Election 2014 already

Apparently it’s election season again ALREADY.

Over on my old blog, I conscientiously and obsessively blogged about the Minneapolis mayoral race.  (It was an interesting year.)  The election came and went, they counted (which took a few days) and I hung up my political-blogging hat thinking, “done with THAT for a while.”

Picture of the Minnesota State Capitol dome.

Minnesota State Capitol. (From http://www.flickr.com/photos/mulad/)

But…it turns out that here in my new district in St. Paul, our State Rep, Michael Paymar, is retiring.  (He’s represented this district since 1996. So — for a while, although our State Senator, Dick Cohen, has been representing District 64 since 1986.)  The caucuses are in February (February 4th, I think; I wrote it down on the calendar) and the Senate District Convention is in March (late March, thank goodness! it shouldn’t interfere with MarsCon). And if things in this district run like things in my old district, odds are excellent that it’s the Senate District Convention that will effectively pick our next State Rep.

I mean, officially there is a primary, and there’s an election.  But the DFL endorsement holds an awful lot of weight in these races, and the DFL-endorsed candidate has a definite edge in the primary. And come the general election, well, I expect that a Republican will run, but I would be pretty shocked if they won.

(DFL = “Democratic-Farmer-Labor.”  It’s just the Minnesota name for the Democratic Party.)

Anyway. I feel much less well-informed in St. Paul, mostly because I have less of a sense of who the jerks are.  In Minneapolis, there are certain endorsements that people will put in their materials that will cause me to write them off unless they are also endorsed by the people I know I like, to balance them out.  I’m sure St. Paul has a similar crowd of People I Would Hate, If I Knew Who They Were, but I don’t know who they are yet.  (Does that mean I pay more attention to who you know, than what you believe?  Well, not exactly.  It’s more that I pay more attention to who your buddies are, than I pay to what you say you believe.)

This is all preamble to note that I got a phone call this evening from Matt Freeman, a candidate to replace Michael Paymar.  He gets points for being the first candidate to call me, although mid-December is honestly a point at which even I do not really want to be thinking about elections.  We chatted a little (I told him I’d moved last year from Jim Davnie’s district; he wanted to know why I moved, and it wasn’t until I was telling him my answer that it occurred to me that I might be tipping my hand about how best he could craft his pitch.  I don’t think he did, though.)  I wrote down the caucus date and his name and then told him to go ahead and give me his pitch.

The two big issues he talked about were (1) raising the minimum wage, and (2) improving the opportunity gap with Early Childhood education.

Having listened to that amazing This American Life episode about free universal preschool as well as having read about studies, I’m on board with Early Childhood education funding as a potential panacea for the opportunity gap.  I’m also a fan of raising the minimum wage, although I was curious what he wanted to raise it to.   Matt said he thought $9.50 was achievable although he would prefer $10.50; he also wants to peg it to inflation and to work for mandatory sick leave and parental leave.  (Universal paid sick leave is one of those “everybody wins” sorts of ideas.  Totally aside from the fact that letting sick people stay home is the humane and reasonable thing to do, I do not want people with the stomach flu handling my food.)

I asked him about his stance on gun control (which has been one of Michael Paymar’s signature issues, not that he’s had much success with it.)  He talked about background checks and mental health screenings, which is actually a huge red flag for me because what exactly does that mean? Does this mean that people who seek help for mental illnesses are going to go into a database accessible to gun salespeople? Because no. I’m a big fan of medical privacy, particularly regarding mental health records.  He backpedaled when I asked for details and it was clear he hadn’t thought about this much.

One thing he had thought about was that we needed to work harder to figure out how to sell gun control to outstate Minnesotans.  And he’s right about that. Minnesota has a strong hunting culture in the rural parts of the state, and guns just have a different place in people’s lives when they live in the country as opposed to the city.

