Saturday, December 20, 2014

Speaking of sweeteners

This what I'm using in my coffee now. The post about agave syrup reminded me this can of pure cane syrup was sitting in the cabinet. The Younger Daughter gave it to us while she was living in Texas. I've had old-fashioned cane syrup before -- I bought a pint jar at the Jarrell Plantation in Georgia (a really nifty state park, incidentally) a few years ago -- and knew that it had a stronger flavor than most commercial syrups. Cane syrup is what you get when you crush sugar cane and boil down the juice. In commercial sugar production, the juice is centrifuged -- the lighter-colored sugar rises to the top and eventually becomes refined sugar. The darker solids that sink end up as molasses. Cane syrup is what happens when you boil cane juice to evaporate liquids and stabilize the sugars without using a centrifuge. You end up with a product that tastes vaguely like molasses, but is lighter in color and doesn't have as strong a taste. The Jarrell Plantation, incidentally, does living history demonstrations of how sugar cane was crushed and processed in the antebellum South. I'm not sure if that's the source of the bottled cane syrup in their gift shop, but it could be. The process for making cane syrup is remarkably simple: you need something to crush the cane, something to catch the juice as it runs off, and a huge cast iron kettle in which to boil that juice down.

Mule-powered cane crusher
In any case, we'd been gifted with the can of cane syrup, it had migrated to the back of the cabinet and forgotten, and then I had the agave experience. So now I'm using cane syrup in my morning coffee. How does it compare with other sweeteners? Not surprisingly, the calorie count is about the same. The Helm Farms syrup does have a vague molasses-like flavor, but it's just a hint. It's not as strong as the flavor of the Jarrell syrup.

When I was Googling cane syrup, I found a New York Times article that quoted cane syrup aficionados who claimed old-fashioned ribbon cane syrup was much, much better than refined sugar. According to one person, sugar has a bitter taste compared to cane syrup. He also claimed to be able to tell exactly which field sugar cane had been harvested from by the taste of the syrup, kind of like wine snobs who swear they can tell which hillside in Burgundy produced a certain vintage. Apparently, if you want to use an authentic sweetener down South, you should be using cane syrup in your tea, your baking, and anything else that requires a form of sugar. I don't know if I'd go that far. At this point, I'm feeling the same way about the cane syrup as I did about the agave: it's working in the coffee, but am I going to actively seek more out once the current supply runs out? Probably not. I know there are still commercial cane mills out there that produce ribbon cane syrup -- you can buy Steen's cane syrup through Amazon if you don't live in the South -- but why bother, especially once the cane syrup is gone, I've got an industrial size jug of Sysco honey the Older Daughter gave us a few months ago.*

Although what I should probably work on is eliminating both the sweetener and the coffee from my diet. I don't need the empty calories and the caffeine is not good for my SVT. Oh well. I managed to break my Dr. Pepper addiction. Maybe someday I'll manage to step away from caffeine completely. (And the proverbial pigs will fly.)

*A slight digression: I know people who would freak if they heard me talk about using cane syrup that was more than a year or two old or honey that's been sitting in a cabinet for god knows how long. News flash, people, sugar doesn't rot. Neither does honey. They're what gets used to preserve other things. Honey is the only food that for sure never rots. Archeologists have found jars in Egyptian tombs where the honey was 3,000 years old and still good. I'm not sure if pure sugar falls into that same category, but I'm willing to bet that it does. If archeologists someday find a sugar canister that's thousands of years old, the sugar in it may have turned into a rock from absorbing moisture, but it's still going to be perfectly edible sugar. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

It was a Harlan Ellison sort of day

I spent the afternoon at the museum alternating between cursing the Internal Revenue Service and muttering about now-deceased members of the historical society. For various reasons, known (as far as I can tell) only to some desk monkey at the IRS, the historical society has gotten stuck with the task of completing a 990-EZ. The 990-EZ is five pages long and asks for so much information that I can't help but wonder just what else they could possibly ask for on the regular 990. I hope I never get to find out because the 990-EZ is enough of a nightmare on its own.

Among other things, in addition to the five pages of questions, it asks for two attachments: Schedule A and Schedule O. Schedule A is where a nonprofit gets to break down its finances for the past five years; Schedule O is basically a sheet of lined paper where you get to lie about anything that doesn't fit neatly into predetermined categories. And when I say break down I mean exactly that: how much income did we receive in the form of grants, donations, membership dues; how much came from fund-raising efforts; how much was interest or dividends? How much in-kind support did we get from local government or other entities? How much did we spend on maintenance, rent, whatever. And lots lots more, all the way back to 2009. I really, really hate detail work, especially when I'm sure there's some sort of deadline (which I've probably missed) hanging over my head.

