Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rocking Appleton

Somewhere out there is a city planner or traffic control engineer who is being tempted into some kind of iniquity.  He (or she, I suppose) is staring intently at this tempting thing or contemplating this tempting action and thinking that the consequences of giving in to this temptation could not possibly be that severe, certainly not severe enough to warrant the kind of restraint that would lead to the temptation being passed by.  It would be worth the price, surely.

But what this planner or engineer does not realize is that the penalty for giving in to such temptation is to spend the rest of eternity driving around Appleton, Wisconsin.  For surely that would be the definition of Hell for any traffic control engineer or city planner.

It certainly came close to being mine.

We spent the weekend up in Appleton at a bonspiel for the girls, and it has to be said that the bonspiel itself was a great deal of fun.  Curling events usually are.  It was well run, the action was compelling, and the food was good.  Can't ask for more than that, really.

Curling, for those of you who haven't tried it, has a lot more going for it than just Norwegian pants.  It’s a very sociable sport, for one thing – there are fairly high standards of sportsmanship on the ice, and you are expected to hang out with the team you just played once the match is over.  And it’s surprisingly engaging, particularly if you know just how hard it is to get a 40lb block of granite to slide a hundred and fifty feet down the ice and stop within six inches of where you want to put it, quite possibly skirting around several other 40lb blocks of granite that were in your way in the process.  You can get lost in a curling match more quickly than you'd imagine.

We got there in plenty of time for a 10:15am draw on Saturday, and the girls’ team gave it their all.

Sometimes this meant a bit more volume than you’d think was necessary on a Saturday morning, but then you’d be wrong.  Curling requires volume.  It helps the rocks move.

They lost their first match – after which there was social time and a nice lunch provided by the curling club there, while Kim and I checked into the hotel – and then won their second one.  Based on the tiebreaker task (appointing one team member to throw a single rock as close as possible to the button – which makes sense if you are a curler – and comparing the distances achieved), they ended up in the 3rd-place game for Sunday in the developmental side of the bonspiel.

Another team from our curling club played in the competitive side, by the way, and did fairly well.  I didn't keep track of them as closely, nobody on that team being a direct blood relative of mine, but I did try to watch when I could.

After the second match there was dinner.  Kim and I decided that we would take the opportunity to forage for ourselves, since the meal served was not something Kim could eat and the girls were quite happy not to have their parents looking over their shoulders for a while.  So we set out.

Imagine, if you will, a mall-sprawl area.  It is filled with shops, many of which are restaurants selling tasty things to eat.  It has frontage roads, theoretically to provide access to those shops, except that they look like driveways even when you’re on them and you can't really find them even if you know to look for driveways.  It has traffic lights, most of which are so closely bunched together that traffic backs up and it is difficult to turn onto roads.  This is because there is an intense amount of traffic in what is clearly the regional shopping center for a four-county radius.  There are also median strips randomly placed here and there that make it impossible to turn left from what seemed like all of the possible left turn options.  The upshot of all of this is that if someone locked you in your car and refused to let you out until you were legally parked in front of your destination it would be entirely possible to starve to death within sight of half a dozen different restaurants.

Welcome to Appleton.

We ended up eating at a restaurant that was maybe a hundred yards from the curling club.  If we had been willing to clamber over the four-foot-high snow drifts (and known ahead of time that we'd end up there), we could have walked there in less than five minutes.  Instead, it took us 25 minutes to drive there.  Granted, some of that was looking at a different restaurant directly across the street from the one we ate in, but still.  It was across the street.  And getting back across the street involved a detour under the highway, through the mall, and into the parking lot of a neighboring hotel, and even that could only be accomplished with GPS help.

Seriously, traffic control engineers and city planners, be good.

Eventually, fully fed and rested, we headed back to the curling club, picked up the girls, and embarked on the half-hour journey to our hotel, a quarter mile from the club as the crow flies.  The team had its own room, while Kim and I shared an adjoining one.  We’d stocked up on snacks at the Weird Food Emporium that afternoon, between matches, and many of them found their way into their room that evening.  We also found ourselves in possession of a bushel of fried cheese curds, none of which would see the morning light.  So it was a good night all around.

We went back to the curling club Sunday morning for the final draw.  They gave it a good run and made some really good shots, but the other team made some even better shots and so our heroes ended up in 4th place overall, which is not bad really.  And they had a great deal of fun, which is more important anyway

We’ve still got a bonspiel or two left in the season.  We’re looking forward to it.

