Otis the Terrible

Today’s story is about a cat.  Some of it is interpolated and presumed, but of the start and finish no doubts exist.

My family come from the Flint Hills of Kansas, which I still call my homeland.  I miss home.  We drove back there once, and as we crossed the line from Nebraska into Kansas, I wept.  Something about that limestone and black gumbo must be in my body chemistry.  Now, to outsiders, the Flint Hills look mostly like dull, quiet rolling pasture with rock outcroppings and not a whole lot going on.

If that’s what they see, they’re hoodwinked.  The Flint Hills seethe with life, a constant food chain battling for survival in what can be a hard land.  All sorts of varmints:  mice, rats, voles and whatever else crawls under the ground.  Kingsnakes.  Prairie rattlers.  Raccoons.  Rabbits.  Coyotes.  Deer.  Bobcats.  Hawks, owls, eagles, prairie chickens, birds of prey and prey birds.  Badgers.  Impound reservoirs full of fish.  Turtles.  It is no place for an unguarded baby animal unless you want it eaten by morning.  When you walk in the Flint Hills, you keep an eye out.  Something might happen.

One day some years back, a terrible thing occurred.  The neighbors’ cat over east had eight kittens, and all was well until one afternoon when the neighbor was driving his SUV down US 5o, heading west toward Strong City.  The family ranch is about a mile and a half north of the highway.  The neighbor saw some sort of movement in a mirror, things evidently fallen from the vehicle, and pulled over.  The whole clutch of kittens, turned out, had crawled up into the engine compartment before he left home.  They were falling out all over the highway.

He accounted for seven, mostly dead.  He never found #8.  No idea what the hell happened to that cat.  Word got around, of course, and it was unfortunate, but that was that.  The Flint Hills are hard on cats.  It’s cattle country, and a dead kitten is less of a big deal than a dead calf.

About one week later, my Uncle Mike was pulling up out front of the carriage-room (it is still called that) around dusk.  There was a cedar tree out front of the old stone ranch house in those days.  Mike, who along with my Aunt Jaque has loved and adopted animals as long as I’ve known him, heard a high, faint, thin mewing nearby.  By long reflex, he froze.  (One time we were coming home and there was a huge kingsnake climbing that tree.  If you hear something that ought not to be there, you stop and figure it out.)

Pretty soon Mike identified an emaciated grey kitten up in the tree, needle claws dug into the bark. It could only be #8.  The little cat was starved, dehydrated and unlikely to survive the night.  Over the course of the week, he had traversed a mile and a half of pasture and woods, somehow finding ways night and day to evade the dozens of creatures to which a kitten looks like the Pizza Hut truck–and the nocturnal hunters are the deadliest.  What did he find to eat? How did he survive showing his whiskers at the creek or pond, which draws prey and predator? How’d the cat know to come to the one surest place in Chase County to care for him?

We can’t know.  What was obvious:  he had proven his survival skills and instincts to any standard of satisfaction you might concoct.  Mike called the neighbors, who said he was welcome to keep the kitten.  Otis, as my relatives dubbed him, quickly became a feisty little feline, bothering and pestering the stately elderly lady cats of the house.  He would lie in wait to pounce on them, and when they’d had enough, they’d just give him the facepaw and let him flail at the air.  I could tell from his agility (amazing even by the elevated species standards) that Otis was going to be a barn cat.  We have three large stone barns, and they are patrolled by half-wild cats who mostly catch their own food.  You need barn cats.  Varmints like barns.

The next time I saw Otis, he was a grey spectre up near the barns, a huge wily tom with the self-assured air of survivorhood and prairie-smarts.  He must be getting older by now, but I suspect he’s still up there hunting varmints, scoffing at raccoons and confounding coyotes.  Otis is a survivor, and has been since the day he fell or jumped out of an engine compartment to make his own way in the world.

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Two years later… Otis has passed on. I’m glad I got to see the old boy a few more times before that happened. Farewell, Otis, as you take charge of barns in a different world.

© 2013, J.K. Kelley

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March Sadness

That’s what it is for me.  Except for hoping KU wins it all, I just go to a happy place.  It’s something that screws up my favorite TV shows.  Give me a holler when it’s over, or if KU gets to the final four.

Why not UW? Well, it’s okay with me if UW does well, but I’ve got a long memory.  When I was at UW, no football player ever tried to get me to write his paper for him.  Basketball players did.  Also, when I was at UW, I was never hassled by a football player.  I got some from basketball players.  So in addition to not liking the sport at all to begin with (everything I was ever good at in sports is a foul in basketball), I didn’t find any passion to care if we won or not.   I wouldn’t root against UW, just didn’t much care.

