Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Confessions of a Non-Lawbreaker

I'm not a felon. Who knew?

In order for me to teach on-line next year, they had to run a criminal background check on me. Because you never know what awfulness I might be able to accomplish communicating by email with people I will never meet or even know what state they live in.

Great googly moogly, folks. If I could pull that off, don't you think I could avoid getting caught in other escapades as well? Not that I have other escapades, but, you know, if I did?

I could be a criminal mastermind, if only I were a criminal. Or a mastermind.

So, given that, I wasn't all that concerned by the digging around in my past. I've led a quiet life. I have on my Legal Permanent Record a grand total of one speeding ticket - ironically enough, achieved at a time when I was actually trying to stay within the speed limit, as opposed to my normal driving practice, but so it goes. It makes up for all the times I was, with malice aforethought, wantonly going 75mph in a 65mph zone. Of course, some of those times I was passed by state troopers in no obvious hurry to do anything else, so you can't always tell what is ticket-worthy and what isn't.

There was also the small recent matter of my yelling a little too loudly at a business that kept calling me at home at all hours (seriously - 5:45am on a Sunday? you'd yell too) but that seems to have blown over without any legal repercussions. We both wanted the same thing in the end - not to have any further contact with each other - and things have worked out swimmingly in that regard.

Of course, there is the matter of all the other folks running around with my name. It is not an uncommon name, really, and if the irate collections agent who called me in 1989 demanding restitution for debts incurred in Texas is anything to go by, it is a name I share with some Class A morons.

Honestly - Texas? Give me a break.

So now I'm cleared for take-off. Look out students, here I come! And slightly faster than posted limits, too - catch me if you can!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Technology 1, Me 0

A friend of mine once defined technology as "that which doesn't quite work."

When it works all the time, he said, it's an appliance. Refrigerators used to be technology. Now they're appliances. Computers, though - definitely technology.

I thought about this a great deal this morning, as I spent nearly two hours on the phone with tech support.

The task itself was fairly simple. I am going to be teaching on-line this coming year. The institution which has hired me to do this is switching over their email system from one where the email is kept on their own servers to one which will be hosted by gmail. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to set up a new account with the gmail system and then get my old email over from the one to the other account.

They even had a handy 31-step program to guide me through the process. I suppose that alone should have been a warning sign. Great googly moogly, folks, you can reform an alcoholic in only 12.

I got about halfway through the process on my own before coming to a crashing halt and resorting to tech support. They're there 24/7, according to the Faculty Candidate Handbook, and we are encouraged to make use of them. I'm sure somewhere in the Tech Support Handbook is a warning to prospective tech people that such advice is in the Faculty Candidate Handbook, and a stern injunction regarding the use of sarcasm during such calls. It's probably written in red.

So I called, and a friendly man named Jason eventually came on to help me through this.

He may still be talking about it with his tech support buddies, drowning their sorrows in Guinness Stout. But there was no sarcasm with me, so I know he was well trained.

We resolved the rest of the 31 steps fairly quickly, but - and here's the part where technology comes into play - it didn't quite work. In theory, I could download my emails to my own computer. In practice, my email program would admit to having received emails, but refused to show them to me.

I found this rather insulting.

So we worked at this for a while, Jason and I. We rebooted. We jiggered and tweaked.

There was a short interlude during this process while I attended to a minor household crisis that first made itself known to me when Tabitha came in with a white washcloth stained bright red. She must have seen the look on my face and hurriedly made it clear that this was paint - that Lauren had decided to move some red acrylic paint from one bottle to another (why? I don't know why. I thought about asking, but could not think of a single answer to that question that would comfort me in any way, and so did not) and had spilled it all over the bathroom sink, but they had cleaned it up now. Fortunately Jason must have kids, as he did not mind me rinsing out the washcloth - eventually returned to "mostly white" - before getting back to the problem.

We continued to fiddle and try alternate solutions.

After a while, the irony of me being a faculty candidate for on-line teaching and having this sort of difficulty became readily apparent, though Jason was kind enough not to make too much of a big deal about it. Hey - the institution only asked me if I was interested in technology. They didn't ask if I was any good at it.

In the end, Jason and I simply ran out of things to try.

It still doesn't quite work.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

We Are What We Are

There was a time when I believed in nature more than nurture, when I thought that the environment in which a person grew up had more influence on them than their genetics or inherent, inborn personalities. That time was before I had children.

Yes, of course environment matters. People respond to what is going on around them. Well, people respond to what they think is going on around them, which may or may not be the same thing, but that is another matter for another day. And yes it is all too possible to bend people this way or that by doing things to them or placing them in this or that situation. But the fundamental basis of a person is not formed this way.

Sumos quod sumos. We are what we are.

The question is, what exactly are we? And here the families disagree.

When I look at my daughters, I see my grandmothers. Tabitha, for example, is the spit and image of my mother's mother. She has the same features, notably the eyes, which were passed down from my mother to me to her. She can, in fact, look spookily like her, viz:

This, folks, is Nana, in a pose I can recall from any number of occasions from my childhood.

On the other hand, Lauren is very much like my dad's mother. She has the same general attitude toward life ("here I come, so deal with it"), and much the same jawline. She even has a liking for grapefruit, a substance which provided Grandmom with a significant percentage of her nutritive needs for many years, along with sardines, coffee, and Benson & Hedges Gold 100s, none of which have we tried on Lauren yet.

Now, Kim's side of the family respectfully disagrees, at least about Lauren. When they look at Lauren, they see ... wait for it ... Kim's grandmother! Odd how that works out.

Kim also likes grapefruit, so perhaps they have a point.

Tabitha, though, is clearly Nana. Even Kim's family - most of whom never met Nana - can find no reasonable alternative. If it weren't for the fact that Nana was still alive when Tabitha was born, we would swear that Tabitha was her reincarnated.

It's those pesky details that get you every time.

But you know, they are not my grandmothers, or Kim's. They are themselves - an amalgamation of genetics, environment, and whimsy in constant motion. They are unique individuals.

[And the crowd chants, "Yes! We are all unique!"]

Neither Tabitha nor Lauren has really changed since they were newborns. They have become more so, in many ways, and along the way they have acquired new and vital life skills like eating, speaking, and rejecting George W. Bush's failed policies and lunatic ideologies, but the real basis of who they are was apparent from the start and has remained.

They are who they are.

There's a blues song in there, somewhere.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Christmas Story

And so our extended Christmas has drawn to an end, and we are all sprawled about the house like so many dried leaves. There are toys all over the living room, a movie playing on the television, and a dense, "explaining-the-sub-prime-mortgage-crisis"-like fog blanketing the entire state.

Ah, the holidays.

We started on Christmas Eve, which has always been the major holiday on my side of the family. Christmas Day was a casual day, where friends and family would come over to visit and graze. Christmas Eve, though - now that was the Big One. We would gather up our presents and make the arduous 4-mile trek (uphill! against the wind!) through suburbia to my grandparents' house. Us kids would all immediately head down to the basement for air hockey, while the grownups did whatever grown-ups did in the 1970s. Possibly drugs. Although pasta was the drug of choice for us, which shows how cutting edge we were. There would be seven kinds of fish for dinner - an odd number, for luck - and after church we would open presents.

A lot has changed since then. We've all moved up a generation now, for one thing. And we've cut back on the meal. It's still seafood, but as my dad likes to say, "You know, one is an odd number."

This year was a Wisconsin year and we normally go up to Kim's family for Christmas Day, so it was just the four of us for Christmas Eve. We puttered around getting ready, and - there being nowhere to go, so the demarcation between "preparations" and "celebrations" was rather blurry - settled in for the holiday.

We actually made it to church this year. It had been so long since we'd done that that they had removed us from the church directory. Oops. Maybe we should go more often, I suppose.

Christmas Eve services are always somewhat risky, though, because of the possibility of Choir Director's Disease. People like us, who don't go to services very often, look forward to the traditional songs with their traditional melodies. We know them. They're comforting. They make us feel like we're part of the routine. But choir directors live with this stuff all year 'round. They're BORED with it. They want something new, something exciting, something different. Or at the very least, they want to sing "Away In A Manger" and "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" with the alternate tunes that nobody knows but them, so the rest of us end up just standing there not singing, feeling vaguely stupid and waiting for something recognizable to come along. Choir Director's Disease is not limited to this situation - corporate management is particularly susceptible to this kind of boredom-inspired change-for-the-sake-of-change as well - but it does make the holidays feel just a bit out of kilter when it happens.

