Thursday, October 22, 2020

More News and Updates

1. It’s that time of the semester when all I really have time to write are these quick little lists. Oh well. At least I’m writing something, though whether that counts as positive depends on your point of view, I suppose.

2. We spent a lovely hour or so today checking in with all of Lauren’s teachers down at Local Businessman HS. They all had good things to say, which we expected but which was still very nice to hear. It was strange to be having parent/teacher conferences by Zoom or Google Meet or whatever other platform people were using, but still a good thing. Nice work, Lauren. I’m proud of you.

3. I have lost the battle with Facebook’s new format, despite the valiant efforts of the little plug-in that has been keeping it at bay for the last few months (and which continues to keep the Zuckerborg’s worst excesses to a minimum, at least for now). Every time FB decides to “upgrade” things I lose functions that I enjoyed. I still haven’t figured out how to look through my own timeline to find old posts, which was a fun thing to do – it was interesting to choose a random month out of the decade or so that I’ve been on that platform and scroll through it to remember how that month felt. Oh well. Optimized. At some point I will throw in the towel on the whole platform, but for all of its many and well-documented flaws it still does a good job at what it was originally designed to do – connect friends who are too far apart in a convenient and easy to use way – and I will miss that when I go


4. Be very careful posting jokes, folks. These are revolutionary times.

5. It’s nearly Election Day, which means that the Fascist regime currently squatting in the White House is getting increasingly desperate. Expect violence, my fellow Americans, and stay strong. There are more of us than there are of them.

6. We have so, so many eggs. Lauren’s chickens are happy little birds and have been laying up a storm for the last few months, which means that at any given point we have somewhere between three and eight dozen eggs on our kitchen counter. We like eggs. But we like other things too. I made a double batch of pizzelles last weekend mostly because it consumed a dozen eggs. They were really good, too.

7. We’ve already had our first snow and it’s not even Halloween, which is a bit early even for Wisconsin. So now there’s a place for the rabbits to winter over in the basement, though we’ll leave them out for a few weeks longer – as long as the overnight lows don’t go too far below freezing they’ll be okay. Last year we had six inches of snow for Halloween so we brought them in then, and then it didn’t really warm up until April so they didn’t get much outside time after all that. It’s good to have them get the fresh air.

8. Milo, the world’s oldest rabbit, continues to chug along nicely.

9. Last night we got to watch a virtual performance by a friend of ours – an actual professional who had been booked for a performance over at the main stage at the Mother Ship campus and who managed to get it to work over Zoom. It was a lot of fun, really, and it was good to connect with him afterward.

10. Somewhere in my college days when my roommate and I would spend Saturday afternoons making the rounds of the half dozen or so used book stores that surrounded the campus, I stumbled into a book signed by Robert Louis Stevenson. I stumbled into it again the other day, sorting through my bookshelves. It definitely looks like his actual signature and the book was printed during his lifetime, so for all I know it’s real. I have no idea how much it’s worth – it’s not one of his famous books, though it is in pretty good condition – but likely not a whole lot. These things are never as valuable as you think they should be. But they’re pretty cool nonetheless and given that I probably bought it with coins I suppose it was a good investment. Mostly, though, it’s just a fun thing to look at, and that’s enough.

11. Apparently I have lost the battle against Blogger's new format too. Why is it that whenever a computer company uses the word "upgrade" things get less useful and more frustrating?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

News and Updates

1. With a hearty two-fingered salute to der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, enablers, cronies, and sycophants, I have cast my ballot here in Our Little Town and have done my mite for defeating Fascism in America.

2. We have nearly three weeks left to go in this, and der Sturmtrumper and his minions are getting ever more desperate. Buckle up, my fellow Americans. It’s going be a bumpy ride.

3. In other news, neither of my arms work anymore. Well, that’s not quite true. They work. Kind of. But they feel like they shouldn’t. I got my flu shot yesterday, and that always takes a day or two to calm down. More relevantly, on Sunday Kim and I went over to the local Chain Pharmacy and got shingles vaccine shots. Now, I understand that this is important. I’ve seen people with shingles and I know why you should do whatever you can not to have that happen to you. And Kim’s shot went well. Mine, on the other hand, was administered with a ball point pen. Even the pharmacist was a little taken aback by it. “Wow,” he said. “That wasn’t a very sharp needle.” That much, I replied, I had figured out.

4. The cats are still discombobulated, but for the moment they’re discombobulated downstairs and not in a “cleanup in aisle four” sort of way so we’ll take it.

