Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I Read Banned Books

As it is an ancient truth that freedom cannot be legislated into existence, so it is no less obvious that freedom cannot be censored into existence. And any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is alien to America.
            - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Alien, and yet disturbingly common.

Every year around this time, the American Library Association declares Banned Books Week as a way to commemorate the struggles that go on in this country between those who truly believe in freedom and American values, and those who merely say they do.

I read banned books.

This is not all that surprising to those who know me - I read all sorts of books pretty much all the time, and I cannot be expected to keep track of what is and is not on somebody's petty little list. More importantly, even if I could keep track I do not see why I should have to determine whether some loudmouthed few are offended by a particular book before I start reading it. I am often surprised, in fact, to discover that something I read and thought highly of - or, even more surprising, something I read and didn't think much of one way or the other - has raised so much noise beating on the outside shells of closed minds that their possessors have taken steps to make that book go away.

Those people and the horses they rode in on are hereby cordially invited to amuse themselves with other tasks.

It astonishes me that here in what is constantly and presumably without irony referred to as "the land of the free" there are so many braying jackasses eager to tell me what I can and cannot read. Who are thrilled to limit the ideas that I and my children should see, know and believe. Who feel that they have such a corner on Truth that their version of it should be the only one out there.

But you know, folks, we have in this country something called the Constitution. Those people may have heard of it, but after the last eight years it would not surprise me if they hadn't. Despite the best efforts of the previous administration to portray the Constitution as an anachronistic inconvenience to those in power, though, it does still carry some weight around here, at least with me.

Now, the Constitution is not perfect. But the glory of that document is that those who wrote it understood that fact, and they provided a way to fix it. And the first thing they added to it was the idea that free speech was a worthwhile goal in and of itself, and that the proper duty of a well-constituted society was to protect it, preserve it, and let the ideas fall where they may.

It is disheartening to me, as a historian of that document and that period, to see how little credence many Americans give to what they loudly claim are their own values.

There are people out there who think that their religion gives them the right to tell me what not to read.

Here is a hint: it does not.

There are people out there who think that their being offended by a book gives them the right to tell me not to read it.

Here is a hint: it does not.

There are people out there who believe that they are being more careful than I am with my own children, my own values and my own soul, and that this gives them the right to tell my nation, my state, my town, and my library what it can and cannot allow to be said, purchased, stocked, published or distributed.

Here is a hint: it does not.

But such efforts continue anyway, most often it seems by the very same people who insist that this is "the land of the free." This is why satirists will never lack for material. It is also why they will never make any money at it, since so few people in this country understand the point.

The first time I ever deliberately went out and read a book that was under challenge was in 1989, when I read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It wasn't banned here at the time, but there was such an outcry about it around the world that I felt it had to be interesting to read. Where there's smoke, there must be fire, right? And you know what? It was okay. Not great. Not life-changing. Meh. If the book banners had ignored it, it would have gone away on its own without making much of a mark at all. Since then there have been people in the US who have tried to ban it as well, and I'm sure Mr. Rushdie is laughing all the way to the bank when he is not shaking his head in awe at the utter stupidity and moral bankruptcy of those people.

I have discovered since then that quite an array of books I've read have been banned or have had nitwits attempt to ban them here in the good old US of A. The Great Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1984. Catch-22. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Slaughterhouse Five. Cat's Cradle. Rabbit Run.

And those are just the ones that I have read from the Radcliffe Publishing Course's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. Forty-two of those hundred books  have been challenged or banned in the land of the free at one time or another.  Most of the challenged books don't make that list, though.

Of those, the ones I've read that have made the ALA's Top Ten Most Challenged or Banned lists for the last two decades include the His Dark Materials trilogy. And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Captain Underpants. In the Night Kitchen. The Harry Potter series. Arming America. Go Ask Alice. A Wrinkle In Time. The Stupids. The Handmaid's Tale. James and the Giant Peach. A Light in the Attic. The Dead Zone. And a couple of the Where's Waldo books. All of which the close minded and the fearful have tried to keep out of my hands.

Honestly. Where's Waldo.

I'm not sure if reading those has made me a better person, but I know for sure that it hasn't made me any worse. Plus I'm a lot better educated and more thoughtful because of those books. I, at least, think that's better.

It occurs to me that you could make a pretty good required reading list out of the things that idiots have tried to ban.

This past weekend was a long one. I spent most of Saturday morning watching larval lawyers fight their way through the LSATs, only to come home to discover that a friend had died (obviously not a close one, but still) and that there would be a memorial service at my old museum in ... what was it? ... twenty-eight minutes. I made it to the service - you should always go to such things, even if some traffic laws have to suffer for it. It's respectful. But afterward, I needed a break. Kim suggested that we go out to eat and then head over to the nearby Huge Chain Bookstore for a looting and pillaging expedition.

Sorry, gents. She's mine.

Tabitha and Lauren are now old enough that we can park them in the children's section and go off to look at our own things without worrying about them. We'd go over to check on them from time to time, but mostly they were happy to look around on their own.

I never once worried about the books that they were looking at, despite the fact that several of the ones listed above were plainly visible on the shelves. I never once worried that they would be exposed to some horrible idea - they get exposed to horrible ideas all the time. It's called an education. You look at those ideas, figure out what's so horrible about them, and learn from the experience.

Someday they'll read Huckleberry Finn and they will run into the word "nigger" that runs through that novel, and we will have a discussion about racism and how Mark Twain deliberately made Jim the moral center of that book as a way to show how stupid it was to call people names based on the color of their skins.

