Saturday, March 27, 2021

Becoming History

I’ve been putting together PowerPoint slides for my classes this year, because it’s fun to see what these people all looked like. Samuel Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in the 1880s, looks like he’d be just as happy to eat you alive as talk to you, for example, while John Scopes (of the 1925 Monkey Trial in Dayton TN) was clearly chosen last for team sports in grade school.

It’s nice to be reminded that these people were human beings just like the rest of us.

As my US2 class gets closer to the present, though, I find that I can start slipping in pictures from my own family – a fact that tickles me no end. Sometimes I let my students know, and sometimes I just enjoy my own private knowledge.

I spent several summers scanning in all of the family photos a while back. For some reason both sides of my family were remarkably good about taking pictures – not a common activity in the early 20th century, let alone the 19th century that some of my dad’s family photos go back to. We have literally thousands of photos, and some of them turn out to be pretty well suited for class themes.

When we got to the 1920s, for example, my dad’s mother appeared.

You can’t discuss the 1920s without talking about the emergence of the automobile as a cultural and economic force in the US. That’s the decade when Americans truly discovered their obsession with cars, and the federal government spent millions building highways to encourage it. Public money is always the foundation of private wealth in this country, no matter what people would have you believe otherwise. If you want to know whether an industry was thriving in the 1920s you simply have to ask if it had any real connection to the automobile. Steel, rubber, gasoline, glass, concrete (for highways), construction (motels, restaurants) – all of them did well. Coal and textiles did not. Plus for many Americans a car meant a freedom from restraints that they’d never know before – from rural isolation, from parental oversight, from all kinds of limits.

That’s my grandmother there, sometime around 1922. She’s about 17 in that photo. She was never one to tolerate having limits placed on her, and you can tell that this habit started early.

Last week we covered the home front of World War II – a very good time for most Americans, unlike pretty much every other major belligerent during the war. Nobody was bombing the US. We were an ocean away from the fighting on either side of the country. The war ended the Depression and brought full employment and high-paying jobs to a nation that had known nothing but hard times for over a decade. The middle class stopped shrinking and began to grow, and for one of the few times in American history economic inequality actually declined.

This is my mother’s second birthday party, which happened early on in the war. I’m pretty sure she’s the one with the bow in her hair on the left. My grandmother is standing at the left center, with the floral apron and checked dress. My great-aunt Josephine is standing just left of her sister, my grandmother. The baby boy on someone’s lap (I believe her name was Annie) on the right side of the photo is probably my uncle. I don’t know who the other people are in the picture – some of them were probably relatives, and some of them were probably neighborhood people. It’s entirely possible that many were both.

This is clearly a celebration, and the table is piled high with food. WWII was, as noted, a good time for most Americans. Not the people actually on the front lines, of course, or those who lost loved ones. But for the rest, it was the time when the hard times ended, when people had jobs again, when there was enough to eat again.

It’s easy to forget that your own life, and the lives of your family, is part of history. That someday people will study you. That the stories you tell will become history.

But it happens to all of us, someday.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Donut for These Trying Times

Sometimes you just need a donut.

It’s been a long week for all sorts of reasons, and in times like these often the only solution is a tasty snack, preferably one that is round and sweet and contains far too much sugar for regular consumption but which, in these trying times, is just the right amount.

Also, chocolate. And custard. Sometimes both at once.

After dinner tonight Lauren and I headed out on a road trip – a 45-minute drive to the best donuts in southern Wisconsin, or at least that’s how they were described to us. This turned out to be true enough that we’re just going to call it confirmed. There’s another donut shop not far from there that makes the same claim and to be honest their donuts are very good as well, but their donuts are Artisanal Donuts with bright primary and secondary colors, innovative flavors, and mounds of frosting. The place we went to just makes donuts – the sorts of donuts you see every day, only better. On the whole, I’ll stick with this place.

You know you live in the midwest when driving 45 minutes each way to get donuts seems like a reasonable thing to do.

