Monday, October 11, 2021

Eulogy for My Mom

So here I am, an orphan at 55, but a well prepared one for all that.

My mother’s first job out of college was teaching English at South Philadelphia High School. She didn’t stay there for very long – for one thing I came along and for another she needed to be awake and teaching at 7am and that just wasn’t going to happen – but she never stopped being a teacher.

From my mom I learned many things.

I learned how to read. Not in the “parsing out the words on the page” sense, but in the broader sense of seeing reading as a joy in itself, of exploring new worlds and ideas on the page – sometimes to use them in daily life and sometimes just to experience them. She was never without an open book, fiction or nonfiction, and she showed through her actions how important that was. I have followed her example for my entire life.

I learned how to write for an audience. She was always my primary audience. I wrote an entire dissertation on the basic premise that as long as my mom – an intelligent nonspecialist – could understand it then I was doing it right. I write a lot these days, and she was always my first audience for that as well.

I learned how to keep a sense of humor about things. She had a quick sense of humor, one that helped her accept things that needed to be accepted and change things that needed to be changed. She never lost it. This past summer I got into a minor fenderbender while driving her car. I told her that I would cover it, but she said just to let her insurance handle it. “They’ll raise your rates,” I told her. “Not for long,” she replied.

I learned the importance of strong, intelligent women – that’s an important lesson for any man in this world. My mother was a trail blazer. She was the first person in her family to attend college, which she did by earning a full scholarship. She was the first woman to run her company, much to the initial dismay and eventual relief of the old boy network that was there when she got there. She did what she needed to do and she did it well, and she showed me that this is how life was supposed to work.

I learned how to be a parent, and I tried to raise my kids as I was raised.

Perhaps most importantly I learned how to keep a welcoming home. My friends were always welcome in our home, sometimes when we weren’t even there. We always had a home, no matter how far away we were or how long it had been since we’d been there.

I don’t always live up to the lessons my mom taught me, life being what it is, but I always try.

Thanks, mom.

I love you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021


Births and deaths create eddies in time.

My oldest child was born in the middle of a Wisconsin winter and I remember sitting there with a newborn for the first time, staring vaguely out the window at the cold January streets and wondering how all of the people passing by could do that so nonchalantly, as if the world hadn’t just changed, as if everything was just as it had been before.

Of course for them it hadn’t changed, not really.

But my world had, and for a brief moment time seemed to roll back on itself, moving forward only in a very small radius of space, until eventually the rest of the world caught up with a roar and we were suddenly all in the same moment.

This is why new parents look so vague all the time.

My dad passed away on a clear day in late winter in Pennsylvania a few years ago, and as we filed out of the hospital and back toward home the same sort of disjuncture was there, an eddy in time where things in my corner of the observable universe did not move at the same pace or in the same direction as they did everywhere else.

It is a strange feeling to be caught in these eddies, in a place where the world had changed for you but not for others, not yet.

My mom passed away on Saturday morning, and here I am back in another eddy.

If you have a moment, spare a thought for someone who will be dearly missed by those who loved her.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

News and Updates

It’s that time of year where these lists are the best I can do.

1. When I am Grand Vizier of Creation, things will be different. Not necessarily better. But certainly different. And one of the decrees I will put forth early in my tenure is that no bread manufacturer will be allowed to print anything on their clear plastic bags in green ink, particularly not any abstract blobby shape.

2. Every so often my employer convinces me to sell them my health information, which they already have since they are the ones who insure me in the first place so I am not sure what they get out of that. I get enough money to buy some books, which keep me sedentary and provide me with opportunities for tea and snacks which cannot be good for my health that they are so desperate to monitor, so the question of who’s gaining from this remains unanswered.

3. Part of that process was that I had to go in for some blood work as part of my annual checkup. I don’t complain about such things on the whole, even if I hate needles with a wholly irrational passion, since access to health care is a privilege in this country rather than a basic human expectation and I’m glad to have it even if I think that system is desperately cruel and stupid and needs to change. I was supposed to get that work done a while ago but Events intervened and part of my reaction to those Events was to declare a Diet Holiday wherein I would eat whatever I damn well pleased because that’s just what you do to get you through Events, and it took a while for my system to return to close enough to whatever passes for normal for me to try to get tested that way. But now they have my blood and I have a large black bruise on the inside of my elbow and some numbers that look about what I expected them to look like and everyone’s happy except for me and my bruise.

4. It’s been, as noted, a busy and stressful month, and today was the first time since Lauren and Oliver left for college that it occurred to me that I was an empty nester again. This morning I was sitting at my desk getting my class prepped for tomorrow and I idly wondered when they would come down for food and it hit me that they were both elsewhere and that was a rather odd realization.

5. On the plus side, I really like being in a classroom again and seeing my advisees in my office. My students have been good about wearing their masks and it’s been nice getting to know them. Although I am now convinced that one of them is a member of the Russian mafia, though this may just be me.

