Thursday, May 31, 2012

Adventures in Technology

This all started with YouTube.

Those who know me understand that among the many and varied adjectives that could plausibly be used to describe me, “tech-savvy” is not one of them.  The material world and I have issues even at the most basic of levels, and when you add computers into the mix those issues just get compounded.  I use computers all the time, but I don’t really understand them.  They’re just magical black boxes where the internet is stored, and if I don’t have to think about them any more than that, then I am happy.

So when I somehow managed to mute everything on YouTube, I was confused.

And I do mean everything.  Every YouTube video I accessed, whether from the site itself or from other sites that linked to it, from every browser on my computer, was silent.  I clicked on the volume button next to the videos, but nothing happened.  I checked the sound on the computer – everything else still made noise.

Aha, I said.  I’ll reboot.  That works more often than not.  I don’t know why – cars don’t magically fix themselves when you turn them off and turn them on again, but in my experience computers do, roughly three quarters of the time.

This was one of those exceptions.

Maybe it’s my software, I thought.  I therefore took the opportunity to update my main browser and Flash, thus quelling the little “Update Me Now!” reminders that have been popping up for weeks now.  And still no sound.

At this point I had plumbed the full depths of the puddle that is my technical knowledge, so I asked for help.  And the UCF came through!  Random Michelle and Phiala led me to the solution (apparently you have to click on the volume button and drag it to the right – who knew?) and I was in business again.

Somewhere in there, though, the discussion morphed into a general conversation about anti-virus software.  I have no anti-virus software – this is one of the nice things about owning a Mac.  Most virus writers don’t bother writing for Macs.  But apparently this is changing, and so I took Michelle's recommendation to download an anti-virus program.

I set it up.

It asked me what I wanted to do, and I figured that well, in for a penny, in for a pound, why not have it do the “Full System Scan.”  Might as well get it all fixed up as a baseline.

I began to get suspicious after about twelve hours.

The program scanned through the hard drive fairly quickly and found a few files that had viruses in them – all of them at least three years old, and none of them put there by me, so I could feel sort of virtuous that way.  This particular screw-up wasn’t mine!  Yay team!

Then it moved on to the Time Machine – the automatic back-up system that comes with Macs these days.  Time Machine is wonderful.  You plug in an external drive, answer a couple of questions, and it automatically backs everything up for you.  I’ve used it to restore things.  It’s great.  It does exactly what it says it will do, and how rare is that?  I figured, might as well get the infections gone there too.

And the program duly found the same infected files on the Time Machine.

A dozen times.

Eventually the little light bulb went off in my head.  Time Machine automatically backs things up every hour.  Every time it does that, it creates a separate, new master copy of the hard drive.  This means that the anti-virus program has to scan that too, which takes almost an hour.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, it’s a race!

I thought about just letting the two programs fight it out, but that seemed counterproductive.  So I told the Time Machine to stop making backups for a while, and I went to bed.

It’s been almost 24 hours now, and the anti-virus program is still chugging away, finding the same small group of infected files, over and over and over and over again.  I suppose I should tell it to stop at some point – they’re just backups, and eventually the Time Machine will delete them itself – but part of me just doesn’t have the heart to call off the dogs after all that work.

Go, little anti-virus program, go!

Monday, May 28, 2012

For Those Who Served

It occurs to me that since it is Memorial Day, I should post some of the photos of people in my family who have served in the military.

I’m not one of them.  I remember being somewhat surprised in high school to discover that this was not actually required of me, and how quickly that surprise morphed into gratitude.  I’m exactly the kind of sarcastic misfit who would end up court-martialed by week three of basic training for answering questions honestly and in exquisite detail when everyone involved – including me – understood that the proper answer was “Yes, sir!” or “No, sir!” without any further additions.

So I’ve always been glad that I had the option to remain in civilian life, and thankful to those who made that possible.

This picture is probably from 1945, at the end of WWII.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s the Arc de Triomphe there in the background, so Paris must have been liberated by then.  Clearly the Germans were no longer a problem, at any rate.  The guy on the left is my Great-Uncle John – my grandmother’s brother – who spent his entire working life in the Army.

This is a more formal portrait of him.

I never got many stories about John, though the one that I did always amused me.  Sometime well after the war his job became infiltrating US bases to test their security.  He’d walk into the place in full uniform – not a difficult task for any even semi-competent spy, really – say hello, chat with people, and walk out with as many confidential documents as he could grab.  Family lore has it that he was never caught.

[UPDATE 5/29/12:  A conversation with my mom revealed that it was not my Great Uncle John who was the security tester - that was a family friend.  Oh well.  It was a great story anyway.  She also said that he was stationed all over the world during his time in the Army - from Taiwan to Germany - and retired as a Lt. Colonel.  He briefly worked for Pan Am after that before passing away fairly young.]

My dad was in the Navy, though.  This is him, newly enlisted, in 1958.

He signed up during the Eisenhower Recession of the late 1950s and ended up serving as a radioman on a repair ship – an ungainly WWII-era ship that served in every war the US Navy was deployed to in the three decades after it was built and was eventually sold to Taiwan in the 1970s.  For his term of enlistment the ship stayed pretty much on the East Coast of the United States, though they did get to Cuba for a visit – he took a number of photographs that, unfortunately, were damaged by being stuck together in a pile for years.  By the time the ship returned to take part in the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I think my dad was back in civilian life.

