Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Us Postal Service

The United States government has done a fine job of delivering mail.  Founded very shortly after the formation of the US government itself, it's been doing the same thing almost without fail for well over 200 years.

Anywhere you want to send a first-class envelope, it goes for 44 cents.  That's a bargain to send something across town, but I could send the same envelope to my parents in the DC area, or to my grandmother in Minnesota, or anywhere else in the US.  That includes Alaska and, I think, Hawaii.  That's a major bargain.

Maybe too much of a bargain.  The USPS is in the red and getting redder.  First class volume is down, and so is junk mail.  Less first class mail goes than junk mail anymore, and where 100 first class envelopes would be a decent revenue stream for a single postal carrier to deliver in an hour, it takes as many as three pieces of junk mail to equal the same revenue - and three times as much weight and volume for that same postal carrier.  You can see that the balance is tipping in the wrong direction.

So what's the solution?  Part of the problem is that the USPS is hamstrung by a strong union.  That doesn't do any favors to an institution whose revenue stream is fading, while it also has to bear up under a Constitutional mandate.  Some of the old sacred cows of the USPS will have to be shot and eaten before they can get a complete handle on their expenses.

Here's a weird factoid: the USPS is prohibited by law from closing a post office solely for economic reasons.  And yet, the Post Office also receives no tax revenue for its day-to-day operation, instead relying on postage for its income.  Well, if you had a store that wasn't doing any business, wouldn't you close it?  And post office collection boxes that receive less than 25 pieces of mail per day have been removed from operation in many locations in Florida.  It just doesn't make sense to send someone to a box that gets no business.

UPS and FedEx are both in the black.  They're mail companies too.  How do they do it?  Well, for starters, something the size of a flat legal envelope is $16.00 or more to get where you want it.  That's making the Post Office look like a bona fide miracle of economy, isn't it?  With rates like that, why would anyone ever send anything via UPS or FedEx?

Why indeed.

But the fact is that the USPS simply isn't going to survive in its current form.  Postal services around the world have experienced these same kinds of pains, and many in Europe in particular have done a great job of weathering the growing pains successfully.  One of the necessities of the change has been for the government to let go of a lot of the reins of the service, and turn it over to private operation.

This will be difficult to do.  But we've already survived the dissolution of Bell Telephone into the wide panoply of the differing phone companies and that seemed to work out all right.  We can do it again.

There are a few forms it could take.  Back in the day, you might find the local Post Office was in fact a corner office in a local general store.  How if it came about that the local Post Office was a counter at the grocery store?  That would be super convenient, and you can bet any grocery chain that could secure the contract would fight tooth and nail to win and keep it.  Anything that brings the customers in brings the customers in.  Even if they're the kind of folks who don't normally shop there, they'd be in the door.  For example, I almost never - I mean, maybe once a year - shop at Food City, a local brand of the KVAT line of grocery stores.  I prefer Kroger, Ingles and, when I'm feeling flush, Earth Fare.  But if the PO was in the lobby of a Food City I'd be in there once a week.  There are already banks in the grocery stores, and coffee shops.  Why not a PO?

The country prides itself on freedom of speech, of expression.  It may be that it's a little paradoxical that the baseline form of communication, the written word, the penned missive, has to pass through the government's own hands before it can arrive at its intended destination.  Considering that, maybe it's about time the government got out of the business of conveying all that free speech.  So as traumatic as it is that the USPS is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I think it's a good thing, and I look forward to the new iteration of postal service.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Observations on a Humid Morning

It's nearly the last day of May, and already we're getting temperatures in the mid 90s.  I know, some of you are living where mid 90s is a cold snap.

It's mid 90s and about 115% humidity.  During the night, the temperature might cool to the mid 70s.  When there's so much moisture in the air that it just doesn't radiate its heat to outer space like it ought to, the air doesn't cool much.  And those of you with mid 100s temperatures, you're also usually blessed with temps overnight down in the 50s.  You have a little respite, you can put a fan in the window.  Around here, not so much.  The fan just stirs the warm, moist air around.

So now the sun is up and the mercury is headed further into the upper half of the thermometer.  Chores still have to get done.  I have to mow some of the properties, and if I wait it just gets hotter.  Not any drier, just hotter.  Try to mow too soon and the grass is still damp with dew, and even so it doesn't matter what I do - I'm going to wind up sweating buckets before all's done.

My wife asked me if I wanted to move to a cooler state.  Well, no.  I mean, I could see doing that but she would be dreadfully uncomfortable.  She really comes alive at around 80 degrees and 90% humidity.  But let the temperature get much cooler than 65 degrees and she stiffens up, wraps herself with every unoccupied jacket in the house, and curls around a hot cup of cocoa.  So as much as I might like being someplace cooler, I couldn't tolerate taking her someplace even colder than here.  So that's off the table.  We went to the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Kentucky a few years ago; the weather was very cool but dry at home when we left, but when we arrived in Louisville the temperatures were noticeably cooler and there was snow on the ground.  Sweetie shuddered when she first saw the snow.  If we moved someplace cooler, she'd be shuddering all the time, and I don't want that.

Humans evolved in hotter climes than this.  I can deal.  It probably won't kill me.

One useful thing the hot climate does do is this: it forces me to make careful use of my time.  You can't just take things as they come when the weather gets like it is, you schedule carefully.  Outdoor stuff happens quickly, and the things you can do indoors waits until afternoon, when the temperature outside is just too uncomfortable.  So if you have to change oil on a truck or clean out gutters, first thing in the morning out you go to get it done before the sun gets well and truly overhead.  Then you shelter indoors and do whatever else is needful.  Winter is the opposite, it's extra cold in the morning so stay inside.  You get the idea.

Well, that's enough agonizing over minutiae for the moment.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Clean vs. Dirty and Human Activity

You may be aware of Mike Rowe and his popular Discovery Channel show, Dirty Jobs.  I sure hope you are.  If you aren't, spend a minute or two reading up, look for a pirated vid clip on YouTube.  It's funny and educational.

