Friday, September 30, 2016

News and Updates

1. There was a water-cup incident on my desk while I was out a few days ago, and now I have my old keyboard from the early 2000s back in service.  It’s remarkably noisy and tactile, with big typewriter-style keys and a reassuring clickety-clack sound that faithfully recreates a late-20th-century newsroom.  There’s a group out there that does nothing but archive lost sounds – the noises that disappear when time and technology move on – and I wonder if they have something like this in their archives.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve ended up using in my daily life things that other people have put in museums.

2. No, I didn’t watch the presidential debate.  It won’t change my mind, and I’m already on blood-pressure meds these days.  I don’t need that kind of aggravation.  Besides, half my friends live-blogged it on Facebook and I got more than enough quotes and video clips that way to make me glad for my foresight in not watching the whole thing.  The fact that there are people out there who think that Donald Trump should be allowed anywhere near political power is a damning indictment of both the American educational system and American culture in general.  The man is mentally unhinged, utterly without morals or any intellectual activity more complicated than “Me Number One!”,  easily the most dangerously unqualified nominee ever put forward by a supposedly major party for higher office in this nation’s grand and often lunatic history, which is quite an achievement, and an extinction-level threat to the survival of the American republic.  I don’t need to watch him try to ad-lib his way through ninety minutes of his usual incoherent babbling and random accusations to learn this when anyone who has paid attention to him at any point in the last three decades would already know.

3. Apparently there is now a conspiracy theory circulating among the feeble-minded and desperate that Hillary had some kind of secret arrangement with Lester Holt during that debate.  Because obviously a woman with a quarter-century of experience at the highest levels of American government and a well-earned reputation for intelligence, ruthless competence, ice-cold composure, and thorough preparation could not possibly be expected to win against an empty blustering fool without male help.  You know, if you believe that, give me a call when your Nigerian money comes in and I'll cut you in on a deal on a bridge.

4. Although not, as my friend Abbe pointed out, Chris Christie’s bridge.  There’s too much traffic on that one.

5. There have been big changes out at the barn.  Rosie, the last of the roosters, has been sent off to a new home, which actually isn’t a euphemism for anything.  He really has found a more rooster-friendly place to live.  I feel good that he’s still around somewhere, but I do miss him.  In fairness, I am the only one who does.  Oh well.  We’ve cleaned up the turkey pen for the winter, as well as the corner pen in the barn that we might move the chickens into later since it has a door that we can open to let them run a bit.  And we’re merging this year’s hens with the old ones so that we only have one flock to deal with.  That makes sense when you’ve got less than a dozen birds.  And one of the feral cats had kittens, which Lauren is desperately trying to socialize on the grounds that they are cute.  They’re also tough, since one of them dropped from the hayloft onto the floor right in front of us the other day and tottered away unharmed.

6. Meanwhile Bristol the barn cat remains the single dumbest living thing on Earth.  Seriously – he is a standing refutation of Darwinian natural selection and one of the few animals that the turkeys could look down on when it came to mental firepower.  It’s supposed to be a cold winter.  I’m not sure that’s going to go well for him.

7.  The weather has finally turned to fall, at least some of the time.  It still gets up to 70F now and then, but we are having more and more days in the low 60s and nights in the 50s and even 40s.  We’re into apple cider season, and I can drink my tea without sweating.  The guy down the block has even cranked up his fireplace, giving the neighborhood a pleasantly smoky aroma.  Fall is my season, and I am glad to see the back of summer.

8.  Although if I see one more “pumpkin-spice” whatever I will go spare.  Seriously – pumpkin spice Cheerios?  That’s just wrong.

9. I think if I am going to survive in the modern working world I am going to have to learn how to get something out of the incessant meetings that it entails.  I spent an hour today in a videoconference meeting that I was assured by other, more informed participants was actually productive, and all I got out of it was older.  Although there were clowns, so there’s that.  No, no – real clowns, not metaphorical ones.  Make-up and everything.

10. Students are always surprised when they discover that professors actually mean what they say.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fear Itself

I am an American.

I am not a coward.  These colors do not run.

I am constantly told to be afraid.  Fear the immigrants.  Fear the dissenters.  Fear anyone not exactly like me.  Fear and bow down to those who claim to protect us from the fears they insist I must have.

I will not be afraid.  And I will not bow down.

