Saturday, August 13, 2016

And Then There was Trump

There's a video that drifts through Facebook's Facespace once in a while about Donald Trump. it claims that everyone who sees this video votes for Trump! Sounds like a challenge to me. So I paid up my deprogramming insurance, informed the authorities where I'd be, left breadcrumbs, and double clicked.

It was what I expected. Black and white footage of American misery, domestic and abroad, accompanied by Mozart's Requiem, with Trump alternating between stating the obvious and promising the impossible.

Last month I started reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was curious about how a nation of refined people who produced Martin Luther, Bach, and Goethe, could spit up a Hitler. I'm right where he was imprisoned after the Beerhall Putsch and is busily writing his drivel, Mein Kampf. Thankfully, we're nothing like Weimar Germany in the 20's, so a cartoon caricature like Trump hopefully won't happen. Hopefully. But it's not just Trump I'm worried about. It's the next Trump and the one after that.

Trump is our Brexit. Europeans are getting tired of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels writing their laws for them and instituting austerity programs. France, The Netherlands, and Denmark are making ??exit noises, and not just minority parties. Italy's banking system is on the brink. They're pissed and feel that their governments don't represent them. So, right or wrong, they're turning elsewhere. I can't say I blame them. I just worry about the wherelse they will be turning to.

So that means that we basically have one (legitimate) candidate and a pissed electorate. How do you drive a substantive national dialogue like that? How about, What are your opinions about Glass-Steagle? Citizens United? The drain of blue collar jobs offshore? How about the failed policy of sponsoring coups, proxy wars, and invasions over the past 15 years? Will you continue these failed and illegal policies or will you pursue diplomacy like the several times Obama did? He seemed to get very good results when using the carrot instead of the stick. Instead we get, "Vote for Clinton or you get Trump!" What, no Mozart?

This might be the most issue free election we've had.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Pokemon for Politicians

Don't like your opponent in the town council race for dogcatcher? No problem. Listen on!

Having trouble gaining popular support for your presidential bid? Easy. Have I got a strategy for you!

Do you have well thought out responses to major issues that have long histories and complicated solutions that require compromise and cooperation between numerous, often conflicting parties that are willing to sit down and talk to each other? Pussy. I've got nothing for you.

I've got Putin Go!

Just add a Vladimir Putin icon next to your opponent's picture in a political ad or real life appearance. That last one can't be done but noone knows the difference. Just keep saying it. Soon people will think they can see "Putin Go" thingeys hovering around real candidates in the real world! Believe me, people are that stupid. You don't need an iPhone to be an idiot.

No answers? No problem! With Putin Go you can paint your opponent with the broad strokes of the Iron Curtain creepily reaching emaciated fingers over Europe. And an important country like America, too! Putin Go! Your ticket to Soviet era propaganda! Remember. They're the bad guys. Not us!

"Wow! I just caught 19 Putins hovering around Donald Trump!" "That's nothing. I just got a dozen hanging around Clinton's head and another ten around her butt! Thank God we don't have to listen to, like, debates or anything."

That's right, Buffy. You don't have to listen to, like, debates or anything.

Putin Go! Formerly Stalin Stupid, Brezhnev Bad, Khrushchev Klutzy, and Trotsky Terrible. Void where prohibited, which is nowhere. All's fair in love, war, and politics. Reference to actual issues and possible solutions strictly forbidden. Putin Go! A total subsidiary of GlobalMegaMergerCorp, where we make good things for ourselves. Fuck you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Highland Whisky

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a Highland festival outside of Portland, OR. I don't know why, but every time I think of all things Scottish I get a Scottish accent in my head. Maybe it's from growing up with Scotty snarling, "I canno' do it, Captain!" and then proceeding to do whatever it was he 'canno' do!' It's the wee pictsies that make me want to say things like, "Ay, Laddie!" and "I'll take a dram of that peaty nectar, if you dunna mind, my bonnie Lass!" and "Hoot, Man!" though I don't know exactly what makes hooting Scottish. I guess all owls are just Scots.

Well, so. Down to business. The festival was at a community college which provided plenty of space indoor for book sales and wool tartans and shortbread. Outside there were stages for kilt clad pipers and heavenly harpers and singers with the voice God gave them and the lochs and the valleys and the dew on the daisies perfected. And games. And motor cycles. And beautiful Celtic artwork on wool, glass, and silver. And not too few blistering red heads like the morning dew on fire or the sea at the end of the day ablaze.

Did I say I wasn't going to pretend to be Robert Burns or something? Sorry.

