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The gift of the Lakota

This was some years back, when Deb and I drove to Kansas to visit the tribe. (Not the Indians; my family.) We travel together very well, and this trip was no exception. On our way back, we crossed South Dakota and went to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial (a work in generational progress).

Mt. Rushmore itself didn’t really do much for me. Whatever upwelling of nationalism I was supposed to feel, I didn’t feel it. Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) were sacred ground for the Lakota (Sioux), and unfortunately, they contained gold. That they would be appropriated and exploited, in the 1800s, was foregone. That this place was chosen to carve sculptures of Great White Fathers, well, to me that’s just washing the Indians’ faces in it. It’s not like there aren’t other mountain ranges in the West suitable for sculpting, after all. Why choose this one, if not to hammer the nail deeper?

It bothered me, and I had come prepared.  Now, I am not an enrolled member of the Hiotna (Honky Injuns Of The New Age) tribe. (Credit to my bro John L. for the hilarious phrase, fairly typical of his main-gauche wit.) Their cultures are theirs, and mine is mine; my sliver of Indian heritage is the social norm for American whites today and signifies nothing. I did, however, desire to do a small observance, as a visitor to Paha Sapa. I had brought tobacco and cornmeal, offerings one might give to a holy man in some Indian cultures. And if they weren’t exactly right, I supposed that whatever called Paha Sapa an ancestral home, it would get my drift.

One tradition my bride and I share is the collection of heart-shaped rocks. Wherever we go together, we seek them out, and somehow we always manage to find one. We have dozens. Usually I do the looking and finding; it is a marital joy.  This autumn afternoon, we really weren’t thinking of that. We headed off down a side road, parked, and walked off into the woods together. I love remote forests and feel completely at ease there, the mirror image of the big-city denizen who feels at home walking on concrete, and who would quiver in terror at the mere possibility of wildlife. In their comfort zone, I would be as they are with a timber rattler, so I get that.

While I did my observance, Deb wandered off into the forest a bit. (Alaskan and Western, she is as much at home there as I.) She was at that short distance where I can see her, but not clearly, when she cried out: “Oh my god!  Jonathan, come here!”

When you’re out in the woods and your wife hollers for you, you get the hell over there. I ran toward her. She was standing before a boulder, but not just any boulder.

It was about the size of a washing machine, sloped on top, in our direction. Atop the boulder, a piece was broken off, like the edge of a top layer crumbling. It was fine-grained, probably metamorphic, charcoal-colored, covered with lichens. The broken piece was very recent, to judge by the lack of lichens where it had snapped off.

This piece was a near-perfect heart shape. Except for the upper left corner being a little pointy–imagine a home plate shape with a perfectly located notch in the upper middle–it called to mind nothing so much as a heart. Much larger than our usual heart-shaped pebbles: maybe ten inches across and six inches thick.

I suppose it’s possible that we just happened to pick that particular road, just happened to wander into the woods at that particular (unremarkable) stopping spot, just happened to blunder into the forest at just the right spot, and it just happened to break off very recently, and we just happened to notice it. That level of coincidence is less credible to me than the alternate explanation, which is that we were meant to find it. Of course, I didn’t come expecting to take anything away with me. If you had asked me beforehand whether I was planning on grabbing a souvenir rock from the Black Hills, I’d have said “Hell, no.” But what else does one conclude? What would you conclude?

Seemed to me that, for whatever reason, Paha Sapa had a gift for us of the kind only Deb and I would find, notice and care about. I took it up with care, examining it; probably weighed eight pounds. I think I was too awed to say anything more profound than “thank you.” Much moved, we took it to the car with us and went on our way. (We had a safe and easy trip home, except of course for the bone fragment through a front tire sidewall just outside Butte.)

The stone resides on our mantel, with all the lichens still covering it. (Early on, Deb suggested I clean those off.  No way, I said. We keep it as we got it. She did not demur.) And every time I look at the gift of the Lakota, I feel like they are my friends. Whatever we did or did not do, something noticed, and we felt a token of welcome and camaraderie.  And if there’s an issue, and there’s a Lakota side to it, I admit to a bias their direction.

