Showing posts with label societyAndCulture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label societyAndCulture. Show all posts

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Family Values in Utah

Towards the end of a mountain bike ride, when I am feeling my best, I saw this family enjoying a ride together in Utah. I don't think a vision of a family ever seemed more appealing.

The boy was even wilder and more spirited than the border collie. His parents were wise to let him go first so he wouldn't always be struggling to keep up with them, and becoming discouraged. The bike was too large for him, but no doubt he was looking forward to growing into it -- and as soon as possible!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Mixed Feelings on Donating to Houston

What do people think when they get an appeal to donate to Houston hurricane victims? Retrogrouches (like me) should respond positively to an appeal for voluntary help. It's about as 'retro' as it gets; after all, in modern America everything is either mandatory or illegal.

Then too, many people see the pulling together of humanity as one of its more admirable qualities.

So why didn't I donate? A seditious thought immediately came to mind: how could a society that has unlimited money for fighting foreign wars or inflating various financial bubbles, not be able to take care of hurricane victims in Houston, through government aid? 

How many people had this reaction to the appeals for aid? I am not arguing that it is the best reaction.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Statistical Approach to People

An extreme illustration occurred today. A woman went from 'no luck' to superb luck in just a couple minutes, as we went to find her an open campsite. Based on actual experience, most people would have been delighted with her luck.

But the woman kept dragging her feet, finding something wrong with the postcard-perfect campsites we found. What was she looking for?

Since I have taken other people to these campsites, it was easy to laugh off the woman's quirks by rolling my eyes and thinking how sorry I was for her boyfriend, husband, or sons. What is worse than a woman who is impossible to please?

The difference is between a statistical (or 'diversified') approach to a person and being trapped in an 'all your eggs in one basket' situation.

As society has 'progressed', we have devolved from well-balanced and diversified situations to over-concentrated, tense, worrisome situations:

1. Imagine a folk dance in olden times compared to a couple waltzing 50 years later.

2. Extended families versus a nuclear family, followed by a nuclear family with only one or two children, followed by single-parent families.

3. Knowing neighbors and church members versus the soul-less modern suburb where you never speak to neighbors, and where secularized people no longer go to church.

4. The decline of legislatures and congresses to a rule by 9 supreme justices or EPA bureaucrats, all nominated by a president. 

5. The war-making power going from congress to the white house.

6. Self-sufficiency on a farm, supplemented by a cash crop, compared to a paycheck-to-paycheck life, all dependent on one employer, and one boss to suck up to. 

7. The sole and supreme importance of happiness on earth in the Here and Now, compared to balancing it with a belief in an afterlife.

8. No longer being a 'nation of shopkeepers' who satisfy dozens of people most of the time, but now a cubicle rat whose day can be poisoned by ill relations with two or three cubicle mates and one supervisor.

9. The collapse of local newspapers into opinion-makers controlled by just a few global 'News' corporations. 

10. Have heard of the book with the excellent title, "Bowling Alone," but haven't read it yet.

A healthy diversification is so important to approaching anything in a truly rational way. The world doesn't make it easy. I am afraid it has been getting even harder over the last couple centuries.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"Handicaps" for Conversationalists

Tonight my sleeping pill will be the movie "Seabiscuit." The reader may have seen the movie. If not, I highly recommend it. 

Now, I'm not one of those bookish types who thinks that movies based on a book are supposed to be identical to the book. But after the movie I read the book, and appreciated the importance of handicaps to the sport of horse racing. (The movie made Seabiscuit into a Rocky-for-horses.)

Golf tournaments use handicaps, don't they? The NFL draft has the same function as handicapping. But in fact, handicapping could be used in more than just sports. It could be used in just about any endeavor in which unequal "contestants" would produce a dull contest. 

Conversation could be seen as a sport that uses handicaps. That is what I am discovering as a campground host. I have better luck than I normally do in face-to-face conversation with strangers. 

But I won't kid myself. It is not because I have suddenly become charming. Rather, it is because I am "cheating." My pseudo-uniform and hat make me a weak form of authority figure. In addition, people feel safe talking to a campground host the same way they warm up to the host of a party.

But this doesn't bother me. I need the handicapping in order to have a close match with the other contestant. It needs to be "close" in order to make and observe incremental improvements. Otherwise I will keep committing the same verbal faux pas the rest of my life. 

I'm not sure how the reader or I could apply this principle to more things in life. But I'd like to.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

How to Handle a Deplorable on the Trail

Oh yea, I can hear it, a ways off. It is a Saturday after all. There is a 50% chance that it will head away from me, rather than towards me. But no, it wouldn't do that. They never do. That hateful sound kept getting closer and closer.

At a bend in the dirt road, a smallish ATV suddenly appeared. "Thanks for stopping and not running me over," was my initial thought. The driver was so velocitized that it took some effort for him to stop that idiot-machine of his.

