Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Getting my life back

The siding project is inching ever closer to completion, the "on" season for the museum now has a mere 4 days to run (our last regular open day for 2015 is September 5), and we just acquired a new member who is enthusiastic about genealogical research. I could be close to getting my life back.
The overgrown junipers have been dug up; with them gone, the museum should be much more recognizable from the highway, especially once we've got the foot-high letters saying "Historical Society" back up on the wall. The bushes had grown so tall that signage was no longer visible. I'm a little surprised the bushes grew as big as they did; junipers must like sand because the dirt they came out looks like it belongs on a beach. 


Don't get me wrong. I do like volunteering at the museum. I love doing the inventorying and cataloging. I also like grant writing and doing an occasional press release. I just don't like dealing with people, hence, being a docent is the least favorite thing I do. I'm also not real keen on being the person who serves as the liaison with the Chamber of Commerce, Village of Baraga, Baraga County government, etc. I got a phone call at the museum the other day that gave me cold shivers. One of the local insurance agents called and asked me if I was "Nancy, the person who's running the museum." Definitely a Harlan Ellison moment. I do not want the museum linked that closely with my name by anyone. It could also be one of the reasons the S.O. and I are now talking about taking a very long road trip next summer with the Guppy -- we want to go to Alaska while we're still young enough to do it, which in turn means blocking out a month or more in the warm weather months. The Guppy is not exactly a speed machine. And if I am not physically around, someone else is going to have to step up to fill the gap. At least in theory.

This is the type of research I like: figuring out who made this wrench, when, and what for. It's a tractor wrench and was most likely made by Case.
But I digress. I'm also not real fond of doing the genealogical research, probably because I've never understood the fascination some people have for family history. I think a bit of appreciation for family heritage is good, especially when accompanied by some moderately amusing anecdotes -- we always refer to the one bad piece of fruit in a bag of fruit as the "Cohodas orange" thanks to a story my Old Man liked telling about his experiences working for Sam Cohodas back in the 1930s* -- but I really don't care much about how many siblings one of my great-great-great-grandfathers may have had and where they all wound up.

Still, someone had to be doing it. A significant chunk of our budget comes from the fees people pay us to do the stuff they can't track down online, like finding copies of ancient obituaries in the L'Anse Sentinel (the paper is not digitized). Our deceased past president, the guy who died in 2013, loved doing genealogical research. It fascinated him; he was quite happy to put in many hours trying to track down lost branches of people's family trees. I'm really hoping our new member who says she's interested in genealogy turns out to be as much of a fanatic as Jim. I get bored after about the first 15 minutes, and for sure I have no desire to make trips up to the Michigan Tech archives, other historical societies, or a Mormon history center. There are local history topics I'd like to do some in-depth research on, but they're slightly more macro than one family tree.

Anyway, the fact our newest member seems enthusiastic about both local history and genealogy has me hoping we'll be able to slide a few of the research requests we get to her. If she actually likes doing it, she's bound to be both better and faster at it than I am.

As for the siding project, we now have building wrap up on two sides of the building, it should get wrapped the rest of the way tomorrow, and then it's on to doing the siding. We may, in fact, be able to start siding tomorrow, too. We ordered the siding last week; it should come in on a truck today. I can hope. 

*At the time, fruit came on railcars in huge crates; it got bagged locally. The Old Man, a teenager at the time, was bagging oranges for Cohodas. Whenever he spotted a rotten orange, he'd toss it to one side. Cohodas, who went on to make so much money he's got a building named for him at Northern Michigan University, stopped him. "No, no, no. You don't throw the bad ones away! You put one rotten orange in with eleven good ones in the bag. No one will complain about just one bad orange when the others are all good."  Cohodas gets remembered now as a great philanthropist because he donated a lot of money to NMU, but every time I see the name I think about him being willing to screw people over the price of an orange during the Great Depression. Yet another example, I guess, of the old saying that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. . . or a whole lot of little ones.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Progress, sort of

The front of the museum with furring strips completed.
Today's going to be another museum day for me and the S.O. He's gotten stuck supervising the minions working on the siding project. After looking at the budget, the historical society decided we'd do half-round log siding on 3 sides and put up T1-11 on the back wall. The S.O. and one of the other members, a retired contractor, are providing technical advice and oversight of the minions, a couple young guys willing to work irregular hours for not much money. One kid is still in high school, another one just graduated. They don't have much experience, but they're willing to work. Sort of. They're not exactly eager to start super early in the morning (which is fine with the S.O.; he's never been a morning person) and they seem to run out of steam after about 5 hours. When they do, we don't argue. We have lives and other things we'd rather be doing, too.

