Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thoughts on the State of the Union

“Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.” (Lemony Snickett)

One of the most difficult ideas to get across to my students in my US history classes is the simple fact that there is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the United States of America.

Most Americans don’t believe that. They look at the map, which clearly shows the US filling up all of the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel, and it never occurs to them that this didn’t have to happen, or that at any number of junctions it could have turned out very differently.

Powhattan might well have decided that the English colonists in Jamestown were a threat to his confederacy rather than potential allies to be folded into his empire, and wiped them out. He could have, you know – it wouldn’t have even required any action on his part, just simple inattention. The Jamestown colonists would have died out on their own. That would have been three straight failures for the English colonists – Roanoake, Sagadahoc, and then Jamestown. Whether the English would have bothered with a fourth try would have been an interesting question.

The French might have displayed a little more financial sense, just enough to overcome their desire for revenge after the Seven Years’ War, and not bothered taking up the case of thirteen ragtag colonies clinging to the Atlantic shore of the New World thumbing their collective nose at the largest military and economic power on earth at the time. It would have pulled the plug on our Revolution fairly quickly, and might well have spared the French theirs.

We might have lost our Second War of Independence in 1812 rather than fought the distracted and divided British to a draw. There’s a reason we wrapped up the war as quickly as we could once the Napoleonic Wars had drawn to a close and it has nothing to do with sympathy for the French. Even with that distraction the British still managed to burn the President’s Mansion and operate largely at will across American territory. The War of 1812 was the death knell of the theory that a citizen militia could meet a professional military on equal terms, a rude awakening that few Americans these days care to acknowledge, and we very nearly returned to the colonial fold because of it. Or, if the British didn’t want us back, they could just have shattered the American Union and moved on.

The federal government might have manifested a backbone more rigid than a soup noodle and not caved in to the demands of Southern slaveholders in the 1830s and 40s, which would have meant not forcibly removing the northern third of Mexico and incorporating it into the US. It always tickles me to know that the first illegal immigrants into Texas were white Americans sneaking across the border into Mexico.

The North might have lost the Civil War.

Well, no.

There was no way the North was going to lose the Civil War. The North had morality, manpower, transportation networks, diplomatic leverage, industrial production and most of the guns, powder, salt, and food on its side in the struggle to eradicate the treason of the slavery-defending South, and the only reason the war went on as long as it did was because the South had the better generals for the first part of it. As long as the North remained determined to eradicate treason with fire, nothing the South did was going to make the war end in their favor once it came to combat.

Of course, the North could well have said, “Good riddance to bad rubbish” at any point after secession and let the bastards go, and that would have had the same effect as a Southern victory. There were certainly calls for them to do so, and it might have spared the North a lot of aggravation and subversion later if they had.

And on and on. I haven’t even touched on Alaska or Hawaii, two remarkably contingent additions to the Union.

The idea here is simply that it didn’t have to work out the way it did, and if you were to start the clock rolling over from the beginning I doubt it would again.

More to the point, the fact that we have the country we have is not a given going forward either. Just because it did happen to work out to this point is no guarantee that it will continue to work out next year or next decade or next century. Just as there was nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the development of the United States to this point, so to is there nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States in the future.

It takes energy to keep a country together and moving forward. It takes vision. It takes people willing to do the hard work of making sure that the nation is there when the sun goes down and still there when it comes back up.

One of the great lessons of my childhood was watching the annual Fourth of July parade down at the local firehouse, where my father – and eventually I – was a volunteer firefighter. It took a lot of work to get that parade moving, which came as a surprise to me as a kid. It is a sign of childish thinking to assume that good things just happen automatically, and a mark of maturity to recognize that this is not so. I hit that mark at that parade. My dad saw that look on my face, took me aside and said simply, “Nothing good happens on its own.”

Parades, nations, it’s all the same.

There are a lot of people in this country willing to put in the energy, time and effort to make that happen, however. I see them out there. I’d like to think I’m one of them. That’s not the part I worry about.

The thing that scares me currently is that, more than anything else, keeping a nation going forward takes a recognition that there are an awful lot of people in it, and their concerns had better figure into yours if you want it to stay together.

