Saturday, January 30, 2010

Housing Codes

We are slumlords.

This is a fairly busy household. Kim has taken on additional administrative duties down at Home Campus and is generally swamped. I'm actually teaching full time this semester, in addition to a separate part-time job. The girls are in school and have reached that age when they have piles of homework, and their social lives are becoming more jam-packed than mine, which, admittedly, isn't saying much. But they are busy. And there's the cats, who may only be one evolutionary rung above sofa pillows but that entire rung consists of evolving newer and more effective ways of making their wants and needs known.

So things fall through the cracks is what I'm saying.

Two of those things are the hamsters. Hammy and Vee (or Vee and Hammy - I still can't tell) are rather quiet little things, tucked away in their art-deco pink plastic cage safely bungeed to the crafts storage area in the corner of the dining room. They sleep a lot, and sometimes they run around on their little wheel, and neither of those things is designed to attract attention. Call it a legacy of being at the bottom of the meadow food chain, but they're very good at not bringing themselves up in your mind.

So sometime this past week it occurred to us that we haven't changed their bedding or cleaned out their cage in a while. Like since before Christmas.

Not that they minded, really. It was snug, warm, and approximately 30% stored food. Anywhere they wanted to rest, they were within easy reach of a snack. I should have my house set up so well.

Unfortunately, it was also about 30% hamster poop.

Hey, the food has to go somewhere. And it certainly wasn't going in the designated receptacle that we went out and got for them. It was basically, well, wherever they were at the time the need struck.


And what wasn't wherever was concentrated in the tube up to their nest. They have a little nest at the top of the cage, which is accessible through a plastic tube that they climb up. Apparently to hamsters this tube looks a lot like a garderobe - the little hole that extended out over the side of a medieval castle and dropped straight down to the moat or thereabouts, which aided its functionality thereby - and let us just say that passage up that tube was getting rather constricted.

I'm sure that if we had waited a bit longer there would have been a tiny little knock on our door and a very officious looking rodent with a white hat and a clipboard would have written out a ten-foot ticket and stuffed it into a pickle and taken the pickle with the ticket and shoved it down our throats.

I don't want a pickle.

So now the hamsters are surrounded by fresh bedding, clean walls, and sparkly toys, and now we don't have to listen (hard) for that little knock for at least another month or two.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Magnum Trivium

Once again, people, say it with me: if you want trivia you need to go to the source.

Last night, for the second year in a row, the team from Home Campus went down to the local symphony orchestra's fundraising team trivia contest and walked away victorious. I wasn't the captain this year, which was a nice break, but in terms of personnel it was more or less the same group as last time. The Dean doesn't really care if we win, so long as we beat Local Tech and Nearby Private College. In theory we could place third to last and accomplish that goal, but in practice we have to win.

Academia is where the term "trivia" arose, and academics are its greatest practitioners. There were teams there from banks, corporations, libraries and charitable groups, but we are the Greatest of the Least, the Masters of all that is not really worth mastering, and you know what? It feels good.

Go, us!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cable Cutter

I can no longer watch television in my own house.

We cut back on our cable television package last year when the Great Recession hit and my uncertain status as the Extra Historian On Call at Home Campus seemed to recommend such cuts. And in truth, we really didn't miss the stuff we cut. We don't watch a whole lot of television anyway, and most of what we do watch is either cartoons (for the girls) or on Discover, the Food Channel, HGTV or one of the various ESPN networks, all of which can be found on the smallest package you can get and still get internet service, which Kim and I both need for our jobs so that was a Justifiable Expense and Well, Meet and Good.

And then Kim discovered Lost.

It took the better part of four months, but she went from never having seen an episode to being completely caught up and waiting impatiently for the start of the final season, which should take place in five days, seven hours and twenty-nine minutes or thereabouts, not that she's counting or anything. Or that the girls are counting, either, since they too are hooked on the show.

Thank whatever local deity you choose for Hulu, or there would have been much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth around here.

Our friendly local Mega-Cable Monopoly has been deluging us with promotional materials for some months now, eager to have our business back, or get us to provide them with more business, or just hand them more money on general principles - it's hard to tell - and finally I opened up one of the letters and read it. It had a Fantastic Offer, one that was so Fantastic that even MCM had a hard time understanding it when I called to take them up on it. Seriously - it took four phone calls and twice through the computer-generated audio fine print (where you have to say "yes" every time the voice pauses or your offer becomes Unfantastic very quickly) before they decided that I wasn't lying about how Fantastic this Offer was. But eventually it all got worked out, and the cable guy came over to install our new equipment and get us up and running.

The key point, as far as Kim was concerned, was that this new equipment included a DVR, which could be used to record episodes of Lost. Plus, since the Fantastic Offer also included unlimited long-distance telephone service, we could cancel our other long-distance provider and actually save money overall. Win.

On the down side, all this came with a new television remote.

This new remote could land the space shuttle. It could track Osama Bin Laden to within six inches, launch killer bees to make him miserable, and then put capsaicin in his benadryl to make him even more miserable. It could solve the energy crisis, make sense of British politics, cash in on the Nigerian email scam, and find intelligence in Sarah Palin. It could locate the Lost Tribes of Israel, pass health care reform, and make a margarita that will kick you to the curb and leave you wanting more.

But I still can't figure out how to get it to show me television.

Oh, sure, I could ask Tabitha or Lauren - they've already got it figured out and are happily enjoying the plethora of new cartoon channels that seems to have been part of the Fantastic Offer. Or I could randomly hit buttons and hope that somewhere, in between the killer bees and the Nigerian scam buttons there is a television button that I could use to change channels from whatever cartoon network the girls were last watching. Or I could learn to enjoy the cartoons.

Perhaps I'll read a book instead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Administrative Note

The semester has started in earnest, and posting may be light from now through spring.

At least that's how it probably ought be.  I have three online classes and another at Home Campus face to face, plus a part time job and, you know, a life (or at least a family), so in theory I'll be busy.

On the other hand, I'll probably need breaks, and since I'll most likely be sitting in front of the computer anyway, there might well be a deluge of posts instead.

Not sayin'.  Just sayin'.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christmas, One More Time!

Christmas has finally come to an end around here, which is only fair since it is nearly Groundhog Day.

In the grand family tradition of celebrating holidays when people can get together - since, really, what else is the point? - we went up to Kim's parents' house today for our Ukrainian Christmas celebration. In some sense it's a lot like the Italian version, only with different starches and soups. Both involve as large a family as you can gather together and as big a meal as you can feed them, and that's not a bad day.

So there was borscht and stuffed cabbage and pierogies and sausages and we all gathered 'round the dinner table and were glad in it.

Of course the fact that we were doing this in late January, almost a month to the day after the Christmas date on the calendar, did not mean that we were prepared for it. No, we stopped on the way up to get our last gifts and wrapped them up there, because it's just not Christmas unless you're doing things at the last minute. I've never understood people who get their shopping done by Labor Day. Fortunately I am not likely to become one of them anytime soon.

After dinner we had the traditional exchange of presents, mostly focused on the various grandchildren that were about - Tabitha and Lauren on our end, plus their cousins Kegan, Brody and Marin. The only adults who got presents during this were Grandma and Grandpa, mostly because Tabby and Lauren wanted to get Grandma a leopard-print Snuggie, although by the time we were packing up the car to come home we somehow ended up with it. Apparently we traded a pink one for it, because it is the Year of the Snuggie on this side of the family too and the things are just everywhere. Whoever invented it is doing quite well from a product that is essentially a bathrobe worn backwards. But it's warm and snug and now we have three of them so one of us will just have to rough it. It will probably be me, since I tend to stay warmer than the rest of my family, and that's fine. I'd probably just trip over it and break something - most likely me - if I wore one.

It was also the year of the Lava Lamp.

The grownups all play the same Cousins Gift Swap game that we played down in Tennessee, and somehow, without consultation or planning, two different people brought pink and purple lava lamps to throw into the mix. And somehow, not naming names of responsible parties (**coughLaurenTabithacough**) I ended up with both of them, just as I ended up with two blue Snuggies in Tennessee for the same reasons. We'll have to set them up somewhere, and then won't we be mod?

It was a foggy trip home but we made it back without changing the shape of anything on the road and that is always a victory.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, finally, a good night.

