Alternative Facts

I rode 12 miles with our bicycle Hash House Harrier group on Sunday. It was my first bicycle hash since a knee replacement in July. Despite hours on the stationary bike at the gym and fairly frequent but short bike rides with our friends Mary Anne and Darrell, my knee is still stiff, sore, and reluctant to get over the top of the pedal stroke. I’m a little concerned, and will have to give the orthopedic surgeon’s office a ring.


Stopping for holiday cheer at the foot of A Mountain near downtown Tucson

Memory, they say, is unreliable when it comes to pain. I remember the same pain and stiffness after my left knee was replaced six years ago, but can’t remember how long it lasted. In any case the six-year-old knee’s fine now, and the new right knee is probably somewhere on the same healing curve … I hope. For now, continued exercise, ibuprofen on workout and bicycling days, horse-sized glucosamine/chondroitin tablets.

Polly, our live-at-home daughter, starts a new call center job today. Not a great job, and she has to drive clear across town to get to it, but it’s full time with benefits. We’re hoping she can move out and live on her own before too much longer. Wish her (and us) luck, okay?

Yesterday, at the end of my first tram tour at Pima Air and Space Museum, a visitor asked about a plane we’d driven by. It’s a Dutch plane, he said, pointing to a row of jet fighters off in the distance, too far away to identify which one he meant. I knew he couldn’t have seen what he thought he saw, because we don’t have any jets with Dutch markings. Not wanting to pop a paying guest’s bubble, I politely said I didn’t think we had a Dutch plane, but I’d look into it. There he was, two hours later, waiting for me at the start of my next tour. He’s taken the trouble to walk back to the airplane and photograph it, then hang around until I showed up again. This is his Dutch jet.


Egyptian Shenyang J-6A


Egyptian roundel & flag

I know that airplane well—it’s one of the ones I used to talk about to visitors, but had to drop from my narration with our new shortened tours. It’s a Shenyang J-6A, a Chinese-built MiG-19. The markings are Egyptian. You’d think no one could mistake a MiG with Arabic script on the nose for a Dutch jet, but I quickly realized the gentleman was fixated on the flag on the vertical tail. The Dutch flag is similar, with red, white, and blue bars. Egypt’s flag has red, white, and black bars. Now I’ve always had trouble distinguishing between dark blue and black, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt on that. But the roundel? Not even close. And Dutch fighters don’t normally wear the flag on their tail fins.


Dutch F-104G Starfighter

It’s one thing to give correct info to museum visitors, but another thing entirely to argue with them. You make visitors feel small, they’ll complain, and it’ll double back on you. I explained that the jet was a Chinese-built MiG and that its markings were Egyptian, but tried to mollify him by saying I agreed the flag on the tail could be mistaken, from a distance, for the Dutch flag. He nodded, but I know he left the museum thinking he was right and I was wrong, and there’s nothing I can do about that. Dutch MiGs, though … now there’s an alternate reality for you!

I’m following two crazy women on Instagram.* They’re both QAnon conspiracy theory believers, but there’s room for only one QAnon queen and they both want the job. They spend a lot of time denouncing one another, even though they share a belief in the same illusory “facts,” and remind me of the museum visitor who’s convinced an Egyptian MiG is really Dutch.

I know better than to get in arguments with people who believe in what Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts.” Ever argue with a self-professed Christian who always comes back to “because the Bible says so”? Same thing with these folks. Some asshole said the word “pizza” in an email from John Podesta to Hillary Clinton was code for having sex with children, and all the rest follows.

Here’s something one of them posted this morning:

Me trying to explain to my parents all night that Bush Sr’s funeral was a military operation & all the criminals with sealed indictments got envelopes and that I spent every second of the past week attempting to foil a Deep State terror attack plan to make Q & Pizzagate truthers look bad & JFK JR…aw f*ck it. So what’s on the Fake News?

Oh, nothing, just real stuff, not nearly as funny as your news.

*Look, I hate vaguebooking as much as you do. If you can stand the insanity, look up robotinteriors and lizcrokin on Instagram.


It’s in the Bag

IMG_7467What’s in the bag? Why, baby Jesus, the reason for the season! Now begone, Ghosts of Fox News Past, Present, and Future, and take your #WarOnChristmas with you!

Gotta be honest, we’re not feeling it this year. Granted, the holiday spirit kicks in later every year, and Christmas is still ten days away, but something’s off this year and we both sense it. By mutual consent, there’s no tree in the living room, no lights hanging from the eaves, not even a wreath on the door. Not saying it’s not gonna happen, but so far we’re meh about the whole thing.

Nor am I saying we’re sad or feeling bah-humbugish; we’re our normal reasonably happy selves. We’ve done our seasonal due diligence, sending out letters and cards to family and friends, buying gifts to exchange, planning festive Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals. Maybe it’s just that the last traces of childish anticipation, now we’re both firmly in our 70s, are gone. Maybe it’s our growing apprehension over what Nancy Pelosi calls Trump’s “monstrous endgame,” and the knowledge that we live among people who look and act like us on the surface but who, underneath, would happily watch the less fortunate die rather than see them get taxpayer-funded medical care, while rounding up and deporting anyone who doesn’t look and talk like them.