I have to say in all honesty that the forms would not actually be that hard to deal with if the data existed to plug into the appropriate blank spaces. Long and boring, yes, but technically difficult? No, assuming, of course, that one has actual financial records to refer to while filling in the blanks.

I managed to come up with some numbers for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. The easiest year to do was the most recent -- 2013. That's the year I became treasurer and set up the Excel spreadsheet. 2012, 2011, and 2010 weren't bad either. My predecessor was well-organized. She didn't use an old-fashioned ledger or do a spreadsheet, but her monthly hard copy reports are nice and clear. The biggest problem I had with the those years it was sometimes impossible to separate out donations from other income -- the monthly treasurer's reports would occasionally do a lump sum (Sales & Donations) that aggregated data that should have been kept separate.

Keeping income streams separate, incidentally, is an issue that I've brought up at numerous meetings -- we need to draw nice sharp lines between the money we take in as admission fees, the money that gets spent in the gift shop, and the money people are nice enough to drop in the donations jar. These are distinctions that the IRS definitely draws but most of the society members have trouble recognizing. I'd been obsessing about it because I'd like us to have a nice firm visitor count but maybe if I bring it up at a meeting in the context of retaining our nonprofit status it'll sink in. But that's a minor quibble in the overall scheme of things, considering I hit a blank wall when I got 5 years back in the files.

2009 is a black hole. I can't find any treasurer's reports. Ditto bank statements. Nothing. Nada. Someone mentioned a few months back that one of the sons of the society's deceased president had a bunch of stuff he'd found in his father's house that he was planning to bring to the museum. He never did. I have this rather sick feeling that there were a whole lot of historical society records that had been sitting at the dead guy's home office and have since gone to the landfill in Ontonagon County. This is the shoe that I've been waiting to hear drop for the past 22 months. It finally dropped. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. The deceased president had a really hard time drawing lines between the various areas of his life. He was involved in a lot of different things in the community, and they all overlapped. It didn't help that he'd been president of the historical society for so many years that to him the museum had become an extension of his own home and vice versa. I figured that out when I was going through the vertical files last year. And the more I saw of that, the more I worried that sooner or later it was going to end up biting us in the butt.

Well, it's now later, we've been bitten, and it's not fun to deal with. We're a 501(c)3. We should have been keeping meticulous records. We didn't, and as the current treasurer I get to untangle the mess. I don't think the IRS is going to do anything nasty to us, but you never know. After all, they cursed us with the 990-EZ because the 990-N (an electronic post card that basically says, hey, we still exist) got filed a couple weeks late. Maybe I should stop referring to the professional paper pushers as desk monkeys. Either that, I need to remember that even desk monkeys can bite.

It did occur to me (again) that the Tea Party types who were fulminating about the IRS the other year really had nothing to bitch about. The IRS drives everyone crazy; they're an equal opportunity annoyance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What if they gave a war and no one cared?

Remember when we invaded Canada? I didn't think so. I recently read J. Mackay Hitsman's excellent history, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History, and learned a whole bunch of stuff they never bothered teaching us in American history class. Hitsman was a Canadian historian who specialized in military history. Not surprisingly, the Canadians have a slightly different perspective on the War of 1812 than we Americans do.

Now, I did know a few odd bits of trivia about the War of 1812. Thanks to an August Derleth book, The Captive Island, my grandmother gave me when I was in about 5th grade, I knew the British had taken Mackinac Island back from the Americans. The Derleth book is a young adult historical novel about an American youth who escapes from the island to bring information to the Americans at Detroit, which the British also took away from the United States, at least briefly. Having worked for the Park Service, I knew about the huge honking monument at Put In Bay, Ohio, dedicated to Oliver Hazard Perry and his fleet's victory over the British back in 1813. And I had been to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, back in the 1980s and saw the poor saps doing their re-enactments on a hot July day while dressed in the heavy wool uniforms common in the early 19th century. I have a vague recollection of kind of scoffing at the idea of a fort being built on Lake Ontario to protect us all from Canadian invaders even though the interpretive material at the time no doubt mentioned there had been an actual battle at Oswego.

In any event, when I thought about the War of 1812 at all I remembered Fort McHenry, the origins of "The Star Spangled Banner," the White House getting torched, and the fact the Battle of New Orleans was fought after a peace accord had already been signed in Europe. Does it still count as a victory if the war ended before the battle took place? What never crossed my mind was the fact that the active front of the war, the main line of battle, so to speak, was the United States-Canadian border. There was a fair amount of naval action on the Atlantic Ocean in the form of British warships blocking access to American ports with American privateers retaliating by harassing British merchant ships, but Hitsman makes it clear that the major military operations, both naval and land-based, took place along the northern border of the United States. This could be a function of the author's obviously pro-Canadian bias, but it does seem to match up with the facts. Both countries worked frantically in their Great Lakes ports to construct more warships, from small gunboats to frigates that came close to qualifying as ships of the line, because both sides recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes had the upper hand in the war.

