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.


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.


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” décor 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.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

A Good Night for a Graduation

It was a clear sunny day here for our last Local Businessman High School event yesterday – seven years of concerts, conferences, plays, and the occasional sporting event coming to an end with a graduation ceremony under a hot June sun. I’m not really sure I’m going to know how to react in September when I have nothing to do for the local public school district – we’ve had kids enrolled for nearly two decades now – but I suppose I will find out.

And there is no better way to close out your time with a school district than watching your child graduate.

The Squad came over in the late afternoon, after graduation practice was over. They brought their caps and gowns, as well as the various colored cords that they’d earned. Lauren had two cords – one for French Honor Society and one for having served on the Link Crew welcoming in new students to LBHS – and all of the rest of the Squad had at least that many (Isabella had six, which was the most in the class). It wasn’t until I got to the ceremony and looked at the program and saw that most students didn’t have any cords that it hit me just how talented this group is. I mean, I knew that. But sometimes the fact just hits harder than others.

Kim ironed the ones that needed it, and eventually we headed over to LBHS for pictures.

I like that they ask me to take pictures, and the joy of digital photography is that you can take hundreds of them in the fond hopes that at least some of them will turn out well. There were pictures by the front door in all of the possible permutations, as well as more pictures over by a (much shadier) wall, an abortive try at a few by the big rock that some previous visitors had decorated with inartistically rendered dicks, and a much happier group of photos taken over by the LBHS sign. We even took some photos that showed off the various caps that they had decorated.

You’re allowed to decorate your graduation cap these days, which is a nice thing I think. They do reserve the right to preapprove your artwork, of course, but most people just want to have a bit of fun so it worked out well. Lauren had a particular design that she wanted, based on an album cover, and Oliver said he’d do the actual painting. It turned out well.

And then it was dinner time.

They schedule these things for the early evening because it’s still light out but the temperatures are going down a bit, and that works out great except that the students have to be there early to get ready and the rest of us have to get there early to get seats so dinner tends to be rather sooner than usual. And that’s okay! Culvers will sell us burgers pretty much any time we ask them to do so, and that’s just one of the lovely benefits of living near one.

Now that people are getting vaccinated and the pandemic is receding a bit here in Wisconsin you can actually eat in a restaurant again, which is nice. It does take a bit of getting used to after a year of curbside pickup and takeout, but I’m going to enjoy it while I can. Kim, Grandma, and Grandpa joined us there.

It was fun hearing the people in the restaurant congratulate the Squad as they ate (some people driving by LBHS while we were taking pictures did so as well). Us old people remember this moment from our own lives – the excitement of it, the looking forward to the next stage that happened however long ago, the being glad that high school was over even if we were lucky enough to have managed to have a good time while we were there – and it’s nice to share that with the next generation. People can be good, when they want to be.

Eventually we headed over to the football field where they hold these things. I’m glad that they could actually have this ceremony this year. Rituals matter, no matter how odd they feel at the time.

They did make some changes to the ceremony from when Oliver and Fran graduated back in 2018, though, mostly to account for the lingering effects of the pandemic. Rather than putting all of the audience on one side of the football field and having the graduates face the middle, with a stage facing back to the sideline, they oriented the graduates lengthwise along the field, put the stage at about the goal line, and divided everyone up by alphabet so that half were on the Home side of the field and half on the Visitor’s side. It spread things out nicely, and you didn’t have to squeeze into a seat like we did last time. Lauren ended up on the Visitor’s side, right up by the front, so that’s where I sat.

Not long after we got there the band started playing. They put them off in a corner and just let them play as people filtered in. I don’t know what they’re going to do next year for a drumline, as most of Lauren’s compatriots were wearing graduation gowns, but I suppose that’s just one of the things that high school band teachers are used to working around. Eventually they stopped and the graduates disappeared to get in line for their entrance, and then the band struck up Pomp and Circumstance because that’s what you play in this situation, and the graduating class of 2021 marched in.

There were a lot of them. The band vamped on that tune for quite some time.

Say one thing about the LBHS administration, say that they understand what people are looking for in these ceremonies. They want a bit of ceremony. They want to see their kids and their kids' friends Do The Thing. And then they want to leave. LBHS is very good at keeping events concise, and I for one applaud them.