I want to go back to Paha Sapa in the future, just to say hello. It now feels like a place I am not such an interloper. Not a native, of course, but at the very least, someone with a visa to visit, a safe conduct. I wonder how it will feel.

Grandmother’s Land

For our anniversary, we went up to Canada.  It was a great pleasure:  marital togetherness, great hosts, all the scenic beauty Canada has to offer, the basic warm goodwill of rural Canadians, and Tim Horton’s.

Did you know that Indians of the northern Rockies referred to Canada as the Land of the Great Grandmother? We’ve all heard, of course, about the concept of the Great White Father in D.C., though I suspect a few of the Indians realized how utterly paternalistic the reference was (among its other detracting characteristics).  Anyway, since Victoria I was Queen of Canada during the white invasion of the West, and Canada was often thought a refuge (often it was anything but), some Indians called it after Her Majesty.

One of the best parts was our success at smuggling by full disclosure.  We were bringing two six-packs of Ice Harbor IPA to our friends, plus some homemade salsa.  Problem:  you cannot bring in alcohol as a gift duty-free.  If it’s for your own consumption, yes; as a gift, no.  You also can get in trouble bringing in homemade food.  Bozo, our navigator and planner, put the salsa in with the beer in bubble-wrap to keep it safe.

So we get to the border.  I won’t name the crossing lest it get the guard in trouble.  Customs Canada, which isn’t called that anymore, asked most of the usual questions.  They are more inquisitive nowadays, and make an effort to catch one in a fishy story.

“Do you have any alcohol?”

“Yes, two six-packs of beer.”

“For your own consumption?”

“No, it’s a gift for our friends.”  This was an answer so retardedly honest it was plausible.

“In the future, you may want to reconsider that.  The duties are fairly punitive on alcohol, unless it is for your own consumption.  Please pull around to the left and stop, remaining in your vehicle.”

I was pretty sure we were going to be in trouble, at least to the tune of C$50 for the duty.  When I saw a sign about a C$1000 fine directly before us, I assumed the salsa would be found when they inspected.  We would be asked why we had not disclosed it, and there would not really be a very good reason.  Ouch, ouch.  However, I have an inkling that when they have you pull around, in part they are watching to see if you hurriedly dive back into the back seat and start trying to rearrange things/cover up contraband.  That would have been very unwise, so we just sat cool. After a few minutes, the officer brought back our passports and wished us a safe drive.  No duty, and no trouble for the salsa!

When we reached Jenn and Marcel’s (our wonderful hosts), Jenn advised me from the description that we’d gotten the border guard she considered a ‘douchebag.’  Well, all I can say is that in our case he combined taking his duty seriously with a sense of fairness and goodwill, which is a great combo in a border guard.

Score one for giving a response so self-adversely candid and true that it is believed, since no one would make up something like that.   And thank you, Customs Canada, for not being rough on us.

The dumbest sport there is

My father and I didn’t have that many great father/son moments.  We did, however, try a lot of father/son activities. Fair is fair: he’d have spent all the time with me I wanted, had I only wanted to.

We used to hunt and fish a little, though I was never really gung-ho for either. One year my father decided we should go duck hunting.  (I never asked whether he knew how to cook a duck.) Dad borrowed a bunch of decoys and obtained permission from a farmer way over near Roosevelt. For those not familiar with Roosevelt, WA–and that includes most Washingtonians–it sits out in an emptiness. There’s not much there, nor is it near much. We got up well before dawn on an October morning, drove out to the guy’s wheat stubble field, and made ready to shoot ducks.

While my father distributed the decoys in some pattern which he assumed would be irresistible to ducks, I got busy ‘preparing a duck blind.’ It couldn’t be called digging; we had to hack a hole in the frozen ground, large enough for a husky 5’10” adult male and a husky 5’6″ teenage male. Think of coal mining without the coating of ebony dust. We didn’t finish until the sunlight approached in the east.  Dad loaded his .12-gauge, and I loaded my .410.  We got into the hole, knees drawn up, pulled a piece of plywood mostly over us, and watched the skies for the expected waterfowl.

None came.

An hour passed, a dull and chilly hour sitting in a frozen hole in the wheatfield.  No ducks even came within sight of our location.  (You’d think we were a Rose Bowl victory.)

