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Friday, September 30, 2005

A plague of fruit flies

We have had fruit flies in my house lately. A lot of fruit flies. At first I had assumed that they were attracted to some of the residual fruit from fruit baskets that some people had thoughtfully sent after my father's death over a month ago (and I thank you all for all that you did; formal "Thank You" notes are currently being written.) But that fruit is long gone, and the baskets have been cleaned and set aside. There is no rotting fruit sitting around my house.
I was at my cousin's house last night helping her make cookies for her niece's birthday party this weekend, and we were bothered by some fruit flies. She complained about them having been around the house lately, and another friend who was helping us mentioned that the Chinese restaurant where he sometimes eats lunch has had a lot of fruit flies lately.
I brought this up at work, and it turns out that someone who works here has been having fruit flies in her house, more than 30 miles from where I live. And her husband noticed them at the place where he gets physical therapy done, and the other people there said that they have them as well.
So it's not just me. I wonder what's going on?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scenes from a Fair

Here are some of my photos from this year's Bloomsburg Fair:
The prize selection at this game stand looked like a slaughterhouse for Elmos.

The old Twelve-in-One. (I've always heard these things referred to as Ten-in-Ones, but this one offered 12 different exhibitions for the low, low price of $2. My friends didn't want to go in, even after I offered to pay the admission for all of them.) The barker outside talker, Ward Hall (corrected 11/8/2010, thanks to the Swami Yomahmi teaching me the error of my ways atthe 2010 Sideshow Gathering) is standing next to someone - I think he called him Poomba - who, he maintains, is the last of the actual Munchkins still alive from The Wizard of Oz. He did a good job - we stood there for about 10 minutes as he delivered his spiel, always with the sense that something was about to happen, but it never did. Finally we decided to move on. Next year for sure.

(Update, 3/29/14: That was Norbert (aka "Pete") "Poobah" Terhune, who passed away in July of 2012. Tributes to him on John Robinson's Sideshow World can be found here and here.)

In previous years I have paid the admission to see standalone exhibits. Once it was Spidora, half-girl, half spider. (Her current incarnation is shown in the second image from the right on the sideshow tent.) Spidora was simply a girl with her head sticking up through some black shag carpet. I looked in and said "Oh, come on, you're not even trying." Last year I went to see the World's Smallest Horse - basically a fairly large Shetland Pony. The pony ignored the onlookers who had paid 50 cents to see it, but it had a friend in its pen - a goat that eagerly looked up to see if anyone had brought anything for it to eat.

I don't think I've ever seen a jug band before. This duo is called the Sadie Green Sales Jugband. They were pretty good, although we only heard them play one song before they cleared the stage to make way for the dog show.

Ducklings! No Indian Runners this year, but lots of ducklings. I like ducks.

And finally, where else but a Fair can you get a Deep Fried Twinkie, Deep Fried Oreos, or a Deep Fried Pickle?

There were a few that got away. I should have taken a picture of the girl who was running the goldfish ping-pong ball toss stand, especially when she was picking up the ping-pong balls. I should have taken pictures of the dog show; three of the dogs are semi-famous, appearing in Purina and Ford commercials and an upcoming "Matlock" TV-movie. (This movie will feature Don Knotts' last acting role, most likely, as he suffered a major stroke a few weeks ago and is not expected to recover. I kept confusing him with Don Adams, but then convinced myself that Don Adams must already be dead. I was wrong, briefly.) And I should have gotten a picture of the boxes of paintball guns and pellets next to the boxes of red and blue bandannas, apparently the fixins for a "Crips vs. Bloods Paintball Adventure Weekend".

Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hunting and gathering

I had an all-too-brief IM conversation this morning with someone in another country. IM conversations with me tend to be weird phase-shifted things: I am not a fast typist, and I generally watch my hands as I type. What I am typing will usually be a response to something the other person typed two or three IM lines earlier. Trying to reconstruct one of these conversations in a way that makes sense would require a lot of cut-and-paste work.

So, several lines after I had said goodbye, we were talking about money and shopping. I pulled out one of my fundamental beliefs, that shopping is just an expression of our old hunting and gathering instincts. She declared herself a hunter, as did I.

Today after work I went out to do some shopping, and decided to analyze myself in terms of "hunting" and "gathering":

Stop 1: Clothing store. Needed some new jeans. Had a coupon good for $25 off a purchase of $50 or more in the store, expiring tomorrow. Bought two pairs of jeans at $45 for one pair, two or more for $39.99 apiece. This was a planned kill: I had used a coupon and had gone in looking for something specific. The fact that I took advantage of an opportunity for additional savings by buying two pairs does not diminish the hunting aspect.

Stop 2: Ollie's. Gathering mission. Looking for books. Got two cute miniature books, ostensibly for my nephews - one on animals and one on dinosaurs. They are actually photoreductions of large books. I own the full-sized version of the dinosaur book, and compared them page for page, picture for picture, word for word. Some of the text in the new editions is remarkably small, perhaps a millimeter high. Also got Madame Secretary (Madeline Albright's memoirs) and a book on frequently confused terms in the natural world called This Is Not a Weasel. Each book was $3.99. I left happy.

