Friday, July 30, 2010

I Turn My Back on Fame and Fortune

When I started this blog I made a conscious decision that my primary audience for this thing would be me. I would write about what I wanted to write about, when I wanted to write it, and if I liked what I wrote then I had succeeded.

Not that I had any objections if other people read what I wrote and liked it, or at least found it interesting enough to challenge. I like telling stories, and since I already know how my own stories end it’s a wonderful thing that new people might come along for the ride as well.

And within the heart of every blogger is the hope, however unexpressed, that they will be Discovered – that eventually a lot of people will begin reading the blog, perhaps even commenting on it, and with any luck enjoying what they find. And, perhaps, that this will lead to larger opportunities to write for more people.

I was offered this opportunity recently.

Our local newspaper has a “Community Bloggers” section, where they invite people to park themselves in one of their slots and write for such masses as we have in Our Little Town. It’s not a paid position, but it is a platform that you can use to make your voice heard in the community. Some months ago I was contacted by the guy who runs this section – how he found this blog and knew to ask, I do not know – and invited to be one of those bloggers. And I said yes.

So we started working on just what my new blog would look like.

It had to have a theme, for one thing. Newspapers like to have things in convenient little boxes, so their readers have a sense of what to expect when they look for specific things. This did not present a particular problem to me on an ideological level – it’s their paper, after all, and presumably they know what attracts readers. Further, within that theme I would be given fairly wide freedom to write about things provided I kept it to PG or less.

This turned out to be more of an obstacle than I thought it would, though.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you understand that my subject matter is rather broad, which is a nice way of saying “random.” I never know what will occur to me to write on a given day. Sometimes I don’t even know how to classify what I’ve already written. So I came up with a theme. He told me to narrow it down. I’d come up with a narrower theme. Then I’d try to write six sample posts on that theme. And when that didn’t work I’d try to come up with another narrower theme. Repeat as necessary. It got tiresome.

Also – and who would have guessed this, given that this was for the local newspaper and their section is labeled “Community Bloggers”? – they wanted me to maintain at least some focus on the community.

I know!

I don’t remember the last time I really felt connected with the larger community in which I live. It was probably my dorm in college, which was a peculiarly intense place, way off on the corner of campus. Since then I have spent the bulk of my life either in graduate school – which for all its benefits is a remarkably insular way of life – or as an academic, which is a form of migrant labor.

So after much thought, I have decided to let this opportunity go by.

It was nice of them to ask, and I wish them luck.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wristband Day!

The trick to walking through crowds is to lead with your shoulder.

This narrows your profile as you walk and allows you to fit through gaps that are rather smaller than the ones you usually need. It also presents an unyielding surface to any obstacle you should happen to run into, which encourages said obstacle to get out of your way. I learned these tricks as a teenager working my way through the crowded sidewalks of Center City Philadelphia, but they sure came in handy today.

Today was Wristband Day down at the County Fair!

Every year the local 4-H clubs gather up the herds of farm animals that they have been raising all year and bring them into town for a show. There are barns full of these things, all of them, in their way, mysterious to my city-bred mind. Naturally, the girls love them. And Kim, who spent large portions of her childhood on a dairy farm, sees nothing unusual at all about them. They simply are.

So every year we go to the fair and we meander our way through the barns, looking at the animals. There are barns full of cows – big ones and little ones, black ones and browns ones, dairy cows and “beefers,” all of them facing away from the walkway so they can poop at you with greater efficiency. There is another barn full of rabbits of every conceivable size and description, some of them capable of speaking with a Brooklyn accent. There are turkeys, ponies, sheep, and chickens. And there are goats, which are just the most ridiculous creatures ever to walk the face of the earth, and I say that as someone who spent years in theater.

You have to love the goats. They come right up to you looking for a handout, and even if you don’t give them one they’re perfectly happy just to stand there. Perhaps a handout will suddenly materialize if they do. Or not. They don’t seem to care, really. And you can milk them, as the girls enjoy doing at fair time.

But really, the animals are not the main part of the fair. Even if the fair is built around them, even if the fair is designed mostly to showcase them, they’re just not the things most people come to see.

People come for the rides. And on Wristband Day, for a fee that could almost be taken as reasonable, you can ride as much as you want on whatever you want.

I took Tabitha, Lauren, and their friend Grace over around 1pm, after feeding them lunch ahead of time so as to avoid bankruptcy (Kim joined us after she got out of work) and they immediately began a whirlwind tour of all of the rides the midway offered. The Yo-Yo. The Tilt-A-Whirl. The Blizzard. Three different varieties of fun houses. The Giant Slide. Bumper cars. And on and on.

They paid off that wristband in about an hour, so hey – an investment.

People also come for the food, because there are very few places on earth where there are as many varieties of Fried Food On A Stick than there are at a county fair. We did manage to keep that to a minimum (corn dogs – who can resist corn dogs?), but we made up for this with a funnel cake, which is just Fried Food On A Plate. Someone, somewhere, is working on a way to serve it on a Stick, and that person will get rich.

People also come for the various booths that try to sell you things – goods and services, usually, but often politics, religion and healthcare as well.

