Friday, December 19, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Havertown PA, 1974

It gets harder and harder to get into the Christmas spirit, I find.

This year, for example, I have done pretty much nothing about the holiday.  I have done no shopping.  I have made only a beginning at a Christmas card letter, which admittedly is further than I got last year.  I did put up our strand of blue lights across the front of the house, and I brought the tree up from the basement – the artificial one that won’t burn the place down if we ignore it for a week.  That's something.  I even brought up the decorations, which sat in their boxes for a week, hogging the living room, while the only decoration on the tree was a merry little Dalek that Kim found somewhere and placed on it right away. 

Eventually Kim and I did get the tree looking a bit more festive.  The girls had taken over that task for a while, but with their schedules getting hectic it didn’t look like that was going to happen.  So now it’s mostly done.  I just need to put the angel on the top.  I looked all over for it without success, until this morning when Kim pointed to it sitting on the floor not four feet from the tree.

It’s times like these that I start to sympathize with my grandfather.

Sometime in the early 1970s he bought a pre-decorated tree.  It was about four feet high and came covered with red ribbons, white and silver balls, and silver garland.  He put a little angel on the top of it – I don’t think that came with the tree, but I could be wrong – and that was that.  Every year he’d set it up on the end table between the couches in the living room, which gave it enough height that you could put the presents under it.  My family always celebrated Christmas Eve far more than Christmas, and always over at my grandparents’ house.  That was the tree of our Christmas Eve.

There would also be a white metal ball hidden underneath something in the living room.  It plugged in and would play a recorded birdsong over and over until finally someone would snap and unplug it.  Tradition!

When the holiday season was over he’d wrap the whole thing up in a plastic bag, decorations and all, and stow it in the attic.  And the next year, the whole process would repeat itself, a never-ending series of Christmas Eves with only the outfits and the size of the children to tell them apart.  The nice part about that is that it let us focus on the people rather than the decorations.

This is from 1974.  I have recently turned 9 in this picture.  My brother is 6.  My parents are in their mid-30s, which is a lot younger than I am now.  And that’s the tree I remember.

It must be fairly late in the day, as all of the presents have gone from underneath the tree and the wrapping paper has been cleaned up.  If so, that means we’re about to head home – all of five miles away or so – to get ready for Christmas Day. 

We had our own tree there, an actual tree that my dad, my brother and I had gone out and cut down a week or two earlier.  That one was new every year and it was fun to go get it and fun to decorate it.  I always felt bad that my grandparents had the same old tree every year.

With the end of the semester and finals, with the hectic lives that the girls lead, with everything else that is scheduled to happen around here in the next week or so, though, I understand my grandfather more now.

I will focus on family, and try to find the spirit as I may.  And perhaps the rest of it will come too, in time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

News and Updates

1. At some point I will need to excavate my desk from the paperlanche that has engulfed it in the last few weeks.  This is always an issue at the end of the semester.  I can keep up with things for the first six to eight weeks, but after that it’s just a race against time to keep myself from being crushed by it all.

2. Last week was the annual Madrigal Dinner down at Home Campus, a festival which usually includes a nice meal, some lovely singing by the choir, a few bits of live theater involving jesters, a chamber orchestra, and some chemistry fun that last year included four-foot jets of flame.  This year Kim and Kristin kept the pyrotechnics out and focused on magic changing colored liquids, which was fun and impressive if not quite as exciting as nearly having the place burn down.  And Tabitha got her first paid gig as a violinist by playing in the chamber orchestra.  They paid her in pizza, but then that’s more than I ever got paid in my time in a band in college, so you can’t really argue with that at all.

3. I went down to the DMV the other day and got a new drivers license.  Except that I really didn’t get a new license – I just got the idea of a new license.  The State of Wisconsin is very desirous that we get something called a Real ID when we re-up for our licenses, as opposed to the Imaginary IDs they seem to have been fobbing off on us for these past many years.  And since it was made clear to me that if I chose not to get one of the Real IDs now I would just have to get one a few years down the line anyway - for a separate fee - I figured I’d go along.  It turns out this is a process that involves some forty-five confirmatory identifying documents, DNA samples, a blood-curdling oath sworn on the volume of your choice (The Silmarillion, in my case), three letters of reference, and a pinky-swear that all of the above is accurate to the best of your knowledge, and when all is said and done it still does not actually produce you an ID.  Those have to be processed at a central facility.  So I got a temporary ID - a printout, really - that I could carry around until the Real ID arrived in the mail, whenever that might be.  Which, ironically enough, means that my Real ID is pretty much Imaginary for the time being.  This is why I believe I should drink more.

