Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Halloween Round-up

The cat is seriously miffed right now.

Tria is an outdoor cat at heart. This potentially is a problem here in Our Little Town, where cats are legally required to be on a leash when outdoors – quite possibly the least effective use of law-enforcement authority in American history, not counting the local ordinance in effect in Gettysburg in 1863 that banned the discharge of firearms. As a practical matter, though, nobody worries about it – she goes out most nights. But not this night, as a black cat out on Halloween night is just an invitation to commit nonsense for somebody who thinks they have a sense of humor.

It’s been a busy weekend.

This is the kickoff of our holiday season. We have conveniently scheduled all of our major gift-giving events for the 63 days between Halloween and New Years, inclusive – birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and so on – which makes the rest of the year pretty quiet, but means that The Fun Starts Now.

We spent Saturday morning cleaning up from Lauren’s sleep-over party, since Party Mark II: This Time It’s Family was scheduled for that evening when Kim’s parents came down for a visit. Kim made beef stew and another cake, since the cupcakes were sadly depleted from the first party, and Tabitha whomped up a brand new batch of frosting, this time in Halloween colors and styles. Lauren was suitably impressed.

As with the first party, a good time was had by all. The adults did a lot of sitting around and talking, as adults are wont to do, and the girls did a good job of keeping their 3-year-old cousin Brody entertained. And then there was dinner.

And then there was cake.

There were also presents, because such things are fun.

We woke up this morning to the realization that it was, in fact, Halloween today, and therefore all of the time we kept saying we had to get ready for Halloween had largely vanished. This sort of realization is what we like to call “normal” around here, as deadlines creep up in plain sight until they can no longer be willfully ignored, and then a whirlwind of motion kicks in and Things Get Done.

So the morning was spent carving pumpkins. Because nothing says “festive!” like eviscerating a vegetable and punching holes in it with a steak knife. Artistic holes, mind you – it’s not just a random stab-session.

Properly outfitted with candles, the pumpkins were then placed on the front porch to greet the trick-or-treaters.

After the pumpkin carving we went out to a birthday lunch at Lauren’s favorite restaurant, a Wisconsin chain called “Noodles” that specializes in … wait for it … noodles. Apparently their mac-n-cheese is just heavenly. And it is just the sort of thing you want to look at after you have disemboweled a pumpkin, too.

Having consumed sufficient carbohydrates, we then took a ride over to the Big Bookstore in Madison so Lauren could work her way through a gift card that she received for her birthday. I cannot tell you how proud I am of my daughters that they consider going to the bookstore to be a treat. There was much pillaging and looting of printed materials, and much rejoicing from all of us.

But time moves on, and we hurried back home to Our Little Town for to get ready to trick-or-treat! After our traditional Halloween dinner of chicken pot pies (fast, easy, and no clean-up to distract from more important activities) the girls got back into their costumes and we headed out into the brisk fall air for some racketeering.

Really, who thought this routine up? You wear strange clothes, knock on people’s doors and demand candy, and they give it to you. Life. Is. Good.

We made a 90-minute circuit of the neighborhood, accumulating enough sugar keep a pre-school in orbit before the girls decided that they had reached their limit. It is nice to live in a part of the country where it gets cold around this time of year, as it does introduce a natural end-point to this sort of activity.

So right now there are two barrels full of candy in the living room, two cats in the bedroom (one of which is silently fuming about this sad state of affairs), two kids more or less in bed and waiting for school tomorrow, and two very tired parents about to say those three magic words that so often keep a marriage happy.

“Time to sleep.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Who Speaks for Me?

We took the girls over to the version of the Rally to Restore Sanity that was held here in Our Little Town this afternoon.

It was quiet and, as advertised, sane – maybe fifty people gathered in the public room of our local organic co-op (of course it was at the organic co-op – don’t be silly) with the main rally in DC playing on a wide-screen TV and a sign-up sheet for those who wanted to speak to the crowd. We were there maybe half an hour and heard only one speaker – an earnest young man who warned against the dangers of letting fear be the governing force in life – before the prosaic reality of lunchtime hit hard and we decided to move on.

It was a fine event.

There has been a great deal of debate over the value of the Rally to Restore Sanity in the various blogs and news sources that I read – some people see it as a distraction or a meaningless gesture, something that trivializes rather than confronts, while other people see it as a necessary and vital step in correcting the imbalances of our political world. And while I have precious little faith in the ability of crowds to influence debates in positive ways, I admit that I tend to side with the latter group rather than the former.

Because I have listened to the forces of ignorance and hatred that dominate our political soundscape these days, and they do not speak for me. And somebody has to say that.

When professional agitators are given book contracts, cable televison shows and radio empires in which to spew bile across the American political spectrum, somebody has to say to them –

“You do not speak for me.”

When rhetorical bullies claim to be protecting a Constitution that they do not understand and have clearly never read, when they are foisting off some infantile vision of fantasy and revenge instead of seeking to ground their positions in the fertile soil of actual American history, documents and values, somebody has to say to them –

“You do not speak for me.”

When the narrow-minded pretend that this nation has ever been anything but a multi-cultural, multi-lingual chaotic festival of a place, when they insist that only their language, their ethnicities and their views are truly American, somebody has to say to them –

“You do not speak for me.”

When the small insist that others with opposing views are unpatriotic, somebody has to say to them –

“You do not speak for me.”

When people insist that government of the people, by the people and for the people is the enemy, somebody has to say to them –

“You do not speak for me.”

I know what this country was founded upon. It is part of my job description to know this.

I know what this country has been through to get where it is today. It is part of my job description to know this, too.

And the bombast of the ignorant does not speak for me.

I speak for me.

Sleep Over and Out

I think they’re asleep.

Tabitha once said that the reason they call them “sleep-over parties” is because once the party starts your chances of getting any sleep are pretty much over. And truer words were never spoken. But at the moment there are four girls sprawled across my living room, slowly coming down from the sugar, popcorn and general kid-energy and slipping off into dreams, and this is a good thing.