Fortunately, no outbreak was reported at our church, and everyone was happy to see us lost sheep. A good time was had.

We then went home and had dinner: three kinds of seafood (three is an odd number too). And then it was presents time!

We've been opening presents by speakerphone with my family out east for the past few Wisconsin Christmases, but this year we had Skype! So we could open them by videophone! We could actually see what was being opened! Truly, this is an age of miracles.

There was much pandemonium and largesse. It was wonderful.

And then there was dessert, which just made the whole day that much better. Kim made rice pudding, and I'm hoping this becomes a tradition.

Getting to sleep that night was not nearly as difficult as you would think. The girls are confident enough not to be all that worried about the morning, and by the time we managed to get upstairs it was late enough that they were ready to keel over anyway. As were we. They set out water and cookies for Santa, and oats and carrots for the reindeer, and we all went to bed.

The next morning, Kim and I were up long before they were. There was no 4am rush into the bedroom - not this year, not ever. It's nice that way. And Santa did in fact come bearing gifts, which made it even nicer.

Since Christmas with Kim's family had been rescheduled to the 26th due to work schedule considerations, that afternoon we all piled over to visit our friends Dan, Theresa and Grace. There was much good food, good drink and good company as the girls headed off to do their thing while the grownups did theirs. There was pasta, the family drug of choice, so that tradition continued too.

There was also a Wii.

I'd never tried a Wii before, but there is a first time for almost everything except sushi. It turned out to be educational, and I learned a few things. I learned that steering a rabbit with your butt is not as easy as it sounds. I learned that bowling on a computer is even nerdier than bowling in person, and I speak as both a two-time captain of my high-school bowling team and an academic historian so I feel fully qualified to make that kind of judgment. I learned that virtual boxing with one's wife is just an open invitation to trouble. I learned that you should never play these games with small children, as they will clean your clock. I learned that virtual reality is now so sophisticated that you can replicate precisely the kinds of injuries you would have gotten had you been doing this in real life. I learned that the Wii is fun, but that there isn't enough whiskey in the barrel to make me want to buy one of them. I learned that this is a battle I will lose.

Yesterday, we drove up to Kim's parents' for the third day of our Christmas. As usual, it was a festival of good people and extensive quantities of good food, though not the full-court-press Ukrainian dinner that we normally have for Wisconsin Christmas. We did that when Uncle Geoff visited in October, and the recovery time required for such a spread prohibits having another that close.

Both sides of the family have been scaling down the gifts the last few years, even prior to the current economic meltdown. We've all reached a point in our lives where if we want something we can go get it, so we reserve most of the gift-giving for the kids. But you have to have something, after all, and so we play The Game.

The Game has no name, but it does have rules. You bring one nice thing and one goofy thing, which combined can cost no more than about $30. You set them up in six piles, and everyone takes turns rolling a die, choosing a present from the appropriate pile and unwrapping it. When everyone has two presents, a timer is set up and people roll a pair of dice. Doubles, and you get to swap what you have for what someone else has, until time is up. In Philadelphia, we play this with my generation of cousins. In Wisconsin, everyone except the kids plays.

There is nothing to promote the Christmas spirit of peace, love and fellowship like taking someone's nice fleece blanket and leaving them with an 18" cookie jar in the shape of a pig wearing an apron emblazoned with the words, "Kitchen Diva." Oh yeah - feel the love flow like eggnog down your chest and into your underwear.

I ended up with a metal bowl on cat feet, complete with bobbling head and tail, and also a television remote roughly the size of the actual television.

We had planned to go home, but instead stayed the night because of the fog. When 45-degree weather and an inch of rain intrude on 18 inches of ground-cover snow, things get ugly fast, and we had no pressing place to be this morning anyway. The girls got to sleep downstairs bundled up on the big couch and ottoman, while Cousin Kegan got the regular couch. It was an adventure.

As was driving home.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Preparations

I'm not really ready for Christmas.

This is not for lack of trying. We here at the homestead have been preparing for Christmas with feverish intensity.

The tree is up and decorated now, and looks rather rakish with its bohemian clutter and its slightly off-kilter appearance. I keep expecting it to break out into song - a Sinatra-like rendition of Oh, Tannenbaum would be entirely too appropriate. If it starts associating with shady characters, though, out it goes.

We have filled the house with baked goods. Two batches of pizzelles have risen to great imperial heights and collapsed into nothingness. Bars, oat cookies, and other sweet things have followed in their wake, and similarly vanished. We are the British Empire of cookies. There's a chocolate-frosted banana cake waiting in the kitchen, and pretty soon it will be joined by Aunt Linda's Triple-Chocolate Cheesecake Of Death, a concoction that single-handedly got me though graduate school.

And the gingerbread! Don't even get me started on the gingerbread. Well, actually, go ahead - it's tasty, attractive, and makes a fine building material.

Kim got the girls going with this year's gingerbread house - a cozy duplex of hardened sugar, with dual chimneys, walkways paved with melted sugar, and artistic decorations in many colors.

With the left-over gingerbread, the girls made cookies and spent last night decorating them with yet more frosting and assorted other small, mostly sugary items.

I even put up our Christmas lights. Not outside this year - between the sub-zero temperatures and the constant onslaught of snowstorms (currently 14" on the ground, and more scheduled for tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow night), that was just not going to happen. So our living room is ringed with pleasant blue lights.

I've always loved blue lights. They're peaceful.

But every year, Christmas just seems to arrive faster and with less warning - the baking, the lights, the music, and all that notwithstanding - than the year before. And then it's gone, and I've been sideswiped by another year.

Must be that "getting old" thing.

Ready or not, though, here it comes. The girls really look forward to it and are terribly excited by it all, and I'll just borrow me some of that, I think. They've got it to spare.

It's All Chemistry to Me

I spent the morning grading chemistry exams.

There is a real irony to this, even beyond the fact that I am a historian. It's not that the grading was all that difficult - Kim took all the parts that required actual thought and/or knowledge of chemistry, leaving me the matching and multiple choice sections. A trained monkey could do that. Even a historian could do that. And so it was done.

Now where's my banana?

No, the irony of this - indeed, the broader irony of the fact that I married a chemist in the first place - is that chemistry was never my strong suit in school. It wasn't that I was especially bad at it. I recall passing my last chemistry class, way back when during the depths of the Reagan years. It was more a matter of attitude.

And worse, that my lab partner shared this attitude.

Gerald and I were ideal lab partners in that we both enjoyed messing around with the chemicals but neither of us really cared about the little things, like accurate measurements or the academic approval that might come from such things. "Does this look like a gram to you?" was generally how we resolved questions like that. This might be why, among other egregious lab errors, our molecular formula for sulfur was off by a factor of two.

Kim just shakes her head when I tell her this.

On the other hand, we didn't blow anything up or force widespread evacuations, so that has to count for something. We did burn through a prodigious amount of copper-II-sulfate, which makes a gorgeous royal blue, kelly green and silver-white flame, but you just have to make allowances for that sort of thing, really.

Kim says I'm her irony, since she never took a history class. We're quite the post-modern couple that way.

It's part of our chemistry.

Songs and Seasons

I think there should be a limit to emotional blackmail during the holidays.

No, this does not reference anyone in my family. It is instead aimed at songwriters.

Specifically, purveyors of the kind of musical drivel that seeks "deeper meanings" during the holiday season and is not above the shameless exploitation of poor children, dying mothers, runaway dogs, unemployed dads, or poor children with dying mothers and unemployed dads whose dogs have run away.

In 4/4 time.

This sort of thing comes from the same poisoned cultural well that serves up Heartwarming Email Chain Letters, Hallmark Channel movies, and those drawings and figurines of children with bizarrely enlarged eyes that are supposed to make them look cute and vulnerable but instead make them look like aliens who are going to eat your pets. Maybe the dog didn't run away after all.

The radio station that Kim has tuned all of our radios to goes "all Christmas, all the time" beginning Thanksgiving morning. Sometimes this is kind of nice - when else do you hear "Linus and Lucy" on the radio? But sometimes it just makes you want to call Ghost Busters on the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present & Future, LLC.

