Thursday, August 18, 2011


There will be a brief intermission to allow for an intermission to occur. Our regularly scheduled programming will resume after the cessation of programming has ceased.

In the meantime, please enjoy this valuable life lesson:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Camping and Norman Rockwell

Well, the girls are back.

We shipped them off to 4H camp on Saturday, the first time they’ve ever been away from home for this long without being in the custody of a blood relative. As a dry run for high school (when the only signs that they will still be living here will be a rising pile of laundry and a shrinking pile of food) and college (which I choose not to think about in any detail) it wasn’t bad. Kim and I got a fair amount of work done without feeling guilty about ignoring them, and we managed to try out the new Indian restaurant in town that we can’t bring Tabitha to because it’s full of tree nuts. So there were pluses.

But it’s good to have them home.

They had a grand time, schlumpfing around the woods of central Wisconsin with a marauding horde of their peers. They went canoeing and swimming, they did all sorts of arts and crafts, and they got to experience the joys of living in a cabin with a bunch of people they’d never met before.

Tabitha even had a Counselor-In-Training in her cabin, which makes me start humming the song from Meatballs every time I think about it.

They got back into town around 1pm, having not had lunch, and since I knew that this would be the case I had already made plans to take them to the Buffet Place not too far away from where the buses pulled up.

They’ve gone and changed the Buffet Place.

It used to be a fairly utilitarian place, with a wide variety of decent if not spectacular food and a decor that could best be described as “inoffensive.” The only real nod it made toward any sort of atmosphere was a vast collection of framed Norman Rockwell prints stationed roughly every eighteen inches across the walls (windows excluded).

And now it’s all different.

The food – still the same decent if not spectacular stuff, though fewer varieties of it – is now attractively displayed in ethnic ghettos, each with its own neon label. The carpet is new. And on the walls there is bright vibrant art featuring overhead views of quaint European towns and colorful still-lifes (lives?) of rainbow-hued vegetables.

I miss the Norman Rockwell prints.

Rockwell was an under-rated artist, I think. Most people see the glorification of mid-20th-century American small town life that was the surface of his work and look no further, dismissing him as a sentimentalist hack, little better than a greeting card illustrator. But he always seemed to be saying something a bit darker underneath that when I looked.

My favorite of his was a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration from February 11, 1939, a week before my grandparents were married. The colors in the print at the Buffet Place were blues and browns rather than greens and ochres, but the image is the same – a man in a jester suit staring at an image of his face on a stick. The image has the happy smile that a jester is supposed to have. The man staring at it does not.

I’ve always loved that juxtaposition.

And I always tried to sit in the booth underneath it.  The manager said that rather than throw all the old prints in the dumpster, the way the new corporate folks said to do, they just let the old staff take whatever they wanted.  It's nice that it found a new home, though I wish I had known - I'd have put in my request for it.

I’m glad the girls had a good time at their camp, on their own. It’s a good thing to see them gaining independence and confidence that way.

But I can still feel a little melancholy that they’re growing up so quickly.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why I Remain Cautiously Optimistic About the US In Spite Of It All

It’s been a long, hard year to be a rational American, this year 2011.

The economy has yet to recover from the beating it took at the hands of the financiers and other darlings of the supposedly infallible free-markets back in 2008, nor does it look to be recovering anytime soon. The long-term economic trends militate against it. We’ve got an economy where 70% of the activity comes from consumer spending, but we’ve got a middle class that’s been shrinking since 1973 and which is slowly and steadily being deliberately cut off from the kinds of high-wage, high-benefits jobs that promote exactly the consumer spending upon which the economy relies. That’s what union-busting, out-sourcing, the continued emphasis on improving productivity at the expense of hiring workers, and the myopic view that workers are an expense rather than an investment will get you. Welcome to 1929. Hold on tight.

We’ve got a political system that seems to relish and encourage this and that would take a decade of steady improvement in order to be considered merely dysfunctional.

The Republican Party has been taken over by its lunatic fringe, advocating policies that would have gotten them committed to an asylum as recently as fifty years ago and which may yet see them march to the gallows for their open warfare against the United States. The Democrats are in full capitulation mode, unable to figure out that they’re in charge of most of the federal government and that the majority of the public – even the majority of Republicans – is on their side on almost all of the issues that matter. The result has been chaos, brinksmanship, and a growing realization among the few Americans still using more than half a dozen brain cells at a time that the United States no longer has the intellectual or moral capital to continue its self-proclaimed role as a world leader.

