Monday, December 30, 2019

A minor rant in which I reaffirm my dislike of intercessory prayer

Why do people always say "prayers worked" when someone recovers after an infection or surgery or some other medical problem? Why is the first move always to thank God for answering your prayers instead of thanking the doctors, nurses, and other personnel who worked 24/7 to save your loved one? Or thanking the scientists who invented the antibiotics that killed the bacterial infection? And if someone dies from cancer or the flu or complications of surgery, does that mean that person was somehow unworthy? Their friends' prayers weren't good enough? If you survive an illness but a friend doesn't, does that somehow make you more special or deserving than the person who died?

One of the ironies about intercessory prayer is the longest, most thorough scientific study about the efficacy of prayer showed it doesn't work. The people who knew they were being prayed for (prayed over?) were more likely to have serious complications than the ones who weren't on the receiving end of prayers. As for why this might be true is a mystery. Researchers speculated that it might be the effect of added stress. The patients who knew people were praying for them experienced performance anxiety. You know, what if they died? It would cast doubt on the faith of the people who prayed for them. Someone whispers in their ear that the entire congregation is praying for their recovery and, holy wah, the patient is now responsible for making sure other people's faith isn't in vain. 

No such stress for the people doing the praying, of course. They're not the ones who will be toes up when the prayers don't work.

For what it's worth, if a person is a believer I can see thanking God for good stuff, but to assume God functions like a waitress at Denny's listening to you order a Moon Over My Hammy breakfast? Pure human ego.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Really hope this isn't my last post of the year

I recently read that one of the networks, probably ESPN, was going to air a documentary on the competitive world of dog grooming. Competitive dog grooming? Could there actually be such a thing?

So I asked my niece who happens to be a professional dog groomer. She confirmed that there are indeed grooming competitions. She's witnessed them at dog grooming conventions. Another thing I have trouble envisioning, but then again every profession holds conventions. Exterminators, people who make a living offing cockroaches, have conventions so why not dog groomers?

She sent me a few images of work groomers had done as part of these competitions: clipping a dog's coat and then applying color so the beast looked like a camel or a zebra or some other definitely not a dog creature. My immediate reaction was that some people should not be allowed to own dogs.

I can understand, more or less, the standard cuts that get used on dogs. Although, to be honest, how the conventional trim for poodles evolved to what it now is confounds me. I mean, what's the point of the giant fluffy ball of fur around the chest and the naked ass on the other end? But turning a dog into a fake camel? That has to cross some ethical line.

In any case, yesterday she followed up with a link to something even more bizarre. Glitter balls. You got it. Glitter. On the dog's scrotum. A few years ago I thought it was pretty damn weird that there are people who will pay to have fake testicles implanted when they have a male dog neutered. Why it would be important to any dog owner that his or her dog look like it still has functioning testicles once they've been removed is another mystery, one that kind of begs for some Freudian analysis. I mean, just how much of a dog owner's masculinity is wrapped up in whether his dog still looks like it has balls?

Glitter, though, is truly mind boggling. Just what is the point? I did a little Googling, and apparently this first started showing up about a year ago. The testicles are painted with a syrup and edible glitter gets dusted on. Not technically difficult, but definitely weird. The dog will lick it off, of course, making for some colorful poop, but supposedly it doesn't do any actual harm to the beast. What it does to other people's opinion of the owner is different matter.

Who first thought it up? Just how much alcohol had been consumed? And the poor dogs. . .  they already get to suffer the humiliation of being stuffed into strange sweaters and dresses (I see pictures of sad little drop kick dogs all the time being made to wear ruffled outfits that their demented owners believe are "cute") and now their balls are being bedazzled?

I really hope I'm inspired to do at least one more blog post in the next 48 hours. I'd hate to end the year with glitter balls.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The countdown has begun

We moved the new mini-fridge into the Guppy yesterday, and the S.O. completed what he hopes is the last mechanical repair. If all goes as currently planned, two weeks from now we'll be somewhere considerably farther south and west.

The Original Plan had been to hit the road right after Thanksgiving, but a dental appointment I cannot miss got pushed back to January 3, which kind of meant we're here until then. I wasn't happy about the appointment not happening until after the holidays, but there was nothing I could do about it.

The change in plans does mean slightly less ambling -- we had planned to start off going southeast into Kentucky and Alabama before swinging west. Now we're going to just aim for Texas and the southwest. Not sure just what all we'll do in Texas, but I do want to cross Guadalupe Mountains National Park off the list of parks I haven't been to yet. For sure we'll stop in New Mexico at White Sands National Park (newest one to get the NP designation in the system; it was upgraded from a National Monument about a week ago). I want to go to Lincoln, New Mexico, too, and visit the grave of Smokey Bear, but the S.O. may feel that's a side trip that's just a little too weird for him.

The final mechanical repair was to replace the calipers for the brakes on one front wheel. The S.O. noticed the brake shoes were hanging up as we were coming back from Pictured Rocks on September 30. He'd tried a couple things to see if that would make a difference, but finally bit the bullet, bought new calipers, and replaced them yesterday. We need to get stuff secured in the house part of the Guppy before he can do a test run to make sure the fix worked, but we need to secure stuff in any case.

The Plan for today is for him to get the doors back on the mini-fridge and for me to do Other Stuff, like securing various things that might bounce in ways we don't want them to bounce if they're not secured. I will start moving some clothes into the bedroom closet and drawers, too. I certainly will not be wearing my high water pants or sandals around here in the next two weeks. We may try to get some Reflectix cut to fit the windshield and other windows in the cab, too, while we're thinking about it.

We already did Reflectix on two windows in the bedroom. It turns the space into a cave, but it'll come off easy when we get to a place where it's warm enough that we don't have to worry as much about either keeping things warm or preventing condensation.

As for the mini-fridge, it's electric only so obviously we can only use it when we're parked were there's electricity. If we boondock it's basically just a pantry. It's a just-in-case fridge. My niece and her family spent a few weeks living in the Guppy when they relocated to the U.P.  in May. The original equipment refrigerator, which is now 30 years old, was in continuous operation for about a month and decided it didn't like it. First, it apparently began tripping a breaker when it was running on electricity. So we switched it over to propane. It worked okay for awhile, and then it did the same thing: decided it was time to quit. Given the age of the appliance, we figured it had reached the end of its useful life. We bought a mini-fridge and set it up in the Woman Cave so Bonnie would have a place to keep milk and other perishables instead of having to mess with a cooler.

We had experienced problems with the refrigerator while we were at Pictured Rocks in 2018. We were running it on propane and after about two weeks it quit. We got ice and used it like a cooler. It deciding to quit again this summer was not a huge surprise. We had been debating getting a small refrigerator, something bigger than a dorm fridge but not a real residential model. You know, something like the refrigerators you find in hotel rooms. The S.O. measured the space where the built-in refrigerator is and we looked for a small refrigerator that could go into that same space if that's what we wanted to do. We did not seriously consider purchasing an actual dual-power (gas or alternating current) RV refrigerator. We only paid $3,000 for the Guppy. We're not putting anything into it where the price includes a comma. We're old. Realistically, we don't have too many more years left of doing things like campground hosting or long road trips. [How much does one of those dual power refrigerators cost, you ask? The Old Fat Man described replacing one in his travel trailer recently. It ran about $1,800.]

The built-in fridge actually worked better at Pictured Rocks this year. It ran fine on propane most of the time. Every so often we'd notice that the temperature in it seemed to be climbing when it shouldn't so we'd turn it off. We'd let it rest for awhile, and then turn it back on and it would work again. Odd, and definitely a clue it's going to quit for good soon.

