Friday, June 28, 2013

Paula Deen And A Certain Kind Of Racism


Paula Deen doesn’t think she’s a racist.

And very likely, in her mind, she isn’t.

Certainly she doesn’t come across as your standard issue stereotypical racist, does she?

She doesn’t seem the type to don a hood and white sheets, to burn crosses in a black family’s front yard or scrawl racial epithets on the front door of an African-American church.  I somehow doubt we’ll see pictures of Paula Deen with a shaved head and a swastika tattoo, chubby white fist upraised in the stiff-armed Aryan salute.

I suppose that you never really know, but I would think that scenario rather unlikely. 

Mrs. Deen, from her public persona at least, appears to be a jolly matronly lady with a cloyingly overdone Southern accent and a talent for deliciously unhealthy food.

But if ever there was a metaphor for American racism, i.e. a particular kind of racism, Paula Deen is it.

The self-immolation of Deen’s media empire isn’t particularly surprising – nor will be its eventual recovery.

I won’t shed any tears over her current plight, nor any cheers at her certain return – because unless she actually does put on a robe and start burning crosses, her return is a virtual certainty.  If she needs any tips on the process, she can always ring up Martha Stewart or Tammy Faye or Tony The Weiner. 

Deen’s current shaming in the public stocks will likely follow the old familiar path, and in a year or so she’ll reappear reborn, contrite and properly chastised with a new best seller about her trials and tribulations and how she was able to cast off the chains of her past by begging the forgiveness of Jesus. The exact recipe will, of course, depend on which public relations firm she picks, but likely she end up loving brown people and/or starting some kind of Paula Deen Culinary Academy for Poor Black Children –  I probably wouldn’t expect her to show up with a newly adopted African baby and recipes for kuku paka and chapatis, though stranger things have happened when there’s this much money at stake.

And then we’ll forgive her, or forget her charming old Southern racism – because, hey, she didn’t mean it that way, and she’s sorry and she cried real tears and all. And besides, she’s from the South. And she’s from the previous generation. And, really, haven’t we all said things we regret? And she’s lost a lot of money and she’s probably suffered enough already. And besides she doesn’t know any better and she can’t help herself.  Just like an old dog that keeps shitting on the floor – it should be housebroken, but every once in a while it just craps in the middle of the carpet, and you know you should do something about it but hey, it’s just easier to grab the paper towels and pretend it didn’t happen.

We’ve forgiven much larger celebrities for far more egregious errors, if Deen plays the game correctly she’ll be right back in the Manor House in no time.

Then she’ll go back to making millions, just like nearly every celebrity and politician afflicted with hoof and mouth disease before her.

But she just doesn’t get it, and unless I miss my bet she’ll go through life blaming everybody else for this.

You have only to look at her tear-stained sobbing “apology” to see that she doesn’t get it – and she will never get it. And she’s not alone, not by a long shot.

Listen to her excuses.  The expression on her face is that of a long pampered dog that’s been suddenly struck across the snout for shitting on the carpet, hurt and bewildered at how the world turned on her in such an unpleasant and incomprehensible fashion. She won’t do it again, not as long as she remembers the crack across her nose and how much it hurt – not because she actually understands why her behavior was so egregious.  Then she’ll forget and crap on the carpet again, and we’ll sigh and say, well, see, she’s old…

Deen will never understand.

No one who pines nostalgically for a genuine old Southern Antebellum wedding reception complete with all black waiters dressed in identical slave livery will ever understand. You can shame them into (mostly) silence, but they will never get it.

See, because it’s a kind of racism.

Bigots like Deen just don’t get that they are racists – and truly, sincerely, they really don’t mean to be.

They don’t mean to give offense, they don’t mean to be hurtful. But they just don’t get it.

Just a few months back, my own ham-fisted congressman, a man that makes you proud to be an Alaskan, Don Young, waxed nostalgic about the “wetbacks” his dad used to hire on their California ranch back in the day. 

Naturally people were offended. 

But, Don, see, he just couldn’t understand why people were offended. Just like Deen, he immediately claimed age as an excuse.  He grew up using that term, so it must be okay, right? He didn’t mean anything by it, he explained, wetback was the term he’d always used. His family had always called Mexican migrant labor wetbacks, of course. Why “wetback” is a term of affection where Don Young comes from – just like “darkie” and “nigger” were terms of genteel affection in the old Antebellum South that just happened to also mean “property.” Sure, practically a member of the family – like an old dog.

It’s always the same with these people, they always use the same excuse: We grew up in a different time. See back then, those words didn’t mean anything. That’s just how we talked. Black people didn’t mind being called darkies and spooks and pickaninnies and niggers, Mexicans didn’t mind being called wetbacks and spics, you could call a Jew a kike and an Italian a wop and a Chinaman a gook right to their ugly brown faces and they didn’t care, why they’d laugh! Sure. That’s just how we talked back then. But now, with this political correctness, everybody gets offended…”

What they just don’t get, what they will never get, is that yes, in point of fact, those words were just as offensive then, just as wrong and just as obnoxious and just as racist then as they are now – it’s just that minorities were powerless to do anything about it, so they smiled carefully and played along and seethed silently.  Yes, Massa, ha ha, yes, Massa.

But see, that’s what people like Don Young and Paula Deen remember, everybody knew their place back then.  Minorities knew their place, they didn’t talk back, they didn’t complain, they didn’t demand equality and they sure didn’t run for President. They knew their proper place – and back then they’d damned well better, because those that got uppity learned their place jiminy quick, didn’t they? At the end of a rope, if necessary, for the ones that were hard headed about it.

People like Paula Deen look back on that time – and they mistake that silence as contentment. 

In their nostalgia, they see quiet summer evenings on the porch of the big house, ladies in hoop-skirts like colorful birds, men in frock coats and smoking cigars, lightning bugs flickering over the neat green lawn, mint-juleps sweating in their glasses on a silver tray and it’s all just so wonderful and magical and perfect. They watch Gone With The Wind over and over and cry every time, cry at the loss of all those wonderful things, that perfect content magical world. And those servants, the ones Deen thinks look so fine sweating in their woolen livery, are part of the set dressing, like a favorite well-trained pet, decorations, part of the culture, part of a lost age of music and fine food and high culture, and people like Paula Deen and Don Young just can’t imagine why they would resent their roles in this fantasy.

In fact, those black folks ought to be grateful.

Yes, grateful.

Grateful that Americans scooped them up out of their own backward heathen countries and taught them about civilization and gave them a place to sleep and clothes to wear and food to eat. Yes, Massa, yes, yes!


In his essay, A Brief for Whitey, Pat Buchanan argued that slavery in the Antebellum South was a good thing overall – and, in point of fact, Buchanan specifically said, “America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”

The mind boggles. 

You’ve really got to admire the dexterity it takes to get from “600,000 black people brought from Africa in slave ships…” to “greatest levels of prosperity blacks have ever known” without bothering to journey through the bothersome intervening centuries.

Well, Boy Howdy and Salt My Grits! Black people got to meet Jesus, so, hey, slavery smavery, it’s a win win!  Gooo Jesus!

