Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Just Like That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m proud of you.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Observations from the Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We press on.

Friday, August 13, 2021

A Louder Sort of Quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the music plays on.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Pizza Margherita

The parchment paper was the key.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment of silence, please.

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

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

We gather our ingredients.

We make our pizzas.

We toss them on the grill.

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

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

Mangia bene!

Friday, August 6, 2021

Olympic Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously people. Enough of that nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

News and Updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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