Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Olympic Background

I've been watching a lot of the Olympics, these days.

As noted, I like the Winter Olympics. And they only come once every four years, whereas most shows are on every week and Mythbusters is on pretty much all the time except 4am on Tuesdays, when I am usually asleep. I have tried to make this point to my daughters, when they insist on watching YET ANOTHER episode of iCarly or Josh and Drake, and so far they have generally humored me by letting me change the channel to one or another of the events being broadcast. They're practicing for when I get old and start asking them why they don't print newspapers anymore and by God maybe somebody ought to. They're good girls.

So it's been a week full of curling, hockey, bobsledding, and something called ski-cross, which looks like the jailbreak scene from The Golden Compass, only with fewer wolves. And it has been glorious.

I've even managed to enjoy some of the figure skating. I still think it would be better if you gave them pucks and uniforms, but even so. Not bad.

One of the things that always hits me when I watch events like this is the background stories that they do on the network broadcasts. Not the contrived bio-pics that they show in the downtimes when nobody is actively careening into something icy - those are invariably painful to watch and result only in the deadening sensation of time irretrievably lost. No, the background stories that always get me are the little things that the announcers slip in while waiting for the event to start or the scores to come up.

This one is the only athlete from her country ever to appear in the Winter Olympics, and her parents had to quit their jobs as doctors and engineers and move somewhere cold and work as janitors. Really - that happened. And there she was, skating away, nowhere near a medal, but with her parents in the audience thanks to an anonymous donor who paid their airfare.

That one retired until somebody asked him what else he was going to do with his life and he couldn't answer, so he went back.

That other one is competing for a brother, a mother, a child lost long ago.

This one is on the downside of their career, just looking for one last blaze of glory.  The one in the next lane is on the way up and facing the odd task of knocking off a mentor.

How can you not pull for people like that?

Stories make us human. And in the hastily sketched outlines of stories tossed into the quiet moments of these Olympics, you get a sense of the people behind the competitors. They can't all win, I suppose, but you can still cheer for them.

I'm going to miss these games when they go.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Bridge Story

My grandfather was a very patient man. He had to be.

My grandmother had two sisters, both older than she was. They never learned to drive, and they always sat in the back of the car - probably because even when combined they were still significantly less than ten feet tall. My great aunts had a number of fine qualities to them, but patience, calm and nerves of steel were not among them. And when my grandmother was with her sisters, well, it just snowballed.

This is the bridge story, as it has come down to me.

One night my grandfather, after an evening spent with his sisters-in-law, was driving them home. It was dark and fairly late by their standards, and he got turned around somewhere in center city Philadelphia - this is why he found himself heading over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey.

Two things you have to know about this bridge. First, there is no toll on the bridge that way. The iron-clad rule of tolls is that you always have to pay to get out of New Jersey, never in. So it was fairly easy to wind up heading out of Philadelphia, since once you got into the wrong lane there was nothing to stop you. And second, the bridge has no median - no wall, no barrier, nothing. This is a feature rather than a bug, as it allows the Port Authority to change lanes from incoming to outgoing, depending on traffic flow. There's a sign overhead where they let you know how many lanes you have to work with at that moment. They usually remember to leave one lane blank in the middle, just for separation, but if you're new to the bridge this can be rather unnerving.

But it was late, and there was no traffic other than their car, and by all accounts my grandmother and great aunts went into their standard disaster-response mode, which translates more or less as high-volume, high-speed panicked chatter powerful enough to strip paint from the walls.

So there he was, halfway across the bridge in a car that was probably bulging at the seams from the impact of the sound waves, headed into New Jersey - a state where you cannot turn around on any major highway for at least thirty miles in any direction, no matter where you are. It's a law or something. So he made a decision.

The cop who saw him make the U-turn across all ten lanes of the bridge pulled him over before he got back over dry land. He got out of his police car and began walking up to my grandfather, and at that point the wall of panicked chatter got bigger, louder and more panicked, as my great aunts were convinced that they were all going to jail, which was even worse than going to New Jersey.

The cop took in this scene, went back to his car and processed whatever information he had to process (license, registration, whatever), and then walked back up to my grandfather's car, where if anything the volume had only gotten louder. And he too made a decision.

