Sunday, March 31, 2013

Doctor Whovey, You Were Absolutely Right

It has been Spring Break for the girls this past week, which has been kind of sub-optimal since Home Campus and its related institutions had their Spring Break the week before.  Once in a while they coincide, and my don’t we have fun then.

But we try to have fun anyway.

For example, last weekend we decided to go up to one of the Temples of Excess right up the interstate from us.  There is an entire town in Wisconsin dedicated to the proposition that water is infinite and if properly channeled into things like slides, lazy rivers and wave pools it can be insanely profitable.  Whatever one thinks of the former proposition, the truth of the latter is self-evident.

We left on Friday afternoon – the hotel rates tripled on Saturday – and spent a pleasant evening and morning in the waterpark.  I was hobbled by a spring cold of some kind, but the girls are old enough to hare off on their own now.  Lauren did convince me to go with her into the hot tub area, which actually felt good to my achy old muscles.  Plus, if you ducked through the hanging plastic curtain you could go outside and stay in the nice hot water while looking through the steam at the snow all across the ground.

But mostly we have stayed home, as one would imagine given that Kim and I were back at work all week.  There was a group sleepover Thursday night and we hit the soft-ice cream joint a couple of times during the week, and life was good.

Our main mission this past week, however, was to catch up on our viewing of classic culture, which boiled down to Monty Python’s Life of Brian and an attempt to view all 86 episodes of the most recent Doctor Who series, in order.

You have your classic culture.  We have ours.

I had never seen an episode of Doctor Who before.  I’d never felt I needed to, as – much like Monty Python’s Holy Grail – I had had friends quote it to me verbatim for much of my life and therefore I considered myself fully acquainted.  Plus, every time anyone mentions Doctor Who I get mental images of the Grinch.  But they’re all free on Netflix now, so Kim arranged some family time and we all sat down to see.

They’re not bad.  The action is entertaining, the dialogue is fairly snappy, and once in a while they sneak an idea or two worth remembering into the script, which is all you can ask for in a television show I think.  Although I do wish that the blustery chap would stop standing between Billie Piper and the camera as much as he does.  That should be a finable offense.

So far we have seen London menaced by a plastic blob, the end of the Earth (which, Douglas Adams fan that I am, I kind of wished had been viewed from a restaurant rather than a space station), Charles Dickens as a rather oddball caricature, a two-episode sequence about London being menaced by things that were rather unlike plastic blobs but which might simply have been the blobs evolved into a more talon-rich form, and an episode centered around a crass American (who knew?).

We go upstairs for bedtime reading after these episodes – a little Tiffany Aching goes a long way toward resolving the creepies left by all those Doctor Who visuals.  Doctor Who does not shy away from body counts and weirdity.

Life of Brian was kind of a disappointment, to be honest.

It had been decades since the last time I saw it, and I remembered it as being a lot better than it was – it simply has not aged as well as Holy Grail.  Oh, there’s all the classic bits that you love to quote at people: the grammarian centurion and the graffiti wall, the extended sequences with Pontius Pilate’s speech impediment, and (my personal favorite), the part where Brian tries to tell the crowd that they are individuals, and so on.  But unless you remember the endless posturing and pointless splintering of revolutionary movements in the 1970s a lot of the humor is going to pass right by you, and there is an awful lot of shouting that gets tiresome very quickly.  Not much of the dialogue is actually spoken at normal volumes in this film.

It also would help to have gone to church rather more than we’ve been doing of late.

But it was still funny – the humor is broad enough to appeal to everyone here, and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” retains its power.  There was a radio station in Philadelphia back in the 80s that would broadcast that song every day, promptly at 10am.  It is part of the soundtrack of my youth, which probably explains a lot come to think of it.

So it has been a productive break for the girls, I think.  Soon they will be fully conversant with nerd culture in all of its many manifestations, and we can congratulate ourselves on a parenting job well done.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A New Lease on Our Lives

So now apparently I’m some kind of financial genius.  Who knew?

Note that “some kind” covers a lot of ground, not all of it the sort of terrain that would inspire others to trust me with their money.  But there you have it.