You might also be aware of TED talks.  Again, I hope you are.  In the TED venue, some of the most fascinating researchers, educators, innovators and thinkers talk about what really gets their motors going.  From cartoonist Jim Toomey talking about how he raises ocean conservation issues with the gentle nudges of enlightening comic strips, to medical researchers building artificial organic and implantation-ready replacement organs, TED talks make you think.

We're used to Mike Rowe making us cringe.  Some of what he's gone through is shocking, frightening, repulsive.  And while it's all of those things, what he's going through is somebody's job, the kind of stuff those folks do all the time, every day.  His show is all about having jobs that aren't beautiful, aren't impressive in the way we've learned to think of impressive jobs.  Hopefully, more on that another day.  Today though, I want to talk about one tiny snippet of what Mike was talking about in his TED talk.

"Clean and dirty aren't opposites.  They're different sides of the same coin."  That's it.  Twelve little words, one whole new paradigm.

I've said it before, that there is such a thing as being too clean.  In certain jobs, you won't finish the day clean.  You just won't.  And in those jobs, the boss fully expects you to come to work wearing jeans.  Thank God for that.

Let's think about "clean."  What do we mean by that?  Are we talking about general household clean, which means no socks lying in the living room floor, a couple of tasteful books on the coffee table?  Or are we talking about kitchen and bathroom clean, with hard surfaces wiped down at least once a week, a higher level of hygiene so you don't mind eating food that's been lying directly on the counter.

In household clean, you pick up the socks and toss them in the hamper.  The mess isn't gone - you've moved it to the hamper.  If they were dirty socks, the level of not-clean in the living room is somehow more than if they were clean socks that just fell out of the laundry basket.  What you will do with the socks after removing them from the floor is beside the point, they were socks out of place.  At first glance, dirty socks might be indistinguishable from clean socks.  But in your head, you grade the living room down a few more points if you know the socks are dirty.

Your living room will probably never be cleaner than it is right after a round of dusting, lint rolling, and vacuuming.  That's about as involved as most people ever get, and it's more than enough.  You haven't sanitized any surfaces or heat-treated anything (which in neither case does nothing about "cleaning," but just kills any pathogens), merely removed bits of stuff that contrasts with the surfaces, so the furnishings alone are what is visible.

Let's think about the socks.  They were dirty, so to the hamper they go.  Eventually they wind up in the washing machine, where application of detergent and water removes "dirt," microscopic shreds of shoe material, household debris from the floor, you, and of course a healthy dose of sweat.  Left to percolate in a warm, humid environment, this becomes a pretty ripe biosphere and starts to smell a little...tropical.  But when you take all that stuff out of the sock with water and detergent, where does it go?

Nothing goes "away."  The Earth is a sphere so we're all downstream and downwind of everyone else, including, eventually, ourselves.  Nothing much is flying off into space, since escape velocity is something on the order of 7 miles per second.  That's clear across North America in under six minutes, so rest assured, whatever's on the ground right now is more than likely staying there for the foreseeable future.  So where does it go?

Eventually to the water treatment plant.  Water gets "treated," sludge gets pulled out and "treated" some more, water goes into the streams and further downstream.  Sludge gets buried, burned, whatever they do to it.  But it's still around.  It's been rendered "safe" with heat or chemicals or biological processes and buried so you can't see it.  But just like playing peekaboo, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's really gone.  It'll be back.  The world is round, everything comes back around eventually.

"Cleaning" is the act of removing unwanted or undesireable materials from an area.  You can't make it go away, not when there is no such place as "away."  "Clean" means the level of unwanted material is below your tolerance threshold.  You can live with it, whatever it is.

Cleaning takes energy.  You raise the level of energy in the space by moving things that have naturally settled to a lower energy state.  Lint falls down, cat hair settles.  You add energy by running the vacuum cleaner, rolling the lint roller.  But that doesn't prevent more lint from settling.  The cat is still wandering around.  There will be more lint and cat hair.  And of course one day the vacuum cleaner will break irreparably, and will become another item of trash to send to the landfill.

Landfills are the condensed mess and dirt of entire populations, moved to one tightly concentrated, tightly contained area so the mess won't explode back out in a critical mass of grime.  Sewage plants are the rich stew of mess that humans make and flush down their drains, thinking that the mess is gone.  It's never gone, it only changes form.

Smoke.  Poo.  Noise.  Old Post-Its, skin dander, rusted old appliances.  Everything alive makes some degree of mess, everything we do produces a level of waste that we ultimately want to not see in our artificially cleaned living and working spaces.  As  humans, we make more mess than any other kind of animal, period.  It might be fine to think that as higher animals, we are also unique in that we "clean up after ourselves," fooling ourselves that we have somehow changed the average level of clean.  All the messes we make are still with us, hidden from view or changing into different messes.  We aren't cleaners, we are only instruments of change and movement.  Like forces of nature, like wind and water, we move materials out of the ground and into the air, out of the air and into the water.  Unfortunately, too often we realize that after we've been doing that for a few decades, we really don't want any of those materials where we've put them, and sometimes undertake to move them back to where we found them.

Better to have left it where it was, to begin with.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Please Help My Farmall!

I have an old tractor, and when it's running it's a blast.  I like to fire it up, drive it around.  It isn't fast.  It sure isn't pretty - the thing is desperately in need of a bath.  It isn't even useful.  It has no hitch hardware, and the PTO currently doesn't work.  That doesn't stop me enjoying the thing...but I only enjoy it when I can imagine using it for something useful, even though I never have.

When it's in running condition, I like to fire it up by turning on the ignition, giving the starting crank a mighty yank, and off she goes.  Check to make sure it's in neutral before doing this; early tractors like this one had no such thing as a safety switch to guarantee no starts in gear.  If it's in gear when you start it, well, it might run you over.

But that's assuming it'll start.  That seems to have gone by the wayside, so I'm putting out a feeler to the entire Internet and I'm hoping someone will give me the benefit of their wisdom.

I had it running late last year, no problem.  I shut it down, then went to start it again.  Nothing.  In the space of a few minutes, something had failed and that killed it utterly.


Well, that was pretty frustrating.  I assumed, and I think I'm right, that it was an electrical problem.  The thing with these old Farmalls is that there almost isn't an electrical system.  If you don't have a battery, no sweat: the Farmall has a magneto system that generates the running spark.  You don't even have to have a generator or alternator on it, the mag does it all.