This, more than anything else, we have lost.

I have watched the general collapse of the American political system over the last decade with increasing worry, as one party – and, for those of you about to make a profoundly ill-observed point, yes it is entirely one party and not a case of “everybody’s doing it;” please make a note of that and start paying attention from now on – has repeatedly placed its own interests above those of the nation. This is new, something that only became standard in the last couple of years, even in that party. It really isn’t something the Democrats have done and, until the last four or five years, it really wasn’t something the Republicans did either. But pushed to the lunatic fringe by the far-right-wing extremists who have taken over a once-proud and constructive organization, the Republican Party has made it clear that if it cannot have everything entirely its way all the time without exception, opposition, or hesitation, it is prepared to burn this country down and piss on the ashes. It very nearly did so last summer, and it looks ready to do it again soon. There is a term for this, and “patriot” isn’t it.

I have watched the general collapse of the American middle class over the last several decades with equal worry. The statistics are overwhelmingly clear and disturbingly specific, and at this point I could simply fill my entire allotment of space on Blogger’s servers with graphs and charts demonstrating them if I so chose. Fortunately for you, I will skip them. The point remains, however.

We live in an age where it is considered a sign of righteousness to seek a pre-modern distribution of wealth, with a few elites and a vast sea of peasantry and nothing much in between. That’s not what has been the driving force behind American prosperity since the colonial period, but I see few if any people at the top or on the right who see it as anything other than their mission in life to achieve this sorry state of affairs. What left there is in this country makes sympathetic noises but offers no constructive agenda toward reversing this trend.

I do see a groundswell of opposition to that coming up from below, though. The OWS protesters have been arrested, assaulted, pepper-sprayed, kicked, gassed and generally treated as invasive pests, when all they have been trying to do is point out that the situation in America has gotten out of hand, and for that alone they deserve recognition as Jeremiahs, shouting in the concrete wilderness about the sins of the nation. I’m not sure the OWS protesters really have any actual notion of how to solve any of the problems they’ve identified – the ideas I’ve seen attributed to them certainly don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence – but only a fool would say that they haven’t correctly identified the most pressing crisis of recent American history. People are now discussing what had previously been deliberately ignored, and even if the OWS movement achieves nothing else in its existence it will still have done this nation a service.

Perhaps most worryingly, for all this, I’ve seen the folks at the top, in their shiny impressive buildings, taunting and mocking. I see them and the politicians they own blaming the people at the bottom for not being wealthy, and I see them advocating positions that would have been considered barbaric by Gilded Age Robber Barons, who at least had the Gospel of Wealth to make them feel bad about their rapaciousness.

That’s not going to end well. Historically it never has.

It can happen here. There is nothing inevitable or logically necessary about the continued existence of the United States. When push comes to shove the only thing that is guaranteed is that there will be a whole lot of pushing and shoving going on. At that point the whole thing may well come crashing down. Greater empires have collapsed over less.

And something else may well fill the space between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

All that will be left to do is mourn the lost promise of what was once a thriving, prosperous, powerful and – most painfully, in the loss column – hopeful nation, one that at least for a while and in some very clear ways actually did serve as a beacon to the world as to how it could be done. Not in every way, no, not at all. But in enough ways to make its self-imposed destruction that much more bittersweet.

Nothing good happens on its own. But catastrophes? They’re pretty much autopilot.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fashion Is Our Middle Name

We went to see Hugo on Wednesday.

For those of you who have not read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, well, what is your problem? It’s a big book, granted, but since most of it consists of atmospheric charcoal drawings it flies right by. And the story it tells, of an orphan living in a train station in 1930s Paris, the automaton he restores, and the tale that unfolds from that point, is a wonder to behold, especially if you know or appreciate early 20th century films. 

When Tabitha and I read through it the first time, she was curious about some of the old cinematic references – the Harold Lloyd scene where he’s hanging off the clock face, for example, and the oldest science fiction film in the world, where the rocket ship lands in the eye of the moon. And you know what? We live in an age of wonders. We went to the computer, fired up Teh Intarweebs, and there on YouTube were both films. It was fun to see her make those connections, and fun to see the movies. All books should come with side adventures like that.

So we were anxious to see the movie version. It’s a very cinematic book, after all.

Wednesday was its opening night and I can’t say I was all that surprised to find out that it was not playing here in Our Little Town, which is more of a Rambo XLIII sort of venue. Eventually we tracked it down to a theater in the Rather Larger City 35 miles south of us and – in a move that I would have found incomprehensible prior to moving to the midwest – we drove all the way down there to see it.

The theater was lavish in a way that I didn’t think movie theaters were anymore, but which fit the subject of the night quite well. And the seats were actually comfortable, with arms that folded up out of the way so you could actually spread out a bit and get cozy. Plus the guy behind me was also an Eagles fan, and we have to stick together these days.

The movie is in 3D, which meant that we all got yet another pair of those BCD-style glasses that they hand out. We’ve amassed quite a collection of them over the last few years, much to my dismay - to be honest if I can see a movie in 2D instead I generally will. But this seemed worth it. Mostly we recycle the glasses in those big blue boxes after these movies, but this time the girls asked if we could hang on to them.

Apparently it is now the style at both Mighty Clever Guy Middle School and Not Bad President Elementary to pop the lenses from these glasses and decorate the frames with glitter, paint and assorted other tinsel, and the girls spent much of our rather quiet Thanksgiving at home turning these utilitarian movie glasses into works of art.

Now they look like a cross between Buddy Holly and Hello Kitty.

Hugo: the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wait, It's Thanksgiving? Already?

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick! It’s Thanksgiving!

Who knew?

This semester has flown by so quickly and so busily that I’ve completely lost track of the passage of time. It’s just been me and the alligators around this swamp, and while I’m sure that eventually the swamp will get drained I am equally sure that I will have no conscious memory of the process. One alligator at a time, children, one alligator at a time.

Nevertheless, I do feel a need to be thankful. There are many things in my life to be thankful for.

I have my health and a decent, if precarious, career doing what I want to do.

I am happily married to a woman I love, and we have the two most wonderful children in the world. Your children? A close runner up, but nice try! *

I am materially comfortable. I’m a long way from the 1%, but my needs are met, and my reasonable wants are too. I do not need to make the kinds of hard choices that so many others have to make every day.

I have good friends, a long list of experiences to remember, broadband internet and a man-cave full of books.

Life is good.

We aren’t planning on doing much of anything today – our big family get-together will be Saturday, since that’s when people can gather. Holidays happen when you’ve got time, and if that means a few days one way or another from the official calendar day, then so be it.

Instead I will spend most of the day typing, in preparation for next week’s classes. We’ll make our own small version of Thanksgiving dinner, just for the four of us. There might even be breaks to watch large men chase after a small ball on television, if I’m lucky.

And I am lucky.

That’s sort of the point of today, to remember that.

Happy Thanksgiving!


*Your mileage may vary.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Moment in Time

Seventeen years ago today, in a cozy little bed and breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa, Kim and I got engaged.

She didn’t know it was coming. We’d only been dating since March of that year – a bare eight months – and for that entire time we lived nearly two hundred miles apart. I was deep into my preparations for my comprehensive exams , which would take place the following spring, and she didn’t want to add to the stress on my world by bringing the subject up. She had come down to visit me the weekend before, and she told me later that on the drive home she had decided that if I hadn’t asked her to marry her by the time my comps were over she would ask me.

I already had the ring by that point, though. It was up in the closet, hidden away, waiting.

I’d figured out fairly quickly that I was going to ask her. Long before November. Before even that summer, when we had climbed into a car and driven from Wisconsin to Philadelphia to visit my parents. That we made it through that long of a journey together after only three months as a couple just confirmed what I already knew, what I had known since April.

I can still remember the moment.

Like a lot of world-altering moments, it was simpler and quieter than you’re led to believe such moments have to be. It has been my experience that most are.