In any case, the new refrigerator is big enough that it has a separate freezer compartment. We know from it being used this summer that the freezer really works and it is big enough to hold frozen pizzas and the 1.5 quart size cartons of ice cream. Its overall capacity is less than what the original equipment fridge would hold, but it's more than big enough for just the two of us. I've never understood the point of having humongous refrigerators that hold enough provisions for a small army. All that happens is things migrate to the back of shelves and turn into science experiments and mold farms.

For now the new fridge is in a corner in the "living room" where we had a storage box. It fits into the space nicely, actually has a slightly smaller footprint than the box did, so it's not eating up much square footage. It's going to start out functioning more as a pantry; the old fridge is currently stocked with frozen water bottles so that's going to be where I stick whatever perishable food we have when we hit the road. Next summer we'll deal with the issue of what to do with the old refrigerator: leave it in place and turn into a full-time definitely mouse-proof pantry, pull it and put the new fridge into that space, or pull it and turn the space into storage.

I know there are people who will wonder how I can talk so openly about us disappearing over the horizon for a few months. "Isn't that an open invitation to burglars?" Well, no. Not if it snows -- and it will. Thieves are lazy. They're not going to bother a place that's at the end of a 600 foot unplowed driveway. And even if they do? Doomed to disappointment. I don't think we own a thing that would be worth stealing.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Healthcare system or pharmaceutical sales network?

I'm supposed to go in for some blood work this week. Actually, I was supposed to go in last week (or maybe it was the week before) but it's supposed to be fasting blood work and I have a real hard time remembering to not eat or drink anything other than water when I first wake up. Turning on the coffee pot and then inhaling a rather syrupy mix of coffee, sugar, and milk is an autonomic function. I don't think about it. It just happens. Thinking doesn't kick in until sometime during the second cup.

The blood work is allegedly to check potassium levels, but I know what's going to actually happen. Because the test ordered is a metabolic panel, my current primary care physician will fasten with laser-like precision on the fact that my blood glucose number puts me into the dreaded "pre-diabetic" category and my total cholesterol is 4 or 5 points higher than the high end of the normal reference range, I'm going to be treated to a sales pitch for Metformin and Lipitor. The fact the numbers haven't changed in decades is irrelevant. So apparently is the fact my medical records clearly state I cannot take statins; the one time I did they tried to destroy my liver. I will listen to the sales pitch and then ignore any prescriptions for either of those two particular drugs that the PCP insists on writing.

As for the potassium issue, because my blood pressure was reading high when I went in for my annual wellness exam last June, my PCP wrote a prescription. I tried the drug for a few months but all it did was make me sleepy. I had no energy. We have multiple sphygmomanometers in the house; I did self-monitoring and the numbers weren't changing. Still getting higher than desirable readings but with the added benefit of having all the ambition of the proverbial wet noodle. So I went back to the doctor, told him the medication wasn't doing jack shit, or words to that effect. He switched me to something else. The something else does seem to be effective, but it does have a well-known risk of leaching potassium from one's system. Losing potassium is not good. If potassium levels drop too much the deficiency can trigger what medical personnel euphemistically refer to as a "cardiac event." Otherwise known as "Holy shit, she had a heart attack." So, yes, sucking out the blood to look at potassium makes sense.

Nonetheless, having watched American medicine in action for many years, I can safely predict when the lab results are back, the number that will get the most attention is the one least likely to kill me. There will be obsessing over a blood glucose of 119 while ignoring a remarkably high red cell count. I'm guessing this phenomenon is triggered by the fact the glucose number is easy to change -- just give her Metformin; let's switch from slightly too much sugar to inducing hypoglycemia and chronic diarrhea instead -- while the red cell count presents a mystery. Is it a signal for something ominous? Will her insurance cover the $900 blood test that checks for cancer markers? Do we need to force feed her rat poison Warfarin or another thinner? How much time is this going to eat up when the clinic needs to process the largest number of patients in the shortest amount of minutes as possible?

The high red cell count is fairly obviously a major factor in the high blood pressure. Thick blood is harder to pump. Thus, there is an easy answer to both the thick blood and the high blood pressure that inevitably tags along with it. It's an answer that involves no drugs, no money to Big Pharma, although it does involve some minor pain to me. Phlebotomy. You know. Blood letting. Drop the total volume and the pressure drops right along with it. Leeches, cupping, maybe the Red Cross blood donation van?

Oddly enough, if the doctor were to order straight-forward phlebotomy, just have the hospital lab drain off a pint every so often, that blood would be considered a bio-hazard and discarded. They can't bank it just in case they need some O+ any time soon. If I let the Red Cross do the same thing it's a welcome donation because other than being thick it's perfectly good blood. It's so good, in fact, my platelet count is on the high side right along with the erythrocytes. Every time the Red Cross sees me they give me a pep talk about scheduling a platelet donation (which is sort of like going through dialysis but for a shorter time period; they suck the platelets out but return the rest of the blood to you as part of the process). If the dropping a pint is done at the hospital I'd end up paying for it; if the Red Cross does it I'm not out any money but I also am not overly fond of the Red Cross as an organization.

Maybe I'll look into ordering some medical leeches. Not a cheap option -- Leeches USA sells them for about $18 each -- but definitely the natural solution. They'd be easy to maintain, maybe, given that all they ask for is to have the water in their container changed on a regular basis. They prefer cold water when not on the prowl for a warm dinner so you can keep your leeches jar in the back of the fridge.

On the other hand, you're not supposed to re-use them. The wee beasties (or not so wee -- medical leeches are fairly large as leeches go) get to chow down on you one time and then it's into the rubbing alcohol jar to be euthanized. I don't get that part. If they've already dined on you once, why would repeat performances hurt them?

The size of medical leeches does, however, answer a question I've had ever since I learned they were once a popular option for treating hemorrhoids. Physicians placed silk leashes on the leeches so they could control how far the blood suckers traveled. I always wondered how you could get a leash on a leech because the live ones I've personally encountered (usually between my toes after wading in a fresh water lake or stream) weren't very big. After doing a search for images and seeing the leech in the photo above it is clear that lassoing one might not be difficult after all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A recommendation

Looking for a fairly new book to read? Margaret Atwood's The Testaments came out in September. It's the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

I plucked it off the New Books shelf at the library last week. I was prepared to be depressed or to have trouble reading it. I know from experience Atwood's books can be a tad unsettling. My mild apprehension was not helped by the fact the other book I checked out, Ruins of War, featured a psychopathic serial killer terrorizing post-war Munich right after World War II ended.

I decided to tackle Ruins of War first. I'd deal with a nightmarish past before delving into a dystopian future. Last night the serial killer met with a satisfying demise, it was still early in the evening, and so I reached for The Testaments. One-hundred-seventy pages later I dimly realized the Packer game had ended and the S.O. had retired for the night. I had a hard time putting the book down, but common sense prevailed.

Holy wah. Atwood can write. I could have easily done a marathon cover-to-cover night, read it in one sitting even if it meant being awake until dawn. Only the knowledge the result would be a totally wasted day today as I stumbled around in a sleep deprived brain dead fog turned off the "just one more page" impulse.