One of the minions.
This is one of those projects that's technically easy -- put up furring strips, do the building wrap, nail up the log siding -- but can be remarkably time-consuming. The existing log walls are, to say the least, irregular. The furring strips are requiring a lot of chiseling and shimming. Still, the end is in sight. The minions have reached the last wall and, if all goes smoothly today, just might finish the strips. Then it's a case of double-checking the shimming, getting the building wrap on, and starting the siding. It's going to be interesting comparing the gas bills after the siding with the ones from before. The amount of natural gas we burn should drop considerably once we can no longer see daylight between the logs.

Before the minions vanish, I'll have one other task for them: removing the overgrown bushes from in front of the museum. They're a type of juniper that did not get trimmed for a number of years and really need to go. I'm not sure what the reasoning was behind planting them in the first place, but we need something that that's easier to maintain. I'm leaning toward to putting in some native shrubs, like blueberry bushes, but we could always just let it revert to lawn.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Living forever in cyberspace

It seems rather self-evident that cyberspace, i.e., the various iterations of the Internet and the World Wide Web (blogging, chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter, whatever) can be a strange space. Status updates people posted a month ago will suddenly show up as though they just happened. Google searches can seem to indicate multiple people exist with the same name or that no one at all does. And of course there's immortality.

The fact that something can live forever in cyberspace is one of those things that's become common knowledge, at least to anyone who's spent more than a few hours or days wandering around the virtual world. Did you post something rather irreverent or perhaps a tad obscene in an obscure chat room 10 or 15 years ago? It's pretty much a sure thing that's the first thing that will pop up if a prospective employer decides to Google your name. You're busy hoping that the minutiae about your life will include innocuous highlights like the time you won the 5th grade spelling bee or some cute photos of you with your adorable 1-year-old nephew. Nope. What comes up will be an ad saying "See Criminal Record for [insert your much too common name here]" or the reject America's Funniest Home Videos of your teenage self doing something super stupid with a skateboard one of your friends posted to YouTube five years ago.

Okay, so if it's a little annoying to realize that you can stumble across the equivalent of your life's bloopers reel any time you're foolish enough to do a little ego surfing. How weird is it going to be to have that bloopers reel kicking around long after you've taken a dirt nap? Or how confusing for various casual acquaintances or long-lost high school friends when they go looking for you and find references to something you posted ten years ago, a link that claims you're now 65 years old and living in Roswell, Georgia, and a link to an obit posted by a funeral home in Billings, Montana? Which ones make sense? And how creeped out will your close friends be when Facebook sends them a reminder that today is your birthday when they know the funeral was six months ago?

Facebook does actually take into account the fact that while the Internet may be immortal, people are not. Family members can ask to have a dead person's account removed or memorialized, although going by some of the comments I've read in advice columns and elsewhere not everyone is happy with the latter option. That's not surprising. Out here in the real world some people find reminders of the deceased touching or poignant, other people become depressed or unhappy when confronted with visible memorials.

On a personal level, I'd like to hope that when I go toes up someone takes the time to go through my various accounts (blogs, Facebook, whatever) and either delete stuff or do a post warning people not to expect new content. Whether or not anyone does, of course, is something I'll never know.
   

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why are some jobs more important to save than others?

We were watching "Real Time" with Bill Maher last night, and one of the professional political operatives, one of those people I tend to think of as being akin to whores except practicing a less respectable profession, started regurgitating right wing talking points about how absolutely devastating it's going to be to make it harder for power plants to burn coal. You know the type of political operative I mean, the folks with absolutely no discernible principles of their own -- they simply parrot whatever the latest talking points their party is promoting. Sometimes after the fact they'll concede that the nonsense they cheerfully spouted a few years before was absolute garbage, but of course by then the damage has been. You know, like the various Bush administration officials and advisers who are now willing to admit that invading Iraq in 2003 was a super stupid thing to do. Why didn't any of them speak up at the time? Because they preferred collecting a paycheck for repeating propaganda and lies more than they preferred being honest and retaining a soul.