I had come up to visit Kim in the apartment she lived in here in Our Little Town, and we had spent the day doing whatever it was we were doing, out and about in Baja Canada. We’d come back for dinner, though. It was a big apartment, nearly half the size of our current house, with a full-sized dining room and a kitchen that featured the same hideous orange-flecked-with-yellow countertops that seem to have been installed in every apartment in America between 1972 and 1978. Kim was in the kitchen cooking and I was in the dining room setting the table, and for some reason I needed to ask her a question and I called her name.

It hit me at that moment that yes, I could happily spend the rest of my life doing just that.

A lot has changed in the years since then.

But that hasn’t.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Movin' On Up

I appear to have lost the front seat of my car again.

Now that Lauren is a big girl of 9 she insists on riding in the front seat, which – according to her – is perhaps the single most exciting experience of her entire life, or at least that part of it which has happened in the last week or two. She bounces. She twists around to look out of all the windows, admiring the newly expansive view that one gets in the front seat. She aimlessly taps on what various buttons of the dashboard are within reach, which gives the car the appearance of something snipped from Mike’s New Car from the outside. She is at one with the world.

Tabitha is less sure about all this.

For several years now she has had the front passenger seat all to herself. This put a physical barrier between her and her younger sister that all middle-school kids appreciate, and generally made her world a better place. Losing that island is rather a blow.

The key will be devising a system by which the front seat can be shared.

Right now we’re working on an “alternating days” type of scenario, which I can already see is going to be difficult to maintain for the uncomplicated reason that I can barely remember what day it is today and cannot reasonably be expected to remember what day it was yesterday when called upon to resolve the inevitable disputes. So eventually we may resort to flipping coins. Or possibly random declarations of turns, which will satisfy me but probably not them. Children want justice; parents just want peace.

It has been a long and draining semester, and most nights it's all I can do to fall into bed for what little time I can stay there after yet another day of scrabbling to keep up with demands. I don’t remember the last time I was as excited about anything as Lauren is about the simple fact of being three feet further forward. I’m in that car all the time – it all sort of blends to me.

It’s nice to be reminded of simple joys, now and then.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

An Update From Teabagistan

Things are still hopping down here in Teabagistan, even if I haven’t been writing about them very much of late.

Part of that has been a basic unwillingness to deal with the subversion of the United States in general and Wisconsin in particular by a humorless oligarchy run by pantsless buffoons, which seems to me to be something the Founding Fathers did not really intend. As someone who has spent most of my life studying the political thought of the Founding Fathers, the knowledge that the republic is being actively destroyed by right-wing extremists is rather depressing.

It’s even more depressing knowing how effectively they’re doing it, and how much support they have for it. Well, the Founding Fathers never expected the republic to last this long - "virtue," the willingness to sacrifice one's private interests for the public good, being a fragile and perishable thing.

Part of it also has been the general workload of this semester, which has not allowed me much time to do anything but frantically scramble to keep up with things and what time it has allowed I have not wanted to devote to traitorous thugs undermining the foundations of the republic. Life is short.

But once in a while you just have to peek up over the parapets and see what the bastards are doing.

The official campaign to recall Governor Teabagger starts this week, and already several Republican operatives have openly declared that they will be posing as signature gatherers in order to burn the petitions, impede the recall and subvert the rule of law. As you would expect from the Party of Treason they represent, not a single word of objection has come from any Republican official or lawmaker disavowing this willful assault on the democratic foundations of American law and politics.

You are the company you keep, Teabaggers. Either disavow these unashamed felons or accept that they represent everything you stand for.

We’ve also had a Special Legislative Session On Jobs for what seems like the last several thousand years, one with the announced purpose of – wait for it – promoting jobs in Wisconsin. Leaving aside the question of whether this is something a legislature can actually do, it is instructive to note that of the several dozen bills debated or passed during this session not a single one – not one – had anything to do with jobs.

Instead they spent most of their time passing a version of Concealed Carry that would essentially force university campuses to allow students to have guns in class, because that is so helpful to the learning process. It would also allow guns on boats, in shopping malls, and pretty much anywhere some genital-deficient paranoid decided he needed to compensate for his shortcomings at the expense of public safety.

