Beauty is Skin Deep

28 May 2011

On Wednesday night, while going to dry out the distributor on Jo’s car, my buddy and I were chatting about our lines of work.  As he talked of his peculiar customers and their odd habits, something he said triggered a sudden realization.

In driving my bus, I get to see all the non-functionals on Medicade.  What I realized that night is that there isn’t one among them who can be described as comely.  It’s understandable that those smitten by birth defects will not be attractive, as with Wally the Pinhead.  What’s not understandable is why the ones with mental problems are unattractive too.

I don’t mean they’re bucked-toothed, elephant-eared freaks.  It’s just that all their parts don’t go together right.  You could send them to a modeling school and no matter what was done, they’d still be unattractive.

In all my years driving the bus, I can think of only two people, both women, who would get hit on by men in a bar.  That they didn’t have chronically troubled minds is attested to by their attending only two sessions.  One told me that she came in because of PTSD, thanks to a marriage having gone sour at the same time she lost her professional job to the Bush Depression and became homeless.  In the first session, she saw a shrink, in the second, she picked up a prescription for something like Xanax.  She explained that the only reason she sought the clinic is that she was stony-assed broke and the care was free.  I took her home from both visits and that was the last anyone saw of her.  Oh, and she carried on an intelligent and animated conversation in route.

The other good-looker deigned conversation with an old fart who has to drive a bus at his age; she just sat there looking out the window with a wrinkled nose as if there were a bad smell.  I dropped her off at her nice condo and watched her brush off her skirt as she debarked.

It’s the other ones, the ones with long-term mental problems who are  homely.  However, because they’whammed out of shape by the drugs they’re given, I can’t say anything about native intelligence; some may actually be pretty sharp tacks.  But smart or not, they are all bat-shit crazy.

So one must wonder.  Are these people crazy because they’re ugly?  Or are they ugly because they’re crazy?  Maybe it is, as I suspect, a syndrome — two sides of the same unfortunate coin.

Or maybe it’s just me and my increasingly jaded view of things.


Wally the Pinhead and Congressman Paul Ryan

21 May 2011

A while back, I said I might relay some stories of my time driving a senior citizens bus.  After the recent political clap-trap, I think this may be the time to tell one.

The passenger manifest called for picking up Wally at his group home at one o`clock.  The manifest said Wally was in a wheelchair and would be accompanied by an attendant.  I was to take them to a doctor in a downtown medical tower.

I arrived a few minutes early, so I put up a third seat and laid out the four wheelchair restraints.  At the appointed hour, I got out, lowered the wheelchair lift and walked to the front door.  You could tell at a glance the house was a group home and not a “home” home, for the place was dilapidated and the lawn was chock-a-block with weeds — a sore thumb in this nice neighborhood of well-tended properties.

Wally was housed, along with another half-dozen or so residents, in this old one-story frame house.  It was painted a dirty mustard color with brown trim.  In the manner of most such group homes, a long plywood ramp ran from the driveway up to the front stoop.  This ramp, used for wheelchairs and walkers, was covered by a glued-on indoor/outdoor carpet that was perpetually soggy so the plywood beneath had become spongy and gave with each step.  A smell like mushrooms arose from the carpet and rotting wood.

The front door was a flat, solid thing with a little peephole.  A dorbeel button was loosely mounted on the frame.  I gave the little button a long press, for experience had shown that unless I did, the warders within would take their sweet time answering.  Presently, the door opened a crack and a eye peered out.

“I’m here for Wally,” I said.  No response, just a blank stare.   “WALLY,” I said again.  No response.   “WALLY!”  I hollered.  The eye blinked.  “Oh, Wally” a woman’s voice replied and the door closed.

I decided to wait out by the bus.

Five minutes later, the door opened and Wally and his attendant scooted out.  With the door open, I noticed it was dark as a cave inside the house.  The door closed with a bang.  The attendant wore a snot rag on her head and she spoke no English.

The creature in the wheelchair — Wally — began making loud ululations and shrieks, none of it intelligible.  With each bellow, the smallish body trembled in a strange microjerking manner.  You see, Wally was a pinhead, more kindly known as a microcehpalic.  Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about pinheads: “Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the circumference of the head is more than two standard deviations smaller than average for the person’s age and sex. Microcephaly may be congenital or it may develop in the first few years of life. The disorder may stem from a wide variety of conditions that cause abnormal growth of the brain, or from syndromes associated with chromosomal abnormalities. Two copies of a loss-of-function mutation in one of the microcephalin genes causes primary microcephaly.

