Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Birthday in October

As of today I have no more minor children.

Lauren is now legally an adult, which would perhaps be a daunting thought except for the fact that she has amply proven that she can handle responsibility and take care of herself just fine.

When you become a parent you sign up for the long haul. Long days. Long nights. Long years. But you do that because you know in the end it will be worthwhile and that there will be these new people to make the world better as they make their own lives.

And then they become adults, and there it is. New challenges. New tasks. Out they go into the world and all you can do is wish them well, love them utterly, and be there for them when they need you.

They never stop being your children, though, not really.

And they never stop being worthwhile.

Happy birthday, Lauren.

I’m proud of you.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Lesson from the Past

One of the things about genealogy is that you discover stories about your ancestors that you didn’t know before, which is kind of the point.

A surprisingly large number of my family members served in World War II, for example.

My grandfather is the guy in the front row on the far left in this photo. Twenty-nine years old and married with two kids under two years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he spent the war as a machinist instructor in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the naval aviation section, where he’d been working for nearly a decade. He told me once that everybody at the Yard knew we were going to get involved in that war months before we actually did. In June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, his superiors ordered him to start training women to work in the machine shop, “which was ridiculous, at the time, women in the machine shop” he said. But his bosses knew that millions of men would be drafted into the army soon and labor would be scarce and so, then, did he. They also told him to stop trying to enlist for military service since he was more valuable to the war effort where he was, which was a great relief to my grandmother.

That’s my great-uncle John – my grandmother’s brother – on the left there, in Paris sometime in 1945 after the Germans had been driven out. The war was still going on when this photo was taken, but the front lines had moved on by then. He actually spent another decade or so in the army after the war and retired as a Lt. Colonel.

This was my grandfather’s nephew Anthony.

This is Anthony’s brother Lou. If I remember correctly it was Lou who was in some way tangentially involved with the liberation of at least one concentration camp in Europe, an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life.

The groom here is my grandmother’s nephew John, the son of my great-great-aunt Nelly.

And this is Orlando, who married my mother’s cousin Annie.

They all served. They all did their part in the great struggle against Fascism that defined the middle of the 20th century, the largest and bloodiest war in human history. Some of them were awarded medals by the United States of America for doing so.

They sacrificed, they worked, and they suffered in order to see Fascism destroyed.

That Fascism has risen again despite their efforts – that it has risen here in the United States, in fact – is a tragedy. There are actual Fascists running the American government today, and the fact that they have any support whatsoever is one of the greatest moral failures in American history.

My family served in the struggle against Fascism in World War II.

I will not disgrace their memory by supporting it here in 2020.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


It is a sad day here in Our Little Town. Milo, the oldest living rabbit in captivity, has relinquished his title.

I found him this morning when I went out to check on them all. It was a cold night last night, but nothing he hadn’t been through before. It was just his time. Most domestic rabbits live to be around six years old, more or less, but as near as we can tell Milo was almost ten. That’s a good long life for a rabbit.

We didn’t actually ask for him. Lauren wanted to join the 4H Rabbit Project when she was in second grade and we had a friend who had a rabbit she could give us to get us started – a former show bunny named Hazel who had kind of aged out of the 4H Fair but who would be a good introduction for a new rabbiteer. We of course had no rabbit supplies so we quickly went out and bought a whole pile of them, including a used rabbit hutch to put in the back yard.

Milo came with the hutch. Literally. Whoever sold us the hutch delivered it to our driveway while we were out and just left him there inside one of the units.  He was there waiting for us when we got home. When we called them back to see if this was a mistake they said we could keep him.


Lauren named him after the lead character in The Phantom Tollbooth, which we were reading at the time.  It has long been one of my favorite books, so I was pleased about that.

He wasn’t a pure-bred show bunny so he couldn’t go to the 4H Fair, but he was by far the friendliest rabbit we’ve ever owned. He probably would have been a good house rabbit if he hadn’t been obsessed with chewing electrical cords and other such hazardous materials.

So we kept him with the other bunnies and he seemed as happy as rabbits get. It’s kind of hard to tell, really.  Rabbits would make great poker players.