Stop 3: Best Buy. Hunting mission. Had a raincheck for the 10th anniversary edition of Mallrats. Regularly $19.99, the sale price last week was $16.99, but to members of Best Buy's Membership Rewards club it was $14.99. Irrelevant, because they were sold out by the time I got there last week, so they gave me a raincheck. Redeeming it was an incredibly complicated process, but the cosmic cost to me probably did not exceed the $5 savings.

Stop 4: A.C. Moore. Hunting and gathering at the arts & crafts store. I had a 40% off coupon expiring today - no big deal, A.C. Moore has a 40% off coupon (applicable only to non-sale items) in the papers every week, except when it's 50% off. Also they had a few things in their ad I wanted to check out, but this came to nothing. So I wandered the store for a while, occasionally being rendered stupid by leaking freon from a malfunctioning air conditioner unit. (I told them about this, and they told me they had had a repairman in earlier who had said that everything was fine. I told them to have him stand under a particular air duct for 10 minutes and see what happens. Was that wrong of me?) In the end I wound up buying three photo boxes on sale for $2.99 each - my mom needs photo boxes, and I need somewhere to put the 518 digital photos I just got processed.

So, are you a hunter, a gatherer, or both?

Michael Brown rehired by FEMA

From the you've-gotta-be-shitting-me department:

Michael Brown has been rehired by FEMA.*

CNN reports that "Brown told congressional investigators Monday that he is being paid as a consultant to help FEMA assess what went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, according to a senior official familiar with the meeting. "

(Thanks to Dee for this tidbit of information.)

Hey, Brownie? Turdburger? You - you don't mind if I call you Turdburger, do you? Well, here's a suggestion about a tool that can help you in this investigation. It's something that could have helped O.J. find "the real killer". You might even have one lying around the house.

It's a mirror.

Just make sure it's wide enough so your buddy-boy Georgie can stand by your side and help you look.

*One small correction - it now appears that Michael Brown has not been re-hired by FEMA. Now it appears that he never left. I guess his resignation will become effective whenever they decide to stop paying him.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Fair weather

It's Bloomsburg Fair time again, which can only mean one thing: rain.

It always rains for the fair. We can be going through an extended drought, and as soon as the Bloomsburg Fair rolls around you can count on rain. (I have often thought that the fair date should be moved around to historically drier parts of the year, so that the fair-related rain will fall when it is needed most.) This year the rain is actually the remnants of Hurricane Rita. So in a sense I guess all that mess with the evacuation and the drowned cattle was our fault. Sorry.

I went to the Fair yesterday and got some photos, which I haven't gotten around to transferring yet. So you are being treated to my previously unpublished photos of last year's Fair, which happened to be the 150th anniversary of the Bloomsburg Fair. (It didn't rain on us yesterday, and we didn't get rained on last year. I guess I'm just lucky.)

I like the Bloomsburg Fair. It's my only real chance each year to see ducks and midgets and carneys and the World's Smallest Horse and eat fried Twinkies and hear a jug band and see Native American Art made of toilet-paper tubes and think about what sort of person would dream up deep-fried pickles.

Sadly my favorite ducks in the world, the vertically-spined Indian Runners (the original model for Donald Duck) were not represented at this year's Waterfowl Exhibit. So I must console myself with this photo of Indian Runners from last year.

It seems to be fair time all over. See here for Lauren's account of her adventures at the Durham Fair! Llamas and a Livestock Costume Parade? Sounds like fun!

Drowning America: The Norquist Agenda and Operation Offset

Once again I am turning over my blog space to disseminate some important information - this time from MoveOn.org.

September 11 provided a golden opportunity for the enemies of civil liberties to encroach on fundamental freedoms in the name of security - a security that has been revealed to be an illusion. The destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina has now emboldened another group to take actions that would otherwise be considered unconscionable. Read on:

Dear MoveOn member,

Last week, congressional Republicans responded to Hurricane Katrina by proposing to cut nearly a trillion dollars from vital national services, like health care for the poor and elderly, student loans, Amtrak, and eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (again!).1 Republican leaders in Congress are now gauging the public's response to see if they can get away with their plan. We need to show them the answer is "no."

The cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, while huge, is far less than what President Bush has given away in tax cuts to the wealthiest one percent.2 National crises like Hurricanes Rita and Katrina are times for all Americans to stick together and put in our fair share.

So today we're launching an urgent petition to Congress to fully rebuild the Gulf Coast and pay for it by ending Bush's tax cuts for the very wealthy, not by slashing vital services that Americans need. If we can gather a quarter million signatures this week, we can show them that this destructive plan just won't fly.

Please sign today:

http://www.political.moveon.org/rebuild/

The Republican proposal, titled "Operation Offset," was authored by the Republican Study Committee, a group of over 100 influential members of Congress, including powerful committee chairs and members of the Republican leadership.3 The proposal starts with support from at least these 100 representatives, and they are looking to quickly build momentum.

