On Sartorial Accomplishments

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I haven’t been writing much on this blog for the past few months (and I admit it, a surprising number of my blog posts begin with that sentence or some variation of it) but at least this time I have a couple of reasonable excuses: the first being that I started another blog for my scouting interests and have made several posts over there; the second being that I’ve finally gotten a job.

The getting of the job, about eight weeks ago, was something of a surprise. I’d been working with a new job developer at a local employment agency, who had lined up several interview opportunities over the course of the late winter and early spring, but none of them had panned out. A couple had fallen through after multiple interviews, and I was frankly pretty crushed and fighting a serious bout of depression because of it. The developer lined up another interview which, if I may be blunt, I thought was pretty Mickey Mouse: based entirely on my resume I was to meet a potential employer at 10:00 on a Saturday morning at a Starbucks down the street from his house; the job, I was told, was to be this gentleman’s driver and general assistant following some recent health problems.

I used to be an office manager for a small IT consulting firm, so being a glorified limo driver was not something I was really excited about – especially in the state of mind that a winter of disappointment had placed me – but I figured anything was better than nothing (despite evidence to the contrary) and I’d throw on a clean set of khakis and go over and see what was what. I wasn’t taking it too seriously, so I might as well be comfortable. It was coffee at Starbucks, for pity’s sake.

The night before I went to the interview, however, I mentioned my planned attire to The Wife™ and she insisted that, no, I should wear a suit. This was a job interview, however unusual the venue, and one wears a suit to a job interview, period. I thought about it and agreed. I certainly wouldn’t hire someone for the lowest, most menial position in any organization if they showed up in anything less, because businesswear shows that you’re taking this seriously. It shows that you respect the potential employer enough to make an effort, and if I wasn’t going to make the simplest effort to try and get the job, why should they expect I’d make an effort to keep it?

So Saturday morning I got up, showered and shaved, dressed in my one and only suit, put on the more sober of my two ties, and drove into St. Catharines to the Starbucks. And that suit was a good idea: I was hired after ten minutes of what turned into a ninety minute conversation and I was hired at the salary I named (which was my salary at the old job, plus about ten percent) without a second’s hesitation; in fact I suspect I could have asked for more and gotten the same reaction.

The job, which does indeed involve driving this gentleman, is way, way more than being a driver. I am, technically, the executive assistant to the CEO of several companies, but it was made clear to me right from the interview that this is more of an apprenticeship. My new boss is looking for someone he can train up to be his assistant, his representative and eventually his proxy within the large structure of the financial, import and cosmetics companies he owns. He told me in the interview (and this is an exact quote): “I want to get you to the point that, if there’s a problem in Vancouver, you can fly out there and handle it so I don’t have to.”

This is the opportunity I’ve been looking for, and the potential is enormous: Salary, bonuses, travel, pay increases, responsibility, respect. It’s amazing… and at times I still can’t believe my good fortune. And one of the things my new boss told me, shortly after I started working for him, was that he was impressed by the breadth of the experience on my resume and that my work history got me the interview… but it was the fact that I was wearing a suit on a Saturday morning that got me the job. First impressions matter, he said, and nowhere do they matter more than in business; clearly I had the right attitude.

It was the only suit I owned, and I wore it, and I got the job. And then I bought two new suits in the week between the interview and my start date because yes, first impressions matter in business. And over the past couple of pay cheques, I’ve invested in more shirts and ties, because you can get away with a charcoal or a navy suit every day, as long as you mix it up with the shirts and ties. I now have three suits, ten ties, four tie bars, two pairs of suspenders, a business card holder and an understated-yet-elegant fountain pen, a pair of italian loafers and a whole bunch of pocket squares. I’ve learned how to tie a Double Windsor knot while half asleep, and the various ways one folds a pocket square, and what tie colours work for sending the appropriate message in whatever setting, and why you should care what colour and pattern your dress socks are, and the vital importance of carrying a Tide-To-Go pen in your briefcase.

This is an important job, an interesting job and a job with a real future. Frankly, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, in the way that one does when one is being challenged. I work very long days – part of my job is to meet the boss at his St. Catharines home at 07:30 in the morning, then we drive to the office in Richmond Hill, which ia about a hundred miles one-way on some very crowded highways. Most nights I’m home by 19:30 or 20:00, and I get up early to do it all again the next day. Some days I’m working for twelve hours, some for sixteen, but however tired I am at the end of the day, I don’t get that worn out and crushed feeling I used to get working in a call centre.

My boss could drive himself, of course, but he prefers to work during the four or five or even six hours we spend on the road between home and the office and various meetings, and he knows well enough that he can’t drive his car and be constructive at the same time… a lesson that various other commuters I’ve seen on the roads could learn. His time is way too valuable to waste aiming a luxury car through gridlock traffic on the QEW, so his assistant gets to do it. And as his assistant I get to hear him work, and I work with him, and I meet his various business contacts and partners and employees, and I’ve been introduced far and wide as his assistant and learned the value of business cards and the etiquette of presenting the same, and recently he’s has me taking the lead in some meetings, and sometimes he even sends me to the meetings on my own, and he always solicits my opinions after calls and meetings to make sure I’m learning things… and more and more often to find out if there’s something I caught that he might have missed, or an angle that he hadn’t thought of, or just to see if we’re drawing the same conclusions or how our conclusions differ.

Business, I’ve learned, is all about relationships and finding a way that everybody wins at least a little, because in business people who screw over other people might make a lot of money in the short term, but they sure as hell won’t be successful over the course of years.

I’m working hard but I’m learning a lot, and earning good money, and there’s a lot of potential for growth. And I have to say it: one thing I’ve never been, in these weeks I’ve been working, is bored. This is an important step in my career and our family’s future, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

And heck, I’m even learning to enjoy wearing a suit.

 

 

A New Blog

Just a quick update here — in an effort to keep my personal stuff personal, I’ve started a new blog for my Scouting stuff.  I’ll still be publishing stuff on this blog, of course, but this lets me keep my political rants and personal stuff separate from my Scouting stuff, which conceivably will be seen by my Scouts.  Not that I’m ashamed about what I write here, but I would prefer to avoid any controversy that might detract from the important and nonpolitical goal in Scouting of mentoring and encouraging youth.

