Sunday, May 19, 2013

Summer in Kansas: The Iron Horse

Southwestern Kansas is a culinary wasteland. Unless you want a beefsteak, haute cuisine is pretty thin on the ground out here. And a person can only eat so many burritos in a lifetime. It's a steady landscape of glazed donuts, deep-fried popcorn shrimp baskets, deep-fried chicken tenders, outsized hamburgers and, in many small town cafes, plates of fried chicken livers and gizzards.

There is a seasonal specialty - each spring the ranchers "nut" their calves to make steers. The testicles are sliced thin, breaded and deep fried, served with ketchup and cocktail sauce. Calf fries, both as a menu item and as an event, are a seasonal staple much like fish fries in the east, at fire department fundraisers, Elks and Lions club smokers, church picnics, and Kansas State alumni banquets. Fresh calf fries are high end.

Just like it says
(Photo: J. Jacobs)

Finding healthy food under the circumstances becomes an act of considerable foraging. And, as you might imagine, regional specialties aren't always to everyone's taste.

Portland abalone
(Photo: Zane Kesey)
As I'd been living in Ulysses for the better part of a month and the exigencies of employment had interrupted my conjugal domesticity, my wife decided to spend her birthday with me among the drought-stunted wheatfields of Grant County. But as it was a special occasion (a reunion of sorts, a birthday) I was under considerable pressure to find a venue where the celebration could come off with some brio. It isn't every day one's mate marks her natal day, so the usual taco stand won't quite pass muster. 

The Iron Horse suggested itself, largely because it's about the only place in town where you can't get TexMex, and where you're bound to see a good many citizens you know in passing. In fact it is a distillation of western Kansas social life - a large windowless metal pole barn, a cavernous dark interior lit by neon beer signs, a veritable pumping station in the Coors and Anheuser-Busch empires, a place where the jukebox plays only country western and is always in full voice, a space ringed with wide-screen TVs broadcasting any violence-laced reality program from cop chases to K-State football games.

The Iron Horse did not disappoint. When we walked into the dim cavern from the bright Kansas evening, the jukebox was already ramped up, the bar was packed, the rows of long church-supper tables were lined with families and large parties of grazing locals. We took the last open booth, right next to the pool tables and less than a dozen feet from a pay-per-play bar game I'd never seen before. A couple of pudgy young fellows were taking turns feeding quarters into a kind of stanchion in which a punching bag was suspended, the kind Sylvester Stallone punched in "Rocky XXVIII." They'd take turns whacking this punching bag - wwhaaapppp! - and the concussion would wash across our booth. On the wide screen above our table a program called "The World's Worst Tenants" was getting considerable viewing attention (think "Hoarders" meets "Django Unchained").

(Rather we didn't come in for a "look around" just now.)

In short, everything was perfect. I suggested we start with a course of jalapeno poppers - jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried - and then work our way into the main menu. Nothing deep-fried, she insisted, but entered into the spirit of the evening and the ambient carniverosity, forewent her quasi-vegetarianism and ordered a medium-rare steak, which she drizzled with A-1 sauce. Perfect touch, I thought.

Midway into the steak, Arlin, the omnipresent half-owner of this place, came from around the bar over to the table and introduced himself to the celebrant - "I'm Arlin, half-owner of this place. You must be his better half." 

It was, I like to think, as nearly perfect as a birthday can get. I'll have to ask the birthday girl what she thought.

"Happy birthday my a** "

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Buy a Sword

The best bumper stickers are the ones that take you up short with a glimpse - brief yet trenchant - into the wierd and faintly toxic bath of your own cultural surroundings. I can hardly describe my quasi-cognitive glee when, driving along a street in some American city where I must have been recently, I spied this specimen of popular wisdom.

Background check? No problemo, pal. Think Obama wants to take away your  . . . sword? Bwahahahaha, if you'll pardon a bit of unseemly mirth. No, think about it: no waiting for background checks, no need to register it, it's perfectly legal, probably permissible to carry into schools theaters, malls, airports, the Kentucky Derby (particularly if it's the old "cavalry" model) . . .  

. . . possibly something that could pass as an antique, one of those heirlooms that's been in your family since the days of Uncle Anaximander . . .

What came to mind when I saw that bumper sticker was how passing strange is our fixation on guns, as though they must be the only arms we have a constitutional right to bear. I mean to say, a sword is an arm in any accepted sense of the term, and yet nary a National Sword Association (NSA) protecting that right; no legislative agendas to introduce concealed carry for swords; no modern-day member of Congress striding into that august chamber with a sabre strapped to his side. And no bumper stickers portraying a particularly lethal blade and the challenge to "Come and Take It."