Anyway, the panel on "Real Time" included Gavin Newsom (Democrat), Mary Matalin (Republican, former member of Dick Cheney's staff), and Steve Schmidt (Republican, and chief strategist for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign). Not surprisingly, one of the topics discussed was climate change (California is burning), which naturally led to Schmidt and Matalin going into full-scale parrot mode about the economic costs of trying to do anything. That in turn led to talking about fossil fuels and trying to move away from burning coal in power plants. Except, of course, we can't move away from coal because of the "economic costs." Lots and lots of blathering on about how we can't move away from burning coal because it's going to cost miners in Wyoming their jobs or result in BNSF running fewer coal trains or something. The blathering about saving certain jobs always results in me wanting to reach through a tv screen and strangle someone -- or at least put a 2x4 alongside their head. What about the economic cost of sea levels rising to the point where New York subways become unusable? Or big chunks of Florida uninhabitable? And why is it more important to keep coal miners employed doing what has to be one of the nastiest, dirtiest jobs on the planet than it is to provide adequate funding for schools to keep teachers working? It's fine to slash funding for education or maintaining infrastructure, but god forbid some poor miner in West Virginia or Wyoming end up being laid off for lack of work. It's bizarre.

I have ranted on this topic before, like when discussions of the defense budget come up. It's more important to keep machinists employed building useless crap like the F-35 (the airplane pilots refer to as "the Lawn Dart" because it's so unstable in flight) than it is to make sure schools are adequately staffed, for example. This country's priorities are remarkably screwed up. 

As for the talking heads on the panel, Mary Matalin is, of course, not the sharpest tool on the planet. Or the most ethical, despite the way she kept trotting out the fact she's a convert to Catholicism. Her resume does include that stint working for Darth Cheney, and she is married to James Carville, a political operative who prefers to collect his checks from the Democrats. When you have two people sharing a bed but who claim to espouse opposite ends of the political spectrum, common sense says one (and no doubt both) is simply a paid shill who will say anything if she knows the check will clear. As long as the Republicans keep paying her, she'll keep parroting their talking points. I'm not sure how much longer she'll continue to be invited to do that parroting in front of a camera, though, as the woman is not aging well. She's 62 now but looks at least a decade older -- and the main stream media is not fond of women who actually look old. In any case, Matalin's been a paid shill for so many decades now that it's highly unlikely she retains the ability to think for herself.

Steve Schmidt, on the other hand, is a little more intriguing. He retains some shreds of individuality. He has been brutally honest on the subject of the Palin disaster, and he has brief flashes of honesty. Still, watching political operatives in action always reminds me of a line from a Dr. Hook song, "how much soul must a poor man sell just to rub two coins together?" I once worked for a distinctly conservative daily paper. A few times I found myself having to whip together a last minute editorial, a couple hundred words of meaningless right-wing platitudes that would pass muster with our corporate overlords, because the person whose job it normally was to plug that hole on the page was not available. It wasn't hard to do, but it definitely felt weird. I don't think I could have done it on a daily basis. And, in retrospect, I'm rather happy that editorials were anonymous -- it was the voice of the paper, not that of any particular person. I'm not sure I could ever do the type of publicly visible  political hackwork people like Schmidt and Matalin do. Would I have written those editorials if I had to slap my name on them? I don't know.

As for why we were watching "Real Time" on Sunday evening instead of when it was broadcast on Friday, we rarely see anything on its original broadcast date. We watch "Real Time" through the wonders of You Tube, which means we always see it at least a day late.


Friday, August 7, 2015

You learn something new every day

Subtitle: My pain threshold is a lot lower than I thought.

Did you know you can get bursitis in almost any joint in your body? I always thought of bursitis as being a shoulder thing, although I guess I also knew that you can get it in an elbow. Turns out it can also hit you in the hips, knees, and other joints. It also happens that women are more likely than men to acquire hip bursitis due to having wider hips than men, although why that should be seen as a factor puzzles me. And, not surprisingly, it tends to hit more often as you age. Yet another reason, I guess, to doubt the truth of the adage that getting old beats the alternative.

I got to learn all this up close and personal after making the mistake of moving several heavy boxes of books at the museum a few days ago. I was worried about screwing up my back so was super careful to lift with my knees, just the way I was taught to long long ago when I was a minimum wage peon laboring at a rather physical job. Unfortunately, because I'm not as limber as I once was, lifting the right way simply meant I messed up a different part of my increasingly decrepit body.

Having a real pain in the ass was a strange experience. I've been called a pain in the ass more than a few times, but I'd never actually had the real thing before. My first thought, naturally, was that it was the hip joint that was messed up (i.e., arthritis). Fortunately, no, just an inflamed bursa. Bursitis is acute but fixable; arthritis is chronic and makes your life wretched indefinitely.

