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, August 29, 2011

Was it a bust?

Apparently, Irene was a failure, as viewed from the exalted perch of media anchors, because they themselves are still alive and Wall Street is negotiable by taxi instead of boat.


In the first place, the death toll is somewhere in the twenties*. Katrina was in a class by itself and warps our sensibilities. Irene's harvest is in the medium range of casualties from tropical storms. The New York media, with their city's limited experience of tropical storms, seem not to appreciate this.

Then there's the physical damage. It may not be impressive to the anchorfolk, but it is if you're in Bennington, Brattleboro, or Woodstock, Vermont, or Campton, NH, Westport, MA, or East Haven, CT, or any similar number of places further south. I mention these because I've been in them and can appreciate the damage. Many of them haven't seen tropical storm damage in over 70 years.

Here in New England, we also have an experience that is becoming normal during and after storms. Hundreds of thousands of customers of private power providers have lost electrical power, and are being told they won't get it back for days, maybe weeks.

By contrast, I live in a town with its own municipal light department. They buy most of our power in good times, but are capable when necessary of generating electricity. Public entity it may be, it has an eye on the bottom line. That may influence the speed with which the local light department responds to outages. The longest outage I can remember in the last 20 years was three hours. Granted, the light department's customer base is a tenth or less the size of that of a private power companies. But shouldn't the private companies' outages be in proportion? If it takes our guys an hour to bring a grid back on line, it should perhaps take private enterprise ten or twelve hours, not ten to twelve days.

So much for the efficiencies of capitalism.

*As I published this, I heard the toll had risen to 38. No, it's not a bust, especially if you knew one of the victims.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Storm day

There are only two parts of today's storm I haven't enjoyed.

1) Speculating on which part of our lot will be splattered by our neighbour's oversized Norway maple should it decide to fall. In a tropical cyclone, odds are that it will fall this way if it does. The chief question here is where to park my car to avoid the tree.

2) Microwaves have one crowning virtue: their ability to reheat leftover coffee without having it taste like, well, reheated coffee.

The crowning (pun intended) moment of our obligatory storm walk to check out the beach was the tree that fell just over a block in front of us. At first I thought the noise came from behind us, so I whirled around. My wife was walking without glasses (and so could see more than ten feet away) and spotted the tree. It sounded exactly like an auto collision.

Our town's position relative to the storm should spare us northeast winds. The harbour is only open in that direction, so the brunt of the weather is landing on the beach. Surf's definitely up, but some spoilsports with blue lights are out there keeping everyone--surfers included--off the beach.

It's too bad more Americans aren't educated in the Beaufort scale of winds, because it's perfectly suited to a day like this, with variable velocity. When we took our walk, it was about Force 8. Typically, it takes Force 10 to uproot trees, and since trees have definitely been uprooted we may have had Force 10 gusts.
It seems to be a little stronger now, but the rain's stopped.

Enough. Pause now in case we lose power again.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Ghoulish meterology

Some years back, I took a weather course. The instructor had a good friend with the NWS, then in Boston. He arranged a tour of the facility, showed us the synoptic charts tracing the development of the Perfect Storm, then our latest and greatest weather disaster. The best moment was when he looked at that day's synoptic chart, showed us how it could presage a blizzard and how it probably wouldn't. Then he got a purely evil look and said "but I LOVE it when things fuck up!"

So do I.

It is much easier to view weather disasters with equanimity when one grew up with electricity and running water as seasonal luxuries. In this house, we keep a fair supply of food around, gas lanterns, batteries, etc., because hurricanes are just one of the amusements Mother Nature throws at us on the coast. The only thing that makes me sullen is that I can't find the kerosene lamps, which are in the proverbial safe place. Bad idea, that.

Hurricane Irene has as its best feature that it's smacking New York and Washington around. Let's recall that Manhattan, which has been destroyed on film a couple of dozen times, has experienced just four (or is it five?) hurricanes in the last 160 (or is it 200?) years. In that time Gotham has become the media capital of the universe. Now the disaster is--potentially at least--on the medias' doorstep. This makes a difference in the quantity (if not the quality) of coverage.

The odds of an evacuation order here are vanishingly slim, but we ain't going in any case. There's too much to see, for one thing. For another, Miss Annie, at age 23, has made it very clear already that she's not going. We can't leave the old lady behind.

