Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Small Mysteries

When I was a kid I used to go up to the little train station on Karakung Drive.  It was really "up," too - the tracks were about twenty feet above the road, at the top of a hill, and there was a long set of stairs that led up to them.  

I rarely took the train from there - if you got on from the street side the one-car trolley-like trains would take you to Norristown, where I rarely had any particular need to go.  If you crossed under the tracks through the tunnel the train would take you to 69th Street, which was another place I had no call to go. You could get on the El from there and go to Center City Philadelphia, but there were easier and faster ways to do that.

Mostly I went because it was on the way to a friend's house and it was a fun place to hang around.

Back in those days there was a concrete tower that rose out of the hill just to the right of the platform, a few feet downslope from the tracks.  It wasn't much to look at, really - four vertical concrete beams about eighteen inches thick connected by horizontal squares of those same beams at both the top and midway points.  The whole thing was maybe twenty feet tall from the ground (so maybe forty from the road, and another ten or fifteen down to the creek on the other side of the road) and ten feet on a side.

We always wondered what that tower was there for.

Eventually we learned that at one point in the unimaginably distant past (well, unimaginably distant for us - it was probably the 1920s) that station was the end of the line, and the railway owners wanted to get some use out of it on the weekends, when nobody was commuting to work.  So they had built a small amusement park there.  It even had a roller coaster, whose main drop was supported by that concrete tower.

Try as we could, we could never figure out where an amusement park would have fit in that particular bit of land.  It's hilly, for one thing.  There's a ridge on the one side of the road, where the trains ran, and a wide creek down a steep embankment on the other side.  The one bit of flat land is up from the station about fifty yards and across the road.  

No wonder it didn't last.

But it left us that concrete tower, and we thought that was just the coolest thing in the world.

There are still mysteries out there, if you look hard enough.  Some of them right underfoot.

Friday, June 21, 2013

News and Updates

1. I actually got to sleep in twice this week, for the first time since, well, January.  It is a very strange thing to wake up, look over at your clock and realize that it is not actually earlier than when your alarm normally goes off.  I could get used to that feeling.

2. Kim’s brother Geoff is visiting us from San Francisco, which is always a lot of fun.  Yesterday we took him a few towns over to a restaurant that is famous for serving cheese sandwiches.  Because that’s how we roll.  Really – cheese sandwiches.  These were the food of my youth, essentially – cheese, bread, mustard.  Of course, here in Wisconsin you can get many different kinds of cheese on your sandwich, including limburger.  And if you add liverwurst to it, you will get what Geoff had.  Why you would want to do that, I do not know.  But you could.

3. We also went to our local minor league baseball team’s game last night, since it was 4H night.  They actually won with us in attendance, for what must have been the second time in three years.  Score one for the good guys.  It was a well played game, and although there were a couple of hometown calls none of them really changed the complexion of the game any.

4. The girls made it safely back from 4H camp, despite Tabitha and her friend managing to deposit their canoe onto the river bottom (where, as far as we know, it remains, along with a grill and several other items of camping gear).  Well, those adventures make the best stories.  Lauren and Tabitha spent the better part of Tuesday telling us those stories, and then most of Wednesday sleeping.  So – successful trip.

5. We spent Sunday up at my in-laws for a Father’s Day feast.  There was much conversation and food, and it was good.

6. Tabitha made the local paper yesterday!  Granted, this is a fairly small town, but still.  They have a feature where the school art teachers submit works they think are particularly deserving and the paper publishes the ones they want.  And there it was!  A copy in the paper, the original in our dining room, one right next to the other.

7. Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys have reached a new low this week by having a red-herring budget up for debate all week and then – in the dark of night – introducing the budget they wanted all along and ramming it through without debate or amendment.  It’s been fascinating watching the subversion of an American state from the inside by a radical extremist cult, but it does get old.

8. Every once in a while we sit down and try to figure out just what our schedule will be for the rest of the summer.  Then we go lie down.

