23 July 2010

23 July

Today I brought in our first figs. Which seems quite late, to me, although I only really have one season to go by. Seems to me the fig harvest had come and gone by this time last year, but I can't remember. Regardless of how early or late they are, the trees are full, and we should have fresh figs for a couple of weeks now. I never much cared for Fig Newtons or similar things, but a fresh fig and a dried one are about as similar as a grape and a raisin. Fresh off the tree, they're tender, sweet, and oddly cool in the middle, and as they don't keep well fresh off the tree is the best way to eat them.

It's a particularly hot and relatively dry summer so far, and although the beginning of next week now looks to have some chance for rain, showers have skirted us just about every chance they've had. In July we've received not quite half an inch of rain; combined with daily highs that have never been below 92 and often near 100, everything on the farm is dry. The "lawn" such as it is is quite brown; the vegetable beds get watered every day (way too often, frankly) so they don't dry out, but even at that our cucumbers and melons are showing the signs of water stress--fat on one end, misshapen and lumpy on the other. The cukes make fine pickles whatever they look like, but it would be nice to get consistent rain. Something about rain manages to keep everything watered and happy so much better than water from the hose.

Unfortunately with the heat and drought (a very localised drought; the airport up the road and the high school in town both have received over two inches of rain this month) the young trees are suffering, too. We lost the magnolia this month, and the Halesia (I can't recall what the common name is anymore, silverbell or snowbell or something) has died back to the ground--although it still has two live shoots at ground level so I'm holding out hope. I've built little earthen dams around the trees that are out of range of the hose (baldcypress and red maple), and both seem fine for now. The dogwood up by the driveway has been showing serious signs of stress but I water it most days now and it's looking better. To my great joy the two weeping cherries I put in for Smittywife both look happy.

A larger problem is the orchard. I can reach every tree in the orchard with the hose and water them every other day, which is acceptable but in the long run (that is to say, after this season) I need irrigation. Irrigation is expensive, and I'll have to do the work myself. I just need someone to donate some pvc pipe and maybe a well pump. I'd apply for a USDA grant... if I could figure out whether they even offer such things. Their website is a total nightmare. Perhaps I should just call the local office, if there is one. Or perhaps I should just stay out of the USDA's way; last thing I need is someone tramping by to look over the chicken coop and decree my eggs not clean enough to sell. (Good thing we give them away.)

Now it's off to cut back the flower garden (the cosmos have mostly flowered and died, leaving a forest of four foot tall sticks amid a riot of crabgrass) and try to find a long enough piece of 2x4 to finish the railing on the back stoop. Late shift tonight at work.

25 June 2010

A thought

I want to have a blog. But I clearly have not been blogging (despite having one). I don't know why that is, or whether it matters. It's not that I want to be "a blogger," which I don't think carries any special cachet. It's more a case of, I want some place to dump comments about life, and maybe provide a public forum to motivate myself. If I say I want to do X, and I'm going to write about it on the blog by Y date, then I have that hanging over me. I can't let myself be embarrassed, right?

Then again, maybe motivation should be more readily available within than that. But if it isn't there's no sense throwing away an opportunity.

But I've also started writing again on two fiction projects, and I spend little enough time on that already. Part of my problem with blogging is that I spend so much time on a typical post it eats up time I could use more productively on other writing projects. This is all worth pondering. Fortunately I have a wonderful vacation with Smittywife coming up (starts tomorrow!), during which I can ponder all I like. And there will be pictures to post when I get back, so I can do that, and then see where it goes.

18 April 2010


Gardening is an activity requiring at times extraordinary patience. Really, growing anything requires patience, but sometimes it' tough to wait. We've had the pea plants in the bed outside since early March and only in the last two days have we finally gotten a flower. We'll probably be swimming in peas before too long, but it's already the latter half of April. We wanted peas last month. But we must wait.

That makes lettuce maybe the easiest and most fun thing to grow. Leaf lettuce in particular you can harvest a month after planting, sometimes sooner. Here is our first major haul.

We have three lettuce blends (they sell lettuce mixes in packets these days, which is nice, since there are about 100 kinds and you don't want to buy dozens of seed packets and try to mix them). One is still out in the pea bed awaiting harvesting (the arugula bolted to seed already, it's barely been out there five weeks), and this is our master chef blend. We don't know what's in it, but it's tasty. Made salad last night with a selection of leaves, and today, in order to resow our hot-season lettuce blend, we went ahead and pulled all of these out. Rinsed and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge they'll last as long as any salad mix from the store, but this here represents about a dime's worth of lettuce seed instead of two or three $3.79 bags of lettuce. Sweet!

17 April 2010


Spring is, apart from the clouds highly allergenic pollen, a glorious time of the year. Though my favorite season has always been autumn, it's tough to find much bad to say about spring. This year we've had some lovely flowers--including the forsythia that has become the new top image. I thought I'd just go post a whole bunch of flower pictures, because who couldn't use some color?

Early in the spring we get these little flowers in the yard. All over the yard. What they are I can't say, as it's difficult to even identify the plant they're coming out of. But they are rather charming.

Most years, daffodils (and jonquils, which I cannot tell apart) are one of the harbingers of spring. These here grow in the ditch down by the road, oddly enough, though some folks have them all over the yard. This year everything bloomed almost simultaneously, so the daffodils had to share the spotlight.

Last year I dug up a wild violet that was growing in area I wanted to till up for the garden. I planted it in our flower bed by the house. This spring it was one of the first plants to flower, and what do you know, it's a white violet. How cool! It's one of only a couple in the yard.

Most violets are, of course, violet. These are growing on the hillside between the fig tree and the car ramps. There are violets all over the yard, as they like the shade, but last spring (2008 was very dry) most of them didn't bloom. This year we were treated to a real show.

We bought some native blueberries this year, and--hooray!--they've bloomed. Such cute little flowers, though I do wonder how they get pollinated.

Parts of the yard are full of wild strawberries. They have very cute little flowers, but I have no idea whether we'll get fruit from them. Still, it's nice to have the chance.

In a normal year, these crocusses (or whatever they are) would bloom earlier than most other flowers. This year, they're one of the latest things to start blooming. Early or late it hardly matters when you get these little stars coming up in the yard for free.

This is a native columbine Smittywife planted last year. We got a bloom or two out of it, but wow is it happy this year.

This is a wallflower. We put two or three of these plants in the flower garden last year. They were nice--the flowers open creamy yellow, and as they age they go through peach and pink to lavender. That in and of itself is fun enough, but the plants just took hold and grew all year, and the one of them, this year, is huge, and covered in blooms. We keep meaning to buy more of these because they clearly like it here. We bought two of the multicolored one here, and they've been blooming for almost a solid month now--and should continue right through summer. We also bought one bright orange one, which I like, but which isn't as healthy. However, through some quirk of genetics, there is one bright orange flower on this plant.

Right now, the stars of the yard are our azaleas, which ring an old oak stump next to the driveway. And of course, the two happy dogs, they're stars, too.

The pink azaleas bloom a week before the white ones. Who knows why? But it does mean that there's only a matter of a few days when you get both in bloom at once. Aren't they nice?

What more is there to say? I'm tragically allergic to azaleas--I mean, really bad. But even I would gladly take more of these.

I close with this close-up of the flowers. Such beauty in such profusion--and for such a short time. Part of why spring and fall are such wonderful seasons is their fleeting nature. Just for a couple of weeks we get display, but it's worth waiting the entire rest of the year for.

13 April 2010

A Period of Time

Okay, let's see here.
I got sick and wasn't able to go to a checkride.
I decided I needed to take time off to figure out what was going wrong viz flying.
I dived into garden/farm work, building vegetable beds, sprouting seeds, tilling the orchard by hand, planting roses, all sorts of things.
I realized that was really all I wanted to do anyway, but you can't earn a living doing it.
Then spring came.
We put all the seeds out, and I spent the next week trying to save them from the hottest spring on record (highs approached 90 in the days after the seedlings went into the ground). Nonetheless many of them scorched badly, and we lost several, although those have since been replaced and the ones that survived seem to be doing well enough.
I continued building additional vegetable beds until I ran out of compost and topsoil, and we still have several plants that I haven't put in the ground yet for lack of a place to put them. (More work is required here.)
I sought help for my self-sabotaging ways.
We acquired several baby chicks (mostly Ameraucanas) and continue raising them.
I agreed to re-interview for a job I was offered two years ago; the interview in a couple of weeks.
We went to the zoo on a day off and had a lovely time.
We joined friends for a fun night out ruined by incompetent restaurant management.
We watched some people on Spring Break decide to slide down a waterfall, nearly break bones, and then try to avoid getting arrested (only unlike when something similar happened to me several years ago, the signs prohibiting this were clearly posted).
We reveled in the beauty of Spring.

