Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine flu and The Cough That Will Not Go Away

I am still suffering lingering after-effects from the cold or flu that I had five weeks ago. While most of the symptoms have gone away, I still suffer from The Cough That Will Not Go Away. It nags at me, giving me coughing fits that make my ribs ache. It keeps me from sleeping at night. At times, it's so severe that it upsets my stomach, and it often causes incontinence.

I know from past experience that when I get The Cough, what makes it go away is the cough medicine that has codeine in it. For some reason, the codeine shuts down the cough, and in only 24 hours, The Cough is gone.

Officially, the medicine with the codeine is over-the-counter, but with restrictions, so the person getting such medicine must sign for it and provide identification. In practice, no reputable pharmacy wants to provide this medication to anybody who doesn't have a prescription. There's too much risk of providing something addictive to people who are addicted.

Since I don't have medical insurance, it would cost me an arm and a leg to go to a doctor to get a prescription. And since I don't have any money to pay for a doctor visit, I have no way of getting a prescription for the medication that will work.

I wonder what would have happened if the current swine flu outbreak in Mexico had happened five weeks ago, at the same time as my flu symptoms were at their peak. Would I have been forced into a treatment program, regardless of my ability to pay for it? Would I have been forced to abandon my students, either to a substitute instructor who wasn't up on what my classes were doing, or to not having class at all?

My latest success in alleviating The Cough has been herbal tea based on Ayurvedic healing principles. This tea has been especially effective at easing chest congestion. It's not perfect, but at least it lets me sleep at night.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The last firewood

Spring has arrived in the mountains at last

The weekend was cold and blustery, but the past couple of days the temperature has risen into the 60s, the sky has been mostly clear, and winds have been light. As if to emphasize that spring is finally here, a hummingbird just whizzed by my window. We used to have a friend in Santa Fe who kept a garden diary; she reported that in her yard, the hummers always arrive on April 14. It takes them a little longer to get up here, but now they have arrived, and spring is officially in progress.

The timing was perfect; we have just used up the last of our firewood. We've discovered that the fireplace makes a nice supplement to the propane-fired furnace for keeping the house warm in winter. It's a high-efficiency fireplace that draws air for combustion from outside the house, so we aren't losing heated air up the chimney. Except in the very coldest part of the winter, we can often do without the furnace altogether – as we did about a month ago when we ran out of propane.

A few years ago, Consumer Reports tested high-efficiency fireplaces and wood stoves and came to the conclusion that heating a home with such a fireplace would cost just about the same as running a gas-fired furnace. CR made some assumptions, however, that relate more to running a fireplace in their neighborhood in Connecticut than in the mountains of northern New Mexico. For example, CR's comparison involved natural gas piped into the home; propane, delivered in a truck, costs about twice as much per therm as natural gas.

And then there's the firewood. CR used oak, purchased for about $800 a cord. In our fireplace, we use mostly pine, which produces about a quarter less heat than the same volume of oak, but we pay only about $100 to $150 a cord. We buy it in the spring, when the lumberyards are switching from their winter business (firewood) to their summer business (lumber) and they need to make room for inventory. A couple of years ago, we got a really good deal on some piñon – it's a slow-growing tree, like oak, and so its wood is denser. The area around Santa Fe had an infestation of beetles that killed many trees, and the Forest Service wanted to get the dead trees removed as far as possible. We did have to put the wood under a tarp in the sun to bake the beetles to death, but we had all summer to do so.

And sometimes, the wood is free. For example, when we cleared space on the lot for Five O'Clock Somewhere, we tried to situate the home so as to preserve as many trees as we could, but we did still have to cut down a few. And there were some dead trees that could have blown down and caused damage in a windstorm, so those had to be removed.

Finances are, unfortunately, tight this spring, so we may not be able to cash in on the spring firewood sales. But still, using the fireplace makes sense to heat this place. And noting beats the warm cozy glow.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Cats have Got It Good

It's got to be the perfect job description …

Imagine you saw this help-wanted ad in the newspaper:

Administrative Supervisor. Primary duties include looking cute and acting sweet; other duties include making sure all staff perform tasks to your standards, including food service, janitorial duties, and personal grooming services. Salary includes room and board, full medical care, and at least one full-time personal servant at all times.

