Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Lauren and I put the last quarter in the state quarter collection last week.

I have been a coin collector since I was a kid, when my dad got me hooked. Stashed away in a bright purple Crown Royal bag in his dresser was a pile of American and foreign coins that he had acquired from any number of places, few of which were all that valuable but all of which were utterly fascinating. We’d go through them now and then, and every once in a while we’d try to organize them. We still haven’t succeeded on that last score, but that’s part of the fun of it.

Ever since I have kept my eye on my pocket change, much to the grand annoyance of cashiers in any number of places who always think I don’t trust them and am checking up on them. Honestly I couldn’t have told them if they’d shortchanged me or not – I was just checking the coins.

And you’d be surprised at what people will hand you in change even now. Silver. Foreign coins. Coins that haven’t been minted since my grandparents were little. It’s fun looking for them, really it is. Even today, finding a wheat cent in change can make my day.

I remember my first reaction to the new state quarters when they came out in 1999. Unfortunately I will not repeat it here. Let’s just say that the program caught me by surprise and leave it at that.

That cashier was really annoyed, but at least she had a reason for it.

When the girls were born I decided that it would be fun to collect three sets of these quarters – one for me and one each for them. And so, slowly, bit by bit, we have been pulling out of circulation all of the new and previously unseen designs and stuffing them into the appropriate slots in our folders.

Some have been hard to find – one of the Floridas, for example, took me ages to collect. Others have inundated me – I believe that for several years there has been an entire subterranean mint in the same Undisclosed Location that Dick Cheney used to run the country from devoted to producing nothing but Connecticut quarters. For a while after 9/11 I actually felt sort of guilty spending the New York ones. It seemed somehow dishonorable not to hold on to them. Eventually that began to feel too much like the old Onion headline about how someone baked a flag-shaped cake because they wanted to feel more patriotic and didn’t know what else to do, so I started spending them again. My honor did not seem to be affected one way or another.

Tabitha mostly lost interest a while ago, but Lauren has still been involved. We’d go through our change and pull out the gems. And last week we found our last holdouts – three Oklahoma-P quarters – and in they went.

It was a strange feeling, having completed a decade-long project like that.

Of course there are still unexplored vistas of quarters, should we choose to continue this project. We’ve got some gaps with the territories that followed the states, for example – few of the Northern Marianas Islands quarters find their way to Wisconsin for some reason. And I just have not had the heart to collect the “tourist attraction” quarters that they’re on to now, so those have largely gone by the wayside.

But we’ve got all fifty states from both mints producing for circulation.

That’ll do.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Computing Uphill, Against the Wind. Both Ways!

On the way home from school this afternoon, the girls and I got into a discussion about magnets.

Specifically, we started with a debate regarding how strong of a hold on the back of a car one of those magnetic pictures of a dog’s head could have. We decided after some discussion that “pretty strong” about covered it. The conversation then moved on to the fact that magnets would not harm a car in any notable way, but they would harm a computer. It would wipe your hard drive, but not a CD. Of course, they would be bad for floppy discs, too.

At this point there was a digression while I explained to my daughters what precisely a floppy disc was. Neither of them have ever seen one.

“Except as the Save icon!” Tabitha chimed in. Why it is still used as the Save icon is an interesting question.

I began using computers in the mid-1980s when they still used 3.5” floppy discs, though the discs weren’t at all floppy, being encased in plastic. The older computers that were still in use at the time, though, they had the 5.25” discs that actually were floppy. You could wave them around and they would undulate like seaweed under the ocean.

Lauren’s eyes grew big at the thought.

Then she asked me, “Did computers have monitors back then?”

Yes, I told her. The ones I used did, anyway – little 6” black and white monitors. Though as I came to think about it, that wasn’t always true either.

The first time I ever used a computer was when I was in junior high school, probably in 1979. It was a dumb terminal – a jargon term, not a name given in frustration. For those of you who grew up in the internet age, a dumb terminal was something that had no memory or computing power of its own but was connected to a mainframe computer somewhere else.

You can look up “mainframe” on your own.

It was about the size of a large typewriter, with grey cylindrical keys that made a zapping sound when you pushed them down the entire half inch by which they stuck up above the beige surface of the terminal.

You can look up “typewriter” too, while you’re at it.

Mounted on the right side was a reel-to-reel arrangement that fed an inch-wide strip of pink paper from the back reel through a dot-matrix hole punch and onto the front reel. When you wanted to do any actual programming – in BASIC – that punched strip of paper was your record. If you wanted to run the program again you had to rewind it, thread it through a different mechanism between the reels, and let it control the terminal like a player piano roll. Zap zap zap zap zap.

“Player piano” – it’s in the dictionary between “mainframe” and “typewriter.”

There was no monitor. Instead there was a roll of rough yellowish paper, one grade below newsprint, that fed through the top. When you told the terminal to print something, it would just type it out on the paper, one character at a time – clack clack clack clack clack DING clack clack clack clack clack.

Computers were louder back then.

We were supposed to be learning how to program, but we spent most of the time playing the Star Trek game that somebody had coded into the mainframe. You would type in command strings at the prompt, and it would spit back the result of whatever action you just told it to do. When you lost track of where you were, you could tell it to print out a map. This was highly recommended before you tried to warp your way across the galaxy, since the game was remarkably unforgiving about things like trying to rocket your way through a star.

The Klingons would stalk you from sector to sector, and your job was to kill them all. We eventually got good enough at that task that we began seeking other things to do. This is how we discovered that you could, in fact, torpedo a planet. At which point the game would print out a sarcastic little congratulations message – “Planet destroyed. Zero Population Growth thanks you.”

Does Zero Population Growth even exist anymore?

We played that game for two solid years, and by the time I got to high school it had taken the next step in computer technology by graduating from the mainframe to being contained on a cassette tape.

“Cassette tape” is located somewhat earlier in the dictionary than “mainframe.”

The game had pretty much lost its luster for us by then, but we were amused by the fact that you actually could play the cassette tape in an ordinary tape player. It sounded like a symphony of unoiled screen doors.

I’m not sure my daughters believed this story, in their world of iPods and streaming video, but ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Teabaggers and Slavery

Just when I think that the Teabaggers can’t sink any lower, when I start to believe that maybe their all out war on intelligence and common sense has reached rock bottom and surely, surely they have done about as much harm to the values, traditions and history of America as they are going to do, they find a way to dig deeper. They find new ways to demonstrate that they are idiots of the foulest stripe, brain-dead zealots without any hope of redemption or even ability to recognize themselves for the moral vacuums that they are.

It’s disappointing, really.

You’d like to believe that your fellow citizens are not actively engaged in destroying the nation in order to serve their own selfish ends, but the mountain of evidence to the contrary is getting harder and harder to ignore.

As the latest exhibit in this sorry museum, I give you the Teabaggers of the formerly proud state of Tennessee, who have decided that the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders – that slavery even existed during the nation’s formative period – should be removed from the public school textbooks and replaced by a version of American history that can only be described as “whitewashed” no matter how much you want to avoid the pun.

For the moment, let us ignore the fact that these same Teabaggers are doing their best to destroy public education as a whole in this country. Why they would worry about textbooks when their larger aim is to prevent education at all is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Perhaps they’re just trying to achieve their goal incrementally.

Be that as it may, the idea that slavery can be excised from American history by the braying of idiots is so fundamentally absurd and so morally leprous that it bears examination.

This nation was founded on a paradox – a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and at the same time one that rested on the backs of an entire population of human chattel.

