Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mucking About in the Kitchen

Lauren decided that today would be a great day for crafts, so she found a book we had checked out of the library several overdue periods ago and located something with the enticing name of “Magic Muck.”

At this point it is probably appropriate to discuss the mental capacity of the sorts of people who name projects for crafts books. Because the first three or four things that came to my mind when Lauren suggested making this stuff were horrifyingly inappropriate for family fun. Unless your family is different from mine. Or perhaps you were thinking of starting a family. Or you’re a leprechaun.

This might be more my problem than the book’s, now that I think about it.


Magic Muck, it turns out, is a non-Newtonian fluid. Aaaaaand once again, there goes my mind. Hold on while I retrieve it.

So. Anyway. Non-Newtonian fluid. These are actually pretty cool things, since they change their state depending on how much pressure you put on them. You hold them gently and they’re a liquid. You subject them to acute pressure – pound on them, squeeze them, and so on – they firm up and become a solid.

All this from just water and cornstarch!

Mythbusters once did an episode on these things. If you do it right, you can fill up an entire swimming pool with them and run across it. You can also swim across it, if you get in gently. Or you could run halfway across, stop, and slowly sink in and then swim the rest of the way. It’s really quite versatile, if you have any actual need to do that.

They colored theirs blue, so Lauren did too.

Fortunately or unfortunately we only had 3/4 cup of cornstarch in the house, so we did not need to worry about swimming.

But the girls had a great time anyway.

Have you ever tried to clean this stuff up, though? It keeps changing state on you as you try to scrape it out of the bowl, like it knows you’re going to get rid of it and it just wants to stay.

You just have to hope that whenever it hits the plumbing it will stay liquid.

Next week: chain-saw juggling.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Lists

I suppose I should have just put these in the original post, but since Megan asked – here are the original grad-student lists, as they were posted to Usenet in 1995. Apparently I miscounted – there are 38 items total, not 37. All other additions to this subject I can only wish I had written.

Two things:

First, identifying universities by their internet domains was more of an accomplishment in 1995, when those domains were fairly new and uncommon, than it has since become.

And second, I have actually done all of these things or had them happen to me. Yes, I am a walking, breathing stereotype. It says so right on my CV.


List the First:

Date: Thu, 6 Apr 1995 19:02:07 -0500
Newsgroups: rec.humor
Subject: Re: You just might be a grad student

You just might be a grad student if: can identify universities by their internet domains. are constantly looking for a thesis in novels. have difficulty reading anything that doesn't have footnotes. understand jokes about Foucoult.
...the concept of free time scares you. consider caffeine to be a major food group.'ve ever brought books with you on vacation and actually studied.
...Saturday nights spent studying no longer seem weird.
...the professor doesn't show up to class and you discuss the readings anyway.'ve ever travelled across two state lines specifically to go to a library. appreciate the fact that you get to choose *which* twenty hours out of the day you have to work. still feel guilty about giving students low grades (you'll get over it). can read course books and cook at the same time. schedule events for academic vacations so your friends can come. hope it snows during spring break so you can get more studying in.'ve ever worn out a library card. find taking notes in a park relaxing. find yourself citing sources in conversation.'ve ever sent a personal letter with footnotes.

List the Second:

Date: Fri, 5 May 1995 21:36:59 -0500
Newsgroups: alt.grad-student.tenured
Subject: Re: You're A Grad Student if...

You just might be a graduate student if... can analyze the significance of appliances you cannot operate.
...your carrel is better decorated than your apartment. have ever, as a folklore project, attempted to track the progress of your own joke across the Internet. are startled to meet people who neither need nor want to read. have ever brought a scholarly article to a bar. rate coffee shops by the availability of outlets for your laptop.
...everything reminds you of something in your discipline. have ever discussed academic matters at a sporting event. have ever spent more than $50 on photocopying while researching a single paper.
...there is a microfilm reader in the library that you consider "yours." actually have a preference between microfilm and microfiche. can tell the time of day by looking at the traffic flow at the library. look forward to summers because you're more productive without the distraction of classes. regard ibuprofen as a vitamin. consider all papers to be works in progress.
...professors don't really care when you turn in work anymore. find the bibliographies of books more interesting than the actual text. have given up trying to keep your books organized and are now just trying to keep them all in the same general area. have accepted guilt as an inherent feature of relaxation.

I Might Have Been a Graduate Student...

I’m anonymously famous on the Internet. Perhaps you’ve seen my work.

I took my comprehensive exams in the spring of 1995. For those of you who have lives and have never been to graduate school, comprehensive exams are where your department tries to get you to learn everything that has ever been found out about your subject before they set you loose to find out something else about your subject. They’re the department’s way of making sure that you really want to get your doctorate.

They’re also one of the most miserable experiences you can have in this world without having to listen to a eulogy or the “let’s just be friends” speech.

But out of misery comes creativity – that’s what the English majors always told me, anyway. And when I was finished with my comps I realized that I had acquired a set of defining characteristics, things that set me apart from the non-graduate-student world.

I now actually have a preference between microfilm and microfiche, for example.

I have sent personal letters with footnotes explaining things in further detail and citing sources.

And, sad to say, I now understand jokes about Michel Foucoult, even if I still can’t spell the man’s name.

So I wrote these characteristics down onto a couple of lists and I sent them out into the world via the magic of the internet. This was the early days of the internet, so “magic” meant “Usenet groups,” but they were fun things once you figured out how to navigate around in them.

The first list took all of three days to come back to me, shorn of my name.

A friend of mine in the department received it as a funny and liked it, so he forwarded it along to the entire department. “Have you seen this?” he asked.

What could I say? “Yes.”

The second list took over a week to get the same result. By then people must have been jaded.

It has been nearly sixteen years now, and these lists are still floating around the internet. Last time I checked they were up on over a hundred websites in one form or another, almost all of them without attribution.

These lists have traveled the country. They’ve seen the world. According to a friend who saw them posted on a door, they even made it into the Philosophy Department of Harvard University, which is better than I ever did. A select few were incorporated into a t-shirt put out by the graduate students at Brigham Young University a while back. They promised they’d send me one, but in the way of things that sort of got forgotten. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get that shirt now – those graduate students will have all gotten their degrees by now and moved on to other concerns. I’d have worn it, too.

The lists have even hit the big time.

When I graduated with my PhD in 2002, the university president began her commencement speech by quoting from an article that had recently appeared in the Washington Post. I turned to the guy sitting next to me on stage. “Hey!” I said. “I wrote that!”

I later received a nice apology from the Post reporter.

This week a friend of mine forwarded me a link to an article in The Economist, in which I discovered that my work has been elevated to the status of folklore – something that apparently has always existed in the collective unconscious of the internet and can be cited as such.

There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to graduate student life that has the entire collection up in their Information box.

These lists have changed along the way. Other people have added things to them, things I can only wish I had written – there were only 37 items on my original lists, and I’ve seen collections with over a hundred items on them. One of the lists has become anthologized, combined into a larger work filled with the writings of people as anonymously famous as I am. Not many people have ever bothered to correct the original spelling error in “Foucoult” though.

That’s okay. There are better things to spend your brain cells on than Michel Foucault.

It used to bother me that my words were gadding about the internet all alone without me beside them, but eventually I got over it. I kind of enjoy the anonymous fame these days. It feels good to see the lists out and about. If someone tries to copyright them or claim them as their own then I do get annoyed – I’ve had that discussion with a couple of people. But otherwise, it’s nice to know that people still find that the lists speak to them.

In the eighteenth century, writers would often intentionally remove their names from their work before publishing it. That way people would focus on the words themselves rather than on who said them. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison could rely on their reputation for authority, but Publius had to have something to say.

So I live happily with my anonymous fame. There are no autograph seekers. I do not employ large men wearing sunglasses to protect my person. Such men are costly and would no doubt eat up whatever profit I might make from a more conventional sort of fame. I like the fact that there are people who think I had something worth saying, even if they don’t know who said it.

That’s not such a bad thing, after all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Keys to Life

I sometimes think that life can be defined as the gradual accumulation of keys.

When I was a kid I did not have any keys. The front door was generally unlocked, and when it wasn’t someone else had the key. I was just along for the ride. And then I got a house key. I still have it on my keychain, and whenever I go back east to visit my parents it gets good use. It’s over three decades old now – the chrome has worn off, leaving the brass underneath showing, and it still has the locksmith’s phone number stamped at the top, the one that starts out with the alphabetical exchange.

