Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pulitzer Project: A Thousand Acres

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992. The good news is Smiley can write. You get sucked into the book. The writing flows. My usual goal is to do at least 50 pages a night. With A Thousand Acres I'd be reading along, not paying any attention to the time, glance at a page number and realize I'd slid past 50 pages and was nearing 100+. Then I'd look at the clock and realize how late it was getting. 

So what's the bad news, you ask? Well, for a start if you do any Googling for information on this book the first thing you will read is a statement warning you Smiley's A Thousand Acres takes Shakespeare's King Lear and sets it on a farm in Iowa. Anytime someone decides to use a Shakespearean tragedy as inspiration you know the end result is not going to be a happy one. There will be suffering, there will be death, and in the end you'll find yourself wishing you'd reached for something a little more upbeat at the library, like Crime and Punishment or The Metamorphosis. 

Just to be sure no one misses the connection with King Lear, Smiley gives the three daughters in the novel names that echo the three in the play. Instead of Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, we're introduced to Rose, Ginny, and Carolyn. Just as in the play, the two older daughters spend their time agreeing with whatever their father suggests while the youngest questions the old man's decisions and judgement. 

Rose and Ginny stayed on the family farm even after marriage (their husbands moved to the farm rather than the women moving to where the spouses might have preferred to live). They've been unpaid housekeepers for their aging father since their teenage years, which is when their mother died, and have figured out the easiest way to deal with their father is to keep their mouths shut and let him do what he wants. If he drinks too much and drives while intoxicated, well, they're not happy about it but they refuse to do anything. If he goes on a spending spree and buys new furniture for no apparent reason, they'll just sit back and let him do it. 

Carolyn, on the other hand, is enough younger that she never fell into the acting as a live-in maid trap her sisters did. She also missed on some of the truly bad stuff that happened when her mother died but doesn't realize just how much her sisters protected her from the worst dysfunction. She left home for college and never came back except to visit. She's now an attorney living in Des Moines and sees the farm and her father in a very different way than her sisters. Her reaction to her father's odd or self-destructive behavior is to lecture Rose and Ginny on the need to keep an eye on the old man and to stop him from doing the stuff he does. Carolyn is clueless as to why her sisters are so passive, and of course they're never going to tell her. Among other things, if they did, it would torpedo Smiley's plot long before she got to her planned ending. Readers may mutter, "What the. . .?" but once an author has committed to an outline, the dominoes have to keep falling. 

As the novel progresses, Smiley throws in an ever growing list of bad things happening: marital infidelity, unrequited love, attempted murder, tragic accidents, child abuse and incest revealed after decades of denial, divorce, corporate greed, bad advice from bankers, foreclosures, auctions. Yes, the play that was the inspiration was full of bad stuff, too, but the litany of woes in A Thousand Acres turns a bit ridiculous by the time you get to the end. You name it, it's there. But you keep right on reading because Smiley can write.  

Bottom line on the book: it is extremely readable, it's well written and holds your interest, but let's face it, Smiley has managed to kitchen sink so many tragic elements that they risk becoming cliches -- the old man isn't just a drunk, he's a child beater! one of the sisters doesn't just resent a sibling, she plans to poison her! -- it comes close to qualifying as Iowa corn. 

The skirting so dangerously close to turning a tragedy into a farce makes it hard for me to do my usual rating on the 1 to 10 scale. It's good, but it's definitely not great. A six maybe? Slightly better than average, but not up near the high end.

Next up: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Butler Olen. The online catalog describes it as a collection of short stories so it will be a change from the usual novels. It will, of course, be another Interlibrary Loan request. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

I need a timeout from the Intertubes

I managed to get myself blocked for being a little too bluntly honest in a local buy/sell/trade group on Facebook. I can still see posts and message sellers directly, but can't do public comments. Which is probably a good thing. Some people have watched far too many episodes of "Flea Market Flip" or perused the recycling photos on Pinterest because, holy wah, they're peddling some bad DIY. I'd managed to restrain myself most of the time, just scrolled past the most horrible examples, the pieces of beaver puke (aka MDF)(medium density fiberboard) someone actually wasted time refinishing, but a mutilated 1930's vanity triggered me the other day.

I guess I can ignore it when someone is dumb enough to waste time doing chalk paint and distressing a cheap dresser that is no more real wood than I'm Meryl Streep, but when it was something I knew had been actual furniture once? I couldn't restrain myself. It was the ugliest example of DIY I'd seen in a long time, and I said so. 

No doubt the original veneer had been shot long ago, gouged up beyond the hope of a decent repair, but that still didn't excuse the battleship (or possibly automobile primer) gray or the not original drawer pulls that were massively out of proportion for the piece. The seller referred to it as dresser, but it wasn't, which makes it no surprise she totally botched the repurposing. It was an art deco vanity. At one time it apparently had a mirror, which no longer existed, but there was a chunk of plywood with some oddly spaced shelves and a whole lot of clutter on them attached where the mirror once lived. It was weird. It was ugly. It was sad because it could have been cute. With a less weird color choice and better staging it would have been easily marketable as a fun piece for a kid's room. 

But, nope, it was just crap. 

Photo is of a vanity similar in style to the one that got mutilated. Now try picturing it in matte gray primer. I felt you all flinch, gentle readers. The thought is indeed painful. 

In any case, asking the seller why she'd turned it into a giant gray fungus was probably a mistake. The comments section turned nasty. The seller apparently has a posse who are quite happy to heap praise on her for mediocre work. Either that, or they have as little aesthetic sensibility as the furniture mutilator does because they kept insisting it was "cute." Nope. It looked like an old piece of furniture someone had pulled out of their grandparents house and had been using for storage in the garage for 20 or 30 years. Solid, but not exactly something to hype.  

The comments sections on various buy/sell/trade posts do have a tendency to turn into flame wars. I've seen some remarkably obscene comments about buyers, sellers, and products. I do not envy the admin. Then again, she can't even manage to get people to pay attention to the fact that group is supposed to be "no clothes," but every other post seems to be someone hawking their kids' slightly stained, torn, whatever garments. 

The site also amuses me by the way folks under the age of 30 refer to anything that was sold before they graduated from high school as an "antique" or "rare." Right. You inherited a mass produced beaver puke Sauder bookcase your parents bought at Kmart in the early 80s. It's not an antique, and for sure it's not rare. But that's a subject for another time. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

It finally happened

Someone I know, a person who was not a nursing home resident and not known to have serious comorbidities has died from a COVID-19 infection. He wasn't the first person I've known who's been done in by COVID, but he was the first who didn't fit that nice cozy "it's only old people who were super close to taking dirt naps anyway" rationalization a lot of us have been using. 

You know what I mean. "Sure, I'm not that young anymore but I'm not in a wheelchair. I'm not in a nursing home. I don't have comorbidities like asthma or diabetes or high blood pressure or COPD. I am reasonably physically fit." Translation: "Screw following the guidelines. I'll be fine." 