5. I’m actually entirely caught up with Great British Baking Show episodes now, and it is kind of a bummer not to be able to turn on the television and see episodes I hadn’t seen yet anytime I wanted to do so. I know they’re working through a new season now and I’ll watch it one week at a time with the rest of the rabble, but it’s not the same. Fortunately I have discovered that The Guardian liveblogs all of the episodes, and it’s been kind of fun going back to the old seasons (still rather fresh in my mind) and reading along that way. I miss Selasi.

6. This is the most decorated our lawn has ever been for Halloween, mostly because we left that up to Lauren and her friend Aleksia. A couple of hours of work and at least one trip the dollar store, and the lawn is festooned with styrofoam grave markers and solar-powered pumpkin heads, the tree in the terrace is covered with tiny plastic ghosts, the bushes have cobwebbing, and there is a little projector that shines moving ghosts on our living room blinds from dusk to about 11pm, so we do have to remember to shut the blinds lest the ghosts dance about the bookcase. This is on top of the election signs – why Halloween and election day come so close together is an interesting historical question but it does lead to some odd juxtapositions. We’re not really sure what we’re going to be doing on Halloween proper – handing out candy to strangers seems a bit rash in the current environment – but we’ll see what happens.

7. One of the Instagram pages that I follow (and don’t bother asking to follow me – I’ve had that account for two years and have yet to post anything so it’s probably not worth your time) is a person who posts odd maps of things, which is something I have always enjoyed. They’re not American, so whenever they decide to ask contributors to send them song recommendations for review I discover a whole trove of things I’ve never heard of before. Today one of them was a really catchy, kind of 80s-punk-rock-feel of a song that you can easily imagine being played in clubs in any industrial downtown area in the world and whose title, translated from German into English, is Fuck You and Piss Off. The Germans do not go for subtle, really. I genuinely enjoy the song except that the band itself seems to have some links to the German far right, and while they do try to refute those links in interviews it does give me a bit of a pause. On the one hand, I firmly believe that art is not responsible for its creators – that a lot of great art is created by assholes and if you can’t get past that you’re going to miss out on a lot of treasures. On the other hand, everyone has their limits and Nazis are beyond mine. The song itself doesn’t seem to be political, and of course any song whose refrain starts out with “You’re an asshole / you’ve always been an asshole / you’ll always be an asshole / nobody likes you” can be applied to a whole lot of odious people in any number of fields – for all I know it’s a breakup song. Mostly I’m just enjoying the music and trying not to think about it much beyond that, which is a lot easier in a foreign language.

8. We’re careening through the American Revolution now in my US1 class. I love this unit. It’s my field of specialty, after all. And the whole idea of a mass uprising against a corrupt and authoritarian madman who is imposing tyranny by using power to crush liberty (essentially the colonial argument for the Revolution in a nutshell) is a much easier concept to wrap one’s head around these days for some reason.

9. Things that have gotten lost in the shuffle over the last two weeks:

a) We’re edging closer and closer to a quarter million Americans dead of coronavirus thanks to a corrupt and incompetent regime more concerned with holding onto power than safeguarding the lives of American citizens.

b) Der Sturmtrumper’s taxes are damning evidence of a criminal enterprise on a global scale and a staggeringly broad national security risk.

c) the GOP is ramrodding yet another unskilled partisan hack onto the Supreme Court in a transparent effort to undermine American democracy and chip away at the foundations of the republic, and their base is thrilled.

d) a right-wing terrorist group very nearly kidnapped and executed a sitting US governor (and was apparently angling for a second) and the president had more criticism for the governor than the terrorists.

e) American passports are still worthless because this country has collapsed so completely that the civilized nations on earth want nothing to do with us.

Are we great yet?

10) The weather is cooling off and it is definitely tea weather. I mean, it’s always tea weather as far as I am concerned, but there is weather you can drink tea in and there is tea weather and we have definitely edged into the latter. Cool air, grey skies, darker afternoons – my kind of time.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Gated Community

So now we have the baby gate back up.

It’s for the cat.

I wasn’t even sure we still had the gate to be honest, since the last time we used it was maybe 2005, but one should never underestimate the storage capacity of the American basement. Lauren has been after us to reduce that capacity since she got back from Europe, having acquired a minimalist streak there that clashes horribly with our Collect More Stuff ethos, but sometimes a maximalist habit comes in handy and one is constantly making exciting discoveries that way.

