Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Birthday in December

You can do a lot of things in the United States before you turn 21.

You can drive. You can get married without asking your parents’ permission. You can sign contracts. You can vote. You can, if you want, leave school completely and nobody will track you down or make you come back. You can even kill people with impunity under certain conditions, as long as you are paid by the government and wearing a uniform. You can sign up to do that without asking anyone’s permission as well.

You can’t drink alcohol legally on your own, though. We’re odd that way.

But Oliver has now broken through that final barrier and is now legal to do pretty much anything you’re generally allowed to do in the US.

It is a strange thing to realize that your child is no longer a child, and really hasn’t been for some time now. Parents have long memories that way, but the present is constantly tapping on our shoulders and reminding us that it’s there and not to get too lost in the past.

It’s been quite a ride and we’re a long way from where we started, but through it all there are things that haven’t changed a bit.

They never stop being your children, not really.

And they never stop being worthwhile.

Happy birthday, Oliver.

I’m proud of you.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Lunch with the Governor

Every so often the “Something I’ve Done That You Haven’t” meme floats by on Facebook, and I have to say that I always enjoy it when it does.

People are interesting. Even the ones who you see every day. And when friends start to post the things they’ve done, well, what else can I do but settle in and enjoy?

I do this exercise in every one of my classes as well. As part of the first day “get to know you” exercises I ask my students that same basic question – what is one thing you’ve done that nobody else in the class has done? – and see what comes back. I’m always impressed with the things my students have done, and I hope they are too. I post them (anonymously) throughout the semester, either on the board before class or in an online discussion forum for classes at a distance. No guessing allowed. I once had a student ask me why I did that. “Because your classmates are more than just note-taking lumps in the seats around you and you should know that,” I told him.

The fun part of that meme is realizing how much you have actually done over the course of a life. It often doesn’t seem like you’ve done much of anything, really – just one foot in front of the other, day in and day out. But even the quietest life is interesting, and it’s nice to be reminded of that fact now and then.

I’ve probably posted a lot of those stories here on this blog, but not all of them. Every time I think I’ve completely covered my entire existence and there will be nothing left for any future biographer to do but collate and index, I find that there is more. This is, after all, a nice problem to have.

For example, I once had lunch with the Governor of Wisconsin.

Admittedly, he wasn’t the Governor at the time. But I did have him all to myself for an hour.

This was back when I was teaching at Not Quite So Far Away Campus. I was filling in for another historian who had been bumped up to an administrative position, so not only did I spend three semesters teaching in my field but I got to teach Western Civ II as well, which is a course I enjoy because it gives me license to roam freely over seven hundred years of European and American history and spend an entire class period on Thomas Malthus. Even the commute wasn’t bad, especially since I ended up carpooling with a friend of mine for most of that time. The ride is much easier when there’s two of you.

Tony Evers was the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time – the equivalent of the Secretary of Education in this state. As such he was a member ex officio of the Board of Regents of the UW System – the only one at the time who had not been foisted off on an unsuspecting public by then-Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries). It was, I’d imagine, a lonely position to be in.

At some point everyone at NQSFA Campus got an email plaintively asking if anyone wanted to have lunch in the campus Commons with a Regent, since they were all coming for a meeting of some kind. I figured “why not?” – I’d never met a Regent before, and as an adjunct instructor I have learned never to turn down a free lunch, particularly one that promised to be as high-quality as something that would be served to the Board of Regents.

So I threw my name in.

Not many people did so they ended up divvying out the Regents to individual faculty and staff, and this is how I found myself alone at a table with Superintendent Evers.

It was, I have to say, a fascinating time. He was a gracious companion and an interesting one. He was also clearly the smartest person in that room, which is saying something in that context. The level of detail and the thoroughness of his ideas was truly impressive – I’ve met very few people who can speak in coherent paragraphs, and he’s one of them. It ended up being one of the highlights of my time at that campus.

And now he’s the Governor.

Of course I voted for him. I would have voted for a two-pound bag of carrots if it meant getting rid of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries). Give me a chance to vote for someone qualified, humane, and intelligent on top of that? I couldn’t fill out that ballot fast enough.