When we bought our home in 1996 the best mortgage we could get was an adjustable rate that started at 7.5% and went up from there.  We locked it in at the first available opportunity – 8% - and just dealt with it.

In 2003 we refinanced.  It took the interest rate down to 5.5%, which meant that for the same payment each month we could cash out enough money to pay for a new roof and some other much needed but smaller repairs (do you know how hard it is to find flashing in just that shade of maroon?  What were the previous owners thinking?).  We felt clever.

One of the benefits of our crashing economy these days is that it seems to have driven interest rates down even further.  Every few months for the last several years we have received Fabulous New Offers of financial assistance!  Look at these rates!  Think of the money!  Think of the children! 

Mostly I ignored them.  We were doing fine with the arrangement we had, and since I am a natural rut-seeker and my general approach to finances is “try to spend less than you earn,” that seemed sufficient.

But Kim is an optimizer.  Nothing is ever “good enough.”  Things always can be better, faster, more efficient, more powerful, more … whatever.  This goes for work-related issues.  It goes for home-related issues.  I try not to think about how it applies to me personally.  And it certainly applies to finances.  At some point soon, for example, we will no doubt be switching banks to get away from our newly taken-over megabank and toward something that might conceivably be happy with handling our money without suctioning it all away in random fees.  This will no doubt be a better situation, but one that grates on my rut-seeking tendencies.

So when our mortgage company sent us a new offer – no points, no closing costs, about 1/3 less interest – we had to look into it.

Or, rather, I had to look into it. 

Because the irony of our lives is that while Kim is the optimizer and the one who has an actual clue about finances, I am the one with the more flexible schedule and the time to make those phone calls.  This general set-up often leads to a lot of asynchronous ventriloquism (“What should I say when I call?”) but this time it seemed to work.

I ended up speaking to a pleasant guy at the mortgage company who went through all of the options.  We settled on a 15-year fixed rate mortgage that would leave our current payments roughly unchanged, which meant that a) I didn’t have to rejigger any of my monthly budgeting, and b) since we usually try to chip in extra principal every month, if we continued to do that at the same rate we’ve been doing we’d be paid off in a bit under eight years, or roughly the time that our children would be hitting college and we would be needing a new mortgage.


From there I got shifted over to another pleasant guy somewhere in the deep South who guided me through the process.  It took me a while to figure out where they were making their money off the deal – of course they’re making money off this deal; why would they offer it otherwise? – but once that was clear I felt better about it.  I like it when people are up front about their agendas.  Eventually a thick packet arrived in the mail last week for review, notarization and signatures.  We sent it back, duly reviewed, signed and notarized.

And now we have a new mortgage.

It is a brave new world.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

How to Make a Palm Cross

I like Palm Sunday because it is the only day in the liturgical calendar where you get toys to play with during the service.

Oh, they look like mere palm fronds, but really – anything you can use for arts and crafts is a toy.

One of the many useless skills I have acquired in my life (along with writing in elvish script, keeping score in Roman numerals, and the ability to run backwards at speed) is knowing how to make a cross out of palm fronds.  Back in the day we used to do that to pass the time during and after Palm Sunday services, and if we were really feeling crafty we’d carefully peel off a long fiber from another frond and turn the whole thing into a necklace.

Of course, once you have these things you’re kind of stuck with them.  They dry up and turn brown and crackly but are you just going to throw them out?  It seems sort of disrespectful.  I suppose you could burn them – that’s what they do with the other leftover palms, after all, in order to get the ashes for Ash Wednesday.  Or is that Maundy Thursday?  Or Maudlin Thursday?  Hard to keep them all straight sometimes.

No, wait, Maudlin Thursday is something completely different and involves rather more wine than your average Communion.  Never mind then.

We went to church today and duly received our fronds.  And then we went to a local bistro where we had a very nice brunch and I spent the time making crosses.

This is how you do it.

First, you need the proper materials.

Select a palm frond that is reasonably flexible and not dried out.  You may want to peel off the stiff edges if they are too rigid, but if they bend well then you don’t have to.

Cut off two more or less equal pieces.  They can be of any length depending on how dexterous you feel, but six to eight inches is a good working length for each piece, especially if you’re just starting out.

