Monday, October 13, 2014

A Platinum Rule for the Modern World

People often talk about the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is sometimes presented as “treat others as you would like to be treated.” And since platinum is like gold for hipsters, we also have the Platinum Rule: “treat others as they would like to be treated.”

The problem with the Platinum Rule is our limited ability to comprehend the views of others. We think of things our way and often can’t even understand that someone might see things differently. I once read a story about Queen Victoria’s refusal to outlaw lesbian sex; the story goes that it wasn’t due to the queen’s socially progressive stance on human sexuality, but she refused to believe that it was a real thing.

The Platinum Rule can work when we can receive guidance regarding the treatment others would like to receive, but when the views of the other are unknown, we fall back on the Golden Rule. I have to assume that you are like me and treat you how I would like to be treated.

The biggest problem with the Golden Rule is the change it has undergone. Now we have something I’d call the Looking Glass Rule: treat others how you would like them to like to be treated.

The Platinum Rule says to find out if your officemates care if you have loud personal phone calls at your desk. The Golden Rule says don’t have loud personal phone calls at your desk if you would dislike it were your officemates to have loud personal phone calls at their desks. But the Looking Glass Rule says have loud personal phone calls at your desk because you would like your officemates to be okay with you having loud personal phone calls at your desk.

This is why someone in the office can be angry about my phone calls while not comprehending my anger about his phone calls. What matters isn’t how others feel, it’s how you want them to feel. After all, how can I know their feelings, which are outside my comprehension? But I can know my feelings about their feelings, so that’s the metric I target.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prep Your Mormon Kids for Being Gay

When a child is born, he knows nothing of human sexuality, while his parents know quite a bit. So what’s the deal with the classic “I have to tell my parents I’m gay” trope?

Your parents have known about gay since before you knew anything. They knew what gay was and how gay behaved. (I don’t mean wearing skinny jeans and calling everything “fabulous,” I mean taking an interest in the same sex in a way that straight people take an interest in the opposite sex.) For born-this-way gays, you shouldn’t have to tell your parents anything. They should be the ones telling you.

This seems especially important if your child is being raised in an environment that rank-and-file gays would say is incompatible with homosexuality, such as socially-conservative Christianity. (Note that I don’t say the environment is incompatible, only that your child is going to be indoctrinated with the idea that it is incompatible.)

So, Mormon parents, you need to be telling your gay children the ways in which Mormon doctrine allows for homosexual attraction before your kid has his big “I’m gay so that means I can’t be Mormon” moment. Your son’s attraction to the boy next door should have as little bearing on his church membership as his attraction to the girl next door would have had.

Instead, what do we see? We see nearly every gay Mormon quickly becoming a gay ex-Mormon, because they’ve heard their whole lives that you can be one or the other but you can’t be both. You can’t wait until the kid is ready to tell you he’s gay to tell him this, because his decision to tell you was a decision to quit the church. You can’t even wait until he’s found out he’s gay. You have to know before he does, and have prepared him for when he finds out.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Sins of Poverty v. Sins of Affluence

When we were in Lawrence, Kansas, we stopped by the new city library's grand opening. As we milled around, we passed a Baby Boomer lesbian couple.

I've written here before about the challenges that homosexuality brings to parenting. I don't know that my children yet need an understanding of human sexuality beyond reproduction at this point, and homosexuality is inherently non-reproductive. I just don't see any value in introducing ideas in their heads years before they are going to appear there naturally. Our oldest kids have received more information as they've neared puberty, but showing a six-year-old how to put a condom on a banana is insane.

Anyway, this couple in the library made me think of all the problems I'd have to explain to our kids if we ever returned to live in Lawrence. Which led to the thought, "What, Troy, Ohio, didn't have any sinners in town?" Of course Troy had sinners. But they were a different type.

This led me to a realization about sins that are born of poverty and sins that are born of affluence. Poverty sins are generally reactive. Because poverty is difficult, sometimes the poor respond with sinful behavior. In the words of Pulp, "You dance and drink and screw because there's nothing else to do." I feel these sins are easier to explain to children. They aren't willful wrong decisions as much as survival techniques. Hope remains that, if taught more-helpful survival techniques, the poor would stop making these poor choices.

Sins of affluence, however, are not like this at all. They are willful wrong decisions, the sins rich people commit not because life is too hard for them, but because they are insulated from the consequences of their choices, or because they can afford illicit experiences and so seek them out. The rich might claim that they are also responding to existential crises, but there's a difference between doing drugs to deaden your brain to the hopelessness of your life, and doing drugs to deaden your brain to the anxiety caused by your parents' high expectations.

If I have to raise my children around sinners, I'd rather raise them around poor sinners than rich sinners.

PS: I'm aware that this post looks like I'm referring to homosexuality as a sin. I'm not. I'll blog more about that later this week.