9. My office here at home is actually quite a large room when you take out all the stuff that accumulates in it over the course of a semester.  This is good, since it will be pressed into service as a spare bedroom shortly. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Most Interesting Man in the World

My neighbor Jerry was the most interesting man in the world.

The guy in the beer ads never came close.

You’d never know it to look at him.  When I met him, after he and his family moved into the house just on the other side of our driveway, he was making his living as a tree surgeon.  Not that this can’t be an interesting thing in itself, mind you.  My daughters were very young at the time, and they were fascinated by his truck – a bright orange monstrosity with two inverted traffic cones stored on the front bumper, which is why the girls called it “the Vanpire.” 

He also ran the Sunday newspaper wholesale route in this area, and whenever he had extra papers or damaged ones he would have to recycle he’d slide them over to us.  I got more regular service from him regarding the New York Times than I ever did in the year or two I was a paid subscriber back in the 90s.

He was a genuinely nice person, the sort of guy who always invited my kids over whenever the latest stray animal had kittens or puppies in his garage, who lit up when you’d tell him about your day. 

And every time Jerry would open his mouth, something fascinating fell out.

He was descended from whatever the equivalent of royalty is in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and had once attended seminary to become a minister in that denomination before being expelled.  “I asked too many questions” was all he would say about that.  Nevertheless, he still managed to find his way to Thailand as a missionary.

They converted him, it turned out.  He remarried – a local woman – and started a family there.  He lived there nearly twenty-five years before bringing his family back to the US – to Our Little Town, of all places.  I never did figure out why he came here, particularly.

The stories that came out of his time in Asia were many and varied.

Jerry always sat in on my classes down at Home Campus.  Anyone over the age of 60 can do that for free, and despite the fact that he didn’t look all that much older than me he qualified and he took advantage of that with abandon.  He took every single class I taught. 

On the first day of every class I have my students fill out a 3x5 card – name, phone number, that sort of thing.  I have learned over the years that you have to ask one question to separate out the herd a bit – something that will identify each student as unique so you can get to know them as more than just the anonymous faces who might or might not be taking notes when you speak.  For the last few years, the question I always ask is, “Tell me one thing you’ve done that nobody else in this room has done.”  You get a lot of answers to that question – travels, mishaps, awards, achievements.

Jerry’s response, the first time he took one of my classes?  “I smuggled a nurse into a refugee camp past the Khmer Rouge guards.”

For those of you too young to remember, the Khmer Rouge were the psychopaths who came to power in Cambodia in 1975 and eventually slaughtered a third of the Cambodian population.  Go watch the movie The Killing Fields if you want to spend an evening marveling at just how inhumane humanity can be.  Those were not guards you wanted to catch you, in other words.

He did a lot of things like that.  One afternoon out by the wood pile in his back yard (not surprisingly, he heated his house with wood from the trees he was paid to cut down – hey, all his customers cared about was that he hauled it away) we got into a discussion about that sort of thing and he told me a long story involving several planeloads of relief supplies, a stinging bureaucratic betrayal by the people in the United States he was supposedly working for, and at least a month in a Thai prison, which he described in sociological detail as a fascinating experience.

When he took my Western Civ II class a few years back one of the assignments was to read a snippet of Loyola, who had founded the Jesuits as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century.  After class we were discussing it and he mentioned that at one point during his stay in southeast Asia he had spent several weeks driving the world head of the Jesuit order around to a number of different countries.  “Nice guy,” he said.  “Just don’t try to argue with him.”

Jerry had once been an officially licensed Congressional lobbyist – a job he never liked because he had to wear a suit.  He’d been to every continent except Antarctica, though he said he wished he’d gotten more of a chance to see Africa and South America.  He lived in a city where elephants routinely walked the streets, which is why he never got too bothered by our cats.

Jerry passed away on Thursday, nearly two weeks after suffering a brain aneurism.  He never regained consciousness.

Raise a glass in honor of the most interesting man in the world, next time you think of it.

Wabbit Season!

The trick to getting out of a 4H event in a reasonable amount of time is to schedule another 4H event directly following.

There is no charge for this advice.  You’re welcome.