Now, you have to lock the pieces together.

Take the two pieces and form them into an “L” with the horizontal piece in front of the vertical piece – if the pieces have a noticeable taper to them, place the wide ends at the join and let them taper out from there.

Fold up from the bottom once.  The bottom piece should now be completely covered at the join by the top piece.

Fold up from the bottom a second time, just as before.

Hold the L so that the horizontal piece extends to the right.  Take the horizontal piece and fold it around to the rear so that it now extends to the left.

Take the horizontal piece and poke it through the gap in the join so that it extends to the right again.  Pull it tight so that it locks.  You should be able to wave the L around without it falling apart at this point.

From here it is just making the cross itself.

Take the horizontal piece and fold it back through the join such that you have a loop on one side and a straight piece about twice that long sticking out of the other side.

Fold the straight piece back to the join.  You have now made the crosspiece of the cross.

Take the vertical piece and fold it down through the join so that it makes a loop at the top about the same size as the other two loops.  Leave the other end straight. 

Now you’ve got your cross.

And you’ve made it nearly a quarter of the way through Palm Sunday services!  Find three more palm fronds and repeat as necessary, until crosses are complete or the service ends, whichever comes first.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

It's Spring, All Evidence to the Contrary Notwithstanding

Yesterday was the first day of spring, officially.  Here in Wisconsin the high temperature was 23 degrees (that’s Fahrenheit, for those of you in, oh, everywhere in the entire world except in the United States – in Celsius that comes to ... something not very spring-like) and there is still a foot of snow on the ground.  We got several more inches of the stuff on Monday, in fact.  We’ve also had gale force winds for most of the week, enough to make driving an interesting proposition on rural roads around here and push the wind-chills down to the point where it really doesn’t matter whether you are measuring it in Fahrenheit, Celsius or sad-faced brass monkeys – it’s just cold.  But still: officially, spring.

Naturally the local walk-up soft ice cream stand is open for business.

Because people in Wisconsin don’t care about the weather, that’s why.  They want their ice cream.  One of my first impressions of this state when I moved here was the ice cream freezers at the local supermarket, which were longer and more fully equipped than some warships.  Unless there is an actual blizzard in progress, people here see no reason why they can’t just pop out for some ice cream at any point in the year.  And even then, they will often try anyway.

I’m not convinced of this – my ice cream consumption totals maybe a quart a year, which is less than the average Wisconsinite licks off their fingers each month – but then I’m not from around here, in so many, many ways, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.  What matters is what my children think.  And they were born here.

So there we were, on the first official day of spring, standing in line (in line!) at the ice cream joint for our inaugural cones and sundaes of the year.

The guy behind us didn’t even have a coat.  I’m guessing his thought process went something like, “I’m in line to buy ice cream, therefore it must be warm, therefore I can just wear a t-shirt.” 

It must be said that it was good ice cream, as soft serve goes.  We debated sitting at one of the picnic tables set up around the place for just that purpose, but that would have required shoveling and the wind might have blown our ice cream into the street, so we ate in the car. 

Spring is here in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mr. Rogers

Today would have been Mr. Rogers’ birthday, as my friends Janiece and Shawn have ably pointed out.  There has also been an avalanche of postings on the subject over on Facebook, which has taken over the function of the office bulletin board that had moved over to email in the ‘90s – it’s where jokes, cartoons and general announcements get made for all to see.  So there are a lot of people who have noticed this particular birthday, is what I’m saying.

It might seem strange that a man who made his living hosting a children’s television show forty years ago would inspire such notice here in the digital century, but not if you really pay attention.  Mr. Rogers is one of the few transcendent figures in American culture, a man whose appeal remains universal even in this most partisan and vitriolic age.  Mr. Rogers was one of the good guys.  It’s as simple as that.

I didn’t really appreciate him until I was an adult.

As a kid I found his show kind of, well, boring.  He’d come in singing his little song.  His shoes would come off and his sweater would go on.  He’d drone on in that soothing voice he had about whatever was on his mind that day, and there’d be puppets somewhere in there.  I wanted to be out doing other things, back then. 

I wanted excitement.  Excitement has edges.  Mr. Rogers had no edges, not really. 