6. Kim and I hit the Giant Asian Market for some retail therapy yesterday and spent a happy hour or so just wandering up and down the aisles looking for inexpensive treats. I love the compressed sweet sesame seed things, for example, though for some reason the Market was out of the cans of Black Tea that I discovered last time. The salty snack aisle remains an Empire of Weird, which is a lot of why we go after all. I couldn’t resist these:

They were spicy, though I’m not sure where the “numb” part is supposed to come in. I did once make a (thoroughly inedible) chicken dish with far too many sancho peppers that had that effect (and also made ordinary water feel carbonated when you drank it). Perhaps I can suggest an addition to their recipe.

7. There have been actual days over the last week where I didn’t have any book in progress, and I think the last time that happened was the early 1980s. It’s been a time.

8. Day instantly made better:

Yes, it’s a CD. I’m old school. Also, old. But you can’t autograph a downloaded mp3 now, can you? It has been in heavy rotation here at the homestead.

9. Also in heavy rotation have been The Mountain Goats, whom I discovered last year when one of my students recommended them to me, and it turns out that Oliver is a big fan as well and we spent some time driving together this month and he put them on the playlist. If you haven’t listened to “This Year” or “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” you’re missing out. “This Year” has become my theme song.

10. Although last month a friend of mine asked me what my walk-up song would be if I were a baseball player waiting for my turn at bat, and really the only possible answer to that would be “Lawyers, Guns & Money” by Warren Zevon.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Things I Have Learned Recently

1. There is no quiet way to make toast. This is an observation, not an invitation to argue.

2. Speaking as someone who uses hot sauce the way most people use ketchup and who regards Buffalo sauce as a perfectly normal condiment for all sorts of foods, Buffalo chicken pizza should not be a thing. At least it should not be a thing fed to me, anyway. I find this both surprising and disappointing.

3. There is never enough time. Let that be a lesson.

4. There are no hotel rooms available in eastern Indiana if you're traveling on a Thursday night. Not even in places you wouldn't want to stay in if they were the last hotel on earth, a category in which eastern Indiana excels. I am not sure why this is so. The lack of rooms, I mean. Not the "last hotel on earth" part. That was obvious.

5. Sometimes you just want a margarita, and part of being an adult is the ability to say, "Fuck it" and get yourself a margarita.

6. It is entirely possible for a luggage cart to have a flat tire. This makes your luggage go all wobbly.

7. This is the year where the concept of "low bandwidth" became a pervasive thing in my world.

8. My kids are ideal traveling companions. I'd be happy to claim parenting credit for some of that but I suspect it's pretty much just them. Either way it is a lovely thing to share a long drive with them, for the companionship, the conversation, and the playlists.

9. Salt & Vinegar chips are the angriest potato chips, and nobody makes them better than Herr's. I need to find someone who sells them here in the midwest. I also need to stop eating so many of them since a) they have the word "salt" right in the name and my doctor has already given me the finger-waggle about too much salt, and b) they eventually eat a hole in your lips. Maybe it's good that I can't buy them in Wisconsin. But they're so worth it.

10. The flexibility of remote teaching is a wonderful thing when your schedule shifts without warning.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Calendar on the Wall

It's the calendar that sticks in my mind.

We’re back face to face at Home Campus now, almost completely, after a year and a half of working mostly (and in my case almost entirely) remotely. I went back to my office last week to bring the files I’d taken home last March, back when I thought this would be resolved in a few months, and I dumped them on my desk for future sorting. I’d cleaned up the place when I came in for the files back then – there were no derelict mugs or moldy snacks, no half-remembered things I’d been looking for at home without success. Just papers and office supplies, as always.

But the calendar on the wall still read March 2020.

It felt like I was an archeologist, exploring the ruins of a lost civilization and waiting for the boulder to come rolling out of some secret opening in a file cabinet to crush me for my impertinence in disturbing the ancient site. All I needed is a nice hat and a bull whip to make the feeling complete.

I mean, we already have Nazis openly roaming the streets of the country these days. How far away can Indiana Jones be?

It’s a strange thing to see that calendar, to put my mind back into the eerie last days before the pandemic struck the US for real. I remember thinking a couple of days before it all came crashing down that the day felt like the Before picture in some future textbook, that there would soon be a divide in time and whatever came next would be After, a different place.

In some ways it is.

But in other ways it’s more of the same. The students are still vaguely lost, looking for rooms that will become second nature to them in a few weeks. The building is a bit more spread out with the furnishings to encourage social distancing but even that not so much as it was a year ago. The classrooms are back to being classrooms instead of wifi hotspots for Zoom classes.

Everyone is wearing masks, though. Home Campus has a mask mandate for everyone, vaccinated or not, which is smart policy in the time of the Delta variant. So far compliance has been universal, which gives me hope for the future. I live in a state that hasn’t lost its goddamned mind like so many of the ones in the old Confederacy or the new one. People here understand that science is real and the virus doesn’t care about your politics, or at least they understand that the university has the authority to set rules for public safety and you are free not to attend if those rules bother you. Either way the result is the same, so that’s good.

I've cleared away the files and straightened out my desk, but I haven’t taken the calendar down yet. I’m not sure why. It just sits there, a brightly colored monument to a faded past of not that long ago, really.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Just Like That

I spent most of last night playing Tetris in the minivan.

