16 December 2009

Only in South Carolina

Yes, that is what it looks like: it's an airplane up on blocks.

10 December 2009

Mascot Madness!!!

Every year I play the ESPN College Bowl Mania game with a group of friends. This year I'm trying to pick teams based on how the mascots would fare in single combat. It's tougher than I thought it would be. I also made picks in a different entry based on what I think is likely to actually happen on the field. Given my history, I expect the Mascot Battle entry to beat my actual picks. Here's how I made the mascot picks, but I still have ten days to make changes if you think I should.

New Mexico Bowl
Fresno State Bulldogs v Wyoming Cowboys
A cowboy could take a bulldog out of the fight with one good kick. Those spurs are sharp. Wyoming wins.

St. Petersburg Bowl
UCF Knights v Rutgers Scarlet Knights
How do you choose between two knights? Presumably it would be a pitched battle, but looking at the actual mascots themselves, UCF's Knightro looks way tougher than the Scarlet Knight of Rutgers. Also, our puppy's name is Nitro. UCF wins.

New Orleans Bowl
Southern Miss Golden Eagles v Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
This was one of the tougher picks. How to put an eagle against a raider? What is a raider? I know my high school mascot was the Raiders, and our mascot was basically a Barbary Pirate. But these raiders are blue. They're depressed. Not really in the mood to fight. And the eagles are made of gold, so they're extremely heavy. If a golden eagle falls from the sky and hits one of the depressed raiders, it could knock him out, possibly kill him, but definitely demoralize him enough to make him leave the field. Southern Miss wins.

Las Vegas Bowl
Oregon State Beavers v BYU Cougars
A cougar could eat a beaver for lunch. Or even brunch. And that's all I'm going to say about Cougars and Beavers, or I'll get myself in trouble. BYU wins.

Poinsettia Bowl
Utah Utes v California Golden Bears
A Golden Bear was a legendary gold-colored brown bear occasionally sighted in the American West. Legendary or not, I suspect a bear would have been able to kill a Ute in single combat. A band of Utes, sure, especially with horses and arrows. Even one Ute with some arrows, sure, but weaponry aside a Ute is after all just a human, and bears v humans in the wilderness usually only has one ending. California wins.

Hawai'i Bowl
Nevada Wolf Pack v Southern Methodist Mustangs
Much as I'd like to pick SMU in their return to postseason play, Nevada has the edge here. The key to mascot battles in single combat clearly is to make your mascot an inherent plural--not just the wolves, but a whole pack of them. Mustangs are fast and all, but I think a whole pack of wolves would have the edge here. Nevada wins.

Little Caesar's Bowl
Marshall Thundering Herd v Ohio Bobcats
As in the above, Marshall has chosen an inherent plural. And a bobcat is small. Fundamentally it doesn't matter what the Herd is made of, if there are enough of them to thunder, and the bobcat is in their path, he's toast. Marshall wins.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Pittsburgh Panthers v North Carolina Tar Heels
Pitt wins this one walking away. UNC has one of two possibilities here--either it's a turpentine worker who's stepped in tar, and thus is easy pickings for any wandering panther, or it's a ram (technically a Dorset Sheep). The sort of thing panthers have evolved eating. Pitt wins.

Emerald Bowl
Boston College Eagles v USC Trojans
Although an eagle could certainly harry a Trojan warrior, unless the eagle was really large it's unlikely it could carry him off or kill him. Trojans had at least some sort of armor, and although with a spear or sword it's going to be a while before he gets in a killing blow on a flying raptor, I think in the end the Trojan will prevail. Tough call though. USC wins.

Music City Bowl
Kentucky Wildcats v Clemson Tigers
Cat-on-cat action here. A tiger is larger, heavier, and generally less well dispositioned than a wildcat/panther/puma/cougar etc. It would be an epic battle but I have to give it to the tiger. Also, it's Clemson. Clemson wins.

Independence Bowl
Texas A&M Aggies v Georgia Bulldogs
I had a tough time with this. An Aggie is, I would assume, an agriculturalist. A bulldog is not very big. I would think the Aggie would have the advantage but it's apples to oranges here. Texas A&M's on-field mascot, Reveille, is a collie. I like bulldogs, but collies are just way cooler. Texas A&M wins.

Eagle Bank Bowl
Army Golden Knights or UCLA Bruins v Temple Owls
We may not know who they'll face, but unless they're facing a team called the Field Mice or something, the Owls are going to lose. Army or UCLA wins.

Champs Sports Bowl
Miami Hurricanes v Wisconsin Badgers
I am assuming here that the Badger doesn't get to just burrow into a hole and ride out the storm. Sure, they're mean, but I just don't see how a badger stands a chance against one of nature's most destructive forces. Miami wins.

Humanitarian Bowl
Bowling Green Falcons v Idaho Vandals
This is not an easy one. They're not called the Vandals after the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome, except indirectly; the name comes from a 1920s-era sportswriter's florid pen. Think of them more as mere vandals, without the capital. But a vandal's goal in a fight is not to kill, merely to mess stuff up. Could a vandal mess up a falcon before the falcon killed him? Probably--given enough spray paint I'm sure he could produce a reasonable tag on even the flightiest falcon before he got his eyes pecked out. This is a close call, but Idaho wins.

Holiday Bowl
Arizona Wildcats v Nebraska Cornhuskers
What exactly is a Cornhusker? One who husks corn... but "husking" as a verb basically means to pull the husks off the ears of corn (shucking, in the dialect I grew up in). Nebraska's actual mascot, Herbie Husker, looks about like a cowboy, without his six-shooter, spurs, or much of anything else. I think if he came upon a hungry wildcat, Herbie would be toast. Arizona wins.

Armed Forces Bowl
Houston Cougars v Air Force Falcons.
The outcome is already decided; I just had to think of a way to get there. See, we're talking Air Force here, so we're not talking about a mere falcon. This is a Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon we're talking about. And therefore, to make it fair, we'll give Houston a Grumman F9F Cougar. The F-16 has better visibility and maneuverability and more armament, as well as being an overall more technologically advanced aircraft (it entered service the year the Cougar left it). So obviously, Air Force wins.

Sun Bowl
Oklahoma Sooners v Stanford Cardinal.
This is a strange matchup. A Sooner, technically, is a guy who cheats in a government land sale. And Stanford's "Cardinal" officially refers to the color, and nothing else. So we have a cheater facing a color. Indeed, a legitimate land rush participant might have turned a shade similar to cardinal upon finding a sooner already on the choicest piece of land during the rush, implying that a Sooner had won (although the courts, and eventually the Dept of the Interior, would have the final say on that). But cheaters never prosper. In this case, the tiebreaker goes to the team with one band member who dresses up like a tree at every game. Stanford wins.

Texas Bowl
Navy Midshipmen v Missouri Tigers
A lone midshipman, stranded in the Sundarbans against a ravenous tiger, is not likely to prevail; British naval history will back us up on this. But if the middie has a radio, and he calls in a ship-to-shore strike from a battleship or an airstrike from an F-18, then the tiger's going to have a rough go of it. But in this case, what with Navy beating Air Force earlier this year, I think the midshipman left his radio in his other pants. Uh-oh. Missouri wins.

Insight Bowl
Minnesota Golden Gophers v Iowa State Cyclones
This is the year of fierce windstorms battling small, ground-dwelling mammals. Gopher may beat Bill Murray, but Gopher ain't gonna beat a cyclone. Iowa State wins.

Peach Bowl (Yes, dammit, that's what it's called)
Virginia Tech Hokies v Tennessee Volunteers
A Hokie is a turkey. More or less; actually, despite the story that it's a castrated turkey, the word is just nonsense, gibberish, cooked up by a student in the 19-teens for use in a chant. The turkey as a mascot had been around for a while before that; whether the turkey was castrated is unknown. I have a passing familiarity with poultry, and I have to say, I'm not sure how one would go about castrating a turkey. Ultimately I don't know why you'd bother, either, since it would have no practical benefit. Turkeys don't live very long in factory farming, less than a year usually, and the few toms who last are bred to be so heavy they can't mate naturally anyway. Workers have to collect semen from them (there's a job for Mike Rowe) and artificially inseminate the hens. Really. Honestly, I don't really what care the guy from Tennessee is volunteering for (war, actually), no turkey is going to prevail in this fight. Tennessee wins.

Outback Bowl
Northwestern Wildcats v Auburn Tigers
This exact matchup occurs two other times this bowl season, and the outcome is going to be the same. Auburn wins.

Gator Bowl
West Wirginia Mountaineers v Florida State Seminoles
The way I see it, the Seminoles actually won the Seminole Wars. They're still there. And now they own multiple casinos, the Hard Rock Cafe chain, and governor Charlie Crist, so they've got enough money and power to complete the reconquista and return Florida to what it should be--a primitive wild paradise for a few thousand hardy souls. Not that they'll do that; there's no money in it. Anyway, the U.S. Army of the 1820-1840s likely included a goodly number of mountaineers, who never quite figured out how to fight in the swamps of Florida. So I'm calling this one for Florida State.