We seem to be timing our alarm clocks just right these days, and for several mornings recently we greeted the day by listening to a country singer buy shoes for a poor child with a dying mother (no dog, as near as I can tell - perhaps it ran away or was eaten), an act which miraculously teaches said country singer (and by extension us) the True Meaning of Christmas. Which seems to be about shoes.

Now, I get it. I really do. Being a selfish jerk is not good, and being one at a time when one is supposed to be looking beyond oneself is even worse. There are other people and other causes in the world besides us, and we ought to pay attention to them and be willing to sacrifice a bit for them.

Frankly, we ought to do that as a matter of course, and not wait until Christmas, but that's another issue.

But great googly moogly, people - must that lesson be beaten in with a shovel? Can't we all just get a new song?

Or an old one?

My favorite Christmas song is unabashedly sentimental. "I'll be home for Christmas," it says, "if only in my dreams."

That's not so bad, is it? Nobody had to die. Nobody was saved with a credit card. There is no attempt to derive deep meaning or significance from the situation. You can add some if you want, but that's not what the song is about. It's just a slow, sad song about wanting to be with the people you love.

And if you happen to sing it all by yourself in an empty, concrete building as you're closing it down for the day, a building that echoes pleasingly, well, it sounds really good. And it makes you want to go home, to be with those you love.

I don't know if that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown, but it works for me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Music Box Dancer

Upstairs in the girls' room is an old music box. It's round and sloped in, like the bottom eighth of a bell. It has three wooden feet that somehow manage to defy the mathematical axiom that three points define a plane, and it therefore wobbles somewhat. It's mostly steel, somewhat grey and pitted with age now, with a similarly pitted and aged brass lid that has an enameled shield on it with a pink rose. The lid sits on a tiny little bit of wire that sticks up from the rim underneath, and when you lift it, it plays its tune. On the bottom is a little handle that you use to wind it up, which you have to do fairly often as it only plays for about a minute before slowing down and fading out

It used to belong to my grandparents. It sat in their bedroom, on their bureau, where I would play with it as a kid.

I've never been the most sociable person, and even surrounded by people I love I often find myself drifting off into unoccupied rooms for a while, just for a break. So the music box and I got to know each other, because really - what else was there in that room for a small boy to do?

The music box came to me when my grandparents passed away, when Tabitha was just a baby. I kept it in our bedroom, and when she was a little older I would bring it out and wind it up so we could all hear it plink out its song. Tabby liked it, so we kept at it.

When Tabitha was about two, she decided that the song needed words. This was a problem, since I have no idea what this song really is and no way to find any actual words it might have. On the wooden bottom, printed in black, it says "Everbrite A.M." which is marvelously uninformative. You really have to appreciate the artistry of a label that says so little while claiming to provide useful data. This is not easy to do.

So I made up words.

Unfortunately, it was early in the morning when I did this - not my best time even under ideal circumstances, and less so on the kind of short sleep that parents of small children tend to have. This is why all of us now sing, "Go to the bathroom! Sit down on the toilet! Do your business quickly! Someone's waiting in the hall!" whenever we lift the lid.

Pun intended.

This makes it rather difficult to get very melancholy and misty with memories when playing the music box, it really does.

I think it's better that way.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

This Week In Sledding

The great outdoors do not figure into my definition of an ideal day in any meaningful way.

Oh, sure, they make a pleasant backdrop in the window when I am comfortably ensconced in my chair, book in one hand and mug of tea in the other. And, of course, they are what one has to travel through to get from one such indoor place of books and tea to another. But beyond that, I tend to leave them to others.

This is not possible with kids, though. Especially when it is sledding season.

The girls love sledding and it's an infections sort of love, strong enough to carry me along at least for a while. We have a pair of dual-function rafts/sleds that we keep inflated in the garage for occasions such as these, and yesterday there was an interval of relative warmth before the bottom fell out of the thermometer last night.

So sledding it was.

Of course, our old sledding hill is no longer viable, what with there being a new building sitting on it these days. Stupid hospital. Fortunately, the girls remembered going to a park with their Montessori school last year, so an alternative hill did exist. It did give us a bit of pause, though, that what they remembered most about it was an injury rate among sledders that rivaled that of professional rugby players.

And we found out why. Great googly moogly, what a hill.

This hill went straight down. It was covered with ice. It had random moguls and valleys. It had tracks that funneled you directly into said moguls and valleys. It had piles of snow at the end. It had squadrons of children sledding down it with reckless abandon. It was the perfect sledding hill.

I grew up in the '70s. We didn't have the internet then. Philadelphia only got cable television, what, last week? There were some political wrangles, what can I say. There was no ESPN, at any rate. So I got my baseball round-up from a Saturday afternoon TV program called This Week In Baseball, which would show clips of the week's games. The true high point of the show - what we 10-year-old-boys most looked forward to - was the inevitable montage of outfielders running into walls, baserunners colliding with fielders, and, of course, infielders getting surprised by ground balls that bounced just a little higher than they were expecting. "Oooh!" came the voice-over from host Mel Allen, "that's GOTTA hurt!"

This was Mel Allen's hill.

We joined in the reckless abandon festivities with, well, reckless abandon. We abandoned. Recklessly. It was cold, wet, and painful. But surprisingly fun, especially with the prospect of cocoa at its conclusion.

It was simply impossible to come to a graceful stop at the end, and eventually we gave up trying and simply planned on being a snow-covered tangle of limbs whenever we would come to a skidding halt. This assumed that we actually made it to the end through the moguls and valleys, a dicey proposition at best. They were bouncy. They were boomy. Lauren did a full flip in the air and came down on her nose. Tabitha was covered in snow and ice. Kim's shoulder still hurts. My socks fell apart due to the freeze/thaw cycle. But a grand time was had by all, and the cocoa was good.

Ah, the joys of the great outdoors.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Combat Fruit of War

There are things on television that just take your breath away with their sweet, sweet, train-wreck awfulness. One of these is the whole Iron Chef galaxy on the Food Network.

Now, first of all we must leave aside considering the entire notion of a channel devoted solely to the preparation and consumption of food, as that is an entire blog of its own. There are very few human activities these days that do not have their own television channel, and at least with food there is always the chance that they could be making something you like and you could learn how to make it. Or you could go to whoever makes it and get them to feed it to you.

I can respect that.

But the idea of making cooking into a head-to-head contest - now that's just bizarre on the face of it. And when you take this cooking contest and saturate it with a level of self-absorbed camp so deep that you can't tell if they are doing it intentionally or whether that distinction even matters, a level that William Shatner hasn't even conceived of, let alone achieved - then you get The Iron Chef.

This started out as a Japanese show, with a tricked out set known officially as "Kitchen Stadium" and an emcee who looked like an Asian vampire (complete with cape) and was prone to taking overly dramatic bites out of defenseless fruit - pears, I believe. In its full, dubbed-over glory, this was a show that could make hardened contract killers weep with helpless laughter.

And then they came out with an American version whose sole function is to demonstrate that having the participants speak in their native tongues does not make a bit of difference. Camp is as camp does.

Naturally, we love this show in our house.

They've been on a holiday theme of late, and who hasn't? Last night's episode was entitled "Battle Cranberry," which sent visions through my head of large armored cranberries rolling through prostrate, burning towns in their quest to defeat the Stuffing Of Doom. From there it was all downhill, sobriety-wise. Battle Cranberry was an exercise in supreme silliness - from the celebrity chefs struggling to put cranberries into everything (including ravioli), to the judges (all of whom needed to be swatted on the back of their heads while being shouted at: "Don't confirm my stereotypes!") to the final judgment delivered in the apocalyptic tones of a war-crimes tribunal - and we loved every minute of it.

No, I don't remember who won. We all did, I suppose.

Is It Winter Yet?

The girls are on their second snow day home from school this month, and it's not even officially winter yet.

There is about a foot of snow that is no longer in my driveway, thanks to the trusty snowblower and a tank and a half of gas (usually I can get three storms out of a tank), and the girls are out in the back making a snow fort with one of the neighbors. Me, I'm inhaling tea and attempting to thaw out the bits that stick out. No, no, mostly just my nose and fingers. Thanks for worrying, though.

We need a new definition of "official" for winter. I know the solstice is a couple of days away - that we still have two days of dwindling daylight before the night hits its longest point and then the whole thing slips into reverse. But daylight alone does not a season make.