A full reconstruction of the Gulf Coast region is generally estimated to cost around $200 billion.4 We could more than meet this cost by rolling back Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for just the wealthiest one percent of the country, which would save us an estimated $327 billion.5

"Operation Offset," however, calls for an astounding $949 billion dollars in cuts over 10 years to vital national services.6almost five times the full cost of reconstruction. To further put that in perspective, it's also more than 4 times what we've spent in Iraq.7

This plan is not about "offsetting," or rebuilding—it's about exploiting this crisis to push their longstanding goals for America. As conservative movement leader Grover Norquist has often put it, the goal is to get government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."8 This proposal is their latest attempt to drown the public sector.

The excess of the Republicans' proposed cuts is almost unbelievable. You can read the full proposal here:

http://www.political.moveon.org/images/operation_offset/operation_offset.htm

Here are just some of the most egregious cuts:

  • $225 billion cut from Medicaid, the last-resort health insurance program for the very poor.
  • $200 billion cut from Medicare, the health care safety net for the elderly and the disabled.
  • $25 billion cut from the Centers for Disease Control
  • $6.7 billion cut from school lunches for poor children
  • $7.5 billion cut from programs to fight global AIDS
  • $5.5 billion to eliminate all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • $3.6 billion cut to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities
  • $8.5 billion cut to eliminate all subsidized loans to graduate students.
  • $2.5 billion cut from Amtrak
  • $2.5 billion to eliminate the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative
  • $417 million cut to eliminate the Minority Business Development Agency
  • $4.8 billion cut to eliminate all funding for the Safe and Drug-Free schools program

And the list goes on and on.

Which and how many of these cuts move forward in Congress depends largely on the public response this week.

As the reconstruction begins our country faces a basic question: Will we respond to Katrina by banding together to solve national problems, or by helping the wealthy and powerful cut and run while those left behind fend for ourselves?

The radical Republicans have spoken up loud and clear with their answer, and we must respond with ours.

Please sign today:

http://www.political.moveon.org/rebuild/

Thanks for all that you do.

–Ben, Tanya, Matt, Justin and the MoveOn.org Political Action Team
Monday, November 26, 2005

1 "Lawmakers Prepare Plans to Finance Storm Relief," The New York Times, September 20th 2005
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/21/national/nationalspecial/21cong.html
Note: the $500 billion referred to this article only covers section 1 in "Operation Offset". The full proposal has six sections and calls for total cuts of $949,674,000,000 over 10 years.
See the full proposal here: http://www.moveonpac.org/images/operation_offset/operation_offset.htm

2 Center for American Progress
http://thinkprogress.org/2005/09/22/progressive-spending/

3 The Republican Study Committee

http://johnshadegg.house.gov/rsc/about.htm

Some examples of prominent RSC members include:

RSC Founder Rep. John Doolittle (AZ), Republican Conference Secretary

Rep. Eric Cantor (VA) Chief Deputy Majority Whip

Rep. Richard Pombo (CA), Chair, House Committee on Resources

Rep. Joe Barton (TX), Chair, House Committee on Energy and Commerce

4 "How to spend (almost $1 billion a day)" Time Magazine, September 26th, 2005
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1106310,00.html

5 Center for American Progress
http://thinkprogress.org/2005/09/22/progressive-spending/

6 Operation Offset, RSC Budget Options 2005
http://www.political.moveon.org/images/operation_offset/operation_offset.htm

7 Based on a $196 billion dollar cost for the Iraq war to date.
National Priorities Project
http://costofwar.com/

8 "Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan", The Nation, May 14th 2001
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20010514/dreyfuss

Thursday, September 22, 2005

How to make Katrina and Rita work for the U.S. of A.

1. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will damage our oil-refining capacity - a serious blow, but a temporary one, and one from which we will be able to recover with the help of our dear friends at Halliburton and Bechtel.
2. Fuel prices will spike in the near-term as domestic supplies suddenly contract and increased pressure is placed on an essentially fixed import market.
3. Americans will get fed up with pumping more and more money into their bloated SUV status symbols, and will begin to abandon them in favor of smart and sexy hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles. Demand for refined petroleum will continue, but at a sharply declining rate.
4. The rest of the world will continue to expand its use of gasoline-powered vehicles, placing a growing demand on oil supplies and putting more and more pressure on foreign suppliers, who will have to increase their output.
5. As prices continue to rise, Americans will gradually wean themselves almost entirely from gasoline and other petroleum products. Alternative raw material sources for products made from petroleum (like, say, plastics) will be developed.
6. Overseas oil fields will begin to pass the point where it is no longer economically viable to extract crude oil. Oil shortages and increasing demand will cause prices to spiral higher. In the meantime, the effect of the rising costs will be blunted in the U.S. by declining demand and increasing use of alternatives.
7. Gulf oil refineries finally come back online, and the money comes pouring in to U.S. refiners from oil-hungry consumers in the rest of the world - until they wise up.
Yeah, right. It'll probably happen in China first.

UPDATE (9/25/2005, 11:21 PM): Where Katrina was nearly a worst-case-scenario storm, Rita was far closer to a best-case-scenario: major population centers were spared (except for New Orleans, which wound up getting flooded again), loss of life was minimal (I have not heard reports of any storm-caused fatalities; most of the deaths I have heard of were actually evacuation-related), and damage to refining capacity was less devastating than expected. So we have been spared - for now - the horror of being forced to switch to alternative fuel sources and reduced consumption of oil.