(My friend Elizabeth, who is a Quaker and a committed pacifist, bought a gun when she moved to the country, because they were raising chickens and were troubled with possums. In the city, if a possum moves into your garage, you can call Animal Control.  In the country, you have to deal with this stuff yourself, and that means either owning a gun, or having a neighbor with a gun.)

Anyway. He does not have a smooth, polished political pitch down yet, and I’m wondering now how long he’s been making these calls.  You would think people would start with the people who’ve been to caucuses in the past, but we haven’t been to a caucus in this district yet so presumably he got my number off the voter registration records and that suggests he’s cold-calling registered voters.  Seems impractical, but what do I know about this stuff?  (He was Chris Coleman’s campaign manager so I expect he knows what he’s doing.)

There are currently seven people running for this seat, I think. (All of them Democrats.) In looking for information, I discovered that someone else is already obsessively blogging about this race, relieving me of the responsibility: http://www.theracefor64b.com/  I’ll probably write about it anyway, though.

Same Song, Different Verse

There’s an Isaac Bashevis Singer collection for Hanukkah called The Power of Light, which my family owned when I was little.  It’s a collection of eight stories for Hanukkah. My favorite was probably the title story, about two Jewish teenagers trapped in the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising.  Probably the best-known story in there is “A Parakeet Named Dreidel,” in which a parakeet shows up on the windowsill of the narrator’s New York City apartment.

The Power of Light Cover Illustration

The final story in the volume, “Hanukkah in the Poorhouse,” tells the story of a Jewish man from Belarus who was kidnapped from his family as a child, forced to live with a Russian family, and, on reaching adulthood, drafted into military service.  (“I had no choice but to eat unkosher food,” the narrator says.  “In the first days I spat out the pig meat, but how long can a boy fast? For hundreds of miles around there was not a single Jew.”)

I looked this up, tonight, thinking about this, because I was curious about the historical context.  The boys were called cantonists, and this system (which included some schooling) was originally started out as something for the orphaned sons of soldiers. The kidnapping and forced conscription was something done to Roma and Polish boys as well as Jews.

The news coming out of Russia, about journalist Masha Gessen’s fears for her family, and the very real threats from the Russian government against LGBT families — the threat that they are going to take away the children of loving parents because the parents are gay –this has all reminded me intensely of this story.

And, in fact, pretty much everything happening to gay people in Russia these days probably sounds pretty familiar, if you’re Jewish and grew up with stories about pogroms, ghettos, and Russian persecution of Jews.  It’s certainly sounded familiar to me, right down to my recollection of the historical theory that the Czars encouraged pogroms because scapegoating Jews was such an excellent distraction for people with legit grievances against, say, the Czar. (In Jewish children’s lit, at last back in the 1980s, “Cossacks” basically meant “the bad guys.” It turns out that the Cossacks were ALSO an oppressed ethnic minority — or, in some respects, a co-opted one.)

Anyway. I don’t really have a particular point here, other than that people should read Isaac Bashevis Singer (you can also find that story in his Stories for Children collection, although The Power of Light has absolutely stunning, gorgeous illustrations in it), boycott Russian vodka, and support asylum for any GLBTQ Russians who ask for it.

Gift Shopping for People You Hate: the Passive-Aggressive Shopping Guide

Those who used to follow my blog over on LiveJournal may remember that for several years now I’ve done a list of suggested gifts you could give to someone you didn’t like very much, but had to buy a gift for anyway.  I’ve actually never run into this problem myself, but I know an awful lot of people who seem to have it, and as an unfailingly supportive and sympathetic friend, I wanted to be helpful.

There are a couple of principles that hold true every year.

1. Subtlety!  If you want an open declaration of war, or if you want to insult them and have them KNOW they were insulted, that’s easy and you don’t need my help to come up with that one.  You want them to feel totally disappointed, but like they still have to say “thank you, it’s lovely.”