At this point, I'm at slightly less than the halfway point. Atwood is following three women: a girl raised as the daughter of an elite Gilead family, a girl raised in Canada, and an older woman who is the most powerful Aunt in Gilead. I have no idea where Atwood is going with these narrative threads, but the impression I get is that sooner or later these three people are going to meet. Maybe. With Atwood nothing is ever really predictable.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Pulitzer Project: Breathing Lessons

As I was reading Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons I kept having this nagging feeling. It felt familiar, like I'd read it before. Then it hit me.

Breathing Lessons is like an episode of All in the Family, the sit-com that aired in the 1970's. The novel describes one day in the life of a middle-aged married couple, Ira and Maggie. They live in Baltimore, but have to spend the day driving to a small town in Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of a high school classmate. The deceased was married to Maggie's best friend, a woman she's known since elementary school. Ira isn't happy about going because it means he has to close his business for the day, but he recognizes Maggie needs to be there.

Ira's kind of a grump, a man of few words, while Maggie is a lovable ditz who can't stop talking. He's a pessimist, she's an optimistic. She sees the best or the potential for the best in everyone; Ira is a skeptic and a realist. They're opposites, one of those couples where you find yourself thinking "No way is that relationship going to last!" But there they are: still together 20, 30, 40 years after all the seemingly better matched couples have split up or divorced.

All in the Family had a similar couple at the heart of it: Edith, the goodhearted but a bit scatterbrained wife, and Archie, the grumpy husband. Edith liked everyone; Archie minced no words in expressing his disdain or his bigotry. A marriage of opposites, a pessimist and an optimist co-existing while viewers got to wonder what on earth Edith saw in Archie. Over the course of the show, it became clear there was more to Archie than was obvious at first, but it took awhile to get there.

At first I had a similar reaction to Ira and Maggie. The novel is told from two perspectives, first Maggie's and then Ira's, and as I was reading I kept thinking "Why on earth are these two people still married?" The perspective might be Maggie's as she's remembering how she first became friends with Serena, how she met Ira, and so on, but along the way she does enough scatterbrained stuff that you start having a Dan Savage type reaction and think Ira should just DTMFA*.

And then they have a moment at Serena's house after the church service and it hits you: it may seem like Maggie and Ira bicker about almost everything, but underneath the verbal jousting and disagreements they really care for each other. Not only do they care, despite the surface appearance of not having a clue about what the other is thinking they do actually know each other pretty well.

The second half of the novel is told in Ira's voice. The narrative continues as they're heading home, but where we spent the first half of the book seeing Maggie moving back and forth in time and memories, now it's Ira's turn. We learn about his disappointments, the family obligations that prevented him from following his dreams, and how he feels about a variety of people and events.

In contrast with the last Pulitzer winner I read, Beloved, Tyler's Breathing Lessons is grounded in reality. No magical realism here, no wondering if someone is real or imagined, an actual person or a lost spirit. The only fantasy consists of Maggie's overly optimistic dreams of her son and his ex-wife getting back together or of  her being able to spend more time with her granddaughter. The novel looks at one day in the life of a pretty ordinary married couple: a small business owner and his wife. There are no dramatic epiphanies, just occasional flashes of humor and a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people coping with the fact they've hit middle age. No one's life turned out quite the way they thought it would back in high school, but that realization has a lot less sting when you look at your classmates and see that they're not what they thought they'd be either.

Overall impression of the book is it's readable. Tyler can write. I wasn't blown away by it, but I didn't suffer. I'd put over on the better side of the scale, maybe a 7 out of a theoretical 10. It's good, but it's not great. Would I recommend it to other readers? Yes, with the usual caveats. If you like Jodi Picoult you might like it, although with the qualification that it's not nearly as depressing or heartbreaking as the typical Picoult novel. Maybe it would be more accurate to lump it in with Joanna Trollope -- ordinary people, no major drama, just life with a few mildly disconcerting bumps along the way.  [Usual small digression: why doesn't the local library have any of Trollope's books? She's really good, but I haven't seen anything by her since leaving Atlanta and the amazing DeKalb County library system.] [I keep thinking that all those shelves for Danielle Steele could surely be put to better use than housing that many cubic feet of what is basically the same book over and over with slightly different titles.]

In 1994 Breathing Lessons was made into a movie for television starring James Garner and Joanne Woodward. It was good enough that Woodward won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a tv drama; Garner was nominated as Best Actor. I think the casting was probably spot on, and the supporting cast looks decent, too. Garner physically fits the way Maggie describes Ira. Knowing that, will I go looking for it online somewhere? No. I already have a Watchlist on Prime that's going to take me several lifetimes to finish.

Next up on the Pulitzer list? The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos. I have heard good things about this book. I hope I'm not disappointed.

*Dump the motherfucker already.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Feel good Xmas movies

The S.O. and I are not much for watching holiday movies, especially the typical saccharine Lifetime or Hallmark ones, but we made an exception for Christmas film fare last night.

I happened across this movie being offered via Prime several months ago. I saved it to our Watch list because it's from Finland. Anything that's filmed in Finland with a big chunk of the dialogue in Finnish goes on the list. It gives the S.O. a chance to listen to actual Finnish and to realize again just how incredibly helpless he'd probably be if we ever went to Finland and had to count on his linguistic skills. Finn may be his first language (he learned to speak English -- sort of -- in kindergarten) but he doesn't have many opportunities to speak it. (I can read a fair amount of simple Finn, and I recognize quite a bit when I hear it spoken but I gave up trying to speak it years ago.)

Anyway, so I found a Finnish holiday movie, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Saved it with a vague plan of watching it once it got closer to the holidays. It has cute little kids, reindeer, lots of snow -- definitely all the ingredients for something sweet. Especially when it emerges that centuries ago the Sami people interred the original Santa Claus in a mountain in Lapland. A rich American decides to dig him up.

That's when things get interesting.

It turns out the truth about Santa Claus comes a lot closer to the stories about Krampus than to the ones about Saint Nicholas.

This being a Finnish movie, the fact there are subtitles shouldn't deter anyone. No one is going to get stuck trying to read super long sentences while characters blather on and on. Actually, the biggest problem with subtitles when a person understands (sort of) the language being spoken is subtitles tend to clean things up. A character says something bluntly vulgar and it appears on the screen as "disgusting" instead of "shit."

Rare Exports isn't exactly Cannes Film Festival material, but it was fun. I mean, how much better can it get than the image of a little boy sitting up holding a long gun bigger than he is waiting to blow away Santa Claus if he tries coming through the window? I'm not sure what type of weaponry it is, but it's definitely not a Red Ryder bb gun. Or his father freaking out when he tries to get a fire going in the fireplace and triggers the ginormous bear trap the kid set there?

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Faux outrage or simple stupidity?

Once again the right-wing outrage machine is fired up over nothing. I can never decide if they're all just dumb as rocks or the people who do the first flipping out are deliberately playing to a feeble-minded base. You know, they say something that says loud and clear they have no interest in reality, wait for a reaction from the morons, and if it's clear the non-issue has traction jump into hammering it over and over and over no matter how nonsensical it is.

I speak, of course, of the horror expressed by Republicans over the fact that an expert witness used Barron Trump's name as an illustration of the fact that The Donald, the current Cheeto-colored occupant of the White House, is not a king. The Donald can name his son Barron; he cannot give him an aristocratic title that actually is a title and not just a name. Would it have been better if the professor had said, "For example, President Trump can name his son Earl, but he cannot make him an earl" or "For example, President Trump can name his son Duke, but he cannot make him a duke?"

Probably not. The faux outrage machine would have gotten fired up anyway because the example of a child, even a nonexistent theoretical child, was used.

