Saturday, April 30, 2011

Further News and Updates

1. Today was the second of the two 4H Cat Shows that we signed poor Mithra up for this spring, and she took it about as well as she did the first one. She survived Friday night’s bath. I managed to wedge her into her carrier for the ride over this morning. And unlike many of the felines in attendance, she didn’t howl, scratch or hiss at anyone. So a win all around. Tabitha got a “Red Group” ribbon for her performance, and everyone was happy to come home.

2. No, I did not watch the Royal Wedding. The American Revolution was fought in part so that I would not have to care about such things, and I for one am grateful for that. I do wish the newlyweds well, as I would for any such couple – especially since they will be under such intrusive scrutiny from vultures and well-wishers alike – but I haven’t watched my own wedding video in the fifteen years since it was filmed, and I wasn’t about to watch someone else’s live.

3. This did not prevent Kim from recording it on the DVR, nor has it stopped her and the girls from watching it even as I type.

4. Tabitha’s orchestra concert went off without a hitch on Thursday night – that being the main event of the day as far as I was concerned. I managed to slide into my seat in the NBPE gym a full 14 minutes before it started, and I got to see her entire portion of the show before I had to rush off to teach my evening class – including a solo performance of Yankee Doodle. The NBPE strings are an enthusiastic bunch, and they filled the gym with joyful noise.

5. For some reason I have had The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Student Conservatory Band running through my head for days now.

6. The NBPE Art Show that night was its usual assortment of marvelous work and crushing crowds, and it’s nice that people show up to support their children’s efforts. Tabitha didn’t have much on display, as she has been devoting most of her former art time to the orchestra, but I did get to see her tile for the 5th-grade installation that will remain behind when she leaves. Oddly enough, it featured a wolf and not a cat. Lauren had quite a few nice things to see. She was particularly proud of her dream-like water scene.

7, Now that it is almost May it looks like it might stop snowing here in Baja Canada. Now if we can only get the wind to stop knocking down trees, that would be nice. Fortunately we have been spared the really heavy weather that strafed the South this past week, and can thus complain with a bit of humor rather than shock or terror.  It's the little things that make you grateful.

8. One of the nice things about having a memory full of holes is that you can enjoy re-reading books that much more.

9. I have been letting a lot of political things slide by lately, largely for the sake of my own mental health. The problem is that every time I turn around the collection of right-wing lunatic-fringe extremists currently doing its best to destroy this country and everything it stands for provides me with fresh material. Eventually I’ll have to get back to writing about that – probably sometime after I have refreshed my whiskey supply and can stand to think about it again.

10. If I don’t get a haircut soon I will have to explore alternate lifestyles.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Where I've Been

Wondering where I’ve been?

So am I.

Between the end of the semester rush, the ongoing Teabagger War on America, and an assortment of other tasks, drains, and diversions - some positive (playoff hockey!) and some not – there has been precious little energy or will to natter on here, which I find to be a shame. I like doing this. I’m not sure when things will calm down, but eventually I suppose they will.

Until then, well, blogging will be light. At least I think it will. You never know - it might end up being a necessary diversion, in which case blogging will be heavy.  I never claimed to be able to predict the future, folks. It's hard enough to remember the past.

For reference sake, this is what my tomorrow looks like. If I get through all of it, then I might be able to think about the longer-range things that I put off in order to do so.

6:45am-7:00 – get lunches and backpacks ready for girls. Get my bag packed. Make tea and bagels for road. Wake girls. Say goodbyes to girls and Kim.

7:00-8:30 – drive 90 minutes to get to Not Quite So Far Away Campus.

8:30-9:30 – prep for class. Print and go over lecture. Copy maps to distribute. Make outline to put on board. Grade whatever assignments were turned in at the last minute of last class.

9:30-10:45 – in Western Civ II class, compress all of World War II into a coherent story that not only hits all the basic events of the war but also puts them into the broader framework of both the 20th century history of Europe and the longer-term context stretching back to the Age of Reconnaissance in the 1400s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s.

10:45-noon – office hours. Likely these will be quiet once I get back to my office, but the walk there will be filled with students and their concerns. I’m not sure why they only want to talk to me in the hallways at this campus, but so be it.

noon-1:30 – drive back home

1:30-2:30 – pick up Tabitha’s violin and music, drop off Not So Far Away Campus class materials and grab Home Campus class materials, and go to Home Campus to prep for upcoming Performing Arts lecture that I have to run. Tasks include getting the lighting ready (don’t forget wrench!), finding and setting up the podium and portable whiteboard, working with the sound guy, and figuring out what I’m going to say to introduce the speaker.

2:30-3:00 – pick up Lauren from school. You have to get there early or you’re stuck waiting two blocks away. It’s not bad – it’s down time, and I get to read a bit here. Remember that Tabitha has play rehearsal and if she comes out to the car I should send her back in.

3:00-4:00 – tour Not Bad President Elementary School art show with Lauren, as I will not have time to do so in the evening. At least this way I get to see it.

4:00-5:00 – pick up Tabitha and bring both girls to Home Campus. Finish whatever prep for speaker that was left undone at 2:30. Get lecture ready for tonight’s class. Girls can do homework. Somewhere in here there must be dinner, but not quite sure where.

5:00-5:45 – Kim picks up girls from theater and takes them to Not Bad President Elementary for art show and Tabitha’s orchestra concert. Speaker should arrive on Home Campus. Go over tech with speaker (make sure he approves of lighting plan in particular), get house ready, make sure sound guy is ready (a no-brainer – he’s better at his job than I am at mine). Open the house to the audience (fortunately a free event, and so do not need to coordinate/worry about ticket sales; also no intermission and so do not need to coordinate coffee shop guy). Introduce speaker. Turn show over to other Performing Arts Committee member who has graciously volunteered to step in at this point and rush off to NBPE to catch Tabitha’s concert.

