Friday, September 22, 2017

News and Updates

1. It was 91F here in Our Little Town yesterday.  In Wisconsin.  On the first day of autumn.  It’s hotter today.  This in a year where most of the western part of the US and Canada as well as large portions of Europe and Africa were on fire.  Where four Category 4 or higher hurricanes made landfall in less than a month.  Where it was 106F in San Francisco – a city that regards 75F as uncomfortably warm.  Where once again we have set records for the hottest year since data has been recorded.  Where we have had over thirty straight years of “hotter than average” months – nobody born after Reagan’s second inauguration has ever seen a “cooler than average” month.  Where Houston, Puerto Rico, Sierra Leone, Niger, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have all seen record flooding.  And still there are people who think global climate change is some kind of hoax.  Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but sometimes I wonder if there is any hope for this species.

2. I made a quick jaunt out to Philadelphia last weekend to help my mom in her new place with a few projects and collect some things from the old house before it passes to the new owners next month.  It was good to see my mom, however briefly.  We also got to see her old neighbors, which was fun.  They took good care of my parents and made it possible for them to live in that house for that much longer, and I appreciate that.

3. It was kind of strange locking the door on the old house one last time. 

4. I also got to see my friends Mike and Krista on the way home, which I don’t do nearly enough.  I live too far away from too many good people.

5. One of the most satisfying feelings when driving down the interstate is when you switch lanes to let the nitwit who came roaring up behind you at warp speed and has been tailgating you for the last half mile pass by and then see him (almost always “him”) get trapped behind a wall of semis.  It’s almost but not quite as much fun as watching the cop pull out from the median to chase him down.  Yeah, I can be petty too.

6. The Taco Bell here in Our Little Town – or the one I pass every day on the way to work, anyway, as we are a multi-Taco-Bell kind of town – has finally completed its renovations.  It’s snazzy now.  I’m almost tempted to go in, except that I know that inside that nice new building is, well, Taco Bell.  I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something.

7. Although sometimes imitation Mexican food is precisely what you want.

8. Yes, I know what real Mexican food is.  I live in a town where the dining out options include a) all of the finest chain restaurants in America, and b) real Mexican food.  We have several places that serve actual Mexican food in all its tasty, tasty glory, and I am all for it.

9. In every class there is always that percentage of students who Just Don’t Get It.  You can identify them pretty quickly – the 13th-graders pretending to be college students.  The joy of teaching at the college level is that they are not legally required to be there, which means that over time either they will get it and become college students or they will move on.  The process, however, can be painful for everyone.

10. While I was away I missed the Local Band’s annual banquet, where Lauren was voted “Rookie of the Year” and was given a nice trophy to that effect.  She was also awarded a hat with velcro on the front and several velcroed labels bearing the names of the various instruments and roles she plays in the band, so she can swap them out as necessary.  She wears many hats, and this way she only needs the one.  Go Lauren!

11. I also missed the annual night tours of my old museum, where they turn off the electric lights and light the place up with lanterns as it would have been done in the 19th century.  Tabitha was a guide for it, as she has been for the last few years.  I always loved those tours, even though when I was there I rarely got home before midnight.  I’d be cruising through the place at the end of the night, shutting everything down in the dark.  We had a lot of people tell us the place was haunted, but I never saw anything.  Oh well.

12. Every decision comes with a cost.

13. The first couple of weeks of the semester are just a madhouse when you’re an advisor, but things calm down once the add/drop deadline for classes goes by. 

14. You know you’ve been busy at work when you go to toss the teabag from your mug and realize that you never tossed the one from the previous time, so your tea has been unusually strong but somewhat less in volume, and you didn’t even notice.  This happens more often than I care to think, these days.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Phoning It In

I was upgraded to a smart phone about two years ago.

It’s a nice little phone, I suppose.  It can surf the web.  It can tell me the weather.  It can send and receive texts, which is why my family insisted on me obtaining this device in the first place, as my children will not actually speak on the telephone unless there is no conceivable alternative up to and including not communicating at all.  It can, after a fashion, take photographs, though honestly a tiny elf with a colored pencil set would probably do a better job.  It makes a decent bookmark in a pinch.

If you try hard enough, it will actually function as a telephone.

This is kind of an afterthought among smart phone designers.  You can tell because smart phones are very poorly designed as phones.  They are really small tablet computers that will grudgingly make phone calls if you insist on it.  I suspect that the designers put that function in out of a sense of contractual obligation and are just waiting for everyone currently over 40 to die so they can phase the function out entirely.

It doesn’t really do apps, because it has less memory than I do.

I’m not sure why this is so, since one of the things I purchased with the phone was a small microchip that had flibbertygib-bits of memory so I could put things there and have plenty left over for other things such as apps.  This, it turns out, was not the case.  I’ve tried putting apps on it, but eventually I take them off because they don’t really work on my phone.

I’m surprisingly okay with this, as I don’t really do apps either.  Kim insists that I would do apps if I had a phone that could, but then this seems like putting the cart before the horse.  Can you even make horse/cart metaphors with smart phone technology?

Apparently so.

Two years is, I am told, an eternity in the smart phone world.  My phone is a veritable antique!  A museum piece!  There are phones being given away to indigent people in third world countries that could out-perform my phone even with their screens removed! 

So my task these days – or one of them, as there is never any shortage of tasks in this world – is to find and purchase a new phone.

I cannot tell you how dispiriting this process is.

Kim does not understand this, as she is a technology sort of person and enjoys nothing more than upgrading to a new gizmo that does More, Better, Faster, More Effectively, and With Greater Force.  If Kim were in this situation she would have had every phone on the market analyzed, rated, categorized, and ranked by now, and the new phone would already be in her pocket.  All technological progress made in our household can be directly attributed to her, as if it were left to me we'd probably still be writing letters longhand.  She'd have this problem solved.

Me?  I’m still working up the energy to look at the web site.

On my desktop.

My cell provider does make this a bit easier by limiting the number of phones that will actually work on their system to about a dozen models.  I like my provider, as they have a plan that costs very little, works pretty well, gives me everything I need, and actually refunds the difference between what I use and what I pay for.  In two years I have never failed to get money back.  And I can make calls from home, which is better than any other cell phone provider I have ever had.  So I will likely stick to one of those dozen models.

