Sunday, July 28, 2013

Message Sinks In

During the past three weeks, I got a good eyeball into the manufacturing world. Our teacher group visited two power plants, a large-scale baking company, a factory that makes different kinds of floor coverings, a product shipping company, and two plants that make stuff that makes other stuff.

Yes, there were people working in these factories. But not many. Nowhere do you see the human-heavy assembly lines that were so prevalent a generation ago.

We teachers were told that there are plenty of jobs out there, but you need engineering degrees, math degrees, mechanical engineering degrees, or at the very least some post-high-school course work. Not to mention this great, new modern work ethic that has all of us working 12 hours for an 8-hour wage.

Many of the people who spoke to us talked about how the future workforce will have to move from job to job, and keep up with every twist and turn in the technology, in order to keep food on the table. When you think that part of this technology is ever-increasing robotics that eliminate even more human tasks, I would say the work world is about to become a land mine.

It has not escaped my notice that school teachers no longer have job security. String together a few years of illness, find yourself working for an administration that doesn't like you, and ... uh oh.

With that in mind, I had the audacity to approach a college professor of entrepreneurship who spoke to our teacher group. We are having lunch on Tuesday to discuss a possible area of growth in the American economy-- i.e., a new business.

 I am nervous. I know nothing about entrepreneurship, and even though it's summertime, I hate to waste anyone's lunch hour.

On the other hand, when he spoke to our group, the professor said that if someone has an interesting proposal, he talks over the idea at the water cooler. If someone has a very interesting proposal,  he has lunch with that person. If he's ready to apply some ink and legal, he goes out to dinner with that person.

I got lunch. It's a land mine world. Might as well exert some audacity.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For Strong Stomachs Only


I have always liked dogs. I don't own one. I do have a cat, a parrot, and (currently) three fish.

It is my experience that people who don't know each other very well will strike up friendships by talking about their dogs. Most people can keep such talk in perspective. Some can't.

I've been spending the last three weeks on a school bus with 16 other teachers, riding to companies and manufacturers far and wide across the lower tier of New Jersey. It was inevitable that, in captive audience of fellow teachers on long bus rides, talk would turn to family pets. I call it "dog talk."

Yesterday, as our school bus pulled out of the parking lot for a quite long trek to the extreme tip of southeast New Jersey, the teacher in front of me and the teacher behind me began a conversation about their dogs. This was a continuance of several other lengthy conversations about their dogs.

This time the chat began innocently enough, with detailed descriptions of what they feed their dogs. Teacher A, a person with insufficient filter on both the sound level and subject matter of her conversations, detailed how she prepares supper for her Great Dane, Zeus. (My profound apologies to this bored deity for perhaps the worst use of His name known to humankind.) If you really need to know, she browns some ground turkey and adds a can of mixed vegetables. No lima beans. Apparently dogs are not fond of lima beans. Any other kind of canned vegetables will do, though. You can give Zeus peas, carrots, even mix some celery into the ground turkey. He even eats pumpkin. Yes, in the fall he often gets pumpkin in his food, since that's pie-making season. You see, Zeus weighs 175 pounds, so he can eat a 30-pound bag of dog food in just a matter of a week. That's a lot of money for a teacher, and it's really cheaper to do some short order cooking for him. If you think about it, that's a balanced meal: ground turkey and vegetables, with vitamins and all that good stuff, and it's much cheaper than big bags of dog food.

Spread this conversation over 15 minutes, and you've got the precede to the shift in gastrointestinal point of interest.

After Teacher A and Teacher B had exhausted the topic of feeding their pets, the conversation then went something like this:

Teacher A: Oh, boy, when Zeus has to do his business ... you just would not believe how much comes out of him! I mean, it is huge!

Teacher B: My Fido is so small I can pick his up with a Kleenex. I don't really bother, though, since my yard is so big.

Teacher A: Well, I have to bother, because you should just see how much shit he puts out! It's not even flushable! Really, he can drop a gigantic load every day! I'm always amazed by how much comes out of him!

Teacher B: Well, you said he weighs 175 pounds, so I guess the size of the dog makes a difference in the size of the shit.


Teacher B: Wow, this is ladylike! We're sitting here talking about dog shit.

Teacher A: (laughing) Yeah. Look at us!

