. This is ticks all the boxes on my list of things I hate: epistolary writing, overuse of dialect, murky character development. Once again I found myself wondering just why on earth the prize committee felt the need to award the prize to this particular book. It also really had me wondering just why Oprah Winfrey thought the book was so great.

Granted, Oprah was sexually abused by a trusted family when she was young, and The Color Purple starts off with the narrator telling us she's been raped repeatedly by her father, but. . .  the book sucks. It really, truly sucks. The plotline might have made a good screen play (and I'm assuming it did, although I've never seen the movie) but the book reads like something an undergraduate would churn out in a creative writing course. It's clunky, it's riddled with contradictions (the narrator is supposedly the smart kid in the family but she doesn't know how to spell? And she writes her letters in dialect? I might have a Yooper accent, but when I write a letter I'm going to say "them," not "dem" and when I describe going someplace it'll be "We went to Green Bay" not "We go Green Bay."), and it makes it seem like the protagonist exists in a vacuum. There is zero context. Nada. Zip.

Still, I think I got as far as page 50. Then I decided life is too short to waste on bad books.

As for the hype around it, there are two ways to sell books. One is to have a book that is just really, really good, something that grabs the reader and sales take off based on word of mouth. The other is through publicity about how wonderful the book is, how it's this masterpiece by (dramatic pause) an African American woman, and people start thinking they have to buy it. And then if you say, wow, this really sucks, it's like you're wrong, it can't suck, all the critics love it, eventually you just stop saying this book is awful, quietly set it aside, and let it gather dust on the bookcase. I have a strong hunch The Color Purple has slid into the same category as books like Ulysses and Their Eyes Were Watching God. People will claim they've read it, loved it, and will never admit they gave up on The Color Purple right about the time the protagonist's father gives her to a local widower, a dude who's willing to take her as a replacement wife/housekeeper as long as her father tosses in a cow with her to seal the deal.

I totally fail to see why this book got hailed as this amazing piece of African American fiction because it spends most of the book perpetuating every racist stereotype every cracker has ever held about blacks: the men are brutish animals who abuse their women and children, their women aren't particularly smart (after all, they put up with the brutish men), and they're all okay with living in squalor.

For what it's worth, I am perfectly willing to read some remarkably grim material if it's reasonably well written. After all, I read The Road cover to cover, roasted baby on a spit and all.

Recommendations? Skip both of these turkeys. On the usual sliding scale, they're both in the basement.

Up next:  Ironweed by William Kennedy. I know nothing about the book, nothing about the author, so maybe this is a good sign. Maybe I'll actually be able to read it.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Interesting times

And, no, I'm not talking about politics. I'm referring to the museum. I went wandering in yesterday planning to do some work. It felt a mite chilly in the building (the thermostat has been set in the low 50s since last Spring) so I cranked it up.

I knew it was going to take awhile for any warmth to spread. The building is on a concrete slab foundation, the heating system is hot water, and there's a large volume of air (30 x 70 x ~12 equals what? Over 26,000 cubic feet?) so I anticipated shivering for at least an hour. Well, time passed and the register stayed cold. Totally cold. Inert. No indication that anything warmer than the ambient temperature in the building was flowing through the system. Not good.

Turns out the furnace apparently decided that 25 years of working with no problems was long enough. There is power going to whatever it is that ignites the burner for the boiler but nothing is happening. Fortunately, we haven't had intense cold yet, no freezing temps that drop well down into the 20s and stay there for many hours, so the water pipes are safe for the moment. I do need to run down there later today and start the bathroom faucet dripping -- I was startled enough yesterday by the lack of response from the device that I blanked on keeping water running until the repair guy can get there. And I'll bring in an electric space heater so I won't have to worry about chilblains while communing with PastPerfect.

The good news, such as it is, is that the museum finally had a fiscal year with no major expenditures so we actually are running in the black. Sort of. At the moment. Keep your collective fingers crossed that all the furnace costs us is the labor charge and a relatively cheap part and not a whole new boiler.  If it does, that's when I'll make a strong push for changing the system entirely and ripping out the baseboard registers. Although I understand why "they" did it, every time we deal with positioning stuff up against a wall I am reminded again what a truly stupid design decision they were.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Weird priorities

The Guppy resting for a night in Missouri last year.
Being a glutton for punishment, a few months ago I joined a Facebook group for owners of Class C motorhomes. Class Cs, for the uninitiated, are the ones built on a van chassis, e.g., a Ford E350, and have that bunk over the cab area. The Guppy is a Class C.

The S.O., incidentally, is convinced I joined the Class C group simply so I have an excuse to feel smugly smarter than the average bear on a regular basis. It is rather astounding just how many fools are out there who are willing to drop $100,000 or more on a brand new motorhome but can't figure out how to operate their automated steps or tell the difference between alternating and direct current. You know, if you're going to go into major debt to buy something, shouldn't you at least have some clue as to how its various systems work? Did you know there are people around who are afraid to change a flat tire? Anyone who's intimidated by the prospect of changing a flat or having to learn how to use a tire pressure gauge really shouldn't be driving a vehicle at all, let alone something as big and awkward as the typical motorhome. (There are so many discussions devoted to the topic of automatic tire monitoring systems that a person could start to believe it's a miracle we geezers managed to survive for decades without an electronic signal warning us when tire pressure was low.)

