In Honor of Cruise Ships

First there was a Costa cruise ship that ran aground while the captain was evidently flirting with a blond lady. Yesterday there was a fire in a Costa cruise ship engine room, leaving the ship helpless in pirate waters north of the Seychelles.

So before all the cruise ships sink to the bottom of the deep blue sea or are taken over by pirates (arrrgh!!) I thought I should post some cruise ship pictures. Such times may be but a memory if things continue in the industry.

I replaced the old header photos with a dozen new ones. The headers will appear randomly on the site with each refresh of the page. Since refreshing the page is a bit of a crap shoot for bringing up pictures, I’ve posted them below.

Two cruise ships docked somewhere in the Caribbean

A frigate bird floats in the air looking for a morsel along the beach.

The "Lawn Club" -- real grass on the top deck of the Celebrity Solstice.

The harbor at St. Maarten - the Dutch side of the island

Going to heaven? No just boarding the ship from the Zodiacs near Walrus Island in Canada. Cruise Ship? not exactly. One probably ought to call it an "Expedition Ship."

A piece of driftwood on a local lake. I wonder if it could sink a cruise ship? Good thing they don't sail Crystal Cove Lake!

A pelican looking for a handout

A street vendor in the Casco Viejo District of Panama City

Joshua Tree blossoms after a March thunderstorm in the desert

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly resting in some ivy in the Colorado mountains

A father and son playing chess in the library of the Norwegian Spirit

A turtle in the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border

Granted, they’re not all cruise ship pictures. But variety is the spice of life.

It’s EXACTLY the Same … Except for the Sleet, Snow, and ICE!

The Sioux City Journal reports that Sioux City is in for sleet, ice, snow, rain, and even a thunderstorm, pretty much all at the same time. Columnist Earl Horlyk calls it a day of “weather’s greatest hits.”

We’re getting exactly the same stuff down here in Mississippi … except for the sleet, snow, and ice. That’s probably because the overnight low was 60 and it’s supposed to get into the 70s today.

In related news, the Sioux City Muskateers … that’s the local hockey team … there’s really no need to add the adjective ice hockey because in the land of snow, sleet, and ice it’s pretty easy to figure out that we’re not talking about field hockey … but I digress … refer to the previous post for how this relates to field hockey … The Sioux City Muskateers lost a game to Des Moines.

At least the Muskies didn’t lose to the Ice Rebels … or Slush Rebels, or Luke-Warm-Water-Flooding-an-Arena-Rebels, or whatever they call that ice hockey squad up in Oxford, MS, where, by the way, they too are getting exactly the same weather as Sioux City … except for the sleet, snow, and ice.

When Hell Freezes Over

Ever been to Mississippi in July? We were in Mississippi last July, and I suspect that, other than the humidity (something Mississippi no doubt has more of) and the smell of sulphur (something Hell no doubt has more of) there is a remarkable similarity between Hell and Mississippi in July. (By the way, Mississippi is quite pleasant in February. Today the temp here in Port Gibson (that would be Mississippi, not Hell) was 69 and I was sitting outside in the sun beside a lovely camellia tree which actually blooms in February.

But I digress.

Let me review. If one compares and contrasts Hell and Mississipi in July, we suspect that the humidity is much higher in Mississippi but the smell of sulphur is not as pronounced … oh yes, and we also suspect hell doesn’t boast camellias.

Anyway, the image of hell freezing over came to mind last Friday at lunch when a woman who works at Chamberlain-Hunt informed me that both Ole Miss and Mississippi State have ice hockey teams. (This also brought to mind a whole new level to the concept of “penalty box,” but I am probably digressing yet again.)

O.K. Here’s a clue, if you have to add the adjective “ice” to hockey on the jersey, chances are you should probably stick to field hockey at your college. The only thing weirder is that the Florida Gators are not only ahead of Ole Miss, but are leading the division.

Let’s see, would that be the “Ice Gators”? That’s just so wrong. Of course, they’ll never beat the “big dogs” up in Michigan, or Boston College, or Minnesota-Duluth …

… at least not until hell freezes over.