The thing that floors me, of course, is how totally ingrained the hypocrisy is. The same group of people who are so horrified that poor little Barron (the son of a billionaire, a kid who's been coddled and probably diapered with gold Huggies from the day he was born) will be seriously traumatized by the fact his name got dropped in one sentence in one hearing have no qualms publicly verbally abusing other children.

Of course, it didn't just start with the current crop of right-wingers. Remember Rush Limbaugh calling 14-year-old Chelsea Clinton a dog? Making fun of how she looked and suggesting very publicly and repeatedly that Bill Clinton was not her father? That same bloated bag of wind who had no problem calling a teenage girl ugly and a bastard is now horrified that someone said Barron Trump's name out loud.

More recently and still ongoing is the harassment directed at some of the young people involved in the gun regulation movement and climate change demonstrations. The Donald himself has joked in a very nasty way about the Parkland High School shooting survivors like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg -- teenagers who saw their friends die -- and said horrible things about Greta Thunberg, including calling her mentally ill. Greta is 16. The talking heads on Fox News, Republican members of Congress, and a whole host of right wing spokespeople have all piled on teenagers not much older than Barron, making outrageous claims about them and encouraging their listeners, followers, or constituents to be equally abusive. Those kids get death threats on a regular basis from adult men thanks to the hateful hyperbole spouted by Trump and other Republicans who obviously don't have even a tiny shred of human decency left.

As for Barron's outraged mother, that's the same woman who wore a coat with "I don't care. Do U?" emblazoned on the back when she went to inspect kids in cages in Texas last year. Wonder how those children felt about that particular fashion statement?

I was actually rather appalled that the professor apologized to the idiot Republican congressman who chastised her at the hearing. Just once instead of apologizing for something that doesn't merit an apology, I would love to hear someone on the left say something more along the lines of "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you did not know what an analogy is and that you need things explained in simpler terms. I will try again. President Trump could have named his son Earl, but he could not make him an earl. He could have named his daughter Duchess but he could not make her a duchess. We do not have a hereditary aristocracy in this country and the President is not a king."

Personally, I think the thing that might be traumatizing Barron at the age he's now at is going off to school and having his adolescent cohort passing around pictures of Melania sans clothing from back in the days when she did soft-core girl on girl porn. Because you know it's happening. "Wow Barron, your mom used to be hot." The fact he's in private school instead of public isn't going to change the fact every school has bullies who cannot resist harassing other younger students in some fashion. If they're not ragging on Barron about his mom's tits then you know he's gotten to hear about his dad messing around with Stormy Daniels. Worse case scenario is he's getting asked if it's true his dad is banging his sister because despite Melania's best efforts the kid is not being raised in a total bubble.

Am I the only one who kind of misses the days when the worst we had to worry about in seeing old photos of a First Lady was that she might have on a sleeveless dress? Then again, it's real hard to get criticized for what you're wearing when it's your hand. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

We have always been at war with Eastasia

We really need to bring back the draft. Trump's recent photo op in Afghanistan, his 89 minutes at Bagram Airfield a couple days ago, reminded me why. Our misguided, impossible to win war in Afghanistan has now gone on longer than some kids graduating from high school in 2020 have been alive. There are troops serving in Afghanistan now who were in diapers when the "war" began.

Does anyone seriously believe we'd be embroiled in endless, impossible to win, never should have gotten involved in the first place conflicts if the draft still existed? Especially if the draft did not include student deferments? And was universal, like it is in Israel (translation: women must serve, too)? How many wars do you think we'd get sucked into if there was a strong possibility anyone's son or daughter might be required to don a uniform and go serve in some shithole where all the locals hate the United States?

Right now the U.S. effectively has an economic draft. When jobs are hard to find, low income men and women enlist in the military. With a few exceptions, the military gets the young people whose families could not afford to send them off to college. The cartoon above is old (Charlie Rangel retired several years ago), but it's still accurate. Everyone loves the troops and worships the military as long as their own kids aren't serving. How do we know the military is being filled with economic draftees? Well, among other things, every time the unemployment rate drops military recruiters have a harder time filling their quotas.

Given that one of the arguments made for enlisting is the education benefit, I have moments when I halfway wonder if one reason college has become so expensive is to force some young people into enlisting to avoid student loan debt. Which is a variation on the economic draft, but not quite as direct as enlist or starve. 

I remember hearing Colin Powell speak back during the first Bush administration. General Powell thought the government should reinstitute an active draft for a number of reasons. One that he mentioned was the draft was a great equalizer. When you were dragged kicking and screaming into the military back in the 1950s and '60s, you found yourself surrounded by people who might be very different from you. Different classes, different ethnicities, wildly different backgrounds. It had a broadening effect on your world view. If nothing else, it reminded you the U.S. is a remarkably diverse country.

And, speaking of the country as a whole, the draft would be good for it. It is much healthier for a democracy to have a military that more or less mirrors the population as a whole. As things stand now, demographics for the military are steadily drifting away from the general population. We want a military that represents all of us, but that's becoming less and less true.

My personal preference would go beyond the military. I'd like to see universal service where everyone, male or female, could be called on to spend a set period of time doing something that was good for the country. Community service. Of course, not everyone would end up serving, but just knowing the possibility existed might get some young people to snap out of their typical self-centered bubbles for awhile.

Saturday, November 30, 2019


Not long ago a for sale ad appeared on the local buy, sale, trade page on Facebook, Baraga County Stuff for Sale (No Clothes) that kind of stood out. I tend to refer to the page as Baraga County Shit for Sale because it's like an Internet version of Tradio -- did you guys know local radio stations still do Tradio? The Iron River, Michigan, station calls its program "Telephone Time," but it's Tradio. The S.O. and I catch it occasionally when we're driving down to V.A. hospital in Iron Mountain. People call in looking to buy, sell, or trade some really strange stuff, including during gardening season actual shit (horse or cow manure)

But I digress. The ad that caught my eye was for candles made utilizing old bottles. I was immediately reminded of the tall prayer candles you find in the Mexican foods section of some supermarkets. There is, you will note, one significant difference. Instead of having a prayer to some saint or the Holy Mother printed on them, these candles are apparently hoping to party. I found myself thinking, wow, the person who crafted those really likes his or her vodka. I mean, who wants to advertise to the whole world they drink that much?

Little did I know I was about to stumble across something that was even more of a tribute to tippling. I belong to a quilters' group on Facebook. People post pictures of their various projects, share patterns, and talk about quilting. Did you know there's such a thing as a Crown Royal quilt? That's not the pattern -- it's the material. People make quilts from Crown Royal bags. If I hadn't seen multiple photos, I'd have thought the whole concept was a joke.

Because, again, wow. It's a lot of work to cut apart the bags, figure out placement, and then sew them back together into a quilt top. And not just any size quilt -- the favorite (going by the comments) is a queen size. That is not a small quilt. The Crown Royal quilters make the Grey Goose vodka candles person look like a piker in the future friend of Bill category. A dozen or so vodka bottles? Pshaw. That's nothing. How about a quilt top pieced from 160 -- yes, one hundred and sixty -- Crown Royal bags? The maker may not have a functioning liver by the time he or she is done, but by God he or she will sleep in style.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Community organizations and how not to kill them

Someone asked me recently for advice, help, whatever regarding a local community group. It has the usual issues: stagnant leadership, low volunteer numbers, the classic everyone says they want various actions or events but no one is willing to step up and assume actual responsibility. I used to be involved with the organization so, yes, I had thoughts. I definitely had thoughts, including a few about why I'm no longer involved.

