Wednesday, February 24, 2021

In A Bleaker Midwinter

For the better part of three months now I've been pondering various topics for posts. But every idea was soon overcome by new concerns, or interrupted by politics, or otherwise confused by events that changed my perspective or that made whatever notion I was pursuing seem trivial.

This last week has been so eventful, however, that much of what I have been thinking about has coalesced into a meditation on the fragility of normality and the perils of modernity. So this may ramble a bit more (even) than usual, but it has to start somewhere.

Two Thursdays ago we thought we were being terribly foresightful by hitting Costco to load up on wine and dog treats and a few staples in advance of predicted nasty weather. Snow was promised, and we usually don't mind that, but since Texans are notoriously bad at driving in snow and ice, we wanted to avoid them by hunkering down and waiting it out. We bought an extra case of San Pellegrino, stocked up on stew-fixings, and snagged a bag of Lindor truffles.

Then we snuggled in, watched the weather reports--which became more and more dire as the weekend approached--all the while thinking that (as usual) this was all overblown and at best we'd "suffer" an inch or two and then Spring would come blowing in from the south.

Well, anyone who's been paying any attention at all to national news now knows that we were flat out wrong. At this point I have to wander off a little, to let you know why it was that we didn't just end up heading south to Dallas to stay with my daughter. We had told her that we were good; after all we had a Bluetti portable power station to keep our devices charged, and should be able to handle the sort of brief power outages we'd experienced in the past. We also have two gas wall heaters in our bathrooms, remnants of the days when this hundred year-old house was heated by space heaters. We also have a dual fuel range in the kitchen, and could therefore manually light the stove for cooking purposes. 

Ever since we bought our retro travel trailer, Porco Rosso, we've been collecting kit to help us boondock on public lands, which is why we have the solar-chargeable Bluetti. We also have a couple of large coolers, but their eventual uses were unexpected. 

By Sunday night it was looking like maybe the forecast was more accurate than we had thought. I took a couple of snapshots of the early accumulation, and woke up Monday morning to a lovely blanket of snow, and watched it accumulate further over the next few hours.  And then the lights went out.

The next couple of days were something of a blur, because after we lost power, our pipes froze. The power came on again briefly once, and then stayed off for quite a few hours before it came back on for less than an hour and we lost it yet again. By then the news was talking about "rolling blackouts" that would last for a few minutes to an hour before the power resumed. But that only happened across the street, behind us on the next street, and north of us.

Full power didn't return until Thursday, but when the water in our pipes thawed, we discovered that there was a noisy leak under the kitchen, so had the city come and turn off the water.

Pioneer smarts allowed us to figure out how to use all that snow (over five inches by the time it ended) to our advantage, by filling up canning vats, soup pots, and the coolers (finally getting some use) with water and melting it for flushing loos and washing dishes. After the second storm ended, The Beloved Spouse went out for a few gallons of drinking water for making coffee (we had plenty of San Pellegrino to drink) and filling pet bowls.

In the end, we managed to stay warm enough using the Bluetti to power a little fan that blew the warm air from the bathroom into the bedroom, loading up with eiderdowns, and using upstairs as Command Central until the power came on (usually for no more than an hour or two, at totally unpredictable intervals). We used the living room fireplace a couple of times, but its inefficiency made it useless except for ambience and as a way of providing the pets with some semblance of their regular routine. On the first day with almost no power at all--but sunny--we charged the power station with the solar panels.

As things begin to warm up, the water in the rain barrels under downspouts (we have five, but only three are in use) began to thaw, providing us with a source of water after the snow started melting away. By Friday of Storm Week it was almost gone. Calls to our plumber gave us a Monday slot, but the initial check showed that we'd need a team, and that couldn't happen until Thursday. But today (Wednesday) the guys came early, crawled under the house, and replaced a section of copper pipe that had a 3 cm break in it. Now things are back to normal--although we've got two coolers and two vats full of water in the downstairs bathtub, so we'll keep flushing that toilet by hand until we use--rather than waste--all that water.

