Saturday, June 23, 2018

Of Norman, Sam, and the Horror We Invite into Our Homes

My view of Black Butte Lake over lunch.

By Bob Ferris

I recently watched a woman speak about happy Thanksgivings past in front of a small crowd.  She was the grand-daughter of my 97-year-old mother's closest friend of nearly 70 years and this happened at a lake-side memorial picnic for my mother's late friend.  We were at this lake above Sacramento because this was where my parents and their two friends had lived and enjoyed retirement for more than two decades playing games, gardening, and teaching grand-children and great-grand-children how to swim, fish, boat, and play games themselves.  For many in the crowd this had been a functional summer camp.

Picture of the shirt but not the event.
It was not a tearful event and was more about celebrating a life than mourning a loss.  In fact, I wore a Hawaiian shirt and shorts rather than somber suit, because there was no great tragedy, shocking surprise, or causes for regret here as this was a life well-lived.  And it is hard to hold grief or think hope gone when numerous great-grand children romped across the landscape with a couple more waiting in wombs.  The turkey day story was one of remembrance but also revelation in that the woman told the bold tale of long tables extended with the foldable and ended acknowledging that it was not until she went to college that she realized not everyone lived as we all had.  The thought was expressed clearly, but the moment passed quickly.

As the afternoon aged, some of the aged gathered cracker-barrel-like to talk life and perhaps solve the world's problems.  The topics varied but we started with an old favorite: the Social Security longevity bet-hedge about opting for drawing benefits at 66 or 70.  We then traveled on to scaring the younger among us about the challenges of Medicare and the forest of mail that would be coming in their direction soon.  The discussion tip-toed on the wings of beer and harder fare to the current condition of our country.  All agreed that our infrastructure was a mess and that the education we received in public schools no longer seemed to be on the menu except at additional cost and in private settings.  There was some vague acknowledgement that taxation or lack thereof was a problem, but a bucket of entitlement talk soon washed that away.  When the stalking phantom of foreigners was raised I left to grab another handful of ice and a healthy splash of the Tequila my brother-in-law was kind enough to bring for me.  I was not being timid or sloughing responsibility, but this was not the time nor place for upending a dump truck full of facts regardless of how badly needed.

Later we gathered at our hotel pool-side in a smaller group and told stories.  We had plenty as this was a "mirror" family with four children nearly synchronized with the four in ours.  Our collective, multi-generational offspring now played together as we once did, perhaps not abandoning each other in the moonlight at a long-forgotten graveyard near Lake Tahoe or watching their fathers sink wooden boats in seconds they had built over the course of years, but constructing their own legends with every moment they spent together.  In all of this it was hard to escape our privilege as our lives were more the stuff of Norman Rockwell (above) rather than Sam Rockwell (think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri below).

The sky darkened and the evening chilled.  Right after the hotel staff came out with blankets as we mostly native Californians shivered stubbornly in shorts and t-shirts, one woman in my generation admitted that she had watched all the movies in the Tremors' series.  This was a large enough conversational eddy to shift us all to talking about horror movies and the other terror we invite into lives.  I was amazed at all the gory movies and true crime series those around the circle offered up and seemed to watch regularly.  Even though I expounded on the original black and white version of The Haunting with Julie Harris (below) as one of the scariest without hockey masks or slasher fingers, this is not where I live.  I am not generally prone to fear...well there was the time I visited a bear-killed cow carcass for a compensation claim on the Blackfeet Reservation and found myself all alone, un-armed, in a dense stand of aspen when the branches near me started to crash and break...but these are not generally feelings or experiences that I seek.

The next morning I drove north towards home.  My lips still felt kissed by distilled agave which felt odd as I rarely drink anymore.  Perhaps this put me in a pensive and reflective mood as I traveled along I-5 looking for side trips on my slow meander to a Red Bluff hotel where I planned to spend the night before camping for a few days on the Oregon coast.  I eventually spied Black Butte Lake Recreational Area and decided that might be a grand place for lunch.  But on the way I got a little lost.

