Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Semester Plans

I always do this to myself.

Every semester I think to myself, “Self,” I think, “perhaps this is the semester that you will rest on your laurels.  Perhaps this, indeed, will be a semester without major revisions of existing courses, or completely new courses to make up from scratch. Yes, this semester will be a breeze.  You will get long put off projects completed.  You will enroll in that photography course you’ve been meaning to take.  You may even sign up for the curling team, as you have been threatening to do for three years now.”

And then I laugh and laugh and laugh.

Because the first thing you learn as an adjunct is that saying no is never an option.  When you get hired by the class, with no guarantee of ever being hired again, “Yes” is the only appropriate answer to any question aimed at seeing if you want to teach a class.

Sometimes they ask me to teach things I’ve taught before.  And sometimes they don’t.

But, like the Professor in Gilligan’s Island, who had a degree in Science and could thus do everything from translate Pacific Equatorial tribal languages to build a radio out of two coconuts and a treadmill (although why he couldn’t build a boat has never been satisfactorily explained), I have a degree in History and can thus orate knowledgeably about anything that ever happened anywhere, as long as it happened in the past.  Just give me a little lead time to get myself oriented, and off I go.

Ancient India?  Sure!  WWII?  No problem!  Medieval Europe?  Got that in spades!  US history?  Seriously?  Teach in my field?  Is this a trick question?  Sign me up!  I have a degree in History, after all.

Truth be told, I end up learning a lot doing classes outside of my area.  They’re fun that way, and then I have another class in my repertoire which never hurts when the next person wants to hire me to teach something.

Even when they want me to teach what I’ve taught before, the fact is that every few years you have to tear it down and rebuild it.  My thinking changes over time.  The recent history classes keep moving into the future and new lectures need to be added.  New technology requires new ways to teach, which in turn require new stories and units because the break points move. 

This semester I thought I’d have it relatively easy.  I had one class I’d taught before and had just overhauled the previous year, so it wasn’t due for any major changes – just the usual tweaking that happens every year.  And I had another class elsewhere that was brand new, but when you’ve only got two classes this isn’t much of a burden really.

Then I added another class, but I had also taught before, so that was good.  Then – for long and complicated reasons having nothing whatever to do with me – I lost that class.  Then I was asked to teach three classes at Mid-Range Campus.  Of course I said yes – that would bring me up to full time, establish me at another campus in our system, further establish myself as a solution to whatever problems come up, and be fun in the bargain.  And you never say no, not as an adjunct.  Besides, I’ve got more than a week to get these classes together!  That’s not nearly the shortest notice I’ve had, and the classes are all in my field to boot.

Granted, they’re over an hour away, and it’s been so long since I taught the face-to-face versions of these classes (as opposed to the online and streaming video versions) that I may have to redo a fair amount of them.  There is that.  We’ll see how that goes.

I went up to Mid-Range Campus yesterday for new faculty/staff orientation, and they were lovely people as far as I could tell.  They were glad to have me, and I was happy to be there.  I even learned a few things, which – given that I have been teaching in this system since 1996 – came as a bit of a surprise.  Always nice to be surprised that way. 

There remains the fact that I may have to bring a supply of bread crumbs to find my way around for the first few weeks – while walking around on the tour my mind kept filling up with phrases like “rabbit warren” and “fire trap” – but bread crumbs are cheap and there are no birds in the halls to eat them.  As long as I leave before the maintenance people sweep them up I’ll be fine.

It will be a good but exceedingly hectic semester, methinks.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


The school year started, more or less, today.

Every year the folks running registration for the schools here in Our Little Town get better at it. When the girls were little, back in our first few years of Not Bad President Elementary, getting all the paperwork done for the beginning of the school year was an hours-long event featuring parents strewn all over the all-purpose room trying to find flat surfaces upon which to write. 

Now?  Most of it’s online.

There is still a pile of stuff that you have to do – this form, that form, that other form (yes, that one, even if you didn’t think it was something you had to fill out again) – but you can enter most of the basic information into the snazzy new computer interface from the privacy of your own home these days.  You can even pay most of the fees online too, and let me tell you what a great thing that is.