I had a splendid little time telling the guy from the Constitution Party how utterly wrong-headed and preposterous his party’s position that the Constitution derives from the Bible is, for example. I did not convince him of the errors of his ways – confronted with evidence, such people almost always retreat back into unsupported faith in their own world, which is so much more convenient for them than the reality the rest of us live in – but it felt good anyway. Maybe someday he’ll remember this conversation, when he finally grows tired of bearing false witness.

We also spent some time at the tent set up by the local hospital, which always has the best swag, and I shook hands at some point with a man who claimed to be running for State Senate. He very well might be, now that I think of it. I can say that I knew him when, provided I can remember which one he was.

The girls also found a booth that gave them Dazzle Designs, which as near as we could figure out were simply glitter paint but were nonetheless officially “cool.”

The one thing about the fair that we forget every year is just how loud it is. The noise levels in the midway are enough to sterilize frogs, which – though I am not a frog – nevertheless makes me glad that I have all the children I intend to have in this world. It also makes me wonder about the endless parade of teenagers who ply the midway, eyeing each other and spinning off into ever-changing assortments and groupings. Maybe they’re just immune at that age.

It was a long day when we finally gathered up the troops and went home, but a good one.

Greetings from the county fair.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Burgers, Cars, Songs and Memories

We seem to have outgrown McDonald’s. Nobody really mourns this except Lauren.

When the girls were little we used to visit the golden arches a lot more than I had ever dreamed I would be able to do and still waddle away under my own power. This is because the folks at McDonald’s are not stupid. They are a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

Somewhere along the line they realized that their primary market was no longer teenagers – mercurial creatures always searching for something new and exciting – but small children and their parents. Small children seek what McD’s is best at (comfortable, familiar mediocrity) and parents are willing to indulge this if there is something in it for them, such as menu items with a little more pizzazz than just burgers. So they have salads and decent coffee for the grown-ups, Playland and chicken nuggets for the kids, and everyone is, if not happy, then at least satisfied.

But eventually one must move on, and while I do miss their buffalo sauce, I can’t say I really miss the experience overall.

We have graduated to Culvers for our fast food needs.

The food is better, for one thing, with fresh meat and real frozen custard for after. They also serve a great root beer that kept one of our English friends coming back for more. Apparently they don’t do root beer very well in the UK. Another business opportunity for you the enterprising reader to follow up on, and you’re welcome.

For another thing, they are a Wisconsin chain, so we feel patriotic – Wisconsinites could teach Texans a think or two about jingoism. One of the first things Kim told my parents after arriving in Philadelphia was that their toilet had been manufactured in Wisconsin. That, folks, is regional pride.

Our local Culvers also has an endless soundtrack of Top-40 hits of the Baby Boom Generation playing at all times when we are there.

This has become something of a game with Tabitha and Lauren. “How old is THIS one?” they ask me, and then they are amazed when I tell them. Kim is better at the specific years of specific songs, but I am good at the periods – whether a song is mid-50s, late-50s, early-60s, and so on.

“How do you know all this?” they ask. “I grew up with this stuff,” I answer.

When I was their age it wasn’t music, it was cars.

My dad was one of those 1950s teenagers who used to take cars apart and put them back together with his buddies for fun. He still loves those old cars. This is not an attribute that he passed down to me undiluted – the material world and I have serious issues with one another – but I do think those old cars are more interesting than I probably would have had I grown up as someone else’s son.

We’d be driving along and some cast-iron behemoth from Detroit’s golden age would zip by us and my dad would say, “That’s a 1954 Ford!” or “Look at that 1961 Chevy!” And my brother and I would just be agog. “How do you know all this?” we’d ask. “I grew up with this stuff,” he’d say.

It’s odd how memories get transmuted by time and circumstances, how the experience of dads and cars can be so much like the experience of kids and songs, a thousand miles and thirty-five years away.

I think I got the easier end of the deal, though. Cars come and cars go, but the 1950s are the only decade in human history that can be reliably identified by a bass line.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The End of the Beginning of Summer

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. (Winston Churchill)

The first part of summer seems to have come to a satisfactory conclusion today with the Girl Scouts softball tournament. Lauren’s team didn’t play, as the A-League just gets an exhibition game (one of the consequences of not keeping score, I suppose). But Tabitha’s C-League team was in the playoffs all week, and today was the final day.

For those of you who may find yourself in this situation someday, here is a word of advice – when someone asks you if you want to be one of the umpires in a softball tournament, the answer is no. Remember that, and you’ll thank me someday.

Nobody gave me this advice.

So there I was, in my official “Coach Dave” GS softball shirt, which was for Lauren’s team (as that was the one I helped coach) but which was the exact same hot pink color as Tabitha’s team this year. That looked sort of odd to the other team, no doubt. GS softball is also not firehouse league softball, so the rules were somewhat different than I was used to. And not just the “no drinking while fielding” rule that the Girl Scouts impose, either. There is no tagging, for example, and runners can be called out for leaving the base if the batter swings and does not actually hit the ball. There is also a line about halfway between each pair of bases, and bad things happen if you cross that line when you’re not supposed to.

Don’t even ask.

Fortunately I was only asked to judge fair/foul balls down the first base line and call out or safe at the first two bases. Those rules didn’t change much. And there were only two close calls (both fair/foul calls), and I ended up giving one to each team.

