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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Who’s Counting?

I received, completed, and returned my 2010 Census form the other day. This was Carol’s and my part of the decennial, or every-10-year, count of adults and children — citizens and non-citizens — living legally or illegally in the United States.

“Count” is the operative word, for the Census is not all that it used to be.

Over the years, I’ve written about various analyses of the American population that the Census Bureau developed from its mail surveys and door-to-door visits to people’s abodes as far back as 1790. I say “abodes” rather than “homes,” since some people live in trailers, prisons, school dormitories, and even on the street.

So I was surprised to open the 2010 Census mailer and find 10 simple questions, including How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010? and What is your telephone number?

There was a bit more, asking about the gender and race of each person in my household. But no detailed questions of the sort that I could have sworn were part of previous censuses — about everything from our level of education to the number of bathtubs in the house.

In an expensive ($338 million) advertising and public-relations campaign, the Census Bureau has reminded Americans that an accurate count of who’s living where can influence the amount of federal funding sent to communities. And if enough people have moved to or left a state, it can trigger the gain or loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Important, yes, but what about those bathtubs?

Turns out that, these days, detailed “lifestyle” stuff is gathered in a whole different way, not via the Census. It’s obtained in a comprehensive survey that the Census Bureau conducts each and every month, not just once every decade.

That’s because in our fast-changing world, information collected only once every 10 years quickly grows stale and inaccurate. This isn’t the 1790s, during George Washington’s first presidency, when most people lived on farms or in small towns and stayed there for a lifetime.

More than two centuries later, no decennial census can keep up with population and lifestyle trends. We cannot rely on 2000 Census results, for instance, to describe who’s residing in New Orleans, or what their living arrangements might be. In 2005, levee failures during Hurricane Katrina unleashed deadly flooding that erased whole neighborhoods and drove more than half of the city’s population from town. As a result, the old Louisiana city is nothing like it was 10 years ago.

So the Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey” takes monthly demographic snapshots of the nation. It’s sent to a statistical sample — 250,000 — of “housing unit addresses.” In the bureau’s words, this survey is “designed to provide communities a fresh look at how they are changing.” It’s a lot like the “long form” Census questionnaire that I remember, with many more than 10 quick questions. It asks U.S. residents to tell the government about their farm acreage, their utility choices and costs, the nature of any businesses on their property, not only their current marital status but also their marital history, and my favorite: their plumbing facilities.

This is where I’d have gladly told them all about our two bathtubs.

Truth be told, too, the Census Bureau was pressured into shortening the decennial Census questionnaire and finding another way to obtain detailed population information. Too many irate citizens growled about what they considered time-consuming and intrusive questions from the feds every 10 years.

But the monthly surveys are no more popular with some Americans. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate in 2008, for example, grumbled that the nation’s founders “never authorized the federal government to continuously survey the American people. More importantly, they never envisioned a nation where the people would roll over and submit to every government demand.”

Really strident critics of what they consider federal snooping call the American Community Survey the “American Community Interrogation.”

I, as a curious and chatty fellow, on the other hand, love to answer poll questions and take surveys if I feel they’ll do the country — or my family — some good.

Where shall I begin? One of the bathtubs is an old, clawfoot model. It’s upstairs, and when we moved in, we put old-fashioned shower fixtures and a frilly Victorian curtains above it. Now downstairs . . . .

A Little Bird Told Me

Urgent tweet:

Attention, people of the world in 2060: Running late this morn. Only coffee and juice for bkfst.

Why would anyone care about my personal minutiae now, let alone 50 years from now?

No one would, probably. But the mega-prestigious Library of Congress — the world’s greatest storehouse of accumulated knowledge and the place that’s called “America’s Memory” — has announced it is establishing a public archive that will capture and display EVERY TWEET ever sent since Twitter was established four years ago. So I want to be sure a record of my time on earth is included.

There are 50 million tweets a day, or about 73 BILLION little word bursts sent to date, about to be archived and opened to the world to read.

Might this make the cut?: Brought big lunch. Chicken sandwich. Mayo. Piece of lettuce. Whole tomato that I’ll cut at office.

The great library must think that Twitter is here for the ages. Or just the opposite, that the messages should be grabbed and stored now so that some 22nd Century anthropologist can ponder this curious passing fad.

Forgot to mention that morning juice was fresh-squeezed. Makes all the diff.

The announcement from the LOC — Twitter-ready shorthand for “Library of Congress” — concedes that most tweets are, in the words of Tech News Daily’s Dan Hope, “inane.” The great library plans to, in Hope’s words, “highlight the culturally and historically important tweets.”

Now there’s a job for somebody: pawing through 50 million electronic tweets a day and deciding which ones are “historically important.”

Do you think that if I’d had a full breakfast — say bacon and eggs and some toast and jam to go with the coffee and fresh-squeezed juice — my tweet would have historical significance?

Doesn’t matter. I’d never have been able to keep all that fascinating information under 140 characters.

Money, Honey

America’s moneymakers have been busy beavers. Not banks or big corporations, mind you, but the folks who print and mint our money.

In the most successful numismatic program in history, the U.S. Mint just spent 10 years creating and issuing 56 new state and territorial quarter-dollars. As before, these 25-cent pieces feature our first president, the aforementioned George Washington, on the obverse.

That’s the front in minty lingo, but I always get it mixed up and think “obverse” is the back of a coin.