Someday they will read one of the many banned books that deal with homosexuality and they will wonder why books about their uncles cause so much fuss. They are too sensible to fall for the apocalyptic hype that comes out of the far right wing of the culture wars, and this gives me hope for the future of this nation.

Someday they will read some or all of the other books that people get all up in arms about. Some of them may offend them, and when that happens I hope they will stop and ask themselves why, and learn from that. Some of them will strike them as hopelessly boring, and I hope they will ask why such things raise such a fuss when they don't seem all that big a deal to them. Some of them will hit a nerve and they will see their imaginations fired up in the way that good books do to their readers.

But the important thing is that they will read those books. They will see those ideas. And they will learn who they are by how they react to them.

I read banned books. I do it for myself. I do it for my children. I do it for my country.

And I don't intend to stop.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Interjections! Show Excitement! And Emotion!

I went and got my flu shot today.

This was quite a concession to the world on my part, I think, given that I really hate shots of any description. For me to do this voluntarily, without being ordered to do so by authority figures in white lab coats, is just not my standard operating procedure.

Then again, Kim owns a white lab coat. And she was the one who insisted that I get this shot. So perhaps this wasn't all that far removed from the normal run of things after all.

The flu is going around, in any event, and based on what I've heard from friends who've had it, I do not wish to get it. One friend simply called in dead to work - "post my position," she said, "I'm never coming back." This is not a flu to mess with. And it isn't even the swine flu, which has yet to make serious inroads around here although I hear cases have been reported. I'm trying not to think too hard about H1N1, since I can still remember the stories my grandfather told me about the Spanish Flu of 1918, which was the last serious H1N1 epidemic. One crisis at a time - that is one of my many mottoes.

It's no fun being sick when you're not in grade school.

The ideal time to be sick is third or fourth grade, preferably with the kind of cold that makes you cozy and warm and contagious but does not actively make you miserable. Then you get to stay home from school and eat toast and soup and wrap yourself up in blankets and watch inane television shows while your parents hover around taking care of you. I remember doing that a few times, way back when. It was great.

If anything, daytime television shows were even more inane then than they are now, too. At least now there is the Discovery Channel, or the possibility of Law and Order reruns, or - be still my beating heart - even old episodes of Northern Exposure. Back then? Wall to wall soap operas and game shows. I got good at The Price Is Right for a while, and in a sneaky sort of way I do miss Match Game. But if it's a choice between that and Dirty Jobs or Mythbusters, well, no time like the present, I say.

I've learned, over the years, not to watch anything having to do with the actual shot. Right around the time they begin rubbing down my arm with alcohol my eyes slam shut and they stay that way until I am absolutely sure that the needle has been removed, discarded, and at least partially biodegraded. I don't mind the pain - really, they don't hurt all that much until long after you get home, when there isn't anything you can do about it anyway except drink tumblers full of whiskey - but the visuals and the anticipation I can do without.

The shot went well, and I was on my way in a few minutes. So far, so good.

But if I get sick anyway, I'm going to be really annoyed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yes, It's One, Two ... Wait, How Many Strikes Again?

The Phillies are trying to kill me.

I've been paying more attention than usual to the Phillies this season. I suppose you could call that being a bandwagon fan, since their winning the World Series last year probably had something to do with that, though in truth I've been a Phillies fan since the Nixon administration and have never really stopped. But it's always easier to pay attention to teams when they're winning, just as it is easier to pay attention to entire sports when teams you like are winning.

Not that the Phillies winning seems natural or even comfortable to me. I know they're close to a playoff spot for this year's World Series run, but in my head I'm still coming up with ways they can lose last year's. As much as I like the idea of my team being the champions, it just doesn't strike me as the sort of thing an orderly universe would produce.

That's why I finally broke down and got a mug.

Things are more real when they're on mugs.

I've even been trying to watch them play now and then, and it's been fun. You forget, after a long absence, how enjoyable a game baseball is - the rhythms, the spikes, the long intervals where nothing much happens. It's a much calmer game than football or hockey.

But I have to stop watching, because every time I turn on the game the Phillies manage to find a new way to lose. They're getting good at it, and this late in the season is not a good time to get good at that. They have a four game lead with five to play - down from an eight game lead not a week ago - and every true Phillies fan knows exactly what's coming.

So I'm trying to ignore them again, in the hopes that this will turn the tide in their favor.

It's a hard thing, being a Phillies fan.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Feets Don't Fail Me Now

It's been two days now, and my feet have finally forgiven me.

On Friday evening I participated in my second "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" event, which is designed as a fundraiser for the local YWCA's domestic violence programs. It was a rather grey day here in Our Little Town, rainy and grim, but the rain cleared off by the time the serious action began as if it knew that it stood little chance against us. We were wearing high heels - we already looked goofy. A little rain and a few umbrellas wouldn't change a thing.

There were about 120 local men who showed up in their heels, including a number of the more influential guys in town - the president of the City Council and at least one other councilmember that I saw, the police chiefs of both Our Little Town and the one just north of us, the City Manager of that northern town, bank presidents, firefighters in uniform, and a good portion of the minor league hockey team that plays here, just to name a few. There was also a contingent of Harley dudes riding about as well, resplendent in their heels, because nothing legitimizes actions around here like the participation of Harley dudes. The local Harley dealership even donated the pavilion space this year.

I was there too. Somebody has to pad out the house a bit.

Just as last year, there was a short introductory ceremony that started off with all of the camp and humor that you would imagine an event featuring nearly a gross of men in high heels - some of them in drag - would entail. And then the police chief got up and reminded us of why we were there: that domestic violence was not just a private problem but a community problem, and that it needed to be Stopped and the perpetrators Killed With Fire. Although I might just have interpolated that last bit.

And so, filled with an odd mixture of righteous wrath against scum-sucking lowlifes and high spirits to match our stylin' heels, we set forth.

Do you have any idea how long a mile is when you're wearing high heels? Particularly if your normal footwear is a pair of black sneakers? Quite long, in case you're wondering.

We cruised up to the highway, cut across the K-Mart parking lot and ambled down the next highway, carrying our signs and displaying our complete lack of fashion sense to an appreciative and generally supportive traffic flow, many of whom honked and waved. They know a good cause when they see one.

We finally staggered back to the pavilion and that rustling sound heard throughout the county was the sound of dozens of men frantically getting their normal shoes back on before diving headfirst into the nearest adult beverage.

A little wine cures a lot of hurt.

Tabitha and Lauren walked with me. Some of that was just because it was fun, but some of it was also because domestic violence is an issue they should be aware of and they should know that people care enough about not tolerating it that we'd march through the streets in ridiculous footwear and wave signs at passing motorists. They're still young enough to look up to me, and I want them to know these things. You take it a bit more personally when you have daughters, I find.

Why do men get up in high heels and march through town?

We march because we, as men, will not put up with domestic violence against our wives, our neighbors, our sisters or our daughters. We march because we, as men, will not stand idly by and watch the innocent get hurt, mostly it must be said by other men. We march because we, as men, declare thus - not in our families; not in our town; not in our land.

My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Where Is That Confounded Teapot?

This month has just felt all wrong. I blame the weather.

We didn't have much of a summer here in Baja Canada. Oh, it got hot a couple of times here and there, but a startling percentage of our photographs since June 1 show people in jackets. Maybe that's fine in places where they're used to it not being summer, like Stockholm or Seattle, but around here that was a bit odd. Wisconsin gets the worst weather in the world. The temperature swing my first year in this state was 142 degrees Fahrenheit from top to bottom, and while we certainly had a fair amount of bottom last winter, there just wasn't a whole lot of top to be had of late.

Now, normally I would like that. I have no real use for hot weather. You can always add clothing, but in these United States there is only so much they let you take off, and even then you are still too hot. So a cool summer is something I look forward to. Something to which I look forward? Whatever.

[Just as an aside, the Microsoft Grammarian What Lives In My Computer is cool with the dangling preposition, but festoons the theoretically correct translation with The Green Wiggly Line Of Disapproval. I'm not a great fan of the MGWLIMC - its default level is set for "Stupid" - but somehow this just tickles me.]

But if the summer is going to be cooler than usual, I think it shows markedly poor taste to have September be hot.

No, no, no.

September is fall. They play football in September. School starts up again. The leaves are supposed to start turning. Teapots are supposed to come out of their long summer storage and once again begin dispensing the nectar of the rather quiet and bookish sorts of gods.

I think the lack of tea has made me grouchy.

It couldn't possibly be anything else. No, just don't go there. Nothing to see there. Move along, that's right. Oh, look! An eagle!

So I'm waiting for the weather to go back to its proper channel so I can have my tea in peace. And I'm sure everyone around me is doing likewise.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Glamour At Home

Lauren has decided that she wants curly hair.

I am not sure why she has made this decision - her hair seems perfectly lovely to me as it is - but apparently she has thought long and hard about it and has made her decision and That, My Friends, Is That.

Bear in mind that she is six. This house is going to be a very interesting place to be in eight or nine years, let me tell you.

You have to hand it to her, though - when she makes a decision like that, she is willing to deal with the consequences of it. And really, what more could a parent ask? It's her hair. As long as she's responsible enough to do what she wants and accept what comes with it, well, there you go.

So she persuaded Kim to get her a set of curlers.

These are not the mil-spec hard plastic combat curlers of yore. No, yer modern curlers, they're made of foam, see, and they come in a pleasing assortment of pastel colors, each color denoting a different size curl. They even have their own clear plastic carrying case, roughly the size of a lunchbox.  And that's progress.

The only down side to them is that Mithra eats foam, so Lauren has had to be fairly careful to keep her curlers locked away in their case lest the cat's litterbox become much more visually interesting.

Most of last week Lauren would dutifully pull out her curlers and get Kim to set them up - get her hair wet, curl the hair around them, lock them into place, and so on. And then she would go to sleep with them, which I thought was quite a commitment to the whole thing. I know that would drive me nuts, anyway.

Even Mithra left her alone, which is more than most nights. You know you're onto something when even the cat respects your space.

But in the mornings Lauren would take out her curlers and there it was - the hair of her dreams.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Stray Thought

Today at the grocery store I found myself walking behind a man who stood at least seven feet tall and was dressed entirely in camouflage, and I thought to myself, "Dude - it's not working."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Call Goes Out Once More

And so it starts again.

Last year I was prevailed upon by forces beyond my control (i.e. Kim) to take part in the local YWCA's annual "Walk a Mile In Her Shoes" event, which - for those of you who missed last year's report and photographs - is a fundraiser designed to help out programs that seek to cut down on or respond to domestic violence.

Why, yes, my PhD is in 18th-century politics and, yes, I had to read a lot of the literature from the day - literature where the sentence-to-page ratio was roughly even. Why do you ask?

This year's event is next Friday, and once again I will be donning a pair of military-spec combat high heels (in stylish black) and careening helplessly through town at a 30-degree angle for a good cause. There will be a crowd of other men similarly attired, though some will no doubt take it further than my poor tired eyes should have to see. I will not be in drag, as there is not enough whiskey in the barrel for that, but some folks just have to go all out and more power to 'em. There will be pictures, yes there will, and I'll post them here.