You see the articles in the paper about how many people coughed their last at the local nursing home but you think, well, it's sad that so-and-so died, but he was in his 90's. If it hadn't been COVID, it would have been the flu real soon. It's sad but it's not real. I know when I heard that the lady who was the Older Daughter's Head Start teacher died from COVID at the nursing home, I was saddened but not shocked -- she was an octogenarian so my initial reaction was more along the lines of "she was still alive?" than to think about corona virus. 

Which makes it easy to get sloppy with social distancing and mask wearing and all the other precautions we should all be taking because although we all might be tired of thinking about the virus, it's obviously not tired of messing with us. 

My recently deceased acquaintance, the one who was not a nursing home resident, was physically fit, still working full time, and, in the overall scheme of things, not that old. Getting close to retirement, sure, but definitely still in the category of being confident enough to buy green bananas. And for sure he was younger than me and the S.O. 

For the past few weeks, our local paper has had to do a two page spread to get all the obits in. Not all the obits include cause of death, but when the number in the paper is more than double the usual number for any time of year -- even during the height of the flu season the nursing home doesn't have patients dropping like flies -- it's pretty obvious COVID-19 has hit this area hard. I don't think I'm retiring my masks any time soon. 

Totally inappropriate digression: corona viruses certainly are attractive as viruses go. One of my co-workers at the CDC collected stuffed toys modeled on various pathogens. Some of the bacteria were kind of cute, like E. coli and salmonella, but the viruses were usually rather ugly. Ebola, for example, looks like a long, skinny turd. But COVID-19? It could be a really cute toy. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Not exactly a phone book, but close

I have occasionally opined that some best-selling authors have slid so far into everything and anything that has their name on the cover is sellable territory that their publishers could run off copies of the New York City phone book and make a killing. So far as I know, no one has tried that (yet), although I'm reasonably sure writers like Stephen King or John Grisham could pull it off. 

Well, George R. R. Martin hasn't exactly decided to print out a phone book, but he's come close. I made the mistake of paying actual money for Fire and Blood, a work set about 300 years prior to the events described in the Fire and Ice series (A Game of Thrones, A Feast for Crows, etc.). Martin fans have been waiting for what feels like forever for Martin to finish the series, although we did get a look at what it might include when the HBO series wrapped up by killing off the person way too many viewers had decided was the heroine. I wasn't one of those people -- I'd seen enough foreshadowing in the way Martin shaped Daenerys Targaryen's character and story arc to know she wasn't going to do a living happily ever after in the arms of her nephew despite the Targaryen tradition of marrying relatives. Besides, Martin is notorious for never giving anyone a happy ending.

So what's the deal with Fire and Blood? Martin has pulled off an interesting publishing coup. One of the things every author of fiction has to deal with is the back story for the characters. What happened to get that person to where they are now? Where are they from? What's the social/cultural/political context? How much of that background do you have to create in order for you as the author to get into your characters' heads and figure where they're coming from and why? How complex does that back story have to get? Can you get by with a few notes on index cards ("father went nuts and had to be killed by his own body guard") or do you end up filling notebook after notebook with complicated genealogy charts, maps of imaginary continents, speculations about how you'd tell the sex of a dragon (wait to see if it ever lays eggs?), and so on. 

Martin apparently opted for the latter approach. Mountains of notes, databases crammed with spreadsheets, long lists of vaguely Celtic sounding names to slap on the characters blessed with violet eyes. And then at some point he looked at the Everest-sized pile of paper, the mammoth backstory he'd created to help keep him straight with the Starks and the Lannisters and the Tullys and especially the Targaryens, and said, "you know, the fans keep complaining about the series not being finished. I wonder if being handed this mess would shut them up for awhile?"

I'm guessing the answer to that question is Probably Not. Or, more emphatically, No. It did not shut us up. It just gave us more material to complain about. I doubt that I'm the only person to read this book and mutter just what was the frelling point? Hundreds of pages of Targaryen trivia. 

I can see how keeping all this stuff in the background while writing the actual novels would be useful -- it's pretty clear why several centuries later why Daenerys is likely to go off the rails. It's a family tradition. For every Targaryen who turns out sane and is a competent ruler, there's another one who's a self-centered amoral psychopath. When you have a family tradition that promotes full sibling marriage, odds are multiple generations of in-breeding are going to produce some weirdness. Actually, not just some -- a lot. Lots and lots of weirdness. Infants dying young, infants born with major congenital defects, children who have rage issues or turn super promiscuous really young, children with definite sadistic tendencies. But does it occur to anyone in the Targaryen line that just like inbreeding isn't good for horses or dogs it might not work real well for people? Nope. They keep right on marrying each other. 

In short, Martin does a solid job of providing a background that explains why even a Targaryen like Daenerys who starts off looking like a hero can end up being a cold-blooded tyrant assassinated by the one person she may have loved. He's also apparently provided a lot of material for the showrunners for the HBO prequel to Game of Thrones to work with. Lots of battles, palace intrigue, dragons fighting dragons, lascivious and raunchy happenings in whorehouses and palaces. The prequel should be fun to watch.

Fire and Blood, however, is more odd than fun. There are long sections that are close to Biblical with the lists of names -- lots of begats and not much else. It's more like a summary of a novel (or novels) than it is an actual novel. I felt like I was reading an extremely long book report, an excessively wordy description of a book and not the book itself. 

On the other hand, the illustrations are nice. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Dear Trumpers: Please stop sending him money

I see The Donald held his first large rally since losing to Biden a month ago. The rally was being touted earlier this week as a campaign event to support the Republican candidates in the run-off election that could flip the Senate (sort of) and wrest the Majority Leader title away from Moscow Mitch, an outcome the Party of Trump does not want. In short, Trump's job in Georgia yesterday was to promote David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and not himself. Could he rise to the occasion?

We all know the answer. The rally meant to help the incumbent Republicans cling to their seats turned into the usual Trump "It's all about me" self-aggrandizing monologue. It was apparently one long pity party on the part of the lame duck President. He just can't let go. I'm kind of hoping he included a lot of rhetoric about rigged systems and fraud and don't bother voting because the Democrats are going to cheat and your vote won't count. If he wants to discourage Republicans from voting that's fine with me. I do, nonetheless, still wish he'd just shut up and get back to packing for the trip home to his Florida golf course. 

Please, Trumpers, stop sending him money. He's lost. He might be psychologically incapable of ever admitting in a public forum that he lost, but he lost. The states he's yelled about fraud the loudest in are all states that have Republican controlled legislatures. Those legislatures have certified the election results. They agree Joe Biden won. No fraud, no mystery suitcases full of ballots, no weirdness. Trying to read fraud into a system that functioned exactly as it is designed to do is an exercise in futility. But as long as the e-mails and tweets keep the money flowing in, he's not going to shut up and go away. 