But, as usual, I'm wandering away from what I meant to talk about. Weird priorities. It is absolutely astounding just how many RV owners worry about the wax jobs on their traveling houses. Discussions of the best detergents, car waxes, buffing cloths, you name it, are perennial favorites for the group. If someone asks a serious question the response is likely to be crickets, but if you want to know about locating a car wash that can accommodate a motorhome? Holy wah. Suddenly hordes of people are crawling out of the proverbial woodwork with testimonials for their favorite apps. Which in itself is a holy wah moment: there are apparently a gazillion specialized apps out there that you can use to eat up memory on your phone just to help you find a car wash that has a truck wash bay. One lady was kind of freaking out because the plastic housing for her side mirrors had begun yellowing with age. Why? The mirrors are still there, and that's the part that counts.

And then there are the concerns about the peeling or fading decals. Just how much ego does a person have invested in their RV that they fret about it starting to look like maybe it's not brand new, that possibly it's put a few miles in on the road, or that (heaven forfend) the owners bought it (horrified whisper) used?  There was a post recently by someone who said she and her significant other purchased a 1995 motorhome through a local garage sale site last month. Okay, that's an RV that's 23 years old. It's not going to have the flashy paint jobs and decals popular on current models. It's going to look its age, although it the "before" photo it actually looked pretty good. Clean, no visible damage, just a dated style.

So what was basically the first thing they did with their garage sale bargain? Took it to a shop that specializes in wraps. You got it. They had a full wrap put on a 23-year old RV. It looks nice, I'll give them that, but, holy wah, if it can cost $3,000 to do a full wrap on a car, just how many wheelbarrow loads of dineros did it take to wrap a Class C RV that's bigger than the Guppy? When you hear about people with more money with brains, it's pretty obvious there's a pair of those folks driving a thoroughly used motorhome in Georgia that fit that category. We spent less on the Guppy when we bought her than those people did on a cosmetic project that doesn't do a damn thing to improve the RV except make its age less apparent to the untutored eye.

Then again, so did the wrap purchasers unless they were total suckers. According to the NADA guide, the  current average sales price for their particular model is between $5,000 and $6,000. We joke about the tires on the Guppy being worth more the RV itself, but those folks in Georgia have us beat. That wrap is probably worth more than the vehicle under it. Like I said, some people have very strange priorities.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Life as a VIP at Pictured Rocks

I occasionally tell the S.O. that it's a shame no one goes looking for volunteers to serve as hermits, or maybe to do living history as someone who's Old Order Amish and has never heard of the Internet. I am an absolutely classic introvert, a person who falls into the deepest corner of the psychotic loner quadrant on the Meyer Briggs Type Inventory. People drain me. Even virtual people on Facebook or via email drain me. So when I saw that Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was looking for campground hosts for the month of September, my first thought was "Perfect! No one in their right mind goes camping next to Lake Superior in September, especially not at a rustic campground." I figured it would be a nice mellow people-free break after dealing with museum issues all summer.

Our cheap solar panels from Harbor Freight. They actually work pretty well despite the site not getting much direct sunlight.
Holy wah, was I wrong. The number of people at the Hurricane River Campground did not change much after Labor Day as compared to before Labor Day. Occupancy dropped Labor Day weekend -- the campground had been full on Sunday morning, and dropped to next to nothing on Monday. Oh good, thought I, we get to coast for the next 4 weeks.
Trail to the lighthouse. It's also part of the North Country Trail so in addition to the lighthouse foamers we see backpackers staggering along realizing too late they packed way more heavy stuff than they should have. 
Pshaw. On Tuesday, September 4, both loops of the campground were full well before noon. People were apparently hovering like vultures waiting for a cow to take its last breath hoping to see campers currently on sites deciding to leave. And it was like that for two solid weeks. Things finally slacked off last weekend when we got hit with gale force winds and weather so nasty they actually cancelled the lighthouse tours. When we left yesterday to come home for what amounts to our 24-hour weekend, the campground was "only" about half full.

On the positive side, we had only one incident where some guys paid for a site but failed to put anything substantial on it so someone else assumed it was empty. That led to some unpleasantness but no actual fist fights -- we were told that toward the end of August there had been a similar incident but in that case punches were thrown and law enforcement became involved. The campground rules clearly state that if you pay for a site, you must put something on it: a tent, a trailer, a screen tent over the picnic table, a tarp over a clothesline, something substantial enough to indicate the site is taken. If you don't, you're likely to discover that no one pays any attention to that little tag on the post other than the camp host who gets to go around copying the information (camper's name, vehicle license number, and planned departure date) on to a spreadsheet. And if you complain about someone taking your site, you'll get treated to "Did you read the rules? Did you leave something on the site that clearly indicated the site was occupied? Do you see where it says 'No Refunds' in multiple places on the form?" Then, if you're foolish enough to push the issue, you'll get to see the host key the radio and utter the ominous phrase "Any Ranger. . . Hurricane. We have a situation." Which is a strong clue that you should just suck it up and walk away before your disappointment about losing your camp site turns into dismay over the fine you incur if you decide to argue with the LEO.

Tower at the Au Sable Light Station. It was built in 1874. It is known as a Poe tower because Orlando Poe was the engineering secretary for the Lighthouse Service at the time of its design. 
But I digress a bit. The campground was busy. In addition to the people camping, the day use parking lots tended to be full regardless of weather. The Hurricane River Campground is also the trail head for the trail to the Au Sable Light Station. I personally am not that enamored of light stations -- you see one Poe tower you've basically seen them all (the government loves cookie cutter designs) -- but I must be the exception.  I look at that tower and don't go into ecstatic spasms about how beautiful it is. I look at it and think "The lantern needs painting."