Hey kids – did you know phone numbers used to have letters in them? I grew up with a phone number that started off with the “Midway-9” exchange, which had a much more homey feel about it than “649” ever did. My grandparents were at Hilltop, which was only a couple of miles away.

So I had one key.

Then I learned how to drive and acquired a second key. I believe there was a third one as well, since the trunk and the ignition might have been separate keys in those days. It was a 1973 Plymouth that had its own zip code, but it could turn on a dime and store most of my friends at a go, so it was a great car. I didn’t have keys to the equally vintage Nova my dad drove, though, as it was a stick shift and even today driving one of those that is a skill that eludes me. Kim tried to teach me on her car once, but it got so bad that the car wouldn’t even start for me. She’d get in and it would start right up, but as soon as I got behind the wheel, nothing. It was as if the car just knew.

So I did pretty well for a while with three keys.

Then I went to college and cycled through a whole mob of keys – keys for dorm rooms, sublets, mailboxes, apartments and so on. I was getting older, and my keycount was increasing.

By the time I got out of graduate school I had keys to all sorts of things, some of which I actually needed.

Over the last few years I have been slowly bulking out my key ring, to the point where I now have to have subsidiary key rings locked in places accessible only via my primary key ring. I have my house keys – two of them, since the front and back doors no longer match. I have keys to my car and Kim’s, and the great honking fobs that come with them that allow you to lock and unlock the things without the keys. I have keys to get me into Home Campus – the front door (and a fob for that too) and my office, which is where I store an entire ring of keys that I use for my Performing Arts Coordinator position – keys to the auditorium, the lighting catwalk, and so on. I’ve got a mailbox key too.

And yesterday I started my semester at Not Quite So Faraway Campus, where I was awarded three more keys – one for the front door, one for the office I share with two friendly colleagues, and another for something labeled a “Smart Cart,” although really – it requires a key. How smart can it be?

Probably smarter than I am in some ways. It only needs one key. I now have enough keys on my key ring that it looks like I am smuggling a grapefruit in my pocket.

Or perhaps I’m just glad to see you.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Final Thoughts on the Tragedy in Arizona

Doing all that paralegal work that I wrote about last time taught me a few things.

I learned how to make the world’s greatest paper airplane on one of those jobs, for example. There were four or five of us stuck way in the inside corner of an E-shaped building with not nearly enough to do, so we filled our time in other ways. We were about seven stories up, and by the time our bosses finally accepted the fact that they’d never have enough for us to do and let us all go we could get those planes past the building, over the roof of the neighboring church and down to the next block. I often wondered what the pedestrians thought of it all.

On a more practical note, the job also taught me a little about how defense attorneys work – particularly the hard truth behind the old strategy guide:

1. If the law is against you, argue the facts.

(Yes, your honor, murder is a crime, but my client didn’t do it.)

2. If the facts are against you, argue the law.

(Yes, your honor, he killed the guy. But it was self-defense and therefore not murder.)

3. And if both are against you, change the subject.

(Police brutality! Witness bias! Lab errors! Racial profiling! Political persecution!)

This is why I was always convinced that OJ Simpson actually did kill his wife. His attorneys did everything they could to put everything on trial except him, and they succeeded. I suppose I could have been wrong about it – I certainly didn’t waste many moments of my life paying much attention to that bizarre and shameful carnival act of a trial, so in theory there might have been exonerating evidence that escaped me. But the defense strategy seemed kind of obvious once you knew what to look for, and I was always a bit surprised that the prosecutors didn’t do more to counter it.

This is also why I am so disturbed by the bafflegab coming out of the American right-wing in the aftermath of the recent assassination attempt on a US Representative as they try to deflect attention from themselves and the incendiary, guns-and-machismo, surely-they’re-compensating-for-something political rhetoric that they have found so appealing for the last decade or two.

Just in the last two days I have read serious arguments made by such folk that this was the fault of liberals upset at “family values” politics. Or abortion rights. Or, in what I felt was the most appallingly subhuman rhetoric of the lot, the fault of the victims themselves, for – well, I don’t know what for. For doing their jobs. For having the temerity to be in a public place when there was already someone who wanted to exercise their Second Amendment rights in their direction. For trying to assault those poor, defenseless bullets with their bodies. For existing as standing rebuttals to the narrow-minded hatreds the right wing holds so dear. Who knows why – after a while you have to stop reading in disgust.

I’m not really sure how killing people fits with “family values” politics. But then I never did understand how letting poor children go hungry and sick, slashing education so they could never improve their lots in life, impeaching a President for adultery when most of the ringleaders of that action were guilty of the same tawdry offenses, destroying legal marriages in the name of bigotry, or melting down the Constitution for base metals fit with that rubric either.

Maybe it’s different on the extreme right, but my family doesn’t value such things.

I also don’t really understand how you get from arguing in favor of Big Government’s right to reach into a woman’s body and tell her what she can and cannot do with it, all in the name of "life," to shooting people, but then anti-abortion protesters have been making that connection for years. So you’d think I’d be used to it.

But I’m not.

I’m not even going to address the scum-sucking evil that it takes to blame the victim in this case, other than to say that it neither surprised nor shocked me to hear it and that’s a sad, sad commentary in itself.

Now, I will say for the record that I do not think that the any but the lunatic fringe of right-wingers intended for this to happen. I think they regard the whole crosshairs and ammo rhetorical strategy as a kind of game, in much the same way that football players throw around terms like “warriors,” without really thinking of the reality of what they’re talking about. I have no doubt that they were as appalled as I was at the senseless violence.

Nor will I allege that there is a kind of straight-line causality behind it all. You can’t draw a direct connection that says, “Because this right-wing radical said that phrase, therefore that guy went and shot those people.” It’s not that simple.

But their desperate attempts to change the subject away from their violent rhetoric and onto, well, anything else, speak volumes.

There is no remorse. There is no attempt to say, “Wow, that guy took it all wrong! We should stop providing inappropriate material for crazy people to act on!” There is none of that. There is only nonsense, misdirection and weasely attempts to focus attention elsewhere.

The best observation I saw on this whole thing came in the comment thread of someone else’s blog post that I cannot recall at the moment, but it said more or less – Hey, right-wingers! You may not be on the assassin’s side, but rest assured he is on yours.

When you create a climate where threats are normal, where violent language is an acceptable way to do business, where legitimately elected officials are declared “targets” because they disagree with you, where “Second Amendment solutions” to political issues are thrown around like rice at a wedding, and where crosshairs are a standard image, even if you think it’s just some kind of rhetorical game, even if you’re just playacting the warrior role, you shouldn’t be surprised when people start to take you up on what you say.

Words have meaning. And once they’re out there in the public sphere you have very little control over how they will be received. Responsible people therefore take a certain amount of care with what words they send out there.

Because not everyone will let you change the subject.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Legal Education

I spent several years of my life doing paralegal work.

Note that I do not say, “I was a paralegal,” as that is something you need a certificate to be, and I’m sure that there are paralegal enforcers who would visit me in the middle of the night and pummel me with binders if I claimed to be one without the proper certificate. But I did the work and got paid for it, and that has to count for something.

It was an interesting job, really – just the sort of thing for a graduate student in liberal arts to do to keep body and soul together during the summers or between degrees. It was indoor work, it was mostly analysis of some kind, and it required very little heavy lifting. Plus you got to read things, especially down near the bottom, where I was.

I was a temp – the bottom of the legal barrel – and mostly what the various firms who hired me on wanted me to do was code documents. In normal English, what that meant was that they needed me to read through stacks of documents – some from their side, some turned over by the other side – and extract from them whatever information was deemed relevant. This information would then be assembled into a database, so that at the appropriate moment the lawyers in charge could dramatically pull out the correct document, wave it in front of judge, jury and opposing counsel, and declare, “Aha! But that is not what this says, is it?!?” and then the case would be won and we’d get some kind of bonus.

Or, more likely, the data miners who were also working for the lawyers could take all that information that we’d found and craft it into something that looked supportive of whatever small point the lawyers were trying to make, on the theory that all those small points would add up to a larger settlement.

To my knowledge, none of the big cases I ever worked on actually went to trial.

