another ordinary day

Wake up, get myself dressed, wander into the kitchen, remember the cat isn’t going to be there, make coffee, read the news, get distracted by…something. That last bit? Getting distracted by…something? Story of my life, right there.

I’m not driven by ambition or security or responsibility or success (whatever that means), but I am ridiculously weak to curiosity. I have a compelling need to know stuff. Unfortunately, it’s rarely useful stuff. If you’re looking for somebody who knows how to repair something mechanical or build a cabinet or replace an electrical outlet, I’m completely fucking useless. But if you ever want to know the name of the brother of the last Saxon king of England or the history and etymology of ‘spatula’ or why jamon iberica is the best ham in the world, I’m your huckleberry.

I only know these things because I allow myself to be distracted by something. And following that distraction led to something else, which led me to something else, which ended up with me accumulating still more useless information. And that’s exactly what happened to me this morning.

In an online forum devoted to readers of the historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett I came across a passing reference to St. Mary’s Loch–the site of a band of mercenaries in Dunnett’s work. Being familiar with the novel, I had a general notion of where the loch was located in Scotland, but (and this where it always starts…with that but) I decided to look at a map to get a more exact location. And I was curious why the loch was named for St. Mary.

The answer to that last question was both obvious and easy to discover. It was named for a church dedicated to St. Mary. That church is gone now, but the graveyard is still there (and since this is about useless information, the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is associated with a churchyard, which requires a church; so this grave site is still a graveyard even though the church is gone).

St. Mary’s graveyard.

Information about the burial site led me to somebody’s blog post about St. Mary’s Loch, which included a reference to “the Hamlet of Cappercleuch with its couthy old, corrugated iron village hall.” Multiple sources of distraction here. What the fuck does couthy mean? (Spoiler: it’s a Scots term meaning ‘sociable, friendly, congenial, comfortable, snug.) And who wouldn’t want to see a couthy old, corrugated iron village hall?

That led me to Google Maps and Google Street View of Cappercleuch. It turns out that a corrugated iron village hall is…well, just that. It’s basically a rather ordinary, disappointing metal shed. Not particularly old, and certainly not very couthy.

St. Mary’s Hall at Cappercleuch — neither old nor couthy.

Still, as long as I was noodling about with Google Street View, I figured I may as well spend a few minutes looking at St. Mary’s Loch and seeing what else Cappercleuch had to offer. And within ninety seconds I came across another distraction. This:

What the hell is this?

Reader, now THIS is a serious distraction. Just what the hell IS this? I mean, I can see what it is: a small, cross-gabled, distinctively decorated, phone-box sized structure. But what is its purpose? Why is it located just off the A708 motorway in Cappercleuch? (And if you’re curious enough to look for this on Google Maps, here’s a shortcut for you.)

The first thing I learned was that the A708 was one of the five most dangerous roads in proportion to traffic in all of Scotland. Or at least it was between 2007 and 2009. Not particularly helpful information, unless many of those accidents were because drivers were distracted by this weird boxy structure.

We can assume it’s not a Scots Tardis, but it has that ‘police box’ aura about it. It’s something official, certainly. The carefully crafted logo seems to confirm that. If we look closely, we can sort of see that it has the number 723 on the side. So, of course, the only thing for us to do is Google Box 723 Cappercleuch. And that gives us this:

I’m just going to assume you’ve made the same leap I did. AA stands for Automobile Association. It’s the UK version of AAA. AA boxes were an early form of roadside assistance in the UK. The first AA boxes were introduced in 1911. They were lit by oil lamps at night, and were sometimes referred to as “the lighthouses of the road.” The AA boxes contained maps to help folks who were lost, as well as a fire extinguisher, a lantern, and a telephone available to contact the AA for assistance. Members of the Automobile Association were issued with keys that fit all AA boxes in the UK.

By 1919 the AA had established a well-connected communication and assistance network of over a thousand roadside boxes, many of which were manned by yellow-uniformed ‘sentries’ who were there to offer free assistance.

Improvements in technology eventually made the AA boxes obsolete. By the late 1960s, the AA began to phase them out. In 2002 only 21 call boxes were still standing; AA shut down the entire network and made plans to dispose of the structures. The following year the boxes were listed as historic landmarks, and efforts were made to physically restore them. Apparently nineteen boxes still exist.