Every once in a while he will tell stories from his days in the service.  The only time he saw the northern lights, for example, was aboard that ship.  On a practical level, his Navy service endowed my father with an ability to fall asleep instantly in any position, a skill he retains to this day.

This is my Uncle Bob, who was in the Army during the early 1960s.  It was taken in 1963.

I know even less about his service than I do my dad’s and my great-uncle’s.  I know he was discharged in 1964.  This was before Vietnam was all that much of a deal, so I don’t think he served there.  I suppose I will have to ask him about it.

After he was discharged he came back to Philadelphia and took a number of photographs to celebrate his newly “unemployed” status (seriously – that’s what it says on the back of one).  This one is with his grandmother, my great-grandmother.

Every Memorial Day we are urged to remember those who served, and this is a good thing.  All too often, though, they become a faceless blur.  It is always good to remember the people behind it all, in their specific individuality.

Happy Memorial Day.

Off to the Side

I’m up to the mid-1970s in the photo-scanning project now.  There are four big plastic bins of photographs, but the first one is the longest – it’s got the albums that my brother put together, while the others have a great many photographs in frames, so in terms of photos per unit volume this box is by far the densest.

I went past my parents’ wedding a while ago, but I’m going back to it here.  They were married in May of 1963, forty-nine years ago now, and it was a well-photographed event.  Most of them are in color, and quite a few were taken by professionals.  This is my favorite of the wedding photos I’ve seen, though.

I don’t know who took this picture.  It wasn’t the official photographer – you can see him on the right there, with the bull moose of a camera that was what professionals used in 1963.  You can also see his assistant in the mirror, holding an array of lights.

It was taken at my grandparents house on Willows Avenue, probably before the ceremony rather than after, during a moment of quiet between frantic activities.  That’s how weddings are, really – run, stop, run, stop, run, stop, run.  I remember my own wedding being that way.

Part of why I like this picture is my mother there, in the middle, looking like she’s trying to figure out what comes next, or just glad for the respite in all the commotion.

But mostly, I like this picture because right over her head, reflected in the big mirror, is my grandfather, off to the side of events, looking at his little girl all grown up now.  Nobody’s really paying attention to him – he is, appropriately, not the center of attention on this day.  But I’m guessing he’s remembering at this moment, thinking back over the years, and wondering what is coming up next.

My own daughters are still young and have years to go before they reach this moment in their lives.  But at some point that will be me there, standing off to the side and wondering how it all went by so fast.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

All God's Chillen' Got Shoes

I don’t get shoes.

Okay, I understand the whole concept of “put these things on your feet and you won’t have to hobble about in pain until you develop calluses on your soles like a Teabagger’s heart” – that much is pretty straightforward.

And yes, I understand about trying to look nice and how as a general rule there just aren’t many people you need to see barefooting it around your workplace or restaurant.

But shoes as objects of desire?  I don’t get it.

I have exactly four pairs of shoes, all of them black.  I have a pair of sneakers that are comfortable and look like dress shoes from a distance.  These I wear almost every day.  I have a pair of dress shoes for those occasions where the sneakers won’t pass inspection, which happen on average about once every twelve to eighteen months.  They are therefore in a “classic” style that I can wear for the rest of my life with only the mildest of reproach from the fashion-conscious.  I also have a pair of boots for winters in Wisconsin, boots that I wore for a week this year since that was about how long our winter lasted (good thing global climate change is a myth, because otherwise, you know, I’d be worried…).  And I have a pair of sandals that I drag out in the summertime when it gets too hot for sneakers.

When they wear out, I replace them with their nearest equivalent.  This is a process that – including checkout – takes about ten minutes once I hit the front door of the store.  I know my shoe size, and men’s shoes (like men’s clothing) are far more standardized than women’s.   I know exactly what I’m looking for.  I find them, try them on, confirm that they are indeed as close as possible to the last pair, settle my debt and leave.  Easy.  The rest of the day is mine for more important tasks, preferably involving a nearby bookstore.

This attitude comes as a great shock to a lot of people I know who consider shoe shopping a treat.  They love shoes in all their many shapes, colors and manifestations.  They look forward to shoe shopping as a reward for services performed in other areas of their lives.  They enjoy shoes for the very shoe-ness of them.  They are almost all women.  I don’t get it.

Considering shoes a treat is as mystifying to me as considering vaccinations a treat.  They’re just something necessary in civilized society that you do because otherwise you and everyone around you suffers. 

Apparently I have passed my attitude along to my eldest child.

We went shoe shopping yesterday, now that Tabitha has outgrown Kim’s shoes and has nothing to wear on her feet except a pair of flip flops and her gym shoes.  Tabitha hates shopping in general, which is a position I am rather reluctant to change, now that she is approaching her teenage years.  But sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and even Tabitha recognized that this was the time for some shoes.

So we hiked up to the nearest Giant Shoestore Emporium and set to work.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but there are a lot of ridiculous shoes out there.  Shoes canted at 45-degree angles or higher.  Shoes that you could use as murder weapons.  Shoes with chambers built in for each individual toe.  Shoes in colors not found in the rainbow.  Shoes in colors not found in drug-induced hallucinations.  Shoes that appear to be made of compressed air.  Shoes made of old tires.  Wicker shoes.  Shoes with random bumps, flanges and bulges. 

GSE has these all and more, in a room about the size and warmth of an aircraft hangar. 