2. Cheapness but not OBVIOUS cheapness.  For instance, if you want to give someone a bottle of terrible wine, people know that Charles Shaw wine is only $3 (or $2 in California? I’m not sure). The big cheap brands (Koala Ranch, Yellow Tail, Barefoot) are also both too recognizable and too likely to be drinkable.  But if you look, you’ll be able to find a $5 bottle that’s from a totally obscure vineyard.  To maximize the odds of it being terrible, go to a wine store with a good selection and tell the wineseller that you want a bottle of wine for no more than $5 and that it has to have a cork, not a screw-top, and it has to NOT be from a recognizable cheap brand, and that you REALLY don’t care if it’s drinkable because it’s actually a prop for a play or a video you’re making.  (Don’t tell them it’s a gift. There are loads of perfectly drinkable $5 wines out there and they will show you straight to those if they know it’s a gift.)  If they think that no one will ACTUALLY be drinking the wine, you’ll probably get a surprised look and then, “Oh, well.  If you REALLY don’t care how it tastes, how about…” and they’ll hand you some hideous crime against grapes, hopefully with a unique, attractive label and then just add a wine gift bag and you are SET.

3. Minimal effort.  Let’s face it, you probably would like to be able to take care of this while doing your other shopping, right? Which is why gift cards can be ideal, because they have a whole big rack of them at your grocery store, probably.  Look for any or all of the following: (a) businesses the recipient doesn’t patronize; (b) that are primarily brick-and-mortar and are in an extremely inconvenient location; (c) that are in denominations too small to be useful (like, a $25 gift card to a store where everything costs $50 or more).  For the passive-aggressive gift card grand slam you could also look for (d) the subtle criticism, like a gift card for a yoga class (these totally exist, but you’ll have to look up yoga studios and call; you won’t just find that one in a rack between Best Buy and Kohls.)

So there were three specific options I wanted to highlight for you this year.

1. The Worst of Etsy.

Craft fairs can be a great place to buy terrible, terrible things, but they all happen on Saturdays and Sundays and you know, you may have better uses for your December weekends.  Etsy is open 24/7 and with the right search terms you can find some genuinely hideous stuff.  Some search terms to get you started:

  • upcycled. (My friend Etelka has a whole blog of upcycling horror: Wretched Refuse.)
  • hipster.
  • one-of-a-kind (ooak).
  • goth or steampunk.
  • rustic, primitive, salvaged.

Of course, there’s plenty of upcycled stuff that’s cool.  Not everything with “hipster” in its description will be an aesthetic nightmare. And in point of fact I’m a fan of steampunk. But if you search for “upcycled salvaged hipster steampunk” you’ll probably find at least a few items that will make wonder WHY, WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THIS, WHY WOULD ANYONE BUY THIS except as a gift to their least-favorite relative?

Just don’t overpay.  The great thing about gifting a hand-made item — well, the first great thing about gifting a hand-made item is that no one will expect a gift receipt. But the OTHER great thing is that you can give something that’s really cheap but not OBVIOUSLY cheap and they don’t have any good way to figure out what you paid for it.

And yes, I’m wimping out of providing links to hilariously awful stuff on Etsy and I’m using the excuse that it could be gone by the time you go look, but really it’s that I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the craftspeople selling this stuff (and I live in fear of them following the link back and then telling me about how they’re selling these hand-crafted recycled license plate bracelets because they’re trying to keep from losing their house or whatever.)  Etelka’s got loads of links and pictures, if you go look at her blog.

I’m much more comfortable linking to stuff on Amazon.

2. The Cheapest of Amazon.

I stumbled across this the other evening and was sort of freaked by it.  This stuff is not necessarily BAD for gifting (I linked to it on Facebook and several people immediately followed the links and bought some stocking-stuffers) but it is so disconcertingly cheap it caused me to start plotting a story about the jewelry which, when worn in your ears, makes you extra-vulnerable to the mind-control rays from the planet Vortol or something.

Cute little owl earrings for 62 cents, free shipping.
Cute little seahorse necklaces for 98 cents, free shipping.
Slightly defective Eiffel Tower necklace that says “ARIS” instead of “PARIS,” 93 cents, free shipping.

