Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • April 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I was rummaging around in my computer the other day, a place as cluttered as an old maid’s attic, when I ran across a partial short story that I wrote quite a few years ago. Apparently, I ran out of inspiration short of a conclusion and there I left it to gather pixel dust.

So, I finished it and you’ll find it below. It’s based on an actual incident which occurred when I was riding my bicycle home from work one day, grimly peddling up a too steep hill wishing that Jefferson City were as flat as Western Kansas. The story is fiction— a might have been. Somewhere out there is a beautiful blonde, now at least in her late middle age, possibly still the owner of a spectacular classic blue Mercedes convertible.

I figure the way the short fiction market is these days (and has been for a long time) no one would buy this story anyway so here it is for your entertainment and then it goes back into the electronic file cabinet of what once was.


I was pulling hard up Sugg’s hill on my Trek bicycle, in granny low gear, wishing I had a couple more below granny, listening to “The Lady in the Blue Mercedes” from the Greatest Hits of Johnny Duncan.

Probably not smart to plug my ears with headphones, but I’m a great believer in fate, always have been. If it’s my time to be centered by a semi, driven by the automotive counterpart of Charles Manson, so be it.

At least I’ll go out listening to a great country song…and think of the wonderful shape I’ll be in from riding the bicycle to and from work. Still–my calves throbbed and threatened to cramp and I glanced up from my crouched-over-the-handlebars posture to see how close I was to the top of the hill and there she was, just passing me. I was high enough to see into the front seat of the car and everything registered like a photograph taken by a high-speed camera.

The lady in the blue Mercedes convertible. It was robin’s egg blue and she was as blonde as a golden sunset. She wore a white dress and her hair streamed in the breeze of her passing. I only caught a glimpse of her profile, but it was classic, a small, straight nose, flawless skin. I would have bet her eyes were blue, slightly darker than the elegant old Mercedes convertible.

I’m no expert on cars, being partial to rusty pickups and bicycles, but this one was vintage, maybe even a classic from the 1950s. It bespoke its classic heritage, making the pretenders from other manufacturers look tacky by comparison. As did the lady at the wheel. So stunned was I by this manifestation of the music I was hearing that I actually cried out and nearly ran into the curb.
It was an instant frozen in time, an eyeblink of eternity, but as meaningful as a lifetime of passion. “Wait!” I shouted…but the Mercedes already was turning the corner at the top of the hill and the blonde head did not turn toward me. And then she was gone.

Yes, I know it was like the scene from the movie “American Graffiti” where Curt sees the girl in the white Thunderbird who mouths “I love you” to him. Truth is stranger than fiction, except that she didn’t mime “I love you” to me. She didn’t even look at me– just passed like a lightning strike and was gone, leaving not even a whiff of ozone.

I pulled to the curb and leaned on the handlebars, as stunned as if I had been clipped by that semi. Ever the believer in fate, whether semis or romance, I knew this was not accidental. Fate had sent me a vision and it now was up to me to realize it.

Somewhere was the girl for me, the Grail of Girls–if only I could find her. It shouldn’t be difficult. The town isn’t that big. I’d track her down, lay siege to her affections, and we would ride off to some Nirvana of eternal love…in a vintage blue Mercedes convertible.

I looked for her every time I left the house for weeks. I would travel different streets to work and home in the hope that I would see the blue Mercedes and the lovely blonde within. On weekends I rode around town, aimlessly, checking driveways, finding streets I’d never been on. But nowhere was a blue Mercedes and, most important, the lovely woman within.

I listened to the Johnny Duncan song until it started to sound stupid. That was a song–the girl in the car was reality, or at least I thought she was. Maybe I had been suffering from hypoxia or a fleeting aneurism and only thought I had seen a beautiful girl in a blue Mercedes.

I decided to play detective, something that I quickly found I’m not suited for (I’m a junior partner in a law firm, specializing in insurance claims–hardly the stuff of noir novels). I visited the local police station with a story that sounded phony when I thought it up and got increasingly more so when I put it to the test.

“Ah, I need a little information, “ I told the desk sergeant, a grizzled veteran with a boozer’s nose and cop eyes. Suddenly I realized how stupid I was being. “I think I left a scratch on a person’s car,” I mumbled. “And if I could find out who owns it, I could make restitution.”

“You vandalized somebody’s car?” the cop asked, scowling. I could feel cold sweat puddling under my armpits.

“No!” I exclaimed. “It was an accident. On my bicycle. I didn’t realize until I got home that I had paint on the handlebar. Parked car. You know….” I trailed off, looking as guilty as a member of the Manson Gang.

“License number?” he asked.

“I have to go look at my car,” I said.

“Not yours. The one you damaged.”

“Oh, I didn’t get it. Don’t know. But it’s an old blue Mercedes convertible. Probably the only one in town. Probably easy to find. Probably. Can you tell me who owns it?”

He looked at me with deep suspicion, as if he knew I were toying with him and with the majesty of the law. “No,” he said. “I can’t, even if I knew. We’ll let you know if we run across it.”

And I knew that he would not run across it, that he would forget about me as soon as I walked out the door, except maybe to tell his cop buddies what massive dumbasses he has to put up with.
I was glad to escape without charges being filed on a non-existent vandalism case although a good one could have been made against me for filing a false police report. This would not have been good for my law career. I realized that I was bordering on nuts.

My friend Paul is a practicing psychiatrist and I unloaded on him over a beer. “My office hours are posted on the door,” he said, without pity. “But here’s a quickie diagnosis. Have you ever heard the word ‘obsession’?”

“If I could just find her,” I said. “Maybe she’s as ugly as 40 miles of snot, face on, but I have to know.”

“That’s 40 miles of bad road,” Paul said. “And we psychiatrists have a phrase to describe your behavior. It’s called ‘going crazy.’”

“Yeah, whatever,” I muttered.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “You’ll appear in my next psychiatric conference presentation under the title, ‘Crazy Friends I Have Refused to Treat.’”

\ “Think of it as a quest,” I said.

“Yeah, whatever,” he muttered.

And then I found her, at an estate auction. It had advertised books among the items for auction and I’m a bookaholic. I parked a block away–it was a well-attended sale–and walked toward the old house. The place was bordering on a true estate, so I figured perhaps the late owner had some collectible books. Most sales feature the very best in Reader’s Digest, Book-of-the-Month and Grosset & Dunlap reprints of Zane Grey westerns but every so often someone dies who actually had read or at least acquired valuable books.

Once again I was head-down, concentrating on not stepping on any sidewalk cracks. It had been drilled into me as a little kid: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” My mother had been dead for many years, but why tempt fate?

And then I stopped short, inhaling a quick, startled breath. There it was, unmistakably, the blue Mercedes. I approached it as if approaching a lovely but wild horse that might bolt and never be seen again. I ran my hand over the fender, along the side and the door frame where her hand must have rested. It felt warm as if she were part of the car, but maybe it was from the spring sunshine.

Still–the old car seemed to breath as if infused by the life force of the lovely blonde who owned it. This was not a car; it was a familiar, a good witch’s talisman.

I looked quickly around to see if anyone was watching, then put my hand on the driver’s seat, leaning into the car and inhaling the sweet scent of old leather and young girl. The seat felt warm, but maybe it was from the sun.

She must be inside the big house where I could hear the bray of the auctioneer as he disposed of someone’s life for pennies on the dollar. I took a deep breath and went up the steps and into the house, following the bellow of the auctioneer’s amplified spiel.

There was the usual assortment of farmers in overalls and implement dealer caps, old people accumulating items for their own estate sale, young marrieds hoping for a bargain to equip a starter home and…just glimpsed through the crowd, a blonde as bright as a spring sunrise.

The auctioneer was deep into selling a Mixmaster, circa 1947, that looked as if it had been used to mix plaster. He sweated and mopped at his brow. “Do I hear five? Let me hear five!” he implored, but he heard massive silence. “Who’s got three? Let me hear two?” Someone scratched his nose and the spotter perked up, then subsided.

“Mark it to me,” said the auctioneer and moved to the next item. The blonde (or, as I now thought of her The Blonde) was across the crowded room and I immediately heard in my mind Ezio Pinza singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” (“…across a crowded room”) My mouth was dry; my breath shallow and quick. My palms sweated and it wasn’t the heat in the room; it was the heat in my loins.

I slithered through the crowd, excusing myself as I edged between people until I was directly behind the blonde. She wore a crisp khaki blouse and matching shorts. Her legs were flawless, long, slender but not model skinny. Moving up, I gazed upon a world class back end, a taut Valentine that rounded to a slim waist, then ascended to square shoulders, partially covered by that golden cascade of hair. One pert ear peeked through the shimmering locks and I nearly drooled with the need to nibble on it, like a sexual hors d’oeuvre.

I tried to speak and it came out as a raven’s croak. It’s a wonder I didn’t squawk, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” like Poe’s bird.

She turned as it was as if someone had turned on a million watt searchlight. There have been times when I have lusted after a receding shape only to have this rear vision turn and show me the face of something that should be on Mt. Rushmore.

This was not one of those times. She was as lovely as puppies at play, as prairie wildflowers swaying in a spring breeze. I cleared my throat of Poe, sounding like a load of gravel dropped down a metal chute, and said, “Some sale, eh?” As suave as facial blemishes.

She smiled and dimples appeared where dimples are supposed to. Her eyes were what they always call “cornflower blue,” although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cornflower to know. But they were blue, so blue I could have gone skinny-dipping in them forever.

“Yes,” she said, her voice rippling like a mountain stream over lovely rounded rocks. She looked at me with what I hoped was frank appraisal and I was glad I had shaved and put on underarm deodorant (because my pits were gushing flop sweat).

“Ah, I couldn’t help but notice your car, the Mercedes,” I said. “What a beautiful car!” She brightened even more, if that was possible, and said, “It’s a 1958 220SE. Kind of a classic so they tell me.”

“Where did you ever find a beauty like that?” I asked.

“A friend bought it for me,” she said and my heart sank because the kind of friends that buy Mercedes for beautiful women are the kind of friends that also dangle those same beautiful women like charms on a massive bracelet that is inscribed: “My Conquests.”

Those friends are male, rich, handsome, suave, and they leave me standing by the roadside, squinting into the dust cloud they and the beautiful girl leave behind as they speed off in the Mercedes.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked, hoping she would reply, “Yes–you, all my life!”

“Oh…something nice for a friend,” she said. Probably the friend who gave her the car. I’d like to give him a gift, too–a sputtering hand grenade. “Here, asshole.” She had a fleeting expression of hurt and I intuited that there was more than casual giving involved.

“Special friend?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She paused. “Very special.” She hesitated, looked at me as if judging whether to add anything and I let my face sag in what I hoped was sympathetic, but possibly looked more like I’d suffered a minor brain fart.

She sighed. “It’s sort of a farewell gift, I guess.”

“Your friend is leaving?” I’m as quick on the uptake as the vintage Laurel and Hardy.
“No. We’re sort of…splitting up,” she said. “I guess you don’t want to hear about things like this….”

“Au contraire!” I exclaimed, dredging up an artifact from my college French. In fact it is exactly what I wanted to hear–that she was splitting from what I assumed was her rich asshole squeeze (“Never mind the hand grenade, jerko! You’re history.”) and was, therefore, free, marginally over 21 and certainly over the age of consent, and stunningly lovely. “I don’t mean to pry but…this is someone you care…cared about?”

