Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mother's Day

When I arrived mid-morning two Sundays ago at Philadelphia's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, I found myself in the midst of a traffic jam.

It makes sense as soon as you think about it that Mother's Day would be a big day for a graveyard, but I still was taken aback. There were cars everywhere, inching along the narrow paths past their stationary fellows, whose occupants were milling around nearby headstones. It was like an oddly morbid tailgate party.

My mother was sitting in my passenger seat; or more precisely, her urn was. For the past two years, she, or it, had been sitting on a shelf in my home office, patiently awaiting final disposition. You're not supposed to take that long to bury someone, but my plans to meet at Holy Sepulchre with Uncle John, her younger brother, kept getting put off for one reason or another. We're both busy, he lives in Maine, and he's had some health problems lately. The funeral service in Pittsburgh had been timely; this last step, not so much.

As I'd learned a couple of days earlier, her interment wasn't going to happen today, either. I had finalized all the arrangements with the sales manager, only to have him call me back and explain that it's against canon law for Catholic cemeteries to bury people on Sundays. "But I told you we were coming May 8!" I protested. "I didn't realize you meant Sunday," he said: "How about Saturday?" "No, my uncle and I both have conflicts. And we can't do it Monday, either." Eventually, we agreed that my uncle and I would just visit the grave on Sunday and leave it at that. The cemetery could handle the actual interment later, at its convenience.

I weaved my way through the cars and met John at the cemetery office. The sales manager took us out to the McDevitt plot — McDevitt being my mother's side of the family. John noticed the headstone was a little askew. "It probably got bumped by our mower," the manager said. They'd nudge it back, he assured us. His unconcerned tone bothered me. Does this happen often? Are Holy Sepulchre's tombstones perpetually spinning like turnstiles, getting pinged and dinged by disrespectful groundskeepers hot-dogging its fleet of John Deeres?

My mother in her boy-snogging days.
The manager left. Uncle John laid lilacs on the grave and we took a few pictures. I tried seting the urn in front of the headstone, but it looked silly, so I moved it aside.

I prodded John for recollections of his big sister. "She was always out on dates and bringing boys home," he said. "They'd be necking in the parlor, and I'd sneak downstairs with my Brownie camera and try to take a snapshot. She'd get so mad! 'Johnny, go back to bed!' she'd yell, and throw something at me. I'd run back upstairs ..."

I liked that story.

Back at the cemetery office, we made arrangements to have my mother's name engraved on the headstone. "Do you want the whole last name?" the manager asked. "Why wouldn't we?" "Well, just so you know, we charge by the letter."

I imagined shortening mom's inscription to "M. STHLDR." to save a few bucks. If anything would rouse the wrath of her spirit to haunt my every moment, it would be that. "The whole name, please," I said. It came out to a little under $900. The manager promised they would spell STUHLDREHER right.

The Swan Pond at the Morris Arboretum.
In the afternoon, John and I went to the Morris Arboretum. My mother would have loved it there — all those beautiful, well-tended gardens. It was a glorious day. The sky was a shade of blue so sharp you could slice tomatoes with it.

Near the end of our visit, we came across a bronze statue of St. Francis, my mother's favorite saint. He was seated cross-legged with his left arm outstretched. Someone had put a sprig of real flowers in his hand.

As we admired it, a butterfly landed on the flowers. There was a moment of utter stillness. The butterfly flexed its wings a couple of times, then flitted off. I suppose if you were the sort of person who believed in such things, you could consider it a sign.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Is life good?

My guess is that most people have a strong visceral response, one way or the other, to the question, "Is it good to be alive?" and that for a majority, the response is, "Of course it is!"

I myself have that reaction. A couple of years ago, I had a bicycle accident and came fairly close to being run over by a pickup truck. As I lay on the asphalt, eye level with a tire tread, I was genuinely surprised at how happy I was not to have been run over, and to have escaped unscathed (give or take a bruised rib and skinned knuckles).

Looked at as a whole, however, the notion that life is essentially good is hard to justify, given the likelihood of pain and suffering and the inevitability of eventual annihilation. It's a grim fate to be a creature designed and built to desire life, yet to know with utter certainty that the universe that created you will rub you out in a few short years:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. ... All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it. 
We never win; we just delay losing long enough to produce the next generation, which delays losing long enough to produce the next generation, and so on.