Good curling!

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Long Leap from Lambeau

I’d never actually met a professional football player before tonight.

I’ve been a fan of American football since the Nixon Administration, following my hometown Philadelphia Eagles through their years of futility and occasional competence.  And I’ve become a Packer fan by marriage – they’re a team that seems to know how to build a winner without stooping to the depths of depravity the way some other teams do.  They’re fun to watch.  I cheer for them as long as they’re not playing the Eagles.

And even as it gets harder to watch football every year, as the health implications of large men repeatedly running full-speed into other large men become more and more clear, I still enjoy the game.  At some point this may no longer be true, but for the moment it still is.

We went to a local chili-tasting contest tonight – a fund-raiser for a worthwhile charity.  I like chili.  I like the cause this charity represents.  I like the friends we went with.  It seemed like a pretty good thing to do on a cold Friday night in February.  So we went.

The celebrity guest judge for the chili contest was Leroy Butler, who had been a safety on the Green Bay Packers through the 1990s and won a Super Bowl with them.  He’s the guy who invented the Lambeau Leap – that jumping into the stands at the back of the end zone that it seems everyone now does when they score in Green Bay.  I remember watching him play – he was a remarkably talented player in the position I always thought I’d like to play if I were far more athletically talented than I actually was. 

When we played football when I was a kid I was always in the defensive secondary if I had any choice in the matter.  Some kids wanted to be the quarterback, in charge of the show, and others wanted to be the running back or receiver – the glamour positions, really.  Not me.  Why go to them when they will come to you, I remember thinking, and why get hit when you can be the one doing the hitting?

Just made sense.

We walked over to his table at some point early in the proceedings and got our picture taken with him.  He was very gracious and well-spoken, and he talked with us for a bit while we were with him.  For a man who made his living knocking people down he certainly seemed pleasant enough.

This is us.

The chili tasting went well, by the way.  You pay your entry fee and get an envelope full of tickets and each little bowl of chili you sample costs you a ticket.  You get tickets enough to try them all, and then you vote for your favorites.  There were a couple of good ones, but mostly it made me appreciate my own chili.  Chili is rather personal that way.

At some point the host brought Mr. Butler up to the microphone and invited people to come up and ask him questions, which he would answer.  You could tell that the “how did you come up with the Lambeau Leap?” question was an old favorite, and he had a long and entertaining story to go with it. 

Toward the end I decided to walk up and ask, “When you were playing, who was it that you’d look across the line of scrimmage and say to yourself, ‘Oh, no – not THAT guy’?”  His response was immediate: “Barry Sanders.”  It was, he said, like trying to tackle a bar of soap in a bathtub, and he told a story of watching Sanders run directly at one of his teammates, stop on a dime, pirouette around him, and head off down the field for an 80-yard touchdown.  “Better you standing there than me,” Butler told him, knowing full well how easily it could have been him.

It was a good evening.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wednesdays With the Appliance Guy

I’ve gotten into a fairly comfortable pattern now with the guy who fixes my appliances.

I am not the guy you want fixing anything more concrete than a paragraph.  While I can bash my way through certain low-level household projects, given time and advice-free space, I generally follow the rule that if I want something done right and quickly, I find someone else.  What can I say?  The material world and I have issues, and there are in fact problems you can solve by throwing money at them.  It is astonishing how many of the problems that fit that bill involve the use of power tools.

So whenever a large durable good decides to be less than durable, I call the Appliance Guy.

One of the joys of living in a small town is that you get to know people, and the Appliance Guy has been a regular visitor over the last few years as our appliances have begun to age noticeably.  He shows up in his truck when he says he will, sets to work, and enjoys a little conversation while he’s at it.  He’s an older guy – well past normal retirement age, in fact – so he could stop if he wanted to do so but he likes what he does.  And he charges reasonable fees.  He’s fixed the dishwasher (twice) and the refrigerator (at least twice), and today was the second time in the last week he’s been here for the range.

We have a gas oven that we got from my parents as a housewarming present when we bought our house twenty years ago because if there is a reason why anyone would want to cook with an electric oven like the one that came with the house I haven’t found it.  It’s a workhorse – you fire it up and it works just fine, most of the time.  I have no idea if they build them like that anymore, but they should.

But recently the main burner on the range has been acting up.