Astute readers might notice that I have moved and backdated couple of posts from this blog to that one in the interest of keeping things separate.

 

Regarding Scouting

You may laugh when I tell you this, but I was a Boy Scout.

In fact, my entire family was involved in the Scouting movement in one way or another: my father was a Scouter, my mom and sisters were heavily involved with Guiding; my maternal grandfather was a Scoutmaster back in the 1960s, and so on. I was, quite literally, raised in Scouting. I started in Beavers and went all the way to Rovers. My last Rover camp was in the spring of 1997, and I moved away to college in September of that year. Much of my childhood and teen years — Cubs through Venturers — was spent as a member of the 1st Blenheim Township troop.   Shortly after I moved away I learned that Scouts Canada had “modernized” the curriculum for Scouting, followed closely by the news that 1st Blenheim Twp. had shut down for want of active membership and leadership.

Almost twenty years later, I’ve been considering getting involved with Scouting again. I’ve lately taken up hiking and general bushcraft as a hobby and a way to keep in shape and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering the skills I’d learned, as they bring back happy memories of my years in Scouts. You see, 1st Blenheim Twp was in many ways an extremely old-fashioned Scout troop — rather than being held in a church basement or community hall, all our weekly meetings were held at Peace Haven Scout Camp (which was closed and sold off by Scouts Canada in the early 2000s) and our program was based largely on old, 1940s, 50s and 60s-era Scouting manuals rather than on the less outdoors-oriented program that our contemporaries were using. Outdoorsmanship, orienteering, fire lighting, rope and axe and knife skills were all emphasized in a way that — in retrospect — I now understand was an extremely unusual throwback to the Scouting of previous generations.

I cannot emphasize enough the impact that Scouting has had on me throughout my life, often in ways that I only came to fully understand years later, and now that I’m at a stage in my life where I’ve settled down somewhat the notion of returning to Scouting and giving back to a new generation has a strong appeal. With my return to hiking and general outdoorsy-stuff, I started thinking about getting back to the Scouts and began researching what was going on with Scouts today.

As part of my research I looked at the current state of Scouts Canada, particularly as it exists after the “modernization” efforts of the late 1990s, which of course I missed during my almost-twenty-year hiatus from Scouting. While I strongly approve of Scouts Canada’s LGBTQ-positive stance and the adoption of a co-ed structure, frankly I wasn’t otherwise excited about the current state of their program. It just doesn’t seem to include any of the things I enjoyed as a boy, and it seems to wholly lack the formality, discipline and structure that I now understand was a formative part of my upbringing.

As for the current administrative culture of Scouts Canada… well… I don’t think I would be a good fit in the organization as it exists today. From the outside looking in, there seems to be an enormous emphasis placed on fundraising and comparatively little emphasis on teaching the youth skills and discipline.  Certainly I find the current cost structure of Scouts Canada to be extremely discouraging — $200 per child per year, plus uniform, plus camping costs, plus weekly dues, plus et cetera, which when totaled-up can mean a rather significant barrier to a low-income family wanting to enroll their child in Scouts… a problem which is only exacerbated if that family has more than one child. I was one of five kids that my family had in Scouting or Guiding, and if the annual cost had been that steep then we simply would not have been able to pay it… nor would several other families in our community.

Prohibitive costs, a money-oriented administration made of paid bureaucrats, steadily declining numbers, an organization that has repeatedly “reorganized” itself in the twenty years since I stopped being involved, steadily dropping membership numbers and a current program that, in my opinion, doesn’t reflect the Scouting that I knew growing up, much less what my grandfather would have recognized… much less what Sir Robert Baden-Powell would have recognized.

After a lot of reading and soul-searching, I was forced to come to the conclusion that Scouts Canada is just not Scouting anymore… which was was an unexpectedly strong disappointment for me.  To be clear: I know several people who are still involved with Scouts Canada, especially in local leadership positions, and I don’t include them in that assessment — I’m sure on a local level there are plenty of people who are doing the very best they can with what they’re provided, but generally speaking I feel like the organization as a whole has lost its way.

So, despairing of the current state of Scouts Canada I did a Google search of “old-fashioned Scouting”…. and thus did the BPSA come to my attention.

The Baden Powell Service Association was founded in Canada in 1998 as a response to the “modernization” effort and the increasing costs of maintaining the growing bureaucracy of Scouts Canada. Allied to BPSA organizations in the UK (which started in response to similar “modernization” efforts) and in the USA (which started as a backlash against the Boy Scouts of America’s notoriously homophobic policies), the BPSA member-organizations declare themselves adherents of “Traditional Scouting.”  They’ve adopted a program based on Scouting “as it would have been during the lifetime of Sir Robert Baden-Powell.” Actually it’s mostly based on Scouting as it was during the 1950s and -60s, which was something of a golden age in terms of membership and participation. Like Scouting during that era, the BPSA refuses to have paid staff, relying entirely on volunteerism in order to keep organization local and cost to youth and their families at the bare minimum.  Unlike Scouting during that era, they welcome LGBTQ people, atheists and agnostics, and are co-educational.

Rather than being affiliated with the World Organization of Scouting Associations (WOSA) as Scouts Canada is, the BPSA is affiliated with the World Federation of Independent Scouts (WFIS) and maintains an official policy of “goodwill and co-operation with any other Scouting organization of like minded intent” in accordance with the original Fourth Scout Law: A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout.

In response to the creation of the BPSA in Canada, Scouts Canada has sued them repeatedly, first to prevent them from using the name “Scout”, which the court allowed on brand-protection grounds — they aren’t allowed to call themselves the Baden-Powell Scouts‘ Association, which is the name the organization uses in the UK — and then to prevent them from referencing Sir Robert Baden-Powell, which the court quite rightly threw out. Repeated lawsuits and threats of legal action seem to have occurred since, frequently over online domain names. From what I’ve been able to glean from the internet and various archived forums, the current Scouts Canada administration is very hostile to and mean-spirited about the BPSA: They maintain an official policy that the BPSA are not Scouts, should not call themselves Scouts and have outright forbidden all Scouts Canada members from interacting with the BPSA on pain of expulsion. No BPSA member is allowed to use Scouts Canada equipment or permitted to be on Scouts Canada property, Scouts Canada members cannot attend the same events, and so on.

