Sunday, June 30, 2024

A Pen for Your Thoughts

Someone on my dad’s side of the family had money way back when. Probably around 1900. None of this money found its way to us and I suspect it evaporated in the Great Depression, though that’s pure conjecture on my part. Maybe they lost it all buying war bonds in 1917. Or maybe they just lost it the usual way, slowly, almost unnoticeably, with bad business decisions and poor financial planning, at a wholly unremarkable point in history. Who knows.

But every once in a while I run across something that reminds me these people were fairly well off for the time.

When my dad passed away in 2016 we did a sort through the house in preparation for my mom’s move to the senior apartment where she spent the rest of her life. A lot of things in the basement went out the door, but we saved a bunch of stuff too.

One thing that sticks in my memory was an entire box of piano rolls – paper scrolls about a foot wide with holes punched in them. You put them inside your player piano and started it up and it would play the song for you. Each of these rolls cost between $2 and $4 in the early 1920s, which was a good chunk of a day’s wages – or more – for a lot of people.

These days they’re worth nothing. I couldn’t even give them away. I tried. Nobody wanted them – not university music programs, not museums, not antique stores. I saved one and tossed the rest. I’m still sad about that, but so it goes. But back then you had to have some coin to afford that many of these rolls, not to mention the player piano to slot them into.

Every now and then I go into the basement and bring up another box that I took out of my mother’s apartment after she died. My brother didn’t want most of it – he lives in a small apartment and is working on downsizing from that – and we have a big basement, so much of it ended up here. Last week, while trying not to pay attention to what I suspect will be an oncoming train wreck (no, not the political one – that one I’m kind of resigned to), I pulled out a box and went through it.

There were some photos I hadn’t seen before and some interesting papers, all of which I need to scan and add to the genealogical folders I have online. Honestly, I could spend the next year just organizing the genealogical information I already have without searching for any new stuff, and that’s kind of a nice project to have out there. Maybe when I retire.

I also found this:

It’s a dipping pen, the kind you’d use with an inkwell. It’s about seven inches long, from tip to nib. Most of it is solid mother of pearl and it still has the original velvet case. It probably dates to about 1890, plus or minus a decade or so.

It’s not worth a whole lot now. I looked online for auctions of similar (and occasionally identical) items and most of them were in the $20-70 range depending on condition though there were a couple of wildly optimistic sellers who clearly had not done a comparable search before listing their asking price. Most things aren’t worth what people want them to be.

But once upon a time this would have been an expensive item for a middle-to-upper-middle class household, the sort of aspirational purchase someone like that would make as a statement of moving up in society.

If I had to guess, I’d say the purchaser was my great-great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran who, toward the end of his life, would occasionally turn up in the Philadelphia papers in the social notes section. He wasn’t the subject of a whole lot of column inches – mostly the odd one-or-two sentence announcement – but that’s more than most people got for their activities. That sort of social prominence began and ended with him, as far as I can tell.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this pen. It’s lovely and I’m not going to sell it because it has that family connection, but I don’t know what I would use a dipping pen for. My handwriting isn’t that great to begin with. Oliver says there are special tools you need to clear out the nib – a razor blade would be too thick – so I can look into that as well. Perhaps I will learn copperplate style.

I keep acquiring small projects.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Happy Father's Day!

We celebrated Father’s Day on Friday because that’s when we could all get together for it.

The joy of having a Movable Feast Tradition for all holidays is that it takes a lot of the stress out of planning. Can’t make the officially designated day? Well, when can you make it? Because the whole point of a holiday is to celebrate it with the people you love, and what is a calendar compared to that?

So Friday it was.

Oliver was back from his visit with Dustin, Lauren came down from Main Campus University, and we had a lovely time together. I ended up making General Tso Chicken, which is a newfound family favorite we stumbled into recently. It takes 90 minutes, isn’t remotely healthy, and uses every dish in the kitchen but it is really, really good and there are never any leftovers.

We watched some of the Stanley Cup Final game afterward while Digestion happened, and we were all glad that Edmonton forced a Game 7.

And then it was time for cards, both of the greeting and playing varieties. There was a rather spirited game of Phase 10, which we decided to play Yahtzee-style as Kim has been lobbying us to do forever, and it was a good time hanging out together. Phase 10 is a wonderful game because it hits that absolute sweet spot for any game – interesting enough to hold your attention but not so much that you can’t talk and eat and drink while you’re doing it. There were chips and dip. For some reason Supertramp’s Breakfast in America has become our go-to card-playing music and we had that in the background. We decided that a) they should go on a reunion tour and call themselves Seniortramp, b) they really should be from Australia instead of England, and c) they should sell stamps because the marketing for them is right there. Band members, take note.

I got some lovely gifts and I am grateful for all of them, but the best part of the whole thing was simply having all four of us together, hanging out and enjoying our time with each other. Those times get more spread out as people get older, as lives and responsibilities change and take us in different directions, and that is just how the world works these days.

But for an evening we were sitting at a table, sharing a meal and a game and the time we have together, and you can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

News and Updates

1. It’s the first day of summer and already I am looking forward to October when the weather starts to get civilized again. It used to be September, but the corporate types have to keep those third quarter profits rising and the right-wing types think science is a conspiracy so now the planet is burning down and October it is. Soon it will be November.

2. I’m mostly out of my various wrist braces and whatnot. They cut off my nice purple cast after only a week or so – not two days after Lauren and her friends signed it, sadly enough – and gave me a heavy-duty splint that I could take off to shower. I kept it for two weeks, and then last week they gave me a light one and told me to start taking it off “as tolerated.” They also gave me PT exercises to be done “as tolerated” as well, which is a great thing because it fits so neatly with my overall philosophy of life: “No pain, no pain.” So I do my PT exercises and mostly go without the splint except to drive (which requires more than is comfortable without the brace) and sleep (since I have no idea what I will be doing asleep and would rather not reinjure anything). Progress!

3. The PT person in Madison was impressed that my left (broken) wrist has about as much flexibility as my right one and I wasn’t sure if I should tell her that some of that is because I’ve just never really been that flexible to begin with.

4. One of the joys of having fully adult children is that they recommend good liquor stores. Lauren told me about this place not far from the clinic up in Madison that I should check out if I wanted good wines so I went and sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but this place is the size of an ferry boat terminal. I spent a happy time just wandering the aisles and picking out some interesting looking things. Naturally Kim wanted to go so we went back a few days later when we had to be in Madison for a different purpose and we found a few more things. It was a good time. Also, you know you’re in Wisconsin when the liquor store gives you free samples.

5. I may slowly be turning into That Guy when it comes to wine. A while back some friends came over for dinner and brought a bottle of wine with them – a perfectly lovely wine that I have myself purchased on occasion, though not for a while now – but I have been experimenting with Italian wines for long enough that it just didn’t seem right. I’m not sure this is a good development, but then the half dozen or so bottles we bought at the Giant Liquor Store are probably going to last us well into 2025 so I don’t think it is a terribly pressing budgetary or dietary concern. But it is a strange thought.

6. We were up near the Giant Wine Store for two reasons, the first of which was that we had an appointment with a Finance Guy to try to get a handle on the various accounts that we have scattered all over the Financialsphere. We are reaching that age where we should have a Finance Guy and need to be thinking about that sort of thing, and speaking as someone whose grasp of Finance begins and ends with “try not to spend more than you have” the whole thing just gives me hives. But it has to be done, and it seems to be progressing along the path we want it to progress along. First, rationalization. Then, sorting. Then something something something something retirement something something at some point. Weren’t we in our early 30s not six weeks ago? No? No. Sigh.

7. The other reason was to meet our friends Heidi and Travis for dinner so we could hear all about their recent vacation and get suggestions for when we plan to be in the same place, and it went quite well. It is always good to share meals with friends.

8. On that note, our friend Eli was in Madison this past weekend playing at a jazz festival and Kim and I managed to catch him for coffee on his way back home, which was lovely.

9. I am in the process of reading Red Side Story, Jasper Fforde’s long delayed sequel to Shades of Grey, and once again I am reminded that Fforde’s head must be an interesting place to live. I’m happy that I get to enjoy what comes out of it, though.

