Poi oh poi

Another box checked off the “try this and find out what it’s all about” list.

Hey, they aren’t all bad. I find I love kimchee. It does have a smell like something gone off, but it has nothing of that not-food taste I find in most vegetables, and especially none of the revolting cloy characteristic of cole slaw. I last had a school lunch in second grade, and I can still remember the nauseating taste of cafeteria cole slaw nearly half a century later. Menudo, on the other hand, not so good; it was like a rich taco-flavored soup with a strong acid refluxiness on the finish. I never need to eat the latexy cow stomach chunks again. In fact, I need never to eat them again. Same for muktuk, which I admit I am still mystified some cultures see as food. Black pudding? Good stuff. Ouzo? Tastes exactly like Nyquil to me, or liquid black licorice, than which same I think I’d rather eat cole slaw. With that abomination among condiments, Miracle Whip, so as to get two barfs out of the way. Vegemite, Marmite? Always have one of the two around.

So yeah, I try things. I’d long wondered how to find poi, which is taro paste, until Brain Trust here (living in Portland, a city with a substantial and diverse Asian population) finally hit upon the notion of an Asian grocery store. “Sure,” said the customer service counter person, “it’s over in produce. Tends to vanish fast, though.”

Well, we do have plenty of Pacific Islanders.

Turned out it hadn’t vanished. They sell it frozen in twist-tied bags. Package includes instructions for thawing and serving it. I took a close look; in frozen state, a sort of mauve block roughly the size of a package of frozen peas (but hopefully less repellent). I grabbed one, went off to get a jar of kimchee as well, and checked out.

First lesson: the twist tie was more of a suggestion. It slipped off sometime during the ride in my truck, causing leakage in the plastic grocery bag. Joy. Package fully secured, I went about the rest of a frustrating afternoon: medical appointment with practice that hires dumb admin staff. Stuck in traffic due to eternaconstruction that has been going on for nearly two years with no discernible progress. Used shocking language several times to describe fellow motorists, shaking my head in sad disdain and hoping they lip-read the filth flowing freely from my voice box. Waited in line at post office only to find out that insured mail had evidently been tampered with en route. Said screw it, no haircut; I want to go home now and have a cigar and let this afternoon be over.

After a moderately relaxing cigar, during which I found out that my day’s dinner workup was dashed and I’d have to come up with something else, I decided to try the poi. I also opened the kimchee, on the logic that if the poi was too awful a single bite of kimchee ought to clear away the taste. If not, I could have poi for dinner with a side of kimchee. Couldn’t lose. I extracted a mostly-thawed corner of the mauve block and popped it into my mouth.

I’d like to report that it was delicious, or gross, or weird-tasting, or even ralphtacular. Those would betray your trust. Reality was far blander; one might even call it the ultimate in bland. Compared to this stuff, Wonder Bread is a flavor burst. So is plain pasta. I’m serious. So far as I could tell, poi has no taste at all. It’s completely neutral. It had the consistency of fine hummus, but less flavor than plain steamed rice or even plain tofu. It didn’t smell bad; it didn’t taste bad. It didn’t smell like or taste like anything. It has about the flavor of distilled water.

I am still trying to determine how someone sat down one day and said, “Hey, maybe if we pound this root up into purple paste, it’ll be edible.” Maybe you have to grow up with it. It does, however, explain why Hawai’ians have so embraced Spam: if this was the alternative, any would treat Spam like a boon from on high.

Anyway, I tried it so you don’t have to unless you feel driven. It won’t hurt you, but it probably will not leave you wanting another dose.

Stuff I spend time explaining over and over about history

Because I’m interested in history–or more likely, because I can’t learn to shush about the subject–friends and acquaintances ask me a steady stream of questions about it. Now and then, I even know the answer. If I don’t, it may inspire me to learn something, maybe order a book, develop at least a basic background.

There are also a few things those who ask tend to forget, and it is very natural. Perspective matters. When you’re seeking historical understanding, it’ll come easier when you bear uppermost in mind that:

Back then, the participants did not know how the future would unfold. Let’s take, for example, the legend of the Holy Grail. The evidence for its existence is, well, more a matter of faith than of evidence. It isn’t hard to imagine that such a relic would take on legendary status, provided one assumes that the persons in the story had a functional and updated crystal ball with up-to-date prophecy software. The idea is that a charismatic religious figure’s followers, or at any rate someone, saved a dining utensil from a group dinner (which they knew 100% was their final meal together, ever). And that this follower, or presumably someone else to whom the event was important, took the utensil to a Roman public execution and used it to catch the blood of the suffering religious figure. We are then asked to imagine that this artifact survived, and can ever be proven authentic to our modern satisfaction.

Well, if you take it on faith, that’s fine by me, but faith is not germane here. What’s germane is the assumption demanded by the whole tale: that at the time, anyone had the faintest understanding that this religious figure would become the center of a family of faiths that would shape and dominate Western civilization for many centuries. Absent this foreknowledge, this crystal ball, there is no reason anyone’s going to think to grab the wine goblet from the dinner. It would seem a little macabre to go scoop up some of the blood of the condemned, rather disrespectful. Granted, customs differed back then, but was that the norm? “Rachel, take this cup and go catch us some of Uncle Flavius’s blood. Quick like bunny, before the legionary spots you!”

But let’s say someone did save this cup; what then? Did he or she (just because one tale ascribes it to Joseph of Arimathea does not make that automatic truth; it could as easily have been a woman) put it on a shelf in the pantry? On the mantel? Sure, if that person could foresee the days of Constantine, he or she would have saved it, but everyone who was an adult in CE 30 or so would be elderly before the Christian movement numbered more than a few thousand. Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Empire for at least two centuries. There was no way to know the future, thus (again, absent a faith-based conclusion, which cannot be addressed by evidence or logic; that’s why it’s called faith) no reason to expect anyone to keep track of a dish. Even if someone did save it, odds loom long against its ongoing survival and identification for even a century, much less two millennia. Within fifty years of the Crucifixion, any wiseacre could have taken a likely-looking chalice and proclaimed it the Holy Grail. Within five hundred, many had done just that.