It was a nice American Century while it lasted.

The climate is growing warmer and there is still a sizable group of my fellow citizens who steadfastly refuse to believe it. That the nonbelievers does not include the military brass supposedly revered by the first group – the Pentagon has been wargaming the future conflicts that will result from global warming for over a decade now – doesn’t seem to matter.

You can’t turn on a television without hearing assaults on things that by any accounting of American values and traditions ought to be considered unmitigated goods – public education, free speech, community organizing, and so on. There is a screeching minority absolutely opposed to any form of community beyond the atomized individual unless that community is ruled with absolute despotic authority by the screechers themselves. What they cannot control they seek to destroy, and having destroyed it they hope to rule over the ruins.

And yet, for all that, I remain cautiously optimistic.

It’s not like we haven’t been down this road before, for one thing. The Gilded Age was a period of laissez-faire just like the one we seem to be hurtling toward and it, eventually, came to an end. Whether we will survive the damage in the interim is an interesting question, but so it goes.

American politics has never been pretty, intellectually well thought out, or uplifting in any moral sense. It has seldom been as shrill or as vapid as now, particularly not in combination, but the pendulum swings back eventually there too.

And, perhaps more to the point, the Culture Wars are over, even if nobody will admit it or shut up about them.

A lot of the impetus behind the current Teabagger insanity stems from cultural issues, not economic ones. Sure, they screech about limited government and fiscal responsibility all the time, but that’s not what they’re there for. Those are just the things they talk about in order to distract you from what they’re trying to do.

Hell, if they were really interested in limited government and fiscal responsibility they’d have focused on implementing them in the legislatures they’ve taken over. Did you see any of that? Didn’t think so. I didn’t see any of it either.

What I saw – and what they’re really interested in – were attempts to impose their constricted vision of culture onto the rest of us, whether we want it or not. Specifically they seek the return of the United States to a wholly fictitious past where everyone was white, Protestant, straight, married or soon to be so, middle class or higher, politically passive, culturally homogeneous, spoke only English and lived either on a farm or in a town of no more than 1500 people.

When they say, “we want our country back,” that’s the country they’re talking about.

Did I mention that this never happened? Was the phrase “wholly fictitious” sufficient to get that point across, or do I have to throw in synonyms like “hallucinatory” or “drug-induced”? None of those descriptions have ever been accurate, not at any point in American history. Not one.

But here’s the thing: if that’s the country you want back, you’ve lost. And as that becomes clearer and clearer, the political and economic nonsense you’re trying to peddle based on that mythical past disappears as well.

And it should be crystal clear to anyone with a firm grasp of reality that the culture peddled by the Teabaggers is, in fact, disappearing.

The percentage of ethnic and racial minorities in the US is rising, and within the next few decades there will not be a single group that can claim a majority. These groups mix more and more, and fewer and fewer people have problems with that. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner made sense in 1967, but to most of my students, even in the fairly socially conservative town I live in, it’s frankly bizarre that an interracial couple would cause such a stir.

Religion as a driving force in American culture ebbs and flows on two off-setting 60-year cycles, one of which concerns itself with reforming the theology of individual believers and the other of which concerns itself with making sure that your behavior conforms to the dictates of their faith. Doing the math, can you guess which one should have peaked in 2010? Expect the next great theological revival in 2040, but between now and then you can look for coercive religion to make a slow retreat from American politics. It will be back, of course, and it never truly goes away – but if history is any guide at all, for the next few decades it will be waning.

Only about 30% of Americans now believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, the way the radical right wing would have you believe and the way they insist everyone already does. This has held steady for a decade and is actually a decline from the 40% who felt that way in 1980. On the flip side, 15% of Americans now identify as either atheist or agnostic, roughly double what it was in 1980.

Gay rights are no longer controversial with most Americans, even among Republicans. Most Americans favor allowing homosexuals to serve in the military and most now favor gay marriage as a matter of civil rights. And the younger the demographic, the more pronounced that trend is.

That said, more and more Americans look at marriage itself as one option among many – a good option, no doubt, as I can attest from personal experience, but not the only one.

This country has never spoken only English – as late as 1915, for example, one out of every four Americans spoke German on a daily basis. I haven’t heard much from the “English Only” nitwits who used to flood my email inbox, but I have noticed that more and more ordinary products in my grocery store now come with multiple languages printed on the labels. Money talks and ideology walks, and the fact is that non-English speakers now make up enough of the economy that they can have their needs addressed. They’ll learn English eventually, most of them – if you want to get ahead in this country you’ll learn English, something all immigrants know – but the idea that this is somehow an “English-only” nation ought to be dying a painful death by now.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans think their schools are doing a good job, two-thirds think teachers are underpaid (only 4% think they are overpaid), and a majority would not want their children in for-profit private schools.