Another hour, and the sun was up by now.  Didn’t do us much good.  Still no ducks.  (You’d think we were a national championship victory.)

Now, I was not the smartest hunter in the county, nor even in that hole, but neither was I a complete idiot. I was about ready to bag it, but I didn’t want my father to resent me for asking to quit early.  I didn’t have much finesse, but it was clear enough to me he was as uncomfortable as me. This called for diplomacy and a voice of good humor. “You know, Dad, of all the father-and-son activities you and I have tried together, this has got to be the dumbest sport there is.”

The thunderbolt did not come. So help me, the old man looked at me, smiled, and laughed: “You know, son, you’re right.  Let’s fill up this hole, pick up our stuff and go get some breakfast.”

From that day forward, such ducks as strayed into Washington were safe from my father and I.

Why the US Postal Service is sinking

Today we had a perfect metaphor for why the P.O. can’t get any revenue and why the private sector is eating its lunch.

I had to mail some valuables to Seattle.  I wanted to insure them.  I could have gone to the post office; my route took me right past it.  Why did I not want to do that? Because the postal employees there make it quite clear that my personal satisfaction is not a priority.  The rules are the rules, they take pleasure in articulating them, and they seem to enjoy when it turns out to be a lot more expensive than one imagined.  Plus, you cannot get angry at them; the slightest action that could even be imagined by the most paranoid mind could be construed as one of the various felonies against the postal service which are punishable with heavy fines and long imprisonment.  In short, one has to just take it.  Or go elsewhere, which I prefer.  So already, we are with me preferring not to deal with the option that should be easiest and cheapest.

So I go to my usual mail place, where they are helpful and friendly and offer a variety of shipping options, including USPS, which is probably what I’ll use anyway.  (My complaint is not that they fail to carry the mail reliably–at that, they do fairly well.)  I explain what I want to do, assuming it’ll cost a little extra, which is fair.  They regretfully inform me that they can’t do insured mail anymore.  Why? Evidently the USPS took that option away.  Brilliant!  Force people to come to the dungeon since you can’t entice them with pleasant helpfulness!  So I ask what my options are.  My mail place makes three phone calls on my behalf (try getting the post office to do that).  Short version:  I could send it registered through them, for a hefty fee, but if I want it insured I must go to the post office.

I think about this possibility.  I could do that.  Then I do mental math, and based entirely on past experience, figure out that it will be significantly more expensive than my most irrational upward estimates.  Plus, no one there has any incentive to be helpful–I’m just annoying extra work to them, a pain to be endured, one more person in the long line.  I decide that insuring it just isn’t going to happen, and I send it UPS with a tracking number.

So, let’s recap.  Basic aversion to cold indifference and apathy sent me elsewhere, where I learned that in order to do what I wanted to do, thanks to the PO trying to force people to go to its facilities to use its services, I have to go to cold indifference and apathyland.  And I get disgusted enough that rather than do that, I choose to do without the service.  It bothers me that they get to be the government when they want to make rules, and a corporation when they want to advertise and make money, able to punish the competition by fiat on a whim.

What’s more, I’m one of their few remaining customers who actually buys stamps and mails first class letters (specifically, paying my bills).  I buy the stamps from someplace other than a P.O. and choose to pay more rather than go there.  I’m one of the holdouts who refuses to bank online, to have a debit card, to allow automatic withdrawals from my checking, or to make payment online at the company’s website.  I am one of their last old school customers.  And I don’t want to go to their store and transact business.  I would rather pay more and go to some other vendor.

That isn’t the only reason the USPS is in a state of fail, but I can’t believe I am the only one, and it’s certainly one reason.

The strange story of Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.

A great American died recently:  Sheldon Kennedy.  He infiltrated the third Ku Klux Klan in the WWII and post-WWII years, then wrote about them.  The Klan never forgave him, which made him my friend in spirit on some level.  That got me back to some re-reading in a subject that has long interested me:  the KKK and its kind.