A Tale of Two Regions

DATELINE: Port Gibson, MS. On our way to Mississippi to visit family we stayed overnight in Dumas, Arkansas, which, according to local claim, is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region. (This is not the “Mississippi River Delta” as in the “mouth of the river” south of New Orleans; this is “Mississippi Delta” as in the flat, delta-like land stretching either side of the river from Memphis to Vicksburg where “Delta Blues” music came from.)

Thursday morning we drove south from Dumas through the heart of the Mississippi Delta – some of the richest farmland in America. Last summer some of this land was under the waters of a so-called “500 Year Flood” along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This year the farmers are getting it back into cultivation. Seeing this recently ravaged, but once again reclaimed and productive land got me thinking about capitalism, mercantilism, and liberty – a topic I haven’t attended to in these essays for quite some time. [Just a note: On the right side of the web page, scroll down to the “Posts by Category” section and click on the “Liberty” category to see the eight previous essays in this series.)

In my essays on liberty I have made a careful distinction between Capitalism and Mercantilism.  Capitalism is an economic system rooted in the free market where market forces determine production, prices, distribution, etc. In political and classroom discourse, Classical Capitalism is most typically contrasted with Classical Socialism, which can be defined as State involvement or control of the means of production, distribution, and prices.

But America is neither capitalistic nor socialistic (although these terms get thrown about a lot, albeit in a rather loose manner). The economic system we have is more properly understood as Mercantilism.  For a detailed technical discussion of mercantilism the article in the Library of Economics and Liberty is very good. For a brief definition, mercantilism is a system of cooperation between government and big business through which big business reaps most of the rewards while much of the risk is born by the taxpayers.

Historically, when money was backed by gold, this arrangement allowed governments build their gold reserves. The trade-off was to give the big businesses with which they were cooperating a competitive advantage. Large multinational businesses were able to increase their profit with little risk while governments built their gold reserves through the resulting trade imbalances, and as long as things were good, everyone in the country benefited. But when things took a turn for the worse, the taxpayer took the brunt of the loss, leaving big business with their profits intact and the government with gold.

Since the demise of hard currency back in the 70s mercantilism has a slightly different character, but the basic structure remains the same. There is close cooperation between big business and government (and today we would have to add the big banks and their currency manipulation which have replaced the hard currency of gold as the third leg to this stool). But it is still true that when there is a downturn, the taxpayer remains responsible for most of the risk.

Wednesday afternoon, on our trip from Kansas City to Dumas, we drove through some of the prettiest country in the U.S. The Ozarks, from Springfield, Missouri down to Little Rock, Arkansas, besides boasting great beauty, also lay claim to very thin, rocky soil which results in poor farmland. the effect is a poverty-stricken region where the farmers barely survive on their farms and the surrounding communities that support the farms are equally poor because so little profit is made on the farms.

In contrast, some of America’s richest agricultural land is found in the Mississippi Delta region a couple hundred miles to the southeast. Historically, the people who were lucky enough to settle in that region made huge fortunes through farming. Even today it is valuable farm land where huge profits can be made.

Of course the reason the Mississippi Delta soil is so rich is that the whole region is river bottomland that, without human intervention, is prone to flooding and periodic changes in the path of the river. The very wealth of the land is built on the destructiveness of the river. In modern times we’ve channelized the river and turned this bottomland into seemingly permanent farmland. The farmers who own it now get the benefit of the once erratic river while the taxpayers pay the cost of the levee system that controls the river. (And only the occasional 500 year flood belies the myth that we control the river.)

And in the event of a 500 year flood, these bottomland farmers also receive payments from the government taxpayers for the destruction of crops and property. The poverty stricken farmers up in the Ozarks have none of the advantages of the farmers in the Delta. Yet when that 500 year flood comes along or a levee needs to be rebuilt, the Ozark farmer’s taxes go to pay for the Delta farmers’ success. In other words, the reward goes to the Delta farmers with the risk passed off to the taxpayers … the very essence of mercantilism.

This illustrates the great extent to which mercantilism has infiltrated our economic system. It is no longer just cooperation between big business and government for the sake of successful foreign trade and a positive trade balance (the classic definition of mercantilism); it is now a cooperative effort between even small businesses and government at the expense of all the taxpayers.