I’m not even going to go into the economic aspects of slavery other than to point out that the entire economy of the colonies was dependent on it and would be long after independence, through the mid-nineteenth century in fact. The textile factories - and with them the financial system - of the free North depended on the cotton of the slaveholding South, which is one reason the South decided to risk the Civil War. To try to understand the economy of the US between 1675 and 1865 without a thorough background understanding of slavery and its role is an exercise in stupidity and failure.

Nor am I going to spend much time on the social aspects of slavery – the forced importation of hundreds of thousands of Africans into the colonies, the role they played in everyday culture in both North and South, the legacies they gave to American society that have become so ingrained that we no longer even remember where they came from. There were Africans in what would become the United States before there were Pilgrims, and if you don’t think that matters you aren’t paying attention.

For me, though, the more interesting role of slavery has always been the political one. The tension between slavery and freedom defined the political world of the Founding Fathers.

For some of them, that contrast was a painful reminder of what could happen to them and a goad to resist what they saw as the political incursions of the British government in the 1760s and 1770s. They lived in a mental world where power and liberty were ancient and eternal opposites fighting a zero-sum game for the political soul of the nation, and any encroachment upon liberty was a push down the path of slavery – a path whose end result they could easily see, since so many of them owned slaves.

That’s why they fought so hard against what the British government regarded as simple common sense measures designed to pay for the services the colonists used – nobody would have gone broke paying the Stamp Tax and the money it raised was largely designed to stay in the colonies and pay for the soldiers protecting the frontier. The British had moved on to a more modern sense of politics by then and could never understand why the colonists reacted as harshly as they did.

Classical republicanism – the dominant political ideology of the colonies during the Revolutionary Crisis – was a school of thought that lived comfortably with the idea of slavery for some and liberty for others, and the trick was to stay on the right side of the line. It was an ideology of hierarchy, where equality counted only among your peers, and the idea that one group of people could fight for liberty while enslaving others was not necessarily problematic.

It was problematic for other Founders, though.

For them the contrast between slavery and freedom was a needling inconsistency, one that shamed and embarrassed them. The rising tide of Lockean liberalism had a much more expansive definition of liberty and equality, and the contrast of a slaveholding society demanding liberty to avoid being themselves enslaved was simply too glaring to ignore. Ultimately liberalism will triumph in America and spur both democracy and the abolitionist movement, but during the Revolutionary Era it was simply a strong and conflicting counterpoint to the way the first group of Founders thought.

The British, who had moved on to liberalism decades earlier, relished this inconsistency and often took pains to point it out. “How is it,” Samuel Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Don’t think that question didn’t hit home in the colonies.

The struggles between these points of view dominated the Revolutionary Era. They appear in the Declaration of Independence. They appear in the Constitution. They appear in the state constitutions of the day, the newspapers, the letters and diaries, and the plays, novels and songs people found in their everyday life.

To try to excise this in the name of some half-witted modern ideology too uncomfortable with the complexities of reality to bear hearing them or allow their children to hear them is a historical revisionism on par with Stalin’s attempts to fictionalize the story of the Soviet Union.

The United States is better than that, or it should be.

The contrast between slavery and freedom teaches us who we were and who we are. The struggles over slavery defined this nation. The contributions of the enslaved made this nation what it is. We forget this at our peril and we hide it at our loss.

The Teabaggers of Tennessee and the horse they rode in on are hereby cordially invited to find some other use for their time.

Monday, January 23, 2012

In Which I Am Told What I Already Knew

I went and got my physical examination today, though I did not get good and drunk the night before so I would look and feel my best when I went in this morning. I was the All-American Kid from Our Little Town, and I was hung down, brung down and all kinds of things, as appropriate.

Three cheers to anyone who gets that reference, by the way.

Our Little Town is going through something of an economic shift. The Great Big Factory closed down a few years ago and remains stubbornly vacant, which didn’t stop Governor Teabagger from putting up a big billboard right in front of it proudly touting his job creation record. I’m still not sure whether that was an oversight on the part of his PR staff or a political commentary on the part of the billboard people, since an empty factory is precisely appropriate for a governor who has presided over 39,000 lost private sector jobs since his budget was approved, at a time when the rest of the nation is actually gaining jobs. Either way, it was funny.

Since then we’ve seen a spate of hospital building. People will always get sick, and under our current “pay-to-play” health care system there is good money in that, so in the last few months we’ve seen a brand new hospital open up and an old hospital get new additions and satellites. It will be interesting to see what this does to the culture of Our Little Town in the long run.

This was my first time at the new hospital.

It is a palace.

You walk in and there is a person there at the front door whose sole job is to tell you whether to turn right or left. Then, having chosen the appropriate direction, you walk down a corridor lined with health care retail outlets (pharmacy, eyeglasses, other things I really don’t want to know about, and so on) to the stairs, which wind along a three-story fountain, the kind you used to have to go to a casino to see.

I prefer not to think about that parallel any further.

I took the stairs rather than the elevator because I am trying to be better about things like diet and exercise. Last year was a lost year for such things, and at my age such years need to be kept to an absolute minimum. So I’m eating better than I did, and I really will start to exercise more one of these days. Really.

Hey – I lost three pounds over the Christmas holidays. I’m doing something right.

I like my new doctor. He’s friendly, professional, and appropriately apologetic about the indignities visited upon middle-aged men during their physicals. Those indignities are a high-class problem to have in this age where health care is considered a privilege, granted, but a problem nonetheless.

So I’m about as healthy as you would expect for a 46-year-old man who spends most of his time in front of a computer or deep in a book. I need to continue eating better, and I should move about more than I do. All of the various blood tests from last month came back as “you’re okay but could do better with better food and more exercise,” which I already knew, and nobody seemed to feel a need for anything drastic. Certain things are better when they're boring - travel, international politics, and health care most notably. So this visit was a success, I think.

And I get to go back and do it again next year, for which I am grateful if not exactly thrilled.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Memo from the Live Studio Audience

My children have become addicted to America’s Funniest Home Videos, or AFV to the cognoscenti. I’m not sure where the H went.

On the one hand, the endless litany of pratfalls, Darwin Award entries and psychotic pets, combined with a level of melodramatic overacting on the part of the host that would have seemed excessive in the silent movie era, can be tough to take.

On the other hand, it’s kind of fun to watch, in a guilty sort of way.

Plus, I have scored major Dad points with my offspring because once upon a time I was there, in the audience.

It was my first year of graduate school at Iowa and a bitterly cold winter that kept most of us locked indoors where in theory we were being productive little students but in practice we were mostly bored. My first day of classes that semester it was 24 degrees below zero with a wind chill of 70 below. That’s Fahrenheit. I have no idea what that translates to in centigrade beyond “brass monkey cold.” We were the only institution in the state that was open for business, and I had a mile-long walk to my first class. We didn’t see a temperature with a real square root for over two weeks. We stayed in.

Around this time my friend Bonnie somehow came into the possession of a number of tickets for the satellite studio audience of AFV that was to be held in Cedar Rapids, and a group of us decided that yes, that sounded like a good idea.

I blame the weather.

Dave drove us up there that Saturday morning. Dave was a big, pale guy, quiet and polite, who had an ability to drop offhand bombshells into conversations that I have seldom seen equaled. He was always genuinely surprised at our reactions, too, since to him it was just another observation on par with anything we might say about our last seminar. Thus we discovered that the traffic congestion we encountered getting out of Iowa City wasn’t so bad compared with the traffic in Lagos, Nigeria.

Cedar Rapids on a Saturday morning is a ghost town.

The studio was located on a three-lane one-way street that might as well have been neutron bombed, since there were a great many buildings and parked cars but as far as we could tell nobody living but us. We stood in the street for nearly fifteen minutes at one point just to see if there would be any traffic. For all that happened we could still be standing there.