They did not know, in the moment, what the future held–unless you bring in questions of faith and prophecy, which is your perfect right. But when you do, you depart from history and enter theology. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect anyone else to accept one’s own theology as history, for there are too many theologies. Whether we can ever know it or not, there was only one authentic history; modern interpretations and perspectives on that history may vary, but the events were one sole version when they occurred.


A year back then took as long as a year does now. We have the tendency, even the temptation, to compress ancient time. The farther back it is, the greater the compression. Oh, we do not do this if we give it careful thought; it is a tendency rather than an automatic event. Here is an example.

The War of American Independence began in 1775 and ended in 1783. That is eight years. Right? Eight years are a re-elected presidential administration. In eight years, a newborn grows to t-ball age. Eight years normally span a combined secondary and collegiate education. Imagine that the war had been declared around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and just ended last month. That’s how long it took. No less, no more.

I recently read a rather stupid message board post asserting that the Muslim Conquests (622-750 CE) had been “rapid.” This is a perfect example. One hundred and twenty-eight years are “rapid” only if we’re referring to matters that normally take millennia or more, like geological shifts and the evolution of new species. For a military imperial expansion, that’s a long time–including plenty of timeouts here and there to consolidate control, make hummus, build mosques, and so on. As I write, one hundred twenty-eight years ago, it was 1889 CE:

  • The European powers were just getting a head of steam dividing up most of Africa. (Most of the Africans would not be consulted.)
  • The Chinese Empire was nearing its last two decades, but the Japanese Empire was vaulting itself into the modern era by pure force of dedication.
  • The United States military was still fighting the Indian wars, had bought Alaska just twenty-two years prior, and had limited ability to project overseas power.
  • Nearly every European country had a monarch.

Look at all that has happened in 128 years, then tell me it was “rapid.” Twelve decades is plenty of time for plenty to happen.

Because in 9748 BCE, and in 47 BCE, and in 244 CE, and in 1889 CE, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and a century took just as long as they do now. Time didn’t speed up just because an Egyptian dynasty lasted maybe a millennium. That millennium still took one thousand years.

Put into perspective: the Roman Republic lasted nearly five centuries. The western Empire lasted another four and a half centuries after that, and the eastern Empire outlasted its western kin-empire by a millennium. Four and a half centuries ago, it was 1667–the era of Cromwell, the Dutch on Manhattan Island, and Issac Newton. Five centuries ago, it was 1617; the Jamestown colony was a decade old. One millennium ago is just fifty years before the Norman Conquest of England, and just eighty years before the first Crusade stormed Jerusalem. That’s how long those timeframes are.

Why am I hammering on this seeming obviousness? Because it sneaks up on us. We tend to compress ancient times; the farther back, the more quickly we treat it as having passed. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE and, arguably, an empire in 27 BCE. The Rome of 27 BCE had not undergone any form of “rapid” transformation from its early republican days; the process had taken long enough to span the longest imaginable lifespans of five consecutive persons. It had taken over twice the current lifespan of the United States. If you think it’s been quite a while since Lexington and Concord, one presumes, you think twice that while is quite a greater while. That approximates the lifespan of Rome as a republic. Some tidbits to help this sink in:

  • Caligula ruled Rome for about the length of a U.S. presidential term.
  • The Napoleonic Wars lasted twelve years, about the time from birth to puberty.
  • The American Civil War took about as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
  • The golden age of piracy, if such a thing can be so described, only lasted about thirty years–as of 2017, the time elapsed since George H.W. Bush was stepping up his run for the presidency, or Snooki’s birth. (No, I’m not going to apologize for associating that name with an historical discussion. Whatever it takes to get across the length of time involved, that’s what I’ll use.)
  • The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months. In eighteen months, a newborn infant transforms into a toddler doing her best to emulate a howler monkey on cocaine. Or: in eighteen months, two human pregnancies can be laid end to end (not that I recommend it).


It’s not enough to address the question. One ought to question the assumptions implicit in the question. This is closely allied with the first guidance, but deserves its own portion. Let’s say we are looking into the mind and motives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to U.S. entry into World War II. Some would say that he talked isolationism out his mouth, for public consumption, yet deliberately took actions that would lead his country into global war. You might ask:

  • Do we know at what point in time FDR considered U.S. entry inevitable?
  • Pursuant to that: have we evidence that he so considered? How strong is that evidence?
  • Is it imaginable of him that he would have maneuvered his country toward war in order to complete its economic recovery?
  • Pursuant to that: was it even understood at the time that such a war might have that effect on a Depression-recovering economy?
  • There seems little doubt that FDR shaded U.S. policy well toward the Allies, but is there an imaginable circumstance in which we might have shifted to strict neutrality or even a pro-Axis stance?
  • Pursuant to that: is there anything now known about the war, that FDR could not know at the time, that would have caused a shift? A full apprehension of the magnitude of the Holocaust? The realization that Churchill most surely sought to maneuver the U.S. into a war few of its people desired?

When someone spouts off about history, in particular about the motivations of an historical figure, there are strong grounds for posing a lot of questions–and for questioning the underlying assumptions. That’s how a sound historical argument is constructed: one examines and researches all one’s own assumptions, because when someone comes along to counter it, that person’s best odds to crumble it is by kicking out its underpinnings. For example:

There’s a conspiracy theory about former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, once a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, who flew to Britain in an escort fighter. The story generally told and believed is that Hess was nutty, and that he acted without Hitler’s approval, and that in any case in no way were the British willing to discuss ending the war unless Hitler were ready to abandon his conquests. There are reasons to question that story, and there’s a whole tinfoil argument about Hess’s motives for flying to Scotland. The portion of the theory I want to address is the notion that Hess died during the war, in captivity, in a flying boat crash off Scotland; this view goes on to state that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated at Spandau was a double seeking to put one over on at least some of the world.

