Thursday, October 30, 2008

Signs of the Times

Some gutless coward stole my neighbor's "McCain" sign. They left my "Obama" sign alone, which I guess I am supposed to feel grateful for, or even appreciative of.

What a steaming load of nonsense.

One of my favorite political stories concerns a nameless British parliamentarian who took it upon himself to be the welcoming committee for all the new MPs from his party. At one point during the tour of the House of Commons that he would give the newcomers, he would invariably stop and point across to where the other party's MPs sat. "Those people over there are your opponents," he would say. "Your enemies are on your own side."

It disturbs me that there are morons running loose in the streets who think that stealing signs is the proper way to conduct themselves in an election season. The whole point of the affair is to hear what each side has to say, decide what is most in line with your own views, and support that side. I know that American elections haven't come close to that ideal for, oh, ever - but I can still dream.

It makes me want to go out and get my neighbor a new sign, even if it means walking into the local Republican party headquarters to do so. I may have to wash my hands after doing so, but my conscience will be clean.

Why Can't Us?

The Phillies have won the World Series.

Think about that for a moment. The Phillies have won the Series. This is not something that happens every year. They have won a grand total of two of them now since they came into the National League in 1883. The first one took 97 years, during which a few notable events happened:

The Spanish American War. WWI. WWII. The Korean War. The Vietnam War.
The inventions of the automobile, the airplane, the radio, the television, the record player, and the atomic bomb.
The discoveries of antibiotics, neutrons, and Pluto.

So it was an eventful time. In the 28 years since 1980, the world has been similarly exciting, but not for the Phillies. This year, though, it was different. This year they managed to win it all.

I watched them win it this time, just as I watched them win it last time. They won the same way, with their best reliever throwing strike three for the final out. Tabitha and Lauren did not have school the next day due to, well, something that the school board decided was important enough to close the schools (it still isn't clear to me what), so we let them stay up and bask in it. Tabitha is old enough to follow it a bit, and she's been asking me for updates after every game since most of the games have ended well past any reasonable definition of her bedtime or, in one case, mine (though I admit I did see the end of that one anyway). Lauren just absorbs it all.

But there we were, in the living room, celebrating. I did not expect the Phillies to do it, did not really think they would. It's really sweet to be wrong sometimes.

"Why can't us?" indeed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Liquid Life - Just Add Water

Only the Phillies could manage to be ten outs from a World Series championship, lose the lead and then have the game postponed due to the same drenching rains that had apparently been okay to play in for several innings before that.

I have been dutifully wearing my Phillies hat to show my support of late. The Phillies are my favorite baseball team, after all, even if baseball is no longer my favorite sport. It used to be, way back when. I followed the Phils though losing years, more losing years and the occasional winning year because it was a great game and they were my team. I watched the entire '93 Series while living in a town whose TV reception was so bad that I generally couldn't see the ball through the video snow on the screen and had to rely on watching the players react. I assumed they could see the ball, and certainly the Blue Jays could, alas.

But then they went on strike the following year. For a while I was just too annoyed at baseball to care, and I refused to watch even when the strike was over. But that didn't last - they did what they did, and so be it. But I never went back to baseball.

Life is liquid. If you remove baseball from it, don't expect to see a baseball-sized hole there later on, waiting to be filled up. Other things rush in and take that space, and baseball - or whatever it is that was removed from your world - has to figure out a way to slip in edgewise. It rarely does, at least not to where it used to be. I didn't watch television for almost nine years at one point in my life. It wasn't a moral decision - it wasn't anything to do with television really. I just got too busy with other things, and television simply fell out of my world. And when I did have time, after those nine years, there was no tv-sized hole in my life for it to fit back into. I watch it now and again these days - there are some good things on - but it fills in the edges now, not the middle.

So now baseball runs behind football, hockey, and at times even soccer. Usually I've got on my Eagles hat if I'm wearing a hat. Nobody in Wisconsin knows who the Flyers are, but sometimes I wear that one instead. My usual mug for tea is from the Sons of Ben, who supported the drive to get a Major League Soccer team in Philadelphia - I got it for the logo, which has a skull with Ben Franklin glasses and hair, and a Liberty Bell crack in it. It's cool, even if nobody knows what it signifies even in Philadelphia. But the Phillies are doing well - they're still only nine outs and one run away from winning, and even though I continue not to expect anything good to happen (when the Rays got a baserunner in the 9th inning of Game 4 I was sure it would lead to disaster even when Kim reminded me that the Phillies were leading at that point by a score of 10-2), the odds of my being pleasantly surprised are going up. So I'll watch and cheer, and if they manage to screw up and not lose, I'll be happy.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow ow. And ow again.

On Friday night, I wore my high heels out on the town.

Now, I've always felt that high heels were rather ridiculous, even on women. On a crowd of men, most of them still wearing their normal clothing, they look even worse. Though, to be fair, there were a few men in the crowd who got a little more into the spirit of the thing and came in drag. It was not an improvement.

But it was for a good cause. We gathered at our starting point, milling around and taking pictures and hamming it up for the news cameras. Then there were a couple of short talks, most of which were completely inaudible, but the one speaker who made himself heard was the chief of the local police department, who thanked us for raising all of this money for the YWCA's domestic violence prevention programs and brought home the seriousness of the event by describing the latest such call that the police had had to respond to. It was only hours before he spoke.

But there is only so serious one can be in a crowd of men wearing high heels, and so - our spirits rising along with our calves - we headed off into town to "walk a mile in her shoes."

Great googly moogly, people, whoever thought these shoes were a good idea? They have no padding. They leave you canted at obscure angles. They sink into the ground, into cracks in the sidewalk, and even the asphalt. And, as at least one person found out, they break. Easily.