The thing that sucks so much about oil is that it is such a good fuel source. Oil, like all fossil fuels, represents a concentrated distillation of hundreds of millions of years of solar energy which was processed by photosynthesizing plants which then either directly entered the fossil fuel cycle or were in turn consumed by other plants (as decomposing matter absorbed through roots) or by animals (by being eaten), which in turn either entered the fossil fuel cycle directly or after being consumed by other living things.

I recently read that someone has done a calculation of how much energy we could extract from solar energy incident on our planet's surface. I don't know the particulars; I don't know if the calculation assumed that we would use photosynthesizing plants (which would then have to have the sunbeams extracted from them, in the manner of the character in Gulliver's Travels who had developed a way of doing this for cucumbers) or photovoltaic cells (which are expensive to manufacture and have other technical limitations), or if it simply assumed that we could use x% of the total energy. But the point is, the energy available isn't enough. Not enough now, not enough for the future. If that doesn't scare you, you need to study science and mathematics a bit more. And possibly sociolology, to understand the very limited long-term options available.

But that's a topic for another post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dead bodies on the side of the road

They just found two dead bodies in different parts of the Scranton area. One was a badly decomposed corpse found along the Lackawanna River in Scranton itself - it could be anybody, and it will probably be a long time before it is identified, if ever. The other was a hit-and-run victim found on the highway about half a mile from where I work. This was a fresh body with identification, and may have been struck by a car that was involved in a robbery last night - the car was abandoned about a half a mile down the road, but on the other side of the highway.


A few years ago I had my own dead body story. It was around this time of year, maybe a little closer to Halloween, and I was coming back from a weekend visit to my friends' place in the Poconos. I was approaching the exit for Nanticoke off of Interstate 81 when I saw glass scattered all over the right shoulder of the highway. A little farther along there was a car pulled over to the side of the road. A person was out of the car and looking at something on the side of the road. Something about the person's posture told me that they were looking in horror. And what was on the side of the road...?

At first glance I thought it was a squirrel. A big, big, blonde squirrel. But as I got closer I decided it was a dog - a Golden Retriever, maybe? But I was moving at 55 miles per hour and didn't really feel like rubbernecking. It's dead. Get over it. Move on.

I exited I-81 South onto Route 29 North headed for Exit 3, the Nanticoke exit. I was about a mile down the road, about 5 miles from my home, when every police car and ambulance in the world began to converge on my position.

As they blew past me at ludicrous speed, I had a feeling that something was up. About a mile further along I saw where they were heading.


On the grass alongside the offramp for Exit 1 there was a sports car - a Z28 - parked askew. There were several police cars and ambulances already surrounding the car, and more were arriving by the minute. I kept going. It was late, and I had work the next day.


Now, I am realizing that this was eight years ago, and my memory may be a little fuzzy, but I believe these are the facts as they were later reported in the paper:


- The driver of the Z28 was intoxicated and traveling at a high rate of speed.

- There was a "highway pedestrian" walking along I-81 near the Nanticoke exit. He, too, was intoxicated.
- The paths of the vehicle and the pedestrian intersected.
- The pedestrian traveled through the front windshield of the Z28 and impaled himself on the gear shift.
- The driver of the Z28, suddenly sober, now found himself unable to downshift due to the presence of a dead (or nearly dead) body on his gearshift. So it took him almost two miles to come to a stop.


The object I saw on the side of the road, the object that somebody was looking at in horror, was a leg. When the highway pedestrian's body impaled itself on the car's gearshift, bits of it continued to travel out through the back windshield. It landed on the side of the highway, and I drove right past it, thinking it was a random bit of roadkill.

So there you go. Don't drink and drive. Don't walk on the highway. OK?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Pixels preserved on paper

I printed all of my digital photos at Sam's Club today, all of them up to July 31st. Everything that made it from my SD card into the special holding pen on my hard drive and then got copied onto CD-R's (four identical copies containing everything up to 6/25/05, one containing everything up to 7/31/05). 518 pictures.

You can reconstruct several stories from these photos. Here is a large white-and-orange dog with black-outlined eyes posing in a bedroom; here she is lounging under a Rhododendron; here she is going for a walk; here she is rubbing noses with a Beagle; here she is next to an Azalea; and here she is on her dog bed, her legs stretched out stiffly, unnaturally. And after that, no more photos of her.

Here is a little girl playing with what might be her parents and their extended family; here she is in her Sunday best, standing on a trampoline; here she is poking her head through an opening in a grapevine. And here is a picture of a framed photograph of her that has been tucked into the casket of a bald man in his late middle age. And here she is again, at a banquet hall, with those same family members, only now they are all dressed in black, including a man who looks very much like the man in the casket.

It's surprising how some of the pictures seem more real now that they exist on paper than they did when they were just images on a screen. Sam's Club did an excellent job with them, too, making passable images out of many night shots and indoor bar shots that were just too dark and grainy for me to process into anything worthwhile. But they did, somehow. One of them is a photo of Haley that I was never able to make look good. They succeeded where I failed, and I'm grateful.

