the Ulster County legislature bows to madness
Monday, January 10 2005
I was at the house of one of my more troublesome clients today, performing what amounted to a very basic tutorial on the subjects of Microsoft Word and the hierarchical file system. For some reason this woman has a serious mental block when it comes to the concept of folders and files and what they represent. She'd look at the little icon of a folder, which for all the world looked exactly like the manilla envelopes she uses every day, and when I'd say they can contain files, she'd go to her little notepad to jot my wisdom down. In frustration I'd shout, "No, don't write anything down. Just look at the icons! What do they look like?" Then I'd grab one of her real world manilla envelopes and wave it at her. "See, it's just like one of these!" What made this so depressing was that I'd had an identical conversation with her some months ago and still she didn't understand, even though the damn icons look exactly like the real world things they're supposed to emulate. I'm beginning to suspect she has some sort of memory problem, perhaps brought on by age. But if she can remember anything (such as where she put my phone number), why can't she remember the association I'd explained between icons and real world objects? Perhaps the problem isn't her memory at all; maybe it's a generational thing. People of her generation may never be able to grasp the metaphors that make a graphical user interface so easy to learn. Graphical metaphors don't seem to serve any intuitive purpose for my mother either.
Then when I was helping my client understand some basic Microsoft Word concepts, I kept finding myself thwarted by those idiotic auto-hiding menus that make Word so difficult for novices trying to track down a function they've never used before. In my experience, the majority of computer users just assume that if something can't be found in a auto-hidden menu, it can't be done at all. For them, then, Microsoft Word comes across as severely starved of features. But even for someone who knows better, the auto-hidden menus are a major roadblock to thinking and doing. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the Edit menu and saw that it lacked both Undo and Copy! I must have looked at it five times before it dawned on me that those functions had been hidden away away from disuse! Meanwhile my client was taking note of everything I said. I knew the notes would be useless five minutes from now, but she insisted on taking them no matter how much I protested. The notes said things like "Click at the beginning of the text. Shift click at the end. Go to the Edit Menu. Go to the bottom-pointing arrows if Copy isn't shown. Select Copy. Go to the file named Blingfunker.doc. Paste." I could tell from her note taking that she had no capacity to generalize instructions so that things she learned in dealing with one set of documents could be applied in another set. It was depressing and exhausting. At one point she heard my voice becoming gravely from despair and she asked if maybe I was coming down with something. I wasn't.
The absolute highlight of certain days is the drive home from some especially exhausting client. I tell you, the drive past the Ashokan Reservoir on Dike Road was never as beautiful as it was today. Interestingly, the reservoir has yet to freeze, and we've entered the 20 statistically coldest days of the year.
This evening there was a scheduled session of the Ulster County legislature, which is sort of like a farm-league version of the United States Congress. They would be hearing citizen comments and then voting on the funding package they supply to a group of local hunters called The Ulster County Sportsmen's Federation. These hunters use the money for such things as gun safety programs (which they like to talk about) and canned pheasant shoots (which they don't). In the canned pheasant shoots, hand-raised birds are blown out of the sky by "hunters" too impatient to track down a wild animal.
The hunter's federation had done a good job of turning out their members, which was evident even in the parking lot outside the Ulster County office building in Uptown Kingston. It was a scary throng that we waded through in the first floor hallway. There were a lot of flannel shirts in various shades of plaid, as well as a not insignificant amount of camoflage, particularly on baseball caps. Among the lumberjacks and muleskinners were a number of women, all of them
blissfully unaware of the latest advances in lady's fashion. I'd normally be reluctant to term changes in fashion "advances," though in the cases to which I refer, I do so without hesitation.
The legislature meets on the sixth floor of the office building, so there we were in the elevator with a few of our friends as well as some of those plaid-wearing hillfolk (a suitably condescending term I learned from Janine Garofalo in her show on Air America). Among those of us who had come to argue our side there was a growing sense of nausea.
There were so many people crowded into the legislative chamber that the only remaining place to sit was the floor. Those of us who had come in opposition to canned pheasant hunts were reluctant at first to sit on the floor, since it made us look more like the Prius-driving hippies we were trying not to resemble. But that was where we ended up anyway. At least it kept us from being relocated to the hallway after the room's firecode capacity had been exceeded.
Since so many people had turned out with intentions of speaking, some sort of backend deal happened whereby both sides would be allowed to talk for ten minutes each about hunting federation funding. This all seemed unhelpfully polarized to me, since I never think of issues as having only two sides. And for me personally, I never want to identify with any particular side of an argument. I always think of my opinion as being something of the square root of negative one in an argument between two and negative three. But after this had been agreed to, I agreed to be one of our side's five speakers. Then Merl, the flamboyant proprietress of the Armadillo Grill, wanted to speak against the funding of canned pheasant hunts, so I agreed to split my time with her.
The thirty-some-seat Ulster County legislature has a one-seat Republican majority, and this was reflected tonight in the several housekeeping votes that preceded the vote on funding for the hunting federation. The first order of business was who would be the chairman of the legislature for this session, and the first speaker spoke in favor of the Republican candidate, Richard Gerentine. The things said in favor of Mr. Gerentine were all of the most superficial, tiresome nature. It sounded like a sequence of filler phrases used to pad a freshman's term paper that must be ten pages long. This is the nature of Republican speech. I've heard this quality in it often enough to recognize it even when I don't initially know that a Republican is talking. Next the Democrats nominated their doomed candidate for chairman, and sudden it was as if I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I'm telling you, there's no comparing the intellectual capacity of the candidates coming out of the parties these days, at least not in Upstate New York. The Democrats are intelligent and say things that have real meaning while the Republicans speak in maddeningly meaningless platitudes, at least when they're not angry.