There was a mass-tort disaster litigation case that – as a former firefighter – was utterly fascinating as long as you didn’t think too much about how many people had died. I kept the NFPA report on the fire when they let us go. Hey – they didn’t need it anymore, and it was a public document anyway.

There was a protracted asbestos case. I never did figure out which side we were working on – the lawyers in charge were so many levels above us that they might as well have been communicating to us via burning bushes when they set policy for us – but they treated us well.

There was a corporate bankruptcy case that employed nearly five times the total number of document coders that I’d ever worked with up to that point, total. We took up two entire floors of a rather expensive high-rise building, and the photocopier staff (really, they had an entire staff just to make copies) worked three shifts a day. If they’d spent that kind of money making better decisions earlier, they wouldn’t have needed to spend that kind of money on us.

And so on.

Of all of them, I liked the asbestos case best. On all the other cases I had to read a wide variety of documents – letters, memos, accounting spreadsheets, receipts, all the usual detritus of corporate life. But for the asbestos case, they only asked us to read depositions.

For those of you not familiar with these things, depositions are where a witness is placed in a room between opposing lawyers and eaten alive.


What actually happens is that the lawyers use this time to get all the background information that nobody has time to extract in court, and – with any luck – trip the witness into saying something useful to their side. So there’s a lot of talk from the witness (the “deponent,” in the lingo – this is the person who is being “deposed” here, a verb that always made me think they were some kind of banana republic strongman fleeing a coup), and a lot of jockeying and objecting from the attorneys. It can get pretty snarly at times. At other times it’s just a game where both sides know what the other is going to do and how they will respond, so there’s a certain “we’ll take this as read and move on to the next gambit” feel about it, especially if the lawyers have worked together before.

The thing about depositions is that they are pretty low-status legal work and nobody really likes doing them, so it usually falls to the newbie lawyers, the ones that haven’t quite learned how to shut people down yet, to handle them. And here they are, asking these thousand-year-old men to tell them stories about their glory years, stories their own families have heard so often that they refuse to hear them again.

Some of these depositions went on for volumes.

We used to copy and pass around the best snippets. Bear in mind that all of these are from actual legal documents, and that I’ve seen them with my own two eyes.

Q. Are you married?
A. No, sir. Divorced.
Q. Have you ever been married?


Q. Can you tell me a little bit more about this drive-in job that you had during high school? ... Do you think you were exposed to any kind of materials that contained asbestos on that job?
A. Not to my knowledge.
[Attorney]: Just the popcorn.


Q. Do you remember who you went to work for next?
A. I believe it was … at the bomb plant.
Q. Tell the jury what the bomb plant is?
A. Where they make those things that will kill you.


Q. What did [he] do for a living?
A. He was a pipefitter.
Q. You are aware that he also has a similar lawsuit pending relating to asbestos exposure?
A. I don't know. He's been dead since 1972.


A. I went to work for [the] Dairy.
Q.[The] Dairy?
A. Dairy, yeah.
Q. What did you do for [the] Dairy?
A. I was a manager.
Q. ... You wouldn't have been exposed to any asbestos?
A. Oh, no, no. Hamburgers.


Q. Do you still take a pill for antacid?
A. When I have to on occasion, when I eat too much chili or too many hot dogs or too many onions, yeah.
Q. How often do you do that?
A. As often as the wife puts it on the table, I guess.


Q. No, did the removal of the pipecovering create dust?
A. Yes.
Q. And you breathed in that dust?
A. Yes.
[Attorney 1]: Objection, calls for speculation.
[Attorney 2]: Breathing?


Q. When did you first work with [John Doe]?
[Attorney 1]: I believe Mr. [Doe] has passed away.
[Attorney 2]: Do you want to delete him from the list?
[Attorney 1]: He's dead. I can't bring him back.


Q. I understand a lot of these plants employed insulators. What I want to know is whether or not these insulators were actually performing their trade while you were there in 1972?
A. Yes. I wouldn't hardly think they would let them stand around.


Q. What do you do for fun? What do you enjoy doing?
A. What do I enjoy doing? Well, my wife says I like to do nothing slow. I don't know what that means.


[Attorney 1]: Are you instructing him not to answer?
[Attorney 2]: No, I'm not. I'm making an objection. It's redundant, oppressive, violates the rules. But, I'll allow him to answer the blinking question.


[Attorney 1]: Well, I'm going to lodge a continuing objection here to Counsel's taking the page out, holding it how he wants to hold it, pointing to different sections of the page that he wants to point to, directing his client's attention to something in a suggestive way. I'm going to object to that. I think the client can page through the book by himself and answer the questions posed to him by counsel without the dog and pony show being put on by [Attorney 2].
[Attorney 2]: Thanks, Jerry. You're always pretty colorful in your objections.


Q. How old is your twin brother?


Q. What were you doing at the … mill?
A. The biggest thing I done was hide from the boss. They had to have 50 men on the job and I was one of them. We didn't do nothing.


Q. When did he show you the [picture] book?
A. Several months ago.
Q. What kind of book was it?
A. Just a book, you opened it like that (indicating).
Q. I understand how books work. But what was in the book?


[Attorney 1]: ...So, I think all --
[Attorney 2]: I didn't say there was.
[Attorney 1]: Well, I mean, you're casting doubt upon everybody's ethics here about why not ask this guy questions along those lines.
[Attorney 1]: Everybody is obviously hiding. There's nothing improper about it. You don't have to ask it. If I ask it --
[Attorney 2]: We're all just --
[Attorney 1]: --don't tell me there's --
[Attorney 2]: --arguing for ourselves.
[Attorney 1]: --any impropriety in --
The Reporter: One at a time!


Q. Your answer lists you as a journeyman with [John Doe]. Were you two the only ones that were there?
A. That was probably it.
The Reporter: He is [John Doe].
(Informal discussion held off the record)


Q. Additionally, all your responses have to be out loud so the court reporter can take them down. She can't take down a gesture, do you understand, sir?
A. No.
Q. You can't. Do you have a hearing problem?
A. No, not really. You're just not talking loud enough.
Q. I have a speaking problem, then.
A. That's exactly right.


Q. Sir, if you were to pass away, say, in the middle of this deposition from boredom, --would your wife receive the pension that you get from -- who do you get if from?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wild and Crazy Times

Apparently the secret to productivity involves being trapped like a cornered rat and beaten about the head and shoulders by oncoming deadlines.

Hey – it works for me.

After two years of wasted effort, active avoidance, passive resistance, interested bursts of creativity, despairing periods of inactivity, and frantic attempts to catch up – along with two complete training days nearly a year apart and a signed contract that I’m not sure anyone actually can find anymore – I finally uploaded the last bit of my online class yesterday. And with hours to spare before my deadline.  What was I worried about?

I then sent emails to the various supervisors who had been waiting for this moment, because that’s what you do in this situation – you share the joy.

I posted it on Facebook, where a friend of mine gave me well-deserved grief for my “get off my lawn” attitude toward technology. Well who got kicked off whose lawn now, huh? Huh? Take that, technology! Dave 1, Technology 0! Boo-yah! [Insert happy dance here.]

I then called Kim and said I should do something to celebrate. “Like what?” she asked.

That’s why I married her – because she gets right to the heart of the issue.

I never did figure out an answer to that question. After dinner Kim took Tabitha off for a shopping expedition in craft-store territory – Tabitha has discovered Celtic lettering and wants to explore further – so Lauren curled up next to me on the sofa and we watched most of Stardust, which is a most excellent movie.

And perhaps that answered the question after all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


One of the jokes that gets trotted out at most events on my side of the family goes like this:

A man is sitting at home when he hears the doorbell ring. He opens the door and it’s the Western Union guy.
“Telegram!” the Western Union guy says.
“Is it a singing telegram?”
“No, just a regular telegram.”
“I’ve always wanted a singing telegram. Could you sing this one for me?”
“No, sir. I really don’t think you want me to sing this particular telegram.”
“But I’ve never had a singing telegram before.”
“No. Really. I couldn’t.”
“I’ll give you twenty bucks if you’ll sing me my telegram.”
“Well, okay. Here you go: Bum-bum-bum-bum – your sister ROSE is DEAD! … “

And we all laugh uproariously, every time.

