Friday, February 24, 2012

Convention Report: Pantheacon

Hello again! I'm back from the wilds of San Jose with a somewhat different convention report.

To begin with, Pantheacon was first organized nearly 30 years ago by Glenna Turner, proprietor of Ancient Ways. This makes her a pioneer in more than one sense; AFAIK Ancient Ways was the first blatantly Pagan (as versus "New Age" or generally "Occult") book-and-gift store in northern California, and Pantheacon was the first regular annual Pagan convention. Council of the Goddess had held conventions before then -- in the midwest as well as the west coast -- but they were irregular and occasional affairs. Since Pantheacon proved its success, the number of Pagan cons around the country has grown by leaps and bounds. I was amazed at the number of announcements for different Pagan cons on the flyers table. At least one of them was for a music-and-arts convention, which I'm definitely interested in.

I also noticed that the Depression hasn't hurt the convention too badly. It had enough members, for the full four days of the protracted weekend, to fill not only the convention hotel but an overflow hotel too. True, most of the members came from the San Francisco Bay area, and the rest from points north (fewer than half a dozen came from the southern part of the state, and I think I was the only one there from Phoenix), but that was still enough to support 10 programming tracks and 20 hospitality suites.

The subjects of the programming tracks were all over the spectrum: feminism, GLBT spirituality, philosophical bridge-building between the Pagan and Judeo-Christian communities, similarities of western Paganism and Hinduism, assorted art and literature panels, various concerts, several rituals by wildly different groups, and of course my panel on Bardic Magick. The dealers' room was enormous -- and tightly crowded, with half a dozen more merchants spilling out into the corridor -- and I never even made it to the art show.

As for the consuite and hospitality suites, well let's just say that I had to buy only two meals (overpriced, but what do you expect from a big hotel?) all the time I was there. I must admit, the CAW suite serves the best food, but the OTO has far and away the best bar. I'm afraid I didn't do much singing there; most of them had their own music, I was fighting off the usual convention cold that wiped out my upper range, and I mostly spent my time asking for rides back to LA, where my bus-ticket picked up (long story).

Anyway, my panel -- "Basics of Bardic Magic" -- was scheduled for 11PM on Sunday night, if you please, in the hotel bar. It still managed to draw an audience of about 50, so either I still have a lot of fans in the Bay Area or there's considerable interest in the magic of music. With my upper range gone I had to do my songs in Gm-Am, which is not the frequency most likely to arouse psychic talent, but perhaps that was all for the best. There was enough loose psychic energy flying around the convention hotel to create an army of gremlins. The pesky things stole away one of my star-pendant earrings, my good copper ring, and one of my smokeless/electric cigarettes -- no small loss in California, where the law forbids smoking anywhere indoors. *Sigh* In any case, questions from the audience convinced me to write an article on Bardic Magick, which (I promise) I'll post here first.

Altogether, a good time was had by all -- stupid Californian laws (against nudity as well as smoking, thank you) or no. If you can at all afford it, I'd strongly recommend going to Pantheacon at least once.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Determined Ignorance

Time for another political rant, folks.

Since World War One America’s leadership, believing in the Great Progressive Ideal, has been trying to make the whole world into a modern, industrial democracy. “Be like us,” we’ve announced, “And you’ll be rich, healthy, free and happy like us.” A fine idea, you might say. The problem is that the leadership of most of the rest of the world doesn’t – and never did – share it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, “culture” is more than just the arts; it’s the way a whole society thinks – and some societies think very differently, about everything. There are some societies (I name no names) which have no concept of democracy, or the value of the individual, or equality, or justice, or the value of life itself. We simply can’t deal with such societies by assuming that they’ll be motivated by the same goals that move us. There are, for instance, many societies which can’t imagine a united and peaceful world except under their own absolute rule. Belief in the Great Progressive Ideal is, in fact, a rarity shared by only a few countries in the world. There are all too many other countries that are quite willing to mouth the right platitudes, but only so they can take money from us with one hand while they stab us in the back with the other. Bear that in mind.

At the end of World War Two, America was the only undamaged super-power – and, with our usual leftover-Puritan sense of guilt/responsibility, felt obliged to put the Great Progressive Ideal into practice. The US was instrumental in creating the United Nations, which was originally the WWII winners’ circle, but soon included everyone who hadn’t fought on the Axis side. Today it includes virtually all the nations of the world, with no real behavioral standards imposed on members. The basic idea was that if all the nations of the world could meet on some neutral ground and simply talk to each other – like civilized people – somehow all international problems could be ironed out.

Well, it didn’t work. It didn’t work then and it isn’t working now. Aside from the World Health Organization, which really has done some decent work in wiping out diseases, the UN has proved itself to be nothing more than a sandbox full of squabbling children, accomplishing nothing useful. In some cases, it has made situations worse.