Artifacts of a Time When Government Wasn't Broken

As a boy interested in maps, I learned how to read California highway markers. (In the days before the Internet, that was a serious undertaking.) Each feature along a highway is marked with the name of the county and the mileage to one end of the highway, be it the highway's origin or the county line.

So driving along CA-14 on our return trip from Tehachapi, I noticed that the highway markers were promising about 20 more miles of highway than actually exists. Normally, after freeway plans are scaled back, highway signage reflects the fact. Not that the state should spend a bunch of money remarking highways for no other reason, but when the signs are replaced, you'd think they would be updated. But CA-14 has been legislatively truncated since the 1970s, and major construction projects along the corridor have resulted in shiny, brand-new signs with the old numbering.

This got me thinking about all the failed infrastructure projects of America in general and California in particular. Like the Metropolitan Bypass, or Palmdale International Airport. The killer problem for replacing LAX with Palmdale has always been transportation. Until relatively recently, CA-14 couldn't even handle the current volume of traffic generated by meth labs and off-the-grid geodetic domes. (Just kidding, Antelope Valley. I love you. Pearblossom Highway is the world's only free roller coaster.) Taking the traffic from the Westchester segment of the 405 and sending it 50 miles into the desert would make The 'Chester* nicer, but it would make flying in or out of L.A. even worse than it currently is.

The last proposal I read recognized that not only was it impossible to expand CA-14 enough to handle airport traffic, but the current route from Palmdale to downtown was about twice as long as a direct line between the two points. Other countries respond to mountains in the ways of their highways or railways by tunneling. It seems America has gone from leading the world in infrastructure to leading the world in scuttled infrastructure projects. If the local lobby and the environmental lobby don't end proposals, labor unions and bureaucracy make the projects prohibitively expensive.

Recently I've seen two articles about this. One pointed out that Berlin built an entire subway line for less money than Washington Metro will spend on one above-ground in-fill station. (You might say, "A Random Stranger, you're using the high-end estimate," to which I would counter that you know nothing of Washington-area infrastructure financing.) The other pointed out that India's mission to Mars cost about 1/10 of NASA's (and cost less than a movie set in space that was actually filmed entirely on Earth).

California is littered with highway markers remaining from a time when infrastructure wasn't shockingly expensive and government could create public works projects that actually met the needs of the public. We've already entered the post-Roman-Empire phase of national history, when we look at the infrastructure left to us by our ancestors and we marvel that they could build it. Not that we don't understand the science behind it, but that we don't understand the economics behind it. How would America go about building the Interstate Highway System today? What was built 60 years ago is now magical to us.

* = No one really calls it The 'Chester aside from my one friend who attended Loyola Marymount University.

"You'll Be Out of Tehachapi in 20 Years and You Can Come Back to Me Then"

Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade makes Tehachapi sound like a terrible place to spend 20 years. Well, my friends Erik and Cristin are about halfway there, and they don't seem to mind it that much. They invited us up to visit, and since our kids were itching to spend more time in a car, we bundled our crap together and headed on out.

Erik is a pilot, so he took us up in his airplane in two shifts. First was me and Jerome, and Erik's daughter.

I felt like puking, which Erik thought was hilarious. (In his defense, I can see how he was easily confused; had the situation been reversed, it actually would have been hilarious.) In the group of potential passengers was Crazy Jane, who has puked on car trips through the Appalachian Mountains. Before taking off, we made sure she had a bag and clear instructions on how to not puke on the headset. When her turn came, she was fine the entire time.

He's smiling in this picture because he hadn't yet realized he wasn't getting a ride.

Erik landed switched us out, taking up my wife and our two oldest kids. (Note: when we were little kids, my wife's name for Erik was "Erik the Prince." I gave the kids strict instructions to make sure no monkey business was going on in the front seat.) None of that group got pukey, either. Only me.

Just pretending to be nauseated. Like I was! Yeah, like I was, see?

This corkscrew thing is kind of a big deal in Tehachapi. Visitors would do well to just nod politely.

I believe this whole almost-puking thing added another item to Cristin's already-substantial "why I'm glad I married Erik and not his loser friend" list.

While everyone else was in the air get not airsick, Cristin and I took some kids to a railroad museum.

When everyone was back on the ground, we all went to lunch at a sandwich place. One wall of the restaurant was a chalkboard on which patrons could draw or leave messages. While two other children wrote inspiring messages about Jesus all over the chalkboard, my kids wrote messages about how awesome they are, and about ninjas. I felt like the last guy at the party to answer the question, "Who is your hero?" before the guy who says, "Jesus." Well, yeah, I mean, of course Jesus, if He's an option. I didn't think we were going that direction, so that's why I said Batman. Obviously, Jesus is better than Batman. Part of you is angry with the guy who always has to be "on" and couldn't just be cool for once.

Then, because my children need training for the coming apocalypse, Erik took us out in the desert to shoot guns.