So here's my thing: I do okay at household electrical, but when it comes to vehicle electricals, it's like I've suddenly lost a lobe of my brain.  I need someone to weigh in, to offer some suggestions.

What I've done so far: checked for spark on plug #1: no joy.  Inline tester, no glimmer during cranking.

That's about all I can think of to do.  I don't know what else I can do, since the magneto is all one piece.  I guess the next bit might be to remove the mag and give it a spin, see if the impulse drive (a doohickey that gives the mag an extra kick at very low speeds, makes it easier to start when cranking) is working.  But I'm using the starter motor, powered by my truck's battery so there's plenty of twist to get things moving.

Enticingly, frustratingly, it coughed once or twice the other day while I was trying to get it going.  Just a little pop, "Rr-Rr-Rr-Rr*phut*Rr-Rr-Rr."  Enough to keep me hoping and trying and providing an endless buffet for the damned mosquitoes.

Anybody else want to sound off on this?  I freely confess my knowledge is limited.

If nobody wants to offer any thoughts, I'll pull the mag and take it to a shop that did some work on it for me a couple of years ago - the results from that were just stunning.  Maybe that's all it is, this time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Insomnia: My Brain Is Revolting

Can't sleep.
Can't sleep.
Can't sleep.
Purr purr purr
she slept through all of that
see what it was in the morning

Can't sleep
Can't sleep
Can't sleep

Tiny houses
little cars
farm, living on a farm
in a tiny house
with a tractor
the tractor will have its own little house
I could be a farmer
working hard all day
no managers down my neck
no vendors on my email
no cell phone buzzing every few minutes
and maybe I could sleep, not thinking
quite so much about tomorrow

Can't sleep
Can't stop
about tomorrow
and the next day
and next week
and next month
but mostly tomorrow
which is taking forever to
get here because I
Can't sleep

Monday, May 23, 2011

Taylor Swift: A Voice for Nerds and Lonely Hearts

It's hard not to like a pretty girl with a pretty voice.  But when she starts to say the things you used to say, to speak the things you only whispered to yourself in your adolescent turmoil, well, the affection becomes a little deeper.

Taylor Swift is probably pretty close to what I daydreamed about when I was a kid: an attractive girl who spent an unfortunate amount of time in a state best described as "frumpy."  Of course, a lot of what we see of her is probably Hollywood styling, chances are good that the young lady is not, in fact, frumpy and has never been.  But in her music videos the image they show is big glasses, shapeless sweatshirts, and a somewhat frustrated air.

Did you sing in your room, all alone?  I sure did.  Write endless and ultimately unsent love letters to that One True Love, the one person who just had to be your soulmate?  That one I didn't do, but I made mixtapes and left them in her mailbox.

Turns out, I may have been a bit of a stalker in my youth.  Moving on!

So now Ms. Swift has a new tune, "Mean."  In it, she declares her goals for the future, and in the meantime asks, "why do you have to be so mean?"  Speaking to everyone who ever beat anybody down, tripped the class klutz, stole lunch money: why do you have to be so mean?

When I met up with kids like that, what I really wanted to do was to vaporize them.  I wanted to be able to crush them flat, to utterly destroy them.  Damned lucky thing I never had super powers.  But when anyone ever asks why I live where I live, I tell them I like the small town flavor and the mountains, and of course I got married and had kids here.  But why did I come here in the first place: why do you have to be so mean.  I live here so I could get away from them, to leave them far, far away.  I go back once in a while to visit my folks, but do I look anyone up from the "good old days?"

Hell, no.  Those days, they weren't that good.  The past can have them.

Why do you have to be so mean.  A plaintive cry for an explanation - not even begging for the hatefulness to stop, just for the author of all that agony to make it make sense.  Maybe if you can justify it, I can take it, if that's what you need out of life.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Taylor Swift's got a history of making good by being good.  When Kanye West made a complete and utter ass of himself at an awards show, embarrassing himself and frankly startling and confusing Ms. Swift as she prepared to receive her first big industry award, she went on to quietly accept his apology and has since drawn from that experience in her songwriting.  Do I think that is reflected in this song, "Mean?"  Not really.  But maybe there's a shadow of it, somewhere in the margins.

Hmm.  "Teardrops on my guitar," a lonely girl pining for a guy who just can't seem to figure out there's a perfectly nice young lady waiting to be noticed.  "Fifteen," cautioning other girls not to fall in love too quickly.  "You Belong With Me," a lonely girl pining for a guy...wait a...hmm.

Well.  Anyway.  What can I say, Swift resonates with me.  I'm a 40+ year old man, and I like to sing the girl parts.  There, I said it.  But of course since puberty and a few more decades, I can't hit those high notes anymore.  Shoot, I can barely see them from here.  But all of that said, the messages of the music still speak to me.  And I guess when you're writing a song, that's the whole idea in the first place, isn't it?

I was a nerd.  I remember how it felt to want to be noticed.  And with a stack of awards under her belt, Ms. Taylor has certainly been noticed.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Get Off Your Ass

Bad things happen to good people.  It's a fact of life, and we all accept it.  Good things happen to good people and that's great, but that's not the kind of thing that makes the papers.  When bad stuff happens, it becomes an emergency, a crisis.  Somebody's got to do something to get the crisis under control, to mitigate the damage.

What about when the emergent parts of the problem are over?  Things have stopped getting worse, the event is over and now all that's left is aftermath.  But while the crisis was going on, bad things happened.  People lost their homes, their jobs.  Cars got flooded, pets got lost.  Now what?

Most people get going.  Most people have some kind of support structure in place.  If, somehow, my entire life got turned upside-down, I could call on my parents.  They'd put me up while I got my life back in order.  If my parents' lives somehow went totally haywire, they could come to me.  We'd be a little crowded, but we'd be okay.  And we'd get ourselves back in order.

And then there are folks who just can't handle it.  Their lives have gone completely off the rails and they never had much support to start with.  Unfriendly family splits, job loss, one screwup too many and now you have people who just don't have any kind of backup plan.  When they fall, they fall hard.  That's when you see people living in their cars, staggering in at the rescue mission, dejected and dazed.  How did their lives go so wrong so fast?  But it happens.