Well, before I go off the deep end, let me put in a positive word for the cheering effect of pets. Last night, as I prepared the curry and peanut sauce for chicken satay, two brownish blurs streaked between my legs and around the corner of the kitchen island before my eyes could register what I saw. I heard the doggie door slap twice in less than a second, and a Yip! as a hurtling body collided with its edge.

“Donna,” I said, “did you ever see Maxie and Mr. B chase each other like that before?” And she said, “That wasn’t Maxie, it was one of Polly’s cats.” I should have known. The rule is the cats aren’t allowed out of Polly’s room, but inevitably they encroach and slowly become part of the household (not unlike Polly herself, now embarking on her third year in the guest bedroom, a condition best defined as homelessness-but-for-parents-to-live-off-of … and now, I think, I may be zeroing in on another reason behind our holiday blahs).

One of the main Christmas gifts I ordered for Donna came in a less-than-plain, clearly-marked envelope, and wouldn’t you know Donna brought in the mail that day. It’s okay, though, because I have a pretty good idea what she ordered for me, and I know we’ll both be pleased. Donna and her friend Mary Anne are taking a three-day road trip between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and I might hop on the motorcycle and go somewhere myself (destination TBD, but there aren’t that many possibilities this time of year that won’t involve below-zero temperatures on at least part of the route, so it may have to be a couple of out & back day rides instead).

I haven’t blogged about words and language lately, so here’s one for my fellow English majors:

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Is “have it out for” a regionalism? I grew up with “have it in for,” and I’m from the Midwest, so maybe people say it differently in other parts of the country and this is just the first time I’m seeing it. Any experts out there?

By the way, Elizabeth Warren and I have something in common. We both took DNA tests. I wanted to verify what I’d always been told, that I come from an unbroken line of whitey tighties (check). She wanted to find out if family stories about a native American ancestor were true (they were). They say Warren damaged her chances at a presidential run by taking that test, even though any one of us would have done the same. Maybe we should all agree humans are humans, no matter our genetic makeup. Maybe our country will decide to take a cruelty break over the holidays, putting the monstrous endgame off a week or so. Maybe pigs will fly, and maybe we’ll put out an inflatable Santa at the last minute.


Paul’s Book Reviews: My Top Reads for 2018

This is going to be a short list. Looking back over the books I read in 2018, only three stand out—and by “stand out” I mean books I’d happily read again. Two are new, published this year or in late 2017; one is from 1998 but new to me. Two are mainstream fiction with historical settings, one is young adult science fiction/fantasy.

Speaking of the last, “La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman, upon finishing it earlier this year I re-read Pullman’s earlier “His Dark Materials” trilogy. All three—”The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife,” “The Amber Spyglass“—hold up brilliantly and could easily be added to this list but for the fact I originally read and reviewed them years ago.

Also not listed here are the several Jack Reacher thrillers by Lee Child I polished off in 2018, all the way to the most recent installment, “Past Tense.” Even though I rated some of them highly (there were exceptions), they’re a comfort food addiction, not to be taken seriously. You can read all my past reviews on Goodreads if you’re interested.

manhattan beachManhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan

Reading “Manhattan Beach,” I couldn’t stop thinking of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Both novels evoke a past era in New York City. Both feature a strong, engaging female protagonist.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was an icon of American culture when I was growing up. “Manhattan Beach” may well become one, and should: it is by far the stronger of the two novels. I was fascinated by Francie in “Tree”; I’d follow the Anna of “Manhattan” anywhere she chooses to go. I loved the turn-of-the-20th-Century New York City of “Tree”; I wanted to dive even deeper into the bustling WWII-era City of “Manhattan.” “Tree” is largely a story about growing up and domestic life; “Manhattan,” in the tradition of the Great American Novel, a story about everything: domestic life, growing up, women stepping into non-traditional roles and careers, love, poverty, wealth, crime, war, life and death adventures on and under the sea … and I found it impossible to put down.

Dare I mention Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan in the same sentence? There are similarities there, too. Both are great storytellers, both are very close to some popular novelistic ideal. I loved Egan’s earlier “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but I did not see a Great American Novelist behind that work. I see one behind “Manhattan Beach.”

I believed in Anna. I know women like her and admire them. Some may think Egan putting Anna in a diving suit is a stretch; I was happy to read in Egan’s afterword that she had in fact modeled some of Anna on women who mastered those daring skills during WWII … and I’ll mention that I myself know several woman fighter pilots, women who once saw military jets flying overhead and said to themselves, “I want to do that too.” Anna’s reactions to the twists and turns of her life … all of which will have you turning pages … are equally decisive.

I mentioned Egan’s research, which shows on every page, though never in an intrusive or showing-off manner. It is what makes everything believable.

