Sunday, 28 August 2016

Noting a minor milestone, because life is fleeting


Ever hear a new song you love so much you can't stop singing it even in bed so you can't sleep because you can't get it out of your head?  I had the rare pleasure of stumbling on such a song yesterday and have been on a high since.

I made use of that today.  City Boy texted me out of the blue to ask me to ride his horse.  Now, I haven't seen him since November, when he was such an appalling arsehole that I was quite happy never to endure his infantile presence again.  I did see him through a window once since, but that doesn't really count:  In July, City Friend gave a reading from her new novel at a bookstore that was unfortunately located a few doors down from City Boy's fencing salle.  As I walked to and from my car, I could see him sitting at his computer, though he never looked up and I sure as hell didn't wave.   Following the reading, we were invited to a nearby bar.  We wanted something non-alcoholic as it was sweltering, we were dehydrated, and we hadn't eaten, so we ordered ginger beer.  After a bit, City Friend said, "Do you feel funny?"  I didn't.  A few minutes later, it hit me.  I asked the barmaid if there was alcohol in the ginger beer.  She said yes, it was a regional variety that was very alcoholic.  I'd never encountered alcoholic ginger beer, not to be confused with the local delicacy Ginger Libation, which you must try if you haven't (go for the cranberry), and neither had City Friend.  I was so thirsty I had nearly finished mine before this discovery.  City Friend, busy being plied with questions about her book, was not even halfway into hers.  We decided she was in better shape to drive home.  I relate this story because not even in this state was I remotely tempted to tap on the window.

City Boy has an arrangement with our trainer to get a reduction in the board he pays for his horse, Bishop, if he allows her to use him for lessons.  Post break-up it was made clear to him that if he tried to dictate that I couldn't ride Bishop, trainer would rip him a new one – and he's already a big enough asshole that he doesn't need a second.  But he did order me not to ride Bishop outside of lessons – he had installed his new Ego Boost in my place and that was her prerogative now.  But the Ego Boost, as predicted, dumped him after six months, and trainer has taken every opportunity to inform him how good it is for Bishop's development for me to ride him.  He resents this, of course, and she says the same about the Ego Boost, who still rides Bishop as well.  Yes, he now has two exes riding and training his horse for him.

Trainer has been unavailable for lessons most of the summer so it has been frustrating as, being unemployed, I finally have time to ride.  City Boy initially enquired if I had a lesson today and I replied with a rant about trainer's absence.  He then said he was going to do some groundwork with Bishop and I could ride after.  When I showed up for the hand-off, he was uncharacteristically subdued.  He offered to hold Bishop whilst I mounted and to adjust my stirrups.  He said I could ride Bishop whenever I wanted.  He asked if I wanted him to wait whilst I rode as the farm was deserted.  I said no; he left.

There was no emotional fall-out from this meeting.  Looking at him, it was impossible to believe we'd shared a bed for 13 years.  I felt nothing.  I've been through so much dealing with the detritus of that relationship in the last year, in therapy and otherwise, I'm not sure what there is left to feel.

That gave me the mental space to deal with my other issue: fear.  I've ridden since I was a kid, and I did some stupid stuff back then (not that you notice the dain bramage), but my confidence waned as my sense of mortality grew, and my confidence was finally and completely shattered in a bad fall seven years ago, around my 40th birthday.  I fractured my pelvis in three places but it was not the injury per se that haunted me; it was the nature of the fall, from a spook that not a single member of the USET could have sat.  You know those old cartoons where a character goes off a cliff and is sitting there for a few seconds in mid-air, oblivious to his plight?  That was me.  One minute we were trotting sedately across the ring, next I was hanging in mid-air wondering which body part was going to hit the ground first and how much it was going to hurt.  It felt like I had a really long time to think about this.  I swear, my horse was back in the barn, in her stall, before I touched the ground.  It's funny, we spend so much time training horses to do lateral work, and they resist, maintaining that it is just too difficult to move sideways.  But one scary noise and you get some impromptu Olympic-level lateral moves.  Too bad we can't video these to show the horse later, "See, don't tell me you can't do a side pass!"

That fall occurred when I was going downhill in a bleak period of my life and I lost confidence in all areas, not only riding.  What rattled me when I tried riding again was the lack of control.  This was not a spook I could have prevented or anticipated, nor something I could have sat by being a better rider.  That fear made me a timid rider, and horses, being prey animals, are sensitive to their rider's emotions.  If you are tense and nervous, your horse, used to picking up life-saving cues from other members of the herd, assumes there is a good reason for this.  He becomes tense and nervous, and more likely to spook, which creates a vicious circle.  My trainer has cleverly dealt with my fears by working me hard in lessons; she keeps me too busy for fear to get a foothold in my consciousness.  (And it's a win-win because she says she can't work at this high level with any other rider in the barn.)

But now I was alone.  Not just not in a lesson, but the only human on the entire farm.  The chickens, alpacas, goats, and other horses weren't interested, and the barn cat was nowhere to be seen (she wouldn't have cared either).  So, I cued up my playlist on Spotify, set up my wireless speaker in the arena, and rode to music.  I sang out loud, swaying to the music, playing a variety of songs but with the seductive new one in high rotation.  I think Bishop was a bit nonplussed; not sure if he shares my taste.  But he felt I was relaxed and happy, not tense and anxious, so he was, too.

