Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rock On, Historians

There was a time in American history when people who had too much money and not enough medication focused their energy on cultural matters rather than politics.  That was, all things considered, a better time.

The House on the Rock is a relic of that golden age of American culture, when men were men, women were women, small furry grey mammals were small furry grey mammals, and nobody thought twice about the fact that there was an unhinged lunatic running around the world buying kitsch on a Biblical scale in order to stash it in a house he was building by hand way up on (as advertised) a rock, out in the middle of nowhere in central Wisconsin.

I was there yesterday as part of an academic exercise.  I kid you not.

The history department for all of the various campii in our system gathers together every so often to resolve various matters of academic interest, exchange ideas and suggestions for classroom strategies, and say the sorts of things that need to be said but cannot really be committed to paper or electronic records.  My attendance record at these things is quite poor, as it is for most things that require me to leave my house and be sociable, but this year both opportunity and obligation lined up and I went.

On the whole it was a fine time.  I got to hang out with people who share my general bent toward history, many of whom have been doing it longer than I have.  There were any number of good ideas and suggestions, a few chances to socialize (as much as historians are capable of socializing, anyway – alcohol was involved), and the comforting reassurance of colleagues who understand the stress of working for a system that is currently under furious assault from the Teabagger elites.

As part of this meeting, someone managed to get the House on the Rock to let us have a tour of the place.  We watched a short presentation given by one of the staff members – someone who apparently knew and worked closely with the founder of the place – and then they let us loose to wander about and take in the sights.

It’s a difficult place to explain to people who’ve never been there.

The first thing you go through is the House, which looks the sort of place where Elvis would live if he and Frank Lloyd Wright had married sometime in the mid-1970s.  It’s full of odd and uncomfortable angles, shag carpeting, tight turns, narrow halls, low ceilings, sitting spaces tucked into every conceivable corner (none of which look at all inviting), and an astonishing amount of random artifacts situated in exactly the wrong place from an aesthetic point of view.  There are also maybe a dozen full-size pneumatically powered orchestras scattered around the place, and if you feed a token or two into the little red box in front of them you can get them to wheeze and clatter through their respective tunes.  They range from bedroom scenes (complete with the kind of padded ceilings that call to mind either 17th-century Versailles or Miss Cinnamon’s House of Exotic Adventure on the tackier side of Las Vegas) all the way up to a two-story lacquered black and red Mikado scene.  There is also a vaguely Christmassy sort of room that plays “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies.”  Because why not?

On the other hand, there is the Infinity Room, which is a long space cantilevered over the ravine and built more or less in a triangular shape that appears to recede to a point at the end.  You walk out as far as you’re allowed and then you can look down to the floor of the ravine, maybe 60 feet below, and it’s actually kind of cool.

And then you go into what are euphemistically called “the Collections.”

They used to make you buy a single ticket for the Collections, but these days they split it into two pieces so you can escape halfway when the place finally overwhelms your ability to handle it and you have to flee.  I’ve been there three times now, and while I did technically get all the way through it the first time I will admit that this only happened by sprinting at nearly full pace through the last four or five of the nearly thirty rooms, carefully looking only at my shoes and singing loudly enough to drown out the noise of the place.  I haven’t gotten anywhere near that point since.

So I can only really speak to the first half of the Collections is what I’m saying here.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of an assault on the senses the Collections are.  Everywhere you look there is just an astonishing amount of Stuff – lining the walls, arranged along the floor, hanging off the ceiling – on a wide variety of scales, and every time you turn a corner new vistas of clutter and kitsch open up before you.  There’s a room full of cars, including several classic roadsters and some behemoth from the 1960s that was completely covered in ceramic tiles by a tasteless and tacky man.  There’s a room built around a life-sized model of a sperm whale engaged in mortal combat with a giant squid (presumably also life-sized), and you circle the whale on a gradually ascending ramp that goes around all four walls of the room and is lined with model ships ranging from fifteen inches to fifteen feet in length, perhaps a hundred of them, maybe more, about half unlabeled, as well as nautical artifacts and more scrimshaw than is probably legal.  There’s a recreation of a Victorian market street, complete with a dozen or so psychotically overstuffed storefronts, that ends with a calliope straight out of R. Crumb’s nightmares – the full-sized mechanical soldiers moving jerkily in time with the music are seriously creepy.