But he was a good kid, and apologized. And I did my best to smile at the little motor-crazed monster.

As my dog and I kept plugging away on that road, the damned kid seemed to be playing "tag" with us. I had an obligation to both of us not to let this bother me. But the harder I tried to ignore it, the more resentful I became. It was a classic example of the medieval tale of a fairy telling the guy she will grant him his fondest wish if only he wouldn't think of a pink elephant for the next ten minutes.

On the way back I studied his camp, his father, and the truck, to see if there were any of the typical signs of miscegenation of the kind one sees at Walmart or the Dollar Stores. But the father looked pretty decent, even if he was being indulgent with his son. 

On the last leg of the ride back to my van, the little Deplorable kept playing tag or leapfrog with me. By now I was really getting angry. I fantasized about getting off the bike, and stoning the dumb kid.

When my dog and I rolled into the trailhead/parking lot, the monster drove up one last time. I really wondered whether I was finally going to tell him off, or maybe, control myself and give him some kindly grandfatherly advice.

He shut off his motor and removed his space-alien helmet. With a big smile, he told me how much he liked my dog. It reminded him of his dog at home.  We talked about his machine and the road and a few other things. I don't have children. I haven't even talked to children for years. How do you do this? What would a lad his age want to talk about? I didn't want to sound condescending.

He was actually a fine lad, polite, well-spoken, and intelligent. It seemed kind of cute that he had cowboy boots on to drive his ATV. I was astonished that he could transform so suddenly from a little monster to a cute friendly kid.

One of the nostrums of modern, squishy social science is that Anger is a "negative" emotion. Experiences like this illustrate that the popping of a malevolent bubble is charming beatific. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance at Christmas

While flying for the first time in 20 years, I certainly saw the convenience of smartphones, compared to the clumsy laptop I was dragging around. It was a good example of 'cognitive dissonance.' But this Christmas I experienced an extreme example of cognitive dissonance. 

Let's shift a little bit first: I congratulate anybody who makes it through life without having to clean up the ghastly mess left by a relative who has died recently. So much of the mess was avoidable. But we all tend to ignore our own mortality, so a bit of orderliness doesn't get a chance.

The cognitive dissonance comes in when the relative's death occurs near Christmas. Look at all the maniac shoppers driving around, stressed out of their minds, crashing into each other in the parking lots. Yesterday I actually saw a pickup truck turn a road's shoulder into a driving lane by jumping his right-hand wheels over the curb, and up onto a sidewalk.

It would never occur to these shoppers that their precious 'bargains' (and fun luxuries) are headed to next year's yard sale. Or maybe they won't. Maybe they will just pile up in basements and closets. And then the 'lucky' relatives will get to rent a payloader and dispose of all that crap when the shopper dies.

Think of the Indian tradition of putting a carcass on a funeral pyre, and then lighting the match. Maybe that is a good idea for material detritus.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Democracy and Football: the Gods that Failed

An optimist would say that it can only get better from now on: that America has hit absolute bottom in this year's election. For my part, I feel pretty good about ignoring the long primaries season. Just think how much cultural pollution my mind was spared, because of that. Besides, thinking about politics just makes a person sour and angry.

I still think the best way to handle this frustration is to channel it into reading history. Look at the two candidates America has chosen to run for president, and ask yourself if you were brainwashed in school about how democracy really works, and why it was so great.

Perhaps I should read the book, "Democracy: The God that Failed." But I am afraid the book may be academic and full of abstruse libertarian theology.

The older you get, the easier it is to be content with small accomplishments. I am feeling pleased with myself for ignoring the NFL professional football season, so far. Actually it makes no sense to follow any professional sport until the playoff season starts.

Perhaps I should thank Colin Kaepernik. I actually admired him a little bit for having the substance to make his protest, although there is no reason why a football player's political opinions are worth paying special attention to.

At least it started me thinking about how ridiculous the NFL is: its overpaid athletes, the commercials, ticket prices, and how freakish the sport is. Kaepernik was right to have his little protest. Now let me have mine.

A couple weeks ago, when this story was big news, I was pleased and impressed that a couple pundits on the internet actually got around to asking, "Why do we sing the tribal war song at the beginning of an entertainment show, anyway?"

The worst thing about the NFL is how the US Military/State uses it as a recruitment and advertising platform. I feel like vomiting at their jet fighter flyovers, the military bands, and the hokey ceremonies honoring the troops for "protecting our freedoms."

The last time an American soldier made any sacrifice to protect our freedom was 1945, and I'm tempted to say 1865. ALL of the wars during my lifetime have been wars of choice, on other people's soil.