After about 45 minutes of work, and this after City Boy had already lunged him, Bishop was getting a bit fatigued in the heat.  He didn't want to canter and I was going to let it go – he is still green and lacks the confidence to canter with a rider, we'd done a lot of work already, I hadn't ridden in awhile due to trainer's schedule and my back problem, and there wasn't anyone else there.  But then the song from that euphoric scene in Brave when Merida gallops through the countryside happened to come on and I told Bishop he had to go for it.  He caught my excitement and I got a beautiful uphill canter depart.  I didn't make him go in a circle; I didn't ask for a collected canter.  Instead, I whooped and hollered at him and let him go all the way around the arena, as if we were galloping across the countryside, something I haven't done in a decade.  He's normally so afraid of losing his balance cantering with a rider that he won't hold it more than a few strides.  It was such a novel experience for him to have someone whooping at him to go, go, go, that he forgot to be afraid and he figured out how to carry me without trying, he just did it.

Afterward, I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him and he seemed quite pleased with himself.  When I told my trainer later that I thought he'd had fun, she said, "You let him be a horse."  We're always so fixated on what he has to learn, doing exercises that challenge his body and mind, that I don't think he usually has any fun when he is ridden.  He endures it, as horses do, but he doesn't enjoy it.

Why is this blog-worthy?  Well, all blogs are self-indulgent but, more specifically, I have few moments of pure, unadulterated joy in my life.  I am a lucky first-world denizen; it's not that I live in a war zone or in poverty, I'm not depressed.  It's, well, without going into details that would upset family, suffice to say I was raised in an environment where happiness, however fleeting, whether induced by endorphins or luck or love, was feared and discouraged.  Happiness was not to be trusted.  I never bought into this on a rational level, but it has affected me on a subconscious one.  I can't feel that welling of happiness in my chest without having to fight an automatic urge to tamp it down.  The few times true happiness has won through have involved music or horses, and in the last 24 hours, I've experienced both, and combined them successfully.

On Thursday, I ran into a former work colleague in a local coffeehouse.  She was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer last December and quit to focus full-time on her treatment.  With her husband and kids, she is going through her bucket list, trying to make the most of the time she has left.  She was excited to report she'd just gone to a Bruce Springsteen concert.  She's a year younger than me.  I'd like to live life to the full without the wake-up call of a terminal disease.  I'd like to not resist every positive feeling or experience.  So, it's a start.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Crescat scientia; vita excolatur: U of C tells students where they can stick their safe spaces


It's that time of year, when helicopter parents alight on college campuses to deposit their precious snowflakes into a carefully-structured-and-scripted environment free of critical thinking, analytical debate, and intellectual rigour.  (Judging from my local state school, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll are apparently still okay, though.)  Institutions around the country have bent over backwards to enact speech codes in response to student demands to ensure that their college education is free of any words and ideas that might hurt their widdle feelings and/or make them feel 'uncomfortable'.  So, it was a pleasant surprise this morning to see that, in a move sure to get the knickers of every SJW in a twist, the University of Chicago sent the following letter to incoming freshmen.  Go ahead and read the whole thing.  I'll wait.
Click photo to enlarge to readable size.  Or
get a magnifying glass, your choice.
Take particular note of this:

"You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.  At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort."

And this:

"Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

The letter links to a report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which includes this statement:

“It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.  Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”  (Emphasis added.)

Speech codes, in case you haven't been following the reductio ad absurdum of academic censorship, and their bastard offspring, trigger warnings and safe spaces, restrict speech that would be protected by the First Amendment outside of campus.  Public colleges and universities are prohibited from enacting unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech, although many of them remain blissfully oblivious to their illegality and do so anyway.  Private schools are free to do as they choose, although, as institutions of higher education, they have an inherent obligation to embrace and encourage the free exchange of ideas.

It should be prima facie obvious that all of these forms of censorship are antithetical to a free society, let alone a place of higher learning.  Speech control is tantamount to thought control.  The belief that these protections are warranted follows, in some cases, from a viewpoint that college isn't the real world:  College students may no longer be caterpillars but they are not yet butterflies and they need protection in this delicate chrysalis stage in order to be able to eventually spread their wings.  It's true that college is a unique transitional stage but fashioning it into a solipsistic cocoon is hardly preparation for the real world.  If students are so sensitive that they cannot learn outside of a safe space replete with trigger warnings and stripped of all inadvertent microaggressions, what the hell are they going to do when they graduate?

Even scarier, in other cases, justification for campus censorship lies in a fundamental lack of understanding of the value of free speech and the dangers of viewpoint discrimination.  We all agree that racism is wrong, the thinking goes, and racial minorities have suffered long enough, so by prohibiting any expression that may be interpreted as racist, whether intended that way or not, we are simply ensuring that minority students are shielded from any vestiges of racism that remain in the unenlightened.  We are taking our duty to provide education seriously: We are teaching students what they are allowed to think, just like in the USSR, Maoist China, and madrassas.  Oh, wait….. 

You thought schools were supposed to teach students how to think not what to think?  Yeah, you are a little behind the times.  Wake up and smell the Fair Trade decaf and don't be late for your course on how The Vagina Monologues is insensitive to transgender women.

So, seeing U of C buck the trend and stand up for free expression on college campuses made my day.  Hell, it might even have restored my faith in humanity.  But let's not get carried away – we still have to get through the election.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Dorothy Parker is my Spirit Animal

It’s Dorothy Parker’s birthday.  She’d be 123 if she were still alive and I wish she was around to opine dryly on the election.  She did, in effect, comment on Trump when she said, “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to”.  One could also apply, “Never throw mud. You may miss your mark, but you will have dirty hands”.  Little hands, in this case.

She’d put Maureen Dowd in her place right quick.  Dowd’s latest anti-Hillary diatribe was especially low as it couched itself disingenuously as taking aim at Trump; the shots at Clinton had an unsettling appearance of friendly fire.

