Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Musical Time

It was a music filled week, last week.  You need that in dark times, to remind you of good things.

On Wednesday there was the annual Dessert Concert.  The various orchestras and chamber groups of the high schools here in Our Little Town get together in the cafeteria of one of them for an evening of music and donated sweets.  For a nominal fee you can fill up a plate with as much sugar as you can hold if you go through a second time – they do ask you to limit yourself to three items the first pass through, so everyone can get some.  

This sounds like a simple evening, but the logistics of it were daunting.

Kim had to stay late on campus that day and then get to the cafeteria early, as she had volunteered to be on set-up crew.  Kim’s parents were coming down for the show and an early dinner.  Tabitha had one of her clubs meeting after school.  And Lauren and I had to take care of her chickens.  The short version is that we ended up going out to our local burger joint for a quick dinner and getting something to bring to Kim while we were there.

This sounds simple until you realize that while Tabitha had to get there early for call, the rest of us did not.  But Tabitha can drive herself over, you say!  And yes, yes she can.  Except that she inherited her sense of direction from my mother, and when we watched her sail off from the burger joint parking lot in precisely the opposite direction from where she needed to go, we figured it would be a long night.  

But we live in an age of miracles – of cell phones with speaker phones, and GPS – and surprisingly enough everyone ended up where they needed to be with plenty of time to spare.

It was a lovely evening, even if my capacity for sugar is nowhere near what it once was.

There were warm-up acts – a few solos or small groups from the various high schools, including the Local Businessman High School chamber orchestra, of which Tabitha is a member.  And all of the orchestras did their bits well.  We were even close enough to hear them, as cafeterias are not known for their acoustics.

Nice work, Tabitha!


Thursday was the Honors concert.

The Honors Band and Honors Orchestra are volunteer groups.  You get nominated by your conductor, if they think you’re good enough and have enough of a work ethic to make it worthwhile, and you get to say no if you disagree.  Tabitha was chosen for Honors Orchestra as a violist (her second instrument, after the violin), and Lauren was chosen for Honors Band on percussion (one of her many instruments over the years).

For the last six weeks or so they have headed over to the other high school in town every Tuesday evening for rehearsals, and last week was the big show down at the Performing Arts Center here in town.

Naturally the weather turned.  It was 74F here on Wednesday, but by the time we got to the concert on Thursday it was actually sleeting.  Not that it made any difference to the crowd.  One of the nice things about Our Little Town is that events like this are always jam packed with audience members.  It’s good to see people support their kids this way.  

And it was a lovely concert, as you would expect from a selective group of performers that way.  The orchestra went first, then there was a big combined number, and then the band finished up.

Nice work, Lauren!  Nice work, Tabitha!


We sat way in the back of the house, and the percussion section always ends up way in the back of the stage, so I was impressed that I could get any photos of Lauren at all.  But telephoto lenses are just the most amazing things, really.

I am proud of my daughters.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

31 Reasons Why I am a Better Citizen than Donald Trump

1. I pay my taxes and am a contributing member of society.

2. I have read and understood the Constitution.

3. I know how to do my job.

4. I understand that “the opposite of the Nazis” is generally the proper moral and political stance.

5. Grammar.

6. I know for a fact that Americans should not be treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

7. There is no possibility that I am currently on the payroll of any foreign government.

8. I know that education is the foundation of American prosperity.

9. I understand the important and necessary role that immigrants have in creating and maintaining American society and industry.

10. When I make a promise, I actually keep it.

11. I have never employed anyone whose sole job was to keep me distracted enough that I wouldn’t cause an international incident out of a juvenile need to be the center of attention.

12. I am not working to destroy the federal government.

13. I have never advocated sexual assault.

14. I can follow a coherent train of thought to its logical conclusion, make rational arguments, and weigh actual evidence.