Buchanan, of course, isn’t alone.  Arkansas Republican John Hubbard likewise wrote a book last year, wherein he called slavery “a blessing in disguise” see because it “helped blacks come to America.”  That must be why Hubbard was so glad to see all those black faces at the Republican National convention, not to mention the ones looking out the White House windows.

As an aside, I wonder why porous borders aren’t a blessing in disguise for Latinos, after all it helps them come to America, right? But I digress.

During the recent presidential election, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum signed a pledge written by uber-conservative Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, proclaiming that “A child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” Because that makes it all ok, right? And hey, does it really matter if it’s not even true? As long as you’re rationalizing for Jesus and all, I mean?

David Horowitz, president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, editor of the ultra-conservative FrontPage magazine, declared “If slave labor created wealth for Americans, then obviously it has created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves.”  The Antebellum version of trickle-down economics, no doubt, let’s see I get all the money, you get chained to a plow, seems fair.  Meanwhile, down in Arizona, Trent Franks believes that blacks were far better off in shackles,“Far more of the African American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery.” Well, geez, Trent, who was it made those policies again? Hello? And then there’s Arkansas state legislator, Loy Mauch, who famously offered the following observation during last year’s election, “If slavery were so God-awful, why didn’t Jesus or Paul condemn it, why was it in the Constitution and why wasn’t there a war before 1861?”  Yeah, why didn’t Jesus condemn slavery, do you think? Big font of morality and all, that he was. Hey, I’m just asking. It’s a puzzler. Say, you don’t suppose folks back in the past used the Bible as justification for slavery, do you? Naw, that would be crazy, right?

We could go on, I haven’t even tapped the fertile ground of Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, or Glenn Beck, but let’s wrap this up with a little Ted Nugent on tour with the Romney campaign: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”

But when you call out people like this, they always make the same protest, “I’m not a racist, I have a black friend!”

In fact, that’s exactly what Deen famously did, pulled the “I have a black friend!” dodge, because that’s always, inevitably, the go to card. I have a black friend!

No you don’t, you don’t have any black friends. 

I call Shenanigans.

What it is, is that you happen to know a black person, sort of. You work with a black person. You’ve never gone for drinks – unless it was part of an office thing. You don’t chat on the phone. You don’t text recipes back and forth. You don’t hang out. You don’t go bowling together. You’ve never been to their house and they’ve never been to yours.  You don’t see movies together. You don’t confide in each other. You don’t have a black friend.

In fact, were this person white, given the bare level of association you two do have, you’d say, “Friends? Ur, Bill? Yeah, he’s just some asshole I work with. I don’t really know him.” A white person would have to meet a much higher threshold to be your friend, but any random black person that you happen to pass in the hall – instant buddies, right? I’m not a racist, I have a black friend, see? 

It’s a kind of racism, a kind of bigotry.

The kind we tolerate and pretend that it’s actually something else.

The same folks who are immediately willing to dismiss this kind of bigotry with a hand wave and a disdainful lament about overly sensitive minorities who they believe have taken Deen’s comments “out of context” in an ongoing effort to oppress white people through “political correctness” are the very same people who are right now spitting blood over President Obama’s supposed “War on Christians” – based entirely on a single comment Obama made last week in Ireland.  To wit, this:

“If towns remain divided, if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”

Ah yes, obviously President Obama hates Christian and wants to outlaw Christian schools in America because he happened to give an acknowledgement of Ireland’s “Troubles,” i.e. the long history of sectarian warfare between Protestants and Catholics. Because, right, how dare a state leader mention such a thing, when speaking to a group of Irish college kids, Protestants and Catholics and the first generation in literally centuries to sit together without bloodshed and hatred, about that exact thing? Sure, obviously that’s a declaration of Obama’s hatred for Christianity (Or yet another example of most Americans’ staggering ignorance of world history, or their own history for that matter including that of the Antebellum South, but I digress. Again).

And it’s not just race, of course, bigotry is a symptom of hate and fear, rarely does it confine itself to just one target.

Take Pat Buchanan’s comments regarding the recent Pentagon decision to lift the ban against women in combat roles:

This decision to put women in combat represents a capitulation of the military brass, a surrender to the spirit of our age, the Pentagon's salute to feminist ideology

Perhaps Pat would be more comfortable living in a country where the military is not under control of the civilian population. A place where the military makes the rules and the civilians have no say in military matters.

I forget what that’s called, somebody help me out.

In the history of civilization, men have fought the wars. In civilized societies, attacks on women have always been regarded as contemptible and cowardly. Even the Third Reich in its dying hours did not send women into battle, but old men and boys.

Oh, yes, that’s right, Fascism. Thanks for reminding me, Pat.

Because, seriously, that’s your argument? The Third Reich?  Honestly, how far down into your own festering belly button do you have to go, in order to use the fucking Nazis as an example of the kind of society you regard as a moral example? 

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, this is the same racist assclown who thinks slavery was cool because black people got some Jesus with their chains. I mean, what’s next? Are we going to learn how the Holocaust was a good thing for Jews because, hey, they got their own country out of it?

It’s just me, right? I’m the only one whistling Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Yeah, it’s just me. Never mind.

Nothing matches mortal combat where soldiers fight and kill, and are wounded, maimed and die for cause or country. Domestically, the closest approximations are combat training, ultimate fighting, boxing and that most physical of team sports, the NFL. Yet no women compete against men in individual or team sports. They are absent from boys' and men's teams in high school and college, be it football, basketball, baseball, hockey or lacrosse.

Women are absent from boys’ and mens’ teams?

You mean like that part where pinch faced old men such as Pat Buchanan repeatedly raise holy hell to keep girls off of school ball teams. You mean like that?

Jesus H. Christ, the stones on this guy.

And finally, Buchanan ends with this:

This is another country from the one we grew up in.


Finally, Pat Buchanan managed to get something right, there at the end.

And that takes us full circle, right back to where we started on this parade of bigotry.

This is another country from the one we grew up in. 

This is a country other than the one we grew up in.

Yes it is.

Exactly as intended.

Exactly as it was designed to be.

Just as the United States was a different country from the ones our founding fathers grew up in.

Just as the country of today is not the one Paula Deen grew up in, or Don Young, or Pat Buchanan.

It’s a country where we (mostly) will no longer tolerate white sheets and hoods and burning crosses.

But it’s still a country where we tolerate a certain kind of racism, a certain kind of bigotry, a certain kind of hate.

It’s still a country where prominent politicians running for President, where sitting members of both state and federal legislatures, where famous religious leaders and pundits feel free to publically dismiss slavery as a good thing, to engage in overt bigotry and hatred towards minorities, towards women, towards differing religions and beliefs – just so long as they hide their intolerance inside nostalgia and wrap it in the Star Spangled Banner and proclaim it’s what Jesus would do.

And it’s long past time we stopped giving this kind of nonsense a pass.

Epilogue: Some folks seem to think that Paula Deen is being judged unfairly. According to my mail, some folks think I might be judging Paula Deen unfairly. 