Summer really begins on Memorial Day, and lasts until Labor Day, solstice notwithstanding. Autumn runs from the first day of school to Thanksgiving. Spring goes from Easter to Memorial Day, unless you are in Wisconsin, in which case it is often a Tuesday in late May. Winter runs from Christmas or the first shovelable snow (whichever comes first) through Spring Break, which may or may not coincide with Easter.

There are gaps there - days and weeks that really don't belong to any season and can be shifted back and forth at need. Early December, for example, can be either autumn or winter. Late March sometimes feels like spring, though not often. Summer can run well into October.

And let us not forget Construction, a general-purpose season in Wisconsin that functions something like an overlay area code and can happen instead of, in addition to, or parallel with any other season. We have ten-digit weather here.

On the other hand, some parts of the year belong to specific seasons no matter what. Even if it snows on Memorial Day, for example, it is still summer. It's just a weird summer, one that old men will remember when they try to out-hardship each other on the front porch someday. "Remember that summer?" they will say, and the whiskey will flow like water as their eyes mist over with memories of hardship survived, for that is what whiskey is for, is what.

But it is definitely winter now.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Voluntary Day

I have been the uber-volunteer today, giving of myself to worthwhile institutions, mainly because it seemed like fun and I had nothing more earth-shattering to do. I suspect a lot of things that happen in the world - adventures, foreign policy, investment banking, and so on - happen for more or less the same reasons.

This may or may not be comforting.

I spent much of the morning at Not Bad President Elementary School, making popcorn. There were four of us, and a large machine very much like the ones you see at the movie theater only bigger because we were right next to it instead of in a line thirty people deep five minutes before show time. I was in charge of pouring the popcorn into the machine, which involved a fair amount of Cutting Plastic Bags, not a little of Contorting Myself So As To Pour Things Into The Bin, and rather more of Covering Myself With Melting Coconut Oil than I had planned on when I woke up this morning. Someone else shoveled the finished popcorn into bags, yet someone else sealed and labeled the bags, and the final someone tallied the money.

It was Popcorn Day!

And not surprisingly when I picked up the girls this afternoon, they were toting bags of popcorn made by Dear Old Dad. I am The Provider. Hear me roar.

When the second shift of Popcorn Makers arrived, I scurried over to the local YWCA, where I am a volunteer archivist. They have all sorts of neat stuff, hidden away in boxes waiting for some nerd to come along and try to make sense of it all, and I am just that nerd. There are photos, news clippings, board minutes, letters, and all sorts of stuff. It is a playground for folks like me.

It is also in need of archival supplies, so if you know of any establishment that would like to donate same, please let me know.

I spent a happy couple of hours cataloguing photographs and generally making the place smell like popcorn. Such is not a bad definition of a good day, really.

And when Santa stopped by for a visit, well, there you go. Admittedly he was there for the kids in the day care room, but still. Never look a jolly old elf carrying gifts in the mouth, I say.

This evening, it was my turn to take Lauren over to her Daisy troop meeting, as it was on Tuesday to take Tabitha to her Brownie troop meeting. We are fully-scouted, and ready for action. I am not really a volunteer here, other than to provide transportation to and from, but that is enough in a week where I had to fight through a 5-inch snowstorm to drive Tabitha and then dodge an incoming 6-10 inch storm tonight.

Wisconsin: if you can see the roads, something is wrong.

Lauren loves her Daisy troop, and was eager to show me its full glories. Yesterday, in an effort to get me to come, she breathlessly told me that "there are so many girls in my troop that we have TWO girls named Brooke."

Now, a two on the Brooke Scale is something I had to see.

And indeed, it was impressive, in a thank-you-God-I'm-not-the-leader sort of way. There were about two dozen small, blue-vest/tunic-clad girls, most of them blonde as we live in the midwest, and all of them emitting a field of happy conversation dense enough to warp your glasses while at the same time moving in a swirl of constant motion. Scientists looking at electron clouds see this sort of thing, only without the verbiage.

Lauren had a grand time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Get Me Down to the Lodge

What exactly do they do, down at the Moose Lodge?

Every morning on the way to school, the girls and I drive by our local Moose Lodge. Lauren and I find this particularly amusing, in a way that Tabitha just does not understand. We call and respond and laugh and giggle.






And we do this from the time we spot the lodge across the big open field that used to have the RV-sized McCain/Palin billboard planted in it (which started out proud, grew steadily more forlorn, and has since been removed) right until the time that we lose sight of it going over the bridge high above the river.

"Will you stop that!" Tabitha says. "It's annoying."


Moose! Moose! Moose!


("Moose" is a funny word to say, much like "ferret," "knick-knack," or one of my all-time favorites, "snit.")



"Okay, two more mooses!"

Moose! Moose!

Moose! Moose!

"That's it!"


And by then we're practically at school, and it is time to think about Other, More Serious Things, such as how we're going to do the drop-off this morning without getting run over by the Psycho-NASCAR-gun-runner parents competing to do their drop-offs. These parents will run you down as soon as look at you on their way in, but never seem in any hurry to shove off once they're done. They should be inducted into the army and posted to Greenland, and their SUV's ground into a fine powder and sprinkled over the highways during snowstorms. This may sound drastic, but I'm okay with that, really. We've been having a lot of snowstorms lately.

But the thing is, you see, that the Moose Lodge parking lot is always full. Always! No matter what time of day, no matter what day or month, there are always cars there.

For a while we were convinced that it was a haven for illegal drugs, which would also explain the name. This does not seem to be the case, however, so alternative explanations must be sought.

But what?

I do hope whatever they are doing does not result in their being run out of town. What would we do in the mornings then?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Driving Across Middle Earth

Tabitha and I continue to work our way through The Lord of the Rings.

We've left most of the characters frozen in place somewhere in western Rohan and are now journeying with Frodo, Sam and Gollum through Ithilien. Faramir has appeared to complicate things, and eventually we will end up taking the scenic route into Mordor, where the shadows lie.

Every time I read this book, I notice something different. It has been a while since the last time, and in the intervening years I have grown more and more acclimated to the midwest, where "just down the road" does not mean what it means in the Northeast. Where I grew up, "just down the road" meant that you could see it from where you stood, or at least you could if the buildings across the street should mysteriously burst into flame and fall into their own basements, as sometimes happened in Philadelphia. Here in Wisconsin, though, "just down the road" can be anything up to a half-hour drive and encompass significant chunks of neighboring counties.

It's a matter of scale.

The Lord of the Rings was clearly written by someone who spent the bulk of his adult life on an island where nothing was all that far from anything else - at least not by midwestern standards.

From Hobbiton, where the story begins, to Mordor, where it arrives at its furthest point, is a distance of about a thousand miles. It takes these characters over 1200 pages to walk that distance, and something like a year in their own time. It's a very long way to them.

But a thousand miles is not all that much more than the distance from Madison to Philadelphia, a distance we routinely drive - with children - in two days and which, on a singularly memorable occasion, I covered in one.

The stage of the story we're at now takes several chapters' worth of journeying to cover about thirty leagues. For those of you not up on your Archaick Unitse yf Diss-tance, that's more or less ninety miles, depending on one's definition of "league" and "mile" - or roughly my one-way commute last year.

We have lost the sense of distance that informed Tolkien's world. In Middle-earth, everything is both closer together and, for all practical purposes, further apart than it is in the middle west, and this can be difficult to get across. As I read this to Tabitha (she could read it herself by now, but that would miss the whole point of the shared experience), I try to put things in terms she can understand - measurements; centuries; the fine gradations of rank, honors and office that show up in just the oddest places throughout the story; all of these need some explanation, some grounding in the reality she can see around her. Tabby takes it all in stride most of the time, but the distances sometimes throw her because she can move that far so much faster than the characters can.

The past is a different country, even the made-up past. They do things differently there.