We spent an hour or so there, and eventually came away with everything we needed and more.  Tabitha got a couple of pairs of shoes that she can wear.  I got a pair of black sneakers to replace the ones that are about to fall apart – Lauren found them, as I had gotten overwhelmed and had to go sit down.  And Kim got a pair of shoes with toe compartments and unnatural colors.  She insists that they are comfortable.  For all I know she is right. 

Lauren is full up on shoes at the moment, though that didn't stop her from trying on every ridiculous pair she could find.  There is nothing quite like a 9-year-old in red stiletto heels to make you question the whole concept of dress shoes.

Afterward, we went to the bookstore.

Friday, May 25, 2012


And so the photography project keeps chugging along. 

Part of the problem, of course, is that I get sidetracked by the pictures themselves, because really what else can you expect?  I end up wondering about how things ended up in just that configuration, and what happened right after the photo was taken.  I suppose this is one of the dangers of being a historian – you want to know the rest of the story.

Take this picture, for instance:

It’s 1963, in the kitchen of my grandparents’ house on Willows Avenue.  It’s a party, because my uncle has just graduated from college.  All parties end up in the kitchen eventually.  My uncle is off in another room somewhere being sociable, perhaps – he shows up in some of the other photos doing that – or maybe he took this photo himself.

My grandparents are the second and third people from the left.  The two on the right are my parents.  They’d been married about a month when this was taken.  In between is a family friend named Annie, and I don’t know who the person on the far left is.  It was a party.  People drifted around.  There is good food on the table and good company around it, and it looks like everyone is enjoying the moment.

There is a story in this photograph, an evening spent together, an achievement celebrated among family and friends.

How can you not get sidetracked by such things?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Night at the Orchestra

Most kids today have never seen The Lone Ranger.

This means that when the 8th-grade orchestra starts playing The William Tell Overture, only the parents think it’s funny.  The kids, as the conductor said, just think it sounds like a horse galloping.

And then the parents stop thinking it’s funny and start feeling seriously, seriously old.

Tonight was the Mighty Clever Guy Middle School annual spring orchestra concert, and everyone who was anyone was there.  Were you there?  So sorry, then.  You missed a fun night.

The 6th-graders went first.  Tabitha marched onstage with the rest of her companions and after what may or may not have been an introductory speech from their orchestra teacher – a sincere and good-hearted person utterly incapable of any form of meaningful communication, though by all accounts a good teacher in spite of that – they launched into four pieces from around the world.

They did a very nice job, too.

 Afterward we sat for the 7th- and 8th-grade portions of the show, because if you’re going to sit in a hot auditorium for a concert you might as well see it all.  Besides, they were willing so we should be too.

This is not to say that the trip to the soft ice cream stand afterward was entirely unwelcome, though. 

Great musicians deserve ice cream.

Well done, Tabitha.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I started a new book yesterday.

I do that a lot, actually.  It’s one of the things that make my world a pleasant place, so I try to get there as often as possible.

This one was a library sale pick-up.  A couple times a year our local public library weeds out its collections with book sales.  They don’t go by any particular merit as to what to keep and what to get rid of, as far as I can tell.  It’s pure democracy.  Anything that doesn’t get checked out after a given period of time goes onto the chopping block.

This tends to work in my favor, I find.  The books that get ignored are often the best ones, popularity being a poor predictor of substance or artistic quality.  Given that the most popular book section in the library is the Romance section (believe me, I know – I was forced to shelve it for most of the three years I worked there, in part I suspect as a punishment for being the sort of troublemaker who answers questions honestly), this leaves many high quality selections for me come book sale time.

This book in particular is an older China Mieville novel, one that I have meant to read for a while and which, for four bits, was mine in hard cover.  If you haven’t read China Mieville, you should.  He writes deeply intriguing books that are rewardingly complex.  They are not for the lazy, however.  Nobody does alien quite like Mieville, either.  Most authors have Other characters who are just ordinary people in funny suits, but Mieville’s Others are alien to the point of near incomprehensibility and part of the fun is bending your brain trying to figure them out.

Tucked inside was a bookmark from the last person who checked it out.  It was a scrap of paper, a shipping invoice, with the recipient and sender clearly marked.

I don’t know who the recipient is, though I know they live in Our Little Town, not too far from me.  There isn’t anything all that far from anything else in this town, really.  They buy things from one of the many catalogues that we also get, though I don’t know if we ever have.  We get a lot of catalogues, many of them absurd, though this one is on the more normal end of the catalogue spectrum.

Things like this always make me wonder about the name on the paper – what they thought of the book, why they chose it, whether they even finished it.  But you can’t really ask them.  People get a little weirded out when you track them down like that.

Although sometimes they appreciate it.  I once found a thick bunch of legal documents inside a different library book, one that the library still owned and I had just checked out.  They had all been prepared by a local law firm, and I dropped them off there one afternoon.  They promised to send the documents along, as well as a note to the client to be more careful next time.

I ended up tucking the bookmark back inside the book.  I may just leave it there, as a reminder of – what?  That other people enjoyed this book before me?  I don’t know.

Maybe because it just makes the book that much more interesting.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

But Why A Duck?

When I was young, I had a relative named Zaduck.

I’m pretty sure that’s him, on the left in that photo, with my grandfather on the right.  It’s 1949, somewhere in South Philadelphia, where all the Italians in the city lived at the time.  I never lived there, but it’s my semi-ancestral homeland nonetheless, I suppose.

As with most of these photos, I really don’t know what the occasion was for this one.  That’s one of the things that is hardest about this scanning project to explain to my own children.  Digital natives, my daughters have grown up in a world where every conceivable device – from telephones to computers to music players – comes with a camera embedded in it.  For them to go through a day without either being photographed or themselves taking a photograph is odd – everything in their lives is recorded. 

It wasn’t always thus. 

Photographs used to involve bulky, heavy cameras.  Those cameras used expensive, fragile film.  That film had to be sent away to be processed, something that often took weeks.  You took pictures at events.  It was a special thing to be in a photograph.

So clearly they were doing something of note.

I don’t believe I ever met Zaduck, or if I did I was very, very young at the time.  I have no memory of him other than his name.

Such a glorious name, though, Zaduck.  The accent was on the last syllable: Za-DUCK.  I always thought that was marvelously funny.

It was years before I figured out that his actual name was Rocco.

He was my grandfather’s uncle, I think.  They shared a first name, though my grandfather never used it - he always went by his middle name, Antonio, anglicized to Anthony and shortened to Tony.  This was because when my grandfather was a boy his mother didn’t like the way Americans pronounced “Rocco.”  She thought it sounded like “Rags.”  Nobody was going to call her son “Rags.”

In Italian, “Uncle Rocco” comes out “Zio Rocco.”

Italians in the US had a tendency to cut off the final syllable of words and punch the last remaining syllable.  I remember learning that in a linguistics class in college and thinking, oh, right, that certainly explains a lot, yes it does.

Zio Rocco.  Zi’ ROC.

Shift the “r” to a “d” – which comes pretty naturally once you’ve gotten this far; try it yourself and see – and you get Zaduck.

Now that I am older, I know that I once had a relative named Zio Rocco.  But when I was young, he was Zaduck.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


It was a Fuzzy sort of night last night.

I grew up on a block that had a common driveway running down the middle.  All of the blocks in my neighborhood did.  It was years before I discovered that this wasn’t standard practice, and I still feel a bit sorry for neighborhoods where it isn’t.

For those of you who did not have this experience, a common driveway is just a bigger version of an alley, one that you can drive down instead of being just big enough for pedestrian traffic.  Ours bisected our block the long way, and everybody’s garage pointed toward it rather than toward the street.  At either end all you had to do was cross the street and you’d be on the neighboring block’s common driveway, so you could travel for quite a ways without being on a public street.  It was tailor-made for a neighborhood full of kids, since the only traffic on it was people heading to or from home.

You knew the cars, though you didn’t necessarily know where they were headed since we tended to sell them up and down the block.  For a while we owned a red 1969 Nova that had originally belonged to a family a few doors up and across the driveway, and our mammoth 1964 Chevy Malibu – a car that could comfortably sleep six – made a stop at our next-door neighbor’s driveway for a few years before he sold it to some college kid.  It’s still on the road somewhere, as far as I know.

You got to know the people on the driveway.

At one end – not the very end, but close to it – there was a guy who drove a big steel-grey truck.  He was short, squat and curly-haired, and he died in a robbery.  Someone wanted his truck.  Eventually that house ended up in the hands of a family that had fled the Iron Curtain – the dad was an animator whose biggest claim to fame as far as us neighborhood kids was concerned was a commercial he made for a local potato chip company, and his son became a good friend of my brother’s while we lived there. 

At the other end was The Mean Old Man, whose name I never did learn.  He owned the corner property, and had what was for our neighborhood a vast open lawn that we were never allowed to set foot upon.  The driveway sloped sharply upward in the last twenty feet or so, and The Mean Old Man had a large grey stone right there at the top of the hill, one pace from the driveway, that we would routinely get yelled at for sitting on.

In between there were all sorts of people.  There was a friendly lady and her meticulously maintained flower garden, complete with rock path.  A couple of doors down was my friend Matthew, whose dad had a powder blue 1965 Mustang that he loved like another son.  On the other side of the block was a strange old lady who was nice to me and my friend Chris in ways that made my parents profoundly anxious, though nothing untoward ever came of it.  And so on.  It was a nice block to grow up on.

There were also animals.  All sorts of animals.  Including Fuzzy.

Fuzzy was the bane of my grandmother’s existence.

He was a large hairy dog – a keeshond, I think – who belonged to the neighbors across the driveway and down a house or two.  Fuzzy had all of the native intelligence of a week-old donut, and was about as well socialized.

He barked.  Constantly. 

Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.  Yap.  Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.  Yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap yap.  Yap yap.  Yap yap yap yap yap.


This was, it must be admitted, annoying.  That same family had a much bigger dog named Johnny – some kind of cross between a German Shepherd and a mastadon – and we all liked Johnny.  We kept rooting for him to eat Fuzzy someday, but it never happened.  Life is full of disappointments.

My grandmother was home during the day, so she got to listen to Fuzzy all day, and it just made her crazy.  She’d call that dog names that were so far beyond obscenity that they came out the other side into art.  I learned a lot about the power of language from my grandmother.

Right behind us, across the driveway and bordering onto Fuzzy’s property, was Mr. Anderson, a friendly white-haired man who was the chief of the local volunteer fire company for years and whose speech patterns retained the rhythms and sounds of his native Sweden.

“Fiffty dawllars anyboty shoot dat damn dog!” he’d shout from his back door.

Many was the time I saw my grandmother reaching for her checkbook to add to the pot.

I don’t remember whether we moved away first or Fuzzy did, but eventually it all got resolved.  To my knowledge Mr. Anderson never had to pay up.  He would have, though.  He was an honorable man that way.

Somewhere on our block this spring, someone bought a new dog.  They’ve probably named it Fuzzy.  It’s been out a lot this week.

And sometime this summer, I can just tell I am going to go to my back door and practice my Swedish accent.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Drink Up the Family Reserve

It’s been three years since I brought the family photographs back to Wisconsin with me. 

My brother had gone through the innumerable shoeboxes, envelopes, and random scattered albums and sorted them all into seven organized, acid-free albums (and a vast pile of extra photographs that for one reason or another didn’t make the grade).  My mission was to take these new albums – and whatever else of the five big plastic storage boxes’ worth of photographs I could – and scan them.  Then I could make copies and distribute them throughout the family so that everyone could have a set.

Eventually the originals are supposed to go back to my parents, a proposition which raises a number of logistical questions.  But that is a crisis for another day.

Three years.

It’s been a long three years, full of the usual ups and downs and the frantic activity level of the employed and the parents everywhere.  But this week I have decided that I am going to get this project done this summer.  And now I am finished the first two albums.

That sound you heard was my mother applauding.  Hi Mom!

I am built for this sort of project.  It’s exactly the kind of painstaking, detailed archival work for which I eventually got my doctorate, and it’s all about family photos – people I knew, at one point in my life, or at least had heard of.  Mostly.  It must be said that there are a lot of people in these pictures that I have to take on credit are somehow related to me.

I think I will post pictures here, now and then, because they’re interesting and because I can.

This one is from 1952.

That’s my grandfather, seated in front.  He’s younger in that picture than I am now, by more than a hand’s count of years.  I have no idea where this was taken or what – if anything – the occasion was, but I really like this photograph.  It is a side of my grandfather I never saw in life.

He was a patient man – which, if you knew my grandmother’s sisters, you’d understand – and not given to excess in anything that I was aware of.  Like all of the family members I have met, he was not much of a drinker.  As a group we’re not tea-totallers, but there are liquor bottles in my parents’ house that are older than I am.  We take our time.

Cheers, Pop.  This one’s for you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


The city has stolen my street.

After the Great Driveway Robbery of a few weeks ago, things calmed down in front of the family manse for a while.  The neighbors a block north of us could not say that, and for a while it felt like we were living in some gravelly version of On the Beach, staring northward at the destruction that was inevitably drifting toward us and wondering how much longer we had before then.

It was almost enough to make me go out and buy cognac and start racing cars, except that if you looked south the world was still normal.  When will I ever say that again, I wonder.

But yesterday promptly at 7am the Big Yellow Machines ventured beyond the cross street and began stripping the asphalt from in front of the neighbor’s house and working their way with all dispatch toward us.  And those machines can move with surprising dispatch, really.  It took some negotiations, but they eventually did let us out so we could get to our appointed places and start our days.

And when we came back that evening?  No street.  No curbs.  No driveway aprons.

Today it became apparent that stripping back the surface layer was just prelude.  Again, promptly at 7am (say what you will, but they are mighty prompt) the Big Yellow Machines began delving even deeper into the earth, and eventually I expect them to crack open some ancient something and release demons into the air – cranky demons who have been stuck in the Vessel Of Everlasting Containment with nothing to do but six old crossword puzzles that they memorized eons ago.  They will be annoyed.  They will take it out on us.  They will destroy whatever they touch and rule over the ruins.

And Governor Teabagger will sue them for copyright infringement.

So if there happens to be an unusually lengthy gap between posts, please contact an impossibly handsome bush pilot and his nubile yet brilliant assistant (played by A-list stars seeking a break from critical acclaim and looking for a payout) and have them airdrop copies of the last six years’ worth of New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles.

It’s crazy enough to work.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Happy Horton Day!

On the Fifteenth of May,
In the Jungle of Nool,
In the heat of the day,
In the cool of the pool,
He was splashing,
Enjoying the jungle’s great joys,
When Horton the Elephant heard a small noise.

I have always thought that Horton Hears a Who is the best of all the Seuss books.  When the girls were little, we would read it as often as I could convince them to do so, and the old cartoon of it is a masterpiece of animated storytelling as far as I can tell.  I even enjoyed the new movie version, which did a pretty good job of expanding such a short story into a two-hour film without losing sight of the main point of the book.

Because it is the main point of that book that makes the story so compelling.

Be kind to people.

There is nobody so small or so insignificant that they don’t deserve to be treated with respect, with dignity, and more than anything else with humanity.  There is nobody so unlike us that this common humanity can be overwhelmed.  There is no Other.  There is only Us.

We forget this message all too often today.

We live in a world where it is considered a mark of savvy to dismiss those who do not look like us, think like us, act like us or want to be exactly like us.  Such people, we are told, are not real.  Not real Americans.  Not real people.  Not real.

We live in a world where it is acceptable to cheer for the death of others, where our those who would be our leaders are so morally bankrupt that they stand idly by and let it happen even on their own stage.

We live in a world where the idea of helping the less fortunate is considered un-American, where acknowledging that we’re all Americans and owe each other debts that need to be repaid is considered Socialist, where understanding that the world is bigger than the United States and does not necessarily have to cater to its whim is considered unpatriotic.