15. I am a member in good standing of the Reality-Based Community.

16. The federal government is not spending millions of dollars to protect family members who refuse to live with me.

17. I have not spent more than half of my working hours doing things other than my job.

18. I have a demonstrated capacity to learn.

19. I have never billed my employer for personal travel.

20. I am aware that bullying the vulnerable is a sign of weakness, not strength.

21. My faith is not politically motivated or economically expedient, nor is that of my supporters.

22. I pay people who do work for me.

23. Having actual principles enables me to resist agreeing with whoever happens to speak to me most recently.

24. I am not willing to see Americans die to finance a tax cut for the wealthy.

25. No Scotsman has ever had any reason to call me a cockwomble.

26. I have never committed an impeachable offense.

27. It is not my habit to piss off people who can destroy the entire American economy anytime they want to.

28. I am not insecure enough to play silly handshake games with grown men.

29. I can count.

30. I am actually concerned about what the world will look like when I am gone and it belongs to the next generation.

31. I avoid white supremacists rather than employ them.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Smooooth

We got new credit cards the other day.

This is kind of a special thing, since we pretty much only have the one account.  It’s a lot simpler that way, and it’s a great deal easier to keep a close eye on expenses so they don’t get away from us.  Been there, done that, took a long time to bring them to heel, don’t plan on doing that again.

The old cards were about to expire, so they sent us some new ones.  They’re snazzy.  They’re shiny.  They’re sleek.

And they represent an end of an era, really.

When I worked at the museum, a decade ago now, we were as behind the times as you would expect a non-profit historical site to be.  Our cash register, for example, had manual typewriter keys for numbers and you youngsters can look up what those are for yourselves.  Apparently the new director has since moved it from the gift shop into the museum itself as an artifact, which was kind of depressing but not unwarranted. 

I used to hate it when people tried to pay with credit cards.  We didn’t have any fancy magnetic stripe reader, and chip cards were something that only Europeans knew anything about at the time.  No, for us, we had to take the card, put it in one of those old-fashioned impression-makers and slide the roller over it hard enough to get the numbers to print on the carbon paper.  It took some muscle to process a credit card order, and a good five minutes.

Nobody does that anymore.

Nobody under the age of thirty even knows what that paragraph was talking about.

It’s all chips today.  These are much nicer, probably more secure, and generally easier to work with once you get the hang of them, and if I ever get to visit my friends in Europe again perhaps the storekeepers there will not look so disappointed as they hand back my dowdy old magnetic strip American card and tell me to try some other establishment the way some of them had to do last time we were there.  The cards still have the magnetic strips, since many places haven’t made the jump to the chip readers yet here in the US of A, but I find that even ATMs are now focused on the chip.

The thing is, neither the chip readers nor the magnetic strip readers require raised numbers on your cards. 

For a long time the cards would have them anyway, sort of as a relic from the 1970s, much like the idea of holding a president accountable for his crimes.

Then some bright soul figured out that since impression-makers had gone the way of VCRs, they could probably save themselves the expense of molding the credit cards with raised numbers.  She probably got a promotion for this.  And then was let go in a cost-cutting reorganization, because that’s how corporate America works these days.

So we have sleek, smooth credit cards with the numbers just printed on.

I’m still find myself looking for the numbers, but then those old 1970s ideas die hard.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Table for Four

We have a coffee table now.

We really haven’t had a coffee table since we got married.  I had one when I lived in Iowa, but it was frighteningly ugly and I used it as a desk anyway.  I’d gotten it for free, along with a sofa, a big square chair with wide arms that was perfect for reading graduate school assignments and taking notes in, and a couple of end tables.  These were all residing at a friend of a friend’s apartment back in 1989.  He was about to get married and his wife wanted nothing whatever to do with any of it, so my dad, my brother and I went over in a rented truck and spirited them away.  I took them to my first real apartment in Pittsburgh, and eventually to Iowa.

And then I moved to Wisconsin and got married.  There was something about that furniture set that repelled wives, really.  The coffee table and end table ended up in the basement – I think we gave them to another bachelor after a while.  Maybe.  They seem to have vanished, at any rate.  We used the sofa until it became intolerable and began to decay and I had to put an ad in the local shopper (“decent condition, wife hates, must sell”).  It sold quickly, actually.  I kept the big chair until it was about to fall apart and then gave it to a friend who liked it.  He moved away after that.  For all I know he still has it.