We parked in front of the donut shop in a spot that might or might not have been legal – I read the two vaguely supplementary signs bolted onto the pole next to where we parked probably five times each and even now I couldn’t tell you whether I was allowed to park there – and walked in. We were the only people in the shop other than the guy behind the counter.

We were surrounded by donuts – the sort of donuts that you know were actually baked there, by people who love donuts as ends in themselves, not brought in frozen from some factory in Ohio and reheated by people who see donuts as the means to making enough money to do something else with their lives – and we made short work of choosing. We got a dozen donuts, which is probably more than the three of us currently living at home can eat but a) we’re going to give it the old college try and b) sometimes you just have to say “the hell with it” and get the dozen. Also c) we can easily find volunteers for the ones we can’t eat. Lauren has friends who are teenaged males, after all. At that age I probably could have inhaled the entire dozen at a sitting without slowing down or gaining weight. It’s a fun age.

And then we drove home, happily discussing our donuts and other important topics of the day. Total elapsed time in the bakery: 6 minutes. Total drive time: 90 minutes. Total satisfaction: yes.

I may or may not sleep at all tonight.

Worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2021

An Academic Milestone

I’ve hit a milestone in my US2 class.

Unless I’m in the middle of a complete tear-down and rebuild for a class, which only happens every five or six run-throughs or so, most of the time this year’s lecture is just last year’s lecture with minor adjustments. I go through last year’s lecture and change things around – what worked, what didn’t, what can be left out, what needs to be shoehorned in, what needs to be moved – and every year it changes about 5-10% until the changes add up to too much for the structure to bear and I tear it all down and rebuild it.

My US2 class is on its third full iteration since I started teaching it in 1996 (plus two minor ones) and it’s overdue for a fourth – I had planned to do that two years ago now and even got a bit of a start on it before the pandemic hit but I’ve never quite had the time. I’ve even got a framework to put it all into, though it will require a fair amount of new material.

Maybe someday.

So this semester I’m going through the lectures from last spring and doing my “tweak and edit” routine – this year adding in PowerPoint images, because it’s useful and fun – and because I’m on a later semester calendar than last year I have just now gotten to the class I gave on March 13, 2020.

It starts with the rather laconic note: “Coronavirus update.”

I remember that day. It was my last full day on campus for over a year, and my last day teaching in a classroom even if my students were in four other classrooms two hundred miles away. I’d already moved to the next phase of my preparations for the pandemic – planning to teach the class from home, as Home Campus was shutting down the following week – though I still thought I’d get to teach that next week. That turned out not to be true. I had to rewrite the entire preparation plan on the fly after that, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world at the time.

“Take this seriously,” I told them, “but don’t panic.” Good advice, really. I wish the nation had taken it.

And that’s the last regular lecture I have to adjust.

There was a three-week gap after that, as the public schools shut down and the campus that is technically responsible for that course declared that no assignments or activities could be given until the early part of April. I took a survey of the students during that time to see how they wanted to handle the rest of the course – I could just fit in whatever we had time for, or I could record All Of The Material so we actually finished the course, which would mean four lectures a week instead of three for the rest of the semester but they could watch them on YouTube at their own pace. They went with Option B.

It took me a bit to realize that under that plan I was no longer limited to a 50-minute class period. I could end early if that’s where the natural break point was, and I could run long if necessary. This worked last spring, but it will make retrofitting these back into 50-minute classes a bit of a trick.

Tweak and edit.

On the one hand, it’s kind of odd to be doing all of that to a class I know I’m planning to tear down and rebuild at the first opportunity.

On the other hand, there may not be an opportunity any time soon. Teaching is one of the few professions that actually got busier here in the pandemic, and time has been short for a while now.

Maybe soon.

It’s an interesting milestone, and a sobering one.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

News and Updates

1. I may never be caught up on my grading. Fortunately the semester will end at some point and then it won’t matter, but until then I expect to be even less fun to be around than usual. Oh well. The upside to all of this is that I can procrastinate and be fully productive, as there is never any shortage of projects to work on.

