Are We Ready to Lose it Again?

Thirteen years ago on this day, a massive power failure swept across the northeastern US. Aug 14 2003 Power FailureThe satellite image shows the blacked-out area like some alien had taken a giant bite out of Canada and New England. At that moment, I was faxing (remember that?) a quote to a client, and my first thought was “Damn terrorists”. But turned out it wasn’t any sort of attack, it was a failure of the archaic US power grid, with a crash on the east coast cascading through system after system until finally halted just west of Detroit. Some 50 million people were affected.

I made my way down three flights of stairs in pitch black (so much for those emergency lights, I noted) and into a city with no stoplights and thousands of scared people. The car radio let me know the shocking extent of the problem, and as I made my way home, it was encouraging how courteous the drivers I encountered were. I made it without too much trouble, unlike folks in bigger cities like New York, Toronto, and Cleveland. Pity those poor people stuck in elevators, in subway cars, or on planes hoping to land! I felt the adrenaline burst of excitement that accompanies the start of any emergency but it quickly wore off to hours then days of anxious boredom. No lights, no TV, no work, no school, no gas for the car, no A/C, and after Day 1 no water since the pumps at Detroit W&S were electrically powered. (Luckily I was able to fill the bathtub before the flow trickled to nothing, so we could flush the toilet, something I truly appreciated in the August heat.) A few local radio stations broadcasting with generators suspended their playlists and filled the airwaves with news of who needed help and who had help to offer. I found this comforting in a small town cozy way as I tried to fall asleep at sundown with my ear glued to my battery-powered portable. In the morning, coffee was possible on the camp stove, so I thought, okay – we’ll play Little House on the Prairie and rough it for a while.

On Day 2, everyone in the neighborhood emptied their melting freezers and held a giant block party BBQ, washed down with lukewarm drinks as we sat up late and talked by lamps, candles, and tiki torches. In typical American fashion, I had never met most of them before. Alas, there was too much haze to fully enjoy the completely dark night sky but I can attest that a single candle becomes a beacon in a world without electricity. Finally on Day 4, my boys and I were hiding out in the only cool spot, the basement, playing Mousetrap when the lights flickered on again. And so back to normal, the only harm to us a refrigerator full of spoiled food.

The real impression I carry from that day is that despite the passage of 13 years, the US electric network is unimproved by meaningful infrastructure investment. This sword of Damocles hangs over us every day, with our a rickety conglomeration of regional grids unready to handle our growing population with its plethora of 4G devices, and vulnerable to physical and cybersecurity attacks. It is only a question of time until the next emergency.

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Delightful Word Stumbled Upon Today: Gnomic

Trump Styled CatLately I’ve reflected on how the 2016 campaign has afforded the opportunity to revive many delightful and rarely-used entries from my Spreadsheet of Unusual Words Found (yes, I actually collect these) to describe the presumed GOP nominee, Donald Trump. Words like despicable. Bloviate. Mendacity. Truculent. Grifter. Unctuous. The man is such an incredible piece of work that I find it difficult to believe there are still a few who profess to not see through the media facade to the bedrock meglomania that motivates his all. Is it because he is a showman? Is it because they’ve seen him on TV?

Today I stumbled upon a word that helps identify the phenomenon of Trump: gnomic. By the way, this gnomic is actually nothing to do with those Harry Potter creatures flung across the garden, although if I could fling Trump I would in a heartbeat, it’s related to the word-root of knowing.  Today I also learned that a gnome is also a synonym for aphorism,  a meaning I don’t recall encountering in 50+ years of serious reading, so I’ve fallen behind or read too much Tolkien and Martin. So many books, so little time.



1. Relating to a gnome (an aphorism or a pithy saying).
2. Puzzling, ambiguous, or incomprehensible yet seemingly profound.

From Greek gnome (judgment, opinion), from gignoskein (to know). Ultimately from the Indo-European root gno- (to know), which also gave us knowledge, prognosis, ignore, narrate, normal, and gnomon. Earliest documented use: 1815.