He handed my grandfather back his information, told him he wouldn't give him a ticket, and said in his most weary and commanding voice, "You're not going to do that on my bridge again, are you, Tony?"

And then he let them go.

I'm guessing he had great aunts like mine.

C'mon Baby, Put the Rock in the House

Okay, I admit it. I have always loved the Winter Olympics.

I like the Summer Olympics too, mostly for the track events, but the Winter Olympics are so much more fun. They are a collection of every oddball thing people have ever attempted in order to keep from freezing to death over the course of history, refined and turned into competitive events. And a surprising number of them you can do while consuming adult beverages, with no loss of performance. The Winter Olympics is the Island of Misfit Sports, broadcast to the world.

I mean, how can you not love the luge? Think about this - you are standing at the top of a mountain. At the bottom is warmth and safety, and the only way to get from here to there is by jumping onto a sled that gives you all of two inches of clearance from the ground and hurtling through a tube of solid ice at speeds that airplanes couldn't match until well into World War I. You can't even really see where you're going, since you're lying on your back. Who invented this? What were they trying to escape? And how many beverages had they consumed before this seemed like a good idea?

And if that isn't enough for you, there's the skeleton - which is essentially the luge, face first. There isn't enough whiskey in the barrel for a sane person to try this, and yet there it is, in the Olympics. Somebody is going to get a gold medal for this, and there isn't anything that can be done about it.

Don't even get me started on the snowboarders, who all look like they stopped in from a hard afternoon of smoking joints and watching anime in order to fly through the air like the Wicked Witch's monkeys.

I can do without the figure skating, though, since you are not allowed to check people in those events. Plus, having now seen Blades of Glory, I find it impossible to take competitive figure skating at all seriously. Give those people some beverages and a puck and let them have some fun. If you can picture any of the top ten male figure skaters in an NHL uniform without laughing until your sides hurt then there is something seriously wrong with you, but I say give them a chance anyway.

But the top of it all, the absolute pinnacle of Misfit Sports, is curling.

For those of you who have managed to miss this, it is kind of like shuffleboard on ice. Each team is given a number of "stones," which are, in fact, stones - big honking granite rocks with handles bolted on at the top. These have to be coasted down the ice to a target, and everyone gets about a hundred turns to do this. It's just hypnotic to watch. You cruise by while channel-surfing - because NBC knows better than to put this on the main channel, so it's being broadcast on one of the "sister networks" instead of something else that nobody ever watches - and you pause, and twenty minutes later you're yelling at the screen that that was the sloppiest broom work you have ever seen and how on earth do these people expect to penetrate that fortress?

Did I mention that this sport actually has people with brooms to sweep the ice in front of the rock as it slides along? You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Now, I will admit that curling requires a fair bit of skill and practice. I have actually gone curling and the results were not pretty. Those rocks weigh about 42 pounds - which is what? 8.2 hectares or something in metric - and it is very easy to get them sailing across the ice and through the wall on the other side of the building until they finally come to a stop somewhere in the parking lot. And there is a surprising amount of strategy involved in what looks like, to the untrained eye, people bouncing rocks around. But you can consume all the beverages you want, even while actually launching your rocks down the ice, and you have to love that.

But you know what's even better? Curling is the one sport in the Olympics where you can look like your average cubicle-dwelling caveman and still compete at an international level. My new favorite Olympic athlete is one of the Danish curlers, a woman who looks like she hasn't refused a donut in her whole life and who was out there kicking butt and winning at the highest level of her sport anyway. It gives me hope, it does. I could never survive a skeleton run, my speed-skating trials would result in mass carnage, and if I ever express an interest in downhill skiing I would hope that someone would adjust my medications accordingly - but this I might be able to manage, even in my current academic body, if only I practiced. 

This is my kind of sport.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ten Observations From a Tired Mind

1. No matter what your professors told you in college, there are such things as stupid questions.

2. I have no idea why Olive Garden even puts desserts on their menu. Who on earth can eat a meal there and still have room for dessert? Maybe arctic explorers, but how many of them eat there?

3. I am surrounded by paper.

4. Eventually you will be able to store all the music ever recorded in human history onto a device no larger than your thumbnail, which you will then send through the laundry and have to do over.

5. I don't remember the last time anyone wrote me an actual letter.

6. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver have been fun to watch despite NBC's efforts.