2. It’s March Madness, or so I hear. Every year Kim and I would try to put together a bracket or two, which was always an exercise in creative writing since neither of us follows basketball at any level. Kim at least understands the game – to me it just looks like an indoor track meet that gets interrupted every eighteen seconds for a game of HORSE. But now they’re playing, and I suppose I should see who is winning. Go Team! Beat that Other Team! Rah!

3. Oliver came back from Small Liberal Arts College for spring break last week, which was fun. He brought Dustin with him and we had a pretty good time hanging out for a week in between grading and other assorted tasks. We had raclette one night and put on a pretty good St. Patrick’s Day spread of corned beef with all the trimmings. He got his cat fix, after half a semester at school. We even managed to catch a hockey game or two. They’re back at SLAC now, but it was good to have him home.

4. Lauren is now technically on spring break from Local Businessman High, though that loses a lot of punch after most of a year on an every-other-day cohort schedule. The school district has decided that there will in fact be a graduation ceremony – outdoors, with a restricted number of attendees, but still. And there will be some kind of prom, also outdoors. It’s good that they’re doing some of the normal things as best they can.

5. She and her friend Aleksia were voted Best Duo by their peers at LBHS, which was a nice honor to have. Besties! Maybe they’ll get into the yearbook for it, though it is late in the game to be adding things to that.

6. After a few books away, I am once again reading Claire North – one of her older books, but hypnotic in a way. You should be reading her stuff. Of course, mostly I get to read in three-page increments these days so it takes a lot longer than usual, but such is my semester. I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

7. Can we all just admit that the real problem in this country is native-born straight white Christian men with guns? Seriously, people – go look at the last two or three dozen mass murders that have taken place in the US (and is there another country in the world not actively at war where such a statement even makes sense?) and who was responsible for them and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you. Go ahead. This country has a white supremacy problem, a Nativist problem, a “women are property” problem, a “too damned many guns” problem, and a “rules don’t apply to right-wingers” problem, all of which intersect in precisely those people, and until those get solved we will continue to see innocent blood shed by losers who can’t handle people who don’t look exactly like themselves and feel entitled to subjugate those they hate. This is what brought us the Trump Insurrection in January, it’s what brought us the mass murder in Atlanta this week, and it is what will destroy this nation if it is not stamped out.

8. On the other hand, it does feel good to see all the Trump Insurrectionists being arrested and charged for at least some of the crimes against the United States that they committed. If there were any real justice in the US der Sturmtrumper would be rotting in a jail cell alongside them by now, but the GOP is far too corrupt to allow anything of the sort. Hell, they’re doing their best right now to make sure that only native-born straight white Christian men with guns can vote in the next election and doesn’t that just bring the discussion around full circle.

9. It may actually be spring here in Baja Canada.  It got up to 65F/18C last weekend, and then we got two inches (5cm) of heavy wet snow that I didn’t bother shoveling because it immediately went back up above freezing and now it’s all gone and we’re back up to where we were last weekend. So, yeah, spring in Wisconsin. The soft-serve ice cream place has been open for over a week. I’m sure there were people lined up in the snow.

10. Some days you just need to eat and drink whatever you want and deal with the consequences later.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Before and After

Before humans were predators, we were prey.

We are big, slow, soft animals utterly devoid of sharp teeth, claws, or any particular natural defenses other than a stubborn willingness to fight back against whatever tries to eat us – a willingness that separates us not at all from ducks. We’ve figured out how to become apex predators these days, of course, but for much of our evolutionary history we were on the other side of that equation.

And prey knows when it is being stalked.

A year ago today I was still at work – my last normal day in the office. I had students coming in for advising sessions. I taught my class, which ironically enough was a remote-delivery class that I had been teaching in that format since 2012. It was unusual then. Lauren was still in Europe on her foreign exchange trip. Oliver was home for spring break but looking forward to going back to Small Liberal Arts College for the rest of his semester. Kim was commuting to Madison three or four days a week for one of her many jobs.

The day just felt off somehow, like you should be looking back over your shoulder at something that might be gaining on you.