Capital One Bowl Penn State Nittany Lions v LSU Tigers
Tigers beat cougars, wildcats, pumas, and mountain lions. We've been over this. LSU wins
.
Rose Bowl
Ohio State Buckeyes v Oregon Ducks
Although buckeyes are poisonous to humans and cattle, they are not to birds. Although a duck probably wouldn't have much interest in eating a buckeye, it could without ill effect. And a buckeye being merely a small, round nut, there's not much it could do to the duck. Oregon wins.

Sugar Bowl
Florida Gators v Cincinnati Bearcats
A bearcat is neither a bear nor a cat, but a tree-dwelling civet-like creature of southeast Asia. It eats primarily fruit. I'm fairly sure the alligator would have no trouble here. Of course, if it was a Grumman F8F Bearcat... nah. Florida wins (although I really hope I'm wrong here).

International Bowl
South Florida Bulls v Northern Illinois Huskies
A husky is a tough dog and all, but bulls are awfully big and ill-tempered. Unless the fight is in the tundra somewhere, South Florida wins.

Papajohns.com Bowl
South Carolina Gamecocks v Connecticut Huskies
How amusing that the worst-named bowl has one of the worst-named teams. You can call it a "gamecock," you can dress it up, you can put spurs on its feet, but at the end of the day, it's still a chicken, and a tasty meal for a hungry dog. Connecticut wins.

Cotton Bowl
Oklahoma State Cowboys v Mississippi Rebels
An interesting matchup here, a late-1800s roper against a mid-1800s citizen soldier. As an American icon, the cowboy is tough to beat; the rebels got beat. Badly. Oklahoma State wins.

Liberty Bowl
Arkansas Razorbacks v East Carolina Pirates
Another interesting matchup, a large, angry, feral pig, versus a pirate, probably drunk on rum. Pigs are mean. But pirates have guns. East Carolina wins.

Alamo Bowl
Michigan State Spartans v Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech has one of the coolest on-field mascots. If you've never seen the Red Raider you should watch this game and look for him. He's basically Zorro. On a horse. Zorro! Sorry Sparty, you can't win this one. Zorro and Texas Tech conquer all.

Fiesta Bowl
Boise State Broncos v TCU Horned Frogs
A horned frog is a smallish, pointy lizard of desert areas. A bronco is a large, fast, unshod, greenbroke horse. Although it will probably hurt when he does so, I assume the bronco would just step on the Horned Frog and squash it flat. Boise State wins. (Not really though. I would have loved to see TCU in the national championship game, but so it goes. Some year.)

Orange Bowl
Iowa Hawkeyes v Georgia Tech Yellowjackets
I looked this up. A Hawkeye... it's not anything. I mean, it could be just the disembodied eye of a hawk I guess. It's a reference to a keen-sighted person, but, what does that mean? Is a Hawkeye just an Iowan? Their on-field mascot is Herky the Hawk, so I'm inclined to think they're going with the hawk theme. But it's still just the eyes. So, we have a tiny insect with a painful sting and a reputation for working in groups, against some disembodied eyes. Just, you know, sitting there. Georgia Tech wins.

GMAC Bowl
Central Michigan Chippewas v Troy Trojans
I don't really recall any stories about the Chippewa (or Ojibwe) being particularly fearsome warriors. Obviously the Trojans weren't any great shakes themselves, but they probably were much better armed than the Chippewa, who could not smelt bronze or iron for swords or shields. So although I don't know what they'd have to fight about, I think the Trojan, and thus Troy, would win.

BCS "National Championship" (or so they call it)
Texas Longhorns v Alabama Crimson Tide
It's difficult to match a discrete object, such as a cow, against a large amorphous one, such as a wave. Or the tide, which isn't an object at all but a natural phenomenon. There's the Red Tide in Florida along the gulf, caused by algae blooms. Crimson is a kind of red. So perhaps we're dealing with a cow versus some algae. Hmm. Now on the one hand, it's tough to argue that the tide could ever be defeated by anything, since the moon isn't going anywhere (ditto the sun) and the tides are unceasing. But every creature on the planet, including the plants, knows about the tide. Some things like clams have evolved based on the tide. So could you say the tide is winning anything? It really just exists. It seems undefeatable, but then again it doesn't exactly seem like it's fighting anybody. Now, I know Alabama's on-field mascot is an elephant, and I think an elephant would easily defeat a cow, even a very large and pointy one such as a longhorn. But, and this is key, Alabama's elephant is a guy in an elephant suit, whereas the Longhorns have an actual longhorn. Those things are quite large, and, locked in a coliseum with a guy in an elephant suit, I think the longhorn would eventually trample the elephant. So, we're either putting a cow against the tide, some algae, or a guy in an elephant suit. So much for a "national championship." Texas wins.

The Move-In

Sometime this September, after the house had sat vacant for almost a year, we noticed somebody new over there taking care of the place--mowing the lawn (which hadn't been done since July), picking up some of the random garbage in the yard, cleaning out the house a bit. It was in bad shape, as I said, and it needed some help. We wondered whether by chance this was a new owner/landlord (since the property recently changed hands from a private individual to a rental company--though still probably the same private individual), but no, this was our new neighbor. Yaay!

Well, sort of. The man who was taking care of the place, his child was going to be living there, and the child's mother would be there as well. The man, the father, he lives elsewhere. He clearly cares for his kid, though. (We think he should have custody, but that's another story).

Then came the move-in, and not long thereafter I met the new neighbor.

Right away I should have known something was up. I am not a person prone to superstition or who believes in, well, much. I don't believe in ghosts or psychics or ESP or the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot or the conspiracies of the Knights Templar and the Council on Foreign Relations. Conspiracies are another matter, but as a rule I just don't believe in things that don't have rational explanations. I also hate it when people feel the need to embellish the truth about something in an email, when frequently the truth is quite nice by itself. But that's another rant. (I do believe in UFOs, but mainly I believe in what I think is self-evident, that intelligent life has clearly evolved elsewhere in the universe and eventually we'll meet it--but most (not all) UFO reports (and all abductions) I tend to think are crap.)

In any event, she was convinced that the house was haunted. She had been told that there'd been a murder in there, six people were killed, there were ghosts... and of course she bought it all. And her child did, too, but the kid's nine, and the man who told the kid these things ought to be strung up and poked repeatedly with a pointy stick until he promises never to tell such lies to a child again. Ugh. (It doesn't help that he's a lecherous old man, either.)

She claimed that within a few days of moving in she began to feel depressed, the house felt oppressive all the time, like the ceiling was coming down on her, and one evening her child was running through the yard and ran smack into an obstruction that wasn't there. Nee nee nee nee nee nee nee nee...

Later, Smittywife and I were walking to the neighbor's house and stumbled over a large steel plate in the yard, hidden by tall grass, but raised enough above the surface of the ground to very easily trip someone (Smitty, for example), and to make a small child fall as if having run into a large object that wasn't really there. We removed said plate, which wasn't covering anything. It was just trash (left there by the landlord I'm sure).

She said she'd been obsessively cleaning since she moved in, because there was blood all over the walls and ceiling and cabinets in the kitchen, and it kept seeping out of the walls.

Okay, that's creepy, right? But we've been here longer than that house has been vacant. We knew the previous tenants. There's no history in the public records of any incident at that address--and a sextuple homicide would almost surely generate a police report. At least a newspaper article. Some obituaries, perhaps? No such evidence exists, and the neighbors, though one neighbor I know claims a previous tenant was beaten in there during a dispute, can't think of anything like that that's ever happened here. We'd know. This is a small neighborhood. Indeed, most of the neighbors simply note that we never had any problems here until the current tenant moved in. Hmm.

You know what does continue to leach out of the walls no matter how many times you've cleaned? Tobacco stains! And I know the previous tenants smoked in there. A lot. And probably didn't bother cleaning at all (what's the point if you're just going to have another cigarette after you're done?).

Also, and I know I've said bad things about the landlord/property manager, but really, would you just leave bloodstains on the cabinetry if you were trying to rent the place? Really? I mean, come on. Let's not forget that since the last tenants were not slaughtered in there (there were six of them, though, and when they moved out they stole the fridge and some other stuff, so no doubt the landlord wishes they were dead) they would have had to have lived there for three or four years without once bothering to clean off the blood stains.

If that seems plausible to you please lay down the crack pipe and check yourself in to the clinic.

Still, although she was flighty and given to fears about ghosts and murders in her home, she didn't seem like a bad neighbor. As a rule, most any neighbor is better than a vacant house. I used to believe that was a general truth of the world. Oh well; live and learn.

Trespassing!

Oh my! So much goes on with this neighbor I can't keep up. I'm going to jump to yesterday's excitement before I back up. Yesterday, Code Enforcement was out to cite her and her live-in for A)storing their household trash outdoors on their property (yes, Virginia, that is illegal) and then for burning said household trash (which they did Monday, pictures coming!). Moments after Code Enforcement left, shock of shocks!, she called the police and complained that I had trespassed on her property!

