Camping

This weekend we packed up the family for a short trip to the coast to test out the recently acquired pop-up trailer.  Not a lot to say other than whoever thought tin-foil dinners were a good idea in the sweltering heat of a South-Texas summer needs to have their head checked.  It’s bad enough cooking over a fire when it’s cool outside, but doing it at 95+ degrees in the coastal humidity sucks!  The worst part of the whole deal is that I don’t really have anyone to blame but myself.  I was the one that put together that part of the menu.  Even cooking with the smallest fire I could make was enough to make me wonder why anyone would settle this part of the country before air conditioning.

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Isaac went right to hitting trees with sticks, messing around with his new fixed-blade knife, and generally enjoying being dirty.  He also decided that the mustang grapes growing all over were fairly tasty and fun to play with.

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The heat didn’t stop Michael from making the most of an opportunity to throw stuff into the fire.  He must be a true boy at heart.  I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I think this picture captured the only time during the whole trip where we were able to convince him to wear something on his feet.

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Sydney made the most of things by dressing up in camouflage from head-to-toe.  I guess she figured she could hide from Michael and Isaac better that way.  Unfortunately for her, there weren’t any cute boys in the neighboring campsites.  Apparently we chose to camp in the geriatric ward.  Our kids were about the only ones around.

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If you look closely, you can see my favorite part of the trailer… the air conditioner on top.  It’s tough to keep up when it’s near 100 and humid, but the air conditioner managed to take the edge off and give us somewhere to seek relief from the oppressive heat.

Two days at the beach and we were sunburned enough to satisfy our vitamin D requirements for a while, but you won’t see pictures.  I forgot to bring the waterproof camera, and I have a poor track-record with cell phones and salt water.  You’ll just have to imagine Sydney, Isaac, and Michael playing in the bathwater-warm surf for hours on end while Liz and I enjoy doing nothing under a sun canopy.   I think we’ll have to go back again when it’s not so awful hot.  Maybe next time I’ll remember the waterproof camera.

Free Trailer

Last summer, Liz and I traveled back to the home country to spend time with our extended families.  Among the things we did there was take a weekend trip camping in an offshoot of the Rocky Mountains with my brothers and their popup/tent trailers.  Liz and I thought it might be fun and affordable enough for us to get one, and started looking around for a used one in our price-range.  As luck would have it, not long after we returned home from vacation a friend told us they had one we could take for free.

Free is my favorite price. Unfortunately, free is almost never free.  Besides, I don’t like feeling like I’m taking advantage of someone, so I offered to get an old (1947) tractor of theirs back up and running in exchange.  I re-wired the electrical to switch it from 6v to 12v, added all the other stuff necessary to create a charging system including fabricating an alternator mount, replaced a rusted-through exhaust manifold, and fixed a leaking radiator. Quite a lot of work, but in the end, it was mostly labor (and kinda fun at that), so I still felt like I had come out ahead.

Fast-forward almost a year, and Liz decides we need to go on a couple of shorter trips this summer.  One to the beach for a weekend, and one to somewhere up north about a day’s drive.  Both require either paying for hotel rooms, KOA Kabins, or fixing the trailer and taking it with us.  Being averse to spending lots of money on lodging when I have a partial solution waiting for me to deal with it, I finally got around to working on the trailer.  As a side note, I have a hard deadline about 2 weeks from the time of this writing.  When I committed to finishing the trailer, I expected about a day’s work in total.

I knew there was some water damage in the front cargo compartment, and the short door/step was coming apart.  I figured on a half-day to repair that along with a half day to clean out the dust, dirt, and wasp-nests that had accumulated over the course of the last couple of years would do it.  Because the whole thing smelled of dirt, and to get a better idea for what I was really getting into, I started by attempting to open the canopy and clean the inside.  Problem…  the crank that raises the roof was missing.  The previous owners didn’t know where it was either.  Good thing I have a pile of scrap, a grinder, and a cheap welder.  Two hours and a failed prototype later and I had fabricated a reasonable replica that functioned perfectly.   So much for just a half-day of work.

After opening the canopy, it became clear mice had decided to nest in there over one of the winters it was sitting and chewed several holes in the canopy and window screens.  Opening the canopy further revealed stitching on one of the seams that had dry-rotted and come apart.  My leather sewing kit would come in handy for that, even though hand-stitching several feet of heavy canvas didn’t sound like fun.  Patching and stitching the canopy chewed up a trip to the outdoor megastore and about six hours.  On to the door.

The door proved to be a much more difficult repair than I had figured.  The manufacturer had opted to forgo screws and bolts in favor of aluminum pop-rivets in an effort to cut both weight and cost.  I had to drill out and re-do over 50 of the little buggers just to get the door apart, not to mention the work involved in fixing the latch, straightening out the bent frame, reinforcing a couple areas, and getting it all back together.  What was supposed to take an hour took more like ten.