Liberty could be described as “the conditions which allow people to govern themselves.” Our contemporary system of mercantilism, where some people are able to make large profits while passing off the high risk to the taxpayer, undermines liberty because mercantilism is necessarily rooted in coercion. (Those poor Ozark farmers do not willingly nor gladly pay the cost of the risk while the Delta farmers get to keep the majority of the reward.) And once a system of coercion is in place, we become accustomed to government coercion and allow it in other facets of our life together. Coercion – any coercion – is an acid which eats away at the foundation of liberty, creating a culture of dependence.

Sing those Delta blues, my friend, but don’t sing for those Delta farmers, sing it for the Ozark mountain folk eeking out a living in the rocky hardpan hills. That lonesome music may be the only reward they’ll get. for risking their future to the vagaries of mountain farming.

Thanks Mom

A couple of months ago, while looking for my padded coveralls I used to wear trucking, I ran across a vest my mother made me from a kit many years ago. I suspect she made it while I was in junior high because we bought the vest kit at the same time we got a set of panniers and a handlebar bag for my bike. I believe I got my bike in 7th grade and got serious about long distance riding in the two years prior to 1976 (because the northern Bikecentennial cross-country route came through Malta). The vest is also a reversible hunting vest, and I had pretty much quit hunting by the time I got into high school. So I suspect mom made this thing in 72, 73, or 74.

Goose Down Vest

It has oil stains and is certainly rough around the edges, so I don’t wear it out in public, but it is still a very servicable vest for lounging around the house, or when I’m hunting for my keys. (It’s worth noting how much wearing a hunting vest helps when hunting for this or that around the house.) Fortunately, some of the loft has gone out of the goose down, so there’s a bit of extra room in it, and wearing oversize clothes with waffle stompers (hiking boots with those huge, old-fashioned Vibram soles) was way cool in the mid 70s.

What’s amazing to me is the quality of construction in this vest. It’s a nearly 30 year old vest and the goose down hasn’t leaked out. That’s because of the design. All the fabric had to be double folded before it was sewn together. It was an unbelievable amount of work to get nylon (which doesn’t fold very well) to stay in place. We spent hours getting everything pinned just right. Then I would hold the pieces in place as she slid them through the sewing machine.

This zipper illustrates the complexity of the project.

A closeup of the vest zipper

Nylon jackets are a royal pain because that little flap of cloth that covers the zipper tends to get caught in the zipper because it is so thin. This vest has a cord sewn into the zipper flap so that it cannot get caught in the zipper. Getting that cord sewn into that flap took hours all by itself. Trying to get it straight, without any bunching was a nightmare.

I think mom actually enjoyed the project. I remember that I felt guilty for getting her into it. I had no idea how much work it would entail when we ordered the kit. She did an absolutely phenomenal job on it — as this 30 year old vest attests.

And, by the way, the panniers were, in some ways, an even more difficult project. They were made out of heavy duty waterproof nylon. Mom had to use extremely heavy duty needles, and she still broke several of them. Her little Singer sewing machine didn’t have a big enough motor to handle that project, so it went quite slowly as she turned the motor by hand when trying to force the needle through several layers of waterproof nylon.

Sadly, I never found a biking partner, so I never went on a long trip on my bike. So, the panniers were never really put to the test, although I used the saddle bag and handlebar bag quite a bit.

Anyway, thanks mom. That was an remarkable bit of sewing you did on those two projects, and an remarkable bit of patience you showed for a son who got you involved in a project that was far bigger than either of us suspected.

More Adventures in Cooking

I know. I’m in danger of turning this into a food blog! Oh well, I guess that’s what fascinates me at the moment.

I was with my brother and sister-in-law last week, and Marc mocked me and gave me no end of grief for my revised Basque Lamb Stew recipe (which replaced the lamb with bison meat and added poblano peppers — both from the Americas rather than the Iberian Peninsula). Well, tonight I had the bison meat thawing and had a hankering for tomatillos. As a result, the recipe went totally off the rails, and it turned out pretty darn good. But I’ll definitely have to change the name. I think I’ll call it “Bosque Buffalo Stew.”