He loved dandelion leaves and hopping around in the grass. He would happily sit in your arms and let you pet him for as long as you cared to do so. I don’t recall him ever trying to snap at us the way the other ones would.


We gave him a quiet burial in the back yard, near Milkshake and all the other animals who have gone to their reward in our care. He was a good bunny. Farewell, Milo.


Monday, October 26, 2020

I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

I am the grocery shopper in the house, mostly because I enjoy it. I even enjoy going grocery shopping in foreign countries, because it’s interesting to see what other people consider to be normal food. Familiar and normal are different, after all.

Here in the Age of Lockdown, the local grocery store is pretty much the only place I go anymore. Sometimes I make it to other shops, occasionally I’ll feed Lauren’s chickens out at our friend’s barn, and once in a while I go into Home Campus to do things I can’t do remotely (a surprisingly small percentage of my various jobs, really), but for the most part my world has narrowed to a path that runs from my house to the grocery store and back.

For a long time the mask-wearing rate there was about 60% or so, but this has improved markedly since the governor here imposed a mask mandate. Yes, the GOP legislature in Wisconsin – a body that has not passed a single piece of legislation in over six months and yet still insists it has the right to draw a paycheck (don’t you hate people who live off your tax dollars and do no work?) – has spent much of this year suing the governor in an attempt to prevent any state authority from doing anything to help the people of Wisconsin during the current plague, but for the most part people here in Our Little Town have figured it out. Since the mandate went into effect I’d say the compliance rate at the grocery store has hovered around 95% or so.

This tells you two things.

First of all, it tells you that at least here this is not considered a partisan issue. Given the realities of a divided electorate, a 95% compliance rate is a clear sign that both Republicans and Democrats have figured out that the virus doesn’t give a damn about your politics and will kill you no matter what you believe. This is, strangely enough, somewhat heartening.

And second, it tells you that even with that there are still a few people who insist that their personal inconvenience is more important than your life. People who think that having to comply with a basic public health measure is somehow a violation of their rights. People who don’t understand how science, Constitutional law, or basic morality work.

Invariably, those people have a Gadsden flag emblem on their person somewhere.

It’s on their hat. It’s on their t-shirt. It’s on their jacket. It’s tattooed on their forehead. Somewhere, somehow, it’s there. The overlap between people with that emblem and people without masks is almost complete.

This is why I have come to regard that emblem as a Moron Detector.

It was, at one point, a symbol of the American Revolution – a declaration by American patriots that they would stand in their own defense against a Crown bent on denying them the traditional rights of Englishmen. Whether the Crown actually intended to do anything of the sort is something of an open question of course – up until the mid-1770s it was not really all that clear that either side understood what the other was trying to do and only after the shooting started did the lines harden that way. But at least that was the symbolism as it was intended.

It doesn’t mean that anymore.

Now it is used almost exclusively by people who regard themselves as the center of all creation, who see their own personal wishes and conveniences as being paramount over all other concerns, and who don’t see the irony of using a Revolutionary symbol of community strength as a cover for making narcissistic threats to the common good.

Moron detector.

Someday the rest of us will have to reclaim that symbol and turn it back into something we can be proud of. This may take a while, though.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

More News and Updates

1. It’s that time of the semester when all I really have time to write are these quick little lists. Oh well. At least I’m writing something, though whether that counts as positive depends on your point of view, I suppose.

2. We spent a lovely hour or so today checking in with all of Lauren’s teachers down at Local Businessman HS. They all had good things to say, which we expected but which was still very nice to hear. It was strange to be having parent/teacher conferences by Zoom or Google Meet or whatever other platform people were using, but still a good thing. Nice work, Lauren. I’m proud of you.

3. I have lost the battle with Facebook’s new format, despite the valiant efforts of the little plug-in that has been keeping it at bay for the last few months (and which continues to keep the Zuckerborg’s worst excesses to a minimum, at least for now). Every time FB decides to “upgrade” things I lose functions that I enjoyed. I still haven’t figured out how to look through my own timeline to find old posts, which was a fun thing to do – it was interesting to choose a random month out of the decade or so that I’ve been on that platform and scroll through it to remember how that month felt. Oh well. Optimized. At some point I will throw in the towel on the whole platform, but for all of its many and well-documented flaws it still does a good job at what it was originally designed to do – connect friends who are too far apart in a convenient and easy to use way – and I will miss that when I go


4. Be very careful posting jokes, folks. These are revolutionary times.

5. It’s nearly Election Day, which means that the Fascist regime currently squatting in the White House is getting increasingly desperate. Expect violence, my fellow Americans, and stay strong. There are more of us than there are of them.