Especially when you realize, an hour before heading off to the actual schools to complete the registration process, that you have used up your last check.

Nobody uses cash in the midwest.  Be serious.  I once saw someone pay for a candy bar and a soda with a check out here. 

So, kudos to the school district for making my life easier over time.  Not many organizations can say that.

We started the day by heading over to Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, where Lauren will be going for the next few years.  We’ve pretty much got this routine down now, after Tabitha’s three years of it.  She and I showed up early, breezed through the first couple of stations (“Yes, we did all that online – see ya!”), bought a gym outfit emblazoned with the MCGMS logo, and arrived in the cafeteria, where we collected her schedule for next year and signed up for the Opening Day Conference – a 20-minute “Welcome to MCGMS” meeting with Lauren’s homeroom teacher, after which you get to find your locker and stuff it with all your books and such.

From there it was over to the auditorium for school photos, and back to the car.  In and out in about half an hour.

Then it was Tabitha’s turn.

We arrived at Local Businessman High School to find ourselves amid a throng of similarly lost-looking people shuffling toward the first Checkpoint.  Fortunately Kim figured out that we could cut to the front of the line and just have them sign off on our form because all that was already taken care of online, and then it was on to the next Checkpoint.

Tabitha collected her lunch account PIN, and then we stood in line for a while for school photos.  After that it was over to the desk where she could collect her schedule, and then down the hall for textbooks.  My camera is currently in the repair shop and Kim couldn't come for Lauren's registration, so this is our photo of the day.  It's a nice photo.

I don’t remember those textbooks being quite that thick back in the day, but maybe they’ve just piled on that much more knowledge since I was in high school.  I suppose I was lucky to graduate when I did.

We left in a torrential downpour, registered and looking up at a brand new school year in brand new schools for both girls.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cats and Doors

It’s been six weeks now, and the cat still hasn’t figured out the new storm door.

When we moved into this house in 1996 one of the first things we noticed was that the back storm door had no closer.  It worked just fine as a door, but the little compressor thing at the top that would close the door for you was missing.  “This will be the first thing to be replaced!” we said, in that flush of new homeownership that long-time homeowners regard as so cute.

For you see, the door functioned perfectly fine otherwise.  It kept the cold out and the warm in during the winter.  It kept the warm out and the cold in during the summer.  Rain did not penetrate its glass panels and side insulation.  Bugs were foiled by its screens.  Yes, we had to leave a bungee cord wrapped around the landing rail so it would be handy for attaching to the door handle if we wanted the door to remain open.  Not a big problem.  There was surprisingly little incentive, in other words, for us to replace the door.

But then during a particularly icy stretch this winter Tabitha slipped while entering the house and took out one of the glass panels.  Fortunately the glass did not shatter and nobody was hurt.  But the panel was irreparable, and we spent the rest of the winter without it.

And the cold came in.  The rain penetrated.  The bugs saw it as a highway.  It was no longer a functioning door.  It was a decorative attachment.

So we bought a new door.

It sat in the garage for a while, sending guilt-rays about this fact, until we moved it closer to the actual door.  Oddly, this did not solve the problem.  So one weekend we took off the old door and put in the new one.  There were the standard number of extra trips to the hardware store and the contractually-obligated use of profanity and idle threats, but eventually the job got finished.

It is a nice door.  It has glass panels all the way down, so that Midgie can stare forlornly outside to see what she is missing without having to stretch.  It has a closer.  The proper temperatures are maintained on either side of the door.  The bugs have moved on to easier challenges.

The thing about the new door, though, is that we could put it on so that the handle was on the right or left as we came in – there were holes pre-punched to give us the choice.  And since the actual door has its handle on the right, Kim decided that the storm door should also have its handle on the right.

Except that the old storm door had its handle on the left. 

Mithra loved this fact about the old door.  Whenever she wanted to come in she would sidle over to the left-hand side of the landing, jump up onto the railing, and wait for us to open the storm door.  Then she’d jump down and stroll inside.

When she tries this now she just crashes into the glass.

We’re waiting for her to make the adjustment and jump up on the right-hand side of the landing, but so far no luck. 

