Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bet You Wondered, Too

The Imperial Austrian Navy ensign

The Sound of Music came on television this evening, with the addition of sing-along captions.  This movie reminds me of two things:  first, that when it arrived at the Willow Lawn theater in the back of Willow Lawn shopping center in Richmond in 1964, it stayed for years.  Even Rocky Horror didn't have that kind of longetivity!  Second, I have always wondered about the gruff old Baron von Trapp, who was a retired Austrian admiral, which made as much sense to me at the time as a Swiss or Bolivian admiral.  What part of land-locked didn't the writers understand?

OK, I soon figured out that the former Austrian Empire controlled states along the Adriatic Sea that today are parts of Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenego and would probably have had a navy.  But I still wondered if he was indeed an admiral other than in the movie, and why he was so wealthy.  After all, being retired from a defunct military probably doesn't usually leave one a huge pension, or much of anything except your old uniforms.  Until this evening, I let those questions fall through the drain holes of memory, but now I had to have some answers.

LtCdr von Trapp

Above is the real Georg Ludwig von Trapp, who did have a 20-year career in the Austrian Navy, but was not an admiral by the end of it all in 1918, but a Lieutenant Commander.  He was not a bureaucrat, however; he was decorated for his brave service during the Boxer Rebellion (1900) in Chinese waters, and commanded a U-boat in World War I as well as the submarine base, both successfully.  His first wife's father invented the modern torpedo, ironically enough, and that wife, who died of scarlet fever, was the source of his wealth.  And he was indeed a baron, an inheritance from his father.

After the imperial Navy (which during WWI could boast 98 ships, six of which were submarines) was parceled out to the new Yugoslavia and some of the Allies, Austria only operated three old patrol boats on the Danube River in the interwar and WWII years.  It enjoyed a small resurgence in 1958, when two new river patrol boats were built and commissioned, but the end of the Cold War entailed military budget cuts and the whole saga ended with their retirement in 2006.

And our hero's second wife, the singing nun Maria?  She was 25 years younger than her husband Georg when they married, and outlived him by 40 years.  Her full name was Maria Augusta Kutschera.  One last factoid, and you will know all you'll ever need to about the movie vs. real life:  the family escaped to Italy, not Switzerland.

Two of Austria's submarines


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Twelve Thirteen Fourteen

Today is December 13, 2014, the last consecutive string of numbers (12 -13 - 14) in this century, and the last all of us except a few who can't read yet will see.  We can be grateful we are not observing 12-13-1914; as anxious as people were at that time, four months into the Great War, they must have been unaware it was going to get a lot worse.

The defining moment had just arrived, but people can only appreciate when and what that moment is at a later date.  The German Empire's Schlieffen Plan to quickly sweep through Belgium and capture Paris had bogged down after the First Battle of Ypres, which ended in mid-November.  The front lines stabilized into a long and incredibly costly stalemate.  On the Eastern Front, current events did not preduct future ones; the Russians were holding their own on the border with East Prussia.  To the east lay the city of Grodno, where my Great-Aunt Minnie, who had emigrated to America and married a cousin of my grandfather's, was from.  It wasn't until the end of her life I learned I had a relative born in Czarist Russia.

My grandfather, born in 1895, was headed to Iowa from Pennsylvania in the near future to escape the draft by doing full-time farm work.  Wheat chaff got lodged in his ear, compromising his hearing, but he found that out when it was removed a half-century later.


King Peter watches Serb Army drive Austrians out, December 1914

The apex of the mechanical era of the Industrial Revolution coincided with the Great War; cars, trucks, railroads and farm equipment changed things quickly.  The lack of paved roads created problems; that took decades to solve even while the horse population dwindled faster than anyone could have guessed.  Many square miles of timothy hay grown in Ohio were suddenly useless on the market and dairy cows moved in to fill that loss.

Cars but few paved roads: Dumfries, VA, Route 1

The boom years for agriculture caused by the demands of worldwide war collapsed quickly into a two-decade depression after the Armistice while the prosthetic device industry improved technologically and grew.  The Marriott fortune began out West due to the insatiable market for beans; after the war J.W. Marriott went into selling root beer, a pretty smart move, it turned out.  There were winners and losers by the millions, and millions more succumbed to the mis-named Spanish Influenza.  Television's beginnings were only a decade off in 1914.

The working class:  munitions workers

Daring fashion, 1914


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unusual Occurences in the Kingdom

Someone, somewhere, has a blog whose sole topic is odd things that exist, or have occurred, in the United Kingdom.  Its author would never run out of subjects to explore; in fact, if only place names were examined, the treasure trove would be inexhaustible.  What strikes one is how crazy things have gotten at various times in a nation known for its reserve, great respect for tradition and good order, and cultivated manners.  Today we'll look at just two bizarre items:

The Nine Days Wonder

The gentleman depicted above, Will Kempe, was an comic actor who was for a while in Shakespeare's company until he was dismissed in 1599, known for excelling in the roles of Falstaff and Bottom.  Will was a Saturday Night Live type performer way ahead of his time, remembered for his "merriments," to quote a contemporary, as well as improvisation and song-and-dance numbers.  But much more than this, he found his niche in history for Morris-dancing from London to Norwich, a distance of about 100 miles, over nine days as a publicity stunt.  The Morris dance itself, more than half a millenium old, is pretty quirky, involving bells on the lower legs, stylized movements, and the use of props such as sticks, handkerchiefs and clay pipes  The pipes are hopped over while lying crossed on the ground, like a Cossack leaping over swords.  Of course, there was no individual named Morris involved; it's a corruption of "moorish."  Look up pictures of the Pearly Queens and Mummers to see how things have really gotten out of hand since Will did his long-distance jig.


Norwich remembers Mr. Kempe's jolly visit

Just Don't Frighten the Horses

It's hard to imagine that, in the proper town of Wickford in Essex, back in 1924, the first English nudist camp was established by a small group named Moonella.  The founders all went by pseudonyms, for obvious reasons, and the owner of the land (Moonella him- or herself) has remained anonymous to this day.  The experiment in tanning in the generally rainy U.K. only lasted for three years, but you have to give them credit for trying it in what was still quite an Edwardian society. 

A judge seemingly had enough of the oppressively hot climate in British India back in 1891, so he did the logical thing and established his own bare group, the Fellowship for the Naked Trust.  It probably did not last long, either, but he had more appropriate weather to frolic in.  But still -- a nudist judge in the Victorian British Empire?  Ours here in the Keystone State exchange porn via e-mail, sell justice like kettle corn, and use state employees to campaign for them, but they would never, uh, frolic. 

Speaking of a sport not suited to the climate, six swimmers bravely attempted a naked relay across Loch Ness for charity in 2005, but were defeated by the wind, chop, cold water and all that.  Besides, they were all in their 40s and 50s.  Past prime time, I'd say.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tale of Two Curves

You're probably familiar with the Bell Curve, a "graph of normal distrubution;" it's a good, simple tool, a template that seems to be useful in descriptions of reality.  If it's a graph about people, for example, that 70% around the middle (mean) line would be most of us, who muddle along and don't do too much harm, while the 30% at the ends would be the sociopaths, psychopaths and severly disabled.  Since the 1994 publication of the book of the same name, it's been largely associated with the distribution of human intelligence, which the authors posit is a better predictor of outcomes in life than environmental factors.  There was a Three Stooges short film, without graphs, which explored the same point without the subsequent decades of controversy.

