Friday, November 16, 2018

Brexit: An Uninformed Opinion

I'm continually astonished at the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. We here on this side of the Pond only think we've got rough and tumble politics. There are headlines for days when Cocaine Mitch McConnell raises his voice above a creaky growl or when Ted Cruz gets shouted at by some unemployed baristas while he's trying to eat human meat at the secret Lizard Person Restaurant in D.C. that everyone knows about but no wants to mention out loud in public.

Kids, I'm telling you, it ain't nothing on the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. Game of Thrones? Pshaw. Who needs it! Get yourself some popcorn and a live blog from The Guardian or the Beeb and you'll have entertainment for days... it is, I imagine, somewhat like being trapped in a burlap sack with three hundred and thirty feral cats, most of whom are in heat. Someone might have a good time in a situation like that, but it probably won't be the Head Cat in Charge.

Look, there are fundamental problems with the EU as it's currently set up. It does involve surrendering a certain amount of sovereignty in the name of greater political and economic cooperation- but it comes with a lot of conveniences and economic benefits that it seems like a lot of Europeans are willing to go along with- at least to a point. I don't think Brexit is an isolated thing. I think if you pop the hood on any given European country and rooted around a little bit, you'd probably find that people aren't all that thrilled by having dictates handed down to them by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. If strange women lying on their backs in ponds and handing out swords is no basis for a system of government, we can hardly be surprised when voters think the same things about the EU's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure.

So, yes, articles like this which want to save British democracy by 'taking back control'* aren't entirely wrong. But they all suffer from one fatal flaw: I don't think the Conservative Party under David Cameron called the referendum to actually give the voters a say in whether they wanted to Brexit or not. I think it was about shutting up the Eurosceptic wing of his party. I think it was about outflanking UKIP.** I don't for one second think that he actually thought the country would vote to leave...

And that's the flaming bag of dog shit that was handed to Theresa May and to be honest, she's done about as well you could expect for someone holding a bag of dog shit that's on fire. Granted, she illustrated why snap elections are never a good idea*** and thought she had a plan, which got laughed out of the room after Chequers and then managed to hammer out a deal with the EU which she presented to her Cabinet only to find out that as with such big, messy important things, the compromises necessary to produce anything at all please absolutely nobody.

To me, it was obvious that the politicians were only saying they wanted to Leave when they started negotiating with the EU to begin with. The British Government has been prairie-dogging this particular turd for months now, unsure if they want to shit or just get off the pot altogether. My preference would have been to shit from day one. (If you say you're going to do something, then do it. I don't really have an opinion on Brexit one way or the other. I can see why people wanted to Leave and I can for sure see why folks wanted to Remain.) Prepare for a No Deal Brexit. Send out your envoys to negotiate trade deals. Get some economic love going with the major Commonwealth countries. Figure out a deal with Ireland. And granted, I know, its far far more complicated than that. Undoing four decades of ties with Europe isn't something that one can do in a paragraph- but for crying out loud, you'd think that if they were committed to honoring this non-binding referendum of theirs that the Conservatives would have, I don't know, been ready to implement something with a modicum of competence on day one?

Preparing for a No Deal Brexit from Day One would have been a good start. Accepting that the EU was never going to give the UK a good deal from Day One would have been another. They don't want to give other member states ideas- it goes back to that fundamental problem with it's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure. People (he said, with no scientific basis for his assertion whatsoever) probably aren't crazy about having national governments be subject to some damn council somewhere else. They'll put up with it, because you know- EU passports, man. But I'm willing to bet they're not crazy about it. So they can't give the UK a nice pat on the back and an amicable divorce, because that would give voters in other countries ideas. And they can't be having that.

The bargaining chip for the UK should have been the divorce bill. The EU wants something like 39 billion pounds and any British Government coming to the table without a flaming bag of dog shit in its hand should have had the spine to say that not one pence would be paid until they get a deal they can live with.