But which one?

They’re all Shiny.  They’re all no doubt an improvement over what I have, for certain values of improvement that don’t include comfort or familiarity and do include the ability to perform tasks that I have lived this long without ever asking a device to perform before.  They all promise everything and they may well deliver for all I know.

There are times when I am tempted just to get rid of the phone and be done with it.  But then my children would have no way to communicate with me. 

So I press on.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Frozen

Well, now my credit is all frozen.

It’s not as much fun as the Disney version, which at least had some catchy tunes.

Like everyone else in America who has used a credit card, gotten a mortgage, taken out a loan of any kind, or participated in the modern economy in the last half century in any way that is more sophisticated than bartering goats for services, I have a credit report with Equifax.  I did not ask for one.  They collected this information from me without my consent, and they feel they have the right to charge me to see it.  And if it weren’t for the fact that any screw up on their part will likely cause me headaches for the rest of my life I probably would have been happy to see that they were hacked by evildoers unknown.

But I don’t need the headaches.  I have them now, but I don’t need them.  And I am not happy.

Yes, folks, one of the companies charged with safeguarding the most sensitive information of American consumers was sloppy enough to let hackers have access to it for months, and then corrupt and/or clueless enough to allow top executives to sell off stock before they publicized the news to the rest of us.  But sure, let’s cut regulations on business, because they’re such good citizens and always do the responsible things, right?  The delusions of people who think such things are just stupefying to behold.

Equifax did set up a website to let you see if your information was compromised – a website that asked you for precisely the data that was stolen, in case the hackers needed it again, and then returned random results, and as such there are serious questions right now as to whether this was an actual effort to help consumers or a barely-hidden ploy to sign people up for services which can generate income for Equifax starting precisely 366 days after people sign up for them. 

So after reading up on such things, it seems that the consensus among people with Actual Clues was that everyone affected (which, really, means everyone, since it’s pretty clear that Equifax has no idea who was affected) should put credit freezes on their accounts.  These will prevent new accounts from being opened in your name, which cuts down on the fraud considerably.  Not entirely, since old accounts can still be hacked, but considerably.

Also, invest in goats.

Now, we’re used to this.  Kim’s credit has been frozen for more than a decade thanks to the wonderful folks at a mobile phone company whose name I refuse to utter, who as a result of what I strongly suspect was an inside job once sent us a bill for about the cost of a year’s tuition at the campus where I currently work, for an account that we did not open and whose billing address was a vacant lot.  It was the only account compromised.  We’ve gone through the ID fraud thing several times since then, and most of the time that phone company is involved somehow.  That’s a pretty dismal record for a company whose services we used for a grand total of three weeks before canceling the contract because we got no service.

So I spent today getting signed up for credit freezes.

My first visit was to Equifax, and it was exactly as screwed up as you would think it would be.  You walk through the website and answer all kinds of questions (“What was your allowance between the ages of 7 and 12?  Give a weighted average”) and eventually you get to the end.  At that point the website takes you to a new page and says that you have to download the pdf document by clicking on the link below.

Except there is no link below.

And when you try to call to ask about this – because there is no way to contact them online for customer service that I could find (I was lucky to find the phone number, which was hidden in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard,” along with some fascinating plans for a bypass) – you get shunted between three different voicemail labyrinths before a) running into a busy signal, b) getting a message that this number is not in use, c) being randomly hung up on after more than two dozen rings, or d) all of the above, in sequence.  Eventually I got through to someone who was able to confirm that yes, indeed, somewhere in there I had actually managed to procure a freeze and had a working PIN.

Apparently those are subject to hacking too, but let’s just get through the first crisis, shall we?

Experian, Trans-Union, and Innovis were easier, though two of the three charged me money for the privilege of directing them on how I wish my own personal information collected without my consent should be used. 

How does one get into this racket?

So now I am frozen.  It’s a gold-plated nuisance trying to get anything done this way – we very nearly weren’t able to buy a car a few years ago because the process of temporarily unfreezing things is not as easy or trouble-free as they say it is – but so be it.  If it causes the hackers to have half the trouble getting to my information that I will have, then I will be twice as inconvenienced as they.

Math.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Strike Up the Band

Somewhere this summer we became Band Parents.

Back in June, Lauren joined one of the local marching bands – and let me tell you, the fact that in this part of the world there is a selection of such things for people to join is one of the stranger realizations that I have had in a while.  I remember marching bands being strictly one per high school and that’s true here too, but in Wisconsin you also have independent marching bands that go to festivals and on tour and demand hours and hours of time and, oddly enough, the kids love them.  Lauren has enjoyed her time in the Local Band immensely, and I’ve had a good time in my occasional duty as a chaperone/water-bearer as well.

So, win.  Strange win.  But win nonetheless.

As the summer began to wind down, the school year naturally began to gear up.  Lauren has now joined Tabitha at Local Businessman High School, and of course she is in the marching band.  They had Band Camp toward the end of August, and have already been playing at neighborhood events, varsity football games, and the local Labor Day Parade.

Actually the two bands overlap – the Local Band doesn’t wrap up until Sunday – so Lauren ended up marching the Labor Day Parade twice.  The LBHS band marched fairly early in the process, and when they reached the end Lauren and several of her colleagues jumped into a waiting truck, changed uniforms on the fly as they headed back to the starting point of the parade, and then marched with the Local Band as one of the last groups in the event.  It was fun to watch, and Lauren plays different instruments in each band so that was pretty impressive. 

Plus in addition to the candy that is traditionally hurled at kids alongside parade routes here in Wisconsin, there was also a group that was tossing full-sized bags of potato chips at us.  Can’t beat that.

Being Band Parents, I have discovered, is kind of like joining a particularly benign cult, one that demands a great deal of time and resources but offers rewards in the here and now that you don’t have to change your diet for, and I’m all for that.

And that, folks, is the backstory of how I ended up at my second-ever college football game today.


Trust me, it makes sense in context.