Appearing on the reverse side, in place of the old eagle with wings unfurled, is the name of a state, the District of Columbia, or a U.S. territory such as the distant Northern Mariana Islands, along with a scene that suggests that place.

The Maine quarter, for instance, depicts a lighthouse. A saguaro cactus is featured on Arizona’s, the Wright Brothers’ pioneer “flyer” on Ohio’s, a bison on North Dakota’s. The Marianas coin shows coconut trees, Polynesians guiding sailboats, some sort of stone pillar, and soaring seagulls. It’s the last in the series, and I would guess that a coin devoted to this obscure set of Pacific islands will be snapped up by collectors.

But the mint is not stopping to admire its work. It is introducing yet another set of 25-cent coins. Called “America the Beautiful” quarters, they will depict national parks and wildlife areas.

The initial offering, issued earlier this month, salutes the very first “federal reservation,” set aside in 1832, and I’ll bet not one in a thousand of you could guess where that place is. (I guessed wrong, too.)

Naturally, I’m going to pause to tell you!

It’s not Yellowstone in Wyoming, the nation’s first national park. Or the first national forest, Shoshone, next door.

The first national preserve, Hot Springs in Arkansas, was designated by President Andrew Jackson in 1832, 50 years before Yellowstone was established. Like other sites that the government would later move to claim and safeguard, Hot Springs was chosen for its unspoiled beauty — lush-green bluffs, trout streams, lovely waterfalls, and, especially, piping-hot natural springs, deep in the Ozark Mountains.

But years later, Hot Springs became better known for its manmade attractions, one of which is featured on the new coin.

The turn from the 19th to the 20th centuries was the “golden age of bathing,” when people of means flocked to bathhouse palaces for pampering, especially at beach resorts. Others ventured to bathhouses in remote mountain towns in the belief that their mineral-rich waters, bubbling from springs deep beneath the earth, offered curative powers. “Treatments” at bathhouse spas were said to palliate everything from nervousness to gout to syphilis.

In 1915 in remote Hot Springs, a fellow named Samuel Fordyce built perhaps the most luxurious bathhouse since the Roman Baths of Caracalla.

In addition to whirlpools and hot tubs, the Fordyce Bathhouse offered massage and napping rooms — even a music room. In the Spanish Renaissance-style men’s bath court, patrons gazed at an 8,000-piece stained-glass ceiling depicting mermaids and Neptune’s daughter. There and in the women’s hall, customers shed their clothes and stepped into tubs, where attendants administered vigorous scrubs. Next came a long sweat in what was called a “vapor box,” followed by a needle-like cold shower.

Advances in medicine killed off most bathhouses. So did less-strenuous alternatives such as golfing resorts and theme parks.

The Fordyce Bathhouse closed in 1962. But the National Park Service took it over, gave it a multi-million-dollar facelift, and opened it to public tours. No longer can one take a gingerly dip in Fordyce’s tubs and pools, but down the way a few other, private spas still pull in Hot Springs’ famous steaming waters.

One of “Bathhouse Row’s” thermal spring fountains appears on the Hot Springs National Park quarter that kicks off the “America the Beautiful” series.

Not to be outdone, the people who make U.S. paper money at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have been scurrying about as well. They are making what the Washington Post calls “high-tech Benjamins.”

The reference is to new $100 bills. Like the old ones, they feature the image of colonial statesman Benjamin Franklin. This batch is high-tech because of the elaborate anti-counterfeit features — far beyond previous efforts — that are incorporated into the currency’s threads.

These C-notes — the nickname comes from the Roman numeral C, for 100 — include a three-dimensional “security ribbon” running right alongside Ben’s left ear. Within it, images of little bells alternate with the number 100, depending on which way you tilt the bill. And embedded inside a sketch of a Revolutionary-era inkwell is a sketch of the Liberty Bell. That’s the bell with a famous crack, acquired the very first time it was rung, that summoned citizens to Philadelphia for the reading of the nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. On the new $100 bill, the bell’s likeness changes hue from copper to green, again depending on the angle at which you behold it.

As I said, these 3-D holograms are designed to outwit ever-more-sophisticated counterfeiters. The $100 bill is the largest U.S. denomination still in use — government engravers stopped printing $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills 41 years ago, though your Aunt Mabel may have one stashed in a drawer. C notes are heavily circulated overseas, too, so they’re a favorite of those who craft and crank out fake money.

I’ll bet you a Northern Mariana quarter that criminals will be among the first in line when the new “Benjamins” go into circulation next February.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Hologram. A three-dimensional image made from microscopic laser light waves that, when viewed, seem to make the image turn, twist or hover. Thus, holograms are extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy.

Inane. Idiotic and empty of substance.

Numismatic. Pertaining to the serious collection of coins, paper money, tokens and the like.

Palliate. To the lessen the effect of something. A “palliative” relieves pain without really curing the condition.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Meanderings

I have discovered the latest medical fib, on the order of “this won’t hurt a bit” and “the doctor will be with you shortly.” 

I recently went under the 21st Century equivalent of “the knife,” involving assorted probes and scopes and zapper devices rather than scalpels.  But the prep hasn’t changed: Strip buck naked and “slip” into a gown that exposes your backside to inspection by medicos, cleaning staff and startled hospital visitors.