The Culture Wars are over and the right-wing extremists lost. They know they’ve lost. That’s why they scream so much.

That’s why they will either die out or change their tunes.

And that’s why I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of this country, even in the light of current events.

I’ve already got my country back. It just needs to own up to it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The NPR Top 100 SF/F Books

NPR, purveyors of what used to be called moderate centrist journalism before the United States lurched so far over to the right that Dwight Eisenhower is now considered a Socialist by many God-fearin’ ‘Merkins, recently polled its listenership to see if they could come up with a list of the Top 100 Science Fiction & Fantasy books. People were invited to submit suggestions for the list online, and the editors whittled them down to a couple hundred “most submitted” items, whereupon people were given a chance to vote for their top ten.

My friends Janiece and Random Michelle have posted the lists of what they have read and tried to read, and since this seemed like a fun project I have decided to follow along.

Books that made my top ten list get an asterisk up front.

Books or series I’ve read are in bold. This one seems fairly simple.

Books or series I’ve abandoned are italicized. This gets complicated. I generally finish the books I start (and those I can’t fight through are not likely to appear on a list like this) but there are several series in here that I started and haven’t finished. I have therefore had to make a few command decisions.

Series I’ve started and intend to finish but which haven’t come to completion themselves – i.e. the authors are still churning them out – I have marked as read.

Series I read a significant chunk of and may one day return to I have marked as read.

Series I read that I have no intention of returning to, regardless of whether I just dipped into them or read a significant chunk of them, I have italicized.

And yes, I realize that by making fine distinctions like that I have outed myself as a genuine nerd. But you know, folks, it’s a list of SF/F books. I would think that would be obvious, even without all the abundant additional evidence provided by this blog.


1. *The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

An all time favorite, one I’ve read nearly two dozen times (including once aloud to Tabitha). As a historian I just love the world Tolkien created for his creatures – nobody does backstory like Tolkien.

2. *The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I am so glad this made the list. SF/F needs more humor. We all need more humor.

3. *Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

This was given to me by a friend back in the 80s. “It’s the story of a very put-upon young man,” she said. And it is, but also much more than that. Card himself is – to judge from his public statements on political issues – an idiot. But he’s a great writer.

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert.

The first volume was a masterpiece. I gave up halfway through the second one.

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin.

On the to-read list.

6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

I much preferred the movie (odd for me), but the book was wonderful as well.

12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan.
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

On the to-read list.

15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss.

This is one of the series I’m looking forward to finishing, as only two of the three volumes are out at the moment. The first one, The Name of the Wind, was one of the most darkly lyrical books I have ever read. I couldn’t put the whole series on the top ten because you never know how things will go in final volumes – David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series was a modern masterpiece for six volumes. And then there was a seventh, which was mediocre. And then there was the eighth and final volume, which was so bad Wingrove publicly apologized for it. So maybe next time I’ll put Rothfuss’ series on my top ten list, but not until they’re all out.

19. *Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut on WWII and humanity – how can you not love that? Unless of course you live in Missouri and have the mental capacity of a cheeseburger and have it banned from your school district, as happened recently. I grieve for my country.

20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King

I read this on a bet. In 8th grade my friend Matt loved this book and I loved The Lord of the Rings. We agreed that if one read the other’s book, the other would have to reciprocate. 28 years later I read this in order to prep for a course I was designing (one that, unfortunately, never was offered). So I figure Matt has until 2036 to read The Lord of the Rings now.

26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman

On the to-read list.

30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

The movie made me not want to touch this book with asbestos gloves and a HazMat suit.

31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

We’re about to get rabbits for the girls 4H project, and this is all that runs through my mind when I think about that.

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. *A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

One of the best of the post-apocalyptic genre, and one I read a bit of to my atomic bomb class every time we offer it. “Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?”

36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells

I enjoyed this, but I liked Sean McMullen’s goofy take on it better.

40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings

This has been on my to-read list for decades and I’m beginning to doubt I’ll ever get to it.

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is one of my favorite books of all time – I like it even more than The Lord of the Rings – but it is dense and deliberately archaic, and really something for Tolkien addicts more than the general reading public.