There. I blogged about it. Now, apart from the spring flower pictures, we can move into the present.

31 March 2010

Spring has Sprung!

So much has been going on lately on the farm I haven't actually had time to blog! What kind of a farm blog is this, huh? But I have pictures and stuff, finally, and perhaps tomorrow or this afternoon I'll actually get some posts written. I promise!

22 March 2010

Health Care Overhaul Passes; Glum Republicans Note Failure of World to End

Film at eleven.
I'm not exactly thrilled with the legislation, but it's a starting point. The next administration, perhaps, will take a better approach to reform, namely, fixing problems one at a time instead of trying to cobble together a massive bill that requires satisfying everyone in order to pass. We shall see.

This morning I went to purchase a monitor cable at my local electronics store. The sales clerk and a customer were having an agreement discussion. Both were clearly birthers. The customer even seemed to think the president was in fact the antichrist, though he was a bit confused about what all this meant. Clearly Obama was attempting to destroy the United States (really?), but he seemed to believe his election had been bought--by George W. Bush. Huh? To make himself look good, perhaps, but these people, sometimes they think Bush is Christ in the second coming, so maybe he funded the election of the antichrist in order to hasten armageddon. I don't know.

I love my farm. I like the area we live in, the neighborhood and the region. But there are some people here who I just wish would stay indoors, or better yet join together in a cult-commune and leave everyone else alone. It isn't that I don't like people who disagree with me; that would be most people. Disagreement is healthy. It's the people who are so full of hate and so desperate to justify themselves that they'll grasp at any ridiculous straw to validate their hatred. There seem to be more such people about these days than I'm used to, so I suppose the cult-commune would would have to be very large, but there are large tracts of open land in Kansas and Nebraska that are almost entirely depopulated. Loving County, Texas, has less than 50 people, that would be a great place for the commune. They could even secede, if they wanted. There are already buildings and stuff there, unoccupied. It could be the New Israel.

I think I'm going to go print up some brochures.

VI - Ain't That America

The foregoing fears aside, this is still America. We beat the Nazis. We beat the communists. People have been predicting the imminent doom of America’s global leadership at least since 1989, and certainly all through the Cold War before that. America is, as I said, an entrepreneurial society. We are terrifically well-educated (even if it is sometimes rational for voters to remain ignorant of policy) and creative, and we have solved a tremendous number of large, intractable problems in our nation’s history. If any country can get out of the mess I think we’re in, it’s us.

I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I expect to be surprised by it when it does. And I expect that it will involve sacrifice from all sectors of society, from everyone equally. I may take a dim view of the Baby Boom’s self-absorption, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause.

Still, I feel fairly specific about what’s wrong and what could happen if we do nothing. I have no specifics about why I still ought to have hope. But without hope we have nothing at all, a society around us full of sound and fury and empty of any definable meaning. And like I said, this is America. I hope we will be able to fix our problems—after all, it’s just debt. It’s just money, money we don’t have to spend, really. We can handle this one. But it’s going to require a lot of people to grow up. We need to find rational reasons for voters to pay more attention. We need to remind people that the stakes are very high for our government. And we have to get people to try to work together to solve this one overarching problem. And then, when it’s done, we can offer ourselves congratulations, slap each other the back, and go right back to yelling at each other on television. It shouldn’t be too hard.

21 March 2010

Bok Choy! Garden beans!

That's it! I'm tired of waiting. The low Tuesday morning is predicted for 37, coldest day on the extended forecast. So once it warms up above 40 that morning, I'm setting the bok choy out in the garden beds. I don't know which bed, but I'm setting it out I say. And since it will be ready in about a month, I plan to enjoy delicious bok choy starting in May. It will be among the first things we get out of the garden (lettuce, and perhaps peas, will beat it to the table).

We are now looking into some shallot and garlic sets, because we can't find shallots anywhere in the entire upstate any more. If they do well, next year I'll plant a quarter acre of the things and sell them!

V - Fear of Inertia

What concerns me most is that on the small things, Congress seems able to pull together and pass legislation, but on major initiatives there are simply too many political points to be scored, and too many people will claim to be motivated by the pureness of their ideals which prevent them from supporting any form of compromise. And the things that matter right now for this country—the thing that matters—is so big, we’ll never find the collective political will to get it done.

We must reform the entitlement system. We have to, because if don’t, it will bankrupt us. And if it doesn’t bankrupt us, it will be because the few remaining workers in this country—my generation and the next one—are being taxed at 80% of their incomes to pay for them. Neither of these options is acceptable.

If the United States defaulted on its sovereign debt, it would plunge the globe into complete economic chaos. If we decide that we’re just going to pay out social security as planned to every baby boomer starting when they turn 65—and they’re all going to live into their 80s—we simply can’t come up with that money. I’m fairly certain global financial entities would prevent an actual sovereign default, but at severe cost both to the United States and to the global economic system. And who would stump up, anyway? Europe has the same pension and health care funding problems we do, and China already funds much of our sovereign debt. They may not want a default but at what point are the Chinese (and others) going to decide, okay, we’ll bail you out, but you have to do give us something in return? What would that something be? That’s what I fear.

I often think the nation-state model of global political organization is going to fall by the wayside during my lifetime—by the time I’m retiring I suspect the notion of a “distributed republic” won’t be a cyberpunk fantasy. The collapse of the U.S. government over failure to meet pension- and health care-related debt obligations would probably help push the nation-state model over the edge. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but for me personally and my family and friends, who live here, that’s a bit of a concern.

I just don’t know where the political will is going to come from to confront legions of social security and medicare recipients who grew up in a country that assured them they’d have a golden retirement parachute and tell them, you know what, we screwed up and we can’t pay you what we said we would. But it’s what we have to do. Social Security was supposed to be a safety net to prevent indigence among the elderly, particularly those elderly without other family who could support them. Instead it has become a guaranteed income—an income that most recipients think should be bigger, not smaller. The notion of families supporting elderly relatives has fallen entirely by the wayside, except in those cases where an ailing parent needs full-time care. Time was old folks lived with a child or other relative. Of course, people also didn’t live to the age of 85, either. But then, when Social Security was enacted, it was assumed that most people wouldn’t actually cash out of it—most workers would pass on by the age of 70, and those few who lived beyond that age would be balanced out by those who didn’t live to collect anything. The system no longer works that way, but then again, the system doesn’t work.

But this demographic time bomb has been ticking for thirty years, and the generation that stands both to benefit most from, and bankrupt the country from, the entitlement system has been in control of the levers of power since at least 1994. Not only has nothing been done to reform the system, the one time an attempt was made it was by a president who had no political capital to spend and couldn’t even get his own party to put a reform idea on the table, much less vote for one. (It’s the only thing I respect George W. Bush for, floating the idea of entitlement reform in 2005. It took guts, but he had very little to lose at that point; when he took office his popularity was already below 50% and voters were suffering buyers’ remorse.) If any one group deserves significant blame it’s the late 1990’s Clinton administration and GOP Congress, who had the best of times to work in—fat corporate profits, rising GDP and wages, the appearance of being able to accomplish major political action—and did less than nothing, didn’t even discuss the notion of entitlement reform. If we couldn’t find the will to start talking about it then, why would anyone think we’ll be able to deal with the problem in harder times?