Sign up for a free daily missive of interest from my treasured source for this and many other unusual words, Anu Garg at Wordsmith:

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I’ll take the all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet, but hold the Republican presidential candidate, please.

My dream is to be worthy to follow Helen Philpot, and if we’re lucky, she ain’t going for a while.

Margaret and Helen

Margaret, is it a sad day, indeed.  I was just reading the news about how America has gone against the word of God with the latest Supreme Court ruling.  I am just beside myself.  If any of those judges were to just read the bible, they would clearly see the error of their judgment in the Book of Leviticus.

Thou shalt not cut your hair roundwise: nor shall you shave your beard.(Chapter 19 Verse 27)

No. Wait a minute.  That’s not it.  It’s another chapter.  That one was used by the court when they ruled on Supercuts vs. Bad Hair Days.

Let’s see.  Oh yes, here it is:

Thou shalt not eat shrimp or lobster.  (Chapter 11 Verse 9)

Darn.  That’s not it either.  That one was used when the court ruled on The Olive Garden vs. Red Lobster.

Where is it?  Oh yes.  Leviticus Chapter 18.  Here…

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Perhaps There is a God, After All

Terrific Tuesday Tale:
We set out in search of strawberries on this afternoon of dreary rain, and spent an inordinate amount of time stuck in a construction back-up on I-94. (You know what I mean, you’ve been there–just change the highway number.) It was tedious creeping, then stopping, then creeping toward the merge, lots of big slow rigs maneuvering like dinosaurs, and lined up behind us was a Van Buren County animal control vehicle. As we approached our exit, suddenly, missing us by inches on the right, a hotshot scofflaw with Illinois plates came blasting through on the gravel shoulder, doing at least 50 and BAM — the animal control vehicle hits its lights and guns it around us after the asshole, and we now see its driver is a uniformed county brownie. As we proceeded along the exit ramp, there was the deputy, leaning into the FIP’s window with his pad out. Best laugh of the month so far. Perhaps there is a God after all. Time to make jam with the most heavenly berries in the world, Michigan strawberries. (But first, I think, a daquiri.) The Best Strawberries Make The Best Strawberry Jam

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The Engineer’s Daughter

I colorize my closet by season, and my kitchen cupboards are organized by end use. OCD or just efficient? You tell me. My niece laughs and says this is “so German”.

It’s not obsessive. It’s a common sense approach to life. I take the long view: a thing I do more efficiently now is less likely to give me a hassle in the future. My position is that I am more Spockian than simply German (like there’s any logic to that).

I am organized. If a thing is in its place, I don’t have to look for it. Unless of course you took it and neglected to put it back. Then you may receive the Alden Glare of Death and become my Focus of Retribution. Not recommended.

Bill Eiszner 1961

The first photo I ever took was of my Dad in 1961. We were sitting in the shade behind the garage, reading the Sunday funnies together, and he let me take a shot with tne Schneider-Kreuznach 35mm brought home from WWII.

I rinse clean my recyclable soda cans and bottles. Not doing so equates in my mind with not flushing a public toilet you’ve used. Yet people bring back trash bags stuffed with grungy cans, adding their flat beer, sugary leavings, butts, and backwash to the putrid gunk that ends up all over the TOMRA recycling machines, making them disgusting for everyone until they go out of order. My returns are neatly stored in their original box, because that is the easiest way to transport them, and placed in optimum position to grab for the scanner. I am eager to leave because it seems every time I enter a Bottle Return Room, I encounter a civilian or two laboring beside a shopping cart overflowing with a congeries of containers that drip suspicious fluids and, in warmer weather, draw flies. Who lives like that? I simply cannot fathom it. Am I that weird? Or are they.