5:45-6:30 – find parking in same time zone as NBPE. Run to gym where concert will be held and catch as much as possible.

6:30-7:00 – return to Home Campus. If speaker is done, help sound guy strike show. If not, hang out and lend assistance as needed. Normal office hours for Home Campus class (6-7pm) cancelled for tonight, so make sure all class prep was completed during 4-5pm hour.

7:00-8:15 – discuss rise of totalitarianism on both left (Stalinist Soviet Union) and right (Fascist Italy) during 1920s/30s in Western Civ II class, which is a week behind the morning's class. Be prepared to lead class discussion on Mussolini and why his Fascism appeals to the students (because I’ve told them to write an essay making that point – usually I give them the option of deciding what position they’re going to take on these class-discussion essays, but experience has shown that nobody ever takes the Fascist side and one of the things I want to get across to them is that an awful lot of people did back then and they need to understand why).

8:15-9:00 – answer lingering questions from Home Campus students. Go to theater and finish whatever clean-up is left over from speaker event. Go home.

9:00-10:00pm – help get girls to bed. Normally this is my job until story time (Kim reads out loud in a much more entertaining way than I do, it has been universally decreed), but on class nights much of that falls to Kim.

The sad thing is that I don’t think I’m all that unique having a schedule like that these days.

It’s a wonder anyone has any time at all.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

All Hail the Rabbit of Easter!

We’ve been working on Easter for a while now.

The girls spent the better part of two days this week dying eggs, for example. There was a time when this was a full-family event fraught with all sorts of Humpty-Dumpty-esque peril, but that was when they were younger. At this point we no longer have to help them or even supervise them, so mostly we just check in now and then to see what goodies they have come up with.

They do pretty well, I think.

And of course as the arrival of the big day getting closer and closer anticipation ratchets up to a fever pitch, with visions of sugar bombs dancing in their heads. Frosted sugar bombs. Chocolate-frosted sugar bombs, with powdered sugar on top.

Mmmmm.  Sugar.

All this has its downside, of course. At 6:20 this morning Lauren – a morning person in the best of times – was already bouncing around our bedroom working on her pre-sugar high.

Fortunately for her she got to experience the real thing a few hours later, when everyone else was in a proper mood to crawl out of bed and not wrap in duct tape those who greet the day with energy and volume.

Yes, we were in fact visited by “the rabbit of Easter,” as David Sedaris likes to put it. The annual delivery of the entire sugar output of Cuba went off without a hitch, much to Lauren’s delight and amazement. Tabitha, no stranger to sugar lust, was a bit more subdued as you would expect the older sister to be, but nevertheless the arrival of a metric buttload of chocolate and assorted other sweets is not something to be ignored no matter how much the older sister you are.

It was a little different this year, though.

Normally the Easter Bunny comes to our house bearing not only sweets but yarn – large piles of yarn in two distinct colors. Each girl’s bed gets one color of yarn attached to it, and then the trick is to follow the yarn from there all throughout the house to where the chocolate is. It’s a charming tradition, but not one that is very friendly to those who need to get up in the middle of the night for any reason.

So this year there was a scavenger hunt instead, with notes tucked into plastic eggs that led to other notes tucked into other plastic eggs until eventually they led to the same place that the yarn always ended up – enough sugar to cause diabetes merely by standing downwind.

And a happy morning it was.

Happy Easter, one and all.

The Lord is risen.

And with enough chocolate He may stay risen for the rest of eternity, much as Tabitha and Lauren will.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Adventures in Bureaucracy, Chapter Next

Once again I find myself falling between the cracks down at Home Campus.

Working for the state has a number of benefits to it, or at least it did before the state was taken over by raving jackals and pantsless buffoons. But even before the Current Unpleasantness hit, one of the things that did not qualify as a benefit was the sheer volume of paperwork that comes with being part of a government-run institution. Mounds of it. Reams of it. Bureaucracy so vast and encompassing that it attains a sort of grandeur that holds you frozen in place while it reaches down and slowly engulfs even minor figures such as myself.

There’s an art to that, and you have to be impressed. I’m waiting for them to embed background music into their electronic forms to complete the effect. Well, I’d find it inspirational.

Now, I know that much of this paperwork is there for good reasons, reasons generally having to do with closing some loophole previously exploited by the cunning, the crass, and the depraved, groups you run into a lot in state employment. I spend several Saturdays a year proctoring LSAT exams, and at least a third of the time those take up is devoted to verbatim recitations of rules so arcane and picayune as to defy belief but which are there because somebody tried something funny and got caught and they want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The state works like that, only on a larger scale.

So when the requirement came down the email pike this month that I would have to report any outside remunerated activity in my field last year – presumably to avoid conflicts of interest – I didn’t even flinch.

And I understand why they do this, really I do. I can even see how the cunning, crass and depraved might need such a report to be filed on them, if only to add a charge of “falsifying documents” to their eventual rap sheet.

But dude, I’m a historian. It’s not like there are lobbyists who have me on speed dial, itching to cash in on my influence with the Powers That Be. If I had any such influence, believe me, I’d use it for myself.

Plus it turns out that filling out this form is not as simple as it seems.

Who saw that coming, huh?

First of all, I’m not sure I even have to fill it out at all. It only applies to people who have better than half-time appointments, and since my course load varies by semester you have to line that up just right or I don’t qualify. I did have one thing that might qualify as something I had to report, but I only had one semester last year with a better than half time appointment and it didn’t happen during that time.