I fear generational conflict—not so much armed conflict, though criminal conflict is possible, but a genuine political division between those benefiting from the entitlement system and those paying for it at tremendous cost to themselves. Any reform of the entitlement system is going to mean significantly less benefits for my generation and those to follow; that’s a given and one most of my generation accepts. So, since we know what the problem is, and we know we’ll have to sacrifice to fix it, the question is, will we be able to convince the baby boomers to accept any sacrifices themselves. Because if not, we’re doomed to fail. If the baby boomers won’t let us reform social security and medicare and cut their entitlements and the benefits they’ll receive, we will not solve this problem. The government may not fall—forces around the world would work to stop that—but that list of things I said I think government should be doing? Those will all fall by the wayside. Every dime spent will have to go to pensions and health care, and then, when my generation finally retires to a lower standard of living than our parents, the country will still be so mired in debt it will take at least another generation before we can start spending money on actual appropriate government activities again.

The entitlement system may not actually bankrupt the United States. But it will cause the U.S. to lose its position as the leading power in the world. I for one think we need to be fighting to keep that position, for our own good as well as the world’s; that means we have to fix our debt problem; and that means, like it or not, we have to cut middle class entitlements, cut them now, and cut them deep. And that, my friends, I don’t believe will ever happen.

20 March 2010


I counted this morning. There are 191 seedlings in the house. Of course that includes some flowers and herbs, not just vegetables, but still, that's a lot of plants. And there are seeds, too--carrots, parsnips, and beans--that will be sown into the ground directly.
I'm targeting next Saturday as planting day. Smittywife will be home, the weather should be nice, and the extended forecasts will go through April 5. If there's no frost on the horizon then I think we'll be ready to plant. These poor seedlings, they're so ready to go outside! All 191 of them!

19 March 2010

Hard Work

My goodness I'm going to be sore for the next few days.
So we have an orchard, out back behind the garage. I call it an orchard; right now it's actually only seven trees, five apples and two peaches. I call it an orchard as a sort of inspiration; in three or four years' time I see twenty plus trees extending down the hillside from the current orchard. But there's a lot of work between now and then.
When we bought the property, the land that is now the orchard was completely overgrown. A large nearby pecan tree had spread pecan saplings throughout the area, and those were mixed in with an assortment of small junipers and scrubby deciduous trees, one large old Bradford Pear (aka the Chinese Stinking Pear, Pyrus calleryana), vast stands of pokeweed, and a dense collection of broadleaved weeds, and the whole thing was overgrown with vines of all kinds: honeysuckle, poison ivy, greenbriar, and some sort of bramble that doesn't seem to produce actual blackberries. Last spring I rented a huge brushmower and, together with some friends, we cut all this crap down. There was a black willow back there, the only willow on the property, and we cut down trees and mowed weeds and hacked through brush until we reached the willow tree. This gave me about enough room to plant seven trees.
Of course we didn't cut down all the pecans, because we weren't sure what to do with the area yet. And those we did cut down sprouted from the stumps--as did the horrible pear, which was covered in half-inch thorns, more like spikes than thorns. I tried to keep the area mowed down to a reasonable level with my brushcutter, but it was a war of gradual attrition and I was never going to get ahead of the vines. The weeds and such I could handle; the vines I wanted gone, but a brushcutter won't cure that problem.
Then this December Smittywife and I broke down and bought six fruit trees: two peaches (an Elberta and a Belle of Georgia), two Yates apples, and two Arkansas Black apples (my favorite variety, although the Yates are terrific). They were five bucks each so it was tough to resist (we bought two blueberries at the same time, but they're in a different part of the yard). I planted all six trees in what I've begun calling the orchard (later we picked up a seventh, an Ein Shemer apple, which is an Israeli variety bred for drier weather), and mowed the area down with the brushcutter. But all those vines were still there.
Now it's getting to be time for us to set vegetables out, and despite having built six garden beds I've realized we don't have enough space to set out all our seedlings and sow some vegetables from seed, in particular bush beans (which I would like to have a lot of). I thought, why not till up the soil in the orchard and plant the beans in between the trees? Beans are good for the soil, and there's no soil in this yard that couldn't use some help. But oh, the vines. As soon as it warms sufficiently (it's already started), the honeysuckle will take over back there, and the poison ivy and bramble won't be far behind. Then there'll be the late-summer explosion of Sida rhombifolia, a weed which wouldn't be that bad if there wasn't so damn much of it.
The only way to handle this is to get rid of all the vines, which means pulling them out by the roots. This is hard under any circumstances (especially with bramble), but even tougher in heavy clay soils like we have here. And no matter how hard I tried I wouldn't get all of it. The only thing to do is till.
A tiller, however, is not something I own. Nor is it something I care to rent for the price they charge, and buying one, at over $500 (it has to be a rear-tine tiller or it will just skip off the clay), is out of the question. I have a pickaxe, though, and I've used it to plant most of the trees in the yard, and some of the roses, and to dig up the flowerbeds we put in last year. The flat blade of the pickaxe really breaks up the clay, and cuts through any roots or vines in the way.
And it only weighs about four pounds, so it's not heavy.
Until you've swung it for an hour straight into heavy clay and tree roots. I'm finally getting through all the roots from those pecans (and the evil pear) we cut down, so maybe they won't sprout again this year, but that takes some doing. And being sure I've cut through all the vines down to the roots, that takes some doing as well.
In three days I've managed to get about a quarter of the orchard tilled, maybe a third. It will be next week before I'm done. I may need more Aleve.
But you know, there's something wonderful about wearing yourself out doing physical labor. I feel so much better at the end of the day, even though I also feel worse. Either way, I'm not sure there's anything I'd rather be doing.

IV - What I Think the Government Should Actually Do

I’m not a libertarian. I look at the libertarians and I see people who probably have some good ideas but are so in thrall to their own philosophy that they take it to its (il)logical conclusion. I’m not a conservative either, by any definition common in America. I think of myself as a liberal in the classical or European sense but even that definition is incomplete. Like nearly all thoughtful people I can’t fit myself into any of the established boxes. The established boxes were established so people wouldn’t have to be thoughtful any more.

I don’t pretend to be consistent, either. But here goes.

This is a very big country, and infrastructure is absurdly important. Privatizing the national road and rail network is a fool’s errand, but so is letting the existing infrastructure fall apart because we lack the funding to actually get stuff repaired, replaced, and properly constructed in the first place. Roads and bridges are over capacity and showing their age; maintaining a functioning and world-class infrastructure system is vital to maintaining any sort of economic edge on a shrinking planet. The United States should be doubling or tripling spending on infrastructure for the next decade or so, and then leaving such spending at higher general levels, to maintain a safe and efficient transportation and utility network nationwide.

Energy is probably the most expensive single commodity on Earth and is likely to remain that way, and while Americans need to reduce their energy consumption individually, that’s only going to take us part of the way. The government needs to be funding research into alternative and renewable energy sources. I’d like to stop having to care about what happens in the Middle East, and every other basketcase country ruled by oil, but we’re not going to manage that by drilling off the coast of Florida. What’s more, the government needs to be encouraging private enterprise to develop and implement energy alternatives as well, through R&D grants, tax breaks, and loans. We can spend the money on this now, or we can fight Iran later. European countries would be wise to do the same thing, with Russia as their bogeyman instead of Iran, and just think how nice it would be to combine the scientific and business minds of America and Europe and Japan together on this project. We can certainly make huge strides in clean energy technology but not without spending some money to do it and making it a priority.

The government needs to be spending more money on research and development in general, focusing especially on university-level research via direct grants, but also by supporting corporate R&D through tax breaks and credits. Advances in learning will keep the American economy buoyant, and leadership in technological innovation will always trump cheap labor in the global economy. American companies will always be inclined to ship manufacturing jobs overseas to find cheaper labor (there will always be poor countries; today China, tomorrow southeast Asia, then Africa—it will be centuries before there is a worldwide convergence of personal incomes), but R&D will always be done here, if we make it a priority.