My first reaction to that is: Whoa, really, Mrs. Deen? Somebody judging you on the way you talk? The color of your skin? The place you were born? The culture you embrace? Why, how horrible for you. How unfair.  It must be terribly frustrating to live in a nation that allows such things to happen.  Now, imagine if you were black, and you worked for, oh, you and your brother Bubba.  Wait, you know what, Mrs. Deen? You don’t have to imagine it, here’s a complete description of what that would be like (PDF).

Any other questions?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Essential Liberty In A Post-911 World


Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
        - Benjamin Franklin 
           Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759


You know how you get people to stop running red lights?

You know how to make drivers slow down and obey the posted speed limit in a school zone?

It’s easy really.

You use a simple application of technology.

You take a speed sensor – it’s doesn’t really matter what kind – and you hook it to a camera along with some control circuits and some off-the-shelf software, you can make it as simple or as complicated as you like. You mount the contraption in a tamper-proof box in the area where you want to enforce traffic laws. Couple the machine to a system for identifying vehicles and drivers and a method for imposing financial consequences on law breakers.

You can put up a sign advising motorists of what you’re up to, or not.

Turn it on and it wait.

Pretty soon the tickets start piling up.

Pretty soon after that, people start obeying the law.

Automatic photo enforcement, typically referred to as a Traffic Enforcement Camera (or other unflattering names, usually involving four-letter words), it’s simple, impartial, works rain or shine 24-hours a day without time off for Union negotiated breaks, and it’s cheap compared to a manned speed trap.  It’s also extremely effective – it’s damned hard to claim innocence or police malfeasance when the judge is holding a picture of you blazing through a red light in an elementary school zone twenty miles per hour over the posted speed limit while texting and smoking a doobie. 

The technology, in various forms, has been around for more than a hundred years now.

And it works.

You install traffic enforcement cameras in a school zone, put up signs telling people you’re doing it, and start mailing out fines, and people will slow down.

You install one of these systems at an intersection and people will stop running red lights.

You install traffic enforcement cameras and impose immediate consequences for traffic violations and people will start obeying the law.

The simple truth of the matter is that traffic enforcement camera systems save lives, provably so.  This technology and similar automated surveillance and enforcement systems demonstrably make the world a safer place – at least in the certain limited aspects over which they are applied.

So how come so many people are opposed to the technology? Adamantly opposed. Vehemently opposed.

How come so many people, especially Americans, are almost offended by the very nature of such technology, the mere idea of its existence and use by government? After all, isn’t it the government’s job to enforce the law? Isn’t that exactly what so many people are demanding? Government enforcement of the law? When it comes to illegal immigration, or illegal drugs, or illegal guns, or Wall Street? So why would we be so opposed to automated enforcement of traffic laws?

In places where drivers habitually run red lights (in certain areas, running red lights is almost a cultural thing. I used to live in Maryland, trust me on this, always wait ten seconds after the light turns green before proceeding into the intersection or you’re going to get creamed), in places where motorists routinely ignore pedestrian crossings and school zone speed limits, the population will complain bitterly about the scofflaws and the resulting accidents and fatalities and they will loudly demand “that something must be done!” 

Install traffic cams, and those self-same folks will scream even louder about freedom and rights and totalitarianism.

Traffic enforcement cameras work, but in nearly every place they’ve been installed (at least in the United States), they’ve almost inevitably been removed within a short time due to public outcry.

Despite the fact that they work and they make the world a safer place.

Think about it, if we really wanted our traffic laws impartially and thoroughly enforced we’d implement this technology everywhere, not just on street corners and in crosswalks, but on highways and residential streets, in parking lots and at 4-way stops. Coupled to advanced software and backed up with real, immediate, and inevitable consequences, the rate of traffic violations would plummet – especially if you combined that automated surveillance technology with ancillary systems riding on top of the video technology, for example systems that performed facial recognition of those with suspended licenses, or looked for motorists who were texting and driving or who appeared to be intoxicated or who were in the throes of road rage or who were engaged in obviously illegal activities, or that smug self-righteous ass in the electric car doing 50MPH in the fast lane and who refuses to move over despite the clearly posted regulations requiring him to do so. 

You could fuse that technology with other systems, heat sensors for example, that when combined with video would tell you with a pretty good degree of certainty that the back of that innocent looking van was filled with illegal immigrants and not plumbing supplies.

Now, let’s add in drones …


What’s the matter? Don’t you want the road to be a safer place? Weren’t you just demanding that the violators, the people who routinely risk your lives and the lives of your children, be taken off the road and prosecuted for their recklessness? Don’t you want the police to beat that hell out of that tofu eating hippy blocking the fast lane? (I know I sure as hell do, but I digress).

You do?

Oh, but not this way?

But why not?

All of this technology is available right now. Most of it is cheap – cheaper than hiring the equivalent amount of manpower anyway, and far cheaper than the billions we pay each year in insurance, ineffective human traffic enforcement, accidents and fatalities.

Used correctly, the technology is extremely effective.

Used correctly, it’s impartial. 

Make it ubiquitous, and it will save lives.

So why don’t we?

Why don’t we want automated traffic enforcement systems?

Why would we, as a society, be willing to put up with the risks of drunken and reckless drivers, road ragers, speeders, highway shooters, those who routinely ignore red lights, and those who risk our kids’ very lives in front of our schools and playgrounds every single day?

Why would we complain bitterly about these criminals and demand that the authorities do something, but then reject the only really practical solution to preventing their actions?



The answer to that question, why? is the same exact reason that the vast majority of Americans are outraged over recent disclosures regarding National Security Agency monitoring programs.


At first glance, traffic enforcement cameras seem like a good idea.

And they are, so long as you ignore one fatal flaw – human nature (which, ironically, is the same fundamental flaw in numerous systems, starting with most forms of government. But again I digress).

The simple truth of the matter is this: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That bitter truism, attributed in the above form to the 19th Century historian and moralist, Lord Acton, is the central core concept that the entire United States Constitution was written around. Power corrupts, therefore power must be limited and controlled.

That caution, the corrupting influence of absolute power, is acknowledged in nearly every aspect of our society, from presidential term limits to antitrust regulations.

It’s why we hate the idea of traffic enforcement cameras, it’s not just because we want a sporting chance at breaking the law (and we do, don’t we?) but because the potential for abuse is too high, because the corruption of absolute power is absolutely inevitable given human nature – and most especially the nature of those humans in positions of power and authority.

Because unintended consequences are inevitable.

In almost every case, installation of traffic enforcement cameras leads almost immediately to the use of the collected information in ways far outside the scope of traffic enforcement. 

In one well known case, a picture of a red-light violator was sent along with the electronically generated ticket to the offender’s house, where his wife opened the envelope and found a picture of her husband behind the wheel of their family car – with his mistress’ head in his lap (You can sort of understand why he missed the light change). That picture ended up in the hands of the wife’s divorce lawyer and he got taken to the cleaners in a major way. Now, sure, the guy was a philandering jerk who put other drivers at risk with his actions, but it’s not the government’s job to inform on cheating spouses. And the camera was installed for the express purpose of traffic control, not vice.  And in the end it was pretty clear that the government had violated this guy’s rights, not by taking a picture of him in flagrante fellatio, but by not protecting his personal information and (inadvertently) informing his (ex)wife. He sued for violation of privacy and won.

