Friday, October 31, 2008

Terkel Redux

Blogger's Note: Because of my packrat nature, I present here an essay I wrote using Studs Terkel's "The 'Good' War" as a source, for an English class I took about ten years ago or so.

John H. Abbott and Dempsey Travis experienced uniquely different circumstances in dealing with injustice in World War Two America. Travis fought to serve in an army that seemed to fight him every step of the way, simply because he was black. Abbott gritted his teeth in the opposite direction, sticking to a policy of absolute nonparticipation. Though their attitudes and actions may seem to lie on opposite sides of the spectrum, both revealed, in Studs Terkel's book The 'Good' War, the isolational and segregational pressures they felt bearing down on them. Experiences like theirs helped the nation realize the need for reform in social and political attitudes in times to come. It was not coincidence that the Civil Rights movement gained national momentum in the decades following the war, nor is it coincidence that the civil liberties court cases gained greater frequency and prominence after the war as well. Both Travis and Dempsey won moral victories through the injustices they suffered during their wartime 'service'.

John H. Abbot declined to be involved in the war in any way. After he answered a draft questionnaire while at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he was given a 4-E (conscientious objector) classification from his local draft board. "I didn't decide to be a C.O.," he said, "The draft board did. All I put down on my questionnaire was that I wasn't gonna comply with the war effort. I wasn't going to have anything to do with it."(164) Though he disagreed with the classification, he jumped wholeheartedly on the bandwagon of rebellion, since he had often thought, even in his youth, how he would react if he were drafted. His decision was not made on the spur of the moment. Abbott continued his noncompliance, and even began to preach his ideals, through stints at various Selective Service camps for conscientious objectors:

I was talkin' to everybody, tryin' to get 'em to quit work, quit camp. I felt that being in those camps was aiding the war effort. To me, anything you did for the Selective Service System, which is the provider of bodies for the war, was aiding the war effort. The work we did in the camps was called of national importance. We called it work of national impotence. These gasoline stickers for rationing that you had on your windshield had a little note on it: Is this trip really necessary? We'd scratch out "trip" and write "war": Is this war really necessary?(164-5)

He also began developing his cynical attitude towards the war effort, as can be seen in the plays on words he used to describe the war (trip/war, importance/impotence; found in the preceding quotation). He was kicked out of one camp because of his disruptive attitudes.

While on the way from a camp in New Hampshire to one in California, Abbot came face to face with the harsh social repercussions his opinions and attitudes would bring. At the railroad stations en route, women lined up with gifts of food, candy and magazines for soldiers going off to training stations across the country. Abbott soon found out these gifts were not for conscientious objectors:

The train we were on, there were two cars of marine recruits, without uniform, going to San Diego. And one car full of conscientious objectors with no uniforms. So we ended up with a lot of these goodies. When word got around that there were some yellowbellies on the train, the ladies would actually go around and yank us by the arm and say, 'Are you one of those damn yellowbellies? I want my cookies back.' Give me back my apple. Give me back my 'Life', you yellowbelly. They were really irate.(165)

Nearly everyone he met held him in contempt for exercising his right not to fight, so he reciprocated in same. This isolation and abandon of the conscientious objectors seemed to stratify all layers of American life. He even met prejudice while hitchhiking: "Yellow was the word. Oh, I'd go hitchhiking when I had leave. I'd get in a car, pretty soon the man would say, "How come you're not in uniform?" I'd say, "I'm a conscientious objector." He says, "You're what, you yellow bastard you?" Down would go the brakes. Open the door. "Get the hell out of here."(165) One begins to see that even though Abbott held opinions that were against the grain of the majority, he is justified in his attitude of cynicism towards those who treated him as a criminal for his opinions.

Abbot thumbed his nose continually at authority. He simply walked out of the California camp and applied for a job as a gardener at a hospital in Pasadena. "I told the lady [at the hospital] that I left a camp for conscientious objectors and would ultimately be arrested for it. She said, 'Who gives you the authority?' I said, 'I do.'" Abbott even went as far as to tell the FBI where he was. He was eventually arrested and sent to prison in Arizona. He was transported, with other disruptive inmates, to a federal prison in Texas after helping to organize a work strike at the prison in Arizona. Once again, he felt the isolation that his actions brought upon him. "We were segregated," he said. "We were not in the compound with the other inmates. We went to chow in a different section of the dining hall. When we had yard privilege, there were no other prisoners out there. They realized the poison we were spreading."(168-169) Abbott found himself in solitary confinement for most of his prison stay.

Abbot used his segregation as a shield of honor. He never failed to make a point or form a protest at any of the odd turns his wartime life led him to. This obstinance and keen eye for the injust led Abbott to fight for his civil liberties after the war.

The story of Dempsey Travis, however, makes no mention of whether he volunteered or was drafted, neither does it make any allusions to imply that he was a reluctant soldier. Travis was more concerned with the Jim Crow attitude of the Army, which he could not help to notice right away. The troop train to Camp Shenango, Pennsylvania, was segregated. The camp section reserved for blacks had no theater, or post exchange (PX). Their camp section was in an isolated spot, wedged next to a stand of trees. "If you went through the camp as a visitor," Travis related, "you'd never know black soldiers were there, unless they happened to be working on some menial detail."(149)

After attending a movie at a makeshift theater set up in the black camp, Travis and a friend walked into a group of other black soldiers, gathered around a comrade who was beaten when he went into a PX in the regular base to buy a beer. Minutes after, a caravan of white soldiers drove up, surrounded the area and began firing. "Firing, firing, firing, just shooting into the goddamn crowd. Everybody started scrambling like hell." (150) He was severely wounded in the back and leg. He and several other black servicemen were taken to a hospital:

They took us to the ambulance. Two guys were sitting in front. The one says to the driver, "Why we be doin' this to our own soldiers?" Driver says, "Who ever told you niggers were our soldiers? Where I come from" --I detected a southern accent-- "we shoot niggers like we shoot rabbits." This stayed with me. This sound of these two men talking about two disabled black soldiers. Shot not by the enemy but by Americans.(150)

The Army was convinced that Travis was leadership material, so he was put in charge of a troop movement from Pennsylvania to Camp Lee, Virginia, after he was released from the hospital.. En route, the train stopped in Washington, D.C. He left the train to go buy a Coke, and was told to go to a shop that patronized Blacks. "On the train to camp, we looked out of the back of the car and saw the dome of the Capitol. I said, What the hell does that mean? It didn't mean what I read in my civics books at DuSable High."(153)

Upon entering Virginia, Travis (raised in Chicago) ran across the first segregated drinking fountain he'd ever seen. He also noticed German POW's riding in the white sections of the trolley cars, while blacks rode in the back. Even at the camp theater, black servicemen were roped off towards the back of the theater. This segregation really came as a shock to Travis, especially when he noticed what he thought was better respect towards German POW's than to black U.S. servicemen: "I think of two armies, one black, one white. I saw German prisoners free to move about the camp, unlike black soldiers, who were restricted. The Germans walked right into the doggone places like any white American. We were wearin' the same uniform, but we were excluded."(149)

Despite the Army's tainted image, it was making progress in desegregation. With the help of an enthusiastic officer, Major Sloan, Travis was assigned as a clerk in a black PX, and in two months, he was the manager. Soon he was placed at the head of the white soldiers' PX as well. He won an award for having the best managed PX in Maryland. Still, racism clung on. When Sloan wanted a picture and story about Travis and his award run in local papers, his request was refused. He was told the newspaper owners didn't like the thought that a black man could operate a post exchange that well.

Though their stories and attitudes seem different, one can draw similarities between them. Both men show obvious pride in the fact that they stuck to their beliefs. Neither man ever backed down from their stands. Abbott maintained his anti-war, anti-compliance opinions throughout his wartime incarcerations, and maintained them even through the Vietnam conflict. It struck me as somewhat ironic that Terkel included Abbott's story in the section 'Reflections on Machismo,' but after studying the story, I realize it may be a subtle tribute from Terkel to Abbott's stalwartness. Similar to Abbott, Travis continued in his silent fight against army segregation by going back to the same camp where he was shot by white soldiers, and progressing through ranks to sergeant, and manager of a white PX in Maryland. This story was not placed at random in the book, either. Terkel placed it in the section "Neighborhood Boys" perhaps in an attempt to imply that other black soldiers faced, if not to the extreme, at least similar segregational situations.