But you know, folks. This IS a fundraiser. Funds would therefore be appreciated! You - yes, YOU! - should donate to this good cause. Because it will increase your karma. Because it is the right thing to do. Because there is a special place in hell for people who commit acts of domestic violence and their victims need to be kept safe.

And because you know you just want to see me all stylin' and that.

If you are willing to donate, please let me know in the comments section and I will get you the information on how to do that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Proud and Prejudiced

I finished Pride and Prejudice today, and not a moment too soon. I tried to keep an open mind about it all, and I suppose I can see why other people would like this book. But for me, well, I think I will leave it to them.

I think the main problem I had in reading it was that it was so artificial, in both the modern and 19th-century senses of that term.

Today when people use the word "artificial" they usually mean "fake," often with connotations of being inferior to the real thing, whatever that might be, though I'm not sure why this needs to be so. There is artificial flavoring, which is theoretically not as good as natural flavor, though I have always felt that if you just took it on its own merits instead of comparing the artificial to the natural you'd enjoy both. I like powdered iced tea, for example, even though its resemblance to actual iced tea is purely notional. There is also artificial outrage, which we see a lot these days on Fox News. I'm not sure why this is inferior to real outrage, other than the sheer fact of its being cynically manufactured and produced by people who are just seeking a political edge and don't really care about the specifics at hand. A little cynicism beats genuine revolution in the streets most days. It's amusing in an odd sort of way, especially if you know where to watch the strings being pulled. And on and on.

There is a lot of fakery in Pride and Prejudice.

It is fakery drawn to an art form, a phoniness that speaks volumes about what is not being said or thought or done. Nobody in this book really ever comes out and is who they are in any meaningful way, which is probably one of the main points of the book - that this is what such people are reduced to being, and that under such constraints do these people operate. I understand that and I can respect it - and as a historian I can put it into its larger context - but slogging through 367 pages of it is like chewing on plywood. Great fiber. Not so much taste.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with keeping to conventions or moving along with society. Certainly there are few things so tiresome as someone who insists on being "frank" with you all the time. Truth and honesty are often overrated that way, and there are just some things I really don't need to know about people.

But one of the things I most respect and admire in others is the ability to be who they are. I like people who accept their nature and work with it and expect you to do so as well, people who are not constantly trying to be something they are not. It was one of the qualities that most attracted me to Kim when we first started dating, and it is something I look for in friends.  

I can even respect this quality in people who, objectively, really ought to be doing something to change. Call it a personal quirk, I guess.  One of my favorite characters in literature is the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who is a Machiavellian tyrant and is perfectly comfortable with that description.  He is who he is.

Like everything else, it can be taken too far - the Romantic notion of being true to oneself and damn the consequences being one of the more ridiculous notions foisted off on the general psyche in the last few centuries.  Other people have the right to be who they are as well, for one thing, and the general angst and whining about oppressive society that comes out of this starting position gets old fast.  But I do like people who recognize who they are and go about their lives that way.

I think that is why I liked Mr. Bennett, of all the characters. He seems to grasp who he is better than the other characters do, and he is not inclined to allow the world to take that away from him. Plus, as the only male in a house full of women, I did have a certain sympathy for his position.

More importantly, though, the book is artificial in the old-fashioned, more literal sense of being "full of artifice." It's clever - achingly so. On every page and with every paragraph, you can hear the author's voice working through dizzying feats of language, gently turning words and phrases into a coherent world. This is a skill, particularly in a novel where nothing much happens. People are introduced. Misunderstandings occur. Couples fall in love, break up and get back together without really moving in any physical way other than to change drawing rooms. It's all dialogue, most of it telling rather than showing. And all the pieces fall into place by the last page, though whether this is a happy ending I am still not sure.

I can respect this book. But I can't really say I liked it. Oh well. I tried, I really did.

Bring on the zombies.

Monday, September 14, 2009

News and Updates

1. I took four Australians to a Mexican restaurant last Tuesday night. It went surprisingly well.

2. After nearly fourteen years, we have finally finished the canister of Creole seasoning that we bought on our honeymoon in New Orleans. Apparently we’re not as culinarily adventurous as we thought we were.

3. I spent a good portion of Thursday night in my hotel room collating conference swag while listening to a repeat of Obama’s health care address, because that is just the kind of wild man I am when left on my own in a new city. Two thoughts – first, it sounded eminently reasonable and I continue to find it incomprehensible that people are opposed to reforming one of the most sclerotic health care systems on earth. We’re number 37! Rah, team! And second, it’s nice to see that the Republican Party is continuing its plunge off the Crazy Cliff with flags flying and mouths agape. Go get ‘em, Rep. Joe Wilson! Thank you for getting that kind of cockroachery out into the open, where it can be seen for what it is.

4. Now that it is mid-September, the weather gods have finally decided to allow us to have a summer. It’s been in the 80s for the last few days, and it looks to stay there for a while. Where was this in June? Or July? Or even August?

5. Hammy and Vee have left our house to spend some time at Gracie’s, as part of the “rotating hamster” program that Kim has instigated. This way the girls don’t grow too tired of them. Eventually they will return and be Fresh And New all over again.

That is all.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A-Conferencing I Will Go

St. Paul is a tough place to find ibuprofen at 4am.

I spent most of last week at the Midwest Arts Conference, which is held every year for the express purpose of weighing people down with swag. Hundreds of performing artists of more varieties than you ever thought possible gather in one place and try to persuade even more hundreds of people representing venues that they should hire them. It's fun, if overwhelming.