It was a good game – Tabby’s hot pink team dominated the white team 27-13 in seven long, hot innings, and my umpiring career was thankfully over. Only one person told me I stunk, and – this being the midwest - he was polite about it.

The hot pink team then got to cram down lunch and immediately play the green team, and it was a tired group of hot pink girls facing the team that had beaten them soundly the night before. Not surprisingly, the green team – a talented squad with very nice girls and coaches – repeated that performance and took home the championship. Tabitha’s team took second place and got very nice trophies that spin, which made them happy.

And then there was ice cream afterward, to celebrate the end of another stellar season, which made them even happier.

But this wasn’t the only milestone achieved this week. The girls have been in various forms of summer school all summer, which has not been the sentence of doom that it would have been back when I was a kid. Back in the Pleistocene the only reason you went to summer school was the rather optimistic notion that the cure for not liking or understanding a subject was more of that subject. But now in our future full of Teh Shiny, they have cool classes.

The public school district kept both girls occupied for about three weeks with great stuff. Lauren has an interest in languages, so she took both Spanish and French. This initially worried me – I took Spanish in high school and Italian in college and discovered that Romance languages in general are close enough to get you confused but not close enough to get you credit. Fortunately Lauren is not as easily confused as I am, and French class had the added benefit of introducing her to Nutella, which we do not have in our house. Mmmmm, Nutella. She also took an Arts and Crafts class that produced all kinds of wonderful things.

For her part, Tabitha took an Arts and Crafts class as well, one that somehow managed to spend the first half of its existence on origami and the second half on what we used to refer to as “gimp” back in the 70s – that plastic cord that you would weave into lanyards when your camp counselor was looking and nooses when she was not. Tabitha also took a class called Amazing Authors, wherein she wrote two books (one about cats – shocking, I know - and the other about dragons), and a class on pottery.

For her masterpiece, she produced a Hodag.

For those of you not from northern Wisconsin, a Hodag is the upper-midwest version of Bigfoot – a tall, hairy, and presumably well-mannered evolutionary throwback that haunts the woods around Highway 8, where Kim grew up. When I was a kid back east we had a similar creature called the Jersey Devil, which has now morphed into a hockey team. When you look at it that way, the Hodag is clearly the one you want to create in a pottery class.

When those classes ended the girls went directly into a week of College For Kids down at Home Campus.

Lauren took two shorter classes and got out around lunch time. The main point of her first class was to create a board game, and – as you would expect in this house – hers was about cats.

She also took a class called Dino Diggers and produced her own fossil.

Tabitha had a couple of longer classes, including one art class where she learned how to make linoleum-cut prints and where they made their own book from the paper up. Seriously – they made their own paper, which they used to bind blank books.

Apparently it has ground cicada shells in it. One assumes they are acid-free.

So now we stand at the beginning of the end – the part of the summer where we don’t really have to get up early anymore. There will be ice cream, no doubt.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Conversations Keep Coming

Conversation from the ride home today:

LAUREN: When you were little, what state did you want to live in when you grew up?

ME: Well, I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I guess I always figured I’d live there.

LAUREN: But you didn’t.

ME: No, here I am in Wisconsin.

LAUREN: You lived in that place with the O-fries.

ME: That was in Pittsburgh. That was the other end of Pennsylvania. I started in Philadelphia, at one end of Pennsylvania, and then I moved to Pittsburgh at the other end. And then I moved to Iowa, and now I’m here in Wisconsin.

LAUREN: Iowa?!? What were you doing in Iowa?

ME: I went to graduate school there.

LAUREN: What’s graduate school?

ME: It’s college after you finish with college. When you graduate from college you get what they call a Bachelor’s Degree. And you can go back again to get a Master’s Degree, and if you still want more than you can get a Doctorate. Those last two are graduate school.

LAUREN: What about high school?

ME: That comes before. There’s elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and graduate school.

LAUREN: And then you can have a LIFE!!!

Sometimes it’s like living in your own cartoon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And The Day Gets Better As It Goes

When your day starts with a viewing, it really can’t help but improve after that.

I ran a museum for five years. Our life blood, financially, was giving tours to school kids – most of them local, but some of them from a hundred miles away or more. We ran anywhere between 5000 and 7500 kids through that building every year, which isn’t bad considering that 90% of them came in a seven-week span. This often led to some interesting situations, since the bus drivers didn’t know where we were and generally underestimated how long it would take to get to us, which was a problem when we had big tour groups stacked up one after another. You learn to be flexible in situations like that – to crop your tour to the time remaining, to shovel people into the important areas and leave the “interesting but optional” areas for another time, and to look like you do this all the time so what use is there panicking and you should stop that now.

Tours were my favorite part of the job. Really, they were.

Without a dedicated corps of volunteer guides those tours wouldn’t have happened. We’d hire high school and college kids for the summer walk-in tours, since you had to have someone on duty at all times, but the school tours were scheduled so we could rely on volunteers. Most of them were women, and most of them were long past retirement age. Several were well over 80, and at least one that I know of was giving tours into her 90s, which is impressive considering that the tour involved three different floors of a building that was grandfathered out of all known and even theoretical ADA requirements, plus a tunnel into another building.

Hulda was one of my favorites.