Also just as relevant today, one on the Abrahamic religions that, through public policy, the education system, or terrorism (depending upon the religion and the day) keep trying to force the world back into the Dark Ages: “You can't teach an old dogma new tricks”. 

Parker was a rapier wit, which she distinguished from being a wise-ass thusly:  “There's a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”  There was always truth in her words, but she wasn’t above the occasional wisecrack just for the joy of wordplay, e.g.: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.”

Hermione was definitely channeling Parker when she snapped at Ron, "Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn't mean we all have”.  Parker’s related lines were: “Their pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon” and "Her emotions run the gamut from A to B".

I was introduced to the truth in Parker’s words as a child who was forced to get glasses in the fourth grade.  (Yes, despite being in a large public school, someone noticed I was blind as a fucking bat.)  By the time I entered high school, I was leery of the veracity of her line, “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” so I have worn contact lenses since the age of 14.

Based on experience, I have since amended Parker’s line to “Men seldom make passes at girls with fat asses”.  (Meghan Trainor notwithstanding)

When I was a bit older, I learned the truth of her quip, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie”.

I write a lot of book reviews so these amuse me: "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”  “This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

These remind me of my depressed, agoraphobic mother: “There was nothing separate about her days. Like drops on the window-pane, they ran together and trickled away.” 

If you looked for things to make you feel hurt and wretched and unnecessary, you were certain to find them, more easily each time, so easily, soon, that you did not even realize you had gone out searching.”

Not being a heavy drinker, I can’t relate to this one, but I appreciate its humour: "I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I'm under the table, after four I'm under my host.”

Apropos of the above, I’ve never had enough drink to experience the truth of: “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

Parker was also an insomniac: “How do people go to sleep? I'm afraid I've lost the knack.”

This one may account for the fact that I have a purebred stallion but no savings account: “Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.” 

She never really bought into the notion that Hollywood was a sea of Reds: “The only “ism” Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.”  But she was blacklisted and had an FBI file over 1,000 pages long.  She was born to a Jewish father and protestant mother, and raised on the UWS, attending a Catholic convent school.  She was about as popular there as I was at mine, although, unlike me, she managed to avoid getting the boot.  She was reportedly disciplined for referring to the Immaculate Conception as "spontaneous combustion," which, let's face it, sounds like something I would have said were I as clever.  Although she did not relate to the Jewish part of her heritage, she was active in combating anti-Semitism, and other civil rights causes.  She willed her estate to MLK and the NAACP.  It was, in fact, the NAACP that finally provided her with a headstone inscribed with her chosen epitaph: "Excuse my dust."

I’ve often said that I’ve never been bored for so much as a millisecond in my life.  So I have always appreciated: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

Having been hounded by collection agencies most of my adult life, I find myself uttering, “What fresh hell can this be?” every time the phone rings or I fetch the post.

I've used this one, too: “Of course I talk to myself. I like a good speaker, and I appreciate an intelligent audience.”

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”  This is inscribed on my bathroom mirror.

All women would do with taking this one to heart at a young age:

In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.

There's one for when you're having a lovers’ quarrel: “Don't look at me in that tone of voice.”  I’ve used this so often I sometimes forget it isn’t mine.

She was, understandably, a wee bit cynical about love: “Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.”  “She was pleased to have him come and never sorry to see him go.”  After an abortion: “It serves me right for putting all my eggs in one bastard.” 

It is easy to empathise with her frustration at men always leaving her for prettier, less brainy women:

I had been fed, in my youth, a lot of old wives' tales about the way men would instantly forsake a beautiful woman to flock around a brilliant one. It is but fair to say that, after getting out in the world, I had never seen this happen."

"They hate you whenever you say anything you really think. You always have to keep playing little games. Oh, I thought we didn't have to; I thought this was so big I could say whatever I meant. I guess you can't, ever. I guess there isn't ever anything big enough for that.” 

"To keep something, you must take care of it. More, you must understand just what sort of care it requires. You must know the rules and abide by them. She could do that. She had been doing it all the months, in the writing of her letters to him. There had been rules to be learned in that matter, and the first of them was the hardest: never say to him what you want him to say to you. Never tell him how sadly you miss him, how it grows no better, how each day without him is sharper than the day before. Set down for him the gay happenings about you, bright little anecdotes, not invented, necessarily, but attractively embellished."

Lady, lady, never start
Conversation toward your heart;
Keep your pretty words serene;
Never murmur what you mean.
Show yourself, by word and look,
Swift and shallow as a brook.
Be as cool and quick to go
As a drop of April snow;
Be as delicate and gay
As a cherry flower in May.

Lady, lady, never speak
Of the tears that burn your cheek-
She will never win him, whose
Words had shown she feared to lose.
Be you wise and never sad,
You will get your lovely lad.
Never serious be, nor true,
And your wish will come to you-
And if that makes you happy, kid,
You'll be the first it ever did.” 

Which makes this a fitting motto for her to have coined: “Living well is the best revenge.”  

But she was more optimistic about friends: “Constant use had not worn ragged the fabric of their friendship.”  

And this one is just perfect in every way: “Tell him I was too fucking busy-- or vice versa.” 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Trumptanic

My god, is it Xmas already?  For pundits and comedians, the Trump campaign has been the gift that keeps on giving.  As someone on Fark put it, “I’m not sure I can handle this much schadenfreude so early in the day”.

And it’s Bill Clinton’s 70th birthday — coincidence?

Fark, as usual, scores with the best headline, "Paul Manafort has resigned from the Trump campaign in order to spend more time at his summer home in Kiev”.