In a state that wasn’t as criminally gerrymandered as Wisconsin, where the opposition party wasn’t as mindlessly fanatic about maintaining its grip on absolute power at the expense of human decency, common sense, and the lives of the citizens they rule over, he might have had a chance to make some necessary and real improvements here. As it is he does what he can in the face of unthinking ideological resistance, and for that I’m grateful.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A Quiet Christmas

We always break out the wedding china for holiday meals. Why keep the stuff if you’re not going to use it?

Like everyone else with an ounce of common sense, we stayed home for Christmas this year. No trip out east to see my side of the family. Nothing scheduled for later to visit Kim’s side here in Wisconsin. Just the four of us at home enjoying a quiet holiday together.

We did our scaled-down version of the “Odd Number of Kinds of Fishes” dinner that my grandmother used to make for Christmas Eve when I was a kid, modernized for convenience and adjusted to things we’d actually eat. Popcorn shrimp. Crabcakes. Spaghetti with clam sauce. It works for us.

There was a family Zoom with the Eastern Time Zone folks, after which we opened presents. And then we played Phase 10, which is the ideal card game as far as I am concerned in that it is interesting enough to keep your attention but not so energy intensive that it gets in the way of food and conversation. It sits right in that sweet spot where all good card games should be.

Today was even quieter. Christmas Day has always been the secondary holiday in my family – a time to relax, have friends visit, and generally not do much of anything. No visitors this year, but perhaps next year. Tomorrow will be still quieter. This is a good thing, I think.

This has been a long and draining year for everyone. We started the year with an entire continent on fire and an impeachment trial, neither of which anyone remembers anymore because so much has happened since. We’ve been living with the pandemic since March here. We’re ending the year with The Election That Seditious Sore Losers Won’t Let Die and with the hopeful news of a vaccine – several, in fact. It’s been busy. I miss the big family get-togethers, but I have to admit that a quiet little celebration felt good too.

It will all start up again at some point. You can only take so long of a break, after all. But for the moment it is quiet. We share a meal with loved ones and serve it on the good plates and we hang out together and talk.

This can be a beautiful world, if we let it.

Maybe someday we will.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

News and Updates

1. I had a lovely birthday celebration yesterday, amid all of the season’s hustle and bustle – one of the few times in my life that we’ve managed to celebrate my birthday on my birthday, which actually felt a bit odd. Pleasantly odd, but odd. Friends and family sent me birthday greetings by social media or by phone, sometimes both. Kim, Oliver, Lauren, and I had a lovely take-out dinner of barbecue and – by my request – brownies afterward. There were cards, and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved what was written inside of them. And afterward the four of us hung out at the table for a good long while in conversation. As you get older you realize that all you really want for birthdays and holidays is to spend time with those you love, and it was a perfect birthday that way.

2. Of course now the math has all changed and this will take a while to get through my head. I have no idea how old I am at any given moment – I have long since passed the age when I had that memorized and every year it’s a calculation. Let’s see now, I was born in … and this year is, wait, what year is this? … and I don’t think I’ve had my birthday yet … what month is this? … so no? yes? maybe? … and subtract the first number from the second and … wow, that’s old. It beats the alternative.

3. In the last week I have made a grand total of three cash transactions. From one of them I got one of those 2009 pennies with the Lincoln designs on them, and from another I got a wheat cent. I’m on a roll!

4. Two of my three classes are done and put to bed now, and the third never will be until I pass it along to someone else. My advisees have moved on to other concerns for a while as well. So I’m as done with this semester as I’m going to get. It doesn’t seem real yet, somehow. In a semester where everything has happened from home, finishing up and staying home doesn’t mark any great change.

5. It’s strange to hear that you’re going to be part of someone else’s book. One of my friends is writing an autobiography of sorts – as a guy who’s been writing a blog for a decade I’m not in any position to question this, I know – and apparently some of the things we did back in the day are in it. I am kind of curious to find out how they come across. There’s a difference between history and memory, after all.