I recently came across the above, known as the Bathtub or Weibull Curve.  It is used to display predictions of product reliability in engineering.  Hmmm -- I wonder where the Vega would have been placed on such a chart by GM engineers, back in the day?  Manufactured products are most likely to fail at the very beginning (labelled "infant stage" here) or at the end of their service life, but they may be obsolete before they age out; either way their service life is over.  Think of cell phones or all that video equipment bought for Christmas or vacations over the years that was quickly discarded as lighter, more advanced products were introduced, despite their still being in good working condition.

Another major factor in determining the end of service life is the repair expense compared to the value left.  I took a small trimming router to a local shop years ago to have the motor rewound after years of hard use; the estimate was $100, five dollars more than what I had paid for it new.  A new one it is, then.  If a part is inexpensive (and most everything is easily available on the internet now) and you can replace it yourself, like a broken belt on a cassette player, that's much better than either a repair bill or a replacement purchase.

Cars now serve reliably for about ten years or up to 150,000 miles, which certainly was not the situation when I was younger.  People traded in at three years back in the 50s, 60s and 70s because that's when things rusted, leaked or just snapped.  That is still practiced, with auto leasing programs (financial suicide is painless, the salesman assures you), but the practical reason for doing so is long gone.

Clustered on the left side of the graph you'll find any Chinese-made product that uses electricity.  There are companies, American and German, that have made reliable switches for electrical devices great and small for a century (Allen-Bradley, Crouse Hinds, Bosch, etc.); you would think Chinese manufacturers could copy some of that tried-and-true technology like they do everything else, but I and millions of others can tell you they can't make any kind of a switch that will last.  Usually they fail at 367 days on a product with a one-year warranty.

This will all be on the test.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What Works

I've put up a few posts about house design, remodeling and real estate on Just Sayin' and continue to read and watch programs about these things because they always seem fascinating, whether they explore plans that could work, do work or are shiny, attractive ego displays.  The house plan above, for example:  isn't it a tad overdone, chopped up and probably ridiculously expensive?  Major American developer/builder Toll Brothers, and several companies in your own area do nothing but these McMansions, and they sell.  They just make no sense.

There's a sweet spot, seldom found, between architectural wonders made by Frank Lloyd Wright and other mid-century visionaries and mass-produced schlock.  They do have design fails in common that make neither a good home: being leak-prone, energy inefficient, expensive to build, poorly sited (think mudslides and fires in the West, floods everywhere), maintenance/tax/insurance burdens and clueless about useful interior space.


Above is a typical TV show type dream house.  Note the absolutely useless space in the third picture down.  And think about heating the Great Room in the first picture.  Unless this home is carefully oriented for solar gain and insulated superbly, you're not going to be getting utility bills you will like -- or can afford when you're retired.  And imagine paying for those huge custom windows, at interest, over a 30 year mortgage.  The architect or designer doesn't have to.

The kitchen island is always great, as is a reasonably big kitchen to put it in, with easy movement foremost in the layout.  What every kitchen needs, and few homes have, is a pantry.  We actually had one once, and loved it.  Another useful space every home needs is a dedicated closet for cleaning tools and supplies.  I have never seen that, but homes today that have more than enough space for it are trending instead toward at least three living spaces (a living room, not to be used; a family room with giant TV, and a bonus or game room).  Some have all three and a big finished basement with a pool table that you won't be taking with you when you move, used three times and afterward just horizontal storage.  What you really need, after that pantry and utility closet, are:

* Ceiling fans.  A must.  The only downsides are cleaning them and the fact that they go out of style long before they stop working, and only the cheap ones ever have problems. 

* Laundry room.  Those little post-WWII two-bedroom tract houses eventually ended up with washers in the kitchen and dryers in the added bathroom (because you only got one, despite the big families back then).  What were they thinking?  That a family with children adding up over the years never needed to do laundry?  Some clever designers today want to put those appliances crammed tight in a hallway closet, behind doors in a bathroom, or inside cabinets completely.  Ideas that don't work at all, because lint, dust, lighting, access for repairs and duct cleaning, and humidity are real concerns that must be addressed.  Space and structures for towel storage, hanging clothes, ironing, and folding are necessary in the design of that laundry room.  And ventilation!

* Lighted, walk-in closets.  They'll make you happier than that $6000 arched window, which the designer or real estate agent swears makes the "Great Room" "pop!"

* A garage, even if it's only a small one just enough for your Toyota.  Cars deteriorate outside, they are at risk for all kinds of damage, and why unload groceries in the rain -- that's just miserable.  Trade the third bonus room for one.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Filler, Fluff, and Drivel

A lot of our friends and family are recently retired, being Boomers, or are looking at it coming down the road.  It's best to be prepared for such a big life change, and being prepared starts with being accurately informed.  Woe to him who tries to reach such a state by reading, over time, dozens of articles in media such as magazines, the internet or from broadcasts.  What you will find is generalized to the point of uselessness and will only confuse you with reference to things as how to use short term bonds in your investment/retirement income strategy.  If you just have a pension and/or a 401(k)/IRA, and have not been playing the investment game actively with a broker, you don't even know if you have those or not, or how much or what kind. And the volumes of printed information your IRA provider sends to you will never give you those facts.  You're sent thousands of words and numbers and percentages of this and that, but no specific information that would be useful.  Ever.

You do need to know some very important terms and figures in order to proceed that you will never get from the popular media, because once you have those you can use the internet to educate yourself.  And you must, because ignorance in general or an ill-informed mis-step in particular can cost you big time.  An example is called for here -- the one which spurred this post. 

Most people know you must begin to take money out of your plan, in a "Required Minimum Distribution," as it's called, beginning at age 70 1/2, whether you need to or not.  That is because the purpose of an IRA is to provide income during your retirement, after all, and not to be a permanently tax-deferred savings account to pass down to your heirs.  I have always wondered what that amount would be and the rules about how to comply, so I've waded through countless articles trying to find out in advance.  It's been like wading around in a vat of marshmallow fluff.  It took until a few days ago for one writer to slip and actually mention the specific term which would allow me to search for the answer:  it's the "IRS Multiplier."  With that little gem, I found the instructions and the chart (on which explains, as Clarissa did, everything.   And on one concise page.  Note to Vanguard (and the rest):  you can do this, too.  It looks like you must have a reason not to let us amateurs in on How Things Work.  All the writers say to consult your tax advisor or financial planner. You might as well be advised to stick your hand in the crocodile's maw.

Lost in trying to understand how to use two types of depreciation and/or expensing when preparing my tax return due to having a rental property, I once ignored my own advice and best instincts and consulted a tax advisor.  That genius missed my two biggest deductions and I had to redo it and submit an amended return the next year after ruminating a while over the large amount that was, uncharacteristically, owed.  If there's information out there, in plain English, about how to properly figure depreciation yourself, I sure could not find it.

