Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day randomness

I avoided Memorial Day and Veterans' Day observances until a few years ago, partly to keep what I call "the monsters" in the closet. I still take a pass on Veterans' Day, thanks to the TN. Unless the weather is exceptionally nice for November, outdoor activities like that are high-risk.

This year, rain forced the activities indoors to the town hall auditorium. It's long on atmosphere (completed 1876) and short on acoustics and sight-lines, so I only heard the speakers who knew how to project.

First, a question for more recent veterans. When I was in the Navy, one was uncovered under a deck or in a building, except in formation for especially fancy occasions. One never saluted under a deck or in a building, and one did not salute in formation: the petty officer in charge did that. I don't know if it's new regs, or just that we were pretending we were outdoors, but all the serving personnel and nearly all the veterans were covered, and everyone was throwing salutes all the damned time. Grump.

An aside is that Memorial Day observances are a great place to see how many variations there are to the hand salute. I don't think any two services do it exactly the same way.

Good news was that because of being indoors, we dispensed with the musket salute. Also they sent the high school band home and kept the professional band, whose bugler did not improvise when she played taps. All of this kept the saluting time suitably brief.

They did a pretend wreath laying ceremony, since we couldn't go to the cemetery. People in newer towns miss little details like having a wreath for what we ought to call the Seven Years' War. It would be possible to go further back than that. I believe the first organised naval-military campaign that included locals was the English attack on Quebec in 1711. It was a fucking disaster for the English and so produced a lovely crop of casualties.

Since I began going, I've observed that the monsters aren't entirely missing from occasions like this. But on Memorial Day, they are likely to visit anyway. It's better to be in the company of people who don't need this sort of thing explained. There were a lot of veterans in the hall, and I think all of us had that replay reel running in our heads.

Just before the ceremony began, a good friend came over. We exchanged greetings, and he sat near me. I'm never really aware of how my face can tell tales, just like anyone else's. This particular friend is also fairly insightful. Presumably, he could see that my reel was running, and that my thoughts were pretty far away. He waited until the ceremony was over before saying anything more, and for that I thank him.

I didn't keep score to figure the percentage of veterans of my time who were named in the roll call of local veterans who had died this past year. The figure has been over 25 percent for a couple of years, and this year the total was distressingly large. One of the speakers I could hear commented that most Americans today have no direct contact with veterans or the experience of war. Americans do seem to assume that the military will always be there, he said. What happens when all of us are gone? Will it mean a stronger commitment to peace, or will it mean the nation adopts a more cavalier attitude toward going to war? There's a troubling takeaway from this observance.

Peace to all my absent friends: those who did not make it, and those who came back broken beyond repair.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Coming out of this closet may be as perilous as coming out of one that has to do with sexual preference.

I am a social sports fan, with every team sport except baseball and swimming. That is, I follow other sports simply to deflect needless peer pressure to show an interest in socially acceptable team sports. Today, we hear that Tom Brady's perennial four-game suspension for, um, something, has been reinstated by a three-judge panel of the Second US Court of Appeals.

As a social sports fan, then, here is my message to the teams, the courts, the NFL, and all actual fans of pro football everywhere:

For different reasons, this seems to be the court's message too. Even before this decision, the Second US Court of Appeals had a reputation as the most pro-business, anti-union court in the country. It appears that this panel of that court has upheld that reputation. The court doesn't care a rat's ass whether Brady actually committed an offence: they said as much in the decision. They only care about upholding Roger Goodell's rights under the collective bargaining agreement. The numerous fans and players of other teams who are no doubt cheering the decision ought to read it twice. The substance is that the NFL commissioner can punish any player, on any team, for any reason, or possibly for no reason, just because the player's union lawyers were bargaining pushovers. Roger Goodell now is confirmed in rights that no English monarch, for example, has enjoyed in some 400 years, rights that Donald Trump would have wet dreams about. These rights are not given to just any boss, but to an individual running an organisation with more money and more power than many countries.

The cheering yahoos and players need to realise that this was never about Brady, or his guilt or innocence. If the appeals process goes on until Brady is 50 or so, to the point at which the penalty is moot, it will never be about Brady's guilt. Goodell simply picked the biggest target to show what a tough guy he is.