If half the stories about his Russian connections are true, he may soon be flat-sharing with Snowden.  Perhaps, as one Farker suggested, they could do a sitcom.

Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall the Clinton campaign bringing up Manafort’s dodgy past working for the corruption-laden pro-Russia party of Ukraine’s former president Victor Yanukovych.  Even Trump's illegal solicitation of foreign campaign contributions was dismissed as incompetence.  But you can imagine what a meal the Trump campaign would have made of any whiff of wrongdoing by a Clinton staffer.

Is Hillary even campaigning at this point or just sitting back and waiting for Trump to open his mouth again?  I’d say you could set your watch by his gaffes, but there may be more than one an hour.  His outreach to black voters could not have gone worse if David Duke had been manning the teleprompter.

Being a Trump advisor must be the easiest job in the world.  Since he listens to no-one and does exactly as he pleases, you just collect your cheque for doing sweet fuck all.  I’m currently job hunting.  If I had no morals or scruples whatsoever, I’d get in on a piece of that.

We've moved beyond dumpster fire to Port-a-Potty inferno.
As amusing as this is on some levels, it is also disheartening and alarming that there are people stupid and ignorant enough to vote for Trump.  No matter how thoroughly his campaign self-conflagrates between now and November, there will still be voters who will tick his name on the ballot.  If this Daily Show segment was not staged, I give up all hope for the future.  Some columnists, like Nicholas Kristof here, think that Trump is making Americans meaner.  Of course, he is merely serving as a catalyst to encourage latent attitudes to bubble to the surface.  The meanness, and the sexism, racism, and xenophobia, were always present in Americans but most major party candidates in the last 50 years had been careful to keep their calls to those voters at the proverbial dog whistle level.  The Republican party feigned chagrin when Trump made those appeals openly.  And everyone else delighted in their discomfiture (there’s a surfeit of schadenfreude going around this election season).  This is the party the Rethugs were creating by serving the policy interests of the rich by getting the poor to vote against their own interests with coded appeals to the basest social conservative attitudes.  

They had a great bait and switch game going:  Obscure the fact that your policies are making life harder for the majority of your voters by feeding into the rawest human instincts to blame the Other.  Scapegoating to deflect attention from their own policies has been their MO for decades.  And a black Muslim community organiser from Kenya as president just made it that much easier, not to mention a female candidate as their opponent.  Blame immigrants, blame blacks, blame women, and don’t look too closely at what we’re actually not doing to help you.  Then Trump comes along and misses the dog whistle part, embarrassing the GOP.  Except…it works:  The base the party has cultivated gives Trump the nomination.  Some prominent GOPers were gobsmacked.  Apparently, they’ve never heard the old expression “you reap what you sow”.

On the academic side, some political scientists, such as Larry Sabato, view Trump as an anomaly: "I'm old enough to have closely followed the 1964 and 1972 presidential campaigns, so I've seen the parties commit suicide before….the grass roots of the party can occasionally rebel and conquer the establishment, as Goldwater, McGovern, and most of all, Trump prove."  But other scholars, like rising star Matthew MacWilliams, warn that Trump is an omen of authoritarians to come: "Trump's authoritarian, ascriptive message is not an anomaly in American history. Its success in 2016, however, is and represents a potentially concerning development for Madisonian democracy (and civil society). Trump's core support is firmly rooted in authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force with which to be reckoned. Democracy is about compromise. Authoritarianism is about us-versus-them."  The rest of that debate is here.

Trump himself even seemed a little surprised he got that far.  He didn’t give a flying fuck about the GOP platform (although he did tone down the clownish orange hair to a less risible trust-me-I'm-a-grandfather grey – someone overruled him there) but it somehow sank in that, as a Republican candidate, he had to parrot some basic Republican policy positions.  Except he doesn’t share these views or grasp the nuances of how the GOP uses them to appeal to social conservatives, so his parroting was more like a parody. When he pretended to be opposed to abortion (he is most assuredly in favour of it, especially for unattractive women and minorities), he made the logical leap to prosecuting women for having illegal abortions.  Except the GOP doesn't go there - the standard rhetoric is to punish providers but treat women as victims.  Oops, Trump didn’t get that nuance, and none of his advisors (he hires the “best people” doncha know) filled him in.  Then he paid perfunctory lip service to the current GOP campaign to defund Planned Parenthood because they provide abortions, but he made the mistake of saying they do good work for a lot of women, not realising he was supposed to vilify the entire organisation as a satanic tool of the anti-Christ.  Whoops again.  And so it goes.  His remarks on abortion and Planned Parenthood make a superficial kind of sense - if abortion were illegal, then why wouldn’t women who sought abortions be punished for violating the law, and if the objection to Planned Parenthood is that it provides abortions, why not distinguish that from its other healthcare services.  But the abortion issue is used by the GOP in a purely emotional way; there is no real desire on the part of the party to outlaw abortion or even reduce its occurrence.  It’s purely a vehicle for securing votes, not making policy; it isn't supposed to make sense.

