Tuesday, April 20, 2021

You Be Doobie Do

So it’s 4/20, at least here in the United States where we write our dates with the month first.

I’ve never had any strong feelings about how to write dates, to be honest. There are good arguments for writing it in ascending size of units (day/month/year), the way the rest of the world does, but in the US most people say it in month/day/year format (“April 20, 2021”) so writing it that way also makes sense. It’s one of those things where either way is fine.

Unlike putting only one space after a period, which is unequivocally incorrect and inelegant. You can’t avoid it online, since computer programmers have decreed it mandatory and that’s why we don’t take style advice from programmers, and there are a great many nonsense arguments out there to defend one-spacing on a number of spurious grounds (all of which will be appended below in the comments, if experience is any guide) but I’m done with trying to convince people that they should not crowd their pages with rushed sentences and I’m not going to have that discussion again.

You do you and good luck with that, one-spacers, but don’t expect me to support your folly.

One advantage of the American style of writing dates is that you get little Easter eggs now and then. We have Pi Day, for example – 3/14. 14/3 doesn’t have the same resonance and the calendar stops at the twelfth month so there’s no 3/14 the way the rest of the world does it.

There’s no twentieth month either.

For long and complicated reasons that I can’t be bothered to look up right now but which I am sure made sense at the time for certain values of sense that include copious use of marijuana, 420 has become a symbol of the copious use of marijuana. This knowledge is one of those bits of American culture that floats around the edges of my consciousness without particularly attaching to anything meaningful, sort of like NASCAR or daytime television – I know these things exist and are important to many people but I’m not one of those people so that’s as much energy as I am willing to devote to those ideas.

I’ve never actually tried marijuana. I’ve had friends who enjoyed it and I’ve been in rooms with them while they did, but I can’t say it ever tempted me. I live in my head and I don’t like things messing with that. Honestly, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve even been drunk and probably have fingers left over. I don’t mess with my head.

Not really a party animal is what I’m saying here.

But you know, try as I might I just can’t really see how it’s a huge problem. It’s not something you want to be doing every day or while operating heavy machinery as the results will no doubt be sad, but neither is alcohol and we’re fine with that as a culture. The last time we tried to prohibit alcohol was rather a fiasco after all.

There are a lot of places where marijuana is now legal for recreational as well as medical use in the US, and the last time I looked at poll numbers 92% of Americans approved of this, including 85% of people who self-identify as conservatives so it’s not just a hippie 60’s leftover thing. I expect that it will be fully legal everywhere in the US in my lifetime and probably fairly soon, though my track record with predictions is pretty poor so take that for what it is worth. There are political reasons why this might not happen – drug convictions are felonies and in many states felons can’t ever vote again, and if you think that’s an accident or that it’s coincidental who tends to get charged with those felonies and who tends to get merely reprimanded for the same offense then you’re not paying attention to American history – but one never knows. Could happen.

It seems to me that the US would be better off legalizing most drugs, actually, and treating them as health issues rather than criminal issues. It’s worked in other countries, and it would cut down on a lot of the nonsense that surrounds them here. We could probably halve our prison population overnight, for example, and legal things can be taxed to support other legal things like schools and roads. You’d have to have some regulation, I think – age limits, for example – but we do that with alcohol and nicotine already. We know how that works.

So happy 4/20 out there, all you stoners! I’ll not be joining you, but I wish you well.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Traveling in a Pandemic

I spent a week visiting my mom earlier this month. We had a lovely time.

It is a strange thing to travel in a pandemic. I’ve gotten my vaccinations and I’m careful about wearing my mask in public so I figured I’d be okay, but even so. I really haven’t gone anywhere far from home – certainly not overnight – since Christmas 2019.

It’s a brave new world out there.

I flew out of O’Hare, which meant getting on a bus for a couple of hours since there was no real point in having Kim drive all the way down there to drop me off. Everyone got their own pair of seats (unless they came with someone) and the driver made periodic announcements about keeping masks on, though he was probably the biggest gap in that wall.

We are a year into a pandemic and people still don’t know how to wear a mask. Honestly, it’s like they’re going out of their way to be stupid or something.