Want to leave that theory bleeding in the Ditch of Discarded Zany Ideas? For example:

  • How easy is it to get someone, who just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hess, to go on trial and do life in prison for war crimes he did not actually commit?
  • What possible motive could the Allies have for covering up such a plane crash and the guy’s death, if authentic?
  • Some twenty years into his sentence, Hess (‘ ‘) finally agreed to see his wife and son. Not only did they believe him genuine, they lobbied as hard as possible for his release. Could a phony version of you fool your child? Your spouse? How could that impostor have the shared memories to discuss? If the assertion is that they were in on the cover-up, someone has to present a credible case for why they would do that.
  • We have photos of Hess (‘ ‘) in his old age at Spandau. Rudolf Hess was a very distinctive-looking character, with eyebrows that would have been a generous donation to Brows of Love if such a thing existed. In those photos, he looks exactly like one might expect an elderly Hess to look. An impostor might not age nearly as authentically.
  • The other Spandau prisoners knew Hess from before and during the war. Why should we believe that they couldn’t tell an impostor? Failing that, why should we deduce that they all agreed to maintain a conspiracy?

The theory of Hess’s death is so fragile that all of these questions, and more that you could probably think of, must be answered with compelling evidence in order for us to waste any further time on such a theory. Since it’s a zany theory that demands people to have acted counter to their predictable behaviors and interests, and because it really doesn’t make a lot of fundamental sense as to motives, it is fragile. So much so that, if any one of those questions does not have a full and powerful answer, the absence of that answer is probably enough to make the theory collapse into nonsensicality.


Just because most of a story is flawed does not mean all of it can be discounted. History is rarely so simplistic. Let’s go back to Hess. To my mind, by far the most tantalizing tinfoil question in play is: what if Hess acted with Hitler’s approval (with planned disavowal in case of failure), expected an audience that was ready to negotiate, and definitely planned to return home?

Could a faction of His Majesty’s Government have been ready to throw in the towel? The Hess flight happened just after the Blitz ended; Hitler may have known he was calling off the bombing campaign, but it’s unlikely Churchill knew that. In short: were the British expecting Hess, and was Britain much closer to a separate peace than it would be politic to become public?

One tantalizing story, not fully verified, is that the portion of the Hess files that remains classified has been sought by researchers (perhaps insiders), and that the files contain only the notice that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. That would mean that, short of the personal command of the reigning monarch, no power in the United Kingdom could compel their release. If something in there were terribly embarrassing to part of the aristocracy, that would be an elegant monkey wrench in the investigative machinery. I am not aware of any firm proof that this situation obtains, but were it to come to light, it would seem to catch the Royal family hiding something. We would then ask all the logical questions as to what it might be, and why they might do that. If they had good enough answers, we might have a theory.

The point, though, is that this information comes from the same tinfoil book that claims Spandau’s Hess to be a double. Does the zaniness of that idea help the book’s overall credibility? Well, what do you think? However, does that zaniness mean that the authors are incapable of getting any facts correct? Surely not. Could the aroma of a more interesting and plausible story be wafting from the ruin of a collapsed argument? I believe that it could be.

Here’s another: the Salem Witch Trials. The airy ‘science’ argument is to blame it all on ergotism, a hallucinatory condition associated with a mold found in rye. Hardly anyone questions it. It ends the conversation: “They freaked out because science, duh.”

Oh, really?

Fine. Then one of two things is true: people of that time knew of the properties of ergot, or they did not. If they did, someone should explain why a slave (by definition the most vulnerable member of Salem society), who is not recorded as being a complete suicidal idiot, would administer such a substance to teenage girls when that was most likely to bring wrath down upon her defenseless head. Or why the girls administered it to themselves, which is only plausible if they knew how to find a nice concentration of the stuff.

Or they didn’t know about it, in which case we are to believe that somehow, one of the most attention-seeking and drama-prone demographics in the human species–the pubescent female–all blundered upon this One Potent Batch of ergot-tainted food that somehow, the rest of their families did not ingest. We would ask: why weren’t whole families losing it? Why wasn’t the whole community coming unglued?

Put another way: why was the group most repressed by the religious social straitjacket of Salem, the most blamed for any potential sexual misconduct, the least free to do what it wanted, suddenly acting up? If no one poisoned them–and it makes no sense anyone would do that unless we are to imagine that the girls knew how to do so, and it was like an acid trip–why have fits? We don’t know, but “to get attention, because teenage” is a path of low resistance.

While we are at it, why not ask: if it was accidental ergotism, how come the ‘bewitchings’ went away when the community finished hanging and pressing witches? Unless we’re going to assume that the prosecution was correct and that the thankful community got all the miscreants (or scared the rest into abjuring their witchy ways), there would logically be more freakouts. But if there’s a record of those, I’m unaware of it.

My reading of the record is that the community realized that the hysteria had gone too far, and it suggests a likely reason the girls ceased their histrionics: the realization that their drama queen lark had cost a number of lives. They might be afraid to confess their little game, but they had probably gotten all the attention they could ever want, kind of like an ignored kid who starts a fire in the kitchen and realizes he can’t control it.


The jury of historians rarely completes its deliberations with a unanimous, unambiguous verdict. The best we can get is a broad consensus. How we get at, evaluate, question, support, doubt, undermine, and otherwise address that consensus–that is what historians do.

