Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Exploring An Ancient Cave


There are a lot of things I want to do “someday.” One has been exploring an ancient mine on Mount Jasper in Berlin, NH. Long-postponed somedays are here now since I decided last spring to cap my teaching career at thirty-six years. So, a couple of weeks ago my wife and I climbed to the top of Mount Jasper’s southwest-facing cliff, then carefully threaded our way down to an old cave. It’s a man-made cave that took thousands of years to hack into a seam of multi-colored jasper. The material is also called rhyolite and it threaded diagonally up the exposed ledge of the mountain after forming over a hundred million years ago.

For years, I’ve been finding stone artifacts and flakes left by prehistoric inhabitants of the Fryeburg area, many of which I noticed were made from distinctive kinds of stone. Online, I learned some of it was a material called rhyolite from a source near the upper Androscoggin River in Berlin. Available evidence indicates that early Americans discovered it there and have been extracting tool-making material from this cave for about nine thousand years.Berlin from the ledge above the mine. Rain shower coming in from the south.

The first I’d learned of the mine was in a column by Ed Parsons in The Conway Daily Sun back in 1998 or ’99. Parsons writes mostly about hiking, and it seems he’s been up nearly every hill and mountain in the area. Included was a photo of the City of Berlin taken from top of the ledge above the mine. That’s when I made up mind to go there someday and check it out.

Two things made this a trip my wife and I could enjoy together: one - it involved rocks, which we both like. Two - it involved hiking, which isn’t one of my passions, though I do it occasionally because she likes it. “Just to get to the top” doesn’t motivate me to walk up up a steep hill for hours. If there’s a pegmatite mine on top, that would be some incitement, but that kind of mine is common in this part of the world and there are many I can drive to. If there were old cellar holes to examine on the way up a hill, that would motivate me too, but if there’s just a nice view, well, there are lots of nice views around I could drive to and enjoy with a sip of wine without getting all tired and sweaty climbing up and down. The historical significance of the Mount Jasper mine, and that it’s one of the oldest human-made sites in the whole northeast, excited me greatly and it was only about a half-hour hike up. All that put it near the top of the bucket list for this retired history teacher.

I researched it as much as I could before going, of course, and learned that ancient Americans probably didn’t spend a lot of time on site. Evidence uncovered thus far indicates that they went to replenish their tool supply. They would chisel pieces of jasper/rhyolite out of the cave, lug them to the top of the ledge or down to the bottom near the Dead River, and begin working them into tools like spear points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers and drills. Sometimes they would make cores, or rough chunks, which they would lug back to their settlements to further knap into the finished tools listed above. The flakes I found in Fryeburg were a result of this process.Close match. The one on the right was found at the entrance to the cave. The two on the left I found in Fryeburg.

Those who made finished tools there would sometimes discard their worn-out knives or arrowheads made of stone they’d gotten elsewhere in the northeast - like Mount Kineo or Munsungan Lake, Maine. These were found in the two working areas above and below the mine, which were partially excavated by Archaeologist Michael Gramly, whom I’d had the good fortune to meet and talk with for hours while visiting in Oquossoc, Maine. He strongly encouraged me to make the trip to Mount Jasper.Different facets show different effects of weathering as rhyolite chunks have been chiseled away over time.

When first glimpsing the entrance to the cave we noticed pieces of rhyolite strewn about and exposed to the elements. Material on the walls of the mine inside was not weathered and showed different colors ranging from red, blue and green to gray. I’d found both weathered and unweathered artifacts and flakes of Mount Jasper rhyolite in Fryeburg, and I’d carried some to the mine with me for comparison.Close-up of image above. It's a pretty rock.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the rhyolite would change its appearance after weathering. Old stone walls turn gray after little more than a century while newly-dug-up stone looks distinctively different and contrasts older stones when added to an already-existing wall. Some of the rhyolite artifacts I’ve found had been laying around a long time. Others seem to have been covered by soil shortly after the knapping process and retained their fresh appearance. I found these latter while examining freshly plowed and harrowed fields after a rain.Mount Jasper cave ceiling

In my research, I learned there’s another, even older site near Mount Jasper in Jefferson, NH where a similar kind of rhyolite was being knapped twelve thousand years ago. The “someday” I explore there will likely arrive later this fall.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Obama Fatigue


People must be peeling Obama stickers off their Volvos lately because I’m not seeing nearly as many as I used to. There are holdouts - people who believe the only reason Obama hasn’t been able to come through with the hopes and changes he promised in the forms of green jobs, lowering ocean levels, abolishing nuclear weapons, and making friends with Radical Muslims, is because Republicans refuse to cooperate. Those nasty Tea-Party types are stonewalling him because they’re racist and they don’t want to see a black president achieve marvelous things for America. And, they’re trying to blame poor Obama for the economic mess President Bush caused in the first place.The holdouts won’t change their world view no matter what happens.