Actually, I shouldn't describe the concerns in such sweeping terms. It would be more accurate to say that the guys doing the actual fighting recognized that whoever controlled the Lakes would have the upper hand. No one else seemed to care very much. In North America, despite the war there was a lot of cross border commercial activity: the Canadians bought supplies of various types from the merchants in New York and New England,and vice versa. Ports that were supposedly blockaded actually weren't because so many special exceptions and passes were issued that the blockades and trade embargoes were essentially meaningless. The War of 1812 was a war no one really wanted -- everyone recognized that it was hurting business, citizens in both countries realized that there was always the danger the Indian allies on either side could be hard to control and tended to have a take no prisoners approach, and none of the men in the state and provincial militias particularly wanted to fight. In fact, members of the New York state militia flat out refused to cross the border when ordered to pursue British troops into Canada, saying that it was illegal to make them fight on foreign soil (and wouldn't it be nice if American troops would do that now? Just say hell, no, I'm not getting on a plane to BFE to fight people who don't even know where the U.S. is?)

Adding to the complicated mix was the fact that many of the settlers in Canada were people who had been living in what was now the United States and decided to move following the Revolutionary War, some for economic reasons and some because they viewed Canada as just another frontier that the U.S. was going to eventually cross. Instead of going west to settle in what is now Ohio or Illinois, they opted to go north to what is now the province of Ontario. Some were loyal to Great Britain, some were loyal to the United States, and no doubt a fair number shifted their allegiance based on what they perceived to benefit themselves the most.

Over in Europe, Great Britain had no choice but to focus most of its attention on the Napoleonic wars. Thus, when the War of 1812 began, there were no British troops to spare to send to Canada. By the time there were troops and supplies available that could be diverted to North America, peace negotiations had ended the conflict. The war itself had effectively been a draw. Neither side gained any territory, but neither side lost any. The United States had invaded and seized sites in Upper Canada; the British had invaded and seized sites in the United States (e.g., Fort Michilimackinac, Detroit). Both had retreated from those sites so neither was in possession at the time of negotiations, hence, an argument could not be made for retention of conquered territory.

The Incredible War of 1812 was an interesting book. I had no idea there'd ever been a Battle of Plattsburgh or that the British government issued medals for something called the Battle of Crysler's Farm. I did know there had been a battle at the River Raisin near Detroit -- the site is, if memory serves me right, the nation's most recently created National Battlefield park -- but was struck by just how low the numbers were of the combatants and others involved. By contemporary (or even Civil War) standards, it wasn't much of a battle. It's also hard to believe that, as the park's website puts it, the phrase "Remember the Raisin!" served as a rallying cry, especially when what seems to have swung the battle in the British favor was the complete incompetence of the U.S. commanders. First, General William Hull had surrendered all of Michigan Territory to the British in 1812. Then, in January 1813 the Americans found themselves surrendering to the British for a second time. In the aftermath of that battle, Native Americans allied with the British raided the Frenchtown settlement, burning houses, carrying off prisoners, and killing about half a dozen civilians. In a logical world, "Remember the Raisin!" would have been the rallying cry for a couple of courts martial. But apparently not in frontier America. Although Winchester did quietly slink away later in the year -- he had had a checkered, apparently rather sleazy career, and apparently figured out that (a) there was no money to be made on the battlelines in the Northwest Territories and (b) he might end up dead by accident. He didn't exactly resign, but he did get replaced.

Minor digression: considering that almost 200 years had passed before that battlefield park had been created and it is in the southeast corner of the Downer Peninsula, an area that's seen wave after wave of development, what exactly was left there that made it merit park status? It does seem like the site could have been adequately commemorated with one of those book on a stick historic markers the State of Michigan erects if there's sufficient public pressure. Oh well. . . the Park Service can always use a few punishment parks, places to shuffle incompetent superintendents off to when they're not yet eligible for retirement but need to maintain the illusion of still being gainfully employed.

There were numerous other skirmishes on both sides of the border on the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, and the banks of the Niagara River. Both sides engaged in behavior the other side condemned as barbaric, e.g., the Americans burned the government buildings at York (the capital of Upper Canada). In fact, when the British were condemned for later trying to burn down the President's house in Washington, their response was they were simply giving the Americans a taste of what they had done in York. And so it went for two years, seesawing back and forth across the border and neither side gaining much of an advantage for very long. In the end, the border remained where it had been, the British continued their impressment policies on the high seas, and, other than for the guys who died, the war didn't change much of anything.