Mithra was not looking good earlier this week, so we took her to the vet. The vet poked, prodded, and did some blood work, and eventually called us back to tell us that she is old. We knew that already. We’ve always considered Labor Day to be her birthday and this year she turned 16, which admittedly pretty old for a cat. He told us to keep an eye on her, give her painkillers for a few days, and let him know if she wasn’t looking better by the weekend.

She is, in fact, looking better now.

This is not why we have the baby gate up.

No, we have the baby gate up because Midgie is completely freaked out by this situation. Ever since Mithra came home from the vet Midgie has been absolutely terrified of her. She hisses. She runs away. She puffs up and gets bigger, which is an interesting trick in a cat that could afford to lose about half her body weight despite eating nothing but diet food for the last several years.

She has spent the last several nights upstairs, hiding from Mithra (who has been sound asleep in the living room for most of that time, not particularly caring about Midgie’s whereabouts one way or the other). There are many things upstairs for Midgie to occupy her time with, notably human beings who are just trying to sleep and failing because she has the world’s loudest purr and is desperate to engage with us at four in the morning.

There is also one item that we did not think we needed to put upstairs during this troubled time. Which means that Midgie has had to find another place to take care of what usually happens in that sort of item. Which, in turn, was not a pleasant discovery.

So. Baby gate at the foot of the stairs.

She can’t fit through the openings, and if she can just be persuaded to stay downstairs and then go down to the basement to take care of her business there perhaps she won’t need to be locked in the basement all night, which is the backup plan.

She’s a sweet cat but a dim one, even as cats go.

And now I need to remember how to operate a baby gate, which as I recall was all in the wrist.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Reading the Tea Leaves

I’m old enough to remember the Soviet Union.

Fewer and fewer people are these days. The average college freshman this year was born a decade after it collapsed, and there are people running multinational corporations and coaching professional sports teams who didn’t draw breath until after Boris Yeltsin became President of a non-Communist Russia. It was a major event. The Cold War was supposedly over and Americans assumed we’d won it, even if we no longer think either of those things is true anymore.

But I grew up with the Cold War in full swing, with grainy grey photographs of grainy grey old men in heavy coats and fedoras standing grimly on platforms in Red Square, watching military hardware parade by. It was kind of the background noise of politics when I was a kid and even as far along as my college days in the mid-1980s. I don’t know if they even had color in the Soviet Union. They must have – they kept talking about “Red” this and “Red” that, after all – but you couldn’t tell it from the news programs.

One of the biggest differences between Them and Us at the time was the relative freedom of information. Oh, the US had its classified things and not all of them had anything to do with national security, but as a culture we definitely err on the side of oversharing when it comes to, say, health information. Honestly, I could have lived a full and happy life without ever knowing some of the things that I learned about presidential bodily functions during my lifetime. But hey. We’re Americans. We’ll tell you all sorts of things, even while you’re trying to eat. We’re good that way.

The Soviets, on the other hand, said nothing at all about anything. There was a whole category of persons in American intelligence called “Kremlin Watchers” whose only task was to analyze tiny little variations in protocols for clues as to what was going on with them. Reading the tea leaves, essentially. It’s not like there was any actual information being offered. Even as Leonid Brezhnev was being lowered into the ground in the early 1980s there were columns in Pravda insisting he had a cold and would be back in on the platform with his heavy coat and fedora in time for the next parade. They were still saying that about Brezhnev when his successor Yuri Andropov was being buried, as if Brezhnev would magically spring back to life once Andropov was finished using the state fedora.

Today we woke up to the news story that karma is a bitch der Sturmtrumper was diagnosed with COVID19.

On the one hand, you don’t wish that sort of thing on anyone, even an asshole like him. The last thing this country needs is to turn that corrupt racist authoritarian into a martyr.

On the other hand, well, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He has refused to take this seriously. He actively destroyed any chance the United States had of responding to this pandemic in any responsible way. He has politicized the CDC and undermined the states in their attempts to deal with this as adults, and he has consistently refused to wear masks or take any action to prevent its spread, and now his supporters are set in their opposition to doing anything sensible for their own health or the health of anyone else. He prioritized his re-election campaign over American lives. There are over 200,000 Americans dead from this disease – 20% of the world’s fatalities, which is impressive for a nation with 4% of the world’s population and the world’s most expensive health care system – and a significant percentage of those dead Americans would still be alive if someone, anyone, else had been president. His catastrophic failure as a leader will be his legacy.

So it’s a quandary.

The key thing, is, however, that nobody really knows how seriously to take these reports of his illness.

He’s such a compulsive liar that if he told you the sun was shining you’d be well advised to pack your umbrella. Half the internet spent the day arguing over whether to believe his diagnosis or not.