Nine more donations and they install a shunt

I gave my 71st pint of blood today. One more and I'll have given nine gallons. Nine more times after today and it will be ten gallons. If only they could do something about that business with the needle...

Friday, September 16, 2005

Personal holidays

Most of us have calendars full of personal holidays - days that have deep significance to ourselves and a few other people, but are unknown to and irrelevant to most of the rest of the world. Birthdays, for example - well, birthdays have some significance in determining when we can and cannot legally smoke, drink, vote, have sex, get married, drive a car, rent a car, and so on. Anniversaries - April 5th has a relevance to me that it doesn't have to most people; September 13th is the polar opposite of September 11th for me. October 12th is both a friend's wedding anniversary and the anniversary of the Bali bombings.

I am terrible at remembering birthdays and anniversaries. And with more and more kids being born to people I know, and more and more of the people I know getting married, the task of remembering them all (and the guilt associated with not remembering them) is overwhelming to my poor little mathematically dyslexic brain.

Death has a way of bringing personal holidays to an end. My uncle died a month before his 33rd wedding anniversary, and a month and a week before his birthday. My father died one month before his birthday, and two months before my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. We still remember my grandmother's birthday, and she died seven years ago.

But without the person being physically present, it is just a commemoration, not a celebration. My father won't be blowing out any candles this year. My cousin's house won't be having a two-month cavalcade of birthday and anniversary cakes. My calendar has gotten a little emptier.

Here's to personal holidays. Celebrate them while you can.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Here I go, like a chump

The movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy failed in two important ways:
1. It failed to please fans of the Hitchhiker's Guide radio series and books.
2. It failed to please people who were not fans of the Hitchhiker's Guide radio series and books.
The DVD is going on sale for $16.99 (much less than the list price of $29.99) at Best Buy today. Like a chump, I'm going to buy my copy as soon as I get out of work. The widescreen version.
I think before I beat myself up too much over this, I should review my review of this movie and remind myself of why I said "Actually I quite liked it."
In other news of planned purchases, The Kamandi Archives, Volume 1 was supposed to be released today, but Amazon now lists it as being rescheduled for release on October 1. For those of you not familiar with Kamandi, this was a DC Comics series created by the great Jack "King" Kirby back in 1972. It was essentially a Planet of the Apes ripoff, with semi-mute barbaric humans and anthropomorphic lions and tigers and apes and snakes and giant grasshoppers and enormous bacteria and hostile giant bats and manipulative Misfits and Mutants who could turn to steel by touching their hearts. The title character was "The Last Boy on Earth", although he wasn't, really, and he cut quite a homoerotic figure with his long blonde hair, bare chest, jeans shorts, and leather boots. I had three, maybe four issues of it when I was a wee lad. My cousin had one issue that was a part two to my part one, and I coveted it greatly. Now I'll be able to own the complete series, in hardcover, starting with the first ten issues. Too bad the Revell ad on the back cover of one of the issues for a Komodo Dragon model (complete with a Macaque monkey - according to the ad, "the Dragon's favorite meal!") won't be included. Oh well. In any event, I'll have to wait until at least October 1 to be parted with my $32.99 (a 34% savings over the cover price of $49.99!)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

September 11, 2005

It's a beautiful day today. Sunny and clear, warm with cool breezes. A great day to be alive. Much like it was four years ago today.

Think I'll go outside and play with my nephews.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Arachnaphobes might want to skip this one

Arachnaphobes - you know, people who are freaked out by spiders, or pictures of spiders, or descriptions of spiders - might want to skip this post. Don't worry, I've got lots of other posts that might amuse you - why not click on the "Greatest Hits, Volume 1" sidebar link to see some of my older posts and start poking around there? Or go visit Rima's Rimorama, or Anne's Almost Quintessence, or Sammie or Camilla's blogs? I don't think they have any spiders there. Lauren's Please Make Rice. I Love You! has been known to have pictures of thirsty wasps and long-tongued cows and frogs and toads and turkeys, so there's a chance a spider may show up there sometime. Heck, most of the blogs I link to don't have pictures of spiders on them, and neither did mine, until now. So you might want to pass on this entry.

I mean it.

Still here?

You've been warned.

Wednesday, August 24th, was to be the day that my father would die, though I did not know it that morning. That morning it was to be the day that I finally did something about the three-foot-tall weeds that were taking over my gardens.

The days have been growing shorter lately, and by the time I get home there's very little time to do anything in the garden without a flashlight. Besides, with my father in the hospital I wasn't getting home until after 8:00 anyway. So the only time I had to do anything in the garden was in the morning, before I took my shower.

Wednesday I decided I had had enough of the giant weeds that had come to dominate the gardens on the side yard of my house. I went out that morning and began pulling. The weeds' size was their downfall, because it was quite easy to get a grip while standing up. And my soil is in such good condition that the weeds slipped easily out of it.

