Monday, November 28, 2011

Children's Hand's-On Museum of Tuscasoosa: Recycling for Maximum Fun

We went to the Children's Hands-On Museum of Tuscaloosa over the break. It's a former early 20th Century downtown department store, with all the lovely spaces that go along with that type, that's been turned into an interactive children's museum. Most of the exhibits take old fixtures from various sources that were due to be thrown away, and recycles them into children's make-believe settings. Early 20th-Century house, bank, pharmacy, barber-shop, one-room schoolhouse, post office, and general-store fixtures let you play your way through a make-believe town. The former pilot's house of an old tugboat lets you navigate the river. A Japanese house that once graced an exhibit who-knows-where (The Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens used to have one; IDK if they still do.) now gives children a glimpse into another culture. Bits and pieces from an old Ford pickup now have a cheerful plywood body that lets children "drive" plastic fruit in old peach baskets to market. There's also a puppet theater, some simple musical instruments and science exhibits, a nature section with aquariums and terrariums, a tiny mid-20th Century planetarium that looks like it was once the pride and joy of a small college, several rooms donated from the local hospital when they remodeled (including full-size reception, doctor's office, and patient's hospital rooms as well as all the outfits and equipment it was safe for children to handle), some spare NASA exhibits from the US Space & Rocket Center up in Huntsville, in addition to a farm, fishpond, gazebo, and Native American village sections.

The place was full of children having the time of their lives, but what impressed me powerfully was that all this fun was made possible by things that had been rescued on the way to the landfill. These beautiful things were all somebody else's idea of obsolete junk. My husband summed it up best. Looking around, he said, "This is the work of a very good artist."

As we left, the ladies at the front desk pointed out the work going on across the street. A building was losing it's plain, boring mid-20th Century Modern facade. As the workers peeled away the layers of bland mortar, a beautiful, intricate Victorian storefront was starting to emerge. It seemed the perfect metaphor for how the museum itself rescued the best of the past for future generations.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Signs of the Times

1998 -- We're living in Okolona, Mississippi, at the center of the US particle-board furniture industry, surrounded by furniture factories. Chickasaw County has the third-highest employment rate in the state. Work is booming. All the parents of the students at the public high school where my husband works who want jobs have them. The better students also all have jobs. The teens always have money in their pockets for snacks, and all wear designer clothing.

2008 -- The factories have almost all moved to China. Chickasaw County now has the third-highest unemployment rate in the state. The adults are now working the minimum-wage stocking and fast food jobs their teenage children used to work. None of the teenagers can find a job. None of them have money in their pockets. Most of them only eat during the week when they're at school. They wear shorts, windbreakers, and flip-flops in the dead of winter. The girls wear short skirts not as a fashion statement, but because they've outgrown their old ones and can't afford new ones.

My husband notices one girl frantically combing her pockets and purse for change. The Food Stamps and the food have all run out at her house. The rest of her family is staying with relatives who still have food, leaving her behind so she can eat at the school. She's looking for enough change to buy a bag of flour and a can of fish so she can go home and cook herself biscuits and fish for supper. She dreams of finding enough money to be able to afford a dozen eggs as well.

2011 -- The jobs are gone. The young people crowd into colleges and community colleges, hoping to get the certificates that will land them jobs elsewhere. My husband is teaching them. Last week a sophomore told him he would be gone over the weekend. The boy had to go home and kill some squirrels so his family would have something to eat through the week.

What do I think of Occupy Wall Street? I think it's about goddamn time people started getting angry and doing something.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

"Like a Business"

A well-dressed woman introduced herself the other day, gave me a card and a pen, asked me to vote for her in the upcoming county election, and immediately began backing away.

"Thank you! We can always use pens. But what will you do if elected?"

"Oh!" The woman stopped dead in her tracks. "Well -- I'm going to run government like a business. That's what we need! My husband and I run a business in the next town. We took over my parent's sales business when they retired. Do you know where so-and-so is? That's our business."

"Oh," I nodded. The place she mentioned appeared from the road to have been closed down for several years. "What would you say our biggest problem is?"

"It's that we don't run government like a business."

"What about unemployment in the county?" The county's unemployment rate is around 14%.

"That's because we don't run government like a business. But I will look into that if elected."

"Do you know about the weekly anti-poverty meetings? My husband has been going to them."

"You mean so-and-so's group? I've heard about them. If they come up with any good ideas I'll look into them." She leaned in closer to me. "But you're new to the area. I've been in people's houses around here. You can tell some of them aren't really poor, they've just made bad choices."

I refrained from commenting on relative values (would my books count as 'bad choices'?) or asking her what she would do to educate people on how to make better choices. Or if she would do something useful and bring in more jobs.