I drove up on Wednesday after class, found my hotel, and spent the evening plotting out my course of events for the upcoming conference. Because I am an expert plotter. Ask anyone. I can plot with the best of them. Sometimes, just to show off, I do it one-handed.

Actually, I spent most of the next two days on the floor of the convention, methodically working my way through nearly three hundred booths full of fliers, CDs, DVDs, and occasionally even live performers. I spoke with quite a number of people, most of whom I would very much like to hire except for the fact that we have a fairly small budget for this sort of thing at Home Campus, an even smaller (though nice) venue for such performers, and, unfortunately, often even smaller crowds who show up.

But I can dream.

And when I'm not dreaming, at least I can talk to them and find out what they do. There were a couple of performers who spent a lot of time with me knowing full well they were too expensive for me to hire but who wanted to tell me about their acts anyway just because they wanted me to know. It's always refreshing to meet people who really love what they do, mostly because it is so uncommon.

All of the booths are willing, even eager, to pile things into your hands. Every evening I would stagger back to my hotel room, unload my bag and spend the better part of several hours trying to organize it all into binders - otherwise it all gets completely windblown and I end up staring at the forms trying to remember what went with what. I now have two 3" binders completely overstuffed with information and electronic media, and at least that much material still to collate. I don't know if anyone other than me will ever look at it - the committee I report to has yet to form, let alone meet, this semester - but I now know more about the performing arts scene in the upper midwest than I ever thought I would.

And let me tell you, there are a lot of people on this planet with just mind-boggling levels of talent.

The really fun part of this convention are the showcases, where individual acts put on 12-minute selections from their shows so you can be wowed and want to hire them. I was wowed.

Friday night's early showcases were at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul, and it took all my mental strength not to translate everything into Garrison Keillor's voice. I can see why he likes that place. I went to see the first act (at 3:50) and the last one (scheduled for 6:45), but I ended up staying through it all anyway. Both of my acts were great - the science/comedy guy was especially good, and I will exert all my influence over my committee to get them to agree to him - and the ones in the middle? Made of pure awesome, some of them.

I was especially wowed by a pianist who did George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." That is something that should be on everyone's Life List - to hear that song done live by someone who really knows what they're doing. Check that one off, I guess.

The jazz of the 1920s and 1930s seems to be especially popular these days, actually. There were quite a number of performers pushing that kind of music, which was just fine by me. It was good music then, and it has held up remarkably well.

I went to any number of other showcases all over downtown St. Paul that night - a couple of music groups represented by someone I ended up sitting next to at lunch that day and striking up a pleasant conversation with, an acapella group that was clearly out of my price range but came so highly recommended I had to see them (yes, they lived up to billing), a one-man show about Einstein that was played to a one-man audience of me, a duo of folk musicians who had to fight to be heard above the high-powered gypsy band just across the thin room divider on the other side of the hotel conference room - it was quite a night.

Which may be why I woke up at 3am to discover that garden gnomes were pounding railroad spikes into my temples and all my drugs were back home. The hotel clerk sadly informed me that there were no anti-gnome pills to be had at the hotel, and pointed me toward the all-night supermarket a highway away. Eventually I dragged my carcass over there and bought enough drugs to wipe out the entire gnome species and all of their closest relatives. There is no point being subtle with spike-wielding gnomes.

I came home on Saturday, and spent most of this weekend in a catatonic haze. The girls had two different sleep-overs (three if you count the one Tabitha had to beg out of) and were gone most of the weekend as well. The cats looked at me with blank incomprehension, which was comfortingly familiar. I understand that the football season has begun, which cannot be right as they are still playing baseball and there is as yet no hockey and somebody must look into this. And tomorrow life starts up all over again, bright and early.

Show time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

News and Updates

1. This is the 200th post for 4Q10D. I'm not sure what sort of celebration is appropriate for such a thing, but there you go.

2. About 80 pages into Pride and Prejudice now, and apparently there is to be a ball. A big ball. All the balls in this book are big, and they are always bouncing, to the left and to the right. It's my belief that these big balls should be held every night. Or not. It is not good to have heavy metal music playing through one's mind while reading Jane Austen.

3. There have been Complications in Meryton. Apparently Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham do not get along, no not at all. There has been much earnest dialogue about this situation - as about all things in this book - and the Bennett girls have agreed that there can be no rational explanation for this. At least Jane has. Elizabeth has let it slide for the moment, but no doubt it will become important later on, when something happens.

4. Our big Labor Day Weekend excursion was to go visit Kim's parents, there to partake of a Family Gathering. The kids played until they were ready to drop and the adults ate until they were ready to burst, and a good time was had by all.

5. Apparently both Newt Gingrich and Laura Bush are defending Obama's speech to the school children. How sad is it that Newt Gingrich, of all people, has to be the voice of reason among conservatives? For a man who made his reputation as a rhetorical bomb-thrower, this has to be a disappointment.

6. I am the undisputed Battleship king of this household, but not by much. Both Tabitha and Lauren came within a ship of sinking me this weekend. I know that as a parent I should be glad my children exceed me, but it is somewhat surprising to see this happening so quickly.

7. This week looks like it will be unconscionably busy. I'm looking forward to Saturday.

That is all.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

At Play in the Fields of the Farm Implements

There are some things in this world you can't explain. A surprising number of them reside in Wisconsin.

We took a ride over to the Thresheree today and spent a happy day there.

For those of you who have never had this experience, well. You kind of have to be there to understand it. Otherwise, phrases like "parade of tractors" probably won't mean a whole lot to you.