Friday, January 22, 2010

They Can Have My Allen Wrench When They Pry It From My Cold Dead Fingers

It was IKEA day here in Baja Canada, so we piled everyone into the car and headed south to Chicagoland for some Swedish good times.  I suppose it says something about the stage of life we're at that "Swedish good times" tends to mean furniture and not anything illegal in Alabama.  Though I've never been to Alabama and for all I know Swedish furniture is indeed banned there, so I suppose I should hold my judgment until I know for sure.

IKEA is Kim's favorite store. What Barnes & Noble or is to me, IKEA is to her. She could spend days there, exploring all the various unpronounceable products and figuring out new ways to optimize our lives with each and every one of them.

Me, I'm a bit more ambivalent. It's not like Home Depot or Menard's or any of those other home improvement stores, which only exist to point out some of the more glaring of my many shortcomings. I have a defective home repair project gene and those stores are just giant reminders of what I will never be able to do. I suppose I could learn, but that would imply interest, and so far that hasn't materialized yet either.

IKEA isn't on that level, though, not really. For one thing, most of the items in there can be assembled by idiots using only an Allen wrench, so that's right up my alley. I can twist cams with the best of them. And for another thing, it is full of interesting little gizmos and gadgets, many of which can simply be purchased and used as-is, such as wine glasses.

Plus, they serve meatballs.

We're in the middle of a giant home repair project in our mudroom - the little antechamber of our house right as you come in the front door that nobody ever uses. Really, who uses their front doors anymore? The garage is in the back, so we enter through the back. But there was a closet in the mudroom that was offensive in its suboptimability and so it has been removed, leaving us with the question of what to do with the newly liberated space.

Kim lives for questions like that.

So down we went, and there we stayed for six hours - examining, plotting, discovering, and, occasionally, bashing each other over the head with feather dusters, because after a while you just go stir crazy and want something good and American in the midst of all that Swedishness and what's more American than random senseless violence? Especially when it's played for laughs.

We ended up filling the car up to the brim with things called "Gorm" and a less dignified way to die in the event of an accident is hard to imagine. But we made it home safely and all of the Gorm is outside, waiting to be unloaded in the daylight.

We are no longer gormless.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Quandary

We had chicken pot pies for dinner the other night, and as I was taking them out of their packages (what, you think I could make one from scratch?) I happened to glance down at the directions written there.

Radical, I know.

And printed right there, in bold green letters on either end of the little wrapper, it said, "Open both ends first."

How exactly does one do that?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cleaning Update

The problem with cleaning is that there are just so many categories of stuff.

Volume is not a problem. Volume can easily be handled by Storage. You have this much stuff, you find that much plus a bit of space, and then you insert Stuff A into Space B. Voila! And since the universe is, theoretically, infinite while the amount of stuff in it is, according to the scientists, insufficient to keep it all from flying off into heat death, so much so that they have to invent whole categories of stuff just to keep the equations from collapsing, then finding that bit of space for your stuff should be no problem.

Of course the people who worked that out didn't have kids, optimizers or packrats sharing their living quarters, so it's probably not that easy. But still - stuff; space; solution. Easy.

No, the problem is that it's not just stuff. It's many kinds of stuff. Or, rather, it's many different subtle variations of a few basic kinds of stuff and you have to figure out a) how to categorize it in such a way as to make keeping it useful (i.e. so you can find it again someday), and b) what to do with all those variations once you have satisfied the requirements of point a. Because categorization implies organization and organization is a bear.

I have in my office the paper trails from at least four different courses that I've taught in the last calendar year, all of which had to be organized internally and then put into some kind of macro-arrangement where I could access them again. So far I've gotten past the first hurdle but not the second.

The second hurdle involves more lifting, moving and refiling.

I have two short filing cabinets in my office that are currently filled with other stuff that should probably be moved out of the way to accommodate all the class stuff that I actually use. This is not going to be pretty, as it will no doubt involve moving boxes up from the basement in order to load them into the filing cabinets so I can keep all the course stuff together and then loading all of the other stuff into those now empty boxes and taking the once-again full boxes back downstairs.  So there will be temporary local increases in entropy, is what I'm saying.

On the other hand, I have now reduced the stuff volume in my office to the point where I am reasonably confident that I could get from one end of the room to the other without serious injury in the event of a natural disaster.

And that's progress.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ten Again

It took three tries, but Tabitha is now officially ten.

The joy or burden of having birthdays around the holidays is that there is never really any good time to celebrate them. There is always something else happening, or something else being prepared to happen, or something that just happened that you need to recover from, and really, who needs another happening on top of all that? This is why I long ago happily relinquished all pretences at having birthday parties - send me a card and we'll go get a good meal, and that's all I need to be content with it.

But Tabitha is still young, and birthdays mean more when you've had fewer of them. They stand out a bit.

We had one party down in Tennessee, with a cake and the extended East Coast branch of the family on hand. There was another, smaller, one actually on Tabitha's birthday - this one being just the immediate family. But if you're going to have a birthday party - a party, mind you, not just cards and a meal - you need friends around to celebrate with you.

Which is why we finally had Tabitha's birthday party today.

This year Tabby decided that she wanted an ice-skating party, which suited us just fine. For a small fee we could go down to the ice rink and have everything there and someone else would clean up and we wouldn't have to clean the house beforehand. Win.

Invitations went out early this week or late last - there being some discrepancy in the accounts given - and this year for the first time there were (wait for it) boys involved. Two of them, in fact, both of whom said they could come. I suppose this is a harbinger of things headed our way, and I will be investing in a shotgun and a fair amount of whiskey shortly.

When things came to it today we were actually doing pretty well. Kim and the girls had put together the gift bags that are now required for each guest - Kim had ordered a fair amount of useless but fun stuff to put in them, and in the event it turned out that they were quite well received. I had put down the deposit on the ice rink's party room earlier in the week - a rather eerie process that had me walking into an unlocked, dark and apparently unoccupied rink armed only with a checkbook and a firm conviction that untoward things only happen to other people. Eventually the janitor came out of the men's room and we got the whole deposit thing straightened out. And finally, Kim and the girls spent this morning making cupcakes, frosting them, and arranging them artfully in the shape of a 10.

We even had time to sit and watch the Evil Empire of Football get crushed by the Locally Hated Evil Empire of Football. For Wisconsinites, watching the Cowboys and the Vikings play is like watching a re-run of the Iran/Iraq War, where you have to try to figure out which side you dislike more or invent a way for both sides to lose, one or the other. As someone who grew up in the NFC East, of course my second-favorite team is whoever is playing the Cowboys, but it's a much finer line here.

And then it was time to go.

And that's where it all started to fall apart. Not from Tabitha's perspective, fortunately, but from a planning perspective, definitely.

The first sign that things were not going to go as planned was when the tray full of carefully baked and arranged cupcakes snagged on the rear-view mirror of the truck next to us in the parking lot, with predictable slapstick results. So once we got settled in the party room, I was sent off to buy a bakery cake for the rest of the guests while Tabitha could have the un-road-salted cupcakes. Fortunately, she's mature enough to handle that, and it went well. Also, fortunately, I was already out on the road when the call came that we had forgotten the ice cream and I should go home to get it. I did have to make a separate trip for camera batteries, but by then I was sort of expecting it and the third strike wasn't so bad.

But did this faze our party-goers? Not one bit!

Tabitha and her guests spent a happy hour zooming around the ice rink and/or decorating the party room, whichever their tastes led them toward (this is how you know that it was a party for girls, since a group of 10-year-old boys would never have even conceived of staying behind to decorate, whereas about half of the girls ended up chipping in one way or another).

After getting good and tired doing that, there was pizza, and after that there was cake and prize bag opening.

And presents.

We ended up staying quite some time after the party was officially supposed to break up - these things never end up on time, and fortunately the rink staff wasn't too inclined to shoo us out the door since they had other things going on to keep them busy and they generally seemed to like having birthday parties there - but eventually we packed up and went home.

As it turned out, there were a few extra goodies leftover. We're thinking of changing our last names to "Whiplash."

The Task Ahead

I need to clean my office.

