Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I am not ticklish.

This was something of a social disadvantage in high school, as there were several of my friends who would have dearly loved it if I were and whom I would have been rather okay with their continuing in that vein, but alas, t’was not to be.

Lauren, on the other hand, is very ticklish.

Today was one of those days where Tabitha had to stay after school for one reason or another – as she continues to zoom through middle school and into high school, those days will only increase – so after I picked up Lauren we had about forty minutes to kill. So we zipped on over to the local minimart to buy some sticky candy, in the hopes that it would finally pull out the loose tooth that has been dangling just above her lip for a month now, and then we pulled into our spot by Mighty Clever Guy Middle School to wait.

This is our time together, and it’s fun. We talk about school, we play games, and sometimes we get homework done.

Today for some reason, Lauren decided she would try to tickle me. But, as noted earlier, I am not ticklish. This meant, of course, that she had no recourse when I was obliged to tickle her back.

Eventually I discovered that I didn’t even have to touch her – that Lauren is ticklish at a range of up to twelve inches from her body. All I had to do was poke anywhere in that range.

Well, no. That wasn’t all I had to do.

Apparently this is audio-triggered. It doesn’t work if you just do the phantom poke thing. You have to do the phantom poke thing while at the same time saying, “Boop!”


Boop! Boop! Boop!


You know, this knowledge could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Such as, say … mine.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to Improve the Holiday

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, it’s nearly Christmas.

This is one of the things that has sort of snuck up on me this year, more than most years, and as I emerge out of my semester-long immersion into ancient world history (want to know about Mansa Musa? Go ahead – ask me anything…) the fact that the Yuletide season is here is sort of hitting me all at once. There’s been no lead-in time this year. One minute it was mid-November and I was vaguely thinking about Thanksgiving and wondering what had happened to the Halloween candy, and the next: Fa-la-la-la-la up to my ai-ai-ai-ai-eyeballs.

Now, Christmas has long been one of my favorite holidays. But the old story about the boiled frog is definitely in play this year – I’ve had not time to get used to the season gradually, so a lot of things that normally just float by me unnoticed are a bit more front and center.

And some of them, frankly, have got to go.

So here are a few things that I think the Christmas season would be better off without. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

1. Commercials where grown men try to sound like elves.

I don’t know why this happens every year, but for some reason advertisers – especially local advertisers – seem to feel that if you put things in elfin terms people will be more likely to buy them. Of course the big local example this year is a car dealership trying to get you to purchase the latest M-1 Abrams SUV (“Complete with its own zip code!”), which sort of makes me question the wisdom of the whole “elf” motif, but there you go. Remember, folks – grown men trying to sound like elves is not cute. It’s creepy. Go easy on the helium, lay off the psychedelics, and hire better writers.

2. Similarly, any commercial that pads its soundtrack with incessant jingling.

Seriously. It’s not festive. It just sounds like you’re playing with your keys too much, and I’m not about to shake hands on a deal with someone who spends that much time with their hands in their pockets.

3. Country/western Christmas carols about how new shoes are a sign of God’s love.

I’m fairly sure this isn’t in the Bible anywhere. I’m also fairly sure that gift-giving – while intensely fun and certainly nothing I will ever complain about (too much) – is not the center of the season. Dressing it up in 4/4 time and a smothering string arrangement is schmaltz, not sentiment, and the irony of that is just way too much for me right now.

4. NBA basketball

Am I the only person in America who was sort of disappointed that the NBA decided not to cancel their season? I’ve never really understood the appeal of a game where you’re not allowed to play defense and teams routinely score over a hundred points in increments of two so I’m probably not their target market anyway, but somehow the knowledge that oddly elongated men are out there bouncing a ball around on Christmas Day does not make me feel merrier. Oddly enough, though, football games do. I’m not sure why.

5. White men in blue suits pretending they’re fighting a beleaguered defense of what is, after all, the most popular holiday in America, in some personal fantasy world they call “The War On Christmas.”

First of all, these guys need to get a life. Wars involve bloodshed, chaos and no small amount of personal courage, and mouthing snarky, demonstrably false talking points from comfortably appointed newsdesks hardly qualifies. You want to fight a war in defense of Christmas? Go to North Korea and see what you can do. You won’t even have to start a new war, since the Korean War is still technically ongoing.

Second, the only people in what is now the United States who have ever seriously argued for making Christmas illegal – and who actually succeeded in doing so – were Puritans, who felt that the celebration was an ungodly travesty of true faith. Given that the 17th-century Puritans lived their Christianity in a way that modern Americans can’t even conceive, let alone match, I see no reason why I should have to put up with blowhards trying to score political points with idiots by pretending to defend my holiday. Christmas doesn’t need you, gents. Now crawl back under your rocks and leave the rest of us alone.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It Is Finished


It has been a very long semester, here in Baja Canada. But yesterday was my last class at Not Quite So Far Away Campus, and there will be no further 2am, “frantically whomping up a lecture on a topic I had never heard of prior to last week” nights, at least for the foreseeable future.

My US2 class has also been put to bed as far as lectures go. I last taught that one in 2008 and my entire understanding of the underlying dynamics of recent American history has changed since then, so somehow I managed to transfer all of those lectures out of my handwritten notes and into typed form while revising them as I went, mostly. There’s still some work to be done on that class, but I got the broad outlines of my current thinking into them.

Of course, by the time I get to teach it again I’m sure I will have moved onto new interpretations. And there will be new material to cover, as time seems to march on regardless of my schedule.

If I ever have to teach my World History Prior to 1500 class again, there will also be wholesale revisions. The first unit will need to be gutted and reconstructed from the ground up, for example, but at least I have a good handle on how I would want to do that now.

All that is left now are finals. And finals are the easiest exams from the professor’s point of view, because I don’t have to hand them back. Which means I don’t have to put comments on them. The majority of my time spent grading exams is devoted to putting enough comments on them so as to a) explain to the students how they can do better and b) head off any complaints about how they did this time. Grading finals is so much less time consuming.

I spent most of the last few days trying very hard not to be sick, as I was pretty worn out by the beginning of the month and teaching is not like normal jobs where you can miss a day and not really worry about it. It’s all on you – substitutes don’t work at the college level – and it all has to happen on time.

But now it’s all good. The classes are done. I’m feeling reasonably well, having slept a bit. And I spent today doing non-academic things – running errands, getting my hair cut, having lunch with the 3rd-graders at Not Bad President Elementary (at Lauren’s request) which of course meant many iterations of The Evil Laugh.

I’m hoping to get back to blogging again, too. I’ve missed it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Faces of Lauren, 2011

Every year at this time Kim and I sit down to try to pick a photograph that we can put on our Christmas card. And every year we are confronted with one simple fact: Lauren has a future in vaudeville.

So here is this year’s version of the Faces of Lauren.  Click on the photos to embiggen.

Go get ‘em, kiddo.

(look carefully - she's in there)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on the State of the Union

“Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.” (Lemony Snickett)

One of the most difficult ideas to get across to my students in my US history classes is the simple fact that there is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the United States of America.

Most Americans don’t believe that. They look at the map, which clearly shows the US filling up all of the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel, and it never occurs to them that this didn’t have to happen, or that at any number of junctions it could have turned out very differently.

Powhattan might well have decided that the English colonists in Jamestown were a threat to his confederacy rather than potential allies to be folded into his empire, and wiped them out. He could have, you know – it wouldn’t have even required any action on his part, just simple inattention. The Jamestown colonists would have died out on their own. That would have been three straight failures for the English colonists – Roanoake, Sagadahoc, and then Jamestown. Whether the English would have bothered with a fourth try would have been an interesting question.

The French might have displayed a little more financial sense, just enough to overcome their desire for revenge after the Seven Years’ War, and not bothered taking up the case of thirteen ragtag colonies clinging to the Atlantic shore of the New World thumbing their collective nose at the largest military and economic power on earth at the time. It would have pulled the plug on our Revolution fairly quickly, and might well have spared the French theirs.

We might have lost our Second War of Independence in 1812 rather than fought the distracted and divided British to a draw. There’s a reason we wrapped up the war as quickly as we could once the Napoleonic Wars had drawn to a close and it has nothing to do with sympathy for the French. Even with that distraction the British still managed to burn the President’s Mansion and operate largely at will across American territory. The War of 1812 was the death knell of the theory that a citizen militia could meet a professional military on equal terms, a rude awakening that few Americans these days care to acknowledge, and we very nearly returned to the colonial fold because of it. Or, if the British didn’t want us back, they could just have shattered the American Union and moved on.

