Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Education and the Founding Fathers

It was back to school night down at Not Bad President Elementary.

Every year the School District sends us a pile of forms to fill out that looks suspiciously like the pile of forms we filled out the previous year. They want to know our phone numbers, email addresses, and emergency contacts. They want to know if our kids can go on field trips. They want to know if we have insurance, because you never know what might happen on those field trips. They want to know quite a lot of things, really, and they want these things written down. At least they’ve started mailing out the forms ahead of time now, so you don’t have to sit there in the gym balancing things on your knees and trying to remember your doctor’s phone number.

They also want a pile of checks, one for each sub-fee per child. This year that came to nine different checks, seven of them made out to the School District and two others made out to the PTA. After a while you start to feel like you’re in the middle of George Carlin’s old routine about driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, the one that ends with him asking if he could just send the state a blank check when he crossed the state line and let them fill it out when he left.

Inconvenience aside, though, I don’t object to writing these checks the way a lot of people seem to do these days. Education costs money, and for some reason most Americans seem to regard it as an expense rather than an investment these days.  This is a steaming load of nonsense.

As part of my research in graduate school I read every issue of almost every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801, which was a lot more fun than it sounds. I was actually looking for some very specific information, but this was long before the invention of the headline so I ended up having to read pretty much every word of each edition. They tended to be short editions – four pages was about average – but they also tended to be large pages composed in 6-point fonts with almost no white space, and at least at the time I was reading them they were preserved in micro-formats accessible only at the cost of serious prescription eyewear.

They also had those goofy 18th-century s’s that look like f’s. Those took a while to get used to, and then suddenly a switch would flip in your head and you would end up taking them for granted and wondering what a “sig newton" was and why people would want to eat one.

So I read a lot of old newspapers, is what I’m saying here. Newspapers from the early republic. Newspapers that the Founding Fathers read as well, since Philadelphia was the nation’s capital for most of that period.

And I read them all, even the stuff that wasn’t relevant to my studies, because there were no headlines to help me sort stuff out. This turned out to be something of a disadvantage, not because it represented unwanted work but in fact quite the opposite: because I would often get so absorbed in the other stuff that I would forget what I had come there to do.

Story of my life, really.

What made these papers so fascinating, in part, was the fact that they were utterly ruthless.

For one thing, the idea of journalistic objectivity had not really made much of an impact on the guys who published these things. They had positions and they very well let you know what they were in no uncertain terms. These papers supported the Federalists. Those papers supported the Democratic Republicans. And never the twain shall meet. Remember, this was only a few years after the Constitution had been written – the third major framework of national government Americans had lived under in the previous two decades – and there was no guarantee that it would last any longer than the previous one had. The stakes were high, the other side was leading the new republic astray, and being on the correct side mattered. These guys were a lot of things, but wishy-washy wasn’t one of them.

For another thing, I have no idea when this country passed libel laws, but I have a strong suspicion that it was not until well after 1801. When I say that each paper had a strongly held and urgently defended political point of view, what I mean is that the language they used regarding their opponents was both elegant and vitriolic in that uniquely 18th-century way. These guys could cut you up rhetorically in so many ways so quickly and so efficiently that you’d bleed to death before you even noticed, and they did this to people we today regard as demigods. People think that politics today has gotten nasty, and they’re right – it is nasty – but even so our politics cannot even begin to compare with the politics of the 1790s on this score. The things they said in these newspapers then about the people on our money today are just astonishing.

Federalists, for example, derived no end of amusement from the fact that Thomas Jefferson had invented a swiveling chair. “The celebrated whirligig chair,” they called it, “which he invented purely to check the eddying motions of his watery brain, by a counter turn for every occasion.” You have to admire the artistry of that put down.

But the one thing that all of these newspapers agreed on, no matter how much they hated even the mere existence of each other, was the need for public education.

In an era when newspapers routinely lifted entire articles from each other, often with the express intent of ridiculing them, the Federalist Gazette of the United States and the Democratic-Republican Aurora would always approvingly reprint articles from the other defending the idea of public education and the burden that it inevitably imposed on the citizenry.

As Benjamin Franklin Bache – editor of the Aurora and named after his grandfather – put it in 1792, during George Washington’s presidency,

Let the education of children become a common charge. If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men’s children. The more knowledge, the safer his property. It is better protection than armies.

We have forgotten this precept of late, as we have forgotten quite a lot of the things this country was founded upon.

I am perpetually amazed and appalled at the unwillingness of the average SUV-driving voter to pony up a few bucks for the education of the next generation – the short-sightedness and mean-spiritedness that goes into a decision like that is astonishing.

When we educate our children – all of our children, not just the ones that happen to spring biologically from our very loins – we strengthen this country economically, militarily, politically and socially. It is an investment in our future – not just their future, OUR future – and as such it often requires sacrifice on our part, because in the long run the nation comes out ahead for it. That’s why it’s an investment, not an expense. The Founding Fathers understood this, and far too many Americans today – pointedly including the vast majority of those morons who so fervently claim to be worshiping those same Founding Fathers with their tin-hat junior-high-grade to-hell-with-you-I-got-mine brand of vaguely libertarian social “conservatism” – simply do not. Bache would have thrashed those idiots with his bare hands, the way editors of rival papers often tried to do back then, and they would have deserved it.

So I go to Not Bad President Elementary and write out my checks and I am happy to do my part, as I was happy to pay my school taxes long before I was married (let alone had kids) and as I will be happy to do when my children are long since graduated and moved on with their lives.

That’s called a traditional American value, folks.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Supplies Are Limited

We’ve run out of Tastykakes.

Whenever we head out east we always try to stock up on delicacies unavailable here in the nation’s tender midsection. Everywhere you go, every place you go, there are different foods than you can get elsewhere and part of the fun of traveling is finding and eating them, and then bringing them back with you. This is especially true when you are, as I was, revisiting the comfort foods of your childhood.