Perhaps it is my own prejudice, but I think that numbered and lettered streets in urban areas speak of design and order but in rural areas the same practice feels more like an act of neglect.  I grew up on a street that was named Emerson and then Covington near a creek called Hale after one of the early and largest landowners in California.  So when I found myself on H Road which was near HH Road and connected to 1/2 H Road driving past some rough homes and likely rougher lives I could not help but wonder what Karmic sledgehammer had driven these folks to this hard-scramble and unadorned existence.  This bereft feeling was only reenforced as I drove past one particular dry, dusty yard with a fence-running and slavering Rottweiler protecting a pair of rusting and wheel-less pick-up trucks where nothing seemed to grow easily not even weeds.  I know that I look through my own limited lens of privilege and there obviously could be abundant beauty and happiness I could not see, but Sam seemed to flourish at this abode more than Norman which took me back to the previous day's discussions.

The idea that entitlements, particularly to those less fortunate, are wrecking our country and tipping over the economic apple cart is an ungenerous and uninformed one.  It smacks of an unattractive selfishness bordering on the ugly.  But this was an issue raised by people I knew and I had never found them ungenerous or particularly ugly in nature.   So something else might be at play.  This thought brought me back to the horror they invited into their lives and how hard it was to convince a child there was not a monster under their bed once the fear of such had been planted.    No amount of reassurances or facts could exorcise the image of the crawling and creepy below once the lights were extinguished and the adult departed.  My sense is the fear in both cases is purposely planted in much the same manner.

Black Butte Lake was created in 1963 by the Army Corps of Engineers.  
I eventually found my route and escaped the H's.  I cruised towards the reservoir and by irrigation canals on federally-funded roads zooming past large ranches and fields that all would not be there but for some form of entitlement or public assistance.  I thought about the plethora of news stories demonizing food-stampers and those on welfare but avoiding similar comments or characterizations about these other forms of assistance in spite of their similarity in purpose, moral equivalency, and common genesis constitutionally in the Preamble.  Strange that.  But here again that is probably all about the horror we invite into our homes.  We unfortunately become what we watch regardless of the truth of it and that is a growing shame.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Slow Travel Movement and the Insulting Rush of Wind in the Willows

View of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge from a viewing platform.
By Bob Ferris

At the onset I will say that I am doing some self-exercises in travel.  I am working to distance myself from travel as a tool and step closer to travel as an end itself.  It feels awkward now.  But I need to know whether that is true because of its difference from my past patterns or is it awkward in and of itself.  So I have made two long road trips by myself, one for a wedding and the other for a memorial service, and experimented with the approach of not getting there first, fastest, or even on time.  Not slow food, but slow travel.

The 2016 Willows High School Football Team.  Likely much changed from when my mother attended the school eighty years earlier.
So I have started stopping at rest stops and visiting places where sights can be experienced and absorbed.  One of today's stops was at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge near Willows, California.   This makes sense as my mother was born in Willows.  She came into being in this home of the "honkers" during the second year of the 1920s just as they were starting to roar.  This was farming country and where I first walked rice fields and sat blinds with my father watching for pheasants and ducks nearly sixty years ago.  What does not make sense is that in all the intervening years and fall trips this was the first instance that I had taken the time to visit the refuge.

Pond Two and my father's old truck that carries me on my odysseys.  The pond was not completely dry.  Not deep, but certainly more than damp.
The husband and wife volunteers who took me through the modest book shop and showed me the displays apologized because this was the wrong time of year for an optimal visit because I would not see most of the migrant waterfowl that had already "flown the coop" as they say.  I would also not see the white pelicans because this was the year they drained pond number two which was their normal stop.  The pair mistook my intentions as I was more interested in the action than the results.  I had metaphorically turned left when all of my long engrained patterning told me to speed straight ahead.  And because I went slowly and quietly I heard and saw things.

I essentially took a mental sky hook and jerked myself out of the streaming river of discord we all are drowning in.  I did not see willows per se but heard the unremarkable simplicity of a cottonwood-concert of birds and water running through a narrow canal (click the video above twice).  The stand was rich.  It was a distillation being a refugium within a refuge. 

Before driving around the drained and lowered pond two I spied a sign that urged me to tune to FM 93.1 to hear the refuge story.  What a nice idea.  I knew much of this particularly about the value of created wetlands.  The voice was great.  The information enlightening and the music appropriate until I reached that point.  Which point?  The point where all of what I had just escaped bullied its way rudely back into my mind.

It started with the garbled mixture that can be heard above (click twice).  My radio which had seconds before been soothing me with a calming voice, soft music, and bird sounds in the background was now blaring nonsense about "draining swamps," Hillary's "illegal" e-mail, and her conversations with Russia.  Rush Limbaugh had entered my calming and centering moment like a battering ram painted with putrescine.  Nowhere in my actions or intent had I said: Sure, Rush, come on in.  But there he was rambling on about the Department of Justice Inspector General's findings on the actions of former FBI Director Comey and his staff.  So much hash and scrambled eggs cooked again and then re-stirred...again.

