Friday, January 29, 2021

Pulitzer Project: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain was a pleasant change from the last few Pulitzer winners I've read. Butler can write, among other things, and he doesn't leave you wondering just how much more misery a writer can pack into one book.  

The book is a collection of short stories that share a common theme: Vietnam. Or, more accurately, Vietnamese people. Butler is a Vietnam War veteran who trained and worked as a translator. He spent longer than the normal tour of duty in the country. Duty stationed in Saigon, he discovered he genuinely liked the people. He spent his free time exploring the city and talking with ordinary people. 

The stories vary in length, setting, and tone, from only a couple pages to almost novella size, from Vietnam while the war is still in progress to 20 years later in Louisiana, and from melancholy to upbeat. Protagonists vary widely, too. 

For example, an elderly man living in exile in Louisiana is visited by an old friend, Ho Chi Minh, that he had shared a room with many years before in Paris. The fact Ho has been dead for over a decade is irrelevant. They reminisce about the days they spent working in the kitchen of a London restaurant while Ho tries to remember what he did wrong when caramelizing sugar for Auguste Escoffier. Ho chides his old friend for becoming a Buddhist instead of becoming as involved as politics as Ho did, although he does note that at least he picked Hoa Hao, a reformist Buddhist movement.

The notion that the future president of North Vietnam once worked as a chef's helper in a London kitchen managed by one of the most famous names in culinary history struck me as sufficiently bizarre that I had to Google it. Sure enough, Ho worked in multiple kitchens when he was a young man and still trying to figure out just where he fit in the world. Whether or not he worked for Escoffier is debatable, but for sure he was in a kitchen in London at the right time for it to have happened. What is known is he changed jobs frequently. 

In any case, the elderly man decides visiting with Ho could be a sign he's going to die soon so he asks his children to arrange for a Vietnamese tradition, having family members come to visit him to say goodbye before he's actually on his deathbed. When they do visit, he decides it's easier to just pretend to doze in his chair than it is to talk with them. He saves his conversations for the visits with his dead friend.  

The overall tone of the stories varies. Some end on a vaguely sad note, others are more upbeat. Good things happen to people who weren't expecting a happy ending, although not always. One fellow learns the hard way that it pays to be careful what you wish for, another realizes you can't turn back time. As a whole the book was a good read. 

In one of those weird coincidences that happen all the time, I was still thinking about the book when Pat Sajak made a joke on "Wheel of Fortune" about the beaches on Antigua being full of Wheel of Fortune winners because the show seemed to give away a lot of prize packages with that particular Caribbean destination. One of the longer stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain features a couple who are on a Mexican vacation because the wife won the trip on "Let's Make a Deal" by dressing as a duck. As she's looking around at the hotel she realizes that all the other guests also look like game show winners -- and sure enough, "The Price is Right," "Jeopardy," and others are all represented. It gives an otherwise serious story a light touch. 

I am, of course, now wondering if I ever do get to Aruba or Antigua or Cancun if it will turn out that most guests won their trips and I'll be the only sucker who actually paid to go.

Back to the book. This is one I do recommend. The writing is good, the stories are interesting, and you may even pick up some trivia about Vietnam without having to think about it much. I do have to say that learning that most Vietnamese restaurants in this country with seemingly exotic names are actually just advertising their specialty wasn't much of a revelation. That's a tradition in most countries, including this one (e.g., Colton's Steak House, Red Lobster, International House of Pancakes). 

On the usual 1 to 10 scale, I'll give it an 8. It's better than average but not quite a solid 9. 

Up next: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. The L'Anse library amazed me. They actually have it in their collection. In fact, I already have it on the nightstand to be read as soon as I finish reading Battleship, an odd book that claims to be about a racehorse (a steeple chaser) but is more accurately a biography of Randolph Scott's first wife, Marion duPont. Fascinating but completely irrelevant piece of trivia: Battleship is buried at Montpelier, the home of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Recent adventures in cataloging

A Rubbermaid tote crammed full of photographs has served as my focus at the museum for the past several weeks. The tote had a note on the lid describing the contents as "logging photos" but it turned out to be a mix. There were definitely logging photos, most of which were of course not labeled. There were mill photos, which is what I think the one above is (there is a sizable chimney lurking in the background, which implies a steam boiler, which in turns implies saws). 