A door opened and we went inside, and eventually this repeated itself enough to fill the bleachers that had been put up in a large square room.

They had set things up so that we were facing a small stage with a large central monitor placed directly in front of us and a couple of smaller ones off to the side. The smaller ones were for us to see the other satellite audiences like us, and the middle one was so we could see the host, Bob Saget, who was safe and warm in Los Angeles.

Bob has since moved on to greener pastures. And good for him. The new guy these days seems to enjoy himself more than Bob ever did.

They herded us onto the bleachers and then some poor harried associate producer came out to explain to us the ground rules. We were to cheer when asked to cheer. We were to laugh at Bob’s jokes, if possible, or stay quiet if not. And if we could react visibly to the videos there was a better chance that we’d make it onto the broadcast.

And then he threw candy at us.

That turned out to be a running theme, actually. Every time there was a pause in the action, which was surprisingly often, some flunky (the associate producer only took the first round) would come out with a big bag of candy and spray it at us. It was kind of fun, surprisingly enough. Festive.

Eventually the show started.

I really don’t remember the videos. I assume that there were a few cats in need of medication and at least one guy getting whacked in the cojones, and if there were any fewer than half a dozen videos of people falling off of things they shouldn’t have been standing on to begin with, well, that would be a first.

What I do remember is that it usually took Bob two takes to get his introductions down the way they wanted him to, and that during the breaks in between takes – we could still see and hear him – he would spend his time telling fart jokes.

When the videos were over and the candy bag was empty, they sent us out into the deserted streets of Cedar Rapids, which were ever so much less problematic that way than the streets of Lagos. We ended up finding dinner on the way home – a buffet, as I recall, one that probably regretted letting in a crowd of hungry graduate students who descended like locusts on their neatly arranged food and left nothing but one empty spinning plate on the floor, but so it goes.

I am an AFV veteran.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reflections on a Gradebook

I spent most of today running errands.

First there was a visit to the dentist, which is something I generally put off for as long as possible and then some. I really hate the whole process – and, in fairness, since I don’t do well with people sticking things in my mouth, most dentists aren’t all that keen to see me either – but I’m old enough now to know that I’m better off for going, so I go. Eventually.

Then there were other errands – a trip to the hardware store, another to the grocery, and finally one to the office supply store so I could replace the gradebook I’ve been using for the last few years. It’s full now – a good sign of employment in these parlous times – and I needed a new one. Eventually, after searching through aisles and aisles of office supplies I found what I was looking for. Same brand. Same style. Even the same color.

But with one key difference.

The old gradebook could accommodate thirty-five students per page. The new one has slots for fifty.

This bothers me, and for more than just the fact that I now have to cram everything into 30% less space and my eyes are not as sharp as they once were. It bothers me because there’s no real savings to the manufacturer to make that change – it probably cost them more in ink, as a matter of fact.

What it says to me is that the general trend in this country over the last decade or so of slashing education in order to fund tax breaks for the already wealthy – of shortchanging our future in order to plunder the present for the benefit of the few – the natural result of which has been ever-larger classes and ever-smaller educational results, that trend has now become institutionalized in the very products people make to service the educational market.

It’s like when major cereal manufacturers began listing nutritional information in Spanish on the boxes – money talks and zealotry walks, and the whole “English-only” movement died an unmourned death at the hands of Spanish-speaking consumers. When the products you buy conform to the new reality, the new reality is here to stay.

The new reality is bigger classes, fewer dollars for education, and shrinking prospects for the American future.

Not coincidentally, today is the day that recall signatures come in for Governor Teabagger and his cronies, who have slashed over a billion dollars out of Wisconsin's educational system in order to give that money to their wealthy puppetmasters. Having epitomized the crass power-grabbing, money-grubbing, anti-American agenda of the extreme right wing, having assaulted the rights of ordinary American citizens to vote, speak, assemble, and control their own lives, now the reckoning is starting to come due.

Apparently over one million people signed the recall petitions for Governor Teabagger – about double the minimum requirement and as a percentage of the electorate more signatures than any recall in American history. His lead minion in the legislature has also been recalled, with 25% more signatures than required. Indeed, quite a few of Governor Teabaggers cronies, minions and lackeys have been recalled.

Remember how they said they’d be recalling the Democrats too? Not one. Not even a serious attempt at one.

So it’s a historic day here in Wisconsin. I have little doubt that Governor Teabagger and his cronies, minions and lackeys will continue to rig the game, play with the rules, and – as a last resort – blatantly steal the election if they have to. They’ve already done that, so doing it again won’t seem so hard for them.

But perhaps they will fail this time.

In the meantime, school budgets get smaller, class sizes get bigger, and manufacturers adjust their products to fit the new reality.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Kickin' It Old School on the Slopes

I took the girls to Mel Allen Hill (“Ooooh! That’s gotta hurt!”) this weekend, so they could try out their new sleds.

They are snazzy sleds – bright red surfboards made of some kind of indestructible foam that will likely remain inviolate in a landfill until the sun goes supernova and life on earth no longer has to worry about recycling, and coated with a slick sort of plastic on the bottom that in theory provides a zero-friction surface for you to skim across the snow.

If there is any snow.

We got our first measurable snowfall of the season last week here in Baja Canada – seven inches of fluffy powder – and the pent-up demand for winter sports unleashed itself all over Mel Allen Hill with a white-hot fury, such that by the time Tabitha, Grace and I arrived on Saturday the snow on the top five feet of the hill had been worn down to the grass. When Lauren and I got there on Sunday it was the top fifteen feet and we had to move over to a different area of the hill. Not that this stopped anyone.

As an adult, mostly your job is to stand around at the top of the hill and give pushes to recalcitrant sleds (or, on the other side, put your foot down on overeager sleds so that children actually have a chance to climb on before they go skittering down the hill). It does leave a fair amount of time for conversation and observation.

Ooooh! That’s gotta hurt!

I ended up talking with one particular dad for a while. I never did find out his name, though I now know where he works, where he went to graduate school (same place I did, and at the same time), and a host of other details. Somehow the name never came up. It’s a guy thing.

What started our conversation was the fact that his son had an actual sled. Not a foam surfboard. Not an inflatable life raft. Not a snowboard. A sled, with wooden slats, metal runners and a rudimentary steering mechanism that provides just enough of the illusion of control that you can get yourself into genuinely disastrous situations with confidence and pride.

A real sled, like the ones of my youth.

When I was a kid the neighborhood gang used to drag those sleds about half a mile or so to the park, where we would stare down the enticingly named “Suicide Hill.”

Suicide Hill descended steeply for about forty yards or so before flattening out and then sending you flying across the gap between the two concrete shuffleboard courts that ran perpendicular to your route like a ramp. Once you landed you had about 15 feet where you could either stop or make a hard right turn – continuing in a straight line or turning left dumped you into the creek.

Good times.

You had to know how to make those sleds do what you wanted them to do, or at least think you could. A foam surfboard or inflatable life raft would probably not have worked very well.

The kid yesterday didn’t know how to operate that sled. We oldsters had to show him where to slot the rope so it wouldn’t interfere with the runners, how to use the steering, even how to brake with his toes off the back end. I’ll bet he didn’t even have the runners waxed.

Kids these days.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Five Ages of American Politics: A Long Explanation of Why Our Politics Are So Dysfunctional Today

It all starts with the Depression.

Everything in American politics since 1920 either leads up to or follows directly from the Great Depression. If you learn nothing else in your history classes, learn about the Great Depression of the 1930s. It will be the single most useful thing you can do for understanding how the political world of today is set up.

If you want to know why American politics in the early 21st century is so dysfunctional, you need to know how it got this way. And that’s a long story.