Yep, that's Dulce's job description. Of course, she might disagree with the job title; she considers herself imperatrix mundi.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A salute to Robin Knox-Johnston

A truly extraordinary seafarer, but also ordinary

On April 22, 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston (now known as Sir Robin) completed the first ever solo, non-stop, round-the-world sailboat race, the event that is now known as the Vendée Globe. In fact, he was the only competitor to complete that first race.

In celebration of that feat, Adam of Messing About in Sailboats has proposed that today be Robin Knox-Johnston Day on the Internet, and he has requested that other bloggers create posts with their own takes on the sailor and his accomplishment.

In some ways, it is hard for me to come up with anything to say that hasn't already been said better by someone else. However, many of the visitors to this blog are not sailors, so I'll try to fill in some background to allow readers to see just how special RKJ's feat was.

The race began in 1968, a scheme derided by many as scatter-brained. At that point, nobody had ever completed a solo, non-stop circumnavigation in a sailboat, and to make such a journey the goal of a race just seemed crazy. Technology back then was primitive – no satellites, no GPS, no computers, no radar, no weather-fax, no Internet. Fiberglass was in its infancy, so most boats were made of wood, including RKJ's Suhaili, which had actually been built in 1923 and was not designed to go fast. It took him 313 days to complete the race.

Among the general public, the consensus was that the race was crazy, and that anyone who chose to participate in it was crazy. In fact, some of the other racers did prove to be something other than perfectly sane. One, Donald Crowhurst, started sailing in circles in the middle of the Atlantic, radioing in fake position reports to make it seem as if he were making progress, and then, apparently in despair at the prospect of getting caught, committed suicide. Another racer, Bernard Moitessier, decided not to finish the race and just kept on sailing; he went around the globe nearly two more times before stopping.

RKJ, on the other hand, calmly went about the business of sailing the boat, maintaining a regular daily routine, using the discipline he had learned in the Royal Navy. It almost seemed that he wasn't up to anything unusual, and nothing seemed to ruffle him. When storms came up, he trusted the solidly built Suhaili to stay afloat, and she did. He maintained the calm and businesslike manner that seems somehow to be quintessentially British, the ability to get the job done, no matter what, and without making a big fuss about it.

In a race that was itself deemed crazy, and in which participation was seen as a sign of insanity, RKJ was, in the words of a reporter who interviewed him after the race, "almost depressingly normal."

Sir Robin has since become one of Britain's, and the world's, most well known figures in sailing. He's still active in the sport, and he has spent much time promoting and improving sailing and sailboat racing.

In honor of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Scuttlebutt is recommending a salute with a single-malt Scotch whiskey, a libation of which RKJ is particularly fond. I am making such a salute, and I recommend that all of my readers do likewise.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Tantalus parking lot

Oooohhhh, it's just soooo close …

Before the current hard times hit, the state legislature approved some major bucks for the community college where I teach to make some major capital improvements. One of those improvements was the construction of a new campus bookstore at the campus where I teach most of the time. It's going to be great, once it's done – a new and much bigger bookstore that will include a coffee bar, and that will have a second story devoted primarily to office space, so we faculty won't be packed in quite so much like sardines.

A side effect of the construction was that a parking lot has been removed, and while the parking at this college is not in as dire short supply as on many other campuses, it's still less than is really needed. Students and faculty have been inconvenienced by the shortage of parking, and at peak times, it can take a half hour or more to find a parking spot. The light at the end of the tunnel is that the construction plans called for adding a new parking lot that is much bigger than the one that was lost.

That parking lot is almost reality. In January, at the beginning of the spring term, the area had been graded, and concrete curbs had been installed, delineating the perimeter of the lot and the landscaped islands within it. Word was that the lot would be paved and open for parking within about a month.

About a month later, the first layer of pavement was laid down, and about a week after that, additional paving was added, bringing the surface of the lot level with the curb gutters. Okay, the project was a little behind schedule, but in New Mexico, what project isn't? Surely we were going to have that new parking lot soon.