There is an old adage that if you ever want the pure unvarnished truth you should ask an old woman or a young boy, and she was the model for it. You always knew where you stood with Hulda.

She was also earthy, in the way that a woman with seven children could be. She was one of the crew of old women who sprang to the aid of a fifth-grader who was on one of our tours when it suddenly became That Time Of The Month, possibly for the first time. I didn’t inquire too closely on that one. The conversation afterward was revealing, though, and more than anything else, humane. That is one of the highest compliments I can give.

I still give tours, even three years after leaving my job there – it’s a fun museum, and the people there are good people – so I would see her now and then. We weren’t close – I never saw her outside of the museum – but it was always nice to catch up when we did meet there. She wasn’t in good health recently. It was not a surprise to see her name in the obituary column this week.

I really hate funerals and viewings. I would skip my own if I could. But some things you do anyway, because it is the right thing to do. And then the day gets better.

Fare thee well, kind soul.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Non-Star Game

Yesterday was the big Parents vs. Girls scrimmage that Tabitha’s softball team decided to stage. You should have been there.

The game was more of a mob scene than these games usually run, which is saying something, but we had a good time. There were anywhere from nine to twenty girls batting, as people came and went and siblings got added in and taken out. Lauren, for example, got to play the entire game. There were even a few boys playing.

As for the parents, well, the immortal words of the Wizard of Oz certainly came to mind out there. Remember the scene where he berates the Tin Man for having the temerity to ask for a heart? “You dare to come to me for a heart, do you?” the Wizard thunders. “You clinking, clanking, clattering collection of kaligenous junk!”

Let’s just say it’s been a while since most of us had taken the field for anything more strenuous than a flea market. I’m not even sure what “kaligenous” means, but it was probably appropriate.

But we had a good time anyway, clinking and clattering away.

I am out standing in my field.

Tabitha prepares to exact revenge (see below).

Lauren looks for the pop-up.

The parents had to bat opposite-handed for the first few innings. This was meant to try to even things out, but since we weren’t keeping score or monitoring outs too closely the main effects of this were to increase the chances of injury to everyone involved. For us parents, it meant using muscles in even MORE unfamiliar and unpracticed ways than would otherwise have been possible, something my back really does not appreciate much these days. And for the kids, it meant that the parents did not have as much control over their swings. Tabitha ended up getting nicked by a line drive at one point, though she survived without even a bruise. So we batted normally after that, and the number of line drives plummeted.

Lauren’s team has finished its season and has only the exhibition game at Saturday’s tournament to look forward to. If you’ve never been to one of those, imagine two teams of five and six year old girls, each with about 24 players, all of whom want to take the field, all of whom need to bat every inning, and none of whom really worries too much about fielding. It’s a long game.

Tabitha’s team spends this week in the playoffs. She starts tomorrow. Go team!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

No Catfish Here

I dragged out my bongos last night. A friend had a “music, beverages and firepit” gathering, and while the firepit idea might not have been wise – it was still 85 degrees outside when I left at 10:40pm – it was nice to be musical for an evening.

When I was in college, I was in a band.

I think everyone should be in a band in college. It is an awful lot of fun and it requires no particular talent. Plus there is no more surefire way to get into a bar when one is not of legal age than to hold up an instrument and announce to the bartender, “I’m with the band.” It sort of made me wish I were more of a drinker at the time, really. It was a bit of a waste as it was.

There were three of us in the band most of the time – Jack, who played guitar, banjo and other random stringed instruments, Rob, who stuck with guitar, and myself, on keyboards, Jew’s harp, and, yes, bongos. The bongos came from a performance at a coffee house in the basement of one of the dorms where the acoustics were so bad that we literally couldn’t hear each other. It was decided that we needed a rhythm section at that point, to keep us in line in such venues, and when my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday and/or Christmas that year I said, “Bongos.” To their eternal credit, they did not flinch at this.

We all sang. This was something of a problem, actually, since of the three of us only Jack and I could really hold a tune. Jack came out of a jazz background, where precise notes were essential, and I came from a choral background, where pitch was pretty much all that mattered. Rob was a folkie who thought emotion could make up for just about anything. It worked for Bob Dylan, he figured, and it would therefore work for him. Oddly enough, we usually had him sing lead. For one thing, he was also the songwriter and they were, after all, his songs, at least the ones we weren’t covering from other musicians. For another, Jack and I could usually bracket him with enough harmony that it came out sounding all right. Not always – Jack and I had the same vocal range and sometimes this led to attempts at harmony that were, shall we say, intriguing. But usually.

The only known picture of the band in operation,
rehearsing at my parents' house.
Sometimes the cliches are true.

That was the acoustic version of the band. There was also an electric version that included Neil on the bass and Jim, who we had playing drums but who could also play all of our instruments better than we could. He was the kind of guy who once picked up a stringed instrument he’d never played before (a mandolin, I think, or perhaps a banjo), plinked down the strings one by one and then said, “Oh! So this must be a chord, and this must be a chord, and this, and this.” And then he started playing it as if he’d been practicing since kindergarten. If he had ever gotten his act together he’d be a wealthy man by now, but getting his act together was not part of Jim’s considerable charm.

