Thursday, February 28, 2002


It seems funny even to me to be worrying about snow on the last day of February. Not only are there two, maybe even three more months left of what is winter in fact if not by the calendar, but the ground and the rooftops and the windowsills at my office are nicely dusted with a light new snowfall, as they have been for the last several mornings. It’s a very pretty sight, if one isn’t sick of it.

But even those who are sick of the sight of snow – and their name is legion, by the end of February, but most of those who are, are aware of how sick they get of the sight of snow and make their plans accordingly so they can be elsewhere (Arizona, Nevada, Rock Springs) in March – have to admit that matters are troubling this year.

First of all there is the quality of the snow itself. I think we need a new name for the stuff that is prettily dusting my windowsills and cars’ windshields and giving the raised lettering on business signs a temporary white accent. “Snow,” according to (I have yet to acquire the 20+ volume Oxford English Dictionary of my dreams – every time I have a few thousand dollars to spare, something truly dreadful happens to my car – so I’m afraid this will have to do this morning) (I know it’s devastating, and I feel my failure keenly – far more than you feel disappointment in my resorting to lesser references, I assure you) is defined as:

1. Frozen precipitation (“Any form of water, such as rain, snow, sleet, or hail, that falls to the earth's surface”) in the form of white or translucent hexagonal ice crystals that fall in soft, white flakes.
2. A falling of snow; a snowstorm.
3. Something resembling snow, as:
a. The white specks on a television screen resulting from weak reception.
b. Slang. Cocaine.
c. Slang. Heroin.
(emphasis mine, of course)

Hmm. This authoritative pronouncement on what is and is not “snow” begs consideration of a point that hadn’t occurred to me before: perhaps what is lightly and prettily dusting the sidewalks, what gently frosted and froze my morning paper to the sidewalk, what is lazily drifting desultorily downwards past my windowpane is actually cocaine, in which case Saratoga’s economic development woes are over, at least until the DEA comes in, guns a-blazing, and makes our lovely town look like Beirut.

But I digress, but not much, because whatever it is that makes our bare, leafless trees look like cunningly spun silver, whatever it is that lands on our heated sidewalks downtown and disappears on contact, whatever makes visitors to the hot pool look like French aristocrats who got a bit too enthusiastic with the powder, there ain’t no water in that there “snow.”

If it were snow, it would contain water. If there were water, the aforementioned heated sidewalks would show signs of telltale moisture where the flakes had melted on contact. They do not.

If there were water, snowflakes caught on the tongue or scooped en masse off the ground (after one has carefully made sure that said flakes are of no xanthian hues; as Frank Zappa said “Watch out where the huskies go/And don’t you eat that yellow snow”) would give one at least a tiny drink of water. They do not.

Instead the sidewalks stay mysteriously dry, and the mouth feel (to borrow a term from wine connoisseurs) of this snow is most reminiscent of Dippin’ Dots, the Ice Cream of the Future, the weirdly freeze-dried ice cream developed for the space program, which goes into the mouth a light and airy solid that reminds me of nothing so much as those halcyon days of my youth when my sister and I dined largely on styrofoam packing peanuts – remember those days? Ah, it makes me weep to see them passed – and then it, it... you know, there’s not really a verb that comes to mind to accurately describe what happens next. “Vaporize” and “Evaporate” both imply a transition from a liquid to a gaseous phase (so I was taught at dear old Saratoga High School by the man who is now my chamber office’s maitre d’marquee – be sure to wave cheerily at him, even honk if you’re so inclined, when you pass him by on the highway. Offer him brandy if you’re feeling charitable; changing the letters on that sign in the freezing cold and the wind and the “snow”fall is a task of staggering unpleasantness), which in turn implies that there is some kind of liquid involved. “Sublimation” (direct transition from the solid to the gaseous phase) comes close, but that still implies that there is a gas sitting in my mouth after the process is completed and there is... just... nothing.