O’Hare is pretty much the same chaotic mess it’s always been. I had my boarding pass and wasn’t checking any bags so I just went straight to security and they marched me through. They make you lift your mask so they can check your ID photo, but otherwise it was pretty smooth. You still have to take off your shoes and get them X-rayed for some reason – one halfwit “Shoe Bomber” decades ago and we have Permanent Security Measures, but 149 mass shootings just in 2021 as of this posting and the idea of going to the root of the problem and addressing the criminally easy access to guns in this country is greeted with anguished rage by the ammosexuals who dominate our culture here in the United States.


Don’t even get me started on the whole “3 ounce” rule that provides so much security theater these days. On the flight back to Wisconsin from Philadelphia the TSA stole my pepper spread. “That’s too big,” the guy said. “It’s not a liquid and other guy wearing your uniform – the one standing not ten feet from you at this very moment if you want to check with him – said it would be fine,” I replied. “That’s too big,” he repeated. And so my flight was spared the ravages of a sealed jar of crushed cherry pepper spread. Their sense of relief was palpable, I’m sure.

But I got through the security at O’Hare, put myself back together, and headed off to find my gate. And was immediately confronted with this:

Marijuana is now legal in Illinois, but not in many of the places where people are going, so I suppose it just makes sense to have such things. Still a bit jarring for someone who lived through the “Just Say No” 1980s, though.

I got to the airport early, which always makes me feel more at ease (I’d much rather wait where I need to be than wait in traffic on the way there), so I had time to find lunch. They don’t feed you on planes anymore, because the last thing they need in a sealed tube with recycled air is 200 maskless people spreading disease. Of course that just moves the maskless people to the airport, but the ventilation is better and you can just walk away from the food court and find a quiet gate where you can eat your lunch. Half the restaurants are closed anyway, and there are no vending machines anymore, which I admit I didn’t understand – I’m not sure what makes them more dangerous than all the people in the food court, but there it is.

Both of my flights were full, which was a bit of a surprise to me. There wasn’t an empty seat on either plane, so there I was, shoulder to shoulder with strangers for two hours each way. I had a middle seat on the way out, in fact. The flight attendants were pretty good about enforcing the mask rule (which on airplanes carries the weight of federal law) and while there were a few people wearing chin straps they dutifully pulled them up when asked.

The bizarre part came at the end of each flight.

Picture it:

We’ve just spent two hours in a packed flight where “social distancing” means six inches between you and your neighbor. We land and taxi to the gate. And then they announce that they will be dismissing us by row, front to back, so as “to maintain social distancing and avoid crowding in the aisle.”

I think that ship has already sailed.

Although I suspect that this is a policy that they’ve been hoping to implement for years and the pandemic just gave them an excuse to do it. It certainly made getting off the plane easier and less hectic. Everyone on my flights complied pretty well except for the one big guy in the back of the plane who saw us as his personal missionary audience and tried to sell us his personal religion all the way up the aisle. I wasn’t too sad to see him skate off the plane early, to be honest.

Since I flew in I had to get a ride out to my mom’s apartment. Kim set up Lyft on my phone and it seemed to work both times. Both drivers had masks, though the return trip guy had one that kept slipping. They were both okay, though. I am old enough to remember being told not to get into cars driven by strangers and to be careful about meeting people on the internet, and here I am using the internet to get into cars driven by strangers and it’s not even the strangest thing I did that day. Things change.

I am safely back in Wisconsin now. I enjoyed the time spent with my mom, and perhaps at some point travel will be more normal than it is – a moving target, given the oddities that we have freighted down travel with over the last decade or two, but still.

Thursday, April 1, 2021


I got my second dose of the Moderna vaccine today.

So far, it has to be said, I feel pretty good. The only side effect I’ve noticed is a general feeling as if I had run into a doorjamb bicep first yesterday – it’s a bit sore but nothing I’d really notice if I weren’t looking for it. I’m told that the second day is when things will either happen or they won’t, so I’m hoping my luck continues to hold.

It was a fairly pedestrian event, getting the shot. I drove down to the local vaccination center, about a 12-minute ride from my house. There was plenty of parking. I showed the guy at the table the form that I’d printed off and filled in the night before, showed them my card from the first shot, and stood in a line of people about four deep.

Five minutes later I was standing at the front of the line, and a minute or so after that the young woman in the blue scrubs pointed me at one of the stations so I went over and sat down. It was the same guy who’d given me my first shot, and we traded some talk about the prospects of the Philadelphia Eagles this season while he jabbed me with the needle. We both agree that Carson Wentz is going to be happier elsewhere, and likely the Eagles will be happier with him elsewhere too. So win all around.

The shot took about a minute, what with all the swabbing and the bandaid, and then I was directed to another room where I handed over the form and sat down for fifteen minutes, just in case something untoward happened. There being no unpleasantness, I left and drove home.

Simple. Easy. One might even go so far as to say boring.

And yet.

For all that the actual events were nothing exciting, the fact is that it did feel historic in a way. We’re a year into this pandemic in this country (why there are still people who haven’t figured out how to wear a mask, I don’t know – I potty trained toddlers faster than that) and only now are we looking at what might be the end game for it. Only now are we looking at responsibly returning to something vaguely resembling normal activities in the near future.

To get to this point required a marshalling of science and industry on a grand scale. Most vaccines take years or even decades to develop. This one, building on a significant pile of basic scientific research, took less than a year. And there’s at least three other vaccines in common use as well now.

I once developed a 20th-century world history class for a university that wanted me to teach mostly nursing students, so I ended up skewing the entire class toward health care issues. We looked at the 1918 flu. We looked at the eugenics movement. We looked at WWII as a medical issue. It was a few years ago, so the last thing we looked at was growing antibiotic resistance.

Walking into that center felt like walking into a new unit of that class.

It’s a good feeling, and those have been few and far between over the last twelve to fourteen months.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Becoming History

I’ve been putting together PowerPoint slides for my classes this year, because it’s fun to see what these people all looked like. Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in the 1880s, looks like he’d be just as happy to eat you alive as talk to you, for example, while John Scopes (of the 1925 Monkey Trial in Dayton TN) was clearly chosen last for team sports in grade school.

It’s nice to be reminded that these people were human beings just like the rest of us.

As my US2 class gets closer to the present, though, I find that I can start slipping in pictures from my own family – a fact that tickles me no end. Sometimes I let my students know, and sometimes I just enjoy my own private knowledge.

I spent several summers scanning in all of the family photos a while back. For some reason both sides of my family were remarkably good about taking pictures – not a common activity in the early 20th century, let alone the 19th century that some of my dad’s family photos go back to. We have literally thousands of photos, and some of them turn out to be pretty well suited for class themes.

When we got to the 1920s, for example, my dad’s mother appeared.

You can’t discuss the 1920s without talking about the emergence of the automobile as a cultural and economic force in the US. That’s the decade when Americans truly discovered their obsession with cars, and the federal government spent millions building highways to encourage it. Public money is always the foundation of private wealth in this country, no matter what people would have you believe otherwise. If you want to know whether an industry was thriving in the 1920s you simply have to ask if it had any real connection to the automobile. Steel, rubber, gasoline, glass, concrete (for highways), construction (motels, restaurants) – all of them did well. Coal and textiles did not. Plus for many Americans a car meant a freedom from restraints that they’d never know before – from rural isolation, from parental oversight, from all kinds of limits.

That’s my grandmother there, sometime around 1922. She’s about 17 in that photo. She was never one to tolerate having limits placed on her, and you can tell that this habit started early.

Last week we covered the home front of World War II – a very good time for most Americans, unlike pretty much every other major belligerent during the war. Nobody was bombing the US. We were an ocean away from the fighting on either side of the country. The war ended the Depression and brought full employment and high-paying jobs to a nation that had known nothing but hard times for over a decade. The middle class stopped shrinking and began to grow, and for one of the few times in American history economic inequality actually declined.

This is my mother’s second birthday party, which happened early on in the war. I’m pretty sure she’s the one with the bow in her hair on the left. My grandmother is standing at the left center, with the floral apron and checked dress. My great-aunt Josephine is standing just left of her sister, my grandmother. The baby boy on someone’s lap (I believe her name was Annie) on the right side of the photo is probably my uncle. I don’t know who the other people are in the picture – some of them were probably relatives, and some of them were probably neighborhood people. It’s entirely possible that many were both.