Even if it did, I’m still not sure if it needs to be reported, given the rather elastic definitions of “outside,” “remunerated,” and “in your field” that appear repeatedly in the four different instruction documents that came with the form.

So I sent in a request for clarification to the person who sent me the form.

They copied me on their request for clarification from the person above them.

I expect this will go on for quite some time before answers come cascading down – that’s how it usually works with me. The HR people in Central already know my name from the last go-round of “does this guy fit into any of our categories or not?” that we played in February.

If I could peel bananas with my toes they’d just put me in the zoo.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

News and Updates

With midterm season in full swing and the political news getting more soul-deadening by the minute here in the Badger State, I haven’t had much time or inclination to be blogging. But life goes on, as it always does:

1. I continue to read escapist literature in the fond hopes that it will perform as advertised, but so far to no avail. I am still here.

2. It occurs to me that with the unilateral pay cuts demanded of me by Governor Teabagger, he is effectively asking me to tithe him. Isn’t that a bit on the blasphemous side, even for a Teabagger?

3. Three times this week it has snowed here in Baja Canada, despite the fact that it is clearly April. Today, in fact, the visibility at Not Quite So Far Away Campus was effectively a quarter mile through the swirling flakes and the ditches by the interstate were littered with people who forgot to drive with the weather instead of the calendar. At some point I expect a switch to be flipped and the temperatures to shoot up into the 90s, where they will stay until late September. We had our Spring already. It was a Friday.

4. The one thing about this time of year that really works in my favor is that it is hockey playoff season, when the NHL actually finds its way onto the television screen. Except for the Flyers, who seem to be the invisible team when it comes to this sort of thing. I did manage to see almost five minutes of their last game, though, and they won that one, so perhaps they’ll broadcast the next one too.

5. I have been grading exams for much of the last week. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Teacher drinks.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Reading List on the Founding Era, by request

A while back, Lucy asked me to come up with a list of books that covered the “behind the scenes” formation of our nation, with the proviso that they be well-written.

That’s a trick on a number of levels, it turns out.

For one thing, there is a reason why most historians do not write best-selling novels, and a lack of good ideas is not that reason.

This was one of the things that made my grad school experience so contentious. For reasons that even now still make me wish I knew how to grind my teeth in three-part harmony, historians as a discipline are just not very interested in good writing. There is a great deal of stress on hitting one’s marks – properly describing the various historiographical debates into which you wish to insert your argument, citing the appropriate sources, and on a more insidious level paying the proper obeisance to the reigning fashions of interpretation (go ahead, ask me about the invasion of history by literary theory some day – that’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back). But there’s not much reward for good writing.

It always seemed to me that the whole point of history is to tell a good story. A story backed up by evidence, certainly – that’s what makes it history and not commentary – but a story nonetheless.

And good storytelling is good writing. But neither of those things were the goal. In fact, what was described as “narrative history” was actively scorned by too many of my peers as beneath the dignity of the discipline, and once again I’m back to grinding my teeth in 4/4 time. No wonder so many Americans remain ignorant about their own past – not enough people are writing it in a way that would make them want to read it. It’s bad enough most Americans can’t conceive of a world prior to their own personal 5th-grade year, but historians should not be making that ignorance easier to sustain.

All of this being a roundabout way to say that finding well-written books is harder than it sounds. There are a few of them out there, but you do have to look.

For another thing, the fact is that I read a lot of those books over the last couple of decades, both the well-written ones and the ones that got by on substance alone.

That’s what you do in graduate school – read in your field. Part of what they want you to do while you’re there is get a solid handle on what everyone else has done so you can build on that without repeating it. The only way to do that is to read it. All of it. A graduate-level seminar requires anywhere from 200 to 500 pages of reading a week, and you generally take two or three of these at a time, plus other coursework, for several years. There are also comprehensive exams. My reading load for those exams – a load which was pretty much in line with everyone else’s, so don’t think I was somehow special – was roughly a book every two days for a solid year.

The first thing I did after my comps was visit the university health care center to make sure that I hadn’t destroyed my health permanently. “No, no,” they told me. “Just get up off your chair more from now on.”

As if.

All of this is to say that I ingested an overwhelming amount of information regarding the political culture of the formation of this nation during my time in graduate school, information from a wide variety of sources, information that mulled around in my head and combined and recombined in new and in some cases idiosyncratic ways to produce my own view of things.

So the things I write here are not necessarily the sorts of things I can point to in a book for you to find repeated in the same ways.

Which means, of course, that my graduate training was a success. That was the goal, after all.


And of course I’ve continued to read in my field since then, which only adds to the cacophony.

So pulling a reading list out of that is trickier than it sounds. But it is also fun, because that’s what people like me live for.

I got into this field because I love it. I became a teacher because I had a passion for it and wanted to share that with others. And I am never happier than when people actually want me to do that.

So, here’s a few things for the list:

If you’re looking for good general histories of this period, the kinds of things that give you an overview of most of the important events that are going on during the Founding Era, there are a couple of books to consider.

Probably the best place to start is with The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, as it provides not only a sweeping narrative of events but also a solid understanding of the ideological forces at work. It is an older work now, dating from the 1990s, but it stands up.

Also, the Oxford History of the United States is currently the best series going in terms of solid, well-written syntheses of historical scholarship aimed at the general reader as well as the professional historian. I’ve read most of the volumes in this series and have been steadfastly impressed by them. Anyone who wants a good scholarly overview of the history of the United States would be strongly advised to explore this series, particularly James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, on the Civil War era, and David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear, on the Depression and WWII.