When Kim and I were looking for houses, we looked at a lot of houses. Houses, it seems, come in a great many varieties, most of them not very useful. There are houses with too many rooms, houses with too few rooms, and houses with things that the owners insist are rooms but which are actually closets without doors, though sometimes they are entire floors with only an opening at one end. These rooms or quasi-rooms are often decorated in styles that require serious whiskey to erase from one's mind, and it's not just the ones that are ugly that fit this bill, nor is it just the houses that have entire rooms decorated in the colors of the local sports teams (a garish green and yellow, here in Wisconsin, or a relentless cherry red and white). Sometimes those houses were decorated in what was clearly once a tasteful and expensive style that somehow went out of fashion decades earlier and never got revised. Nobody should have to live the nightmare of heavy gold brocade in the 21st century - there must be laws about that on the books, and if there aren't then the State Legislature needs to get off its collective fanny and start protecting the people of Wisconsin from themselves.  Isn't that what legislatures do these days?

Out of all the houses we looked at, this one was the only one that struck me as a place I could call home. It seemed comfortable. It was in "move-in" condition. It had only one room that needed to be undecorated - the kitchen, which had dirty yellow flooring and neon orange counters.

And it had my office. This was the only house we looked at that had a room with built-in bookshelves across one entire wall, and I knew instantly that this was mine.

That was fourteen years, two children and one dissertation ago.

I have since lined most of the other three walls with bookshelves that are lined two-deep with books. There is a desk along one wall that is covered to a depth of 14" by paper, CDs and miscellaneous electronics - it's a good thing that the monitor on this new computer is so big, otherwise I would never see it poking up from the rubble. And I had to add a table behind me to hold other papers that I needed to work on immediately rather than store, although it too has turned into a storage unit. There's also an exercise thingamabob that I got some serious use out of in the summer of 2008 but which has been the subject of good intentions ever since.

On top of the fact that I am an inveterate pack rat, especially where paper is concerned - books, photographs, documents: the place is a firetrap of the first order - my office is also the place where homeless objects end up.  All of the "stuff currents" in the house swirl their way into my office, where they eddy forever.  When the closet in the adjoining mudroom was optimized out of existence, much of what it contained ended up bunking with me. When company comes and things that are good enough for us to look at while eating but not good enough for others to look at while eating get moved out of the dining room, in they come. Sometimes they make it back, sometimes they don't. It's cozy.

But there reaches a point where it starts to interfere with what needs to happen. Documents I need get lost. Books I want to read or refer to are hidden. Things that need to go back to other rooms burrow in and are granted tenure like civil servant holdovers from a previous administration.

And then it is time to clean.

Wish me luck. If I am not heard from in three days, send out a search party.  Or just leave a pot of tea and some snacks by the door for me.  One or the other.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Shrek Lives

Being an ogre takes a lot out of you.

Fourth grade is where the homework starts in earnest at Not Bad President Elementary School. Prior to that you get a page here and a page there, nothing that you can't knock out in a couple of minutes before spending some quality time on YouTube watching Brittany Spears videos - that's Lauren's attitude anyway. I find myself curiously untroubled by this, since I regard Ms. Spears as goofy but essentially harmless and I know that YouTube has fairly strict policies about what can and cannot be shown, even if those policies do lead to an excessive number of videos about cats and the history of dance.

No, in fourth grade, you get not only spelling and math, but reading, essays, and then more spelling and more math - math involving multiplication of numbers with multiple digits, and spelling involving words that, frankly, even I have trouble remembering how to spell, much less use correctly in a sentence.

These assignments cannot be whipped out in a few minutes, although they need not take as long as they do. Tabitha has inherited my procrastination gene and topped it off with her own self-distraction mojo to create a perfect storm of homework blues.

Why, yes, I do own a blender specifically designed to handle metaphors. Why do you ask?

Keeping her on task is thus something that requires Mean Old Dad to come out from behind the mask of Nice Dad that he prefers to show so as not to curdle all the milk in the house, and this is not really much fun for any of us. And then when this starts to wear too much, Mean Old Mom has to put in an appearance to reinforce things, and since this happens after Mom has spent the previous ten hours wrestling with Home Campus bureaucracy (you'd be surprised how much bureaucracy a tiny little campus where everyone knows everyone and generally gets along quite well can generate), this is not good.

And to top it off, it was check-up day yesterday and there was a surprise booster shot, and the whole day just went skidding off the rails and into a big pit full of overripe bananas, which never really come out of your outfit, not really.

So bed time just couldn't come fast enough for anyone around here, except possibly for Lauren since the supply of Brittany Spears videos on YouTube is just inexhaustible.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Let There Be Light, Already...

I am not convinced that putting motion detectors in office lighting systems is a good thing.

Oh, sure, they save energy by turning out the lights after you leave and then turning them on again when you come back, usually because you have forgotten something and need to just run in and grab it but you have to wait a few seconds while you try to remember whether the switch was left in the On position so that eventually the lights will, in fact, go on, or whether the fact that the lights are off is because they are Off and you have to switch them On, which you don’t want to do in case they are already On and you are, instead, switching them Off, in which case they won’t go on.

Really, is this saving anyone anything? How much psychodrama do we need with our lighting systems?

The real problem for me is that I tend to get fairly well absorbed into my work, much of which involves reading. Reading is not something motion detectors are very good at detecting, so very often I find myself plunged into utter darkness in the middle of a sentence. At that point I have to wave my arms or jump up and down or do some other fool thing just to get the attention of an inanimate object so it will turn the lights back on.

Perhaps I should just bring candles to work.

But that brings up all sorts of other issues, such as overeager sprinkler systems ready to drown even the merest hint of combustion in fetid water (really folks – sprinkler water isn’t nice and clean like it is in the movies; it’s been sitting in those pipes for YEARS) and bring down the wrath of soggy coworkers upon your head. Or worse, there might not be any sprinkler system at all and then you will end up telling stories that, somewhere about halfway in, contain the line, “That’s what the firemen told me, anyway.”

Switches. Regular, on/off switches. There’s a good little engineer …

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lose One for the Gipper

It was a tough weekend for the good guys.

The first weekend of football playoffs was just fraught with intrigue around here, since - as shown above - we have some divided loyalties. Both the Packers and the Eagles were playing, and if everything fell out correctly there was the distant chance of them meeting in the NFC championship game. This would have caused Issues, not to mention Consternation and possibly Marital Strife, though since neither Kim nor I ever really expects our team to win it probably wouldn't have been all that bad.

And in any event, it was largely a moot point by the time we went to bed on Sunday.

The Eagles, as noted, went down in flames on Saturday - destroyed by the Evil Empire of Football. When we were out Saturday night with our friends Dan and Theresa, Theresa asked me "Why do you hate the Cowboys so much?", a question roughly equivalent in my mind to "Why do you keep breathing air?" It's just what you do; it comes naturally and it is Meet, Good and Just. The Cowboys don't ever have to win another game on my account. Yet they insist on doing so anyway, often at the expense of the Eagles. Kim and I were going to have dessert at the local sports bar and watch the rest of the game after Avatar let out, but when we saw how bad the score was we just went home.

At least the Packers put up a fight.

And what a fight it was - down 17-0 after the first thirty seconds or so, they came back to force overtime in a game that had more than double the number of points in the over/under line, and then lost it on a spectacular play by an opposing defense that might as well not have played the previous three quarters.

And so all the storylines collapsed, Schroedinger's Cat met a gruesome end, and the rest of the playoffs are even more devoid of meaning than they were to start with (hey - one of the great things about professional sports is precisely the fact that at the end of the day they don't really matter). There will be no Packers/Eagles championship game. Brett Favre and the Vikings will have to do whatever they do without input from his old team across the Mississippi River. The Cowboys will continue playing.

At least the Patriots are done too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

News and Updates

1. Kim and I want out with some friends last night and saw Avatar, and if that movie doesn't win some kind of award for cinematography and/or special effects then something is very, very wrong. The plot was okay, but the experience was astonishing.

2. Seeing the movie spared me the aggravation of watching the Eagles get demolished by the Evil Empire of Football for the second week in a row. At least they scored this week.

3. My new replacement computer seems to be doing well, keeping its alcohol consumption to reasonable levels and remaining conscious at all times. So my old one has now been moved over to the living room, where it becomes Lauren's. Kim's old one, now Tabitha's, is right next to it and we look forward to dueling YouTube videos in the near future.

4. It is sad brass monkey weather out there this weekend, so my only foray outside today has been to wander over to my neighbor's house to collect the spare newspapers he leaves out on his porch for me. New York Times Book Review section! The weekend is gold.