7. Firehouses all smell the same.

8. You, personally, are the only competent driver on the roads today. All others should have their licenses revoked, their cars stripped of parts and turned into sculptures, and their parking skills videotaped for future ridicule.

9. Chickens are misunderstood creatures. And so very tasty.

10. There isn't a bed in the world big enough to keep your cat from crowding you out on a cold winter's night.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Moving Up, Moving Back

The problem with having a child old enough to sit in the front seat of your car is that you lose your shelf space.

I finally called the sheriff's office last week and they told me that as far as they were concerned Tabitha was more than welcome to sit up front with me. "Are you sure?" I asked them, because I knew what would happen next. "Oh, yes," they said.

So I armored myself with earplugs and the sort of chest protection worn by Major League catchers - men who routinely position themselves awkwardly enough that they can't take any evasive action and then let other men throw things at them at speed approaching one hundred miles per hour, so you know this stuff has to be good - and let Tabitha know that she could not sit up front.

And what a foresighted soul was I.

Except for when all four of us are in the car, she hasn't sat in the back since. On the one hand, this is kind of nice. She's getting all grown up and all that, and it's a lot easier to talk to her this way. On the other hand, I no longer have anyplace to store my stuff.

I carry a lot of stuff in the car with me. Books to read. Posters for various shows that I need to distribute in order to publicize said shows. Random food items. Papers. CDs. The occasional cat, at least on veterinary days.

Often there is so much stuff on the front seat that the car beeps at me. It took a while for me to figure out that the passenger seat belt alarm is keyed to a weight sensor and that this odd noise was the result of my stuff exceeding the threshold. It has taken me even longer to figure out how to care about this - I mean, the solution is obvious (fasten the seatbelt and be done with it) but I just can't bring myself to spend the energy to do that. Eventually the beeping stops, as if the car were just resigned to being ignored. Join the club, I tell it.

But now I need somewhere else to put all this stuff.

I can't put it in the back seat where Tabitha used to be, because when she climbs in she dumps all her stuff there and her stuff is usually wet with melting snow, which does not sit well with the kind of stuff I carry (vide supra).

I can't put it on top of the dashboard, because it slides around and will eventually punch a hole in the door and then all the air will get sucked out and we'll die from pressure loss. Or is that with planes? I can't keep track.

I can't fling it into the way back, because my arm isn't that strong and besides, even it I could there is no guarantee I'll ever get it back. There's a lot of stuff back there, and some of it has evolved and developed legal standards for territoriality. "Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiine" I hear it cry when I forget and toss something back there anyway. Eventually I will take an industrial-sized can of critter-killer and commit xenocide against these intruders, but until then I'm lulling them into a false sense of security by ignoring their plaintive moans of ownership.

The solution to the problem just changes the problem.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Dance the Night Away

Last night was the Big Dance down at Not Bad President Elementary School.

They do this a couple of times a year.

On one side of the hall, in the corner of the gym, there is a DJ surrounded by twirling lights, pulsing speakers, and enough CDs to provide a coaster for every beer served during Mardi Gras. There are a hundred or so kids bouncing merrily around, for the DJ is actually pretty good at what he does and he knows how to get them moving. Or, rather, he knows how to get them moving the way he wants them to move, since kids that age never really stop moving unless the air temperature approaches absolute zero. The secret is to play songs that routinely appear on the Disney Channel, and to play only the highlights of those songs. This also appeals to the parents lining the walls, who have all heard these songs SO MANY TIMES that it would take a direct high-pressure firehose with one end in their mouths and another end in the entire whiskey output of Kentucky to erase these songs from our memories.  Highlights are just fine, thank you.

On the other side of the hall, in what is referred to as "the multi-purpose room" (as if there are rooms in an elementary school that do not fit that description), there are tables, benches, and pizza.

I spent most of the evening in that room, handing out pizza to anyone with a blue ticket. No ticket, no pizza, order up, don't just stand there sonny, what'll ya have?

This arrangement worked pretty well for the girls, who have reached the age where they are happy to have us nearby but not too nearby anymore. Kim drifted in late from her office as Associate Grand Poobah of Home Campus, and we purchased our share of blue tickets to trade for dinner. After that the girls disappeared back into the gym with their friends, leaving us to finish up.

They did come get us a couple of times, though.