I realize the term "running government like a business" became a meaningless catch-phrase almost 30 years ago but let's look at one of the more annoying false assumptions behind it. Implicit in the conceit is the idea that every businessperson is in such a cut-throat competative environment that in order to survive they must be good at their job. Hah! Maybe in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, but not around here. In the sluggish economy of small-town America, many businesses survive based on good fortune, a combination of luck, inherited capital, and the occassional act of collusion. Let's look at some real-life examples of businesses whose business experience makes their owners supposedly the best qualified to run our governement.

The Only Game in Town This business survives because it's the only one selling item X in over 50 miles. Their prices may be horrible, sometimes the sales crew is horrible, often the item you want is not in stock. But in an emergency you either do business with them or you have to spend an hour driving somewhere else and an hour driving back. So much for cut-throat competition preparing this person to run a government.

The Only Game is a Crooked Game
The Only Game in Town is often an honest broker, but sometimes the Only Game in Town is openly a crook. Examples include the car dealership which tries to rewrite the deal you negotiated with them and never honors their warranties. In one local case a single mother negotiated an even swap on a smaller car with less mileage for a larger car with more mileage. When she came to pick up her new car they wanted $6000 extra. She demanded her old car back.

"We can't give it back to you. We already sold it."

"Then give me this car like we agreed to."

"No, and if you take it we're going to call the police and tell them you stole it."

"How can I be the thief when you're the one who doesn't have my car anymore?"

This business person is so obviously a more moral and virtuous person than the crooks who run the government now -- not.

The Owner of the Street
The reason no one opens a business to compete with the Only Game in Town is often because of this person. They own every closed and falling-down business on Main Street, having aquired them through fire sales when the previous owner pulled out. (No, seriously, I can name three towns where this is the case.) They'll rent you a slot and charge a higher rent per month than the Main Street of the Big Town down the road, as is, you have to fix it up yourself. (More on that later.) Sometimes they're gettng tax writeoffs to keep them closed. In one case this summer the Owner of the Street, who had promised faithfully to keep all the stores open when she bought them, closed every one of them and had the Fire Department burn down two of the stores for the bricks, leaving nothing but a charred and gaping holes behind. We expect her to finish burning down Main Street next summer. This is an example of the kind of thinking we need in government to revitalize our communities -- not.

In another town the mayor asked the Owner of the Street bluntly why he didn't rent out more slots to open more businesses, bring in more money, and help out the town. The Owner of the Street bristled up and accused the mayor of not doing his job to make the town enough of a tourist attraction to justify the high rental prices the Owner of the Street wanted. He wanted the town to (no joke) dig up the downtown streets and install canals so people would come to see "the Venice of the South" (apparently unaware that New Orleans already owns that slogan). "But what about the mosquitoes?" the mayor asked. "It gets over 90 degrees every summer. We'll be overrun." "That's not my problem," the Owner of the Street insisted. "If you can't keep the the canals clean, obviously you're the one not doing your job." This is the kind of clear-headed thinking that such businesspeople can bring to government -- not.

The Landlord Du Jour This landlord accepts a deal from a person wanting to start a new business. The new business gets to rent a broken-down shop and gets a discount on their rent in return for fixing it up. The new business spends most of their time and capital fixing up the business over the next year, as well as promoting their own business. At the end of the lease agreement term, the business is starting to take off. The landlord admires all the work the business owner put into their shop, then turns around and doubles to quadruples the rent.

"But why?"

"I can get more for it now that it's fixed up."

"I thought we had a working relationship." You did. You had a classic landlord-sucker relationship.

The business goes under because the business-person no longer has the capital to invest in starting again at a new location. The newly renovated shop usually stays empty because no one can afford the landlord's higher prices.

This scam, which I've seen run in many different towns by many different people, is the single biggest cause of business failure among the startup businesses I've known.

And this is why this "successful" landlord would do a good job of running the government -- not.

The Censor I wanted to support local businesses, so I stopped in the locally-owned music shop. After purchasing the one interesting album in the whole shop, I asked if they would order a cd for me.

"Sure! Which one?"

"Libana's Fire Within."


"It's a women's choir. It's in print and available through mainstream distributors. I checked."

The man stared at me for a long time. Finally he asked, "Which church do you go to?"

I didn't get my Libana album there. Nor did I get any other album there again.

And this is the kind of businessperson who would encourage new ways to solve problems in our community -- not.

Real Men Don't Wear Sky Blue My husband doesn't understand masculinity problems. He is male, therefore, anything he chooses to do is by default "masculine". End of. He's also a Summer who looks best in jewel tones, pastels, and just about any blue except navy. It offends him that he can only find pants (not jeans, pants) in black, grey, tan, or navy. One day he's at the shop where he buys work clothes from overrun sellers, and he finds a some pretty sky blue work pants. Wow!