We live in a world of trash talk, trash sports, trash entertainment and far too much trash.

We live in a world of unrepentant cruelty.

But we don’t have to.

No, really, we don’t.

Horton doesn’t have to do what he did to protect the Whos.  He was enjoying himself, there in the jungle, minding his own business, when someone reached out and asked for help.  And he said yes.

And when the self-appointed guardians of morality and power told him not to help, he refused.  When they forced him to struggle to keep his word, he struggled.  When they threatened him, he remained obstinate.  And he won.

Be kind to people, though all about you tell you otherwise.

Happy Horton Day!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Please All, And It Will Be A Good Day

It was a theatrical day here in the nation’s tender midsection!

Today was the annual 4H Drama Festival, which is held down at Home Campus.  Every year eight to twelve 4H clubs rehearse a play of their own choosing – one that they can set up, perform and strike in less than 25 minutes – and it put it on in a daylong event complete with judges, because no 4H event, not even lunch, is complete without judges.  This is the second year our troop has participated, which is not all that bad considering it is the second year our troop has existed.

Fortunately, we have some good leaders in this group.  Jamie – who is an honest-to-Pete published author of children’s books – has written our plays and does most of the directing.  Kim stands in as the assistant director.  And since I am both the Performing Arts Coordinator at Home Campus (and thus the guy with the keys) and a theater techie of long standing, I end up managing that part of it.

The goal of these things is to get as much of the action into the hands of the kids as possible, though, so we try to step back and let them do their things. 

This year’s play was a version of Aesop’s fable about the donkey and his owners, the one whose moral is “Please all and ye shall please none,” which Jamie adapted for a 4H theme.  Basically the play starts with a painter who responds to outside criticism exactly that way, after which a storyteller spins that tale and lessons are learned.  It worked for us.

We had a floating cast of about 15-20 kids ranging in age from kindergarten to high school, and all of them had at least one line.  The littlest ones can be really cute, up there on stage.  Well, they all can, I suppose.  That’s the fun of this sort of thing. 

They’ve been rehearsing for weeks now, and it all came together today.

Lauren actually ended up with two distinct roles.  In her first appearance, she was one of the passing children who criticize the artist.

After that, she was the daughter in the original Aesop tale.  She did a marvelous job, projecting her voice and demonstrating great comic skill.  She likes being on stage and it shows.

The spotlight you see was provided by Tabitha, who was the only kid who showed any interest in tech work.  Unlike last year there really weren’t any obvious points for lighting cues, so we decided that there is always room for a spotlight somewhere.  Spotlights are fun.  She did a very nice job, even with some late-added cues that the organizers asked her to throw in for when the emcees were making announcements.

And then, just like that, it was over.  That’s the thing about theater – you work so long, and then it’s over.

Afterward they had us gather in the judging room, where the judges explained what they liked about the performance (most of it) and what they thought needed improvement (there’s always something).  In the end, they awarded our players blue ribbons for being in the top category of the Drama Festival.

Well done, troop.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Party On in Wisconsin

So, apparently the world isn’t going to end on my birthday after all.

A while back, some of the weirder folks on the new age fringes ran across the fact that the ancient Mayans had a “Long Count” calendar that divided time into a number of units, the largest being the “baktun,” which ran roughly 394 of our years.  There were thirteen of these baktuns on the Long Count calendar, and apparently if you did the math right the last of them expired in December of this year.

ZOMG!  Teh Wrldz Pwned!

Let’s just leave aside the fact that the Mayans, like most people, would probably just go out and get a new calendar when theirs expired rather than sit around and wait for the planet to explode.  And let’s further leave aside the fact that apparently whoever did the original calculations that led to the idea that the world was ending in December forgot about leap years, so if you go back and redo the math it is clear that the world ended a few years back, which would explain a whole lot of things when you think about it.  This just wasn’t an idea that had all of its oars in the water, let’s say.

On the other hand, I thought it was an opportunity.

My plan, such as it was, was to have a Giant Birthday Bash, one that would be so out of control and so pointlessly harmful to the health and property of everyone in attendance – the birthday boy especially – that if the world didn't end we would all regret it.  I wanted a birthday party where the very thought of waking up the next day would seem more horrifying than the obliteration of the entire planet. 

But alas, no.

Somewhere in Central America, archeologists reported today that they have discovered what appears to be an ancient workshop where the Mayans figured out their calendars, and that inside was a 17-baktun calendar, which would put the end of the world another fifteen hundred years off or so.

In my head I see the Mayan scribes trying to one-up each other, competing to see who has the biggest … um … calendar.  I’m sure the Mayan babes just went gaga over that sort of thing.

Or maybe that’s why their civilization died out. 

So it looks like I’ll have to tone down my birthday bash.  Of course, I might want to have it anyway, you know, just to be safe.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Prom Night

It was Prom Night here in Our Little Town this weekend.

I always like Prom Night, even though at my age all it means to me in practical terms is that every restaurant in town is full with teenagers in all their finery, keeping me from my well-deserved meal after a long day at the Cat Show.  I am older now, and Proms are not meant for me anymore.

I wasn’t always this old, though.

I went to my Senior Prom, back in high school.  For many of my college and graduate school friends this marked me as even more uncool than they had originally thought – there is a certain nerd-chic anti-cool that says if you go to the Prom then you have somehow Sold Out and might as well paint minivan advertisements on your butt – but I had a wonderful time and I’ve always been glad I went. 