But we soldiered on, waving our signs and grimacing. Tabitha and Lauren marched along with me (though most of the time they stuck close to the little dog in the gold satin booties), and Kim led the parade for a while as one of the designated route-runners. The motorists we passed all honked approvingly, perhaps because if they didn't they would be run down by squadrons of well-heeled Harley dudes in leather and pumps. Harleys carry a lot of cultural weight in our little town.

We made it a mile, and then I took the girls home to a sitter and returned to the party, where - as promised - there were hors d'oeuvres and wine in quantity. We raised a whole pile of money, and had a good time doing it too. Some people might have had just a little too good of a time - I refer specifically to the gentleman in the plexiglass shoes with the six-inch heels that lit up whenever he took a step, and the phalanx of men in sparkly red shoes that the Wicked Witch of the West would just kill for - but that just couldn't be helped, now, could it.

But if you think I'm going to make a habit of this, you can jolly well think again. If I ever do decide to be a transvestite, I'll stick with flats. Those heels hurt.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Story of Our Summer, Part II: San Francisco

Having obtained free airline tickets by driving to Philadelphia for Christmas, we decided to head to San Francisco over the Memorial Day weekend. Our thinking was that this weekend would give us some extra time to visit with Kim's brother Geoff, his partner Dave, and their friend Denise. This was a sound line of reasoning, as far as it went, but it neglected a couple of things.

One was that that the girls were both by now in the domain of the public school calendar, which had decreed that one day off for Memorial Day was plenty, thank you very much. In the end, Kim negotiated with their teachers and worked out a deal whereby the girls would each write blogs of their trip for their classmates to read. In this way we made our trip Educationally Sound.

The other thing was that I was finishing up my one-year stint teaching history at Far Away University, a 90-mile commute each way, and that my final exams would be given two days before the trip. In a hellacious 48 hours, I drove 180 miles, gave and graded 110 exams, calculated rather more final grades than that (not every student felt that the final was worth their time), and posted the grades on teh interweebs for them to look at in wonder and awe. Or awwwww. Either one. Then Kim and I packed until midnight, slept for 4 hours, and headed off for a Crack O' Dawn flight which would get us to San Francisco in time to have the day to explore.

For those of you who have not flown in the last seven years, all I can say is that the magic is gone. You show up two hours early. You herd yourself through the security checkpoint, suppressing the urge to baa like the sheep you are, looking appropriately solemn and turning over yet another Swiss Army knife for the personal collection of the US Attorney General because otherwise the terrorists win. You put your shoes back on. You find your gate - it's easy to spot: it's the one roughly halfway to your final destination. You head over and keep a sharp eye on the counter staff, who all seem to view the boarding process as a sort of shell game designed to keep people alert. You wedge yourself onto the plane, carrying enough food and supplies to support a covert incursion into a small third-world country (though if you should meet resistance you will die, since you are armed only with small clear plastic baggies full of toiletries and the memories of your latest Swiss Army knife). You know, people used to dress up to fly.

But fly we did, and without casualties. Once you're in the air, it's still pretty cool.

Geoff picked us up at the airport in his spiffy copper PT Cruiser and drove us back to Denise's apartment, where we would be staying. It's a great place, with a huge garden in the back (well, huge for being in the middle of the Mission District) to run around in. We set our stuff down and headed out to do Tourist Stuff - because we were Tourists, dagnabbit, and we might as well enjoy ourselves.

Geoff and Kim relax in Denise's garden

Geoff took us around the corner to a Pakistani restaurant (note: there is no such thing as a Pakistani restaurant in Wisconsin, mostly because the Pakistanis stubbornly refuse to put cheese on everything and we have standards here in the Dairy State. This is why we have to travel to get stuff like that). In a highly impressive show of bravery, Tabitha - whose normal idea of adventurous eating is to finish the ends of her hot dogs as well as the middle - actually ate and liked the Potato Nan. Lauren liked her food too, but she's a bit more willing to try things so we weren't quite as surprised. Afterward, we went up to a nice neighborhood park and let the girls run around for a bit. There was some sort of school field trip going on at the time, so the place was just overrun with kids, and it was windy enough to make you fear that they would all blow into the bay. But a good time was had, and nobody took any unplanned swimming trips.

Tabitha and her Potato Nan

Since we were already in the Mission District, it made sense for us to go to Mission Dolores, just a short walk away. The Mission is old and beautiful in the way that weathered stone and brick buildings can be. Kim and I had been there before, but this was the first time for the girls. It's a quiet place, nicely preserved and sort of centering just to stand around in. It's a peaceful spot in the middle of a fairly busy city. The garden in the back was the highlight for the girls, though, as they got to play in the yurt in the middle of it and run around the path. We have about as many yurts in Wisconsin as Pakistani restaurants, more's the pity - someone should look into this. Maybe if we used them to store cheese.

The girls at Mission Dolores

The next day was Dave's birthday, so we went downtown to his favorite Italian restaurant and ate a lunch such as lunches were created to eat. As a veteran of Italian cooking, I have to say that I was impressed. San Francisco is a lot like New Orleans, in that you really can't find a bad meal there.

Happy Birthday Uncle Dave!

Somewhere on the walk over, Dave acquired a nickname - he is now Uncle Wall-E, mostly due to a spot-on imitation of the Pixar character that the girls just loved. Hey - it keeps him from being confused with me. Because we look so much alike, you know.

