Archive for April, 2017

  • Blog
  • April 28th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

Has anyone but me noticed the remarkable resemblance of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions to Alfred E Neuman that dim witted icon of Mad Magazine? Sessions is a member of the most inept administration in the history of the country. He was deemed unfit by Congress to be a federal judge but Donald Trump, the clown president, saw fit to name him as the nation’s top cop, head of the Justice Department.

“What? Me worry?”
No, Jeffy it’s the rest of us that are worried. Scared silly is more like it.
It’s not nice to make fun of someone’s looks but in Session’s case, I’ll make an exception. He looks like a befuddled chipmunk who has managed to stuff so many nuts into his cheek pouches that he doesn’t know whether to spit or go blind. He is the American version of Inspector Clouseau, without the redeeming quality of being funny. He’s merely pathetic, not to mention being scary for his potential to destroy long-established precepts of law and order.

We haven’t had cops that comic since the Keystone cops of silent movie fame were running into each other and creating havoc wherever they went. Sessions is so damn dumb he apparently did not know that Hawaii has been a state since 1959. He insulted a federal judge for putting a halt to Trump’s misguided immigration policy, saying that one judge in a little island somewhere in the Pacific was making decisions about how the government should be run. God knows someone needs to. The current administration runs government like, well, the Keystone cops.

The little island, Hawaii is a state, just like the one that Sessions calls home, although the only state he seems to be familiar with is semi-consciousness. Anyone with Donald Trump for a boss is bound to set new standards for ineptitude. Trump wouldn’t appoint anyone who is smarter than he is to a position of responsibility, which means that everyone he appoints has the approximate job suitability of a pet rock.

Hawaiian Sen. Mazie Hirono summed up Sessions geographic faux pas this way, “I expect the top law enforcement officer to remember Hawaii residents are Americans, and to understand the independent role of the judiciary.” However, expecting anyone associated with Trump world to understand the real world is asking a lot.

Mumbling his way through an introduction of the Italian prime minister, one of the few world leaders he has managed not to insult, Trump said, “from Verdi to Pavarotti—friend of mine. Great friend of mine.” No, dip wick not a friend. Regrettably Luciano Pavarotti has been dead for a decade. Mr Pavarotti’s family previously asked Trump to stop using the singer’s most famous aria – nessun dorma – at his campaign rallies.

“As members of his immediate family, we would like to recall that the values of brotherhood and solidarity which Luciano Pavarotti expressed throughout the course of his artistic career are entirely incompatible with the world view offered by the candidate Donald Trump,” the family said .
Supposedly Pavarotti’s favorite aria was nessun dorma” from the opera Turandot the last two lines of the aria, translated into English, are “set, stars! At sunrise I will win! I will win! I will win!” Perhaps one of Trump’s butt kissers told him about that aria and he adopted it as his anthem. Because for the clown president, winning is the only thing no matter how you do it—cheat if you can.

What can you expect from an administration whose idea of musical culture is to invite Ted Nugent and Kid Rock to the White House. Of course their visit, as culturally subterranean as it might be, was further degraded by the presence of Alaska’s favorite mama bear, the drill baby herself, Sarah Palin. If it were in my power I would arm an army of sanitation workers with mops and disinfectant to scrub the whole White House down, kind of like sanitizing an old-fashioned outhouse.

The White House is the nation’s home. It is a residence where the president is expected to spend his time in office, but we now have a president who plans to move the White House, the citizens’ home, to his own exclusive golf resort where for $200,000, you too can claim citizenry. He isn’t running the country, he’s running a goddamn business, and we get to pay for it. He calls it “the art of the deal” but as deals go, we haven’t seen anything like it since Enron.

Looking at his choices for top administration officials is like looking at the most frightening scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho”, over and over again. There is Sean Spicer, the clown president’s puppet, who stands in front of the White House press corps and repeats the most outrageous lies that no one in his right mind would believe. You can almost see the clown president’s little hand up Spicer’s back manipulating the controls (as opposed to having his hand up some helpless girl’s dress).

I haven’t decided if Spicer is Howdy Doody or Mortimer Snerd, Edgar Bergen’s half witted puppet of long ago. Snerd was dumber than Spicer and Howdy Doody was smarter, but either way the result doesn’t serve the purpose of truth in government. Half the time Spicer doesn’t know what he’s talking about and the other half he does but he lies about it. Truth in this administration is whatever Trump read on Breitbart news or heard on some sewage spouting conservative talk show.