Of course children are not really all that interested in delicacies, and I’ve never really grown into them either. So the things I go back for and the things I bring back with? Not the sorts of things you’ll find at the upper end of the food snob continuum, is all I’ll say about that.

Tastykakes, for example.

Tastykakes are what Hostess cakes want to be. They come in a variety of shapes and flavors, ranging from the mundane but still somehow unique Butterscotch Krimpets to the absurdly delicious Peanut Butter Kandykakes (yes, they have a fixation on the letter “k” for some reason – you stop noticing after a while) to donuts, cupcakes and an array of pies. They aren’t wrapped in wax paper the way they used to be, but they’re still great.

Now that Tabitha can eat peanuts again we always make a point of eating them while back east and then stocking up on them as we’re leaving to go home. There’s a convenience store on our way out to the highway where you can buy them by the box. It’s not easy to stuff them into the car with all the rest of the things we have in there, but we make room.

We also make a point of buying a pound or two of Cooper Sharp cheese while we’re there.

Cooper Sharp is what the inventors of American cheese were trying for – a mild sandwich cheese that actually has a flavor instead of just a texture. It won’t win any international awards in cheese contests (surely they have international cheese contests – they would be less ridiculous than Olympic ice dancing at least), but it does what a good cheese does and makes whatever you put it on taste better.

That is, if you can pry a slice away from its compatriots. Cooper Sharp is very cohesive that way.

The odd thing about Cooper Sharp is that as far as I am aware it is only available in the Philadelphia cultural region, which extends roughly sixty miles in any direction from the Liberty Bell. This is especially troubling as it is manufactured right here in Wisconsin.

I live in Wisconsin, and yet I have to travel to Philadelphia to get this cheese. This is not efficient.

I’ve tried to get the various cheese-retailing establishments in Our Little Town to remedy this situation, but so far without success. I am not yet discouraged – the local Wal-Mart occasionally carries Tastykakes, so anything is possible – but at the moment the Cooper Sharp supplies are running perilously low.

I’m sure this is how the Donner Party started.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Simple Solutions From The Past

I used to run a museum, and recently they asked me to write something for their newsletter. It's been published now, so I figure I can re-run it here.


I still give tours.

It’s been three years since I returned to teaching, but there is just something about the place that stays with you. So every spring when the school tours rev up again, there I am with my stories and my white cotton gloves, ready to go through the museum again.

After you’ve led enough tours you end with a stack of favorite stories, moments and artifacts.

One of the objects I love most in the building is a small white china cup with pink markings. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – one more teacup in a world of teacups, just slightly out of place among the sturdier items on the table in the dining room of the Inn. It’s only when you look inside that you realize that there is anything out of the ordinary about it.

Inside there is a small ledge that runs across one side of the cup, with a gap right in the middle where the liquid can come through when you tilt the cup that direction. This is why it is called a “mustache cup” – so you can sport one of those glorious nineteenth-century mustaches that became immensely popular in the United States after the Mexican War in the 1840s and not have it filter your coffee or drip tea onto your cravat, or – worse – have the steam from your tea melt the wax holding your mustache in place.

Who knew drinking could get so complicated? Or so technologically demanding?

The mustache cup was invented in 1830 by an English potter named Harvey Adams who clearly had time on his hands. His cups caught on quickly, though, and soon potters across Europe were making the things. Eventually the idea came to the States, where most of the potters who made them put deceptive marks on them so people would think they were buying English china rather than American goods. Even back then, imports had a certain snob appeal.

They were still being made in the early 20th century, though the end of the Golden Age of the Mustache eventually relegated them to the dust-bin of history. By the time of the Great Mustache Revival of the 1970s and ‘80s, the mustache cup had long been forgotten.

This is a shame, really.

The mustache cup was an admirably simple solution to a concrete problem, and every time I show it to a new group of visitors they gasp. We often forget that the people who came before us were every bit as clever as we are and possibly more so, and the fact that we no longer use the solutions they came up with for problems we still have probably says more about us than it does about them.

I need a mustache cup.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Because Sometimes You Have To Put Your Foot Down

I went stepping out on the town tonight, for the third year in a row.

The local YWCA has its “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes” event every year, though it seems to be creeping up earlier and earlier. The first time I did this it was during the World Series. Last year it was during the closing bit of the baseball season, after everything had been settled for the playoffs but before any actual playing off could begin. This year? The Phillies haven’t even been eliminated yet. Next year it will be during spring training.

But it’s a worthwhile cause, for all that. The YWCA here in Our Little Town (and, presumably, in Other Towns near you as well) has a fairly extensive set of programs for dealing with domestic violence, which is a crime that I am just sure the Founding Fathers did not intend to include under the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments. But ban or no ban, this sort of wretchedness continues to happen and dealing with it is expensive.

So every year the YWCA persuades a selection of local male bigwigs to get together and march through the street in high heels to declare that such crimes won’t be tolerated even so. And the rest of us paper the house a bit, fundraising and adding our voices to the chorus as well. It’s not enough when the leaders declare their position – the followers have to follow along, otherwise the leaders don’t matter. Never underestimate the importance of followers.

The thing is, this sort of thing has to come from the men. Men commit the vast majority of these crimes, and men must take charge and declare that as men we will not tolerate them.

As before, there were quite a few leaders – city councilmen, police brass, and so on. Here I am with one of our city councilmen, for example.

We arrived early and spent some time milling about and getting into the spirit of the thing. There were a few speeches, mostly by police chiefs, and then we were off, marching through the center of town and waving our signs.

We were fabulous in our fabulousness, though hobbling in our pain. Who designed these shoes, vandals? If all of the high-heeled shoes in the world suddenly vanished, I think I would be more than happy to see them go.  They don't look good on women, they certainly don't look good on me, and all that happens is that people end up hobbling around as if they had just failed a class in firewalking. 