Meanwhile, the myth of Texas Exceptionalism has not only been shattered, but blown to bits and exposed to the world. Greed and the interests of the oil and gas industry have shown themselves to be the governing principles of Texas energy politics. Secessionists' utopian ideas of a regulation-free Texas-only grid have resulted in catastrophic dysfunction and a resulting dystopian experience that rivals post-apocalyptic YA novels. During the worst of it, the perfect metaphor for Texas politics arose, in Senator Ted Cruz's astonishingly inappropriate bug-out to Cancun.

In the end, we were extraordinarily fortunate. The little bit of prepping we had done for camping purposes turned out to serve us well. We got by with nothing worse than a hefty plumbing bill (but less than we had expected) and a damaged garden. Thanks to a Sunday afternoon jaunt down to Dallas to visit my daughter and her partner (who--probably due to their proximity to a local fire station--lost neither power nor water), we enjoyed a lovely lunch, took showers, and washed a load of laundry before heading back up to a cold, dry house.

As I type, millions of Texans are still without power or water. If there were ever reason to reexamine not only the impracticality of the Texas grid, but the absurdity of huge public power grids in the first place, this is it. The ludicrous (and probably immoral) ambition of Texas to draw more and more people into the state without providing the infrastructure to support the growing population may now be reconsidered, but it will take a monumental political shift to accomplish any meaningful conversation about the future.

If that weren't enough, the specter of the Plague continues to loom over all of this. 

One final note: as TBS and the plumbers (all masked) congregated at the curb to turn our water back on, a woman and her teen-aged son (unmasked) walked by, and she gave my husband a dirty look. While walking away she said, "That's pretty frightening to a woman who has been assaulted before."

This is the Texas I live in.

Image note: I'm having trouble with airdrop from my iPad, so included this shot taken on my iPhone 7 of what seems to be a bird-version of a "snow angel."

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Gaming For A Purpose

Sorghaghtani Beki
The latest Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaign launched on November 12, and was funded at its initial level (USD 20,000) on November 22. This is a record for us (I say "us" because I'm proud to have been involved with Tim Brookes's several projects almost since their beginning) and has prompted a "stretch goal" of USD 30,000 to be raised in the next twelve days.

For a complete description, see the page "ULUS: A Game to Save a Culture" on Kickstarter, watch Tim's video, and do please pledge if you can. And if you're interested in the history of the Endangered Alphabets projects, see these posts here on the Farm: The Thank You All Exhibition; The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets; 100 Words for a Children's Endangered-Language DictionaryThe Right to Read, The Right to Write.

I'm particularly excited about ULUS: Legends of the Nomads, a game designed to help promote the survival of the Mongolian language,  script,  and culture--not only because I am the proud mother of a professional game designer (both table top and digital), but because games are so useful in helping people understand other people. This is not true, of course, of all games, which is why I continue to have conversations about the nature and content of modern, especially video, gaming with MSGG (my son the game guy)--as I have with former students during my days teaching game designers in my former life. One of the first posts on the Farm, back in 2007 (Virtual Unreality) contained a critique and a discussion with a gamer of a game called Bioshock, which seemed horrific to me at the time--but after the conversation I came around. A little.

At any rate, my affection for tabletop games is problematic, since I don't play them very often. I love the idea of them, but I'm such a terrible loser that nobody will play with me. Nevertheless, I've backed half a dozen Kickstarter campaigns for games that I took to my humanities classes for a quarterly game day to show students how learning about art and culture made really cool games possible. The students always enjoyed the wide variety of games based on Egyptians or the Maya or archaeology or even art historical topics and games adapted from ancient versions. Early art work and design images for ULUS promise to blow most of these out of the water in terms of graphics alone. I'm actually looking forward to engaging The Beloved Spouse in a few rounds of ULUS, because I suspect that I might actually enjoy playing something this thoughtfully produced.

I can't help but think that ULUS would have provided a much-needed look into stories and images based not on The Usual Suspects, and it will certainly provide an initial point of contact for most of us in the West with Mongolian history, folklore, and language through which a further, deeper understanding can be begin. For a description of the importance of this project to Mongolian cultural survival, see "Why Is Mongolian Script and Calligraphy so Important to the Mongolian Identity?"