I can’t fathom the mindset of a president of the United States whose attention span equals that of the life of a mayfly and who has the intellectual depth of a muddy puddle of rainwater. What can you say about a president who butt kisses some of the worst dictators in the world— Saddam “knew how to run a country”, Putin “likes me”, congratulations to Turkey’s dictator Erdogan on taking over the country. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (“you gotta give him credit”). Any day now I expect the clown president to get together with the French Nazi candidate Marine Le Pen for a group grope. After all, she’s blonde and a woman, a perfect candidate for a typical Trump stubby fingered fondle to improve Franco-American relations. In the meantime he’s busy targeting old people (no more Meals on Wheels), children (no more school lunches), the sick (no more affordable care for 24 million people without insurance), women (no more health screening from Planned Parenthood). If you want help from the Trump administration you have to be in the 1%,not in the other 99%.

This is an administration where if you scratch a member of it, you will find a buffoon, a crook, or a robber baron. Secretary of State Tillerson has been personally decorated by Vladimir Putin. Secretary of Education DeVos is a privileged private school debutante who thinks she can tell professional teachers how to teach and what to teach, the secretary of interior Zinke is poised to undo the conservation legacy of Barack Obama and possibly the legacy of every other conservation oriented President in the nation’s history.

Trump bulldozes his way through each day like an angry bear with an impacted fecal plug looking for something to brutalize. He’s managed to antagonize the leaders of our two closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, and it as if that weren’t bad enough, he’s pissed off the leaders of many of our allies. It’s no wonder the rest of the world is regarding the United States like you would look at an unasked-for package that’s ticking.

He’s like a schoolyard bully looking for a fight. I wake up each morning, apprehensive that he has pushed someone just as crazy as he is into nuclear insanity (think North Korea), someone who has responded to his arrogant blustering by dropping a nuclear missile somewhere— South Korea, Japan, or Hawaii. Last time I felt this threatened was in the 1960s when the United States and the Soviet Union went nose to nose over ballistic missiles in Cuba.

But that was a confrontation between two countries led by people who were not insane, who were not consumed by their own overwhelming egos. We can only hope there are enough people now in power to force the clown president to keep his pudgy finger off the red button. I guess the mere fact that I do wake up to whatever news the clown president has created overnight it is cold comfort, but I long for the days when the worst bad news of the overnight was that the St. Louis Cardinals lost yet again.

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  • Blog
  • April 18th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

