Thursday, February 11, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Fixer



Bernard Malamud's The Fixer is Valium in a paper disguise. I swear I couldn't read more than 10 pages at a time before finding myself snoring. It's been a great -- it did such a good job of knocking me out that I actually slept through the night most nights as I slogged my way through it. I even got in a couple of naps this week when I picked up the book in the middle of the day and conked out pretty quickly.

I'm not sure why the book had that effect. It's reasonably well-written and the setting is sufficiently exotic -- Kiev at the beginning of the 20th century -- that it should have held my interest better than it did. Maybe it was a little too philosophical and/or contemplative. The protagonist, the "fixer" of the title, spends most of his time thinking and worrying. Of course, given that for most of the book he's sitting in a Russian prison, he really doesn't have much else to do.

The "fixer" is a Russian (Ukrainian?) Jew who had worked as a handyman in his home village. When the book begins, he's in the process of getting ready to move to Kiev. His wife has left him for another man, he's living in abject poverty, and he thinks that if he goes to Kiev he'll have a better shot at earning enough money to immigrate to America. He knows he's taking a chance -- he doesn't have the internal passport needed that would allow him to find work in Kiev -- but he figures anything would be better than his current situation.

When he does arrive in the city, at first it seems like his luck has changed. He helps a drunk man who's fallen in the street, and that leads to the offer of a handyman job: painting and wallpapering a rental apartment the man owns. He does a good job and is offered a permanent job at a brick factory. He's managing to pass as Russian, more or less, and is able to live and work outside the Jewish quarter. He still doesn't have the internal identification documents he needs, but his lack of them hasn't been a problem.

And then the body of a 12-year-old boy is discovered and suddenly every Jew in Kiev is a suspect in the public's eye. The child had been stabbed multiple times, which plays right into the lurid beliefs common about Jews at the time. Even the newspapers print stories suggesting that the child was ritually murdered to obtain blood with which to make matzohs. To say that Russians (Ukrainians?) (I'm not sure what to call them; Kiev is part of Ukraine now, but at the time period in which the story is set it was part of Russia) were anti-Semitic would be a bit of an understatement. The Russian government and the Russian church had been using Jews as scapegoats for centuries, periodic pogroms were a fact of life. The fixer has vivid memories of emerging from a cellar along with a handful of other children to discover most of their village is smoldering ruins and their parents are dead. He had been managing to pass as a non-Jew, but he realizes his luck isn't going to hold much longer.

It doesn't, of course, and off he goes to prison -- and that's where he is for most of the book. The good news is that by being arrested, he avoids being ripped to shreds by a howling mob. The bad news is he's in a Russian prison. He's questioned, he's physically abused ("enhanced interrogation"), he learns there's evidence against him, he's told there's evidence to exonerate him. . . and time passes.

In short, this was not a particularly lively book. It's pretty clear the poor sap of a fixer is screwed as soon as the Russian police pick him up. Once he goes into the prison, he's not going to come out again. He might be innocent, but he's also Jewish so he's just screwed. The only question is for just how many pages the author is going to make the fixer suffer. Answer? Too many.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Once again, it's a maybe. If a person likes Russian novels, i.e., if you thought Crime and Punishment was light reading, you might like this book even if it is a little thin. It's under 300 pages, which makes categorizing it as a Russian novel a little iffy. Still, Malamud is good with words; I have no complaints about the writing style other than it put me to sleep rather quickly. It is, however, definitely not light reading. Of course, if it had been light reading, it wouldn't have knocked me out. On the overall scale, the usual 1-10, The Fixer is another one that falls in the middle of the scale. Better than average, but more toward the middle than the high end.

