Monday, October 11, 2021

Eulogy for My Mom

So here I am, an orphan at 55, but a well prepared one for all that.

My mother’s first job out of college was teaching English at South Philadelphia High School. She didn’t stay there for very long – for one thing I came along and for another she needed to be awake and teaching at 7am and that just wasn’t going to happen – but she never stopped being a teacher.

From my mom I learned many things.

I learned how to read. Not in the “parsing out the words on the page” sense, but in the broader sense of seeing reading as a joy in itself, of exploring new worlds and ideas on the page – sometimes to use them in daily life and sometimes just to experience them. She was never without an open book, fiction or nonfiction, and she showed through her actions how important that was. I have followed her example for my entire life.

I learned how to write for an audience. She was always my primary audience. I wrote an entire dissertation on the basic premise that as long as my mom – an intelligent nonspecialist – could understand it then I was doing it right. I write a lot these days, and she was always my first audience for that as well.

I learned how to keep a sense of humor about things. She had a quick sense of humor, one that helped her accept things that needed to be accepted and change things that needed to be changed. She never lost it. This past summer I got into a minor fenderbender while driving her car. I told her that I would cover it, but she said just to let her insurance handle it. “They’ll raise your rates,” I told her. “Not for long,” she replied.

I learned the importance of strong, intelligent women – that’s an important lesson for any man in this world. My mother was a trail blazer. She was the first person in her family to attend college, which she did by earning a full scholarship. She was the first woman to run her company, much to the initial dismay and eventual relief of the old boy network that was there when she got there. She did what she needed to do and she did it well, and she showed me that this is how life was supposed to work.

I learned how to be a parent, and I tried to raise my kids as I was raised.

Perhaps most importantly I learned how to keep a welcoming home. My friends were always welcome in our home, sometimes when we weren’t even there. We always had a home, no matter how far away we were or how long it had been since we’d been there.

I don’t always live up to the lessons my mom taught me, life being what it is, but I always try.

Thanks, mom.

I love you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Eddies

Births and deaths create eddies in time.

My oldest child was born in the middle of a Wisconsin winter and I remember sitting there with a newborn for the first time, staring vaguely out the window at the cold January streets and wondering how all of the people passing by could do that so nonchalantly, as if the world hadn’t just changed, as if everything was just as it had been before.

Of course for them it hadn’t changed, not really.

But my world had, and for a brief moment time seemed to roll back on itself, moving forward only in a very small radius of space, until eventually the rest of the world caught up with a roar and we were suddenly all in the same moment.

This is why new parents look so vague all the time.

My dad passed away on a clear day in late winter in Pennsylvania a few years ago, and as we filed out of the hospital and back toward home the same sort of disjuncture was there, an eddy in time where things in my corner of the observable universe did not move at the same pace or in the same direction as they did everywhere else.

It is a strange feeling to be caught in these eddies, in a place where the world had changed for you but not for others, not yet.

My mom passed away on Saturday morning, and here I am back in another eddy.

If you have a moment, spare a thought for someone who will be dearly missed by those who loved her.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

News and Updates

It’s that time of year where these lists are the best I can do.

1. When I am Grand Vizier of Creation, things will be different. Not necessarily better. But certainly different. And one of the decrees I will put forth early in my tenure is that no bread manufacturer will be allowed to print anything on their clear plastic bags in green ink, particularly not any abstract blobby shape.

2. Every so often my employer convinces me to sell them my health information, which they already have since they are the ones who insure me in the first place so I am not sure what they get out of that. I get enough money to buy some books, which keep me sedentary and provide me with opportunities for tea and snacks which cannot be good for my health that they are so desperate to monitor, so the question of who’s gaining from this remains unanswered.

3. Part of that process was that I had to go in for some blood work as part of my annual checkup. I don’t complain about such things on the whole, even if I hate needles with a wholly irrational passion, since access to health care is a privilege in this country rather than a basic human expectation and I’m glad to have it even if I think that system is desperately cruel and stupid and needs to change. I was supposed to get that work done a while ago but Events intervened and part of my reaction to those Events was to declare a Diet Holiday wherein I would eat whatever I damn well pleased because that’s just what you do to get you through Events, and it took a while for my system to return to close enough to whatever passes for normal for me to try to get tested that way. But now they have my blood and I have a large black bruise on the inside of my elbow and some numbers that look about what I expected them to look like and everyone’s happy except for me and my bruise.

4. It’s been, as noted, a busy and stressful month, and today was the first time since Lauren and Oliver left for college that it occurred to me that I was an empty nester again. This morning I was sitting at my desk getting my class prepped for tomorrow and I idly wondered when they would come down for food and it hit me that they were both elsewhere and that was a rather odd realization.

5. On the plus side, I really like being in a classroom again and seeing my advisees in my office. My students have been good about wearing their masks and it’s been nice getting to know them. Although I am now convinced that one of them is a member of the Russian mafia, though this may just be me.

6. Kim and I hit the Giant Asian Market for some retail therapy yesterday and spent a happy hour or so just wandering up and down the aisles looking for inexpensive treats. I love the compressed sweet sesame seed things, for example, though for some reason the Market was out of the cans of Black Tea that I discovered last time. The salty snack aisle remains an Empire of Weird, which is a lot of why we go after all. I couldn’t resist these:





They were spicy, though I’m not sure where the “numb” part is supposed to come in. I did once make a (thoroughly inedible) chicken dish with far too many sancho peppers that had that effect (and also made ordinary water feel carbonated when you drank it). Perhaps I can suggest an addition to their recipe.

7. There have been actual days over the last week where I didn’t have any book in progress, and I think the last time that happened was the early 1980s. It’s been a time.

8. Day instantly made better:





Yes, it’s a CD. I’m old school. Also, old. But you can’t autograph a downloaded mp3 now, can you? It has been in heavy rotation here at the homestead.

9. Also in heavy rotation have been The Mountain Goats, whom I discovered last year when one of my students recommended them to me, and it turns out that Oliver is a big fan as well and we spent some time driving together this month and he put them on the playlist. If you haven’t listened to “This Year” or “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” you’re missing out. “This Year” has become my theme song.

10. Although last month a friend of mine asked me what my walk-up song would be if I were a baseball player waiting for my turn at bat, and really the only possible answer to that would be “Lawyers, Guns & Money” by Warren Zevon.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Things I Have Learned Recently

1. There is no quiet way to make toast. This is an observation, not an invitation to argue.

2. Speaking as someone who uses hot sauce the way most people use ketchup and who regards Buffalo sauce as a perfectly normal condiment for all sorts of foods, Buffalo chicken pizza should not be a thing. At least it should not be a thing fed to me, anyway. I find this both surprising and disappointing.

3. There is never enough time. Let that be a lesson.

4. There are no hotel rooms available in eastern Indiana if you're traveling on a Thursday night. Not even in places you wouldn't want to stay in if they were the last hotel on earth, a category in which eastern Indiana excels. I am not sure why this is so. The lack of rooms, I mean. Not the "last hotel on earth" part. That was obvious.

5. Sometimes you just want a margarita, and part of being an adult is the ability to say, "Fuck it" and get yourself a margarita.

6. It is entirely possible for a luggage cart to have a flat tire. This makes your luggage go all wobbly.

7. This is the year where the concept of "low bandwidth" became a pervasive thing in my world.

8. My kids are ideal traveling companions. I'd be happy to claim parenting credit for some of that but I suspect it's pretty much just them. Either way it is a lovely thing to share a long drive with them, for the companionship, the conversation, and the playlists.

9. Salt & Vinegar chips are the angriest potato chips, and nobody makes them better than Herr's. I need to find someone who sells them here in the midwest. I also need to stop eating so many of them since a) they have the word "salt" right in the name and my doctor has already given me the finger-waggle about too much salt, and b) they eventually eat a hole in your lips. Maybe it's good that I can't buy them in Wisconsin. But they're so worth it.

10. The flexibility of remote teaching is a wonderful thing when your schedule shifts without warning.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Calendar on the Wall

It's the calendar that sticks in my mind.

We’re back face to face at Home Campus now, almost completely, after a year and a half of working mostly (and in my case almost entirely) remotely. I went back to my office last week to bring the files I’d taken home last March, back when I thought this would be resolved in a few months, and I dumped them on my desk for future sorting. I’d cleaned up the place when I came in for the files back then – there were no derelict mugs or moldy snacks, no half-remembered things I’d been looking for at home without success. Just papers and office supplies, as always.

But the calendar on the wall still read March 2020.

It felt like I was an archeologist, exploring the ruins of a lost civilization and waiting for the boulder to come rolling out of some secret opening in a file cabinet to crush me for my impertinence in disturbing the ancient site. All I needed is a nice hat and a bull whip to make the feeling complete.