In general, life expectancy for individuals with microcephaly is reduced and the prognosis for normal brain function is poor. The prognosis varies depending on the presence of associated abnormalities.

There you have it.  Whatever could have gone wrong for Wally, had.

Wally’s body was tiny.  The fingers curled backwards across the tops of his little hands (about the size of a five-year old child’s) which were covered by skin that was livid in small patches.  All four limbs were small and stick-like and were strapped to the wheelchair with stout cotton bindings (evidently, Wally thrashed around a good deal).  A 4-point harness a la a fighter jet held Wally securely in the chair.  Wally’s feet were covered in white sock-like things with no toes.

Bad as that all was, it was Wally’s head that drew the eye.  The lower face and jaw appeared to be of normal proportions while from the cheeks up, it tapered sharply to a low-riding point.  Because of the extreme taper, the orbits were too small for the eyes so they stood out from the face like those of a toad.  Both eyes roamed in random directions, each going its way, focusing on nothing.

Wally’s age could not be readily ascertained, but he had a five-o`clock shadow so he was obviously an adult.

The minder parked the wheelchair, set the brake, then went off to the bus’s passenger door and hopped on.  I took hold of the wheelchair to turn it about, for I like to board wheelchairs with the occupants facing outward and me at the back, the better to haul them in from the lift.  As soon as the chair moved, the quivering and screeching began again.

While securing Wally’s wheelchair to the floor of the bus, I looked him over.  The body was covered by blankets with two tubes running up from bottles suspended under the chair’s frame while another, larger tube with a clip crimping the end, came out through a space in the blanket (a feeding tube?).  A bib was tied around Wally’s neck and the area of his crotch was swollen with diapers.  A foul smell came from Wally — a suppurating pressure sore, perhaps?  Whatever it was, the minders had tried masking it with Old Spice without success.

I took my seat, started the engine and off we went.

During the trip, I heard an awful gurgling sound.  I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the minder reach over with what looked like a turkey baster and suck drool from Wally’s mouth.  If she hadn’t, I’m sure Wally would have drowned in his own juices.

Taking Wally off the bus caused more “vocalizations” as those in the industry call the hoots, hollers, squawks and shrieks made by those with no mind.  Also, any movement of the chair caused more violent twitching (thank heaven for those straps).

As the minder was off the bus, I took a few seconds for a little test: Holding my hand a few inches from Wally’s face, I snapped my fingers.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

While lowering the lift, I caught more of Wall’y stink.  Gad!

Years ago, unfortunates like Wally usually died at birth, often on doctors’ orders: Do not feed, do not water, do not treat.  Let nature take its course because there isn’t a damned thing we can do.  If a soul like Wally didn’t die right off, he or she was taken home and shut up in a spare bedroom — or attic, or basement — where the harried parents would give what care they could until death claimed the child as its own.

Then medical science progressed and people like Wally could be saved.  And because they could be saved the American people decided they would be saved, and that we would care for them, most often at public expense.  We would treat their illnesses (often heroically), feed them , make them comfortable and offer whatever “enrichment” was possible — even if it was just being parked in front of the TV.

It was the right and noble thing to do.

Enter now Congressman Paul Ryan, hot on the heels of the Bush Depression.  Wild-eyed, he runs to-and-fro tearing his hair over the deficit and proposing all sorts of drastic remedies.  Paul Ryan would cut, if not eliminate, Federal programs like Medicaid that support Wally and others like him.   At the same time, the good Congressman absolutely, positively forbids raising taxes on the likes of Donald Trump.  Wally is to be given the back of Uncle Sam’s hand while Trump, Gates, Buffet and others like them, are  spoon fed one tax break after another.  “We must protect them so they’ll invest,” says Congressman Ryan.

So what’s to be done?  In days of old, parents of such unfortunates as Wally simply laid them outside on a cold night and left them there.  They’d be dead by morning.  Of course we can’t do that, it’d be murder in the first degree and no right-thinking person would tolerate it.