It is a intriguing photo on multiple levels. First, the mystery of when -- what year is it from? Where? Why are there children in the photo? Surely those little barefoot urchins weren't child labor in a sawmill. I know really young kids wound up working in textile mills in the 19th century, but it seems a bit much to put shoeless 5-year-olds to work at a lumber mill. And who's the dude sitting in front with the woman and girls to one side and the little boys to the other? My first thought was "manager," but he's got a star on his vest. Did the local constable or sheriff also own a sawmill? It's all a bit strange. 

On another level, of course, it is a totally typical 19th century photograph. The photographer was not taking casual snapshots. The large format cameras with the glass plates meant you didn't mess around with multiple exposures or splitting people up into smaller groups; managers and owners packed everyone and everything into one shot and then purchased multiple prints to give to the workers as well as investors or co-owners. Large groups of workers tell investors the mill is doing well -- look at how many employees we have to have. You work at the mill? The photographer is coming? You ask the boss if your kids can be in the picture, too, because it might be your only chance to get a photo of them. You include tools (two of the workers are holding cant hooks). If there's a way to do it, you include the horses. This photo doesn't have any of the horse teams that would have been used at a typical 19th century mill, but there is a dog. Does the dog count?

Other photos in the tote included color snapshots from the 1990s, some of which actually had labels, family portraits and wedding photos from the early 20th century, logging camp photos, woods work photos, fishing and hunting snapshots, and photos (mostly snapshots) of local businesses. This was my favorite fishing photo of the half dozen or so I scanned. Apparently fly fishermen did not look like walking advertisements for Orvis back in the 1920s. I don't know who Fred was, but he fished in style. 

Some were mysteries of another sort. Like the photo below. It's obvious what it is -- work on what looks like a sewer line in the Village of Baraga sometime around 1920 -- but the big question is why? Why bother to  mat a photograph of a public works project on what is now known as State Avenue (in the 1920's it was Ontonagon Street; the cross street was and is Superior Avenue)? Was this something a person on the Village council wanted to hang on his wall to prove they'd actually done the work? The photo documentation makes sense; the mat does not. 
The tote is now empty, everything in it worth scanning has been scanned, the hard copies have been catalogued both in PastPerfect and in the Collections Guide Word file, and I can move on to the next box, a mix of items that seem to have a common theme of "medicine." I'm not sure what's under that tote. I do know it's never going to end. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Listening to the news this morning

 Lots of discussion about last week's failed coup. It's pretty clear whoever was in charge of Capitol security never heard this classic George Carlin warning. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Calm down.

In the past few days I've had a number of friends express concern about the high numbers of Trump loyalists in the population. The usual handwringing is along the lines of "half the people in this country" support Trump, usually accompanied by suggestions that everyone in the mythical "half" would have been part of the mob at the Capitol last week if they could. Everyone knows at least one person who supported The Donald; now they're wondering if that relative or acquaintance is busy building pipe bombs in their basement and planning to assassinate the governor. (If you do know your neighbor is that nuts, call the FBI and let them deal with it.) 

I can understand why some friends are stressed. That huge ideological divide is, after all, the line the punditry keeps peddling, the fretting over the dramatic split right down the middle in the country, the split that doesn't actually exist. Yes, there is some fairly melodramatic posturing from the extremists at the fringes of the political spectrum, but just how reflective of the real world is it? Short answer: not very.

There are two ways to look at it. First, look at absolute numbers. There are an approximately 330 million people in the United States now. (For ease of discussion, I'm rounding numbers to closest millions.) Of those 330 million, less than half actually voted in the 2020 election: 81 million voted for Biden, 74 million voted for Trump, and about 2.5 million voted for various third party candidates. Why did less than half the populace vote? Well, some U.S. residents were too young (about a fourth of the population is under the age of 18), some were too old, some were resident aliens (not citizens), and some were simply not interested. 

Even though the number of eligible voters in the U.S. is somewhere around 227 million, only about two-thirds of those eligible voters bothered to vote -- and this was the best turnout in something like 100 years. Hard as it can be to believe for those of us who get riled up about politics, quite a few of our fellow citizens are thoroughly apathetic. Not everyone has a C-SPAN addiction, listens to talk radio, or always has a news channel on the television. Some have even taken the time to figure out how to set up their feeds on Facebook so all they ever see are bad puns (sorry about the redundancy) and pictures of cats or cows. It doesn't take much work to make sure you never see another post from CNN or Fox again. Quite a few people are content to just coast along, binge watching "Chopped" and figuring things will work out in the long run. 