4. Sometimes it is a wonder the things you suddenly realize that you have volunteered for.

5. Apparently Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) responded to a Jewish supporter by wishing him “Molotov” the other day.  On the one hand I suppose it was nice of him to make the effort to be culturally sensitive, and it would be good if he would be willing to do that for people who aren’t in a position to grease his palms with cash also.  On the other hand, seriously?  WTF?  Does he not employ people who can proofread his outgoing mail?  Is Wisconsin so goy-infested that nobody could have told him this was something of an Inigo Montoya moment?  Of course I am assuming this was a mistake on his part.  Maybe he was actually wishing the guy would catch fire and burn to the ground due to an incendiary device thrown in his direction.  As my friend Eric pointed out, he’s certainly done his best to do that to the state over the past few years.

6. We’re still a few holidays behind.  Kim and I went out tonight to celebrate our anniversary, which was actually last month.  But holidays happen when you’ve got the time for them, and soon we hope to do something for her birthday.  This will likely happen after my birthday, which will likely be celebrated sometime in March.  I’m surprisingly okay with this.

7.  Upon second viewing, I have confirmed my initial impression that Frozen was a really great movie right up to the last little bit when it was ambushed and beaten to a pulp by a marauding horde of cliches.

8. I should know better than to read serious books on the history of the Religious Right.  It’s not like my blood pressure isn’t already high enough.  That’s a group of people who really should be heavily medicated and then put to more useful pursuits such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, defending the oppressed, welcoming the stranger, or any number of other things that the actual focus of Christianity suggested might be done in His name by those who wished to honor Him.

9. One of the problems with commuting to Mid-Range Campus is that I don't get back until fairly late.  Normally this just means a late dinner, but this week it meant missing Lauren's band concert.  Fortunately Kim was there and she said that Lauren did a very nice job in her new role this year as a percussionist.  The thing about being a percussionist is that a) you get to hit things, and b) even though they put you way in the back, you spend your time standing up so people can still see you.  I'm hoping to make the next concert, at least.

10. We have the Christmas tree up now.  It has exactly one decoration on it so far: a merry little Dalek that Kim found somewhere earlier this year.  We’re hoping to get the rest of the tree decorated this weekend sometime, but I confess that part of me thinks a bare tree with a single Dalek would be kind of amusing.

11. It’s only December and we’ve really only had one cold snap so far by Wisconsin standards – a couple of days where the highs never got above 15F, which is cold for what is still technically autumn.  Mostly it’s been fairly moderate – highs around freezing, no real snow for a while.  Yet I find myself feeling colder than I usually do.  Just getting old, I guess.  It beats the alternative.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Arranging the Buy

There are moments in your life where you really have to wonder just how you ended up in that particular spot.

For the last few years we have bought a half-hog from a local farmer in the fall.  It’s good meat, and cheaper than you can get it in the stores.  Plus they will butcher it for you and do all the chopping and packaging and freezing, so all you have to do is pick it up, take it home, put it in your own freezer, and cook it at your convenience.

It helps to have a big freezer in the basement.

Yesterday it was my job to collect this year’s order.  Since it was on the way home from Mid-Range Campus anyway, we arranged to meet in the parking lot of a particular business just off the highway, about halfway between MRC and home.  The pork people are up that way anyway, so it was convenient to them.  I’d leave MRC, pick up my carpool buddy from his campus (which is not the same as mine), wend my way back to the highway, and get to the specified parking lot around 6:15pm for the pick up.  Simple.

But you see, here is the thing.

It’s December here in Wisconsin, as it is in most places these days.  There are parts of Alabama that are so far behind the times that it is probably still August there, but for most of the world December it is.  And Wisconsin is, the last time I checked, in the northern hemisphere.  This means that by the time I managed to drive from MRC to the designated parking lot it was dark.  The sun had long since gone down. 

Further, the business that actually owns the parking lot was closed.  It too was dark.  There were no lights in the parking lot at all.  The lot is just off the highway, but sufficiently off the highway that it’s actually a bit sheltered from traffic.  It’s pretty isolated.  And dark.  And there’s a little gravel to give the tires just the right sort of crunch as you go in to the lot to make things kind of eerie.

So we turn off the highway, drive the little bit to the parking lot entrance, and turn into the dark parking lot where a pickup truck with a solitary occupant is waiting for us, lights off.  I pulled up next to the truck and killed the engine, dousing the entire scene in darkness.  For a moment, nobody moved.

And it was at that point that I thought, “You know, this looks like a scene out of a bad movie.  I’m about to get busted for buying pork.”

