Sunday, April 30, 2017

Faster! Higher!

The problem with spring in Wisconsin is that it is both brief and reversible.

We actually had spring back in February.  I believe it was a Thursday.  It got all the way up to about 75F.  The skies were blue, the flowers bloomed, and for a brief shining moment we could all forget the concerns of the larger world as we stared forlornly at those flowers and thought, “You poor bastards have no idea what’s about to hit you, do you?”  And of course they didn’t.  They were flowers, after all.  Flowers are not known for their long-range planning abilities.

So it should not have come as any great surprise last week when Lauren’s first couple of track meets were held in grey, drizzly, windy conditions on two consecutive days, the first of which saw a high of 62F while the second made those of us in the stands recall the first day as a halcyon time of warmth and comfort.

It may have actually snowed.  After a while you just ignore it, because really what are you going to do about it anyway?

This is Lauren’s third year on the Mighty Clever Guy Middle School track team, and she seems to enjoy it.  Every year they go out and practice, and then the meets start.  Sometimes the meets are quick, and sometimes they border on eternity.  I’m not sure how this distinction is made in the planning stages.  I only know what it seems like from the outside.

Last week they got all of the middle schools here in Our Little Town together and had the girls do track on Wednesday and field on Thursday, while the boys did it the other way around.  This did not especially please Lauren, who enjoys the field events much more than actually running around a track, and I can understand that.  

But on Wednesday she ran the 200 and then the second leg of a 4x200, and she did a respectable job.  MCGMS is not generally reckoned as the fleetest of foot here in Our Little Town, but they held their own and that's all you can ask of people, I think.

One thing I have never understood is why they insist on calling the 4x200 the 800-meter-relay here.  Yes, I get it, the total distance traveled is 800 meters.  But when you say “800-meter-relay” all I think of is an unspecified number of runners traveling 800 meters apiece.  Is this a midwestern thing?  Have they changed the nomenclature since I was a lad and ran the 4x200?  Maybe.  

Thursday, while significantly colder, was more Lauren’s speed, as she got to do the high jump and triple jump.  High jump is her event, and to be honest she really does have very good form.  

She won both of her field events, which was a lovely thing.

Congratulations, Lauren!  I’m proud of you.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Musical Meme

Apparently I’ve been to a lot of concerts.

I didn’t actually think that was the case.  There’s a Facebook meme going around now where you list ten musical acts, nine of whom you have actually seen in concert, and see if your friends can guess the red herring. 

Of course it takes exactly zero seconds for the moral guardians of the internet to jump on fun little memes like this and declare anyone who participates to be flaunting their privilege and generally upsetting the proper order of the universe as determined by said moral guardians – I can’t tell you how many tut-tutting articles and self-important declarations of refusal to participate I have read in the last 48 hours – but my response to such people is the same as it always is to such people.  They and the horses they rode in on are cordially invited to find other sources of entertainment, while the rest of us will have a bit of harmless fun with a mindless little meme.

Yeah, my patience for the guardians of moral probity is a bit thin now.  Has been for years.  If I ever see any reason to change that, I’ll let you know.

So I thought I’d give it a try.  Seemed like fun.  Of course, I wasn’t sure that it would work.  To be honest, my first thought was, “I wonder if I can come up with nine that I’ve seen?”

On the one hand, I’ve been in a lot of concerts. 

I sang in choirs from fourth grade through graduate school and – especially in high school – we performed a great deal, all over the region.  The choir I was in when I was doing my MA actually went on multi-state tours.  I once helped to write and perform an entire chemistry-themed K-Tel-album-style performance for a one-time band called “Joseph Priestley and the Ketones.”  And, like most undergraduates, I was in a band in college.  I highly recommend the experience, as it is a lot of fun and requires no talent.  We would perform in coffee houses and dorm lobbies, and we had a regular gig doing the between-set space of a friend of one of the band members.  She performed at a bar in center city Philadelphia, and we’d haul our stuff down there and do three or four songs every few Thursdays for an audience of half-drunk medical students.  Eventually the bar burned down.  I don’t think that was our fault.

On the other hand, my actually going to concerts to hear other people perform has been rather slim.  Most of them have been small acts, either performers nobody’s ever heard of or performers famous in small niches.  But when I added it all up there are more than nine.  A whole pile more.  And this was a rather pleasant discovery.

The first concert I can remember going to was Leon Redbone.

My dad had two positions – vertical and asleep.  So back in high school he’d often be cashed out on the sofa while I or my brother would be watching late night television.  Sometimes he’d wake up and watch with us.  Thus we watched Saturday Night Live one evening where Leon Redbone was the musical guest.  Not long after that we discovered he would be appearing locally. 

This was a no brainer.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, Leon Redbone was a fascinating performer.  Always dressed in a white linen suit and Panama hat, he had a resonant bass voice and mostly performed Dixieland jazz and other early-20th-century-style music.  He also had a sly sense of humor, as perhaps you’d expect from this description.  For that concert he was actually the opening act for George Carlin (and wasn’t that a double bill!) and at one point he took out a small camera and started taking pictures of us.  “Smile!” he’d say.