Next up on the list? The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read when it was first published back in the 1960s. I'm tempted to re-read it, though, as there's supposed to be a movie based on the 1831 slave rebellion Turner led coming out sometime this year. If the L'Anse library has it, maybe I will. If not, I'll move along to the 1969 winner, House Made of Dawn.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hillary needs to take Bernie to Red Lobster

I started a post this morning on Hillary and the corporate establishment wing of the Democratic Party getting shellacked in New Hampshire but my heart just wasn't in it. I'm rather burnt out on thinking about politics. We've spent the last 4 years hearing about how 2016 was going to be Hillary's year, which meant I was sick of thinking about Clinton quite a few months ago -- yes, she's smart, and yes, she's competent, but there is a reason I keep wanting to tack an "S" on to the beginning of her name. If she wore a jumpsuit like a NASCAR driver she'd have trouble finding enough space for all the corporate logos.

Anyway, I'm happy Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire. I truly hope that victory has scared the crap out of party establishment types like DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz (a woman who really needs to get shellacked in a primary herself), but I doubt it. Now I'm going to hope Bernie manages to shock the shit out of people in a few more states. I know that if I were a black voter, I'd be getting pretty sick of hearing about how black votes are the firewall that's going to allow Shillary's coronation to proceed as planned.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Thinking about where to wander

Waco Lake, April 2015
The S.O. and I have nailed down our spring campground hosting gig -- we're going to Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park in Missouri for the month of April -- but don't have anything solid lined up for the fall. We did apply for a couple parks for October, but are now having second thoughts. I'm not sure what we'll say if we get a phone call about hosting then. We're now thinking about staying up here on the tundra through October, maybe even into November, and then doing the snowbird thing, kind of wander across the southern tier of states until stuff melts up here. We had talked about doing something like that a couple years ago -- take off from here right after New Year's and stay gone until May -- but changed our minds.

There are a lot of places in the Southwest I'd like to see. Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Craters of the Moon National Monument. Carlsbad Caverns. Fort Davis. Taos, New Mexico. Bisbee, Arizona. Big Bend National Park. The Four Corners area. Various national wildlife refuges -- there are a few along the Gulf Coast that sound really interesting. Plus, of course, one of the newest additions to the National Park system, Mammoth National Monument, is in Waco. I could see spending a couple weeks camped on Waco Lake; we liked the Corps of Engineers campground we stayed at in April. It would be fairly easy to come up with a list that would be much too long to actually cover in just one winter. We shall see. . .

In the meantime, before we go anywhere, whether it's this Spring or next Fall, we need to do some minor tweaking to the Guppy. The S.O. has to install a shelf in a cabinet and we need to figure out a better place to stash the shop vac. Right now it's tucked into the space I want to use for stashing my sewing machine the next time we do a prolonged road trip. We also need to replace the charger for the RV battery (the one that runs the lights and water pump when camped at a basic site). The charger that's in the Guppy now doesn't seem to remember how to turn itself off so it keeps wanting to boil the RV battery. We should probably do that this month so we've got lots of time to figure out if the replacement works or not and can deal with returns if necessary. I'm not sure just what's involved in pulling out the old charger, but no doubt the S.O. knows what he's doing. Or I hope he does.

At least this time, assuming the weather behaves normally, I won't have to deal with trying to load supplies in the Guppy in subzero temperatures. When we head for Missouri this spring we'll be leaving a month later than last year. Conditions up here shouldn't be quite as harsh, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be a little better organized when it comes to packing stuff like groceries. Last year I wound up so frozen I couldn't think straight and left stuff at home I had meant to bring with us. I spent several weeks wondering why I couldn't find something -- a jar of pickles, a can of soup -- because the grocery bag I had meant to pack was still sitting empty back on the tundra.You know, maybe it's stuff like having to think about what's in the RV and what isn't and shuffling stuff back and forth that turns part-time RVers into fulltime: if you're in the RV 24/7 year-round there's never any question about just where that jar of green tomato pickles you thought you packed really is.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pulitzer Project: The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter

Collected Stories of Katherine Anne PorterLet's say it's winter, the days are dreary and gray, you're starting to suffer just a bit from cabin fever, and you can feel depression setting in. Looking for something to tip you right over the edge into full-blown I need some Prozac right now territory? Read this book. The good news is that Katherine Ann Porter could actually write. The bad news is that with a few rare exceptions what she chose to write about will leave you thinking, well, that was certainly depressing. Or unsettling. Or another fine example of there are no happy endings.  You know, I don't expect everything I read to be upbeat and optimistic, but it would have been nice to see something good happen once in awhile to Porter's characters, maybe especially because it's clear a great deal of what Porter wrote about was highly autobiographical. Were her childhood and adolescence actually as horrible as this book suggests?