The one amusing aspect about the lighthouse foamers is their obsession with parking as close to the lighthouse as they can get. It is at a minimum a 1.5 (as in one-and-a-half) mile walk one way. That's from the gate close to the host's site. If you park in the day use lot like you're supposed to, you've added maybe another tenth of a mile to the hike, two tenths if you think about the round trip total.
Hurricane River. Supposedly there are fish in it. I've sent the S.O. out a couple times with instructions to catch a steelhead or a brook trout. So far no luck on his part. 
Still, I've managed to survive it being so people-y. Pushing the S.O. to being the person who actually answers questions and deals with the most with the public helped. The fact most people are more fascinated by the light station than they are by the beach at this time of year also helps. A person can go down, watch the waves, and pretend a world exists that is free of politics and weirdness.
The S.O. checking out remnants of a 19th century shipwreck. This past of the Lake Superior shoreline was notorious for shipwrecks even after the Au Sable Light was built.

In any case, hosting here has been an interesting experience. It's the longest we've ever tried dry camping. We got to test out the solar panels, figure out how long the water in the fresh water tank will last before the pump started sucking air, test drove our outdoor bathroom privacy shelter (we used it for bathing; some people use them to provide a screen around a latrine bucket), know now more or less how long it takes to fill the black water tank (less time than we thought it would, unfortunately), and we may have killed our not-quite-30-years-old-original-equipment refrigerator. It doesn't want to work right on propane; after we get the Guppy home we'll figure out if it still functions on alternating current. If it doesn't, we may have just acquired a well-insulated pantry. 
There are some differences between the people who are regular campers in national parks and the folks who are used to camping elsewhere. Not surprisingly, because this it is a basic campground, most of the campers are doing it old-school: tents. I have met some people who were tent camping that I wouldn't have pegged for tent campers: single ladies in their 70s driving typical old lady cars who put up a small backpacking tent and aren't fazed at all by nighttime lows in the 30s or cooking on a tiny backpacking stove. They're rather inspirational. I've also seen the opposite end of the tent camping spectrum: the humongous multi-room cabin tent with an elaborate outdoor kitchen and multiple coolers (which we always have to remind them need to get stashed in a hard-sided vehicle for the night).

There are some folks with small motorhomes (lots of Class Bs) and travel trailers, too, but so far only two actual Class A motorhomes have tried squeezing onto a site at Hurricane. Whatever they're using, though, the campers are universally clean. Very little litter, almost no trash left in fire rings, almost nothing forgotten on the camp sites, although we have acquired several lengths of parachute cord and a tiki torch in the past 3 weeks. And none of the cutesy stuff that we'd see at the state parks where we volunteered. Some of it is no doubt due to the no electricity (hard to do inflatable Halloween decorations when there is no power), but I think more of it is a different mind set, at least in September. People come to relax, unwind, get away from stuff, not to party. I'm told things do get rowdier in the summer -- more younger campers, more beer flowing, and a generally more chaotic atmosphere. 
Time to head back to the Park and more adventures in people watching. I'll do a post with more photos when we're home for good next week. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review: Going Home

I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, both in print and on film. I especially love the bloopers, the way even people who are happily predicting the end of the world as we know it still take for granted the technology with which we live. You know, someone scavenging through the pantry in a house that’s been abandoned for 10 or 20 years and finding canned goods that are still safe to eat – a scenario that’s particularly amusing when the setting is in a region that experiences extreme cold in the winter (home canned or commercial; freezing is going to destroy the seal) – or hopping into a car that was left by the side of the road a couple years previously but fires right up when the hero turns the key.

Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be that far into the future. Sometimes all it takes is a widespread power outage that’s lasting for weeks but mysteriously doesn’t stop the pumps or cash registers at a truck stop from working. Or turning on a faucet in a house that depends on a municipal water system and being able to fill a coffee pot or take a cold shower. Civilization has come to a crashing halt except at the local city park where the bubblers are still working. Right.

Granted, the water system is one thing that will keep working longer even if there is no power to run the pumps and filters at the plant – gravity will ensure that water pressure in the system won’t drop to zero as soon as the lights go out – but once the humongous tanks on hilltops and towers run dry they’re going to stay dry until the power comes back.

My latest dip into post-apocalyptic fiction was particularly amusing because it was Part One in a series written by a genuine prepper. You know, one of those paranoid loons who’s busy filling 5-gallon pails with ammunition and worrying about where he can bury his secret stashes of emergency supplies. Going Home was penned by A. American, a nom de plume that I find moderately annoying (“A” is the wrong article to use with American; it should be “an,” but maybe the publisher wouldn’t go for letting the dude be A. N. American. . . or maybe the author is just an ass) but it didn’t stop me from checking the book out from the library. The author’s bio at the back of the book describes him as a survivalist, someone who’s prepping for real and not just in print. Here’s hoping he’s doing a better job of it in real life than he did in print.

The protagonist in Going Home is a military veteran of some sort (as far as I can recall he never specifies his branch of service or his MOS [Army speak for Military Occupational Specialty; the other services have different terms]). Whatever he did, it was a while back. Now he’s a happily married man with three kids (all girls) living in southern Florida. He works with high tech, electronic stuff, and is fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of it from home. When the book opens, however, he’s not home. He’s up north, not far from the state line on I-75, returning from a day or two he had to spend at his employer’s headquarters. He’s about 200 miles from home when he hears the emergency alert tone on the car radio. Then the radio goes silent, the car dies. So does his cell phone.