Come and Take It

Admittedly not a compelling bumper sticker, but my point stands. If carrying a gun is a right granted by God to all God-fearing American patriots, then a fortiori it would seem that carrying a sword is an equivalent right, since God also carries a sword.

But where are the swordsman's (swordsperson's) Wayne La Pierres? Where our intrepid Sarah Palins, those airborne scourges of unoffending wildlife? Of course it's harder than Chinese arithmetic to hunt moose with a sword from a helicopter, but I think you see my point - our voice is silent, our brand gets no shelf space in the great constitutional hue and cry for the protections and assurances of arms-bearing citizens everywhere.

The sword has a more venerable and more universal history than the firearm, requires both greater expertise and greater courage to wield, has figured in more battles and for a longer period of history than guns. A swordsman is a mean piece of work, swordsmanship is an art, its passes have names like the gambits in chess, the care and sharpening of a blade is a skill difficult to learn.

 Sharpening a Sword (Haung Ji)

The hefty halberds of medieval European battlefields could lop off an arm or a leg as easily as drawing a breath. The recently discovered remains of Richard II, England's hunchbacked king, found in an excavation beneath a parking garage, show that he was dispatched by a halberd cut to the base of his skull during the Battle of Bosworth Field. And if all of those Japanses samurai movies are to be credited, a keen polished blade in the right hands could halve a grown man and leave him standing with a strange smile on his face for a solid ten minutes before he collapsed in a sudden heap of carnage. Swordsmen were romantic figures, initiates, experts wedded to their discipline, solitary paladins wandering across the land, heroes and knights errant.

Admittedly they sometimes dressed oddly, but then gun owners don't set a high mark either . . .

This sartorially questionable young gunman seems overly pleased with his carry permit and his trampling of social convention. Still, there's something Sunday-schoolish about him. He's worrisome, not because he has a gun but because he has a puce shirt and a gun. He's not serious.

These guys, on the other hand, didn't wear puce shirts. And when they were done with each other there were arms and legs everywhere.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How To Talk Canadian Good

Back in 2007, the Washington Post reported the testimony of retired AT&T technician Mark Klein before a Congressional committee. Klein told the representatives that as early as 2002, "the [National Security Administration] set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T . Contrary to the government's depiction of its surveillance program as aimed at overseas terrorists, Klein said, much of the data sent through AT&T to the NSA was purely domestic. Klein said he believes that the NSA was analyzing the records for usage patterns as well as for content.

"He said the NSA built a special room [inside an AT&T office] to receive data streamed through an AT&T Internet room containing 'peering links,' or major connections to other telecom providers. The largest of the links delivered 2.5 gigabits of data - the equivalent of one-quarter of the Encyclopedia Britannica's text - per second, said Klein, whose documents and eyewitness account form the basis of one of the first lawsuits filed against the telecom giants after the government's warrantless-surveillance program was reported in the New York Times in December 2005."

The NSA, Klein told Congress, "was sweeping up everything, vacuum-cleaner-style. The NSA is getting everything. These are major pipes that carry not just AT&T's customers, but everybody's."

In his Guardian column for May 4, Glenn Greenwald reports on a CNN interview with Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, who carefully explained (and repeated in a second interview the next day) that any telephone calls between the late Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his widow, Katherine Russell (calls which might implicate her in the incident), are not lost in cyberspace, as we all think our phone conversations must be, but are completely accessible, thanks to the NSA and our major communications carriers. "We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation," Clemente told the CNN interviewer. "Welcome to America," Clemente said. "All of that stuff is being captured as we speak, whether we know it or like it or not."

"All of that stuff," period. It's scarcely worth mentioning that this activity is entirely illegal, done in secret, in violation of the Constitution, since Congress has retroactively immunized the nation's telecom giants for their participation in illegal Bush-era spying programs. Klein's claims were thereby prevented from being heard beyond a Congressional hearing, in a proper courtroom. 

But it's the Obama era these days, and the NSA has carte blanche to do what it likes. It has settled quietly in among the closet polygamists of Bluffdale, Utah and is completing a million-square-foot data collection facility, the Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center, just for plain folks like us.