Today was Lauren’s big sleep-over party, that she had been buzzing about for just weeks. It’s not her actual birthday – that’s not until Sunday – but as she will be trick-or-treating that night and as it is also a school night, we moved her birthday to Friday. We do that in my family. Holidays happen when you’ve got time for them, because otherwise what’s the point?

The problem with our plan this time is that the schools were off Thursday and Friday, and many of Lauren’s friends took the opportunity to go out of town for the weekend. Plus it’s fall, so many of those who remained were sick. So in the end there were just four girls present – Lauren, Tabitha and their friends Ashley and Meghan.

And yet a good time was had by all, so let that be a lesson.

And how could you not have a good time? There were friends. There was pizza. There were cupcakes – with frosting made entirely by Tabitha not once but twice, since we forgot that Meghan couldn’t have red dyes the first time. Two kinds of homemade buttercream frosting? How can this not be excellent? There were also presents. And yesterday I cleared out a significant percentage of the basement for open space for them to run around in and re-clutter, which they dutifully did, at ear-splitting volumes.

So now Lauren is officially 8, more or less.

This means she can ditch her car seat, if we read the laws right. She has been itching to do that, though why is not clear – it will only make her shorter in the near term, but perhaps that is a price she feels is worth paying to be unencumbered by such reminders of her childish past.

It also means that she is that much closer to being the person she will become. As a parent, you can’t but hope for that outcome – it’s why you do all the things you do. You want her to grow up big and strong, not just physically but in every way, so she’ll be sure of who she is and happy in her own skin, confident enough to stand up for her beliefs and to let others disagree without taking it as an affront. You want all that for her and more, and it still tugs at your heart to see it happening right before your eyes anyway.

Happy Birthday, Lauren.

I’m proud of you.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Candy Dance

It was the annual Halloween Fest down at Not Bad President Elementary last night. Everyone who was anyone was there.

Every year NBPE gathers the troops together for an evening of costumed entertainment. In previous years this involved a costume parade that would take the kids from one candy-distributing classroom to another for long enough that each child would end up with enough candy to give jitters to people three towns over.

And then the schools would close for a long weekend to ensure that this would remain the problem of us parents rather than them.

This year they decided to forego the costume parade and pack up all the donated candy into small bags – enough to make the kids happy without causing them to vibrate – to be handed out as they left. This was a great plan, although it did mean that there would have to be some other activity planned to take up the yawning gulf of time between arrival and sugar rush.

And so there was a dance. A costumed dance.

Aren’t you sorry you didn’t think of that?

With Kim’s position high up in the administrative ether of Home Campus draining the life force from her body and the hours from her day, it was largely left to me to get the girls into their costumes. I cannot tell you enough how poor of an idea this was. But one does what one must, particularly in the face of excited munchkins, and eventually Kim came home and fixed everything.

This year, for the first time in memory, Tabitha was not a cat. Instead – since we already had the cape from her stage performance of the same role last year – she was Little Red Riding Hood.

Lauren, for her part wanted to be a vampire. Or a witch. Or possibly an undead vampire witch. Whatever – it looked suitably ghastly and that was all that mattered. She certainly was having fun with it.

As has become the norm of late, the girls hit the school running and that was pretty much the last we saw of them for the rest of the night. I was on hallway patrol for a while (the temptation of empty school halls hits even grade schoolers) and Kim eventually tracked the girls down and ordered them to eat some dinner, but for the most part it was a grown-up-free evening for them.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Memento Mori et Tempestae

Good heavens. We’ve lost one of our tombstones.

Every year here in Our Little Town we get one major windstorm that picks up everything on the ground and deposits it a block or two over. I don’t remember the last time I raked my own leaves, for example.

Today is that day.

It started last night, in fact. When the winds blow the rain against my windows hard enough to wake me up, you know those are serious winds.

Right now it’s raining sideways and anything that isn’t nailed down is sailing off toward Canada. While I have understood and sympathized with that impulse a fair amount since 2001, I have to say that there are probably less disruptive ways to achieve this goal.

Halloween is Lauren’s favorite time of year, in no small part because it is her birthday and she is at the age when birthdays are Big Events not to be trifled with. I think she appreciates the fact that everyone else gets to celebrate on her birthday. She certainly intends to, so why shouldn't you? So all month long we have been slowly gearing up for it – hanging a strand or two of paper pumpkins around the living room, plugging in some electric pumpkins here and there, and setting out the lawn decorations.

We don’t have nearly the lawn decorations that some people do in this town. This is a blue-collar town, and one thing that historians know is that festivals have historically belonged to the lower orders of society – it’s how they break up the work load of the year and, often, how they exact enough symbolic revenge on the upper orders to get them through the year without gutting them. And in this factory town, you can find a whole lot of seriously decorated houses.

Around the corner from us, for example, is a house that every year gets decorated from top to bottom in ghosts, ghouls, vampires, cobwebs, lights, pumpkins, and just about anything else you can imagine that can be made out of black or orange plastic. It’s impressive, in a “where do these people find that kind of time?” kind of way.

They do a mean Christmas display, too.

We’re not that deeply committed, but Lauren does insist that we do something at least to mark the holiday. So we have a ghost on a bamboo pole that we plant in the bushes, two other smaller ghosts on metal posts that go in some other bushes, a few masks that we hang up on the porch, and this year we added three foam tombstones for the lawn.

We’ve still got two of them.

Revolutionary Thoughts

We’re slogging our way through the American Revolution in class this week.

This is my favorite part of US1. Not the military part so much – I spend about half an hour on the various battles, during most of which I focus on the experience of the soldiers more than the course of the war. The book does a very nice job of outlining the victories and losses and I see no reason to repeat that information in class. But you can deduce pretty much all of the tactics of the Revolutionary-era armies from the simple fact that they were armed with muskets, and that is something the book doesn’t pay much attention to.

No, what I like is the general course of the whole unit, which stretches from 1763 to 1815 or so. I try to organize it around the theme of “What were they fighting for?” This is a question that has several different meanings, depending on when you seek to apply it.