I am not afraid of immigrants, because I know that this country was built by immigrants, by people who came here for a better life and worked hard to make that happen.  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  That’s what Americans say.  We do not compare human beings to candies.  Seriously, what idiot thought that up?  We do not build walls.  We are the asylum of liberty in every sense of that phrase.  And those who say otherwise need to think long and hard about who they are as Americans.

And if some of those immigrants are troublemakers, well, join the party.  We’re a nation of troublemakers.  We kill each other with an efficiency unmatched by any nation on earth not actively involved in civil war and more than some of those as well.  We have more guns than sense, and we kill each other with abandon.  We are a violent and reckless society that thinks the slaughter of the innocent is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom to own military-grade firearms and when you have people making that case openly then what’s one more lunatic in that mix? 

But most people aren’t troublemakers no matter where they were born or how long it took for them to get here.  Most people get through the day just fine without having to hide their pathetic little lives behind big bad firearms.  Most people are just here to live their own lives and they don’t really worry about yours.  It’s the American way.

This is what it means to be a City On a Hill, a beacon to the world, to welcome the world into our midst and let them be part of this grand and insane experiment. 

And if this country isn’t always the beacon it ought to be – isn’t often the beacon it ought to be – then I damn well am going to work to make it so.  Because I am an American.  I am not a coward.  Hard work does not scare me.  It may not excite me, but it does not scare me.

I know this country has done some stupid things.  I face it and acknowledge it and fix it and these colors do not run.

Show me someone who has not done anything stupid and I’ll show you someone who has done nothing.  This country achieves, it builds, it flips a giant bird to the notions of possible and reasonable and goes beyond them, and sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes it is not but we go on anyway and when it turns out that we have done stupid things then by god we correct them.  We do not hide. 

Slavery is part of our founding fabric and blacks have never been allowed to forget it and that’s something stupid we need to change.  We got rid of slavery by fighting the bloodiest war in our history.  We passed a legal framework to try to make sure all Americans are treated as Americans.  It took a hundred years after that war, but we did it.  But we still have a long, long way to go on that, and if you can watch the news and think anything else then you’re either not paying attention or you're part of the problem. 

Religious bigotry is part of our founding fabric and dissenters from the theological order have never been allowed to forget it and that’s something stupid we need to change.  We separated church and state in our most basic foundational document.  We passed laws that make citizenship and faith unconnected.  But we still have a long, long way to go, and if you can listen to the theocrats and moralizing hypocrites who dominate our airwaves this election year and think anything else then you’re either not paying attention or you're part of the problem.

There’s a lot of things we need to change.  And we can and we will because we are Americans and we are not cowards, not even about our own sins, and these colors do not run.

I am an American.

I do not panic when people express their dissent.  This country was built on dissent.  This country was founded by the cranks and miserable bastards who didn’t toe the party line and it is their spiritual descendants who are the true Americans, not those who would legislate obedience to a false patriotism.

You want to kneel during the national anthem?  Kneel, you miserable bastard, kneel and be an American.  Make your point and make people see.  Make people uncomfortable and make them talk.  Remind us that patriotism means love of country and love means seeing how screwed up it is and loving it anyway and wanting it to be better than it is.  We are the cranks and miserable bastards of the world and we’re proud of it.  This isn’t a tea party.  If you can’t protest the things that need correcting you might as well be living in North Korea.  Tick people off and then educate them.  Nothing gets done otherwise.

These colors do not run.

I am an American.  I am not afraid of protest.  I am not afraid of immigrants.  I am not afraid of dissenters.

And the false patriots who would bar the gates and crush the dissenters, who demonize the protesters and the people not exactly like me even as they rush to make me fear?

Those people worry me.  They irritate me.  They anger me.  But they do not scare me.

I am an American.  I am not a coward.  These colors do not run.

I will not run from them. 

I will not bend to them. 

And I will be heard.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Waist Deep in the Big Murky

One of the problems with working in an academic environment is that any casual conversation might lead to homework.

Yesterday was one of those busy days where I’m lucky to find time for lunch.  I am discovering, in my new capacity as an advisor, that the first three weeks of the semester are frantic times, so a little down time is always welcome.  I had a break and I took it, heading up to the little staff lunchroom that we have down at Home Campus.

Somehow my colleagues and I ended up in a conversation about Foucault.

If you have no idea what that means, well, count yourself lucky.  If you do, you probably went to graduate school in the 1990s.