There’s a part of me, of course, that wants to use Google Maps to find them all. It shouldn’t be hard to do. There is absolutely NO REASON for me to do that, but at some point I probably will. Because that sort of pointless activity is my wheelhouse.

But it won’t be done today. I’ve learned some minimal self discipline over the years.

I’ve no idea how much of my day is spent giving in to my curiosity. I’m going to guess at least a couple of hours every day. There are folks who’ll consider this an inefficient use of my time.

Ain’t it great?

rabbit hole

I am weak to distraction. Doesn’t much matter what I’m doing, if I stumble across an interesting bit of information, an intriguing casual comment, a footnote in a book, almost anything that catches my eye and my imagination, I’m lost. I’ll stop what I’m doing and leap down that rabbit hole.

This morning on Twitter I came across a quote by novelist Henry Green, explaining the inspiration for his 1945 novel Loving. This is what he said:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: ‘Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.’ I saw the book in a flash.

It’s a great anecdote and an absolutely terrific line by the butler. So…there’s my rabbit hole. I tracked down the quotation. It was an interview conducted by novelist Terry Southern for The Paris Review (TPR) in 1958. Southern was also smitten with the butler’s line and used it to tweak the nose of the TPR’s editor. He wrote, “[Y]ou realize of course that the word ‘cunty’ makes the reply, gives it bite, insight, etc. I mean to say it simply would not do to rephrase it.”

Why was Southern pointing this out? Because five years earlier, TPR’s debut issue had included one of Southern’s short stories in which the term shit had been edited out. Instead of one character telling another “Don’t get your shit hot” TPR printed “Don’t get hot.” That’s a much weaker line.

Southern felt so strongly about the editing that he demanded TPR issue a correction in the following issue. And hey, they did. Sort of. Here’s their disappointing correction:

Terry Southern is most anxious that The Paris Review point out the absence of two words from his story The Accident (issue one): the sentence “don’t get hot” should have read “don’t get your crap hot,” an omission for which we apologize to all concerned.

The non-correction correction infuriated Southern, of course. So he was delighted (and absolutely correct) to force TPR to include cunty in the interview.

This made me happy for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the butler’s line itself, which is simple but poetic. Second, because every writer likes to see an editor put in their place (even though editors are almost always right, damn it). Third, because I had a similar experience years ago.

I’d written a short story called Maybe the Horse Will Learn to Sing, which was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The story included this line:

So in trying to tweak Sweeney’s nose all I’d managed to do was to step on my own dick. There’s a lesson there, I suspect.

AHMM wanted to change that line to read, step on my own foot or something equally awful. Since I wanted to get paid, I agreed to change the line to some other weak analogy (I can’t recall what the final version was). The following year, however, that story was included in the 1999 anthology The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Ed McBain and Otto Penzler. When I was asked permission to reprint the story, I agreed on the condition that they change the line back to the original. Penzler laughed and agreed it was a better line. That laugh was worth as much to me as the check.

So, that was today’s totally pointless but (for me) entertaining rabbit hole. That was probably 90 minutes out of my morning, including writing this pointless but (again, for me) entertaining blog post.

meat shield

Yeah, so Vlad Putin is ‘mobilizing’ 300,000 Russian men to serve in his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. In fact, he’s probably ordered a much larger conscription; some estimate as many as a million Russian men, mostly from the more rural ethnic regions of Russia.

The vast majority of these conscripts will receive little (or no) training before being deployed. This is a feature of the Russian Army, not a design flaw. The lack of training is a deliberate aspect of Russian military strategy in Ukraine.

You may be thinking, “Greg, old sock, that doesn’t make a lick of sense.” And you’d be right (aside from calling me ‘old sock’ and I don’t know WHY you insist on calling me that) IF we were thinking about any conventional Western military strategy. But the current Russian military approach is built around what they call a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG).

The BTG approach involves a cadre of highly skilled soldiers around which poor quality infantry units can be attached. Different types of unskilled units will be attached to a BTG depending upon the nature of the mission or the condition under which they’re fighting. The unskilled or untrained units serve as a literal meat shield to protect the core of the BTG.