There are two relevant volumes in this series for the Founding period, only one of which I’ve read. I was impressed enough with Robert Middlekauf’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 to use it as a textbook in my advanced undergraduate course on the colonial period. The most recent Oxford volume is Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. This is high on my to-read list. It has gotten rave reviews from basically everyone of any note who studies this period, and if it is as good as everything else Wood has written I will understand why – Gordon Wood is one of the key historians working on this era and I have yet to find anything he’s written that wasn’t worth the time.

If you are looking for more specific works, then it gets trickier as most of them were written with people like me in mind – professional historians looking for densely argued monographs in very specific issues. Not all, but most.

The arguments over the proper place of classical republicanism versus Lockean liberalism are examples of this. Whether the Revolution, Constitution and early republic were more influenced by the one or the other consumed historians in my field for the better part of thirty years – in part because while liberalism is fairly easy to define neither the historians nor the people they studied ever really came up with a stable, consistent definition of republicanism that everyone could accept – with the final synthesis being a sort of exasperated “yes.” The view I put forth on this blog is my own take, both in terms of definitions and which one was most influential when, based on the primary and secondary sources I’ve read, but here are a few works to consider for those interested:

On the classical republican side, Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is the granddaddy of them all, more or less. Lance Banning’s The Jeffersonian Persuasion followed that up, as did Gordon Wood’s magisterial work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Wood’s book is breathtaking but not easy reading. All of these are at least thirty years old.

On the liberal side, Joyce Appleby’s Capitalism and a New Social Order, on the politics of the 1790s, was always a favorite of mine, plus it’s short.

One of the best works synthesizing the two sides – again, an older work, and somewhat hard to find now – is Isaac Kramnick’s Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America. Kramnick does a nice job of showing how it wasn’t an either/or proposition.

Gordon Wood’s later book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, also sits in that complex middle and is worth reading, as is Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America.

Sean Wilentz’ The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, carries the story into the 19th century, as does Drew McCoy’s bittersweet The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy – a hymn to the problems of outliving one’s time.

One of the issues that I have always found fascinating is the role of religion in the Founding Era. For general readers, Jon Meacham’s American Gospel is a good place to start. Isaac Kramnick’s The Godless Constitution and Brooke Allen’s Moral Minority serve as useful correctives to the misguided but mysteriously popular notion that the United States is a “Christian nation.”

Don’t even get me started on that.

There are any number of other monographs that come to mind, but instead I’ll end on a fun one – if you’re interested in the day-to-day experiences of what it was like to be a soldier in the American Revolution, you will do no better than Michael Stephenson’s Patriot Battles, which manages to get across a lot of that in a fairly breezy and accessible style.

Luckily for you, there’s no exam at the end of all this.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On Kittens Growing Older

When do we reach the point where we take the pain of parting for granted?

Our neighbor’s cat had kittens a bit ago. This was a blessed event on par with the discovery of free energy or the news that cheeseburgers might actually be healthy for you, as far as the girls were concerned. It has been a long time since our resident alley-rabbits were kittens, and the idea that there were kittens mere yards from our door – kittens whose owner allowed, even encouraged, the girls to visit and play with them – well, that was just the most wonderful news this year.

They spent a great many afternoons over there since then, watching their eyes open, playing with them, giving them names, giving them new and better names, playing with them some more.

Yesterday it became clear that the kittens were now old enough to be given away. One was gone when they got there. Another left with a new owner while they were there.

We had a lot to do last night – fun things, it must be said – so the girls were kept fairly busy in the immediate aftermath of this revelation. But eventually we came home and got ready for bed, and the implications of it all sank in.

Lauren took it especially hard, and that is all I will say about that.

As a parent, there isn’t much you can do in a situation like that, not really. You can sympathize and agree that it’s hard to see them go. You can try to imagine what their lives will be like in the future but you have to admit that no, you’ll never know, not for sure, and you won’t ever see them again. You can say, “treasure them while they’re here,” because you know how short a time that is. But kids don’t understand that.

When you’re an adult, you’re used to this sort of thing. You know how fleeting it all is. Every moment zips on by without looking back. People drop into your life and drop back out of it. People and animals die. You treasure them while you can because you know how fast it goes, and really what else can you do?

And you know that it hurts. Of course it hurts. It’s supposed to hurt.

One of my favorite bits from Lawrence of Arabia is right up front, where one of his friends is trying to figure out how to snuff a candle with his fingertips and complains to T.E. Lawrence that he can’t figure out the trick. Lawrence casually reaches over and snuffs it. “But that hurts!” the first guy complains. “Of course it hurts,” says Lawrence. “But what’s the trick?” asks the first guy. “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

When do we reach that point, as adults? Where we expect it and just endure it and don’t complain about the bitterness of it all, not even for something as minor as kittens moving on with their lives and leaving us behind?

We do reach that point, because we have to.

But sometimes I think we lose something in that process.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Siege Weaponry and Homeland Security

I once figured out a loophole in the present security mania that so distorts American life and values.

For a number of years I ran a museum in the Small City north of Our Little Town. It was in many ways a typical nonprofit institution in that it was nonprofit in every conceivable way, and thus there was an ever-present need for both fundraising events to raise money and publicity events to keep our name in the public eye so that people might give us money at a future point as well.

I was never very good at that part, really. I enjoyed the history part of the job, I got a certain satisfaction out of the “shepherding the major project through the bureaucracy” part even if it turned my hair grey and my nights into occasional expanses of sleepless agitation, and the people involved with the place were generally a lot of fun, but those events were things that more often than not drove me bug-eyed.