Nobody sings that last bit quite the same as anyone else, either. We slide up or slide down, with different pitches and rhythms, and it makes it just that much more entertaining.  And no matter who sings it precisely how, your own tune then gets stuck in your head for the next few days and you find yourself sitting at traffic lights or standing in grocery lines humming that one little refrain and trying not to cackle maniacally because, seriously, how could you explain that to a judge and not end up in a quiet cell medicated to the gills?

Humor - it's a dangerous thing.

Somehow this joke came up at dinner tonight, and thus I found myself explaining to my children just what on earth a “telegram” was.

They’d never heard of it.

On the one hand, I can kind of understand this. Telegrams were obsolete technology even when I was their age, and that was decades ago. I’m not even sure Western Union exists anymore, or if they do whether they still actually deliver telegrams at all, let alone singing ones. Seriously – we can send photographs instantly without wires to our music players these days. What space is there left in our communication sphere for telegrams?

On the other hand, it’s kind of sad to see telegrams go the way of rotary phones and sealing wax. I spent a portion of my freshman year of college delivering singing telegrams, which most people enjoyed getting and the rest were willing to put up with, no matter what I had interrupted – and on a college campus, that covers a lot of ground, especially since most of these were for special events anyway. Some of those events were awfully special.

I don’t even know how you would translate that joke into modern terms. What form of communication could you use to get that set-up other than a telegram?

At least it was a good history lesson.

And we still think it’s funny.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Double Spaced

Apparently I’m evil. You would think it would pay better.

I learned to type in 8th grade, because I had to. This was back in the pre-web days, when computer programs came punched on inch-wide paper tapes and only defense scientists used the Arpanet. It was entirely plausible, in other words, for a person to envision a professional, white-collar life that didn’t involve typing every day. My parents wanted me to learn how to type and had bought me a succession of small portable typewriters as incentive, and while I enjoyed plinking around on them I never did quite manage to get around to learning how to type in any meaningful way that involved more than two fingers. It was fun, but it seemed like an unnecessary skill.

This school district did not agree.

So in 8th grade they shunted us into a newly-constructed classroom that they had carved out of the back of the cafeteria and vowed to teach us to type. The room was set up with long tables running widthwise across it, and at intervals on those tables were placed old-fashioned manual typewriters – big, heavy, black things made of wrought iron and anger, each of which weighed more than the student sitting in front of it, sometimes by a whole-number multiple. They were best operated with sledgehammers, which is why I went through so many keyboards once I finally got a computer. You really had to punch those keys to get them to move.

There were several oddities about this room. For one thing, it had no windows at all, which was a real treat the day the power went out and plunged 25 fourteen-year-olds into pitch darkness. For another, this classroom had an odd L-shaped turn at the front that made it impossible for the teacher to see the back two rows, where I was seated, a fact that I found advantageous, as, apparently, had the person who had gotten my typewriter in the class before me.

The keys on these things were studiously left blank, the idea being that you would look up at the front wall to find the diagram of the keys there and thus learn to touch-type. Given the fact that this previous student had generously carved all of the letters onto the blank keys of my typewriter, apparently with a dagger, however, this seemed unnecessary. I wouldn’t figure out how to type without looking at my hands until graduate school.

I don’t remember many of the specific lessons that were taught in that class. Really, I only remember one in fact: double-space after a period.

So imagine my surprise to see the mindless venom being spewed my way on the internet this week by people who single-space after bringing their sentences to a full stop. Here I thought that kind of spittle-emitting rage was mostly confined to politics these days. Apparently not. It’s as close as your keyboard.

From what I can gather, the arguments for single-spacing are two-fold:

1. It looks nicer, given the predominance of proportional fonts these days.

2. The typographers say so.

To which I say, bah.

Aesthetics and authority can work both ways, folks. My authority says two spaces, and since it’s equally as random as the opposite authority, I feel perfectly justified in ignoring this intrusion. I won’t force the single-spacers to come over to the my side if they don’t want to do so – they are fully entitled to their little quirk, as it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg – but neither do I feel obliged to take them seriously on this account.

And frankly the single-space thing just looks cramped to me.

Pause a moment. Let your sentence breathe a bit. Savor it before moving on to the next one. Singe-spacing after a sentence makes it look like you’ve got five minutes left to get in ten minutes' worth of material before someone turns out the lights, and you’ve got to squeeze it all in. You’ll give yourself an aneurysm that way.

Now, the problem is that – much like morning people – the single-spacers have taken over the levers of power in the world, and they get snippy when they discover that not everyone buys into their worldview. For crying out loud, the uploader for this blog automatically converts my nicely formatted prose into a breathless rush whether I want it to or not.

Honestly, I thought that was a programming bug that would be fixed someday. Apparently it was intentional. Who knew?

What astounds me more than just the fact that there are so many people leaving out the second space and insisting that they aren’t just taking the shortcut path is the fact that they seem to be so rabid about it. It's amazing to watch unfold.

They have shots for that now.

So I go along my way, merrily double-spacing my sentences the way they should be spaced. And when the tempest dies down, perhaps I can have the teapot back for some nice chai.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The End of the Holidays

Christmas is finally over.

Not that I was in any hurry to see it go. A holiday dedicated to the notion that there is a higher power out there that wants us to be nice to one another for a change is a holiday I can get behind. Plus it involves good food and company, peace and loved ones, and really – it just keeps getting better.

Our last round of Christmas was up at Kim’s parents’ house, a little north of Our Little Town. Various and sundry bits of that side of the extended family gathered together around the green-and-gold glow of the Packer game to celebrate with vast quantities of Ukrainian food, which is a somewhat different form of carbohydrate than the Italian food I grew up with.

But oh, so good.

There were a few gifts for the kids – most of that had already been taken care of last month – and the adults played the dice game that we now substitute for the traditional festival of materialism, not that there’s anything wrong with gifts, but at this point we can just get what we want, so we aim for fun rather than stuff.

Last year was the year of the lava lamp. This year: housewares. Somehow I missed out on the electric teakettle, the griddle, the bread dish and the warming tray, which was just fine as I’m not sure what I’d do with all but the first and I already have a teakettle. I ended up with a nightlight that the girls immediately claimed (not least because it was shaped as – wait for it – a lava lamp) and an Ove-Glove, which was one of the things we’d brought for the game, so it was like homecoming.

I always consider it a victory if the things I come home with are small.

The kids spent most of the evening running around and finding new ways to put things in places other than where they started. The adults talked and watched football. There was much rejoicing about the Packers’ decisive victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

And the local announcers waited until the post-game show to trot out the “General Sherman” references, which was mighty restrained of them. Because there’s nothing like the destruction of a major American city except a lopsided football game. I could see how they’d get confused.

We got home around midnight and poured ourselves into bed like day-old coffee, and thus to the holidays come to an end for another year.

And to all, a good night.

Friday, January 14, 2011

High Tech and Low

I spent much of today arguing with technology again.

This almost never works. The same can be said for the technology, though, so I like to think that some kind of karmic balance is being maintained in the universe through all of this process. Someday I will be reborn in a time and place where it all actually does work, though I have this awful feeling that rather than moving me forward to a time when technology is perfected this process will simply move me backward to a time when “high tech” meant “rocks.”

Rocks are great technology. You can hit things with them, throw them at other things, and if they are big enough you can sit on them. Really, what more do you need?

A while ago I agreed to develop a class that would be partially online and partially face-to-face. It sounded like an opportunity at the time – if I can pull this off, I’ll be the only one who has the class and thus will likely ensure a continuing stream of income for as long as Home Campus wants to offer it, no small feat for a historian these days. Plus I was unemployed at the time. I figured how hard could this be?

A lot harder than I thought, it turns out.

Not because the project is all that hard, objectively speaking, but because it does not mesh well with my skill set. I like technology, but I’m not all that good at it.

Witness today.

My mission, as I had indeed chosen to accept it, was to add a private discussion area to the online site for a newly enrolled student.

Understand – I’d already created such areas for all of the other students. All I had to do was wedge this new one in. I’ve gotten the rest of the class set up and ready to go, so I’m not unfamiliar with the software platform. And there’s a handy little .pdf that you can download that in theory lays out all the steps that one needs to do this. It’s the same .pdf I used to set the other areas up in the first place.

Well that was two and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.

Everything went along smoothly and it looked like it was done and then – hey, where’d it go? I can see it on this screen, but when I go to that screen, the one the students will have to access it from, it isn’t there. And when I go back to my screen, there it is again.

It’s like … magic.

Only in reverse.

I suppose I could delete everything and start over from scratch – the instructions work fine when you start from scratch. But that just seems a bit heavy-handed, and I’m not sure it would be something I’d want to do if I had to add a student once the class actually started.  So this is, in fact, a skill I think worth acquiring.

I still haven’t gotten it to work, though, and I’ve run out of icons to click randomly upon.

I could always bash it with a rock, I suppose.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Hand Stayed

I sat down this afternoon to write a long and vitriolic post about the latest Teabaggery regarding the Constitution.

People don’t use the word “vitriolic” anymore, which is a shame, I think. It’s a surprisingly delicate word for the kind of brutally elegant rhetorical evisceration of the stupid that describes exactly what needs to be written in far too many cases these days. It was very popular during the early days of the American republic – both the word and the practice. Eighteenth-century writers generally did not suffer fools gladly.

I say we bring it back.

The root cause of my intended vitriol was the right wing’s current favorite head case, Mr. Glenn Beck – former radio DJ and alleged Constitutional autodidact – who made the rather bizarre claim the other day that the “three-fifths clause” of the Constitution, which declared that slaves would be counted as just that percentage of a person for purposes of representation and taxation and which was mysteriously left out of last week’s farcical reading on the House floor, was actually an abolitionist device designed to get rid of slavery in the long run.

No, really. He said that.

And presumably while sober, too, although to my knowledge that has not been tested. So it’s an open question, I suppose. It would certainly make me feel better if he weren’t.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, people – where does a responsible mind even begin to grapple with something that flat out wrong? There’s just no there there. I don’t know how far into his colon Mr. Beck had to force his head in order to read that written on the walls, but I can say with complete certainty that it was not in James Madison’s handwriting.

So I had a good bit of righteous anger worked up over the ravings of this talking head who would degrade the Constitution as it was written and understood by the Revolutionary Generation and substitute a mockery of his own.

But here’s the thing, though.

That’s exactly what he wants me to do.

He does not care whether he is right or wrong. He does not care what he says or who he says it to, so long as people react to it. I find that pathetic.

But not surprising, if you think about the mechanics of it.

The pestilential fools who set the right-wing agenda these days are not political leaders who might conceivably be restrained into responsibility by the thought that they may have to govern the nation some day – they haven’t been for over a decade now. They are media people, driven only by the next sensationalistic outburst and ratings number, and the less responsible they are and the more brazen their lies, provocations and outbursts, the more they are rewarded in the only currency they care about – notoriety and commercial success.

Mr. Beck is a lot of things, but uninformed about where his bread is buttered is not one of them. The rubes who listen to him might buy into his message, might even believe the twaddle that falls from his lips and takes up the spaces in their minds where useful information such as a sense of their own social and economic interests would otherwise go. I doubt he does. Mr. Beck is concerned only with being known. With getting a rise out of people. With the next rating stunt, the next provocative falsehood, the next ratings sweep that will confirm that he is someone who cannot be ignored, for being ignored would be the worst thing in his world.

Worse than being wrong.

Worse than making the United States of America just that much poorer, unstable and backward every time he opens his mouth.

Worse, even, than using the lives of the innocent as a stepladder for his peevish ambitions.

He has a great deal of company in this. Does anyone out there know of a leading “conservative” figure in America today who actually holds an elected office right now? I can’t think of one. I mean, I know the names of a great many right-wing elected officials, but none of them are setting any agendas. None of them are in charge of their own movement. They’re all minions.

The leaders are all media people, people without responsibilities, free to say and do whatever damned-fool thing they have to say or do in order to get a rise out of the rest of us poor souls who are just trying to keep the place running despite their best efforts.

So I put my vitriol away.

Perhaps another day I will return to it. Perhaps another day I will break out my Big Can O’ Vitriol and open it up all over a deserving target. Who knows – it might even be tomorrow, the way things are going. It’s certainly a target-rich environment for that sort of thing these days.

But today I will leave it alone, and move on.

Some days I feel like I'm living in the old joke: What did the sadist do to the masochist?


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Old Ball Game

I find that the world these days is not a place I care to write about much, and so I will write about The Good Old Days.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season since I left that town in the middle of 1993. I am not convinced that I am to blame for this, though sometimes I wonder what would happen if I moved back. It’s a nice city to live in – I lived there for four years and enjoyed it, so the possibility is always there. Perhaps someday I’ll test this theory.

When I lived there I used to go down to Three Rivers Stadium to see the Pirates play fairly often.

It was cheap, which meant a lot to someone on a graduate student’s stipend that even my own department considered to be below the poverty line.

It was accessibly by bus, as was most of the area, really – Pittsburgh had an excellent public transportation system at the time. It was easy to get to the stadium, and once you learned the trick of getting on the buses as they were coming into downtown rather than as they were leaving downtown, getting home was a breeze.

And I enjoyed the games. Baseball is best enjoyed in person, down at the stadium. The Pirates were good then – nearly always in the playoffs. Jim Leyland was the manager. A nonsteroidal Barry Bonds – whip thin and wearing a much smaller hat than the one he retired with – played in outfield, along with Bobby Bonilla and the resident quote machine, Andy Van Slyke. I saw Tim Wakefield’s first game, before anyone knew he was a knuckleballer – we all just thought he had control issues. It was fun.

Every so often they would have “Buc Night” – one of those marketing puns that front offices around the league just love to inflict on their fan bases. In practical terms, it meant that any member of the rabble could get in for a dollar and sit in the outfield seats, between the foul poles. This was an irresistible temptation for one as financially challenged as I, especially since I already had a bus pass. For a buck, I had an entire evening’s entertainment right there in front of me.

And everything was a dollar. Admission was a dollar. Hot dogs were a dollar. Nachos were a dollar. Sodas were a dollar.

And the quart-sized beers? Those were a dollar too.

All of which meant that by the seventh inning, the game was probably the least interesting thing going on in that stadium.

They only had those Buc Nights for games that didn’t mean a whole lot to begin with – Tuesday night games where none of the opposing teams were anywhere near the playoff races, for example. Nor were any of those opposing teams natural rivals or divisional foes – I never got to see my Phillies on those nights. They were throwaway games, and as such tended to be rather uneventful.

These Buc Nights were successful, as far as they went. The cheap seats out in the outfield were generally filled with rabble. And it was a good thing that they had this promotion, because there was usually nobody else in the stadium. We pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Give the cheap seats large amounts of low-cost beer and nothing much to distract them, and they will create their own distractions.

Good times.

Actually my favorite story from my days at Three Rivers wasn’t one of those Buc Nights at all, but was another night where the fans created their own distractions.

I was temping as a paralegal at the time, having achieved my MA and not quite knowing what else to do with it, and one of my office buddies decided that the lot of us should go down to Opening Day. This must have been 1992.

So about half a dozen of us got seats out in left field, fairly down low, not far from the foul pole. I believe we were the first fans above the left field wall, so if there had been any home runs that game we might have actually come away with the ball.

This turned out not to be a concern.

As a promotional item, the Pirates had handed everyone in the stadium – a fairly good crowd, as I recall – a glossy team guide, listing all of the players and trumpeting what would no doubt be their fine achievements in the coming season. And in the center of this they had inserted a full-page game card for us to write out the line-ups and follow along, the way baseball fans do.

Do football fans do that sort of thing? Or is it unique to baseball?

The thing you have to know about that game card is that it was printed on nice, heavy cardstock, and perforated for easy removal, in case you wanted to keep the guide for reference purposes after the game.

The game itself was one of those 2-1 pitchers’ duels where all of the scoring happens in the first inning and a half before the pitchers settle in, and then nothing else happens for the rest of the night – no runs, no baserunners, not even much in the way of interesting fielding.

So we had a lot of free time, out there in the stands.

The first paper airplane hit center field sometime in the fourth inning.

By the top of the fifth inning, there were several dozen out there, and more in the air. They would come launching out of the cheap seats, way up in the air, and sail lazily around the stadium on the swirling air currents before finally settling more or less gracefully onto the turf. Whenever one made it all the way onto the infield the entire crowd would erupt into cheers.

We didn’t have much else to cheer about.

By the seventh inning the planes were coming down like snowflakes, maybe two every three seconds, and they were getting hard to keep track of individually.

Eventually they stopped the game and sent out the groundskeepers with large trash bags to scoop them up and cart them away. The crowd was not particularly happy about this and voiced their displeasure, but the game announcer made it very clear that a) management did not especially care about our displeasure, as they had enough of their own regarding the situation to keep them occupied, and b) serious but unnamed consequences would be visited upon us should this sort of thing continue.

I don’t recall that the airplanes stopped after that, but I do believe they slowed down.

It was a glorious night for baseball.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Funny Money

Have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps the Teabaggers are an elaborate joke?

That they have been set up by a shadowy but well-funded political think-tank as a way to test the limits of the stupidity of the average American voter through the propagation of intentionally ludicrous “ideas” and aggressively infantile rhetoric? That if they ever bump up against those limits the people running this puppet show will just stand up, announce that Americans are no longer fit to run their own country and take over?

And that the good and the bad news is that we’re nowhere near these limits and more of the same awaits us?

Sometimes I am hard-pressed to find any other explanation. I just hope our new overlords will end the experiment before more innocent people get killed.

I think about this sort of thing when I contemplate what passes for politics these days.

Consider the set-up we have.

On the one side we have a group of people who swear they hold the Constitution in such reverence that they are entitled to use it as a cudgel to beat the rest of us into line behind their policies, except that their policies generally don’t show any evidence of their ever having read, let alone understood, the Constitution. They also talk a great deal about personal responsibility, even as they saturate their rhetoric with images of guns, violence and armed conflict and at the same time disavow any personal responsibility for the consequences such rhetoric may have among those even more unstable than they are.

And on the other side we have a group of people who seem willing to let this happen without mounting any kind of significant challenge to it whatsoever beyond the occasional scolding.

It would be comical if it weren’t quite so grotesque. James Madison, one of the few Founding Fathers who thought that political parties might be a good idea, is probably spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electricity. Perhaps that’s part of the plan, though – a way to harness stupidity to solve our energy problems.

Those clever overlords.

Just to take a far less serious example of this kind of thing than the one currently gathering most of the headlines, I present you with House Joint Resolution No. 557, recently introduced into the Virginia legislature by a right-wing radical who no doubt will insist with a straight face that he is a “conservative” if you ask him. The function of this Solomonic piece of legislation is to get the Commonwealth of Virginia to issue its own currency, on the grounds (according to the Washington Post) that it will “inject competition into the national economy.”

Uh, no.

First of all, the Commonwealth of Virginia does not have the authority to issue its own money. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution very clearly reserves that power to the federal government, while Article 1, Section 10 equally clearly prohibits the States from doing so, and anyone who has ever read that document carefully would know that.

But actually reading and understanding the Constitution is somehow not required these days, so long as one worships and glorifies it and proclaims its name unto the People and claims that it speaks directly to you in your dreams and that you are its Chosen One and can thus rule in its name for ever and ever, amen.

Kind of like the way they treat, well, something else important, I’m sure. There must be another parallel I’m just not getting right now. It’s on the tip of my tongue, I swear.

Second, that kind of competition is not really what the national economy needs.

There was a time when the federal government did not issue paper money. For most of the nineteenth century, in fact, the federal government confined its money-issuing activities to coins – gold, silver and copper – and left the issuing of paper money to private banks and local businesses. Those companies issued bills – essentially IOUs that promised to redeem them for either goods or actual coins should the bearer ever turn up in person at the main office – and those bills would then circulate as currency.

And the result was chaos. A mild sort of chaos, granted – the economy functioned, mostly, using this system. But it was not a good monetary system for any kind of large-scale economic development.

Since the bills were only as good as the companies themselves, they tended to lose value the further away they got from the people who knew whether the originating companies were still in business or not. And if they were not, the bills became so much litter. So nobody really knew whether the money in their pockets was worth what it said it was worth, or indeed anything at all, which is not a conducive environment in which to conduct business.

Bringing this situation back would take us just that much closer to the outer limits of stupidity, I suppose, though I’m hard pressed to see what other positive results it might bring.

The overlords are watching.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Playoff Fever! An Aspirin Will Help

We are a house divided.

No, not in the usual ways. Politically Kim and I tend to line up on the same side most of the time. We were each raised in a different variant of Christianity from which we have in formal ways somewhat drifted but which continues to form the basis of our own religious views. We have similar parenting philosophies. We like spicy food.

But she is a Packers fan and I grew up with the Eagles.

Normally this is not a problem. The two teams only play against each other during the regular season every few years, so most of the time we can cheer for our own team and the other team as well. And over the last decade or two the two teams have generally not been good at the same time, which means that most post-seasons are conflict-free as well.

Every so often, though, the stars and talents align and the Packers and the Eagles meet in the playoffs, the way they will this afternoon. And that just makes for tension.

The last time this happened was in 2004, when the Eagles beat the Packers in Philadelphia in overtime. Deep in their own territory, with time running out and facing fourth down and a quarter of the field to go, the Eagles somehow managed to survive, tie the game and advance to the next round. Sometimes I get flak from Packers fans these days, and I find that “Yeah, yeah, 4th and 26 to you too” is still an effective response.

The tension we have here at home is not what you’d think though. Neither one of us really believes our team will ever win anything, so we go into this each convinced that the other will be happier at the end of the day. While this is good for a marriage, it is bad for one’s self-image, this constant support of a losing cause. There is nothing particularly ennobling about losing causes.

But this situation does have its advantages.

No matter what happens today, one of us will be happy that our team won and the other will be satisfied that their doom and gloom predictions have come true. And then we can both cheer for whoever advances.

Tabitha refuses to take sides in this, by the way. She has no time for all of these large men chasing after small balls and would prefer to sit in her chair and read about warrior cats. Lauren, on the other hand, has been faithfully wearing her Eagles jersey, even if she did get some gentle ribbing about it at school. She won’t watch the game either, but she’s on my side.

I’ve been wearing my Eagles paraphernalia all week here in Packers country. “You have to rattle people’s cages every now and then,” my dad always told me when I was younger, “otherwise they fall asleep on you.” And so far I’ve gotten some friendly challenges from a few Packers fans (“What do you want, Eagles fan?” I was asked by a cashier the other night) and, much to my surprise, a few supportive responses from local Eagles fans.

It will be a good game, I hope.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Fine Afternoon For A Soiree

In keeping with our family tradition of celebrating holidays whenever there is time to do so, we had Tabitha’s birthday party this afternoon. It was a fine time. You should have been there.

This was a big birthday party, all things considered. In addition to Tabitha and Lauren there were eight other girls in attendance. This meant a couple of things.

First, it meant that the decibel level in our house was enough to dent the sheetrock. The hamsters were vibrating, the cats ran outside into the 5-degree windchill rather than deal with it, and car alarms three blocks away had to be disarmed. And that, my friends, is how you know you’ve got a party.

Second, it means that there were flustered whispers of boys. Tabitha is now in 5th grade, and even if she plays her cards close to the vest on this issue, not all of her friends choose to do so. You can learn a lot just by listening.

And third, well, there really is no third. It was a good time, and that is all that it needed to be.

Mostly the girls wanted to be left alone to do their thing, which Kim and I were glad to do since figuring out activities for a horde of pre-teen girls is not something we’re really overqualified to do. But we do serve a purpose at these things, mostly by serving food.

It was Build-Your-Own Tortilla Pizza Day here at Chez Us! We set out a stack of tortillas, two bottles of pizza sauce and more bowls full of toppings than you can find at your local pizza shack and let them go to town.

Locusts, the lot of them.

And then it was cake time!

And presents!

And then, because it is Wisconsin and because nobody in Wisconsin blinks an eye at the thought of taking children to play outdoors in 5-degree windchill, we stuffed the lot of them into our cars and went down to the outdoor ice rink that Our Little Town operates down by the river.

Afterward there was cocoa, because afterward there must always be cocoa. There’s probably a law about that somewhere. It is a good law.


I’m not going to write about politics today.

For one thing, I never intended for this blog to become a purely political blog. I’ve had a lot of political things to say of late, and frankly I’ve got a couple more that I’d like to put out there, but not today. I'll get to them another time, don't worry. This blog is for me to write whatever is on my mind, and politics will be on my mind again no doubt. But not today.