We mostly played the kind of folk/rock singer/songwriter music that was popular in the 1960s before it went underground – the 80s was not a particularly congenial decade for this music, but we liked it so that’s what we played. We could do all eighteen minutes of Alice’s Restaurant, for example, and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, and one of our big crowd pleasers (to the extent we had big crowds) was Buskin & Batteau’s ESPN, which nobody had heard of back then either. Of course our biggest crowd pleaser was a medley of one of Rob’s songs – a bouncy little tune he called Love in the Summertime – and the jingle for Bumblebee tuna (“Yum yum Bumblebee, Bumblebee tuna! I love Bumblebee, Bumblebee tuna!”). The chords and rhythm were the same, and the drunks in the bar we used to play in just loved it when we did something they recognized. They’d sing along.

We also knew exactly half of Suite Judy Blue Eyes. Audiences never believe you when you say things like that, but it was true. That is how we ended up playing it one night, right up to the point where our knowledge failed us, and then stopping and waiting for the audience to stop clapping the beat so we could move on to a song we actually did know to the end. They didn’t question us after that.

We were called “Not The Catfish,” which was a story in itself.

We didn’t have a name for a long time. It seemed more formal than we were taking the whole thing, even if a friend of ours who ran one of the coffeehouses we’d sing at used to get annoyed because he never knew what to put on the ads when we’d appear. “Now appearing! Musicians!” But one cold February evening we were at his coffeehouse singing away and when the song was over Rob went up to the main microphone to speak to the audience.

Very little good ever came out of that scenario – Rob liked to think we were the Grateful Dead and could therefore just ad-lib entire shows – and nothing was different this time. “We’re going to do one of our big harmony numbers,” he announced. Jack and I just looked at each other, as we had already done all of our harmony numbers, big or otherwise. Rob came back to us and started playing. We eventually determined that he was playing Dream, by the Everly Brothers, a song that we had never practiced and indeed had not heard in months. Nevertheless we tried to join in, and the resulting cacophony is probably still floating around out there in space protecting us from stray meteors.

When the dust settled Rob went back to the mic and announced to the remaining crowd, “Hi, we’re The Catfish!” He turned around to see Jack and me, not really in the mood for further ad-libbing at that point, shaking our heads. So he went back to the mic and said, “Hi, we’re not The Catfish!”

We never did come up with a better name.

It’s been a long time since that night and the world has regrettably become full of catfish in the interval.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Politics of Ideas - A Rant

The Republican Party is in a world of trouble today, and what is worse is that they haven’t begun to plumb the depths of the hole they’re in.

This is not good.

American politics is based on a two-party, winner-take-all system. It has never functioned very well with more than two meaningful parties – eventually they winnow out until only two are left. And it has never functioned very well with only one effective party. That kind of unchecked power to enact whatever whimsical agenda might cross somebody’s mind just isn’t healthy and opposition parties have tended to evolve out of this, regardless of the intent of the actual politicians involved.

And yet we don’t have two meaningful parties now. There is only one.

Consider this situation:

You are a political party that has basically set the agenda for the country for the last three or four decades. Everything the country is, politically – good or bad – is more or less your responsibility. You came to power on the heels of a backlash against the other party and managed to forge a coalition of voters that kept returning you into office, year after year, and even during the rare years when the other side technically had the majority it was still your agenda that set the boundaries of debate. They had to work with your ideas.

But those ideas aren’t doing the job anymore. Times have changed. The economy isn’t based on what it was based on when you came to power three or four decades ago. Social structures are different, the culture unrecognizably so. The old ideas, the ideas that swept you into power, have ossified into dogma and no longer apply to the reality most people live in. In fact a coherent argument might be made that those ideas are now counterproductive at best and – followed to their full measure in light of all those changes – disastrous at worst.

You need to change those ideas – adapt them, bring them more into line with the reality facing the country. The core is still worthwhile, perhaps, even if the applications are no longer valid.

But you can’t do this because you have been taken over by wingnuts, people far more interested in ideological purity than in effective governance. Rather than face reality, their solution is to double down on these dysfunctional ideas – to dig the hole deeper in the belief that this will lead to sunshine. Moderates – the people capable of reaching out to the other side, of adapting your ideas to new times – are being thrown out of your party, and the race to the radical fringe is on, until you are left with the fact that the extremists who are the only people who can win your primaries are too extreme to be elected consistently and even when they are elected they are far too ideologically blinded to make the kind of nuanced policy decisions that governing an actual country full of actual people with actual needs requires. They give good sound bites, but are not the sort of people you want in charge of anything that has real consequences in the real world.

Quick – who am I talking about?

If you said the Democratic Party of 1968, you get a prize.

It took the Democrats almost a quarter of a century to recover from their ideological collapse. They didn’t go away during that time – they controlled Congress for much of it, and even managed to elect a President for a single term not long after 1968 – a surprisingly narrow victory considering that Nixon resigned in disgrace and Ford pardoned him (a move whose merits might be debatable but whose unpopularity never was) but a victory nonetheless. But that was a measure of their power, not their meaningfulness. Power without ideas is hollow and fleeting. They had no ideas, and the emerging modern conservative movement ate them for lunch. Even the name of their agenda – “liberal” – became an epithet.

And now the situation is reversed. So if you answered the Republican Party of 2008-2010 to my question above, I suppose you get a prize as well. Somebody ought to be getting something out of this. It certainly isn’t the country as a whole. Might as well be you.