Call it the curse of being an introvert in a high-visibility position. As curses go, it’s not so bad.

So we were always looking for events to hold, is what I’m saying.

At this point in the story you need to know that there is another museum – a science museum – in the Rather Bigger Town just south of us, and for reasons that probably have to do with explaining Newton’s Laws and such (although I've never really had the heart to ask them) they have a trebuchet.

For those of you unfamiliar with your medieval siege engines, a trebuchet is a species of catapult. It is basically an A-frame of some kind with a pivot point at the top of the A and a throwing arm mounted on that point. At one end of the arm is a sling or some other holding mechanism, and at the other – the thing that makes it a trebuchet rather than some other species of catapult – is a counterweight. You winch the arm into position, fill the sling, release the counterweight and then physics takes over and whatever you put in the sling goes hurtling off into the distance.

A full-scale trebuchet is actually an astonishingly fearsome weapon. It can hurl a quarter-ton projectile for several hundred yards, and they used to use them to destroy city fortifications and castle walls.

This one was rather smaller. It had a 300lb counterweight and could toss a medium-sized pumpkin roughly half the length of a football field. The science museum had an annual event just after Halloween that was designed to do just that and we used to go down every year for it. It was an awful lot of fun.

I mean, who doesn’t like flying produce?

One year it hit me that this sort of thing might go over well for our museum as well. And like magic, everything fell into place.

The folks down at the science museum were generous enough to loan us their trebuchet for a fairly nominal fee, on the provision that their staff be the only ones to operate it – a provision I was only to happy to abide by, not being trained in the finer techniques of medieval warfare. They also made us work around their event, which was only fair. The farmer whose field abutted the rear of our museum said we could fire pumpkins into it all we wanted, as his crops had been harvested by that point and he’d just plow under whatever vines grew up in the spring. And the local pumpkin vendor agreed to come by to sell pumpkins to those who wanted a flying pumpkin of their own but didn’t have one to bring.

We were all set.

And then, about a week beforehand, a thought occurred to me.

So I called up the good folks who ran the Small City and said, “I have an odd question for you.”

Now, by this point in my tenure they were used to me asking them odd questions, so to their credit they did not flinch at this introduction. “And what would that question be?” they asked.

“Do I need a permit to fire a trebuchet within the city limits?”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line.

“You know,” they finally said, “nobody’s ever asked us that before.  We'll get back to you.”

You know what? It turns out you don’t.

You need a permit to burn leaves. You need a permit to put a bedroom onto your house. You need all sorts of permits to carry a gun and if you fire it within City limits there had better be a life-threatening self-defense need for it or you would be advised to have a good lawyer. You need a permit to hold a raffle. You even need a permit to sell knick-knacks at the local craft fair.

But medieval siege engines? Those are okay.

Does Homeland Security know about this?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Too Much Concept

What is it about theater and “concept”?

I have spent a good portion of my life in and around the theater, mostly in various backstage capacities. My glory years were spent in lighting, which not only offers you the chance to test the limits of both acrophobia and burn scarification but also lets you see the show itself, albeit from odd angles way up in the rafters. After a while, you sort of expect to see shows that way – I find sitting in the house a bit jarring anymore.

And most times all I notice is the lighting anyway.

So when the girls were off at yet another birthday party sleepover last night and Kim suggested going to see the latest production down at Home Campus, I was of two minds. On the one hand, there is only so much lighting one can look at if one is not actively involved in it, although unlike Niagara Falls and the Gateway Arch it does change, so that’s something. On the other hand, part of my commission as Performing Arts guy on Home Campus is to be the usher of last resort, and since I had managed to botch finding others to do that in the rush of events last week, well, I had to be there anyway. Might as well see the show.

It was the sort of show that probably won an award somewhere.

There were no real “scenes” in the show – just random bits of dialogue from the various characters in different parts of the stage, each one brightly and suddenly lit by a pool of light that just as quickly went black to draw your attention to the next bit of random dialogue. Much of the dialogue was all to do with people coupling and uncoupling in various ways, with Deeply Significant repeated bits of received wisdom, often in the form of urban legends, proper names or declarative cynicism, echoing through like raindrops on a tin roof, and a subplot involving a serial killer that gradually takes over what little plot there is.

I kept waiting for the Sad Clown of Life to make an appearance, but apparently that was only implied.

Now, look. I understand how difficult it is to pull off something like this as an actor – that took a lot for them to make it work. And the lighting was nicely done, although somebody did need to tell the actors to hit their marks a bit more accurately. In the battle between the lighting designer and the director the lighting designer almost always wins, as measured in terms of the ability of the audience to see the actors’ faces, but I can say from experience that it is not a very satisfying victory. So it was a well-done performance in the main. They did a nice job with what they had.

But you know, it was all … so … deep.

The actors didn’t even break character in what passed for the curtain call, which I found off-putting. I’m not clapping for the characters, most of whom were the sorts of people you’d cross the street to avoid. I’m clapping for the actors, who did a nice job of bringing those characters to life and deserve some recognition for it.

Too often theater is taken over by “concept” – the kinds of Big, Meaningful Ideas that actual drama gets subordinated to in order to get a message across, much to the annoyance of the audience, who generally reject such things in my experience, or the Gee Whiz Methods of staging a production that only leave people confused.

Most perpetrators of concept regard this as a failing on the part of the audience. But this is not true. It ignores the central purpose of the theater, which is to tell a story – one that will hold an audience’s attention. If you’re good at it, you can make them think a bit. Or laugh. Or, if you’re really good, both.

It is a cardinal sin in theater to condescend to an audience, but a sin that gets tired with repetition.