Before today I had only ever been to one college football game in my life (matching my professional football total, actually).  None of the three universities from which I have earned degrees were involved, nor any of the ones I have since earned a paycheck from.  When I was in high school I went up to visit a friend at Cornell University, and she took me to what may have been their homecoming game.  It was against Colgate, and they got curbstomped by a score of something like 60-7.  Welcome home, Big Red.

When I was an undergraduate, they played the games at 1pm on Saturday and really who’s awake on a college campus at that hour?  We had a deli just off campus that used to serve breakfast until 4pm!  So despite the fact that we were League Champions for three of my four years there (plus the year after, when I lived off campus, worked any number of small jobs, and tried to figure out what to do next), I never managed to go to a game.  My favorite part of game day was actually afterward.  Penn’s campus is built around the spine of Locust Walk, and after the game vast crowds would flow out of the stadium on 34th Street and up Locust Walk toward the dorms and restaurants that started around 38th Street and spread west from there.  The business school building was about where 37th Street would be and it had a nice wide set of steps leading up to the front doors, so after every game all of the various acapella groups would gather on the steps and serenade the passing crowd with a couple of songs each – the whole thing lasting about half an hour.  It was a nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

In graduate school there was never enough time to go to games, and really those things were for the undergrads anyway.  Undergrads belong to the campus, but grad students belong to their departments.  And since then I’ve never worked for a campus that had a football team.

I didn’t miss it, to be honest.  I’d watch games on television, professional and college, as I’d done since my dad taught me the rules in the early 1970s, and that was plenty.

I’ve been slowly losing interest in American football over the last few years, as medical research more and more indicates that it is essentially in the same moral category as cockfighting and bear baiting, as college football becomes more and more of a threadbare front for raw moneymaking and lawless exploitation, and as the New England Patriots choke all the fun and suspense out of the NFL season as they have done for most of this century.  This year I find myself watching random soccer games – including Big 10 women’s games – rather than football, even when I am given the opportunity to watch a preseason game between my hometown Eagles and my current state’s Packers, and I can’t imagine this is going to get any better for football once the NHL season starts.  I will no doubt watch a few games this season, though, out of habit if nothing else.  Nearly half a century of fandom doesn’t evaporate overnight.  It takes time.

Today was High School Band Day at UW Madison.  Every high school marching band that could get to Camp Randall Stadium was invited to attend, and boy howdy did they ever.  There were about 1500 kids there representing nearly two dozen high schools, and LBHS was one of them.  And I thought, “Well, when am I ever going to do this again?”  So Kim and I sprang for a couple of tickets in the nosebleed section to the left of the press box, seats where the possibility of ducking under low-flying aircraft was distressingly real – I could actually hear the disappointment in the ticket seller’s voice on the phone when I explained why I wanted to buy these tickets and no I didn’t want to be on their mailing list for future games unless my child was playing percussion at those too – and off we went.

It was quite an experience.

The fun started with the fact that, for reasons that would probably make sense to me if I were a band director or if, perchance, I had read the day’s schedule of events more carefully last night, the bus left LBHS at 5:30am for an 11am game.  And since Lauren likes to be places early – a trait she gets from her dad, who learned from his own father that showing up on time is just another way to say you’ve waited until the last minute – and since she had to find and load her drum onto the bus, this meant that I was there in the parking lot at LBHS at a few minutes after 5am, watching her walk into the building.

I did manage to get back to sleep for a couple of hours before Kim and I got rolling on over to Madison.  So I had that going for me.

Have you ever been to Madison on game day?  It’s a sea of, well, several things.  Red, for instance.  Everyone is wearing red and white, the Badger colors.  Kim told me that I would need to find a red shirt to wear for this outing, and since I don’t actually own any UW Madison gear the best I could do was my Phillies shirt from when they won the World Series back in 2008.  Fortunately Phillies red and Badger red are sufficiently close that I passed without comment.

Part of the reason for the lack of challenge to my Phillies shirt is no doubt that the second thing that Madison on game day is a sea of is beer and at some point people stop being able to read and just accept that any red item of clothing must be okay.  Kim and I found a place to park about half a mile from the stadium (not bad, all things considered) and my guess is that there was no 20-yard stretch of the walk between those points, including major thoroughfares, that did not feature some opportunity for me to reach into someone else’s festivities and procure a beer.  Fortunately, I do not like beer, as it tastes of fermented sweatsocks and desperation, and nobody was serving whiskey, so I made it to the stadium unimpaired.  But at 10am on game day Madison is in full tailgate mode and the beer is flowing as if Prohibition were scheduled to start up again on Tuesday.

Another sea you will find is traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.  And in Madison, pedestrians win.  I was glad we parked at a distance and walked over, as I am sure some of the cars that parked next to the stadium will still be there for next week’s game, waiting for a random group of red-clad drunks to get out of their way.

We found our way into the stadium – passing the stringent new tests for what you can bring in with you (clothing, shoes, and the air in your lungs) and what you couldn’t (pretty much anything you’d want to bring to a sporting event) – and sherpa’d our way to our seats.


We had a grand time.

The weather was perfect – sunny, 70F, breezy – though the game itself was a rather pedestrian affair, to be honest.  That’s kind of what you’d expect when an overmatched team comes into the house of the 9th-ranked team in the country and is probably wondering if they’ll even have a campus to return home to on Monday once Hurricane Irma hits, but Florida Atlantic kept it close for most of the first half anyway.  There were a couple of really good plays on both sides, and if the Badgers don’t get their secondary straightened out fairly quickly and/or teach their receivers how to catch they’re not going to stay 9th-ranked for very long, but the end result was never really in doubt and the Badgers won going away, 31-14.

Mostly, though, the fun part was the other stuff. 

For one thing, the student section at Badger games has more fun than is probably legal.  They sit in the north end of the stadium – or, rather, they stand in the north end of the stadium, because by tradition they never sit down – and lead the cheers and activities.  It was the student section that made sure everyone repeated the announcer’s “First and 10, Wisconsin,” every single time (including the hand gesture).  They got the wave going.  And if they drifted in throughout the first half, well, really, who’s awake on a college campus at that hour anyway?