After that we felt the need to walk, so we hiked pretty much all over town (in between trolley rides). We visited a carousel, went to an arts and music festival (those things just crop up like mushrooms out there) and ended up at some sort of art museum that we didn't go into because there was just so much Art outside to see.

Tabitha has a meeting of the minds with Art

The next day we decided to go on a picnic at Angel Island, out in the bay. The long ferry ride out to the island passes right by Alcatraz, which was fascinating to see up close. The island itself was full of all sorts of scenery and, like most of the area, steep hills that we climbed about upon. We had a nice lunch, most of which we had picked up the day before at the store where Geoff bakes. Uncle Geoff took the girls out to the beach area to quest for, well, whatever it is one quests for on the beaches out there.

Lauren and Tabitha with some of the native flora of Angel Island

On the way back we stopped at Fisherman's Wharf (because we're Tourists, that's why - see above) and spent a pleasant hour trying not to be overwhelmed by the smell of the sea lions. Sea lions are not the cute animals that they appear to be in cartoons. No, they are fat, bewhiskered and smell like a mixture of old fish and sourmash. Normally you have to go to a Civil War re-enactor camp to get this experience but we got it in San Francisco without having to wear a lot of itchy wool or eat hard tack. So bonus points for us, I say. There was also a bungee-machine there for Tabitha and Lauren to bounce around in, so the day was complete.

On our way home that night we took the cable car, because you have to take the cable car if you are a Tourist in San Francisco - there's a law about that. You wait in a line that is almost as long as the airport security line, though it is surrounded with coffee shops that you can duck into for sustenance and you get to keep your shoes on. Your turn comes and you pile in, and the cable winches you up what San Franciscans will tell you with an utterly straight face is a hill. It is not a hill. Hills do not require rappelling gear for public transportation. Hills do not require you to have oxygen at the top. Hills do not have falcons nesting halfway up. San Francisco is a triumph of geometry over geography - there is no way a city should have been built on those hills, and even if you concede the city there is still no way anyone should have slapped a grid-system of streets on top of those cliffs. But there it is. We rode all the way up and all the way down, and it was wonderful.

All they need is Rice-a-roni!

That night while Uncle Wall-E and I went out on the town in search of used books Geoff and Kim taught Lauren how to play Uno. She nearly beat them. Next year we're taking her to Vegas.

On our final day in San Francisco, we got out of San Francisco and headed up to Muir Woods. On the one hand, the redwoods there are really impressive - tall, wide, stately, and surrounded by lesser trees as a queen is surrounded by all of the king's mistresses - and trying just as hard to choke them, too. On the other hand, they're trees, and after a while they start to blend together in your mind. The fox pelts and animal skulls that the ranger had out on display were cool, though. No matter what you learn in Disney movies, the forest is full of things that will eat your sorry butt - if not before you're dead, then certainly after. THAT never gets old.

Lauren in the depths of the trees with Uncle Wall-E

After we left the forest, we went to the beach.

Why is it that so many things in the San Francisco area involve precipices and high winds? It's not enough that towers and bridges make you feel that you are only moments away from free-fall - you also get this feeling with trolleys, light-houses, and - yes - beaches. It's astonishing how much of the San Francisco area is just one wide-opening fence away from reading about it in the papers.

We went to the beach in two stages. First, we drove to the nearest handy precipice (never more than 15 minutes by car from any point). We got out to inspect the abandoned WWII military gun emplacement overlooking the coast, and from there we wandered down the almost-Japanese-style walkway that followed the ridgeline and led to the overlook (irony being a specialty of ours). This was a wildly Romantic spot, full of sound and fury, wind and gravity. And fog. Lots of fog. But pretty, in a way. Then we got back into the car and drove down to the actual sandy beach, where we had a picnic lunch and the girls got to dip their tootsies in the Pacific Ocean. That they were willing - nay, eager - to do this was somewhat surprising, considering the stiff breeze and 60-degree temperatures, but they loved it.

The path overlooking the beach

One ocean down, one to go

After the beach, we went to the lighthouse on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge - you look east toward the bridge from there. It's awesomely cool, which is a good thing since you have to be a left-handed mountain goat to get there and part gecko to believe you won't fall off the cliff and into the surf. You park your car along the access road, which gets you about half a mile away. You go on down the path, which gradually turns into a narrow ledge with a cliff on one side and a hundred feet of nothing on the other before plunging into a rough-hewn tunnel. When you get out of the tunnel, you head toward the bridge to get to the actual lighthouse itself. Now this bridge can only hold two people at a time, and there are National Park Service Rangers stationed there to make sure that you follow this rule, and presumably to notify the Coast Guard to collect what is left of you if you don't. And then you're at the lighthouse. It's tiny, but the view is amazing. The fences have wide openings, and the winds are high, so you know you're in San Francisco. I kept a firm grip on Lauren at all times, and would have done so for Tabitha if I thought she'd let me. There was one two-year-old on the island with us who just ran around as two-year-olds do - I don't know what their parents felt, but I certainly aged noticeably just watching him. And then we reversed everything - tiny island (check!), narrow rickety bridge (check!), long rough tunnel (check!), ledge (check!), path (check!), restroom (oh, yes yes yes, check!), car (check!). It's a beautiful place, but not recommended for the faint of heart.

Hanging on for dear life at the lighthouse.

And then we left.

One of the odder side-effects of this trip is that now the girls just adore Bill Cosby's "Driving in San Francisco" routine, which is one of the ones that I memorized as a child from the one album of my parents' that survived my childhood. Uncle Keith gave it to me as a CD a few years ago, so now we listen in the car.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It Beats "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" ...

We've recently begun to teach Tabitha and Lauren to sing the ABC's to the tune of Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Try it sometime - it works.