My dad took great pride in being a registered Professional Engineer (PE), which was more than just a license, it was his approach to life. Calm, patient, scrupulously honest, almost detached with curiosity, and ultimately moved by humor. I have such memories of him looking at how stuff worked, taking it apart and putting it back together, sometimes cobbling odd pieces into Rube Goldberg-ian contraptions. They were never artful or even craftsmanlike really, but would work efficiently for what he intended them to do. His whole approach stays with me, him calmly starting at the beginning and working through what he wanted to fix: how did it work, and what step of the process was disconnected? He would lift his glasses against his forehead (he was nearsighted like me) and peer under them as he turned the thing over and over in his hands, studying the details while he mapped it all out in his mind. And then he would do what needed to be done, and the thing would work.

His way was never my way initially; I was always impulsive, impatient, emotional – even rash. But when my task seems especially knotty or daunting, I pause and channel him, breaking it down into an analytical assessment of stages and steps. That’s probably how I developed into an Organizer Type, that plus a little native OCD with a dollop of Aspergers into the mix. Even now I am driven by the conviction that if I am tidy and focused and diligent in my life, things will work out okay. It helps me overcome fear. Thanks Dad. Happy Fathers Day.

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The More Things Change, the More I Am the Same, part 1

In the landline world of South Bend, Indiana in the late 1960s, there was a phone number shared around Adams High called “the Hot Line”. You called and reached a busy signal, but behind it, distantly, you could hear teens talking.

Rumor had it this always-busy phone number serviced a circuit of households for the Labyrinthine Phone Company (only one back then) and was left on busy when not needed by its repairmen, so home phones on the circuit could hear each other. Sometimes there would be many voices trying to link up, sometimes just one lonely voice reciting his home number like an SOS. Sometimes the voices were clear enough that you could hold an actual conversation, but usually they sounded far away, and you could only try to exchange numbers. I recall the staccato of speaking each word timed between the beeps. If you were lucky, you captured the phone number of an interested party, and anything could happen next, or so my friends said. If you weren’t lucky, the line was depressingly empty, and so you tried again another time.

One school night I snuck downstairs and took the desk phone under cover of the dining room table, and dialed the Hot Line. I couldn’t do more than whisper heavily (innocently of course), but I did end up having an actual though rather pointless conversation with a boy named (impossibly!) Paul.  Then my mother picked up the extension and my cover was blown, and I was grounded from all phone calls for two weeks.

This primitive disconnection is unfathomable to today’s teens who tweet and text incessantly, even to people in the same room. Potential romantic partners around the world are easily encountered through social media, chat rooms, even YouTube videos (though how my Hot Line differs from their Tinder is merely a matter of technology). I have to keep all this in mind as I wander around the internet and realize that it’s never about me anymore. Netflix asks if I’d like to share my viewing habits with my Facebook friends, and my reaction is, hell no. Why should anyone care what I watch? But if I were still a teenager, I suppose I would want to know everything, avidly seeking out the mutual obsessions shared between this year’s BFFs. Today’s texts echo the notes I passed between classes (though mine were properly spelled and in complete sentences for the most part).

Vine? Twitter? Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram? Every website, every page wants content and commitment. I think, Who has time for this?, then I remember it’s not my technology and no longer my world. The incessant connectivity, with friends announcing changes of location as they go through an average day and photographing meals to show each other, it just feels … insane. But that’s because I’m old. On reflection, I actually enjoy no longer having to deal with the minutia of insecurity (not to mention busy signals) now that I’ve reached the stage of life where you simply do what you like and be who you turned out to be.

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A Poem: #832 Is My Color

Lipstick 4#832 is My Color.
Took me a long time to find it,
easily 40 years.
You see they keep re-naming it,
re-formulating it,
re-packaging it,
with every glorious, glamourous update.
But I found it.
This time around it’s “Unending Amber”.
Discontinued now.
I’ve worn the next-to-last tube
down to the nub of ickyness.
I consider, then savor, each sparing application
Starting with the shape,
the fill,
the smudge,
the pout,
the smile.
It’s empowering to hear the muffled click
as the case snaps shut,
and I rise to leave
into the chill of a clear October evening.