At this point, Trump knows full well he's not going to manage to bully the courts or state legislatures or anyone else into letting him linger in the White House one second past noon on January 20. He's admitted privately that he lost. He's unhappy, depressed, definitely in a bad mood because he's gotten used to the perks of being President. I mean, what are the odds anyone at Fox & Friends is going to take an on-air call from him a few weeks from now? He's also likely about to get booted off Twitter. He'll be stuck posting on Parler and nattering on at Newsmax or One America. And, yes, he'll still have an audience, but he's going to know it's just the tinfoil hat crowd, the rubes he despises because they fall for his cons.   

So why doesn't he simply concede? Why keep pushing his legal team to pursue unwinnable cases? Well, for a start, as soon as he concedes he's admitted the election wasn't rigged. If there was no fraud, no dirty tricks, no shenanigans worth mentioning then he has no rationale for begging his die-hard fans to keep sending money. And, boy, have they been sending money. Trump's base has been believing his bullshit for over 4 years now. They've pinned all their hopes and dreams and bizarre fantasies on the Donald. In their minds, if they just send him a few more dollars, all will be well. The last I heard, he's managed to raise over $400 million with his "help me fight the fraud" pleas. A public concession means cutting off the money flow. 

Oh well. At some point the small dollar donors will be tapped out, and the richer ones will realize they're getting suckered. One millionaire donor has already filed suit to get his $2.5 million donation back because the Trump team's efforts to prove fraud are failing. Once it gets to where the fund-raising efforts are costing more than they're collecting, Trump may not concede but he should at least go silent. One can hope. 

A minor side note: one of the funnier things I've seen in comment threads on social media is the belief on the part of some Trumpers that because the Donald has not publicly conceded that he lost he can stay in the White House as long as he wants. The stupid, it burns and amuses. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Could this be the info that pushes dudes into wearing masks?

Erectile dysfunction. The dreaded ED. Having a body part that suddenly refuses to rise to the occasion. One of the long term side effects of a COVID-19 infection is apparently an unhappily flaccid penis.

This little news gem was kind of buried in a discussion of "long haulers," the people who recover from COVID-19 but do not emerge unscathed. Many people who are now recovering have found that it is taking them a long, long time to get back to some semblance of normal. Patients who never got sick enough to require hospitalization are nonetheless learning even a mild case of COVID-19 can knock you down for many months, possibly years. This is all still so new no one really knows yet just what all the long term effects might be. 

Reading that erectile dysfunction could be one of those effects didn't actually surprise me. I did do a quick literature search to confirm that the information that had been shared from a local television news broadcast was based on fact, i.e., actual research. It was, and is.  Researchers have described this as a "worrying" complication for older men, but I have a hunch younger dudes wouldn't be too thrilled with it either.

I've been seeing articles for quite awhile in which researchers posited that classifying COVID-19 as a respiratory illness similar to other causes of pneumonia is misguided. It's more accurately a cardio-vascular illness. The virus binds to the angiotensin converting enzymes (ACE) in the body; anyone who's ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure has probably been prescribed ACE inhibitors. ACE affect blood pressure regulation in the body and not in a good way, which is why ACE inhibitors exist.  (For that matter, hypertension is also the reason Viagra exists: It was developed as a treatment for high blood pressure.) 

But instead of going off on a long tangent about high blood pressure and ACE inhibitors, I'll just note that hypertension appears to be the most common comorbidity in patients diagnosed with COVID-19. Again, not much of a surprise when ACE have been identified as the virus's preferred landing spot. That, and neutrophils found primarily in nasal passages (Pull the damn mask up, moron. Every time you breathe in you're inviting viruses to colonize your body.) If you already have an over-abundance of ACE, it's the physiological equivalent of providing a nicely fertilized garden in which to sow the rutabaga seeds instead of tossing them into a gravel lot. 

Then, once it's landed and starts to replicate, COVID-19 does strange things to various organs and affects the circulatory system. Patients develop clots in capillaries; extremities (toes and fingers) end up dying from lack of blood. And maybe, just maybe, other dangling appendages. 

So do y'all think that if we started showing young dudes photos like this one and told them that if they get sick their dicks could end up looking like that, too, they'd be willing to wear face masks? 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

We're going to be wearing masks forever


This map was lifted from the New York Times and reflects data current as of yesterday. The darker the area, the higher the COVID rate. If a person looks closely, that person may notice that the county where I reside, the one I usually think of as being safely in the middle of nowhere, sports the darkest color provided. Things are not good here, and, based on my casual observations while running errands (post office, grocery shopping, and not much else), I am not optimistic about things improving any time soon. Case numbers keep climbing; so does the death rate. 

A Facebook acquaintance, someone I know out in the real world, too, but haven't seen in person for so long she's slid into being a virtual friend, commented that the recent spate of deaths didn't worry her -- she didn't know any of the people who died. News flash: it doesn't matter. Viruses are like urban legends. All it takes is a friend of a friend to pass it along. The experts are pretty well united on the way COVID-19 is traveling now is primarily community transmission. You know, someone is walking around infected but asymptomatic, that someone doesn't bother wearing a mask in the lobby at the post office or while shopping at Larry's, the virus hangs in the air (viruses are tiny; they can float around for hours before settling on surfaces), other people inhale it, and the next thing you know a dozen people who were unlucky enough to be in the store when Joe Asshole picked up his case of bad beer are now infected too. Because Joe Asshole figures he didn't need to wear a mask in a public place. Because, you know, Freedom. 

A small digression: I have absolutely no idea why the public health community spent so much time telling us all to wash our hands and be careful about what we touched when COVID-19 is so clearly airborne. The virus enters the body through respiration; it spreads when you cough, sneeze, or simply exhale. Airborne. Masking was (and is) a whole lot more important than bathing in Purell. Hand washing and sanitation are important, but I think they got emphasized at the cost of not making the masks seem as important as they are. I'd read descriptions of super spreader events and wonder again why the experts weren't laying it on thick about airborne infections. I mean, when you have half the people at a choir practice getting sick did the epidemiologists seriously believe that the victims all contracted the illness from touching a restroom door handle? 

In any case, those of us who do worry enough to keep wearing face masks might as well brace ourselves for another six or seven months minimum of doing so. Yes, I know there is hope a vaccine (or vaccines) will be out in December. But what are the odds it's going to reach the average person quickly? It took me three trips to the Houghton Walgreens to get a flu shot; the first two times they were sold out. How fast and easy can we realistically expect obtaining a COVID vaccine to be? The answer is probably "not very." 

I'm not the only pessimist drifting around who thinks some of the euphoria over vaccine breakthroughs is a tad premature. Tony Fauci doesn't think we'll be back to a possibly maskless society until sometime next fall, like maybe the last quarter of 2021. By then masks may have moved securely into one of those fashion accessories you don without thinking, like gloves in the winter. 

Last spring the Younger Daughter and I were talking about the then very novel pandemic. I told her the way things were going (and this was back in April) that COVID-19 was going to move from being epidemic to being endemic. It was going to make a first pass through the population, pick off the most vulnerable, subside, and then come back and do it again: knock off the most vulnerable persons, subside, and then do it again. Each time around the death rate would be lower, not necessarily because we'd have gotten better at treating it but because there were fewer vulnerable people. 