That last picture would have given Thomas Jefferson an erection.

Finally, we left, but not before documenting the fact that our wives have stayed young and hot while Erik and I have not.

Early 2002, and we all look like we just came from a junior prom.

Early 2010, and it looks like Erik and I are visiting our nieces.

Mid 2014, and the wheels have come off our respective buses.

We had a great visit. Tehachapi is nowhere near as bad as Sam Spade makes it sound.

Romantic Getaway to Neverland Ranch

When my wife and I started planning for leaving the country, we began talking about going away for a weekend while we still had parents nearby to watch our kids. Since we now had passports, I wanted to go somewhere foreign and exotic. When we decided we would drive to California before leaving for China, I started looking into Mexican resort towns.

But the problem with the Pacific Ocean is that it is nut-numbingly cold, all the time. So I researched places on the Gulf of California, which is shallower and away from the Alaska Current. I found out about a place called San Felipe, Baja California. Not only would the water be warm, but if we took the train to Tijuana and rented a car, we could plan our driving route such that we would visit all five municipios of El Estado de Baja California. I found us a condo online that looked like it was beachfront and nice.

The closer we got to leaving for China, though, the less money we had due to continuing bureaucracy costs. Also, the less time we had for several days away in Mexico. And although our children are very well behaved*, especially compared to some of their cousins, my wife’s parents are getting older and perhaps cannot deal with smaller children for long periods of time. Then, finally, our decision was made for us when we had to mail our passports to New York.

My wife suggested I find us some beach resort in California. My sister had honeymooned on Santa Catalina. Or we could go somewhere warm, like Palm Springs. We could recreate our own honeymoon in Santa Barbara. But the thing is, as much as I want to lounge around with my wife in our bathing suits (or less), that’s not really her idea of a perfect vacation. She wanted to go to Solvang, so I found a nice hotel operated by an Indian casino. But it had no availability when we were free. When I left to take Crazy Jane to the temple, I left my wife with instructions to find us someplace nice in Solvang.

When I got home, we had a reservation at Kronborg Inn. We ditched our children and left. We started talking about where we wanted to eat in Santa Barbara, but since my wife really enjoys a restaurant in our hometown, we went there first before leaving town. (Plus, that way, we had more time to digest our food before we got to the hotel, so we wouldn’t be stroppy cows when it was sexy time. It’s called being detail oriented.)

Our room was very nice. The hotel looked like it had a nice pool and hot tub, but it was sort of late and a little cold outside, so we skipped it. I had just one complaint about the room: being on the outskirts of Solvang, and not set back from the highway very much, some accelerating cars were quite loud. If I owned Kronborg Inn, I’d ask the police to strictly enforce the speed limit in front of the hotel.

We spent the next day walking around Solvang, which is just the kind of crap that drives ladies wild.

Eating ├Žbleskivers.

Recreating a picture we took on our honeymoon in the same hut.

The Danish flag wouldn't cooperate, so I had to hold it still.

My first attempt at this picture forgot to include the giant clog, which was the whole reason for the picture.

We left in the early afternoon and stopped for lunch in Santa Barbara at the California Pizza Kitchen we would visit in high school. As is true of almost all restaurants, the menu has changed and is not as good as it used to be.

We also stopped by my favorite map store, which has new owners and is now more of a travel clothing store with a small section of maps. The owner was nice, but I still wanted to spit in her eye. How could she do this to my map store?!

So we had a fun vacation in Solvang. We even drove past the Taco Bell in Buellton where Michael Jackson used to go through the drive-through wearing a mask so no one would know it was him. Because the only distinctive feature of Michael Jackson is his face, right?

* = I know everyone says this about his own children, but we seriously get complimented on our children’s behavior all the time. At restaurants, at tourist attractions, and especially on airplanes. Usually at the end of the experience, when the bigots feel comfortable saying, “I hated you for being here, but it turned out I was wrong.” I am not making this up. You should go with us to a national historical site sometime and hear the compliments come rolling in.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Crazy Jane's First Temple Trip

Our daughter, Crazy Jane, turned 12 on a Sunday while we were visiting in California, so that next Tuesday she and I went to the temple for her first experience with proxy baptisms.

The timing of her birthday and our move made it a little tricky; she had her temple recommend interview with our bishop in Ohio a few weeks before her birthday, and he gave the recommend to me with the understanding that she wasn’t actually authorized to use it until her birthday. This was probably not standard procedure, but if we waited until her birthday we’d be in a California ward on vacation, and then we’d be in China, where we don’t know how frequently we’ll be able to make it to Hong Kong or Seoul. So I tucked her recommend away for a few weeks and gave it to her after her birthday.

It’s great to do temple work for relatives with whom you’ve interacted, but unfortunately for my daughter, all that work either has been completed already or isn’t available yet. So she got to do baptisms for peripheral family members, such as my grandfather’s brother’s wife’s mother and that lady’s aunts. She helped me do the research and submission a few weeks before, and it turns out she really enjoys family history work, so we’ll work on it together more in the future.