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a Girl Scout leader, and not just a leader. I was so into being a leader that I even owned a uniform (and would occasionally embarrass my kids by wearing it in public). In addition to being a regular troop leader, I volunteered to become a trainer. Back in the '70s Peninsula Waters Girl Scout Council sponsored workshops (no doubt they still do) that focused on helping leaders be better leaders and encouraging more volunteer involvement. The key points stuck with me. I will actually bullet point them:
  • Everyone's reason for volunteering is different
  • Everyone's contribution is important, no matter how small
  • Always thank people, never criticize, either behind their backs or to their face
  • There will always be people who will complain no matter what a group does
  • Trying to "guilt" people into helping never works
First, motivations. Why do people become involved in an organization?
  1. They support the mission, whether it's preserving local history, maintaining a community building, or doing charitable work. 
  2. They enjoy the tasks involved. For example, people who like children will volunteer to help youth groups -- which can be a two-fer. They like being around the kids and they support the group's mission. 
  3. They like the other people in the organization and enjoy spending time with them. If you ask people why they joined a book club or a historical society or began attending a church, it's almost always because one or more of their friends invited them. 
Second, contributions. None of us know what's going on in another person's life. Things might look fine to an outside observer, but we can never really know what their reality is like when no one is watching. Asking someone to contribute to a bake sale table might be a financial stretch if they're relying on the Community Action Agency food distributions or the SNAP program, options most people prefer not to talk about with casual acquaintances. Someone can have health issues that prevent them doing anything involving prolonged standing, like being a museum docent. You never know. So when someone says "I'm sorry, I can't do that but I can do this" you thank them for the package of napkins while trying not to think about the lifetime supply of napkins already stashed in the storage cabinet. Maybe this year the person couldn't do what you hoped, but if you're nice next time around they might be in a better position and can make a larger or more useful contribution. At the very least, they may recommend your group to others even if they can't help themselves.

Third, criticisms and verbal gaffes. You've really got to watch your mouth. One ill-timed sentence and you've lost a member or a donor forever. This is especially true if you're in a leadership position. I've witnessed a couple jaw-dropping gaffes that resulted in people either disappearing over the horizon forever or close to it.  If other members of your group manage to violate this rule, you need to do damage control. When someone says stuff like "I'll rejoin when <insert name of clueless geezer here> is dead," you know who in your membership opened mouth and inserted foot, probably well past the knee.

One of my personal favorites when it comes to truly fucking up and insulting someone big time involved a group where some turnover in leadership was happening. This was a Very Good Thing, but naturally one of the old coots (the outgoing leadership) had to screw things up. An annual event was coming up, a different person than usual volunteered to take care of obtaining supplies, and everyone seemed fine with it. Then a few days before the event the person who had done it in previous years starts calling people to announce they* had the supplies because they happened to be in town and had asked at the usual vendor if the new volunteer had picked up anything yet. Answer: No. So they took it upon themselves to buy the supplies right then and there.

Well, the vendor was one of three locally, there was never a requirement that any specific one had to be used, so for all the meddling member knew the new person had shopped someplace else and everything was fine. If they aren't sure, then go ask in person or find a phone and call (this was before cell phones). The old person did neither, just assumed the new volunteer was incompetent because they hadn't shopped where the old person had shopped in the past, and walked all over them. Even worse, the old person ran their mouth. Big time. Told half the county how they had saved the event from certain disaster. And then told and retold the story for years until it became part of their family folklore, the Year Their Parent Saved the event. And now that person's children repeat the story. It's become the insult that never stops. Holy fuck. The stupid, it burns.

Fourth, complainers. One of the things emphasized at various trainings was that in a theoretical population of 100 people you'll have a small percentage (4 or 5) willing to be leaders or assume positions of responsibility (president, treasurer), 20 to 30 percent willing to help if they don't have to be decision makers, 50 to 60 percent will support you indirectly (come to a community event, buy raffle tickets, visit your museum), and 5 percent will trash talk everything the group and the people in it do. These people will never be happy. If you're trying to preserve a historic building, they'll denigrate its history, tell you it's a useless effort, and someone should just torch it. If you're involved with a youth group, it'll be you're wasting your time, it's up to the parents and the schools, don't bother. No matter what anyone tries to do, there will be people who radiate negativity. Ignore them.

Fifth, guilt tripping. It doesn't work. It just pisses people off. Try to guilt trip someone into helping with anything and odds are they're going to walk away and not look back. If it's a relative or close friend, you may think you've succeeded because they'll help occasionally, but all you're doing is building a well of resentment that will eventually come back to drown you. Call it karma or call it payback. Either way, it's a bitch.

Since going through the Girl Scout training, I've learned more about organizations. A lot more. I hadn't planned on it, but I wound up writing a doctoral dissertation that, depending on your perspective, is either a history of engineering or an in-depth study of organizational sociology. The Piled-Higher-and-Deeper is in Science and Technology Studies (interdisciplinary history, sociology, and philosophy) so I guess it can be either. Or maybe a treatise of philosophy of knowledge and professionalism. Organizational behavior in any case.

The document, Brothers Professionally and Socially: The Rise of Local Engineering Societies During the Gilded Age, focused on what in retrospect feels like a gazillion local engineering societies, some of which are still around and some of which died lingering painful deaths. Because I had sociologists on my committee, I had to do a considerable amount of data crunching. I learned how to use statistical analysis software designed specifically for the social sciences. I knew statistics before (2 quarters at MTU as an undergrad) but by the time I finished counting engineers I really knew statistics. I even managed to pass myself off as a quantoid. The sociologists were happy. But what was the bottom line after all the data crunching? What ground-breaking conclusions did I reach after risking carpal tunnel doing data entry and creating multiple tables?

Democracy matters. Turnover matters. Stagnant organizations die. Every voluntary organization starts off fired up with enthusiasm. That initial enthusiasm will not sustain a group forever. It has to be renewed regularly. Want to guarantee your organization, whether it's a church congregation, a fraternal organization, or a local historical society, ends up taking the proverbial dirt nap? Encourage stagnation. Allow the same people to hold the same offices indefinitely.

This isn't exactly ground-breaking. It's actually such a classic in organizational sociology that it has a name: The Problem of Generations. You get someone in office, there's no provision in the by-laws that sets term limits, and that person ends up either clinging to his or her office like a barnacle on a ship bottom or the membership gets comfortable with assuming that person will never die. The organization shrinks because nonmembers see no point in joining, old ones age out, and younger members leave. Why should they? Either President-for-Life has everything under control (no need for new members) or PfL is so resistant to new ideas that people figure why bother? They've got ideas but when the person who's been there forever shoots them down, they walk away.

Finally, and this was just a life lesson, the world is full of people who have no clue what the word "volunteer" means. For whatever reason, they are incapable of imagining anyone investing time and energy in anything if they aren't getting paid. Back when I was a Girl Scout leader, there were always a few parents who wanted to know how much the leaders got paid. They could not believe we were willing to spend time with their kids and not get compensated for it (which kind of tells you something about the low opinion they had of their own spawn if they believed people needed bribes to put up with them). When the S.O.and I volunteer as campground hosts at various state and federal parks there are always campers who have a hard time believing we're doing it when the only compensation is being at the park. I run into people all the time who think I get paid to be at the museum. Nope, the museum is 100% volunteer**. The idea that some tasks are intrinsically rewarding without there being a cash benefit is one some people will never understand.

