Monday, December 19, 2016

Random Meds

I have reached the age where doctors prescribe me things based solely on my demographics.

I had my annual physical last month – it keeps sliding later and later into the year because of insurance restrictions, and eventually it will cycle all the way around and they will have saved the cost of one whole visit – and it went pretty well.  Nothing of any problematic nature, really.  I’m in about as good a condition as I was this time last year, though I need to schedule some Unpleasantness at some point next year.

Which is, in itself, a demographic decision rather than a personal one.

“Oh, you’re a fifty year old man?  Well, have we got a treat in store for you!”

So there I was, being poked, prodded, fondled, and generally examined in that full-contact way that doctors have, when my physician paused and said, “Wait, you’re how old again?”  And when I answered he said, “Oh, well in that case you should be taking a baby aspirin every day.”

What, does my odometer roll over when I hit 50?  Have I returned to all zeroes, just like the ’64 Malibu my parents owned when I was a kid?  I know what happened to that car not long after that - this is not a reassuring thing.

Well, apparently yes it does mean that.  This advice was not anything to do with me, personally, so much as it was something he felt a man of my age should do.

So I went out and bought some.

The stuff has not changed since 1971.  It still has that same chalky texture.  It still has that same pastel color.  And it still has that odd vaguely orange flavor that I have never found outside of chewable aspirin tablets and Irn Bru.


So now I add that to my daily inventory, and I hope that it can make up for the various unhealthy habits that I have, such as sitting too much, using my brain for more than just keeping my ears from colliding, and generally being too aware of my surroundings for the good of my blood pressure.

When I hit 80, I will ask for a prescription for fine whiskey and drink it wherever I want, because medicine.

Until then: baby aspirin.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Faces of Lauren, 2016

Every year I take a look through the photos I’ve taken in order to document what happens when you point a camera at Lauren.

She’s a lot of fun, that one.

I’ve been doing this since 2010.  When she was younger it was my project, but now it’s as much hers as mine.  She gets final say over what appears here.  Fortunately she has a good sense of humor about it all and thinks the whole thing is as funny as I think it is.

I didn't take as many photos this year as I normally do.  It's been that kind of year.  But there were still a few good ones to share.


Friday, December 16, 2016

A Night at the Ballroom

We’re the cool parents.

Well, no.  I wasn’t cool when I was young and cared.  Nor have the intervening years made me any cooler, to be honest, and I stopped caring long before I graduated from high school anyway.  Kim insists that she was cool once, but I’m sure I have leached that right out of her simply by my presence in her life.

So we’re not cool, not really.  But we can do cool things, and that’s about as good, I think.

Last night we took the girls to see Panic! At the Disco in Milwaukee.

Naturally yesterday was the day that winter well and truly arrived here in Wisconsin.  The high temperature was in the single digits, Fahrenheit, and Wisconsin winters are pretty clear about which digit that is most of the time – sometimes with both hands.  Plus it was windy enough that the schools here in Our Little Town opened late that morning to give the wind-chill a chance to get within hailing distance of 0F.  So: cold.

But we were undaunted!  We are hardy souls!  Besides, we’d paid for these tickets and by all that was sweet and holy we were going to use them.

The Rave is one of those venues that was clearly built for better times early in the last century.  It’s a monstrous pile of a building not far from the interstate in an area where the streets are narrow, jumbled, and impassable if there are more than half a dozen cars moving at once.  Naturally there were about 3500 people there last night, all of whom drove at least one car and from the looks of it possibly several at once, perhaps by remote control, and my guess is that this was not all that uncommon of an occurrence at Rave events.  Fortunately the Milwaukee PD understands this and was there to direct traffic, although if I might be so bold as to make a recommendation I would suggest that they wear white gloves next time so you can actually see the hand motions before there is any need to go all single-digit on people.

Kim dropped me and the girls off near the entrance and went in search of parking, so the three of us found a door and walked in.   She joined us later, and if you’re not impressed by the sheer improbability of that achievement in a place as dark and crowded as this one was, you’re not thinking clearly.

The lower levels are an odd cross between ‘70s Italian restaurant (all dark brick and neon) and 80s mosh pit, with signs discouraging crowd surfing and telling you to leave cameras, video-recorders, and weapons elsewhere.  They don’t say anything about phones, though, and since most people under 30 have no idea that there are cameras and video recorders that don’t also text or surf the web I’m not sure how effective that policy is.  They certainly didn’t try to enforce it.  There weren’t any weapons that I saw, though, so at least that one was good.

You climb up a few flights of stairs, go through a line or two, get patted down and wanded by security (which I did twice, since I went back downstairs to check in our coats), and then you walk up the final set of stairs to the ballroom.

The ballroom is exactly what it says it is – a cavernous space roughly the shape and twice the size of the Goodyear blimp, lined with pillars and box seating on the second level, that no doubt was jammed with dancers during the Coolidge Administration.  It looked like the sort of place where a decaying aristocracy would waltz away the night in order to ignore the oncoming war.  There were no seats on the main level.

As soon as we got there the girls disappeared into the crowd on the floor of the ballroom.  They spent the concert out there in the center of things, doing whatever it is teenaged girls do at these concerts.  As a parent, you learn not to enquire too closely about things sometimes.

It was an all-ages show so the level of nonsense was a bit muted from what it might otherwise have been, however, though they did serve alcohol to those who were of age.  I decided to pass on that, though Kim did give me some of her cider and it was quite nice.  If I can forgive that particular company the smugness of its advertisements I may in fact buy some myself in the near future.

Kim and I found a spot way over on stage right.  This was a nice place to land for several reasons.  For one thing, it was on the far side of the room from the main entry point, so relatively few people actually made it that far into the room.  Most people got bogged down in the middle, in front of the stage.  This meant that we could stand right up close to the stage, without being pressed in by bodies.  We were about fifteen paces from the singers most of the time.  For another thing, the stage thrust out a bit from the proscenium arch, and we ended up actually behind the singers most of the time.  We couldn’t see them if they went upstage of the proscenium, but most of the time they were out there on the lip of the stage, working the crowd, and we had a pretty much uninterrupted sight line the whole night except when the guitar player would wander by.

This also meant that we were behind the speakers.  They had a LOT of speakers (“Meet my friend, Marshall Stack!”) and they used them hard.  I was wearing a fairly heavy sweatshirt and we were a good fifteen feet behind the speakers, and I could feel that sweatshirt vibrate just from the noise levels.  The hell of it was that we could see the levels on the sound system from where we were – they never got anywhere close to red.  They could have easily doubled the decibel level of that concert, though the building would likely have fallen down if they had.

There were two opening acts.

The first was a jaunty young woman called Charli XCX, who had a minor hit a few years ago about driving her car into a bridge abutment.  I have to say she was a lot of fun.  It was just her and a DJ providing instrumentals as far as I could see from my vantage point, but she bounced and whirled and generally got things up and lively.

At the end she did another of her songs that most people in the crowd seemed to know – Kim and I were rather toward the older end of this audience’s age range, and they were much more familiar with her stuff than I was – and everyone who had such a thing on their phones cranked up the flash app and swayed back and forth.

The next act, however, was a drag.  The guy was some kind of DJ, apparently from France of all places, and he spent about an hour playing other people’s music in increasingly distorted and random contexts.  I suppose if this were a party where you could dance if you wanted or just wander over and get some food it might have been worthwhile, but in a concert setting he was just a parasite on other people’s talent and I was glad when he finally wound down and went away.

And then the main act came on.  You could tell because all of the sudden the audience was shouting louder than usual.

Panic! At the Disco used to be a band, but now it’s just one guy – Brendon Urie, the lead singer – and whatever musicians he tours with.  He’s a thin man with an unruly mop of hair, and forty years ago he would have been David Byrne except with a much better voice than Byrne ever had.  His music ranges from fairly heavy duty rock/emo sorts of things to songs that are essentially Sinatra updated for the new millennium.

He certainly had a grand time up there – one of the things about being where we were was that we could see the expressions on his face pretty clearly – and I think he got a kick out of the fact that the audience would sing along with him.  He also managed a complete backflip from a platform about two feet above the stage, which I’m sure gives his manager nightmares every time he tries it.

