Monday, March 28, 2016

Eulogy for My Dad

What do I say now?

I live through words.  Words make things real.  Today has been a long time coming, unfortunately, and during that time I thought a lot about what I would say when it happened.  And I had no words.  How do you sum up a half-century of love and respect?  How do you talk about a life that spanned nearly eight decades, the life of a good and kind man, a family man, a working man, a parent, a husband, a friend.  What stories do you tell?  How do you fill this hole in the world with words?  What do I say now?

Then I realized that I’d already said what I wanted to say.  And I said it when my dad could still appreciate it.

We had a party when my dad turned 70, and my mom suggested that my brother and I each write something nice for him.  It was a private thing, really, something just between us.  But there are times when it is good to share private things, and this is one of them.  I think my dad would approve.

I am glad that we left nothing unsaid.  I’m glad that he got to read it.  I’m glad he knew how much he meant and how much he was loved.

But I will miss him more than words can say.


It is not easy being a dad.

When you are young, this is not readily apparent.  You are you, and dads are dads, and that is just the way of the world.

But when you are older – a teenager, say – you begin to notice things a bit more.  Not “beat you over the head” sort of things, but the kind of important things that often slip by, uncelebrated but fundamental.  Things like how you actually enjoy spending time with your dad.  How you don’t worry about bringing friends or girlfriends home because you know that they will enjoy spending time with your dad just as much as you do.  How some of them even begin to regard your parents as part of their own family.  How few of your friends can say the same thing back to you. 

And when you are older still, in your twenties, you begin to find your own way as an adult and as a man, and it occurs to you that you learned a lot from your dad.  How to treat people with respect and judge them by their actions.  How to look at the world and understand how it works and your own place in it, even if that place is very different from the one your dad made for himself.  How you know that no matter what you have a place to come home to, and how much easier that makes going off on your own.  How much you miss being home.

And then you become a dad yourself, and all those lessons you learned come home to you.  Play with your children.  Love them, protect them, and give them the space they need to move on.  Your family is what matters, and all else ranges from “desirable but optional” to “optional” to “I’ll get back to you on that.”  And you think, I hope I can do as good a job with my children as my dad did with me.

As I get older and my girls get older, there are more and more moments where I find myself thinking, “I sound just like my dad,” or, “That’s just what Dad would do if he were here.”

I am absurdly pleased by those moments.

I love you, Dad.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


I am drinking tea from a styrofoam cup because it is warm and comforting, and that is what I want right now.  I'm in a spare white room on the sixth floor overlooking parking lots, buildings, and one lonely ball field.  There is only one non-essential thing in the entire room - a MOMA print of a Van Gogh painting of a drawbridge.  It hangs on the wall by the window and has faded badly, but is still relatively cheerful for that.  It's a bright, sunny spring day.

We have a lot of chairs in this room.  At first it is just me and my brother, and most of the chairs are empty.  Kim will bring my mom after a while.  Later still she will go back to the house and get the girls, and then we will need more chairs.  I swipe one from a small room with a sink, and then we're good.

We are arrayed around the bed where my dad is resting.  There are hyacinth flowers on the stand.  My dad planted them, once upon a time, and Tabitha carried them in with her.  They fill the room with fragrance.

Nurses come in and out to see how my dad is doing.  Sometimes they change things.  Once they bring him a quilt.  But mostly they leave him alone, and the room is pretty quiet except for Norah Jones playing on Kim's iPhone.  My dad always liked Norah Jones.

Words follow words.  We talk among ourselves about memories, stories, arrangements, lunch.  Sometimes there are jokes, because you need them on days like this.  "A Roman centurion walks into a bar..."  I am a creature of words, of reading and writing, and it is through words that I make things real.  This is a day that demands to be real.  This is a day for words. 

This is a day for which there are no words, only family drawn together in love to wait and watch and listen.  We listen to my dad breathe.  We listen to our hearts.  We listen to words that are not words, and we hear.

We are keeping vigil.

And then there is no reason to keep vigil anymore and there is a hole in the world big enough for all of us to fall through and we tumble back home.

My dad passed away today.  I am a creature of words, and yet there are no words that do justice to him, to what he was and what he meant and it is not real, not yet, though it will be.

If you have a moment, spare a thought for a good man who will be missed by those who loved him.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Not Much. You?

We spent this morning watching a radio show.

One of the weirder things in broadcast media is the fact that radio shows have live audiences.  The whole point of radio, after all, is that you can’t see any of it – it’s medium entirely dependent on sound and really you could do the whole thing from a dark closet if you had the proper microphones and transmitters.  And yet, for the second time, we were in the audience for Michael Feldman’s Whad’ya Know?  It was brightly lit.

If you’ve never run into this show, you’re missing out.

It’s a quiz show, in roughly the same sense that Groucho Marx’s old You Bet Your Life was a quiz show, where the quiz definitely happens but really isn’t the point of the show.  At some point an audience member (not me, though I did raise my hand) will be called up to the stage to answer questions – assisted by someone who calls in and answers a qualifying question – and prizes will be awarded.  And that part is fun.  But getting to that point is more fun.

There are a number of recurring features, my favorite of which is called Thanks For The Memos, where Feldman reads “actual memos sent in by actual listeners” from their workplaces.  There is one that I heard nearly two decades ago that I still use in my US2 course.  It read, almost in its entirety, “To honor the passing of former President Richard M. Nixon, the Washington DC branch of the American Civil Liberties Union will be closed for exactly eighteen and one-half minutes.”

It takes artistry to twist the knife like that.

We got to the Monona Terrace in Madison in plenty of time, which was a pretty good achievement considering how many short errands we had to run on the way and how many health checks took place before we left.  It’s that time of year, when the colds rear up and make their presence felt.  I’d never been to the Monona Terrace before.  It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright but turned out to be a pretty good building anyway, since it was built long after he died and my guess is that they softened some of his more strident demands.

They check you in by the auditorium, and then you can help yourself to the coffee and donuts in the lobby before you head in.

There is always jazz.  Apparently Michael Feldman likes jazz.  There is a pianist who has been with him forever, as well as a rotating cast of supporting musicians – today there was a bass player.  They’re quite good.

The guest today was Bill Bryson, whose books I enjoy immensely.  I even brought my copy of his most recent book – The Road to Little Dribbling – on the theory that he would be there in the auditorium as part of a promotional tour and might autograph it.  But he just called in from England, which was disappointing, although the interview itself was a lot of fun.

Feldman specializes in back-and-forth with his audience and guests, and he was in good form today.  I’m going to miss this show when they cancel it this summer.  I’m not sure why, after 31 years, that is happening, but there doesn’t seem to be much to be done about it at this point.

Kim and I went to the 10th Anniversary show back in the mid-90s, and we were glad to get back one more time before it all came to an end. 

Whad’ya know?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Return of the Turkeys

I had a poultry-free living room for nearly 72 hours earlier this week.

And then the turkeys arrived.

As part of Lauren’s campaign to enter all of the animal divisions in the 4H premium book, one category at a time, she talked us into raising turkeys last year.  And it went pretty well if you overlook the 67% attrition rate caused in large part by the fact that domestic turkeys make chickens look smart.  The two who survived did us proud.  Regular readers of this space (I know you’re out there!) will no doubt recall the triumph of Norman at the County Fair last year – the Reserve Grand Champion – and, not far behind, Maica’s blue ribbon as well. 

They were sweetly amiable birds, and honestly I still kind of miss them.

I don’t miss the roosters.  We sold four roosters to a friend of a friend last fall and they ended up as soup – apparently that particular ethnic group believes that rooster soup is lucky, or something like that.  I never did get the full story.  But the roosters had to go, and they were there one day and gone the next and the world healed over that space like it never happened.  The turkeys left a mark, though.

Naturally we have more turkeys this year.  Lauren is also angling to get into the swine project, but so far the logistical difficulties of that are proving a bit daunting.  We’ll see.

The turkeys arrived on Tuesday.  There should have been seven of them, but thanks to the fact that both Kim and Lauren believed the other had put that last one in the box we ended up with six, just like last year. 

This year’s birds seem marginally less bone-ignorant than last year’s, so we’re cautiously optimistic regarding their survival into county fair season.  For example, they have all figured out how to eat.  Seriously – this counts as intelligence in the turkey world.  Last year we lost two of them because they were literally too stupid to eat.  This year Kim and Lauren put bright green marbles in their food dish and gold-colored Mardi Gras beads in their water dish, and – ooh! shiny! – the turkeys came over and began to eat and drink and you take your victories where you can get them these days is what I’m saying.