Maybe this “snow” dancing merrily outside, swirling around car tires to demonstrate the principle of microclimates (still trying to prove to the maitre d’marquee that I was sort of, kind of paying attention in his classroom while I sat in the back and read stupid “dragons and dumdums” novels with my sweetheart) is actually some kind of slight intrusion into our dimension of “snow” falling on an alternate earth. On that alternate earth it is wonderful, water-rich snow, light and powdery to satisfy the skiers, but bearing in it enough water to satisfy the river scum of summer (my brethren and I are now busily at work trying to invent a raft that can deliver the thrills of big water at North Gate whilst floating the calm and placid surface of the Hugus-Mullison ditch. It’s a hideous, Rube-Goldberg contraption that reminds one of nothing so much as the Magic Fingers beds in cheap motel rooms, but we still have a month or two to perfect it). But here it is just some kind of abstract, impressionist representation of snow to stand in for the real thing.

Or maybe what we have is “snow” the same way the polar caps on Mars contain “ice.” It looks like frozen water there, as we gaze at the red planet through a good telescope, but it is really frozen carbon dioxide, the maitre said (see? see? We were multitasking in science class!). Maybe we can start a fire extinguisher farm.

I can joke badly about this snow that isn’t a snow all I want, but the fact is this year is looking a little grim so far. Fact is, the lack of water in that snow is downright scary. We’ve got a call already on the North Platte River, meaning all water rights younger than those of the Pathfinder reservoir downstream are useless at least until May 1. Saratoga has just enough right older than Pathfinder’s to allow reasonable municipal use, as long as nobody goes banantas watering his lawn or anything. But outside Saratoga, where the countryside is blond for winter and likely to stay that way? Well, put it this way, my ice fishing buddy, who is in “real” life a firefighter for the BLM, is anticipating a lot of work this spring.

And the worst thing about it all is that there is nothing I can do, though that doesn’t stop my townsfolk from asking me what I’m going to do.

Pray, I guess. To whatever gods seem likely to listen. Though historically, we do have to be careful what we ask for. Sandbagging isn’t much fun, either.

Wednesday, February 27, 2002


Well, the month is almost over and I'm sure you are all dying to know what comes next on the LIANT recommended reading list. I can hear you all clamoring out there (or cursing if you took my advice about last month's selection) for more of my advice as you survey the steaming piles of remaindered tomes at your local bookstore, reminders all of the wisdom contained in Sturgeon's Law ("99 percent of science fiction – of anything is crap").

Originally I was going to revisit a book from which I quoted at great length back in December when I wrote about "Happiness and Islands" (check the archives of this blog and go to the December 1 entry), Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva, OR The Bomb Party, but in light of certain crises coming to light in the Archdiocese of Boston, crises breaking the hearts and inciting the anger of Catholics worldwide, I offer instead another of Greene's late works, which is one of the sweetest portraits, fictional or otherwise, of a priest I have ever encountered.

Monsignor Quixote
By Graham Greene
New York: Washington Square Press, 1982

I won't mess much with the parallels to the original Quixote, Cervantes', because unlike, say, James Joyce's allusions to The Odyssey, Greene's to Cervantes are elegant and clear even to those who have not slogged through the old Spanish classic. Those parallels are clever and enjoyable – the gentle madman is here a parish priest in Franco-era Spain, his Sancho the communist ex-mayor of the nearest village, a nearly decrepit Seat 600 is their Rocinante – but not intrusive and have little impact on one's enjoyment of the overall book.

Where MQ is most enjoyable is in its surprising little moments – a visit to the monstrous monument that was meant to be the Generalissimo's tomb, where Quixote prays "for him, for you and me, and for my church," the monsignor's continuing reluctance to wear the purple bib and socks due his rank which his friend the mayor insists are their best defense against the fascist Guardia still in charge of almost everything in Spain, a visit to a pornographic film in Madrid, and a passage I find worth quoting in full that, more than anything I have ever read before or since, explains and exemplifies the perplexing construction that is Roman Catholic doctrine and dogma (at least to filthy heathens like me). What follows is an excerpt from fairly early in the duo's travels, as they are first realizing that they have more in common than not:

"What puzzles me, friend, is how you can believe in many incompatible ideas. For example, the Trinity. It is worse than higher mathematics. Can you explain that to me? It was more than they could do in Salamanca."
"I can try."
"Try then."
"You see these bottles?"
"Of course."
"Two bottles, equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and it was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."
"I was never, even in Salamanca, able to see the point of the Holy Ghost. He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."
"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

A page later, Quixote is regretting his grievous error in representing the Holy Ghost with a half bottle, which is "Anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early council. Perhaps it was Nicea... There is no sin worse than sin against the Holy Ghost."