47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. *Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman does a wonderful job of pointing out the oddities that might just be lurking at our feet.

49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons

One of the sharpest “old-school” science fiction space romps out there, with a solid core of ideas to make you think.

52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

The movie was marvelous. Someday I'll get to the book.

53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks.
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. *Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett is one of those writers who can make you laugh at the same time as he makes you think – a rare quality, I find. This is one of the best of the Discworld series, and oddly enough one that doesn’t fit into any of the running subseries in that world. I wish that Night Watch had been one of the choices, though.

58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

I find I like the adaptations of Austen, Bronte and the like a whole lot more than the actual things they wrote.

65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks

I made through the first tome and thought, well, I liked this story better when Tolkien wrote it, and I never went back.

68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

A heartbreaking work that just barely missed my top ten.

71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey

I’m still working my way through this series – I’ve got the books and will get to them by and by – and it’s one I try to buy in hardback because I enjoy it so much, mostly because of the world it is set in and the gumption of the main female character. Of course when the main character is a sacred prostitute and a divinely-ordained masochist it does mean you have to slog through a few passages, but they seemed a small price to pay.

78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

A fascinating meditation on the nature of good and evil, turned into a musical about the stories behind the stories we hear. I loved them both.

81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. *The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

When the boundary between fiction and reality is porous, somebody has to police the border. And Fforde writes about it with a glorious abandon, full of allusions, puns and general weirdity.

83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks

On my to-read list.

84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Another book like The Silmarillion – dense, difficult, but thoroughly enjoyable.

86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

On my to-read list.

97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. *Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.

Nobody does “alien” quite like Mieville, and this is his best book among the ones I’ve read. The city of New Crobuzon becomes a major character in its own right.

99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony.

I read much of this in high school, which is about the level it’s pitched at. I think I read enough to qualify, though apparently he keeps churning them out anyway.

100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

So I’ve read 41 of the top 100 SF/F books of all time. I’ve abandoned 2 more, and another 6 are on the to-read list. Nine of my top ten made the list, which sort of scares me. I’m not used to being that in sync with any larger culture, even one as narrowly defined as SF/F.

I’ll take it, though.

The one book that was on my top ten that didn’t make it was The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, which is among my top five books ever. But you can’t win them all.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reflections on the Counter-Revolution in Wisconsin

Well, the results are in and apparently a small but significant majority of the citizens of Wisconsin prefer living in a tyranny to living in a democracy, and they fail to see the irony of expressing that preference through their democratic suffrage.

So it goes. In a democracy, everyone gets the government the majority deserves.

None of the Teabaggers being recalled represent me – not that they would even if they were from my district, since they have made it painfully clear that they care not a whit for anyone other than themselves and those Just Like Them – so I was a mere spectator for the recalls, a cheerleader, an interested bystander.

And as the vote totals came in – and as it finally hit me that the whole thing was once again going to come down to the same County Clerk in Waukesha County who “discovered” on her personal, unregulated and unmonitored computer the votes that gave the recent Supreme Court race to the Teabaggers – all I could do was watch, with that same sinking feeling that you get when you realize that the runaway truck is, in fact, going to smash into that elementary school and you are too far away to do anything about it, that nothing you try will help.

The Teabaggers did lose two seats in the Senate, and in the context of American history that's a significant loss - few sitting state elected officials have ever been successfully removed from office by the recall process, and the fact that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) was toxic enough even to cause the elections in the first place is, theoretically, a hopeful sign for the future.

But still. The Teabaggers remain in control Wisconsin's government, and I have little doubt that they will see this narrow escape as a smashing mandate to further their extremist policies and their un-American practices. Realistically, I doubt even mass assassination would make them think anything different. It would merely add a whole "we're martyrs to our ideals" layer of rhetoric that would make them even more insufferable.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been prepping my World History Prior to 1500 class and skating through the history of Rome, but when I watch the Teabaggers crowing over what they did to the federal government last week for some reason the phrase “barbarians at the gates” keeps playing in my mind, along with the image of the violently ignorant proudly destroying the achievements of centuries because those achievements cannot be squashed into their bitterly constricted world view.

Maybe it’s because I’m also prepping a US Since 1877 course and revising the bit on Progressives, but when I watch the Teabaggers triumph in Wisconsin, a state where Progressives were powerful even when unbridled laissez-faire ruled America, all I can think is that last night wasn’t accidental – that the good citizens of Wisconsin, having seen the damage those morons have done to the history, traditions, laws, morals, values, and future of this state, surveyed the damage and thought, “Hell yeah! More of that!” That this is what they want. And I’m stuck with what they deserve.