She claimed I just "walked right in" to her house on Tuesday. I knocked on her kitchen door. The kitchen door is immediately inside the laundry room, the door to which she always leaves open (as you can see in this picture here), even when she goes away during the day (to buy her crack or whatever it is that she does; I assure you she's not working in any legally recognized sense). You don't actually have to step inside the house to knock on the kitchen door, but she used this as a pretense to claim I was trespassing on "her" "property" (which she doesn't own, of course).

Oy. The officer who came out was very nice and suggested I at least try to "keep the peace a little" between us, but that was all. They talk to a lot of drug users. They know. After all the last thing I want is them breaking into my house to steal things to support themselves.

Before I go I'd like to mention that this has been a full week for the county's law enforcement agencies, with visits from three different ones to the same address--code enforcement, followed by the sherriff's office, and then animal control today. And since these people moved in, there's been a call to some such agency or another on about a bi-weekly basis. Before that--in all the time we lived here before she moved in--nobody on this street ever called out anybody. It's a good, safe, friendly neighborhood; the people are friendly, the dogs are friendly, we all respect one another's property but don't fear crossing through a yard or knocking on a door. It's life in rural America. Then the drug addicts move in, and it all goes to shit. Smittywife noted yesterday that she's sick of that woman (our neighbor) ruining her days off, and I agree.

Part I

30 November 2009

The House Next Door

This is a picture of the house next door. It seems pretty benign from this far away. But it is drab and grey. And you might some things that seem a bit awry. For example, the giant pile of garbage by the back door. At the left edge of the picture you'll note the sawhorses with the pile of windows, doors, and lumber that the landlord is too damn lazy to remove.

Here is the awful garage. Note the old fridge peeking out from behind my tree, on the right. The old galvanized washtub sitting beside the garage is a nice touch. I'm waiting to confirm the location of our property lines on this, because we think our property line might actually be right along the wall of that garage. And that's kind of a nice galvanized tub there. It hasn't rusted through yet. In the back you can see the moldy old doghouse and way behind the old blue tarp that's just mouldering away and collecting rainwater and mosquito larvae. I can't blame the neighbor for this since it's the landlord's crap.

While trying to sneak pictures out the windows, Batgirl, one our four thousand barn cats, leapt up on the sill to admonish me for prying. Batgirl is unimpressed by our vendetta against the neighbor, because she enjoys picking through the garbage pile for snacks.

The Neighbor, Part I

I've decided to start blogging about my neighbor. Since I have no regular readers any more this should be an amusing restart to the blog. Reviewing the laundry list of books I've read since I ceased regular updates was just daunting. This will be more fun.

Today I'll tell you about the house next door absent the neighbor. I should definitely take some pictures.
In this area of the country, property is cheap (it's part of why we moved here). Rental property prices would make Florida readers' eyes bug out: you often see two-bedroom houses for under $500/mo with most utilities included. These are often on large lots in relatively rural areas; right now on craigslist there's a 3/2 for rent on 3/4 of an acre with a garage and central heat and air for $450. Seriously.

So the house next door is a rental property, too. It rents at $450 as well. It has a garage, one half of which is behind a locked door that the residents don't have a key to, and the other half of which is so chock-a-block with old junk that you can't even open the front door, so putting a car in there is a bad joke. It has one tiny little bathroom, and one bedroom. It has a kitchen with appliances, which is nice, but no central heat or air. In fact so far as I know there's no a/c of any kind unless there's a window unit in one of the two front rooms that's hidden behind the porch rail. The fireplace is almost certainly not rated for use so I assume we're talking kerosene for winter heat. Always nice to have a major fire risk next door.

It has a total of five rooms if you count the bathroom or the trashy laundry room. If not, there's a small kitchen, a small bedroom, and two front rooms. There are no doors in the house, apart from at the bathroom--no door between the bedroom and kitchen, or between any of the other rooms. This is weird to me.

The back door doesn't seal. The steps up to the front door are cracked. Cats live under the house and use it as their disposal area. In the back yard, next to the garage, is an old dog pen with bent fencing and a rotting doghouse, and generations of dogs have dug holes out from the pen so that it wouldn't contain anything smaller than a bull mastiff--and the chain link wouldn't hold that kind of dog in for long. Immediately behind the house, there are sawhorses set up with some assorted old windows and doors and other trash lumber. In front of the dog pen, some old tires are slowly decomposing into the soil surrounded by broken windows and assorted metal trash. In front of the garage there's an old refrigerator, just sitting there in the driveway. Behind the garage, old rotten lumber, a broken-down doghouse, and parts to a former chicken coop gradually dissolve into the weeds. One side of the garage is covered in poison ivy. The landlord comes by once every three months to mow.

This is what the place looks like when there's not anyone living in it.
And this rents for $450 a month. You'd think the assorted trash lying in the yard and the junked-up garage might be due to the current awful tenant, but you'd be wrong. All this trash is just lying in the yard while the landlord is trying to rent the place.

The house was occupied when we moved in last September, but the residents shortly moved out and purchased a home. They'd been living in there with three kids--five people in a four-room house with one bathroom. Much of the junk in the garage is evidently theirs. When they moved out, they stole the refrigerator out of the house and left part of the garage packed floor to ceiling with bags of kitchen trash. Really. The landlord had purchased parts to build a carport (evidently admitting that the garage is not intended for use as, you know, a garage), which they also stole. He recovered the refrigerator from them but couldn't prove that they had the carport pieces (which I assume they fenced). When they moved out they left the house a complete wreck. The landlord assured me he was going to refinish all the floors and the cabinets and clean the place top to bottom.

It sat vacant until early September. Given the shape the property is in, the size of the house, and the amenities it offers, Smittywife and I think a fair rental price for the place would be $250. You could maybe squeeze $300 out of it, if you bothered to clean up the yard. That would be fair. The market would support that. Instead the house sat vacant for ten months. As irritating as it can be to live next to a vacant dump of a house, I look back on those months now with fondness.

Smittywife and I would love to buy this property. We would fix it up--actually, now that we know more about the house, we'd burn it down--and rent it for a while, and perhaps in the future just combine our two properties and build a house farther back on the lot. We'd love to do this. We asked the current landlord what he'd consider selling it for.
Bear in mind this house is half the size of ours and in much worse shape. It's also on half as much property and the garage is in much worse shape than ours.
He wants for this dump more than twice what we paid for our house.
So the landlord, you understand, is insane.

19 October 2009

Dutch Bank Bankrupt As Sale Fails

Who exactly is writing headlines for the BBC these days? Though the article itself is given a different head, links to it from elsewhere on the BBC have the amusing tongue-twister above. Is this deliberate or are they just not paying their algorithms enough?

16 October 2009

Not What It Was Intended To Do

I saw one of those faux-inspirational posters on line today, on Facebook (one of my very very Republican friends), a picture of George W. Bush waving as he steps out of Marine One, with the caption, "Miss me yet?"

And I thought, oh my goodness no! Wow. Nothing like a little perspective. I'm not exactly thrilled with the direction of government right now--I knew I wouldn't be at this point, but that would've been true with McCain in office too--but there is absolutely no way I would ever willingly go back to the Bush regime. Oh my.

04 September 2009

Changes

Changes are afoot in Smitty-blog-land. I'm going to ditch the Library blog, which was in retrospect not a very good move in the first place. Since all the reviews that were here are there I'll have to port most of those back.
I have a huge list of books I've read recently that need reviews, but they'll just be capsule reviews for now; I may go back and write longer reviews if I want.
I have a job offer that, more than likely, is the best job offer I'm ever going to get. Many questions remain to be answered, but I have a meeting next Tuesday that will answer the lot of them.

What I don't have right now is a workable computer, which is a problem; I'm using Smittywife's old monitor with my old laptop as my keyboard and hard drive. Soon I will switch to using Smittywife's old desktop, but that may still be a week away or more.

The remains as ever a ton of work to do at our house, but things are looking up. I intend to start blogging regularly again, because I no longer feel so depressed about my shitty job--which soon enough won't be my shitty job anyway. I have lots of training to do, and will probably need a loan or grant to do it, but I'm happy to do it. I have Smittywife's health insurance I can use to go to the dermatologist and even the dentist (yaay! Never thought I'd say that). We have a fully livable house that is still a bit too cluttered but we're getting better about that. I don't want to say everything is peachy keen, but the horizon is brighter and brighter. The only thing left for me now is to get back to writing--and this blog is going to be the first stop. I'm not going to blog on Facebook any more, it just doesn't work.

So, what should you expect? Well, certainly some posts about flying, I think that's going to become a significant part of this blog. And book reviews, and notes about writing as I get back to that. I hope to post lots of pictures of the yard as it develops, and news of an agricultural sort. And of course I can't lay off the politics. But I think that I may reserve my political postings for longer, more thoughtful pieces, rather than quick hits. There are plenty of quick hits out there.