In case you didn’t notice, I changed the “a” to an “o.” Bosque refers to “areas of gallery forest found along the riparian flood plains of stream and river banks in the southwestern United States” (see Wikipedia — the only reason I know this is that a good friend from high school lives in Bosque Farms, NM — a southern suburb of Albuquerque). For any of my readers who are overly critical, I realize this dish doesn’t have anything to do with bosque. But I figure people in the S.W. U.S. eat a lot of poblano peppers and tomatillos. Furthermore, bison, if they would have wondered down there back in the day, would probably have spent a lot of time along the river bank among the riparian forests enjoying the shade and clear, cool water. So while not particularly precise, I do think the new name is evocative of cultures and flavors reflected in tonight’s dinner.

Tonight I browned up a pound of bison steak cut into bite size chunks. (By the way, it is the most beautiful meat. Not quite as dark in color as elk or moose, it is still a very deep red and the color is more vibrant than any variety of deer meat. It is beautiful laying out on the cutting board.) I set that aside and sauted a trinity of onion, pepper (roasted poblano and roasted red bell), and celery. I then spiced it up with lots of rosemary (true to the original recipe), oregano, paprika, ancho chili powder, and cayenne pepper (true to the bosque), and then added a half pound of tomatillos and a few ounces of red wine, cooked it for a few minutes on the stove top and then stuck it in the oven for the rest of the afternoon.

For a veg, I grated up raw cauliflower in a food processor and cooked that in just a bit of beef stock on the stove for fifteen minutes. The end result is very similar to rice. I poured the stew over the top. (Another homage to Mexican cooking — chili verde over rice. Granted my bosque stew was a far cry from chili verde, which is where tomatillos generally end up, but the slight sourness of the tomatillos worked very well with the dark and savory flavors of the buffalo and rosemary.)

We added a salad and some home made bread and voila, it was a riparian delight. (I do live by the river, after all.)

Adventures in Cooking

Tonight was nearly the sort of disaster that causes one to throw up the hands in defeat and go out to eat. This morning I pulled a sirloin steak out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner. We buy grass fed, grass finished beef from the One Stop Meat Shop in Sioux City. (I prefer my corn on the cob, not on the hoof.) Since they’re a small operation all their meat is cryo-vac’d and frozen. It is also great quality meat — very little shrinkage, etc. But because it’s cryo-vac’d it’s sometimes hard to see exactly what one is getting.

Tonight’s steak was a classic example of that rare occasion when you get something less than you expect. It was just over a pound of bone-in sirloin, but the bone looked tiny, so I was pretty sure there would be plenty for both of us. Turned out the bone (actually, two separate bones) was big and the meat loaded in gristle. By the time I finished trimming and cussing and trimming, we had six ounces of actual meat left, most of it in tiny little pieces.

I was planning on grilling the slab outside and then slicing it into several strips for serving. No way that was happening. Time to punt.

I hurried up and put a half pound of cauliflower in the steamer and started heating an itsy-bitsy saute pan to brown the meat. (After all, when all you have is 6 oz of sirloin, all you need is an itsy-bitsy saute pan.) After browning the meat I doused it liberally with curry powder, poured some almond milk into the pan and cooked it on low until just before dinner time to see if I could tenderize it a bit.

After the cauliflower was soft, I mashed it up with a fork — it ends up in a consistency very similar to mashed potatoes — and put some salt and curry powder in that, stuck it in the oven to keep it warm and turned my attention to the itsy-bitsy saute pan. Sure enough, since I was dealing with sirloin instead of loaves and fishes, there was still an itsy-bitsy amount of meat in there (even with no shrinkage, when you start with itsy-bitsy, you tend to end up with itsy-bitsy). It was also pretty tough, but edible … but the almond milk had remained thin as water. (I’ve never cooked this way with almond milk; I was hoping it would thicken up like coconut milk does.) So I added some corn starch and managed to get a fairly thick, yellow sauce, slightly sweet and loaded in curry flavor, to coat the meat.