Shiver on a gurney, toes a-wiggling, stare upward at chilly-white lights, and await your doctor’s pre-surgical pep talk.  While prone, sign enough forms to insure that the HOSPITAL’S backside is covered in the event the coming sleep is your last.  Agree with the nurse who is digging into the top of your left hand to tap a vein for the saline and anesthetic drip that — ouch — yes, the Spring thaw has been — yow -—lovely.

Then follows the medical equivalent of the “perp walk” in which criminal suspects are paraded before cameras on their way into or out of jail.  This, though, is the “patient roll” down the hall on the gurney, as passersby avert their eyes and wonder what you’ve done to yourself.

Soon you’re in the “surgical suite,” not to be confused with honeymoon quarters at the Mandarin Oriental.  Through a surgical mask, the anesthesiologist introduces him- or herself.  Mine happened to have sung in a quartet with a former VOA colleague of mine.  So as he hooked an ominous-looking bag to the drip line, we compared notes, so to speak, about “The Pirates of Penzance.”  He had once been Frederic, the pirate trainee.  I had sung the “Modern Major General” patter in high school and might have shown off with “In short in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, I am the very model of a modern major general” had not the surgeon, standing nearby, glared at both of us.  At least it looked like a glare behind his mask.

There would be no facemask or tanks of stinky ether for me.  Just that medical fib to which I referred earlier, as the singing anesthesiologist turned a lever and assured me, “I’m just going to give you a little something to make you drowsy.”

Drowsy, as in instantly insensate.

The instant lasted two hours, after which, batting my boyish eyelashes, I awoke groggily in a recovery room, surrounded by other surgical survivors and their relatives. 

“Recovery” is a relative term.  There’s no lolling or snoozing.  Chop-chop, there are decisions to be made: ginger ale or Coke?  Regular or diet?  Feel like a cookie?  (“No, I feel like a stuck pig.”  My weak sense of humor was coming back.) 

Then came the drill straight from the old “Rawhide” television show’s cattle-driving theme song: “Head ‘em up.  Move ‘em out,” driven by today’s tight budgetary, insurance, and bed-space demands.  Here are your undies and pants.  Put ‘em on.  Sign this.  Initial that.  Get you a pain pill for the road?

My doctor was just as soothing “post-op.”  As he cheerfully outlined my rehabilitation regimen, I couldn’t help thinking, first, “Easy for YOU to say,” and then of the old Vaudeville gag:

“Will it hurt, doc?”

 “Only when you get my bill.”

Not in the Bag

Now I know how expert jugglers feel.  If you visit Washington, D.C., and see somebody exiting a grocery or drug store with his arms piled high with products, say hello.  It’s me.  Or more grammatically, it is I, but how geeky does that sound?

I’m balancing a bag of catfood, a jug of milk, a six-pack of beer, one or two prescription bottles, a container of fresh salsa, some sort of crackers, and the daily newspaper because the District of Columbia — whose near-doubling of parking-meter fees has not produced enough pain to close a budget deficit — has ordered retailers to charge five cents for each bag that they dispense to customers.  Paper or plastic?  Doesn’t matter.  Each one will cost you an extra nickel.

This is a “green” initiative. The money raised is earmarked for periodic clean-up of the Anacostia, a polluted branch of the Potomac River.  We’re not talking agricultural runoff in this urban stream.  It’s household trash — including plastic bags that take a few millennia to break down, discarded wood scraps and oil filters and enough tires to run the Indy car series for a year, and various unmentionables.  Let’s just say it takes more than a swimming-pool skimmer to clean up the worst of it.

In January alone, D.C. pulled in $150,000 from people who paid the new bag tax. 

But it didn’t get a nickel from me.  I’m too busy and forgetful to become a Green Warrior, toting one of those biodegradable bags.  And I won’t pay for a plastic or paper one at the store.  So feel free to laugh at the guy with parcels stacked to his eyebrows, stooping to try to retrieve a dropped item.  That would be me.

All I know is, I’m not alone. Washington stores and vendors dispensed an estimated 22.5 million bags each MONTH in 2009.  But in January, when the bag toll took effect, they passed out only 3 million.  That’s 18.5 million fewer bags filled each month.  Or 390 million nickels that stayed in our pockets in the District of Columbia alone.  

I’m not too cheap to pay the nickel.  This bag tax is the straw, the breaking point in the onslaught of government and private-sector surcharges: connection fees and “early withdrawal” tariffs, penalties for using or not using the Internet, fees for checking suitcases and even, from one airline — Spirit — a $30 charge to carry one’s own bag onto its planes.

Other passengers had better hope that I don’t have to book a Spirit flight any time soon.  I’ll be the guy in 22C with no suitcase stowed overhead but his shaving kit, underwear, three days of clean shirts, six folders bulging with newspaper clippings, a large soft drink, two news magazines, the daily sports section, a sandwich, and a big bag of peanuts in his lap. 

And since I won’t pay even a nickel for one, none of those items will be in a paper or plastic bag.

Bouncy, Bouncy

I’m fascinated with obituaries.  Not out of celebrity fascination or as some morbid countdown of the dearly departed in my age group.  Rather, I like to read about those who have brought something unique to the world.

I’ve written about the demise of the inventors of TV dinners, flying Frisbee discs, hula hoops, blinding Day-Glo colors, and the children’s sport of T-ball.

Now, farewell to George Nissen, who died in California at age 96.  Though an American, he is best-remembered as the fellow jumping high into the air for the cameras alongside a kangaroo.