I mean, we already have Nazis openly roaming the streets of the country these days. How far away can Indiana Jones be?

It’s a strange thing to see that calendar, to put my mind back into the eerie last days before the pandemic struck the US for real. I remember thinking a couple of days before it all came crashing down that the day felt like the Before picture in some future textbook, that there would soon be a divide in time and whatever came next would be After, a different place.

In some ways it is.

But in other ways it’s more of the same. The students are still vaguely lost, looking for rooms that will become second nature to them in a few weeks. The building is a bit more spread out with the furnishings to encourage social distancing but even that not so much as it was a year ago. The classrooms are back to being classrooms instead of wifi hotspots for Zoom classes.

Everyone is wearing masks, though. Home Campus has a mask mandate for everyone, vaccinated or not, which is smart policy in the time of the Delta variant. So far compliance has been universal, which gives me hope for the future. I live in a state that hasn’t lost its goddamned mind like so many of the ones in the old Confederacy or the new one. People here understand that science is real and the virus doesn’t care about your politics, or at least they understand that the university has the authority to set rules for public safety and you are free not to attend if those rules bother you. Either way the result is the same, so that’s good.

I've cleared away the files and straightened out my desk, but I haven’t taken the calendar down yet. I’m not sure why. It just sits there, a brightly colored monument to a faded past of not that long ago, really.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Just Like That

I spent most of last night playing Tetris in the minivan.

Not electronically, mind you. Not the kind of Tetris that you play on a screen, but rather the kind you play with boxes, bags, and various other oddly shaped possessions that all somehow have to fit into a defined space without falling out or getting crushed. It’s an art form, fitting it all together so that nothing gets left behind – or at least only those things you plan to leave behind get left behind, for there is always time for another trip – but such is my muse.

This morning Kim, Lauren, and I piled into the van, folding ourselves neatly around the stuff already there, and headed off to Main Campus University.

You have to hand it to universities these days – they’re much better organized about move-in than when I went to college back in the Cretaceous Period. There are volunteers to guide you to where you need to be, and signs everywhere you turn if you can’t find a volunteer. You can back up onto the sidewalk to unload easier – they actually put little ramps there so you can do this without ruining your suspension. There are roller bins to help you move stuff. And you even get a parking permit that allows you to move to one of the official university lots for the rest of the day if you are so inclined and your child actually wants you to stay.

Not much you can do about old dorms that don’t have elevators or air conditioning, though.

We arrived right as our scheduled window was starting and loaded up a couple of bins. These got us as far as the door to the dorm, and then we had to unload them and haul all that stuff up several flights of stairs, there being – as noted – no elevators. The first few trips are pretty straightforward, and then your body starts to notice what you’re doing and, if you’re me, it begins to remind you that you are Old and this is not how Old people normally spend their days.

But you persist, because it is your child’s first day at MCU and she needs to get moved in.

Fortunately it was a pleasant day, not the kind of oven we’ve had for the past few weeks. It was still stuffy in the room – putting together the futon that we brought for under her lofted bed left me rather soggy – but I can’t imagine trying to do that in 94F heat.

Well, actually I can. I’d just prefer not to.

We got it all up to her room and lofted the bed, placing the futon underneath as we had planned. And then it was time to go. MCU doesn’t have anything scheduled for parents the way Small Liberal Arts College did, and Lauren was eager to get on with her day and her college career.

She will be just fine. She’s been away before, and at least this time she doesn’t have to learn an entirely new language just to have ordinary conversations. She’s a good student and she’s been looking forward to this for a while now. So we said our goodbyes and she shooed us out.

And just like that, she’s a college student.

Good luck to you, Lauren! Do well and be well.

I’m proud of you.






Saturday, August 28, 2021

Observations from the Highway

I’ve spent a lot of time on the interstates this summer, and I’ve seen some things.

1. What’s with all the tire shreds? Everywhere you look there are shredded tires littering the road like oversized rubber spiders. Most of the time you can avoid them, but sometimes you can’t and then you just have to hope that you’re not going to add your own tires to the pile.

2. Is there a reason why they put speed limit signs on the highways around Chicago? Half of them are marked as 55mph and the other half have construction zone limits that are even lower but I have never seen anyone travel less than 70mph on any of those roads – not even state troopers. May the deities of your choice protect you if you try to go the speed limit, because there are only two outcomes to that. You might get run over by faster traffic piling up behind you. Or you might get deliberately taken out by the road rage of the faster traffic piling up behind you. I spent five years running with a rescue squad back in the Jurassic Period and if I got anything out of that experience it is that you should never be the fastest or slowest thing on the road, so if traffic is holding steady at 20mph above the speed limit well, that’s where I’ll be.

3. This has been a banner year for road construction. I think they’re trying to get it all done before the pandemic ends and traffic returns to normal, but while the pandemic rages on thanks to all the blistering morons who refuse to accept basic public health measures, traffic has indeed returned to prepandemic levels. This does tend to make the construction a bit trickier than perhaps intended.

4. The state of Indiana has no idea how to run a construction zone or a highway rest stop. Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, folks, even Ohio does those better.

5. The cult of Trump refuses to do the decent thing for the nation and die out already. Everywhere I go there are nitwits flying Trump flags at highway speeds from overpowered vehicles, right next to their Confederate battle flags – another white supremacist failure that lasted only four years – and seriously people, it’s pathetic and it needs to stop.

6. If you go by what you see from the turnpike, the middle of Pennsylvania is mostly rolling hills, rising mountains, dying towns, and Trump cultists. At mile 203 of the turnpike, on the south side of the highway, someone has hauled a pile of white rocks up onto the side of a hill and arranged them neatly into the name of their false idol. Just above them, at the top of the hill, there is a flagpole with one of the aforementioned nitwit flags. At one point there was an altar or podium or some such – it’s hard to tell when you’re flying by at highway speed – but it seems to have collapsed into a heap now. I’ve gotten to the point where I look forward to seeing it, if only out of a sense of morbid curiosity. What exactly did the deluded soul who put together this knockoff version of a golden calf want to achieve beyond snorts of derisive laughter and eyerolls? The world may never know.

7. When it’s raining hard enough to make the semis pull over, that’s a good sign that you should pull over as well.

8. Having those transponders where you can pay your tolls without even slowing down is really nice in the sense that you don’t have to slow down but it also means that you really don’t have any idea what your actual toll is so they can keep raising it without you even getting bothered by it. You have to hand it to them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Transitions

I dropped Oliver off at Small Liberal Arts College on Saturday.

Friday night we made our pizza Margheritas and Oliver invited some friends over (we had a friend of our own come down as well, which is a long story involving a wedding and a baseball game) and we made a party of it. It’s nice to have one last hurrah before heading out.

We drove down to SLAC with our usual van full of stuff, as we are wont to do. It’s a nice drive, really, except for the construction detours that are never as marked as they ought to be, but with GPS that’s not the issue it once was. It’s good to be able to spend time with your kids, and a long car ride is just an excuse for good conversation.

We loaded up his dorm room as his roommate was doing the same, then retrieved yet more stuff from the storage unit they had rented over the summer and squeezed that into the room as well. Once you set up a college dorm room, the TARDIS begins to make a lot more sense.

And then I was off – back on the road to Our Little Town, on my own in an empty van, with one fewer person at the other end to greet me.

Lauren leaves for Main Campus University next week and we will repeat the process then, including another pizza fest if all goes well, and after that it will just be me and Kim, empty nesters for real this time after the test run of 2019-2020.

We went to our last 4H meeting not long before Oliver had to leave – a picnic in one of the city parks, outdoors and socially distanced as befits an event in the new age of the Delta variant. It was a nice time. We got to see some of the people we’ve been in the club with over the last 13 years or so, and both Kim and I got plaques as thank yous for all the various volunteer activities we’ve put in over that time. I spent a lot of time at the food booths of the Cat Show and Rabbit Show, for example. It’s a nice plaque. I’ll have to put mine somewhere I can see it.

But both Lauren and Oliver have aged out of the 4H now, and neither Kim nor I plan to stay around as leaders. It was a good run. It’s time to step aside.

Lauren has her yearbook now – there was some kind of printing delay so they had to pick them up long after graduation – and the School District sent us a check for the remaining balance in her lunch account, which has been sitting there since June 2019, since she didn’t use it at all while she was abroad and nobody needed it last year. It turns out that it’s cheaper and easier just to give everyone lunches than to try to monitor who paid and who didn’t. So that door has gracefully shut and next month, for the first September since 2004, we will have no kids attending public schools here in Our Little Town.

We were very happy with the schools here – they did a good job of both educating our kids and treating them well, which is saying something given the curve balls we threw at them occasionally. But if you’re willing to work with people they’re usually willing to work with you, and so it turned out.