Fortunately, bandaids were available afterward at no charge.

There was a party afterward, but we ended up skipping it this year since it was, in good Wisconsin tradition, a fish fry. Between those in my household who won’t eat fried breaded fish and those who can’t eat fried breaded fried fish, we figured we were better off going elsewhere.

But my donors chipped in over $300 to the cause, and for that I am very grateful.

Our Trip Out East, Part the Third and Final

We spent the last part of our vacation in low gear, because a vacation is not something you should need a vacation to recover from.

We actually planned for this fact this time. The last time we went to Cape May, two years ago, we spent several days with my parents afterwards also. That time we arrived in Philadelphia with an entire agenda of people to visit and things to see, but aside from a group expedition to see WALL-E we pretty much spent those three or four days staring blankly at the walls and smiling over the good times we’d just had before packing up and returning to Wisconsin.

It’s all that relaxing – it really takes it out of you.

So this time we adjusted.

Our first day back was spent hanging out with Jenny, Koji and Kei, which was about our speed. The grownups had a grand time chatting at the park while the kids ran around, and then we moved on to a nice lunch before hanging out with my parents while the kids ran around. I even got to go over to visit Jenny and her parents for a bit while – wait for it – her kids ran around there. Kids must siphon all that energy directly from their parents. Before we had kids we had all sorts of energy; now they have it and we don’t. If I could patent this process I’d be rich, but I just don’t have the energy to think about it. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle that way.

Monday we decided to get a little more ambitious and actually travel into the city of Philadelphia.

Lauren was the one who led this charge. Lauren is very conscious of what she gets to do or not do in the way that younger siblings tend to be, and she gets very concerned about perceived injustices when the “not do” list seems to be outweighing the “do” list. And one of the things she decided needed to be moved from the former to the latter was to take a train ride. She’d never been on a train, at least not a full-scale one. That Tabitha hadn’t either didn’t matter. She wanted to ride on a train.

Fortunately for Lauren, Philadelphia has lots of trains, including a fairly extensive light rail system that the commuters use. As I was one of those commuters earlier in my life I’m pretty familiar with how it all works, and there is a train station not all that far from my parents’ house. So we wandered on up and bought a day pass while we waited for a train that was not in mechanical distress to come by. It was quite a wait. It was a good thing that the station now houses an allergen-free bakery that sells chocolate chip cookies as big as your head.

But it was worth it, as Lauren and Tabitha were both captivated by what had become through dint of repetition a rather mundane experience to me. You forget after a while just what a magical thing a train is when you ride on it day in and day out, and it’s nice to be reminded of the romance of the iron horse, even if it is just commuter rail.

By the time we got into the city it was lunchtime, so we walked the block or two up to the Reading Terminal Market and began our quest for sustenance.

If you’ve never been to the Reading Terminal Market, you should go. Imagine an entire 19th-century market street crossed with a modern mall food court (local restaurants only) and stuffed inside a cavernous unused rail station. Now people it with a crush of locals on their lunch hour and tourists there for the experience. Fill it with the scents of delis, fish shops, spice shops, and restaurants serving everything from cheesesteaks and hot dogs to Chinese food, crepes, sushi and ice cream, and throw in a used book store as well. That’s a start. You should go.

We even got soft pretzels with mustard while we were there, the way God clearly intended them to be eaten. If that isn’t in the Bible somewhere, it ought to be.

We spent most of that afternoon at the Market, but eventually we wandered further downtown and went to the Liberty Bell, one of the girls’ favorite things in Philadelphia. I am very happy that this is so.

A block or two away we stumbled into a re-enactor drilling a flock of tourists in the proper calls and formations for Revolutionary soldiers. He was loud, historically accurate, and deadpan funny, which is about all you can ask for from such a performance. Eventually he marched them across the street to the back of Independence Hall, where several re-enactors read sections of the Declaration of Independence by the statue of Commodore Barry, founder of the US Navy, who seems have found something interesting out on the horizon.

The next day we went to the Philadelphia Art Museum.

This has long been a goal of Kim’s. Kim loves art, and she has passed this down to her daughters. And good for them, I say. Me, I prefer my arts to perform. The original plan was for Kim and my mother to take the girls down, but since Lauren in particular insisted that I come along, I did. And it wasn’t bad.

We spent most of our time in the 19th-century wing, surrounded by Impressionists.

Kim loved the Modern Art as well – she is a fan of Kandinsky and other such painters – but I was mostly just confused by it. There was an entire room full of sculptures that seemed, well, odd, and while some of the modern art had pleasingly energetic simple lines, much of the rest just escaped me. But I said nothing, as I was under strict orders not to prejudice my daughters against this stuff and, really, I have no illusions about my being an arbiter of taste in this department. If they like it, well, good for them, and I think they did.

But the medieval armor room was something of a relief to me, I will admit.

I think the most amazing thing about the museum is that they have all this astonishing art – Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, DuChamp, Renoir (my favorite piece was his “Large Bathers,” which seemed like something where the subjects were actually having fun) and so on – and it’s right there just hanging on the wall in front of you. You can walk right up to it. I think that’s marvelous, really.

But all good things must come to an end, and so we had to return to our lives – our regular lives, where we have to take care of our own selves, of all things. So we packed up and headed west, stopping briefly in Pittsburgh to allow Tabitha the experience of “O” Fries – the greatest French fries in the world, available by the bushel basket at the Original Hot Dog Shop on Pitt’s campus.

That’s a large, and it fed the four of us comfortably.

It’s been a week since we got back. When do we get to do it again?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Our Trip Out East, Part the Second.

Why do we travel?

This is a question that deserves more of an answer than it usually gets. There is a reason why “travel” and “travail” share an etymology – for most of human history they were intimately connected experiences, and even in our modern age of airplanes, interstates and railroads they are not all that far separated. Anyone who has tried to board an American airplane in the last nine years – or even driven within three miles of a terminal, especially if you have a Swiss Army knife somewhere in the car – can attest to that.