The first half of the Collections concludes with the Carousel Room, which contains a carousel (naturally enough) that proudly advertises itself as having more electric lights than any other carousel in the world, all of which are turned up to 11.  It spins wildly on its axis, so the hundreds of phantasmagorical carved figures ranging from dragons to naked women go by in a blur.  The music blares.  And overhead, like some deranged cross between The Birds and The Book of Revelation there is a vast flock of mannequins dressed as angels, most of which have acquired clothes since the last time I was there, though not all.

The last time I was there we took the girls – who were maybe 7 and 4 – and our friend Matt, who was visiting from out east.  I was a bit ahead of him when we got to the Carousel Room so I didn’t actually see him when I heard him clearly say “Oh.  My.  God” in the tones that you’d expect from a man confronted with unbridled insanity.  We took the opportunity to escape at that point.

As did the history department.

If I recall right, this means that both times we missed the room with the full-sized ships’ propellers, the wreaths of tympani, and the network of black catwalks that made the room look like something out of Tim Burton’s last therapy session.

I’m not sorry.

Honestly, though, if you get the chance you should go to the House on the Rock at least once.  It’s just one of those places you’ll remember forever, no matter how much you drink afterward, and it really is something to experience.

But once is plenty.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Running Around in Circles on Purpose

There’s a reason they don’t hold track meets in December.

The whole point of track is for people to try to get from Point A (defined as next to the guy with the gun) to Point B (defined as way over yonder, presumably far away from the guy with the gun, which is pretty much always a good idea under any circumstances, but – particularly in your longer races – not necessarily that far away after all) as quickly as possible, under your own power.  It’s just you, your feet, and the open space.

And a milling crowd that insists on wandering onto the tracks like suicidal cows in a railyard.

The thing about this is that it helps not to be overly encumbered while doing it.  You get some shorts and a tank top, and the lightest shoes you can find, and off you go.  Hell, the ancient Greeks used to run their track meets naked, which is probably taking the whole “weight to power ratio” thing just a bit more seriously than perhaps is warranted.  Trying to run in a parka and furry boots is just a no go.

It’s a summer sport.  That’s all there is to it.

But tell that to the good people of Wisconsin, for whom summer is something that happens between the Fourth of July and mid-August.  Schools are out of session then.  So if we are going to have track meets at all, we have to have track meets in what passes for spring in this part of the world, when the snow flurries have tapered off by as much as several hours prior to the beginning of the festivities.

Also, they sell hot chocolate at the concession stands, which never hurts.

Lauren decided to join the track team down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School this year.  I heartily approve of this, as it is both good exercise and a continuation of a family tradition that stretches back to her grandfather on my side of the family and at least to Kim on hers.  They’ve been practicing after school for a while now, and today was their first actual meet.

Oh, they had a “scrimmage” last week, but Lauren rather pointedly insisted that our attendance was not necessary and assured us that none of the other parents would be there either.  We’ve reached the point were we’re more embarrassing than it is worth, apparently.  Of course we were just about the only parents who didn’t show up, so for this meet we decided that we’d attend, embarrassment or not.

It was warmer last week.

Lauren was scheduled to do the high jump and two relays – the 4x100 and the 4x200.  This meant that she had successfully convinced her coach to let her out of the hurdles.  I understand this.  As a friend of mine once said, it’s bad enough they make you run all that distance but then they put things in your way?  No.

We got there as they were warming up for the high jump, and Lauren did her thing there.


And eventually they got around to the 4x100, where she ran the anchor leg for her team.


It gave me serious flashbacks to my own time on my high school track team.  All I will say about my experience on the 4x100 relay team is that I was single-handedly responsible for the following week’s intense focus on baton passing.  I didn’t last long on that team, really.