Hey! Teacher! Teach those ABC's!

Corrupting their minds, one cover song at a time.

Of course, at some point they will demonstrate this newfound knowledge to their peers, and then we will be known as Those Parents. For most of their peers' parents, this will probably not be a good thing - but for some, it will be a recommendation. Those parents we will try to hang out with.

This is called social networking.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Can See Clearly Now

We have two new windows in our dining room now. They're white vinyl, with spiffy locks and hinges that let you clean both sides without going outside. They've even got argon gas between the two panes of glass, though for all I can tell they could have banana fumes. There are twelve more just like them sitting in our garage, and two more sort of like them and yet two more not really all that much like them at all - eventually they will all have to go in.

Our neighbor Adam, a professional carpenter, is the Lead Person on this project, which makes sense since he is the one with the tools and the clues as to how this is done. I'm just there to be commanded. This is about right, as I have a defective Mr. Goodwrench gene and can cause projects to run off the rails merely by acknowledging their existence. My main contribution to most household projects is simply to stay out of the way long enough to allow Kim to finish them, and take the girls with me though sometimes they get to help out if there aren't too many Lethally Pointy Bits. I also lift heavy objects and occasionally reach for tall things. I'm a regular Bob Vilas, let me tell you. Kim loves these projects, which is a good thing since otherwise we would be living in a ruin. A shabby ruin, with outdated rocks. So we're a good team that way - Kim has ideas and energy, and I provide unskilled labor and occasionally height. Let me tell you, our rocks are stylin'.

It is a very good thing that Adam is involved here. Our windows are not standard windows. They don't have the depth that has apparently been standard since the Civil War, for one thing, and they've got all sorts of odd molding and flanges that regular windows don't have and which have to be removed without causing the rest of the house to collapse or float off to points unknown. It is therefore good to have someone with skills and tools on this project. I'm fresh out of those, and Kim is too busy earning a living for me to simply take the girls out of harm's way and expect the project to be done. Even with professional help, though, those two windows took up most of the day.

The windows are a lot brighter than the old ones. I'm not sure whether this is due to the white vinyl instead of the dark wood of the old ones, the lack of muntins (or is that mullions? Who can tell?) in the panes now, or the simple fact that the old ones were so difficult to clean that we seldom bothered. Those hinges will go a long way, let me tell you.

Two down, sixteen to go.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Scents of Fall

Lauren smells like a French whorehouse today, even after last night's shower. Well, more accurately, she smells like the Magic Whorehouse at Disneyland, since much of the perfume that Tabitha doused her in yesterday at her friend Gracie's house carried the Hannah Montana seal of approval. It's apparently a standard part of the inevitable fashion show that Lauren, Tabitha and Gracie always put on, and that's just the price of girls having fun. Just wait until they're older, when they add margaritas and dark chocolate to the mix.

It's fall, and there are all sorts of interesting smells in the air. Our neighbor Jerry, a tree-trimmer, has stocked up his winter woodpile with new oak, giving the neighborhood a particular winey sort of smell that I can't decide if I like or not. The house still smells a bit of the squash we had for dinner last night. And when it gets cold in the evenings, the cats velcro themselves to our bodies and smell like slowly warming fur.

Burning leaves and apple cider, though - that's what fall smells like to me. You don't get too many piles of burning leaves anymore, since they require permits now, but every once in a while the air will hang with that delicious scent. The girls have now adopted my line that it's not fall without apple cider - rich, dark brown and heavy. We're out now - I'll have to go get more.

Next time the girls go visit Grace, I'm going to replace all the perfume with apple cider.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Backwards and in Heels

I tried on my first pair of high heels today. I did not feel pretty. Perhaps it was the white socks that I neglected to take off beforehand. Perhaps it was the vertigo of standing at what was more or less a 45-degree angle. Perhaps it was the notion that my heels were sinking into the hardwood floor. Or perhaps it was just the fact that I was perched several feet in the air on top of what were effectively black satin vice-grips. Air traffic controllers were re-routing passenger jets around me. Biplanes started attacking me, trying to rescue the tiny blonde woman who suddenly appeared in my left hand. I heard hushed voices discussing what the Bulgarian judge might give me when I tried to dismount (a 7.9, as it turned out - I landed gracefully, but spent the better part of a lifetime figuring out how to undo the little buckles and this counted against my style points). It was quite an experience. Who needs drugs when you have shoes?

And next week I get to do it again, in public.

The local YWCA is having a "Wine, Women and Shoes" event seven days from now. It is a fund-raising event designed to help the YWCA in its fight against domestic violence, and it mostly centers around getting local bigwig men to walk a mile down the main drag of town wearing high heels, in return for which they collect pledges and get a nice meal of hors d'oeurvres and wine, which will no doubt be needed in quantity. There are only so many bigwigs in our little town, so a few of us other guys will be there to pad out the house a bit, but we get to raise money too, and for a good cause. So I'll be collecting pledges from now through the 24th.

Yes, there will be pictures. I will even post some here. And then I go back to my sneakers. Worn, comfy sneakers, with no altitude, no buckles, and no tiny blonde women to throw at pesky biplanes. Some rescuers - they couldn't catch worth anything.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

And Now a Word from the Royal Family

Lauren got a letter from two real princesses on Tuesday!

Or at least from their secretary, who was at great pains to point out that the princesses did in fact ask her to write that letter. And this was close enough.

Four years ago, when Lauren was about 18 months old, we took to the girls to Europe for a really great tour. We visited friends in the UK and in Sweden, and I suppose at some point I should devote some space just to that trip. But when we were in Sweden, we went to visit the palace of the Swedish royal family, and we bought a few postcards with their group photos.