And so are my children.

Like the Founding Fathers, I don’t have a lot of faith in my fellow citizens to begin with.

Like them, I fear the power that demagogues have over the mass of citizens, and the ability those demagogues have to lead the citizenry of a republic into actions that are clearly against their own interests.

Like them, I believe that the system of government they set up in the Constitution can take those imperfect citizens and forge a functional political system from them.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mucho Nacho

I think I may have been a bit overambitious with the jalapenos this year.

I’m not much of a gardener. The great outdoors don’t really fit into my definition of an ideal day in any meaningful way and the idea of voluntarily spending hot sunny afternoons digging in the dirt when there are books to be read and iced tea to be consumed is just one of those mysteries I would really prefer not to explore. That and I have no idea what constitutes a weed and what doesn’t. It all looks like an undifferentiated carpet of green to me, and whenever I am tasked with weeding invariably something that should have stayed firmly rooted in the earth ends up wilting forlornly off to one side.

But Kim loves to garden. She is, in fact, seriously considering cashing in our life savings in order to buy the neighbor’s foreclosed house, in large part because doing so will enable her to garden close to home rather than out at the Community Garden, tucked between the highway and the jail.

It’s one of those things we just agree to disagree about.

So in order to entice me to be part of the gardening experience, Kim always lets me plant some hot peppers. This year I went big into jalapenos, because they are tasty and easy to grow and I have at least a 50-50 chance of figuring out when they are ripe enough to pick and not so ripe that I have to mulch them. They are a forgiving pepper that way.

And a prolific one, it turns out. Especially since we ended up with about a dozen jalapeno plants, each of which is capable of supplying the jalapeno needs of a small Mexican province. You know those canvas supermarket bags they sell now in order to get you to stop using the plastic or paper ones? I filled one of those about halfway last week with jalapenos.

I gave away about 2.5 pounds of them to a friend who volunteered to take some off my hands, and that left me with a shade over 5 pounds of jalapenos to figure out what to do with.

Just think! In 40-60 days, I get to do this all over again!

Last year I made nacho slices – pickled jalapeno slices that I actually managed to can without burning down the house. They’re good but a bit on the hot side even for me, which means that I don’t go through them very quickly. I still have a further year’s supply of them down in the basement.

So this year I’m making my own jalapeno hot sauce. On Saturday I hauled the food processor outside (I have been forever banned from processing hot peppers in any form inside the house now that the paint has stopped peeling from the last time I tried it) and ground up my 5lbs of jalapenos and a pile of salt into a paste. Today I hauled out the paste and added 10 cups of white vinegar. Now it’s sitting down in the basement fermenting until the weekend when I will once again try to preserve things without burning down the house or peeling the paint.

Assuming the whole thing doesn’t just erupt in a green spray of spicy lava in the interim.

If you don’t hear from me after Saturday, please send a rescue squad and a bag of tortilla chips.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pencils! We Got Pencils!

Old Navy really needs a “husbands’ corner.” It would have some comfy chairs, a few magazines,  and maybe a television with a baseball game on or something. I’m sure it would pay for itself in a week.

It’s August, and all you parents know exactly what that means! Vacation? No, what on earth gave you that idea? August means Back To School shopping!

Yes, it does.

We worked it out – this is the last weekend we have available before school starts on September 1. All the other weekends are taken by various and sundry events that will keep us doing things that are actually fun rather than shopping for pencils and such.

So you have to seize these opportunities when they arise.

While I was out this morning negotiating with the other two professors who teach the atomic bomb class with me over what final grades to give our students (remember the old saw about how those who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made? Add “grading in team-taught classes” to that list), Kim spent the morning poring over the sales flyers from our local retail establishments, comparing them with the lists of required items sent home by the school district for each of the girls, and trying to figure out a way to reconcile those two things that did not involve Wal-Mart.

Kim hates Wal-Mart.

Myself, I find the place amusing, in a “the republic is doomed” kind of way, but I’m not that entertained that I’d make a point of going there if other options were available. So I was fine with alternative plans.

We managed to get the bulk of our shopping done in two stores – the first one having many sales on smaller items such as pens, folders and post-it notes, and the second having sales on larger items such as staplers, binders and copy paper. The girls even managed to squirrel in a few treats for later, depending on whether you count funky calculators and wildly patterned folders as treats. We got most of what we were looking for without destroying our bank account or visiting Wal-Mart, and that was fine.

