Saturday, November 28, 2009

Alma Mater

My high school class is having its 25th reunion tonight.

Part of me was just not really interested in going, which was good since they're having it in Philadelphia and when you live in Wisconsin that's a long commute for a 3-hour party with a bunch of people you haven't seen since Reagan's first term. And as my dad always says about his class, "I spent three years incarcerated with those people. Why would I want to see them again?" Four years, in my case, since they switched over from junior highs to middle schools while I was in process, but the point remains. I wasn't sorry to graduate, and I've never gone back for any of the reunions that they've managed to scrape together.

But there was a part of me that was less opposed to the idea, and probably would have gone if the distances weren't so great. A quarter of a century is a long time, and you kind of wonder what happened to everyone. I've grown up some since then. I imagine most of them have too. And for all that it's supposed to be such a horror story, I had a good time in high school. I wouldn't do it again - once was fine, thank you, and as a professional historian I am well aware that the past is a great place to visit but a lousy place to live - but I made some good friends, I fell in love, I had some times that mean the world to me even now, and I wouldn't trade those.

It is an odd thing, this institutionalized practice of getting people together who once shared time and space. For a lot of us, we didn't share much more than that - my graduating class was about 380, and I knew maybe 2/3 of them by name and about half well enough to talk to. That's a lot of faces to keep from blurring.

But in another sense we did share a time and a space, and that counts for something. As you get older you need people who remember the same stories you do. That's one reason why family is so important, and why old friends are as well. Even when you share those stories with people you didn't know well at the time, that counts for something I suppose.

Kim and I went to her 25th a couple years back (we're only a year different in age, but she was one of the youngest in her class and I was one of the oldest in mine, so we graduated two years apart) and it was fun, even just as someone in the spouse role. It's seeing history played out in front of you by people who were there, and the historian in me just loves that kind of thing. These people knew her then.

We live in a world of instant communication and social networking, where you can keep track of people a lot more easily than ever before. What is Facebook after all but one big eternal high school reunion? One way or another I keep up with most of the people I would have wanted to see had I gone to the reunion, so I don't feel too bad about missing it.

But the curiosity remains.

It's a quandary.

Happy 25th Reunion to Orwell's Class of 1984! Raise a glass to absent friends, and remember the stories.

My high school graduation party.
Would you want to see this again?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday in the Nation's Heartland

I think the economy is doing better than we are being led to believe.

I took my first run at Black Friday shopping this morning. Oh, I've gone out shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving before, sometimes even with specific purchases in mind. But only after lunch.  Today was the first time I was out there early, in the midst of the madding crowds, fighting my way through the concentrated essence of bad driving that is the modern American road system and snatching one of the few parking spots available anywhere closer to the store entrance than my own driveway through sheer bravado and the ownership of a car less expensive and therefore more amenable to dents than the ones trying to cut me off.  Those SUV drivers, they baby those things.

I'm not sure I want to do all that again, though.

For one thing, pretty much everything I went out to get was gone long before I got there. I got to my first store at 7am, but apparently that was just way too late, slacker. The hardcore shoppers were there hours earlier - some of them no doubt hiding in the HVAC system and dropping down into the aisles like Gold Card Ninjas as soon as the lights came on at 4 in the morning. They were lean, they were mean, and they were pushing shopping carts so piled with goods that they would run you down without ever feeling the bump. And they were legion.

You know, there isn't a sale in the world worth dealing with that.

Plus, by the time I got there, the lines were stretched all the way to the back of the stores and were curving around toward the front. In terms of dollars per hour, I'm not getting paid enough to devote that kind of time to this project.

For another thing, I think my shopping mojo has deserted me. I used to like going out to retail havens and just hanging out. I served my time as a mall rat in junior high, and even in my 20s I enjoyed just wandering the aisles of various stores just to wander the aisles.

I also used to like the thrill of last-minute Christmas shopping - getting out there with less than 24 hours to spare and diving into the fray. I was good at it. Feeding time at the human zoo, and a lot of fun to watch from a safe vantage point.

But I'm getting old and crabby, and outside of book stores it's just not doing it for me anymore.

It's going to be an Christmas this year, I can just feel it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Story

We have entered into the Thanksgiving season.

The girls are off from school, Home Campus has closed for non-flu-related reasons, and the long weekend stretches out before us like a swimming pool filled with chocolate pudding, waiting for us to dive in and emerge happy, sticky, and considerably heavier at the end.

I like Thanksgiving really. It is a holiday that has two levels, both of which are satisfying. At its core it is a reminder to us that no matter how bad things get, there is always something to be happy about, and furthermore things are not that bad to begin with. They are, in fact, good. It's helpful to hear that now and then. Boom-de-ada. And on the superficial level, a holiday devoted to calorie-comas and football is a wonderful thing.