The problem, again, is that not all nations – or the societies thereof – think alike, and we cannot have any unified world government until they do. Sorry. Until then, those cultures which are diametrically opposed will fight until one defeats the other. This can’t be avoided. The only questions, really, are which one will win and how bad the cost will be.

This is exactly what believers in the Great Progressive Ideal fiercely refuse to believe. This is why, despite blatant evidence to the contrary, they insist that even the most outrageous demands of truly barbarous Arab societies must be considered seriously. This (as well as money and oil) is the reason that Progressive idealists will denounce Israel – even going as far as anti-Semitism – to placate those Arabs. This is why they remain stubbornly blind to the fact that such placating and compromising only encourages such fanatics to make ever more outrageous demands. Eventually the Islamic Fascists will demand total capitulation – which not even the Progressive Idealists will give them – and when refused, they’ll go to war.

I predict that the real World War Three will be between the Islamic Fascists and the rest of the world. It’s a war that could still be avoided if America and its cultural allies reject the Great Progressive Ideal and take a realistic stance against the – let’s say it – brutal, fanatical and backward societies of the world.

Remember that World War Two could have been prevented if the western allies had recognized the threat of Hitler early enough – and acted on that knowledge. In that bitterly ironic sense, the Great Progressive Ideal has caused worse wars than it ever prevented.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Chicago Tale

Watching some stories on the TV news about police bullying and "questionable behavior", I happened to remember an old incident from my long-ago Chicago days.

I was looking for work, and my old buddy Dave Van Pelt mentioned that the B. and O. Railroad, which he worked for, was looking for a Yard Clerk for Robey Street Yard. Never mind that this was halfway across the sprawling city from where I lived; I wanted that job. For one thing, it paid well and had great benefits -- particularly health. For another, it was a basic and necessary industry; no matter how politics might shift, or pointless wars come up, massive transportation of goods (including food) would always be needed. So, I hopped on the subway and headed down to the south side.

I got off at the station closest to Robey Street, but had no idea how to proceed from there. I went to question the guy at the ticket-booth, but he waved over a cop. Keeping a straight face, I repeated my question. The cop glowered at my headband and peace-symbol pendant, and asked: "Whaddaye wanta go there for? You look like a revolutionary to me." "Well, I am," I replied, "But right now I'm looking for an honest job, one that doesn't depend on the war effort, and I've heard there are some to be had at the railroad." The cop blinked, thought that over, and gave me the instructions: this bus, that street, so many blocks walk. I thanked him politely, got out of there and got on the recommended bus. I didn't know at the time that the cop dutifully reported the whole incident to his boss, who passed it on to the Red Squad.

To make a long story short, I got to Robey Street Yard and signed up, and got the job. My duties consisted of trotting out into the yard with a long form when a train was coming in, watching as the train rolled slowly past me, and marking down on the form the ID numbers and codes ("BX" for "boxcar", "FT" for "flatcar", and so on) for each car. When the caboose rolled up, the chief conductor would hand me the Bills of Lading. I'd take these and the filled-out form back to the yard's Control Tower and hand them to the Trainmaster. The Trainmaster would then look at the bills, see where each car was headed for, and "break" the train by assigning each car to a different siding (the yard had nearly 20 of them) according to where it was going. Then he'd put together the next outgoing train with the proper cars, according to where it was going. He'd give his orders to the Yardmaster through the in-house radio, and the Yardmaster would pass on the orders to the engineers of the two Yard Engines -- small engines that pulled one car at a time. When there were enough cars to make up an outgoing train, I'd take the reassembled form and the proper Bills of Lading out to the engineer of the Road Engine -- the big long-haul engine that could haul a train of 100 cars or more. As soon as a train was complete, off it would go to the main line.

I noticed that the train most quickly made up was the one hauling the enormous grain-hoppers off to General Mills. We got a good 100 grain-hoppers per day through that yard, each of them weighing a good 100 tons when loaded. I later made a song about it.

Anyway, in the time between complete loading of the sidings and the departure of the outgoing train, my job was to walk down the sidings and make sure that all the right cars were there. I also marked any damage or problems I saw with the cars -- which was mostly worn-away ID numbers, which I'd then chalk back in with an enormous piece of chalk. When I wasn't doing any of those tasks, I sat around the control tower usually sketching drawings, which the guys rather liked.