At the time, this pattern (aka seasonality) was a hot topic on the Sirius XM channel I could hear for free in the Focus. (I let my Sirius subscription lapse because I didn't spend enough time in the car to make it worth it, but when the pandemic hit Sirius opened up a few public interest channels.)  I'd shelter in the shade of the Sparklight pole at the Graham County Fairgrounds, wander around the Intertubes on my notebook, and listen to various medical experts talk about COVID. Seasonality, a pattern of surging at certain times of the year, was seen as a definite possibility. My thought was it would resemble seasonal influenza: hit hard in the cold weather months, make whole bunches of people sick, bump up the death rates in nursing homes, and then go away for a few months. 

Is that what's actually going to happen? I have no clue. It's equally likely the virus could decide to be like the Spanish flu, the strain of influenza that caused a global pandemic at the end of World War I. That flu hit hard in 1918 and 1919 and then seemingly disappeared. The winter of 2020-2021 could be the last one where we worry about this particular corona virus. You never know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Irony in action?

Back when we were still sheltering in place in Arizona the S.O. noticed the Focus had a minor vibration in the front end. It wasn't bad, really only noticed it at highway speeds, but it was there. We'd been talking about investing in new tires but decided it would be good to first figure what was causing the vibration. After all, depending on what it was it could cause the tires to wear unevenly. So he tried tracking down the problem. No luck. 

I wasn't keen on the idea of driving the Focus the 2000 miles back to Michigan either on almost bald tires or with a mystery shimmy, but then the Guppy died. We wound up renting a U-Haul and tow dolly to get home. If we'd had the Guppy we would have convoyed. Dragging the Focus instead of driving it meant we acquired more procrastination time. Every so often this summer the S.O. would talk about bringing the Focus over to the neighbor's (a person who was a professional mechanic for many years and has an actual lift in his garage so it would be possible to get a real look at the various pieces and parts hiding under the car, the stuff that can be hard to get a clear look at with just jack stands) but it didn't happen. 

Then Winter hit. Doing local driving on Italian racing slicks didn't bother us much when the pavement was bare, but once it started icing up? Not as much fun, especially on days when the infamous "wintry mix" was falling. So the S.O. coordinated with the neighbor on a good time to bring the car over. They put it up on the lift, did multiple things to do it, and totally failed at finding a mechanical problem. The expert's advice? Keep driving it until it gets worse and then maybe we'll be able to figure it out. 

That meant suppressing any qualms we had about uneven tire wear. Yesterday afternoon found us in Marquette at Mr. Tire enjoying a "contactless" transaction. No sitting in the showroom sipping bad coffee. Instead we got to sit in the car while the tires were changed, which was interesting in itself, watching the guys in constant motion (four guys in the service area plus the manager and they did not get a whole lot of breathing time -- as soon as one car left, another was pulled in). It didn't take long and we were on our way. 

First thing the S.O. noticed was the annoying vibration seems to be gone. After putting over 70 miles on the car coming home, it appears the vibration never was mechanical. It was one of the tires. 

I guess the up side is we're now heading in to winter with brand new tires instead of ones with several thousand miles of wear on them, but it's still a bit annoying to realize we spent six months wondering how much hassle it was going to be to repair the front end when it appears it never needed fixing at all. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Pulitzer Project: Rabbit At Rest

Life is too short to waste reading bad books. 

I was so thoroughly repelled by John Updike's character of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in Rabbit is Rich that I really had no desire to dip into a final chapter in the man's life, even if it did hold out the promise of Rabbit taking a dirt nap at some point. However, as part of the self-imposed task I've given myself, if I'm going to read every work of fiction that the Pulitzer Prize committee has chosen to honor I have to at least made a good faith effort to actually read every work. No picking a book up, skimming a page or two at the library, and rejecting it instead of checking it out. 

Of the Pulitzer winners I've bailed on to date, I gave up on one from the 1930's (The Store) because the hideously racist terminology got to be too much for even me, I gave up on The Color Purple because the writing was really bad, and I bailed on Rabbit is Rich because Updike managed to create a character who made Harvey Weinstein look like a feminist in comparison and then topped that by having that character be so repellant with the descriptions of connubial relations that suddenly a lifetime of abstinence was looking good. And now I've bailed on Rabbit Angstrom again because he has not improved with age. 

I do have a small rule of thumb: I give each book 50 pages to convince me it's worth continuing. I think Rabbit at Rest had me thinking "why am I doing this?" long before that, but I stuck with it. I'm not sure why, other than a faint sense of guilt that the library had to get it through Interlibrary Loan and it would be a waste to not try to read it. 

The weird part is Updike can actually write. He's good with words. His books get rave reviews on sites like Good Reads. He manages to turn some lovely phrases, and every so often comes out with a sentence that sings. I do recall reading other work by him and liking it, including, if I recall correctly, short stories featuring Rabbit. 

Unfortunately, for me Updike's skill as a wordsmith is not enough to redeem Rabbit, who I tend to visualize as a Herb Tarleck type, someone not too bright and borderline sleazy in a bad suit. Way too much space in Rabbit's head, the internal monologue the reader is stuck seeing, is occupied by anti-Semitism, racism, crass materialism, and a general dislike of most of the world around him, including his son and heir, Nelson. I saw a review that described Rabbit as coming to terms with his mortality. I'm not sure the reviewer read the same book I did. If anything, Rabbit's in denial about the fact the chest pains he's feeling are angina. If Rabbit were a real person now you just know he'd be wearing a MAGA hat and denouncing Michelle Obama for having the nerve to suggest healthy foods are good for people. 

Actually, that's not quite true. He wouldn't wear the hat but he would share racist tweets on Facebook. He'd be scornful of the rubes wearing the MAGA hats while he quietly sent money to the Trump campaign and told his daughter-in-law that any woman who got grabbed by the genitals had asked for it. He'd see the con and think it was genius. He'd love Trump because Trump made it clear he disliked the same people Rabbit does. 

General conclusions about Rabbit at Rest? Avoid it. The writing is skillful but the subtext is repellant. 

Next up? A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Interlibrary Loan again, of course. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Republicans did it to themselves

The S.O. and I were watching "Real Time" last night. It had been quite a few months since we'd seen either Maher or the show, but I was curious. Maher has a knack for annoying the hell out of me.* I was, however, curious to hear what he had to say about The Donald being stuck in the denial stage of grief. 

Turned out his interview guest was a youngish woman, a blonde (of course) and a lawyer who works for the Trump campaign. She was like a human parrot. She had one talking point nailed down and did not want to let go of it: legal votes. Only the legal votes matter. And of course the Trump campaign is going to be vindicated in court. Maher kept pointing out they'd lost every challenge they'd made, had basically been laughed at or reprimanded by judges, but she was like a broken record. I really hope she's gotten paid (Trump is notorious for stiffing the help) because she earned her rubles. She was unshakeable. Legal votes, got to count all the legal votes.