They were bouncing on a device that Nissen had invented.  As a young gymnast and diver in rural Iowa, he loved to watch as visiting circus acrobats sprang from springy safety nets onto their perches.  This looked like good exercise, so he built his own bouncing contraption out of rubber inner-tube straps.  Before long, his University of Iowa swim team pals were having a ball, somersaulting on Nissen’s “trampoline.”  He patented that name — Spanish of sorts for “springboard” — but it soon became the generic term for this bouncy platform.

With two friends, Nissen toured for a time as “The Three Leonardos,” bounding up and down throughout the Midwest, before quitting the road to concentrate on making and selling trampolines.

In 2000, trampoline debuted as an Olympic sport, fittingly in Sydney, Australia.  Russians won the men’s and women’s gold medals.  An Australian, a Ukrainian, and two Canadians won silver and bronze, besting, for all I know, a couple of Outback kangaroos.

It’s Not a Diet, it’s a Lifestyle

I learned something the other day from Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist.  And not about international politics, global economics, or human rights, his usual frames of reference. 

Kristof wrote about the wild dogs of Africa.  As he pointed out, people bond with cute, fuzzy, or imposing creatures — pandas, ducklings, tigers, whales.   But while turkey vultures, tapirs, dung beetles, blacksnakes and the like look marvelous to their kind, they’re plug ugly to us.

African wild dogs were among the scorned — um, hounded to near extinction, Kristof noted — until a part-Brit, part-Zimbabwean named Greg Rasmussen began re-branding the breed.  He found one endearing attribute in these snarly, big-eared pack hunters that chirp like birds rather than bark like hounds:

Their distinctive, spotted coats. 

Rasmussen and others throughout Africa began calling these canids “painted dogs.”  He opened the “Painted Dog Conservation Center,” and a remarkable thing happened.  Contributions began pouring in from around the world.  Soon the African painted dog was no longer threatened.

This got me thinking.  What if, with a few strokes of the pen and a crafty press release, we could burnish the sour perceptions of other unfashionable critters, reviled human professions, and undesirable products.  With zippy marketing, we could take clumsy euphemisms — such as calling used cars “pre-owned vehicles” or toilet paper “bathroom tissue” — to a higher level.

This has been tried with moderate imagination and little success.  Lawyers are “attorneys,” but we’re still not wild about them.  Politicians prefer to be called “lawmakers.”  Owners of steely-jawed pit bulls would have us call their beasts “Staffordshire terriers.”  Or even “Staffies.” 

Cuddly pit bulls.  Nice try.  Hasn’t caught on.

Here’s the same idea, writ large:

PETA — the ever-controversial People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals organization — thinks fish get a bad rap.  (And a bad wrap on occasion.)  We think of them as slimy, bug-eyed, and brainless.  So we’re content to harvest, gut, broil, and eat these dullards of the deep. 

PETA thinks we should call scaly, cold-blooded, aquatic vertebrates something chummier, if you’ll pardon the word, than “fish.”  It suggests “sea kittens.”

Who, it asks astutely, would want to hook, harpoon, fillet, or fry a kitten? 

True enough.  So I say, let’s start calling worms wigglers.

Wolves could become grandma dogs (everybody loves grandma).  The connection?  Check out the Little Red Riding Hood children’s story.

Even though I consider them rats with wings, I’d turn pigeons into coobirds.  Spiders into octobuddies.  Cockroaches into skitterdoodles.

Skunks?  Striped weasels!  (This may need more work, since weasels have their own p.r. problems.   How about land otters?  Anything to draw attention away from skunks’, shall we say, chemical defenses.)

You have to agree that, like Greg Rasmussen, I’m having decent luck tidying up the images of lower beings but haven’t come up with a single zippy new term for scorned human subsets.  I’m having a hard time buffing up bankers, stockbrokers, chief executive officers, or financial advisers in today’s economy.  I haven’t a clue how to rocket car salesmen up the popularity charts.  Or how to help journalists, who seem to be held in even lower regard.

It would be in my interest to think of something for that last one, though. 

Let’s see: I consider journalists to be storytellers.  It has a nice ring, but critics already believe that we make stuff up.

Lifewatchers?  Obscure, a reach, would never catch on.

Objectivists?  Objective journalist?  An antiquated, currently preposterous concept.

Here, I think I’ve got it:

Journalists . . .  painted writers!  

If it worked for smelly wild dogs, it can work for us.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Canid.  A canine.  The word comes from the scientific name Canidae, the family of carnivorous mammals that includes wolves, jackals, and domesticated dogs. Insensate.  Unconscious, almost lifeless.

Insensate.  Unconscious, almost lifeless.

Perp.  Short for criminal perpetrator, or rather, in most scenarios, alleged but not yet convicted wrongdoer.

Friday, April 9, 2010

This ‘n’ That

Over the weeks that you and I have been figuratively tramping around the American West together, I’ve been stuffing clippings and notes in my pocket.  At the risk of revealing how diffuse and cluttered my mind has become, here are four of the items that caught my eye.

No Sweat

With the nation still scuffling to pull itself out of a prolonged recession, every trend is scrutinized to smithereens.  And something is puzzling:

Many, if not most, businesses have laid off some workers or cut their hours.  Yet as a whole, U.S. companies are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were before the steep economic downturn began.  

This is in part, perhaps, because those who’ve been lucky enough to hold onto good jobs panicked.  Grateful to have avoided the fate of friends who lost jobs and have been fruitlessly looking for work for months, they are cheerfully toiling longer and harder in order to stay in their bosses’ good graces.