The real glory of holidays, though, are the family stories that come out of them. We have a number of these in our family, but when we really want to tell A Thanksgiving Story this is the one we tell, more or less as it was told to me:

My Aunt Rita - well, "first cousin once removed," but that's just far too much of a mouthful - and Uncle Ed were newlyweds not far out of high school, and their families gathered at their house for Thanksgiving dinner that year. I don't recall ever meeting Ed's father but word is that he was a rather formidable person, and Rita was determined to make a good impression.

Apparently, Ed Sr. was a great fan of stuffing.

So Rita took that turkey and stuffed it full of stuffing. There wasn't room for one more stuffing molecule inside that turkey, not even if you used a jackhammer and a surgical probe. By God, her father-in-law was going to have stuffing for Thanksgiving.

Those of you who have roasted turkeys before can see where this story is going, but believe me - it never gets old.  No, no it does not.

The turkey came out of the oven perfectly roasted - golden brown, juicy, the sort of thing you normally only get in cookbook photographs. It was a sight. It was also quivering. Stuffing, as you eventually learn after you cook a few turkeys, expands when heated. At least it does when it has room to do so. And as anyone who has ever taken a science class will tell you, if you've got something that wants to expand and you don't let it expand, what you end up with is pressure. Lots of pressure. Lots of tasty, perfectly seasoned pressure.

The family gathered around the dining room table, dressed in their holiday best - this was the 1950s, when casual meant something rather different than it does now - and Ed Sr., as the senior male present, was accorded the honor of carving up the bird. He took his carving knife and stuck the point into the turkey.

There was a gelatinous roar, followed by an interlude of crisis.

When the air cleared, there was stuffing everywhere - on the walls, on the ceiling, on the guests, on the table. Everywhere but inside the turkey.

The story usually ends at that point, with Ed Sr. scraping stuffing off of his face and everyone else sitting there kind of shell-shocked. There's probably more to it, but really - how much more could you want?

Ed Sr. got his stuffing, more or less. We got a story. And a half-century later, Rita and Ed are still married.

There are things to be thankful for everywhere you turn.

Ed and Rita in 1963, with these
events safely behind them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


The girls and I have spent a good part of the last two days cruising through YouTube, a website that is definitive proof that the world is full of people upon whose hands time weighs rather heavily.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

We've looked at the OK Go Treadmill routine, and the History of Modern Dance. We've watched the Muppets perform Bohemian Rhapsody. We've listened to every Phineas and Ferb song ever aired. But mostly what we've been looking at are commercials, to be honest, and one set of commercials in particular - the ones that the Discovery Channel runs to promote, well, I'm not entirely sure what they're promoting. The network in general? Life in all its glory? It's hard to say.

But we love those commercials.

If you don't know these ads, well, you should. There are a couple of them, each very much like the other. They start out with two astronauts just staring in awe at the planet Earth below them, and then they proceed through a dizzying array of Discovery Channel show hosts and others singing what amounts to a love song to the mere fact of being alive and aware.

I love the mountains
I love the clear blue skies
I love big bridges
I love when great whites fly
I love the whole world
And all its sights and sounds
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

You forget these things sometimes, or at least I do. It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind that is politics these days, with the constant assault from the right on the founding ideals of this country. It's easy to obsess over the poor state of the various home teams, or the economic crisis that was dug so deep over the last decade that who knows when we'll scratch our way back to the surface. It's easy to focus on the things that break, the things that don't fit, the things that fail. Easy, but not good. It's nice to be reminded that there's more than that out there.

I love the oceans
I love real dirty things
I love to go fast
I love Egyptian kings
I love the whole world
And all its craziness
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

Because it is a crazy world, and one that can be breathtakingly gorgeous. It is a world with bagels. A world with children, families and love. A world where books smell the way they do and open minds the way they can. A world with colors to spare, differences to enchant, and tea to drink.

I love tornadoes
I love arachnids.
I love hot magma
I love the giant squids
I love the whole world
It's such a brilliant place
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada
Boom-de-ada, Boom-de-ada.

I'm not sure what it means that it takes a commercial to remind me of these things sometimes, and I'm pretty sure I could do without tornadoes, but there you go. Life is like that. We've watched these ads several dozen times over the last couple of days, and you know, they're right.

The world is just ... awesome.

At least it can be.

Finding Romance In Dubuque

My brother warned me this would happen.

When Kim and I got engaged, fifteen years ago, the first thing he said after "Congratulations" was, "You know, for the rest of your life, Dubuque will be a romantic place for you." And he was right.

