Saturday, December 30, 2023


Smudge ran away on New Year’s Eve 2004. She wasn’t much of a housecat, to be honest. She’d been given to us by a friend and we only had her for three months, the first six weeks of which she spent hiding in our basement and the next six weeks skulking around avoiding us. She got out on a grey, rainy day with the temperature just above freezing and we figured she wouldn’t be gone long but she never came back and eventually we stopped looking.

Maybe five weeks later we went to the Humane Society to get another cat. We wanted a friendly one and there was a grey cat – a “blue mackerel tabby” if you want the correct cat-show term – who played with us in the little room where you can go before making any decisions so we took her home. Her name at the pound was Smokey but when five-year-old Oliver started referring to her as Smokes we figured we needed a new name. I wanted Mithrandir – “grey wanderer,” as any Tolkien nerd can tell you – and Kim agreed if we shortened it down to Mithra. We often called her Pookie for some reason. We collectively decided her birthday was Labor Day 2004 since that seemed to be about the right age for her when we got her.

She was a good cat for a family. She was patient with small children and generally friendly to everyone else. She’d play all sorts of games. I still laugh at the Paper Bag Incident. Somewhere we have a video of her careening down the sliding board of the old swing set we had in the back yard when the kids were little. She did her part to control the wild rabbit population in the neighborhood, much to the annoyance of some nitwit who left us an anonymous note about it. We gave her more treats for it. She put up with 4H Cat Shows, vet visits, and – grudgingly – Midgie. She had an extra-long tail that she could lay between her ears when she was younger. It would dangle between her eyes as if she were some deep-sea fish.

She’s been fading bit by bit for a while now, which you’d expect in a 19-year-old cat. She’s been blind for over a year and our living room became a Geriatric Cat Facility, with a set of stairs up to the sofa where her pet-warmer electric pad was, and a big mat where we could feed her the kitty snacks and wet food we thought would help her gain some wieight even as she slowly got thinner anyway.

When we got back from Tennessee we could see she’d declined pretty steeply despite being well cared for while we were away. That happens with old cats. She couldn’t really stand anymore, and her fur was looking disheveled. We set her up in the downstairs bathroom and tried to keep her hydrated but when you put together a cat hospice there is only one way that ends.

This morning it was clear that things had run their course, and eventually we found a veterinarian who was open on the Saturday before New Year’s. All four of us went with her, and all four of us brought her home to rest.

She’s buried in the back, in the little pet cemetery that we’ve slowly created in the nearly three decades since we moved into this house, among the rabbits and turkey chicks. We all took turns and sent her off into her next adventure.

Fare thee well, Mithra. You were a good cat, and well loved.

Friday, December 29, 2023

A Bear Grylls Christmas

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

We were looking forward to going to Tennessee to see my family for Christmas this year. It’s been a while since we were all together for that – with blizzards, plague, and study abroad years it hasn’t happened since 2018 in fact. We missed seeing everyone, and this year we had Plans.

As the old saying goes, however, “Man plans, God laughs.” Whatever version of a deity you happen to find suitable for your needs and however broadly you define “man” to include some, most, or all of the wide panoply of genders, the sentiment never changes.

In the end our holiday didn’t look a whole lot like how we thought it would go, but we did get to see everyone we’d hoped to see and we had a lovely time doing so. I like to think Mr. Grylls would be proud of us, even if endurance hiking is not something my family generally includes on our list of things that make for a good day.

The original plan was fairly simple.

We were going to drive from Wisconsin to Tennessee, where my aunt and uncle live, on the 23rd – the first day we could get away after the semester. It’s a long drive but an easy one and we’ve done it enough that it presented no real barrier. My brother Keith and his family would fly down from NYC to meet us, as would my cousin Chris and his husband (also Chris). My cousins Elizabeth and Paula and their families live close enough to their parents that they would make their own arrangements. And since we are now too many to stay at my aunt and uncle’s house all at once, we’d stay elsewhere. Kim found a fantastic B&B about a 20-30 minute drive away where we and my brother’s family would spend our time in Tennessee. It’s actually a horse ranch, and I can testify from personal experience that there were in fact horses there. We’d head over to my aunt and uncle’s for Christmas Eve (the big holiday in my family) and Christmas Day and then do something else the next day before returning to Wisconsin on the 27th.

Easy. Lots of moving pieces, but fairly straightforward as these things go.

The Tuesday before all this was scheduled to happen, however, Aunt Linda let us know that she had Covid. She would be cleared for public activities on Christmas Eve so we could keep our schedule pretty much unchanged but Chris and Chris decided that it would be better for all concerned if they stayed with us at the B&B and fortunately it was a big enough place that this was not a problem. Their flight got down there a day before we would arrive so Kim made arrangements with the host for that.