Older workers, in particular, believe they’d stand little chance against younger job-seekers in the “cold, cruel world” where even a menial job is pounced upon like a meaty bone tossed to growling jackals.  Companies can leisurely pick from among hundreds of eager, desperate, applicants who are willing to work cheap.  And old-timers are not the likely ones to be picked.

As the Washington Post’s Neil Irwin reported, those who still have desks and cubicles are meekly acceding to stated or implied demands for more hours, greater output — even benefit cuts, if need be.  Smaller bones are better than no bones at all.

So healthy companies would seem to have it made.  They can downsize and fill vacancies with affordable newbies — often part-timers or contract employees whom they don’t have to pay health or retirement benefits.  Or they can let vacancies stand, knowing that the remaining staff will be so thankful to have jobs that they’ll work longer and harder and produce just about as much as a larger workforce did before.


A Rise from the South

It’s said that time is the best healer.  But every once in awhile, something pulls away a bit of the scab.

Recently, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Robert McDonnell, declared April “Confederate History Month” in his state.  

Confederate imagery abounds in Virginia, whose capital city, Richmond, was the last capital of the rebellious Confederate States of America in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s.  

Virginia named one of its main thoroughfares “Lee-Jackson Highway” after Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, two of the South’s most prominent generals.  “Lee-Jackson Day” in January is still a state holiday.  

From 1984 to 2000, in an odd effort to promote racial harmony, Virginia added Martin Luther King Jr.’s name to the holiday, then uncoupled it when it was clear that the black civil-rights leader would soon get his own national day.

In the town squares of hundreds of southern county seats, including many in Virginia, statues to ordinary Confederate soldiers stand tall.  Carol, who’s spending three months photographing in Alabama, and I even found one in little Tuskegee, home of the nation’s most famous historically black university.  

Throughout the South, too, you’ll see defiant symbols of what some southerners call “The War of Northern Aggression” (or “Invasion,”) “The War Between the States,” or — more mirthfully — the “Late Unpleasantness.” It was not until 2000 that the Confederate flag came down from its perch atop South Carolina’s capitol building in Columbia.  Civil-rights groups’ calls for boycotts of South Carolina events and attractions were only slightly muted when state officials lowered the rebel flag but then planted it on the capitol lawn.

Virginia’s past two governors — both Democrats — had allowed Confederate History Month to go dormant by simply ignoring the usual proclamation.  In reviving it, Governor McDonnell said Confederate History Month would promote tourism in a state where battlefields and Civil War re-enactments are huge historical draws.  

In his remarks, though, McDonnell never mentioned that the bloody war that tore the nation asunder was largely fought to preserve or eliminate human bondage in the Confederate states.  Former governor Douglas Wilder, an African American, called Governor McDonnell’s omission of the word “slavery” anywhere in his proclamation “mind-boggling.”  But the governor’s supporters endorsed McDonnell’s assertion that the special month helps Virginians “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

Ordinary rebel soldiers, many of them already poor and barefoot, certainly sacrificed — their lives, in many cases.  Citizens lost their homes, crops, and livestock as Union forces slashed and burned their way through the South.  The sacrifices made by Confederate leaders — whose “fire-eater” rhetoric and romantic appeals to chivalry sweet-talked an undermanned and poorly armed region into a foolhardy war — are harder to fathom.

Two days after he issued the Confederate History Month proclamation, Governor McDonnell apologized “to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed” by the failure to mention slavery.  It was, he said, “an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights, and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders.”

The flap over Confederate History Month brought uncomfortable questions back to life: If just about everyone can agree that slavery was the South’s economic underpinning, and that its states went to war to preserve an evil institution, should that period be expunged from the national memory?  Should the Confederacy be venerated?  Or can Confederate History Month artfully comingle the two points of view — saluting the bravery of southern ancestors but condemning the institution that 620,000 Americans died trying to end or maintain?

My southern friends tell me that some white southerners — relentlessly preoccupied with righting what they see as a terrible wrong from a century and a half ago — still fight the Civil War in their hearts and minds, while the region has moved on: growing, modernizing, and building upon its racial diversity.  


If you live west of, say, Istanbul, you’ve probably heard of April Fool’s Day.  It’s April 1, the day when French and French-Canadian kids sneak up and slap a picture of a fish onto their friends’ backs.  Then they yell, “April Fish!” and laugh uproariously.  

People also play April 1 pranks on each other elsewhere in Europe, out of some hoary tradition having to do with Pope Gregory XIII’s decree in 1582 that the new year would no longer start on that date.  Each April Fool’s Day Americans, too, get perverse pleasure out of telling false stories while striving to keep a straight face.  

“D’ja hear?  Vice President Biden just resigned!”  Stuff like that.  When the victim replies, “Really?” with a gasp, your cleverness is confirmed.  “April Fool!” you announce, and laugh uproariously.

When I was a kid, I thought it was incredibly inventive each April 1 to whisper to whatever girl sat in front of me to stay still, VERY still.  

“What?” she would respond nervously out of the corner of her mouth, holding herself stiff as a board.

“There’s a spider on your neck!”

Her shriek, leap from her seat, and frantic brush of her lapel pretty much coincided with my smug announcement of “April Fool!”

Some April Fool’s Day stories are classics.  In 1957, our friends at the BBC ran a TV piece that showed Italians happily harvesting spaghetti from trees.  This prompted predictable inquiries on the telly, such as, “Do you know where I could get some vermicelli-tree seeds?”