Yeah, that’s not exactly the Scout spirit that B-P would have wanted and I can’t say it’s impressed me very much. In fact, that was the final nail in the coffin in terms of my opinion of Scouts Canada: I might not like their program very much, especially compared to the active and old-fashioned Scouting of my youth, but it’s the administrative culture that’s the real deal-breaker. From what I can see, this is just petty territorial piss-posting and it’s not the sort of behavior I would expect from an organization supposedly dedicated to the high deal of fostering the development of the nation’s youth into responsible, self-reliant citizens.

(My read on the BPSA’s view of all this is that there’s a lot of hurt feelings but a definite sense they’re in the right, with just the slightest overtone of smug self-righteousness… although that’s less grating to me than it might be because I’m pretty convinced they’re the ones behaving like grown-ups in this situation.)

Anyway, last week I took the plunge and contacted the local BPSA troop here in Welland. The local Scoutmaster (they use the old titles and uniforms along with the old program) called me back in very short order and gave me an invitation to come out to a meeting or two in order to get a feel for their group… and I got a bit of their backstory: Apparently the entire 9th Welland, from Beavers to Rovers, quit Scouts Canada in June and moved to the Baden-Powell Service Association en masse as a response to the now-unsupportable cost of membership. A few dozen families, which included all the leaders and more than fifty youth, quietly made a unanimous decision and switched over as a community.

According to the Scoutmaster (and this is admittedly hearsay) Scouts Canada fought them tooth and nail, up to and including spamming the families of the kids in the unit with misinformation and outright falsehoods, threatening legal action and even trying to convince their sponsoring church to take away their meeting space (I guess that last didn’t work out, since the minister doubled-down on the congregation’s support.) When it became clear that the 9th Welland — now calling itself the 9th Welland Traditional Troop — wouldn’t be dissuaded, they were forced to turn over all their resources, money and gear, up to and including the kids’ neckerchiefs. The Scoutmaster tried to put as nice a face on it as possible but between his tone of voice and the slight but obvious hesitations where he was carefully not saying things, I got the distinct impression of real emotional distress. I certainly wasn’t going to press him about it on short acquaintance — I’d imagine the insiders’ view is pretty grim and half a year is hardly time for that sort of wound to scab over.

I will admit that I’ve had some pangs of worry about taking on this responsibility in the face of so much hostility by Scouts Canada, but in the end I don’t suppose their attitude matters: If the current administration chooses to behave that way, then in the end it’s on their honour, not mine. And to everyone’s credit it does seem that both sides have tried to keep the tumult away from the youth who are, after all, supposed to be the ones who receive the benefit of Scouting, whomever provides it.

So I’ve committed to trying out the Baden-Powell Service Association’s interpretation of Traditional Scouting.  I’ve looked into the available resources through the BSPA-ON website, as well as readings from BPSA-USA and BPSA-UK, and I’ve come to hope that the BPSA might manage to combine the best of the old approach to Scouting with the best of the new. They’re co-ed, they’re LGBTQ-positive (especially BPSA-USA, which is vehemently pro-LGBTQ) and they make accommodations for non-religious and alternatively-religious people in ways that WOSA-affiliated Scouting organizations have stubbornly rejected for decades.

In addition, and I strongly approve of this, the BPSA’s policies and leadership training places maximum emphasis on protecting youth: no one wants a repeat of the tragic abuse scandals that plagued the BSA and Scouts Canada during the 1980s and 90s.  I’ll have to pass a police check and provide four personal references to even become a volunteer with the local group, much take leadership training.  All adult interaction with youth is under the “two deep” rule that I’m familiar with from the SCA: two non-related adults, minimum, at any time in any given situation involving youth.  Leadership training in the BPSA is touted as being to the same — or better — standard as that of Scouts Canada… a fact perhaps unsurprising considering that most BPSA leaders in Ontario are ex-Scouts Canada.

So in preparation for this new adventure, I’ve done what Traditional Scouting has done and gone back to the source material. Happily, the BPSA provides a free online library of the original documents of Scouting, from Baden-Powell’s original Scouting For Boys on up, plus decades of commentary and resources, all in PDF format.  Reviewing this material, I find myself getting more and more excited for this Tuesday night’s meeting. I’m really hoping that this works out. I enjoyed Scouts so much as a boy, and it was so important to me, and I thought that part of my life was gone forever: now I find that I should be able to participate in Scouting again and, hopefully, be able to give something back… a notion which has an appeal that’s surprisingly strong.

But there is one thing I’m not going to compromise on: First and foremost, I’m going to make it clear to the local leadership that I’m an LGBTQ person and that, while I won’t make a big deal about it, neither will I hide that fact. If there’s an LGBTQ service patch or pin or something I can wear on my uniform I’ll make earning it my top priority, so that any LGBTQ youth I work with know they’ve got a role model and someone they can talk to: gods know my teen years would have been a lot happier if I’d had someone who could have done that for me. I know the BPSA has an official policy of being inclusive, but sometimes the reality on the local level might be a bit less open-minded. Best to address the issue right off the bat, and explain my reasoning behind it, which I think is entirely fair.

The Single Most Important Safety Measure for Solo Hiking

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I enjoy solo hiking.  Part of it is the convenience of being able to just say “I’ve got nothing to do today, I’m going hiking”, part is the confidence-boost of being self-reliant, but most of it is just being able to be alone with nature.  Solo hiking, however, comes with a very specific set of dangers, the most pronounced of which is this: If you get in trouble, you’re on your own.

All my recent hiking has happened in and around Short Hills Provincial Park, which is a pretty tame wilderness.  It’s 660 hectares of Carolinian forest and post-agricultural meadows, with well-marked and frequently-traveled trails.  Sturdy bridges cross every stream.  It’s right in the middle of Niagara wine country, for pete’s sake, and it’s five minutes from an emergency room that I can personally attest is well-staffed and modern.  There are no dangerous animals or poisonous snakes.  Walk a hundred metres out of the park in any direction and you’re on someone’s front porch.  Walk into the middle of the park and there’s a well-tended Scout camp.  This is not the back of the beyond, is the point I’m trying to make.