5. Having three children in sleeping bags in your living room overnight is not as restful as it sounds. Particularly not when the cats are about and the hamsters are doing whatever it is that hamsters do at night (hold meetings, it sounds like) and the furnace is loudly trying to keep up with subzero temperatures and nobody feels quite comfortable and the morning can't come soon enough. And then it does and the children feel just fine. How do they do that?

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Saturday afternoon at the grocery store is just Amateur Hour.

I had to go grocery shopping this afternoon because otherwise we'd be reduced to eating our boots by Tuesday and there is about a foot and a half of snow on the ground and we need our boots. It's a Wisconsin thing. Plus, I do not have any good recipe for boots. Although I do have a collection of Depression-era recipes somewhere in the basement, and there might be one there. So it is conceivable that I would not have had to go grocery shopping, but it seemed the just and proper thing to do anyway.

So I went.

And everybody and their nitwit twin brother was there, clogging up the aisles and clearly thinking deep philosophical thoughts in the canned beans section. Because all those beans? Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, how many choices there are. It's just a bean-a-palooza out there, and serious thought has to be given, otherwise you might come home with THE WRONG BEANS and then what? Huh? Huh?

Think about THAT, why don't you.

Is it even possible for beans to be wrong? How would you know? And how would you correct this situation in a morally proper manner, given the epistemological nature of beanhood and the Just Beans Theory.

Yes, I had a lot of time to think about stuff like this while I waited for the logjams to clear. Who needs drugs when there are beans.

When I was in college I lived off campus one summer, and one of my roommates had a car. It was not an ideal grocery-getting car, really - a two-seater Pontiac Fiero with a trunk that could hold maybe a bag and a half of groceries, plus whatever you could rest on your lap - but we made do. And we used to go shopping at 1am on weeknights. It was us, the restockers, and a handful of other grocery warriors.

And the canned bean section? Traffic jam free.

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Let the professionals do their work.

Books Read in 2009 - A Very Long Post

I read. I read newspapers, magazines and cereal boxes. I read street signs, warning labels and footnotes. But most of all I read books.

Sometime around the end of the summer I decided to keep track of all the books I had read in 2009, so I went around and catalogued them. There may be one or two from the end of 2008, but I figure they were close enough for this kind of project. It's not like I'm up for any awards here.

And since I have all this information, what else could I do but post it here, alphabetically by author, because that is just the kind of tragically hip person I am.

Sometimes Teh Sarcasm, it gets the best of me.


Joe Abercrombie - The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings); Best Served Cold

Abercrombie writes some of the blackest comedy you will ever find. All of these books are set in the same world and feature some of the standard characters of fantasy novels - the barbarian warlord, the soldiers, the kings and princes, and so on - but grubbier, wearier, more cynical, and more beaten down by the lack of alternatives that their world gives them. And when one of the main characters you are asked to sympathize with is a torturer by trade, then you know all bets are off. These are well written, well paced and well worth reading, but only for those who do not demand uplift from their books.

Jane Austin - Pride and Prejudice

I read this in order to read the next book, and I have little to say about it that I didn't already say earlier on this blog. I can respect the book, but I can't say I liked it.

Jane Austin and Seth Grahame-Smith - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

A one-joke satire that was certainly made more entertaining by having read the original but didn't really have anything to say about the original other than "Hey, wouldn't it be neat to add zombies?" It seems to me that satire is meant to have a point - to illuminate things about the object of the satire that might have been overlooked otherwise, preferably in as vitriolic a manner as possible. This didn't do that, but the zombies were fun.

Jenny Conant - 109 East Palace

I read this as part of my preparations for teaching my atomic bomb class again this summer. It's the story of Los Alamos from the perspective of Dorothy McKibbins, who ran the office in Albuquerque that fronted the whole operation. It has a lot of fascinating stories that you don't get in the standard histories and gave me a few things to say in class, so it was definitely worth the time.

John Connolly - Black Angel

I first stumbled into John Connolly's work with The Book of Lost Things, which was a weirdly fascinating and starkly grim take on fairy tales, no pun intended. Well, okay, pun fully intended. You got me, what can I say. He's not known as a fantasist, though - he's known for his police procedurals, and when I found this at a book sale, I figured I'd see what he was like in his area. It's not that far off from his fantasy, really - dark, brooding, tinged with the supernatural, and compulsively readable. This is several volumes into his hero's history so I missed a lot of the backstory, but it did make me want to go out and fill in those gaps.

Michael Flynn - Eifelheim

An intriguing take on medieval history, this book jumps back and forth in time between modern scholars investigating the strange erasure of the medieval German town of Eifelheim from the records after the Black Death and the events going on in the town that led to it. The short answer (which is not a spoiler, since it is the main action of the book) is that aliens have crashed near Eifelheim, and the core of the book is about how these medieval minds and hearts dealt with this - how they tried to fit the aliens into a world view that is as alien to ours as that of the aliens themselves, and how they individually and collectively either failed or succeeded at doing so.

John Kenneth Galbraith - The Triumph

A satire of Cold War politics that I picked up mostly because I wanted to see if John Kenneth Galbraith could write fiction or not. The answer: well enough, I suppose. It's not a great book, but it moves right along and hits most of the buttons you would expect from something published in this genre in the 1960s.

Eric Garcia - Anonymous Rex; Casual Rex

Dinosaurs did not die out. They walk among us, disguised as human beings. Two of them are working as private eyes in Los Angeles. These are their stories. Once you get past the initial idea these are pretty standard gumshoe novels, but they're decently written and Garcia manages to make the characters remarkably plausible, all things considered. They're no less probable than anything Mickey Spillane ever wrote, anyway.

AC Greyling - Among the Dead Cities

Another book for my bomb class, this one by a British philosopher on the moral questions surrounding the Allied campaign of bombing cities during World War II. Greyling makes some interesting points, but ultimately this book has too much handwaving to be convincing. There are a lot of sections that start off acknowledging that the actors did not have the moral theories that Greyling has to work with but then continue on to insist that they should have had them and that Greyling can therefore judge them by those standards, and that's just arrogant nonsense.

Sara Gruen - Water for Elephants

A moving story of an old man and the circus he grew up in, with a fair amount of low comedy added in for good measure. The story flits back and forth between the Depression-era circus and the old man looking back on it, with all of the opportunities for thoughtful meditation this implies - though the main character is more edgy than thoughtful, which makes it even better. Love, loss, and elephants all combine to make a book that will stay with you for a while.

Joe Haldeman - The Forever War

One of the classics of science fiction and of war fiction in general. It features a couple of soldiers who serve in Earth's far-flung interstellar wars, with all of the time-bending that relativistic travel entails. They visit earth periodically - generations or centuries apart - and grow old fighting. It's hard to miss the Vietnam War commentary embedded in the story, since it was published around that time, but it works on its own merits as well.

Nick Harkaway - The Gone-Away World

One of the best books I've ever read, but one of the hardest to follow at times (if you can make it to the third page with some sense of what is going on you should be okay), this is set in a future where much of the world is simply not there - "gone-away" - as a result of a catastrophic war. The main characters are part of a disaster-response team charged with maintaining the pipeline that preserves what normal reality there is, and much of the book alternates between action in the present and explanations of how the world got that way. In addition to a complex plot, Harkaway has more fun with the English language than almost any living author - from his intricate classification scheme for pencilnecks to a startlingly vivid explanation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, this is prose to remember. "The tree of nonsense is watered with error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster."

Barry Hughart - The Chronicles of Master Li and Number 10 Ox

This is actually a compilation of three smaller books featuring the title characters and is almost impossible to find in bookstores, though most good-sized libraries seem to have it. Set in a version of ancient China where myths walk the earth, the deadpan Master Li and his earnest servant, Number 10 Ox, solve crimes, explore mysteries, and tangle with the gods. Master Li is what Sherlock Holmes would have been if he had had a sense of humor and a Confucian outlook.

James Hynes - The Lecturer's Tale

A razor-sharp satire of academic politics, this is the story of a down-and-out ad-hoc English professor at a third-tier university and what happens when he suddenly acquires the power to make people do what he wants simply by touching them. If you survived graduate school in the liberal arts any time in the last two decades, you will cringe with recognition as the power plays and literary theories work themselves out to their conclusions.