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Muse – ing

The Conversation Graphic

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p.s. (Still) Too Big To Succeed

ATT RethinkIf you waded through my previous kvetch about AT&T’s customer service, you might be interested to learn that they billed me $106 for the replacement gateway modem that never did work. I called to complain and after sitting on hold for a half hour I decided to email the customer service team.  I detailed in short, easy-to-comprehend sentences that I had not been informed I would be billed for a replacement part, I had no intention of paying for something that did not work, and in fact, I felt I was entitled to be credited for the week I was without service.

Promptly, “Adam” replied with all courtesy, “I am sorry for the inconvenience happened to you” [sic] and notified me that AT&T had credited me for five weeks (not just one) of service. But not a word about the modem. He closed, “Many thanks for being so awesome always!”

I wrote Adam back, thanking him for his courtesy (it was very nice of him to notice my awesomeness) and insisting that I only wanted credit for the single week I was entitled to, and what about the modem that had never worked? The next day “Andy” wrote back, assuring me that the extra adjustment was because I was such a wonderful customer, and asking me to kindly explain what issues I was having with my new modem. Okay, so my relationship with Adam was over so quickly.  *SIGH*  So be it. I wrote again, explaining in simple sentences that the modem was bad, it had never worked, and I would not pay for it.
“Paul” then wrote back saying he understood that I was asking about the charge for the modem. He advised me, “I can see that you were changed [sic] for the gateway. I recommend you to send the defective modem to the nearest UPS store and in turn they will send it to us, once we receive the equipment we will credit your next bill.”

Now I was getting somewhere! But just take the box, addressed to me, to any UPS store and they would magically know what to do with it? This is not the UPS I have been dealing with for decades. I wrote back: “OK, so just drop it off at a UPS store? Don’t need a shipping label or anything?”

The next day, I got a message from “Keath” [sic] informing me that he understood I had asked about a return label and that he had just emailed one to me. If I applied it to the box and shipped out the modem at any USPS/UPS location, they would credit my account upon receipt. Setting aside my curiosity about the sudden merger of the US Postal Service with UPS, I figured my problem might just be solved, and I affixed the label and off I went to the post office down the street.

I cannot fault any of the customer service representatives — English is not their first language yet they were unfailingly polite. (I cannot imagine me stumbling through a similar encounter in French, my only other language, or worse yet, in Hindi or Mandarin, which, being an ignorant American, I have not acquired.) And yet —

Three days and four emails to resolve my issue, and if I had not asked about a return label, I might still be getting to know the entire AT&T customer service team. My issue was minor, and based on my personal work experience in sales support/customer service, was something that could have, should have, been easily resolved in one call or one email. Better yet, why were return instructions not already included with the original shipment? (HP does this routinely.) The multi-day lag time and the giveaway of a month’s revenue is so clumsy, such a mediocre business practice, that again I question why and how AT&T remains a corporate leader. A “re-think” is not only “possible” but probably advisable.

Next month’s bill with credits promised and due has yet to arrive. I may have yet another update.

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The Most Important Stuff

A few people have accused me of being, not just a liberal, but an NPR-listening, MSNBC-watching, anti-religious, feminist, tree-hugging, Left-loving, “user-loser-chooser” liberal.

To which I reply − and your point is…?

Actually it is just very few people, mainly old white guys I knew in high school, comfortable in their prosperity, and here and there a bomb-throwing troll on a Facebook public forum. These are guys who usually hang out on pages I don’t go to involving Fox News, guns, and how taxes should be abolished. (Though I shouldn’t forget the rare but memorable righteous female, high on religious extremism and reality TV.) I confess, I readily dismiss these yahoos, impatient that they don’t “get it” so we can move on to the most important stuff.

I am sick of arguing reproductive rights with them. That revolution has happened in the West and is ongoing in the rest. Women are rising worldwide. The generations of girls we have raised are not about to accept a reversal of decisions made back in the 1970s. In this country, no one can force you to use birth control or get an abortion, but you don’t get to decide for anybody else. A woman’s highest calling is not being a mom unless she decides it is. A fetus, much less a zygote, is not a legal person. Get over it already, we have more important stuff to deal with.