I am seven years old and my cousins Pat and Sam and I are in a rowboat about 20 yards away from shore. My mother is splashing in the shallows of Birch Lake. She calls teasingly, “you boys had better get out of that rowboat or the owner will put you in jail.”
In panic, I immediately leap overboard, forgetting that I cannot swim. Instantly I am under the water. I flounder to the surface to see my horrified mother starting toward me. Even as I go down for the second time, I am counting because I’ve been told that if you go down for the third time, it’s for keeps. You drown.
As I bob up again, I think that I’ve only got one chance left. Then I sink and know my life is all over. Then a miracle! My feet touch the bottom, and I stagger ashore, whooping and bellowing. I have been spared and the world is wonderful!
Birchwood, Wisconsin, is the town where I spent my summers or nearly didn’t. I’ve never really left Birchwood. It lingers in my mind like the sweet memory of a teenage crush. It’s in northwest Wisconsin, near Hayward where the freshwater fishing Hall of Fame features a building size concrete muskellunge, a fish so large that you can climb into the mouth and peer far down through the massive teeth at the tourists below.
Birchwood is nothing like Hayward. My town is the self-proclaimed bluegill capital of Wisconsin, and no one builds temples to bluegills. But there is a bluegill festival held during the third weekend of July. Tourists from Indiana and Illinois get swept up in the annual street dance. One year, my son-in-law entered the beer keg throwing competition. He lost to a beefy individual who looked as though he had emptied the keg before he threw it.
There also is competition between the fire departments of area towns in which the volunteer firefighters try to push a beer keg, suspended on a cable, to their opponent’s end of the cable with powerful jets of firehose water.
Birchwood is a resort town. It has the feel of the Northwoods. Even in summer, there is a pine tang in the air. The folks here have a wind bit look, as if they’ve gone often to the woodshed for kindling when it’s below zero. Winter temperatures routinely are below zero, and nearby Rice Lake once recorded -60, the nation’s coldest that day.
Everyone fishes in Birchwood. Fish and a veneer mill are the lifeblood of the town. Once, the fish were northern pike, walleyes and bass. Those heavy stringers of long ago are mostly gone. Today’s catch is smaller fish. Tourists concentrate on bluegills and crappie. The old lakes simply had too much demand on them for too long
My father once caught a 20 pound northern pike and made the mistake of hauling it into the old wooden rowboat before the fish was exhausted. The pike flopped around on tackle boxes and fishing lures until Aunt Vic worked up the nerve to dive on the fish like a football player going for a loose ball. My father sat back and laughed and told the story for years afterward. I grew up listening to men who sat around a table with a checkered oil cloth draped over it, drank Bruenig’s lager, and told colorful stories like that.
There was a time in my life when almost everyone in Birchwood was related to me. My grandparents came overland in an ox drawn wagon and helped to pioneer this town situated midway down a 20 mile chain of lakes.
My grandmother ran a restaurant and baked bread for the logging crews who were laying waste to the Virgin North land. It was a tough life. Aunt Vic, later to be to become a nurse, watched in fascination as a doctor amputated her brother’s leg on the kitchen table by the light of a kerosene lantern. He had been pinned by a falling tree.
Nolan Eidsmoe, a Birchwood native who became a doctor in Rice Lake said, “when we landed at Birchwood in 1919, the first place I can ever remember visiting was your grandmother’s restaurant. We ate our first meal there. She was a wonderful lady who raised a large family and still had time to run a restaurant and bake bread to sell to others. She also had room for a couple of orphans at her table for meals.”
My grandfather? Well some years ago a middle-aged woman stopped me on the street and said, “I knew your grandfather. I was his lookout when I was a little girl.”
“Look out?” I asked, puzzled.
“For the still the still he had out in the woods on our farm,” she said. She looked at me for a moment. “You didn’t know he was the town bootlegger?” No, I didn’t. The family had kept that secret for more than half a century. Family was important to my mother and her sisters. They worshipped their mother and despite all his faults, loved their father. The only way you could criticize a Soper was to be a Soper.
Frontier enterprise always been characteristic of Birchwood. An uncle began a fishing resort by buying one room school houses as they were abandoned and turning them into cottages. His brother later started a bait shop, thus Sopers had tourists coming and going. They were also partners in the only bar in town.
Birchwood population 4314, today is about the same as it was 70 years ago when I was a barefoot kid. My cousins and I sneaked into Hud’s Bar to feed nickles into a shooting gallery machine. The targets were Japanese Zero fighter planes,. Yes, we were brave and strong. We were 10 years old.
My cousin Mike came home after World War Two yellowed and shaken by malaria. He had a thousand mile stare and a tendency to hit the dirt when he heard a loud noise He had been an island hopping Marine in the Pacific.