She nodded and pressed her full lips together, lips that I yearned to treat like a ripe mango. She hunched her shoulders and looked so sad that I felt a surge of emotion unlike anything since Lassie saved Timmy and licked his ear. I wanted to lick her ear and whine.

I put a hand on her arm, meant to be reassuring and empathetic, not a bum’s rough paw. She took it as such and smiled at me and I felt I had taken a giant leap for Mankind, or at least this man.

Incongruously the words to “My Blue Heaven” leaped into my mind. The old song implied an eerie prophesy: “Just Molly and me/and baby makes three.” The blue heaven, of course, was the car (our car as I quickly came to think of it) and the mention of a baby suggested an intimacy that took my breath away. “Your name isn’t Molly, by any chance, is it?”

She frowned. “No–it’s Alice. Why do you ask?” I shrugged, thinking now of “Alice Blue Gown,” although I couldn’t remember the words.

“No reason,” I said. “You just look like a Molly.” I almost said that once I had a dog named Molly who was wonderfully cute, but managed to bite my lip and hold it back. She possibly would not have seen that as a compliment.

She looked around the room shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t think there is anything here for me.” And she turned and headed for the door. I wanted to scream after her “I’m here for you! Forever and always! Forget what’s his name and you and I will ride into the sunset in your lovely blue Mercedes convertible!”

Instead, I just stood there like the world’s thickest dolt, my throat locked as if I had swallowed a golf ball, and watched her walk out of the door and out of my life forever.

Oh, sure I looked for her and for the blue convertible for weeks after that, peddling glumly through the empty streets, going to yard sales, often allowing her memory to glide through my daydreams like a shaft of sunlight. But gradually, as time tends to heal all wounds (or wounds all heels) she faded from my memory and a girl came along who became my everything, including my wife. We made it past first a decade then another decade then a 25 year anniversary and she still is my reality, not a long faded dream.

But if we make it to a diamond anniversary, I will never totally forget the blonde vision in the blue Mercedes. As dear as my wife is to me and always will be, my wife, the girl of my reality, was driving a beat up 10-year-old Oldsmobile with dents and rust when we met.

Real life rarely involves visions in blue Mercedes convertibles and more often is composed of dents and rust.

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  • Blog
  • April 21st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There are 20 of them, scattered across the Great Plains, children of the worst natural disaster in American history, nevermind Katrina. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Dirty Thirties, devastated 100 million acres in states from Texas to the Dakotas and killed countless people from dust pneumonia and just general debilitation and woe.

The 20 National Grasslands are because the country awoke to the fact that grasslands never were meant for plowing and cropping. The 600,000-acre Comanche in Colorado, 108,175-acre Cimarron in Kansas and the 230,000 Rita-Blanca in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all are Dust Bowl children, all born in the heart of the near-decade-long misery.

There never has been a natural disaster as prolonged and as widespread as the Dust Bowl but as usual American memories are short-term and many of the lessons we learned the hard way haven’t stuck. Still some legacy remains from that grim time.

Today the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which until a few years ago was the Soil Conservation Service, owes its origin to the Dust Bowl. It began as a federal agency to work with landowners to stop the dusters, those almost daily blizzards of dirt that ruined crops, killed livestock and sickened people during the 1930s.

The SCS should have begun in the 1920s or even before–when the first plow bit the prairie, but it’s the American way to react to disaster, not to act to forestall it. A few farsighted folks had realized that the virgin prairie was not meant for cropping, that inevitably the wet years of the 1920s would give way to drought and that the ever-present prairie wind then would whisk away unprotected topsoil. But they were voices lost in that prairie wind, swept away on a misguided tide of optimism.

Everybody was going to get rich on wheat and other crops. Folk legend maintained that rain followed the plow. Plow up your ground and somehow that disturbance would incite moisture. People believe any nonsense if you tell them it will make them money.

There was some federal planning for what to do to protect the Great Plains as early as 1929 but it wasn’t until 1934 and 1935 that there actually was any action and by then it was too late—the prairie topsoil was airborne and the land was ruined.

Cautionary voices had been shouted down by exploiters, including honest, hard-working farmers who descended on the Plains states like a horde of locusts (which also would devastate the land late in the Dust Bowl days), intent on making a fortune with wheat and corn.

It worked…for a while. And then came the Dirty Thirties. The Dust Bowl states never have fully recovered. Today more than 80 percent of the farmers who once staked claims and their dreams in the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the rest of the Plains have given it up. The ones that remain are banking on water from deep wells, tapping into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer, a once-huge subterranean lake that lies beneath most of the Plains states—an estimated 174,000 square miles of hidden lake.

This massive puddle is estimated originally to have been the size of Lake Huron, making it the true sixth Great Lake. It’s from long-ago drainage from the Rocky Mountains.

Irrigation farmers are sucking the Ogallala dry at the rate of 1.1 million acre feet a day! As vast as the aquifer is, it can’t forever withstand that rate of depletion. The Ogallala has a shelf life estimated from 25 to 250 years depending on location. Even if dryland irrigation were stopped right now it would take 100 years for the aquifer to recharge…assuming it could (in western Kansas, for example, more than 90 percent of rainfall evaporates rather than seeping into the ground, meaning virtually none would help to recharge the Ogallala)

Young landowners on the dry end of that statistic can expect to see their water source evaporate in their lifetime. The rest can pass the problem on to their kids and grandkids. Planners today are concentrating on extending the life of the aquifer—not of restoring it. It’s quickly apparent, reading through existing studies, that there’s far more hydrologists don’t know about the Ogallala than what they do—but they do agree that the aquifer is threatened and what happens down there dramatically will affect what happens up here.

We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. Timothy Egan’s best-selling book The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin 2006) won the National Book Award for non-fiction and should be required reading for every dry land farmer in the Great Plains. It illustrates modern economics in a paragraph: “….cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart.”

How’s that make you feel, Wal-Mart shoppers?

Egan’s book is not a diatribe against disastrous land and water use in the Plains. It is a haunting report on the worst natural disaster in American history. And the old saw that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it inevitably springs to mind.

It wasn’t until 1960 that various federal purchases from the 1930s and beyond came to be known as the National Grasslands. The Grasslands encompass just over four million acres. Total federal purchases after the Dust Bowl top just over 11 million acres, far short of the proposed 75 million suggested in the immediate wake of the Dust Bowl. The Grasslands do serve as graphic examples of how careful prairie management can restore some of what once existed before the first plow bit the sod.

I’ve hunted on two of the National Grasslands, the Cimarron and the Ft. Pierre in South Dakota. Once you cross the first rolling hill and can’t see the parking lot, you’re struck by awe, akin to being adrift in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. The grass ripples like waves to the horizon and beyond and one feels vulnerably small clutched by nature’s enormous, impersonal fist.

Yet the fence between the federal and private land is a stark contrast between today and yesterday. The grass on the private land is cropped almost to the thin soil, while the federal land, operated under a grazing permit system, is comparatively lush.

Today the Grasslands are part of the National Forest system, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Ironically, part of the original restoration plan was to plant trees to act as windbreaks and hold the soil. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 220 million trees and only a scattering remain, testimony to the fact that the early soil conservationists largely were operating by guess and by God. The Plains never were meant for trees, but at least efforts to restore grass paid off on the federally-owned land.

Corporate America and farm landowners across the country would fight it to the death, but a proposal by some scientists, first floated in 2005, would return much of the Great Plains to the Pleistocene Era of 13,000 years ago—reintroducing animal species that lived 13,000 years ago in the 10 states involved (Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas).

It would take 50 years, the scientists estimate, but we’d have bison which already are established in some areas (an estimated 300,000 in North America)…and such veldt critters as lions and elephants. That’s a fairly nutty and unlikely proposal. More specific to reality is the Buffalo Commons proposal.

Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper wrote in 1987 that dry, sparsely-populated parts of the Great Plains (10 to 20 million acres) should be restored to the historic shortgrass prairie and repopulated with bison through a system of incentive payments to volunteer landowners who would, at the end of the contract, sell out to the Forest Service.

The Poppers had several strikes against them from the get-go. They were from New Jersey which, to a Westerner is like being from Soviet Russia. And they were academics, not hard rock farmers. And they were proposing something that smacked of government interference which always is anathema to Western landowners, even when it’s for their benefit.

Still there is some regional sympathy for the idea. Tourism almost certainly would benefit and the land almost certainly also would. Ideas this revolutionary gain ground slowly. The original proposal would have retired 130,000 square miles—roughly an area the size of Montana but it has been scaled back to what is possible, no matter how remotely.

If the Buffalo Commons ever becomes reality it will take a long time and leaders not only of vision, but of enough charisma to lead the reluctant and the apathetic. President Franklin Roosevelt and the first head of the SCS, Hugh Bennett, were men for their time when the Dirty Thirties threatened to ruin the nation’s farm economy. They fought through apathy and overcame the dreary inertia of the Dust Bowl and brought some measure of restoration to the Great Plains. Nature helped by mellowing its savage dry and hot assault of the Dirty Thirties to more normal weather in the 1940s. World War Two helped by taking a generation of young men off the land, thus letting it rest. Modern land use practices, experimental at the time, helped by proving themselves so that people could see the results.

The federal government helped by stepping in to make the worst acreage of the Dust Bowl public land, without the perceived necessity to beat it to death with crops. Landowners hated it when they had to give up their land heritage to the feds…but they had no choice. It was leave or die.

The Plains have been in population decline ever since, not as dramatically as they were in the Dirty Thirties, but steadily. Even the dramatic growth of cities like Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth hasn’t offset the overall exodus of people from the rural parts of the Plains states

Woody Guthrie, who knew the Dust Bowl intimately because he grew up in the heart of it, Okemah, Oklahoma, recorded an album called “Dust Bowl Ballads.” “It’s a mighty hard road that my poor hands have hoed…” he sang and as an expatriate from the ever-present dusters himself, wryly sang, “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”

The United States bred at an unprecedented rate between 1990 and 2000—we added 32.7 million people, the most ever in a decade. The baby boom right after World War Two produced only 28 million and it is considered the most fecund orgy since the days of hedonistic Rome.

But even as the rest of the country has piled people on people, the roughly 450 Dust Bowl counties mostly have lost population. The exodus from farm to city has mirrored what happened in the Thirties—can’t make it down on the farm, head for the big town.

Then it was economic and natural disaster; now it is economic. The natural disaster part is yet to come. But inevitably the well will run dry and what happens to irrigated wheat and cotton?

In 1937, as the Dust Bowl neared its bitter end, there still were 134 dust storms, most of any year in the 1930s, though none that approached the Black Sunday in April, 1935, when a wall of dirt, estimated at 200 miles wide and 2,000 feet high swept from the Dakotas south to Texas with winds of 60 miles per hour, choking people and livestock in state after state. Many thought it was the end of the world. The day turned as dark as the blackest night and dirt piled in drifts like snow eight or nine feet high. Woody Guthrie sang, “Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go.”

Could there be another Dust Bowl? Don’t count nature out. No one aside from the doomsayers warned that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane. But it was. The unthinkable happened. It could happen again next year or next century or never. The unthinkable always is just over the horizon, like the hurricane that hit New Orleans or the tidal wave that washed over Galveston or the earthquakes that shook San Francisco and earlier the New Madrid fault where John James Audubon’s horse braced its legs and “commenced to groaning” just before the quake began.