Foucault was a theorist.  Don’t bother asking “theorist of what?” for, as I was repeatedly admonished in graduate school, that is the wrong question.  He was a Theorist, and the What is left to the observer.  He was also French.  He is famous for the impenetrability of his prose, the smugness of his disciples, the simplicity of his main points once stripped of their shield of jargon, and the general air of pretentiousness that surrounds any work that seriously attempts to employ his discourse.  At least that’s what I remember him for.  Other scholars disagree – often profoundly, and with some vigor – as is their right.

I was surrounded by Foucault back in graduate school.  I lived and worked with people who just thought Foucault was the best scholar ever to put pen to paper, producing Theories of universal applicability across all disciplines.  I actually understood jokes about Foucault, even if I never did figure out how to spell the man’s name (and three cheers for Blogger’s spell-check service, I say – would that it had existed back then).  But only once did I attempt to read his actual writings.

It did not go well.

I got about three pages into an article assigned for one of my graduate seminars before my brain leaped out of my skull in self defense and tried to stab my eyes out with a pen so I wouldn’t have to continue.  This is how you get migraines.  So I kept judiciously quiet that week, and eventually the seminar changed focus to something less mystifying such as – oh, I forget, but perhaps quantum cryodynamics or the mysteries of movie studio accounting. 

It is possible that this experience unduly influenced my opinion of the man and his followers.  I will admit to that as an option.

The philosopher at the lunch table, a man who clearly enjoyed his Foucault, felt that I was missing out, so before I left to go back to my office he had given me a twelve-page article written by Foucault to read. 

And like a good little academic, I started it last night.

I’m about six pages in so far, and mostly what it has taught me is that my brain was not wrong all those years ago. 

For one thing, I’m still not sure what Foucault is trying to say, halfway into this piece.  He spends an inordinate amount of time telling me what he is NOT saying, which makes those parts where he is actually trying to say what he IS saying somewhat disjointed and hard to follow.

For another thing, he does not make it any easier to follow those parts where he is actually trying to say something because he spends much of his remaining time redefining perfectly ordinary words (“genealogy”) to mean things that only he says they mean.  I think we already have words for most of what he’s trying to get across, and it’s long been a pet peeve of mine when academics create neologisms that they don’t need to create.  One of the articles that still annoys me from graduate school repeatedly used the word “suspicion” as a verb, for example.  I remember thinking, “we already have a verb for that, I suspect.”  I stayed quiet that class too.

I stayed quiet a lot in graduate school, now that I think of it.

Most of what remains so far in this article, once you have stripped out the neologisms and the handwaving denials of what he couldn’t possibly be saying at this moment, falls into one of two categories.

The first is an oddly disconcerting combination of Burkean Conservatism – with its emphasis on the specific, the unique, and the historical, in contrast to the timeless universalism of Enlightenment thought that Burke was reacting against – and German Volkish ideology, the backbone of what intellectual rigor the Nazis possessed.  He does go out of his way to disavow Fascism and indeed all totalitarianism, though, which is nice of him.

The second is the fairly straightforward idea that alternative narratives tend to get lost in the shuffle when large, universalist, overarching narratives are put forward.  Umm, yes?  As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer everything looks more or less like a nail, and this can be disconcerting to those of us who are not, in fact, nails.

Historians have been banging on about this since the 1950s, in one form or another.  It is, for example, the intellectual justification for social history – the history of the downtrodden, the voiceless, the people who aren’t running things – which has been a major part of the historical profession since Eisenhower was in office.  I’m not sure why this qualifies as a revelation now or even in 1980 when he was writing this article, but then Foucault is a Theorist and not a historian so what do I know.

So I don’t know if I’m going to read the rest of this article.

On the one hand, it’s only six more pages and I was given it in good faith.  I should continue and see if it gets better or, alternatively, if I grow more appreciative.  Either could happen, I suppose.

On the other hand?

My brain knows where the pens are.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

All Remains Well, For Certain Values of Well

So it appears we have stumped the band.

A while back, as noted in this space, our minivan decided to start talking to us.  We’d get in, start it up with the fancy push-button starter that seems to be standard on new cars these days but which mostly reminds me of the Futuristic 1950s, and about halfway down the driveway an automated female voice would tell us that “the HFT is okay.”

Sometimes this was a one-time thing.  Sometimes it went on for miles.  But all was well.

I got a few suggestions from friends as to what to do about this, but a) none of them seemed to work when I tried them, and b) since the HFT was okay this didn’t seem too critical.  Call me when it’s not okay, I thought, and resolved to ignore the whole issue.  I’m very good at ignoring mechanical or project-related issues, as Kim will tell you, so I figured that was that.

This particular minivan also has a nifty little feature where it tells you when to change the oil.  It keeps a running tab on the percentage of useful life that the oil has (and how it knows that I have no idea, but since it doesn’t ask me to replace the oil nearly as frequently as I was always led to believe oil needed to be changed I am happy to follow its recommendations), and when it hits 15% the swinging mechanical arm descends from the ceiling, bitch-slaps me, and points to the little wrench icon on the dashboard.

Well, no.  But I’m sure that’s coming in next year’s model.

Since the oil change light went on at almost exactly the same moment that both of our key fob batteries decided to die (how oddly, profitably, synchronistic, I thought), it was clearly time to call the dealership.

Because you have to get your oil changed at the dealership when it is still under warranty, otherwise the warranty is void and the swinging mechanical bitch-slap arm is licensed to give you noogies whenever you hit highway speed.  And who needs that?

Given that we were going to the dealership anyway, we figured it would be a good time to investigate the HFT issue as well.  So I called over to make an appointment.

They were fine with the oil change.  They do that every day, after all.  The key fob thing didn’t faze them a bit.  But the HFT?

“What’s an HFT?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I kind of hoped you would tell me.”

“Never heard of it.  Are you sure it’s not HFL?  That would be ‘Hands-Free Link,’ which is the Bluetooth system we put in your car without you asking for it.”

“No, pretty sure I can tell the difference between a T and an L.  I am a college graduate.  They covered that during my sophomore year.”


“It does seem to be okay, if that’s any help.”

“Well, bring it in.  We’ll investigate and see what we can find.”

I brought the van in yesterday. 

Admittedly, it seems to have stopped telling us about the HFT.  Sometime last week, when the key fob warning began to appear on the dashboard, the HFT apparently dropped down to a lower priority and there have been no warnings since.  I guess you only get one warning at a time, and how does it prioritize those is what I want to know.

“Hmmm,” it thinks.  “Your key fob battery needs to be replaced, your brake lines have been sliced by masked assassins, and your radio is permanently stuck on Adult Contemporary With John Tesh.  Better tell you about the key fob.  The other things will just worry you.”

Those zany computer engineers!

I spent a good half hour, in several combined increments, discussing the issue with several different people at the dealership, including the head of the Maintenance Department.  Nobody has any idea what this is about, and apparently the folks at Corporate are stonewalling them.  They said they’d get back to me if they found out anything, but I’m guessing there are Corporate Ninjas storming the dealership even now in a vain attempt to keep this information from going pubic.

Too late, Corporate Ninjas!  Behold the power of the blog!

You know, that sounded a whole lot better in 2011.

So we continue to drive on, secure in the knowledge that the HFT remains okay.  It’s good to have something to hold onto in this parlous world.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Modest Proposal for American Sunday Afternoons

So Lauren and I were sitting in the living room this morning, watching Manchester City dissect Bournemouth in the English Premier League, because that’s what we do on weekend mornings when we’re not rushing off to some event, project, or commitment.  It’s a nice way to start a day, really.

“How many teams are there in the first two divisions in England?” she asked.  And let me tell you how pleased I am just by the fact that she knows about those divisions.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe 40 or so.”

“That’s about as many teams as there are for football here,” she pointed out.  “We could have that thing they do where teams move up and down.”

“Relegation and promotion?”

“Yeah, that.”

And the more we thought about this, the better idea it became.  Think about it.  Leaving aside the fact that American football is a giant marketing scheme designed to produce profits by addling the brains of its participants and fleecing the taxpayers into building palatial stadiums for owners who are already billionaires, this isn’t a bad idea.  Split the NFL in half and make them play for the right not only to win a championship but also to move up or down in their leagues.  Sheer brilliance!

We’d only need two leagues to make that work, really.  Yes, English football has anywhere from half a dozen to a gross of the things, depending on how you count, but soccer requires far less equipment than American football and it’s much more widespread on a professional level to start with.  Two would work at first, and if it catches on we can be more inclusive.

Eventually we can get rid of college football altogether and devote university resources to actual education.  Radical, I know, but maybe sometime down the line we can think about it.  Seriously - you don't think the Crimson Tide are ready for promotion now?  We could improve the professional game and end the embarrassing charade of Division I college football "student athletes" all in one fell swoop.

Really, this might work.