Modern conservatism has convincingly demonstrated itself to be both morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has failed – repeatedly – to provide effective governance, and by any objective measure the country is now worse off for having endured thirty or more years of modern conservative rule than it was beforehand.

What started as a commendable effort to reign in the excesses of liberalism in the 1970s degenerated into a slash-and-burn assault on the very real progress that those liberals had made in their decades in power, a time when the gap between rich and poor had actually narrowed and more Americans than ever before were being included in the political processes of their own nation. If you weren’t already one of society’s winners in 1980, odds are the conditions of your life got measurably worse under modern conservative rule rather than better, and that’s not the American Dream last time I checked.

The nation’s debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, had been declining steadily since WWII but rose sharply after 1980 as taxes on the wealthy were slashed while spending (particularly military spending) soared, and after the appointment of George W. Bush as president in 2000 modern conservatives quickly converted the largest budget surplus in human history into the largest budget deficit in human history, even without counting the illegal war the nation was somehow conned into fighting. Even with the money we’re spending today to get through the current recession – a recession caused by the excesses of modern conservative policies in the first place – the roots of the problem lay with those who caused the crisis, not those trying to solve it. We will be paying that debt for generations.

And perhaps more importantly, the shift from the politics of money to the politics of values, a shift undertaken by modern conservatives in the 1960s when they realized that they had nothing to offer the vast majority of Americans with their economic policies, has left the United States more fractured, polarized and unstable than at any point since the 1850s, which is quite an achievement given the 1870s, 1890s, 1910s and 1960s.

New ideas are needed. But there are no new ideas coming out of that quarter. The wingnuts have taken over, and any attempt to stray from an increasingly radical interpretation of the party platform is taken as treason, to the party at minimum and – for a group that increasingly makes no distinction between themselves and the country, to the point where they can declare without irony that they are the only “real Americans” – to the nation as a whole.

This certainly applies to their dealings with Democrats, who were left in 2008 with the unenviable task of being the grownups and cleaning up the unconscionable mess left by modern conservative rule. It is telling that when it comes to solving the problems there has been almost no cooperation from the party that created the problems.

Moreover, it also applies within the Republican Party, as those who won’t toe the Teabagger line get removed from power. The Republican Party today advocates as “common sense” positions that would have been part of the lunatic fringe forty or fifty years ago, and they expect unquestioning obedience to those positions. If you listen to right-wing commentators (something I don’t recommend, actually, as it tends to suck intelligence from the room), one of the terms you will hear thrown around with causal abandon is RINO – “Republican In Name Only.” This suggests that there is a purity test for being a Republican, that it is in fact something of a cult, with orthodoxies that must be adhered to and heresies that must be rooted out with fire and tongs. Even from the outside, the savagery of these assaults is appalling. This is not a party that is capable of adapting its ideas to changing realities. This is a party trying to dig its way to the sunshine.

To my knowledge there is no such thing as a DINO.

This is not to say that the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party that it took over after 1968 are going away. Just as the Democrats did during their long exile in the intellectual wilderness, I expect that they will win some elections and even, at times, form a majority in the government. They will remain powerful. But they won’t be meaningful, not really, not until such time as they begin to realize that the old ideas need to change. My guess is that this won’t happen until the current generation of media figures that runs the party these days retires or passes on. That’s how it usually works, anyway.

It took the Democrats nearly a quarter of a century to claw their way back to meaningfulness – to be a party that actually had ideas, whether you agree with them or no. Whether the Republicans can do this any quicker is an open question – my guess at this point is no, since they don’t seem to have realized that there is a problem to be solved, let alone actually begun trying to solve it. For the next few years I expect them to get more shrill, more extreme, and more angry, until such time as some of the younger conservatives – people with no particular personal stake in the old policies, people who can recognize the excesses of their own side along with the virtues and the virtues of the other side along with the excesses – begin to try to take their movement in other directions. They will have to fight for it, though, as the old guard never goes down easily and always trains up successors.

If this were a movie, it would be entertaining. The stakes are higher in reality, though.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On Aging

My mom has this theory.

At some point in your life, she says, you stop aging in your head. Your body keeps right on marching on, getting older and greyer and so on, but in your head you’re always about the same age. This is why you look in the mirror and get that initial shock before you figure out that the reflection really is you.

You can tell when you reach that moment even without a mirror, because it’s the point where you stop knowing how old you are and start having to do the math. “How old am I? Well, let’s see, I was born in … and this year is … and I haven’t had my birthday yet (have I?) so subtract one and I get … really? I’m that old? I don’t feel that old.”

When you’re young, you know how old you are. You know with every fiber of your being how old you are, and when you’re really young you know to the half-year. But over the years you lose that connection. For a while you kind of know – it’s not something that sits at the top of your mind, but it’s right there for the asking.

And then you lose it and have to start doing the math.

This is why you see people in their forties and fifties doing things that, really, they ought to leave to people in their twenties. You can’t eat that way anymore, trust me. And similarly, when you’re in your thirties you need to stop thinking you’re in your teens because you can’t drink that way either.

Me? In my head I’m 26. My body may be … what? … carry the one, still not my birthday … and I get … huh, considerably more than 26. But that was the last time I actually knew how old I was without having to think about it.