Reviews of books I love are the hardest ones to write. I’ll stop here by saying “Manhattan Beach: is a brilliant novel, one you can be assured I’ll push on all my friends.

poisonwood bibleThe Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

Synopsis (from Goodreads): “‘The Poisonwood Bible’ is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.”

“If I were to write a nonfiction book about the brief blossoming and destruction of the independence of the Congo, and what the C.I.A. had to do with it, then probably all 85 people who are interested in the subject would read it. Instead I can write a novel that’s ostensibly about family and culture and an exotic locale. And it’s entertaining, I hope.”
— Barbara Kingsolver

This was a book club selection, not one I would have picked up on my own. I had heard of Barbara Kingsolver but had never read any of her stuff. I’ll go right to my reaction: after a short opening chapter in the voice of Orleanna, the mother, each of the Price family’s four daughters began to describe their experiences in the Congo, and I was utterly hooked.

The Price women came alive and I loved them all, even Rachel the Termite, the shallow one. Each has her own distinctive voice and style and way of looking at her family and the world. I didn’t miss hearing from the father at all … one sees quite enough of him through his wife and daughters’ eyes, enough to last a lifetime. I grew up Southern Baptist, thank you, and know the type well. Oh, and by the way, I am the same age as the twins, Leah and Adah, and well remember heavy news coverage of America’s interest in the newly-independent Congo in the early 1960s, including our government’s opposition to the presidency of Patrice Lumumba and the coup that resulted in the Congo’s decades-long nightmare under Mobutu.

It struck me … as I read about Nathan Price’s dogmatic single-mindedness and the physical and psychological punishment he inflicted on his wife and daughters; about the contrast between his empty, irrelevant religion and that of the Congolese villagers; about the Eisenhower/CIA-engineered assassination of Lumumba and the installation of the corrupt dictator Mobutu; even more so about Leah’s later life with Anatole, her black Congolese revolutionary husband … that “The Poisonwood Bible” had surely been the target of book banning attempts in the USA, if not in parts of Africa as well.

A little research uncovered two documented instances: the novel was banned in Port Washington NY schools in 2001; in 2010 it was challenged by New Hampshire parents who objected to its inclusion on a school reading list, citing sexually explicit scenes.

“The Poisonwood Bible” does not appear on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned Book list, and the only references to it being banned and challenged I can find online are the secondary ones linked above. Still, given that the ALA itself says most school book bans and challenges go unreported in the media, and are thus invisible to the ALA, I have to believe “The Poisonwood Bible” has been the target of other, unreported, attempts to keep schoolchildren and others from reading it.

When possible, I research and link to contemporaneous local news coverage of book bans and challenges. Why? Because local news reports usually include interviews with those who sought to ban the books in the first place, and that’s where you find out what their real beef was. Unfortunately, I can’t track down contemporaneous coverage for the two incidences listed above.

Sexually explicit scenes? I doubt it. I just finished reading the book cover to cover, and I’m damned if I remember any. No, I’m willing to bet the real objections were to the novel’s less-than-flattering depictions of Christianity and good-hearted American benevolence (specifically the Eisenhower administration’s complicity in overthrowing Lumumba). Most of all, however, I think the parents who got the book banned in New York, and who challenged it in New Hampshire, were uncomfortable with the idea of Leah and Anatole’s mixed-race marriage. Can I prove it? No. Am I right? You know I am.

la belle sauvageLa Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)
by Philip Pullman

I devoured Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy several years ago, enrapt from beginning to end. I hadn’t realized, before that experience, how rich young adult fiction could be. Afterward I sought out good YA fiction and science fiction, finding authors and series to love, but all this time what I’ve really been waiting for is more of the world and characters Philip Pullman invented in his original trilogy.

It’s been worth the wait. It all came back, from the first page on: dæmons, alethiometers, Gyptians, Oxford, the witches of the North … and then a reference to Lyra, then Lord Asriel, and then, chillingly, Mrs. Coulter. To my delight I realized “La Belle Sauvage” is a prequel to “The Golden Compass,” with a child protagonist—Malcomb—as fascinating and believable as Lyra Belacqua in the earlier works (Lyra, as mentioned, is here too, this time as an infant, along with her infant dæmon Pantalaimon).

Malcomb is the 11-year-old son of a couple who run an inn just upriver from Oxford. His dæmon is Asta. The adventure starts in the first chapter, when mysterious guests ask Malcolm about the priory across the river and the nuns who live there. It soon becomes known that the nuns have taken in a baby. The baby is Lyra, and sinister forces are determined to snatch her. As in the “Golden Compass” books, the sinister forces are sent forth to do their dirty work by the Magisterium, aka “The Church.” Saving Lyra from the Magisterium’s clutches falls to Malcolm, and good lord it’s a hair-raising tale.

I was literally breathless when I finished the book. How long has it been since I’ve read anything this gripping and engaging? A while, for sure. Oh yes, I read lots of thrillers, and they all have gripping plots, but I always know some bozo like me wrote the book. With Pullman, I forget about the bozo behind the book. When Malcolm’s excited, I’m excited. When he’s frightened nearly out of his wits, so am I. This is how it was when I first discovered my love of reading as a child, when a good book could sweep me off my feet. That Pullman can do that to me as an adult is … well, it’s genius, is what it is.