Anyway, back to the numbers. 330  million yields 74 million Trump voters, or slightly over 22 percent of the total population. Of that 74 million, various polls show that a significant number have doubts about the election results. How significant? Anywhere from 40 percent to a little over 50 percent depending on the poll and when it was done. So if we go for the high side and say 50 percent that means 37 million or so. Of that 37 million, how many are, as mafia films put it, willing to go to the mattresses? You know, just how many are willing to go from griping about the results, calling their state's governor and other officials names on Facebook, and actually get on a bus or join a rally? 

That's when the commas in the numbers move, and move a lot. When women held a rally in 2017 to demonstrate their unhappiness with the election of Donald Trump an estimated million people showed up. When Trumpers held their rally meant to keep their hero in the White House, the resulting crowd was estimated at 7 to 10 thousand. Even most of the people who think there were shenanigans involved with the ballot counting in some states can't get fired up enough about it to bother getting on a bus. Like their hero, the typical Trumper can be real big on talking a lot but isn't particularly good at actually doing anything. The jokes about the insurrectionists at the riot at the Capitol that labeled the participants as cosplaying or being escapees from a Renaissance faire were a good critique: most of the people involved obviously live in some sort of bizarre alternative reality from the rest of us. 

Look at Bison Boy, the cosplaying QAnon shaman who is now sitting in jail: he's a 32 year old loser who lived with his mother and is now complaining that the federal detention center he's in doesn't serve organic food. There were others who were shocked, shocked, I tell you, that the police maced them or handled them roughly. My favorite was the blonde who was crying because police kept her from "storming the Capitol and starting the revolution." You know, please don't hurt me. I'm just here to overthrow the government. Obviously, the phrase "Kent State" has never entered their consciousness.  

In any case, everyone can stop worrying that every other person they see is secretly pining for a second term by Donald Trump. Even in deeply red parts of the country, it's more like maybe one out of ten, and even those people are going to keep their mouths shut most of the time. No one wants to talk politics at Dollar General. 

Then, if we use a different perspective and remove labels, it turns out that poll after poll has found the United States is a remarkably progressive country, which is why (and this is a subject for a different post) I think the political strategists who keep harping on about not going to far left on anything are dead wrong. Most people are remarkably progressive; they just don't realize it. The issues people care about, the things that actually impact their lives, are also things  the majority of us agree about. Most people want better health care, lower drug prices, higher wages, better schools, improved infrastructure, gun regulation, you name it. 

When researchers pose questions in a label-free way, i.e., no identification with a particular political party, the population shows a remarkable degree of consensus. Label something as an idea proposed by a Democrat, however, and suddenly people who thought it was a great idea before are now screaming No Socialism! Label something as proposed by a Republican and the same thing happens, except instead it will be called a gift to the rich or welfare for billionaires. 

The absolutely classic recent example of this is, of course, the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act (aka Obama Care). The underlying basis for it was a proposal from the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation came up with a plan as a counter argument to a single-payer government-run plan proposed by the Clinton administration. Neither idea went anywhere in the U.S. Congress, but the State of Massachusetts introduced a plan similar to the Heritage Foundation plan. At the time, Mitt Romney, a Republican, was Governor. By all accounts, Romney Care worked (and still works) reasonably well.

Fast forward 16 years to the Obama presidency. President Obama's administration puts together a proposal for a plan that would increase access to health care by helping people obtain private health insurance. It is clearly modeled on the Heritage Foundation and Romney care plans; it's roundly criticized by progressives as being a massive giveaway to the insurance companies. Despite it being at its heart a thoroughly conservative Republican plan, it is coming from a Democratic administration. Therefore, anyone who calls him or her self a Republican must hate it. Thus, the Republicans have spent the past 8 years trying to get rid of Obama Care, which they have learned to their horror many of their constituents actually love, except most of them never think of it as Obama Care. One of the more amusing things in watching ordinary people being interviewed is seeing just how many love the Affordable Care Act ("it saved my son's life!!") but are convinced Obama Care is the work of the devil. 

Bottom line: We're actually all a lot more alike than we realize. George Lakoff is right. Framing is everything. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

WTF is wrong with these people?