Others used to feel good about their Obama bumper stickers - which proclaimed to the world that they were “progressives” who understood it was time America had a black president. They believed the whole world would see, because of the votes of forward-looking people like them, that America wasn’t the greedy, capitalist, warmongering, energy-guzzling oppressor they thought it was. Obama could make speeches all around the globe and people everywhere would see for themselves how smart and how nice he was. They would stop hating us because they would see how a country that elected such an articulate president wasn’t so bad, and might even be good. After enough speeches, the world might well become a place full of smiling, happy people holding hands and celebrating diversity.

Then Congress passed Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill, and all those proud progressives with Obama stickers waited for the summer of recovery predicted by the president and his faithful sidekick, Vice President Joe Biden. So many shovel-ready projects were in the pipeline, they’d promised, that unemployment should start diminishing right away. When it didn’t they were patient, realizing that environmental impact studies had to be done. Permits had to be applied for and obtained, so when unemployment numbers continued to rise, they maintained their hope for change. Joe Biden promised them that the summer of recovery would surely manifest in 2010.

But it didn’t. The faithful hopey-changey progressives began to wonder, and their first pangs of doubt followed. They considered that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to borrow all those trillions of dollars, especially when each job Obama “created or saved” was costing hundreds of thousands - even millions - that we didn’t have. Some figured out that “quantitative easing” amounts to the same thing as printing money, and Obama’s Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was using the Federal Reserve to buy US Treasury bonds, creating digital money out of thin air. He had to do that because neither the Chinese nor the Indians wanted to invest in US Treasuries anymore and were buying gold instead.

Yet Obama was still spending dollars hand over fist. They remembered stories from high school history class of the Germans printing marks after World War I and the ruinous inflation that followed. They watch the European model Obama praised and emulated crack up under unsustainable welfare-state spending, government union guarantees, socialized medicine costs, guaranteed vacation and early retirement expenses for their unionized workforces - coupled with shrinking birth rates. They start wondering if maybe the same kind of crack-up could actually happen here in America too. Worse: maybe it already is. Hope and change is turning into despair and disaster.Soon-to-be-former progressives are noticing that Obama isn’t making any progress, and they’re not feeling proud of those bumper stickers anymore. They’re thinking that maybe they made a big mistake in the voting booth back in November, 2008. Any tingles they may have felt in their legs or anywhere else while listening to his speeches have stopped. Even your favorite song gets old when you hear it over and over too many times. You get so sick of it, you’re thinking you don’t want to hear it ever again, but Obama keeps on making speeches anyway because that’s all he knows how to do. Now, as his green-energy projects are going bankrupt, he’s making more speeches and yelling that he wants to spend another half-a-trillion and create or save more expensive jobs.Many are thinking he should just shut up, go away, and take his teleprompter with him.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Like Whatever

The expression “thrown under the bus” puzzles me. It’s understood to mean putting blame on someone else for something you might have been responsible for, but how did it originate? I’ve been hearing it for years and it irks me. It was a cliche in 2008 when David Segal wrote in the Washington Post “Hardly a week goes by without someone reviving the cliche of the 2008 campaign -- that a former ally of a candidate has been thrown under a bus.”People knew what it meant, but no one I asked could tell me where it came from. Wikipedia offers this: “In Septuagenarian Stew (The Life of a Bum), published in 1990, the Charles Bukowski character Harry pushed his friend Monk in front of a bus, and then stole Monk's wallet while Monk lay unconscious and probably dying in the street.” I have trouble with this explanation because Harry pushed Monk in front of a bus, which is different from throwing him under it. Also, the act seems like pure selfishness. There’s no blame put on Monk; he’s a victim of assault.Charles Bukowski

What bugs me about it, I guess, is that people use it because it’s shallow and trendy. What’s wrong with “thrown to the wolves” or “made a scapegoat”? Those phrases mean the same thing and each has a history. Each can be visualized. People have been thrown to the wolves, and according to Dictionary.com “scapegoat” originated with “a goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head. Lev. 16:8,10,26.” Has anyone ever been thrown under a bus? No. So let’s all stop saying it okay?Words and phrases become faddish as if they were clothing or hairstyles. Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote a piece in The New York Times last week, for example, about overuse of the word “authentic.” As an example, she quoted Anderson Cooper’s comments about his new show: “In everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real.”

That's oxymoronic. We don't try to be authentic. If you have to try, you failed. If you have to tell people you’re authentic, you probably aren’t. The best we can say about Cooper’s comments is that he’s tempted to be phony and is struggling to resist.

Also quoted by Rosenbloom was Naomi S. Baron, author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World.” Baron says the word “awesome” is so overused it has become devoid of meaning: “Technically it should be used to describe an awe-inspiring sight like the fjords in Norway, but these days ‘awesome’ is a perfectly acceptable response to something as mundane as ‘I can meet you for lunch at noon.’”

Almost every day I hear about how someone has “signed off on” something or other. Growing up, I’d hear a radio or TV personality say he was “signing off” as his program was ending. I’d hear friends say they’d “signed on” to a four-year hitch in the Marines. So, to say one has “signed off on” something seems confusing at least if not contradictory. Let’s avoid it and just say approved or endorsed okay?