They came for Kim when "The Twist" was played. They came for me when it was a Daddy/Daughter dance, even though Lauren skipped merrily away once we got into the room and Tabitha cut me off about halfway through the song - not that my dance moves didn't deserve it, I suppose. And they came for both of us when the DJ decided to play 80s music. "I was there the first time," I told them. "That was plenty."

The highlight of the evening for me came after my pizza shift was over and I was one of the parents lining the walls. Lauren rushed over, gave me a big hug, gazed adoringly into my eyes, and said, "Daddy, you're not cool."

No, dear. Daddy is not cool. But he'll take the hug anyway.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Talk to the Animals

“He learned to communicate with birds and discovered that their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with wind speed, wingspans, power-to-weight ratios and a fair bit about berries.” (Douglas Adams)
It is always dangerous to send me out shopping, because you never know what I’m going to come home with. This weekend it was a DVD of Up, the latest Pixar film. I make no apologies for this, as it was an excellent film – as, indeed, all of Pixar’s films are. I know this may cause the revocation of my Man Card, but you can keep your military-techno-big-things-go-boom movies. You can also keep the chick flicks, as they are no better. I’ll stick with Pixar. Two of the best movies I’ve seen are Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles, and Up is right up there.

The montage at the beginning, as the main character and his wife get older, is just heartbreaking. You don’t find stuff like that in most movies aimed at kids, and it’s good to have it there. We are way too fixated on being happy HAPPY HAPPY all the freaking time in this country, not that it seems to actually make us happy, and we need to remind ourselves that sometimes the lasting moments – even the ones we later treasure – are often bittersweet.

Plus, how can you not love the dogs?

For all the technical wizardry that went into that movie and all the story lines that it contained, the thing that made me laugh was the idea of a dog collar that would translate whatever the dog was thinking so that we could hear it and understand it.

It turns out that dogs are about as bright as we’d thought.


This only reinforces the lesson of the criminally underrated movie, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, that Lauren and I went to see down at Not Bad President Elementary last month. As with Up, one of the things that the movie invents is a collar that allows an animal – in this case a monkey named Steve – to broadcast his thoughts. These thoughts, in their entirety, consist of “STEEEEEEVE!” and “Hungry!” in random order.

There is a reason why they didn't try this with cats. If you could read a cat's mind, you'd get one of two things - either endless static or frighteningly specific plans for world conquest - and neither of those is really something you want to hear. Never ask a question that you really don't want to know the answer to.

The thing I most loved about the communication collars in those movies, though, is the fact that they work but they don't really do what their inventors wanted them to do. The mere fact of achievement doesn't necessarily mean that you've achieved anything, and this is a lesson we forget. The world does not have to conform to our desires. You can't find it if it isn't there. Reality trumps ideology. And beware of what you wish for, because you just might get it.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reading on the Right

I started a new book last night.

Normally this is not news. I start new books all the time - it's one of the things I do instead of climbing mountains, running for office, hitting home runs or adding value to society in readily definable terms. Not that those things would accomplish that either, so I like to think I'm in pretty good company that way.

It's starting out to be a good book. It's a dark, grim story set in a city suspended from chains over an infinite abyss, out of which the moans of the dead create winds strong enough to blow out candles. One of the main characters is an insane and bloodthirsty angel, and the main function of the city seems to be the final stop in a pilgrimage that always ends in death.

The fact that I started this book as a sanity break from another book on the modern conservative movement in America says something, I suppose.

One of my ongoing projects for the last several years has been studying the history of the extremists whose social views have taken over the Republican Party and turned it into a vehicle for the most radically authoritarian, treasonously anti-Constitutional, close-mindedly theocratic and arrogantly self-serving elements of American society. I want to know where these cockroaches came from, what they did to a party that - 45 years ago - I might have had a home within, and what they plan to do to the rest of us.

It's not fun reading.

I started out this project, as any historian would, by going back to the sources of the conservative movement. I read Edmund Burke. I examined the careers of Klemens von Metternich, Benjamin Disraeli and others along those lines. I even read Barry Goldwater's book, and let me tell you was that a chore.