Wired Magazine describes it: "A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.' "

Three days ago, in its May 7 issue, the New York Times reported that "The Obama administration . . . is on the verge of backing a Federal Bureau of Investigation plan for a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services . . . . While the F.B.I.’s original proposal would have required Internet communications services to each build in a wiretapping capacity, the revised one, which must now be reviewed by the White House, focuses on fining companies that do not comply with wiretap orders." 

Two billion dollars American and a sheep-like Congress will get you lots of data storage. And the Internet is a remarkably transparent data stream just waiting to be Hoovered up (I was getting depressed, I needed that pun). It just happens that Barack Obama is a better manager of his presidential brand than George W. Bush was of his own brand. The dude shoots hoops, smiles a lot, sings Al Green hits. Liberals think he's God's gift, even Fox News thinks he's a liberal. But recently, the ACLU submitted a FOIA request to obtain the Obama administration's policy on intercepting text messages sent to and from cell phones. Here is what they actually received.

I may have to expatriate myself, as I do not expect things to improve in the way of civil liberties. I'm making a serious attempt to learn the Canadian language so I can emigrate. It's not as easy a task as it might seem to pronounce "Ottawa" or "Toronto" properly (say "Odduwuh" and "Tronna"). Or "poutine," which is easier to pronounce than it is to eat . . .


But still, mispronounce it and everyone thinks you said "putain."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer in Kansas: A Nasty Blow

This stretch of southwestern Kansas is hatchmarked into square miles of dusty dirt roads that embody the Public Lands Survey System, the surveying scheme of numbered section-township-range instituted in Jefferson's administration to tidy up the mostly unexplored West . It's country that, like much of the rest of the flat Midwest, hasn't seen any significant rainfall in over four years. Farmers are looking at 19 bushel-per-acre wheat crops instead of 40 or 50 bushels per acre. The frost got much of what the drought probably would have taken off anyway. Crop insurance salesmen are as popular as airline tickets out of North Korea.

North Korean hitchhikers

Driving back to the field office last evening around dusk, I was feeling a bit unnerved by a large semicircle of wall cloud looming above my small truck. A wall cloud is as often as not a tornado waiting to happen and I hadn't heard anything about a tornado watch, although admittedly it is Kansas I'm driving around in. A wall cloud is the leading edge of something nasty and looks very much like a wall that's about to fall on you.

The Ulysses Blow
Equally unnerving was the solid black curtain hanging beneath it, straight ahead to the west, reaching all the way to the ground and fully obscuring the 20-mile visibility I've learned to take comfort in. A couple of miles off to the south I could see the edge of it, big clouds of brown roiling dust barreling along the ground and stacking up hundreds of feet. It was, as Mark Twain described the wind in the Nevada desert, "a peculiar Scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth 'whence it cometh.' " I pulled off to the side of the county road and waited for it to come. The landscape I was driving into really did resemble the "Dirty Thirties:"

I'll be honest - between the approaching blackness and the fact that I was right under the wall of cloud and about 50 yards from a sizeable dust devil off to the north, I was as nervous as a sinner in a stalled elevator, looking and listening intently for a funnel to loom out of the murk. Then the wind hit and the wall of dust started sandpapering my windshield. In the middle of it, I called a friend on his cell phone, a wheat farmer born and raised there. No, no tornados, he reassured me."I'm about a half mile north of you working on a sprinkler and I can see the whole thing - I've never seen anything like this. I wish I had my camera."

In about 15 minutes the dust blew on, the sky cleared to a murky brown, the wind kept up for another half-hour, and aside from a stiff breeze it was gone. Some of the county roads are a bit lower than they were, some of the topsoil has new owners, there are probably a few shingles and small dogs unaccounted for. The drought is as biblical as the wind. What can happen next?

Oh shit, not again.

Puttin' On The Glitz

"We are what we pretend to be . . . . "         (Kurt Vonnegut)

I'm working on a wind farm project that is actually being built. It's under construction, here in Kansas as you might have surmised from other posts. For the first time in my life I am working at a full-scale construction job site. So now I have to do things like go through safety orientation, where I learn about things like an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) and PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). Everyone is required to have a full complement of PPE. So I learned that I needed to wear a hard hat when on the job site. At least have it in my truck. The hat I actually had in my truck was judged not quite hard enough for the exigencies of, say, a wrench dropped from a height of 80 meters:

Well, understandable. Still, I neither wanted to be behindhand in my safety observances nor did I want to be unfashionable, so I looked around on the internet to see what might be available in the hard hat line. I found some styles I very much liked . . .