One of the reasons I can't gin up a lot of profound interest in pro football is, by coincidence, coming up just as this insanely pro-business decision is announced. We appear to have another domestic violence indictment against an NFL player. Johnny Manziel, who should have finished college, isn't as much of a target as Brady. What I will watch with interest isn't the games this fall, but whether Manziel will get the customary two-game suspension for violence against women. I suspect we'll have to see whether Rockin' Roger wins his tilt against his favourite windmill.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Oh, and there's this on the name business

...About the name business. There have been recent studies demonstrating the extent to which "black-sounding" names have become a liability in the job market. From experience, I suggest that any strange-sounding name, any name that demands that HR ask how to pronounce it, and above all, any name that HR's resume screening software can't handle, is a liability in the job market.

Take that, cutsey baby name vendors and buyers!

How do I know about this? Ever had a job coach suggest that you change your name to be competitive in the job market? I have.

I don't think the average Anglo has had that experience. But the higher up the search ladder an African-American reaches, or an Hispanic reaches, the more likely it is that they hear this expert advice.

So too, I think, it is with those descended from the "small peoples" around the fringes of Europe (and Asia). Of these, the Irish are the best-known. There are many others: some with their own nations, but all with their own languages. Americans know, or think they know, the Irish and Highland Scots. They barely know the Welsh. There are also Bretons, Basques, Suomi, Sami, and so on. And any of these who have names that don't fit the Anglo-Saxon template? Well, along with people of colour, they'll just have to change their names to get a job equal to their abilities.

Some--most--of my Welsh relations took names in Saesnaeg. In a fit of nationality, they gave me one that wasn't. And with all its disadvantages, I'm not changing it.

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Missing time

The few who have hung around here long enough know that, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, I am short about two months of my life, from March until mid-May, 1970. This is the period in which I was conned into accepting unnecessary surgery. During that time, my chief preoccupations were getting well, and helping people far worse off than I to get well. For most of that time, my exposure to media was limited to the cacophony of  50 radios in a 40-bed ward, all tuned to one form or another of pop music.  I was barely conscious during the Apollo 13 crisis. When I saw the film, it was entirely new territory to me. Next, I had only the vaguest idea that the first Earth Day was happening. My thought at the time was something like "cool," but ever since an idea that otherwise should have, and does, resonate with me, is something with which I haven't totally connected. Perhaps if I had been present at the creation, I wouldn't have to be reminded of it each year with a dope slap. I had the annual dope slap today, which is why this is on my mind.

I was somewhat more aware of things by May 4 of that year. If you don't know what May 4, 1970 means, you're the one who needs the dope slap. Even that was barely on the radar of someone on a big ward full of broken sailors and Marines. None of those 50 radios was tuned to news, and in any case in those long-gone days there was no such thing as a 24-hour news cycle.

So, if that era is only something you studied in high school history, do keep in mind that a few of us have gaps in our recollection that owe nothing to early dementia. We had other things on our minds.

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Monday, April 04, 2016

Old rant, new arrangement

Those who care to shuffle around in older posts here will find variations on these themes.

  1. Americans who can pronounce my name correctly amount to a fraction of a percentage. It is a simple, one-syllable Welsh name, easy to pronounce if you stayed awake in third-grade grammar class long enough for the uses of "y" as a vowel. But most red-blooded "real 'Muricans" can't spell or pronounce English, proving that they were very sleepy in grade school, or their teachers were lazy, or they are lazy, or a combination thereof. I've observed that recent immigrants are much more attentive to things like this. If they come across a name they can't pronounce, they'll usually ask, politely, how to pronounce it, and listen to the answer. 'Muricans, even those who ask, are too arrogant or lazy to listen.
  2. Despite this, gen-X Americans in particular, and regrettably some millennials, are moderately obsessed with digging up cute and "original" names for their spawn. African-Americans, who devise entirely new names, are the ones who are really original in this line. The white begetters and consumers of cute baby names either take a European gender-appropriate name from a language they don't understand, or take a name that sounds "interesting," regardless of its gender in the original language, and apply it to their offspring whether it fits or not. Thus, if you rummage around Google for "Bryn," in the U.S.A, you'll find a significant number are female, bearing a name which in the U.K. is as gender-specific as Fred or George.
  3. The purveyors of cute baby names assert that it is much better to blend genders like this. However, the blending usually works out better for the girls than the boys. First, there is a social bias favouring the use of traditionally male names for female children. Second, it has been noted (when I get around to finding the citation I'll link to it) that when a male (or place) name is used often enough for female offspring, it loses its male or neutral identity and becomes female. This rather works against the purveyors' hypothesis.
  4. My latest observation is that while American parents are earnestly blending the genders of their little sprats' names, or favouring the practise, few among them are prepared to have their children, or someone else's, actually blend their genders. Note that I'm not talking about gay children, who still have troubles of their own with many parents. While my interest here does encompass transfolk, the area that is still beyond the pale for most of the parents happily playing gender games with  childrens' identities is that broadly called non-binary. I rather doubt that there is a clear indication that gender-neutral names produce non-binary adults. I know of too many non-binary and trans individuals who began their lives with some sort of gender-specific name to see a correlation. All the same it would make an interesting study. What I do suggest is that parents who are willing to accept gender-blended names, but unwilling to accept children whose actual identity doesn't match expectations, are thirteen different kinds of hypocrite. This is true, I think, whether the child in question is theirs or someone else's, and whether the individual is still a child or has become an adult. It is especially true when the person rendering judgement is a legislator or other authority figure. While we're proposing studies, how about one checking up on the sort of names reactionary lawmakers are giving their kids?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dinner and a show