Some temples allow baptistery patrons to use the front door, while others don’t. I used to date a girl who went with me to the temple every week, and she would do baptisms while I did other work. Most weeks they allowed her in the front door, but sometimes they made her use the baptistery door. So I wasn’t sure if Crazy Jane could come in the front with me when I had the records office print the name slips. I left her in the waiting area, but by the time I came back, the desk worker had given her a sticker for her shoulder to mark that she could move about the non-endowed areas. Since we were quite early (because of allowing for traffic that didn’t materialize), we went to the cafeteria and had some food. I showed her the small record office where my wife and I reviewed our marriage license the morning of our wedding, then we headed down to the baptistery.

So Crazy Jane performed her first proxy baptisms in the same temple where her mother and I did our first ones, too. She even enjoyed it more than sitting in the front seat of the car the whole way there and back. Afterwards, she also perpetuated the family tradition of getting dressed way faster than I do. Every time I attend the temple with my wife, I think I’m changing quite quickly and then I come out of the changing room to discover my wife has been done for ages and is dumbfounded with how I managed to take so long. Crazy Jane did the same, and she even managed to forget her bag and go back for it.

Take Your High Wages Elsewhere

I used to work in city government for a suburban city of 65,000 in southern California. The then-city manager was named Jerry Bankston (whose name is very similar to that of Honduran footballer Jerry Bengtson). He liked to tell people about how, in the mid 1990s, Walmart wanted to open a store in our town and he told Walmart they could SHOVE IT!!!! And because this is the type of town where all the enlightened suburbanites are sooooo smart, that type of story can make a guy a folk hero. California has a long tradition of Zorro-like figures, beginning with Hiram Johnson and continuing down to Zorro himself. Here was a modern-day Zorro (though not “modern-day” in the George Hamilton sense).

I remembered this when I was back in my hometown, shopping in a new Walmart Neighborhood Market.

While rejecting Walmart, my town welcomed Target with open arms. Because, as all every enlightened suburbanite can tell you, Target is good and Walmart is bad. Except that’s not true. But it’s okay, because they think it’s true, and because Paul Frank stuff looks neater than Faded Glory.

A few weeks ago, some media outlets picked up the story of an academic paper that finds big-box retailers help retail wages rise, not fall. And I think most of us have seen stories of Walmart’s starting wages in North Dakota, which has the lowest unemployment rate of any state. So why did the city manager get positive feedback for an attempt to keep worker-class wages lower?

Of course, the lowest possible wage is zero, which is the goal of many enlightened suburbanites. When government officials congratulate themselves on prohibiting Walmart’s entry, they are replacing positive-wages jobs with zero-wages non-jobs. While the citizenry still has demand for products, which will ensure that other, non-Walmart retail jobs will exist, if the retail jobs are non-big-box, the wages will be lower, and if they are other-big-box, such as Target, the change is symbolic at best. The story that Walmart is especially worse than its competitors only makes sense to The Daily Show crowd who believes any story that supports their priors, so long as it’s told with sufficient snark.

I believe part of the motivation for Walmart to create and promote the Neighborhood Market brand is to comply with the symbolism. “Congrats, city elders, you kept out Walmart. Now how about letting a Walmart in?” Since the inefficient retailers the officials are trying to protect aren't grocers, they don't agitate against it.

Ultimately, what government opposition to Walmart says is, “Hey, citizens, you’re too stupid to make the right choice, so we need to take some choices away from you.” And the citizenry loves to hear it. Because if there’s one thing the enlightened suburbanites are actually right about, it’s how stupid they are.

Friday, October 03, 2014

"There's a Thousand-Dollar 'Leaving Town' Tax"

Getting our entry visas from China was frustrating and expensive. Most of that came from bureaucratic requirements to verify that my family members are actually my relatives.

First, we had to mail everyone's birth certificate to his birth state for the appropriate secretary of state to attach a document verifying the signature of the county clerk. (We also had to do this with our marriage certificate.) Crazy Jane and Articulate Joe had an extra step, because their birth certificates had signatures not of clerks, but of "health officials." We had to mail these certificates to the county to get the clerk to verify the health officials' signatures, then to the state to verify the clerk's signature. Screamapilar's birth certificate was 15-months old and his birth state won't verify any signature older than one year, so he needed a new birth certificate.

Once the secretaries of state returned the certificates to us, we had to mail them to Washington to have the United States Secretary of State verify the signatures of the secretaries of state. Then these documents had to go to the Chinese embassy to be approved for use in China. Then they had to be mailed to Beijing for a Chinese official to verify that we are related and issue an invitation for me to work in China and for my family to accompany me.