They also led the “jump around” segment of the game.  At the end of the third quarter the announcers play “Jump Around” over the PA (and, parenthetically, let me just say how amazing the PA system is at Camp Randall – like, really, truly, “you can hear and understand everything they say” amazing.  I’ve been at staff meetings that didn’t have that kind of audio clarity) and then everybody, well, jumps around.  It registers on the UW’s seismograph as a small earthquake (no, really, it does), and they did have to structurally reinforce the stadium at one point, but hey – tradition.


For another thing, there was the reason we were there in the first place: the bands.

They put the high school bands in the south end of the stadium.  That pixel right there is Lauren.  No, not that one – that other one, just a bit over.  Yeah, that one!


They played four songs at halftime, which was fun.  I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.  How many times are you going to get a chance to play for 80,000 people, really?  The bands spent the morning rehearsing, apparently – when there are 22 different bands, each of which has only had about a three days to practice on their own and less than a morning to practice together, you do what you can – and they did a pretty good job of it, I say.  Nicely done, Lauren!

There was also the UW Marching Band, which is one of those organizations that anyone in a marching band should aspire to join someday.  They’re talented, they work hard, and they are really, really good.


Plus it was Alumni Day for the band as well, and they had about 300 alums on the field with them before the game.  They spent most of the game next to the high schoolers (they’re the big red group on the left of that picture of the south end, or one of them anyway) and it was surprising how well they seem to have remembered it all.

After the game there was the Fifth Quarter, a Madison tradition that, surprisingly enough, does not (necessarily) involve beer.  Basically the band comes back out, plays “Varsity,” which seems to be as close to an alma mater as Madison gets, and then plays about fifteen minutes of fun stuff.  The alums joined them this time, too.  The kicker of the whole thing is that they play in scatter formation – basically they run around all over the field, wherever they want to be (paying rather more attention to the remaining students in the student section, naturally).  And they do whatever they want as well – I saw many playing on their backs, some while playing leap frog, and (my favorite) at least one bass drummer who used his drum as a brace to play while doing a headstand.


And they do it all in time and on pitch, with no loss of cohesion. 

It’s as if they were in formation watching the conductor and not meandering across and entire stadium while the conductor socializes on the sidelines.  Do you have any idea how hard that is to do?  I was impressed.

Eventually things wound down and we all headed out – Kim and me to our car, Lauren with her bandmates to the bus.  It’s been a long day, but a good one.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:

--

1.  And so der Sturmtrumper has now pardoned Joe Arpaio, the racist thug who was convicted of violating a federal court order to stop being such a damned racist.  Probably the most thoughtful reaction I’ve seen to that is also the most sobering – that der Sturmtrumper is deliberately working his rabid base up to violence for when the inevitable impeachment and conviction process starts.  It certainly explains his renewed interest in banning transgendered troops from the military on the eve of a Category 4 hurricane hitting Texas, for example.  Just red meat for the ignorant and armed, an attempt to undermine the rule of law in the name of personal tyranny.  If you’re not worried about the survival of the American republic, you’re not paying attention.

2. Joe Arpaio is the classic example of the psychopath drunk with power.  A list of his offenses against morality, law, Constitution, and human decency takes longer to read than most decent people have the stomach to get through.  The fact that he has supporters at all is indicative of the general state of moral degradation of this country, and the fact that they are not ashamed to support him publicly is a damning indictment of American culture.  How even as grotesque a failure as der Sturmtrumper could possibly see fit to grant this gargoyle a pardon is one of the great moral depravities of our time.

3. This riling up his ammosexual base does also fit the general GOP narrative toward armed insurrection.  Prominent Republicans have threatened armed insurrection in this country at least a dozen times in the last year – openly advocating violence against American citizens to further their political agenda.  This is no longer a party that sees itself bound by democracy or the will of the American people, or even the Constitution.  This is a party that regards itself as the only legitimate holder of raw power in the US and everyone else is simply a target. 

4. On the other hand, we seem to be shedding Nazis at the top, so that’s good.  “Dr.” Sebastian Gorka has ridden off into whatever sunset of eternal whiteness is at the end of the road for such folks.  Add that to the fact that the (probably non-Nazi, but with this administration who knows?) guy who was getting paid handsomely to clip positive news stories for der Sturmtrumper is also gone, and it looks like the chaos and dysfunction of the current junta is unabated.

5. So der Sturmtrumper is now openly at war with Congressional Republicans.  He’s attacked Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and pretty much everyone he needs in order to advance whatever dumbass ideas he wants put into law.  I’m not sure how he thinks this will help, since the Democrats certainly aren’t going to come over to his side – honestly, the Democrats’ best strategy is simply to let this administration self-destruct – and eventually the careerism of the average Senator or Representative will take over and they’ll just ignore him.  Der Sturmtrumper forgets the lesson of Andrew Johnson – if you can put together a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress, you don’t need a president.  If he drives Congressional Republicans into the arms of Congressional Democrats where (gasp!) they might actually sit down, work together, compromise, and govern, the way things worked as recently as the 1980s, then perhaps we may survive this.

6. Former President Bannon is said to be readying his revenge on all the staffers in the White House who Done Him Wrong.  He’s back at Breitbart, the far-right-wing mouthpiece that launched him into fame, and among his fellow extremists.  He’s ready for “war”!  War!  Yet another keyboard jockey throwing around military terms as if he had a clue!  Get your popcorn – gonna be interesting!

7. So James Clapper – the former Director of National Intelligence and a man who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents – has added his voice to the chorus of people who understand reality and denounced der Sturmtrumper as someone who is a “complete intellectual, moral and ethical void.”  He also noted the elephant in the room which is the fact that der Sturmtrumper currently has unfettered access to nuclear weapons.  If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.

8. In long-term GOP policy news, thanks to the relentless focus on enriching the few at the expense of the many through the application of supply-side economics to a demand-side economy, MIT economist Peter Temin now says that the US has the economic and political structure of a developing nation rather than a First World one.  20% of the US is educated, has good jobs, and supportive social networks, while the remaining 80% lives in a world of debt, ignorance, and insecurity.  The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class – the engine of American prosperity and stability – is shrinking.  Lynne Parramore, of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, notes that “Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen for generations.”