On the other hand, both men expressed in different ways their reactions to the difficulties they faced. Abbott's attitude was one of continual cynicism. This can best be summed up in his description of World War Two: "Get off those bread lines. Build another bomber for peace. They just changed the slogans. That was the most popular war we had. People sang, danced, drank--whoopee, the war."(163) Travis, however, came out of his wartime experience with a more positive attitude towards himself and his nation. "Those four years in the Army," he said, "are the turning point in my life. I learned something about men. I learned something about racism. I learned something about values. I learned something about myself. I don't think I'd have that experience any other place or time."(156)

Also, both men fought the injustices they faced in different ways. Abbott enlisted the help of the ACLU to have his right to vote, as a felon, restored. He was involved in two cases that went before the Supreme Court as landmark decisions. His attitude in regards to his legal battles is one of haughtiness. "Once in a while a young law student comes up and says," Abbott said, "'It's wonderful to talk to somebody we read about in our textbooks.'"(170) Travis fought simply by enduring injustice until changes were started. Of participation in any civil rights movements he makes no mention, though it is clear in his story that he expresses incredulity at the treatment of black soldiers. Upon returning to Camp Shenango after recovering from his injuries, he discovered that the Army had built a major service center for black servicemen. "It appears you had to kill some guys. There was never an inquiry, to my knowledge."(152)

In regards to the effects of this segregation of blacks, and isolation of nonconformists on the nation as a whole, only a simpleton could deny that they had a staggering effect. Though the civil rights movement had been a sore spot for the nation since the Emancipation Proclamation of the 1860s, I feel that the experiences of many black soldiers in the war helped to galvanize the effort, and point it into a direction that called for action. Perhaps in the light of the war, which at the end was touted as a liberating force that stopped discrimination and slaughter of the Jews, African-Americans found a tactical wedge they could drive into the heart of segregational policies at home. In addition, noncompliance in wartime went from a social aberration to a propaganda force in its own right, one that fought perceived injustices during the turbulent Vietnam period. World War Two had opened the eyes of a nation to the fact that war was an ugly affair, an affair in which it was not particularly easy to discern between black and white, good and bad. Seeds sown in social and political skirmishes fought in war-oriented America sprouted into a social movement that brought the country into a closer conformity with the ideals for which it had fought the war: freedom, equality, and the absence of tyranny. Dempsey Travis and John H. Abbott did their own bit, in different ways and with different attitudes, to fight against the injustices they suffered.

Their experiences were different. One fought to participate in an army that discriminated against him because he was black. The other fought a national attitude that despised him because he was 'yellow'. This fight against intolerance of opinion, started with simple acts experienced by Travis, Abbott, and countless others like them, helped usher in an era of social change that hoped to correct past mistakes, and avoid future conflicts.

A Creative Crossroads

I'm in a conundrum at the moment: I'm wondering which direction in which best to expend my limited writing energy. One has me going this way:

The Dead Boy Boat

Pick 'em up.
Toss 'em in.
In the Dead Boy Boat.
Little boys past their prime.
Little boys run out of time.
On the Dead Boy Boat.
Can't play checkers.
Can't go swimmin'.
Ain't no suffleboard.
You won't be grinnin'.
On the Dead Boy Boat.
Little boys.
Big ones, too.
Come from Illinios.
Or Kalamazoo.
Beanies. Yo-yos.
Teacher's notes.
Marbles. Frogs.
Caps and coats.
Those will be your souvenirs
from the Dead Boy Boat.
Got a Dead Boy?
Chuck him on!
The boat still floats
The Dead Boy Boat.
Ain't no flirtin'.
Wouldn't want the buffet.
On the Dead Boy Boat.

This is a poem I wrote years ago. Haven't written one in ages. Probably because they're all dumb, like this one.

The other side has me going in a different direction, back into the journalistic style of writing that, after ten years in journalism, I discovered I wasn't all that fond of. (There's a third way that keeps me gainfully employed -- technical communication -- which, thankfully, isn't accompanied by the gleeful angst as are these other choices.

So what do I do?

Farewell, Mr. Terkel

It's a rare journalist who will just sit back and let a source just talk -- share stories, laughs, fears, and tears. Studs Terkel was one of those journalists. And he'd let anyone talk, form company presidents and generals to stone masons and newspaper delivery boys. He didn't care a whit about prominence. He not only believed that every person has a story to tell, but that those stories deserved telling.

Terkel, 96, of Chicago, died today, leaving people who enjoyed his unique brand of storytelling -- that brand being stepping back and letting people talk, prompting only when necessary but rarely inserting those prompts into the story -- wishing the news were not so.

I was introduced to Terkel through his most popular work, "The 'Good' War," which focuses on narratives he gathered from participants in nearly every facet imaginable of World War II. Reading Terkel is absolutely like listening to the people he talked to -- he never inserted himself between the storyteller and the reader, no matter how tempting it might have been. For a group of rather callow college kids, most of us reading about the war for the first time, Terkel's approach helped mold the story tellers into real people, rather than caricatures or figments we might learn about through a Hollywood movie.

Here's a wonderful quote from Terkel on how he did his storytelling:

"Who are the best historians? Who are the storytellers? Who lived through the Great Depression of the '30s, World War II that changed the whole psyche and map of the world, a Cold War, Joe McCarthy, Vietnam, the '60s, that's so often put down today and I think was an exhilarating and hopeful period, and, of course, the computer and technology. Who are the best ones to tell the story? Those who've borne witness to it. And they're our storytellers."

I've read a lot about World War II, mostly from historian or military historian standpoints. HEaring stories told by the people who lived them -- through Terkel's work -- really opened my eyes to the fact that events both great and small occurred during the war years. We cheat ourselves in history if we read only the thinnest crust of the complexity that lies underneath. Thanks to Terkel -- and to a father who witnessed the war in Holland as a civilian firsthand -- I've developed a great love and interest in reading about the war. Not because I want to read about the suffering or learn about the good guys or the bad guys, but because these events became real to me. Terkel can take the credit for helping that door open in my life.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Urban Elephants

Blogger's Note: "Urban Elephants" is a story I wrote many years ago, when my then-girlfriend (now my wife) challenged me to write a story with elephants in it. I think it turned out well. I thought it was lost until I started sorting through some old CD files a few weeks ago. Maybe it should have stayed lost. But I kinda like it.



Samantha and Robert often play in the alley behind their house. They scoot the alley gravel aside where it’s loose to make roads for their cars. Sometimes they toss a red and white ball back and forth, or bounce it off their back stoop. Whatever they play, they play quietly and most of the time alone, as their friends couldn’t come out. Their regular jump rope partner Judith has a broken leg plastered up in a bulky cast that won’t be sawed off for another three weeks. Their hide-and-seek counting pro Cecil is at the children's hospital where he'd have to stay until his injuries healed. Amber, their most expert hider and Emily, their most persistent finder are both in Victorville living with their aunt and uncle where the sun and sea air would help heal their broken collarbones. The last can they kicked for Kick the Can caused a ruckus when it clattered between the McClaskey's steel garbage cans. Their neighbor, Old Mrs. Swisher, took in from them only because three young Elephants charged wildly out of the alley onto Fourth Street in their fright at the noise, smashing into Mrs. Swisher's car.

The front yard, fenced high with stout poles and chain link, devoid of flowers and littered with tin cans and a random bone, is forbidden. That’s where the Elephants “get you,” the adults say. The beasts use each front yard on the street as garbage cans, taunting the homeowners to build higher fences as they chew on leaves and branches and every bit of green their trunks can reach. Samantha got caught only once in the front yard, and even though there were no Elephants in sight she got a stern lecture. You're a dreamer, Sam. I see you wander through the house and through the back yard, humming your funny little tunes. You don't pay attention,” her mother said. “And Robert follows you around like a disciple. I don't want to look out that front window and see. . .”

“I know, mother,” Samantha said. “You don't want to see us being. . .”

“Squashed by the Urban Elephants,” they said together.

Samantha folded her arms over the picture she’d drawn: Mother, Robert and herself enjoying a picnic in the front yard free of fences and ablaze in flowers and butterflies. Neighbors wave from windows free from bars, dogs play Frisbee with boys in the street. She did not draw like Robert: great, hulking Elephants – one with a tiny boy perched on its back – smashing cars and perched on houses and the humans cower in their basements.

Something should be said about the Urban Elephants.

The Elephants hide and sleep in cozy dark places in yards, in parks, in garages and in abandoned buildings. When the first few appeared in the neighborhood, Samantha and Mother and most of their neighbors thought they were cute. A novelty. Mother would see one out the front window and call Samantha and Robert over as the creature ambled slowly down the street, stroking parked cars with its trunk, swatting playfully at barking dogs and occasionally stopping to browse on the cherry trees across the street from their house. Then there were two, and three. Mr. Benson gave up on his cherry trees but planted a garden of cabbages, carrots and turnips which he'd offer to the Elephants when they made their rounds. He fed them by hand; one munched as the others playfully snorkeled Mr. Benson's shirt sleeves and hair for their own juicy tidbidts. Once Samantha and Robert were splashing in their kiddie pool in the front yard when four Elephants arrived, nuzzled the children and sucked their pool dry with their dangling noses. Four became twelve, then two dozen, then close to fifty. Mr. Benson bought produce by the truckload from the farmer's market because if some of the older bulls and cows didn't get their share, they'd pull at the shutters on his house and yank leaves off his trees to chew as they waited for their daily morsel. The newer ones were strays, though there were some neighborhoods – like the blocks of houses between the state highway and Cleveland Street – that are favorite places for people looking to dump off their animals.

Some of the Elephants are wild and quite dangerous. They bat at packs of barking dogs until the poor creatures dart yammering through the streets and alleys as the herd thunders after them. They once poked and kicked a police cruiser with two policemen inside until the car was a wreck and the officers so weary with fear Samantha’s mother had to drive them to the station after the Elephants got bored and wandered off. When TV camera crews and the local newspaper reporter showed up the day three Elephants made a mud wallow in the Paredes’ vegetable garden, it took thirteen blasts of an air horn to scare the beasts off and a hook and ladder truck from the fire department to fish the reporters out of a cottonwood tree they’d climbed to avoid the Elephants’ aggressive noses.