But I do miss the NFL cheerleaders. How I would like to grab them by the...  Oh wait, now we are talking about politics again.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Single Man Finally Tastes Legitimacy

I started noticing something strange during my couple weeks as a campground host. Quite unrelated to this, a mountain biker dropped by yesterday. We ended up having a conversation unlike any I've had before. Its conclusion probably explains what I was noticing as a campground host.

People were treating me in a more friendly manner than what I was used to. Had I suddenly become four times better-looking or developed irresistible charm?

He mentioned that he avoids talking to people in public situations. He attributed this to his socially-marginal status as a single (heterosexual) male, without a wife, recent girlfriend, or children. He routinely senses hostility from the wives of male buddies.

Well, that is easy enough to explain: at the very least, wives don't want their husbands to come under the baleful influence of unmarried male friends, the sort of irresponsible, self-centered, spoiled clowns who are used to spending their own time and money on exactly what they please. She has years of effort, and a certain amount of progress, in turning her husband into a nice, domesticated lapdog; and she doesn't want to see any regression by him hanging out with a coyote.

On top of that, the single male might be a felon, a recent parolee, potential child abductor, rapist, or the next lone-wolf shooter at the shopping mall who you read about.

Neither one of us wanted pity or a government affirmative program to help us with our social handicap. We had accepted the situation with a grim sense of humor.

The thing that is the most galling is the moral posturing by the PC crowd for "Toleration" and "Diversity." This never seems to extend to people like him and me. The hypocrisy is astonishing: the most ostentatiously PC couple, who accepts (notice the use of the singular verb) a gay couple into its social circle, will not see that its tolerance is based on the gay couple being a couple. Tolerance and broad-mindedness end at the moral stain of singlehood. 

I told him of the remarkable experience I had had last spring: I traveled for a week with a female friend. We were not a couple, but apparently other people thought we were. It was amazing how friendly total strangers were, at restaurants or other public places. It made me realize what an 'unterMensch' I was the rest of the time.

His explanation: well of course, you wore the seal-of-approval from a woman, for that week, so other people saw you as 'OK.'  Lacking that, the next best thing is to wear the imprimatur of a large corporation or government organization, which is what I did as a campground host.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

American Civilization Finally Bottoms Out

There is something to be said for hitting rock bottom. You've survived the worst the world can give you. It's all 'up' from now on, you could say.

The other day I was at the library of a small town in New Mexico. On the way to the men's restroom, I saw a funny sign on the "women's" restroom. It was just a simple black-and-white line drawing of... what the heck is this? It was an explanatory diagram that clarified what female anatomy looked like. I hadn't known that there was any confusion about this. But then I remembered the President's transgender diktat was making the news.

I went away thinking, 'Has it really come to this?'

Recently I went to the men's restroom at a Walmart. I'm sure you've noticed how gigantic stores will sometimes only have a single stall, which is big enough to handle all the motorized wheelchairs that 1/3 of the customers require.

I was in a bit of a hurry, so Murphy's Law required that the stall be already occupied. Actually I've learned not to push on the door if I suspect it is occupied: it is surprising how many people are too lazy to lock the door. And it is embarrassing when this happens.

Instead, I looked through the crack to see if it was already occupied. It was. Some jackass was in there dicking around with his smartphone. It never occurred to him that there might be another customer, in need.

What was he looking at? Checking the weather forecast for the 35th time that day? Playing "Angry Birds?"

I should have muttered something under my breath, but I didn't.

Anyway, let's hope this is absolute bottom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Nature Lovers and Long Dead Philosophers

If there ever were a time to invoke the old adage that 'practical men are just the slaves of some long-dead philosopher,' the time is now, after I've just read one of the most important (and juicy) books in years. The book is "Rousseau and Romanticism," by Irving Babbitt.

Only a chapter or two is about Rousseau's effect on how his followers perceived nature. But it is the chance in front of my face, especially during summer camping holidays. It seemed that my neighbors belonged to three tribes of "nature lovers."

Tribe #1. A couple women were car camping close to me. I complimented them on the sunniness of the campsite they chose. The car was a Subaru. (eyes rolling.) One of them had flown down from Oregon for the holiday.

Unfortunately many of the nearby spruce trees were dead, a la Colorado. I probably shouldn't have pointed that out. She ignored my un-compliment of the forest, and said that the trees were "beautiful." Really? Do you think she meant that, or was it just something that she was supposed to say? I have a hard time calling pine/spruce/fir forests beautiful even if they are healthy, and they ain't.

Sacred Solitude in the forest primeval. Breathtakingly beautiful, ain't it? Can't you just see Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Thoreau fluttering their eyelashes on solitary walks in this useless wasteland?
They went on a hike on the nearby Continental Divide Trail. It intersected with the dirt roads I was mountain biking on. The trail was overgrown, muddy, and presumably buggy.