My understanding is that Philip Pullman actually started working on what became “La Belle Sauvage” before writing the “Golden Compass” trilogy in the early 2000s. He returned to “La Belle Sauvage” two or three years ago, and it’s meant to be the first installment of a new trilogy, “The Book of Dust.” There’s no publication date for the next two books, but in the afterword to “La Belle Sauvage” Pullman says the next one will jump ahead two decades, and feature Lyra in her 20s.

I cannot wait, but I must.


The Thing About the Thing

I rode to Willcox, Arizona and back on Sunday with my friend and motorcycle maintenance guru Ed. I ask you, how could I resist stopping for a quick photo op at the namesake of my own blog? It appears the infamous old roadside attraction has been improved by the addition of fireworks, dinosaurs, and space aliens! Some day when I’m out riding on my own, I’ll have to go inside, pay the price of admission, and see the revamped display.


I posted this photo on Instagram, where a representative of The Thing? commented, saying he hoped we had a good time there. I answered, saying we did indeed. No reason to tell him we only stayed a minute, just long enough to take a selfie in the parking lot.

Out of pride, I almost told him The Thing? inspired the name and design of my blog, but then thought better of it. Why invite a cease & desist letter?

In 2004, when I decided to name my new blog “Paul’s Thing,” I Googled it and discovered two previously-existing sites with the same name. Both were personal blogs, and both were inactive: one was just a blank page with Paul’s Thing at the top; the other had a single post dated sometime in 1999. Neither had a copyright notice, so I took the name (after all, I did think of it by myself, before I knew about the older blogs). I Googled it again this morning: the old blogs are gone and this is now the only Paul’s Thing on the internet. Here, you can see for yourself.

I’m still waiting for the more famous Paul Woodford, a British motorsports promoter and YouTube personality, to come after me for my Twitter handle, which is @paulwoodford. I joined Twitter a year before he did, so the handle’s mine by seniority—he had to settle for @paulwoodford84. Even though, as a courtesy to him, I later changed my display name from “Paul Woodford” to “Rogue Lead,” the other Paul Woodford’s fans tweet me all the time, thinking I’m him. I used to forward their tweets to him, but it got to be too much and I eventually quit. I assume he knows who I am; I certainly know who he is!

Just for grins, here’s my very first Paul’s Thing post, from January 23, 2004. It’s about motorcycling (what a surprise), and refers to a South Dakota politician (now dead) who killed a motorcyclist, a pretty famous case in motorcycling circles at the time:

Janklow’s Sentence

… seems about right to me.

Riders on the motorcycling e-mail lists I monitor are seething with indignation over Mr. Janklow and what they perceive as a slap-on-the-hand sentence for second-degree manslaughter. But the sentence seems about right to me—after all, he wasn’t convicted of murder, nor did he commit murder. If I thought he’d received special treatment from the judge I’d feel differently—but I think Mr. Janklow got the same sentence you or I would have received in similar circumstances.

The AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) is lobbying states for mandatory minimum sentencing in cases where motorists are convicted of killing motorcyclists. I’m opposed to mandatory sentencing guidelines in general—I think the “three-strike” laws were a terrible mistake, and this would be a mistake as well.

But it’s certainly true that far too many motorists receive little or no punishment for injuring and killing bikers. There’s no doubt in my half-a-mind this can be chalked up to anti-biker prejudices held by cops, prosecuting attorneys, and judges. And I don’t know what can be done to reverse those prejudices.

The AMA is taking, perhaps, the only viable approach—remove prejudice from the equation with mandatory sentencing rules. Sort of the same approach the military took toward race relations—you may not be able to change hearts and minds, but by imposing strict rules and harsh penalties, you can sure as hell change behavior.

Which is to say that while I don’t support the AMA’s “kill a biker, go to jail” campaign, I’m not opposing it either.

What I wish is that we had a doctrine of professionalism. We—Americans, our law enforcement officials, our judges—don’t take driving seriously. You can get away with “Oops, I didn’t see him.” If we took driving seriously this would never fly—what the hell are you doing operating a vehicle if you aren’t looking out for other drivers and obstacles? And so it would be, were I king of the world.

And for even more grins, my first tweet:

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Friday Bag o’ You Know What

fullsizeMr. B snagged a pound of hamburger off the edge of the kitchen counter and snarfed it down—including the plastic wrapping. That was a week and a half ago. He didn’t eat for 24 hours. His poops, over the next two or three days, had us wondering if we should call the vet, but he’s back to normal now. I clean the back yard every day and pick up after him when we walk, so I’d know if he passed the plastic. To date there’s been no sign of it.

At the moment, as Donna and I work in the home office, Mr. B and Maxie, our auxiliary pup, are taking turns napping in the doggie bed on the floor between our desks. They don’t fight over it; they never do. One curls up for a while and then leaves, the other moves in, the cycle repeats. They spoon together in our bed at night but maintain separate bubbles by day.