The local herd lives in Kate Curley Park four blocks from Samatha’s home. They made mud wallows out of the ponds and smashed the brick bathrooms the city built only five years ago. They rip the leaves off the trees and stuff them into their smelly mouths and tore down the swing set to pile bones of deceased Elephants in its stead.

Boys made sport of dashing by the park on their bicycles. As the boys pedal furiously, the Elephants chase them up the gentle slope of Albion Road where the boys try to reach the slope that leads swiftly to Main Street. A few of the quicker and more intelligent boys made the journey once or twice a week, daring each other to try higher gears as they race away from the pack of Elephants trumpeting at their rear. A few of the dumber boys took them up on their dares and failed to make the summit of Albion. When the Elephants catch the boys – coiling their noses around their waists and lifting them off their bicycle seats – the more aggressive Elephants trample the bicycle to pieces while those with more scientific bents offer the captor trumpeted and grunted advice on where it should toss the boy, wriggling in the trunk and screaming as the other boys either raced off to hide or climbed trees to watch. As the beast prepared for its throw, all the Elephants – and even some adults peeking through curtains or stopped aghast in their cars – stop to watch as the boy flies through the air, hoping his landing will be soft.

Some of the Elephants are so sweet and gentle, the children dare ride them, though they do so when their parents aren't watching. You can stroke their toenails and scratch their hairy bellies with leaf rakes as they burble with pleasure. You can swing on their trunks and tails and hang two or three kids from their tusks. Some are tricksters, though. Bonnie once got an Elephant ride down Third Street but at the dead end the beast plucked her from its back with its serpent nose and tossed her nonchalantly over the Piquet's garage. Samantha had been there that day, part of a troop of cheering children clamoring for their own rides. Bonnie crawled stunned but uninjured from the Piquet’s compost pile and Samantha helped her home.

So the children learned to play in the alleys as adults fenced off their front yards to keep the pests out. Still, the alleys held their danger, as the Elephants weren’t shy in using them. Mostly the Elephants visited the alleys during the morning and evenings, when the sun wasn't so hot.

“Ought to drive the vermin out of the neighborhood,” Lucy Bean said at one of the countless meetings adults had on how to deal with the beasts. As Samantha’s mother – as host – served the coffee, Lucy explained again how she’d lost her blue-ribbon raspberry patch and four stands of rhubarb to the Elephants and how she was set – with pitchfork and garden hose – to lead a posse down to the park to drive the Elephants away.

“I kind of feel sorry for them,” said Jakob Olesen, who lived on the cul-de-sac near the vacant lot where the cow Elephants brought their calves to play. He still fed them – wheelbarrows filled with leftovers from his downtown fruit market served as feeders. “They’ve got the right as God’s creatures to live, same as you, Lucy.” The pair dominated the meeting with their arguments. Lucy left in a huff just before Samantha helped Mother serve the doughnuts.

But most everyone stayed away from the meetings, preferring to stay somewhere in the middle or do what they could to avoid any Elephant-related problems. The Bensons – who live at the bottom of the route the boys use to tease the Elephants – believe rubberizing their roof was as far as they would go in relieving the Elephant’s victims. The Quimbys fish so many children out of their pool they no longer hear the splashes.

“When we were little, we used to go the park,” Samantha said as she scooted gravel aside for Robert, who gleefully pushed his toy milk truck down the tiny road she’d made. “They had a sandbox there where all the kids in the neighborhood would build roads and cities and little parks with even littler roads in them. Sometimes we'd find tiny shells in the sand, and I'd put them all in the back of your dump truck and we'd take them home to show mother.”

“Shut up about that park, Samantha,” her mother grumbled as she hung their clothes out to dry. “I don't want you putting ideas in that kid's head, especially after last week when I caught him in the front yard holding out a handful of grass to that Elephant sticking its foul nose over the fence.” Mother went back inside the house with her laundry basket, leaving only the sound of Mrs. Swisher – whose backyard was opposite her own – trimming her garden hedge with a pair of rusty trimmers.

Mrs. Swisher gasped and let out a quiet shriek as a steel garbage can clattered down the alley and rolled to a stop against her potting shed. Samantha stood straight and still, shielded her eyes from the noon sun and scanned the alley as Robert cowered at her feet.

An Elephant.

Two. Three. “Six Robert, come here ” Samantha grabbed Robert by the arm and left his cars in the alley. They scuttled toward their back door as the herd of Elephants shuffled up the alley.

One older fellow had a mangled bicycle tire dangling from his left ivory. They ambled; knowing the alley was theirs. The lead Elephant grunted, looked casually at the children slowly backwards-marching in the yard and slowed the herd's pace. The Elephants sniffed at a telephone pole and scraped a few leaves off tree branches dangling in their way. They tossed more metal garbage cans and trumpeted at the clatter, then stomped on the plastic ones because they didn’t make enough noise when they were thrown. The leader's trunk batted an electrical wire, sending a chittering squirrel flying through the air. He marched to Mrs. Swisher's rain barrel, uncoiled his nose and drank. His nose dripped water and algae as it wandered into Samantha's yard as Samantha and Robert stood trembling on the back porch.

"Sam," Robert said.

"Shh! Don't move!" Samantha whispered.

The Elephant lurched and drenched the children with a trunk full of green rainwater. The herd grunted in approval as the leader, satisfied with his joke, led them from the alley. Tires squealed and horns honked on Third Street.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Weird Up Your Friends

So, a while back I shared a way in which you can weird up your kids. Now here's one to try on adults:

If someone asks you what your political views are, respond this way: "I am a strict diageotropist." It's something they can't argue with, no matter their political stripe.

The World Through the Lens of Fark

For some reason, the Internet connection was down at work most of Wednesday – with one exception. I was able to get to Fark.com.

Fark, while occasionally rude, is most of the time a very entertaining site, a news aggregator with a big sense of humor. So as they day got longer and the connection still didn’t work, I pondered what life would be like if Fark.com were my only Internet window on the world. (And I mean only. While I could get the most recent updates to Fark.com, I could not get to any of the links, so, for example, if I wanted to read further on why six percent of Florida voters who had already voted “don’t know who they voted for,” I could not get to the news behind the snark.)

So, here’s what else I learned about the world today, and what I can surmise from the snark:

Fed cuts key rate to negative eleventy percent. (Cut won’t mean jack to we regular folks, but will mean that Wall Street will again tumble, because whatever the Fed has done lately has made things go completely ape.)

After zombie Fred Astaire selling vacuums and zombie John Wayne selling beer, Now it is JFK's turn to be reanimated from the dead, urging you to go green. (Soon we’ll see a reanimated Ronald Reagan once again warning us that the Commies are trying to steal Christmas.)

Clintons make final passive-aggressive argument for or against Obama in key swing states. Maybe. (The Clintons are STILL pouting that Madame did not get the nod.)

Obama staffers paid to spam up Fark and every other site with "Victory is inevitable. Just go home." (Obama has been assimilated.)

Putting the "fun" in "funeral," mortuary hires Elvis impersonator to sing and dance around replica of Presley's casket to help people see that their employees aren't creepy or weird. Yeah, that should do it. (Even the mortuary industry is suffering in the downturn because people just can’t afford to die any more.)

Voting problems plaguing some U.S. states. Most notably the lack of a good candidate. (Amen, brother.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Finding Underwear

If you live in Sugar City, your life is in some ways influenced by the Teton Dam flood of 1976. Most notably, there's a dividing line (psychologically) between those who lived here during the flood, and those who move dhere after the flood. We fall into the second category. I was only four years old when the Teton Dam broke in June 1976, but I do have vivid memories of Dad taking us up to the Rexburg area to see the wreckage -- I remember seeing railroad tracks coiled up like slinkies, houses half on the road and bits of road washed out completely. That being said, it was interesting to find these pictures. The first shows the entire city under the flood waters. The second, below, is more interesting.


This photo shows the 100 block of North Fremont Avenue, where we live now. North is to the top of this photo, with Fremont Avenue running diagonally out of the right-hand side of the shot. Our house sits on the lot with the mobile home in the front yard, squashed up against the house. None of the houses you see in this picture are still there, with the possible exception of the 1 ½ story house in the upper center of the photo (with the mobile home squashed up against the side). As far as I can tell, only two structures in this photo still stand – the one-car garage (with the light-blue sedan poking out of it, just to the left of center) and the two-story pillbox-looking shed near the center right of the photo. By all evidence, Sugar City was a real shotgun shack town even before the flood occurred. Someone also had a pink house. A pink house. Yikes. What is interesting about this layout, however, is this: Ours is a very narrow lot compared to the others on the block. I’d always half suspected that there were fewer homes on the block before the flood, and that after, someone subdivided a lot. Not so. There were eight houses on the block then, and eight houses on the block now. Each home, however, has been replaced by a much larger home. Ours is likely the smallest on the block, and it’s still 1,800 square feet. I can see here that the house that was on the lot before ours was rather long and narrow, matching the size of the lot. Ours now practically straddles the lot. It’s only about four feet from the southern property line, perhaps ten or twelve from the northern. Not a very convenient layout, but then again, homes being built back then weren’t built to fit the lot, were they?