So. I'm not promising daily posts yet. We'll get there, but I'm not promising it yet. What might be nice would be if I could convince Smittywife to combine her blog with mine, so we could both post here... hmm...

26 August 2009

Morning Glories

I know they're just weeds, really, but who can complain about these weeds? These morning glories are growing wild in the back yard. I have to weedwhack later today but I don't plan to cut these. Why should I? How many weeds are this pretty?















24 May 2009

Menagerie Redux

Per request by Rambling Speech, I am uploading a few pictures from yet another addition to the Smitty Petting Zoo and Animal Shelter (admission free, parking $2). These would be the Smittychix. They don't have names yet but of course they need them if you have suggestions. In this picture is a three-day-old hatchling in front, and her larger sister, maybe ten to twelve days old, in the back.

Here is a picture of the larger chick shielding her younger sister from the paparazzi.





And this I think is the best picture of them. Aren't they cute? Tribble has been far, far too interested in them, and while I was making breakfast this morning she perched on the dining chair and just stared into the chicken cage. She claimed she was watching to make sure they didn't go anywhere, since I couldn't see them from the kitchen, but I'm not so sure...

22 May 2009

Puppy Pictures

Well. The Smitty household has a new member, and some pictures are in order for those of you who haven't already met her. Her name is Lily. She came from Laurens County Animal Rescue. And here she is. Isn't she a cutie?

Here's another picture. Lily is about three months old. Don't ask what breed; a mix of pit bull and... um... I think of her as a Whatsit, maybe with a little Canttell thrown in.

And here is Jackson, doing his best to look absolutely as pathetic as he possibly can so you won't know he actually likes having Lily around. This is the day we brought her home, I think, and he actually was a little annoyed at first, but now they get along great and play together. She even gives him things! Like kennel cough!

While we're looking for an appropriate crate for her to sleep in, we've been keeping Lily in the half bath attached to our bedroom. She gets a wee mite bored in there during the day while we're at work, but seems to find ways to fill her time...

14 May 2009

Nobody knows...

...the trouble our septic system has seen. But I have some ideas.

First of all, and you can consider this a public service announcement: if you have a septic tank, do not flush condoms down the toilet! I mean, really. They should cover this in sex ed. They clog up the drain line.

And yes, they clog up the drain line. I mean, like... like, dozens. Dozens of condoms in my drain line. Old, too. They had turned black. It was vile; visions of it will keep me up tonight. It's barely 1230 and I'm drinking already.

So at any rate we know that our septic system has not been suffering from simple neglect; this is a case of serious, long-term abuse. The gravel into which the old drain field supposedly drained was basically identical to the driveway gravel, and perhaps came off the same truck. Tough to say.

If you'll recall, the previous septic company to come out here, Carolina Septic of Simpsonville, replaced ten feet of the drain line out the back of our septic tank. Apparently they did this without digging up the entire tank because the lid at the back of the tank is cracked and sagging--sagging by about an inch, and this is concrete. Not supposed to sag. You'd think if they'd dug that up and seen that--and I don't know how they replaced ten feet of drain line without doing so--they would have at least kindly informed the homeowner that the lid needed replacing. The plumbing company we've had problems with in the past at least was kind enough to tell me to replace the other lid.

Fortunately the tank itself seems in good enough shape to last for a while more, but I am going to rebuild that lid next week. Oh, and lest I forget to mention, the ten feet of new drain line they put in connected to about two more feet of the same old brittle drain line they replaced... and there wasn't anything else beyond that, to speak of, just a pile of gravel. Seriously. Drain field? What drain field? Isn't a gravel pit good enough? Makes me wonder if that was the established method for installing a septic tank in the early 1940s.

Carolina Septic screwed us.

What we're getting now to replace the former setup is an actual drain field, with pipes with holes and gravel and recycled tire bits (which actually makes sense to use for this purpose), and it's going pretty much from the property line to the garage, a good sixty feet wide, and probably twenty feet down the hill from the tank. This is going to be a big damn septic field. That said, when the contractor came out here to quote me a price, he said when he was done we wouldn't have any more problems. Here's hoping.

13 May 2009

... And Then the Sky Fell In

No, really, I had the best intentions of posting here Monday and yesterday. Monday I worked, but it wasn't an insane day. However, Monday night the septic tank backed up into the house.

Yeah. Thank goodness our plumber (thank you Josh!) installed a relief point outside. Smittywife took a bath Monday night, and when she pulled the plug to drain the tub, the water didn't go anywhere. Then the toilets started to bubble. Then water started to fill into the sinks. She put the plug back in real fast, and I went outside and opened the relief pipe, and water poured out of that thing. The pipe is just outside the house, and is an upward-pointing pipe attached to the septic line. It's lower than any part of the water system elsewhere in the house so it can be opened any time there's a potential backup--and it's a convenient point to add septic treatment and such.

So this pipe points up. I unscrew the lid, and water shoots up about a foot high. This is 2.5" diameter pipe here so a vertical foot of water is nothing to scoff at. This was a potential disaster.

I was supposed to work yesterday but of course I stayed home to have septic tank people come out and look at the system. Now, since we moved in here we've had some issues. It's an old system--the house was built in at least 1938, possibly earlier, and the septic tank, which is hand-built, dates from that time. So we're talking about a 70 year old septic system. Lord knows how well it's been cared for in the past (probably not so well, at least under certain owners). Occasionally we'd find that when one toilet was flushed, another would bubble. Several months ago we had the tank pumped and the septic line snaked; the snake revealed a significant belly in the line, where over time the cast-iron pipe had sagged enough to restrict water flow to perhaps half the pipe.

About six weeks ago we went ahead and had a new septic line installed by Carolina Septic. They also pumped the tank again (not a good sign that it needed it) and replaced about ten feet of drain line out the back of the tank into the drain field; the previous line had been crushed at some point in the past. They said to us then that the system looked fine and shouldn't give us any more problems for several years (a tank should be pumped every five years or so, even though you can go much longer without having to; pumping that often helps prevent solids from clogging your drain field lines). They said that when they replaced the drain field line, it "soaked up [the water in the tank] like a sponge." Like a sponge, direct quote there. System was in good shape and wouldn't give us an more problems.

Uh-huh. Until Monday night, of course. (We did get a small warning shot; a couple days before the toilets bubbled as the last of another of Smittywife's baths drained out, but we had a busy weekend and didn't think much more about it.)
So Carolina Septic came out again. Both guys who came out asserted that it was probably the drain field, that the drain field was probably clogged, and that they had known that would be the case after the last time they were here. I said, no no, you told us the system was in good shape. No, they said, we knew the drain field was bad. I said, you told my wife it soaked up the water like a sponge. They turned their heads like confused puppies.

So Carolina Septic lied to us. Either they lied when they said the system was in great shape six weeks ago, or they lied yesterday to make themselves seem smarter. Regardless, we insisted they check the septic line for a clog. Which they found. But after removing said clog, the tank just filled up. Didn't drain. So, indeed, the drain field is shot.

Crap.

That's not exactly cheap. Of course Carolina offered to fix the field for us, at a cost of about five grand, not money we have or plan to have any time soon. We got another estimate (I'd list his name here but I can't remember it) for less than half that--and of course as soon as I started talking to him about the system, he said, now who'd you have out here to do this? Carolina Septic, says I. Oh. I don't like to tell you this, but you're dealing with the wrong folks there. You know he's not even licensed to do this work, all he's licensed for is to pump tanks.

Really? I need to check into that, but... really?

This guy is probably sixty and says he's been doing this work for forty years. I'd like to check references but his comment was, I'll come in here, do all this work in one day, and when it's done you won't have any more problems with it at all. Period. I don't like coming back to a job.

Of course there's also the possibility of getting hooked into the sewer utility. I'm awaiting a callback on that. Could be as cheap as twenty-five hundred, or it could be worse. We'll see. Given the amount we'll be spending, it may be worthwhile--or not. If the sewer system backs up into your house, well, there's usually no relief valve for that. There are good points to having septic.

Anyway. So that's been the continuing excitement in Smitty's World the last couple of days. I was able to clean the kitchen top to bottom yesterday--although, mysteriously, this morning the milk jug had leaked half its contents into its little compartment in the door. I don't remember poking a hole in it yesterday, and it's been in the fridge for a week without leaking. At least its designated compartment is water-tight so I didn't have to clean the whole fridge.

Now I'm not at work again, and have plans for the day--digging up part of the front yard for a vegetable bed, cleaning the living room, doing a big load of laundry, and putting a screen in the bathroom window. With luck I'll get another post written, too!

07 May 2009

Rambling

I have a lot of time to think at work. In a ten hour workday, at least four hours of the FedEx Ground driver's time is spent behind the wheel. The truck has no radio. Even when I ride with somebody, oftentimes the truck is so loud you have to shout to hear one another anyway (I wear earplugs when I drive alone). In a sense it's a lot like flying an uninsulated airplane (say, a KC-135) without an interphone.