American politics has gone through five great ages, as far as I can tell. These are defined by the character of the issues that were most important to them. It’s not that the other issues go away when you shift to another era, but the emphasis changes.

From the beginnings of colonization in the early 1600s through the end of the Glorious Revolution in 1689 and its aftermath in the 1690s, politics in what would become the United States was centered on religion – which, for all practical purposes, was defined as Protestant Christianity. What is the proper relationship of the state with the church? How should this relationship be codified? How should states with differing visions attempt to relate to one another?

The problem with basing your politics on religion is two-fold. First of all, as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, pointed out in so many words in the 1630s, when you mix politics and religion, you get politics. This degrades both sides. And second, religion is not an area that most people are willing to compromise about, so if you base your politics on religion you had best be prepared for war – and a particularly brutal and eliminationist kind of war, too. The seventeenth century was full of this kind of warfare. The Thirty Years’ War, for example – a brutal conflict between Protestants and Catholics over whose version of the Prince of Peace was superior – devastated central Europe and killed more Europeans than any war would do until World War I. Descriptions of the Thirty Years’ War retain their power to shock even in this jaded century, such was the cruelty and barbarism with which it was conducted.

You want to know why the Founding Fathers refused to allow religion into the Constitution in 1787? Because they were better historians than most modern Americans today and they remembered the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War, that's why.

The seventeenth century was rife with this kind of conflict even if you limit your focus to the Anglo-American world. The colonies were swept into the great political upheavals of the home islands – the English Civil War of the 1640s and 1650s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 – both of which were, at bottom, religious conflicts.

It’s exhausting.

When the Revolutionary Settlement took hold in the 1690s, Britons – colonials and home islanders alike – wanted a less conflict-ridden basis for politics. Religious issues never go away, of course. But the emphasis shifts. And from around the 1690s to the early 1760s, politics in the future United States revolves around property.

Who has property? Who doesn’t? Who is property? (This is the period when slavery becomes a major factor in the colonies.) What does having or not having property give you the right to do? This was a period of increasing economic stratification in the colonies, with the distribution of wealth becoming increasingly skewed toward the top (though nowhere near to the degree it is today) and this was reflected in political thinking. The central issues of politics in the late colonial period all had to do with property.

Property was broadly defined. It mostly meant land, but it could also mean money, chattels, movables, crops, or similar things. The one constant was that property was seen as something tangible – something you could touch. Property determined who could vote and who couldn’t. It determined who could run for office and who couldn’t. In an era that considered the primary purpose of government to be the protection of property (as opposed to defining the proper relationship between God and Man), it made sense to limit participation to those who had something to protect.

Both of the major ideologies of the period – classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism – placed a great deal of stress on property. The scholarly arguments over which dominated when are therefore transparent when it comes to this classification scheme.

But beginning in the 1760s – notably after 1763, when the colonies, flush with English pride at the successful conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, began moving toward revolution and independence – the emphasis on tangible property began to wane and politics began to take a new focus: rights.

Now, rights are just another form of property if you believe John Locke, and most colonists would have agreed with that. So the transition was a fairly easy one. And both classical republicanism and Lockean liberalism also placed a great deal of stress on rights, which made the transition even smoother.

While religion and property remained powerful political forces, the great issues of this period were all about rights. What were they? Who had them? Who didn’t? Which ones? Where was the boundary? Were rights universal or limited? Much of the Revolution was fought over these issues, and the wrangling over setting up new governments in the wake of the Revolution was even more so. By the early 19th century it was generally conceded that protecting rights – not property – was the primary function of government, and since everybody had rights (versus not everyone having property) government became increasingly democratized.

Ultimately this era climaxed with the Civil War and Reconstruction, a period intensely focused on whether blacks had any rights at all and if so how many, and how the answer to these questions affected the rights of whites. It is a sad commentary that abolition only becomes a major force in this country when slavery is seen as a threat to the rights of white people.

After Reconstruction most Americans were exhausted on the question of rights – something labor organizers in the Gilded Age found out the hard way – and from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 through the late 1960s, American politics was focused on money. Who had it? Who didn’t? What happened when you ran out of it? How do you get more of it? How do you prevent the economy from running out of it again?

In a sense this was a return to the politics of property, but in a much more specific way – there was less concern with land or movables and more concern with cold hard cash and the system under which it could be made. Everything from the Gilded Age to the Cold War can be fitted into this rubric.

And from there you transition to our present era, the Politics of Values.

As noted, this transition starts with the Depression.

The Depression shocked people. The most powerful and prosperous industrial economy on earth had shuddered to a halt, and it took the better part of the decade to figure out how to fix it. Supply-side economics do not work in a demand-side economy, something that a great many people have either forgotten today or choose to ignore in the interests of their own enrichment. It took until the Second New Deal for this lesson to be implemented in any real way, and not until World War II was it carried forward with sufficient vigor to restore prosperity.

And when the war ended, American planners were faced with a quandary. How do we keep from returning to the world of the Depression?

The solution they came up with was elegant in its simplicity and utopian in its aims, and is known as the Politics of Growth. The world, they said, did not operate on a Zero-Sum basis. The pie could grow.

A Zero-Sum world is a world with a fixed pie. If you want a bigger slice, somebody else must – by definition – get a smaller one. This is a world of conflict between the haves and the have nots, a world very much like the Great Depression. But in a world defined by the Politics of Growth, the pie is constantly expanding. Thus, everyone will get more pie even if their slice, in percentage terms, stays constant.

Further, you can actually reduce the size of some of the bigger slices in percentage terms, give that extra to those who don’t have anything to call their own, and everybody still ends up with objectively more pie because the whole pie keeps growing. Even if your percentage drops from 25% to 20% in order to give some to the poor, your 20% is still larger than the previous 25% in absolute terms.

So everybody wins. Social conflict is eliminated. All you have to do is keep the pie growing indefinitely, which in the immediate aftermath of WWII – with the US the sole remaining industrial economy not pounded into rubble – seemed an eminently reasonable task.

When you look at the world this way, it seems positively un-American that there would be people left out of the general prosperity. If America is about an ever-growing pie that encompasses all, the idea that there are those on the outside looking in, whose pieces are small or mere crumbs, is unpatriotic.

Thus you get the first phases of the social protest movements of the late 1950s and into the 1960s – the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, the Youth Movement, and so on. They are all founded on the idea that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with American values except that not enough people are included in them in practice – watch how often they cite the Declaration of Independence, for example. And they score some impressive victories.

But eventually it becomes clear to these movements that for all their achievements their larger goals remain elusive, and they radicalize. They start looking for fundamental changes, they start embracing more extreme tactics, and they stop citing the Declaration of Independence. One of the big shifts that they make is to personalize things – “the personal is political,” they say.

Ironically enough, though, while the vast majority of these social protest movements are on the left, it is the right that will adopt that slogan and turn it into an agenda.

By the late 1960s it is clear to the right that basing politics on money is a losing game for them – they have nothing to offer the vast majority of Americans, since by any objective standard the economic policies of the left have made most Americans better off than they would have been otherwise. They need a new platform. A number of conservative politicians – notably Richard Nixon – realized that the idea of the personal as political, the idea that politics could be run as a cultural conflict of values – was that platform.

It takes a long time for this shift to solidify. It begins with the backlash against the social protest movements of the 1960s. It intensifies with the movement of evangelical Protestants into mass politics in the 1970s (what is more personal than faith?). It expands its reach under Reagan in the 1980s, despite the fact that Reagan – a Cold Warrior and an economic right-winger – neither understood nor really sympathized with the social conservative agenda. It crystallized with Pat Robertson’s 1992 declaration of the Culture War live on television. It’s a long time coming.