I made my way methodically through the gardens - first on the north side of the old garden, then on the narrow steppingstone path between the two gardens, clearing the inner south side of the old garden and the inner north side of the new garden, also known as "The Garden Of Giving Up." Finally I had to clear the west side and then the outer south side of the new garden.

I had cleared all of the major weeds - some of them were ragweed, I think, and I was trying to get them before they began to spew their pollen. I then saw one more weed in my tomatoes in the new garden. I went to pull it and noticed that there was a large spiderweb spun between it and one of my tomatoes. In the large spiderweb there was a large spider.

I recognized this spider from an encounter 16 years ago at a friend's place in Scranton (very probably not the same spider, mind you, but the same sort of spider.) I knew it as the Eastern Writing Spider, although the Audubon Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders identifies it as the Black-and-Yellow Argiope. Identifiers include the black-and-yellow color, the lightning-bolt bird collision avoidance thread woven into the middle of the web, the terrifying size (this one had a legspan of about 2.5 to 3 inches) and the silver hairs and beady eyes on its head.

There is one other sure-fire indicator for this spider, the one that I recognized immediately: the marking on its back that I refer to as "Pissed Off Betty Boop with Glowing Yellow Eyes and A Bowl of Fruit On Her Head". Other people may see something else in this marking, but that's what I see.

By the next morning much had changed. My father was dead. I had spotted an Ambush Bug lurking in my roses, and a Differential Grasshopper hanging out in the butterfly bush. I went around to check on the condition of my Black-and-Yellow Argiope, and it was gone. Where could it have gotten to?

Well, I quickly found that out. It had moved its hunting site to the butterfly bush, and had managed to catch two Silver-Spotted Skippers.

A most industrious, clever, and admirable arachnid, it had moved its web to a location that was already attracting its prey. All it had to do was spin a web and wait, and eventually one or more delicious butterflies or butterfly relatives would blunder into it.

I have not seen the spider for a few days now. Her butterfly bush web is decrepit, and the two food packages that had once been Silver-Spotted Skippers are also gone. Perhaps she was snatched up herself by some predator to play a new role in the Circle Of Life. I'll keep an eye out for her - or her children.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Moving other people

My brother and his family are moving from their house a few blocks down the street to a newly-constructed home deep in the forest/countryside. I'm a little unhappy about the fact that they're moving so far away from our mother - their presence nearby always gave me some peace of mind whenever I was away. But it's probably going to be a good thing for them, especially for my nephews.
I took yesterday off to help them move, and for a while it looked like I might need to take tomorrow off too. But we moved a lot of the large stuff yesterday, and they're down to the annoying little things that I wouldn't be much help with beyond saying "Stick all this stuff in this box, and we'll sort it out later." So it looks like they won't need my help after all.
I've moved or helped move a lot of people in my day. At the end of 2002 I helped move my entire department out of our old building and into a newly-built facility inside our main factory. As DVD Asset Manager, the physical responsibility for the well-being of all of our project assets rests on my shoulders, so I had primary responsibility for moving hundreds of storage boxes containing our clients' DVD project assets from one location to the next. For weeks I followed the same routine: pick out boxes from Asset Library, load onto cart, transport to staging area, load onto pallet, wrap with plastic, secure with rope, return cart to Asset Library, repeat. All while still doing my regular job of convincing clients to a) tell me what they want to put on their DVD's, and b) send me the assets they want to put on their DVD's. (You would think that one would follow the other, and that a client who wants to put out a DVD would have a fairly clear idea of what they want to put on it. You would be wrong on both counts.) After a few weeks of this I finally got access to our new storage location and was able to get a truck and some good folks to load, transport, and unload the pallets. (Some of the pallets were so decrepit, and some of the loads so well-wrapped, that the only thing holding the pallet together by the time it reached its final destination was my plastic wrap and rope.) And in the end we still had to pull a late-nighter to jam all of our office stuff, all the little odds and ends that are left over after you've moved all the big heavy obvious stuff, into boxes for the final move to our new offices. My friends can attest that many of these boxes are still sitting in my office area in more or less the same condition as they came up.
I've helped other people move, sometimes multiple times. Once we moved a 5-disc CD changer without removing the CD's first. As someone who at the time worked in the CD industry, I was elected to get them out. I wound up popping the drawer out, turning the unit upside-down, shaking it like an Etch-A-Sketch, closing the drawer again, turning the unit right-side-up, and pulling the drawer out again. It took a while, but I got them all out. Other times there have been couches that have defied us to get them through doorways (much like the couch inexplicably jammed in a stairwell in Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.) I have a reputation for being an excellent Fragile items packer, which is probably a consequence of me being so good at breaking things.
I moved someone once on a beautiful summer day that turned ugly in a few short hours. We wound up in a karate school in a strip mall in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm when one of our friends noticed that the rain had all gone horizontal - a sign that there's a tornado in the area. We quickly sized up our situation: we were in a large open section of a long strip mall, surrounded by mirrors and windows and partition walls, with no basement to retreat to and nothing better than exercise mats to use for cover. If a tornado hit the building we would almost certainly die. The tornado missed us, but it did knock some utility lines onto Route 33, closing the highway south of us. Luckily, we were all headed north.
I was helping a friend move into an ill-fated apartment in the Lincoln Park section of Washington, D.C. when the alternator in her car died while she was on a direct line between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol building. We quickly ran into various museums looking for a pay phone and an ATM. (This was in the wild and wooly days of the mid-1990's when not everybody had a cell phone on them at all times.) We got out as much money as we could, called a tow truck driver, and waited in the car as many people pointed out to us that we weren't allowed to park where we were.
Yes, I have helped many people move. And someday I will be moving myself, into a house full of bookshelves and little else, and I will have tens of thousands of books that I'll need a little help moving. And when that time comes, I think perhaps I'll be making some phone calls, and gently reminding a few old friends of those funny stories of moving days long, long ago...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dealing with it, Part 3: Guilt