But… the park straddles the Niagara Escarpment.  Some of its trails are very rugged, climbing up and down steep ravines.  There are impressive waterfalls, yes, and they’ve carved out impressive limestone gorges to a depth of ten metres or more.  Because of the rugged terrain, cell phone coverage is spotty, especially in the lower parts.  There is no source of potable water in the park — not so much as a public tap — and the streams are known to harbor giardia and cryptosporidium, so you have to pack in your water, period.  There is no overnight camping in the park and the place closes at sunset.

The other day I took a solo hike on the Swazye Falls Trail.  It was a long morning’s counterclockwise loop through the western end of the park with lots of vertical changes and — on the eastern side of the loop — almost no tree cover as the trail skirts a lot of open meadows.  It turned out to be a very hot day.  I packed three liters of water in my pack and had a bag of gorp for snacks in my backpack.  I had my cellphone in my pocket, and a small first aid kit in my pack.  I was wearing a multi-tool and a lighter on my belt.  I had a map and compass handy.  I was sun-screened and -hatted to a fare-thee-well.  I was, in every way, prepared for a day out in the woods… in fact, I was probably over-prepared, but what the heck: it’s good training at the very least.

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The contents of my day pack.

As I was working my way through back from the “falls” — there was no actual waterfall, just a dry gorge and an algae-befouled basin, a testament to this summer’s drought conditions — I paused to open my last 500mL water bottle, looked up, and was approached by only the second person I’d seen all day: another hiker who was going the other direction.  Or rather, she wasn’t a hiker, she was a pedestrian.  Black yoga pants, red sleeveless top and she was wearing crocs on her feet.  No hat.  No bag.  No map.  No water.  No cellphone that I would see.  Not so much as a fanny pack.  She was dressed for the mall, not the trail… and in fact at a shopping mall she probably would have been at least carrying a purse.  She was more than a kilometre into a six-and-a-half kilometre loop.  And she asks me, nicely, how much further until the waterfall.

I was absolutely gobsmacked.  I explained, as politely as possible, that it would be at least a mile through some very hot and exposed fields, before getting into some pretty rugged country through the trees.  I didn’t want to be all pushy, but she was not outfitted for the kind of terrain she was going to be coming into, and I tried to communicate that to her as gently as I could.  She thanked me and continued on her way.  I shook my head and continued on mine… and checked the local papers for any “missing persons” reports the next day.

There is a basic degree of preparedness that you must, repeat must, have before you set out on even the most forgiving trail.  This person did not remotely meet that standard, and I can only hope that she turned around and came back shortly after she passed me; if she finished her hike successfully it was only through sheer idiot luck.  As my dad is fond of saying, the good lord protects fools, drunkards and little children.

I don’t believe in unearned luck, and divine favour is a fickle commodity at the best of times.

Let me describe my “nightmare scenario” on the trail: it’s not being mauled by an animal or struck by a sudden blizzard; it starts much more innocuously:

The Wife™ is out of town, or maybe she had to go to work early.  It’s the middle of the week and don’t have a job to get to, so I decide impulsively to go for a hike.  I leave the dogs at home and drive out to the park; I’ve got some water and my cellphone, and that’s all I need. I spend a happy summer’s day romping around and as it starts getting dark, I see a perfect shot of a waterfall from the edge of a ravine.  Cellphone in hand, I walk to the edge, frame the shot… and take a bad step.  Maybe I slip.  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to where I set my feet.  Maybe a bit of the limestone rim gave under my weight.  And now I’m thirty feet down at the bottom of the ravine.  My cellphone is shattered against the rocks and has fallen gods-know-where.  One of my legs is broken, or both are, or maybe my back is.  I’m critically injured, the sun is setting, the park will close soon and no one else is going to use this trail tonight.  No one knows I’m here anyway.  Best case, I’m in for a very painful, very long night… and maybe more than one.  I have no food.  I have a few swallows of water left.  By midday tomorrow, I will be too weak to even call for help from the hikers and cyclists I can hear using the trails nearby.   Sure, maybe The Wife™ gets home and gets worried and calls the cops but how will they know where to look?

And what started as a pleasant afternoon in the woods suddenly becomes — not five miles from a modern and well-equipped emergency room in the middle of a popular and well-traveled park — a life-or-death crisis.

Sounds ridiculous, right? But it could easily happen.  In fact, it happened just last year.  A 33-year-old local man, whose name was never released to the media, died by misadventure just off a well-marked and popular trail in Short Hills Provincial Park… the very same trail I hiked that day.  The details of his death are not on the public record, so maybe he was killed instantly when he hit the stones at the bottom of the gorge.  Or maybe he lingered for hours or days in pain, unable to call for help.  But he was never declared missing and nobody knew he was in the park until a hiker found his body.

The single most important safety measure you take when solo hiking is this: Let people know where you’re going and how long you expect to be there.  During my first hike in the park I had to change my planned route partway through and I actually texted The Wife™ my new route so that someone would know where I was.

I am not reckless in when I go out to the woods.  I always carry a first aid kit.  I always carry a source of fire — in fact I carry two.  I carry a little food and a multitool and even a jumbo garbage bag which I can use to improvise a crude shelter.  I have a compass and some cordage in the form of a paracord bracelet I wove myself. In an emergency situation, I have the skills and the tools to improvise what I need to survive… all of which means nothing if I can’t make my way out or call for help and nobody knows to come looking for me.  In those circumstances all I’ve managed to do is buy myself a slower, more agonizing death.

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The contents of my pockets, sans cellphone (which I used to take this photo)

I have come to love the lush woods and the winding trails and even the deep limestone ravines of Short Hills Provincial Park… but I have absolutely no intention of dying there.  I could go out on dozens or hundreds of solo hikes and never need more than the contents of my pockets and often I won’t even need that, much less the emergency gear and first aid kit I routinely carry in my backpack; thousands of people each year hike that park, prepared or unprepared alike, without needing anything more than a bottle of water and some sturdy shoes.  But an emergency might happen and if someone knows I’m there, then I’m never really on my own, I’m just a greater or lesser distance from the search party that is inevitably coming.

I don’t believe in unearned luck… but I definitely believe in bad luck.  And it doesn’t matter how smart or fit or prepared you are: Bad luck can kill you.  Try not to give it any unnecessary opportunities to do so.