For one thing, it would improve the level of competition, in a couple of ways.  First, you’d have more games with like talent going up against like talent.  The NFL prides itself on parity – on an “any given Sunday” mentality – but seriously, when Cleveland plays the Patriots this season is there anyone in America who thinks that game will be anything other than a glorified practice for New England?  No, give them more games against the Eagles, a team that still isn't sure which end of the field is theirs, and let New England play the Steelers a few times.  And second, it would eliminate the “mailing it in” that you get over the last month or so from teams at the bottom.  Teams at the bottom of the first division would still have something to play for, while teams on the bubble in the second division – teams that aren’t going to win the championship but still might be promoted – would as well.  Yes, the folks at the bottom of the second division are still going to mail it in, but now you’ve got four teams doing that instead of twelve.

For another thing, it would be a boon for NFL expansion.  32 teams breaks down into two 16-team divisions, which is doable but still kind of small.  You could add as many as 8 teams to that mix to bring it up to EPL standards.  This adds jobs and profits, so everyone wins except the people who get addled brains.

Yes, this whole thing might be moot in a generation as fewer and fewer people want to play the game at all, for obvious and wholly justified reasons, but nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people so I’m going to assume there will still be football.

Lauren and I spent some time deciding where to locate these new teams, and I introduced her to the concept of “where are you going to get a paying crowd to show up for games?”  This put something of a damper on putting teams in the Dakotas, for example, but did add a pleasant degree of difficulty and geographic knowledge to the activity.

We decided that Portland, Oregon could use a team.  You could put one in Las Vegas – why not, prostitution is already legal there – and perhaps in Salt Lake City, although we did get sidetracked as to what one would call a Salt Lake City team since “Jazz” was already taken (I know!).  There ought to be one in the midwest that can pull from places like Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, so perhaps Omaha (no, not Lincoln – that would be like putting a team in Madison).  You could probably put a dozen teams in the deep south. 

Seriously, this could work.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Opening Weekend

The Eagles won yesterday.

I should celebrate this, because it’s not likely to happen very often this season.  They’re in their latest year of an eternal rebuilding process, one that they hope will win them a championship sometime after the sun goes dark and all other teams – including teams in other sports – perish of the cold, so starting off the season with a win is about as much of a victory as I’m going to get anytime soon.

But my interest in American football has been declining steadily over the last few years.  I still watch, but nowhere near as avidly as I once did.  For one thing, as the medical consequences of the game become increasingly obvious it more and more begins to look like cockfighting or gladiatorial combat, which is not a comparison designed to make anybody happy.  For another, even without the blood sport comparisons, the simple fact is that other sports just appeal to me more on sheer entertainment value these days.

Most of the time, given a choice, I end up watching soccer or hockey.  This of course means that my American citizenship will soon be revoked by the Gatekeepers Of All Things Murcan – the same folks who decreed that politicians had to wear flag pins or be declared unpatriotic and who insist that football is the One True Sport.   

And to be honest, it’s kind of hard to watch the game for my own reasons too.  A lot of my incentive to pay attention just isn’t there anymore.

My dad was a big Eagles fan.  He grew up with the team, coming of age in the late 1950s just as the NFL was taking over from Major League Baseball as the nation’s pastime.  It was his sport.  My grandfather was a baseball fan first and paid attention to football as time and energy permitted but my dad was the other way around, and so the generations shift.  Even as his health declined over last season, we could always get a good conversation going over the foibles of the latest game.  The Birds were great conversation fodder that way, being a team composed mainly of foibles.  Every week we’d dissect the game’s plays and talk about what they could have done if they had talent, leadership, vision, and/or clues, much as we’d been doing since I was old enough to understand the rules.  It was a nice little thing we shared.  A year ago today that would have been a good part of my morning, here on the Monday after opening weekend.

The thing about when someone you love passes away is that it doesn’t really happen all at once. 

Oh, the physical part does, of course.  People are alive one moment and gone the next and that’s just how biology works.  But they ebb from your life by degrees.

You don’t notice it much at first, especially if you already live hundreds of miles apart and are used to not seeing them every day.  And then you see something or find something that you think would be interesting to share and suddenly you realize that you can’t do that anymore.  It’s an odd feeling, really, and in that instant that person gets just that much further away.

It’s a common feeling, I know.  People die all the time, and other people survive them, remember them, miss them.  Everyone goes through it.

That doesn’t make it any easier.

I will remember.  I will hold those memories dear and cherish them.  I will tell those stories and pass them along, even as the living person behind them recedes further into the past.  I’m a historian – that’s what I do.