This past weekend Grandma came down to watch the girls while Kim and I revived our tradition of going back to the Richards House, the bed and breakfast in Dubuque where we got engaged. We used to do that every year around this time, but that petered out around the time that Lauren was born and I graduated from Iowa. Between all the things that one does with two small children around the house, and the fact that I no longer had any particular need to go to Iowa any more, the Richards House fell off our radar, which was a shame. It felt good to get back there.

It's a great place, the Richards House. It's a disaster on the outside, due in large part to the prohibitive economics of undoing some of the "improvements" made by previous owners (concrete-based bridge paint on a wooden Victorian house? Really?), but on the inside it is both gorgeous and a little worn around the edges - the sort of place where you can feel right at home. All too often at these places you get the feeling that you're only there to finance somebody's Victorian museum, but this is a place where you can settle in, kick off your shoes, and hang out.

We like those places.

We always try to get the same room that we got the first time - the Blue Room. We light a fire in the fireplace and then, well, we hang out. We got engaged in front of that fire, way back when. This year we did a fair amount of reflecting on things. It's been fifteen years since that first night, and fourteen since we got married, and a lot has happened since then. We're doing well.

Dinner is always at Mario's, at least on the first night of the weekend, and often on both.

Mario's is a neighborhood Italian restaurant, the kind of place with paper placemats with maps of Italy on the table, where people smoke at the bar and get good and hammered, and where most of the patrons seem to know each other. Mario himself wanders through the dining area from time to time, greeting people in what could conceivably be English if you listen hard enough but which might just as well be in the original Italian.

The first time we went there the waitress patiently listened to us place our orders and then asked, "Is this your first time here?" Yes, we told her, is it that obvious? And then she proceeded to tell us what we should have ordered, at a considerable savings of money to us though quite possibly at the cost of a major artery. Apparently one of the things Mario's is known for is called a "panzerotti," which to me sounds like a sports tank (with racing stripes down the barrel of the gun and a tail fin in the back) but which is actually far more dangerous: imagine a stromboli about the size of your printer, filled with cheese and toppings and then deep fried.

It was good, but not something you want to order too often.

Since then we have moved on to a different dish, one I order almost every time I'm there. It's got feathery fettucini, proscuitto, mushrooms (which I give to Kim) and pecorino romano, all covered in a delicate butter and garlic sauce. Why it is called "Fettucini a la Lumberjack," I do not know. But if you're ever in Dubuque, that's what you need to eat.

Dubuque is really a pretty little city, for those who like such things. It very much looks and feels like the South Side of Pittsburgh, with lots of big old Victorian homes, tiny little shops, and staircases everywhere you look. Nothing is flat in Dubuque. They even have an inclined railway just like in Pittsburgh. We usually spend a day milling around the downtown area, wandering about the shops. This year the railway hadn't closed for the season yet, so we took a ride up and looked down over the whole city. It's a pretty low-key operation, really. You climb into the car, which is about the size of a walk-in closet and sloped at about a 60-degree angle, and you pull the bell-chain to let someone know you're there. The motor hauls your car up and drops the top car down to the bottom, and when you get out you pay the lady at the top. You can wander around the neighborhood at the top of the bluff or just stare out over the Mississippi River, and then you go back down.

We had a nice lunch at a restaurant that hadn't been there last time we went and eventually worked our way back to the Richards House.

The girls were happy to see us when we got back on Sunday, and we were happy to see them. But it was good to get away for a while, and just spend some time with each other in a place that will always be romantic for us.

Yes, Dubuque.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Grey Days and Sad Thoughts

It is a sad day down at Not Bad President Elementary School.

Tabitha and Lauren are back in school for the first time in days, now that they are feeling better, but things are not right there. Their gym teacher has passed away.

This was quite a shock. He was - not surprisingly - a fit and active man, one who lived the rhetoric of his field. All too often gym teachers are cut from the "do as I say, not as I do" Jabba-the-Hut mold, but not this guy. He was also fairly young, roughly my age or a bit over. And he was, without question, the most popular teacher in the school. Everybody knew him - he always had a friendly hello for me - and the kids adored him. Every day when I pick up the girls from school I ask them, "So, what did you guys do today?" and if it is gym day that is what I hear about first.

This is a far cry from my own experience with grade school physical education. My gym teacher was something right out of a cartoon - not a bad guy, really, but someone who had clearly spent a lot of time playing football without a helmet and for whom throwing and catching a ball was the peak of his intellectual capacity. Even as a fairly coordinated and athletic child (oh, yes I was!) who was usually picked toward the beginning for teams, I never really liked gym class.

But NBPE's gym teacher was driven. He made up all sorts of cool games. He thought about new and different ways to get kids to move and have fun. He won state and regional awards, and got grants for new ideas.

He'll be missed.

We've always tried to be straightforward about this sort of thing with the girls. Everything living will die. Plants die. Animals die (even cats, which was a hard lesson). And people die. It is appropriate to be sad and upset when it happens, but it happens and it's normal. It seems to have sunk in with them - they are very matter-of-fact about death, at least outwardly, and they don't freak out about it the way some kids do.

You have to be honest with people, and kids are people. Not brutally honest - there is nothing so needlessly abrasive as someone who insists on being "frank" with you all the time. You have to know your audience, and play to that level. The great philosopher John Madden once said, "You cannot simplify complicated things, but you can make them understandable." And that's a worthwhile goal, even for something like death, even when you are trying to explain it to children.

They seem to be taking it about as well as can be expected.

As are we all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Magic Green Medicine

Nyquil is just the greatest stuff in the world.

It's been a long week here, what with the various sicknesses floating around. Kim did some plinking around the internet and discovered that the symptoms she and the girls had matched pretty well with the symptoms listed for swine flu, except that they don't really want you to go in to the doctor for a confirmation unless you are just about ready to die and fortunately it never got to that point so we will just have to guess.

I suppose I could wave some bacon at her and see if she reacts.

Actually, I know pretty well what sort of reaction that would get, and it's a good thing I can outrun her in her current flu-weakened state is all I'm going to say about that. There aren't enough Husband Points in the world to cover that one.

Whatever version of flu this is, one thing that is clear is that it is No Fun Whatsoever. Even sleeping has been problematic, what with all of the various symptoms being all symptomatic at us. And so we went out and got us a bottle of the Magic Green Medicine.

I don't even want to know what they put in that stuff. It's probably a mixture of alcohol, heroin, benadryl and qat, with a splash of green food coloring and a metric buttload of anise oil. But whatever it is, it works. I took some myself last night, in my continuing quest to avoid the worst of this illness, and great googly moogly did I have a pleasant night.

Why don't they sell this stuff in bars?

Actually, I think we should spray it from aerial tankers across the world's trouble spots. There would be no more wars. Oh, sure, some folks might get a little annoyed from being coated in sticky green medicine, but the rest of us would be too stoned on its Relief-Causing Goodness to care. Let them whine!

I think I need more now. Yes, another hit of Nyquil, please.

Better living through chemistry. That is one of my mottoes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Report From Sick Bay

Now I know how the last dodo bird felt.

It's been a tough couple of days here in Baja Canada, what with all of the flu and cold and general crud going around our house. Kim started feeling bad on Monday, and then this morning neither she nor Tabitha made it out of the house. I took Lauren to school - it was the last day of Sign Language Club, and she was bound and determined to go even if she had to beat back alligators with her toothbrush - and went to Home Campus to give a student a makeup exam.

I didn't make it to my noon meeting, as I could feel Crud coming on and I felt it best if I didn't pass that on too much. Lauren made it to dinnertime before succumbing.

They're just dropping like flies.

I'm actually feeling fairly good now - laying low all afternoon was precisely the right course of action, and I'll probably be back teaching tomorrow, he said without a trace of irony and what is that ominous violin music playing in the background?

No, I can't get sick. Not until someone else is better. Somebody has to make the pharmacy runs for more ibuprofen and tissues.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How 'Bout Them 'Pokes?

I think I'm getting soft.

I spent some time watching the Packers play the Cowboys today, in the fond hopes that it might jar me out of my writer's block for the course I'm supposed to be developing. There is only so long one can stare at a blank screen or a blank page without going insane and questioning how the State of Hawaii issues its birth certificates, so I figured an afternoon of watching large men fight over a small ball might be therapeutic.

Now, I like the Packers. They're a small-market team with public ownership, and in an era of megalomaniacal zillionaires threatening to move teams to faraway cities unless taxpayers donate millions to build them a new stadium (with ice sculptures!), it's nice to see them do well. Plus, I live in Wisconsin and not liking the Packers would be tantamount to getting on my Chewbacca costume and going for a long walk in the woods during deer hunting season. So, Packers it is. As long as they're not playing the Eagles, I'll cheer for them.

Another nice thing about cheering for the Packers is that they have congruent enemies with the Eagles. I don't especially care about the Vikings or the Bears one way or the other, and I don't imagine Packer fans really concern themselves with the Redskins or the Giants, but we can all agree on one thing: Dallas needs to lose. All the time. Not once in a while. All. The. Time.