At first it was simply that we no longer had a “medium” setting – it went from high to low without any real transition.  On the one hand this was kind of a problem, since it is nice to have a setting that allows you to cook the insides of something before the outsides catch fire or you grow old and die.  On the other hand, though, this wasn’t that much of a problem, really, since we had three other burners that could do medium and also since most of the things we cook on it follow the basic “bring to a boil [i.e. high] and then simmer [i.e. low]” pattern anyway.

More recently and more seriously, the igniter stopped working.  You could still cook as long as you lit the flame manually, but as a former firefighter I know that is just a 911 call waiting to happen.  If you’re lucky it will be you making that call.  If not, then the neighbors.  This struck us as sub-optimal.

So the Appliance Guy came by last week to see what was the matter.  He diagnosed the igniter problem as actually being something else that was easily replaced and ordered the part for it, and he asked how much the lack of medium bothered us since fixing that would probably cost us as much as a new range just for labor.

Not that much, I said.

Today he came back and fixed the igniter, which now works just fine.  And he discovered that the range is actually much easier to disassemble than he thought, so the vast majority of the labor costs associated with the lack of medium would go away if we wanted to fix that too. 

So he’ll be back next week, when I can be there to let him in.  And then we will have a medium.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Moving Days

I spent much of this week moving into two different offices.

One move was fairly simple.  I’m back at Mid-Range Campus for one class this semester, and I’d been assigned to bunk with a tenured professor in his office – the same colleague who gave me his office last year, except that this year he was back from his administrative position and teaching full time.  We were going to alternate days, except that he ended up needing to be there on my days too.  It turned out that there was space in the adjunct corral a couple of doors down, and if I moved in there it would allow him to have his office back full time. 

This seemed reasonable to me.

The whole process took all of about fifteen minutes.  As an adjunct, I have learned to live light on the land.  I got a new key, moved my two canvas shopping bags’ worth of stuff (tea kettle and related supplies, miscellaneous papers, etc) two doors down the hallway, and got set up.  I’ve actually got more space now since the adjunct market is in steep decline in Wisconsin, a state whose current regime’s unremitting hostility to the very idea of education has, not surprisingly, resulted in teacher shortages across the board and catastrophic budget cuts heralding further reductions in the future.  In an office set up for as many as four adjuncts, there are only two of us.  And I’ll be gone by mid-May.

I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.

The other move was a bit more complicated and heralds a new era in my professional life, though one foreshadowed by everything I just wrote.

I have been very fortunate to have found full employment as an adjunct for the last three semesters, but if you’re in this field you know that this is a fragile and generally temporary state.  Even the normal ebb and flow of things conspires against stability, and a political climate that regards an educated and informed populace as a threat to be eliminated only makes that instability greater.  But education matters to me and I’d like to stay in the field despite all that.  So I’ve been applying for other, more student-service-oriented positions for a while now, and this month I was hired for one down at Home Campus.

How I managed to survive the interview process I’m not sure.  I’ve never been good at interviews.

But I am now employed, and I will start as soon as they have conducted all of the background checks necessary to confirm that I am not some kind of violent criminal likely to take over the nearest bird sanctuary in the name of ideology and greed.  This may not happen until late next week – the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, even for someone whose most serious brush with the law was a speeding ticket twenty-three years ago – but I took the opportunity to go in on Friday and set up my new office.

Yes, I get an office.  A whole office just for me!  One that I don’t have to share or give back in seventeen weeks, assuming that I actually do well in this new job and they don’t pitch me over the side as dead weight.  I’m going to do my best to make sure that said pitching does not happen.

I have been sharing an office elsewhere on campus for a while now, in that temporary adjunct sort of way, and it seemed like a good idea for me to transfer all my stuff from there to the new place before I actually had to get in there and work.  This took less than ninety minutes.  What can I say?  Living light.

Now all I have to do is decorate the place.

So it will be a new start for me, even as I am still teaching classes when I can.  I'm multi-talented.   That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chick Magnet

We’re back in the chicken business.

For the last several years Lauren has been part of the 4H poultry project, which is why we have a slowly growing flock out at our friend’s barn just west of town.  Right now there are two roosters – who seem to get along just fine, oddly enough – and five hens, and they provide most of the eggs and absurdity that we need to get through the days.

But you can’t show the same chickens two years in a row, according to the 4H folks, so every year we invest in new chickens.

Kim and Lauren came home today with six chicks.  There are three Speckled Hamburgs, two Dominiques, and one Blue Rosecomb Bantam, which is the tiny one in the middle.  Bantams are kind of useless as far as egg production goes, unless you're interested in a 45-egg omelet that fits in a regular-sized frying pan and feeds one, but we figure Rosie will like her, assuming she survives her term as the designated floormat for the other chicks.  Chickens are not the most thoughtful animals.