And then we went to Old Navy for some clothes shopping.

I don’t really get the whole Old Navy thing, I just don’t. It’s a fine clothing store, as clothing stores go, and they do offer what appears to be a completely random pricing system that almost guarantees that somewhere, somehow, if you look hard enough, you can find things that you can afford.

But I am not really designed for that kind of shopping.

I’m the kind of shopper whose main goal is reducing the amount of time spent shopping. I have things on my list; I find the things on my list; I buy the things on my list; I go home. Further explorations are not on the list and just postpone the final step. So I’m not the sort of person who is going to survive well in the Old Navy environment is what I’m saying here.

Eventually Kim and the girls found the various things they wanted and the various prices they were willing to pay, and we went home.

Another successful raid for another successful school year.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Who Needs Dignity When You Have a Good Cause?

Why is it that so many charity events require me to dress up in drag?

Last night was the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life” event, out at the county fairgrounds. Home Campus was there with a nice little booth nestled in among the others, and as the husband of the Interim Dean (the “First Mate,” as one of my friends refers to me now) it somehow fell to me to join the “Mr. Relay” team.

The Mr. Relay event is simple. A number of guys get dressed up in drag and walk around the event for half an hour soliciting donations from the assembled multitudes. The winner gets a prize and the money goes to a good cause. It’s a win/win situation, depending on your views on guys in drag.

Not having an appropriate wardrobe for such an event, I relied on a friend in the Business Office to supply me with a turquoise polyester frock that belonged to her mother and would have been quite at home at a “Ladies For Eisenhower” event. I skipped the high heels that I usually wear for the YWCA’s “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event on the grounds that walking laps in such things was not something I was willing to do. That and I couldn’t find them anyway. So I went with sandals.

The girls and I showed up around dinner time and reported to the Home Campus booth before running off to scavenge up some food. Tabitha and I went with normal boring fair food, but Lauren indulged her adventurous streak and went for some buffalo wings – the “mild” variety, granted, but they were spicy enough for her and I was impressed she tried them at all. She was a happy mess when she was done. I’d have joined her if I didn’t have to look good for the crowds later.

All night long I had an old Miller Lite commercial from the 80s running through my mind – you know the one, if you’re old enough to remember the Cold War. It starred Joe Piscopo and a number of other squarish, hairy guys as the East German Women’s Swimming Team. They were sitting around a table, in drag, smoking cigars and drinking Miller Lite. “Got to maintain the girlish figure!” Piscopo said at the end. Odd how things like that take up valuable real estate in your mind and other things, such as why you’re standing in the grocery store with $20 in one hand and no list in the other, find no room at the inn.

Eventually it was time to become enfrocked.

And get primped.

I was gorgeous, for certain values of gorgeous.

The announcer then made a call for all Mr. Relay contestants to report to the main tent, where we had to register officially – which essentially boiled down to taking a large flat envelope and writing our actual names, the group we were representing, and our Mr. Relay names on it. Nobody told me I would need a stage name, so I had to come up with one on the spot. I went with Lola Vavoom, on the theory that there is never a bad time for an obscure literary reference and if there were any Jasper Fforde fans in the crowd they might get a kick out of it.

For some reason we were then forced to do Zoomba dancing. Fourteen guys in drag up on a stage maybe twenty feet square trying to keep up with a manic exercise instructor while dozens of sweaty women in spandex cheered us on – it was an appropriately surreal start to the event.

They then introduced us all, using our stage names, and we were off to walk around the grounds. Most people were pretty good about throwing a buck into our purses – it was a sympathetic audience, after all – and despite a few raindrops it went pretty well. I ended up in 10th place, having collected $40 in $1 increments. This made me laugh inordinately because it reminded me of an old joke that I’m not about to repeat here. For those of you wondering if it’s the same joke, the punchline is, “Everybody.”

The winner – who had arranged things ahead of time with his supporting group – came in just a shade over $600. He won a purple boa that he had to wear for the rest of the evening. My prize came a few minutes earlier, when a sympathetic person saw me in my polyester dress and blonde wig and said, “Do you want an ice cream bar?” And I did.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Keeping Score

Tabitha almost beat me in bowling the other day.

This is a real achievement on her part. I don’t go easy on the girls. I do the best I can, and if they beat me then they know they did it for real. I’m not so good a bowler that this presents an insurmountable challenge – I expect that one or the other of them will outscore me at some point fairly soon – but I’m good enough that doing so will represent a clear victory for them.