6. We have so, so many eggs. Lauren’s chickens are happy little birds and have been laying up a storm for the last few months, which means that at any given point we have somewhere between three and eight dozen eggs on our kitchen counter. We like eggs. But we like other things too. I made a double batch of pizzelles last weekend mostly because it consumed a dozen eggs. They were really good, too.

7. We’ve already had our first snow and it’s not even Halloween, which is a bit early even for Wisconsin. So now there’s a place for the rabbits to winter over in the basement, though we’ll leave them out for a few weeks longer – as long as the overnight lows don’t go too far below freezing they’ll be okay. Last year we had six inches of snow for Halloween so we brought them in then, and then it didn’t really warm up until April so they didn’t get much outside time after all that. It’s good to have them get the fresh air.

8. Milo, the world’s oldest rabbit, continues to chug along nicely.

9. Last night we got to watch a virtual performance by a friend of ours – an actual professional who had been booked for a performance over at the main stage at the Mother Ship campus and who managed to get it to work over Zoom. It was a lot of fun, really, and it was good to connect with him afterward.

10. Somewhere in my college days when my roommate and I would spend Saturday afternoons making the rounds of the half dozen or so used book stores that surrounded the campus, I stumbled into a book signed by Robert Louis Stevenson. I stumbled into it again the other day, sorting through my bookshelves. It definitely looks like his actual signature and the book was printed during his lifetime, so for all I know it’s real. I have no idea how much it’s worth – it’s not one of his famous books, though it is in pretty good condition – but likely not a whole lot. These things are never as valuable as you think they should be. But they’re pretty cool nonetheless and given that I probably bought it with coins I suppose it was a good investment. Mostly, though, it’s just a fun thing to look at, and that’s enough.

11. Apparently I have lost the battle against Blogger's new format too. Why is it that whenever a computer company uses the word "upgrade" things get less useful and more frustrating?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

News and Updates

1. With a hearty two-fingered salute to der Sturmtrumper and his minions, lackeys, enablers, cronies, and sycophants, I have cast my ballot here in Our Little Town and have done my mite for defeating Fascism in America.

2. We have nearly three weeks left to go in this, and der Sturmtrumper and his minions are getting ever more desperate. Buckle up, my fellow Americans. It’s going be a bumpy ride.

3. In other news, neither of my arms work anymore. Well, that’s not quite true. They work. Kind of. But they feel like they shouldn’t. I got my flu shot yesterday, and that always takes a day or two to calm down. More relevantly, on Sunday Kim and I went over to the local Chain Pharmacy and got shingles vaccine shots. Now, I understand that this is important. I’ve seen people with shingles and I know why you should do whatever you can not to have that happen to you. And Kim’s shot went well. Mine, on the other hand, was administered with a ball point pen. Even the pharmacist was a little taken aback by it. “Wow,” he said. “That wasn’t a very sharp needle.” That much, I replied, I had figured out.

4. The cats are still discombobulated, but for the moment they’re discombobulated downstairs and not in a “cleanup in aisle four” sort of way so we’ll take it.

5. I’m actually entirely caught up with Great British Baking Show episodes now, and it is kind of a bummer not to be able to turn on the television and see episodes I hadn’t seen yet anytime I wanted to do so. I know they’re working through a new season now and I’ll watch it one week at a time with the rest of the rabble, but it’s not the same. Fortunately I have discovered that The Guardian liveblogs all of the episodes, and it’s been kind of fun going back to the old seasons (still rather fresh in my mind) and reading along that way. I miss Selasi.

