Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Reading in Madison

Publishers never think about the weather when they design books.

I discovered this a couple of summers ago, as I sat by the city pool while the girls splashed about in the water.  It was one of those hot midwestern August days, all brilliant sunshine and breathless humidity, the kind that encourage people to think about emigrating to places with more temperate climates.  The leaders of Our Little Town feel that three large umbrellas provide all the shade that a city’s worth of poolgoers need, and the rest of us can just baste in the sun.  Unless you get there early you can expect the full solar experience.

So there I sat, absorbing UV rays.

Fortunately, I had a book with me.  Because I always have a book with me.  That’s how I am.  I had picked up a rather thick paperback on a trip to the local bookstore not long before – one of those secondary world fantasy novels that I so dearly love – and I remember kind of half hoping that it wouldn’t be all that good so that I could put it aside and wouldn’t have to wait for the second volume to come out.

Except that it was one of the best-written books I’d ever read, darkly lyrical and compelling, and I sat there in the bright sunshine turning page after page, completely enraptured by this doorstop of a novel.  The one with the cover that was almost entirely black.  In the sun.  Getting hotter and hotter.  Eventually I had to hold the book with a towel, but I kept reading.

Later I would buy it in hardback, because it was just that good.

Fantasy is not a genre that rewards good writing, in the main.  It’s an idea-driven genre, much like its cousin science fiction (from which it can be exceedingly difficult to tell apart at times).  When I was younger I would accept this and slog through an awful lot of awful writing if I felt the ideas were worth the price.  I am no longer willing to do that.  I have come to value good writing as an end in itself, and when someone who can write actually has a story to tell, well, it doesn’t get much better than that I think.

Patrick Rothfuss has since published volume two of his Kingkiller Chronicle – The Wise Man’s Fear, to go with The Name of the Wind, the book I was reading that day.  It was just as good as the first one.  He just came out with a stand-alone story set in that same world, and as a promotional event he gave a reading last night up in Madison.

So Kim and I went.

It was a lot of fun.  You should have been there.

Despite having a fever, he spent an hour with us.  He read from his picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, first all the way through and then rewinding and skipping back through it a second time to point out how the ending was there all along if you were paying enough attention and how the book becomes a second story entirely after you’ve read it through the first time.  It was a fascinating display of craftsmanship.

He also answered a lot of questions from the audience, but as he said at the beginning, “We can do this one of two ways.”  There was the way where people could record it and post it online, which would become, as he said, “a first-date conversation,” or we could agree that it would just be between those of us there and some interesting things might actually happen.  We chose the latter course.

And interesting things happened.  He has a great sense of humor.  Really, you should have been there.

After he finished he went to a table by the podium and signed books.  He was remarkably gracious, signing all three of the books we’d brought and even talking with me a bit – not long, as the line was out the door of the room, but enough to be friendly and actually listen to what I said.  It was mostly about the difficulties of translating his writing into other languages (particularly Swedish, as I believe I am personally responsible for at least two of his books being sold there).

And then it was over, and out we went.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

In Search of Lost Time

I find myself somewhat at loose ends.

We were supposed to head back east to see my family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  We had it all planned out, in fact.  The rabbits had been farmed out to friends.  The chickens were being cared for.  The cats and goldfish were mostly set.  On Tuesday morning I’d carpool over to Mid-Range Campus as usual.  Kim would pick the girls up from school that afternoon and then come get me, and we’d make it to eastern Indiana by the end of the day.  Then we’d spend Wednesday crossing Ohio and Pennsylvania, and there would be family and food at the end of the journey.  What more can you want out of a holiday?

Well, better weather, for one thing.

As someone who grew up in and around Philadelphia, I learned very early that snow was something that happened in January.  Maybe.  A white Christmas was something that happened in books and movies and far off places like, oh, hypothetically speaking, Wisconsin – one of those frozen places that the gods of irony would have me become resident of later in my life because that’s how they earn their paychecks.

And who pays gods, anyway?  With what?  Do they have to pay taxes?  To whom?  What services could they possibly get for them that they couldn’t do themselves?  Where would they cash those checks, and what kinds of things would they spend them on?  Why don’t theologians ask the hard questions like these, that’s what I want to know.