From 1763 to 1775, the question more or less translates as “Why so upset?” Looked at from a distance, the things that sparked the colonists’ outrage in the 1760s and early 1770s – the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and so on – were nothing special and it is hard not to sympathize with the British government, who only wanted the skinflint colonists to chip in a bit toward their own defense. Why such a big deal?

From 1775 to 1783, during the war itself, this question boils down to “Who is on what side for what reason?” Because it’s hard enough to get five unarmed friends to agree on what to put on a pizza, let alone get thousands of strangers with guns to fight for a single cause. And the simple fact is that the Revolutionaries didn’t fight for a single cause. They fought for a lot of different causes that happened to line them up in mostly the same direction most of the time, with the pointy end of the bayonet facing the redcoats.

And that is why the period from 1783 (or 1776, depending on how you figure it) to around 1815 translates that question as “What did we hope to achieve by fighting, and how should the new country be arranged to reflect that?” Because without the redcoats to focus their bayonets on, the differing motives for fighting the Revolution led to a fair amount of conflict between those who fought to achieve Result A and those who fought to achieve Result B. If you want to understand why the politics of the early republic were so vitriolic, start here. Our politics today are fairly polite by comparison.

When you try to answer these questions, it gets very interesting very quickly. Seriously, I don’t know why my students aren’t all history majors. This is great stuff.

Every once in a while, though, as I’m standing up there spooling through these stories, it strikes me just how bittersweet this all is.

All of these people had goals, things they wanted to achieve for themselves and their new country. They went about their days working on these things – some days harder than others, granted, as most days are devoted to just getting through them rather than larger goals, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have the goals at all.

And now they’re gone.

Most of them are long forgotten, even by historians. We remember the ones who found themselves in the middle of stories, who distinguished themselves in some way. Sometimes we remember the ones who simply got their names written down somewhere. But that’s a pretty scanty record for most people. We can’t all be Thomas Jefferson.

It’s my job to explore whether these people succeeded or not in their various goals, on their own terms rather than mine, and I’ve got over two centuries of hindsight to let me do that. They didn’t have that luxury. These were daily events to them – surprises, challenges, victories, heartbreaks, joy and rage. Sometimes you wonder what they made of it all on a day in, day out basis.

History happens to people, and if you lose sight of that the life drains right out of it.

Someday it will be you that will be history.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Warm Meal on a Grey Day

We had lasagna tonight.

I always enjoy making lasagna. It takes a good long time, and that is a nice thing.  It focuses my mind a bit, away from all of the usual nonsense that my mind tends to focus upon - it is hard to worry about politics or the sad fate of one's favorite sports teams when making lasagna, really. And in the end, there is good food to share.

This was my first try with gluten-free noodles, in deference to Kim’s recent disagreements with wheat. We’ve tried a number of gluten-free products, and they range from “quite good” to “are you sure you didn’t buy this at the hardware store?” But these noodles were okay – they tasted fine, and I’m not sure if their rather stiff texture was due to their being mostly rice bran or to the fact that they were no-boil noodles that you put right into the mix, and I’d never worked with such noodles before, gluten or no gluten.

So many options these days.

It did have the usual allotment of cheeses – ricotta (which Tabitha decided is, more or less, “very cold play-dough”), mozzarella, parmesan – and my homemade gravy, which people around here call “spaghetti sauce” or, worse, “red sauce,” and I just will not have that terminology in my house. Red sauce sounds like something you put on ice cream. And with gravy comes meatballs, so life was good all around.

Of course, when we have lasagna we have to have it by candlelight. I’m not sure when this tradition started, but Lauren in particular is quite keen on the idea that lasagna = candles. She had a grand time scaring up four candles – one for each of us – and Tabitha took care of the actual lighting of them, now that she is getting big enough to handle that duty. There was a moment or two of solemn reflection before we decided that no, four candles did not in fact provide enough light to eat something as amorphous as lasagna and therefore we should turn on the normal light but dial it down low. It made a nice effect. Lasagna – the food of romance.

It was a very nice meal, all four of us sitting around and contentedly chewing in the semi-darkness.

And now we have enough leftovers to feed a small army – lasagna being one of those dishes that comes in two sizes, those being “excessive” and “even more excessive” – so if you’re going to be in Wisconsin any time in the next week, let me know. Our tribe is pretty small, but our lasagna isn’t.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Because the Giants, That's Why

Well, once again the Phillies are on the outside looking in.

They had a good year, all things considered – best record in the majors, for the first time in their history, a sweep of the Reds in the divisional championship, and all that. But for the first time since 2007, the World Series will be held without them.

I knew this would happen. I even wrote it down here on the blog, didn’t I?

Pessimism – it is my birthright.

We were out last night at a friend’s house, where our more-or-less monthly card group was having its more-or-less monthly meeting. Julie was kind enough to put the game on television (on mute) so I could keep track of it, which meant that I couldn’t escape when the Giants were batting, but so be it.

And I watched the whole thing, from beginning to end. Or almost the end. It started to rain here during the commercial break headed into the bottom of the 9th, with the Phillies down by a run, and Julie’s satellite conked out. By the time it came back the Phillies had two out and two on, and Ryan Howard was down to his last strike.

So I got to see the last pitch. Lucky me.  Perhaps if the satellite had stayed conked, it would have been different.  Sports doth make pagans of us all.

The baseball season is such a long slog, from April to October. 162 games, a divisional series, a league series and then the World Series. That’s a long time to wait until next year.

But it was a good year anyway.

Go Phillies!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nine Things That Will Not Make Me Judge You

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post entitled, “Nine Things That Make Me Judge You.” Little did I realize that it would become the most popular post on the entire blog, far outstripping the Fourteenth Amendment post from last summer and going viral in a way that I hadn’t seen since the mid-90s, when something I wrote on Usenet came back to me in an email three days later, without attribution, because a friend saw it and thought it was funny.

It’s always nice when people like what you write.