6. This is the most decorated our lawn has ever been for Halloween, mostly because we left that up to Lauren and her friend Aleksia. A couple of hours of work and at least one trip the dollar store, and the lawn is festooned with styrofoam grave markers and solar-powered pumpkin heads, the tree in the terrace is covered with tiny plastic ghosts, the bushes have cobwebbing, and there is a little projector that shines moving ghosts on our living room blinds from dusk to about 11pm, so we do have to remember to shut the blinds lest the ghosts dance about the bookcase. This is on top of the election signs – why Halloween and election day come so close together is an interesting historical question but it does lead to some odd juxtapositions. We’re not really sure what we’re going to be doing on Halloween proper – handing out candy to strangers seems a bit rash in the current environment – but we’ll see what happens.

7. One of the Instagram pages that I follow (and don’t bother asking to follow me – I’ve had that account for two years and have yet to post anything so it’s probably not worth your time) is a person who posts odd maps of things, which is something I have always enjoyed. They’re not American, so whenever they decide to ask contributors to send them song recommendations for review I discover a whole trove of things I’ve never heard of before. Today one of them was a really catchy, kind of 80s-punk-rock-feel of a song that you can easily imagine being played in clubs in any industrial downtown area in the world and whose title, translated from German into English, is Fuck You and Piss Off. The Germans do not go for subtle, really. I genuinely enjoy the song except that the band itself seems to have some links to the German far right, and while they do try to refute those links in interviews it does give me a bit of a pause. On the one hand, I firmly believe that art is not responsible for its creators – that a lot of great art is created by assholes and if you can’t get past that you’re going to miss out on a lot of treasures. On the other hand, everyone has their limits and Nazis are beyond mine. The song itself doesn’t seem to be political, and of course any song whose refrain starts out with “You’re an asshole / you’ve always been an asshole / you’ll always be an asshole / nobody likes you” can be applied to a whole lot of odious people in any number of fields – for all I know it’s a breakup song. Mostly I’m just enjoying the music and trying not to think about it much beyond that, which is a lot easier in a foreign language.

8. We’re careening through the American Revolution now in my US1 class. I love this unit. It’s my field of specialty, after all. And the whole idea of a mass uprising against a corrupt and authoritarian madman who is imposing tyranny by using power to crush liberty (essentially the colonial argument for the Revolution in a nutshell) is a much easier concept to wrap one’s head around these days for some reason.

9. Things that have gotten lost in the shuffle over the last two weeks:

a) We’re edging closer and closer to a quarter million Americans dead of coronavirus thanks to a corrupt and incompetent regime more concerned with holding onto power than safeguarding the lives of American citizens.

b) Der Sturmtrumper’s taxes are damning evidence of a criminal enterprise on a global scale and a staggeringly broad national security risk.

c) the GOP is ramrodding yet another unskilled partisan hack onto the Supreme Court in a transparent effort to undermine American democracy and chip away at the foundations of the republic, and their base is thrilled.

d) a right-wing terrorist group very nearly kidnapped and executed a sitting US governor (and was apparently angling for a second) and the president had more criticism for the governor than the terrorists.

e) American passports are still worthless because this country has collapsed so completely that the civilized nations on earth want nothing to do with us.

Are we great yet?

10) The weather is cooling off and it is definitely tea weather. I mean, it’s always tea weather as far as I am concerned, but there is weather you can drink tea in and there is tea weather and we have definitely edged into the latter. Cool air, grey skies, darker afternoons – my kind of time.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Gated Community

So now we have the baby gate back up.

It’s for the cat.

I wasn’t even sure we still had the gate to be honest, since the last time we used it was maybe 2005, but one should never underestimate the storage capacity of the American basement. Lauren has been after us to reduce that capacity since she got back from Europe, having acquired a minimalist streak there that clashes horribly with our Collect More Stuff ethos, but sometimes a maximalist habit comes in handy and one is constantly making exciting discoveries that way.

Mithra was not looking good earlier this week, so we took her to the vet. The vet poked, prodded, and did some blood work, and eventually called us back to tell us that she is old. We knew that already. We’ve always considered Labor Day to be her birthday and this year she turned 16, which admittedly pretty old for a cat. He told us to keep an eye on her, give her painkillers for a few days, and let him know if she wasn’t looking better by the weekend.

She is, in fact, looking better now.

This is not why we have the baby gate up.