Mr. Limbaugh stated up front that he had not read the 500-page report, but rather skimmed the commentary of others.   Yet Rush felt absolutely licensed by that minimal effort to speculate on what the report contained and then wrap it all in the yarn of regurgitated and dated sonic loops, idealogical patois, and shrill whistles of the Trump Campaign.  He was like the high school kid in literature class who felt scholarly and authoritative because he had once sat next to someone who had read the Cliffs Notes for Wuthering Heights.

Just then I saw a deer walk a ditch bank with a single fawn whose spots were recently erased (see above in the distance, sorry for the audio assault).  I watched them for a time keeping my truck moving and windows closed as I learned three-decades before in my graduate work with deer.  I also saw a small bird mob a female northern harrier and a pair of cinnamon teal drakes kick up before I caught a stock-still blue heron thinking himself unseen...fine, if that is the way you want it.

I did not listen long as the garble quickly became all-Rush-all-the-time and the offering from the refuge, even within its "protected" borders, was fully drowned in the spewing of this electronic nonsense over-saturating the airwaves.  It struck me for a moment that this broadcast intrusion was a metaphor for America or even a portent for our recently-dead net neutrality, but I took a deep breath before those ideas fully crystalized.  I was saved by a place to stop and stretch.   I ran from this clinging miasma and ventured up the ramp to a viewing platform.   There I heard the birds sing clear again...perhaps a meadow lark?  It was like water or butter on an almost-burn.

Even in this slump season and in the heat of mid-day I left the refuge satisfied.  Then I continued my I-5 meander south where I pulled over at the first rest stop I saw.  My calming rather than striding walk around the perimeter yielded a glimpse of a tiny yellow feather not completely unlike those from our singing friend above.  Slow travel.    Yes, this could work.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Of Science, Faucets, and Climate Confusion Collusion

Shower scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

By Bob Ferris

Science is hard.  I hear that all the time and cringe.  This seems an excuse not to use what you already hold firmly in your hand.  It is an action dipped in laziness, fear, and nonsense.  Don't know science?  Really? Most of you do it every day when you turn the faucet handles to start your bath or shower.

In this simple, oft-repeated act (whether you know it or not) you go through the process of hypothesis formulation and testing (i.e., science). It happens when you twist the handles to where you think that you have turned enough.  And then you reach for an instrument to test your hypothesis.  In this case, it is your finger.  Too hot, too cold, or just right are all possible results of your experiment and determine whether you accept your original hypothesis or reject it and start the whole process over again.

But it is more complicated than this.  Sometimes the water flashes cold or hot because of toilet flushes, dishwasher use, or sprinkler timers.  Many of us also know the frigid curse of being second or third behind water hogs or those who seem to sing more than they scrub.  Cold water comes also when water flow is too restricted for the fancy and frugal tankless systems to operate safely.  We quickly incorporate all these factors and more which influence our valve adjustments, aquatic expectations, and behavior.

Given all the above, the response of some to the concept of climate change is puzzling.  When your thoughtless sibling or spouse flushes that special, quirky and miss-plumbed toilet giving you an unexpected scald, do you suddenly think that faucets no longer control water temperature?   There is a moment of shock but you slowly cycle through the possibilities in your mind and then arrive at a conclusion or understanding.  It is actually pretty basic so why is this climate situation so perplexing?  The answer to that is fairly simple too:  Because those who would benefit most from your confusion and the forestalling of climate action are the ones filling your head with nonsense with the help of those foolish or greedy enough to parrot their dribble (1,2,3).

And we know the pattern of this, because we have seen it before in the battles over smoking and second-hand smoke (1,2,3).  The toilet is flushed scalding you.  First there is denying that you experienced any temperature change at all.   Then comes the acknowledgement that it happened followed quickly by the claim that it must have been something or someone else.  They could claim it was the water company, air in the pipes, or the neighbor's cat all while holding firmly to flushing lever.

This is why the news lately of the EPA coordinating with The Heartland Institute is so disturbing (1,2,3).  Here we have the entity that is supposed to make sure the toilet is not flushed while you are showering helping jiggle the handle all while erasing mentions that the flushing has an impact.  This is made even more damagingly ironic as the release of these emails coincided so closely with the floods in Ellicott City and the revised death tolls for Puerto Rico's dance with Maria last fall, and the pending arrival of subtropical storm Alberto (1).   