For another thing, I’m not really sure I would like anything I would say about politics today. I find myself sickened and angered by events and I don’t really think anything I’d say would be all that helpful. No matter where I start, it would all end up in the same place. Unlike a number of people whom I would no doubt have named and then called any number of other names, however accurate those other names might be, I know when to shut up and not make things worse.

Would that everyone had this skill.

Finally, I have other things to talk about. Life goes on, and it was a pretty good day today here in Our Little Town.

More on that in a bit.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On the Recent Unpleasantness Regarding the Constitution

Well that didn’t take long.

The new freshman class of Teabaggers in the House of Representatives likes to shout about how much they love the Constitution. They just adore them a heap o’ Constitution, yessireebob, and don’t you forget it. They can’t even prepare breakfast without making sure that everything on their table passes Constitutional muster – from their grits to their orange juice – and they certainly intend to follow that precedent when it comes to whatever it is they’re doing in Washington.

Orange juice manufacturers across America, stand warned.

So yesterday, in a show of just how much they want to take the Constitution home and love it and feed it and call it George, after the Father of Our Country of course (not Curious, and certainly not Boy – what kind of liberal psychos do you take them for?), these stalwart scholars staged a reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House.

That this publicity stunt cost taxpayers over a million dollars is probably just irony, given the loud screeching from the Teabaggers about how fiscally responsible they’re going to be now that they’re in charge.

Of course they’re not in charge.

They control one half of one of the three branches of the American government, which does not “in charge” make. So perhaps they felt they could hold off on the whole “fiscal responsibility” thing until they’d resolved the “in charge” thing, which will take at least until January of 2013, so batten down the hatches ladies and gentlemen because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


What bothers me about this whole craven stunt is not the costs involved – really, a million dollars for a public self-love-in is relatively cheap by modern political standards – but the sheer disrespect shown for the Constitution and for American history.

You see, in keeping with their willingness to edit the Bible to exclude those parts they don’t like in order to get to the parts they want to force the rest of us to obey to their specifications, the Teabaggers didn’t even come close to reading the Constitution in its entirety.

They left out a number of things, things that were perhaps a bit inconvenient to acknowledge, the key sections that they felt beneath their august notice being all the parts where the Founding Fathers had to work with the institution of slavery and make the compromises that allowed the fragile union to be born and then tore it apart nearly four score years later.

Because nothing came of those, I guess.

The official rationale for this un-anesthetized rhetorical surgery was that they were only going to read the sections that had not been “superseded by amendment.” Of course they read the part where voting rights were limited to men over the age of 21, and the part about taxation in the 14th Amendment that was superseded by the 16th Amendment, and they also read the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition without bothering to read the 18th Amendment that had enacted it in the first place, which was sort of weird.

In other words, the stated rationale for their censorship of the Constitution was just so much posturing.

They didn’t read the parts they didn’t like, plain and simple.

Who knew?

As a historian, one whose chosen field is the political culture of exactly the time and thinkers who wrote and ratified the Constitution, I cannot express in words how appalling, how cynical, how self-serving and how insulting I find yesterday’s performance.

I’ve read the Constitution and the debates that led up to it, surrounded it, and followed it. I’ve studied the words of the Founders as they fought over what it meant, and how to live up to it, and I know what those words meant at the time – which is often not what those words mean today. I’ve followed the history of Americans as they struggled to implement the promises in that document, and to change it when the values embodied in the Declaration of Independence – America’s secular creed – demanded that the Constitution step aside and be altered.

You cannot hope to understand American values or history by ignoring the struggles of American people to make their society what it needed to be. These are ongoing struggles. The values of the Declaration of Independence are lofty indeed, and while every step toward them is a valuable and mighty one, the fact remains that there is a long way to go before we rest and no guarantee that the next step won't be backward.

Slavery was part of the United States at its founding – a big part, in ways that most Americans today haven't ever grasped. Wishing it away doesn’t change that. Understanding the reasons why it was enshrined in the Constitution in the first place, the struggles that resulted from that in the nineteenth century, and the war that came out of those struggles is the first step to understanding what my country was then and is now.

Those struggles brought out the worst in America – the viciousness, the brutality, the venality that allowed human beings to hold others in bondage for the crime of their heritage – but it also brought out the best in America, the willingness to do what was right, whatever the cost, however delayed.

As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address,

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

The United States is saddled with a “conservative” movement that has no idea what it is that it thinks it’s “conserving” and is thus doomed to fail in ways it cannot even comprehend. This last stunt was an attempt to edit the Constitution into a political platform, nothing more.

And for that I denounce these poseurs, these pretenders to American history and values, who have cheapened the Constitution through their ignorance.

They and the horses they rode in on are cordially invited to find other tasks with which to occupy their time.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Revenge of the Wussim

Maybe Ed Rendell was right.

For those of you not familiar with Pennsylvania politics, “Fast Eddie” Rendell started out as Philadelphia’s District Attorney before moving on to become its Mayor. He will soon leave office after two terms as Governor, but in typical fashion he is going out with a bang.

I’ve always liked Rendell, largely because he is such a throwback to the old-fashioned pol of the nineteenth-century. He is a Man of the People, and if you’ve ever paid close attention to the People around you then you know just how strange and flawed he can be. To my knowledge he has never refuted the allegations that he offered $10 to anyone sitting next to him in the cheap seats in Veterans Stadium who could hit Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson with a snowball. He is big, loud, hearty, unpolished and sharp as a razor – most people never get a second chance to cross him. If you can make Philadelphia function, you can do anything.

Last month the Eagles were scheduled to play a Sunday night game against the Vikings, but Philadelphia got hit with a blizzard that dumped a foot of snow pretty much at game time so the NFL postponed the game to Tuesday.

Well. Fast Eddie wasn’t going to take that lying down. So he threw out a few snowballs of his own. It was a fascinating little rant, but nothing he said topped his opening line.

“We have become a nation of wusses,” he said.

Now, on one level, I think he was wrong. Yes, football players can play in bad weather, but 65,000 fans driving to and from a game in a blizzard is a public safety crisis waiting to happen - a threat not only to themselves but to the rescue personnel who would have to go retrieve them - and I’m not convinced a football game is worth that.

Certainly not this football game, anyway – when the two teams finally did play it was a game where the least awful team somehow managed not to lose. When I turned it off in protest the Eagles were still winning. I’m amazed that athletes get paid after games like that.

But on another level – a deeper, more social level – I think Rendell’s onto something.

We have become a nation unwilling to face harsh reality, unwilling to deal with anything that challenges our preconceived notions of how things ought to be.

We have a national debt out that is growing by the annual net worth of entire continents every year, and not only do we refuse to grow up and pay the taxes we need to pay to cover the services we demand but also we refuse to acknowledge this as a problem. We want more of the same policies that got us here in the first place, that (with the exception of the late 1990s) have been the hallmark of American political thinking since 1980 – spend and cut taxes, cut taxes and spend – and we’re just stealing from our children.

We are involved in two major wars with no clear idea of what it means to succeed and no public debate over why we’re still there, what we hope to accomplish or how we’re going to pay for it all. Anyone who brings up these points is immediately denounced as unpatriotic and a possible terrorist.

We have an infrastructure that is crumbling but no plans to replace or even fix it. For example, the shiny new governor here in Wisconsin made it clear well before his inauguration that he would cancel an ongoing rail project, on the grounds that, well, even having read his public statements on the matter I’m not sure how he justified it or how it fits into his plan to add rather than lose jobs in this state. It just does, that’s all, and no doubt he thinks I’m a bad citizen for questioning his authority.

We have a health care system that currently ranks 37th in the world in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, recent reforms notwithstanding, and the top legislative priority for the incoming class of legislators is sticking their heads further into the sand and undoing what little reforms were made. Because letting corporate bureaucrats determine who gets to live and who must die is just so American, apparently, as is adding to the above-mentioned national debt.

We are a nation of wusses.

This was brought home to me with especial force when I read the recent news that NewSouth Books will be publishing a new edition of Huckleberry Finn.

This edition will be largely identical in every respect to the old ones except for one big thing. It will take the word “nigger” and replace it with “slave.”

The thinking here is that “nigger” is a vile, offensive word and should not be allowed to sully our precious ears these days.