She never did run the 4x200 – apparently there was some miscommunication and her team got scratched – but that just meant we could go home and thaw out that much faster.

Go Lauren.  Run like the wind, my daughter.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Adventures in Poultry

It’s been a busy time here at our rapidly growing livestock operation.

The turkeys are all out at the barn now.  Kim and Lauren cleaned out an old horse stall in the corner, right by a door, and took the four surviving turkey chicks over there a couple of weeks ago.  KitKat, Jamaica, and Norman are all still doing well.



Poor August is no longer with us, however.  She had splayed legs – apparently a common problem with birds that grow so big so fast – and never did learn how to walk.  A friend of ours who raises turkeys (and from whom we got these turkeys in the first place) recommended a technique that might help.  You stretch a cord or similar something between their legs to keep them from splaying out so much, and then gradually shorten it up until they have to keep their legs underneath them.  In theory this means they learn to walk, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Lauren spent a lot of time nursing August along, making sure she could get to the food and water, but earlier this week it was clear that August had deteriorated markedly.  She was a sweetly goofy little bird, and we’ll miss her.

They’re all sweetly goofy little birds, actually, though they’re getting less little every day.

When we go to the barn we also check in on last year’s chickens.  Venus, Puff, and Rocky are each producing an egg most days.  They’re good eggs. 

We need to figure out what to do with Sully, our special needs rooster.  Sully is quite possibly the least intelligent life form on earth, a walking refutation of Darwinian natural selection – possibly because nothing about his selection was natural – and a continual source of stupefied amazement to us.  I once watched him get clotheslined by a bucket.  He used to be pretty docile, but this spring he’s been getting his rooster on and coming after us rather aggressively when we go to feed them, and this will not stand.  We have a big plastic bucket that we trap him under during times we’re in there and that seems to calm him down for a while, but the next day it’s right back to the offensive he goes.  This may be a self-limiting problem.

Rosie the rooster will still sit on your arm like a parrot if you let him, though he seems to be coming under the bad influence of Sully and trying to get his rooster on as well.  This is vaguely comical in a bantam rooster who is roughly half the size of the hens who surround him, but still a nuisance.  Don’t do it, Rosie!  It can only lead to heartache.



We still have eight chickens in big Rubbermaid bins our living room.  The Orpingtons are probably big enough to go out to the barn now, once we clear out a space for them there.  The Sultans may well be big enough to go too, though why Lauren wanted more Sultans with Sully’s example staring her in the face I do not know.  The three others may be too small yet.  We’ll see.

Of course, we may not have to take them out there.  The recent elections returned a pro-chicken majority in Our Little Town and they may be able to pass an urban chicken ordinance soon.  Kim went to a planning meeting yesterday that was well attended (possibly because it was held at the best little diner in town, which never hurts) and came home reasonably optimistic that things might work out better than the last time.

Last time it went before the council the only positive effect was that Kim ended up in the LA Times.

This is true.

She and Lauren went to the meeting to speak for the proposed urban chicken ordinance, and right before the meeting someone came in wearing a full-body chicken suit and sat down next to them.  “Oh, my,” thought Kim.  “I’m going to end up in the paper.”  And sure enough, during the Pledge of Allegiance, the local newspaper’s photographer took their picture and it ended up in the paper.


And then it went out over the AP.

This is why our brother-in-law in California called a while later to ask, “Do you know you’re in the LA Times?”  Apparently they were running a story on the Pledge of Allegiance and guess what photo they chose to illustrate that story with!  Go on!  Guess!

Got it in one, didn’t you?

Chickens will lead you places you never knew you’d end up.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Paid Up

I paid my taxes this week.

This was a rather painful process here in 2015, though for mostly happy reasons.  As a chronic sufferer of adjunctivitis, my income is rather variable – sometimes I get a class or two, sometimes I don’t get anything, once in a while I get three, and now and then I stumble across the holy grail of adjunct life: a full-time semester.  What is most important about that for present purposes is that in the commitment-free zone that is modern academia I often don’t know what my course load will be until weeks – or even days – before the semester begins.  I’ve been offered courses on as little as 36 hours notice, and had courses taken away from me on 9 hours notice.