So what now? Damned if I know. It's the greatest train wreck on planet Earth at the moment. Assuming Theresa May hasn't used up her nine lives by this point, I think she survives- if for no other reason than I don't think the Tories like Boris Johnson all that much and they probably like the thought of Jacob Reese-Mogg even less (I mean, I wasn't around when Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister. It might be a novel experience to see what Reese-Mogg would be like in 10 Downing Street. Like Back To The Future cosplay gone awry.) The irony of ironies of course is that Scotland is watching carefully. Northern Ireland doesn't seem thrilled the prospect of being a doorstop or a backstop  or whatever the hell they're supposed to be. After staving off a vote on Scottish independence, a botched Brexit could lead to just that- with a bonus possibility of a united Ireland to boot.

How's that for a Brexit no one saw coming?

*'Taking Back Control' sounds an awful lot like 'Make America Great Again' or that probably forgotten Howard Dean slogan from '04: 'We're Going To Take Our Country Back.' The latter always perplexed me a bit. I mean, where did America go? Did it move in with Mom? Was there a custody battle of some kind?

**UKIP is a ridiculous name for a political party. It makes me think of fish. "You kip?" "Yes, please, but only on toast." "You kip if you want too, this fish is not for turning. Unless it's done on that side and you need to add some lemon."

***Do Tory Prime Ministers not read history anymore? Edward Heath called a snap election back in the 70s by asking the somewhat unfortunate question, 'Who Governs Britain?' The voters, somewhat surprised by the question decided that whomever it was going to be, it wasn't going to be Edward Heath anymore.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Worth Putting Into Words

I think it was Monday when I noticed that #SurvivorDay was trending on Twitter. I figured out quickly what it was and read through Tweet after Tweet, recognizing the familiarity of the pain of those left behind by suicide. Then, I really thought about doing what I usually do- which is keep it to myself. Never share, except with those very closest to me. It's not something that I've ever thought I could put into words, but for whatever reason, between those Tweets yesterday and one strange, beautiful moment over the weekend, I thought that now might be a good time to try.

(Maybe it's the weather or something in the air, but we're on our second welfare check of the day already. It's entirely possible that I'll write this post, read it, delete it and decide once more that it's not something that I can put into words. If you're reading this paragraph, then you'll know I decided to post it anyway. Because maybe some things are worth putting into words.)

So, Survivor Day.

I felt a tornado go by me once. I was in the library downtown and my ears popped as it roared through, carving a path of destruction through the rest of downtown, up Iowa Avenue and then out to the northeast. They sounded the all clear and we stumbled out of the library into darkness. There was no power. There were no street lights. Power lines were down all throughout the city. Gas lines were ruptured and you could hear them hissing in the darkness as you picked your way through the debris. Trees were everywhere. It was goddamn natural disaster.

So yeah, Survivor Day seems like a pretty accurate way to describe it, because suicide is a natural disaster for the people left behind. You're left standing in the rubble. Numb. Bruised. Broken. And you're not at all sure what to do with yourself. You run on automatic for awhile and eventually you come back to life, but everything is ever so slightly askew. Your universe is out of balance and always will be. That's really the hardest part to come to grips with.

"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." You hear this so much, but it's true. It may not feel like it's ever going to get better, but it will. It may take weeks or months or years or finding the right combination of meds and therapy. You can be better though. It'll take time, but you can be better. So, if you're out there, reading this, please stay.

It's been a few years, so it's different now. The rubble has been cleared away, the house rebuilt. But it's different. You remember what it looked like before. It'll never look quite right to you again and the grief surprises you, often in ways you least expect.

We gave Kelvin a haircut over the weekend. His bangs were hanging over his eyes again and he was looking like a miniature version of Davy Jones from The Monkees. We took the plunge and gave him a buzz cut- because when you're in a house full of boys, you may as well keep it simple and just have shearing weekends every so often. As I was sitting there on the floor, looking up at him, holding the towel around his neck, so he wouldn't get too itchy we were laughing at him squirming and giggling when it tickled. As more and more of hair fell to the ground though, an extraordinary thing happened. For just a moment, one beautiful moment, I realized I was looking at my little brother.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sportsyball: Purple With Frustration

Gather round, kids and let me tell you the story of why I hate Northwestern so much. It all begins, some years ago when the Missus, The Quiet Man and I were stuck at one of those random tables you find at weddings. You know the ones: you're not family but you're not in the bridal party, so you sort of get categorized into the 'friends' category and then sit around and stare at each other until someone begins to make random, awkward conversation.