And I get to be there again today.

Friday, April 8, 2011

And ... Action!

It was a musical day down at Not Bad President Elementary, and everyone was there.

Really. Everyone. It was as if the entire population of Our Little Town had gathered together in the Multi-Purpose Room, with a row of movie cameras in the back and a row of unnaturally tall people seated up front. There must be some kind of requirement for both of these things.

But it’s nice that these events are well attended.

We were there to see the second grade performance of “Songs of the Jurassic,” a toe-tapping musical about dinosaurs that has had audiences in peanut-butter-scented rooms across the country cheering and clapping. And on top of everything else, Lauran had a speaking part. So of course we were in the front row.

Way off to the side, so we could see past the unnaturally tall people, but still – front row.

The students filed in promptly at 1pm and stood there, scanning the crowd for loved ones and waving frantically when they found them. We all waved back, which kind of defeated the purpose since with everybody on both sides of the stage waving at everyone else on both sides of the stage it was rather difficult to discern who was waving to whom, but it was fun and that’s all that mattered.

Lauren was part of the group that came down off the risers after the second song to stand in front of the microphones. She had one line – a descriptive account of what dinosaurs would and would not eat (the latter category including pizza with anchovies, apparently) – and she did it well. She even ad-libbed a bit at the end, and it sounded right enough that nobody likely noticed that it wasn’t in the script.

It was a short show, as these NBPE shows usually are (the third graders were performing the same show right after) and at the end the parents were invited up to the center of the house to take photos.

You did a great job, Lauren. I’m proud of you.

News and Updates

Just a few short points while I try to deal with life in its usual “drink from the firehose” format:

1. Yesterday was exam day for one of my classes. There is nothing so boring as giving an exam, when you are a teacher. For some reason I always count lefthanders in the class during exams. There were four, in a class of 21.

2. Interesting doings in the election results from the Supreme Court, where the clerk of Wisconsin’s most right-wing county – a women who once worked for Prosser and who was repeatedly admonished for excessive partisanship by her own party – mysteriously “found” 7500 ballots in Prosser’s favor on her own personal computer, one that had no back up and was not linked in any way to the state system for monitoring elections. Seriously? I’m not accusing Teabaggers of voter fraud – I’m sure that everyone who actually went to the polls in that county had the right to do so – but I am questioning the word of this official and I am deeply suspicious of electoral fraud. One corrupt official is a lot more plausible than thousands of illegitimate voters.

3. I haven’t forgotten you, Lucy! I’m working on that list. It’s getting more involved as I go, and events conspire against my time.

4. There is nothing to make you forget the cares of the world for a while quite like a good whiskey and a better book. Thank you to the makers of Drambuie and the author of the Bartimaeus trilogy for making yesterday end on a positive note.

5. Today is a Theater Day! More to follow…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Let the Predictable Begin...

Well that didn’t take long.

We had an election here in Wisconsin the other day. Perhaps you heard.

Ordinarily this would not have been a big deal, as I said last time, as the races were mostly local ones, with only one statewide office on the ballot – a position on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. And since, barring major scandals, incumbent Supreme Court justices never lose re-election bids, and further, since this particular incumbent had beaten his challenger by 30 points in a non-partisan primary in February, this too looked like a forgettable and foregone thing.

Except that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys turned it into a referendum on their brazenly unconstitutional and un-American power grab.

And they lost.

Not by much, it must be said. Out of nearly a million and a half votes cast, the final margin of victory for Kloppenberg over the Teabagger candidate, Prosser, was exactly 204 votes. This will likely shift a bit as the totals are certified, but at the moment the victory belongs to those who oppose what Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is trying to pull.

Teabaggers are already denying that that this is significant by pointing out how close the election was. Like an albino peacock, this rather misses the point.

In seven short weeks they managed to take a guaranteed landslide victory and turn it into a narrow loss, and the lesson they should be taking from this is just how toxic Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his policies are for the continued political health of their party. I doubt they will have the vision to see that, however. When dealing with ideological zealots, it is a sucker bet to rely on their ability to perceive reality at all, let alone any reality that conflicts with their deeply-held illusions.

But, as Arlo Guthrie once said, that’s not what I came to tell you about.

There will almost certainly be a recount in this election, no matter what the final results say. Whether Kloppenberg’s lead holds up or whether Prosser squeaks ahead, with a margin that small it would almost be irresponsible not to recount the votes. Mistakes get made. That’s normal. It’s worth taking the time to get it right.

No, that’s not the issue here.

The issue is the vanishingly small interval between the time the polls opened on Tuesday and the time the Teabaggers started complaining about voter fraud.

Because there could not be any possible explanation for their troubles besides fraud, apparently.

Because they just cannot conceive of a world where they are not the representatives of all that is True, Good and Holy, where God and the angels take lessons from them on all things moral.

Because the thought that good people of conscience look with contempt at their efforts to overturn the rule of law, bypass the state constitution and promote an extremist agenda contrary to American history and values just jangles their precious little neurons.

Because they firmly believe that the only people capable of fraud live in liberal districts – and particularly those liberal districts inhabited by brown-skinned people – and we should therefore pay no attention to the closed-door vote counting witnessed only by high-ranking Republican officials that you saw in the heavily Prosser counties.

Because the rest of us should just shut up and obey our masters without complaint and good grief it is so hard to get good help anymore.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, people, they didn’t even wait until after the polls had closed to start throwing that tired old desperation ploy around.

It is a sign of the increasingly paranoid and irrational nature of Teabagger politics that this is the first thing they think of whenever the voters of America dispute their blinkered world view. It is a sign of their unfitness to wield any sort of authority over the free citizens of a republic that they are willing to make such patently false accusations in order to squash dissent and maintain their nakedly cynical hold on raw power.