And then there’s “moving forward.” That’s tiresome too. At dull meetings, it’s used either at the beginning or at the end of proposals for change, like: “Moving forward, we’re going to do it this way,” or “This is the protocol moving forward” - as if any other method would be moving backward. Sometimes it’s just a filler, like “ahh” or a prolonged “aannnnndd . . . ” all of which which President Obama uses when he’s forced to speak without his teleprompter and needs time to figure out what he’s going to say next. I hear “moving forward” most often from people who call themselves “progressive,” as if a different perspective must be regressive.

“Have this conversation” is another tiresome phrase, as in “He and I are going to have this conversation.” If you have a script for how a conversation is going to go, it’s not really a conversation is it? To converse requires give and take, a sharing of ideas to see what emerges. Saying you’re going to have a conversation is a veiled threat, a weak attempt to talk tough. If a boss has to give instructions, he or she should just deliver them directly and avoid the pretense of being open to alternatives.

One of the benefits of being a retired public school teacher is that I haven’t heard anyone say “Whatever!” or “I’m like, ‘Oh my God’!” or “I’m like, so ‘Oh my God’!” for almost three months now.

And that’s been nice.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch


Ben Franklin said that “God helps those who help themselves,” but government helps those who don’t. In his recent book “After America,” Mark Steyn points out how many Americans have become dependent on government: “ . . . by 2004, 20 percent of U. S. households were getting about 75 percent of their income from the federal government [and] another fifth of households . . . receive about 40 percent of their income from the feds . . .” Is that the kind of republic Franklin had in mind when he worked at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia? No. I don’t think so.

So, government is supporting over 100 million of us, but can the rest of us afford to continue paying for it? No again. Under President Obama, we’re borrowing forty cents of every dollar we spend. We’re borrowing money we probably can’t repay. We’re borrowing money our children and grandchildren will have difficulty paying back, and we’re spending it on ourselves, not them. This is sinful.

Forty percent of Americans are hugely dependent on government. It’s also true that forty-seven percent of Americans pay no federal income tax. How much overlap is there between those two populations? Are we talking about the same people? In most cases, yes. How many of them are likely to vote for a congressman or a senator who says we must stop spending money we don’t have? Not too many when they discover that the only way to eliminate deficit spending is cutting back on the checks they get. We’re a country more and more divided between those who pay and those who get paid.

How long can we take money from our most productive and give it to our least productive? How long can we borrow from foreigners? Not much longer. The whole rest of the world doesn’t have enough money to keep lending to us - especially when they know we’re paying interest with dollars printed under Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s policies of “quantitative easing” and artificially low rates.

Too many Americans have learned that it’s easier to let government support them than to support themselves. Reflecting back on thirty-six years of teaching since my recent retirement, I saw a similar pattern in our government schools. A school district’s eligibility for federal money is often figured based on how many parents fill out forms that enable their children to get free or reduced-cost breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The higher the percentage of families who qualify, the more money the school or the district gets. Schools, therefore, are naturally disinclined to scrutinize financial data parents put on the forms. The tendency is to qualify all who apply. Parents and schools both benefit. Not all kids do, however, because some them will grow up to become the citizens expected to pay back the forty cents of every dollar spent on “free” lunches this year. The old adage still applies after all: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Just as an aside: if you saw how much of that food qualifying students throw in the wastebasket every day it would make you sick. People tend not to value what they don’t pay for, students included. Early in my teaching career, I noticed that custodians would save the discarded food for local pig farmers. Then federal government regulators ruled they couldn’t do that. Ever since, it’s gone into the waste stream.

The percentage of students dependent on expensive federal programs is increasing right along with the percentage of adults dependent depend on federal government checks. Students qualifying for federally-mandated special education are “coded.” Even though I earned an advanced degree in special education decades ago, I still have trouble deciphering criteria for certain codes. For a while at least, the simple explanation for someone qualifying as “learning disabled” was functioning at a grade level lower than what would be expected with his/her measured IQ score. The truly disabled had some measurable perceptual or processing deficiency. Others didn’t, but were nonetheless functioning below grade level, and were, therefore, coded. They received the special assistance of a teacher or an educational technician all through school. Several I got to know well over the years, and it was my personal and professional opinion that they simply didn’t want to do the work. They learned early to be helpless as teachers would administrators would lower the bar for them to pass on to the next grade. Every year I’d have several, and it was rare for even one to be kept back. Much more was spent on such students per capita than on those who did the work expected of them.From Motifake.com

Others were coded for behavior problems and that designation changed periodically as well as euphemistically. Some years it was “Behaviorally Handicapped.” Other years it was “Emotionally Disturbed,” and so forth. Some even got their own “educational technician” to follow them around throughout their school day acting as personal secretary or manservant. Parents of these children qualifed for so-called “crazy checks” amounting to several hundred dollars per month. The Urban Dictionary describes them as “often approved for simple and common conditions such as a child (usually in a single-parent household) who can't behave in school.” If their children learned to behave, their crazy checks would stop.

Teachers are encouraged to believe that every child comes to school ready to learn. Trouble is, too many learn that if they don’t work, others will support them. That’s the lesson they carry with them throughout their lives.

And we wonder why America is going bankrupt.

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