I’ve thought a lot about that post since then, and it occurred to me that there ought to be something said on the other side of things. Judging people is a necessary part of life, but sometimes you have to know when not to judge them, too.

I will not judge you if ...


1. You make a fool of yourself for love.

I may tell you that you’re being a fool. I will definitely hold you accountable for the consequences of your actions, to you and to others. But what else is love for? If you can’t do stupid things in the name of love, you have bigger problems than seeking my good opinion.

2. You change your mind in the face of contradictory evidence.

This used to be called “intelligence,” but recently it has gotten a bad name as “flip-flopping.” This change is a steaming pile of nonsense, and we are worse off for accepting it. You go where the evidence takes you, even if it takes you where you never thought it would, even if you have to backtrack across half your life.

3. You fail.

Failure is a normal part of life – and more normal for some of us than others, really. Own it. Learn from it. And try again.

4. You get lost in a good book.

Sleep is important. Getting to appointments is important. Getting your work done is important. But sometimes you just get carried away by a story and it all goes by the side. You’ll have a lot of things to make up when it’s over, but that’s what tomorrow is for.

5. You have no dignity when it comes to your children.

I once sat in a park and watched a man play with his young daughter, who was maybe three years old. This man must have stood about 6’3” and weighed in around 240 lbs, all of it muscle. He had tattoos that had tattoos of their own. He looked like the kind of man who puts out forest fires by glowering at them. And there he was, playing “princesses” in the sand.

That, my friends, is a man.

6. Your beliefs, positions and/or faith are not the same as mine.

The world can barely deal with one of me – billions would just fry the circuits of the place. I may not like, agree with, or (in some cases) particularly respect your positions, but so long as you’re civil about it and don’t force them on me or mine, I can return the favor. Who knows? If you can provide me with enough evidence contradictory to my own position, maybe I’ll change my mind.

7. You love whom you will.

What two consenting adults do with each other is, barring extraordinary circumstances, their own concern. It astonishes me how many people there are in this world who get mistreated by uninvolved third parties because of who they love. Who you love matters far less to me than how you treat them and how they treat you.

8. You have seriously screwed up in the past.

If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying. And sometimes, those mistakes are doozies. Accept that people can twist their lives into knots, and help them untie them. There are too many people in this world who only want to make those knots into nooses, and that’s just not right.

Don’t tell me who you were. Tell me who you are.

9. You lack credentials.

I have a PhD in American history.

This implies a certain number of things. I have a certain skill set, one not widely distributed among the general population. I have a deep reservoir of specific knowledge. And I have the discipline and work ethic to see a complex project like a dissertation through from inception to completion.

It does not imply certain other things. I am not necessarily smarter than you are. I may not necessarily be right, even in my own field (see point #2, above), though your task convincing me of that is not an easy one, given the work I’ve put into my positions already.

If you want to play the credentials game I can do that, and I’ll probably win - the PhD isn’t the only credential I have. But this game has always struck me as pointless. Some of the smartest, most respected, and most effective people I know have no letters after their names at all, and a disturbing number of people I’ve known with all sorts of credentials are either idiots, slimeballs or both.

Tell me what you know, tell me why you do what you do, and tell me why it matters. The rest is just scorekeeping.

Reflections on a Catalogue

It’s been a long week here in Our Little Town.

Some of it has been enjoyable – Monday night’s show, for example, as well as my classes this week. I got to spend some time explaining Thomas Malthus to my Western Civ class, and it’s always fun to see how you can get from the simple observations that people have sex, people eat and these two things are connected, to undermining the entire Enlightenment in a few easy steps.

Some of it has not been enjoyable – grading exams, for one thing, which is always a depressing activity (“Is this what gets through to them?”), and the ongoing tempest in a teapot that has roiled our fair Home Campus for the last couple of months. If you think workplace dynamics are strange in your office, try working in a place where half the staff can’t be fired, the other half only has contracts good for sixteen weeks, and nobody is qualified to do anybody else’s job. It makes for some interesting days, in the liberal arts sense of the term – the way that three-headed frogs are, you know, “interesting.”

So last night I decided I needed a break in the action, and settled down with the Edward R. Hamilton catalogue for some “book porn.” The ERH catalog is about a hundred pages of publisher overstocks, remainders and other such detritus of overly optimistic editorial thinking, all priced accordingly and laid out in three columns per page of 6-point type, and I just love going through it, pen in hand, marking out all of the things I would buy if time, money and shelf-space were infinite. I remember to order things only just enough to keep them sending me catalogues, unfortunately, but it’s a great way to spend time and distract myself from the rest of the world.

The books are laid out in categories, though the categories are not in any particular order and sometimes you have to wonder what people were consuming when they decided which categories in which to place certain books. But that’s part of the fun, really – it’s like being in an old-fashioned used book store, where you never know what you’re going to stumble upon in the next shelf down the line.

As you might expect if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, one of my favorite sections is the Politics section. Herein you may find works from both right and left, each peddling their favorite analysis of What Is Wrong With This Country (i.e. views that are not theirs), How To Fix This (i.e. converting or marginalizing such views) and/or What Will Happen At That Point (i.e. peace, love, harmony, and beer flowing from the faucets). It is always worthwhile to see what the other side thinks, and here you can see it all laid out for you, one title at a time.

So I’m scanning through these titles and the pithy little descriptions underneath, and it occurs to me that one of the things uniting the right-wing books is that nearly all of them claim to be “politically incorrect” or to be exposing the lies of “political correctness” or some other variant of that phrase.

Is there anybody to the left of Glenn Beck who still uses the phrase “politically correct” without irony?

I survived graduate school in the liberal arts in the early 90s, so I do remember when the American left (which is rather centrist, compared with other places, but that’s another issue) actually considered that a viable phrase. And at its core it’s a pretty obvious and worthwhile idea – if you stop calling people names, maybe you can learn something from them. But it so quickly got taken into self-parody by its practitioners and (ironically enough) got converted into an epithet itself by its detractors that I really don’t remember the last time I heard anyone use the phrase other than as a way to claim some kind of originality for not being so described.