Even so, most of those folks get themselves straightened out fairly quickly and move on.  I don't have anything but respect for the people who weather the storm and get back up again.  As the saying goes, it isn't how many times you get knocked down that matters, it's how many times you get back up.

But what about the people who just stay down?  What about the people who decide staying down is good enough?  I see people taking advantage of support services, who aren't really doing that much for themselves.  Is it really a rescue mission when the guy has been living there for five years?  That's not "rescue."  That's just life support, and as lives go it's kind of empty.

Looking around at some of the facilities in the East Tennessee area, I see what appears to be "casually homeless" people.  I'm coining this new term, I claim origin of the phrase.  To be "casually homeless" is to have access to the conventional support of family and friends, but to choose instead to be homeless, without an address of one's own.  Some of these people appear to be completely healthy, psychologically and physically from the standpoint of an informal observer, but otherwise unengaged in the machinations of day-to-day life like the rest of us.  Why not?  I have no idea.  They hang out, smoke, spit on the sidewalk, and that's all they do.

At first writing I titled this post, "Get Off Your Ass."  I may have changed that by the time I get around to actually publishing it, but it stands as my theme in any case.  Get off your ass.  The world owes you nothing.  Nothing.  My taxes shouldn't be paying so much for your support if you're not going to do much to support yourself.  If you choose to do nothing with your life, then you earn nothing.  Why should anyone have to take an interest in your well being, if you won't do it for yourself?

I had an uncle, gone twenty-plus years now, who had a full-time job in a bank, despite the fact polio had robbed him of the use of his arms at a young age.  He had a real job.  Full disability?  Maybe he was eligible, I have no idea.  What I know is, he had a job.  He did something.

There's a guy somewhere around where I live, don't know his name.  If he stood up he'd be about three and a half feet tall, except he can't stand.  He gets around in a power chair because his legs are maybe a foot long.  He's got a regular job at the Wal-Mart.  It isn't anything that's going to light the world on fire, but he does something.  He literally cannot get off his ass per se, but he's more off his ass than some of these slackers I see, taking up space and using up resources, when they could be doing so much more.

Whoo!  My inner conservative got a bit cranky, there.  But he's going to continue being cranky as long as I keep seeing anyone of sound mind and body, just hanging around doing nothing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some Thoughts on Community Theatre

The little town I live in is in danger of becoming a bedroom community, a place where people live, while working somewhere else.

There's nothing really wrong with that.  Everybody's got to live somewhere, everybody's got to work somewhere.  Well, that last bit is a little specious - there are unemployed people everywhere.  Retirees, that sort of thing.  But you get my point.

Norris doesn't have a lot of business presence.  There used to be TVA offices here, and I believe there may still be a TVA presence.  I don't know precisely what it is, though.  There used to be several offices, but they were sold off and converted into condominiums a couple of years ago.

There's a flooring manufacturer.  That's interesting.  It's a small operation, making only hardwood flooring.  You wouldn't think Norris had enough space to support any kind of manufacturing, but there it is.

There's the grocery store, the post office.  A struggling location that was a restaurant under one owner for decades closed when the owner retired, but then it went through a revolving door stage where a new owner would try to make a go of it, fail, lather-rinse-repeat.  Now it's a physical therapy center of some kind.  With Norris' large contingent of retirees, we'll see how that does.

So it's easy to see how Norris could lose its community flavor, and just become a neighborhood.  But it hasn't happened, and with the restarting of Norris Little Theatre, maybe we can push it back a little further.

Where so many people spend their evenings inside their homes, watching whatever lousy show the networks have scraped up the cash to produce, NLT gets a few of us off our couches every night for a couple of months for rehearsals, set construction and the like, and finally the whole community comes together for a few nights to watch the actual show.  You're not going to see anything like this on your TV, and if you did you still wouldn't be watching it with over 100 of your neighbors.

Several coworkers came.  That surprised me; I had expected only two.  What's best, though, was seeing all those smiles.  "Thanks for coming!  Glad you liked it.  We'll see you at the auditions for the next one...right?"  I said that last one a lot.  Part of what makes it community theatre is the community putting the whole thing together.  Our costume designer lives only four blocks away.  The producer is also my nephew.  And of course, not having an address of our own, we put the whole show on in the community center.  Chairs get set up, taken down, all that jazz.

So now I'm wondering, what will the next one be?  Some folks are asking to do a musical, which means I'll probably wind up being an enthusiastic observer.  But if it's Shakespeare, I wouldn't mind trying my hand playing Oberon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Donald Trump: Prayers ARE Answered

Proving that belief in God is not without foundation, Donald Trump has officially announced that he will not take a run at the Presidency in 2012.

I've already written it several times in these pages, and I'm not the only one that thinks so.  On that last link, I'd love to know who the folks voting "other" would rather see.  I'm holding out for Carrot Top.  In any case, I don't believe Trump has the right personality to make it as a president of any country.  In an utterly totalitarian environment like a company with his name on it, Trump has the ego to make a go of it, even if his own political statements fly in the face of the realities of his governance.  But when it comes time to admit that as Commander In Chief is also the absolute last employee at the end of the line, Trump can't do it.  He can't become the lowest common denominator.  He doesn't take orders well.

"So what," you might think.  "As President, he gives the orders."  Yes and no: as President of the United States, he might give the orders, but only because we, the Citizens of the United States, would have empowered him with the responsibility to do so, by supporting a platform he espouses and is expected to follow through on.  Get it wrong and in four short years, "you're fired."

I'm so glad he's getting out of it.  But in a way, it's not such a good thing, either: this means that the choice of who not to vote for is likely to be a little harder.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Final Show: the Runup

In a couple of hours, we'll have our last showing of And Then There Were None.  This has been, at times, the most stressful thing I've ever done, the funniest, the most confusing.  One of the most rewarding.  It falls a far, far third place - like, there's time to take in a movie while waiting for it to cross the finish line - behind being a husband and dad, but when you take those two outliers out of the field, this has been a hugely rewarding exercise.