Russell Kirkpatrick - Across the Face of the World (aborted)

I really wanted to like this book. It had a great set-up, some interesting ideas, and I got it cheap so I felt all virtuous and savvy. But the writing was pedestrian, the characters were cardboard, and after one too many info-dumps it hit me that I wasn't going to be tested on it and didn't have to finish it if I didn't want to. And out the door it went. Great cover art, though.

Kevin Kling - The Dog Says How

I've liked Kevin Kling's stuff since I heard him on NPR describing his boy scout troop's disastrous foray into taxidermy (think squirrels with green visors), so when I saw this sitting on the library shelf I picked it up. It's a short collection of even shorter stories, but there are a few good ones and as I read them I could hear his thick Minnesota accent in my mind.

Sarah Lyall - The Anglo Files

One of my side interests is the long list of distinctions between Britain and its colonial offspring, the United States. I enjoyed Bill Bryson's books on the subject, for example, and one of my fonder airport memories is of a Penguin paperback on that theme that I read in an airport bookstore on a 6-hour layover. Sarah Lyall is an American living in Britain, a keen observer and a sharp-tongued writer, though after this book she may have had to move.

Jack Lynch - The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park

I really liked this book, and I'm not just saying that because Jack and I were roommates for much of our undergraduate careers. The history of the English language is another of my side interests, and Jack does a great job of walking you through how the notion of "proper" English began and has evolved over time. The book is engagingly written and if you're not careful you might learn something. I for one will henceforth be less worried about where my prepositions end up.

Emma McLaughlin and Nichole Kraus - The Nanny Diaries

Another garage-sale book, this one details the adventures of a New York City nanny trying to take care of a little boy whose parents are too self-centered to live, let alone take care of a child. It had some funny bits, but as a parent it just aggravated me to read it - I wanted to reach into the book and smack those people, and this does detract from the reading experience somewhat.

China Mieville - Perdido Street Station; The Scar; Iron Council

China Mieville is a writer in the same vein as Joe Abercrombie in some ways - he writes fantasy novels set in complex, grim, dirty, weary places instead of the simple, shiny, stripped-down medieval world of most of the genre - but unlike him in others. You couldn't put any of the characters from one author into the other author's books without making them explode, for example. These novels are all set in the same world, a place vaguely like 19th-century Europe in that it is both grimily industrial and full of unexplained history. Its cities and countries are populated by a startling variety of creatures, most of them non-human, all thrown together side by side and trying to get through their days. Mieville is at his best when working within a complex and corrupt city that becomes a character in itself, which is why Perdido Street Station is by far the best of the lot, with sharply drawn characters and a crisis that almost literally defies comprehension. The others are worth the time as well, but the further he gets from the city of New Crobuzon, the weaker the stories become.

James Morrow - Shambling Towards Hiroshima

What if the atomic bomb wasn't the only secret weapon program in the US in WWII? This story purports to be the memoirs of an actor who was hired to portray the giant lizard under development by the US Navy as a counter to the bomb (developed by the Army) in the publicity films. It's a short, surprisingly angry book about the things people do to each other. I've read Morrow's other foray into this area, the heartbreakingly bleak This Is the Way the World Ends, so I wasn't surprised by that, but it does creep up on you.

Tom Perotta - The Abstinence Teacher

I read this early in the year and don't remember it all too well, though I remember it as being a decent story. It's basically small town politics, sex education and the Culture Wars, all thrown together to see what comes up to the surface.

Terry Pratchett - Nation; Unseen Academicals

These were actually two very different novels. Unseen Academicals is the latest in the Discworld series. For those of you unfamiliar with the Discworld, well, what is your problem? It started out as a pure slash and burn satire of fantasy, but some three dozen books later it has evolved into a fairly thoughtful (though no less satirical) series, full of odd British humor, sly references, and characters such as Death, who SPEAKS IN SMALL CAPS and likes people even if he doesn't quite get them. This latest installment centers on the Unseen University of the wizards, which somehow has to come up with a soccer team or lose its funding. It's a fun read - one of the better books in the series in terms of sheer amusement, though not one of the deeper ones. Nation is not a Discworld novel. Set on an unnamed island in an alternate Pacific Ocean, it is the story of two children from different cultures marooned after a tsunami wipes out an entire culture, and the way they choose to reconstitute society in the wake of this. Like all of Pratchett's later novels, it has a deeply humanistic streak.

Kim Stanley Robinson - Forty Signs of Rain; Fifty Degrees Below; Sixty Days and Counting

These books actually form a trilogy, though I don't think Robinson ever gave it a name. It's a political thriller about global climate change - how quickly it can happen, what the consequences are for the world, and what can be done about it. Robinson is an optimist - he generally assumes that people will do the right thing when they have no other option, which is not a position supported by much historical data and certainly not by current wingnut politics - but the characters are interesting and it does provide a fairly accurate portrayal of what is in store for us if we continue to be willfully ignorant about what we are doing to the planet.

John Scalzi - Agent to the Stars; The Last Colony; Zoe's Tale

Scalzi is one of my favorite writers, though not for his books - his blog "Whatever" is always worth reading, even if (and perhaps especially if) you disagree with what he is saying. These three books break down into two piles. The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale are part of his Old Man's War universe and tell more or less the same story - the first time from the perspective of one character, and the second time from another. I've always loved stuff like that - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays - and Scalzi does a pretty good job of it here. Agent to the Stars, however, is its own story. The aliens have landed in Los Angeles and want to make contact, but they have a PR problem - they're ugly and they communicate by noxious smells (yes, there are fart jokes) - so they hire an agent. The book is both thoughtful and funny, and you can't beat that combination.

Brian Francis Slattery - Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America

One the one hand, this was a good story - the world economy has collapsed and out of the wreckage comes the Slick Six, with one more caper to pull. On the other hand, the writing is difficult to follow in a deliberately opaque sort of way and Slattery doesn't have the sense of humor that Nick Harkaway does. It is an interesting vision of a new and grimmer US, complete with slavery again, but you have to work for it.

Neal Stephenson - Anathem

Stephenson writes intricately textured, complex books that - in terms of words per dollar - provide phenomenal value for your reading pleasure. I first ran into him in his Baroque Cycle, a wonderful picaresque set in the 1600s in Europe and featuring princes, philosophers, whores, soldiers, and pirates and also providing a fairly good primer on the Scientific Revolution, the French and British politics of the age, and the rise of modern finance. This book is set on an Earth-like planet where a sort of monastic order devoted to mathematics is about to face its greatest crisis. Stephenson created this world down to the last adverb and includes a glossary in the back - it took me about a hundred pages to get the hang of his terminology, but the story was worth it for the deeply textured world alone. For a long book, it moved along quite well and was over before I was ready for it to be.

George Stewart - Earth Abides

I like apocalyptic fiction, if you haven't figured that out by now. After-the-bomb books, end-of-the-world books - they all appeal to me for reasons which would probably keep a good therapist employed for decades. This one is a classic of the genre, first published in 1948. A disease wipes out 99% of humanity in a matter of weeks, and the survivors put together a new society out of the materials left over. It's a gentle book, with no shocking violence or gore - just a meditative look at how societies rebuild. "Men go and come, but earth abides." (Ecclesiastes 1:4)

Charles Stross - The Laundry Cycle (The Atrocity Archives; The Jennifer Morgue)

What if demon-hunting was simply another bureaucratic job? That's the set-up for this series, and it gives Stross ample opportunity to display his finely-tuned British sarcasm and irony. "The Laundry" is a secret branch of British intelligence tasked with protecting the UK from the depredations of The Other Side and with protecting itself from the depredations of multi-layer bureaucratic infighting. The first book was better than the second, and a third is coming this year.

Robert M. Thorson - Stone by Stone

This book was actually sent to me by a friend - we had been discussing our mutual interest in things other people had no interest in, and she told me that she had just finished a great book on the history of the stone walls of New England. And this was it. You know, it really was interesting.

Ken Waldman - As the World Burns: The Sonnets of George W. Bush and Other Poems of the 43rd Presidency

I don't normally read poetry - either it rhymes and strikes me as silly, or it doesn't rhyme and strikes me as poorly typeset prose. But I met this guy at a conference in St. Paul this fall and we got to talking about his act - he plays fiddle and writes poetry, and I was at this conference scouting for acts to bring to Home Campus. He was really fascinating to talk to, and he loaded me down with books, CDs and other swag. This one is mostly direct quotes from our former Fearless Liter, arranged in poetic style. W never did make any sense when he spoke in prose, so translating it into poetry did him no harm. Waldman anticipated Conan O'Brien and William Shatner's treatment of Sarah Palin's speeches by over a year! All you need is bongos, a bass and some dark sunglasses.

