Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nature Boy

The problem with nature is that so much of it wants to feed on me.

Last night was the city campout at the park next to the pool we go to in the summer time. The deal was that you could go down and pitch your tent, play in the pool or partake of the other planned activities, have hot dogs and smores for dinner, and camp out – all just a couple miles from the comfort of your own home.

Kim loves camping, and so do the girls. Me, I’m kind indoorsy. As I’ve noted before in this space, the great outdoors does not figure into my definition of an ideal day in any meaningful way. I’m perfectly content to sleep in a nice bed in an air conditioned house surrounded by my stuff. I’m funny that way.

Not that we weren’t surrounded by our stuff. We do not pack light in the best of circumstances, and camping is one of those things that seems to bring out the “how much more can the car hold?” gene in Kim. We once camped our way out to Colorado with some friends, before we had kids, and I drew the line at the 25 feet of garden hose that she tried to have us bring along. You know, there’s an easy way to have all your stuff with you. It’s called “staying home.”

But off we went.

It was a hot, humid day, and while Kim and I set up the tents Tabitha, Lauren and their friends Taryn and – eventually – Grace went over to the pool to hang out. They had a good time. Further good times were had around the dinner fire, as the organizers handed out hot dogs and let us roast them ourselves. There were games – the tug of war was a big hit, as was a bewildering variety of relay races – and general running around. A number of the kids present even took turns telling scary stories by the fire as the evening wound down. It’s nice to see the old chestnuts get dusted off by a new crowd.

In addition to all that, there were also midges, no-see-ums, and enough mosquitoes to restock New Jersey should that state experience a catastrophic mosquito failure. Between varying grades of sunscreen and bugspray, I ended up slathered in no less than five different layers of chemicals in order to commune with nature.

I am not sure that this is the way one is supposed to do that.

Eventually all of the blood was sucked from our bodies and the sun went down, leaving us to retire to our tents unmolested. The girls all crashed in one big pile in their own tent. Kim and I had our own. There was much cloudiness and lightning off to the west, but we were okay.

About 4am, however, the Family Vacation Mojo kicked in. It always rains on our vacations. This is not so bad when we are visiting family members who have actual houses, though it is something of a drag out in the open, with only nylon between you and whatever Category 3 hurricane is bearing down on us this time. The wind picked up, several of our fellow campers hurriedly stuffed everything into their cars and fled, and it began to rain. We just staked down our rain fly and rode it out. It turned out to be not so bad.

The rain that came at 8am, though – that was bad. Fortunately we had already packed up most of our stuff and gone home, so that was fine.

I went back afterward and retrieved the tents.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Back to the Future

They still cruise here in Our Little Town.

Every Friday and Saturday night during the summer and most of them during the school year, the young folk go out to the main drag, out by the mall, and drive back and forth, back and forth in their four-wheeled compensators. Hey, dudes – party like it’s 1959.

The real kicker of it, though, is that a couple of times a summer it becomes a Community Event. People go out to the main drag with lawn chairs, boomboxes and tailgate coolers and watch the young folks drive back and forth. Seriously, people, how empty does your life have to be to make a special effort to watch other people drive around in circles?

We got caught up in this tonight, Kim and I, as we were trying to make it home from the movies.

We really hadn’t planned on going out tonight, but the girls really love their babysitter and we haven’t gone out much recently. “We want Kelsey!” they kept saying. “Go away and let us have Kelsey!”

Gee, thanks, girls. It’s not like your parents, oh, gave you life or anything.

But the idea of date night was appealing, and so we called and wonder of wonders Kelsey was actually free. And then the question became, what do we do on this date night? It has been a while, after all. We’re sort of out of practice with this “fun” that people talk about.

We ended up having a nice dinner out and going to see Get Him To The Greek, which is a movie I highly recommend if you like your comedy dark, vulgar and smartly written. Think The Hangover meets This Is Spinal Tap.