Once upon a time, local boaters exercised an admirable freemasonry in the face of disaster. According to reliable (but single-sourced) report, that is no more. Yesterday's report was that boaters stacked up at the town's sole state-of-the-art launching ramp were fighting over who had what priority to haul out. This is what happens when you put the price tag of your toy ahead of the goodwill of your aquatic neighbours.

Stay tuned. We wait for the fun.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

A bright idea

Every week, it seems, another Republican runs for President. Each one has only to open his/her mouth, and they become the front-runner...for the week. But so far, only one (Pawlenty, in case you lost track) has dropped out. As the crowd grows, the process favours the candidate who can make the most extreme and absurd statements, to get coverage from a broadcast media corps as ignorant as the candidates.

With over a year before the election, there is room for at least 50 more Republican candidates. It makes one wonder whether, if the extreme right gets over-populated, one of those candidates might decide a centrist position would be unique.

In case you forgot, the week after the 2008 election, the pundits' best bet for the next Republican presidential candidate was Bobby Jindal. We've not heard a whiff from him, even though he has an actual achievement to his credit, courtesy of BP Oil. One wonders why. Aside from his disconcerting resemblance to Alfred E. Newman, one wonders if his staff took the temperature of Republican primary voters and decided that they couldn't stand the idea of another person of colour as a serious candidate. They already have Herman Cain, who has about as much traction as a Zamboni with bald tyres. Oh right, there's also Jimmy McMillan, who seems to be there to make even Michele Bachman look sane. Jindal, besides being smart himself, has a smart staff.

Neither pundits nor candidates have learnt anything from the farce that is the American presidential election process. Being the first candidate standing means nothing. The trick is to be the last one standing.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Moments of Achievement

Today was round two of me vs platelet donation. This round went to me.

First, this business of hydrating heavily for three days before a platelet donation does seem to help the blood vessels. It is less kindly to the bladder of someone my age. When giving platelets, one is skewered in place by each arm. When the bladder fills before the process is done, there's no choice but to hold it. I was flanked by male donors more or less my age, who made it through: I took that as a sign. Having plenty of time to reflect, it did seem I might have overdone the hydration. One should have the balance right next time.

I discovered that it's possible to move and shift one's arms a little in this. This relieved some guilt from the first failed effort, when I was sure I'd screwed things up by moving an arm. As it happened, I had to move the pumping arm quite a lot to keep the pump primed. Once I realised I could see, and interpret, the screen, I got up a pretty good bit of biofeedback keeping the flow rate within acceptable limits. Now that required a fair amount of arm moving.

At any rate, it worked, and I'll be back next month. It's worth doing. A pint of whole blood can provide platelets for three people, and one can give it only once every 56 days. The platelet product of one such session can help up to 18 people. And there's still just one source for these blood products: other people.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cambridge street life

At first glance, this bit of weekend news only shows why Vermonters are so mellow in their native habitat: they come to Massachusetts to act out. However, this is only a tiny slice of Cantabridgian amusements available nearly any day. I live hardly three miles from the epicentre of the Halloween capital of the world. Salem is high-grade street theatre, but as a rule they have to work at it. Cambridge, on the other hand, is people-watching nirvana any day of the year.

Just the day before the incident in the link above, I took the T to the Peoples' Republic for a libation with friends. To ensure a little exercise I rode to Central Square, even though the gathering was near Kendall. Of the many treats I had en route, the best was a "born to be wild" gentleman riding round the block. The rider was vintage biker boy: heavy, heavily tattooed, wife-beater shirt, chromed Nazi-style helmet. But he was riding a motor scooter of mediocre horsepower.

This being Cambridge, the only question was whether the parody was intentional or not. One hopes it was the former.


Friday, August 12, 2011

The bears are winning

Latest news from Yosemite is the 14th death, again on the Mist Trail. (Or is it 15th? When last I looked, last week's fatal fall from Half Dome was number 14.)

Meanwhile, the bear death toll appears to be holding steady, and one set of survivors are about to enrich a "consultant," and soon a lawyer or three, to prove that their loved ones have no responsibility for their own stupidity.

I invite you to read the second link closely, and ask this: if a "flimsy railing," the sight of a 700 foot waterfall a few yards off on the left, danger signs, and the warnings of numerous bystanders were not enough to keep the Vernal Falls victims in a safe place, what the hell would?