The radio station that sponsored the concert had some nice photos up on their website too, and since I was there I figure I can post some of them.  All credit goes to 103.7 KISS FM out of Milwaukee, so the copyright lawyers can rest easy that I am not trying to steal their stuff.

This was Charli XCX.

I’m not too worried about getting pictures of the second act, to be honest.  I couldn’t see him from where I was standing and I never saw any reason to fix that while I was there. 

But there is a part of me that wishes I had seen Panic! At the Disco from up front, even though I liked where I was and would probably have been rendered clinically deaf in half a chorus if I had.  Noise is for the young, at least at those levels. 

If you look behind the small box in back of the guitar player in the next picture, that’s pretty much were I was most of the night.  The green dot would be just above my head.

It took forever to get out of the place – the coat check room alone was an exercise in barely controlled chaos far more unruly than the concert itself – but eventually we found our way to the car.  And after some sociologically fascinating experiences driving away from the venue, we hit the interstate and were homeward bound.  We got home around 1am, which is pretty late for a school night.  But sometimes you do things because they are worth doing, and the next day can take care of itself.

We took our daughters to a concert, and it was a grand and lovely time.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Juuuuuust a Bit Inside

Have you ever made a joke that was just too damned subtle for its own good but it was still worth it to you, even if nobody else got it?

Welcome to my world.

I live in what I consider to be a small town.  Lauren disagrees with me whenever I say this, pointing out – accurately, it must be said – that it is legally a City and that it is the most populous human settlement in the county, but I grew up in and around what was then the fourth largest city in America, a place where the population of Our Little Town would be considered a rounding error, so a small town I continue to regard it as.

This has its plusses and minuses, as most things do.

One of the things that could be either a plus or a minus depending on how it plays out is that it’s remarkably easy to get into the newspaper here.  There aren’t many professional historians living in Our Little Town, after all, so once you become known as someone who can reliably comment on stories that require historical knowledge, the reporters tend to remember you.  Between that and my stint running the museum in the next town up from here, I’ve somehow managed to become a regular in the local press.

This is one of the weirder parts of my life, really, but not a bad part for all that.

I once got interviewed for a story on the local public garden, for example – a garden that had a space dedicated to the sorts of things that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello.  It was fun talking about Jefferson that way.  Not much call for it in most classrooms, sadly enough.

I ended up back in the paper this week, though this time for something that the Founding Fathers probably wouldn’t have known too much about.

It was an article on Christmas letters.

We write a Christmas letter most years, whenever time and patience allow.  We try to keep them interesting, because it is my firm belief that authors must justify taking time out of readers’ lives.  It’s not the job of the reader to prove himself to the author.  So we write in various different formats – last year we did it as a Playbill, one year it was the Declaration of Independence, and some years we just do charts and graphs of the year – and we try to make it fun.  The reporter interviewed me and several other people who also do Christmas letters and wrote an article with helpful advice for those who might also wish to write such letters.

This particular reporter is one of the funnier ones at the local paper, and it’s always worth reading her stories for that alone.  As part of the humor of this piece, she described us as “one of those perfect families with high-achieving children, award-winning pets and a dust-free home,” which I thought was funny.  Yes, our children are pretty high-achieving people – a testament to their character more than anything else – and our pets have in fact won any number of ribbons down at the 4H fair, depending on how far you stretch the definition of “pet,” but dust-free we are not.

I’m a historian.  Dust is my milieu.

Someone clipped that paragraph out of the paper and posted it to my Facebook page as a photo, which of course engendered all sorts of conversation from people who know us and were, shall we say, deeply amused by the notion that we’d be dust-free.

Naturally, I had to make that my cover photo.

And while I was at it, I thought I’d put up a new profile photo, since Facebook has been on my case about that for months now.  Facebook puts angry little red marks on your page whenever they decide you’ve had your profile and cover photos for too long, and to be honest this just made me not want to change those photos ever again.  But opportunities arise, and so here I was.

What should I put up?