Seriously, it felt kind of illicit.  “You got the pork?”  “Yeah, I got the pork.  You got the money?”  “Sure I got the money.”  “What is this?  A check?  You’re paying for this with a check?  What, are you going to keep a record for your taxes?  This is pork you idiot!  Cash only!”

Except that it is pork, after all, so a check was okay.  I handed over the check, he put the two boxes of frozen pig bits into the back of my car, and we drove off.  The whole thing took maybe five minutes.

And then the credits began to roll.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Gallery Mall, Philadelphia

I was once nearly thrown out of a mall for picnicking.

It was the summer after my sophomore year of high school, and the Gallery Mall in Center City Philadelphia was still pretty new at the time.  We knew all about malls in the suburbs – according to an article I read recently they were put there specifically to be beyond the blast radius should the cities get nuked in some Cold War sneak attack, after which they could serve as the centers of a new civilization.  Why anyone would want a new civilization based on Sam Goody’s, Hallmark, and JC Penney’s is something of a mystery but there you have it.  You can’t say we weren’t warned.  But the Gallery was right smack in the middle of the city so it would have been melted just like the rest of us, and that made it special.  There’s some camaraderie in that, I suppose.

Heh.  Camaraderie.  Comrade.  See what I did there?  Cold War humor – it doesn’t age so well.

A bunch of us were trying to figure out what to do for Larry’s birthday.  Larry really did not want us to do anything for his birthday, which of course obligated us to come up with something completely bizarre and awkward, because high school.  So we thought about that for a while.

It was probably Jill who came up with the idea.  She was the social coordinator of our little group – the one who made sure the rest of us misfits managed to get together for events and have the fun that we would never have otherwise bestirred ourselves to have.  Every group needs one of those.  My guess is that the process went something like this:

Why don’t we have a picnic at the Gallery?  

Well, because it’s in Center City, for one thing, and we are in the suburbs. 

But of course that is why they have public transportation, after all – to allow a person or even a group of people to get from Point A (defined as Not the Gallery) to Point B (defined as the Gallery) quickly and cheaply.

Okay, but Larry does not want us to do this.

And your point is?

Nothing, nothing at all.  Continue.

But we are scruffy teenagers of the very sort most likely to attract the wrong sort of attention from large and impolite men with badges that almost but not quite look like real police badges but whose billy clubs and firearms are nevertheless distressingly real and who would feel somehow obligated to find a rule or something to justify removing us from the mall in mid picnic.

We’ll just have to dress up, then.  Look good, respectable, and generally worthy of sharing an elegant picnic lunch and birthday party in the midst of the commercial throng.

And that was pretty much that.  There being no further objections, we proceeded.

The next step of course was to get Larry to the mall, a task that fell to me and Jill.  This was more complicated than it sounded, because if we were to dress up and not look like scruffy teenagers, we would tip him off that something was afoot, but if we dressed as we usually did we would, of course, be scruffy teenagers.  Eventually we hit on the notion of having one of the group that was meeting us there with the picnic supplies carry some nice articles of clothing that we could put on over our stuff – a jacket and/or tie, for example, or a nice hat.  Hats make the outfit, you know.

Larry would simply have to remain scruffy.  If you’d known Larry at this point of his life you’d probably agree that not trying to fancy him up was for the best.

So after convincing Larry that the three of us ought to spend some quality retail time together (again, if you knew us you’d realize how improbable this scenario was, but for some reason it worked), we met at the appointed time and headed into town.  The rest of the group was already there when we arrived.

I still remember walking up the long ramp from the train station into the mall (of course it had its own train station, don’t be silly) and rounding the corner to see everyone gathered ‘round the blanket that was being set up in a central but relatively untrafficked location on the main floor.  It was quite a sight.

Larry was in a sufficiently good mood that he agreed not to wreak physical vengeance and even seemed mildly amused by the whole thing, so Jill and I got our fancy duds on over our regular clothes, sat down among the crowd and prepared for our picnic.  We got some generally supportive comments from passersby, and we figured we had succeeded and could relax and enjoy ourselves.

That’s when the guy with the badge showed up.

Guys with badges are not paid to have a sense of humor, and generally they respond by not having one.  This guy sure didn’t.  He was quite annoyed, in fact, that we were trying to have a picnic in his mall.

But we are nattily attired, we said.  We are not scruffy at all, not even one little bit!

This cut no mustard with the guy with the badge.  Nor did the fact that it was Larry’s birthday and this was meant to be a surprise party.  No, there was nothing in his programming that would accept the reality of a picnic in that particular place and time, and so he ordered us to remove ourselves – nicely dressed as we were.

There was a period of intense negotiation.