No, we have the baby gate up because Midgie is completely freaked out by this situation. Ever since Mithra came home from the vet Midgie has been absolutely terrified of her. She hisses. She runs away. She puffs up and gets bigger, which is an interesting trick in a cat that could afford to lose about half her body weight despite eating nothing but diet food for the last several years.

She has spent the last several nights upstairs, hiding from Mithra (who has been sound asleep in the living room for most of that time, not particularly caring about Midgie’s whereabouts one way or the other). There are many things upstairs for Midgie to occupy her time with, notably human beings who are just trying to sleep and failing because she has the world’s loudest purr and is desperate to engage with us at four in the morning.

There is also one item that we did not think we needed to put upstairs during this troubled time. Which means that Midgie has had to find another place to take care of what usually happens in that sort of item. Which, in turn, was not a pleasant discovery.

So. Baby gate at the foot of the stairs.

She can’t fit through the openings, and if she can just be persuaded to stay downstairs and then go down to the basement to take care of her business there perhaps she won’t need to be locked in the basement all night, which is the backup plan.

She’s a sweet cat but a dim one, even as cats go.

And now I need to remember how to operate a baby gate, which as I recall was all in the wrist.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Reading the Tea Leaves

I’m old enough to remember the Soviet Union.

Fewer and fewer people are these days. The average college freshman this year was born a decade after it collapsed, and there are people running multinational corporations and coaching professional sports teams who didn’t draw breath until after Boris Yeltsin became President of a non-Communist Russia. It was a major event. The Cold War was supposedly over and Americans assumed we’d won it, even if we no longer think either of those things is true anymore.

But I grew up with the Cold War in full swing, with grainy grey photographs of grainy grey old men in heavy coats and fedoras standing grimly on platforms in Red Square, watching military hardware parade by. It was kind of the background noise of politics when I was a kid and even as far along as my college days in the mid-1980s. I don’t know if they even had color in the Soviet Union. They must have – they kept talking about “Red” this and “Red” that, after all – but you couldn’t tell it from the news programs.

One of the biggest differences between Them and Us at the time was the relative freedom of information. Oh, the US had its classified things and not all of them had anything to do with national security, but as a culture we definitely err on the side of oversharing when it comes to, say, health information. Honestly, I could have lived a full and happy life without ever knowing some of the things that I learned about presidential bodily functions during my lifetime. But hey. We’re Americans. We’ll tell you all sorts of things, even while you’re trying to eat. We’re good that way.

The Soviets, on the other hand, said nothing at all about anything. There was a whole category of persons in American intelligence called “Kremlin Watchers” whose only task was to analyze tiny little variations in protocols for clues as to what was going on with them. Reading the tea leaves, essentially. It’s not like there was any actual information being offered. Even as Leonid Brezhnev was being lowered into the ground in the early 1980s there were columns in Pravda insisting he had a cold and would be back in on the platform with his heavy coat and fedora in time for the next parade. They were still saying that about Brezhnev when his successor Yuri Andropov was being buried, as if Brezhnev would magically spring back to life once Andropov was finished using the state fedora.

Today we woke up to the news story that karma is a bitch der Sturmtrumper was diagnosed with COVID19.

On the one hand, you don’t wish that sort of thing on anyone, even an asshole like him. The last thing this country needs is to turn that corrupt racist authoritarian into a martyr.

On the other hand, well, couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. He has refused to take this seriously. He actively destroyed any chance the United States had of responding to this pandemic in any responsible way. He has politicized the CDC and undermined the states in their attempts to deal with this as adults, and he has consistently refused to wear masks or take any action to prevent its spread, and now his supporters are set in their opposition to doing anything sensible for their own health or the health of anyone else. He prioritized his re-election campaign over American lives. There are over 200,000 Americans dead from this disease – 20% of the world’s fatalities, which is impressive for a nation with 4% of the world’s population and the world’s most expensive health care system – and a significant percentage of those dead Americans would still be alive if someone, anyone, else had been president. His catastrophic failure as a leader will be his legacy.

So it’s a quandary.

The key thing, is, however, that nobody really knows how seriously to take these reports of his illness.

He’s such a compulsive liar that if he told you the sun was shining you’d be well advised to pack your umbrella. Half the internet spent the day arguing over whether to believe his diagnosis or not.

