Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Lost Fair

Today was supposed to be the first day of the County Fair.

Normally this week would be a blur of activity.  We’d have spent the weekend washing chickens and grooming rabbits, framing art projects and photographs, and setting up rabbit and poultry barns.  We’d have had the chickens in our garage overnight – you don’t return them to the barn after they’ve been washed unless you want to wash them again – and yesterday we’d have brought the animals over to the fairgrounds and installed them into their pens.

In previous years there might also have been Drama rehearsals as we tried to remember how it went back in May when the Drama Festival happened, and one year there was a pig to manage.

There would be judging of various kinds going on today and all week – they’ve been pushing that later and later into the week over the years – and we probably would not have seen Lauren for the duration.  Lauren regards Fair Week as the best week of the year, and especially since she got her license and can drive there herself she mostly spends the entire week there, returning only to sleep and shower.  Oliver aged out of 4H last year so he’d probably just be going as a visitor the way we would.

There would be musical acts, most of which I have never heard of since I am not much on country music and the rest I forgot about until recently as they were big when I was in high school.  But they’re out there putting on shows and people enjoy the music and really that’s good enough, isn’t it? 

We’d have friends come to visit and walk around the place with us, and we’d run into other friends while we were there because that’s the sort of thing that happens at the Fair.  It’s a gathering place.  You don’t just pop into the Fair and pop back out.  It’s a place to spend time.

There would be moderately nonlethal food in abundance – things on sticks, things deep fried, things that in normal times you’d look at with a general sense of “it’s too unhealthy and I’m too old” but the rules don’t apply to the Fair and you eat it anyway, and besides the Greek salad place can almost be considered healthy if you squint your eyes a bit and don’t think about it too hard.  Certainly the lemonade is an annual tradition, as the growing collection of large plastic cups emblazoned with yellow fruit that we have in our kitchen can attest. 

There would be chaos – it’s hard to get everything into the Fair and then out of the Fair at the same time that everyone else is trying to do so.  There would be unnecessary purchases and money that just somehow seems to vanish into thin air so you hope that at least some of the unnecessary things are going to stick around for a while and make you happy with their sheer uselessness and frivolity. 

We’d be exhausted, but it would be a good kind of exhausted.

But not this year, alas.  Like so many things the County Fair has fallen victim to a plague that we as Americans have refused to do anything serious about, and so we hope for a better year next year.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Rage-Screaming Into the Void: a List

1. So der Sturmtrumper and his minions have decided to go full-on Fascist this year, which should come as no surprise to anyone.  I’ve been trying to put together a longer post on this for a while now but it just ends up as incoherent rage-screaming into the void because of the sheer fuckery of it and that’s not even fun for me to read let alone anyone else.  At this point I put the odds of the United States actually having any sort of election in November – let alone one that counts as free and fair – at roughly even.  And for every day der Sturmtrumper lets his stormtroopers rampage through American cities, shitting on the republic and the Constitution alike, those odds go down.  This is what Fascists do – they take over.  And this is why Fascists have to be opposed by patriots.

2. Yes, Fascist.  I’m a historian.  I know very well what Fascist means.  This is it, specifically the Nazi version of it, adapted for modern times.  If Trump and the GOP don’t want me to call them Nazis they should stop doing what the Nazis did.  And if his supporters don’t want me to call them Nazis they should stop supporting him.  Until then, fuck you very much you goddamned Nazis. 

3. Just pointing out, once again, the simple historical fact that this country used to give medals to people who shot Nazis and we called those people The Greatest Generation.  You cannot be a good American and a Nazi.  We had a war about that.  The whole world was there.

4. Yes, the Nazis were Fascist.  Stop saying stupid things and just deal with that fact.  Also, the next time some gibbering loon uses the term “left-wing Fascism” I will go spare.  Repeat after me, children: There is no such thing as “left-wing Fascism.”  Fascism is an ideology of the right.  It is the totalitarian form of nationalism, which has long been the exclusive property of conservatives.  The left has its own form of totalitarianism (Stalinism, or Soviet-style Communism, if you’re interested - the totalitarian form of socialism, which you will note is not itself totalitarian) and does not need to adopt the totalitarianism of conservatives.  You own this one, right-wingers. 