The federal government might have manifested a backbone more rigid than a soup noodle and not caved in to the demands of Southern slaveholders in the 1830s and 40s, which would have meant not forcibly removing the northern third of Mexico and incorporating it into the US. It always tickles me to know that the first illegal immigrants into Texas were white Americans sneaking across the border into Mexico.

The North might have lost the Civil War.

Well, no.

There was no way the North was going to lose the Civil War. The North had morality, manpower, transportation networks, diplomatic leverage, industrial production and most of the guns, powder, salt, and food on its side in the struggle to eradicate the treason of the slavery-defending South, and the only reason the war went on as long as it did was because the South had the better generals for the first part of it. As long as the North remained determined to eradicate treason with fire, nothing the South did was going to make the war end in their favor once it came to combat.

Of course, the North could well have said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish” at any point after secession and let the bastards go, and that would have had the same effect as a Southern victory. There were certainly calls for them to do so, and it might have spared the North a lot of aggravation and subversion later if they had.

And on and on. I haven’t even touched on Alaska or Hawaii, two remarkably contingent additions to the Union.

The idea here is simply that it didn’t have to work out the way it did, and if you were to start the clock rolling over from the beginning I doubt it would again.

More to the point, the fact that we have the country we have is not a given going forward either. Just because it did happen to work out to this point is no guarantee that it will continue to work out next year or next decade or next century. Just as there was nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the development of the United States to this point, so to is there nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States in the future.

It takes energy to keep a country together and moving forward. It takes vision. It takes people willing to do the hard work of making sure that the nation is there when the sun goes down and still there when it comes back up.

One of the great lessons of my childhood was watching the annual Fourth of July parade down at the local firehouse, where my father – and eventually I – was a volunteer firefighter. It took a lot of work to get that parade moving, which came as a surprise to me as a kid. It is a sign of childish thinking to assume that good things just happen automatically, and a mark of maturity to recognize that this is not so. I hit that mark at that parade. My dad saw that look on my face, took me aside and said simply, “Nothing good happens on its own.”

Parades, nations, it’s all the same.

There are a lot of people in this country willing to put in the energy, time and effort to make that happen, however. I see them out there. I’d like to think I’m one of them. That’s not the part I worry about.

The thing that scares me currently is that, more than anything else, keeping a nation going forward takes a recognition that there are an awful lot of people in it, and their concerns had better figure into yours if you want it to stay together.

This, more than anything else, we have lost.

I have watched the general collapse of the American political system over the last decade with increasing worry, as one party – and, for those of you about to make a profoundly ill-observed point, yes it is entirely one party and not a case of “everybody’s doing it;” please make a note of that and start paying attention from now on – has repeatedly placed its own interests above those of the nation. This is new, something that only became standard in the last couple of years, even in that party. It really isn’t something the Democrats have done and, until the last four or five years, it really wasn’t something the Republicans did either. But pushed to the lunatic fringe by the far-right-wing extremists who have taken over a once-proud and constructive organization, the Republican Party has made it clear that if it cannot have everything entirely its way all the time without exception, opposition, or hesitation, it is prepared to burn this country down and piss on the ashes. It very nearly did so last summer, and it looks ready to do it again soon. There is a term for this, and “patriot” isn’t it.

I have watched the general collapse of the American middle class over the last several decades with equal worry. The statistics are overwhelmingly clear and disturbingly specific, and at this point I could simply fill my entire allotment of space on Blogger’s servers with graphs and charts demonstrating them if I so chose. Fortunately for you, I will skip them. The point remains, however.

We live in an age where it is considered a sign of righteousness to seek a pre-modern distribution of wealth, with a few elites and a vast sea of peasantry and nothing much in between. That’s not what has been the driving force behind American prosperity since the colonial period, but I see few if any people at the top or on the right who see it as anything other than their mission in life to achieve this sorry state of affairs. What left there is in this country makes sympathetic noises but offers no constructive agenda toward reversing this trend.

I do see a groundswell of opposition to that coming up from below, though. The OWS protesters have been arrested, assaulted, pepper-sprayed, kicked, gassed and generally treated as invasive pests, when all they have been trying to do is point out that the situation in America has gotten out of hand, and for that alone they deserve recognition as Jeremiahs, shouting in the concrete wilderness about the sins of the nation. I’m not sure the OWS protesters really have any actual notion of how to solve any of the problems they’ve identified – the ideas I’ve seen attributed to them certainly don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence – but only a fool would say that they haven’t correctly identified the most pressing crisis of recent American history. People are now discussing what had previously been deliberately ignored, and even if the OWS movement achieves nothing else in its existence it will still have done this nation a service.

Perhaps most worryingly, for all this, I’ve seen the folks at the top, in their shiny impressive buildings, taunting and mocking. I see them and the politicians they own blaming the people at the bottom for not being wealthy, and I see them advocating positions that would have been considered barbaric by Gilded Age Robber Barons, who at least had the Gospel of Wealth to make them feel bad about their rapaciousness.

That’s not going to end well. Historically it never has.

It can happen here. There is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States. When push comes to shove the only thing that is guaranteed is that there will be a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. At that point the whole thing may well come crashing down. Greater empires have collapsed over less.

And something else may well fill the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

All that will be left to do is mourn the lost promise of what was once a thriving, prosperous, powerful and – most painfully, in the loss column – hopeful nation, one that at least for a while and in some very clear ways actually did serve as a beacon to the world as to how it could be done. Not in every way, no, not at all. But in enough ways to make its self-imposed destruction that much more bittersweet.

Nothing good happens on its own. But catastrophes? They’re pretty much autopilot.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fashion Is Our Middle Name

We went to see Hugo on Wednesday.

For those of you who have not read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, well, what is your problem? It’s a big book, granted, but since most of it consists of atmospheric charcoal drawings it flies right by. And the story it tells, of an orphan living in a train station in 1930s Paris, the automaton he restores, and the tale that unfolds from that point, is a wonder to behold, especially if you know or appreciate early 20th century films. 

When Tabitha and I read through it the first time, she was curious about some of the old cinematic references – the Harold Lloyd scene where he’s hanging off the clock face, for example, and the oldest science fiction film in the world, where the rocket ship lands in the eye of the moon. And you know what? We live in an age of wonders. We went to the computer, fired up Teh Intarweebs, and there on YouTube were both films. It was fun to see her make those connections, and fun to see the movies. All books should come with side adventures like that.

So we were anxious to see the movie version. It’s a very cinematic book, after all.

Wednesday was its opening night and I can’t say I was all that surprised to find out that it was not playing here in Our Little Town, which is more of a Rambo XLIII sort of venue. Eventually we tracked it down to a theater in the Rather Larger City 35 miles south of us and – in a move that I would have found incomprehensible prior to moving to the midwest – we drove all the way down there to see it.

The theater was lavish in a way that I didn’t think movie theaters were anymore, but which fit the subject of the night quite well. And the seats were actually comfortable, with arms that folded up out of the way so you could actually spread out a bit and get cozy. Plus the guy behind me was also an Eagles fan, and we have to stick together these days.

The movie is in 3D, which meant that we all got yet another pair of those BCD-style glasses that they hand out. We’ve amassed quite a collection of them over the last few years, much to my dismay - to be honest if I can see a movie in 2D instead I generally will. But this seemed worth it. Mostly we recycle the glasses in those big blue boxes after these movies, but this time the girls asked if we could hang on to them.

Apparently it is now the style at both Mighty Clever Guy Middle School and Not Bad President Elementary to pop the lenses from these glasses and decorate the frames with glitter, paint and assorted other tinsel, and the girls spent much of our rather quiet Thanksgiving at home turning these utilitarian movie glasses into works of art.

Now they look like a cross between Buddy Holly and Hello Kitty.

Hugo: the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wait, It's Thanksgiving? Already?

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick! It’s Thanksgiving!

Who knew?

This semester has flown by so quickly and so busily that I’ve completely lost track of the passage of time. It’s just been me and the alligators around this swamp, and while I’m sure that eventually the swamp will get drained I am equally sure that I will have no conscious memory of the process. One alligator at a time, children, one alligator at a time.

Nevertheless, I do feel a need to be thankful. There are many things in my life to be thankful for.

I have my health and a decent, if precarious, career doing what I want to do.

I am happily married to a woman I love, and we have the two most wonderful children in the world. Your children? A close runner up, but nice try! *

I am materially comfortable. I’m a long way from the 1%, but my needs are met, and my reasonable wants are too. I do not need to make the kinds of hard choices that so many others have to make every day.

I have good friends, a long list of experiences to remember, broadband internet and a man-cave full of books.