Many retirees are urged by those "advisors" and "planners" to keep or get a mortgage and put the amount that would have paid it off into investments -- often annuities -- instead.  Articles in the media do this all the time also.  They call such a move capturing "opportunity cost," which sounds impressive, but it's a terrible idea, and really just a device to generate fees.

And would Grandma lead you astray?  I'm talking about the single worst source for financial and real estate guidance:  AARP.  I have no idea why we're members, except that we must need more junk mail pushing their insurance, cell phones and Rascal electric scooters.  Those 10% discounts on some things like bus tours or bad chain motels must have been the reason for giving in to their long campaign to sign us up.  AAA has those, and more we can actually use locally, along with actual services like towing (since we're avid collectors of nails in our tires, we've used it several times.  And if you actually follow any of the advice in their publications, you're being played for an idiot.

The financial world is like a casino.  No clocks, no windows, a layout like a rat maze, and no indication how to find an exit that doesn't dump you in the trash bin area.  Getting out with your money in your pocket is not the desired outcome for you, dear consumer, in either world.  Real estate ads for new developments sell the sizzle while being short in the specifics; in all the advertising you won't find figures and facts they would prefer you don't know until it is time to sign those papers.  I tried to find out what the HOA fee is for a new village style development outside Mechanicsburg, PA, called Walden (oddly, there's no pond) just to see if that information was accessible.  Guess what: that number is nowhere to be found.  I would be more interested in doing business with people who were up front about the essentials, if I were in the market for their product, but that is not how things are done.  You must enter the selling zone to find out more.  Smiling faces of models and puffy white clouds aplenty in the ads and brochures, though.

What if people were well educated about finance, housing and even the best choices in education itself, during their student years?  Or the popular media became a reliable source of real-world guidance? Wouldn't big and small business welcome rational, informed customers who weren't clueless deluded suckers?

What's with all the laughter?


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's Come to This

Remember those Sinatra songs, "September Song" and "It Was a Very Good Year"?  I always think of them as autumn falls into winter; the progress of the year is such a clear microcosm of the progress of our lives.  You do have to work at it and maintain some objective self-examination for it to be progress in the other sense of the word, but time and change will move along with your active cooperation or without it.

They say your brain doesn't really reach maturity until your 20s, despite your conviction at the time that you're a fully functioning adult and probably know more than anyone younger or older.  As your physical plant and senses decline over the decades, your experience (if you're paying attention) just slightly makes up for the losses.  And your tastes change, which is interesting to observe; your political views almost always do too, which is sad and not flattering to your supposed more mature intelligence.  Can't win them all.

As a child, you probably liked sweet flavors and bright colors; an older gentleman finds that more complex flavors, deeper colors, and tradition suit him well.  Wine Spectator magazine has been going on about the recent stellar vintages of Port wine, which for some reason I now wanted to learn about (uh oh, old brain at work, I observed) despite never having given it a thought before.  So, I got a bottle after a little research, and liked it very much, thank you.  Not one of the $100+ ones, aged 20 or 40 years, but I would like to try that someday. 

Much like with the whiskies, there are many varieties and many ways to make it.  The art of blending is passed down; devotion to art and care and knowledge is required.  Port is racked, aerated, and blended with old vintages at different times during its often long maturation.  I decided to try the Tawny first because it is aged in oak barrels rather than in bottle like the Vintages (there's also Ruby and White and other subvarieties).  Thirty types of grapes can be used to make port, but it is mostly from two Tourigas and three Tintas, and all from Northern Portugal's Douro Valley.  And if you become a connoisseur, you can now purchase two leading examples of the 2011 vintage which are not supposed to be opened until 2030 or 2040.  As a senior's, not a youngster's, evening pleasure, I'm not sure how that timing would work out.

Age appropriateness has its limits, though.  I'm not going to get a Cadillac, chest-high pants, or on a televangelist's mailing list!  As the Most Interesting Man would say, choose carefully, my friend.


Land of the Lost

We sent a wedding present, hand made by a local artist, to our nephew and his new bride in Tampa a few years ago, and it never arrived, went to the wrong address or just disappeared from their doorstep.  A while before that, we sent a valuable book to a San Francisco address, and the same thing happened.  The pattern changed in the last few weeks when we sent a magazine, containing a well-illustrated article on Scotch whisky to our friend Gene in Richmond, and although it also disappeared in the mail, it was not in itself valuable. 

We never found out what happened to the two previous packages, despite trying to follow the tracking, but the Amazing Journey of the Magazine in the Manila Envelope to suburban Richmond can now be told!

Tracking service for a "media mail" package costs a little extra, and comes included with a Priority shipment.  Despite having found that queries to the tracking service doesn't always, or often, solve mysteries about disappearances, this time DW (dear wife) got her hackles up and decided to go all Sherlock Holmes on the USPS.  She found that the last record of it was when it was scanned here at the local post office on October 27.  Several phone calls and e-mails over time showed that it had arrived at Jersey City, NJ on November 23, and then at Capitol Heights, MD on November 25.  Today it is at Henrico, VA -- mere miles from its destination --and should, unless Fate takes a final, deadly swipe and ends the journey at the last moment, be in the recipient's hands tomorrow.  USPS, mess with DW at your peril!

(Closing sound cue:  the Hound of the Baskervilles howling across the foggy moor)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Numbers Don't Lie

While looking a few things up for the last post on the ubiquity of advertising, I tried to find a good estimate of the number of ads, on broad average, we Merkins are bombarded with every day.  There are studies, going back decades, but the results ranged from 74 to 600.  So I couldn't really use any of those figures as they are all over the place.  Other than Mr. Silver's accuracy in surveying voters before the last presidential election, surveys and studies are often so biased by their purposes and agendas, as well as being compromised by small samples, that you might as well pull numbers out of a hat.

If you're paying attention, you can likely figure out what is going to happen yourself.  But people will try to make things happen their way by misusing numbers at every opportunity.

Let's look at a corner of the business world that is somewhere between the financial sector and used cars on the shadiness scale: hotels.  As you, my longtime reader, know, I had the eye-opening experience of working for a Marriott franchise hotel for five years as chief engineer.  Number one number: send $5000 a month to Marriott for the franchise fee.  With business travelers in the winter and tourists in the summer often filling the place up, as well as a convenient and safe location, that was no problem.  I watched my departmental budget numbers, and justified overages or highlighted under-spending with the best numbers I could, not made up but from the actual prices of parts, supplies and the probable life and usage level of each.  No problems until we were sold to a real estate investment (cough, exploitation) firm from Florida.  Then, my new budget according to those shiny, tanned folks with a resume of white collar crime and a stash of drugs in the Mercedes arrived, with numbers that did not correspond to reality at all. 

I.E., commercial washing machines and dryers work nonstop at least two shifts all day, every day, at hotels, and the parts are quite expensive.  If you buy exotic imported machines (which I would not have done), the price for anything is always several hundred dollars apiece.  My new laundry machine maintenance budget was $40 a month!  And soon enough, we received the instruction that profits were to be increased by double digit percentages monthly, while expenses were to be reduced similarly.  In what world is that possible? We had an 11-building campus, 5 acres of grounds, three parking lots, all of which when new might have squeaked by with a lower budget, but at halfway through its life and having been notoriously badly built (my predecessor said he saw them cutting the 2x framing lumber with chainsaws, and there were gaps in some roofs), it was a no-brainer that maintenance and replacement was going to get more expensive, just as with anything over time -- roads, buildings, cars or even your own self.