. . . but was informed by the safety person that these samples, though undeniably smart, were deficient in "functionality," which I took to mean that a full beaver might be a dust magnet around the turbine pad excavations. I was grateful for the advice, as I had very nearly ordered the "Paris Beau," and so looked around at some of my co-workers for an appropriate sartorial suggestion. Some of these colleagues recommended themselves to my attention . . .

 . . . so much so, in fact, that I nearly failed to notice the recommended headgear. Still, I thought, the hard hat makes the man, and I very much hoped that the model I finally settled on might strike just the right note - fashion and functionality, manly yet somehow approachable. Which eliminated this model, as I felt the nose might perhaps obstruct my vision and undermine the very job safety advantages I was seeking . . .

And, while I was willing, even anxious to comply with site safety regulations, I couldn't help feeling like something of an imposter. Not being exactly in the heavy construction trades, I couldn't quite feature myself in the manly accoutrements of that realm. I felt a bit like Jonathan Winters in the character of a scowling, hard-hatted working stiff who strides into a bar, slams his fist down and speaks in an airy simper of sibillated S's: "Hi, my name's Tuffy Steelman - I'll have a glass of sasparilla." Pretending to be what I am not, really.

And looking about further, I came to the private recognition that not even the most stunning of headgear can help the man who allows his jaw to gape in moments of concentration or repose.

I guess I'd been thinking about this so hard that it slipped my mind - I already have a hard hat. I've been wearing it for years. This is nothing new for me after all. I've been informed that I may have to lose the collar. (Pendant and chain are non-negotiable.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Whole Armor of God

[T]he Pentagon specified that American troops may evangelize but not proselytize. “I’m talking,” said a rear admiral, “about gently whispering the Gospel.”
                                                                         - Harper's Weekly Review, May 7, 2013

I was walking home from my little neighborhood grocery one soggy April day a couple of weeks ago, keeping to the middle of the street so as to avoid the need to accost any fellow pedestrians, when I spied a youthful duo approaching along a sidewalk, navy blue nylon parkas zipped against the spring dampness over white nylon dress shirts and dreary polyester neckties. A pair of young Mormons if ever I saw a pair, I thought. One of them smiled and nodded in passing, then the gleam of opportunity quickened his eye. He turned and said, "Oh - we're Mormon missionaries . . . " (his very words). "Congratulations," I answered. "Have a nice day," he said, and walked on past. (So far so good, I thought to myself.)

The thing about Mormons is that you can pretty much expect this sort of behavior, so constant and so predictable are the cultural impulses of the Mormon faith. The same is true of invading armies, let's say. When the Russian army swept across Eastern Europe and into Germany in 1944, you could pretty much figure that your village was about to be pillaged, that you were about to be either raped or shot or both, depending on the tastes and general mood of your assailants, and that your extended family was about to be translated into historical memory. These were all givens, the working out of an historico-cultural mandate, perhaps even a necessity of genetic determinism.

It's just Mormons being Mormons, Russians being Russians. Armies being armies. Were we entirely honest, we'd all admit to knowing enough about what went on in Vietnam to know that what our troops were dishing out to the locals wasn't American chocolate and silk stockings. We weren't doing "hearts and minds" back in the 1970s.

But everyone needs a myth (or "narrative" if you prefer), so 21st century American warfare is really about carrying democracy and (inasmuch as we think these may differ) American culture into places hungering for the universal franchise, the empowerment of their wives and daughters, access to the works of Schopenhauer and Stephen King, stuff in aluminum cans which can dot the landscape in perpetuity, the opportunity to trade in highly leveraged financial instruments - and now, as it seems, Holy Writ. The Good News, the Gospel, the Good Book as interpreted by some gaggle of scrub-headed, heavily armed, sanctimonious amateur theologians who just climbed out of a tank and stormed over your mud compound.

If I were living in Afghanistan, just to pick a place, and were faced with the choice of that or drone strikes, I'd be hard put to know which to choose. No wonder they hate us.

The point, I suppose, is that if we're going to do these unilateral military interventions throughout the rest of the world, then we should be single-minded in our pursuits. Just rape and pillage - don't rape and pillage first and then hold open air Bible classes in the ruins of their recent village and explain why your version of the world and eternity is so much better, kinder and democratic than their version. Do the job, if do the job you must, pack up and leave.

The whole armor of God

Apparently there's been enough of this unvetted moral improvement going on that the Pentagon has attempted to set some guidelines. Any attempt to limit cultural chauvinism among its troops leads predictably to the delicious sense of grievance upon which the Christian faith relies for its vigor: "Christian conservatives have grown increasingly alarmed in recent weeks over reports and rumors that the Pentagon is considering new policies aimed at discriminating against Christians and disciplining or even court martialing those who share their faith."