I am a green, I’ll admit it, and it may make my libertarian friends howl, but the United States needs to stay in the business of protecting the land and the environment. You may argue that infrastructure spending should be privatized, the post office, all sorts of things, and I’ll listen politely and may even change my mind if you’re persuasive enough. But the environment is a common resource, and the tragedy of the commons holds sway. It is always more profitable to pollute than not to pollute, unless nearly all other actors decide to stop polluting. It is always more profitable to develop land than to leave it pristine. You may think privatizing Yosemite National Park is fine, but I will tell you, there will be a hotel on Half Dome if you do that. It will destroy the beauty of the valley forever, but somebody will make a profit, and if there’s a profit to be made, someone will damn the public outcry and make it. The federal government may not need to hold 80% of the land area of Nevada or whatever it is, but the national parks, monuments, and forests need to be held on to. Let private property owners do what they need to with their property, it’s their right, but much federal land should remain off limits, or we’ll find there’s no place left that’s natural. Similarly pollution standards need to be upheld, perhaps tightened, but definitely need to be treated to rigorous scientific analysis so that we can be sure we’ve got the best anti-pollution program, not merely the strictest or the simplest. I consider global climate change a fact, not an opinion, but I don’t think a flat quota is a good way to reduce carbon emissions. Instead the government needs to be finding a way to make it worthwhile for companies to reduce their carbon footprints, and for individuals to reduce their as well, with a stairstepped series of taxes and rebates.

I do believe there is a need for a social safety net. There will always be people who lose their jobs, who can’t work for a period of time, children left orphaned, elderly folks left without family to care for them, poor families who need help climbing the ladder to prosperity. I can’t imagine an America that doesn’t care for these people. Unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, unemployment payments for jobseekers, student loans, tax-free education savings accounts, a well-funded and strictly monitored foster care system, payments to landlords who offer below-market-rate housing (that meets minimum quality requirements), pension payments to the elderly who lack a family to support them… we need these things. We do. But they should never be a dominant percentage of the budget; they are meant to be a safety net, not a way of life.

I’m all for a strong national defense, and a strong volunteer military. The troops should be well housed, fed, and paid, and they should have the best equipment. We have to be able to project force abroad and win a traditional war, but we also need to be ready and able to manage a long-term occupation, peacekeeping activities, and counter-insurgency, things we haven’t really built our military to do. Reforming some aspects of the service will be expensive but is necessary. I don’t feel we spend too much on defense now, but it isn’t always spent well.

There are lots of other smaller things the government should do, too, things that aren’t terribly expensive or invasive. Farm loans, especially to small farmers. Intelligence—especially if it’s actually intelligent—and domestic security (though civil liberties should outweigh domestic security); the judiciary; diplomacy and foreign aid (which needs to be significantly reformed but is a tiny, tiny proportion of our budget and should not be cut); and heck, I even still believe the post office performs a necessary and important role.

And if we could eliminate the two biggest drains on our budget, we could spend the money paying down our debt, and then give fat tax breaks to companies for maintaining strong pension systems for their employees, and to families for caring for elderly relatives, and offer everyone an annual payment to help defray the cost of health insurance. And with lower overall taxes, health insurance wouldn’t be so unaffordable. And with less debt, the country as a whole could revisit the idea of a more expansive health care system—something I’m open to—that wouldn’t force the nation to go broke.

That’s what I think government should be doing. But that, all of the above that I’ve mentioned, is about a quarter of what we actually spend our money on.

18 March 2010

Viva Mexico!

This is an outline map of Mexico, with each state outlined against a white background (click on it for the full size image). I use maps like this a lot, usually of counties in U.S. states, because I am a data junkie. The Census is my favorite thing the government does (well, apart from the National Park Service, and maybe NASA), and I like to analyze raw data and generate maps from it. I am aware that that this is an absurd hobby, but I would be a weirdo anyway even if I didn’t do it. I’m okay with that.

In any event, reading up on the Mexican town of Zihuatenejo (which I know of as a huge fan of the movie The Shawshank Redemption but only recently discovered was in fact a real place) I became curious about the comparative development indexes (not the UN-created HDI, but Smitty’s Quality of Life Index, a value I use to rank relative quality of life among nations using CIA data (another absurdly dorky hobby) and whose formula I derived myself) of different Mexican states. I looked everywhere online for a blank map of Mexico’s states, but found the only ones were in unusual file formats and were not actually blank, having colors and faded lines and thus being useless.

So I downloaded a map from the Perry-Castaneda Map Library at the University of Texas, erased all the text and darkened the lines. Having spent twenty minutes on this, I lost interest in the project. But I thought, some teachers might like a blank map of Mexican states so they could teach Mexican geography in school, and who knows, there’s probably like a half percent chance somebody else out there has the same idiot hobbies I have and would like such a map. So here it is: an outline map of Mexico. It’s a jpeg; feel free to download it and use it for classes or make maps as you see fit. Just don’t copy it unchanged onto your own website and claim it’s yours.

III - The Twelve Trillion Pound Gorilla

America seems to have a lot of problems: health care, unemployment, education, homelessness, poverty, the list goes on and on. We talk about many of these problems, and sometimes somebody even tries to solve one of them. We call these people idiots.

But there is a much larger problem we refuse to acknowledge, and it is the one that will destroy us in the end. It’s called debt, and if we’ve learned nothing as individuals from this recent economic turmoil, it’s that debt can really mess you up.
The United States is extremely deep in debt—the federal debt, the sum total of money we owe to creditors (in the form of Treasury notes and bills, and Treasury bonds), was over $12 trillion, an amount the human mind is not capable of comprehending. It is roughly 85% of our total gross domestic product.

Of this debt, roughly 3/5 is held by the public, in the form of notes and bills and treasury bonds, but mostly notes and bills. Of this, about 55% is held by American citizens and corporations, while the remaining 45% is held by foreign investors (2/3 by foreign governments, particularly Japan and China, the rest by foreign companies and individuals). China’s central bank holds about $900 billion of U.S. debt—about 8% of the total.

The remain 2/5 of the debt is held by agencies within the government itself. The Social Security Administration, for example, has thus far spent its annual surplus (there are still more workers paying in than recipients, though that will reverse in the next five years) on buying government debt; it will then collect on that debt as it matures to continue paying recipients. This, of course, will force the government to sell more debt securities, since Social Security will no longer have a surplus and will not be buying new securities to replace those it collects on; finding investors for this new debt is not guaranteed.

In 1950, at the end of World War II, the national debt stood at 94% of GDP (then a much smaller figure). By 1980, it was 33% of GDP, although in gross terms it was quite a lot larger (still under a trillion dollars, though). By 1990, after a decade of that great conservative government-shrinker Ronald Reagan’s influence, the debt had risen to 56% of GDP and $3.2 trillion. In 2000, after (most of) a decade of prosperity and high tax receipts, it stood at 58% of GDP, $5.6 trillion. At the end of 2008 as our great Republican leader was leaving office it stood at 70.2% of GDP and over $10 trillion. The records of Reagan and Bush are clear, and this is why when Republicans say they care reducing the debt, I know they are full of shit. The same tends to be true of Democrats, and certainly the debt has increased substantially since the change of administrations—though that being said, government spending is appropriate and desirable during economic downturns. The problem is that we justify our spending to stimulate the economy when it’s weak (“prime the pump” was the phrase during the Depression), then fail to cut back when the economy is strong. So the debt continues to grow. Congressional Budget Office estimates indicate that by 2012 the total federal debt will exceed GDP.

This should concern you. Not because China might come to us tomorrow and demand all their money back—-treasury securities are time-delimited—-but because once we as a government owe more than we as a people produce in a year, our debt begins to look risky to investors. Investors may begin to demand higher interest rates on our sovereign debt, and higher interest rates means our total interest payment goes up, and we have to sell more debt.

There is no reason to assume American sovereign debt is inviolable, although that tends to be the assumption worldwide. Partly, however, this is because America has always been seen as a responsible debtor, able and willing to pay its debts on time without devaluing the currency or inflating the debt away as other countries are prone to do. Before the inception of the Euro, Italy had a habit of devaluing the lira every decade or so; this meant that an investor who spent $50,000 on a 100,000 lira bond would, after devaluation, get back 100,000 lira that were worth only $5,000. Back in the days when most currencies were on a gold standard, devaluations occurred against the price of gold, but with the same effect. The United States, however, didn’t resort to such trickery, partly because we always had enough wealth in the country to find buyers for all of our public debt. When the international financial system was set up, the dollar was accepted as a standard of value because the U.S. government had a long history of maintaining that value. We were the good guys, the responsible managers of money, and as a result our money became the standard of value worldwide. The dollar is still far and away the world’s primary reserve currency, and although that status seems less certain than it once was, an obvious successor is not yet on the horizon.