It only takes a codeword or two to place somebody. The hiker-woman referred to tree-less areas at high altitude as "meadows." She was probably thinking the same thing about me, as I called them "pastures."

Hiking deserves high praise as a cool weather sport, but it surprises me to see its popularity in summer.

Although Rousseau and his spin-off praised "communing with nature" by taking long, solitary walks, it is a credit to the common sense of many modern hikers that they hike in clubs. It proves that they haven't been completely taken in by Rousseau's junk science: of Man living in solitude in harmony with nature... 

Only a philosopher could come up with an idea that devoid of common sense. And yet many people have gotten suckered into his mistake. Many RVers have.

Tribe #2: ATVers, generator people, gun enthusiasts. A large group of this animal species was camped  near to me. They were even more convivial and sociable than Tribe #1. It was easy to admire them for that, and not feel sore about them coming into my campsite and driving me out.

Sharing food and campfires was a big part of their fun. Unlike Tribe #1, they were non-ideological, non-food-faddish omnivores, who ate the food groups that most human animals have always eaten. Therefore they were able to eat the same food as each other, and enjoy each other's company.

Approaching sunset one evening, the forest seemed to erupt with engine noise. It actually startled me. As it turns out, they were getting excited anticipating the fireworks that night.

But I visualized excitement in another milieu, but having the same structure: primitive tribalists going through the ritual of slowly torturing prisoners from a nearby tribe. As they moved towards evening, the psychotropic drugs, food, campfire, and wild dancing  caused the excitement to rise to a new level. The grand climax finally came when the sun fell, and they dragged the prisoners forward to be impaled, or maybe, thown alive into the fire.

Despite the image of Tribe #1 being "green", I think Tribe #2 is "living in harmony with nature" better than Tribe #1.

Tribe #3: I saw a fellow with a horse and mule over by himself, or with his family, actually. I snapped my dog on her leash, and invited myself over to his camp. He walked out with his mule and started talking. That mule ate grass noisily and continuously the entire time. As it turns out, he was an agriculture teacher in a high school, back in Arkansas. He talked about his ride up to the high pastures that we could see from his campsite.

I asked him to teach me something about mules. That was easy, because I know so little. He explained that they had a simple stomach, unlike a cow. I still don't understand how the bio-chemical engineering in a simple stomach can turn grass into animal tissue.

I was sighing with relaxed pleasure as he kept talking. I didn't feel estranged from Tribe #3, as with the other two tribes. A historian might put this fellow (and me!) in the classicist and humanist camp.

The examples I gave today are just illustrations, applications if you will, of the great issues of classicism versus romanticism, as discussed in Babbitt's book. I like to apply the ideas of a book, rather than regurgitate them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Economics 101 When a Town Barely Has a Pulse

It's been a long time since I took an economics course. All I remember about it is that they don't call it the "dismal science" for nuttin'. Let me suggest another approach to the subject. Forget about the hectic noise of the big city, the stop-and-go traffic, and the endless running around to buy crap, most of which is superfluous.

Imagine taking it all away. Simplicity, bliss? Not so fast. Your first couple hours in a really small town pound it into you how difficult it is to get anything done. What if you have something as trivial as a flat tire? Will you have to call your towing service and get towed 200 miles to Phoenix or Albuquerque?

Are any of their stores serious about doing business? Maybe they are just tax write-offs. Except that the place doesn't look high-income-enough to need tax write-offs.

Can you find a business that is open the same hours two days in a row? I actually bring a pen and clipboard to write down the complex schedule of hours when the silly place is actually open.

My cellphone doesn't work, but the internet does. It seems to be impossible to throw away a simple grocery sack of kitchen trash, because there are no trashcans in town! At least it is easy to find water in mountain towns.  

There are times when I feel like giving up. Let them board the place up.  Maybe local yokels wouldn't even care, until they closed their post office.

Clearly the place is impoverished, and yet you see more smokers around than anywhere else. Are 'smokes' covered by EBT cards? Their mental life is pretty much limited to the Bahbll and satellite television.

But it only gets so bad before you hit bottom. Then you start adapting. That is what makes this an 'authentic' experience. You start to appreciate how flexible a human being can be if they have to be. You really can buy a little food at the grocery store if you stop trying to impose city-ish notions on them.

The town even had a hardware/lumber store. Home Depot it isn't. I stopped at the section for tapes and adhesives, and started to imagine what kind of things I could fix with this tape and that adhesive.

Today I was in the grocery store and grinned from ear to ear when I saw a key-making machine at work. 

The closer you look, the less hopeless it seems. You start to see 'necessities' as falling into sub-categories: mere conventionalities; conveniences; occasional versus immediate; toys, status symbols, and entertainments.  