6. There is less than a month until we have sane government again, or at least saner government. Are you counting down the days? You should be. If we make it to January 20 with the Constitution intact and the republic still standing it will be the single greatest political accomplishment of the last four years. Seriously – the US Army had to make a public statement recently that they would not participate in the right-wing coup attempt that the sitting president of the United States was discussing with his advisors. That’s not normal. Why everyone involved in creating, perpetuating, or supporting this sad rerun of the Beer Hall Putsch (history, as Karl Marx pointed out, repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce) is not jailed and awaiting trial is a mystery.

7. I’m really, really looking forward to the avalanche of indictments and further investigations that will rain down on the heads of der Sturmtrumper and his minions beginning on January 21. There isn’t enough popcorn in the world for that.

8. Speaking of things to make a person merry, I actually went out and did some Christmas shopping today. I tried to go to local businesses since they need the help this year more than usual, and I found a couple of things. I’ll probably go again tomorrow just for a few more odds and ends. People here in Our Little Town are pretty good about wearing masks these days – even the guy standing out on the street corner with the sign asking people to “Honk for Trump!” had a mask on – so there was at least that measure of protection.

9. I recently found a bottle of whiskey in my cupboard that I inherited from my dad. It was open when it came to me, though it was mostly full. We were not teatotalers in my family, but the fact that this bottle has a 1978 tax stamp from Maryland on it does suggest that perhaps alcohol consumption wasn’t our top priority. It’s pretty smooth now. Bottle-aged.

10. We now have LED shop lights in our basement. They’re really snazzy. You hang them up, plug them in, and they just work. They’re also bright enough to land planes by, which is a bit of a change from the old fluorescent lights and could possibly lead to Projects as we are able to see things clearly for the first time, but so it goes. We’re too busy for Projects, so I figure I’m safe.  For now.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

And Now We Are Four

I drove down to Small Liberal Arts College yesterday and picked up Oliver for his semester break.

It was a pleasant drive, even with every pickup truck in the midwest stuck in second gear in front of me, and we had a good time catching up on the way back. He’s got a history paper to write still – his semester doesn’t end officially until Wednesday, but since everything is virtual at this point he can do that from home where the food is better and there are cats – and it’s been nice being a resource on such things.

Local Businessman High went virtual over Thanksgiving so Lauren has been taking classes at home since then. She usually camps out at the dining room table because the wifi is better there. Kim and I have our offices for our various meetings and classes, and we all make it work.

And now we’re all home together, for at least the next few weeks.

It will be a pretty quiet holiday, all things considered. We will not be traveling to visit any family or friends this year, though with the vaccines now on the scene we do have hope for next year. We’ll hang out at home and take it easy. The tree is up and decorated. Kim has a project where we’ll plan various Christmas dinner menus from around the world over the next couple of weeks, just to be a bit festive.

We’re behind on the Christmas cards, which adds a note of normality to an otherwise deeply abnormal year.

The Christmas shopping has been hit and miss, and likely will stretch out into January, which is fine. As you get older your list gets shorter anyway and it includes more things that you can’t just go out and buy, and having the family together is at the top of that list. We’ll miss the extended clans – there are Zoom calls being planned to help get us past that, but they’re not the same as being there – and it will be sad not to see friends this time of year. But we’ll be glad for what we do have.

We’re healthy, so far. We’re employed. We’re warm and fed and cozy.

In 2020, even more than perhaps other years, these are enough.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Faces and Names

One of the things I decided to do this semester was create PowerPoint presentations of images to show my classes. We’re all virtual now – just pixels on a screen – and I figured it would be a lot more entertaining for my students to stare at something other than me for the entire class period. I didn’t want these presentations to be anything critical – I wasn’t going to test them on these images, for example. I just wanted them to be interesting.

And they were, at least from what I heard. I asked my US1 class if they wanted me to continue with them after a couple of weeks and they all said yes.

So three times a week I would sit there image-searching the web, looking for things that could plausibly fit into my lectures.

This is tricky in the first unit of the course. There simply aren’t that many images out there for things that happened in the early 1600s, for example, so you make do with what you can find. Etchings. Paintings. Artifacts. Modern reconstructions or restorations.

But as we got into the 19th century, we entered into the realm of photography and it was utterly fascinating – to me at least – to see what some of these people actually looked like. You get used to them as names on a page, as actors on a stage you will never actually see, and then there they are.