Life is good.

We aren’t planning on doing much of anything today – our big family get-together will be Saturday, since that’s when people can gather. Holidays happen when you’ve got time, and if that means a few days one way or another from the official calendar day, then so be it.

Instead I will spend most of the day typing, in preparation for next week’s classes. We’ll make our own small version of Thanksgiving dinner, just for the four of us. There might even be breaks to watch large men chase after a small ball on television, if I’m lucky.

And I am lucky.

That’s sort of the point of today, to remember that.

Happy Thanksgiving!


*Your mileage may vary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Moment in Time

Seventeen years ago today, in a cozy little bed and breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa, Kim and I got engaged.

She didn’t know it was coming. We’d only been dating since March of that year – a bare eight months – and for that entire time we lived nearly two hundred miles apart. I was deep into my preparations for my comprehensive exams , which would take place the following spring, and she didn’t want to add to the stress on my world by bringing the subject up. She had come down to visit me the weekend before, and she told me later that on the drive home she had decided that if I hadn’t asked her to marry her by the time my comps were over she would ask me.

I already had the ring by that point, though. It was up in the closet, hidden away, waiting.

I’d figured out fairly quickly that I was going to ask her. Long before November. Before even that summer, when we had climbed into a car and driven from Wisconsin to Philadelphia to visit my parents. That we made it through that long of a journey together after only three months as a couple just confirmed what I already knew, what I had known since April.

I can still remember the moment.

Like a lot of world-altering moments, it was simpler and quieter than you’re led to believe such moments have to be. It has been my experience that most are.

I had come up to visit Kim in the apartment she lived in here in Our Little Town, and we had spent the day doing whatever it was we were doing, out and about in Baja Canada. We’d come back for dinner, though. It was a big apartment, nearly half the size of our current house, with a full-sized dining room and a kitchen that featured the same hideous orange-flecked-with-yellow countertops that seem to have been installed in every apartment in America between 1972 and 1978. Kim was in the kitchen cooking and I was in the dining room setting the table, and for some reason I needed to ask her a question and I called her name.

It hit me at that moment that yes, I could happily spend the rest of my life doing just that.

A lot has changed in the years since then.

But that hasn’t.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Movin' On Up

I appear to have lost the front seat of my car again.

Now that Lauren is a big girl of 9 she insists on riding in the front seat, which – according to her – is perhaps the single most exciting experience of her entire life, or at least that part of it which has happened in the last week or two. She bounces. She twists around to look out of all the windows, admiring the newly expansive view that one gets in the front seat. She aimlessly taps on what various buttons of the dashboard are within reach, which gives the car the appearance of something snipped from Mike’s New Car from the outside. She is at one with the world.

Tabitha is less sure about all this.

For several years now she has had the front passenger seat all to herself. This put a physical barrier between her and her younger sister that all middle-school kids appreciate, and generally made her world a better place. Losing that island is rather a blow.

The key will be devising a system by which the front seat can be shared.

Right now we’re working on an “alternating days” type of scenario, which I can already see is going to be difficult to maintain for the uncomplicated reason that I can barely remember what day it is today and cannot reasonably be expected to remember what day it was yesterday when called upon to resolve the inevitable disputes. So eventually we may resort to flipping coins. Or possibly random declarations of turns, which will satisfy me but probably not them. Children want justice; parents just want peace.

It has been a long and draining semester, and most nights it's all I can do to fall into bed for what little time I can stay there after yet another day of scrabbling to keep up with demands. I don’t remember the last time I was as excited about anything as Lauren is about the simple fact of being three feet further forward. I’m in that car all the time – it all sort of blends to me.

It’s nice to be reminded of simple joys, now and then.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

An Update From Teabagistan

Things are still hopping down here in Teabagistan, even if I haven’t been writing about them very much of late.

Part of that has been a basic unwillingness to deal with the subversion of the United States in general and Wisconsin in particular by a humorless oligarchy run by pantsless buffoons, which seems to me to be something the Founding Fathers did not really intend. As someone who has spent most of my life studying the political thought of the Founding Fathers, the knowledge that the republic is being actively destroyed by right-wing extremists is rather depressing.

It’s even more depressing knowing how effectively they’re doing it, and how much support they have for it. Well, the Founding Fathers never expected the republic to last this long - "virtue," the willingness to sacrifice one's private interests for the public good, being a fragile and perishable thing.

Part of it also has been the general workload of this semester, which has not allowed me much time to do anything but frantically scramble to keep up with things and what time it has allowed I have not wanted to devote to traitorous thugs undermining the foundations of the republic. Life is short.

But once in a while you just have to peek up over the parapets and see what the bastards are doing.

The official campaign to recall Governor Teabagger starts this week, and already several Republican operatives have openly declared that they will be posing as signature gatherers in order to burn the petitions, impede the recall and subvert the rule of law. As you would expect from the Party of Treason they represent, not a single word of objection has come from any Republican official or lawmaker disavowing this willful assault on the democratic foundations of American law and politics.

You are the company you keep, Teabaggers. Either disavow these unashamed felons or accept that they represent everything you stand for.

We’ve also had a Special Legislative Session On Jobs for what seems like the last several thousand years, one with the announced purpose of – wait for it – promoting jobs in Wisconsin. Leaving aside the question of whether this is something a legislature can actually do, it is instructive to note that of the several dozen bills debated or passed during this session not a single one – not one – had anything to do with jobs.

Instead they spent most of their time passing a version of Concealed Carry that would essentially force university campuses to allow students to have guns in class, because that is so helpful to the learning process. It would also allow guns on boats, in shopping malls, and pretty much anywhere some genital-deficient paranoid decided he needed to compensate for his shortcomings at the expense of public safety.

The bill even allows people to bring their guns into the State Capitol and into the Gallery overlooking the Legislature itself, though oddly enough the Teabaggers are still arresting people who bring cameras or wear t-shirts with sections of the US Constitution printed on them. Because knowledgeable citizens are so much more dangerous to their subversion of the country than guns are, I suppose.

Seriously. A 12-year-old was given the bum’s rush for daring to hold a piece of paper in his hand that had a doodle on the back reading “Free Speech.” Hell, kid, you should have brought a revolver instead.

The reason behind all this rush to turning Wisconsin into Somalia might just be the recalls, since at least one Republican official has publicly threatened to kill any recall worker who dares to ask for his signature on a petition. Wouldn’t it be ironic if he murdered one of the Republican fakes?

But rather than take their chances with thwarting the recall elections through violence – which is, after all, inefficient – Teabaggers took some time in the Special Legislative Session On Jobs to push for a bill that would immediately redistrict just the State Senate while leaving the Assembly districts alone. They’ve also clamped down on voting rights by further restricting the kinds of IDs that you can have in order to vote. When the independent elections board decided that college IDs would be acceptable to allow students who live here to vote here, the Teabaggers in the legislature ordered the board to formalize that into a rule “so we can suspend it.”

All across Home Campus they have these posters up advertising a public meeting sponsored by the that well known group of radicals, The League of Women Voters, offering to explain the new Voter Suppression Law. I think they could save a lot of time simply by reducing the law to its essentials: “Poor? Brown-skinned? Enrolled at a university? Stay home!” See how much more efficient that was?

The Special Session On Jobs also spent two full days arguing over something that had already been done. The first day was spent in raging debate over whether to remove race as a factor in giving out scholarships to state universities, not realizing that race was no longer being used as a factor in giving out scholarships to state universities. And then, when someone pointed this out, they spent another full day arguing about the same thing.

Grandmom, wherever you are, know that you were right about the things that float.

There were any number of other brilliant bits of legislative history being made by Teabaggers in this Special Session On Jobs – making sure consumers couldn’t sue corporations over defective products or services, rendering the highways less safe by gutting regulations over the size and load of semis, removing any meaningful sex education from the schools even if local districts and taxpayers want it there, changing the rules for teacher evaluations to allow easier removal of any teacher who speaks up against the destruction of public education in Wisconsin, allowing people to cherry-pick legal venues to sue from, and so on. I’m not sure how they fit into the whole “laser-like focus on jobs” thing, but there you go.

Perhaps I should have stayed below the parapet.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Psychopathology of Drama

I spent all day yesterday and most of the night before in the theater, doing lighting. It brought back many unrepressed memories.

I used to do a lot of that sort of thing, way back when. Most of my high school and college friends were theater techs of one variety or another, and I stopped counting the number of shows I worked on when I hit four dozen. Every semester in college I would wonder how many shows I could do before it seriously impacted my academic work.

The answer was six, by the way.

Not that this turned out to be a problem, in the long run. I was taking a class entitled “The Psychology of Drama,” taught by the only faculty member there who ever had anything to do with the theater. All of our theater was entirely student run – I don’t think they even offered a theater major – and there were eight or nine major student groups putting on shows as well as a few one-offs every semester. There were a dozen of us who did lighting, and we’d go from show to show, feeding on cast parties like locusts.

The class turned out to be a dud from my perspective – it was all about the psychology of acting and directing, which to my mind is not the same thing as the psychology of drama. I understood why it didn’t focus on the tech stuff that I loved – all that is add-on, and while fascinating in its particulars and an awful lot of fun to do is not at the heart of drama. You can put on a play in a field, without any tech at all, and it will be fine. The audience, however, is the core of theater. And the class never addressed the one question I thought would be of paramount importance for anything labeled “The Psychology of Drama”: Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

I still don’t know.

We had a group project due at the end of that class (and don’t get me started on the absolute uselessness of group projects – that is an hour of your life you’ll never get back). But I had promised a friend of mine that I would run the lighting board for her for that sixth show – a production of Hair. One of them had to give. Eventually I figured that there was really only one person I could ask about this, so I called the professor at home and explained the situation. There was a pause at the other end of the line, and then his German-accented voice softly replied, “Vell, you do vat you tink iss right.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I called up the leader of the group project and announced my retirement, ran the lights for Hair, and spent the following 48 straight hours writing my final paper for that professor. In four years of college that class shows up on my transcript as the only A+ I ever got.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Yesterday down at Home Campus we had a performer come in for three shows – a magician with an act geared toward mathematics education. For the two day shows we invited some local schools to come in, and the evening show was open to the public (and packed, I might add – oddly enough, the acts that sell down at Home Campus are almost always science-related acts that people can bring their kids to see). As with all of these events, it was my job to do just about everything support-related, from negotiating the contract to hanging the lights to providing the snacks backstage. During the show it was my job to run the lighting board.


It’s a computerized board, as they all are these days, but one that is at least fifteen years old and whose manual was clearly written by engineers rather than theater techs because – like all such manuals – it is organized around features rather than tasks. “Oooh! Look what this button does! And that one! And this one!” All of which is fine except that nowhere in there is there anything that says “If you want to get the cue you just programmed in using those buttons to show up on the stage, you need to do this…” Eventually the sound guy and I gave up trying to figure it out and I went with smaller cues I could do manually with the dimmers.

The thing about these shows is that they’re not like my Bright College Days when we had a week to work with the cast and practice running the cues. The performer showed up at 7:30am and spent two hours loading in his gear, after which he and I managed to squeeze in almost four minutes of explanation as to when he wanted the cues on the cue-sheet he helpfully provided to actually happen. The house opened at 9:40. First curtain went up at 10.

At least he provided a cue sheet. That’s one step above most.

So there I was, running cues on the fly.

Old memories indeed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Memorium

There is a very fine line between having your blog go dark for a day of mourning and not having the time to write anything anyway. It’s kind of like a lot of mid-20th-century art that way – it’s not so much the appearance of the thing as it is the intent behind it.

Last summer I was inducted into the UCF, a collective of bloggers and other folks online who share triumphs and tragedies, support, information, and no small amount of sarcasm, random digressions and the sort of friendly chops-busting that seems to have gone out of style in many places, alas. All I will say about it is that it is nice to find a corner of the internet that lives up the social networking hype that it was sold with way back when.

One of our members passed away over the weekend.

I had never met Wendy. I knew her as an icon, as words on a screen, and for that reason her passing probably hit the other members of the UCF rather harder than it did me. But she was welcoming to the new guy when I showed up, and she always had interesting things to say. And she passed the most important test of humanity that I know of – she was nice when she didn’t have to be and had nothing to gain by it.

And for that I will miss her.

As so many other UCFers have already said, fair winds and following seas, Wendy. The world is that much poorer for your absence.

Friday, November 4, 2011

News and Updates

1. We live in an age of unrepentant cruelty.

2. That isn’t really news if you have been paying attention at all to what passes for American politics these days, but I still find it depressing anyway.

3. Just when I think I should stop putting in so much effort with my World History Before 1500 class and coast into the end of the semester, it turns out my students actually are getting something out of it. On the one hand, that’s why you do this sort of thing. On the other hand, well, no coasting. Oh well.

4. I actually got to sleep before midnight last night, for the first time in weeks. I am getting too old for that nonsense.

5. Having a house full of leftover Halloween candy is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Especially if there are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups involved.

6. It’s a good thing the climate’s not really changing, because otherwise, you know, I’d be worried.

7. I really wish there were a Sarcasm Font in general use.

8. Is it just me or have the Teabaggers essentially conceded the 2012 Presidential election? I’m guessing they’ve found their mojo in simply staying on the sidelines and destroying what’s already standing - having to create something in its place would be more responsibility than they want to have. It’s always a bit disheartening when the Onion story turns out to be true.

9. The 1950s are the only decade in human history that can be reliably identified by a bass line.

10. “Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting out them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.” (Lemony Snickett). Truer words have never been spoken.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ninjas and Pandas and Sugar, Oh My!

It’s Halloween, and you know what that means around our house?

It means we end up with more than the usual allotment of sugar, that’s what, because in addition to the annual shakedown of the neighbors it is also Lauren’s birthday.

Lauren loves her birthday. She loves it with the heat of a thousand flaming suns. Where I could go years without remembering my own birthday – and have, on more than one occasion – Lauren looks forward to every birthday pretty much from the moment she wakes up after the last one.

And now she is 9, her last single-digit year.

It’s been a frantically busy semester here in Baja Canada, with Kim trapped at Home Campus until all hours and me alternating between being glued to my chair typing lectures for classes and driving the 180-mile round trip to teach some of those classes twice a week. So a lot of festivities are subdued this year.

The girls did get a couple of pumpkins, though, which they spent the weekend carving. We can now let them carve them on their own these days, and they did a marvelous job. Tabitha’s is a cat, of course, and Lauren’s is a rabbit, in honor of our two newest pets. They are now guarding the front steps of the house.

Tonight the girls have decided to go to the neighborhood of one of Lauren’s friends for trick-or-treating, since so much of the point of this holiday is to spend it with friends and they really don’t have any in the neighborhood now that the girls across the street have either grown up or moved away. Kim is with them, leaving me at home to hand out the candy in between typing up my lecture on the Roman Empire and its successor states (because as an American historian, I’m fully versed on that topic – it is often said that American politics is Byzantine; now I’ll find out for sure).

This year we don’t have any cat costumes, for the first time in years. We have a ninja and a panda, and if we could combine them we’d get Jack Black.

Lauren will celebrate her birthday this coming weekend, once the sugar rush wears off. We’re not really sure what’s going to happen with it, but no doubt it will be fun.

It amazes me that she is that old. It amazes me that I must be that much older. It is astonishing how she has grown into a person of her own now, with strong ideas of how the world should run, a unique sense of style, and a zest for everyday life that is a model for us all.

Happy birthday, Lauren. I’m proud of you.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fright Train

Well, it’s been 24 hours and I no longer smell like Pittsburgh, circa 1894.

We’re coming up on Halloween now, if I’ve got this whole “calendar” thing figured out properly. Of course this bothers some folks, people who think that getting dressed up in costumes and hitting up the neighbors for candy is some kind of Satanic plot and who think that calling it “Jesusween” is somehow not going to cause everyone with more than five functioning brain cells to laugh like hyenas at a George Carlin show, but I’m pretty much fine with people like that being bothered.

I miss George Carlin.

Over at the same park where they have the Thresheree they were advertising a Haunted Train Ride, and since you cannot spend the whole weekend working on class prep (well, maybe you can, but I can’t) I put my stuff aside and joined Kim and the girls on an expedition that way.

We even picked up their friend Grace and made a field trip of it.

Eventually we found the entrance to the park – a whole different kettle of fish in the dark than during the day, particularly since the organizers of this thing don’t hold much truck with new-fangled things like signage. Why back in the day you had to find your way in by scent alone! And if you weren’t quick about it a squad of burly men in overalls would tie you to the nearest tree, coat you in Vapo-Rub, spin you clockwise three times and toss you in the creek before you tried again. Those were the times when men were men, goldurnit.

Where was I?

Oh yeah – eventually we found the park and got in line for the train. It was a long line, there being a lot of people there (none of whom, fortunately, smelled like Vapo-Rub, times having gotten soft like they have), and we waited.

They tried to keep us entertained while we waited, with all sorts of costumed ghoulies wandering up and down making people shriek, as well as a craft area up the hill for those who didn’t feel like shrieking. The line moved slowly but surely, and after a while we found ourselves boarding the train.

This is the same train they use for the Thresheree – a 3/4-scale fully functional coal-fired steam engine pulling one closed car and one open one. There was some talk among the girls about trying for the open car, but in the end we weren’t given any options and were just herded into the closed one.

And a good thing, too.

For one thing, the entire fifteen minute ride consisted of various costumed characters running up to the car and shouting at us or pounding on the sides of the car, even as we rolled by a fair number of ghastly scenes that had clearly been set up by people with some serious issues. It’s nice to see those people finding gainful employment that doesn’t involve politics, I suppose, but they were rather startling at times.

My favorite was the old van done up to look like the Mystery Machine, with what was clearly the pelt of Scooby Doo hung from the door frame.

The other thing that made me glad to be on the inside was the train itself. Recall the description above, notably the phrase “coal-fired.” There we were, riding through the darkness past all sort of eeriness, and probably half of it was invisible because of the thick black coal smoke that came belching out of the locomotive and in through the windows of the rail car. Sometimes I was hard pressed to see Tabitha, sitting next to me, let alone whatever new horror the organizers had set up outside.

Eventually the ride came to an end and we poured ourselves out of the train and back into our car for the ride home, shaking off the coal dust all the while.

The Vapo-Rub starts to sound good after that.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Advice for Expecting Parents, Part 3 of 3

From what I gathered, being an observer to the process, pregnancy goes through several distinct stages. The first trimester is a very tired stage. There is a lot of new construction going on, and this requires most of the energy that exists, so there is very little left over for anything or anyone else. The second is the Manic stage, where you've got all sorts of energy. Enjoy it. In the third trimester you grow weary again. Your limbs become more limber than strictly necessary. You are always warm (having 50% more blood and an internal furnace will do that). It can get very annoying. But remember – pregnancy is a self-limiting condition, and it will in fact come to an end.

Go to the prenatal classes. They're fun, in their way. Part 12-step program (“Hello, my name is Rebecca, and I’m an expectant mother. It’s been 3 years since my last child.” “Welcome, Rebecca!”) and part training regimen, some of what they say will be useful, especially the breathing bits. You also get a sense that there are many people all going through pretty much what you are and many of them are even less prepared for it, which is always a welcome lesson. There will be at least one Martha Stewart wannabe, and you can rest assured that either she or her kid will end up sniping from a clock tower someday. Enjoy them!

Be sure to get a tour of the hospital while you’re there. Also, if your hospital allows pre-registration so you can fill out all the paperwork ahead of time and just give your name (including your last name in any and all of its permutations) at the front door when the big event hits, that is good.

On the day everything happens, before you go in to the hospital, remember that you probably have more time than you think you do, so:

Eat something. You may be there quite a while, and once you’re hooked up to all the monitors it is a bear to get something to eat.

Shower, following the same reasoning as eating, above.

Don't go in until there are contractions. If you go in too early they will just send you home. Otherwise they get herds of pregnant women cluttering up the halls, not delivering babies. Call them to make sure if you think you need to go in - if you have an Ask-A-Nurse line, that is a good place to start - but they will probably tell you to stay home until the contractions start.

Having your water break is likely a good sign that you should be headed in, at least to see what’s up, though it can’t hurt to call.

Many well-intentioned people will offer to help you when you bring the baby home. On the one hand, such help can be invaluable, especially if you and they all get along. Such people will cook, clean and generally maintain the household while you both grow accustomed to the new normal. Friends will stop by with food also. All of this is wonderful. So long as everyone understands that the new mother is NOT NOT NOT NOT to play host IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, MANNER OR FORM up to and including greeting guests or putting on clothing clean or otherwise, and further that any such guests will fit their activities around her world and make NO NONE ZIP ZILCH IXNAY NADA demands upon her - well, then, that will work out just fine.

On the other hand, even if everyone agrees to this stipulation (and miribale dictu follows through on those agreements), it can be draining at a time when you will be drained enough.

You make the call.

When you bring the baby home, you will begin to discover what tired really means. Imagine how you felt studying for your worst-ever final exams period. Now throw in your worst workweek ever, and multiply the result by, oh, a very big number, and you will know how tired you will be on your good days. Newborns do not sleep. Or, rather they do - up to sixteen hours a day - but in two-hour increments all around the clock. Sleep when the baby sleeps, whenever that may be, and you will survive. Even if you do this, though, you will lose track of days. You will bump into walls. You will be - and here I repeat myself, as you will find yourself doing a lot in those first few weeks - very, very tired. This is perfectly normal.

It does have some consequences, though.

At this point, you probably have a lot of cares on your mind. Details that need to be addressed, things you have to do, that sort of thing. These will flee your mind when the baby arrives, or at least they ought to. You won't care about showers, you won't care about what the house or the baby's room looks like, you won't even care if you are dressed or not. Bottom line: you simply won't care about much of what strikes you as important now.

What you will care about is:

1. Is the baby eating?
2. Is the baby sleeping?
3. Can I sleep too?
4. Can I eat?

And you will care about them in that order. Babies exist to remind us that our other plans probably weren't that important.

Don't both of you stay up for the late night feedings so you can enjoy the magic of it. Take turns if you are bottle-feeding. If Mom is nursing, let Dad sleep - PROVIDED he takes over every other function of the house (laundry, dishes, everything). At minimum, the partner of a nursing mother of a newborn should prepare meals, take care of whatever older children are about, and make sure the house doesn’t burn down. Anything after that may or may not have to get done at all.

The magic lines are 3 months and 11 pounds. At three months (past due date, not birth date, so if Junior is really early you will have to add) your baby is cognitively advanced enough not to need you every second, just most of them. This is liberating. And at 11 pounds, her stomach is large enough to hold enough food to sleep through the night, defined as five consecutive hours of sleep. This may not seem like much sleep now, but you will think you are at a spa.

Any restaurant that delivers is your best friend during those first few weeks, especially if it produces leftovers. Indulge in this liberally. But beware of leftovers - monitor their dates carefully. New parents are very fuzzy thinkers and will sometimes eat very fuzzy things, much to their detriment. Trust the voice of experience - this hurts.

Babies cry. Babies cry A LOT. You probably know this, intellectually. You may even have had some experience with this, babysitting or taking care of friends' kids. But you don't know this in the marrow of your bones the way you will when it is 5am, your loving partner fell over an hour ago and it is just you and the tornado siren until dawn. You will despair. You will know the extremity of frustration. You will cry along with your baby. This is Perfectly Normal.

It has been scientifically proven that a newborn's cry is the single most irritating sound to the human ear (really - I have no idea how they did it, but there actually was a study on this). This is so because it is the only sound they can make - they can't ask for things, they can't point, all they can do is wail and hope you catch on (and believe, me, catching on is something that takes practice - you will find yourself running through all the options, one by one, until something works, and if nothing works you just run through them again or wait until the kid falls asleep). Also, babies, especially newborns, are AWESOMELY needy things - they can do nothing for themselves, not even fart. They need to make sure you respond to them, otherwise they die. A newborn with a soothing cry is a newborn that gets ignored and starves. Darwin at his finest.

Remember - it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to spoil a newborn. Do not listen to harpies telling you to let them cry or they'll become brats. Until the kid is at least six months old and probably older, she won't cry unless there is some reason somewhere - it may not be obvious or even detectable, but it is there. She needs something - give it to her, or at least give her reassurance that you're looking for it. Pick her up, try your best to sooth her, and DO NOT IGNORE HER. There are still parenting manuals that tell you otherwise. If you find one, burn it. Newborns cry because they need to - not because they want to.

This means that your little one DOES NOT HATE YOU, no matter how much you may think so. She is not trying to make you crazy (that comes when she's a teenager). You will go loopy anyway, especially when she doesn't stop (we never went through colic, but I hear that's even worse). Remember that it isn't her fault - she's programmed that way, and so are you. She is just trying to get your attention.

The most important lesson to take away from that is do not take out your frustrations on her. You say now that of course you won't – OF COURSE! – but it's not 5am now, is it? Believe me, you will be tempted. You will understand how children get abused, though you will sympathize with it even less than you do now. I heartily support cruel and unusual punishment for child abusers, the Constitution be damned, but there were definitely times when the darker corners of my soul started making unwanted suggestions.

You will resist those suggestions, because you are not evil. You are the Parent, the grown-up, the adult in the room, and more than anything else in this world that is what your child needs – someone who will love them and protect them and take care of them even when they are not being lovable. Parenting is not for wimps. It will not be easy, but you will be okay.

Remember a couple of things.

First, it is okay to put the child down and let him cry for a few minutes. It won't hurt him, and sometimes you just need to take a break. Five minutes is about as long as such breaks can possibly last, even in theory - in practice it will be more like two, and even that is pushing it sometimes - but sometimes that's all you need to unscramble your marbles. Take a walk around the house. Go into your room and shut the door. Turn on a random TV show and crank the volume. AND THEN GO BACK. Again: parenting is not for wimps - get back to the front, soldier, and take what comes. You may be pleasantly surprised. Either she'll still be crying, in which case the cycle repeats and you may actually figure out what the problem is this time and solve it (hey, it happens now and again), or - and this does happen as well - she'll have worn down and conked out. Repeat as necessary.

And second, don't be afraid to take out frustrations and anger on inanimate objects. The pillows don’t complain. Nor do the walls. You might, depending on what you aim for, but that’s okay – you’re an adult and you can handle it.

Oddly enough, given all this, you will get used to it. As with everything else, the first three months are the worst, and after that you find yourself building up a tolerance. Eventually you will be able to sit in a room full of crying babies and not even notice - you will reflexively check to see that your own child is okay and that the other screaming munchkins have someone looking out for them, but you will calmly eat your meal and carry on your conversation anyway. Crying babies in public spaces or at events/ceremonies/etc. will just leave you with a wry and knowing smile. You will feel mostly sympathy for your crying baby, and even other people's crying babies. Your first reaction will go from "Oh no!" to "Aww, poor little thing..." You will even feel this way on airplanes, believe it or not. This is a survival skill, and a welcome one. Remember that it will happen to you eventually, no matter how unlikely this may seem at first.

Do not hesitate to reach out to friends and family for help. This is why they exist in the first place – to help you get through things that may seem too big at the time. There will be moments when that’s what this will seem like – babies are not all sunshine and roses. As you can tell from the length of this tome, parents generally love being useful this way. And I can tell you from experience how important it is to be able to talk to someone who can say, “Yeah, I remember that stage. You’ll be fine. This is how it goes…” Soon it will be you giving those reassurances, and you will understand it from the other side. We’re all in this together, and you might as well make good use of that fact.

Get used to your floors. Babies spend most of their time on the floor, and if you want to be part of their world you will too. Play with them on the floor. Talk to them on the floor. Spend time on the floor - don't you hate it when people look down at you? Get down on their level.

A side benefit of this is that if you get on the floor and crawl from room to room, you will get a much more thorough picture of the hazards you will have to correct when the kid starts to move on her own. Also, assume your carpeting is disposable and get it replaced when the kid is in junior high.

Science fiction is probably the best preparation for parenthood, because it teaches you to accept as reality whatever is presented to you as such. There will be more than a few times when you will need to fall back on this training.

Write things down. When you are in the middle of it, it seems like it will never end - things have always been this way, they will always continue to be this way. And yet by the time you turn around, that squalling little lump will be walking and talking, making his own plans and doing his own things, and you will have no idea where the time went, nor will you remember any of it on your own. Not the day-in, day-out stuff anyway. Every day, even if it is just a word or two on a calendar square, write something down.

Likewise, take lots of pictures. Digital storage is cheap, moments are priceless, take pictures accordingly. Make sure you get a camera that records the date! It's not like your former childless life, where all of your pictures are of holidays and you can pretty much tell that if people are wearing sweaters it must be Thanksgiving or Christmas. You will find yourself taking all sorts of pictures just because, and those are hard to date.

Above all, stop now and then and try to take in the magic of it all. This is an amazing process, for all its nuisances and inconveniences. It will change your life in ways you cannot even imagine now.

Some of these ways will be rather quixotic. Your time will not be your own, ever – babies are such awesomely needy things. You will have to PLAN for activities you used to just DO - grocery shopping, for example, becomes a well-thought-out strategic strike, complete with intense amounts of baby baggage. MacArthur went into the Philippines with less forethought and baggage than the average new parent needs to go to the mall. You can forget traveling or eating out for a while, at least for a few months (if you're brave – probably longer if you’re like most of us).

On the other hand, what you get back is far more important. You will see things differently. Your priorities will shift. You will never sneer at drippy Hallmark Mother's Day cards again, because you will understand what the corporate flacks who wrote them were trying to get at. It's hard to explain, and no matter how I try it won't make sense until you're there. You just have to experience it. And you are experiencing it - stop every so often, just stop, and try to take it all in. If you do it right - and I've managed to succeed maybe once a month during good stretches - it will be the most awe-inspiring feeling you'll ever have.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Advice for Expecting Parents, Part 2 of 3

In which we discuss the parental ramifications of George Carlin's observation, "That's all a house is: a place to keep your stuff."


The Baby Industry will try to convince you that you need a buttload of Stuff, all of it coordinated and all of it ready to go at least a month in advance. This is a crock of yuppie guilt.

Babies do not require a whole lot of stuff. They GET a whole lot of stuff, because a) babies are fun to buy stuff for (you will be amazed at what strikes your fancy after you become a parent) and b) once other kids are grown a bit, their parents are desperate to unload stuff and the Baby Stuff Jet Stream will park over your house and items will rain down on your head. This is a good thing, and the only way you can survive without going broke.

Also, you will become a connoisseur of garage sales - you will be amazed at the high-quality, lightly used (or even unused) stuff you will end up with when your baby is grown a bit and you have your own garage sale, and other people's garage sales are just the same. We bought a staggering percentage of our children's clothes at garage sales, and we found more than a few really cool (and otherwise very expensive) toys as well.

Do not worry about getting ready six weeks in advance. First of all, babies don't need that much stuff all at once. Second, you will never really be ready. You have no idea what is about to hit you. Trust me – you don’t. Many kindhearted and thorough people tried to tell us - intelligent and educated souls that we are - what to expect, and it was just so much scorched rubber on my scalp. Whooosh! What hit me!? You won't know what you need until you need it, and thank God for all-night supermarkets, overnight delivery and mega-stores. Emergency runs for supplies are Perfectly Normal, so relax.

In terms of stuff, though:

No matter what people tell you, there is a VERY short list of things which babies absolutely require. This list includes 1) diapers and cleaning supplies, 2) receiving blankets (especially for a cold-weather baby - you cannot have too many receiving blankets), 3) onezies (do not buy or use infant clothing that does not snap at the bottom, no matter how adorable it is), 4) a small can of formula in case the nursing doesn't work out, 5) a carseat, and 6) a place to sleep. This last can be as simple as your own bed, which works fine (though Dad may end up sleeping elsewhere for a couple of weeks if that happens).

EVERYTHING ELSE IS OPTIONAL, and all of this except the carseat can be purchased at your local megastore for around $50 to $100 total. More if you buy a cradle.

The carseat will probably be expensive, but this is one thing you definitely do not want to cheap out on - kids spend a LOT of time in the car these days, unless you live in a major metropolitan area with decent public transportation, so splurge on this one. Check out Consumer Reports, too.

The hospital will probably give you the small can of formula when you leave – formula companies pay good money to get their product into your hands, and you might as well take advantage of the system.

Remember, you will end up with much more stuff than this when all is said and done (oh, my, will you ever). You will want it, and your baby will be happy to see it, but this does not equal "necessary"

On the list of "Really Useful (if not strictly necessary) Things To Have, you can place the following:

Cotton balls - soak them in warm water and use them instead of baby wipes when dealing with newborns; they're easier on gentle skin and provoke fewer rashes. Make sure they're 100% cotton, though - the polyester ones leave strands behind. This works for the first few weeks, maybe a bit longer, until they get a little bigger. Then get wipes.

Door mice - those little foam rubber things you put on your doors to keep them from slamming and waking up napping babies - priceless.

Pillows - pregnant women use an ungodly number of pillows. You don’t have enough pillows. No, you don’t. Really, no. Stock up now.

Rocking chairs - preferably one in the baby's room and another somewhere where you will be taking care of her (best if it's in front of a TV, as you will be amazed at how often you will be rocking a sleeping child in your arms and can't move or read). I like glider rockers, since they don't wander off when you rock, but that's just me. Glider rockers also have the advantage of coming with solid sides, so they don't catch toddler fingers when you rock.

A small CD player in the baby's room for to play lullabies upon, and a lullaby CD. Any quiet, soothing CD will do – it’s not like they’re hipster music experts. They just want something nice to fall asleep to. So do you.

Finger food for the first few weeks - you won't have time to cook or even reheat, so have a big vat of something you can leave on the dining room table and snatch as you go by. Cookies are fine. Remember – empty calories are better than no calories, particularly for people who are red-lining their energy reserves, as new parents tend to do. This is not the time to be health-conscious or go on any diets. You need calories. You will lose weight anyway, and this is especially true of nursing mothers.

Binkies. This is another issue that many people confuse with a Moral Dilemma. We got many earnest dissertations on the evils of pacifiers, and ignored every last one of them. Binkies are incredibly useful - they work exactly as advertised, pacifying babies and allowing the rest of the world to soldier on. Good things. The silicon ones are tougher when Junior gets teeth, and if you’re worried about allergies they’re probably better than latex, but otherwise don't worry too much. The one really useful thing we discovered is that there are a number of brands that come with binky clips now - plastic clips that attach to Junior's onezie, with a ribbon that goes up to the binkie. Eliminate searching for lost binkies! Coolness. Avoid anything with an alligator clip at the end.

A nursing pillow, if you will be nursing. It props up Junior and saves your arms.

A big clock with glowing hands (or a clearly visible LED digital one) for the baby's room, so you know just how long you've been rocking the kid to sleep.

A good fragrance-free detergent. Anything marketed as a “baby detergent” is going to be heavily scented. There are those this does not bother, and you may be one of them, but we found that very hard on baby skin (not to mention ours).

Nylon netting for any stair rails or hallway rails the kid could crawl through (available at most hardware stores premade for just this purpose). Cabinet locks and other child-proofing devices. By the time you need these (at the earliest when Junior is 7 months old or so) you will have a good feel for what you need.

Tiny little hats - newborns lose heat through their heads and can't control their own body temps, so always have a hat on them for the first few weeks.

A cheap full-length mirror that you can tack to the wall at floor level in a room where the baby will be spending a lot of waking time (we put ours in the living room). Babies love to see themselves, and many never outgrow this. You can play Zoom-In Baby! Zoom-Out Baby! When they can sit on their own you can prop them up in front of it and buy precious minutes of down time. When they can walk, they will often go over to admire themselves.

Trashcans with lids. At first this will be because used diapers will find their way into every trash receptacle you own and eventually your air quality will suffer. Later it will be to prevent junior explorers from doing unsupervised archeological work on your middens.

A good-quality handheld vacuum, preferably cordless. You will be stunned at where all sorts of things end up.

Desitin - it's the scent of new parenthood.

A nice pair of soft slipper-type footwear. Until Junior is walking around outside, there is no need for shoes with hard soles - and until she's walking, there's no need for shoes at all. Socks and slippers will keep little feet warm, otherwise don't bother.

A four-door car, if you don't have one already. Schlepping a carseat with an infant into the backseat of a two-door is a sure recipe for back problems, particularly for older parents. I spent a great deal of time thinking, “So that’s why we’re biologically programmed to have kids when we’re TEENAGERS, dammit, and not in our 30s.”

A good stroller. Umbrella strollers are cheap and work fine for older babies, especially when you're traveling and need something portable, but they're not good for newborns. The kid has to be able to hold her head up while jostling over bumpy sidewalks, and that takes a few months. Get a nice big one that folds up. If you can, get one that has an infant carseat system so you can snap it out of the base in the car and directly into the stroller.

A good carseat. Again, do not go cheap on this one - your baby will be spending an awful lot of time there. And try to sync it with the stroller if you can - we had one that just lifted out of the car and snapped into the stroller, which was wonderful. Babies can sleep fine in these infant buckets, so if she falls asleep while you are driving, just carry her, seat and all, into the house and park her somewhere quiet for naptime. DO NOT attempt to take a sleeping child out of a carseat and put her into a bed, as you will just wake her up and make everyone miserable. Get one with two bases if you have two cars, so you don't have to transfer the base from car to car.

For favorite items, it is a good idea to have a backup. If there are one or two special toys or blankies, make sure to have an identical spare for when the first is in the wash or lost. Be sure to rotate them, though! If you just keep one in reserve, eventually it will still look shiny and new while the favorite gets worn and comfortable - and then the point is lost. At first you may feel guilty about such trickery, but this will pass. Age and treachery will beat youth and skill every time.

The key to parenting, as with any power relationship, is to control the options. In any system, from government to child rearing, power lies with the person who sets the options, not the person who makes the choices. If I can give you a choice of A, B or C, all of which are acceptable to me, what do I care what you choose?

While this is true for all phases of parenthood, it is especially true when it comes to Stuff. This means only stocking children's movies that you don't mind seeing repeatedly, only stocking food that you don't mind her eating, and so forth. If all the food is healthy, she can eat the same thing every day for months if she wants. If none of your movies rot your brain and curdle your innards, let her choose.

Let them win the battles so long as the war is safely in hand. They will be happier, and so will you. They won't figure out this lesson until much, much later – frankly, most people never figure it out at all – so banzai!

To be honest, I'm a lot better at this sort of thing in theory than I am in practice. Life intervenes, particularly when the kid gets older and starts to make her own decisions. I tried though, since when I did succeed, it made life just so much easier.

The best course of action on food is only to stock food that is appropriate. You won't do this absolutely - nobody does this absolutely, not even diet gurus or baby-mavens - but you can avoid a lot of grief if you keep the crap to a minimum.

Our pediatrician told us not to worry about balanced meals but to focus on balanced weeks. Some days are veggie days. Some are meat days. If you don't have any on hand, there won't be any potato chip days. If it balances over the course of a week, you're fine.

There are an awful lot of children's movies out there, and most of them are miserably bad. Cloying, poorly animated, plotless things with music you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy's wedding reception, they will kill you if you buy them because children like to see things repeatedly. Unless you intend to watch Hello Kitty a hundred times, don't buy it. We learned that one the hard way.

Though if you’re interested in how cross-cultural communication can go disastrously awry even with the best of intentions, get the Hello Kitty Christmas movie – it’s fascinating the first time, as train-wreck television often is, but unless you quickly “lose” it into the nearest landfill it will make you want to run to the nearest federal office and beg to be shipped to Guantanamo.

Avoid anything that prominently advertises itself as “heartwarming.” It will only give you gas.

Bottom line, when it comes to movies only get what you want to watch. This is not has hard as you may think. We live in the second golden age of animation and there are a lot of good movies for kids out there. Some examples:

For very little ones, the Baby Einstein company puts out an entire line of wonderful videos. Buy them. For the very littlest ones - anytime after about 5 or 6 months - Baby Mozart is cool. It has good music and pleasant little shots of toys in motion. You can watch it for hours without suffering brain damage (it’s actually kind of catchy), and your child will love it. The movies have gotten more slick with recent entries, since Disney bought them out, but they're still worth it.

Pretty much anything Disney puts out is worth buying, actually. This is what they do - they're good at it. Some of the older ones have not worn well (Peter Pan comes to mind), but you can't go too far wrong with Disney.

This is especially true with their Pixar branch. The Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E and so on are great - and, as with the best children's stuff, there is lots for the adults. Monsters Inc. is perhaps the best children's movie ever made, though the bottom limit for viewers is 3 years old.

There are a lot of other good animated films competing with Pixar. The secret is that the good ones throw in plenty of stuff for the adults who will be watching too. The Shrek movies are good for kids. Ice Age is fun. One of my favorites, actually, is a shamefully little-known movie called Hoodwinked. You can also get all of the first three seasons of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as well as the entire run of the Pink Panther cartoons, on DVD. The Pink Panther is especially nice when the kids are older and you have one of those DVD players for the car – there’s no dialogue to distract the driver, just Henry Mancini’s glorious jazz score.

Elmo rules. Especially for kids between 18 months and 3 years old. You would be surprised at how painless Elmo can be for adults

And so on. The key thing about videos is that it is okay to park your child in front of them now and then in order to get other things done, such as cooking dinner. This is not, as one (childless) social worker told a friend of mine, a form of child abuse. This is how things work. Don't use them as a substitute for parenting unless you want your child to send Mother's Day cards to Disney from prison, but as an occasional holding device, they're invaluable.

The same goes for music.

Getting children into music early is a great thing, but there is a lot of awful stuff out there. Avoid anything sung by kids, since these are made by grownups who have no sense of humor.

The ones we really liked were "Philadelphia Chickens," by Sandra Boynton (and its sequel, "Dog Train"), "Bright Spaces," a compilation, "Holiday Songs and Lullabies," by Shawn Colvin, "Night Songs" by Dan Zanes, "You Are My Sunshine" by Elizabeth Mitchell, and a few others. Anything by Dan Zanes is good, actually. There are also a lot of kids CD’s out now by “real” artists – it’s one of those trends, so you might as well take advantage of it. They Might Be Giants has one, for example. Bottom line, though, stick with the tunes you like and your sanity will benefit.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Advice for Expecting Parents, Part 1 of 3

It seems that I’m in the middle of another one of those waves where my friends all get together and decide to procreate. And good for that, I say. Otherwise that whole “survival of the species” thing gets a little tense.