OK.  Well, we could pack off Wally to his family.  If they agreed to take Wally in (by no means a sure thing), they’d take a stab at caring for him, but it will be a 24/7/52 job.  There’ll be no relief, no one to help, and the folks will have to stand the expenses themselves.  Eventually, the family’s money and frustration levels will reach the breaking point.  Exhausted, sick at heart and with nowhere to turn, they’ll steal into Wally’s room one night with a pillow.  Dumping Wally on the family is not an option either.

Re-opening the pest houses that were closed in the sixties and seventies would work, but they cost money, and that means taxes.  In Paul Ryan’s world, that’s a non-starter.

If exposing our Wallies to the elements is unacceptable, if rendering them to the custody of their families is too chancy and if reopening the orphanages and mental institutions too costly, there is only one thing left: The Adolf Hitler solution.  We’d have the police round up the defectives, take them to a central facility and have Dr. Kevorkian give each a lethal shot of Ketamine.  It would be humane, it would be quick, and above all, it would be cheap.

I’d like to bring Congressman Paul Ryan along with me on my rounds.  I’d like him to see, first hand, the kind of poor souls he plans on throwing to the wolves.   Unless he’s an absolutely pitiless beast — which he may well be — Congressman Ryan will rethink his priorities.  He may tell the Teabaggers to go to Hell, then raise taxes on the folks who drive the Bentleys.  But if Congressman Ryan doesn’t do that, if he stays his course, and if we obey his dicta, we’ll be turning our backs  on the very principals we claim to hold dear.  And we’ll be placing ourselves in moral peril.


Good Old Coal

16 May 2011

With the problems at the atomic power plant in Japan, the Greens and the Luddites are running around screeching and pulling their hair.  In an earlier post, I said that, when it comes to atomic power, we are straining at gnats.  Let me illustrate.

In Japan, as well as at 3-Mile Island, no one has died and the environment has sustained little damage.  But what about the chief alternative to atomic power: Coal?  We are so used to coal-fired power plants we forget how bad they are.  Here are some frightening statistics about good old coal.

Yesterday, Jo and I were reminiscing about our days driving the semi.  One of the things that came up were the two enormous coal-fired power plants we saw on a regular basis.  One was out in the middle of nowhere on I-40 somewhere in the flatlands of Arizona.  You could see the smokestack for miles — a good half-hour before you actually came to it.  Another was right outside Salt Lake City on I-80 with a smokestack every bit as tall as the one in Arizona.  In both cases, you could see their dirty brown plumes stretch downwind for tens of miles — all the way to the horizon.  These were just two in-your-face examples.  There are oodles more such plants hidden from direct view.
On a number of occasions, we saw 100-car coal trains heading for these plants.  So Pam and I wondered how much coal big plants like these consume.  So I looked it up; here are the numbers I found:
  • A 100-car train is standard for delivering coal.
  • Each car holds 100 tons.
  • A large modern plant (say 1,000 megawatts) under full load, needs one such train-full of coal, each day.  Older, less efficient plants (which are most of them), need between one and five such trains each day.
  • I’m not good at math, but at an average of three such trains/day, does not this work out to be 30,000 tons of coal per day, or 10,950,000 tons in a year?  For just three plants?
  • Most of the coal is converted to CO2, which goes up the stack.  Not only does this put CO2 into the atmosphere, but for every atom of carbon CO2 put into the atmosphere by combustion, it takes out two atoms of oxygen, i.e. the O2 in CO2, depleting our atmosphere of an element essential to animal life.  Even if you sequester the CO2 in underground chambers (Clean Coal) you are still depleting the atmosphere of oxygen.
  • The ashes consist silicon and poisonous heavy metals that are not usually buried.
  • During mining, the coal’s “overburden” (topsoil to you and me) is dumped into enormous ponds where it festers.
And we bitch about atomic power.  We need coal, clean or otherwise, like I need more cancer.

Grandfatherly Advice to Young Women

14 May 2011

Teenaged girls are attracted to Bad Boys, often fatally so. You know who I’m talking about. The guy whom your parents regard as reckless and an incipient criminal. He drinks and drives drunk. He smokes or chews. He’s been kicked out of school several times. He’s been caught stealing a car or maybe busting into a 7/11. He cracks wise with everyone. He thinks it’s cool to pack a gun so he can show it off. He is fun, fun, fun. Everybody seems to love him, though he is often quite cruel to the retinue of sycophants who follow him around like ducklings.