And hell, even if I do take that bad step and I get killed outright, at least my family won’t spend days or weeks not knowing where I am or what happened to me.

 

 

 

 

Playing with Fire (Literally): The Tuna Can Stove

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In the couple of weeks since I got my new hiking boots, I’ve gone on three day hikes, two alone and one with The Wife™ and The Dogs™.  I’ve also been working on getting my kit up to something resembling snuff without spending much (or preferably, any) money.  That includes rehabilitating my old messkit/cookset, and coming up with a lightweight stove… and testing it all before I try and depend on it out on the trail.

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The tuna can stove design that worked.

As I indicated earlier on this blog, I was going to make a couple of tuna can stoves and experiment with them.  Using a cheap dollar-store paper punch. I made one with the holes the recommended quarter of an inch apart, followed by an offset lower row of holes.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was easy… although rather hard on the hands.  Then I made a second one with fewer holes — each horizontal row had the holes about an inch apart each.  The one with one-inch spacing simply didn’t work — I suspect an airflow issue.

The one with the recommended number of holes worked just fine, so I needed to find a cheap fuel to run it. These are unpressurized alcohol fuel stoves, but denatured alcohol — the recommended fuel — is hard to come by in lots smaller than a couple of gallons. So I started with with isopropyl alcohol, or ordinary rubbing alcohol.

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Everything I read indicated that alcohol flames were hard to see.  Not so with rubbing alcohol.

Behind the tinfoil windscreen I made, the 99% isopropanol burned with a sullen red and very dirty flame, taking 50mL of fuel to heat a litre of water to a rolling boil in just under 10 minutes… and burning out entirely in 13 minutes.  But it made a bloody mess of the bottom of my pot, covering it in a thick black layer of greasy, sharp-smelling soot.

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Seriously, that pot was shiny when it went on the burner.

My next experiment was with meythl hydrate — more commonly known as wood alcohol — in the form of liquid fondue fuel. This worked a lot better for me than the isopropanol despite being considerably less heat-efficient: after a couple of false starts with too little fuel, I finally came up with 60mL of blue-dyed fondue fuel taking 15 minutes to bring 1L of water to a rolling boil… and the stove burned out half a minute later.  But there was no soot on the pot and only a little blue residue in the burner itself, presumably from whatever dye they use so that you don’t mistake poisonous methyl alcohol for vodka. The flame was low and almost invisibly blue, and it actually made an audible hissing noise while it cooked.

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Yep, that’s actually burning.

Despite the need to carry more fuel and the longer cook time, I have to say that the fondue fuel was definitely the winner… if only because it eliminated the nasty cleanup situation. And honestly, if I’m going to cook myself something hot while I’m hiking, I really don’t see that extra five or six minutes as a huge issue; I’m going hiking to relax, not finish the course in record time.

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Much cleaner, thank you.

So there you have it: the next time I go out on the trail and want to make myself a hot meal partway through, I’ll be packing a perforated tuna can, a one liter pot and a few dozen millilitres of blue-dyed wood alcohol.

Update 15:24:  In the event that I’m going hiking and don’t need the whole kit — a simple day hike or even an overnight using a brand of freeze-dried food I can actually eat, I’ll leave off the frying pan and plate and just take the pot and stove, which nest inside each other nicely, as a weight and space saving measure.  The leather strap I made to close the whole kit has a second hole punched in it which allows me to hold just the pot shut, and it neatly contains the stove, the folded-up windscreen, the potlifter, a couple of j-cloths and a spork.

 

Realistic Preparedness

I’ve been reading a lot about camping and bushcraft lately, as part of my resurgence of interest in hiking and especially in making my own gear on the cheap. That’s led to quite a lot of overlap with the “prepper” community, which is one I generally approve of: Having grown up in rural Canada, it just makes sense to me to have a few days’ supplies in the event of emergency. I’ve lived through snowstorms, ice storms, and the Northeast Blackout of 2003, so I understand and respect the need to be prepared.

I’ve been an avid reader of post-apocalyptic fiction and disaster survival stories since I was a kid. In fact, one of the first books I remember reading was Erno Rossi’s White Death, about the lethal blizzard that effected the Niagara region in January 1977; my parents had a copy because my grandfather had been stranded in Port Colbourne during the blizzard. I suspect it was a formative influence. (Interestingly, I now live in the area that was directly effected by that natural disaster.) One of the things that Rossi’s book repeatedly stressed was that most people effected by the Blizzard of ’77 were completely unprepared to spend several days cut off from the modern world. I’ve always been impressed by the notion that a little bit of forethought can make the difference between a life-threatening disaster and a mildly annoying disruption of your routine.

The Wife™, having grown up in the Caribbean on an island regularly hit by hurricanes, shares that opinion and we’ve done a minimum of preparation against the possibility of an emergency — I say a minimum, because there’s a lot more we could (and should) do to be prepared, time and money allowing. But both of us are very firmly of the opinion that we have to have at least a minimum safety net for ourselves, even if it’s only to minimize the stress we’d place on the rescue and recovery effort that is trying to help effected people. So we have plans in place for an extended power outage, for example. We try and have a stock of food in the house. We both know first aid, and keep a well-stocked kit handy. We have a gas stove in the new house and — hopefully before winter comes — plans to put in a gas fireplace, since the most likely issue we’ll face is a winter storm that disrupts the power grid. We’ve discussed what we’d do in the event of such a storm, or if we were placed under an evacuation order. We have a healthy and intelligent respect for the fact that sometimes bad things happen and we’ll have to take care of ourselves while the powers-that-be get their collective shit together.

That seems to be the goal of the “prepper” community: being ready to deal with a disaster. I noted on this blog a couple of years ago that we hardly qualify as “preppers”, but we share the mentality that something bad might happen and you need to be ready to take care of yourself for a while… although some people seem to think “a while” means “indefinitely” and some of them seem to be looking forward to the idea. And that leads me into the other overlap that I’ve run into in the past few days: the “survivalist” community, some of which borders on downright creepy.