With modern farming methods the worst of the Dust Bowl isn’t likely to recur, but when nature shuts the water tap above ground and the aquifer runs dry below ground and there is a hot weather cycle (think global warming) and the wind blows incessantly, as it does even in wet times…the stage is set for another down time on the Great Plains.

Remember the woman on television who posed as Mother Nature and warned, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature!” as she summoned lightning and thunder. It was hokey and was designed to sell faux butter…but it inadvertently was words to the wise.

Nature always rules in the long run and those who ignore that do so at their peril.
Where are the wise when you need them?


By all means read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. It, in turn, has a long list of sources that amplify his history of the Dust Bowl.

. The National Grasslands by Francis Moul (University of Nebraska Press) is a comprehensive look at those prairie gems. Individual Grasslands have web sites with information and maps—Google “national grasslands” for specifics.

For information on the Buffalo Commons proposal, check . A Google query on “Ogallala aquifer will give you hours of background reading.

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  • Blog
  • April 14th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In a recent blog I listed four of the most odious women in the public eye today: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Laura Ingraham, Roseanne Barr and Kellyanne Conway. I was tempted to add Betsy DeVos to the list, but she deserves a spot all her own. The others can be dismissed as individually reprehensible, but Ms. DeVos is not only responsible for herself and her conduct, but also for the future of the nation’s educational system— something that she seems determined to dismantle and destroy.

Her appointment as a cabinet secretary, responsible for education in the United States, was controversial and had to be decided by a tie breaking vote by vice president Mike Pence. Of particular concern was the fact that DeVos has had absolutely no contact with public school education throughout her life. She is a product from grade school through college of private schools and is a strong advocate for offering vouchers so that kids can be shoveled into private institutions, rather than attending public schools. A charter school is not a public school, is not run like one, does not offer the same benefits as public education, and is not subject to the same oversight of school boards, of public input, and of professional educators as are our public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars.

The DeVos family association with education is a checkered one. Her husband has advocated the teaching of creationism in schools, a subject which I thought had been pretty well dismissed by the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was the founder of the fundamentalist Family Research Council which is anti-LGBT, and her mother similarly is an outspoken fundamentalist. The FRC has been termed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It may be a stretch to call FRC a hate group, but it does have a somewhat cloudy history: one founding member hired a male prostitute as a traveling companion and subsequently resigned from the board while Josh Duggar executive director of the group’s nonprofit legislative arm (a lobbyist) resigned after it became public that he had molested five underage girls, including some of his sisters.

None of this has anything directly to do with Betsy DeVos, of course, but it’s only human nature to judge people by the company they keep. We might also consider her brother, Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, USA, a private security company long associated with troublesome allegations over its conduct in Iraq, and more recently his involvement in a clandestine meeting in the Seychelles with a representative of the Russian government, tied to Vladimir Putin.

It is not just public school teachers or people like me, graduates of the public school system, who oppose Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Some 2700 students and alumni of Calvin College from which she graduated and to which her family has given enough money to have two buildings named after them, wrote a letter of protest insisting that Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the cabinet job and should not have it.

She is married to Dick DeVos who once ran for governor of Michigan (he lost). He is the son of the founder of Amway products, and a multimillionaire. One possible reason for him losing his run for governor is that Amway cut 1400 jobs in Michigan and sent them to China.

Education in the United States is in turmoil with teachers in several states walking out to protest both low pay and inadequate working conditions, and students in many high schools are walking out of class to call for stricter gun regulations in the aftermath of far too many school shootings.

Among the most notable teacher walkouts is one in Oklahoma which, at this writing, was in its second week (it ended after nine days). In response to the ardent requests of the striking teachers is a comment by Gary Richardson, a Republican candidate for Oklahoma governor, quoted as saying: “in politics as in life, no one gets everything they want.” Richardson says “Union tactics are less about education and more about pushing a liberal agenda demanding higher taxes and increased government spending”

Read that any way you want, but it appears to me that Oklahoma, which has the second lowest teacher pay in the nation, and where a fifth of the schools in the state are closed one school day a week to save money, has more of a problem with “a conservative agenda” than it does a liberal one—and anyone who cares about public education can only hope that Richardson as in life is one who does not get everything he wants.

Oklahoma, of course, is one of several states where public school teachers are walking out to protest against low pay, poor classroom conditions, and overall lackluster support of public education. West Virginia began the parade of educators quitting the classroom in protest against educational indifference. Since, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have joined the movement. Arizona is teetering on the edge of a similar walkout. Much of the teacher anger has been fueled by two situations— the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

DeVos’s solution to education problem seems to be to get rid of those pesky public schools and replace them with for-profit charter schools, presumably staffed with teachers who adhew to the conservative mindset—which I suspect would include prayer in schools, barring teaching or discussion of evolution, denial of global warming, decrease in emphasis on science, and generally a return to the Dick and Jane mentality of teaching in the 19th century.

DeVos flatly asserts that in her words “public schools are a dead end.” She and her husband would much rather see tax money diverted to private schools. In other words public education would become private education, supported by taxpayers.

Puerto Rico, the US territory, which already has been devastated by a hurricane, has appointed a Philadelphia native as its education secretary (a business consultant) to the consternation and disapproval of the island’s teachers. Julia Keleher is a Betsy DeVos clone who is being paid a quarter of a million dollars a year—roughly 10 times what the average teacher in Puerto Rico makes— and who has closed 179 schools and cut $7 million from an already inadequate budget, and who would like to close another 300 schools and convert them to charter schools. There would be no elected school board, no public meetings to get parent input and no guaranteed school for any student— charter schools would be able to pick and choose the students and disallow any they don’t want.

If there is a living example of what Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration would like to see in public education, Puerto Rico is it. Is this the future of education for our children and their children in the United States of America?

As to Ditsy Betsy’s views on school shootings, refer only to her confirmation hearing where she said that in Wyoming “I would imagine there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.” If there ever has been a more ridiculous and ignorant answer to a confirmation hearing question, I can’t imagine what it would be. She held up black colleges and universities as examples of “pioneers of school choice,” ignoring the fact that those schools began because black students had no choice, being barred from attending white colleges and universities.

And, amid a spate of scandals involving sexual assault on campuses, DeVos said that too many men were falsely accused and set new rules making it more difficult for accusers to prove their accusations. I’ll bet Donald Trump had orgasmic jubilation over that endorsement. DeVos also has said that under her private school system, discrimination by the schools should be left up to the states. You can imagine how that would play, especially in some southern states.

Under the DeVos concept of education schools would become franchise operations, a sort of McDonald’s of education mostly suited to creating a worker bee society to serve the needs of the monied class. Her elitist “let them eat cake” philosophy cuts close to home for me. Our oldest daughter, Carrie, now retired after more than 30 years as a high school English teacher, began her career practice teaching in a Minnesota school on an Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students not to set fires.

This was precisely the kind of underachieving school that Betsy DeVos never has visited and never will. It didn’t need fewer fires; it needed more funding and more dedicated teachers like Carrie. Later on, she spent a number of years teaching “last chance” kids (called sweat hogs in the old television series) in a Minneapolis suburban high school where she was underfunded and overworked. The school system was symptomatic, not of the failure of public education, but of the failure of the public to adequately support that system— precisely the reason that teachers now are beginning to awaken the public to what really is needed by going on strike. Not charter schools, not vouchers, not private schools for the privileged few, but schools open to all and funded adequately so men and women dedicated to teaching will have the means to do so.

Carrie says: “I walked a picket line for six weeks in Chaska in 1983, striking for adequate pay. The district chose to hire substitutes (scabs) from all over the Midwest for ridiculous pay, put them up in hotels, and bus them to the schools, marching them through our picket lines in a morale-destroying display. We did gain some concessions in the contract, but most didn’t recoup their losses. But the fact remains that teachers should be able to join unions to fight for their professional rights and dignity along with adequate pay, resources, and representation.”

This was not a failure of public education—it was a failure of the public education system to support the system. Now, Carrie’s youngest son, Martin, and his wife both are teaching in a Colorado elementary school. Their pupils are troubled youngsters, sometimes violent, sometimes seemingly impossible to teach–but both of the young teachers have aimed their entire career training toward giving severely handicapped youngsters a chance at a normal life. No DeVos school would accept kids like the ones Martin and Alex offer love, understanding, and education.

With billionaires dictating education policy and cabinet members throwing money around as if it had been printed just for their benefit, it’s worthwhile to note that spending on education is nearly what it was a decade ago and in more than half the states spending per student is less than it was 10 years ago. The entire profligate administration which seems dedicated to running the country into the ground must quickly be relegated to the dusty, dirty ashpit of history, and their selfish ambitions booted into the trash heap of failed policies.

There’s an election coming up in November, folks, and we all have a choice— bring sanity to government and get teachers off the picket line and back into public classrooms where they belong. It’s a solution to only one of the many problems created by the disastrous Trump regime, but it’s a start.

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  • April 6th, 2018


If you can find a four sided coin, it will have tails on all four faces. If you call heads to win you invariably will lose because all four tails are losers. Think of those four faces as representing possibly the four most odious women in the public eye today. In no particular order (since there is nothing about them that is orderly) they are Roseanne Barr, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Laura Ingraham.

I am reluctant to criticize women because I find women overwhelmingly superior to men in virtually every aspect of life. They are more intelligent, more compassionate, more creative, and more admirable as examples of the human species. As a generality, it is women who teach the young, and women as mothers who guide their children into life. And, generally again, they do a pretty damn good job of it.

It is man, as the self-styled dominant gender, who overwhelmingly creates chaos, death, destruction, and pretty much all the woes that beset the world we’re stuck with. But even among women you run into the occasional one who has the overall charm of a defective septic system. However, that damn snake in the Garden of Eden almost certainly was a male serpent. After 250 years, we still are waiting for the first woman president of the United States. Women still don’t get paid as much as men for doing the same job— only better.

So, while I am reluctant to drop the hammer on any woman, there comes occasionally one who defies the reality and who should have been born a man so she could flourish as an example of incompetence and obnoxiousness

Such a one is Roseanne Barr who has the dubious distinction of having been insufferable not once but twice— the first time with her original television series, the second time with the current reboot. A fawning devotee of Donald J Trump the pretend president of the country, she is the living definition of not just annoying, but downright disgusting.

One time I was riding my bicycle home from work, peacefully peddling along, when a woman in a passing car spit at me. She was holding a baby in her flabby arms. This woman represented the Roseanne Barr school of charm. She epitomized the blowsy spitefulness that is the Barr trademark. Why? I posed no threat either to her or her baby. She just wanted to be nasty for the sake of being nasty. And I was obviously one of those hippie, liberal, commies so despised by the extreme right. I couldn’t see the guy in the car with her but assuming it was her husband and again assuming someone would be stupid enough to marry a woman like that it must have been like living with a bear newly emerging from hibernation plagued by an impacted fecal plug.

If there is any incident that epitomizes the sorry state of the union today it is that Trump took time out from his overwhelmingly busy schedule to tweet praise for Barr’s high ratings on her debut reboot. Yes, Middle East in crisis, China, North Korea, and virtually the entire world seething with Trump created turmoil, our so-called president found it imperative to praise Roseanne Barr for her rating success. It’s good to know Trump has a handle on what really counts in today’s society. Or what counts for him. In Trump world you get high ratings by being outrageous, by saying stupid, hateful things, by being the fomenting leader of a lynch mob. That’s not leadership; it is demagoguery and it was despicable when Hitler did it and it is despicable today, whether it is Donald Trump or Roseanne Barr who does it.