That's pretty much how it went at this wedding. We listened to them talk about how they had gone up to Door County and rented a cabin for the weekend. And how they played badminton on the beach with their friends, all of whom seemed to have obnoxious, upper class names like Mitchell (or Muffy). Eventually, the awkward small talk phase of the evening began with an inquiry on how we all knew the bride. The Quiet Man and I explained that we had gone to high school with her, which lead to the following exchange:

Mitchell (or Muffy): Oh, so you guys went to Iowa then?

Me: Yep.

Mitchel (or Muffy): Beaten you guys four out of the last five years in football! We put that in our family Christmas letter.

Instantly, kids, Northwestern went from the nerd school that I couldn't care less about to the one school I hated more than any in the conference. (Nebraska slots in just behind them solely for their moronic and ridiculous insistence on having a Black Friday game which inevitably throws a wrench into my Thanksgiving plans every other year.) Whenever we beat Northwestern, I always think of Mitchell (or Muffy) and how sad their Christmas letter is going to be this year. When we lose to Northwestern, my blood boils at the thought of Mitchell (or Muffy) gleeful crafting their Christmas letter on expensive boutique artisan paper and including the news that once more Northwestern has beaten Iowa and made us look like fools. (Mitchell (or Muffy), of course, write on their boutique artisan paper with a pen so expensive, it's rage inducing.)

Is all of this just a little petty?  Well, yes. But it's Northwestern versus Iowa. The legend goes that back in the 80s, when Pat Fitzgerald was a player, one of Hayden Fry's teams evaporated Northwestern by a bunch of points. After the game, Fry said something to the effect of 'Hope we didn't hurt your boys too much.' That one, off-handed remark seemed to encode levels of petty, gleeful rage into Northwestern football that has only grown with the decades. They seem to revel in beating Iowa. They get amped up for it. Every year, they seem to come down to the metaphorical gun fight with big, scary looking guns and it's only about halfway through the second quarter that we seem to realize that we're holding a butter knife because we left our six shooter in the team bus.

All of which brings me back around to this: I hate losing to Northwestern.

I think the biggest challenge facing the Iowa football program is probably how to manage Kirk's eventual exit/retirement. I don't know if we'll ever get another Coach to stay here twenty years like he has- and increasingly, tenure such as his seems to be the exception and not the rule, but knowing when to say goodbye is probably the hardest part- especially if you're still relatively young and you still feel like you've got gas left in the tank.

Perfectly competent and average football is nothing to be sneezed at. Plenty of programs have fired Coaches and in retrospect probably regretted it. (See: Minnesota and Glen Mason, Tennessee and well, the last ten years or so.) I'd like to think my expectations are somewhat realistic compared to other folks in the fan base. I don't expect to make the playoff every year. I'm not asking to compete for the 'natty. I also remember when it was pretty cool just to make a bowl game.

But when you begin to see diminishing returns on your baseline for success, it's time to step back and ask if we should be better than this. Maybe this question is premature. Maybe they get monumentally pissed off and unleash three games worth of frustration on Illinois and Nebraska and we finish 8-4. Or maybe we continue to be maddeningly middling and we finish 6-6. But for so long, Iowa's brand of football has been sold to fans as a bowl of Grape Nuts. It's not particularly exciting. It doesn't necessarily look all that great. But if you eat it long enough, you'll see the health benefits.  But the problem with eating Grape Nuts is that eventually you get sick of 'em- but they're also healthy enough for you that you can't really justify not eating them.

We lost to Northwestern. I hate losing to Northwestern. I'm not really sure I'm on the 'fire everybody' bandwagon just yet, but I know for damn sure I'm getting mighty sick of Grape Nuts.