Sometime in September there will be a mass culling of Facebook group pages from my account, as there are a lot of announcements I no longer need to see.

Every time is a time of transitions, but this year is more so than most. There are more transitions coming down the pike, in fact, but I will get to them when they arrive.

It’s been quite a time here in Our Little Town.

We press on.

Friday, August 13, 2021

A Louder Sort of Quiet

I literally don’t remember the time I saw Nanci Griffith in concert.

I remember the concert, more or less. I was in college, back in the mid-1980s, and my friend Rob wanted to go to see a folk duo named Buskin & Batteau who were playing at a local bar that was ambiguously off campus depending on how you defined the campus. I had heard a lot of Buskin & Batteau songs by then – Rob and I were in a band together with Jack and we actually covered one of them at the irregularly scheduled concerts that we’d play here and there. I don’t know why Jack wasn’t with us. It was a long time ago.

I remember the bar. It had a stage at one end with some round tables in front of it, and some bar stools and counters around the edges. Jack and my dad and I saw Leon Redbone at the same bar not long after this, actually. It was a nice place.

Rob and I sat on bar stools on the edge, enjoying the concert for a while until he saw some friends of his at one of the tables and went over to sit with them. He asked me several times to join them, but I wasn’t the most sociable person at the time and didn’t know them so I stayed on the side until the concert ended.

It was a fun concert. Buskin & Batteau were a midlevel folk band with some really great music (though their lyrics could be hit and miss). There aren’t many folk groups with violins played as violins rather than fiddles.  One of their songs has a heartbreakingly beautiful two-part violin bit, and it turned out that someone in the audience had learned one of the parts so they brought her up on stage and had her perform with them.  I remember that part, at least.  She did a good job.

Rob bootlegged the concert, which in the mid-1980s meant bringing in a bulky tape recorder, putting it on the table, and hoping the band didn’t mind because there really wasn’t any way to hide it. He made me a copy afterward.

It wasn’t until I listened to the tape that I realized the opening act was Nanci Griffith. I knew who she was, but I didn’t remember her part of the concert at all even then. They brought her back for the encore. I still have the tape somewhere.

I listened to a lot of Nanci Griffith songs after that, but I never managed to see her in concert again. Never met her. Never traded so much as an email. But she had a distinctive voice and a writer’s talent for lyrics, and she was one of those small pieces of the background music of my life that I enjoyed.

She passed away today, another little chunk of my past irretrievably lost to time, much like John Prine last year. The ghosts accumulate as you get older.  The quiet gets louder.

But the music plays on.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Pizza Margherita

The parchment paper was the key.

One of our summer projects here in this second year of the Great Pandemic has been to learn how to make pizza Margherita, the classic Neapolitan pizza that you find all over Europe and in much of the United States as well. It’s a project you can do at home with the whole family and if you do it right you get really good food at the end. That’s pretty much the definition of an ideal project as far as I am concerned.

Pizza Margherita is model of simplicity, with only a handful of ingredients and no hidden techniques or exotic equipment required, but as with all simple things you have to get it just right or it doesn’t work. Simple is not the same as easy.

The first thing, of course, is to assemble the ingredients.

Kim found some Neapolitan “Tipo-00” extra fine flour for sale online, and apparently this is the secret to the crust. It makes, it must be said, the platonic ideal of a pizza crust – crusty, chewy, with plenty of air and a nice bite to it. You add water, yeast, and some salt – maybe a bit of sugar to get the yeast started, if you want – and let it rise overnight on top of the oven. Eventually you form it into dough balls and let them sit for about half an hour before gently flattening them into pizza crusts to await toppings.

The pizza sauce is similarly straightforward. We get a can of crushed or pureed tomatoes and add some spices to it and that’s pretty much it. The trick, we learned after the first time, is to simmer it down so it’s not so watery. Otherwise it turns everything into a sad, wet mess and takes forever to cook.

This is the same trick we learned with the mozzarella. We live in Wisconsin, a state that counts cheese as one of its defining characteristics along with beer, fish fries, and Packers football. You can get really good fresh mozzarella here. But you have to get the kind that is designed for pizzas and has a lot of the moisture taken out of it already – or you have to do that yourself – because as noted a wet mess of a pizza is a sad thing.

The only other ingredient is fresh basil and having three basil plants growing at random intervals around the house means that we have a fairly unending supply of basil to be picked mere minutes prior to baking.

You can also drizzle it with nice olive oil if you want – it adds a bit of flavor – but that’s optional. It’s a very simple dish.

The first time we tried this, early in the summer, we fired up the gas grill outside to Max Heat (which for our grill is about 600 to 700F or 315 to 370C) and threw the pizzas directly onto some baking pans, which resulted in pizzas that were both wet (see above) and scorched at the same time.

We fixed the wet problem and bought some heavy-gauge steel grilling pans and that solved those problems, but there was still one issue that continued to plague our Sunday evenings. No matter what we tried – flour, oil, supplications to deities of various kinds, invective addressed to same, whatever – getting the pizzas off of whatever surface we’d grilled them on was always a trial. We lost quite a few pizzas that way.

A moment of silence, please.

After a few go-rounds of that, however, an idea occurred. We have parchment paper. Parchment paper is used for baking. We’re baking. There seems to be a natural conclusion to be drawn here, and it turns out that parchment paper can in fact handle those temperatures. This has made all the difference in the world.

So every Sunday, more or less, we refine our pizza techniques and continue on our quest for the perfect pizza Margherita.

We gather our ingredients.





We make our pizzas.




We toss them on the grill.




And in about eight to ten minutes, out they come.





Perfection! At some point, of course, we will have to have a pizza party. But for now we have a project, and out of that project comes good food to share with family. What else do you need in life?

Mangia bene!

Friday, August 6, 2021

Olympic Thoughts

I’ve been trying to pay attention to the Olympics this week, though I’ll be honest sometimes that can be hard. On the one hand, the athletes are doing amazing things and can be a joy to watch, but on the other hand the powers that be who are running this have made some brutally stupid decisions and clearly lack the intelligence to figure out when they should just shut up and get out of their own way.

There’s been a lot of those decisions actually (why are they testing for performance-decreasing drugs?) but my personal favorite is their insistence that the women’s beach volleyball teams have to wear bikini bottoms in order to participate in their games, which is a decision I would expect coming from a committee of drunken frat boys at a rush kegger but which is an unwelcome surprise coming from an international body in charge of one of the most prestigious events in the modern world. Maybe they’re all just older drunken frat boys in better suits. It would explain a lot.

If that’s the way things are headed, I say we cut to the chase and just go back to the original Olympic games were all of the athletes were required to compete naked. Every one of them, from the gymnasts and sprinters to the soccer players and rowers to the shot putters and weightlifters. Men, women, and nonbinary. Let’s also include the scorers, referees, camera crews, commentators, and every single member of the organizing and rules committees as well, all of whom would be required to attend a minimum of three medal ceremonies per day. The entire Olympics would have clothing of any sort banned, and everyone connected to the Games in any way should be given a gallon of olive oil a day to rub on their skin as well as a wreath to put on their head if they win anything.

Watch how quickly those stupid rules get forgotten and the women’s beach volleyball teams are allowed to compete in actual uniforms instead of lingerie when that proposal starts to gain traction.

Also, as a side note, all of those dim-witted keyboard warriors who get winded rummaging through their fridge for third breakfast yet still feel a need to complain about Simone Biles pulling out of some events in order to protect her mental and physical health should take their randomly capitalized tweets (containing several correctly spelled words!), print them out on 100% linen-fiber paper, cut the printouts into small pieces, mulch them into golf-ball-sized spheres, and insert them one at a time into whatever orifice is closest until their eyes bulge.

Seriously people. Enough of that nonsense.

I’m not even going to go into the whole “COVID Superspreader Event” aspect of this. There aren’t enough electrons in the internet for that discussion.

But you try to focus on the athletes and the events themselves, and if you can do that then the Olympics are both great fun and a triumph of human achievement. You always have to make the separation between the athletes and the corruption surrounding the athletes, and I refuse to let the latter ruin the former.

In a twenty-four-hour span I saw two hurdlers break the world records in their event by significant margins and win silver medals for their efforts – an astonishing thing, really. Those were races for the ages. Three cheers for the 400m hurdlers, both men and women.

Why they had the women’s 100m hurdlers run in a downpour is an interesting question, though. That’s how people get hurt.

I watched a Qatari and an Italian decide to share a gold medal rather than engage in a tie-breaker contest in the men’s high jump. The deliriously happy response – particularly from the Italian – was just the most wonderful thing I’ve seen in a long time.

The Mexico/South Korea men’s soccer game was a highlight reel of goals. I haven’t seen as much of the men’s or women’s soccer as I would like to have seen, but what I have seen has been a lot of fun to watch.

The three medalists in women’s skateboarding had a combined age of 42. Can you imagine winning an Olympic medal at 13? When I was 13 my crowning athletic achievement was successfully riding my bike with no hands most of the time.

I spent a happy evening watching the kayakers and the 2-person canoe races, the latter being the most ridiculous thing I have seen in ages but an astonishing feat of athletic strength and endurance nonetheless. Those poor people must have collapsed into quivering heaps when the cameras turned away.

I will confess that one of the things I found most fascinating about those events is that the river where they’re held runs alongside a highway of some kind and you can see the traffic going by in the background. No matter who wins the gold medal, those appliances aren’t going to deliver themselves. It’s those little slices of daily life that make the world interesting.

Last night was the women’s 10m platform diving event, and sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but the Chinese woman who won put on a clinic. I know zip point nothing about diving and even I knew enough to be deeply impressed.

So overall I’d say the Olympics have been a success as far as I am concerned, despite the best efforts of the folks at the top to sabotage their own event. The athletes are what make this, and I will focus on them and be glad of it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

News and Updates

1. The Fair is now over and all the animals are back in their respective places – much to the annoyance of the roosters, who have been forced to accept that they are not the only rooster in the pen once again. Roosters are just goofy that way. They will likely end up as soup at some point soon so we’re not going to worry about it very much though. The art is put away. The houseplant is back doing whatever it is houseplants do in their off days. It’s a strange thing to know that our last County Fair as an exhibitor family is over and that this is, therefore, the end of an era.

2. If you ever want to see what controlled chaos is like, show up to the County Fair at precisely the moment when it is officially over and hang out by the animal barns to watch load out. There are carts, dollies, wagons, boxes, and entire trailers hauled by vast pickup trucks that would be conclusive evidence of their owners’ shortcomings if they weren’t so transparently useful as working vehicles, all converging into an area designed for maybe a third of that traffic, each cart, dolly, wagon, box, and trailer filled with livestock ranging from 3lb rabbits to full beefer steers. Darting in and out of all that are 4H kids with artwork, plants, sewing projects, and other crafts. It’s a symphony of motion and noise.

3. It’s August, apparently, which means that all of the things I meant to do this summer and haven’t yet even thought about starting will probably just get pushed back to some other more convenient time like 2035. There’s a list of these projects, to be honest, and I suspect that someday I will die with more or less the same list still to go.

4. I do need to get the bills paid, however. The last thing I need at this stage of my life is to have several large men named Vinny knocking on my door and politely inquiring as to the state of my kneecaps.

5. There are two more weeks to go on my summer class, and we’re barreling toward the end now. I’ve only got one more lecture left to give – the Philosophy guy has another, the Physics guy is done, and there’s the final exam next week. So, almost done. I’m enjoying being in a classroom again. I hope this fall is similarly good that way, though with the Aggressive Stupidity of the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers out there I would not put money on that. We may already be returning to full indoor masking again this week, vaccinations or no. 

6. When Kim and I were at the grocery story the other day they were having a closeout sale on some varieties of jerky that apparently didn’t sell well enough to keep. I love that sort of thing, so we bought a few small bags as a treat. The Korean BBQ turkey jerky was my favorite, but they were all good (and they all came with a flosser inside the bag, which I thought was a nice touch). I did take a chance on the “Severe Heat” variety without reading the label too closely though, and only when I got home did I realize it had ghost peppers in it. I no longer regard spicy food as a personal challenge so usually I avoid stuff like that, but I do like spicy food and I hate wasting things, so I’ve been working on it one quarter-sized piece at a time. They actually did find a nice balance between flavor and heat – it’s actually tasty, not just spicy – but even so it’s really, really spicy. I am bound and determined to finish the bag, though. I’ve already had all the children I plan to have, so I figure I’m good.

7. In the midst of all this I’ve been keeping an eye on the House committee investigating the Trump Insurrection that took place last January, and so far it has been a sobering look at just how close this country came to a Fascist coup succeeding. This country has had peaceful transfers of power for over two centuries – from 1801 to 2017 – and then these people happened. And the more we find out about the efforts by der Sturmtrumper and his minions, cronies, lackies and henchmen to overthrow a free and fair election and have him installed as an American dictator the more infuriating it gets.

8. Isn’t it amazing, though, listening to the right-wing reaction to the testimony of the Capitol Police officers, how quickly all those “We Back the Blue” blowhards switched over to “Fuck the Police” when it came to defending the Trump Insurrection? It’s almost as if that slogan was never anything more than just a cover for cheering on white supremacists attacking non-white protesters, right? Hello? Is this thing on?

9. I have now trained my Instagram search feature to show me nothing but funny memes and historical photographs, and this is how I survive in modern America. You need a break from it all now and then, or at least I do.

10. Here in Our Little Town they’ve decided that this is the perfect year to rip up a third of the roads in the city and redirect traffic … somewhere else? Over there. No, wait, not there. There. Ah – perhaps this way instead? No, go back and turn … no, can’t turn that way … well darn. On the one hand, these roads needed to be repaired and I’m glad they’re doing it. On the other hand, I strongly suspect they could have phased these projects more carefully. There have been times where I have simply given up and gone back home rather than try my fourth alternative route to somewhere. Oh well. It will all be done soon enough and then won’t the roads be nice for a time?

Friday, July 30, 2021

The Return of the Fair

The Fair is back.

In what may be one of the last signs of normality for a while, as the Delta variant and the tidal wave of Unvaccinated Stupid in the US threatens to undo a year’s worth of progress in fighting the pandemic, the County Fair has returned after missing a year. We’ve been looking forward to this and as long as things are still generally okay we’re going to enjoy it while it lasts.

This is Lauren’s last year to be an exhibitor. 4H has an age limit, and once you’ve graduated high school you are mostly considered to have aged out. In theory you can come back for one more year but that’s pretty uncommon, so it’s nice to have a chance to go out with a Fair.

It’s a bit smaller this year than before, which is probably okay given the general tenor of the times. I suspect a lot of kids weren’t thrilled with the Zoom format of 4H meetings last year, and a lot of vendors weren’t sure if the Fair would happen at all or if they wanted to participate if it did – these decisions happen well in advance of the actual Fair, after all. The handmade lemonade stand isn’t there this year, for example, or the church tent that served the best breakfasts for the early morning kids tending their animals, or any of the radio stations. But there are a pile of exhibits from the 4H kids, almost the usual number of livestock, and the gyro salad place still rocks.

Win.

As usual, the Fair actually starts before the Fair starts. There are projects to be created and animals to be prepared, after all. Lauren entered in four categories this year – old favorites, so we already knew how to get things ready.

There was the photography project – a single photo of her friend Aleksia, which if I’m not mistaken was taken by the soft serve ice cream place (nobody else in town has that lighting). I thought it was a really nice photograph, though the judges gave it a pink ribbon for some reason. We read the comments on the card and they were all positive and therefore provided no enlightenment or even constructive criticism, so we’ll just chalk it up to the unpredictability of judges and move on.





She did win a Top Blue for her houseplant project, though. It is adorable, after all. In a year where the County Fair didn’t overlap with the State Fair it might have gone on to the next level, but perhaps that’s for the best.





The big things are the animals, of course, and this year Lauren was showing in Rabbits and Poultry. For us that meant that the Fair started this past Saturday when Kim and I went to the Rabbit barn to help set up cages. It’s an art form setting those up without slicing your fingers to ribbons, one that I have mastered over the last decade, so I focused on that and let others take the set cages to where they needed to go.

And then it was time to bathe the chickens.





We do this every year, and every year we come to the same conclusion: there is nothing on this earth quite so ridiculous as a wet chicken. They’re not even “mad as a wet hen” really – they’re pretty calm about the whole thing. But absurd nonetheless. They stayed overnight in our garage because a chicken returned to the barn is a chicken that needs to be bathed again, and then we took them in the following morning.

Tuesday evening was Rabbit judging, and of course that was the hottest day of the week. But we all piled into the Stock Pavilion to see the various classes and breeds parade by. Lauren ended up on Table 2, with the fun judge (a man who managed to snag a rocketing rabbit out of midair at one point, to the great applause of the assembled crowd). Lauren always ends up in the very last category being judged so we were there for a while, but it was a good night. Miley got a white ribbon when all was said and done.






And the next morning it was Poultry judging time.







This is a much quicker process than Rabbit judging as entire classes (or multiple classes if they’re small enough) are brought out at once and the judges go through them at a clip. Lauren entered five chickens and ended up with three blues, a red, and a pink for one bird that apparently would have been a blue but had a single disqualifying feature.

And then it was done.

The Fair will continue until Sunday, and no doubt we will be there to wander around for a while. Last night the grandstand featured a polka band so Kim, Lauren, and Aleksia got the party started on the dance floor they set up for just that purpose. And after that there was a large group of teenagers on brass and a wide variety of other instruments as well as vocals and dancing – a statewide organization, apparently – that Kim and I stumbled into on our way out and ended up watching for an hour or so. They were really good.





But as far as Things That Have To Get Done, we’re pretty much through. Next year we’ll go back as guests, with no exhibits to prepare. It will feel strange.

It’s been quite a ride, all these County Fairs, and it’s good to go out on a grace note.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Olympics? Really?

So apparently there’s an Olympics going on?

Does anyone know about this?

I looked into it and yes, in fact, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are happening even as I type, though the logo has not yet been updated to 2021 and at this point I supposes it never will. That makes sense. They didn’t change the European soccer championship logo either.

I normally enjoy the Olympics, being as I am a great fan of all things weird and pointless (go ahead, ask me about Eurovision). There are entire categories of events that feature things I have never heard of, things that only qualify as sports because there’s no other category of human activity into which they can reasonably be put, things that make sense only to the initiated and the inebriated, and that’s really the joy of it.

Last night, for example, I watched the first half of the men’s team handball match between Brazil and Norway, and – rather like my experience watching a cricket match in England thirty years ago – I still have no idea what exactly happened other than that the announcers would periodically get very excited and when I left Brazil seemed to be leading. I consider this time well spent.

It amazes me to think that these athletes – who clearly have put a great deal of time into this and honed their skills far beyond the likes of mere mortals such as you and me – must do this even when there are no Olympics being broadcast.

They must, mustn’t they?

Surely there are Team Handball Leagues around the world, with Team Handball Playoffs and, therefore, Team Handball Championships. Someone must set these up. Someone else must watch them. I cannot fathom this, and yet there it is. And good for them, I say.

Oh, they’ll get to the usual things – the gymnastics, the soccer, the track and field – and those are always fun. But it’s the weird things that define an Olympics.

The thing is, though, that this year’s Olympics have rather snuck up on me, despite the fact that in theory I’ve had over a year’s warning. They were supposed to happen last summer, after all. A lot of things were.

It’s hard to get into the Olympic spirit right now, to be honest. There are no spectators. Nobody seems very happy about any of it. The pandemic hasn’t gone away, even if it has shifted from a threat to everyone to mainly a threat to the unvaccinated – a largely voluntary group in the United States for whom I have little if any sympathy. If you’re willfully trying to commit suicide by virus, you just have at it and stop bothering the grownups. I’m sure there will be outbreaks among the athletes – I believe there already have.

It’s been a long and draining year and a half, and for a number of reasons it is going to get longer and more draining for me before that changes and I just don’t have the energy to give to the Olympics right now. Maybe I’ll change my mind as events unfold. Maybe I’ll go back and see who won between Brazil and Norway. Maybe I’ll watch the soccer and gymnastics and track and field. The lure of the weird is ever present, and the lure of the rest of it is there too.

We’ll see how it goes.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

News and Updates

1. Total elapsed time between putting down the new living room rug and the cats treating it like a bar bathroom in the middle of a three-day bender: three weeks. All things considered with cats, that’s probably not bad.

2. We decided to put our vaccines to the test yesterday and went to the newly re-opened RenFaire here in southern Wisconsin. We had a very good time, it has to be said – we saw some familiar acts (Barely Balanced, Moonie) and a new one who was very good (Broon), Oliver managed to catch some of the jousting, and somewhere in there we even got food, which was a neat trick since apparently everyone in the southern Great Lakes region had had the same idea we did for a trip and the lines stretched back to the interstate. I spent much of my time people-watching – there is no better place in the world for that than a crowded RenFaire – and I got a pewter pin with a rising phoenix above the word “vaccinated” that I may just wear all the time now. So all in all a good time.

3. The night before I left Philadelphia to come back to Wisconsin I realized that despite having made many visits to the local supermarket while I was there I had not managed to obtain any Cooper Sharp cheese to take back with me – a clearly unacceptable situation that would have resulted in rebellion back home should it have gone unrectified. So I went down to the local Acme and arrived just as the deli counter closed. Fortunately the guy behind the counter was sympathetic and had not yet cleaned his slicer, so he was willing to cut me a break and some cheese. We had a very nice conversation while he did so – he’d like to visit Lambeau Field someday and was pleased to hear that a) I had done so, b) in my Eagles gear, and c) that while I had gotten some grief from Packers fans it was the good sort of grief that you get from people who are having fun with you and not the stupid kind of grief from idiots who forget that it’s a game. So perhaps he’ll come out here someday. It’s been less than a week since I returned and there have been significant inroads made in our Cooper Sharp supply, so we’ll count that as a success.

4. The Milwaukee Bucks are in the NBA finals and I have been trying to follow along since they are the local team and haven’t won anything in half a century and also Lauren is a fan so it’s something we can talk about. I haven’t actually been watching the games because basketball is a sport I do not understand at all once you get past the “bounce bounce score, bounce bounce score” aspect of it, but I’ve been pulling up the live score display on Google during the games and keeping track that way. So far it looks like there are all sorts of interesting things going on for those who do follow the sport and much conversation has happened to me about these things and now I understand what other people are thinking when I start discussing soccer, hockey, 18th-century American political culture, or Middle Earth. But hey. I’m trying. Go Bucks! Go do that, um, basketball thing you do!

5. The last 90 seconds of a professional basketball can take up to six months to play out. I think they should take a hint from American football and have a 10-second clock run-off every time a trailing team fouls someone. Also, they should define what exactly is a foul. The last time I watched a basketball game on television (admittedly some years ago) I saw three identical plays where the offense was called for a foul on the first one, the defense on the second one, and nobody on the third one. Kim spent an inordinate amount of time trying to explain to me how the plays were not identical at all, to no noticeable result, so I think I am just Basketball Defective that way. Oh well. Go Bucks anyway!

6. We seem to have a robin’s nest perched on the light by our front door. It has two little robins in it, in fact, and a mother robin who spends most of her time flying away in a panic every time one of us gets close to the door, or a car goes by, or the earth rotates on its axis by more than a few inches. Whatever. My office is right by the door so I hear this symphony all the time. I have no idea how long it takes for baby robins to grow up and fly off, but I’m hoping for their sake it isn’t that long.

7. Every Fourth of July the meme I created a few years ago goes viral again, which is a nice thing really. It got about a thousand more shares from my FB page this year, for example, bringing the total that I’m aware of to about 65k, and I’m happy about that. It’s a good thing to create something to be shared and then discover that people will actually share it unprompted by you. Sometimes I try to see who has forwarded it along, and every once in a while I get surprised. This year a performer I once booked down at Home Campus shared it on his personal (as opposed to professional under his stage name) page – I have no idea if he made the connection back to me or not, since it was one gig in a long career for him and he was sick the entire time he was here (but performed like a consummate professional anyway). And apparently a while back a heavy metal singer whose name I actually recognize shared it on his Twitter page, called it “amazing,” and said it gave him chills to read. Win!

8. That’s not a humblebrag, by the way. That’s a straight up brag. It’s nice to be able to have one of those now and then.

9. We did actually have our annual Fourth of July picnic as well this year, after a one-year hiatus for the plague. Various family members and friends came by, tasty and moderately non-lethal foods were prepared, and we all got to watch the fireworks arc gracefully over the cardiac ward of the local hospital as per local tradition. We left most of the set-up from Lauren’s graduation party intact because why do things twice when you don’t have to, so it was pretty easy to pull off. Apparently I took no pictures because reasons – probably too busy with the grill and what have you – but it happened and we had a good time.

10. When I went to Philadelphia I took one of Kim’s old laptops and a little red jump drive with a pile of my folders on it so I could do work while I was there (or if I had to extend my stay). When I packed to go back to Wisconsin I took the jump drive out of the laptop so it wouldn’t snap off in transit and tossed it into my shoulder bag. But when I got home it had disappeared. I emptied that bag and found nothing. Oh well. Most of it was backup files anyway. On Thursday morning I drove to campus and went to my office there, since that’s where I plug in the mics for the remote part of the class I’m teaching – they need to be recharged after every class. I picked up the mics and went to class. Several hours and tech issues later I returned to my office to plug the mics back in again, and there on the floor of my office was my little red jump drive. I have no idea how it got there.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

That Old Stage Magic

We went to the play last night.

