Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another Gallery Opening

It was Art Fest down at Not Bad President Elementary School tonight!

Every year the folks down at NBPE gather up a year's worth of art and cover the walls with it. All of us parents are invited down to take a look at it, and the halls are just packed with proud family members wandering aimlessly through the halls searching for the efforts of their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandchildren and neighbors. It's kind of like being in the world's largest train station at rush hour, with hordes of people milling about in a state of mild urgency, all looking up at a 45-degree angle, only instead of looking at "Departure" boards they're looking at collages, paintings, wire art and pencil sketches.

There is also a line of bins in the multipurpose room, each one neatly labeled with the name of a teacher and stuffed with portfolios (portfolii?). These are construction paper envelopes about as large as a New York City kitchen table and filled with all the other artwork that didn't make it onto the walls. There's a lot of art. We are encouraged to take it home, lest the school slowly sink into the earth under the cumulative weight of all that talent.

And what talent!

The highlight of the evening for the kids, though - aside from abandoning their family as soon as their artwork has been viewed and running off with their friends - is the raffle. The underlying purpose of this event is a fundraiser for the PTA. Every class is assigned a basket and a theme, and you donate something for your class' basket. And then you buy tickets to put into the appropriate bucket next to the basket you want (Tabitha wanted the Scrapbooking basket; Lauren wanted the one labeled "Sports"). And at the end of the evening someone pulls names from the buckets and tries to shout over the general hubbub to let people know who won.  The audio quality of this effort only further enhances the "train station at rush hour" effect, so it's all good.

We didn't win any baskets this year.

But that's okay. Last year the girls won a "Stamping" basket, which has nothing to do with dancing or temper tantrums and everything to do with vast quantities of ink, paper and rubber stamps in cute designs. That's why Tabitha wanted the Scrapbooking basket this year, in fact, so she could continue those projects.

But you can't win them all, and sometimes you're lucky just to donate to the cause.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Great Moments in Western Civ II

We covered the Dawes Plan in class the other day.

The Dawes Plan is easily my favorite historical event of the 1920s, because it is sublime in its absurdity. It took what was a dysfunctional and ridiculous system of international finance and converted it into a functional but no less ridiculous system of international finance, and you have to admire the artistry of that. It takes a special mind to be able to take something goofy and obvious and understand that it might work anyway.

Charles Dawes was an American banker. He had served in the Harding Administration as the Chairman of the Bureau of the Budget, bringing sound accounting principles to the federal government for what might well have been the first time. It was Dawes who established the General Accounting Office, which serves as a watchdog for federal spending even today. By 1924 he had left the federal government and gone back into private industry. But then his nation called him back to service, to the everlasting gratitude of those of us who teach for a living and require stories to keep our students entertained.

The situation Dawes faced was this:

By 1923, it was clear that Germany could not possibly keep up with the reparations payments demanded of it by the Treaty of Versailles, which had ended WWI. Essentially, Britain and France had demanded that Germany reimburse them for the costs of the war - which they declared to be entirely Germany's fault, much to the surprise of anyone who actually had a clue about how the war began - and forced Germany to sign what was, more or less, a blank check at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The actual amount of reparations was not set until 1921, and it was set impossibly high.

And when Germany did try to pay those reparations, it destroyed the German economy. The only way it could pay the reparations was to print money, and, not surprisingly, the German mark collapsed forthwith. In 1921, when the amount was set, the German mark was trading at about 64 to the dollar. By 1922 it was 191 to the dollar, and in 1923 a dollar could buy you 17,972 marks in January, 110,000 marks in August, and 4,000,000,000,000 marks in November. This clearly was not working.

But the French and British needed the Germans to pay those reparations. They ended the war in hock up to their eyeballs to the US, which emerged from WWI as the world's largest creditor nation. The US wanted that money back. The problem was that the war had bankrupted the British and French, and the only way they could make payments on their war debts was to use reparations money, money that Germany could not pay.

This is not a recipe for financial stability.

At this point, I like to think that Dawes had a grandchild - a young one, maybe six years old - who listened to the old man complain at dinner one evening and then made a simple suggestion. And I'm sure that Dawes patted the child on her head and said something like, "Well, thank you, my dear, but you see, we can't really do that because ... I mean, that would be impossible bec... wait, why can't we do that?"

Because what the Dawes Plan basically says is, "Why doesn't the US just loan money to Germany?"