The bill even allows people to bring their guns into the State Capitol and into the Gallery overlooking the Legislature itself, though oddly enough the Teabaggers are still arresting people who bring cameras or wear t-shirts with sections of the US Constitution printed on them. Because knowledgeable citizens are so much more dangerous to their subversion of the country than guns are, I suppose.

Seriously. A 12-year-old was given the bum’s rush for daring to hold a piece of paper in his hand that had a doodle on the back reading “Free Speech.” Hell, kid, you should have brought a revolver instead.

The reason behind all this rush to turning Wisconsin into Somalia might just be the recalls, since at least one Republican official has publicly threatened to kill any recall worker who dares to ask for his signature on a petition. Wouldn’t it be ironic if he murdered one of the Republican fakes?

But rather than take their chances with thwarting the recall elections through violence – which is, after all, inefficient – Teabaggers took some time in the Special Legislative Session On Jobs to push for a bill that would immediately redistrict just the State Senate while leaving the Assembly districts alone. They’ve also clamped down on voting rights by further restricting the kinds of IDs that you can have in order to vote. When the independent elections board decided that college IDs would be acceptable to allow students who live here to vote here, the Teabaggers in the legislature ordered the board to formalize that into a rule “so we can suspend it.”

All across Home Campus they have these posters up advertising a public meeting sponsored by the that well known group of radicals, The League of Women Voters, offering to explain the new Voter Suppression Law. I think they could save a lot of time simply by reducing the law to its essentials: “Poor? Brown-skinned? Enrolled at a university? Stay home!” See how much more efficient that was?

The Special Session On Jobs also spent two full days arguing over something that had already been done. The first day was spent in raging debate over whether to remove race as a factor in giving out scholarships to state universities, not realizing that race was no longer being used as a factor in giving out scholarships to state universities. And then, when someone pointed this out, they spent another full day arguing about the same thing.

Grandmom, wherever you are, know that you were right about the things that float.

There were any number of other brilliant bits of legislative history being made by Teabaggers in this Special Session On Jobs – making sure consumers couldn’t sue corporations over defective products or services, rendering the highways less safe by gutting regulations over the size and load of semis, removing any meaningful sex education from the schools even if local districts and taxpayers want it there, changing the rules for teacher evaluations to allow easier removal of any teacher who speaks up against the destruction of public education in Wisconsin, allowing people to cherry-pick legal venues to sue from, and so on. I’m not sure how they fit into the whole “laser-like focus on jobs” thing, but there you go.

Perhaps I should have stayed below the parapet.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Psychopathology of Drama

I spent all day yesterday and most of the night before in the theater, doing lighting. It brought back many unrepressed memories.

I used to do a lot of that sort of thing, way back when. Most of my high school and college friends were theater techs of one variety or another, and I stopped counting the number of shows I worked on when I hit four dozen. Every semester in college I would wonder how many shows I could do before it seriously impacted my academic work.

The answer was six, by the way.

Not that this turned out to be a problem, in the long run. I was taking a class entitled “The Psychology of Drama,” taught by the only faculty member there who ever had anything to do with the theater. All of our theater was entirely student run – I don’t think they even offered a theater major – and there were eight or nine major student groups putting on shows as well as a few one-offs every semester. There were a dozen of us who did lighting, and we’d go from show to show, feeding on cast parties like locusts.

The class turned out to be a dud from my perspective – it was all about the psychology of acting and directing, which to my mind is not the same thing as the psychology of drama. I understood why it didn’t focus on the tech stuff that I loved – all that is add-on, and while fascinating in its particulars and an awful lot of fun to do is not at the heart of drama. You can put on a play in a field, without any tech at all, and it will be fine. The audience, however, is the core of theater. And the class never addressed the one question I thought would be of paramount importance for anything labeled “The Psychology of Drama”: Why is one group of people willing to watch a second group of people pretend to be a third group of people?

I still don’t know.