It was Rabbit Fun Day here in Our Little Town, the day when the kids doing the rabbit projects gather together at the County Fairground to show off their rabbits and practice for the official show at the County Fair next month.  It’s a bit less stressful this way, and they learn how to handle the rabbits without the pressure of the formal event.  Lauren has been looking forward to this event for months, as it would be the first time she has had a chance to show her new rabbit, Milkshake.

So at an indeterminate but rather too early hour this morning we found ourselves and Milkshake pulling up to the usual building over at the Fairgrounds – the same one we do the cat shows in, the same one we were in on Wednesday for the Pork Festival (giant tasty porkchops!  and cupcakes artistically frosted by our very own 4Hers on Monday!), the same one we were at Friday night helping to set up for the rabbit show, the same one that more and more I suspect I might as well just have my mail forwarded to and be done with the charade.

Fortunately it’s a low-stress operation, the Rabbit Pre-Show.  There are only about a third as many kids and half as many animals as the cat shows, and since rabbits are prey animals rather than predators they tend to be quieter and less prone to draw blood.

Milo came along too, even though he is not a purebred show bunny and could not officially compete.  But he’s a friendly beast – he’d make a good therapy rabbit on a college campus during finals week, really – and he helps calm everyone down.

Lauren dropped her bunnies off at a convenient spot and then went to the rabbit showmanship classes that occupied the first two hours of the event.  Kim and Tabitha settled in.  I went back out to the Cream Puff Guy who was having a sale near the dry cleaning place that we pass on the way to the Fairgrounds.  I came back with a box of cream puffs and eclairs – breakfast of champions!

Milkshake was the first rabbit to be shown, and the only Dwarf Hotot at the event.

On the one hand, the fact that he won Best of Breed is therefore not really all that surprising.

On the other hand, even a solo bunny isn’t automatically qualified for that award if he doesn’t meet fairly high standards – they’ll let the award go unclaimed if they have to – so it was a nice thing to win anyway. 

Good job, Lauren!

And then we left, because 4H Camp starts today and the girls had to be on the bus and ready to leave by a quarter to noon or so. 

The fun never ends, here in Our Little Town.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Wrapping Up And Moving On

It is finished.

When a semester that involved me teaching three different classes on four different campuses (one of which was an hour and a half away) came to a screeching halt last month I immediately began another class here at Home Campus, one whose main task was stuffing fifteen weeks’ worth of modern American history into a three week session.  There wasn’t much of a break – the new class started four days after I turned in my grades for last semester.

And it ended today.  It’s all over but the grading.

This is the seventh different format in which I’ve taught US2 since I began my career at Home Campus, which meant that once again I found myself frantically revising things on the fly – creating quizzes every day, tinkering with the lectures as they came up in order to fit them together into a way that made sense in this format versus the others, which is surprisingly tricky when you’re moving things about like that, and so on.  It’s been quite a time.

There is also the fact that about halfway through I decided that the whole class needed a top-to-bottom revision. 

I created this class in 1996, and while I tinker with it every time I go through and I add new features whenever I change format, I haven’t given it a wholesale revision since 2008.  My thinking on the mechanics of American history has changed since then and it is getting to the point where shoehorning the new thinking into the old framework is just clumsy.

Plus, the problem with history is that every day there is more of it.  It’s time now to separate out the 1990s and 21st century into discrete chunks rather than lumping them together into one long class entitled, “Modern America.”  Most of my students weren’t born when Bill Clinton was first elected – they’ve never lived in a world that had a Soviet Union or didn’t have the internet.  Of course separating those out means condensing things in other places (there being only so many class periods in a given semester), so I could either just cut things to make the new bits fit or I could reimagine how everything fits together and make it a bit less jury-rigged than it has become since 2008.

Last weekend I was proctoring the ACTs – a long and excruciatingly boring process where you read so many rules to a class full of anxious teenagers that you feel as if you are clubbing baby seals to death – and in between random walks about the room I laid out a new framework for the course, one that I was quite happy with as it included much of my new thinking on the issues of post-WWII American history and organized it into something rather more flowing than the accretions and sidebars that currently populate the course.