We received the invitations in the mail, but my employer kept the relationship documents in Beijing for us to use when we arrived and applied for our resident permits. However, we needed those relationship documents to apply for our visas. By the time we discovered this, we were days away from leaving Ohio, so my employer sent the documents to my in-laws' house in California.

Visa applications can occur at the embassy or at consulates. China has divided the United States for jurisdictional reasons (a shadow of things to come?), so Ohio residents can only apply for visas through the New York consulate. But how were they going to know I was an Ohio resident? The application didn't ask for my address or driver's license. I decided to say I was a California resident and apply through the Los Angeles consulate.

The consulate website has a visa application form that must be completed on the computer and printed. The instructions specifically order that no pen marks can be on the paper but your signature. So I spent several hours completing six applications and printing them out, then I found the office hours on the website. Nine to five. The next day, I drove to the consulate.

Sure, the consulate is open from nine to five, but what they don't tell you until you get to the locked visa window is that they only take visa applications from ten to two. (Could I have called and confirmed their hours? No, because the website says they will not return calls regarding information that is available on the website.)

Down the hallway is a travel company that does a healthy business navigating the byzantine requirements for travel. I decided to stop in and see if it would be worth my while to pay them to process the applications instead of returning the next day.

I sat down with an employee who took one look at the applications and said, "These are the old forms so they will all have to be retyped." I asked how much it would cost and she said, "How much do you want to pay?"

Now, I'd read several tourist books in preparation for our move, and I was familiar with the fact that haggling over price was a very common thing in Chinese markets, but I hadn't realized it would start already, before I had even left the U.S. I was pretty pleased with myself when I countered, then settled on a price in the middle.

Then it came to light that I was not a California resident. Even though the application doesn't require it, filing the application evidently does require that I show my driver's license. I said I had an Ohio license, but I was now a California resident (which, for about three weeks, was true). The consul was hanging out in their office just then (see: "racket"), so they asked her if I could apply in Los Angeles. She said I had to show a utility bill or get a driver's license.

I wasn't going to get a California driver's license because we didn't want to become California residents for tax purposes and because we were going to remain registered to vote in Ohio, so I returned home and we mailed all our documents to New York. When I had to insure the package, I calculated that the replacement cost of the documents was over $2,000, but FedEx only lets you insure up to $500. So we just hoped and prayed that our FedEx driver wouldn't be one of those FedEx drivers who burns his truck to the ground or throws away packages he doesn't want to deliver. (Why do most of these different stories start with referencing Seinfeld, when the show actually took the idea from real life?) Finally, with three days to spare, we received our entry visas that would allow us to fly to China and, once there, apply for resident visas.

From January, when I first applied for a job in China, to August, when we left America, here are our bureaucracy expenses.

  • Jan. 27: U.S. Department of State: $220.00
  • Jan. 27: Postmaster: $51.25
  • Feb. 21: VitalChek: $20.00
  • Mar. 6: Sam's Club (passport photos): $21.28
  • Mar. 10: U.S. Department of State: $320.00
  • Mar. 10: Postmaster: $100.00
  • Apr. 9: Ventura County Clerk and Recorder: $14.00
  • Apr. 9: California Secretary of State: $80.00
  • Apr. 9: Kansas Secretary of State: $7.50
  • Apr. 10: Postmaster: $17.57
  • Apr. 14: Virginia State Health Department: $12.00
  • Apr. 14: Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth: $10.00
  • Apr. 29: YMCA (criminal background check): $55.00
  • May 5: Madison County Clerk of Courts: $1.00
  • May 28: Travel Document Systems, Inc.: $565.00
  • May 28: FedEx: $143.60
  • Jun. 3: Walmart (passport photos): $7.86
  • Jun. 4: FedEx: $53.12
  • Aug. 6: Travel Document Systems, Inc.: $1,378.62
  • Aug. 6: FedEx: $72.39
  • TOTAL: $3,150.19

For comparison's sake, airfare and luggage for six from Los Angeles to Beijing was $3,837.00. So the paperwork of going to China cost 82% of the price of actually going to China.

I know most of it was reimbursed (not all of it, as I originally had been led to believe), but it's still my payment when my work incurs a higher hiring cost, because they just lower my wage accordingly. So this is all just an exercise in government rent capture. (For non-economists, rents are payments you receive for owning a resource, and rent capture is when firms and individuals try to create restrictions that will see them get paid for their resources. For instance, anyone can drive anyone in a car, so the economic profit (profit allowing for opportunity cost) of driving a cab should be zero, but when cab companies lobby for government restrictions on cab companies, they create a scenario where they make positive economic profit by banning Lyft and Uber.) And what I experienced is a collection of government agencies capturing rents that are rightfully mine.

I took a job in China because (at least in part) it was more lucrative for me to work there than to work in the U.S. Those are my rents that come to me from "owning" myself and my talents. Government agencies have reduced the value of my talents in China by requiring payments for allowing me to go there. This is the same motivation behind the recent increase in expense for renouncing U.S. citizenship: when slaves can self-manumit, the cost of manumission will be the entire expected value of freedom. The marginal slave will be indifferent between free servitude and expensive liberty.