Updates and Notices

  1. The window project is nearly completed now. Early last week, in the gap between snowstorms, Adam and I put in the last of the double-hungs. Yes, yes, it was a festival of double-entendres, why do you ask? But now all that remains is the picture window in the front - twenty-five square feet of two-pane, argon-filled plate glass that might just wait until spring given the early and active winter we seem to be having. Getting to that window through the snow and shrubbery is not something I care to contemplate, though if it warms up for a couple of days perhaps we'll go finish off the job.
  2. Our Christmas tree is now up in the living room, with two new strands of LED lights and more decorations per square foot than is generally recommended. It leans rather to the left, but then so do we so that is all right I think. The girls had a wonderful time putting ornaments on every branch, a process which used up nearly two-thirds of the available ornaments. I did not have a wonderful time putting the lights on, but then I never do. This tree has needles made of razor-sharp Damascus steel and a temper to match. Just you wait, tree - you'll be mulch soon enough.
  3. If all goes well I may soon be underemployed instead of unemployed. In fact, if it goes swimmingly well, I may have upwards of half a dozen jobs, which combined will pay me almost half my salary from last year. Hey - income is income in this economic climate, and I'll be grateful for it all.
  4. It is ditch-digger weather out there right now - if we saw double-digit Fahrenheit temperatures today I'd be shocked. It's too early for this kind of cold. In fact, as I get older, I find that this kind of cold can be postponed almost indefinitely without any complaint from me. Of course, given the choice I'd rather have this than absurd heat waves. You can always add clothing; there is only so much they let you take off.
  5. I am in the middle of The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, and enjoying it immensely. The plot, such as it is so far, is interesting, and he plays with the language like Robert Rankin or Tim Robbins. If you can get through the first two paragraphs, the rest is easy.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Right Revd. Dave, at your service

I have been an ordained minister for a year now.

I am not really sure what possessed me to sign up with the Church of the Latter Day Dude, not having seen The Big Lebowski at that point in my life. I've seen it since and it is a wonderful movie, though why anyone thought to devote a religion to it - even one as obviously tongue-in-cheek as this one - escapes me.

It could have been the ease of ordination - filling out a form on-line and then taking the time to print it off. The whole process took less than two minutes, and I ended up framing my certificate and propping it up on one of my bookshelves for all to see.

It could have been the motto of the Church - "The Dude Abides" - which I find comforting in its peaceful acceptance of whatever life throws at you. As a historian, I know that life can throw an awful lot, that its arm is mighty and tireless, and its reach into the deepest layers of muck for ammunition is infinite. As a Philadelphia sports fan, I know that whatever hits the fan will not be evenly distributed, and occasionally a disproportionate amount of it will find its way to me. But the dude abides, man. The dude abides.

Whatever it was, it wasn't any deep-seated religious crisis on my part. Whenever anyone has the poor manners to ask after my personal beliefs, I usually tell them I'm a charter member of the Universal Church of the Ent, so named from a line in The Lord of the Rings where one character, asked which side he is on in the great conflict that animates that story, replies that he isn't on anyone's side because as far as he can tell nobody is on his. My spiritual journey has taken me to a number of places within the generally Christian orbit, and I'm fairly happy with where I've ended up. I do not feel it necessary to burden others with my specific beliefs or try to codify them into law for the limitation of others, as so many people in this country do these days. They are my beliefs, and mine alone.

The dude abides, man.

The odd part about this is that as far as the State of Wisconsin is concerned, I am in fact entitled to perform weddings and other religious ceremonies, and these would be legally valid.

I know.

I called them up and was just as surprised as you are when they told me that. Don't these people have standards?

As far as I can tell, there is no particular format for a CLDD wedding, and I'm not sure if a specific format would be considered contradictory to the whole "abiding" thing anyway. But it would be interesting to find out.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's Christmas Time in What Passes For The City Around Here

In the spirit of peace, love and Christian fellowship, we went out and killed a tree this afternoon.

Christmas trees are wonderful things. You can decorate them with ornaments ranging from the beautiful to the sentimental, categories which oddly enough don't often have a great deal of overlap. They serve not only as devices for storing presents, but also as room air fresheners and cat toys. And they force you to vacuum when you're done. What's not to like?

We prefer to get real trees, though we can only do that in years when we're not headed east for the holidays. Having a real tree get drier and browner over Christmas vacation while we are away is just a recipe for Four-Bedroom Flambé, so we have an artificial tree for those years. It came with the lights already on, which is its only other advantage over the real thing. These are not inconsiderable advantages, admittedly, but we still prefer the real ones.

But when we're home for the holidays - oh, my, yes. Come to me, my pine-scented sacrificial lamb.

Tree hunting has quite a history in my family, going all the way back to the late 1950s when Grandpop and his buddy George used to go out and chop down their own out on a farm somewhere. By the time Keith and I were growing up, the tree hunt had morphed into a family event. We would drive out to Downingtown, where George and his family lived, and all the menfolk would go out with tools of war and slay us some trees. And not just any trees, mind you - they had to be The Trees, plump and green, with full branches and strong tops for the angels. Mighty trees, often requiring some surgery to get them into the house. Things just look smaller out in the open than they do in your living room.

And then there would be lunch.

Our tree hunt this year was a bit shorter, but no less in the traditional mode.

We drove outside of town to the local tree farm, and spent a few minutes admiring the reindeer that they have penned up there. He's kind of sad these days since his partner died a few years ago, but the visiting children keep him fed to the point of coma so we figure he isn't feeling too much pain.

We then slogged off through the snow in search of The Tree. Now, when I used to do this as a child I remember this search taking upwards of 36 hours. Grandpop was always particular about his trees that way. Our search was far more brief, as befit a day that was windy, cold, and rather grim. With Tabitha and Lauren gamboling from tree to tree and Kim and I following gamely behind, we quickly settled on a nice looking one on the edge of Section C. Tabby and I stood guard over it while Kim and Lauren tracked down the Bright Orange Man With The Saw. With a thunderous roar - or at least as thunderous a roar as a tree only slightly taller than I am can make - down the tree toppled.

We hauled it to the Tree Wrapping Place, where it was bound in cling-twine - a substance only marginally less adhesive than Gorilla Glue - and then it was bungeed to the roof of the car for the short ride home. Fortunately, the ride was at highway speed, so all of the snow and ice in the branches had a chance to blow off and blind the people driving behind us. Hey - we're in Wisconsin. If you can't drive blind through the snow, you shouldn't be here.

It's up in the living room now, after an epic struggle with the cling twine that nearly cost me a coat hanger, my winter jacket, a doorknob and a decent steak knife, the details of which are not credible. The house smells like pine, and tomorrow we decorate. Life is good.

Now, killing a tree was not the only Christmas-themed event for today - no, no, far from it. We also went to see Santa. Whom we did not kill.

At this point in our lives, going to see Santa is an interesting proposition. We're pretty much at the "Yes, Virginia" stage with Tabitha, and Lauren is nothing if not observant about her big sister. She has faith, though, and that's nice to see.

My former employers were holding a Victorian Christmas display, with a friend playing the role of Santa - a role he was born to play, now that the French Resistance has driven the Nazis out of Paris.* So we headed up to the museum to check it out.

It was a festive affair, with all sorts of friends roaming about and food upstairs and down. And off in the corner, there was Tom in a 19th-century sleigh, surrounded by children.

Lauren climbed right up and began talking. She knew very well that this was Tom playing the role of Santa's helper, but she had been looking forward to this moment for months, she had a lot to say, and by gum she was going to say it. Tabitha took a little convincing, but eventually she too climbed aboard and had a pleasant conversation with Tom - one that focused more on the vagaries of third grade than anything that might be construed by outsiders as a standard visit with Santa.

We stayed for a while and then we had to go cruising off to get a few errands done. It was nice to see everyone, and to visit with Santa.

You gotta believe, yes you do.

*Long story.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Narrator No. 1: A Star is Born

This afternoon, an exciting new talent was unleashed upon the thespian world in the Not Bad Elementary School's Kindergarten Winter Sing production of "Bailey the Bear." I refer specifically to Lauren, who had the critical role of Narrator No. 1, introducing us to the titular Bailey and explaining his self-inflicted plight and its resolution in such a way as to make the whole thing actually make some sense.

This was not an easy thing to do, and Kim and I are very proud of the way Lauren stood up there and delivered her lines with aplomb - even managing to backtrack and improvise in such a way as to get all the information out there without cluing in anyone who had not actually read the script that a mistake had occurred. As a veteran of some twenty-five years of theater tech myself, I can honestly say that such backtracking is a mark of skill. Anyone can make mistakes, but not many can cover them up without letting on.