David, Kim and Tabitha at the Swedish Royal Palace,
Stockholm (2004). Lauren is watching this
from her stroller, and is highly amused.

Now, the Swedish royal family does not strike fear into the hearts of its enemies, at least not in their photos. There are two princesses (Victoria and Madeleine, both attractive young ladies), one prince (Carl Philip, an earnest-looking young man), the Queen (Silvia) and, finally, His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustav, who bears a striking resemblance to Capt. Stubing of the Love Boat, especially in those royal photos where the king is in his Navy uniform. It does take some of the majesty out of it when you think about it that way, but there it is. They look like a pleasant enough bunch of royalty, and from what we understand they do not make a habit of riding about the countryside lopping off heads or forcing people to eat strange Swedish foods, so that is okay by us.

Needless to say, both Tabitha and Lauren were utterly fascinated by the idea that there existed - right here, in this very world - real princesses. The fact that they appeared to be relatively normal and were not decked out in pink gowns that flowed like honey and could be used as flotation devices in the event of a water landing did not faze them - these were Honest To God Princesses, and that made the world a much more special place to be. Tabitha treasured those photo postcards for years, but Lauren, being younger, was less devoted.

This summer, our Swedish friends came back for a visit (more on that later), and brought with them Magazines. Royal magazines. The sort of magazines that in this country would be devoted to Jennifer Anniston and have an entire bureau solely responsible for the latest doings of ... who was that? Old news. Who's next?

Lauren was just captivated by these magazines, and sometime in September she drew a picture of the princesses to send to them. Kim transcribed a letter from Lauren to the princesses to go along with the picture, and we sent the whole mess off in the mail.

And on Tuesday we got a polite response with - and here is the sweet part - another photo of the royal family! One that Lauren can call her very own. She took it to school for show and tell.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Price of Progress

Good heavens, the sledding hill is gone.

For the last few years, whenever the weather and mood have lined up, we have bundled up the girls into their foul weather gear, packed the car with the oddly dual-purpose inflatable toboggan/rafts that we have, and headed over to the sledding hill by the hospital. It was a great hill! It was steep enough to get up a decent speed, especially on those rafts. It was short enough not to get up too much speed. It was right next to the Emergency Room in case you somehow managed to get up too much speed anyway. It had a wide flat area at the bottom to coast gently to a halt in before there was any real danger of running into the road. And it was close to home, so we could be drinking cocoa within minutes of deciding that we were too cold to continue. It was perfect.

And now they went and put a building on it.

Okay, so it is the hospital's land and they can do what they want with it. And maybe helping the sick is just a teensy bit more important than sledding. Maybe. But still - it was the most perfect sledding hill in town, and now it has been Destroyed By Progress.

Just as a side note, this is not the first time that someone has erected an entire building around here without my noticing. One summer I was exiting the highway, coming into town, and there was an entire mall that wasn't there before. "Great Googly Moogly!" I thought. "There's whole new places to spend money that I didn't know existed!" I think they do this in the dead of night, and cover it up with SEP fields* during the day until they're ready to spring it on us. It's the only explanation that makes sense.

When I was a lad, we used to take our old-fashioned wooden-top, steel-runner sleds down to what we optimistically labeled "Suicide Hill," a steep, bumpy hill that featured two concrete shuffleboard courts at the bottom that made an excellent jump, followed by about 20 feet of real estate to stop before running into the creek that bordered said real estate on two of its three sides. The third had trees. It was a cold 3/4-mile trek back home if we ended up dunked, as we did surprisingly often. But it was worth it.

Suicide Hill is still there, though it is overgrown now and hardly fit for sledding. The shuffleboard courts are still there, however, and with a bit of yard work the whole thing could be running again. But not here. Unless we plan on sledding through the lobby of the new hospital building (an intriguing, though probably sub-optimal idea), we will just have to find a new place.

* Douglas Adams invented the idea of the SEP field in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Basically, SEP stands for "Someone Else's Problem." When you cover something with an SEP field, people can stare directly at it without seeing it, because it's someone else's problem. I think this technology exists and is in widespread use today. It would certainly explain a lot of things.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Halloween in Michigan

New rule: the wilderness must be sprayed with pesticides. Industrial strength pesticides. In large quantities, in high concentrations, regardless of the consequences. The bugs have taken over, and they're not happy with us. We need to get them now while we still can.

We went up to Michigan this past weekend for our first taste of Halloween. And let it be said that we had a really great time - the girls got to visit with Uncle Dave and Aunt Karen, and especially with cousin Emily, and we ate a lot of good food. But building a home near a wetland does have its drawbacks, notably the cloud of mosquitoes that blotted out the sun, drowned out the music and left the drained and desiccated carcasses of those who forgot their bug spray strewn about like so much leftover jerky at a cowboy convention.

We arrived shortly before dinner, dosed ourselves liberally with chemicals, and set about having the aforementioned good time. The girls flew off with Emily and the ever-increasing host of children, running about the grass and trees and seeking out the candy supplies that had been cleverly hidden here and there. Kim and I set up the tent and busied ourselves helping out with the preparations as best we could - most of it was pretty well in hand.

Kim actually spent most of the evening painting the faces of various children, which was a big hit. Several still had their paint on the next morning, which no doubt made school Monday an interesting experience. All night long there were little kitties, mice, butterflies and other assorted painted children running about.