A few hours before my father died, I was discussing the death of a friend and coworker's mother with another friend and coworker who has lost both of her parents.
"I'm trying to help her understand that the pain will fade in time, but it will always be there," my friend said.
"Yeah." I said. "I think what helps the most with coping with my grandmother's death - with Haley's death - are all the other tragedies that have happened since then. Each one puts a little distance between you and the pain."
In a few hours I would have something happen that put even more distance between me and the loss of my grandmother and my dog. And a few days after that something would happen to put immense distance between me and any personal pain. How can I wallow in the loss of a single person when there is so much loss, so much suffering for others?
And yet I do. Which helps me to feel another species of guilt.
Guilt.
Guilt, I have always said, is something we Catholics would have invented if the Jews hadn't beaten us to it.
Guilt, for me. I didn't visit my father as much as I should have. I didn't make my presence felt - not with him, but with the nurses and the staff. I cut my visits short when I couldn't stand to be there anymore. Even if he wanted me to stay. Even if he wanted to leave with me.
Was there a design flaw in his chair that allowed him to slip out and strike his head? I should have seen it. I've got a degree in Physics, for Christ's sake - I should be using it for something.
What was the thing he didn't want to talk about Wednesday night, two days before his accident, a week before he died? Why did the Alzheimer's-demented woman in the chair next to him say he'd been a "naughty boy"? I asked the nurse at the desk, the young one with the scar on her chest over her heart who looked tough and pretty at the same time, who wore camouflage scrubs, but she said she didn't know of any incidents that day - had something happened that they weren't telling me about?
Was he overmedicated just so they could have an easier time handling him at the nursing home? Did he get to play with the butterflies they had there on Thursday? He said he remembered them, but then he said a lot of gibberish. Did he piss off that one very pretty nurse when he grabbed her while we were talking about the butterflies?
Should I have gone the other way on the surgery/no surgery decision? Would he have survived the helicopter ride to the other hospital, the surgery on his bleeding brain? Would he have bled to death in post-op?
Why did I wave bye-bye Tuesday night? We never wave bye-bye. My Cioci Alice waved bye-bye to my mother and grandmother on that day in 1974 when they went to see her in the hospital; they say she was dead before they got to the parking lot. My grandmother waved bye-bye to my mother in December 1998 as she was leaving to visit my sister; it made my mom feel sick and scared, remembering what had happened with Alice 24 years before, and only my positive reports throughout her trip kept my mom's mind at rest for the next week, until that fateful Sunday morning when my grandmother simply died. And there was my father, in his Tuesday coma, rousing and gesturing at something just past the foot of his bed, something I couldn't see with open eyes but maybe he could see with eyes tightly shut, gesturing and waving. And then, after the nurse came to give him his pills, after I helped her get them down, after the noise of the neighbors' televisions died down, after I had read a few more chapters in my book, after I had made sure he was reasonably comfortable in bed, after I had turned out the lights and headed to the door, why did I turn and wave bye-bye?
Guilt for my sister. She had insisted in the summer of 1997 that we get the tumor on our dog Kitty's side looked at, and the vet agreed, and decided to take a biopsy, and the "biopsy" turned out to be the entire tumor, leaving an incision half the length of Kitty's body on her side, an injury from which she never recovered and from which she died several weeks later. (The tumor, it turned out, was benign.) My sister insisted at the beginning of July that my mother take steps to place my father in a nursing home. Within two weeks that was exactly where he was. A little more than a month later he was dead.
Guilt over Haley. When she fell down those last few steps on her final night, how much pain did it cause her? Did something inside her lungs rupture? Why did I insist on having her come downstairs? Wouldn't she have been much more comfortable upstairs in front of the air conditioner rather than panting in front of a damned fan? How much longer could she have lived?
Guilt over Kitty. We didn't do things right after her surgery. We let her jump up and down, on beds, on couches - how did we expect her wound to heal? It didn't, and she died.
Guilt over my grandmother. Her stroke in 1992 might have been my fault. I had pushed her in her recovery from sciatica. I had taken her on a marathon shopping trip the day before she had her stroke. We bought a microwave oven and a giant bag of flour and all sorts of other stuff and I parked in the alley behind her house and cut through the wires her tenants had tied around the back gate and listened to "Bittersweet" and "Broken Hearted Savior" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters as we unloaded the car and the next day I had work and when I came home from my 12-hour shift they told me she had had a stroke.
Guilt for my mother. She always worries when she goes away on vacation. Are the kids OK? Is everybody OK? She was on vacation when my grandmother died. She was on vacation when my father had the accident that led directly to his death. How can she ever relax?
Guilt.
Guilt for dwelling on this when so many other people have lost so much.
And yet it moves.