The entire razzmatazz got its leverage from one of the resident geniuses on Fox News and has taken on its own life in spite of the Pentagon's (apparently genuine) protestations that it attempts to maintain credal neutrality. (Although maybe that's a case of 'better late than never.') There is also no mention of the Jewish or Muslim members of the U.S. military indulging a similar penchant to improve the spiritually blighted, quasi-subdued populations of our ill-managed military holdings around the globe.

Were the choice mine to make (a devil's choice in this instance) I'd skip the sermon and elect to be bombed back to the stone age. You wouldn't get this guy to lead any Bible classes in a land forsaken by the march of capital, Christianity and democratic ideals. He knew what his job was, even if someone was smart enough, or just humane enough, not to let him finish it.

Curtis "Back to the Stone Age" LeMay

Monday, May 6, 2013

Summer in Kansas: Winter Wheat

I've been gone for a while. I went to Mexico before the weather got nasty. The hotels in Mexico are known, of course, for their signature Mexican food. Sometimes, a great hotel will take the name of its culinary specialty by way of setting a new standard in hospitality.  (I ate here, mostly.)

I went fishing in Puerto Lobos, which was once a place on the Sea of Cortez nobody had ever heard of. Christ, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Well, I mean, thank you Christ, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

 Yamaha Yesus

I had a great time with my fishing guide, Ernesto (El Padre), seen here (with hat).

 Ernesto Heminguay

Then I came home. The weather was awful so I went fishing. The weather got nastier. I fished anyway. Then I hung around in a deep depression because the weather was even nastier. I couldn't even go fishing. Christ, I couldn't shoot a fish in a barrel. Well, I mean that in its most positive sense. Then I went back to work. In Kansas. And the weather got so nasty it froze the wheat crop. So now I'm back. Writing, I mean. And in Kansas. So what? I got nothing better to do. Sorry I didn't mention any of this sooner. Sue me.

One of the virtues of a vacation anywhere, particularly in a country like Mexico (for example), is that you can simply ignore unreality, as though you were in a rented Erewhon. It's a better mental exercise to compute dollars-to-pesos, transaction after transaction, like a geriatric tourist who may in a moment forget his own name. When you return home, if you ever or must do, you can by long practice continue to ignore it like a bed-ridden dowager in a Park Avenue highrise. I mean either things real or things made-up, like "sequestration," the National Security Administration (even though it's not ignoring you), "drone warfare" (talk about euphemisms for "national cowardice"), the "Iranian [or North Korean] nuclear threat," the "G.W. Bush Presidential Anything (a library, really?)", even Mitch McConnell.

"Oh Lord, fried ice cream on a sopapilla wouldn't melt in my mouth."

Back here in Kansas, I just saw a friend, a man in his early 80s whom I've known for roughly four years - always hale, still well above six feet, once brown from years of wheat farming, hearty in his approbation of nearly every stranger he ever meets, reliably good natured, kind to his wife, regarded by his sons and his neighbors, a churched man from his youth. When I pulled into his driveway at about lunchtime, he was just driving out. He rolled his window down, grinned and said get in here I'm just going about two mile down the road. 

I climbed in beside him and we drove out to check on a parcel he had planted in winter wheat. He is now deathly gaunt, no longer brown, no longer hale and strong. I knew that he had cancer, so I didn't ask how he was. I rather asked him to tell me what was happening with him. I'm much better, he said, meaning that after his bit in hospital, he could now walk about some - he carried a custom wooden cane with his initials carved through the shaft, a kind of legacy and institutionalization of his own falling off. You know, I have pancreatic cancer, he said matter-of-factly.

From the moment I saw him, he made me feel glad. Gray and wan and collapsed, his voice and his manner were the same - hearty and warm and enfolding, without bluster or piety, though I'm sure he's a pious man in his way. I mean to ask him about that. Is there comfort in it? Not for me, naturally. For him.

I knew another fellow once, on another wind project, a chap also in his eighties, hard of hearing, standing in the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs trout fishing one Christmas day, when the ice jam in the river above him broke in a soundless bang, and he discovered to his mortal peril why the river was so easy to wade. I think I'd rather be him. Rather have been him. But I don't get to choose. 

In the end, of course, nothing matters. How you'd wish it to be might be how it turns out. Or not. The angel holds the dice.