In the mid-1970s (age 12 or so), I happened to pick up a book called My Undercover Years in the Ku Klux Klan, by Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.  In brief:  “Tommy” Rowe was a working-class Georgian who liked to fight, and who infiltrated Bobby Shelton’s Alabama branch of the KKK (at FBI instigation) during the civil rights movement.  He informed (how truthfully, we are uncertain) on the Klan until the 1965 day he was in a vehicle from which Michigan civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo was shot to oblivion near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not far from Birmingham and Selma, AL. The jig was up, of course.  Rowe testified against the assassins (never quite shedding suspicion that he was among them), his cover was well beyond retrieval, and he went into Witness Protection.  He passed away in 1998Here is a brief catchup on his story from a biographer, a more reputable source than the NYT.

In a way, Rowe’s ghosted autobio was one of my first introductions to historiography:  how much of what he said could I believe? I wanted to believe as much of it as possible.  As the descendant of a Kansas Ku Klux Klansman (unless my grandfather lied to me in one of his last fully lucid moments, which I doubt), I have had a longtime antipathy toward their kind–and toward all such organizations.  With a little luck, they feel the same way about me.  Any time you start researching any intelligence matter–and anything to do with the FBI qualifies as such–your historiography and skepticism must kick into passing gear.  You must realize that any of your sources have axes to grind and would willingly lie like rugs, the G-Men as much as the racists.  It’s all up to what you believe credible.  The greatest handicap is to be so emotionally involved that there are sources from which you would believe nothing, and on this topic I leave some paint on that guardrail.

So, thinking of Sheldon Kennedy, I revisited The Informant.  This investigative bio of Rowe came out in 2005.  As one may imagine, so long as Rowe lived, information about him would be elusive; he had betrayed a terrorist organization whose propensity for violence and reprisal he knew as well as any man alive.  Even after his death, it wasn’t easy for Prof. May to find the full story of Tommy Rowe.  At the very least, I can re-read what he did find–and even that must be considered historiographically.  Two of Liuzzo’s living relatives call May a liar.  Whom do we believe? Now you see why history can get so fuzzy.  The sister says she didn’t talk to May.  May disagrees.  Even though the principals are still living, we still must decide who’s lying.

All right.  What do I now make of Tommy Rowe, FBI informant, known racist, thug and adrenaline junkie? There is zero doubt that he participated in violence against the civil rights movement (we’ve got pictures).  Was that justified in the name of maintaining cover? Not an easy ethical question.  Did he fire at Viola Liuzzo? He may have, in order to avoid being immediately next, which does not necessarily mean he fired accurately.  FBI agents with motive to lie said his pistol had not been fired, but that means nothing except that someone (with a motive to lie) told us that a given weapon hadn’t been used.  (His was not the only weapon in existence, of course.  Lots of Americans have more than one pistol.  Some have dozens.  Show them this .22, not that one.)  We cannot know if Rowe fired, nor how effectively. What is well documented:  whether Rowe fired effectively at Viola Liuzzo and her passenger Leroy Moton (a black civil rights volunteer), or shot to death the three other Klansman in the car as they overtook the Liuzzo vehicle, fatal violence was imminent. Someone was about to die, by his hand or another.  Rowe could not have doubted that.

One may argue that this is exactly what Lowe should have done:  three quick, calm shots, executions of backseat fellow, shotgun rider, driver.  Two seconds, three violent bigots erased.  All very well to say, except that neither I nor most of you have ever lived a double life for several years while infiltrating a hate organization.  At this remove, it isn’t so easy to lay fair judgment about Tommy Rowe; he was there, deciding on the spot, and I was not.  Blowing people away in a speeding vehicle (in which you too are riding), before they actually commit a crime, in cold blood, well…that’s asking a lot.  Rowe had no more desire to spend life in jail than anyone else, and up to the moment guns blazed, he was still in cover with a job to do.  When does the infiltrator decide that the game is over, and to change his life forever? Judging this is like judging combat veterans.  We weren’t there; they were.