When the girls were little we didn’t want anything with corners at that height that they could toddle into, so we didn't replace the coffee table with anything.  Eventually we bought a couple of styrofoam moons from IKEA.  They came with soft blue covers that you could take off and wash, and you could use them as rocking chairs.  And if you stacked them one on top of the other, they made a decent coffee table substitute.

The girls are no longer little.

And Kim has long wanted a real coffee table.

So last week she found one she liked for a reasonable sum at a local retail establishment and we went over, stuffed it into the back of the van, and brought it home.

The moons we delivered to a friend with little kids, because really – they’re great for little kids.

So now we have a coffee table in the living room.  It is a nice table.  I don’t even like coffee, and I think it’s a nice table.  It makes the place look far more grown-up than the moons ever did.  You can put a whole lot of things on it if you want, including breakfast and, on occasion, multiple cats.  You can put your feet up while you watch television.  We haven’t filled the little drawers yet, but that’s a matter of time I suppose.

For all the things that are roiling the world at the moment, it is good to be reminded that small things can make life a more pleasant place.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Few Good Things

As we slide ever deeper into the totalitarian right-wing abyss that the next four years will represent here in the once-proud United States, it occurs to me that perhaps I should be trying to find good things to say about the world as a whole, because otherwise I may just have to park my sanity at the door and start believing in the effectiveness of supply-side economics in a demand-side economy and no good ever comes of that.


There are good things, even if they can be easily obscured by the larger picture.

So I figured I’d start small by listing a few things that make the world better.  Truly we live in an age of miracles.

1. Instant-on LED light bulbs.

These are just the greatest things ever made.  They are cheap if you amortize them out over the life of the bulb, because they last basically forever.  They fit into your pre-existing light fixtures.  They actually provide bright and reasonably-hued light.  And you don’t have to wait for them to warm up the way the old ones used to require (and the way CFLs still do).  Seriously – these things are just the bomb.  Am I allowed to say “bomb” these days?  We’ll find out.

2. Digital cameras.

It took me a long time to make the switch from film to digital, but I’m glad I did.  They’re fast, they have resolution that’s as good or better than film these days, and you can take as many pictures as you want without worrying about the cost – a prime consideration on vacations, or when giving cameras to young children.  You do have to be a bit more focused on printing the photos – my guess is that the overwhelming majority of photographs taken in the last decade will never actually be printed – and I do worry about the long-term accessibility of the files, since computer formats are ephemeral.  I can print 150-year-old glass plate negatives, but try to read a 20-year-old computer disk sometime.  That said, digital photos are fun, and to be honest most film photographs didn’t survive either.

3. Electric teakettles.

We discovered these on a trip to England in 2004, and I have no idea how I ever managed to live without them.  You plug in the base, fill the kettle, and just a couple of minutes later you have hot water for tea.  And the bottom of the kettle is cool, so you can put it on your table without scorching anything.  These are great – I cannot imagine why they’re not in every home in the world.  We use them so hard we burn through one about every eighteen months, and they’re just lovely.

4. Free shipping

The modern world runs on logistics – it’s an intricately connected web of supplies that all, somehow, manages to get things from where they are to where they need to be mostly on time and in good condition.  And we’ve got this down to such an art now that the costs of it all can be absorbed into the item cost without anyone getting upset about it.  That’s an astonishing thing, from a historical perspective.  It wasn’t all that long ago that nothing in the world moved faster than 3mph over any appreciable distance and carrying costs were often higher than the value of the goods carried.  Things have changed.

5. Buffalo wings

I love spicy food.  I am reaching the point in my life where I’m no longer convinced that this love is reciprocated, but that hasn’t stopped me yet.  I’m the sort of person who uses hot sauce where most people use ketchup – as an all-around condiment to be put on pretty much everything.  I rarely bother with Chinese menu items that aren’t printed in red.  I’m long past the days when I saw this as a contest with myself – Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs were remarkably efficient at dispelling that illusion, thank you – but if it has salt, vinegar, and hot peppers mixed together chances are I’ll eat it and be happy.  The fact that you can get chicken covered in that combination and that, further, you can dip that chicken into bleu cheese dressing, is just the pinnacle of culinary bliss as far as I am concerned.

Life can be good.  Really, it can.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Know Something?

The American Party was founded in 1849, though nobody ever called it that.  Probably not even its founders.

It was the product of the merger of a number of other organizations – The Order of the Star Spangled Banner, The Order of United Americans, and so on – and it was originally something of a secret society.  Its members were instructed, when asked about the inner workings of the party, to respond with the simple phrase, “I know nothing,” and for this reason they quickly became known as the Know-Nothing Party.

The Know-Nothings were perhaps the most unintentionally self-revelatory of all of the groups dedicated to one of the darker and more unsavory of American habits: nativism. 

Nativism is basically the belief that immigration was a lovely and perfect thing right up until the day after your own ancestors washed up on these shores, after which it became a threat to all that was good, true, and holy and had to be stamped out.  It is a particular foible of white Americans, many of whom seem to think that the Native Americans who were here when their ancestors arrived were interlopers who needed to be removed from what was obviously their land.  It has a long history in this country, one that encompasses a surprising number of groups, and it seems to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity here in the Land of the Free.*

In the 18th century, for example, Benjamin Franklin – normally (and for the most part correctly) seen as an apostle of Enlightenment tolerance and consistently voted “Founding Father You’d Most Like to Have a Beer With” by people who think that sort of thing is meaningful – had a few choice things to say about the Germans who made up such a large percentage of the population of Pennsylvania at the time.

"Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation,” he wrote in 1751, “… and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it…I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties...In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious."

Sound familiar?

Change the focus from “German” to “Mexican” or “Muslim,” coarsen and simplify the language and make a few spelling errors and grammatical mistakes to appeal to the sorts of people who believe this kind of thing these days, and this could have been featured on yesterday’s cable news or been the substance of a tweet storm ragetyped by der Sturmtrumper from the White House shitter during time that had been scheduled for something more productive such as an intelligence briefing.  Irony is a right bitch sometimes.

Nativism got overshadowed by the Revolutionary Crisis that enveloped the colonies in the decades after Franklin wrote that, but came back with a vengeance in the early 1800s in the face of the Old Immigrants.

The Old Immigrants were the first major wave of immigration into the US after the Revolution.  They were mostly northern and western Europeans – Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, and so on – and they began arriving in numbers in the 1820s and 1830s.  They continued arriving in numbers almost up to the Civil War, though by then the totals had begun to fall off. 

They faced bitterly hostile reactions from people who had been born here.  This was especially true of the Irish immigrants, who were rather distinct from the others.

Most of the Old Immigrants were Protestant.  They came over in families, they were literate, and if they weren’t exactly wealthy then neither were they poor, as a rule.  They tended to head inland to settle on the frontier – especially the Germans, who made western cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee their own.  The Irish, on the other hand, were Catholic – the only major Catholic group of immigrants before the Civil War.  They were generally poor and often sick, came over as single men or, less often, women, and tended to be uneducated.  They tended to stay in the eastern port cities where they arrived, since that’s where they were when their money ran out.  They were different.  And they were targets.

Anti-Irish rioting broke out in cities like New York and Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s.  Buildings burned, people were murdered, and often it was only the city militia that could restore order.  The nativist groups that coalesced out of these riots eventually formed the core of the Know-Nothing Party.

What’s interesting about all this is how little the Germans were targeted by then.  They were now okay, in large part because they were now considered to be white.

They weren’t in Franklin’s day, you know.

In that same 1751 pamphlet where Franklin criticized the Germans for their language and inassimilable culture, he also complained of the “swarthy” Germans contaminating the “purely white” English culture of the colonies.  He did make an exception for the Saxons, who – as the ancestors of the English – were clearly white.  But the rest of the Germans were part of the “black or tawny” part of humanity, and thus inferior.

Remember, these are the same Germans that the Nazis would hold up as the paragons of white pride.  Things change.  Though the neo-Nazis and modern nativists who prattle on about this stuff today would do well to remember Franklin and what his position means for theirs.  White is a cultural construct, not a biological fact.

By the 1830s, the Germans were white in America, but the Irish were not.  The Irish don’t become white until the late 19th century, largely because of the New Immigrants.

The New Immigrants started coming over in numbers after the Civil War, in the 1870s.  You get a peak in the early 1880s, and then another peak in the first decade or so of the 20th century, and then WWI slows it to a trickle before the nativists shut it off completely in the 1920s. 

They were a very diverse lot. 

Some of them were Asians.  There were a lot of Chinese immigrants, for example – a process that started before the Civil War, actually, but which gained momentum afterward until you started to see the same kind of anti-immigrant rioting against the Chinese in the 1870s that you saw against the Irish in the 1830s and 1840s.  Ironically one of the primary leaders of the anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco was an Irish immigrant named Denis Kearney, because you can’t make up stuff like that.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 put a stop to most of that immigration.  The nativists won, in other words.  Democracy is no guarantee of morality.

There were also large numbers of Japanese and Filipino immigrants, which is why so many of the people we imprisoned without trial during WWII for the crime of looking like people we were fighting a war against were second- and third-generation American citizens, many of whose families had been here longer than those of the people who were locking them up.

It can happen to you, too.

There were also Middle Easterners – large groups of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and so on.  It usually comes as a surprise to my students to discover that there have been Muslims in what would become the United States as early as the 1600s and sizeable Muslim communities in the United States for nearly a century and a half, peacefully living as Americans and generally causing no more – and often far less – trouble than their Christian neighbors.  You would not believe the things I am sometimes accused of for pointing this out, or perhaps you would.  But to quote John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.”

Most of the New Immigrants, however, were from southern and eastern Europe.  Slavs.  Italians.  Greeks.  Spaniards.  Portuguese.  East European Jews.  And so on.

What they all had in common was that they were far more different from the locals and the Old Immigrants than the Old Immigrants had been from the locals back in the early 1800s, except the Irish, of course, whom they resembled in many ways.  They were generally not Protestant – they were Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on.  They came from countries where public education was often non-existent and were thus usually illiterate.  They spoke languages that were not remotely like English.  They were poor, and generally stayed in the port cities where their money ran out. 

They were also, in fact, swarthy compared to the people living here, African-Americans aside.  And suddenly the Irish become white too, by comparison, although it took a while for anti-Irish nativism to die down even so. 

It’s not an accident the treatment of the New Immigrants paralleled that of the Irish before the Civil War, including riots against them.

The New Immigrants were, of course, blamed for every social ill the country was going through in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  Despite the fact that they were generally the victims in these scenarios rather than the perpetrators, they were blamed for urban overcrowding, prostitution, crime, and political corruption.  They were seen as the root cause of vice and immorality, and as radicals for daring to protest the often inhumane conditions in factories across the US.  And when nativists figured out that the New Immigrants didn’t always agree with the way they were portrayed, they decided to solve the problem by shutting off the flow of immigration to the US almost entirely in the 1920s.  The nativists won again.  They do that, when people Know Nothing.

That doesn’t begin to change until after WWII.

World War II was one of the most racially charged conflicts in modern history, with the Fascist powers in particular fighting for the victory of their different master races (there is no small irony in Hitler’s Germany, with its blonde, blue-eyed mockery of a master race being so tightly allied with the Italians and the Japanese, but then he didn’t look like his own model either, really).  The contradiction between American armies opposing those armies abroad while strictly segregating races at home was one of the primary catalysts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and eventually the sheer hypocrisy of it led to the loosening of immigration restrictions as well.  Sometimes the nativists lose, too.

And now we find ourselves in a new age of nativism, when immigration is once again opposed by people who were fine with it until the day after their ancestors got here.  We are surrounded by Know-Nothings.

But I do know something.  I know a great many things, actually.

I know that the US is a nation of immigrants.  I know that we were built by immigrants.  I know that we are richer, stronger, more innovative, more secure, more cultured, better fed, and better positioned in the world when we recognize this fact.  I know that immigrants pay taxes – even illegal immigrants, which always comes as a surprise to the wall-builders – and that the simple mathematical fact is that they pay significantly more taxes than many Fortune 500 companies and infinitely more taxes than the current president.  I also know that, given the trends in American birthrates, immigrants are essentially our only source of population growth anymore.  I know we need immigrants to keep the United States going.

The more you know, the less you are willing to put up with the nonsense of the ignorant, I find.

You want a real American Party?  Find one that welcomes immigrants.

----

*Terms and conditions apply – see your local right-wing extremist to see what rights you still qualify for, and don’t be surprised if the answer is disappointing.  We tried to warn you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

1. As predicted in this space, it’s hard to keep up with the cavalcade of nonsense emanating from der Sturmtrumper’s White House these days.  I hope President Bannon is getting a handle on things and learns how to control his puppet sometime soon, because otherwise it’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

2. Nevertheless, we persist.

3. If you want to know what fear is, don’t get into a conflict with an opponent who strikes quickly.  Get tangled up with an opponent who persists.  Who patiently grinds you down, hour by hour, day by day, unremittingly, unrelentingly, incrementally, everywhere you go, everyplace you hide, leaving you no respite, no sanctuary, no relief, and no possibility of avoiding what you know very well is going to be the final outcome.  I know that der Sturmtrumper has the power now, and that he has a willing base to overlook his crimes, his grotesque incompetence, and his disregard for law and morals and Constitution.  Nevertheless, we persist.

4. By my count we’re up to at least two and possibly four impeachable offenses already, which you have to admit is pretty impressive twenty days into an administration.

5. The fact that Betsy DeVos is now the Secretary of Education is one of the most criminal things I have ever heard.  This is a women who is even more blisteringly incompetent than the guy who nominated her, whose stated goal is to destroy public education in this country, and who openly brags that she regards this position as the quid pro quo for her donations to the same senators who voted in her favor – a criminal act and one that, if the GOP had any shred of morality or backbone whatsoever, would have her in jail rather than in office.  I’m not holding my breath.

6. Der Sturmtrumper’s own Supreme Court nominee has publicly called the president’s war on the judiciary “demoralizing,” “disheartening,” and “abhorrent.”  What are the odds that he remains the nominee at this point?  Der Sturmtrumper is not known for tolerating dissent very well.

7. I have no doubt that the nominee is qualified for the Supreme Court, even if his record is one of right wing extremism.  Under ordinary conditions, I would be resigned to his confirmation.  But let’s be honest – Merrick Garland was qualified too, more so than this guy.  And until Garland gets a fair hearing and a vote, I don’t see why any judicial nominee of this administration should be considered at all.

8. The fact that so many advertisements centered on tolerance, diversity, and the accessibility of the American dream are seen by der Sturmtrumper and his supporters as being anti-Trump is a pretty damning indictment of him and his supporters, really.  Don’t you just love when they make your case for you?

9. All those right-wing extremists shouting about how the protesters against the current regime are just triggered snowflakes are the same people losing their shit over a beer commercial and a Broadway play.  Think about that.

10. I wish I could credit the source for #9, but the internet slides by too quickly and things get lost.  [EDIT: Credit goes to Rob Daviau.]

11. Apparently they’ve confirmed the new Attorney General – the guy who was so racist that the GOP turned him down for a judgeship in 1986.  My how times change.

12.  It’s kind of adorable how executive orders are okay now that the white guy is issuing them.  I wonder what the change was.

13. The fact that this White House leaks like a sieve at this point in the administration is unprecedented.  This is supposed to be the honeymoon stage, where an administration still has effective control over its people and broad support not only from its party but also from the nation as a whole.  These people are incompetent, and their staffers are frightened. 

14. I saw somewhere that der Sturmtrumper now has a majority of Americans actively disapproving of his conduct – a mark that took Obama over 900 days to achieve, George W. Bush over 1200, Reagan more than 700, and Bill Clinton more than 500.  Eisenhower never got to this point.  This guy took 8 days.  And all I can say is where the hell were you people in November, when anyone with more than six working brain cells was frantically shouting at you that exactly this would happen?

15.  Nevertheless, we persist.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Night With the Founding Fathers

There is an entire store in Chicago devoted to Crocs.  I can honestly say that this is something that would never have occurred to me as a retail opportunity, but there it was.

You walk in and you’re surrounded by hundreds of pairs of resolutely, defiantly uncool footware, each formed out of a substance that clearly was developed by mad scientists concerned about a possible Swiss cheese shortage and looking for a non-perishable substitute that could be dyed colors that occur nowhere in nature.  For what it is worth, they may have succeeded.  There’s also a helpful sales clerk who is probably wondering what you’re doing there, which is a fair question.