The solution to the problem just changes the problem.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Surf, Sand, and Mud

Lucy the Elephant, the mascot of Margate, NJ, is the most overcaffeinated symbol of any town in America.

Seriously.  Somebody really ought to be looking into that elephant’s diet with an eye toward making significant revisions, though to be honest I don’t think it would work.  Can you imagine that little bit of dialogue?

“Has the elephant considered decaf?” 
“Do you want to suggest it to her?”
“Regular it is.”

Never mess with an overcaffeinated elephant.  That is one of my many mottos, and it has served me well at faculty meetings on at least three different university campuses. 

It’s even worse when you look at the water tower, a bit of public art that always sets my teeth on edge in sympathy. 

Been there, done that, eventually graduated and stopped doing that, and now if I tried to do that I would pop like a balloon on a gas station air hose.  There would be clean-up requirements.  Someone would have to figure out what to do with my books.  Best just to dial down a bit, really.

But Margate itself is a lot of fun.  For the second year in a row Rolane and Steve generously let us borrow their house down there on the bay for a few days, and we were glad to take them up on the offer.  The girls love the beach, and being midwesterners the opportunities to satisfy that love come few and far between.

There’s something about the beach that brings out the fun in kids.  You can get dirty – the place is full of wet sand, after all – and then you can wash it off and start over.  You can run around and shout and laugh as much as you want to and nobody tells you to be quiet or use your inside voice.  You’re outside, after all, and the wind and waves make enough noise that you sound about right screaming at the top of your lungs and they cause enough motion to make you fit right in.  You can get banged around a bit by the waves and laugh it off.  You can let the adults hang out in their chairs and read books or look fondly at the churning mass of younger folks and remember when they used to do the churning and their own parents sat on the chairs.  It’s a good time.  I’m happy to be the one in the chair these days, but I do recall many a summer out in the churn.

There’s also something about the beach that brings out the compulsive photographer.  And that’s not a bad thing, I think.

We set up camp right by Lucy the Overcaffeinated Elephant, because really where else would you go?

And we let the kids have at it.  They spent a glorious couple of days bouncing around in the waves.

And riding the surf on their boogie boards.

Eventually we’d start to wind down, so we’d pack up and go back to the house, where we’d hang out for a bit before contemplating dinner.  This did not involve any cooking on our part, because that sounded too much like work and work is not what vacations are for, so it essentially boiled down to where to go to eat.  It is a glorious thing in this economy to have the freedom to do that, and we took every advantage of it.

One night this meant heading over to the local hibachi place.

The other night we went to the boardwalk in Ocean City, one town south of Margate.  We strolled up and down for a bit before landing in a restaurant-rich alcove where we split up to forage before returning to a table somewhere.  Tabitha by this point was starting to miss the delicacies of Wisconsin (“Do you think there is any chance of finding fried cheese curds here?”  “Uh, no.”) but we all ended up with something tasty and only moderately lethal, after which we moved on.  Tabitha and Kim went off on their own in search of aloe, and the rest of us headed to the amusement park at the north end of the boardwalk.  Josh, Sara, and Lauren had a good time with the rides while Keith, Lori, and I looked on.  The log flume was the best.

We even managed to meet up with our friends Mike, Krista and Eli, who were vacationing there at the same time.  It was a brief get-together, being rather late in the day, but we made plans to have breakfast with them on our way through Pittsburgh a couple of days later, and a fine and leisurely breakfast we had then.

We also spent a fair amount of time in the evenings sitting on the deck in back of the house, right on the bay, just hanging out.  You can see why.

Breakfast one morning was at Junior’s, which is the world’s best donut shop and completely peanut-safe and nut-safe to boot.  That’s a rare combination.

On the last day of our stay there, many of the group decided to go kayaking on the bay.  There being a kayak rental place a mere five minute walk away, this did not seem like a difficult thing to accomplish, and so we figured out who wanted to go (Kim, Tabitha, Lauren, Sara, Keith) and who was content to stay on the shore and wave (me, Lori, Josh), and headed on over.

The trip started promisingly.