The director told me I'm a natural actor.  Okay, if you say so.  At some point it stopped feeling like acting - don't pretend to be the person, just be the person.  I'm Rogers, the faithful and competent houseman.  I represent the Master until he arrives on the premises.  Speak to me, and you're speaking to the Master, in effect.

But in a few more hours, it'll be over.  Thank goodness!  Because besides being the most rewarding and the funnest, I did point out it has been the most confusing and stressful.  I've been up later more nights in a row than at any other time since high school.  I'm getting old: I need my sleep.  And there won't be any more of the bizarre emotional swings of Rogers' terrible last day, when he finds himself thrust into a situation not of his making.  Already he must adapt to certain things gone awry but he's received instructions on what to do and no problems there...but now when it turns out there really is no Master...?

As I said: stressful.  I like things to be relatively orderly.  Short-order deadlines and immediate concerns are my preference.  I'm not fantastic at long range planning and prefer to leave that to others.  Rogers is a man of details and reactions.  I think we'd get along famously.

See what I mean about confusing?  I'd get along famously...with myself?  I'm in kind of a weird place right now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Opening Day (and Night!)

Today was the first day of Norris Little Theatre's latest production, And Then There Were None.  Am I the killer?  Maybe.  Come to see a show, maybe you'll find out.

Today is - or rather, was - Friday 13, 2011.  Long, long day.  We put on a matinee for the local middle school, and frankly the kids didn't give much back.  There's a huge amount of energy coming off the stage as we the actors do what we can to be what the original writer wants to portray; and we're trying to evoke the response you'd expect a bystander to have in the audience.

Middle schoolers = tough room.  No laughs at the funny bits (more on that another day), no gasps at the exciting bits.  To their credit, at least no one fidgeted or catcalled from the audience.

That's the unhappy part.  Let's fast-forward to the interesting part: this evening's show.  Adults paying full price means you can expect them to understand, at least a little, what's going on in a live production.  And the energy we produce onstage is reflected back at us.  The laughter is there, the tense silence is there.  And where I said "thanks for coming" to the middle schoolers, it was so much easier to mean it with the evening's show.

Is it still the most stressful thing I've ever done?  You betcha.  But now, on the rush of feedback just from this show, it's all been worth it.  I'm still a little stressed; there's two more shows to do.  But if the audience for those nights are anything like this, it's easy to see how someone could really get hooked on being an actor.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Closing in on Opening Day

Last night was the first full-dress rehearsal.  Let me tell you, wool suits are hot.  Not hot as in, "you look fabulous," no.  I'm not that lucky.

Then again, maybe I'm not that unlucky.  I don't have any costume changes.  At no point am I required to wear a sweater, and a couple of the cast members are.  Add to that the fact that we're deep into the middle of May and have you noticed, East Tennessee has already hit the high 80s this year?  And it's as humid as it ever was.  So I'm uncomfortable, but it could be worse.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable part is where I'm standing very, very still in the center of the stage for about ten minutes.  I've never been military but I think I have some inkling what the troops are going through, now.  Except without the bullets.

Last night was also tech night, sorting out the sounds and the lights.  It took quite a while.  We, the players, have pretty much nailed down our parts, now the difficulty is getting the show's biggest and most important star - the set - to go through all its cues and interjections properly.  Where the actors are responsible for getting their own parts correct and are a simple one-to-one relationship of person to part, the set and stage is operated by four or more people, all of whom have to dovetail simultaneously.  It's a bit like dancing, except the steps are lightning and the music is thunder and other sound effects.

Opening Night is this Friday, May 13 2011 at 7:00p.  There's a smaller matinee showing for the local middle school, a forgiving audience which I think will help get over the First Live Performance jitters.  But if you're in the area of Norris, Tennessee this weekend and looking for something to do, stop by.  It should be a hoot.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Seeing Small

For Mother's Day Sweetie was given a new camera.

Now, Sweetie hasn't been a big photography nut in the past.  But in her line of work, it's a good thing to be able to shoot a picture that she can then send to someone via email.  The cell phone has a camera, but that camera isn't very good.  It's the lowest common denominator, the kind of thing a manufacturer adds to a phone to be able to say the phone has a camera.  Had there been a model without a camera, I might have gotten that one instead, that's how much I rely on and am impressed by this phone camera.

But moving on!  This new camera of Sweetie's is quite something.  It's conveniently small, small enough to ride in a shirt pocket without causing any discomfort.  It claims many, many megapixels of resolution (especially compared to the phone camera), a modest zoom, the usual stuff.

But the pictures are where the story really lies, aren't they?  And what pictures.  I'll try to get Sweetie to dump a few into an email so I can post them here.

Imagine an iron crank wheel, about a foot across.  It's used for raising the control gate on an old watermill close to where I live.  On this crank wheel are a few bugs, a couple of spiders.  Sweetie shoots pictures of them, raising their forelegs in aggressive stances to ward off the camera.  There's also an ant.

Look at your thumb, at your thumbnail.  See the pale half-moon shape at the base of the nail?  Unless you're six years old, that pale space is big enough to fit this ant, maybe two of them.

But is it an ant?  It moves like an ant, looks just like an ant, but as I watched, it lost its footing and fell off the wheel, as it walked around upside down, on the wheel's underside...

...and then climbed back up an invisible thread.  I shot a few pictures of this tiny bug.  Later, blowing them up on the TV until the ant itself was depicted nearly a foot long, we could clearly see: eight legs.  Those front two, tapping and waving like antennae, are legs.  It's an ant-mimic spider.

Sweetie shot a picture of a jumping spider on a rock.  At regular magnification it looks like a lump of lichen next to other lumps.  Blow it up and it gains definition until it's a little monster, gazing placidly from its many eyes, watching for food and threats.  It's really quite handsome.

Fuzzy caterpillars become pale grey caterpillars hiding under thick tufts of individual bristles.  They look so soft and cuddly when they're small; blow them up and their faces look like they belong on fruit bats.

One excellent picture shows the track of a leaf miner inside a rudbeckia leaf, as thin as a pencil line on one side of the leaf, expanding to become as wide as a thick marker line by the time it gets to the other side.

And that's another weekend morning spent without TV.