There was a short welcome speech by Aly, one of the Squad. It was a lovely speech and when she took out her camera to take pictures of the assembled crew we all applauded.

There was a choral number (you didn’t know Bridge Over Troubled Water was a gospel tune, did you, but now you do) and a handful of short student speeches. The principal got up and congratulated everyone.

And then they called each and every student up by name to receive their diploma, which I think is a wonderful thing. Those kids have worked very hard to get to this point and they’ve done so through the worst pandemic of the last century, and they deserve to be recognized individually. They move along at speed, but they all get to hear their name called and walk across the stage. They get a snazzy little diploma case and a handshake, and then they walk off the stage, get their picture taken, go to little table where someone will hand them their actual diploma, and then go back to their seats.

A few congratulatory words later, and then it’s over and the celebrating begins.

They don’t bother trying to orchestrate any recessional at these things – I can’t imagine that ending well, to be honest – so once the ceremony ends you’re free to mill around, catch up to your graduates and their friends, and generally have a good time.

Eventually we all gathered for a bit at one end of the stands for a couple of family photos.

Congratulations, Lauren! I’m proud of you.

Oh, the places you will go.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

News and Updates

1. I’m slowly getting back to some degree of whatever passes for normal these days. My semester is done and the summer session hasn’t quite started. I’m between rushes in advising. I’m back from my trip east. I have managed to find the energy to read a book without suddenly snapping to and realizing I’ve been staring vacantly into space for … [checks time] … longer than I’d imagined. I spent the Memorial Day weekend doing as little as humanly possible and it helped, though we did have a nice picnic out at one of the local state parks on the actual day itself. Who knows? I may yet survive the year.

2. We had a lovely visit from my niece and nephew once we got back from Philadelphia. We threw them into the van when we left and hauled them out here and they spent a week doing the Small Midwestern Town thing, which is a very different experience from the New York City thing. Kids still cruise the strip in this town, and we have three Taco Bells for your dining pleasure. Lauren took them to Madison one day. Sara was still in school during this whole trip, but the joy of remote education is you can log in from anywhere. Josh is on summer break, so he got to sleep in.

3. We took them up to Devil’s Lake one afternoon and they had a good time climbing around on the boulders that surround the lake. They don’t look that big when you’re sitting at the north end of the lake where the picnic tables are, but when you get right up on them you realize that they range from shed size to house size. On the way home we went a little out of the way so we could take the ferry across the Wisconsin River, because why not. We also visited My Old Museum for their Civil War Days and watched them fire off the cannon toward the highway. We also introduced them to jalepeño poppers, which a) we are prepared to testify in court were a Civil War food and b) apparently have not made it to New York City yet.

4. In a sign of creeping normality, we got to go to Lauren’s last band concert down at Local Businessman High School. They haven’t been able to have a real concert all year, but with vaccination rates rising and the pandemic slowing down, at least in this part of the world, we were allowed to attend and we were not going to turn down such an opportunity. There were three groups of performers and you were only allowed to attend the concert for whatever group your kid was in – and you were asked to leave right after in order to maximize social distancing – but it was a very nice performance and we were glad to be able to take it in.

5. We’re gearing up for Lauren’s graduation now – the official ceremony will be on Friday – and all the little things that got canceled last year are coming back. There was the Grad Walk, where the seniors get into their caps and gowns and go back to their old elementary schools to wow the little kids and visit their old teachers. And the drum line did its traditional sally through the halls of LBHS to celebrate the end of the year. There may or may not have been other happenings that shall go unreported. More news as the day draws nigh.

6. Today in fact was Lauren’s last actual day of school. We’ve had kids in this school district for a long time, and they’ve done well. I hope that the district can keep it up in the face of the short-sighted budget slashing that seems to be the lot of education whenever the GOP is in charge of writing the money. I’m just glad Oliver and Lauren made it through.

7. The cats have finally accepted that we are home and won’t be leaving them alone for the foreseeable future – they got rather accustomed to having us around since the pandemic hit and being on their own was a bit of a shock to them. The rabbits didn’t care. I’m not sure the chickens even noticed.