So it’s kind of a guessing game, really.

Because of this, I generally aim for the middle and set my tax withholdings at a level that is appropriate for a part-time adjunct.  Most of the time this works out fine.  Come April there is usually either a small amount coming back to me or a small amount I have to send along to the various tax-gathering political bodies that have a claim on me, and we all move on with our lives.

I don’t like paying taxes.  But I do like roads, fire protection, a functional social safety net, schools, mail service, parks, and all of the other things that make up a civilized society so, unlike many catastrophically short-sighted and loud-mouthed fellow citizens here in this amnesiac republic, I pay them anyway without too much complaining.  Taxes are the price you pay for civilization.  Remember that when you are confronted by someone who thinks taxes are evil, and consider carefully what this says about their character.

On the plus side, my academic career has been going quite well over the last few semesters.  I had three classes last spring, one over the summer, and, thanks to a colleague’s promotion into Administratia at the end of the summer, I ended up full time in the fall, something I managed to pull off despite also teaching another class for a different university that I had signed up for prior to my colleague's promotion and couldn’t in good conscience back out of at the last minute.  So it was a lucrative year by my admittedly sparse standards.

Which of course means that the withholdings were all out of whack. 

I never did think to make any changes in those numbers and therefore the various taxing bodies I report to didn’t take out enough during the year, and since my biggest deductions only work at the state level I ended up having to write the IRS in particular a rather dismally large check to make up the difference.  And suddenly the nice little balance in the checking account got reduced to a rather more normal state of affairs, which made a certain amount of unhappy sense in hindsight.

Given that the prospects of my remaining full time are good at least through Christmas – and possibly into next spring if all goes well and if we still have a university system to hold classes at in this state (not a guarantee in the current political climate, but the one advantage to being utterly powerless is that it frees you up for senseless optimism now and again) – I will need to adjust a few things.  It's kind of a nice problem to have in this economy.

So paperwork will be filed.

In the meantime, I rest secure in the notion that I have paid my dues toward a civilized society for the year, and I look forward to trotting out my status as a taxpayer whenever I wish to argue with any authority figure telling me to do something of which I disapprove.

They love it when you do that.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kicking Puppies

I’ve read science fiction and fantasy since I was old enough to figure out that there were genres in writing. 

When you’re just starting out with the whole literacy thing there aren’t genres, you know.  There are just books.  They tell stories, and you either like them or you don’t and then you move on to the next story.  Children like stories.  It takes adults to start classifying them and then judging them on those classifications.

I read all sorts of things now, and while I’m happy to read in any number of genres, the fact remains that as with most people there are certain kinds of stories I prefer over most others.  These alternate between history – stories constrained by reality, often hedged in by footnotes, and professionally useful to me – and SF/F.  I like this genre because when it is done well it forces me to think about things.  It says, “let’s take this aspect of the world we live in now and exaggerate it SO and then cross it with this other aspect of the world that we have exaggerated THUS and see what happens.” 

Of course, this can be done well and it can be done poorly.  It is often done poorly, in fact.  SF/F is a genre that has traditionally rewarded ideas rather than writing, and there is an awful lot of really awful prose out there filling up the space taken by my favorite fictional genre.  I’ve gotten to the point now where I refuse to slog through it.  If you’ve got an idea you want me to hear, you’d better say it well.

There are awards for those who do it well.

I’ve never paid too much attention to them before.  While I read a lot of SF/F, I’m not really a great fan of the Hugos or the Nebulas or whatever other piece of fandom-awarded hardware is next up on the list of statues to be given out.  It’s nice to know that such things exist and that they serve as a rough guide to the things that appeal most broadly the genre’s fans, but beyond that I have not been all that motivated to explore.

Apparently there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this.

Indeed, to judge from the flap and bother regarding this year’s Hugos, there is a small but determined group of halfwits, racists, barbarians, throwbacks, loudmouths, wannabe manly men, and assorted trolls who feel that this award is the pinnacle of their existence, one that they are willing to game the system to win and which, if denied for any reason, they are willing to destroy utterly in order to prove that if they can’t have it nobody can.