Actually, flying a driving have a great deal in common, with the exception that one is far superior to the other. I'm currently doing the other for a living, and if you don't think that gives me great pause you haven't thought about it much. This would occupy my mind all day, every day (with probably negative side effects for my mental health) if I didn't aggressively come up with other things to think about.

Lately I've been spending some of my time trying to determine whether or not I have a cohesive political philosophy, or just a collection of opinions. I'm not sure whether one is preferable to the other, but when reaching for topics to ponder during a long day this one does present itself. (Smittywife just appeared over my shoulder and noted, "You don't have a coherent philosophy." And there you have it.)

The question has some relevance, though not to anyone but myself. I'm reading this book about Thomas Jefferson (American Sphinx, by Joseph Ellis) and he notes repeatedly (paraphrasing) that Jefferson maintained a strict political philosophy that was, in many ways, almost irrationally pure and assumed things about human nature that aren't true; and yet throughout his life he took various actions that clearly ran counter to the philosophy he held (and wrote from). He did this by, in Ellis' view, keeping two halves of himself separated--literally having a philosophical side that knew not what the pragmatic side did. Exactly how he managed this... well, I haven't finished the book yet.

And I'm reminded of our friend Switters (from Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates) who embraced and celebrated his inner contradictions--possibly a way out, a denial of denial if you will, but food for thought. Can one have a core political philosophy and deviate from that on certain issues without being a callous opportunist or thoughtless pragmatist?

Anyway, over the next couple of days I've been thinking I'll write a little about how I've been trying to fit my collection of opinions into a complete arc. This will at least give me something to write about here to get back into the swing of things.

A New Attempt To Blog Daily Begins... Now!

Whether it will last remains to be seen. Theoretically I should be leaving for work in about four minutes but I haven't even had breakfast yet, haven't packed a lunch, don't even have my boots on.
But I did throw the puppy blanket in the wash on the "sanitize" setting with bleach. She... well, she's a puppy. Puppies can't really make it through the night without pooping, I guess. I don't actually know for sure, but ours certainly doesn't try. She made a mess in her little house last night, got poo all over her blanket, the sides of the house, and herself. Smittywife had to give her a bath this morning before rushing out the door, and I cleaned out the doghouse and put the blanket in the wash.
And what I wanted to say, really, was this: why do all bleach bottles seem to share the same incompetent design? Who thought that up, anyway? I need to put a small amount of bleach into the washing machine's bleach dispenser, and all I have to do that is an open neck that clearly wasn't designed for pouring and all the weight of the bleach in the bottom of the jug. Of course it's going to glug out and splash. And it's bleach, for goodness sake, when it splashes everywhere it's going to cause problems. I just don't understand it. There has to be a better way to package that, but clearly no one has even tried. Grr.

22 April 2009

Neglected but not forgotten

I've been working a lot of 11 hour days lately, and when you come home after eleven hours--twelve with commuting, roughly--you don't want to sit down at the computer and blog. That's all there is to say about that, really, the days are just very long, and unfortunately you don't do much when you get home.

But I'm not working five days a week at this, at least. Not yet; not a move I'd want to make, to be honest. The bigger problem is I haven't been doing any regular writing of any sort, here or on Lauderdale. This bothers me, but at some level, too, I don't want to come home and sit at the desk and do anything at all. I'm saving for a laptop, but it'll be a few months.

Anyway. I know I've been neglecting the blog. I want to write again, regularly, and at some point here I will. But it will be a bit yet.

11 March 2009

The Inferno

It took a bit of time to read through Dante's Inferno, but mainly because I was keeping busy at other things. This is a translation by John Ciardi, not the more famous one by Longfellow, but neither makes pretense of following Dante's rhyme scheme (which I've been told ruins any translation by requiring a fight for the rhyme). I found the translation very readable and enjoyable.

This book is only the Inferno, not the other two parts of the Divine Comedy. It was 99 cents at a thrift store if you're wondering why I didn't try to get all three in one volume.

I do not believe in hell. (I do believe in giving hell to people, such as in "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," but not in a specific place or even non-place to which the souls of the condemned are, well, condemned.) I found this poem fascinating for quite other reasons. I don't know anyone, even the Catholic Church, who abides by Dante's description of hell; that wasn't Dante's point, either. He writes as though he took a literal trip through the three layers of the afterlife, but certainly he didn't claim the trip literally took place or that his descriptions were literal and real. Dante was a papist and a good Catholic, and certainly he wanted to evoke the perfect justice of the afterlife; but to a large degree the Comedy was a forum for Dante to condemn (or praise) people he knew--some of whom weren't even dead yet when he was writing--for their actions. Dante found a way to use Christian allegory to write large the political and ecumenical debates that had riven Florence during his lifetime and were not yet settled at the writing (Dante died in exile from Florence). It is in that sense a very personal work, and a rather scathing political commentary.

That is not to take anything away from the work as a piece of literature; there hasn't been political (or religious) commentary like this since. As creative allegory the Inferno is a masterpiece; the way Dante punishes the damned in hell, each sin begetting its own perfect and perfectly just eternal punishment, is a feat few writers since have managed as convincingly and as beautifully.

I can't compare Ciardi's translation with others, since I haven't read any others (though at least Longfellow's is available on the web). I've been told that any translator who attempts to keep Dante's rhyme scheme and meter intact in the English is doing a massive disservice to the work, and that's probably true; Ciardi manages to keep an aba cdc fgf hih type of rhyme scheme throughout, which no doubt affected his word choice a great deal but the translation was still very readable (Longfellow's translation abandons rhyme for meter; I'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of the two, just for curiosity's sake).

What sets Ciardi apart is his voluminous notes at the end of every canto. You could read through the whole thing in an afternoon if you didn't bother to look at the notes, but the notes illuminate much of the allegory and much of the historical setting of the work to which any typical modern reader would be ignorant (this reviewer included). Setting the work in the Florence of c. 1310 helps understand much of what Dante is doing, who the wraiths are that he speaks to, and what their relationship to Dante was in life. I found it fun to read through all the notes, and I certainly discovered elements of Dante's genius I never would have seen without them. His assembly of this poem was as much a triumph of mechanics as of literature; he put the thing together almost as a watchmaker assembles a watch, and while a simple reading of the thing would be enjoyable, getting the nitty gritty of the notes really leaves the reader impressed at Dante's skill.

I am no Dante Alighieri. Neither, sadly, is anyone else I've read.

Animal Husbands

From the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Smitty's former employer, comes this little piece this morning. Seems Florida is one of 16 states that does not outlaw bestiality (which raises the following two questions: 1) what are the other 15, and 2) why not?), and one of our state senators feels now is the appropriate time to do so, what with economic collapse looming on the sunny Florida horizon. While I question the timing I won't argue about the decision to outlaw it.

But the bill had to include certain items so that, for example, artificially inseminating a cow (Florida has a large cattle industry) doesn't fall afoul of the law. Fair enough. In committee the clauses relating to such things were described as referring to "veterinary practices" and "animal husbandry." Nothing wrong with that.

Unless you're Senator Larcenia Bullard of Miami, who clearly never spent a weekend on the farm growing up.

Upon hearing that the law designed to prevent bestiality made allowance for the practices of animal husbandry, Bullard asked, "People are taking animals as their husbands?"

Your elected officials. Saving you from... um... we'll get back to you on that.

05 March 2009

Something Old

I was digging through my Giant File O' Crap (it's like a File-o-fax except not) for something specific today relating to Lauderdale. I did not find what I was looking for (did it ever exist? Good question), but as usually happens when I dig into the File O' Crap I found something amusing.

One of the great things about being a "writer" is that you have a tendency, because you think you can write, to write a lot. And save everything you write. Computers make this much easier than I'm sure it used to be. In any event from time to time it's fun to dig through the old files and look at what I was writing--and thus often what I was thinking--a few years ago. I thought I'd post one of those old bits here.

This came out of a larger project that was never finished--and that almost certainly never will be--called
This Fucking Town (I was probably going to change that title), subtitled "Observations on Life NOT in America." I wrote several pieces and stuck them in there under this heading, including a lengthy and philosophically contorted introduction that was actually difficult for me to follow and which I probably wrote while drunk. We'll skip that.

In any event, this piece would have been written in the summer of 2004, almost certainly in August. I enjoyed rereading and thought some reader somewhere might get a kick out of it.


I wonder how Burger King feels about themselves. At 0830 in the morning at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the only food available on base to the hungry young airman is a Whopper at the Burger King. The picture above the order window—and it is just a window, a window into what looks like a single-wide trailer—has an animated drill sergeant admonishing us to “Have a burger for breakfast!”

What the hell kind of dietary advice is that? Exactly why does the Air Force (and the Army) allow Burger King to propagate that kind of disinformation to all their young soldiers and airmen who may not know much about healthy eating and living? And why does Burger King feel it’s a good idea?