Now it can be argued that the above case was unintentional and unlikely (and hilarious), but other violations of constitutional rights aren’t. With automated facial and/or license plate recognition it becomes a simple matter to track vehicles without a warrant or probable cause simply as part of the overall data gathering process. 

Worse, in nearly every installation, due to the technology involved, the systems are maintained by contractors – who tend to get paid by the number of violators their cameras catch.  Inevitably (there’s that word again), those contractors tended to game the system. And in too many cases, the local governments were okay with that, up to a point, because they shared in the profits.  And it doesn’t take long for the whole thing to spiral out of control and wander far from the original objective.

And the stored data can be used in all sorts of ways – imagine if the collected database was sold to a marketing firm.  Using advanced visual data mining tools, the information can be crunched any number of ways. And a contractor might have any number of commercial interests and uses for such data. A savvy marketing expert could determine, for example, that you might shortly be in need of a good discount divorce lawyer, or the number of the local florist … or a shot of penicillin.

And then there’s blackmail.

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely: this isn’t hyperbole, it’s a demonstrable truth. It’s human nature.

But it’s also human nature to disregard the lessons of history, to be influenced by groupthink, to act rashly out of panic and fear and anger – and to blind ourselves to the inevitable consequences of those ill conceived decisions.

Inevitably, governments who install traffic cameras without some very, very draconian regulations limiting their use, end up taking them back down in fairly short order – typically at a financial loss.  However, despite the repeated examples of poor implementation and endless lawsuits, local governments are eager to jump on the traffic camera bandwagon and the companies that make such systems are a going concern.

Because that too, is human nature.

And so, here we are, a decade and more from those terrible days in September, 2001.

We, as a people, as a government (because in America, we are the government), acted in panic a decade ago.

We ignored the very explicit lessons of our own history and the very explicit admonishments of our own Founders. 

In our blind fear and mindless panic and red-eyed rage, we passed laws that unleashed forces and removed certain constitutional safeguards without regard for the inevitable consequences.

The NSA monitoring and data mining programs that have recently come to light are the inevitable result of the Patriot Act and more specifically the Protect America Act of 2007 (and it’s repeated reauthorization since) and a dozen other lesser known laws that we’ve allowed our elected representatives to pass over the last decade. Those laws removed very specific constitutional protections and levied secret laws upon American citizens and fundamentally changed the very fabric of our society. 

And we let it happen.

If you, as an American, are in any way whatsoever surprised by the revelation of these NSA programs, well, you, my friend, are part of the problem and you have absolutely nobody to blame but yourself.

Save your outrage, you’re about a decade too late.

There’s no scandal here. 

The programs are perfectly legal under our new laws (whether or not they’re constitutional is another matter).

Congress was fully aware of them – oh yes indeed they are, and don’t you let them try to tell you otherwise, they provided the authorization and the funding and have done so every year since the programs were started.  NSA can’t do a damned thing without money, and the money comes from Congress. And the members of Congress who scream the loudest about personal liberty and totalitarianism are the programs’ most ardent supporters – don’t believe me? Look at who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, every single one of those people were fully aware of these programs, by definition.

The president was also fully aware, since it’s his office who oversees the agencies responsible. 

You can blame the Left, and you can blame the Right, but both are equally responsible.

The programs began under a Republican administration and continued under the current Democratic one. It was approved by a Republican-majority Congress and renewed under a majority of Democrats. 

You can blame Bush and you can blame Obama, but the simple truth of the matter is that you and I let this happen.

We, as a nation, demanded that 9-11 never happen again.

We demanded that our intelligence apparatus never, ever, again allow terrorists to slip past our safeguards unnoticed.

We demanded safety and we were willing, as a nation, to trade certain freedoms to get it.

When I was in uniform working in this same field, for this same agency*, we used to say that we had to get it right every single time – the enemy only had to get lucky once.

But, of course, we knew that we could not, in fact, get it right every time. It was impossible. 

And the enemy did, in fact, only have to get lucky once.  And sooner or later he would, because the odds guaranteed it.

And it was a risk we understood because in order to be right every time, in order to ensure that the enemy didn’t get lucky, not even once, well then we’d have to live in a radically altered world – one that would make the totalitarianism of The Hunger Games look downright democratic in comparison. And we weren’t willing to go down that road. Every single person that ever had anything to do with NSA (NSA, not The NSA, people who actually work there call it NSA) had it pounded into their heads over and over and over and over – we’d don’t spy on Americans. Period. You do, you go to jail. Of all the rules we learned, that one was sacred, inviolate.  If, and it was a rare if indeed, you were involved in anything that might lead to collection of information on fellow Americans, there were very, very strict FISA rules administered by stern faced unsmiling officers and the letter of the law was adhered to in detail. Each and every one of us received mandatory training in this area on a regular basis, it was the one rule we could never violate.

NSA had been abused once, under Nixon, and it damned for sure wasn’t going to happen again, not on our watch.

In the horrific aftermath of 9-11, we, as a nation, we Americans demanded that those who protect this country be right every single time, no matter the cost.

We demanded that the enemy, whoever he was, could not get lucky, even once. Period.

No matter what the consequences.

And so we changed the rules.

No leader, no politician, could stand before that unreasonable and impossible demand and tell the truth.

No leader, be it George W. Bush or Barack H. Obama could look the nation in eye, even today, and say, “What you demand can’t be done, not without radical changes to our way of life.”

Just as no local politician can stand in front of his constituents and say, “Look folks, unless you’re willing to put up with some unintended consequences, we just can’t completely stop people from running red lights…”

So they go out and buy the traffic cameras, just as the nation went out and bought themselves the equivalent surveillance system on vastly larger scale. We, as a nation, were willing to trade our essential liberty for the illusion of security – and so we allowed our government to write and pass and continually reauthorize the provisions of the Protect America Act.

We, as a nation, were willing to sacrifice our honor for that security, we were willing to kidnap people and torture them and put them into indefinite detention without trial or legal recourse in direct repudiation of everything this country supposedly stands for, we were willing to put up with warrantless wiretaps and warrantless searches of our homes and property and library records, we were willing to put up with being strip searched in our airports, we were willing to put up with secret laws and new limits on our rights, we were willing to proclaim a new age of McCarthyism and declare our neighbors the enemies of freedom, and we were more than willing to sacrifice our children and our treasury to a decade and more of war for that illusion of security. 

A certain segment of our population demanded, and still loudly demands, racial and political profiling (ironically, those are the self same folks who were so, so very outraged at being profiled themselves by the IRS, but again, I’m digressing).

Now, now, the nation is suddenly up in arms over NSA’s domestic intelligence gathering efforts? Now?

Honestly, where the hell have you people been?

None of this should be a surprise. These programs began a long, long time ago, and right after 9-11 they were ramped up to full throttle and the safeties were removed and they’ve been running that way ever since. 