After dinner, we were treated to the Asinine Theater production of ghost stories silhouetted against a white backdrop while the narrator eerily intoned "Hairy toe! Hairy toe! Give me back my hairy toe!" And you know, we heard that all the way back home. Thanks guys! When the show was over it was: Karaoke time! There was a karaoke machine cleverly hidden off in a garage on the edge of the property (thus to minimize the damage to everyone else's ears), and it was stocked - STOCKED! - with classic rock, kids' music, and assorted goodies. Kim and I spent much of the evening there, belting out "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," and, when the girls were around, various half-remembered Hannah Montana songs. And Disney - lots of that too. But Violent Femmes! And Nilsson! We had a grand time, though whether anyone else did is an open, and frankly immaterial, question. We only took a break to travel the Haunted Trail that Dave had laid out through the bog, along the creek and up the hill. It was appropriately scary, too. The girls loved it.

We spent the night in the tent. We laid out several sleeping bags on top of two layers of foam mats, and you know - I'm just getting too old to be doing that. We got a good night's sleep - the girls conked right out, which was not surprising considering that it was midnight our time when we finally lay down - but there were a great many twinges in the morning that weren't there the night before. At least it kept the mosquitoes out, because by morning they were back in full force, and managed to penetrate our meager chemical defenses to such a degree that Lauren ended up in an oatmeal bath when we got home and Tabitha ended up at Urgent Care after one of her bites got infected.

DDT. Bring it back. Now.

We finally dragged ourselves away from family and fun around lunchtime and headed off. We stopped for lunch at a small cafe in Inner Nowhere, MI, a place that failed miserably to be a restaurant worth going back to but did have the sterling quality of stocking Cone Guys ice cream cones. Ask for them by name!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Magorium Night

Went to see Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium last night at Not Bad President Elementary. Have you ever watched a movie in a grade-school gym full of small children? The room just vibrates with all that compressed energy. Fortunately, they turned the volume up to Overwhelm and just let the kids fidget and rotate, so everyone was happy.

The movie was pretty good, actually, though difficult to define. Like Secondhand Lions (a true classic and highly recommended) it was billed as a children's movie but is really aimed at the parents who bring them. Centered on a bizarrely magical toy store in New York, it stars Dustin Hoffman as the title character and Natalie Portman as his employee, Mahoney - a frustrated pianist. There's also a 9-year-old boy named Eric and an accountant named Henry whom most of the characters refer to chummily as Mutant. There's plenty of goofy stuff for the kids - which is why Tabitha and Lauren loved it - but mostly it's about loss and moving on, and finding what you believe in when all seems to have ended badly.

It was a good movie, though I can understand why it never went anywhere. It's difficult to define, for one thing. And like Willie Wonka, there's a barely suppressed air of darkness about the film that keeps it from being the fluff that it might have been - Dustin Hoffman seems to have watched Johnny Depp's revival of Wonka quite carefully. Or vice verse - I don't know which came first.

The popcorn was free, and that is always to the good. You can't have too much popcorn.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On the Current Economic Crisis - A Rant

So here we are, at the end of America's Second Gilded Age - an age when capital ran riot, when we were repeatedly assured that business could govern itself without any need for regulatory oversight, when the stock market could only go up, when banks felt no need to capitalize their risks, when corporate executives were heroes and government was Them, not Us. And it worked out about as well is it did the first time.

The regulatory safeguards put in place during the Depression were put there not to cripple the economy but to save it. They were put there because letting business police itself is like letting alcoholics run liquor stores - they cannot resist consuming all the goods for themselves instead of making them available to the public, as they were supposed to do. And really, why is this a surprise? Businesses exist to make money. Period. They do not exist to serve the public benefit. They do not exist to do social good. They do not exist to help their workers. They do not exist to do anything except line the pockets of the people running them. You can't expect them to do anything else, because they won't. And whose fault is it when we leave them in charge anyway? Of course they're going to do what they do - that's what they do. It's our fault for knowing this in advance and letting them do it anyway. It's our fault for believing their lies and their posturing while they do what they have always done. If you put a fox in charge of the chickens, it isn't the fox's fault if the chickens disappear - it's yours for being stupid enough to believe the fox's protestations of good intent in the first place.

Not that our corporate culture lacks for apologists. No, all along the conservative spectrum are people who stubbornly insist that this is not their fault, that this is somehow the fault of government, or "liberals", or El Nino, or some such. No, they say, the Free Market is infallible and must not be meddled with. Nonsense.

It took less than a decade to get from the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act to the collapse of the financial system. The federal government will once again have to bail out corporations from their own greed and stupidity, lest the entire house of cards come crashing down, only this time we're not the largest creditor nation on earth but the largest debtor nation on earth. We've cut taxes on the wealthy, destroyed the middle-class and spent billions on illegal wars, and there isn't much left to work with to solve the new crisis. The US government is now the largest holder of mortgages on earth. It will own the nations' banking system before all is said and done, a reversal of 175 years of American history. And if we are lucky, it will only take generations to undo the damage done to the nation by years of untrammeled conservative economic dominance.

My children will be paying for the arrogance and incompetence of the current administration - the people who brought you Iraq; the people who brought you the international embarrassment that was their "response" to Hurricane Katrina; the people who turned the biggest budgetary surplus in human history into the biggest deficit in just two years, even without counting any of the wars; the people who insist that they are the best guarantors of national security despite the fact that the worst terrorist attack in American history happened on their watch when they were manifestly unprepared for it and whose subsequent efforts have only chipped away at the fabric of American liberty without increasing security one iota; and the people directly responsible for the current meltdown of the largest economy on earth - for the rest of their lives, and so will their children. I find it morally offensive that such people represent my country. I find it incomprehensible that there are millions of Americans who want four more years of it.