And then, of course, I couldn’t use it.  Not this week.  Not when I am teaching three hours a day, every day.  There just isn’t time to do that much revision – there was barely time to do the requisite tinkering.  So I had to go with the older version, one more time.

This, I found, was aggravating.

I’m scheduled to teach this class again next spring in a somewhat less frantic format, and by then I hope to have the new wholly revised version in place.  There may even be wholesale revisions to earlier sections, depending on how far back I have to explain the things I’m focusing on in the later section of the class – you can’t just drop things in unannounced, after all, not unless you write sitcoms.

But all that is in the future.  My class is done.  I have no academic deadlines until September, and can focus on long-term projects, visiting friends and family, and/or rediscovering precisely who the folks are in my own household, including myself.

I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Still the One!

Why is it that even after half a century, the standard American president is still Richard Nixon?


We’ve had a lot of presidents since then, and even more prior to that.  We’ve had thin ones and fat ones, tall ones and, um, less tall ones, and our current president is nothing if not unusual by the physical standards of previous ones.  They’ve had any number of different accents, spoke in pitches that range from Gregory Peck basso profundo to scratchy little tenor voices you’d expect to hear in a prep school, and ranged from captivating speakers to people you wouldn’t hire to read to the deaf.  There’s been a lot of them, is what I’m saying.

Yet whenever anyone wants a character that clearly and unequivocally says, “American president,” what do we get?  A jowly, slick-haired, gravel-voiced, shifty-eyed Nixon clone, or at least someone built off that model.

We were watching Doctor Who tonight, an activity that has become our favorite family pastime of late, and we’re nearing the end of Season 3 of the new Doctors.  In this episode, the American president comes flying in to Britain to take over a situation.  He gets off Air Force one, strides over to the British Prime Minister, and there he was – Tricky Dick in all his glory, though with a bit of New York City Mafia in the hair.

Not that it went well for him, as you could see coming from pretty much the moment he showed up.  Suddenly, we don’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.

But he’ll be back.  He always comes back, just like he did in real life.

Last year I was listening to the radio around Presidents’ Day (for those of you not in the US, this is the holiday that you get when you lump together George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays and then bleach it entirely of meaning).  President’s Day is essentially the consolation prize for Valentine’s Day, when – especially if you were hoping for sheets and towels – you can buy for yourself whatever your significant other neglected to provide.

Cue the opening strains of “Hail to the Chief,” because that’s something nobody else has ever thought to use in a commercial.

And then comes the announcer, describing in those characteristically breathy and stilted Nixonian tones the glories of the various towels for sale.

I have no idea what makes Nixon so compelling in popular culture that way.

I suppose I can see why you don’t see Reagan (forgetful, old, scary) or Clinton (hound-dog, slippery) or George W Bush (“morons use our product”) in these commercials and shows.  But wasn’t Nixon the guy who got hounded from office one step ahead of the law?  Didn’t he perpetrate the greatest Constitutional crisis of the 20th century?  Oh yes he did.  It’s not like he’s a great moral exemplar that you’d want to pin your product or show to.

But somehow he sticks in the popular mind the world over as the prototypical American president.

I’m not sure what this says about the United States, but I have a feeling it isn’t complimentary.

Friday, June 7, 2013

It's a String Thing

Monday was the big concert down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School. 

At least it was big for us, as it involved all of the string musicians in their various orchestras.  This meant that Tabitha would be up there on stage with her violin at a time I could actually go see!  No night classes, no work commitments introducing other performers down at Home Campus, no aliens kidnapping me at the most inconvenient moments (or at least if there were they were aliens with time-travel capabilities who could put me back so that it never seemed I was away – you have to allot for these possibilities, after all). 

We arrived rather early due to a combination of the fact that I generally like to get places early and the fact that when Tabitha told me she needed to be there at 6:15 she didn’t specify whether this was the deadline for her being there (as I interpreted it) or the earliest moment the orchestra leader wanted to see people arrive (as was, in fact, the case).  Fortunately it was a nice evening, we had just had a good dinner, and I could just hang out on the grass while Tabitha and Lauren chased each other around.  Where do they get that energy?