5. Yes, the official name of the Nazi Party was “National Socialist German Workers Party,” and it has the word Socialist right in it!  It does!  I know that makes your little heads explode with right-wing glee pointing that out, Trumpers, but nobody with a three-digit IQ cares.  To be frank, I suspect “eggplants” really fry your circuits too (“There’s eggs!  Right in the name!”).  Thanks for playing.  Now run along and let the grown-ups talk.

6. Meanwhile the disgraceful American response to the current pandemic continues unabated.  We’ve flattened the curve!  Vertically, yes, but flattened it nonetheless.  When the history of this time is written there will not be nearly enough obscenity in the language to contain all of the well-deserved scorn that future generations will have for the sheer aggressive stupidity and toddler-level entitlement with which the right-wing has responded to the current crisis and dragged the rest of us down to their level in the process.

7. Of course der Sturmtrumper and the rest of the GOP are demanding we sent our children back to school in the middle of a raging plague that they have done absolutely nothing to solve, even as their children do nothing of the sort.  Because the cruelty is the point with these bastards.  Folks, there are law firms offering free living wills to teachers now because that’s where this is headed, and every yearbook in America next year will have a page dedicated to the students and staff who died needlessly because of this demand.  Every single one of them should have an explicit credit to Donald Trump and his supporters for boosting the funeral industry in these perilous economic times.

8. Do Americans realize that we’re trapped in the US now?  That our passports are useless because the rest of the world is just so horrified at the grotesque show that der Sturmtrumper’s response to the pandemic has been?  I hope you enjoyed the US being counted as a leader on the world stage for most of the last eight decades, because that ship sailed the moment der Sturmtrumper was appointed president and likely will never return.

9. Of course, the fact is that the Only President We Have spent the last week bragging about not being declared legally senile and 40% of the nation is actually proud that their Dear Leader is still somehow able to jump over that bar despite all available evidence to the contrary, so perhaps it is best if the US slinks off the world stage for a while.  At some point the grown-ups will take over again and after that perhaps we can work our way back up to respectability, but for right now this is clearly not the case.

10. REM told me I’d be feeling better about things right now.

(That’s a Gen-X joke, kids.  Now get off my lawn.)

Monday, July 13, 2020


Kim is in the middle of learning two different languages these days because that sort of thing is fun for her.  Mostly I just check to see that she has fulfilled her commitment, because that Duolingo owl does not screw around.

Me, I figure I’ve got my hands full with English.

I’m actually pretty good at linguistics.  I have a few accents that I can do convincingly (I once nearly had someone convinced I was fluent in Spanish because the sentence that comprised 80% of my working Spanish vocabulary came out sounding pretty natural) and I enjoy learning about the structure of languages in general.  The history of the English language has long been an interest of mine, and one of my prouder bureaucratic achievements as an undergrad was convincing the history department to allow me to count that class toward my major.

But actually learning languages?  Not really.

I spent four years in junior high and high school sitting dutifully through Spanish classes because out of the choices I was given Spanish was the only one that was more or less phonetic.  Medieval French scribes were clearly paid by the letter, which is the only way that any language could possibly have evolved to have “eaux” pronounced as “o” – and German seemed confusing to me.  Plus even then I had a sense that Spanish would be the more useful language to know here in the modern US, and this has in fact been proven correct.

Yay, me.

But in my junior year of high school Spanish ended up conflicting with something else I needed to take and that was that.  It did not cause me pain when this happened.

When I got to college I was told I needed to take a foreign language to graduate.  I distinctly remember sitting in the advisor’s office – I lived close enough to campus that I could head down for a face-to-face appointment during the summer – trying to think of a language I could take.  At that point in my life I was deep into my Tolkien phase and, having grown up in an area settled by Welsh Quakers who spent most of their free time festooning local geographic features with inordinate numbers of ls, ys, and ws, I asked if I could take Welsh.

There was a pause, and then the advisor excused himself for a few moments.

“We don’t do that here,” he said when he got back, and you have to hand it to them that he had to check that first and didn’t just dismiss it out of hand.  I mean, you could take “Conversational Urdu” at this university (really, you could), so Welsh wasn’t completely out of the question. 