Eventually he agreed that we could stay provided we relocated to a place that was entirely out of the way – up one story, around the corner, and tucked at the end of a dead-end, though it did have a nice view of the central court, so there was that much going for it.  There not being not much in the way of other options, we decided that would comply.

We had a grand time.

We shared some good food.  We had some laughs.  There were gifts, because it was, after all, a birthday party.

It is a lovely thing to picnic in a mall with friends.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Reading in Madison

Publishers never think about the weather when they design books.

I discovered this a couple of summers ago, as I sat by the city pool while the girls splashed about in the water.  It was one of those hot midwestern August days, all brilliant sunshine and breathless humidity, the kind that encourage people to think about emigrating to places with more temperate climates.  The leaders of Our Little Town feel that three large umbrellas provide all the shade that a city’s worth of poolgoers need, and the rest of us can just baste in the sun.  Unless you get there early you can expect the full solar experience.

So there I sat, absorbing UV rays.

Fortunately, I had a book with me.  Because I always have a book with me.  That’s how I am.  I had picked up a rather thick paperback on a trip to the local bookstore not long before – one of those secondary world fantasy novels that I so dearly love – and I remember kind of half hoping that it wouldn’t be all that good so that I could put it aside and wouldn’t have to wait for the second volume to come out.

Except that it was one of the best-written books I’d ever read, darkly lyrical and compelling, and I sat there in the bright sunshine turning page after page, completely enraptured by this doorstop of a novel.  The one with the cover that was almost entirely black.  In the sun.  Getting hotter and hotter.  Eventually I had to hold the book with a towel, but I kept reading.

Later I would buy it in hardback, because it was just that good.

Fantasy is not a genre that rewards good writing, in the main.  It’s an idea-driven genre, much like its cousin science fiction (from which it can be exceedingly difficult to tell apart at times).  When I was younger I would accept this and slog through an awful lot of awful writing if I felt the ideas were worth the price.  I am no longer willing to do that.  I have come to value good writing as an end in itself, and when someone who can write actually has a story to tell, well, it doesn’t get much better than that I think.

Patrick Rothfuss has since published volume two of his Kingkiller Chronicle – The Wise Man’s Fear, to go with The Name of the Wind, the book I was reading that day.  It was just as good as the first one.  He just came out with a stand-alone story set in that same world, and as a promotional event he gave a reading last night up in Madison.

So Kim and I went.

It was a lot of fun.  You should have been there.

Despite having a fever, he spent an hour with us.  He read from his picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, first all the way through and then rewinding and skipping back through it a second time to point out how the ending was there all along if you were paying enough attention and how the book becomes a second story entirely after you’ve read it through the first time.  It was a fascinating display of craftsmanship.

He also answered a lot of questions from the audience, but as he said at the beginning, “We can do this one of two ways.”  There was the way where people could record it and post it online, which would become, as he said, “a first-date conversation,” or we could agree that it would just be between those of us there and some interesting things might actually happen.  We chose the latter course.

And interesting things happened.  He has a great sense of humor.  Really, you should have been there.

After he finished he went to a table by the podium and signed books.  He was remarkably gracious, signing all three of the books we’d brought and even talking with me a bit – not long, as the line was out the door of the room, but enough to be friendly and actually listen to what I said.  It was mostly about the difficulties of translating his writing into other languages (particularly Swedish, as I believe I am personally responsible for at least two of his books being sold there).

And then it was over, and out we went.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In Search of Lost Time

I find myself somewhat at loose ends.

We were supposed to head back east to see my family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  We had it all planned out, in fact.  The rabbits had been farmed out to friends.  The chickens were being cared for.  The cats and goldfish were mostly set.  On Tuesday morning I’d carpool over to Mid-Range Campus as usual.  Kim would pick the girls up from school that afternoon and then come get me, and we’d make it to eastern Indiana by the end of the day.  Then we’d spend Wednesday crossing Ohio and Pennsylvania, and there would be family and food at the end of the journey.  What more can you want out of a holiday?

Well, better weather, for one thing.

As someone who grew up in and around Philadelphia, I learned very early that snow was something that happened in January.  Maybe.  A white Christmas was something that happened in books and movies and far off places like, oh, hypothetically speaking, Wisconsin – one of those frozen places that the gods of irony would have me become resident of later in my life because that’s how they earn their paychecks.

And who pays gods, anyway?  With what?  Do they have to pay taxes?  To whom?  What services could they possibly get for them that they couldn’t do themselves?  Where would they cash those checks, and what kinds of things would they spend them on?  Why don’t theologians ask the hard questions like these, that’s what I want to know.