And it is the normal way they do business.

Nice to have that made so plain.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Doing My Bit For a Well-Constructed Republic

I have cast my ballot.

I always cast my ballot. Voting is one of the things that citizens of a well-constructed republic do, at least if they want it to remain a well-constructed republic and not degenerate into the kind of tyranny that so many of the people pulling the strings in this country seem to want it to become. The Constitution starts out, “We the people,” and the Gettysburg Address frames its call in terms of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and those are not mere rhetorical flourishes but stringent political demands – government of the people requires said people to get off their collective hind end and vote.

There is a reason why the potential tyrants fear the voters of a well-constructed republic – they’re unpredictable. They can be led like sheep for only so long and then they turn on those in power and vote them out. They have a distinct tendency to gum up the most elegant plans for maintaining illegitimate power that way, at least in the long run.

In the short run?  Well, people are people.

You will note carefully, by the way, which end of the American political spectrum is trying to limit the number of voters these days through false claims of “voter fraud” and draconian laws rushed into place in its name, laws which only serve to disenfranchise potential problems to tyranny, and which end of the American political spectrum is trying to prevent this. This is not a coincidence.

For such a dramatic thing, it is surprising how prosaic voting can be in these United States.

And that’s as it should be.

I live about as far from my polling place as I can get and still be in the ward. Like most of the polling places in Our Little Town it’s in an elementary school – a different one than the one the girls attend. Tabitha had play practice after school so I picked up Lauren and took her over with me, because I like to make a point of bringing the girls to vote. Voting is something they should see as normal.

We pulled into the parking lot and walked up to the big old brick building just as the last rush of students there were leaving. The actual polls are in the gym, a well-windowed room on the south side of the school.

You go up to one set of tables on the left of the room and try to figure out which ward you’re in – I can never remember this and have just learned to go to the left-hand table, which usually works – and they look you up and present you with a white piece of paper about two inches square, on which is printed a number. You take it over to a different set of tables in the middle of the room and present the people there with the paper and they hand you a ballot, which in Wisconsin is a piece of cardstock about a foot long and nine inches across.

This you take to one of the blue plastic desks with the spindly legs and the privacy shields set up over by the windows. There is a black marker on each desk, and by each candidate’s name on the ballot is the tail and head of an arrow. To vote you have to use the marker to connect the two halves of the arrow for the candidate of your choice.

No chads. No digital innards to hack. Simplicity itself.

I let Lauren put the ballot into the scanner when I finished. She always enjoys that.

These spring elections are usually quiet affairs – the ballot this time contained a School Board race, a City Council race, a county judge running unopposed, and a State Supreme Court race, and none of these usually spark any interest.  I'm usually voter number 23 or some such by the time I get there, halfway through the day.

But say one thing for Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys, say that they have made people much more interested in protecting the democratic process from threats. I was voter number 166 this time around.

Say also that they have made people more aware of the stakes even in these races – particularly the State Supreme Court race, which pits someone whom the Lead Minion explicitly told a rally would uphold the radical agenda put forth by Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) against someone else whom the same Lead Minion portrayed as an opponent of said agenda.


Nice to have it put so clearly and openly. “Vote for my sock puppet!” has never really struck me as an appealing campaign slogan for a judge, even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times to begin with.

So I cast my ballot.

What did you do today to further the ends of a well-constructed republic?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Keys to My Phone

Yesterday I discovered that I had 459 photographs of my keys on my cell phone.

I kid you not. Four hundred. And fifty-nine. One fewer than 460. Roughly three photographs of my keys for every day I have had this phone. They were well-documented keys, is what I’m saying. If my keys had gone missing, I could have supplied an entire dairy’s worth of milk-carton pictures.

And they said technology would never benefit us.

My continuing battles with cell phones have been documented here before. Basically, I am a person who does not find them useful or desirable, and they are sneaky, unreliable, backstabbing little monsters. This combination does not bode well.

But you have to have one of these things in This Modern World, sad to say, otherwise the sky will fall in, the seas will boil away to nothing, the earth will spiral into the sun (or Mars, scientists differ on this) and telecommunications stock prices will decline by as much as an eighth of a point, much to the horrors of industry leaders.

So I got one.

I’ve had it for about six months now, and at 20 cents/minute for every call I make or receive, I’ve spent a little over $32 in that period. I’ve even managed to figure out how to block incoming texts, which neatly removed that problem as well.

But I couldn’t get one without a camera.

Why not? Why is it so hard to get a telephone that doesn’t take pictures? My camera doesn’t make phone calls, after all. My car does not bake cookies. My alarm clock does not take x-rays. My doorbell does not shoot lasers at political campaign workers (although now that I think about it, that might not be such a bad idea). Why is it so hard to find a phone that just is a phone?

The clerk on the other end of that rant the first time I delivered it just sat there quietly until I wound down and then we proceeded as if nothing had happened. I’m sure they’re used to it by now from people like me. There are probably procedures written down in a binder somewhere that deal with it, down to the very last outcry. For all I know they record them and have an internal office pool for the most deranged rants of the week. Perhaps I won a prize for her. You’d think she’d have let me know.

I ended up with the most stripped-down phone they sold. And it does, in fact, make phone calls, usually. But it also has an array of buttons on the exterior that apparently are positioned just so, in exactly the right places for my keys to bump up against them and force it to take their photos.

I must say I have handsome keys. But that is not the point.

Kim eventually figured out how to delete them all in one fell swoop, and now I have plenty of room on the phone for more.