So do I believe that existence is bad? Of late, I'm more inclined to the view that it's meaningless to call existence as such either good or bad. Consider: Isn't it meaningless to call temperature, as opposed to a particular temperature, hot or cold?

While we exist, our instincts paint the world around us with a range of values, including the supposed value of life itself. When we're cheerful and healthy, the world seems good; when we're morbid, it seems bad. But the seeming is in us, not in the world, as are the inferences we draw. When we are not, the seeming is not: Nonexistence includes (so to speak) the absence of any perceiving subject.

Existence isn't good or bad, but to the extent our wayward feelings and thoughts permit, it contains goodness and badness and everything in between.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

No, Dennis Roddy, Corbett's shale gas numbers really were bullshit

(Image: Wikimedia)
Dennis Roddy sure loves him some mendacious hackery.

In a recent op-ed column on, the former speechwriter for one-term Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett rends his garments and gnashes his teeth over the current governor, Tom Wolf, whose administration recently had the temerity to revise the state's Marcellus Shale jobs numbers and bring them roughly into line with reality.

The Corbett administration, you may recall, constantly touted the hundreds of thousands of jobs the shale gas jobs industry supposedly was creating, generally settling on a figure of 200,000 or more. The industry's explosive growth, the argument went, meant it was too valuable to be taxed.

Now that the explosive growth has driven natural gas prices down to an ant's eye level, you will note, we are told the industry is in too fragile a state to be taxed.

Anyway, Roddy is pissed off because under the Wolf Administration, the Department of Labor & Industry has revised those jobs figures down to 29,000.

But what about the broader economic effects, Roddy complains. He enthuses about a team of "statistical wizards" from Corbett's L&I who instructed Roddy in the higher mysteries of indirect and induced employment.

"It was, basically, a mathematical calculation as to how the general economic buzz taking place in the gas fields and their surroundings, affected the general economy," he writes.

"General economic buzz? Ok, whatever. But here's the thing: If you do that calculation honestly — as a number of researchers not connected with the Corbett administration did at the time — you reach a total of about 80,000 to 90,000.

Not 200,000. Not close.

Note, by the way, that Roddy never, you know, delves into the numbers in his op-ed. He merely asserts they were plausible because, you know, the Marcellus Shale was BIG. Besides, those L&I guys, they knew what they were doing!

"I trusted L&I," Roddy whines, "because they could explain the wider meaning, using tools they'd assembled years before Tom Corbett was elected, and which they continued to fine-tune as the evidence warranted."

No, Dennis, actually they abandoned their claim to credibility and just made s*** up. To explain the details, let me turn to somebody I trusted, and still do: myself.

Back in November 2013, I wrote a lengthy blog post on L&I's claim of 200,000+ jobs:
At first, people assumed these were actual Marcellus-related jobs. Then someone realized the agency was just reporting statewide category totals, without making any effort to determine what fraction of them actually had a connection to the gas industry. Think about that: It's like measuring the effect of building a stadium in Pittsburgh by including all the construction workers in Philadelphia, Altoona and Scranton.
Or as John Hanger, Wolf's policy secretary, says in the article that set Roddy off, "Every sewer employee counted as a gas worker? That makes no sense to any reasonable economist or analyst."

I went on to point out that 200,000 is roughly the number of jobs Pennsylvania had recovered since the bottom of the recession:

"In other words, if the Corbett administration’s assertion is correct, than to a first approximation, all of Pennsylvania’s post-recession jobs gains are Marcellus jobs. ... [B]y attributing 200,000 jobs to the Marcellus industry, the Corbett administration is essentially accusing itself of disastrously mismanaging the rest of Pennsylvania’s economy!" 
Roddy accuses Wolf of "intellectual vandalism" and "economic change denial" — the latter phrase a curious echo of another kind of denial much beloved of the fossil fuel industry.

But Roddy is defending the indefensible. When Hanger, in the comment that set Roddy off, said Corbett's administration "cooked the books" on shale jobs, he was speaking the plain truth.