This is Levi Strauss, for example. He was a German Jewish immigrant who came to this country in the mid-19th century and made a fortune selling tough denim workpants to the miners who were part of the California Gold Rush of 1849. The miners called those pants “Levis” in his honor.

These are the three candidates from the 1848 presidential election, an election whose main issue was whether to allow slavery in the lands taken from Mexico in the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The entire American Southwest – California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and parts of several other states – were part of Mexico until the US decided they’d look better as part of the US, but slavery was a sectional issue that the Second Party System just could not handle without imploding. So the Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, the first image, ran on no platform at all. The Democratic candidate Lewis Cass ran on a platform of “popular sovereignty,” which nobody understood and he was unwilling to define, so it effectively meant running on no platform either. Only former president (and before that Andrew Jackson’s vice president) Martin Van Buren, running as the Liberty Party candidate, ran on anything approaching a platform, which was to keep slavery out of that land. Naturally Van Buren came in third, while Taylor won.

This was clearly a time before television.

Charles Sumner was a Senator from Massachusetts who gave a blistering speech on the Senate floor denouncing Southern interference in Kansas. South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beat him senseless at his desk a couple of days later while his buddy held off the rest of the Senate at gunpoint. Southerners lionized Brooks as the epitome of Southern manhood for this, and perhaps he was. It took Sumner three years to recover enough to return to the Senate.

John Brown was an antislavery zealot who was active in the guerilla wars in Kansas between proslavery and antislavery forces and later tried to start a slave rebellion by capturing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry (then Virginia, now West Virginia). He was captured, tried, and executed. “John Brown’s body lies a’moldering in his grave,” Northerners would later sing, “but his truth goes marching on.”

Dred Scott had been a slave during the 1830s and 1840s, but he had spent a lot of time in the free territories of Wisconsin and Illinois following the Army doctor who legally owned him, back when that was considered a thing. When the doctor died Scott sued for his freedom, since slavery was not allowed in those territories. A St. Louis jury agreed and set him free, but the doctor’s family appealed and eventually in 1857 the US Supreme Court ruled that not only was he still a slave but that no African American could ever be a US citizen under any circumstances. The 14th Amendment exists in no small part to erase this foul decision.

The first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston SC, by forces under the command of Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the first image above. The fort was commanded by Major Robert Anderson. Beauregard was an excellent artilleryman, so much so that when he was at West Point his instructor took the unprecedented step of asking him to stay on to help him teach the subject. His instructor was Major Robert Anderson.

Frederick Douglass was one of the premier abolitionists of his age and one of the best orators. A former slave himself, he used his personal experiences to argue a critique of American society that still resonates today.

This guy, though. You have to love a guy as hapless as this one.

Wilmer McLean owned a farm near the northern Virginia town of Manassas Junction in 1861. There was a small stream nearby called Bull Run, and it is here that Union and Southern armies clashed in the first major battle of the Civil War. Northern soldiers – often city boys – tended to name battles after the nearest body of water since that is what stuck out to them, and they called this the Battle of Bull Run. Southern soldiers – mostly farm boys – tended to name battles after the nearest town for the same reason, and they called it the Battle of Manassas Junction. And then they did it again not too long later and the battles became First and Second.

At that point McLean decided he had had enough of battles on his farm so he sold it and bought a nice little house in a quiet little town about 75 miles from Richmond, a town called Appomattox Courthouse. Four years later Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant would trap Robert E. Lee’s army in that town, and Grant and Lee would meet in McLean’s parlor to work out the formal surrender of the last remaining Southern army, and the war was over. 
Eventually McLean moved back to Manassas and ended up working for the IRS.
You forget sometimes that these were actual people and not just names on a page. Looking at them, seeing their faces, is a marvelous antidote to that.

Friday, December 11, 2020

News and Updates

1. So the Supreme Court just threw out the Texas lawsuit that wanted to overturn the results of the presidential election and simply appoint Trump to a second term in office because reasons. The Electoral College will vote Monday and barring an unprecedented whole-number multiple of the all-time record for faithless electors the presidential election will be over and – for what may well be the 60th time since November 3rd – Joe Biden will have won. Folks, it wasn’t even close. Biden won the popular vote by over 7,000,000 votes and the electoral college by 74 votes. Trump and his ilk have been decisively rejected and no amount of seditious nonsense will change that.