This is how it works. Say you’re a Russian officer and you want to know if there’s an ambush ahead, or if there are tanks in that village. You send the meat shield forward to draw their fire. That exposes the location of the enemy units, allowing the BTG’s artillery to target those positions. It works the same way on defense; station the meat shield in between the advancing Ukrainians and the core BTG; when the conscripts get attacked, the BTG artillery can target Ukrainian attackers more effectively.

It’s hard on the meat shield, to be sure, but it keeps the core of skilled professional troops more or less intact. Since the conscripts require little or no training and, for the most part, aren’t given decent weaponry, the meat shield is easily replaced. Just conscript a few thousand more ethnic peasants, and hey bingo, you’re back in business.

It’s a mistake to think of the effectiveness of the Russian Army in terms of casualties. It’s designed to have high casualty rates. Lots of dead and wounded conscripts are acceptable, so long as they achieve the strategic and tactical goals, and keep the core BTG units relatively secure.

The mobilization of a 300,000 body meat shield will help the Russian Army defend the territory they’ve stolen — for a period of time. Maybe it’ll be enough to get them through the winter, which will give them time to train and reinforce the BTGs. And that will prolong the war.

This, of course, is assuming Putin doesn’t contract ‘high building syndrome’ because of his unpopular war policies. It’s looking more and more like he’s losing control of the nation.

on the buying of books

I used to read everything. For years, I always had two books going–a novel and some work of nonfiction. The novels were almost always literary fiction (with the occasional dip into genre fiction); the nonfiction could be anything at all. Plate tectonics, a biography of Isadora Duncan, a history of clocks, the Boer war, a book on beekeeping. Seriously, I’d read anything and I read all the time–two or three books a week. I was basically a book slut.

Over the years, my reading habits have changed. That’s due partly to technology. In 2011, I was given a Nook–the ebook reader developed by Barnes & Noble. I didn’t ask for it and didn’t really want it. I was of the opinion that reading on an electronic device couldn’t be truly satisfying. I believed there was a feel and a scent that belongs to a physical book and it contributes to the reading experience.

Maybe it does. But it doesn’t contribute that much–at least for me. I’ll never go back to reading physical books.

The best thing about e-books is also the worst thing: the ease with which you can buy a book. I absolutely love hearing somebody talk about a book, and being able to buy it and have it in my collection 90 seconds later. I love having all my books with me and easily accessible at any time, wherever I go. I still have a Nook (which, by the way, is terrible tech, but it’s good enough to keep by the bed for late night/early morning reading), but most of my reading is done on a tablet.

Most of my nonfiction reading is now comprised of the weird, interesting, esoteric stuff I can access in online magazines or blogs or websites. The biggest change in my reading habits has been a shift from literary fiction to genre fiction.

This is partly because buying e-books has freed me from the tyranny of cover art. I used to have very strict cover art rules (mostly applied to genre fiction). For example, I would not buy a book with a cover featuring a woman warrior in ‘sexy’ armor. Or a detective in a trench coat. Or a skeleton. Or a goddamn dragon. In fact, I refused to buy a book if it had the word ‘dragon’ in the title.

That changed when a friend whose literary taste I respected, suggested a novel called His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. The title was bad enough, but it also had a dragon on the cover. It was described to me as ‘Jane Austen, but with witty dragons.’ Witty dragons, for fuck’s sake. But buying it online meant I didn’t have to hand the book and my credit card to an actual person, who’d look at me like I was the sort of person who’d buy a book with a dragon on the cover.

The novel turned out to be smart, funny, well-written, full of adventure, completely charming, and the dragon…well, she was witty. Even before I finished reading the novel, I bought the second book in the series (which also had a dragon on the cover).

That novel sort of broke the genre dam. I’ve discovered that the large ideas that drive what I used to think of as ‘serious’ literary fiction also exist in genre fiction–and often in a more accessible form. For example, Novik’s dragon series intelligently examines gender norms, as well as civil rights and liberties–both for women and for dragons. This may sound stupid, but it works.

For the last five years or so, I’ve been reading mostly genre fiction. Now the vast majority of my reading is divided between a metric buttload of genres. Cozy mysteries, hard scifi, detective fiction, mannerpunk, historical fiction, a smattering of fantasy, police procedurals, some urban fantasy, speculative fiction, military scifi, slipstream, almost anything.