The fact that this originality is much akin to the car I once saw that had the word “Rebel” neatly stenciled on the side by the factory is yet another issue. There’s a lot of other issues today, apparently.

I think it is odd how the spectre of political correctness is being kept alive by people who need it as a straw man for their own shoddy thinking to knock down long after it died out there in the real world. It’s as if the right wing were still arguing against Social Security or other long-settled issues of the distant past.

Wait, what?


Back to the catalogue for more respite, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Show Time!

There are times when you just fall into bed and wonder exactly how you have managed to survive all of the tasks appointed for you.

I’m one of those people who gets better under pressure. If there is no deadline looming large I tend to waste time, worry too much, and not get anything done. But if things need to be done WELL and need to be done NOW, I’m there. It’s a legacy of my time in theater, I think. With all due respect to Samuel Johnson, you don’t need to be executed in two weeks’ time in order to concentrate your mind wonderfully. Opening night curtain will do just fine.

Yesterday we had a performer come to Home Campus. As the person in charge of the nuts and bolts of such things, it was my job to make sure that this happened without a hitch, or at least with as few hitches as possible, and those manageable. Nothing in theater happens without a hitch.

So I spent much of Sunday afternoon crawling around the theater hanging lights, just as I used to do way back in the day. Many of the best moments of my life were spent dangling from a catwalk with a crescent wrench in one hand, trying to get the hot spot of the light pointed where I wanted it to go. This probably explains a lot about me, when you think about it.

Of course it’s a lot easier to do that sort of thing when you have company, since stage, catwalk and lighting board are generally nowhere near each other. Doing lighting alone bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the old “two ducks and a giraffe” joke, which I will not repeat here as my children do sometimes read this. If you don’t know it, it starts with a duck and a giraffe on a date, relies on a basic knowledge of the difference in scale between those two animals, and ends with the duck complaining to his buddy, “I must have run a hundred miles last night.”

Yesterday, once my class was over, I spent mostly with the performer – picking him up at the airport, going over tech stuff, running errands and so forth. It was an awful lot of fun, really. One of the perks of this position is that I get to meet some great people.

And remember that post a little while ago about my theory that there are only 700 people on the planet? This performer lives in New York. He and I had met in St. Paul at a conference in 2009 and had been working for nearly a year to get this night set up here in Wisconsin, and only last week did we discover that he’s good friends with the brother of the girl I took to my senior prom in Philadelphia in 1984.

700. Max.

The show was excellent. The audience had a wonderful time, from the comments I heard. And I’m hoping we can get this guy back here again soon.

But it was really, really good to fall into bed last night.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Notes from Off the Couch

The National League Championship Series is on right now, with my hometown Phillies taking on the San Francisco Giants. It’s a pitching matchup for the ages, so they say – Halladay for the Phillies, in his first start since pitching only the second post-season no-hitter in baseball history, and Lincecum for the Giants, who struck out the majority of the outs recorded over the entire game in his last post-season outing.

And I’m sitting here typing this.

There’s a good reason for this. It is because I have been scientifically proven to be unlucky when it comes to my favorite sports teams.

During the series against the Reds I would tune in just for the Phillies’ at-bats, on the theory that the worst thing that could happen then was that they wouldn’t score. But I don’t think I ever saw them score, except for one inning, and you know – they need to score if they’re going to win these things.

What makes this even more anxiety-inducing is that the Phillies are this year’s favorite team. They had the best record in baseball for the first time in their nearly 130 years of history. They have, by general consensus, the best starting pitching among the playoff teams. Their hitting is second to none, if not necessarily better than all comers - the Yankees, at least, are equally good there. Even their bullpen has clawed its way back to respectability this year. Every single sports journalist who has made a prediction that I’ve heard (outside of San Francisco) has them winning this series against the Giants, and most of them have the Phillies winning the World Series for the second time in three years.

And this just makes me absolutely convinced that they are going to lose.


Especially if I watch.

And not a normal 5-2, “well we just got outplayed” kind of loss. No. A 17-0, “what league do you think you belong in?” kind of loss. Or, worse, a 1-0, “you know, if you had just taken advantage of any two of the several dozen opportunities you had along the way you’d have won” kind of loss.

Pessimism. It’s my birthright.

I know I’ll get drawn into the game at some point, though. I’ll peek in just to see what’s going on and the next thing I know it will be three innings later and my blood pressure will be reaching heights that are usually reserved for NASA orbiters. I’ll even watch to the bitter end, win or lose, because that’s what you do when the team you’ve cheered on since childhood is finally in a position to do some winning on a grand stage, even if they don’t.

It would be nice to be wrong.

Go Phillies! Why can’t us again?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hey now...

Like everybody else these days, I find myself with precious little free time to do things that I’m not either being paid to do for my job or required by law, ethics and morality to do for my family. I’m fortunate enough to enjoy both of those sorts of activities, but it does mean that it can take me some time to get around to other things.

So the fact that I just got around to reading Tuesday’s newspaper at lunch today isn’t all that unusual, let’s just put it that way.

Our local paper does a pretty good job of annoying both sides of the American political divide, which is a mark of balance. They get complaints from liberals about their conservative bias, and they got a whole lot more complaints from conservatives about their liberal bias – mostly, I suspect, because modern conservatives seem to view any deviation from the party line as tantamount to treason (go ahead, ask any conservative elected officials who have dared to question in any way the rabid foaming fringe element of morons that more or less sets their agenda these days) while most modern liberals seem to assume that people are going to disagree with them anyway and just buckle meekly.

Someday it would be nice to have some actual discussion of issues in the mainstream of this country. I’m not holding my breath, but someday it would be nice.

But there I was, reading through the paper, when I found Bill O’Reilly’s column on the whole Fred Phelps mess.

For those of you who live under rocks, Phelps is the cretinous lowlife whose “church” has made it a mission to protest at the funerals of US military personnel, usually with the message that since God is displeased with homosexuals, these military personnel deserved to die.