Better yet, life seems less regulated and bureaucratic. Interactions between individuals seem more relaxed. Of course you don't want to ruin that by fostering exaggerated, nostalgic sentimentalisms about small town people.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hitting the Jackpot with the Service Economy

So this is what it feels like to hit the jackpot! Despite the cliché that 'America has a service economy', an experienced traveler knows how difficult it is to get a dog groomed or a car fixed. Even more frustrating is the search for a seamstress. It would be easier to schedule brain surgery than to get a zipper replaced, when you're on the road.

That is why I hit the jackpot in Silver City when I threw myself on the mercy of a dry cleaning place, the same place where I had been saved a half dozen years ago, when this same winter parka had suffered 'wardrobe malfunction'. The way things go these days, perhaps I shouldn't complain about the new metal zipper surviving heavy use for that long. (It was twice as long as the original nylon Delrin zipper.}

Back then I remember the disappointment of the best winter parka of my life failing so prematurely, and fearing that it would now be put in the dumpster. It's funny how that works: we never remember the pretty scenery and the perfect weather and the smooth rides. But we remember the misadventures and the disasters. The wardrobe malfunction had happened on a cold blustery spring day in New Mexico. I was angry and miserable, walking through town, looking for seamstress help, while holding the parka closed with my soon-to-be-frozen fingers. 

But soon I started to like it. I had been walking to town with no particular purpose. Perhaps I would have ended up squandering time and money at a coffee shop. But now I let the cold wind cleave the parka in two. I was now engaged in a great and noble battle with Evil, testing whether this parka, or any parka so conceived and so dedicated, would long endure.

Well, that was Then. And Here we were again. This time the seamstress put an even bigger metal zipper in. It looks like it was made by Caterpillar Tractor Co., instead of YKK. 

And by the way, does YKK Corp. have some sort of global monopoly on zippers? Maybe that is why zippers are the bane of our existence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro-Grouch at the Laundromat

I thought it was a bad idea whose time had come...and passed. But there it was, staring at me, once again.

Quarters aren't accepted by an ultra-modern laundromat, like this one. Now you must waste money to buy a plastic card even before putting a balance on the card that lets you do laundry. Yea, like that is really advantageous for the traveler who is only going to be there once.

Of course there were complex instructions for paying for the card itself, then putting a balance on the card, then inserting it into the washing machine (once chance in four of getting it right), and then pulling it out at the right speed so it actually begins working. I have seen a poor attendant have to help every other customer with these damn things!

I actually groaned out-loud when I walked into this business and saw the bad news. I was traveling with a European friend for a week. Recognizing all the telltale signs of an incipient rant, they started looking for a fire extinguisher to spray me down.

This isn't the first time I've seen this type of setup. The first time was in Yuma. Obviously charging you $5 for card -- with zero balance -- was an integral part of their business model. They were counting on a certain fraction of their elderly snowbird clientele leaving for the summer, losing the card, or croaking during the summer.

Besides the technical annoyances, which admittedly are short term, what bothers me the most is what this scam represents: another way to financialize daily life and hide price increases. When you have been putting 7 quarters into the washer for a few years, you are used to it. If the price is raised to 8, you will notice it and consider trying the laundromat down the street. Even worse, when our 'non-existent' inflation pushes the price to 9 in another year or two, all of the hardware of the washers will have to be changed because they only have 8 slots. What a nuisance that will be to the laundromat -- clearly an advantage to the financialized approach.

Step by step, the customer is meant to lose track of how much they are actually paying to do laundry. Perhaps the machines can be upgraded to use EBT cards. Perhaps putting more money on your balance will be done with a smartphone app. If you don't have any more balance on your app, PayPal, or EBT account, perhaps you can get a short term 'bridge' loan, based on your car title. Recently I saw progress in shifting from car title loans to car registration loans.

It pleases me to report (and I have a witness) that I made three nice compliments to the laundry attendant about how clean and fast her new machines were.

But let's face it: going to the laundromat is never going to be a traveler's favorite chore. Recently I was at a laundromat near an Indian reservation. (Oh no...) Recall the book "Kabloona", which I twisted into my nom de plume.  In the book the French anthropologist was living with the esquimaux in northern Canada. He admitted that he never fantasized over having a harem of esquimaux women. But after two years of living amongst them, he was noticing that they were starting to look better to him. (What do you expect, for a Frenchman...) As I looked around at my laundromat's clientele, it seemed that two years might not be quite enough.

With that churlish thought in my mind, in comes a youngish Indian woman, with interesting shoes and leggings. They were not ostentatiously retro; in fact they looked like they came from a thrift store; but they somehow suggested traditional clothing. She was short, had bronzed skin, raven black hair, and high cheekbones. It didn't take much imagination to think, "Bering Strait." Quite a handsome woman, in a rugged sort of way. Except for being a hunchback...