*The editor in me cringes at the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, but it is less awkward than he/she. Maybe. 

**The budget would have to have more digits in it to afford an actual paid manager or other staff. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

I hate fake surveys

As if listening to the impeachment hearing yesterday wasn't depressing enough, this morning the first item in my email was a thinly disguised fund-raising plea from the Democratic National Committee. It was masquerading as a poll and asked if the most hated woman in American (aka Hillary Clinton) should jump into the Presidential race. Unfortunately, none of the choices listed included "No Fucking Way!!"

I know Putin is scared silly by her and she would be a lot better than the Current Occupant, but I also know she ran a horrible campaign last time, neither she or her minions want to admit she ran a horrible campaign, and if past performance is any indicator of future results. . . Everyone on her team was so imbued with the belief that it was her turn that they either totally ignored or took for granted states and groups they really needed to pay attention to, like Michigan and Wisconsin and people of faith. I wonder how many religious voters even knew Hillary is a Methodist and is personally pretty devout? I'd guess zero to none.

In any case, from the discussions I've read and interview clips I've seen, she still hasn't figured out that it wasn't just Russian meddling that caused her to lose. She needs to look in the mirror more.

I wonder if she's working on becoming the Harold Stassen of the 21st century?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pulitzer Project: Beloved

This one was a surprise. I'd been hearing about it for years, another one of those novels by an African-American author that gets touted as seminal, ground breaking, etc., the sort of breathless praise that always has me wondering just how bad the book is going to be. A lot of the praise for authors of color, whether they're Asian, Native American, African American, or something else, tends to have an undertone of implicit racism and condescension that reminds me of the praise for a dancing bear: there's no expectation that the bear will be good at dancing. Nope, the praise comes because the observer is amazed the bear can dance at all.

Which is why after having the unpleasant experience of trying to read The Color Purple I was not expecting much from Beloved. Toni Morrison was a woman of color; the book had been subject to huge amounts of praise; ergo, the book was probably going to suck. I was wrong.

So are a lot of the comments and reviews I've read that spent way too much time obsessing about one aspect of the book -- infanticide -- and not enough on the book as a whole. The infanticide is one reason I never had much interest in reading Beloved until it came up on the Pulitzer list. It's as though readers became obsessed with the fact a mother killed her toddler and ignored everything else that's going on in the novel. When all that ever gets mentioned about a book is that the main character killed her baby you do find yourself wondering why you should bother reading it.

Granted, the infanticide is a key element, one that's a pivot point for several narrative threads, but it's not the only element just like the mother, Sethe, isn't the only character. There's her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. Her surviving daughter, Denver. A man, Paul D, who was a field hand at the same Kentucky farm Sethe escaped from shortly before the Civil War.

Sethe was born into slavery in Virginia. She thinks about her mother and remembers how she never really knew her. Her mother was a field hand and had been forced to continue working in the fields after Sethe was born; she wasn't even able to nurse her. That task was done by another woman who was also a wet nurse to the white babies on the plantation. Sethe remembers talking with Baby Suggs. Baby tells her she had a total of 8 children, but the only one she was allowed to keep, to have stay with her and watch grow to adulthood, marry, and have children of his own was her youngest, Halle.

Beloved moves around in time as various characters remember the past. Sethe and Paul D recall what life was like at Sweet Home (the farm in Kentucky) before and after the owner, Mr. Garner, died. Garner had been a "good" slave owner. He gave the men a fair amount of personal freedom, including allowing them to use guns to hunt wild game, and didn't believe in the extreme and cruel forms of discipline common throughout the slave states. And then he died. His widow is forced to ask her husband's brother-in-law to take over managing the farm. If Garner was on the good end of the spectrum for slave owners, the brother-in-law is at the other extreme. No one had talked about going North to freedom before the brother-in-law arrived, but it doesn't take long for him to be in charge and running away, even with the risks it entails of death or mutilation if caught, looks a lot better than staying.

The novel is loosely set between the early 1850s and the late 1860s in southern Ohio on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Mr. Garner had allowed Halle to rent himself out to buy his mother's freedom; she moved across the river and leased a house from an abolitionist family. That house is where Sethe and her children live after they've escaped from Kentucky, and it's where Sethe is living when Paul D finds her after he's spent 18 years moving around the country, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. For a few years after Baby Suggs moved in the house was seen as being a happy house where everyone was welcome. After Sethe kills her toddler daughter to prevent her from being taken back into Kentucky, though, the atmosphere changes.

I have seen Beloved described as a ghost story. It is, and it isn't. It is, however, a really nice example of magical realism. What's real? What isn't? Can anyone's memories be trusted? Is the spirit of a dead toddler truly haunting the house where she died or have Baby and Sethe convinced themselves that she must be?  The narrative shifts back and forth, from one person's perspective to another's, from the present to the past and back again. Some sections have an ethereal quality as though the person is remembering or living a dream; others are clear descriptions. Is the mysterious young woman who shows up near their house really the living embodiment of the dead toddler or is she someone or something else? Is she a revenant, a wandering spirit, or simply a real woman on whom other people are projecting their hopes and fears? The author leaves that possibility open with a passing reference to a colored woman who had been kept locked up, isolated, in a cabin by some man for most of her life. That woman had disappeared about the same time Sethe found the stranger.

Morrison does a nice job of describing the horrors of slavery, the physical abuse, while also touching on the psychological. If you were a slave you didn't even have the dignity of keeping the name your mother may have given you -- at one point Baby Suggs wonders why Mrs. Garner always calls her "Judy." Turns out that was what was on the bill of sale. On paper her name had become Judy Whitlow, Whitlow being the person who sold her. Four of the field hands are all named Paul, which is why Paul D is Paul D. The D is to differentiate him from the other three.

So where does Beloved rank on the usual scale? Somewhere between a 9 and a 10. This book actually deserved the awards it received. The prose is lyrical, the fabulism mixed with just enough grounded in reality details to keep you wondering what's real and what's imagined, the ghost may or may not exist. This is a book I'd recommend to anyone who wanted to read some good writing. It's another one where the subject matter is grim, but the reading never feels forced.

Small spoiler: despite the grimness, it does end on a slightly upbeat note. Not a classic happy ending, but also not totally depressing.

Next up on the list: Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler. Once again, it's going to be an Interlibrary Loan request.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Weirdest defense I've heard in a long time

I was listening to the impeachment hearings off and on yesterday. Admittedly, I didn't hear the entire thing, but as far as I could tell the Republican defense of President Trump's behavior comes down to:

  • 1. Yes, there was an attempt to do something sleazy, but it didn't work so the attempt doesn't count;
  • 2. Yes, President Trump would like to get some dirt on the Bidens but so far all he's got are rumors so it doesn't count; and
  • 3. It's all Obama's fault.

Holy wah. Odds are because the Senate has a Republican majority it doesn't matter much what the House hearings decide, i.e., just how many counts of impeachable offenses they come up with, because Moscow Mitch will make sure none of them stick. Nonetheless, is this the image they really want to project going into 2020 -- the President tried to commit a crime (extortion) but because he's an incompetent doofus it doesn't count? Vote for Trump, the man who's too stupid to know what he's doing?

I do find myself wondering just how many counts the Democrats will decide to pursue. People in general don't seem to realize it, but Trump manages to do something that's technically an impeachable offense on almost a daily basis. You know, despite the phrasing about "high crimes and misdemeanors," an impeachable offense doesn't have to be criminal. It just has to be something that demonstrates you're unfit to hold office.