Reflect on that, for a moment. Even if you grant the premise – which I do not – there is no way to get from there to the conclusion that does not involve drinking enough antifreeze to kill a human being.

I’ll let the implications of that statement sink in slowly.

This is, of course, a free speech issue. Do Phelps and his ilk have the right to say those things in that setting or not? Free speech, after all, is not an absolute right – it does have limits. One cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless you truly believe there is one, in the famous example, nor are you allowed to incite riots, conspire to commit crimes, or slander others without penalty. Is this one of those limits?

Personally, I have long maintained that this whole problem could go away just by making the assault of such protesters a misdemeanor punishable by a $25 fine. In these economically perilous times, I’m guessing you could raise a whole lot of money that way.

But this plan has practical issues that render it more problematic than it is worth, which is probably why one family whose son’s funeral was visited by these clowns decided to take the time-honored path for any American facing a grievance and sue.

O’Reilly was making an interesting argument that Phelps’ activities were not protected free speech under the First Amendment on the grounds that they were a form of hate speech, which has previously been found to be outside the protections of the First Amendment. I don’t often find myself on O’Reilly’s side of most issues and I don’t know yet whether I’m on his side in this one, but credit where credit is due – he made a decent case for his position, one that deserves consideration as I wrestle with my own view.

And then, in a two-sentence paragraph right at the end, O’Reilly makes the flat assertion that the family of the deceased “has a constitutional right to privacy and the pursuit of happiness” that was infringed upon by Phelps and/or his minions.

Leaving aside the fact that “the pursuit of happiness” is part of the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution and therefore has no force of law in the United States, the fact that Bill O’Reilly – a conservative in the modern social sense – has no problem admitting the existence of a Constitutional right to privacy is little short of astonishing.

He does realize that it is precisely this Constitutional right to privacy that is at the core of Roe v. Wade, right?

This is the thing about Constitutional rights – you don’t get to cherry-pick the issues to which they apply. If there is indeed a Constitutional right to privacy that “the despicable Phelps mob” (O’Reilly’s words) has violated, what then does that mean for the social conservative opposition to that decision? Most of those who oppose Roe v. Wade support O’Reilly, and from what I can tell he’s one of them himself. How does that square?

What would the general recognition of the Constitutional right to privacy mean for the current ill-conceived and counterproductive hysteria known as “the war on terror”? So much of that is simply the invasion of the privacy of American citizens dressed up in the flag that it is difficult to see how these things can be made to fit together.

When even social conservatives are conceding that the Constitution does, in fact, contain a right to privacy, these are interesting times indeed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting a Start on Halloween

Sometimes you have to stand up to your workload and deny it.

So despite the fact that I had nearly three dozen exams to grade, a performance to finalize for Home Campus, and any number of other things that were probably more pressing than having fun (or blogging, for that matter, although blogging is a special subset of having fun), last weekend was time to Get Outta Dodge for the annual trip to the wilds of Michigan, where Kim’s brother Dave and his family have a cabin in a swamp.

I know. But it’s more fun than it sounds.

For one thing, the “cabin” is actually a snug little cinderblock house, complete with things like running water and electricity.

For another, the swamp – technically a “wetland area,” which is what people call swamps nowadays for fear of offending the wildlife and ogres that call it home – is a bit off to the side, so there are plenty of dry areas to sit and run around upon. And if you want to go to the swamp, you can, because you never know what the ogre is up to and it might be interesting to find out.

Most importantly, though, the place is filled with good people and good food, and pretty much anywhere can be fun under those conditions.

It is a bit isolated, though, so if you hear banjos you would be best advised to get your city-slicker carcass moving along, especially if you, like me, regard anywhere that doesn’t have its own public transportation system as unfathomably rural.

The girls look forward to this trip every year. As soon as the car stops moving they leap out and start zooming around unsupervised with all of the other kids there – because really, where are they going to go? – while the grownups sit around and do boring grownup things, like talk, drink and eat. So they don’t have to listen to us, and we don’t have to worry about them. It’s a win/win, is what I’m saying.

Dave and Karen go pretty much all out for this event. For the big people there is a wide array of food and drink and a number of fires around which to gather. But the event is really for the kids, both the actual ones and the virtual ones that we’d all like to regress to. There’s a pile of costumes to try on, for example, and an array of pumpkins ready to be stabbed, disemboweled, and turned into party favors because that’s just what one does on Halloween. It’s what keeps us from doing it to our political leaders, so this kind of diversion does serve a useful social function when you think about it.

But the key things are the Haunted Trail and the annual Asinine Theater production.

Dave and his buddies probably put more time into that Haunted Trail than is wise, but you cannot fault them for it – not when you see how the kids respond. You follow the track of battery-powered lights into the darkness, through the swamp (“wetland area,” excuse me) and along the creek, where any number of decorations, flashing lights, displays, and actual people are waiting to jump out at you.

Those screams? They’re from the kids. No, really.

This year’s Asinine Theater production featured marionettes liberated from a defunct amusement park and an improvised bongo accompaniment, just to keep the Surreal Quotient high enough. It was a hit.

Unlike past years we did not camp out on the dry parts of the property overnight. Between lingering fall colds, fear of being chewed alive by mosquitoes (unfounded this year, as it turns out, but always an issue in a swamp wetlands area) and the simple fact that I’m too old to be sleeping on the ground, we decided to stay in a hotel. And there was one nearby, as a matter of fact. Full, no less, as this part of Michigan is not all that far from South Bend and Notre Dame was playing at home that afternoon.

It was a shock to get back to reality on Sunday, and the workload that had been denied was in a foul and unpleasant mood that I am still paying for.

But it was worth it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nine Things That Make Me Judge You

I’ve been sick for the last week with some kind of minor lingering fall crud that has left me feeling congested and vaguely feverish and is quickly making its standard descent into my chest where it will linger as a cough until Christmas or thereabouts, if precedent holds. This always makes me feel a bit out of sorts with the rest of humanity (no, not you personally – it’s those other folks, just behind you and a little to the side; they’re really getting my goat). And so I figured I’d share, because that’s just the kind of generous crank I am.