But beginning in the late 1960s and intensifying through today, the ground underneath American politics shifts from money to “values” – a nebulously defined term but one that stresses cultural positions (including but not limited to religion) over economic or traditionally political ones.

The right mastered this long before the left even knew the ground had shifted. Long after most Americans began to think about politics in terms of values, the left continued to offer an economic vision of politics and to be confused when this was rejected by the very people who would have benefited most from it. When Thomas Frank looked at how people in the new right wing voted and asked “What’s the matter with Kansas?” he realized that the question only made sense if you continued to assume that people defined their interests economically. If so, then the working class and rural voters who put right-wingers in power were clearly cutting their own throats. But if you saw it in cultural terms, then there was nothing the matter with Kansas – they were voting for people whom they felt had their own values.

This shift has had two main consequences for modern American politics.

First, it has made our politics much more extreme, much more confrontational, and much less successful at actually governing the country in any meaningful way. The difference between a 2% tax and a 4% tax is fairly easy to work out if your framework is economic and you assume that politics is the art of compromise and dealmaking. But the difference between, say, pro-choice and anti-abortion is much, much harder to bridge, in part because nobody wants to be seen as compromising their values and in part because it’s not clear what there is to compromise on. There’s no “3%” in that scenario. Thus you end up with a fair amount of people shouting extreme positions at each other, and an utter lack of people discussing practical solutions to actual problems.

Second, it hides economic issues. When the focus is on values issues, people shift what matters to them. They will vote for leaders who claim to have the same values, even if those same leaders are actively undermining the economic position, livelihoods and political rights of those same voters. When economic issues become cultural issues, the dollars and cents fall by the wayside. We have now reached a point where even taxes are now seen as cultural issues – values issues – rather than economic ones. And again, you end up with people shouting extreme positions at each other and nobody discussing practical solutions to actual problems.

This is especially true on the right. They are the ones who engineered this shift. They are the ones who are good at it. And they are the ones who stand to lose the most if it goes away. The left persists on pointing out that the economic ideas proposed by the right are dangerously stupid, that they wouldn’t work even in a perfect world, and that their net effect will be to destroy the economy and political power of the United States both at home and abroad, as if that were the point. It isn’t, not to the right. To the right, it’s about holding the proper values and reality be damned.

You want to know why politics is so screwed up in the United States today?

The story starts with the Depression. It moves through the Politics of Growth to the social protest movements. It slides from there into the Politics of Values, the latest of the five ages of American politics. And where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


We finally got a winter here in Baja Canada. After the extended dance mix version of October that lasted well past Christmas, it is finally snowing here in Our Little Town. Not enough to get off from school, much to Lauren’s dismay, but enough to make it look like a real January.

And of course I’m sick again.

I managed to hold off getting sick on vacation, but almost immediately upon returning my body took a quick look around, recognized its surroundings and the largely vacant slot on the calendar that I had set aside for catching up on all the things I’d blown off in the whirlwind of last semester, and said, “MINE!” And by “MINE!” it meant “FLU!”

There followed a week of aches, pains, internal thermostat deregulation, and a cough strong enough to startle the cat out of its slumbers. Plus I spent several days sounding like the Amityville Horror and had to fight the urge to walk up to complete strangers and say, “Get! … OUT!”

This is harder than it sounds.

But for the last couple of days I had been feeling better. I’ve been working on my classes for next semester, knocking items left and right off my To-Do list, and even reading things that I don’t need to remember for any constructive purpose, just because I could focus again.

And then today? “MINE!”

I regard this as greedy on the part of my body, especially since the snowblower also chose today to begin emitting a high-pitched grinding sound that even I could recognize as unhealthy. Fortunately the snow is powdery and can be shoved aside with one hand on the shovel. But still.

So I am back to my tea, my books and my bed. I am stuffed to the gills with drugs and growing moldy from the humidifier next to my bed.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Doorknobs and Broomsticks

Sometimes I think that whoever built my house was just having one on.

When we did our window project a couple of years ago, for example, we discovered that our window frames were about a quarter inch narrower than what has been the industry standard since roughly the Civil War, and that the insides were lined with all kinds of fancy molding that made measuring for the new windows a chore even for my neighbor, a certified union carpenter who did that sort of thing for a living.

Today I am working through my to-do list, which is rather disturbing in its length and breadth, and I decided that I would take a small break from the various projects that involved sitting in my chair and tapping away at my keyboard. There are a few household tasks to be done.

Ordinarily I don’t really get into such projects, since my Mr. Goodwrench gene contains the “Reverse King Midas” mutation that makes me a danger to myself and others when in control of any tool more complicated than a Philips screwdriver.

But how hard could it be to replace an interior doorknob? Really, how hard?

This is why I don’t go to horror movies either, by the way. Split up and check out that noise in the basement? Sure! Why not? How bad could it get?

The first task was to remove the old doorknob, preferably without destroying the door or anything nearby. There appeared to be two screws holding the plate to the side of the door, and if experience is any guide once those were removed the plate should come off. Hell, if I had been the one to put it on, the merest tap on those screws would have been enough to send the plate ricocheting around the room until it lodged in something softer such as the drywall or my leg.

Unfortunately, I was not the guy who installed that plate. Even without the screws, it took the better part of forty minutes, two screwdrivers and a hammer to remove the plate. I hope the military found that guy and made him design tanks for them.

Solving the code for removing the rest of the doorknob was somewhat faster once I figured out that there was a 1.5mm-wide button hidden on the shaft of the outside knob that needed to be pressed in while I pulled on the knob itself. After that there was indeed some ricocheting, so I felt things were moving along smartly.

Then I tried to install the new one.

I started by examining the instructions that came with it, but these were printed in 3-point font and appeared to have been written by baboons. They made no sense in several different languages, and the illustrations were obviously clipped from combat scenes in cut-rate manga novels. I gave that tactic up as a bad cause.

So I stared at the pieces of the doorknob and just started trying to fit them into the slots. The horizontal bit went in quite well. The outside knob seemed okay. And then I tried the inside knob.

This is where I discovered that the interior screws for the industry-standard new doorknob are set exactly 1/8” too wide for the hole where the old doorknob used to be.

So I’m not entirely sure what to do now. I could put the old one back on, but that doesn’t solve the original problem. I could try to widen the hole somehow, but that would mean purchasing and understanding new tools, which would likely involve bloodshed. I could see if there are narrower doorknobs for sale, which would mean going to one of those home improvement stores that exist for the sole purpose of making me feel like a failure even before I make it to the cash register.

Or I could go back in time and tell the guy who built this house to lay off the whiskey and use standard-sized parts.

It would probably be simpler.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Scenes From Our Trip Out East - Part 3: New York City

When we woke up on Friday, December 30, our task was to get from Trish’s house in north Jersey into New York City by noon.

This is not always as easy as it would seem, since if New York City achieved statehood it would instantly become the twelfth most populous state in the union and all within an area less than half the size of Rhode Island and about two thirds of the size of the county in which Our Little Town resides. Add in the fact that much of it is accessible only by bridge or tunnel, that it was the day before New Year’s Eve (the biggest New-York-City-centric holiday of the year), and that traffic in that city is a curious mixture of ruthless locals and bewildered visitors – in astonishing numbers – in the best of times, and it could have turned into a nightmare.

But it worked.

That is the amazing thing about this whole trip. Everything worked. There were things we didn’t get to try and people we didn’t get to see, time being limited and all that, but everything we actually attempted worked. We got where we wanted to go. We saw everyone whom we could reasonably shoehorn into our schedule. And we made it into New York City with time to spare.

This was important, because the big extravagance this trip out – our big Christmas present to ourselves – was tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway.

We had taken the girls to see Wicked when it came to Wisconsin in 2010 and they loved it. And both Kim and I have done a fair amount of theater on our own. Add in the fact that Keith, Lori, Josh and Sara actually live in Manhattan, and when Lori suggested that we all go in on tickets for the lot of us, we were in.

We unpacked our stuff all over their efficient New York apartment and even had time for lunch before heading out to the street to catch a couple of cabs down to the theater district.

Remember how I said that it was nearly New Year’s Eve? Keep that in mind.

It took a while to get two cabs to stop for us, since it seemed a significant chunk of the population was interested in heading to that exact place themselves and were coming from further uptown than we were, but eventually two did stop. The ladies left in the first one, and then the boys got the second, piloted by the chattiest cabbie in New York. He kept us entertained until almost two thirds of the way to the theater, at which point traffic congealed and it became apparent to everyone that getting out and walking would be faster.

We managed to find the ladies at the theater entrance. They had independently come to the same conclusion that we had, and had somehow managed to follow Lewis Black for most of their subsequent walk. We made our way up to our seats with – what? – minutes to spare.

The show was magnificent, as you would expect it to be. Most of the songs are familiar to anyone who has had to sit through the movie the sixty or eighty times that those of us with children under the age of 15 are required by law to do. The actors are top notch – it’s a lot of puppetry, and while I never did block out the actors entirely I thoroughly enjoyed watching them work those puppets. It’s a small stage but with a lot of vertical space and they used every bit of it. And my own interest in the lighting was greatly satisfied. We had a great time, and the kids did too.

And then the best part of all kicked in.

You see, Lori has a friend who is in one of the touring companies of The Lion King. And this friend has a friend who was there in front of us, in the Broadway company. Thus we found ourselves after the show, waiting at the backstage entrance for a tour.

There were a couple of other similarly fortunate groups waiting for other actors as well, which oddly enough made me feel better about the whole thing. It’s kind of nice to know that they do this sort of thing enough to have a set procedure for it.

James Brown-Orleans plays Banzai (the non-insane male hyena), and from what I could tell he is an absolute prince of a man. He spent the better part of an hour with us – far longer than I ever thought he would – and gave us an amazing tour. He is someone who clearly loves his job.

He took us all through the backstage areas, patiently explaining the costumes and puppets and how they work as well as pointing out the sound and lighting areas. All of the theaters I’ve worked in during my lifetime? This is what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Then he took us onstage, so we could look out into audience and see our seats from the other side. We asked about how the stage worked and he pointed out all of the neat features that made it do all of the things it did – they make the stage very uneven, though, so the dancing and running about that happens during the show is just that much more impressive.

And then he took out part of his own costume, showed us how it worked, and said, “Who wants to try it on?”

Oh. Dear.

For a theater nerd – even a backstage one like me – that was an experience I’ll not forget, there onstage.

So you can imagine that we were in high spirits when we left. And since we had a while before dinner, we headed over to Times Square, where apparently the New Year’s crowd had already begun to form. There were more people in that square than in all of Our Little Town, by whole number multiples, and it was fun just to watch them go by.

There was even a giant billboard across the street from us that was hooked up to a camera, so we could see ourselves waving. Yes, it’s a touristy thing to do, but you know what? We were tourists. Deal with it.

It was even warm enough that we didn’t feel too bad for the Naked Cowboy in his tighty-whiteys, though Keith said that it wasn’t the real Naked Cowboy, just one of his imitators. Only in New York would there be enough men strolling through the streets in jockey shorts and boots, playing guitar, that you would need to make such distinctions.

Eventually we navigated our way through the crowd to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations, and there we met up with the Uncles Chris. We had a grand time catching up with them, and after dinner we all decided to walk back to Keith and Lori’s apartment.

This entailed a stop at 30 Rock, where Keith works. He led us through the building and pointed out what has now become Lauren’s favorite spot in New York. If you go through the ground floor of 30 Rock and look up at the ceiling, you will see all sorts of classical figures on the ceiling, including one massive gentleman with his legs spread apart in a fighting stance. Apparently, “meet me under the crotch” (or “UTC”) is a catch phrase there, and this tickled Lauren no end.

We also got to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza.

Eventually, though, people got tired of fording their way through the crowds and we took a couple of taxis back to the apartment and hung out for a while. It was a grand day.

The next morning Kim and I left the girls with their cousins and had breakfast with Nathan. Nathan is one of the UCF, and I had not expected to be able to connect with any of them on this trip so I was glad when it worked out to be possible after all.

It’s rather odd to meet someone face to face after having gotten to know them a bit online. All of the sudden there’s a person there instead of just words on a screen. But good food and good conversation make for good times in any medium, even reality. Now there’s only a dozen or so more UCFers to meet!

After some grocery runs to stock up for the New Year’s Eve festivities, we headed off toward Lincoln Center to meet up with Ellen and Rob and their boys. We found a restaurant that would seat us (no small feat even at 3pm on New Year’s Eve) and spent the next few hours annoying the waitress with incessant demands for more food while we chatted and caught up.

After enough of that we decided that motion would be a good idea, so we took a walk around Lincoln Center, pausing now and then to hiss at the Koch Brothers Building but otherwise in high spirits.

Eventually they went back home and we returned to Keith and Lori’s for our Rockin’ New Year’s Eve festival, which essentially boiled down to setting out far more snacks than we could possibly consume and hanging out. We watched the festivities on Times Square and tried to recognize any of the celebrities they’d roped into performing (“Who’s that?” “It says his name is Bullfrog.” “Never heard of him. And get off my lawn.”) The kids went to bed, except for Tabitha, whose birthday it was and therefore we let her stay up and see how little she’s been missing all these years by going to bed early. We pried the younger kids up just before midnight to watch the ball drop down in Times Square and be glad that we were not standing in that crowd. And then we went to bed too.

It was a fine New Year’s Eve.

Bright and early on New Year’s Day – with all of New York either hung over or dead – we had no trouble getting on our way. Traffic was light. The bridges were clear. We zipped across northern New Jersey – which is actually very pretty country once you get out of the I-95 corridor – and cruised into Pennsylvania, where we found the politest road sign in America. “Heavy traffic at Exit 299,” it said. “Consider Exit 298.”

When the snow got too blinding to drive through comfortably we stopped at the same Ohio Days Inn where the girls and I had stayed in August. It hadn't changed.

The next day we slogged our way through several hundred miles of lake effect snow until we finally found our way to Our Little Town.

It’s good to travel. It’s good to be home.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Books Read in 2011 - Part 4

And so it ends, as it began, with me deep in a book.

As it should be.


The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski (Oliver Benjamin & Dwayne Eutsey)

As an ordained minister in the Church of the Latter Day Dude (which, I have discovered, entitles me to perform legal wedding ceremonies here in the State of Wisconsin – and at reasonable rates, I might add) I thought it would be interesting to see what the founders of the LDD church would say about their creation. I was wrong. This book is what happens when you string out a 10-page essay to book length and then try to make it folksy by introducing random misspelled words designed to make it sound like the reader were listening to a semi-literate hillbilly. There are also far too many almost-clever puns on the word “Dude” for anyone to stomach without serious hallucinogens. These guys can write – there are long stretches of correctly spelled, grammatical sentences – but when everything has to convert an amusing movie into a Statement About Life, it gets thin.

The Crowfield Curse (Pat Walsh)

This is a YA book and, from all evidence, probably the first of a series. William is a lay brother at an English monastery in the year 1347. An orphan, he was taken in by the brothers as cheap labor and he earns his keep doing whatever is asked of him. Out gathering firewood one day he runs across an injured hob – a fay, whom only those with the Sight can see. He brings this hob back to the monastery where it can be cared for, and from there the realms of the fay and humanity slowly collide – the focal point being a dead angel supposedly buried not far from the monks and whose secret they are asked to guard. When mysterious visitors arrive, all of the strands of the story more or less converge (there are a few gaps) and – as in all YA novels – the protagonist is asked to come of age. A light read, but a fun one.