Bad news for Trump, of course. So far the number of "illegal" votes found, the apparently incredibly rare  invalid ballots, can be basically counted on one hand. In Pennsylvania the Trump team had hyperventilated about a postal worker saying that the postmarks on some absentee ballots had been altered to make them look like they'd been postmarked by November 3. When investigators  spoke with the man he admitted he lied, and in any event the incident would have affected two ballots. You got it. Two. As in "one, two, buckle my shoe." Biden carried the state by something like 50,000 votes. Even if those two ballots had been tossed out, I don't think he was in any danger of losing the state. 

In Nevada the Republicans produced a list of people who were not physically living in the state but voted absentee. The Trumpers screamed fraud. Turned out the list was mostly members of the military whose permanent residence is in Nevada but who are currently stationed elsewhere. So basically Trump's minions were attempting to nullify votes cast by members of the armed services. Kind of an interesting way to thank men and women for their service -- cancel their votes -- but not surprising given the heavy whiff of desperation reeking out of the White House at the moment. 

In Georgia the Republicans tried to claim dead people had voted and provided an example of a man who died a number of years ago. Turned out that once again they were sloppy in their research. The person who voted was the man's widow, a lady in her 90s who is sufficiently old fashioned that she is registered to vote as "Mrs. James. . ." That's what on her ID, and it's how she signed her ballot because the law is clear that the signatures need to match. An interesting side note was the video clip: this elderly white woman made it clear that she didn't vote for Biden; she voted against "the other one." Apparently even some elderly white Southerners have relegated Trump into the category of he-who-must-not-be-named. 

I could go on, but as usual I've done a long intro to a slightly different subject. Totally predictable consequences. Beginning quite awhile ago, the Republicans started beating the drum about voter fraud and people voting who weren't legally eligible to vote: noncitizens mostly. They pushed hard to get voter ID laws passed, and, along with the ID requirements, started making it as difficult as possible to get the paperwork required to get an acceptable ID card. 

When this first began happening, various outraged activists made a lot of noise protesting the suppression tactics. They complained loud and long. They pursued litigation. Eventually, however, some commonsense penetrated. They continued to talk loud and long about voter suppression, but they figured out that if they wanted everyone to be able to vote they had to work inside the rules. So they began helping potential voters navigate the system, get the ID they needed, and get registered to vote. They organized shuttle services to get people to the polls on election day, they went door to door working on educating people about how the system worked. A couple years ago, Brian Kemp was able to manipulate the results of the Georgia governor's election by doing a purge of the voter rolls. This year activists were proactive -- they made sure potential voters would be safe from a repeat purge. I saw enough reminders on social media that I know similar efforts were happening nationwide. 

End result? The Republican party spent 20 years working on making it difficult for people to vote. They made it  close to impossible for anyone who was not a legal voter (e.g., not a citizen) to cast a ballot. Their assumption, obviously, was they'd eliminate the riff raff and only the right type of voter would vote, i.e, white people. 

This year their efforts to guarantee the voting system was secure came back to bite them. Having put a ton of roadblocks in the way -- picture IDs at the polls, only certain types of IDs accepted, really tight inspection of absentee ballots, etc. -- they wound up with an election where voters were prepared with the right type of IDs, complied with the rules for registering to vote, and had made sure they did everything required for either submitting an absentee ballot or voting in person. End result? An election that an obscure office within the Department of Homeland Security (Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council ) has declared was the cleanest, least problematic election in U.S. history. No fraud, no hacking, no weirdness. Republicans wanted a secure, safe election system. They got one. Good work, dudes. Too bad the populace didn't vote the way you wanted them to. 

*Last night was no exception. I did spend a fair amount of energy yelling at the television and calling Maher an idiot for his buy-in on the corporatist/centrist line that Americans won't vote for progressives. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Life goes on

 I went into town recently to put in a few hours at the museum cheerfully communing with PastPerfect, The current cataloguing task is to inventory and scan the gazillion photos stashed in a decent sized Rubbermaid tote. Not sure how many photos there are total, but it's a lot. There's everything from turn of the century (as in the beginning of the 20th, not the end) cabinet cards to fairly recent color snapshots. 

Most, of course, have no labels whatsoever. No dates, no names, no information on where the photo came from. And, of course, there are a lot of snapshots taken by people who were apparently the world's worst amateur photographers: out of focus or so poorly composed (groups of people where all you see are their backs, for example) that they're worthless. The trash can is filling fast. 

On the positive side, every photo that hits the trash is one less to scan. The scanner is not noted for its speed. 

I do know why some of the photos have no labels. At the time they were donated, the museum still had members who knew exactly who everyone was and where the pictures were taken. They forgot no one lives forever so almost none of that information got written down. End result 20 or 30 years later? Stuff gets tossed. Not everything, of course, even if it is unlabeled. Street scenes where the location is obvious, like parades in L'Anse or Baraga, even if the date isn't known because we can come up with approximations based on what businesses are where or figuring out the model years for any vehicles that are included. Now when there are parades they don't allow on street parking but that wasn't always true.  

There was one photo in the stash that intrigued me. Wasn't exactly sure at first glance where the building was, but the year is obvious: 1964. Struck me as an interesting coincidence that as we're hearing about one candidate losing I stumbled across a photo for another. 

I wasn't old enough to vote yet so don't remember much about that election year. The only politics that interested me in 1964 were purely local: a referendum on consolidating two school districts. The district I was in lost: the result was based on total votes in favor regardless of how the individual district's totals added up. The Saxon district was small and rural and overwhelmingly rejected consolidation; Hurley was an actual small city with a lot more warm bodies and for some reason favored it. Not sure why -- a friend who was on the school board in the early '80s told me Hurley was still stuck paying Saxon's debts for the bond issued for a new gymnasium in about 1960. In any case, I went from being one student in a class of nine to being one student in a class of (I think) 131. It was. . . interesting. 

As for Goldwater, his run for the Presidency briefly interrupted his Senate career. He'd served two terms, could not run for the Senate again while also being on the ballot for President, so wound up taking a 4-year break. He then went back to the Senate for three more terms. By today's Republican party standards, his positions would be anathema: he supported abortion rights, thought gays should be allowed to serve in the military, and firmly believed religion had no place in politics.  

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Living in interesting times


A second morning of waking up and learning that the dumpster fire is still burning, the shit show continues, and legions of lawyers are going to be shopping for Lamborghinis and Bentleys in 2021*. No doubt the Russians and Chinese along with the rest of the world are cheerfully laughing their collective asses off. They say karma can be a bitch. The United States has spent the decades since World War II ended going around the planet lecturing everyone on the right type of government and touting the benefits of democracy, and yet here we are. . . with a wannabe dictator, an aspiring Pinochet or Franco, refusing to follow the rules while busily inciting his acolytes to disrupt normal democratic (as in democracy in action, not the political party) procedures. 

The Donald is pissed that the results of counting absentee ballots are not going in his favor so he's got to cast doubt on the whole procedure. Once again, instead of behaving like a statesman and trying to unite the country he's doing his spoiled 8-year-old throwing a tantrum routine. (A slight digression. I think that's the worst thing about Trump. He doesn't just behave like a spoiled 8 year old, he encourages his followers to behave the same way:  loud, obnoxious, and generally like little kids who are upset no one's telling them how special they are.) 