And then we braved the gauntlet of the main drag and the cruisers. I did manage to annoy one of them by daring to make a left turn while they were waiting at the stop sign, and you know what?

It felt good.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fooling Around With The Money

I am of two minds regarding the new penny.

Have you seen it? Apparently they finally got tired of the Lincoln Memorial on the back, after fifty years. I can understand this. The Lincoln Memorial is far and away my favorite of the monuments in Washington DC, but fifty years is a long time for a coin design. So now, after a rotating cast of four different designs from Lincoln’s life last year, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, the mint has decided not to go back to the Memorial design and instead put a shield on the back.

On the one hand, we have the world’s most boring money in this country and a little variety is a welcome thing.

Except for the nickel and some temporary designs meant to celebrate one thing or another (Bicentennial coins, anyone?) our coins haven’t really changed since 1946. At least not the coins people actually use. Sometimes you see a half dollar (1964), but except when contrarian cashiers are having a laugh by handing them out, you almost never see any of the various dollar coins that have been tried over the years. So a new permanent design is kind of nice. Plus, it’s not a bad little design. It looks, in fact, a bit like the two-cent pieces that Lincoln might have seen at the end of his life, so you can even make a historical case for it.

On the other hand, though, it does continue a rather disturbing trend of new coins looking like arcade tokens.

The new presidential dollar coins are only the most egregious example of this, with the portraits of the presidents on the front looking like one of those matching sets you used to get in cereal boxes. Every time I see one I have to fight the urge to look for a pinball machine to put it in.

The state quarters were a mixed bag, with some being quite nice while others being, well, less nice. But now that they’ve run out of states and territories (did you see the Guam quarter? did you know we owned Guam?), they have moved on to honoring tourist attractions. I’m sure Hot Springs, Arkansas is a wonderful place to visit, but I’m not sure it rises to the level of money.

Even the new Jeffersons that they put on the nickel were just off, somehow. The first one made him look like Bob Hope. You wondered when the Bing Crosby dime would be introduced.

And the second one makes him look puzzled. I feel your pain, Tom.

This decline in American coins is saddening, really. Unless you’re a collector, you probably don’t know that we’ve had some beautiful coins in our past, before the arcade lobbyists took over the mint.

The Standing Liberty quarter, for example, our only soft-core coin. The first year they minted these, in 1916, they stuck with the traditional representation of Liberty, the one where her shirt only covers one of her breasts. This being America, the land that brought you the phrase, “wardrobe malfunction,” you can guess how well that went over. And sure enough, the following year they had her in chain mail just to reinforce the point. But it was still a great design.

There was also the Walking Liberty half, back when people still used half dollars.

Or the crowning glory of American coins, the St. Gaudens $20 gold piece.

The new penny doesn’t rise to that level, really, but while I do feel like I should be playing skee-ball with it, at least it is an attractive arcade token. That’s something.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Conflicts

Today was the first day of summer school down at Home Campus, where I have a whole new crop of students to initiate into the mysteries of early American history. There are times when it is tempting to slide into the whole Nicolas Cage/Dan Brown conspiracy theory thing and spin wild tales of nefarious secret organizations working their will throughout time on the rest of us, but in the current political climate I’m not sure whether anyone would see the satire in it or not. It’s hard to get a more tenuous relationship with reality than the one inordinate numbers of Americans seriously – and proudly – claim to have these days, and this is not something I wish to encourage.

So reality it is.

I enjoy teaching this class, and the fact that someone is willing to pay me money to do so in this economic climate is a grand and glorious thing. But it does come at a price.

Tabitha and Lauren’s softball season began at the top of the month, and once again I was an assistant coach for Lauren’s Hot Pink team, down in the A league. The A league is a great place, where neither runs nor outs count, everyone bats, and my main job as first-base coach is to point runners toward second when the next hitter comes along. Fielding is an exercise in voice-activated human pinball – the ball comes out into the field and we try to activate whichever girl is closest to it so she can retrieve it and toss it toward the designated receiving base of the moment. Lauren is an excellent hitter.