You’ll need a presentation box if you want it to look like you bought it from a store, which alas will run you more than 62 cents. Well, okay, they’re less than 62 cents EACH but you have to buy 20. Maybe you have one around the house that you could re-purpose.

These honestly are not terrible gifts; according to the reviews, the chains that come with the necklaces are flimsy but mostly they’re cute and look basically as pictured.  You could, in fact, order these for someone you liked, if you were on a budget or wanted an inexpensive stocking-stuffer. (Maybe not the “ARIS” Eiffel Tower.) But you could wrap up the box and gloat over the fact that you had spent less than a dollar on their gift.

3. Menards.

I had to go to Menards the other day.  Menards is a perfectly fine place to shop for gifts for someone you like, if that person likes tools.  It’s also an excellent place to shop for stocking stuffers; there are many aisles filled with things like keychain carabiner flashlights and fold-up miniature pocket multi-tools and so on.  (Maybe I’m the only person who craves keychain carabiner flashlights? I bet I’m not.)

But it is also the best one-stop shop for truly godawful Christmas gifts you will ever find.  I took photos.

Pie in a Jar, $5

Basically the canned stuff, in a cute jar.

Pie in a Jar.  It’s…pie filling.  In a jar.  Just add a crust, and bake, for bad pie.

There was a whole trend a few years ago in which people made their own mixes (for brownies or whatever), put them in a mason jar, and tied a ribbon around it.  I don’t want to criticize this gift too harshly when it’s homemade, because for one thing is it is an extremely CHEAP gift, the sort of thing it takes minimal effort to do, and there are people who are stuck exchanging gifts with a lot of people. They might even be people they like, and they want to give them SOMEthing, and in that case — yeah, mix in a jar? fine.

(Personally, I have never found that mixing together the dry ingredients for cookies was exactly the labor-intensive part. It’s spending 45 minutes moving baking sheets in and out of the oven that’s a pain, but on the upside, fresh delicious cookies. So, you know.)

Anyway. The excellent thing about this gift is that it’s probably going to be genuinely terrible pie but it comes in a cute little jar (I don’t know the term for the sort of jar with the springs in the lid, but they’re definitely in the “cute jar” category) and looks gift-like. Go for it.

Neck pillows that are decorated with American or Canadian flags

Flag neck pillows, because patriotism, I guess.

Neck pillows!

Neck pillows are actually a useful item that lots of people could probably find a use for. In fact, I’m pretty sure my sister once asked specifically for a neck pillow as a gift (I remember hearing about this from my father, who thought it was funny, and told the story to his brother, who said, “WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING, NECK PILLOWS ARE AWESOME.”)

But here’s the thing:

These aren’t just neck pillows, they are FLAG NECK PILLOWS, because apparently everything is better with flag designs. (They did have plain neck pillows in another part of the story but I think they may have actually cost $1 more.)

Molly was looking over my shoulder while I was working on this, and she noticed that in addition to the U.S. flag neck pillows and the Canadia flag neck pillows, there were UK neck pillows down on the bottom.  A UK neck pillow seems like a markedly better gift than either a US flag or a Canadian flag neck pillow, probably because I know far more Anglophiles than Yukonphiles (and while I do know people who will sing the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events and fly a flag on flag day, I don’t actually know anyone who thinks the U.S. flag should be on EVERYTHING ALWAYS.)

Penguin, reindeer, and snow man decorative jars.

Generic Christmassia.

Penguin, reindeer, and snowman cocoa jars. I think they actually come with hot chocolate mix in them.

I recognize this design, sort of. There are eight gazillion penguins out there that look kind of like these penguins, all with slightly sketchy features, black beady eyes, and a scarf. You find this guy as a mug for $1 at Walgreens and as a sugar bowl for $10 at Target and as earrings at Dollar General. And now he holds cocoa.