Some people travel for the adventure of it. They bolt off in directions untried, toward destinations unknown, often with little more than the clothes on their backs (especially if those items of clothing happen to contain a wallet with credit cards in one of the pockets), and they don’t consider it a trip unless there are narrow escapes, photos of previously unseen vistas, and a minor scar or two.

I had a friend in college who decided to go to Cancun for spring break one year, which would not have been all that big a deal for someone who had the kind of money he had except that he made this decision about 36 hours before leaving. At that point there were no flights available to Cancun from any US or Canadian airport. So he flew to Belize, rented a jeep and drove several hundred miles through the jungle. He can now tell you exactly how much it takes to bribe a Mexican border guard when you don’t speak a word of Spanish, which is probably not all that useful in his current life but you never know. He regarded this as a trip well taken, particularly since the beach where he slept in Cancun (no, there were no hotels either) was hosting a Playboy shoot at the time.

I would not have taken that trip, shoot or no shoot.

Other people travel to see places or things. For them the lure of a city like Paris is the Eiffel Tower; a place like China is the Wall or the food; a place like Africa is the animals. The world is full of sights, places, objects and creatures, all waiting for a visit.

I’m not one of those people either. It would broaden my horizons if I were, really, since it would open up a whole lot of places for me to visit that I currently don’t have a lot of interest in going to now, but there you go. I can see things in books.

When I travel, mostly I go to see people.

For me a trip is all about who I can visit. When Kim took me to Washington DC a couple of years ago as a trailing spouse on one of her conferences, I spent an entire day sitting in a restaurant with a college friend, just catching up with each other’s lives. It was a day well spent in my opinion, and the many and varied attractions of that city just waited for another time.

So for me, the high points of our recent vacation were the ones involving family and friends that I hadn’t seen in a while, sometimes for years. Don’t get me wrong – it was fun to noodle around on the sand and pick up Cape May Diamonds and all. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun or as worthwhile without the people there.

On our first night away from home we stopped in Pittsburgh, where Kim and I met and where we still have a number of friends. We’d managed to get in touch with a couple of them ahead of time and they came to see us at our hotel.

Sharon was in graduate school with Kim. Mike was in graduate school with me. Both were in our wedding, which Mike’s wife Krista couldn’t attend because she was busy with Eli, who was a newborn at the time. Now look at him. Soon he’ll be able to drive out to visit us on his own.

New Jersey was full of family, which in one sense was odd since none of us live in New Jersey. But that was where the beach was, so that’s where we met up. It was fun to see Josh and Sara hanging out with Tabitha and Lauren. And for me, one of the highlights of the trip were the times after the kids were in bed, when the grownups would break out the margaritas (or wine, beer or cider – we’re not big drinkers, but we know what we like) and hang around telling stories much later than we would usually stay up. This has become one of my favorite traditions when we are down the shore, and as the kids get old enough perhaps they too will participate.

We even got to see Steve and Rolane, Lori’s parents, who came down to Cape May for dinner one night and who we went to visit at their house in Margate on the way back to Philadelphia. Plus, in Margate we got to see Marcia and her daughter Emmy. Marcia was a friend of both Keith and me in high school, and it was good to see her.

And after we got back to Philadelphia we spent a happy day hanging out with Jenny and her boys, Koji and Kei. Jenny and I have a long history together, one that includes going to my senior prom. We have stayed friends since then, as we have moved here and there across the country and the world, and it was wonderful to see her again. As you get older you find that it becomes ever more important to hold onto the people you were close to before, who remember the same stories that you do and knew you when. People like that won’t let you get away with much, but neither will they let you down.

We didn’t manage to catch up with everyone on this trip. A couple of friends we missed due to communication errors or scheduling conflicts, and there were only so many people we could fit into the time we had available to begin with. It is a nice problem to have, having too many friends to see in a given period of time.

But we gave it our best, and we will try for some of the ones we missed next time.

And that’s why I travel.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Our Trip Out East, Part the First.

We spent the bulk of our vacation down at the Jersey shore, because I am from Philadelphia and that is what my people do.

It has ever been thus.

When I was a kid we went to Sea Isle City, where my Uncle Charlie (“uncle” in the extended Italian sense of “someone related whose exact degree would be too complicated to repeat and Uncle will do fine”) had a house that we’d rent for a week while it rained. It didn’t rain all the time, not really, but it rained enough to provide a lifetime’s worth of family stories and a complete understanding of the rules and strategy of Yahtzee.

Before that my parents would go to their favorite places down the shore (yes, that’s how we phrase that), and their parents before them. Atlantic City figures heavily in my family’s lore.

Recently my parents have begun renting places in Cape May, which is as far south as you can go in New Jersey and still have dry feet. Cape May is a lovely town, especially if you like Victoriana – a good chunk of it is actually a National Historic Landmark, which having run one of those for a while I can tell you is not a small thing. It’s also the kind of place where you can take small kids and have a grand time. The teenagers go to Wildwood when they’re on their own or Ocean City when they’re with their families, or at least they did when I was a teenager.

We like Cape May. We get to hang out at the beach, catch up with family, and generally enjoy ourselves. My parents were there, my brother and his family came down from New York, and a good time was had by all and sundry. You can’t ask much more from a vacation than that.

We took the scenic route to get there, across the southern edge of New Jersey, past towns with names like Bivalve. The roads down there are not all that well marked – or they are too well marked so that you aren’t sure which sign points to which road – and we took a couple of short detours, but in a way that was sort of the point. Kim had really only seen New Jersey from the AC Expressway before, and everything looks the same from the highways. So she plotted a more local course. It was probably slower than the highway even with the advantage of far fewer miles actually traveled, but it was prettier and really, if you can’t go slow on vacation when can you?