But there are exceptions. I’m still reluctant to buy a novel that features elves or dwarves. I’m still skeptical of any novel that deals with magic or the supernatural, unless the writer provides some sort of internally consistent ‘rules’ for how the supernatural stuff works. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll repeat something I said then:

If a writer is only using the supernatural as a convenient way to move the story forward, that writer is not respecting the reader. As far as that goes, the writer isn’t respecting the craft of writing. As goofy as it sounds, ghosts (and the readers of supernatural stories) are better served when the ghosts have rules. It’s really that simple. And by the way, that’s also true for witches, and necromancers, and kitchen boys who inherit magic rings, and vampire librarians, and half-demon private detectives, and travel journalists who find a djinn in an antique bottle, and and and.

I’ve strayed a bit from my point (if you can call it a point–and really, who would be surprised by me straying from it?), which is that e-books have changed what I read. It essentially liberated genre fiction for me; it allowed me to see the great beauty of its flexibility, of its capacity blending ideas and concepts and approaches from different genre forms.

The only problem with e-books is the problem of impulse control. I buy a LOT more books on impulse, which is sometimes a bad idea. I have bought some truly awful novels on impulse. On the other hand, I once bought a novel based entirely on a nine-word blurb (Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space) and it became one of my favorite books. The cover art was dramatic, but doesn’t do justice to the brilliant and charming complexity of the novel. When I was halfway through Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, I wanted to recommend it to a friend. So I did a google search for reviews to help me describe it. The review on NPR said the novel “…is too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance.” That review leaves out the humor, the fencing, and the love story.

I have friends who continue to limit their reading to serious mainstream literary fiction. I actually feel sort of sorry for them. They’ll never get to meet clever dragons during the Napoleonic wars or lesbian necromancers in space, and their world will be the poorer for it.

random thoughts

Okay, first, what the fuck is this about?

This happened last night at Comrade Trump’s rally in Ohio. I’m hearing it’s either some sort of QAnon salute (you know, that whole ‘where we go one, we go all’ bullshit) or some sort of obscure but not recent Nazi thing. Whatever it is, it’s fucking weird and more than a little unnerving. In any event, it seems pretty obvious that Trump is priming the pump so that when he’s indicted (and yeah, I said when, not if) this crowd will respond with unfocused stochastic violence. A cult that believes Trump is the central figure in a secret war against an international Satanic cabal of pedophiles is capable of just about anything so long as it doesn’t require focus or logic.

Second, I generally have a low cuteness tolerance. But for some reason I’m ridiculously fond of public gardens that have — and this is difficult for me to admit — little pixies scattered around in the shrubbery. Not a LOT of pixies, on account of that would be cuteness overload, but just a few quietly concealed among the plants and pathways. I mean, a person should be able to walk through the garden and not see any of the wee creatures at all, but knowing that there may be a few of them there, lurking cutely, waiting to be spotted — well, that’s probably a good thing.

This ornament is about the size of my thumb (which, I assume, is an average sized thumb). I don’t know if these are actually pixies or fairies or some other mini-supernatural being. I’m sure there’s a taxonomy for these things, and there’s bound to be some internet database detailing the differences between pixies and fairies, but I can’t research it because, as I said, I have a low tolerance for cuteness.

Third, I keep getting credited by friends for the phrase Jesus suffering fuck. I wish I could take credit for it, but I first heard it used by Billy Connolly, the Scottish actor/comedian. He said he’d first heard the phrase in Glasgow. So my guess is it’s likely something somebody uttered in a pub when confronted with something impossibly, ruinously stupid.

Billy Connolly

As an expression, it’s close to perfect. It just rolls well off the tongue. Jesus suffering fuck. There’s a purity to it, a unity; a complete protein comprised of equal parts of the poetic and the profane. I try to use it deliberately but sparingly. I mean, you don’t want to bring your Amati to a hoedown, but you still need to use it regularly to maintain the harmonics.

Fourth, I was thinking about the hateful and profoundly idiotic stunt in which the governor of Florida thought it would be clever to spend state funds to hire a plane to fly Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but then I let myself get distracted by a less obvious question: who in the hell was Martha?