Kristin reserved us a whisky tasting session that day. For those of you who don't know, whisky means scotch. It just does. It's a particular brand of fire water made with real fire. And smoke. And something you dig out of a swamp, but we'll get to that later. Whisky=Scotch. That is all.

Our master of ceremony was a man with a snow white beard and hair that looked phenomenally like John Hammond from Jurassic Park. You know, the guy blending million year old genes with frog DNA like that was a good idea? Well, this guy just blended whisky. And it was a good idea. He was a retired surgeon who liked, no, loved, whisky. "Nothing better than a dollop of a single malt first thing in the morning," he said. "When the pallet is pure!" Glad he didn't operate on me. Or maybe not. He owns a restaurant in Portland that has a specialty of, of course, whisky.

So, we had our IDs checked and our tickets validated by the Highland Police. And we were ushered into the pavilion by friendly Scots in Kilts. We grabbed a few seats by the front. On the table were five glasses of whisky plus a couple of beer. There was a little pot of something in the middle that might have been crackers. It turned out to be barley, the bringer of our bounty.

So, Dr. Jurassic talked about whisky. From the fundamentals. Whisky is made from beer. That's right! Beer. And beer is made from barley. And barley is a grain that the good Lord gave to us and said, "There! Let's see what you can make of that!" Some people made bread. How boring.

Barley, like all seeds, is a time capsule. It contains information like those gold records placed on the Voyager capsules they sent out into space in the seventies. Remember those? They contained voices and sounds from earth and were supposed to show aliens with 1950's sound technology what we sounded like? Very outwardly thinking. But seeds contain more than that. They contain the machinery to take that information, act on some raw material, and make another living organism like the one that first created it. Thankfully, nature produces many more seeds then necessary each year so we can use some of them and still have plenty to make next year's crop. How clever.

So what do we do with the surplus? Well, we soak the seeds in water so they think spring is here and start to sprout. This is called malt. Malted barley is barley that has begun to grow. Why do we do this? Because the seed is a compressed living packet, almost like the freeze dried foods sent aboard the space flights to the moon. But in this case, the compression involves turning sugar into starch. Starch is an extremely dense source of energy but must be unpacked into sugars to be of any use as a fuel. When the seed germinates, enzymes start hacking the starch up into sugar.

And who loves sugar? Yeast!

But we don't want the sugars to keep being metabolized into a new plant, so as soon as the barley seeds sprout, we want them to stop. We do that with muck from the bottom of a bog. It's called peat and it is half way between kindling and coal. It's just plants, bog plants, that have lived and produced their own seeds and died and sunk to the bottom of the bog where it was too acidic for other living things to eat them so they just compressed together, like another seed full of energy. Thousands of years packed into each foot.

And now somebody came around with an incense pot and some cake of something burning! It was peat. Well, that's OK, I guess. When are we going to drink our whisky?

Mr. Jurassic Park was really getting into this. I was eyeing my five shots and two chasers and wondering when the history and chemistry lessons would end. In a nutshell, the rest of the process is this. They burn peat and filter the smoke through the malted barley. It dries out and absorbs all the peaty goodness from the fire and smoke. It is then ground up, added to water, and brewed into beer. The beer is then distilled into a liquid with alcohol and leftover stuff from the mash. Sometimes it's distilled twice. Sometimes even three times. The end.

There. Can we drink the whisky now?

FINALLY he got around to tasting. But not before getting around to technique. "Take the glass with the wee gram of whisky..." Yes, yes? "Hold it to your nose..." OK. "Sniff the bouquet..." Got it. Bouquet sniffed. "Sniff with each nostril..." Huh? What the Kilt? Either nostril's as good as the other, Pal. "Go back and forth, sensing the different aromas..." Oh, for... Now you're just making things up. "And now go ahead and take a sip..." Finally! "And hold it on your tongue and mouth for as many seconds as the whisky is old..." What? I want to drink it, not grow old with it!

So that was a good whisky. I must admit sensing it like that gave a pleasant experience. And the first sip was actually different from the next. Complete with the, how old is this? Ten years? OK, so I'll swish it around in my mouth for ten seconds. Time well spent.

Dr. Dinosaur talked about aging. And casks. It seems that the Scottish distillers really like American Bourbon. Bourbon is made from corn, I think. Yah. Corn squeezins stored in white oak barrels for ever so the booze can go back and forth into the wood and suck out the life force or whatever. I think it's sugar, actually. Oh, and they toast the inside of the barrels, too. I wonder if they use peat like with the malt? That would be cool. Jack Daniels, take note!

