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?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Phobias! Git ya Phobias!

Life has to be dull for people who take themselves too seriously. Having one or two things really worth being afraid of inspires self-mockery about things that might otherwise inspire fear.

My last explored what might be called arktophobia or ursophobia, fear of bears. It appears there's a persistent Interwebz error that it's Melissophobia, which is fear of bees. (A melissophobic bear would have a rough time getting honey.)

Pity it isn't melissophobia: that sounds like fear of perky people from Marketing.

When I was a kid, I had something very akin to acrophobia. This was inconvenient for a child who was regularly dragged up trees and mountains by an outdoorsy father. Several years' experience with chairlifts finally rubbed the gloss off this fear. What remains is enough common sense to be especially careful around sudden drops. I submit that, like ursophobia, this is a fear that can be tamed and put to good use.

Once my acrophobia was tamed, I learned to love flying in small planes, and tolerate it in large ones. My aerophobia (fear of flying) now is directed at the logistics of flying, and I find this rational. Most people forget that passenger rail in the USA did not reach its moribund state through competition as much as through a succession of self-inflicted injuries. One watches with horrified fascination as the airline industry repeats the same mistakes, and wonders what the next page of transport history will show us. Meantime, an airliner is merely a bus with wings, which is sometimes faster than a bus, sometimes not.

It would be a good thing if more Yosemite visitors had potamophobia: more of them would survive their visit. This one isn't fear of potties, but fear generally of open running water.

We must now add musophobia to the list of logical Yosemite phobias, since it seems to be opportunistic deer mice that have been spreading hantavirus around the Yosemite tent cabins. The media appears to be several weeks behind the National Park Service (NPS) in responding to this fear, and the latter have been engaged in the sort of anal-retentive disinfection (after the fact) that NPS is very good at. A little shaky on prevention, yeah, but awesome at crisis management.

When I come back I think I'll affect a cough for several weeks, or perhaps pass out dramatically in my beer.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Yo-Ho part deux is on the horizon

In ten days or so we depart for Cali again: a couple of days in the Bay area, followed by a week in Yosemite. Even if a wish were to take me back in a moment to my beloved White Mountains forever, that wish would have tough competition from both destinations. San Francisco and the East Bay are all Massachusetts could be if Massachusetts didn't have its head permanently stuck up its arse. Yosemite is easy to describe, but hard to comprehend if you haven't been there. Go there, even if you have to walk.

This time we get to go slightly off-season, when many of the thicker variety of tourist will have crawled back under their rocks. This is good in some ways, bad in others. It's chiefly bad in depriving us of much of the unintended comedy.

My notes from the past Yosemite trip have inspired some mule-based and bear-based humour from those who know me in real life. When I introduced Hobbes, my unique mule, I mentioned that I brought to the encounter a sorry record in equine relations. In large measure, Hobbes cured this: he even improved my posture in the saddle.

Bears are another matter. Intellectually, a childhood in the boonies, and country relations who still have bears in the backyard, have given me a healthy respect for campground pests that weigh upward of 200 pounds and don't understand when the treats are gone. Emotionally, yes, I'm a little bit afraid of bears. For good reasons.

One of my earliest memories was of a father pulled into damage control over a horrible tragedy. There was a wildlife exhibit in the White Mountains that attracted tourists. It included a couple of bears. My brother and I had seen all this. The bears escaped their cage, killed a couple of people and horribly mauled several others, one of whom we had met. My parents didn't sugar-coat their conversations about this, and we as children were somewhat shaken by the story.

It was some years before this wildlife exhibit had bears again. When they did, the bears were yearlings raised in captivity. My brother and I were brought to meet the new bears, to see them and wrestle with them. The last was not entirely voluntary. The bears were our equal in size, but a good deal stronger. (My father had odd ideas about child rearing.) Unlike some people skeptical of the strength and intelligence of these animals, I've experienced it firsthand. It was enough of a challenge with ostensibly friendly bears, and I have no wish to test the goodwill of a wild bear. A little fear of bears is healthy: it minimises the sort of dumb mistakes that usually precede bear incidents, and remember: the National Park Service is mostly on the bears' side, even when they're caught red-handed with your pick-a-nick basket.

We expect to spend half of our stay in Tuolumne Meadows, where the trailheads average 8000 feet, where the only showers are open just from noon to 3 p.m., and where bears are as common as squirrels. It's also a place where one gets to hike through scenery that is simply beyond breathtaking, where cell phones and Wi-Fi don't happen. It is a good place in which to apply healthy caution about one's wild company.