Honestly, do a search of “survival gear” on Pinterest. I did this a couple of days ago after thinking “what if I take a bad step on a hike and end up at the bottom of a ravine with a broken leg?” Run that search, like I did, and without going too far down the page you’ll be hitting a lot of posts about guns, knives, bug-out-bags and how to make smoke bombs and man-traps and disappear from the government’s radar. On Pinterest. It only gets weirder from there. There’s a lot of acronyms like SHTF and TEOTWAKI and a surprising amount of bullshit about the zombie apocalypse. I like reading posts about how to make a fishhook from a pop can pull, or the best way to make an “every day carry” Altoid tin survival can against the event that you get dropped into the wilderness somehow on your commute to work, and of course a lot of the gadgets are clever… but does anyone really need a tactical tomahawk in their bug-out-bag? Or for that matter, at all? Wouldn’t a decent-quality hatchet be much more useful in a survival situation?

The truth is that a lot of what I see about “survivalism” is all about fleeing to the hills and living off the land with the mere contents of your backpack and your rugged manliness. But in a real disaster situation, history shows that most often choose to hunker down and help each other out. Unless you’re in a situation where there is a complete and permanent breakdown of law and order (and I genuinely can’t think of a realistic scenario where that would happen) your best bet is to stay put and wait for help. That’s Emergency Logic 101: Don’t make the situation worse. Abandoning everything you have and heading into the hills doesn’t make you more likely to survive a disaster; it makes you likely to become a refugee… or a looter, which I suppose is the situation where a tactical tomahawk would be of use: breaking and entering, and if anyone tries to stop you…

The truth is a lot of the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff on the internet nothing but escapism, no matter how seriously its enthusiasts take it. (I suspect that’s why zombies tend to feature so prominently.) In real life, people pull together. The government pulls out all the stops (with greater or lesser competence) to save lives and restore normalcy. When the Big One hits, there will be no gangs of armed S&M enthusiasts with inexplicable stunt-driving skills, nobody will have to eat anyone else, and the people who’ll decide that law and order no longer applies will be the problem, not the solution. That post-apocalyptic fiction I like? One of the best and most plausible books is Pat Frank’s classic Alas, Babylon which is set after a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR; the protagonist starts out trying to protect his family and almost immediately ends up organizing a growing number of people to — guess what? — reestablish a zone of law and order and a semblance of normalcy. People are social creatures. Survival, in a disaster, means helping other people, being helped in return and not, emphatically not, making it worse than it needs to be. The rugged, solo hero escaping the ruins of civilization with a bag full of tricks and a steely glint in his eye? Nothing but a fantasy.

But goddamn, does the fantasy sell a lot of expensive shit.

A Walk in the Woods

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My solo hike at Short Hills Provincial Park went reasonably well this past Monday. I’d reached the Pelham Road entrance by about 08:30, and by 09:15 I was standing at the south end of the old Gilligan Hill access road trying to decide where I was going to go.

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I’d originally intended on taking the Scarlet Tanager Trail, but unfortunately it was closed after a series of washouts over the past couple of years, and it doesn’t seem to be at all a priority for repair; to make things while it’s closed it seems to be getting no maintenance at all. Confronted with a weathered closure sign and waist-high grass (doubtlessly tick-infested) I instead decided to swap difficulty for distance and took the wide, well-maintained Black Walnut Trail which does a big loop through the park.

It turned out to be a good decision. The southern end of the park is apparently very lightly used on a Monday morning, and by the time I stopped for a snack around 10:30 the only encounter I’d had with anything other than myself were a pair of mule deer I startled as I rounded a corner in the hills above Terrace Creek. It wasn’t until I stopped to pick up some litter that someone on a bike overtook me as I approached the Wiley Road entrance. Sadly, the northern leg of my trip from Wiley Road back to Pelham road wasn’t nearly as solitary: I don’t know whether it was the time of day or the proximity to St. Catharine’s, but the number of other people, especially cyclists, increased dramatically… as did the litter, graffiti, piles of dog shit and general aggravation. In future I’m planning on avoiding the trails north of the scout camp (the square in the middle of the park marked “private property”) which in many ways is a profound shame. I hustled the last kilometer and was back to my car by about 12:00.

Still, I enjoyed the morning up to that point thoroughly and, now that I know what to avoid, I’ll be trying again. I think the Hemlock Valley Trail would make an excellent location for my next hike, so long as I avoid the washed-out eastern section of the connecting Scarlet Tanager Trail. I plan on heading out sometime this week, after the latest round of hot sticky weather cools down.

Because of my renewed interest in hiking, I’ve been spending my time reworking my daypack and gear. The Wife™ and I made a lucky find at the thrift store yesterday, finding a good-quality Columbia day pack in brand-new condition — literally brand-new; we actually checked it for the original store tags — for a fraction of the price we’d pay at MEC or Outdoors Oriented. This means that, combined with our old and rather worn daypack, we’ve got one for each of us to use when we go hiking together. I’ve spent a couple of days — but surprisingly few dollars — putting together what I consider the absolute basics for a hiking pack: first aid kits, those dollar store disposable rain ponchos, a few plastic bags of various types, duct tape and a bit of toilet paper (even in a park with toilet facilities, you’d be amazed how often bringing your own is a necessity) and some safety items like compasses, whistles, spare cordage, etc.

And on the subject of cordage, I’ve also been amusing myself with learning how to make paracord “survival” bracelets. It’s a pretty straightforward process: you just get eight or ten feet of paracord — or in my case, much cheaper “unrated” nylon cord — and tie it in a series of repeating knots to make a bracelet, or a key fob, or whatever. In an emergency you can just undo the knots and you’ve got eight or ten feet of sturdy rope for use. It’s basically the rugged and manly version of those friendship bracelets made by generations of eleven-year-old girls. It looks pretty cool, though, and it would be a genuinely useful thing to have in a crisis situation to make improvised splints or shelter or whatever.

I’ve also been renovating my old camping gear, much of which hasn’t been used since the disastrous solo canoeing trip I took in the autumn of 2012, which ended when I had a close call with both drowning and hypothermia. My dad’s old army surplus mess kit in particular needed some work, especially replacing the half-rotted-out canvas strap that holds it closed; fortunately I’ve got a garage full of armoring tools and was able to put together a simple leather strap with cut-steel buckle in very short order, just with the items I had on hand. I’ve also fashioned a simple tuna can stove for the kit, and I plan on experimenting with it over the next few days; seeing how much fuel it needs to boil a liter of water, how long it takes, etc. Actually, I made two tuna can stoves, one with lots of holes and one with very few holes; I intend on experimenting to see which one one works better and then blogging my results.