Allergy season

Just spent the second half of this three-day weekend with some friends in the Deep Woods of the southern reaches of the Poconos, and my allergies are in full swing. Getting to sleep is an interesting ritual of carefully-timed Benadryl and almost continuous noseblowing. Still, I woke up this morning, which is always a good sign.

A stuffed-up, runny nose, watery, burning eyes and an itching deep in my skull? Over a million people on the Gulf Coast alone would gladly trade places with me right now, as would about 5.99 billion of the 6 billion people on Earth if they knew what was good for them. I've got nothing to complain about.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Avoiding the horror next time

Northeastern Pennsylvania is pretty damned far from New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast. We don't face the same sort of hazards they face. Still, we are not immune from disasters, and there are many conceivable scenarios where a mass evacuation would be necessary.

We have a large elderly population. We have a fair number of people who do not have their own transportation, ranging from the poor to students at several area colleges and universities. We have large numbers of people in hospitals at any given time. We have quite a few people who are drug addicts. We have several large prisons in the area. And we have many small, outlying communities located deep in the woods.

Is there a plan for evacuating these people?

In New Orleans those lacking their own transportation, including many elderly, were left to fend for themselves. People in hospitals were mainly left to die, or to watch in horror as their patients died - and then stick the corpses in stairwells because there was nowhere else to put them. The drug addicts, cut off from their supplies of drugs, became crazy bands of thugs who began looting pawn shops and gun shops for weapons and ammo (becoming crazy bands of armed thugs who shoot at evacuees and rescuers alike), hospitals and pharmacies for drugs, and, in an obvious failure to recognize the paradigm shift, electronics stores for televisions and stereos. Prisoners are being stored on broken bits of bridges. And those small, outlying communities that were devastated by the storm are watching in desperation as relief is channeled to large population centers like New Orleans.

What about here?

Much of this region's population lives near the Susquehanna River, which had a major flood in 1972, a semi-major flood in 1996, and smaller floods about every three to five years (including 2004). We are surrounded by vast and beautiful tracts of forest and the rolling lower mountains at the northeastern extent of the Appalachians (the "Ridge and Valley" part, anyway.)

We are vulnerable to several natural and man-made disasters: flooding (the 1972 flood was caused by Tropical Storm Agnes bringing heavy rain to upstate New York, which then flowed into Pennsylvania and finally out to the Chesapeake Bay), forest fires (major forest fires are rare due in part to the wetness of our forests, but in times of drought that can change), crippling snow and ice storms, an accident at the nuclear power plant in Berwick, accidents at any of the other industrial plants that dot the area. Then there are other, way-out-there scenarios which could affect much larger chunks of the area: a major earthquake (I have the New Madrid fault in mind here - it's going to go eventually), a large-scale terrorist attack or military assault on New York City or Philadelphia (always a concern during the Cold War, no less a concern in today's environment of wild-card nuclear players), a Tunguska Event level cataclysm, or the dreaded but very real "unknown unknowns."

Is there a plan in place to deal with a mass evacuation in any of these very different scenarios?

We have major highways - Interstate 81 intersects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike about 10 miles north of me, I-80 about 20 miles south of me, and with I-84 about 30 miles north of me. We are crisscrossed with railroad tracks, some abandoned and some active - with one of the active ones, the Canadian-Pacific freight line, unfortunately running along the Susquehanna through much of this area.

A flood - even a minor one - can cut off many of the access routes to major highways, and can render train tracks in a flood plain useless for mass evacuations by boxcar. Recent floods have cut off access to Nanticoke from several directions, and even without a flood river water undermined some railroad tracks a few years ago, causing a major accident. Forest fires can also cut off even major highways. And a localized disaster such as an accident at the Berwick nuclear power plant can cut off entire compass directions as evacuation routes.

So is there a plan? Is there a plan to evacuate those without transportation, to get the people in hospitals out alive, to see to it that the folks in the boondocks know enough to run for their lives? Honestly, I don't know. I have no idea if we would handle a mass evacuation any better than New Orleans did.

How about you?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Help

www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp
What is happening in Louisiana, Mississippi and elsewhere in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions.
Flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes nearly destroyed the city of Wilkes-Barre back in 1972. I was 4 years old then. I watched on TV from my safe, dry house in Nanticoke as boats ran through the flooded streets of Wilkes-Barre rescuing the people who had hoped that they could wait out the storm. I visited a relative's house weeks afterwards and saw the ghostly imprints of book covers on the ceiling - the dye from the cloth covers had stained the plaster ceiling as the water pressed the books against it.
It took the better part of four years to bring Wilkes-Barre back.
I thought New Orleans would be something like Wilkes-Barre on a larger scale. It isn't. The water is deeper. It isn't receding. The damage is far greater. Many, many more people have died.
Please help. Please do what you can.
www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp