Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade In the Making

It's Tabitha's birthday today!

Somehow, without ever quite being aware of how the time has passed, I have become the parent of a 'tween. I'm sure there will be all sorts of interesting things coming my way in the next few years, but so far it's all been good.

Happy Birthday, Tabitha.

Love, Dad

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I Have Just Left the Building

This is what I look like when I'm solving world hunger.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Down On the Corner

The cat is high.

A friend of ours gave us a catnip mouse a while back. It is a particularly snazzy catnip mouse, in the colors of the local minor league hockey team because, really, that's something the cats would enjoy. Well, we enjoyed it, anyway. The cats were more interested in the catnip, because they are JUNKIES, the both of them.

If you don't talk to your cat about catnip, who will?

Unfortunately, when we talk to our cats about catnip, mostly what we say are things like "Hey, wanna get some quality nip?" or "Dime bag, go on, you can pay us later." We are bad, bad people that way.

The thing about Mithra, though, is that she clearly has some bear in her ancestry. She likes caves. She likes enclosed dark spaces. And when she is wasted on catnip, her definition of "enclosed dark spaces" gets awfully loose.

So there was this paper bag, you see. An ordinary grocery bag. But not an ordinary grocery bag! No, not under the influence, it's not! It is a cave! A cave filled with things to hunt! Twitchy things that need to be batted down!

Whap! Zing! Whap again!

That other sound? That's us, falling onto our backsides laughing. Fortunately the cat is so far gone that she does not get offended at this. Rather, she redoubles her efforts at hunting whatever is in the bag making that noise. It's kind of a feedback loop, really, because eventually we can't even get up off the floor from laughing at her.

It takes some time, but we stand up after a while, still chuckling in a pointed manner.

Eventually the bag ends up standing upright, with a very puzzled-looking grey cat with saucer-shaped eyes staring out of it. Mithra looks behind her to see what is there, but it is just out of her vision, so she looks a little further behind her, and after a few rounds of this the bag is no longer upright and neither are we.

The cat is in the bag, in more ways than one.

Ready for Her Close-Up

It was show time at Not Bad President Elementary yesterday!

The NBPE first grade class was putting on a performance of the new off-off-Broadway musical, The Unity Tree, and Lauren was the Kitten.

This was a big deal.

The play revolves around the trials and tribulations of the Kitten and the Puppy, two innocents who through their eagerness to play with each other manage to heal millennia-old divisions between their respective tribes. It is a fable for our time.

It also contains the line, "We could welcome our diversity! Maybe even embrace it!" so you know it has the intellectual heft that musicals are famous for.

Lauren has been practicing her lines for months now. As one of the two stars of the show, she had a lot of lines. And despite sharing the fear that every actor has, she remembered them all come performance time.

We have long suspected that Lauren is headed toward the stage. She keeps us entertained all day long with voices, faces, characters and entire routines. Someday, when she is up there all dressed up and thanking the Academy, I hope she remembers where it all started - the All-Purpose Room of NBPE.

We got there early, as we have learned by now that you do not show up to these things 15 minutes ahead of curtain time if you want a seat. On the one hand, this is a lot of time to spend in the All-Purpose Room. But on the other hand, it is good to see that people come to these shows. The other things will wait - it's important to go to the show and see your children perform. So. Early.

The show went smoothly.

There were songs, all cleverly choreographed to keep the children's arms busy so they wouldn't get bored and whack each other.

And Lauren looked like she was having a good time up there playing the Kitten. She said her lines well, tossed a ball around with Puppy (without dropping it!) and dashed about the stage in a most Kitten-like manner.

After the show they let the paparazzi approach the stage to take pictures, and a more polite midwestern scrum you will never find.

And then it was off to class again. Thank you! Lauren has left the building!

Naturally, with a foot of snow still on the ground here in Out Little Town and the temperatures hovering in the mid-20s, we celebrated Lauren's play by going out for ice cream. It is always ice cream time in Wisconsin, especially after Kitten and Puppy have showed us the way.

You did good, Lauren. I'm proud of you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Economics 101

The terrorists are surely on the run now. I have gone Christmas shopping, and the economy should be booming.

Or at least crackling, the way small bits of paper do when you throw them in the fire.

Especially when those small bits of paper have presidents on them.

I really haven't had much time or inclination to go Christmas shopping lately. To be honest, I really haven't had much time or inclination to do anything Christmas-related lately. If it weren't for the fact that I have children, the entire holiday might well have passed me by without my noticing at all. But we have the tree up now, and there are lights hanging from our eaves, and someday I really must look into why they don't actually light up but they're there and that has to count for something.

So. Shopping.

I walked into the mall this morning to find the Fighting 314th Mechanized Combat Band and Show Choir engaged in a furious assault on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was difficult to see who was winning but there were obviously many casualties, one of which was the melody. For some reason this cheered me up immensely.  I felt ready to do some economy-stimulating after that. So I suppose the 314th accomplished its mission, Rudolph notwithstanding. Don't mess with the 314th, is all I'm saying.

It is astonishing just how busy shopping was. After all, it's a Thursday. Why aren't these people working? They can't all be history professors at the end of the semester, waiting to give their finals.

Well, actually, given the nature of the job market in history, I suppose I wouldn't be all that surprised if they were. Right, then. Carry on.

I spent most of the day darting in and out of stores, trading crackling bits of paper for swag to be distributed to family members. Progress was made. There is still more to be done, however.

I'm not sure I'm up to this kind of pressure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hurled With Great Force

One of the joys of not being in graduate school anymore is that I don’t actually have to finish the books that I start.

I almost always have a book in my hands, regardless of whether I am actually in a position to read. I cart them upstairs to bed even if all I plan to do is turn out the lights and fall asleep. I cart them back downstairs in the morning and lay them on the table, where they sit until I put them into my bag and haul them to Home Campus. Eventually I pack up the bag and go to pick up the girls from Not Bad President Elementary, where I have a few minutes to unpack and actually read before the bell rings and they come charging out. And then it’s homework (theirs and mine), dinner, and on to bed, where the cycle begins anew.

For all that, though, I do manage to get a surprising amount of reading done. It preserves what little sanity I have left. The rest I keep in a jar in the back of the kitchen pantry for special occasions when I might need it, such as being audited by the IRS. Otherwise it just gets in the way.

While I have my favorite genres to explore, I have found that the one thing I absolutely require in a book is good writing. Despite being an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, for example, I am no longer willing to put up with a book that might as well have been written by a hamster tap-dancing across the keys even if said hamster has brilliant ideas. Writing matters.

There are a lot of very good writers out there, in fact. Just in the past couple of years I’ve read some things that were just stunningly written – gripping, lyrical, comical, all of the above and more, and elegantly phrased. “Elegant” here is defined as “well-suited to the author’s purpose and the reader’s enlightenment,” which is why I don’t get too upset at grammar as long as the errors are artfully deployed.

But sometimes you just run into a book that makes you want to ingest powerful hallucinogens in order to continue.

I found a likely looking book at a used book sale a while back. It had good reviews on the back, an interesting premise, and it was a buck and a half. It was also Book 1 of 3, so I bought it and scouted around for a while until I found the other volumes at similar used book sales. So for less than five bucks, I had what I thought would be nearly 1800 pages of reading pleasure.

And when I started reading the book, I will admit, the ideas were interesting. Someone could have written a great story using those ideas.

But this wasn’t it. Cloying, trite, full of Portentously Capitalized Phrases and long explanations of things that the characters should have understood instinctively, this was writing that wasn’t good enough to sustain a story and wasn’t bad enough to enter into the Edward Bulwer-Lytton Contest.

I fought my way through a bit more than a hundred pages, and it just wasn’t getting any better. And then I thought to myself, “Self,” I thought, “there is no quiz at the end of this.”

And I put it down.

It was a very strange experience, really. I’m not used to doing that. As I wound my way through the PhD process to become a historian I had to slog my way through any number of books that required hallucinogens that, on my graduate stipend, I could not afford. I had to read those things stone cold sober.

It probably built character. I don’t know why people say that when you have to do something particularly unpleasant. I’d hate to think that my character is constructed of bad books and high school gym class, but there you go.

I ended up reading a very well-written book after that, so it all worked out okay. But I need to get rid of those other books before I pick them up again in a fit of leftover grad school guilt.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Look Out Below!

We went back to Mel Allen Hill today.

For those of you new to this blog, Mel Allen was the sportscaster who narrated This Week In Baseball back in the 70s, and sometime during the inevitable montage of collisions at the plate, run-ins with the outfield wall and infielders getting "the wind knocked out of them" by short-hopped ground balls, he would invariably - and, in retrospect, far to cheerfully - blurt out, "Ooooooh! That's gotta hurt!"

I have found this to be a useful line, in my career as a parent.

After we got all that snow earlier in the week the temperatures plummeted to the point on the thermometer where they no longer print numbers, just artistic pictograms of morose-looking brass monkeys. The schools even opened an hour late on Thursday due to the 20-below-0 windchills.

Part of me just shrugs this stuff off now, having lived in Wisconsin for fourteen years. You get used to it.

But part of me just looks at those poor brass monkeys and fires up the tea kettle, glad to be inside.

So the fact that it warmed up to around freezing this weekend was good news. It meant we could go out again. And the girls were seriously jonesing for some sledding time.

Except that nobody these days has an actual sled anymore. When I was a lad (hey - what are you doing? - get off my lawn! - sorry, where was I?) we had the old-fashioned sleds with the wooden decks and the steel runners. They were beyond cool. They had just enough steering to give you the illusion that you could avoid obstacles and not enough to actually do so, so it was never really your fault for running into things. And there was enough sharp steel that you might even hurt someone. How could you not love these things?

But now everyone has glorified beach rafts - inflatable things that have no steering capacity whatsoever and glide easily over any kind of snow at speeds approaching Mach 3.

You know, after setting that up as a rant about how good things were in the Good Old Days, well, never mind. Those inflatable things are just as cool, if not more so. No steel, but far less steering, so we'll call that even.

So we drove over to Mel Allen Hill and trudged dutifully up to the top.

Mel Allen Hill is in one of the many parks in Our Little Town. It has an assortment of trees to smack into at the bottom, a bowl-like depression at the top where you can toss unused sleds and inflatable things when not in use, and - invariably - a homemade ramp of snow about halfway down where you can go flying elbows over teakettle and tumble the rest of the way down.

Ooooh, that's gotta hurt!

We spent a good hour there this afternoon. Both Tabitha and Lauren went over the ramp and neither smacked into any trees, so we'll call that a success. And it was warm enough that you didn't have to worry about frostbite.

It must officially be winter by now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lost and Alone

The DVD with the first three episodes of Season 5 of Lost arrived this week.

It has been a long time since I was psychologically able to sit through an extended television series. As I've said, if it doesn't involve large men chasing a small ball, inclement weather, food, or the busting of myths - all things that can be watched in three-minute increments - I'm pretty much not watching it. I'm not entirely sure why this is so - certainly I used to be able to watch television shows, and I put that talent to some hard use in my day. And there are some good shows on these days, from what I hear. But after not owning a television for most of the 80s and only gradually getting back into it in the 90s, this past decade has been just a tv bust for me.

I turn on shows - even shows I used to watch all the time, like reruns of Law and Order or some such - and after about three minutes I'm flipping around the channels looking for a ball to watch. I've even watched random English Premier League matches rather than spend time looking at things with actual dialogue.

It's twisted, I know. But the announcers get so excited about what looks like, to my uneducated American eye, a couple of dozen guys jogging around trying to look productive in between random spells of mad pell-mell dashing about. You have to love it that way. And sometimes somebody scores, which just makes everything that much better. I just wish the announcers spoke a dialect of English comprehensible to someone with less than an Imperial gallon of ale sloshing about their innards.

At least it's not cricket.

But Kim has just fallen in love with Lost. It has characters and plotlines, and inside jokes that only the initiated can get. It has mind-bogglingly improbable twists that happen to weirdly obsessive characters who all knew each other several lifetimes earlier under assumed names. You know what it is? It's Dickens, all dressed up for the 21st century. I remember slogging through Great Expectations in 9th grade with all the clarity of a traffic accident, and despite having to revise my estimation of Mrs. Havisham considerably upwards after reading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books, I still have no real desire to get back to more Dickens.

Kim watched most of Seasons 1 and 2 on discs from either the library or Netflix before discovering Hulu, where Seasons 3 and 4 lived. I liked the Hulu phase, since it meant that she was watching them downstairs in her office rather than upstairs in the bedroom, so I could go to sleep.

Not that I go to sleep much.

Or, really, that having the tv on really bothers me.

But if I switched from Lost to some random sporting event, as I no doubt would have been tempted to do, I would have quickly find myself sleeping in the car. And my back just can't take that anymore.

The girls have now been sucked in as well, so I'm the last holdout here. They're all in the living room now, even as I type, getting Lost.

There was a small crisis last week when Kim discovered that nobody had the first half of Season 5 and Season 6 was months - MONTHS - away. But Netflix to the rescue! Life can resume.

I suppose I can always do more blogging.

Or some actual work.

Is there a game on?

Tree Trimming

We decorated our Christmas tree tonight.

This was harder to do than you might imagine, since it meant finding a space to put the tree into. Everything has to be somewhere, and in a house with two children, an optimizer constantly seeking to upgrade everything whether it needs it or not and a packrat unwilling to get rid of the old stuff simply because it's been optimized, even when it well and truly needed it, there aren't a whole lot of somewheres to go around.

Normally this wouldn't be too much of a problem - we're used to it, after all, and we've developed routines as to what stuff gets stashed where until such time as it can come back again into our lives sometime in January or February, whenever we can get the Christmas tree back down. But this year Christmas has also come on the heels of a Household Project of some long anticipation. Loooooong anticipation. Long enough that we do sometimes wonder why it ended up happening now.

Kim has long despised the closet in our mudroom - the entryway at the front of our house that would hold all the muddy boots, warm clothes and other outerwear if we ever actually entered the house that way. Does anyone ever use their front doors these days? We don't. The garage is out back, therefore we come in through the back. The only reason we have a front door, other than the sheer fact that it came with the house, is to collect the mail.

Nevertheless, there is - or was - a closet there.

A closet of precisely the wrong dimensions, in exactly the wrong place.

And after thirteen years, it was time for it to go.

So last week our neighbor Adam - he of the window project - came over and removed the closet. The next day his electrician buddy rewired the mudroom so as to avoid dangly sparky bits and allow for the exciting possibilities of a) turning on the lights again, and b) adding new "track" lighting in the future, presumably because a room the size of a walk-in closet needs more lights. Because you know it does.

Unfortunately, Adam's plasterer buddy has not materialized to put the wall back where the closet used to be, although we did prevail upon Adam to insulate and put up some plastic now that we're covered with over a foot of snow and the air temperatures have dropped below zero. So we're mostly warm again, if unplastered.

Now, in most circumstances this would be a minor issue - some extra clutter here and there, and who can tell, really. But as noted, we were in need of a Somewhere into which we could put our Christmas tree.

So today I hauled most of the clutter out of the living room and found somewhere to stash it in our already clutter-intensive basement. Another problem for another day. And then I hauled up the fake tree that we use during odd-numbered years, and set it up.

And oh, such joy you have never seen.

The wonderful thing about having kids who are older is that they can now decorate the tree entirely on their own! You haul up the boxes of ornaments (and we have enough ornaments for several trees these days), set aside the particularly delicate ones (such as Kim's favorite - a spun glass lobster trap, complete with lobster, that we picked up in Maine when I was working on my first dissertation), and let them have at it.

They did a creditable job.

They also found the bugle that I've been hauling around since I was in college. We use it as a bit of decoration underneath the tree, as I am sure that somewhere in the Bible it mentions a bugle, probably in the Book of Unmentionable Acts. That's what I used to use it for, anyway. My dorm was located across the street from any number of fraternities, at least one of which would regale me with bad music until long past even my bedtime on most Saturdays. So I'd bugle back at them on Sunday mornings. They make noise, I make noise. It seemed fair.

Last year we made the mistake of teaching the girls how to make noise with it, and they were eager for a repeat.

Next stop, New Orleans.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Day!

Why do people call you at 4:50am to tell you that you can sleep in?

We had our first big snowstorm of the season today, and everything in Wisconsin was closed. Well most things, anyway. We ended up with about fourteen inches of heavy wet snow, the kind that sticks in the snowblower like bacon grease in your arteries and has much the same "seizing up and dying" effect. It took three hours to clear it all off the driveway and sidewalks - two and a half hours the first time, and then another half hour to clear off the Great Wall of Wisconsin that the snowplow deposited at the end of our driveway, just in case we were thinking of leaving the house. Really, sirs, we were not.

Nevertheless, it was pretty, especially when viewed from indoors.

The girls were of course quite thrilled to have the day off, and they spent most of the day rampaging around in the snow, building forts and throwing snowballs, before heading over to their friends' house for more of same in a new environment.

The governor even closed Home Campus for us, which meant that my students will not get to hear about the Cluster-Fornication that was Reconstruction, though I will at least get them through the Civil War.

Everything closed meant that everyone was home, so Kim made us waffles for lunch. Mmmm. Waffles.

We sort of figured that we'd be staying home today when we went to bed last night, what with the Blizzard Warning and all. At one point you really couldn't see across the street for the snow. So we settled in for a long, pleasant sleep.

We didn't count on two things.

The fact that Kim is now serving a term as Associate Dean of Home Campus means that she is part of the Phone Tree that gets lit up every time something like this happens. So promptly at 4:50 this morning we received a phone call from the Business Manager, who told us in what I recall as an obscenely cheerful voice (though honestly anything short of a werewolf's growl probably would have struck me that way at that hour) that Home Campus was closed and we could go back to sleep.

But I was asleep before you called, I thought.

Oh well. Not his fault. Job to do, and all that. And I suppose it did mean that I could relax now and get some real shuteye.

At least until 5:30, when we got a robocall from the public school district telling us that Not Bad President Elementary would also be closed.

Now, I had sort of figured that when I heard that Home Campus was closed, since anything bad enough to close Home Campus will automatically close NBPE, though the reverse is not true. Plus, usually you have to go seek that kind of information about NBPE. They don't call you. Or at least they didn't.

But now they do.

You know, when the phone rings at 4 or 5am, good news is not what you expect to hear. Good news sleeps 'til noon.

It's been a fun day, though. Tomorrow will be a shock.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Digital Wonderland

Yesterday was a perfect storm of procrastination, desire, and shopping.

We've been trying to get Tabitha and Lauren onto a regular schedule for allowances for a while now. Or, rather, Kim has - I'm all for it, really, but money has a very weak hold on my mind and I keep forgetting all about it. I like money, don't get me wrong - I have my virtues, but Ghandi I am not - but I find it difficult to think about money matters for more than a few minutes at a time without slipping into a coma or wandering off to surf the web, activities that are not all that dissimilar, come to think about it.

Now allowances are good things. They teach kids about managing their money - about limits and saving and all that sort of stuff that I would have learned had I ever taken an economics class. And they provide incentive for chores around the house.

But it's been kind of like the old Soviet economy around here for a long time - they pretend to work, and we pretend to pay them. The girls are not very pushy about getting their allowances, and we tend to be busy enough not to remember to give it to them. It's been a long, long time since we actually paid them anything.

So they were owed a lot of money is what all this boils down to.

And they had plans for that money, yes indeed they did.

Both girls have been jonesing for a Nintendo DS for months now. I have no idea why they would want this. Video games are another of the many things that have no hold on my mind, probably because I was never any good at them. We've been resisting getting them anything along these lines because it will just be the first step in a long process that can only end in heartbreak or Silicon Valley. But we had been so remiss in allowances that all of the sudden they each had enough money to buy their own.

We considered this.

On the one hand, gah.

On the other hand, well, it was their money, and those things are expensive enough that you really can't ask anyone to get them as gifts. And they do provide an opening for future gifts - all those games without which the Nintendo DS is just a pleasantly styled paperweight. Plus, if we went out and got them, we could just handle the whole transaction on paper and not have to withdraw all that cash for each girl to stuff into their purses.


So the girls and I braved the pre-Christmas Sam's Club throng and got two Nintendo DS units - a red one for Lauren and a silver one for Tabitha. I had to go back to Sam's to get a replacement for Tabitha's, since somebody had previously opened her DS and stolen the stylus out of it, but by nightfall the girls were happily ensconced in the living room, playing their games.

I'm not sure what Tabitha is playing, but Lauren's game involves puppies. Lots of puppies. Puppies that need to be trained.

Did you know that the Nintendo DS system has voice recognition? You can talk to it and it understands you about as well as most of your friends do, a concept I find rather scary. Even digital puppies require a lot of training, it turns out, and a good part of this training is trying to get them to recognize their name.

Of course they can recognize their name. Don't be silly.

So for the last twelve hours, our house has resounded with plaintive cries of "Flower! Floooooowweerrr! Flower!"

Eventually the puppy will respond, I'm sure.

But if it leaves little piles of 1's and 0's on the carpet, out it goes.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Peppermint Tabby

One of my many projects in life is to make sure that my children are current with the major cultural forces that have defined our country. This is why I went out and bought a DVD set of all the Charlie Brown holiday specials a couple of years back.

It was something of a shock to me when I discovered that neither Tabitha nor Lauren knew who Snoopy was, although really it should not have been. Charles Schulz died before either of them were born. He drew his first Peanuts strip (a name he hated - he wanted L'il Folks, and thank God for editors, I say) in 1950, five years after the end of World War II and fifteen years before I was born. Harry Truman was in the White House and my parents were in grade school. It was a long time ago.

But still.

Peanuts was such a defining piece of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century - and yes, comic strips can be literature. It had a melancholy sensibility that you rarely find in that medium, and a sublime sense of the ridiculous to go with it. When I was growing up I took these for granted. That's just how Charlie Brown and Snoopy, respectively, were. But when you try to explain to your children the whole "kicking the football" routine, or the endless futility of Charlie Brown's baseball team, or the idea of a beagle as a World War I flying ace (who remembers WWI these days?), it sort of jumps out at you.

Over Thanksgiving, we had the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special running in the DVD player. It doesn't have much of a plot, you realize after watching it for the fortieth time, but you have to love the epic battle between Snoopy and the Chaise-Lounge. I've often felt that way myself, dealing with lawn furniture.

At one point, Charlie Brown was explaining to his sister Sally how hard it was to argue with Peppermint Patty, noting that you never really got a chance to get a word in edgewise. Kim looked over at Tabitha and said, "I'll bet you have friends like Peppermint Patty, huh?"

"No," said Tabitha, "but my friends do."

Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.

And Here's Dave With the Weather...

I don't know what to believe anymore.

The Weather Channel is one of the few channels I watch on television these days. If it doesn't involve rain, food, large men chasing small balls, or the busting of myths, I'm pretty much not watching it. The girls like them their Disney Channel and their cartoons, and Kim will sneak in some HGTV whenever she can, but otherwise you have to wonder why we have a television at all.

On the face of it, having an entire television channel devoted to something you could just as well look out your window to figure out is kind of odd. As one comedian once put it, "It's like having a Time Channel. It's 6:23! Coming up on 6:24! And we should see 6:45 within the hour!" But you know, it's hypnotizing, it really is. Highs. Lows. Storms. Sunshine. It just sucks you right in.

Plus, there is Your Local On The 8's, which sort of lays it all right out for you.

Except that it doesn't.

You see, Your Local On The 8's has a graphic part, where they flash the forecast right there on the screen for you, and an audio part, where the nice computer-generated voice reads the forecast so you don't have to. Because if you're not going to look out the window to see your weather you're probably not going to read the words on the screen, either. Let's be honest here.

But recently the voice and the graphics have stopped lining up. You look at the screen and it says one thing, and you listen to the voice and it says something else.

It's not a huge difference. The voice does not talk about the heat index while the graphic is showing you sleet, for example. That would be easy to deal with - you would just KNOW that one or the other of them was wrong in that case, and you could check which one by just looking out your window. If you were the sort of person who looked out your window, that is. Although why you'd be watching the Weather Channel in that case is not a question I choose to think about any further.

No, it's just a little difference. The screen says tomorrow's high will be 41 and the voice says 39. The screen insists that the winds are gusting to 15 miles an hour, but the voice reassuringly says 10. Partly sunny? No, mostly sunny.

You can't check those things without instruments. And just how you make the judgment call over partly versus mostly sunny in the first place, I do not know.

But now I don't know what to believe anymore. The old certainties are gone. Foundations are crumbling. The great truths that governed existence as recently as this summer are vanished like  passenger pigeons.

Might as well start my crime spree now and beat the rush.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Host of Thanksgivings

It takes a lot longer to fry a turkey than the internet will tell you it does.

Way back when, sometime in the distant past, we had a deep-fried turkey prepared by some friends of ours. Now, when I heard that this was on the menu, I was somewhat dubious. No, check that, I was appalled. Deep-fry a turkey? What kind of culinary redneck nonsense is going on here? Will we be deep-frying candy bars for dessert?

Oh me of little faith.

It turns out that deep-frying a turkey is just the most wonderful way of preparing that dish you can imagine. It's flavorful. It's crispy. It's beyond moist. And it is not greasy at all. Who knew?

We were so impressed that a couple of months later those same friends gave us a turkey fryer as a present.

The problem with this was that you need an oil that can handle the high temperatures, and mostly this means peanut oil. And by the time we thought about actually using the fryer, peanuts were unwelcome around here.

But now peanuts are just fine. And we needed our own turkey, because we'd been dining at other people's houses all Thanksgiving and had no leftovers. None! No turkey sandwiches! What is the world coming to?

How did we get into this situation?

Well, on the actual Thanksgiving Day we mostly just hung out around the house, for it was Pie Time! We were on pie duty for the family feast this year, which was scheduled to be held up at Kim's parents' house on Friday, so it seemed like a good idea to make the pies on Thursday. Although, seriously, when is it not a good day to make pies? Maybe during an earthquake, because it's hard to fill your pie crust without spilling everything when the table is doing the cha cha across your floor and the cabinetry is falling on your head. Maybe. But otherwise? Pie Time!

First, we made The World's Best Apple Pie, which has a cornmeal crust, chopped cranberries and currents in it. And there was a normal apple pie, made from a recipe we got from a cartoon dog. No, check that - we got it from the cartoon mother of the cartoon dog. It made sense at the time, really, and the pie is pretty good.

We love apple pies, because they allow us to haul out The Gizmo.

Not only does it speed up the whole process immensely, but also you get apple peelings as long as your arm. Life. Is. Good.

There were also a couple of pumpkin pies, which Kim made from scratch because we had a nice baking pumpkin and apparently there was some kind of pumpkin shortage so we felt we ought to use it up. Although given the immense number of pumpkins that moved across our property this fall, I'm inclined to believe that the Libby's people just made that up. Those sneaky pumpkin cartels, creating artificial shortages to bump up the prices and cause panic in the streets. Well, at least some kind of mild concern in the streets, certainly among those who heard the news, which wasn't most people I know.

But the pumpkin pies were good, according to people who like pumpkin pies. I've never been a fan myself, which is yet another sign of just how out of touch with my culture I am. Honestly, it's a wonder someone doesn't just box me up and ship me off somewhere out of the way.

We ate dinner that night with our friends Dan, Theresa and Grace, who were also headed out for a Big Family Dinner later on in the weekend and just wanted a low-key turkey festival. It was good - we had tasty food, the girls wore themselves out playing Wii games, and the adults got to sit around and talk, which is what adults do for fun most of the time, much to the consternation of our children.

Friday we went up to Kim's parents' house, for to engage in another feast! All the cool kids were there! We ate more turkey and had a grand time hanging out.

Tabitha even got us into an Uno tournament, which is both a good and a worrisome sign. It's good because we like Uno, and since her NYC cousins are learning the game it is perhaps wise to brush up before we all get together at Christmas time. On the other hand, well, it is just one step closer to having my clock cleaned by my own children. On the scale of card players, I have, through dint of ceaseless practice, finally reached a level known to professionals as a "mark," whereas Tabitha and Lauren are "sharks" and I just know I'm going to end up owing them my house. That will come soon enough, children! No need to push it.

Sunday we decided to celebrate Kim's birthday by making a lemon poppyseed cake and frying a turkey for dinner. The turkey got rained out, unfortunately, but the cake was a hit.

Fortunately we are due for no drug tests, so we can eat all the poppyseeds we want.

It was a good year for presents, it turned out.  Lauren wrote an original story for Kim about a lonely dragon who ultimately finds happiness and friendship, and Tabitha made a nice pair of earrings.  It's the homemade presents that you treasure, really.

And then, on Monday, the Great Turkey Fry was on.

Lesson One: it takes about an hour and a half to two hours to heat up that much oil, not "20-30 minutes," as it says online.

Lesson Two: it takes longer to cook the bird than it says - not much longer, only 4 minutes/pound rather than 3.5 minutes - but parse that out over the size of the average turkey and it adds up.

Lesson Three: don't do this on a school day. I didn't get the oil heating up until about 5:15 or so, which is why we didn't eat dinner until after 8pm. Now, if we were living in New York or Madrid, say, this would be perfectly normal, even timely. But we live in Wisconsin, where eating dinner much later than 5:30 is considered vaguely socialist.

But it was good, and I didn't burn down the house.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Alma Mater

My high school class is having its 25th reunion tonight.

Part of me was just not really interested in going, which was good since they're having it in Philadelphia and when you live in Wisconsin that's a long commute for a 3-hour party with a bunch of people you haven't seen since Reagan's first term. And as my dad always says about his class, "I spent three years incarcerated with those people. Why would I want to see them again?" Four years, in my case, since they switched over from junior highs to middle schools while I was in process, but the point remains. I wasn't sorry to graduate, and I've never gone back for any of the reunions that they've managed to scrape together.

But there was a part of me that was less opposed to the idea, and probably would have gone if the distances weren't so great. A quarter of a century is a long time, and you kind of wonder what happened to everyone. I've grown up some since then. I imagine most of them have too. And for all that it's supposed to be such a horror story, I had a good time in high school. I wouldn't do it again - once was fine, thank you, and as a professional historian I am well aware that the past is a great place to visit but a lousy place to live - but I made some good friends, I fell in love, I had some times that mean the world to me even now, and I wouldn't trade those.

It is an odd thing, this institutionalized practice of getting people together who once shared time and space. For a lot of us, we didn't share much more than that - my graduating class was about 380, and I knew maybe 2/3 of them by name and about half well enough to talk to. That's a lot of faces to keep from blurring.

But in another sense we did share a time and a space, and that counts for something. As you get older you need people who remember the same stories you do. That's one reason why family is so important, and why old friends are as well. Even when you share those stories with people you didn't know well at the time, that counts for something I suppose.

Kim and I went to her 25th a couple years back (we're only a year different in age, but she was one of the youngest in her class and I was one of the oldest in mine, so we graduated two years apart) and it was fun, even just as someone in the spouse role. It's seeing history played out in front of you by people who were there, and the historian in me just loves that kind of thing. These people knew her then.

We live in a world of instant communication and social networking, where you can keep track of people a lot more easily than ever before. What is Facebook after all but one big eternal high school reunion? One way or another I keep up with most of the people I would have wanted to see had I gone to the reunion, so I don't feel too bad about missing it.

But the curiosity remains.

It's a quandary.

Happy 25th Reunion to Orwell's Class of 1984! Raise a glass to absent friends, and remember the stories.

My high school graduation party.
Would you want to see this again?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday in the Nation's Heartland

I think the economy is doing better than we are being led to believe.

I took my first run at Black Friday shopping this morning. Oh, I've gone out shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving before, sometimes even with specific purchases in mind. But only after lunch.  Today was the first time I was out there early, in the midst of the madding crowds, fighting my way through the concentrated essence of bad driving that is the modern American road system and snatching one of the few parking spots available anywhere closer to the store entrance than my own driveway through sheer bravado and the ownership of a car less expensive and therefore more amenable to dents than the ones trying to cut me off.  Those SUV drivers, they baby those things.

I'm not sure I want to do all that again, though.

For one thing, pretty much everything I went out to get was gone long before I got there. I got to my first store at 7am, but apparently that was just way too late, slacker. The hardcore shoppers were there hours earlier - some of them no doubt hiding in the HVAC system and dropping down into the aisles like Gold Card Ninjas as soon as the lights came on at 4 in the morning. They were lean, they were mean, and they were pushing shopping carts so piled with goods that they would run you down without ever feeling the bump. And they were legion.

You know, there isn't a sale in the world worth dealing with that.

Plus, by the time I got there, the lines were stretched all the way to the back of the stores and were curving around toward the front. In terms of dollars per hour, I'm not getting paid enough to devote that kind of time to this project.

For another thing, I think my shopping mojo has deserted me. I used to like going out to retail havens and just hanging out. I served my time as a mall rat in junior high, and even in my 20s I enjoyed just wandering the aisles of various stores just to wander the aisles.

I also used to like the thrill of last-minute Christmas shopping - getting out there with less than 24 hours to spare and diving into the fray. I was good at it. Feeding time at the human zoo, and a lot of fun to watch from a safe vantage point.

But I'm getting old and crabby, and outside of book stores it's just not doing it for me anymore.

It's going to be an Christmas this year, I can just feel it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Story

We have entered into the Thanksgiving season.

The girls are off from school, Home Campus has closed for non-flu-related reasons, and the long weekend stretches out before us like a swimming pool filled with chocolate pudding, waiting for us to dive in and emerge happy, sticky, and considerably heavier at the end.

I like Thanksgiving really. It is a holiday that has two levels, both of which are satisfying. At its core it is a reminder to us that no matter how bad things get, there is always something to be happy about, and furthermore things are not that bad to begin with. They are, in fact, good. It's helpful to hear that now and then. Boom-de-ada. And on the superficial level, a holiday devoted to calorie-comas and football is a wonderful thing.

The real glory of holidays, though, are the family stories that come out of them. We have a number of these in our family, but when we really want to tell A Thanksgiving Story this is the one we tell, more or less as it was told to me:

My Aunt Rita - well, "first cousin once removed," but that's just far too much of a mouthful - and Uncle Ed were newlyweds not far out of high school, and their families gathered at their house for Thanksgiving dinner that year. I don't recall ever meeting Ed's father but word is that he was a rather formidable person, and Rita was determined to make a good impression.

Apparently, Ed Sr. was a great fan of stuffing.

So Rita took that turkey and stuffed it full of stuffing. There wasn't room for one more stuffing molecule inside that turkey, not even if you used a jackhammer and a surgical probe. By God, her father-in-law was going to have stuffing for Thanksgiving.

Those of you who have roasted turkeys before can see where this story is going, but believe me - it never gets old.  No, no it does not.

The turkey came out of the oven perfectly roasted - golden brown, juicy, the sort of thing you normally only get in cookbook photographs. It was a sight. It was also quivering. Stuffing, as you eventually learn after you cook a few turkeys, expands when heated. At least it does when it has room to do so. And as anyone who has ever taken a science class will tell you, if you've got something that wants to expand and you don't let it expand, what you end up with is pressure. Lots of pressure. Lots of tasty, perfectly seasoned pressure.

The family gathered around the dining room table, dressed in their holiday best - this was the 1950s, when casual meant something rather different than it does now - and Ed Sr., as the senior male present, was accorded the honor of carving up the bird. He took his carving knife and stuck the point into the turkey.

There was a gelatinous roar, followed by an interlude of crisis.

When the air cleared, there was stuffing everywhere - on the walls, on the ceiling, on the guests, on the table. Everywhere but inside the turkey.

The story usually ends at that point, with Ed Sr. scraping stuffing off of his face and everyone else sitting there kind of shell-shocked. There's probably more to it, but really - how much more could you want?

Ed Sr. got his stuffing, more or less. We got a story. And a half-century later, Rita and Ed are still married.

There are things to be thankful for everywhere you turn.

Ed and Rita in 1963, with these
events safely behind them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


The girls and I have spent a good part of the last two days cruising through YouTube, a website that is definitive proof that the world is full of people upon whose hands time weighs rather heavily.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

We've looked at the OK Go Treadmill routine, and the History of Modern Dance. We've watched the Muppets perform Bohemian Rhapsody. We've listened to every Phineas and Ferb song ever aired. But mostly what we've been looking at are commercials, to be honest, and one set of commercials in particular - the ones that the Discovery Channel runs to promote, well, I'm not entirely sure what they're promoting. The network in general? Life in all its glory? It's hard to say.

But we love those commercials.

If you don't know these ads, well, you should. There are a couple of them, each very much like the other. They start out with two astronauts just staring in awe at the planet Earth below them, and then they proceed through a dizzying array of Discovery Channel show hosts and others singing what amounts to a love song to the mere fact of being alive and aware.

I love the mountains
I love the clear blue skies
I love big bridges
I love when great whites fly
I love the whole world
And all its sights and sounds
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

You forget these things sometimes, or at least I do. It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind that is politics these days, with the constant assault from the right on the founding ideals of this country. It's easy to obsess over the poor state of the various home teams, or the economic crisis that was dug so deep over the last decade that who knows when we'll scratch our way back to the surface. It's easy to focus on the things that break, the things that don't fit, the things that fail. Easy, but not good. It's nice to be reminded that there's more than that out there.

I love the oceans
I love real dirty things
I love to go fast
I love Egyptian kings
I love the whole world
And all its craziness
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

Because it is a crazy world, and one that can be breathtakingly gorgeous. It is a world with bagels. A world with children, families and love. A world where books smell the way they do and open minds the way they can. A world with colors to spare, differences to enchant, and tea to drink.

I love tornadoes
I love arachnids.
I love hot magma
I love the giant squids
I love the whole world
It's such a brilliant place
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

I'm not sure what it means that it takes a commercial to remind me of these things sometimes, and I'm pretty sure I could do without tornadoes, but there you go. Life is like that. We've watched these ads several dozen times over the last couple of days, and you know, they're right.

The world is just ... awesome.

At least it can be.

Finding Romance In Dubuque

My brother warned me this would happen.

When Kim and I got engaged, fifteen years ago, the first thing he said after "Congratulations" was, "You know, for the rest of your life, Dubuque will be a romantic place for you." And he was right.

This past weekend Grandma came down to watch the girls while Kim and I revived our tradition of going back to the Richards House, the bed and breakfast in Dubuque where we got engaged. We used to do that every year around this time, but that petered out around the time that Lauren was born and I graduated from Iowa. Between all the things that one does with two small children around the house, and the fact that I no longer had any particular need to go to Iowa any more, the Richards House fell off our radar, which was a shame. It felt good to get back there.

It's a great place, the Richards House. It's a disaster on the outside, due in large part to the prohibitive economics of undoing some of the "improvements" made by previous owners (concrete-based bridge paint on a wooden Victorian house? Really?), but on the inside it is both gorgeous and a little worn around the edges - the sort of place where you can feel right at home. All too often at these places you get the feeling that you're only there to finance somebody's Victorian museum, but this is a place where you can settle in, kick off your shoes, and hang out.

We like those places.

We always try to get the same room that we got the first time - the Blue Room. We light a fire in the fireplace and then, well, we hang out. We got engaged in front of that fire, way back when. This year we did a fair amount of reflecting on things. It's been fifteen years since that first night, and fourteen since we got married, and a lot has happened since then. We're doing well.

Dinner is always at Mario's, at least on the first night of the weekend, and often on both.

Mario's is a neighborhood Italian restaurant, the kind of place with paper placemats with maps of Italy on the table, where people smoke at the bar and get good and hammered, and where most of the patrons seem to know each other. Mario himself wanders through the dining area from time to time, greeting people in what could conceivably be English if you listen hard enough but which might just as well be in the original Italian.

The first time we went there the waitress patiently listened to us place our orders and then asked, "Is this your first time here?" Yes, we told her, is it that obvious? And then she proceeded to tell us what we should have ordered, at a considerable savings of money to us though quite possibly at the cost of a major artery. Apparently one of the things Mario's is known for is called a "panzerotti," which to me sounds like a sports tank (with racing stripes down the barrel of the gun and a tail fin in the back) but which is actually far more dangerous: imagine a stromboli about the size of your printer, filled with cheese and toppings and then deep fried.

It was good, but not something you want to order too often.

Since then we have moved on to a different dish, one I order almost every time I'm there. It's got feathery fettucini, proscuitto, mushrooms (which I give to Kim) and pecorino romano, all covered in a delicate butter and garlic sauce. Why it is called "Fettucini a la Lumberjack," I do not know. But if you're ever in Dubuque, that's what you need to eat.

Dubuque is really a pretty little city, for those who like such things. It very much looks and feels like the South Side of Pittsburgh, with lots of big old Victorian homes, tiny little shops, and staircases everywhere you look. Nothing is flat in Dubuque. They even have an inclined railway just like in Pittsburgh. We usually spend a day milling around the downtown area, wandering about the shops. This year the railway hadn't closed for the season yet, so we took a ride up and looked down over the whole city. It's a pretty low-key operation, really. You climb into the car, which is about the size of a walk-in closet and sloped at about a 60-degree angle, and you pull the bell-chain to let someone know you're there. The motor hauls your car up and drops the top car down to the bottom, and when you get out you pay the lady at the top. You can wander around the neighborhood at the top of the bluff or just stare out over the Mississippi River, and then you go back down.

We had a nice lunch at a restaurant that hadn't been there last time we went and eventually worked our way back to the Richards House.

The girls were happy to see us when we got back on Sunday, and we were happy to see them. But it was good to get away for a while, and just spend some time with each other in a place that will always be romantic for us.

Yes, Dubuque.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Grey Days and Sad Thoughts

It is a sad day down at Not Bad President Elementary School.

Tabitha and Lauren are back in school for the first time in days, now that they are feeling better, but things are not right there. Their gym teacher has passed away.

This was quite a shock. He was - not surprisingly - a fit and active man, one who lived the rhetoric of his field. All too often gym teachers are cut from the "do as I say, not as I do" Jabba-the-Hut mold, but not this guy. He was also fairly young, roughly my age or a bit over. And he was, without question, the most popular teacher in the school. Everybody knew him - he always had a friendly hello for me - and the kids adored him. Every day when I pick up the girls from school I ask them, "So, what did you guys do today?" and if it is gym day that is what I hear about first.

This is a far cry from my own experience with grade school physical education. My gym teacher was something right out of a cartoon - not a bad guy, really, but someone who had clearly spent a lot of time playing football without a helmet and for whom throwing and catching a ball was the peak of his intellectual capacity. Even as a fairly coordinated and athletic child (oh, yes I was!) who was usually picked toward the beginning for teams, I never really liked gym class.

But NBPE's gym teacher was driven. He made up all sorts of cool games. He thought about new and different ways to get kids to move and have fun. He won state and regional awards, and got grants for new ideas.

He'll be missed.

We've always tried to be straightforward about this sort of thing with the girls. Everything living will die. Plants die. Animals die (even cats, which was a hard lesson). And people die. It is appropriate to be sad and upset when it happens, but it happens and it's normal. It seems to have sunk in with them - they are very matter-of-fact about death, at least outwardly, and they don't freak out about it the way some kids do.

You have to be honest with people, and kids are people. Not brutally honest - there is nothing so needlessly abrasive as someone who insists on being "frank" with you all the time. You have to know your audience, and play to that level. The great philosopher John Madden once said, "You cannot simplify complicated things, but you can make them understandable." And that's a worthwhile goal, even for something like death, even when you are trying to explain it to children.