And the joy is that it’s open to anyone who cares enough about the relevant events to invest the time exploring.

Whether or not you choose how to age, you do choose

Today I am feeling philosophical, and I want to share one of my fundamental beliefs about aging.

If we are spared, in our forties, we choose. What we choose in our minds does not constitute our choice. Rather, our choice is manifest in our actions. Talk is cheap and wishes are cheaper, but deeds matter. Deeds are who you are, whatever you may wish you were.

In most cases, by our forties, we have figured out how we will get through our years. We may have decided that we will do so in a given job field, or with no job at all, in partnership, as parents, entirely singly, as hermits, or in whatever way, but we are mostly established by that time. At that point we are likely to have something of a surplus of resources, even if very modest, or at least probably do not have so many urgent wants or needs.

Sometime in our forties, we decide whether or not to share. It is a decision whether we will seek to give of our knowledge, our possessions, our time, and whatever else we value. Not all of it, but enough to be remembered. We either decide to share, and live the remainder of our lives sharing, or we decide to hoard.

It is a decision based partly in the choice of courage and confidence over fear and uncertainty. The brave, confident person is not afraid to share. The fearful coward hoards.

The neighbor gal overshoots the cul-de-sac and her bike rolls up into our yard. We either smile and wave to her, or we scream at the poor kid to get off our lawn.

The Girl Scout is selling cookies we don’t want or need. We either stop, discuss, engage, and purchase, or we hasten past without eye contact.

The elderly fellow is clearly lonely and not terribly interesting to talk to, and is a bit tactless. We either be patient and listen for a while, or we treat him like a leper.

It’s Halloween. We either turn on the lights and hand out candy, or we shut them off and refuse to answer the door.

The hotel desk clerk looks harried. We either answer her “have a nice evening, sir” with something bantery like “Thank you; I wish you a peaceful evening free of entitled jerks,” or we just nod and take our keys.

The other guy, who has out-of-state plates, is in the stupidly designed lane the rest of us locals knew to get out of. Now he’s truly stuck. We either let him in, or we close the gap and let someone else perhaps do it, screw you, I got mine, not my problem.

A family friend is down on his luck, and very proud. We either find a way to slip him some money (which we will never again mention), or we figure that’s his problem.

Whether or not we choose to share mainly determines the nature of our memorial service.

If we choose to share, we burden our survivors with a mighty but rather heartwarming burdening; our memorial service becomes a vast pain in the butt. It becomes necessary to rent or obtain an auditorium in which to hold our memorial service. In some cases (and this actually happened to one family friend of ours) it will require two auditorium sessions.

If we turtle up and cannot bear the thought of anyone getting anything he or she did not earn, and yell at the kids to stay off our lawn, the memorial service is easier. It can be held in the men’s can at the SunMart on 27th and US 395 in south Kennewick, WA, and probably without taking over any stalls or disturbing anyone’s deuce deposition. Might even be able to handle it in a single stall.

If so, poetic justice.

But whether or not we choose with our minds, our actions represent our choice.

Share or hoard. Either you have chosen, or you will choose.

And as people choose, so do people’s organizations in their fullness of maturity: companies, churches, social groups.

Even nations.


Dear Girl Scouting parents: please hush

Not entirely, of course. But kindly let the girls answer the questions on their own without opening your traps unless the girl asks for your help.

I admire Girl Scouting, in spite of the fact that my wife got kicked out of them for cursing and refusing to sell cookies. (As Weird Al teaches us, some girls like to buy new shoes, and others like driving trucks and wearing tattoos. I married the second variety.) Girl Scouting is inclusive, teaching a number of worthy values. It helps to raise generations of strong women. As an aging man, this is worth whatever it takes to achieve because–assuming I don’t seize up like an engine out of oil–I’m going to be elderly in a world that these girls will one day be managing.

Selling Girl Scout cookies can be an important link in the process of developing those values–but much more so if you will please shut up.

Here’s the deal.

  • I know the cookies are very expensive.
  • I know this is a rather more educational and practical fundraiser than simply asking for money.
  • I do not actually want any cookies.
  • I absolutely should not eat any cookies.
  • If I were acting in my own best interests, I would blow past the cookie table and send a cash donation to my local GSA organization. I would spend less money, they would pocket more profit, and I would have less pork to walk off. Stopping for cookies is not what I want to do.

I do it because this is my village, and these girls are its future, and among the most important things a girl can learn is poise in dealing with the public–especially with older men, who could in theory seem like hairy intimidating monsters. Older men who have thought things through will understand that they have a dog in this fight, and may/should do the following in some form:

  1. Stop and say hello to the girls. Speak with respect: “Good afternoon, young ladies.” Model the way men should treat them, so that they learn what that is. Later on in life, when asshole men treat them otherwise, they will recognize the difference.
  2. Whichever girl responds, ask some thoughtful questions. What does your troop do in the community? Which of these contain peanuts? Are there any new kinds this year? What have you learned from Girl Scouting? What do you like best about it? What did you do to earn that badge?
  3. Listen to the answers. You asked, now shut up and let her tell you. Show interest. Ask a follow-up if you wish. Be friendly, of course, not grouchy, but process the answers you receive. Be engaged.
  4. Don’t ask the parents anything. The parents aren’t the vendors; the girl is. Give her the dignity and experience of directing every question to her.
  5. Pick out at least one box of cookies, to show them that poise in dealing with the public earns trust, respect, and business. Pay the girl and wait for the change. Thank her and accept her thanks.
  6. When you get home, give the cookies to someone who can eat them.

I hope you see where I am going with this. Now that I’ve entreated myself, let me do the same for the supervising parents.

First: you are doing an outstanding thing. Thank you. Without your unselfish dedication, none of this would be possible.