I arrived early enough to get seats, which was no mean feat. The First Grade Winter Sing (also, oddly enough, "Bailey the Bear") was the previous hour, and not only did I have to wade through all the parents from that event, I also had to Moses my way through the Red Sea of incoming Kindergarten parents who all knew, probably from previous experience with previous siblings, just how limited seating is in that auditorium/lunchroom/gym. Kim managed to duck out of her classes long enough to see the play, and arrived just before curtain time.

The play itself was fairly straightforward. Lauren announced that "Once upon a time," (always a sturdy beginning for a tale) "there was a bear named Bailey," at which point Bailey says, "Hi there."

So far, so good.

It seems Bailey was a generous sort, prone to giving away all of his honey and his bedspace to those in need. Eventually, he runs out of both and is shivering, homeless and honeyless, out on the streets of Not Bad President Elementary School.

At this point, the play takes a decidedly midwestern turn. "Let us help you!" chants the chorus of bears in the stands. "No, no, that's all right," says Bailey. "I'm okay."

"No, really, let us help you"

"I'll be fine, I'll just sit here, in the dark. You go ahead and eat and stay warm."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, of course. Don't worry about me, who gave you all that honey and even the bed out of my bedroom. Enjoy yourselves. I'll be fine right here. On my patch of ice. Alone."

And on and on and on. Bailey clearly has some issues with passive aggression, the official Wisconsin state psychosis. But it all works out in the end, as the bears sing an enchanting song about learning to accept help from others, and he gets some of his honey back (his own honey!) and a place to sleep.

Eventually the play ended, and we all went home. Variety will be doing the story next week, but until then, we count ourselves happy to have been there at the beginning.

You did good, kid.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Good, Old-Fashioned Blogging

I succumbed to peer pressure and joined Facebook yesterday.

Apparently I was the last person on earth to do this. Certainly I was the last of my cousins to join. I had no idea we were such a techno-savvy bunch.

So far, so good. I've found and been found by a number of old friends, traded a few comments with people I don't get to see nearly enough, and even with all the floundering around I did trying to understand this social network contraption thingy, still Moscow stands un-nuked. I call that a win.

I have always had a strange relationship with technology.

On the one hand, there is a very good reason why my field of study as a scholar is the eighteenth century. I understand pens, ink and parchment in a way that I just do not understand anything more advanced than gears and pulleys - this despite the fact that for many of my friends in college computer science was the default line of conversation, and I could speak the language fairly well at one time. Until 1990, midway through my first year of graduate school, I did not own or use a computer. I had a manual typewriter that I set up on my coffee table, and that worked fine. When I got the computer, I put it on the coffee table, and it worked just fine too.

On the other hand, I sent my first email in 1986, when it was still the Arpanet instead of the internet. I wasn't all that impressed as I recall, and I didn't send my second email until 1993, but I've been on-line fairly continuously ever since. I was blogging in 1999, before the word existed, and I continued doing that until 2004, when I ran out of time. That blog is still there, so if you have an old link in your browser, it will still work. I taught a class with an on-line component in 2000, and if all goes well I'll be teaching fully on-line next year.

It's a quandary.

I think that a person's ability to absorb new technology comes to an end at some point in their life. My grandparents - intelligent and successful people - never got the hang of cassette tapes or VCRs, for example. Sometimes I think my own ability to absorb it all petered out in the late '90s.

I can handle blogs and email, I like the web and do a fair amount of shopping there, and I now write faster on a keyboard than I do by hand even if I still use outlines for anything of any serious intent. But MP3's? No. I have no iPod, nor any understanding of why anyone would want one. My cell phone, as noted, can do a lot of things I neither want nor am able to make it do. I'm happy if I can get it to make calls. The whole notion of a PDA just puzzles me. And don't even get me started on texting. Why not just write?

But here I am, blogging about being on Facebook. If it weren't for irony, sometimes I'm not sure I'd have any relationship with reality at all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We Be Toys & Stuff

It can be surprisingly hard to spend your money in a recession.

One of Lauren's friends gave her a gift card to Toys R Us at her birthday present, and recently we unearthed it and attempted to use it up. Our first pass-through was mostly successful, in part because Lauren found a few things she wanted and in part because we thought the gift card was only half as valuable as it turned out to be, so we weren't looking for all that much to begin with.

But mad money can only be mollified by spending it, so today we had to go out and spend the rest. This was astonishingly difficult to do.

We wandered up and down the foot-wide cowpaths that pass for aisles in that establishment, looking at but not really being excited by anything on display.

I mean, Bratz? Even children have more taste than that.

Eventually Lauren did find a way to sop up her gift card, being a Good American Consumer, Because Otherwise The Terrorists Win. You know what she got?


Bugs encased in lucite.

Chinese bugs encased in lucite.

And you know, they love these bugs. Lauren graciously allowed Tabitha to play with them as soon as they got home, and they had a grand time with the little Blocks O' Bugs, holding them up, examining them with the little magnifying lens that came with them, labeling them.

On the whole, I'm sneakily proud that Lauren chose those bugs and that she and Tabitha had such a good time with them. I'm glad they spent their evenings with something that might teach them something about the world around them, rather than something that would simply rot their minds and be forgotten.

I'm also really glad that the bugs are safely encased in lucite. Really, I am.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Random Food-Related Items

How exactly does one decide whether bleu cheese has gone bad?

I was looking around for a quick lunch the other day, and I managed to round up a box of crackers and a wedge of bleu cheese that I had used for a recipe a couple of weeks back. But was it still good, or had it gone the way of most dairy products in our fridge, forgotten and weaponized?

It looked like bleu cheese looks, but that was no help. And bleu cheese always smells like something died, even on the day it is made.

In the end, I took the chance. Anything strong enough to colonize my bleu cheese probably would seek me out and kill me in my sleep rather than wait for me to eat it.


I made biscotti today - part of the hibernation/holiday process, no doubt. This is the time of year when the old family recipes come out of the cookbook and provide comfort and warmth against the blowing snow and free-falling temperatures.

They even came out okay, much to my surprise.

We can't do the almond ones, so I made vanilla/anise biscotti. It's a good combination.


You cannot go wrong with a potluck in Wisconsin.

Sunday night was the annual holiday potluck for Kim's (and, intermittently, my) campus. We gathered at a friend's house and feasted on more good food than should be allowed to people of my general age and proportions. Good food and good company, can't ask for much more than that.

The only exception to this rule is during rhubarb season. There is a reason why these potlucks now feature assigned categories of dishes to bring - one event consisting solely of rhubarb and red wine is enough for anyone. Even if you like rhubarb.

Gonna Be A Long Winter

Snow day!

Actually, it's more like an "ice and sleet and blowing, drifting, blinding, horizontal snow and falling temperatures and the county sheriff said that if he sees your sorry carcass on the roads he will personally do things to you with your transmission that not even Wikipedia readers would believe" day.

Naturally, Tria is out.

We figure in a couple of minutes, we'll haul her frozen little body back inside, using her tail as a handle, and plunk her down in front of a heating vent to thaw for the next few hours. It will be a new version of the "Cat-sicle" story that we tell about Grammy and Grandpop's old cat, Max - a boxed set of stories to be brought out on cold nights and followed by copious whiskey for all involved, even small children. Because that's why we love cats, that's why.

This is our fifth storm with measurable snowfall in the last nine days, there's already more than half a foot of accumulated snow on the ground and more coming today, and it's not even officially winter yet. But my tea supply is good, I've got a pile of books to catch up on, and there is nowhere particularly pressing for me to go.


Monday, December 8, 2008

The Future is Now!

The age of the video phone is here.

As an early Christmas present, Grammy and Grandpop gave us a shiny new webcam, one that has a microphone to go along with its video capabilities. It's just the coolest thing. And now that we have downloaded Skype, which offers free, unlimited video phone service to those who have already paid for the webcam and the broadband connection, we are just zooming ahead into the Fantabulous Days Of Tomorrow. It makes you want to run out and get streamlined, stainless steel, Art Deco appliances.

I set up the camera tonight ("INSTRUCTIONS: insert cord into computer") and set about trying to figure out how this all worked. First, I needed someone to call, which meant trying to locate my brother Keith - the original Skype enthusiast in this progression - and his family. This turned out to be harder than I thought, and eventually I just sent him an email, and he called back. I'm not sure how they managed to do it, as I was off getting the girls ready for bed at the time, but Kim and Keith got us up and running on a video call. Then Kim came and got us, and we had a grand family confab up there on the big screen. Coolness.