Certainly we all enjoy a fatty fast food burger now and then; they taste good after all. They taste good because they’re loaded with saturated fat in the form of beef fat, mayonnaise, ketchup, cheese, and the like. I love Whoppers. I also love KFC fried boneless chicken breasts, but I can eat one of those without having to pay penance for my sins. A Whopper is not the same.

I don’t blame fast food restaurants for making us all fat. For starters, although it may look that way when we go to Wal-Mart or Disney World, we aren’t all fat. Most of us feel fat. Hell, I’m definitely not fat, but when I look down I can see that I’m carrying a little bit of all that beer and vodka I drink around the midsection, enough to cover up the abs that I know used to be there. But I’m not fat. And neither are fully a third of the rest of us Americans. The ones who are fat, well, they can’t blame fast food either. Often, they can blame themselves.

Not that this will stop fat people from suing McDonald’s. At least the judge threw that case out. But if people would just not eat crap all the time, they wouldn’t have problems with their weight. Weight management is easy, at least if you’re reasonably smart. I blame fat people for ignorance more than anything else; it's not even laziness half the time. And they can’t possibly all be that stupid; the problem is, we don’t teach anything approaching healthy living in schools, and if we did, I can guarantee you we’d screw it up. It would all be government mandated and based on that stupid 7-level pyramid scheme they created to bolster the prices Midwestern farmers can get for their grain crops. And it wouldn’t work anyway. All Americans do not fit into the same peghole, though that is exactly what national health education in high school would try to do.

So we produce a bunch of 18-year-olds every year who join the military and go out to their friendly BX one morning and see a perky animated drill sergeant ordering them to have burgers for breakfast. Well shoot, the Army wouldn't tell me to do it if it wasn’t good. And then we wonder why we’re having problems with overweight troops.

This is of course a bigger problem in the Air Force than in the Army, since Army people stay more active with daily unit PT and the like. The Air Force has tried this in the past, but it always fails. I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. I haven’t been to a unit PT day since December of 2003. I’m hoping to avoid them until I PCS in 2006. If I wanted to get up every morning at the ass crack of dawn and run myself silly and destroy my knees, by God I’d join the Army. I joined the Air Force because we take a more reasonable approach to such things—or at least we used to.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John Jumper, who is himself an avid runner (like many insane people), recently revamped our yearly physical fitness test. Now, instead of sitting on a bicycle peddling slowly until our hearts and lungs reach a certain mythical point of capacity defined by pencil-necked geeks in a laboratory in Washington, we actually have to go out and run, and do pushups and situps. I hate running and situps, but I still think the General has the right idea and support it. If you’re going to measure my fitness, why not do it by measuring what I can do? Lung capacity, which is what the bike test measured, was always four fifths genetic anyway.

But then there is that pesky fourth part of the equation, the tape test. Now, as a skinny little white boy, I don’t fear the tape test. The test is worth 30 points, and to get all 30 your waist measurement has to be under 32 ½ inches. Even when I was a drunk I had never had a waist that big. No problemo.

But I’m also all of 5’9” or so. A guy who’s as skinny as me but 6’3”, by nature he’s going to have about a 33 inch waist. Ergo he can’t max out the test, even if he’s in better shape than everybody else in his squadron. (Never mind that if your goal is to max out the annual fitness test, you need bigger goals.) Once again, it seems we’re trying force everybody in the Air Force into the same peghole. No problem for me, since I’m small and can fit most anywhere, but it’s a big problem for many of my colleagues. And what’s to say a person can’t be in decent shape and still carry a little bit extra around the gut? Hell, half the generals and chiefs in the AF today can balance their coffee cups on their beer guts. That’s just the way the Air Force is. I think Jumper doesn’t really like those guys and wants to be rid of them, which soon enough he will be.

But what does the Air Force do to help you out if you’re not passing the test? They tell you to figure it out yourself. You go on a mandatory visit to the health and wellness center, and they put you on a program, and hopefully it works. Meanwhile, there’s a Burger King on every Air Force base in the country, where people are being ordered to have burgers for breakfast.

I have nothing against Burger King. As I said, I enjoy a Whopper now and then because it tastes good. But I also exercise and ensure that 90% of my meals are prepared in my home with healthy fresh ingredients. Few if any of my colleagues can say that, and many of them will argue that it’s because they don’t have time. Well, maybe not, but if I have time I wonder how other young officers without much more responsibility don’t. It can’t be because I’m single; if anything, I have less spare time because I have to do everything myself (this of course only applies to the married and childless, since children really do take up all your time). Yet I’m capable of a reasonably healthy (barring the drinking and the high-stress job) lifestyle. The simple fact that I can do this makes me assume pretty much everyone else can, whether they do or not.

But I also know that most people don’t live healthy. Many may try, but they don’t succeed. This is a big part of why Gen. Jumper wanted to revamp the fitness program. He encouraged wing and squadron-level fitness activities, and ordered that all supervisors were to ensure that their people had an hour every workday for exercise—and he didn’t mean an hour before or after work or instead of lunch break, he meant one hour at any point during the workday. Jumper’s no fool; he doesn’t want his people working 9 and 10 hour days at home and then deploying for 179 days out of every year. Whether that’s what our squadron commander wants or not, it wasn’t Jumper’s intent, and he’d tell you that if you asked him. Jumper may work those kinds of hours, and I’ve no doubt that he does far more, but that’s the price of command and any intelligent commander accepts it as his burden. (This is also why I don’t seek any command.)

Still, that hour per day is hardly mandatory. One can argue that perhaps it should be, but I’d balk at the suggestion that I need to go to the gym every day for an hour. What would I do there? I’m trying to gain weight, not lose it; you can’t lift weights every day and get any results. But at least Jumper is trying, as few before him have. He’s made some rather questionable decisions, but this isn’t one of them.

So why then is there no place anywhere at Al Udeid to get a decent meal at 0830 in the morning, except at the Burger King, where all you can have is a Burger For Breakfast? How on Earth did the idea of promoting a new healthier lifestyle for Air Force personnel result in this situation?

I don’t like sounding provincial, but at least at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, where I’m supposed to be right now, the chow hall is open 24/7. They aren’t serving all 24 hours, just during the posted meal times, and the food is beyond awful. But if I wake up at 0800 and put some clothes on and go take a pee and then want something to eat, I can walk over to the chow hall and grab a bowl of Wheaties and some orange juice and canned pears and make a peanut-butter and banana sandwich, and now at least I’ve had a good breakfast. Here at Al Udeid, I have no choice but to eat a Burger for Breakfast. And I have to pay for that, which brings to mind the missed meals problem. But that’s another issue entirely.

04 March 2009

Lauderdale Update

I've been spending some time each day the last couple weeks working at Lauderdale. I say working at, not working on, because I haven't actually written any words for it. Shoot, half the thing is written, I figure, by the time I root through and take the good parts from the existing draft.

There were at least two directions I could take that book, and I've settled on the direction it's going--crime novel--which means I need to reorganize and perfect the crimes themselves, how they fit together, Hank's role in solving them, and what the more significant background crime is. Funny, but a simple murder or assault is not an independent crime in these books; the crime is some underlying (or overarching) conspiracy, and murders simply happen as the conspirators attempt to keep things hidden. This is almost universal in crime novels--bodies pile up, but that isn't the real crime. Which is, in a sense, a real crime.

Bodies piled up aplenty in the previous version of Lauderdale but, partly because I wasn't sure what the book actually was, they didn't do so to any pattern or for any larger purpose other than to offend and sicken the narrator. Who deserved it, frankly, but that wasn't the point. The question was, is this the narrator's coming-of-age story, or is it a crime novel? Of course there was far too much autobiographical content in the book as it stood to easily change things around to focus on the coming-of-age aspect, and I think I made the right call--certainly the easy call--in deciding to proceed with it as a crime novel. Our narrator, Hank Lauderdale, is a somewhat different man than he was in the earlier version, but he is a unique protagonist for this sort of book, and I don't want to change that. Of course he's still a reporter, which is more or less the opposite of unique (ubiquitous?) in crime stories, but he's not a real reporter, and more importantly he doesn't actually want to solve this puzzle. He really just wants to get paid to support his partying habit. And how many crime novels feature a half-drunk grad student as the protagonist?

Plus, keeping the setting in South Florida gives me an excuse to reread a few Florida crime novels I have (I'm going to reread a few; I have rather more than a few) with an eye to maintaining some of the main aspects of that genre (yes, Florida Crime is an established subgenre... at least in my opinion. And dammit if I don't care about my own opinions why should anyone else? Come to think of it, why should anyone else anyway?). So I've changed up the "up next" listing on the right there, but I may not necessarily review those books, at least not in-depth, not here anyway. I don't think.

01 March 2009

How to Meditate

This book is what it says: a guide on how to meditate. Starting from the absolute basics and moving into the more esoteric (and difficult) meditations, Kathleen McDonald leads readers step-by-step through what exactly meditation is, and how it's done.