Consider Barr, a the so-called exemplar of working class normality. If she represents the typical hard working blue collar mother, we are doomed. This is a woman that couldn’t even sing the Star-Spangled Banner without screwing it up deliberately grabbing her crotch and spitting. She called Muslims Nazis and once, dressed as Hitler and simulated oven-baking cookies shaped like little people. That’s our laugh a minute Rosie.

Enough of Roseanne Barr. Like Ex-Lax a little goes a long way. Let us turn to Laura Ingraham, star of radio and Fox News. She turned her often noxious media guns on David Hogg, a high school senior and a survivor of the Parkland high school shooting in Florida which left 17 of his classmates dead.

Hogg, incredibly articulate for any age, has been a spokesman for the young people of America in a crusade to get sensible gun laws. Ingraham felt it imperative to mock Hogg because he had been turned down by four colleges (a fact which he admitted without regret) and accuse him of whining about it. Hogg, in response, suggested that people boycott Ingraham’s sponsors and he helpfully listed them. As a result at least 18 of her money sources immediately dried up and one would hope the rest would follow. The ball being back in her court, Abraham announced that she would be going on vacation which somehow seems like a surprised rat scurrying for cover.

Bill O’Reilly who competes with Rush Limbaugh in a lumbering race toward first place for Slimeball of the Year, took a similar quick vacation after it came to light that he had settled harassment allegations from five women for at least $13 million. He was fired and one can only hope that Ingraham follows him quickly out the door into obscurity, although so far Fox News is sticking by their bimbo in residence.

Ingraham arguably is the most intelligent and articulate of the quartet of unlikable ladies and often gets grudging respect, even from the liberal side of the media. Once, having no idea who Laura Ingraham was, I stumbled into her radio show and listened with mounting outrage as she trashed listener after listener for whining about the troubles they had called about for her advice. Mostly, she seemed to mock them for whining, and berated them for not getting over their, what to her, were petty troubles. She got no grudging respect from this liberal— I quickly switched to another station.

When Lebron James, the world’s best basketball player, expressed a political opinion, she told him to “shut up and dribble”. Nothing racist about it of course but then how could a black basketball player possibly know anything about politics or have the right to express an opinion.

Then there is Kellyanne Conway, the wicked witch of the west wing, who isn’t as visible anymore as she once was but who still can be seen lurking in the bushes around the White House from time to time, waiting for her chance to step in and spout something really despicable. Now that Hope Hicks has fled the sinking ship of state, Kellyanne inhabits the role of resident bimbo.

In early March, Conway was accused of two Hatch act violations— the law which prohibits federal employees from endorsing specific political candidates. The candidate whom Conway was endorsing was Roy Moore, the Alabama pedophile.

Conway forever will be remembered as the person who defined lies as “alternative facts”. To which Chuck Todd replied “alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.” During Donald Trump’s campaign, Conway claimed that “Trump “doesn’t hurl personal insults.” A statement that, by itself, should be enough to discredit her forever more. Both Conway and Trump created massacres that didn’t happen— Trump referring to one in Denmark that mystified, most of all, the Danes, and Conway freaked out over a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that also didn’t occur. It hurt Kellyanne that, according to her, the story didn’t get covered by that awful media. What the heck, Fox News, covers stories all the time that have no basis in fact, apparently preferring to cover stories in the fairytale world of alternative facts.

And if nothing else, Conway has furnished Saturday Night Live with a bounty of comedy material. Kate McKinnon must have squealed like a kid discovering an Easter egg when the wicked witch hove into view. When McKinnon became Pennywise the frightening clown from Stephen King’s novel “It” somehow it didn’t seem to be that much of a stretch. After all, given the frightening quality of the toxic flow of misinformation flowing from the White House every day, a Stephen King novel seems like a fuzzy children’s tale featuring cuddly bunnies.

If Funk ‘n Wagnalls ever revises their standard dictionary, under the word hypocrisy will be the definition: “Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a living ventriloquist dummy created for the purpose of echoing any ludicrous statement made by the disgraced 45th president of the United States, whatever his name was.”

Sanders daily boggles the collective mind of the White House press corps when she stands at the spokesperson’s rostrum and dribbles preposterous, purporting to be real (as opposed to fake) news. It boggles the mind, not to mention overloading the believability synapses of any analytical mind, how this aggressively religious person can so transcend the limits of Christian morality, so aggressively defend the most unChristian president in the history of the country, and apparently sleep at night and then get up and do the same thing all over again.

Any normal person, faced with the same job situation, should be sleeping on a pillow soggy with tears of shame. Sometimes I think I see fleeting expressions of inner turmoil on Sander’s face, although that’s probably wishful thinking. Anyone with a morsel of morality would not have taken the job in the first place. She is merely the latest in a procession of circus clowns exiting a jampacked Volkswagen Beetle. And they said the circus was dead.

She became the White House Press Secretary when Sean Spicer faded into the bushes. She has been politically involved almost since birth, with her father Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. In a situation rife with irony, both Huckabees hail from Hope, Arkansas, which also happens to be the home town of Bill Clinton, also a former governor of Arkansas (and also a former president of the United States whose wife ran against Sarah Sander’s current boss). You don’t have to be a student of history to have become aware of the many tensions between the Clinton and Huckabee families. If ever there was a political Hatfields and McCoys feud, it would be between these two families— the only difference possibly is that no bullets have yet been exchanged.

If Sanders has a favorite phrase uttered from the podium it is, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” But anyone holding his or her breath, is likely to die of asphyxia before that happens. Presumably, she shares the views of her father who, when he was unsuccessfully running for president equated environmentalists with pornographers and homosexuality with pedophilia and necrophilia. He also has said that anyone without Christian faith poses a direct and immediate threat to the nation. Pretty grim view of anyone who is not like him.

To paraphrase Shakespeare and a number of references in the Bible, the sins of the father tend to follow the children. The Bard and the Bible refer to sons, not daughters, so maybe Sanders gets a pass. Mike Huckabee took campaign contributions from R.J. Reynolds tobacco company, and was accused of pressuring a parole panel to release confessed and convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who, after release, moved to my home state of Missouri and raped and killed at least one woman and possibly two and later died in prison.

I admit it’s not fair to blame the child for the sins of the father (although there is a long list of ethical and other questionable actions Huckabee took while he was governor and as a candidate for various offices), still you have to question the character of a person who associates herself— either by birth or by choice— with men who don’t exactly stand out as role models.

The bottom line for me is how in the hell can Sarah Huckabee Sanders stand in front of the world and echo the outrageous lies that spew daily from the mouth of Donald J Trump? One can only hope that someday that echo will come back to haunt her. If it were a soap opera she and daddy and Bill Clinton would go somewhere Hopeful and live unhappily forevermore.

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  • April 2nd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have to confess that the first time I picked up a pair chopsticks, it was every bit as daunting as if I were picking up a stick of dynamite with a sputtering fuse. The two wooden sticks were fused together so tightly that with my spindly arms straining, grunting like a rooting hog, I feared that this initial excursion into exotic culinary territory was doomed. The sticks snapped apart with a percussive crack that caused several diners to consider diving under their tables, sure that an mob hit was in progress.

The only assault was on my sushi rolls and for a while I looked like someone trying to pick up marbles with a pair of wet noodles. Since, I have become reasonably adept at the use of chopsticks, although if I still were in the dating game I wouldn’t dare take a date to an Asian restaurant, much less try to impress her with my savoir-faire. I have enough trouble with knife and fork without tempting fate by using a pair of flimsy sticks to fling food into my mouth. Chopsticks can be downright scary.

While it’s perfectly acceptable in an Asian restaurant to pick up your miso soup and slurp from it, if you tried the same thing at a White House dinner you’d probably languish in Fort Knox under armed guard for the rest of your natural life. In an Asian restaurant, the waitstaff would merely hide smirks and continue to serve you with scrupulous politeness— they are used to show off Yankees making fools of themselves. Oddly, our local Chinese restaurant does not even offer chopsticks as an option—perhaps they saw me coming.

Asian eating culture is often vastly different than that of us white bread Americans. It’s all very well for Andrew Zimmern to pluck parboiled sheep’s eyeballs from a bowl of some exotic dish with a pair of chopsticks because after all he’s Andrew Zimmern and expected to do things like that. But for the rest of us wielding a pair of chopsticks is every bit as exotic as watching cricket and understanding what’s going on.

I once read a hilarious essay in the Chicago Tribune about how to use chopsticks and used it for years as a perfect example of the best how-to article when I was teaching writing classes. The author, Charles Leroux, invented a klutz named Marvin who was hopeless with chopsticks but ultimately became an expert using a pair of ivory chopsticks like a pool shark equipped with a custom cue stick.

Marvin could’ve been me at the time a fork wielding Midwestern white guy with no more idea of how to use chopsticks than I had of how to twirl spaghetti onto a fork in the Italian style. I couldn’t even eat food off the back of the fork as the English do. The idea of plucking tiny morsels of food with a pair of oversized toothpicks seemed as impossible as using a forklift to pick up pebbles.

Leonardo da Vinci does not show us what eating implements the disciples and Jesus were using at the Last Supper. But it’s interesting if not blasphemous to speculate that some if not all were using chopsticks, for after all, chopsticks were invented long before the birth of Christ. The odds are against it for several reasons. First of all chopsticks historically were Asian in both origin and use. Secondly most Asians have no problem scooping noodles into their mouths with ease. Try picking up one grain of rice with chopsticks and you will spend all day scooting it around on the plate, but the Chinese have solved that problem by creating sticky rice which clumps in convenient bite -sized chunks, easy to capture with a pair of chopsticks. The Bible doesn’t say but probably Jesus didn’t have sticky rice.

Rice is the almost inevitable companion of all Asian dishes and there is a reason for that. Aside from being nutritionally beneficial, rice is there for a reason. It is said and probably true that to stave off the legendary “hungry an hour after” effect of eating Asian food you should pack in the rice. By itself, sticky rice is pretty bland fare, but spiced with invariably spicy Asian entrées it makes for an eminently satisfying meal.

I’m willing to bet that the reason behind Asian cuisine being legendarily spicy is that the incendiary aspect of most Asian dishes is to offset the blandness of the rice. I eat at a local Thai restaurant which offers a heat scale of one to five. I’ve never dared to go beyond two and I have a feeling that five would have me emulating Puff the Magic Dragon. I once was a queasy witness in college to what passes for high-class humor in a dormitory. A friend lit the gaseous nether region effusion of another fun lover and a bright blue flame appeared. Try the same thing in the wake, so to speak, of a number five Thai dish and the result likely would be a mini version of Mount Saint Helens.

Chopstick etiquette varies from country to country but it is widely accepted that one does not spear morsels of food with a single chopstick like a torero sticking a fighting bull with a banderillo. Likewise you don’t lay down your chopsticks so they point at a dinner companion while you slurp down a mouth full of Sapporo Beer— that’s like laying a loaded revolver beside your plate pointed at your companion. Instead you lay your chopsticks in a rest, an accessory item. If you don’t have a rest you can fold up the paper envelope in which the chopsticks came and make one. And the sticks should point out and never be planted in the mound of rice like someone sticking a spade in the ground.