If I can remember, I'll dredge up a picture my wife took of our block from a small plane at a somewhat similar angle, so y'all can see what the town looks like now. Or at least how it looked when she took the picture.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Message to Jim Risch

Jim,

I've heard your "Ding ding ding" economy-themed radio commercial several times today. Several. You will not get my vote, based solely on this annoying radio commercial, playing off tough economic times in a state where you're a shoo-in anyway because of that R behind your name. You could be pulling a cow's tail and having it go "Moo moo moo" and you'd win. Go spend your money on some new Republican suit or something, man.

And Mr. Rammell, before you come a-runnin, please, I have my standards when it comes to independent/loony party members, too.

Larry, my man, it's you. By default only.

How to Weird Up Your Kid

Once and a while, when you’re reading a book to them – especially one in which anthropomorphic animals take part – try out the following dialogue:

(From the book): “The bears were so excited to meet their new beaver neighbors, they took them a jar of their special honey to welcome them to the neighborhood.”

Then, without turning the page, say, “The bears poured the honey on the surprised beaver family, then ate them.” Close the book. Act like it's absolutely normal that characters in kids' books eat other characters.

I tried this on my four-year-old this weekend. He didn’t blink. But then wanted me to finish the story “the right way,” he said. So I read it some more, but added “and then they ate them” at every opportunity. He loved the story and wanted me to read it again. And again. With the embellishments. When I stopped with the embellishments, he protested. So they got weirder.

So who got weirded up? I’m not sure.

E-Z Recall

Years ago, humorist Dave Barry wrote a column in which he said he believed some unexplained suicides could likely be explained by the brain dredging up some unpleasant memory. He confessed to having many such memories available on what he called his brain’s E-Z Instant Recall Circuit, including a memory from his youth where he noted, at a dance, that his date was holding hands with him while holding hands with another young man. To his response to the situation – a muttered “Um.” – His brain cheers “Way to go, Dave!”

I’m having a similar experience today, involving a rather unpleasant memory of a screwed-up newspaper story that led to my departure from the industry in 2005. I know I was to blame for the screw-up, so the visceral reaction – I literally felt sick – to having that memory dredged up today was startling. So I’ve reflected on the situation a lot today, and have come to the same realizations I arrived at earlier: The screw-up was a symptom of a disease, and that disease was disaffection with my career as a journalist. The symptom, though unpleasant, led to a cure to the disease, though the cure took more than a year to accomplish and involved financial distress and a crushing of my already-fragile ego. Conclusion: The situation was, and remains, unbearably painful. But I’ve come out of it all right and, in most ways, for the better.

In addition: If this is the largest screwup I’ve ever committed – and I believe it is, because I’m not like Homer, who once expressed the thought that he was responsible for two China Syndromes at the nuclear power plants “plus a lot of stuff they haven’t found out about yet” – then I should be pleased with myself. Not that I don’t regret the screwup, but, I believe, it helped me move on in a better, more positive direction than if I hadn’t screwed up at all. I suppose that’s all part of the learning process. As we get older, as we gain experience, we get more perspective on things. And we certainly remember the pain of a screwup enough that we don’t want to commit that particular sin again.

Maybe nobody out there in Blogland cares about this. But then again, I’m not writing this blog for everyone out in Blogland.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

SPLAT!


From the beginning, Isaac was excited to be there. He got to go with Daddy in the truck all by himself to go wander around in the sage brush, which is Dad's version of heaven. Sure, there was a little walking to do, but it was down a really cool, windy road that started at the top of the canyon near the ruins of the Teton Dam and ended at the dam's toe, right where the river squeezes between the canyon and the dam's pyramidical remains.

On the way, Isaac collected rocks to throw in the water. That's all he wanted to do. Throw a rock, watch it splash. Throw another one. Watch it splash. And another. And another. Finally at the bottom. Goal in sight. He ran, his hands full of rocks. Tripped over an exposed root, fell flat on his face, flat on the rocks in his arms. Ended up with a cut lip and a desire to climb the canyon wall to get back to the truck. So Dad cajoled him part of the way, pulled him some more but carried him most of the way. So traumatized by the event, Isaac fell asleep on the way home. Woke up the driveway, still sniveling. So he got to watch "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown," where families put their kids in untold dangers -- wild river rafting, in the snow no less -- without any adult supervision whatsoever. Dad felt a lot better about his parenting skills after that.

Also, must mention the kind young man, Samaritan in training, who checked on us at the bottom of the canyon, then raced up to the lip and returned about halfway with bottled water and wipes for Isaac. I was too embarrassed to accept help, but it was appreciated. The parents of this young man should be proud -- he's selfless and willing to help a stranger. He's been raised well. I only hope my own kids will reflect that kind of training.

Not A Quagmire, but A 'Victory'

Blogger's Note: I have spent a good portion of the day on two activities:

-- Sorting through ten years' worth of digital photos, journal entries, sundry memories and a heck of a lot of MP3s in an attempt to make an organized system out of a muddle. May I recommend that if you have a lot of stuff you've collected but haven't organized, give up now. It'll be easier.

-- Walking down the side of a canyon on a really twisted, hairpin curve road with a four-year-old who eagerly collected rocks he was going to throw in the river once we reached the bottom, only to trip over a root within 30 yards of the bank and fall flat on his rock collection, getting a fat lip.

In the meantime, I found time to finish The Day the Presses Stopped by David Rudenstine. I'm not much into legal thrillers -- John Grisham just leaves me cold -- but this one, being a true story, was more interesting. Most interesting, however, was Rudenstine's tracking of the philosophical follow-up that followed the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. There were basically two camps concerning American involvement in Vietnam following the publication of this secret report: One believed that the American government made gradual steps into the war in order to make the country safe for democracy, only realizing how much of a "quagmire" Vietnam was after it was too late to disengage. Then there's the other camp, which believed the U.S. went in with eyes wide open, aware of the pitfalls but too concerned with the overriding need of "victory" to step back before it was too late. A brief quote from the book offers us food for thought as we think about the current war in Iraq and the desire there seems to be for "victory" without needlign too much about the means to that end:

"Gelb offered his own modified position: The essence of the debate over how and why the United States became involved in Vietnam was not over whether the "system worked" but over values -- why it was important not to lose in Vietnam. Gelb continued: 'Vietnam is what happened when our leaders calucalted essentially the imagined costs of losing, and not the real costs of winning. Vietnam is what happened when our values, international and domestic, were pushed to their logical extreme.' Presumably, Gelb was now claiming that whether the United States went into Vietnam aware or unaware of the costs of intervention was less important than comprehending the values that caused the intervention in the first place."

If we look at the current costs of "winning" versus "losing" in Iraq, we find the same equation as Gelb, one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers, outlined following their publication. To place all value and the costs in winning, one becomes blind to the fact that one has only imagined the costs of losing, when the cost of winning -- troop deaths, growing anti-US animosity, unstable governments still in Iraq and Afghanistan, souring relations with Pakistan, ongoing civilian deaths now at the hand of the US and its allies, rather than the proverbial "bad guys" -- has been all to high and all too real.

Just some late-night (or early morning) babbling. This book, however, was fascinating in painting a picture of a government so obsessed with winning that it did everything it could to win -- and ended up losing.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I, Charlie Brown

Since I can remember, other members of my family have compared me to Charlie Brown. Not in a mean way, but in a kind of, hey, Brian has that same dumb round head as Charlie Brown way. No more was the teasing more evident than when Charlie Brown ever encountered the Little Red-Haired Girl. Oh, the teasing I endured. Every time I mentioned a girl from elementary school, off would go the funny little comments. Then "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown" came out on TV. In that show, if you've never seen it, Charlie Brown does indeed get to kiss the Little Red-Haired Girl, and goes off flying through the clouds. That image was too rich for my brothers and sisters to pass up. So every time I mentioned a girl, they asked if I were flying in the clouds in a way that would let them see up my nose.

Then I got older. I got married. The teasing faded.

Then a few days ago, I got to sorting through a pile of letters I've saved over the years. Found one from my sister Maaike, in which she drew a picture of me flying through the clouds like Charlie Brown, viz:



Though the image is mirrored, I think she did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of the original:



Ah, life is so romantic. Even if your head is round.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Me Learn Everything

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

I’m having a blast from the past this week, and it has to do with HTML.

Back in the mid-1990s, while I was a student at the University of Idaho, this whole Internet and e-mail thing was pretty new to us all. This is back in the dinosaur years, when most people had 486s and thought they were the bees’ knees, though they were jealous of these people who were getting that newfangled Pentium chip.

But I digress from Miss Deets. The university encouraged us all to use computers and the Internet because, well, they were paying for it all. Each student was given e-mail and their own website – and most of us did little with the web end than the default setup that the university gave us – name, rank and serial number.