The book is not meant to be read at a sitting and put back on the shelf. I went ahead and read the whole thing, but I'm still working at the most basic meditations, on the breath and on the clarity of the mind. It will take me some time be able to move past those meditations.

McDonald is a practicing Buddhist, and the book is written from the Mahayana perspective (Tibetan Buddhism). That doesn't mean it isn't accessible to anyone; McDonald even notes in later chapters describing meditation upon a particular Buddha that it's perfectly to meditate on Christ, for example. The point is not the specific belief structure behind meditation; the point is to meditate it all, to clarify the mind and permit the practitioner to live in the present and be more thoughtful and positive all the time, and one needn't be a Buddhist to benefit from meditation.

For myself, I would consider the book nearly indispensible, and it will be on my bookshelf to be reread, piece by piece, for a very long time.

22 February 2009

Nature Girl

It took all of three days for me to read this book. I point that out in case the following review seems at all negative (which it will).

I love Carl Hiaasen's work. I've read all of his adult books, to include his collections of columns and his polemic against the Disney company (which was somewhat frightening, actually), with the sole exception of Strip Tease (it's on my list; also I think I've missed one other one, Skinny Dip maybe.) I have enjoyed them all, some more than others. Nature Girl is no exception.

Nature Girl is set in the Ten Thousand Islands, near the Everglades coast south of Naples. I love the area; I've written my own essay about the area and it is frankly a natural (no pun intended... well, maybe a little) setting for fiction of all sorts. This is a good story that makes good use of the setting. But something was missing here.

I can't put my finger on what was missing. I finished the book a week and a half ago and have been trying to do so since then; but I'm tired of waiting to write this review. Part of what I like about Hiaasen is how nicely he skewers Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and the rest of South Florida. It's urban, and realistically that's what I thought was missing here. About the only "skewering" to be done of Everglades City is of the tendency of the local leadership to get involved in the drugs trade, a point made but not belabored here (it would get dull quickly). Instead the... um... quirkiness of small backwater towns is on the skewers here, and to be perfectly frank, that's been done a thousand times by a hundred people. The only special thing here is the setting, and Randy Wayne White's made a whole career out of setting crime novels in the Ten Thousand Islands. In other words... what makes Nature Girl special?

As a part of the Hiaasen library, the setting is unique. Beyond that, honestly, nothing makes it special. This is not to say that the book reads like a Doc Ford mystery (Randy Wayne Wright's protagonist) or could have been written by anyone. It bears several of Hiaasen's stylistic marks and there are familiar characters here; it's a Hiaasen novel. And like I said I enjoyed it and think it's totally worth your time to read. What really bothers me is that the last two Hiaasen novels I've read--this one and Basket Case--have both been, shall we say, subpar among his efforts. Is the well running dry? Like I said, I haven't read Skinny Dip yet, which was published just before this one, so I can't judge. It's just a feeling I have--and maybe not fair. How many books can I expect the man to write about Miami? This one at least is set in a real place (which was the problem with Basket Case and perhaps I should be happy simple that Hiaasen is branching out and will be able to continue writing novels I can enjoy reading without being stuck in the same setting all the time. Hell, the man lives part time in Montana, and what's wrong with a Montana setting? Perhaps that's coming next. It won't be Miami, but that won't make it bad.

The Book of General Ignorance

This book is plenty of fun. The only problem with it--as, apparently, with all trivia books--is that you can't be 100% sure it's all accurate. Right? Is everything in there correct? After all, if so much of the trivia here contradicts the conventional wisdom... well, where did the conventional wisdom come from?

Probably best not to get an answer to that question. But it probably is best to keep a copy of this book at your desk or nightstand or wherever you can read a bit of it when you have a couple minutes to kill.

20 February 2009

Living the Simple Life

I read most of Elaine St. James' Living the Simple Life aloud to Smittywife while we were on vacation over Presidents' Day weekend; she has since been rereading it over the past week, in case you were wondering whether we thought it was a worthwhile read.

Simplifying--the Thoreauvian Imperative I like to call it--has been on our minds a lot recently, since the wedding and move certainly if not before that. We have too much stuff. We both would like to make better use of our leisure time (no wisecracks about my level of leisure time right now, please), and spend our money more wisely. Elaine St. James has written three books about the topic, and though they are more than a decade old now (and occasionally show their age) the tips and techniques she shares for finding more time in the day and overcoming our materialism and inability to keep our time scheduled the way we'd like are timeless.

It's worth pointing out here that Mrs. St. James and her husband are not sell-everything-and-move-to-a-cabin-in-the-woods people. They live in a condominium near a major city, and both work. They're not Unabomber freaks, anti-technology Luddites, or zero-carbon hippies. They're just normal people, living their lives more simply than most of us. And most of us, if we ever took the time to sit and think instead of filling every waking hour with activity, would agree a bit more simplicity would be a good thing. Smittywife and I agree wholeheartedly. We're always looking for help in the matter, and this book was very good for that. Enjoyably written, not particularly preachy. The only problem I have with it is that several parts of the book are clearly meant for people who are much, much busier and more stressed than we currently are. That's actually rather comforting, though.

I will admit, also, that over the last couple days as I've been unpacking the last of the book boxes, I've been able to put far books in the sell/donate pile than I would have thought possible before I read this book; reading about how another book freak managed to make the decision not to own every book in the world has been helpful. I recommend this book for anyone looking to simplify their own life (even parents), but if you don't at least partially buy into the notion that you may need to simplify, this won't convince you otherwise.

19 February 2009

Bail Me Out!

I read a few articles in Florida newspapers this morning about the mortgage bailout plan and how it will affect Florida homebuyers. I don't claim to be an expert here, but I did buy a home in Florida just a few years short of the top of the housing price bubble, in autumn 2003. I did four things correctly: I bought as much home as I needed, not 1000 sf more because my realtor* talked me into it; I paid less than I could afford to for a home instead of maxing out my available financing and then some because my mortgage underwriter said I could; I paid less than my home appraised for instead of getting into a bidding war with other buyers and paying grossly over what the home was worth in the hopes that it would appreciate; and I made paying down the principle on my home a priority with my extra money instead of spending it on $10,000 overpriced home entertainment systems and $3200 overpriced Ethan Allen sofas to go with my overpriced home.

Now some of my tax money is going to be spent bailing out people who did NOT do those smart things I did. But you know what? I'm okay with that (especially considering that this year at any rate I didn't pay any taxes (apart from a few bucks to the state of South Carolina, not even enough for them to change a light bulb in a traffic signal). Our government encouraged people to become homeowners, but failed to regulate the people writing the mortgages to prevent what was already clearly by 2003 an unsustainable asset-price bubble in the real estate market (in Florida, certainly; maybe not here in SC) from developing into the situation we have now. I'd love to blame mortgage companies for this but many of mortgage underwriters and realtors who misbehaved over the past five years are out of jobs now so they're getting theirs.

I do think we need to bail out certain homeowners, but let's not go overboard here. I made smart decisions when I bought a home and I bought during the bubble; making smart decisions meant that when I sold my home, after the bubble had burst, I actually still made money on the deal, enough to pay of my mortgage and pay down some of our other debt. Thus I will never see a dime of bailout money even though, frankly, smart people like me are the ones the government should be helping. People who got caught in the bubble are not the same as people who played a part in the bubble.

So let's be honest here. Let's say you bought a home on an interest-only mortgage. Ouch. That was stupid. I mean, that was really stupid. I have a lot of trouble saying any interest-only mortgages should be refinanced by the government, because, frankly, you shouldn't have bought one. What annoys me is that I know people who have such mortgages, and I know they knew better. But let's go ahead and say if you meet other requirements below and are in danger of losing your home to foreclosure we might consider bailing you out after the other people who were smarter about their loans get their money first.

Let's say you bought a home for more than it appraised for at the time you bought it. Nowadays of course no responsible lender (that is to say, credit unions or USAA) would give you a mortgage for more than the appraised value of the home, but during the bubble such mortgages were being written right and left because the people who should have known better decided to count on continued 20+% annual home price inflation, leaving it up to the consumer to back off and be the intelligent one. This annoys me; I dislike stupid people, but finance and real estate are complex fields and when the so-called experts in those fields are telling you to go for it, I can't really blame people for doing so. As long as they didn't overdo it; finance may be complex but I'm not going to absolve you of failing to budget your own money. Anyway, so if you bought a house that appraised for less than you paid for it at the time you bought it, I have no interest in helping you at all. But if the appraisal came in higher or equal to what you paid, okay. You certainly can't be faulted for paying what something was worth.

Unless, of course, you paid what the home was worth but it was way outside any rational budget of yours. Realtors and mortgage brokers definitely are guilty of trying to put people into more home than they could really afford, and mortgages were written that would stretch peoples' budgets simply because people let themselves be convinced that they were making an investment whose value would grow at a ridiculous rate so that the 40+% of their gross income they were paying to service their mortgage wouldn't seem so bad when they sold it at immense profit a few years later.
Oops.
We don't teach basic financial literacy in schools. Didn't when I went to school, or when Smittywife went to school, and we don't do it now. Maybe if your kid's lucky they'll get one financial literacy assembly taught by a friendly credit union employee during 11th grade or something, but that's hardly enough; and the fact is, since most people are financially illiterate, their kids end up that way, too.

