Saturday, January 31, 2009

Trivia Master

I am quite the trivial fellow, apparently.

Sometime in November, a friend of mine called me up to ask if I would form a team to compete in the local orchestra's fundraising trivia contest, which was held on Thursday evening. And like an idiot, I said, "Sure!"

Actually, it was fun.

My duties as Team Captain were not all that extensive:

  • I had to find seven other people to join me on the team, which went quite well (though one person had to drop out at the last minute, forcing me to find a substitute, which took, well, not much effort at all really). It ended up as the Campus Team, representing the university where Kim and I teach. If you want trivia head straight for academia, I always say - we live for this stuff.
  • I had to front the application fee (it's a fundraiser, after all). On the one hand, this required me to budget the fee into our monthly expenses, but on the other hand it meant that when everyone did pay me back, it was like found money. Which I promptly blew on groceries. I am such a wastrel.
  • I had to get the paperwork in on time. Actually I failed at this one, but as noted it is a fundraiser and the orchestra was not about to turn anyone down who was going to give them money. They were very nice about it when I called.
  • And I had to go up front to collect the trophy when we won. Because you know we won.

Actually, the only charge that the campus dean laid on us was to beat the team from Local Tech, and if possible from Nearby Private College. And we did. NPC came in second - they closed the gap in the last two rounds, but we had built enough of a lead in the first three that we were safe. Local Tech placed fifth, behind the Daily Blab and another team from a bank or somewhere. No, we didn't do too bad, not by half.

We. Kicked. Butt.

We are the greatest of the least, the undisputed masters of that which is probably not worth mastering, and it feels pretty good I have to say. We ended up with all sorts of goodies, including some surprisingly nice individual trophies to go with the behemoth that I'm holding in that photo. That trophy is every bit as heavy as it looks, by the way.

Most importantly, though, we had a good time. The orchestra got a fair amount of money. And we beat NPU and Local Tech. It was a good night.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Bouncing Daisies

The Daisies went sledding yesterday, out by the river.

It was a cold and blustery day, as the days have been this winter. There has been no January thaw in our part of Wisconsin. We haven't seen the up side of freezing since Christmas, when it rained for two days before it all froze again. The winds were blowing the trees sideways, the mercury was visibly falling toward the single digits in the thermometers, and the ground was covered with a layer of snow so thick and impermeable that it might just last until the Fourth of July. So naturally under those conditions the Wisconsinite thinks: Let's play outside! With small children!

It's a Darwinian place, Wisconsin.

Kim was teaching during the appointed sledding hour, which meant that a) I was on my own for this one, and b) Tabitha was coming along as well, which was just fine by her. We piled into the Vibe, stuffed it full of our sleds, and headed off in search of the hill.

This, it turned out, was something of a trick.

You would not think it difficult to locate a hill, especially one big enough to be used for sledding, but then you would be wrong. We circled through the park a couple of times before finally settling on an appropriate candidate through my clever interrogation techniques.

"Hey Lauren," I called. "Do you recognize any of those people on that hill?"

"No, dad, those are BOYS."

"How about those people?"

"Which people?"

"Those ones, over there."


"Yes, there. Do they look like Daisies?"


And there we were. Simple.

So we got out, gathered up our stuff, and trudged off to the hill, along with a herd of children and parents that had come to the same conclusion at roughly the same time as we did. We crossed the ditch, skirted the surprisingly large number of trees, and started up the hill.

It was another one of those Mel Allen "Ooooh! That's gotta hurt!" hills, one that was nearly vertical at the top before flattening out slightly about a quarter of the way down. Though flattening out is somewhat misleading, as there were all sorts of gullies and moguls, and if you went down more to the right there was, at the bottom, a ski-jump that some previous sledder had painstakingly constructed. Hitting it was a feat of random aim, but that didn't stop people from trying.

The girls had a wonderful time, racing up and down. Tabitha scooted and zipped. Lauren enjoyed herself for a while before doing a faceplant at the bottom and coming up looking like the wrong end of a lightweight sparring match. I suppose it says something about The Times We Live In that we actually wondered if someone would call Child Protective Services today at school, when she showed up looking like that. Then again, it says something about living in Wisconsin that "rocketing down a vertical hill in the sub-Arctic cold" would have been a perfectly acceptable response to any inquiry. Regardless, after the faceplant Lauren tended to go down on her snowpants rather than the sleds. "I want to go fast, but I want to be safe," she said when I asked her what she was trying to do. "Pick one," I told her.

We were only there for about half an hour before the cold and wind got too much, especially at the top of the hill. We headed home, and gathered round the kettle for some cocoa, and life was good.

News and Updates

News from the home front.

  • This employment thing is really cramping my blogging style, particularly since all of my various jobs involve a fair amount of at-home prep time. On the one hand, I'm glad to have employment in these parlous times, especially employment that I like and am qualified for. On the other hand, well, for every silver lining there must, by definition, be a cloud. But I like cloudy days.
  • The Rohirrim have arrived at the Fields of Pelannor, and all hell is breaking loose in Gondor. Tabitha and I continue to creep forward in The Lord of the Rings, a chapter here, a chapter there, and at this rate we might be done by Easter.
  • It has not snowed in measurable amounts for over a week, and I am getting nervous about that. On the other hand, I have come to consider 13 degrees as fairly warm.
  • The cats are going stir crazy. Tria keeps dashing outside, screeching to a halt as if she were on an Invisible Leash that was shorter than she remembered it being, and then rebounding back inside. Mithra just stares mournfully out the door.
  • I am really liking the new windows. The house is much less drafty.

That is all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tae A Poet

I went to college with a lot of foreigners. It made the experience a lot more interesting.

For instance, during my freshman year I had a roommate from Trinidad and another from Boston, and I have to say I had just the worst time trying to understand what the guy from Boston was saying. It sounded like English, but the words never really made sense in the particular order that he used them. Trinidadian slang, on the other hand, is pointedly and often graphically clear. When Gervase wanted you to know something, it got known.

Also, he made the world's most evil coffee. Even I, who to this day still don't drink the stuff, knew that his coffee was something to behold. When Gervase was making his Mean Brew, the more timid souls at the university were well advised to hide behind their ottomans, for there would be caffeine-fueled revelry in the streets for days.

If six tablespoons of sugar dissolve into a twelve-ounce mug without leaving sediment, you know you've got powerful coffee.

But it was my last three years in college where the fact that I was local - the fact that I had, indeed, been born at the very hospital attached to that university - was most vividly shown to be odd.

The Van Pelt College House at the University of Pennsylvania held about 170 students and an assortment of faculty members that Penn spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get rid of, occasionally for very good reasons. We were an eclectic group, with a well-deserved and proudly held reputation as "4-F House" - Freaks, Fags, Foreigners, and Freshmen who didn't know any better, which, by process of elimination, made me a Freak. It is an eye-opening thing to share a suite with people who share precious little else with you. You find out just how much you do share, after a while.

One year we counted and discovered that there were students from 27 countries and 36 states at Van Pelt. That included my three roommates that year, who hailed from Israel, Greece and the Philippines and ranged in age from 16 to 22. Tom's dad used to call on his lunch break from Athens. Do you have any idea what time it is in Philadelphia when it is noon in Athens? About half an hour after Tom rolled in, that's what time it is. We had students from India. We had students from northern Africa. There was one suite that held three Greeks and a Turk, who got along just fine. Ed had a cat he named Bonjuk, which to this day is the only word I know in Turkish (even if I have no idea how to spell it). It means "pearl."

But the largest contingent of foreigners was from Britain - and the majority of those were from Scotland. Penn had an exchange program with the University of Edinburgh, and for some reason most of them ended up at Van Pelt. And where there is a certain density of Scotsmen, you will invariably have a Burns Supper.

Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland. He was born on January 25, 1759, making this the 250th anniversary of his birth, and is probably best known today for being the guy who wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne," though I don't know if he wrote the tune. Naturally, we had to celebrate this guy.

If you have never been to a Burns Supper, well, you should, at least once. It is probably the only regularly occurring event in the world dedicated to the dubious proposition that haggis and scotch are good for you in large quantities, a proposition we did our best to test every year.

The Society of Saint Andrew, which sponsored this event for us, was a curiously amnesiac body whose institutional memory only stretched back one year. This explains why every other year our scotch allotment would be rigorously limited, and when that worked out fine (the main scotch consumption would be moved off-site those years) they would remove the restrictions, only to rediscover why those restrictions were there in the first place, and then the cycle would begin again. You could set your watch by it.

We would get dressed up in our finery and head off to the dining hall (one year it was in a hotel, and they never made that mistake again). We'd gather 'round, waiting, and then there would be The Piping In Of The Haggis. Someone would appear with the haggis - a type of sausage made from everything you would not ordinarily eat out of a sheep, ground up, mixed with oatmeal and boiled in the sheep's stomach; it was tasty if you didn't think about it too much - and parade it around for us to inspect, all the while being trailed by someone playing the bagpipes.

Now, understand - our dining hall was built in the 1970s. It was a low-ceilinged room with bare concrete walls and large plate glass windows. It was not designed with The Piping In Of The Haggis in mind. Bagpipes, played under those conditions, make your innards vibrate and your ears bleed, which might also be part of why the Saint Andrew people relented on the scotch every other year. It was an experience, I can tell you that.

There would then be a dramatic reading of Burns' poem, "Tae A Haggis," which nobody could understand no matter how much scotch they had consumed, and when it eventually became clear that the poem was over, we could then eat. There would be a first course of haggis, neeps and tatties, (haggis, turnips and potatoes, in non-Scots English), after which they would bring out food that people would actually eat and the party would start.

It's the cultural opportunities that make college so special.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Home-Grown Orchestra Performs Tonight

We now have two aspiring musicians in the house.

Lauren has been taking piano lessons for a year now, and enjoying them from all appearances. She especially loves the songs that require her to use the sustenato pedal or to play more than one note at a time, and I can understand why. They sound better, for one thing. And they're more fun.

Every week she goes over to Miss Carol's house for her lesson, and she has even been known to favor us with a concert or two when she gets a song she really likes. This week she had two such songs - a minorish sort of ditty about Frankenstein dancing (she liked the creepiness of it, and the fact that it called for chords), and Yankee Doodle, which had an introduction that needed the pedal. I don't think the colonists had that introduction, since it had a distinct "Barbershop Quartet" feel to it, but there you go. They would have had it, had they known.

Last April Lauren even had her first recital, at which she played Old MacDonald Had a Song for a fairly large crowd. We cheered like we were at Carnegie Hall. Actually, we cheered better than Carnegie Hall, since those crowds are always so decorous and polite, and we were cheering, by gum.

And now Tabitha has decided to join in. Not on the piano, but on the violin.

On the one hand, this is pretty cool. The violin can be a marvelous instrument, and she seems very excited by the prospect of playing it. Her first lesson (also with Miss Carol) was today, and she just ate it up. Now she knows how to stand and hold the instrument, and how to put resin on the bow. She hasn't actually gotten it to make noise yet, at least not with the bow - the violin is not like a piano, where you just press down on the keys and produce notes. You have to work your way up to that.

Which is where the other hand comes in.

I play piano, sort of. At least I took lessons for a while, way back when, and I still remember where the notes are and how to play them. And if I play it more like a guitar than an actual piano - give me the tablature above the staff and the time signature and I can fake my way through just about anything - well, that's okay. I can still be of some service to Lauren. Every day we practice together, and we have a good time.

I am completely flummoxed by the violin.

So we'll be learning together, Tabitha and I.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

So That's Why They Do That...

Tabitha has this theory.

Cats are a puzzle, even to the most educated and intelligent minds. They are, in many ways, a standing refutation of the Darwinian maxim of survival of the fittest. They look at you with those big round eyes and their neurons slowly fizzing like ginger ale going flat in the noonday sun and you think to yourself, this creature - the same creature that annually eats tinsel off the Christmas tree and then wanders around the house with a shiny silver antenna trailing behind it as if to provide better FM reception - THIS is the end result of millennia of natural selection?

I. Don't. Think. So.

Tabitha loves cats. Loves them with ever fiber of her being. Her first word was "keee!" which we took to mean "kitty!" She has checked out every book on cats that the local library has, and read most of them. She draws cats. She plays with cats. She will end up with a house full of them someday, no doubt. But even she understands that if brains were dynamite the average housecat couldn't blow its own nose.

Her theory is that cats' brains are charged up during the night, when they run around and do feline things that we mere humans can never know about or understand. This is because of all the intelligence particles that people aren't using at night. They fly out of our brains, apparently - we "veto" them right out of our heads, a verb choice that Kim just adores - and get absorbed by those of our cats. This means, as Tabitha puts it, that when you wake up and see your cat first thing in the morning, "that's as smart as that cat is going to be all day."

This, it must be admitted, cannot be argued with, though I'm not sure what I have in mind by that statement is precisely what Tabitha has in mind by that statement. We shall let that pass.

Tabitha's theory goes on to state that as the day wears on, the intelligence particles fly out of the "airy" heads of our cats, lowering their intelligence by the minute until by nightfall what you are left with is a creature only minimally capable of brain function at all. It eats, it poops, it charges mindlessly after illusions, but it really isn't all that bright.

At this point I suppose I ought to insert a political joke, but that's just too easy even for me. Go ahead if you want to, though. Opportunities like that don't come by very often, and somebody should take advantage of it.

And then the cycle starts again, as we slough off intelligence in our sleep for the cats to absorb. I suppose the question that this theory raises is what happens to all those free-floating intelligence particles if there are no cats around to absorb them. Do they just bounce around the house, waiting for us to wake up and take them back in again? Do they fly out into space? Do they fall to the carpet and - via vacuums, trash bags and garbage pickup - end up in landfills somewhere?

I shall have to ask her about that.

Bring Me the Head of Conan the Librarian (or at least his collection of crafts books)

The girls and I ransacked the local library this afternoon - Rollo the Viking and his conquering hordes looting and pillaging the Easy Readers and the sections on cats, dragons and crafts. This is one of our favorite pass-times.

I actually worked there, once upon a time, but the pull of finishing my dissertation and the push of working for supervisors who were actively psychotic were enough to end my days checking in and shelving books. I enjoyed the job when not dealing with my supervisors - there is a certain satisfaction to making the shelves orderly, even the romance novels that I was exiled to for most of my tenure there in an attempt to get me to stop browsing through the books as I put them back, and there is no better way to discover new and interesting books that you would probably never have found than to check in the randomly jumbled carts of books that line the backstage area of a library.

Also, when I left I found that my supervisors had provided me with two inestimably valuable things to take with me - a set of stories to make people's heads shake in wonder, and an unerring negative example of how to manage people that I found supremely useful when I went on to run the museum. "How would they have done this down at the library?" I would ask myself when confronted by this or that managerial situation, and then I knew precisely what must be avoided at all costs. It never failed. I suppose I should go back and thank them for that.

The library itself is wonderful, though. The people are friendly and helpful, even when it isn't in their job description to be so and they end up reprimanded for it. And the collection is superb. This isn't a large city, at least by the standards of where I grew up, but if you can't find it at our local library you probably aren't looking hard enough.

Both Tabitha and Lauren have had their own library cards since they were using them to teethe. We go there a lot, especially when the weather is as cold as it is these days. We return a backpack full of old books and remove a backpack full of new books, pay off the fines from the old books (hey - not working there every day has its disadvantages), and head home intoxicated by the thought of new things to read.

I love the fact that the girls think this is a treat.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Renegade Brain

Sometimes I think my brain is trying to kill me.

Now, in most people, this sort of thing manifests as a desire to go skydiving, eat delicacies from cuisines whose native lands are suspiciously underpopulated, or sign up to return punts. Not me. When my brain wants to get rid of me, it puts random bits of music on repeating loops, in the hopes that it will drive me crazy.

On the one hand, this is a disturbingly effective ploy. On the other hand, why drive when it's a short walk?

For most of the last week, I have had a snippet from one of the cartoons the girls watch - a surprisingly entertaining show called Phineas and Ferb - running through my head. There I am, trying to develop a syllabus for my Western Civ II class, or doing dishes, or driving through Ohio (which is doubly nasty since there is so little to distract me), and all of the sudden I will hear in a 1950s-advertising-jingle style the words "Doofenschmirtz Evil In-cor-por-ated!" echoing in the vast and vaulty space between my ears.

And then I will have to sing along.

There are precious few people on this planet who will sing along with me, too. C'mon people, can't we all just sing along?

I guess not.

Eventually it will run its course and go into remission, to return some other day. I can handle that. And, in truth, it's better than some of the other things that my brain has dredged up from the juke box of annoying songs that it lovingly preserves in there (MacArthur Park days are just the pits).

At least I'm not returning punts.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Miles

The most nerve-wracking part of coming back from Philadelphia this week had nothing to do with the weather, the road conditions, or even the fact that every moron in America has a driver's license and the roads are just packed, packed, packed. Those things you get used to, especially that last one. I've long felt that driver's tests should include a segment entitled, "How Not To Be Stupid" and that if you failed that part you would never be allowed onto the nation's roads again. Depending on how badly you failed, you might not even be allowed as a passenger. No, the thing that made the ride more of an adventure than usual was the fact that I had four plastic bins full of history in the car with me.

The running theme of this past weekend was photographs.

At the most basic level there was the fact that both my brother and I were there. Now, I take a lot of pictures - not for nothing am I known as "Nuisance Man" at family gatherings. Keith, though, puts me to shame. He is a photo ninja, a Diamond Jim Brady of photographic excess whose works can be stacked up and thumbed down to make a decent flip movie, or could if he weren't also a ruthless editor. I am in awe of this, a piker at the feet of the master. So there were a lot of photos taken at this birthday party is all I'm saying.

Grandpop imparts wisdom to Cousin Josh

Also, and not surprisingly, the gift we settled on for Dad from his children and their families was one of those digital photo frames that you can load up with pictures and watch them scroll by. The original plan was to have 70 photos, one for each year of age, but neither Keith nor I could limit ourselves to that number so the total ended up being well over 160. But those frames are amazing - they just chug along, going from one photo to another. The photos ranged from a school picture from 1948 or so right up to one of Lauren and Grandpop playing Battleship last Thanksgiving - a photo that I published here on this blog on about that day, as a matter of fact - and I hope Dad has as much fun looking at it as we did setting it up.

But there were other photos, and older.

Keith has been diligently trying to reduce the piles of random albums, shoeboxes and envelopes stuffed with family photos - mostly on Mom's side, since they tended to hang on to things more than Dad's side - into an ordered collection for some time now, and he has gotten this project almost completed. Or at least he thought he had - never underestimate the ability of our family to have more random piles of stuff, as we discovered this weekend. But there he was with a giant bin of newly arranged albums, as well as several more full of old framed photos. It was a sight glorious to behold, really. We spent a fair amount of time looking at them, and when I excavated the box full of Grandmom's old photos from an upstairs closet, well, it was like stumbling into the Lost Dutchman's Mine.

Prior to the Recent Economic Unpleasantness, the plan was to have all of these photos professionally scanned so that everyone could have a set of them. That's on hold now, but Keith and I talked before I drove out and we decided that since I have a nice new scanner - and have actually figured out how to use it - perhaps I could take over that chore.

And thus it was that I and my bins were headed into the sunset on Monday and Tuesday.

It's nerve-wracking to do that, really it is. Suddenly every rest stop is an Arabian oasis of thieves. Every brake light up ahead is a harbinger of some fiery wreck that will magically reach out and burn over 100 years of family history. Fortunately, the bins were plastic so there was no need to fear my travel mug of tea.

But here they are, safe and sound. This year, my project is to get them all digitized and sent off. It's going to be a long, detail-oriented project, and I'm just the kind of nerd who will enjoy it.

Grandmom, sometime in the 1920s

PopPop, at about the same time

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Assessing the New Administration

Well, it is the second full day of the Obama administration, and so far I am not noticeably taller.

Also, I still have a few extra pounds, my hair has not been restored to the thickness and luster it had when I was nineteen, and the Eagles are still not playing in the Super Bowl. There is still ice on the sidewalks and nobody has stepped up to pay me handsomely for my sparkling freaking personality. Chocolate cream pie remains unhealthy for you. Foreign films continue to be Meaningful, while American films remain focused on new ways to shoot people. My cell phone has not become more user-friendly, and my hipness quotient has not increased.

Frankly, I expected better.

On the other hand, the earth has not spiraled into the sun, book stores have not been completely replaced by fitness centers, and we have suffered fewer terrorist attacks than occurred during the last several administrations. I have figured out how to use my scanner, my Jonathan Coulton CD still makes me sing along, and my chai spice tea supply is holding out. The temperature gauge on the Vibe still works, my "on-deck circle" of books to read is joyously large, and Mythbusters is producing new episodes. Also, my family is healthy and happy, and the girls do not get on each other's nerves any more than they had before.

So I suppose the incoming administration is a bit of a wash so far.

There is always the possibility that I could bring my expectations more in line with reality, but that would be unAmerican and I refuse to disrespect my country in its current crisis.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thoughts From The Ride Home

One of the most beautiful urban sights you will ever see is the city of Pittsburgh just as you come out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel after sunset. You drive down a long, long hill to get there - Pittsburgh, for those of you who have never been there, has approximately six square feet of level ground in the entire metropolitan area; not even the rivers are flat - and then you go through a tunnel that only feels that long because Pittsburghers invariably slow way down when in tunnels. It's a blandly utilitarian sight, the interior of the tunnel. And then you get to the end, and - BAM! - there, all of the sudden, is the entire downtown of Pittsburgh, all lit up. It's breathtaking.

I hit that tunnel at a little before 5am, central time. Before dawn works just as well as after sunset.

Yes, I know Pittsburgh is not in the central time zone, but the thing about short trips is that it just is not worth adjusting your body clock. Wisconsin is central time. For the four days I was east, well, I could just do the math.

I'm not much on pre-dawn anything, usually, but I wanted to get home in time to pick up the girls from school, so early, early it was.

I'd spent the night with my friends Mike and Krista. Mike was a colleague in my Pitt grad student days, and was largely responsible for keeping me as sane as I was, which is meant well even if it does sound to the uninitiated as faint praise. Krista, a perceptive person, has long maintained that we were the same person in a former life. We probably won the Silver Sow Award together. It was good to see them (and trade Tolkien nerdishness with their son Eli).

But off I went.

Ohio was, well, beige. And white due to the occasional lake-effect snow. But not nearly as cold as it was on Friday, so we'll take that. It has entirely too many radio stations devoted to Rush Limbaugh, who is apparently still around and still doggedly pursuing his own reality as if it could be created from sheer verbiage out of the wreckage of this one. Honestly, how does that man even find his shoes in the morning?

Also, the Tackiest House In America has been repainted and is now Bland.

It stood at mile marker 111 on the Ohio Turnpike, and Kim and I used to look forward to it when we drove past - which, I suppose, is saying something about the Ohio Turnpike experience. It was a bright white ranch house, except that someone - probably in the mid-1970s, I'm guessing - had painted about half a dozen foot-wide horizontal stripes around the whole thing. They started with a deep navy blue at the bottom and gradually transitioned to a bright kelly green at the top. It wasn't unattractive, really, but neither was it anything you'd want nearby. But it, like the rest of Ohio, is now beige, and that is a shame.

The highlight of the trip home was listening to the radio broadcasts of the Presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington. After eight long years, George W. Bush is finally no longer in a position to do me any direct harm, and that is all to the good. At this weekend's birthday party one of my Republican relatives asked me if I felt Obama would solve all of our problems. No, I said, I'll settle for him not being actively harmful. It'd be a step up.

I wasn't terribly impressed by the ceremony itself. Obama's speech was workmanlike at best, for example, and Chief Justice Roberts really needs to learn how to read off a cue card. But for sheer historical import - both looking back over our past and looking forward to a future that I might actually want my children to inhabit - it was a great day.

And I did make it home in time to pick up Tabitha and Lauren from school, so the early morning was worthwhile. The first thing we did was go to a car wash, where we discovered that the car was not in fact "road-salt" grey. And then came the Distribution of the Gifts, because that is what other people's trips are for, really.

Of course it's Eagles stuff. You have to train them up right, after all.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Requiem for the Team Of Not Quite Destiny

The Cardinals?  The Cardinals?  Bah.

And so it ends, as it usually does, with the other team walking off the victor.  On the one hand, it is a bummer as I really did think the Eagles had a chance to win this one and might even pull off a surprise at the Super Bowl.  On the other hand, well, they were playing football in January, when 28 other teams were watching on the golf course club house televisions.  Not bad for a team that was dead and buried in November.

Oh well.

Late Night Cheering for the Birds

This is a very strange time to be a Philadelphia sports fan.

Historically, Philadelphia teams have tended to be prefaced by the term "cellar-dwelling."  I first became an Eagles fan in the early 1970s, when their best player was a place-kicker with half a foot.  I think I watched them for almost four years before I could no longer count their cumulative wins on my fingers.  The Phillies had single pitcher account for almost a third of their wins during one of those four years.  And for most of that time the Flyers were an expansion team - a team headed for success by the end of that period, granted, but it took a while.

But for the last few years, things have gone, well, well.  Since 1999 no team in the NFC has a better record than the Eagles, who have made it to five conference championship games in that stretch.  Think about that.  In any given year over the past decade, the odds of the Eagles - the Eagles mind you, a team that was so bad in the mid-90s that a network once actually switched away from one of their games at halftime - being in the NFC championship game are one in two.  The Phillies, a team which would have to go on a five year winning streak just to have their overall cumulative record reach .500, have played meaningful baseball in late September for three years running, and won it all in October.  The Flyers were in the conference championship last year, twelve months after being the worst team in hockey.

And right now, at this moment, the Eagles are less than 14 hours from playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.  The Phillies are the reigning world champs.  The Flyers are leading their division.  I'm sure the Sixers are doing something, but any sport where teams routinely score a hundred points in increments of two is clearly irresponsible and can safely be disregarded.  

Strange times indeed.

I spent much of today looking for an Eagles jersey for Lauren, so she can share the luck with Tabitha and me should the Eagles win the NFC championship.  These jerseys are not easy to find, one day before the big game, but I was intrepid, nay even persistent, and finally found one in the very last place I looked.  It is hard to give people your money sometimes.

So here's hoping the Birds win tomorrow.  I have spent too many years cheering for them to actually expect a victory, but I can still hope.  

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Long Drive on a Short Thermometer

Some years ago we were in a truck stop restaurant in the empty Midwest, my dad, my brother and I.  The teenaged waitress was loudly discussing how she had fallen asleep underneath somebody the previous evening, much to her colleague's amusement.  All of my worldly possessions were sitting in a rented truck in the parking lot of the hotel next door, a hotel whom we had forced to open up a bank of long-unused rooms because we were not going to drive any further that evening and that was final, thank you ever so much.  Three plates of heart attacks stared at us from the table.  And my dad looked at the two of us and said, "You know, sometimes you just have to stop and ask yourself, How the hell did I end up here?"

Oddly enough, this is a question I find myself asking a lot when I am with my dad.  I remember one pleasant afternoon, for example, with both of us sitting on somebody's lawn in full firefighter's turnout gear, idly watching the sidewalk buckle because the hydrant we just opened blew out the water main underneath.  But water was flowing toward the house fire down the street, so as far as we were concerned the main was Somebody Else's Problem, freeing us to speculate on the chain of events that had led us to that point.

I thought about this yesterday, as I was driving across the country.

Dad's 70th birthday is Monday, and the party is tomorrow.  For a brief, exciting time we all thought we'd drive out for it, but a combination of too many responsibilities and too little mercury in the thermometer prompted us to decide that it wasn't a trip for children - especially because of the weather, which has been brutal.

I'm expendable, though, so I went.

It was 22 below zero when I got into the car yesterday morning and headed east.  The air was full of steam from the rivers, more than fifty degrees warmer than the surrounding air.  Everything crunched, the way it does when things get that cold.  It was pretty.

Chicago was a slow-motion experience, even at the ungodly early hour that I hit it, but then it always is.  There is no good time to drive in, around, or near Chicago.

Western Indiana was a skating rink of black ice, with dozens of cars in ditches and at least two jacknifed trailers blocking the west-bound lanes completely, some miles apart.  I found a big rig driving sanely and just sat behind it for fifty miles or so, watching people zoom by and then crawling past them when they ended up in ditches later on down the road.  People just refuse to adjust to conditions - you can't drive in January like you can in June.  35mph in a straight line, that's all.  So you're an hour late - it beats sitting in a ditch.  It did make me glad that Kim and the girls were home, though.

New rule:  Road food?  Yes.  Fluffernutters?  No.

The temperature peeked above zero sometime around Harrisburg PA, doubling the number of interesting things about that city.  By the time I hit Philadelphia, it had reached a balmy 8 degrees above.  Today: 22.  It's springtime!

The Pennsylvania Turnpike people are just thrilled about this weekend's football games, and all of their signs now flash the same message:  "Go Steelers!  Go Eagles!  Turnpike Super Bowl!"  Although in eastern PA, the Eagles come first - as well they should.

It was a long drive, but here I am.  More news, and pictures, to follow.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bring on the Chai Spice I-V!

It wasn't until I moved to Wisconsin that I became familiar with the concept of a "cold day."

We had "snow days" in Philadelphia, of course, and by extension you could imagine there being an "ice day" or - as happened once when I was in college - a "hurricane day." But the thought that it might get cold enough to warrant closing the schools never occurred to me.

Though how otherwise to explain the fact that it is Thursday at 10am and the girls are still in their jammies, buried in the nest of blankets and pillows that they made on the living room floor and watching cartoons would be rather difficult. It's cold. The schools are closed. It hasn't snowed in - what? - 36 hours. The alternatives are rather scanty. It is, therefore, a "cold day."

And it is indeed a cold day. Cold, cold, cold. Ditch-digger weather. Freeze the 'nads off a brass monkey weather. Listen to the vibration of your atoms slowing down kind of weather.

The first time my tender east coast carcass was faced with weather like this was the winter I moved to Iowa. The end of my Christmas break was a three-city tour of the worst weather winter could offer. I was in Pittsburgh over the New Year for a friend's wedding, and spent an extra day there while the city dug out from 28 inches of snow. I headed down to Baltimore to visit a friend there, and got back to Philadelphia just before the city was encased in an inch-thick layer of ice that brought it to a sliding halt for three days. And then I drove back to Iowa.

The thing about cars is that they are their own little enclosed spaces. You really don't have much contact with anything outside when you're driving - it's just you, your heater, and, if you're driving across the country without a CD player as I was, a full selection of country music stations, leavened by the occasional fundamentalist preacher.

CD players are just the most amazing things.

I got out of the car in Peru IL to get gas, and as I'm standing with the pump in my hand I thought to myself, "Dave, it is unusually cold out here!" So I asked the attendant just how cold it was. He looked at me with that expression you usually reserve for people who say things like, "Why does it keep hurting when I stick my nose in that fire over there?" and finally he said, "It's six below zero."

Six below zero? Outside of Siberia? Really?


By the time I got to Iowa it was fifteen below, and we wouldn't see a temperature with a real square root for the better part of two weeks. On the first day of classes, the air temperature when I left my apartment for the mile-long walk to campus was -24, and the wind chill was -70. We were the only institution in the entire state, including the government and the other state university, that was open. I wrapped myself up in every thing I owned, stepped out the door, and immediately went blind.

When you wrap yourself up in that many layers, including four or five scarves, the only way for your exhaled breath to escape is up. And at that point two things happen: first, those breaths reach your glasses. And second, they freeze solid into an opaque shield.

So I had a choice - take my glasses off and be blind, or leave them on and be blind. I took them off - at least I could see large shapes like cars sliding to kill me that way.

It was a long walk.

It wasn't as cold as that this morning - only (he says, "only"!) 21 below for the low last night, though it had warmed up to -9 by 8am - but no sense in having the childebeasts freeze to the sidewalks.

So it will be a day of nests, cocoa and Scooby Do. Can't beat that, really.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Investing in the Future, One Roasted Bean at a Time

We got our annual reports this week from all of our various investments. We'd have done better to bury the money in a coffee tin in the back yard.

Now, a lot of people are in this situation this year, what with the collapse of the "let the financial sector regulate itself - what could go wrong?" era and all. But this is nothing new for us. With the exception of a handful of shares of Marvel Comics that Kim bought on a whim, all of our investments have had a negative return for as long as we've owned them.

We have the Reverse Midas Touch when it comes to money.

Now, I don't claim to understand money all that well. My financial plan through the course of my life has had exactly two steps. First, find out how much money I have. Second, try to spend less than that.

Hey, it's worked so far.

When Tabitha and Lauren were born, we (read: Kim) decided that we needed a financial advisor. I thought you had to have finances in order to have a financial advisor, but apparently such is not the case. Our friend Luke was in that business, and he said he would donate his time to help us out.

And God knows he tried.

It didn't take long to establish that the most constructive thing I could be doing when he came over to discuss our finances was to watch the children and sign whatever was placed in front of me. So I let him and Kim sort all that stuff out. They weighed, they compared, they did all of the things that one is supposed to do in situations like this one. And as noted above, our track record at choosing investments was still rather sub-prime.

Little financial joke there. Just a little one. Tiny one. Right, well.

Oh, eventually these things will turn around and make money, and at the moment we're investing for the long haul rather than immediate returns - retirement, college funds, that sort of thing. It's not a worrisome thing just yet. And at least I'm not picking our investments, which would probably make them behave even more poorly. Money can sense fear that way, as well as disinterest, confusion, and delusion. It's like wolverines that way, only you'd really like to have more money around the house but probably not more wolverines, so the analogy is somewhat imperfect. Still, we keep investing.

But if this keeps up, we'll be buying coffee tins and shovels.

And a metal detector. Our memories are not as good as they once were.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Of Orcs and Men

My opinion of Orcs has been changed forever. Because that is what the jacket copy said would happen, and I'm just gullible that way.

I've been working my way though a book called Orcs, by Stan Nicholls. It's not about Tolkien's Orcs, per se - more like Tolkien's Orcs transplanted into a different imagined world, where they are, well, not the heroes exactly. They're still Orcs and they do what Orcs do. Call them the protagonists instead. It's not even a single book - it's a trilogy of books that have been rolled into one big book for better marketing. It's pretty good on its own terms - interesting characters, well plotted and all that, and I like the idea that the humans are the bad guys - but the thing I really like most about it is that it combines two of my favorite things for books to do.

For one thing, it is a fun book to carry around. It jars people a little bit when they see the cover. And you can see why:

People tend to take one look at a cover like that, look back up at me, and then just sort of stare off nervously into space. You have to rattle people's cages now and then, otherwise they fall asleep on you.

I like books like that.

This summer, as part of my recent project to figure out just how exactly the United States got shanghaied over the last forty years by a fiscally irresponsible, ideologically radical, morally bankrupt, deeply anti-intellectual, fanatically anti-Constitutional authoritarian movement that insists without irony on calling itself "conservativism," I read a wonderful book entitled White Protestant Nation. The basic argument behind it was that this "conservative" movement essentially views the US as the property of white Protestants (generally rural, evangelical white Protestants of limited means and even more limited horizons), regards the growth of other segments of the population as nothing short of evil, and seeks to "return" the country to its preferred target audience through political action. It's an interesting argument, but a more interesting book to carry around. People don't know if the book is describing something or advocating something, and they tend to stay out of your way.

Unlike what happened when I was a graduate student in heavily Catholic Pittsburgh and was assigned a maroon book whose bright, yellow, highly visible title read, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. That one made people somewhat confrontational.

More importantly, Orcs is an example, more or less, of a type of book I just love - one that retells a story from the perspective of another character, one who wasn't the main character in the original story.

There are a whole lot of books like that, and I read them whenever I get the chance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite plays. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow trilogy, which retells the Ender's Game trilogy, is well worth reading even if Card himself is a bit of an idiot when it comes to the real world. I truly love Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and will never quite look at Jane Eyre or Mrs. Havisham the same way again. And Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal is the funniest novel I have ever read, and I speak as someone who has read all of Discworld.

Even movies do this sometimes. One of my favorite animated movies is Hoodwinked, which tells the Little Red Riding Hood story from the perspective of not only Red, but also the wolf, the woodsman and Granny as well. It's Rashomon with pratfalls.

The thing about these books, plays and movies is that they remind us that stories have perspectives - that there isn't a single version that encompasses the entire tale, that what looks like one thing to you may look like quite another to someone else, and that where you stand depends an awful lot on where you sit. We forget that at our peril. There are a lot of people out there in the world who feel that they have the whole story, that Truth is theirs and theirs alone, and that other perspectives are unnecessary at best and evil at worst. Many of these people have political power. Others have weaponry. Others are harmless to anyone save themselves, for they have no idea that they're missing out on things.

It's a big bright colorful world out there, folks. Try not to see it in black and white.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Public Service Announcement

On its current trajectory, the planet will be in serious trouble this time next week.

  • Volcanoes will erupt in every area code. If there are no volcanoes handy, they will spontaneously form and then erupt.
  • The magnetic sphere will reverse itself, causing all of your FM devices to play only AM, and your iPods to emit soft jazz.
  • The seas will rise, fall, and tango to the left.
  • The jet stream will begin charging for extra baggage.
  • Swords will be beaten into plowshares, and those plowshares used to beat armies into the ground. You can do a lot of damage with a plowshare if you try hard enough.
  • Everything east of the San Andreas Fault will fall into the Atlantic Ocean, with the exception of El Paso, Texas, which will be vaporized by aliens beforehand.
  • A drooling idiot will be placed in charge of the mightiest empire on earth and lead it into debt, ruin and chaos, betraying its founding ideals and crippling its future.

Wait, that last one happened in 2000. My bad.

The Philadelphia Eagles are in the NFC championship game. Yes, the same team that played to a tie with the Bengals. The same team that looked to be playing out the string six weeks ago. The same team that required a series of coincidences worthy of a JFK conspiracy theory just to make it into the playoffs. Yeah, that team.

Apparently, the jerseys worked.

Building on last week's success against the Vikings, Tabitha and I wore our jerseys for the entire game against the hated (well, not hated, exactly; more like "seriously annoyed by") New York Giants, and the luck did its thing. It was not a game noteworthy for elegance or grace, but then elegance and grace are over-rated as football qualities go. Having more points than your opponent when the clock winds down, though, that's pretty cool. Especially when your opponent is, arguably, the best team in the league.

Not today they weren't, though.

So the jerseys go back on the shelf, waiting for next week's game against the Cardinals. And if, by some fluke of time and space, they should win that, then it is off to the Super Bowl. I'm not predicting that - if any team can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it's the Eagles - but simply pointing out an outcome that is, statistically, possible.

Rah, team.

First the Phillies, now the Eagles. You might want to think about investing in freeze-dried food and crossbows, for strange times are afoot.

25 Random Things About Me, As Required by Heidi's Note

From Facebook:

1. I judge restaurants by their bread. Except Chinese restaurants, which I judge by their hot and sour soup.

2. I once spent an hour inside of the air chamber of a 10,000-pipe organ while it was being played.

3. I get very competitive during card games but don't really care if I win or not.

4. When I have extra money, I buy books. I do this when I don't have extra money too.

5. I firmly believe that 10% of humanity isn't worth the space they take up on the planet, and that this 10% cuts across all barriers of race, class, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, age and occupation.

6. Despite this, I rather like people. 9 out of 10 is pretty good odds.

7. I would like to learn how to do figure photography, but I have nothing really to say - something I regard as a flaw in an artist. [I may do it anyway, though...]

8. I travel mostly to visit people, not places.

9. My vocal range is down, but I harmonize up.

10. I miss cheesesteaks (wit'out).

11. I'm good at a lot of things that I don't enjoy.

12. I was once described by a friend as "cinematically illiterate."

13. I'm anonymously famous on the internet - something I wrote in 1995 is up on over 100 websites today and was plagiarized by the Washington Post in 2002. You could look it up.

14. I played keyboards, bongos and Jew's harp in a band called Not The Catfish.

15. The material world and I have issues with each other.

16. I can write in Tengwar, in both the Noldorin and Sindarin manner.

17. I am a clearinghouse of useless information.

18. My wife and I are both friends with most of our ex's. They were good people when we were dating them, and they're still good people now. Actually, we're friends with each other's ex's too.

19. I think George W. Bush has done more harm to my country than any American president since Jefferson Davis.

20. I read the footnotes.

21. I do not like beer, coffee, or fish, and I therefore have no idea why they let me live in Wisconsin.

22. I am happily married.

23. I like grey fall days.

24. It is very difficult to come up with 25 things to say about myself.

25. I play piano like rhythm guitar - I look at the tablature above the music and go from there.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Some Call It Sleep

They call it a "sleep-over" because once you have a critical mass of pre-teen girls in your house, your chances of getting any sleep are effectively over.

Last night was Tabitha's long-delayed birthday party, and from what we can tell a good time was had by all. Eight girls (and Grandma and Grandpa) fought their way through what turned out to be a foot of powdery snow for pizza and cake. Seven stayed the night in sleeping bags spread out across the living room floor in the kind of pile-up that you normally only see after short-yardage third down plays. All of them have now gone home, and we're just sprawled about the house in various low-energy positions, waiting for the Caffeine Fairy to drop by and kick us out of our stupors.

It was a good time.

The first guests began arriving around 5pm, and the chaos began shortly thereafter. The nice thing about Tabitha turning nine, though, is that she and her friends really don't require us to entertain them anymore. You just clear them a space, make sure they don't hurt each other, and let them be. Most of the time, in fact, they were in the basement, doing whatever it is they do down there. It involved a lot of singing.

The cake was bright red - a marble cake with homemade strawberry icing. There was some debate over whether the icing tasted like Nestle's Strawberry Kwik, as Kim maintained, or Frankenberry cereal, as I felt, or whether the difference between those two things was significant enough to warrant any debate at all. There isn't much left, so if you want to do some on-site testing, you'd better hurry over.

Kim brought out the crafts afterward, and the girls just went wild for ... wait for it ... Shrinky-Dinks! Yes, the hottest cutting edge technology of the 1970s is back, and badder than ever! And they do, in fact, shrink. I do not know if they dink or not.

Eventually the evening wore late, and it was time for the girls to distribute a fine layer of popcorn throughout the house and then go to bed. There were a few hitches in this - it is astonishing how hard it is to remember to bring a toothbrush to a sleep-over, apparently - but all went surprisingly well. They were asleep by daylight.

This morning when I came downstairs they were all gathered in front of my computer, watching a movie. We fed them pancakes and bacon and then I cleared the walk of snow so as not to give any excuse for any parents to leave girls here. Seven girls overnight, seven girls out the door with parents, one to a customer, which one is up to you.

Happy birthday, Tabitha!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Because Nothing Says "Dad" Like Fat and Sugar

It was Donuts For Dads day down at Not Bad President Elementary!

Once a year the PTA buys out the local bakery, imports vats of orange juice, and puts on a feed for the kids and any significant male relative that they might have hanging around. We always bring our own donuts, since even though peanuts are now okay for Tabitha you never know what other nuts bakeries are using. Lauren can just dive right in, though. Donuts For Dads takes place right before school - you can show up anytime after 7:30am and eat right up until the school bell rings if you want to.

Because nothing says "education" like a building full of children jazzed on donuts.

This is one of the grander traditions at Not Bad President Elementary School, in my opinion, mostly because it gives me a chance to eat donuts. In my ongoing quest to stop eating like a graduate student and start eating like a grownup, I swore off donuts, more or less, a couple of years ago. It was a hard, hard thing, not least because it was about that time that Krispy Kreme came to our town, but it had to be done.

Donuts For Dads is always crowded, in part I suspect because I wasn't the only one who made that decision. But in part it is simply because the event does exactly what it was designed to do - get dads, grandfathers, uncles, stepdads, and SO's of Moms to sit down and share some not-so-guilty-pleasure time with our kids. And that is always a good thing.

Muffins For Moms comes next.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Of Fluff and Language

I made the girls a fluffernutter yesterday. It was a hit.

Since Tabitha has been cleared for peanut butter, we have gone through something like five or eight tons of the stuff, in just about every conceivable form. We've made peanut butter cookies. We've made PBJ's. We've made peanut butter sandwiches with nothing else in them, the way Lauren likes them but without the safety measures that we had to take before last week (storing the peanut butter in the most inaccessible cabinet in Wisconsin, spreading out a paper towel, using a disposable knife, wiping the counter down with a Clorox wipe, and so on). We have even let the girls eat it with a spoon, straight from the tribal-sized bucket that I purchased on Saturday, though Kim insists that no spoon go back into the bucket for seconds.

It has been a peanut butter festival around here, yes indeed.

In the middle of this, a nagging little voice in the back of my head - the one that, in other people, reminds them of moral issues - said, "You know, Dave, this is all well and good, but it's not unhealthy enough. Isn't there something you could add that would make the peanut butter both sickly sweet and adhesive enough to serve as spackle?"

And you know, there was!

My dad's mother came to live with us when I was about Tabitha's age, shortly after her own mother passed away. I don't have a whole lot of memories of my great-grandmother - all I really remember is a thin old woman on a bed, reaching out for me - but Grandmom more than made up for that. She had been through a lot in her life, and was a woman of definite opinions and no real hesitation about expressing them in as colorful a manner as she saw fit, which could be pretty colorful. I learned most of my swear words from her during the Watergate crisis, when politics would continually pre-empt her favorite soap operas, and even after five years as a firefighter and twenty-five years as a stagehand I have run into very few people who could speak that language as eloquently as she did. I don't know what the parenting manuals would have said about her, but for a nine-year-old boy she was an awful lot of fun to have around.

As a child, I lived on peanut butter in all of its various forms, and the highlight of all that - the ultimate peanut butter experience - was the fluffernutter, a sandwich made from peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Or, as my grandmother would call out to me while I was playing with my friends, "Do you want another peanut butter and cement sandwich, Davela?"* This would shortly be followed by her saying, mostly to herself, "Why do I even bother to ask?" and, often, by another string of softly muttered words that I would always try to catch because educational opportunities should never be squandered.

Ah, childhood.

So now I have introduced the girls to peanut butter and cement sandwiches. Lauren was just enraptured, and had two more before nightfall. Tabitha said she liked them better than just straight peanut butter, though given the choice for lunch today she chose a buttered bagel.

I know what I'm going to have for lunch, though.


* I'm not sure why she called me that. Nobody else ever did, and that's quite all right, thank you.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cookie Time!

It's Girl Scout Cookie time here at the household, and this time around we will not merely be consumers. No, this time, for the first time ever, we are suppliers.

And this is beyond dangerous.

Tabitha's Brownie troop got their order forms last night. It was quite an event, really - they called all the parents together for a Big Meeting, so we could all get the ground rules down. We even had to sign a form saying we were there and understood the rules and would suffer dire consequences if said rules were not obeyed and that we would forego any legal responses to those dire consequences since We Were Warned.

Don't mess with the Girl Scouts. They may look cute, but they've got excellent legal representation.

We also had to sign a form pledging not to try to sell any of these cookies until the 10th. So I'm not saying anything about people contacting me and ordering their cookies from us until then. Not saying. Just saying.

Lauren's Daisy troop goes through this process tomorrow, so you can order twice!

The Scouts now publish the ingredient lists of all their cookies right on the order form, so you can see if there is anything you are allergic to in there. This year, for the first time in a long time, we have no applicable food allergies! We can eat them all! All of us!

Yes, definitely beyond dangerous.

I rather suspect that Girl Scout cookies are actually made primarily of compressed heroin - they probably use its scientific name on the ingredient list in order to hide that fact from the rest of us, but the evidence is there, man, the evidence is there. You open a box and think, "Well, just one," and the next thing you know you're sitting on a sidewalk wearing all of the clothes you own and living in a hut made of empty boxes of Girl Scout cookies - the bulk of which are probably Thin Mint boxes, since nobody in history has ever eaten less than a sleeve of them in one go. People walking by just look at you with a "there but for the grace of God go I" expression on their faces, and eventually somebody comes along to take you to an organic farm where you dry out on carrots, twigs and spinach greens.

It's a long process, and we might as well get started early and beat the rush.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Good Vibrations

I am the proud owner of a Pontiac Vibe. It's a nice little car, roomy enough to haul children around in yet efficient enough for long journeys. It has its quirks - why they decided to put the wiper controls directly behind the steering wheel, rendering them invisible to the driver, is an interesting question - but I like it.

The salesman didn't even have to work to make this sale.

I knew I had to buy a car. I had taken my old Saturn SL2 in for service a couple of weeks earlier, for a collection of little things that had reached critical mass, and the repair guys told me that it needed about $1700 worth of work. "But it's a $400 car!" I said. They then gave me a list of things that were wrong with it - a list that included such words as "collapsing," and "deathtrap." I finally convinced them to let me drive it home, but only by promising them that I would not attempt to take it to my new job at Far Away Campus and would get it replaced within the month.

I also knew I wanted this car. I had spoken with a friend of mine who had one, and she loved hers. I did the consumer research and discovered it to be highly rated by all who rate such things. What else did I need to know?

The whole process was very much like buying a shirt, guy style: "Need shirt. See shirt. Buy shirt. Go home. Watch sports." I walked in to the dealership, pointed at the Vibe on the sales floor and told the salesman, "I want one of those."

Okay, he said. What color?

The girls had wanted a blue one, but those only came with the Sunroof package that was most definitely not worth a thousand dollars to me, so we settled on red. We named it Eric.

Of course it has a name. All cars have names. Our green station wagon is Kermit. The now defunct SL2 was Teresa. My first car, a beige '86 Dodge, was Emilio, the K-Car of Destiny. Do not trust anyone who cannot tell you instantly the name of their car.

You would think that this would be the end of it, but the salesman was just far too well trained not to try to keep selling me on the car anyway. Even after I had signed the contract, he continued to tell me wonderful things about the car, most of them true within the limits of sales hyperbole.

The thing he spent the most time on, oddly enough, was the fact that right on the dash display, underneath the odometer, was a little readout that told you the outside temperature.

"Why on earth would I need this?" I thought. If I've made it to the car, I must, by definition, have passed through the great outdoors to get there. I therefore already know the temperature to the level of accuracy I need to know it. What a useless gizmo.

You know, I am addicted to that little readout. I check it more than I check my speed. I miss it when I am in other, less enlightened vehicles. I think it should be standard equipment on all cars sold in the US, and I am convinced that the current troubles of American car manufacturers are directly attributable to the lack of such readouts on all of their models.

It's my own portable Weather Channel.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Road Warrior

You see a lot of strange things on the roads, even if you're just walking next to them. The strangest such thing I ever saw happened when I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh.

Class had let out and I was walking down Forbes Avenue in the middle of campus, lost in the fog that academics often encounter when confronted with the real world. I like that fog - it's home. Forbes Avenue is a major road - three or four lanes of one-way traffic leading out of the downtown - and it is always busy. And when classes let out at Pitt, even the sidewalks are busy. There were, quite simply, a lot of people about.

But I paid them no mind, until it gradually dawned on me that I was following an argument.

About ten or twenty paces ahead of me was a frat boy - maybe 6'1", 220 pounds, bodybuilder type, the sort of guy who would guard the keg at those interminable rat mazes they insisted on calling "parties." He was jawboning with a guy in a Yugo, a couple of lanes away and roughly keeping pace with all of us pedestrians in the heavy traffic. You couldn't see much of that guy except his head - which was roughly the size of a basketball.

This, it turned out, should have been a warning.

By this point more than a few of us on the sidewalk had begun to pay attention, particularly as the argument began to take on racial overtones (the frat boy was white, the driver black). But we all kept moving forward. We had lives of our own to attend to, after all, and they didn't include either of these two jokers.

But street theater has a momentum of its own and makes its claims on its audience whether they will or no. It was at that point that the frat boy made his fatal mistake. In response to some comment made by the driver, he retorted, "Why don't you come over here and say that?"


That guy threw that Yugo into park so hard it bounced. The door flew open. And then this mountain of a man just ... unfolded ... out of that car.

And everything - traffic, pedestrians, even the birds in the air - stopped dead. That sudden pause is the one thing that stands out most in my memory of this whole event. It was a rent in time, where the past and future had collapsed into a present so intense as to foreclose all notion of there ever being another moment besides this one. It is a sensation I have felt only rarely in my life, and never in a public setting except for this time. It was zen-like in its centeredness.

For those of you too young to remember Yugos, they were small. Very small. You could fit one in the glove compartment of a modern SUV with room left over for two cupcakes. To this day I have no idea how that man managed to squeeze himself into that car, and even less of an idea how he managed to drive it. For all I know he had removed the front seats entirely and was sitting in the trunk.

This man must have stood about 6'8" and easily weighed 350 pounds, all of it muscle - there wasn't enough fat on his body to fry an egg. He crossed two lanes of traffic in maybe three steps, picked up the frat boy with one hand and flung him against the wall of the nearest building, some fifteen feet away. And at that point you could almost see the thoughts as they flashed across his mind: "Is it worth the trouble I'm going to get into to kill this guy?"

It was a narrow thing, in the end, but he turned around, folded himself back up into his Yugo, slammed it into drive, and took off.

The city of Pittsburgh collectively exhaled.

And we all began moving forward again, picking up right where we left off before this happened. As far as I know that frat boy is still cowering against the wall of that building.