And then I stopped doing that, because it became clear that modern American "conservatives" are not actually conservative in any meaningful way. They are not trying to "conserve" anything - if anything, they are radicals trying to destroy the traditional institutions of American society and replace them with a fringe-element new vision (utopian or dystopian, depending on whether you are in or out) of an America force fed their narrow view of what ought to be. Neither are they a governing movement in any meaningful way, since they value ideological purity and the vanquishing of supposed enemies over such things as responsible rule, planning for the future, or the sorts of compromises with reality that the Founding Fathers understood was the essence of grown-up politics. The Republican Party today advocates as part of its basic platform positions that were considered part of the lunatic fringe by Barry Goldwater, and the radicals who have taken over that party continue to push even further into the fringes with every passing day.

They are children having temper tantrums while wielding power, and that is a bad combination.

The hardest part of reading the history of this movement - and there are a great many hard parts, ranging from the damage they have inflicted on this country already to the damage they plan to inflict in the future - is the sheer viciousness of its leaders. It is astonishing to read how venal, corrupt, dictatorial, and abusive they are, in a way that puts leaders in other areas of American politics (even more traditional right-wingers) to shame. Left-wingers may think they play hardball and can be dirty when necessary but they are way out of their depth facing this crowd, and it shows in how this country has been governed over the last 40 years.

It is depressing to see how much support these radical conservative leaders receive even when their characters and machinations are well known and documented. It is even more depressing to see how much support they receive from their followers who know very well what those leaders have done and who insist that this only makes them better leaders. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

I can get through about 30 pages of this before I have to put down whatever I'm reading and take a break.

Bring on the moaning dead.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Much To-Do

Every so often I sit down with a piece of paper and try to list all of the things on my to-do list, because otherwise they fall out of the back of my head and leave splotchy stains on the carpet. You have to fix those suckers down somehow.

This is invariably a depressing task.

Or it might be a confidence builder, since there is no way that the whole list will ever get accomplished in one lifetime and thus I am owed extra innings here on Earth.  Either way.

I try to organize this list by job. The online classes get one chunk of the paper. The face-to-face class gets another. The performing arts gig gets a third. Miscellaneous Home-Campus-related items that don't fit under any of the above categories go next. The course I'm theoretically designing (again) gets its own space, forlornly white since at this point I have no idea what I'm going to put in there and am starting to doubt that I ever will.

And then there is a whole section labeled "Other." Because at some point all the classifications schemes in the world are simply insufficient to encompass the grand mess that is life in progress.

Right now the Other category has such gems as:

1. Fix violin.

I was trying to tune Tabitha's violin the other day and discovered why it is that I should not be trying to tune Tabitha's violin. It has a little wooden sliver called a bridge that is intricately carved to provide maximum structural weakness and over which all of the strings must pass on their way to being played. So when you break it, you are pretty much sunk. And apparently these are not standardized, so you can't just go to your local Music-O-Rama and get yourself a bridge, either. You have to special order the one that fits YOUR violin.

Wanna buy a bridge?

2. Call for Valentine's Party

I believe that this refers to Tabitha's class, as I am the room parent for that group and it is my job to scrounge up the sweets for their various celebrations. I certainly hope so, because otherwise there will be some disappointed partygoers somewhere else.

3. Email friends.

Yes, I still email people, because I am HOPELESSLY OLD-FASHIONED, that's why. I write these emails in ink, longhand, with a quill pen, before typing them into the computer. I do this by lantern light. This is why it takes me up to three months to respond to people. I am not sure what to make of a world where email is considered old-fashioned.

4. Call sheriff.

Wisconsin has some fairly strict laws about how old/tall/heavy you have to be to sit in the front seat of the car, at least as a child, and I want to see if Tabitha is okay for that, and avoid getting a ticket if she is not. I find it odd to think that some of my relatives who lived well into their 90s probably never would have qualified under those laws and would have had to sit in the back seat their entire lives, shouting suggestions at whoever was driving, particularly on bridges.

Yes, there's a family story behind that.

5. "Do Apple things as emailed."

I have no idea what this means, and I keep transferring it from to-do list to to-do list in the hope that the light will come on at some point and I can get it done and cross it off.

6. Order checks.

Because I live in the midwest, where cash is a sign of weakness, and we go through a lot of checks.

There's more, but even though going to sleep is not technically on the list, the fact that it is now after midnight on a school night suggests that perhaps I should consider it as such anyway.