10. I’ve spent much of this week on a Family Project that has been much more rewarding than the other projects that I should have been spending much of this week on, and you know? I’m okay with that.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Welcome to the Grand Cathedral

One of the nice things about having Maria visit is that she is a theater person. I spent a significant percentage of my life backstage, and if there is anything a theater person loves it is another theater person with whom to trade stories.

Because there are always stories, especially if both theater people are techies. The audience sees the stuff that happens onstage but the best stories happen behind the scenes and are often invisible to the audience thanks to the strenuous efforts of the tired, stressed, black-clad crew who are the line between total failure and a good story.

It is, admittedly, sometimes a very thin and porous line.

The audience never catches the good stuff, and if you ever look over and see the lighting board operator trying to stifle a laugh or – worse – rapidly paging through the script in search of something that seems deeply concerning to them you will understand that this is a tale the crew is going to be telling for at least the run of the show and possibly the rest of their lives.

Not all of these stories involve mishaps.

Most of them. But not all of them.

Somewhere in our conversations a story that I hadn’t thought about in years resurfaced, one that taught me what theatrical lighting could be and made me understand why people do this sort of thing to themselves, and that is something worth putting down here.

I got started backstage in high school when my buddy Art, sensing that there was little future for either of us on the track team, shanghaied me into the theater and handed me over to the set construction crew, and that’s pretty much where I stayed until I graduated. There are a few stories that I still tell from that time – the fabled Laurie’s House Debacle being my favorite – but when I got to college I switched over to lighting.

Lighting is more intense because unless you’re the designer you don’t really have to do anything until load-in (when everything gets set up) but once that happens that’s pretty much all you do until strike (when everything gets taken down). You’re there for the duration, but then you get to go.

I ended up working on dozens of shows in college to one degree or another, maybe 30 or so all told. Maybe more depending on how you counted – sometimes the full crew experience, sometimes just pitching in for load-in or strike or something in between. I learned to keep an adjustable wrench in my backpack because you never knew who would catch you coming back from class and drag you onto some catwalk to hang and focus lighting instruments. I forgot the wrench was there the first time I tried to fly internationally with that backpack as my carryon but in a pre-9/11 age the security guys let me through anyway. What was I going to do, unbolt the wings?

There was no Theater Department at Penn at the time – you couldn’t major in it except as a text-based concentration within the English Department – so they left the theater to the student groups, of which there were usually anywhere from 6-10 big ones putting on a show each semester plus assorted one-offs. We were largely unsupervised and free to learn from each other and our mistakes. There were maybe a dozen of us who did lighting, and we moved from show to show feeding on cast parties like locusts. Each show took a solid week from load-in to strike (unless there was a second weekend, which was rare) and my record was six in a semester, which it turned out was a) one more than I really could handle, and b) the impetus for the only A+ I ever received for a course in college.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Early on in my college career, one of the groups put on King of Hearts – an “inmates take over the asylum” sort of comedy based on an anti-war film from the 1960s. I didn’t work on the crew for this one – I just saw it and helped with strike.

They put this on in Houston Hall, which was the old student union building. The theater was upstairs on the second floor and had originally been designed as a chapel. It seated about 120 people, as I recall. There was a small thrust stage at one end and a few windows at the back that we’d cover over during shows to keep stray light out, and it had the high peaked ceiling that you’d expect in a chapel.

The lighting designer was a guy named Jess or Jamie or something like that. He was a couple of years ahead of me and I never really got to know him but he was an acknowledged master among us techies. He was a phenomenal lighting designer. He was the best set designer we had. He could do sound. The running joke was that if you threw him onstage he’d probably turn out to be an excellent actor and then one day someone did and he was. Some people are just like that.

You use theatrical lighting to create three things.

First, you create visibility. This is the most basic thing about lighting – it lets you see things. You point the lights where you want people to be able to see what’s happening, and if that’s all you do then at least you’ve got the fundamentals covered. Sometimes you’re lucky to be able to get that far.