My first thought was, okay, the author is about to do something similar to S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire which mixes in fantasy to explain why the fundamental laws of physics change in odd ways. But no, American is doing more straight-forward science fiction/end of life as we know (at least for a while). Electronics are fried; everything else (like guns) still work just fine. The combination of the recent model vehicle and his phone dying suggests to Our Hero that the planet (or at least his part of it) just got zapped by either an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or a doozy of a solar flare, either of which would fry solid state electronics. (Side note: concern about weaponized EMPs were/are one reason the Soviet military kept using vacuum tubes in aircraft long after the United States had gone totally transistorized. The Soviets/Russians were/are big believers in redundancy – backup systems that are immune to various threats, which is why they’ve do a lot of their secret internal communications the old-fashioned way: on paper using typewriters. You can’t hack a typewriter.)

Our Hero knows his SUV is not going to run again without a total replacement of its onboard computers. Similarly, his phone is now effectively a paperweight. If he wants to get home, he’s going to have to do it on foot.

Being a prepper, he has a bug out bag with him. A bug out bag contains emergency supplies sufficient to last a person for several days (e.g., MREs, energy bars, basic camping gear like a survival blanket and a fire starter) as well as a weapon or two for protection. The one thing the paranoid preppers get right is that if there was a major system collapse, some people would quickly lose whatever civilized veneer they once had. Looting would happen, so would settling old scores and sexual assaults. The majority of people are decent human beings, but we all know at least one asshole where you’re pretty sure the only thing that’s preventing him or her from going on a psychotic rampage is fear of prison showers.

The fact Our Hero is a prepper isn’t apparent immediately. The book cover does note it’s Book One in The Survivalist series but it takes a couple paragraphs to make clear that the protagonist does indeed have a sort-of bunker set up back home – or at least a workshop behind his house full of canned goods and ammunition.

Our Hero figures out what he really needs to take with him, loads a backpack, and starts walking. He’s not too worried about the wife and kids because he’s got their place set up to go off grid (solar power, among other things), they’ve been stockpiling canned goods, and he actually trusts most of his neighbors. Nonetheless, he knows he should get moving ASAP. It might take awhile for other stranded motorists to figure out rescue isn’t going to come rolling down the road any time soon, but eventually they will. He wants to get as far as possible and off the Interstate before being forced to share the resources he has.

Suffice to say Our Hero has various predictable adventures along the way south. He defends himself from a group of lowlifes who mistakenly assume a 40-ish white guy traveling alone would be an easy target, he rescues a woman being assaulted by a local sleaze who had had the hots for her for awhile and decided she’d now be an easy target, he joins up with a couple other people who are walking home, and he encounters a group whose worst fears have been realized: the entire episode, the EMP attack, was a false flag operation spearheaded by the liberals in government who wanted an excuse to declare martial law and confiscate everyone’s guns. Naturally, he’s in agreement with them. After all, look at who’s in the White House? (Note: The book was published in 2016. I’m guessing A. American is another middle-aged white dude who’s terrified people of the wrong color may actually be gaining some political power.)

Our Hero declines the offer of some weed when he meets a group of hippies camping in the National Forest, but I got the distinct impression the author was not so shy. Just how ripped on drugs do you have to be to think that leftists/progressives/those damn socialists could ever cooperate long enough to plan a false flag operation, let alone actually pull one off? There are plot lines that make sense, and then there are plot lines that are laughable. Going Home wanders into the latter category. You can’t get a group of liberals to agree on who’s bringing which jello salad to a potluck; if it was possible to produce a leftist nanny-state administration bent on confiscating guns, it would have happened already. When you poll the public on various social welfare questions (paid family leave, Medicare for all, a higher minimum wage, a woman’s right to choose, cheaper college costs) most people agree with the “liberal” position as long as it’s not labeled as being something espoused by any particular political party or candidate. Label any idea either Democrat or Republican and it’s a different story, of course.

In addition to ascribing to the leftist liberal commie pinko types way more powers than they’d ever have a prayer of acquiring the author also falls into taking technology so much for granted that he black boxes too much of it. At one point, the power grid is still down, chaos reigns, but a character who found a truck old enough not to have electronic components pulls into a gas station and barters a fifth of vodka to get the tank filled. Okay. The coolers in the store are inoperable, but the electric-powered gas pumps are still working? Our Hero is real proud that his family is going to be able to cook without electricity, but what’s his solution? A stove that uses kerosene as a fuel. Good luck with that one unless you’ve got quite a few gallons stockpiled.

I am also amused by the survivalists who stockpile buckets and buckets of ammunition while giving no thought whatsoever to what’s going to happen when it runs out. I know some people are avid reloaders, but how many of them also know how to make decent gun powder? More of them should take a lesson or two from the characters in The Walking Dead. A crossbow may be slower than a rifle or hand gun, but you can recycle the bolts just by cleaning them. It’s also quiet.

I did, however, find it totally believable that many people working for Homeland Security would turn into total thugs as soon as they were given the green light to do so by their supervisors. We’ve got the stellar example of ICE having no qualms whatsoever now about putting babies in cages and terrorizing pregnant women and handicapped children.