To call Rowe a civil rights hero is unsupportable, but it is equally indefensible to call him a racist redneck out for only a few thrills, some government dollars and shielding for beating people up (preferably integrationists).  He did tremendous damage to the Ku Klux Klan; unless he murdered a baby doing it, that goal was valuable to any enemy of the KKK.  I don’t have to think him an admirable man to be glad he was where he was.  I think he was a moderate racist, the garden variety who knew the cant and could pass, rather than a virulent bigot who only showed up so that he could beat up blacks with Federal impunity. (You think there is no such thing as a moderate racist? Don’t let the desire to demonize racism make you forget to be careful what you wish for.  I know people who use racist language but aren’t ever going to blow up a church.  I can disapprove of their attitudes while being glad they aren’t going to commit murder.)  Meta-fact:  fear of informers was a leading paralytic to KKK violence in the civil rights era, and after Rowe, it wasn’t paranoia on the Klan’s part; the Feds truly were out to get them.  (Go Feds!)  In the end, Tommy Rowe probably prevented far more racist violence than he participated in, and did vast harm to the Ku Klux Klan.

Sometimes we have to take what we can get–unless we ourselves are willing to step up.  Who’s volunteering for such a thing? Had I not married, I might have done so–but that’s not a story I’ll ever tell in a blog.  Rowe was what the FBI could get.  I would have a very hard time constructing an argument that decency would have been better served had he told the FBI and KKK both to go to hell, or had he died before then in a car accident and we never known him.

Limburger

My guess would be that everyone is revolted by Limburger, just because of its malodorous reputation.  I bet most of you haven’t actually seen, smelt or tasted it.  Fess up: you just looked at it in the foil wrapper, thought “yecch, revolting,” and bought something else–but you never experienced it.  Well, I bought some the other day and tried it (wife is out of town), with the goal of giving you an honest and full description.

I see why it’s in a tightly sealed foil package, because it does have an unpleasant odor.  Sort of like feet with a spoiled poultry nuance.  It is pale yellow and fairly uniform in color, about the color of Munster but with some burnt orange rinding around the edges here and there.  Texture is creamy and not hard, less rigid than cheddar, soft to the point of spreadability.  Cuts easily with dull knife, doesn’t crumble.  No caves like Havarti or a blue cheese.

The next step was to melt some onto food.  If you heat this stuff up, the smell travels a lot farther, but it doesn’t do much for the taste.  I put it onto some pretty bland bean burritos and it was a culinary non-entity.  Here’s the burning question:  is there some great flavor here that would make you brave the bouquet to get the taste, or is this stuff just for practical jokes? I’d describe it as like a milder Gouda, nothing to get excited about.  You buy cheese for what its unique flavor contributes, and here it’s not really very unique, just accompanied by rotting chicken and unwashed feet.  I’ll eat the rest of it just so that it doesn’t go to waste, but without great enthusiasm.

Why people love college football

Granted, not everyone does.  But college football brings with it aspects that simply are not found in professional football, and they are the reasons I like it.  And non-Americans often wonder why in the world we get so wrapped up in this.  Well…

  • 98% of players will never sign seven-figure contracts.  Many are playing to get college educations, and some play and pay their own way.  When I think of what they go through, that’s incredible.
  • A lot of otherwise smart people from lousy backgrounds get chances to get their heads on straight, become educated, experience a different world, have better lives.
  • College football teams do not hold their cities for ransom.  The Seahawks might threaten to move away one day if Seattle doesn’t build them an even fancier stadium.  The Washington Huskies are not leaving Seattle, period.
  • Every region of this nation save Alaska has nearby college football, a rallying point for local interest and pride.
  • Each school has its own set of unifying traditions that make participation more fun, from Texas A&M’s all-male yell leaders to the Stanford Band to the Gator chomp.  Archaic fight songs, unofficial spirit songs, chants, clothing choices, and so much more.
  • One can have a whole bunch of teams one likes, and a whole bunch one just loathes.
  • It’s a better way to channel some old ghosts:  rivalry.  Most people outside Kansas and Missouri, for example, do not know that our states once fought a terrible war, one that had gone on seven years before the Civil War began, with numerous atrocities and reprisals on both sides.  The ghosts still stir a bit, but the annual rivalry matchup gives a way to channel and express that–and a way to remind ourselves that this is a much better way to express it than what we did in the 1850s, which was arson, rustling, robbery, rape, torture and murder.
  • It pays the way for most of the other sports.  Football revenue makes it possible to have men’s golf, women’s tennis, women’s soccer, etc.  Yes, college football is business–but it’s a business that provides lots of ways to be a college athlete, most of them money-losers for the school.
  • College football is diverse and unpredictable.  So many different styles of play, and with amateur players, so many comical and unexpected results.  Weird stuff happens in college ball.
  • Specialty schools with appeal for unique reasons:  military academies, religious schools, prestigious academic schools, and so on.  Every LDS person who wishes can take pride in BYU football; same for Roman Catholics and Notre Dame.  The whole Navy cares about Navy football.  And those who admire outstanding academics must surely respect Stanford and Yale.