The actual amount of the fees and charges levied on your retirement or investment accounts seems to as closely guarded a secret as any of Merlin's spells or potions, especially if it's a 401(k) from your employer.  It's a complex arrangement, designed to obfuscate, like the closing on a home sale or buying a new car -- but at least in those two situations the numbers are sprung on you at the last minute, not off in a fog somewhere.

Other number games, past and present:

Remember when Secretary of Defense McNamara said that by any quantitative measure, we should surely win the Vietnam War?  That was what he was going by, and it was completely irrelevant.  But he had also been head of Ford, so he must have been an authority -- and highly educated authorities must know their facts and figures better than we ever could, right?  Numbers are only one tool, not the only tool, that is necessary to understanding a problem or situation.  Recently, I saw a program on the war where it was stated that 300,000 North Vietnamese turned 18 each year, and you can bet most, not just a few, were drafted.  That figure may be just pulled from thin air, too, but it's a number that we never heard at the time.

In the current noise about the Keystone XL pipeline, the usual suspects are claiming that its construction will mean 300,000 jobs.  Mmm hmm.  First, figures like this, hyped in the media, are made up.  An earlier estimate, when the project was more in state of limbo, was for about 35 to 350 full-time jobs after it was built.  And my numbers sense tell me that's probably a fanciful highest estimate, because the Koch Brothers and their buddies do not go in for pipeline maintenance (since there are 5000 leaks or breaks a year or more due to postponed or ignored maintenance requirements).  There will be a lesser number of on-call contractors, not legions of full-time employees gleefully spending their paychecks and enjoying their wonderful benefits in Small Town USA.

A few years ago, Hershey dropped two new products because they did not meet projected figures.  Both were selling and profitable, however, and many things take a while to develop an audience and grow; remember "Seinfeld" was ignored its first season, and "It's a Wonderful Life" was a disappontment at the box office.  But someone blinded by numbers pulled the plug, and all that R&D and production run-up was wasted.  Mr. Hershey discarded a lot of products as tastes changed over the years, too, but he had intuition and instincts that his successors probably disdain, while poring over the numbers.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Post No Bills

Some tourists notice these old signs in Rome and think they are street signs, since those are attached to buildings also -- and wonder why so many streets have the same name.  But both simply say, "post no bills" and usually look like they have been there a long time (well, like most everything else there).  Note the statute cited on them.  I found that the deal is, if you pay a fee and install the sign, people must leave your wall or building alone forever when they're putting up posters, signs or advertisements.  Unfortunately, the out-of-control graffiti sprayers can't be stopped (I saw a pair of massive 16th-century wood doors covered in squiggles of silver paint -- I guess we don't have all the idiots on this side of the ocean).

What if we could, in some similar way and under protection of the law, keep ourselves inviolate from invasive "bills," that is, marketing, advertising and all-pervasive commercial noise?  It's said lobbyists spend around $1 million a year to convince the Vermont legislature to allow roadside billboards -- it's one of the few places that believe that kind of pollution has no place in what they consider a nice-looking countryside (we'll agree with them on its quality).  We travel on Route 581 a lot to do our local business, and I can hardly believe how many billboards are on either side, blocking, almost, a view of the sky.  But gigantic advertising has rights that we residents do not.  The city of Santa Barbara, CA, keeps them at bay, along with other kinds of big, gross commercial signage.  They have a lot more to lose when it comes to obliterating the scenery than we do, but I do envy them and the Vermonters.

Maybe there is no causal connection, but in an age of hysterical, relentless marketing, in your eyes and ears and on every square foot around you, we have people losing it and spraying others with bullets or killing themselves.  The news and broadcast programming is mostly, "we'll be back, stay tuned," because most of it is promos and ads -- over a dozen in a row on cable stations.  When they start, I (and I hope others) search for something, anything, on another channel that's not trying to sell me cell phone service, cars, furniture of Gerber child life insurance.  How many ads are inside and outside a city bus?  Your mailbox is mostly full of...what?  An internet page takes quite a while to load because of all the ads, some of them with motion-sickness inducing shaking and jumping.  I "x" them pretty quickly.  The mute button on your TV remote may be the modern invention that has benefitted our mental health the most. 

And it's all lies.  You can ignore every bit of it and never miss one useful thing.  A blogger checked out the math on that Gerber life policy, for example, and guess what, it's not a good deal.  As soon as reviews showed up on the internet, there were paid shills and "groomers" (like )  moving negative reviews about a company or a product to the bottom of the search results and pushing the positive ones to the top places.  Not only search engine optimization, but Google itself, controls what you see and can find.  The fact is Google and Yahoo allow known scammers to advertise with slick come-ons when what they really want is your credit card number or other information to screw you with.  If there's a "trick to a tiny belly," it's not going to be found by clicking on that flashing ad during a Google search.  You need a lot more carefully tuned b.s. detector and cynicism than Joe Average.  It's not enough to possess just good common sense, but you always, at every waking moment, need that at a bare minimum.

Imagine you were living in 1750.  There were other concerns, like Indian raids or bad teeth, before you, but can you imagine no billboards along the road and no screaming ads dinning your ears or blinding your eyes?  Well, everyone would look like a Tea Partier, but still...


Sunday, November 9, 2014

It's Tempting

What you find irresistible changes over your lifetime, somewhat.  I, like many others, could not for years resist buying a beckoning book or record, but then I stopped cold like a successful ex-smoker when I realized enough is enough, already.  Other favorites will never leave your desirous gaze, but you can leave it at the gazing stage.  If I had a nickel for each time I've resisted the siren song of the bakery, I could probably well indulge other wants.  I wonder if one descriptor of character is how you act around cookies... Dark chocolate has grown on me to where now I can't resist it nearly as well as that scone.  It's always something unless you're internally as content as a Buddhist monk. 

Sometimes it works to give in to that tempting something just once in a while, which allows you to enjoy the warm feeling of virtue also, knowing you're in control of the situation and not the other way around.  Little things are easier, as such a lapse is easier to correct.  Let's say you have been jonesing for a boat or motorcycle or vacation condo so long that once it's affordable you stuff caution in the closet and make the plunge.  The best way to prevent this scenario is to admit that the law of hedonistic adaptation is like all those other laws of the world or physics, that is, it's always there and will hit you with an unpleasant dose of reality soon enough.  The thrill of finally possessing that shining something you've been wanting fades quickly.  You must either trade up to regain that feeling or continue the excess in some other way; hedonism, or feeding your desires, is a process that waxes and wanes like the moon, and eludes your grasp just like that silver satellite in the night sky.  Remind yourself before any decision that anything you own owns you more.