We set out on the 23rd fairly early, as one would want to do for a long drive, and other than the fact that it was foggy for pretty much the entire state of Illinois there weren’t any real challenges. We didn’t even stop for lunch. We’d packed all sorts of snacks and beverages and picked up various other foods and drinks at our gas stops, and we all wanted to get there sooner rather than later. Chris and Chris were already there. Keith, Lori, Josh, and Sara arrived not long before we did. We headed up to the upstairs living room to hang out and enjoy everyone’s company and the chili that one or more of the Chrises had made.

This is when we found out that Plan had been altered. Linda was still testing positive and not feeling well, so Christmas Eve would be moved to the B&B. Christmas Day? Not determined, but probably moved as well. So: new Plans.

First we needed a menu. How many of the Seven Kinds of Fish could we pull together for Christmas Eve? What kinds? Who would make what? Was the grocery store even open on Christmas Eve to get supplies? And what kinds of pots and utensils did we have to work with? Fortunately we are all the sorts of people who pitch in and solve problems, and pretty quickly we figured out we could do five fishes – the odd number being the most important thing, though if we had ended up with an even number we agreed we’d just note how odd that was and go from there. My group – the only ones on site who hadn’t had to fit everything into a plane – had also brought cheeses and salami to set out beforehand. And the Tennesseans were bringing things as well. We had a PLAN!

The next morning started slowly, as we filtered out of our various rooms, congregated in the big dining room of the downstairs apartment – the B&B actually had two separate apartments, though we had both of them – and discovered that nearly all of us play Spelling Bee and Wordle. It’s actually kind of nice to sit there with other people playing along with you, trading notes. Chris and Chris had already done one big grocery run so there was breakfast.

Eventually we set about preparing for the day. It turns out that even in Tennessee you can find an open grocery store on Christmas Eve morning. It was in fact doing land-office business – I’ve never seen a grocery store completely out of cocoa powder before – and we looted the place. We got back and then it Was ON. We had two different kitchens and put both of them to good use making smelts, scallops (a quickly cobbled together recipe that involved a number of substitutions and turned out quite well by all accounts), a potato and fish dish called Jansson's Frestelse, and Caesar salad, which has anchovies in the dressing so that counts. I volunteered to make the spaghetti with clam sauce. Food arrived with my Tennessee cousins. When you have a good crew willing to put in the work, you can do pretty much anything. Somewhere in there Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda also stopped by for a short visit. It was warm enough for most of that to be outside.

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

It was a lovely dinner, with good food and good people all around. You can’t ask for more than that out of life, really. There was a moment, sitting there, when it really hit home how fortunate we all were to be sitting there, together, amid the noise and hubbub of conversation and food. We’ve all moved up a generation now, and the traditions continue.

This year only the youngest cousins had the traditional Christmas Eve gifts, though. Eventually they too will graduate to the Dice Game, and won’t that be a time? For those new to this space, the Dice Game is an easy and vastly entertaining way to simplify the gift-giving season. You set a budget – usually around $35 total – and you buy two gifts, one nice and one funny. You wrap them up and arrange them all into six piles. You roll a die, pick and unwrap a present from that numbered pile (accompanied by appropriate reactions, which vary widely depending on what you end up with), and pass the die to the next person. Eventually everyone has two gifts and then the action really begins. You set a timer and get several pairs of dice, and once the timer starts the dice go flying around the table. Anyone who rolls doubles can swap something with another person. And when the timer stops, you get what you have. Of course that’s when the real horse-trading begins, so it’s never quite over. But that’s the gist of it.

We had a grand time.

Eventually people went home and it was just the B&B crew, and we spent the evening playing Codenames and generally hanging out. It was a good end to a good day.

The next morning was warm and rainy, and we ate breakfast and did our Spelling Bee and it was a calm start to the day though I was happy to see Wolves win. When everyone was up and moving we did our family gifts, including the stockings, and got ready for Christmas dinner – macaroni and meatballs, fittingly enough. My uncle had brought over a vat of gravy (spaghetti sauce to the rest of you) and we got everything ready for when my cousins came over. I made a pitcher of Aperol spritz, because why not. We watched the Eagles pull out a narrow victory over a far inferior team, which doesn’t bode well but a win’s a win after all. We did crafts and played with gifts. And we did another round of the Stair Photo, which will get a separate post of its own. And when it was just the B&B crew left we played Codenames again and hung out. Eventually it was just me, Keith, Lori, Lauren, and Oliver around a coffee table, talking late into the night. We’d made it through the events of the holiday, and perhaps the next day would be low-key.

And then the power went out.

Lauren and Sara were the first to notice, since they were up hanging out with each other, and after a while they came in to let us know but since it was the middle of the night and there was nothing we could do about it we figured we’d just sleep. Surely things would be repaired when we woke up. This turned out not to be true, as blown transformers take a while to fix.