The Germans could use those loans to make their reparations payments to the British and the French. The British and the French could funnel that money back to the US as payments on their war debts. And then we could loan it back to the Germans, and the cycle could start all over again.

This is brilliance itself.   For the price of two or three payments - which the US could well afford in 1924 - the problem goes away!

When you draw that third arrow on the board, by the way, the one that goes from the US to Germany, students just gasp. It's one of my favorite moments in Western Civ II.

On the plus side, the Dawes Plan stabilizes the international system of finances, buys the Germans time to get their economy back in order, and eventually - if it is allowed to work long enough - cuts the British and French out of the system entirely. If you go around that circle enough times, all the reparations and war debts get paid and all you are left with is bilateral US/German debt, debt that doesn't have the emotional baggage of war debts or reparations and can therefore be treated rationally at some future point.

On the down side, though, it does mean that the entire international financial system is dependent on the health of the US economy, which becomes problematic in October of 1929. It's not coincidence that the two countries most hard hit by the Great Depression are the US and Germany.  But you can't blame Dawes for not seeing the Depression coming, I think.  Not many people did.

So three cheers for Charles Dawes, I say, for having the vision to do the absurd when the absurd was the right thing to do.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring Colors

It's spring in Our Little Town, and this means that the lawn has emerged from under the snow and turned purple once again.

I have long referred to our lawn as "The Southern Wisconsin Dandelion and Creeping Charlie Preserve," and since it is still a bit early for dandelions to be turning everything yellow or grey this means that the Creeping Charlie has its chance to make the place look like someone lost an Easter egg fight at our house. I rather like this, really. It's bright and colorful, and it gives the place a festive air that almost but not quite makes up for the fact that the green parts of the lawn have reached such non-uniform lengths and densities that I will soon have to break out the mower and chop them all down to size.

And then it will truly no longer be winter.

And then all the springtime chores will no longer be avoidable through the sheer denial of the seasons the way they are now.

This means that eventually I am going to have to break out the hazmat suit and commit acts of chemical warfare that would put the Iraqi Army to shame in order to beat the Creeping Charlie back a bit and see what if any of the green stuff survives. One day I will do this and discover that it was all Weeds and now there is nothing left to Feed. At that point I will pave it and paint it green and purple, with yellow splotches representing dandelions, and my work will be done.

We've also got a tree that needs planting, because a lot that can easily be measured in Smoots clearly needs more trees. Right now we've got anywhere from three to five trees, depending on how you draw the property line and whether you count the little one that we transplanted from the neighbor last fall that has yet to convince us that it is anything more than a carefully-tended stick. But clearly there needs to be more, and to that end the kind folks at Not Bad President Elementary sent Tabitha home with a pine tree the other day.

It's about as long as her arm and wrapped in wet paper and a plastic bag and it has sat on the picnic table outside for the better part of a week now, gasping forlornly at us and trying to shame us into sticking it into the ground so it can grow tall and shed needles and turn the soil acidic so nothing else can grow there. Eventually it will topple over and take out our internet service. And you know this doesn't happen by itself, guys, so we'd better jab this thing into the earth soon.

Finally, there is the annual discussion about the tulips and the daffodils.

Way back when we first moved into this house, Kim and our friend Franz went on a bulb-planting spree in the front lawn. They had about a skadzillion of them, and they decided that they would look best as a random array of color. It must be said that they did look good, though mowing around them has always been a trick.

Apparently these things have a definite lifespan, after which they will not bloom. So every year we discuss whether this is the year to just mow over them or whether I still have to go out there for the first few weeks and look like I'm training for the Lawn Rangers Tactical Drill Team and Exposition Dancers.

Of course it's still April in Wisconsin, so it might just snow again and render all this discussion moot. One can hope.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Things Fall Apart

It's been a rough week for technology around here.

The first thing to go was the microwave. I kind of feel bad about that, since by all the karmic laws this is probably my fault. I was staring at it the other day, trying to remember how long it had been since it was installed and remembering the warning we got from the salesman who wanted us to go for the more expensive model because it was more easily serviced. Why he thought telling me about how easily it would break and be fixed was a selling point I do not know, and at any rate we went with the other one. And I thought, "Huh. Hasn't died yet."

And two days later, tiny little black-shrouded figures emerged from my microwave waggling their scythes at me and escorting the departed spirit of the microwave to wherever it is that such spirits go when their time nuking hot dogs on earth is over. I'd like to think that there are no hot dogs there.

Now, on the one hand, this isn't that big of a crisis. I don't really use it for much these days other than thawing things that I'd forgotten to take out of the freezer ahead of time, for one thing. It was also nine years old, so it didn't really owe us anything. And it had the rather unnerving habit of waiting a couple of seconds after you told it to start before it would actually do anything. It was the Microsoft of microwaves. "Are you sure you want to do that? Really, are you sure? Because we can forget it, right now, like it never happened, go back to the way things were. Really? Okay, dude, it's your hot dog." Nothing like being second-guessed by machines to make you not miss them when they're gone.

On the other hand, well, I do miss being able to thaw my bagels quickly (you can't get non-frozen poppyseed bagels in this town full of goyim), and I'd forgotten how to cook vegetables with actual heat instead of radio waves. So I suppose a new microwave is in our future.

Hey, this way the terrorists lose.

So I was feeling pretty okay with this situation - problem arises, problem is not that much of a problem, problem has clear (if expensive) solution. And then the modem died.

We have a lot of things online in this house. My computer. Kim's computer. Our old computers, which now belong to Lauren and Tabitha, respectively. Kim's Chumby, which is a cube about 4" on a side that has enough computing power to run an aircraft carrier but serves as an alarm clock. We're a pretty wired and wireless household.

But ever since we upgraded to our new cable package - the one with the DVR, so Kim can watch Lost - our internet has been balky. You'd be motoring along on the information superhighway (does anyone remember that metaphor anymore?) and suddenly, WHAM!, there would be potholes as big as semis and you'd fall down and have to dig yourself back up to the surface, which could take up to 20 minutes. This is a bummer, especially since a) we're paying for an experience not defined by virtual potholes, and b) I am still teaching online, so this negatively impacts not only my blood pressure but my livelihood as well.

So I called the cable company about it yesterday.

We went around and around with this, and the bottom line is that they said we need a new router, which doesn't surprise me since ours is two years old and that makes it PREHISTORIC by router standards. All the new routers just stand around and tease it, asking if it knows what this new-fangled thing called "fire" is and if it really knew Dick Clark before he stuffed his portrait in the attic.

But after all that fiddling around, now the router doesn't work at all. Which means we have to plug directly into the modem - first the old one, then after this morning a brand new one, since apparently our modem was so ancient that the cable company would replace for free - and that means that we can only have one computer online at a time, and the Chumby is reduced to just being a clock.

So another problem, with another expensive solution.

I have to do a lot of driving today and tomorrow. Maybe I want to let someone else handle it, though. Machinery and I are getting along less well than usual, it seems.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Recorded for Posterity

I had to register the cats today.

I'm not entirely sure why Our Little Town thinks that cats need to be registered. To the best of my knowledge I would not have to do that for any firearms I might have around the house, and cats are less dangerous than guns even if you are a rabbit. I suppose it is one of those mysteries, much like why exactly Charles Nelson Reilly was famous in the first place. You either get it or you don't.

Regardless, every year I am forced to go down to City Hall (which you cannot fight, since it is a building - you can fight the people inside if you want, but somehow "Less paperwork for cats!" does not seem like one of the great rallying cries in history and I should probably save some of that revolutionary vigor for more important issues, like chickens) and fill out the appropriate paperwork stating that yes, I do indeed have two cats, and yes, they are up to date on all shots including rabies, and yes, they think they run the place and what are you going to do about it, that's what I'd like to know.

I then have to pay the city a nominal fee for the privilege of being manservant to the cats, in exchange for which I get shiny metal tags to put on their collars so they can lose them somewhere, and the promise that if the police decide to write me tickets for letting the cats outside illegally I will only have to pay $5 per cat rather than $200 per cat.

What a bargain, I say.

So I do my bit for bureaucracy, and the cats are square with Our Little Town for another year. The natives will rest easy tonight.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A History Lesson

Did you know it's Confederate History Month? Because the largest group of traitors in American history - a group whose sole purpose was to defend and expand human slavery - is somehow a group worth celebrating for some people, that's why.

Honestly, sometimes it seems like the world is just trying to push my buttons.

The Civil War is one of those double-edged swords when it comes to teaching history. On the one hand, it is an endlessly fascinating event that gets people interested and excited about the American past. It is one of the gateway drugs of American history, in fact, right there alongside WWII, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. On the other hand, it is a beacon for the obsessive and the ignorant, and on a practical level this does create difficulties.

The obsessives are easier to work with.

When I teach, I tell my students that there are two basic questions in history. The first is "What?" It's all the journalistic questions that you have to ask - when did this happen? Where? Who? How many? It's the facts, or as we historians like to say, the evidence. Evidence is the core of history, but as someone once said, the core is not the most appealing part of the apple. The interesting question is the one everyone asks but not everyone answers - "So What?" Who cares? Why is this important? What does it mean? How does it connect with anything? That's interpretation, and that's what makes history interesting.

The obsessives tend not to remember that.

There is a recognizable sub-variant of human being known as the Civil War Buff. The Buff is all about the What - they can tell you the pattern on every button on every uniform used on either side, they know exactly how each unit of both armies was deployed for every battle, and they know, to three decimal places, the proper way to pitch a nineteenth-century military tent under field conditions. But they have no idea why any of that matters, what it might mean in any larger context, or why such questions are at all interesting. The facts alone are interesting enough for the Buff, and the rest they do not care about nor do they understand why you might devote class time to it that might otherwise be used to discuss button patterns. Forget the forest - the Buff can't even see the trees for the cellular structure of the bark.

Buffs can be redirected if you try hard enough, since getting them from What to So What is largely a matter of broadening their horizons and refocusing their already evident interest onto broader issues.

The ignorant, though - they're problematic.

I'm not talking about the normal run of ignorance. Ignorance just means that you don't know, and it's cured by finding out. That's what people go to school to do, after all, and if my students were not more ignorant than I am on the subject I'd be out of a job. And if they remain that ignorant when the course is over, then I will have failed. Ignorance is curable, and curing it is fun.

But willful ignorance - the kind of mental gaps that come from staring reality in the eye and daring it to exist in some way contradictory to your own private fantasies - those are unforgivable and almost impossible to do anything about. None so blind as they who will not see, and all that.

And thus we come to Confederate History Month, at long last.

I will never understand why people want to celebrate the Confederacy. First of all, they lost. Americans as a group generally have no patience for second place - especially not second place in a two-horse race - and this adulation for losers is therefore something of an unexplained aberration in American culture. It's probably not coincidental that the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally in April. Beyond that, though, there is the critical fact that they deserved to lose - that the Confederacy was a blot on human existence, that the United States in particular and humanity in general is better off for it having been destroyed, and that at most it ought to be remembered as a cautionary example of what can happen when the worst instincts of humanity are allowed to form their own government.

And at the bottom of this is slavery.

Yes, Virginia, the Confederacy was in fact all about the slaves.

This tends to be - you will excuse the pun - whitewashed these days. Anyone who takes the time to point out this obvious fact these days will be deluged by morons insisting that the Confederacy was about Southern heritage, or economic interests, or - my favorite - "states rights." This is pure, unmitigated horse byproduct.

Certainly the Confederates themselves thought so.

John Mosby, one of the Confederacy's most feared military leaders, was quite blunt about it, in fact. “We went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery. Men fight from sentiment. After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.”

Late in his life he returned to this point, in a 1907 letter to Samuel Chapman. After criticizing the tendency of Southerners to deny the obvious fact that slavery was the core value of the Confederacy and substitute fanciful theories designed to make them look less like the evil overlords they were, a tendency that was apparent even that early, Mosby put it clearly: "The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war - as she said in her Secession proclamation - because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. ... I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery - a soldier fights for his country - right or wrong - he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in. ... The South was my country."

Here was a man who risked his life every day for four years in the service of the Confederate States of America, someone who could be taken for an expert on the subject, in fact, and the issue didn't seem all that unclear to him.

Nor was it unclear to Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America for the entire time that it cast its pestilent shadow on the world. As he put it in a description of the new Confederate Constitution in 1861,

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition.

Yep, something to celebrate, all right.

This is why all the protests from neo-Confederates about how their little pet cause was really about something else are just so much self-serving nonsense. The people who were there understood it, even if their modern defenders distort the historical record to avoid the obvious.

When Virginia's governor issued his late unpleasant proclamation requesting that the rest of us follow along with this charade, he was no doubt surprised by the outrage that followed, particularly since he neglected to mention slavery anywhere in that proclamation. Whoa! he said - I'm just trying to commemorate the actions of Virginians in that war! That half a million Virginians were treated as property at the time didn't seem to concern him, and even though he has beaten a strategic retreat on the matter I doubt he has changed his mind. From what I can gather from diving into the murky depths of the hopped-up conservative outrage on the matter, their general consensus is that this is a giant hoax perpetrated by liberals to besmirch Southern heritage.

No, folks, it is not, and I would appreciate it if the reality-challenged would stop telling me it's raining even as my boots turn yellow.

Repeat after me, folks: The Confederacy was founded on slavery. All that "Southern heritage"? Slavery. The only "states right" they cared about? Slavery.

The Confederacy was nothing to celebrate.

It should be remembered, yes, in the way that all the evil that men do should be remembered, as a warning about what happens when we think we can treat human beings as things. It should be remembered as a warning to traitors who would take up arms against the government of the people, by the people and for the people in the name of human bondage, traitors who would destroy the Union that the Founding Fathers set up in the name of their own greed, that they cannot do such things with impunity, that they will be crushed and they will be judged. It should be remembered as the tragedy it was.

Not really a popcorn sort of moment, as far as I can see.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Things I Have Learned From J. G. Ballard

I am finally done with The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, and not a moment too soon. Ballard was a good writer, as I had hoped, but 1200 pages of his short stories was just not a good idea to read straight through. They start to blend together after a while.

Nevertheless, I find that I have learned a few things.

1. The space program was probably a mistake.

If there was any one theme that seemed to unite Ballard's short stories, it was that going into space was sure to lead to disaster. Sometimes it was disastrous for those going into space, men and women who often found their decaying corpses rotating around the earth in equally decaying orbits for the edification of those still earthbound. And sometimes it was equally disastrous for those earthbound, who found themselves in a world of hurt simply because someone else went into space. On the whole I find this position curious - a modern version of the Frankenstein "there are some things humans were not meant to know" story that never really explains why jaunting off to the moon is such a bad thing beyond merely asserting that it represents some sort of evolutionary advance beyond our capacity. C'mon, people - Tang!  How can this not have been worthwhile?

2. Time will mess with your head.

Time always messes with your head. I'm not sure how my children got so big, how I got so old, or why nobody remembers Super Chicken except a few aficionados anymore, but what can you do about time, that's what I want to know. Ballard's take on this conundrum is that since we were never meant to go into space, the fact that we did inevitably causes all the time to leak out of the universe and puddle up around our ankles until we are left frozen into a single moment for all eternity. Things slow down, and then stop. So you need to plan, lest you spend your eternal moment sneezing or something equally non-entertaining. Good advice, I say.

3. Florida is doomed.

This is a corollary of the first two lessons. For an Englishman, Ballard was surprisingly obsessed with Cape Canaveral - almost as much as he was with Jodrell Banks, the large array of radio telescopes in Britain - and when all the time finally does leak out of the universe it does so through Florida, presumably with a giant gurgling noise similar to a bathtub. This leaves Florida as an abandoned, sand-strewn wreck, or a jungle, or some other equally distressing state of affairs.  Now, on the one hand, this does not bother me particularly. I would in fact regard it as suitable payback for the state that brought us the butterfly ballot and eight years of the dregs of American politics lording it over the rest of us as if they had a mandate to undo the Constitution and spend the earnings of my grandchildren on their pet projects. On the other hand, well, I'll miss the oranges.

4. So are you.

Ballard's writing is not uplifting. Even the stories theoretically set in the present have strong elements of dystopian science fiction in them, and after a while you just get numb to it all. All right, I got it, I'm doomed. And so is the rest of humanity, so at least I'll be in good company - a lot of these stories are set in depopulated worlds where the few remaining people are just serving out their time playing psychological games with themselves until the end comes and living off the canned goods and liquor they find in abandoned supermarkets and bars. So perhaps I should just enjoy my canned goods and liquor now, while I still have friends to share them with. This is a valuable lesson, really.

5. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice, but apparently sand will do quite nicely as well.

There is a lot of sand in Ballard's future. It blows in, piles up, and generally gets into the underwear of the future, irritating it and making it anxious. Beware of the sand.