In 1998, rational mathematicians across the United States panicked when an obscure society reported that the State of Alabama had changed the value of the mathematical constant pi.  The alarmed whizzes completely missed the significance of the April 1 date on the announcement.

Many a radio disc jockey, stretching cleverness beyond its limits on April 1, has solemnly reported the death of a prominent figure who is actually alive and about to get angry.  After a dirge or two is played and stunned listeners call to convey their shock and sadness, the jock cries out, “April Fool, you idiots!”  He then laughs uproariously, closes out the show, and is fired.

In a famous April Fool sports hoax in 1985, author George Plimpton raised the flickering hopes of New York Mets fans when he reported that the baseball team had signed an amazing phenom, Sidd Finch, a pitcher who could throw a ball at 270 kmh (168 mph) with unerring accuracy.  Not only that: Finch had studied in Tibet and practiced the art of “siddhi” yogic mind and body control.

Girded by all these whoppers to be wary, we in Washington, D.C., did not for a moment buy a story that appeared in the Washington Examiner this April 1.  The newspaper reported that the hometown Washington Redskins football team had acquired Donovan McNabb, the star quarterback of its hated rival, the Philadelphia Eagles.  And what made the deal sweet, the paper added, was that all the ’Skins had to give up in return was a second-round prospect in the upcoming draft of college players.  

The story was preposterous — an obvious fib:  McNabb was an all-star performer and an acclaimed leader of men.  The Eagles would never send him to an arch-foe that competes in the same division.  Besides, the story appeared on  . . . April 1.  Duh!

The Examiner quickly fessed up.  The lame story had been the best April Fool’s tale it could come up with.

Then, three days later, sports fans’ tranquility on a beautiful Easter Sunday was shattered when word pinballed across town that Donovan McNabb had in fact just been traded to the Redskins for a second-round draft choice.

No fooling.

We’re Not in Kansas Any More

Speaking of April Fool’s Day, if you’re a Google user, you’ve probably noticed little touches that the search engine adds to its home page every once in awhile.  A green motif on St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, or a goblin face on Halloween.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why, when I opened the site on the morning of April 1, the word “Topeka” appeared — without explanation — in place of the usual “Google” trademark.

Why the name of this city in Kansas, out of nowhere?

It was another April Fool’s gag of sorts, and a clever one.  With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt explained that “Google” became “Topeka” for a day to honor the Kansa Indian tribe, which, he said, was famous for digging potatoes.  His site, in turn, is known as a good place to dig for information.

The switch was a good-natured reply to Kansas’s capital city, which has been lobbying to become the testing ground for Google’s new ultra-fast fiber-optic network, which will dramatically improve access to the Internet and bring jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to some community, somewhere.  At least 22 cities had mounted expensive Facebook and other Internet page campaigns aimed at catching Google’s eye and contract.  

Topeka’s mayor issued a proclamation changing the name of his town to “Google, Kansas,” for the entire month of March.  Had I been there, I’d have run over to the train station and changed the name of the famous line to the “Atchison, Google, and Santa Fe.”

“Whether we get the Google Experiment or not,” wrote the Topeka Capital Journal during “Google, Kansas” Month, “the excitement alone has been a ton of fun!”

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

  Gray or whitened by age.

Pi.  Pronounced “pie,” this is the mathematical ratio of the circumference of a circle to the circle’s diameter. It’s approximately 3.14159265 to 1.

Small fragments or bits, as in “blasted to smithereens.”  It comes from the Irish “smidirin.”

Pronounced “ver-mi-CHELL-ee,” this is round and very thin spaghetti.  The name in Italian means “little worms.”

  Something really big, as in a fish or a highly exaggerated joke.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Arid Arizona

Let’s conclude our odyssey through the West with a look at dry yet surprisingly green Arizona.

Green, thanks to irrigation and irrigation alone. Without it, the bulk of Arizona would still be brown and barren. There’d be no Phoenix-to-Tucson mega-city, no spring “Cactus League” Major League baseball games, no farming to speak of.

The West is America’s driest, but also fastest-growing, region. Arizona, its most parched state, alone is crammed with an astounding 67 percent more people than lived there in 1990. For all of them, there’s been a stampede of new businesses, golfing resorts, and housing developments — especially those geared to retirees, who can’t seem to get to Arizona fast enough.

These people and enterprises use a whole lot more water than the roaming sheep, coyotes, and the mere 3.7 million people who lived in Arizona 20 years ago.

Thanks to modern engineering, Arizona cities can tap into precious river water and vast aquifers deep beneath the porous soil. A single rushing river, the Colorado, which formed and still courses through the Grand Canyon and then becomes the border between Arizona and neighboring California, supplies water to 40 million people in seven states. In 1922, those states signed a compact in which those in the upper reaches of the Colorado agreed to allow enough flow to supply hyper-growing states like Arizona to the south.

The Colorado (“Red” in Spanish) River gets its name from sediment washed from layers of nearby rock. So much over the centuries that — get this — it formed Mexico’s long Baja Peninsula, south of California.

Prolonged droughts have dramatically reduced water levels in reservoirs, including Arizona’s Lake Powell. “We live in a desert state and, some would say, in a state of denial,” Arizona Republic reporter Shaun McKinnon wrote in 2005. Because of all the irrigation needed to supply fertile farms, beautiful lawns and lush gardens where only cacti and red ants would normally be found; and the showers, toilets, and washing machines of Arizona’s boomtowns, he noted, the state’s 6.2 million people use the amount of water that would normally supply five times that many people.