Kim and Chris went on a coffee run for everyone who enjoys coffee, and as the house got slowly colder we came up with another Plan.

Improvise, adapt, overcome.

Step one of the plan was lunch. There was a diner that Chris and Chris had found before we arrived and which a) was open and b) they recommended, so we went there for lunch. Oliver found a fellow Sleep Token fan and we had more good food and conversation, so three cheers for step one of the plan.

Step two of the plan was to spend the day over at Elizabeth and Brian’s house, which we thoroughly colonized. We had more games (Taboo and Mexican Train Dominoes being the main ones) and general hanging out together. Aunt Linda and Uncle Bob came over for a short while. And rather than stress people out with another big cooking adventure we ordered pizza.

Win all around, I say.

They fixed the transformer by midafternoon, so we were able to go back to the B&B without any further backup planning.  We packed up and cleaned and the next day bright and early we all headed back to our respective places, another holiday successfully managed. Though why it is so tricky to drive through central Illinois, I don’t know.

It was good to go and see everyone. It was good to come home. It will be good to go back.

Friday, December 22, 2023

News and Updates

1. I am now older, though whether I am any wiser is an open question I suppose. I spent most of my birthday grading exams because that’s the life of an academic, but I did get to spend some time with family and friends and we’ll do an actual celebration of my birthday sometime after Christmas when we all have time and energy for it. The odometer has now officially flipped over to the next digit and my resale value has declined accordingly, but I am okay with that.

2. Speaking of odometers, my car hit 200,000 miles this week. I bought the car new back in 2007, and most of the driving has been city miles. It’s a reliable little car, and I’m sorry they don’t make them anymore. I almost got to see it happen, too. Kim and I met up with Lauren and Max for dinner on Tuesday to celebrate the end of finals. We drove up separately so Lauren could have the Vibe for a few days to get some errands done. When I parked the car it had 199,997 miles on it. I considered driving it around a bit, but Lauren agreed that she would take a picture when the odometer flipped over and so she did. Happy milestone, little Vibe!

3. The Christmas tree is set. The presents are (mostly) wrapped. We’re about as ready for the holiday as we’re going to get. This is a relative measure.

4. For Tim, because he asked – here is a photo of The Worst Deck of Cards in the World:

It is a talisman in our family, and we would not part with it.

5. Oliver got back safely from his trip to the UK. He and Dustin are fans of the band Sleep Token, which seems to have a very Deadhead-like community of sociable fans and this summer they found out that the band would be playing in Wembley Arena. The tickets were surprisingly inexpensive so they bought some, on the theory that if they couldn’t figure out how to get there they’d only be out the price of the show. But Dustin is an Air Travel Wizard and it all worked out for a lovely time there, seeing the sights, traveling around, and gathering at various social events with their fellow Sleep Token fans. They even got to meet up with our friends Richard, Magnus, and Ginny! So, win all around. It was, by all accounts, a memorable show as well.

6. Picking Oliver up at O’Hare was an experience, though. Happy holiday traveling, folks! It’s a zoo out there.

7. The Colorado Supreme Court – a notably nonpartisan court, according to the legal experts I’ve read recently – has now explicitly ruled that Donald Trump engaged in insurrection against the United States and is therefore disqualified from holding office. I have no doubt that this will be appealed to the Supreme Court and the Court will dismiss this on some technicality in a straight-line partisan vote with the ineradicably tainted Clarence Thomas voting with the majority. But the walls are closing in, and it is possible, just barely possible, that the malignant stain of MAGA will be bleached out of the American political scene in my lifetime. One can hope. The fact that Trump has any support whatsoever is a damning indictment of American morality, patriotism, and intelligence.

8. The end of the semester is always such a madhouse, and my office looks like a tornado ripped through a paper mill. It’s not going to change until January, either. We’ll see.

9. My favorite student evaluation this year was the student who said I needed to develop a sense of humor because I didn’t seem to find any of their jokes funny and that was just awkward. I’m going have that one framed, alongside the one from a few years back when I was teaching on a campus in a deeply right-wing area that said the best way to improve the class would be to get a Republican to teach it next time. A toast to you, kind students.

10. We’ve passed the Solstice and from now the days get longer and the nights get shorter, and I may be one of the few people in the world who regrets that but so it goes.

Monday, December 18, 2023

December 18th

It’s December 18th and I have no idea how that happened because the last time I had a firm sense of the actual date it was June.

It’s December 18th and the month is more than half over which means that soon it will be 2024 and this cannot be serious because the passage of time has not felt real since March 2020 despite so many things happening since then, many though not all of them wonderful.

It’s December 18th and it will be Christmas in a week and it was only this past weekend that I managed to lift my head above the end of the various semesters that I am involved with to start thinking about gifts or decorations and the idea of writing a Christmas card seems remote to the point of absurdity.