1. You have poor grammar.

If you can’t speak or write correctly, my experience has been that you can’t think very well either. Learn the fine art of proper phrasing and punctuation – not necessarily following every picayune little rule, but rather knowing how to phrase your thoughts elegantly and appropriately, and to express them clearly so as to avoid miscommunication – and you may be surprised at how much better you can analyze the world around you.

2. You vote against your own interests.

How can I take you seriously if you vote for people who explicitly promise to make your life less safe, fair, prosperous or worthwhile? Stop falling for hucksters who claim to have the same values and start paying attention to people who value the same things, and maybe we’ll talk.

3. You own a large, loud, gas-guzzling vehicle that does not materially contribute to any task you are paid or required to do.

Nice truck! Sorry about the genitals!

4. You treat service workers poorly.

Are you habitually rude to the people who have no choice but to deal with you and no power to retaliate against you? Then you’ll understand why I have no time for you. Or maybe you won’t. Your call.

5. You choose to be ignorant.

Willful ignorance is by far more grievous a sin than either normal ignorance or just plain stupidity, as stupidity is a birth defect and normal ignorance can be cured. Those who choose not to know when the ocean of truth lies undiscovered all about them are truly the cursed of this world. Or at least they are a curse to the rest of us.

6. You are habitually late.

Why you think my time is not as important as your time I do not know, nor do I care to find out. Check your phone, look at a clock, or as a last resort buy a watch, and plan ahead a little.

7. You do not read.

Not “you can’t read” – that can be cured, and if not, it can be forgiven. But people who simply don’t read are a special subset of Item #5 above, and a particularly irksome one. Expand your horizons a bit.

8. You have a Confederate battle flag emblem anywhere on your person or vehicle.

Oh, yes, the flag of treason is such a thing to get the pride flowing, isn’t it? Honestly – if there is any faster and more efficient way of announcing that you are not fit to have serious political discussions with grown-ups, I have yet to find it.

9. You feel that my behavior ought to conform to the dictates of your faith.

I have my own faith, thank you, and in my experience with people who have tried to adjust my behavior to their beliefs, I’ve thought about it longer and harder than they have. The fact that I generally do not care to discuss it or impose it upon you is a sign that I regard it as none of your business, and I expect the same courtesy from you. I respect people who live up to the dictates of their own faith as a general rule, but please don’t take that as a general mandate.


Believe me - when I'm in charge, things will be different.  Not necessarily better.  But certainly different.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

All The People In The World

I have this theory.

I have a lot of theories, actually. Most of them are the sorts of things that you would expect from someone who spends too much time alone in his head, though you might be surprised at how little I drink.

It’s all me.

This particular theory states that there are really only about 700 people on the planet. They all know each other and they all know you.

There are still a few holes in the theory, I will admit – having to explain away crowds at sporting events and concerts as optical illusions, for example, and I still have no answer for why it is so impossible to park anywhere near where I want to park. It’s a work in progress, is all I’m saying.

But there is some strong circumstantial evidence supporting this theory. Let me tell you about one particular day I went through when I was living in Pittsburgh.

It was the beginning of the semester, and all of the graduate students were getting ready to teach our first discussion sections. I wandered over to talk with one of the new students that year, and it turned out that she had gone to the same small college as my cousin, who was the cartoonist for the school newspaper. Of course she was familiar with his work.

And then it was time to head off to classes. I had two sections that day, I think. In the first I saw a couple of familiar faces – students who had been in my class the semester before. Okay, that’s not really mysterious. You take more than one history class at a big state university, the odds of ending up with the same TA are small but nonzero. Strange right after the previous discussion, but nothing completely uncalled for.

In my next section there was a student wearing a jacket from my old high school, just outside Philadelphia, some 300 miles away. Huh, I thought. So after class I asked him when he had graduated and he replied just that year, about six years after I had. At that point the guy who had been sitting next to him in section came up and asked me if I knew Matt. Of course I know Matt, I replied, I’ve known Matt since 7th grade. [Matt would eventually be a groomsman at my wedding.] Why do you ask? “Because my mother just married his uncle,” he said.

Okay. Now it’s getting weird.

Afterward I went to the bookstore to pick up my textbooks. If you’ve ever been to a university bookstore on the first day of classes, you know the kind of line I ended up standing in. It was about a hundred miles long and moved at the pace of campaign finance reform. You’ve got to find ways to pass the time. So I ended up chatting with the guy in front of me – sports, weather, classes, the usual stuff that college guys talk about when they’re just passing time and not really interested in seeing each other again once the task at hand is complete. Eventually we reached the front of the line and he pulled out his credit card to pay for his stuff and I saw his name. “Hey,” I said. “We graduated in the same high school class.” “Oh?” he replied. “Were we friends?”

Well, clearly not close ones.

And with all that jangling around in my head, I got on the bus and went back to my apartment, where there was a letter from Sharon. Sharon and I had known each other in high school – she was, in fact, my first official girlfriend – and after she had essentially dropped out of school and gone to the Ivy League we had remained friends. Eventually the school district decided that the successful completion of her freshman year at Cornell was a good enough substitute for her last year of high school to warrant giving her a high school diploma, so she came back and marched with our class. By the time I got her letter she had been living in Japan for a while. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, really, but we’d kept in touch. I had just written back to her not that long before, in fact, and was surprised to get a response so quickly.

It was pre-Internet, folks. Things moved slower then.

She was surprised to have written so soon as well, but she had a story to tell me.  Apparently she had been sitting in a coffeehouse in Kyoto when she noticed another Westerner, all by himself, so she wandered over to chat with him. It turned out that his name was Mort and he had gone to the same university in Philadelphia that I had, so of course she asked him if he knew me.

Penn had a bit shy of 9,000 undergraduates when I was there. There were anywhere between 8 and 12 major student-run drama groups, depending on how you counted them, and a few other one-offs good for a show or two a year on top of them. Out of those totals there were only about a dozen or so of us who did the lighting for all of these shows, moving from production to production and feeding on cast parties like locusts. I was one. Mort was another.

