Monday, March 30, 2009

Sharps: Of all the dumb luck...

Yeah, I know I said I was done talking sharps for a while, but something just happened that deserves a post.

I caught a bit of flak from a reader recently, good-naturedly needling me for gushing about Bark River and Blind Horse knives to the exclusion of other worthy American-made sharps. He suggested that I give Alabama's RAT Cutlery a try -- specifically, the RC-4, a mid-sized fixed-blade knife which fills about the same niche as Bark River's Bravo-1.

Agreeing to accept this reader's unconventional buy-and-pass-along offer, I juggled some funds and looked for a RAT dealer in Ohio, ultimately settling on the-knife-connection up in Alvordton. I chose the plain-edge RC-4P with gray Micarta handles, placed my order via the dealer's website, did the PayPal thing and sat back to await USPS delivery, probably before the end of the week.

About an hour later I was doing some reading about the RC-4 and surfed into I spotted a new thread started in the RAT forum by Dale Stoops, the guy who runs the-knife-connection, announcing the latest winner of his "Every 30th Order is Free (up to $100)" promotion.

I must've read and re-read that post a half-dozen times -- right there in front of me was my name. I nearly fell out of my chair.

So in a few days, I'll have an almost-free RAT Cutlery RC-4 in my hands. I'm jazzed, of course. Count on my first impressions to appear here soon.

Earlier posts
Sharps: Rite of passage
Sharps: Heartland blades

RAT Cutlery Co.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting moving

For KintlaLake and family, a household move is inevitable – and it's looming, although I can't yet say exactly how close it is.

My wife and I got the process started yesterday. Between here and what will be our new home is a self-storage facility which just happened to have a 10'x30' unit available at a very reasonable monthly rate. We found the space clean, dry and fairly new, offering access from both ends. It was a stroke of good fortune that surprised both of us.

Two industrial-strength padlocks later, we were in business. It'll work.

On a hunch, I asked the manager if she had any extra shipping pallets hanging around the property. She directed us to raid an open unit a few doors down from ours, where we found eight worth using -- another unexpected find, this one allowing us to get our stuff up off of the unit's concrete floor. Absolutely perfect -- and absolutely free.

Next we headed to a nearby mass-merchandiser for plastic totes, tape and other packing supplies. We spent more money there than we would've liked but judged the outlay a necessary evil.

This morning it took us a while to get rolling. By day's end, however, we'd packed seven good-sized boxes with books, glassware and assorted household items. We know that we've barely scratched the surface -- and we also know that we'll get the job done. We have to.

Just renting the storage unit and knowing that we'll be able to haul one or two SUV-loads over there every day lifts some weight from our shoulders. We're no longer stuck -- now we're actually moving.

While we're still here in this warm house we'll enjoy its pleasures, the joy that surrounds us on this special patch of land. Earlier today, for instance, my wife summoned me to an upstairs window to watch a storm front roll toward us. Out of an angry western sky, sheets of rain came closer and closer until, mixed with wet snow and sleet, the drops pelted against the glass.

A bit later, I called Mrs. KintlaLake's attention to a hawk swooping between the red pines and the sycamore outside the office window, battling rain and gusting wind while scanning the ground for its prey.

A dozen bright-yellow daffodils, cut Friday afternoon from a patch of volunteers, grace our dining-room table. Dozens more remain for us to enjoy during lazy strolls into the back yard.

Damn, we're going to miss this place. It's still home, at least for a little while longer, but the move is finally underway.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Forget that, remember this

Thanks to the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, everyone knows who Ray Nagin is -- mayor of New Orleans, would-be architect of a "Chocolate City," and official symbol of his subjects' self-imposed helplessness and sense of entitlement.

Try, if you can, to forget Ray Nagin -- and remember Dennis Walaker.

Walaker is mayor of Fargo, North Dakota, which today is under unprecedented assault by the rising waters of the Red River. And in contrast to Nagin's whiny grandstanding, Walaker is demonstrating humility and a can-do attitude reflected in the citizens of Fargo.

Shortly after learning that floodwaters were projected to crest at more than 26 feet above flood stage, Walaker said,
"We do not want to give up yet. We want to go down swinging if we go down."
The people of Fargo, like their mayor, definitely are swinging. Rather than standing around screaming, "We need help! We need help!" for the television cameras, North Dakotans, without fanfare, are volunteering by the thousands -- it's their home and they're accepting responsibility for protecting it. It's inspiring to watch.

They're getting aid from federal and state agencies, of course, including the National Guard, but they're not relying on someone else to save their city. College kids and school children are joining adult citizens in filling and deploying millions of sandbags, rescuing stranded neighbors and caring for the less-than-able.

Anyone remember seeing much of that sort of thing in New Orleans? Funny, I don't, either.

By the way, don't dare talk to me about the racial and socio-economic disparity between Fargo and New Orleans -- neither is a credible explanation for the difference in attitude between a flock of greedy sheep and a fiercely independent populace.

Likewise, there's no need to compare a hurricane to a rising river, or four days' warning of imminent natural disaster to a week's notice. No one can convince me that the people of Fargo wouldn't have thrown the same initiative into Katrina's face, or that many New Orleanians would've been inclined to stand for hours in icy water, enduring sub-freezing temperatures to stack sandbags in defense of their city.

And don't forget -- after Katrina, the City of New Orleans took action to seize more than a thousand legally owned firearms from law-abiding citizens, guns that weren't part of any criminal investigation. Nagin and his police chief left these citizens unarmed in the face of roving gangs, home invaders and other criminals.