9. The numbers bear this out, by the way.  The gap between productivity and wages has increased dramatically since 1973, and especially since the early 1980s – that means that Americans workers are doing more and getting paid less proportionately, which is not a good thing in a consumer economy whose prosperity demands consumer spending.  The share of income going to the top 1% - and especially the top 0.1% and the top 0.01% - has skyrocketed since 1981, and the top tenth of a percent now has about 12% of all the income in America.  Income growth has been limited to those at the top, while those at the bottom have seen their income drop in inflation-adjusted terms. This is not sustainable.

10. If you’re looking for more actual evidence for this (as opposed to the ideological posturing so popular among the right wing these days) there is also this bit of economic news: the bottom 99% of Americans paid 9 times as much income tax as the richest 1% between 1960 and 1980, but they now pay 21 times as much.  And if you expand that to the bottom 99.9% of Americans, they were paying 22 times as much income tax as the richest 0.1% in 1980, but are now at 175 times as much.  You know, folks, if we want to cut back on welfare, we should stop giving the rich such a free ride.

11. 61% of der Sturmtrumper’s supporters say that there is literally nothing he can do that will make them stop supporting him, according to a recent poll that I looked at.  That’s not politics – that’s a cult.

12. Folks, do you have any idea what Hurricane Harvey is going to do to the US?  Leaving aside the immense humanitarian disaster just for the moment, the fact remains that Houston is effectively gone as an economic unit and will remain gone for the foreseeable future.  The Houston Ship Channel is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, serving 10 major oil refineries and over a hundred similar facilities – including the largest refinery in the US.  Those refineries produce more than a quarter of the gasoline consumed in the US and most of our aviation fuel.  If they get back up and producing soon the impact will be minor, but if those don’t reopen quickly you can expect European-level gasoline prices in the US this fall.  There are also about 150 chemical manufacturing plants turning out everything from plastics to pesticides in Houston, producing nearly half of the basic chemicals in the US as well as significant chunks of our plastics, specialty chemicals, and fertilizers.  Shutting all that down will be catastrophic.  According to FEMA, “Any disruption lasting longer than several days will negatively affect US energy supplies.  Any disruption lasting longer than several weeks will negatively affect the food security of the United States and our trading partners.”  None of this is any surprise.  All of it was known and predicted after Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.  And yet here we are, with president who on August 15th revoked Obama’s executive order establishing a federal flood risk management standard and process.  Meanwhile the GOP-controlled Texas legislature just passed a bill designed to make it far more difficult for people in flooded areas to collect their insurance, a bill that went into effect on September 1, because fuck you that’s why.  We are so, so screwed.

13. Remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and all those blood-red GOP Congressmen from Texas refused to vote for any federal aid to New Jersey unless it came packaged with all kinds of right-wing tax breaks for their wealthy friends?  Notice any of that coming from Texas these days?  Didn’t think so.  There is nothing like actual need to remind you what outright hypocrites and moral sinkholes the GOP produces in these modern times.

14. Part of me thinks that the rest of the nation should condition hurricane relief for Texas on receiving a full, public apology from every GOP lawmaker who voted against relief for New Jersey, one that spells out precisely how awful they are as human beings.  Part of me isn’t sure that I’m quite that petty.  But I might be.

15. Speaking of drooling idiots, have you seen the outpouring of commentary from supporters of der Sturmtrumper trying to portray him in a favorable light by criticizing President Obama for going golfing during Hurricane Katrina?  You know, the hurricane that hit in 2005, when George W. Bush was president and Obama wasn’t?  Are you surprised by this?  If so, you haven’t been paying much attention.

16. Those drooling idiots are a significant percentage of the GOP, according to the numbers.  A poll by Public Policy Polling that was targeted at determining the beliefs of probably GOP primary voters found that 29% - nearly three in ten – of the Republicans in Louisiana blamed Obama for the catastrophically incompetent response to Katrina, which is actually higher than the percentage who blamed the guy who was actually president at the time.  And 44% didn’t know whether to blame the one or the other more.  We have entered a world where reality doesn’t matter.

17.  It turns out that Senator Barack Obama was actually at the Astrodome during Katrina working to help the victims of the storm, by the way, which is more than FEMA was doing at the time (heckuva job, Brownie!).  And for the remaining GOP ignoranti still trying to find some way to make der Sturmtrumper look like, well, something other than the grotesque fool that he is, during Katrina Senator Hillary Clinton worked to return FEMA to independent status after the fiasco of the response to Katrina, then worked with the Congressional Black Caucus’ “Eradicating Poverty” town hall to find the root causes of the suffering patterns from the storm (Obama was also on that panel, if you’d care to look that up).  Clinton also helped start the Clinton Global Initiative in the wake of the storm.  The CGI had a number of initiatives that bore fruit.  One was the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, which raised and distributed around $200 million to colleges, universities and community organizations for the benefit of Katrina victims.  Another was a partnership with Toyota to partner with organizations like the St. Bernard Project to improve preparations for and home-building efforts after major storms.  The SBP has rebuilt more homes, post-Katrina, than any other organization.  And neither Clinton nor Obama were actually president at the time.  Imagine – actual Americans working to make the lives of other actual Americans better in responsible ways.  I know!  No wonder the electorate rejected them.

18. Well, it turns out that pardoning ol’ Sheriff Joe is yet another thing that may well constitute an impeachable offense according to legal scholars.  While the Constitution does not explicitly put limits on the power of the president to pardon, it also has no issues with such limits when they are imposed on other similar things – all of the rights set out in the Constitution are subject to restriction and always have been, including all of the Bill of Rights.   You can’t incite riots under the 1st Amendment, for example, and yes this principle of limits includes the 2nd Amendment (try reading the Heller decision sometime – even Antonin Scalia wasn’t so far gone in his partisanship to deny it).  The issue here is that Arpaio was pardoned for violating a federal court order rather than violating a law, and for der Sturmtrumper to step in – while the case was still ongoing, since Arpaio hadn’t been sentenced yet – and give him a free pass is a violation of the separation of powers.  “The power of courts to restrain government officers from depriving citizens of liberty absent judicial process is the only meaningful way courts have to enforce important constitutional protections,” noted Martin Redish, a constitutional law scholar at Northwestern University.  “But if the president can employ the pardon power to circumvent constitutional protections of liberty, there is very little left of the constitutional checks on presidential power.”  Which, of course, is der Sturmtrumper’s goal.  The Founders feared tyranny more than any other way the republic could collapse, and it looks like we’re well on our way there with this administration and its supporters.