Will Rogers said that the road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces.  Funny, today we walked through a parking lot next to a tony golf resort, and the whelled hardware on display was any materialist's fever dream.  I was curious, but not envious.  A rear-engine Ferrari had its window down and the owner's EasyPass just lying on the console.  Did he really just take his quarter-million dollar possession so casually?  No doubt he had several other steeds in the stable. We also saw a super-high-end Mercedes, an S 550 (there were a few other letters, but I forget).  That brought a wry smile, as I'd read a remarkably frank article about S-series Mercedes recently, in which the author detailed the insanely complicated and expensive technology contained therein.  For example, you can't jump someone else's car from its battery, as its setup is so exotic that if you do so, you will short out your S's electrical system.  He also mentioned that the ignition switch assembly, which does not fail on your affordable Toyota, will probably do so on the Merc and cost you $500 for the part alone.  The foregoing is a wordy way to make the point that giving into expensive, blingy temptations is just like the mouse going for that piece of cheese in the trap.  It's going to cost you big time.  It's not going to be as much fun, by a long shot, as you thought it would be.  Walk away.

But you can give yourself a hall pass once in a while, if your house is in order.  Or rather, if your house is paid off, with no other debts.  That is the essense of freedom -- owning yourself and your assets outright -- and I think freedom to do or not do what is right for you, not what is temporarily distracting for you but really right for the lender, the corporation or the employer, ought to be the goal of your efforts in life. 

I can't say (like most of you, admit it) that I had any clear idea about what was worth getting obligated to when I was younger.  A hard road it is, Yoda would say, to learn only by experience.  A little quality insight earlier on in life's journey would have been great.  At least we can say the lessons eventually penetrated our hard heads, and temptations are seen for exactly what they are now, and a bad bargain is quite obvious.  A $100,000 loan on an RV when you're 68 years old?  A boat (they're the only thing just as bad as an RV -- well, and an airplane)?  An $800,000 house with about 70 windows and a lot the size of a big tarp like we saw next to the golf course today, built out of the same crappy materials as everything else today?  A car that depreciates 50% in five years, and costs as much as that boat to maintain and insure?  Those baked goods may ruin your health eventually, but choosing one of the above will put you under a lot faster.  Better work 70 hours a week, and lie and cheat, so you can get into one of those deals prisons. 

If you spend your days in the house of Desire, you will be his slave.

I almost bought one just like this once and am so glad I didn't.  Boy, was it fun to test drive, though.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Getaway

They really are that polite.

So, we went to Canada and didn't see one moose!

Despite the lack of 1000-lb. wildlife (in the urban area of the Niagara Peninsula, so that's probably a good thing), we had not made a neighborly visit across the northern border since the late 70s and thought it was past time to do so.  Back then, we went to Montreal during a beautiful summer week, discovered Salade Nicoise and the beauty of hearing French spoken all around, then (pre-GPS) got hopelessly lost in its southern suburbs, but had a great time overall.

No such good fortune with the weather this time, but everything else was as delightful as before.  We lucked into a 29th floor room at a Marriott looking directly at Niagara Falls, which is quite a view to have both at night (with the illumination by giant lights and the weekend fireworks) and in the morning.  And not only had the iPad GPS directed us without fail, but some Trip Advisor internet research allowed us to escape the punishing $25-a-day parking fee by using the nearby casino's garage at only $5.  And gas prices are down while our aging car is getting better mileage all the time (why?), and the whole thing was arranged through a thrifty Groupon offer.  It pays to keep up with things.

Speaking of which, we didn't exchange domestic cash for Canadian, but instead relied on the VISA for everything, and that worked out fine.  We brought back the legal limit of wine (which isn't much), but the duty really isn't very high even if we had gone crazy.  The only problem there is that it's illegal to bring it into PA, so if on the very off-chance that we'd lost it to PA's finest, I'd rather lose four bottles than 40.  We did bring back more internally, starting with our waiter Brian's recommendation of a rose from a family operation named Trois Femmes.  We made sure we had one of Brian's tables thereafter, in gratitude.

Tourist season was pretty much over, which made getting around quite easy.  Despite the U.K. heritage, they don't do that wacky driving on the left thing, and the road signs aren't undecipherable European symbols.  Not only that, but the drivers actually obey the rules, yield to pedestrians, and don't yell and honk.  A Philadelphian would be dumbstruck.  But he'd still run the pedestrians down.  I guess there must be some disagreeable people somewhere in Canada, but I challenge you to find one.

 Unlike beach towns in October, though, all the restaurants were still open.  If you're a steak fan, you'd love downtown NF; I counted at least 14 steak places just in the neighborhood.  We, however, had our culinary sights set on getting to a Tim Horton's (Canada's Starbucks), and despite the one by the Falls being closed, you can always find another nearby (just like Starbucks).   It was too early for lots of heavy Canadian-style winter wear, but we felt that hanging out there gave us some genuine northern exposure.

You wouldn't think that a place with such trying winters would be a big producer of very fine wine, but the Peninsula is indeed that, so we set out on the one nice day to find out about it (get into your Eastern Canadian pronunciation here; it's aboot).  Both the Trius and Peller Estate establishments have lovely tasting rooms and impressive restaurants.  We took the tour at the latter to find out about (there it is again) ice wine.  It's a specialty of Canada and Germany, although produced in many other places with an appropriate climate.  After the first freeze, the winery calls the people who have signed up to come immediately and pick the now-frozen grapes all at once and barehanded (they do switch off on jobs, so no one is out long enough to get frostbite!).  After a taste of both their Vidal and rare Cabernet Franc ice wines, I'm very glad they do all that, but I'm surprised they get people do it more than once.  There is very little juice in the frozen grapes, the handling is labor-intensive, and it all depends on weather and timing, so the result is expensive and comes just in the little skinny half-size bottles.  We're saving ours for the holidays to go with that great Collin Street Bakery fruitcake  (and I don't want to hear from you fruitcake haters out there).


Old Town, N.O.T.L.  Like Williamsburg, with the occasional stuffed moose.

Last was a visit to a tasting shop in the charming Old Town area of Niagara-On-The-Lake, just a few miles past the wineries, where we discovered that the Wayne Gretzky wines were even better than the wonderful ones we'd sampled earlier.  Who knew?  If you ever find it near you, don't pass it up.  You really can't go wrong with any hockey/beverage connection in Canada, eh?

Canadian-flavor joke we heard at the dinner-theater production, "Oh Canada, Eh?" --

How are the Titanic and the Toronto Maple Leafs similar?

-- Both looked pretty good until they hit the ice!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"Behind Every Great Fortune Lies A Great Crime"

That pithy quote from Balzac should inform our opinion of top-tier tycoons, CEOs, Fearless Leaders, aristocrats and the untouchable oligarchy we now call the one percent.  But, as Edwin Lyngar demonstrated in a recent on-line article, most of us have an "overpowering need to behave like a middle-class sucker."  If you live a life of morality, modesty, honesty and fair dealing, you'll probably avoid jail, but your chances of becoming a Donald Trump are miniscule, since that's not how the elite got that way.

Living by the Calvinist moral framework a lot of us grew up with, is really, like faith and devotion to tradition, an easy excuse not to dig into things and think them through.  Mr. Lyngar found that, contrary to what we're told the rules for behavior/reward are, in fact his worst ethical lapse resulted in his biggest financial success (it involved a little fancy stepping during the short-sale of his home).  And that is how the elite got that way. 