So, we have the overt appeals to the basest tendencies of the base, and the bungled parroting of GOP policy stances.  That’s two ways Trump has embarrassed the party for which he is technically now the party leader.  But we’ve saved the best for last: He pretends to take the side of the working classes, promising to promulgate (not that he knows that word) policies that would help them.  He doesn’t vow to end Social Security and repeal Obamacare; he says he is going to protect SS and replace Obamacare with "something great, something terrific”.  Now, to be fair, previous GOP candidates learned to tone down their rhetoric on gutting entitlements, especially Medicare and Social Security.  They could safely campaign on cutting off those deadbeats on welfare and foodstamps, but too many GOP voters were at or near 65 and glib calls to privatise Social Security or cut Medicare benefits proved to be political suicide.  Instead they kept up the rallying cry of tax cuts and more tax cuts but promised to preserve the entitlements that hardworking seniors had paid into.  How?  Well, they were always a bit circumspect about that part, maybe by cutting veterans’ benefits and education funds, eliminating the EPA, and that always convenient line to find money by cutting waste and fraud.  But Trump took it a step further by promising to help the working class economically.  The GOP had always persuaded the poor to vote against their economic interests using appeals to the socially conservative tendencies created by their ignorant myopia and religiosity.  The party never had to explicitly promise them anything economically; they didn’t have to be that disingenuous.  Just mention abortion or "states' rights" and they had the votes.

None of Trump’s promises are reality-based, such as ending free trade and bringing back blue collar manufacturing jobs, and of course he has no affinity with nor concern for the working class whatsoever, but combine these simplistic promises with his openly sexist, racist and xenophobic rhetoric, and the base goes wild.  He is telling them exactly what they want to hear.  Some pundits warn against being so scathingly condescending toward Trump’s supporters, to which I reply, why not?  They don't have a collective IQ of room temperature, and contempt is not tantamount to complacency.  The GOP, like a lawyer selecting a jury, has always favoured the uneducated and ignorant because they are easier to manipulate.  If you own an oil company, you want a populace who is taught creationism in the schools.  Much easier to convince such people that climate change is a liberal hoax than people who have had any science education.

Trump’s success has waned after the primaries in part due to his lack of understanding of electoral politics.  A certain percentage of the electorate, let’s call it 45% on each side, although that is just a simplification for explanatory purposes, will always vote R or D.  A tiny fraction of those one-party voters will bother to vote in the primaries, likely those who are most rabidly partisan.  In the primaries, candidates are trying to distinguish themselves from other members of their own party with whom they presumably share broad agreement on policy.  Usually, but not always (see: 2016 Republican primary) after the vitriolic dust settles, the parties pick the most moderate, presidential-looking and well-funded candidate.  The far-right and far-left fringe candidates on either side get weeded out as unviable and unpalatable to the majority (bye, bye Bernie).  The nominees then pivot to the general, where they are both going for the exact same voters: The 10% in the middle who are undecided.  The entire general election is about these undecided voters.  Now, it is more complicated than that when you factor in motivation — there are both undecided and firmly partisan voters who may not bother to go to the polls, and candidates need to inspire them, especially in swing states.  But the point is that in the general election campaign, both candidates need to fall all over themselves to seem as moderate and inoffensive to every constituency as possible.  They don’t have to worry about alienating their base — the dedicated D and R voters realise that campaign rhetoric is 50% bullshit and 50% horse shit, and they trust their party’s candidate to roughly toe the party line once elected (which does not translate to following the party platform, which is generally ignored by everyone and probably never even read by most candidates, let alone voters).  So far, there has been no sign that Trump is moderating his campaign rhetoric for the general or that he is even aware that this is a thing that candidates do and why.  Granted, if you're still an undecided voter in this election, you are too stupid to be allowed to vote.

Candidates also don’t waste money and time campaigning in all 50 states.  They skip states whose electoral votes have usually gone to the other party and appear likely to do so again.  According to Politico, 33 states have voted for the same party in the last five presidential elections.  The candidates know to focus on the larger swing states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.  If the Electoral College were eliminated and the presidential election decided by the popular vote, it would dramatically change campaigning, likewise if more states gave out their electoral votes proportionally.  As it stands, candidates can target their ads and their appearances to only the swing states with the most electoral votes at stake.  Well, apparently Trump missed that memo, too.  He has been campaigning in blue states, including NY, CT, ME, and OR.  His staff says he is planning to go to Ohio at some point, but it doesn't seem to be a priority.

As Trump’s campaign continues to self-destruct, it's tempting to get complacent.  Don't.  No-one thought he'd win the primary either.  And there's another old saying: 

If you're sick of hearing about the election, (and, at this point, I think most of us cheered when comedian Lewis Black, on one of the final Nightly Show episodes, ordered: "If you wanna do it this long, then it has to stop Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day.  JUST SHUT UP!  It's the fucking summer, okay?") and you read just one story about the Olympics, make it the one about Steele Johnson.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Mountains, Moose, and Maple Syrup

Vermont is the most beautiful place on earth, full stop.  Ok, so there is also this:

& this:
& wherever the fuck this is:
I would love to visit all of these places, especially here:
& here:
But not if it meant never seeing Vermont again.

If Vermont is the most beautiful place on earth, the most beautiful place in Vermont is the Northeast Kingdom (NEK).  My love affair with the NEK began in college when a book on display in the town's bookshop caught my eye.  (Yeah, clearly I didn't graduate from college recently.  An independent local bookshop: that dates me.)  The compelling cover photo, of an autumn morning glowing with the bright colours of fall foliage and mist shrouding a quaint farm in a valley, encompassed everything I loved about Vermont.  The book was called The View from the Kingdom.

I bought it and discovered that the northeast corner of the state of Vermont, comprising three counties, 2,000 sq. miles, and about 64,000 people, was christened the Northeast Kingdom by the state's governor in 1949.  White settlers came to the NEK relatively late – it lies outside the Green Mountain range, with a rocky landscape shaped by glaciers and a short growing season due to its northern latitude.  The people who live there are accurately described as hardy, and, to a person, each owns a four-wheel drive pick-up truck, a huge stack of firewood, & little else.  A truck is the only way to get around in the winter, other than a snowmobile or skis, and a serious supply of firewood is the only way to survive it.  People are poor up there; farming and tourism compose the local economy, such as it is.  Much like the Stockholm archipelago, the NEK is replete with glacial lakes.  The View from the Kingdom is divided into four sections, for each of the four seasons.  Three of them – Summer, Fall, Winter  -- are achingly beautiful.  The fourth, well, the less said about mud season, the better.