2. By actively supporting Trump’s campaign to overturn a free and fair election rather than slapping it down as the overt threat to American democracy that it was, the Republican Party has yet again proven itself to be a subversive organization, one that fundamentally does not accept the entire concept of democracy and needs to be disbanded and whose leaders need to be prosecuted for crimes against the United States.

3. If you think I’m exaggerating, bear in mind that Allen West, the Chair of the Texas Republican Party, has openly declared that his state should now secede from the Union because they didn’t get to impose his party’s candidate on an unwilling nation by disenfranchising millions of Americans in states that – I keep coming back to this – were not Texas. Disunion was treason in 1832, when Andrew Jackson faced down John C. Calhoun and South Carolina over the Nullification Crisis. It was treason in 1861 when the South decided to declare war on the United States so they could continue their practice of human slavery and were razed to the ground by Grant, Sherman, and the Union Army. It’s treason now. Mr. West should be aware that the United States has laws prescribing the fate of traitors.

4. In other news, it’s snowing here in Baja Canada, which is appropriate for mid-December after all.

5. So far my campaign to get into the Christmas spirit seems to be failing, which I attribute to a) the general state of the world and the United States in particular (vide supra), b) the fact that it is the end of the semester and I barely have time to start everything I need to finish let alone devote energy to a new project, and c) the fact that I have no idea what if anything will happen on Christmas that will separate it out from any other day of this past year. I’m still out there plugging, though. Maybe it will happen.

6. Kim, Lauren, and I went out last week and picked a Christmas tree from the lot where we got ours last year. It’s a nice tree and it smells good in the living room, though it has yet to relax its branches and at this point I’m kind of resigned to it retaining its arrowhead shape throughout the holiday season. I finally put the lights on it last night and tomorrow we’ll decorate it, and then there will be pictures.

7. Today was the last day of classes at two of the three campuses where I teach (because of the way it structures its classes, the third never really has a last day). I still have about 48 solid work-hours of grading to do, and if I can get my final to work out for my long-distance class I’ll be shocked, but I am really looking forward to a break. I have been running pretty much flat out since mid-March without pause, and while I count myself lucky to be employed in this economy I am very much looking forward to not having much to do at all for a bit.

8. I’ll miss my students – I always do, at least most of them – but given the way this semester’s classes were structured I will actually see most of them next semester in one capacity or another.

9. They’ve started giving out vaccines for the coronavirus now, which means that with any luck we may be back to some semblance of normality in a few months or so. Maybe longer, if the anti-vaccine idiots and the anti-mask lunkheads continue to screw up the world for everyone else because of their ignorant selfishness and boundless stupidity, but even so. The fact that we have not one but several viable vaccines less than a year into this pandemic is nothing less than astonishing.

10. I try to go for walks when I have time, which – as noted – is not very often these days, but so it goes. I need the exercise. Mostly I just walk the mile and a half up to Local Businessman High School and then turn around and walk back, which is a nice route as it involves almost no thought on my part. Once in a while I will pull out my phone and randomly call up some old friend whose number I still know and who might actually pick up – not many people use phones to make phone calls these days, but it’s nice to talk to people live that way. So if I have your phone number, you may well get a call sometime.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Happy Freaking Holidays, Y'all

I got the Christmas lights up last weekend, as noted earlier. Most of them anyway. Every year I put a single strand of blue lights across the front of the house, because I like blue lights – they’re peaceful, and we all know we need more of that these days. Kim reminded me tonight that we also have blue net lights for the front bushes, and I suppose I should find them and put them up as well.

Because this year we’re going to need more holiday spirit than usual, I think.