Yet now, four decades later, of all the television shows I watched as a young child his is the one I remember most and think of most often.  Now that I am older I am not all that interested in excitement.  Excitement is good now and then, and it is a great counterpoint to the larger enterprises of life, but it isn’t life itself.  There’s more to it than that.

As I have gotten older I have come to value kindness and comfort as the two most important day to day virtues.  It is a harsh world and one designed seemingly on a different plan than most people, and things with edges serve only to cut and wound.  The ability to comfort others – the willingness to comfort others – and the kindness actually to do so are sometimes the only things that get us through the day.

We want excitement, but what we need is kindness and comfort.  And Mr. Rogers was there to give us that and to remind us that we can give that to others, that we are worthy of receiving it from others and others are worthy of receiving it from us, that there is little in this world more important than how we treat ourselves and others.

We forget that, sometimes.

There have been a lot of tributes to Mr. Rogers today, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of them.  But my favorite, oddly enough, came from a article entitled, “5 Moments That Prove Mr. Rogers Was the Greatest American.”  It’s worth reading, and it’s worth following the link therein to Tom Junod’s 1998 article in Esquire, entitled “Can You Say … Hero?” – a long read, but a good one.

One of the five moments simply noted his role in this world.

He didn't live in a world full of songs and puppets. He brought songs and puppets to a world that was scared and tired and vulnerable. A lot of people of a lot of faiths are waiting for the Messiah, but even if one arrives, how are you going to tell the difference between him and Fred Rogers? ...  His job wasn't only to help children grow up, but to remind adults, always, that they had been children once, and that someone, somewhere, had loved them.

How, indeed, will you tell?

Happy birthday, Mr. Rogers.  It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

And There Was Much Rejoicing (yay)

Well, there’s no going back now.  We have introduced our children to the genius of Monty Python.

We are the best parents in the world, I know.  Thank you for pointing that out.

This has been a long time coming.  Tabitha is long past the age where she might find the Python sense of humor to her taste, and Lauren is generally game for anything when it comes to movies.  And since we spent a good chunk of last summer either in England or climbing around castles or both, it was clear that the first Python movie they should see should be Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I didn’t actually see this film until I was in college.

Oh, I had been introduced to Monty Python in a number of different formats in high school, like most American teenagers in the 1980s.  The local PBS station ran the television show, so I knew most of the skits.  I had seen several of their other movies before going to college, including an opening night screening of The Meaning of Life with my friend Julia – who at that time lived in Connecticut, so several of us had to take the train up to visit her.  As I recall, we were most impressed by the skit about “the machine that goes BING!”  After the movie we all went out to the local Denny’s.  Eventually a waitress came over and asked us what we wanted, and as one we all turned to her and said, “BING!”

About half an hour later a different waitress came by to see if we wanted anything, and thus we learned a valuable lesson about not annoying the waitstaff.

As for Holy Grail, well.  I hadn’t seen it in high school, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know every single line in it by then.  I had several friends who spent much of my junior and senior years quoting it at me in almost any circumstance where it might conceivably be relevant and more than a few where it couldn’t.  In this I believe I was not alone.  I used to be surprised at how many of the friends I developed later in life either had similar friends or were those similar friends, but no longer.  It’s a kind of badge of nerd honor, I guess.

Indeed, the hardest part of Friday's screening was not reciting the script alongside the actors.  It is a relentlessly quotable film.

My freshman year of college I took an English seminar entitled, “Arthurian Romance,” or as I liked to think about it, “Books David Would Read Anyway, For Credit.”  We read Mallory.  We read Zelazny.  We read The Mabinogion.  We read a treasure trove of all sorts of great books.  It was a fun class.

The TA who was in charge of all this was one of those guys destined to do nothing else but teach English literature.  He was pleasant and articulate.  He had a bushy mop of blondish hair, an equally bushy mustache, and habitually came to class wearing round spectacles, a bow tie, and suspenders.  His name was Graham Drake.  What else could this man possibly have done but what he was doing?

I sometimes wonder whatever became of him.  I hope he went on to have a long and fruitful career teaching university-level literature courses.  It would be something of a travesty if he became a banker.