Second: with all due respect and with great gratitude for your volunteerism, please shush. Be silent. For the love of whatever deities you serve, let the girl answer unaided until she asks you for help.

When the customer asks questions, s/he is trying to help the girls. The customer is doing his or her part, in a small way, to teach. Except in rare cases, the customer does not actually care that much about the answers. Therefore, kindly let the girl answer the question. If she falters, continue the fine art of “shut the hell up.” Do not butt in. Shut your mouth. Let her think. She has a perfectly good brain. How she uses it will determine her destiny.

What if she’s stuck? Teach–in advance. Teach her to ask you for help if she needs it. If she does not know the answer, she needs to know that it is all right to ask for help and knowledge. Explain to her that you’re going to let her handle this, but that if she doesn’t know the answer, she should ask you and then relay the answer.

You must not answer for her. Do not make eye contact with the customer. This is her customer. Do not parentsplain. Let her learn to handle the customer and seek answers she does not yet have. In time, if you will just shut the hell up until asked by her, she will be confident handling all sorts of odd questions.

Do you seriously think she’s too stupid to subtract five from twenty? Don’t laugh. I had a parent butt in and interrupt a girl today while she was making change (for the day’s second box of unwanted cookies bought by me). Good lord! If Common Core means that a nine-year-old girl can’t subtract five from twenty in her head any more, then we need to send in our resignation from the ranks of developed countries. Let her make change!

If she does something wrong, unless it would somehow deprive the customer of fair value (which is when you do butt in), wait until no one is listening, then teach. Parent. Counsel. Educate. Guide. Help me out. “You forgot to thank that customer. That’s very important.” “Remember that it’s okay to stop and think for a moment.” “Did you treat that customer like the most important person you were dealing with right then?” Gentle, supportive, educational. Help her be better and let her see that being better produces better outcomes.

I’m serious. Help me out. I’m perfectly happy buying overpriced cookies I don’t want, but for the love of Pete, help me help the girls.

Let them handle the deal.

If you are one of society’s blurters or helicopter parents, and are just busting at the seams to open your trap, wait until she has handled the transaction and I’m leaving. At that point, I will probably reward her poise by looking to you and thanking you for volunteering to teach fine young ladies like these. Now you can talk. Now it’s about you. It was about her, now it’s about you. Bask a little. Let the girl see that volunteerism earns respect and that she and you are part of an organization much valued by the public.

If you did as I asked, by shutting up long enough to allow me to do my little part, you’ve earned that.

P.S. One week later, and it still goes on. Coming out of grocery store today. Began to ask Brownie the relevant questions. Girl attempts to respond. Adult present kept butting in. I am tired of this and I’m done tolerating it. Quietly, behind my hand: “Young man, I am addressing the vendor. I’m trying to help this girl learn. Please kindly let her answer.” To his credit, he tried, though he butted in again, and when she showed herself perfectly capable of giving a $5 in change for a $10, felt it necessary to coach her on making change. Gods save us all from well-meaning helicopter parentsplainers who won’t shut the hell up and stay out of it until they are needed. I feel like I’m teaching fricking first grade, and it’s not the girls I’m having to instruct.

One more, later that day; at last, some parents with their act together. I asked their girl about her bridge emblem, and about what they do in the community. She and her sister were obviously poised veterans, and she told how they are saving money for a veterans’ breakfast. Perfect trigger point. “Well, ma’am, that sounds like the kind of thing I want to support.” Not a word from mom and dad. On the way out, I praised their daughters’ confidence. Dad: “They’ve been doing this for six years, so they know all the answers. They can take care of it.”

Yes, young man, they can.

And as you age and falter in your days, they will remember you from their youth as a man who–more than any other man–taught them how men should treat them, and who let them find their own strength, and they will revere you to your final hour and beyond. When lesser men treat them less well, they will know the difference and demand better.

I didn’t tell him all that, of course, but I thought it as I pushed the grocery cart across the parking lot.

Why I put up fights on privacy, junk mail, and so on

My guess: most people do not first look at any website or information request and ask themselves what data the issuers/owners are gathering, and how they will use it. I do.

Another guess: most people just toss the junk mail, probably without opening it. I do that with nearly none of it.

This makes me the oddball, a lifetime position of comfort for me. In fact, it is a position of such comfort that it comes with intellectual risk. There is always the possibility that my crowd-averse nature will go so far that it may become as mindless as a crowd. If my view is that the larger the group, the dumber its collective decisions tend to get, then a natural bias against conformity is not unreasonable provided I do not take that too far. Put another way, it’s also dumb and mindless to refuse to consider doing what everyone else does. Maybe everyone else is, in at least a few cases, doing what makes sense. The idea is to think, not to find a new way to refuse to think. If one is going to refuse to think, we already have ample incentive and opportunity there: just make the choices everyone else makes, and enjoy the warm sussuration of conformist reassurance, of crowd membership. Blind nonconformity isn’t any brighter than blind conformity.

But I can’t really win. What I do is like throwing grains of sand in front of a semi, one grain at a time. And I realize it. I do it anyway.

I block as much data hydra stuff on websites as I can. I don’t even bother reading New York Times articles; requires a login, end of consideration. I enable scripts one at a time until a given page works enough for me to do what I want to do there, or I decide I don’t want it badly enough. I go through life without running Google’s scripts or taking Google cookies. I send back piles of junk mail. Other junk mail I rip up, stuff into a business reply envelope, and mail back. Whatever’s going in the trash goes into it stripped of my identifying information, even to the extent of peeling address labels off shipping boxes, including any label that contains the tracking number. I mute the TV during commercials, or watch almost exclusively DVRed shows. I refuse to connect my TV to the Internet. I refuse to connect my game console to the Internet. I go into my Facebook ad preferences and remove any that are relevant, leaving only those that make no sense. Metaphorically speaking, I kick, scream, bite, curse, imprecate, slash, and knee the whole way as the world tries to drag me into Alwaysconnectedland and Surveillistan.