My other major project with getting back into hiking involves building a hiking stick. During my hike I picked up a stout stick — or rather I cut it from a young maple tree that had been snapped off near the root. Whatever (or whomever) broke it off had done so recently, because the wood is still very green. I was deliberately looking for green deadfall on that hike (preferably a straightish length of maple slightly thicker than an inch) because I knew I’d be making myself a walking stick for future hikes. I found one, gave it a rough trim, and used it throughout the second half of my hike. Later in the week, at home, I stripped the bark off the stick and now I have it sitting flat on a high shelf in my shop to dry out for a month or so. Once it’s dry I plan on drilling a hole for a lanyard near the top, sanding it, varnishing it, putting a metal tip on the bottom and wrapping a leather handgrip on it.

When I was young I disdained walking sticks on the trail as an unnecessary encumbrance; I am no longer young and neither are my knees. I have come to understand that a trusty walking stick on the trail is a comfort, not an encumbrance… especially when crossing streams or working your way down a steep hillside.

Sadly, some of my gear has disappeared during one move or another; I can’t find my old Nalgene bottles (I suspect they’ve been tossed) so I’ve had to pick up some dollar-store stainless steel half-liter bottles; aside from the fact that they’re bright red and labelled “CANADA” there’s nothing objectionable about them. I’m hoping to invest in a couple of new widemouth Nalgenes sometime soon — they really are the best water bottles I’ve ever found — but you’re definitely paying for the quality. In the meantime I’m making due with cheaper water bottles and a case of disposables… which unlike many people in the area I will not dispose of by dropping them on the trail for other, more conscientious, people to pick up. There’s a reason I carry a litter bag clipped to the outside of my backpack when I hike, and it looks like the Niagara area is going to be testing my habit of picking up after assholes on the trail to the limit.

Reboot

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I’ve been a bad boy all summer; I haven’t posted on this blog since April. A huge part of that has been dealing with getting settled into the new house and my job search, some of it has been the constant renovation of the new house, some of it has been health-related, and a great deal of it has been dealing with depression issues. But, for whatever reason, I’m feeling a good deal more positive recently, and I’ve decided to get more active.

Being active this summer has been difficult; July and August have been shockingly, brutally hot. But with the summer running out and the drought coming to an end I’m kicking it up a notch because of the aforementioned health issues.

Back in the first week of June, I ended up in hospital with kidney stones. Three days of painkillers and lots of water later and I passed a grand total of seven of the little bastards. The thing is, I’m thirty-eight. Thirty-eight-year-olds should not be getting kidney stones so the rest of my summer has involved a lot of medical testing. Last week, I got the final test results from my urologist and the good news: is there’s nothing medically wrong with me that would cause kidney stones. That means the bad news is that my habits regarding hydration and salt intake are entirely to blame. So now I’m on a low-salt, high-hydration regime. I’ve cut down the alcohol intake, and I’m trying to get more exercise.

A couple of days ago The Wife™ bought me a good pair of backpacking boots, an item which has been missing from my closet for several years. I’ve spent part of my weekend putting together a day pack (I firmly believe in carrying a minimum amount of gear — multitool, compass, first aid kit, flashlight, firestarter, rain poncho, duct tape, dry socks, etc. on even the shortest day hike) and looking at the trail guide for our local wilderness area, Short Hills Provincial Park. If the weather is as cool and dry as predicted, I’ll be taking a solo hike there tomorrow, and hopefully several day hikes with The Wife™ and The Dogs™ before the snow falls.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot to report. The Wife™’s job is going really well although my job situation is still nonexistent (I’m now registered with an employment counseling service here in town and they’ve been an amazing amount of help) and I’ve been getting a lot of family time with my twin sister and her daughter. The Wife™ and I have been systematically exploring the Niagara region this summer: we’ve found a beautiful, almost-always deserted beach from which to grok Lake Erie; a number of excellent restaurants; various crunchy grocery stores and farmer’s markets, not to mention a nice indie hiking store in St. Catharines and an absolutely epic hunting/outdoors store just off the highway; a great pick-your-own fruit farm down the road; and a doggie daycare for the puppies… all within an easy drive.

That’s been the most interesting thing about this whole experience: the fact that everything is withing an easy drive down here. Back in Peterborough if you couldn’t find something in town, you were committed to a two or three hour round trip to run down to the GTA to get it… or a week-long wait after ordering from Amazon. Here? You just hop on the 406 or the QEW and you’re there in twenty or thirty minutes. A two or three hour round trip means Burlington or Ancaster with it’s huge number of stores, including a well-stocked MEC and a Lee Valley storefront. We haven’t even tried the cross-border shopping thing yet (we’ll wait for the dollar to recover a bit more, thanks.)

And the fruit; we’re living in Canada’s version of the Napa Valley, and it’s fruit season. The Wife™ has been making jam like a woman possessed. Today or tomorrow will be the peach jam, and we’ve got twelvequarts of peaches ripening in the kitchen as I write. Blueberry, raspberry, it’s amazing. Much of our jam will be given away, especially to family, but we won’t lack for jam over the winter, that’s certain.

All in all, the more time we spend here, the better we feel about the move.

Dean del Mastro’s appeal

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Disgraced former Conservative MP Dean del Mastro’s appeal was today. As those who read my blog might remember, del Mastro was convicted in November of 2014 of electoral fraud during the 2011 federal election, specifically of spending more than $21,000 of his own money to circumvent election spending limits and then covering up the fact. His campaign finance manager was also convicted for his role in the fraud and coverup.

This afternoon, Dean del Mastro made his final court appearance in regards to these charges — I say these charges, of course, since he’s also a under investigation in another electoral fraud case from the 2008 federal election, and may yet face charges in relation to the attempt by his cousin and business partner David del Mastro to circumvent campaign contribution laws by laundering money through his employees.

Justice Bryan Shaughnessy upheld the trial judge’s conviction, but rejected the prosecution’s call for a longer prison sentence. Joelle Kovach of the Peterborough Examiner published an excellent summary of the day’s events including a description of a tearful Dean del Mastro being taken directly from court after the end of the hearing. He will spend the next 29 days in jail, followed by four months house arrest, and is banned from seeking public office for several years.