As an indication of the bias of the legislature itself, those of us who didn't support continued funding for canned pheasant hunting were asked to present our case first. Having looked around the room and seen the hillfolk, I'd made some edits to my prepared statement. I was the second to speak, directly after Ulster County's most photogenic forty year old Buddhist vegan. Here's what I said:
When it was learned that on a hunting trip President Dick Cheney gunned down 70 hand-reared pheasants from the comfort of a climate-controlled cable-equipped hunting blind, it confirmed a lot of people's suspicions about his long career of enabled incompetence. This story wasn't just an embarrassment for the Vice President or the administration to which he belonged. It was an embarrassment for our entire nation. I'm not happy when the world gets its amusement at our nation's expense, but at least I could take heart that I lived in a respectable county in a respectable state, or so I'd thought. But now I learn that our county has been secretly funding a program whereby pheasants are hand reared to serve as living breathing skeet pots for QUOTE hunters UNQUOTE who aren't men enough to go up against a truly wild bird. When I was a kid, my Dad taught me what it means to be a hunter, that a man with a gun always has an advantage and must play the game of life and death by certain time-honored rules. Real hunters don't get any joy from shooting captive animals. The county-funded captive target breeding program is an appalling disgrace and I'm deeply embarrassed on behalf of my beloved county. Now that this dubious expenditure of tax dollars has come to light, my sincere hope is that this damage to our reputation can be corrected before it becomes more widely known.
As I read I felt the tension in the room as a nervousness in my body. This made me angry; why should we even have to come and make a case against the government funding of unsportmanslike entertainment? So as I read "who aren't men enough to go up against a truly wild bird" I did what I could to make this anger show in my voice.
Our speakers gave our collective opinion, all of it reasonable, rational, and articulate. We weren't asking for much, just that any funding earmarked for the federation of hillfolk gun nuts come with a stipulation that it not be used for canned pheasant hunts.
Then their side gave their opinion. They started out with their most articulate speaker, a supposed librarian from the housewifey mold of Laura Bush. She stressed how much good the hunting federation does for the community with their gun safety programs. I couldn't help myself when she spoke about one of the lessons taught in these programs, that if a child sees a gun they should "Just don't touch it!" I began chuckling audibly and Gretchen turned to me with a scowl and said "that's not cool!" I had to wonder if such a message would ever be effective in the context of all the other equally-strident messages that hillfolk children get about not touching things, including their own genitals.
From there, the testimony in support of continued stipulation-free funding of the hunter's federation quickly devolved into the usual things one hears from a rightwing nutjob whenever they are asked to talk about politics. One particularly grim speaker warned the crowd that the proposed stipulations were just the first step in the establishment of a "Vegetarian State" policed "by the UN." Then, of course, he had to add this, "It's just another way to impose Communism." The isolation and inbreeding from generations in the Catskills had rendered him a madman, but the crowd lavished him with applause.
More appalling than the crowd, though, was the legislature itself, which seemed to be operating under the reactionary momentum of earlier, less enlightened days. As previously mentioned, the Republicans hold a single seat majority, and with the demographic tide of liberals coming up the Hudson from New York City, the Republicans grip on power seems unlikely to last. But for tonight at least, they seemed to care only about the demographics of the room, which a highly-organized hunting federation has packed with hillfolk. Another factor playing a role was the fact that a good fraction of the legislature itself belonged to the hunting federation.
One of the Republican legislators, Brian Hathaway, did his best to serve as the archspokesman for the hillfolk. Without supporting evidence, he characterized the testimony given by anti-federation speakers as "wacko" and he accused our side of being "over-educated and underemployed." He was actually correct there, at least in terms of my household, but one has to wonder about the mental facilities of a person who would ever throw around "over-educated" as an insult. What sort of school policy grows out of such a mentality? That sort of talk taps directly into the soul of what's wrong with the American experiment: we love the societal gifts of intelligent people while creating an environment in which those people are beaten up on playgrounds. [I later learned a funny thing about Brian Hathaway. He represents the Township of Rosendale, whose most significant village refers to itself in bumperstickers as a "People's Republic." The only reason Hathaway won his election a year ago was that his opponent was such a wild-eyed lefty that she signed up to be one of the "human shields" in Iraq before the American invasion. But then, and this was the nail in her political coffin, she chickened out.]
Inevitably the vote happened and the compromise bill, the reasonable language adding stipulations to the federation funding measure, garnered only a third of the legislator's votes. Like Democrats everywhere, they proved almost as useless as the Republicans. It was a terribly demoralizing, at least for Gretchen, and we had to split before the actual vote on the funding measure itself (there wasn't any uncertainty how that would go). As we were going out the door, some of the hillfolk nearby were heard to say, "Get on back to Woodstock."
We waited down on the first floor for awhile until the rest of our commie pinko friends, who had been giving interviews to the press, came down and join us. A subset of us subsequently went to Kyoto Sushi, the Japanese restaurant on the corner of Lucas and Washington, and unwound with beer, sake, and vegan noodle dishes. I also had some sushi whose core consisted of avocado and peanuts and it was delicious, though I was weary of it half way into my second order of it.
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