We wondered about the glamour of war then.
There is a monument to Birchwood’s veterans next to the town hall. Two Sopers served in World War One. Their children were just beyond draft age for World War Two but-225 men from the Birchwood area served in World War Two– a tremendous chunk out of the young adult resource of a rural county.
Eight didn’t return.
There once was a Quonset hut movie theater in town. We watched Charlie Starrett and Ken Maynard. But a big storm in the 40s blew the roof off and dumped it in the middle of the street approximately opposite where a little girl hit me in the back of the head with a brick. I had said something to irritate her and turned my back to her. That was a mistake. She caught me square with a brick from at least 30 feet away. I saw stars and bled copiously. Another time I fell while running and ran the stob of a weed down my throat. I remember the hurts as well as the pleasures.
It’s a miracle any kid ever grows up. One Fourth of July, my cousin Pat threw a firecracker that didn’t explode. Being silly, he picked it up and put it in his mouth like a cigarette. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m smoking!” In an instant, he was! The thing exploded, burning his mouth and face. It made my ears ring for two days.
Many years ago, out-of-town investors restored the old Tagalong golf course, just south of Birchwood. It had been built by a millionaire in the 1920s, part of a lovely estate carved out of the woods. Now it is a country club for fly in tourists but for one summer, it was my private course. Back then it had gone to pasture. No one cared if I came out and hacked my way around the course. I played through worried knots of dairy cattle. I fumed at my wild hooks and slices, and the cows would moo apprehensively.
Once, I teed off right into a tree no more than 30 feet away, and the ball rebounded past my ear with the whiz of a rifle bullet. It made me think about my career in golf. I soon quit when I realized I could throw a club farther than I could hit the ball.
There is a saying that you can’t go home again, but I thought maybe you could. I went back to Birchwood one time. The Birch Lake Inn guarded the north end of Main Street–it since has burned to the ground. The Inn was a few yards from the northern states power company dam which created the lake. It was an old inn before it burned down.
I walked to the dam and looked at the roaring froth 30 feet down and shuddered. They said my cousin Bob went over the dam once but I never asked him because it’s deliciously scary enough to think it might’ve happened. It was starting to get late in the evening, and I was hungry. I stopped at the Inn and ordered a superb walleye dinner for only $7.50. Try to match that in Minneapolis or Madison. It will never happen again. When I finished my walleye, I walked outside and headed south along Main Street
Some towns measure their success by how progressive they are, how many new industries they attract, how much they grow, how modern they become. I measured Birchwood by how tenaciously it sticks in my memories. There, in my memories, it is a town of sunlight in summer. And it is not reality. I walked down Main Street, looking in vain for the town I knew and the kids of long ago who played tag in the summer evenings and the town that smelled of the lake and of hot road tar and fish slime.
Little of what I knew remains. The bank, the hardware store and the bar have different names couple of other buildings still stand, but almost everything else is new. The old Soo line tracks are gone. Now the rail bed throbs to the whine of snowmobiles in wintertime. Another part of it became a highway that now speeds traffic right through the middle of Birchwood.
The Bruenig’s lager brewery in nearby Rice Lake is long closed. The icehouse is gone. We crouched there on hot days top thousands of pounds of ice cut from the lake in the winter to serve the town’s ice boxes in the summer. We dug through the insulating sawdust from the veneer mill to find chunks of ice to suck, and we sat in the door and listen to the dry stridulation of insects.
My aunt Pill’s angular house, where I had awakened to see the roof of the movie theater sitting smack in the middle of Main Street became decrepit and doomed for removal. Hud’s Bar, where my uncles dispensed beer and fishing advice, is now the Bluegill Bar. The bait shop across the street is now somebody’s office. The spidery bridge above the Narrows between Birch Lake and Lake Chetek has joined the town dock in history. How can Birchwood still be my hometown when so little of what it was to me is still there today?
My hometown is in my mind. Most of the reality of it lies in the Methodist churchyard or in old photos gone sepia with age that tell a different story than the one told today. As I reached the end of the street, feeling depressed, a couple of boys of about 10 raced by, intent on some childhood adventure. Maybe they were going to the store for a double-dip ice cream cone or to dig some worms for bait. Maybe they were just yelling because kids yell when their sap rises. I looked at them and realized that Birchwood today is not my hometown—it is theirs.
They’ll go home again someday, too, and discover the home is where the heart is, that scrapbooks and memories are the reality of the hometown, not what not what it has become.