For anyone who's spent much time observing The Donald in action this is no surprise. We all knew it was coming. He's been using melodrama and chicanery to sustain his businesses and his image his entire adult life. He's always been, as the saying goes, all hat and no cattle. Why so many people bought the snake oil he peddled has always baffled me. Multiple bankruptcies, including having casinos go bankrupt? The man is supposedly a billionaire but he couldn't make money running a casino? 

The S.O. likes to tell the story of how back in the '80s when he was on a traveling crew with Lockheed Support Systems (they did modifications and inspections of military aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters) he spent several weeks working at the airport near Newburgh, New York. The Donald stored his private jet there. The airport authority impounded Trump's plane because he didn't pay the hanger fees. The man was supposedly a successful incredibly wealthy man but he couldn't afford to pay the rent where he stashed his plane. Think about it. If you scale it down to the level of the ordinary working person, it's like having your car booted because you were short a couple nickels for the parking meter. 

Then when you look at his litigation record -- the quite literally thousands of lawsuits generated because Trump refused to pay his bills. Either he'd try to weasel out of a debt by filing suit claiming work was done improperly or never completed or contractors would sue him trying to get paid for construction work. Instead of simply figuring out how to pay his bills, he spent inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to screw people over. 

Trump was pretty successful at selling the image, though. I've been reading Fear, a book that looks at the 2016 campaign and first year or so of the Trump administration. Trump had made a big deal in speeches about not needing outside money, he'd totally finance his run for President himself. Turned out to be total bullshit, but the Republican party insiders bought it. Even Steve Bannon fell for the con. Then when they actually had to ask Trump for money for advertising he stalled and stalled and finally Jared Kushner admitted to Bannon that the Donald didn't actually have much access to ready cash. The supposed multi-billionaire couldn't afford to cough up $10 million for last minute ads. Bottom line: if the media hadn't given Trump a zillion dollars of free advertising with their nonstop fawning over him, his whole campaign would have crashed and burned early in the game. Just like everyone else, the news media got suckered by the entertainment value.

The S.O. has been muttering a lot lately about not understanding how anyone could still be a Trump supporter. Well, it's not a mystery to me. Most people are what pundits like to call "low information voters." The American populace used to be fairly well informed. As a people, we read a lot. Books, magazines, you name it. It was a rare household where no one at least read a daily newspaper. There were multiple publications for men, women, children, you name it. There were multiple news magazines, general interest publications, specialized magazines, etc. And then we as a people got seduced by electronic diversions and decided we'd rather be entertained than actually know anything. So when we saw a scripted "reality" show we believed Trump knew what he was doing instead of realizing the producers laid out the story line. According to the show's creator, Trump's only role was to look successful - he had no actual input into how the contestants were evaluated. He may have gotten to say "You're fired" but he didn't decide who he said it to. It was a role, not reality. Nonetheless, the image of the successful billionaire was thoroughly burnt into America's collective consciousness.  

Although, to be honest, I think the American educational system can take a big chunk of the blame for how easily we can be conned. It spends years training kids to be sheep (shut up and do what authority figures tell you to do) and then we wonder why they're so gullible and willing to believe any weird piece of garbage a friend shares with them on social media. Critical thinking isn't emphasized a whole lot. I have encountered teachers who do actively encourage curiosity and questioning, but not many. In terms of classroom management it's a lot easier to do memorize and puke it back than spend much time on discussion and thinking. 

Anyway, circling back to the subject of ballot counting, just heard a Republican cheerfully lying his ass off about the ballot counting in Michigan. The Trump representatives are claiming that their poll watchers were positioned too far away from the ballots being counted to be able to observe what was on the ballot, implying the ballots were being individually read and tallied by the election workers. You know, the worker would look at the ballot, see what was marked, and then tally that. Total bullshit. The ballots are opscan sheets. The poll workers took the ballots, unfolded them, and slid them into a scanning machine. Any tallies were done totally by machine, not humans, so it doesn't matter at all where the watchers were standing. That type of line is total b.s. intended just to throw doubt on the process. The assumption the Republican spokesperson is makng is that most people won't realize what a Michigan absentee ballot looks like (it's the exact same ballot as the one you get handed at the polls if you voted in person) or how they're counted (the same way the regular ones are). 

And, just like everyone with two brain cells to rub together predicted, in Arizona where the vote is now really close and Biden's lead has narrowed, Trump is demanding loudly that every vote get counted but in Pennsylvania where things are leaning more toward Biden he's screaming there's fraud and shut the count down now. I am so tired of the melodrama, but I just heard the depressing news that Pennsylvania might take another 3 or 4 days to resolve. 

On that note, I'm going to step away from the computer and go hide in the Woman Cave for the rest of the day. 

*At least the ones working for Biden will be able to car shop. Anyone representing Trump had better get their fees in advance or look forward to spending years in court trying to collect from him.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

When will I learn?

 It doesn’t pay sometimes to re-read books even when those books were penned by a favorite author. 

I am, for example, a huge fan of John Sandford’s writing. It’s quite possible I’ve read every work of fiction he’s published. Sandford is one of those rare authors where I’m even willing to suppress my distaste for crowds and get in line for book signings or a scheduled talk at a book festival. (The Younger Daughter said she didn’t realize authors had groupies until she saw me mesmerized by Sandford at the Tucson Book Festival a couple years ago. She likes Sandford’s books, too, but apparently not quite as much as her mother.)

I like Sandford because besides being a great story teller he gets stuff right. He does actual research. When he describes one of his characters speeding to a crime scene in Minnesota, he’s accurate in how long it takes to get from someplace like Marshall to up by Ely. His descriptions of topography are spot-on, too. No weirdness that can knock you out of being focused on the story to thinking, “What the. . .? That’s would be a 4 hour drive under ideal conditions. Why does the author describe him as doing it in 20 minutes?” I loved Tony Hillerman’s books, but have to admit his compressing a hundred-plus miles on the Navajo nation into trips you could do in no time at all annoyed the crap out of me. Even when a person is reading fiction, the reader wants to the background to feel right.

Which brings me to the latest revelation that one of my idols isn’t perfect. I hit kind of a dry spell for reading material and decided to re-read the first book in Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series, Dark of the Moon. First thing that hits me is a continuity error. I want to know exactly when Virgil’s father switched denominations. In later books in the series, Virgil’s minister father is Lutheran. In Dark of the Moon he’s Presbyterian.

Okay, minor point. As the series progressed Sandford probably unconsciously decided that Lutheran made more sense in thoroughly Scandinavian Minnesota, which we all know is full of Norwegian bachelor farmers and church suppers at which dual purpose Jello molds (if there’s Cool Whip it’s a dessert; if there’s Miracle Whip it’s a salad) dominate the menu. Pastor Flowers is a minor character, a side note in the series overall scheme of things, so Sandford’s copy editor didn’t catch it in subsequent works. No big deal.