I've never been clever enough to benefit greatly from a move like that, but I often think about something I felt I could not do that cost me.  In school, I would not read the "Cliff's Notes" guides because that would be cheating.  It seemed to me that everyone should approach new material in class on an equal basis, without coaching or preparation.  Of course, everyone else did who cared about their test results and grades, and there was no reward for trying to understand that book, play, poem, or theorem all on your own.  So Mr. Lyngar sidestepped strict ethics when presented with a problem, and came out ahead, while I plowed ahead with ethics intact and did not have enough right answers on exams about the intricacies of Shakespeare.  Also, resume padding by joining a raft of groups and activities that are pretty useless or you really didn't care about seemed dishonest to me, while it seems quite the opposite to college admissions committees.

When I first understood what business incorporation was, it seemed fishy.  "Incorporate" to avoid liability and financial responsibility while preserving your own assets?  Not paying your bills, hiding money overseas and slipping out of paying taxes is all right when someone could be sent to prison for twenty years for possessing a joint (and that happened, many times)?

Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries run today by son Charles in Wichita, set the family fortune skyrocketing by stealing the refining technology from another company early in the 20th century, which he sold it around the world.  Even to the Soviet Union, a little bit of a hypocritical move since Fred was one of the main John Birch Society members.  He countersued when challenged, and around 1950 actually was the one who got paid.  Judges don't really care if the bribes and campaign contributions come from businessmen or Al Capone, I guess.  Al rotted away in jail for being indiscreet, while Joe Kennedy got away with millions from Wall Street "pump and dump" cons, the Bush family banked gold for the Nazis, and The Donald's father refused to pay his contractors and sued them if they objected.

We all saw the movie about Facebook being quite successfully stolen by Mark Zuckerberg.  And they must be teaching more about winning than doing the right thing at Harvard, since one of his predecessors there, Bill Gates, sold the DOS operating system to IBM which was stolen goods already: Tim Paterson's QDOS was a copy of Gary Kildall's CP/M operating system.  Bill did pay Tim $50,000 before licensing it to IBM himself and making some real coin.

The Roman patricians became oligarchs by sending fellow citizens, farmers and tradesmen, off on wars and taking their land from the widows.  The winning formula was to go right for the gold (in Asia Minor, against the Celts, and by looting the Temple after the Jewish Revolt) using those soldiers, then working those stolen estates with the free labor of the enslaved populations brought back.  The later European aristocracies -- the Norman invasion is the best example of a long lasting ruling class based on murder and wholesale theft since the Romans -- and our own Southern one also thought labor should never be anything other than free.  All also believe, then to now, that they should be exempt from taxes.  "Middle class sucker" thinking seems be in agreement with that principle since the Reagan era.  Existence of a (now ludicrously low) minimum wage means, as Chris Rock said, only that they'd pay you a lot less if they could.


Monday, September 22, 2014

This Is My Stop and I Want to Get Off

Some things you see, you don't forget.  Those are often the things you can't really say anything about, either, because your thoughts don't agree with tradition or with just the way things are done.

What I saw was while we were installing some routine added telephone and computer lines at Frey Village in Middletown, PA -- a nursing home.  And still I can't, or won't, bring myself to describe the people we passed by slumping in their wheelchairs in a hallway, in their rooms, or in a social area with others but still as alone as possible.  In a hospital, professionals are buzzing around, there is important-looking equipment flashing numbers and beeping, so despite what you see, you can think there's going to be some things fixed for some of the patients, if not, surely, for all.  There could be no hope for any of these ancients in the nursing home; it was as harrowing as a war scene.

A recent report from the Institute of Medicine made the news last week, and it stated bluntly that aggressive care prolongs dying without improving the quality of life.  Exactly what I've been thinking; even for those I saw so many years ago, who were completely out of it, the standard is to intervene relentlessly to keep them alive; trips made by ambulance from home to doctors' offices and hospitals and back, over and over.  While my father underwent this for nine months, from hospital to rehab to nursing home, the word that came to mind over and over was:  torture.

When a bipartisan group from the House and Senate proposed (in 2009) that patients could be counseled by their doctors about end-of-life care and be paid for their time through insurance or Medicare, the right wing noise machine blew up and hit the headlines with the "death panels" scare before the public even knew about that provision in the bill that was being considered.  The real reason for that dishonest outrage, other than predictable opposition to anything helpful to the helpless, was that no part of the healthcare profit machine should ever be contained, no matter how useless or unreasonable.  Since the largest part of Medicare is spent on the last few years of patients' lives, the prospect of bankrupting it as boomers flood the nursing homes, if nothing is done about prolonging the dying process soon, must have delighted the wingnuts.

Mark Evanier has written stories of his parents' lives many times on his blog (, but the latest is relevant to considering the absurdity of pointlessly prolonging human misery:

When someone close to you dies, you look for that silver lining, however thin and fragile it may be -- some way to 'spin' the death in a way that's more comforting to you.  I had no trouble doing that...when my mother died because she really wanted to go.  She was verging on blindness and a life which did not contain one single thing that brought her any joy.

Mark's father, many years earlier, had seemingly willed himself not to live on as an empty shell after his third heart attack.  He knew he was not going to

recover to the point where he could walk and go out and get into his car and drive somewhere and do something useful.

Despite his own express desires, and the presence of a carefully written living will and clear health directives, there was nothing we could do to stop the endless and fruitless medical interventions during those bedridden nine months my father endured. Only twice were people candid about what the situation was.  Early on during that period, I talked to the rehab hospital care coordinator when everyone else was out of the office and the door was closed, making it clear I wanted her honest assessment apart from the official script of false comfort (Plaza West in Florida is part of a giant corporation).  She said quietly, "he's not going home.  This is it."  And on the last admission to the hospital after being moved here, while Dad was still unconscious in the emergency room, a young doctor took us aside in a shadowy corner and asked what we wanted.  ...He said we were right, and at that point everything changed: he recommended that hospice begin as soon as possible and Dad be moved to a quiet private room. Within a half hour, all the tubes, needles and lines were removed except for an increasing morphine drip.

But a peaceful end could not be found much earlier despite there being no hope of recovery.  Does that make any sense?



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Lift the Veil, and... just find another one.

Some things just become more ambiguous, not clearer, the more you look into them.  Mostly, to avoid these headaches, people either just accept things (like the frog who gets boiled without noticing that his future is changing for the worse as the heat under the pot is turned up very slowly), or they have beliefs that save them the trouble of thinking matters through.

So, recently Coca-Cola announced that they are going to go to a 100% bioplastic "plant bottle" which is made from plant materials instead of being petroleum-based.  Right now, their bottles are already 30% made from such renewable feed stock (petroleum being, for a fact, despite the claims of scientists such as S. Palin, both finite and non-renewable).  The other 70% is now PET plastic along with some chemicals for softening and flexibility. To make the project economically as painless as possible, they're partnering with a Wisconsin company, Virent, to refine the process of producing purer paraxylene from a byproduct of the biofuel production process.  Other large packagers are on board, such as Heinz and Proctor & Gamble, as well as Ford, which has already pioneered use of recycled PET plastic for interiors.  The Air Force is testing jet biofuel, and Honda and Shell Oil are in also.  Big corporate environmentalism?  Bring it on, since, let's face it, another article in the Sierra Club magine pushing the idea isn't going to move much on the global chessboard.