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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance

Remember how your second grade teacher wagged her finger at you just before she sent you to stand in the corner for dipping little Janie Sue’s pigtails in the ink well? Ink well? What’s that? Okay, maybe you erased Janie Sue’s computer program, but you get the picture.
The warning signal, then the punishment. That’s what the skunk in the trail was giving me—the wagging finger—when its bushy tail elevated and shook side to side. I got the picture. Miss Pallette never did stamp her feet and she smelled like musty lavender but I knew when to back off in second grade and I knew when to back off on my trail, on my property.
In a dispute over property rights the skunk always wins.
Just ask my bird dog. Once I was quail hunting in 20 degree weather. I heard the dog yelp on the other side of a hill. He scooted back, dragging behind him a mephitic cloud that nearly knocked me over. Apparently he had a social encounter with a skunk during which the skunk did all the talking.
We were 40 miles from home and I was driving the family car. I risked hypothermia for both me and the dog by breaking ice in a nearby pond to give the dog a bath. I then coated him with mud and loaded him in the car, wrapped in my coat. We drove home with all the windows down. It was, in the terms of outdoor writers who usually are speaking of triumphant days afield, “a memorable hunt.”
The erring dog is almost endemic among skunk stories. If you own a dog in skunk country long enough, chances are very good that you will be faced with a defusing situation (either that or hope to find a passing dog buyer with a stone nose). Some dogs never make the connection between foul and burning stink and the little animal that looks so chase-able.
The remedies are several and mostly ineffective. Bathing the dog in tomato juice is supposed to be a never-fail, but it does not work. Several of us were renting a suite in a motel during a grouse hunt when one of the hunters dragged his Lab through the two rooms, followed by the most awful stench imaginable. “She rolled in a dead skunk,” he announced grimly, heading for the bathroom. He had two quart-cans of tomato juice tucked under his arm and the expression of someone heading for the gallows.
He and the dog engaged in odorific wrestling for a long time and when they emerged they wore a contrail of mixed scents—something like a Bloody Mary from Hell.
By a vote of three to one (the dog dissenting), we banished the crestfallen canine to a frosty portable kennel in the owner’s pickup. She began to howl lonesomely about 1 a.m. Shortly after, doors banged downstairs in the motel and large, aggressive long-haul truckers demanded to know whose condemned dog that was.
We remained very quiet, although the dog didn’t. No matter how irritating the dog’s noise was none of the surly truckers wanted to get close enough to administer justice.
In a 1995 Popular Science magazine article, chemist Paul Krebaum wrote that this recipe would eliminate skunk stink: One quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, one quarter cup of baking soda, and one teaspoon of liquid soap. Bathe the dog in this solution and rinse. He also said that there is no way to store the solution. “If you put the ingredients in a bottle, the whole thing would explode.”
There are ripple effects from some skunk encounters. It’s not, as the old saying goes, “over till it’s over.” Rufus was a large collie, the family pet when our children were wee. We all enjoyed canoe trips, although Rufus never quite grasped the concept of balance and much preferred to stand where the ground under him didn’t rock back and forth.
I was awakened in the pit of a moonless night, the river burbling past a few feet from our tent on a gravel bar, by the most awful, overwhelming stench this side of a road-killed rhinoceros in mid-July. It was so noisome that I didn’t identify it as skunk. I rose from my snug bed and went outside to investigate. Rufus followed me around the gravel bar peering here and there with me, ever helpful in the Lassie tradition.
And then it sank into my sleep and stink-addled brain. Rufus was the bearer of some really bad tidings. “Oh, Rufus!” I exclaimed. “How could you?” He hung his head in shame. Rufus found, the next day, what it was like to swim the English Channel—about 10 miles of dog paddling which somewhat defused him.
If you’re within 15 feet of an angry skunk, you are in peril. The yellow, oily musk is expelled from glands on either side of the skunk’s upraised tail. For the chemically-inclined, the musk is a combination of methyl and butyl thiols—the word “methane” appears in the description and methane is the stuff of really bad odors.
Skunks are sight shooters and the theory is that if you can live trap one (not leg-hold; they spray instantly when the trap closes) and throw a cover over the cage, the skunk, not able to pick its target, will lock and load but not fire.
If you’re moving a skunk to new territory, make it at least five miles away or your odiferous visitor might return. On the other hand, you can try to co-exist. I know a fellow who had a skunk take up residence underneath his duck blind. All was well until the first shot of the season. The skunk took the second shot.
The late Pulitzer Prize cartoonist Bill Mauldin talked about an episode from his childhood in his memoir A Sort of a Saga which involved skunks or, more specifically, their major weapon. He and his brother Sid bartered a friend for a bottle of skunk musk that the friend had collected from animals he’d trapped.