Reader, I will admit that the motor on a school bus is loud. But you'll have to believe me when I say that these two people were speaking louder than they had to. As for me, I was sitting alone in my seat, grateful for the sunglasses that permitted my eyeballs to roll dramatically during the feeding portion of the conversation, and then bug out when the topic turned to end-of-the-line digestion. Sitting directly in front of Teacher A were the well-dressed and highly professional Chamber of Commerce executives who organized this whole three-week conference. One can only hope that they were immersed in other important tasks.

This morning, Thursday, we teachers heard our last speaker of the conference. Before the workshop began three weeks ago, we were all told to dress professionally. You're probably guessing what I'm about to say, reader ... today Teacher A arrived in denim capris and flip-flops.

This workshop was otherwise one of the most interesting things I've ever done with my summer vacation, and I'm not finished writing about it yet. But most of what I've had to say has been really serious, so I thought I would offer you a little vignette that says less about teachers than it does about human nature. Some people are not properly filtered. I'll bet you know a few.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ancient Fires

For the past three weeks I have been part of a teacher summer program where we tour businesses and industries with an eye towards two things:
1. Where the jobs are, and
2. How to prepare our students for them.

Today we toured a coal-burning power plant that supplies electricity to 225,000 households in Atlantic County, NJ.

The good news is that the pollution controls on these plants (at least here in the US of A) are pretty damned dependable.

The bad news is, we're still building and running these things, fueling them with ancient fire from the ground.

There's no shortage of coal in America. But getting to it has always been a problem, in lives lost and wages paid, in health ruined, and now -- traumatically -- in the mowing down of mountains.

The men (and trust me on this, it's 95 percent men) who run power plants are quick to point out that solar and wind are statistically insignificant in their support of our needy power grid. The guy today at the coal plant put it this way, "Oh sure, it's great to have wind turbines, but if you're getting prepped for surgery and the wind stops blowing, what then?"

On a related note, one can still get hired at coal-burning power plants without a high school diploma.

As an environmentalist, I have concerns about wind-generated power. I think the turbines can be dangerous for migratory birds. Migration patterns should be studied carefully for a number of years before wind turbines are placed off the Eastern Seaboard.

But once those bird paths are mapped, gosh. Correct me if I'm wrong, but does the wind ever stop blowing out over the ocean? Please tell me! This seems ludicrous to me. Not that I'm any experienced sea-goer, but the shoreline has never, ever been wind-free when I've been there. In fact there's a breeze at the seaside even when not a blade of grass is stirring on the mainland.

Coal-fired power plants are efficient and running because people make a profit from the digging of the coal, the shipping of the coal, and the burning of the coal. And yes, that means jobs (rare ones that do not require a high school diploma). But once a windmill is up and running, it may not need as many humans to feed its maw, but I don't think it will lack the breeze to push it around. It just won't be as profitable as the fossil fuels we use now.

Anyway, I got to look into the furnace at the plant and see the amazing jets of fire that create the steam that run the turbine. It was a fascinating sight (needed a face shield and protective clothing). What I really hope I was looking at was a fossil. Not the coal, but the generator. We can do better.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What Druids Think About #2: Hypocrisy

I'm typing this blog post on a netbook. When the netbook runs low on batteries, I plug it into the wall to juice it up again.

Outside the temperature is flirting with 100. I have central air conditioning. It's running. There's a refrigerator keeping my food cool and fresh, and a heater in the basement that warms water for my showers.

The electricity that makes all of this possible for me is generated at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant. It is the second largest nuclear power plant in the USA.

Nuclear power plants generate energy through the fission of radioactive uranium. As the fission process occurs, high heat is produced. This heat turns water to steam, and the steam drives turbines that create electricity. The Salem Nuclear Power Plant provides electricity to 3 million households in New Jersey. My house is one of them.

I have always looked upon nuclear power as a really, really bad accident waiting to happen. But this week I got to tour the Salem power plant, which is not surprisingly staffed by people who think nuclear energy is fabulous. Did their unbridled optimism cure me of my anxiety over nuclear power? Not really. Do I have any right to criticize this form of energy generation? Not really. Not unless I take my little pink hairless behind off the grid.

There are silos of dangerous spent fuel on the power plant site, because no place in the nation is willing to accept nuclear waste. So I, Anne Johnson, am responsible for the existence of endlessly toxic chemicals, sitting around in a reinforced bin.

Although there are actually a few nuclear power plants being built right now here in America, the highest hopes for unlimited domestic energy come from the collection of natural gas from deep shale drilling (also known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking.") A great many people oppose fracking because of its environmental dangers. As for me, I'm beginning to see all of these protests as a kind of hypocrisy.