He’s also such a narcissistic, power-mad Fascist that the other half of the internet spent the day arguing over how he planned to weaponize this situation to maintain his grip on power regardless of elections.

But nobody knows.

We’re reduced to making guesses based on clues. He’s not in the hospital. Now he is in the hospital. He’s got a mild case. He’s asymptomatic. He’s got a moderate case. He walked into the hospital under his own power. He hasn’t tweeted in 20 hours.

We’re all “White House Watchers” now, reduced to reading the tea leaves. All he needs is a heavy coat and a fedora and he’ll have the whole totalitarian dictator thing pretty much down.

This isn’t the way the United States is supposed to operate. Right now I should be turning off the television to get away from the avalanche of minutia about his physical condition – something I honestly don’t want to know much about beyond top-level information – but no. Not under this regime.

The US has become a grey grainy place under Trump.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Return to Middle Earth

This has been a year for comfort reading – for reading the books that you find pleasurable no matter how many times you’ve read them before, no matter how many times you may have thought that you really ought to be reading something else.  There will be other years for other reading.

I’ve read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series this year, including (for the first time) the radio scripts.  I’ve read all of Christopher Moore (if you haven’t read Lamb you’re missing out, but they’re all worth your time).  At some point I may well take a long walk through the Discworld, again, in order because that’s just the kind of nerd I am.  Or perhaps Jasper Fforde.  Maybe both.

But for now I am once again reading The Lord of the Rings.

There was a time in my life that I did that annually, dropping into Middle Earth for Bilbo’s “eleventy-first” birthday party and then trekking across field and forest, mountain and city only to return to the Shire when all was done.  I loved the elves most of all and still do, despite Terry Pratchett’s thoughtful criticisms of the conceits behind them.  I can still write in Tengwar, in both the Noldorin and Sindarin fashion.  Tom Bombadil has always struck me as goofy and superfluous, Arnor as tragic, and Minas Tirith a much more interesting place than Edoras.

The Silmarillion was my favorite book for many years and The Hobbit is a much quicker book to read, but it was The Lord of the Rings that I read first and to which I returned, year after year, even in years when I didn’t read the others.

It’s probably one of the reasons I’m a professional historian today.  Nobody does backstory like Tolkien.  You get drawn down into the deeper wells of his world and you never really leave, and eventually you realize that you can do the same thing with the world we live in.

There are issues with The Lord of the Rings, as there are with all books.  With a few exceptions women have almost no substantive role to play in Middle Earth – an odd thing in a book so obsessed with genealogy and lineage.  The language can be a bit stilted.  The academic roots of the story shine through more than a few times.  On and on.

But it was and remains a favorite, a place to which I can return and remain, regardless of the outside world.

I first read the books separately, checked out of my local library one at a time, and then decided I wanted to own my own copy.  At the time there was a small independent bookstore in the shopping center not all that far from my house, and there they had the one-volume red slipcased version with a fold-out map at the end.  It was $40, which was a princely sum of money for a 7th-grader in the summer of 1980.

My mom let me come with her to the county courthouse from time to time that summer and do research for her as she worked, searching property titles before the annual tax sale.  I learned how to do real research for this book, which is another thing that set me on the path toward being a historian I suppose.  For this she paid me a dollar an hour out of her own pocket, and after a few weeks I had enough to buy the book.  I rode my bike up to the bookstore – maybe three miles or so through what passed for traffic in the suburbs of Philadelphia – and came home with my treasure.

I promptly disappeared into my room until I had finished reading it, sprawled across my bed with the radio on, working my way through Middle Earth once again.  I still think of Frodo Baggins every time I hear the Rolling Stones sing Shattered.

The book came already smelling the way that old books do, and forty years later it still does.  

It tells a story where the good triumphs, though not completely and not forever.  The Shadow will always return, after all.  There is a strong melancholy streak throughout the story, of beautiful things fading away and being forgotten, of victories turned hollow, of last stands and old friends, of the fragility of what exists and how easily it can fall apart.  But there is also the counterpoint of doing all you can in the face of such things, of the importance of the small and the powerless and the overlooked, of the power of memory and the idea that the good can still win, if only for the moment, but there’s always a next moment and we get to say who wins that one too.

These are good things to remember.