Go team.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Breaking and Entering

Every semester I ask my students to tell me one thing that they’ve done that nobody else in the room has done.  This is a nice way of separating them out from each other so I can keep them straight in my head, and also of letting them know that their classmates are interesting people.  It’s far too easy to see classmates as just note-taking lumps in the desk next door – or just pixels on the screen, for online classes – and it’s good to be reminded that they’re real people with lives you can only guess at.

I get some interesting responses, too.  It’s good for me to be reminded as well.

To get the ball rolling I always tell them something about me, because it seems only fair.  I try to vary it semester by semester so I don’t bore myself and so if I do have a student who takes more than one of my classes they don’t have the same little tidbit every time.

This is this year’s factoid.

A friend and I once broke into my high school using only our Swiss Army knives.  They never did find out it was us – or at least we never heard about it if they did – but they did replace those doors the following summer.

As always, the real story is rather longer.  And since the statute of limitations has long since expired on this particular event, I feel free to tell it.

I got into technical theater because I was a c-heat sprinter on the track team.  My buddy Art – a fellow c-heat guy – realized that there was nothing much for us on the team since we would never get any faster and the coach wasn't particularly interested in doing anything to change that, so he roped me into working backstage for a show at the end of my freshman year.  And I found my home.

I never did join the Stage Crew, which was an elected club at my high school, but I was a member in all but name.  I worked almost every show, ate my lunch up in the lighting platform with the rest of them, and even got to change the letters in the sign out in front of the school a few times (which is another long story, and all I will say about it here is that there is a reason why they didn’t ask me to do that very often).  Most of my friends were either backstage or in the choir or both – those organizations overlapped a great deal.

Theater is a great place for stories.

For this particular story you need to know four things.

First, it was a Saturday.  The show was running a bit behind schedule and we all needed to come in for a rehearsal, and the school was of course closed.  This meant that we were wholly dependent on the teacher showing up to let us into the building, since none of us had the keys.

Second, it was February.  Granted, it was February in suburban Philadelphia rather than in Wisconsin, so it wasn’t too horribly brutal outside, but it was still rather below freezing and that was cold enough.

Third, the teacher was about an hour late.  I’m not sure what held him up that day, and I don’t think we ever really got the story.  But honestly we didn’t care.  Late is late when you're cold.

And fourth, the tech crew gets shit done.  Always.

So there we were, all three dozen or so of us cast and crew, shivering and complaining in the way that high school students are wont to do, while no key-bearing teacher appeared to let us in so that we could start rehearsal.  Eventually it occurred to my friend Larry and me that there had to be a solution to this.

There were no unlocked doors elsewhere in the building that we could find.  So that left us with trying to get in where we were.

The doors to the auditorium lobby were metal-framed things with two thick plexiglass windows each, one above a wide horizontal metal strip that bisected the door and one below.  They were key-locked from the outside, but like all public access doors they were just panic locked on the inside – if we could get in, we could just push them open. 

But how to get in? 

The doors were thick and sturdy, and the plexiglass was specifically designed to withstand all of the abuse that high school students dish out as a matter of routine.  They were intended to prevent people like us from getting in, after all.  Else why not just put up a curtain?

It was then that we noticed that all of those sturdy plexiglass windows in those thick metal doors were just held in place by thin wooden strips, and those strips were simply screwed into the metal frame with Philips-head screws.

Well, Larry and I were tech crew.  We both had Swiss Army knives with that particular attachment.  Folks, step aside.

Two minutes later we had the window loose enough that Larry could squeeze past it into the lobby.  He popped up on the other side, pushed open the door, and presto!  Rehearsal could now proceed in the nice heated school building.

Of course Larry and I put the door back together once we were in.  We weren’t vandals.

The teacher must have showed up not long after, because by the time we got the lighting and set in place he was there to run the rehearsal.  He may or may not have wondered how we got in – maybe a maintenance person? – and someone may or may not have told him the story.  But the thing about that particular teacher is that he was very good at Not Seeing Things when it served his purpose.

This is the same guy who ran my Shakespeare class, after all.

So Larry and I never did hear from any disciplinary body regarding this.  But a couple of months later they replaced all of those doors with new ones that couldn’t be cracked with a screwdriver.  So it goes.

Monday, September 5, 2016

All Is Well

My car has decided that it needs to reassure me.