Snuff (Terry Pratchett)

Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is perhaps Pratchett’s most well-developed character and, one suspects, something of a stand-in for the person Pratchett would most like to be. Humane, mostly honest, tolerant, nobody’s fool and a terrible enemy to have, Vimes is the moral heart of the Discworld series, a series that makes you think as well as laugh. Here Vimes is on holiday in the country, a place he regards as a special form of hell. But crimes – big crimes – are afoot, and Duke though he may now be Vimes will always be a “copper” at heart. It is astonishing that Pratchett can still write books like this, given his health.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)

Hugo Cabret is an orphan living inside the walls of a vast train station in France. He maintains the station’s clocks, unbeknownst to the commuters and workers there, and his prized possession is an automaton he rescued from the fire that killed his father. That automaton will lead him on the adventure of his life, an adventure filled with early French cinema. The book is told partly in words and partly in atmospheric black and white charcoal drawings. I’m glad they’re finally making a movie of this most cinematic of books.

Bible Stories for Adults (James Morrow)

James Morrow is an angry man, at least if his writings are to be trusted in that regard. His stories brim with outrage at the cruelties that humans inflict on one another in the name of pride, patriotism and religion, and they can be bruising, heartbreaking things to read. This is a collection of short stories, many of which have an explicitly Biblical theme while others are related only stylistically. My personal favorite was “Diary of a Mad Deity,” in which the title character is never actually identified as a god but is certainly mad in an original way. Morrow’s retelling of the story of Job is also fascinating.

Unfamiliar Fishes (Sarah Vowell)

I first ran into Sarah Vowell’s writing when I heard her on This American Life describing scenes from her childhood. Her mordant humor is an acquired taste, but I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything she’s published. This book was no different, though it was a bit plodding at times. Vowell sets out to tell the story of how Hawaii became missionized and then Americanized in the decades leading up to its forcible – and questionably legal – annexation into the United States. This is clearly an outgrowth of her earlier book, The Wordy Shipmates, which focused on the Puritans of New England who would, two centuries later, supply the missionaries that would undo Hawaiian culture. This is an angrier book than most of Vowell’s work, but in a gentle and bittersweet sort of way.

Little People (Tom Holt)

It’s astonishing how comedies can be so heartbreakingly sad. When Michael was eight he saw an elf, but nobody ever believed him except his Daddy George (who knew very well it was real because he’d kidnapped it to be there) and his one true love, an obnoxious girl named Cruella who is a teenager when we meet her. And every time Michael falls into Elfland or gets himself into some other related pickle Cru is there at the end, in a Chekhovian display of missed connections and love that doesn’t work out. Holt puts his characters through hell, in an amusing sort of way, and their redemption is almost always almost accomplished. There are some real laughs in here, but a more bittersweet book would be hard to find.

One Minute To Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (Michael Dobbs)

If you ever want to sleep peacefully at night again, you should probably skip this book. Dobbs has gone through any number of archives and interviews never before accessed by scholars and here provides perhaps the most definitive account to date of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, an event that brought the world closer to full-scale nuclear war than any other crisis of the Cold War. In this minute-by-minute account stretching from Moscow to Havana to Washington DC to Alaska, Dobbs details just how close a thing it was. If you wargame this event – start at the beginning, run through to the end, repeat, repeat, repeat – there are very, very few scenarios that end up with all of us still here today.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

I started reading this book because of a discussion I got into with some friends of mine regarding the proper methods and goals of translations, with this book as Exhibit A. Kim also read it earlier and – being fluent in Swedish – she had remarked that it was a great story but that the translation was at times creakily literal and she could hear the Swedish underneath. Not speaking Swedish myself, I didn’t get that part of it. But the strength of this book was definitely the story rather than the language, and I suspect the translation is at least partly at fault. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has just lost a major libel case when the story opens. Out of the blue he is hired by an aging industrialist to solve the mystery of a decades old murder, and in good investigative journalist fashion the story gets far more complex than it first appears. Two things are striking. First, the pronounced Swedishness of the story – things happen here in passing that would definitely not happen in an American book. And second, the character of Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating one. I can see why these books are so popular.

Nocturnes (John Connolly)

Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first detective story. He also specialized in tales of the supernatural and the macabre. John Connolly is one of the few writers who seems to follow in both of Poe’s footsteps with each story he writes. This is a collection of short stories, all of them with supernatural elements and many with detective stories around them. They’re not deep, but they read well.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson)

It’s a year or so after the events of the last book featuring Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, and things are going well for both in their separate ways. Salander has money and has been traveling around the world. Blomkvist is back being the crusading journalist he has always been. But when two of his colleagues about to publish a searing expose of the sex trade industry are brutally murdered, Salander becomes the prime suspect. And from there it is a breathless race to the finish, with twists, turns, brutality, heroism, betrayal and not a little plain weirdness. Although it was better translated than the first book.

Blue and Gold (KJ Parker)

This novella is probably Parker’s lightest work yet, though even so it deals with betrayal, murder and intrigue. It is the first-person narrative of an alchemist – a self-admitted rogue with a tenuous relationship to truth and a deep desire to be somewhere other than where he is. His voice is droll and often morbidly funny – a rarity in Parker’s work – but ultimately the story is as bleak as most of what Parker writes, though in perhaps a less disastrous way than usual.

Rascal (Sterling North)

This is another book that Lauren and I worked our way through at bedtime – the story of a boy and a raccoon, and the year they spent together in a town not all that far from Our Little Town (which made Lauren happy, hearing the familiar landmarks). What impressed me more than anything else was how much freedom an 11-year-old boy had in the Wisconsin of 1918 to wander and live unsupervised, and how many things that he took for granted I know about only because I’m a professional historian and had to explain them to Lauren. The book is a classic for good reason, and it is a shame that so few people read it anymore.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson)

More or less immediately following the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is in the hospital, Blomkvist is working to figure out the train of events that has led to this point, and seemingly every police agency and government bureaucracy in Sweden is either about to get sucked into the story or already there. Larsson keeps a lot of balls in the air with this story and doesn’t go for the easy solutions or cliched setups. Brutally compelling, this series highlights how much of a loss to the world of fiction Larsson’s early death was.

“There Are Things I Want You To Know” About Stieg Larsson and Me (Eva Gabrielsson)

I suppose there is only so much one can expect from a Swedish book translated into English via French, and good writing is not on that list. This book was a chore to read, and only the fact that I was interested in the subject and the chapters were very short kept me moving forward. Gabrielsson was Larsson’s sambo – short for samman boende or sam boende, a word that has no real equivalent in English, but translates more or less as “cohabiting partner without marriage.” Charles Osgood once wrote a poem using the equivalent US Census term, POSSLQ (Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters). When Larsson died, Gabrielsson and his family got into a pitched battle over the literary rights to his estate, and this book is essentially her saying, over and over and over and over, “I deserve them, not his brother and father.” I cannot even begin to say whether she is right or not, but the book is such a self-serving whinge that it sheds little light on the subject.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Colin Woodard)

I’ve loved books like this ever since I read Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America back in the 80s, a book Woodard namechecks. Woodard makes the argument that the political borders of North America – particularly those of the US – are essentially useless as far as understanding either its history or its current politics. Instead, he offers a set of cultural regions, each with its own political, cultural and economic priorities, and each with its own agenda, allies and history. These are Yankeedom, New France, New Netherlands, the Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, El Norte, the Far West, the Left Coast, and – confined to what is now Canada – First Nation. Woodard does a nice job of showing how each of these regions began, evolved, and influenced history, and his regional take on both the Revolution and the Civil War was fascinating. He often overstates his argument, in a “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” sort of way, particularly when he drifts into arguing that the regions thought self-consciously about the regional nature of their actions, and there are a distracting number of simple factual errors sprinkled throughout the book, but even so – it’s a book that provides a new way of looking at American history and culture, and even with its flaws it gives the reader a lot to think about. The county-by-county map on the frontispiece is particularly interesting.