I changed primary care providers about a year ago. I decided to switch to seeing a geriatrician, and I think I found a good one. She takes the time to actually talk, she pays attention to what I'm saying, and she does a good job of explaining stuff. She also is willing to admit her limitations. After telling me I had classic trochanteric bursitis, she referred me to the orthopedic clinic for a steroid injection. She said she could do the injection herself but would rather not -- the last time she'd done that type of injection was back in med school. I have known a lot of doctors who think they can do everything; it's nice to deal with one doesn't think she has to.

The injection was an interesting experience in itself. The physician's assistant brought in a syringe that had a point on it that looked to be about the size of a railroad spike. You know it's a large gauge point when the site gets prepped first with a topical numbing agent and then with a local anesthetic before the Giant Needle gets plunged into your body. But it worked. The P.A. said it could take up to 48 hours for the steroid to affect the inflammation causing the pain; it was actually less than a day. It's possible that if I'd just been willing to go through another day or two of sleepless nights and eating ibuprofen like candy the bursitis would have faded away on its own. I don't know. Four nights of tossing and turning and fantasizing about black market opiates was more than enough for me.

I asked the P.A. just how common this type of bursitis is. She said she sees a couple cases every week, which explains why she was so good with that needle. Trochanteric bursitis is apparently incredibly common, which makes me wonder a bit why I'd never heard anyone complaining about having it. I guess it must come down to most people being unwilling to admit publicly they're suffering from a pain in the ass.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: Cataclysm: World War I As Political Tragedy

Alternative title: A Whole Lot More About World War I than You Ever Wanted to Know. 

This book was, to say the least, a hard slog. It's one of the few times in my life when I've looked up from a book and thought, wow, I really need to take a break and do some light reading -- where did I put that copy of Max Weber's Essays in Economic Sociology? There was just something about the combination of lots and lots of information and the depressing consequences of various players' stupid actions that turned the reading experience into an endurance test. It wasn't the author's fault, other than the fact he does too good a job of piling up the data. David Stevenson can write; the text is crystal clear. So, unfortunately, are the conclusions.

I can remember thinking more or less the same thing every time discussions of World War I came up: how on earth did an assassination in Sarajevo, which was part of the Hapsburg empire, result in Germany, which was NOT part of that empire, deciding to invade Russia and France more or less simultaneously? It made no sense. Well, now I know why they did it -- and it still makes no sense. Let's just say that whenever a country starts to believe it's somehow exceptional or that it has the world's strongest army and the best selection of cool military toys to play with, it's easy to get sucked into believing you can win any war. Turns out, as the Germans found out, that the war you can win easily on paper isn't necessarily the war you're going to end up fighting in the real world.

I am not going to do one of my usual detailed reviews of this book. Take my word for it -- it's packed with data, both political and technical. How many battleships did the Germans have? How many miles of trenches got dug? When did the various countries involved resort to conscription to get the cannon fodder their armies required? Stevenson has all the numbers. How did the civilian populations of the different countries feel about the war? Stevenson gets into the cultural aspects, too. He describes popular culture -- poetry, novels, music -- during and after the conflict. Tons and tons of information, all of which is simultaneously fascinating and mind-numbing.

And depressing, of course. One of the most depressing aspects of reading anything about World War I is how many battles were fought that served no purpose other than to attempt to wear down the other side through attrition. Millions of rounds of ordnance were expended, thousands and thousands of soldiers killed or crippled, and the front lines never budged more than a few yards at a time. It's easy to see why some parts of France and Belgium are still uninhabitable thanks to unexploded World War I ordnance. During one of the battles of Ypres, the British fired over a million artillery shells at the German lines. No doubt the Germans reciprocated. Neither side seemed to have a problem with munitions until the last year or so of the war.

So would I recommend this book to other readers? Yes, if you're seriously interested in military history or World War I. No, if you'd rather not know that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. The final chapters in Cataclysm are a nice summation of the way WWI laid the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power and World War II.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Finally, some good news

Back when I was still working at the Centers for Disease Control, I got to spend an evening doing a telephone survey of random persons in Alabama asking them if they (a) had diarrhea in the past six weeks and (b) if they had, what type of peanut products did they have in the house? It was all part of investigating the Killer Peanuts Salmonella Outbreak that hit a good-sized chunk of the country in 2009. Most people who suffered infection were lucky and experienced only a bad case of diarrhea, but at least 9 victims died. As the investigation progressed, it turned out that the company peddling the peanuts -- Peanut Corporation of America -- knew they had a problem with salmonella but kept selling their product anyway. Somewhat surprisingly, a criminal investigation followed.