Right now they’re living in a red plastic bin in our living room, where it is warm and dry, and they’ll stay there until they’re big and hardy enough to shovel off into the barn.  We’re not even scofflaws now that the chicken ordinance has passed here in Our Little Town, and I suppose there is even an outside chance that we’d put up a chicken coop in our backyard, though you can’t keep roosters and at least one of the chicks is probably a rooster – you can’t tell at this age – so that might not be worth the trouble.  But we could.

There will likely be more chickens coming at some point.  You’re allowed to show up to six different birds, I believe, though only two from each breed.  So more chickens.  And there will be turkeys as well.  More chicks, more birds, more, more, more.

There is a reason Lauren insisted I write a blog post with the title this one has.  We just attract these things.

Right now the main issue is to keep the chicks warm enough in the winter and fenced off from prying cats, who see them as mobile snacks rather than future ribbon-winning projects.  You’d think the cats would be used to it by now, but that assumes that they can hold a thought in their heads from one year to the next and that theory crashes and burns once you get to the word “thought,” really.  The “one year to the next” part is just there for comic effect.  As long as we can keep the chicks warm and cat-free we’re probably okay.  Chickens are much sturdier creatures than turkeys, oddly enough, so they’ll survive until there is a conscious decision to make them not survive.

Speaking of which, we’ve had chicken for dinner for the last two nights. 

Because that’s how we roll.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Give Us a Verse, Drop Some Knowledge!

I spent some of my morning writing poetry.

I don’t usually do that.  For one thing, I’ve always had the sneaking feeling that poetry ought to rhyme and I’ve never had any facility with rhyming things and not having them sound like a fifth-grade graduation speech.  Plus, honestly, reading rhyming poetry bores me to tears most of the time.  You have to be really, really good at that sort of thing to make it worthwhile for me. 

There are only so many Doctor Seusses in the world.

For another, I've never been much of a fan of older alliterative models of poetry – the kind of lays and odes that litter Tolkien’s work, for example, most of which I just skip over because I know the important plot points they contain will be explained below – and while the snarky haikus that you see online can be entertaining, especially if Godzilla is involved, I tend to wear out on them fairly quickly.

I do like limericks, though, because most of them are funny.  Poetry has an awful tendency to take itself far too seriously and after a while you want to track down the poets responsible, get them good and drunk, and ship them to Vegas just to lighten them up a bit.  Limerick writers seem, as a group, to have already done that.  Or perhaps they are still doing that.  It depends on the limerick.

There is a reason why the “London Times Limerick Contest” joke is one of my favorites.  And no I’m not going to repeat it here. 

Limericks generally avoid the "taking yourself too seriously" problem.  It's hard to find anything serious that rhymes with "Nantucket," after all.   I prefer poems that like that, although sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands in that regard.  A friend of mine once pointed out that nearly all of Emily Dickinson’s work can be sung to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” for example, and that fact still brightens my day.  Try it sometime:

“Because I would not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.”

Doesn’t the music add a layer of levity that ol’ Emily probably could have used?

As for free verse, well.  Poetry that does not rhyme or have any real meter just strikes me as poorly typeset prose.  You might as well write it down in paragraphs and be done with it.  I’m good at prose, though, and to be honest my all-time favorite poet (Brian Andreas) falls squarely into this style of writing.  If there is any kind of poetry that appeals to me as a broad category, I suppose this is it. 

So consistency is not my thing when it comes to poetry, is what I’m saying here.  They’re my tastes, after all.  I reserve the right to like what I like and not like what I don’t, according to whim and mood, regardless of whether it rhymes or not or how seriously it takes itself.

I found myself at a meeting today, and as an exercise we were asked to come up with a number of items in five different categories, all under the general heading of “Where I Come From.”  The “Family” category was easy – there weren’t that many of us when I was younger, and we were a tight-knit group.  The “Food” category was similarly easy, since a great deal of our lives revolved around meals.  That hasn’t changed, by the way, and that’s fine by me.  The “Places” category was also fairly straightforward for someone who has always had a historian’s sense of place and time, though the “Items” category – things that defined your world back when – was a bit harder since I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where things were both reasonably plentiful and not very emphasized.  We tended to focus on people.  The only category that I had trouble with was “Family Sayings,” not because I couldn’t think of any – my brother once put together a multi-page list of common expressions that we shared – but because none of the ones I could think of off the top of my head were really appropriate for a professional setting.  What can I say?  It was quite a list.