I grew up with the Eagles at a time when it would often take them three or four years to win a total of ten games, but the years they beat Dallas all was forgiven. The Cowboys were the Empire of Evil, the malignant stain on the x-ray of American professional sports, and it was yet another sign of the basic unfairness of the universe that they were always talented, entertaining and successful when the Eagles could generally be counted on to have at least one starting player with his helmet on sideways. When I found out that most Packer fans felt the same way about the Cowboys, I figured I had found my second sports home.

But you know, I am finding it hard to maintain that intensity anymore.

Dallas got absolutely jobbed by a bad call late in the game today - a clear, no doubt about it, what-were-the-refs-smoking error on the part of the officiating crew that essentially gave the game to the Packers.

In the past, I would have found this extremely satisfying - a karmic payback for everything they had ever done to my team. Today? I sort of felt bad for them.

There is a fine line between maturity and apathy, and I'm not sure which side of it I am on anymore.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fire Up the Delorean, McFly, We've Got Work to Do

I've been reading Sean Wilentz' book, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008, and it has been a thoroughly depressing experience.

This is not Wilentz' fault, really. He's a good writer - something rare in the historical community, sadly enough. For a discipline founded on story-telling, good writing isn't a skill much prized these days. I never understood that when I was in graduate school, and I still don't. Wilentz is also an accomplished scholar, one of the small coterie of historians accorded "minor deity" status by their peers. His books are consistently well argued, thoroughly researched, and difficult to rebut by people with alternate interpretations - not impossible, as all historical interpretations are open to rebuttal, but not easily done and certainly not done by the kind of empty rhetorical posturing that characterizes most political discourse these days. We live in AM-radio-talk-show times.

Mostly it's the subject matter.

I've been getting more interested in the political and cultural history of the twentieth-century over the last few years, mostly as a way for me to try to understand the roots of just how my country has gone so far off the rails in the last few decades. Since the mid1970s we've managed to betray our founding ideals, impoverish our present and sell out our future to a degree that I find astonishing, and I want to know where this impulse came from.

It's a long, sad story of how the radical fringes of the American right wing - people that Barry Goldwater referred to as "fanatics" - have effectively taken over the Republican Party and made their positions not only commonplace but mainstream. It's a story of a concerted effort to undermine the Constitution, enforce a rigid and religiously-based social conformity on par with that of any caliphate in the Middle East, and shift wealth out of the middle and lower classes and into the hands of the already wealthy.

And it's as American as apple pie, apparently. That's what they keep telling me.

As I read this book I found myself hoping that it would be different this time - that this time through things wouldn't break the way they did, that the results would be different, the process would be different, and that maybe the radicals wouldn't win after all. But they did, just as they did in real life.

It's hard to cheer against the past. The past never changes.

I think I'll read something lighter next.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Operators Are Not Standing By, So Relax

For a while I thought we had the perfect outgoing message on our phone, but it turned out the answering machine was just broken.

We like to put some effort into our outgoing messages. It's kind of discouraging when you call someone and all you get is "You have reached XXX-XXXX. Please leave a message." Where's the pizzazz? The humor? The toying with the caller's neurons? Really, if that's the best you can do you might as well just turn the thing off and let the phone ring.

When Kim and I first got married, we had a message that said, "The number you have reached, XXX-XXXX, is imaginary. Please rotate your phone ninety degrees and try again." Nothing like a little higher math humor to liven things up, that's my motto. Or at least one of them. There were probably half a dozen people in our combined circle of friends who got that joke, but we snickered every time and really, whose answering machine was it, anyway?

Kim grew tired of our old kitchen phone a long time back - something about the screen on it not showing any actual information, combined with the fact that you couldn't talk on it and operate the microwave at the same time for all the interference, little things like that - and finally got around to upgrading to a new phone about a month ago. Like the old one, this one came with a digital answering machine built in, and we sat around coming up with ever more ridiculous ideas for what to put on the outgoing message. It passed time that we would have otherwise spent working.

Eventually we came up with something that had all of us - including the girls - laughing to ourselves whenever we thought of it, and we decided to go with it.

"You have reached XXX-XXXX. No one is here to answer your call, but don't despair! Your call is important to us. To continue in English, press one. Para continuar en espanol, oprima el dos. To speak to a non-existent operator, press three. To express anger at this pointless button-pushing, press four. To express sarcasm, press five. To exercise your fingers, press numbers six through eight repeatedly. If you have had enough of mindlessly pressing buttons, press nine. To leave a message, wait for the beep. BEEP! No, really, here comes the real beep. Thank you for playing, and good luck."

Yes, it was ridiculously self-indulgent and about half an hour long, but we liked it anyway. You have to keep yourself entertained in this world.

But the thing is, from that point on we received absolutely no messages.