Unless you were hiding under a rock you could see the news reports piling up. The horror stories that were coming out of Italy. The exponential growth in COVID cases that the US was starting to experience. The utter despair of knowing that there would be no effective response to any of this from der Sturmtrumper or his minions, enablers, lackeys or cronies – that we as Americans were pretty much going to be left on our own.

You could see it coming. Everyone could.

“Why does today feel like the ‘before’ picture in some future textbook?” I asked on social media that day.

I should have bought a lottery ticket.

Forty-eight hours later it had all changed. We were working remotely. Shops, restaurants, and pretty much everything else were shut down. Classes were canceled, for us and for Oliver, and Madison was no longer an option. Lauren was yanked out of Europe and shipped back the US where Kim picked up her at a chaotic O’Hare Airport, which meant we were officially quarantined for two weeks – for us going into lockdown in April meant having more mobility rather than less.

It’s been a year now, and whatever version of normalcy we return to will in some ways be different from the one we left.

We have actual adults in power now, a direct result of just how badly the previous administration botched the American response to the pandemic. Like the Great Depression, the shock of the pandemic may have at least temporarily discredited the idea that the job of government is to let people starve so that the rich can get richer. Even most Trump voters approve of Biden’s relief bill, which makes its utter lack of support from the GOP rather disheartening but so it goes.

We’ve been teaching remotely for a year, and while most students and faculty are eager to get back into classrooms it has to be said that some are not, and I expect that remote classes and advising will remain a viable, if auxiliary, piece of education.

How many workers are going to go back to their offices is another question. Not all. Maybe not even most. 2020 was the year that we discovered how many of those meetings really could have been emails.

But ultimately the important things will go back to what they were. We will be able to visit people without worrying about killing them with plague. There will be meals. Celebrations. Hugs. We will be able to travel, and gather, and just do.


It’s been a long year, and that feeling that the world was about to change has never quite left. Because it has changed.

It will continue to do so.

What the ‘after’ photo in that textbook will look like is an interesting question.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Food of the Gods

We went up to Madison yesterday for some retail therapy.

I haven’t been in Madison since before the pandemic, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. You can’t really live in in southern Wisconsin without heading into Madison at least every now and then – that’s where all the funky stuff is, and the campus is pretty.

But plagues will, and so we didn’t.

Kim had to go there to run some errands. Lauren just likes to get out and about. I’m completely swamped with grading and had no business going anywhere other than my desk, but you can only do that for so long and to be honest Lauren is going to be away at college next year and the number of these opportunities is only going to dwindle as that gets closer, so to my students, there you go. I’ll get you your exams soon, I promise.

Sleep is for people who don’t have anything to grade.

Our first stop was lunch. Lauren found a likely looking sandwich shop and directions thereto, so we drove over and ordered from the little window that they’ve jury rigged because nobody in their right mind actually sits in a restaurant these days.

Yes, I know that lots of people are sitting in restaurants these days. The qualifier is important. Pay attention.

It is no longer Hard Winter in Wisconsin – the temperature has been a few degrees above freezing for, what, DAYS now and the snow is beginning to melt – but it was still a bit chilly to eat outside, so we sat in the minivan and enjoyed the sandwiches. They were good sandwiches. Life is infinitely happier for people with good sandwiches, and for a pleasant period yesterday that was us.

After stopping at a chocolate factory to pick up some donations that they were gracious enough to make to one of Kim’s many projects, we headed over to the nearby Giant Asian Market.

I love grocery stores. I love the one I go to here in Our Little Town, with its vast assortment of minute variations on every conceivable product. I love the little ethnic ones we have here – Lauren and I just visited the new Mexican grocery in town last week, in fact, and we spent a happy half hour afterward snacking on various treasures and making those wheat-based things that you fry in hot oil and they puff up to forty times their volume that seem to be so popular in Mexican groceries. When we go abroad I always make a point of stopping in the grocery stores wherever we go, because it’s fascinating to see what people eat. My grocery buddy Sara and I can ransack a Swedish grocery store in fifteen minutes flat.

So the Giant Asian Market was just the place for me.