And then another character’s name caught my eye, and I cannot unsee it. I have groused in the past about writers and their weirdness in naming their fictional people. Terry Brooks and the Shanarra chronicles full of people who sound like diseases or other health conditions (I’m still surprised none of his characters were named Dysmenorrhea), William Krueger looking at maps of Minnesota and coming up with gems like Marais Grand.

So what did Sandford do? No doubt he was drawing a blank, had another detective he had to slap a name on, and nothing was coming to him. And then he looked down at the keyboard.

Del Capslock.

Okay, so on most keyboards it’s CAPSLK, but we all know what the inspiration was. What can we expect next? Paige Down? Con Troll? 

The mind boggles. . .

Monday, October 12, 2020

Pulitzer Project: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love


I’m a little late in posting this. I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love not long after we got to Arizona last February. It was another one of the many Pulitzer Prize winning books the L’Anse library did not have in its collection, but, thanks to the wonders of online catalogs, I knew the Safford library had it on the shelves. Not long after we got parked at the Graham County Fairgrounds the Younger Daughter checked the book out for me.

It was an odd book, one of those where it’s a bit tricky trying to do a review. The writing is good, the storyline and characters interesting, but what is it with male authors and their penis fetish? As far as I could tell there was no reason to obsess about the generosity of the main character’s male endowment, the gargantuan size of his trouser snake, the impressive length and girth of the dude’s dick. Nonetheless, every time the man did a mental flashback, whether it was to his carefree days as a young man in Cuba or more recent memories of romantic encounters, the appendage in question crept into the reminiscing. It was distracting. (Note: it also makes it tricky trying to write about it without sliding into using bad puns or snickering about things popping up.)

The plot line of The Mambo Kings follows one man’s life, which as the book begins is apparently ending. Cesar Castillo is in a hotel room, comfortably ensconced with a record player, a stack of vinyl, and a generous supply of booze. It’s not clear at first that he’s come there planning to die as the flashbacks to his past are intercut with his thoughts about the present, but as his story unfolds you can tell he’s not planning to walk out of the hotel again. He’s an old man in poor health, he almost died recently while hospitalized, and he’s been told by his doctor that if he doesn’t stop drinking he will die soon. The booze supply in the hotel room makes it pretty clear he’s decided he’d rather go out pickled than live life as a frail geezer. (Note: He’s not actually terribly old by contemporary standards – early 60s maybe – but a lifetime of partying like a rock star has caught up with him.)

The records he’s brought to play while drinking himself to death are all ones from his glory days as one of the Mambo Kings, the band he and his younger brother, Nestor, formed after arriving in New York from Cuba in the mid-1950’s. They specialized in Cuban music, the songs they had grown up with and ones they composed themselves. The ‘50s were good to them. There were numerous dance clubs featuring live music so musicians could make a decent living. They recorded several albums that sold well, and, at the height of their popularity, they made a guest appearance on I Love Lucy. They played characters who were Cuban friends of Ricky Ricardo (Dezi Arnaz) and performed one of their original songs. Everything was going good for them, but of course it couldn’t last.

There were family tragedies, musical tastes changed so there were fewer and fewer paying gigs, and the Mambo Kings faded into obscurity. A man who once took center stage as a musician finds himself making a living as an apartment building maintenance superintendent. That doesn’t stop him from continuing to party hard and ignore his health – and then it catches up with him.

I have a vague memory of this book helping to revive an interest in Cuban music in the early ‘90s. Or maybe it was the movie. On a personal level, it didn’t inspire me to go searching for mambo music, but then my interest in things Cuban tends to be limited to the sandwich.

So, how would I rate this book and would I recommend it to other readers? I’ll give it an 7 – it’s on the good side of average. I might have been a little more impressed if the author hadn’t kept circling back to the size of Cesar’s cock. The author Oscar Hijuelos is Cuban himself – was he unconsciously trying to assert that Cuban men are especially virile? It was weird.

Despite that weirdness, though, I would recommend the book to other readers. The wordsmithing is good, the story overall is interesting, and, who knows, it may even inspire one to start listening to Tito Puente recordings.

Up next on the list (and I’m not looking forward to it) John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. I found Updike’s Rabbit is Rich sufficiently repellent that I couldn’t finish it. I am not optimistic about the next installment in the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But with the library open again it appears Interlibrary Loan is unavoidable.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

An Exercise in Humility

 Or, I used to think I knew how to sew.

As faithful readers (all two of you) know, I quilt. Over the years I’ve mentioned various quilting projects – machine pieced, machine appliqued, hand applique, whatever – made from typical quilting cotton, denim, and flannel. Projects have ranged in size from hot pads to king size. I thought I did a fairly decent job.

I’ve also mentioned more than once that after the S.O. and I invested in a motorhome we began volunteering as campground hosts. We’ve been hosts at both state and national parks, with my favorite being the first place we volunteered: Montauk State Park in Missouri. Montauk is possibly the most popular park in the state system and is well-known for its trout fishing. The Current River is born at Montauk where the waters from Montauk Spring and a small stream meet. I love Montauk. It’s a great park.

A couple months ago the two things – quilting and Montauk – collided. The Missouri DNR has a centennial quilt project in progress. A friend who is the current assistant park supervisor asked if I was still a quilter. I said yes. She then asked if I’d make a block for the park for the centennial quilt. Of course I said yes to that too. I quilt. So she sent me the requirements: using only 100 percent cotton fabric, create an 8-inch square block with a theme that represented the park. It could be pieced, appliqued, embroidered, or a photo transfer. In retrospect, the last listed would have been the smart thing to do – hindsight is always 20/20.

In any case, I said yes. No sweat. One 8-inch block? Piece of cake. No problem. All I had to do was come up with an appropriate theme. My first thought was to do something with the Montauk Mill. It’s a nifty historic structure, and it would likely be different from what the other fish parks would do (Missouri has four or five parks that highlight fishing – Roaring River, Bennett Spring, and a couple others that I can never remember). If you’re know for fishing, you’re going to do a fish quilt block. Or so I reasoned until I happened across a really nifty design for a paper pieced rainbow trout. Holy wah. It was a neat block. Granted, it was a design for a 10-inch block, but, hey, what’s a photo copier for if not to produce reduced copies. I’d reduce it down to 80% of original size and that would be that.

For the uninitiated, paper piecing is perfect for doing piecing that needs to line up perfectly. It helps ensure all your points are actually points, and is used a lot for doing hexagons (the classic Grandma’s Flower Garden pattern) because hexies are tricky to align neatly. Do a paper pieced trout and it would be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with fabric. No misaligned pieces, no weirdness. 

Point of information: that trout pattern has 41 pieces in an 8-inch block. Some of the pieces are less than 1/4 inch wide, which meant the part that was supposed to show was skinnier than the seam allowances for it. It was. . . interesting.

Three or four or possibly five rejected trout and several weeks of my life later, I threw in the towel. The trout kept coming out looking more like an oddly colored orca. Even worse, the beast was assembled in modules (A through G) and when it got to the point where the modules were sewn into the final two units, they refused to align. According to the pattern, all the seams were perfect. According to the deformed not-exactly-square disaster on the ironing board, the block was a hot mess.