I don’t remember what started it – but I got to tinkering. Someone pointed me on to the concept of looking at the “code” for the websites I visited (using AltaVista in those oh-so-heady days of Yuri Gagarin when the world still trembled at the sound of our keystrokes). I figured it didn’t look that hard. So I started making my site a little better. I was writing for the college paper at the time, and so started reproducing my columns there after they’d been printed. Soon I moved on to book reviews. Then I entered the thrall of nerdom: Fansites. One for the Secret of NIMH, the other for Watership Down. Then another one on sage brush, because my would-be girlfriend (whom I later married, Hi Michelle!) thought I was obsessed with it. Then I built a website for the church I attended at the time. What a geek I was. And I was rewarded. I got a letter – an e-mail, actually – from the IT guys at the university which said I was using too much server space. So they gave me more. Absolutely fabulous. And absolutely geeky.

Then I left university and entered the Fred Flintstone world of newspapers, where, for the first two years, I used a DOS-based monstrosity that was modern in, say, 1972. When I left, the university shut down my websites because I wasn’t there any more. And I suppose it didn’t bother me.

I retrogressed. I didn’t begin blogging until late last year. And until I took a class this semester on digital media, I hadn’t touched HTML at all since my university days. Now I’m all excited again. But I can tell I’ve got a lot to learn about this newfangled stuff, because it’s changed a lot since 1994. By several orders of magnitude, to say the least. But I can tell where this skill would come in handy, and plan to supplement my masters degree work with more explorations here. (I’m getting a MS degree in technical communication. I can tell I need to supplement that with more computer coursework and experimentation.) If (and I say this with much respect, because I really like the guy) the “bearded road apple,” as Alice from Dilbert might describe him, who teaches the class I’m in now can learn this stuff, so can I. And I don’t even wear suspenders.

So another neophyte enters the world of life-long learning. Crazily enough, I’m also interested in taking a physics course, given the place where I work (landfill). (Well, radioactive waste landfill. If the criticality safety officer is running, I’d at least like to know why he’s running as I race along behind him.) And possibly chemistry. That doesn’t sound possible, from the twit who got a D in high school chemistry and figured (pay attention, you snot-nosed brats still in school) that he’d NEVER, EVER want to know that stuff, or ever have the opportunity to use what he remembered, which, right now, are a few random bits like Kelvin, carbon monoxide, playing with those little balls of mercury on the lab table when the teacher wasn’t looking, and the first few from the periodic table of the elements: hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, blah blah blah. I saw no use in science or mathematics when I was in high school. What a fool I was. Because now, as I look on these subjects, I feel like I’ve got the patience, if not the immediate brain capacity, to tackle them. So here I go. I won’t be waiting until next year, like this guy. And I’ll do it on my own, as I don’t get education assistance where I work. But that’s okay. That means I can study what I want. Updates as events warrant.

Slapstick Needed

Ironic that in the days following National Babbling Day, I dry up on this blog. But that’s to be expected. Not every day will be a smorgasbord of provocative thought here. Especially on the days when there are all these WORDS here.

I have to wonder, why do I do this? The biggest answer: Self-expression. A lot of people would say self-promotion, especially given my sometimes-ironic blog tagline (it’s up there, above the waterfall). I know there are a lot of people who roll their eyes at or otherwise criticize bloggers who, for the most part, they say, are as shallow and self-centered as that guy in The Money Pit.

The Money Pit. That's what I need. A little slapstick to liven the day. Enjoy the video.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Holiday for Me

Finally, a holiday I can sink my teeth into: National Babbling Day. And if it weren't for the likes of James Lileks, a black-belt babbler if I've ever met one, I would have missed it.

So here's some babbling:

Babble!
BABBLE!
babble babble babble babble babble
BAAAAAAAABBBBBLLLLLEEEEE.


As I'm no stranger to babbling myself, the preceding babblings are probably not necessary. Pull up any random blog entry here and you'll find a babbling fool. The irony of the situation is that, verbally, I'm a very quiet, reserved individual who actually has difficulty communicating comfortably. Put me behind a keyboard or at the wheel of a pen and a bit of paper, however, and I go absolutely nuts.

If you're like me and anal about such things, you'll notice one glaring error if you click on the link to take you to the declaration of National Babbling Day. Every October 21th? That hurts just typing it, let alone seeing it here. Now, I'm no stranger to the occasional typo, but something like that just stabs at the eye and makes me bleed, especially seeing as I can do nothing to fix it except set myself up as one of those Internet Grammar Nazis you've read so much but know so little about.

But back to babbling. When it comes to babbling, I feel like Grandpa Simpson: "Nothing can keep me from my meddling!" But, in my case, it's babbling. Plenty of things keep me from it, though. Especially if I'm called on to babble with my voice and not fingers on the keyboard, which I've already covered in this post, so we won't go there again.

The folks who trumpet National Babbling Day can't seem to put a finger on the day's origins. I like to think it originated iwth one of our caveman ancestors, bored to ears as the winter outside the cave dragged on, so he, with a little pot of ochre, babbled and babbled and babbled in pictogram form on the wall until summer arrived, and then he went out to get more ochre.

Distinct Disservice

Ray Ring’s report on the Mormon Church’s effort to pass Proposition 8 in California does the Mr. Ring, High Country News, and its readers a distinct disservice. Mr. Ring’s article is an example of how a lazy reporter can slant an article to make a situation match the preconceived notions that reporter brings with him.

I contest that Rexburg and the surrounding community is “in denial,” as Mr. Ring quotes a local police officer in saying, about the troubles this community faces. Had Mr. Ring spent time talking with more area residents than he did, he would have found many who are concerned about the issues of suicide, child abuse, drugs and other pernicious social issues he implies this area’s citizens sweep under the rug. Had he spent time in some of the meetings local Mormons are “forced” into attending every Sunday, he would have heard frank discussions on these subjects, at least in some of the meetings I attend.

Though these subjects may not be the subject of every discussion held both inside and outside the walls of the local LDS churches, these topics are discussed enough that the article’s claim of an area in denial rings hollow to my ears. I do not deny that there are members of the Mormon Church here who choose to remain ignorant of the area’s ills, nor do I deny that their treatment of gays and lesbians is reprehensible. I protest, however, Mr. Ring’s choice to paint the area’s population with such a broad brush.

The majority of residents of Rexburg and the surrounding area are fully aware of the troubles that lie beneath the calm patina, as would be residents of any small town of any religious or non-religious bent.

Again, if Mr. Ring had spent more time in Rexburg talking with more sources than he quotes in the article, he would have found a broader spectrum of opinion and concern. The High Country News’ choice to print this article without asking Mr. Ring to put down the broad brush reflects poorly on Mr. Ring and the publication he works for.

Die, Comma, Die!

Yesterday, I declared a war on commas. It felt good. I’m sure I overuse commas myself, but in the case of a document I was editing, they were exceptionally egregious. That’s what happens when you cobble different documents together using the “track changes” feature in Word, which is excellent in its own way but has a real nasty habit of hiding diminutive punctuation marks. Can’t count how many times I’ve had to deal with a double period. And the Ankh-Morpork Society of Green Grocer’s wouldn’t much like me, either, because I feel the same way about apostrophes.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I've Had Interviews Like This

First time I've ever seen this particular Monty Python sketch . . . but somehow it feels oddly familiar. Certainly brings to mind the interviews I've had at Melaleuca.

Even more frightening is that this interview is actually more lucid than some of the jobs I've had to perform after a much more sensical interview.

The NEW Uncharted


If anyone within the sound of my voice would like to be included in http://www.uncharted.net/ (That's the old version, soon to be replaced) beta testing (you've heard of Uncharted; I've mentioned it a few times on this blog), let your voices be heard now. Drop me a comment here, with your e-mail address, and I'll get you signed up. Testing begins today and will last for about four weeks. We really need people to:

1) Sign up to be an Uncharted adventurer, and begin sharing your stories, photos, videos and outodoor experiences with the world.

2) Test this site and make it break. We've got a month to find bugs, typos and other nasty litte errors before we have to pay the programmers more money, so the more flubs we fix now, the better.

3) Be patient with us. Understand, if the beta tester launch had taken place prior to a weekend rather than just after one, I'd have stuff up on the site ready for you to read. Alas, as it is, the bulk is going to have to wait until the weekend, which is a shame. But can't control everything, can we?

4) If you want more info, check out the Uncharted blog entry on beta testers, and drop GeoJoe a line as well if you want to participate.

When you sign up, you'll be given a password to get into the beta site. Test away!

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled Internet browsing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Bookworms


Books, as you've probably figured out, play a large part in our lives here at the Davidson household. It's not atypical for Michelle and I to have two or three books each that we're reading, picking one up when the mood and the opportunity arises. (In this picture, you can see me and our three kids, happily reading books we picked up at a thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming. Reading there is certainly more interesting than the other local sport, Spot the Scabby Tourist.)

We are, however, a bane to the publishing industry. Aside from textbooks, I haven't purchased a new book in who knows how long, and new books are typically a Christmas event in our family, not a regular occurrence. We do buy a lot of used books -- and I mean a lot. Michelle prowls the Internet looking for specific books that interest her; I haunt the thrift stores, picking up whatever catches my eye. (This past weekend, for instance, I picked up two books that look at utopian societies, a copy of "Because of Winn-Dixie," and "The Coming Plague," by Laruie Garrett. I'm not sure where they fit in to the other stuff I enjoy reading, but I'm sure I'll find room somewhere.)