I love analogies and drawing parallels as they are both excellent devices for exposing the absurdity of situations.  A good example of this is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's $43,000 secure phone booth installation and comparing it to the iconically silly "cone of silence" from the Get Smart television series (above).   I am sure similar humorous approaches could be taken with everything from Mr. Pruitt's first-class travel and lobbyist condo stay to his used Trump mattress desire and the whole Chick-fil-a faux pas.

Full cartoon can be seen here.

In fact, editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley recently caught the highlights of this in an excellent cartoon characterizing Pruitt as a smiling octopus (above).  But this cartoon has two limitations: It will almost certainly be outdated within moments (1) and an octopus only has eight arms.  I wonder if Mr. Bagley has plans for the crab, centipede, and millipede versions that will probably all be needed in the future.

Although these humorous approaches are entertaining and often biting, they do not always work.  The problem being that for these approaches to be effective they have to bounce off a receptive surface, one that cares about things like people, the standing of this country, or even the future of this planet.  Unfortunately, this president and his associated administration who strikingly resemble Fagin and his gang (above) are absolutely bereft of these feelings and therefore these clever comparisons are mostly lost on them.  It is kind of like someone lacking nerves in their back failing to grasp this analogy between shower scalding and climate change. 

Shower scene from Psycho.
I am encouraged by what I see in polls, primaries, and also in states like New York that have instituted a civics exam in high school.  These are baby steps that hopefully will lead to large ones in the future.  The prospects for us in a worsening climate situation piled on top of a weakened and compromised government are not likely to lead to a happy ending.  The logical end result of this, if left unaddressed, is that our lives will look a lot less like the happy Ferris Bueller shower at the top and more like the shower scene from Psycho (above).   The future is our choice.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Plaster Madonna and the Beauty of Cast Iron Understanding

The Vintage Homecraft Drill Press

By Bob Ferris

Understanding springs from strange places and in odd ways.  When my mother-in-law died weeks before my father passed in 2015, my wife went through a process with her two sisters to distribute what few possessions their mother had in her modest apartment.  My wife and her mother had not been close for years and I had only met the woman on one occasion a few months before in the tenth year of our marriage.  My connection to her mother remote at best.

This was not the actual Madonna, but it was something similar.
The boxes of items arrived soon after we returned from the funeral and I was surprised that one of the items my wife brought home was a twelve-inch high plaster Madonna that had a few chips.  As neither of us are fans of organized religion this struck me as odd.  When it moved into our bedroom it disturbed me.  My wife knows me so she understood this.  Yet it still lived on the lower shelf of her night stand.  I suspect for both of us it was presence.  And then it was gone.

Several years before my parents had announced that they were selling their home of two decades and moving across the country to an apartment in a retirement home in Annapolis. It was almost a call worthy of Paul Revere: Come quick because we are cleaning out.  For some reason that later proven false they felt compelled to be out of their house in two weeks.  So my wife and I drove south from Eugene to my parent's home east of Sacramento.  It was there in the hills where placer mining was once practiced that expectations collided with the strange psychology of stuff and self.

My father connected with me through work much more so than with my older brother.  Because of this I had always thought that my father's extensive tool collection would ultimately come to me.   His tools knew me.  I had played with the wood lathe and been scared by the one with so many cranks that smelled of cutting oil and seemed to eat metal before spitting little out curls of steel or brass.  I was confused by the planer and didn't use it, but knew the hammers, chisels, and saws well.   Moreover, I had lugged the long, heavy cylinders of oxygen and acetylene on the rickety hand-truck so often that I felt that I had earned the opportunity to haul them to my home and in retirement learn welding.  There was a strong sense of entitlement here.

Three things conspired against me.  The first was timing.  my wife and I came when called and were there when the job was mainly pulling everything out of closets, cabinets, drawers, and cubbies.  We were there for the pile making not the taking.  I also could not stay long as it was the fall which for a nonprofit is always about fundraising and a little like the time of non-stop eating for bears hoping to consume enough to live through winter into the spring.