Well, it's been six years -- the wheels of justice do move slowly -- but Stewart Parnell, the company's CEO, is staring at a possible life sentence. Two other executives with the company are looking at prison time, too, which would be nice. As a long piece at Natural News points out, the criminal case against Parnell and his co-defendants was the first of its kind. Usually when corporations engage in behavior that injures or kills people, no one in management is held personally responsible. Fines may be levied against the company, liability lawsuits may result in damages being paid to victims or their families, but the people at the top making the bad decisions emerge unscathed. They may lose their jobs, but they almost always have golden parachutes. Given the callous disregard for human life shown by Parnell and his minions, I'm hoping the judge doing the sentencing in September does follow the prosecutors' advice. It would, if nothing else, send a message to other executives that their bad decisions could result in more than just a generous severance package. A golden parachute wouldn't be much help in Leavenworth. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A basic truism

If your museum has only one visitor on any given day, that visitor will walk through the door 30 seconds before it's time to put the Closed sign up.

I'm not complaining, at least not much. A late in the afternoon visitor beats no visitors at all. Granted, having a visitor show up 3 minutes before I was planning to be at the Baraga post office means one Ebay buyer is getting his piece of Civil War memorabilia a day later than planned, but given the vagaries of the postal service these days he's not likely to either notice or complain. Plus I got to tell the story of a local family using the warming oven on their wood-burning kitchen range as an isolette for a premature infant, which is one of my personal favorite anecdotes when pretending to be a competent docent. That, and talking about how many adults have walked into the museum, seen the dental exhibit complete with the drill that looks like an instrument of torture (it was), and been prompted to reminisce about the time they bit Dr. Guy hard enough to draw blood. Apparently he didn't have much patience with unhappy children. I can relate. I was one of those kids whose parents got told "Find a different dentist." Not that I drew blood when I bit him -- I wanted to but to my ever-lasting regret did not succeed.

That dental drill illustrates nicely how things have changed. Thanks to just about everyone under the age of 50 or having been exposed to fluoride in infancy and childhood, quite a few people have to ask me what it is. Older adults recognize it and shudder; people under the age of 40 generally have never seen one in use. Although seeing one in use wasn't nearly as hideous an experience as hearing the dental drill. . . even if it didn't last long, there was something profoundly strange about hearing something happening inside your own head.

The Dr. Guy Collection consists of basically the entire contents of Dr. Louis Guy's dental office minus the chair and a few other odds and ends. Dr. Guy opened his dental practice in L'Anse in the 1930's. I'm not sure when he retired from dentistry, but he died in 1998. At some point, the contents of his office went to the historical society. Most of it has yet to be cataloged. There's so much stuff in the display case I'm not anxious to get started on it. I have begun sorting through the boxes of other stuff, things that did not make it into the display case, and jettisoning things that aren't worth keeping. I have, for example, pitched out most of the impressions (plaster casts of people's mouths) that came with the collection. It's good to have a few as examples, but we really didn't need to hang on to several hundred of them.

What I actually need to do for the Dr. Guy exhibit is create some interpretive signage. Right now we've got a case full of dental stuff but no explanation of who Dr. Guy was, not even a copy of his obituary. As long as we're not dealing with many visitors, it's easy for the docent to provide a quick explanation, but if we get busy? Not so much.

We have been slowly updating labels and doing more signage in general, but it's a slow process. Compared to some of the other issues we've dealt with lately, labels seem fairly low priority.

But, getting back to the subject of only one visitor, back when I first started volunteering, I suggested that the museum be open on Saturdays. It just seemed like commonsense. Saturday is a day when tourists are more likely to be around as well as local people with a day off. It was a day people had for leisure, for spending time with the grandkids, whatever. Well, after multiple summers I'm thinking I was wrong. Saturdays are dead. The busy day at the museum tends to be Friday. I'm not sure why that would be true, but the numbers don't lie. Lots of Saturdays over the past several summers with zero visitors, not a soul, no one, not even someone stopping in for directions or to use the restroom. Our busy day tends to be Friday. Strikes me as a bit odd, but Saturdays in general have been so slow that I'm going to suggest that we not bother with them next year.