There was no final exam in that class, but he made us come to the final exam period anyway.  He got up in front of us and spent spent several minutes telling us a long shaggy dog story about how he had been in contact with a group of scholars of Arthurian literature and had hoped to have them present their research to us during the semester but time had run out and they had been gracious enough to record their thoughts on film and send us a VHS copy (this was the 80s, after all) for us instead of our final exam.  Whereupon he dimmed the lights and we watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I’m not sure Lauren was all that impressed with the movie.  She liked the Killer Rabbit scene and the Trojan Rabbit scene – as you would expect from someone deeply involved in the rabbit events for the 4H Fair – but the rest of it seemed to leave her a bit cold.  Tabitha seemed to like it more – she got more of the jokes, I think – but the last several minutes of organ music over a black screen annoyed her.  Unless you understand what is being satirized, satire often fails that way. 

But now they’ve been initiated into the great cult of Monty Python – of literate satire, humor that seems slapped together and merely silly but in fact has multiple levels and makes fairly steep demands of its audience.  I once read a book jointly written by the Pythons, one of those coffee-table retrospectives that come out on round anniversaries, and the deepest impression the book made on me was just how much thought and effort went into those silly skits.

Once you know how that works, the rest of the world makes much more sense.

Friday, March 15, 2013

News and Updates

1. Am I the only one who looks at the new pope and thinks, “Konstantin Chernenko”?  Face it – he’s the safe old guy appointed by the men who run things because they didn’t know what else to do and they needed to buy another couple of years while they figure out what to do with the mess they’ve managed to create for themselves.  The next pope – the Gorbachev figure – will be interesting.

2. No, I’m not Catholic.  I just think that a new leader for a world organization that powerful and far reaching is interesting in its own right.

3. Magnum Trivium, Omnium Trivium.  If you want trivia, go to the source.  Once again, the Home Campus team ventured forth last night in a trivia contest fundraiser for a local cause, and even lacking our best player we still managed to squeak out a victory against the Local Catholic Church team (who may have been playing inspired thanks to the new pope – who knows?).  This event is a slightly different format than the last one.  Instead of five rounds of questions adding up to a winner, in this one there are two big rounds of questions and then the top two teams face off in a Family Feud sort of round – each team member going one-on-one with a counterpart on the other team up on stage in front of everyone.  They even had a little buzzer you had to push to answer first.

4. I am officially tired of snow.  I am particularly tired of the fact that it seems to arrive every Tuesday and Thursday, like clockwork, as I am driving to Not Quite So Far Away Campus, which is actually a fairly long drive. 

5. We still have our Christmas lights up.  I don’t do ladder work in the snow.  They are a pleasing shade of blue, and they go well with the snow.  So they can stay for a while.

6. Indoor plumbing is one of the great blessings of modern civilization.  You don’t fully realize that until the city comes along to do sewer work and tells you not to turn on the water for an entire day.  Fortunately, the local burger joint not only serves good food but also has nice clean bathrooms.

7. Nobody has as much fun with the English language as Nick Harkaway.  If you haven’t read his novels (The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker), do yourself a favor and correct that situation immediately.  Angelmaker is a little more of a straightforward narrative than The Gone-Away World, but they’re both wonderful.

8. I got to give my lecture on Thomas Malthus in Western Civ this week.  There are four or five lectures that I really look forward to in that class, and that’s one of them.  It’s fun to see how he manages to undermine the entire Enlightenment with just three simple observations and two graphs.

9. It’s time for the semi-annual ad-hoc scramble, wherein I make supplications to the various powers that be so that I might be employed teaching history next semester.  It’s a civilized process in many ways, but a tiring one. 

10. Next week is Spring Break, and you know what that means for us faculty!  Right!  Grading! 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Pop This

I went appliance shopping this afternoon.