Lest you think I am exaggerating about how spectacular the NEK is, Wikipedia, hardly a bastion of effusive hyperbole, has this to say: "In 2006, the National Geographic Society named the Northeast Kingdom as the most desirable place to visit in the country and the ninth most desirable place to visit in the world."

The U.S. has a lot going for it scenically.  If the NGS says the NEK is the most desirable place to visit, that's saying something.

In the late 80s, a couple bought 20 acres in Irasburg and built a medieval-style castle on it.  Oh, and an airstrip – the husband was a pilot.  So, somewhat unusual mix of old and new.  In 2008, they decided it was time to take their aging bones to warmer climes.  They hung a For Sale sign from the ramparts and moved to the Southwest.  I can't articulate how much I wanted this castle.  Any place I buy must have flat land for horses and virtually no piece of property is flat in the NEK.  The land used for the airstrip would have been perfect. (And I could remake Ladyhawke in my backyard.)  City Boy was a medieval historian and we'd often fantasized about building a castle when we struck it rich.  But the NEK is a bit too isolated for year-round living – you have to go 100 miles to find an opera and twice that to find a Starbucks.  But I suppose a castle is a fitting summer home if one is royal.  Of course, it was a pipe dream, I could no more afford a castle than kiss a toad and have him turn into a prince.

I've never even had the money to go on a proper holiday, so I needed an excuse to finally visit the NEK.  I found it in a race called the Kingdom Run.  It's a multi-distance race, with a choice of 5K, 10K, or half-marathon, following an out-and-back course along a dirt road.  It's all uphill in both directions – your grandfather's stories were true.  The race starts and finishes on the quaint Irasburg common, opposite the wee library with its armchairs and fireplace that would be so inviting on a dark winter day.  All proceeds from entry fees go to the NEK spay/neuter program.  Lest you forget the good cause the race is supporting, the mile marker signs have paw prints painted on.  The route passes the castle, a local curiosity and landmark, and the race t-shirts feature a line drawing of it.
The first year I ran it, I brought City Boy and my dog.  I could only find one dog-friendly place to stay, a motel that seemed to cater to fishermen, with a depressing film noir vibe.  (I'm not a motel kind of girl.)  But the young couple who had just purchased it planned to fix it up, and it did have a little stream in which the dog could cool his paws.  We asked about dog-friendly dinner options (i.e., places with outdoor seating) and were directed to a pizza joint in the middle of nowhere.  Following the directions, I could not believe there was going to be a restaurant at the end.  But not only was it there, it was packed.  You have to bear in mind that everywhere is the middle of nowhere in the NEK, and you never know what you might find (including bears).

Second time I brought a friend and we stayed at a Swedish B&B up in Newport.  This little overnight jaunt ended up becoming quite the adventure.  On the way up, just as we passed White River Jct., the clutch on my car gave out.  It was the original clutch and the car had about 174K miles on it.  It had been slipping on occasion and I knew I was going to have to replace it eventually but I didn't know it would suddenly decide to give up the ghost 100 miles from home.  I turned around and tried to coax it back down I-91 but it would not stay in any gear so we had to pull over and ring AAA.  They only tow within 100 miles and we just squeaked in at about 99.8.  We had to endure the drive back in the cab of the tow truck with the ancient toothless driver who, although perfectly nice, talked only about fishing.  My Volvo repair guy took pity on me and gave us a loaner car, and we started out all over again, after buying some overpriced hot bar food from Whole Paycheque as we realised everything would be closed by the time we got in the vicinity of Newport.  The B&B was quaint and its owner friendly.  It is quite expensive but the Swedish aesthetic made it a must-try for me.  Alas, as we chatted with the owner after our very late arrival, and got the grand tour, her little dog discovered my dinner and ate it.  Ah, well, it was that kind of day.  The next morning I had to leave for the race so my friend generously offered to eat my share of the Swedish breakfast.  What are friends for, right?  I know I can always rely on her that way.

"All visitors are expected to return to their
country of origin following performances."

After the race, we decided to visit Derby Line.  This town straddles the border, with the Canadian half called Stanstead.  I wanted to see the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, built right on the border, and the B&B owner had recommended a bakery to try on the Canadian side.  In the Haskell, the audience sits in the U.S. and the stage is in Canada.  In the library portion, the circulation desk is in the U.S. but the books are in Canada.  There is a line painted on the floor to show the international border.  During the Vietnam War, draft dodgers met with their families here.  As long as they did not put a toe over the line, they were safe from arrest.
Yes, that is a horse hitched at a petrol station
convenience store in Derby Line.