You may have noticed I rarely mention Maxie (Figure 1, below). A friend chided me about it at book club last weekend, and I had to admit it’s true. Maxie stays in the background and seems to prefer it that way, which is why I call her the auxiliary pup … she was the same way when Schatzi was alive. Mr. B is the opposite, always in your face. Be assured, though, we give both of them lots of love.


Fig. 1: Mr. B (left), Maxie (right)

Well, enough about the critters. My friend Ed called yesterday to ask how the motorcycle’s doing. He did a ton of work on it in October, some of it major, and wanted to make sure everything’s okay … which it is, I was happy to report. In fact it rides like a new motorcycle and feels ready for another hundred thousand miles. We made a date to go riding this Sunday, and another to drive up to the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale in January.

So far Donna’s holding firm on having a no-drama Christmas. No outdoor decorations, no talk of a tree. I’m okay with all of that … I just hope no drama doesn’t mean no presents. God, I sound like a kid. But I really want a new TV and a box set of Buffy. And new socks (see Figure 2, below).


Fig. 2: Sock Happiness/Age Chart

And now for something completely different.

QAnon nuts have been working themselves up over Trump’s imminent arrest of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their gang of 59,998 celebrity child sex traffickers. The FBI was supposed to swoop down on them Monday. Monday, obviously, has come and gone, and … nothing. They’re carrying on as normal, still saying “any day now,” still rubbing their hands in glee as they wait for the crackdown. Now that John McCain and George H.W. Bush are in Guantanamo spilling their guts (c’mon, sheeple, you didn’t really think they were dead, did you?), the Storm should hit any day now.

What bothers me is seeing the same sort of anticipatory glee among those who think Mueller’s going to drop the hammer on Trump. Any day now. Well, I’ll believe it when I see it—and I don’t expect to see it. Mueller’s an FBI man, and it was the FBI (not just James Comey) that torpedoed Hillary Clinton a few days before the 2016 election. Still, it’s nice to see Trump running scared, and boy is he ever.

And hey, didn’t we already hear all this stuff about Epstein getting a light sentence for procuring and sexually abusing underaged girls, along with convincing stories of him and his BFF Trump sharing a girl who at the time was just thirteen years old? Why yes, yes we did. In great detail. And then the stories faded away. And now they’re back. Forgive me for thinking they’ll fade away again, and six or nine months from now be rediscovered by the media, which’ll carry on as if they never heard any of it before.

Anyone not locked into the Fox News echo chamber knew everything there was to know about Trump well before the election: the collusion with Russia, Trump Tower Moscow, the pee tape, Trump’s fealty to Vladimir Putin, the serial adultery, all the dirt we want to believe Mueller’s going to prove beyond doubt. We knew … as did Hillary Clinton, who spelled a lot of it out for voters during the 2016 campaign. Did that knowledge stop Trump? It did not. Why would anyone think it’ll stop him now?

But here’s the most important thing you need to know about Trump: he doesn’t have a dog. We all know he likes pee, but has he ever picked up dog poop to check for plastic?


Tuesday Bag o’ Callsigns (Updated 2/5/18)

2179424_1We have a couple of presidential aircraft at Pima Air and Space Museum, and visitors taking my tour are always eager to learn more about them. I usually stick to a script, but yesterday was able to add something new: the presidential VC-25 sent to carry former President George H.W. Bush’s body from Texas to Washington DC later that day would be using a one-time callsign, “Special Air Mission 41,” the elder Bush having been the 41st president. I swear to god, a couple of people on the tram looked like they were about to cry. I’ve seen this before, talking about Jack and Jackie Kennedy and the famous Air Force One paint scheme they introduced in 1962, the one still used today.

Time permitting, I mention earlier presidential aircraft during this portion of the tour: FDR’s Sacred Cow, Truman’s Independence, Eisenhower’s Columbines. I explain the origins of the Air Force One callsign and other presidential aircraft callsigns: Army One (Eisenhower), Navy One (George W. Bush), Executive One (Nixon, who during the 1970s gas crisis flew to a meeting in California on a scheduled United Airlines flight). No president has so far flown on a USCG aircraft; hence, no Coast Guard One.

That leaves Marine One, the callsign used by USMC helicopter crews flying the current president to and from the White House. This is the point of highest danger on my tour, because I refuse to say the current president’s name. “Current president” is as close as I come; I have to carefully engage my tongue to my brain lest I blurt out “President Individual One” or something worse.

In other museum news, I find myself enjoying the shortened tram tours (45 minutes, versus the one hour-plus tours we conducted before) more and more. Not so sure I’ll like doing three or four of them a day, but that’s yet to come, probably early next year.

I’m almost done. Yesterday, while sitting at an outdoor table at Pima Air and Space Museum‘s restaurant, a spot that provides a little elevation from which to look out upon the museum grounds, I was struck by the way PASM’s B-52 looms over the smaller training aircraft lined up in front of it.