In other news: there's been some kind of weird fly hatch in my office.  The place is absolutely lousy with flies, big slow ones.  Time for the flypaper.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Hate Church: Update

Westboro Baptist Church, they of the cheerfully colorful God Hates _____ signs and protests at military funerals, have gotten their computers plugged back in after Anonymous took them down.

One would much prefer that Anonymous hit them again.  It was nicer that way.

Reading a bit of WBC's website, it's clear they are hung up on the hate hate hate part of the Bible, and nothing but the hate hate hate.  They can't hear anything else, can't see anything else.   Even quoting John 3:16, they steer away from the "God so loved the world" part to point out the exclusionary clauses.  If you don't toe every one of these lines - the WBC cheerfully enumerates all of them - simultaneously, you're damned forever and doomed to burn in hell!

If anything were liable to make you doubt your faith, these guys could do it.  If you are on the fence and leaning toward atheism, just stay away from the WBC.  Maybe you'll get better.

Reading further into it, what comes to me is an image of conflicted "swingers" trying to justify their lifestyle by reading the Bible just for the sexy parts.  C'mon people, there's more to it than that.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


When our elected officials - and the high-end advisors and cabinet chiefs who were not elected - talk about it, they call it "enhanced interrogation techniques."  If they talk about it at all, that is.  In the media, they call it "brutal."  Call it what you will, what it is is inflicting physical and psychological discomfort to break down a prisoner's will to resist questioning.

Some might call it expedient.  Others might call it unreliable.

There's one thing I've learned: you can't fully trust information discovered under torture.  The recipient of such treatment, if he is subjected to it too long, will say and do anything to make the torture stop.  That information may be right, and it might be bogus.  He will say anything.  Anything.  This was brought home to me, most surprisingly, in an episode of Star Trek TNG.  Captured and intensively interrogated by hostile Cardassians, Captain Picard begins to break down.  It being Star Trek and he being the head Good Guy, Picard is of course rescued...but later, discussing the matter with the ship's counselor, he admits that though he knew there were just four lights in the ceiling, the Cardassian's treatment was getting to him.  He could see, as the Cardassian insisted, that there might be five.  His world had begun to crumble, his grasp on his own will was slipping away.

How much will did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have left after 183 trips to the waterboarding room?  The man spent as much time underwater as a Woods Hole submersible, maybe wondering if this time, the water wouldn't stop.

Held down, soaked, gasping for breath, exhausted.  What would you say to make it stop?  Are there four lights, or five?  Where is Osama bin Laden?  What would you say?

I think I might tell my questioners that the sky was hot pink with racing stripes, if I thought it would hold the bucket back for a few more minutes.  But that's me talking here and now, in a comfortable chair and no hostile hands on my neck.

We say that as Americans, we respect the human rights of all people equally.  Americans don't torture.  Prisoners have rights, prisoners though they be.  Even prisoners of war, under American law, are afforded certain guarantees of treatment.  This tends to slow down the process of extracting information from especially well informed prisoners, and that makes everyone cranky.  But fortunately for us, we have international friends who, even if they don't say that they do torturewon't mind lending us a room where we can conduct some enhanced interrogations of our own.

Finding bin Laden was the work of years.  Mohammed couldn't provide all the information, and of course once he was captured his information became increasingly out of date.  So subsequent prisoners provide more information - some of which, if Mohammed was lucky, corroborated his story.

I land in two places on the whole torture issue.  I hate it as an American.  I really believe it is completely beneath us as a nation to tolerate it, even for a moment.  Like the death penalty, it is a debasement of our nation's values, a throwback to a less-civilized time.

And then I see in my mind, the towers falling.  Planes plunging into places where they shouldn't go.  Calling home to be certain my mother wasn't in the Pentagon, getting another call from a friend who said he looked up as he was refueling his car, thinking to himself, "that's not a typical flight path around here."  I see in my mind the images of people captured by al Qaeda forces, accused of assorted bogus crimes, and having their heads sawn off as they struggle for one more breath.

But that's not torture.  That's murder.  The only common element here is that the victim just wants to live.  At least under the American program, you have that option.  You still have the chance to live, to redeem yourself, to give up your pride and your commitment to an oppressive regime, to turn your life around.  In fact, under the American program, you're pretty sure that you actually will live.  Under al Qaeda, no such guarantees.

I'm about ready to advocate for even harsher treatment of a few al Qaeda operatives.  I lean farther away from the information gathering aspects of torture, farther toward the punishment aspects.  I won't write them down here.  It poisons my mind enough just to think of them, no point in adding that to yours, too.

I'm about ready.  I'm not entirely ready.  I'm not willing to stop being an American.  I'm not ready to give up that universal respect for everyone, those underlying Christian ideals that are the ethical basis of so much of America's foundation.  But al Qaeda is pushing me farther and farther.

It galls me, more than anything, to know that their treatment of us would make me more like them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pictures of Dead Men

It was, back in the day, something law enforcement would do.  The triumphant lawmen would stand, posed with their guns prominent, alongside the propped-up bodies of the evildoers they had gunned down.  Or there would be a picture of the bad guy in his casket, with his face clearly visible.

The messages these pictures sent were pretty strong.  They were unambiguous: lawmen killed these guys.  They're dead.  Look at the pictures and you can see, he's not going to get up.  Something about the face, not reflected in the faces of the live men who might be in the picture too, grimly determined men with their hands near their guns.

As communication got better and news reporting had to become more mainstream, the intensity of the news was toned down, to be a bit less gritty.  Women might read the news, children.  As society became more advanced, the life-and-death conflicts of edgy pioneers became less and less.  Pictures of dead men became records in files, not something released to prove the sheriff was doing his duty.  Just held onto, to prove that the duty had been done.

Now Leon Panetta is saying that the CIA will release pictures of bin Laden, freshly dead, in no-longer-living color.  Panetta says that the ultimate decision as to whether to fully release those pictures shall rest with the White House, that the CIA will not be stand in the way of their publication.

It's not the proof that it used to be.  When taking a photograph meant exposing a treated plate of silver to the image's light for maybe minutes on end, only the dead man could be counted on not to blink.  And the technology of retouching photos, already under development even then, wasn't up to the task of making a photo of one man look like someone else entirely.  It was difficult to do, and expensive.