And then, well.  Difficulties were encountered, shall we say.  You know it’s low tide when you have to get out and push.  It's mostly mudflats out there, from the reports of those who had to slog their way across them, and when you put your foot down you're likely to sink in a bit.  It's kind of like being Godzilla, rampaging across all the delicately constructed homes of various tiny sea creatures.

But eventually things were righted, and off they went.

Then they got back, and the whole low-tide thing came into play once more.

Apparently they had a very nice time out there on the water, low tide issues notwithstanding, and good for them.  I had a lovely time back on the deck with a good book and a bucket of cold grapes, myself.  That is the thing about the beach – it is big enough to encompass all sorts of vacations.

It was a good and happy time.  Thanks again, Rolane and Steve!

Friday, August 15, 2014


Mostly our trip east was to see family.  We are scattered about the country now, and getting together takes a bit of planning and effort.  But that’s what you do, because it’s worth it.

Here in the Central Time Zone, Kim’s mom came down to watch over the house and the various critters in it, so we could travel without worry.  It’s good to have family.  The cats, rabbits and goldfish were all healthy and happy when we got back, even if one of the goldfish has subsequently departed for wherever it is that goldfish go in their afterlives.  Is there a goldfish heaven?  And if so, what does it look like?  I’m thinking there are a lot of things to eat, and a conspicuous absence of glass walls.  That actually doesn’t sound that bad for people, either.

Wait, where was I?  Oh, right, traveling.

We left Hershey and headed east to the suburbs of Philadelphia, where my parents awaited.  It was a nice drive – the minivan has definitely proven its worth, and after this trip I may have actually figured out how to drive it without too much anxiety – and we got there in time to have cheesesteaks for lunch (as noted earlier).  And then we settled in for some good times.

Some of those times involved running about, because we don’t really stay put much on vacations.

As I am insufficiently reverent when it comes to art (apparently if you refer to a room full of paintings by Dutch Masters as “pictures of men with beards” just once you will never live it down around here…) and Lauren was uninterested in any museum where you are not allowed to touch anything, we stayed home with my dad while Kim took Tabitha and my mom over to the Art Museum.  They had a grand time, and apparently did not touch any of the paintings at all.

Lauren and I made up for this by going to the Franklin Institute, one of the greatest places in all the world because you can touch everything.  We rode the train to Center City and walked up the Ben Franklin Parkway to the museum, where we went through all sorts of exhibits – you have to walk through the heart, otherwise it’s not really a visit to the Franklin Institute, and they had a neat exhibit on the brain as well.  There was also a short presentation by two Cirque du Soleil performers, advertising their upcoming show.  That was impressive.

Lauren’s favorites were the things she could do, such as the bungee jump (physics in action!) and the gravity bike (more physics in action!).

We walked around the neighborhood and found a nice little corner shop for lunch (cheesesteaks again, if you can imagine).  They had tables outside so we ate there on that bright sunny day in the middle of the city.  “Would you ever want to live in a city like this?” I asked her.  “No,” she said.  “Where would I keep my chickens?”

Good point.

We also spent a day cruising around Valley Forge.  It’s been a very long time since I was there.  We went on a field trip when I was in 7th grade, and Kim and I walked around the place before we were married, but the girls had never been there.  They’ve really made the place handsome. 

It has a nice visitor’s center where you can see all sorts of exhibits (and touch some of them), and there is, of course, a gift shop.

We took a bus tour around the park, which is an easy way to see things.  It’s a big park.  We enjoyed the guys with the muskets, and we saw where George Washington actually slept.

I never really know what to do when the tour guides ask questions.  On the one hand, having been a tour guide at a museum, I know they are just trying to get some conversation going and keep the audience involved, and when nobody responds it’s just awkward.  On the other hand, having a PhD in the history of late-18th-century America means I probably know more about most of what they’re saying than they do – not all (I certainly learned a few things on this tour), but enough so that if I actually did answer the questions that nobody else was answering, I’d just be “that guy.”  It’s a quandary.

Afterward we went to the King of Prussia Mall, mostly because if we didn’t Lauren would explode.  She likes hanging out in retail space, and there’s more of it there than anywhere else on the east coast.  We ate lunch there at the food court (guess what I had – go ahead, I’ll wait…) and then split up, with the more shopping-inclined (Kim and Lauren) heading off in one direction and Tabitha and I heading off in another.