Because we had more interesting places to be on Thursday night than a shoe store.

A couple of Octobers ago my friend Joshua introduced me to the cast recording of Hamilton.  I’d heard of it before – you can’t be a historian specializing in the Founding Fathers and not get early wind of a hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton – but actually listening to the music was a revelation.  As someone who spent more than three decades backstage at one level or another and who sang in more than his share of choirs, I was hooked.  And I loved the fact that, within the tolerances of a Broadway musical, it was more or less historically accurate.  I have since played a few of the songs for various classes I’ve taught, in fact.  My students were usually surprised to discover that such a thing existed.  

This was before Hamilton became a national phenomenon, but not much before.  I kind of felt hipsterish for a while, except that I was quite happy to find it becoming popular.  I will never understand the mentality that says things are only good until people find out about them.  If they’re good, people should enjoy them.

A month after being introduced to the cast recording, we realized that we’d be in New York City over New Year’s, visiting family, and we thought, “Hey!  Wouldn’t it be lovely to see Hamilton?”  So we called the theater.

“How about August?” they said.

The musical – really an opera, since there are no spoken lines outside of the songs – had become immensely and deservedly popular, and it remains so even now.  It’s won awards.  It’s made the news.  And it’s spawned touring companies.  We didn’t even bother trying for tickets this past New Year’s – I think Broadway is booked out until 2045 now – but when tickets went on sale last summer for the Chicago touring company we decided it would be worth the price.  Christmas would be light on presents, but we were going to see Hamilton.  

You know you live in the midwest when the idea of driving a couple of hours on a school night for an evening’s entertainment and then driving a couple hours back makes perfect sense.  

And it did make perfect sense.  We had a magnificent time.

Pretty much the instant we all made it home from our various schools on Thursday we piled into the van, drove through the local burger joint for dinner, and hit the road.  It was smooth sailing until we got to Chicago itself.  Chicago is surrounded by a permanent gridlock of cars like in an old Doctor Who episode, with entire generations being born, finding spouses, reproducing, and passing away without ever getting to their exit.  Fortunately we managed to give all that the slip and eventually we found ourselves at the parking garage with plenty of time to spare.

Which is why we could stop at the Crocs store that was almost exactly halfway between the garage and the theater.  

And the art supply store on the corner.

Eventually we made it to the theater, showed them the ticket code on Kim’s phone (seriously – they just print you the receipt right there, which is a bizarre thing), and found our seats.



We were way over on house left, on the first balcony – so far over, in fact, that we couldn’t actually see the last four or five feet of stage right.  We didn’t miss much, though, and we were right up by the stage too, so they were good seats.  There was nobody in front of us.  And we had actual chairs that we could move around to find more comfortable positions, so it was a win all around.




After a short run at the souvenir stand (new mug for me!  you cannot have too many books or mugs!) we settled in to wait for the show.

The first thing I noticed, as we waited for curtain, was the incredible number of lighting instruments hung about that theater.  It’s not a very big space, really, but it was festooned with instruments – there must have been at least 300 of them over the stage itself, as well as maybe half that many out in the house that I could see.  During the intermission Tabitha and I wandered down to the lip of the stage to get a closer look – you could get right up to it, and even put your hand on the stage if you really wanted to.  You could also peer down into the orchestra pit – the musicians were actually under the stage, and during the show the conductor’s head just barely peeked out of a small opening downstage center.  There were a couple of monitors on the front of the balcony, in the center of the house, so the actors could see the conductor, and they were fun to watch during the performance.  There were also three separate spotlights way up at the rear of the house, a fact that probably nobody else noticed or cared about but which made us very happy.  During the show we noticed a lot of the lighting, actually – it was really impressive, if you were the sort to pay attention to it.







Eventually the house lights dimmed and the show started.

It.  Was.  Fantastic.

The touring company cast was very good, though I did have to keep reminding myself that they weren’t doing it wrong, just differently from the cast recording.  The actor who played George III was a natural ham – he looked like a cross between Craig Ferguson and the bald eagle on the Muppet Show and clearly thought he was Rowan Atkinson – and he knew how to play a crowd.  The actress playing Angelica Schuyler captured much of the intensity of the original, and the actress playing her sister Eliza did so as well, especially in the last song.  My favorite actor, though, was the one who played both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, mostly because he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.  But they were all incredibly talented.