It’s been a challenging year, which is a polite way of saying what perhaps ought to be said a lot less politely, but professionalism and all that. We started off with an entire continent on fire, followed it up with the US Senate actively covering up for the most corrupt president in American history, and then the plague hit. There were lockdowns and quarantines, street protests and Fascist goons in federal uniforms disappearing people from the streets of America. The west coast burned down, the skies turned orange, morons aggressively refused to take the plague seriously and threatened the intelligent people who did, and nobody with more than six working brain cells is going anywhere for the holidays this year because large gatherings are just preludes to large burials. There were murder hornets.

MURDER HORNETS, for crying out loud.

On top of all that, we’re still dealing with a slow-motion right-wing coup attempt that will likely fail only because the people behind it are too damned stupid to subvert a free election effectively, which is a worrisome thing for the future of the American republic when you think about it, and there’s still four weeks left in the year. For all I know there could be an invasion of extraterrestrials on the solstice, though if they ask me to take them to my leader I will advise them to wait a few more weeks until we actually have one.

In this kind of environment, you could go one of two ways.

The easy way would be to ignore the holiday completely. It’s been a long year. Nobody’s in the mood. It would be simpler to curl up with a good book, a movie, a sitcom, a bag of chips, a bottle of wine, a mug of tea, a tin of cookies, or whatever else you need to get you through the night, and just hunker down and wait it out.

Or you could spit in the eye of it all and try to find some joy in the season.

It’s been a long year. I’m thinking I’m going to go with option two.

This is not going to be easy for me. For one thing, I’m from Philadelphia where pessimism is considered a civic virtue. For another, I don’t remember the last time I managed to get into the holiday spirit before December 20th, so gearing up early is going to be a trick.

But sometimes, as Garrison Keillor once said, you have to stand up to reality and deny it.

So this year I’m going to put up the lights and decorate the tree and sing the carols and songs even if all my favorites are the sad and broken ones, and I’m going to bake the things and cook the other things and celebrate with the four of us in my immediate family, and if the only way we can connect with friends and extended family this year is though n-dimensional Zoom screens that look like The Brady Bunch on steroids then so be it.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tomorrow we’re going to get the tree and perhaps later this weekend we’ll decorate it.

And won’t that be a time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Ricotta Pie

Yesterday was Kim’s birthday so we celebrated in a quiet sort of way. With Oliver back at Small Liberal Arts College it was just the three of us gathered around – me, Kim, and Lauren – and since none of us are very good at actually procuring gifts at the specific time required (vide supra, re: movable feast tradition) it was mostly just an evening of good food and good company.

At a certain point that’s really all you ask.

Other than a card and the promise of a birthday present (currently in transit), my main contribution to this was to make the cake, and this year it was a ricotta pie. About twenty years ago my mom collected a bunch of recipes from the various scattered branches of my family and my grandmother’s ricotta pie was one of them. My mom had to translate it out of my grandfather’s directions and there’s a certain amount of wiggle room that comes with that process, but so it goes. As my mom said in the collection, “you’re making a pie, not building a bomb. It won’t blow up if you’re a tad over or under.”

If you’ve never had one of these things, you should. They’re a traditional Italian Easter dessert – apparently my grandmother would make one every year when my mom was younger – and they’re rich in the way that something with two pounds of ricotta cheese and a dozen eggs would be. They’re really, really good.

We have a lot of eggs. Lauren’s chickens have been laying like mad for months now, and while we do the best we can to keep up the fact is that they pile up now and then. This was a good way to use up a bunch of them in a tasty manner. Lauren’s chickens produce wonderful eggs, by the way. I’ve made this pie several times and it has never been that golden yellow before.

The thing about this pie is that it has a genuinely old-fashioned taste to it. There is no way you would ever confuse this for a recipe created anytime in the last fifty years. It tastes like the sort of thing that a society a lot closer to the edge of things than the modern US is at present would make to celebrate the fact that life is good anyway. Eggs. Ricotta. An orange. Two shots of whiskey. Sugar. All things that were often scarce back in the day and treasured for that reason. It is a time capsule in a baking dish.

We didn’t have it much when I was a kid – by then the health mavens had ginned up a ruckus that made people believe that anything that rich was something akin to cyanide and gunpowder stew and scared everyone away from such things – but I do remember it appearing now and again.

There is nothing like good food to remind you of good times and create new ones on a grey November evening.