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.