She was either the mother-in-law or (more likely) the deceased daughter of Bartholomew Gosnold. This guy, I declare. He was born in Suffolk, England in born in 1571, graduated from the University of Cambridge, studied law, but decided he’d rather go sailing. In 1602, he took a 39-foot bark crewed by 32 men and sailed to the coast of Maine where, and I am NOT making this up, he was met on the beach by a native wearing imported European shoes and pants. That’s 1602, and Europeans had already begun fucking up the local culture.

Bartholomew Gosnold

In any event, Gosnold and his crew worked their way south, spent some time fishing (they were the folks who decided on the name Cape Cod because of…well, the cod they caught) and stayed for a couple of days on an island where they ate strawberries. Gosnold named the island after his mother-in-law/deceased daughter (pick one, they were both named Martha), then moved on. After about six weeks in the area, during which they loaded up their ship’s hold with furs, cedar wood, and sassafras (which was exceedingly profitable because it was thought to be a cure for syphilis), they sailed home. Eighteen years later, the Mayflower followed Gosnold’s route to Massachusetts, thereby establishing the conditions for four centuries of Europeans fucking over the natives.

I doubt any of the Venezuelan immigrants know that story. If they heard it, I’d like to think they’d look at each other and say, “Jesus suffering fuck.” Only, you know, in Spanish.

fans

Most etymologists agree that ‘fan’ is a shortening of fanatic. But ‘fanatic’ comes from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “mad, inspired by a god.” This, in turn, is derived from fanum, meaning “a temple, shrine, or consecrated place.” In the 1880s, when the newly-invented game of baseball began to catch on, the term fan became associated with sports. It now applies to any form of entertainment. Fans are basically crazy people.

Here’s the important distinction between being a fan and being a supporter: fandom is about passion based on faith and group identity; support is grounded in agreement. Supporters encourage and promote a person (or a group or a cause) because they share the views of what that person is doing, with what that group believes, with that cause. Fans support a person (or a group or a cause) because of who they believe that person (or group or cause) is.

For example, nobody supports the Chicago Cubs because they agree with the team, or because they share the team’s beliefs, or because they agree with the Cubbie’s cause. The team (as opposed to individual players) doesn’t have a cause. The Cubs exist to play baseball–that’s it. Cubs fans love the Cubs because they’re the Cubs. Maybe it has to do with the city of Chicago, or because of the team’s history, or because of a specific player (who doesn’t love Ernie Banks?), or even because of the friendly confines their iconic stadium. The reason for fandom isn’t as important as the fact of fandom.

Chicago Cubs fans

Back in the 1990s, a researcher named Daniel Wann created a Sport Spectator Identification Scale–a series of questions to determine how deeply sports fans are invested in a team. He found strong correlations between identification with a team and a fan’s 1) self-esteem, 2) belief in the trustworthiness of others, 3) belief that the depth of one’s support can influence the outcome of a game, 4) consumptive behavior (the willingness to spend money, wait in line, consume media related to the team), 5) willingness to anonymously injure an opposing team player/coach, and 6) willingness to anonymously cheat to help one’s team.

Sound familiar?

Here’s a True Thing: Comrade Trump has few actual supporters; but he’s got a very large fan base. Trump fans aren’t all that different from sports fans. True fans (as opposed to weekend fans) will frequently change their lives to accommodate their fandom. They feel a powerful need to publicly demonstrate their membership in the fan base. They join clubs with other fans, they prefer to associate with other fans. They attend events (rallies, speeches, conventions, games). They wear hats and jerseys and scarfs to identify themselves as fans. They adorn their vehicles with fan stickers. Some will even fly flags showing their allegiance. They’re often loud and obnoxious in their support; they’re often louder and more obnoxious in their opposition to competing figures/teams.

Trump fans aren’t supporters of Trump’s beliefs (if he has any) or his political or religious ideology (if he has any) or his policies (if he has any); they’re fans of Trump his ownself. They want Trump to win, of course, but the thing about fan loyalty is that it doesn’t require winning. True fans (as opposed to fair weather fans) will continue to support a losing team; they’ll rationalize the losses (the referees are incompetent or corrupt, the home office is failing the team, the other teams cheat). Fans will even defend their team if/when it’s accused of cheating–even when there’s undeniable evidence of cheating. At the very least, they’ll justify the cheating.