There was a time when this was simply part of the rhythm of our lives. Both Oliver and Lauren were involved in theater during their time at Local Businessman HS – backstage, mostly carrying on the family tradition of running a spotlight – and many of their friends were as well. We’d go see the latest musical (generally an extravaganza with a budget bigger than what my high school spent on theater during the entire time I was there, even adjusted for inflation) or play (smaller scale and less polished, but often more fun because of it), sit among the sold-out crowd (Our Little Town supports these plays incredibly well) and enjoy the experience.

That was before the pandemic, of course. We’d actually planned to see the spring musical in March 2020 – even had tickets for the second weekend, because you have to get them in advance if you want to get them at all – and while the first weekend went off well the second weekend got canceled because the world caught fire in the interim. They eventually did put together a livestreamed version with just a couple of parents in the actual theater for an audience and it was lovely but not the same.

So it’s been a year and a half since we went to one of these.

Also, Lauren has now graduated and the way the summer theater program works is that you can only participate if you’ll be back in the fall. They do take younger kids – there were a few middle-schoolers up onstage last night – but not older ones. Plus she spent her junior year abroad and her senior year mostly online, so she knows very few of the younger kids. None of her friends were involved. All of Oliver’s friends have long since moved on. Honestly the only person I recognized onstage last night was the daughter of some friends of ours, who did a marvelous job as one of the female leads.

I’m used to looking for familiar faces. Time moves on.

But there we were, surrounded by people we hoped were as fully vaccinated as ourselves, taking it all in for the first time since 2019. They did a good job with it – quite possibly a better job than the play could really support, but that is the fault of the writers and not the cast and crew. We had a grand time.

There is something about being in a theater watching a play that cannot be matched through a screen, even with a livestreamed performance. We are collective beings, we humans – a fact that we forget at our peril and which entire political ideologies do their best to make us forget. The shared experience of things is what makes them come alive in ways that the thing itself cannot equal on its own.

Slowly, haltingly, and against great resistance from far too many people who seem to think that if they believe something strongly enough it will magically become real, it seems that we are working our way back toward some semblance of socializing again. It can still be lost, but for the moment it is good to celebrate progress.

We went to the play last night. It was good.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

There and Back Again

I spent most of the last week out in Philadelphia, visiting my mom.

This is something of an achievement, really, given the realities of both summer classes and pandemic travel. But things lined up – my summer class didn’t need me for a week, I had no advising appointments or important meetings to attend, and you can actually travel these days after a very long time where that was not true – so away I went.

I flew out on Thursday last week after my class was over. Kim took me down to O’Hare and I ended up on a mile-long plane seated next to two immense sumo-wrestling manspreaders which made the trip rather more intimate than I really wanted but there you have it. The Lyft driver on my ride out from the airport turned out to be from Haiti – a nation very much in the news this week – which was a fascinating conversation and that made up for many things.

I spent a week out there, and it was a lovely low-key sort of visit.

We told stories and caught up, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. And at one point we were joined by my brother and sister-in-law, as well as my niece, and we all went out to celebrate my mom’s birthday. We were going to do a big bash last year for her birthday in honor of one of those Round Numbers That End In Zero, but that, like so many other things, got lost in the pandemic. This year it turned out that a small gathering of family was in order. The food was good and the company was better, so there you go.





You take these opportunities when they come up because they are finite and to be celebrated.

I got back last night and today it was back to the usual whirl of classes and grading and advising appointments and such. Those things never go away, and I am fortunate that way in this economy.

But for a while I was visiting, and it was good.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Things that go Boom in the Night

It’s the night before American Independence Day here in the great midwest and the place sounds like a war zone. Not that I have been in an actual war zone, of course, but this is what they’re supposed to sound like according to the movies so I’ll take that as close enough.

Every year this happens. The annual War For Darwin’s Basement kicks off around the middle of June and slowly builds to a crescendo in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. On the Fourth itself everyone waits until the official town fireworks are over and then rushes back home to see if they can outdo the display – a process that usually lasts until the wee hours, leaves the town enveloped in a cordite haze, and costs several people their garages and/or fingers. After the Fourth things calm down slowly, mostly because there is less to set off with each passing day. The last fireworks usually go off around the 20th or so, and then all the guys nicknamed Lefty, One-Eye, and Claw put everything away for next year. It’s a cycle. You get used to it.

MURCA.

This year seems to be especially intense, it has to be said. Maybe it’s that I’m getting old and crabby and it just seems that way. Or maybe it’s that after a year of lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing, and stress of all kinds, people are ready to BLOW SHIT UP. It’s not quite up to the level of last year, when a significant chunk of Our Little Town spent their entire stimulus check and most of their savings on fireworks and kept things going until nearly dawn, but it’s getting there.  Once again the place smells like gunpowder and sounds like the inside of a popcorn machine. This summer comes after twelve more months of necessary restrictions and wholly uncalled for stress followed by a general loosening of restrictions among the vaccinated (though somehow not any less stress), so set out the alcohol and let the fireworks fall where they may, I suppose.

The barrage has been pretty constant for the last hour now, which at least makes sense as it is now dark and you can see them when they go off. Why people have been setting things off since lunchtime, when the sun was shining brightly, is a bit of a mystery to me. I suppose the boom is just as loud, but still.

Sometimes I wonder what this experience would be like for a visitor from another country where gunfire in the streets is considered uncommon. Honestly I don’t even ask whether it’s fireworks or firearms anymore, and this is a pretty safe town.

I’ve always liked the fireworks, though. Every year when I was a kid I’d head over to the local display with my dad and brother.  They’d shoot them off from one end of a public park that was completely surrounded by dense residential housing, stores, and a commuter rail line and just hope for the best, I guess.  It was a different time.  As I got older I would go with friends instead.  We'd picnic in the park all day so we could get a good spot for the evening. Eventually I went as part of the fire brigade, standing in the street in turnout gear next to the trucks in case something weird happened and we needed to unweird things in a hurry. They also serve who stand ready to unweird.

They’re planning to have the town fireworks as usual this year, which is a nice thing. Our Little Town puts on a pretty respectable show for a town this size and it’s always fun. We’ll have our usual little barbecue and head on over when it starts to get dark so we can watch the big ones arc gracefully over the cardiac ward of the local hospital before exploding, and then we’ll make our way back home through the haze of Lefty’s best efforts, and another Fourth of July will be in the books.

Sunrise, sunset.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Party Onward

It was supposed to rain.

They’ve been predicting rain here in Our Little Town for much of the week – the kind of drenching, stormy rain that would have put rather a pall over Lauren’s graduation party, the kind that made us glad we’d cleaned out the garage and the house so we could keep a roof over everything even if we weren’t sure how well it would all fit. We set up the main food and seating in the garage, with desserts and other seating in the house, and we hoped for the best.

But the rain held off, the party went forward, and a good time was had by all. Is that a good omen for the future? We’ll call it a good omen for the future. Why not. Omens are where you find them, I suppose.

It’s a nice tradition around here that high school graduations get followed by open house parties – sometimes at home, sometimes at a park pavilion or thereabouts – where the family of the graduate sets out food and drinks, puts up a board with photos of the graduate over the course of their life, and invites people over to hang out and congratulate the recent graduate. Last year these were mostly drive-by events, but now that a critical mass of people are vaccinated we can start having these parties again, which is really nice. Three cheers for vaccinations, and three more cheers for graduation parties, I say.

I went through all of my various photos, printed up a brick of them, and then Lauren chose the ones she wanted and mounted them onto some tri-fold boards that we hung up in the garage. She did a nice job of it. We also had a banner across the back of the garage that I just might leave up for a while because it’s nice.








Once everything is set up (and let me tell you just how much work got elided over in that short phrase) then you wait until the appointed time and have people wander in and out as they see fit. There’s a whole season of these things – we haven’t seen much of Lauren since she officially graduated high school, as she is always off at one or another of them – and that’s a lovely thing.

Lauren made two requests for her party. First, a bouncy house, and second, a taco bar with supplies from one of the local Mexican restaurants. The bouncy house people bailed on us by text at 6:30am – not unreasonable, given the forecast at the time, though sad nonetheless – but the Mexican place came through. They were excellent tacos.

We had a whole pile of people come over, roughly divided into Parent Friends and Graduate Friends, with a small smattering of Sibling Friends. Fortunately all the various Friends are Friends with each other or at least happy to become such, so it went well.



















We even managed to set up a Zoom call for people who weren’t able to come by in person, and a number of people logged in from as far away as northern Wisconsin, Philadelphia, New Jersey, England, and Belgium! It was good to see these people who live so far away and have them share this event with us.

There was food, there was conversation, there was more food, and when the food wasn’t enough there was cake, which is a species of food but one that deserves its own entry. At one point an entire grad party of one of Lauren’s friends came by, since their open house period had ended and ours was still running. We were overrun with teenagers and it was glorious.