Abusing the power of the presidency for personal gain, for example, might not qualify as a crime in the same way encouraging a burglary did back in the days of Watergate, but openly promoting your son's book so he'll sell more copies is certainly an abuse of power. Encouraging people to patronize his resorts is an abuse of power. Inciting his supporters to commit violent acts is both an abuse of power and possibly criminal. Trump has such a bad habit of opening his mouth, babbling incoherently, and then inserting his foot that if the Democrats really want to they can come up with a list of counts that will run longer than a typical CVS drugstore receipt. Keep in mind that one reason (9 counts worth) that Andrew Johnson wound up impeached was he fired a cabinet secretary Congress thought he should keep. Not a crime, but it pissed enough Congress critters off that Johnson almost wound up out of office.

Heck, Trump doesn't even have to open his mouth. All he has to do is continue tweeting out stupid stuff while in the john in the wee hours of the morning.

But, circling back to the three approaches the Republicans seem to be taking (extortion attempt failed, Trump's so dumb he shouldn't be held accountable, and it's the Obama administration's fault), the last one amused me the most. That's the fallback for every Trump supporter, just like it is for Trump himself. The only thing missing was an explicit reference to Hillary's emails.

I hadn't planned to listen to much of the hearings, but after listening to Daniel Goldman's skillful questioning compared with the poor sap (Steve Castor) laboring for the Republicans I may have changed my mind.  Goldman is good; he was a prosecutor targeting mobsters and Wall Street cheats. He knows how to craft questions. Castor, on the other hand, had obviously been instructed by his Republican bosses to hammer the talking points (Biden, Biden, Biden), which is why I was a bit surprised we weren't treated to Hillary's private server. Poor bastard. Just how many times can you claim the Democrats did something nefarious in the 2016 election when the Democrats lost?

There is actually a distinct contradiction there, the usual cognitive dissonance from the right that we've all come to expect: Trump's bad behavior a few months ago doesn't count because it didn't work, but it's real important to investigate something that might have happened three years ago and failed. How do they manage to push two mutually exclusive ideas without their heads exploding?

In any case, I got the impression that between them Daniel Goldman and Adam Schiff have come close to putting some of the dumber Republicans through the rhetorical equivalent of a wood chipper. And this was just the first day.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Pulitzer Project: A Summons to Memphis

The Pulitzer Project continues to lurch from one extreme to the other, from work that is so horrible to read you wonder about the sanity of the judges to prose that sings, from books fat enough to double as doorsteps or ballast in a freighter to books so thin they barely qualify as books and not pamphlets. 1986 had Lonesome Dove, a tome so thick and heavy it was physically hard to read in bed. 1987 has A Summons To Memphis, a piece of lightweight fluff that feels so thin you kind of expect it to just float away.

A Summons to Memphis seems to fall into a familiar category among the Pulitzers, the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. Author Peter Taylor was an acclaimed author with numerous short stories to his credit. According to the cover blurb, however, A Summons to Memphis was his first novel in 35 years.

I must say the book is readable. Taylor could write. The prose flows. You keep reading despite the fact the narrative feels a lot like a Seinfeld episode -- a story about nothing -- and then you realize it's actually a subtle paean to the joys of being passive aggressive. This could be one reason it earned a Pulitzer. On a surface level, reading it from a purely superficial perspective, it feels almost whimsical. The narrator, a middle-aged man who has been collecting old and rare books since his college days, works as an editor for a publishing house in New York. The story is told entirely from his perspective: his recollections of his family's trials and tribulations, his observations of spinster sisters' odd behavior, his reluctance to spend much time around his parents and sisters since he left Memphis decades earlier. The book starts off light, returns sporadically to being very light, but an undertone of bitterness slowly creeps in.

The summons to Memphis he receives when the book begins is from his sisters. Their father, a retired wealthy attorney and relatively recent widower, has moved on to a fairly predictable stage. An octogenarian, their father had first allowed himself to be cossetted by the numerous widows in his age group. After a few months of going for tea, the old fellow moved on to frequenting nightclubs and apparently flirting with much, much younger women. He's now progressed to socializing with just one woman, a middle-aged matron he has actually proposed to. She's a respectable person not dramatically younger than him but still youthful enough for the sisters to recognize that the old man is a lot more likely to take a dirt nap before his intended bride than the bride is to predecease him. The assumption is that if he dies first, the widow gets everything. No surprise. The sisters want to prevent the wedding. The narrator recalls the classic Memphis fate of elderly widowers hoping to remarry: shuffled off to an old folks' home or moved to a family property so far out in the boonies they might as well be on a different planet. He wonders just what his sisters' plan for their father is.

And this is where the passive-aggressive behavior creeps in. The narrator's family turns out to be  good at saying they're doing something nice while actually making people's lives miserable. No one ever engages in direct communications, with the possible exception of the father. His personality is forceful enough that none of the children ever directly contradict or defy him, but it turns out they're really good at payback when they've got 30+ years of resentment built up.

Nothing dramatic happens, there is no grand denouement that ties everything up in a neat bundle. The book ends as quietly as it began with the narrator back in his New York apartment. Will he ever go to Memphis again? Probably not.

How would I rate this book on the usual 1 to 10 scale? It's in the middle of the pack. The writing is good, but the style was a little odd. I'd give it a 7. Maybe. Maybe only a 6. It's one of those damn with faint praise tomes. You know, "I've read worse." Would I recommend it to other readers? Only if they're as OCD as I am about reading (or at least attempting to read) all the Pulitzer Price fiction winners.

Next up on the list: Beloved by Toni Morrison. The L'Anse library actually has a copy on the shelves. Granted, it is the large print edition but at least it's there. No Interlibrary Loan for a change. And, given that this is another novel that gets described as "seminal," I'm hoping it turns out to be readable. Usually seminal is another way of saying "No one has read this book."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Adventures in Volunteering: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The S.O. and I spent the month of September functioning as campground hosts at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This was our second time at the Hurricane River Campground, which made the whole experience much smoother than the previous year. We knew exactly what we were getting into. The biggest mystery was what type of attagirl swag we'd get at the end of the month. Turned out to be coffee cups,  a whistle that can double as a key ring, and stickers. Last year we got baseball caps, lapel pins, and stickers. We'd have gotten the caps again this year except we already had some. (The baseball caps actually appear on the first day as a VIP; it's part of the uniform that helps identify the camp hosts to the public.)

Among other certainties, we knew that the one phrase we were going to be uttering a lot was, "Hey, you fucking moron, don't you know what 'No Parking' means?" Well, okay, we didn't phrase it quite the way we were thinking it. What actually came out of the mouth was "Excuse me, ma'am, but this is a fire lane. You can't park here. The sign right next to your car does say 'No Parking.' Seriously. You can not park here. Yes, you have to move to the parking lot. Really. The parking lot. Yes, it does mean you'll have a longer walk to the light house. Yes, it'll turn a mile-and-a-half walk into a mile and six-tenths one way." And so it went. . . the downside to the host's camp site being right next to the Au Sable Lighthouse Trail/North Country Trail, which at that point is a gated access road to the light station. People would pull up by that gate on a regular basis and then get annoyed when they were told to move.