We were then asked to write a poem based on this, one that would address the general heading.  The whole exercise, including brainstorming, took about fifteen minutes.

This is what I came up with.  I have no illusions as to it being an anthology-worthy poem, but I rather like it anyway.  It’s not bad for a fifteen-minute project.


I come from a small family in a large city
And grew up in a world that smelled like gravy
    Which is red and goes on ravioli
    No matter what people say.
There were places to go
    Around my neighborhood on my bike
    And in my mind through books and photographs
    And the little globe that my grandmother would spin.
There were fires to put out
    Metaphorical ones backstage
    And real ones I went to on the back of a truck,
And there were things we said to each other that only we understood
    Which is probably for the best.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Old Ball Game

Sometimes things just spiral out of control.

I’m between semesters now, which means I don’t have the pell-mell rush on Thursdays that I had all last year.  And that means that, should I choose to do so, I could post a Throwback Thursday picture.  Since today is my last Thursday before everything starts up again, I decided I’d throw one up on my Facebook page and then, as is my habit, write a post about it here that delved into some of the backstory.  The whole point of photographs is to preserve stories, after all.  If you don’t tell the stories attached to the photos, the photos become meaningless.  I had to catalogue too many of those when I ran the historical society a few years ago.  Stories are important.  They need to be told.

So I found this picture buried in the family archives.  I’d scanned it a couple of summers ago as part of that earlier project, and it seemed like a good one to share.

The short version is that this is the Cresmour A. C. base ball nine, a neighborhood sandlot team that played in South Philadelphia in the late 1920s or early 1930s, when "baseball" was still often written as two distinct words.  I’m pretty sure my grandfather is the guy standing at the far right.  That’s about all the information I thought I had on it.

Except that my grandfather also kept a small scrapbook where he pasted newspaper clippings from his baseball days, one that I could mine for cross-references.  It turns out that he played on a bunch of these neighborhood teams – Penrose, Mayo, Passyunk Square, Kimball, and so on – mostly as a shortstop, but occasionally as a pitcher and once in a while as a second-baseman.  Most of the guys on those teams played more than one position, and I imagine that it largely depended on who showed up that afternoon.

Cresmour was filled with Italian-Americans – Beltrante, Coliezzi, Cosenza, DeCarlo, Delia, Felizzi, Frangelli, Lampone, Menna, Nunzi, Oteri, Tomasco, Volpe, and so on – as befit the neighborhood where they played, though they did have a pitcher named Lopez and at one point there was a pinch-hitter named Daly who I am pretty sure was not Delia though sportswriters from that era were not the most careful people when it came to that sort of thing.  Their home field was at either 20th or 26th and Patterson (the sportswriters weren’t all that careful about antecedents either).  And once in a while my grandfather would be singled out in the two or three sentence clippings, mostly for his hitting.

Someday I will look up what, precisely, was a “bingle” in this context – there was a game where it was deemed noteworthy that he hit three of them, and the term crops up attached to other hitters as well – but my guess is that it is not a home run.  My grandfather had the size and build of a contact hitter, and there is a reason Babe Ruth did not play shortstop.

None of the clippings have any information on them beyond the games themselves – final scores, personnel, box scores, occasionally a sentence or two if anything interesting happened at the game – and once in a while an invitation to other clubs to write to the manager (address provided) to get on their schedule.  There are no dates and no indication of what newspaper they’re clipped out of, though given the duplication of clippings on certain games it is clear that there are several newspapers represented.

This was back when there were several newspapers in a city, kiddies.  That used to happen before the media corporations ate the competition and the internet ate the media corporations, and it was a sign that people actually wanted to know what was happening in their world rather than simply have their prejudices confirmed in such a way as to polish up the nice shiny ideological bubble in which they live.  It was a different era, in other words. 

The down side to that kind of active and informed citizenry, however, is that it makes tracking down sources that much harder.

I thought I’d do a bit of googling and come up with some historical context in which to situate that photo and my grandfather’s story, have a nice little story, and be done with it.  But having noodled around the internet for the better part of the day (and being suitably impressed by one sportswriter’s inclusion of the phrase “clinch the gonfalon” in his description of a neighborhood sandlot baseball game), it appears that information on Cresmour A. C. is going to be considerably harder to track down than I thought it would be.

Everyone needs a hobby, I suppose.