Now, on the one hand, this is kind if disappointing. You want people to call with things that are important enough to tell you about even if you aren't there, and after a while with no messages you begin to question whether anyone out there knows you're alive.

On the other hand, it's not such a bad thing to be overlooked the rest of the world sometimes, especially since most messages are of the "here is a task I'd like you to do" or "vote for this person or the earth will go spinning into the sun" variety. People who really want to get hold of us know to send emails or make Facebook posts. I only got an answering machine in the first place because I needed it for job-hunting, way back in the early 90s, and I still view it as more of an intruder than anything else.

So there was a profound ambivalence about the lack of messages is what I'm saying here.

But after a while it begins to get suspicious. Surely somebody wants you to do something for them. Surely somebody is running for office somewhere. And the longer the "0" sits up there in the message counter, the more you begin to think the problem lies not with a cold and uncaring world - a fact that never stopped messages from arriving before - but with your answering machine.

Perhaps the message was simply too long.

I recorded a shorter one today and then tried to call in. Nothing. I left multiple messages for myself, and still: "0." But I don't know that - I think I left messages. And, honestly, I'm annoyed at why I don't just pick up the phone and answer myself. Who do I think I am? Such nerve.

So right now I've got the answering machine turned off because I can't find the manual for the phone in order to try to fix this problem and I'd rather people didn't get their hopes up about leaving a message and then wonder why nobody ever calls them back. Don't even get me started on why phones need manuals. I am old enough to remember when phones came in one color (black), had rotary dials, were sturdy enough to use as murder weapons and were about as complicated as an ice cube tray. They were appliances. Now they're technology again, and they don't quite work.

So, no messages for a while. If you need me, you can always make a big pile of phones in your back yard and send me smoke signals. I probably won't get those either, but the bonfire will be cathartic.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Turning Over Some Old Leaves

We spent most of this weekend raking other people's leaves.

We do this every year. The leaves fall down sometime in mid-October or so. We make noises about raking them up. And sometime around the end of October, we get a giant windstorm that blows all of our leaves away and replaces them with someone else's leaves.

This year the winds came from the south, which means that our leaf-load was rather high. Our southern neighbors for several houses down have more trees than we do, and none of them are evergreens. If the wind comes from the north or west, though, we make out like bandits. From the east it's pretty much a wash.

Kim was first out with the rake, as she is the one who tends to notice these things. I've read stories of widowers who never change the decor in their homes or apartments once their wives pass on - not out of any intent to create a shrine to a departed loved one, but simply because it never occurs to them to do so. All I can say is that Kim had better outlive me. Either that or we had better do all of our decorating in "classic" styles designed to last.

It was a gorgeous weekend here in Our Little Town, with temperatures more like May than November. Seriously, it hasn't been this warm here since Labor Day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the woodland elves were doing whatever it is they do when not posing the garden gnomes suggestively, and it was time to play outside.

So Kim piled up about six cubic yards of leaves and declared it to be leaf-playing time.

The girls took this and ran with it.

They made a fort out of them.


They jumped in them.

They dive-bombed them from the zip line.

They ran through them.

Really, it was a shame to rake them down to the curb for pickup tomorrow, but so it goes. They went off to play with some friends in the late afternoon, and I took the opportunity to re-rake all those leaves and deposit them in the street for the sweeper to come by.

I really wish we could burn them. I've always loved the scent of burning leaves in the fall.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Clicks and Whistles

I have hit the age where I am not entirely sure why I am in pain.

Somewhere on Wednesday I must have done something to my right knee that it found objectionable. I have no idea what that might have been, since the first I noticed this problem was when I tried to sit down in my office chair, and usually that does not involve any noticeable exertion or contortions.

The knee does not particularly want to bend anymore, at least upon first rising, though periodically it relents on that point and decides it wants to bend sideways. It has also been taking lessons in Xhosa, apparently, and has begun speaking in clicks and whistles. I am not sure what it is trying to say. "You're getting old," perhaps.

This is not an isolated occurrence, unfortunately.

My lower back has been giving me problems for years, ever since I tried to move a box that I shouldn't have tried to move, shortly after arriving in Our Little Town. That I understood - there was clearly a cause and effect in operation there - but since then I find that there does not have to be any discernable cause to get the same effect. Sometimes it just does that.

When I was younger, in order to achieve this level of pain I would have had to have done something that I would still be talking about today.

There would be a story - a long build-up, a crisis moment, a rueful conclusion. I could tell this story and people would feel sorry for me and buy me drinks. Or look at me pityingly and tell me to stop doing things that hurt me.

But there are no stories anymore, and I don't really know what it is I could stop doing.