Why on earth? How is this worth my energy? Don’t I have better things to do? What good could this possibly accomplish? Did I mistake Don Quixote for a self-help book? Do I need mental help?

The answer to that last question depends on perspective. If you believe that only actions that effect external change have value, then yeah, you probably reckon I should go on medication. But you probably assume there’s anger involved, and there isn’t.

On the contrary, this is how I defeat anger. I have learned that I take more harm from meek submission against what I find offensive than I do from (mostly, nearly) ineffective resistance. In my world view, a great many things should cause tremendous outrage and resistance, and the world does not share my view. In my world view, the center of the moral continuum does not move, and the world’s moral continuum moves every day. I think the world needs memory care. Let’s say there are a hundred unjust killings per day for one year. Next year, there are five hundred. Suddenly the world will think of only a hundred as Good Old Days, and if it drops to two hundred fifty, will call that excellent. To me, the hundred unjust killings are still awful, two-fifty is two and a half times as awful, etc. Fewer is better, certainly, but my ‘normal’ did not reset with the world’s. This does not bother me. The world is wrong most of the time anyway. I lack the need for community reinforcement of my perspective, and as mentioned, tend to distrust it.

Thus, I have not adjusted my ‘normal’ to the advance of the surveillance state, to intrusive marketing, to a postal service existing in the main to deliver garbage no one wants, and so on. I don’t want to. I was once told by a famous author that I lived in my own little world (and he meant that as a compliment). He was wrong. I live in the real world with realistic expectations. I just don’t move my moral compass to agree with the rest of the world’s. If I move it, I do so without consulting majority opinion.

Thus, in my view, when confronted by a wrong thing, I have no moral obligation to “let it go” or “just say it’s okay.” That’s how the world handles most wrongs, via rationalization, and I can see why. If it didn’t, it would go around angry all the time; the level of wrong is at overload, so most people just rationalize away a given portion of the wrong. If they did not, I guess they’d feel guilty. I understand that.

Unlike them, I do something. Might be something small and unbelievably petty, but I resist. I throw my grain of sand. I have found that I take more harm from bottled anger than from practical resistance within my system of values. This is a better way to live while refusing to conform my moral compass to society’s mobile, amnesiac version. Do I think it makes me better than anyone else? I don’t think about that at all. I think the collected mass of humanity is so dumb, as my very religious father used to say, that they ain’t sure if Christ was crucified or run over by a milk truck. As individuals, that’s different, because when outside of the suffocation of groupthink, individual intellects and morals can shine. Some are better and smarter than me in some ways. Some are in every way I can assess. Some aren’t. Some are saints. Some are contemptible. I don’t think about that because they have their talents and values, and I have mine, and a diverse humanity is much to be treasured.

Plus, without a diverse humanity, where would I get a massive number of people to disagree with?

So I answer telemarketing calls in foreign languages, or pretend to be inarticulate, or pretend that a microwave is my computer.

I open junk mail that might have a business reply envelope, and stuff all the garbage in and mail it back.

I shred everything with my name or address on it. The labels I can’t peel off plastic mailers, I cut off and burn in an old coffee can.

The only discards I don’t shred the ID info from are those I stamp REFUSED–OBJECTIONABLE MAIL–RETURN TO SENDER. Why should I have to dispose of their garbage? Ah, but the PO has to dispose of unwanted junk? Great, let the PO do it, since they enable this whole situation by giving junk mailers a lower price.

A provider asks if she can share some information with the insurance company. I say “if I have a choice, then no.” When told I do not, I tell her to tell them the minimum that will make them go away.

Someone calls and begins firing questions. No. No one gets to ask any questions until I finish asking all my own questions, and if they asked even one inappropriate question, my own questions could take a very long time. I do not desire to earn this person’s approval by “being nice.” Nosey people do not deserve “nice.”

A lawn service sticks a flyer onto my house. I call the deputies to find out what it will take to get them punished for that. A sergeant advises me to put up a NO TRESPASSING sign. I do it. I resent random businesses sticking crap to my house. In the newspaper box, that’s one thing; on my house, forget it.

A marketing company sends me an unwanted survey. I owe them no truth, especially if they ask a single question I consider nosey (the one about my income is an automatic). I have some fun. I create a fake name and comically dysfunctional household and fill out the survey accordingly. I’ll get junk for years based on their sale of that data, and I’ll know where it originated. I got sample adult diapers from one outfit for years.

Like many of you, I mute commercials unless I can fast-forward them, but if I have to mute them, I look away. I presume that companies are well aware that many people mute the commercials and that visuals must carry the load. If I look down at my book, even those do not get to stamp images into my mind.

“What are the last four of your social?” In the first place, I hate that it’s so commonplace they don’t even feel they need to say ‘social security number’ in full. In the second, I resent even more that it’s become a default password, so it sets my teeth on edge. I growl: “Decline to provide. We do not use that as a password.” Try it and you will find that nearly every business that has used that as your default password will have some other way of ascertaining your identity (I have no fundamental problem with that).

In general, I ask about the motivation of anything government or corporations shove at me. I begin by assuming that the motive is control (government) or control and profit (corporations). The burden of proof otherwise is on them, and if they do not bother to meet it, I will do my level best not to cooperate in some way I can get by with. For example, I never did get an Idaho driver’s license. Why not? Because fuck you, Butch Otter; my Washington license was still valid, and I didn’t really give a shit what your state law said unless you were prepared to push the issue, and I knew you were not. Of course, I am not confessing to anything of the kind in Oregon; I still live in Oregon. All I can say is that Oregon is many times more authoritarian than either Washington or Idaho, and therefore much more satisfying when (in theory) one finds a way to (in theory) disobey one of its laws. Oregon works very, very hard to avoid loopholes. If you found one, you did well.