So what’s the bottom line on this book? It’s readable. Stupid in places, but readable. It actually would have been a better book if the author had ditched the us-true-patriots vs. the-evil-liberal-government and kept it as more of a pure aftermath of a disaster. He could have still included the thuggish DHS types – we all know the most dreaded phrase in the English language is “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you” – without indulging in extreme right wing fantasies. Will I read the next book in the series if I stumble across it? Maybe. The author did include a cliff hanger at the end of this book so I might be curious enough to see where he goes with that.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Cold weather projects

Summer is winding down so I'm getting back into a sewing mood. Started a jeans quilt recently, one that's going to be a really simple pattern, and have found a mending project that should eat up a fair number of hours in front of the television this winter.

The jeans quilt will be approximately full-size. At this point I'm thinking I'll do a thin border using a bright corduroy around the brickwork and then will do an outer border using denim squares. I figured out it's going to take 28 rows of the rectangles; I've got 7 completed so far. Once it's done, it'll get ticked with embroidery floss. It will, of course, include at least one pocket. I'm probably going to give it to someone with kids, and little kids love having pockets they can hide stuff in.

The mending project is a fairly small square quilt I finished in the early 1980's. Not sure where I found the pinwheel pattern, but do recall it took forever to cut the pieces. Then I hauled them around in an ice cream pail for a couple years (from Michigan to unincorporated Snohomish County in Washington to Panorama City (California) to Tucson (Arizona) and finally to Reno before I finally started piecing it. I think we were still living in Reno when I finished it.

It's held up remarkably well overall, but exposure to light combined with normal wear and tear (when I make quilts, they're meant to be used and not hung on a wall as a decorative item) caused one specific fabric to dry rot. Depending on the dyes used, some fabrics break down remarkably fast. (I learned the hard way that black cotton blends are never a good choice for use in a quilt. They either fade to a truly ugly green or dry rot almost instantly.) Mending it will entail cutting pieces to fit the spaces where the original piece is now in shreds and then hand sewing the new pieces in place. Not sure just how long the process will take, but I know it's going to be fairly time consuming.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Latency and its discontents

It’s been an odd summer. I know I haven’t done much with this blog for quite a few months now. My theoretical goal is to write something often enough to retain the ability to string more than two sentences together in a coherent thought, but it hasn’t been happening. No book reviews, no descriptions of national parks or forests visited, no nattering on about politics or current affairs, not even much about the fun and frustrations of volunteering at the county historical society’s museum. Nada. Zilch. Blank pages for weeks on end.

Why is a mystery. Sort of. I have had a mild case of ennui, but not enough to prevent me from doing other stuff. So I’m going to blame technology. We’ve been experiencing major Internet connection woes since returning from Arizona in April. It hadn’t been the world’s greatest service for awhile, but it got a lot worse this Spring. Pages refused to load – we kept getting the “aw, snap” message on Chrome saying a site was taking too long to respond – and connections would vanish before our eyes. I’d be on Facebook scrolling down to read my news feed, the device would do the electronic equivalent of blinking, and whichever browser I was in (Edge or Chrome) would shut down. The Intertubes weren’t just being slow. They were gone. I’d go from being in the middle of reading an article to staring at the icons on the desktop. When I reopened the browser I’d be treated to the “Chrome did not shut down properly. Would you like to restore?” message. Well, no shit it didn’t shut down properly. It totally closed without any human hands asking it to close, just a lousy Internet connection.

At first when weird stuff happened, I thought the problem was my notebook. It was cheap and I thought maybe it was simply dying. Then the S.O. got a new laptop (his old one gave up the ghost during the winter) and he had problems, too. So did  the  museum's smart phone when I happened to have it at home. Ergo, it wasn't my notebook. It was the ISP. Just to be sure, I took my notebook to a couple different locations where there was good public wifi. No issues whatsoever, no odd glitchy things happening.  The problems were worse with the notebook than with the S.O.'s laptop, but I figure it's because the notebook is the Microsoft version of a Chrome book. It's designed to sync with the cloud more or less continuously, and if access to the cloud vanishes the notebook gets more than a tad  erratic. 

By the time I  confirmed that it was not just the notebook's problem, we had already spent several frustrating months trying to get our service provider (Baraga Telephone, aka, which I’m figuring out is just another way of spelling Comcast because they’ve surely got the same model of customer service) to recognize that there was (and still is) a problem. The S.O. would call and complain. Whoever was on the other end always either sounded skeptical (“What do you mean you have a problem? Our readings don’t show a problem”) or lied (“I’ll put in a work order. Someone will call you back/come up to check things out/contact you soon."). No one called back, no one came up until I went ambling in to Baraga Tel’s office and complained in person. I brought my notebook along so I could show them screen shots of the weirdness that had been happening. And, yes, then they treated the complaints seriously but it shouldn’t have taken me standing in the lobby being an obnoxious old lady to get them to listen.

At about the same time, the S.O. discovered and installed an app that measures the data flow in both directions. What most people don’t realize because the Internet tends to get talked about using pipe analogies, like the flow of water through a hose, is that the data flow is a two-way thing. It doesn’t matter how fast data is reaching us if then it can’t bounce back quickly. The communication back to the server is called latency and is measured in milliseconds. The longer it takes to get back to the server, the worse your Internet service is going to be. Normal latency for DSL (which is what we have) is something like 40 to 50 milliseconds. The graph for latency should look like a fairly smooth line, definite ups and downs but nothing dramatic, you now, minor variations from maybe somewhere around 40 to up around 50 and then down again, but no huge spikes.