I did end up taking an Irish history class while I was there, which isn’t the same thing as Welsh at all beyond a vague Celtic commonality but which convinced me that I didn’t drink nearly enough to try to learn Irish.  The one thing I remember from the class is the name of a king – Rhuadhri Ua’ Conchobair – which, it turned out, was pronounced “Rory O’Connor.”  Also, the odds were about even that any random group of up to four consonants between two vowels was pronounced as a “v.”

But that was in the future.  Sitting there in the advisor’s office, I still needed to choose a language.  At this point my mother’s genetic heritage reared up and I asked him if perhaps they offered Italian.  “Yes,” he said with some relief.  “We do.”

So I took a year of Italian, which it turned out is just similar enough to Spanish to get you confused but not similar enough to get you credit.  But my grandparents were pleased, and I really liked my TA – a grad student named Annarita who was, in fact, Italian and who kept us entertained and learning for two whole semesters – so it went pretty well. 

You needed four semesters of a language to complete that requirement, but they offered us the placement test as our final exam at the end of Italian II and told us that if we could score a 50/100, they’d count that as our requirement.

Yeah, right, I figured.  Not going to happen.  I dutifully signed up for Italian III and walked into the exam with the relaxed confidence of someone who knows in his bones that this isn’t going to end well.

Turns out I got a 50.  Exactly.

I didn’t find this out until a month after the semester was over, but – vide supra, re: living close enough to visit – once I did I wandered down to campus and headed over to the Italian Department.

“Does this mean I’m done with my language requirement?”

“Well, if you plan to take a literature course you should still enroll in Italian III because you’re not going to be able to keep up.”

“Ah.  You must have misheard me.  Does this mean I’m done with my language requirement?”

[Sad pause]


“Thank you.”

And that was that.  I never went back, and it didn’t seem to hurt me any, though it is a lovely language and one that perhaps I will go back to as events turn.

I got to graduate school for my MA in American history and was saddened to discover that once again I had a language requirement.  I’m not sure why.  Graduate school is not liberal arts education, designed to make you a better citizen of a republic and a more well-rounded person.  Graduate school is vocational training for nerds – as one of my undergraduate faculty mentors put it at a panel for people who were thinking of graduate school, “We don’t care what you’re like as a person.  We just want to know what you’re going to contribute to the discipline.”  I was there to learn how to be a scholar and a professor, and all of my research interests and sources were in English.

This argument did not impress them.

You could actually satisfy the requirement pretty creatively if you could convince them that it was relevant to your research.  Someone in the department who wrote a thesis on jazz history talked them into counting music theory as a language, for example, and rumor had it that someone else doing hardcore statistical analysis got them to accept a computer language.  But most people just took the exam – you were given a long passage and a dictionary and told to produce a passable translation in a given amount of time.  You could prepare for it by taking a class or two, but most people just jumped through the hoop with the dictionary.

This was before online language translators. 

I decided I’d take the Spanish test, since there might conceivably be some primary sources on the 18th-century colonial US in Spanish but I couldn’t see any way for them to be in Italian.

For a number of reasons I won’t go into, my MA ended up taking longer than perhaps it should have, and I just kept shoving the language test off into the future where it could do me no harm.  Finally it was my third fall semester and I was frantically finishing up my MA thesis.  I figured I’d defend it at my oral exams in December, have a nice semester break, take the Spanish exam sometime in the spring, and graduate in May.  I didn’t bother applying for graduation.

But when I got back from my semester break, there in the mail was my diploma.

I called the registrar.

“Does this mean I’ve graduated?”




“You mean I’m done with everything and have nothing left to do?”

[Getting annoyed] “Yes, yes it does, young man.”

[Not going to push my luck any further] “Thank you!”

It’s been nearly three decades now, so the statute of limitations has run out on that.  And the University did, officially, tell me that I had my degree.  I asked.  I figure the History Department was just so relieved to see me finish my thesis that they waived the requirement, which was nice of them.

I chose my PhD graduate program in part on the fact that it had no language requirement.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Round Number

It’s my mother’s birthday today, one of those round numbers that humans notice more than the others as an artifact of having five fingers on two hands. 