We Americans could severely curtail the nuclear power industry, fracking, and our need for Saudi oil, if we just started living like pioneers again. Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary didn't have electricity in the little house in the big woods. It seemed like a lot of fun for them until Mary went blind from a fever and Pa couldn't get his crops to grow.

The truth is, our entire society, including our levels of health and our technological innovations, depend upon electricity. Once again we find ourselves in the Body of Humanity. We can ease off our usage of electricity, but we can't live without it. Not life as we know it. That's why the power industry scoffs at the protests against fracking. If it's something that turns turbines, we Americans need it. Doesn't matter how dangerous or toxic it is to produce. Heck, it's no more toxic than food poisoning, after all.

Yes, yes, we have wind and solar. Both hold the possibility of greener energy production. But both are in very formative stages, and until someone figures out how to make tons of money off them, the fossil and chemical fuels will prevail.

I don't much like the fact that my power comes from a nuclear plant (although, damn ... up close those things are sure a monument to human ingenuity). But I'd be a hypocrite to protest the building of nuclear power plants. I like my safe food and my pure water. If someday everything just glows and blows, well ... it's the chance I took to live this long. There's nothing in this world that is given to us without a catch. Just ask the seagulls that flew into the wind turbines at Atlantic City.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Druids Think About #1: Stem Cell Research

Hello and all hail! How is your summer going? It's hot as all get out here in the Smokestack State.

For those of you just joining us, my name is really Anne Johnson, and I am a Druid.

If you read up on Druids, you'll find that there's not a whole lot of solid source material. Even the name comes from the Greeks and/or Romans. But I have always thought of the Druids as a social caste. They were not rulers or warriors, nor were they growers and hunters. They were the educated people who gave advice, sang songs, performed religious rites, conducted legal business, and taught the next generations. Mind you, no one Druid did all of these things! They were just the educated caste.

I'm pretty educated myself, which is why I accept the mantle of Druid without completing a great deal of religious study.

This week I have been touring all sorts of large businesses here where I live in Southern New Jersey. I'm doing this as part of a teacher group. It was an honor to be chosen for this three-week workshop, and I'm learning a lot.

On Monday, our group went to the Coriell Institute, a research lab that collects and stores genetic material for use in curing diseases.

The good news is that stem cell biology has reached a phase in which they need not use human embryos for stem cells. They can take a cell from your skin, reader, and re-program it back to stem. Then they can tell it what kind of cell to turn into. Then it turns into that kind of cell.

Coriell also collects genetic material that scientists use to pinpoint the less than one percent of DNA that varies from person to person. These are the markers that predispose you to certain syndromes, or certain adverse reactions to medication, or mental illness ... the entire spectrum of hereditary diseases. It is already possible to get a scientist to analyze your personal DNA to find all the predispositions you have in your genetic code. (Coriell collects DNA and analyzes it, but they're not doing any further collecting from the likes of you and me, ever since they got permission from the Air Force to use its personnel and no one else. We'll call this Ethical Conundrum A.)

 All over the country, researchers are using stem cell research to try to find cures for cancer, Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, and a laundry list of rare genetic disorders that cause suffering and early death. Some day in the future, when you and I get sick, doctors will be able to make stem cells from our skins that will be re-programmed to get in there and fix what ails us. Heartbreaking diseases like Alzheimer's will be as gone as polio.

As we were leaving the Coriell lab (where we all got to see specimens stored in liquid nitrogen, like something out of science fiction), some of the other teachers were joking about how great it would be to get those stem cells cranked up until we could all be 13-year-olds again.

I was thinking the opposite. I was thinking, where's the end game? Let's call it Ethical Conundrum B. Are we going to have Americans who live to be 150, 200, or longer, while the rest of the world starves to death? And what if the rest of the world doesn't starve to death? What if new methods of water purification are found? What if GMO plants make deserts tillable?  Will we stop having babies, because everyone is living forever?

Does this stuff ever bother you?

This is what Druids should think about. We should think of ourselves not as individuals, but as members of the Body of Humanity. It is imperative that we die. Don't think for a minute that I'm one of these cocksure religious people who fully expects eternal life/reincarnation/alternate reality. I dread death. It very well may be the end. But we need to do it.

Can we afford to upset the balance of life on this planet more than we've already done? Can we even keep going at our current pace? When does curing a disease become worse than the disease itself?

A character in Romeo and Juliet observes, "We were born to die." It has been that way so far. Think about a world where death is optional, or prolonged indefinitely. What's a Druid to do?