With computers and open source software, you can make any image do almost anything.  I've even done a little myself, and trust me I've precious little experience or skill at it.  But the point is, I already have the tools on hand to do it.  So do we really need to see such a gory picture?

I'm inclined to say yes.  There's a couple of reasons:

1 - Much as I hate to say it, Obama's presidency has been tainted by his reluctance to release his long form birth certificate.  Did I ever believe he was foreign born, no.  But now we've got that doubt - al it ever would have taken would have been a phone call.  Couldn't we have gotten this little sticking point out of the way a couple of years ago?  That would have been great.  And since we don't want to have to put up with any of that noise again, if you have pictures, release them now.  As fast as computers are, people still assume doing something like fudging a picture takes time.  The longer you wait, the less people will believe in the picture.

2 - The extremists have been perfectly happy to release pictures of American soldiers murdered while in custody, or even video of the murder taking place.  Have some back, guys.  You earned it.

The things people do to each other in the name of of their god makes me sick.  What god would want you, when you treat people in such fashion?  Didn't that same god make those other people too?  If not, might as well admit it straight away - if he didn't, then there has to be another god out there, too - a different god that made those other people.  And if that's the case, then how valid can your own god be?  What does it do your soul, to want to kill so many people all at once?  I think on some level Osama was pretty sure his god was no god at all.  All he had left was rage and hate.

So I won't look at it.  I already have a good idea what it looks like.  Osama shot in the head, huge pressure shockwave blows out the back of his head, facial features slack, blood.  I don't need to look at it to know what a dead man looks like.  He looks bad.  He looks empty.

Rage and hate go away when the body dies.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Donald Trump Can't Be President

There are many reasons why he shouldn't, but really there are very few actual bars to The Donald stepping up to the country's highest office.  And even though neither of these two skill sets I'm about to describe are ever described as being prerequisites for the job, I think they are utterly indispensible.

In fact, the list of qualifications for President are pretty short.  You have to be a natural born citizen, be at least 35 years old and lived in the country for at least the last fourteen years, and have a pulse.

That's it.  Nothing in there about a law degree or even a high school diploma.

Nothing in there about a track record.

So, what do I think Trump utterly lacks that automatically disqualifies him for the Presidency?  Easy: diplomacy and humility.  Let's attack these in order:

When you're the boss of the big company, you shout and people jump.  They jump every which way.  And as President you might expect that to happen too, but it's important to remember that while you might be the President and therefore the Chief Executive, you are also the Employee in Chief.  The President is a single point on the circle of power of the United States, he is the boss who calls all the shots, because his 300 million bosses told him which shots to call.

I wonder if Donald is capable of absorbing this lesson.  Politics has become, through the years, a venue where egos are a driving force.  In the modern arena of expensive campaigns, televised debates and "winning" votes rather than earning them, you have to go into the race believing that you're the right man for the job.  At one time, governance was the kind of thing you took up - sometimes reluctantly -  because the public wanted you to do it, now it's something people chase after.  It takes a lot of chutzpah to step up to that kind of spotlight, to hang your face out there and say, "yes, I can do this.  I'm the one who's smart enough, wise enough, to make the decisions that will be best for the country."

What about when different factions inside the country don't agree?  Can't just tell 'em "they're fired."  That's just callous.  And we already know The Donald can be callous.  What does he care, he's filthy rich.  Except as President The Donald, he doesn't get to be rich.  All his business is set aside.  Being President isn't something you do on the side, when your day job is done.  As President The Donald, you are as poor as the poorest man in America.  If you hope to get anything passed through Congress, you have to master much more than "The Art of the Deal," you have to be willing to bend.  You have to be willing to accept the other guy may be right, righter than you are.  You have to be willing to step back from your own agenda when other agendas, agendas worth pursuing, have a better chance at getting the attention they need.

And if you can't take a joke, how do you expect to make it five minutes in the white-hot spotlight of the campaign trail?  You'll flame out in five minutes.

Actually, in retrospect, he took that joke pretty well.

Too bad he lied about the bank balance, though.  Our economy is messed up enough, if that's the kind of accounting we can expect from The Donald, maybe you're not even good Vice President material.

Is this the same level of diplomacy we can expect when it comes time to mix it up with other countries?  Lambasting China over and over again, that they're eating our manufacturing lunch and manipulating our economy (while hypocritically plastering his name on almost exclusively made-in-China products) will play very poorly from the Oval Office.  Way to burn bridges, dude.  Nice job.  Have you thought about where we wind up if China decides to suddenly call in all its markers?  We'd be violently broke.

It's one thing to be the top dog of a company with your name on it.  To work in a tower with your name on it, to sail around in a big yacht with your name on it, to sit on a solid gold toilet with your name on it.  That's pretty heady stuff to be sure.  But when you're President, your name is only on the door for four years, or eight if you manage to fool the constituents a second time.  And while your title is President, don't forget the qualifier: "...of the United States."  When people are speaking about you specifically, that's when your name gets mentioned.  The rest of the time, you're just The President.  Not The Donald.

Pull back on the profanity a tad.  You don't need to roll out the ugly words to get your point across.  In fact, some points don't need to be made at all - they're not relevant.

It's important to remember that while it is one of the youngest countries in the world, the United States is also one of the most powerful.  It was built quickly by driven men, driven men who adhered to an ideal.

That ideal wasn't "this place needs me."  The United States doesn't need anyone nearly as much as it needs everyone.  When you're willing to set aside your personal goals enough to make the goals of the entire country your own, when you pull on the mantle of Presidency not as a feather in your cap but as a burden that must be borne, that's when you're ready to be President.  I don't think we've had a president like that in a long time, and if Donald Trump somehow, against all odds, manages to get nominated and then (ye gods) wins, it'll be another four years before we get it again.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Creek Hiking

When the weather gets crazy hot around here, we go hiking.