19. Robert Mueller has begun partnering with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate the financial crimes of der Sturmtrumper and his cronies, minions, and lackeys.  This is significant, since it works to nullify der Sturmtrumper’s biggest weapon against Mueller – his ability to abuse the presidential pardoning power (see above).  State crimes cannot be pardoned by presidents.  Sleep well, Fredo.

20. Mueller has also begun working with the IRS Criminal Investigations Unit on the collusion between der Sturmtrumper and Russian intelligence, making use of their expertise in tax evasion and money laundering.  He now has access to der Sturmtrumper’s tax returns, in other words, which is more than the rest of the American people can say.

21. General Kelly’s days may well be numbered, which should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the titanic and infantile ego of his boss, which he has been laboring to bring to heel.  According to any number of people who have spoken on the issue from the deep confines of the White House, der Sturmtrumper is deeply annoyed at the idea that other people are placing limits on his freedom to do whatever he wants (and if you want to understand his attitude toward the law, well, there you go).  Nobody trying to bring order and structure to this dysfunctional rat’s nest is going to last for long, and my guess is that Kelly will be shown the door fairly soon.

22. You know, the idea that der Sturmtrumper’s base is a collection of the dregs of American society – the racists, the white supremacists, the thugs, the Nazis, the unreconstructed Confederates, and so on, generally known for rhetorical convenience as the “alt-Right” – is obvious to those of us looking in from the outside, but it is somewhat surprising to see it confirmed so bluntly by their own admission.  This is true even when compared to most Republicans, who in theory are the party he leads, and most conservatives, the folks he claims to represent (he certainly has no interest in doing anything for anyone else).  Trump supporters are four times more likely to openly support the KKK than either whites in general, Republicans in general, or conservatives in general.  They are nearly twice as likely to be openly favorable to white supremacists than Republicans in general, and nearly three times as much as conservatives in general.  They are the only group who blame the counter-protesters at Charlotte rather than the white supremacists who killed one of the protesters.  Neither whites in general nor Republicans overall did that.  They are the only people who think that whites are the most discriminated group against in America – only a quarter of whites are that stupid, and two out of five Republicans, but 45% of der Sturumtrumper’s supporters say so.  They are almost twice as likely as whites in general or conservatives overall to have an explicitly favorable opinion of Nazis.  Among people who strongly support Trump, that figure goes up to four times as likely as conservatives overall.  Remember, folks – these are people who are comfortable saying this explicitly (yes, the questions were that clear) to a pollster.  The real numbers may well be higher.  Numbers don’t lie, though der Sturmtrumper’s supporters do when they tell you they’re not racists.

23. Has anybody told der Sturmtrumper yet that he won?  He seems to do an awful lot of campaigning for a guy who was inaugurated less than a year ago.

24. Der Sturmtrumper just can’t get good mindless minions these days, no matter how hard he tries.  His own Department of Justice has admitted in court that der Sturmtrumper’s claims of being wiretapped by the Obama Administration during the campaign are utterly groundless, completely false, and without merit.  And his supporters don’t care, because truth is a concept they have no familiarity with anyway and they’d rather have the exciting story than the actual reality.

25. The Russian noose continues to tighten, with smoking gun emails being discovered at a rate that is positively hazardous to anyone breathing nearby.  Der Sturmtrumper’s longtime lawyer and confidente Michael Cohen, for example, is on record pursuing business deals with Russia during the campaign on behalf of der Sturmtrumper despite vehement denials from der Sturmtrumper that such things happened, and Felix Sater – another of der Sturmtrumper’s advisors – celebrated his relationship with Vladimir Putin and der Sturmtrumper in other emails, vowing to “get Putin on this program and … get Donald elected.”  Yeah, a surgical mask would be good about now, trying to breathe through all that smoke.

26. Der Sturmtrumper’s plan to repeal DACA is yet another instance of the gratuitous cruelty of this rogue regime.  Honestly, going after children?  Children who are very carefully vetted for lack of criminal record, attendance at school, and gainful employment?  Those are dangerous, aren’t they?  Sure they are – they’re not old white evangelical Protestant men, after all.  If you’re missing the blatant racism of this – which they don’t even bother to conceal anymore – there is no hope for you.

27. Der Sturmtrumper’s flag:


28. No wonder they hated Obama so much.  The mere thought of a black man in the White House drove the folks who became der Sturmtrumper’s base absolutely crazy for eight long years, and now they’ve got just the bigot to make all their dreams come true.

29. Speaking of Obama, I hope you saw his response to this.  It was measured, responsible, clearly thought out, correctly spelled, humane, moral, patriotic, and therefore in every way the polar opposite of der Sturmtrumper, his minions, and their fellow travelers.  It was also public, which is extremely unusual for an ex-president.  This, more than anything else, tells you just how outside the bounds of normal politics we are these days, when a Constitutional scholar feels honor-bound to defy convention to try to remind Americans who we are and slap down the moral outrage that is, for now, the stated policy of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

30. This country was founded by immigrants.  It was built by immigrants.  And, given current demographic trends, it will survive entirely on how welcoming it is to new immigrants.  Unless things change, that won’t be very long at all. 

31. What’s fascinating is just how widespread the condemnation of der Sturmtrumper’s assault on DACA is, even among conservatives.  The US Conference of Catholic Bishops – a group not known for its left wing politics – has condemned der Sturmtrumper’s actions as “reprehensible.”  “Today’s actions represent a heartbreaking moment in our history that shows an absence of mercy and good will, and a short-sighted vision for the future,” they said.  Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said, “I believe those who were brought to this country by their parents, raised here, educated here, lived here, and dreamed here, should be welcomed to stay here.”  The US Chamber of Commerce declared that “To reverse course now and depart these individuals is contrary to fundamental American principles and the best interests of our country.”  Not that it will make much difference, I suspect.  We’re still talking about hurting people who are not rich, white, or in a position to add to der Sturmtrumper’s private wealth, and who therefore don’t count as far as he is concerned.