I saw him a few times, actually, in venues large and small.  Perhaps the most memorable was at a bar in Philadelphia with my college roommate and my dad.  It was memorable not because of who I was there with but because the opening act was a local comedian.  The performing space was ringed with televisions, all of which were set to Bugs Bunny cartoons before the show.  Eventually they turned the cartoons off and up trots this mook who starts telling what he obviously considers to be jokes, except they’re the kind of racial comedy that was probably popular in the darker recesses of the 1950s but which even in the 1980s struck most of us as uncomfortable and, worse, Not Actually Funny.  And he didn’t even tell them well.  Eventually the crowd started chanting “We want Bugs Bunny!  We want Bugs Bunny!” and, after a while, we got what we asked for.  And then Leon Redbone came out and all was forgiven.

There were more.

I got paid good money to see 10,000 Maniacs once.  For those of you who don’t remember them, well, you’re missing out.  They were a lot of fun.  They played a sort of melodic pop and their lead singer, Natalie Merchant, had a rich alto voice that you don’t often find in popular music.  She was also completely unable to keep still, which was a concern for me since I was running a spotlight for that show and for vast stretches of time my job was to keep her lit.  This was quite a workout, and a very different experience from the opening act.  Tracy Chapman walked up to the mic in the middle of the stage, pulled out her guitar, and from that point on the only things that moved on her were her fingers and her lips.  Eventually I locked the spotlight into position and went and sat down.

Years later I paid to see 10,000 Maniacs again, but I’m still about $20 ahead on them.

In college I saw Dave Van Ronk perform in a seminar room – there were maybe 20 of us in the audience, I think.  I also got Pete Seegar’s autograph after a show he gave in a small auditorium at Drexel University with a few other old folkies, the only one I remember being Utah Phillips.  He was just standing there in the aisle after the show, so I introduced myself.  He was a gracious man, though he disappeared almost immediately after my friends and I found him there.  I think he didn’t want to be bothered.

Some friends and I went to see Arlo Guthrie back in college.  I don’t think he wanted to be there, though – he certainly didn’t perform as if he did.  His opening act, John Prine, was much happier to be there and it showed.

I saw Ani DiFranco as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival back in the early 90s.  I’ve never seen anyone so energetic, not even Natalie Merchant, who had a looseness to her movements.  Ani DiFranco played like she had just noticed someone walking over to unplug her sound system and was determined to finish her song.  They brought a bunch of great acts to that festival over the years I lived there.  The Roches, whose harmonies continue to amaze and who once recorded a three-part all-female a capella version of The Hallelujah Chorus.  Buddy Guy.  And perhaps my all time favorite, a thoroughly obscure little band called Celtic Elvis.  They were the opening act for another band called the Horseflies, who were actually popular at the time in a grungy indie sort of way but whom I found tiresome.  Celtic Elvis was a lot of fun, though.  Someday I will find “High on Stress!” online.

The nice part about the Three Rivers Arts Festival is that everything was free.  This was important, on a graduate student budget.  It’s always amazing how many things there are out there that you can just walk into that way.  I went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival a couple of times in the 1980s and saw a bunch of great acts there - Elizabeth Cotton, Free Hot Lunch, Dave Bromberg, and so on.  Those weren't free, but they were still surprisingly affordable on a budget.  You have to love that.

You also couldn’t live in Pittsburgh in the early 90s and not see Rusted Root a few times.  They were the best dance band in Pittsburgh before they hit nationally later in the decade.  I wonder what happened to them.  Most people know them today as the band that plays “Send Me On My Way” in the first Ice Age movie.  Through an odd combination of circumstances I ended up hanging out with their bass player one night.  He was a nice guy.

I’ve seen George Winston a couple of times.  Once I brought a pair of binoculars to my nosebleed seats at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and figured out how to play Linus and Lucy by watching him do it.  I also got to see Suzanne Vega at a bleak little club in the Strip District of Pittsburgh.

My job as the Performing Arts Guy at Home Campus has given me a ringside seat at a few concerts.  There was an American roots band called The Barleyjacks who were really good even if nobody came.  We had an Australian band called Max Judo once.  I ended up taking them to a Mexican restaurant afterward, which was a bit of a culture shock.  I spent some time with the Galactic Cowboy Orchestra, whom I highly recommend.  And if you want great harmony and songwriting, you can do no better than The Good Lovelies. 

Last December Kim and I took the girls to see Panic! At the Disco, which was a great deal of fun.

On and on, concerts and venues, performances and memories.  There were others, and they'll come to me by and by.

So many shows.

The red herring for me was Genesis, a band I nearly saw but, well, didn't.  They came to Philadelphia when I was about 15 and my friend Matt and I made big plans to see them.  And then my mom found out and, well, suddenly there were no plans.  I can't say it traumatized me, to be honest.

You know, maybe this is a sign that I’ve led a fairly privileged life, but if the moral order of the universe can’t handle a few concerts, I’m guessing the problem isn’t me.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Marching for Science. In 2017. No, Seriously.

Galileo Galilei was born in 1564, at a time when the Renaissance was giving way to the Scientific Revolution.