The Thresheree is more flea market than the rational mind can possibly accept. Miles and miles of flea market. If it's old and discarded, you can find it at the Thresheree. That is, if you can see it behind the booths selling the sort of food that one finds at county fairs across this nation's tender midsection - burgers, dogs, mild barbecue, Fried Things On A Stick, that sort of stuff. Plus ice cream, kettle corn, and so on down the food-typology line until you get to things that straddle the line between food and flea market. That's where the border is, and only the brave go there.

Now so far this seems fairly straightforward, if rather eccentric. But none of it is the main purpose of the Thresheree, which is simply the celebration, glorification, and hero-worship of all things both motorized and agricultural. You thought I was kidding you when I said "parade of tractors," didn't you? Well where you at 3pm today, huh? Not stuck behind several hundred tractors like we were, I'll bet.

Some of those tractors go back to the Roosevelt Administration. The Theodore Roosevelt Administration, not the newer one. They are gasoline powered, diesel powered, coal fired and steam driven. Some of them are about the size of a large Doberman. Others were clearly modeled on railroad locomotives and are roughly 1:1 in scale. Some have metal tires taller than anyone currently playing in the NBA, and are steered by pulling on chains. They all idle at decibel levels approaching ship collisions. And they come in a variety of colors in much the same way that regimental flags do. Do not, under any circumstances, engage a tractor partisan on the merits of his (almost always "his") preferred tractor provider versus the other ones. There are John Deere people, International Harvester people, Allis-Chalmers people, Massey-Ferguson people, and so on, and never shall they agree on anything other than that the rest are all just wasting your time.

Naturally, we had to ride one.

This was not as exciting for Kim as it is for the rest of us, since she had to do this for real on her grandfather's farm growing up, but for me - city boy that I am - and for the girls, it was a novelty. Bales of hay were abused, but we had a good time.

Other engine-driven, smoke-belching things of note included a four-story tall coal-fired and steam-driven pile driver, which spent a good portion of the day pounding telephone poles into the earth one-eighth inch at a time, an entire warehouse full of industrial flywheels, some of them over nine tons in gross weight, and a functioning calliope that Tabitha did not get to play this year like she did last time. Lauren wanted me to play "Linus and Lucy" on it. I'm not sure if it is even possible to play Vince Guaraldi music on a calliope or what would happen to the time-space continuum if you did, but fortunately this didn't come up either.

Remember when people worried that the new particle physics machine in Europe would cause black holes and destroy the Earth last spring? Really, there are things closer to home that are much more worrisome, folks.

We spent a good part of the day cruising the flea market. The girls are old enough now to appreciate such things, and you never know what you will find. Most of it is aimed at people a lot more handy than I am - there are entire booths with nothing but automobile parts or tractor parts laid out in bins, where the only things I can identify with absolute certainty are the bins - and some of it is so entirely awful that you cannot imagine anyone ever paying for it ever, no matter how many times the universe is replayed. But clearly somebody does, since we see the same stuff every year. Who needs a Confederate-flagged tea cozy, anyway? I always check out the used book stalls and the coin dealers, though I will admit to getting a kick out of seeing toys I recognize from my childhood and glassware I recognize from my grandparents. The girls go for Teh Shiny, though there is also Teh Fuzzy and Teh Silly. All that and what a bargain.

At one end of the park you could make your own brass nametag for a buck - you got a shiny disc of 1mm-thick brass, about an inch and a half across, and they set you down by a bench with some letter punches and hammers and told you to go to it. Amazingly, nobody was hurt.

Before we left, we made our traditional pilgrimage to the coal-fired steam locomotive that pulls its two passenger cars in a grand loop around the entire Thresheree.

If you haven't tried something like this, you should - if only as a reminder of how nice it is to travel these days. You learn, for example, never to wear white clothes while doing this, since everything - everything - gets covered in black cinders. Unless you take the enclosed passenger car, in which case everything gets coated in black smoke. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

And isn't that what this country is all about?

No, don't answer that.

Pride and Prejudice Goeth Before a Fall

I'm about forty pages into Pride and Prejudice right now, which is entirely due to the zombies.

A while back Kim checked out of the library the latest and greatest parody of literature, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. She was so amused by it that she stopped reading and bought her own copy, which arrived this week in the friendly cardboard box with the Amazon logo that says "You can put your life on hold now." I was going to read it too, but when Kim found out that I had not read the actual Jane Austen novel she was just appalled and insisted that I needed to read that first.

A decent point, it must be admitted.

So I put it in the queue, right after the book on the history of the stone walls of New England. Really - I have this book. It was given to me by someone I met through the course of one of my many jobs - a fellow history nerd, it turned out - and it ended up being more interesting than you'd think. Plus, as the review on the inside cover said, if you're going to have one book on this subject, this is the one to have. This of course raises the question of just how many books on this subject there are, as well as the related question of how one would judge the literary and scholarly merits of each book against the others.

It's a complicated and cut-throat business, writing about stone walls.

I finished the book on stone walls this evening, and - being incapable of not having at least one book in progress at all times - immediately picked up Pride and Prejudice, which Kim had in a magnificent red-leather-bound and gilt-edged edition. It even has pictures of the main characters, done in the sketchbook style of the time.

I find myself in somewhat of a bind.

I have never been much of a fan of middle-class Victorian comedies of manners, mostly because the characters just make me want to smack them with a dead fish and tell them to relax. The Victorian middle class may well have been necessary for the industrial revolution, but other than that they were pretty much a disaster. A well-dressed disaster, granted, and scrupulously polite, but a disaster nonetheless.