Trump fans

When reporters ask people who attend Trump rallies, “How can you continue to support Trump when he has (fill in the blank with something awful and inexcusable)?” the answer lies in fandom, not reason or logic. And that’s a really big problem. Why? Because it’s almost impossible for a Cubs fan to stop being fans of the Chicago Cubs. That’s also true for Trump fans.

Remember this: groups of passionate sports fans can turn violent. Hell, the most common form of group violence among white men is the sports riot. This is true whether their team wins or loses. After the Detroit Tigers beat the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series, Detroit fans celebrated by a riot that left one person dead, eighty injured, and millions of dollars in property damage (the eight rapes that took place are often overlooked, because capitalism and misogyny place more value on property). The same thing happened in Chicago when the Chicago Bulls basketball team won the NBA final in 1991 (and again in 1992, and also in 1993, not to mention 1996 and 1997). We’ve seen similar sports riots in every nation with a passion for sports.

When asked why they rioted, sports fans usually claim they just got caught up in the moment. Which is also the most common excuse given by the January 6th insurrectionists.

That sort of unreasoned, passionate fan loyalty (and subsequent willingness to get ‘caught up in the moment’) applies to Trump fans. That’s scary in itself. It’s even more scary considering a LOT of Trump’s true fans are also true fans of the Second Amendment. The only thing worse than than a rabid fan is a rabid fan with a gun.

an asshole and his money

Well sure, Elon Musk is a massive asshole. We all know that. He’s an asshole on a multitude of levels. But he’s an incredibly rich asshole, so the stuff he says and does carries some social weight. It’s important, though, for us to remember that that weight is the weight of gold, not the weight of intellect.

Back a few months ago, when he was still just talking about maybe buying Twitter, Musk said this:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

Free speech IS the bedrock of a functioning democracy, he was right about that. But only a dolt would think that what takes place on Twitter is a debate. And while I can’t read Musk’s mind, I suspect his interest in Twitter wasn’t so much about securing the bedrock of democracy as it was about wanting to own the public square. And if a public square is owned by anybody, it ceases to be a public square.

Compare Musk’s desire to own the public square and influence socieity to the contribution of the richest man in the world a century ago — Andrew Carnegie. Like Musk, Carnegie was an immigrant to the United States. Unlike Musk, Carnegie was born poor. In 1848, his parents borrowed enough money to emigrate to the US. Carnegie was twelve years old, but he was put to work immediately, employed as a bobbin boy in a textile mill in Allegheny, PA (his job was to keep the bobbins wound with thread). He wanted to improve himself, but he couldn’t afford the US$2 subscription fee to the local library.

By the end of the 19th century, Carnegie was rich. Like every rich person (I’m just making assumptions here), he was an asshole in many ways. But he never forgot his experience as a bobbin boy. So one of the things he decided to do with his money was to build a public library. This was in 1889.

The Carnegie Library in Braddock, PA — built in 1889.

This was radical. A public library. A library open to the public. The entire public. A free library, available to everybody–including women and children and folks who weren’t white. That first library was built in Braddock, PA, which was near one of Carnegie’s steel mills.

Then Carnegie built three more free, public libraries, all in locations near his mills. And he didn’t stop. He kept building public libraries. All over the United States. And in his native Scotland. And in the UK and Ireland. And Canada. And Australia, and South Africa, and New Zealand. And France and Belgium and Serbia. And in the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

Dude eventually built or funded the construction of almost 1700 public libraries in the US, and around 3500 worldwide. He had rules and conditions that any community that wanted Carnegie to dig into his pockets and fund a public library had to meet. They had to demonstrate a need for the library, they had to provide a building site, they had to agree to pay the staff and maintain the library (and those funds had be drawn from public sources, not private donations), and they had to agree to provide free service to all.

Not everybody was willing to accept Carnegie’s cash, especially after his steel company was involved in one of the ugliest and bloodiest labor confrontations in US history. Like Musk and so many rich pricks, Carnegie wasn’t a fan of unions (I told you he was an asshole in many ways).

Carnegie Library in Woodbine, IA — built in 1909.