The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter cover four decades of the author's writing life. Porter was born in 1890 so at the time this book came out she was 75. I found myself wondering if for her the Pulitzer was the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, or maybe a consolation prize for the fact her novel Ship of Fools hadn't won a few years earlier.

Like way too many authors on the Pulitzer list of winners, Porter was from the South and most of her stories are set there, primarily in Texas. I know some people would argue that Texas is actually West, but Porter's stories set in sprawling houses and staffed by black servants who once were slaves come across as thoroughly southern. Porter herself was born in Texas. Her mother died when she was quite young so she was raised by her grandmother. Sort of. Her grandmother dropped dead on a trip to Marfa when Porter was only 11. She married young, divorced her husband when he turned out to be an abusive lout, became a journalist, traveled to Mexico to hang out with revolutionaries and party with artists like Diego Rivera, married again, divorced, remarried, divorced. . . I lost count, but there was a fair amount of serial monogamy with the last two marriages being to men much younger than she was. 

I said that Porter could write. That wasn't immediately apparent when I began the book. The capsule biographies I found tend to describe her prose as "flawless." That's a slight exaggeration. Any prose that makes you work at reading it isn't flawless. Anyway, the stories are in chronological order. Like most authors, Porter's work wasn't exactly great at the beginning. The first few stories are grounded in her experiences in Mexico and were in fact written while she was still there. I had a hard time wading through them. The introduction to the book talked about Porter's "beloved Mexico." Well, if she loved Mexico she had a strange way of showing it. None of the stories pictured the country in a way that would have me flipping through travel brochures and telling the S.O. we should try wintering in Puerto Vallarta. The countryside sounded bleak and arid, the peons were ignorant and unwashed, the ruling class were dissolute and arrogant.

Of course, when the setting for her stories shifted to more explicitly autobiographical settings, things didn't improve much. Well, the writing did. I do take issue, however, with labeling these stories as "fiction." Other than tweaking the names a little bit, I kept getting the feeling what I was actually reading was memoir. One short story dealt with a married couple with a highly toxic marriage -- given Porter's own troubles with marriage, I couldn't help but wonder which husband she was describing: the abusive lout or the one who gave her such a bad case of gonorrhea she had to have a hysterectomy. A man named "Harry" shows up as the father in quite a few stories; Porter's father was named Harrison. The collection includes the novella "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," in which the main character almost dies of the Spanish flu, an experience that mirrored Porter's own near death illness. And so it went -- story after story that didn't involve a whole lot of imagination to write, just memories. She would have had a hard time claiming that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, was strictly coincidental because she couldn't have made it clearer she was writing about her own life if she'd given her characters her own and her siblings' names. 

So just what is a typical Porter story like? If I were to give it a formula for let us say a 10-page story it would be 7 pages of highly readable and occasionally light-hearted, even whimsical in places, prose, 2 pages of something throwing everything off track, and then a final page of Holy wah, why did she just drop a piano on us? You know, the 2 pages of being thrown off kilter is generally pretty grim (a horrible flood that results in someone dying) but the final page? That's when she whips out the equivalent of one of those mauls slaughterhouses once used to kill cows. After you've read a few of the stories, you know it's coming, you're about to get quartered and hung from a hook, but morbid curiousity keeps you turning the pages. Sometimes the buzzkill is not that horrible, except maybe from the perspective of a child who just had a bubble burst (a seldom-seen uncle who had been pictured as glamorous and exotic turns out to be a fat drunk living in a flophouse), and sometimes it really is quite literally someone dropping dead on the door sill.