In the five years since McKinnon’s article, the capital city of Phoenix alone has grown by 200,000 people. The 2010 Census, currently being conducted, will likely show that 1.65 million people live in this city where, 2,000 years ago, native people we call the Hohokam had to create 217 km (135 miles) of crude irrigation canals from the Gila and Salt rivers just to make the Sonoran Desert arable.

In modern times, farmers — who control many of the dams and reservoirs and canals — have become “emergency water bankers,” as reporter McKinnon calls them. They hold back water reserves to get them through dry times. “But as farms give way to subdivisions, the reserve is shrinking, and water once used in fields is now claimed by homes and businesses.”

And tensions over water are mounting. People in Arizona’s welter of subdivisions say that farmers are lavishing precious water on thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton. The farmers insist that they’re the frugal ones, and without their careful water conservation there’d be no array of new communities with catchy names like “Sun City” and “Surprise.” Arizona’s innumerable golf courses alone consume two-thirds of the state’s commercial water supply. Why do you think Arizona looks so green from the air?

Then there’s the intense evaporation toll exacted by Arizona’s nearly perpetual sunshine and legendary heat. One day 12 years ago, the mercury hit 53° (128° Farenheit) at Lake Havasu on the California border. On an average summer day in Phoenix, the temperature reaches 39° (102°).

One has to wonder what early Indians, two millennia before air conditioning, saw in such a place. In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition out of Mexico as far north as the Grand Canyon. He was searching for the legendary “Seven Cities of Cibola,” supposedly Zuni Indian strongholds full of riches. Finding only drab villages and hostile Zunis, Hopis, and Pueblos, he and his men moved on to what is now New Mexico, where he had no better luck.

Still later in Arizona, U.S. soldiers would mount costly campaigns against migratory Chirichaua Apache Indians, led by Cochise and then Geronimo. Unlike the Spaniards, the bluecoats persisted and prevailed. More than 5,000 soldiers and 500 scouts hunted down the feared Geronimo and his band. They were shipped to a fort in humid Florida on the distant East Coast, where many died of malaria or tuberculosis.

Geronimo himself was moved twice and eventually released, though never allowed to return to his Arizona homeland. Like some other Indian warriors and chiefs, he became a celebrity, appearing at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and even riding in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade a year later.

Geronimo, by the way, was not a skydiver. But the actor Chief Thundercloud (born Victor Daniels) playing him did yell Geronimo’s name when leaping off a cliff in the 1939 movie of the same name, and members of the 501st United States Parachute Division adopted the call for their freefalls: “Geroni . . . MO!!!” Some people jumping out of planes still do likewise, as do kids bouncing off diving boards into pools.

Except for missionary priests bent on converting native populations, the Spanish and Mexicans (after the latter’s independence from Spain in 1821) spent more time and energy in lovelier New Mexico than they did in scrawny Arizona.

The latter came under American control in two stages — the northern three-fourths as part of the large new territory of New Mexico after a victory over Mexico in a short war ending in 1848; and the remainder via the Gadsden Purchase five years later. The only reason the United States wanted that hot and desolate sliver south of the Gila River was to gain land for a transcontinental “southern route” railroad line.

It would be almost 60 years before New Mexico Territory was deemed worthy enough for full inclusion in the Union in 1912, as the separate states of New Mexico and Arizona. They were last among our contiguous “lower 48” states.

Irrigation — that word again — this time by Mormon settlers and federal dam-builders — pretty much explains the only reason Arizona grew much at all for awhile. Then between 1940 and 1960, its population doubled, and the boom was on. Why? Still more irrigation, air conditioning, and the discovery by many Americans that Arizona’s dry air ameliorated their allergies.

Tourism explains the population explosion, too. People came to see the Grand Canyon, amble among the giant saguaro cacti down around Tucson, take in some Spring Training games, or putter along what remained of historic U.S. Highway 66 on the northern edge of the state. Some of them fell in love with the rugged place and moved there.

Healthy, tree-sized saguaros — pronounced “su-WHAR-ohs” — whose night-blooming flowers are the Arizona state blossom, live for 75 years or more. With their single central column and uplifted “arms,” the saguaros are sometimes used to symbolize the entire Southwest, even though wild ones don’t grow outside Arizona. Woodpeckers and golden flickers drill holes in saguaros, and all sorts of birds, spiders, and scorpions move in. Unfortunately, other holes are created by yahoos who think it’s hilarious to use the spiny cacti for target practice.

Arizona boasts the longest portion of the original Route 66 still in use. Instead of just paving over and widening a lot of the road to create modern Interstate Highway 40 from New Mexico west to Nevada, engineers chose a whole new route, leaving much of the old, two-lane pavement intact but isolated.

Along it today, you’ll find delightful anachronisms from half a century ago, when people took carefree spins on the “Mother Road” between Chicago and Los Angeles. If you’re into old motels and gas stations with working neon or rusted remains, funky tourist attractions such the “Meteor City” trading post and a giant fiberglass rabbit, or lonely sections of road, a detour onto nostalgic Route 66 is worth the extra time.

One last historical reference that is not Arizona’s proudest moment: During the panic and paranoia following Imperial Japan’s sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry removed from “war sensitive” areas” — broadly defined as the entire West Coast — as “disloyal Americans.”