Meanwhile, I also had prepped a couple of servings of broccoli and was steaming that in the steamer. Since the water was already hot (from the cauliflower), it didn’t take long.

Plating: I pulled the mashed curry cauliflower out of the oven and put it on the plate. It was a substitute for rice. Over that I poured the curry beef, put a serving of broccoli and a roll beside the curry beef, and voila, we had an odd sort of Indian meal. And as long as you don’t buy into the whole Buddhist-reincarnation-cows-are-holy thing, I can assure you that no grandmothers were cooked in the preparation of this meal.

Other than the fact that 3 ounces of beef is decidedly not quite satisfying, it turned out to be a pretty good meal, and the whole thing (salad not included) came in at 400 calories. It’s going on my list for meals to keep in the dinner rotation.

And besides, we finally got some snow earlier this week. (Actually, we broke a record for snowfall that has stood for nearly a hundred years. But when you start with bare ground, 6.2″ of snow ain’t nothin.) Who wants to stand in that big ol’ drift of snow in front of the grill cooking steaks?

(Well, actually, I wanted to stand in that snow drift grilling steaks, or burgers, or brats, or something! But when all meat is still in thef freezer, frozen solid, one has to set out on a different sort of adventure in cooking.)

Amazing

Thursday evening I attended a prayer vigil for the father of a friend of ours. He was well known in his community (although I personally had never met him) so a very large crowd attended the vigil. Because I had not had an opportunity to see our grieving friend before the service began and because there were scores of people between us and the grieving family, and because those scores of people, for the most part were not grieving but enjoying the opportunity to see friends they evidently hadn’t seen in some time, I felt a disconnect from the proceedings at the front of the church. As a result I was an observer of place and events rather than a participant.

My initial reaction to both place an events was that this was oh, so typically American. It was a mongrel event: not purely Roman Catholic, but neither could it be called anything else.

It was at a Roman Catholic facility and the first thing I observed was how utterly un-Roman Catholic the worship space was. Architecturally it was an open auditorium in which the seating fanned out upward and concentrically from the stage area. If it weren’t for the stations of the cross, the statues of Mary and Joseph, and the crucifix hanging above the altar, I would have sworn that I was in a school auditorium or possibly a contemporary worship church building. It was difficult to even conceptualize the auditorium as a nave and the sunken stage as a sanctuary. And yet there on that stage was an altar and walking around the edge of that stage was a Roman Catholic priest.

The second thing I observed, which is typical of American funeral vigils, was the mixed crowd. Funeral directors loathe holding vigils in church buildings. Too many people who attend vigils do not understand how to act at a worship service in a church building. Crowd control for such an event is much easier for the funeral director when it is held at the funeral parlor. But this was a huge service and the crowd would not have fit into even the funeral home’s largest chapel. The majority of the crowd was Roman Catholic, but it was evident that a significant percentage had little to no clue what was going on.

The third thing which jumped out at me was the Knights of Columbus ritual, which immediately preceded the prayer vigil. In spite of the official history of the K of C, I’ve always considered them a bit of a mongrel organization – a proxy for the Masons – which Roman Catholic men wanted to join back in the late 19th century, but were (and still are) forbidden to do by church rules. I have always found Masonic funeral rituals (of which I have had to observe many), aside from their anti-Christian universalism, to be utterly silly, and Knights of Columbus funeral rituals, while at least Christian, doubly silly. Not only are they silly in their own right, they manage to be a caricature of their Masonic doppelgängers.

The granddaughter of the deceased was asked to sing a song, and she chose the Protestant staple, Amazing Grace. Granted, the distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic music is no longer meaningful, but given the fact that the song was sung in this auditorium/Roman Catholic nave, to a congregation comprised of a mongrel mix of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and friends from the community who were clueless about RC rubrics and responses, with two medieval “knights,” swords at attention, guarding the casket, the disconnect between this Evangelical experience song and a Roman Catholic funeral vigil was palpable for an observer of the proceedings such as me.