Stephen Walker - Shockwave

Another in my atomic bomb book series, this one a minute-by-minute account of the bombings from many different perspectives. Again, some good stories for my class from a well written book.

Alan Weisman - The World Without Us

The setup for this book is better than the actual book. What would happen if, for some reason, human beings suddenly vanished? There wouldn't be any cataclysm - no war, no violent disaster to muck things up - just a simple disappearance of the entire human race, overnight. Weisman spends some time discussing how everything made slowly unmakes, but he spends a lot more time grinding his various environmental axes, and even though I sympathize with most of them it still made for a vaguely disappointing book.

Sean Wilentz - The Age of Reagan

Perhaps the best single-volume history of recent American politics and culture (far better than James Patterson's Restless Giant), Wilentz does a masterful job of describing how the United States has managed to screw itself up so badly over the last four decades. Ronald Reagan, the central figure in this narrative, gets credit for some things but overall his influence is clearly shown to be malign and the influence of those who worship him without understanding his complexities is even more so. Wilentz is a masterful historian, and those who would contradict his arguments have a steep hill to climb.

Garry Wills - Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State

This was actually an Advance Reader's Copy that I found in a bookstore in Dubuque - they had a whole shelf of various ARCs, and since they can't sell them they were giving them away, one to a customer. Wills argues that the growth of the imperial presidency since WWII can be traced to the development of the atomic bomb and the power that this represents, since that power has been given entirely to the president to wield. He doesn't really make this argument stick - for long periods it disappears entirely, and in other places it is just tacked on to other points - but as a primer on the unconstitutional expansion of executive power at the expense of both Congress and the courts over the last 65 years (what the Revolutionary Generation would have called "corruption" - a jargon term with a specific meaning back then), it is sobering. Wills is particularly critical of the inflated and frankly terrifying ideas on executive power put forth by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, whose wholesale pillaging of the Constitution will take generations to repair.

Malcolm X - The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I actually had to read this for a class I was teaching. I was not looking forward to it, but I was just awed at the power of Malcolm X's story. In particular, I was impressed not only by the strength of his convictions but also by how he was willing to revise those convictions in the face of contradictory evidence. American history became immediately poorer when he was assassinated, and it is an interesting thing to consider how he would have continued to grow and influence events had he lived.

Total Books: 48
Total Pages: 19,114
Pages/Day: 52.4

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Facebook Milestone

I have cracked the 100-Friends barrier on Facebook.

It took a long time for Kim to convince me to join Facebook last year. I had a phone. I had email. I do not text, twitter or send smoke signals. What did I want to get on Facebook for? But eventually it sounded like it might be fun, so I agreed to try it.

And now I am an addict.

Oh, it's not a complete addiction. I have never seen much point to all of the various games that go around - Mafia Wars, Farmville, Kidnapping and so on. Even if I tried those, I suspect I wouldn't last very long on them.  I have a defective video game gene.  It's on the same chromosome as the handyman gene, the outdoorsman gene, the car gene, and the gene that allows you to take seriously anyone who uses business metaphors in casual speech.  Someday there will be a cure for this condition, and when that happens I will do my best to avoid it.

But I do so love the various memes that go around Facebook, asking you goofy questions so you can post the answers for all to see. They appeal to both my exhibitionist streak - hey, I write a blog; let me tell you about myself in detail - and my curiosity about other people. Most people are more interesting than they seem at first glance, and one of the things I miss most from college is the ability to hang out with friends until the wee hours of the morning discovering that all over again. And now, thanks to Facebook, I can do pretty much just that.

I have also found, lurking in the recesses of Facebook, a lot of people I had lost - people I had wondered about but had not actively gotten off my duff to track down. There they were! In fact, it seems that for many of my friends, that's all the "there" they are - Facebook is pretty much the only way I hear from them. And they me, I suppose. It beats not hearing from them.

It does take up a lot of time that might otherwise be put to productive use. Oddly, I have no problem with that. Productivity is over-rated. As long as what needs to be done gets done, that's all that needs to be done. The rest of the day is mine.

As I cruised through other people's pages, I noted that most of them had more friends listed than I did and at first I thought that was something I needed to correct. Don't I have friends? I'm sure I do! They're around somewhere. And I searched around for people to friend (okay - one downside of Facebook is that "friend" has become a verb and "unfriend" has become a word at all, but that is another rant) until it hit me that this was a perfectly absurd thing to do.

If I had to make a serious effort to recall names to search for, what would I possibly have to say to anyone I found that way?

So I stopped.

If I came across people I wanted to add to the list, I would do so. But otherwise, I didn't worry about it. I accepted friend requests from people I knew or remembered fondly, and rejected them from people I didn't remember at all - there were a lot of those, oddly enough.

And now I'm at 100.

I suppose there should be some sort of celebration of this milestone, but for the life of me I can't figure out what that ought to be. Perhaps I will have a cup of tea and bask in the fact that there are a hundred people who think enough of me to have me on their list too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Of Hats and Homeboys

The NFL playoffs are here already, and I find that I am still wearing my Phillies cap.

Normally by now I have moved on to my Eagles hat. It's warmer, for one thing, and when there is a foot of snow on the ground, the air temperatures are hovering in the teens and the wind chill would make you seriously consider moving somewhere warmer except that all of those places are just way too red on the political map (what is it with conservatives? don't they own coats?), warmer hats are good things.

You can always add clothing. There is only so much they let you take off.

I also tend to follow the Eagles a bit more closely than the Phillies, and given a choice between watching a football game or a baseball game on television, I'm definitely there for the football. It's different in person - baseball is a great game when you're there, since so much of what goes on is what isn't quite happening and you don't get that on television - but the last professional football game I went to featured a kicker with half a foot who retired sometime during the Ford Administration. He was the best player the Eagles had, too, which explains their win total that year.

I did get to some games when I was in high school, mostly because I had friends in the band and we would hang out. Once I got drafted into an "alternative band" that some of the more creative dissidents in my high school dreamed up - they gave me a triangle and told me to stay in time - but I couldn't tell you who won, even though it was our Big Rival and we got time off from school for victories.

I never did make it to a game when I was in college despite the fact that we were league champions in three of my four years there as well as the fifth year when I lived off campus. The games started at 1pm. Who's up that early on a Saturday in college?

I switched over to the Phillies cap last year when they made their playoff run, and after they won it all I kept wearing the hat for a couple of weeks until it felt sort of band-wagon-ish and I took it off. But this year I actually followed them all season, as much as I ever did - I knew who most of the players were and could tell you where the team stood in the standings with tolerable accuracy - so I felt a certain ownership. I had a right to wear the hat.

Plus, they lost in the Series this year and somehow I find that comforting. It conforms to my worldview much better than winning it all, and if anything it makes me want to wear the hat more than when they won.

I'm also the only person in Wisconsin with a Phillies cap, as far as I know, so it makes it easy for Kim and the girls to find me in a crowd. So there are practical benefits, too.

I suppose I should switch over to the Eagles hat now that the playoffs have started, especially since they open against the True Team Of Evil down in Dallas.  Time to show support for them, too.

I'm probably overthinking this, though.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wiped Out

It’s sad the sound that data makes when it is lost. All those wee little screams.

Last month I got a new computer, my fourth since I entered the electronic age in 1989. They have all been Macs, though to my knowledge I have not gotten appreciably cooler because of it. You just can’t trust commercials.

My old Mac was still chugging faithfully along, though by IRS standards it had been fully amortized twice over and then some – it was seven years old and there were just things I could no longer do on it, so it was time for a change. And since Apple was having a sale over Thanksgiving weekend, I figured this was the chance! I could get one just like Kim’s. Except they don’t make those anymore. They have Upgraded their offerings, and instead of merely Huge, now they come in Monstrous.

It came to the house on a flatbed truck with its own mule train to get it from there onto my desk, which, fortunately, consists of a steel door laid out across two steel file cabinets. It took up most of the room, blocking out the window that I never use and looming over the chair. It was awesome in its glory. Sleek. Shiny. Powerful. Fast.