Drinks still accepted, though.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Darwin In The Dining Room

I’m trying to decide if hamsters are the bravest creatures on earth, or the stupidest. Or whether this is a distinction worth making.

Ever since we started bungie-ing (how exactly does one write that word?) their cage down on top of the little shelving unit in the dining room, there have been no repeats of the earlier episode where the cats knocked the cage to the floor in order to crack it like a walnut and get at the meat inside. And I think the hamsters are getting a little cocky about it.

Mithra usually leaves them alone – they clearly are not canned salmon and therefore hold no interest for her – but Tria is fascinated. She will climb up to where she can stare directly into their cage and just glare at them for a while.

Eventually this gets old. It’s not like the cat has a lot of things to think about while she is staring at the hamsters. “Hamsters,” she thinks. “They look like food.” What more is there to say?  And so, after a short period of analyzing this, Tria will slowly reach up to the cage and begin batting at the grillwork, which the hamsters like to climb (why? because it’s there, I suppose – who knows with rodents) hoping to snag a hamster.

Now you would think that a critter the size of a hamster – a critter clearly designed by God and nature as a snack for larger and more pointy-edged creatures – would know enough that this was a bad situation, and that they should retreat to a more defensible position. Or at least get off the stupid grille.

But no.

Look carefully at this photo. Do you see the small brownish lump just to the right of Tria’s paw? That’s Hammy. Or Vee. Either one. And do you know what Hammy (or Vee) is doing? Fighting back, that’s what – nipping at Tria’s claws, trying to bite the paw that’s about to feed on her.

Nobody has ever proven that intelligence has survival value over the long run, but this is ridiculous.

Of course, Tria cannot get into the cage - that being the point of the cage, after all - and the hamsters are usually far enough from the edge that they can’t be damaged by her claws, so it becomes something of a standoff after a while.

Seriously, why do we have a television?

Why Can't Us Again?

Because the Yankees, that's why.

Well, the WFCs will have to relinquish their title, apparently, having lost Game 6 to the Yankees in rather convincing fashion. It was clear pretty much from the beginning which was the better team in this Series, but the better team does not always win and so I held out hope for the Phillies.

I do like this bunch of players that they have now - they don't quit, and they always think they can pull one out of the fire. They play hard.  They seem surprised when they lose. I hope the team can keep together for a few more years.

I didn't watch too much of the Series, really. I missed the first half of Game 1 handing out candy at Not Bad President Elementary. I missed all of Game 2 attending a fundraiser for the local YWCA, who eased my pain by having a number of local chefs put me into a calorie coma with their donated skills. And the stress levels were just too high to watch all of the innings in the other games - I'd peek in here and there to see how they were doing and often watch a couple of innings before heading off to do something else for a while. This was true even for Game 5, which the Phillies won. Although honestly, a six-run lead with one out in the 8th inning should not be that exciting nor should it end with the tying run at the plate.

During this World Series I have discovered that I seem to have raised two genuine Phillies fans.

Oh, it's not just that Tabitha and Lauren watched almost as much of the Series as I did, or that Tabitha especially would ask me questions about the games as they progressed. It isn't even that Lauren was excited to wear her Phillies shirt to school on the same days that I wore mine to teach at Home Campus (my students put up with me good naturedly).

No, I think it became clear that you can take the gene pool out of Philadelphia but you can't take the Philadelphia out of the gene pool when I flipped over to the game during a commercial break in tonight's episode of Mythbusters (of course we were watching Mythbusters - be real). The girls instantly looked to the corner of the screen, where it showed the Yankees winning by a score of 4 to 1 at the time. "We're getting crushed!" they cried. "We're going to DIE!"

Optimism is not the byword of the true Philadelphia fan.

And so others celebrate somewhere else, and last year's WFCs have to go back to the drawing board for next year. On the plus side, though, I get my life back, and it was quite a ride while it lasted.

Go Phillies!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Day at the Museum

The girls were off from school on Friday, so we decided to cash in some of the furlough time that we are required but not permitted to take and go off to the museum. We'll explain it to the state somehow.

We like museums around here. I ran one for five years, and Tabitha and Lauren still miss the place - I used to take them with me sometimes when I closed up the place for the night, making the backwards loop through the buildings and locking doors behind me. And the Kid's Museum to the south of us is always a big hit, even though they're getting a bit big for the place. A couple summers ago we even spent some time at the Smithsonian, which just floored the girls.

Museums - good things.

Last August Kim and the girls went to the Milwaukee Public Museum as part of a Girl Scouts field trip, and Tabitha and Lauren have been talking about it ever since. It's the coolest! The fab! Teh Shiny! Made of pure unadulterated awesome, simmering in awesome sauce with awesome-flavored awesome-bits on the side. Naturally, they wanted Dad to see this storehouse of amazements too.