It does seem odd, this disconnect between the industry and my reading pleasure. New books, however, are expensive. Also, concentrating on new books too much eliminates the thrill of the hunt in finding old books to read.

You'll note I say I haunt thrift stores, not used book stores. Used book stores tend to be more expensive than what I'm used too -- years ago, I could go to the local thrift store and, on a lucky day, pick up ten books for a dollar. We went to a used book store about a month ago, and I was a bit disappointed by the prices. I know the owner has to make a living, but let's get real here. They had a copy of "That Day in June," a history of the 1976 Teton Flood disaster, for $35, and were bragging it up as cheap, saying the books sell for as much as $50 on eBay. Irony is I'd just found it -- luckily -- at our local Deseret Industries for $1 the week before. So my faith in the thrift store remains unshaken. I do have to swim through a lot of those cheap romance novels to find what I want, but I find what I want in the end.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Worrying Occurence


Recently, as noted in this blog, I read Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Part of the enjoyment in reading this book was getting a peek into the scientific mind, especially the mind that wants to poke and prod the universe in order to make it laugh or blow up.

Just realized today, while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my boys that, since reading that book, I understand the joke behind the hecklers saying "Oh, this is back when science didn't have to serve any real purpose." And I actually figured out that good ol' Cal Meacham's misguided efforts to seek out ways to convert lead into uranium was, as a matter of fact, not all that far off from what scientists were doing with nuclear physics back in the day when you could say nuclear and not get sneered at for being a wastemonger, or when you could say 'atomic' and not be considered a retro cool dude, albeit a wastemongering retro cool dude.

The Packrat's Conundrum

I've written here about all the stuff I cling to -- books, papers, photographs, nes clippings, other miscellaneous paper goods that just sit in boxes waiting for me to open them, riffle through them, get frustrated with my inaction with them and then shove the boxes back into their storage places. I'm trying my darnedest to organize and cull the stuff I keep, but it's tough.

For example, my recent project involved pulling an apples box out of storage. In this box are about eight years' worth of personal journals, some mere computer printouts but most hand-written, and in many cases hand-doodled. (I was about to write "hand-decorated," but that gives way too much credit to my doodles than they deserve.) I've simply taken the computerized stuff, scanned it into the computer and made PDFs of the mess. The other stuff, including two years' worth of letters I sent my family while I was on my mission in France, is more problematic. I've already scanned in the journals, and am working on the letters now. The conundrum: Do I hold on to the paper records, or just satisfy myself in keeping the digital copies? Both options present pitfalls. If I keep the written records, I have to deal with their bulk. Perhaps they are more pleasing to riffle through, but I can't remember the last time I did so. Will my posterity want to riffle through them, or will they be happy with the digital copies? One flod, and all the paper is gone anyway. But again, if I keep only the digital copy, I risk losing them in some other way, either through fire or simply having the storage media crumble or become outdated.

So what's a packrat to do?

Share a bit of the memory, I suppose, while it's fresh, and before either paper deteriorates or digital copy is lost. So, behold: One of my favorite letters home.



Friday, October 17, 2008

You Know You're A Davidson . . .

. . . if, at a wedding in the family, you look in the guestbook and see someone has signed it as

Gimli son of Gloin

and in response someone else has signed as

Frodo son of Drogo

and the only reason you don't sign in kind is because your wife is watching, only later to learn she wanted to sign with Gandalf's whole name, but couldn't remember it in time to do so.

25 MPH

While I believe dropping the speed limit from 35 mph to 25 mph on Second West in Rexburg is a step in the right direction in making this road safer to travel, part of me wonders if all we're doing is slowing down the dumb drivers.

Here's an example. On the way home from the bus stop Wednesday night, I came within a second of t-boning another driver who pulled a stupid stunt and shot out in front of me. i was northbound, near the intersection of Second West and First South. An INL bus was in the inside lane, preparing to turn east onto First South. I was in the inside lane. Traveling at just below the 35 mph speed limit, I came even with the nose of the bus. Just then a minivan on First South shot into the intersection in front of me, attempting a left turn. Had I been a second closer, I would have hit her. As it was, I put on the brakes in a hurry. She just kept on going. Once again, we have an example of a driver not taking into consideration what traffic might be coming her way. (I'm not singling our women here; this just happens to be an instance involving a female behind the wheel.)

I'm glad to see the traffic being slowed on this street, though I travel it daily and already lament the putt-putt track that is Rexburg's Main Street, where the speed limit is already 25 miles per hour. But I'll take the slower speed limit if the city doesn't cave in to the weenie whims and put a traffic light at the intersection of Second West and Third South. We just don't need one there. There's a light just a block north where pedestrians could cross more safely, if they wouldn't be lazy in walking the extra block. I did that all the time, living and biking and walking a lot in France. Folks do it in Idaho Falls all the time -- they don't have a traffic light at every intersection, and those who walk or bike have to travel out of their way sometimes to cross at a light.

Magnets of Doom

About a year ago, we took a nice long vacation that included stops in California, Arizona and Mexico. While in Quartzite, Arizona -- a town that exists, seemingly, to serve as a place to pump gas, park RVs and set up tents in which to sell trinkets the RV owners can take home to their grandchildren, we got, for our kids, a small handful of magnetic rocks. As kids will, the rocks soon lost their appeal. But you can't just throw out rocks. It isn't done. It isn't proper. So we still have them. And because I have a small collection of rocks that resemble pig noses, I've been designated as the keeper of the rocks.

This is bad. My rock collection happens to be in the study. Near my computer. A thing that really, really doesn't like magnetic fields. So I'm constantly moving the rocks so they're far, far away from my stuff. But because my wife, bless her, is a tidy soul, the rocks always find their way back to my desk. That, or the kids, with their unerring sense of knowing how to place parents' possessions in danger, keep bringing them back, firm in the belief that they, along with the pumice stones and hunks of concrete they keep bringing me, will add to the overall beauty and variety of my rock collection.

I may have to throw these rocks away. Maybe I'll start by sticking them to neighbors' cars . . .

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Anti-D'oh-te


Usually, I feel like Homer Simpson at work, and it's not just because I work at a nuclear facility. I imagine that, behind my back, people are calling me a baboon. A baboon! The ugliest, smelliest ape of them all! And because I didn't go to Alpha Tau with good ol' Smithers, I know I won't get one of the two jobs that are open, even if only three are applying. And I don't even get doughnuts.

Then came today, and this note, from my administrator at Nuclear Placement Services:

Brian: Not only did they give you a raise, but they gave you like 0.60 cents more than I requested! You're base wage is now $26.00 an hour! Way cool! Congratulations, they obviously like you! Your new wage starts effective October 1, so I'll be giving you some retro pay on top of your new wage this paycheck. I'm sure you can find something useful to do with it. :)

Can I find something useful to do with it? Yes. Pay bills without dipping into savings. Something good finally happened to me.

It's also evidence of the following things:

1) Prayer works. We've prayed a lot about this.

2) You don't get what you don't ask for. I asked for a raise, rather than just settling for the 3 percent COLA. Might not pay off every time, but it paid off this week.

No longer need I lament like my brother Homer: Why do all the things that happen to stupid people happen to me? I'd still like it to say "Brian Davidson, Local Boob" underneath my picture if I ever get interviewed on local TV, though.

I should mention, for clarity, that this is no mere 3 percent raise. This entails a wage increase of $4.05 an hour, which is why this is such a mind-blowing event for me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Global Discussion/Awareness Raising Begins . . . Now!

Today, apparently, is Blog Action Day, a day wherein bloggers and other similar back-porch pundits, studio prognosticators, basement bloviators, uptown agitators and their associated hangers-on are to discuss poverty in an attempt to increase “awareness” and to “start a global discussion” on the subject.

Never one to shy from useless gestures, this blog, too, will join the discussion, even though this blog has already started fourteen other global discussions on equally easily verbosed topics this month. Here goes:

Poverty is bad. Very bad. Soo bad, in fact, I will take ten minutes out of my day – Blog Action Day, October 15, 2008 – just to say how bad poverty is and how I wish we had gobs of money we could throw at the problem to make it go away. Nevermind that the regular readers of this blog already share this general sentiment and are probably out doing other, better things to combat poverty, like getting ready for the Scouting for Food campaign (which we shouldn’t mention, because, you know, Scouting is politically incorrect because they have (whisper) tolerance issues). Or they consistently donate cash to their church, knowing full well that the money goes directly to those who need it the most (i.e., those suffering poverty firsthand) but we probably shouldn’t mention that either, because churches, as you know, are worth millions or billions and tie up that wealth in property, Pope hats and political activism meant to show (whisper) that they have tolerance issues.

In case bloggers are having trouble figuring out what to blog about on Blog Action Day, the folks at BAD have a few suggestions; pre-fabricated and slightly misspelled positions for the blogger on the go who only has a few minutes in which to raise awareness and spark a global discussion on the subject. Choose one that best fits your blog flavor and/or political views:
  • A Design Blog might analyze a set of charity posters and how they convey their message.
  • A Tech Blog might look at pro-poor technologies and projects.
  • A Political Blog might examine the relevant agendas of leading candidates.
  • A Sports Blog might look at recent charity activities of a major sports franchise.