But now we’re not being responsible any more. We just run larger and larger deficits, and not since 2000 has any administration even discussed the issue of spending less and returning to responsible monetary practices. We still aren’t printing money to try to cover our debts (that would result in hyperinflation, most recently seen in Zimbabwe but best known for bringing interwar Germany to its knees and leading to the rise of the Nazis), and the chance of a sovereign default seems remote (right now, but that can change with remarkable quickness; witness Greece), but financially we are on rather thin ice.

By 2030 (approximately), it is likely that total payouts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will exceed total tax revenues for entire country. That means absolutely everything else the government does, from national defense to keep toilet paper in bathrooms at national parks, will have to be financed by debt. And beyond 2030 things simply continue to get worse.

The problem comes not from the debt itself, but from the need to finance it. Debt rotates—every so many years, an individual debt security like a treasury bill reaches maturity. The holder can then ask for the money from the government, or roll it over into another treasury instrument. When debt rolls over, it is on new terms. Presently most of our debt is at very low interest rates, but creditors may begin to fret that the risk of a sovereign default is actually real, and thus ask for a higher interest rate to cover that potential loss. Higher interest rates mean higher debt service payments, and higher payments means we have to sell more debt.

As entitlement spending increases, the total quantity of debt we will have to sell will increase, so our interest payments will rise on their own. It only takes a handful of creditors to begin worrying about the possibility of default for interest rates to start rising to unsustainable levels.

This is exactly what has just happened in Greece. Creditors began to worry that Greece, which showed no intention of bringing its spending under control, was going to become unable to make its debt payments. Thus they started asking for higher and higher interest rates. The Greek government had to sell debt at unsustainably high interest rates, and the situation snowballed.

America is not Greece. But America in 2010 is also not America in 1950, and it will take very little nervousness on the part of creditors to start a Greek-style collapse.

Outside the Euro, Greece could have responded to the crisis by devaluing the currency or defaulting on its sovereign debt, things it cannot do within the Euro. The United States has no such restrictions.

Russia defaulted in 1998—-essentially declared bankruptcy and said they wouldn’t pay the debt they owed. Russia’s government then had to sell its debt at junk grade, mostly to Russian citizens (especially the oligarchs), and severely cut services, until the Russian economy began to grow. Through the 2000s Russia’s debt grade gradually improved as the Russian government began running a surplus, and appeared likely to be able to pay off future debts. (In the last year Russian debt has been downgraded again as the economy shrank, but it is still considered investment grade, though just barely.) Russia still pays a lot of interest on its sovereign debt, though; a BBB rating will do that. You pay higher credit card and mortgage rates if you have a history of bankruptcy or missed payments; countries are the same way.

If America found itself unable to sell enough to finance its government obligations-—something that is certain to happen by 2030 if projections hold and nothing is changed—-we would likely default rather than devalue the dollar, because it would cause less global shock (though both options are decidedly unattractive). But unlike Russia, we would not start running a surplus in the next couple of years. Instead we would have to make do with much less government spending, and much higher interest rates. Inflation would no doubt rise, affecting the average American’s pocketbook (including most especially those on Social Security). And certainly, American prestige in the world would never recover.

There’s no reason why it will take until 2030 for this to happen. Entitlement spending may exceed tax revenue by that year, but creditors are unlikely to let the country go that long without taking some form of action against ballooning deficits.

I for one prefer not contemplate a post-default America or a devalued dollar, and I doubt seriously anyone else does, either. But the debt remains a concern only for those outside the government—-the tea party, the minority party, anyone looking to score political points against those in power. But once in power, things change; American politicians, like Americans, are addicted to spending money they don’t have. This will change, and it will do so in my lifetime. But will it be gradual and in a way of our own choosing, or will it be catastrophic? It’s up to us, but so far, we don’t seem interested in talking about it.

16 March 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I recently finished Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I never read in school despite growing up in Florida, and which I’d always felt I should read. Also, it has a hurricane in it, and I’m a sucker for hurricanes.

The book has long been considered a great empowering piece of literature for women, though I don’t like to think of it as proto-chick-lit. Hurston paints a picture of turn-of-the-century Florida that is lacking from much of the rest of literature; that’s largely why I wanted to read it, and why I enjoyed it. Yes, Hurston’s use of dialect can be distracting at times, but I’ve never really been bothered by the use of dialect in fiction and don’t really understand why some people hate it so much. Not being an author from the Harlem Renaissance myself, I don’t really sympathize with the contemporary criticism of the book. If anything, since most of the critical Harlem Renaissance writers were men, perhaps they were concerned about Hurston’s critical depiction of the divisions between men and women in black society at the time, and just needed an excuse to complain.

If, instead of trying to be a sensitive critic, one reads the book for its narrative and historical interest, it’s a very good read. Janie’s struggles to find love are convincingly depicted, and the men she meets are all real enough. The way Janie is criticized for settling down with Tea Cake, a no-account drifter, seems very true—she finally found love, and it may not have been in the life people expected her to live, but a mature person (actual maturity being something everyone really wants and hardly anyone actually has) knows other peoples’ expectations are useless if one’s heart is happy and mind is free. We all really want to be Janie, in a way.

Right up until the hurricane.

Unlike most books I’ve read because I felt I should read them, I actually enjoyed this one.

15 March 2010

Mysterious Visitor

We have six chickens. This is not one of them. Where did she come from? Why is she roosting on my porch chairs? Are chickens rising spontaneously out of the Earth?

In any event, when a mystery chicken appears on the porch, Winky and Bobby Cat are both very interested. (Too bad they don't realize they don't realize they could just eat Vortex; that rooster would feed them for a week.)

Schrodinger wasn't just interested, he wanted to try a taste. The cats and chickens grew up together, and when the chickens are out in the yard they don't seem bothered by the cats, and the cats don't seem to care much about them. But this, this is a mystery chicken! Schrodinger later managed to get a good swipe in at this chicken, from behind, and then poor Winky jumped up on the chair and got a beak in the face for his trouble.
Smittywife got hold of mystery chicken, and we put her in the coop. When I had gone out to close the door to the coop (our chickens always come home when the sun goes down) the main rooster, Buffy, was in there squawking away, and being answered by another chicken coming from the front of the house. I closed the door and headed up to the front yard to see where the bucking was coming from, and here was this chicken sitting on the porch. Since she'd been talking to our rooster I figure they'll all do okay. And what's wrong with one more egg a day?


It's finally here! This is Blitzen's Daffodil. It's not quite open, but I couldn't wait until tomorrow to take the picture and declare it officially, finally, spring. Yaay!

II - What's Wrong With America

America’s current problems in government stem, ultimately, from America’s somewhat twisted society. Puritanical about sex, overtly religious, in thrall to entertainment in all forms, and bored by anything deeper than a wading pool, we have created a society where it actually makes rational sense for politicians to engage in heated shouting matches that only interest their core supporters and fringes, for news organizations to televise the shouting and leave it at that, for everyone to wear their beliefs (religious and otherwise) on their sleeves and take offence at anyone who would question them, and for voters to remain ignorant of the issues and learn only superficial facts about their candidates. Then these candidates get into office and quite rationally refuse to compromise on anything or get anything done. We get the government we deserve; the best and worst thing about democracy.

It’s not fair to claim that our government does absolutely nothing, though. Even in 2009 and 2010, government has actually done significant things that have had serious implications for America, some good and some bad. And here are some of them, passed during supposedly the most bitterly divided Congress in memory. TARP—the bank bailout—a $700 billion item that probably forestalled a much deeper recession, passed at the end of 2008. A $787 billion stimulus package was passed with surprisingly little fight. SCHIP was extended and improved, mortage and securities fraud penalties were tightened, payments to veterans for service-connected disabilities were increased, programs to help families avoid foreclosure were created, enacted a new land conservation law, among other things. The stimulus bill alone contained so many provisions—tax breaks and credits for college tuition, home-buying, energy conservation, renewable-energy production, among other things, expansion of the broadband network, development of smart electric grids, money to encourage computerization of health information to ease sharing of data, money to test new health treatments… this was all in one bill. If this had been all separate bills no one would be saying Congress was paralyzed. So let’s not go overboard.