We had a group project due at the end of that class (and don’t get me started on the absolute uselessness of group projects – that is an hour of your life you’ll never get back). But I had promised a friend of mine that I would run the lighting board for her for that sixth show – a production of Hair. One of them had to give. Eventually I figured that there was really only one person I could ask about this, so I called the professor at home and explained the situation. There was a pause at the other end of the line, and then his German-accented voice softly replied, “Vell, you do vat you tink iss right.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I called up the leader of the group project and announced my retirement, ran the lights for Hair, and spent the following 48 straight hours writing my final paper for that professor. In four years of college that class shows up on my transcript as the only A+ I ever got.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Yesterday down at Home Campus we had a performer come in for three shows – a magician with an act geared toward mathematics education. For the two day shows we invited some local schools to come in, and the evening show was open to the public (and packed, I might add – oddly enough, the acts that sell down at Home Campus are almost always science-related acts that people can bring their kids to see). As with all of these events, it was my job to do just about everything support-related, from negotiating the contract to hanging the lights to providing the snacks backstage. During the show it was my job to run the lighting board.


It’s a computerized board, as they all are these days, but one that is at least fifteen years old and whose manual was clearly written by engineers rather than theater techs because – like all such manuals – it is organized around features rather than tasks. “Oooh! Look what this button does! And that one! And this one!” All of which is fine except that nowhere in there is there anything that says “If you want to get the cue you just programmed in using those buttons to show up on the stage, you need to do this…” Eventually the sound guy and I gave up trying to figure it out and I went with smaller cues I could do manually with the dimmers.

The thing about these shows is that they’re not like my Bright College Days when we had a week to work with the cast and practice running the cues. The performer showed up at 7:30am and spent two hours loading in his gear, after which he and I managed to squeeze in almost four minutes of explanation as to when he wanted the cues on the cue-sheet he helpfully provided to actually happen. The house opened at 9:40. First curtain went up at 10.

At least he provided a cue sheet. That’s one step above most.

So there I was, running cues on the fly.

Old memories indeed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Memorium

There is a very fine line between having your blog go dark for a day of mourning and not having the time to write anything anyway. It’s kind of like a lot of mid-20th-century art that way – it’s not so much the appearance of the thing as it is the intent behind it.

Last summer I was inducted into the UCF, a collective of bloggers and other folks online who share triumphs and tragedies, support, information, and no small amount of sarcasm, random digressions and the sort of friendly chops-busting that seems to have gone out of style in many places, alas. All I will say about it is that it is nice to find a corner of the internet that lives up the social networking hype that it was sold with way back when.

One of our members passed away over the weekend.

I had never met Wendy. I knew her as an icon, as words on a screen, and for that reason her passing probably hit the other members of the UCF rather harder than it did me. But she was welcoming to the new guy when I showed up, and she always had interesting things to say. And she passed the most important test of humanity that I know of – she was nice when she didn’t have to be and had nothing to gain by it.

And for that I will miss her.

As so many other UCFers have already said, fair winds and following seas, Wendy. The world is that much poorer for your absence.

Friday, November 4, 2011

News and Updates

1. We live in an age of unrepentant cruelty.

2. That isn’t really news if you have been paying attention at all to what passes for American politics these days, but I still find it depressing anyway.

3. Just when I think I should stop putting in so much effort with my World History Before 1500 class and coast into the end of the semester, it turns out my students actually are getting something out of it. On the one hand, that’s why you do this sort of thing. On the other hand, well, no coasting. Oh well.

4. I actually got to sleep before midnight last night, for the first time in weeks. I am getting too old for that nonsense.

5. Having a house full of leftover Halloween candy is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Especially if there are Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups involved.

6. It’s a good thing the climate’s not really changing, because otherwise, you know, I’d be worried.

7. I really wish there were a Sarcasm Font in general use.

8. Is it just me or have the Teabaggers essentially conceded the 2012 Presidential election? I’m guessing they’ve found their mojo in simply staying on the sidelines and destroying what’s already standing - having to create something in its place would be more responsibility than they want to have. It’s always a bit disheartening when the Onion story turns out to be true.

9. The 1950s are the only decade in human history that can be reliably identified by a bass line.

10. “Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting out them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.” (Lemony Snickett). Truer words have never been spoken.