Sancho the mayor gallantly agrees only to remember that there were three bottles in Quixote's example – a deed that in some ways is the essence of friendship when the two parties are so very different as this priest and this ousted communist. The Mayor is bewildered by the priest's concern that he has belittled a perplexing and mysterious idea, but does not chide him about its strangeness; he penetrates immediately to the best way to honor his friend's concern and at the same time put it to rest.

Twenty years after I first read this book, I still love Father Quixote and the Mayor, their curiosity about one another, their concern and respect for one another's perceived spiritual and political errors, their humor (for this is after all a funny book, too; for every theological dialogue there is a scene like the one in the inn when Quixote completely fails to recognize a condom when he sees one).

Sadly, the book is presently out of print, but used copies are still widely available and worth the searching. Next time you're a little blue or in despair about the state of your faith, your polis or yourself, you could do worse than to take a little trip with Quixote and the Mayor.

Monday, February 25, 2002


"A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic."
- Joseph Stalin (1879 - 1953)

To quote that immortal culture hero, Homer Simpson (from the TV show, not the Nathaniel West novel): "WOOHOO!"

(Or in Secular Johnson vernacular, Wough Hough! Same thing)

I received a caller this afternoon that made my day, if not my week, if not what's left of my month.

As I was busy pounding out the details of yet another grant request, lo and behold, a kid from Boston came crashing into my office, a Harvard student productively spending his time off from classes researching the latest update to the school's popular LET'S GO travel guides. He had sought me out especially, because the kid who came around last year had become my particular friend, had even traveled around the state with me a bit, and had told this kid that if he got to Saratoga he simply had to look me up.

But that's not what made my day, though it's always fun to talk to someone who is stomping around my old stomping grounds.

No, what was wonderful about this visit is that I have a witness for the call that made my day, if not my week, if not what's left of my month.

Right as I was updating Young Mastah Hahvahd about the Sierra Madre Winter Carnival, the Donald E. Erickson Memorial Chariot Races and the Great Corn Pop-Off (coming soon to a chamber of commerce very near you) (well, at least near my Saratoga readers) (but the rest of you are welcome to join us, too, of course!), my telephone rang, as it has the particular habit of doing only when I'm enjoying a conversation with an office visitor.

(Cue swell of ominous music so swelling and so ominous that it could almost have come from the Sewer King's overwhelming and house penetrating sound system, except, of course, that system is broken, so I guess I should come up with a more appropriate analogy) (But why bother, since I only added this aside to tease him) (I would definitely qualify as his worst friend maybe ever) (but I pour a good pint of Guiness) (OK, back to the narrative thread previously established before this rude and cheeky interruption; just had to make sure everybody knows it's really me and I'm back and mostly well and feeling, well, rude and cheeky)


But it wasn't either of the ladies who had originally come calling lo these several weeks ago, nor was it their supervisor in Rawlins.

No! It was, allegedly, the Regional Director in Denver, and she wanted to apologize for whatever it was her representative had done that had made me so mad.

This alone was kind of satisfying, but I had firmly resolved not to be easily mollified after the rash of bad behavior in which the bureau has engaged in pursuing data for its American Community Survey. After all, it wasn't really the census taker who came to my door who made me mad (although she could have been more pleasant and less officious; still, as one dear friend of mine has chided me, it's foolishness to expect better from a federal employee, after all).

No, as readers of my page here know, it was the bureau's lack of notification of its intended targets (i.e. me, personally), the local government of the community it was surveying (i.e., the town council - my four colleagues and I, or barring that, our police department, whose time and effort wound up getting put to no good use in tracking down whether my nighttime visitors were legitimate at all), or the local press (there are two newspapers in Carbon County, and neither of them is exactly overwhelmed with content to stick in the newsholes).

My displeasure was then compounded when I was propaganda-bombed and threatened.