Would I recommend this book to other readers? It's another Yes and No. I know there are some readers who enjoy a good dreary tale or stories that build slowly to a tragic denouement. After all, Joyce Carol Oates manages to sell books and she's a heck of a lot drearier to read than this book was. If, on the other hand, you figure life is grim enough without topping it off with some realistic writing to remind you things can be even worse than you imagined, I'd avoid The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter. As for where I'd put it using the 1-10 scale, it falls at about a 6. Better than average, but not by much.

Next up: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. I don't think it'll be much cheerier -- the brief description I read mentioned a murdered child and anti-Semitism -- but at least it won't be set in the South. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

At the risk of sounding both sexist and ageist

I'm going to speculate on the reasons for the demographic divisions between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters.

There's been a fair bit of bloviating going on recently about why young people (folks under 45) overwhelmingly prefer Bernie and geezers (or about to be geezers) like Hillary. Well, I'm a geezer but I, too, prefer Bernie. I have a hunch some of my reasons why would resonate with the younger demographic. In a nutshell, Bernie is giving us a pep talk about possibilities; Hillary is telling us to start being grown ups and settle for what we've got now. Every time she opens her mouth she sounds like someone's pessimistic grandmother reminding the kids that they'll get hurt if they try climbing trees, riding a bike, or doing anything else they've never done before. She nags, she gives you the old "We can't afford nice things" speech, and then wonders why 20-somethings are turned off. Geez, I'm turned off and I'm only a year younger than she is.

It's kind of odd, considering Hillary is actually the younger of the two, but she comes across as old and sour compared to Bernie. Bernie's not always a bundle of cheer either, but he definitely seems a lot more in touch with what younger people are hoping for. Bernie's telling us we can do anything if we just pull together and try; Hillary says dump the dreaming and accept the status quo. You know, pragmatism can be a good thing, but it should be the fallback position. No one should be told to settle for anything until at least a few attempts have been made at achieving something better. Hillary comes across as wanting to settle immediately, which might be a winning position when you're trying to shake campaign donations out of Citibank but it doesn't go over real big with millennials.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

I guess there weren't any white actresses available

I've been watching with some bemusement the complaints about Joseph Fiennes being cast as Michael Jackson in an upcoming movie. The truly bizarre part, at least from a disinterested bystander's perspective, is seeing the side-by-side photos of Jackson and Fiennes and realizing that Jackson looks a heck of a lot paler than the white guy picked to play him. I can understand why black actors would be upset -- Jackson was, after all, African American -- but the reality is that between the make-up Jackson wore to cover up the blotchiness caused by vitiligo and the various plastic surgeries he'd had I'm not sure there's a black male actor on the planet who could play him. And I'm not sure any of the female black actors who might have the nose would be too thrilled with having to wear all that whiteface. One of the panelists on The Nightly Show suggested that Jackson's sister LaToya would have been a good choice, but I seem to recall that while LaToya may have paid for the same face as her brother, she's definitely a different body type. LaToya has curves.

Casting actors for roles in bio-pics is inherently tricky, especially if the bio-pic is about someone who's either still around or died so recently we all still have a mental image of what that person should look like. Whoever gets cast as someone famous should bear at least a superficial resemblance to the original person. Fiennes actually comes pretty close to looking like Michael Jackson: thin nose, strong chin, similar ears. He can also act, although his career must have been rather stagnant lately when all the references to him are citing "Shakespeare in Love," a movie that came out so long ago I actually saw it in a theater. In short, looked at from a purely rational perspective, Fiennes playing Jackson makes sense.