Let me clarify: "crazy hot" isn't what some people would call crazy hot.  Seldom does the temperature climb into the hundreds, though I've seen 105 a couple of times.  But we get into the 90s a lot, all through summer, and then humidity drops on you like a heavy weight.  90 degrees and 95-100% humidity aren't uncommon at all.  Air so warm and moisture-laden that there's a short, violent thunderstorm every afternoon for about ten minutes isn't uncommon.  The meteorologists call them "heat effect thunderstorms" and around here in East Tennessee, we expect them all summer long.

It's so moist your own perspiration can't really evaporate off you.  You just get damper and hotter.  Then the thunderstorm hits and you'd think that might cool you off, but no.  Warm rain pours over you, then it ends, and now you're soaked, hot, and miserable.

So when the weather gets to this point, we go creek hiking.

Creek hiking is when you're actually hiking in the creek.  Wearing shorts and (for me) sandals, you just slowly, carefully make your way up the creek bed.  From the knees up you're still in all the heat, but...down next to the creek it's actually a lot cooler.  And from the knees down you're in the creek which is, even if the water is kind of warm (and it never warms beyond what I would call cool to the touch) it's still a lot cooler than body temperature.  So it all evens out and you feel, after the first fifty yards or so, pretty good.

So there you are in the creek.  It's fun to hike along the creek and observe the clouds of minnows and maybe hop onto a rock and try to catch crawdads.  It's even better to get out there in the middle of the creek and hold still for a minute.

After they've had a chance to forget you were moving and maybe dangerous, impertinent, curious fish will come to you and start nibbling your leg hairs.  I've had bluegills nip at freckles, which is startling.  You don't expect them to be so aggressive, but they are.  And fish aren't as dumb as you might think; after a couple of fish have tried to eat your freckles, it appears that other fish in the area notice that none of the testers have had any luck with your freckles, and leave the freckles alone.  So you only get nibbled a few times for any given locale.

There are some nibbles we'd prefer to avoid.  There's a wide, shallow pond where we know there's a large snapping turtle.  Since snapping turtles are so hard to spot, being colored the same shade as the bottom, we give him plenty of room by stepping out and walking alongside the pond.

How do we know the snapper is in there?  Easy: we put him there.  Sweetie and I spotted him on the side of the road on our way home one evening.  Knowing that some hateful person would eventually spot him and swerve to squash him, I pulled up to a screeching halt, jumped out of the car, and grabbed that big monster by the tail (only safe place) and heaved him up into a big steel washtub that just happened to be in the trunk.

We showed him off to boys, then we all trooped up to the creek to turn him loose.  None too soon either: snapping turtles smell bad.  And the occasional rattle-bang as he tested his cage was a little disconcerting.  You hear about distracted drivers having all sorts of accidents, I can't think of anything more distracting than having an angry snapper loose, stomping around in the car.

After we've been hiking a while, we come to a spot where the creek gets pretty darned small.  We've passed several areas where streams from springs run down to join it, and there's not a lot of creek left since we're hiking upstream.  So we hike along the trail until we get to another pond.

This pond is close to where we choose to either turn around and head back to the car, or if we started on foot we keep going until we've hiked all the way back to the house.  It's an excellent hike that takes a few hours and covers lots of different terrain.  But this one pond is fun because in spring it has tadpoles and all summer there are lots of dragonflies, butterflies, what have you.

Last summer we approached the pond and there was a squawk-splash as a frog basking on the edge decided we were too close, and leapt to safety.  Stepping further along, another squawk-splash.  It seemed the little frogs just couldn't jump without croaking to announce they were going to do it.

Son #1 crouched and became very stealthy.  He advanced carefully, so carefully...getting lower...and slower...and lower...and snatched and came up, triumphantly holding his cupped hands aloft.

"I got one!  I got him!"  Sweetie praised his efforts and skill - catching frogs in broad daylight is hard.  He came to us and carefully opened his hands a little so that we could see inside, the beautiful little leopard frog he had captured.  It held very still, and he opened his hands a little further.

It was very, very still.  He opened his hands further yet.  It didn't move.  Finally he gave it a prod with a finger.  It didn't move.

Son had caught a dead frog.  He looked a little chagrined.

Sweetie shook her head.  "I was so proud of how carefully you had sneaked up on him.  You could have been a one man band and gotten that frog!"  We looked the little critter over carefully but couldn't see any sign of injury or anything else obviously wrong to the naked eye.  It was a perfect little frog, but dead.

He put it back down.

And that's another great thing about creek hiking - if you pick something up that's a little distasteful, there's plenty of fresh water for rinsing your hands.

So as the summer heats up, that's one way we enjoy for beating the heat without turning up the air conditioning.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Osama bin Laden's First Day in the Afterlife

Osama bin Laden dies and goes on to his spiritual reward.  He finds himself on a green meadow, luscious and beautiful with flowers and sunlight.  He smiles to the skies of what must certainly be Heaven.

In the distance Osama sees a man coming toward him.  It is...no!  Can it be?  It's none other than George Washington!  Now certainly there's a fellow who understood fighting for freedom from oppression.  But as Washington approaches bin Laden, Osama realizes that although from America's distant past when people were smaller, George was actually a pretty big guy.

George hauls back, and socks Osama bin Laden across his hairy face with a fist of iron, and follows it up with another, then another...

Osama sees, through the hail of blows, another man coming.  Who could this be?  It's Thomas Jefferson?  What kind of Heaven is this?

Thomas Jefferson lays into Osama with his own knuckles.  They didn't call him Old Hickory for nothing, and it's like being battered with an entire grove of angry trees.  But now who's coming over the hill...?  What the hell?  Robert E. Lee?

"God!"  Osama screams to the sky.  "O God!"  He can barely get the words out.  "You promised me if I went through with my plans I would be rewarded with an eternity with forty virgins!"

Osama is startled to get his first unambiguous response from God.  "I said Virginians."

Hell's Newest Resident: Osama Bin Laden

Reports are that Osama bin Laden is dead.

I just caught this report, very very early on a Monday morning as I sat up, sleepless and unable to get comfortable.

I don't often wish the death of anyone.  I don't have much hate in me.  But do I believe the world is a better, safer place with bin Laden cooling to room temperature?  Oh, yes.

Bin Laden was a liar, a faithless infidel who only espoused hate and revenge.  Good riddance.

The Devil can have him.