There is not a single book store anywhere in the King of Prussia Mall.  Not one.  Think about that.  This is the largest mall in the most heavily populated region of the country, and there is no place you can go to buy a novel.  There are stores just for paper.  There are stores for clothing.  There are four – count ‘em, four – stores from the exact same franchise where you can buy a large and nut-infested pretzel, one of which stores managed to shatter their plate glass display window into pea-sized pebbles mere moments before we walked by.  There is even a store devoted entirely to fountain pens that you, personally, cannot afford.

Tabitha and I went into that one.  It was very nice, in a surreal sort of way.

Here we are, tourists in our shorts and t-shirts, and within seconds of our entry into the store we were greeted by an impeccably dressed, elegantly slender young man by the name of Kevin who did a very nice job of hiding his dismay at such rabble entering his shop.  He shook my hand, introduced himself, and asked if he could do anything for us.  We politely declined, and spent the next quarter hour looking at a wide array of exquisite writing instruments, not a single one of which had a price tag anywhere visible.

It was kind of a relief to find the Nerd Store after that, which featured a pleasingly large display of Doctor Who knick-knacks.  We spent a lot of time there.  And at the Puzzle Store, which catered pretty much to the same audience only at different ages.

We also spent a day together in Center City.  We took the train in that day too and walked down to the Reading Terminal Market.  If you’ve never been there, you should go.  It’s an amazing place – basically a 19th-century street market crammed into an old railroad station.  There are all sorts of places to buy meals.  There are spice shops, knick-knack shops, delis, bakeries, even a used book store.  And people.  All sorts of people, coming in waves.  It’s feeding time at the human zoo – almost literally, in our case, as we (and a good portion of Philadelphia’s population) were there for lunch.  Of course we had cheesesteaks.  What else would we have?

We walked down to the Independence Hall area after that, though we didn’t really go anywhere in particular – mostly we just visited and looked around.  At one point we passed the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and we were trying to figure out how to get in, but several passersby went out of their way to explain a) how we might do this and b) how we really couldn’t because it was closed.  For all the awful things you see on the news every night, it’s nice to be reminded that most people are pretty good.

So we did a lot of things, running about.

But mostly we were there to visit, and visit we did.  We had dinners with my parents, and introduced them to 2048 (a devilishly addictive computer game that even ensnared my Luddite mind).  Tabitha and I played Carcassone with my mom.  I took my dad down to the firehouse for a visit so he could spend some time in the old stomping ground.  It’s different from when I was a member in some ways, but otherwise still very familiar.  It still smells the same.  Lauren took Tabitha, my brother and me geo-caching in the local park, an activity whose appeal I have yet to figure out, but which she enjoys immensely.  There were long conversations and good times.  That’s what it’s all about, really.

On our last night there we went out to dinner, all of us together.  And then we gathered in the living room and played games.  Eventually my friend Jenny joined us and the whole thing became a joyously chaotic mess of conversations and snacks.  That's how evenings ought to be, I think.

I travel to visit.  To see people and be with them.  I never get to see everyone I want to because life is short and I don’t call people the way I should, and to those I missed on this trip I am sorry – I will try to be better next time.  Because there will be a next time, and won’t that be a time?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coasting Through Life

The green one always wins.

If you’re going to Hersheypark and you want to go on the roller coaster that has the green one racing the red one along more or less parallel tracks, the green one always wins.  Of course, that only means that the red one has a ride that is just that much longer, so there is that.

On our way out east this summer we decided that it would be fun to go visit Hersheypark.  We’ve been to the Six Flags near Chicago, but this would be a new experience.  And it had chocolate.  You can’t beat a place that has both roller coasters and chocolate, even if they do insist that “Hersheypark” is all one word.

Maybe in German.