There weren’t many leftovers.

It is a grand thing to share achievements with family and friends, to gather together in one place or through a Zoom call and celebrate a happy occasion.

Congratulations, Lauren. I’m proud of you.



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

News and Updates

1. We celebrated Father’s Day today because this was the day we had time to do so. There was take-out BBQ and some lovely cards and gifts, and then we sat at the table and played cards and hung out together and really, while I am happy to get cards and gifts the thing I most want is to spend time with my family not doing much beyond just hanging out and talking, and so it was a most lovely holiday that way.

2. I am now currently fobless, after several years of carrying around three different gizmos on my keychain in order to get into random computer programs on various campuses. You try to log in to one of them and get a message that you need the Extra Special Secret Code, which the fob would magically provide you five times out of seven, and then you could do your work. Of course the campuses never really standardized this, so I never really knew which program would require me to use a fob and which wouldn’t – the same program on different campuses would often give me different results. But now those have all been replaced by an app that I am required to download onto MY OWN PERSONAL PHONE THAT THEY ARE NOT PAYING FOR AT ALL, which frankly I find presumptuous. So if I ever lose MY OWN PERSONAL PHONE THAT THEY ARE NOT PAYING FOR AT ALL then I suppose I won’t be able to do my job and at that point they can start paying for a new phone or paying me not to do my job, whichever. Not that I am annoyed by this in any way that might conceivably lead to disciplinary action by humorless powers that be, of course.

3. The living room is now put back together, and it does in fact look nice. The mudroom is also put back together, since once the living room project got started it was clear that certain things would need to change in the mudroom, particularly the coat hanging area, which needed to be cut in half to accommodate the Giant Heavy Wardrobe that we use to hold board games and other random items – a piece of furniture that no longer had a place in the New Improved Living Room. The other half of the coat hanging area went out to the garage, which needed to be completely emptied (this is, for reference, a 2.5 car, extra-long garage that has not been seriously edited of stuff since 2018). Half of the stuff went directly to the landfill, a quarter went to Goodwill, and the rest we put back – some on the coat hanging area which now resides along the back wall of the garage. The dining room is also put back together now, as the stain on the hardwood floor that we put down in 2007 or so did not match the stain in the living room and now that neither room is carpeted there’s no real border between them so everything had to come out and the floor had to be restained, and while everything was out it was only natural that the dining room walls would also have to be repainted. I keep thinking that this all started with carpet, though admittedly things do look good now.

4. And it’s all done before Lauren’s graduation party, which will happen on Saturday if the rain holds off, though with the newly clean garage we can move some of it in there if it’s just a shower or two.

5. Meanwhile my summer class is bounding along and somehow I have become The Tech Guy, as noted earlier. Every time I think I have a handle on the Tech for this hybrid (face to face, but with a remote-access capability) class it turns out that I don’t and I need another hour of fiddling and swearing to get it right and all I can do is hope that I am not recording that part because the recordings automatically get published to the class website if you know where to look, complete with transcripts of sorts – the kinds of transcripts that get turned into memes because they’re done by AI bots programmed by people for whom English is probably not even a third language so mostly they’re just guessing and someday I will gather some friends and a large volume of adult beverages and stage a dramatic reading of some of them, just for the experience of it.

6. When we came back from Philadelphia last month I stowed two jars of the hoagie spread that the TSA had confiscated from me in April – the joy of driving is that you can dispense with the security theater and head straight for pickled hot pepper spread nirvana – and now that I have actually sampled it I can say that it was worth every bit of exertion. It is vinegary and spicy and tasty and the perfect thing to spread on a hoagie and I will definitely have to buy more of it and smuggle it back to Wisconsin along the nation’s battered interstate system next time I am out that way.

7. So apparently Critical Race Theory is the new right-wing Fearz-All tool for motivating their base into a violent frenzy against facts and reality, and having had this discussion with a few members of this base this month I can testify that not a single one of them actually knew what Critical Race Theory actually was but they were all prepared to tell me it was Evil and Un-American, in stark contrast with the recent Fascist insurrection designed to overthrow the legitimately elected government of the United States, which was apparently okay as long as the libs were the ones getting hurt. New liver, same eagles.

8. Now that I am finally catching my breath after the spring semester I am going to have to take care of some long-overdue maintenance and schedule a doctor appointment, which will likely not happen until September, and a dentist appointment, which (given the recent experience of Kim and Oliver) isn’t much of a possibility until October. I’m not even sure I want to guess how long an eye appointment will take. But you know, we have the best healthcare system in the world! Many people say so! Some of whom are completely sober! I shouldn’t complain, as at least I can see these professionals at some point which puts me one up over a great many people and gets me right back to the rich sarcasm of the middle of this paragraph. Sunrise, sunset.

9. I haven’t had much time to work on genealogy of late, though now that I have my own official Ancestry account I have discovered that Ancestry will do that for you. Every time I log in there are more “hints” that I can click on and see if they’re talking about my ancestor or someone who just shared the same name, or kind of the same name, or perhaps just a few of the same vowels. It varies. But I have found some Valuable Information that way, so credit where due.

10. Kim’s brother Randall came to stay with us for the weekend while the rest of the family went elsewhere, and he seemed to have a good time with us. He was happy to hang out and relax, and that’s pretty much our speed as well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Going Live

I taught my first summer class today.

It’s a fun class, one that I’ve taught many times. There’s three of us who teach the course – an interdisciplinary class on the atomic bomb – and the first day of class starts out with the usual rules and introductions before moving on to one of us introducing our subject. This year it’s the physicist. Some years I get to go first. The philosopher usually has to wait.

Last year we taught the class on Zoom, which was a feat of social engineering in many ways.

This year? We went live.

Today was the first time I set foot in an actual classroom with actual students since March 11, 2020. I had a class on March 13 that year but those students were hundreds of miles away. I’ve taught that class remotely since 2012 so by the time the pandemic hit I was well versed in that particular pedagogy. It’s not a bad way to teach – it has its drawbacks and its advantages – but there’s nothing like being in the room with your students.

My alarm went off at pre-pandemic time, another first. I put on my Teacher Uniform – khakis, button-down shirt, dark socks, black sneakers that look like actual shoes from a distance – which is a far cry from the Zoom Formal that I’ve been wearing for the last fifteen months. And I drove down to Home Campus.

It wasn’t all happy reunions and roses – back when we submitted this class in February we weren’t sure how the world would look so we agreed to teach it as a hybrid course – part in person, part remote – which as the most tech-savvy instructor in this bunch (and, for the record, I realize just how absurd that statement is but here we are anyway) I can tell you that hybrid is much harder than just doing it remotely. I spent an hour with the IT guy last week and then went in yesterday to make sure I could get it to work on my own, and then this morning nothing I’d done worked at all so I spent a frantic 45 minutes getting the tech to do what I wanted.

But class time rolled around and we were off.

I’ve missed being in a classroom with students. Remote teaching doesn’t have the same energy, and you miss a lot of the things that the students give you when you’re staring at them on a screen.

In accordance with Home Campus policy, vaccinated students don’t have to wear masks on campus while unvaccinated students do – and no, asking for their vaccination status does not violate HIPPA so don’t even start with that. Most of our students are in fact vaccinated, which speaks highly of their intelligence, though even some of those were more comfortable wearing their masks.

A good percentage of the students were my advisees and an equal percentage were the philosopher’s advisees, so we knew many of these students coming in – though some of them I’d never seen in person after a year of remote advising. They’re the ones who didn’t know I wear glasses, since I don’t do that when I’m reading or looking at a computer screen.

Surprise.

The class went well. They asked questions and seemed to enjoy the material. We got through everything we’d planned to get through. The hybrid part actually worked, much to my astonishment, as did the video that the physicist showed. And we get to do it again on Thursday.

It’s been a long time coming, and it’s good to be back.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Looking Over the Family Tree

I come from a very long line of very short people.

This doesn’t really come as any surprise, since I remember spending a great many family occasions staring at the tops of people’s heads and I am not someone who was ever in line for any basketball scholarships. I am, in fact, maybe a finger’s width taller than the national average for American men these days – a fact I attribute entirely to my dad, who brought much-needed height into the family when he married in. My brother is maybe an inch taller than I am. After that things tail off rapidly.

I had two great-aunts who weren’t ten feet tall combined, even in their prime. Even in heels.

I’m slowly getting back into my genealogy project after a rough semester of frantic grading. It’s fun for me, all the detailed archival work. I finally bit the bullet earlier this month and bought my own Ancestry account and transferred the entire handwritten family tree that I created in 2018 – all 403 names of it – into my account. I know there are errors in this – I sent out the handwritten tree and got some feedback along those lines – so my next step is to go through all of the information I have and enter it in, making corrections as I go.