Second, you create mood. Somewhere in a science class you took in middle school you probably learned that light comes in colors. Back in the Jurassic period where this story is set we had halogen lamps inside each of the lighting instruments so if you wanted color you had to put gels – thin translucent plastic sheets in various colors – in front of the lens to shade the light how you wanted. These days you just program the LEDs inside the instrument and it does it on its own. LEDs are also a lot less hot than halogens, so win all around. The thing is, though, that color creates mood. The most basic is the difference between cold lighting (blues, whites) and warm lighting (yellows, reds), and you can have a lot of fun playing with that. If you have a long scene, for example, and it starts out warmly lit and then you slowly transition it over to cold lighting, even if nothing else changes the audience will notice – not consciously, perhaps, unless you’ve got lighting techs in the crowd, but the mood will shift.

And third, you create space. Sometimes this is as simple as bringing up light over here and bringing it down over there, so the audience knows that the action has shifted from one part of the stage to another, but sometimes it gets more artistic than that. Just by varying the light you can turn a single space from one thing into another even the light never moves from that location. You can add a light from a new direction, change a color, or just rearrange the levels, and suddenly it’s a different place. Also, there are gobos, which are used to cast shadows. When I was in college these were sheets of high-quality steel that could withstand being an inch away from a 750-watt halogen lamp for an hour at a time without melting, and they had cutouts where the light could get through. The patterns of the shadows could make a bare stage into a forest or a subway or whatever space you wanted it to be.

The set for King of Hearts had a long platform that came off the thrust stage, level with it, that bisected the house all the way to the back. The audience sat facing inward on either side of the platform.

At one point in the play there is a character who is convinced that he is a bishop and the scene called for him to walk down that platform about a quarter of the way and then give a brief sermon.

The lighting designer had taken maybe half a dozen 3” lekos – small lighting instruments with a fairly narrow and intense beam – and put rose window gobos in them, and then pointed them not at the actor but at the outside walls. When the bishop started his sermon those came up and all the other lights except one focused on the bishop himself went dark, and suddenly the entire theater with its peaked ceiling and its rose windowed walls was a cathedral and we, the audience, were not on the outside of the fourth wall but instead were right there in the middle of it all.

It was breathtaking.

I’d never before seen an entire space created so quickly and so immersively out of nothing but light, and forty years and however many shows later, from community theater up to Broadway, I don’t think I have since.

For one brief moment – a three-minute monologue on a grey night in Philadelphia – there was a bishop in a cathedral and we were inside of that world and all it took to make that happen was light.

Theater is an art form where things often go wrong and those are the stories we love to tell because they’re fun. But sometimes in the midst of it all something goes grandly, gloriously right and all you can do is sit there and take it all in.

Monday, June 10, 2024

A Look Toward November

Can we just take a moment and consider the fact that the guy being put forward by one of the only two major political parties we have as their candidate for the highest office in the land is scheduled to have a meeting with his parole officer today?

This is the so-called “party of law and order,” by the way. I suppose it makes sense to have a convicted felon still facing more than four dozen other felony charges in three different jurisdictions – including several that the United States has, in the past, executed people for – as your candidate if you define “law and order” to include “criminals,” but I’m not sure I would do that if it were up to me.

But Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump would like you to know that Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump is deeply offended by this whole thing, or at least those parts of it that he remembers when not falling asleep during his own criminal trial and those parts of it that he can recall through the haze of an increasingly obvious mental decline.

He spent a good few minutes shouting about sharks and electricity yesterday at a campaign stop in 110F/43C temperatures in Nevada, which likely went over well with his cult. But as for the rest of us, I’m not sure the nation would really be in good hands with a guy who thinks this counts as a campaign speech:

"...and it must be because of MIT my relationship to MIT very smart because I say what would happen if the boat sank from its weight and you're in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery and the battery is now under water and there's a shark that's approximately ten yards over there by the way lot of shark attacks lately notice that lot of shark attacks I watched some guys justifying it today WELL THEY WEREN'T REALLY THAT ANGRY THEY BIT OFF THE THE YOUNG LADY'S LEG BECAUSE of the fact that they were they were not hungry but they misunderstood what sushi was these people are great he said there's no problem with sharks they just didn't really understand a young woman's tsswimming (sic) now we really got decimated in other people too a lotta sharks so I said THERE'S A SHARK TEN YARDS AWAY from the boat TEN YARDS over here do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking water goes over the battery the boat is sinking do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted because I will tell you he didn't know the answer he said you know nobody has ever asked me that question I said I think it's a good question I think there's a lot of electric current coming through that water but you know what I'd do if there's a shark or you get electrocuted I'll take electrocution every single time I'M NOT GETTING NEAR THE SHARK so we can end that we can end it for boats we're gonna end it for trucks..."

Yes, that’s an actual transcription of his remarks. Go look it up yourself if you don’t believe me.

This is what happens with a cult, though. The Dear Leader – Convicted Felon though he is – can say whatever he wants and the minions just eat it up and tell you how brilliant he is.

The other thing about cults, though, is that they rarely have a succession plan for when the Dear Leader departs. The simple fact is that Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump is in his late 70s, morbidly obese, incontinent (did you see his minions selling t-shirts that said “Real Men Wear Diapers”? You can’t make this stuff up), and – all snark aside – obviously mentally ill. There is only one direction this goes, and the only question now is how much damage will Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump cause on the way down.

Because it can be a lot.

The election in November will be a one-issue event. Do you care about the survival of the American republic?

Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump wants you to answer no to that.

And that is all you need to know.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

A Very Sociable Week

Have you ever sat down on a Sunday and thought, “This week is going to be a pretty normal sort of week” and then sat down on the following Sunday and thought, “No, no that was not” but in a very pleased sort of way? That was this week. It was nothing like I thought it would be, but it was a lovely week in the end, mostly because it was a week full of good people and you need those kinds of weeks now and then.

Monday I had lunch with Ashley, a former student and now friend, and we had a lovely time catching up on our lives before heading off to our respective errands and appointments.

Wednesday Kim invited some old friends from Home Campus for dinner. Linda, Nancy, and Marty came by and we made pizzas and sat out back and mostly talked of our various travels and the stories those inevitably provide until a gentle rain started and we had to go inside.

And on Thursday, our Swedish friend Maria came over for a couple of days. She’d been bouncing around the midwest for a bit – first to her former exchange host family in Indiana, then to a wedding in Minnesota, then to her sister’s former host family in Wisconsin, and then to us. We found out about this a couple of days in advance and of course you can come and stay with us why would you even worry about that!

Carter brought her here on Thursday night and we had a lovely evening hanging out in the back, grilling out, and catching up on old stories. Carter is Paul’s son. Maria is Mats’ daughter. Kim, Mats, and Paul were friends back in high school in northern Wisconsin in the early 80s and while Kim and Mats have stayed in touch they had both lost track of Paul a long time ago. It is just one of those stories how everyone reconnected a couple of years back when Helena, Maria’s sister, was randomly placed as an exchange student into the high school where Paul and Carter were teachers. It even made the national newsletter for the exchange program.

Kim has been grading AP exams all week, so on Friday Maria and I went to visit Lauren and Aleksia in Madison, where we had a lovely Peruvian lunch (they’ll skip the cilantro if you ask, but they’ll look at you like you’re defective for asking and maybe they’re right but I just don’t like cilantro) and then had ice cream on the terrace of the student union.

Later that night we were discussing a Swedish book I’d read recently on the recommendation of a friend (yes, I read it in translation, don’t be silly) called Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – a truly wonderful book which you should run out and read as soon as possible – and it turned out that not only has Netflix made a miniseries out of it but Maria was one of the extras! Of course we had to find her, and there she was on the far left in her red coat. Win!

After a quick visit to the local farmer’s market yesterday, where we ran into our friend Lois and learned all about what is happening at her barn now that we no longer have chickens there, I took Maria to the airport and off she went back to Sweden.

Some weeks are good weeks, and if there is a pile of grading staring at me right now that I didn’t get to when perhaps I should have, well, that’s just the price you pay for having friends.