Fortunately, the National Park Service has quite a bit of experience dealing with this sort of bullshit. Consider Grand Canyon, whose death tolls dwarf those of Yosemite. Lawyers have advanced similar arguments there: a railing exists, defining safe from unsafe for all but the thickest visitors. There, the "flimsy railing" (much the same design as in Yosemite) stands between the safe path and a drop one mile deep. Somehow, such railings and such warnings work for about 99.5 percent of National Park visitors. Exactly how dumb does the dumb-down have to be?

Repeat after me: the wild world is not a mall. It is not a theme park. It is a place where you must pay attention to warnings, heed your own cautionary vibes, and above all take responsibility for your actions. If you can't grasp that, you don't belong in a wild place. The bears, clearly, do. At this moment in Yosemite, the human-bear death ratio has risen to 2:1, so the numbers speak for themselves. Bears seem more able to adapt to human intrusions than some humans are able to adapt to wildness.

To keep a certain type of human safe in a place like Yosemite's Mist Trail, we would need to erect concrete block walls 25 feet high, topped with electrified razor wire. Not only would such measures keep the wild places away from the people able to responsibly enjoy them, they wouldn't be enough. People would be killed or injured trying to scale such a wall, and their relations would complain that those measures were not safe enough.

Perhaps we should keep all humans out of national parks. The half of one percent or less who deliberately put themselves in mortal peril can succeed in shutting everyone else off from the wild. And the bears would live safer lives.

Or perhaps we could send a message to the consultants and lawyers who feed off the misery that the half of one percent leave behind them: take a flying fuck at a rolling football.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I'll try to be nice about this

Over the past few days , I've been following the reactions of Americans to the riots in the UK. Some are genuinely astonished, because all they've ever been fed are royal weddings and Brit-coms to give them a flavour of life in the UK. Others (choose any comment thread) blame Britons for their own narrow-minded, stereotypical image of the UK and its inhabitants.

It's wake-up time, mates. Social unrest has lurked just under the surface of British life for centuries. This is an island about the same area as Wyoming, which started out in 1066 as home to six, count them, six different national groups: Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Welsh, Cornish, Lowland Scots, and Highland Scots. At least. Then the Normans came along and either subjugated the lot or gave some added muscle to the Anglo-Saxons: choose your interpretation. The people who won (the English) got there by being able to persuade the rest of an offer they couldn't refuse. If they did refuse, then the winning side had no compunction about shooting down the losers. This doesn't even take Ireland into account.

If Americans didn't have such short attention spans, they could remember just what happened in Northern Ireland when both local sides had no truck with the English. That happened in the media age. Why is so much of Scotland empty? Because the House of Hanover depopulated it after the uprisings of 1745. Why is there a Welsh province in Patagonia? Because tens of thousands of Welsh moved as far away from the English as they possibly could, rather than surrender their language and culture.* If lower-class life in the UK is so splendid, why in hell am I in this country at all?

Now and then, one will see the original English flag, the St George's Cross, fluttering about in this area. This is a fabulous example of a conquering minority pretending to be a downtrodden minority. It's no accident that this emblem of conquest has also become the emblem of English fascism. The English are great at flying the Union flag when they want something--usually blood--from the people they either conquered on the island or dragged there on the tails of empire. Now, when they want something for themselves, we're back to St George's. And everyone is supposed to like it.

So, when English police shoot somebody, this seems incredibly unusual to Americans. However, for a lot of residents of Great Britain, it's more of the same old shit that goes with 1500 years of conquest and repression. It's helpful for American history lessons, too: just in case anyone wondered why the War of Independence created so much ill will.

Now the water cannons are coming out. The next cannons may not shoot water.

*I was fascinated that American media found a spokesperson for the rioters who seems, from his name, to be Welsh. Given the right push, Great Britain could make Yugoslavia look like Disney World.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

And then, there's the prudes

Throughout adolescence and young adulthood, my daughter was regaled with stories of her infancy and toddlerhood by people who were adults at the time. The tales always came around to what a pain in the arse she was when it came to sleep. She was. For example, my wife worked one night a week, and I had to plan out that evening like a Cook's tour to get her to sleep. Not until she was well up into toddlerhood would she go to sleep for me at all, except in the car. So I planned out car expeditions that left home soon after supper and followed every byway of Essex County, arriving home simultaneously with my wife.

Her former Infant-Toddler teachers told even more harrowing tales of Em's agitation--in the political sense--at nap time. Other babies were quite content to nod off and nap for an hour or two in the afternoon. As far as anyone can remember, Em never napped at all. She could be persuaded at times to lie down, but mostly she sat or stood in the crib and tried to get other kids to wake up and play with her. Sometimes she succeeded, and pandemonium broke loose.