And there were plenty of those who raised the alarm, including yours truly right here on this blog, plenty who protested – on both sides of the political aisle. They were ignored. They were dismissed as alarmists, denounced as cowards and traitors and enemies of America (and in fact if you go back and read the comments under certain posts here on Stonekettle Station, you’ll find accusations of exactly that. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been called a traitor by supposed patriots).

And it’s funny, because those protesting the loudest now, are the very ones who were most enthusiastic about those measures when they first appeared. And don’t think they don’t know it either, go on, look and see which members of Congress are screaming in outrage – and which ones are keeping their heads down and hoping nobody notices them.  Ask yourself why the usual cast of characters isn’t loudly demanding impeachment proceedings over this, their silence is profound and telling. Then go take a gander at their voting records and see which ones voted for the Patriot Act and reauthorization of the Protect America Act and its changes to the FISA provisions. Go on, I’ll wait.  This is the same batch of jackasses who angrily demand “smaller government” and gleefully embrace Sequestration and the furlough of federal employees, and then loudly wonder why the agencies like NSA have to hire contractors to carry out their massively expanded missions – missions expanded by these self-same Congressmen and Senators.

I’ve said it before and likely I’ll have to say it again, if you give the Texas-born Jesus-fearin’ Flag-wavin’ Conservative the power, you’ve automatically given it to his successor, the Kenyan-Born Muslim-lovin’ America-hatin’ Liberal.  Our government was designed with limits on power, if you don’t want the current guy to have that power, you shouldn’t have given it to his predecessor. The president didn’t create this monster, he inherited it. And the last president didn’t create it either, he was given it as a gift by a terrified nation pissing itself in fear.

Quite frankly I’m less worried about the current guy abusing this power than I was about the previous one, but I don’t want either of them to have it – not without some very, very strict controls. Ditto drones. Ditto everything else right on down to traffic cameras.

The simple truth of the matter is that in cases like this, it almost doesn’t matter which party is in the White House. It’s relatively easy to hold the President accountable, and there are multiple mechanisms for doing exactly that. 

The problem is Congress. 

If you want NSA to be accountable, along with all the rest of the three-letter agencies, then Congress must be accountable.  And if you want Congress to be accountable, then you have to hold them to account instead of just reelecting the same frightened, ignorant, small-minded, self-serving extremist jackasses over and over.

The power is enormous. The potential for abuse is fantastically high. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. That power must be limited. But in order to limit that power, we as a people must be willing to accept certain risks, we must be willing to acknowledge that the enemy will get lucky once again, the odds guarantee it.

We must be willing to give up certain securities in order to maintain our essential liberty.

And we must face the danger with our eyes wide open and our heads held high, with courage instead of fear.

This is exactly what people like me have been saying for the last twenty years.

Welcome to the party, glad you could make it.


The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad.
        - James Madison




Disclosure:  I used to work for NSA. As a uniformed member of the US Naval Security Group and its successor organization, I spent more than twenty years in and around the agency.  Unlike Edward Snowden, I take my oath very, very seriously indeed and therefore I will not discuss my duties in any fashion whatsoever. Suffice it to say that I am intimately familiar with the National Security Agency and while I may be biased, I have very good reason to believe in the organization’s professionalism and regard for the rights and liberties of all Americans.  I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but I will say this: unless you’ve been inside, everything you think you know is wrong. 

Here’s what I know for certain, based on my personal and professional experience: The folks at NSA are dedicated professionals who hold their oath to the nation above all else.  No one is more aware of the power they wield and the potential for abuse than they are – because they, my friends, are Americans too. They were set a task and authorized to carry it out and they will do so with the utmost dedication – until they’re told to turn it off.  If you, as a nation, want it turned off, really want it turned off, then you need to hold your elected representatives to account.  I’ll offer this caution however: think very carefully before you command the Djinni, think it all the way through.

Regarding Edward Snowden: He was a contractor IT dweeb, not an operator, not an analyst, and certainly not a policy maker and you should regard anything he says from that perspective.  The programs he revealed are legal under our current laws and as I said in the article they should have been a surprise to nobody.  Snowden claims that he can’t get a fair trial in the United States, boo hoo, he’s got nobody to blame but himself. He betrayed his oath, he broke the terms of his contract, he purposely violated the provisions of his security clearance.  If he had concerns, he could have availed himself of any of a dozen avenues of address, including contacting members of Congress directly, instead he chose to make himself into a martyr and so now he can suffer the consequences.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Changes to Email

Because my email has increased to unmanageable levels over the last year or so, I’ve started missing things that I really can’t afford to miss – e.g. one such recent event led to Stonekettle Station being offline for the better part of a week.

As such, I’ve implemented my own email domain and established a number of accounts under it to handle various personal and professional communications.

My previous general purpose email address, Stonekettlestation@gmail.com, will be phased out over the next few weeks. I will continue to respond to your missives at this address until the end of this month, or until my attention wanders, whichever comes first and, eventually, I will deactivate this account. Basically what I’m saying here is that if you’ve got something you really want me to see, don’t use this email address anymore.

From now on, if you wish to contact me regarding Stonekettle Station in order to render awe, advice, suggestions, criticism, general asshatery, or to inform me that you’re honoring my awesome self by naming your newborn child in my honor (the highest percentage of correspondence I receive, by orders of magnitude. True story), or to pledge undying minionship to me, your future Ultimate Emperor of the Universe, you may reach me at: jim@stonekettle.com.

The address on the sidebar has been updated appropriately.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Requiem For A Life Less Ordinary

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
    - Requiem,
Robert Louis Stevenson

He was a tough wiry man.

He was on the short side of medium.

He was thin his whole life, but he was one hell of a lot stronger than he looked, people constantly underestimated him that way, usually to their detriment – and he was never in a fight that he lost.

The songs talk about an “impish grin” and “sparkling eyes,” with him the grin and the sparkle were the literal truth. Those were the very first things you noticed.

Sandy-haired and handsome in the Irish tradition, he always had a good story to tell and he could make you laugh with the way he mangled words but still managed to make you wonder if it was everybody else that had the pronunciation wrong.

Back then, in 1960,  you could always hear him coming, the unmistakable sound of jaunty heels clicking on polished tile preceded him down the hallways of General Motors.  His steps sounded like he was wearing tap shoes and not just because he was the best dancer you ever saw, but also because he wore metal heel clips on his shoes – otherwise he tended to wear them out faster than they could be replaced, the result of a slight tendency to drag his heels and the fact that he was always in constant motion.

That was his defining characteristic, constant motion.

He was always moving, even when he was asleep his legs churned restlessly as if he was climbing mountains in his dreams.

He’d always been in motion, since the very fist day he’d entered the world back in 1934. He couldn’t sit still.  He was always going going going.