It’s December 18th and the days are getting to their shortest point which means the nights are getting to their longest point and I’ve always preferred nights over days anyway.

It’s December 18th and it feels like it’s still November outside, grey and rainy and not in the least wintery the way it normally feels in Wisconsin in December and the climate isn’t changing, folks, it has already changed and this is the new normal until it gets warmer still.

It’s December 18th and I still have students making appointments for advising this week because their lives are just that much up in the air and it’s good to have them making appointments when they have questions but it is historically rather uncommon at this late date, especially since finals are over.

It’s December 18th and the holidays are different from what they were back when and that’s just the way of things and you can lose the present if you think about the past too much so you might as well enjoy the people and times that are here with you now.

It’s December 18th and a few days of nothing pressing would go down well after the mad rush of the last however long but I’m not holding my breath.

It’s December 18th and that only happens once a year so you might as well celebrate it.

Because tomorrow it will be a day later.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Hotel Harrington

The Hotel Harrington announced its closure the other day, which brought back some old memories.

For those of you who never had the pleasure, the Hotel Harrington was the place to go if you wanted to stay in central Washington DC without going bankrupt. It was old and cramped and long past its prime when we were there and it made no pretense to be anything otherwise, but it was mere blocks from the National Mall and pretty much right on the path to anything else in that city, as much as anything is on any path in a city that has two completely different road systems – one grid and one wheel-and-spoke – overlaid on top of one another. The places where a grid intersection hits a wheel-and-spoke intersection on a tangent can be a quarter mile across with traffic islands scattered about like poppyseeds on a bagel and you take your life in your hands as a pedestrian in DC so a hotel that minimizes walking to your destinations is a good thing, especially if you can afford it with a family of four on an academic salary.

We stayed there back in 2008, shortly before I started this blog, and I never did end up writing anything about that trip.

By that point in their lives Oliver and Lauren were old enough that we could drive from Wisconsin to Philadelphia with them, and that summer we decided that we’d make a tour of things. We visited friends in Pittsburgh, stayed with my parents outside of Philadelphia, and spent some time down the Jersey shore as all good Philadelphians must do in the summertime. It was a lovely trip.

On the way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia we stopped in Washington DC for a few days and stayed at the Hotel Harrington.

Our room was on an upper floor, somewhere closer to the top than the bottom, facing away from the main street. It had a prime view of the building next door and overlooked the Walgreens on the corner down below, which would turn out to be useful. It had two double beds and just enough floor space to put our suitcases down if we didn’t mind stepping over them to get anywhere, and it had a bathroom covered in the kind of small black and white tiles that went out of style with the New Deal.

But it was more than enough for what we wanted from it.

It was maybe a four minute walk to the Smithsonian, where we checked off the first of the required elements for that trip – the National Air and Space Museum. Oliver and Lauren insisted on seeing the Wright Brothers plane that is displayed there, and we spent a happy time of things exploring the rest of the place as well. It also has the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs! rocks!), and the National Portrait Gallery, where I made the mistake of describing a gallery of Dutch Master works as “paintings of men with hats and beards,” a description that, while accurate, was apparently not what the situation called for.

At one end of the Mall you have the Washington Monument, and we spent some time there both staring up at it and going inside to the top of it. The tickets for that are free – or at least they were at the time – but you have to get there at about 7am to get them before they are gone. I remember standing there in the rain to collect them, and then walking back to the Hotel Harrington with my prizes. Caveman Dave! Need tickets! Forage for tickets! Return to cave! It was worth it. You ride up on this tiny little elevator, and then you have just the best view of the city you’ll ever have.

On the other end is the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps the most sacred public space in the United States.

It was hot that trip, and we spent time by various fountains, time running through grass watering systems, and a fair amount of time eating ice cream.

We saw the original Constitution, and walked by the White House just to say we were there. They’re both things you should do at least once in your life as an American.

One of the nicer memories of this trip was just the first night we were there, sitting in a hotel room the size of your high school gym locker, planning out our schedule for while we were in town. It occurred to us at that point that we needed some entertainment for this process, specifically a deck of cards – an item we had not packed. We looked out the window, noticed the Walgreens, and went down to get one. It was fairly late and apparently everyone in Washington DC had had the same idea sometime earlier that day, as the only deck of cards that they had for sale was one that was entirely, vibrantly, pink and white. The backs were pink and white. The suits – even the clubs and spades – were pink and white. The face cards were entirely pink and white. It was, as Oliver fondly describes it, “the worst deck of cards in the world,” and we have treasured that deck ever since. Oliver used to take it to school with him to play cards with his friends. It’s kind of a talisman around here, really.

We sat there in the hotel with our pink deck of cards and our roughly sketched plans for the next few days and we played our games together and you don’t often realize when the good times are when you’re in the middle of them but we did that night and I will be forever glad to have stayed at the Hotel Harrington for that moment alone.