That done, I moved on to the interior.  A full day (12+hours) of scrubbing, sweeping, wiping, pressure-washing, canvas patching, and other general cleaning did wonders, but also revealed lots of additional things that needed attention.  Every cabinet door and drawer was falling apart, so I pulled out some glue and my trusty brad-nailer.  With their help and about three hours I had fixed the cabinetry.  There was also some critical bracing that was missing in the benches/beds that a trip to the scrap wood pile in the garage and some rough carpentry took care of.  The water pump in the sink was falling out of the hole because the particle board around the screws had disintegrated, but with a deadline looming, and no immediate need for that particular function,  I opted to leave it for another time.

Now that all the “easy” stuff was done, it was time to tackle the water damage in the front cargo area.  Originally, I thought I’d be able to get away with reinforcing the floor with some cheap OSB and replacing two panels on the sides, but after looking closer and pulling up the linoleum, it became clear I would have to completely disassemble, demolish, and re-build everything forward of where the forward bed pulled out.  By the time I was done pulling off the plastic and aluminum body panels and tearing up rotten OSB and particle board, there was nothing left but the frame.  The demolition alone took over three hours, another three hours to go to the hardware store and back, and another eight or so hours to re-build the cargo box and get the body panels back in place.

If you’re keeping track, that adds up to 44 hours so far, and I still have to hand-sew patches over about five or six holes in the screens, make sure the tires are road worthy, stitch up a couple holes in the upholstery, make sure the road-lights all work, and get it licensed.  When it’s all said and done, I’m probably looking at something like another 8-10 hours for a grand-total of about 52 hours.  Considering what I make when I’m being paid for my work, this free trailer is pretty expensive.  Good thing I have more time than unallocated money (and I don’t even have much time).    Assuming I can spend Monday on it, I should have it done in time for the first outing in a couple of weeks.

One bright-spot… the air conditioner works, and everywhere we have planned to stop has power at the campsites.  Yes… I have fallen far from my backwoods days camping with only what you could carry, but this is Texas in July.  I’ll accept the ribbing, and enjoy being able to sleep in something slightly cooler than a hot oven.

Through the looking glass

What’s wrong with DC?  How is it that the array of government and our duly elected representatives can be so disconnected from the reality of the majority of American lives?  After spending another several days in the national capitol region, I am reminded of at least one of the reasons.  DC is nothing like the rest of America.  It is a frighteningly distorted fairytale land, and I am convinced that anyone who spends much time there will eventually lose touch with the realities facing most of America.

The fact of the matter is that people are influenced by their environment in ways they are largely unconscious of.  I have lived in enough places and worked in enough different environments that I have seen the impact local culture and environment have had on my personality, outlook, expectations, and perceptions.  I have been perhaps fortunate that those experiences have been diverse and have constantly challenged biases and prejudices in ways that have forced me to adopt a more critical view of the messaging (overt and otherwise) that has been working to shape my opinion. What I see in DC is a self insulating and perpetuating micro-climate that is distinct from what life is like in the vast majority of America and inexorably shapes the perceptions of those who live there.

I recently saw a report claiming that Democrats in the District make up 75% of the population, unaffiliated 16%, and republicans 6%.  Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to admit that DC is far from representative of the broader population.  About the only places where political affiliations are this polarized are deep inner cities where the population has become addicted to government largess and a few extreme rural areas where a small pocket of right-wing conservatives are the only humans within an entire voting district. This severe polarization, however, is not even a significant part of why DC should have figured prominently in Lewis Carrol’s tales.  Every time I have the misfortune of traveling there, I add experiences and anecdotes to my mental library chronicling the fantasy land that is DC.

My hotel receipt from my recent trip is a decent place to start.   The room cost me $239.00/night at a discount rate from a nation-wide hotel chain.  I can rent the same category of room almost anywhere else in the united states (other screwed-up megalopolises like LA and NY excepted) for around $120.00/night, and many places for around $90.00.  There are no extra amenities to justify the extra cost, and in fact, the hotel was in need of a refresh compared to a similar property in the same chain I stayed at in Omaha recently (incidentally for $110/night).  For the extra $119.00/night, I got the privilege of walking half a mile to a metro station in a humid 90 degrees, city lights shining through my less than blackout curtains, traffic, noise, limited cable channels, and slow Internet service.

This enhanced cost of living is not just for the transients.  A friend purchased a home on the outskirts of the NCR almost ten years ago for over $600,000.  For that price he got a three hour commute to a modest home on a postage-stamp of land tightly controlled by the HOA.  Eight years later, I built my dream-home on 5+ acres for well under half that amount.  In their mind, I am the crazy one.

This disparity seems lost on most who live in the NCR much above the poverty line.  Those with a family seem to think it normal to spend ten thousand or more dollars on a mortgage or lease each month while parking their Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, or Cadillac SUV in a rented stall that costs them nearly as much as my mortgage.  The thought of not spending hundreds of dollars a month on each of the five or so extra-curricular activities for each of their 1.5 kids (if they have any) is heresy.  And as for the thought of putting them in public school, well… that is for “other people’s kids.”