Friday, November 9, 2018

NANOWRIMO: Nine Days In

I decided to actually roll up my sleeves and do NANOWRIMO this year on a whim, really. I always think about doing it and have for several years now, but one thing always seems to lead to another and I never actually get it off the ground. But this year, it seemed tailor made to beat the pile of words I already had for my third book into shape and so far, I couldn't be happier with how it's going.

Right now, nine days in and I'm flying...  I've taken a pile of words that I wasn't getting anywhere with and hopefully (hopefully) by the end of the month it's going to be the working draft of my third novel. Why the success?

First: outlining, outlining, outlining. I've done it before on other projects, but for whatever reason I didn't really sit down and do a full outline for this one. When I finally did, a week or so before the start of November, it was like everything clicked. I wasn't going to just drop the readers into the story as I had originally planned- I crafted a fresh start and slotted what was my start in at about Chapter Three. And it worked...  I'm actually surprised how well it worked. (For the record: I may reach 50,000 words well before the end of the month, but I plan on going well beyond that. I want to finish the damn thing this month not just get my winner's badge and quit.)

Second: if you've noticed that blogging is a little lighter than usual this month, well, this is why. I wanted to put my novel on the front burner and that meant slowing down the content generation on the blog side for a month or so. It's something I usually do anyway, because I like to stop and think about where the blog is an what I'm going to do with the blog in the next year or so. All this writing is nice, but if you're going to build a car, you can gain a great deal of pleasure from the act of doing so- yet at the same time, if you're going to go to all that trouble you want to take it somewhere, you know? That's the challenge of my blog- a challenge that I wanted to set aside to concentrate on this for awhile.

I've been sitting on six, seven chapters of a novel and have been curiously unsatisfied with it all since about late last year. Thirty days to kick it in the ass and bring some life back into it? A short, sharp shock seems to be exactly what it needed. I don't know what it's going to look like when it's done- but it's going to be done. That's the most important thing of all. Never underestimate the power of giving your writing a short, sharp shock- even a month long one seems to have done wonders for this book- and I'm only nine days into the actual month.

Third: taking one chunk at a time seems to have been the secret to a lot of my success as well. The whole point of NANOWRIMO is to just write write write and not worry about the quality until you've got a mountain of words at the other end of the month. Normally, I'd say I'd be more concerned about having it all feel right to me before moving along- but I think that's also where the outlining comes into play. If it makes sense on your outline, then it might be a lot easier to take it one chunk at a time and just keep on moving.

Would I do this again? You know, I think I would. It's always popped onto my radar and after making excuse after excuse finally doing it feels pretty awesome actually. I think the next challenge for NANOWRIMO is going to be outlining a novel and then just writing it cold from day one instead of using this as a platform to beat an existing pile of words into the shape of a novel. (It sort of feels like cheating a little, but I'm also on track to exceed 50K words well before the end of the month. My challenge with this isn't to reach 50K...  it's to end with a working draft of my third novel. So far, so good.)

Okay: back to writing. I just wanted to update y'all on what I'm doing and why blogging has been relatively light as of late.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Midterms: Let's Get Weird

I'm still scratching my head over this one, gang. Really and truly, there was weirdness all over the map last night and here in Iowa was no exception either.

The Weird: Nebraska, Utah and Idaho voted to expand Medicaid. Arkansas and Missouri voted to raise their minimum wage. Utah and Missouri voted in Medicinal Marijuana (Michigan legalized for recreational use, North Dakota did not). My favorite of the night was probably Florida, who elected a Republican Governor (and probably a Republican Senator) while passing amendments to require a 2/3 legislative majority to raise taxes AND another one to restore voting rights to millions of felons. All kinds of mixed messages all over the place last night. 

Glass Ceilings: Record numbers of women were elected to the House last night- I don't know if they'll  break 100 seats in the House, but they're pretty damn close at 95 seats so far. Iowa, who hadn't elected any women to anything before Senator Joni Ernst won in 2014, now has a woman for Governor (not that I'm pleased about that) and sent not one, but two women to the House last night. If you're about Representation for women in politics, well half of Iowa's Congressional delegation is now female. That's a good thing in my book. The first Muslim women, the first Native American women and a few women under 30 also won. 