It’s the kind of place that has aisle after aisle of things that may or may not be translated into English on the package, so you have to either read the little tags on the shelves or trust that the photos on the products are more or less accurate. We spent a happy hour or so just idly walking up and down the aisles deciding that this or that looked like it was worth trying. I’m happy to check out the snacks and the spices. Lauren enjoys those plus the healthier things. Kim was looking for a couple of specific things for a recipe.

So there I am, happily sorting through the various flavors of potato chips that you know would probably not be hot sellers at the regular grocery store here in Our Little Town, when I came across this:

Let us overlook, for the moment, that this is Seaweed Flavor. I’m sure there are people out there who like Seaweed Flavor, and good for them. They can have my share. I am hardly in a position to criticize other people’s tastes in Potato Twists.

But I will admit that the “Lonely God” part of it gave me a bit of pause.

For one thing, there is a certain ominous quality to that description that one does not usually associate with snack food. “Gods are solitary beings, like most predators,” as Sean Williams, an Australian SF/F author whose work I greatly enjoy, once observed. “Only prey socializes.” This does not strike me as a particularly cheerful thought to be putting in front of people who just want a tasty bag of seaweed treats to accompany their latest digitally streaming movie. I suppose it depends on the movie, but still.

For another, you would think that a god could conjure up company anytime they wanted. That’s one of the perqs of being a god, isn’t it? Conjuring things?

I have never been a god, though, so I could be wrong about that.

I did not buy the Lonely God Seaweed Flavor Potato Crisps, in the end. Someone else will have to do that. But we came away with a large pile of fascinating foods to try, and we are already working our way through them. The Sesame Slices were quite tasty, in fact.

Then we went to Costco and pillaged the place.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

One Last Conference for the Road

We had our last ever parent-teacher conference today.

They don’t do those sorts of things in college. Once you get to college you’re expected to handle that sort of thing on your own. There are even laws about that. As a professor, I am legally barred from discussing anything about my students with their parents unless those students have signed paperwork expressly allowing me to do so. This is something that not every parent gets, to be honest.

But before that, there are conferences.

We’ve gone to them all. Of course we have.

At Not Bad President Elementary there was only one teacher you had to locate and you selected a time and showed up to the room for a nice conversation. At Mighty Clever Guy Middle School they put all of the teachers in the cafeteria at tables and gave you a time slot to visit the one teacher who probably knew the least about your child – their homeroom teacher – but you could sort of mill about and catch up with all of the others, which was always worthwhile.

At Local Businessman High School they also put all of the teachers in the cafeteria (and thereabouts – there are a lot of teachers), but they don’t give you a time slot. You just show up and hang around until you collect the whole set. We’d walk around with a list, checking them off one by one until we’d covered everyone.

Not everyone goes to these things, which always mystified me a bit. I know that not everyone can get to them, what with work or other commitments, but some of the people who can go choose not to. How can you not want to check in and make sure things are going well? How can you at least not want to check in to see if the stories your child tells you are correct? Oliver used to complain about how one of his teachers kept putting him to sleep and we didn’t believe him until we met the man – a guy who clearly cared about his students and might well have been a good teacher but whose manner was so soporific that we nearly didn’t make it out of the conference awake. Oliver transferred to a different and more lively teacher after that and did well.

These days they’re all online and you have to schedule them through one of those sign-up services, and you log in and chat for a bit before you do the whole “wave at the screen” thing that nobody ever did before the pandemic forced us all to become Zoombies and then you log into the next one.

Lauren is graduating in June, and that will mark the end of our time in Our Little Town’s school district. So of course we signed up for conferences. We saw them all, there on the little screen.

They all had lovely things to say about Lauren, of course. She’s smart, mature, focused and compassionate, and she’s grown up around teachers so she knows how to handle herself in a classroom.

I’m proud of her.

And now we’re done. There will be no more parent-teacher conferences for us.

The milestones creep up on you as you get older. They come thick and fast when you’re young and then there’s a long period where they don’t happen much at all, and then they do again.

If you’re lucky, you notice them while they’re happening.