And given to fits, flickers, and blackouts. Honestly, it was like having an electric wino in the house.

After a number of phone calls to the helpful folks at Apple, they decided that it would be easier simply to replace it than try to walk me through any meaningful attempt to fix it – a judgment which, given my computer skills, probably demonstrates why Apple is the savvy, successful company it has once again become. In the time it would have taken me to figure out what they were trying to tell me to do they could probably have sent out an undercover squad of midget repairmen to sneak into my house and replace every individual piece of the computer, one at a time, with a different and slightly shinier piece, and midget repairmen don’t work cheap.

Midgets are hard to repair.

So this morning I boxed it up and sent it on its way. But before that I figured I should wipe the hard drive of all of my personal data. We’ve done the identity-theft routine once here in our house and I figured there was no need to do that again. So the Apple guy told me how to do that. He gave me detailed instructions for every step of the process except one: what to do with the sixteen hours it would take for it all to happen.

Sixteen hours? Seriously? Yes, yes indeed. I guess if you want it erased right, you have to do it the long way. Who knew I had that much information?

It was very hard to click on the “erase” button. I’m a historian by training and inclination, and preserving things is what I do. Even with backups, even knowing that – at least in theory – I can restore it all from the Time Machine drive, it was just unnatural to deliberately tell the computer to get rid of all that information.

I guess I’ll never be a spy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Christmas Story, Part IV: The Road Home

We took the long way home from Chattanooga.

We went down in a rush, with Christmas Eve looming over us as a deadline, but the way home had no such pressing engagements to worry about. In fact, we decided to take not two days for the trip but three.

Time is a coin best spent. Squirreling it way never really works.

So on the Monday after Christmas we piled everything back into the car - a neat trick, since the volume of gifts received slightly exceeded the volume of gifts given in terms of airspace consumed and stuffing one more wafer-thin bag into the Mr. Creosote of our car was a rather life-threatening task - and headed north to Nashville, where my cousin Paula lives with her husband Randall and their little girl, Annelise.

Paula lives in a subdivision that was clearly built by someone with a Crocodile Dundee obsession, as all of the street names were imported directly from Down Under, along with what were no doubt copious quantities of Foster's. Try to imagine a cross between an Australian and Southern accent sometime - go ahead, try it. Now you know why the war on drugs can never be won.

But it is a nice area, full of neatly kept houses. We arrived in the midafternoon, and quickly set about making ourselves at home.

Tabitha found Annelise's blocks and made a scale floor plan of Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda's house.

And I was made Grand Vizier of Creation.

Believe me when I say that things will be different from now on. Not necessarily better. But certainly different.

Almost everyone (I stayed behind, since among other things that meant they could all fit into Paula's car) piled on over to Clyde's Slides for some bouncing around. Clyde apparently had the brilliant idea of taking an aircraft-hangar sized building and filling it with all of the inflatable slides and bouncies that you normally have to wait for the County Fair to play on, and keeping it open all year long. I hope he is a very rich man right now, because that was just pure brilliance on a stick.


The next morning we (well, "me" - as noted, stuffing things into cars is my job) piled everything back into the car once again and headed off for Springfield, Illinois.

Why Springfield?

Because that's where the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is, that's why.

Abraham Lincoln was - with the possible exception of George Washington - the single greatest President we have ever had in this country. He was also far and away the must humane. Washington was not someone contemporaries ever felt comfortable around; Lincoln was. And nobody has ever come near him for sheer simple eloquence. Read his Second Inaugural Address sometime, or the Gettysburg Address (both of which combined take less than ten minutes to speak out loud) if you really want to understand what it means to be an American and what it meant to be alive during the tragedy - not accident, not catastrophe, not disaster: tragedy - of the Civil War.

So Kim and I were both immensely pleased that the girls wanted to go to this museum, and we were willing to go several hours out of our way to make that happen. You have to encourage this when it comes up, really.

Plus, we got to stay at a hotel and hotels, as both Tabitha and Lauren know very well, have pools. There is nothing better than a hotel pool, as far as they are concerned.

We checked out early the next morning and headed off to see the Lincoln House, which is right there in the middle of town. We got there just as it opened, so there was no line, and the tour guide took us and a few others through.

We got to see the REAL Lincoln bedroom.

They've even preserved most of the neighborhood, so you can come out and look up and down the street and see pretty much what Lincoln saw as he left his home. I read a lot of history and I tell a lot of it in my classes, but there is nothing like being there.

After a brief but gloriously acquisitive trip through the gift shop at the National Park Service visitor center for the Lincoln House we set off on foot for the Lincoln Museum, several blocks away.

If you've never been there, well, you should go.

You go in and there is a nice plaza with a model of the Lincoln family that you can take your picture next to.

It's to scale.

They don't like you taking pictures through the rest of the place, but the exhibits are all first-rate and very clever in how they get their points across - they make good use of lighting, temperature and geography in order to create moods, and they have an astonishing array of Lincoln memorabilia on display. They have his hat. They have the gloves he had in his pocket the night he was assassinated. They also have on display the one example of a joke he wrote down in his own hand.

Lauren loved the fact that it was a fart joke.

There were also movies, one of which featured storms and battles with physical effects tied to motors underneath your seat, and the other of which had holograms and ghosts. Tabitha was especially intrigued by these.

There was another gloriously acquisitive trip through their gift shop, and then we headed home. Once again it was snowing, but we made it home safely.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

A Christmas Story, Part III: Christmas Day and Beyond

Don't mess with Santa - dude's got better intelligence than the CIA, though after the debacles of the last administration that might not be saying much. Apparently finding four kids who had left their homes in Wisconsin and New York to wake up Christmas morning in Tennessee was something well within his powers, however.

We have got to get this guy on the payroll in Washington.

Christmas morning came bright and warm in Chattanooga, and for the first Christmas ever the girls were up before we were. This was probably because a) the girls went to bed at normal time but we were up late, and b) they were sleeping in the same room as their NYC cousins, whose schedule is shifted rather earlier than Tabitha and Lauren's schedule.

But if you can't wake up early on Christmas morning, when can you?

There was a great pile of loot waiting downstairs, and a good time was had by all - some by opening gifts, and others by watching the opening of gifts. And since there were four kids, this meant that there were all sort of opportunities for borrowing and playing with and generally sharing.


Some of the most popular things were toys that would not have been out of place when I was their age - a Rock-em-Sock-em Robot game that got a lot of rocks and socks all morning, and a pair of balsa-wood gliders that spent the rest of the weekend randomly sailing around populated areas and gradually growing less airworthy through the repeated application of scotch-tape for repairs. Eventually it was like throwing a baseball, but somewhere under there was still a glider and so the fun never quite ended.

We spent the remainder of our time in Chattanooga hanging out with family and finding new ways to keep ourselves entertained. Can't go wrong either way, really.

Well, maybe you can.

The day after Christmas, having all been soundly thrashed by four-year-old Sara in the Wii version of the game, we decided to go bowling for real.

Now, I hear you laughing out there - but you know, bowling is a great way to hang out and be entertained, particularly when the ball-to-person weight ratio approaches unity. Plus, when you have that many giant balls around, the puns fly fast and thick and you have to appreciate the inventiveness required for such things when there are small children around. It's an art, really it is.

And when all else fails, you've got sufficient downtime between turns to come up with new games.

We went to see the new Disney movie, The Princess and the Frog. Of course we did. It had small talking animals in it - how could we not? And you know, it was pretty good - it had great animation, a decent story, and enough New Orleans music to justify the cost of admission on that ground alone.

One of the Uncles Chris - the tall one - also taught us how to play 31, so now we have a new card game to add to our repertoire. It is the perfect card game - it's fast, easy to learn, complicated enough to be interesting and mindless enough to allow drinking and socializing. What more could you want? We played several times, and I think I broke even since I won a round and that more or less covered my losses.

On our last night in Chattanooga we gathered together for Birthday Cake! Mostly this was for Tabitha, but I got to piggy-back onto that action too. The only problem with that was that it increased the total candle volume to "conflagration" status, me being considerably older than Tabitha.

But with all the hot air this teacher can blow, extinguishing the blaze was not a problem. I knew those lesson plans would come in handy some day.

The cake was also an effective way to coerce the various children into a group picture. There was much milling around and unproductive shooing until Kim announced "All kids who want cake, gather for a picture!"