The Beto Thing: Well, he didn't win. But, I think there's an argument to be made that his energy and his coattails were long enough to snag the Democrats some Congressional seats down in Texas. The fact that he made it an actual race is pretty damn impressive. 

Do I think he should run for President? To be honest, I don't. I would love it if he ran for Governor of Texas and won and then used that as a springboard for a Presidential run- but I think a candidate who hasn't managed to win an election in his home state might be a hard sell to voters.

But then I think about who's President and remember that before 2016, he hadn't run for a damn thing either, so who knows? I think up is down, black is white and we can't take conventional political wisdom as gospel anymore.The immediate lesson from Beto is probably the most important for 2020... he was upbeat, positive, talked about his vision for Texas and what he wanted to do for Texas. Tim Walz did a similar thing on his way to winning the Governor's race in Minnesota, with his vision for 'One Minnesota.' I think the appeal of Bernie Sanders was tied to a lot of the same themes-- a solid vision for the country with specific plans on how to improve people's lives delivered in a positive, unifying way? Democrats should be taking notes.

(It's also worth noting that President Trump with his 'Make American Great Again' could also qualify as one of these unifying messages- though I'd consider it to be more of a 'darkest timeline'/Star Trek Mirror Universe one at the moment.)

Oh, Let's Talk About Iowa Then: So, the Democrats flipped the 1st and 3rd Districts and made Steve King sweat it out in the 4th before he (unfortunately) pulled away. The real disappointment was probably the Governor's race, where it looked like Fred Hubbell was in position to eke out a narrow win, but as it turns out his lead kept shrinking throughout the night and Kim Reynolds caught him at the finish line to take it. Hubbell won where he was supposed to win, but Reynolds took the 'burbs and exurbs of Dallas County (right next door to Des Moines) and won comfortably in Pottawattamie and Woodbury Counties. (Council Bluffs and Sioux City respectively.) Hubbell probably needed to win Dallas County and keep the margins a lot closer in the other two to have had a realistic shot. 

It's easy to be bummed by the Hubbell loss, but I think it's important to note that in a state that went for Trump by nine points, we send three Democrats back to Congress and came within a whisker of getting another Governorship. Does this make Iowa more purple than red? I don't know- Democrats didn't flip either chamber of the State House, so the Republicans still have full control of the state government. It's kind of a muddle and I don't quite yet know what it means. In another wrinkle of weirdness, Hubbell posted similar numbers to Axne in the 3rd District (she managed to win there), but JD Scholten won in Woodbury, Webster, Boone, Cerro Gordo and Floyd Counties. Hubbell kept the margins decent in Cerro Gordo and Boone, but they weren't close anywhere else. Does this mean Hubbell was a bad candidate? No. It's a far cry from Jack Hatch's 98 county wipe out in 2014. It's also not like Hubbell was blown out either.

I have no idea what it all means. That's really where I'm at. The State Democratic Party has a pulse? Sort of? It's doing okay? It's got a foundation to build on for 2020? 

(An overlooked bright spot: Democrats won the State Auditor's Race. So that's good.)

What's It All Mean For 2020: I haven't the foggiest. I get the feeling that large portions of the county would prefer to have someone else as President (literally anyone else in some parts) but the economic indicators being what they are, they're not really in a 'throw the bums out' kind of a mood yet either. Activity at the state level like expanding Medicaid and legalization of marijuana and gerrymandering and redistricting reforms here and there advance what a lot of people would consider to be 'progressive' agenda items while keeping Republicans in charge. It's weeeeeeeeird. (I like this headline: In 2018, voters made US politics normal again. That's... kind of true.)