But I am not the marginal slave. I'm a highly-skilled one. And it was worth $7,000 to me (not counting the income taxes I will pay to two countries now) to get out.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Westward Migration, Day 10

Day Nine doesn’t really get its own post. We spent the day hanging out with our cousins, swimming in their pool.

The next day we went with them to church in the morning. Their ward never got the memo about not using a “reverence child.” When our kids noticed this, they required an explanation. I told Crazy Jane what the idea is and why you’re not supposed to do it anymore. I said, “If you are having a loud conversation, I don’t think a silent child 50 feet away is going to help you stop.” She said, “They should have another child yelling, ‘Quiet!’”

After church we went back to my sister-in-law’s house for a picture of all the cousins, which ended up including my nephew’s “friend.” I’m fine with semi-serious girlfriends being in family pictures because it’s important to the family members they’re dating. My brother’s teenage girlfriend came to the hospital when Crazy Jane was born and had her picture taken holding our first baby. But everyone spent all weekend telling us this girl WASN’T a girlfriend. She was a friend who happened to be a girl. Oh, and who happened to spend all day in a bikini in the hot tub with my nephew, and then spend all night watching movies while cuddled up with him on the couch. You know, just like how two dudes watch a movie together.

We left for the 10-hour drive to my in-laws’ house. Just 20 minutes later, we crossed into Butte County, California, my 1,566th county.

I had visited half of the nation’s 3,132 counties (and county equivalents). We stopped to take pictures, and my wife insisted I jump in the air for one of them. (I swear, it was her idea.)

We detoured in Sacramento to see the California state capitol.

Then we saw Sacramento California Temple.

Finally, we had supper at In-N-Out before leaving Sacramento.

Several hours later, we detoured through Fresno to see the temple there (and to eat more In-N-Out).

Finally, we got to my in-laws’ house around 2 AM. We got our kids in bed, unloaded the trailer, and went to return it to the rental location (so it was there before they opened). The only reason we didn’t get another Double Double while we were out was that In-N-Out isn’t open 24 hours.

I visited seven new counties on the day, getting much closer to finished with California.

Overall, I visited 70 new counties on the trip, finished four states, and crossed the halfway point for the entire country.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Westward Migration, Day 8

We started the day early, not intentionally, but just because that was when we were up and fed. To start, we headed south out of Reno to visit Alpine County, California, part of a three-county island of unvisited counties in the map of my travels. We got to the state line and stopped to take a picture. My wife, a native Californian, was very happy to be back.

This made me start questioning my decision to never move back. Perhaps I had been too rash. I had made the resolution nine years ago. Maybe California wasn't really that bad, or maybe it was bad but no worse than anywhere else, or maybe it was better, or at least could get better. I began to wonder if, once we return from China, we could live in California.

Once we turned around, we stopped in Carson City to take a picture of the state capitol. While we were there, I needed to use a restroom, and since I'm not an unreasonable child, I decided to find a restroom while we were in a city instead of waiting ten more minutes and then being reminded of my need by the complete absence of all restrooms. So while my wife tried to take a picture of the capitol, I went in a casino to use the restroom.

My wife had a hard time getting a shot. Nevada's capitol is surrounded by dense trees, planted there for the express purpose (it seems) of making photography of the capitol impossible. Because terrorism.

Meanwhile, Crazy Jane was completely freaked out by the prospect I would gamble while heading to or from the restroom. My wife sent me with some nickels, which made Crazy Jane flip her lid even more. But good news, Crazy Jane: the days of gambling a few nickels at a time are over. I walked through acres of slot machines, but I had no idea how much they cost or how I'd put in money. It's all card-based now, I guess. And whatever happened to the good old-fashioned slot machine, with no theme aside from three cherries being a good thing? Now everything has a theme to it. It's not enough to watch wheels go around, the wheels have to be associated with some brand you favor. One of the slot machines was an honest-to-goodness Ferris Bueller's Day Off machine. Presumably, three Rooneys is a bad thing and three Von Steuben Day parade floats is a good thing.

When we returned to Reno, we stopped by the temple, then headed north of town on US-395, where we crossed back into California, this time to stay.

A few miles beyond the border was a California agricultural inspection station. If you've never driven into California you might be unaware that California stops every vehicle and asks if you have any produce or plants. If you do, and you're driving a commercial vehicle, they inspect the vehicle. If you're just a regular citizen, they destroy your produce. This is why my mother's 10-year-old houseplants were abandoned when we moved to California in the 1980s. This is why my wife has memories of her mother making everyone eat all their remaining produce quickly before reentering California from visits to Utah.