Today is my mom’s birthday. It’s one of the big ones, with a zero at the end of it, but in her head I’m sure she’s not nearly that old.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Mission Accomplished

We went to the library yesterday.

This is not all that uncommon a trip for us. The girls have had library cards since before they could walk, and for a while it felt like we were supporting a significant portion of their annual budget with our late fees. I worked there for several years when I was finishing up my dissertation, and in addition to accumulating a vast reservoir of stories regarding how not to manage employees (stories that came in handy when I actually had to manage employees), I also had the advantage of going there everyday and turning in my books on time. We still check out a lot of books, but now we get late fees. It’s not a bad trade.

Yesterday was a little different, because Lauren turned in her last card for the Summer Reading Program.

Every summer the library puts together a new program designed to encourage kids to read. And every summer Tabitha and Lauren ransack it for prizes, since reading is one of the things they do anyway. This makes me very proud.

This year the library decided that instead of an ongoing program where you earned points all summer to exchange for this or that prize, they would have four different levels with a prize at the end of each one, and when you were done you were done.


We signed up on June 12. June 14 was the first day you could turn in your level for a prize, and by that point Tabitha was already there, with Lauren close behind. Tabitha finished the entire program by the 26th, and probably would have done so sooner except that it would take us a few days to get back to the library to turn in her card. She was the fifth kid done the whole program, and she chose a book on the history of codes as her big prize.

It took Lauren a bit longer, which is only fair as she is a bit younger, but yesterday she turned in her card and got her big prize. She went for the Mystery Grab Bag, which had a number of cool things in it – a couple of coupons at local restaurants, some orange-flavored lip gloss, and so on.

We also turned in two entire shopping bags full of books and managed to take out less than half that, which is a victory especially since there was another half a bag at home that we just renewed. The prizes are won but the reading continues, and this is a marvelous thing.

Good work, ladies.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Next Great American Novel

I have this great idea for a novel.

I know, I know. Everybody has a great idea for a novel. It’s kind of like a “get-rich-quick” scheme for the literate, only it’s really more of a “stay-poor-anyway” scheme given the way publishing tends to work. Fortunately I am a historian, which means that I’m not fated to make money anyway and wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did. I’d probably just buy more books.

And so we see that all of life is a circle.

But I think it really would make a good story, and I find myself thinking about it when I read other books. Especially the fiction I like to read, which tends toward science fiction and fantasy novels where The Fate Of The World is at stake.

You know, it’s a pretty big world.

I have often thought, as I read tales of epic battles and high-stakes confrontations and all that, “What does this mean to some nobody in Peru?” I mean, does the world end there, too? Does he even know that The Fate Of The World is being decided somewhere else? Is it like seeing a storm over the horizon, or just something that happens completely outside the radar screen?

I just finished a series set in Britain where the ancient Celtic gods have come back. They are somewhat annoyed at the modern world and they do their best to make it go away. They succeed, but the action of the series comes from how the humans (notably the Dysfunctional Five, the heroes of this tale) react to all of this.

What does this mean to some nobody in Peru? Peru is a long way from Britain. Are there ancient Peruvian gods doing much the same thing over there? How would they coordinate with the Celtic ones? Do gods have phones? And if nothing is happening in Peru, why not? All right, so the Celtic gods have worked their bit in Britain and everybody dies but them. Other than a shortage of imported tea, what impact does this have on my guy in Peru?

I think it would be fun to write a story about that guy in Peru, just going about his day while The Fate Of The World was being decided elsewhere. It wouldn’t have to be Peru, I suppose – it could be anywhere not close to the Main Crisis. Maybe he’s in Zimbabwe, or Laos, or Canada. The trick would be getting enough drama into that story to make it work, since I’m fairly convinced The Fate Of The World is more localized than most authors make it out to be and it would therefore mostly be a story of someone going about his days while big things happen offstage.

Sort of like my own life, I guess.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Scenes From The Ride Home

Coming home from picking the girls up at summer school today we had the following conversation:

David: Tomorrow is your last day of swimming lessons, girls! It’s fun day. They said for parents to bring their suits too, and we can swim with you.

Lauren: Even Mom?

David: Yes, if she can get off work, I suppose. Why, do you not want Mom to come?

Lauren: You know that thing when kids get older and their Moms become uncool?

David: Yes.

Lauren: Well, it’s happening.

David: Oh. [Pause.] It is happening to Dads too?

Lauren: No.

David: Is this because I am still cool, or because I was never cool to begin with?

Lauren: No, you’re still cool.

Tabitha: No you’re not, Dad. You were never cool.

You know, there’s really not much to say after that.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Siss! Boom! Ahh!

We went to the fireworks last night, since what else do you do on Independence Day but watch things blow up?

The Fourth of July fireworks are one of those great traditions that don’t make a whole lot of sense if you think too hard about them but are lots of fun anyway. And Our Little Town has a nice display for a town this size, though a rather smaller one than in years past due to the Current Economic Unpleasantness, which hits a blue-collar manufacturing town a bit harder than most places. They’ve moved the display back to its traditional spot in the middle of town after a two-year hiatus over on the east side. I like it there, since it is much more convenient for me personally, though I still wonder what the cardiac patients in the hospital think when the rockets start exploding over their ward.