In all these areas, college football just pushes the professional version into a wastewater lagoon.

Go Huskies!

Thinking about home security…

This is one of the better pieces I’ve read on how to make your place a harder target for burglars.

There is a reason why I react very badly to solicitors who ignore my sign prohibiting such:  because it helps my home security for them to think a crazy person lives here.  A crazy person probably owns the means of defense, and radiates eagerness to resort to them.  In reality, I am not.  But burglars hate surprises, and a person of seemingly unstable temperament and fierce disposition could present all manner of surprises.

Personally, I think the best home security system is almost free:  know and like your neighbors.  Nearly all my neighbors will keep an eye on this place when I’m not around, just as I do for them.  One pays nothing for this except the nominal contributions to general interdependence and community security that signal membership:  help one another, be friendly, be interested in lives without being nosy.  I think that if the burglars sense for one minute that they might be under surveillance and that someone may already have called the police, they’ll find a softer target.

It’s much like personal self-defense.  You don’t have to be Chuck Norris.  You just need to be a harder target than other people.  It is my view that making my neighbors’ homes harder targets does the same for my own.

Oh, and if a couple well-dressed young men come to your house offering a free evaluation for a home security system, you know what to do, right? Ask them to wait a minute; you left something on the stove.  Go get a camera.  Bring it to the door.  Snap their pictures, and then smile, and let them know you’re sending the photo to the police, because they’d love some photo evidence of likely burglary suspects.  Then make them get the hell off your property.  (You have to be physically imposing to do this the way I did, which involved profanity, a raised voice, and a sports implement, so adjust this to your personal capacity.  But you can certainly dial 911 right in front of them and say, “I have a couple of people pretending to sell security systems here, trying to case houses for burglary in my opinion.  Would you send an officer to deal with them?”)

It’s all about being a hard target. Burglars depend on us being nice, trusting idiots.  Cold, distrustful, intelligent people are hard targets.

Concrete getting interesting

This afternoon I took a look outside.  I saw a section of  my fence completely shattered, a bunch of gnarly tree roots torn up (some large enough to cut up for firewood), and a Bobcat sitting in the dusty, rocky driveway with a rear wheel removed.

It is illogical to conclude that the Bobcat was jacked and stripped by Bobcat thieves.  It is more logical to suppose that the contractor got a flat tire.  That must have annoyed him quite a bit.  So must the tree roots have.  Myself, I’m not too enthused about having a section of the fence blown away, but I’ll find out what happened before I have a reaction.  I’m guessing there was a root running under the old concrete (now removed completely), he got hung up on it with the bucket, and it somehow ripped out that fence section.  He is probably wondering how he’s going to explain it to me.  I am betting this is one of those cases where one gets more with flexibility and patience than with anger and venom.

Tomorrow, at least in theory, he is building forms, and I’ll have to mark where I want the fence brackets, so I’m sure I’ll get an explanation.  It should be very interesting.

Construction at 6:30 AM is noisy

…but that is one of those things we simply bear without too much grousing, as it cannot be changed.  I looked out when I awoke, and a third of my driveway was gone.  I must remember to wear earplugs to bed tomorrow, as I ought to have tonight.  I guess I have had such lousy contractor experiences that, deep down, when they said they’d come, I didn’t believe them.

Yesterday I had an inspiration and need to talk to the contractor.  Why not pour a low speed bump where I park my truck? The logic is that I would use it as a wheel block, really, one additional safeguard against failing to engage the parking brake and forgetting to leave it in first gear.