Also my father had over the years prepared for me a large chest of antique tools.  This was more furniture than function and while I was touched by the act, we had no place in our home for this artifact of affection which ultimately went to my nephew.  I suspect that this was a disappointment to my father but he failed to grasp the obvious which was that my parent's new digs at the retirement complex were larger than current our home and this would not fit at our abode for the same reasons it was not traveling east.

The third barrier was one of timing too.  He was not ready let go and I could not push him.  We finally settled on a process.  I would see something that I wanted and set it aside for his review.   Most items were quickly returned to his pile.  There evidently was a communal shop at his complex and these tools "could" be used there.  My hind-sense in this is that the on-site shop was a little like methadone for the aging husbands unwilling to cast off the independence offered by a workshop.    It probably also allowed for "work" which took on the paint of self-worth.

Our interactions became silly and I finally started hiding things that I really wanted or needed in my truck.  I put a few tools under the pots of begonias my wife had collected.  I hid a couple of Japanese saws in the folds of the oriental carpet (above) my mother claims was my place of conception while she and my father were watching Amos and Andy on our 9-inch TV in our long-ago living room.  It was all very sad and desperate.  But I was like a diver checking his pressure gauge and dive tables.  I had to do what I could do and then perhaps fly back later.  My wife and I left exhausted with her loving elbow saving us from a drowsy driving calamity near the Oregon border when the afternoon sun on my left cheek conspired with several days of dawn-to-dusk labor.  It was a fatigue that even our truck-stop Dr. Pepper could not stave off.

My two sisters followed on our heels as the castle walls were beginning to fall to time-induced desperation.  Resistance was not totally gone but willingness crept in easily dodging my work-weary, nine-decade-old parents.  The sheer mass of it all crushed much.  The exercise changed from tea-spooning to shoveling as the question morphed from what to keep to how to get out on time.  Ultimately some tools went to grandsons and friends with the rest being consigned to a handyman who took them with a handshake and the promise of proceeds from their sale.

My father never heard from that handyman again.  Who is to say what was lost here...perhaps a few thousand dollars or more?  In the land of the rational this was certainly something of significance but I have lost four or five times this much in the stock market in a single day without psychic injury, while this planted an acorn of anger and resentment deep inside me.  I could ignore the injury for a time but not truly get past it.  It colored me.

I recently wrote about stuff with some references to how possessions relate to ego.  A lot of that was at work here and the second step in my process to deal with holding stuff too closely was to clean my own shop.  Just as I was living "large" in a small office, I had a small shop space with large shop ambitions.  My table saw would not fit where it should because it was blocked by a tool box holding a set of handsaws that I never used.   I would constantly trip over the table saw leg on my way to get my fishing poles.

I believe in redundancy and there is a lot to be said for having the right tool for the right job.  But my wife had given me two rechargeable drills and I had two corded ones so why did I also need a couple of Carpenter's braces with a complete set of augers along with a pair of Yankee drills?  Of course I kept the Yankee drills, but thus began the culling.  Half a truck load later I am sure the concrete pad of our garage is breathing easier.

But I started this piece with a tale of a chipped, plaster Madonna...what happened?  To come back to this you have to know that the one power tool my father gave me willingly was a Homecraft bench top drill press (at top).  This is a cast-iron-and-steel, heavy, and awkward tool built to last that my father purchased in September of 1949 nearly three years before I was born.  I know this because the customer stub of the motors guarantee card is still attached to the drill press (above).  Following my tool purge I was able to mount this top-heavy monster to the resultant cleared bench space.  It stood in its glory with its helmet-shaped top as a cenotaph to the body of my loss. 

Now past the clear out I wanted to use the drill press to create a screw hole to repair a galvanized bucket handle for my wife.  I had already replaced the badly worn plug on the drill press and inserted it expectantly in the outlet.   Then I reached around and hit the toggle switch.  The motor whirled into action and then erupted into sparks where the cord and switch met.  I jerked the cord out of the outlet blowing away the ozone and looking at my dead drill press.  Just perfect.  In that moment of loss I understood that my drill press had much in common with my wife's Madonna.  I did not absolutely have to understand them but I had to know them for what they were and accept that.  With this latter acceptance the acorn within me drifted away like the smell of burnt air.

I dumped the drill press on its side.  I removed the switch cover and pulled the toggle unit out.  In doing this one of the screws that had faithfully held a contact wire in place for nearly seventy years rolled out and I knew immediately the source of the short.  It was a simple matter to put it right, a little re-wiring.  But isn't that really what the grieving process is about...a little re-wiring that helps us eventually function and continue?