They seem to be taking it about as well as can be expected.

As are we all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Magic Green Medicine

Nyquil is just the greatest stuff in the world.

It's been a long week here, what with the various sicknesses floating around. Kim did some plinking around the internet and discovered that the symptoms she and the girls had matched pretty well with the symptoms listed for swine flu, except that they don't really want you to go in to the doctor for a confirmation unless you are just about ready to die and fortunately it never got to that point so we will just have to guess.

I suppose I could wave some bacon at her and see if she reacts.

Actually, I know pretty well what sort of reaction that would get, and it's a good thing I can outrun her in her current flu-weakened state is all I'm going to say about that. There aren't enough Husband Points in the world to cover that one.

Whatever version of flu this is, one thing that is clear is that it is No Fun Whatsoever. Even sleeping has been problematic, what with all of the various symptoms being all symptomatic at us. And so we went out and got us a bottle of the Magic Green Medicine.

I don't even want to know what they put in that stuff. It's probably a mixture of alcohol, heroin, benadryl and qat, with a splash of green food coloring and a metric buttload of anise oil. But whatever it is, it works. I took some myself last night, in my continuing quest to avoid the worst of this illness, and great googly moogly did I have a pleasant night.

Why don't they sell this stuff in bars?

Actually, I think we should spray it from aerial tankers across the world's trouble spots. There would be no more wars. Oh, sure, some folks might get a little annoyed from being coated in sticky green medicine, but the rest of us would be too stoned on its Relief-Causing Goodness to care. Let them whine!

I think I need more now. Yes, another hit of Nyquil, please.

Better living through chemistry. That is one of my mottoes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Report From Sick Bay

Now I know how the last dodo bird felt.

It's been a tough couple of days here in Baja Canada, what with all of the flu and cold and general crud going around our house. Kim started feeling bad on Monday, and then this morning neither she nor Tabitha made it out of the house. I took Lauren to school - it was the last day of Sign Language Club, and she was bound and determined to go even if she had to beat back alligators with her toothbrush - and went to Home Campus to give a student a makeup exam.

I didn't make it to my noon meeting, as I could feel Crud coming on and I felt it best if I didn't pass that on too much. Lauren made it to dinnertime before succumbing.

They're just dropping like flies.

I'm actually feeling fairly good now - laying low all afternoon was precisely the right course of action, and I'll probably be back teaching tomorrow, he said without a trace of irony and what is that ominous violin music playing in the background?

No, I can't get sick. Not until someone else is better. Somebody has to make the pharmacy runs for more ibuprofen and tissues.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How 'Bout Them 'Pokes?

I think I'm getting soft.

I spent some time watching the Packers play the Cowboys today, in the fond hopes that it might jar me out of my writer's block for the course I'm supposed to be developing. There is only so long one can stare at a blank screen or a blank page without going insane and questioning how the State of Hawaii issues its birth certificates, so I figured an afternoon of watching large men fight over a small ball might be therapeutic.

Now, I like the Packers. They're a small-market team with public ownership, and in an era of megalomaniacal zillionaires threatening to move teams to faraway cities unless taxpayers donate millions to build them a new stadium (with ice sculptures!), it's nice to see them do well. Plus, I live in Wisconsin and not liking the Packers would be tantamount to getting on my Chewbacca costume and going for a long walk in the woods during deer hunting season. So, Packers it is. As long as they're not playing the Eagles, I'll cheer for them.

Another nice thing about cheering for the Packers is that they have congruent enemies with the Eagles. I don't especially care about the Vikings or the Bears one way or the other, and I don't imagine Packer fans really concern themselves with the Redskins or the Giants, but we can all agree on one thing: Dallas needs to lose. All the time. Not once in a while. All. The. Time.

I grew up with the Eagles at a time when it would often take them three or four years to win a total of ten games, but the years they beat Dallas all was forgiven. The Cowboys were the Empire of Evil, the malignant stain on the x-ray of American professional sports, and it was yet another sign of the basic unfairness of the universe that they were always talented, entertaining and successful when the Eagles could generally be counted on to have at least one starting player with his helmet on sideways. When I found out that most Packer fans felt the same way about the Cowboys, I figured I had found my second sports home.

But you know, I am finding it hard to maintain that intensity anymore.

Dallas got absolutely jobbed by a bad call late in the game today - a clear, no doubt about it, what-were-the-refs-smoking error on the part of the officiating crew that essentially gave the game to the Packers.

In the past, I would have found this extremely satisfying - a karmic payback for everything they had ever done to my team. Today? I sort of felt bad for them.

There is a fine line between maturity and apathy, and I'm not sure which side of it I am on anymore.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fire Up the Delorean, McFly, We've Got Work to Do

I've been reading Sean Wilentz' book, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008, and it has been a thoroughly depressing experience.

This is not Wilentz' fault, really. He's a good writer - something rare in the historical community, sadly enough. For a discipline founded on story-telling, good writing isn't a skill much prized these days. I never understood that when I was in graduate school, and I still don't. Wilentz is also an accomplished scholar, one of the small coterie of historians accorded "minor deity" status by their peers. His books are consistently well argued, thoroughly researched, and difficult to rebut by people with alternate interpretations - not impossible, as all historical interpretations are open to rebuttal, but not easily done and certainly not done by the kind of empty rhetorical posturing that characterizes most political discourse these days. We live in AM-radio-talk-show times.

Mostly it's the subject matter.

I've been getting more interested in the political and cultural history of the twentieth-century over the last few years, mostly as a way for me to try to understand the roots of just how my country has gone so far off the rails in the last few decades. Since the mid1970s we've managed to betray our founding ideals, impoverish our present and sell out our future to a degree that I find astonishing, and I want to know where this impulse came from.

It's a long, sad story of how the radical fringes of the American right wing - people that Barry Goldwater referred to as "fanatics" - have effectively taken over the Republican Party and made their positions not only commonplace but mainstream. It's a story of a concerted effort to undermine the Constitution, enforce a rigid and religiously-based social conformity on par with that of any caliphate in the Middle East, and shift wealth out of the middle and lower classes and into the hands of the already wealthy.

And it's as American as apple pie, apparently. That's what they keep telling me.

As I read this book I found myself hoping that it would be different this time - that this time through things wouldn't break the way they did, that the results would be different, the process would be different, and that maybe the radicals wouldn't win after all. But they did, just as they did in real life.

It's hard to cheer against the past. The past never changes.

I think I'll read something lighter next.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Operators Are Not Standing By, So Relax

For a while I thought we had the perfect outgoing message on our phone, but it turned out the answering machine was just broken.

We like to put some effort into our outgoing messages. It's kind of discouraging when you call someone and all you get is "You have reached XXX-XXXX. Please leave a message." Where's the pizzazz? The humor? The toying with the caller's neurons? Really, if that's the best you can do you might as well just turn the thing off and let the phone ring.

When Kim and I first got married, we had a message that said, "The number you have reached, XXX-XXXX, is imaginary. Please rotate your phone ninety degrees and try again." Nothing like a little higher math humor to liven things up, that's my motto. Or at least one of them. There were probably half a dozen people in our combined circle of friends who got that joke, but we snickered every time and really, whose answering machine was it, anyway?