The S.O. and I had to make a run to town yesterday. He had car parts to pick up in Houghton so I asked him to drop me at the museum in Baraga. I figured I'd put in a couple hours finishing up cataloging the photos that I'd been scanning and cursing for the last several weeks. It's a fairly tedious process to go from taking a photograph from a stack, scanning it, giving it an identification number (written on the back in something archivally stable, like pencil lead), naming the jpg file on the computer, and then entering data into PastPerfect and into the Word index for archival material. If I were to go full Lillian Gilbreth I could probably break down exactly how many minutes get eaten up by each step (I am now enjoying a brief fantasy of setting up an assembly line of minions, one to place a photo on the scanner, one to remove it, one to label, one to do data entry. . . I can dream) but figure it does take anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour to process one item. It's not fast and, to be completely honest, is boring as hell, which is why I limit my time doing it to just a couple hours at a shot. If boredom kicks in hard enough, I start getting sloppy.

Anyway, the S.O. and I were cruising along idly chatting. I'd mentioned wanting to get a Trump yard sign for the museum's collection before, but the S.O. was of the opinion that once Trump was gone, his memory should be erased. He figured Trump deserved damnatio memoriae, which is what the Romans did to bad rulers: destroy their monuments, melt down the coins with their portraits, deface statues, and basically erase them from history. After the failed coup, though, he was changing his mind. He's now thinking we all need to remember Cheetolini so the country doesn't make that mistake again. Except, of course, it's a little late now for me to go grabbing yard signs from roadsides. Even the one his slightly brain damaged cousin put up is now gone. It was still up last week so I'm kind of wondering if the mob scene at the Capitol was enough to get the dude to accept that, yep, Trump did actually lose. Or at least made him nervous about continuing to advertise his support. . . 

There is, however, still one large sign left along US 41. A local business has been an avid Trump supporter since The Donald descended from the heavens on that golden escalator. That hasn't changed. Right after the election, I'd guesstimate 99 percent of the yard signs for Trump vanished. A few didn't disappear until after all the votes were counted in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, but by mid-November the folks who had put them up accepted reality. 

They're not happy, but they're resigned to stockpiling food and ammo so they're prepared for when the socialists come to confiscate their guns. (I said they're resigned; not that they're fully living in the real world.) They can't understand how anyone could cast a vote for someone as radical as Joe Biden (a dude so thoroughly mainstream and in love with big business that he used to be referred to as the Senator from Citibank, although calling him the Senator from MBNA would have been more accurate). It definitely showed the power of right wing media. The man made it clear during the primary season he did not intend to support the Green New Deal, did not like the idea of Medicare for All, and was really lukewarm about doing anything that might cause heartburn on Wall Street. It would be hilarious to hear RWNJs refer to Biden as a socialist if it wasn't also really sad. I tend to refer to them as "poor, delusional loons." Those of us who actually are socialists and/or Marxists think of Biden as "status quo Joe." Our expectations for him are low; we're just relieved he's sane.

But I'm wandering, as usual. I was talking about the one remaining large Trump sign. Up until a couple days ago it was the standard "Trump Pence 2020." Not anymore. As we approached it, we could see it had been defaced. There was a large black X spray painted on it. My first thought was, wow, someone finally got sick of seeing it and vandalized the eyesore. 

I was wrong. We passed the sign again on the way home. The spray painter didn't X out Trump at all. The big black X covers only Pence. The business owners are still deep into the cult; they're still true believers. They're just pissed at Pence for refusing to cooperate with Trump's insane plan to overturn the election. 

I'm kind of wondering just what kind of weirdness was kicking around Parler and other right wing platforms because when the mob broke into the Capitol quite a few of them were screaming, more or less literally, for Pence's blood. I have a hunch if some of those dudes had found him, he would have suffered the same fate as the Capitol Police officer who was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Either that, or he would have been the first one up on the gallows they built right outside the Capitol. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Is he gone yet?

Barely two weeks to go and Trump will be consigned to the dust bin of history. Or so one hopes. I am so tired of reading or hearing about his latest set of rage tweets. It is my sincere desire (and no doubt the desire of many other people) that on January 20 when the clock hits 12:01 p.m. Eastern Time that Jack Dorsey pulls the plug on Cheetolini's Twitter account. Let him go wandering off to do his delusional ranting on Parler and other sites populated only by the fringe, spaces where no matter what bizarre thing he spouts he'll get the applause he so desperately craves. 