I don’t pretend to be an expert at eating with chopsticks. There always is a moment of fumbling with the two wooden sticks before I get them situated in my hand, ready for combat. And every now and then I have to adjust my grip, like a baseball player choking up to bunt.

I am overly fond of a local Japanese restaurant that features sushi rolls to which I am as addicted as a meth head is with his fix. Sushi rolls are ideally constructed to facilitate being picked up by chopsticks. Even a beginner usually can grasp a sushi roll with the sticks and convey it to his or her mouth. Dipping it in a sauce is a bit more daunting, but not impossible— and I usually do dip, either into a sort of thousand Island concoction, or soy sauce spiced with wasabi.

You have to be careful using wasabi, an atomic substance which assaults your sinuses as if you had stuffed a hand grenade up your nostrils. Wasabi is related to horseradish and mustard, but to those condiments it is like a lady cracker compared to a stick of dynamite. It supposedly hammers the bacteria that causes food poisoning and I can visualize some poor microbe screaming in agony as it succumbs to a wasabi attack.

Most people—me included— confuse sushi and sashimi. According to Japanese custom sashimi, raw fish sliced thinly, is eaten with the hands, while sushi, fish rolled with rice, is eaten with chopsticks. And a sushi chef will dab the roll with wasabi in preparation. In case you’re wondering what the orange sweet vegetable next to the wasabi is, it’s pickled ginger, used to cleanse the palate between bites of sushi. There is a daunting list of ritual connected with how to eat sashimi and sushi, including how to show your appreciation to the sushi chef if you are eating in front of him. For example, never rub the sticks together— it is considered terribly impolite and you’re not trying to start a campfire.

The essential question of course, in case you don’t want to look as if you’re practicing for a knife fight, is how to hold chopsticks. Pick one up as if you were picking up a pencil between your thumb and index finger. The other stick should fall naturally beneath the first one manipulated by your ring and middle fingers (the middle is the one that you use to salute Donald Trump when his image appears on your television set). The little finger is a spare in case you have some sort of industrial accident and lose your ring finger. You can reach down with the two sticks and squeeze a morsel of food between them with a sort of pinching motion.

It’s considered bad form to dip into a communal bowl of food with your sticks. Instead, there should be serving chopsticks available to transfer food from the main bowl to your plate or bowl. Soup? The Chinese long ago caved in to necessity and use spoons for marvelous miso soup (I could drink that stuff all day long). There is no social disgrace in picking up the bowl and drinking from it. When it comes to noodles, or other slippery food, it is accepted to bring the bowl close your face and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel to scoop with.

Chopsticks even have made their way into popular culture with a song, if you can call it that, by a rap group and with lyrics that are obscene and repulsive. At the other end of the spectrum, chopsticks are the subject of a Sesame Street session, illustrating in music how tiny tots can solve the mystery of those funny wooden sticks. “Two little sticks and they’re made out of wood/and they help you to pick up your lunch/and if you practice then you’ll get good/and you’ll find that you can pick up a bunch to munch”

Every budding concert pianist, of course, starts his or her musical career by learning to play “Chopsticks”. The original name of the piece was “the Celebrated Chop Waltz”. It dates to 1877 and was written by Euphemia Allen. The piece has been used many times in movies, including one of my favorite films “The Seven Year Itch” where Tom Ewell played a duet with Marilyn Monroe and tried fruitlessly to kiss her. His romantic haplessness was the parallel personification of someone in the initial throes of learning to eat with chopsticks. That movie spawned the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt being blown up around her hips, a cinematic moment certainly more memorable than Tom Ewell’s fumbling attempt to play chopsticks on the piano.

Meanwhile, chopsticks will continue to flourish in countries where they have flourished for centuries, and will appear sporadically in the Western world— but don’t expect when you pull into your local McDonald’s and order a burger and fries to have the pimply faced, minimum wage waiter ask “Y’all want chopsticks with that?”

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  • March 26th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” That’s ranked number 42 among the 100 most famous movie quotes of all time. From the 1967 movie, The Graduate. More prophetic words never were spoken, although not in the context meant by the speaker, who was giving career advice to young and confused Benjamin.

Fast forward to 2018 and the news that in the Los Angeles area alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws soda bottles— are carried into the Pacific ocean every day. I recently saw a video of a person underwater in the ocean swimming through what looked like a blizzard. The water was virtually opaque with bits of white material. Snow? No, it was particles of plastic clogging the ocean with a frightening curtain of a substance which will still be there decades if not hundreds of years in the future. Plastic does not deteriorate. It just endures, an everlasting example of man’s inhumanity to his environment. Mother birds collect the droppings, eliminated by their babies and carry them from the nest for disposal elsewhere. Man, unlike so-called lesser creatures, routinely shits in his own nest. Where is man’s mother bird when we need her so desperately?

I am the scourge of grocery clerks from Hawaii to Maine. When they see me coming they hide under the checkout counter because they know if they even reach a hand toward a plastic bag I am going to jump down their throats, snarling and growling and roaring, “I don’t want your rotten plastic bags! Don’t even think about putting my groceries in one!”

And I slam a recyclable grocery bag on the counter, two or three if necessary, and fix the innocent clerk with a misguided glare. It’s not the clerk’s fault— it is the fault of the management that trains clerks to stuff all groceries in plastic bags regardless of the lack of need to do so. Somewhere in the manual of grocery store management is a clause which reads, “It is a firing offense to fail to diligently put all groceries in plastic bags, and contribute to the defiling of the environment.” That clause must be in the manual, because they all do it and they do it because they are stupid, careless, ignorant, and uncaring about the world we have to live in.

Or, more likely, the world our descendants will have to live in, contaminated by plastic debris so thick that it will be difficult to find what little soil is left to raise the food that today we are so dedicated to stuffing in plastic bags. If you want to be bumfuzzled by statistics: about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year more than one million plastic bags are used every minute of that year.

I hate statistics because they depersonalize the human element in a crisis. But the figures are undeniable—we are drowning in a sea of plastics. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year and more than 100 billion plastic beverage bottles are sold in the US every year. The estimate is that about 50 per cent of all plastic used in various ways is just used once and then is thrown away.

Once, I was canoeing down an Ozark stream when I saw a great blue heron in distress. It had gotten tangled in the plastic holder of a sixpack, legacy of some previous and obviously uncaring boater. I managed to free the bird, wary of its stiletto beak and we went our separate ways— perhaps the bird to become further tangled in a snarl of monofilament fishing line discarded by yet another careless river user, or maybe in another sixpack snare.

In 1952, the year I remember buying a cup of coffee for the first time— I decided to pull an all nighter study session at the University of Missouri, thinking that was what college students had to do to pass tests. I was a freshman from a literal backwater town (it once bordered the Missouri River, but the capricious River went away).

The coffee cost me a nickel. And there probably were free refills, although this being University coffee it probably was so bad I didn’t want any. After a cup or two, I decided I knew the subject of the test well enough that I didn’t have to stay up all night drinking coffee to get ready for it and I never again pulled an all night marathon. I passed the test. I could have bought two glasses (in a glass) of beer at The Shack for the price of the two cups of coffee, although I might not have passed the test the next day.

Now, Starbucks, the business most associated with a cup of coffee, will stick you more than two dollars and up to almost five dollars for various coffee concoctions. And they will throw in a nonrecyclable plastic-lined cup which you can pitch (and most drinkers probably will) when you are finished, and thus contribute your own little bit to the deterioration of the environment. In 2008, Starbucks promised to cut its plastic waste by switching to recyclable cups, but in spite of that promise they continue to litter the landscape with about 4 billion of those cups annually.

To be fair,in a classic case of better late than never, Starbucks has announced a $10 million challenge, offering grants to anyone who can come up with a disposable cup. Starbucks does add a surcharge in England to penalize those who use throwaway cups.

Other companies are joining the effort to limit trash, including McDonald’s which hopes to reach 100% recyclable packaging within 10 years. Dunkin’ Donuts is getting rid of all its polystyrene cups by 2020, Evian Water promises to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic within 10 years and both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have similar plans. All these are optimistic and encouraging signs, but the uncomfortable truth is that 1000 years from now what’s already in the environment will still be there.

Roadside trash not only is endemic, but it also is mostly plastic—what is not aluminum beer cans pitched there by the local redneckery. Some years back, Texas instituted the nation’s first Adopt a Highway program where volunteers would clean up sections of the roadway. Good for Texas. But I also once was in a car driving around San Antonio and the roadways were absolutely the most littered of any I have ever seen anywhere. Missouri, my home, was the second state to institute an Adopt a Highway cleanup program, but it has languished for lack of promotion and now we can stack our strewn highways up against Texas or anybody else. Not exactly an inducement to enjoy a Sunday drive. New Hampshire has the cleanest highways I have ever driven on and the state could serve as an example to the other 49 sloppy ones.

Theoretically, most plastic could be recycled if people would take the trouble to gather it and do it. It can be melted down and be used to make useful items, such as chairs and tables. However, the problems of such recycling are many— expensive and complicated. The bottom line is that wholesale recycling is likely never to happen.

Plastic dates to 1907 when, through the miracle of chemistry, a combination of polymers and other elements that I don’t know and don’t care to, became what today is plastic in an almost infinite variety. But the history of plastic as we know it now has happened in my lifetime. Once, grocery bags were paper, bottles were made of glass and handguns were metal. Given time virtually all trash was biodegradable or reusable. Now even your baby’s sippy cup is plastic as is his bottle and even his clothing, which contains plastic and, can generate tiny plastic microparticles that break off in the washing machine, go down the drain, and ultimately find their way into the nation’s waterways and into the oceans. And expensive 3-D printers actually can manufacture a plastic handgun, undetectable by security scanners. I suspect well-funded terrorists organizations already are excited by that advance in the world of plastic.

Oceans constitute most of the mass of the world and without them we’re goners. There now is what scientists call “a garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii that is three times the size of France and is composed mostly of plastic debris. It is 79,000 tons of plastic crap composed of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. And that doesn’t count what has sunk to the ocean floor. Much of the debris is cast-off from fishing, like nets, and you can imagine the potential effect that could have on marine life. We are strangling our oceans. Simply enough, the death of the oceans, would mean the death of us all.

In simpler terms, if the proliferation of plastic doesn’t scare the crap out of you it should. So-called bio plastics offer some hope against our reliance on and use of non-biodegradable plastic, but they rely at least partly on oil. And oil is not exactly an environmentally friendly substance either. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If it will make you feel better, insist on reusable fabric grocery bags, recycle waste material in the hope that it won’t wind up in a landfill, freeze water in used milk jugs for your cooler, fill your empty water bottles with tap water (which probably is just as pure as the expensive and highly touted “spring” water which originally came in the empty bottle) and don’t do what we always seem to do— leave the problem for a future generation to solve. In other words leaving it for your grandchildren who will either sink or swim, leaving you hoping that they won’t be sinking or swimming in a sea of plastic particles.

Badger your local government into banning plastic bags or instituting a surcharge on their use. And if you don’t have a local recycling center, start one, as did my late dear friends, Chuck and Sharon Tryon in their hometown, Rolla, Missouri, years before recycling became a common word in the language.