As a Catholic kid growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1930’s and 40’s it was stickball and pick-up baseball and football and kick-the-can and any other improvised sport he could manage. He rode bicycles everywhere and raced pell-mell though the neighborhoods of the Polish and Irish and Dutch immigrants who made up that part of town. Word is that he was hell on wheels in his teens, there’s a story involving a bench-seat T-Bird and a police chase that ended badly … but that’s a tale probably best left for another time. He watched his older brother go off to World War II, a medic on the beaches of Normandy, but he was too young to follow.  He was old enough when Korea came though, and he ended up a  Radioman in USS Shakori, ATF-162, a US Navy Powhatan Class ocean-going fleet tug and rescue ship. The vessel was a relic of the previous conflict and she sure wasn’t pretty and she sure wasn’t fast – her top speed was only 16 knots, but she could tow a battleship at 12.  Most Navy ships are women, Shakori was a bulldog. That tough little ship was the perfect home for a tough little Irishman and she took him around the world, twice.  He went to Korea and later served in Cuba during Castro’s first failed revolution – indeed there’s a picture of him and Fidel Castro standing together on the Guantanamo Naval Base back  when the US was giving the revolutionary refuge  against the corrupt Batista government.  Oh, could he tell you stories of pre-revolution Cuba, most involving Hatuey (The One Eyed Indian), a local Cuban beer,  and he never ever forgot a single detail of any of the myriad adventures he had during those days nor the men he served with and the tales of those times have entertained many generations since.

After the war, he ended up back home in Grand Rapids, an expeditor in the Materials Control Division of GM’s Fisher-Body Plant #2.

That’s where he met her. 

She was a clerk-typist in Materials Control.  She’d started out there back in 1954, then moved up to receptionist for the company’s doctor, and then back to Materials when the plant reorganized and went from making airplanes to car parts.  She’d seen him around of course, all the girls had, he was a regular cock-of-the-walk and impossible to miss. Her boss, a tough old coot named Chet Barger, who had once been a Texas Ranger and had rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders, used to say that “the only thing that boy needs is a good spanking.”

Likely Ol’ Chet knew what he was talking about.

She ran into him one day, literally.

Or he ran into her, depending who’s telling the story.

Maybe she didn’t hear his heels clicking on the tile … or maybe she did.  What’s for certain is that despite the advanced warning they slammed into each other coming ‘round a corner.  After that, he started finding reasons to stop by her desk.  It’s possible that she was flirting with him. It’s also possible that he noticed.

She wanted to learn how to play golf.

She asked around, it seemed the best golfer anybody had ever heard of was already dropping by her desk on a regular basis.

So she asked him to teach her the game.

He agreed – but only if she’d have dinner with him.

You can see where this is going, of course, and it wasn’t long before they were married. 

They said it wouldn’t last.  He was an Irish Catholic, she was a Dutch Protestant – worse, a Presbyterian – and his family disapproved, to put it mildly, back when such things mattered. He was wild and impulsive, she was deliberate.  He couldn’t balance a checkbook on a good day, she always knew where every single penny went.  They struck sparks off each other and would for the rest of their lives but it turned out they had more in common than they didn’t and they proved everybody wrong. 

And they spent a lot of time golfing.

Their first child, a son, followed the marriage after the requisite amount of time, and another son two years after that.   They were living in a trailer in Grandville, but with two boys, they wanted something bigger, so they moved to Jension and bought a small house with a couple acres of land – large enough for a big garden (In all the years that followed and all the places they lived, and all the things they went through, they always had that garden).   Alongside the corn and cucumbers, they raised Irish Setters. And there were many cats and chickens and a duck or two, rabbits and a goose named Slippery, and various other critters now lost in the mists of aging and unreliable memory.  I could tell you stories from that time, about how he moved an entire garage a hundred yards with just the help of a few friends, or how he tilled that huge garden with an antique walk-behind tractor, a bucking beast of a machine that would have knocked a lesser man senseless (and did, but again, that’s a story for another time). He hunted and fished and gigged for frogs in a tiny fold-up boat made by his father-in-law.  He owned not one, but two Corvairs, and parked them next to the station wagon. 

He still worked for General Motors and one day while conducting an inventory, a job he wasn’t supposed to be doing but there was a strike and management had him doing tasks that normally would have gone to a union man, a defective lift cable snapped and he plunged sixty feet in an elevator cage to the warehouse floor below.  The fall shattered a vertebrate in his neck, he could have been paralyzed and for a while it looked like he might be, but a year of surgery and neck braces later and he was mostly back to his old self.  Mostly.

But that’s where it started, the collection of injuries that would haunt him for the rest of his life. 

The doctors fixed the shattered bones in his neck, but he would always have problems with the injury. He had numbness in his hands and trouble turning his head and if she hugged him too hard with her hands behind his neck, the pressure on his spinal cord would drop him to the floor like a puppet with cut strings –  a side effect the doctors forgot to mention and something that he learned about the hard way.  These were the 60’s, nowadays he would have gotten a decent settlement and maybe long term care, back then what he got was let go.

Rather than complain, he went on to other things and other jobs.  There wasn’t much he couldn’t do, they might have invented the term “Jack-of-all-trades” just for him, and he was master of quite a few.  He could do plumbing and electrical work. He could do any kind of carpentry. He could build fences and dig ditches. He had the best wood shop in the neighborhood.  He could wear a suit and tie as easily as a Caterpillar Cap and a pair of Levis – though he always called them “dungarees,” a legacy of his time in the Navy. They bought a new house, had one built, in one of the new suburbs of Jension. The house was bigger, the lot was smaller, but still they had that garden.  They camped and fished and drove cross-country on family vacations. By now it was the 70’s and instead of a crew-cut he had a beard and long hair and there was a lot of plaid – the pictures from that time are hysterically funny to his grand children.

It wasn’t all roses (though he grew those too, and they were gorgeous).  He drank. Like many a Navy Man of that time, he’d always been a hard drinker, Pabst Blue Ribbon usually, chased with Pall-Malls.  And after a while it started getting the better of him.  There were some rough times.  They’d started their own business by then and after a couple years of backbreaking labor, it went under – but not before he was nearly electrocuted (the details of which are again, a story for another time).  The short version is that an electrical shock burned a dime sized hole in his wrist, the high amperage cauterized the wound and you could look into the bloodless hole and see the bone. The electricity  traveled straight through his heart, it would have killed another man but not him, he walked out of the hospital.  His drinking got worse after they lost the business.  Eventually she gave him an ultimatum.  And so he joined Alcoholic’s Anonymous and found sobriety.  Like I said, those were rough times, they nearly lost the house and a number of other unpleasant things, the OPEC Oil Embargo was in full swing along with the energy crises and the floundering economy. But through it all they had each other and they persevered. He worked a variety of jobs, from janitor to hospital security guard – and, man, the stories he could tell about those places would have you in stitches no matter how many times you’ve heard them – nothing was beneath him, he’d do whatever it took.  He even went back to school and got his GED and some college.