They neglect to suggest what a smartass blog might do. But I think anyone reading this blog has a good idea of what kind of awareness such a blog might raise on the issue.

So, has the global discussion started yet? I think I can hear one starting up on those charity posters. Hm. Apparently Bodoni doesn’t convey as much poverty awareness as Futura. Interesting.

Insert indignant screeds below:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Folks around here are in a (understandable) dither over the death of a pedestrian in Rexburg Saturday night. This is the second pedestrian death in the last few months in Madison County, the fifth within a few years and the second within a year at what some are calling Rexburg’s most dangerous intersection. Calls are going out now for a four-way stop at the intersection, preparatory to the city installing a stoplight there.

I don’t know that the city could do anything more at the intersection short of these proposed plans than what they’ve already done. Since the death of BYU-Idaho student Chera Birch at the intersection of Second West and Third South last December, the city has installed improved street lighting and a crosswalk light pedestrians can activate themselves – with the push of a button, the lights flash yellow caution warnings to oncoming drivers.

Oncoming drivers. That’s a problem. Deloris Stanton, 72, was killed at the intersection Saturday night (and Bonnie Warne, 51, was injured) when a car changed lanes to pass a vehicle waiting for the ladies to cross the street. A similar thing happened a few years earlier at an intersection a block southwest of this one where a driver killed two young girls crossing the street under similar circumstances. Rexburg, many people say, just isn’t friendly to pedestrians.

Pedestrians. Another problem. When I push a button that activates a caution warning drivers that I’m crossing the street, I check to make sure drivers are heeding that warning. I’m grateful when one vehicle stops. But I’m on the lookout for the vehicle that isn’t stopping. I know what I’m talking about. When I was attending the University of Idaho, I was nearly struck by a vehicle that ran a four-way stop and barreled through the intersection, nearly clipping my toes as I stood in the crosswalk. I do say stood, because, as I was crossing the street, I had the sudden impression to stop walking. I stopped immediately. If I hadn’t, I would have likely been catapulted into the façade of Shoup Hall.

So oncoming drivers are a problem. Pedestrians are a problem. And four-way-stops and stoplights don’t necessarily stop the two from meeting. (As for the clamor for a stoplight at the intersection in Rexburg, I have to wonder – do we need one here, when there’s one a block north of this intersection?)

The problem is this: Pedestrians and drivers are dealing with two factors that will constantly defeat any safety devices the city might install.

Both driver and pedestrian have tunnel vision. Intent on arriving at their final destination, the focus is on that goal – the traffic light ahead, the sidewalk where the walk to the concert hall can continue. If either driver or pedestrian took off the blinders and either wondered if that car coming was going to stop or why that other car was stopped in the first place, this accident would not have happened.

Both driver and pedestrian are dealing with a four-lane road. With four lanes of traffic, the pedestrian has to be wary of additional plains from which an oncoming car may arrive. And for the driver, the extra lane provides an easy escape when one lane is blocked – especially if the driver does not think to ponder why the car is waiting there in the first place.

It’s all a matter of paying attention to our surroundings, rather than continually focusing on that distant goal of travel – the final destination. I saw that in my three-year-old boy who was nearly hit by a car in Iona last year. He was trick-or-treating with us. He saw his mother and brothers across the street. He wanted to join them. He took off – right in front of a van, whose driver was mercifully paying attention and stopped in time, slamming on the brakes and scaring the wits out of our son.

It turned out well. He (and his sister, who witnessed the event) are much more cautious crossing the street now. They always look. They always watch the oncoming cars, and stay well out of the street until the cars pass. They’ve learned the lesson that while getting to the goal at the end is great, getting there in one piece is even better.

This is, of course, the harder solution. It’s easy to say spend a hundred thousand dollars on a traffic light, or clog Rexburg’s already difficult-to-navigate north-south route (there is only one, outside of Highway 20, which makes travel through town in those directions difficult at best) with another stoplight or stop sign. It’s easier to regulate traffic than behavior, and it’s easier to point to a four-way stop or a stoplight (even with a stoplight just a block to the north) as evidence that safety improvements have been made. It’s easier to put a stoplight there rather than encourage pedestrians to walk the extra block north to cross at an already-regulated intersection. We all want the shortest route. We all want to be safe. Shouldn’t safety trump the shortest route?

There’s been noise on some of the local news sites that it’s drivers from outside Madison County that are the problem. Well. I’ve lived in Madison County now for nearly twelve years, and can say that Madison County drivers are no better, nor any worse, than drivers from surrounding counties. Turn signals are a rarity here. There are some with 1M plates who do not for the life of them know what the left turning lane is for. I’ve also seen plenty of pedestrian near-misses where a vehicle whips around another that is waiting for a pedestrian to cross, rather than pondering why that car might be stopped. The pedestrians, in these cases, were smart enough to be watching, and stopped in time to avoid an accident. And as many 1M folks as I see yakking on cell phones, listening to MP3 players or otherwise distracting themselves as they drive, I’m surprised more pedestrian accidents and fatalities have not occurred.

This dimness does not end with drivers, either. I can’t count how many times a pedestrian has launched themselves from the curb when I’m only half a second away from that spot of crosswalk they want to use. Jaywalking is so common in this city that I travel in the inside lanes on purpose just to avoid the sudden curb-jumpers.

Put in a four-way stop or a stoplight if it’ll make you feel better. But consider that this is only one of dozens of intersections in the city where traffic is regulated only by a two-way stop. Do you want to spend a hundred thousand dollars at each intersection, or are we better off reminding ourselves to modify our own behavior, both as drivers and as pedestrians? I know which of the two avenues I’m already on.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Writing Exercise

Blogger's Note: Just trying to keep some other writing juices flowing with this. Thanks for shopping with us.

Before you presume, know:

Though they are raccoons – black masks, ringed tails, nimble fingers and all – they do not have foresty names like Ring-Tail or Crawdad. Neither do their names rhyme. Nor would they come up with their own names, taken from nature or from their own feats of bravery or skill. Raccoons, see, don’t need names. Warm fur, food, a place to sleep. And kits of their own.

Their mother left them nameless, calling them, collectively with their two brothers and sole sister, “my little kits” because, as their mother knew quite well as soon as they were old enough they’d leave the hollow in the tree where they were born and go off into the big world to find fish, walnuts, berries and spouses of their own, giving perhaps only fleeting thought to the kindly mother and mostly absent father left behind.

The other animals around Purdy Farm, however, called them This and That. They got the name from Farmer Purdy who, returning from the henhouse where the pair snatched eggs, from the dairy where the pair gobbled cheese, from the granary where the pair purloined corn, responded, “Oh, this and that,” to Ma Purdy’s question on the source of the frenzied cackling, the missing cheese, the diminished corn.

Neither one minded the names. Neither one knew who was This nor who was That. Frankly, only a few of the other animals around Purdy Farm bothered to keep them straight, either. “No honor among thieves,” the old badger muttered often when This or That were about. “No sense namin’ them, either.” That the raccoons knew the badger’s name was Aloysus infuriated the badger even more.

Chylus the crow calls them Procyon and Iotor, for reasons he kept to himself.

Before you wonder, know further:

“We’re brothers and stick together for the case of the narrative,” This or That said (I don’t know who is who, either, and the two aren’t telling). “If it weren’t for this story, I wouldn’t be within five miles of him.”

“Nor I,” That or This replied. (I’m sorry; it’s all very confusing. And they just lose or chew up the little name tags.)

They would not spy for the animals as they tried to discover the mood and musings of Farmer Purdy. “We won’t wear vests nor ties nor say things like ‘My fur and whiskers,’ either,” said This. Or That. “So don’t even ask.” But, they agreed, if they happened to learn anything in an off-hand way while they were plundering the Purdy Farm, that they would pass it on to the animals more concerned with the welfare of Farmer Purdy, if only because his welfare directly impacted their own. Secretly, they planned to steal Farmer Purdy’s shotgun and hang it in a tree in a part of the woodlot they knew the farmer visited only rarely, hoping that once they stole it and hung it in the tree the rains would come, so that when the farmer found it, it would be rusted solid and useless for peppering their rear ends with buckshot.

“We’d shoot him,” That said. Or This. “But then who’d plant the corn?”

Know also: Raccoons are not as cute and cuddly as you'd think:


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Internet-Free Weekend

We went the entire weekend without internet.