I could be wrong about this, but I doubt seriously that we'll see the same reckless violation of Second Amendment rights in Fargo.

Speaking as a human being and fellow American, I have compassion for the people of New Orleans, even now -- but feeling bad for them, with their incompetent city government, corrupt law enforcement and collective gimme attitude, is as far as I go.

Mayor Dennis Walaker and the people of Fargo, on the other hand, have earned my respect. To the extent that I can offer more than my moral support, they'll damned sure get it.

'Night, light

Tonight at 8:30pm, everyone on planet Earth is being asked to switch off their lights for an hour -- Earth Hour. A project of World Wildlife Fund, the event is in its third year.

Even Earth Hour's most strident advocates admit that a hoped-for one billion humans sitting in the dark for 60 minutes won't make a dent in global consumption. It's purely a symbolic act.

"Your light switch is your vote," they say.

And that's fine -- voting with our actions, I mean. It's what we do anyway, whether consciously or unconsciously. Besides, turning off our lights for a short time seems like a responsible, decent thing to do, until we realize just what the proponents of Earth Hour are asking us to vote for.

The not-so-secret goal of Earth Hour is to stage a demonstration of public support that'll persuade governments to "put a price on carbon emissions," thus triggering a virtual landslide of sin taxes on our consumption of energy. Tonight, with one mindless flip of a switch, we can confess to our transgressions and literally beg to be robbed.

Oh, Mister Gore -- it's time for your closeup...

That's where I get off the bus.

Look, when the price of a gallon of gas climbed past four dollars last summer, Americans cut consumption naturally, the effect of market forces at work. Artificially inflating prices by imposing deterrent taxes, however, especially to advance a scientifically questionable agenda, flouts the justice built into our economic system.

Enacting the oft-proposed dollar-per-gallon gas tax in the face of the current economic crisis would burden consumers at a time when they're already struggling to stay afloat. Ditto the inevitable result of slapping corporations and municipalities with job-killing consumption taxes -- no doubt about it, that would turn out some lights.

Let The People decide.
Let the marketplace work, dammit.

I won't be sucked into the great worldwide herd participating in Earth Hour tonight. Instead, I'll make an independent (but no less responsible) decision. When the International Space Station passes over Ohio between 8:30pm and 9:30pm EDT, the crew will be able to see at least one light shining.

It'll be mine.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sharps: Rite of passage

I think I've said almost enough about sharps this week -- almost. There's one more post in me, something I've been rolling over in my mind for quite a while now. It's time I let it go.

When our spawns became old enough to be entrusted with their first pocketknives, a couple of Christmases ago I presented each of them with a basic Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. If I had it to over again, however, I'd do it differently.

The Victorinox pattern I gave them was reminiscent of my first knives, a Camillus Cub Scout model and the Ulster Boy Scout knife that came a few years later. I told myself that I was sharing my experience with the boys, making it possible for them to learn the lessons that I learned, as I'd learned them. Then again, maybe I was a prisoner of sentiment, merely an old man trying to re-live a scene from his childhood.

Now, thinking back to my upbringing in rural Ohio, I can't recall anyone (except my fellow Scouts) carrying a knife like mine. From the doctor to the plumber, every farmer and every farmer's kid carried a simple, two- or three-blade pocketknife.

If a knife didn't have a screwdriver or a caplifter, so what? We figured that's what screwdrivers and belt buckles were for. It might've been handy sometimes to carry a pocket tool chest, but in the end we were better off exploring the fundamental utility of a single blade, as our fathers and grandfathers had done.

Come to think of it, the main cutting blade of my Scout knife was the only one I ever used, really. I'd forgotten about that.

So with our sharp knives we cut and we changed things, shaped and (strange as it sounds) actually made things. We clipped twine from bales of hay and trimmed the hooves of skittish horses. We have the scars to prove that at some point we tried our hands at whittling.

By watching our elders, we learned not only how to use our knives but how to keep them sharp and make them last. We came to rely on and sought to master man's most perfect tool -- the blade of a knife.

I remember the names stamped on the tangs of those knives. Kutmaster and Robeson, Colonial and Utica rode in the pockets of my friends and neighbors. While I had an Ulster or a Camillus, my dad carried a Case. My grandfather never went anywhere without his Queen stockman, and the dairy farmer up the road swore by a Schrade Uncle Henry trapper. Hunters toted their Bucks on forays into the woods.

These were the hard-working Heartlanders populating my boyhood, nearly all of them carrying American-made knives probably bought at the local hardware or farm-supply store.

Many of the familiar cutlery brands are no more. Ulster, named for the New York county that once was the center of American knifemaking, is long gone. Camillus imploded in 2007 and venerable Schrade collapsed in 2004, finally abandoning its Ellenville plant.

A few of the old names live on through the miracle of licensing, now stamped on trinket-grade garbage made in China and sold at Wal-Mart -- they sell like crazy but don't last. They're nothing more than disposable marketing gimmicks, not worth a damn.

Hardware stores are few and far between. The tall, gleaming knife displays I remember from my youth have all but vanished. A kid with a pocketknife at school is a threat of violence, no longer a student prepared for show-and-tell time.

It's a different world, a new day.

One thing that this new day demands, as I see it, is each of us strengthening our commitment to buying products made locally, regionally or within our nation's borders (in that order). No, it's not a zero-sum proposition, not by a long shot, but even a little bit of attention to "Made in" is better than the blissful ignorance that characterizes much of our commerce.