Oh, not the big appliances.  Not the sort of appliances that require shipping or finance plans.  Not the kind of appliances where you have to readjust the counters whenever you buy a new one because there is some kind of obscure province in the legal system or perhaps an unwritten segment in the Appliance Makers’ Code of Honor that says every few months they have to resize everything by 2.1% so that nothing ever quite fits into the hole vacated by the previous appliance and purchasers should just plan on making a swing by the liquor store on the way home because sweet dancing monkeys on a stick are you going to need to drown your sorrows in something flammable – or burn them to death if it turns out they can swim – once this experience is safely behind you, except it isn’t ever really behind you because before you can learn to spell “amortization” it will come back again, yes it will.

Nothing that complicated today, thankfully.

Instead, I went looking for a new electric kettle.  The old one died sometime Sunday morning, quietly and without fanfare, between cups of tea.  My first cup was nice and hot.  My second one, well that took longer than I thought it would because I had to remember what primitive methods I had once used to boil water prior to the introduction of the electric kettle into our house and then I had to spend a good half hour convincing myself that such methods were still legal in this day and age before I actually thought to make myself some more tea and by then it was time for lunch and you can’t really drink hot tea with lunch except as a side beverage and who has time for that is what I want to know.

See what happens when I don’t get my fix?

So this afternoon, with my class over and my various and sundry academic chores either completed or set aside to languish and produce a fine crop of hemp-like guilt that could easily be turned into ropes with which to tie myself up into knots, I headed on over to the local Gigantic Store – or one of them, since Our Little Town seems to have a plethora of them – to replace my kettle.

They had exactly one.  So I bought it.

Sorry, next person!  You’ll just have to blather on in your own blog.  This one’s full.

The thing is that the Gigantic Store does not really like to make things easy for you.  They want you to wander around and make impulse buys, and spend money you weren’t planning on spending in their establishment, except that I am far too sharp for that sort of ploy so I went purposefully toward my goal and … ooh!  Shiny!  MINE!

So sue me.

But it’s really cool!  It is!

My children are popcorn addicts, and I like this.  Popcorn and I go way back.  It was the default snack in my house growing up – my dad made it the old fashioned way, with a steel pot and some oil, and I can still do that trick without turning the kitchen into a smokehouse most days.  My kids however like the microwave stuff, which is fine except that it probably has more chemicals in it than your average New Jersey landfill.  Tasty, tasty chemicals.

At some point when I was in college I moved into a place with my friends and discovered, leftover from the previous tenants, a slightly warped air-popper.  It was louder than an unoiled subway car and threw off enough heat to divert incoming missiles, but it worked and we made good use of it.  I inherited it when we moved out, and I kept it for years until it finally died.

My children regarded this story as pure fiction.  An air-popper?  Seriously?  What tequila-based hallucination is this, old man?

So when I stumbled across a small stack of them in the Gigantic Store – marked down to a pittance, because apparently 1980s-era snack-food technology isn’t your prime retail star these days – really, what could I do but buy one.

We plugged it in tonight after dinner.  It roared like a sucker-punched lion.  It spit kernels.  It raised the ambient room temperature by whole number multiples.  And out came popcorn.  Bales of popcorn.

Life is good.

Perhaps a cup of tea with that?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Snow Days and Servers

It’s like a snow day, when the servers go down.  A snow day for grown-ups.

We’ve had a lot of snow in the last few weeks, here in Our Little Town.  An entire winter’s worth, if the newspaper is to be trusted – apparently all of the snow that should have fallen in November, December, and January waited until February and then fell in one big repetitive storm that has lasted, in waves, from Groundhog Day almost to Pie Day (March 14, for the mathematically disinclined – think about it, and have some pie while you’re at it).  So it’s been kind of white and wet around here.

Mostly we’ve shrugged it off and gone about our business.  You don’t live in Wisconsin for any length of time and get freaked out about snow.  The over/under on shoveling at all around here is 2.5”, and the snazzy snowblower we got way on sale during last year’s snowless winter has more than earned its keep this year.  You learn how to drive in the snow – a process that involves as little usage of the steering wheel and brakes as you can get away with – and you keep your kitchen stocked up with white foods (milk, eggs, bread, flour, sugar, and so on) so you don’t have to rush to the grocery store with everyone else when the forecast says snow.  Be prepared! 

But every so often it becomes clear that discretion is the better part of not getting your fool self killed or not having squadrons of screaming lawyers descend upon your institution because some other fool self got himself killed trying to get to you, and things close.  Snow days!  Sleeping in!  Hanging out!  Making French toast with all those white groceries you have prudentially stockpiled!

Except that you don’t get to sleep in, not really.  In this day of the “phone tree” there is no sleeping in.  There is only the phone call that arrives at 5:50am to let you know that you don’t need to wake up to go to work.  Good of them to let you know, I suppose.

And there is only so much French toast a human being can consume before the urge to wear berets in public becomes more than the civilized mind can stand.

But you can still hang out, right?  You’re home, work is somewhere over there – “there” being defined as “not here” and therefore not your problem – and that combination of things should mean relaxation and merriment, or at the very least hot tea, comfortable chairs and a good book.

This is not true anymore, though.

We live in a world of instant access, where everything is available online.  Other than the few hours per week that I actually spend standing in front of a class – hours which, frankly, I regard as the reward for all the work I do, not the work itself – all of my work can be done at home, online.  This is especially true this semester, when one of my classes is half-online and a second is entirely online.  Fully half of my teaching load, in other words, is conducted via the Internet.  Most of my weekends are spent grading online discussion posts, posting primary source documents and assignments and feedback on past assignments, and sending documents back and forth between home and the various campuses I report to this spring.

I can do that no matter what the weather is.

But when the servers go down?

Break out the tea and books, fire up the skillet and prepare for a lovely and guilt-free day of not being productive! 

You still get snow days when you’re a grown-up.  They just don’t look the same as they used to look.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Spot Bot Rot

Lauren had a bit of a rough night last night, in the way that kids do when confronted by a 24-hour stomach bug.  And as is often the case when children have such bugs, there was collateral damage to the carpeting, particularly in our bedroom where she stopped in to alert us to events before proceeding on to the bathroom, by which point the need to proceed had rather abated somewhat.

It was long after everyone’s bedtime by then, so we cleaned it up as best we could, covered it with baking soda and a rag rug, tucked Lauren back in bed, and went to sleep.  Lauren spent today home from school, a bit delicate but generally in good condition.  Better than the carpet, anyway.  She’ll be back at school tomorrow, pending the result of tonight’s snowstorm.

Fortunately, some time ago we had purchased a device called a Spot Bot, mainly to deal with a similar situation involving one of the cats, some dark brown liquid medication, and the rug in Lauren’s room. 

The Spot Bot is a marvel of modern technology.  It combines the cleaning power of an entire maintenance staff with the grinding noise of an industrial port city and the shaking of a burlesque queen, all in a convenient portable machine.  And it works like a charm.  It is a fine and commendable product, the Spot Bot. 

So we figured we were in good shape regarding the current state of our bedroom carpet.  A plan was in place, and the technology already existed – not only in the world but actually in our home as well – to implement it.

Tonight we hauled out the Spot Bot and set it to work cleaning up that carpet.  And it did a marvelous job.  A wonderful, marvelous, super-fantastic, shiny and enviable job.  Really.  Superb.


And if you’re following along at home, you know exactly what this means.

It means that the worn and faded blue carpet on our bedroom floor has exactly three meticulously clean, bright, good-as-new circles on it, right at the foot of the bed – two the size of picnic plates and one rather larger where several circles merged into one.

They kind of stand out.

Thus I find myself in something of a quandary.  Do I just keep letting the Spot Bot do its thing, one plate-sized circle at a time, until the whole carpet looks clean again?

Or do I grab my boots and scuff up those circles a bit so they blend back in?

There’s nothing in the operating manual about this, by the way.  You would think, given the sorts of things that the Spot Bot is being called upon to do (most of which involve some kind of deep scrubbing) and the sorts of people likely to buy one of these machines (people more likely to try to clean a spot than replace an old carpet) that they could have foreseen this situation and provided some helpful hints to make it look less … obvious.

Maybe they can throw in a dye kit so you can place the Spot Bot in random positions around the room and make a lovely pattern on your rugs.

Or perhaps a cutting tool to solve the problem once and for all.  If it’s a big enough tool you could make a skylight down to the next floor, although that does create more problems than it solves now that I think of it. 