Update: A friend points out that Roddy argued this point in June, too. We even get the same Richard Wilbur verse. C'mon, Dennis, give it up already.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Amish Paradise

Amish men work at a barn raising. Note the crane at right,
run by a non-Amish worker to lift the trusses into place.
A couple of days ago, Adam Ozimek of the blog Modeled Behavior stumbled on an article I wrote about Amish population trends. (Short version: They're having lots and lots of kids. Specifically, they're at 300,000 and counting, and are growing at more than five times the overall U.S. rate.)

Adam tweeted a tongue-in-cheek comment:
Which yielded a bunch of followups:

Your basic humorous Twitter riffing, clearly not meant to be taken seriously ... but also illustrative of a couple of stereotypes of the Amish that just plain (so to speak) aren't true. Amish scholar Donald Kraybill occasionally uses a certain famous Weird Al song as a jumping-off point for serious discussions of Amish life; so, in that spirit:

1. "Troubling implications for innovation": Yes and no. True, the Amish end schooling after eighth grade, and they go light on the biology and science because they don't want students asking awkward questions about the veracity of Scripture. But the Amish don't oppose technology per se. Rather, they evaluate technology based on its effect on family and community life. They reject innovations they think are too disruptive, but others they embrace. Sometimes they modify them to mitigate the perceived harm:
Stoltzfus is among the Amish businessmen who have entered the computer age. A company that outfits computers for Amish people touts in its advertising what the machines do not have: "no Internet, no video, no music."
Donald Kraybill has documented an Amish business that uses 3-D printers to make energy-efficient LED lights for buggies. That doesn't sound like an anti-innovation mindset to me.

2. "Great news for climate change, though": Sadly, not so much. The Amish are farmers, and they're not especially cutting-edge farmers, so they do their share of ecological damage. Worldwide, agriculture contributes about 18 percent of total greenhouse gases. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the Amish are probably about average in terms of per-acre emissions. (They do a lot of dairy farming.)

In Lancaster County, a major ecological concern with the Amish is manure runoff from their farms, which contributes to the degradation of the Chesapeake Bay. Officials are trying hard to get the Amish to improve their practices, with some success, but it's an uphill battle.

3. "... leading to a reconsideration of mass transit": The Amish don't oppose mass transit. They're quite happy taking buses, trains, subways and even airplanes, as needed. Their objection to modern vehicles isn't the technology per se (see item 1), but the way car ownership promotes independence and weakens community ties.

On the other hand, the Amish reject dense settlement and the kind of centralized organization you need to run mass transit systems. So they probably wouldn't want them after they took over, and if they did, they'd have to keep a few thousand of us English around to run the networks for them.

4. "Should help save on our defense budget": Um, yeah, can't really disagree with that. The Amish commitment to nonviolence is deep-rooted and non-negotiable. Full marks there.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Rolling Stones play Pittsburgh

I had no intention of seeing the Rolling Stones this past weekend. They're old, the tickets were expensive, I'd already seen them once, in 1998 at the Tokyo Dome  and so on. I was in Pittsburgh to see my father for Father's Day, and that was that. Their only effect on my trip, I thought, was that their fans had soaked up every hotel room in town, pushing my Airbnb booking out to Regent Square. 

Mick on the big screen at Heinz Field, June 20, 2015.
But Dad and Carol keep early hours these days, and by 8 p.m. Saturday, we were all done. WDVE-FM, true to its muse, had been playing nothing but Stones all day. Heinz Field is a "C" shape opening onto the river, and if you drive over the Fort Pitt Bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the stands. It was only a few minutes out of my way. Why not have a peek? So I did.

My first thought was "That stadium is not full."* My second thought, as I zipped into the tunnel, was, "It's been raining all day. That has to have kept at least a couple of people away." My third thought was, "You'll kick yourself for weeks if you don't go over there and at least try to get in." So I drove back into town, parked, walked over the Roberto Clemente Bridge and made my way toward Heinz Field. Twenty minutes later I was settling into peanut heaven, also known as section 527 in the upper deck, as the opening chords of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" rang out.

Never have I been so glad to part with an unreasonable sum ($98.50) for an evening's entertainment. Sure, they played songs I've heard hundreds of times before. Sure, from where I sat, Mick Jagger was half the height of a fingernail. No matter. The Rolling Stones are The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World (tm) and they put on the best goddam show you will ever see.