That's not a matter of protectionism, pride or patriotic reflex -- I'm speaking from my sense of purpose, born of awareness.

Circling back to where this post began, although I'm a big fan of Swiss-made Victorinox knives, if I had another shot at our spawns' rite of passage I would've handed the younger boy a penknife, his older brother a trapper -- elemental pocketknives to develop appreciation, resourcefulness and basic skills, American-made products to cultivate purposeful awareness.

Finding good American-made pocketknives at reasonable prices isn't as easy as it once was, but it's not at all difficult. At the top of my list would be Case, located in Bradford, Pennsylvania. W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company proclaims proudly that its products have been "Made in the USA since 1889" and boasts that it still takes "125 pairs of create one knife." That's a company I'd be glad to support with my business (and I have).

I'd also consider
Queen Cutlery, which makes all of its knives at its plant in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Idaho-based Buck is another option, though not all of its branded knives are American-made -- on the Buck website, a U.S. flag icon denotes the ones that are.

It's worth mentioning that Buck sells its knives directly, via its website, as well as through dealers; Case and Queen products are available only through dealers. Generally I prefer the latter -- think of it as a "distribution of wealth," the kind that appeals to capitalists.

The two Swiss knives given to our spawns cost me $15 each. A pair of American-made Case knives, the pen and the trapper, might've set me back $60 combined -- that's twice the money, sure, but the life lessons would've been priceless.

I'm learning, too. For starters, I need to set a better example here.

I'll close this post with something that I discovered only yesterday. In 2006, a new enterprise called
Canal Street Cutlery Co. began its knifemaking operations in a few thousand square feet of an old manufacturing building at 30 Canal Street in Ellenville, New York -- the very same building once occupied by Schrade.

That's just damned poetic. What's more, word is that Canal Street makes absolutely incredible knives, including a number of traditional pocketknives. And they're only slightly pricier than the top-shelf offerings from Case and Queen.

I still have a Schrade Uncle Henry 285UH trapper, also made in Ellenville albeit some years ago. Once my financial waters recede, I think it'd be fitting if I gave the old Schrade some company from Ulster County, New York -- say, a Canal Street Moon Pie Trapper.

The way I look at it, the purchase would complete a full circle and, in its own way, provide me with my very own rite of passage.

Earlier posts
Sharps, Part I: In the pocket
Commerce, close to home


W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company
Queen Cutlery Company
Buck Knives
Canal Street Cutlery Co.

Sharps: Heartland leather

After waxing lustful about a pair of handmade knives in yesterday's post, I was reminded that I really hadn't given the sheaths their due.

Good point. I can fix that.

The Blind Horse Bushcrafter comes with a pouch-style leather sheath made in Illinois by JRE Industries. This sheath is of the "dangler" variety popular with woodsmen, fitted with a D-ring and designed to (you guessed it) dangle from a belt clip, a carabiner or (my preference) an S-Biner™. JRE does great work (my BHK Small Work Horse rides in a JRE belt pouch), and given the funds I'd definitely consider replacing two of my fixed-blade knives' more pedestrian sheaths with a couple of JRE customs.

Bark River equips its Bravo-2 with a traditional leather belt sheath crafted by Sharpshooter Sheath Systems in Michigan. Essentially identical to the optional leather sheath offered for the Bravo-1 (which comes standard with a Sharpshooter Kydex sheath), it's a stout, amazingly well-finished piece, worthy of as much admiration as the knife it carries. Depending on the handle material of the Bravo-2, the sheath is either black a natural brown, and it can be ordered right- or left-handed (shown). Nice touch.

Notice that both the JRE and the Sharpshooter feature an extra loop of leather attached to the belly of the sheath, designed to carry a spark-throwing Swedish firesteel. BHK sells a plastic-handled version for $17, while BRKT's firesteels (shown) range from $40 to $65 (MSRP) and can be had in many of the knifemaker's dizzying array of handle materials.

Functionally they're the same rods -- buyer's choice. Just don't leave home without one (or before learning how to use it).

Great knives deserve great sheaths. JRE and Sharpshooter deliver the goods -- from right here in the Heartland.

Earlier posts
Sharps, Part I: In the pocket
Sharps, Part II: On the belt
Sharps: BHK Small Work Horse
Sharps: Heartland blades

Bark River Knife & Tool
Blind Horse Knives
Sharpshooter Sheath Systems
JRE Industries

Fire alarm

It's a KintlaLake morning ritual -- at 5am I stumble down to the kitchen, fetch two cups of black coffee and bring them back to the bedroom for my wife and me to sip while watching local TV news.

Today, the secondary story was about a fire that overnight had consumed ten acres of grassland near the wildlife refuge I'd visited Sunday morning. According to the report, a stolen SUV had been driven off the road and into a field, then set alight. (It's also conceivable, I think, that it simply had been abandoned, its red-hot catalytic converter igniting the tall, dry grass.)

The news gave me a bad feeling. It bothered me that anything might threaten our small island of wildness, the park where my family and I have hiked and where I managed to find a moment's peace by the pondside a few days ago.

I just got back from the site of the fire, and I'm glad to say that the wildlife refuge was spared. It looked to me like firefighters did a helluva job containing it, breaking the burn before it caught a stand of tall trees -- and had that happened, it might've jumped a road and spread into the park. Also, the scorched area stopped about 50 yards from a nearby house, which I learned had been evacuated briefly as a precaution.