The great thing about this item is that it’s too cute to just throw away, but not actually attractive enough to display. The Cocoa Penguin will lurk on the counter or in the back of the cabinet for years, taking up space, gathering dust, and making the recipient feel vaguely like he or she is being watched by a penguin. Also, they’ll wonder if they’re supposed to refill it…but unless you make your own from cocoa and milk powder and sugar, cocoa comes in a perfectly fine container already, or in envelopes in a little box.

Hot Dog steamer.

A hot dog steamer.

If you want to give someone you dislike a kitchen gadget for Christmas, the best options are always are either inconveniently large, or irritatingly overspecialized. This item is both.

Admittedly, I don’t eat hot dogs all that often, but when I do, I find it entirely feasible to cook them in a pan on the stove. I can’t recall ever wanting to cook 12 at the same time, but if I did, I still think I could handle it with my larger frying pans or possibly a baking dish in the oven.

It is possible that you could use it to steam other stuff (I haven’t checked) and that someone could find a use for it beyond hot dogs, but it’s also enormous and difficult to store; I would bet money it’s a pain to clean; and it says HOT DOG STEAMER on it, suggesting that the owner is someone who eats so many hot dogs they actually need an appliance to cook a dozen at once.

There probably are people who would find this useful, but even those people will likely find it annoying to store.

Department stores are always filled with weird novelty kitchen appliances this time of year; if a hot dog steamer doesn’t strike your fancy, consider a cupcake lollipop maker or a Hello Kitty waffle iron or a mini donut baker.  (Although I think cupcake pops have more enthusiastic fans than hot dogs, and they’re genuinely going to be complicated to make without the specialized device. Unlike hot dogs. Which can be prepared in just about any other existing kitchen appliance you’ve got, including the dishwasher.)

Finally, this one’s kind of cheating, as it’s kind of expensive ($70) and it’s a gift for a child. That’s cheating because it’s too easy.  The topic of “how to give a gift to a child that will drive the parents insane” has been covered admirably in the past and it’s understood by nearly everyone that tormenting the parents is the actual purpose of motion-triggered electronic toys with no off-switch, electronic toys that play a recognizable tune slightly out of key, and Moon Sand.  (There are also people who make this claim about Legos and Play Doh. But Play Doh is a great toy that kept my children happy for hours — long enough to make the cleanup worthwhile — and it develops motor skills in toddlers, it still smells exactly like it smelled when I was three, and it’s incredibly cheap.  And Legos are AWESOME. Awesome awesome awesome.)

This, on the other hand, is horrifying:

A stuffed dog so large it's spilling out of a full-sized chair.

An enormous stuffed dog.

That dog is sitting in a full-sized chair, and spilling out of it.  It is too heavy for a child to move easily (I pulled it off a couch, which it was sitting on with a friend, and stuffed it in that chair for the photo).  This thing is ghastly.  A child will think it’s the coolest thing ever. The parents will hate it.  And because it is ENORMOUS, it will never be lost or misplaced; if they get rid of it while their child is at preschool one day, they will either have to fake a burglary or admit they threw the damn thing out.

Menards also had cutesy jars of cookie mix (you could do a gift bag of both cookie mix and pie in a jar!), scented bath products (even people who like scented bath products will probably not like the ones from Menards), and enormous sculptural things you’d put on your lawn (which alas are mostly kind of expensive).

They also have carbon monoxide detectors, which are an excellent gift to anyone who doesn’t already have one but a totally useless gift if someone does.  Which is a different sort of win — it’s a gift that says, “I don’t want you to die! I want you to be safe!” but also “…and I think you might be the sort of idiot that doesn’t have one of these already!”  (And if you don’t have one, for god’s sake GO OUT TODAY AND GET ONE and install it when you get home. Sheesh.  I don’t want you to die!  I want you to be safe!)

Past versions, if you’re dissatisfied with your options on this post and want to look back through previous ideas.

2010: Beyond Fruitcake: Gifts for People You Hate
2011: Gifts that say, “I had to get you a gift. So look, a gift!”
2012: Holiday shopping for people you hate