–Oh, yes: And he treats you like crap. But you love him still.

Personally, I think this pernicious attraction to Bad Boys is a genetic trait of all human females. Down through the millennia, we humans have evolved behaviors that give us the best chance for survival. Part of a woman’s survival is having enough children to help with chores in the family cave and to take care of the tribe’s geezers. But to do that, she needs a strong and capable man to bring home the bacon, as it were.

However, the adolescent female brain is not yet fully developed so its judgements are not yet perfected. She cannot yet see the differences that distinguish a Bad Boy from a truly capable adult male. Consequently, she misperceive the Bad Boy’s thugishness and brutality for strength and capability.

Also, being a teenaged female, she seeks an inordinate amount of adoration and affirmation. Bad Boys tend to be charming, and so initially, they shower her with it. However, as time goes on, things change. Soon the Bad Boy is full of sneers and putdowns. Criticism and faultfinding are the rule of the day. Perversely, the fewer positive things the Bad Boy gives her, the more ardently she strives to please him and the more obsequious, servile and self-abasing she will become.

But most young ladies grow up. Soon enough, most young women will see the Bad Boy as a repellant lout with no future. A loser. And probably, an unregenerate bar fly and drug addict to boot. She will shake her head in wonder at just what the hell she ever saw in the clod.

Her Bad Boy, like most of them, will go on to be an unhappy member of the nation’s underclass of service station attendants and latrine cleaners. A lot of Bad Boys will do even worse: Almost all the men behind bars were and are, Bad Boys – did you know that, my sweet? Probably not.

So my advice: Avoid Bad Boys. Oh, true, all you girls might love them but recognize that these guys are going full speed down a dead end road and, believe me, you do not want to go along for the ride. Impose a little discipline on yourselves and avoid them. Then start checking out the Nice Boys.

Let me reprise the traits of Nice Boys so you’ll know what to look for. See if you might want to have one of your own.

First, Nice Boys abound. They can be found working at jobs that pay well and have open-ended futures. They often own their own homes. They eat good food, drink good booze and take vacations to such places as Venice, Italy. Nice Boys often hang out in symphony halls, art galleries, libraries, museums and so on – houses of worship too. Look for them in these places.

Nice boys do not have pointed heads nor wear coke-bottle glasses. They do not have dandruff and smell funny. In fact, many are strikingly good looking – especially when compared to Bad Boys with their stained teeth and crud under their fingernails. Nice Boys do not fart at the dinner table.

Nice Boys will likely have college degrees and come from extended families of other Nice Boys (and Nice Girls) who act as networks, helping the Nice Boy connect with powerful and influential people.

As a bonus, Nice Boys are often good in bed. They’ll take time to work their women rather then just get their rocks off and go to sleep.

So, young ladies, in your own self-interest, ditch the slutty clothes, pull out the studs out of your faces, wash off the paint and grow UP! Then scout out a Nice Boy, for if you don’t, and if you stick with the Bad Boys, by the time you’re fifty, you’ll be a blowsy old piece of trailer trash living off food stamps and wondering what the hell happened to her life.

A word to the wise . . .



8 May 2011

When cruising down the road in my bus, I occupy myself by listening to the chatter on talk radio.  It helps keep me awake.  This past week, some panjandrum was talking about the new, revised, estimation for human population by, if I recall correctly, the end of the century.  The good gentlemen said the estimated number has been increased from 9,000,000,000 souls to 10,000,000,000.  That’s quite an overburden of human beings.  In his sonorous voice, this man went on to say that feeding such a hoard is problematic.

I remember that back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, over-population was a big issue.  Modern medical technology had been brought to the benighted nations of the 3rd world with the result that most people stopped dying before their fifth birthdays and lived well into reproductive age.  And reproduce they did.  Where a married couple might produce ten live births, of which eight died, now only one might die, leaving nine children to feed (and, in their tuns, reproduce).  It was easy to see the Malthusian Horror looming in the distance.  Well, along came the green revolution with its new fertilizers, pesticides and grain stocks.  We had food coming out the ass.  Goodbye, Mr. Malthus.