I went with Jenny, who was my girlfriend that year.  She wore a pinkish-mauve dress with all sorts of frills on it – this was long before it became fashionable for girls to wear slinky cocktail dresses.  It was a different age, and it worked for us.  I, of course, wore the standard rented tuxedo.  Jenny absolutely refused to let me wear tails, which I thought would be dashing and which she found ridiculous. 

I eventually did get to wear tails at my wedding and I was in fact dashing, I must say.  Or at least Kim let me think so, which is yet one more reason I was happy that day.

Jenny and I stood for innumerable pictures, in her yard and mine, and then we were off.

They held it at a hotel in center city Philadelphia, which meant we had to drive down – an act of bravery on the part of my parents, letting us take the vast old Pontiac into the city that way.  We drove down with another couple – Gerald and his date, whose name I no longer recall.

I don’t remember much of the event itself, really.  We sat at a table with some friends.  I’m sure Jenny talked me into dancing at least once – every woman I’ve ever dated more than a month has had that struggle, and most eventually succeed in getting me out there.  I do remember that someone stole her purse, which contained in total one item of makeup and one exposed roll of film.  This is why I don’t have many pictures of the Prom itself, I suppose.

What I remember most is are the things that happened afterward.

We got trapped behind the stricken car of a hotel guest as we were leaving the parking lot.  I eventually just got tired of waiting, jumped out and – tuxedo and all – helped them push the car out of the way, for which the parking attendant let me go without paying.

We stopped at the convenience store on the way back to the suburbs so that Gerald and I could dash in and buy snacks.  The clerk was a bit taken aback by the tuxedos, but she rallied and managed to sell us our junk food without laughing too much at the absurdity of it all.

And finally we headed over to Nadja’s, where a bunch of us – Nadja and Seth; Jill and Tom; Tiz and Bill; Lan and Alex; Gerald and his date; Jenny and me – basically just hung out into the wee hours, telling stories and eating snacks, until we were all ready to collapse. 

I have always loved this picture.  It’s about 3am at Nadja’s, and Jenny and I are pretty much toast.  But happy toast.  We were young, and what the world had in store for us neither of us knew or thought much about.

I think about that, whenever I see the teenagers out on Prom Night these days.

Go hang out with your friends, I say to them under my breath.  Dance once or twice, even if it’s not your thing – if nothing else, your date will appreciate it.  Help people if you can.  And don’t worry too much about what’s coming, because you have no idea what it is or how it will change things.  You don’t.  Eventually you too will be just another family guy happily out with his wife and kids, looking at the teenagers, wondering how he got so old, and not regretting any of it.

No, not a bit.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Play That Funky Music

Today was Recital Day here in Our Little Town!

Every year, the musician who teaches Tabitha and Lauren violin and piano, respectively, gathers all of her students together into one place, asks us parents to bring goodies, and puts on a recital.  We’ve been doing this for several years now, and it’s always a lot of fun.


There is also the traditional struggle over what Lauren is to wear, which ends with her well dressed but not especially pleased about it, and this indeed was the case this year.  Next year we have resolved to move this part of the event to the night before rather than wait until it is time to go, the better to enjoy its many-splendored nuances.

The girls were early in the program this year, which was nice.

First up was Lauren, whose negotiation skills were clearly in evident by the Stone Age vest that she wore over her pretty blue dress.  Hey – you give some, you get some.  She marched up to the piano and launched into her two songs and did a very nice job of them.

And why not?  She’s been practicing for a while now and had learned them well, even the one that for some reason required her to cross her arms and play that way for several measures.  She later said that she was so nervous she was shaking, but you couldn’t tell from where we were sitting, and that is the key to performances anyway.

Afterward Tabitha went up, carrying her violin.

She did well with her piece also, despite getting lost in the middle for a bit.  But the most useful skill you can learn in life is how to pick yourself up from a mistake and move forward, and she did that with grace and aplomb and finished strong.

Afterward there were several layers of goodies and cauldrons of punch, and life was good.

Well played, ladies.  I’m proud of you.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cats, Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway

It was another cat-filled day here in the nation’s heartland.

Today was the actual 4H Cat Show, as opposed to the Pre-Show that we did back in April.  But it was held in the same echoing space as the last time and featured most of the same people and cats, and thus there was a certain familiarity to it.

We spent a good portion of Friday night setting the place up – arranging tables, putting cages on top of them and chairs in front of them – and were back bright and early this morning to finish the process. 

We only brought one cat with us this time, though.  Mithra has made it abundantly clear that she does not like this arrangement, and between the cat show and the general stress of having to live with Midgie she has developed some kind of kitty-rot that has turned her chin purple and requires us to goop it with antibiotic cream and shove further antibiotics down her throat.  Adding yet another cat show on top of this seemed unwarranted.  So Tabitha was reduced to showing just Midgie, which worked out fine.

I spent most of the morning manning the food booth, selling moderately unhealthy things to willing customers in the way of these events.  It was fun.

But eventually they called Midgie’s number (5829) and Tabitha whisked her off to the judging ring, where she received a red ribbon for coming in fourth in a group of five cats.  It’s nice to get ribbons.

Fortunately for our prize-winning chances, there was also the Showmanship section.  This actually depends on the kid more than the cat, since it requires them to hold onto the cat at a judging table and answer various questions about cat lore and trivia.  Parents are kept at a distance, so I have no idea what exactly the questions were, but apparently Tabitha did quite well with them.  She won top prize for showmanship in the middle-school category and received a trophy worthy of the Super Bowl.