But wait, it wasn't a hump. It was a young daughter -- a papoose -- carried in a vivid purple towel. I wish I knew more about knots because the purple towel was tied in a way that was both ornamental and functional. It was all that kept the papoose from falling to the ground. But the mother moved freely around the laundromat, as if the papoose were just a part of her body.

What a spark that woman had to her personality, to take something traditional and make it look so natural and un-forced. Personally I have never paid much attention to style. Perhaps I should have.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Progress in Popular Culture

In one sense, everything was normal at the gasoline pump the other day. It is no longer unusual for a loudspeaker to blare out advertisements at you, usually for a car wash or junk food. You can't blame the ad-world for making progress in this direction. After all, television viewers mute out the commercials, and internet eye-ballers use Ad-Block.

But there was something new today. My ears were regaled with a country-western version of rap music. This was a new cultural low for me. A radio listener probably doesn't consider this news at  all.

I've lived too long. Maybe I should be dead by now. Lately I have been contrasting the popular culture of my childhood with that of today. Will an old person always prefer the past because they are "conservative" and narrow-minded? Actually, it is young people who are narrow-minded -- they only know one side of the question. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Real Life Showing Itself in the Do-it-Yourself Syndrome

I don't know where you come down on the Do-It-Yourself question: whether it is a trap, a moral sickness, or a great part of life? Depends on the situation.  

Consider the long overdue improvements I've been making to my mountain bike, as the season cranks up again. 'Cool' mountain bikers never put a bag on the handlebar. They also spend $4000 on a bike that only holds one water bottle. Then they load up their back with a hot, sweaty Camelbak pack. No way! I have had every brand of front handlebar bag made. Last autumn in Moab I went over the handlebar, broke the plastic bracket of the bag, and got scratched up.

This has been going on for decades! Handlebar bags are expensive, protrude too far in front, rotate (fall) downwards, and make your bike harder to store. Or they are cheap, floppy things. And they can't hold something as simple as a jacket regardless of price. 

It seems like you should be able to dig through the toy box, find an old fanny pack, and then loop it over the handlebar. Perhaps that would work if the loop and buckles were in the right place. And you must know how to sew! A loop here and there would accomplish miracles. Chalk up one more failure.

After all these years of frustration I finally jumped in with the Do-it-Yourself approach. Take a tubular stuff sack with a nylon webbing strap on the bottom, and loop it over the brake lever or the handlebar grip, as shown:

The black strap in the bottom of the stuff sack is hooked into the V of the handlebar grip and the brake lever.

Then loop a bungee-ball over the string that closes the stuff sack:

Extend the bungee-ball over to the other side, hook it into the V, and then pull it back to the original side, and hook it in.

This is more detail than a non-cyclist wants to know. Readers may be wondering why I would go into a blow-by-blow account of such a trivial project.  Trivial? Well then, why had I tolerated this situation for 40 years!?  

It's not that product designers couldn't come up with this idea. But a product needs to be 'cool', expensive, and profitable. Not many customers will pay much for elegant and shrewd practicality in a product. They want a showy status symbol. In the perfect color.

It is such a good illustration of how pleasurable and meaningful it can be to finally take the Do-it-Yourself approach. When you work on a Do-it-Yourself project, you are thinking for yourself. How many things are more important than that? Perhaps solving practical problems is the only time when a person really does think for themselves.

In contrast, with abstract thinking you can convince yourself that anything is true; there is seldom a way of verifying or falsifying your result. A lot of abstract thinking is just following the leader or public opinion. But there is a way to validate your thinking in a Do-it-Yourself project. 

The smallest Do-It-Yourself project is capable of humbling anybody. You start drowning in frustration. You are a demonstration of how inefficient and fumbling a person is when they are doing anything for the first time. You feel the shame of defeat. But if you persist, you may be crowned with success. There really is a drama to the struggle. You might even save some money -- but don't expect too much in that regard. These things are important components of life; and are really brought to life in a Do-it-Yourself project.

The final result. Cost was zero. Safer than a naked handlebar. Easy to repair. The industry now has bags that cost $175.

You can add another stuff sack starting from the opposite side. With two sacks, one can be used for emergency stuff, while the other one goes to comfort. If you don't have stuff sacks laying around in your closet with webbing straps on the bottom, and if you can't sew, consider buying the S or XS stuff sacks made by Sea-to-Summit. (5--6" in diameter by 12--13" long.)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Turning Election Ugliness into Intellectual Pleasure

It is hard to settle on an attitude toward these ghastly presidential elections that satisfies me. The easy thing is to say, "Just ignore it. Why make yourself depressed or angry when you don't have to be?"

But this approach is too facile. We do, after all, live under a system of self-government. Something better than mere avoidance is called for. But don't worry: I'm not about to give you a pep talk that belongs in school civics class.
Rather, I want to be candid about how hopeless the USA is, and face up to the fact that we are looking into an abyss. Don't avert your eyes from it. Wallow in it a bit -- not for the mere sake of misery of course, but for the sake of moving on to something better.