On the other hand, given the recent kerfuffle over the Oscar nominations, I find it hard to believe that somewhere in Great Britain (the movie in question is apparently a BBC production) there wasn't a young skinny unknown black actor who could have done a credible job. Who knows -- given the premise of the movie (a road trip that Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando supposedly took) maybe the whole point of the casting is to make things even more bizarre than the reality was. A road trip? Brando, Taylor, and Jackson? Which one of them drove? And why? And just who is the target audience for the proposed film? It actually sounds so weird that maybe black actors everywhere should be feeling grateful they never got a call from their agents about auditioning for this particular role. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A blogging question

Am I the only person who will update posts when/if a typo gets noticed? I'm not in the habit of going back to review my deathless prose, but every so often I'll be scrolling down the page kind of checking to see if any one bothered checking one of the little boxes at the bottoms of posts and a huge honking typo screams at me. Some of the stuff I manage to miss when I'm supposedly proofreading before hitting Publish does not speak well for my copy editing skills. Then again, I always tell people no one can accurately edit themselves: your mind sees what you think you put there and not what your fingers on the keyboard actually did.

I do know most bloggers will fix stuff if a reader points it out, whether it's a factual error or a typing blooper, but that's a little different than being sufficiently anal-retentive to go back and correct minor typos that may have been sitting there for a month without anyone else noticing. Maybe I really do have CDO . . .  

Friday, January 29, 2016

It doesn't take long to take stuff for granted

Today's example: tasers. I'm a fan of John Sandford's books so have been going back and trying to read the books in his "Prey" series that I missed when they were first published. The one I just finished, Silent Prey, came out in 1992. Having the characters depend on land lines and pay phones didn't feel too odd. What stood out was the introduction of a taser into the action -- and it was still so new that no one was calling it a taser. It was a "stun gun." The cops are trying to figure out just how the psychotic serial killer is overcoming his victims, but it's not until about the 6th body that someone notices the burn marks from a "stun gun" on a victim's neck.

After reading about the cops in the book talking about "stun guns" and what a novelty they were, I started trying to remember when I first saw one. I can remember a time when suddenly everyone was talking about how they were the thing to get for self-defense, I just can't remember when that time was. Had to be sometime in the '90s, but I can't recall if it was during my Virginia Tech days or shortly after. I do know that when someone did the heart-to-heart just-between-us-gals talk about the need to carry one for self defense, I declined. I know me. I figured out a long time ago that anything I carry for self-defense is far more likely to be snatched from my fumbling fingers and used against me than it is to deter a mugger or a rapist. If I were dumb enough to spend real money on a taser or a hand gun or even some cheap pepper spray, the low life harassing me would have no difficulty snatching my self-defense weapon up from where I'd managed to drop it in the process of trying to get it out of my pocket or purse. And if by some minor miracle I managed to actually hang on to the device, odds are I'd shoot or shock or gas myself before I did any damage to an assailant. 

Come to think of it, I guess I could wonder about just when pepper spray became common, too, because it does seem to go hand-in-hand with the taser. In my memory, both seem to pop up around the same time, the early to mid-90s. Which, now that I think about, correlates with the racist paranoia that popped up during the first Bush administration about "super predators" and amoral urban youth terrorizing the rest of us. So which came first, I wonder? The market niche (hyper-paranoid white people) or the tasers and pepper sprays? 

I have actually carried something for self-defense, but it didn't fit in my purse or briefcase. I was moderately paranoid when I lived in Washington, D.C., when I first got there so I did what a number of self-defense experts suggested: I carried a large umbrella, something big enough that it was real clear it could function as a club if necessary, and I tried to walk like I knew exactly where I was going. If you don't look like an easy target, you're less likely to be targeted. Of course, whether or not I would have been capable of flailing away at a mugger's head with the umbrella is debatable. More likely I would have done the sensible thing and just handed over my bag. Maybe. If anyone had tried snatching the briefcase with my dissertation research notes in it, serious violence might have ensued.