The women are another story.  They never asked me to write their papers and they certainly never tried to bully me (and some of them could have…those are some big gals).  Go Dawgs!

Embarrassment

So this afternoon, I went to my nephew’s opening collegiate ballgame.  (Double drag for him:  he didn’t get to play, and his team lost.)  It was good baseball, but I was embarrassed on behalf of Columbia Basin College, the Tri-Cities, and on behalf of my country.

Now, I’m not a flag waver, but I do stand up for the national anthem (of any country).  And when a team visits from another country, as did the Prairie Baseball Academy of Lethbridge, AB, Canada, I believe strongly that we should show them the courtesy of playing the visiting anthem as well–thus demonstrating friendship and respect.  It’s done at hockey games all the time.  What is wrong with Americans, that they so often don’t know how to be good hosts and make a gesture of courtesy to international visitors?

Shame, CBC.  You embarrassed our entire area.  PBA Prairie Dawgs, well played, and my apologies for the boorish thoughtlessness.

Microsoft = IBM

Today John Dvorak wrote a pretty good article on why Microsoft’s stock is, in his words, dead money.  Yeah, I know it’s on Murdoch’s news service, but Dvorak’s old school and knows his stuff.

It is so odd how things cycle.  When I was hustling machines about five miles from the Redmond campus, I hated the IBM reps.  Every one of them.  They were not merely arrogant (though nothing like the Apple reps, the very snottiest of all), they were stupid (which the Apple reps were not).  We were making 5% margin on IBM machines.  We made 20% on others.  Also, no one wanted IBM.  Why should we sell it? Well, because it’s IBM.  In reality, we were selling them at cost to keep our dealership.  We couldn’t get to a profitable discount level with IBM unless we sold more.  However, when we had a line on a big account and were willing to go out at cost just to advance our business with IBM, IBM would go direct and undercut us (and we were to understand and accept this, that ‘business was business’).

Their attitude was that everyone should want IBM and we should push everyone to IBM, even when a retarded goblin could see that IBM was the very worst deal going.  Even when they came out with a good product, people didn’t want IBM’s MCA (‘MicroChannel’) architecture.  They had a great portable and I had a client interested in two.  He asked about the architecture, and I said ‘MCA’.  His words, quoted exactly as I recall:  “Not that f***ing MicroChannel.”

Microsoft, by contrast, was swift and slick and witty and inventive.  It was eating Lotus’s lunch, WordPerfect’s lunch and just about everyone else’s.  It was the smartest kids in the room.  Some of its stuff was dumb (remember ‘Bob’?) but a lot of it took hold.  Even IBM used Microsoft’s DOS (which M$ didn’t actually invent, but bought in desperation early on).  And when IBM tried to make everyone buy OS/2, the market said ‘meh.’  You could tell the Microserfs when they came into the store.  They looked like hippies gone full geek, total slobs.  You didn’t make judgments.  They were often FYIFV (‘f*** you, I’m fully vested’) tycoons and they might well write you a check for two brand new laser printers.

Now M$ is the dinosaur rather than the juggernaut.  It invents nothing.  It follows and tries to appropriate the market, and the market increasingly sneers.  In the process of its rise, its ruthlessness made it many, many enemies who yearned for the day M$ would become irrelevant.  I was one, as I labored on supporting M$ products in the workplace as an IT jock, basically forced to deal with them as the world was once forced to deal with IBM whether it liked IBM or not.

Dvorak’s right.  MSFT is a lousy buy, even though its price has been flat for years while the market has risen.  They’re not going to invent anything.  If they weren’t sitting on so much cash, and if they didn’t have so much inertia due to the past with regard to installed base, they’d collapse.  They are in much the same situation as IBM once was.  They can say what they want, but people no longer care.

Fred Phelps and the anti-Vietnam War movement

Today I was reading that the Supreme Court upheld Fred Phelps’ right to picket and harass military funerals, part of their KKK-esque anti-gay crusade.  I don’t have a firm opinion about what the Supreme Court should have done, partly because I don’t have J.D. after my name and I understand my limits of understanding, partly because I don’t have any respect for the SC to begin with, and partly because I have zero faith in law and the rule of law anyway.  But having seen Team Fred in action from 40′ away myself, and being nearer fifty years old than forty, it did bring to mind one thing.