The young woman had a beautiful voice. She sang a cappella in an oldtimey style (to which this hymn lends itself). And then in the middle of those beautiful slides and flourishes (beautiful at least for those who appreciate oldtimey music), as she moved toward the high notes on the second verse, stylistically she slid from oldtimey into something which sounded much more R&B, as if, like young girls of her age across America, she was trying to copy Whitney Houston, or more likely, Mariah Carey. She had a well trained voice with good range and excellent control, so it didn’t turn into the dreaded Whitney or Mariah screech that so many young women confuse with singing, but it was certainly not oldtimey, and it was certainly foreign to Amazing Grace. (Lori, you would have adored this performance!)

As I’ve already noted, I’m disconnected from this service. At this point I’m having a hard time being a worshipper because I’m not a participant, I’m an outsider, and thus an observer. So, as this young woman slides from “Carter Family” perilously close to “Mariah Screech,” all while singing a venerable evangelical hymn of the church in a Roman Catholic “auditorium,” my mind wanders and it occurs to me that this is yet another instance of how disordered American religion has become: architecture, congregation, rituals, and now music and its mashed up style of performance illustrate this strange mongrel mix of all sorts of influences. Furthermore, because the American experience is so immature, none of this has coalesced into a coherent whole.

She finished the hymn by repeating the first stanza. But as she sang, the emotion of the moment, the death of her grandfather, the gathering of all the cousins, aunts, and uncles, and grieving grandmother, got the better of her. There was a catch in her voice, and then a hiccup, and then a sob. The performance was quickly falling apart … and then from somewhere in the congregation, a voice picked up the hymn and the song continued, and then the priest added his rich baritone. By the third phrase the congregation was singing Amazing Grace, as the young woman stood silent, tears streaming down her face.

And in this moment it seemed to me the mongrel group of mourners and friends in this mash-up of a worship space became one, a “congregation,” if you will. We continued the service, not by whispering and merely observing like passers-by, but by worshiping together.

As great as the hymn, Amazing Grace, is, it’s only half the story. Grace is the story of God’s reaching out to us. But for divine intent to be completed, the grace must be acted upon. God does not saddle humans with grace, as if it is akin to a horse with bit and bridle. He doesn’t cinch the cross to our back (to continue the metaphor); grace is an offer, a solving of a problem, a way in which two parties can come together. We must, in turn, take up the cross of our own accord. God offers; humans respond. We respond by reaching back to God; we respond by reaching out to others. And in that response (for “up” to God and “out” to others is the same motion) the Body of Christ is constituted.

Paul famously said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). What he was describing was a mongrel club which, through the call of grace and response of love, became a unity, a body, the Body of Christ.

And at that mongrel prayer vigil in that mongrel auditorium/nave with that mongrel group of disparate folk, we acted out a parable of what Paul was talking about. The singer called out “grace,” and when she could no longer sing, the people responded with love, finishing the song for her, first tentatively, and then with the assurance of that rich baritone voice, more confidently, and finally with real bittersweet joy. Mongrels no more, we were (as is supposed to happen in the liturgy) in heaven singing the heavenly song, the quick and the dead gathered together with angels and elders before her crucified and risen Lord.

Why I Like My Shirts

I have two shirts I purchased for our Canadian expedition a few years back. They’re skin-tight mock turtlenecks that are great for keeping the wind out and the body heat in. They’re getting old and I’ve been looking for replacements, but I’ve discovered they’re quite different from compression shirts (like the Under Armour stuff). Compression shirts are so tight they can be constricting. (I can feel almost claustrophobic in a long-sleeve compression shirt.) These aren’t like that; but neither do they just hang off your shoulders like a cotton shirt.

Folding my laundry this weekend I discovered why. They’re manufactured in Egypt!!! I suspect the thing I like about them so much is their Egyptian Spring.

Subaru: The Best Car to Use when Abandoning Your Dog

Have you seen the latest Subaru dog commercial? If can be found here. If you don’t want to watch it, here’s the gist. Dogs take the Subaru wagon deep out into the country, a long way from town, to the ski slope, where the ski and frolic in the snow, and then drive away, abandoning the really annoying little white dog, deep in the country, a long way from town. This wretched scene is followed by a claim that Subaru is love.

But someone in a Volkswagen or and Audi will no doubt come along and have pity on the poor abandoned mutt, so don’t worry.