Eventually we all went inside to our respective stations.

Lauren and I stationed ourselves right up front, along with another friend who was there watching his daughter play, and we amused ourselves until it was show time.  They break these concerts out by grade - each grade has an orchestra, and they go up in turn from youngest to oldest - which left the seventh-graders in the middle.

They did a very nice job.

What was particularly notable about the seventh-graders was that they were far more cohesive than the other grades, as measured by all the musicians starting and stopping at the same time.  And they played their pieces with conviction so it was fun listening to them.

Between the seventh-graders and the eighth-graders was the Fiddle Club.

Once a week, all year long, Tabitha and a handful of other dedicated violinists would stay after school and practice their own songs for these concerts, and when the time came they arranged themselves in a semicircle – one conspicuously lacking a conductor – and they ran through their pieces on their own.

Such talent!  You should have been there.

Good work, Tabitha.  I’m proud of you.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Foreseeable Consequences, Sort Of

Sometimes the problems you run into in life are remarkably obvious, in hindsight.

Our house is surrounded by concrete.  The house was actually built somewhere else and moved onto this lot not long before we bought it, and unfortunately the lot is about eight feet too narrow for the house.  On the south side of the house this means that you’ve got a path about five feet wide before you run into the neighbor’s fence.  On the north side, the driveway covers every inch of the distance between the foundation of the house and the other neighbor’s property line.  And then the driveway wraps around the northern half of the back of the house as well.

So for one and a half sides of the house, the driveway slabs come right up to the foundation.

I don’t think they laid those slabs very well.  Or maybe that’s just what happens to driveway slabs in Wisconsin, because over time the slabs have gradually tilted in toward the house.  So on rainy days the water pours toward the house, where it runs down the foundation walls and, eventually, into our basement.

A few years ago we had the driveway mudjacked, which is not a crime involving dirty, heavily armed men and diverted flights to Cuba but is, rather, the process of drilling holes in the concrete slabs and injecting some kind of slurry underneath them so they tilt in a different – and presumably drier – direction.  It didn’t last very long, though, and recently we have had to keep the ShopVac in the basement to vacuum up all the incoming water.

So this year we decided to try the mudjacking route again. 

The contractor we eventually chose was an outfit that would not only mudjack the driveway but would also move the heavy wooden back stair unit (which, I found out, is not actually attached to anything – it just sits there next to the house, secure in its mass) out of the way and put it back in its proper spot when they were done, which meant I didn’t have to do that.  This sounded full of win to me.

Today I got home from picking up the girls at school and the house was enveloped in concrete dust. 

They were quite efficient, really – holes were drilled, slurry was pumped, and then everything was put back in its proper spot and hosed down.  It was well done.  I spoke with them afterward about what else I needed to do, and they gave me all sorts of instructions and then spent the remainder of our conversation deriding the skills, professionalism and manhood of the people we had here doing the previous mudjacking.  Apparently their work was simply unacceptable.  “Look at that hole!” one of them exclaimed in disgust.  “How do you expect to get anything done with a hole that small?”

I admit this was a mystery to me too.

These guys had the proper holes and the proper slurry and the driveway is now a good three or four inches higher at the foundation than it had been so that water runs away from the house rather than toward it, as was our plan.  All of the slabs match in height now too, which will help come snowblowing time.  And they even put the back stairs in place when they left.

Whereupon we discovered a problem.

You see, the driveway is now taller.  But the stair unit is not any shorter.  You'd have thought we would have seen that one coming.

Opening and closing the back door has now become something of an interesting proposition, given that the stair unit is about a quarter inch higher than the bottom of the door.  You can do it, if you press down on the boards of the stairs, but I really don't think that's supposed to be happening either.

Fortunately, we are not trapped in our house.  But there will be yet another project to deal with the aftereffects of this project, that much is certain.

The solution to the problem just changes the problem.