Whole families, including American citizens, were uprooted and forced into internment camps, some of them in the brutally hot Arizona desert. Cherry Tsutsumida, a longtime federal health worker who became executive director of a memorial to the internees in Washington, D.C., later told me, “Some of our Chinese friends began to wear little tags that said, ‘We are not a Jap,’ which reinforced our isolation and our feeling of being guilty of something that we did not understand.”

President Roosevelt ordered the camps closed in 1944, and by war’s end in 1945, the interns had regained their freedom. But more than four decades would elapse before President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment that, the bill stated, had been based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The government also paid internment survivors or their heirs $1.6 billion in reparations – a sum that worked out to about $20,000 per person.

There’s no logical transition that I can think of from that misguided episode to a Grand Canyon adventure, so let’s just abruptly refocus on America’s most popular national park.

About 5 million people visit the awesome, 1.6-kilometer (1-mile)-deep canyon each year. Most come by car, charter bus, motor home, or motorcycle, sit in long lines at the admission gates, and scramble to find a scarce parking space inside the park.

But there’s another way in that’s much more fun. It’s a 2½-hour ride aboard the Grand Canyon Railway, a scenic steam train out of Williams, Arizona — once a big maintenance center on the Santa Fe Railroad’s Chicago-to-Los Angeles route.

The railway made its first run up to the canyon in 1901. But the old rail line through the juniper forest stopped carrying passengers in 1968. It simply could not pry enough people from their cars to make a profit.

In 1989, though, Max Biegert, who made a fortune in the crop-dusting business of all things, bought the decrepit line and overhauled it. The engine of the train that Carol and I rode was sitting in a Michigan museum when Biegert bought it, and eight of the nine cars were what the crew called “rustbuckets,” abandoned and vandalized in a California scrapyard.

Onboard the richly appointed steam train nowadays, it sounds and feels like the Old West. The train lurches to an unexpected halt mid-route when “robbers” appear and shoot it out with railroad “guards,” to the delight of camera-toting passengers. Troubadours stroll the aisles. “If you listen carefully,” one of them tells the riders, “you’ll hear a train in the background.” And of course he’s right.

More than 120,000 people make the run up to the Grand Canyon’s 1906 log train station each year, theoretically displacing more than 40,000 cars from the park. Of course, other visitors’ vehicles quickly take their place.

What everybody who makes it to the canyon encounters is a spectacular, winding gorge that’s 450 kilometers (279 miles) long and almost 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) wide in spots that gives a stunning light and color show each sunny day — especially at sunset.

Carol and I were fortunate to hook up with an old friend, Tom Glatzmayer, a jolly Canadian who had moved to Grand Canyon Village and was leading bus tours along the South Rim. “Remember what they say: it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity that gets you down,” he reminded his boarding passengers on a stifling, 33-degree day. “There’s very low humidity up here, which means you won’t even notice that you’re sweating profusely!” That earned Tom the first of many laughs.

Once, Spanish explorers peered down at the canyon floor and thought the rushing Colorado River below was only three meters across, he told them. They got it wrong because the river is so far down that it’s hard to judge.

One reaches the canyon floor by foot or mule along narrow and steep trails, via boat from a point far upstream, or — in lifesaving emergencies only — by helicopter. Those who pick mule rides — some of which take half a day and include an overnight stay at a lodge down below — must be at least 1½ meters tall, weigh less than 90 kilos, not be visibly pregnant, and speak good English. Apparently the beasts don’t comprehend Slovakian or Thai, though you’d think they’d understand full-throated screams in any language. Nancy Smart, my former editor here at VOA, rode a mule down and back and said it was the scariest experience of her life. Once the mule starts down the steep paths along ledges an arm’s length from the abyss, there’s no turning back, and you’re staring straight into the canyon the whole time. Riding back up is apparently less frightening because the end of the ordeal is in view.

To date not a single one of the sure-footed mules is known to have tumbled over the cliff, with or without its rider. But you can buy a little book called Death in the Grand Canyon that will curl your hair. It describes the demise of foolish folks who stepped off the canyon rim while posing for photos or wandered into the wild ravine and lost their way.

Last year, too, following a fatal collision between a sightseeing helicopter and a small, fixed-wing plane over the Canyon — the latest of several such calamities over the years — officials banned flights below the rim and established specific corridors for tourist air excursions.

The Grand Canyon has existed for 40 million years, or what Tourmaster Tom called “an eyeblink of geological time.” It was formed when one great tectonic plate slid under another, forcing the land upward. The river then began cutting a path deep down to its old level. Boulders that fell into the Colorado produced the 160 rapids that make a rafting trip so hair-raising.

“A lot of people ask whether you can take a bus or car to the bottom of the canyon,” Tom Glatzmayer told his audience. “The answer is yes. But only once!”

As Tom — who, to our sadness, has since died — was loading his passengers into the bus for the return trip to Grand Canyon Village, he couldn’t resist one more wisecrack. Like most employees of his company and the National Park Service at the canyon, he lived inside the park, a rock’s throw from the South Rim.

He called it “living on the edge.”

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Ameliorate. To sooth or make something more bearable.

Arable. Suitable for farming or other cultivation.

Welter. A jumbled pile or collection of something.

Yahoo. Pronounced “YAY-hoo,” this is a rube or a fool who’s likely to behave stupidly.