A small digression: during my time in D.C., two people I knew personally were mugged. One was a friend who was on her way to 7-11 to buy donuts at about 7 in the morning. She said she was really torn by the incident: she was mad as hell that she missed out on the donuts she was looking forward to but at the same time impressed by the mugger's work ethic. After all, no one expects street crime to happen just as the sun's coming up. The other one was a guy, someone I knew through the Smithsonian, who got mugged in the DuPont Circle area when he came up from the Metro. In his case, it was fairly early in the evening but still late enough that the big commuting rush was over and there weren't many people around. He definitely didn't fit the profile for a mugging victim (he was a physically fit young male) but he told us he was distracted, trying to figure out which way to go to get to a party he'd been invited to, and looking lost can cause giant neon signs saying VICTIM in flashing letters to appear over your head. (And it just hit me: all those people wandering around staring down at their smart phones instead of paying attention to their surroundings must be a purse snatcher's idea of heaven. . . which gives me yet another reason to avoid ever owning one myself.) 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

What are you going to do when the lights go out?

I just finished reading Ted Koppel's work of pre-Apocalypse nonfiction, Lights Out. Koppel is worried about cyber attacks on the country's electrical grid, which is definitely a justifiable concern. Hackers with evil intent do exist; the electrical grid is vulnerable. It's a patchwork of thousands of power generating systems that's been fragmented in odd ways in the past few decades.

At the same time, it's all tied together electronically to ensure that if a generator drops off line at one power plant, another generator will come on line at another to keep the overall amount of electricity coursing through the wires balanced. It's an odd mix of super smart and super stupid -- and from what Koppel describes a lot of the super stupid isn't in the computers or the generators; it's between the ears of the people managing it all. Too many of them have an almost religious faith in the "resiliency" of the grid. In short, it wouldn't take a whole lot of effort to take big chunks of the national electric grid down and keep it down for an extended period of time, possibly many months. All it would take is a deftly targeted attack on a few of the humongous transformers that step voltage down from the high-tension power lines (the 660,000 volt ones) to more usable voltages to be distributed on smaller lines. The humongous transformers tend to be custom made for specific installations, are difficult to transport to wherever they're going to be installed, and take many months to manufacture and deliver. Somewhere along the line Koppel started thinking about the vulnerability of the electrical grid, which led to a book asking when the lights go out what are we going to do?

Koppel starts off by asking the people who should have the answers: FEMA, Homeland Security, state and local government emergency preparedness personnel. As one might expect, he encounters a lot of vague bureaucratese where terms like "resiliency" get tossed around a lot and straight answers are really hard to come by. Every so often, though, he hits someone who's honest. And what is honest? Basically, if the power goes out and stays out for much over a week in places like New York City or Chicago, a whole lot of people are screwed. Current disaster preparedness tells people to have food and water for three days. Three days! When Hurricane Sandy hit, some areas were without power for ten days. It's not that uncommon for power outages to last for a week or more, especially following a natural disaster. In those cases, though, the areas without electricity go from being widespread to just a few spots here and there pretty quickly. So what happens when those three days are up, the water's still out for many blocks around you, the bodega down on the corner has run out of everything, and people are starting to panic because it's not just a few blocks or a few square miles that are without power but multiple states?

One person that spoke with Koppel said that the immediate most practical thing to do in urban areas was to call in the military to get emergency power to the water and sewer systems. If you can get the pumps running to get water to people, they can survive fairly well while various agencies work on getting food and medical supplies to people who need them. The biggest problem would be communication -- if the power is out, the grid is down, how do you get information to people so they don't panic? It's an interesting question. The book didn't provide an answer.

Koppel did talk with people in the "prepping" movement, including some of the big names in the business. Interestingly enough, the people who supply the individual preppers aren't really set up to deal with a major emergency themselves. They don't keep a lot of stock on their shelves; people do pay attention to expiration dates so no one wants to buy old MREs. The typical MRE has a shelf life of 5 years; the better bet is to get freeze-dried food (the dehydrated crap backpackers invest in before starting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail). Freeze-dried lasts up to 25 years. Of course, so do a lot of other dry foods. Lots of packaged foods like pastas and dry beans and rice have "best by" dates on them; those dates don't mean the food is no longer edible. It just means you should pitch it and buy new stuff from whoever is selling so they keep making money. Canned goods are little iffier; a lot depends on the specific product and how it was canned.