This was a new place we were staying in, the previous one having gotten a bit small for us. It was a hit. It had bedrooms for everybody and a plethora of bathrooms. And it was right downtown, where the grocery store is – which for us is just perfect. We could walk to the store, we could walk to the minigolf, and most importantly, we could walk to the beach.

The girls just love the beach. They look forward to this trip all year long, and they wring the most beach time they can out of every day there.

They frolic in the waves, which is a wonderful thing to see especially since so few people actually “frolic” anymore.

They surf their way back to shore on their boogie boards.

Back in the Stone Ages, when I was a kid, we had rafts made of stone, of course. They sank. Then they invented inflatable rubber rafts, which were a whole lot more fun except they tended to lose air after a while and become like unto stone. This is not a problem with the boogie boards. They hold up to a lot of use – even when grownups get involved.

There were also sand castles to build, some of which approached the sophistication of medieval towns and with much the same drainage problems. But the effort was the thing – that and the recruiting of volunteers and the making of new friends.

The weather was quite hot the first couple of days before cooling off a bit toward the end of the week, which meant that we spent most of the time covered in a thick layer of sunscreen. While it did tend to make holding on to small objects a bit of a task, it must be said that the sunburns were few and localized this year – an improvement over previous years. We’re getting good at this. The oddest time, though, was the morning when the fog rolled in. It was thick, grey, and beaded up on your sunscreen as if you were a cold glass of water in the afternoon sunshine. We loved it. You could tell that the lifeguards were a bit put off by the fog, since they could barely see the water let alone the people in it and they kept whistling us back onto the shore, but it was actually kind of fun.

As always with my extended family, food played a big role on our week. We’re a food-centric bunch, which is a bit tricky these days as the list of things one or more of us must avoid gets longer every year, but we are clever and resourceful people and we simply figure out solutions to those problems. Having a bucket full of margaritas for the grownups always helps, as does having the world’s biggest marshmallows for making smores for the kids.

We also make it a point to stop by Hot Dog Tommy’s.

Hot Dog Tommy has a funny foam hat and sells gourmet dogs out of a walk-up hole-in-the-wall right off the beach, and we look forward to visiting him every time we go because in addition to having the world’s best hot dogs, he also sells slushies. Heavily flavored slushies, evidently.

There was only one day that we didn’t get to the beach, and much of that was spent going dolphin watching. Cape May gets a lot of dolphins. They swim along the shoreline, sometimes as close as twenty or thirty yards offshore, jumping and playing while everybody oohs and ahhs and points. Dolphins: the attention whores of the maritime world. And a number of enterprising companies have outfitted large boats to take advantage of this. You head on over to the docks, pay your fare, and they take you through the shipping canal and around the point in a big circle so you can get up close and personal with the dolphins.

This year the girls even convinced me to go.

I’m not a great fan of boats. They don’t qualify as a phobia and I am one of the least susceptible people I know when it comes to motion sickness, but even so I generally would rather stay on land. Usually on these trips I stay home and cook dinner, but this year my presence was requested, so I went.

It was a nice tour, with all sorts of dolphins bobbing along with the boat.

That day was also Arcade Day, because you cannot go to the Jersey shore without your requisite quota of skee ball. The girls have actually gotten quite good at that game – so much so that by the end of the week they had enough tickets to exchange them for some truly inspiring tchotchkes. You have to wonder at the thought process that went in to selecting some of them for display, but clearly the arcade people know their market since there was much excitement all around when the cousins went to redeem their tickets. It’s like the lottery, only with more winners.

No trip to Cape May is complete without a visit to Sunset Beach, which is opposite the usual beaches and faces the point where the Delaware River meets the sea. It’s a rocky beach, which is part of the charm – many of the rocks are “Cape May Diamonds,” which are little quartz stones that you can polish up to look like, well, diamonds, if you have a bit of imagination, and much of the fun is collecting them. Wear sneakers, though, as the rocks are hard on the feet and sandals don’t help. There is also a stone jetty for the kids to run around on. It points out to sea, directly at the wreck of a concrete ship that ran aground there in 1926. Seriously, it’s made of concrete – an experiment during WWI that somehow didn’t catch on. It’s slowly deteriorating – even in the half dozen years we’ve been going there it has diminished noticeably – so if you want to see it you’d better hurry.

On our last day we cleaned.

You have to leave these places clean or else they take your deposit, so the last morning is always spent getting the place ready for the next people and packing everything up into the cars. Afterward we had a very nice lunch at a place overlooking the beach, wandered through a random craft fair that sprang up out of nowhere, and then headed north to Margate to visit my brother’s in-laws, who have a house there.

We always enjoy visiting with them, as they are good people. Steve even took most of the various assembled out on his boat, which the girls just loved. And there were donuts – real bakery donuts, which for most people is not that big a deal but with the nut and peanut allergies in our family it was quite an event. Junior’s is right on the water and within walking distance, and we took full advantage of this.

And so went our visit to the shore. But our trip did not end there.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Gift of the Felii

The smell of grapefruit pervades throughout.

I have spent an astonishing percentage of the last two days dealing with things that can be filed under the general heading of “the price you pay for owning cats.” I am not sure why I am being faced with so many prices and so few benefits of late, but there it is. It probably has to do with our vacation.

The past two nights, for example, have seen epic battles for lebensraum on our mattress, as the kitties seek reassurance that we are still there while we seek a night’s rest without cramps. We always win that battle, as measured by who throws whom off the bed, but it’s not a particularly satisfying victory as measured by REM sleep.

My car has also been covered with all manner of muddy footprints from cats newly liberated from the house and eager to revisit their old haunts in the garage. Tria in particular loves to climb from the hood to the windshield to the roof and then jump up onto the raised garage door. She prowls around for a while and then – WHAM! – she leaps back down onto the car. She can do this for hours. Someday I will try to close the garage door at an inopportune time and what an experience that will be.

These problems are not all that far removed from normal life, however.