And like magic, there it was.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Christmas Story, Part II: Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is always the big holiday on my side of the family. Oh, sure, there is also Christmas Day, but that is mostly eating. It's like Thanksgiving, with gifts. But Christmas Eve? That's where the action is.

We slept in that morning at Brian and Elizabeth's, since there is nothing for taking all of your energy out of you like driving through multiple states in a single day. Multiple midwestern states, mind you - not New England states, which flit by like potato chips, one after the other, without you really noticing, nor western states that have to be taken in small bites. No, midwestern states you can do in a single bound, but they take some recovery time.

Elizabeth and Brian, our sleepover hosts

But not too much recovery time! For it was, as noted, Christmas Eve! So we loaded up the cars with freshly wrapped presents, freshly scrubbed people, and whatever else we could load them up with, and headed off to my aunt and uncle's house.

They live in a nice new house on a horseshoe-shaped road that is maybe fifty yards long if you measure along the outside of the horseshoe. It's cozy. In order to get to this road, you have to leave the state. Seriously - you drive down the two-lane highway outside of the subdivision until you see the sign that says "Welcome to Georgia!" You'll recognize it when you see it - it has the big peach on it, like everything else in Georgia that doesn't have a Confederate battle flag. Just past the sign you turn into the subdivision, go past the (usually unmanned) guard post, and turn right toward their house. And at that point you see another sign that welcomes you back to Tennessee.

The various cousins had a grand time with this.

My cousin and his partner - "the Uncles Chris," as we refer to them - were in charge of the dinner this year, and they did a nice job of it. It was the usual odd number of kinds of seafood, though not just the usual kinds - a little variety and freshness into the menu. I was even convinced to try the ravioli with the lobster sauce, and it was good. So perhaps there is hope for me yet.


The kids all spent the time running around excitedly, which was nice to see. We've all moved up a generation now, and it is fun to see them playing like we used to do. Tabitha and Lauren got hold of a slinky, for instance, and were making it do sine waves across the living room while their toddler cousin Annelise ran through them. The New York cousins, Josh and Sara, got in shortly before dinnertime, and the excitement (and volume) increased markedly at that point.

It's just not Christmas if it's quiet.

Eventually we could hold the little ones off no longer, and it was time for presents! Tabitha has long since reached the age where she could read well enough to distribute presents, and now Lauren and Josh have largely caught up to that point - and Sara was not to be denied, not when everyone else in her generation except Annelise was in on it - so there was a lot of amiable confusion when it came to the gift giving, but eventually it was all sorted out and everyone had a nice pile of loot in front of them.

The piles are rather smaller than they used to be for those of us in my generation, as we have been playing the Cousins Gift Swap game for a few years now. It's a fun game of skill, luck, cutthroat trades, and kitsch, and we have a good time.

It was the Year of the Snuggie in our family, apparently. On the urging of my two offspring, I somehow ended up with a pair of blue snuggies that had been wrapped by different cousins for the game. We managed to keep them unopened until we got home - we were in Tennessee, for crying out loud, and it was warm enough to our Wisconsin blood that we did not even bother with coats while we were there - but no further: they were unwrapped and in use even before I got the entire car unpacked once we had landed back home. So it worked out, I suppose. My goal in these exchanges is to come away with something relatively small and conceivably useful, and by that standard I would have to count it as a success.

And then it was back to Elizabeth and Brian's house, where we bribed Santa's reindeer with food in order to have them find us so far from home. Those reindeer - they're suckers for a good snack.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Christmas Story, Part I: The Ride Down South

All roads lead to Peoria. And then they lead away.

We drove down to Chattanooga for Christmas this year, the first time my side of the family has gathered south of the Mason-Dixon Line for Christmas since, well, ever. My Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda had just moved into their new house a few months ago and since they had never once in their married lives celebrated the holiday in their own home - alternating between Philadelphia and, on Linda's side, Nebraska - they wanted to have us all come there.

Well, when you put it that way, how could we say no?

So arrangements were made, cars brought up to vacation trim, school calendars scrutinized, bags packed, and the family made ready to gather from the four corners of the US, or at least from the Northeast Corridor and the upper Midwest.

We have never packed light in our house. And with two growing children, a packrat and a wife whose motto is "It could be useful," packing light is no longer even a goal. Throw in the fact that it was Christmas, with all of the gifts and paraphernalia attendant upon such a holiday, and we had more baggage than a medieval trading caravan. Silk Road, here we come!

I am the Baggage Loader around here. It is my job to figure out how to fit it all into the car and still have room for the people. Like George Carlin and his refrigerator, I decide what stays and what goes. It's not much power, but I'll take it.

Fortunately, loading cars is one of my talents. I once fit an entire dorm room - including the refrigerator and stereo system, back when stereo systems did not slip easily into your shirt pocket - into a 1979 Mercury. If I could do that, then certainly I could fit a week's vacation into a station wagon, couldn't I?

Well, yes, it turned out. It's just a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, really. Don't ask me to retrieve anything - Kim made the mistake of leaving her book in her bag when I was packing, and it was just easier for her to go get another book - but for packing a lot of stuff into a little area, I am The Man.

All hail me.

We set off fairly early on the 23rd, into the teeth of what weather forecasters call "snow showers," which for those of you not familiar with the term is the preferred jargon phrase for "not enough snow to provide an excuse for staying home but too much to drive at normal speeds." But we were headed south, so it fairly quickly turned into rain. And rain can be driven through at normal speeds.

Some observations from the drive:

First, Tabitha and Lauren are the world's best travelers. We set them up with a book full of DVDs and their movie player, a bag full of actual books as well as paper, pencils and assorted activities, their DS players, and a pair of binoculars. We were on the road for about 12.5 hours, including stops, and they did a marvelous job.

Second, what is it about the South and churches? We have churches up in the North too, but few if any have 40'-tall white aluminum crosses looming over them. Such things dotted our route like standing stones. I'm sure they were meant to inspire awe or something like that, but all I could think of was the scene from Shrek, where the ogre stares up at Lord Farquaad's castle, turns to the donkey and says "Think he's compensating for something?"

This sort of thing continued once we got to Chattanooga, too. The churches in that part of Tennessee are uniformly huge, prosperous and shiny - several that we passed had separate entrances for children, which I thought was a bit much really, though that might have been because the church I grew up in had about ten kids in it and such an entrance would have been overkill. They were quite the sight, these churches.

Our favorite church sight, though, was one we saw on the way from one place to another down there. The church had a parking lot right next to the street, and they had erected signs there to let you know where to turn, if that was where you were going. The name of the church was in tiny little letters on the bottom, though, so from any distance all you saw was a sign that said "CHRIST -->" . Whoa, nelly! In person, no less!

The oddest thing we saw on this topic was on our way over from Elizabeth and Brian's house (where we were staying) to Bob and Linda's on Christmas Eve, where we passed a man dressed in a white robe dragging a 9'-long cross behind him along the road. Brian and I sort of looked at each other when we saw this. "Isn't the whole point of the season that somebody else has already done that?" we asked each other. Oh well.

Third, nutritional rules are always suspended on long drives. When the best thing you can hope for is a roadside meal of fast food, there is no real point to worrying about it. Nutrition can resume at your destination. So we hit the road with a dietician's nightmare of salt, sugar, fat and carbs, all neatly packed in a bag along with some clementines for appearances' sake, and we lived like kings all the way down.

Come to think of it, medieval kings were also round, short-lived and gout-stricken. Maybe they traveled a lot too.

Fourth, if it's not churches, it's fireworks. Tennessee has more fireworks stands per mile of interstate highway than can possibly be healthy. They all feature a smiling antebellum white man in a white suit on their logos, and they all promise to have the lowest prices of any other such establishment, even those in Alabama, which must be the benchmark in cheap fireworks once you get outside of China. The highlight is a stand not far north of Chattanooga that, because of the way the road bends, looks like it sits smack in the middle of the highway, and as you drive up to it you get this odd feeling like you're going to be driving right through the checkout lanes. Maybe they just throw stuff into the trunk as you drive by and debit you at highway speeds the way Illinois does with tolls now.

We finally found our way to Elizabeth and Brian's house around 10pm EST. They have a wonderful house that is far neater than we could ever get our house to be again even with a crack squad of combat housecleaners and weapons-grade solvents, and we were glad to be there.

More Christmas to follow!