America is not ungovernable, but it is very hard to accomplish major reform. And the quality of our leadership is shockingly poor. Actually, that’s not true; the quality is poor, but it shouldn’t come as a shock. Is Eric Massa a particularly horrible person who somehow got in office, or is he merely a reflection of society? If we picked someone at random from each Congressional district, how many Eric Massa’s would we get? How many Evan Bayh’s? How many Rod Blagojevich’s?

You can believe one of three things, as I see it: either power corrupts people, and once they get into office they turn corrupt; or power attracts corrupt and corruptible people, so it’s likely that anyone who runs for office is prone to bad behavior; or the people in office are no better or worse than the rest of us, and society as a whole is reflected in its government. I tend to favor the third view, although Lord Acton’s aphorism is still correct and power definitely does corrupt. Let’s say this: you and I may not do the sorts of things that get people like Tom DeLay and Rod Blagojevich in trouble, but we do things that get us in trouble in other ways. We just aren’t on TV. Perhaps it isn’t that power corrupts, but rather that power exacerbates corruption.

In any event, I think fundamentally what’s wrong with our government is that it makes sense for politicians to cater to a base or even to the fringe, and there is no pressure on them to compromise and fix problems because any fix is going to be unpopular with some people and leave the politicians open to attack. It’s not even about compromise; sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to do something that might be unpopular with some people. These are rational choices in the short-term. The problem is nobody’s thinking long-term. And neither are we as a society; we are obsessed with the short term, and turn our brains off when anyone starts talking about the big picture or big ideas. Give me what I want now, and we’ll talk about the future when it gets here. Changing that philosophy will fix what ails American government, but can it be changed?

13 March 2010

Lost in a Good Book

Casting about for examples of literary farce, I was recently directed to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. I borrowed the second book in the series, Lost in a Good Book, from a friend and read it.

I missed quite a few things, not having read the first book in the series. To Fforde’s credit, despite his having created an absurd and sometimes unrecognizable world for this series, I didn’t feel at any point as though I was in fact Lost in the book. That’s a good thing. The narrative is snappy, the alternate reality terrifically odd, and the writing light.

Whether it qualified as farce is difficult to say; it wasn’t straight satire, and calling it a ‘comedy’ misses some important aspects of the storytelling. At the same time, creating an alternate (and absurd) reality changes the rules of farce somewhat. A character in a farce behaves absurdly and thinks nothing of it, and therein lies much of farce’s inherent humor. Here the characters think nothing of their absurd world, and simply react rationally within it. The setting itself is the farce; the characters are in fact acting rationally. That said, I can’t say that it is definitely not farce, and since farce is generally created for the stage or screen things will be different in a novel anyway. So perhaps what we have is something that is not not farce, but also not farce. Close enough for me. I once wrote the beginning of a story about superheroes inhabiting a world as absurd and off-kilter as Thursday Next’s. I didn’t try to categorize it at the time, but it would certainly fit into the same not-farce-but-not-not-farce category. That’s annoying and difficult to say and type.

So I read this farce, called Lost in a Good Book. I was not lost. But it was a good book. I look forward to reading the others in the series.

12 March 2010

I - Political History

When I was young, I wanted to go into politics. I even wanted to be President; I started a campaign for the 2024 election, in fact, and I think I was more serious about it than I want to admit now. I intended to be a politician, to start running for office probably by the age I am now, if not sooner. I thought I’d be an architect for a few years first, so I could have a “real job,” but I wanted to be in politics and naught else.

Of course, when I was younger still, about four or five, I wanted to grow up to be a tiger. I didn’t know then that I couldn’t actually do that.

These days the two ideas seem equally ridiculous.

Which is not to say that I’m not still interested in politics. As the years have gone by I’ve retreated to mainly being interested in the horse races and changes of power; predicting elections is more fun than other forms of gambling, and the great thing is I can pay attention to the British and Canadian and Mexican and Brazilian and every other election for the exact same reason. There are hundreds of horse races around the world and I follow several of them. In some countries, who wins even actually still matters, something I’m not convinced is true any longer here.

Lately I’ve gotten more and more depressed and ornery about the state of American governance, both at the state and national levels. It’s been almost ten years since I actually worked in politics, and while that initial experience was key in changing my mind about ever being a politician, if every subsequent year hadn’t reinforced the idea I might still be considering it. As it is I feel prematurely old, already convinced it was all better back in the day, that today’s pols don’t care about fixing things, and that somehow that’s new.

Some days I feel like it’s hopeless, like there’s virtually no chance the United States can avoid default or crippling taxes in the medium term, right when I should be hitting middle age and in the prime of my career, in the middle of raising a family—in other words, at the worst possible time. Did previous generations have the same worry? I don’t know.

Smittywife and I agree on some things: we can’t count on Social Security, for example, and are better off actually assuming it won’t exist by the time we reach retirement age. The same goes for Medicare. Politicians do seem more divided, more combative and more resistant to compromise than I remember, but how accurate is my memory? Twelve years ago the government ground to a halt so some GOP hacks could smear a Democratic president over his sexual peccadilloes, while nine years earlier the same thing happened so some Democratic hacks could grill a Republican court nominee over trumped-up sexual charges; it’s not as if the preference for grandstanding and scoring political points over actual accomplishment is something new this decade. Yet in 1998 the economy was riding high and the government was running an apparent (though not in fact a real) surplus. That’s hardly the case now; I think it’s almost impossible to argue that 2010 is not a much more difficult environment for leadership than was 1998, or even 1989. At least this time we’re not arguing exclusively about sex; both parties may have decamped to their fringes but at least they’re taking potshots at each other over actual issues (Eric Massa, Eliot Spitzer, and others notwithstanding). Still, I often feel fairly despondent about the future of American governance and wonder whether our leaders still have the stones to fix our largest current problem (debt) or whether we are doomed to an eventual default.

It is my general intent to avoid too much politics talk on this blog. I had a previous blog that I talked politics on a lot, though not exclusively, and in one memorable instance it got me into rather a bit of hot water. That’s unlikely now, but it seems like one can either discuss politics to the exclusion of much else, or talk about it very little. But I don’t have enough followers to risk alienating anyone (and I’m not writing this as a job or for pay anyway) and sometimes when I’m feeling confused or put out I find the best way to figure out my mind is to sit down and write. And why not post my thoughts? Knowing they’ll be publicly consumed, even if only by a very small sample of the public, forces me to be more organized in my writing, and thus in my thought process. That’s a good thing. I’ve already written the next few posts and so I plan to post them over a few days, maybe one a day, maybe every other day, something like that. This, then, is just a warning post.

John Glenn, A Memoir

At the beginning of this year I finished reading John Glenn’s memoir. I’ve owned it for years, my copy is a first paperback edition. I love reading the memoirs of the early astronauts and other key players in the space program; at some level I wish I’d been alive then so I could have been involved in something so meaningful and involved. The race to the moon was the last great national epic cause. But Glenn’s memoir…

John Glenn was one of the few, and certainly the first, of the early astronauts to parlay his fame into a political career, and said career included some less-than-stellar moments. I always felt like Glenn took advantage of his career as an astronaut in a way few others did, a more public and more unseemly way, so he’s always been my least favorite of the Mercury group (like they’re the seven dwarves or something; we sometimes forget famous people are also real people).

And so his memoir sat on my shelf, until I belatedly decided I should save money and read the books I already own but haven’t read instead of buying new ones, at least for a while. I will happily admit that the book was both an enjoyable read, and left me with a much more positive image of John Glenn. Most memoirs try to do the latter, but few succeed at both.