I love this sort of project. Kim says it makes her skin itch to think about it, and that’s why she spent last week redoing the living room floor while I was researching – between us we’re an entire person, and that’s what marriage is all about really. I was available for tall and/or heavy work, plus removing nail strips. Kim answers my questions about her side of the family. It all works out.

The first information I put in came from a box of physical documents that I inherited from my grandparents, and it was nice to get them attached to the right people on the tree. Now I’m going through the “Family Research” folder on my computer, document by document, adding the information as I stumble across it.

The third document down in that folder was a manifest from the ship that brought my great grandmother over from Sicily at the turn of the 20th century. That’s how I saved it, anyway. But now that I have the entire tree mostly mapped out (at least from her generation forward), I recognized a few other names who were on that ship.

Her sister and her niece sailed with her, for example, as did several people with my great-grandfather’s surname and at least one other with her own surname. They all came from two tiny little villages in northern Sicily, just west of Messina – villages that may well have been left abandoned by the time WWI rolled around if the rate of emigration held steady, though I know they still exist today so perhaps people moved in. They all moved to a half-mile-square section of South Philadelphia where pretty much everyone was related to them.

The manifest lists all sorts of random information about these people – why the US immigration officers cared about these things is an interesting question. How old each arriving person was. Single or married. Occupation. Literacy. Did they pay for their own ticket? If they had less than $50 cash with them, how much exactly did they have? Where were they going? (Many were heading toward family members who were already here - I recognized a few names and addresses in Philadelphia.) Where did they live before? And at the end there is a broad physical description – height, complexion (“black,” “natural,” and “pale” being the most common entries for all of these Sicilians), eye color and hair color (both overwhelmingly “chestnut”), identifying features, and height.

My great grandmother was 5’3” and she was on the upper end of this group. I extracted information for all of the people who came from those two villages on that ship, and the tallest were two men, one 24 and the other 36, who were 5’5”. The shortest – a 20-year-old man – was 4’6”.

We forget these days how good we have it when it comes to food.

Sicily at the start of the 20th century was a poor and hungry place, where calories could be hard to find. Most of human history is like that. We live in an age of unimaginable plenty compared with the world of our ancestors and our height reflects this nutritional bonanza.

Although even so, we’re still not planning on starting any basketball teams in my family any time soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

An Island Off the Living Room

Everything that used to be in the living room is now in the dining room.

Except the carpet.

That’s over at the city dump, along with the carpet pad and enough nail strips to stop an invading army because whoever put that carpet in did not intend for it to come out before the heat death of the universe.

This fits with my general theory that this house was built by dedicated amateurs who didn’t know how to cut corners and figured that if they overbuilt the place nothing bad would happen to them ever again. For all I know they were right about that.

The living room carpet was one of the last bastions of original carpeting left from when we moved into the house back in 1996. It was one of those sturdy berber carpets that are designed to last forever or until a Rubbermaid bin full of young chickens knocks over the heat lamp that was resting on the wire mesh cover and burns a fist-sized hole through it before we notice.

Whichever comes first.

So for any number of reasons, it had to go. I accepted this, even if household projects are not my thing. They are Kim’s thing, though, so on Saturday (with the graduation ceremony safely over) we moved the vast assortment of things in the living room – seriously, Lauren is at great pains to point out how our “American Clutter” d├ęcor clashes with her newly acquired Euro-minimalism sense of style, sometimes on a nightly basis – into the dining room, and then ripped out the carpet, padding, and nail strips.

It turns out that I am actually not bad at removing nail strips, even if every tendon in my legs let me know how old I actually am for several days afterward. I am this many ibuprofens old now. Happy birthday to me.

We took all the debris to the dump Monday, after which Kim sanded down the hardwood floor underneath and then she and Oliver coated it with stain and finish. It looks nice, really. Right now the quarter round is sitting in there waiting to be put on, and sometime this weekend we’ll have things back to rights. That’s the story, and we’re sticking to it.

The problem, of course, is that my office is in the front of the house, by the front door, and the only way to get from there to the rest of the house is through the living room – not really an option when the living room floor is coated in wet stain. For most of the week the only way to get from my office to the kitchen was by going outside and around to the back door. It was kind of like living in my own little island. I felt like Gilligan.

Or, I suppose, the Professor.

If you understand that joke, you are this many ibuprofens old too. Happy birthday to us. There will be cake.

But now the floor is walkable again so I’m not out here on an extended three-hour tour of my own office, and we’ve had good luck eating outside in the back all week. It’s been hot but dry.

The plan is to get everything put back together this weekend sometime, and we may actually do that. We’ll see. There are other plans afoot that may take time away from that, though – the garage needs to be cleaned out so it looks nice for Lauren’s upcoming graduation party, for one thing, and my summer class starts on Tuesday and that needs to get finalized as well. So we’ll do our best.

In the meantime, if you need me I will be building a radio out of three coconuts and a bamboo bicycle.

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Return of Kermit

Kermit is back.

Back when Oliver was born neither Kim nor I had an appropriate vehicle for a new parent. Mine was a two-door K-Car. Kim’s was not only two-door but stick shift as well. There is a reason why new parents do not have two-door cars in the age of child safety seats and that reason is that maneuvering a child in a safety seat into the back of such a car is a surefire way to turn your spine into a pretzel.

So after a month or two of that we decided that this needed to change. We did some looking around and eventually bought a 2000 Saturn LW wagon, brand new off the dealer’s lot – the first new car I ever owned, which isn’t saying much, since it was only the second car I ever owned, but it felt significant at the time. It was midnight green and had four doors – five if you counted the hatch in the back – and it was big enough to carry an entire soap show back when we were still running the craft fair circuit in the summers because academics don’t get paid in the summer and we still need to eat. We named it Kermit because it was green and things like that make sense when you’re a new parent and living on 35 minutes of sleep a night.

It was a grand vehicle, really. We took it all over the country and around Wisconsin, and it never let us down.

But cars age out and at some point we realized that the entire Saturn subdivision of GM had gone out of business, making replacement parts somewhat difficult to come by. Also, our children now had friends and Kermit was simply not big enough to haul them all at once – a discovery I made while rattling around the back cargo area at highway speed one night.

So we sold it to a friend of ours and bought the minivan, which continues to serve us well and can store immense amounts of both people and things. Seriously – you have no idea how much you can fit into a minivan until you try it. It’s probably not a coincidence that the van is TARDIS blue.

Lauren, it has to be said, was crushed when we sold the wagon. She loved that car and wanted it for herself. But she was four years away from getting her driver’s license at that point and we needed the money to put toward the van, so there you have it.

This summer we have all four of us home again, and with the country slowly opening up we all will have to leave the house to get to our various jobs – something that simply wasn’t true last year. We began to think that perhaps a third vehicle would be a good idea, something inexpensive and serviceable that we could use around town even if we weren’t going to take it on road trips.

And that’s when we found out that our friend was looking to sell Kermit.

“How much does she want for it?” I asked her sister, who is our main connection to this particular friend.

“I’ll ask.”

She eventually decided that if we paid for the transfer fees and such she would just give it to us. How can you turn down an offer like that?

It turns out there are a lot of transfer fees in Wisconsin, but it was still cheaper than buying a car elsewhere even when you factored in the work that the mechanic said needed to be done to it. Fortunately we were headed out of town to visit my mom around that time, so we just left Kermit with the mechanic and picked it up when we got home.

So now Kermit is back. Titled, tagged, insured, and street legal. The same seat covers that Kim made when the kids were little and liked to scuff up the seats in front of them. Two owners, one of them twice. Maybe 30k miles added in the seven years our friend had it, so it’s edging up toward 200k, but mechanically reliable and mostly comfortable once you adjust to the climb down into the driver’s seat. You forget how tall minivans are and how old you have gotten since the last time you tried to drive a station wagon.





It is a very manual car these days, though. The lock fobs don't work anymore, the hatch has to be opened with a key, and the turn signals don't click off until you do that yourself, but we like to think of this as Old School rather than antiquated. It sounds better that way.

Lauren is thrilled with Kermit's return, and she will probably be the one who drives it most.

To that end she is tricking it out to her specifications. It helps to have Car Buddies – the kinds of high school guys who love working on cars. My dad was one of those, but somehow I did not inherit that gene. Lauren has such friends.

They’ve already put new speakers into it. And plastic grass in place of the floor mats. And run a garland of ivy (complete with battery-powered LED lights) around the back cargo area.







The next step, apparently, is to paint flames along the sides of this two-decade-old Saturn station wagon and take it out to the strip to go cruising, which they still do here in Our Little Town. And I have to say there is part of me that is really, really looking forward to seeing that happen.

Welcome back, Kermit.