Neither of these things were very popular with the Catholic Church, which was an institution that, in the middle of a century of Reformation, Counter-reformation, and religious warfare, had any number of ways to make its displeasure known and every incentive to do so.  And, perhaps inevitably, his scientific views brought him into conflict with the most powerful institution in what is now Italy, where he lived.

In particular, it was Galileo’s defense of the Copernican theory of heliocentrism – that the earth moved around the sun rather than remaining stationary while the heavens spun around it – that bothered the Church.  Oddly enough, Copernicus’ work wasn’t all that controversial in the late 1500s – Pope Gregory XIII used it to help him create the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the calendar that all of Western Civilization uses now – but in the 1600s religious opposition to heliocentrism became more pronounced and vitriolic.  The Church declared heliocentrism “foolish and absurd” in 1616 and declared it to be heretical, and Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon his position that heliocentrism was physically true, though he could discuss it as a theoretical idea.  

When Pope Urban VIII, a friend and admirer of Galileo, came to power in 1623, Galileo resumed writing about heliocentrism.  Unfortunately, his writing angered the pope, and in 1632 he was brought to the Vatican for trial.  He was forced to recant heliocentrism, committed to house arrest for the rest of his life, and saw his book banned.

According to tradition, after being forced to deny the science behind heliocentrism and affirm that the Earth was stationary, Galileo muttered under his breath, “E pur si muove.”

“And yet it moves.”

Deny science all you want, but the facts don’t care.

This is a valuable lesson for modern America, as we find ourselves saddled with an administration whose assaults on science are only just beginning.  Indeed, the GOP war on science has been ongoing since the administration of Bush Jr.  Here in Wisconsin, as in several other GOP strongholds, all mention of climate change and other ideologically inconvenient facts have been scrubbed from official websites and documents and further investigations banned.  It’s gotten so bad at the federal level under der Sturmtrumper that federal scientists are copying data and storing it in hidden places to avoid years of taxpayer-supported research being destroyed in the name of partisan politics.

Deny science all you want, but the facts don’t care.

So today, across the nation, we marched in defense of science.  Americans who understand the importance of acknowledging reality, of investigating facts, of basing policy on data rather than wishful thinking, and who recognize the critical importance of science to our economy, our military strength, and our future took to the streets to protest the debasement of American civil discourse and the ongoing GOP war on science.

Kim and I went up to the march in Madison, since that was the one that was close by.  Naturally we brought signs.

Kim’s was a bit more straightforward than mine, of course.  On the back it said “Science = National Security,” and between the two messages one would hope some light would go on in the heads of the science deniers, though I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Being the historian, I went with the Galileo quote.  I was pleasantly surprised at how many people got it – Madison is a university town, after all – and at how many people who didn’t get it took the time to ask me the story behind it.  The back of mine requires a bit of explanation.

The Catholic Church long ago made its peace with heliocentrism.  And the current Pope – Francis – has repeatedly made public statements confirming the reality of climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang, statements that have angered the American right wing.  If there is anything more grimly amusing than listening to right-wing hucksters lecture the Pope on religious doctrine I’m not sure what it might be.  

This is why the back of my sign simply said, “The Pope is now more enlightened about science than the US government.  Think about that.”

I can’t tell you how many people stopped me for photographs of that.  It warmed my heart, it did.

It took us a while to find the park where the march started, since it’s not one we usually go to, but we ran into someone who was headed in that direction and he was happy to walk with us.  The park was nicely crowded, and there was a band playing.  Of course they ended up playing Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science."  Don't be silly.

I even ran into another Galileo fan.

Eventually we found a couple of friends.  One of the local tv stations interviewed the lot of us briefly, and it will be interesting to see if we end up on the news.

We lost them when the march began, as Kim and I were waylaid on the way out of the park by someone from the student radio station who wanted to interview her.  I got a few comments in as well, so that was nice.

The march wound its way through the streets for a while – there were several thousand people marching, so it took a while.  Most of them had clever signs and there was a festive air to the whole thing.  Madison is perhaps the politest place in the world to have a demonstration.

Eventually we ended up at the Library Mall, where there were speakers who were no doubt interesting but frankly it was mid-afternoon and my blood sugar had crashed an hour earlier so we headed up State Street and found some lunch.

I have no illusions as to the effects of this march.  Der Sturmtrumper will not magically gain an appreciation for the crucial role that science plays in making this country great, in promoting our economy and our society, and maintaining our strength.  He will not back off his attacks or stop promoting the aggressive ignorance that got him elected.  His party won’t make any of those changes either, since their base finds reality inconvenient and won't reward them for acknowledging it.  There has to be more than just marches to make these changes.

But we march anyway.  And the message is simple.

We are here.

We outnumber you.

We are coming.

You are on the wrong side of history, morality, and American values.

We will see you fail.

We will make sure you are forgotten.

Sleep well.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. Anyone who doesn’t actually know what country he has just ordered bombed should not be allowed to order countries to be bombed.  This goes double if chocolate cake is mentioned anywhere in the reveal.

2. Way down in Alabama (“Boldly striding forward into the 13th century!”) the GOP has apparently voted to allow churches to create their own police forces, complete with all of the statutory enforcement power of the Actual Police.  Leaving aside the obvious problems with this as far as the separation of church and state are concerned – the GOP has made it fairly clear that they support theocracy for white evangelical Protestants, and the Constitution and the Founders be damned – there is also the question of what, precisely, a modern nation state is.  One of the quintessential features of a modern nation state is that it reserves both institutional violence (military and police forces) and justice (police and courts) to the central government rather than parsing them out to private militias or vigilantes.  It is one thing to have a private security firm to patrol and turn over alleged violators to the state for action.  It is quite another to allow privilege – “private law” – in its rawest form to be given to non-state actors.  It is also of a piece with the GOP’s continued refusal to address, let alone solve, the irresponsible proliferation of high-powered weaponry in this country, of course, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this usurpation.  It’s not a good sign for the future of the republic, though.

3. Apparently der Sturmtrumper is so desperate to distract the nation from the ever-tightening noose of his Russian collusion that he is seriously working to get us into a war in Korea.  Because that went so well the first time, even before the North Koreans acquired nuclear weapons.  There must be a whole lot of meat in that Russian thing for him to go to these lengths.

4. If you tell me you are a Christian and then tell me you voted for the GOP in any election in the last decade, I will know you for the Pharisee you are. 

5. Like most thin-skinned authoritarians, der Sturmtrumper isn’t a great fan of protests.  They do tend to highlight the criminal and/or merely immoral things he is up to, and that is just not good for business.  Unfortunately the Founding Fathers put that right into the Constitution – a document der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies really ought to read someday – so what he is or is not a fan of is irrelevant. 

6. Of course, he could just do what every other president and presidential nominee has done for decades now and release his tax returns to the general public – we are, after all, his boss – and bring that particular protest to an end.  That would require transparency, however, and that’s not something that thin-skinned authoritarians are noted for either.

7. And on that note, is anyone surprised at der Sturmtrumper’s decision to withhold the visitor logs to the White House from public view?  Makes you wonder who’s coming to visit, doesn’t it?

8. So according to Business Insider, this will be a year for “staggering” numbers of retail bankruptcies.  And why this is considered news is an interesting question.  Wal-Mart was reporting years ago that their customers were running out of money at the end of the month, and that hasn’t changed.  This is what happens when you have people with a fanatically ideological commitment to supply-side economics imposing their will on a demand-side economy.  The net effect of that is to take wealth out of the hands of the poor and middle class and give it to the already wealthy who, not being stupid, just hoard it since there is no point building factories or hiring people to make things that nobody can afford to buy.  In other words, you get the Kansas Miracle, currently making that state an economic and societal basket case, also now in its fifth year here in Wisconsin and, despite a moderate slackening of pace during the Obama years, barreling down the national pike to your town courtesy of the GOP Congress even as I type.  Say it with me, folks: supply-side economics does not work in a demand-side economy.  Never has.  Never will.  The fact that there is an entire party dedicated to this kind of rapacious plundering of the majority and it hasn’t been lined up against a wall come the revolution is nothing short of astonishing, though probably for the best as far as peace and stability are concerned.  The signal achievement of the modern American right wing has been to convince 47% of the American people that slitting their own economic throats is their patriotic duty.

9. Not surprisingly, thanks to a steady diet of these policies since 1980 – a diet only partially reversed by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s and barely slowed under Obama thanks to the rigidly partisan fanaticism of the 21st-century GOP controlling Congress for much of his administration – we are now at a level of economic inequality that we have not seen since 1929.  That didn’t end well the first time.  It won’t end well this time either.  Remember folks – when the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat the rich.  I don’t advocate this.  I merely predict it.

10. How exactly do you lose something as big as an aircraft carrier?  Also, isn’t the front end of one of those things fairly easy to distinguish from the back, so you can tell which way it’s headed?  This is what happens when you elect amateurs and ideologues instead of qualified people.

11. Remember when it was the North Korean leadership that was unstable, authoritarian, and a threat to world peace?  Good times, man.

12. Wouldn’t it be nice if I were actually wrong about all this?  That der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies were actually doing all this as a ruse to distract from their sneaky competence and how the US will see a new golden age of equality, leadership, and prosperity when all is said and done?  Yeah, I’m not holding my breath either.  But you have to admit it would be nice.

13. Oh, who am I kidding?  When people show you who they are, you should believe them.  The modern GOP has spent the last quarter century conclusively demonstrating that it is a cesspit of greed, cruelty, misogyny, hatred, rigid authoritarianism, ideological blindness, and aggressive stupidity all dressed up in expensive suits and a thick layer of blasphemy.  I do miss having opponents I could disagree with and not fear for the survival of the republic.

14. Well, add South Korea to the list of allies der Sturmtrumper has managed to alienate – and you have to admit it’s pretty impressive to be at odds with both Koreas at once.  That takes talent.  It’s hard to be this staggeringly incompetent by random chance.  At this rate we’ll be back to isolationism and reduced to a backwater in world affairs by the end of the year.  This is of course about where we were in 1875, so at least it’s consistent with the GOP domestic policy agenda that way.

15. We’re now roughly at the 100-day mark in this administration, and there remain hundreds of Senate-confirmed offices left to fill.  You can take this as a sign of the grotesque levels of incompetence displayed in most areas of der Sturmtrumper’s administration, or you can take it as a power grab, since those functions are increasingly being exercised by family members or directly by 45.  Or both, really.  Why choose?

16. Our Confederate Attorney General is apparently flummoxed at the idea that Hawaii is an actual state.  How, he asks, could a judge on “an island in the Pacific” overrule der Sturmtrumper?  Dude, read the Constitution, learn some post-1865 history, count the stars on the American flag that you claim to worship in your idolatrous and vapid way, count the islands that make up Hawaii while you’re at it (hint: more than one), and try not to make such an utter ass of yourself next time.  Remember folks – this is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.  Read it and weep.

17. Closer to home, the Wisconsin GOP is working feverishly to make judge-purchasing legal by getting rid of a law requiring judges with obvious conflicts of interests such as, oh, being on the receiving end of massive amounts of cold hard cash from defendants, to recuse themselves from those cases.  Because justice is simply another commodity for the GOP, just like health care – something the rich can buy and the poor will never have access to – and why this even surprises me beyond the sheer brazen arrogance of it I cannot tell you.

18. Canada too?  My, my, but der Sturmtrumper is determined to piss off and/or piss on every single one of our allies, isn’t he?  Prepare to be invaded by angry moose wielding hockey sticks, my fellow Americans.  But if you think that’s laughable, just remember – the last time the US tried to invade Canada we got our ass handed to us.

19. Apparently Wisconsin’s own Senator Ron Johnson – the Dumbest Man in the Legislature now that Rick Santorum has retired – thought he could get away with an easy time in front of high school students in Madison after hiding from his constituents for the last few months.  And, predictably, he got fried.  They had real, substantive questions.  They pressed him for answers when he tried to give them party line bullshit.  And how did he respond?  He lied to them, he ducked questions, and he generally acquitted himself with all of the aplomb of an airsick ferret.  Score one for the youth of America.

20. Number of times President Obama went golfing in his first three months in office: 0.  Number of days Obama spent at a golf course overall during his first three months in office: 0.  Number of times the current occupant of the Oval Office has gone golfing in his first three months in office: 13.  Number of days said occupant spent at a golf course during his first three months in office: 19.  Percentage of Trump voters who think Obama spent more time at the golf course than their candidate: 53.  It must be nice to live in a hermetically sealed bubble where truth is whatever is most convenient for your prejudices.

21. For comparison, Bill Clinton spent 3 days on golf courses during his first three months, while George W. Bush spent 0.  Just another reminder that the current administration is Not Normal.

22. I wish we had a sane government I could ignore and then write about other things.  I could use the break.  And so could we all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Easter Eggs

It’s coming up on Easter, and you know what that means?

No, it probably doesn’t mean we’ll actually get to church.  If there is an attendance requirement to get into heaven we are pretty much boned.  I suppose I could make an argument that at least we’re not being Pharisaical about it all, only showing up on the High Holidays and preening to the world about our virtue even though we don’t come on the regular days, but I’m not sure how much weight that carries either.

We just try to be good people and hope that is enough.

Instead, it means we’re about to be inundated with sugar.  Easter Sunday is the one day a year where it is socially acceptable to eat chocolate for breakfast.  We load up the baskets beforehand and then chow down in a frenzy of glucose that would be enough to give entire villages diabetes in the Old Country except that this is MURCA, the land of the 44-oz “medium” soda with free refills, so our pancreases (pancreii?) are tough as burnt leather and can handle it, at least until we explode from obesity.

You have to have life goals.

We’ve pretty much conceded the whole Easter Bunny thing except as a rhetorical device now – it was fun while it lasted, but everyone is old these days and understands the concept of “two-for-one sales down at Walgreens” – so we can be pretty open about the process now.  Kim and I will set up a basket for each girl and then let them have at it.  There will, of course, be a tax.  Those who set up get paid, after all.

This is a far cry from what I remember as a kid.

My parents were never big on the Easter Bunny.  To be honest, my dad wasn’t all that big on Santa either – “you bust your ass all year to be able to afford some nice things for your kids and then some fat guy in a suit gets all the credit,” I believe was his basic position – so the idea of a rodent breaking into our house and leaving stuff for us was just not going to fly.  So on Palm Sunday we’d all gather around and spend the afternoon dyeing eggs and filling the baskets with candy.  

And then the baskets would go on the dining room table, where they would sit.  

All week.  

There in the open.  

It was maddening.

A certain amount of jellybean attrition was acceptable, within limits, but none of the big stuff was allowed to disappear.  It was as close as I got to Lent, I suppose.

And then Easter Sunday would dawn and we’d go to church, and once we got home all bets were off.  My brother and I would fall on those baskets like locusts on a wheat field, and it would be glorious.  The highlight, of course, would be the big egg in the middle.