For instance, lately I have been on a streak of books about Muslim history. Think how narrow public discourse is about Muslims as 'terrorists'. Does anyone ever define what a terrorist is? Isn't it just an example of asymmetrical warfare? Does anyone ever discuss the morality of Western imperialism? Who kills more people: terrorists or the non-terrorist Good Guys of the West? Does the average television viewer ever hear about the Sykes-Picot treaty, the Balfour Declaration, Washington's role in creating modern jihadis in Afghanistan, or its support of the bloody war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s?

I won't discuss these things because I don't want a book-long post. What matters is that Americans never get a chance to understand the history of Islam in its entirety, starting around 600 A.D. They only hear about the Here and the Now, and very propagandist versions of them. In fact it is a fascinating history. To see your mind opening up from a narrow sliver of some subject to a Big Picture is a real pleasure.

We normally think of pleasure as being something sensual and easy, but the human animal really is more capable than that. Because it is hard to feel genuine intellectual pleasure, anything that helps should be seen as a positive thing, even if that means wallowing in a bit of misery such as presidential elections. The misery doesn't last too long. And it whets your appetite for the pleasure of learning things that would otherwise seem like dry homework.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Conversational Extremes at the Quartzsite Gab-fest

The trick is to avoid eye contact. When walking on the sidewalk of a large city, people learn that you must avert your eyes from winos, junkies, and panhandlers. Quartzsite is not a big city, but the same principle holds. If you slip up -- even momentarily -- at the laundromat, the old boy will notice what license plates your vehicle has, and start in with whar-ya-frum, and then move on to story after story about what happened to him, there, 38 years ago.

At another time, in a crowded bakery, a line of annoyed people were held up by an old boy cracking "jokes" with the bakery worker. When he wasn't succeeding well enough at holding her up, he would look around and try to spot some new victim who made eye contact or seemed slightly amused at his bullshit. That person would soon regret it.

I tell ya... there are worse things than death; like out-living your usefulness, and becoming one of these old men in Quartzsite.

It is easy to enjoy the solar critical mass around Quartzsite. The stores are quite good. Only the solar panels themselves are over-priced. Most of the ancillary equipment is readily available and reasonably priced. Batteries are sold at loss-leader prices.

Ah yes, ancillary equipment. The standard universe of electrical connectors and crimping tools from auto parts and hardware stores tops out at 10 gauge electrical wire. But I like to use fatter 8 gauge wire for my battery charging. Surprisingly the hardware store in Q had 8 gauge ring terminals. But how do you crimp them?

At one of the solar stores, a young man told me that I could crimp these bigger ring terminals myself, with a hammer and a flat blade screwdriver (and a big rock laying on the desert). I didn't believe him. But back at camp I tried it, and it worked well.

What a pleasure it was to hear something from another human being that isn't drivel, small talk, stories about the past, jokes, and popularity-seeking. There are times, such as the examples above, when I feel I am too harsh and demanding with other people; and when they disappoint, too surly and grouchy.

The example with the young man at the solar store was such a relief to me! In fact, I am easy to please with practical tips or non-trite general information. I like being pleased by other people's information, when they actually have some!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Contradiction and Talking for Victory

I am going to continue with the subject of civilizing conversation because this is the only time of year when a backwoods camper snowbird desert rat actually talks to other human beings.

As Swift pointed out in his essay, all human beings are capable of making big improvements in their conversational habits, and with only moderate effort. Consider how easy it is easy to break some of these bad habits compared to giving up smoking. And yet millions of people have succeeded at giving up smoking. When you consider the advantages of improving conversational habits, relative to the effort involved, and look at it from a rational economic cost-benefit perspective, it is hard to think of any project more worthwhile.

Referring back to the list in the previous post, today's sins are:

#5. The Chronic Contradictor.

#3. Talking for Victory.

These have been paired up because they overlap. You could even think of #5 as the short term or tactical version of a more persistent #3.

Years ago I read good ol' Ben's Autobiography and learned that he learned the policy of non-contradiction from a Quaker friend, during his early years in Philadelphia. Although it seemed like a good idea, it had no effect on my behavior. Thus I continued both bad habits for years. A long-suffering friend told me once that I "always had to get the last word in..."

But that has changed over the last year. I actually think it was Addison & Steele's essays, The Tatler and The Spectator, that converted me to a gentler and more civilized approach. What's this?, a that book has something to do with living a better life?

Perhaps some of the credit goes to getting older. At some point, the Shortness of Life transitions from being a platitude and cliché, to impart some sobriety and urgency to a fellow's conduct.