I gladly shared all of this information with Ms. Regional Director Person, who quickly realized that I was a Curmudgeon On A Tirade and there was no getting any words in edgewise. A minute or so into my spiel she stopped trying to interrupt and contradict me, stopped insisting that an advance letter had been mailed to me after I informed her that our mail comes by post office boxes and all of the propaganda and threats her agency had sent to me had been going to "Current Resident" at my street address, and just bucked up and took it – with more grace than I've yet perceived in anyone associated with the Census to date.

Then she tried a new tactic – trying to convince me that the data they were collecting was vital to the efforts of my local chamber of commerce in trying to attract new businesses and residents to the area! "All that data you use in your reports comes from us, you know, Ms. Sherrod."

But alas, even there she was quite mistaken. I use population numbers provided by the Census, but that's all. The qualitative data on housing, schools, etc. is stuff taken from research conducted locally by people I know well and trust, people for whom I have genuine personal respect and affection: members of Saratoga 3000! None of whom ever have been or will be Census takers.

I almost felt sorry for this woman, who was surely doing her job and must have been quite put out to be having to directly phone the single data point her agency is trying to collect for the Town of Saratoga (but really guys, am I at any way at all representative of Saratoga's population? Would my answers produce even remotely accurate statistics that represented anything about Saratoga? Let's see... I'm white anyway. But... I'm the only registered "big L" Libertarian in the whole damned county, I'm single, my primary mode of transport is a crappy old bike, I speak eight languages (most of them badly, but still), I play with insects for fun, I have migrated from "Red" America to "Blue" America and back again and oh, yeah, for religion I routinely refer to myself as a Manichaean.

Yeah. My data is really worth the effort to collect. And look, I shared some of it willingly (though just in case anyone is interested, I lied on two items in that litany. And I ain't tellin' which two, ever).

So yeah, I almost felt sorry for this woman, but then, as her final effort to persuade me to cooperate, she pulled out that Title 13 nonsense.

So I shared with her the observation I shared with you all last week, namely that no language in the sections of Title 13 of the U.S. Code in any away applies to me, let alone compels me to answer their nosy questions about how many bathrooms I have or how much money I spend on insurance or what is my preferred method of controlling nose hair.

And here's what still has me hooting, just before my bedtime on an otherwise pretty dull Monday night: This woman, purportedly the Regional Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, did not have a comeback to refute this observation. She backed down completely on the matter.

A minute later (now about 20 minutes into the phone call, placed on her nickel, your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen, and think fondly of this fact and this story as you're signing your tax returns, and be sure to write "Under Protest" next to your signature), she was docilely agreeing with me that all the U.S. Constitution or the U.S. Code really required me to share with her was how many people were living at my address – the exact same data I sent the Census taker away with in 2000 after he threatened me with legal action for burning my long form; the exact same data I sent her two minions away with a few weeks ago when they interrupted my nap.

Then she thanked me for my time and wished me a pleasant afternoon.

The Hahvahd Boy (remember the Hahvahd Boy?) had been following my side of the conversation all along, and had proven a most appreciative audience for the whole thing, so when I hung up, he jumped up from the couch, strode across my office, shook my hand, and demanded to know if my favorite beer was still Guiness (guess I really had made an impression on his predecessor). A bit bewildered by the question, I told him as a matter of fact it is, and said maybe we could squeeze in some time at the Lazy River Cantina later that night if he'd like.

Alas, he had to mosey on over to Laramie directly after our interview, he said, or that would be pretty cool.

O'well, I thought, and told him about WYO 230, which might prove a nicer route to his next stop than more plodding along the Interstate. He thanked me and left, still grinning and shaking his head at what he'd witnessed.

It was my turn to grin and shake my head when, 15 minutes later, he came bounding back into my office with a four-pack of Guiness Pub Draft as a tribute to my curmudgeonly grandstanding.

I had apparently befriended the only registered "big L" Libertarian in all of Harvard University.

At this point, therefore, I am officially proclaiming the case of K8E vs. the Census closed and furthermore closed with a happy ending.

Any story at all that ends with a tribute of Guiness is a good one in my book.