The big egg in the middle was usually about the size of a baseball, more or less.  It was dark chocolate on the outside and a sticky coconut filling on the inside, and there was a sugar icing flower perched delicately on top.  Back in the day there was also a silver foil leaf stuck in the flower.  You’d peel off the flower and eat it, saving the foil leaf as a souvenir or just tossing it, depending on mood.  And then you’d slice the egg crosswise, each quarter-inch-thick slice to be savored and drawn out as long as possible.  Sometimes you could get the egg to last an entire week, although that generally took more self-restraint than I had.

I’m a sucker for chocolate-covered coconut, what can I say?

I tried to explain this to Kim once and she looked at me as if I were more deranged than usual.  Apparently these big eggs did not exist here in the midwest.  Maybe they were a Philadelphia thing, but they certainly were not a Wisconsin thing.  We’re usually in Wisconsin for Easter these days, and it has been so long since I’ve seen one of those eggs that I started to think I had just hallucinated them.

I spent some time in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, however, and on one of my grocery runs I found a display rack full of those eggs.

Of course I bought one.  

I haven’t eaten it yet.  I put it on my desk right where I could look at it every day while I worked, because Tradition, that’s why.

On Sunday, I am going to eat the sugar icing flower (pausing momentarily to mourn the missing silver foil leaf, which has apparently not survived into the 21st century), and slice off a few bits to savor.  I will toast the Old Days.

And then, well, no doubt I will spend the rest of the day in a sugar coma.  I’m sure that’s in the Easter liturgy somewhere.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Continued Stray Thoughts on the Current Political Climate

With the cascade of stupid, immoral, illegal, subversive, un-American, and possibly treasonous things emitted by der Sturmtrumper, his pet Congress, his supporters, and his administration reaching levels that make it nearly impossible for any sane person to keep up with, I’ve started just keeping a running list of observations on the matter.  Every time the list reaches critical mass, I suppose I’ll post it and start a new one.  Can’t hurt; might help.  Here’s the most recent list:


1. I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, and cronies are the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to malevolent stupidity and catastrophically short-sighted power-hungry subversion, so there’s never a shortage of material whenever one chooses to begin paying attention again.

2. So the GOP has shoved Justice Gorsuch down the collective throats of the nation.  Let me be clear about this – the Supreme Court has been vandalized.  That seat belongs to Merrick Garland, a Supreme Court nominee who – for the first time in American history for a nominee who was not withdrawn by the president – was not even granted a hearing, let alone a vote.  Gorsuch’s entire nomination was illegitimate, and the fact that he sits on the Court today is a sign that the GOP cares nothing about the Constitution, the norms of civilized society, or anything other than raw power and partisan advantage.  Every GOP Senator who had any part to play in this should be removed from office, preferably on a rail, and forced to read The Federalist Papers until they have it entirely memorized and can recite it, verbatim, from memory, in a public forum.  All of it.

3. The modern Republican Party: above the law and beneath contempt.  But then this is a party whose standard approach for the last couple of decades has been that if they can’t win fair, they will change the rules until they do win.  Voter suppression.  Gerrymandering on a national scale, at levels so brazen and arrogant as to be without precedent.  Midnight legislation sessions where the opposition isn’t notified of bills or even the fact of the session itself.  Vandalizing the Supreme Court, as above.  Remember, kiddies – rules are for other people, not Republicans.

4. So after years – literally years – of der Sturmtrumper saying we should stay out of Syria, that Syria was not our fight, that Obama was some kind of idiot for even considering getting into that quagmire, and of the GOP Congress refusing even to think about it and rejecting calls to do something that might have actually prevented this madness when it was still feasible to have any positive impact whatsoever, we’re throwing random cruise missiles into that country in order to bounce the rubble a bit.  It’s kind of sad when Wag the Dog turns out to be so utterly prescient, but then we live in an era where The Onion is hard news and Fox “News” is black comedy, so there’s that.

5. Apparently it took the Syrians almost a full day to put that airport back into operation, so we can count that mission as being about as successful as most of der Sturmtrumper’s initiatives.  Just for perspective, 59 Tomahawk missiles at about $1.1 million apiece (the mid-range of the figures I’ve seen) comes to just about $65 million, not including the cost of actually launching the attack.  I wonder how many Meals on Wheels we could have purchased for that 24-hour pause in Syrian airstrikes.  This is what happens when you have amateurs in charge.  If you’re going to employ the resources of the United States military, the deadliest and most effective combat force in the world at the moment, you need to know what you want to accomplish, how you plan to accomplish it, and what you will do once you have accomplished it.  This “make shit go boom!  make uninformed voters feel good!” approach is just nonsense.

6. “I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” said der Sturmtrumper, 11 weeks after he was inaugurated.

7. How animalistic do you have to be to be afraid of having a meal with a friend of the opposite gender?  The message that Mike Pence is getting across here is that he views women as purely sexual objects whose entire purpose is to be the objects of his hormonal attention, and he wants us to think he is virtuous for not putting himself into that situation.  Hogwash.  Maybe if he started viewing women as Actual Human Beings, with ideas and interests entirely separate from his penis, he would discover that such meals are both appropriate and rewarding.  I have a great many female friends, and I enjoy their company because they are interesting and worthwhile human beings.  Mr. Pence needs to grow up.