In Tabitha’s league – where this year she, too, is on the Hot Pink team – they count all the things that one is supposed to count. They even have an umpire, which makes it very official. I don’t usually get to see Tabitha’s games, but I did make it to one when Lauren’s team wasn’t playing. It was very different. Tabby did a very nice job in the field, and got a couple of hits as well.

But now I’m teaching, and I will miss most of the games from now on.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Italian Lessons

The first phrase I ever learned in Italian was "Chi ne sa que?"

The literal translation of this question is "Who knows this?" but that isn't what my grandfather told me it meant. And to be honest, the story behind it still echoes in my mind more than the translation.

When he was young, probably around Lauren's age now, my grandfather was walking through the streets of Philadelphia with his father, when someone came up to them and started talking to my great-grandfather. It was a fairly animated conversation, from what my grandfather told me - How you doing? Great, how's the family? Good, good. You? And on and on.

After a while the two adults parted ways, and my grandfather looked up at his dad and asked, "Who was that?"

"Who the hell knows?" replied his father, in Italian. "Chi ne sa que?"

This is the story of my social life.

This was brought home to me the other day, down at the farmer's market that Our Little Town puts on every Saturday morning during the season. We try to go as often as we can - several of the vendors are now or were even beforehand friends of ours, and there's always something good to buy, even on those weekends when it's just kettle corn.

We were buying drinks at one of the stands when a woman sitting nearby started talking to me. She clearly knew who I was and was happy to see me. So we had a very nice conversation, there at the farmer's market. Kim even joined in.

Afterward, Lauren asked me who that was.

"Chi ne sa que, my child. Chi ne sa que."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


What's with the horns?

In keeping with my long-standing tradition of being completely out of step with the wider culture in which I find myself, I have turned my sporting attention from the Stanley Cup finals to perhaps the one sporting event that is both a) being broadcast in its entirety on major American television networks and b) less popular than professional hockey: the World Cup.

I actually like watching soccer games. There's generally a fair bit of action going on, and I'm not one of those sports fans who needs constant scoring in order to stay awake the way basketball fans seem to be. Every goal counts that much more, and the work it takes to get one is entertaining.

Now, I'm not in any danger of becoming That Guy, the one in your office who dresses up in national team shirts, updates scores constantly and looks down at you when you won't join in his celebrations of what he insists on referring to as "The World's Most Popular Sport" or, worse, "The Beautiful Game." I refuse to call it "football" because that term is reserved for the sport with touchdowns - I'm American enough for that. And there's a lot of times when the players just seem to be standing around trying to look busy, which frankly I had enough of in high school. Of the major sports on this planet, soccer comes in fourth in my world, behind hockey, American football, and baseball but ahead of basketball, NASCAR and boxing.

Does anyone watch boxing anymore?

But I do enjoy the sport, and so I've been trying to catch bits and pieces of the World Cup games. I've been fairly successful at it, really, given the rest of life these days. I saw most of the US v England game that ended in a draw because the English goalie couldn't stop a shot that even I could have blocked. I saw a little of Brazil v North Korea, which was a difficult game to figure out who to cheer for (Goliath? Stark raving nutbags? Choices, choices). Lauren and I watched some of Spain v Switzerland this morning while eating breakfast. Lauren always wants to know which team is closer to where we live so she can cheer for that one. It's not a bad system.

But the horns?

Every time you turn on a World Cup game it sounds like the field is being attacked, either by a swarm of very large hornets or a herd of very small elephants.

Now, I understand the urge to make noise at a sporting event. I've sat in the cheap seats at a number of stadiums over the course of my life and that's one of the things you pay your ticket price to do. And those noises come in a lot of different varieties, many of them not repeatable outside of the stadium. If you haven't experienced the full force of seventy thousand Philadelphia sports fans disapproving of something on the field, you're missing out. Put that one on your bucket list. Noises are fun.