I knew I'd be within my rights to crack my window and ask, "Am I being detained?" but I didn't really see a point to that. The way my past experiences at ag inspection stations worked, they ask if I have any fruit and I say I don't and they let me drive on. But today was different, because today was the day I started thinking, "Maybe living in California's not as bad as I'm remembering it."

I stopped and put down my window. The inspector asked if we had fruit. I said no. He said, "I'd like you open the trailer, please." He said it that way because he had no legal basis to ask. I knew I didn't have to comply, but I also knew he could prolong the encounter to make my refusal more unpleasant than compliance would have been. I had to turn off the car to take my keys to the back to unlock the trailer. I did not say anything as I complied. But because I wasn't chatty enough, the inspector could tell I was upset about it.

Bear in mind, I was going to unhappily comply and then leave. The inspector decided that wasn't good enough. So it must not be compliance that is his true objective. It was the thoughts of my heart that mattered to him.

As we walked to the back of the car, he said, "Does this anger you?" I said, "Yes, it does, actually." He asked, "On constitutional grounds?" I said yes. He said, "Driving on the roads of California is a right, not a privilege."

Which is completely irrelevant.

I'm aware that operating a motor vehicle on a state's roads is a revokable privilege. But it cannot be revoked on whatever basis the state wants. Submission to unreasonable searches and seizures cannot be a requirement of keeping the privilege, any more than the state can deny marriage licenses to those who exercise their freedom of speech. The state cannot require you surrender your constitutional rights, and the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

On what grounds did I feel this was unreasonable? He asked me if I had fruit and I said no. What logic-based cause did he have to doubt me? This was not a random search, where the state would just have to show that all searches are reasonable and only some are executed in the interest of time. This search would not normally happen, but in my case it did, and there was no logical reason to assume I was not telling the truth when I answered his initial question.

So I said, "That has nothing to do with this. You're searching my property without cause." He said, "That's not your property, that belongs to U-Haul." As if U-Haul's owners have no Fourth Amendment rights or as if those rights don't matter when the owner is absent. I said, "The things inside the trailer aren't U-Haul's, and that's what you're actually inspecting." He started telling me about an invasive species he found in a tiny crack of a trailer once. I said, "We understand the need to prohibit invasive species. We grew up in California. But you have no reason to believe I have an invasive species in my trailer." He said, "I have two reasons: you are pulling a trailer, and you're license plate is from back east." I asked, "All trailers from Ohio are carrying fruit?" He said, "Some are." By this time, I was back in the car and had the engine running, so I left.

I was very upset that what looked like an agriculture inspection station had in fact become a thought inspection station. My inspection took longer because I had heterodox thoughts. If I'd been happier to comply, there would have been no problem.

We drove on, stopping for lunch at Jack in the Box in Susanville. When I went to California State Summer School for the Arts, a kid in my group was from Susanville and was quite tortured by the fact. He had this persecuted-genius-artist complex, convinced that everyone else in Susanville was trying to wound his soul or something. I didn't get that feeling in town, though I did have to see a lady use a tennis-ball-flinging-wand to scoop dog poop out of the bed of her truck (which she then flung into some bushes).

Next, we went to Lassen Volcanic National Park, where another low-level bureaucrat decided to use her authority to remind me that she had power and I did not. You see, we visit many national parks, and our children always participate in the junior ranger program. At some parks, the rangers are happy to have kids participate, and at others, the rangers use the opportunity to teach my children that the person with the badge is in charge. We often have problems with rangers who refuse to let Jerome participate because he's too young, and when we tell them the kid can handle anything designed for a boy twice his age, they think, "Of course parents will think that." So we're used to the idea that at some parks, the junior ranger program is a great experience, and at other parks, it's really unpleasant and only something we do because our kids are hoarders.

I went to the counter and asked the ranger if they had a junior ranger program. She said they did. She asked me how long we were going to be in the park. I said, "An hour or two." She said, "The program takes at least four hours."

We've encountered this type of response before. They are often wrong, because they don't know that our kids are faster than the average kid. So we just ignore these statements and complete the program. But this ranger would not give me the books because I wasn't going to be in the park long enough. She had authority over a children's activity book and she was going to maximize the reach of that authority. So she said it takes four hours and I just ignored her and said, "I'd like three books." She said, "I can't give them to you because we only have so many and we can't give them to everyone." So we had told our children all day that the small prize for this segment of the ten-day car trip was a junior ranger badge, but this bureaucrat decided we didn't get them.

Both of these bureaucrat interactions killed my budding "maybe California's not that bad" feeling. Yes, California is that bad. Central authority is to be respected at all costs, and contrary thoughts are persecuted as much as contrary actions. It is completely emasculating and contrary to the western tradition of personal liberty to have to submit to these intrusions. "Why did Dad stop the car?" Because someone else is in charge of when I can drive and when I can't. "Why didn't Dad get junior ranger booklets?" Because someone else is in charge of whether I can have them.