Mort says to say hi, she told me.

It was quite a day.

700 people.


Monday, October 4, 2010

What's For Dinner Again?

There’s a quarter of a cow in my basement.

Now, it’s not standing there looking bloody and forlorn, wondering where its other bits went, although that would be a sight now, wouldn't it? For one thing it’s in the freezer, where it would be looking mostly cold and chattery. And for another, well, it’s finely divided into meal-sized portions, all neatly wrapped up in butcher paper.

I don’t know where the other bits went. Someone else’s freezer, probably.

Kim has been on a campaign recently to improve the quality of what we eat, which is certainly a worthwhile endeavor even if I can’t understand why a diet of bacon and Pez is insufficient, as it already has all of the major nutritional needs (sugar, fat, dyes, salt) covered.

That noise? That’s just the hum of my blood trying to get through my arteries. When the pressure gets high enough, I can harmonize with the noise.

So okay, maybe we do need better food, then.

For example, we’ve been working to cut down on the high fructose corn syrup recently, as all of the food scientists now tell us that it is Instant Death and if there’s any group of people who have boundless reservoirs of credibility it’s food scientists.

Is coffee good for you these days or bad for you? I can never keep track.

We’ve also been trying to buy more of our food from the local farmer’s markets, on the theory that we are less likely to be sold Instant Death by the actual growers of what we eat than by Big Food Companies. It’s hard to look people in the eye that way.

There are two farmer’s markets in Our Little Town now, as the proprietors of one did not get along with the aspiring entrants of the other, which naturally led to schism bordering on open warfare. But we dodge the occasional missile and shop for good food at both – fresh cheeses from the guy who made them, vegetables, kettle corn (so we’re not entirely improved – sue us), and meats.

One of the farmers at one of the markets runs a deal where you can buy a share of a cow, and come harvest time they’ll take care of all the details and have it ready to go.

So today I took the girls over to the butcher shop, which is nowhere near either of the farmer’s markets, or us, or the farm where the cow lived for that matter. It’s “way over yonder,” a technical term for any distance further than “just down the road” but closer than “you can’t get there from here.” We paid our fees, drove around back, and two large men came out with a pile of frozen beef big enough to blot out the sun.

I wonder if this cow had a name.

The last time we did this, with one of the cows from Kim’s uncle’s farm, the cow was named Norman. And you know what about Norman? He was tasty.

So here we are, with a quarter of a possibly named cow (Bessie? Do people still name cows Bessie, or is that just too stereotypical? Perhaps Bombalurina? Or else Jellylorum?) sitting in our downstairs freezer.

Best not put that barbecue grill away just yet.

Friday, October 1, 2010


I am not looking forward to picking out a new cell phone.

I do not like cell phones. They do not work, at least not for me. No matter what phone I have or what “provider” I am signed up with, there is no signal actually provided for me. I think it’s a sign from the universe that I was just not meant to be in constant contact with the rest of humanity. The world clearly needs a break from me.

The thing I hate most about cell phones, though, is not that they’re unreliable little backstabbing menaces – you don’t survive into your fifth decade on this planet without developing coping skills for that sort of thing – it’s that they’re not just phones anymore. They are multitasking unreliable little backstabbing menaces. Even the basic and outdated model I have now has enough computing power to run a small business, and every year they come up with new phones that can do even more. There really isn’t much anymore that a cell phone can’t do, and I find that disturbing.

The reason for this pernicious mission-creep is because these phones were designed by engineers, and engineers don’t think like the rest of us. I’ve known a lot of engineers in my life, and they follow roughly the same percentages of “good people” vs. “wastes of space” that most other occupations follow. But they definitely do have their own mindset about gadgets, and it is not my mindset.

When an engineer looks at a gadget, the question they ask is, “What can I get this thing to do?” Whereas when I look at a gadget, the question I ask is, “How can I get this thing to do what I want?”

These are two very different questions.

You can see the difference if you ever try to read through the manual for any gadget you own. Manuals are written by tech writers, people who work with engineers every day and therefore absorb their way of thinking. And these manuals are laid out by feature.

“Look at this button! Look what it can do! And it can do this too! Isn’t this great? And look – over there! There’s another button! And it can do all these things! Why, there isn’t anything you can think of that this thing can’t do!”

What I need is a manual that’s laid out by task.

“Oh, you want to do that? Really? Are you sure? Well, okay. Go to this screen. Push that button three times, spin that knob a quarter turn and then push the first button again. When the screen turns red, push the second button from the left, and there you go.”

And really, the only task I want my cell phone to accomplish is make and receive calls.

I have a camera. I have an Internet-capable computer that can send emails and browse the web. It even plays games. And we own a Wii, which the girls tell me can also be used to play games, though I have no personal evidence to support that. In short, I have any number of gadgets whose function need not be replicated on my phone.

And this always comes as a great surprise to cell phone people.

The last time we switched phones Kim made the mistake of sending me out on my own to do this. Kim is a gadget person, and she often makes the general mistake of assuming that what seems obvious to her will be equally obvious to me. It makes health-care a lot more interesting that way, for example.

This is how I found myself in the Cell Phone Store, surrounded by tiny little gadgets of gargantuan capabilities that would surely be of use to other people. Eventually the twelve-year-old girl behind the counter noticed me and asked if she could help me.

“I’d like a new cell phone,” I explained, showing her the desiccated remains of the one I was currently using.

“Yes,” she said. “I can see that. What would you like your cell phone to do?”

“I would like my cell phone to make phone calls.”

There was a short pause while this registered.

“No camera?”

“No camera.”

“No Internet?”

“No Internet.”

“How about texting? Surely you want texting?”

“No, I’ll just write.”



“Ooooookay,” she said. “Would you like that made out of wood?”

Damn kids.

Eventually I left and Kim took care of it. But that was a while ago, and now it is time to start that process over.

We’ll see.