Not by choice, mind you. Our ISP, on occasion, decides to perform "maintenance" over the weekends, figuring that, I don't know, we hicks in the sticks won't notice or something. (I put maintenance in quotes because I figure what kind of maintenance do they have to do? Are they hiring big burly guys with wrenches to drive around and wave them at their wi-fi equipment? Or are they just dusting?) We notice. WE NOTICE. Not that posting to this blog is a high priority, or that the fate of the entire free world is in the balance if we can't get on to cnn.com to check the news. But, well, we are sorta paying for this service, and, well, we like to know when it's not going to work. Sugar City where we live, for example, lets us know when our water is going to be shut off for maintenance. We've also had notice in the past from the power company, letting us know when the power is going to be shut off to let the gerbils (you know, they run around in that big wheel down at the power plant) get a rest. We just don't get that kind of courtesy from Bridgemaxx, our ISP. Other than that, mind you, the service is great.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Oh Deer

On the way to Driggs this afternoon, saw a sight: Near the Teton River as it curls around the western edge of the city of Teton, we saw three deer bound across State Highway 33 and duck underneath a set of rolling sprinklers in a field to the south of the road. They stared at us with their big black eyes, like deers' eyes, then trotted off into the field.

Michelle asked if we'd had a full moon the night before.

Huh?

Apparently, she said, deer are often seen in the daytime following a full moon. She didn't know why -- just lore from a friend who hunts.

There was not a full moon last night.

"Well," Michelle said. "There goes another theory."

Wood

Today, we got wood. Lots of wood. A truck and a trailer full of wood. Wood wood wood. That was our day. We have a fireplace in our basement. The basement is cold, despite the presence of a natural gas-fired furnace in the house. The first year we lived in this house, we had no firewood. We were cold. On Christmas Eve Day the first year we lived here, I got fed up and found some wood I could burn. We liked the heat. We even chopped up and burned an old wooden bookshelf I had out in the shed, doing who knows what with it.

Since then, we've been consistent wood-burners. We get most of our wood from a place not far from home where they build custom log cabins. Basically, we pay them $15 a cord to root through their trash and find the wood we need to keep us warm during the winter. Then came this year. The economic downturn, combined with the housing collapse, dropped the bottom out of the custom log home market. Whereas we were used to bountiful harvests at their scrap pile, this year we spent our time crossing our fingers that they'd actually have wood in the pile, and that someone else didn't beat us to it. We got about half the wood I'd hoped we'd get, which was disappointing.

Then today. A family member is building a house, and we mentioned that we'd like to come scavenge through the garbage piles for wood, like the folks in Paris during World War II. They said that would be OK, and then mentioned that they had a huge pile of firewood in the basement of the home they're living in -- borrowed from his side of the family. They'd been asked to move the wood, as it was a fire hazard. So we said we'd take it -- because they had no way of getting it away from the house; they didn't want to haul it off by putting a log or two in their car. So we went all the way to Driggs today to retrieve the wood. We had to start off by fixing two flat tires, one on the wood trailer, the other on the van, and then getting an oil change for the truck, which was to haul the trailer. The trip there was pleasant -- we got to see the last of the potato harvest, trucks hauling huge loads of spuds and the occasional spud spill.

Erica and Nephi treated us to lunch, then we went to work. And work. And work. There was a lot of wood, in a far-back corner of the basement, where I had to duck udner a furnce duct. The wood was big and heavy. I hauled wood pretty much on my own for about an hour while Nephi was at work (I get Fridays off, which is nice) and Michelle, Erica and the kids went to the thrift store to find Halloween costume items. I hauled wood. And hauled. And hauled. Then we drove home, cursed the weight of the wood which made the trip slower, but then blessed the wood because, once we got it home and once I spend an hour or two unloading it tomorrow, it'll keep us warm.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Northwest Continues to Dominate in Squirrel Reporting

From KXLY TV, Spokane, WA:

A squirrel ignited a fiery chain reaction that led to a power line collapse, car fire, natural gas fire and a power outage in northwest Spokane Wednesday morning.

It all started at 8:22 a.m. in the 4900 block of North Hartley at Wellesley when, according to Avista investigators, a squirrel came in contact with a transformer. That single action set in motion a chain of events.

First, the power line burned through causing the line to fall to the ground and come into contact with a metal fence and a car. The car caught on fire.

The fence, meanwhile, was energized by the fallen power line and the electricity was conducted underground to a natural gas pipeline which in turn burned through and started an underground natural gas fire which burned up to two gas meters at nearby houses.

The fire department extinguished the fires while Avista shut off the natural gas pipeline.
Power was restored to the 155 residents in the area near the incident around noon.


The squirrel did not survive the melee.

Alas, no dead squirrel pictures, as in the first item of squirrel news reported here. That should probably be a major portion of any squirrel-melee-related story, but I suppose there's the off chance that the Spokane squirrel was just not as photogenic as the Idaho Falls squirrel.

I must congratulate this squirrel, which appears to be a student of Rube Goldberg. It was probably trying to figure out a way to roast acorns and things just got out of hand.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More from the Pack Rat


For about five years now, I've had an apple box underneath the stairs, collecting dust. Inside, the following:
  • A brittle vinyl record of relatives speaking in Dutch.
  • A half-completed child's stamp collection book, also in Dutch. (I'm half-Dutch myself.)
  • A binder of letters I wrote home from France.
  • Six binders of journal entries.
We're trying to reduce clutter in the house, so I've taken to scanning the journal pages into the computer and saving them as jpgs or pdfs. While I've been able to toss most of the paper, I'm having a hard time getting rid of the hand-written journals (the others were just printed copies of electronic journal entries, so they were easy to pitch). I'm also dealing with an enormous box of newspaper clippings (was a journalist once, have long since left that happy little world for the happier world of writing procedures at a nuclear waste landfill).

Part of what makes the pitching difficult is that in addition to journal entries, I've collected years of detritus, including the page you see here, a "surrealist" art experiment from the single art class I took in college. (When you see the quality of the art, you'll understand why I'm not an artist). Of the stamps on the page, one seems to have relevance today:

I call it "Wow. She Can See Russia From There."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Edgar "Ka-Boom" Montrose


Earlier today I finished reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Though it’s a cliché to say, I believe everyone ought to read this book. Rhodes not only goes through the physical conception of the bomb, but also the efforts and motivations of the scientists, politicians and industrio-militarists who tried to encourage either a new world order based on peace because of the destruction the bomb promised. We all know which way that argument went.

What I find more interesting is a discussion in the final pages of the book:

Rather than a guarantor of sovereignty the arms race has proven a reductio ad absurdum of sovereignty. Though they bristle with holocaustal weapons, the superpowers confront each other today totally vulnerable, totally dependent for their continued survival on mutual and reasonable restraint, their sovereignties so thoroughly compromised that they can exercise their military ambitions only through third-world skirmishes that seldom find conclusive end. The bomb, the final word on the accumulation of power – that matter properly arranged is all power – has saturated national sovereignty and burned it out.

Boy does that sound familiar, with Russia meddling in Georgia and the United States meddling, well, wherever it seems to please. Not to mention the collapse of the Soviet economic system in the 1990s and what appears to be the collapse of Western capitalism in these days.

Rhodes goes on to say, however, that the superpowers have done some good, working together – good that could be expanded if only the political will were there. He mentions a Soviet-led effort helped amply by the United States and the World Health Organization to eradicate smallpox. “The eradication of smallpox will represent a major milestone in the history of medicine,” Rhodes quotes the director of the campaign, Donald A. Henderson, as saying. “It will have demonstrated what can be achieved when governments throughout the world join an international organization in a common purpose.” It did, Rhodes goes on to say, end the most devastating and feared natural pestilence in human history. And this was all done with the cooperation, rather than the militaristic conquest, of third-world nations, who nevertheless had to learn to trust the Big Boys coming in to help.

Individual scientists reacted differently to ambivalence toward using the bomb as a bargaining chip for world peace, favoring instead the beginnings of the arms race. Oppenheimer became an advocate for what Niels Bohr proposed. “We know what is right and we would like to use the atomic bomb to persuade you to agree with us,” Oppenheimer said, “then you are in a very weak position.” Which is true, given what Rhodes wrote about the subjugation of national sovereignty in regards to the bomb. Oppenheimer and others, however, went on to produce the hydrogen bomb, a bomb Bohr hoped would be “big enough” to push nations toward peace. Perhaps it did, but only decades later. Leo Szilard, however, frustrated with the continued production and militarization of atomic bomb and nuclear physics, left physics entirely and began studying virus biology.

Killing with atomics, some realized, had become too easy. “By the time we reach the atom bomb,” wrote Gil Elliot, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ease of access to target and the instant nature of macro-impact mean that both the choice of city and the identity of the victim has become completely randomized, and human technology has reached the final platform of self-destructiveness. The great cities of the dead, in numbers, remain Verdun, Leningrad and Auschwitz. But at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the “city of the dead” is finally transformed from a metaphor into a literal reality. The city of the dead of the future is our city and its victims are – not French and German soldiers, nor Russian citizens, nor Jews – but all of us without reference to specific identity.”

This seems to be the desensitized version of war today, with even conventional weaponry or unconventional weapons in the form of airliners loaded with passengers and jet fuel. Anyone can be a victim, and, indeed, many have.

Most horrific in the book – and what I recommend reading – are descriptions of Hiroshima after the bomb it. Absolutely awful, summed up thus: "Those scientists who invented the atomic bomb,” Rhodes quotes a woman who was a fourth-grade student at Hiroshima, “what did they think would happen if they dropped it?”

They knew. The American government knew. We know today. But we still possess these weapons, still wage war, with innocents like this fourth-grader caught between belligerents.