Can we taste the next pour?

OK. How old is this? Twelve years! I can't wait that long. Looks about four to me.

And have a sip of beer because this whisky was made from this style of beer. Only eight years ago. Hmm. Sweet. You know, this whisky tastes like this beer if this beer had been turned into this whisky! I'm getting the hang of this.

So. A barrel that has one hundred year old whisky in it soaking in the mash of the distillate that is called a, what, now? What do they call the stuff that comes out of the still? It can't be whisky yet because it's not whisky until it's sat on your tongue for twelve years. OK. It's the bog water. And the Pictsies push peat ashes back and forth between the starches until they are no longer Tang on the moon. Got it. Can I swallow this hootch now?

Taste another dram. Don't forget to let the gold record play on an alien turntable for the rest of your life.

What was Dr. Demento saying? And these hors d'oeuvre are crunchy. Should have served shortbread and thistles.

This scotch is nice. It's made somewhere in America where they stole our oak and burned it into sugar at the bottom of a bog. You've got to taste it since 1776 to really get drunk. Otherwise it turns into malted milk.

And if the barrels are full of bourbon juice it only takes four years to make a twelve year old scotch but only if you blend it with triple distilled Tang.

And it's whisky, not scotch, ye British Guineas guzzling, Hadrian's wall building, country crashing, hooters! Or is that the Irish?

Ach. Let's get some Haggis.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Pendleton Underground

I was recently in Pendleton, Oregon. Kristin and I were there because I had heard about the Pendleton Underground. A network of cellars and tunnels under the streets, side walks, and buildings where an underground city had thrived in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. I was intrigued by this world under a world and wanted to see it. This was not unique to Pendleton, other cities within cities existed on the west coast, but Pendleton had rescued a portion of their underground world, preserved it, and now conducted tours.

I had this impression that it was a completely secret nether world carved in the ground beneath the upper lands. The good citizens of the Christian upper world walked about in charity and devotion while the seething pits of hell churned below. Nah. It was more like a thing that just happened, with everybody knowing it was there, many people taking advantage of parts of it, nobody knowing the full extent of it, and most people not really caring. It was more sprawl than city. Just like everywhere else.

There was a bar where cowboys could come in for their three month baths. And then get drunk. They brought in bags of gold dust as currency. The bar tender would take a pinch of gold dust and carry it across the bar to a scale. He always had exactly enough gold for the drink, even though he sported an elongated finger nail that scooped up a little extra dust, then sprinkled it on the counter, on his way across. The bar keeps always had their bar towels at the ready to swab the bar and sweep any detritus back onto the floor. They kept whatever they could track out on their shoe soles at night.

Bar girls also prowled the bars. Not just looking for customers, but passing slightly sticky fingers along the bar, then shoring up their hair. A good night could yield ten dollars of gold dust at the next wash. There's gold in them there cowboys!

Speaking of washes, you could get yourself a ten cent wash. That was one where the water was fresh and hot. Or a nine cent wash. That was for the next in line. Or an eight, seven, or six cent wash, down to a one cent wash. You can imagine how those worked. You got what you paid for. And what was left over. Still better than a gully. Barely.

We moved on to the laundry owned by a Chinaman for some thirty years. I swear I thought the guide said his name was Hop Sing! That was the Chinese servant in Bonanza! Can't be the same guy.

The Chinese had been brought over to build the rail roads, much like the Irish in the east building bridges and tunnels and bars to fight in in Manhattan. They brought their culture. And their laundry. And their opium. They could venture out by day, on business, but no Chinese person ever went out at night. They were one class of humans liked where they served and detested everywhere else. Like others in town. This was becoming a pattern.

The tour brought us to the cellar of a meat market, with refrigerated rooms for meat and even ice cream. We toured a jail. There was one legal system for above street. One for below. Glass prisms embedded in the sidewalks provided the only natural light. Kerosene fumes from lamps and stoves must have been unbearable down below. Ventilation primitive. There was even a speak easy from prohibition. Gambling was OK but alcohol was not. So they had moth balls hanging on the oil lamps to vaporize and cover the smell of booze as the patrons escaped through secret doors during a raid. I don't know what gave them more of a buzz. Or more brain damage. The booze, the kerosene, or the moth balls.

We came back onto the streets and walked over places we had just been under. There were the prism blocks which let in light and shadows from the sidewalks above to those who lurked below, but which were now opaque to us on the street, much like the world beneath. It's not that we don't know what goes on in the world beneath our feet, it's that we know just what we want to know and no more. What serves us, saves us. All else is heresy.