There is a part toward the end of the first act when Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette meet just before the Battle of Yorktown to renew their friendship and plan for the upcoming fight.  Neither was born in what would become the US, and only one would stay after the war, but they fought for their ideals – for our ideals – and were critical to this country’s very existence.  “Immigrants,” they sing.  “We get the job done.”  The audience hollered and applauded that line, a reminder in our present cowardly age that this country has always extended a welcome to immigrants and refugees and is both poorer and less secure when it forgets that simple fact.

I’m guessing that happens a lot at these performances, nowadays.  They vamped for a while, and then moved on with the song.  Somehow, it made me feel better about this country.

It was surprising to me how many of the scenes played out much as I’d imagined them.  Not all, and not entirely, but within tolerance, many of them.  “Blow Us All Away,” at the end of the first act and one of my favorite songs, was almost exactly as I’d pictured.  I will admit that Jefferson’s electric purple coat was a surprise, though.

It was a long drive back to Our Little Town, and we got in around 1am.  Friday morning came fast and hard, and to be honest the day was a bit of a lost cause in many ways.  

But it was worth it.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Life and Nothing But

When I was an undergrad, I took a psychology class called “Misfortune and Punishment.”

It was a fascinating class, really.  How do people react to negative events?  Why?  How do you distinguish between misfortune – bad things that you don’t deserve – and punishment, which is just bad things that you do deserve?  What happens when people conflate those two things?  What makes them do that?  For a grim subject it was a surprisingly fun semester in many ways.

Not all of them.  But many.

At one point during the many classes where we were focusing on death and dying, the professor – a tall, thin man with an Amish beard and a sense of humor that would need to be thoroughly irrigated just to get back up to merely “dry” – turned to us and said, “The fact that you are going to die doesn’t mean that you have to spend all your time dying along the way.”

This is a valuable lesson.  It is okay, even in the direst of circumstances, to look around you and find joy.

It’s good to remember that, these days.

So even as my country descends into howling madness, I will find what simple joys there are.  I will write about them.  And I will be happy in them.  

And in an oddly fitting sort of way, our current little bit of joy is the fact that there is so much more life here than before.

Granted, it’s all livestock, really.  But still.  Life is to be celebrated.

On Sunday I was out grocery shopping, as I usually do on weekends.  I like food, and it’s a great stress reliever for me to be surrounded by it, even if I am accompanied by an army of nearsighted cart-jockeys all fighting for position in the produce aisle.  I got home and discovered that this year’s chicken replenishment was starting earlier than I had thought it would.

You have to get new chickens every year for the 4H.  Normally we have catalogues we can order from and a friend who breeds them where we can get more and a fur-and-feather swap where there are still more, but somehow Lauren got word of a guy with salmon faverolles to sell.  So I put away the groceries and we headed out.

Now my living room once again smells like a barn and sounds like my grandfather’s Christmas tree.  But this breed is pretty docile, and they’re good layers.  So, win all around.


They’re not actually as cross as they look.  Really.  

The other side of this was more long-term.

Milkshake and Maybelline are both purebred Dwarf Hotot bunnies, and Lauren has long dreamed of breeding them.  And certainly Milkshake has done so as well.  

So a few weeks ago, we let them have some quality time together.

It has to be said that Milkshake, having lost an eye a couple of years ago, is a little short in the depth-perception department and perhaps a few other visual areas as well, and I hope that Maybelline’s nose recovered quickly after that.  But we eventually got him turned around and, well, romance happened.

Maybelline had her babies today. 

We’re not sure how many of them there are, as they are buried in the nesting box under thick layers of wood chips and rabbit fur, but Lauren did fish one of them out and spy another, so we know there are at least two.  They’re odd looking things, but eventually there will be more cute little bunnies that we can sell.  Maybe they’ll be Fair-worthy, and we can have more Dwarf Hotots to keep Maybelline company there.


So life goes on, even in the face of madness, and that is a good thing after all.