But hey, a public library is still a huge deal for a lot of small communities, so they were generally willing to take advantage of Carnegie’s offer. Take the small town of Woodbine, Iowa, for example. Incorporated in 1887, a small railroad town. In 1908 Woodbine had a population of about 1500. They asked Carnegie for a library and he gave them $7500. That was enough to build the library; the town had to cough up the coin to buy the books and pay the staff. It’s not a grand building, by any means, but it’s quietly lovely.

Woodbine’s population hasn’t changed much in the century or so since the library was built. The library is still central to the community. In addition to books, it offers computers and free wifi and has a small coffee bar. It hosts board game afternoons and a brown bag book club. Hell, this place loans cake pans. Seriously. If you’re a resident of Woodbine and have a library card and find yourself in need of a certain size of cake pan that you don’t have in your cupboard, you can check one out from the library.

Andrew Carnegie had a rich person’s capacity for being a colossal asshole, but he also gave back to the community in way that rich assholes like Elon Musk don’t even consider. During the last couple of decades of his life, Carnegie gave away about 90% of his wealth. And not to his family. He wrote: The man who dies rich, dies disgraced. Which is one of the least asshole things a rich person can say.

Rich assholes are a threat to democracy. Musk talks about democracy without any real understanding of it, with antagonism towards it. Carnegie was a lesser asshole because he actually did something to encourage democracy. He gave common people access to information and knowledge.

Support your local library.

good morning and welcome to the waffle house

I woke up around 0530 this morning. I don’t sleep as much as I used to, though I generally sleep better. I have fewer nightmares, which is good. Fewer and less intense. And I seem to be better at remembering good dreams. This morning I remember dreaming about ordering breakfast at a Waffle House.

I’m sitting here in the kitchen in the heart of the American Midwest, drinking my cold brew coffee, craving hash browns, covered and chunked. Unless you’ve spent some time in a Waffle House–which is to say, unless you’ve lived in the American South–that won’t mean much to you. It’s probably been twenty years since I’ve set foot in a Waffle House, but I know in my bones I can walk into any Waffle House in any town and ask for hash browns covered and chunked, and they’ll know exactly what I want. It’s not code, exactly; it’s culture. I could make my own hash browns, of course. I could add some diced up ham and cover it all with melted cheese. But it wouldn’t be the same.

It’s 44F this morning. Unreasonably and unseasonably chilly, so I’ve been forced to put on socks and sweat pants–which I sorta kinda resent (I mean, c’mon, we’re three weeks into May, for fuck’s sake) and sorta kinda enjoy (it’s not so much the warm feet, although I like that; it’s that brief delicious pleasure of sliding my feet into warm socks). It feels like a late October morning in the South. The cat clearly thinks the chilly weather is bullshit, so is seeking extra attention this morning. I’m okay with that. Cats are warm.

The cool weather and the Waffle House dream have me feeling particularly nostalgic and Southern today. I enjoy the quiet too much to put on music, but in my head I’ve been hearing Mahalia Jackson, Mattie Moss Clark, and Tennessee Ernie Ford singing gospel music. I’m not even remotely Christian, but that was the Sunday morning music I grew up with. Snatches of Just a Closer Walk with Thee will drift through my head for a while this morning. As the sun comes up and the coffee disappears and the cat retreats to some quiet spot where she can curl up and sleep undisturbed, that music will gradually fade away again.

There. I’ve rinsed out my coffee mug. I’ve done today’s Wordle. I’ve read all the news I want to read (it’s still to early to read the news and pay attention; I’ll come back to it later, when I’m more willing to deal with reality). The sun has come up enough that I can turn off the kitchen lights. I’d say it’s time to start getting on with the day, but that sounds like I have some sort of plan or agenda to be accomplished. I don’t. I’ll read a bit, maybe go for a bike ride, give some thought to what to prepare for supper, do a few household chores. Since I woke up early, at some point I may take a nap.

There’s a verse of the gospel song Just a Closer Walk with Thee that rarely gets included in the more popular covers. It goes:

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?

I know the lyric is meant to suggest the Lord cares, but since I don’t believe in any lord, I like to interpret the lyric as more tolerant and forgiving. It’s not a license to fuck up, but it acknowledges the universality of fucking up. Everybody fucks up. And everybody is welcome at the Waffle House. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done, if you ask for your hash browns chunked and covered, that’s what you’ll get.