Right now the skies are giving us a wonderful, soaking rain. Fire's out, all's well.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sharps: Heartland blades

As much as I love a good knife, I'm already on-record as not being fond of throwing wads of cash at esoteric über blades:

"To be sure, there's nothing like using an expensive handmade knife. I'll even grant the higher quality and, in some cases, superior durability and utility of handcrafted blades and tools -- but are their ultimate attributes, whether real or romantic, worth $500, $1,000 or more?

"That question must be answered by each buyer. For this buyer, the answer generally is 'No.'"

That said, not all handmade knives are absurdly expensive. Both of my favorite fixed-blades -- the Bravo-1 by Bark River Knife & Tool and the Blind Horse Knives Small Work Horse -- are crafted by hand, but neither one breaks the bank.

My own personal bank is a bit weak these days, of course, so I won't be shopping for sharps, custom or otherwise, any time soon -- but if I were to add just two more high-quality knives to my kit, I'd be going right back to Bark River and Blind Horse.

The BRKT Bravo-2 looks to be a natural evolution of the original Bravo-1, but with a considerably larger convex-grind blade. (The Bravo-2's is seven inches long, its predecessor's 4.25 inches.) That doesn't make it a machete by any means, but when bigger is better -- and yes, there are times when that's actually so -- the Bravo-2 would fill the bill. The Bravo-1 is more my style, frankly, but I sure wouldn't mind rolling with its big brother for a while.

I handled a prototype of the BHK Bushcrafter at a Columbus gun show back in August and promptly fell in love. It's an old-school woodsman's knife -- nothing fancy, just a functional 3.5-inch blade and a comfy maple handle. (For most chores, a bigger blade is overkill anyway.) The Bushcrafter might just be the sweetest little knife I've ever held in my hands -- and at a hundred bucks, it's a steal.

Finally, there's one more reason for me to choose these knives -- both are made by small companies located right here in the American Heartland. Bark River Knives are handcrafted in Michigan, Blind Horse Knives in Ohio. Even the knives' leather sheaths are handmade by Heartland companies -- Sharpshooter (Michigan) for Bark River, JRE (Illinois) for Blind Horse.

Building our economic strength, in my opinion, begins close to home, and doing business with a couple of genuine Main Street companies would be absolutely the right thing to do.

Earlier posts
Sharps, Part I: In the pocket
Sharps, Part II: On the belt
Sharps: BHK Small Work Horse

Bark River Knife & Tool
Blind Horse Knives
Sharpshooter Sheath Systems
JRE Industries

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunrise sojourn

Mrs. KintlaLake was on the road at 6:30am this morning, ferrying our older spawn to a paintball engagement. The other teenager was still in bed and I was in my office, working on the computer.

My cell-phone buzzed -- it was my wife, calling to say that she'd seen what appeared to be a movie shoot at a cemetery northwest of here. I quickly gathered my photo gear and headed in that direction.

Sure enough, the old graveyard was playing host to a cinema set. The crew, which had been working there since late yesterday afternoon, was wrapping its last pickups -- nothing more for me to see, really, so I wandered among the monuments in the pre-dawn chill, casting about for subjects flattered by the low-angle light.

It wasn't long before fussing with my tripod's ice-cold legs had my hands aching. I packed up and started driving back toward home.

On a whim, I decided to swing by a local wildlife refuge, a modest metro park known for the variety of birds attracted to its 1,600 acres of ponds, marshes and woodland. It turned out to be a good call.

As I approached the edge of the main pond, the sun was rising above the treetops and a faint layer of mist hung over the glassy surface. Chevrons of geese passed overhead, honking, a few splooshing gracefully into the water in front of me. Grackles grumbled in a leafless tree nearby. A half-dozen puffed-up robins hopped around my feet.

Kneeling there in the frosty marsh grass, I was the only human soul in the park. It was blessedly quiet. If not for contrails crisscrossing the rose-and-blue sky, it would've been easy enough to convince me that I was a hundred miles from nowhere, a hundred years ago.

A few minutes past sunup on a brisk Sunday morning, close to home, I'd found a peaceful place to rest -- if only for a little while.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Free speech, full bus

When our Founding Fathers framed the First Amendment, they didn't require a reality check or include a sanity clause. Pity, that.

Still, every citizen is granted the right of free speech, and so today's bus tour of AIG offices and executives' private homes rolled on. Organized by Connecticut Working Families Party and ACORN, the angry riders exercised their constitutional right to hoist silly signs and carry out futile acts of peaceful protest.

At least these people acted within the Constitution, which arguably is more than we can say of the U.S. House of Representatives.

When my wife and I read yesterday about plans for the anti-AIG bus tour, we shuddered -- free speech is all well and wonderful but, we agreed, somebody's gonna do somethin' stoopid.

As if to underscore our concern, we noticed the sign being held by the white-haired guy in the center of that photo -- Damn You, AIG.

Check out the crayoned blood dripping from the letters.

Sure, he's within his rights. All the same, he's a walking, talking clue that this shit could get a lot uglier before it gets much prettier. Consider the threatening e-mail messages that AIG CEO Edward Liddy read to the House Financial Services Committee last week:

"All (AIG) executives and their families should be executed with piano wire around their necks. My greatest hope."

"If the government can't do this properly, we the people will take it into our own hands and see that justice is done. I'm looking for all the CEOs' names, kids, where they live, etc."

That's not to suggest that those revved-up, bus-riding citizens' speech should be suppressed -- only a prediction.

Whatever happens, speaking of predictions, some simpleton will blame the media.