We will shower before we fly home.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Le Grande Tour

Back in the less-inhibited 1960s and 1970s, my town was the terminus of an event called The Great Race. It originated in a bar bet, considering whether one could go from Watertown to Marblehead, solely under human power, faster by land or by water. Sobriety was a secondary consideration. In a remarkably short time for those benighted, pre-Interwebz days, the bet morphed into a full-scale event with thousands of participants and spectators. Modes of transport were freestyle, ranging from racing bikes and kayaks to three-decker bikes and four-abreast paddleboats...and not a liability lawyer in sight.

The Great Race had one fundamental rule. Whoever came in first was assumed to have cheated and was forthwith disqualified. The next finisher, in turn, was disqualified for the same reason, and the next, and the next. When all was over, nobody had won first place, but everyone had a place at the taps: and, presumably, such other elevating substances as the times provided. After several years, liability lawyers had been invented and the anal retentives shut the party down.

Today on CBS This Morning, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview Peter Flax, editor in chief of Bicycling magazine, about Lance Armstrong's de facto plea of nolo contendere to the USADA's doping charges. Of course, it remains to be seen how the French organisers of the Tour de France respond to the decision of an American anti-doping agency to strip Armstrong of his several French yellow jerseys. (Logic goes under the bus at such moments, but I hope the jerseys have stood up in the wash.) However, Flax pointed out another problem: just who gets the recycled jerseys? In the years since Armstrong won his Tours, each of the second-place finishers has been found liable for doping. Each of the third place finishers have also, and so on.

Inevitably, I was reminded of The Great Race, and I concluded at once that its organisers had a much better idea than the stuffed shirts who hand out yellow jerseys. Infamous, indeed! If nobody wins, we're all losers, so, let's party!

The idea behind banning doping was not moral, beyond the universal principle behind sports rules, that no one should have an unfair advantage. But if everyone was (or is) doping, and everyone doping is, in theory, going to be caught and punished, doesn't that mean the people with the unfair advantage are the ones who aren't doping? They may win the yellow jersey, but they won't get a shot at the kegs.


Most of the local media coverage of the Armstrong announcement was fatuous in the extreme. It seemed to be based on the assumption that no American was riding a bicycle except under the inspiration of Lance Armstrong, and thus all of them would go away if Lance is banned. Look, I own two road bikes that were built before Armstrong could drive. One was built before he entered kindergarten. I ride because I love to ride, not because I'm under the influence of celebrity culture. So stuff that angle away and go find some news.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wascally Wabbits

Some years ago, when I was commuting long distances before dawn, I hit a rabbit. Early as it was, in the instant before and after impact, a couple of things registered:
  • It was awfully big to be a cottontail rabbit, New England's default wild bunny
  • Framingham is awfully far south for it to be a snowshoe rabbit (aka varying hare)
So, WTF was it? Besides dead, that is.

All this has come back in the last fortnight, when I have spooked a similar rabbit, or rabbits, in the woods along the bike path to Salem. This time, with broad daylight, full faculties and the benefit of a little homework, I could identify the creature with certainty. It is a domestic European rabbit, released or feral, the principal reason that the native cottontail is descending rapidly to endangered species status.

European rabbits are what people with more enthusiasm than brains buy for their children as pets, or as animate toys at Easter. Speaking from experience, they pall quickly as childrens' pets. Their saving grace, in captivity, is a rather short lifespan. I was devastated at 10 or 11 when our bunny died, but we were on to other things rather quickly.

Unfortunately many of these creatures, fragile as they are in cages, seem to thrive in the wild in North America. They are bigger and arguably more adaptable to suburbia than cottontails, they are gradually pushing the native bunny onto very shaky ground ecologically. and, of course, they breed, like, well, rabbits. I rather doubt there is much in the way of rabbit-to-rabbit conflict. It's the old story of one species out-competing the other.

But, as in the Everglades, where pythons are endangering every other life form,
the foreign bunnies got a boost: in the form of idiot parents. These people deal with their childrens' boredom with their pets by "turning them loose to fend for themselves." They deal similarly with all pets they can no longer afford. Thus we get thousands of sick, sometimes vulnerable animals in the wild. Sometimes we get wildly successful animals filling empty ecological niches (think beagle packs on Long Island), and sometimes we get imported animals who bully their way into occupied niches.

It's easier to think of Everglades pythons (and Asian carp* in the Mississippi) as ecological bad guys than it is to apply the same label to those cute widdle wabbits. But they are just as destructive, and they all have the same vector: stupid people. In a just world, the feral bunnies would attract ravening packs of feral beagles, who would chase the stupid former pet owners into swamps where they would be swallowed, whole and slowly, by pythons.