32.  You know, guys, when you have two “once in a century” storms in the same week, maybe you should consider the reality of climate change.  Just a thought.

33. Der Sturmtrumper really seems to be doing his level best to alienate everyone, and it’s working.  Apparently he struck a deal with Democrats – who, let’s be honest here, wouldn’t stop to piss on him if he were on fire – to get a three-month hike in the debt ceiling in order to pay for Hurricane Harvey relief.  Now, on the one hand, the nonsensical opposition to raising the debt ceiling (as opposed to not spending the money in the first place) that the GOP has spouted since the black guy was in charge has been one of the dumbest features of American politics in recent memory, and anything that cuts that circus short counts as a win for humanity, especially if it avoids the GOP Theater of Cruelty that comes with horse-trading aid to American citizens for ideological victories such as you saw after Hurricane Sandy.  On the other hand, the GOP faction of Congress is deeply annoyed as this has deprived them of a prime grandstanding opportunity to showcase their fiscal ignorance and pander to the hard hearted.  Which, of course, means that they are now angry at der Sturmtrumper.  I do hope that der Sturmtrumper understands that the only thing standing between him and impeachment is the GOP conviction that he can be a useful idiot for implementing their agenda, and when that understanding doesn’t hold he will be removed from office as he should have been in January. You may continue to grab your popcorn!

34. Senator John “No Fucks Left to Give” McCain has joined with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to file a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the lower court’s decision to black Wisconsin’s blatant GOP gerrymandering as a crude violation of the Constitution.  That case will be argued in less than a month.  Yes, keep that popcorn machine humming!

35. Do you suppose the GOP will keep to its plan to cut $876 million from FEMA in its next budget, the way they were going to until Hurricane Harvey devastated reliably conservative Texas?  They were going to use that money for der Sturmtrumper’s wall, after all.  I’m guessing that this idea has been shelved for now, but not for long.  You can always rely on the short-term greed of the modern GOP to forget why money needs to be spent in the first place.

36.  I do get tired of people pointing out that if der Sturmtrumper gets evicted from the Oval Office we’ll be left with Mike Pence, as if they expect me to be so blisteringly stupid that I think this is about partisan politics.  Yes, I know Pence comes next.  It says so, right in the Constitution, which is a document I have actually read!  You should too!  Pence is your bog-standard right-wing Koch Brothers meat puppet and Dominionist theocrat, but he’s not clinically insane, has at least some passing familiarity with the Constitution (though his grasp of the 14th Amendment is disturbingly weak), and knows how to run a government.  We'll survive Pence, just like we survived W, and eventually the grown-ups will come back into power and clean up the mess.  I can’t really say that about der Sturmtrumper’s regime.  It’s not about partisan politics, folks.  It’s about the survival of the American republic.  Try to keep up.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

All the News

Nobody does bittersweet melancholy quite like Garrison Keillor.

It’s a difficult line to walk, really – far more so than most people credit.  To be able to conjure up the slow, aching sadness behind some of life’s happiest times and have your audience feel both sides of the moment when it all comes into focus is a high and underappreciated art, one that Keillor has been practicing for decades now.

He was in rare form last night.

I’ve been listening to Keillor since I was introduced to A Prairie Home Companion back in high school.  He’s retired from that show now – for real this time, at age 75 – but for decades Keillor’s slow, wandering stories of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota (“Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”) have kept me company on Saturday nights whenever I could remember to listen.  There were skits, songs, and long rambling stories, and it made for a perfect way to spend a couple of hours.  He also did the advertisements, since old-time radio shows should have ads and there aren’t any on public radio.  My personal favorite was always the Fearmonger Shop (“Serving all your phobia needs since 1954”) though Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (“If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it”) is right up there too.

Some years ago I managed to spend some time in the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, where the show originated.  My position as the Performing Arts Guy down at Home Campus entailed going to the Arts Midwest Conference a couple of times, and they put a lot of the showcase performances there.  But I’d never seen Keillor live.

My friend Dave had an extra ticket to see him in Madison, and he offered it to me.  Of course I went.  We had a grand time.

The event was held at Breese Stevens Field, which is a dual-purpose athletic field in the heart of the city whose lines are painted for both soccer and, because this is Madison, ultimate Frisbee.  Unless you sprang for the picnic basket – which cost roughly the GDP of Lithuania, contained wine, cheese, and probably the deed to a fair-trade coffee plantation somewhere hot, and came with picnic seating – you had to bring your own chairs.  It was a cheerful and friendly crowd, though, and I note that my presence there did nothing to alter the average age of the attendees.


Keillor came out rather formally attired for a grey, occasionally rainy, and slightly chilly autumn evening.


He wandered through the crowd singing a mournful and at times laugh-out-loud funny song about being from Minnesota.  The poor techs up in the spotlight tower had a bear of a time keeping him in light, especially when he drifted right underneath them (those spotlights can only depress so far), but they did a good job and yes I am precisely the person who notices the spotlight operators thank you very much.  Eventually Keillor wandered back up to the stage, where he introduced the show as “the Prairie Home Companion Refugee show.”  And that’s pretty much what it was.  If you’ve ever listened to the show, it had all of the singing and stories, though without the skits.  It was lovely.



He had his band, all of whom are superlatively talented, and they did a long selection of the kind of Americana music that PHC was known for.  Heather Masse of The Wailin’ Jennys sang many of the songs with him, and even did a solo piece that was straight jazz torch-singing, which I have always loved.  Fred Newman was the sound effects guy (“foley,” as my daughters are at pains to correct me these days). 



Newman and Keillor did a couple of the stories that they always do, where Keillor tells some long rambling tale and Newman has to do the sound effects on the fly.

“He went into the Lutheran Church” 

Bing bong bing bong…

“No, those were Catholic bells.  These were Lutheran bells.”

…?

“Lutheran bells!”

BOOOOOONG  BOOOOONG!

“Yes, like that.”