"How much for these pants?"

The owner stares at the garments as if they were covered in dung. "I hate those pants! I don't know why they made them in the first place. Everyone hates those pants!"

"I would like to buy them. How much?"

"Nobody wants to buy them! I hate them! I wish I'd never seen them!"

"I want to buy them. How much?"

"Everyone hates them! I -- what did you say?"

"I want to buy all these pants."

"Oh, they're $3 each. But that's because everyone hates them!"

Those were my husband's favorite pants. Many men commented on how good they looked and wanted to know where they could buy some, but he looked up the manufacturer and they had been discontinued.

And this storeowner is a prime example of the kind of businessperson who can seize any opportunity that comes their way that we need running our government -- not.

Daddy's Little Girls This is the storeowner whose capital and operating expenses are all being paid by another member of the family so they'll have something to do and won't have to go out and find a job. Usually it's a woman. Usually it's a gift shop. Usually the angel is their father or husband. Quite often they don't want anyone who isn't a member of their social circle coming through the door. Almost always they refuse to do business with local artisans and only order from the same two wholesalers as every other gift shop being run by every other Daddy's Little Girl in town, so they all have the exact same stock. But hey, they're a "successful" business owner so they must be magically able to run a government -- not.

The Busybody The mayor of one small town had invited the owner of a successful catfish restaurant in another town to open a branch is his town. As they're chatting in the mayor's office, the look out the window and see the Owner of the Street stepping up to the restaurant owner's car and photographing it from all angles, including the tag. The restaurant owner is so offended he leaves and never returns. The mayor confronted the Owner of the Street and asked him what the #$%& he thought he was doing.

"I've never seen that car before. It's not from around here. Maybe the owner is a criminal out to steal from us!"

This is the kind of outreach to new people and new business that this "successful" businessperson would bring to government.

The Cowards
Shortly after Books-a-Million opened it's Tupelo store they received a visit from a couple of people who began clearing the shelves in a central aisle of books. The manager came over to greet them and see what was going on.

"Hello. We're with the American Family Foundation that's headquartered here. We visit all the new stores and check them out. We don't want items sold in our town. Take them down and don't put any more out." The books they had taken off the shelves included every Pagan, feminist, and LGBT-friendly book in the store.

The manager had the books boxed up and taken to the back, then called the corporate office. To their credit the corporate office ordered him to stop being an ass, put those books back on the shelves where they belonged, and don't do anything like that again. I'm not calling Books-a-Million cowards. But the same people had visited every other story in town and every other store had caved in to them, including the town's proud "independent" bookseller. And all those business owners would be automatically assumed to have the fortitude to be a "better" government leader than the people in office now.

I'm not anti-business. I'm just annoyed when people make the statement that business leaders would automatically be better government leaders than the people in office now without taking the time to look around and see who is actually running their local businesses.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Initiate Defensive Education Manuvers

Baby Owl is 3 years 2 months old. Yesterday he pressure fit a board across his sisters' bedroom doorway and stacked wood blocks atop it. This afternoon he took down the screwdriver and unscrewed their window latch.

Reading lessons began tonight. That brain needs something to do.

Halloween 2011

After living in a place where we had two trick-or-treaters total in 13 years, we finally live someplace where kids show up on Halloween expecting candy. And it was good. Real good.

Last year where we live now Halloween fell on a Sunday, and the weekly newspaper arbitrarily moved it to Saturday at the last minute, causing outrage and tears from those who love Halloween. So this year the people who celebrate it (only about 1 out of 10 but still better than before) went all out with the decorations, role-play and loot to make up for it. The children pronounced it way cooler than getting candy at the mall.

My husband took a handful of chocolate eyeballs to class with him for his students. He asked the Human A&P teacher, "What's that stuff inside the human eye?"

"Um, duh, uh, aqueous vitae?"

"Really?" He tossed her a candy. "Says caramel on the label."

The sewing machine is still packed up, but we made do. We found Brighteyes a classic trenchcoat for her winter coat at the thrift store this year, so she went as Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. Sunshine got some dragon fairy wings at the Ren Faire, and we cobbled together a dragon fairy costume for her. Owl picked out a monkey shirt and shorts to wear.

We only got two pumpkins out of the pumpkin patch this year, but that was enough for each girl to decorate her own. They looked spooky on either side of the door.

Next year we'll decorate a bit more. I'm thinking of hanging a ghost in the front yard. There's a perfect tree for it. And we should have more trick-or-treaters next year as well.