The newfangled digital auto-scorer kept shorting us pins, though. Eventually I gave up on it and just borrowed a pencil and some paper and kept score myself. It brought back a whole raft of memories, since once upon a time I had been the captain of my high school bowling team.

And let me tell you, what a chick magnet position that was.

Sorry. Had to step out for a minute and catch my breath. I crack me up sometimes.

We were a motley crew of misfits, as befit a high school bowling team. Leon was roughly spherical and once bounced a ball of the coach’s foot. Charlie came up to my belt buckle. Ramin was a giant but preferred to persuade pins to fall down rather than knock them over by force. Vicki could knock pins down by glaring at them. Mike once shaved off half of the hair on his head – facial and otherwise – for a Halloween costume. The left half, as I recall. Al took so many steps before letting go of the ball that we nicknamed him “The Ballerina” and questioned his manhood, which was pretty rich coming from us. And so on.

We would practice every Tuesday at the lanes near my house and compete on Wednesdays at a rundown bowling alley that wasn’t in anyone’s school district but had the advantage of being right next to one of the bigger public transportation hubs in the area. Not every school district thought the bowling team was worth providing transportation for. Hey – it got me out of the last ten minutes of health class, and for that alone it was worthwhile.

As captain of the team it was my prerogative to keep score, which was a task I always enjoyed. It was fun to see the numbers go up and be able to keep track of things as they were happening. Plus it meant I was forever hunched down behind the overhead projector that sent our scores up to the screens overhead and thus was protected from the occasional bowling ball that would come flying backward when someone lost their grip.

You cannot imagine how quickly bowlers – a sedentary breed in most situations – can move under the right circumstances.

There were eight teams in our league and I got to know the other scorekeepers fairly well. One in particular was a favorite of mine because he had roughly the same sense of humor I did. There was no way for that to end well.

After one particularly dull game, for example, we decided that the next game would be scored using Roman numerals.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to fit all those letters into those tiny little boxes using a grease pencil?

We made it into the fourth frame before the coaches noticed and put an end to it. Which was a shame, since we had agreed that the next game would be scored in ancient Egyptian numerals, a system that for some reason both of our school districts had seen fit to teach us in sixth grade and which we, being consummate nerds, had remembered.

I don’t know if they’ve gotten around to teaching Tabitha and Lauren how to work with Roman numerals. I’m not even sure why they would, other than the fact that they’re kind of cool and they make you respect Roman civilization that much more.

You know all those roads, aqueducts, colisea and bridges they built? All of that had to be engineered. Using Roman numerals.  Have you ever tried to multiply in Roman numerals?

But adding is fairly simple, and some day perhaps I will teach them how to keep score in bowling using them. It will make the fact that they’ve beaten me a little less obvious at first glance.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ten Things I Learned From the Debt Ceiling Fiasco

Well, it seems that the United States will not turn into everyone’s least loved uncle after all, the deadbeat who shows up to the party coasting on old glories and wondering why nobody will lend him a sawbuck anymore. Of course it took months of partisan warfare to reach the point where we would live up to our promises and do what everyone with four functional brain cells to rub together knew needed to be done, and in the process this country managed to reduce itself to a laughing stock on the world stage.

But that’s okay, because we’re ‘Merica! Hell yeah!

Honestly, sometimes you have to wonder.

But nothing happens without presenting an opportunity to learn at least a little something, and this was no different. So here I present to you the lessons that most stick out in my mind from this whole debacle.


1. The Democratic Party does not know how to lead.

The Democrats control one and half of the two branches of government involved in this process. They had an airtight case for their position that a) the debt ceiling had to be raised and b) this had to involve increasing revenue (i.e. taxes, preferably on those who can most afford them). They had the support of the American people in this – repeated polls showed that the overwhelming majority of Democrats and Independents favored this position, and even majorities of Republicans did as well.

And yet they still managed to collapse like a Nevada real estate loan in the face of Teabagger intransigence. Of course this is the same party that couldn’t figure out how to get anything through the Senate with only a majority, so this comes as no surprise really.

2. The Republican Party does not know how to govern.

Governing a country the size and diversity of the United States is not like ordering a shirt from a catalog. You don’t just make demands and expect them to be fulfilled. The people on the other side are citizens too and their concerns must be taken into account. The Republican strategy of insisting that it was their way or the highway was therefore rather short-sighted and deeply un-American. There is little doubt that the party responsible for this debacle was the one making the most unreasonable demands and moving the goalposts every time the other side capitulated, which was early and often. The Republicans need to grow up, get over themselves, and learn what responsibility looks like and how to exercise it.