One of my better “Monday at the museum” photos, IMHO.

My father once had a minibike, one of those Briggs & Stratton-powered open-frame scooters with a centrifugal clutch. During visits home to Cape Girardeau, I’d ride it around the property with Gregory on my lap, thoughtlessly sowing the seeds of his future motorcycle delinquency. Greg recently came across an old minibike magazine ad and thought it looked like the one he remembered from his childhood. He also remembered seeing an old photo of the two of us on Grandpa’s minibike. We looked up the photo and compared it to the ad, and by golly it’s the same minibike. Apparently people collect them now. Alas, Dad’s old scooter is long gone.

IMG_4127 IMG_7353

Donna and I celebrated our 53rd wedding anniversary Sunday by going to a friend’s 55th birthday party. By the time we got home we were too tired to even get through a TV show without nodding off, never mind celebrating in the traditional manner. Time, you old devil, you.

We polished off both seasons of Anne with an E on Netflix and have been looking for something similarly charming and uplifting. Surprisingly, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (also on Netflix) seems like it might fit the bill … while also scratching the itch for more Buffy and Veronica.

Donna hasn’t gotten into the holiday spirit, by which I mean she hasn’t started putting up Christmas decorations. When our son was here over Thanksgiving he offered to string the outdoor lights and she told him not to. This is unprecedented. I’m going to ride it out and see what develops. At least I can say my Christmas shopping is done, along with the annual letter to family and friends … now all I have to do is stuff the envelopes.

Lastly, I note with sadness the passing of four Hash House Harriers in Uganda, hashers we never met (and were highly unlikely to ever meet); still, they were brothers and sisters, members of the tight little community we’ve been part of for 30 years, and while we always pause to raise a toast to the memory of hashers who die of old age or illness (more and more of them every year), losing four at once to a horrible accident is a shock. There’s more information on my hashing blog.

Update (12/5/18): I was told, and believed, that President Carter once flew on a USCG aircraft (Coast Guard One). That turns out to be untrue, and to date no president has. I updated the second paragraph of this post to reflect that.


Paul’s Book Reviews: Thrillers, Nonfiction, Science Fiction

“If democracy came to China they would end up electing idiots, as in America.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Moon

red moonRed Moon
by Kim Stanley Robinson

My thoughts on “Red Moon” are similar to those I expressed in my review of KSR’s previous SF novel of ideas, “New York 2140.”

I loved the first half of “Red Moon,” with its characters, plot, and lunar setting (particularly KSR’s detailed descriptions of man-made sublunar infrastructure, which are fascinating though wildly optimistic). I learned from (and was charmed by) KSR’s nerdy exploration of China’s history, economy, and place in the world. In the second half I found myself wading through long and awkward lectures, poorly disguised as organic dialog, on fictional revolutions in China and the USA; shaking my head over KSR’s even nerdier fixation on currency (who else would describe dollars and yuans as “seigneurial currencies”?); lifted up again in the final chapters as the characters once again took the lead, staying one step ahead of their enemies.

In other words, “Red Moon” is a Kim Stanley Robinson science fiction novel, almost by definition a treat.

past tensePast Tense
by Lee Child

My wife and I both wanted to read the latest Jack Reacher thriller. We had one library copy between us, and she grabbed it first. Since she reads at a more leisurely pace than I do and the due date was coming up fast, I talked her into letting me cut in. I polished it off over the course of two evenings, and now she has it back.

She started asking me questions right away, burning to know the resolution of a couple of plot lines, being as how … to invoke a metaphor Reacher himself invokes in “Past Tense” … I’d seen the end of the movie. Dear reader, I did my best to avoid spoilers (as I shall do in this review). I think I succeeded, because she’s busy flipping pages again.

Speaking of movies, Lee Child has announced that he and the producers are looking for a larger actor to play Reacher in a series of streaming TV movies, replacing the actor who played him on the big screen, Tom Cruise. I previously defended the choice of Cruise, who if not in stature and bulk at least projected a Reacher-like attitude, but since Lee Child himself has come around, I’ll join millions of Reacher creatures in saying “Whew, it’s about time!”

Back to “Past Tense.” Classic Reacher, classic villains (intent on carrying out classic literary devilment), classic damsel in distress (only in this case the damsel is a young Canadian couple). The only thing missing is sex, but never fear, Child has Reacher play matchmaker, so at least there’s boffage by proxy. Totally satisfying Reacher, and we learn some new things about the mysterious father, Stan Reacher, along the way. Can you see Jack Reacher becoming an avid birdwatcher? After reading this novel, I can … and if that’s not character development, what is?

by Ling Ma

A well-written novel of aloneness, set in a contemporary but depopulated United States, which, along with most of the world, has been hit with the Shen Fever.

The fevered become ambulatory husks, mindlessly performing rote, mechanical tasks over and over until they die of starvation … at last, a zombie novel with a grain of believability! Candace Chen hangs on in New York City, going to work as if things are normal, as the city slowly unwinds and the infrastructure collapses, then joins a small group of survivors making its way to a promised refuge outside of Chicago, foraging for food, clothing, and gasoline on the way.