6. There will be cocktails during the apocalypse.

Ballard was a man of his times - one of the post-WWII middle class, whose world was bound by highballs, modern art, jazz, Freudian pop psychology and the general notion of "glamour" as defined by early James Bond movies and the Rat Pack. None of these things go away. Therefore cocktails are not just relaxing, they are a requirement for preserving what sanity one retains. Many was the time during this book when I felt that it would have been nice to have one myself. It would have been appropriate.

7. Modern art will remain just as pretentious in the future as it is now.

Sonic statues? Concerts deliberately held beyond the range of human hearing? You know, when I worked in theater we had a phrase for this - "too much concept." It's nice to see that some things remain constant, even in a world gone mad. I had a friend in high school who complained bitterly that all people wanted from art was "recognizability," and I never understood why this was a problem. Of course, I am the one who went through the Smithsonian Museum of Art with my family, and when we got to the room full of Dutch Masters and Tabitha asked me what these paintings were, replied "Men with beards." So perhaps I am not the most qualified person on the planet to make these kinds of judgments, is what I'm saying.

8. When it comes to the human condition, Chekhov was an optimist. So was Murphy.

People are odd things. I firmly believe that 10% of them aren't worth the space they take up, but the other 90% I rather like. So I am not often surprised by either the good that people do or the harm. In Ballard's stories, you learn to expect the worst of people and you are rarely disappointed. It's not that his characters are evil - there is very little actual evil in these stories, when you get right down to it. It's just that they are not really going to make their worlds or yours any better by existing in them.

9. Psychologists don't know any more about your mental state than you do.

This is another running theme. Psychologists are generally there to explain the plot and provide running commentary so that the reader can be either more or less confused, depending on what Ballard wanted to achieve with this particular story. Maybe self-help isn't so bad.

10. It is, in fact, possible to sustain a single mood across 36 years, 98 stories and a ream and a half of double-sided pages.

For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they'll like.

On the whole, I do think the book was worth reading, and it must be said that Ballard is indeed a fine writer. But I think I'll move on to something a little more cheery.

Like Vonnegut.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ghost in the Machine

Statistically, this was bound to happen sooner or later. A Facebook friend of mine passed away last week.

I did not know him all that well, really. We met backstage in high school and then lost touch when he graduated. When a mutual friend sent me one of those "Why don't you friend this guy?" messages shortly after I got onto Facebook, I thought, "Why not?" And so I did. We may have traded a couple of "Hi, how are you?" messages after that, but that was pretty much the extent of it.

He was a good soul.

Mostly what I remember about him is that he treated me well when there was no particular benefit to him for doing so, which I think says a lot about his character. He was, as a friend of mine said recently, "a true mensch," which is not a word one runs into very often here in the nation's tender midsection, but a description that I won't argue with.

His Facebook page is still there.

It is odd, this new form of immortality that we have created for ourselves in this digital age. Nothing ever really goes away on the internet. Somewhere, everything is archived. And unless someone goes to the trouble of removing all those things we sign up for in life, they remain there online for the world to see. It's like the old quandary of finding departed friends in your address book, but more public.

People have posted memorials there, which I suppose is fitting. He was a fairly young man, all things considered, and he left a family behind who might find some comfort in them.

The one really clear memory I have of him is from one of those moments you have in theater, the ones the audience never knows about (or doesn't really understand, even if they see them) but which make up the heart of what theater people remember and cherish from the shows they work on.

We were working on the ground crew of a show that involved a number of fairly quick scene changes, many of them involving two triangular columns roughly four feet wide on a side and about fourteen feet tall - three flats lashed together to form a prism standing on end, in other words. Those columns would be rotated so that the appropriate scenery faced the audience at any given time, which was not all that hard - they were fairly light. There were other things going on at the same time as well in front of those columns - things to be moved, things to be brought onstage, things to be taken off.

One night, one of those scene changes ended about ten seconds earlier than he thought it was going to end. Rather than being caught out in the open when the lights came up - a minor sin among techies, who will bust your chops forever about it if it happens to you, as I know from experience - he dove behind one of the columns and quickly stood up, making himself invisible to the audience.

But not to us.

We sat there, offstage left, sympathetic but still wildly amused, while he stood behind that column waiting for the scene to end and shrugged his shoulders at us. Oh well, he said. What could I do?

It's a bit long of a story to post on his Facebook page, so I write it here.

Fare thee well, kind soul.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Stand Up and Be Counted

By now my census form should have arrived at its destination.

This was Lauren's first time being counted, though Tabitha made it into the last one by the skin of her teeth. I showed them their information on the form before I mailed it back. It's their information. They should know.

I kind of like the whole notion of a census - that every so often, the nation pauses to try to figure out who exactly is floating around inside its borders. There's a lot of us Americans and we move around quite a bit, so figuring out how many of what kind where is something of a challenge. Plus, historians can use this data to find out all sorts of things about the way the country was made up at various points in our past. Someday someone who has my job will look at my census record and wonder who I was. Not that they'll find out much about me particularly, beyond the names of my family and what I thought my race was (a notoriously difficult and subjective judgment). But there you go.

So I am somewhat appalled by the blithering nonsense coming out of the radical right wing in this country about how awful the census is, how it is somehow unconstitutional, a prelude to ... well, something bad, surely, and how they plan to boycott it and willfully break the law by not filling out their forms. Because lawbreakers are so American, you see - patriots, every last one of them, they have the right to choose which laws they will obey and which they will not, unlike the rest of us. But don't you try to break any of the laws they support, because then you are a traitor and the terrorists have won.

So there.

Well, I for one say that those people should do their bit for paranoia and ignore their census forms entirely. Then we sentient Americans can fill in ours and have their Congressional representatives reapportioned toward us, thus sparing us their indignant howls from our centers of government. Go ahead, morons! Please place your noses in the box over there, your knives in the box next to it, and rest assured that your faces have been good and spited. Pay no attention to the gales of helplessly malicious laughter surrounding your self-righteous stand for whatever you were self-righteously standing for. They aren't coming from Real Americans. Just Americans who count.

Honestly, people, how stupid can you get and still walk erect?

The thing I find most grimly amusing are the assertions that the census is unconstitutional. Have these people read the Constitution? There are very few positive duties enjoined upon the federal government by that document. The Constitution lays out quite a number of things that the government CAN do if it wants to. It can coin money, for example, and negotiate treaties, though nowhere does it say that it must do those things. The Constitution also lays out a number of things that the government is FORBIDDEN to do, such as impose religious tests for public office, or pass bills of attainder. But there are very few things that the federal government is REQUIRED to do.

The census is one of them.

It's also one of the few things that is required of the government that is actually fun.

When I was in high school my family was chosen for some long-term census project. My dad would fill out this extra-long form, and about once a year some well-dressed minion from the Census Bureau would show up with a briefcase full of paper and spend an evening interviewing my parents about their demographic information. This went on for a few years - not the whole decade, I don't think, but long enough to get a pattern going. Sometime in about forty years, all that information will be public. I may or may not be around to see it, but perhaps Tabitha and Lauren will.

And when they do, they can be glad that their family has done their bit for their country.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Living in the Future

The future is not what it used to be.

My latest book project is a brick of a thing entitled, The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. I read a lot of different blogs, many of them written by authors, and when Ballard died last year they all went into deep mourning. And when this collection came out, it was like Christmas in July. Hosannas were sung to what I was assured was one of the greatest talents ever to put paper in a typewriter (yes, Ballard was that old), accolades poured forth, and I figured I should go out and find this book. I'd never heard of J. G. Ballard, and there was a hole in my reading! A hole that could be plugged with good writing! It sounded like something right up my alley.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through now, and a couple of things have occurred to me.

First, I still have more pages left to go than were in the last novel I read, even counting the title page and blurb on the cover. Ballard was nothing if not prolific. I did not take this book with me to San Francisco for the simple reason that it would have consumed my entire baggage weight allotment, leaving me with nothing to brush my teeth with. Brushing one's teeth with works of literature is not effective, and the library frowns on people using their books in that manner.

And second, well, it's astonishing how dated these stories are.

Science fiction is supposed to be the genre of the future, and these stories are all set in some time other than our own - sometimes a few years into the future, and sometimes centuries. In Ballard's stories there are inventions there that we don't have now, and things have changed considerably from the world we know in political, environmental, cultural and even biological terms as well. But for all those changes, these stories are still about the mid-to-late twentieth century.

It's not just the fact that Ballard, like the rest of us, had no crystal ball to foresee how things would really change, though it is somewhat jarring to see stories set hundred of years in the future where the vinyl LP is still the height of music-reproduction technology. Just in my lifetime we've gone from LPs to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3s, and who knows where it will go from there. I got off that merry-go-round at CDs, but even so - it's odd to see phonographs in the distant future.

No, it's more the culture of the future. In Ballard's futures - dystopian, cluttered by the abandoned, awash in light and, often, sand - the concerns of the post-WWII middle class are writ large. The cocktail culture of the 1950s. The obsession with Freudian psychology (no pun intended). The sexual politics of Updike's Rabbit series. Abstract art.  The lingering political impact of Orwell. The environmental concerns of the 1970s, which are not the ones of today.  And so on.

I haven't gotten to his stories from the 1980s yet, but at this point I don't anticipate any change in overall tone.

As a historian, the hardest thing to get through your head - and by far the hardest thing to get through your students' heads - is the fact that the past is not the present. As one of my professors once told me (slightly misquoting another more famous historian, though I think his version was better), "The past is a different country. They do think differently there." I have a hard time getting the sheer alienness of the past across to my students, who seem to think that people centuries ago were pretty much the same as they are now, with identical concerns, ideas and politics. And any glance at the political rhetoric around me today says that my odds of succeeding at this task are fairly minimal.

It is the same with the future.

But we can't study the future the way we can with the past. We can only imagine it, using the conceptual framework we already have. This makes the future look a lot like the present in our imaginations, and not much like what the future will probably look like in the future.

At least Ballard was, as advertised, a pretty good writer.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gospel According to Lauren

Easter is here, and with it comes the annual recitation of The Gospel According to Lauren.

A few years ago now, when Lauren was about three, we were headed up to my in-laws' for Easter dinner. It was a bright sunny day, and we had just begun to settle into on the 90-minute trip up there. And at that point Lauren asked a question about what Easter was all about.

Now, we don't got to church nearly as often as we probably should. There are a number of reasons for this - reasons which should probably get their own blog post rather than cluttering up this story - but the bottom line is that if there is an attendance requirement for getting into Heaven, we're pretty much sunk.

But this does not mean that we take our faith any less seriously than those who dutifully show up every week, particularly those who show up to nap or gather talking points for their political debates. I have always considered myself to be more devout than religious, and I do take it as an important part of who I am. So when I am asked religious questions, I try to answer them as accurately and respectfully as I can.

Have you ever tried to explain the concept of Resurrection to a three-year-old?

It isn't easy.

But Kim and I gave it our best shot, running through an abbreviated (but basically accurate) account of the Crucifixion of Jesus, from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, and what that meant for the general run of Christianity. Resurrection was the sticking point, and we had to go over that a couple of times before we felt Lauren had a handle on it.

Died. Risen from the dead. Reigns. Okay, there you go.

There was short pause from the back seat of the car after we had finished, while Lauren digested all this information.

And then a soft voice said in tones of clear wonderment, "Jesus is a zombie?"

Well, not quite, my child. But we'll work on that when you're older.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Reason #14b Why I Do Not Do Drugs

I am numb.

I went to the dentist this morning. I do not like dentists, at least not professionally. On a personal level they are probably fine people. Indeed, when my brother got married we ended up with a dentist in the family as part of the deal, and his father-in-law is a fine person whom I enjoy talking to whenever we get out that way. But dentists in their office lie to me and drill holes in my head, and I find those behaviors objectionable.

This won't hurt a bit!

I had to go in today because the warranty has expired on several of my fillings. They are old and falling apart and need to be replaced. I'm not sure whether to be more worried about what this means for future dental work or by the fact that it could be describing me as a whole, and so I will refuse to think about that any further.

But in I went, and they sat me down and filled me full of drugs.

There was a time when I refused the drugs, because I hate shots. But one of the glories of growing up is that you become less stupid over time - at least that's the theory, though all around me I find counter-evidence splashed across my newspapers. So I get the shots. The problem is that I am somewhat resistant to anesthetics - they take longer to work with me than with other people, and you have to use about half again as much as you normally do. So I get a lot of shots.

And then they work.

And then they continue to work, sometimes for days. Because apparently once you cross the threshold where they work, then all the resistance collapses like it's in French and everything gets numb and stays numb.

I can't feel my nose.

I don't believe that work was done on my nose, but I can't tell. I suppose it is possible. I'll find out around dinner time, when it all wears off.

It may have reached my brain.