Government is Us, people. We are Them. And the public interest had better have someone to guard it soon, or there will be no interest left to guard. It took decades for Americans to reign in capital the first time, and but for the Depression it might not have happened at all. Capital doesn't need to be abolished - it isn't evil. But neither is it good. It is what it is, and whether it hurts us or helps us depends entirely on the use to which it is put and the constraints that are placed against its predatory nature. The world needs predators. It also needs protection from them. We've fallen down on the job with that last part, and the results have been predictable.

I'm not sure where this is going, but it needed to be said. Or at least I needed to say it. That's not quite the same thing, but it will do for now.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Live Free, Ride Strong

Well, in the "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" way of things that defines the sibling relationship, we now have two - count 'em, two - bike riders in the family. Three if you count Kim. Four if my decades-old activities are still valid for reporting purposes.

Yesterday Tabitha decided she wanted to go out on her bike, to test her newfound skills. She did a marvelous job of it, too - riding in circles around the driveway to show that she has gotten the hang of "turning" (a useful skill) and demonstrating her mastery of starting and stopping without changing the shape of anything or anyone in the vicinity. I tell you, once the light bulb clicks on, the progress is astonishingly quick.

In the meantime, I had Lauren out on the Pedal-less Bike, a device designed to encourage balance and get her used to the idea of the bike itself, without training wheels. Well, after about five minutes of that it was clear that this was just Not Going To Do At All, so I put the pedals back on and we headed back out to the sidewalk. A quick jog down the walk holding onto the bike while Lauren pedaled, followed by "I'm going to let go now!" "Okay!" and off she went. Zip! Zam! Zoom!

And now there are two.

I spent a lot of my childhood perched on a succession of red bicycles, zipping around the neighborhood with various friends. Eventually I graduated to a blue one - a 10-speed with racing handlebars that curled under (do they even make those anymore?). It was made of cast iron and weighed approximately as much as any of the Chevy Novas that my family owned over the years, but I put a lot of miles on it. The high point was a trip out to Granite Run Mall with my friend Bobby - a trip that involved schlepping up the sheer face of Lawrence Road, barreling down US Route 1, and merging onto US 322 before doing the whole thing in reverse. Bobby got a flat tire somewhere on 1, but we managed to get it repaired before we came home. It was quite a trip. I'm not sure my mother ever forgave my father for giving us permission to do it, but it was worth it to us.

I carried that bike with me to Pittsburgh, and eventually to Iowa. I didn't ride it much, though. Pittsburgh is one continuous Lawrence Road, and I generally walked in Iowa. Eventually, after I moved to Wisconsin, Kim gave the old Cast Iron Schwinn to a friend of ours who was bereft of other transportation, and eventually it died of sclerotic old age. The bike, not the friend.

Now I get to imagine just what Tabitha and Lauren's "Granite Run Mall" adventure will be. But that's a ways off. Right now, the main thing is to make sure that they can steer well enough to avoid running over the cat, who insists that she has the right of way on the sidewalk. She may well be right, but if it comes to a contest, she won't be right for long.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Soon, the Frost Will Be On the Bumpkin

We've been at the apple orchard a couple of times so far this fall, which is one of the ways that you know it's fall. Autumn has now replaced winter as my favorite season. Winter is just too cold for my old bones these days. Summer has always been a drag - you can always add clothing, but there is only so much you are allowed to take off, and even when you exceed that you end up just Way. Too. Hot. Spring is nice, but rather bland and far too cheery - it's kind of unsettling that way. When autumn rolls around the air gets a nice chill in it. Sometimes - less and less often in our highly litigious society, alas - you can even smell leaves burning. And there is apple cider - real, dark brown, bordering-on-chewy apple cider, so sweet it hurts and so tart it hurts just that much more.

It just isn't fall without apple cider.

Or pumpkins, I suppose. The girls have been very excited about pumpkins and gourds, and have amassed quite a collection of them now. We've got green ones, white ones, yellow ones and black ones. Round ones, acorn-shaped ones, fluted ones, and one sort of "siamese twin" one whose final shape is rather unfortunate but remains so far just a little above the heads of the girls. We've got pumpkins and "bumpkins" - those knobby pumpkin-shaped gourds. Eventually we will go get a Big Pumpkin, the sort of thing that Linus Van Pelt looked for in vain all those years, and stab it to death. Then we'll scoop out its innards, carve designs into its flesh, and light a candle inside of it.

Ah, the innocent joys of fall.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Story of Our Summer, Part the First

Our summer began on December 22nd.

Every other year we pack up our bags and head to Philadelphia for Christmas, and last year was one of those years. Unfortunately, last year was also One Of Those Years, at least as far as winter weather went. It snowed almost every other day between Thanksgiving and Easter, and when it wasn't snowing it was either raining (which then turned to ice, or ran into our basement and then turned to ice) or so cold that it made the wiper fluid in your car freeze. Naturally, this was the year I was commuting 2 hours each way to teach. Fortunately, it almost always snowed on Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday, so I only missed one day of school.

On the day of our flight, it actually did not snow. Well, we think it didn't snow. The fog was so thick that it might have been a blizzard, for all we could tell, but the roads seemed clear. We called the airline before we left for Milwaukee, and they said, "Sure we're flying! Come see for yourselves!" So we stuffed the car with all of the bags we had packed up (vide supra), and headed off. We eventually found the airport (it was that big shiny thing near the lake), and we headed toward the curbside check-in guy, for to check in by the curbside. He said, why are you here? To fly? we responded. Uh, no, he said.

Oh boy.