So the idea of snow in November never really occurred to me as a serious possibility.  The idea of a heavy, wet, travel-hazard snowstorm that would cancel our neatly planned out trip was unthinkable.  Until I looked at the weather forecast on Tuesday and suddenly had to revise my definition of unthinkable to “intensely thinkable,” which may or may not be a word but there you have it.  Thinks were thought.  Forecasts were consulted.  More thinks were thought, some of them not very polite at all, really.

We’re home now.  And if central Pennsylvania isn’t covered with a foot of snow by the end of today I will be seriously annoyed.  The gods will have their paychecks docked in that case, because they will owe me.

But here we are, with all kinds of found time. 

Of course there are still things to do.  I’ve got grading and class prep, of course.  Lauren is busy covering the dining room in paper mache, working on a sculpture for her Egypt project.  And so on.

We’ll probably go up to Kim’s family for Thanksgiving, since family and food at the end of a journey are what the holidays are all about, and even if it is a different group of family than the original plan called for it will still be a good time.

In the meantime, we’ll keep ourselves occupied.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bali Hai, Tally Ho, and All That Jazz

Despite having spent the better part of three decades backstage, I had never actually managed to see South Pacific.

I still haven’t.  But I did see the first half of it last night.

Tabitha is getting slowly pulled into the theater orbit down at Local Businessman High School, which is a lovely thing as far as we are concerned.  The backstage crew was largely what got me through my high school years.  Especially if you add in the choir, which had considerable overlap, that was where most of my friends were.  That was where most of my good stories come from, at least the ones I am willing to share in a public forum like this one.  I learned a great many things backstage (“never underestimate the humorlessness of authority figures” being one of the more useful lessons) and I find myself referring to those lessons often these days, occasionally in rueful hindsight.  Kim also spent considerable time in theater in high school, so Tabitha gets her stagecraft genes from both sides.

She wasn’t involved in this production, but she had friends who were and she wanted to go see it.  Lauren, on the other hand, wanted to go to the Rec Nite over at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, which started before the play did but which also ended before the play did. 

South Pacific
, if you’ve never had the chance, is a long, long production.

So we dropped off Lauren at the appropriate time and headed over to LBHS for the play, and I left at intermission to go pick her up again.  I still don’t know how it ends.  I assume we won the war.

As an old stagehand, I was deeply impressed with the tech work.  The set was really quite clever and involved – there were multiple wheeled set pieces that came on and off depending on what scene was playing, for example, and one of them had a structural second story that could support the lead actress twirling about up there.  That was impressive.  They had a lattice-work scrim of 1x4s that served as the walls of several different locations and retreated back up into the flyspace when not in use.  It tended to sway a bit now and then, but that’s just the nature of such things.  The lighting was quite involved, though as someone who spent more than my fair share of time running a spotlight I wanted to come in and train them how to pick up an actor without sliding the light around the stage first – it’s a voice-activated skill, in my experience.  You develop it after the director shouts at you for a bit.

Oh, what we could have done with that kind of budget.

Despite growing up in a fairly affluent suburban school district, our theater tended to be frugal to the point of miserly.  After every show, for example, we’d carefully take the set apart, put the wood back into appropriately-sorted piles, and then spend a couple of hours straightening nails against the concrete floor so they could be reused for the next show.  I understood about the wood, but the nails struck me as overkill even then.

On the plus side, though, we had a great deal of freedom to run things ourselves.  We designed the sets.  We called our own cues.  We created the lighting plots, which were fairly basic, given the ancient rheostats we had to move, but ours. 

Our lighting board was a massive grey metal thing that was taller than any of us and at least that wide.  On the left it had three rows of maybe half a dozen rheostats, each one controlled by a lever about eight inches long.  There was a blue row, a red row, and a yellow row.  You patched in whatever lighting instruments you could to the plugs corresponding to each of the rheostats and brought them up and down by moosing the individual lever up and down.  It was analogue lighting.  The knobs on the levers turned so you could lock them into one of three similarly color-coded sub-master levers to the right of each row – each about eighteen inches long – and thus locked you could physically move a row with just one lever, which took some arm strength.  Each of the three sub-master levers could also be locked into a grand master lever further to the right – about two feet long, with an extender that could slide out another foot or so for additional leverage if you wanted to lock everything into it.  When new people would join the stage crew we’d tell them that the board was hydraulic and needed to be pumped now and then to maintain pressure, and we’d lock everything into the big lever and have them pump it up and down for a while, which was a chore, let me tell you.  All of the other rheostat levers would move slowly up and down with the big one until we got tired of having them do it.  It was a ritual.

I wonder what rituals they have backstage down at LBHS, and how much they get to run their own shows.  I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

I’m looking forward to it.