Because you know there will be more.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Judicial Activism? That's What They DO, Son.

The rule of law seems to be holding up in Wisconsin, at least for the moment. When Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys again made noises about ignoring a direct court order not to implement their union-busting bill this week after a second loss in court, the judge stepped in a third time to declare that such action was absolutely contrary to law and would result in punishments.

And with the usual squawking about how they would be vindicated in the long run, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) backed down.

This is entirely appropriate.

Of course he’s going to squawk. Of course he’s going to criticize the judge’s ruling. Of course he’s going to claim that he will win in the end. What else would he do? I would expect no less, and I would do the same if a ruling went against me. So as long as he actually follows the court order, I’ll overlook all the rhetoric as standard operating procedure for anyone on the short end of a judicial decision and be glad that the constitutional crisis has been put off for at least another day.

We have reached the point where having our government follow the law counts as a victory rather than an expectation.

What I find annoying, however, is the bleating coming from the Fitzgerald boys - State House Majority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the leaders of the aforementioned cronies, minions and lackeys.

When Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled that the elder Fitzgerald boy’s end run around her first ruling was illegal under Wisconsin law and that the union-busting bill was not in fact law just because he said so, baby brother Jeff accused Judge Sumi of “interjecting herself into the legislative process with no regard to the state constitution.” Big brother Scott, for his part, declared that Sumi’s enforcing the laws of the State of Wisconsin was “judicial activism at its worst.”

Uh, no.

What we have here is a catastrophic failure on the part of the Fitzgerald boys to understand how the American governmental system actually works.

Here is a hint: the mere fact that you are in office does not entitle you to do whatever you want.

There are rules to be followed. Rules that are there to make sure that this republic does not degenerate into a dictatorship. Rules that are not to be flouted save at your cost.

Query: What do right-wingers mean when they yell and scream about “judicial activism”?

Response: They mean that a decision has gone against them.

Query: Why do they not like this?

Response: Because like small children, they are angry about not getting their way.

Query: Why is this not a bad thing?

Response: Because the Founding Fathers set it up that way. Because that’s what American government is supposed to look like. Because that’s how American government is supposed to work. Because the whole point of a republic is to provide checks and balances between the branches of government, so that no branch will be tempted to squash the others and each branch will be held to account in following the rule of law.

Honestly, people, it’s not that hard.

Let’s review.

The judicial branch of a republican form of government has a very specific role. It is a role that was largely created here in the United States, surprisingly enough.

As I said in an earlier post, this country was founded on the ideology of classical republicanism, a theory that argued the need for a properly balanced form of government that would check power and preserve liberty. In England, where as far as the colonies were concerned this idea originated, this was done by mapping the three branches of government onto the three broad divisions of English society. You had the One, the most important guy in the kingdom, who was the Monarchy. That was the king. You had the Few, who were the Aristrocracy – they got the House of Lords. And you got the Many, the rest of us, who were the Democracy and got the House of Commons. A properly balanced republican government would balance the interests and powers of these three sociological groups, and liberty would be preserved against power.

In this setup, judges were considered agents of the One. They were classed under the Monarchy, along with the army, the tax collectors and the sheriffs. Their job was to keep the King’s peace and function as part of the law-enforcement apparatus.

When the United States was founded, classical republicans had something of a dilemma – there was no One in the new republic, nor really was there much of a Few. There was just Many.

So the question arose: what is this new balanced republican government supposed to balance in order to check power and preserve liberty?

And here John Adams stepped in with the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the oldest written constitution still in effect in the world today and the model for the 1787 Federal Constitution that we live under. Adams argued that instead of balancing sociological groups – One, Few, Many – with their own branches of government, a properly balanced republican government in America would balance the functions of government. Each branch of the government would be separated not by who it represented, since each branch would represent everyone here, but instead by what it did, by function.

Mapping the Executive onto the One, the Monarchy, wasn’t hard. That’s largely what the Monarchy did anyway. Likewise mapping the Legislative onto the Many, the Democracy, wasn’t hard either, for the same reason.

But who were the new Few?

Here John Adams made a very clever move. He took the judges out of the Monarchy category – removed them from the Executive Branch, in the American context – and elevated them to their own branch, the Judiciary.

No longer were they merely law-enforcement tools subservient to the Monarchy, nor would they be subservient to the Executive in the new arrangement. Now they were a fully co-equal branch of a properly balanced republic, charged with protecting liberty and checking power by ensuring that the other branches stayed in their place and did not violate the rule of law.

It took some time for this to be established at the federal level – Marbury v. Madison doesn’t get decided until 1803 and even then the principle of judicial review remained tenuous for a long time after – but that’s how the system works.

That’s how it’s designed to work.

And that’s why all that steaming load of nonsense about “judicial activism at its worst” is just that – nonsense.

Folks, that’s what judges do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s what they are required to do.

And any who refuse to understand that confess a doctrine that is alien to America.

When the legislature runs amok, when it violates the law in its rush to force a bill down the throats of its citizens, when it violates the Constitution through its actions, it is the responsibility of the Judicial Branch of a properly balanced American republican government to step in and rebuke the legislature for its crimes.

You may not like the decisions – certainly there have been a lot of bad decisions in American legal history, and there are specific remedies for that sort of thing. You can appeal. You can pass laws vacating the decision. You can amend the Constitution if mere laws aren’t enough. But you cannot in good conscience argue that the judges are somehow out of line in doing their jobs.

So when you hear someone complaining about “judicial activism,” remember that what you are really hearing is them confessing, “I’m ignorant about how American government actually works and petulant about not getting my way,” and feel free to enlighten them.

Use small words.