In honour of my wife's birthday yesterday, and the end of the four days a year when she can say she's younger than me, we went out to a pretty good Indian place in Salem. Toward the end of the evening, I suddenly became aware of her saying "are you all right?" I pulled my wits about me and said "Of course I am," although I was somewhat lost in admiring the very hot chutney. She replied that my eyes were rolling, that my face was pale and had tremors, and I looked like I was about to fall out of my chair. All this on the tandoori, the hot chutney, and a half glass of wine. As usual, the colour was the first to come back as the server came over to help, whereupon every eye in the room was upon me. Embarrassment is as much a part of this business as pain. My wife insisted on driving home and I didn't resist. When I got there the combination of signs and symptoms interested me enough to check them against the meds.

Sure enough: right out of the Gabapentin playbook.

I'm supposed to be dividing my monster doses into three equal ones with meals, which isn't how I'd been taking the lower dose for years. Force of habit has had me taking the last dose at bedtime. Just this weekend, I determined to get the timing of that third dose under control, so for three nights I had taken it before supper.

Hindsight suggests that wasn't a good idea, and that I'd do well to return to the old schedule.

It ain't over til it's over.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

The value of historical context

I read a good deal of popular history. Some of it  rises to a scholarly standard, while some gets bogged down. The swamps that entrap popular historians include an obsession with descriptive detail, forgetting that most readers of popular history already know this stuff. It breaks up the narrative and belongs in footnotes, not the text. Some sink into the pit of antiquarianism. Authors may spend so much time discussing the doings of a small area of geography or population that, again, they lose sight of the broader picture. Finally, they may wander into wetlands where flourish historical legends which have gained truth only by repetition.

One of the more annoying is that involving the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. It is true that as a junior faculty member at Harvard (beginning in 1915) he travelled between the campus and his home on Beacon Hill on horseback. He wrote about it himself. The legendary part of this is the "oh ha ha" business that goes with the repetition, and the tendency to picture Morison riding alone through streets filled with cars, trucks, and trolleys.

In context, this isn't as foolish as it sounds. Those laughing seem to overlook that the horse played a role in urban and rural transportation well into the 20th century. There was no sudden takeover by automobiles, but rather a long transition from one mode of transportation to another. In 1915 mass-produced cars and trucks were new and had not shed their aura of novelty.  Ten years later, it was clear that automobiles were here to stay, and that the horse was fading as a mode of urban transportation. Twenty years later, horses had all but disappeared from city streets, and it appears that Morison's days of riding to Harvard were long in the past.

The horse hung around somewhat longer in smaller cities. For example, my wife's family ran a livery stable in Holyoke, MA into the 1930s. Her mother rode, and while she didn't encourage her children to learn (too many injuries) they all grew up as natural horsewomen: in the genes, apparently.

In my neighbourhood in Concord, NH, there were still horses at work when I was very small. The city used horse drawn sidewalk plows until 1952 or 1953, and I remember being sad when the horses were replaced by machines. A few people near us still used iceboxes, and the ice came to them on a wagon. That rig disappeared when the iceboxes did.