Glenn prominently acknowledges the help of his ghostwriter, Nick Taylor, who surely had a great deal to do with how readable the book is. But it is I think an even greater credit to Taylor that the book sounds like the simple Midwesterner John Glenn is; Taylor didn’t fancy up Glenn’s words, he just made them sing. That’s skill. And it makes the book—which runs an indulgent 500+ pages—-surprisingly fun reading.

John Glenn did so many things in his time that we forget—-or never learned-—about half of them. Raised in Depression-era Ohio, he was one of only two astronauts to serve in World War II (the other was Deke Slayton; they served in opposite theaters). Glenn also fought in Korea with both a Marine flying unit and an Air Force unit, with which he recorded three kills. As a test pilot, he flew nonstop across the country to set a transcontinental speed record (the first transcontinental supersonic flight), which made him famous enough that he was later asked to be on Name That Tune. He made that flight at 36, then an age considered near the top limit for a functional flying career (a laughable notion these days), and yet was selected for the Mercury program two years later. He wouldn’t make his famous Mercury flight until the age of 40. Glenn is a real hero for people who think they’re getting old-—and he would continue to be so, as at the end of his political career (he spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate) he returned to space on the shuttle and proved that at 77 the body could handle the rigors of spaceflight with remarkable success. This is a full life for one man, and I suppose 500 pages isn’t a long time to tell it.

There were other parts of Glenn’s life less savory, and apart from one example he doesn’t shy away from them. He was one of the Keating Five, senators implicated in a particularly flagrant Savings and Loan debacle, though he (along with John McCain) was fully exonerated after an investigation. Glenn discusses the affair, sticking close to the record but clearly not feeling any need to justify an association that proved insignificant; he doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind. He ran for president in 1984 and made rather a hash of it (had he won the nomination he would surely have done better than Walter Mondale), ending up with $20 million in campaign debt that took years and an FEC forgiveness to pay back. He admits his and the campaign’s failures gracefully.

His 1998 shuttle flight was often considered a boondoggle, one last hurrah for a retiring Senator, a viewpoint I generally agreed with at the time. But Glenn spends many pages discussing the science and value behind the mission—-and freely admits to how long he worked and how many people he had to talk to before he got the mission approved. Clearly it was something he wanted, and the science, though valuable, was what allowed him to justify chasing that dream. But the science was good, and that’s what NASA should be about; and his yearning for a return to space is hardly something anyone should blame him for.

Glenn discusses his 1962 testimony before Congress about various aspects of NASA and spaceflight, but glosses over his remarks in favor of restricting women from becoming astronauts. It’s easy to guess at what might have been, but if Glenn—-then perhaps the most famous man in America-—had said before Congress that women should be allowed into the astronaut corps, it is almost inconceivable that a woman would not have gone to the moon. As it was, 30 years passed before the first American woman went to space (Sally Ride in 1983). Glenn doesn’t mention this; perhaps he doesn’t care to speculate about the past, but I do think his insistence that women should not be astronauts had much to do with the delay in broadening the astronaut corps. I’m sure he said only what he believed at the time, and believed in good faith; but if only he’d said nothing at all…

On balance, however, the memoir is largely positive, and while there are dark corners of all our lives we would prefer not to put into print, one can’t put the book down without thinking John Glenn really was a great American. It’s an enjoyable read, and a nice look back to an era when politics was less venal and patriotism more pure.

Climate scheduling

The ten day forecast has no temperatures on it below 40. The average date of last frost in Pelzer is 5 April. The ten day forecast goes through March 21. At what point do we go ahead and decide to put the plants out? I could do it now and be comfortable through March 21—but the probably of a freeze between the 21st and the 5th is historically somewhat better than 50%. I feel like we’re losing good growing days here, but at the same time, I don’t want to set out 100+ plants now and lose them all fifteen days later.

We just sowed okra, parsley, borage, and bok choy, all here indoors. I figure there’s no sense setting anything out until those are sprouted and healthy, and that’s at least ten days away. Maybe by March 26th, when the 10-day forecast goes through April 5, then we can make a decision.

Growing tender vegetables is tougher in a seasonal climate than it is in Florida, where I grew up. Huh. Who’d have thought?

11 March 2010

Ready for Spring

Spring is likely to be upon us soon. At long last, after months where temperatures dipped into the low 20s on a nightly basis, we have had four consecutive above-freezing nights, including two where nighttime temperatures hovered around 50. This is expected to continue at least for the next week. This will certainly have the expected effect of causing every tree in the Upstate to burst forth in wondrous springtime beauty (although this has not happened as of today), so that when we have a late-season hard freeze at the end of the month everything will die. Hooray climate change (Global Climate Chaos, as Smittywife and I have dubbed it).

Nonetheless we are proceeding apace with plans to set the vegetables out in the garden in the near future. It’s expected to rain all the rest of this week, but next week I will start hardening off the vegetable seedlings. I sowed peas, swiss chard, and lettuce directly into our Pea Bed ten days ago, and with the warmer temperatures all have now sprouted and are growing happily. Sweet onions we planted at the same time are also showing signs of life.

I set out strawberries on Monday; 11 of them so far, spread around the yard so we can figure out what the best place is for them. I planted our blueberries as well. These came bareroot from the Jockey Lot back in December, when I bought the peach and apple trees. Unlike the trees, which are fully budded and ready to go, the blueberries have no detectable signs of life. I did exactly what the university extension told me to, namely, planted them into pots and kept the pots indoors and away from any chance of the pots freezing through, so I’m hoping now that they’re outside we’ll see something. But where I planted them in the yard, there’s easily room for a dozen or so more plants, so whether these come to life or not I’ll probably be getting more.

Last years’ pear trees are buddy, but look like they’re going to take their time coming out. I’ll be patient with them; I would be thrilled with even two or three pears this year. Likewise the figs look ready to go, and with another wet season I expect to get a lot of figs this year. I pruned the loquat tree and the pomegranate yesterday, the loquat to a single trunk, the pomegranate to multiple trunks with limited branches.

Elsewhere the surest sign of a change is from the forsythia bush in the front yard, which looks like it could be blooming by Saturday. The baldcypress (my baby, which I grew from seed and is now five years old) looks like it survived the winter. The witch hazel has nice fat buds, and the fringetree has smaller ones. The dogwood has no flower buds but looks like it’s survived the winter in fine shape. I am less certain about the redbud, which should be one of the first trees to flower but still looks utterly bare. I’ve never watched a redbud up close, though, so I don’t know what to expect. The serviceberry was split in half by a romping hound dog last fall, so although it appears to have some live buds at the base of what’s left of the trunk, I’m not sure what to expect. The elderberry already has leaves. And of course the dozen oak trees around the area are all getting the filamenty look at the tops as they prepare to greet the year.

We had snow last year on March 1st, which took some days to melt, but was quickly followed by spring flowers and leaves. It’s still only March 11th, but it seems as though winter has been longer this year. Everyone at Smitty’s Farm is ready for it to be over.

05 March 2010


This has been an absurdly cold spring. I am more than ready for temperatures to return to the normal range. This week every night has dropped to 25 or thereabouts. We put lettuce, peas, and swiss chard out in the first garden bed over a week ago and only just now is the lettuce starting to sprout; one pea has sprouted. Indoors, the peas sprouted in two days. It's getting warm enough during the day (relatively speaking; mid fifties is still cool for the time of year) but that 25 degrees at night is just keeping everything inert. This weekend it should warm into the 60s finally, and Sunday night it's only supposed to be in the mid-30s. Then the rest of the week should be lows in the forties--of course, it's also supposed to rain every single day.
We have many, many seedlings now. Over a hundred I think, and a few more yet to plant (parsley, another cucumber or two...). We don't quite have an ideal setup for them here in the house; they live in the dining room by the window, which I've taped interfacing to so the seedlings don't dry out in the direct sun. It's the best I can do until we can actually set them out, but it's still too cold. Granted the average date of last freeze is late this month, so we weren't planning to set them out until the beginning of April anyway.
The other thing about the cold, the plants are all just sitting on their buds, waiting. The peaches and oaks are about ready to burst, tuliptrees, too, and my baldcypress is clearly wondering what's going on. The forsythia down at the street looks like it could be in bloom tomorrow. Next week, with the warmer weather, should actually be the start of spring. I hope so. I'm ready.