Stella Darby. Madam Saint

On August 27, 2014, the citizens of Pendleton, OR, unveiled a statue of Stella Darby in front of the business she built and ran from 1928 to 1953. It was the Cozy Rooms Bordello and it sold, shall we say, services. OK. It was a whore house. A house of ill repute. A place where good, clean Christian men would never go but they were never in short supply, either. A brothel. A place that half the population dreamt of but all the population rejected. Officially.

And there was controversy over putting the statue of a Madam on a sidewalk of Pendleton. Oh, there are similar statues of cowboys, colorful rogues, and a beloved sheriff who kept law and order in the town for years without firing a shot from his gun, until he was tragically and ironically shot to death. I don't know what that says to the NRA but I admire his style. His funeral was richly attended. But a Madam?

The Cozy Rooms boarding house was in downtown Pendleton and was above ground. This shady secret was a 'hidden in plain site' one. It was on the second floor up a steep stair case dubbed 'The staircase to heaven.' The gag was that if you couldn't climb the stairs, you were in the wrong place. Stella's business parlor was to the left. There you could negotiate 'goods transfers' as it were. Oh, and the girls were encouraged to look out the windows onto the main street. If they saw an acceptable partner to a transaction, they would toss a button on his head, to get his attention. Advertising was fierce, those days. To the strong go the spoils.

So it was a brothel. Girls were used and abused. How is it possible to white wash that? Why is Stella considered a hero in Pendleton? Several reasons. First, she was generous to local civic organizations and charities. So she greased the wheels. That's not altruistic. That's just good business sense. She also took care of her girls. They had a local doctor who provided free health care and a minister who came in every Sunday morning to preach to them. No record of how either was compensated exists. Stella insisted that her girls learn skills, other than the obvious, and arranged several marriages. So she looked after her 'fallen doves' who had nowhere else to roost. Once in a while the sheriff would come knocking on the door for an 'inspection.' Stella would meet him at the door with a donation to the civic good. He would leave, satisfied. The community was sufficiently apathetic.

In the 1950's, long after prostitution had been banned in Oregon, Stella met her match. A Presbyterian minister came to the sheriff and said he had collected a list of names of all the men seen visiting Stella's establishment and that he would make it public that Sunday if the sheriff didn't shut it down. An emergency meeting of the town council resulted in a unanimous vote to shut Cozy Rooms down, which probably goes to show what names were on the list.

Busses appeared directly to transport the working girls out of town. To other cities, boarding houses, and bordellos, maybe not as accommodating as Stella Darby's. Stella eventually went to Wala Wala and opened a boarding house for elderly men. Not as spicy. Not as many opportunities to help the desired and despised body workers of Pendleton. No good deed. When she died, Stella Darby's funeral was the second largest attended for a public personality. That's why she gets a statue.

So how do we interpret this? I can't help but notice that the righteous Presbyterian minister failed to offer any help to the girls at Cozy Rooms. No offer to take them in, cloth them, feed them, give them shelter, or a home. No, "When I was hungry you fed me," "When I was naked you clothed me," horseshit. Just, "Get out!"

Is that all we can do to the undesirables at the edge of Christiandom? Even when those undesirables are actually quite desirable to a large part of that Christian culture, but only on the sly? Only as long as they stay 'at the edge?' Anonymous but available? Whose fault is that? And whose responsibility? Just who created them, anyway?

Can you help people by running an establishment that exploits them? Would Mother Teresa have been better as a madam? The Salvation Army was created to fight white slavery. Would they have saved more girls by being white slavers themselves? How about slavers in the antebellum South? If they sold some but sent others to freedom in the North, would that be acceptable? Some were freed, after all. But if they did nothing, the slaves, the poor, and the prostitutes would have had nothing but their slavery. Do the organizations that oppose a sin and point and say, "This is immoral!" have the moral high ground while the cultures that support, prolong, and benefit from that sin go uncondemned? Physician, heal thyself.

It was a good tour. And as such revealed history to be ambiguous.

Monday, August 1, 2016

I Remember... Sturbridge Village

When I was a child. We used to go there every year or so. Sturbridge Village is a reenactment of a New England village in the time period of 1820 to about 1840. Just before the Civil War. Every time I went there it was the same. Same dress. Same story. Same buildings. Same people living within the same buildings. It was like a snow globe where the figures are static no matter how fiercely the snow flies or how hard you shake it. I established in my mind several Sturbridge Village memories that I looked forward to seeing again every time I went back. I didn't want it to change.