Then many weeks went by with nothing much happening at all. The office area in which I have my cubicle has a wall of windows facing northeast, allowing a fantastic view of the Sandia Mountains in all of their close-up majesty – and also of that expanse of blacktop, vast acres unused except for the occasional construction vehicle. We watched as late-winter and early-spring snows piled up and melted, piled up and melted again. We observed the spring winds, bringing twisting swirls of dust that left the surface dulled with a tan tint, looking used when it had hardly seen a single vehicle. And we wondered when we might actually be able to park on it.

Three weeks ago, activity resumed. Workers came and left chalk marks delineating parking spaces, and then they waited for a relatively non-windy day (there aren't many of those in New Mexico in the spring), on which they came back and painted lines. Ah, we thought, maybe now we will be able to use the new parking lot.

Not quite. About a week later, the workers brought in concrete parking blocks, which were then installed in all of the freshly-painted parking spaces.

It's now the last week of the term. The parking lot still has not been opened. But there's a good sign. A portable fence has been erected, separating the westernmost end of the lot, the end adjacent to the building still under construction, from the rest of the lot. That leads me to believe that most of the parking lot is about to be opened to general parking, with just that end fenced off for continuing construction.

Just in time for the end of the term.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Still seeking Visitor 50K

Prize package remains unclaimed

We’re still hoping the lucky 50,000th visitor to Five O’Clock Somewhere will come forth.

This visitor didn’t reveal specific information about location, but we know he or she was in North America, in the Eastern time zone, using an ISP whose territory is in the southeastern United States. He or she visited in the early afternoon of April 16, on a Mac using Firefox.

Most important, this visitor didn’t arrive via a web search or a link on another website – this visitor has Five O’Clock Somewhere bookmarked, or possibly typed the link in directly, although that’s unlikely.

So there’s a valuable prize package remaining to be claimed. Sorry, I can’t provide airfare, but once you get to New Mexico, here’s what you get: Beer and dinner for one, or just beer for four, at the Socorro Springs Brewing Company, plus a sailing experience on the sexiest boat on Elephant Butte Lake.

If the winner doesn’t come forward within four weeks, I will hold an alternative selection process to determine who will receive the prize.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Grammar Moment: Pronoun conventions

We want to sound educated; we don't want to sound stuffy

While some issues related to pronouns (agreement, case, reference, avoiding shifts) are primarily matters of grammar, there are some other principles that deal with style rather than grammatical correctness. One such principle is choosing the right person and number in keeping with the expectations of academic writing. The goal is to have writing that is clear, and that treats readers as respected individuals – not buddies in the dormitory basement rec room.

Using the correct pronouns serves both goals. Pronouns that are used according to academic readers' expectations will have clear meaning, and they will also communicate the proper level of respect. Here are the generally accepted conventions for pronoun usage:

  • First-person singular (I/me): This is used for narrative of the writer's own experiences and actions. Some instructors will forbid the use of the first-person singular; that's not necessarily because it's wrong, but rather, because personal narratives often turn into stories without a point, and academic writing should always have an underlying point. Also, in much academic writing, such as lab reports, the emphasis is on the procedure, not the experimenters, so instead of saying, "I decanted the solution …" you will say, "The solution was decanted …"
    NOTE: You should never use phrases such as "I think" or "in my opinion"; such phrases convey a sense of apology for what you're saying and weaken your position. Stand firmly.
  • First-person plural (we/us): In academic writing, this is the conventional choice for referring to society in general ("We must take measures to keep our nation safe …"). It is also used to refer to groups of which the writer is a member ("Women still face a glass ceiling; we must therefore …").
  • Second-person singular and plural (you): For most academic writing, the second person is considered too informal. It is acceptable in more casual sorts of writing, such as blog posts, and for instructions, in which there is a clear rhetorical position of the writer speaking directly to the reader.
    Don't use you to refer to people in general, as in, "You don't see many drunk drivers in Connecticut." Well, of course, I've never seen any drunk drivers in Connecticut; I've never been to Connecticut. In academic writing, it would be better to say, "Drunk drivers are seldom seen in Connecticut." Also, don't use you to refer to groups of people that may not include the reader, as in, "What if you were pregnant and you didn't know what to do?" About half of the human race is biologically incapable of becoming pregnant.
  • Third-person singular (he/him, she/her): Use the third-person singular to refer to an individual. This could be a specific person who has been named ("Wally is rich, and he is single"), or to a singular noun representing a group ("A student should keep his or her backpack neat"). Notice that in the second example, you can't use the plural their. This is not merely an issue of style; it is an issue of grammatical correctness; you can't use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. That leads us to …
  • Third-person plural (they/them): Use they and them to refer to specific groups of people. If you want to be grammatically correct and gender-neutral while avoiding the awkward phrase his or her in the previous example, you can simply make the entire sentence plural and make the problem go away: "Students should keep their backpacks neat." If you're having problems making pronouns agree with the words they refer to, you can solve the problem almost every time by making everything plural.
    On the other hand, some lazy writers use they to avoid thinking – as in, "They don't like drunk drivers in Connecticut." Who the heck are they? The entire population of Connecticut? The Connecticut highway patrol? Connecticut traffic-court judges? A careful writer will think about who it is that dislikes drunk drivers and then name that entity clearly.

You will note that I don't list one as a pronoun. That is because, in English, it's not a pronoun; it's a noun. In some languages, such as French and Spanish, there's a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that usually translates into English as "one," but that often actually means "people" or the informal, non-academic "they." Yes, it is grammatically correct to use one, but then it has to be followed by the awkward pronoun phrase he or she (obviously, one is singular), or else you have to keep saying one. That leads to some really stuffy-sounding writing. Yes, academic writing has its formality, but when you get to sounding like a caricature of a constipated elderly British noblewoman, you're going too far.

You will also note that some of the recommendations I make above encourage use of the passive voice ("The solution was decanted …" vs. "I decanted the solution …"; "Drunk drivers are seldom seen …" vs. "You don't see many drunk drivers …"). Some well-meaning pedants in your academic past may have told you to avoid passive voice at all costs. That advice was misguided. When you wish to emphasize the action rather than the performers of the action, the passive voice is the best choice. It also allows you to avoid pronouns altogether, rather than using one that may not be appropriate for the academic writing task.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Big events in May

If you've never thought of coming to the desert before, now you have not just one, but two reasons to visit!

Mark your calendars for May 30. That's not Memorial Day weekend; it's the weekend after. The Rio Grande Sailing Club's Anniversary Cup regatta will be bigger than it has been for many years. We have corporate sponsorship from Lago Rico, the folks who operate the marinas at Elephant Butte Lake, and with this sponsorship, the race will be a long-distance Race to the Elephant, starting near the Rock Canyon Marina, passing by Marina del Sur, and ending at the Dam Site Marina and Resort. There will be fleets for racers, cruisers, multihulls, and dinghies. The folks at Lago Rico have commissioned a local artist to create trophies, and the $15 entry fee includes a free overnight slip and breakfast at the Dam Site. The awards banquet, also to be at the Dam Site, will be $25 a person and will feature some nifty door prizes.

Yeah, I know, who ever heard of a major sailing event out in the middle of the desert? Well, actually, the folks in Phoenix put on a biggie every January, so it's not unheard-of. And we have better mast-raising facilities, thanks to Dumbledore, a retired lineman for the state's largest electric utility, and his former employer, who sold used high-tension poles to the club for the cost of scrap. The Marina del Sur boat ramp is also better than what the folks in Phoenix have. So if you're trailering, you don't need to worry about rigging and launching.

If you're interested, call 575-744-5462. The deadline to enter is May 15.

Still not sure you want to travel all the way to the desert? Here's the icing on the cake: There will be a major cultural event that weekend as well. The Elephant Butte Inn & Spa will be hosting the State Karaoke Championship. Forget whatever you have heard or experienced of karaoke in the past; this is not some drunken, overweight bubba slaughtering "Achy-Breaky Heart." Cornhusker and Bassmaster have been traveling the state as judges for local qualifying events, and they have seen a lot of talents out there, of which only the best make it to the championship.