And it is indeed a vile, offensive word. It manages to compress centuries of racism, violence, arrogance, and brutality into two short syllables. It speaks of a time when human beings were bought and sold as livestock, treated as things, and subjected to contempt and degradation simply because of what they looked like. It stands as a foul blot on our nation’s history. You should be offended by that word. You should be horrified by that word. You should be sickened by that word.

And that is precisely the point.

Mark Twain was not an idiot. Nor – despite the popular caricature – was he some kind of loveable old coot telling stories to pass the time. He was a sharp observer and critic of his times and, in the way that such people often become when faced with the stark reality of their fellow human beings, a deeply cynical man with a streak of black humor dark enough to blot out the sun. Read Letters From the Earth sometime if you don’t believe me.

He put that word in that story for a reason.

He put that word in that story to ask why Jim, the moral heart of his story, was treated so poorly by people who were supposedly his betters.  He put that word in the story to get you, the reader, think about who really was better, and what did that say about America?  We have grand ideals in this country, but living up to them is an ongoing and only sporadically successful endeavor.

That word exists as an indictment of both the other characters in the story and the United States that produced them in a way that the more neutral “slave” does not (and how vile does a word have to be in order to make “slave” look neutral?).

Yet we refuse to face any of this.

To be told that the United States has problems and that these problems have shaped our history, that these problems still need to be faced, accepted and solved – apparently this is too much for our tender souls these days.

We want “America! Hell yeah!”

We want to live in a fantasyland where problems belong to other people, so we don’t have to face or solve them.

We are a nation of wusses.

When the Eagles finally did play their game that Tuesday night, Governor Rendell was there. Stadium workers had piled his seat full of snow and planted a sign in it that read, “This seat reserved for non-wussies.”

The cameras caught Rendell laughing as he put the sign away. I’m betting he kept it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Molly Ivins used to say that some days were like finding Fidel Castro in your refrigerator. Hard to know what to think.

It’s been cold here in Baja Canada, as it usually is during wintertime, and this means that the girls have been spending most of their leisure time indoors. They read, play games, plink around on the computers, and generally find ways to keep themselves occupied. They’ve reached the age where we don’t really have to monitor them much unless there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, so there are long stretches of time where they’re pretty much filling up their afternoons with activities of their own devising.

Which is why, the other day, I came out of my office and found myself staring at this:

They call this game “Bungini.” It seems to involve two small stuffed animals being tied by elastic strings to the stair rail above and being sent off to bounce up and down. It entertained them for hours on Sunday.

But the girls have decided that the Bungini animals enjoy just dangling there in the stairwell, and so they have taken to leaving them there.

It makes the place look like a gibbet.  Every time I turn a corner and see them there, I wonder what crimes those adorable little stuffed animals committed to get them to that spot.  You can't trust anyone, it seems.

I’ve kind of gotten used to this over the last couple of days, but still. It does give one pause.

Hard to know what to think, some days.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Good Sir, Why Do You Start?

Sometimes I wonder how on earth I managed to survive into adulthood.

Today’s edition of Our Little Town’s newspaper has an article in it detailing the trouble a high school student recently got into here in The Land Of The Free (tm) for bringing a paring knife to school so she could cut up the apple in her lunchbox. Although there is some question as to whether this actually was her lunchbox or her dad’s, and thus whether she intended to bring in this paring knife or not, there is no question as to the fanatical overreaction being visited upon the poor girl, who will likely be jailed for life, placed on the No-Fly-Ever-Not-Even-As-An-Earthquake-Refugee List, and/or deported to Afghanistan for further interrogation.


I once brought a WWI naval bayonet to my high school.

These things were designed for boarding parties. It had a blade about sixteen inches long and a serviceable hilt, so you could actually use it as a short sword if you so desired. And, in fact, that is what I planned to use it as.

You see, that year I was taking a Shakespeare class.

Trust me, it makes sense. Hear me out.

The teacher for this class ended up getting sick for quite some time in the first quarter, so he sent in a lesson plan that called for us to divide up into small groups and work on independent projects that we could present at some point when presumably he was feeling better and could evaluate them. We were left pretty much on our own as to the nature of these projects. So long as they had something to do with a play by Shakespeare, we were good.

Now, understand something. This was an Honors class. It was full of the sorts of people who later became lawyers, professors and psychiatrists – people adept at finding the grey areas in directives, in other words.

Accordingly, it took us all of a day to realize two things.

First, that nobody in the class was happy about the fact that we were not going to be studying Macbeth that semester. We liked Macbeth.

And second, that several small group projects could, with a little work, be arranged into one large group project.

As an added bonus, we figured out that we could combine these two things and solve all of our problems at once.

So we decided to work together to stage various scenes from Macbeth for an audience to be named later. The substitute didn’t care, really – we were working quietly on Shakespeare-related projects as far as he could tell, the details of which could be filed under Not His Problem. And our regular teacher wasn’t there to tell us no. Plus, I rather suspect he was pleased with our initiative. He was one of those teachers who knew when not to see things and just let us go.

So we rehearsed in class, and when the end of the quarter drew near we rehearsed out of class as well. And since a good percentage of the Stage Crew was in that class, we worked it out to present our scenes on stage one evening, with lights and everything.

We needed props.

Swords, in fact.

So I brought in my dad’s old bayonet that he had found somewhere in the Philadelphia Navy Yard a quarter century earlier, and stuffed it in my locker where it sat all day doing nobody any harm. I took it out at the end of the day and marched it over to the backstage area, where someone else had done the same thing with an actual - and rather larger - sword. We rehearsed a bit, and then locked them up in the lighting cage so nobody would take them before adjourning for dinner.

We had invited quite a lot of people to the show, and the house was fairly full by curtain.

And when showtime came, there I was on stage – Banquo in Act I, Scene III, with my short sword in my hand. I even had time to sheath it properly during the scene (of course the bayonet had a proper scabbard - don't be silly). The girl playing Macbeth had the big sword, as was appropriate since she had the big part. And all through the evening we traded those blades back and forth so that the appropriate characters were appropriately armed.

The only comment I got about it was from my English teacher, who was also one of the faculty sponsors for the school plays. I’d been working backstage for several years by then, and he decided that the poise I showed up there in taking my time to sheath the bayonet was a sign that I should try acting as well. As I recall I thanked him for the compliment without seriously considering that as a possibility. I liked it better backstage.

I cannot imagine doing this today.

Not even with an apple as cover.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An Unanswered Question

Does anybody actually eat those little bagged noodles that they give you when you order Chinese takeout?

Seriously. I want to know.

I never liked Chinese food when I was a kid, in large part because I grew up in the 1970s in America, a time and a place where “Chinese food” meant chop suey out of a can. Nobody likes chop suey out of a can, least of all the Chinese, who I imagine have much the same reaction to being told that this is their cuisine that Mexicans have when confronted with Taco Bell. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I found myself sitting down to a meal that might conceivably have been served somewhere in China – an Americanized version, no doubt, cooked for tourists, but at least something within shouting distance of authentic – and discovered that this was great stuff. It had actual flavor.

And spices.

The local Chinese takeout here in Our Little Town actually has a button on their cash register labeled “burn your mouth.” If you ask for that, you get food where you are able to detect spiciness. I don’t blame them for this – they have to serve their market, and this is what you have to do in Wisconsin if you want anything with more zip than ketchup. At least I know the trick now.

Since that fateful evening back in high school I have spent a fair amount of time and money eating food purchased from Chinese restaurants in any number of states and at least one foreign country (not China), and while it has varied enormously in quality and price, one thing has remained constant.

Every time I buy some to take home with me, I get a crinkly little bag of fried noodles to throw away.

Sometimes I wonder if they just have piles of them in the back of the kitchen, produced as some kind of byproduct of the cooking process, and they have to pawn them off on customers or else they will build up and drown the cooks. It’s the most plausible theory I can come up with. They can’t seriously expect anyone to eat them.

I know. I’ve tried.

The noodles really don’t have any taste to them that I could ever find – chewing on them is like eating crunchy air, only greasier – and this rather misses the whole point of eating things once you’ve gotten beyond avoiding starvation. There must be some other function that they serve. But what?

Every so often I think I should just tell them not to bother throwing the noodles into my bag so I can save the effort of transporting them home, but I worry that this will upset some delicate Chinese Restaurant Balance in the universe and throw everything out of whack, which will lead to all of the General Tso Chicken in existence spontaneously transforming into canned chop suey.

And nobody wants that.