Why direct that at Otter? Because I have learned, and I believe, that the top person is responsible for everything. He’s the governor of Idaho (that little DWI incident a few years back is kind of overlooked; pick one of his multiple excuses), and I reserve the right to hold him accountable. Can he control everything? Of course not. Is that my problem? No. Does he care about my problems? Ha! Am I obligated to care about his, in that case? If you’ve read this far, what do you suppose my answer is? So if I had a problem with Idaho’s state government, I had one with Butch. I reserve the right to lay it at his feet, and to curse him over it.

I do these things not because I harbor delusions that I will change the system–though if everyone did them, it certainly would. I’m not doing this as my contribution to humanity, though I sometimes let myself think that in weak moments. I’m doing it because I take more emotional and psychological harm from mindless compliance than I do from wasted time.

That simple.

New Release: Life is Short, by Shawn Inmon

This short story anthology is now available. I was substantive editor.

If I counted correctly, four of the stories have appeared in previous fiction anthologies, some of which were for charitable projects. Shawn would never tell you openly about this particular part, but nothing’s stopping me: for the charitable projects, he tried to pay me, but obviously I was having none of it. No big deal, right? Right…except that here’s the kind of honest guy he is. When he decided to republish them in a for-profit anthology, he turned around and tried to pay me for them after the fact. When I smiled and thanked him for the intent, but declined, he offered to take me to a Mariners game and host me at his and Dawn’s place. I figured I could accept that, so I said all right. We had a fantastic time at the game and on the drives there and back. Anyway, if you’ve noticed how much effort Shawn makes to put forth quality reading in an attractive presentation, do know that he treats his vendors with the same conscientious courtesy and fairness with which he treats his readership. No wonder his pre-publication people, like me, work extra hard to help his work to shine (not that it needs much help).

The good news is that at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the stories in this compilation are new material. The variety is appealing. Some of it is dark and even a bit paranormal. Some is autobiographical, telling stories from his youth. As you might expect, many touch upon familiar Inmonian themes: 1970s and 1960s nostalgia, music, etc. He experiments with the unreliable narrator, and in my opinion succeeds in this mode. The overall outcome is anything but predictable, with fresh styles and approaches as well as fresh plots and varying lengths. This might mean that few people will enjoy every one, but also makes it likely that no one will find it predictable from one story to the next.

So far it is only out in Kindle, but if you keep an eye on it, I suspect it will come out in dead tree.

Portland Snowpocalypse 2017

In December, Portland received its annual allowance of (what it considers Arctic) winter weather. Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. state of Oregon, is a hilly city with a very wet climate. For seven months each year, it will rain more days than not. Eastern Oregon is much drier, owing to the Cascade Range’s tendency to absorb most of the eastward moving moisture much of the time.

As Portland reckons things, the annual allowance of (what Kansans would call ‘early December’ and Alaskans would call ‘breakup’) winter weather includes only one session. Once there has been a Winter Episode, no further allowances of (what southern Californians would call ‘the end of all things’) winter weather are tolerated.

Now and then, and in spite of this being one of the more prominent centers of divine feminine worship in various pagan forms, Ma Nature omits Portland’s wishes from Her plans. This year, She did not consult Portland at all. A second winter weather system (what Wyomingites would call ‘May’) moved into the area, dropping temperatures into the teens ºF. In our case, seven inches of snow fell and stuck. Portland limped along for over a week with freezing rain, roads icing up, appointments canceled, mass transit slowed and rerouted, icemelt and snow shovels unavailable, trash uncollected, mail undelivered (that old line about rain and snow is not true) and other expressions of urban chaos.

In short, they have acted about like Los Angeles when the temps drop into the fifties. I won’t justify it, because some of the problem is caused by people’s dumbness, but it’s not all Portland’s fault. Why do seven inches of snow and several days of freezing temperatures lay Portland out flat on its dime-thin-pizza-crust-with-artisanal-vegetables-eating ass?

Topography and geography. The Portland area has a lot of hills, slopes, curved roads, and so on. This is not Boise, laid out like a great big grid. This is not Wichita, where you can probably set a level on the ground and expect it to center its bubble. Even well-prepared locales with sloped terrain have a hard time in winter, and the laws of inertia do not change from, say, Edmonton to Portland. If the road curves, and its surface is slick, and you drive fast enough to overcome your traction, you will slide. Even if you are careful, Portland offers abundant opportunities to overcome your traction.

Trees. Portland has a lot of shade. Shade keeps sunlight (when we get any) from melting snow and ice. Shade is selective, though, and thus there will be stretches of clear, bare, wet or dry pavement interrupted by shady spots that do not thaw. This can sneak up on one.

Ambient moisture. In winter, the Portland area’s humidity tends to exceed 90%. I have lived in climates where that figure was often below 30% in winter. When the air is nearly saturated with water vapor, and surfaces (car exteriors, pavement, mailboxes, eave-troughs) drop below 32º Fahrenheit, water will begin to freeze from the air to those surfaces. In the middle of the cold snap, moisture inside our house was frosting up the metal frames on the insides of our windows. Southerners also experience this freezing-to-surfaces effect, which is one reason Atlanta (for example) comes as unglued as Portland when it gets cold.