8. We have two of those cardboard scratching pads for the cats – one upstairs in the hallway and one downstairs in the mudroom – and Midgie has decided that they make fine beds. She is asleep on one or the other of them pretty much all the time now. We have a house full of comfortable furniture and soft places and she chooses to sleep on cardboard. Strange beast.

9. I spent an evening shoveling paper off my desk earlier this week, and now I can proudly say that I did indeed have a desk under there. I still have a long way to go before this office is in any kind of civilized state (or, more importantly, in a sufficiently cleaned state that the inevitable avalanche of paper that will form over the next semester will not overwhelm the place) but it is nice to see progress.

10. Home Campus has now lifted mask requirements for all students and staff who are vaccinated, though unvaccinated people still need to wear them. I am not sure what I will be doing, to be honest. On the one hand it will be nice to go out without a mask again. On the other hand there are a lot of delusional people out there who think they don’t need to be vaccinated or wear masks and many of them are just assholes about it, so we’ll see how it goes.

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Trip East

We left for Philadelphia pretty much as soon as we’d finished taking pictures for Lauren’s prom, the first road trip we’ve taken since the pandemic hit. But you don’t forget how to do these things, really – the slanty pedal means go, the square one means stop, the goal is to get where you’re going without changing the shape of anything else on the road, and if you do it right you get to see people at the other end. Simple.

It’s hard to find time to do half the things you want to do these days, and that week was the window we had to get everyone to go see my mom. So we said our goodbyes to Lauren and the Squad, filled the minivan with bags, and headed east away from the (eventual) sunset.

We made it to Ohio before we called it a day, stopping in Maumee. If you draw a line due south from Toledo until it intersects with I-90, that’s pretty much where you are. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I’ve long felt that if there is indeed a Purgatory it will look a lot like Maumee, Ohio – a perfectly pleasant place, neither here nor there, with comfortable hotels and restaurants that will serve you food that is decent but unmemorable and there’s nothing particularly anything about the place at all. You end up there rather than go there. You think about how your journey landed you there and you look forward to whatever comes next, in a mildly inquisitive sort of way. As soon as you leave you have no actual memory of being there other than a vague notion that you didn’t drive all the way through so you must have stopped somewhere. And now you’re headed somewhere else.

We got to Philadelphia on a Sunday evening and spent some time hanging out with my mom, which set the tone for much of the time there – we did get out a bit, but mostly we were there to spend time together.

Monday we went to Longwood Gardens. If you like plants of all kinds, Longwood Gardens is the place to go. It’s huge and reasonably accommodating. It has fountains and a massive conservatory full of flowering this and green that, and if you search long enough you’ll find the stone tower – what in the UK is called a “folly” – that has the carillon. You can, if you are so inclined, go up the stairs inside.

Lauren flew in Monday night, after her AP test that morning. I picked her up at the airport and it all worked out pretty well though it still is strange to me that this is possible. Ah well. People grow.

Tuesday we went down to Winterthur, which is not actually all that far from Longwood Gardens but it’s closed on Mondays so we couldn’t have visited both that day anyway, and at least Lauren got to come along this time. Winterthur is a 9-story house – one of the smaller DuPont mansions, it seems – stuffed to the brim with antiques and furnishings of all kinds and set on a large piece of ground that does not have a single stretch of level ground longer than eight paces anywhere on the property. You can tour the 5th floor (which is at ground level from the door we went into) and, if your life is as surreal as mine, run into a docent who used to teach at your old middle school back in the early Reagan years when you were there. You can also walk around the grounds and even get a tram tour – the place is that big.

This is not the first time I have been to either of these places, but it is the first time I remember going to them. I know I went to Winterthur once before but all I remember is getting into the car to go there, and I have no memory of going to Longwood Gardens at all though Kim insists that we went together and I have no cause to doubt her. When I finally do officially lose my mind nobody will know the difference.