In an effort to thoroughly punish myself in recent weeks, I've been reading Bob Woodward's Fear. It's been my bathroom book, the reading material I dip into for just a page or two at a time. It has literally been depressing the shit out of me. 

I am, however, rather glad I didn't read the book when it first came out. Knowing what I now know and having to live through a couple more years of a Trump presidency would have been way too stressful. Hearing the stuff that is in the book come out in dribbles on the news, like when various figures got asked by the media if they really had said Trump was stupid, refused to listen to anyone, and was so unpredictable it frightened them, was bad enough.

I know Fear sold fairly well when it released. I also know Bob Woodward took a lot of shit for it (as well he should have) just like he did when his more recent book, Rage, came out. I know I kept muttering as I read the book. Woodward was hearing all this stuff about how totally inept and borderline crazy Trump was but he had to be feeding Trump's ego just as much as any of the various other sycophants surrounding the Human Yam just to ensure he still had access to the White House. It's pretty clear he prioritized gathering material for his book a lot more than he prioritized doing any whistle blowing or trying to sound a warning. 

Then again, after witnessing the way Trump's minions complained behind the man's back about how flaming nuts the dude was but kept right on enabling him in face-to-face conversations, no doubt he was resigned to the probability we were stuck with Trump until The Donald either choked on some KFC chicken or his term ended (as it will on January 20). 

Anyway, so what have been the take-aways from Fear? First, Steven Bannon is a genius. He is a total master of the fine art of polishing a turd, because that's definitely what he did with Donald Trump. He took a potential candidate that a whole lot of ultra-wealthy conservatives had serious doubts about and managed to turn that candidate into the Great White Hope the Mercers, Kochs, and others had been fantasizing about since the Reagan administration. Bannon sold a product that should have been unsellable. And why did Bannon do it? He saw Trump as somebody that could manipulated into making real a smorgasbord of extreme right wing fantasies: anti-immigrant, anti-United Nations, anti anyone who isn't white, you name it and Bannon figured he could use Trump to further that agenda. 

One of the ironies, naturally, turns out to be that while Bannon was viewing Trump as a tool for conning other people, Trump was conning him. Bannon fell for the rolling in money billionaire image that Trump worked hard at selling. It's not until the campaign was close to the finish line and Jared told Bannon that Trump didn't have enough in liquid assets to do the ad buys they needed that it sank in with Bannon that Trump wasn't mega-wealthy after all. It was all a front. 

Second, Trump really is completely incompetent. When people talk about him being totally focused on himself, they're indulging in understatement. Trump's approach to the world has never changed: it doesn't matter what the issue is, the only thing he cares about is how it affects him. Will it hurt his ratings? Couple that with complete ignorance about how government works and it is pretty much amazing things aren't a bigger mess now than they are currently. 

As for Trump's current unwillingness to give up, to admit that he really did lose the election, this shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's observed the man at all. The one consistent fact about Trump is that once he's decided on what is real and what is not, there isn't a person on the planet that can get him to change his mind. He might do some spectacular flip-flops on his own -- one thing that drove his advisers and staff crazy and contributed to the high turnover in the administration was Trump being 100 percent for something one day and 24 hours later deciding he actually meant the exact opposite -- but it has to come from his own musings. People pushing, even when it's someone he supposedly listens to like Ivanka, have no effect. 

Back when Trump won in 2016 I wasn't happy. I thought the man was boor, a egoistic ass, but I figured then he'd at least be smart enough to surround himself with staff who were both reasonably competent and could help The Donald from fucking things up too badly. I was wrong. Trump's ego got in the way. A good leader always tries to have a few people around him who are willing to tell the boss when he or she is screwing up or make it clear why something will not work. Trump did the opposite. He made it clear really fast that it was his way or the proverbial highway. The people working for Trump learned to work around him -- his attention span can be notoriously short if it's not something that affects his ego directly -- and to suck up big time to his face and in public. He never wanted advisers; he wanted acolytes.

Oh well. The end is in sight, even though some Republicans are intent on making that end as messy as possible. Personally, I'd love to see them all nailed for sedition but realize that won't happen. Which is a shame, because it would be really nice to shoot down the presidential ambitions of weasels like Cruz and Hawley. Technically, if an elected official violates their oath to support the Constitution by trying to overturn a legitimate election they can be removed from office. I doubt if McConnell or anyone else in the Senate has enough of  a spine to punish the delusional loons  malcontents but one can dream.