What really impressed me most about Newman was that at one point he was playing a Jew’s harp – an instrument I taught myself how to play back in college, and if you want to get some strange looks try walking around a college campus idly practicing on a Jew’s harp – and while he was doing that he began singing a Beatles song, though in a slightly minor mode that gave it a lilting melancholy air.  And then he began whistling, all the while still twanging away on the Jew’s harp.

Do you have any idea how hard that is to do?  Color me impressed.

But the best part of the evening, as expected, were the monologues.  He actually did two of them, one before the intermission and one after.  They were linked, but separate and very different in tone.

The first one was my favorite, a tightrope act of sorrow and delight there in the dark in Madison.  It’s hard to tell where Keillor’s life leaves off and his Lake Wobegon stories begin anymore, and it’s probably best not to worry about the dividing line.  He’s 75 now, a fact he alluded to several times last night, and his story centered on going back to Lake Wobegon for the funeral of the first girl he ever truly loved.  It bounced back and forth between the events of the funeral itself and the story of how he came to know this girl, how she invited him to the prom, and how they ended up parked up by the cemetery later that night, this achingly beautiful and funny moment of young love in the front seat of a ’55 Pontiac set against the backdrop of this grown-up woman’s memorial service.  Back and forth, back and forth, building up and digressing, wandering around and back to the point, laughter and sadness all swirled together in one, as it always is, really.

I’m old enough now to appreciate this story more than I might once have done.  It’s been a long time since high school.  You lose people as you get older.  The memories remain happy ones, though, and that balance, that bittersweet melancholy joy, more and more becomes who you are.  It’s a complicated thing, this world, and it can be a beautiful one if we let it.

The second half of the monologue was funnier, in that “slowly creeping absurdity” sort of way where each individual step of the story makes perfect sense but about halfway through you realize you are in a thoroughly ridiculous place and wonder how you got there.  Let’s just say that lakes, weddings, ash-sprinklings (particularly involving green bowling balls dropped from a parasail by young men in red Speedos), hot air balloons, and pontoon boats full of both barbecue grills and Lutheran ministers don’t actually mix very well and leave it at that.

At the end of the show he got the audience to sing along to a few songs of leave-taking, including one of my favorites – “Goodnight, Irene” – before we all drifted back into our lives.

That’s all the news from Lake Wobegon.

Good night.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In the Middle of Our Street

My mom moved out of the house today.

It was time, really.  A four-bedroom stone house is a lot of structure for one person.  My parents had been talking seriously about moving out even before my dad’s health declined.  It all got put on hold after he passed away.  That only accentuated the basic problem of Big House for Small Population, though.  That’s a lot of house to take care of.

We moved into that house in 1979, when I was in 7th grade. 

My parents had talked about moving out of the old twin home I grew up in for a couple of years before that, though I didn’t want to move at first.  I liked that little house.  But eventually the prospect of having a bedroom you don’t have to share with your brother became just too irresistible for both me and my brother, and so we dropped whatever opposition we might have had.  I don’t know if he even had any opposition, but there you go.

Moving day was chaotic, as I recall.  We weren’t going that far – maybe a mile as the crow flies.  We stayed in the same schools and even kept our old phone number in an era when this was a fairly uncommon thing to do.  It was the last day of February and I got to stay home from school to help out.  The movers did most of the transporting, but we had family come with their cars to help move the things that we were especially concerned about.  And later that night, once the dust had settled, my dad and I went back to the old house after the new people had moved in (for some reason I still recall their names) and fished out our cat.  She had fled in a panic at the sight of the first mover walking into her home.  My dad knew exactly where she was and figured she’d be safer there than if we tried to get her, so he left her until we could go back later with some boiled ham slices and tempt her out of the little space between the cellar wall and the joists holding up the kitchen floor, to the right of the window facing the alley.  That had long been her hideout.

Somewhere around 3am the cat finally emerged from her hiding place in the new house and began exploring.  My new room was of course crammed full of boxes, many of which had lids that weren’t really up to the challenge of supporting a cat.  The cat thought this was a grand adventure, however.  LEAP!  CRASH!  Mrowmrowmrowgrumblegrumblegrumble.  LEAP!  CRASH!  Mrowmrowmrowgrumblegrumblegrumble.  And so I spent my first night in the new house.

I got chicken pox a couple of weeks after we moved, so I stayed home from school for a while.  It gave me a good chance to explore the place and make it my own.  I remember being particularly enamoured of the closet in my parents’ room, which sloped up toward the rear to allow for the staircase just beneath it.  I thought that was pretty cool.

It was nice having my own room, too.  It was my own space to invite in those whom I wished or just to have for my own, and I liked that.  It faced the rear and, if I had wanted to do so, I could climb out my window, walk across the roof of the family room, and step onto the hill in the back, which went up from there.  The cat did that a lot, as I recall.  I talked my parents into painting the walls turquoise.  My brother got the other rear-facing room.  My grandmother had the room over the garage, which almost made it cool enough for her, though she ran her air conditioner pretty much constantly from April to October anyway.  The big room went to my parents, of course.

One thing about the place that always gave us stories was the fact that the street behind us had the same name as our street and the same street numbers, though the house at our number on the other street was in a different county.  For a while the people who lived there had a last name that was only one letter different from ours.  We got their mortgage.  They got our picnic table.  You could always tell when the new mailman came on by the catalogues that ended up being dropped through the mail slot.  And delivery vans?  Forget it.  After a while you got used to seeing them crawl up and down the street looking confused (since not every address had a corresponding address on the other street) and learned to flag them down and explain things to them.

There are a lot of memories in that old house.  Friends.  Girlfriends.  Family.  Events across the calendar and across the years.  We celebrated and mourned and welcomed, we shared and ate and laughed.  As you get older the ghosts get more numerous, more accommodating, and less fearsome, and you find yourself surrounded by them just walking through spaces where things happened.  They’re good company on quiet days.

My brother has been there for the last couple of days, helping my mom with the last of the packing and the first of the moving.  He posted this photo last night.  “A cat in the window since 1979,” he wrote.


There will be a new family in there soon, and perhaps they will have as good a run in that house as we did.  I wish the new family well.

A house is built of wood and stone, but a home is made of love.  And if you are very lucky in this world, they are one and the same.