Dumb drivers. In the Portland area, drivers are not so much bad as they are very abrupt in their maneuvers. We have a minority of drivers who simply refuse to get in their vehicles when it snows; probably wise. We have another minority who are well equipped for ice and snow, have experience driving in it, and who take to the roads with the respect developed from a life in cold climates. They do fine. A third minority, and rather a large and dangerous one, believes that owning a four-wheel-drive vehicle now makes them Masters of Motoring Space and Time. They are very dangerous, because 4WD is not a solution to most winter driving problems. They tailgate and bully sane drivers. They drive worse than their usual habits. They end up in a lot of ditches, fishtailing onto sidewalks and into medians, and make the work of the police much harder. They’re the worst. The rest are the second worst, because they do not understand the physics and aren’t planning to try. They are nervous, and nervous people tend to make mistakes. They get into situations they can’t get out of. They dig holes in packed snow or ice with their drive wheels, then wonder why the car doesn’t move. They pick the worst places to stop. They change lanes when a person familiar with physics would not do so. They panic. They get stuck and abandon their cars along thoroughfares, freeway shoulders, and so on. My wife and I oscillate between the first and second groups depending on our situation and need, but most of these people scare holy hell out of us.

Not designed for it. Put simply, very little in this area is designed or chosen to handle ice and snow. Roofs in Portland must be very well made to keep out rain, but are not designed expecting the weight of heavy snow. They are very prone to ice damming, which leads to homeowner damning (take my word on that). Heaters and condensate pumps get uncommon workouts in cold weather, and a number will fail the test. Ice accumulation downs power lines, transit cables, tree branches, and entire trees. Portland is designed to drain away a lot of water, but the sudden melting of several inches of snow and ice can overwhelm that drainage system–especially if part of it is still frozen. Urban flooding is a very real concern.

Salt-free diet. Oregon doesn’t like to salt roads. It will do so in certain situations, but one cannot expect the state’s transportation authorities to do so by reflex. Hardware stores in Portland don’t carry tons of snow removal supplies, and all the icemelt and snow shovels will vanish on the first day. If you don’t already have them, tough luck. Oregon will gravel roads, but the Portland area does not have enough equipment to handle them all, and it definitely lacks the snowplows to clear anything but the freeways and arterials. Everyplace else is on its own. Where I live, for example, we faced the possibility of chaining up to get out of our development; once out, we would either need to de-chain or limit our travel to roads where we could drive at chain speeds (definitely under 25 mph) without creating hazards. Had we de-chained, of course, we might have to chain up again in order to travel that last quarter mile. No one graveled our development, much less plowed snow or put down any sort of chemical, nor did any of us imagine that anyone would. No one is deliberately saying “Fuck you, deal with it.” No one is saying anything. That itself is the point. If they were to say anything, it would be “Good luck. We can’t help you.” For those from rougher climates and/or smaller towns, we tend to help ourselves rather than waiting to be saved. For those from foreign countries where it never snows, or for those purely urban persons who think food is materialized at grocery stores, it has to be frightening.

Why don’t they prepare? There is definitely more that Portland could do on a contingency basis. It would be cost-prohibitive to buy and maintain enough anti-winter infrastructure to prevent snowstorms from turning into shitstorms, but there could be more contingency planning. Since locals refuse to contemplate the physics of the matter on their own, a better job could be done with spot reduction in speed limits–and Portland/Beaverton really ought to adore that, because it would be the next great excuse to write a lot of speeding tickets. People could organize volunteer groups to shovel more driveways and sidewalks. Nah; they’d rather go on the news and bitch because the transit authority, or the city, or anyone but them did not drop all its other major concerns and shovel the snow at their light rail stop.

It’s not over when it’s over. When the roads begin to clear in earnest, Portland’s drivers unleash the chained demon within. For agonizing days they have had to restrain their desires to whip around like fighter pilots, tailgate (unless they owned 4X4s, in which case they had lots of fun tailgating smarter people than themselves), make left turns at breathtakingly selfish and stupid times, change their minds at the last minute, and tempt whatever guardian angels still bother with them. Physics have prohibited them, by fearful reason or by fender-crumpling force, from being themselves. Now it’s payback time: they have several days of Bad Driving saved up, and the universe that deprived them of this liberty is going to pay. I suppose the local municipalities, who base no small portion of their revenue streams off extractive law enforcement, rub their gnarled hands in fiduciary delight.

When it melts, it rains. Since it rains a lot here to begin with, Portland has had quite some time to devise means to deal with excess water. Topography helps and hurts: there are lots of downhills, but somewhere there’s a bottom to the hill. Ditches, storm drains, water catchment areas, and more. They do not have every problem solved, but it takes sustained heavy rain to overwhelm the drainage system. If sustained heavy rain happens when we also see five inches of snow melt off roofs and yards and places where it was plowed or shoveled into berms and heaps, the drainage system will become overwhelmed. There will be mudslides; parts of hillsides will give way. Hydroplaning becomes a greater concern than at most other times, which is bad news for the Liberated Fighter Pilots described above because they know only two settings: terrified and terrifying. No more snow and ice? That means it is now safe to do whatever.

What they see around them. You think the mail always gets through, through snow and rain and dead of night? Not here; that’s a myth. It can take a couple of weeks to catch up. They turn on the news and see hundreds of cars just abandoned on the freeways and arterials, some in spots where they will probably be wrecked in place (other people coming to that spot might fare no better even if the path were clear, which it is not). Every news anchor pleads with them to turtle up until it just goes away. At the onset, panicky people stampede to the grocery stores and go full Canadian: milk section wiped oat. It’s hooped eh, even the buttermilk and skim milk. Calm, confidence, and courage are as communicable as panic, uncertainty, and terror. Most human beings are fundamentally compliant and imitative, a dynamic which is the bedrock of civilization. Here, that means a majority will imitate freakout, as they have a bias toward obedience and imitation. It is the contagion of freakout.

Yeah, Portland could do it a lot better. Trouble is, it happens rarely enough that it becomes a bad dream. Amnesia sets in, and other problems come front and center. But if you wonder why a city can feel its knees buckle due to temps in the teens and seven inches of snow, well, there you go.

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