A reminder

Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican, issued a statement yesterday, criticizing proposals to tax the AIG bonuses. It begins,
"It is wrong to propose to use the taxing authority of the government in a manner that is arbitrary, punitive, and targeted on a single group of people who they have deemed as having acted improperly."
Sen. Gregg goes on to blame "the Administration’s failure to conduct proper oversight" for prompting what the House did on Thursday -- a predictably partisan play by a guy who, after flirting with an Obama-Biden cabinet post, needs to reclaim the favor of his GOP colleagues.

I'll overlook that, because Sen. Gregg is right about the House bill. He closes his three-paragraph statement with a reminder:
"Remember, it was the abuse of the power to tax by the British government that led to our revolution, and we should not forget that fact or those principles of fairness and equity that led to the creation of our nation in the first place."
While I doubt that The People will revolt over the unconstitutional taxation of insurance-company execs, Sen. Gregg makes a proper point. Considering the government's abuse of its derived power -- now, on the horizon and in the not-so-distant past -- it's wise to remind our elected officials that revolution is always on the table.

For now, it's good to know that at least one Senator has read the Constitution. I'd also like to think that Sen. Gregg takes his state's motto -- "Live free or die" -- to heart.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Put down the pitchforks

For independent citizen-patriots, here's the Quote of the Day:

"No bill of attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."
That's the third clause of Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution. Like the rest of Section 9, it puts limits on the powers of Congress.

I'm no Constitutional scholar, but I think it means that a bill passed yesterday by the U.S. House of Representatives -- the one that purports to recoup $165 million of The People's money by slapping a one-time 90% tax on bonuses already paid to AIG's top managers -- almost certainly violates the Constitution.

If this retroactive tax makes it through the Senate and gets the President's signature, it's equally certain that it'll be mired in court challenges for years. The only thing it'll accomplish is allowing our government to assure us, temporarily, that it feels our pain.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called a stunt.

I'll stipulate to the status quo: I'm pissed, you're pissed, everybody's pissed about the bonuses. It's our money, dammit, and now it's lining the pockets of the same jerks that blew up the American Dream. Pitchforks, rails, tar and feathers and all that.

Problem is, our rage is both simple-minded and misdirected. First, it's the height of naiveté to act as if bonuses like these are somehow unusual. Anyone who's worked on corporate America's carpet, as I once did, knows firsthand that this is the way that big business works, for better or worse -- and anyone who hasn't been asleep for the last 20 years should know the same thing.

The AIG bonuses may have been outrageous but they weren't illegal. No matter where the money came from, in this nation of laws neither the government nor The People has grounds to demand a refund -- these default-swap snakes earned their compensation legitimately.

That's because our elected representatives gave AIG legislative permission to award the bonuses. The populist push for a punitive tax is nothing more than an attempt to hide the fact that virtually no one in Congress actually read and understood the provision which authorized bailed-out companies to spend taxpayers' money precisely as AIG did.

In short, Congress made it impossible to require AIG to return the misspent money. That sort of sabotage should come as no surprise -- it looks like these same legislators haven't read and understood the Constitution, either.

See, when the campaigns end and the governing begins in our nation's capital, the folks we've elected are off faster than a prom dress -- like it or not, the real work that affects citizens' lives is done by a subspecies of ambitious ideologues employed by our elected officials. These ladder-climbing staffers and self-absorbed bureaucrats have about as much in common with our interests as Hugo Chávez does.

But if it's misguided to pin the current mess on Congress and AIG, and since we must have our piñata, who's to blame?

Got mirror?

As investors in companies like AIG, whether directly or through institutions, when we obsess over our monthly statements but ignore corporate conduct, our show-me-the-money attitude endorses their outrageous bonuses, private jets and the like.

Every time we elect a member of the Old Guard, every time we spend more energy defending party or ideology than we devote to the defense of liberty, we perpetuate a government detached from the will of The People.

And when we're quicker to pick up a pitchfork than we are to pick up the Constitution and think critically, we -- along with our liberties -- become willing grist for our government's mill.

Our indignation is hollow because our culpability is beyond dispute.

Make no mistake -- I'm not ok with my government spending The People's money on fat corporate bonuses, nor do I have any particular love for AIG or its overpaid managers. No matter how pissed-off I am, however, I won't be a sucker for ignorant populist bullshit.

I don't know where you live, but in my country we don't stand up and cheer when our government singles-out and punishes our fellow citizens with laws made after the fact -- we don't stand for it at all. We find other, legal ways to hold robber barons to account.

In the meantime, we'll file this one right next to the Patriot Act.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Old subject, new vision

Today I'm going to devote some space to "the barns" I mentioned in last Saturday's post, and how my vision of a familiar subject evolved.

This collection of rustic outbuildings, once part of a working family farm, has been sitting in my lap for almost three years now. Every time I leave the house, whenever I peer out of one of our front windows, there they are. I've snapped dozens of photographs, typically when the dilapidated structures have been
dusted by snow, backed by colorful fall foliage or surrounded by floodwaters.

I hadn't studied them, though, not photographically. I knew that they held promise, but I'd never really explored what they might offer.

When Canon
replaced my trusty old point-and-shoot last month, I christened the new (to me) camera with a handful of uninspired grab-shots. I took the photo at the top of this post, for example, to check out the optical zoom and image stabilization at full telephoto.

Back at my computer, I zoomed and panned and made my judgments about the little camera's performance. Looking closely at the image above, I stopped fiddling and stared.

It wasn't sharpness or color rendition that got my attention -- it was the elements in the frame. An ordinary snapshot revealed shapes and lines, highlights and deep shadows, hard edges and gentle forms worth exploring. Here was a rich trove of details which had, until that instant, escaped my notice.