Beyond that the trip was mostly quiet time spent together. There were card games – Uno and Phase 10 being the family favorites. There were cheesesteaks and water ice and soft pretzels, the foods of my native land, and one night we all went out to eat – the local Italian place has a big tent outside for those of us who are not quite ready to dine in yet as the pandemic wanes, and it was good food in good company. Kim and Lauren went to Center City at one point and then got their hair cut in the town near where my mom lives. My mom and I picked up her new glasses, and I spent a fair amount of time trying to get watch batteries replaced (hint: when the department store clerk starts off as a jerk, just go somewhere else – it’s not worth pursuing further).

Our last night there my brother and his family came down, but I have already written about that.

We left the next morning and drove back to Wisconsin in one go, skipping Maumee this time. It’s a long drive made longer by the State of Indiana’s utter inability to manage a construction zone or a rest stop and by Chicago being Chicago even as far out as I-290, but we made it back successfully.

It’s been a year and a half since we took one of these trips and that was too long.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Prom Night in Our Little Town

It’s been a long school year.

Here in Our Little Town, Local Businessman High School started out with face-to-face classes, eventually switched to fully online, and then went to a cohort system where half the school showed up on one day and half showed up on the next. It got them through the year, but a lot of things sort of went by the wayside in the process – extracurricular activities in particular.

So we were happy when they said that there would indeed be a senior prom this year. It would be held outdoors at the local gardens, during the day, and there would be no dancing allowed due to social distancing, but with vaccines becoming common among the intelligent and medically able it could be done safely.

You take your wins where you can get them.

Lauren and her Squad went as a group. You can do that now. Long gone are the days when you had to go as a couple or stay home. You can still go as a couple if you want to do so, but this is a generation that doesn’t date as much as previous generations did (seriously – there are studies on this and everything) and it’s just much more inclusive to go with your friends anyway.

The weather was not nearly as windy as when she went to the Other High School’s prom in the same place a couple of weeks earlier, but it was a bit rainy. Not that anyone minded, it seemed. Lauren found a lovely green dress and some Doc Martin sandals, Kim got corsages for her and her Bestie, and they all spent a happy morning getting ready for the main event.

I got to be the photographer.

I’m one of the few people left in the world who has an actual camera rather than simply relying on their phone, so the pictures tend to come out pretty well – or at least they do when the camera chooses to focus properly. But if you take enough of them then some of them will come out, and that’s just how digital photography works. I’m glad they ask me to take photos of these events.

We met at someone’s house, and a photo session of epic proportions ensued. It got a bit wet at times because of the rain, but spirits were high and that’s why you have umbrellas and towels.

Afterward we left them to their prom, and by all accounts they had a good time. They stayed for a while, then headed to Madison to walk around State Street for a bit in their finery, gathering compliments along the way, and then they went back to Our Little Town to spend the night together.

We actually left town while the prom was going on – Oliver, Kim and I drove out to Philadelphia to visit my mom, and Lauren joined us a couple of days later. This all happened a while ago now, though I'm just finding the time to write it down now. It’s a strange feeling to have kids old enough that you can say, “Here’s an airline ticket – I’ll pick you up at the terminal when you get in,” but a good one. Lauren kept us informed about their doings and we got to enjoy the prom vicariously, which honestly is what we would have done if we’d stayed home.

I’m going to miss the Squad. They’re good people, and with everyone graduating this year they’re all going to be scattered to the winds in their various colleges. They’ll get back together over holidays of course, but it was nice to have this event to share – a prom in a pandemic, perhaps not the one they thought they’d have when they started high school, but one that will perhaps give them stories to tell for a long time to come.

Happy Prom, Lauren!

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Recognizing the Moment

We gathered around the table at my mom’s last Thursday, a throwback to old times.

Kim, Oliver, Lauren and I were there from Wisconsin, visiting my mom. We’d been there for almost a week by that point, and we were headed back to the midwest the next morning. My brother and his family came down from New York, in part because they were delivering my niece and nephew for us to take back to Wisconsin for some “cousin time” and in part because it’s been a year and a half since we all saw each other and we’re all vaccinated now so we can do such things without too much worry.

They got there late – New York City traffic can be phenomenally gridlocked even on a Thursday in May – but once we were all together it was as if we’d never been apart. It is one of the many things I love about my family, that we can gather together as a group and enjoy each other’s company comfortably no matter how much time has gone by since the last time we did that.

For a while there were two groups, one at the table and one on the couch, but eventually the two groups merged as they inevitably must.