But then...using switch grass or plant leftovers sounds efficient and good, but what if the major source of plant feedstock for this new plastic turns out to be one of the major monocrops of industrial agriculture, such as corn?  The effects of expanding its production on our battered, eroding soils or creating square miles of new sugar cane fields by bulldozing the Amazon basin even more would be as hard on the world environment as the PET plastics already are.  That's more diesel fuel use, and more herbicides and pesticides, when we have far too much of that now.  And the plant-based plastic might well include the same dangerous additive chemicals for softening that are currently used.

Recycling problems will not go away.  The current rate with PET petroleum plastic bottles is only around 24% (except in states with refundable deposit laws, where it averages 70%), and the recycling industry is not set up to handle bioplastic.  Coca-Cola and other giants oppose deposit laws, since that system requires some effort from them.  In Europe, companies are being held accountable for accepting back their materials, even whole cars, but as long as one lobbyist draws breath in the USA, that won't happen here.

Dilemmas like this remind me of what Tony Soprano would say: "Well, whatcha gonna do?" 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

From Here to Where?

Elgo American plastic bricks.  Favorite indoor toy, not made since the 1960s.

Last week here at your favorite literary oasis we went from a western rural Kentucky county to Purgatory (which we found is in Ireland, surprisingly).  Today's trip is much more neck-snapping, so hold on.

In a blog that I read regularly, a mention was made of an article about why there is little variety in ketchup while mustard comes in hundreds of choices .  Malcolm Gladwell penned this information-packed essay for the September 9, 2004 issue of the New Yorker.  I didn't have all the time I do now to read about such things back then and so missed it, and of course I'm curious about the imbalance between the two standby condiments. 

That was only the beginning point to a fascinating short history of the successes and failures of food industry moguls, marketers and scientists.  And there is genius behind the genesis of some particular brands and styles of products that are enduringly popular with many people; all the research, investment, data and experimentation does sometimes go awry without the inspired insight that is only present in a few of us .  And the greatest of them all, after Henry Heinz (who completely changed ketchup from its insipid, thin original state into what is, and probably always will be, the standard) was one Howard Moskowitz.

Pepsi, when considering using artificial sweeteners in the early 1970s, asked him to find the perfect amount of sweetener.  It was already known to be somewhere between 8 and 12%.   Doing the usual research, Moskowitz found that the data was all over the place, which led him to the first of his eureka moments:  that there was no perfect one in this case; it's plural (the beginning of why there are 500 varieites of everything today).  Penetrating insight and creative thinking must run in his family; he's descended from The Seer of Lublin, Polish rabbi Yaakov Y. Horowicz, who was known for his exceptional intuition and miracle-working, with the added gift of repairing souls.  (But he died in 1815 after falling from a window -- didn't he see that coming?) 

Moskowitz went deeper with the problem he tackled for Prego spaghetti sauce, which was trying to compete with industry leaders.  He found segements of taste and preference which could be addressed only with new products.  People then divided in their choice of plain or spicy sauce; Moskowitz, thinking of how Heinz forever captured his market by making ketchup much thicker, recommended chunky spaghetti sauce after finding out that there were actually three general preferences, one of which no one in the industry had thought of.  Launched in 1990, it was, and is, very successful.  I highly recommend reading the article online to learn about how achieving the "unity of taste" makes a product universally popular.  Hint:  Coca-Cola starts with a dark vanilla taste and, like Heinz ketchup, rolls back along the tongue revealing other flavor notes in the most pleasing order.  Imitation colas hit a citrus or cinnamon note first and don't develop.

Here's the hook:  without the internet, I'd never have come across this, the science and psychology of which I think is pretty interesting, and pursued the subject so easily.  Even though the monthly bill from Verizon seems high, it really delivers a lot of value if you make regular use of it.  I think what the travel, time, expense and effort required would be to find odd items like a cartrige for your old printer, or just find things out, without our worldwide web.

So, to flip it over, what do you miss about the pre-internet world?  When there were only two to five broadcast channels, before cable, we certainly had a lot more time to spend otherwise than in front of a screen, and those activities probably involved more activity and deeper engagement.  The same goes for the use of all of our internet devices.  Now that I can, for example, find a book or record from my old "look for" list effortlessly and with a great chance of success, it seems to take the challenge out of it.  Found on a library give-away table a few years ago, an old copy of  the novel South Wind in excellent condition still makes me smile in a way that ordering it with two clicks on could not.  I also miss the relative anonymity one can maintain in an old world of paper records that might be inaccessible or lost.  Now, of course, everything about you isn't mostly yours anymore.  So, you get falsely personalized marketing and scam communications daily, and they can track you like a wolf following a rabbit.

Your average wired 11-year-old today probably won't agree (because they don't take these surveys), but the Five Best Toys of All Time (as of 2011) are:
           a stick,
           a box,
           a cardboard tube,
and...  dirt.

Say what you will, virtual dirt in a video game just can't compare.


My all-time favorite dirt-moving toy.  Real metal, too.



Monday, August 18, 2014

Going Down

I guess it's easy to take most everything for granted, but I enjoy looking for, and being surprised to find out, where things come from, or even the origin of names of things.  Hickman County, Kentucky, for an odd example, where my brother- and sister-in-law live, is named after a young Army officer who met an early end on the frontier; but digging deeper you can find that the surname originally meant "Richard's man," in that "hick" or some variant of it was a nickname for Richard.  What if you could find out who this Richard was, and when and where?  But that's probably going a little far.

Literary scholarship and history often consisted of hunches, apparent similarities, or guesses before discoveries, archaeology and other sciences gave hypotheses a firmer, more factual foundation.  We still haven't figured out about Shakespeare or the origin of the Etruscans or the Basques, but someone is still looking into it.  While we may never find any more written or recorded evidence about the real Bard, DNA is an astonishing tool for finding out where peoples came from and moved on to.  Another example:  I knew there was a significant area of Romania populated by Germans brought there for their faming and mechanical skills, and recently found out I'm related to them.  This particular descendant of migrants is probably fortunate to be in New Cumberland rather than there, but that's the luck of the draw.

If you think of what inspired the writers of timeless classics, it's often the Bible or the legacy of the ancient world rediscovered during the Renaissance.  Take the Divine Comedy.  We're aware that the ancient Greeks believed, and expressed in their myth and writing, in a descent of the dead into a dismal underground.  This was woven into Christian doctrine, like so many other pagan tales, and came to be regaded as unquestionable, revealed truth.  Since Dante had completed all of this work he was going to by his death in 1321, very early in the Renaissance, that would seem to be it.  The story's origins may not have such a clear line, though.

One of the few things we know about the Druids and religion of the ancient Celts, other than it being based on nature, is that they saw the universe as comprised of three circles:  heaven, purgatory, and hell.  When the first Christian missionaries entered Ireland, Wales and Brittany at the end of the Roman Empire, they could not dislodge these beliefs and so incorporated them.  Somehow they did manage to remove women and nature from any status in the equation over time, despite both being supreme in the native culture.  The churchmen of Ireland and the rest of the Celtic fringe were both educated and fearless travelers, and took their own hybrid version of Catholicism all over the European continent (even to uninhabited Iceland before the Danes!), especially to the centers such as Rome and the early universities.  So, the definitive and detailed work on heaven, hell and purgatory, by an Italian poet, may well have inserted Celtic myth/religion into Christianity permanently.