For those too young to start a family (under 40, or maybe 50), a home and kids is unthinkable.  Extraordinarily expensive and crowded apartment high-rises are interspersed between large office buildings housing major defense contractors, consulting firms and think-tanks.  Things as simple as a functioning kitchen are tough to find, and functionally unnecessary because most food is prepared in a restaurant, usually with some fancy name and/or pretentious decor.  Life for this crowd revolves around work and play in search of “self actualization.”

Consider another take on the demographics.  I see in the District a relatively small set of very distinct and disconnected populations, only a few of which are statistically significant outside of the national capitol region (NCR)… First, and most visibly, there are the government employees. These people depend on the government for their paycheck which is quite large and well protected when taken in context.  This group has a vested interest in perpetuating and expanding the roles and responsibilities of the government and in expanding the benefits accrued to those who “serve.”  In the NCR, these employees fall into two primary categories…  The young and ambitious, and the old and powerful.  The young and ambitious want to be old and powerful, so they spend their days coddling and reinforcing opinions of the old and powerful.  The old and powerful spend their days doing “brain work” by loudly proclaiming the opinions that have been given them by one or more of the other power-broker classes (the young and ambitious or the rich and connected).  They all live lifestyles that would be unrecognizable to almost anyone from the “flyover states.”

The daily uniform for men in this class consists of expensive suits or designer shirts and ties.  Clothing that appears functional is a clear indicator that one is either a tourist or one of the various categories of servile underclasses.  A man-purse is a mandatory accessory for the young variety as is a hairdo and general demeanor that is sufficiently androgynous to avoid offending people of any sexual persuasion.  Women among the young and ambitious are generally skinny, pretty, wear skirts above the knee (often well above the knee), tight tops that expose substantial cleavage or otherwise draw attention to their frequently augmented breasts and are generally in their 20s or 30s.  The old and powerful women are rarely seen, but are hardened, wear pant suits, and are either chauffeured in or occasionally drive expensive luxury cars.  Middle-aged women seen in public are often tourists or under-class.

The most powerful class in DC though is not the collection of government employees.  It is the rich and connected, many of whom are at the disposal of large corporations dependent on government largess, and the remainder largely paid by the rich and powerful to use their connections to develop and propagate legal justifications or politically correct explanations that obfuscate the true nature of government actions.  Many of the latter are graduated from the old and powerful or pulled from the most ambitious and successful of the young who collected contacts and networks before switching to selling that information to the highest bidder.

The rich and connected are in a unique position.  They have at their disposal and routinely exploit information that can be used for or against those who are in positions of power.  They reward desired behavior with insights that, strangely enough, almost universally add to the personal wealth of the powerful or their close connections.  They use their access to media to manipulate messages and agendas.  Behavior that is disruptive is punished through leaks, disinformation campaigns, “spin,” ostracism, or other thuggish tactics.  Even the perception of the potential for punishment, coupled with the rewards of compliance, is more than adequate in almost all cases to silence real debate and discussion.  As a result of long years of participation, many of the old and powerful have also worked their way into the rich and influential category.  This is the pinnacle of DC success, and the real reason behind many of the decisions made.

Unfortunately, simply shutting down discussion and debate is not an option because there must appear to be two sides to each debate.  Representatives need to have materials for reelection campaigns.  To satisfy this need, spurious topics with important sounding and politically hot undercurrents are brought to the forefront to occupy the media and distract constituents while the old and powerful collude with the rich and influential behind the scenes to line their pockets and solidify or deepen their personal influence and wealth.

A short walk down any of the major streets will highlight another oddity.  Unlike other major cities that are built around one or more industries that have a requirement to produce something to survive, DC is founded squarely on the one and only organization that doesn’t need to produce tangible results, please shareholders in any real sense, and can “solve” its problems by giving itself more power, money, and influence.  Because of this, corporations in the city do not produce tangible products for end consumers.  Every major company with the resources to dedicate has an office in the NCR with the express intent of influencing governmental decisions in their favor so they can “bring home the bacon.”  Street after street is filled with offices for corporations like Lockheed, Boeing, Textron, Bell Labs, Raytheon, CACI, SAIC, and on, and on, and on.  Nowhere else in the world will you find such a concentration of ‘nonproductive’ employees.

This would make no business sense if the bureaucracy functioned in a fair and impartial manner.  However, big corporations don’t get and stay big by doing things that didn’t make business sense.  There is a form of unvoiced and notionally legal quid-pro-quo that keeps these offices gainfully employed.  Money translates into access, and access shapes policy which drives spending – constituents be damned.

If I sound somewhat cynical of our government, I am.  The miracle of it is that it works at all.  Throughout history, representative governments have collapsed when they became seriously corrupt and focused on purchasing votes through government programs.  Given the current state of things, I’m surprised we haven’t already gone over the edge.  Perhaps there is just enough of truth and honesty in our public servants (or at least fear of an informed public) to keep things from completely going off of the rails.  Then again, maybe we’re on the track and headed for the cliff with a full head of steam but just haven’t felt the rails fall out from under us yet.