Would I recommend The Incredible War of 1812 to other readers? Only if military history fascinates you. Overall, I thought it was worth reading but have to confess there were sections where Hitsman really got into minutiae and I had a hard time staying focused. On the other hand, it is well-written and meticulously footnoted. There is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia hiding in the notes, so I guess I'd recommend it to historians. All historians love good footnotes.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

First, beard baubles. Now this:

Dyed armpit hair.

Seriously. According to the Washington Post, more and more women are deciding not just to forego shaving their pits (a common choice during the winter months) but to go one step farther and dye them.

And, having dyed the pits, some are moving on to the next step.

Bedazzlers. Beads, rhinestones, and extensions. In their armpits. Some people definitely have way too much free time and disposable income.

It does occur to me that from the viewpoint of the aesthetician dying a couple armpits may be a step up from doing full Brazilians. It's not quite as up close and personal. Then again, if dyed pits become popular enough, women may decide to stop waxing, regrow their pubic hair, and request coochie dye jobs, too.

We live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


New investment opportunity for KBIC?

I haven't heard too much locally about the Justice Department's recent memo regarding marijuana cultivation and sales on tribal lands, but surely there's someone on the KBIC council who can smell a business opportunity when one arises. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, "the Justice Department will generally not attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws on federally recognized tribes that choose to allow it, as long as they meet eight federal guidelines, including that marijuana not be sold to minors and not be transported to areas that prohibit it." 

I think there'd probably be a lot of hand-wringing going on over the potential dangers of commercializing pot if the subject ever gets openly discussed because reservations are often already troubled by substance abuse: alcohol, narcotics, meth, you name it. But I'd be inclined to think that the county would be a lot better off if the drunks and the tweakers evolved into stoners. Drunks get belligerent, start fights, and kill people by driving while intoxicated. Tweakers go crazy, set up shake and bake labs that endanger people, and engage in petty crime to feed their habit. What do stoners do? Get the munchies and giggle a lot. What's the worst that might happen? The profit margins for the local pizza places would improve.

It will be interesting to see what happens if KBIC does decide to get into growing and selling weed. Most of the Village of Baraga, if not all of it, falls within the reservation boundaries. Theoretically, depending on how the tribal council decided to write its laws concerning pot, someone could open a cannabis cafe in one of the currently vacant businesses on Superior Avenue. For that matter, the tribe could add a line of ganja gourmet items to the menu at the restaurant in the casino and put pot brownies next to the Little Debbies in the gas station convenience stores. Well, maybe not right next to the Little Debbies, more like behind the counter with the cigarettes.

Medical marijuana is already legal in Michigan. The biggest problem people have when they're certified to use medical marijuana is finding a good supply. It may be legal to use it, but it's not legal for anyone to sell it. The one loophole is that if you're certified to use medical marijuana, you're allowed to grow up to 6 plants for your own personal use. How you're supposed to get the seeds to start with is, of course, a mystery.
Most people, however, who have medical conditions that benefit from marijuana use (chronic pain, glaucoma, side effects of cancer treatments) aren't that keen on the idea of having to be farmers as well as users, especially when pot is not an especially fast-growing plant. It's not like growing radishes where you plant them one week and by the end of the month they're ready to eat. From seed to weed can take 6 months or more -- there are ways to make it happen faster (grow lights can force a plant into the flowering stage when it's still quite small) but even with the ultimate in hydroponic equipment and plants that are hybrids bred to grow fast, it's not an overnight process.

In short, there is a potential market of buyers. The biggest catch would be that anyone buying marijuana on a reservation would have to use it there -- it would still be illegal to transport it beyond the tribal boundaries. I could get some pot brownies to eat at the museum in Baraga; I couldn't pick some up to bring home for the S.O. to enjoy, too. (It occurs to me that the banker's box full of mangled matchbooks would probably look like a lot more fun to go through if I were thoroughly stoned when I did it. The downside, of course, is I'd probably have really poor judgement while doing so.)

On the other hand, it is now legal to buy marijuana in Colorado but it remains illegal to transport it out of the state. Pot sales in Colorado are booming, but so far as I know the DEA and other law enforcement agencies haven't set up checkpoints at the border to check tourists' luggage. (Do I want to test that perception the next time I go visit my mother? Probably not.)  

Given that a number of states have legalized marijuana, either partially (medical marijuana) or totally, and the reservations have been given carte blanche to do the same, I have a hunch we'll see the complete legalization of marijuana nationally within a decade or two. Law enforcement won't be happy, but then they never are.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Blogger weirdness

I see that Blogger is busy being weird again. Word verification seems to have become the default on a number of blogs that never used to have it. Even weirder, on a couple blogs I visit regularly it's now impossible to leave comments. The comment box is there, everything looks normal, but when I type the cursor moves but no characters show up on screen. I have no idea if the comment is registering or not. Very, very strange.