On to the original thought, the Montauk mill. Nothing but nice straight lines, no curves like a trout rising has, so the pieces would be nothing but rectangles and triangles (the building has gable roofs). All I needed was a decent photo of the mill to use as a guide. Got the photo, created a pattern, did paper piecing again, and managed after another several days of my life and three botched preliminary attempts to produce something that wasn’t a total embarrassment. Only 13 pieces instead of 41, although that first floor roof was also super thin and a a total pain to get looking even remotely like a roof. 

Made the mistake of trying to embroider Montauk in cursive above the mill, which is when I learned my embroidery skills (which used to be amazing) have definitely weakened with age. It was supposed to curve around and end in a fish hook. Now it just looks like someone misspelled Montauk. Still, despite my qualms about the embroidery, the block got shoved into an envelope and is now probably jammed in a USPS automated sorting machine somewhere multiple states away from here. Never again.

Maybe. Although the moral of the story appears to be Never Volunteer (or maybe never over-estimate your own ability to do stuff), I am going to try again with the trout, except this time I’m scaling the bastard UP, not down. I invested a fair amount of actual money in fat quarters specifically to build the trout. It wasn’t easy finding a good pink to use for the stripe down the side, and it will go into a fish worth keeping. I’ve got a Rolling Stone quilt in progress that’s going to include some miscellaneous blocks commemorating our travels with the late, lamented Guppy, and the fish will go into it, as will one of the prototype blocks for the mill.

The S.O., incidentally, came close to suffering bodily injury when he looked at the Mill block and said “what about the windows?” After struggling to align pieces the size of fingernails for the building, there was no way in hell I was going to screw it up by trying to embroider windows. The silhouette is right; people can use their imaginations to put in the windows and the handrails for the steps. I'm trying to take comfort in the fact that when it's set in a quilt with a gazillion other blocks and then quilted it's not going to look as crude as it does when seen in isolation. I'm in a bunch of quilting groups on Facebook; I've seen lots of stuff that looks worse but people still manage to brag about instead of cringing. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Living in Interesting Times

I started re-reading The Stand a week or two ago. It’s maybe not the smartest reading choice while living through a pandemic, but I picked it up anyway. For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it’s Stephen King’s usual Good vs Evil using a man-made killer disease, an airborne respiratory infection that is the ultimate in horrible influenza-like illnesses. It wipes out most of the population and leaves survivors who as the book progresses are going to be sorted into Good Guys and Evil’s Minions. Fairly standard post-apocalyptic plotting, in other words.

I’m not being real ambitious about it so I’m maybe only about 40% into the thing, which maybe should be called The Doorstop or The Brick instead of The Stand. The sucker is humongous. It was a fat book the first time around, and what I’m reading now is the revised edition, the one where King got to indulge his writer’s ego and plug in all the sections that publishers made him cut in the name of corporate profits.  nhi there’s a calculus publishers indulge in, a formula that incorporates the author’s past performance, likely sales for the new book, and how many pages a book can run before it slides over the line into Not Worth It. When the first edition of The Stand came out, King’s work was selling at a decent clip but hadn’t yet hit the point where Doubleday or whoever could have slapped the name Stephen King on the cover of a New York phone book and seen it top best seller lists. A few years later, of course, King had slid into golden territory and could do more or less anything he felt like doing. Result? A book so fat that calling it a brick would be massively misleading. It’s more like a cinder block. Or maybe one of those giant sandstone blocks that Cheops used to build the Great Pyramid at Giza.

But, as usual, I’ve begun with a long digression. I’m re-reading The Stand while the world is dealing with a pandemic. I have to say King did his homework (and he does acknowledge the help he received from epidemiologists and other experts). He invents an air-borne infection, a respiratory infection that is remarkably virulent. The infection rate is close to 100%. So is the mortality rate. And it’s fast. Victims are exposed to minuscule amounts of virus; 48 hours later they’re dead after coughing out humongous amounts of snot and then choking to death with swollen glands.

To me, King’s super-flu reads like a cross between typical influenza and diphtheria. Diphtheria victims basically choke to death, although not quite as messily as the super-flu victims in The Stand. Diphtheria used to kill a lot of people in the usual depressingly random fashion all diseases kill people. A diphtheria epidemic hit the U.P. in 1916. Locally, one family went from being a married couple with 8 kids to a widower with 5, a set of twins had one girl die while the other never got sick. The randomness really makes it easy to see why people want to believe in supernatural factors. Why would the three boys in a family die and the five girls survive? When everyone is living together in a tiny log cabin, how can some people never get sick? Depending on time, place, and culture, the survivors have either been blessed by God or are the Devil’s spawn.

The Stand picks its victims in a similarly random fashion. Some survivors have major exposures – handling a sick person repeatedly with no precautions – while some victims are exposed in such a random, tiny way (walking past someone who is infected but not yet visibly sick, for example) that if a person didn’t know that such casual contacts really can spread disease you wouldn’t believe it.
Then again, maybe that’s one reason why so many people enjoyed reading The Stand. Most people didn’t understand disease transmission really can be that simple so they viewed it all as just fantasy. From the way some people freak out over the idea of wearing masks, it’s obvious way too many people still don’t get it. If they can’t see it, it’s not real.

Out here in the real world, of course, there are no diseases quite as virulent as King’s Captain Trips. There are some that come close, especially at the novel stage and hitting a na├»ve population (i.e., one that has never been exposed before), but generally none manage to kill 99.9% of a population in one fell swoop. It took repeated smallpox, measles, and other epidemics of European diseases to eliminate millions of indigenous persons in the Americas, and even that had help – the American military giving smallpox-contaminated blankets to Native Americans, for example. 

Today, of course, COVID-19 is getting a helping hand from all the idiots who somehow smell a government conspiracy or an infringement of their rights every time they're asked to behave like civilized members of a community instead of the selfish twits they actually are. The bizarre part is that even when the twits hear about fellow cov-idiots who proclaimed loudly that they would not wear a mask, the virus was a hoax, it wasn't any worse than the flu (which they conveniently forget kills thousands of people annually, too, just not quite on the scale COVID-19 does) and who then became infected and died (or came close to it) the twits still proclaim proudly they are fine in their own personal little delusional bubble. A friend suggested that maybe we should just let natural selection take its course, but natural selection isn't particularly smart. It won't just take out the cov-idiots; there'd be collateral damage: the twits' friends, family, strangers who were exposed because one selfish twit was too lazy or too stupid to believe the science.

Given the way hot spots erupt almost every time people decide they're tired of being cautious and go to large group gatherings or hang out in crowded spaces I'm thinking we're going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time. It's not fading into obscurity until mask wearing becomes the new normal for everyone. I pin no hopes on a vaccine. Even if one is developed soon many people won't benefit -- it's pretty clear  Big Pharma won't just give it away. They'll price it the same way they do everything else: obscenely high.