But the Green Revolution has just about reached the limit of its capabilities and is being overtaken by population increases.  The man on the talk radio offered, as a solution, industrial farming.  National commitments to vast acreage planted with one, and only one, crop — “monoculture” it’s called.  The product of this monoculture would provide the principal source of nutrition (Gad, imagine bowels of Wheaties for breakfast, lunch and dinner).   In response to the host’s concerns, the guest pooh-poohed the very notion that some pest could come along and wipe out one of these crops, leaving billions to starve to death.  More modern technology, he asserted, would do away with such a pestilence before it really got started.

Then I recalled what happened in the 1950’s and 1960s back in Minneapolis, where I was raised.  When Minneapolis was founded, the land was as flat as a board.  The people baked under an unrelenting sun and were miserable.  “Let’s plant some fast-growing shade trees,” said the city fathers.  The tree they chose was the big, beautiful elm.  They planted them by the score to the exclusion of every other candidate.  Oaks grew too slowly.  Poplars didn’t give enough shade.  And so on.  This reliance on elms was a form of what today we’d call monoculture.

Soon, elms were everywhere and, boy, did they do their jobs.  Cool shade was abundant throughout the city and all its surrounds.

Then along came a little bug that carried on its little body, a little fungus called opioatoma ulmi, more commonly known as Dutch Elm disease.  It was a true plague.  It infected and killed every elm tree in sight.  Dutch Elm disease was first observed in North Dakota and it spread like wildfire.  The elms had no natural defense against it; they died by the thousands and were cut down.  Modern technology took a crack at killing Dutch Elm Disease, but nothing worked and the blight continued to spread unchecked.  There was nothing to do but stand there and watch the elms die.  Oh, there were some holding actions that delayed the disease here-and-there, but Dutch Elm disease was unstoppable and it continued ravaging the land.  Today, a half-century later, Dutch Elm Disease is present in all states but those few in the desert southwest.  Where Dutch Elm Disease is present, elm threes are not.

In Minneapolis, there was a wonderful park of large, shady elms near the place where I grew up.  A visit there some years ago revealed a heath of stumps.  All the trees were gone.  Minneapolis once again bakes under the summer sun as it waits for new, different trees to grow.

So much for the wisdom of  monoculture.  So much for Modern Technology.

If the guest on the talk show seriously believes that some blight won’t come out of nowhere and wipe out a monoculture of wheat, corn or what have you, he’s a piss-poor student of history.  All it will take is one little bug or one little spore and, poof, it’s all gone.  Millions, perhaps billions, will starve to death.  Take a look at the photos of dying African kids, those with the bloated bellies, withered stick-like limbs and scores of flies crawling in their eyes.  Now image every single American dying that way.  Then multiply that number by three and you get an idea of what the wiping out of a proposed monoculture will do.  Just as we thought nothing would wipe out our monoculture of elm threes, so we think nothing will wipe out a monoculture of cereal grains.  This is pluperfect idiocy.

There are only two solutions to forfend this terrible future.  One it to limit our numbers.  Pills, rubbers, vasectomies and tubal ligation must be encouraged and made available to all in hopes we can get back to supportable numbers before the crash comes.

The second is to diversify, both in what’s grown and where it’s grown.  Grow many things in many places.  To that end, a new movement seems to have arisen.  Rather than being duplicative, I invite you to visit a site Jo found hopeful.   Check out Midwest Permaculture and see what they have to say.  As Jo likes to root around in the garden, she always keeps an eye out for things that can prove useful  to her.  One day, she grabbed my elbow and said, “Merlin, take a look at this website I found.”  So I did, and it got my attention.  While at first blush, this Permaculture thing may seem the creature of woolly headed liberals and cranks, it is actually be founded on good, solid science.  Moreover, it’s producing sustainable and repeatable results.  From what I saw, Permaculture may be something that will work to avoid catastrophes of unimaginable proportions.

Guess I’ll go get my shovel and rake.


We Got Him!

2 May 2011

Last night, AFV was interrupted by the announcement that, at long long last, we got Osama bin Laden.  Oh, joy and bliss.  The only trouble is, on their way back, our guys tossed the stiff in the drink.  On purpose.  I guess Obama didn’t want any martyr’s grave and no other country would take him.  Fair enough.  But our guys should have at least cut off the head, bringing it back to Obama so he could have it bronzed and put on permanent display in the capitol rotunda.