So if I end up liking this book, I will be forced to revise my opinion (about the comedies, not necessarily about the Victorian middle class), which is always painful and will deprive me of many comedic possibilities of my own. Say this about the Victorian middle class, say that they are a target-rich environment for the satirist. I can see why people would introduce zombies into their world.

On the other hand, if I don't end up liking this book, I will stand accused of going in with a closed mind predisposed to not liking this book and why did I even bother and what a low, uncouth and hopelessly uncultured person am I.

I'm trying to keep an open mind, therefore. I have decided to blog about it as I go, in the hopes that this keeps me honest.

So far, so good, though in all honesty I cannot tell if anything has happened yet.

A rich, eligible bachelor has moved into the village. There has been much dancing, much social maneuvering, and more than an avalanche of words regarding marriage, social climbing, and the relative characteristics of young women among the Bennett family. Jane is sleeping off a cold and Mr. Darcy is being insufferably Romantic. Nothing has exploded. Indeed, other than in the minds and imaginations of the characters, nothing much has happened at all. This may be the point, however.

I will have to explore further.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Seriously, no. Just, no.

I have just about had it with the radical right wing of American politics.

I've stayed quiet through the health care "debate," which as far as I can tell has consisted of one side saying, "The health care system in this country needs reform and here is how we think it ought to be done" and the other side saying "WHAAAAARGLBLE! Death panels! Rationing! Communists! AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

I've stayed quiet through the whole "Birther" thing, mostly because it's hard to speak when laughing so hard at the obvious insanity and desperation of those people.

I stayed quiet during the recent Supreme Court nomination process, as one wingnut after another spouted bald-faced lies and contradicted their own statements from when Bush Lite nominated his justices. Odd how people who insist that the President's wishes should be respected on principle shift their principles when the President changes.

But today it hit closer to home, and I'm tired of it.

Today Lauren came home with an "opt-out" form that would allow me to have her skip watching President Obama's address to the nation's school children. They had an "alternative activity" planned instead, should I choose to send her there.

Say what?

Let me get this straight:

The President of the United States will be addressing students across the country, and attendance isn't required? There are more important "alternative activities" that take precedence over this? I am allowed to have my child remain ignorant rather than have her educated in the schools?

Honestly, it makes me want to holler.

There is no rational reason for this. All it says to me is that the Irreconcilable Right - the same idiots who cheered when the governor of Texas threatened to secede rather than accept the freely expressed will of the American people; the same six-fingered morons who think Sarah Palin is on to something with the whole "death panel" thing; the same anti-Constitutional lowlifes who applauded the use of torture and warrantless searches - is now dictating policy to my public schools.

First of all, the governor of Texas should be tried for treason, Sarah Palin should be marooned on the Island of Misfit Toys with the rest of her imaginary pals, and the Bush Administration officials who approved of those unConstitutional and disgraceful policies? Don't even get me started.

More to the point, however, I find it utterly appalling that there are people so proud of being ignorant that they would keep their children similarly ignorant and seek to do the same with mine.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, people, this is a historic moment. When the President - any President, even one with whom you have serious policy disagreements - speaks to you, you listen. You take it as a civics lesson. You discuss with your children what you agree with and what you don't. That's called "education." Live it. Learn it. Get used to it.

But no, we can't have that. Our schools must allow the ignorant to stay ignorant.

I. Do. NOT. Think. So.

I have my children in public schools - schools funded by State and Federal tax dollars - in part because I want them to become educated citizens of this country. I want them to rub shoulders with people who are different than they are, so they don't grow up confusing "normal" with "familiar" the way so many fools do in our country. I want them to understand how this country is supposed to work - that there is a Constitution, one that very carefully separated out church and state, one that provided a balance of powers to make sure that no one person could rule without checks. I want them to know what it means to think, to analyze, and to question, and I WANT THEM TO DO IT. I want them to respect the office of the President, no matter what they think of its occupant.

All this is over and above the curriculum.

If I wanted ignorant sheep, I'd send them to private school where they would be surrounded by people just like themselves, indoctrinated into a single black-and-white worldview, and never exposed to anything that might call that constricted view into question. As a college professor, I see a lot of students with this background. They don't last long that way - either they grow out of it, or they drop out of school and vote conservative.

Not all conservatives are like this. I've known quite a few who have well-thought-out positions, who are very good at analyzing information and who can defend their positions using reality-based arguments. I like those people. I disagree with them most of the time, but they force me to think about my own positions long and hard, and sometimes one or the other of us - follow me here - actually changes our mind on something, based on the superior evidence and arguments of the other person. That's how it's supposed to be.

But appallingly that is not how it often is.  And in my experience it has almost invariably been the right-wing rather than the left that is incapable of dealing with anything outside of their own narrow views. 

Such people should not be allowed near the educational process, which by definition involves the challenging of one's own views.

I'm sorry, but the whole notion that students should opt out of hearing the President speak directly to them is a disgrace, and the people who came up with this policy should be dipped in honey and sent on a ten-mile hike through the nearest forest. If I'm feeling charitable, I may wait up to half an hour before releasing the bottle flies.

Happy Birthday to Blog!

Great googly moogly. I've been doing this for a year.

Today marks the One Year Anniversary of this blog. I have beaten the odds, apparently - somewhere I read that the vast majority of blogs have exactly four posts, spread out over three months:
  1. Here I am! I will set the online world on fire with my thoughts and incisive writing!
  2. Sorry for the delays! Life is busy and I'll get back to this soon!
  3. I've got some good stuff waiting and I'll post it soon, really!
  4. Here is a picture of my cat.
But not me!