They had heard that skunk musk was used in perfume manufacture and so they were going to sell it, money being short in the Depression. Skunk musk actually is used as a fixative in perfume—with the bad smell removed but with the ability to permeate and cling remaining.
But both Sears and Montgomery Ward passed on this aromatic prize and instead the Mauldin boys decided to use their awesome elixir to get even with a loud-voiced, bridge-playing friend of the family who had kept them awake with his bellowing.
They poured the musk on the exhaust manifold of the man’s car and the porous metal soaked it up like a sponge. Every time the car heated up the smell rose in an awful fog. “Far into the following cold winter that car could be seen running around with all its windows open, the Voice inside wearing a heavy coat and wrinkling his nose,” Mauldin wrote.
Often the automobile suffers not from Mauldin boys, but from a skunk’s inability to distinguish between predators it can handle and those it can’t. Skunk mommas fall in lust earlier in the spring than almost any wildlife except great horned owls. Come February, skunks begin to cruise for love and it is then that they run afoul (literally) of Detroit’s finest. Some years back Loudon Wainwright sang a lovely ballad titled “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)” which chronicled the fate of many an adventurous skunk. .
“He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right….” Wainwright sang about a skunk that lost a battle with a station wagon, but it wouldn’t have mattered–after all, the woods puss has no fear of anything, including a monster with eight snorting cylinders.
Assuming a pair of skunks of the opposite sex manages to evade highway peril and mate, they will cooperate in producing a litter of from two to as many as 16 kits with three to 10 as the average. The babies are blind and hairless at birth, born in a burrow.
The eyes don’t open until the kits are from three weeks to 35 days. They’ll nurse in the burrow for as long as seven weeks before they venture into the world outside.
Skunks are members of the Mephitidae family which comprises 11 species worldwide, including nine in the United States. Most common are the striped and spotted skunks, but all skunks are striped at birth. Western spotted skunks are a Wyoming resident
Taxonomists still are arguing over whether skunks belong to the Mustilidae family, which includes otters, weasels, badgers, and martens, but current thinking is that they don’t.
The name probably is a corruption of an Algonquin Indian word, dating to the first settlements in the late 1500s. Citizens of the Windy City may be thrilled to know that Chicago is derived from an Indian word “shee-gawk” which means “Skunk land.”
And the origin of the common phrase, “drunk as a skunk” is debatable. One etymologist argues that it comes from “stinking drunk” which logically would lead to something that really stinks. Another word hawk believes the name comes from the waddling gait of a skunk that resembles someone tottering home from the local pub. But chances are it is merely because “skunk” rhymes with “drunk.”
Skunks often are accused of being prime vectors for rabies, along with bats, and it’s true they are a major carrier of the dread virus—but rabies is over publicized as a threat. Actually, more than half of reported cases are from raccoon bites. Skunks account for about 20 percent. Foxes and bats are responsible for about 10 percent each of reported cases.
Rabies actually is rare—there were only 32 laboratory-confirmed cases in the United States between 1980-96 and at least some of those originated with dog bites that happened in foreign countries.
Still, no one should risk a bite from a wild animal. A friend, during a National Guard camp out in Minnesota, once fell asleep after eating salted peanuts. During the night what probably was a ground squirrel nipped his finger, probably to get at the salt on it. Since there was no way to tell whether he’d been assaulted by a rabid animal or not, he faced the choice of getting the round of anti-rabies shots or hoping for the best.
He opted to throw the dice and avoid the shots…and luckily they came up sevens. But dying from rabies (and it almost always is fatal without quick treatment after the bite) is agonizing.
Our son once picked up a young raccoon and got bitten. Fortunately he kept a grip on the animal which then could be tested for rabies. It proved to be merely angry, not rabid, and he was spared the needle. The raccoon wasn’t as lucky—testing for rabies involves killing the suspect animal.
Since there is no rabies vaccine for skunks, a pet skunk that bites someone is a “sacrificed” skunk—it must be killed to test for rabies. Some do have skunks as pets—a recent television commercial spotlights a skunk wandering through a house and you’re supposed to hold your breath in anticipation of disaster, but then the skunk, a pet, snuggles up to the homeowner and you buy the advertised product.
Obviously any skunk raised as a pet will need its six guns checked at the door. That’s done by surgery when the skunk is young. Skunks are, like most wild animals, headstrong (meaning they do what skunks do, not necessarily what their “owners” demand they do). They are smart and inquisitive and can be a nuisance.
For more information, check Despite the fact that skunks can be pets and that some are raised for that purpose, think long and hard before getting one unless you have understanding neighbors, locally permissive ordinances and a personal talent for tolerance.
Wild skunks for sure are best left alone—after all, anyone who deliberately taunts a skunk in the wild must be as drunk as one….