He’s also such a narcissistic, power-mad Fascist that the other half of the internet spent the day arguing over how he planned to weaponize this situation to maintain his grip on power regardless of elections.

But nobody knows.

We’re reduced to making guesses based on clues. He’s not in the hospital. Now he is in the hospital. He’s got a mild case. He’s asymptomatic. He’s got a moderate case. He walked into the hospital under his own power. He hasn’t tweeted in 20 hours.

We’re all “White House Watchers” now, reduced to reading the tea leaves. All he needs is a heavy coat and a fedora and he’ll have the whole totalitarian dictator thing pretty much down.

This isn’t the way the United States is supposed to operate. Right now I should be turning off the television to get away from the avalanche of minutia about his physical condition – something I honestly don’t want to know much about beyond top-level information – but no. Not under this regime.

The US has become a grey grainy place under Trump.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Return to Middle Earth

This has been a year for comfort reading – for reading the books that you find pleasurable no matter how many times you’ve read them before, no matter how many times you may have thought that you really ought to be reading something else.  There will be other years for other reading.

I’ve read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series this year, including (for the first time) the radio scripts.  I’ve read all of Christopher Moore (if you haven’t read Lamb you’re missing out, but they’re all worth your time).  At some point I may well take a long walk through the Discworld, again, in order because that’s just the kind of nerd I am.  Or perhaps Jasper Fforde.  Maybe both.

But for now I am once again reading The Lord of the Rings.

There was a time in my life that I did that annually, dropping into Middle Earth for Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party and then trekking across field and forest, mountain and city only to return to the Shire when all was done.  I loved the elves most of all and still do, despite Terry Pratchett’s thoughtful criticisms of the conceits behind them.  I can still write in Tengwar, in both the Noldorin and Sindarin fashion.  Tom Bombadil has always struck me as goofy and superfluous, Arnor as tragic, and Minas Tirith a much more interesting place than Edoras.

The Silmarillion was my favorite book for many years and The Hobbit is a much quicker book to read, but it was The Lord of the Rings that I read first and to which I returned, year after year, even in years when I didn’t read the others.

It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a professional historian today.  Nobody does backstory like Tolkien.  You get drawn down into the deeper wells of his world and you never really leave, and eventually you realize that you can do the same thing with the world we live in.

There are issues with The Lord of the Rings, as there are with all books.  With a few exceptions women have almost no substantive role to play in Middle Earth – an odd thing in a book so obsessed with genealogy and lineage.  The language can be a bit stilted.  The academic roots of the story shine through more than a few times.  On and on.

But it was and remains a favorite, a place to which I can return and remain, regardless of the outside world.

I first read the books separately, checked out of my local library one at a time, and then decided I wanted to own my own copy.  At the time there was a small independent bookstore in the shopping center not all that far from my house, and there they had the one-volume red slipcased version with a fold-out map at the end.  It was $40, which was a princely sum of money for a 7th-grader in the summer of 1980.

My mom let me come with her to the county courthouse from time to time that summer and do research for her as she worked, searching property titles before the annual tax sale.  I learned how to do real research for this book, which is another thing that set me on the path toward being a historian I suppose.  For this she paid me a dollar an hour out of her own pocket, and after a few weeks I had enough to buy the book.  I rode my bike up to the bookstore – maybe three miles or so through what passed for traffic in the suburbs of Philadelphia – and came home with my treasure.

I promptly disappeared into my room until I had finished reading it, sprawled across my bed with the radio on, working my way through Middle Earth once again.  I still think of Frodo Baggins every time I hear the Rolling Stones sing Shattered.

The book came already smelling the way that old books do, and forty years later it still does.  

It tells a story where the good triumphs, though not completely and not forever.  The Shadow will always return, after all.  There is a strong melancholy streak throughout the story, of beautiful things fading away and being forgotten, of victories turned hollow, of last stands and old friends, of the fragility of what exists and how easily it can fall apart.  But there is also the counterpoint of doing all you can in the face of such things, of the importance of the small and the powerless and the overlooked, of the power of memory and the idea that the good can still win, if only for the moment, but there’s always a next moment and we get to say who wins that one too.

These are good things to remember.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Where We Are Now

So it turns out that der Sturmtrumper is a deadbeat, which should surprise nobody.

The man has made a living out of destroying the livelihoods of better men and women, out of stiffing his contractors and gutting his investments, leaving others holding the bag while he pockets their money. He’s bragged about this and sees no reason to change. He’s been a two-bit grifter since the day he slithered onto this planet and he will remain so until he improves the general lot of humanity by ceasing to be part of it any longer. The man is a standing argument against the idea of redemption and a magnet for the worst that the species can offer.