Apparently in the interval between leaving our home and locating the check-in guy, the entire airport had been shut down and nothing was coming in or out. The line to get to the ticket counter for The Next Flight Out stretched back nearly to Omaha, and people were walking past us triumphantly declaring, "We got a flight out! It's in March!" Things did not look good, especially since we weren't sure if we could leave - sometimes if you leave, you forfeit rebooking rights. But when the airline spokesperson told us to go away, we figured we were okay to leave.

But go where?

We thought about it for bit. We were already cutting it close - my side of the family celebrates on Christmas Eve, after all, and has for generations. Christmas Day has been something of an afterthought for as long as I can remember, especially since my brother and I got too old and Santa crossed us off his list. It's a fun day - we get up and hang out, family and friends come over, and we spend an inordinate amount of time eating. If that isn't a good day, what is? Christmas Eve, though - that's the main holiday. And to top it all off, this was the year we were going to get new family portraits taken to replace the ones that showed Lauren as a baby and didn't show Cousin Sara at all. We had to get there.

Well, we decided, the hell with it. We're all packed. We're closer to Philadelphia than we were this morning. The girls have already done this trip once, last summer, and there was no lasting damage to car, psyches or marriage. So we drove out of the airport and headed east. It was an adventure, really. The fog cleared off somewhere south of Chicago. We at dinner on the road in Indiana and made it into Ohio before stopping for the night. The girls were Excellent Travelers, especially since we had not really planned for this and had very little in the car in the way of entertainment (we practically memorized The Barenaked Ladies' Christmas CD, which was one of only a handful we had with us). And we got our family portraits and Christmas Eve.

The Cousins Gather for Not Quite The Portrait

We also got vouchers good for one free flight anywhere in the US. So naturally we went to San Francisco. I mean, where else would we go?

The Two-Wheeled Velocipede

Today Tabitha discovered that she really can ride a bike.

We've been working on this in a rather haphazardly off-and-on fashion since spring - running up and down the block every few weeks or so, trying to get her to balance and me to not have a coronary and die. We had actually gotten pretty close in August - the balance thing, not the coronary thing - before mechanical difficulties prevented us from continuing. And there it sat.

This bothered Kim greatly.

So today Tabby and I headed out into the wilds of the sidewalk again, and this time I finally let go and off she went. Back and forth. Whirr! Zoom! Look out!

She never did fall over, which was nice, though she did eventually whack into the neighbor's fence post while turning into the driveway. No harm done. And later, after dinner, she took off again just to show Mom it could be done.

Now she is mobile, and her world expands yet again. Not bad.

Don't sell the bike shop, Orville. You've got customers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Root, Root, Root for the Home Team

The Phillies are in the playoffs, for the eleventh time in their 126-year history, and as any Philadelphia sports fan knows this is simply the opening act of what will no doubt become an anguishing slide toward ignominious defeat. The Phillies are the only sports franchise in human history to have 10,000 defeats. They have won exactly one World Series - in 1980, after almost a century of futility. Their collapse in 1964 is still a topic of debate as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a decade before most of the current roster was born. What will happen is only a matter of time.

We don't expect to win, we sports fans from Philadelphia, and we are rarely disappointed. It's an odd cross to bear. In a nation which celebrates victory over all other concerns and whose culture is relentlessly optimistic, we know the familiarity of defeat and the all-encompassing knowledge of pessimism. Philadelphia sports fans understand Norse mythology, because the gods lose in the end.

On my computer's desktop is one of those "widget" things that the Young Folks think are so cool (or groovy, or phat, or whatever new and shiny term is currently beyond my ken). A nondescript brown blob with a timer in it, it is entitled "The Cheesesteak of Suffering" and simply keeps track of how long it has been since either the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers or 76ers have won a championship. Right now it's at almost 9,256 days and counting, though you can check to the second if you'd like. This is rather macabre, if you think about it. First, someone had to be morose enough to conceive and execute something like this, and then I had to go think it was worth putting onto my computer. Celebrations are where you find them, I suppose.

I like to think that having this background has prepared me well for life. Life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad ones. Products that work are discontinued, while neckties never go out of fashion. Empty-headed, ideologically-driven, Constitution-shredding, environment-destroying, greed-enabling, right-wing nutjobs dominate our political culture, while people who might actually exercise power without destroying our national culture, international standing or financial system are sitting on the sidelines trying to figure out how they can get a vote in edgewise. The wrong teams win - even when no team from Philadelphia is even playing, still the wrong teams win (that's addressed to you, Cowboys fans...).

And yet, for all that, good things do happen. Children are born, children who make your world a better place, who give you reason to soldier on and struggle against the general unfairness, to at least try to make a localized pool of good vibes for them. Spouses make you fall in love all over again, every day. Booksellers continue to exist despite everything. Sometimes the world screws up and the good guys win one. And the optimists never really appreciate this. They just assume that this is natural. It isn't natural. It's a treasure - a gift that must be savored, husbanded, hoarded against the inevitable return of pig-headed normalcy.

I was 14 when the Phillies won the Series. I had followed them for as long as I could remember, watching games with my dad - sometimes even down at the stadium - and my grandfather, who always had the Phillies on television. They had come close the year before or so, but that year they finally made it. They confounded the unfair world, and actually Did Not Lose. It was astonishing, as much as anything else. I can still remember watching every inning of every game. I remember when Tug McGraw - the man who gave relief pitchers their deservedly goofy reputation - got the last strike-out and the whole region went nuts, honking and yelling. I stood on the little porch outside our front door and just listened. It was wonderful.

I don't know if the will do it again this year. I rather expect they won't, since there are several better teams in the playoffs and expecting to win just isn't in my nature anyhow. But it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised, yes it would.