Prima facie, the town looked normal, but there was something eerie about it.  Pre-9/11, border security was virtually non-existent.  Except for major thoroughfares with border patrol for cars, no markings existed along the streets to indicate the border, and pedestrians and cars were free to cross unmolested.  The line goes through the middle of residential streets, across parks and backyards, through houses and factories.  Oh, also restaurants – I'll leave you to guess what happened during Prohibition.  Post 9/11, everything abruptly changed.  New border patrol guards were sent to the town as the old ones refused to enforce the new rules on their families, friends and neighbours.  There are still no visible markings to show when you cross the border but, if you do, whether inadvertently or on purpose, border security appears out of nowhere, in vehicles, with foghorns or via helicopter.  There are cameras everywhere – that eerie feeling turned out to be an (accurate) sense of being watched.  Whilst looking for a parking space to walk to the bakery, we accidentally crossed the border four times.  Yes, four.  And, after having our car searched at length and being treated like potential terrorists (two girls in sundresses – really TSA?), we were really trying not to cross it.  We heard a story about a man who lives on the U.S. side across the street from his married daughter on the Canadian side.  He used to walk directly across the road to have dinner at her house.  But when he tried to do that post-9/11, cameras brought security down on him.  He refused to stop until he was repeatedly arrested and fined for violating new rules that require going through an official border crossing with a passport.  I shit you not.  You cannot walk across the street anymore, even though there is no visible barrier or security personnel.  It is fucking surreal.

One final odd anecdote from that bizarre trip was that the woman behind the counter in the bakery (Yes, we eventually parked on the U.S. side and walked there, showing our passports for the 5th time as we crossed on foot at an official border crossing.  We noticed that most of the businesses along each side of the border had closed since 9/11 – it was depressing.) claimed not to speak English.  My French was adequate to the task but I find it impossible to believe someone living there, although technically in Francophone Quebec but within a mile of the U.S. border, had never learned a word of English.

My recent trip was solo.  The clutch was fine – this one had better last another 174K miles – but the A/C does not work, something that never bothered me until I tried to take a road trip in 90F+ weather.  I can't abide having the windows open at highway speeds, so, by the time I arrived, I could literally wring my clothes out.  Also, my CD player hasn't worked since last fall.  I tried to tune in radio stations along the way but didn't have much luck.  I heard a bizarre story on Vermont's NPR station about a high school basketball game in the South in the early 90s in which a team of two players (the others having been sent off for fouls – the equivalent of a red card) somehow beat a team of five players.  Not sure why this was news 25 years later but they made it into a weirdly gripping tale.

I love driving I-91 in Vermont because there is almost no traffic.  And the further north you go, the more it thins out.  Virtually all the plates are from out of state as tourists ascend in all seasons (except spring; no-one goes to Vermont in mud season, with good reason).  And everyone drives at least 80mph so you can make decent time.  This is partly because the drivers are from states like CT, NY, and NJ, but mainly because everyone knows Vermont's state trooper has better things to do.  Vermont also has the best rest stops, built to look like barns, clean and full of tourist maps and local artefacts.

I always smile at the "MOOSE STAY ALERT" signs.  It's so considerate of Vermont to remind the moose to stay alert when crossing the Interstate.

I stopped in White River Jct. for dinner, because I know where to find a bathroom there and it's roughly the halfway point.  It's a quiet historic railroad town.  At the Co-op I bought organic vegan linguini with organic kale pesto and maple sap to wash it down.  It doesn't get much more Vermont than that.  If only I'd had some nutritional yeast to sprinkle on top in lieu of parmesan.

My destination was about a half hour outside of a town that I figured must have an ice cream stand.  Didn't take me long to find it (I have a reliable homing instinct for ice cream) and I chose a combo of raspberry and dark chocolate gelato.  The teen girl behind the counter gushed about how good that sounded.  What, like I'd choose a bad ice cream combo?

The final part of the journey was along dirt roads.  There is no cell service in most of the NEK so your GPS won't help you -- you have to write down your directions the old-fashioned way.  Even if you note the miles between each turn, you will start to wonder if you took a wrong one somewhere, and if you are ever going to reach your destination.  Reeve Lindbergh (yes, daughter of Charles and Anne), the writer of The View from the Kingdom, famously tells guests trying to negotiate the dirt roads to reach her farmhouse, "Drive North forever and don't lose heart!"

Moose are a popular decorating theme in the NEK.

Moore moose.

Did I mention the moose decorating theme?
It was difficult to find a place to stay this time.  I had planned the trip before I left my job so could not now afford to go.  I couldn't take advantage of the breakfast in a B&B but I didn't want to stay in a skeevy motel alone.  And every place I rang was either fully booked, too expensive, and/or had a check-out time that precluded going back to shower after the race, which was non-negotiable.  The place I found turned out to be perfect.  It was a log cabin-style house with four guest rooms on the ground floor, family living upstairs.  The couple that run it had been coming up at weekends for over a decade and finally decided, fuck it, we can work remotely, we're staying for good.  It was a bit of an adjustment for their two sons, but they are more relaxed and happy now, despite the ins and outs of running a guest house.

Think I brought enough yarn?
The only drawback was the lack of WiFi, but I was able to get enough cell reception to make calls and check my email on my phone and I took advantage of being untethered from my computer to finish a book and start knitting for my sister's baby (niece Ada Sofia was born last week – I'm a little behind schedule).

They say that athletes should be abstinent the night before a competition or risk their night time performance compromising their performance the next day.  But the only way I was going to place in my age group was if I were the only one running in my age group, which, in this particular race, was a real possibility.  But as I had no-one with me to fuck, it was a moot issue.

The drive to Irasburg took me the length of Lake Willoughby, one of the most spectacular of the region's glacial relics.  I spotted parking and beaches at both the northern and southern tips and was determined to go jump in the lake, literally, after the race.  But it was only in the 60s and the drizzle picked up into a steady rain as the race began.  I counted around 20 participants, all of whom left me far behind before we'd even crossed the common.  I was only about 4 miles in before the rest of the field passed me on their way back from the turnaround point.  We were running on the left side of the dirt road, against "traffic" (I use that term loosely as I saw far more horses, cows, and alpaca than cars), but at about mile 5, a race official in a pick-up truck pulled up alongside me to warn me to cross over to the right for awhile as there was a bees' nest ahead on the left and 5 or 6 runners had been stung.  That heads'-up was quite literally the only advantage to being last.