As soon as we find a shelf with enough airspace above it, we will put it on display.

Good work, Tabitha.  I’m proud of you.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Lawn Care

When I become a wealthy and powerful historian, things will be different.

Hey – it could happen.  I understand someone paid Newt Gingrich 350 large to serve as a “historical consultant,” and if a guy whose main contribution to American politics is to serve as a living, breathing punchline can pull in that kind of money, imagine what a real historian could make.

Not that real historians make any money, mind you.  Fake ones do – I can think of several off the top of my head who are darlings of the same folks who paid Nuclear Newt the Nutjob all that cash – but not the real ones.  It’s the difference between Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling and Hulk Hogan.  The Olympians are athletes, but Hulk is a millionaire.  Or used to be.  Which brings us back to Newt, which means this whole introduction has gone nowhere.

Different.  Right.  Where was I going with that?

Things will be different, when I have money and power.  That’s where.

When I am a wealthy and powerful historian, I will pay other people to maintain my property.  No more will I have to pretend to understand what the difference is between the multitudes of metal objects thrown into the big bin in the basement – some competent soul will sort them by size and function, and when there is a task to be done they will find just the right one and do it.  And I will pay them money, and we will both be happy.

I will also never mow my own lawn again.

When we first moved into our house here in Our Little Town we had a push-mower, a reel-type hand-powered cutting device straight out of the 1940s, probably literally as it originally belonged to Kim’s grandmother.  It made a pleasant swishing sound and was utterly fabulous, and it had the happy side effect of completely flustering the neighborhood children.  In this gearhead town nobody could conceive of a lawnmower without an engine, and eventually they decided it was some kind of rake.

Given how blunt the cutting edges were, they were not all that far off.

Eventually, though, it became clear that even with the postage-stamp-sized lawn that we had, this mower was not going to cut it, figuratively or literally.  For one thing, keeping the blades sharp was beyond me.  And for another, you have to keep the lawn very short, otherwise this kind of mower bogs down.  Since this meant cutting the lawn with some regularity, obviously it never happened. 

At some point borrowing the neighbor’s gas-powered lawnmower again becomes sort of embarrassing, and we bought one of our own.

It works fine, despite me.

Every spring I haul it out and briefly wonder if I remembered to perform whatever maintenance procedures one has to do to keep them fit and ready during the winter months before realizing that since I have no idea what those procedures are the odds of my having performed them are minimal.  But it starts right up, on the fourth or fifth try – a fair trade, I think – and I set about cutting the grass, which by that time has grown nearly knee high because otherwise I just can’t be bothered.

The real problem with mowing my lawn, even with mechanized help, is that there are entirely too many obstacles for a lawn as small as this one.  The swingset has finally crumbled into kindling so I no longer have to worry about that, but in its place is now a chicken-wire enclosure for the rabbits and a wooden glider that I spent a weekend roundly cursing and bruising myself upon while assembling.  It’s nice to have now, but it is still an obstacle.  The ten-foot tall 4x4 post for the zipline is still there, though the zipline has gone the way of all toys aimed at lighter folk.  And the front lawn is festooned with random patches of daisies.

All these I can see.  What I always miss, however, are the random patches of other things.

I am not Nature Boy.

In my mind, there are only a limited number of types of plants.  There are trees.  There are flowers of varying sizes, all of which can be lumped together under the catch-all heading of “garbloondia” and sorted by color.  There are vegetables, which are found in gardens and identifiable as the corpses underneath the weed, which are whatever grows after what you want dies off.  There are bushes, which are a minimum of three feet tall or they don’t count.  And there is grass, which is spiky and green.

That’s it.

This is why we no longer have tarragon.

Kim loves plants.  She understands them.  She looks forward to growing them.  And she puts them in the darndest places, because she can see them there. 

Somewhere along the line we acquired a cherry tree, which we planted right next to the garage so that in fifteen or twenty years we can get a new garage to replace the one the roots and branches of the cherry tree have destroyed.  And, much to my later surprise, at the base of this tree Kim planted tarragon. 

Which I promptly mowed down.

In my defense, tarragon is apparently spiky and green and thus indistinguishable from the grass I was supposed to be mowing down.  Kim just looks sad when I say things like that.

When I am a wealthy and powerful historian, I will pay someone who can tell the difference between tarragon and grass to mow the lawn.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Plugging My Next Class

So … you’ve survived History 101 and now you know all there is to know about American history from Columbus to Reconstruction.


But did you know that the story continues?  That this country you live in has more history closer to hand than the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes?

No?  Well, that certainly explains a great deal of why the republic is in the state it’s in.

But you – yes, YOU! – can correct that, by the simple expedient of taking History 102!  Don’t you love it when things are that easy?

I do.

So here are the top ten reasons why you should take History 102 with me, Professor Dave.


10. Be the life of the party with new-found historical knowledge!

9. Can’t get enough of those one-page essays.

8. The phrase “classical republicanism” does not appear in any lecture for this class.

7. Knowing what really happened makes it harder for politicians to fool you now.

6. Two words: “Dawes Plan”

5. Great taste and less filling!

4. No math.

3. Might be useful for understanding how the country actually works today.

2. Stories!  Loads of 'em!

1. Gotta find out how it ends!