But it's not a just world, so we must wait in patience for the evolution of Killer Rabbits of Caerbannog to even the score. Who, indeed, is wascally?

*Sooner or later, rapacious American fisherfolk will figure out that Asian carp is tasty. They will all move to the Mississippi Valley and wipe out the carp problem in a decade or two. This is unlikely to work with either bunnies or pythons.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Moderate gloom

My PCP is gifted with some degree of insight. It is usual to ask people with my medical companion all sorts of questions about depression and "ideation of suicide," when the obvious answers with TN are "of course I am" and "of course I do." She understands this and doesn't waste time on the obvious.

I'd appreciate it if we had politicians who kept my depression and ideations confined to my health. It's fine for progressives to cheer Capt Brylcreem's selection of Lt. Brylcreem (or is it the other way around?). But they might win. Worse, they might win both houses of Congress. Want to know what happens then? Think 2005, when an insane Congress tried to legislate a dead woman back to life; when the same government let thousands of people in the Gulf die, mainly I guess because they weren't part of the one percent.

So now what? We'd get a president who would still say anything to anybody to create the appearance of being liked, and a rabid ideologue (running the show like Cheney?) who seems to relish the idea of millions of older, poorer, Americans dying in ditches in order to give the one percent another tax break and the military another reason to solve problems by throwing money at them.

Reality check #1. Healthcare reimbursement is how I make my living. "Vouchers" only work if you, like Ryan, haven't got the faintest idea how much American healthcare costs. I do. If we changed nothing, many Americans will die because the dirty little secret is that Medicare still doesn't cover it all. All Ryan's ideas do is increase the casualty list; exponentially. Possibly Congress would get that idea if they got their health covered like everyone else.

Reality check #2. In the Tea Party dream world, the people they cheat of their Social Security benefits and Medicare coverage can just go out and get jobs. Too bad that the business folk who write their cheques have also created the employment world I have anticipated for years. Careers are for people between 25 and 45. Everyone else can shovel shit until they die or just drop dead now. The road to the Tea Party heaven will be paved with the dead bodies of their neighbours.

Reality check #3. I am heartily sick of financial experts prattling on about how one needs $1million (or is it $2 million?), without the least idea how delusional they are. Usually I detest Internet comment pages, but one remark I saw, in response to yet another such story, cut through the noise. It ran, more or less: "I make $10.50 an hour, the most I've ever made. I'm about to lose my apartment. I can't afford food. Will someone please tell me how I'm supposed to get a million dollars for retirement?" The experts are silent when the 90 percent speak.

I'll tell you what will happen if the Brylcreem Boys win and get enough votes in Congress to advance their insane agenda. Americans, the older and the poor of any age, will be dying, just as the Tea Party wants, in tens of thousands. Most won't "drop dead:" they'll die slowly in pain and want. Those caregivers who remember their primary mission will be prevented from fulfilling it by politicians, lawyers and MBAs. The current demographic fantasy, that we'll all live to be 95, will evaporate like mist at dawn. The USA will have the distinction of reversing its life expectancy more and faster than has ever happened before. That's a mark to shoot for, isn't it?

And I don't think Americans have the spine for real revolution anymore. When the one percent wins, it will take generations of repression grow enough spine to resist.

In the 1970s, it was said that insanity was the one sane response to an insane world. It's still true. I'm not thrilled with the alternative, but it is past insanity to consider supporting a pair of arrogant sociopaths for a job ten times more responsible than either has ever held. If that be madness, make the most of it.

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Friday, August 03, 2012

That whiff of chlorine

Anytime the summer Olympics roll around, we are inevitably drawn to swimming. This not because either of the parental units were ever competitive swimmers, but because our offspring was. Em joined the swim team at age seven, chiefly because she saw the team practises as she left her preschool programme. This had no parental push: if anything was pushed, it was ballet, pushed by Mom.

Somewhere around age nine or ten, some switch clicked over, and Em's casual interest became a serious commitment. The team, which had had a strictly intermural schedule, began to explore USA Swimming. That's the national organisation that connects with the international organisation. The rules by which ten-year-olds swim are exactly the same as those by which Olympians swim. It's the first step on a very long ladder. That she shared a surname with a successful Olympic swimmer added motivation.

Em applied to swimming her particular genius, a genius that is important but undervalued. It's not intellectual brilliance, not "natural" athletic talent. It is a capacity for sustained hard work. From the moment the switch turned, she worked at both swimming and schoolwork at a depth that never ceased to astound me. Genetics cheated her: she didn't have the height, or the extremities, to match her ambitions. Her feet were three sizes too small for swimming excellence, but her heart was three sizes too large.