In the meantime I will continue to terrorize poor innocent grocery clerks for trying to give me plastic bags in which to carry my groceries immediately after I plunk a reusable bag in front of them and before I can say “no plastic!” Let’s all try to stick up for truth, justice, and not the American way (the American way all too often is to throw everything out the window and look steadfastly aside as we pass the local recycling center).

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  • March 18th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It has always been just The Place, hardly an inspirational name like Shangri-La. It originally was 30 acres and we added 10 acres to it for a total of 40. If I could be sure that a family who would love these woods as much as I have for nearly half a century would acquire The Place after I’m gone and our family perhaps no longer goes to what we’ve always called The Place, I would mandate my ashes to be scattered throughout the woods, or perhaps on the overgrown gravesite of so many of our beloved Brittanies.

I can’t stand the thought of these cherished woods belonging to someone else because people these days are prone to buy a place in the country and strip it of the woods and brush that gave it character and turn it into a cityscape, precisely what they flee the city to escape. So, our family will hang on to The Place as long as it can and hope for the best, knowing that the best is The Place.

It was 1969 and we were looking for some acreage outside town where we could escape on weekends, holidays, or at times when life threatened to overwhelm us. We looked at possibilities as far as 50 miles from Jefferson City, but nothing spoke to us and said here is where you want to spend as much of your lives as possible until one evening the realtor who had sold us our house in town took me out to what had been his family’s retreat from the city and said, “Our boys are teenagers now and more interested in girls than coming out here, and I can’t get around as much as I used to, so I’d like to see this place go to someone who would appreciate it as much as we have.”

We parked at a closed gate and I saw a rough concrete block cabin which proved to be about as rustic as something you would see on National Geographic’s Life Below Zero (although it was summer and in the 90s and many hundreds of miles away from frontier Alaska). The cabin had a fireplace which offered minimal heat and no indoor facilities such as water and a toilet. There were rollaway beds where overnight visitors could sleep on mattresses every bit as comfortable as sleeping on a gravel road and a kitchenette for cooking on a World War II vintage electric stove.

We were at the top of a hill which sloped down to a one acre pond where there was a rickety dock. Across the pond was another hill forested with oak and hickory extending to the property line there was a small shed near the cabin, in which was a John Deere garden tractor which the realtor offered to me as part of the deal. The whole package, he said, could be mine for $12,800. Even in 1979 that was like being offered a nearly free ticket to heaven, and I exclaimed, “I don’t care what it costs. I’ll take it!” The Place was ours. Not exactly the wisest response to someone who is trying to sell you something, but he was a person of rare generosity and stood by his offer.

Since, The Place has afforded us an endless supply of firewood which now heats the cabin where there is a wood stove insert in the fireplace (and an indoor toilet and water and a hot shower). And for 21 years while we continued to live in Jefferson City, The Place fed our wood stove there. Our garden has produced years of vegetables and an endless population of red cedar trees has produced an annual Christmas tree for our living room, as well as logs for a sauna, support posts for our deck, for rail fences and other do-it-yourself projects.

A number of wild turkeys from the far ridge across the pond have graced our table at Thanksgiving. I’ve shot squirrels, and once managed to miss a nice buck, but did collect one on another family’s Place. Hundreds of bluegills have migrated up from the pond to form the foundation for countless fish fries. Huge channel catfish lurk near the dock waiting for us to throw fish food to them— but son Andy claims them as semi-pets and won’t let us keep them. He also has caught and returned eight pound bass to fight another day.

A mother raccoon and her babies once made nightly visits to our deck (built by sons Eddie and Andy) to help themselves to the black seeded sunflower seeds we put out for birds. She got so used to being spied on that I could open the door and talk to her and the kids. But after the many gray squirrels which also cherish the seeds destroyed my birdfeeders, I put a moratorium on supplying expensive sunflower food to other-than-birds and the raccoons now are on their own as are the squirrels. The squirrels still visit the deck to forage for scraps of vegetables and fruit that we put out there for them. The cat sits in the doorway and looks out at them, muttering curses and dire threats.

The two cats are housebound, because feral cats are the worst enemy of birds and, as much as I cherish our cats, I also cherish the birds, so I keep them strictly separated. Hummingbirds decorate the deck all summer, entertaining us with their incomparable aerobatics.

The deck overlooks the pond, which my wife Marty insists on calling “a lake,” but let’s face it, it is a pond. As a pond or a lake it has furnished fish us with fish, a place to swim in summer, a place to ice skate in winter, a place to watch such wildlife as visiting Canada geese, wood ducks, and even once a coot that apparently grew tired midair and fell out of the sky onto the dock.

Once, while sitting on the deck listening to 1950s rock ‘n roll, I saw what I took to be a UFO arcing across the night sky. It was a bright ball of light, too slow to be a meteorite, too fast to be an airplane or a satellite. “The truth is out there.” When I’m not distracted by alien visitors, I listen to the night creatures— a chuck will’s widow shouts its incessant challenge to the darkness and a pair of barred owls communicate across the dark woods. Bullfrogs grumble their virility at the pond edge. We’ve collected a few over the years for their delectable legs, but now I’d rather listen to them than eat them.

The deck would not be there except that in 1993 we decided town living was at an end. Since we bought The Place we had always intended to build our life dream home there, but until the five kids all were out of the city school system, we didn’t want to change their and our lifestyle. Now, two of the boys live on the 40 acres and take care of their elderly parents who, you might guess, are Marty and me.

There is a trail which circumnavigates The Place from the cabin, staying within the property line fence. It’s about 7/10 of a mile from the cabin back to the home of that we built in 1993. Now, son Andy lives in the cabin, and son Eddie lives about 200 feet farther along the trail in a beautiful home which he largely built himself.

On one stretch of the trail during the summer when the oaks are in full leaf they arch over the trail giving it a cathedral effect. You might say this is my church, but I don’t pray there, I just enjoy the peace and the demonstration of nature’s ability to create fine art and the soft touch of the landscape. Near the end of this stretch there once was a log. Before I retired I had a poster in my office reading “Sometimes I sits and thinks and other times I just sits.” My boss used to look disapprovingly at that poster but it perfectly described what I did at the old log which now has moldered into the forest floor, the way of all things in nature.

Once I sat on my log armed with a bow and arrow ostensibly to shoot at squirrels on the ground. But one incautious gray squirrel posed on a nearby oak and I couldn’t resist. I fired an arrow and like the old couplet which says “I shot an arrow into the air and where it fell I know not where” the arrow sailed into the great beyond but en route it neatly sliced the squirrel’s throat and the animal ran up the tree a few feet until it ran out of blood and fell to the ground.

I have shot several turkeys both on and just off the old trail and often have surprised deer crossing the trail, heading either onto or off The Place. Once a skunk and I met and cautiously passed by each other and went our separate ways. Just off the trail once I saw scratches high on a tree trunk and theorized that possibly they had been made by a black bear. I really doubt that we have had bears in our woods, but one never knows— there have been bears reported in the county, so who knows?

I have tried to naturalize the place. I planted ginseng, scattered among the graves of the dogs. There is a small group of white pine trees elsewhere in the woods, planted there by my best friend who has gone where the dogs have gone. They won’t last—white pines have a limited lifetime in our part of the country, but then also did my friend and the dogs. I planted loblolly pine seedlings on a bare bank of the pond to stabilize the soil and now they tower 100 feet above the shoreline. I planted 25 white pines near the cabin, but a helpful brother-in-law drove the John Deere like Mario Andretti and mowed them all down.

More successful was a planting of bald cypress seedlings in the boggy upper end of the pond where they thrived and now poke their bony knees from the soggy soil and, in the summertime, before they shed their lacey greenery, are a counterpoint to the loblollys. Some of the hundreds of tree and shrub seedlings I planted have thrived and others have served only as browse for rabbits and deer. That, too, is the way of nature.

Once, a deer waded into the pond, afflicted with bluetongue disease, and died there, perhaps in its final moments finding cool relief from the fatal fever. We hauled the carcass up to a remote spot on a glade at the far reach of the acreage and within days coyotes and vultures, carrion eaters, had reduced the reeking body to a heap of bones. That also is the way of nature.

There is a quarter acre bare spot near the cabin which might’ve been a pasture in the days of the old bachelors who supposedly pioneered The Place where I have established a mini tallgrass prairie. When we bought the place it was dominated by wasteland grasses of no value, but as the years progressed native tallgrass began to emerge, having lain dormant in the soil for decades. I started collecting seed to augment what already was there and once I pulled over along highway 36 in North Missouri and began stripping big bluestem and Indian grass seeds from plants along the right of way. A Highway Patrol car passed and I had a vision of trying to explain that I was collecting grass seed to a cop whose concept of grass equated to marijuana.

Fortunately, he continued on. Another time I was collecting rocks from another right-of-way when another patrol car did stop, and instead of offering to let me break rocks on a chain gang. the officer said, “There’s some really good ones over on highway M.” A kindred soul in law enforcement. Once we had butterfly weed, which is wonderful for pollinating insects, such as honeybees, which are in short supply, a worrisome trend which threatens the existence of many of the plants that we depend upon for food. Now, we are down to one surviving plant, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, among the millions that once populated the country, and which died in captivity many years ago. I’ve collected and scattered seed from purple coneflower, but so far they haven’t populated my Mini Prairie. More successful is purple gayfeather which envelops the tallgrass in a purple haze every summer.

When things get really crappy, which they do more often than not these days, and until the moment that a UFO sweeps down from the sky and I’m abducted by aliens, there is always The Place and a hike around the trail where I might surprise a deer or turkey or say a cautious hello to a skunk, and at the end of the trail I will feel renewed, at least for a little while

The green tongues of daffodils already are peeking out of the cold winter numbed ground and soon there will be spring beauties on the trail and later on May apples carpeting the forest floor. It will be another season, filled with promise, filled with hope and surprise.

Another season on The Place.

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  • March 10th, 2018


by Joel Vance

There is a sameness to their dingy charm, yet each has a personality, like a group of hobos squatted around a jungle camp fire, each with a story. The duck shacks I’ve been in over the years stretch the length of the migration route, but they all share common traits.

They have age on them, like most of the hunters who come there, although the grizzled hunters are careful to bring along some sprouts to learn what life really is all about. But there is no such thing as a “new” duck shack. If it’s hooked up to city water and sewage, chances are excellent it’s not a duck shack.

The dogs are a mix of gray muzzles and bumptious pups. Labrador retrievers are a given. They are the canine personification of the place and no matter how often the rare fastidious hunter mops there will remain a few muddy paw prints. The linoleum manufacturers should have offered a muddy print pattern 50 years ago, which is when the linoleum got laid in those shacks that don’t have worn bare wood flooring.

The last shack I visited had a pair of Labs, a chocolate lady of seven years with the manners of Queen Elizabeth, and a rowdy pup who, when we were out hunting, visited the trash bin in the kitchen and strewed an assortment of plates, coffee grounds, cans and bottles halfway across the kitchen and into the living room.

The shack’s proprietor, said, “That’s the third time he’s done it. You’d think he’d learn…or his owner would. I’m not mad at the dog, but the guy that owns the dog is gonna clean it up.” The pup hid out and the owner would have, except he was busy with a trash sack and a grim expression.

Almost all true duck shacks are decorated with photographs, mostly taken many years ago and gone sepia with age. Generally several hunters group around the tailgate of a 1950s Chevrolet or Ford pickup (those were the choices then) on which rests a lineup of dead geese or ducks. They all are young and smiling–the hunters, not the waterfowl.