8. The other problem with Pence’s position is that it effectively shuts out an entire gender from consideration for positions, promotions, or contributions to the republic.  If you’re that much of a middle-school boy that you can’t even talk to girls, you’re not going to hire them or listen to them.  You could not ask for a better summation of the modern Republican Party’s attitudes toward women.

9. “Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it.”  (David Brooks)

10. Out here in the hinterlands, many of the public school districts in southern Wisconsin were closed this past Friday because some white male domestic terrorist (Query: is it terrorism if the perpetrator is a white male?  Discuss) knocked off a gun shop, stole more than a dozen high-end firearms, mailed a 161pp manifesto to der Sturmtrumper, and threatened to “shoot up a school.”  Meanwhile, the Wisconsin GOP has introduced bills into the legislature this year to allow people to carry guns without training or permits, and to allow them to carry those guns onto school grounds without notifying the schools or the police.  Can we just cut to the chase and call the GOP the Party of Terrorism now?

11. Although, let’s be real here.  One more asshole with a grudge and an arsenal who threatens to murder the innocent over some imaginary grievance in order to make up for his many shortcomings?  In the United States we call that “Tuesday.”  Thanks, NRA!

12. Apparently the Koch Brothers have been replaced by Robert Mercer in the coveted role of “Shadowy Right-Wing Billionaire(s) Pulling the Strings of the GOP.”  One wonders how they will take this demotion.  I’m hoping for platinum-alloy dueling pistols at three paces.  Even the solid gold bullets they will no doubt use could do damage at that distance.  Or perhaps they’ll just throw poor people at each other using trebuchets.  They could sell tickets.

13. And while they’re at it, maybe they can divvy out the other members of der Sturmtrumper’s team to each side as well, and make it a pitched battle.  I’d pay money to see that.

14. Have you ever listened to Sean Spicer and wondered whether he believes anything he says or if he actually knows that everything that falls out of his mouth could be used to fertilize crops?  Does he even understand that there’s a distinction to be made here?  Does he think that it doesn’t matter because the people who support der Sturmtrumper can’t be bothered to care one way or the other?  Enquiring minds want to know.

15. Seriously – I have no idea what he was trying to do with his defense of Hitler or his trying to make Assad seem worse than Hitler (both of which are ludicrous positions) or whatever that was, and I strongly suspect that neither does he.  All I do know is that he managed to enrage pretty much everyone with more than six working brain cells while not actually accomplishing his mission in any substantive way.  And if that isn’t a perfect symbol for the Sturmtrumper Administration, what is?

16. Our Confederate Attorney General wants to bring back the War on Drugs – an open-ended conflict against a poorly defined enemy with no clear vision of what victory will look like, very much like the Wars on Terror and Poverty, and thus similarly doomed.  Of course the War on Drugs did do a bang-up job of putting a whole lot of poor dark-skinned people in jail and then denying them the right to vote once they got out, so I suppose it fits pretty well with the overall GOP sensibility.

17. The civil war within the GOP over who gets to own the slow-motion train wreck of der Sturmtrumper’s administration is one of the most grimly amusing things I have ever witnessed.  What do you call it when a bus half full of white nationalist alt-right neo-Nazis and half full of wealthy right-wing libertarian corporate apologists drives full speed over a cliff?  2017!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Meet the Author!

One of the nice things about living in Wisconsin is that I’m not all that far from Madison, so whenever they have interesting things to do up there I can always just drive there and do them.

Not that I actually do them most of the time, of course.  I’m much more likely to sit quietly at home and think to myself, “Huh, that would have been an interesting thing to do” than I am to actually go and do the thing, and why Kim remains married to me in light of this is an interesting question that I hope she does not spend too much time considering.  But the option is there, and that’s important.

I liked living in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for much the same reason.  It’s always nice to be surrounded by interesting things, even if you actually get to only a small fraction of them.  It’s good to have options.

Especially free options.

Every year all kinds of authors come to Madison – a university town, after all – for readings and such, and every year I don’t actually go to many of them, if any.  I’ve seen Patrick Rothfuss, for example – and if you ever get a chance to do that I highly recommend you do so – but most of them slip on by me.

But it’s been a hectic couple of weeks for any number of reasons, only some of which involve the sorry prevalence of domestic white male terrorism in this country, and when I saw that John Scalzi was coming to Madison today I thought, “That might be something worth actually doing rather than just thinking of doing.”  It would be fun.

I first stumbled into Scalzi as a blogger, actually.  Back in 2007, another blog I was reading at the time posted a link to his visit report to the Creation Museum – an epic account that remains worth reading even now – and I was so taken by his writing that I read through all of his old posts.  In order.  And when I got to the end of those and realized that there were still older posts elsewhere, in an internet archive, I went and found those and read them as well.  In order.  Because that’s the kind of nerd I am.

He’s been writing that blog since 1998, by the way, often posting daily.  And I’m still reading it.  In order.  This has been much easier since 2007, actually, as I read the posts as they come up instead of binging them long after the fact.  I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Only after all that did I end up reading his novels.  Agent to the Stars remains my favorite, though The God Engines – an altogether atypical work – is right up there.  I have enjoyed the Old Man’s War series, as it is light and well written and has some good ideas worked in there to make me think a bit.  Redshirts was a lot of fun, in a “Six Characters in Search of an Author” kind of way, though it is the codas that make it really worth reading.  And so on.  I’m actually a bit behind now, since he publishes books more often than I get around to reading them, but I always enjoy his stuff and I’ll get to it all in time.