We came down out of the mountains, gaining about 35 degrees of temperature in an hour, and stopped for two days at my wife's sister's house.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Westward Migration, Day 7

Walking to the car in the morning, Screamapilar started to cry.

Another day in the car. We drove across Snake River Valley to Twin Falls, where we stopped to get some lunch. My wife got Cafe Rio for her and me, while I got Dairy Queen hot dogs and chicken strips for the kids. Then we headed south on US-93.

For this trip, we had seen every license plate but Hawaii and Rhode Island. Our trip earlier in the month, we had seen every license plate but Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota. My wife wanted to combine both trips, since they were both in July, but this was the final day of July and we still had not seen a Hawaii plate. But crossing from Idaho to Nevada on US-93, heading the other direction was a Porsche from Hawaii. So in July we saw all 50 states, DC, and seven of 10 Canadian provinces.

I wish the rest of the drive across Nevada was that interesting. But it wasn't. Not at all. But it did feature several pee breaks on the side of the road.

We drove through my final six counties for Nevada, which was my 14th completed state.

We spent the night with a childhood friend of my wife, who now lives in Reno. Our homeschooled kids got a healthy dose of socialization from her children, who played video games in silence next to my children, who in turn played video games in silence. And the kids probably all went away thinking, "I got along well with those other kids."

My wife and daughter now have only one county remaining to visit in Nevada.

Westward Migration, Day 6

We woke up in Wyoming and headed out of Casper to the southwest, into the mountains. Our first stop was Independence Rock, which was not as exciting as it was when I played "Oregon Trail" in fifth grade.

Next, we went to Devil's Gate, which is actually just down the road from Independence Rock. You can easily see one from the other.

Then, we went to Martin's Cove, which is just the other side of Devil's Gate.

I'm not sure if my wife and children have ancestors from the Martin or Willey handcart companies, or who helped with the rescue. Maybe they should watch 17 Miracles to find out. (That was a little "Legacy and The Work and the Glory aren't actually church history" joke for my wife, who sort of half-seriously wants to see the Steeds' house in Nauvoo every time we visit.)

As we continued west, we thought we saw antelope, which was very exciting for my wife, but it turns out they were pronghorn sheep which "are not officially recognized as antelope, but locally referred to as such," according to Wikipedia.

We stopped to see South Pass City, which was the type of major disappointment of a destination my father loves to visit. As a child, I would have spent the better part of a day in that town. As an adult with children of my own, we didn't get out of the car.

We drove through open range, with large menacing signs warning of livestock collisions. In my extensive traveling around the empty part of the country, I've seen a variety of open range warning signs. Utah has placid cows standing in profile. Nevada has angry cows hopped up on meth, ready to charge. Wyoming has "YOU WILL DIE AND LEAVE A TERRIBLE-LOOKING CORPSE!!!!eleventy!!!" warning signs. It's hard to say which approach is best, although the Utah sign is easily graffitied to look like the cow is riding a skateboard, which is fun.

After several pee breaks along the side of the road, we eventually crossed into Utah near Bear Lake. Originally we weren't going to go through Utah, but we were very close to Bear Lake and my wife had seen friends' Facebook posts about raspberry milkshakes, which evidently bring all the raspberry-loving boys to the yard. Or at least to Bear Lake. So we stopped for some milkshakes.

Driving up the western shore of Bear Lake, we crossed into Crazy Jane's 1,000th county.

Our kids worked really hard on this trip at perfecting their ill-timed bathroom needs. Jerome was especially good at expressing indignation at the thought he might need a bathroom when one was nearby, and then demanding immediate relief within moments of passing the last bathroom for miles. So he got to poop at a boat ramp west of Soda Springs, Idaho.

We got to Preston, Idaho, where we had a hotel room for the night. After having spent the previous night in a recently-renovated Courtyard, Preston's Plaza Motel looked a little shabby, but the truth is that the place was quite pleasant for what it was (an independent motel in a town of 13,000 people). I've stayed at worse hotels and motels before. The wifi, however, was terrible, but that could have been a result of all the other guests being single men on work assignments from construction and utility companies (if you know what I mean).

We went for a walk around Preston, where we saw Napoleon Dynamite's high school.

We looked for The Cuttin' Corral as we walked around town, but didn't find it. However, we did see the birthplace of Matthew Cowley, and the fact that it is marked as a site of interest tells you something about Preston.

Leaving the grocery store, where we bought some food for dinner, my daughter, who was wearing her Fernando Torres jersey, was given a ribbing by another grocery store patron. "There are better players on Chelsea than Torres," he said by way of introduction. He was wearing a Manchester United jersey, which made my children suspect he was suffering from brain damage. The fact that this conversation happened in Preston, Idaho, tells you everything you need to know about the changing tastes of American sports fans.

Not that many new counties for the day because the counties we visited were gigantic.