Candace’s inner narrative jumps from past to present and back again. A whole Candace emerges over the course of the novel, along with a chilling picture of life in a wholly capitalistic society on the brink of … and then after … collapse.

As a condemnation of consumerism, “Severance” is devastating. Candace is her immigrant mother’s daughter in her fixation on brand name goods, ironically now surrounded by them, free for the taking and utterly worthless. In a few scenes near the end, Candace (and even her ghostly mother) grow and begin seeking something more important than mere survival. Nowhere are these larger messages made explicit or didactic … they are organic to the novel and Candace’s own perception of things and events, and thus very effective.

“Severance” swallowed me whole. I loved it.

ball lightningBall Lightning
by Liu Cixin

Not really new; “Ball Lightning” was first published in China in 2005, and is regarded by the author as a precursor to his later Three-Body Trilogy (“The Three-Body Problem,” “The Dark Forest,” “Death’s End”). I was blown away by Three-Body, which tackled fundamental questions of science fiction and alien contact; I was intrigued and pleased with “Ball Lightning” … which is to say fascinated but not blown away.

Cixin Liu’s scope in this earlier work is more limited, centering on development of ball lightning weaponry by the Chinese People’s Army, but there is what I took at first to be a supernatural element weaving in and out of the story (hints that people killed by ball lightning might continue to exist on some other plane), later explained by quantum theory but spooky nonetheless.

The first few times this element pops up, Cixin Liu plays it straight by presenting it as fact, without speculation, which I appreciated: I’d rather have my own Holy Shit! reaction than have the author tell me that’s how I should be reacting. This element of “Ball Lightning” becomes more central to the story in the final chapters, more than making up for what I thought was a slow beginning. Without this spooky element, “Ball Lightning” would be fairly pedestrian sci fi … I’ll stick my neck out and say speculating about ball lightning weapons in the 21st Century is akin to foreseeing the invention of the machine gun a decade or so before it appeared on the battlefield; science fiction yes, but not very.

The characters in “Ball Lightning” are strong and memorable, particularly Lin Yung, the female PLA officer who is the Captain Ahab of this tale (Chen, of course, is Ishmael). But I’m getting carried away. “Ball Lightning” starts slow but builds to a solid science fiction climax, and will no doubt be widely seen as a classic of the genre, taking its place alongside the Three-Body Trilogy.

summit feverSummit Fever: An Armchair Climber’s Init(i)Ation to Glencoe, Mortal Terror and ‘The Himalayan Matterhorn’
by Andrew Greig

I took the trouble to track down and read “Summit Fever” because I know two of the climbers who were on the expedition. I know them, that is, in present life; the adventures detailed in this book took place decades before we met.

The book is a narrative of a mountain-climbing expedition to the summit of Muztagh Tower, the “Matterhorn of the Himalayas.” The expedition was privately funded and led by experienced British and Scottish climbers. They were joined by three Americans, a couple and a third woman, who had basically paid to be guided to the summit by the experienced climbers. My friends are Burt and Donna, the American couple described in “Summit Fever.”

“Summit Fever” predates Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” by eleven years, but is essentially similar. Both books were written by published authors who had been invited along to chronicle ambitious mountain-climbing expeditions. Both are gripping edge-of-the-seat narratives of perilous adventure, filled with insights into the world and minds of professional and world-class amateur mountain climbers. Both offer naked, frank appraisals of the climbers … at their best and worst.

Krakauer includes a long afterword to “Into Thin Air” detailing attacks by surviving members of the expedition on the veracity of his first-hand account of a harrowing 1996 Everest attempt that killed eight climbers. Greig does not, and there the two books differ.

The three Americans dropped out of the Muztagh Tower expedition early. The third woman turned back after the expedition ran out of money to pay the necessary porters. My friends Burt and Donna made it to base camp but had to helicopter out when Burt injured his leg. The core climbers invited Donna to continue on with them but she elected to go back down with Burt.

Greig appears to have taken an instant disliking to “the Americans,” Burt in particular, and does not attempt to understand them or what may have been their take on events, as Krakauer did for the surviving climbers of the 1996 Everest expedition. The Burt depicted in “Summit Fever” is a quite different man than the one I know. He comes across, in Greig’s telling, as dislikable (Donna, on the other hand, wins him over).

I will be reluctant to ask my friends about their climb, and Greig’s book, when I see them again. I feel as if I’ve pried into their medicine cabinet, and maybe I won’t ask. I know, too, that I’d have come across even more poorly in Grieg’s telling … for I never would have made it as far as Burt and Donna did.

“Summit Fever” is apparently out of print; I was able to get a well-used paperback copy through an interlibrary loan request.

by Claire North

I read and quite liked an earlier Claire North science fiction/fantasy novel, “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August,” so looked forward to reading “84K.” It opened strong, though I had a hard time with North’s narrative technique.