Meanwhile, her parents had discovered the grim reality of swimming parents: except for the brief moments when your child is in the pool, watching paint dry is way more exciting. My wife is never at a loss when she has a book and a place to sit, but I needed more to assuage boredom. This made me open to pitches to become an official. At least one had something to do during meets. Being an official made one vulnerable to becoming a nationally-ranked official, which I did. All this meant was that one had to trade comfortable Tevas for sneakers and socks, which became sopping wet in a single session, and that one had to tuck one's white shirt in one's pants. This is not so comfortable at an outdoor pool in 90 degree heat.

At least when I was doing it, USA Swimming hermetically sealed parents away from swimmers and officials, who are as beloved by fans as baseball umpires. Just as well: swim parents can be the ugliest of sports parents, especially those who have bought into the fantasy that their kid could get full athletic scholarships just by showing up.

But Em went to college outside New England, so my task was done when she left high school. She wasn't recruited at IC: she went for the education and was a team walk-on, and she was proud of that. At first, it seemed that Em was happy to have us totally out of the equation, but at the end of her first college season, the quiet question came: did we think we could come for her conference championship? We did think and we went.

There is a pace and immediacy to college swimming that age group swimming lacks. With a definite team affiliation, we weren't bored.

From age 12, Em's trump card in swimming was power, swimming 200s and the 500 freestyle in meets from age 12. We were startled to find that she was usually scheduled to swim the 200 butterfly and the 1000 yard free (1650 in championships) in the same session. There is no more grueling pair in swimming. No one else could or would do this; she did. She wasn't expected to win, just to score...and to pull a rabbit out of her hat when needed and score impossible points. It was neat to see her on the podium, but it was even better to see the strength of the friendships she had formed, and the respect she had earned for what she could contribute.

We went to all the championships after that, and a couple of dual meets as well. The smell of the chlorine, the humidity, the singular camaraderie of swimmers on deck, are now implanted in our DNA. It was something of a retirement for us, and it brought us into touch with other parents who has walked the same road.

On NBC you don't hear anything except the scripted statements of the swimmers. Underneath that is a heart-rending concern. I had heard it once from Em, and at the college level I heard from numbers of parents that they had heard it too. The greatest fear of these immensely talented young athletes was not failure in the pool, it was disappointing their parents. This anxiety was proof against every reassurance parental love could provide. I can't watch Olympic swimming now without wondering how deeply that anxiety is buried in these kids.

There are swimmers who go to the Olympics and never get a shot at a medal. All they do is swim relay prelims well enough to get the team a good lane assignment in finals. There are also fools who wonder if doing that is worth it all. I think of Em's unforgettable valedictory when she had swum her last college meet:

"How lucky I am, to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

What documentation is for

Documentation, as in instructions on the use of a product, had humble beginnings on the labels of genuinely hazardous products. The purpose was not only how to make best use of the watzit, but how to avoid harm to oneself and others whilst doing so. My technical writing prof had spent some of his years writing doc for aircraft parts, and never let us lose sight of that dimension of our craft.

Someone at the manufacturer of a household cleaner favoured under this roof didn't get this memo. Besides dwelling on the product's environmental credentials, the label went over the perils of getting the product in the eyes. No other hazards: just butterflies and warm fuzzy bunnies.

It neglected to mention what happens when one inhales it...even a little bit.

I admit to having my stupid hat on when I was dutifully deep-cleaning hard-to-reach parts of the kitchen. Most commercial cleaners are about 80 percent water, 20 percent surfactant. This particular cleaner, dressed in all its healthy-earth finery, is more or less the opposite ratio. One has to get on the product web site to read two disturbing cautions: first, only use the specially designed nozzle supplied with the product, which breaks up the surfactant more than standard spray bottle. Second, do not breathe the product, ever, at any stage of dilution, especially without the specially-designed nozzle.

One would think these precautions deserved a place on the label, eh? Well, in my stupid hat, I used the product in a standard spray bottle and, since I was working at about chin level, I breathed some of it in.

That was Sunday. The inflammation of my nasal and laryngeal mucus membranes mentioned on the Web site began before the day was out. It's Wednesday night and the inflammation hasn't subsided.

There's not much to be done. Basically it's an overdose of sore throat. so the treatments are pretty much the same. For someone who doesn't work in a medical office, with all sorts of reference material at arm's reach, I imagine the experience could be alarming. I find it annoying, on several levels.

It's no good to read the fuckin' manual if the manual overlooks actually hazardous information.

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