Entering St. Patrick's Purgatory

The was a real, physical Purgatory on an island in Lough (lake) Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, by a monastery that was active and occupied from the fifth century to the seventeenth.   It was a small cave, or pit, said to be only about six steps deep, and closed off by a heavy locked door.  Probably from ancient times it was feared to be the mouth of hell, after its orignal purpose as a storage pit or sweat lodge for cleansing and purging was long forgotten.  The legend is that St. Patrick, irritated that those he was preaching to wanted some proofs, gave permission for his doubters to enter in the purgatory pit to stay there overnight (for a total of 24 hours), and report back what they experienced.  And it not only wasn't just a cramped, damp stay, it was horrifying and made believers out of those who returned.  Not all did, they say; some were hopeless sinners and went right on to hell.

Many pilgrims followed, from the Isles and the continent, but the first written accounts are from the early 12th century.  One bad character, the Knight Owain, was either sent or got permission from his bishop to sample purgatory there, and his account (actually written by monk Henry of Saltrey) from around 1150 was translated into French and was popular over Europe.

There came there devils on every side,
Wicked ghosts, I wote*, from Hell,
So many that no tongue might tell:
They filled the house in two rows;
Some grenned** on him and some made moans.

So related our reformed knight, after a preparation of two weeks of fasting, praying and sleep deprivation, which was the standard procedure.  No wonder he saw visions.


Station Island, Lough Derg, today.  The bell tower over Purgatory is on the grassy area to the left.

The cave was closed in 1632 by the English government, and is today covered by a bell tower, but the pilgrimages continue -- 8,000 people in 2011 alone.

So from storage pit, to sweat lodge, to place to be feared, to saintly legend, to literary work, and finally to dogma, we have the origin story of the idea of Purgatory. 

All the horrors thou wilt not get to know
Which Hell's inmates suffer.
Pleasant sins end in painful penalties:
Pain ever follows pleasure.

*   = I have seen
** = (?)


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Trespassers Will Be Dealt With

I enjoyed a documentary on National Geographic Channel the other night entitled "Urban Jungle," about the spread of suburbia and the adaptation to it by wild animals.  There were 1,000 bear sightings in Tahoe last year, and as we probably already knew, it also stated that deer, coyote and raccoon populations were at record highs.  It's said the native Americans thought of animals as the equals, or betters in some cases, of humans.  We don't, but they proving to be so much smarter than us bipeds.  Think of that squirrel you can't stop from getting all the birdseed in your feeder, even if you haven't encountered the other three in your yard yet.  In California and the Southwest, people have learned the hard way not to leave pets outside at night or without safe shelter:  the coyotes will get them, and you will hardly know it.

There were two short segements about housecats defending their home territory that were pretty astonishing.  One faced down an alligator, and another went all medieval on a little bear, who turned and ran.  Cats seldom consider their small size when confronting a threat; in their minds they must be big and bad-ass when they need to be.

Our four-year-old cat Blackberry surprised us a day after the Nat Geo program.  He was in the back room at around 9 p.m., cooly resting on the floor and surveying his domain, when he suddenly got up into the stalking stance, close to the floor, with tail poofed and ears laid back.  He advanced on the back door and began a startlingly loud growl, then stood up and batted the glass with his paw.  We couldn't see anything out back on the deck until we turned on the light, revealing the white cat who lives a block away, just sitting there.  Mr. Berry was having none of that.  With the light coming on, the other cat slipped away, as Blackberry ran full tilt upstairs to observe from the bedroom window.  It took a while for him to calm down from this blatant invasion of his territory.

He knows exactly what's going outside, what is serious and what can be ignored, even though his only trips outside the house have been twice to the vet.  He has his own rules about what is permissible there, too:  he agrees to remain calm and polite after getting over the indignity of being put in his blue travel cage, but draws the line at getting his temperature taken.  That isn't going to happen.

Blackberry also has his own priorities about what constitutes a threat.  Unknown people -- and he knows a different vehicle pulling into the driveway immediately (big eyes, tail down) --  cause him to head quickly and quietly as possible down into the basement, where he opens the door to the storage room with his paw, to hide under the old bunk bed.  Other cats, well, that calls for a confrontation through glass or screen and full on ninja ready-to-attack mode.  He always knows when they're out there, even if still out of sight.  Squirrels, rabbits, him, they're no big deal.  But he's our little hero.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day Trippers

Well, you don't actually steal it, but you can help yourself.  At a "Little Free Library," that is.

I'd heard of these tiny outdoor libraries-in-a-box before, but an article in a local magazine about them mentioned that there are two around here, so I had to go see it.  Even better, I rounded up a half-dozen books to donate, since there are only a few thousand lying around at our casa.

The backstory is that in 2009, one Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a model of a one-room schoolhouse small enough to rest on a post as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher and a big reader, and filled it with books and placed it in his front yard with a sign reading FREE BOOKS for anyone to borrow from.  Sort of like the penny cup on the counter of a store, you take one or more when you need to and put one or more back in when you can.  He made several more to give to interested neighbors, and still makes them to send much farther away today, using recycled materials like the wood from a barn demolished by a tornado.

So a lady named Lois decided to become a L.F.L. "steward" (#10725, to be precise) and have one at her home in Mechanicsburg, set in front of her expansive and lush back-yard garden, like so:

I found room for my donations, and took out one by Ian McEwan, who writes some wicked mysteries with a jaundiced eye to the motivations, and bad behavior of, humanity.  Nancy got one of the yellow tomatoes.  So Lois and the more cynical Mr. McEwan represent very different approaches to life, mmm?

Initially, the goal was to have as many of these miniature libraries worldwide as the 2,509 free public ones established by Andrew Carnegie, but as of the beginning of this year, there are 15,000 of them.  Next time we're back in town, I'll try to remember to return the one I picked up.  Maybe it will still be tomato season.

We had another destination a few miles away later in the day.  My grandparents' former home site was being auctioned off by the heirs of the last owner, who was the widow next door.  My brothers and I had sold the then-existing house to her after a not very successful experience renting it out, and she wanted it for her daughter to move into.  I guess its maintenance proved too much for her, too, and sometime in the past ten years she had the house demolished.  The garage, which did not have moisture and other problems, still stood and housed her son's two tractors.  It was one of those sad but inevitable things that transpired, as first the widow's household items were sold, then her house and 3-acre lot, and finally our grandparents' former property (one acre).  There wasn't much interest in the real estate, and a sole bidder got the first for $100,000 and the second for only $32,000.

The area is now zoned commercial/industrial, so with the house now gone, I don't think one can be rebuilt there.  We'll keep an eye out for developments, but won't be walking on that long green lot again.  I covered it all, remembering what had been there, and what remained.  The cherry, pear and apple trees were long gone, I already knew, but the horse chestnut planted around 1960 was huge and healthy.  The outlines of the large but long-gone garden were visible if you knew where to look.

A quote from W. H. Auden at the beginning of the book I picked up at the LFL box said it all:

   "The friends who met here and embraced are gone..."