We’ve had the minivan for a couple of years now, and it has been a fine and worthwhile vehicle.  We have taken it to at least twenty states in three different time zones so far and it has gotten us there and back in one piece and in relative comfort.  We’ve put more than 40,000 miles on it, and transported entire hosts of friends and family hither and yon, and in the midwest yon can be quite a ways from hither let me tell you.  And in all that time the van never felt any particular need to talk to us.

Until now.

I understand that manufacturers put in those synthesized voice units mostly to warn people of impending doom, since few Americans can be bothered to read anything anymore and the mechanics of putting a long metal arm that would swing down from the roof and bitch-slap the driver and then point to a warning light are cost-prohibitive.  Believe me, the engineers have tried hard to make that work, if only for their own amusement, and while someday I expect to see it as a standard feature on all new models today is not that day.

They’re safety systems, in other words, designed to let you know when things go wrong.

Recently, however, the van has decided to let us know that things are in fact going swimmingly, which is polite if somewhat mystifying. 

It started a couple of weeks ago when I was backing out of our driveway – a nerve-wracking experience in the best of times, as you have to go the entire length of the house with the foundation on one side and a fence on the other, on a pathway about eight inches wider than the van.  I had gotten about to the dining room windows when the van gave a soothing series of synthesized beeps and then a pre-programmed female voice announced that “The HFT is okay.”

Well, I thought, once I had calmed down.  Glad to hear it.

I figured that was it, because really – how often do you need to be informed that nothing is wrong?  But the van was rather insistent on this point, it turned out, and about every half minute for the next several miles the van took the opportunity to remind me that the HFT remained in its state of okayness.  Further bulletins as events warrant.

Since then the van has continued to make this same announcement almost every time we get in to go somewhere.  Day after day, trip after trip – “The HFT is okay.”  Usually it cuts out after a couple of repetitions, but not always.  Sometimes it takes a couple of miles.  After a while you begin to wonder why the HFT is just okay.  Why can’t it be fabulous?  Stupendous?  Exciting?  But no, okay is what it is. 

And that’s okay.

I suppose it could just be covering up something, trying to convince us – or perhaps itself – that nothing is wrong even as the whole innards of the engine is slowly melting or some similar automotive crisis unfolds just beyond our awareness.  But that would be going to an awful lot of trouble when it could just ignore us the way every other vehicle I’ve ever owned has done and achieve the same result, and in point of fact there has been no evidence of any problems that we’ve been able to find.  The HFT and everything else seems to be okay.

We don’t really know what the HFT is, but since we are reassured that it is okay we’re willing to let that slide for now.  I suppose if the HFT were somehow not okay – if the voice one day were to tell us that the HFT is feeling a bit poorly, or was missing a piece that it needed, or was in fact about to do something particularly stupid that would leave everything in a half mile radius a smoking crater, then we might be more motivated to find out what exactly an HFT is and how it had transitioned from Okay to Not Okay.

But for now it’s kind of reassuring to know that in a world where every day the news brings us ever more graphic reminders of things that are not okay there remains something that is, in fact, okay.

It’s a very thoughtful car that way.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

School, Round Next

Friday was the first day of school here in Our Little Town.

I know.  You could have heard the complaints from three counties away, and that was just the parents.  Throw in the teachers, administrators, and perhaps – perhaps! – even the students themselves, and we had ourselves a regular bullfrog chorus going on. 

It’s not the school part, not really.  It’s the “getting up early and having to do things that other people require” part.  I have found that a large part of being an adult is that second piece, however, which is why summers lost most of their attraction for me sometime in the mid-1980s.  I never minded the school part, though.  This may be one of the reasons I ended up as a teacher.  If I’m going to get jacked out of bed and ordered around anyway I might as well be doing something I like.

Let that be a lesson to you, kids.  Life is too short to wake up screaming.

Tabitha’s a junior this year over at Local Businessman High School, which is a good year to be in as I recall.  She’s past the initial getting used to the place stages, and hasn’t hit the pre-nostalgia squeeze-it-all-in stage of senior year.  It’s a comfortable year.  And now that she can drive, it may be a sociable year as well.  I don’t recall being home much my last two years of high school, anyway.

Lauren is starting 8th grade – her last year over at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.  She’s at the top of the MCGMS ladder and I hope she enjoys it, because the great truth of life is that the top of one ladder is just the bottom of the next.  Stay in the moment.

We’re all academics in this house, in one way or another.  The year starts in September, not January, and autumn is for beginnings rather than endings.