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  • Blog
  • April 2nd, 2017



By Joel M. Vance

Lovers say it to their significant others, grandmas say it to their grandchildren, even gushy types say it to their dogs (often to the consternation of the dogs).
“Gimme a hug!” It’s the universal expression of affection. Or is it? After all when a Mafia don gives you a hug and a kiss the next step is off a dock with your loafers stuck in concrete.
And Judas famously kissed and probably hugged Jesus as an act of betrayal. It’s a wonder kissing and hugging survived in Christianity, although without it as a prelude to more intimate contact, there possibly wouldn’t be any Christians today.
It’s safer to shake hands, a custom designed to indicate no weapon in the shaking hand, than it is to hug where the hands are behind the back of the hugee, possibly armed with a knife. When Brutus gave Julius Caesar a hug the next step was a knife in the back.
Et tu, Brutus? Actually, Brutus was just part of a mob that iced Julie—probably didn’t hug him. But he could have….
The hug has become as common as a handshake in today’s society. It was not always so. Except among certain ethnic groups where affection is a freestyle event, most white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of today’s oldest living generation grew up in a non-hug environment. It was okay to hug babies and very small children, but once a child got to the age where it took private baths, hugging was out. You might get an embarrassed pat on the back, but that was about it.
I know, since I am of that generation. Perhaps my folks did hug me, but if they did I don’t remember it. It took me many years to get over that childhood reticence, but now I am an enthusiastic hugger and so is virtually every one I know. Once in a while I hug an elderly person and feel him or her stiffen slightly and then I recognize a fellow introvert raised in a hugless home.
Close dancing, what has been called “belt buckle polishing,” is nothing more than a ritualized form of hugging. While frottage, the rubbing of one’s clothed body against that of someone of the opposite sex, has been outlawed in some places, punishable by arrest and imprisonment, dancing is sanctioned frottage unless you happen to be a hardshell Baptist.
But there is no proscription among Baptists against an old auntie with overwhelming lavender cologne hugging a mortified eight-year-old niece or nephew, creating a lifelong fear of the hug. If hugless parents create an inhibited adult, gross, reeking aunties are worse. With a combination of the two you’re looking at an adult who will have more phobias than Norman Bates.
Fortunately close encounters with young people of the same age, eddying in a swirl of pheromones, can help to erase those awful memories. High school hugging loosens inhibitions (hugging which, in my long-ago, often occurred in the dark in automobiles that never heard of power accessories and whose radios tinnily played “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” Later on fatherhood forever banished any lingering mulligrubs about hugging—you can’t have babies and not hug them.
Yet even in today’s huggy society there are limits. The New York Times reported that hugging has become the young person’s “favorite social greeting” in the United States apparently replacing the high five. Predictably, elders have decided that hugging, like rock and roll, is detrimental to the morals of the nation’s youth and some high schools where hugging has become endemic, have decreed either a total hugging ban or a three-second rule.
Presumably all teachers in those latter schools are equipped with stop watches and whistles. Three seconds is unreasonable—hardly enough time to establish a grip and give the obligatory pat on the back. It’s akin to air kisses or clapping with one hand.
However, a three-second hug is better than the Draconian policy that once was in place at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. There a hug was punishable as a sexual assault if the hugger didn’t get “continuing and active” assent to the hug. If you jumped up to give your wife of 50 years a hug, she’d better be shouting, “Yes, oh yes, my prince! Hug me now as we have for lo! These many years!” and keep shouting it during the duration of the hug or you risked being dragged kicking and screaming to the stocks, perhaps branded on the forehead with a huge scarlet “H” for “Hugger.”
Fortunately, the authorities at the college came to what little sense remained and revised the policy.
There actually is a hugging site on the internet (called, no surprise, The Hug Site: It lists “positions” for hugging in different situations, a sort of Kama Sutra of the embrace. Yes, there are hugging positions. I once hugged a side-hugger, a woman who was so shy that she turned sideways and essentially reached backward to hug. It was an unnerving experience for both of us., which supposedly has the definitive answer to anything you ask, says there are different ways to hug and much depends on the preferred intimacy. “Greet your husband or your longterm boyfriend with a full body hug,” says a respondent on, not adding that it’s smart not to do that each in the presence of the other.