There were stories. A few memes got passed around on various phones. There were snacks.

It’s been a long time since we gathered like that, and time and tide suggest that these opportunities are getting more finite as children grow into adults and adults age into elders. It is a gift to be able to recognize the good old days when you’re living through them, to try to fix the moment into your mind so you can recall it at some later date when the world is changed.

And so I will leave us at that table, sharing food and stories, a moment in time preserved in memory.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

20/20 Eurovision

We binge watched Eurovision yesterday.

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks here in Baja Canada and a great many things have happened that I will likely be posting about in the near future, but sometimes you just have to stop and marvel at the sheer over-the-top absurdity of an event that is both inexplicably and somehow completely understandably one of the most popular broadcasts in the world.

Eurovision, for those of my fellow Americans who have somehow not managed to run into it, is basically a cross between American Idol and the Olympics. It began in 1956 as a way to encourage cross-cultural contact and cooperation after World War II, and the basic set up is that each European nation (now broadly defined to include such countries as Israel, Azerbaijan, and Australia) would submit one song to perform at a contest, with the winner taking home a snazzy little trophy and no doubt a fat recording contract somewhere. Maybe something else too. I don’t know. They hold this event every year (though it, like so many things, was canceled last year during the plague) and it is a grand and glorious monument to ridiculous and joyful excess.

It’s nice to have such pointlessly enjoyable things in the world, I think.

Apparently this was the largest public gathering of any kind in Europe since the pandemic began, a celebration of public health and vaccines, and that has to be applauded.

We were away last week visiting my mom and on the long drive home Kim managed to find the Spotify playlist of all the songs in this year’s competition and it occupied us for most of Ohio. If you’ve ever driven across Ohio you know what a valuable service this is. Some of the songs were fun and some were forgettable, but by the end of it we were looking forward to seeing the show.

They have two separate semi-final shows, each with slightly less than half of the contestants. The five countries who pay for most of the event – Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the UK – as well as the current host country all get automatic passes into the finals, which isn’t the advantage that you’d think it would be if history is any guide. The poor guy from the UK ended up with zero points when all was said and done, and the Germans had three. For comparison, the winners had over 500.

We fired up the recorded shows Saturday afternoon and watched the acts from Semi-Final 1, skipped over the judging since we figured we’d know who hit the final when we got there, and then watched the acts from Semi-Final 2. Later we got to the final, where we saw them do their acts all over again.

The 80s are back.

You didn’t know this, but it’s true. Bright blues, reds, and purples. Shades. Synthesizers. WHAM! wannabes. Speaking as someone for whom the 80s were the wild days of youth, I’m not sure this is a good plan. The 80s had some nice things, but by and large popular music wasn’t one of them.

We liked most of the acts, though some more than others. It was a strong field this year, the experts said, and presumably they know such things. We especially liked the ones who performed in their own language rather than the default English that makes songs more salable afterward. That added a nice quality.

There are certain standard characteristics to a Eurovision song that become really obvious as you watch – they’re mostly power ballads, usually with uplifting or empowering lyrics, and with rare exceptions generally in major keys and 4/4 time. You can dance to most of them, if you are so inclined, which makes the exceptions stand out even more. The rules now require that all instrumentals be prerecorded and all main vocals be live, though backing vocals can be either depending on how you feel.

Also, they’ve gone berserk with the lighting. Way back a million years ago at the Sochi Olympics they debuted that system that projected all sorts of immersive images on floors and walls and this was the standard at Eurovision. Digital pyrotechnics – flames, explosions, flashes – competed with abstract shapes and lines, strobes and lasers, and random jarring images of all kinds on both the massive backdrop behind the singers and the floor on which they stood. There were piercing lights coming in at all angles, all plainly visible in the air which implied a certain amount of particulates floating about in order for them to be visible. The lighting crew certainly gave all.

There were also the four hosts, whom I am sure are perfectly fine people offstage but who were clearly paid by the hour to drag things out as long as possible – especially when announcing results – and whose shiny banalities reminded me of The Hunger Games and not in a good way. I kept waiting for one of the backup musicians – perhaps one of the drummers, in an homage to the 80s in general and This Is Spinal Tap in particular – to meet a grisly end live on television. The hosts had an impossible job so I’m not going to be too hard on them, but I can’t say I was bothered when we fast-forwarded over most of their bits.

There were 26 songs in the final, which is a lot of songs for one evening when you think about it. I think I did pretty well in predicting them since nine of my top ten from the semis made it in, as well as a number of others that I liked. Should have bought a lottery ticket.

You can divide these into a few basic categories.

First, there were the classic Eurovision songs – big, fun pop songs designed to get stuck in your head and played at dance clubs around the world. In this category my favorite was probably Cyprus, whose song "El Diablo" was clearly about a woman going into a relationship with a Bad Boy but was condemned by some humorless ecclesiastics as devil worship and the performer just ran with it. It’s catchy and fun. Russia’s entry was also a thumping good time, half in Russian and half in English, and the Belgians put together an odd song about a woman and her Johnny Cash t-shirt that was fun. Malta’s song was sassy and exuberant. San Marino had this odd little rap song featuring Flo Rida, who is conspicuously not San Marinese but I gather that’s not against the rules either. I spent several entertaining minutes contemplating Mr. Rida as a Eurovision winner and the effect this would have on his career, though in the end that was not really much of a concern for him.

My favorites were in the “slow, sad song” category, as is my usual habit. I was seriously hoping that Portugal would win the whole thing, though I was shocked to see that the singer was a slight man with a beard since he sounded like Aretha Franklin when I heard the song without the visuals. I also loved the Bulgarian entry, which had the best title of any song in the contest (“Growing Up is Getting Old”). In a contest with ever-more-elaborate costumes where the default female outfit was a short dress made mostly of rhinestones over a body stocking, the Bulgarian singer’s decision to perform in sneakers and what looked like pajamas was charming.

I’m a sucker for the East European/Middle Eastern sounding ones as well. Ukraine and Azerbaijan both had fast-paced songs centered on the wailing female vocal line with odd interval leaps that you find in that genre, and they were a lot of fun.

Somehow in there were two heavy metal songs, one from Finland – whose performers probably had the best time of anyone there, as near as I could tell – and the other from Italy. The Italians eventually won, and I was happy to see that.

But the most entertaining category of songs were the weird ones – the ones where you had to think long and hard to convince yourself that you were actually seeing the national entry of an actual country into a major cultural event and not some tequila-induced hallucination that you would regret mightily in the morning.

Norway sent a guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who calls himself TIX (because of course he does) and performed in a white fur coat with giant wings while chained to four dancing demons.

The German entry was what can only be described as a jug-band song called “I Don’t Feel Hate” performed by a smiling man who clearly felt he was getting away with something and who shared a stage with a number of costumed assistants, including someone dressed as a hand. The person inside the hand costume had a hat on that looked like a middle finger and when she held up her left arm it looked like a peace sign, but she didn’t always have her left arm raised and that did change the message somewhat. I think I was the only person in the world who liked this song (best online comment I saw: “Oh, great. German whimsy. This will end well.”) but hey – I like what I like.

Iceland’s group was what the Will Ferrell movie was all about – a collection of people who clearly enjoyed being the nerdiest human beings in the province and who performed in matching sweaters.

But for sheer aggravated what-the-fuckery, the Lithuanians took home the prize. Between the rubber-duck-yellow outfits, the completely over the top choreography, and the general air of a Saturday Night Live sketch that nobody knew how to stop before they found themselves selected to perform for real, it was a moment in television history that may never be topped.  I can't tell you how much I loved this performance.

We stayed up until after 1am watching this, having successfully avoided hearing who won all day.

In a world that is relentless in its demand that you be serious and weighed down with concerns and worry, a day full of nonsense is a day well spent.

Friday, May 14, 2021

News and Updates

1. The semester is now over. I never really thought I’d get to this point, to be honest – I’d completely overextended myself and it was just one mad dash through it all to try to keep up as best I could. But final exams are done, grades are turned in, and now I can focus on all of the things I need to be doing for the summer so it’s not like things will slow down much. But they will a bit. And that’s a win right there.

2. There were some memorable essays this finals season, my favorite being either the essay on the antebellum South where the student’s autocorrect changed “cotton” to “kittens,” (I can’t tell you how long it took me to figure out what had happened there) or the one where after listing some of the improbable events of both antebellum American history and of the past few months, the student ruefully concluded that they could no longer trust anything to make any sense at all so they might as well just agree with the thesis that I posted for the exam question and be done with it. I feel for you, kid. I really do.

3. In other news, now we are four again. I drove down to Small Liberal Arts College and picked up Oliver yesterday and – after dropping off a friend of his at the local airport – we had a lovely time catching up on things as we drove home. I don’t know how many more of these summers we’ll have, really – Oliver will graduate next year, and Lauren is a wanderer at heart – so I’m going to enjoy it while I can. I’m really glad I don’t have such a hectic schedule this summer.

4. Apparently I am getting very good at a video game I have never played and am thereby earning valuable points for a team I have never actually joined. Would that all accomplishments were this easy.

5. I am trying very hard to stay out of politics for the time being, since there are Actual Grown-Ups in charge now and the four-year-long drive toward outright Fascism that this country was on seems to have stalled accordingly. But the problem hasn’t gone away, and the more you pay attention to things the worse it looks. I suppose I’ll get back to it soon enough, but right now I’m going to exercise a bit of the unearned privilege that is my lot and just ignore it for a couple weeks more while I catch my breath.

6. Watching Americans hoarding gasoline by pouring it into plastic bags and stuffing those bags into the trunks of their cars in a frantic attempt to recreate the Ford Pinto experience has been an enlightening experience, however. At least exploding cars aren’t contagious or likely to yell at me in the supermarket for having the temerity to wear a mask as store policy requires. I have reached the point where I no longer have much sympathy for people who wish to auto-Darwinate for political reasons, and while this may not make me a good person I’m also not sure what if anything I care to do about it.

7. One thing I am looking forward to doing now that the semester is over is cleaning my home office, or rather getting back to cleaning my office, a project that I started in 2019, made a bit of progress on during January 2021, and may yet live long enough to complete. I am ready to start thinning the piles a bit – a new feeling for me – and I’d like to act on this while the feeling remains.

8. I recently purchased a bottle of Irish pot still whiskey, on the recommendation of a random article I read online that basically said, “You should try this,” and I have to say that it is very good indeed. Rather different from the bottle of single-malt Scotch that I’d been slowly working on during most of 2020 and finally finished sometime in March, but definitely a worthwhile purchase. Now that I am not grading assignments every night perhaps I will get to sample it more often.

9. I have now had to mow the lawn twice. This is a bad sign.

10. My brother once told me that “there are people who relax by doing something, and there are people who relax by doing nothing.” I find this distinction increasingly relevant in my world, where doing nothing is so rarely an option.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Spring Day in a Different World

Today is my parents’ 58th anniversary.

My dad passed away a few years back and my brother and I are scattered about the country, and to be honest other than the big round numbers it wasn’t something we paid a whole lot of attention to when we were all living together – it falls right around Mother’s Day and the end of the semester, after all. But as time and tide have marched on it has become more of something to note and remember.

My parents were married on a spring day in 1963, in a different world from the one we have now.

On a larger scale, Kennedy was president. The Baby Boom was slowly winding down. WWII was still fresh in people’s minds, as was Korea, but Vietnam hadn’t really happened yet, at least for most Americans. It was, in many ways, still the 1950s, though that would change soon enough.

On a more personal level, there were entire generations of family and friends who were still around, still in their prime. My grandparents. Their various aunts and uncles and cousins all throughout South and West Philadelphia.  Both of my grandmothers' mothers were alive then too. All of them wells of memory extending back to the beginning of the twentieth century or earlier.

And while the larger world spun on in its grand and imperturbable way, the personal one changed that day. There was a new beginning.

There were children and pets, jobs and houses, schools and vacations, and people who entered and left, and through it all there were my parents, who loved each other and us and created a home where we could grow and thrive.

They were and remain my role models in this world.

It’s a new world these days, with new historical events and new generations whose memories will extend ever further into the 21st century. But in the end, as ever, it comes down to two people who created a life and a home on a spring day in 1963.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.