Her dystopian near-future Great Britain, a state with only a vestigial government, run almost wholly by a giant corporate conglomerate, is well thought out and believable, as is the system of individual indemnity, whereby citizens are essentially turned into wage & debt slaves, with more severe levels of slavery for those farther down the income scale.

Back to the narrative technique. Some reviewers seem to like it. It drove me crazy. People would be thinking or

talking and they

would just

drift …

Sure, a lot of us think like that. Some of us (those of us who can’t hold jobs, I imagine) even talk like that. But ALL the main characters? Not just Theo, but Neila and Dani too? I had to readjust my thinking: it wasn’t Theo or Dani drifting away mid-sentence, it was Claire North, acting as omniscient narrator. But if was her, why then did other characters think and speak in complete, coherent sentences and paragraphs? Why did just some … the most important some … characters dither and


Claire North’s narrative technique quickly became the signature of this novel, in my opinion detracting from what otherwise would have been a solid dystopian story of individual resistance and eventual triumph.

One last thought, and one that will precisely date the time I wrote this review: the corporate bully boys Peter and Simon, Theo’s enemies from his days at Oxford, now running the country and busily killing off patties whose debts exceed their ability to pay them off, the men who killed Theo’s ex-girlfriend, put me in mind of the private school, Yale & Harvard-educated

elite … men like

Brett …


A Giving Tuesday Black Friday Photoblog

IMG_3924I find myself, once again, apologizing for light bloggage. Oh, excuses aplenty: mainly that the kids were here for Thanksgiving, but I can come up with more if pressed.

Oh, man, “days” sure bunch up after Thanksgiving: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday (which the travel industry wants to label “Travel Deal Tuesday”). It’s an outright assault!

So why the Black Friday in this post’s title? I did most of my Christmas shopping on Black Friday is why, using an iPad in the comfort of an easy chair (so should you, if you’re agoraphobic like me). When we shop online, our purchases sometimes come as early as the next day. Imagine my surprise, though, when the UPS truck pulled up in front of our house two hours after I clicked the “buy now” button!

Turns out Amazon isn’t that fast … at least not yet. Donna ran out to talk to the driver, a friend of hers through mutual interests: they both have home embroidery businesses and often talk shop when he’s in the neighborhood. Actually, the first of the gifts I ordered came the next day, and two more have arrived since.

So the kids were here: our daughter Polly of course, joined by our son Gregory, who drove down from Las Vegas with our daughter in law Beth and our grandson Quentin. Granddaughter Taylor, who just moved to Phoenix with her boyfriend Jordan, was supposed to come for Thanksgiving dinner, but they both had to work that day and didn’t get off until late in the afternoon. They offered to drive down anyway, but we didn’t want to put any pressure on them, especially with the heavy holiday traffic on I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, so Taylor, sadly, wasn’t here. But still, we had a crowd: our own family, joined by our friend Mary Anne, her son Andrew, his fiancee Chris, and two of his children, Andrew and Jade:


Our Black Friday also featured a family photo session, with everyone squinting into the bright sun in our front yard:


Quentin, as you can see, towers over everyone. My shrinkage has become undeniable; I once stood 6’4″, Quentin’s current height, an inch taller than my 6’3″ son Gregory. I’m now visibly shorter than Gregory and positively diminutive next to Quentin (as long as we’re counting feet and inches, Polly is 5’9″, Beth 5’11”, and Donna is or was (she may be shrinking too) 5’2″.

Gregory and I drug Quentin to the local Hooters for a photo op on Black Friday, an annual tradition we started when he was three or four. He’s old enough now to be less embarrassed and more interested in the girls and their tight t-shirts, but who’s the horn dog with his arm around one of them?


Of the five post-Thanksgiving days, only one has not been given a catchy consumerist-propaganda tag, but for a blessed few of us it was #MotorcycleSunday. My friends and I … Molly, Dave, and Patrick … met at a truck stop south of town, rode back roads through cattle country to Arivaca, stopped for lunch in Green Valley, and returned to Tucson late in the afternoon. Here we are posing in front of the old Longhorn Saloon in Amado, because how could we pass up a landmark like that?


By the way, Arivaca is very close to the Arizona-Mexico border, right in the middle of a major human- and drug-smuggling corridor. There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint on the road between Amado and Arivaca, and agents in trucks and on all-terrain vehicles just about everywhere you look. For what it’s worth, we didn’t see any military personnel, even though many are still deployed along the border.

The air museum wants us to cut our tram tours from one hour to 45 minutes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but now that I’ve done a few of the shortened tours find myself liking them. Most museum visitors seem to like them too … as hard as it is for me to understand, other people are not as interested in flying as I am! Speaking of the air museum, here’s a spy shot of our most recent acquisition, a Boeing 747 that was once an engine testbed for General Electric, hiding back in restoration:


Well, here’s to you and your Christmas shopping, and may yours be over soon if not done already. I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving with family and friends. If you traveled, I hope you’re now home safe and sound, and not trapped in the blizzard. If you are trapped in the blizzard, I hope you get home soon, and remember, no matter how bad it is, things could always be worse!