Eventually I chose a photo of a cartoon character from a show that the girls used to like back when they were little.  It was a show about a vaguely dark-ages family, set in a bizarre little castle in a run-down kingdom far from the centers of whatever civilization existed in this world.  There were sorcerers, warlords, and the usual quasi-medieval trappings that one associates with fantasy as a genre these days.  The humor was clever and the animation exuberant, and you could sit there with your child and enjoy it as much as they did for what were probably different reasons.  It was a fun show, really.  I was kind of sorry when they outgrew it.

The show and the character were both called “Dave the Barbarian.”

I thought it made a nice contrast with the notion of us being dust-free.

I am no doubt the only person who got the joke, and that’s okay by me.  Sometimes you just have to keep yourself amused in this cold, cold world.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


For those of you who have never completed a PhD program, which statistically speaking is most of you, there are a number of tasks you have to complete before they turn you loose and call you Doctor. 

The most obvious, of course, is the defense of your dissertation – a strange experience where you sit in a room with your committee, most of whom have read your dissertation and repeatedly offered criticism and advice by that point, and they grill you on it for a couple of hours.  It’s the final hurdle, and while it is a pile of work to get there and a fairly intense experience while you’re going through it, the fact is that your main advisor won’t let you walk into that room unless they’re pretty sure you’re going to pass.  Plus, the simple fact is that you’re the expert in the room – you’ve spent several years researching  a fairly narrow issue and become the foremost authority in the world on it by that point – and you really should be able to handle whatever they throw at you.

Comps are different.

Your comprehensive exams are the final hurdle before you embark on your dissertation, where you need to demonstrate that you’ve learned everything there already is to know about your subject so you can go out and find something that people don’t already know and write about that for your dissertation.  In history this means reading – lots of reading.  I got three lists of books and articles from my comps committee members and then spent slightly more than a year reading a book every other day, on average.  And then they test you on all of it.  It’s a gate-keeper assignment – everyone who wants to move on to the next level has to go through it, and if they don’t think you’re up to that next level they will take the opportunity presented here to shunt you off the track and into some other career.  It is entirely possible to fail, in other words.

How they test you varies from place to place, but where I went for graduate school the standard format was three take-home exams, one for each list, spaced over a two-week period.  You showed up at the department office around 8am, picked up your exam – usually three broad, integrative questions designed to get you to synthesize your readings around some of the more important issues in the field – and went back home to work on them.  You spent the day writing essays – maybe 25-30pp total – and then returned the lot of it to the office by the time it closed at 5pm.

The rest of the day was yours.  There was an oral exam on the lot of it a week or so after the last written exam was turned in, but that was so far into the indefinite future as to be unimaginable while the written exams were still going on.

Each time I would walk out of the office secure in the knowledge that I had nothing left of any importance to do until the next morning, which was good because my brain was pretty much mush by that point.  So I’d walk slowly up the main drag there in Iowa City and randomly poke through the shops along the way, because retail is soothing sometimes.

This was back in the early 90s, when CDs were still relatively new and wonderful, and there was a nifty little CD shop on the second floor of one of the buildings that I would stop into on my way home from the exams.  And after each exam I would buy one CD as a reward.  The first one I bought more or less at random – I went into the general section labeled “Music Dave Might Like” and leafed through the bins until one caught my eye.  For the other two I just cleaned out the remaining two CDs by that same artist, since I liked the first one.

I’d never heard of Kirsty MacColl before that first exam.

Clearly I was missing out.

There were a lot of great songs on that first CD – which turned out to be something of a Greatest Hits collection for an artist who tended to hang out somewhere off to the side of the Top 40 charts and therefore could be construed as either ironic commentary or just hopeful marketing – and there are a couple of songs from that CD that stick with me even now, but the one that I make a point of pulling out every year around this time is the duet she did with the Pogues on a song called Fairytale of New York.  I've been listening to it a lot this week.

Fairytale of New York is perhaps the greatest Christmas song written in the last few decades, a sad, bitter, and oddly comforting story of two outsiders at each other’s throats and the dreams they had once.  Not everything works out. 

“I could have been someone.”
“Well so could anyone.”

It’s a story of love and broken dreams and cherished memories, and it is, as Michael Brendan Dougherty once said, “a salve to the soul.”

Happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all who would just like to have a good day even if they don’t celebrate it.