But I'm not going to blame the schools. I'm going to blame us. We need to be smarter about our finances, all of us, every American; if we were we might not be so impressed by the willingness of our government to rack up a debt that will be close to 100% of our annual GDP by the time this recession is over (this is the point at which your government's sovereign debt becomes a "bad risk," barring 3+% annual GDP growth (which we don't have right now). We're heading that way quickly. I leave it to your imagination what the results of this will be; but I don't support GOP efforts to paint the stimulus package as a budget-buster, since they had six years of untrammeled power to do something about the debt and what they did was make it significantly bigger; you can't claim a "principled stand" when you clearly only have those principles when out of power)

Anyway. People need to understand their budget, where and how they spend their money, and how much of anything they can afford. It takes little more than basic math skills to do this; you know how big your paycheck is each month, and you know how much your bills are. You can buy a calculator at the dollar store that will do the subtraction for you if you're not good at math, and that's all it takes. Subtract what you know you pay from what you know you make, and see what's left. Figure out how much house you can afford, then buy less. It's not hard. But most people failed to even consider this. So let's face it. If when you bought your house, you were paying 40% or more of your gross income on housing, you bought too much house. The fact is that your house may now be worth little enough that, with a government bailout and refinance, you could actually afford the payments.

Let me be clear: if that's the case, I want bail you out. I want you to stay in your home, I want the mortgage to be refinanced so it's no longer "toxic," no longer a negative on a bank's balance sheet and a cause of potential bankruptcy to either you or the bank. The more foreclosures that go on the deeper and longer the house price slump will continue to be, and that's not going to help the economy. Throwing you out of your home and forcing your bank to take a loss--thousands of such losses--are not good for the economy. They're not what we should be doing in this country.

But I don't like the idea. We're rewarding your stupidity and the bank's greed and lack of concern for your ability to pay your debts. I don't want to reward your stupidity. I don't want to reward the bank's venality. No one learns any lessons that way and the next asset-price bubble will be just as bad. Yet I feel that for the health of the economy, for the sake of recovery, we need to do it. And that's what they're going to do, that's what this bailout will do (although I understand it's only for mortgages written by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which while helpful doesn't seem to be enough to really fix the damage in the credit market).

But dammit let's have some regulation! Let's require that everyone who gets a bailout must attend a six-week financial literacy course at their local community college (and yes, let's fund that; it won't cost very much and the benefits will be enormous). And let's put it into law right now: in future, the U.S. government will not bail out homeowners who purchased homes that were too expensive for them to afford. Live within your means, in other words; don't look to the nanny state for help. And let's regulate the hell out of the mortgage industry: no interest-only loans for owner-occupied housing; no adjustable-rate mortgages that will adjust by more than a certain percentage of the monthly payment; no sub-prime lending at all without requiring the borrowers to attend credit counseling and financial literacy courses and limit their payment to 30% or less of their monthly income; and so on. I'm sure people who are actually qualified to come up with such regulations could do better than me, but clearly such people either A) don't exist, or B) were MIA during the housing bubble, which is a serious concern. As soon as there's a buck to be made the responsible people vanished, it seems, if they were ever there.

Anyway. I felt like rambling about that. We do need to bail out some mortgages, but I'm going to reiterate that it's smart people who did the four things I did when I bought my house who really deserve government help, not stupid people. It's cruel to say it, but people don't learn from getting government bailouts (well, they do, but they learn the wrong things); they learn from screwing up and getting foreclosed on. Sucks to be them. The key is to ensure that the ones who did at least some things right don't lose everything because of other peoples' greed.





* Why is realtor supposed to be capitalized? We don't capitalize real estate; nor do we capitalize property developer, or lawyer, or mortgage broker, or high school teacher, or military officer, or fireman, or soldier, or astrophysicist. What makes realtors so damned special? I refuse to capitalize it. The NAR says Realtor implies a member of their organization, who must be licensed, and is more than simply someone selling a house; but since in most states you must be licensed to sell a house (and to practice law or medicine or education), all realtors must legally be Realtors. Lawyers are just about the most self-important career group I can think of and even they don't argue that simply because they pass the bar exam and join the state Bar organization they should be called Lawyers. It's a sales gimmick, nothing more, and a pretty stupid one at that. Besides, no group who had as direct a hand in creating the current economy as realtors did deserves any sort of special grammatical treatment.

13 February 2009

Three Things

I checked this book out of the library when I lived in Valdosta. I don't remember the name of it but it was something along the lines of Finding Happiness in America or some such (editor's note: he has no idea, he just made that title up). Some years later I read a book called Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, and the two books had similar purposes and frankly similar messages; I suspect both were written by Jungians.

Anyway. One of the points in that book--not the focus of it, but about the only real point I remember--was that an adult needs to have some things that are personally important that he or she does every day (or tries to). The notion is that you find three things (that's the number I remember, but it may have just been a suggestion) that matter a lot to you and you find a few minutes every day to do those things.

The point was that the things should not be spending time with your kids, or with your spouse, or networking, or anything like that; they should be things that are purely for you, for yourself. Me time, in other words. Seems part of the problem with people not being happy is fear or guilt about self-indulgence. The point was not to become a hedonistic jerk, but simply to remember that mature adults are not purely creatures of their society, work, or relationships, but that to be complete they also need to have things they do just for themselves.

I mentioned Finding Meaning etc above because the message was similar, and I actually remember more about that book, but a couple days ago the notion of "three things" returned to me. Now that I think about it, it may have been that you should find time every day to do at least one of the three things, or something. And of course I assume the three things are changeable, I mean, one of your three things may become less important to you. And I don't think the point was to set aside two hours a day, I think the point was that if you spent even five minutes on your three things you'd feel more complete and, importantly, be better able to project yourself positively in all the other areas of your life.

It sucks that I can't remember any more about this book because I'd like to look it up again. Anyway. I've decided what my three things are, at least for the time being. It's not that I feel the need to shout about what they are, but one of them of course is writing, and I was initially saying that I wanted my writing time to be spent necessarily on one of two projects I'm toying with. But some days, today being one, I only have a few minutes (I'm six minutes into this post so far and so should be wrapping it up, actually), and I think blogging is a perfectly good substitute for more substantive writing. Perhaps that is what this blog can be good for. Or, maybe I'll come up with something else. Anyway. So this was my writing me time today.

I think having three things is good. For someone in my position it actually is working opposite to the way it's intended; I figure I should spend my personal time--there's rather a lot of it--on these three things only, and spend the rest of the day working for other people--for my wife, say, or at Habitat for Humanity. Or being serious about job searching. And since writing is the only one of the three things likely to take longer than twenty minutes by itself I can spend a lot of time doing that on days where it makes sense to. Hey, wow. Organization for my structureless life.

This is why I read. You never when something you read eons ago in a book you can't even remember may come back to you and actually be worthwhile.

11 February 2009

Patriots

A.J. Langguth's Patriots was published in 1989, and I've had it on my bookshelf almost that long (not really, but it's been at least five years). The great thing about history is that it really doesn't change much and a well-written popular history, barring new scholarship, is still going to be interesting 20 or 50 or 100 years after publishing. Patriots is well-written popular history.

Which is not say everyone will fall in love with it or that it's the greatest book ever on the subject. For starters not everyone enjoys reading history (I blame teachers for that. I have a theory that there is nothing inherent in anyone's personality that will make them like or dislike history; instead it's the teachers you have the first couple years you have to take history in school. Doesn't matter what age, whether you first take history in fourth grade or seventh grade. If at least one of your first two teachers makes history interesting you stand a chance, but if they both suck you'll never be able to get into it, no chance. Anyway), although this at least is fun history. Really, what American can't at least sorta get into a story about the Revolution?

Langguth frankly admits in the acknowledgements that Revolutionary history suffers from a lack of, shall we say, academic agreement on what actually happened. To some degree all the writer of history can do is pick the least unlikely of the available options. We know Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree; what we don't know beyond a shadow of a doubt is what he did do. At least he left a lot of letters.

I've read a bit about the Revolution. Founding Brothers was great. One of the things I liked about this was Langguth's decision to cover James Otis and Samuel Adams as heavily as he did. Unfortunately the focus on Massachussetts meant I kept wanting to know more about what was going in the South. I'm sure there's a book out there like that, but the thing is, going in, I had heard the name James Otis once, but knew nothing about him, and all I knew about Samuel Adams was that he was a brewer (it turns he was not, in fact, a brewer. He made malt, but never actually brewed beer; also, he didn't really make much malt, either, and was usually broke). Following them was great; I had no idea how important Samuel Adams actually was to the early movement for independence.

It's a really big book, about 600 pages. If that's not daunting it's worth your time.