What really caught my eye in Kovach’s article, however, was the final paragraph quoting Deano’s brother, Mike Del Mastro, who spoke to reporters after the hearing.

“It’s absolutely absurd to send someone to jail for spending their own money,” he said. “What kind of country are we living in? Next we go to jail for jaywalking? I’m very upset right now.”

I. Can’t. Even.

How fucking stupid are you, Mike, to think that’s why your crook of a brother went to jail? You can’t be that stupid. You’ve got to be willfully blind, unconscionably arrogant, or both.

Dean didn’t go to jail for spending his own money, Mike. He went to jail for violating electoral spending limits. He went to jail for lying about it, and for falsifying records, and for callously undermining the democratic process in the name of personal gain. And you would minimize that crime by comparing it to fucking jaywalking?

And I was going to say that the fact Dean used “his own money” was immaterial, but in fact it isn’t immaterial. That makes it worse. Peterborough is full of families who live on considerably less than $21,000 a year. Try it sometime. The fact that your smug, hypocritical, scumbag brother could drop twenty-one grand to undermine democracy like it was chump change makes me sick. Literally nauseous. And the fact that you, Mike del Mastro, could blow it off tells me everything I need to know about the culture of arrogance and entitlement that you’re both coming from. Between you and your cousin David I’m starting to think that there’s something wrong with your whole fucking family, or at least the rich white male part of it.

I do have sympathy for Kelly del Mastro; I can’t imagine what it’s like watching your spouse leave a courtroom in disgrace for that long drive to the Central East Correctional Center. On a very human level I refuse to be facetious or nasty about it, for the same reason that I’m not indulging in the “don’t drop the soap” jokes being tossed around Twitter and Facebook. This had to be one of the worst days of Kelly del Mastro’s life, and she is doubtless going to need the support of family and friends over the next four weeks.

But to imply that this is an injustice? Or a judicial overreaction? Or that Deano is the one being victimized?

Fuck off.

Dean del Mastro cheated. He lied. He committed felony electoral fraud, and he got caught. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dean del Mastro is not the victim here; Canadian voters are the victims. The blame for his disgrace and the embarrassment that the del Mastro family is currently suffering falls entirely on the shoulders of one person: Dean del Mastro.

He isn’t being victimized, he’s being punished… which is a thing that’s supposed to happen to people who’ve been convicted of felonies. He made his bed and he can fucking well sleep in it for the next 29 nights. As far as I’m concerned the only “absurd” thing about the situation is that he only got a month in jail, not a year, because right now del Mastro’s sole value as a public figure is to serve as a very visible warning that no matter how rich, white and male you are, if you try and undermine democracy you must pay the price.

Some Thoughts on the Silent Majority

So I did a round-trip to Peterborough to clear out the last of my shop stuff today; leaving early in the morning and returning before the rush hour through Toronto started. It was an uneventful trip, except for something that seriously irritated me on the drive home.

I was Niagara-bound on the QEW when I came up on a red pickup truck doing 80kph in the middle lane. You know the type — the standard southern Ontario “you better red-neck-ognize” Ford 4×4: a jacked up crew cab with oversized tyres, extra-wide mirrors and running boards, big chrome smokestacks which are unlikely to be attached to the exhaust system in any meaningful way, lots of gun company logos in vinyl on the rear windscreen, a “support the troops” yellow-ribbon magnet representing the entirety of the male driver’s mindfulness regarding past or present members of the military, et cetera, et cetera.  It was a mercy that no “truck nutz” were in evidence.

What caught my eye, as I was changing lanes to pass this enormous scarlet statement of thunderous masculinity, was the brand-new bumper sticker affixed to the tailgate: Trump Speaks For the Silent Majority.

Okay, two things.

First, those were Ontario plates, so I figure it’s unlikely he’ll be able to cast a vote one way or another. Not impossible, of course, because we are close to the border and I don’t know how expatriate balloting works in a US Presidential election, but unlikely. I see a lot of New York plates in this part of the world and I think I would have found that bumper sticker a little less irritating on a truck with New York plates. But Ontario plates imply that he either thinks Canadians are included in American politics, or he wishes we were, which makes him an idiot.

Second, there is no such thing as a “Silent Majority.” Like, at all. The whole “great silent majority” myth is a cynical lie devised by amoral right-wing politicians to justify whatever corrupt, minority-bashing, self-serving dick move that they feel like pulling this week.

The myth of a silent majority is framed as opposition to those vocal minorities that irritate white people with their strident demands for things like equal rights, or legally-recognized marriages, or cops who won’t shoot them based on the colour of their skin. Invoking the silent majority is dog-whistle politics, and what the Right really means when they say those words is exactly what I said above — they mean white people. Not those irritating liberal white people, of course, but the “right” kind of white people.

And everybody knows who they are.

The phrase was actually injected into the modern vernacular by Richard Nixon, which should ring every warning bell that an intelligent and informed electorate has. If a scumbag politician invokes this elusive silent majority and you think “he’s speaking for me” then you really, really need an agonizing reappraisal of your whole scene, because you’re likely as big a shithead as he is.

If not more so.

You know what the silent majority is actually a euphemism for? Sheep. Shallow, silly, stupid critters which will contentedly follow where somebody leads until it comes time for them to be fleeced. And cynical right-wing politicians are fully aware of the comparison. They like the comparison. It amuses them to play the silent majority card and smirk inside when gullible voters lap it up.

I haven’t touched on Donald Trump’s bizarre and increasingly frightening Presidential campaign on this blog because I’ve been busy with the move and a great many intelligent people have written excellent posts on the massive, insane problems with his meteoric rise to prominence.  Seriously, google it. You can read for hours.

But that bumper sticker really got to me.

Because if it is true, if Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic stream-of-consciousness dishonest shitmouth somehow does represent some vast, nebulous, sleeping constituency which will elevate him to the most powerful office on the face of this planet, then we as a species are downright fucked.  But more likely he just represents a bunch of stupid herd animals who can’t think far enough into the future to see the consequences of blindly following whatever is loud enough to get their attention away from filling up on grass long enough to start ambling in one direction or another.

I just hope it’s not too big a herd, lest we all be trampled.