Get closer, notice details -- two photographic lessons I've learned and forgotten and re-learned countless times over the years. I might've known it was time for a refresher.

In spare moments over the next week or so, I returned to that shot again and again. More than once I paused at the end of our driveway, taking photographs with my eyes before pulling out onto the road.

Ten days later I was treated to a chalky sky and exquisitely flat midday light -- perfect. I grabbed my camera, tripod and remote release and set up by the roadside. Employing the longest focal length I have, I compressed the elements and framed to exclude fields, trees and sky. For maximum depth-of-field, I stopped down.

Here, after cropping and a bit of processing in my digital darkroom, is one of the first shots from the session:

Barns No.1 (2009)

Now that's a satisfying image. The weathered paint, stained siding and rusted roof panels give it a soft, watercolor-like character.

Panning to the right, I gathered the elements I'd seen in the point-and-shoot crop, striving to recreate the composition that had sparked my vision. Thanks to flatter light, more optical compression and a higher perspective, the result was better than I'd hoped for:

Barns No.2 (2009)

Next to Barns No.1, this image has a totally different feel -- it's more about geometric shapes, sharp edges and textures. For that reason, at some point I'll experiment with some black-and-white variations.

Picking up the tripod and moving 20 feet to the left, still using the square window as a visual anchor, I settled on another angle:

Barns No.3 (2009)

Composing to include the front of the shed and a sliver of foreground pulls the subject away from the abstract -- in this image, it feels to me like the abandoned farm it is.

The barnyard grass wants for the departed homesteader's muddy boots. Wrought-iron door handles stand ready for calloused fingers to grip them, while broken panes of glass silently await repair. The March wind, no longer burdened by the chug of machinery, now only whistles through gaps in the siding. No one hears.

Whether I view it as melancholy metaphor or simply as documenting a sad fact, that photograph captures my sense of the place.

I clicked off just 30 shots that morning, three of which were worth keeping -- a respectable ratio, in my experience. Of the keepers, I have no particular favorite. More important than coming away with gratifying results, I chased my instincts and sharpened my vision.

And I'm not done yet. Even after we make the move across town, I suspect that "the barns" will draw me back here again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Living, knowing

A present life is about noticing, mostly. This morning I've been noticing how I'm dealing with yesterday's news of my father's death.

Naturally, I'm replaying a mental video of memories. I'm also recalling a moment from a couple of months ago, sitting in a waiting room with my wife. A 20-year-old pop ballad drifted down from the ceiling.

Every generation
Blames the one before,
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door.

I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my father held so dear.
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears.
I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

At the time, and again today, I wondered -- is that really what I wish for? Does the telling matter that much?

I got to thinking about the letter I struggled with late last year, the one I didn't send, the reconciliation that didn't happen.

Crumpled bits of paper,
Filled with imperfect thought;
Stilted conversations --
I’m afraid that’s all we've got.
And that, it would seem, is all we've got. Even if death hadn't intervened, it'd be all we've got -- or would it? Absent the telling, maybe it's enough to know. Maybe it has to be.

The song's final verse always has pawed at my heart. The first lines proved eerily prophetic.

I wasn't there that morning,
When my father passed away.
I didn't get to tell him
All the things I had to say.

I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year.
I'm sure I heard his echo
In my baby's new-born tears.
I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

When a relationship ends, however it ends, inevitably we're left with the done and the undone, the spoken and the unspoken. Wishing that more had been said or left unsaid changes nothing. For those who choose to go on living, the paralysis of regret isn't an option.

So all we've got is all we've got -- a life lived well, a spirit that remains and a son who walks amid the echoes.

The knowing will have to do.

Lyrics excerpted from "The Living Years" by Mike Rutherford and B.A. Robertson.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The voice I'll never hear again

Dad's gone.

The news arrived in today's mail, in a fat envelope of obituaries sent by my mother and sister, twelve days after his death. No doubt that sounds odd, but I've been estranged from my parents, who live 700 miles away, for the last five years.

The reasons for our stubborn silence, which was my doing, may be relevant but aren't worth recounting here. It'll have to suffice to say that estrangement is something of a tradition on my father's side of the family. He and I were casualties of this generation's wedge, and that's that.

Dad raised me honestly and well, if sternly. He taught me that there was no higher human purpose than a commitment to tell the truth, keep my promises and clean up my messes. Laziness and excuses were unacceptable. On balance, we were more combative than we were close -- but then, both of us were far better at argument than affection.

Like most children and all sons, I didn't embrace my father's example until after I became an adult. His beacon grew naturally brighter as I grew older.

Born in a rural Ohio farmhouse, a child of The Great Depression, Dad worked harder than anyone I've ever known. He was a great storyteller and an even better man, accomplished in his profession and possessing a brilliant intellect, earning the respect of everyone who knew him.

He had mine. He knew that. I'm certain that he doubted it as well.

A few months ago, I very nearly sent him a letter of reconciliation. I don't harbor regret over not having done so -- regrets, like excuses, are ex post facto delusions that make life appear tidier and more sensical but otherwise serve no end. I accept responsibility for my choices, as I'm sure that Dad did, without leaning on wobbly emotional crutches.

My relationship with my father was complete a long time ago. That's no inoculant against sadness, of course -- I cried when I opened that envelope today, and surely I have more tears still to shed.

The tears welling in my tired, aging eyes come from knowing that his voice, which I haven't heard in several years, is one that I'll never hear again.