I remember one shack in particular. An old, old man sat on his throne, a creaking rocking chair. He was king of the shack. His name was Wayne Steinbeck and he had lived on Yellow Creek, just across a muddy ditch from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, since the refuge began in 1945…and years before that.

He had bought his cabin and 80 acres for $1,600 in 1927. The 11,000-acre Refuge began 10 years later and hunters swarmed to the land around it. Today you couldn’t afford any acreage if you were Donald Trump. It was a shack with personality. A cracked pintail call, trailing a darkened leather lanyard lay on a shelf, alongside a photo, curling and brown, of some hunters with a bag of ducks and self-conscious grins.

There were framed pictures taken from the calendars of shotshell manufacturers or clipped from outdoor magazines, pictures of ducks settling in to decoys or Canada geese gliding toward frosty corn stubble. Most of it wasn’t great art; some of it wasn’t even very good art, but it fit the mood of the shack and it was not chosen for artistic value but because the artist had triggered a cherished memory, had evoked a sweet morning from the past when good friends hunted together.

Steinbeck buried two dogs beneath the pin oaks, one a mix of Lab and Chesapeake Bay Retriever. They were his friends for more than 20 years. There is a tribute to Raz, the first of them, written by Steinbeck in 1965 in blank verse and few poems by anyone could evoke more feeling:

“We was pals 15 yrs what a pal and always a friend put to sleep at Marceline a.m.Tumor in jaw getting hard hearing And eyes getting bad Buried up at Marceline dug up the next day Made a box for him and I had him brought Back to his home Don’t disturb ever How you miss em”

The shack smelled of turnips because Steinbeck loved the awful vegetables and invariably fixed a mess of them for visitors. If there was an upside to that for a visiting hunter confronted with turnips for lunch, it was that Steinbeck was nearly blind and could not see how much the finicky hunters ate.

It certainly was not an upside that he had gone blind because he loved the sunrise and the Canada geese that set their wings for his decoys in the fields bordering the refuge. He loved to see the pecan trees bordering the muddy road into his shack and he even loved the occasional high water that flooded the road and isolated him for days at a time in his shack. He had plenty of turnips.

He still was hunting when he was 85, his vision dimming. When he hit his 90s he’d lost his vision, but not his love of the old shack…or of turnips as I found when I revisited him. They stank up the shack but actually tasted pretty good at lunch. Maybe it was that I shot a Canada goose that morning and anything would have tasted good. Or maybe I was getting more tolerant.

I went back once more in 1980. Wayne Steinbeck had died at 93 and I paused at the dogs’ grave site and at the cabin where decoys were stacked on the porch. The rocker was empty. Maybe somewhere Steinbeck and his dogs are reunited in a place where all hunters have keen eyesight and all dogs are young. Maybe even today at the sound of Canada geese disturbing the still, cold, star-shot winter nights there is the ghostly thump of a sturdy tail within the old shack.

That was a sweet, sad shack. Not so the Milonski farmhouse a couple miles away as the duck flies. Mike Milonski was a bear of a man who came from a family of bears. He was Polish and proud of it. He never met a stranger. His staff, first when he was chief of the Missouri Conservation Department’s Wildlife Division, and later as an assistant director, loved him. Once a prominent woman anti-hunter came to town to protest something or other and Mike greeted her with a hug and a booming welcome and you could see her (and her protest) melt.

He did it with everyone. He was a natural in an often unnatural world. He could lace his conversation with cusswords and it was so in character that no one noticed. His shack, a shambling two-story farmhouse on the west border of Swan Lake, was, like Mike, shaggy and filled with rough edges.
The Milonski farmhouse, even though it was big and two-story, was a shack and it was a rare treat to hunt there, although occasionally hazardous. The place had stoves that were as dangerous as playing soccer with bottles of nitroglycerine. The propane cookstove was in an added-on alcove which, fortunately, had thin outside walls. A friend once tried to light it to cook supper and the stove exploded, blowing him through the wall into the back yard. They got a new stove, but my buddy gave up eating hot food.

I was there when the heating stove began leaking oil until there were puddles of it everywhere. We managed to get it shut down and spent the night shivering, both from cold and from the fear that someone would strike a spark.

But this was an explosive shack on the edge of Paradise. Swan Lake Refuge topped out at about 180,000 Canada geese each year, and ducks swarmed to a pit blind in a crop field across a drainage ditch from the shack.

The only problem was that Milonski, who gave up being afraid of anything long before, would load a miniscule boat with several dozen decoys, several hunters, a couple of massive Labs, shotguns and possibly the defective kitchen stove and cross this deep, dank moat in the pitch black of pre-dawn, water lapping at the gunwales.

I crouched in the boat, feeling as heavy as a tugboat anchor, just waiting for the boat to flip. Swimming in December isn’t my idea of sport. Shooting geese and ducks is and it was worth a frightening trip on the Titanic to get to the pit blind and wait for the sun to rise. You could hear the roosted geese shouting to each other by the thousands.

The Milonski house featured sagging double-decker bunk beds that creaked and groaned in the night, much as did most of the hunters who tossed fitfully in them. There were photos on the wall, one I remember of a revered lady biologist riding the shoulders of some brawny hunter, waving a beer bottle. Another featured a Conservation Department commissioner caught on the throne. He was saluting the camera with an obscene gesture.

One hunter wrote a song called “Up In Mike’s Place” which had the tag line, “There’s gonna be a party up at Mike’s Place.” Few duck shacks have their own anthem. Mike’s place had what amounted to a revolving door, open to kings and peasants alike. One of the peasants, I once fell for the world’s oldest gag. “Here’s a Polish duck call,” Mike said, handing me a horn shaped like a French horn. “Blow real hard!”

Since Mike was Polish, I didn’t associate it with the infamous Polish jokes and dutifully blew hard…and a cloud of talcum powder erupted in my face, choking me and clogging my eyes. “Geez,” Mike said. “I never thought you’d go for it.”

One day Winston Milonski, Mike’s wife, left on vacation with some other women and got no more than 15 miles from home before she was in a terrible accident which nearly crippled her. She recovered, but the Milonskis decided that life was too short and unpredictable to waste on bureaucracy. Mike, by then, was an assistant director at the Conservation Department, maybe in line to get the head job.

But he chucked it in and they moved to Florida, coming back to Missouri only when the waterfowl season opened. Winston had cut Mike’s hair their whole married life, but she went on strike and he began to look like a big ol’ lion, except his roar was laughter, not menace.

Mike’s place rolled on and so did Mike until he caught what he thought was a case of the flu. It didn’t get better and finally he grudgingly gave in and saw a doctor. The news was awful. Mike came home to Mike’s place and sat on the porch and watched the sun set over the Grand River, watched the geese setting their wings as they roosted over the canal in the corn stubble fields.
And there he died.

Duck shacks have a commonality and the heating system seems to be part of it. One I remember featured a furnace in a dank cellar reached through a trap door. If the furnace had been able to talk, it would have said, “Thermostat? What’s that?” The only temperatures it recognized were Polar and Seventh Level of Hell.

And it groaned in the night as if there were doomed souls chained below us. If you stay in a place that has a quietly efficient furnace and a working thermostat, it probably is a lodge, not a shack. Check the corners of the rooms–if they’re clean it’s a lodge; if they have duck feathers and indefinable substances windrowed out of the reach of a worn broom…it’s a shack.

I hunted a legendary duck lake in Mississippi. Gadwalls and mallards dropped through a break in the flooded cypress trees and we shot until we limited. It was the hunt you imagine when you’re about to fall asleep on a sagging cot in a duck shack.

But I stayed in a casino hotel with gold elevator doors, a bed big enough for an NFL pulling guard, a bathroom with fresh bars of soap every day and a flat screen television that actually got more than one channel showing Lawrence Welk reruns.

My late, loved buddy Spence Turner wasn’t there to drop his sweaty socks on the kitchen table beside my sandwich, sink into a battered chair and groan, “God, that feels good!”
As a hunt it was great; as an experience it lacked something.

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  • March 4th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It was perched on a telephone wire alongside a county highway at dusk on a chilly January evening, a kestrel or sparrowhawk if you prefer, and it occurred to me it has been a long time since I saw one. Once, the sight of a sparrowhawk perched along the right-of-way of any rural highway in my part of the United States was as common as that of any wild creature.

You would see them hovering above the grass on the right-of-way or sitting on a fence post or on a power line, waiting to pounce on supper— perhaps an incautious vole or field mouse or grasshopper. Kestrels are the smallest of the hawks, elegant little birds as charming as any existing member of the airborne kingdom.

Yet, the kestrel population has declined by 50% in the past few decades, victimized by factors that, as yet, are not publicized enough to cause alarm in the general populace, the way hard pesticides did when Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” brought to light the peril facing the American bald eagle, the nation’s symbol. Agricultural chemicals, used to get rid of insect pests plaguing farm crops also caused thinning in the eggs of eagles which resulted in a decline of reproductive success so severe that the birds were threatened with extinction.

You won’t find the kestrel portrayed on coins or other symbols of the nation, but does that make the little bird any less desirable in the natural world than the bald eagle? Chances are the same factor that nearly doomed the bald Eagle is a major factor causing such an alarming decline in the population of sparrowhawks— agricultural chemicals. Though hard pesticides like DDT have been banned for many years, the agricultural community still sprays crops with, possibly, less hazardous chemicals— but they still cover agricultural crops with substances that decimate the food source of many citizens of our natural world.

What research has been done on the decline of sparrowhawks is sketchy. In fact agricultural chemicals are not the only possible culprit in the decline. One theory is that predation by Cooper’s Hawks on their smaller relatives is a contributing factor. If so, bullying is not endemic only to human beings—little birds get picked on as well as little kids, although apparently with more dire consequences.

Researchers think that even the stress of living in close quarters with human beings may be a contributing factor. God knows, humans closely packed become freaked out. A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits become overpopulated they act just like human beings: “they develop ulcers and they die,” he said. No one has checked to see if sparrowhawks are candidates for Maalox.

Carson’s book caused a sensation and a reaction so enormous that the hard pesticides, the worst of the malefactors, were banned for use in agriculture. Slowly, the eagle population, rebounded and today the national bird no longer is threatened by becoming another passenger pigeon, a sorry testament to man’s inhumanity to nature. We killed off some of nature’s once prominent citizens. Is the kestrel also on man’s hit list?

Researchers simply don’t know the reasons behind the decline but lay the blame on pesticides as one primary cause— not a bad surmise, since pesticides are both omnipresent and responsible for the decline of many of nature’s citizens. Think Monarch butterflies, honeybees and other useful creatures. Aside from blaming the decline on predation by Cooper’s Hawks, which seems to me to be doubtful at best, others say competition for nest sites from starlings is responsible. Starlings, of course, are an introduced bird, originally stocked by people who wanted to establish creatures mentioned by Shakespeare. How well that silly experiment succeeded is evidenced every evening when massive flocks of starlings go to roost, but whether they compete with kestrels is mere supposition.

Agrichemical voices are loud ones in the halls of legislation and the chances of ridding the world of dangerous chemicals, used to ensure ample crops is likely impossible. The question is, how do you reconcile the need for corn and soybeans with the need to see a kestrel perched on a telephone wire? Generally, and sadly, the answer is that, whatever the needs of nature’s citizens, they come in second to the perceived needs of human beings. It’s the old case of everyone is equal— but some things are more equal than others.