What is new is that the cats apparently decided that the nice clean litter box that we left them while we were away was simply not good enough. And, naturally, they decided that the proper substitute for said litter box was the brand new carpeting in my office.

We were gone for fourteen days – twelve if you don’t count the day we left and the day we came back. By my calculations they must have started sometime as the car left the driveway and continued until they heard the key in the door on Thursday evening.

It was, in a way, impressive.

So there has been cleaning. And spraying. And a symphony of creative linguistics enabled by the fact that the girls were safely in bed when the reality of the situation presented itself.

One of the secrets we’ve learned over the years is that if you want to keep cats out of a certain space and there isn’t a physical barrier such as a door, the thing to do is line it with aluminum foil trays (which crinkle in a way they don’t like) and then fill the trays with citrus oil. And since we still have a fair amount of grapefruit essential oil left over from our soapmaking days, this was not hard to do.

It certainly smells a lot better in here these days.

But I find myself inexplicably hungry.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Aaaaaand we're back!

Oh, internet, how I have missed you.

We just got back from two weeks of family vacation, which was enjoyable in just about every way. We spent a week down at Cape May NJ with extended family, trekking to the beach and generally having a wonderful time. Then we had a few days in Philadelphia to recover from all that relaxing. Sights were seen, times were had, and you just know that there will be a full report here in the next few days.

But there was no web access, not really.

As someone who grew up before the Digital Age and whose relationship with technology is at best ambivalent, it always astounds me how thoroughly the web has infiltrated my life. I have a blog. I have a Facebook account. I still insist on the occasional “old-fashioned email,” as I was once astounded to hear someone refer to it. Whenever I need to know a particular bit of information, I tend to look it up online before I seek out a physical reference book – and I am old and cagey enough to be careful of my sources there.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who uses Amazon as a reference source (who wrote that, again?).

But on this vacation I made the conscious choice that I wasn’t going to seek out access to the web. The blog could wait. Facebook could wait (although this, in the end, might have been a mistake, as it likely led to a missed connection with an old friend who clearly does not understand the concept of “off line” even though he works in IT). Emails could wait.

And you know what? It wasn’t as pleasant as the “Simplify Your Life” crowd would have you believe.

We are storytelling animals, we humans. Communication is hard-wired into our brains, our spirits and our lives. I missed the connectivity, the stories that I could tell and the stories that other people could tell me. Yes, there were real people around me to share those things with, and yes we did – that, to me, was the main purpose of the trip, to see family and friends I haven’t seen in too long and share stories. But apparently I am now a citizen of the Digital Age as well.

Jittery. Very jittery, this notion.

Friday, August 6, 2010


There will be a short intermission while life occurs.  Please be sure to patronize the snack bar in the lobby.

It's all good.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fourteenth Amendment - An Appreciation

We covered the Fourteenth Amendment in class on Tuesday.

I always spend a lot of time on this amendment. For one thing, it makes a great way to sum up. A lot of the things we cover in the last third of the course come together in this amendment – slavery, liberty, sectionalism, and, perhaps most importantly, what means to be an American. It’s a great message to end with. For another, it’s the single most important amendment in the entire Constitution. The effect of the Fourteenth Amendment was to create, for the first time, a single nation-state out of the loose union of states envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Historians call the period when this amendment was ratified “Reconstruction,” to denote the work done by the North to rebuild nation after the failure of the South’s treason. But really, as one of my grad-school professors used to say, it should be called New Construction, because the nation that emerged out of it was a rather different one than the one that went into it.

The Fourteenth Amendment, like all Constitutional amendments, is not all that long. It has five sections, two of which are fairly technical things designed to address specific issues arising from the Civil War and another that simply says that Congress can pass laws to enforce the provisions of the amendment. Another section deals with the relationship between the number of voters and the amount of representation in Congress a state was entitled to, now that the slaves had been freed and would no longer be counted as 3/5 of a person.

But the key section of the Fourteenth Amendment is the first one, and it reads in its entirety:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

There are two key facts that arise out of this first section.

First, the first sentence is the only place in the Constitution where the criteria for citizenship are defined. It is here, emerging from the wreckage of the Civil War, that Americans finally decided that differentiating among citizens based on whether the majority liked you or not was a losing bet. There would henceforth be two fairly straightforward ways to become an American citizen – either you were born here, or you passed a test. In other words, the United States would not divide its people based on where they came from, what they looked like, what language they spoke or who their parents were.

This was in keeping with one of the larger messages of the Civil War, as articulated by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, in 1863.

What did it mean to be an American?

Prior to the Civil War this was a legal question. The US was founded on the Constitution – it is our fundamental law, and without it the United States does not exist in any formal sense – and the question of what it meant to be an American was functionally equivalent to what was Constitutional.

But Lincoln, picking up on something that the Moral Reform Movements had been arguing since the 1830s, said no. The Union, he said, was not a legal entity bounded by the language of the Constitution – it was a set of ideals. Do the math. “Four score and seven years ago” from 1863 does not get you back to 1787, when the Constitution was written. It gets you back to 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved.

The Declaration is an odd document. It has no force of law. You cannot introduce it as evidence in a courtroom. It was simply the way the colonies had announced to the world that they no longer considered themselves British colonies. And for the next eighty years or so, that’s how most Americans saw it. There’s a reason the original handwritten copy is in such bad shape – it wasn’t seen as particularly defining back then. Important, yes, in the way any posted bill for an important event was, but not defining.

But if the Union is to be a set of ideals, the question is where do those ideals come from? And what Lincoln is saying – what reformers had been saying – was that those ideals came from the Declaration. After all, nobody remembers that the bulk of that document is a catalogue of the abuses of the British Crown as perceived by the colonists. What people remember is that one ringing sentence that Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To hold those truths was to be an American.