Well, there are cat pictures here, but that can't be helped. It is teh Intarweebs after all and such things are required. One of my favorite series of commercials was when Dennis Leary was fronting for some motor oil company and doing so with his trademark snark. In one of them he starts in on the whole "internet" thing (what did this have to do with motor oil? who knows...), complaining that after billions of dollars of investment and infrastructure, what are people doing with it? Posting pictures of their cats. And an old man sitting at his computer looks over his glasses at Leary and says, "Do you know what the margin is on cat pictures, slick?" So, yes, there are cat pictures here.

And stories! And photos of loved ones! And news, updates and opinions! No motor oil, though it could happen. You can never tell.

I'm enjoying this blog. I get to tell stories and offer opinions and generally write myself into corners and see if I can get back out - what's not to like?

So happy birthday to 4 Quarters, 10 Dimes! I think this deserves a celebration. Borders, here I come.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Breakfast from 0 to 60 in 5.8 Seconds Flat

My breakfast has that nice “new car” smell to it.

Our old toaster oven has been slowly dying over the last few weeks. Not that this should have been a surprise, since we got it in our Pre-Kids incarnations and have used it pretty much every day ever since.  It owes us nothing. 

The last straw was when the right side of the heating element went dark, so we ended up with meals where the left was well prepared but the right was mushy, formless and distasteful, much like American politics these days. That’s fine in Washington DC but it doesn’t make for good bagels.

So we went out and got a new toaster oven.

It’s snazzy. It’s sleek. It has multiple knobs, each of which has to be set to exactly the proper place before toasting can occur. And it has a feature where the toast rack pulls out a bit when you open the door, so you don’t have to reach all the way in to get your breakfast, toasting your knuckles in the process. I like this feature. It is, in fact, the one thing I insisted on when we started out toaster oven search. I’m a happy bagel-toaster these days.

Except that the whole thing smells like my local Chevy-Pontiac-Olds-Ford-Saturn-Chrysler-Dodge-Hummer-DeLorean-Tucker-REO-Nash-Lockheed-Martin dealership showroom whenever you make anything, a quality that gets imparted into my bagels and which does not really go well with poppyseeds.

Mmmmmmm, poppy seeds.

I will never pass a drug test, mostly because my bagel habit makes me look like an opium addict.

I suppose this fragrant period will pass once all the parts have baked a while, and then I can go back to my bagels in peace. Until then we just live with it and are having a very good time playing with the knobs and seeing if we can get the sunroof to open.

The highway mileage is fantastic.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Cycle Begins Anew

School started today.

At least it did for Tabitha and Lauren. Home Campus doesn't get truly up and running until tomorrow, but Not Bad President Elementary opened its doors in earnest at 8:15 sharp this morning.

We've been getting ready for this for a while now.

We have scoured the emporia of Our Little Town for pencils, erasers, folders, paper, and other effluvia of modern primary education not provided by the grudging tax dollars of the community.

We went to NBPE last Thursday evening, along with several hundred other parents, and stood in long lines scattered all across the school in order to turn in reams of paperwork and more than a few checks for various things - milk money, lunch money, yearbook money, assignment notebook money, fees, entitlements, tithes, feudal dues and assessed liens, all of which require separate checks. And no fair combining kids on one check, either - separate fees, separate kids, separate checks.

NBPE must get some kind of kickback from the check-printing places.  I should certainly hope so, anyway, although they must not have gotten much of a deal since we had to go buy all that effluvia.  Graft is a skill, people - you have to work at it.

Kim and the girls spent most of the weekend printing off labels and affixing them to each separate item of effluvia, one after the other including individual tissues, piling the labeled bits and pieces into containers, and stacking the containers like cordwood in my office for handy reference and transportation.

I went in to NBPE on Monday to meet with Tabitha's teacher and go over basic food allergy procedures - a ritual we go through every fall. It's part of the trade that allows us to avoid homeschooling.  Mr. B seemed pretty okay with it. He brought in the mixes he uses for the cupcakes and frosting that he passes out during the year and had me check them, and he saved a grapefruit from anaphylactic shock by jabbing it with an expired Epi-pen - it helps to get the feel of a real one, as they do pack more of a punch than you'd think and you don't want them bouncing off when you're trying to administer them. Afterward, I took the opportunity to deliver all of the various bags and containers of labeled effluvia to both Tabitha and Lauren's class. Next year I'm renting a mule.

All that remained, really, was to get the girls themselves in place.

Tabitha is an experienced hand at all this by now, being a Big Fourth Grader. She calmly picked out her outfit and got her stuff ready, and she was set. For Lauren, there is still the excitement of it all. She's headed into First Grade, which is still an Exciting Grade with no small amount of Fear And Trepidation as well.

But she had her outfit picked a week ago.

Psych!  You can't really tell what their outfits were in that picture. So sorry.

It was cold here this morning - in the 40s, though it warmed up to the low 70s by the afternoon - so future generations will just have their sweatshirts and sweaters to judge things by. Trust me, though, there were cute outfits under there.

We slid right into our old routines, which were right where we left them in June, next to the back porch. Alarms. Clothes. Breakfast. Hair. Aimless milling about. Panicked rush at the last minute. Arrival just in the nick of time. Yep, nothing's changed.

Tabitha, as befits her advanced years, wanted a more dignified send off this year. So we did our goodbyes at home or on the sidewalk outside of the school and it was only purely coincidental that our path to Lauren's door took us past the fourth grade door, really it was. Lauren still wanted us to hang out with her until she went in, and we were glad to do that. Soon she will be a Big Fourth Grader too and we won't even get out of the car when we drop them both off, but for now we get hugs and waves goodbye as she marched bravely off to the wilderness of First Grade.

A whole new year of learning awaits!  For all of us.