Ben observed something in a good friend of his once:
He had some reason for loving to dispute, being eloquent, an acute sophister, and, therefore, generally successful in argumentative conversation. He had been brought up to it from a boy, his father, as I have heard, accustoming his children to dispute with one another for his diversion, while sitting at table after dinner; but I think the practice was not wise; for, in the course of my observation, these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.
A contemporary of his, in England, could have learned a thing or two from Franklin. Samuel Johnson was prone to 'talking for victory', even by the admission of his obsequious biographer, James Boswell. But this wasn't always Johnson's tendency. Perhaps he changed as he aged. On their trip back from the Hebrides, Boswell witnessed this anecdote:
Speaking of this gentleman, at Rasay, he told us, that he one day called on him, and they talked of Tull's Husbandry. Dr Campbell said something. Dr Johnson began to dispute it. 'Come,' said Dr Campbell, 'we do not want to get the better of one another: we want to encrease each other's ideas.' Dr Johnson took it in good part, and the conversation then went on coolly and instructively. His candour in relating this anecdote does him much credit, and his conduct on that occasion proves how easily he could be persuaded to talk from a better motive than 'for victory.'
I just love that phrase, 'to increase each other's ideas.'  Perhaps we should stop thinking of conversation as a rapid ping pong match between opponents, and think of it as team volleyball, in which the first person bumps the ball up to the front row, and the second player sets it up to the third player, who then spikes it hard over the net. There is still an opponent, of course. But it is the other team, not an individual.

We can eliminate a team of humans as the opponents by making an inanimate idea (or situation) into the opponent. Let's visualize conversation as the famous barn-raising scene in Amish Pennsylvania, in the movie "Witness." And consider what Maurice Jarre added to the conversation with his music that so perfectly translated 'uplifting' into sound. 

But don't think I've gone nambie pambie. I consider it 'improvement' on the other guy's idea to mention an example where his point is most-true, as well as least-true. Or translate it into better words. Or ask for a clarifying example from the other person. I am not talking about passive, unqualified, obsequious echoing of their opinion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Old Men Talking Their Victims to Death, in Quartzsite

A commenter pointed out that another category was needed for the list in the previous post: the One-Upper. I invite you to read his comment in the previous post.

And I overlooked the most ubiquitous of all conversational rogues: the Interrupter. At least these people are pretty easy to forgive. They are a bit like a dog who barks when nervous, but not at other times. Let the Interrupter calm down after a minute, or let them see the look on the face of their victim, and they will soon correct themselves.

There is a marvelous bit of acting by John Goodman in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink", showing him to be the victim of an over-eager, know-it-all, intellectual playwright, who won't listen to the John Goodman character tell his story.

But I'll bet you too have run into Interrupters who don't calm down and back off, but rather, keep interrupting forever. I simply don't know how to explain that. Are they insisting on being the dominant one? Their problem is quite serious.

To continue with the previous post, let's consider item #1 on the list: the garrulous old man who is constantly telling his long-winded stories.

The other day I went into Quartzsite for an errand. The old fellow came out to help me. I became nervous after looking at him for 2 seconds. (But imagine how often that alarm sounds in the minds of shopkeepers when they see a certain demographic of customer walk in, at this time of year.) Why did his body language or facial expression produce such dread? At any rate, I knew I was in for the treatment. The question was, how to sneak away without being too brusque.

He turned out to be not too bad. He actually paused in his soliloquy and let me ask a question or two. Therefore, to a therapist who works with this type of dysfunction, he is a soft-core patient who is merely in the early stages of the disease that good ol' Benjamin Franklin admitted to, as he sat down to write his "Autobiography":
By my rambling digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically... 'Tis perhaps only negligence.
The shame of it was that he was talking about a topic that was potentially important to me, and if handled right, could have saved me a great deal of worry and expense. (The story was about his dog getting bit by a rattlesnake.)

There are more talkative old men than him in Quartzsite at this time of year. Consider the bright side of this situation: they could operate as rampaging feral gangs, brutalizing their victims one after another, and in unspeakable ways. But in fact they normally operate as lone predators.

It's strange.  When I was a boy, (uh-oh...) both grandfathers' stories amused me. I can't remember them being long-winded. There really are benefits to old men telling stories if they are brief. Doesn't a world traveler have examples that could second the point that the other person was making? How about anecdotes that start out similar to the anecdote just told by the other person, but which end in the opposite direction? An old man has experienced profound changes by being a 'time traveler'. He can help his younger conversationalist escape the tyranny of the Here and the Now.

There is so much to be gained if only the old man would stop thinking about his own pleasure in talking, and think about the other person.

Of course, one must be patient with society if you expect much improvement in this department. Until then, other methods might be used. Why can't someone develop a chemical spray and a handy belt holster, analogous to bear repellent, so that when you see a garrulous geezer coming, you can blast him and keep yourself safe? It might be a best-seller at the Big Tent.