This is clearly a celebration, and the table is piled high with food. WWII was, as noted, a good time for most Americans. Not the people actually on the front lines, of course, or those who lost loved ones. But for the rest, it was the time when the hard times ended, when people had jobs again, when there was enough to eat again.

It’s easy to forget that your own life, and the lives of your family, is part of history. That someday people will study you. That the stories you tell will become history.

But it happens to all of us, someday.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Donut for These Trying Times

Sometimes you just need a donut.

It’s been a long week for all sorts of reasons, and in times like these often the only solution is a tasty snack, preferably one that is round and sweet and contains far too much sugar for regular consumption but which, in these trying times, is just the right amount.

Also, chocolate. And custard. Sometimes both at once.

After dinner tonight Lauren and I headed out on a road trip – a 45-minute drive to the best donuts in southern Wisconsin, or at least that’s how they were described to us. This turned out to be true enough that we’re just going to call it confirmed. There’s another donut shop not far from there that makes the same claim and to be honest their donuts are very good as well, but their donuts are Artisanal Donuts with bright primary and secondary colors, innovative flavors, and mounds of frosting. The place we went to just makes donuts – the sorts of donuts you see every day, only better. On the whole, I’ll stick with this place.

You know you live in the midwest when driving 45 minutes each way to get donuts seems like a reasonable thing to do.

We parked in front of the donut shop in a spot that might or might not have been legal – I read the two vaguely supplementary signs bolted onto the pole next to where we parked probably five times each and even now I couldn’t tell you whether I was allowed to park there – and walked in. We were the only people in the shop other than the guy behind the counter.

We were surrounded by donuts – the sort of donuts that you know were actually baked there, by people who love donuts as ends in themselves, not brought in frozen from some factory in Ohio and reheated by people who see donuts as the means to making enough money to do something else with their lives – and we made short work of choosing. We got a dozen donuts, which is probably more than the three of us currently living at home can eat but a) we’re going to give it the old college try and b) sometimes you just have to say “the hell with it” and get the dozen. Also c) we can easily find volunteers for the ones we can’t eat. Lauren has friends who are teenaged males, after all. At that age I probably could have inhaled the entire dozen at a sitting without slowing down or gaining weight. It’s a fun age.

And then we drove home, happily discussing our donuts and other important topics of the day. Total elapsed time in the bakery: 6 minutes. Total drive time: 90 minutes. Total satisfaction: yes.

I may or may not sleep at all tonight.

Worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2021

An Academic Milestone

I’ve hit a milestone in my US2 class.

Unless I’m in the middle of a complete tear-down and rebuild for a class, which only happens every five or six run-throughs or so, most of the time this year’s lecture is just last year’s lecture with minor adjustments. I go through last year’s lecture and change things around – what worked, what didn’t, what can be left out, what needs to be shoehorned in, what needs to be moved – and every year it changes about 5-10% until the changes add up to too much for the structure to bear and I tear it all down and rebuild it.

My US2 class is on its third full iteration since I started teaching it in 1996 (plus two minor ones) and it’s overdue for a fourth – I had planned to do that two years ago now and even got a bit of a start on it before the pandemic hit but I’ve never quite had the time. I’ve even got a framework to put it all into, though it will require a fair amount of new material.

Maybe someday.

So this semester I’m going through the lectures from last spring and doing my “tweak and edit” routine – this year adding in PowerPoint images, because it’s useful and fun – and because I’m on a later semester calendar than last year I have just now gotten to the class I gave on March 13, 2020.

It starts with the rather laconic note: “Coronavirus update.”

I remember that day. It was my last full day on campus for over a year, and my last day teaching in a classroom even if my students were in four other classrooms two hundred miles away. I’d already moved to the next phase of my preparations for the pandemic – planning to teach the class from home, as Home Campus was shutting down the following week – though I still thought I’d get to teach that next week. That turned out not to be true. I had to rewrite the entire preparation plan on the fly after that, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world at the time.

“Take this seriously,” I told them, “but don’t panic.” Good advice, really. I wish the nation had taken it.

And that’s the last regular lecture I have to adjust.