In support of which assertion I offer a Top 10 list of notable points about Stop No. 15212 on the Zip Code Tour:

10. Hello, Cleveland!: Sure, it demonstrates nothing more than the canniness of their marketing team, but from Mick's cheerful, "How yinz guys doin'?!" to Charlie's black and yellow bumblebee socks, the Stones made a point of stoking Pittsburgh's hometown pride. The black-n-gold tongue logo was an especially nice touch. As was Keith's pithy economium, which went roughly like this: "Nice to be in Pittsburgh. Great town!" Pause. "I remember when it was hell."

9. Big Hits ... : The tour I saw in '98 was for "Bridges to Babylon," and as I recall, we got three songs from the new album, all of them mediocre and forgettable. On Saturday, apart from a perfunctory "Doom and Gloom," it was nothing but the old, good stuff.

8. ... and Fazed Cookies: The old, good stuff included some deep cuts, most notably "Moonlight Mile," which they're doing in honor of the Sticky Fingers re-release. (Mick duly gave a shout-out to Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, who designed the cover.) We also got "Bitch" and a killer (so to speak) "Midnight Rambler," dusted off and every bit as vicious and weird as it was on the '72 tour.

7. You Got the Gold: The Keith-on-vocals portion of the show is always a crapshoot. Half the time he can't be bothered to sing, and when he does try, he can barely carry a four-note tune he penned himself. On Saturday, though, he gave us "Before They Make Me Run" and "Happy," probably his two best songs, and he spared us the Andy Kaufman/Bob Dylan routine and played them straight. "That's rock n' roll," he said after "Happy." Damn right.

6. Moves Like Jagger: I have no idea how he does it. No matter how carefully he eats and exercises (there's a rock lifestyle for you), no matter how carefully he husbands his energy, a man his age should not be able to put on a show like that. His voice sounds better than it did in the 1980s. My goal when I turn 50 in a couple of years is to be in as good shape as Mick Jagger is at age 71.

5. Lisa Fisher, et. al.: As soon as you hear the opening notes of "Gimme Shelter," you know Lisa's voice is going to head into the stratosphere on the "Rape! Murder!" bridge, but it still makes your hair stand on end when she does it. She is the most coruscatingly impressive of the Stones' backup musicians (RIP Bobby Keys), but they are all brilliant.

4. Believe It Or Not, They Can Still Play: OK, Keith, not so much, but Ronnie surprised me with his solos on "Before They Make Me Run" and especially "Midnight Rambler." There were some fast, clean licks in there, and they weren't just the notes off the record. There was music being made in real time.

3. Even Their Stumbles Are Cool: For my money, they've never gotten "You Can't Always Get What You Want" right live. Most of it sounds listless, then the last part goes too fast. This time, the main part sounded better than usual (Nice job, Penn State Choir), then everything went off the rails for a good five seconds getting into the double-time part. No matter: It's how you know it's the Stones.

2. They Can Still Play, Part Two: I've heard enough Stones covers to have learned that the music is more subtle than you think. Keith and Ronnie play guitar like an old married couple telling stories and finishing each other's sentences. Keith is constantly toying with those famous riffs, dropping a given chord in here, then there, finding interesting spaces between the notes. Last December I heard Joe Grushecky  no slouch of a musician  play a cover of "Brown Sugar," and it sounded flat, a little boring. Too much on the beat. When the Stones play "Brown Sugar," it sounds supple.  Keith has said that Charlie follows him, not vice versa, so there's a tension in the rhythm that you don't hear in bands where the drummer sets the pace (which is most bands). It's a free-floating bar-band groove, and it fills a stadium. No mean trick, that.

1. They Invented It: The "Satisfaction" riff. That cowbell at the start of "Honky Tonk Women." The "Woo Woo!" that 55,000 people started singing on Saturday the moment the rhythm track began on "Sympathy for the Devil." Those guys on that stage down there created all that and more, defining rock stardom for a generation, influencing artists from Jack White to Cassandra Wilson. It should be kids' music, but they anchored it in the blues, and against all odds it and they have turned out to be surprisingly ageless. In their hands, on a good night  and June 20, 2015, in Pittsburgh was a very good night  those songs come extraordinarily and stunningly alive.

*I was wrong about that, of course.