But the horns - "vuvuzelas," one of the more ridiculous names for anything not related to the human body that I've ever heard of - they just blat on and on and on. It's just background noise, an announcement that says, "Hey! You're watching a soccer game!"

I already know that.

It might be different it I were there. I imagine if someone handed me one of those vuvuzelas I'd probably try to make noise with it, either by blowing on it or banging it off the head of the guy in front of me. So I don't really blame people for making all that random noise.

But I don't get the horns. Not really.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The New Carpet

My office is returning back to its normal state of affairs. I am not sure that this is entirely a good thing.

On the one hand, it means that the new carpeting is in. This in turn means that the World's Ugliest Linoleum is now safely hidden away from prying eyes for a while. I know that this is not permanent - nothing that ugly can ever be permanently taken out of circulation and I'm not even going to pretend otherwise lest I turn into the Evil Overlord maniacally laughing about how the Orb of Power has been safely transported across the Seas of Difficulties, the Desert of Despair and the Forest of Squelchy Swamps, tossed into the Abyss of Darkness and covered over with the best tarp that Discount Eddie's Tarp Service could provide and now it will never be found again - NEVER DO YOU HEAR? - shortly before the Hero turns up with it in his jacket pocket.

Heroes are such annoying creatures that way.

On the other hand, it also means that the office is quickly becoming smaller again. I had gotten kind of used to it without all that stuff in it, and now I'm having second thoughts about putting all that stuff back into it. Oh, I know it will all go back, or at least most of it will, but for a while it was nice having all that space.

The carpet dudes came last Wednesday and did a very nice job as far as I could tell. It's a small room with no weird angles so they were in and out in about 90 minutes, after which I nailed the quarter round back on.

And then I spent what time I could putting the stuff back into it. This was complicated by the fact that apparently we are incapable of having only one project at a time going on around here.

Kim has been jonesing for a new television for a while now. I really don't care one way or another, since my television viewing habits are rather sub-par - I just don't watch enough of it to make it worth spending any money on a new one to me. But the girls enjoy their shows and Kim had been putting away spare change into her piggy bank since the last time we bought a television, and last week she had enough to buy a new flatscreen tv.

Unfortunately it was too big for the entertainment center we had bought in 1999, so the obvious solution to all of this was to move every piece of downstairs furniture except the dining room table in order to arrive at a furniture situation that would work.  It's the Tetris School of interior decorating.

Oh, and we had a houseguest coming this weekend, so all that had to be accomplished by 6pm on Saturday, a day I spent far too much of proctoring the ACTs for a room of teenagers.  ("Pencils down, people!")

But it all got moved into the appropriate rooms and places, and since then I've been slowly putting my office back together. Right now it looks like this:

Still a little bit to go, but that's all just details.

The long national nightmare is over. As Kim said, instead of looking like vomit my carpet now looks like oatmeal. And that's progress.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Movie Night

Last week my wife went out on a date with another man. This was not the issue you might think it would be.

For one thing, he's a good friend of ours. For another, if he were going to make a serious pass at one of us it would be me rather than Kim. And finally, it meant that I was excused from Sex and the City II: Airhead's Revenge. Win all around, as far as I was concerned.

I was one of the few straight men in America who actually sat all the way through the first Sex and the City movie. It was an experience. So is getting shot. Neither really requires a second time around to know deep in your bones that it isn't something you want to do again.

Instead, I ended up at Not Bad President Elementary watching Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson star in Tooth Fairy. Yes, this was an upgrade.

The Rock, nicknamed for his acting skills, was playing a character whose emotional range did not really place too much strain on those skills, making the movie somewhat less painful than it might otherwise have been. Plus, I brought a book. About ten minutes into the film I wandered out into the hallway, found a place to sit down and spent a happy evening reading and playing hall monitor, much to the amusement of the school principal.