He calmed down after he stopped drinking.  He’d always been there for everyone else and now he went at it with a will.  He helped others stop drinking, he didn’t preach or lecture, but when they were ready, he’d help them find their way to sobriety.  He became a deacon in the Presbyterian church (his family had long ago made peace with his departure from Catholicism).  He’d always been a scout leader, even before his own boys were old enough to be Cubs, back when being a Boy Scout actually meant you were something other than a bigot.  In 1976, he took a troop of Scouts to the BSA high adventure ranch in New Mexico, Philmont, and they hiked nearly 200 miles in two weeks. He had some trouble keeping up – even then a pack of Pall Malls a day was starting to have an effect, especially in the high altitude mountains of New Mexico, a harbinger of things to come. On the morning of the United States’ Bicentennial, he quietly woke his Scouts up before dawn and with practiced ease and huge shit-eating grins they broke camp in complete silence so as not to wake the other troops, then they climbed The Tooth of Time in the dark using only the light of the moon to arrive at the summit just as the sun rose over the Rocky Mountains.  Every Scout in Philmont that year had wanted to be first up the mountain on that particular morning, after all there could only be one troop, ever, first to summit on the morning of America’s 200th Birthday, and there had been some less than good natured boasting in base camp the night before among the Trek Leaders.  He didn’t boast, he just did what he always did – he outfoxed them.   His Scouts ended up on the cover of the Bicentennial Edition of Boy’s Life (if you happen across that issue, I’m the blond-headed 14 year old Scout in the front of the hiking line).  He got in some trouble for that, and more when he commandeered the troop bus (an aging repurposed school bus painted like a giant Bumble Bee) and took his Scouts on an unauthorized trip to a local Mexican restaurant as a reward for all their hard work and where those Michigan boys learned about real genuine New Mexican ‘green’ chili for the first time (Jesus H. Christ!).  On the four day trip back to Michigan, whenever the other Scout Leaders from the other Michigan Troops would attempt to chastise him, he’d lead the bus in a rousing rendition of 10,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and drown them out. 

He got a job as the resident manager of a YMCA summer camp out in Middleville. The place was a wreck, but he cleaned it up and turned it around and thousands of kids owe some very happy memories to him.  He was in his element, wrangling horses and giving hay rides behind the tractor,  zoo keeper to an ever changing menagerie of animals from goats to raccoons to cows (I’d tell you about the time one of his boys, and I’m not saying which one, locked a very angry goat in the chicken coop as a Father’s Day surprise, but that’s really a story that needs to be told in person and out loud with lots of enthusiastic hand waving. The short version is that he was indeed surprised that Father’s Dad. Very. Ditto the story about the dead cow, and how Old Man Mesick grabbed its tail and cranked it back to life after … well, again, that’s a story for another time). He had a garden there too, a big one and more and more he thought that’s what he wanted to do full time – garden, farm, grow things.  The job lasted a decade or so, long enough for his kids to leave home and go off into the world on their own, one to the Navy, one to the Air Force. 

Eventually he left the YMCA and they moved to a small farm outside of Middleville.  He went back to school, this time to the Michigan State Cooperative Extension and became a certified Advanced Master Gardener.  They owned a couple of acres and they bought more, and they converted almost all of it into a specialty garden and artisan farm.  They opened a farm stand and started selling fresh produce in their front yard.  It wasn’t long before they were known across half the state and people came from all over for a chance at their stock in trade.  He helped others become Master Gardeners themselves.  He worked at the local Co-Op and Grain Elevator, testing soils and doling out advice to local farmers.  One day the town fathers approached him, they were thinking of starting up a farm-market, something they hoped would revitalize their slowly fading village.  And so it did.  And so they became founding members of the Middleville Farmer’s Market, and there you could find them, rain or shine, every Friday, the center of life in a small Midwestern farming town.  Everybody knew him, he had a thousand friends and when he walked into the local diner a dozen people smiled and waved and called out his name. 

He got older though, and his health went to hell.  He finally quit smoking, but by then it was too late.  The old neck injury calcified and his hands got gradually weaker and more numb and one day he could no longer change fittings on the tractor with a normal wrench, he just didn’t have the strength anymore. So, being him, he got out the biggest damned pipe wrench you’ve ever seen and fitted it onto the tractor’s PTO, figuring all he needed was a little more leverage.  Unfortunately the tractor was in gear, and when it shifted the PTO rotated a turn … and that huge damned wrench swung through a full arc that just happened to intersect with his leg.  They had to insert a steel rod and fit the shattered bone back together with screws and if you think it slowed him down or taught him a lesson you haven’t been paying attention.  Eventually he went back under the knife and the doctors were able to clean up his neck and he got both feeling and strength back in his hands, sort of closing the barn door after the tractor has done rolled away down the hill so to speak.  But even as he got his strength back he was developing COPD, that’s the new innocuous word for emphysema. He ended up on oxygen. He had to give up golf.  He kept looking for things that he could do, he became an avid birder, a member of Cornel University’s legion of bird watchers.  He knew everything there was to know about birds and his backyard was filled with feeders of a dozen different kinds.  

But the world just kept closing in on him, every year he could do a little less and for a man that had been ever in motion it got harder and harder. 

The end came suddenly, an infection he just couldn’t shake, which led to congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and a dozen other things.  His heart stopped in the emergency room, but they got it going again. He had beaten the odds so many times in so many different ways and those who knew him figured the feisty little Irishman would somehow find a way to outfox fate this time too.

And for a while, it looked like he just might pull it off.

But it just wasn’t to be. 

On June 8th, 2013, at precisely 11:06AM, a beautiful Saturday morning, two days before his fifty-second wedding Anniversary, he finally stopped moving. 

His wife was at his side along with his sons, the Navy Chief Warrant Officer and the Air Force Master Sergeant. 

He was laid to rest at the Fort Custer National Cemetery with full military honors, next to his comrades in arms beneath the cold white granite, still at last.

His name was James Gordon Wright.

And he was my dad.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Holy Crap! What Happened?

Late last week this blog vanished from the web.

Some people cheered.

Some people wept.

The earth shifted slightly in its orbit.

And a great wailing and gnashing of teeth swept the globe.  The seas rose, the sky rained fire and death and poisoned toads, and the Four Horsemen rode the land upon their undead steeds.

True story.




Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a wee bit, but for the last week folks attempting to reach www.stonekettle.com got a variety of weirdness, from links to various stones and kettles to a generic busty blonde Hot Chick™ who sadly explained how Stonekettle Station didn’t exist on the web but how about these other, nifty, sites?

Given the volume of email and instant messages I received, apparently more than a few of you noticed the huge gaping hole in the Internet where Stonekettle Station used to be. Which, to be admittedly smug, was a more than a bit self-validating for me – i.e. the fact that so many of you would write expressing massive dismay at the sudden and unexpected disappearance of Stonekettle Station made me feel all warm and happy inside.

Which was nice, considering the volume of unpleasant surprises I’ve gotten lately – the least of which was the implosion of my blog.

Thanks for missing me, I sincerely appreciate it.

At first, I tried to respond personally to the messages, but eventually I just had to give up. So, if you wrote and I didn’t respond, consider this an acknowledgement of my sincere appreciation. Thanks for caring. Really.

So, what happened?

The short answer is that I didn’t pay the bill and Google turned off the lights.

It really was just that simple.

In my defense, it wasn’t my fault.

OK, actually, it was entirely my fault. But, I’ve got an excuse.