And to hold those truths was a task, a proposition to assent to, not an inherent characteristic. To be an American was to subscribe to a creed – a secular creed, found in the Declaration. And this, it strikes me, is enshrined in the citizenship requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. With the Fourteenth Amendment, the US declared that its citizens would be the people born here, who had the self-evident rights described in the Declaration simply by virtue of being born on American soil – these truths were fundamentally part of this nation, and imbibed with the air. And for those not born here, the deal was that if you held the same ideals that the US embodied you could become just as American as those who were born here. It’s an aspirational citizenship, not a biological one.

The second thing that arises out of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment is that the citizenship it defines is, for the first time in American history, national. The relevant phrase is “citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” as confirmed and explained by the rest of the amendment.

Prior to this you were considered a citizen of your state, and only by implication – since the states were part of this nebulous thing called the United States – were you also a citizen of the US. The Fourteenth Amendment reverses the order of that. As an American, you are first and foremost a citizen of the United States and only secondarily a citizen of the specific state in which you live.

This has a number of implications.

For one thing, it is part of a larger movement toward making the United States more of a single nation than a collection of states. Prior to the Civil War the proper grammatical construction of a verb following the noun “United States” was plural – “The United States ARE.” Only with the Civil War – after four years of armed conflict over the preservation (or, if you were a Southerner, the destruction) of the Union, after years of hearing about the primacy of the Union, and after several million Americans actually left their states and marched across so much of that Union – did the United States become a singular noun, “The United States IS.” A single citizenship in that Union, one that trumped the multiple citizenships of multiple states, made sense.

More importantly, though, the fact that citizens of the various states were first and foremost citizens of the federal government meant that for the first time when the federal government gave you a right, the states couldn’t take it away. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; …”

Or in other words, for the first time the Bill of Rights now applied to the states.

Before the Fourteenth Amendment the states could – and into the 1830s sometimes did – establish religions in their territory. Before the Fourteenth Amendment the states could impose cruel and unusual punishment. Before the Fourteenth Amendment the states could search your home without a warrant. Only the federal government was prohibited from doing those things, because the Framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with defining the powers of the new federal government when they wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

But with the experience of eighty years, the men who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment could see that the federal government had done – and in point of fact continues to do, with certain notable exceptions – a much better job of protecting individual liberties than the states, as a whole.

So the Fourteenth Amendment is critical to who we are as Americans in ways that might not always be apparent on first glance.

This is why it is both pleasing and troubling to see the Fourteenth Amendment so much in the news this week.

On the plus side, the recent decision in California overturning their referendum banning gay marriage was based squarely on the Fourteenth Amendment.

Unlike most of the people currently up in arms over this decision, I took the time to read through the actual decision. It was an interesting thing to read, from an unlikely source.

US District Judge Vaughn Walker was first nominated by Ronald Reagan and then renominated by the first George Bush when liberals, upset by, among other things, his role in a case denying the Gay Olympics the right to use the “Olympics” name, blocked Reagan’s nomination. This will make the inevitable backlash against so-called liberal judges imposing their personal morality on poor unsuspecting conservatives even more grotesquely amusing than usual.

Though perhaps this source is not that unlikely, really. There was a time when conservatives actually respected the Constitution and the laws and supported such notions of equality before the law and a level playing field. Perhaps Judge Walker is simply a holdover from before the time when social conservative theocrats took over that wing of American politics and began to push their view of the Constitution as an annoyance to be worked around.

This country is not a democracy. The Constitution was not set up to enforce the idea that the majority can do whatever it wants specifically because it is a majority. As Judge Walker points out, there are limits.

“That the majority of California voters supported Proposition 8 is irrelevant, as ‘fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’ Under strict scrutiny, the state bears the burden of producing evidence to show that Proposition 8 is narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest.”

In other words, since the Constitution exists in part to protect us from the tyranny of the majority, the mere fact that a majority of citizens feel justified in denying fundamental rights to a minority of other citizens does not mean that this majority is actually empowered to do so. Citizens - all citizens, born or naturalized - have fundamental rights as Americans.  There has to be something more to a law than the will of the majority, some substantive interest that can pass Constitutional muster.

The relevant question is not what do most voters prefer. The relevant question is what is allowable under the Constitution. And the Fourteenth Amendment specifically prohibits the denial of equal protection under the laws by any state, even if the majority of its voters think they are superior to a minority and wish to flaunt that, unless the state can show a compelling interest in this denial. And, as exhaustively catalogued in the decision (really - it just goes on and on and on) no such compelling interest was shown.

For this reason, Judge Walker notes that the ban on gay marriage violates both the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, unduly restricting the rights of citizens of the United States, something the voters of California are not entitled to do regardless of the poll count.

While this is a victory for American ideals over American practice, it will no doubt feed into the other, more troubling reason that the Fourteenth Amendment is in the news of late, which is the desire of the lunatic fringe of the modern conservative movement – the fringe that seems to be running it these days, unfortunately – to repeal the amendment.

This is usually phrased in terms of immigration.

It seems there are just too many brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people in America for conservatives to stomach these days, and a lot of them seem to have been born here. And having been born here, under the Fourteenth Amendment they are citizens and cannot be deported to the homelands of their parents, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. So now there is a push among the Teabaggers and their ilk to repeal the part about citizenship and go back to the Dred Scott standard by which a group can be denied citizenship by a majority of voters simply because they’re unpopular.

I’m not even going to go into the sheer viciousness and petty-mindedness of this other than to point out that when even Alan Keyes and Lou Dobbs think you’ve jumped the shark, it’s time to take swimming lessons.

What bothers me about it, though, are the broader implications for what it means to be an American that might accompany the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Are we ready for a nation where the states are no longer bound by the Bill of Rights? Maybe the people pushing for this would be happy to have their states establish a religion, assuming that it’s their own religion (this always seems to be the unspoken assumption behind those efforts), but I don’t think they’d be happy in a nation where their precious Second Amendment rights are no longer guaranteed by the states. It’s a package deal, though.