I hadn’t been to Hershey since I was roughly Tabitha’s age.  My parents took me and my brother there back in the late 1970s.  It was a great place.  The whole city smelled like chocolate, which was amazing for us tourists but probably got pretty old for the residents.  We hit the park with a vengeance, particularly the roller coasters – I even convinced my mother to go on the Comet, an old wooden coaster.  It was a moment of high drama and low comedy and the less said about it the better, probably.  My dad and I went on the Super Duper Looper, which was new then.  He wore his fishing cap, and it magically stayed on his head the entire ride.  My mother, watching from the safety of the ground below, was convinced that he had thumbtacked it to his head.

We also won a giant Tweety Bird at some arcade game.  It finally dissolved about a year or two ago.

You could also go on a tour of the factory back then, and the gift shop would sell you immense bags of factory-second candies for essentially nothing.  We left with a bag of misshapen Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that took up most of the trunk of our car.  Tasted the same, though.

So Hershey – what’s not to love?

We drove from Our Little Town to somewhere east of Pittsburgh before stopping for the night.  From there it was a fairly quick ride to Hershey the next day, and after some preliminary fiddling around trying to find coupons for discounted admission (a significant discount, it turned out), we hit the park around 2pm.

The town still smells like chocolate.  The streetlamps are still shaped like Hershey Kisses.  No Tweety Birds that we could find, and that’s probably for the best.

We did a few things together as a family at the park.  We went on the old cars, for example – another holdover from the old days.  The girls drove their own cars with Kim and I riding along as passengers.  It is amazing to think that fairly soon we’ll be doing this on the open road.  It’s a good thing much of my hair is already either grey or gone.  It will save time.  We went up the Kiss Tower, which is essentially a revolving platform where you can see the entire park from Kiss-shaped windows as you ride up the hundred feet or so and then come back down.  And we went on the Ferris wheel, which is kind of the same thing only rotated 90 degrees.

We also went on a couple of roller coasters together.  We raced each other a couple of times on the green and red coasters – neat old wooden coasters that bounce you around pretty hard. 

And we went on one of the newer ones, where you strap into the seat and dangle below the track.  Lauren and I had a grand time on that one, but Kim and Tabitha decided that this was enough roller coaster for them, really.

So mostly we split up into pairs.

Kim and Tabitha wandered off on their own to do the smaller rides, not being the adrenaline junkies that Lauren and I apparently are.  She and I, on the other hand, decided that the main reason we were in the park was for the roller coasters so that was what we were going to do.

We did them all.

They have coasters that corkscrew.  They have coasters that loop.  They have coasters that loop while they corkscrew and coasters that corkscrew while they loop, which are surprisingly different experiences.  There’s one that goes 90 degrees straight up, crests over the hill, and then goes 90 degrees straight down.  There’s another one that gently eases you out of the station to a point about thirty yards from a mountainous incline – you sit there for a few seconds and then a voiceover calls out “Are you ready?!?!” and by the time he gets to the last word you’re already plastered back in your seat from the acceleration needed to get up that hill in that amount of space. 

It’s just physics.

You can’t take pictures on these things.  They tell you to leave even your keys and glasses back at the station lest they fall out and get lost forever from the g-forces, so cameras are right out.  Having been on these rides, I can attest that this is good advice.

But we took what photos we could.

Eventually the park closed and they threw us out.  But the Hershey Museum is right by the entrance and it’s open for another hour.  There’s a nice little exhibit set up where you ride a little teacup car through the chocolate-making process, and then there is the mother of all chocolate stores for you to spend your time and money.  How could we refuse?

We left the park tired but happy, found our hotel – a tall, sturdily constructed building with nice thick walls – around 11:30pm, and turned in for the night.

Or so we thought.

Not long after we’d gotten settled there came a cyclical rumbling that sounded very much like a poorly tuned diesel engine idling in the parking lot several floors below.  After a while we finally called the manager to come up and take a listen.  “That’s definitely someone snoring,” he said.  This turned out to be true – it was the guy in the next room.

We were amazed.  When did the guy breathe in?  How could he penetrate those walls?  It was almost but not quite fascinating enough not to be annoying.

The manager gave us the option of moving rooms, though as we were already in bed by that point we stayed.  So he took a bit off our bill, which was very nice of him.  Eventually the guy in the next room either turned over or choked to death, and it got quiet again.

And the next day we continued east.