So the idea of snow in November never really occurred to me as a serious possibility.  The idea of a heavy, wet, travel-hazard snowstorm that would cancel our neatly planned out trip was unthinkable.  Until I looked at the weather forecast on Tuesday and suddenly had to revise my definition of unthinkable to “intensely thinkable,” which may or may not be a word but there you have it.  Thinks were thought.  Forecasts were consulted.  More thinks were thought, some of them not very polite at all, really.

We’re home now.  And if central Pennsylvania isn’t covered with a foot of snow by the end of today I will be seriously annoyed.  The gods will have their paychecks docked in that case, because they will owe me.

But here we are, with all kinds of found time. 

Of course there are still things to do.  I’ve got grading and class prep, of course.  Lauren is busy covering the dining room in paper mache, working on a sculpture for her Egypt project.  And so on.

We’ll probably go up to Kim’s family for Thanksgiving, since family and food at the end of a journey are what the holidays are all about, and even if it is a different group of family than the original plan called for it will still be a good time.

In the meantime, we’ll keep ourselves occupied.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bali Hai, Tally Ho, and All That Jazz

Despite having spent the better part of three decades backstage, I had never actually managed to see South Pacific.

I still haven’t.  But I did see the first half of it last night.

Tabitha is getting slowly pulled into the theater orbit down at Local Businessman High School, which is a lovely thing as far as we are concerned.  The backstage crew was largely what got me through my high school years.  Especially if you add in the choir, which had considerable overlap, that was where most of my friends were.  That was where most of my good stories come from, at least the ones I am willing to share in a public forum like this one.  I learned a great many things backstage (“never underestimate the humorlessness of authority figures” being one of the more useful lessons) and I find myself referring to those lessons often these days, occasionally in rueful hindsight.  Kim also spent considerable time in theater in high school, so Tabitha gets her stagecraft genes from both sides.

She wasn’t involved in this production, but she had friends who were and she wanted to go see it.  Lauren, on the other hand, wanted to go to the Rec Nite over at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, which started before the play did but which also ended before the play did. 

South Pacific
, if you’ve never had the chance, is a long, long production.

So we dropped off Lauren at the appropriate time and headed over to LBHS for the play, and I left at intermission to go pick her up again.  I still don’t know how it ends.  I assume we won the war.

As an old stagehand, I was deeply impressed with the tech work.  The set was really quite clever and involved – there were multiple wheeled set pieces that came on and off depending on what scene was playing, for example, and one of them had a structural second story that could support the lead actress twirling about up there.  That was impressive.  They had a lattice-work scrim of 1x4s that served as the walls of several different locations and retreated back up into the flyspace when not in use.  It tended to sway a bit now and then, but that’s just the nature of such things.  The lighting was quite involved, though as someone who spent more than my fair share of time running a spotlight I wanted to come in and train them how to pick up an actor without sliding the light around the stage first – it’s a voice-activated skill, in my experience.  You develop it after the director shouts at you for a bit.

Oh, what we could have done with that kind of budget.

Despite growing up in a fairly affluent suburban school district, our theater tended to be frugal to the point of miserly.  After every show, for example, we’d carefully take the set apart, put the wood back into appropriately-sorted piles, and then spend a couple of hours straightening nails against the concrete floor so they could be reused for the next show.  I understood about the wood, but the nails struck me as overkill even then.

On the plus side, though, we had a great deal of freedom to run things ourselves.  We designed the sets.  We called our own cues.  We created the lighting plots, which were fairly basic, given the ancient rheostats we had to move, but ours. 

Our lighting board was a massive grey metal thing that was taller than any of us and at least that wide.  On the left it had three rows of maybe half a dozen rheostats, each one controlled by a lever about eight inches long.  There was a blue row, a red row, and a yellow row.  You patched in whatever lighting instruments you could to the plugs corresponding to each of the rheostats and brought them up and down by moosing the individual lever up and down.  It was analogue lighting.  The knobs on the levers turned so you could lock them into one of three similarly color-coded sub-master levers to the right of each row – each about eighteen inches long – and thus locked you could physically move a row with just one lever, which took some arm strength.  Each of the three sub-master levers could also be locked into a grand master lever further to the right – about two feet long, with an extender that could slide out another foot or so for additional leverage if you wanted to lock everything into it.  When new people would join the stage crew we’d tell them that the board was hydraulic and needed to be pumped now and then to maintain pressure, and we’d lock everything into the big lever and have them pump it up and down for a while, which was a chore, let me tell you.  All of the other rheostat levers would move slowly up and down with the big one until we got tired of having them do it.  It was a ritual.

I wonder what rituals they have backstage down at LBHS, and how much they get to run their own shows.  I suppose I’ll find out soon enough.

I’m looking forward to it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Learn Something New Every Day If You're Not Careful

I volunteered to give a guest lecture in a friend’s class later this month.

I’m actually looking forward to it.  We’ve worked together many times in the past – we actually team-teach a class together, whenever we can convince Home Campus to let us do so, and I’ve given guest lectures in other classes he’s taught as well.  And this lecture is on something I do know a fair bit about, as it is something that I cover in both my American and Western Civ classes.

But my friend is a philosopher by trade, not a historian.  And every time I venture into his discipline I end up profoundly grateful to be in my own.

Philosophy makes my head hurt.

I am perfectly willing to concede that this may well be a shortcoming in my own psyche rather than a failure of his discipline, but that neither prevents nor lessens my pain. 

This is especially so when I have to do the assigned reading.  I’ve read all of the things he’s assigned in our team-taught class and most of them just leave me thinking that either I missed something very important or these authors are just bags of hot wind.  I suppose it is entirely possible that both of these are true at the same time, which is disheartening, really.  If the fault is entirely my own then there exists the possibility that I might one day overcome it and learn to see what I am currently missing.  But if I’m actually right about the general nature of these works, then the prospects of my future improvement become very slim indeed.

I’m supposed to speak on the subject of the Industrial Revolution, at a level of detail wherein I can cover most of the main points – where it came from, its general outlines, its impact on the world of work, and the list of winners and losers – and still have time for questions in a 75-minute period.  So fairly broad strokes, in other words.  I can handle that.  Hell, I’ve taught a class that quite literally covers everything from the Neolithic period to Christopher Columbus.  I’ve taught it twice, in fact.  Broad strokes I can do.

But I also have to do the assigned reading, so I know what the students have in front of them. 

Yes, this assumes that the students have done the reading too.  I am aware of that.  As a professor, one lives in hope.

This particular reading is one chapter out of a book on the philosophy of technology.  They’re short chapters, though, so – as the professional nerd that I am – I decided that I would read the entire book.  It’s less than 200 pages long.  I can burrow through dense historical monographs twice that long in a couple of days.  How hard can this one be?

One of the many rules of life that I have developed over the years is that you should never ask a question that you really don’t want to know the answer to.  It turns out that reading works of philosophy is exponentially more time consuming than reading anything else, even works of economic theory (in part, one must admit, because about halfway through any book on economic theory the rational mind shrieks in protest and skips to the end to see if there are any twists or surprises, such as a paragraph that does not require a plumber’s snake to unclog or a lurid description of the author's strangulation by his own pet theory, which for certain authors I would pay real money to see even if I am not especially proud to admit this).

So I’ve been slogging along with this for a week now.  It’s slow going.  But I’ve learned a few things, and so – in a spirit of educational opportunity for all – I will share them with you now.  You’re welcome.  First drink’s on the house.

Arranged by the actual chapter headings, here are the lessons that have been imparted by this book:

Chapter 1: Can We Define “Technology”?

Answer: No.  

N.B. - The fact that the central term under discussion is hereby declared to be undefined does sort of imply that whatever follows from this point on may well be hot wind, but no matter.

Chapter 2: Does Technology Control Us?

Answer: No.

Chapter 3: Is Technology Predictable?

Answer: No.

Chapter 4: How do Historians Understand Technology?

Answer: Not very well.

Chapter 5: Cultural Uniformity, or Diversity?

Answer: Yes.

Chapter 6: Sustainable Abundance, or Ecological Crisis?

Answer: Yes, depending.

Chapter 7: Work: More, or Less?  Better, or Worse?

Answer: It varies by location.

Chapter 8: Should “the Market” Select Technology?

Answer: Kind of.

Chapter 9: More Security, or Escalating Dangers?

Answer:  Yes.

Chapter 10: Expanding Consciousness, or Encapsulation?

Answer: This is unclear, at least to me.

Chapter 11: Not Just One Future

In which it is pointed out that predicting the future is hard.

So I don’t know about you, but I feel that I have learned a great deal from reading this particular bit of scholarship, most of it being along the lines of “if you’d done something else with your time you probably wouldn’t have a headache now,” which is still a form of learning after all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Look Over the Horizon

I may have passed over the Bagel Event Horizon.

Grocery shopping is my responsibility, and I rather enjoy it.  I like being surrounded by all that food, and it’s always fun to see what’s there.  And sometimes I run into people I like while doing so, people I don’t ordinarily see in my daily running about between campuses (campii?).

We learned a long time ago that it works best if I have a list when I go, as otherwise I end up with a pile of random things – and in a supermarket the size of the one in Our Little Town (roughly a third of the square footage of the entire community, or thereabouts), this can get fairly random indeed.  In order to have such a list, one must first prepare a menu for the upcoming week.  This also stops the daily 4:45pm “I don’t know, what do you want to have for dinner?” phone call that was once a regular feature of my day, and that’s all to the good.  So every week either Kim or I will prepare a menu for the week, and then I’ll write this up into a shopping list and off I go.

But not everything makes it onto the list, of course.  There are the usual staples that one always gets – things that find their way into the cart every week without fail, such as butter – and sometimes I write those down and sometimes I don’t.

Bagels are in that category.

I live in a region of the country that is distressingly dominated by goyim.  There is no place anywhere in the county where you can pick up a dozen fresh hot bagels that are any good – midwestern bagels have a tendency to be steamed rather than boiled, which turns them into toroidal muffins rather than actual bagels.  That’s great if you want a cranberry-raisin bagel-shaped object, but if I wanted a cranberry-raisin muffin shaped like a donut I’d just get one and be done with it.  And forget about a decent poppyseed bagel.  Oy.

I grew up in an area where excellent bagels were just assumed as part of the natural order of things.  There was a little shop just across the Philadelphia city line where crowds of us goyim would sometimes head after church on Sundays to pick up a dozen or so, and when I go back east I often head down to that shop on that same mission.  They’re nut free, chewy, and heavenly with cream cheese.  What’s not to like?

If I want anything approaching a decent bagel here in Our Little Town, however, I have to get them frozen.  There’s a Madison brand that’s not bad, and I always like to have some on hand for breakfasts or quick lunches.

But I don’t often write them down on the list, because they’re something I usually buy anyway.

Except that sometimes we eat them all the time around my house, and sometimes we eat other things for a while, so the bagel supply in our freezer varies according to demand.

All of this means that I often find myself standing there in the frozen foods section, wondering if I should buy more bagels.  And the thing is that these are frozen bagels.  They’re essentially immortal, and fairly inexpensive.  There is, in other words, almost no penalty for buying more than I need – they’ll keep until I need them – but there is a substantial penalty for running out midweek. 

Hell hath no fury like a man without his morning bagel, particularly if it is a self-inflicted wound.

This means that most of the time I just throw a couple of bags of bagels into the cart, certain that they will get eaten eventually.  And when I do this for a few weeks in a row during a downturn in demand, well.  They pile up a bit.  They get shoved to the back of the freezer, to be discovered only when other things are removed, which can take a while.

We’ve got a lot of bagels now.

If I buy more bagels without eating the ones we have, I fear that they will compress into some kind of Kosher critical mass.  There will be a radioactive blue and white glow from the freezer followed by some kind of implosive whoomping noise and suddenly I will have ringlets and start speaking in Yiddish, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world but which might make my classes harder for my students to understand.

Once you pass over the Bagel Event Horizon, things are different.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Roll On

So apparently Pumpkin Spice Oreos are a thing.

They’re not a bad thing, it must be said.  They taste pretty much like the kind of spice cookies that were standard around this time of year, once upon a time, even if they do have “creme" in the middle.  But you can’t call things “spice” anymore.  It has to be “pumpkin spice,” as if it was poured out of a latte mug and into your cookie batter.  There are pumpkin spice everythings these days, so I suppose Pumpkin Spice Oreos are reasonable by that standard.

Life is so much easier when you set your standards low.

The Pumpkin Spice Oreos were voted number one among the weird Oreo flavors yesterday by Lauren and her friends, beating out Peanut Butter, Birthday Cake, and Limeade (which I admit I rather liked as it reminded me of those old summer cookies that you used to get – the shortbread ones with the powdered sugar/lime flavoring on top).

Yesterday was Lauren’s birthday party, the official celebration of the fact that she turned twelve on Halloween.  It was the usual mayhem and merriment, a festival of not-quite-planning and good times.

For the second year running she chose to have her party down at the roller rink in the next town over, since there isn’t one here in Our Little Town anymore.  She invited her group of friends – the Five Musketeers, as I tend to call them – and most of them met us here in the morning.  One of the joys of the new minivan is that we can take them all down in one vehicle.

Of course, it wasn’t just one vehicle going.  Grandma and Grandpa brought down some of the younger cousins for the party, and since this was also the first weekend of curling I ended up bringing Tabitha and her friend down slightly later.  So there were three vehicles.  But still.

There was a fair amount of roller skating, which was good.  That’s what they were there for.  None of it showed up well in any of the pictures I took, but then that happens.  Then there was pizza, and a fair assault on the multitudinous cupcakes that Kim made that morning.  And presents, lots of presents.

When we got home we thought that was pretty much it, but we underestimated the staying power of a 12-year-old’s birthday party.  One friend had to go home directly from the skating rink and we assumed that two of the remaining three would leave from our house.  And they did, but not until all of the remaining three (as opposed to the one we had expected) had spent the night.

There were games.  There were Oreos.  There was the season finale of Doctor Who, which not everyone was interested in but which we were going to watch anyway, party or no party.

Is it just me or is the Master one of the most seriously annoying characters in the entire Doctor Who universe?  I keep hoping that someone will squash him (or in this incarnation, her, making her the Mistress, I suppose) like a bug and we can move on to things that are more fun.  Maybe it’s just me.  Who knows.


We got our house back sometime this morning, and now it is time for the usual frantic activity of the weekend – grading, prep, and all of the things that teachers come to expect on weekends, plus groceries and laundry and so on.  But for a time there was a party, and wasn’t that a time?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

News and Updates

1. My children are now old enough to trick-or-treat without me.  They got themselves dolled up into their costumes – Lauren as a lion, Tabitha as a vampire – and with their various friends they set off into the night to shake down the neighbors for candy.  If it hadn’t been so cold out – it did, in fact, snow a bit earlier in the day – they’d probably still be out there.  As it was they came back within the allotted time, chilled to the bone and weighed down with the full diabetes starter kit.

2. You have not fully experienced the wonders of cutthroat capitalism until you have watched four heavily laden trick-or-treaters wheel and deal in after-hours trading session.  Call the NYSE – I’ve found your next group of brokers.

3. Naturally that night was also the night our refrigerator decided to leak all over the kitchen floor.  On the one hand, it appears to be something involving the water line into the icemaker, which means that the basic mechanics of the appliance are probably still okay.  On the other hand, finding this out meant moving the thing away from the wall, which is a job for Hercules’ bigger, dumber, considerably younger and more fit cousin. 

4. I spent the week being evaluated by my peers, over at Mid-Range Campus.  It’s been a long time since anyone from the History Department has sat in on my classes, and I suppose they’re making up for lost time by having two different people do that in two different classes.  I actually like it when they do this, though.  I’m confident enough in my teaching that I regard it as a chance to demonstrate why I should be in their employ, preferably full-time and long-term, and it’s a whole new audience to aim for – like many introverts, I enjoy performing set-piece theater.  I only got a chance to speak with one of the reviewers afterward and he seemed to like what he saw, so that’s a good sign.  I’ll try to catch up to the other one next week.

5. Last week was also Parent-Teacher Conference night at both Mighty Clever Guy Middle School and Local Businessman High School.  In some ways MCGMS has the better system – you actually make an appointment, so you don’t have to wander in and randomly hope that your child’s teachers are available the way you do at LBHS, where the teachers are arrayed one to a table in the lunch area, grouped by subject matter – but on the other hand that appointment is with your child’s homeroom teacher, arguably the teacher who knows the least possible amount about your child’s actual academic situation, so if you actually want to speak to the teachers who deal with substantive educational matters related to your child you have to wander around and squeeze yourself in between appointments.  And thus the circle of life is preserved.  But the evening went well for all concerned. 

At MCGMS we got to speak to most of Lauren’s teachers, who were all uniformly pleased with her performance so far and the one teacher whose report was worrisome to Lauren calmed her fears about the grade in question, which appears to have been a computer error.  Plus Tabitha got to visit with some of her old teachers and there was a book fair at which both girls managed to find a book they wanted, so it was just full of Win all around.

At LBHS we were similarly lucky with Tabitha’s teachers, most of whom we managed to catch and all of those so caught reported back how well she was adapting to the high school curriculum and environment.  On top of this, a fortuitous meeting with her academic advisor led to a 20-minute meeting with the Guidance Office, which in turn led to a new chemistry teacher to replace the one who was boring her to tears and leaching out the interest in the subject that Kim had so painstakingly instilled over the years.  We actually spoke to him too – a very nice man, clearly conscientious about his job and concerned for his students, who nearly put me to sleep in a four-minute conversation, so I can see the issue Tabitha was having in his class.  But starting Monday there will be a new class with a teacher she already likes, who seems very good at her job too.  More Win, everywhere you look.

6. I am very much liking the Peter Capaldi version of Doctor Who.  He plays the character much more darkly than Matt Smith or David Tennant did, and is far more alien in affect than Christopher Eccleston’s version.  I hope he sticks around for a while, though I am not optimistic about that – the various websites and memes that concern themselves with such things seem to be leaning toward him being a one-season act.  That would be a shame, I think.  For a show that can get awfully twee at times it is often saved by its darker and more serious ethical core, and Capaldi taps into that fairly well.  Plus the writing has gotten better, and that never hurts.

7. Lauren’s birthday is being spread around the calendar, as our birthday seasons tend to do in this family.  We didn’t do a whole lot on her actual birthday, as it was Halloween and all that, but yesterday we had the official Birthday Supper of her choice (build-your-own hoagies, butternut squash, and dilly-beans) and today we’re slowly working on the birthday cupcakes that nobody had the room for after dinner.  Next week will be the actual party for her friends.  If she keeps this up, she might be able to spread this out until her next birthday.

8. I will be so, so glad to see the back end of this election.  Not that I expect anything to change, but at least I won’t be harassed by the forces of evil every time I turn on the television or log into the internet (seriously, Facebook?  Why do you force-feed me campaign ads from far-right extremists?).  From all evidence it appears that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is running scared.  This is the only reason I can think of why his puppetmasters have plastered the state with duplicitous signage from one end to the other – seriously, there are so many signs praising his glorious leadership that you begin to think you’re in North Korea, which in many ways has proven to be not all that far from the truth here in Teabagistan.  I sincerely doubt the election will change anything – to be honest, even if the voters choose to throw him out (a vanishingly remote possibility, given the level of obtuseness and bull-headed reactionary anger on full display every time one points out the obvious damage that man has done to this state) the fact is that the GOP counts the votes in Wisconsin and their math has proven to be incredibly suspect since Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came to power.  Look for an announced margin of victory within 0.5% of the declared victory in his recall election, and then look for a blisteringly vicious campaign of slander and lies should anyone dare to challenge it.  Because MURCA!

9. With any luck we will have our bathroom back by tomorrow.  The old tub is gone, the new shower stall is mostly in, and soon we will be presentable for company once again.  With any luck the cat will then stop freaking out and come down from the ceiling where she has been stuck ever since our old neighbor Adam – our go-to guy for projects like this when we want them done right, as opposed to having me do them – fired up the Sawzall.  Maybe we should have trimmed her claws before this project started.  Oh well.  Hindsight.