Several years ago, during the last of these waves, one of my friends asked me if I could distill my hard-won parental wisdom and write down some advice for them.


If there’s anything parents enjoy more than telling other parents how to raise their children, particularly if it involves talking about their experiences raising their own children, I haven’t found it. And the result was … thorough. My friend was gracious about it, though, and I hope that at least some of it turned out to be handy when the time came.

What follows is that advice, tinkered with and edited a bit. Maybe it will be handy for you too.

Or at least entertaining.


Congratulations! You’re having a baby!

You’re about to embark on a life-changing journey of magical proportions, one that will enlarge your heart and expand your consciousness to become one with the human experience and … gag … wheeze … damn, nearly made it through that with a straight face.

Let’s try that again.

Guess what? With tools you had hanging around the house you’ve somehow managed to create a total stranger inside your body. And the fascinating part is that after this stranger solves what would appear at first glance to be an intractable “Tab-A vs. Slot-B” mismatch and squeezes their way out into the world they will live in your house and mooch off your finances for the next couple of decades, during which you will get no sleep and buy no new furniture. Also, there will be stickers. Lots of stickers, on every conceivable surface, occasionally mounded to a depth of half an inch or more.

And brightly colored plastic objects.

For you, this will divide time into Before and After. Your entire life – your home life, your social life, your work life, and your private life, even if you don’t think you have any of these lives – will change. Naturally you’re a bit weirded out by the whole thing. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t be?

Shows you’ve got some sense.

And because right now you’re looking for any floating object to keep you from drowning in a sea of worry, I have prepared a Whole Lot Of Advice, just for you.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.

The first thing you have to realize is that everybody and their nitwit twin brother has advice for you when you are expecting a baby, and it doesn't stop when the kid is born, believe me. Remember that advice is free and worth every penny. DO NOT BE RAILROADED INTO ANYTHING. DO NOT BE GUILTED INTO ANYTHING. Advice is everywhere, but you are the one on the spot.

That goes for all of the things your friends will tell you, including everything that follows from this point on. That goes for all of the things you will read in books. You will find that most of them are written by people with ideological axes to grind, which will be glaringly obvious when you start to feel guilty halfway through the first paragraph. That goes for what your family tells you, and what you hear on TV. It even goes for some of what your doctor will tell you - if you think something is wrong and the OB/GYN or pediatrician is dismissive, this does not necessarily mean you were mistaken.

You should examine the advice, certainly - most of it is well meant, and some of it will be incredibly useful. But do not feel obligated to follow it.

Though when doctors tell you to take positive action, it's generally a good bet to do so.

This is a compilation of things that worked for me with my children. But you know, they were different kids. Things that worked with one did not necessarily work with the other. And neither of them is your child. Nor am I you. If you find that you have strong feelings about something, or if what someone tells you strikes you as absurd, well, then, go with your gut. Remember, babies have been born long before advice became an industry. Most of them turned out fine.

Trust yourself. You will not understand why anyone would say this to you, particularly not during the first 72 hours after you bring your child home, but trust yourself anyway.

The one exception to this rule is vaccination. VACCINATE YOUR CHILD! And again: VACCINATE YOUR CHILD! I firmly believe that people who willfully put their child at risk by deliberately ignoring the greatest medical breakthrough of the last millennium should be arrested, charged with child abuse, and infected with every disease their child would have been immunized against, one by one, beginning with polio. Survivors will be inducted into the army and sent to remote outposts. This may seem draconian, but I'm okay with that description.

A couple of years ago I had the misfortune to listen to one half-wit of a mother defend her decision to put her children at risk by saying 1) the vaccines have risks too, and 2) these diseases don't happen in her neighborhood.

Yes, vaccines have risks. Everything has risks. And the risks from vaccines are documentably lower than the risks from not having vaccines. Science: it works. Also, the reason those diseases didn’t happen in her neighborhood is that HER NEIGHBORS VACCINATED THEIR KIDS.

It is people like me who provide her children with what little margin of safety they have, and it is people like her who will destroy that margin for my grandchildren. On a very personal level, I resent that.

There are a great many decisions involved in child-rearing which are Not Moral Decisions. Cloth diapers vs. disposable ones. (Tried both.) Breast feeding vs. bottle feeding. (Tried both.) And so on. Do what seems best and do not be railroaded by people with agendas.

That said, if you can breast feed, do it. It's cheaper, it's better for the baby, it's always ready and always the right temperature, and it travels better. Plus, you can't beat the packaging. Not all babies are up for it, though. We ended up with one of each, with no harm done. Ah well. Your mileage will vary.

The down sides to breast feeding are a) the baby is Mom’s, not Dad’s - Mom gets to stay up all night feeding her and there is a certain amount of bonding that takes place there that will leave Dad out in the cold for quite some time, and b) when Mom goes back to work, there will be pumping.


If you plan to keep nursing for long after you go back, buy your own pump. Breast pumps are definitely items where you get what you pay for, so don't get a cheap one. You do not want to be economizing with any machine whose stated purpose is to grab onto your nipples and pull. You’d only spend the difference on salves and ointments anyway.

Diaper-changing - a primer. Skip this if you’ve already had experience in this matter with siblings, nephews/nieces, and/or kids you babysat for.

The first time you change your baby's diaper, it will take upwards of five minutes and you will feel exhausted from the effort. This lasts about a week, maybe less. By three months, you can (and, in fact, will) do this in your sleep. You will do it in her sleep. Eventually you will get to the point where none of the parties involved will have any conscious memory of the process. This is called Progress.

A few hints for the road:

If you have a boy, be sure to have an extra cloth diaper on hand to lay on the appropriate appendage. As my mother said, the worst thing that can happen with a girl is that the changing table gets wet - with boys you get a face full.

Wet diapers are easy, especially if they are disposable. Peel and toss. Wipe her down and rediaper. No problem.

Poopy diapers (yes, you will talk that way too - just you wait) are another matter. Some things I have learned, generally the hard way:

Remove the baby's socks, shoes and pants completely, at least until you've really got the hang of this sort of thing. Babies are squiggly things, and you only have to have them plant their foot in it once to realize that feet can just be wiped but socks need to be laundered.

Hold her ankles in one hand and wipe with the other.

Wipe the butt cheeks first. That way you can put her down without contaminating the entire surface.

If there is a blowout, there is nothing to do but get dirty. Get her cleaned up and out of the way, then attack the mess. Take the clothes to the nearest toilet and rinse - this is why God gave you hands and Proctor & Gamble gave you anti-bacterial soap. This will not faze you after the first time.

Despite this, you will continue to eat finger-foods because you are a Parent and Parenting Is Not For Wimps (see below).

Have some sort of system for sharing this load, no pun intended. It should be something that requires no long term planning – flipping coins is great for this. You will find that it will be impossible to remember things like “turns” so you’re better off with random chance. In the long run it will even out, and in the short run it avoids arguments over whose turn it is.

Have a replacement diaper ready and waiting before you start. For some babies, removing the diaper is a signal to commence peeing. The waterproof little pad you have won't catch it all unless you're fast with the new diaper. If you miss, it isn't a tragedy but it is a laundry nuisance.

Have a changing area on each floor, at least in the beginning. When they're really tiny and you're really tired, schlepping all the way to the baby's room is a drag. The floor will do if you keep it warm enough and put the proper pads down. Remember the Old Drunk’s Rule - you cannot fall off the floor.

Being a new parent and being a drunk have a lot in common, actually: incoherence, the inability to dress or eat properly, the constant coating of random bodily fluids, the odd combination of curiosity and pity from on-lookers, and so on. All the psychosis without the health problems!

Beware of the meconium - the tar-like substance that extrudes from a newborn's nether end for the first couple of days. It is a bear to clean off tiny skin. Warm water and cotton balls are best - wipes are hard on new skin. Don't use wipes for at least a month if you can avoid them, possibly longer.

One of the advantages of nursing is that poopy diapers don't really smell all that bad. Formula changes that. Solids change that even more. Reason no. 14b why nursing is good.

Very little ones do not wet much. Put a tissue in the diaper and you will know better when it has been used. This is especially true with disposable diapers, whose absorbency is stunning.

If you do go with disposable diapers, invest in a Diaper Genie. It will vastly improve your air quality