Tim Brookes's creative energy and devotion to the very important causes he has supported offers me some real hope that a better, more inclusive, and more historically conscious future is possible. 


Image credits: both of these examples of the artwork for ULUS came from Tim Brookes. Sorghagtani Beki was known as "The directing spirit of the House of Tolui" for helping to establish the Mongol line under her son.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Searching for Quiet in a Very Noisy World

My Child Groom turned sixty three a week ago, and we celebrated a bit in advance by taking Porco and the animals out to Lake Benbrook for a few days of P and Q. We're pretty obviously not the only ones to think of this, because most of the state parks we looked at were booked up. And since he had been eager to try an Army Corps of Engineers site I checked at Benbrook (where his forest ranger sister had once worked, and which is only a couple of hours away) and found our desired window open. So, taking about two weeks to get Porco in shape to travel again, we ventured forth. This was our first trip since the pre-plague January visit to Palmetto.

The park was well-occupied, but not packed. The fact that we arrived on a Monday didn't make occupation much sparser, since many families--even in this science-denying state--are home with their kids and probably anxious to get them out before things really close down again. There was a family camped across the road in tents, but most of our other near neighbors seemed to be older couples like us. One such were full-timers in a big rig with a toad (See? I'm even learning the lingo!). They were on their way back east, but liked USACoE sites and thus were parked at Benbrook for a few days.

What was really nice, besides getting away from the local traffic noise and the next-door pool pump, was that even though the kids were noisy for a bit, the rest of the stay was blessedly quiet. And we heard no traffic at all (even though this lake is only ten miles away from Fort Worth). Very loud jet noise went over a couple of times, from the nearby Naval air station, but that only lasted long enough to scare the bejeeziz out of Molly and send her into hiding. 


We were camped quite near the boat ramp at the South Holiday section of the park, which made for easy walks along the shore. When I finally got the Eos SLR out (forgetting that I had a zoom lens I could have used), I managed to shoot a few bird photos, inspired by one of my favorite Skywatch Friday contributors, Rosyfinch Ramblings. I don't see awfully well these days, and tend to miss stuff I shouldn't, but I did turn around at one point quickly enough to see a couple of herons (one white and one blue) take off from tree stumps near the shore.

The Great Blue then took up residence on the railing of the pier next to the dock, and stayed there making rude noises for a while. 

After it fell silent again, I soaked up the quietude for a bit before I turned back to the campsite. On my way back, a murder of blackbirds started going at it, including crows, grackles, and a few turkey vultures. The grackles seemed to be upset about something, and after I'd taken the photo, I noticed what it was: a bald eagle! 

The eagle flew off and things quieted down, so I headed back to camp and to my hammock to read. The sun was coming out and the temperature was mild enough to be able to enjoy lying in dappled sun and shade for a couple of hours. 

There were also bluebird boxes around, but I didn't see one (box or bird) until we were leaving. Had I realized that there was a box attached to a "Slow" sign on the entry road near our site, I'd have parked myself there for as long as it took. Maybe next time. And there probably will be, now that the Beloved Spouse has expanded our exit gate and it's much easier to get Porco out of the yard, and now that we know where the best spots are at this particular park. We also took advantage of a wide equestrian trail for a hike, but it's littered with trees from floods and not particularly well groomed. I managed to trip and scuff myself up a bit, but with no lasting damage. There's a bird blind not too far in, so next time we'll be better prepared to spend some time waiting for wildlife to saunter by. Nylah certainly enjoyed her many walks, and even got to see some deer on one midday stroll.

It's good to know that even fairly close-by there are places we can go to regain a measure of sanity. The next week is going to be a tough one, and I'm glad we had some time to decompress before election anxiety sets in full force. Regardless of the outcome, the Plague isn't going away around here, and we're glad to find even a short-term change of landscape to help us make it through.

Mask up, Folks, and be safe. And happy Skywatch Friday