Hey, don’t take my word for it.  Read theirs.  I’ve done so, much to my regret, and a bigger cesspool of toddler-level entitlement, frat-boy sheltered living, and small-penis-compensating machismo you will never hope to find.  They’re quite open about all of it.

Do their mothers know they behave this way?  These are clearly people badly in need of growing up.

My favorite bit was the one where one of these proud Americans boasted that anyone who opposed them would be destroyed because they “were ready for war” and everyone else wasn’t.  War?  Seriously?  You’re a pasty-faced desk jockey hiding behind an onscreen pseudonym.  Talk to me when you have the balls to pick up a gun and go to Afghanistan.  That’s war.  It has been my experience that those who really are prepared for war, those who have actually experienced it, tend to be a bit less stuck up their ass when it comes to this sort of thing.  They know better.  They don’t need to parade it about, and they understand that war is a hard job for highly trained professionals and not a casual threat to be trotted out by people whose most strenuous activity today was hitting the space bar.  It’s the wannabes and pretenders who still think playing soldiers is a cool game to while away an afternoon.

Is it any surprise that these people proudly claim to be on the right wing of American politics too?  This certainly has been the playbook of the modern American right wing extremists for most of the last three decades.  It’s a shame that it has infected a perfectly fine literary genre, but not a shock really.

Part of me thinks it would be worthwhile to pay the membership fee just to have voting rights this year and list “No Award” on all the categories.

The Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies – for that is what these trolls have called themselves (seriously, I kid you not) – have already publicly declared that they will destroy the Hugos if people do that, though.  Because that would be the mature adult thing to do, right?

Honestly, it gives toddler tantrums a bad name.

And you know what?  Maybe getting rid of the whole notion of awards not such a bad thing.  Clearly we can’t have nice things in my favorite genre anymore.  Not everything lasts forever. 

The vast majority of people who read this will not care, and those who do will understand, as I do, that this post will change nothing.  But it’s my space on the internet, and sometimes you just have to holler at the batshit insanity of the world because otherwise people think nobody is paying attention.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Old Times at O'Hare

O’Hare International Airport has been on my mind these days.

We flew from there to San Francisco over Christmas.  We flew from there to Philadelphia last month.  And after spending a few days in Washington DC for some meetings regarding her current work project, Kim flew back into it this evening.

Every time you go to O’Hare, you cannot help but be reminded of Douglas Adams’ observation that there are no natural languages on Earth that contain as a common metaphor the phrase “as beautiful as an airport.”  They’re utilitarian places, really – better than they used to be by a long shot, with nice stores and some attention paid to things like art and color – but mostly they’re places where people who’d rather be somewhere else gather together to try to leave.

Of course, sometimes it’s different.  Sometimes people just go there.  And then there are stories.

Two things you have to know about this one as background. 

First, the abbreviation for O’Hare is “ORD.”  Anyone who has ever looked at their luggage tag after a trip through O’Hare knows this, and most people know that this is because O’Hare was originally called “Old Orchard Field” back in the day.  ORD, Orchard – it makes sense when you think about it. 

And second, I used to run a local historical society.  It was a great experience, and I met a lot of very nice people who were committed to preserving their own past, or even just the past of the place they now lived.  Some of them didn’t even live there, but liked the place anyway.  It was a fun group of people.  I didn’t actually get to do much history as part of my job – the thing about the field of public history is that it is a great deal of public and not much history, and most of your time as the director of a historical society is spent on mundane things like trying to keep the lights on and the doors open.  But sometimes I got to be historical anyway.

Part of my job was just talking to people, which I enjoyed when I could do it one on one.  I’m not much on parties and festivities and such – the fundraising circuit that is such a central part of that job was hard on an introvert like me and one big reason why I eventually move on to other things – but when you can sit down with someone and just discuss things, it can be fascinating. 