In any case, some individual "preppers" do seem to have a decent grasp of what it would take to muddle along without electricity. Koppel spoke with one guy who lives in St. Louis who also has a rural property. The country place is set up to be off the grid -- solar and wind power, for example -- and includes features like a man-made pond that's been stocked with pan fish. The fellow who owns it would like to live there full-time once he retires; his wife isn't quite so ready to give up the amenities that come with city life unless and until it actually is a matter of survival. Nonetheless, despite having through things through better than average, the man is making some of the same mistakes that always inspire me to laugh a bit scornfully: hoarding gasoline, for example. Way too many people don't realize gas can go bad pretty fast.

Koppel also found a few people who weren't preppers at all but just through personal choices and lifestyle would manage just fine if the lights went out. Not surprisingly, they already lived in rural areas, like a rancher in Wyoming.

Not surprisingly, the one group that is well-prepared to survive off the grid for long periods of time are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn't exactly news that Mormons in general aren't going to worry when the shelves go empty at the closest Kroger. It's official church doctrine to be prepared. Church members are expected to have a well-organized pantry with enough edibles in it to last a minimum of 3 months, although a full year is the preferred target amount. There are guidelines as to how much of what you need to have for your family size; there are instructions on rotating things so nothing ever it hits an expiration date. What was news to me was learning just how much infrastructure the LDS church has in place to back up individual preparedness. The Mormons are remarkably well-organized. The lowest level of organization is, of course, the home. Each household is part of a ward (the equivalent of a parish maybe?), wards are organized into stakes, each stake has a bishop's storehouse. The storehouse can function like a food pantry -- families that fall on hard times can get vouchers (a bishop's recommendation) that allows them to go to the storehouse and get what they need. In a widespread emergency, the storehouse is the backup to the individual homes. The Mormons also draw on them when they participate in disaster relief:  when there's a hurricane or a flood they'll load trucks with supplies to send to affected areas. In many cases the LDS is on the scene with relief supplies before the Red Cross or the government. (A small digression: Koppel heaps a fair amount of scorn on the Red Cross. In recent years it's become clear the national organization is far more interested in fund-raising than it is in doing any actual relief work.)

And how are the Mormons stocking those storehouses? Well, they have a food and other supplies system in place that's comparable to anything run by Walmart, including owning a trucking company. They have their own farms and dairies, canning plants, you name it. In ordinary times, they're selling on the open market what isn't needed to keep the storehouses stocked; in the event of a wide-spread disaster anything they grow or raise would go into the church's supply chain. I found myself thinking that maybe those nice young men, the "elders" going door-to-door trying to persuade people to read the Book of Mormon, should consider mentioning that a good way to survive the Zombie Apocalypse is by converting to Mormonism. If only they were willing to drink coffee. . . 

So what are you going to do when the lights go out? I tend to agree with Koppel that it's not a matter of If, it's a matter of When. Obviously, how grim it would be hinges a lot on which part of the country gets hit hardest and what time of the year it is. The national grid isn't actually a national grid -- it's at least three separate ones -- so it's not like the entire country would go black at once. If the power goes out in the upper Midwest in July or August, it's not that big a deal. Refrigerated and frozen food is going to spoil, of course, but the weather isn't likely to kill you. If it's January, on the other hand, and your sole source of heat is furnace that requires electricity, you've got a problem. Conversely, no power in Texas in July or August would mean no air conditioning -- and heat stroke is going to do in anyone who's afraid to open windows. Every year old people die from heat stroke in urban areas because they're more afraid of burglars than they are of the heat.

And what about simple things like basic sanitation? How do you flush a toilet when there is no water? One of things they always recommend in prepping for a natural disaster (ice storms, hurricanes, whatever) is to fill your bathtub or other containers with water before the disaster hits. Well, a cyber attack on the electric grid isn't going to give any advance warning. If you don't have a container with some water stashed as part of routine household preparedness, you're out of luck. So maybe the first step in thinking about preparing for the lights going out would be to make sure you've got some water stashed -- you can go a long time without food or a functioning furnace, but you can't survive without water.