Well, we get spikes. We get dramatic spikes. The S.O. has been tracking those spikes. We’ve had some hit over 2,000. We also get bright red lines that last for anywhere from a blip to several minutes. The bright red line means no Internet service whatsoever. 

We did succeed in getting Baraga Telephone to come up and check things out. The first time they were up, they discovered the neighbor’s line had a section that lightning had fried. So they fixed it – I told the S.O. that the next time he sees Tom to tell him he can thank us for his improved service – but they didn’t find anything on our line. They did, however, concede there is a problem. So they came up again. This time the lineman found a short section on our line that had gotten fried. He came back to the house and was so proud of himself for replacing that piece. He was sure he’d cured the problem. Nope.

So where do things stand now? The lineman said the wires coming our way are old and of a type that is now considered obsolete. They should be replaced. Will they be replaced? If they are, that would no doubt fix our problem. Does Baraga Telephone management care enough about keeping three customers happy (the number of households on our road that use to replace a mile of not-cheap wire? I doubt it.

The S.O. and I have been contemplating being snowbirds again this coming winter. We’re still debating whether to apply to be volunteers at a national park or elsewhere for at least part of the winter, but it’s looking more and more like the Guppy will be in warmer climes when snow falls up here. If we do spend the winter away, we’ll devote a good part of it exploring alternatives to the Internet service we have now. Either that, or we’ll spend enough time in locations where there is neither cell nor Internet service for us to figure out that it’s possible to live without it.

Minor digression, but yet another mystery: why did the font change for the last two paragraphs (this one and the one above) when I never went into HTML to change the code?  It really is magic. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Really good day at the museum

Hand-made skis that are 9 feet long.
It struck me the other day that I was having a really good day at the museum, and it wasn't just because there were no visitors. The public contact part is always the hardest for me so I'm automatically feeling a little more mellow when I'm the only person in the building.

No, it was a really good day because when I looked around the office I realized that I could actually see the tabletop. No piles of stuff needing to be sorted or dealt with, at least not on the table. The deck was, so to speak, clear. No correspondence waiting for a response, no weirdness, nothing.

Ditto the basket next to the computer. For months there has been a stack of stuff teetering there waiting to be scanned, cataloged, filed, whatever. That leaning pile of paper is gone. Oh, the basket isn't totally empty but the stuff that's at the bottom has been there for years and can probably stay there for a few more. It all relates to a part of an exhibit on collecting as hobby so it's not leaving the basket until the stuff that matches up with it is ready to go back to the person who lent the objects in the display case to us.

I know I will be rebuilding the leaning pile soon, but not immediately.

And it was a really good day because when I looked out in the exhibit area, everything I'm responsible for is basically done. There's always some minor tweaking that could happen, but all the major stuff is wrapped up. No more apologizing to visitors for the clutter or plaster dust, no explaining that the empty space on the wall will be filled soon. It actually feels a bit odd. Who knows? Maybe I'm finally going to manage to get outside and do some weeding in the native plants garden.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

I cling to the strangest things

I have days when I wonder if I qualify as a borderline hoarder. I hang on to the strangest stuff. Like most people these days (or so I assume) we have a plastic bags stash. In fact, we have two: one for the usual plastic bags you get from the local supermarket or Target and one for the slightly smaller and flimsier bags that come from Family Dollar or Dollar General. The small bags are good for the small wastebaskets in the house; the regular bags fit the bigger burnable trash can.

So after taking the trash out the other day I reach into the bag stash to get a fresh bag for the trash can. And then I discover I don't particularly want to use the bag that made it to the top of the pile, at least not yet. It's like in the world of throwaway plastic bags, it's a keeper. Why is it a keeper? Because I'm unlikely to ever get another. The bag, pictured above, is, of course, from Arizona, but not just any part of Arizona. It's from the Bashas' market in Chinle. How likely, I ask myself, are we to ever shop at that particular Bashas again?

Actually, the odds aren't that bad. Chinle falls almost exactly midway between where the Younger Daughter lives in southern Arizona and where my mother and sister live in Colorado and sits on the shortest, most logical route, US-191. We've been through Chinle three times in the past 18 months; odds are we'll be going through there again. And if we have the Guppy we'll be camping. If we're camping, we'll probably go to Bashas. Even if we're not, it would a logical place to stop to pick up snacks or drinks.

And if we go to that Bashas, I'll once again marvel at the meat case and wish I liked mutton. You know, in the typical supermarket if you find lamb or mutton, it's in small discrete pieces neatly sealed in plastic. Little tiny lamb chops that are almost too cute to cook. Leg of lamb that was shrink wrapped in New Zealand. At the Chinle Bashas, however, there is no doubt you're looking at disassembled sheep. Not surprising, given that the supermarket is in the heart of the Navajo Nation, but a little disconcerting when you're used to seeing meat that's been packaged in a way that makes it easier to ignore the fact it used to be a live animal.

As a side note, shortly after we'd been through Chinle with the Guppy and had camped at the Cottonwood campground that's inside Canyon de Chelly Natonal Monument I read a review of the campground on a website. The person had been there about the same time we had and laid it on thick about "if you come, be sure to stock up on groceries in Holbrook or Winslow because there is no supermarket in Chinle!" Holy wah. How does a person fail to find a close to brand new modern supermarket that sits right on the major north-south highway through town? When we were there we figured out pretty fast that any town big enough to have multiple major chain hotels (Holiday Inn Express, for example), chain restaurants (Denny's, Burger King), gas stations, and that sits next to a popular tourist attraction (Canyon de Chelly) is going to have a grocery store of some sort. And it did: Bashas.