There was a three-week gap after that, as the public schools shut down and the campus that is technically responsible for that course declared that no assignments or activities could be given until the early part of April. I took a survey of the students during that time to see how they wanted to handle the rest of the course – I could just fit in whatever we had time for, or I could record All Of The Material so we actually finished the course, which would mean four lectures a week instead of three for the rest of the semester but they could watch them on YouTube at their own pace. They went with Option B.

It took me a bit to realize that under that plan I was no longer limited to a 50-minute class period. I could end early if that’s where the natural break point was, and I could run long if necessary. This worked last spring, but it will make retrofitting these back into 50-minute classes a bit of a trick.

Tweak and edit.

On the one hand, it’s kind of odd to be doing all of that to a class I know I’m planning to tear down and rebuild at the first opportunity.

On the other hand, there may not be an opportunity any time soon. Teaching is one of the few professions that actually got busier here in the pandemic, and time has been short for a while now.

Maybe soon.

It’s an interesting milestone, and a sobering one.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

News and Updates

1. I may never be caught up on my grading. Fortunately the semester will end at some point and then it won’t matter, but until then I expect to be even less fun to be around than usual. Oh well. The upside to all of this is that I can procrastinate and be fully productive, as there is never any shortage of projects to work on.

2. It’s March Madness, or so I hear. Every year Kim and I would try to put together a bracket or two, which was always an exercise in creative writing since neither of us follows basketball at any level. Kim at least understands the game – to me it just looks like an indoor track meet that gets interrupted every eighteen seconds for a game of HORSE. But now they’re playing, and I suppose I should see who is winning. Go Team! Beat that Other Team! Rah!

3. Oliver came back from Small Liberal Arts College for spring break last week, which was fun. He brought Dustin with him and we had a pretty good time hanging out for a week in between grading and other assorted tasks. We had raclette one night and put on a pretty good St. Patrick’s Day spread of corned beef with all the trimmings. He got his cat fix, after half a semester at school. We even managed to catch a hockey game or two. They’re back at SLAC now, but it was good to have him home.

4. Lauren is now technically on spring break from Local Businessman High, though that loses a lot of punch after most of a year on an every-other-day cohort schedule. The school district has decided that there will in fact be a graduation ceremony – outdoors, with a restricted number of attendees, but still. And there will be some kind of prom, also outdoors. It’s good that they’re doing some of the normal things as best they can.

5. She and her friend Aleksia were voted Best Duo by their peers at LBHS, which was a nice honor to have. Besties! Maybe they’ll get into the yearbook for it, though it is late in the game to be adding things to that.

6. After a few books away, I am once again reading Claire North – one of her older books, but hypnotic in a way. You should be reading her stuff. Of course, mostly I get to read in three-page increments these days so it takes a lot longer than usual, but such is my semester. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

7. Can we all just admit that the real problem in this country is native-born straight white Christian men with guns? Seriously, people – go look at the last two or three dozen mass murders that have taken place in the US (and is there another country in the world not actively at war where such a statement even makes sense?) and who was responsible for them and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you. Go ahead. This country has a white supremacy problem, a Nativist problem, a “women are property” problem, a “too damned many guns” problem, and a “rules don’t apply to right-wingers” problem, all of which intersect in precisely those people, and until those get solved we will continue to see innocent blood shed by losers who can’t handle people who don’t look exactly like themselves and feel entitled to subjugate those they hate. This is what brought us the Trump Insurrection in January, it’s what brought us the mass murder in Atlanta this week, and it is what will destroy this nation if it is not stamped out.

8. On the other hand, it does feel good to see all the Trump Insurrectionists being arrested and charged for at least some of the crimes against the United States that they committed. If there were any real justice in the US der Sturmtrumper would be rotting in a jail cell alongside them by now, but the GOP is far too corrupt to allow anything of the sort. Hell, they’re doing their best right now to make sure that only native-born straight white Christian men with guns can vote in the next election and doesn’t that just bring the discussion around full circle.

9. It may actually be spring here in Baja Canada.  It got up to 65F/18C last weekend, and then we got two inches (5cm) of heavy wet snow that I didn’t bother shoveling because it immediately went back up above freezing and now it’s all gone and we’re back up to where we were last weekend. So, yeah, spring in Wisconsin. The soft-serve ice cream place has been open for over a week. I’m sure there were people lined up in the snow.

10. Some days you just need to eat and drink whatever you want and deal with the consequences later.