No, that's not right -- I hear it every day.

Hell, I speak with his voice.

Thanks, Dad. Godspeed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I created KintlaLake Blog a year ago today. Writing that first post, I had no idea where it'd go from there, or if it'd go anywhere at all. Honestly, I didn't know.

As it turns out, it's gone all over the place -- which reflects not just my life, but the nature of any walk through this world.

I haven't activated this blog's comments function and I don't publish my e-mail address here, but regular readers know how to find me. I've received kind compliments and intelligent counterpoint. I'm grateful for both.

Candidly, all things considered, KintlaLake Blog has become one of the most satisfying projects I've ever undertaken. I'm not sure why.

Maybe the next 12 months hold the answer. Here we go...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The barns

Barns No.1 (2009)

I'm going to miss a lot of things about this place, of course, when we leave. High on my list are the ramshackle barns across the road.

'Close to the Land'

Ohio, unlike the western landscape that's so often the subject of Michael Martin Murphey's music, isn't known for its cowboys and ranches. But in the poignant "Close to the Land," Murphey captures the spirit of "America's Heartland," including my home and yours, simply and brilliantly.
You can see it in the eyes of every woman and man,
Who spent their whole lives livin' close to the land.
There's a love for the country and a pride in the brand
In America's Heartland, livin' close to the land.
He paints the Heartland that spans this nation, border to shore and city to town, the Heartland that beats in the American breast from generation to generation. It's home -- our home, my home.

"America's Heartland" isn't about politics, precincts or preaching, or even patriotism. It commits to verse the sacred place that holds our most precious treasures -- the good earth, our families and our communities, hard work and decency -- as well as our promise.
There's something that the people know,
Who make things live and make things grow,
Deeper than the words of any sage --
That unless you've touched this earth,
Planted seeds or given birth,
The human heart can never come of age.
Watch the "Close to the Land" video. Just how you react to it not only will fix your position -- it'll show you who you, at your core, truly are.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In my mind I'm goin'...

I hooked the heel of my boot on the rung of the stool and rested the body of the 12-string on my thigh. Forming a chord with my left hand and fidgeting with the pick in my right, I looked out over a hundred broad smiles, the bright eyes of friends anticipating an encore. As was tradition, I turned to hear my bandmate's familiar words.

"Meet you at the end," he whispered, grinning.

First one, then two and finally four acoustic guitars strummed the opening strains, throttling back as the vocals began.

She came to me, said she knew me
Said she'd known me a long time;
And she spoke of being in love
With every mountain she had climbed...
The timbre of 36 steel strings and a quartet of young men's voices filled the room. Summoning my best falsetto, I added the high, descant-like harmony.
And she talked of trails she'd walked up
Far above the timberline.
From that night on I knew I'd write songs
For Carolina in the pines...
Thirty-three years ago we were just four guys who led songs at a summer camp and played a few coffee houses each year. The passage of time hasn't convinced me that we were great but we were pretty damned good, and despite having a short play list we developed quite a following.

"Carolina in the Pines," the Michael Martin Murphey standard, was our signature. We always saved it for last.

There's no guesswork in the clockwork
Of the world's heart or mine.
There are nights I only feel right
With Carolina in the pines...
Our particular rendition of "Carolina" was breathless, not at all like Murphey's original but equaling its joy and vigor. The hard-driving performance usually had the knuckles of my pick hand bleeding, adrenaline often overtaking rhythm and common sense.
And we'll talk of trails we walked up
Far above the timberline.
There are nights I only feel right
With Carolina in the pines.
As we struck the last chord the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered. My bandmate leaned over and reminded me that we "always finish on time."

And we always did. Everyone ought to have a memory like that.

Images: Digital Dakota

I-90 (2004)

Sturgis (2004)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

On second thought

Sometimes I fear that if I keep quoting myself, I'll go blind.

I'll take the risk. A week after Election Day, wondering aloud about whether the spike in gun sales is prudent or panicked, I
wrote this:
"...with far more pressing economic issues on center stage we can be relatively sure that Obama-Biden won't launch its gun-control agenda right away. Provided the new president can keep an anxious Congress in check, we likely won't see new law in the first 100 days, probably not before the 2010 State of the Union address."
Now that the new administration is halfway through its first hundred days, I'm not so sure that I still believe what I said back in November.

In less than two months, I've watched Pres. Barack Obama put the political pedal to the metal -- on the economic crisis and a range of other issues, he's shown that he's not at all bashful about damning the torpedoes and pressing his agenda. Especially after eight years of a propaganda presidency, his purposeful approach is refreshing. In some ways, putting policy differences aside, it's even admirable.

With that as prologue, I can predict that Obama-Biden-Holder will make good on its promise to push for a permanent assault-weapons ban sooner rather than later. Incidents like Tuesday's massacre in southern Alabama, in which the killer reportedly used an AK-47 and an "M-16" (an AR-15, more likely), increase the ominous prospect. Yesterday's school shooting in Germany doesn't help, either, despite it having happened over four thousand miles from Washington, DC.

It's beyond dispute that Obama-Biden-Holder constitutes a threat to individual citizens' Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Now the constitutional danger appears to be as present as it is clear.

So is it time now for law-abiding American gun owners to panic? No, I don't think so -- but we'd damned well better accelerate our prudence.

None of the above (The Movie)
My wife and I watched Religulous last night. In light of what I said in Tuesday's post, you might suspect that this 2008 anti-religion docu-comedy would be right up my alley -- and you'd be wrong.