Now, video phone calls have been the next big thing since I was a kid - the PHONE OF THE FUTURE (dum dum DAH dum)! - and, well, here they are. And you know what?

Video phones make me itch.

I can't help it. There I am, face to face with a camera, knowing that whatever I do is going to be seen by whomever I'm talking to, and all I can think of is how suddenly my nose itches. Clearly there are still a few bugs that need to be worked out with this system, though whether those bugs are with Skype or with me is an interesting question.

Tabitha and Lauren came down from their bedtime rituals to see, and were just fascinated by this whole process. And when Cousin Josh came online, well, the party was complete. Tomorrow we're going to try this with Grammy and Grandpop, and if we can make it work we'll get on a conference call with Keith, Lori and Cousins Josh and Sara.

The future is here, and I'll try not to scratch.

The Latest From the Runway

Lauren is all stripey today.

From the moment she was old enough to know which drawers held which items of clothing in her dresser, Lauren has insisted on choosing her own clothes. This is not something that has ever interested Tabitha, who seems to share my general sense of what clothing is for ("warm in the winter, out of jail in the summer") and who only recently could be cajoled into choosing her own outfits. Lauren, though, has always had other ideas.

As to what those ideas are, well, sometimes it is better not to know the specific line of reasoning that leads to certain outfits. One must sleep at night, after all. But they make her happy, and that is all you can ask. As long as she is dressed appropriately for the weather, I'm okay with it.

Oddly enough, she has a very good sense of color. She can match color schemes better than I can, and many of the outfits she comes up with are really nice. She also has a definite sense of style - she likes layers, for example, favoring button-downs on top of other shirts, and she generally wears pants instead of tights under dresses. Also, some day she will move to a place where she can wear flip-flops and tank-tops year-round, and I will miss her.

But patterns? Sometimes even my fashion-free, Escher-loving eyes water.

It must be interesting to be a kindergarten teacher and look out over your class every morning. I'll bet it isn't hard to figure out which kids chose their own outfits that day.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Pontiacs and the Founding Fathers

So there I was, in the waiting room at the local Omnibus Car Dealership (servicing Buicks, Pontiacs, Volkswagens, Chevrolets, Hyundais, Toyotas, Hudsons, Nash Ramblers, Stanley Steamers and the occasional DeLorean), waiting, as the room suggested I do, for my new passenger-side rear-view mirror to be put on. It was an odd space - spartan chairs and tables, a welter of magazines (some even current), and a coffee and tea table that featured a rather expensive "Winter White Earl Grey" tea - and I was just getting comfortable with my book when an old man sat down next to me and began to talk.

Instantly, it was clear that the book was no defense against this conversation, so I folded it up and joined in.

He was a nice guy, and our talk progressed through the usual subjects, beginning with sports (how 'bout them Packers?), wandering through the weather (mite cold, ain't it?) and from then on to occupations. He was excited about me being a historian, and that's when the conversation took an odd turn into the kind of delusional politics that have become so popular in these Evangelical States of America of late.

It didn't surprise me that he was a Bush supporter. Well, it kind of did, as vocal supporters of the outgoing regime are hard to find these days - Our Fearless Litre has an approval rating only slightly higher than athlete's foot and, in point of fact, considerably lower than that of Richard Nixon the day before he resigned in disgrace. Nixon, for all his faults, could take a hint. But from what my companion had told me about himself, he fit the mold of the Bush voter - white, older, male, rural, evangelical, blue collar, without a college degree. Run through all the demographics that were endlessly dissected in the run up to election day, and this guy fit neatly on one side.

We had a pleasant debate over W's regime and legacy, with neither one of us convincing the other. And then he hit me with this gem: he insisted that the Constitution itself explicitly deferred to the Bible for all problems not immediately addressed in its text, and even for those that were, and no amount of discussion could move him from this point. "Says it right there!" he kept insisting.

No wonder the country's in such sad shape, when nobody - not even the President - bothers to read the Constitution anymore. For crying out loud, it's a short document - four pages of eighteenth-century handwriting that manages to be both cramped and elegant in the way that they did it then, maybe eight pages if you type it out in a large font. It's not all that difficult a read, either - certainly not when compared with The Federalist Papers, the essays Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote to explain what they meant by the Constitution.

It says something about our own times to realize that they wrote those essays for general circulation newspapers, I suppose.

The Founding Fathers were very clear about the separation of Church and State. They knew the history of the Thirty Years' War, when quite literally millions of Europeans had been butchered over different spins on the Prince of Peace. They did not want this to happen here, a country even then far too religiously diverse to expect everyone to support the same church, or even any church. They understood that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. And that neither religion nor politics is improved by this.

And yet millions of Americans today forget this, or actively deny it. It is brutally ironic that by and large the main group of people doing this consider themselves "conservatives," since they clearly have no idea what they are trying to conserve.

The clerk called my name in the middle of that discussion, and the guy and I shook hands and parted amicably. No doubt he thinks I was the deplorable one in that conversation, but so it goes.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Debt and Credit

For a brief moment there, we were credit debt free, and for the second month in a row no less.

That doesn't actually mean that we don't owe anything to the wonderful folks at Visa. It just means that we're not carrying any balances from month to month anymore. See balance; pay balance; feel good. Not a bad system.

Getting to this point seemed like a good idea three years ago, when I started this project, and now that the economy has crashed and burned (newsflash: we're officially in a recession! since last year! will all the conservatives who spent the last twelve months dismissing such talk as just mindless Bush-bashing please shut up now!), it seems like an even better idea. On the one hand, this means fewer gift certificates to Amazon.com, a service our main and now only credit card offered after every so many dollars of transactions. On the other hand, it also means fewer opportunities for large men named Vinnie to come knocking on our door asking for either payment of past bills or small but important body parts.

It's been almost exactly a decade since we were at this point with our credit debt before - an achievement that lasted about a month before the numbers began taking off again for points skyward. But at some point, you look at those numbers on the bills and think, well, this just isn't working. And then you buckle down and make those numbers smaller, bit by bit, until finally they go away.

But no matter what you do, credit debt creeps up again, if for no other reason than the consumer protections that you get when making large purchases that way. This month I paid off my new glasses. Next month the bill will reflect the corrections made to my car after I tried to move a four-bedroom house using only the passenger-side rear-view mirror. Word of advice: do not try that at home. The debt comes back, and trick will be paying it back down when the bill comes in.

So now here we are. Can we keep it up? Should we? Credit ratings depend in part on carrying a balance - they want to know if they can make money off of us, after all. I think we'll try to keep it up as long as we can though.

Nothing against large guys named Vinnie. We like large guys named Vinnie. Down boy. Heel.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Now, why do we have cable again?

The cats were in Full Martian Mode last night.

George Carlin used to argue that the Martians had landed, that they were three feet tall and visible only to cats. This was the only way to explain the fact that cats - normally creatures sedentary enough to qualify as paperweights - would, at random intervals, arch their backs, hiss, and run amok like invading armies through France.

And when you have two cats, well. There you go.

The girls were asleep and Kim and I were getting ready for bed when a thundering herd of cats began roaring through our house. They shot into our bedroom, ricocheted off the walls, bounced off the bed, and then hurtled off into the hallway, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, fur standing on end. Keeping us safe from Martians. "Now's your chance," Kim said.

Now, the other thing you have to know for this story is that Kim and I have had low-grade cruds for the last week or so. Coughing, sore throat, stuffy nose, the whole nine yards of autumn awfulness. So a couple of nights ago we decided to put a humidifier in our room, and it has worked wonders. We sleep much better. We especially sleep better because in order for the humidifier to work, we have to shut the door - to keep those nice humidified vapors inside, where they'll do some good, you see. This in turn keeps the cats - blanket hogs, the both of them - out.

Double win.

So, Kim says to me, "Now's your chance," and I go shut the door. Vapors in; cats out; all is well. We lie there in bed, cooing that soft pillowtalk that old married couples do ("What's the schedule tomorrow?" "Don't forget to take Lauren to her checkup." And so on), and listening to the clattering rampage of little furry feet through the house.

And then - WHAM!