The blacksmith shop, for one. I loved watching the blacksmith heating iron and making nails or boot scrapers or shoes for horses or stuff. I thrilled at the blasts of the bellows over the charcoal! Nearby was the farm where you could stand respectfully behind ropes and look at how people lived or enter the kitchen and have real live nineteenth century like people cook real stuff over the fire. They even let us taste the cookies! I don't think they let you do that anymore.

The stocks and Pillory! Kids love colonial Justice. And the bank with its ridiculously insecure vault and funny money. And the general store with its rock candy and parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence. And down the street was the clock museum. Clocks were going tickety tockety like they've been doing for centuries. Some things never change. And we didn't want them to.

And the potter. He'd work his clay on a foot powered wheel and fashion pots, steins, and platters, which he would then glaze and carefully stack in the kiln to fuse into finished products. I was reminded of the Nathaniel Hawthorn story of Ethan Brand, the tortured soul burning his own heart into marble. It seemed fitting.

Once, when my daughter was about seven years old, we played hookie. It was February. It was a cold New England winter day. And I broke the rules. Kristin and I played hookie from our school and work! We went to Sturbridge Village. It was deserted, well, there were a few people here and there. Just enough to satisfy the Hawthorn in us.

We saw people boiling maple sap into syrup! It was up behind the church at the end of the green, just as you come in past the Friends' meeting house. You can't miss it!

We went into the tin smith's shop. He took Kristin back by his bench and let her make a Christmas ornament. We went into a house on the green. They brought out clothes from the period and let us try them on. We went into another house on the green. I think it was the print shop. People were playing patriotic melodies on recorders! They were happy to see us and welcome us. It was grand. Don't tell her school or my boss. Shhhh!

There was the green. The farmhouse. The blacksmith shop. The baker with the wonderful ginger snap cookies. Yes, there were seasonal changes, but the changes never changed. Summer was always for haying. Fall for apples and cider. Early spring made maple syrup and the green celebrated the Forth of July with hot air balloons and muskets. The farm house always made bread and cheese and tended the cows in the barn and the sheep in the pastures. The pewter shop always made spoons. The grist mill ground the summer wheat into flour and the sawmill sawed up oak and pine logs. The pond powered the mills, and the frogs leapt about the covered bridge as they always had done, and they always would for ever and for ever more.

Except it didn't work that way.

When I was older I went back to Sturbridge Village. I remembered it from my youth. It was the same. It was different.

For one thing, changes happened. No. I don't mean changes happened to the management of the Village or its infrastructure, though I'm sure that happened. I mean changes happened to the 1800's. It wasn't the same history I remembered. The past had changed.

For instance, during that period the Erie Canal was being built. Suddenly, cheap beef from Chicago was flooding the east coast. That made a difference to the agrarian northeast. People who sold pork or lamb were out of luck. The Bixby house showcased a family where the father worked outside of the house and his wife and daughters worked within. She would go to the market and buy leather. She and her daughters would make shoe uppers and sell them back at a profit. A cottage industry. The sudden change in shipping meant it was easier to make these products near a shipping port. So your local economy was decimated. Good bye cottage industries. Hello Capitalism. Things changed between the twenties and the forties. And they weren't all that good.

So the Sturbridge Village houses and mills now came with a history of their own. There were now signs around the properties explaining what was going on during this time. Signs now said, "At the beginning of this era, things were like this... But by the end, they were like that... And this is how people adapted... Or not..." History changed with time.

The Towne House is another example. When I visited it as a child it was an elegant house of obvious wealth and attachment to occult symbols in the Masonic upper room. The garden was beautiful, overlooking the Quinebaug river. I got the idea that it was some sort of mansion where gifted men oversaw the fate of us lesser beings during midnight séances. But later the emphasis was on the industry of the place. The man of the house managed the property while the woman of the house managed the household industry: The dairy. She oversaw the herds of cattle, milking, making butter and cheese, and oversaw the staff. The man often travelled to Boston or New York to secure contracts and business deals. Their letters are quite touching. The view of their lives as partners much more satisfactory. All seeing eye on the ceiling not withstanding.

Why didn't they tell us that before? This stuff is great! This makes the past come alive! I can imagine these people being my neighbors.

The tavern on the green reflected this as well. Instead of being a static place where people ate and drank and played parlour games, the nineteenth century tavern of today is now portrayed as a place of commerce and cosmopolitanism. A place of the exchange of ideas and business cards. Of politics and pot roast. A place that was adapting to... change. Change in the nineteenth century.

I think I like the new past.