So tonight Kim and I went up to Madison to catch John Scalzi on his latest book tour.  He has a new book out entitled The Collapsing Empire, which looks like fun and which I will no doubt read in short order.

We had a lovely time.

He read from a couple of pieces, neither of which was the book he was supposed to be promoting – as he pointed out, that crowd already has the book, either purchased earlier or, like my copy, purchased at the table on the way in, so promoting it would have been kind of redundant.  Instead, he read the first chapter to the sequel to Lock In, a book I still haven’t read but will now move up toward the top of my to-read pile.  And then he read a marvelously funny piece from his blog – one of the Christmas stories that he writes some years.  There were questions afterward – notably whether he considers NASCAR drivers to be athletes (the question made sense in context) and what books of his are currently optioned for movies or television (spoiler: a lot of them).  

And then came the book signing.

I love book signings.  

For one thing, I get to hang out, however briefly, with someone whose work I enjoy, and authors are usually happy enough to see you that they will spend a few sentences talking with you before you have to move on and give the next person in line a chance.  It’s nice that way.  I told him that I’d read his entire blog archive, and I’m not really sure he knew what to make of me after that.  I’m not really sure either, sometimes.  I guess we’re even.

For another thing, you get to show these authors that they do in fact have fans, which seems to cheer them up and encourage them to write more, so that’s win all around, I say.

He was gracious and personable, and he signed all three books that I bought as well as the one I brought with me.  He talked with me and Kim and even posed for pictures.

So it was a good night.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Proper Pretzels

There is a lot going on my world that, frankly, I have no intention of discussing here in this space.  So instead I will drop some Truth on y'all.


Midwesterners should never have been let in on the invention of the soft pretzel.  They just don't do it right.

This thought occurred to me a few weeks ago as I sat in just about the only place in Our Little Town where you can get one of those delights, the Giant Megabox Retailer That Ate Main Street.  I have a membership card there that I got when the girls were little and I needed to buy diapers by the pallet, and every once in a while I still head over to pick up a few things.  You can't beat them for tires, for example.  And it tickles me to walk into a store like that and buy one small item, because I'm just contrary that way.

It was around lunchtime when I was there, and the glorious thing about the GMRTAMS is that you can get a hot dog that could feed a small Bulgarian village and a soda big enough to have its own weather for about two bucks (free refills!), and for an additional buck you can get a soft pretzel. 

I love soft pretzels.  They are perhaps the grandest form of carbohydrate there is, and in Philadelphia they are an art form.  If you haven't gotten a row of them fresh from the Federal Pretzel Bakery at some point in your life, you're missing out.  But there are a few rules that need to be followed.

For one thing, they are not to be dipped in melted butter.

I'm not sure when this idea became popular.  Probably right around the time the rest of the culture went straight to hell, so it fit right in.  People vary as to the exact date this occurred, but most people are sure it happened at some point and it's as good a guess as any.

There are many things that are good with melted butter.  Toast, for example.  Corn on the cob.  Steaks, if you're so inclined.  But nobody should get greasy from picking up a pretzel.  It's just Not The Order of Things.

You find this all over, though.  While it is against nature, it is not specifically a midwestern sin.

Nor is the idea that you have to ask for salt on your pretzel.  This is probably due to all the various Diet Mavens complaining that health care costs are going up because people eat poorly and should cut down on salt in order to live longer, and that's a national phenomenon.  Phooey, I say.  People should put more salt on their pretzels, and then they can die happy but quickly and in the long run this surely saves money for everyone.

Really, it's the same argument that the tobacco companies should have made all along.

No, the specifically midwestern problem with soft pretzels is that they insist on putting cheese sauce on them.

Maybe this is just a Wisconsin thing.  Wisconsinites will put cheese on anything, up to and including more cheese.  You can't buy a pretzel in Wisconsin without getting a giant cup of cheese sauce to dip your pretzel into, and this is just an affront to all that is decent and holy.

My children disagree with me, but then they are Wisconsinites, so really how can you trust them on this?

No, as every Philadelphian knows pretty much from the moment we enter the world naked and booing the Dallas Cowboys, the only acceptable condiment for a soft pretzel is mustard.  That is what God and Nature intended for soft pretzels.  There is no grey here.  There is only the vinegary tang of Truth.

Just try to find mustard anywhere near where people in Wisconsin sell soft pretzels, though.  Try!  It's like they're deliberately thwarting the pretzel's true destiny out of some misguided dairy-influenced ill will.  Although that seems like a lot of effort, so perhaps it's just because they know no better.  Father, forgive them.

I am in Philadelphia right now, though, and I have been enjoying the easy access to properly dressed soft pretzels.  Except of course that I am a clod and have somehow managed to baptize nearly every available piece of clothing and hard surface within arm's reach with mustard in the process.

It's a sacrifice I am willing to make.