So off we went.

The Milwaukee Public Museum is in some respects a throwback - a mad jumble of haphazardly-explained artifacts, displays and hands-on exhibits that has no particular overarching theme other than being an effort to put as much odd stuff under one roof as possible. It's kind of like a college dorm that way, only without the odor of stale beer. Although this was Milwaukee, so finding that wouldn't have been all that hard, had we wanted to do so.

We elected to pass on that.

The first thing we did was go to the Butterfly Exhibit, which is a good-sized room kept uncomfortably hot and humid and filled with the tamest butterflies in the midwest - the sort of butterflies that will not only land on you if you stand still long enough, but will hit you up for spare change while doing so. The whole room is a whirl of motion, some of it from the insects and the rest from the various denominations of children that flutter about the place more frantically than the butterflies do.

Needless to say this was a highlight.

As was the display of mammoth bones.

And the large plastic bug.

The European village was also quite a thing - a room roughly the size of a lecture hall crammed with huts, each hut decorated in the ethnic style of a specific European nationality from about 1850. Some have cats. You get to this village by passing through the Milwaukee Street Scene from roughly 1900 - where you lose the fifty years I don't know - but you can't get through the Milwaukee Street Scene without hitting up the Old Fashioned Candy Store, where they do indeed sell candy from the 1950s, which is another half century added in somewhere. You have to wait until you leave to eat the candy, however, since there is no candy-eating in the museum.

It's a regular vortex o' culture, indeed it is. Plus Lemonheads.

We cruised through the mummy section, gawped at the Native American displays, and stared in awe at the dinosaur battle that was lovingly recreated for our viewing pleasure by someone with a fascination for reptilian intestines. There was geography and biology, and I enjoyed looking at the 19th-century American coins as well.

If it's old and vaguely anthropological, you'll find it at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Bring the family!

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Hallows, All the Time

We need to spread out our holidays around here.

In addition to the usual holidays that happen in the last 63 days of the year - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve - we also have all four of our birthdays plus Kim and I celebrate our wedding anniversary. It does keep the rest of the year on a relatively sane schedule, but once the leaves turn it is just WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH right through to the new year.

We got our holiday season off right, though, by squeezing both Halloween and another go-round of Lauren's birthday into this weekend.

Saturday was the Official Birthday, as opposed to the party day that we celebrated last week, and Lauren was just buzzing. Seven! Lucky number seven! We had planned to go out to dinner on Sunday as a family birthday party and open family gifts then, but really how much of a chance of success did that plan have? About as much as the Phillies seem to be having, alas.

So there was a brief interlude of happy materialism on Saturday afternoon, as Lauren dove into her family's gifts. She got quite a number of things, most of which have been well played with already - she got a number of "sculptures" from different sources, for example, and has introduced them to all her other sculptures during the nighttime game she and Tabitha sometimes play before bed.

But the big hit, at least so far, was the stilts she got from Mom and Dad. All weekend long - clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp, all around the house, followed shortly by CRASH, BAM, giggle, giggle, pause, clomp, clomp, clomp.

Why we have a television, I do not know.

Partied out temporarily, it was time to get back to Halloween! There were pumpkins to carve!

We let the girls do most of the carving this year, though we handled the big knives and the most stubborn part of the scraping. Carving pumpkins is fun, but every time I get started on it all I can think of is Linus Van Pelt's anguished cry when Lucy first sinks her knife into her pumpkin: "You didn't tell me you were going to kill it!"

But kill them we did. With malice aforethought and pumpkin guts aplenty, much to the joy of the hamsters, who will feast on pumpkin seeds for the rest of the year.


And then it was trick or treating time!

Since there was no Dave O visiting this year to stay home and hand out candy, Kim volunteered to do that and I took the girls out foraging.

There is something truly odd about marching up to people's houses and demanding candy, and them actually giving it. Odd, but reassuring - there is still generosity in the world. Though I have to admit our traffic was down all around this year - fewer kids stopping by our house, and fewer houses to hit on our neighborhood rounds. Some years are good years around here, with a hundred kids stopping by or more, but some years you're lucky to get half that. Usually that means bad times - the Halloween after 9/11 was rather sparse, for example, and last year during the onset of the Recent Economic Unpleasantness people were also thin on the ground. This year? Maybe the flu. Who knows. But we had a good time anyway, and the girls came back with reasonably full baskets of goodies.

And Tabitha can have the ones with peanuts in them this year, which just excited her no end.

Hang on to your hats, folks - the holiday season has arrived and the roller coaster has left the station.