That whole business with people being reluctant to walk an extra 500 feet never failed to amuse me. You're planning a round-trip walk of at least three miles, not to mention the wandering around the light station grounds and maybe climbing a fairly tall tower, but you can't handle having another 2/10ths of a mile tacked on to it? Unreal. The totally predictable part, of course, is that it was generally someone who looked remarkably fit who was reluctant to do any extra walking. The ancient old ladies dragging oxygen bottles and pushing walkers never complained. They just headed up the road with a determined look and came back a few hours later still with a spring in their step, sort of. Or as much of a spring in their step as anyone who looked like a relative of the Crypt Keeper could manage.
Au Sable Lighthouse Trail. People loved to park right in front of the gate (which has a no parking sign on it) or right next to the No Parking sign on a post to the left in the photo. 

I wasn't the only one who noticed that the geezers weren't fazed while the young dudes who looked like gym rats would be collapsing from exhaustion. One of the interpretive rangers who worked at the light station told me he regularly had ostensibly fit young people asking about a shuttle service back to the parking lot while the senior citizens just smiled and kept on truckin'. More proof looks can be deceiving -- just because someone looks healthy doesn't mean they are and vice versa.
Ever wonder just exactly what a brick shithouse would look like? Wonder no more. The Au Sable Light Station has two, one of which is in this photo. It's the small structure on the left. The other two small buildings are paint and oil lockers. 
Anyway. Pictured Rocks. Hurricane River. Wrote about both before but that's not going to stop me from nattering on a third time. Hurricane River is a small campground with a total of a mere 22 sites (including the host's). It is a true campground, completely basic, no amenities other than fairly new vault toilets and a source for potable water. There is a well with a solar-powered pump so people can fill containers. The sites in general are nicely laid out and are great for tent camping. For RV campers, though, probably not so much. The parking pads tend to be narrow even when they're long enough so anyone with slides could have issues. Most of the sites have the added issue of not being particularly level. I know with the Guppy the S.O. had to put a fair amount of blocking under the right rear wheels.
It's not obvious from this photo, but this is a great site in the lower loop for tent camping. It opens up a lot past the parking pad -- lots of space for a tent, a sun/rain canopy over the picnic table, nice fire ring, and lots of trees to screen you from the other camp sites. For an RV, though? Marginal for anything bigger than a Class B. The narrow pad has a distinct slope. 
We did not see many RVs this year, definitely fewer than last year.  Most campers used tents. For those who had an RV of any sort, the micro teardrop trailers seemed to be the most popular piece of equipment with pop-ups and Class Bs a close second, particularly on the lower loop. The upper loop is better suited for larger travel trailers and motorhomes, and we did see a fair number of both up there. The most astounding was probably a 40-foot Class A. They did manage to pick the one site in the loop that is  the easiest to back into, but that was probably sheer dumb luck and not planning. We heard from some locals that they had encountered that same Class A when its GPS sent it down an ATV trail instead of the county highway. They came into the campground to see if the people had managed to find Hurricane River after they'd told the driver how to get back to a real road.
Found at one of the camp sites. It had a cute little saying on the back. I threw it in the trash. Painted rocks, cute or not, are litter and in the same class as discarded water bottles and other debris. They violate the Leave No Trace ethic. 
We also saw a huge 5th wheel in the upper loop. They weren't as lucky as the Class A. We could tell from the tracks in the dirt that it had taken the driver multiple tries to get the trailer where it needed to go -- it was a very tight turn with a couple of rather large trees on either side of the parking pad. Never did see the owners when we were making our regular patrols through the loops. If I had, I'd have been tempted to ask them just how much K-Y they'd had to use to get the trailer on to the site.
Beelzebub napping in the Guppy. I wasn't sure how he'd take to being stuck in a space that small, but it turned out mice had moved in sometime in late August. He found ways to amuse himself. The mice did not have as a good a time. 
There had been changes at the park. Dogs are now allowed on the lighthouse trail. Last year they weren't so we were in the uncomfortable position of telling people if/when we spotted someone with a dog that they had to take the beast back to their car. I have some thoughts about the folks who want their dogs to accompany them everywhere they go -- I don't think it's such a hot idea to be walking a dog anyplace that's both crowded and has a lot of other dogs around because no matter how behaved your beast is you never know if some other idiot has Cujo on an inadequate leash. (Small digression: we were at Tahquamenon Falls on Labor Day and witnessed a couple walking a large dog that snapped and growled at every other dog it saw and almost bit a kid. That dog definitely should not have been in a state park on a super busy day.) But if the Park Service has decided dogs are now allowed on trails where they weren't before, I'm going to be quietly relieved that's one less thing I'm required to nag people about.

The S.O. working hard at camp hosting.
Another huge change is the park went to all campsites being available by reservation only. It is a real-time system. If you come to the campground and think a site might be available, you can get on the Internet, go to, check on the site, and pay for it immediately. I talked with campers who had reserved their site while stopped at the Grand Sable Visitor Center 20 minutes before arriving at the campground.

I think it's a great system. No questions about whether or not a site is available, no having to get to the campground super early in the hopes that someone is leaving. And no one cheating NPS by failing to put money into the envelope like they did back when camping was first come, first served and payment was on the honor system. We heard a few complaints from people who didn't realize it was now reservation only until after they arrived at the park, but considering the campground was close to 100% occupancy until the last few days of the month I'd say most people had done their research. I know one annoyance is now gone -- the large number of cars and trucks coming into the campground and circling repeatedly hoping to see that someone has vacated a site.
Hurricane River flowing straight out, at least for a day or two. 
We did have one site where people managed to completely ignore the multiple signs all saying camping was by reservation only and set up on a site. I had to give them the bad news the site was reserved by someone else and they had to take all their stuff down and leave. They weren't happy, but they complied without much argument. As camp hosts, we received a report each morning listing the names of incoming campers. It helped. Except for that one incident we didn't have anyone trying to squat on a reserved site, but it was still reassuring to be able to do random spot checks to make sure people belonged there. And for sure it helped a lot to have a clipboard in my hand with a multi-page printout as I told the unauthorized campers that if their names weren't on the printout they were SOL on that particular site. If they were lucky, the state forest campground a few miles down the highway had space -- and all state forest campgrounds are still walk-in, first-come, first-serve. (Michigan state parks do use a reservation system, but they also have staff on-site and offer more amenities than the campgrounds.)

One first this time around was people wanting to park vehicles on the tent pads. Had one guy who had one of those nifty tents that's mounted on the box of a pickup position his truck right on the tent pad -- his reasoning was that it was the one level space. True, but he was lucky he didn't get stuck. Tent pads are designed to be comparatively soft. They're periodically maintained to keep the dirt from becoming too compacted. Another dude backed his pop-up camper onto a tent pad using the same reasoning: the pad is level. Given that he was already on one of the flattest sites in the campground, I wasn't real sympathetic. Pop-ups are remarkably easy to level almost anywhere. I gave him the speech about never parking on a tent pad because they're soft and you can easily get stuck, too. I doubt if it registered.

We did tell the park we'd be happy to come back next year. September is a great time to be at Pictured Rocks. The bugs are gone -- Hurricane River would be an obvious mecca for mosquitoes and biting stable flies in the hotter months; there's a lot of swamp around it -- and the weather has that nifty crisp feel to it. When the sun shines, the sky is an incredible shade of blue and so is the Lake. And when it's rainy and the wind is blowing, the wave action on the Lake is nicely dramatic. Large waves always mean getting to play the "which way will the river flow out now?" game. The mouth of the Hurricane River changed on an almost daily basis. Sometimes it went straight out, sometimes it swung west, sometimes it swung east, and on at least once occasion it split: long sand bar right in the middle and the river going around it. You know life is good when the biggest question each day is which way is the river flowing now?