Are we ready for a nation where random groups of citizens can be denied fundamental rights simply because a majority says so? Majorities are notoriously fickle things, you know, and demographics change all the time. It’s not an accident that most Teabaggers are older, white men. They long for a time when people like them ruled unopposed by pesky women and nonwhites. Speaking as someone who will, with any luck, become an old white man someday I can see the selfish attraction in this, but as an American I am utterly appalled. And in the not-too-distant future, the majority of Americans may well not look like me. Protecting the rights of everyone is the best way to protect your own rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment is one of the towering achievements of American politics. Long may it stand.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

High Finance

I am never going to be Warren Buffet.

Now, this is not news to anyone who knows me even a little bit. First of all, you do not become a historian as your first step to riches or worldly influence. Statistically speaking, very few conversations begin with the phrase, “When I am a wealthy and powerful historian, …” and this is for very good reasons. My tribe, we are a fairly low-status group, and the world is probably safer for it. Second, as has become more evident over time, my mind just isn’t really set up to handle money. Oh, I’m not wasteful of it – I can live within my means, pay my bills, and generally avoid becoming more of a burden on society than average. But when the limit of your financial acumen amounts to “try to spend less than you have,” your net worth will never be measured in millions.

Usually I leave all that to Kim. She is an optimizer, and the money does not complain when it is told that it is not good enough and needs to grow. So she tinkers, invests, plots, and generally does all the things that ought to happen in order to protect our long-term security.

This is why it feels so strange to have chosen a stock this week.

As of last week our portfolio consisted of a few shares of a Florida power company and a few more shares of Marvel Comics, which – until it was bought out by Disney – had never lost money for us. This is not something our mutual funds, IRAs and 529 EdVest accounts could say. Really, we would have been better off burying that money in tin cans in the back yard. But comic books? A gold mine.

On Monday, though, I saw an article online that made me think, “You know, that company is going to be very profitable if that deal goes through.” So I showed it to Kim, who decided that this was worth buying some stock.

Honestly, it was a nerve-wracking experience for me. I have no idea how people can stand to do that sort of thing for a living. And this was not exactly high finance, either – it involved transferring money out of one savings account into another in order to cover transferring money out of that second account into the one Kim set up to buy stocks online with a reputable firm, and then buying the stocks. Neat. Simple. Orderly.


But now we own shares of something else. I hope they do better than our IRAs.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Bowl Full of Spice

There’s a bowl of jalapenos sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to figure out what to do with them. My plan, such as it is, is to pickle them in vinegar and salt, put them in the refrigerator for a while to get good and tasty, and then spend a glorious week living on nachos.

So I’m not Napoleon working on ways to conquer the world. Sue me.

The pepper harvest is the main reason I tag along with Kim’s garden plans. I do not like chard. Squash is okay once in a while. Tomatoes are only good when they’re ground up, spiced, simmered, and poured over pasta – other than that I don’t even like handling them. But hot peppers? I am so there.

Last year was the year of the hot sauce, when I napalmed the house trying to make my own version of Tabasco from the freighter’s worth of random hot red peppers that we harvested. The sauce that resulted was in fact very good, with actual flavor to go along with the heat, and eventually the cats regrew their hair. Win all around, as far as I could see.

This year Kim says that anything I do with peppers must be done outside.

I like spicy food. This is a very difficult way to be out here in the nation’s tender midsection, where garlic is considered exotic. Whenever I find myself in our local Chinese takeout, for example, I have to explain that I want my order “extra spicy.” And when they nod and say, “Okay,” I say, “No. Not ‘midwest extra spicy’ – REALLY extra spicy.” And if you do that enough times eventually you reach a level of spicy that is detectable.

Of course, even I have limits, and those are not as flammable as they used to be.

When I lived in Pittsburgh I went to a BBQ Rib Festival with some friends.

If you’ve never been to one of these things, you should go. They’re fun, especially if you like good food. Various barbecue guys (they’re almost always men, for some reason) set up booths around the perimeter of a field, and you go from booth to booth buying the two-rib samplers in order to experience the widest array of flavors. These guys ride the national circuit, most of them, so they’re all good. You can’t really go wrong, at least not in terms of flavor.

And then we got to Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs.

Have you ever done something and, much later, gone back over the course of events and thought to yourself, “You know, there were a whole lot of warning signs there that I should have paid attention to”? This was one of those times.

The first warning sign was, of course, the name itself. But I chalked that up to the kind of hyperbole and hucksterism that one gets with events like this. Yeah, yeah, “thermonuclear” – good one, buddy.

The fact that this booth was directly across from the beverage tent might also have meant something if I had not assumed that this was just a coincidence. They have to put the beverage tent somewhere, don’t they? Why not across from Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs?

The “Release From Liability” that I had to sign when I got my ribs, though – that should have set off some bells. I was working as a paralegal at the time, and let me just say that - marketing ploy thought it may have been – this document would have stood up in court. It was solidly written, airtight and buttoned down. No matter what this stuff did to me, I had no legal recourse to anything once I signed that piece of paper. Even thinking of suing them probably would have entitled them to take my personal effects and sell them for scrap. It was a masterpiece of the genre.

When I touched some of the sauce to my lips and promptly lost all feeling in my mouth – yeah, that too probably should have triggered some kind of response beyond amazement. But I was young and indestructible, and eventually the feeling returned.

So I set about eating those two ribs.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, was that an experience. Did you know that at certain levels of spicy food, your vision really does get tinged with red? This was but one of the fascinating physiological discoveries I made that afternoon.

I was the only person in my group of friends who managed to finish the ribs. All of those friends had children years before I did, which I am convinced was not a coincidence. And as a friend of mine later sympathized when I was telling him this story some years later, what goes in, must come out.

I don’t do that anymore. I have grown old and weary of the idea of food as a contest of wills. But I still like food with zip to it.

And so my jalapenos await.