Kim grew tired of our old kitchen phone a long time back - something about the screen on it not showing any actual information, combined with the fact that you couldn't talk on it and operate the microwave at the same time for all the interference, little things like that - and finally got around to upgrading to a new phone about a month ago. Like the old one, this one came with a digital answering machine built in, and we sat around coming up with ever more ridiculous ideas for what to put on the outgoing message. It passed time that we would have otherwise spent working.

Eventually we came up with something that had all of us - including the girls - laughing to ourselves whenever we thought of it, and we decided to go with it.

"You have reached XXX-XXXX. No one is here to answer your call, but don't despair! Your call is important to us. To continue in English, press one. Para continuar en espanol, oprima el dos. To speak to a non-existent operator, press three. To express anger at this pointless button-pushing, press four. To express sarcasm, press five. To exercise your fingers, press numbers six through eight repeatedly. If you have had enough of mindlessly pressing buttons, press nine. To leave a message, wait for the beep. BEEP! No, really, here comes the real beep. Thank you for playing, and good luck."

Yes, it was ridiculously self-indulgent and about half an hour long, but we liked it anyway. You have to keep yourself entertained in this world.

But the thing is, from that point on we received absolutely no messages.

Now, on the one hand, this is kind if disappointing. You want people to call with things that are important enough to tell you about even if you aren't there, and after a while with no messages you begin to question whether anyone out there knows you're alive.

On the other hand, it's not such a bad thing to be overlooked the rest of the world sometimes, especially since most messages are of the "here is a task I'd like you to do" or "vote for this person or the earth will go spinning into the sun" variety. People who really want to get hold of us know to send emails or make Facebook posts. I only got an answering machine in the first place because I needed it for job-hunting, way back in the early 90s, and I still view it as more of an intruder than anything else.

So there was a profound ambivalence about the lack of messages is what I'm saying here.

But after a while it begins to get suspicious. Surely somebody wants you to do something for them. Surely somebody is running for office somewhere. And the longer the "0" sits up there in the message counter, the more you begin to think the problem lies not with a cold and uncaring world - a fact that never stopped messages from arriving before - but with your answering machine.

Perhaps the message was simply too long.

I recorded a shorter one today and then tried to call in. Nothing. I left multiple messages for myself, and still: "0." But I don't know that - I think I left messages. And, honestly, I'm annoyed at why I don't just pick up the phone and answer myself. Who do I think I am? Such nerve.

So right now I've got the answering machine turned off because I can't find the manual for the phone in order to try to fix this problem and I'd rather people didn't get their hopes up about leaving a message and then wonder why nobody ever calls them back. Don't even get me started on why phones need manuals. I am old enough to remember when phones came in one color (black), had rotary dials, were sturdy enough to use as murder weapons and were about as complicated as an ice cube tray. They were appliances. Now they're technology again, and they don't quite work.

So, no messages for a while. If you need me, you can always make a big pile of phones in your back yard and send me smoke signals. I probably won't get those either, but the bonfire will be cathartic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Turning Over Some Old Leaves

We spent most of this weekend raking other people's leaves.

We do this every year. The leaves fall down sometime in mid-October or so. We make noises about raking them up. And sometime around the end of October, we get a giant windstorm that blows all of our leaves away and replaces them with someone else's leaves.

This year the winds came from the south, which means that our leaf-load was rather high. Our southern neighbors for several houses down have more trees than we do, and none of them are evergreens. If the wind comes from the north or west, though, we make out like bandits. From the east it's pretty much a wash.

Kim was first out with the rake, as she is the one who tends to notice these things. I've read stories of widowers who never change the decor in their homes or apartments once their wives pass on - not out of any intent to create a shrine to a departed loved one, but simply because it never occurs to them to do so. All I can say is that Kim had better outlive me. Either that or we had better do all of our decorating in "classic" styles designed to last.

It was a gorgeous weekend here in Our Little Town, with temperatures more like May than November. Seriously, it hasn't been this warm here since Labor Day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the woodland elves were doing whatever it is they do when not posing the garden gnomes suggestively, and it was time to play outside.

So Kim piled up about six cubic yards of leaves and declared it to be leaf-playing time.

The girls took this and ran with it.

They made a fort out of them.


They jumped in them.

They dive-bombed them from the zip line.

They ran through them.

Really, it was a shame to rake them down to the curb for pickup tomorrow, but so it goes. They went off to play with some friends in the late afternoon, and I took the opportunity to re-rake all those leaves and deposit them in the street for the sweeper to come by.

I really wish we could burn them. I've always loved the scent of burning leaves in the fall.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Clicks and Whistles

I have hit the age where I am not entirely sure why I am in pain.

Somewhere on Wednesday I must have done something to my right knee that it found objectionable. I have no idea what that might have been, since the first I noticed this problem was when I tried to sit down in my office chair, and usually that does not involve any noticeable exertion or contortions.

The knee does not particularly want to bend anymore, at least upon first rising, though periodically it relents on that point and decides it wants to bend sideways. It has also been taking lessons in Xhosa, apparently, and has begun speaking in clicks and whistles. I am not sure what it is trying to say. "You're getting old," perhaps.

This is not an isolated occurrence, unfortunately.

My lower back has been giving me problems for years, ever since I tried to move a box that I shouldn't have tried to move, shortly after arriving in Our Little Town. That I understood - there was clearly a cause and effect in operation there - but since then I find that there does not have to be any discernable cause to get the same effect. Sometimes it just does that.

When I was younger, in order to achieve this level of pain I would have had to have done something that I would still be talking about today.

There would be a story - a long build-up, a crisis moment, a rueful conclusion. I could tell this story and people would feel sorry for me and buy me drinks. Or look at me pityingly and tell me to stop doing things that hurt me.

But there are no stories anymore, and I don't really know what it is I could stop doing.

Drinks still accepted, though.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Darwin In The Dining Room

I’m trying to decide if hamsters are the bravest creatures on earth, or the stupidest. Or whether this is a distinction worth making.

Ever since we started bungie-ing (how exactly does one write that word?) their cage down on top of the little shelving unit in the dining room, there have been no repeats of the earlier episode where the cats knocked the cage to the floor in order to crack it like a walnut and get at the meat inside. And I think the hamsters are getting a little cocky about it.

Mithra usually leaves them alone – they clearly are not canned salmon and therefore hold no interest for her – but Tria is fascinated. She will climb up to where she can stare directly into their cage and just glare at them for a while.

Eventually this gets old. It’s not like the cat has a lot of things to think about while she is staring at the hamsters. “Hamsters,” she thinks. “They look like food.” What more is there to say?  And so, after a short period of analyzing this, Tria will slowly reach up to the cage and begin batting at the grillwork, which the hamsters like to climb (why? because it’s there, I suppose – who knows with rodents) hoping to snag a hamster.

Now you would think that a critter the size of a hamster – a critter clearly designed by God and nature as a snack for larger and more pointy-edged creatures – would know enough that this was a bad situation, and that they should retreat to a more defensible position. Or at least get off the stupid grille.

But no.

Look carefully at this photo. Do you see the small brownish lump just to the right of Tria’s paw? That’s Hammy. Or Vee. Either one. And do you know what Hammy (or Vee) is doing? Fighting back, that’s what – nipping at Tria’s claws, trying to bite the paw that’s about to feed on her.

Nobody has ever proven that intelligence has survival value over the long run, but this is ridiculous.

Of course, Tria cannot get into the cage - that being the point of the cage, after all - and the hamsters are usually far enough from the edge that they can’t be damaged by her claws, so it becomes something of a standoff after a while.

Seriously, why do we have a television?