About a New Development

1 May 2011

Yesterday, I was listening to a talk-radio show where people were whining about gas prices.  The blame was variously laid at the feet of: Big oil; speculators; Mideast dictators; perfidious car companies; China; nefarious plots; government malfeasance, and; we the profligate consumers.

It’s going to be one or the other, or maybe all of them combined.   Perhaps we could select one and drag its Big Kahuna to a football stadium and shoot him or her through the back of the head like China does with its white-collarcriminals.  It would certainly focus the minds of the rest and, perhaps, serve as a deterrent.    But that would miss the point, which is: How to do away with oil?

Oil has served us well.  Here, in the 21st-Century of the Common Era, there isn’t a machine that moves upon the earth, on the seas or through the air, that isn’t powered by one petroleum product or another.  But petroleum smells bad, fouls the air, poisons the land and the seas, and costs like sin as supplies of it get lower and lower.  Moreover, to get our hands on the stuff, we must rub elbows with some of Earth’s most unsavory people, and prop up their awful governments.  I say it’s time to have petroleum go the way of the dodo.

But what will replace it?

The obvious answer is the electric car.  Just think, no gas, no changing oil, no engine tune-ups and repairs and instant heat in the winter . . .  Ah, but the bugaboo is the range and the battery’s charging time.  So far, the answers are not very satisfying.  While the range can be arbitrarily large, depending only on the battery’s size, the charging time is truly horrid.  Imagine, twelve hours to “refill the tank.”  That’s what a modern lithium-ion battery takes.  That’s simply unacceptable and it’s why the electric car has been a non-starter.

But what if that problem were solved?  A couple of weeks ago, The Economist, that estimable magazine, carried an article in which it was reported that an American company has developed a technology for lithium-ion batteries that lets one be fully charged inside of five minutes.  The owner of the company said the alpha model works swell and the beta model is almost ready to go.  What’s more, this technology, while costly in small and one-on quantities, lends itself to mass production where economies of scale will make electric cars affordable for all.  (I wish I could cite the issue in which the article appeared, but Jo decided to clear out all the mess beside my chair and the magazine went a-glimmering; you’ll either have to take my word on it, or look up the article yourself.)

Assuming this little industrialist wasn’t pumping sunshine up our collective pant leg, why haven’t we heard more about this salutary development?  Jo thinks it’s because Big Oil’s minions have paid Congress to sit on the idea, and threatened to cut off advertising revenue if it’s reported in the press.  I, on the other hand, believe it’s because we — and the American press — are preoccupied with, and focused like a laser on, the truly Big Issues of the day: Obama’s birth certificate and the prince’s wedding.  Mainstream reporters, and their editors, give an issue like this battery technology a pass because technical matters and probing analysis makes their heads hurt.  (When was the last time a member of the fourth estate majored in small particle physics or advanced mathematics?)

So a dramatic demonstration is in order.  POTUS could call a press conference.  On the dais would sit one of these new batteries, one that could power, say, a Ford Focus for 400 miles.  Now a Focus gets about 30 mpg, for a total of thirteen-plus gallons, which at today’s gas prices, would run in excess of $53.00 .  A flunky would pass out electric meters to the reporters and invite them to come up and test the battery to make sure it’s at zero charge.  With that, an executive from the local electric company would appear, carrying the business end of an electric cable and a standard electric meter.  This would be hooked to the battery and the switch thrown.  At the same time, a stop watch would be started and when the meter dinged, indicating a full charge, the elapsed time would be read.  POTUS would then turn to the power company executive and ask: “At your standard rates, how much did charging that battery cost?”  The executive would read the meter, whip out his calculator and say something like, “eighty-one cents.”

Even after slapping on taxes to pay for roads and bridges, a “full tank” that goes four-hundred miles might cost around fifteen bucks.  With that kind of economy, America could switch to electric cars wholesale and have decent roads for a change.  In the process, we’d stop sending money to the world’s assholes, money which supports their ghastly regimes.  We would also have the satisfaction of watching as these nasty places collapse back into the stone age from which our need for their oil raised them less than a century ago.

Now, to make this scheme work  . . .

But wait a minute.  What am I talking about?  No one gives a hoot in hell anyway.