I didn't take this photo (remember it was pissing down rain)
but this is Lake Willoughby on a nicer day.
The course is peaceful and only the chronic pain in my back, the chilly rain, and the humiliation of being dead last kept me from enjoying it more.  I tried to adjust my posture to ease my back but nothing helps.  I have tried to accept that I am never going to get to the bottom of what's causing it and to just carry on despite it and not let it circumscribe my life so much.  It has cut into my marathon training far too much already and I simply need to suck it up and learn to ignore it.  So, I gritted my teeth and did just that.

When I got to the turnaround point, a race official in a pick-up truck collected the signs and cones, and the volunteers, who had been waiting just for me, finally got to get out of the rain.  As I made my way back along the course past each water stop and intersection, the truck followed and picked up the race paraphernalia behind me.  I apologised to the volunteers at each station, using my "I'm not built for speed" line.  But the truck crawling alongside me was spoiling the tranquillity of the route and I finally asked him not to follow me.

When the rest of the runners passed me on their way back, each shouted the usual encouraging drivel, "You're a champion!", "Lookin' good!", "Keep going, you can do it!", etc.  In NYC, I used to give everyone the finger and curse them out volubly when they did this, but I don't want to risk being asked not to return to my favourite race, so I forced myself to ignore them.  As I approached the finish line, I was dreading having to run the gauntlet of the remaining crowd's clapping and condescending encouragement.  As if it isn't humiliating enough to finish last, the cheery, patronising "Look at you!  You did it!  You're a winner!" makes one feel like a retard completing an event in the Special Olympics.  But I had no choice if I wanted to finish.  The finish line was being taken down as I crossed it but cross it I did, and I managed to keep my temper and confine myself to snapping, "There's no glory in last place."  One reason I love this race is because there are so few people, and they are so nice, but I will never be able to tolerate that nonsense.

I ran hard for the entire race.  I never slowed down and never walked.  I don't approve of people walking in races – if you have to walk, you have no business entering.  I was never tempted to walk; I can pretty much run forever.  The problem is I can't do it fast.  My time was 3:01, with an average pace of 13:46.  For comparison, the winner finished in 1:18.  The winner of the last NY Marathon finished in 2:05.  Yes, he ran twice as far in nearly an hour less.  I was 6th out of 6 in my age group, with the next-to-last finisher 13 minutes ahead of me.  There was one runner in the race older than me – a 68-year-old man who finished in 2 hours.

I used to fret over how slow I am.  When I started running in 2001, I test-ran a mile full-out at my absolute limit, in 8:30.  My race pace at that time was around 10:15.  Since I started running again this spring, I have rarely managed a pace faster than 14:00.  They say to predict your marathon time, double your half-marathon time and add 15 minutes.  For the NY Marathon, it's now add 30 minutes because they are letting over 40,000 runners in.  This means that the first two miles are so tightly packed that you can only shuffle, sardine-like, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd.  I hate that, but unless you are an elite runner let out at the front, you're stuck.  It really drags down times; you simply can't make up for such a slow start.  But that calculation would put me at 6:30 and that is simply unacceptable.  I finished my first NY Marathon in 5 hours.  Granted, I was 14 years younger and 40 lbs thinner, but my goal is to beat that time this November.  Somehow, despite my back, in the next 2 ½ months I have to get a heckuva lot faster.

But back to the NEK.  I was, alas, soaked to the skin and shivering after running 3 hours in the rain and rather than stop for a dip in Lake Willoughby, I put the heat on in the car and headed back to the guest house for a long, hot shower.  Someday, though, I must swim there.  I love to swim and have wanted desperately to swim this summer, but there is no place to do so where I live.  I like to have a pool all to myself, so the crowded local municipal pool doesn't appeal.

I was supposed to drive home at that point but I was so enchanted by the tranquillity and beauty of the landscape that I decided to stay another night.  I am supposed to be applying for jobs and taking care of myriad "to do's" but I have felt too burned out, especially since I have had to deal with an unexpected family crisis that occurred, with impeccable timing, the day before my farewell party at work.  It's an intractable and frustrating situation, easily solvable with money I don't have, that has piled stress on top of burn out.  I couldn't afford to stay but I just could not bring myself to leave.  I need a proper vacation, by which I mean significant time away from all problems and stress.  But that's not gonna happen.

Yes, those are onion rings on my
chicken sandwich, with fries on the
 side. Because diner.
I went to a cute old-fashioned diner in town for a late lunch, and then more ice cream.  The following morning, the guest house owners suggested another breath-taking lake to check out before I headed home.  It had finally stopped raining but mist still hung over it.  There were only 4 cabins at one end; the rest was forest preserve.  A trail beckoned but I would never hike alone due to fear of rapists/murderers/bears.  Still, I couldn't resist the lure of that wide old logging road and walked as far as I dared.  I tried to take photos but could not capture the look and feel of either the trail or the lake with my phone.  I am not exaggerating when I say that lakeside was the most peaceful place I have ever been.  It was all I could do to force myself to leave.  And I live in a beautiful rural area, a tourist destination in itself.  I don't take that for granted.  But the NEK speaks to me in a way that nowhere else does.

If I can finagle it financially, I'm going back in the fall foliage season, alone or, preferably, with someone to fuck and hike with so I can follow the siren call of those trails without fear.

The View from the Kingdom has travelled the world with me and still resides in a place of honour on my coffee table.   Someday, I will own property in the NEK, even if it is a log cabin and not a castle.