I’m tired of them leaving their religious dogma in my yard, mouthing off against my LGBT friends about who they are allowed to love and telling me how to greet others over the holidays. I’m outraged that they resist teaching the truth of evolution [“Evolution is a fact, not a theory”, said Carl Sagan. Natural selection is the theory as the mechanism to effect evolution. This can’t be repeated enough!] and I can only deduce that pure ignorance is their reason. If they want to espouse such wacky ideas, that is their privilege in this country, but please let’s keep it out of public streets, it’s tacky and embarrasses the US to the world community. And there is much more important stuff to deal with.

And I’m sick and scared and outraged about the goddamn guns. Look, shooting is not my cup of tea, but I accept the existence of the second amendment. Still, in the ‘60s, there were hunters and soldiers and straight-arrow geeks in the school rifle club (I have pictures) but everything seemed pretty cool (or maybe I was just young enough to be oblivious). Then the NRA starts waving the flag to cover up the truth that the firearms industry which funds them has saturated our country with weaponry. Currently there are 310 million guns and only 300 million people in this country − and this doesn’t bother some gun owners? When you look at the statistical realities of crime and gun deaths, how can a reasonable person not support reasonable legislation? But that’s a whole other blog, and I am still impatient to move on to the really important stuff.

Which is − I just read that NASA’s division known as “CARVE” (Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment) has been flying the first of several fact-finding missions over Alaska and the Yukon (“the Great White North”) and their data reveals that the arctic permafrost is melting at a much quicker rate than anyone previously estimated. Massive amounts of CO2 trapped as methane in this vast area are poised to be released into the atmosphere, a critical factor to accelerating temperatures of global warming that  exacerbates the ice melt, extreme weather, rising sea-levels and desertification it brings. As Jeff Goldblum’s character Dr Malcolm said about T-rex in Jurassic Park, “I’m fairly alarmed here.FairlyAlarmed

Researchers at the University of Cambridge UK developed an algorithm to calculate the economic impact of methane release. Considering the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, “just this area’s methane alone – some 50 billion tonnes, or 50 gigatonnes − would have a mean global impact of 60 trillion dollars, an amount very similar to the size of the entire global economy last year. Current US national debt stands at a mere 16 trillion dollars in comparison.” The costs calculated relate to “extreme weather, poorer health [outcomes] and damaged agriculture”. The researchers refer to this melting as an “’ economic time-bomb’ far outweighing any ‘short-term gains from shipping and extraction’.” The melting of arctic ice would devastate the global economy.

I’m saying that the bullshit about social issues is distracting us as citizens of the planet from finding solutions to global warming. Let’s face it, we’re pretty much toast as far as the “will it or won’t it” happen goes, anymore. Anybody who tells you otherwise is hopelessly misguided or practicing mendacity to protect their immediate financial interests.

We passed 350 ppm in 2012. Right now we need to get moving on technologies and policies that will let us cope and survive as a species. I believe the US needs to lead a movement dwarfing the Manhattan Project to identify ways to generate, store and transport energy generated from non-polluting, alternative sources. We must direct our productivity and our smartest people to tackle the situation with the same drive and urgency that retooled Detroit for the WWII effort.

I’m saying that the social issue bullshit is a smokescreen, planted by the interests that make money from belching carbon − untaxed and mostly unheeded − into the atmosphere. It’s distracting us from this hard truth staring us in the face.

We have the brains and the facilities, and maybe enough time. We should have the cooperation of other civilized nations because we are all in this together. As a nation, we surely have the money, if we could just quit giving it to military contractors to squander over Muslims still squabbling about ancient tribal divisions. Such a challenge will take a leader with charisma and vision not seen in American politics since the ‘60s, and it will be a painfully hard climb with no guarantee of success. The time to get going is now.

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