The last holdout was a local farmer who sold hulled corn. It may surprise southerners, who know the product as samp or hominy, that there was a market for this so deep in Yankeeland. My mother wanted no part of it, being suspicious of the process used to make it. That involves boiling the corn in lye water. He was still selling from his wagon after we moved to East Concord in 1955, and I'm not sure when and why he stopped.

At any rate, Morison's ride from Beacon Hill to Harvard was neither hilarious nor eccentric in context. The transition from horses to internal combustion engines is a rather interesting period, one that some transportation historian ought to examine in more depth.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Disturbing Desperation

I'm nearing the end of Peter Kick's Desperate Steps, a collection of real-life tales of incident and accident in the Northeastern U.S. backcountry. Many--too many, one might say--do not end well. My own life experiences make these accounts troubling. Many are not on mountains at all. Of those that are, a good number take place on fairly moderate mountains, the sort of places where I might easily make the same mistakes.

The book has me reflecting on experiences of my own, and of my spouse's, which came very close to being fodder for a book like this.

My brother and I spent much of our childhoods on a small island in Lake Winnisquam, NH. When we got old enough for school, we necessarily spent less time there. It was about that time that my dad bought a second boat, so that when he commuted to work we would not be marooned. It was (is: my brother still has it) a 12 foot all-aluminum boat, then a novelty. It had a three horsepower outboard, which didn't deliver a lot of speed,

One weekend my dad chose this boat for a visit to the former owners of the island on the western shore of the lake. Keith, the husband of the couple, was blind (his reason for selling the island) and both my brother and I thus became acquainted early with that particular view on life. While we were there, the cloud cover thickened, and it was Keith who first noticed thunder in the distance, and suggested that we had better get going.

Even with the early warning, we weren't quite in time. A thunderstorm was coming up the lake and was upon us before we were well underway. Keep in mind first that the boat was entirely aluminum, even the seats. second, it was very slow with a load of an adult and two children. My brother and I wrapped ourselves in tarps and crouched in the bilges while my father steered through the longest mile any of us had ever had on the water. We did make it without incident, which owed a lot to luck.

My spouse and her sister, in high school, crewed for their dad on a Lightning-class sloop (hold the irony for a moment). One weekend, they went to a regatta on Lake Champlain. The weather began to turn dirty and their dad, being a prudent sailor, headed for the dock from some distance out. Now one can't hurry a sailboat. When thunderstorm fronts approach over the water, several things happen. First, as they say, it blows like stink, and one is preoccupied with keeping the boat upright. Next, just behind the front the wind is likely to drop. This is awkward, because there is still lightning and one wants to get ashore fast.

My wife can't remember the exact moment that lightning struck, or even whether it actually hit the boat. There was a brilliant flash, The good thing about a sailboat is that one is sitting under a grounded nest of rigging, which MAY minimise damage. It did this time. She and her twin were stunned and numb. She remembers that her dad's hair was literally standing on end, and that the boat was afloat in a sea of stunned or dead fish. That is about as close a call with lightning as anyone would care to have. In the years we sailed, we either left races early if a thunderstorm threat became serious, or never left the dock.

In our early years sailing, we and the fleet sailed well into the fall, under conditions we would never chance now. As one dockmaster said, "the boats are 40 years older, and the sailors are 40 years older."

At any rate, we were racing in 20-something knot wind, with seas we could look up at from the cockpit of our small boat. My wife was skipper, and after a while decided she had had enough. Before heading home, she asked me to take in the jib. I'd nearly finished the job when I slithered, rather than fell, overboard. Both of us were experienced enough on the water to be wearing life jackets. I never lost contact with the boat, but began to wonder how I was going to get back on board, seeing that I'm twice the size of my wife. The water temp was somewhere under 50 degrees F, which made getting aboard very attractive.

In the seconds I was thinking these thoughts, I was going hand over hand aft, to the lowest point of the boat's freeboard, knowing that was my best shot. As I tried to lift my very wet self into the boat, my wife left the tiller, grabbed the back of my life jacket, and hoisted me bodily back on board. Never before or since have I been party to such a demonstration of the benefits of adrenaline. The subject still comes up now and then, and she is still astounded that she was able to do that.

These incidents are very like those in Desperate Steps. They include a balance of bad luck and bad judgment, and any one of the three could have been fatal without an injection of a dose of good luck.
I never forget any of them.

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