It's really kind of a mixed bag all over the place, depending on what you want to hang your hat on. Democrats regained ground in the Midwest, capturing Governorships in Wisconsin, Michigan and Kansas, but losing them in Iowa and Ohio- yet the latter two states flipped two Democratic seats and re-elected a Democratic Senator respectively. I have no idea what to make of that. Progressive rock stars didn't do so well: Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O'Rourke lost their race, but not by much in the case of Mr. Gillum. (Abrams is also refusing to concede in Georgia as of this writing- I don't know if she can force a runoff, but if she can that's still on the table.)

The Democrats have begun to climb out of their hole on the state level. That's good. I'll be happy about that. But the weirdness of this election is just going sit with me for awhile I think. I have no idea what this is going to mean for 2020.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Bookshot #113: Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons is one of those books that I've had kicking around on my shelf for years now, but I had never actually gotten around to reading. After finishing up our Roald Dahl books, I tried it with Austin for a chapter or two to see if maybe he would be interested in reading it next, but he didn't really click with it and we snagged Mossflower instead- but then I figured, if I had read a couple of chapters I might as well just keep reading it to see what it was all about.

The adventures of the children from two families during their summer vacation, Swallows and Amazons related the adventures of the Walker children, (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) who are staying at a farm in the Lake District and borrow a dinghy named Swallow to sail to an island in the lake near their home, which they name Wildcat Island. Their mother allows them to go and camp on the island and once there, they meet the Blackett Children (Nancy and Peggy) who sail in a dinghy named Amazon. They join forces against their common enemy, Captain Flint, who lives in a houseboat nearby.

Captain Flint is actually the Uncle of the Amazons, named Jim Turner. Normally, he's more of an ally to his nieces, but this summer, he's shutting himself away so he can attempt to write his memoirs and has become increasingly unfriendly to them. The Amazons go so far as to set off a firework on the houseboat roof, but it's the Swallows who get blamed for it- when John, the 'captain' of the Swallows goes to tell Jim that they had nothing to do with the firework on his houseboat and pass a warning they receive about burglars in the area, he doesn't listen to John and refuses to believe.

Joining forces with the Amazons, the children declare war against Captain Flint- but before they go to war, they have to determine who will lead the campaign, so they devise a contest between the two to see who can capture the others boat. This involves a dangerous crossing of the lake by night by the majority of the Swallows, which are cautioned against it by their mother, but they do it anyway. Titty, who stays behind to guard the island wins them the contest by capturing the Amazon, but also hears another boat go by- containing suspicious voices rowing from another nearby island. The next morning, while the Swallows celebrate their victory, it is revealed that Captain Flint's houseboat has been burgled. Turner initially blames the Walkers again, but is convinced of their innocence and realizes that he was wrong to distance himself from his nieces all summer. He apologizes to John for accusing him of being involved in the initial attack on his houseboat and agrees to give them one hell of a fight as 'Captain Flint' if they come to take his houseboat.

There's a mock battle between the children and Captain Flint the next day and the children take the houseboat, try him for his 'crimes' and make him walk the plank. Their conflict settled, they all agree to spend the next and final day of their holidays fishing and to have one final feast. Titty and Roger sail over to the nearby Cormorant Island (where Titty heard the mysterious voices coming from the night the Swallows captured the Amazon) in search of Captain Flint's missing trunk. She finds the trunk, the memoirs that Turner has been working on and is rewarded with custody of his green parrot.

A wild thunderstorm lets the know that the summer is over and it's time for them to head back to school. They sail back to their homes and both groups of children promise to see each other again, their adventures over- at least for now.

Overall, it's delightfully British. If you've read any Enid Blyton or any other 'adventure books' back in the day, then this will feel very familiar to you. I love that it's a throwback to a much simpler time when children had more freedom to explore and more importantly, to imagine adventures for themselves. It might feel a little dated against something like Harry Potter or more contemporary children's books, but it's still worth a read. Adventures are important for children of any age or era and Swallows and Amazons is a delightful reminder of the power of imagination and the magic of childhood. (Also: apparently it's a series of twelve books? That kind of blew my mind- so I guess there's more reading to do- even though my omnibus edition only contain Winter Holiday.) My Grade: **** out of ****