The town had a surprising number of people in their 90s, many of whom had vast collections of old things that their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren did not want.  Rather than see them landfilled they’d call us up to see if we’d want any of it, and sometimes I’d go over to check the stuff out.  And then we’d talk.

There was one sweet old woman named Mabel whom I got to know pretty well for a while.  She had a lot of stuff, some of which we did end up accepting as donations.  She and I would go through a bit here and a bit there, and then we’d talk.

She’d grown up in Chicago and was a young teen in the early 20s when Old Orchard Field was just getting started as an airport.  Sometimes when they were feeling adventurous, she and her friend would ride the trolley all the way out to the end of the line, out to where the planes would circle and land, and they’d spend the day watching them.  You could tell, eighty years later, that these were some of her favorite memories.  I'm sure she could still picture them.

The thing I remember most about those stories was her telling me that in those days the place was rather more informal than it is now.

If you wanted a ride on one of the planes you had to walk across the field to the control tower and get their attention somehow.  They’d lower down a coffee can on a rope, and you’d put your money in it.  They’d reel it in and then point you to a plane, and off you went.

I thought about that last month in O’Hare.

Things have changed since Mabel’s day.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Church of the Enlightened Mind: Now More Than Ever

A few years ago I started my own religion.



I called it the Church of the Enlightened Mind, because that was what I felt it should be called and it was my religion, after all.  It had a number of rules and suppositions, like most churches, but it had only one overriding Commandment: 

Don’t be so damned stupid.



As the sole prophet and representative deity-like figure of the Church of the Enlightened Mind, I would of course be the one who determined what crossed that line.  I’ve had a lifetime of experience dealing with people who have crossed that line – who have crossed and recrossed that line until it is but a memory in the mud and the best you can hope for is that they will either find something intelligent to do out of pure random chance or they will suffer the inevitable fate of those who play in traffic for longer than the odds allow and thus remove themselves from consideration.  I figured I could make that call well enough.  And then they'd have to stop doing it.  Because I said so.

I can see why people start their own religions.

Until that point comes, however, I find myself saying – generally to myself but sometimes out loud and directly to their faces – “Don’t be so damned stupid.”  This is almost always utterly without effect.  They persist in their stupidity and there you have it.  Many of them go on to elected office.

You can extend the One Commandment in any number of ways, but when you get right down to it it's pretty much all you need to live a good and productive life.  If we could get the majority of people to live according to it, this world would be a much happier place.  



Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of rampant stupidity being foisted off on the American public these days, often in the name of religion, ironically enough.


It is my contention that such things do not apply to me.  And the right-wing fanatics currently masquerading as the once-proud GOP have provided me with exactly the legal justification I need to ignore their ignorant prattling and un-American attempts at subversion.  It’s religious freedom!  MINE!

When right-wingers gather together to discuss religious freedom that they are not talking about my religious freedom.  That what they really mean is that other people should have the freedom to shut up and do as they are told by right-wingers in the name of their version of God - a truculent figure something of a cross between Dick Cheney and Anthony Comstock except with less of a sense of humor.  They don't actually mean for other people to have freedom of any other kind, let alone religious freedom of any other kind.  Certainly not. 



My sincerely held religious beliefs do not allow me to acknowledge or obey such rank and feeble stupidity. 

Plus the God of the Church of the Enlightened Mind definitely has a sense of humor.

Pretty much everything being pushed by the above-mentioned right-wing fanatics currently masquerading as the once-proud GOP falls into the category of damned stupidity these days and can legally be ignored by Church of the Enlightened Mind members in good standing.  Supply-side economics?  Not for us.  Voter ID laws?  We don’t think so.  Laws refusing to recognize the human rights of gays, women, blacks, poor people, and basically anyone who isn’t a Southern white rural male with more guns than brains?  Don’t apply to us, that’s for damned sure.  Don’t apply to anyone with a lick of sense, and by definition that’s us.

So they can do yammer all they want, and all I have to say to them is, “Don’t be so damned stupid,” and their own ass-backward laws end up working to my benefit.  I am citing the One Commandment, after all.