Burn Down the Sky (James Jaros)

This is why I should never take the girls to the library – I just pick up random books and end up checking them out. Post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have moved on from nuclear war to climate change, and this is a good example. In what was once the United States, some decades after it collapsed from severe climate change and the effects of a virus that renders sex with any woman more than one year removed from her first period deadly, marauders attack a refugee camp, killing most and kidnapping several young girls for a religious cult. What follows is a tale of revenge and violence that moves along smartly enough to make you forget the rather clunky writing.

How Private Geo. W. Peck Put Down the Rebellion, or the Funny Experiences of a Raw Recruit (George W Peck)

George W Peck was, according to historian Robert Nesbit, one of the few intentionally humorous governors of Wisconsin. He was also a Civil War veteran who spent much of the post war period as a humorist and lecturer, working the same crowds that Mark Twain appeared before. The book was originally published in 1887 and was apparently a collection of a weekly serial that gathered together his lectures in one place, and it follows the lighter side of the Civil War as seen by one hapless cavalry private. It's a study in the long rolling cadences of 19th-century humor and it can be very funny - Peck portrays himself as an overconfident innocent who thinks he's sharper than he is - but you do need to have a tolerance for the times. The book is full of the brutally casual racism of the day and by any 21st-century standard is phenomenally offensive that way. Mostly, though, Peck manages to find the humane side of the Civil War and his opponents, and if you can grant Peck his 19th-century context it is a book worth reading.

Total books: 77
Total pages: 29,391
Pages/day: 80.5

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Scenes From Our Trip Out East - Part 2: Visitations

The last time we had an East Coast Christmas we went to my aunt and uncle’s house in Chattanooga. We had a grand time, it must be said, but the problem with going to new places for the holidays is that you didn’t grow up there and thus don’t get to catch up to any non-family friends. This time we were back in my old neighborhood and still didn’t manage to see all or even most of the people we would have like to have seen, but at least we made a start at it.

But first, there was: The Hotel Pool.

If you’ve never traveled with children, you really don’t understand the allure of The Hotel Pool. At least you don’t if you’ve never traveled with my children. Tabitha and Lauren have been on the road since they were babies, and as far as they are concerned hotels are just pools with attached bedrooms. The idea of a hotel without a pool strikes them as an absurd waste of space and building materials.

So when the housing worked out this year that their cousins would be staying at a nearby hotel rather than trying to squeeze in with Grammy and Grandpop (and their cats) or bunking in with Aunt Lori’s parents, well. It was like Christmas in December. Right after Christmas. In December. Odd how that worked out.

It would have been perfect except for one thing: the pool is apparently only heated at night.

When Keith and Lori checked it out the night before, it seemed happily bathlike. But when we showed up the morning after Christmas, it was essentially an outdoor pool that had mysteriously been moved indoors. Not that this prevented the cousins from swimming, really. It just kept the timing a bit shorter than it might otherwise have been.

We returned to my parents’ house, and after a lunch of cheesesteaks Jenny and her boys – Koji and Kei – came over and we all went over to our local lanes for an afternoon of bowling.

Bowling is an underrated activity, I think. First of all, it is an activity rather than a sport, which means you can perform it perfectly well while consuming beverages and snacks and socializing with the people around you. Second, and more importantly, you get to throw heavy objects at things to try to knock them down, and not only does nobody yell at you for doing so, they actually reward you for it. And then they set them back up and give you back the ball so you can do it again. Seriously – why doesn’t everyone do this all the time? It’s amazingly therapeutic, depending on who you imagine the pins to be.

Actually, I know why people don’t do it all the time. It’s because we’re old and not used to torquing our bodies that way anymore and we wake up the next day with a whole new assortment of aches and pains that point out entirely novel areas of our bodies whose purpose seems undefined except to hurt after going bowling. But if we went bowling more often, then we would be used to it and wouldn’t have those aches and pains, which brings me back to my original point.

Bowling. It does a body good. At least if you don’t think too hard about the specific snacks you’ve consumed.

That night we had a concentration of birthday celebrations and the traditional ravioli that goes along with such things. It was a fine evening.

Of course, the kids get easily bored with the adults’ insistence on sitting around the table and talking, so they crept off into the living room shortly after dinner. And what did they do? With an entire house to run around in and a set of cousins who hadn’t seen each other since August, what did they do? They set themselves up on their various electronic gizmos and gadgets and sat there, nearly touching, texting each other. Welcome to the 21st century, folks! Batteries not included.

The next day Matt and Nell came over, which meant that we got to meet their two girls – Molly and Nora – for the first time.

It’s amazing how quickly you forget the energy levels of small children. Molly and Nora are good kids – fun to hang around with, well behaved, and cute as all get out – but watching them move about was just exhausting. I can’t believe that Tabitha and Lauren were ever that active, and yet they were. Don’t even get me started on me. I could not possibly have ever been that active. Not even in my dreams.

A day later we decided to take the girls to the Franklin Institute.

If you’ve never been to the Franklin Institute, you should go. It’s four floors of sciency goodness, much of which is hands-on. When I was a kid my dad’s company would give him passes for the week after Christmas so we’d always go down to see the place, along with every other school-aged child and their parents in the greater Philadelphia area. So the crowds that we encountered on this trip – there had to be four bezillion people in that museum – felt like old times. I’m not sure I’d know what to do in the Franklin Institute if it weren’t packed to the gills with people.

The highlight for me was the giant walk-through heart. It’s not a trip to the Franklin Institute unless you go through the heart, which has been there since I was a kid. It’s about 15 feet high and you follow this narrow, winding path through it as if you were a blood cell, and all the while it thump-thumps at you like an Edgar Allen Poe story. It’s a classic.

But there were other things as well. We spent some time at the dinosaur exhibit that is up there now, and there was a CSI exhibit that might have been fun at half the crowd level. We hit the planetarium, the new and improved cafeteria, and a raft of exhibits that we could play on, jump around, or otherwise bounce off of. One room had a floor that was set on springs, and if people would jump on it enough the bouncing would charge a giant capacitor overhead until it finally released all its energy in one prolonged and noisy ZAP (and wasn’t that a surprise the first time that thing went off, yes it was).

There was also a wall of red lights with antennae that could pick up cell phone signals, so if you took your phone over to it and made a call or logged into a website it would make the lights flash brightly in patterns. That was cool.

But eventually all things must come to an end, and so we packed up our stuff into the car, bid Grammy and Grandpop adieu, and headed off into the wilds of New Jersey to visit a couple more friends.

First we stopped in to see Jack and Laura.

Jack was my roommate through most of college. He has recently accepted a temporary deanship at the university where he teaches, a lesson in the dangers of asking if there is anything one can do to help out in a crisis, so he and Kim actually had a lot to commiserate about. We had a very nice lunch and caught up a bit, and then it was back on the road to visit Trish and her family.

When we got there we found not only Trish, Joel and their three kids, but Trish’s nephew and niece as well. Add in our kids and you’ve got a party! A loud party, with an astonishing amount of motion and energy. How did we ever get this old?

The next morning we headed off into New York City, there to have Adventures.