It’s likely that clean farming deserves at least some blame for the kestrel decline. The practice of skimming the landscape of groundcover to favor farming practices certainly has a deleterious effect on wildlife and it makes sense that the absence of grass cover where kestrels hover on the hunt has an effect on their ability to pounce on supper.

It takes overwhelming public outrage to reverse what all too often is irreversible damage to the natural world and so far that outrage is not reached to the world of the sparrowhawk. We have yet to become incensed by the decline of the honeybee, an insect which pollinates much of the food that we eat and without which pollination we face an agricultural Armageddon. But that’s a long way in the future, if at all, and we can let some future generation worry about it— or at least that’s the laissez-faire attitude that we always have adopted when science warns us of danger just over the horizon. Think climate change, for example.

Not to be the chicken who cried “the sky is falling” but it’s difficult to ignore signs of planetary decline. An estimated third of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying—the first time in the history of the world as we know it that an entire ecosystem is threatened with extinction. The health of the world’s oceans, which constitute the bulk of our universe, are at risk. Glaciers are shrinking, the polar ice cap is shrinking, the polar bear population is shrinking. Where does it end? Is the sky falling? Maybe not, but something is looming above us and it’s not good. The more we refuse to learn to live with the natural world, the more we are doomed to destroy it.

Once, years ago, we played host to a pair of sparrowhawks for a couple of weeks. The birds had been taken from the nest by some well-meaning but misinformed citizen and had been confiscated by the conservation department and were part of the department’s live animal exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. But they needed a home until they could become self-sufficient in the wild and I volunteered to play daddy as long as necessary.

They were obviously only days from full flight and I wondered if they would be able to make their way in the natural world, but after all that is the way of the wild—sink or swim. Either you survive or you don’t. I banked on the birds’ natural instinct to kill to survive and hoped that instinct would kick in and save them. It was late summer, so there was an abundance of insect life and other prey that, if they would allow their heritage to rule, would provide them with the food they needed before cold weather came.

They were caged when I brought them home but we opened the cage and let them free to do as they pleased. They perched on the railing of our back porch and I caught grasshoppers for them, chilled the insects in the refrigerator until they were slow enough for the little birds to catch, and the kestrels eagerly pounced on them. I supplemented live food with hamburger and the birds thrived on their McDonald’s diet for a week or so and then they began to make tentative flights off the railing and into the world they were intended for. Gradually their returns to the table I set for them became fewer and fewer, and one day they were gone and I never saw them again. Long live, beautiful little birds—you brightened my life for a moment in time.

It’s appropriate to call the little hawk the American kestrel because approximately one third of the world population of kestrels are found in North America. According to the breeding Bird Survey kestrels are on the decline in many areas but indications are that the population actually is increasing in the central part of the United States, giving the lie to my feeling that kestrels are on the decline where I live.

But kestrels for all their visibility are hard birds to study. They’re always on the move and the only way to get a definitive handle on species viability is by long term studies, using modern tools such as banded birds, computer modeling, coupled with human eyesight. And that combination over the long haul does not exist as yet, leading to a murky picture of the future for the American kestrel.
In the absence of whatever factors limit kestrel population, the birds should have the ability to repopulate quickly.

A mated pair will incubate from 4 to 7 eggs for a month and the hatched chicks will be fledged and ready to fly in another month. Assuming a high survival rate, kestrels could quickly replenish a depressed population. That’s the way creatures with low survival rates manage to maintain healthy numbers, such as quail, doves and wild turkeys who lose many youngsters, but make up for the losses with high egg production.

Meanwhile, when the lonely gray days of winter fade to the heat of summer, I’m hoping that a trip down a gravel road will afford me the sight of several kestrels perched or hovering alongside the highway. The hot summer sun not only will warm my body,it will warm my soul.

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  • Blog
  • February 23rd, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

There is an ultraconservative website called Townhall Daily which I check periodically just to get my anger quotient up. Reading any of the columnist postings is guaranteed to raise my anger quotient exponentially.
Recently, a column by Michelle Malkin, a regular of the right wing media outlets, really lit my fuse. Here is one paragraph of what she wrote: “Pubescents are fueled by hormones and dopamine and pizza and Sonic shakes. They’re fickle and fragile and fierce and forgetful. They hate you. They love you. They need you. They ignore you. They know everything. They know nothing. All in the span of 10 seconds. I know. I have two of them. If you’re lucky, they’ve only Googled ‘Should I eat Tide pods?’ or ‘What happens if I snort Ramen powder?’ and not actually attempted the latest social media stunt challenges. But that’s what kids do. Because they’re kids.”
I suspect that a normal teenager, reading her description of a normal teenager, would react by saying, “Thank God I’m not one of her two kids!” If that truly is her opinion of an average teenager, she deserves not to be thought of as Mother of the Year, but as Mother From Hell.
Malkin unsurprisingly is the darling of the right wing media, a syndicated columnist a contributor to Fox News and a frequent guest on the Sean Hannity show as well as Fox and Friends. I find it difficult to believe that Malkin, given the often demonstrated antipathy toward women of Fox News and its various sexual predators, would associate herself with such a misogynistic and demeaning band of male chauvinists, but she obviously thinks more of them than she does of teenagers.
Her jeremiad against teenagers was the result of teenager anger reacting to the school shooting in Florida and came simultaneous with a march on the state capital by survivors from that horrendous shooting rampage at the Parkland high school which took the lives of 17 of those fickle and fragile and fierce and forgetful pubescents. Those “know nothing” teenagers were, for some reason, upset about the lack of common sense gun restrictions which enabled a mentally derailed 19-year-old to legally buy an assault rifle which he used to gun down 17 non gun bearing teenagers. Perhaps he was the teenager whom Ms. Malkin was thinking of when she described her concept of the typical teenager. “….their moral agency and cognitive abilities are far from fully developed,” she wrote. “Most are in no position to change the world when they can’t even remember to change their own bedsheets.”
Enough of Ms. Malkin. Let her crawl back into bed with her gun toting, right wing, bedsheet wearing compadres where they can compare notes on just how depraved today’s teenagers are, and how they all will grow up to be liberal enemies. How dare they dream to change the world for the better! The little bastards!
Give me five each of today’s congressmen from both parties—make them the leaders of their respective parties in Congress— and pit them against any ten of the hundred or more teenage survivors of the Florida high school massacre who traveled to the state capital pleading for sensible gun regulation and ask them what it is they stand for. Do you think the two groups would measure up in cognitive ability and moral agency and a dream to change the world for the better? I’d put my money on the kids. Give them 10 years of adult development, if things continue to deteriorate in our country and they may be just as morally bankrupt as today’s leaders, but I would hope there will be a revival of the teenage rebelliousness of the 1960s when it was the youth of the country that brought change, not the mudstuck adult leadership.
The images of high school students, angry but incredibly articulate expressing their outrage, their trauma and their cry for sensible gun legislation, as they protested in the halls of the Florida capital were moving and if they fail to impress the legislators and kick them to action, it would be a graphic reflection of the indifference of today’s politicians to the concerns of the nation and its unraveling moral fiber. Almost predictably, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has been named A+ by the National Rifle Association, first refused to meet with the protesting students because he was “too busy”.
Country Joe declaimed in song, “hell no, I won’t go!” And teenagers burned their draft cards, and their outrage against our involvement in a bloody and useless war in Vietnam finally pushed Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, to realize that, as a country, we had royally screwed up. Instead of 17, it was more than 50,000 youngsters who paid with their lives to bring about fundamental change in the country, but the point was that young people made the difference. It could happen again if youthful anger continues to spread and grow until Congress is forced by the weight of that anger to take action against senseless slaughter in schools, clubs and other public places. It was the angry, sometimes violent, actions of a young America, pushed too far, by the irrational behavior of adults who brought about social change in the country. Perhaps Martin Luther King was the spokesperson for young black youth which forced meaningful civil rights legislation, but it was their voice speaking as much as his.
And it wasn’t homicidal anger like that of the mentally ill shooter in Florida, but an anger that demanded that the adult population of the country come to its senses and quit acting like spoiled and unruly infants having a national tantrum.
Malkin (okay, one more reference to her and then we will purge her like a bad clam) also takes a shot at Common Core, the education system that is reviled both by the conservative right, and the generally liberal leaning professional education left.
Adopted in one form or another by 45 of the 50 states, Common Core basically is a system of standards that schools must live up to or face penalties. Standard tests serve as guidelines for student achievement. On the surface the idea sounds like a good one. Lord knows, the education system needs stimulation. The United States lags behind other countries in student achievement and the reasons are varied and many.
But the prime arguments against Common Core are two: One is that the concept of one size fits all is fundamentally flawed. People are not stamped from cookie cutters and what applies to one, does not apply to the next. The other argument that seems to me to make eminent sense is that all schools are not created equal. Factor in the money available to pay good teachers, the social structure of the student body and the local society, as well as other factors which divide schools into high achievers and those not as progressive, you have a system which does not equate to the ideal envisioned by Common Core.
Further, the emphasis on mathematics and language skills, while necessary and admirable,, tends to sideline such studies as art and music, which may not mean much in the conservative world of business and hard-core economics. But I happen to feel that art and music and such touchy-feely sidelines in the educational spectrum are important in creating total human beings rather than pragmatic machines marching through life in lockstep.
By mandating that teacher achievement and value is measured by their ability to teach to a test score inevitably stifles creativity and initiative on the part of the teacher. The whole concept of Common Core is flawed. Set the standards too high and they are unreachable. Set them too low so that every student reaches them and you run the risk of creating a society of worker bees.
Every classroom is an amalgam of bright students and dull ones, those with ambition, those without. The challenge to a teacher is somehow to touch all these levels of enthusiasm not only with knowledge of a given subject but also with a desire in the student to learn more as well as an appreciation of having learned something.
Slapping a standard test in front of a kid and saying “you need to pass this or we’re all screwed” is no way to run an educational system. Weed out the bad teachers and pay good ones what they deserve, allowing them the initiative to teach, and inevitably the educational system will improve without the need for standardized testing that does nothing more than cramp a given teacher’s initiative and put pressure on him or her to force-feed certain subject areas at the expense of the total package.
The traumatized Florida students had barely finished their eloquent pleas for the politicians to do something about sane gun regulations when the conspiracy madmen—and Michelle Malkin aside, they all are men— were busy posting social media rants claiming that the students were paid actors. At the risk of being accused of being a conspiracy theorist myself, I suspect the grimy hand of Vladimir Putin and his henchpeople being involved in the social media tweetstorm against the high school students. These are people who should be denied the right, Second Amendment or not, to buy assault weapons—you know, mentally ill. Except, as gun regulations now exist, mentally ill people are unfortunately able to buy and use assault weapons.
You can always count on Bill O’Reilly to say something inflammatory and stupid and he tweeted this: ”The big question is: should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases? “
To which Nicole, an articulate teenager responded thusly: “The same people that said 13 and 14 year olds were perfectly mature enough to date Roy Moore are now saying 17 and 18 year olds are too immature to have opinions on gun control.”
Bill O’Reilly and his odious ilk notwithstanding, the country’s youngsters are angry, pushed too far. Fired up, they have changed the country before, and I pray they can do it again. Go kids! This is not high school sports— this is the real big game–your future– and yours to win.

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