New discovery: our bedroom door resonates at about a G sharp when rammed by a cat. Or cats.

And they hit it, too. The room shook. Dust fell from the ceiling. Seismographers at nearby universities jolted upright. Nobody woke the President, because really what good would that do?

Anyway, so much for the vaunted night vision of felines.

Naturally, Kim and I did what any cat owner would do in such a situation - we laughed until our sides hurt. Eventually I recovered enough to go open the door to see if there were any broken and bleeding bodies out in the hallway, but there were none to be had. And at about that time the thundering herd started up again, downstairs this time.

Cats - nature's standing refutation of the whole notion of the "survival of the fittest."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

She Shoots and Scores!

Since Grammy and Grandpop were unlikely to make the long drive to Wisconsin twice in four weeks, we decided to have a bit of Christmas early and let the girls open the gift that had been hauled across the country for them. Well, kind of. Actually, Grandpop and I opened it and spent the better part of a morning doing all of the hammering, screwdriving, allen-wrenching, cable-running and all-purpose swearing that went with putting it together. But it was worth it.

Now the girls can play air hockey!

And they have, as we rather suspected they would - those lazy afternoons pouring quarters down the hole at the seaside arcade sure do pay off in the end. The lure of the air hockey table has even been sufficient to draw them down into our cold, cold basement, surrounded by the cozy glow of the irony of freezing your extremities off mere feet from the furnace. Whack! Whizz! Boombambamwhirrka-chunk! Gooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaal!

My grandfather bought one of these things for the collective use of his grandchildren sometime back in the depths of the 1970s, and it was some of the best money he ever spent. He set it up in his basement, which was as clean and orderly as you would expect a basement that belonged to a man who used double-entry bookkeeping in his checkbook and no longer shared his living space with small children to be. There was also a dart board, for when we got older, a portrait of John F. Kennedy on the far wall, and team photographs of the Phillies tacked to the cabinet doors under the stairs.

As soon as we hit the house on holidays, all of the cousins would race through the living room and dining room, hang a hard right into the kitchen and an even harder right down the narrow, low-ceilinged stairs to the basement where we would fire up the of air hockey table and settle in. I was the oldest so I had an initial advantage, though my general lack of skills tended to cancel that out. Keith and Chris were closer in age, so they usually wanted to play each other, which meant I ended up playing Paula a lot. Eventually Elizabeth got old enough to play too, though by that time there was usually also a darts game going on at the same time.

Some of those games got fairly intense, with the puck flying across the table and our round paddles zipping to and fro. We experimented with various ways to make the pucks fly faster and with strategies for better shots, neither of which ever really worked. But mostly it was fun time - time for the cousins to hang out and spend time together, since we lived fairly far apart in those pre-internet days. We would play hockey and talk, having a grand time down there until it was time to go up to eat.

Meanwhile, the adults were upstairs, having uninterrupted conversations. It was years before I figured out that this was not an accidental byproduct of the situation.

Eventually the air hockey table fell silent. We all got bigger and moved away. Holidays moved to Grammy and Grandpop's house (and occasionally Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda's house) as Nana and Pop-pop's health deteriorated. Eventually they passed away, and the house had to be sold. By the time my dad cleaned out that basement, there really wasn't any point in trying to salvage the table.

But now, air hockey lives! Now all we have to do is round up some cousins.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rudolph the Red Knows Rain, Dear

We watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer tonight, and it was a vivid reminder of why people took drugs in the '60s.

I always loved Rudolph when I was a kid - the bright flashy light of his nose, the jerky puppetronic action of the figures, the Island of Misfit Toys (an apt metaphor for so many things in this world), and, of course, Yukon Cornelius, the only character in the entire show who seems to be enjoying himself.

I haven't watched it in a while, and with Tabitha and Lauren gearing up for the holidays in a big way, it seemed a good time to revisit this one in its natural habitat: network TV, complete with commercials. They loved it, as kids will. As a grown-up watching it, however, all I can ask is "what were those people smoking, and where can I get some?"

There is no continuity in this show - thing happen, and then some other things happen, and then a few more things happen, and then the credits roll. For example, Rudolph's parents have been missing for months, nobody's figured out where they are, and suddenly the action shifts to the Bumble's lair, which in the blink of an eye becomes as crowded as "Half-Off Day" at the dollar store. Why Bumble chose that particular moment to try to eat the parents (and Clarissa, the damsel in distress) instead of polishing them off straightaway with a nice Chianti and some fava beans, we are never told.

The whole notion of a dentist as a misfit is odd but, having seen and enjoyed Little Shop of Horrors, not too odd. Steve Martin got the better song, though.

The narrator is a snowman in a derby and knitted vest, all the better to keep himself warm. My graduate advisor for my MA looked just like that snowman, which made my MA exam rather difficult to pass since I kept waiting for him to break out into "Silver and Gold." Or melt, one or the other.

And what's with the Bumble? Sometimes he's taller than mountains, other times he fits into elf houses. At least he bounces, which is the best line of the whole show.

There is a definite "bad trip" sort of feeling about the whole thing, really.

It was also odd to see it as a historian, that being what I have become since the last time I watched it - the rigid and oddly conservative gender roles, the idea of Santa as a 1950s Rotarian, the strange prevalence of Brooklyn accents at the North Pole, the college-football-like atmosphere of the Reindeer Games (tm). I am clearly reading way too much into a harmless kid's show, but now I'm hardwired to see it this way. This is why nobody takes historians seriously.

Of course the crowning moment of absurdity came during a commercial which announced that at some point in the near future there would be a broadcast of Frosty the Snowman.

In high-definition.

What moron puts a Rankin-Bass animation product in high-definition? That would be like taking a 20-megapixel photograph of a Pong graphic - you can do it, but all you'd end up with is a mass of exquisitely rendered flaws.

Lawsy, there are still three weeks of this to go. Eggnog, must have eggnog.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it ... Oh for crying out loud make it STOP!

Why is it that whenever there is a good-sized snowstorm, people rush out to the grocery store and buy white food?

Milk. Eggs. Flour. Bread. Sugar. White food. Is it some kind of sympathetic magic - white in the air, white in the grocery cart? Do they plan to spend the time they are snowed in making french toast?

Of course, what constitutes a "good-sized snowstorm" varies from place to place. When I was a kid in Philadelphia, three inches was always the line where we could hope for a snow day. In parts of the south, the mere appearance of flakes is enough to start people babbling in tongues, not that they need much excuse to do that in parts of the south. Here in Wisconsin, we might not even bother shoveling until it gets to about four inches, and "good-sized" seems to start at around eight or ten.

The girls and I have even codified this into a game. "Do the 'snow in Philadelphia' thing again, Dad!" they will chant, and so I do:

"Three inches of snow in Philadelphia!?!?! Oh my! Time to panic! Close the schools! Shut the highways! Call out the Army! Run to the grocery and buy white food!"

"Three inches of snow here? Huh, better get out my broom - not worth shoveling today."

They can listen to that for hours. Why, I don't know, since I'll be the first to admit it isn't all that funny, even with the high-pitched frantic sobby voice that goes with the first part. Perhaps especially with that voice. But they like the repetition, I guess. I know I've certainly gotten tired of the "three-legged chicken" joke that I told one evening over a bucket of KFC. Every time we have chicken, out it comes again.

It's snowing right now, our second three to five inch snowstorm in three days, with more to come in the next week. Apparently we're picking up right where we left off last winter, when it snowed almost every other day from Thanksgiving to Easter - over 100 inches in our little town, breaking the old record by almost 50%. Except one weekend when it rained for two straight days, and since we already had three feet or so of snow built up and lying on the ground, the rainwater had nowhere to go - so it just accumulated until it froze solid when the temperatures returned to normal. That was a fun time, let me tell you.

Like everyone else in this state, we have a snowblower. They're standard equipment in Wisconsin, along with bratwursts, "really cold weather" coats that you can't wear if the temperature is above 10 degrees F, and household appliances in Packers colors. I drag it out and fire it up dutifully, clearing my way out of the drive way so the plow can block me back in. It's a game we play. I'm not sure what we'd do without that little machine, since shoveling our driveway is an all-day project that my back is not really up for anymore. I suppose we would just have to be stuck in our nice warm house, making french toast, while the good people of the world slog off through the cold and snow to work.