Good luck, ladies.  I’m proud of you.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

News and Updates

1. It’s been that kind of month, the kind where not only am I far too busy for my own good (which separates me from most people not one whit, I know – free time has become un-American) but I find I have very little to say even when I do have time.  Nevertheless, things happen and since this is where I write that stuff down, I will do so now. 

2. It has been a summer of home repair projects, most of them enacted by Kim.  I regard home repair projects as a form of dentistry – something that will probably be good for me in the long run but which gives me no pleasure and from which I derive no satisfaction – so Kim has learned that while I will do my part, it’s best just if she just does what she wants without asking me my opinions.  I have no opinions worth listening to on such things.  Also, that if she just ignores my muttering and complaints they will go away leaving no lasting harm to anyone – honestly, even I don’t remember them afterwards.  They’re just therapy for me, and not to be taken seriously.  So we now have a new kitchen floor to replace the one that had begun to fall apart.  The kitchen has also been repainted, as has Lauren’s room (Lauren chose the colors and patterns, and pitched in with the painting, so now her long, low room is a light shade of purple with horizontal black and white stripes at either end – hey, as long as she likes it, because it’s going to stay that way for a while).  Our bedroom has new carpeting.  And Tabitha’s room will be repainted sometime in the near future.  Pretty soon I will no longer be able to find my way around the place by memory.  It will be a "George Washington's Axe" kind of house.

3. We spent an enjoyable weekend with some good friends of ours from out of town, running them ragged and showing them various Points of Interest here in Wisconsin.  We went to the Renaissance Faire, spent an afternoon at a waterpark, hosted our “Kind of Annual Whenever We Remember It ‘We Dare You To Eat That’ Party,” introduced them to our chickens (who do a marvelous job of cleaning out vehicles when spills happen, as it turns out – ask us for rental rates) and even found some time just to hang out and relax.  Also, we have decided that there needs to be a Culver’s in New York.  Good times!

4. I have now finished the Game of Thrones books.  They’re very well written and worth the time, but I am ready to move on to other things.  Five thousand pages of one story is enough for now.

5. The contract year has started down at Home Campus, which means that I have spent much of the week in more meetings than are healthy for the human mind to endure.  All of them are well-intentioned, of course, and most of them even have useful information in them here and there.  I’m just not one for meetings.  I’ll be glad when it’s time to get down to actual work, or, more accurately, when I can get down to my actual work without maneuvering around all the meetings.

6. I have been doing my best to ignore the wasteland that is the presidential election this year, in large part because the mere idea that Donald Trump is supported by so many people is enough to give any rational human being hives.  I keep waiting for him to stop being a junior-high bully, to come up with a coherent policy idea (just one!), or to behave in a way that might possibly make him not a real and present threat to the survival of the American republic and global stability, and I keep being disappointed.  The man is an empty space out of which pours lunacy, and the fact that he is in the position he is in is a damning indictment of American culture.  At this point I’m fairly confident he will not win – frankly I don’t think he wants to win, which would explain a lot of his conduct – but a) this is the USA and nobody, no matter how bigoted, ignorant, dangerously unqualified, or flat out immature, can ever truly be ruled out for office until the votes are counted and the inauguration has taken place, and b) even if he does lose, he will go away but the millions of Americans who support him will remain and likely be emboldened by it all.  If that doesn’t scare you, you aren’t thinking clearly.

7. Why is it that when you tell people that you do not like beer they feel obligated to have you sample their favorite beers in order to try to change your mind?  “Here!” they say.  “This is the quintessential perfection of that thing you hate!  It will make you change your mind, because clearly you weren’t getting a pure enough version of what you don’t like!  Enjoy!”  It’s beer.  It tastes like fermented sweatsocks.  High quality beer tastes like high quality fermented sweatsocks.  Please put that away and fetch me a whiskey.

8. It is now easier for me to read my computer screen without my glasses than with them.  Methinks I need another visit to the eye guy, though I doubt my insurance will pay for one so hard on the heels of the last one.  Good thing we don’t have Government Death Panels.  The private ones are so much classier.

9. Gelatinous Mutant Coconut is far tastier than you’d think.

10. I spent a few days cleaning up my office at home in preparation for our friends’ visit, since it became a temporary bedroom and nobody should be forced to sleep in my office when it is in its usual state of upheaval.  Now that they have gone back home I suppose I should put back some of the stuff that I took out, but I’m kind of liking the extra space.  No rush, really.  Maybe this weekend.