At one point in her acutely sleep-deprived years (from about 14 to 24) she thought about these stories and said "God, what a damn fool I was!" More recently, she took it on herself to make certain that the parental units were aware of the latest thing in parenting lit, Go the F**k to Sleep.* For Em, parenting is a spectator sport, so she finds the book hilarious in the abstract. However, she relates to it very deeply in the context of those tales from her early childhood: as in deeply, hysterically funny.

I suggest this is one in yo face for that species of self-important prude who feels called upon to protest every bit of self-reflective parenting humour. The more insightful and self-revelatory it is, the louder they protest. This is the opinion of a young woman who caused this sort of trouble as a toddler, is delighted about it, and doesn't mind turning things around for a laugh. Most of the critics would find their attitudes proscribed by the Consumer Products Safety Commission were they inanimate objects. Then there's Eric Metaxas, a christian who is garnering some un-christ-like free press for his book. (Forget about that co-author/illustrator person, Nancy Tillman.) Sorry, Eric, parody is protected speech, for one thing: unless you're a christian possessed of a certain level of self-importance. For another, It's Time to Sleep, My Love belongs to a sub-category of children's books that is, to be nice, heavily cross-pollinated.** Others have made the same observations about Nancy Tillman's oeuvre, minus the self-righteousness. One can't parody the genre without engaging in the cross-pollination process.

Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, mercilessly skewered the hypocrisy of the American media about American family life. We see this in the (so far) failed effort to make Go the F**k to Sleep "controversial" instead of funny. Perhaps with that effort running out of gas, Good Morning America has inflated a new prude balloon: young mothers, getting together (terrible!) and having a glass of wine (utter horrors!)

Those even passingly acquainted with my wife know that she drinks about two glasses of wine a week. She may not have much taste for the vine, but she is acutely sensitive to double standards. Why is it, she asked, we haven't heard the same complaint about dads bringing their toddler children to the ballpark and hoisting a few beers?

Lest one buy into the idea that this is the end of civilisation as we know it, consider the good old days about a century ago, as related by my maternal grandmother. Then, similar city occasions meant that mom dragged her brood to the local saloon, got shit-faced, and probably quieted her little darlings by getting them drunk as well. Probably helps explain the life expectancies back then, but it's hypocritical crap to suggest a parallel.

Enough: I'm going the fuck to sleep.

* I'm not censoring. That's what the f**k it's called.

**Much of childrens' lit is disturbingly derivative, more a lack of imagination or nerve than any case of plagiarism. If you want to read stunningly original kid lit and see what can be done in this genre, I suggest Fernando Krahn's books for children.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Chickens,worms and snakes

Over the past two-plus years of un- or underemployment, I've been astounded by the degree of social regression that these hard times have brought on. This began with the epidemic of "career counselors" infesting the Internet, dispensing the same advice such people have been dispensing for 60 years. Whether for this reason or for others, gradually the worldview of people in business began to regress 50 to 60 years. It is true of employers, workers and unemployed alike. Those who haven't taken part in "self-help" groups for the out-of-work have not fully experienced the timidity, yes, the cowardice, of a large number of those out of work. And what do the "career counselors" do about this? Most of them enable gutlessness.

The item that especially vexes me is the growing mania over "no unemployed need apply" notices in help-wanted ads. This began with a pair of ads for blue-collar or no-collar jobs more than a year ago: right, just two. What may have begun as the aberrant behaviour of a redneck personnel manager then got pumped up by CNN and other media. One can scratch around and find anecdotes of the attitude of this loutish hiring manager and that. When one challenges the panicky unemployed and the enabling counselors to document their claims, they fall quickly back on the heart and soul of the urban legend:
"I heard it from the friend of a friend," or its infinite variations.

Bigotry against the unemployed (and especially the older unemployed) exists among certain people, and always will. To elevate a near-urban legend to this degree aids no one. It enables fear among the fearful, vindicates clueless counselors, and encourages employers to think such bias is a good idea.

Show me. Save these ads. Publish images of them, including the names of the employers and the date of the offending ad. But I forget, don't I? We have relapsed into an era in which the relationship of Dagwood Bumstead and Mr. Dithers has become representative, at least in the minds of too many people out of work. All the same, show me: fear makes repression possible.

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