We were supposed to have been back east to celebrate with her, before the world caught fire and everything changed.  Perhaps if Americans hadn’t been so belligerently ignorant about the whole pandemic thing we might have returned to some semblance of a regular life by now, like other more sensible countries have done, but apparently that’s beyond us as a culture these days. 

But you can’t let a milestone like that pass with a celebration no matter what the state of the world, so our plan is to get everyone together on a Zoom call later today and sing happy birthday to her.  Perhaps we’ll all have some kind of birthday treat to wave at each other, though I suppose that’s up to everyone individually.

As you get older you look back over the live you’ve led and, if you’re smart, you realize how much of it you owe to the people who were there for you when it mattered.  And my mom was there. 

I learned a lot from her, over the years.

I got my love of books from her.  I learned to appreciate smart, strong women by her example and those are the women I dated and eventually married.  We share an interest in genealogy, we have a fairly broad overlap in political views, and we have strikingly similar senses of humor.

This last feature can sometimes appear in odd ways.

When I was an undergrad I took a class on regional dialects, and the professor gave us a short list of words to see how we pronounced them – words that sound very different depending on where you are in this country, as I have since discovered by moving to the midwest and trying to make myself understood.  I called my parents that night and gave my mom the list.  “You pronounce them the same way I do,” I told her.  “Really?” she asked.  “The person who taught you how to speak pronounces things the same way you do?” 

Can’t say I didn’t walk straight into that one.

So tonight we Zoom, and we’ll be glad for what we can share.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Notes from the Fourth

We had a quiet Fourth of July, as perhaps best suits a pandemic year when millions are in the streets seeking justice despite the risks.

There was no big family barbecue, as in years past.  We thought about heading up to see Kim’s family, but the logistics of that were prohibitive given the limited amount of things we could do together.  We did fire up the grill for the four of us, though.  Burgers, dogs, brats, and a few of the usual sides – a small bit of normality in a time of upheaval.  It’s good to share food with the people you love.

The city officially canceled its fireworks in order to avoid having large crowds gather to spread the pandemic (and three cheers for a government that actually behaves as rational adults these days), but the neighbors more than made up for it.  The annual War for Darwin’s Basement, where guys nicknamed Lefty and Claw compete to see who can burn down their garage first, gets started around Flag Day here in Our Little Town and usually continues for another week or two past Independence Day as supplies get used up.  We go through this every year, as noted, but this year it was more intense than usual – apparently all over the country, too, from what I gathered.  Our neighbors across the street put on a 90-minute display Saturday night that was truly impressive, for example (they were polite about it so we didn’t mind, and to be honest it was a nice show), and by about 10pm on the Fourth the entire city smelled like gunpowder and sounded like the inside of a popcorn machine.  It’s been a long year.  People needed to blow shit up.  Not sure how many garages went up this year – the local paper stopped printing weekend editions last month, so I won’t find out until tomorrow.  I put the over/under at 6.

We sprung for Disney+ just to see Hamilton again – this time with the original cast – and that’s how we spent the evening.

It’s good to be reminded of what this country started out to be and how high we aimed.  We’ve never hit those goals, which is part of being human I guess, but they're worthwhile goals nonetheless and we’ve made progress in some ways – more than the Founders perhaps expected or even wanted, some of them.  The fact that problems remain doesn’t deny the fact that there has been progress.

But if this year has taught us anything, it is how far the United States still has to go to live up to its own values.  Liberty.  Equality.  Happiness.  The American catechism, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  It’s appalling how many Americans are left out of that.

These are hard times to be an American.  We are governed by a petit-Fascist grifter whose only goal is to stay one step ahead of the law and loot the place and enabled by a compliant party happy to burn the place down as long as they get to keep power over the ashes.  He is supported by far too many authoritarian wannabes eager to limit the promise of the country to people who look and act just like them.  As a nation we have failed the test of the coronavirus, and the just anger of the excluded demonstrates precisely how far we have to go before we can claim to embody our own values.

But we are Americans.  All of us.

I like to believe we will progress.  That we will work toward our own values, to bring into the promise of America those who have been forcibly kept out of it.

We will do these things or we will fade from history, having thrown away our shot.