What's your road story?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

No, no, it points up, so the luck doesn't run out

There is something about a sporting event that just brings out the pagan in all of us.

When the Big Game comes, we make sure to wear our lucky shirts. That's if we're fortunate. Sometimes it's our lucky socks, or - worse - lucky underwear. Because the chemistry of lucky clothing states that luck is soluble in laundry water, so under no circumstances should lucky clothing be washed until either defeat is achieved or a championship is at hand.

It is unclear what effect simple stain removal has on luck, but a true sports fan knows that it is best not to chance it.

And if the Good Guys should somehow do something good - if momentum goes their way or they get a break or make a great play, well, then, it must be because of you. Couldn't possibly be because of anything done by anyone at the stadium or - perish the thought - on the field. It was you. All you. Luck knows no spatial limits. It is multi-dimensional.

It might not be because of your lucky clothing item, though - it could be your position in the chair, or the motion you made just as the play started, or even whether you are present in the room watching or not. These are rather more difficult things to manage than lucky clothing though, for different reasons.

The first one can lead to cramps if you're not careful. The second: carpal tunnel syndrome. And as for the third, I once spent an unintentionally hilarious afternoon at the apartment of a friend of mine - a huge Notre Dame football fan - who spent the whole game in the bathroom because every time he went in they would score and every time he came out they would fumble. It's a good thing the game didn't go into overtime, or we would have all had to go next door to relieve ourselves. Lord knows he wasn't going to let the Fighting Irish lose just for our comfort.

And don't even get started on omens. Sports fans read more omens than economists do, and with results that approach similar levels of accuracy.

For example, do you know that the last time the Phillies won the World Series (well, the only other time prior to this year, in 1980 - it's not like it happens all the time, so it's pretty easy to keep track of this sort of thing) the Eagles were a wild-card playoff team and ended up going to the Super Bowl? Well I do. That's the omen. They lost that year, but omen-reading is an inexact science and should not be interpreted as guaranteeing a second loss in the Super Bowl under those conditions. There's wiggle room, you see.

I, along with several million newly-minted Eagles fans in Wisconsin, watched the Birds beat the Vikings in today's playoff game. I wore my Westbrook jersey, and - since it worked so well last week in the GLORIOUS DEFEAT of the PARASITES ON THE PEOPLE, the Cowboys (there's just something about the Cowboys that inspires Stalinist rhetoric; maybe it's the star) - we got Tabitha to wear her Eagles jersey as well. It was a hard-fought game, and much closer than the various experts had predicted it would be, but the Eagles live to fight another day.

And of course, on that day Tabitha and I shall be wearing our jerseys.

If they make it to the Super Bowl, we'll have a party. We'll have scented candles.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Move Over, Ansel Adams

Apparently I take a lot of pictures.

For my birthday this year, Kim gave me a new hard drive. Yes, yes, go ahead and insert your foul-minded puns here. I'll wait. Lord knows I've thought of enough of them on my own. It was a whole lot of fun, with much giggling and trying not to explain any of it to anyone under the age of forty. But this hard drive was for my computer, making it more useful if somewhat less exciting.

It is astonishing how much memory it has, really - roughly six times what the original computer has. This has been something of a trend. I've owned three computers in my life, and each new one has had more RAM than the previous computer had hard drive space. And in none of these cases have I ever come close to using all of that hard drive space.

But usage is not the issue here. Back-up is the issue, especially since I finally gave in and switched to a digital camera a few years back.

This was a wrenching switch, believe it or not. At the time I was running a historical society, and in the middle of quite possibly my favorite project of all of the things I did there. We had roughly 500 nineteenth-century glass plate negatives, many of which were badly deteriorated and likely to pass beyond usability shortly. I got a grant to fund having them all printed, and found a local camera shop whose owner was so excited by the thought of actually working with those negatives that he agreed to print them all by hand on 300-year archival paper for about $3 a print.

He did not make any money off that deal, but he had one whale of a good time. And now we have all of those prints, some of which had not been seen in a century or more.

Consider that.

I could, without any real difficulty, get someone to print a 150-year-old glass negative. Have you ever tried to read a 10-year-old computer disc?

But even I can see where things are headed as far as film cameras are concerned, so I made the switch. The key to the reprinting dilemma is simply to keep backing up and updating formats.

So there I was this morning, with the hard drive up and running (Technology 0, Me 1), and I thought, "well, no time like the present."


Search. Search. Search.

Now, where exactly are all those pictures?

Search. Search.

Brief interlude of therapeutic obscenity.

Search some more.

Oh, right, there they are.

Drag over to hard drive icon. Drop.

At this point, the computer went into Calculation Mode, trying to figure out how long it was going to take to get this job done, and eventually it came up with 21 hours. That has since been sliced down to about seven hours, but still. That's a lot of pictures.

One of the things I figured out early in my life was that every group needed a photographer, and if I was that photographer, not only would I get to keep all the pictures but I would also not be in any of them.

Double win.

So I took a lot of pictures, and then when I went digital and didn't have to have them developed in a lab, I took even more. Having children helped too.

It's been about seven hours now, and the hard drive is still chugging away, trying to digest all those pictures. It's about 80% done, and sometime this evening, I'll have a complete back-up copy of all photos to date.

And then I can take more.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Big, Bright Sunshiny Day

Tabitha is now required to eat peanut butter cookies every day. Doctor's orders.

I kid you not:

This is a great day.

It was about six and a half years ago now that we discovered that Tabitha was allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. We discovered this the hard way, with a high-speed trip to the emergency room from which some traffic laws have yet to recover even now. Since then we have been vigilantly guarding her against a return trip - not an easy thing to do, especially when she spends her days in an elementary school, where up to half of the student body routinely bathes in peanut butter and the other half has a cold.

"When everybody is really out to get you," said the immortal Dr. Johnny Fever, "paranoia is just good thinking."

Fortunately, we have a remarkably understanding family, network of friends, and school district, all of whom have been more than eager to accommodate us in our quest to keep Tabitha healthy. Not everyone in our situation can say that - I've certainly run into some people whose refusal to take this issue seriously made me want to reach through the Internet and beat them to death with their own limbs - so we thank you all.

Despite nearly quadrupling in frequency over the last 15 years, nobody really knows where peanut allergies in particular or food allergies in general come from. Or why some people outgrow some of them but not others, or why these allergies are getting more frequent, or a whole lot of things, really.

One thing we do know, however, is that if you outgrow a peanut allergy, you are then required to eat what you have previously been required to avoid, otherwise there is a good chance the allergy might come back. They're tricky that way.

Thus the prescription, signed by her doctor and everything.

When Tabitha did not react to an accidental bite of a peanut butter cookie last month, we called Dr. K's office. He said to bring her in, and we could do a properly supervised food challenge. He even managed to get us an appointment less than three months in advance, which under normal circumstances is roughly equivalent to dropping by Buckingham Palace unannounced and being asked in for tea by the Queen. He's a busy man, Dr. K.

The appointment was this morning.

We skidded to a halt in his office at precisely the appointed hour, bringing with us a box of peanut butter cookies that Kim had made at a friend's house (see comment by Dr. Johnny Fever, supra) and a jar of peanut butter sealed in a plastic bag. Because you know the last thing you want to do is bring unsealed peanut butter to a pediatric allergist's office.

That's just waaaaaay too ironic.

Dr. K - a genuinely friendly man whom we enjoy talking to very much - sat us down in his office and gave Tabitha bits of peanut butter on a stick. She was a bit weirded out by the whole thing, having studiously avoided this very thing for most of her life, but she bravely ate what was offered.

And did not react.

So now she can have all the peanut butter she wants! We stopped on the way home and bought her some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - the king of all candy. Because a celebration was definitely in order.

Congratulations, kiddo. It's a good day.