So what's the moral of this rambling on about plastic bags and travel? I need to let the S.O. be the one who deals with putting a fresh bag in the trash can. He doesn't care where any of the bags came from as long as there are no holes in the bottom.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Playing tourist in our own backyard

The S.O. and I went wandering around Arvon Township yesterday. I needed some photos for a display I'm slowly putting together at the museum and figured we could combine getting a shot of the Arvon Township School and other sites with getting a burger at the Finn's for the evening meal. It was interesting.

Killer jungle gym of everyone's 1950's childhoods turned into a grape arbor on the school grounds. The schools I attended had these, all set in hard pavement. 
Like much of the U.P. Arvon Township has done a decent job of rewilding. The pioneers who farmed there 100 years would be rolling in their graves if they knew that the fields they so laboriously cleared of stumps and turned into hay fields and orchards have totally reverted to woodland. There are still a few open areas, but not many. It's hard to tell where most of the historic farms and houses were because so much is now fairly dense mixed hardwood forest. 
Big Eric's. 
Drove out to Big Eric's bridge and falls and discovered the campground there was totally empty, which astounded me. The end of June and no campers? Granted, it is a "primitive" park (no hook-ups and pit privies) but it's lovely. Nice, level shady sites and the Huron River for fishing just a few feet away. And no cell service. When the S.O. checked his phone he had zero bars. Sounds great to me.

In contrast, the campground at Witz's Marina was looking pretty full. Understandable, I guess. Right on the Lake and with cold beverages for sale in the store. And if you're interested in getting out on Lake Superior more than you are fishing in inland waters? Witz's is perfect. 
Looking across to the harbor entrance. The crane visible is the one used 50 years ago to dredge the channel and create the marina. 

The crane close up I was amused to see that people on campsites close to it have stacked firewood on the track to keep the wood dry.
I'm kind of counting the days (years?) until Witz's hits the magic number for National Register eligibility. It's about 8 years shy now -- the store part of the building wasn't done until 1976, and unless something is of such obvious transcendent value that you don't need to wait 50 years it's hard to get a SHPO to agree to an early nomination. The house is older, but given that the significance would be primarily Criterion A for the marina's place in the development of recreation (pleasure boating) in the area it would be an easier case to make to be able to include everything. 

My photos don't really do the buildings justice. The house and store are faced with slate that's stacked in a definitely unconventional way. It's one of the niftier examples of vernacular architecture that I have seen. 

Last stop before hitting the Finn's for food was the Arvon Township Hall. It is a National Register structure. Oddly enough, though, there is no plaque or book on a stick commemorating that fact. Instead, there is a nice wayside about the Arvon slate quarry, a place that operated for only a few years and is of no real significance other than the fact that quarry contributed to the name of the township. The company mining the slate named the area after a region in Wales famous for its slate, Caernarfon, which naturally got shortened and Anglicized into Arvon. The quarry did well for a number of years, there was a decent sized company town, but it faded into obscurity pretty quickly. Slate was a popular choice for roofing buildings because it's fire proof, but fell out of favor as metal roofing became widely available in the late 19th century. I have never been to the slate quarry, which I hear basically just looks like a pond now as it did what abandoned quarries are wont to do: fill with water.
Arvon Township Hall
As for the Finn's. . . holy wah, the acoustics are horrible. Way too many hard surfaces on the interior of that place. It was busy, but not unusually so. Only a couple tables were occupied and there were empty stools at the bar, but the noise level? It was unreal. You could not have a normal conversation in there. How bad was it, you ask? Well, if we'd just stopped for a quick cold beverage we'd probably have left without finishing the drinks. As it was, given a choice between the air-conditioned but noisier than hell interior and venturing out into the 90+ degree heat with humidity to match, we told the server to bring our food outside. I guess the S.O. and I don't venture out into public enough because we could not handle those noise levels. 

Oh well.  At least the food was good. 

(And, yes, I will edit the photos before slapping prints on to poster board at the museum.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pulitzer Project: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is an odd book. The author died nine years before it was published. His mother found the manuscript after John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and then devoted her life to making sure it found its way into print. The novel's rejection by multiple publishers was apparently one of the things that drove Toole to kill himself, which I'll confess strikes me as an odd reason to voluntarily check out. Authors get rejected all the time.

The novel's initial rejection doesn't surprise me. The novel is set in New Orleans in what seems to be the early 1960's. The various reviews and cover blurbs I've read all use phrases like "comic" and "rollicking masterpiece." I guess once it was actually in print no one wanted to use more accurate terms, like "weird" or "inchoate." This is another novel that reads more like a preliminary draft, maybe pass two or three the planned novel, but still a work in progress that's begging for a good copy editor. The various pieces are reasonably well written, there are flashes of whatever the equivalent of slapstick on paper might be, but it's uneven. The reader goes from being intrigued and amused to repelled and back again to amusement with fair amounts of befuddlement interspersed. There is a narrative thread, but it has some definite knots in it.