Further, when presented with a Democratic offer that essentially gave them 80% of what they wanted and would likely lead to chaos among Democratic supporters, the Republicans not only refused the deal but doubled down on their own crazy.

In part this is because the Republicans were so badly split themselves – did anyone else notice that the Speaker of the House spent the week prior to the deal basically negotiating with himself? That he had several incompatible proposals in the works at the same time and was reduced to shuttling between them?

This is the Gang That Can’t Legislate Straight. They shouldn’t be allowed to order their own coffee at Starbucks, let alone run the country.

3. It is getting harder and harder to regard the Teabaggers as a “loyal” opposition.

The Teabaggers really came out into the open with this fiasco. They want to rule us all and in the darkness bind us, and if that means destroying the nation’s economy, security, and political system in order to impose their narrow little agenda on an unwilling citizenry, well then that’s they price they’re willing to have us pay.

This is effectively a declaration of war on the United States from within its own government.

There is a word for that in the Constitution – treason.

4. Nobody involved in this affair has any real interest in solving the actual problem at hand, which is the imbalance between what we spend and what we take in.

There was a great deal of posturing, particularly on the Teabagger side, but if you look at any of the proposals on the table none of them were really serious about fiscal stability.

If we were really serious about fiscal stability we would be raising taxes to pay for the things we want the country to do (health care, for example) and cutting expenses for things the country really doesn’t need at the moment (such as two Mideast wars whose main function at this point is to make the US less safe rather than the opposite and in which nobody has any idea what a victory would actually look like).

Did you hear anything like that on the table? Of course not.

5. The American people have precious little say in the running of their own government at the moment.

Again, note that solid bipartisan majorities of Americans wanted the debt ceiling raised and a mixture of taxes and spending cuts used to address the issues relating to it. And note that none of that made a difference at all to the Teabaggers who have effectively taken control of the federal government from their position as a minority ruling elite.

6. The most responsible media in the United States in the early 21st century is the blogosphere.

All I saw on the mainstream media were talking points – Teabagger talking points on the right-wing media and Republican and Democratic talking points on the centrist media (there being no real left wing media in this country, contrary to what the Teabaggers say).

All of the interesting stories happened on the blogs, because blogs aren’t powerful enough to be worth crushing. Yet.

7. This won’t last long.

Blogs are easily overwhelmed by trolls, and having scanned the comment sections of any number of articles on this it was easy to see this happening. Further, blogs are easily astroturfed – anyone can set up a blog, even Teabagger billionaires, and eventually they will. Or have. And then the whole thing collapses into a dusty pile of irrelevance.

Enjoy the internet while you can.

8. Anything can be spun almost any way you want.

Who won this battle? I’ve heard everything from Obama to Reid to Boehner to Cantor to Wall Street to Teabaggers to nobody.

Who lost this battle? I’ve heard everything from Obama to Reid to Boehner to Cantor to Wall Street to Teabaggers to nobody.

All I know is that my boots are getting wet and it isn’t raining.

9. The rest of the world has a much better idea of what is going on in the US than most Americans do.

When everyone from the Chinese government to Egyptian protesters can diagnose the ills of American politics and debt more shrewdly than the average American citizen, the republic is in sad shape.

When foreign government officials are more honest about what is happening in the halls of Congress than our own media, the republic is doomed.

Americans choose to be ignorant, and the world laughs. Sadly, I can’t really argue with the world on this one.

10. The debt ceiling needs to be eliminated.

It serves no useful function to have Congress vote on whether to spend the money that they’ve already voted to spend. This is why it is almost always done automatically. Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t add money to the debt – that happens at the budget level. If Congress wants to be serious about fiscal responsibility, the point where that has to happen is when they decide on what to spend in the future, not where they decide to pay for debts already incurred.

At best debt ceiling is a useless gesture designed to make Congress feel better about not doing its job earlier.

At worst – i.e. as it has panned out this year – it is a tool for a hyperpartisan minority to force into law an agenda that it does not have the votes to enact otherwise. The hijacking of a routine administrative action by a fanatical group of zealots willing to destroy the country to get their way should be sufficient to convince any American citizen that the debt ceiling is a dangerously sharp tool to be left out where children can get their hands on it.


As Yogi Berra supposedly once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”