Friday, July 12, 2013

If It Breaks, You Gotta Know How To Fix It

Hello out there! I hope you've had a good week. Here at "The Gods Are Bored," it has been busy indeed!

First and best, Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion, by Mark Kram, Jr., has been short-listed for the PEN/ESPN sports book award for 2012. If you're a book geek, you know that PEN is the highbrow lit entity (short for Poets, Essayists, Novelists). A PEN short-list indicates that a book is seen as art, not just as entertainment. So congratulations to Mark, and if you haven't read the book yet, you can go see him at

Second, wow! I have seen a lot of stuff this week.

I was chosen to attend a summer workshop for teachers that is run by the local Chamber of Commerce. The workshop lasts for three weeks, and there are only 16 teachers in it from the whole tri-county area. Basically the Chamber has put together a series of very busy days in which we teachers get business tips to share with our students and tours of the local industries. Considering that the state of New Jersey has the sixth highest unemployment rate in the nation (not kidding), I thought this would be of help to my students.

But it's a lot of fun as well.

Earlier in the week, we got to tour the Tasty Baking Company in Philadelphia. For those of you reading this from outside the Philly region, Tastykakes are the go-to snack around here. Hostess went bust and Twinkies disappeared? Tough luck for the rest of you, but here in my neck of the woods, we just went right on scarfing down Tastykakes.

If you have a favorite packaged pastry, imagine seeing the item rolling off an assembly line by the thousands, from the sifting of the flour and sugar to the squirting into the lightly-oiled pans, to the baking, the icing, and the packaging. If there is such a thing as hog heaven, this is it, right?

One downside: There were fewer than 50 people at work in the giant factory, cranking out 800,000 Tastykakes in one day.

Which brings me to another fascinating tour: an oil refinery.

Some of us have driven past oil refineries and stared at them and wondered how the heck they work. That is one complicated landscape. What baffles me about the miles and miles of piping, and the tall towers, and the giant holding tanks, and everything going this way and that, is ... how the hell doesn't shit go wrong? Well, gotta tell ya, the moonscape that is an oil refinery doesn't get any less complicated when you get in amongst it. If anything, it looks even more baffling. And with today's strict environmental regulations, there were a few places where some pipes were letting off steam ... but no fire, no movement of any kind otherwise. Crude oil to high-octane gasoline, and it was even quiet.

And again, in this giant moonscape, I saw maybe 30 people working outside. That includes the fireman that was on duty, who said his expertise had never been needed. (And I hope he stays idle, because this joint is right on the Delaware River.)

The moral of this sermon is that both of these industries, baking and oil refining, used to employ massive numbers of people. Now computers and machines do almost all the work. This is sad, in a way, because there are lots and lots of people who are looking for work.

So of course we teachers asked everyone we met this week (speakers and tour guides aplenty) what skills would be best for the coming century. The answer: keep learning all the time. There's going to be a premium on people who are great with computers and a premium on people who know how shit works and how to fix it when it breaks. The guy at Tastykake said it, and the guy at the refinery said it. They are only hiring people who know how machines work, and how computers work ... and how to troubleshoot when something breaks.

Next week our teacher sojourn through South Jersey's working world continues. I must say, I could be lying on the beach with a book, but I'm glad I'm doing this instead. Never thought I would get an eyeball full of an oil refinery. Or a stomach full of free Tastykake.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Frank Talk on Effective Parenting

Wow, what a boring title! Who would want to read on? Well, reader, give me three more lines and trust that I am telling the unvarnished truth.

The other day I was talking to a woman, a bit younger than myself, who has a 19-year-old daughter, same age as The Spare.

This woman was mad at her daughter. It seems the daughter dropped some Molly. The mother said, "I'm okay with pot and alcohol and mushrooms, you know, natural stuff. But I draw the line at synthetics. I told her if she took Molly again I would take her car away."

It's hard raising children, isn't it? Doesn't get any easier when they hit the late teens.

I wasn't sure how to respond to this woman's parenting struggles, especially after she described a trip she and her daughter took to Peru in which they drank hallucinogenic cactus juice and hiked in the Andes. But I admit that this did sound like the kind of mother-daughter bonding that can lead straight to club drugs.

As it happens, I'm mad at The Spare just now myself. It seems she has bought yet another dress from the thrift store. I said, "I'm okay with last week's shorts and the earrings and the beach bag, you know, the bargain stuff. But I draw the line at dresses. Spare, if you buy another dress, I'm going to take your makeup away."