The side-hugger I ran into (sorry) fell under the category of this: “Greet your grandfather or your Aunt Mabel or your friend from school whom you haven’t seen for a while with what’s called a “side-saddle hug.” Maybe my side-hugger mistook me for her grandfather or some old school friend. I’d hate to think she thought of me as Aunt Mabel.
Virtually all huggers except those who have progressed to more explicit intimacy, instinctively arch their pelvises backward at the moment of hug, avoiding full frontal contact. Why this happens would be fruit for a doctoral study in psychology. And the research could be more fun than anything since the Kinsey Report.
When the greeting hug gravitates to something more intimate it becomes cuddling, that in-front-of-the-cozy-fire posture favored by lovers since fire was discovered. Spooning is a variation, often practiced by old married couples in bed and asleep. It involves one, usually the man, “spooning” himself against the backside of the other, both facing the same direction. On a bitter winter night it is the only conceivable hug position and beats a hot brick wrapped in a towel all to hell.
Our forefathers routinely slept two to a bed. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin once shared a bed and argued about whether the window should be open or shut. There is no mention of spooning, however.
Once a Missouri fisheries biologist did a survey of recreation on the Missouri River and included “spooning” as a minor activity, ranking well below trotline fishing. He endured much kidding from his fellow biologists and possibly did not know the literal description of spooning because the picture of a couple locked in a spoon on the slimy bank of the Big Muddy is less than romantic.
Perhaps the ultimate hug is in the sadly now-discarded practice of bundling. Frontier/pioneer couples would be “bundled” together in a hug, sometimes within a cocoon of blankets. It was like a straitjacket, only considerably more fun. Possibly the idea was that if the couple could endure such close quarters for an extended period of time they probably were compatible. Sometimes there was a board between the two which would seem to turn the hug into more of a lumberjacking event than a courtship.
The practice apparently came from the Old Country with the Puritans, but the Pennsylvania Dutch perfected it. The theory was that the couple would remain chaste though bundled together, usually with the girl’s parents sleeping close by, each with one eye open. Somehow though pregnancies resulted and it makes you wonder if the bundling board was full of knotholes.
Considering that every human activity, no matter how obscure or esoteric, has generated a world record, it’s no surprise that hugs have too. There is a Guinness World Record for the most hugs in 24 hours and also for the longest continuous hug (24 hours, one second).
The self-proclaimed hug champion, the Michael Jordan of huggers, is Jeff Ondash from Ohio who calls himself Teddy McHuggin. He set the most hugs record in Las Vegas (where else?) with 7,777 hugs in 24 hours. He also logged a world record 1,205 hugs in one hour. That’s 28 hugs per minute, averaging not quite three seconds per hug—obviously Teddy has been training with the high school teachers.
The marathon hug record, though, raises a question: shouldn’t it be jointly held? There is a hugger and a huggee, but they both spend the same amount of time entangled. It is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma and over all not very interesting.
It seems oxymoronic to celebrate the hug, but there is an official National Hug Day, Jan. 21. It dates to 1986 when enterprising Michiganders, from the town of Caro, came up with the idea. That being the pit of winter in a northern state when boredom, cabin fever and Seasonal Affective Disorder are rampant, the idea of a hug celebration sounds like a really good idea. For all the intimate details see
The folks in Caro are so enamored of their unusual day that they have trademarked it, like Coca Cola and request that all media mentions include the “TM” after the name (see above where I didn’t).
“Always ask first….” is mentioned and a good idea. For example, grabbing an NFL interior lineman in a hug is a good way to get the snot knocked out of you.
Hugging has been proven to have health benefits. One study has shown that hugs increase levels of oxytocin, and reduce blood pressure. And speaking of health, rather than spending big bucks as I did yesterday for a little bottle of pills, and rather than going to the doctor, just go to the comic strips. “For Better or Worse” had daddy saying, “I don’t know if I’m bored, tired or depressed,” and his daughter saying, “I wrote you a prescription, Take two hugs and call me in the morning.” Daddy, of course, immediately felt wonderful. If this revolutionary medical advice gets out, the pharmaceutical industry is screwed—-but we will all feel better in the morning.

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