Not electronically, mind you. Not the kind of Tetris that you play on a screen, but rather the kind you play with boxes, bags, and various other oddly shaped possessions that all somehow have to fit into a defined space without falling out or getting crushed. It’s an art form, fitting it all together so that nothing gets left behind – or at least only those things you plan to leave behind get left behind, for there is always time for another trip – but such is my muse.

This morning Kim, Lauren, and I piled into the van, folding ourselves neatly around the stuff already there, and headed off to Main Campus University.

You have to hand it to universities these days – they’re much better organized about move-in than when I went to college back in the Cretaceous Period. There are volunteers to guide you to where you need to be, and signs everywhere you turn if you can’t find a volunteer. You can back up onto the sidewalk to unload easier – they actually put little ramps there so you can do this without ruining your suspension. There are roller bins to help you move stuff. And you even get a parking permit that allows you to move to one of the official university lots for the rest of the day if you are so inclined and your child actually wants you to stay.

Not much you can do about old dorms that don’t have elevators or air conditioning, though.

We arrived right as our scheduled window was starting and loaded up a couple of bins. These got us as far as the door to the dorm, and then we had to unload them and haul all that stuff up several flights of stairs, there being – as noted – no elevators. The first few trips are pretty straightforward, and then your body starts to notice what you’re doing and, if you’re me, it begins to remind you that you are Old and this is not how Old people normally spend their days.

But you persist, because it is your child’s first day at MCU and she needs to get moved in.

Fortunately it was a pleasant day, not the kind of oven we’ve had for the past few weeks. It was still stuffy in the room – putting together the futon that we brought for under her lofted bed left me rather soggy – but I can’t imagine trying to do that in 94F heat.

Well, actually I can. I’d just prefer not to.

We got it all up to her room and lofted the bed, placing the futon underneath as we had planned. And then it was time to go. MCU doesn’t have anything scheduled for parents the way Small Liberal Arts College did, and Lauren was eager to get on with her day and her college career.

She will be just fine. She’s been away before, and at least this time she doesn’t have to learn an entirely new language just to have ordinary conversations. She’s a good student and she’s been looking forward to this for a while now. So we said our goodbyes and she shooed us out.

And just like that, she’s a college student.

Good luck to you, Lauren! Do well and be well.

I’m proud of you.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Observations from the Highway

I’ve spent a lot of time on the interstates this summer, and I’ve seen some things.

1. What’s with all the tire shreds? Everywhere you look there are shredded tires littering the road like oversized rubber spiders. Most of the time you can avoid them, but sometimes you can’t and then you just have to hope that you’re not going to add your own tires to the pile.

2. Is there a reason why they put speed limit signs on the highways around Chicago? Half of them are marked as 55mph and the other half have construction zone limits that are even lower but I have never seen anyone travel less than 70mph on any of those roads – not even state troopers. May the deities of your choice protect you if you try to go the speed limit, because there are only two outcomes to that. You might get run over by faster traffic piling up behind you. Or you might get deliberately taken out by the road rage of the faster traffic piling up behind you. I spent five years running with a rescue squad back in the Jurassic Period and if I got anything out of that experience it is that you should never be the fastest or slowest thing on the road, so if traffic is holding steady at 20mph above the speed limit well, that’s where I’ll be.

3. This has been a banner year for road construction. I think they’re trying to get it all done before the pandemic ends and traffic returns to normal, but while the pandemic rages on thanks to all the blistering morons who refuse to accept basic public health measures, traffic has indeed returned to prepandemic levels. This does tend to make the construction a bit trickier than perhaps intended.

4. The state of Indiana has no idea how to run a construction zone or a highway rest stop. Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, folks, even Ohio does those better.

5. The cult of Trump refuses to do the decent thing for the nation and die out already. Everywhere I go there are nitwits flying Trump flags at highway speeds from overpowered vehicles, right next to their Confederate battle flags – another white supremacist failure that lasted only four years – and seriously people, it’s pathetic and it needs to stop.

6. If you go by what you see from the turnpike, the middle of Pennsylvania is mostly rolling hills, rising mountains, dying towns, and Trump cultists. At mile 203 of the turnpike, on the south side of the highway, someone has hauled a pile of white rocks up onto the side of a hill and arranged them neatly into the name of their false idol. Just above them, at the top of the hill, there is a flagpole with one of the aforementioned nitwit flags. At one point there was an altar or podium or some such – it’s hard to tell when you’re flying by at highway speed – but it seems to have collapsed into a heap now. I’ve gotten to the point where I look forward to seeing it, if only out of a sense of morbid curiosity. What exactly did the deluded soul who put together this knockoff version of a golden calf want to achieve beyond snorts of derisive laughter and eyerolls? The world may never know.

7. When it’s raining hard enough to make the semis pull over, that’s a good sign that you should pull over as well.

8. Having those transponders where you can pay your tolls without even slowing down is really nice in the sense that you don’t have to slow down but it also means that you really don’t have any idea what your actual toll is so they can keep raising it without you even getting bothered by it. You have to hand it to them.