With comic-pundit Bill Maher in front of the camera and director Larry Charles (Borat) behind it, I didn't expect a cerebral film, but I did expect it to be funny. It wasn't, really, at least not to me.

Maher has a satchelful of well-founded reservations about organized religion. He opens Religulous by musing to us (sincerely, I think) about seeking the reasons why people believe and gather and worship one god or another.

After a promising start, however, the movie descends into unrelenting mockery, usually in the form of a gotcha interview or a rambling soliloquy on the idiocy of religion -- and knowing Maher and Charles, I suppose I should've seen that coming. With the possible exception of anything that skewers Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh or conspiracy theories, I'm not big on mockery.

Oh, there is humor in Religulous. Organized religion is more than capable of making itself look ridiculous -- "It's so shamelessly invented," Maher correctly observes -- and the film is chock-full of clips, some thought-provoking and others downright hilarious, that allow the faithful fringe to embarrass itself quite thoroughly.

That's genuinely funny stuff on its own, but grad-school editing, wretched direction and Maher's interruptions rob it of its comedic potential and, as an unfortunate result, sabotage any chance that Religulous has of making a credible social point. It ends up being the kind of movie that keeps reminding us that it's not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Considering what might've been, that's a shame.

Despite its many flaws, I consider Religulous recommended viewing and I'm glad to have seen it. I simply have no particular interest in watching this disappointing film more than once.

None of the above (The Magazine)
While I'm on the subject of religion (or the lack thereof), I also can recommend Paul Starobin's cover story in the March issue of National Journal.

"Rise of the Godless" -- which, by the way, was published prior to the release of the survey discussed in my previous post -- is a smart, well-written piece about the growing influence of secularism in America. Beyond statistics and politics, Starobin does a good job of covering the growing pains of the "movement," exposing tensions disconcertingly similar to those afflicting theistic groups.

From the National Journal article, here's Lori Lipman Brown, the former director of
The Secular Coalition for America:
"There are people who want to focus more on explaining their conclusion about whether there is a deity than making the country feel comfortable and safe for people like themselves."
Well, you'll have that. It's the sort of thing that happens, in my experience, every single time that we humans try to organize into groups around our personal beliefs. The individual is absorbed by the collective, faith becomes ideology and independence fades.

"Rise of the Godless" doesn't pretend to draw any grand conclusions, but I found it informative as hell (you should pardon the expression). Inspirational as well as cautionary, it's worthwhile reading for truly independent critical thinkers.

Read the National Journal article: "
Rise of the Godless" (pdf).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

None of the above

One of the most encouraging aspects of last November's general election was that 29% of the ballots were cast by "other" voters. More Americans than ever before are declaring their independence from the two dominant political parties -- and that's a very good thing.

Yesterday, the Program on Public Values at Trinity College released the results of its American Religious Identification Survey, an intriguing study which brings us similarly heartening news -- 15% of Americans claim no religion.

These so-called "Nones," as a segment of the U.S. population, have swelled from 8.2% of Americans in 1990 to 14.2% in 2001 to 15% in 2008. More significant, I think, is that over the last seven years the percentage of Nones increased in every state -- the only group in the Trinity survey to have done so.

The percentage of Americans calling themselves Christians has declined from 86.2% in 1990 to 76% today. Catholics accounted for 25.1% of those surveyed, up slightly from 2001 but down from 26.2% in 1990. From the report's "Highlights" summary:

"The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion."
It's interesting, at least to me, that the estimated 34.2 million Nones outnumber Americans who identify with the old "mainline" Christian denominations (29.4 million). Nones also rival the number of Baptists (36.1 million). Fewer than 2.2 million Americans are self-proclaimed evangelicals or characterize themselves as "born again."

For the first time in the survey's history, respondents were asked if they believe in "the existence of God." Only 69.5% affirmed that belief, prompting the report's authors to make this observation:
"If 76% of Americans self-identify with Christianity and 80% with a religion then many millions do not subscribe fully to the theology of the groups with which they identify."
For Americans, it seems, religion is somewhat less about believing than it is about belonging -- more fellowship than faith. Go figure.

I was amused to see that the ARIS report offers right-wingers, evangelicals and other -phobes a few convenient targets -- like Vermont, which has a higher percentage of Nones than any other state (34%). Muslims now make up 0.6% of Americans, twice their 1990 share and up from 0.5% in 2001. (That's about 1.4 million, if you stay awake nights keeping score at home.)

As for real heathens, an estimated 1.6 million Americans, or 0.7%, claim to be atheists and nearly 2 million (0.9%) are agnostics. And on the "existence of God" question, 2.3% of those surveyed affirmed atheism and fully 10% expressed some form of agnosticism.

Closer to home, for what it's worth, the survey found that Ohio's population is 76% Christians and 17% Nones, compared with 88% and 8% in 1990. The state's percentage of Catholics fell from 24% to 20% over the same period.

Back in July, I
wrote about the menace posed by religion's extremes:
"Religious fundamentalism, regardless of the form it takes, decimates individual liberties, assaults the foundations of our society and threatens the country I love."
Not every American who professes this or that religion is a dangerous fundamentalist, of course, and I wouldn't presume to deny any citizen their chosen personal faith. I make no apologies, however, for my valuing independence above all else -- and that includes religious as well as political independence.

Crafting one's own ethics free of the artifice of religion is, in my opinion, an expression of true independence. I stand in respect and applaud the 34 million Americans who, like me, do just that.

Read the Trinity College report: American Religious Identification Survey (pdf).