I had ended up in the same place during the last movie night at NBPE, when the combination of the acoustics of an elementary school gym and the vocal stylings of the Chipmunks sent me running into the hall for relief. The principal saw me come in for Tooth Fairy and said, "We've fixed the speakers! You should have no problem hearing this time!" When she saw me back at my post this time she looked concerned and asked, "Couldn't you hear the movie?"

"All too well," I told her.

But the girls liked it, and they had a good, popcorn-filled time. Plus Tabitha actually lost a tooth during the movie. It had been loose since the morning, and out it came. Irony, thy name is The Rock.

And on top of everything else I successfully managed to tape the Flyers game that night, although successfully might be pushing it.

The new DVR system still strikes me as black magic, but as neither of my options that night allowed for sitting at home watching hockey it was magic I would need to figure out. "Ask Lauren," said Kim, but Lauren was already at school when I finally sat down to work this magic so I was on my own. It took some time and some creative vocabulary (which made me glad Lauren was at school, really), but eventually I got it set up. Don't ask me how - I doubt I could replicate it in a laboratory - but I did. The game was scheduled for 2.5 hours, and I figured it would run long so I also set it to record the half-hour program that followed, to catch the overflow.

And a good thing, too.

The game did run long, and - like all of the games in this year's Stanley Cup final, even the ones that didn't turn out so well for the good guys - it was entertaining. About ten minutes into the extra half-hour of recording I looked at the clock and had my first misgivings. And when there were 34 seconds left in a 1-goal game, with the Flyers ahead and the Blackhawks having pulled their goalie and the face-off coming in the Flyers' end, I ran out of recording.

The real problem with watching recorded sports late at night is that everyone else is asleep and you really can't scream.

But it still beat Sex and the City II.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Not Quite Happily Ever After

Fairy tales are not things you want to think too hard about, really, though sometimes it is fun to try.  I once had a psych professor who said, "We are not really surprised to discover that when a princess kisses a frog he turns into a prince.  What would really be surprising is to see the frog turn into a peasant."

Kim and I were taking a break tonight from putting the house back together after our Week Of Many Projects and we ended up watching a few minutes of Comedy Central, which had a brother act doing their vision of a conversation between Snow White and the Prince about eight months into their marriage. It ended with the question, "So how many corpses did you hook up with before you found me?"

"Snow White," the brothers said, "a story about necrophilia."

I understand this urge to read more into fairy tales than perhaps they were meant to take. I devoted much of my childhood to watching Fractured Fairy Tales on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, after all.  Plus, you can't raise little girls and not come to the end of your rope that way at least once. I spent most of the years 2002 to 2006 reading fairy stories at night, much to Tabitha and Lauren's delight, and on the whole I consider it time well spent.

But sometimes you just snap.

When she was about three Tabitha really loved a series of fairy tale books that Grandma had bought her when she was born, and we cycled our way through them fairly often. One of them was a Snow-White-type story, or perhaps a Sleeping-Beauty-type story - a story that had a handsome prince ride up and kiss a lovely young girl who just happened to be comatose (imagine the legal issues there, why don't you). The girl promptly wakes up, gazes adoringly into her suitor's eyes, and asks, "Are you the Prince?"

One night I just had had it with that question. "No, lady," I ad-libbed. "I'm the janitor. Who do you think I am?"

Tabitha, bless her heart, thought that was hysterically funny. So we read it that way for the next six months until she got tired of the whole series and moved on to something else.

Really, though. Who else would it be?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Time We Ain't Even Used Yet

I always believe I'm going to have more time in the summertime than I actually do.

I think this is a holdover from my childhood, which featured great gooey gobs of unstructured time throughout the year but especially between school years. It was one of the redeeming features of the summer - otherwise a hot, humid time largely unsuited to reading indoors.

This is the one thing that I have noticed most about growing older - more than the aches and pains that assail me without noticeable cause, more than the skills and experiences that I've accumulated, often accompanied by said aches and pains, more than the moving around the country the way I have, living in several different cities and states, none of which know how to prepare a decent cheesesteak (apparently this is a skill that peters out about 60 miles from the Liberty Bell).

No, what I notice is the lack of free time. There used to be more of it. Now there is none. I don't know many people who have it anymore. It can't have just disappeared. There must be a pile of it somewhere, all that unused time, gathering dust in a warehouse like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Of course it isn't unused. It's worked to death, actually.

The girls just ended their school years yesterday, and for the next few days they don't actually have a whole lot on their plates - just softball games and the occasional trip up to Dad's old museum while he gives tours. But then it all kicks in - summer school (they have fun classes in the summer now, not like the remedial things you had to take if you failed something back when I was their age), swimming lessons, more softball, on and on, all of which need to be prepared, chauffeured, and otherwise addressed. Throw in the class I'm teaching down at Home Campus this summer - the fourth different format I've taught this class in, so there will be constant rejiggering - and all the administrative work that is Kim's lot these days, and the summer looks pretty packed. And that's even before we try to schedule in some traveling. We're going to schedule in some traveling. Already have, in fact. And it will be fun - we'll see family and maybe even friends along the way, enjoy ourselves in places both familiar and new - but it will be busy.

The great gooey gobs of unstructured time have dried up and blown away, leaving nothing but schedules behind.

No matter how much I enjoy the things we schedule - and generally I do - this still strikes me as something of a loss all around.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Well, they almost made it.

It was a good series - exciting, well-played and entertaining to the last. All but one of the games could have gone either way. But for the fourth time, tonight the Flyers ended up on the short end of the score, as my teams tend to do. And that's all there is about that.

Go Flyers!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Riding and Dancing in the Rain

On our return trip to Six Flags Great America the weather was considerably warmer than it was last year, in that you could not see your breath, but it was just as rainy. We spent the day dodging raindrops and failing, but on the upside this meant that we didn't spend the day dodging crowds, and we'll take that.

This year we remembered to participate in Not Bad President Elementary's reading rewards program, which nets each child a free ticket to Six Flags if they read so many books in a given amount of time. And when you combine that with the half-price Girl Scouts tickets, well, there you go - four admissions for the effective price of one.

Or at least it would have been had we noticed the fine print on the reading rewards tickets, which did not become effective until at least a week after the only date the Girl Scouts tickets were good. There were some panicked moments there, but fortunately the Six Flags people were nice about it and let us use the tickets anyway. They take a lot of your money in this place, but in return you get friendly service and that's not really such a bad deal.

They did give me grief for wearing my Flyers shirt to an amusement park in Chicagoland during the Stanley Cup finals between the Flyers and Blackhawks, but to be honest that's why I wore the shirt in the first place, so that was fine. As my dad always told me when I was younger, "Sometimes you have to rattle people's cages, otherwise they fall asleep on you."

But entry assured, we plunged into the park.

We followed much the same route as last year - left out of the gates, through the double-decker carousel and the Condor, and toward the roller coasters.

The girls are still roller coaster junkies. Life. Remains. Good.

Lauren and I went on the Dark Knight coaster, which spins you around in the dark (as advertised), and Tabitha joined us for the Ragin' Cajun (a teacup coaster with lots of turns), and the American Eagle - the stratospheric wooden coaster on the other side of the park. We all went on the Little Dipper. And of course there was the Viper, which is the family favorite - another wooden coaster, somewhat smaller than the American Eagle but more exciting. Especially in the rain.

Yes, we road the roller coaster in the rain, which is what Billy Joel should have put in for that lyric. We may be crazy but it just might be a lunatic you're looking for, and it was a lot of fun. We got the last ride out before they shut down for a while because of the weather, and if you think roller coasters are wild normally, you should try it with "fly vision" - the refracted multiple-image result of raindrops on glasses.

Tabitha and I even went on the Superman coaster, much to Lauren's dismay - they have a minimum height requirement for the wilder rides and this just frosts Lauren's whiskers no end. Next year, when she is taller, I'm just going to put a GPS unit on her belt and let her run loose. She'd have loved Superman. It's one of those steel coasters, with loops and corkscrews and tight turns, and they sit you in it like Superman flying - you sit down normally, and then the seats pivot back so you're on your stomach. This has its downsides - for one thing the ground below is carpeted with small change that has fallen out of people's pockets, and for another it produces a "dog-sled" effect in which unless you're the lead dog the view never changes - but it's still fun. About halfway through Tabitha, who had worried all during the wait (they run the line underneath the coaster so you can see what's going to happen to you), turned to me and shouted, "This is awesome!"

And that's why you take the time and spend the money - for moments like that.

We also hit the bumper cars, the long swings and the Bearcat cars, because of course you have to do those things. Lauren drove her own Bearcat around the track this year, which thrilled her no end and made me count the years until she gets her drivers license. Tabitha drove Kim around as well, and since she is much closer to her own drivers license I did not count those years. They will come soon enough.

Did you know that they still have photo booths? Yes, those ancient machines where you stuff yourself into a tiny little space and get four tiny little pictures - they still exist, and people take them about as seriously as they always have.

The high point of this year's trip was the space needle, or whatever it is that they call that ride where they haul you up into the ionosphere and drop you in free fall back down to earth. Kim, being sensible, passed on this one, but the girls and I took the ride. It was quite a ride.

And then they wanted to do it again, so we ran around the lines and came back for a second turn. While we were waiting a bunch of high school students came up behind us, including one guy clearly trying to get his girlfriend to go on the ride. Tabitha turned around, pointed at Lauren and said, "She went on it! It's fun!" The girlfriend was not amused, though I assume she went on. One can't be outcooled by a seven-year-old, not in high school.

Me, I'm kind of used to it.

We left the park after ten hours, which was a bit earlier than we'd hoped actually since we had thought about staying for the glowing parade, but it had started to rain more steadily by 8pm and we hadn't eaten dinner yet. Rather than bankrupt ourselves eating soggy pizza we decided to find a nearby restaurant. This turned out to be a smooth move on our part, despite stopping at the closest Olive Garden to a major tourist attraction (along with most of the other tourists), since right as we got there the skies opened up, the lightning flashed, and the rain poured down like unidentified liquids out of a boot.  We dined in comfort.

It was a good day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Adventures in Ugly

Beauty may only be skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone. Or in this case, to the sub-flooring.

The carpeting project in my home office continues apace. And as always with such efforts, the project itself is the least of the issues at hand. By the time they come to put the carpeting down, most of the actual work will have been done.

It's not the things you've got to do. It's the things you've got to do in order to do the things you've got to do that do you in.

For this project, that meant moving most of the several thousand books in that room, plus the bookcases, the desk (two filing cabinets and a large steel door), and an assortment of debris, bric-a-brac and related items that could stock a flea market well into the next millennium.

These are the "before" pictures. Bear in mind that a) there is another floor-to-ceiling, double-shelved bookcase just out of frame to the left in the first picture, and b) I spent a day or two cleaning in order to get it to look this neat.

Much of last week was devoted to Stuff Removal - packing things up in my vast collection of liquor boxes and taking them out of my office. Which in turn brings up an interesting question.

One of the things you learn as an infant is "object permanence" - the idea that objects continue to exist even when you can't see them. It's a difficult lesson to learn and one that politicians seem to forget routinely (national debt? what national debt?), but nevertheless one that has certain consequences - in particular, the idea that permanent objects need temporary storage places when removed from their native habitats.

The house is only so big.

It took some doing, and the living room is considerably easier to throw pennies across now than it was a couple of weeks ago, but eventually that problem got resolved. At that point I was left with an office devoid of stuff, and for the first time in a long time the carpeting was revealed in all its glory.

This, folks, is carpeting as weaponry. Carpeting so ugly that it is banned by treaty in certain parts of the world. Carpeting that cannot even be looked at with the naked eye without extensive training, special lenses, or blood-alcohol levels at whole-number multiples of legal intoxication.

And the question then becomes why. Why would anyone put such carpeting into that room in the first place?

The answer, it turns out, is to cover up the even uglier linoleum underneath.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, but that is a product that could only have been produced by blindfolded workers. This is probably the original linoleum from when the house was built, in the late 1940s, and I'm sure that even now, somewhere in a padded cell, is the last remaining installer from that job, still gibbering at the walls.

It gets even better when there's no carpeting in the way.

The new carpeting should be here next week.

I'm really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I love bluetooth.

Not that I ever use it. To the best of my knowledge, none of the gizmos, gadgets, doodads or thingamabobs in my house are equipped with such service, though for all I know they might. My computer has a wireless mouse, and there is a little note in the back of my mind that says, "That's a bluetooth device, no matter how you deny it," so perhaps I do use it without really knowing. To be honest, I've nearly replaced that mouse with something wired about once a week since I bought it - it sucks down batteries as if they were Fourth of July beers, and at random moments it decides that the cursor is best left right where it is rather than where I want it to go, which seems to me contrary to the purpose of both cursor and mouse - but it has this snazzy little feature where you can magnify the screen just by brushing your finger across the mouse, so I haven't. Yet. Someday, though.

No, the reason I love bluetooth is simple. I tell stories for a living.

The dirty little secret about university teaching is that nobody ever trains you to do it - you just go and do. I first stepped in front of a class in 1989, and the sum total of my training for that moment consisted of another graduate student saying to me as I walked into the room, "Remember, Dave, anything you tell them is news." If you've ever had a good teacher at a university, it's because that person took it upon himself or herself to become one. It's not something stressed and it's certainly not something rewarded in most colleges. But there you have it. This is one of the reasons I like teaching at Home Campus, which does put more emphasis on teaching skills than most places.

There's this bizarre assumption in academia that if you know a lot about a subject then you can teach it, which is why world-class scholars are tossed in front of students (usually graduate students by the time they're world-class scholars, though undergraduates are similarly favored when such scholars are on their way up). Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't, and how good of a scholar that person is is largely irrelevant.

This assumption is not limited to academia, by the way. I've sat in on enough training sessions given by business professionals to know in the very marrow of my bones how rare it is to be a good teacher in any setting. Quite possibly the longest three hours of my life were spent listening to a kind and generous man try to explain something he knew a great deal about to a room full of strangers. He knew the subject, but he didn't know how to teach.

What makes this even stranger is that there is no shortage of pedagogical models to choose from when it comes to teaching, particularly at the university level. Everyone has their favorite, and fashions come in and out like the tides. The push to add technology to everything seems to be slowing down a bit, for example, as people begin to realize that taking a mess and adding technology to it just gives you an automated mess. For a while everything was supposed to be "student-centered learning," to which my response was, "As opposed to what?"

Me, I like the old-fashioned "sage-on-the-stage" model, wherein you get up in front of the class and tell them what they need to know. History lends itself to this approach, really. It's simple, it's straight-forward, and it plays to my strength. I tell stories for a living. People tell me I'm good at it.

When all you have to sell is a story, you'd better get your transitions right.

So I practice. I practice at home, everywhere from my office to the shower. I practice at school. And perhaps most of all, I practice in the car, because there is nowhere on earth better suited for that sort of thing than the inside of a car. It's like they designed it that way. I don't know how teachers who ride the bus to work can handle it. When do they practice?

Now it used to be that when I was working on my lectures in the car, people would pull up alongside and stare at me with that look that said, "There's somebody who has forgotten his meds." But now?

Now everyone assumes I'm in the middle of a phone call.

I love bluetooth.