You see? I'm just as bad a parent as the next gal. I can be angry at crossed lines. I can issue dire threats. And you know what? Spare's issues are my fault, because she and I often go to the thrift store together. This is just the kind of mother-daughter bonding that can lead to bargain-hunting at the mall.

When it comes to raising children, there's no easy answer. Where do you draw the line? Well, as for me, I let society draw the line for me. I know it's a cop-out, but telling my daughter not to smoke pot because it's illegal just makes things so much easier. Ditto for the booze, but in that case Spare has had ample opportunity to watch me partake ... and I made a botch of that often enough that she'll opt for Pepsi.

There's not much margin for error these days when it comes to growing into productive adulthood. Life is a minefield where even the best and brightest sometime get blown up. Sometimes, no matter what you do, your beloved child becomes alcoholic, drug dependent, or dangerously experimental. Why make it easier by showing her how to do it?

As for me and my house, we will follow the Goodwill.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Not Your Typical Vacation Blog

I'm just back from vacation. I went to Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, PA. It was very fun.

Is there anything either more boring or more frustrating than hearing all about someone else's terrific vacation, while you were stuck in your dreary suburb mowing the grass and painting the porch? Yeah, I hear you. That's not why you come here to TGAB. You already know what a drum circle is, and you also know about Nature Spirits. What can I add?

It's therefore time for a little free advice. Remember, I have to pay you to take it, because that's the way our economy works these days. Send me an invoice.


Use maps wisely.

I got on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Breezewood and drove to Philadelphia. I had $14.00 in my wallet. Surely that would be enough to travel 200 miles?

Imagine my dismay when I rolled into the tollbooth and saw $15.55 come up on the little monitor.

The toll taker, by his very expression, indicated he was unlikely to be swayed by any sort of abject plea.

I had to get out of my car, open the trunk, open my duffel bag, and root through it. Thankfully, there were three whole dollars more in the midst of all the damp clothing, flashlights, bug spray, and underwear. (The latter is really not needed at Four Quarters Farm, so long as every little thing is covered by something.)

A long line of Philadelphia drivers, getting longer by the minute, began regaling me with their car horns. A real Philly homecoming, I must say.

I paid the toll in full and was admitted onto the Sure Kill Expressway, portal to the City of Buzzardly Love.

These highway tolls are getting out of hand! So here's my free advice:

Take the scenic route.

If I had come back to Philadelphia on Route 30, at least as far as York, PA (admittedly through dozens of stoplights and little towns), I could have saved at least half of that robber baron toll.

Next year I will need to expand my already bountiful vacation budget to include more toll money. In the meantime, you can best believe I'll be scouting alternate routes to Four Quarters Farm.

I really hope this post satisfies the person who left the comment that I should travel more. Voila! I traveled. I was gone four days, a whole 250 miles (give or take).

Thank you for reading about my vacation.


Monday, July 01, 2013

Chac Amok

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Oh, my, for the love of fruit flies! Mr. J went out for a walk, and the sky has just opened up and it's pouring ... again!

We are in a stationary pattern here in the East. Every day, at any time, we could have a cloudburst. It's so humid that, when it isn't raining, it's like walking through Elmer's glue.

For those of you who don't believe that God is the only deity responsible for flooding and drought, you might attribute extraordinary rainy weather to Chac the Rain God, sacred to the Mayan peoples. Chac is a bored god who can be petulant. And let me tell you from experience: If you ask for him to go away, he rewards you with raining-cats-and-dogs deluges.

It is best to make peace with Chac and tell Him what a great job He's doing. I learned this the hard way, so I'm passing a little free advice along to you. (And remember, in this economy, free advice from me means I have to pay you to take it, so send me an invoice.)

It appears that Chac will be accompanying me on my annual binge pilgrimage to Four Quarters Farm Interfaith Sanctuary this week. Yes, Chac and I will be spending four soggy days camping. There are several excellent swimming holes in this sacred space, but the threat of flash flooding, and the reality of high water, might keep me out of them altogether.

All through Four Quarters Farm there are shrines to various bored deities and to the faeries. I think I will erect a shrine to Chac, making sure to place it near the optimum water line at creek-side. Perhaps this will pacify Him to some extent. He certainly will have the company of many and varied bored gods.

All of this is my way of saying that we of The Gods Are Bored will be on retreat this week, so enjoy the Fourth of July! Columbia bless America!