In our time, the military is openly, publicly and loudly glorified and adored; even a hint of anti-military scorn would get one a lot of angry reactions.  If you are young today, you never knew a time when the military was unfashionable.  I assure you that there was such a time:  my own youth.  Numerous reliable sources relate experiencing verbal abuse and degradation just for being in uniform, and especially for getting off the plane from Vietnam.  Evidently it was so common it came to be expected, coped with by service people, and socially accepted to a degree.  Which is not to say that the soldiers suffering it were unhurt by it; oh, no.  It did at least tip them off to the kind of reaction society had in store for them.  I was too young to have a view on this, but old enough to know of the social current.  It lasted into the early 1980s, when I did put on a uniform a few times and get some small tastes of it myself.  Imagine a ROTC unit that tended to de-emphasize uniformed presence on campus just to avoid stirring stuff up? I was in one.

Now, I am not sure that anti-Vietnam protesters ever picketed or disrupted an actual military funeral.  We have general consensus that disrupting anyone’s funeral is disgusting, at any time for any reason.  A lot of people found ways to oppose the Vietnam War without insulting Special Forces guys as “baby killer” in airports; fair enough.  (Some people are uncomfortable with homosexuality, too, yet don’t approve of Phelps on any level.)  But how different were the two extremes, really? How different were the fanatics in the airports, heaping scorn on some poor sod who got drafted and sent to the 1st Cav, survived and graduated, and then wanted to come home and get back to normal, from the Phelpsites I saw in a vacant lot in Pasco holding up signs advocating more military casualties? Fred Phelps and the airport harassers had more in common than I’ve heard anyone attest.  Motivated by pure hate, both asserted the right to pour verbal abuse on targets who could not effectively fight back.  The only difference today is that it’s no longer fashionable to abuse the military.  Sadly, if Phelps had stuck to just disrupting funerals of AIDS deceased, there would be nowhere near the backlash against him, even though his conduct would be just as contemptible.

I sit, and I watch, and I marvel how social currents change people’s ethical compasses without most people noticing.

© 2011, J.K. Kelley

Joke of the day

This was back before the USSR gave way to the Russian Federation.  Every year, the Soviets had a massive military parade past Red Square.  The Politburo stood and watched as tanks, armored cars, armored personnel carriers, soldiers, missile platforms, and so on rolled past, displaying Soviet might.

One year, an important US public figure was visiting Moscow at that time.  It was normal and customary for the Soviets to honor him by inviting him to stand with the Politburo and watch the parade.  Of course, he was assigned a KGB colonel fluent in English as a handler and escort.  They got along quite well.

So on the appointed day, the American stood with his Soviet hosts to watch the armaments flow by.  T-80 main battle tanks, BMP-2 armored personnel carriers.  Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers.  ZSU mobile flak guns, and surface-to-air missiles on trucks.  SCUDs on bigger vehicles.  Paratroopers in blue berets; marines in striped shirts.  At the tail end of the parade, oddly, were a few thousand civilians in nondescript Eastern bloc business dress, if one may call it that.  They didn’t march in formation, but sort of milled along.  A good percentage were female.

The American turned to his handler.  “Bogdan Ivanovich, I understand the function of the tanks.  I understand the tracks, the artillery, the missiles.  I understand the paratroopers and the marines.  But please tell me, if isn’t a state secret:  who are those people at the end, and what is their role in the military?”

The colonel drew himself up with that pride and dignity only a Russian can display when speaking of Russia.  “Those?” he replied, a bit intimidatingly.  “Those are middle managers of Soviet economy.  You have no idea damage they could cause you!”

Researching on the phone

One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, they will generally talk to you.  I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message.  By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.

Why would they talk to me? Well, naturally they want to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company.  I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them.  If a real person answers, most of the time they are pretty helpful, especially historical society/museum curators.  They like this.  Someone wants to know!  (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)

Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid.  I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy.  They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did exactly what their job was:  try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history.  Which is good to know–but is by no means the last word.  I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.

Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path.  A major MLM company got a taste of that.  The firm (one for which I have zero respect, and in fact enough loathing that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder.  Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder:  was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius.  They flatly denied this third founder.  Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off:  “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin.  You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it.  Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again.  I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.

That set me to shoveling twice as hard.  Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor.  What that meant, of course, was that it went into print.  Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No.  Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? Let’s put it this way:  it wouldn’t break my heart…

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