A Confederacy of Dunces follows the misadventures of a creature that is now familiar to us all, the man-child who refuses to grow up and apparently intends to sponge off an aging parent forever. The hero, such as he is, is one Ignatius Reilly, a character best described as a fat neurotic slob. Reilly is apparently really, really smart in one narrow area of expertise and a complete screw-up when it comes to life in general. H survived college, apparently even managed to acquire a Master's in something (history?), and then blew it when he had a chance to land a teaching job in Baton Rouge. He had a panic attack on the Greyhound, decided he could not survive outside New Orleans, and has spent several years doing the equivalent of living in a basement and eating Cheetos. He cultivates the air of an eccentric genius, but is absolutely lost when it comes to living in the real world. He also comes across as thoroughly physically repellent (morbidly obese, wears funny clothes, totally self-centered) so the fact he has an actual girlfriend, a bohemian New Yorker with money, seems more than a tad unbelievable.

But then, so is everything else in this novel, which is one of the reasons it qualifies as "rollicking" and "comic" instead of just odd. There's a police officer who keeps getting sent out dressed in very strange costumes so he can work undercover. A clothing factory that manages to keep muddling along despite the fact none of the employees seem to have a clue as to what they're doing or why. A bar owner who's making most of her money by selling pornographic photographs to high school students. Ignatius's alcoholic mother, who against all odds manages to snag a fiance.

In short, this is a novel that today might be described as "magical realism." Back when it was published I'm not sure what they called it, although the publishers managed to round up a slew of well-known authors and scholars to praise it. I will say that Toole manages to capture the seedy, slightly tawdry atmosphere one associates with New Orleans, especially the New Orleans of 60 years ago, really well. New Orleans always strikes me as being a city that has seen better days even when it was what qualified as "better days." It never was a shining city on a hill -- it's also one of those rare places where having seen it one time I have no desire to ever go there again. But I digress.

Where would I rank this book in the overall scheme of things for Pulitzer winners? I'm not sure. It might be unquantifiable. No number for it because in some ways it's up on the high end and in others it's down on the low side of the scale. You know, interesting lyrics but you can't dance. Would I recommend it to other readers? Again, I'm not sure. If you're the type of reader who likes a nice clean narrative and having everything make sense as you go along, this is not the book for you. Do you like a little eccentricity tossed in? Then maybe you'll like A Confederacy of Dunces. It's not a particularly easy read, but it's also not hard, just a tad choppy. I've read worse.

Next up on the list: Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. I probably won't get to it until sometime in the Fall when Interlibrary Loan resumes with the new school year. The L'Anse Public Library has several of Updike's novels, including one in the Rabbit series, but not the one I need.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Museum fundraising one EBay sale at a time

I may have mentioned that one of the revenue streams -- or, more accurately, feeble trickles -- for the museum where I volunteer is EBay sales. As we go through things, get stuff cataloged and organized, whether it's a box that's been hiding in the storage building for 15 years or a donation that walked in the door last week. we inevitably find things that do not fit the museum's mission. We also find items that are duplicates, like multiple wooden ironing boards or several sets of curtain stretchers. When that happens, the item in question meets one of three possible fates: we pass it on to another institution that can use it, we toss it, or we try to sell it. We sell used books through, we sell bulky stuff through a local Facebook group (Baraga County Stuff for Sale), and we sell miscellaneous collectibles on EBay.

Sometimes we get lucky with EBay items, like the time we stumbled across a first edition of an early William Faulkner novel that was in excellent condition. I think it set a record for the most we've ever gotten for one item. More typically we sell collectible postcards for a couple bucks each. As long as it sells, though, and we get more for it than it costs us to package and mail it, it's found money. Every little bit helps when our annual budget is just barely four figures.

Anyway, a few days ago I thought we might have gotten lucky. Another volunteer and I were looking around in the storage building for stuff that might be sellable on Baraga County Shit Stuff for Sale and pulled a folio-sized book off a shelf that had obviously been gathering dust for awhile. It was a huge volume, probably a good two inches thick, maybe more. I had glanced it before and knew it had art prints in it. (I had in fact been thinking about pulling those prints to sell individually.) This time we took a closer look. First, I got excited because the cover was embossed with a name, and year, Florence E. Jenkins 1895. My first thought was to remember the recent Meryl Streep movie and get hopeful it was connected in some way with that Florence Jenkins. Second thought was that maybe it would be worth something on its own if it turned out there was no connection.

So I did some Internet sleuthing this morning and discovered that sadly there is no connection between the Florence Jenkins on the cover of the book and the Florence Foster Jenkins portrayed in the film. So much for any value it might have had as a collectible curiosity.

Then I looked into the value of the book as it stands. Turns out it would be worth a shit ton of money if it was in good condition. Copies in good to excellent condition are listed at anywhere from $595.00 to $800 on Unfortunately, the one we have looks like it was tossed off a truck and run over a few times. Calling it "well read "is a bit of an understatement. Selling it on Ebay is probably not going to help the budget a whole lot.

Okay, so it doesn't really look like it's been run over by a truck, but the binding is shot, it has loose pages, and there are water stains on the margins of some of the art prints. But who knows? Maybe there's a passionate graduate student majoring in art history somewhere out there whose life will not be complete until he or she has a personal copy of Sheldon's Recent Ideals of American Art, especially when there's no way the typical grad student (or even struggling assistant professor) could afford to drop $600 or $700 on a copy that qualified as "good." Now all I have to do is figure what a fair price for it might be. Wish me luck.

I wonder what the media mail rate is for a book that weighs almost as much as a small car?