So, let's see a show of hands … who's coming?

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Monday, April 13, 2009


Some thoughts about roadside shrines

Here in New Mexico, with a large Hispanic-Catholic population, descansos are a common roadside sight. The literal meaning of descanso is "a place to sit down," and historically, they were roadside shrines marking the location where somebody died, at which the weary traveler could stop, rest, and say a little prayer for the dead.

This past week, Holy Week, many of the descansos along New Mexico's highways have been visited and decorated by the families of the deceased. Some of the decorations have been quite elaborate.

I have heard arguments against descansos, that they clutter up the landscape, that they create a safety hazard by distracting drivers, that they make a public display of mourning that the family and friends of the deceased ought to keep private. A few years back, the state of Texas attempted to ban the shrines, on the grounds that if they were in a public right-of-way, they constituted a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

I don't see it that way. A beautiful descanso doesn't clutter the landscape; it adds an emotional element – albeit a bitter one – that wouldn't otherwise be there. It doesn't distract drivers so much as it gives a warning: Somebody died here; drive carefully! There's an intersection in a school zone south of Española on the highway to Los Alamos that has 14 descansos – 14 schoolchildren, picked off one or two at a time, by careless drivers who didn't slow down to the 15-mph school zone speed and kept barreling along at the 50-mph highway speed. (After many long years, the state highway department redesigned the intersection, improved signage, and lowered the speed limit on the stretch of highway leading to the school zone. The death toll has remained 14 for a long time.)

As for the supposed violation of the separation of church and state, that argument doesn't hold water. While the vast majority of descansos are erected by Catholics, I feel that anyone, of any religion or of no religion, should be able to honor a dead family member or friend in whatever way feels right. In Europe, bicyclists will honor a fallen comrade with a "ghost bike" – a bicycle, painted solid white, erected as a shrine at or near the site of the fatal accident – regardless of the bicyclist's religion.

Unlike Texas, the government in New Mexico has recognized the value of descansos. It is now against state law to remove or deface a roadside memorial. If a shrine is in the way of road construction, the construction company must, when the construction is done, replace the shrine as close as possible to where it originally was.

Some people may be uncomfortable being exposed to other people's mourning. But if the family and friends of the deceased have chosen to put up a shrine, it is because they want to share with the community. I respect that.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Vice revocation

Techno orgy what surfs know Hun

About three months ago, Pat finally got his own cell phone. One of the "features" that it comes with is a voice-recognition program that converts all voice mail into text messages.

It sounds like a good idea at first, but it fails somewhat in the execution. It doesn't do well at transcribing people who speak with accents other than middle-American (e.g., Penzance), people who speak fast (e.g., Zorro), people who use specialized vocabulary (e.g., sailors), or people who call from locations where there is a lot of background noise like wind (e.g., sailors at the lake).

Sometimes the software admits it has problems; when it thinks it might not have the right word, it follows that word with a question mark in parentheses, and sometimes it totally gives up and puts a long dash where the word would normally be. But sometimes it just plain gets the wrong word without admitting it.

The result has been that in some messages, more than half the words are either wrong or missing. One of the most glaring examples is when Penzance calls – the software transcribes "Hi, this is" correctly, and then it goes on to give a first name that resembles his actual name only in that it has one syllable with a percussive consonant at the beginning.

We have, however, received a couple of messages in which the software worked perfectly, not missing a single word – from the billing department of a hospital, seeking payment for services provided to somebody we've never heard of.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

A blog post about not much

Oh, I have all sorts of topics, but …

Over the past week, I've had all sorts of ideas for blog posts, including immigration, health care, money issues, a grammar moment about pronoun reference, commentary on the sense of entitlement of today's young people, an update on this weekend's visit to Five O'Clock Somewhere, how cats have Got It Good, and, of course, chronicling my battle with The Cough.

However, none of those posts has materialized. The Cough is sapping my energy, forcing me to expend hundreds, possibly thousands of calories a day, while not allowing me to eat or sleep much. I'm drained.

Maybe I should be hitting the Slivovice harder.

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