And now we know some of the extent of just how bad his financial situation is.

He’s a tax cheat, though most of it is probably not criminally prosecutable. When you’re rich you can hire people to cheat the system legally and you can find millions of stooges who think this is somehow admirable even as the things they depend on government to provide for them get cut for lack of funds. Not all of it is above board of course – the revelations this week include some thoroughly criminal things, and you should remember that it was the IRS, not Eliot Ness, that put Al Capone in jail.

More importantly, however, there is the fact that he is nearly half a billion dollars in debt to persons unnamed, most of them foreign, and that debt is coming due.

There is a reason why American intelligence services consider him to be the single greatest threat to American national security currently in existence. There is a reason why American influence in the world has essentially evaporated under his grotesque mismanagement, why he has alienated allies, coddled dictators, and done everything he could to render the US subservient to hostile powers. He is compromised and controlled by interests that are not those of the United States.

The man is a walking liability.

And an increasingly desperate one.

The only thing keeping him out of jail right now is the blustering array of legal defenses available to a sitting president frantically keeping the law at bay through sheer corruption and authoritarianism, and he will do anything to hold onto them up to and including burning this country to the ground and pissing on the ashes. His depraved actions this year in response to pretty much every crisis that has happened are all you need to see that.

He has a willing army of subversives who see nothing wrong with this, many of whom have more firearms than brain cells and are fully prepared to destroy everything that der Sturmtrumper leaves standing as long as it makes the people they hate feel pain.

If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do in the event of a Fascist takeover of the US, well, now you know.

Hang onto your hats, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

News and Updates

1. The frantic opening two weeks of the semester that all academic advisors experience is slowly winding down now, which is a good thing since this is about the time when faculty begin their first hectic period of assignments due.  The two positions alternate their stressful periods throughout the semester, which makes it fun when you are employed in both roles.  It’s a never-ending festival!

2. I have no idea which of my neighbors have cats.  I do, however, know PRECISELY which ones of them own dogs.  I did not ask for this knowledge, but it has been forced upon me anyway.

3. I may need to take a break from the news cycle.  It isn’t doing my mental health any good, and by this point nothing I hear is going to change my mind.  Trump is a Fascist and so are his enablers.  This is the last free election we will ever have if he is declared the victor.  It will take decades to recover from this regime, if it can be done at all.  I know this already.

4. Yes, Fascist.  I know what Fascism is.  I know that this is what we are experiencing.  Honestly, it feels way too much like 1937 in Germany for my comfort level.  If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done when the Nazis took over, you have only to consult your day planner.  Try to be better than that.

5. There is not enough Great British Bake-Off on Netflix to compensate for all of this.

6. Lauren is recovering nicely from having her wisdom teeth taken out this week.  Fortunately she comes from a family with generally uncomplicated wisdom teeth and reasonably quick recovery times, though she did inherit my tendency to have anesthesia take a long time to kick in and a long time to wear off.  No, I took no videos.  Those would not be right.

7. For employment purposes I have to take two hour-long internet classes on how not to be an asshole.  I thought I had that pretty much figured out (seriously – if you’re older than 25 and haven’t figured that out what hope do you have?) but apparently I have to prove it to them.  I passed the first one a while ago and then forgot about the second one until today, so I’d better get cracking on that.  “Quiz time!  Here is a Situation!  You have three response choices: a) Be an Asshole; b) Be an Asshole in a Slightly Different Way; c) Not Be an Asshole.  Which do you choose?”  We’ll see how it goes. 

8. I wandered into Home Campus this week to pick up some files – the first time I’ve been on campus during normal business hours since March.  It’s kind of eerie.  I have no idea how long we will continue to have face-to-face classes as an option – I suspect not long – and I’m glad that I moved all of my responsibilities online.  Still, I do miss going in and seeing people as more than pixels on a screen.

9. continues to refine what they think my heritage is.  At this point, if I took them at their word, I’m not even sure I’d be related to my brother anymore.

10. I’m actually getting a number of genealogical documents sent to me these days, which is a lot of fun when they arrive.  Of course, sometimes it gets weird.  My grandmother’s birth certificate lists her as male, which I’m sure would have come as a great surprise to my grandfather.  And for some reason I recently received an envelope addressed to my great-grandfather, which is a bit ironic considering that it contained his death certificate.  It’s the small absurdities that make life in 2020 a bit less grim.