We’ll keep them in the living room until they get big enough and the weather gets warm enough so they can go out to the barn as well.  The turkey stall is still in pretty good shape, and the outdoor run is mostly still covered.  We’ll have to get in there and fix up the fencing and do some serious clearing of weeds (I’m not sure what species of weeds lives in that turkey run but whatever it is grows nearly as tall as me) in the meantime, but the hard part was done last year.

Right now they just chirp away and stagger around their little bin like tiny feathered drunks, mindlessly running into each other and the walls.  Apparently earlier this evening three of them fell asleep beak-first into their food dish.  It’s like having a clear plastic box full of miniature conventioneers, except without the tiny little fezzes.

Although fezzes are cool.

This year we will no doubt pledge not to get as attached to them as we did last year, because the end of last summer was hard indeed.  And this year we will no doubt fail in that pledge, because it’s better to care too much than not enough.

That’s not such a bad thing, after all.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

And Quiet Crows the Dawn

I got to sleep in this morning.

Well, kind of.  It was hard to tell, actually, because this is the weekend when they decided to mess around with the clocks.  I don’t really get Daylight Savings Time, in part because as a historian I’m well aware of how arbitrary the measurements of time that we use are and I’m not sure how moving the clocks forward an hour really saves any daylight. 

Besides, if you’re going to lose an hour, why not 2pm to 3pm on a Thursday?  Seriously – nobody would miss it. 

But they schedule this for the middle of the night, when everyone is either out having a good time or sleeping, both activities where the loss of an hour ought to be a criminal offense.  And in either case you wake up with that slightly disoriented feeling that all of reality has been spun just a few degrees counterclockwise and you spend the rest of the day wondering whether the world and everything in it is just a shabby copy of what you remember from before this all started or if you are simply getting over a bad drug experience from something you don’t even remember being interested in, let alone taking.

You can get the same experience from attending a Donald Trump campaign rally, I hear.

So if I, an actual human being, part of a species that scientists assure me has the most powerful and intelligent organic brain on the planet (and who found that out, I wonder), cannot quite wrap my head around the thought of Daylight Savings Time, I suppose it would be too much to expect of a rooster.

Lauren’s new chickens have been with us since January.  When they’re chicks they’re too little to go out to the barn in the middle of winter – at least not without some renovations to the barn and/or the barn’s electrical system, neither of which we are going to undertake since a) it’s not our barn, and b) we do this for fun, not as a job.  We keep them at home until the weather warms up.  Normally this isn’t hard.  We don’t get them until March and the roosters don’t start crowing until they’re four or five months old, so they can sit in their little Rubbermaid bins in our living room until we get tired of them and ship them out to the barn then.

But we got them in January.  And one of the roosters – the Dominique Lauren named Terrance – started crowing at 6 weeks.

At first it was kind adorable, the way he’d sort of hack and wheeze out the junior varsity version of crowing.  But by the beginning of March he had worked his way up to an actual crow.

There are two things wrong with this situation.  Well, probably more, but two that concerned me personally.

One is that despite the ordinance allowing hens in Our Little Town, roosters are still forbidden.  And for good reason.  Nobody wants roosters.  Not even hens.  This kind of ordinance is mostly enforced on a complaints basis in Our Little Town – nobody really comes around inspecting for forbidden fowl, but if the City gets a complaint they’ll send someone by.  Quiet little chicks do not generate complaints.  Roosters do.  We don’t really get along with the neighbors on that side of the house, but if they had chosen to complain there wouldn’t have been much we could do.  Honestly, we were complaining too, just quietly and to ourselves.  So we moved the chickens down into the basement in the fond hopes that this would muffle the noise.

The other is that roosters tend to crow at dawn.  That’s what they’re for, I guess.  And Terrance is the sort of rooster for whom any moderately bright streetlight or even passing car looks like dawn.  Remember how scientists say that humans have the best brains?  They don’t have much to say about roosters that way.  We hoped that the basement would put a damper on this as well.

So the bottom line is that we had a feathered alarm clock for a few weeks, one who would crow promptly at 6:15am or whenever he heard any motion in the house, whichever came first.

If we closed our bedroom door we could block this enough to keep sleeping, but this did not take into account the cats. 

Once the rooster started in Midgie would get worried and start crying, which only added to the din and could in fact penetrate the door.  And if we closed the door Mithra would scratch at it from whatever direction she was facing in order to get to the other side.  There are legions of responses to the question of why did the chicken cross the road, but cats are cats and who knows why they want to be anywhere.

Our animals were conspiring against us.  This is not a recipe for long life or good health on either side, really.

But if there is a silver lining to climate change it is that the winters have been milder, so we could shovel Terrance and his feathered friends out to the barn that much sooner.  Yesterday was the day.  We showed up at the barn with a roll of chicken wire, some wire cutters, two staple guns, some plywood, a hammer, nails, and an attitude, and within a couple of hours we’d converted another stall into a coop by sheathing it in chicken wire.  We went back home, stuffed the chickens into a cardboard box, brought them out to the barn, and set them up in their new home, although in wire enclosures so they can get used to the place.  Sometime later this week we’ll let them have the run of it.

So no more rooster crowing in my basement.  We are legal again.

And sleeping better, thank you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

News and Updates

1. It’s always nice to be able to look forward to parent/teacher conferences.  We were down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School last night and Local Businessman High today, and both Lauren’s and Tabitha’s teachers were very pleased with them.  When the most common comment you get from your kids’ teachers is that they wish they had more kids like yours, things are going well.

2. The universe is once again conspiring to be very unkind to someone I love dearly, and I find this unacceptable.  The universe just thumbs its nose at me and continues on its way, however, which is one of the things wrong with the universe.

3. When a major political party has a debate among its leading presidential candidates that features ten minutes of unintelligible wargling over the size of one candidate’s penis, you can safely declare that party to be morally and intellectually bankrupt.  Face it – that’s not a slate of candidates up there on that stage.  That’s an awkward holiday dinner with every relative your parents refused to let you spend time alone with when you were a child.

4. Friday night it snowed here in Our Little Town.  Tuesday it was 70F.  Just waiting around for tornado season now, is all.

5. I am slowly getting more comfortable with the demands of my new job, which is good because those demands are slowly ramping up to match.  This is the nature of things, and why I am being paid the big bucks.  Or at least some bucks.  Bucks are good.  They help me satisfy my pesky addictions to food, shelter, and books.

6. Tabitha’s school play was last week and it went very well.  She was one of the black-clad minions moving set pieces around between scenes, which only goes to show you that the apple didn’t fall very far from that tree.  I am a proud dad.

7. All the little things that go wrong with a car seem to be converging on mine these days.  I now have new tires.  I may soon have new brakes.  Eventually I will have the automotive equivalent of George Washington’s ax.

8. I should never be placed in charge of travel plans.

9. Did you know that unnecessary restrictions on immigration to here was one of the grievances against King George III that the Founding Fathers felt was important enough to include in the Declaration of Independence?  No, seriously – it was.  My how things have changed.

10. I now have an entire band of pre-set radio stations just for popular music.  Lauren is immensely relieved at this, as it means she does not have to deal with any of the stations that I usually have on.  And once in a while I find some good songs.  So, win.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Sporting Life

Every once in a while it is nice to be reminded that most people are basically decent.

Today marks the beginning of the Big Junior Bonspiel that takes place every year out by Mid-Range Campus.  It’s one of those events that the girls look forward to all year long, though this year only Lauren ended up going.  Tabitha has reached the point in her high school career where other events begin to interfere – in this case, working as ground crew on the school play. 

It’s a great play, by the way.  If you’re around Our Little Town this weekend and want an entertaining evening, you should go see it.  Tabitha is one of the dark-clad minions moving the set around between scenes.  You can wave at her while she does so, but she probably won’t see you.

But time, tide, and bonspiels wait for nobody, so Lauren and I hit the road at a thoroughly unreasonable hour this morning in order to get to the Curling Club in time for an 8am draw.  We stopped at the big parking lot on the north side of town to pick up Lauren’s teammates Emily and Taryn, and headed off down the highway.  When we got there they staked out their spots (it’s a lock-in event and a big one, so floor-space for your stuff is at a premium), got registered, and then set about finding the substitute for Tabitha.

They’d worked that out, sort of.  The organizer of this event had lined up someone for us but hadn’t told us who it was yet.  Eventually we discovered that our new teammate was a 10-year-old boy, and it has to be said that he more than held his own on that team of teenaged girls.  So good for him.

For their first match they were paired up with a team that had matching jackets festooned with patches from previous bonspiels.  This, from a competitive perspective, is seldom a good sign for our side, but curling is nothing if not sporting, so things were going well from everything but a scoring perspective through the first few ends.

Then Taryn’s knee went out from under her.

We got her back inside the warming area, where one of the parents from the other team turned out to be a physical therapist who checked her out.  The opposing coach told us to take all the time we needed to get things straightened out, which technically he did not have to do.  After a few minutes we came to a few conclusions:

First, that Taryn would be fine.  She was up and walking after a while and not in any pain, though they did recommend that she not go back out on the ice until her knee felt 100%.

Second, that our team would continue with three players.  This involved a few changes.  Lauren moved up to Skip position, which is the curling equivalent of the team captain – her first experience with in that role at a bonspiel.  Emily and the new guy would now throw three rocks each instead of two.  And they’d be a sweeper short, which is a problem.

The other team volunteered a sweeper.  Problem solved.

After an end or two in that configuration, we noticed that the two teams were having an extended discussion down at the far side of the sheet.  This turned out to be centered on a rather substantial issue completely unrelated to any of the foregoing matter – that the other team was a Competitive team (thus explaining the matching outerwear) while our team was a Developmental team.  Thanks to an error we had made on our application we’d been placed in the Competitive division for the weekend.  Thus the rather lopsided score at that point.

At that point the opposing coach decided to let us sit Taryn on a chair out on the carpeted area out by the ice so she could coach our team (as a Skip would normally do out there).  He also went out with her to give pointers and answer questions.

Nobody does sportsmanship like curlers.  Nobody.

Oh, our team lost that match by a rather lopsided score, as we expected them to do once it became clear the situation they were in.  And they’ll have to continue as a Competitive team for the rest of the bonspiel, which is actually a good thing since had they applied as a Developmental team they would have been turned away for lack of space.  They’ll learn some things this weekend, no doubt.

But everyone sat down for the usual socializing period afterward, and the morning moved on in a collegial and helpful way.

It’s always good when that happens, because sometimes it’s easy to forget the larger picture.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Wedding in Wisconsin

I stopped by the courthouse today and dropped off the paperwork, so it’s all official now. 

One of the odder things that has happened over the course of my life is that I have become an ordained minister in two different offbeat churches.  The first one, which I joined on a whim one day back in 2007, is the Church of the Latter Day Dude, based on The Big Lebowski.  That one doesn’t actually qualify me to perform weddings in Wisconsin, as I discovered when a friend of mine asked me to do that a couple of years ago.  But the Universal Life Church does, so I joined that.  The ULC is fine with Dudeist ceremonies, so win all around.

And since the basic theology of both of these churches essentially boils down to “don’t be a dick,” I saw no conflict between them and my own actual faith.  Much of Christianity falls under that rubric, really, and I wish more people who call themselves Christians would remember that.  But that is another blog post for another day.

So I can perform weddings here in Wisconsin, is what I’m saying.

My friend John found this out recently.  He and his partner were looking for a quick and quiet ceremony and asked if I would be willing to do it – either that or Kim volunteered me to do it when she found out what John was looking for.  The line is somewhat blurry.  But in any event I said I would, and we met a couple of weeks ago to figure out what they wanted.

It turned out that Mark is a fan of The Big Lebowski.  So that was settled.

The ceremony was Monday night at John and Mark’s home.  It was just the three of us, plus two of their friends to serve as witnesses.  We stood there in the living room as I gave my homily – a proper Dudeist invocation centered on the idea of Abiding with each other – and then, as I am legally empowered to do (a fact which still amazes me somewhat), I pronounced them married.

They’re legally empowered to do that now too, even here in Wisconsin, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent recognition that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the laws makes the bigotry of the small-minded irrelevant.  Sometimes the Court gets things right, and for that I am glad.

I’ve always loved weddings – small ones, big ones, fancy ones, plain ones, all of them – because at the center of a wedding are two people pledging their lives and hearts to one another, and that is one of the most astonishing things that human beings can do.  Things don’t always work out, of course, but at that moment magic still exists and everything is possible.

And sometimes things do work out.

Congratulations to John and Mark.  I wish you a lifetime together.