Fireworks have an almost hypnotic ability to bring people together who might otherwise not have much to do with each other. You plunk your chair down and ooh and ahh, and you feel part of the larger community.

Perhaps that’s a good enough reason to have them on Independence Day – to remind us that we are one nation after all, and that if we don’t remember that we are doomed to fail. There is nothing self-evidently necessary about the United States of America. We don’t have to be here. It took a lot of effort to bring this country into being, and it takes just as much effort to keep it going.

When I was a kid I used to take part in the local parade. It was organized by the same fire company that my dad belonged to and that I would eventually join, so I got to see it from both sides. It was a lot of work. There were marchers. There were floats, which were mostly wagons pulled by bicycles or parents – when I was about 4 or so a bunch of the parents on my block got together and dolled up our wagons as railroad cars for the parade, which was a trick in an area as hilly as ours. There were also bikes, which is where I tended to be most years, red, white and blue crepe paper streaming from my handlebars and woven between my spokes. Between each group were fire engines, and when I was older I was one of the guys in the dress uniforms trying to keep order. The bicycles were the worst, always jostling and shoving. Karma’s rough sometimes.

“Nothing worthwhile happens on its own,” my dad would say around parade time. So the work went in – decorating whatever I was riding, or policing the kids who did that after I got older.

It’s hard work keeping a country going. And you can’t be distracted by bright lights in the sky. I was still in Philadelphia during the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, so I went down to the river for the fireworks extravaganza. I was in the middle of the crowd when the show started. It was an amazing show.

“That’s what it’s all about!” cheered some guys from behind me.

And at that point an older lady – probably about 65 or so, I’m guessing – turned around and glared at them. “That’s not what it’s all about,” she said. “It’s about standing here and being brave. Smoke your pot, drink your booze, and doing what you want to do.”

Don’t get distracted by the shiny lights. Work for what you believe in, and remember it’s a big country with a lot of room for differences but only one country after all. It doesn’t have to be here, and it would be a tragedy if it went away.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


We went underground yesterday.

No we were not on the lam, desperate to escape from the forces of evil, or even the forces of mild irritation, lukewarm drinks and those tiny little bugs that you can't see but somehow always fly right into your eyes anyway. Although there were no bugs there, so we would have succeeded if that had been our goal.

Just before the school year ended Tabitha's class went on a field trip to the Cave of the Mounds, with Kim along as a chaperon. If you're wondering how a hole in the ground can be the same as a large pile of ground, well, you're not alone. The best I can figure it is just one of those things that happen from time to time and it is best not to think about it too hard.

But while it may be puzzling to you and me, it was sheer magic to Tabitha. She just loved this place, and she was determined to share it with me and Lauren before the summer was out. And Friday was it.

We drove on up, paid for our tickets, and ... waited. They only bring you into the place every so often, and we had just missed one tour. Fortunately they had ample gift shop opportunities, and we browsed like there was no tomorrow. We can browse with the best of them, yes indeed we can. They even had one of those machines that let you squash a penny into one of several "Cave of the Mounds" designs, which is the mark of class for any tourist destination.

Eventually they called us in from our penny squashing, and we watched a short movie about the cave before being let in.

It's quite a cave.

It takes about an hour to go through it all, and at some points you're as much as seventy feet below ground. It's full of stalactites, stalagmites, "flowstone," and several areas with the comforting name of "collapse areas." There are vaults soaring overhead, pools here and there, and from time to time it even rains.  When you get hit by a drop they call it a "cave kiss."

At one point the guide even turns out all of the lights so you can see what pitch blackness looks like. You know what? It's dark. They even sell postcards of it.

It is in fact a marvelous place, and if you find yourself in the Madison area you should definitely think about going.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Things That Sparkle

What is it about sparklers?

They're not all that exciting when you think about them, really. They do, in fact, sparkle, which is nice. They are definitely in the "things that sparkle" category, unlike, say, vampires, which clearly are not. They also create a satisfyingly bright and eye-damaging light, and anything that offers temporary blindness is clearly cool.

But they do not make noise, nor do they move of their own accord, burst into displays of pyrotechnics, or convince recalcitrant politicians to stop trying to turn this country into a theocratic dictatorship. Although in theory that last goal could be accomplished simply by placing the sparklers in the proper locations, I suppose. This is a thought, and I shall have to pursue it at leisure.

For all this, sparklers remain exciting things, at least for my children. And tonight - the first night of the Independence Day weekend and the night before a day with no alarm clocks, we let them stay up until it was dark enough for them to actually see the sparklers as they dance around with them in the driveway or go exploring into the dark places underneath the neighbor's trumpet vines.

They had a very good time.

Our Little Town really loves fireworks. Every year the tents go up in parking lots all across town, sometime around Father's Day - rocketry here! Explosives here! Beer over there! Fire Department coming soon!

It's a tradition, this annual War For Darwin's Basement, with the winners being subtracted from the gene pool to general acclaim. Bonus points for burning down your garage. Style points awarded for bringing all three branches of the emergency services (police, ambulance, fire) to your doorstep without spilling your beer.

We try to avoid this conflict at our house, and limit ourselves to sparklers.