The longer answer is that I own the internet domain www.stonekettle.com along with a number of other domains (a domain is a specific site somewhere on the internet).

This isn’t anything unusual, for the price of a couple of large lattes anybody can own a domain.

And there’s a whole industry, in fact, of unsavory jerks who go around buying up likely names and then attempting to charge people for the use of their own name or business and so on. It’s called Domain Squatting and it’s an asshole thing to do. 

But anyway, as I said, anybody can own an internet domain.

Here’s how it works: basically you brainstorm up a super-cool keeno incantation, then you contact a wizard service and the sorcerers check to see if anybody else is using that same name-of-power, if not then there’s usually an exchange of money and/or sexual favors and then geeky computer types in strange robes and pointy hats sacrifice small animals in certain highly dangerous blood rituals and engage in other various powerful arcane magics to insert your domain name into the bowels of the internet. Then you can lay a website over the top of it and add subdomains and perform various witchy juju of your own. There’s a bunch of technobabble mumbo-jumbo that describes the process in sleep-inducing detail and the only people who care about the actual specifics are those who already know how it works.  So, I’ll spare you the grisly details and we’ll just say you hire a wizard and magic happens. 

The long and short of it is that periodically you have to renew your registration.  In other words nobody really owns a domain, you just sort of rent it.  If you don’t pay the rent, the registration service turns off your domain and for all practical purposes, your website simply ceases to exist. 

That’s what happened to Stonekettle Station.

When you went looking for www.stonekettle.com last week, it didn’t exist. Depending on the service you used to look for me, Google or Yahoo or directly via a DNS address (like a bookmark) or by typing in the actual numeric IP address or by performing some form of animal sacrifice and beseeching the gods, you got a variety of errors – some of which looked a lot like somebody had hijacked my domain. They hadn’t, it just looked that way, which is an artifact of whatever software logic you employed to find me.  In other words, you typed in “stonekettle” and the internet said, “I can’t find stonekettle, so here’s a hot chick with some nice kettles.”

So how come I didn’t pay the rent? What am I? Some kind of internet deadbeat?

Yes. Sort of.

I’ve owned stonekettle.com for a number of years now, and right from the first day I set up an automatic payment process and basically forgot about it.  Every year Goggle bills me for my various domains, my computer talks to their computer, various arcane magics occur in various banking computers, and I get an email receipt and everybody is happy.  If there’s any problem, say an expired credit card, I get an email notification and I wave my arms and curse a lot and that generally fixes things, and again, everybody is happy. 

Except that this year I missed the email warning.

In my defense, one of my family members is gravely ill and I was somewhat distracted.

Also, I get a lot of email.  Now, knowing that, I should have moved this particular process to a dedicated email notification account instead of my general purpose one (and given that domains generally allow for their own email process, creating dedicated email addresses specifically for certain transactions is pretty simple), but again, I was distracted and somehow never got around to it (that’s since been corrected).

So, I missed the deadline.

There’s a grace period, but I missed that too – but again, as I mentioned, I’ve been distracted.

Google therefor assumed I didn’t want the domain anymore, so they reset my admin controls and notified their contracted registration service to shut down the domain.

Which is all perfectly normal and aboveboard and automatic.

First I knew about it was when I got up Sunday morning and my email and Facebook Messages were overflowing with “Holy Crap! What Happened?” and “Dude! You’ve been hijacked! Call Homeland Security!”

It didn’t take me long to figure out what had happened, and it should have been a simple matter of logging into my administrator account to update the billing information and then requesting an automatic reinstatement of the domain.

Except I couldn’t log into the administrator account.

Because there’s some kind of weird bug, which I won’t go into because you don’t really care about such arcane magics and technobabble mumbo-jumbo. Suffice it to say that it took many phone calls and emails between myself and a nice lady somewhere in Kowloon or Bangladesh or wherever Google’s tech support is located, plus help from a number of folks on Google’s tech support forum, to sort it out and give me the various required incantations to mollify the various moat monsters of Google’s patchwork kingdom. 

Also, in the middle of this, I suddenly had to drop everything and jump on an airplane and fly to Michigan. 

No, really.

I literally got a phone call from my brother telling me to come, NOW. It was 10PM Alaska time. My wife called the airline, my son packed my electronics (and did a damned fine job of it), I stuffed whatever was handy into a travel bag, in less than ten minutes from the call we were in the jeep and my wife drove me sixty miles to Anchorage while I explained to my son that this was an emergency so it was okay if mom was speeding like a maniac but I’d better never catch him driving that fast or else, I waded shamelessly through a hundred Chinese tourists in front of the Alaskan Airlines desk shoving left and right and using my elbows mercilessly, claimed my ticket, sprinted through security with the grateful help some really awesome TSA agents, and ran the length of Ted Stevens International Airport to make my plane just as the door was closing.  Total elapsed time from notification to strapping in, 90 minutes – and that included a 60 mile drive, I’m pretty sure that’s some kind of record.

Once in the air, I was able to connect to my wife via Skype.  She got me a rental car in Grand Rapids and texted me the confirmation number. 

Then I had nothing to do but worry for the next six hours as we flew south over Canada, headed for O’Hare. 

So naturally, I thought of you, Gentle Readers, and used my time and the magic of WiFi in the Sky to finish sorting out the domain problem – because I damned sure wasn’t going to get any sleep and worrying about what was waiting for me on the other end wasn’t going to do anybody any good. 

Frankly, if the the sheer ridiculousness of attempting to fix the internet by squinting at a small phone screen while reading tech data off my slightly larger tablet transmitted by a nice lady in Kowloon or Bangladesh or wherever speaking arcane technobabble in fractured English while onboard an airplane hurtling though turbulence at 500 miles an hour somewhere over remote Canada had actually hit me, I might have quit right there and availed myself heartily of the drink cart. 

But it worked. 

By the time I landed in Grand Rapids, Google’s accounting department had been mollified and the various arcane magics of the internet worked their spells and the computers did the proper handshaking, sexual favors were exchanged, and somewhere between the time I roared out of the rental lot at the Jerry Ford International Airport and arrived at the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital (a massive modern complex of interlocking advanced medical facilities built around the old brownstone Butterworth hospital that I was born in 50 odd years ago) Stonekettle Station was back online.

And that wasn’t the only good news.

It’s been a rough couple of days, but it appears that my dad is going to make it. 

You’ll forgive me if I don’t go into the details, and I’d really appreciate it if you don’t pry, but things are looking up and that wasn’t even in the cards two days ago.  We’ve still got a long haul ahead of us, but if Stonekettle Station can come back from oblivion, anything is possible.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook had some idea of what was going on, and I truly appreciate all the offers of support and goodwill. Thank you. All of you, who wrote or left messages on my Facebook page. I am truly grateful.

I’m currently camped out at my folks’ house in rural Michigan. 

I have no cell connectivity here, let alone high speed 4G.  I’m tethered to a very low speed DSL connection, and between the hospital and fixing things around the farm, I doubt there’ll be much time for blog posts, but you never know.

We’ll just have to take it as it comes.

Thanks for hanging in there.