What I found intriguing was the different ways the men reacted to me, since I was the first woman to have a job in the rail-yard since World War Two. The youngest guys assumed "Here comes Women's Lib," and accepted my presence with fairly good grace, since I did my job well. The very oldest guys -- the ones who'd been there since WWII -- assumed "Here's Rosie the Riveter, back again," and likewise accepted my presence without complaint. The only problems I had were with the guys in the middle, who couldn't help hooting and making lewd comments. I dealt with that simply by smiling confidently, rolling up my sleeves to display the noticeable muscles in my arms, and hauling large heavy objects around. It's really funny how fast a macho-man backs off when you show that you could, if you wanted, beat the crap out of him.

Anyway, thanks to the efficiency of the union -- the Railway Brotherhood -- the railroad insisted on giving new-hires a 90-day trial period, after which one became a full-fledged employee and member of the union, which meant that you'd have to really screw up royally to be fired. I had no worries about that, since I did my assigned work quickly and well. The only thing I couldn't do was work the rather clunky computer in the corner, which was never used in daily work anyway. I had to wonder why the thing was there at all, and concluded that the bosses had foisted it on the tower-crew for some bureaucratic reason. The bosses, in their tall office-building at the far, far end of the yard, were always doing crap like that. In the middle of a hard-working day, the Trainmaster often had to stop what he was doing to take a phonecall from the bosses and waste a good quarter-hour dutifully saying "yessir" before he could get back to work again.

Altogether, 'twas a good job -- despite my having to get up at 5 AM to commute across the city -- and I intended to keep it. Indeed, I might have been there still if it hadn't been for that now-forgotten transit cop.

One day as I was getting off work, wearing my usual gear -- bluejeans, knit shirt, sneakers, thick belt with three or four railrod-flares tucked into it, carrying a paperback book under my arm -- walking down the dirt road from the tower to the main city street, I saw an unmarked car full of men come driving (slowly, as that road required) up toward me. I stepped to one side of the road, into a field of reeds next to the main line, to give them room to pass.

Instead of driving on, the car promptly stopped. All four doors flew open, and four big burly men hopped out -- all of them looking at me. Seeing that as a threat, I took several fast steps deeper into the reeds and pulled one of the flares out of my belt, ripped off the cap and held it close enough to the ignition-button that a single stroke would light the flare. (Now bear in mind that a railroad-flare is like a standard truck-fusee, only bigger: maybe 20 inches long, intended to burn for half an hour, stuffed with red phosphorus -- not something you'd want to be burned with. Everybody who worked outdoors in the yard carried them, in order to mark the spot if we found a flaw in the tracks.) My intention was that, if the four goons came after me, I'd light the flare and use it to set the dry reeds between us on fire.

The four goons clearly understood what that gesture meant, and what a railroad-flare could do, because they all stopped fast. One of them shouted, across the maybe-25-yards distance between us: "We're cops! Show us some ID!" Instead, without shifting my grip, I shouted back: "First show me yours!" After a moment's shuffling, they all pulled out their badges and held them up for me to see. Yep, Chicago cop badges, all right. But why should a bunch of four undercover cops be coming after me? I cautiously moved closer, but held the flare and cap in one hand while I pulled out my wallet with the other. With 10 feet between us, I stopped and held up my wallet with the driver's license showing. They took a couple of cautious steps closer to get a good look. I shifted my grip on the flare, and they stopped where they were.

At that distance, apparently satisfied with my ID, they started asking questions: "What are you doing here?" "Working," I said, as I put my wallet back. "It's my job." They looked at each other, and tried again: "Why did you get a job here?" "Because it's honest and necessary work," said I, and went into my spiel about jobs that didn't support the war effort. "What's that book you've got?" one of them asked. "'Hawaii', by James Michner," I answered, handing it over. They peered at it, looking disappointed. "What work do you do here?" another asked. "I'm a Yard Clerk," I said, "And if you want confirmation of that, talk to the Trainmaster; he's just getting into his car up there." I pointed to where the Trainmaster was indeed getting into his car, and they all headed in that direction. I promptly took off, got down to the street, hopped on my bus and went home.

A few days later, the Trainmaster reluctantly told me that I wouldn't get a permanent job as Yard Clerk. Why? Well, for one thing, I hadn't qualified on the computer. This, I knew, was a cheap excuse -- which is probably what the otherwise-useless computer was kept in the tower for. "What's the real reason?" I dared ask. Well, for another, the Trainmaster explained, the railroad was planning to phase out the job of Yard Clerk, and replace it with a bar-code reader that would record the cars' numbers and information much faster than a human could. Uhuh. And how would a bar-code reader collect the Bills of Lading, much less return them to the Road Engine's driver, or examine cars or rails for damage? I didn't bother to ask; I knew the real reason I was being booted.

So I collected my last pay and went looking for another job. I later learned that the railroads had to keep hiring Yard Clerks anyway, to do all the work that a bar-code reader couldn't.

Needless to add, this incident did not improve my opinion of the Chicago police.