19 February 2010

Assorted Sunny Afternoon Pictures

I don't like the way the "new" blogger deals with images. I can never get things to line up with the text any more. Nonetheless, here are some pictures I took this afternoon after doing some chores. It was a beautiful day, and I'm looking forward to a weekend with more such days.

It's a beautiful afternoon here on the farm. Filled up a garden bed, put dirt in flowerboxes for lettuce, and did a couple other chores. It's just a pretty day.

Those look suspiciously like peach blossoms in the making.

I have transplanted the first plants outside! This is a wee little pea plant; it has three friends nearby. The remaining eight will go out tomorrow (and we'll seed some lettuce, too).

This is an action shot of one of the chickens throwing dirt in my garden bed.

On a warm afternoon like this there's always a welcoming committee waiting at the front door.

Chickens Being Chickens

I mentioned earlier that the chickens feel the need to nest and peck around in my freshly prepared garden beds, which I guess is fine since there aren't any plants in the beds yet (except for one of them), and anyway I can't exactly keep them out.
I don't really know much about chickens. I can take care of them, but that's about it. Why do they want to nest in this dirt? Why do they throw it the way they do? Are they just trying to dig holes, or are they using the dirt (which they get all over themselves) to warm up, cool down, absorb oil...? I have no idea. Anyway, they've been out there lounging in this garden bed doing exactly this for half an hour now.

A week for the books

It has been an interesting week here on Smitty's Farm, the kind of week that doesn't allow for much writing of any sort. But it's also been an instructive week, and in some ways a good week (albeit in other ways a rather bad one). And it is also, after all, just a week. There have been many others before, and there are still more to come.

13 February 2010


It snowed yesterday at the farm. It's almost all melted now, but that's what makes snow around here so nice. It never wears out its welcome. So here are some pictures of Smitty's Farm in the snow.

My little airplane windvane just as the snow was starting, and then this morning after three inches.

The first picture I took this morning; the sun hadn't yet burned off the mist. Snow is terrifically quiet.

Vixen does not like snow. She followed me around all morning meowing at me to make it go away.

Witch Hazels are fun because they don't bloom until winter, so you get these crazy blossoms in the snow.

Bobbie Cat spies her own shadow. She's no groundhog; she looks somewhat surprised to see it.

I did not let the chickens out to romp in the snow, but their coop was almost photogenic with a light dusting against a bright blue sky.

Roswell is a funny-looking cat under any circumstances, but she really had some trouble walking in the snow with any amount of grace.

This is Raggety Cat, posed so sweetly in the black willow, where she spent several minutes knocking clumps of snow out of the branches and watching them fall. They always seemed to get the slip on her.

Nitro has never seen or even imagined snow before, but he seemed quite satisified with it. Until his paws got chilly.

Entitled "Still Life with Barney." Barney is the neighbors' hound dog.

Mama Cita, of course, has seen all this before, and is not impressed.

12 February 2010

Seedling Update

We have moved all of the sprouts out of their little greenhouse to a nice warm spot on the dining room table. On the left you have a row of sweet peppers, a row of cilantro, and two rows of wallflowers. In the middle is a row of eggplants, a row of poblanos, and two rows of sweet peppers. And on the right are many of the tomatoes, the four varieties I planted on the 1st or 2nd of the month. In the greenhouse now (by “greenhouse” I mean a little flat plastic job with a clear lid that we can sprout seeds in, about one foot by two by four inches high) are ten more tomatoes (a fifth variety, Tomande, our slicing tomato), along with rows of swiss chard and early peas. The chard and peas could be sown directly into the ground (both are frost resistant), but I haven’t built the bed for them yet. We’ll sprout them now, and between today and tomorrow I expect I’ll get their bed built (I have three beds left to build and fill), provided it doesn’t snow as they’re now predicting (actually, they’re predicting “record” snow, but they’ve predicted snow for us four separate times this season and we have had nary a flake here at the farm). We need to put some herb seeds (basil is particularly slow to get started) in the greenhouse, and I need to clean out a couple window boxes so we can start lettuce. Park Seed has shipped our final batch of seeds to us, so we should receive those shortly. This weekend we will be sowing about 70 plants, including some of those coming in this final shipment. It may not be spring outside yet, but it’s starting to look that way in here.

Stuff 'n Junk

Last weekend I took a trip down to Atlanta to visit with some friends and enjoy the Superbowl and my friend T’s cooking. And while there I helped clean out the house. T’s house is similar to the homestead here at Smitty’s Farm, though we have essentially an extra room here. But both houses needed a lot of work and updating when purchased and both have come a long way since initial purchase.

T’s house also has too much stuff in it, much like ours. We spent a good part of the weekend cleaning out, organizing, and in some cases getting rid of that stuff-—so much stuff that at times it was tough to get through the house. Yet by the time of the Superbowl—-in fact several hours before-—the house was clean, tidy, and ready for a big group of guests. Nice to watch that transformation, and proof that it can be done with a reasonable work crew (four or five people are a lot more effective than one).

But it really got me to thinking. We put a lot of stuff in the crawlspace under the house. In our house, such things go in the attic (our crawlspace is low and filthy and not appropriate for storage; T’s attic is nigh inaccessible). And we have designated March as “Attic and Garage Month.”

We designated several months this year for specific projects. Officially January was yard and garden month, although that has bled over into this month and will continue for a few more weeks yet; this was supposed to be Paint and Trim month, but we’ve set that back until April or May. But March is now the month I’m really looking forward to.

I hauled a lot of stuff into a crawlspace over the weekend, much of it stuff I would have kept three or four years ago but now would sell, freecycle, donate, or throw away. I feel more mature because of that (or at any rate I feel like I've changed), and yet, I know what the attic looks like (I know, in other words, why we designated an Attic and Garage month). And now I’m really looking forward to March. I organized the Christmas stuff when we put it up this year, and the Christmas section of the attic is tidy and free of unwanted junk (except for a few ornaments we mean to be rid of). I can’t wait for the rest of the attic to be a) organized and b) free of unwanted junk. I go up there frequently enough, and I know there’s stuff up there that we put there when we moved in 18 months ago and have not seen or used since—art that’s not on the walls (though we have almost no art on the walls yet), clothes we haven’t worn (old uniforms in particular), a kayak paddle (I sold my kayak two years ago), cabinet doors that don’t fit our cabinets, two boxes of assorted crap I retrieved from my old desk before we sold it and which I haven’t look at since the move or before… the list goes on.

Until very recently I was the sort of person who kept almost everything. I don’t need it now, but I might need it later (when I can’t say, or for what purpose, but I might!). I can’t throw that away, it was given to me seventeen years ago by someone, I don’t recall who, and they probably don’t even remember it, but it was a gift! I don’t fit into those clothes now, but I might someday (or in my case, that shirt is looking ragged and worn but I’ve had it for sixteen years and I can’t bear to part with it!). Or, the most common reason of all, I haven’t gotten rid of that because I don’t want to throw it out and I’m too lazy to take it to Goodwill or put it on craigslist.

I still have that gene in my makeup but I’m getting much better about hanging on to stuff. Smittywife comes from a family with the same gene, so we have an uphill battle. We both tend to set stuff down on any handy flat surface and forget about it, so tables and desks are always cluttered, but we don’t have stuff in piles in the corners for the most part (okay, well, in a couple of places, but nothing like we had in Tampa) and we don’t have an entire 10x10 storage unit full to the ceiling of stuff we plan to use at some point but can’t even see (we did that in Tampa, too).

And now I feel particularly empowered to clean out the attic. We can reduce what’s up there by half at least, maybe two-thirds or more (there is Christmas stuff to consider), and although it won’t really reduce our crap level down here in the house, it will mean that the attic is clean, organized, and relatively empty, so it will provide us with a more appropriate storage area for things like seldom-used linens (extra sheets for the convertible sofa don’t need to be in my dresser, for example), fabric awaiting a sewing project (Smittywife has lots of fabric that we don’t quite know how or where to organize) and seasonal items. So cleaning out the attic will help us clean up the house. The project I’ve been dreading for a year and a half no longer looks so dreadful. How nice.