The solution to the problem just changes the problem.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

You Know You've Got to Curl

There is a certain artistry to sliding forty-pound blocks of granite down a sheet of ice.  You can make them go fast or slow.  You can make them ricochet.  You can make them spin.  And if you’re really good, you can make them curl.

Today is the first day of a two-day bonspiel – a curling tournament – and Tabitha and Lauren are still probably out there on the ice even as I type, trying to put the rock in the house.

We left far too early this morning, picked up a couple of their friends over at the K-Mart parking lot where by common consent everyone meets to gather up fellow commuters in Our Little Town (who determines this sort of thing?) and headed off to the bonspiel.  It’s a junior event, where young curlers from all over southern Wisconsin are gathering to compete and have some fun together – one of the wonderful things about curling is that it is not really a sport that lends itself to cut-throat competition.  It’s a friendly game.

We got there in plenty of time, oohed and aahed over the facilities (which, compared to the more utilitarian set-up here in Our Little Town, were rather snazzy), and got their stuff stashed away in the locker area.  And then we waited while the early curlers finished their matches.

I took the time to walk through all of the meals with the volunteers in the kitchen, trying to determine what Tabitha could and could not eat.  They were quite accommodating that way – lunch was grilled cheese sandwiches, and when the bread turned out to be unsafe for her they found some safe bread and made Tabitha her own sandwiches in a fresh pan.  I am always grateful when people recognize the importance of treating food allergies seriously, and to the volunteers there I give hearty thanks.

Eventually all of our curlers arrived and divided themselves up into two teams.

Once the early curlers finished and some explanatory remarks cleared some lingering questions for those of us who hadn’t arrived at 8am, they rang the bell and the matches began.

Tabitha’s team had Sheet 1, on the far left of the ice.

Lauren’s team had Sheet 5, on the far right.

From a purely competitive standpoint the matches were somewhat lopsided, as both opposing teams turned out to be a bit more skilled than our teams.  But so it goes.  There was a lot of fun being had out there anyway – a few rocks thrown well, some nice ricochets and defensive moves, the occasional moment of low comedy – and that counts more, I think.

How can you not love a sport where you actually have to use brooms? 

They’re still curling tonight, and after dinner they will push all of the tables in the warming room over to the corners, roll out the sleeping bags, and have the biggest slumber party in southern Wisconsin.

And tomorrow they will do it all again, at least until lunchtime.

I’m expecting to see some tired but happy girls when they return. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

A Day at the Theater

Yesterday was the opening of Wishes Come True: Secrets of the Rainbow Planet down at Not Bad President Elementary.  It was also, given the rather limited runs that such productions have, the closing.  But I was there, and you should have been too.

The play itself had all the hard-hitting social commentary that one would expect from a musical staged by fourth and fifth graders.  Its main message, delivered with the straightforward intensity of a letter to Santa, was that people should be nicer to one another, that you’re better off being who you are than who you’re not, and that if you believe in yourself you might surprise yourself and actually be good at things – and even if you’re not, you’ll have more fun trying than not trying.  And these are certainly worthwhile things to keep in mind, in this fallen world of ours.

There was drama.  There were gymnastics.  There was comedy.  And there were songs, my personal favorite being a country ballad entitled, “Penguins Are My Favorite Sort of Frogs,” which made sense in context.

Lauren and her classmates down at NBPE have been practicing diligently for weeks now, staying late after school a couple of times a week and learning a vast repertoire of motions, lines and dance moves.  And as always with shows like this, the place was packed – I went to the afternoon show and it was standing room only, which worked for me since I was taking pictures from the back anyway.  It’s nice that the community supports these shows like that.  These kids put a lot of work into their play, and having a large and appreciative audience makes it all worthwhile.

Lauren won two speaking roles!

First, she was a tree.  You didn’t think that trees had speaking roles outside of Fangorn Forest, but they do!

And then she was an old women – Mrs. Bones – who was part of a posse of old people sent to tell the hero that you’re never too old to have fun. 

I spent many happy years in theater, almost all of them backstage, and it pleases me immensely that my children enjoy it as well.  You learn a lot in theater.

Good job, Lauren.  I’m proud of you.