Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Our Trip to San Francisco - Day 4

San Francisco, like New Orleans, is a city where it is exceedingly difficult to find bad food.

You can do it, of course, if that is your goal. But there are so many wonderful little restaurants in San Francisco that there is no particular reason to have that goal. I've been in towns where your best option was fast food burgers - where the comfort of predictable mediocrity was all you could hope for from the dining experience. San Francisco is not one of those towns.

Although I will admit that we skipped the place with the sign that said in big red letters, "DONUTS," and then underneath that in smaller black letters, "Teriyaki & Hamburger," and which hung over the other sign reading "Chinese Food." There is no possible combination of those things that works, and there are simply too many other options in that city.

We spent most of our last day in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences, because we are nerds and it made us very happy indeed to do so.

If you've never been there, you should go. You walk in and the first thing that greets you is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It stands jauntily in the entryway, welcoming you to the museum. Its tail points toward the gift shop. And if you know what is good for you you will stop there before you leave, or you just know it will come back to life, pick you up in its jaws, turn you upside down and shake you until your loose change pours directly into the till. You might as well get a tchotchke in return.

The first thing we did was hit the rain forest orb - a giant sphere, three stories tall and full of plants, butterflies, birds and humidity. You go up, you go down, and sometimes things land on you. They check you when you leave so you don't take the butterflies with you into the aquarium, which is what comes next.

The aquarium is actually most of a floor, with tanks full of sea critters of all different sizes, shapes and luminescence. There's even one you can walk under, so you can look up at the fish.

We had to cut that short in order to go to the planetarium, which is the other giant sphere at this place. It was quite a show - a tour of the universe from top to bottom - and after all that traveling we were hungry. So we went to the cafeteria.

I hesitate to use the word "cafeteria" to describe this place, though. There were about half a dozen stations serving better food than you could imagine, none of which was pizza, cheeseburgers or hot dogs. They had things on their menu that you've never even heard of, and they were all excellent. As well they should have been, considering that lunch for five people cost nearly as much as our airline tickets.

Our bellies full and our wallets light, we set off for the roof. It's covered in any number of carefully selected flora, and earnest guides are there to explain a) that this is not a "lawn," thank you very much, and b) how it all works, with various layers of plants, insulation, dirt, grubs, skylights, and recycled matter of varying kinds because nothing in San Francisco can be built with less than 60% post-consumer recycled matter as specified by municipal ordinance and enforced by threats of mobs with pitchforks (recycled pitchforks) and non-ozone-depleting torches. It was, admittedly, one of the more interesting roofs I have been on.

But not as interesting as the penguins.

What is it about penguins? They're birds. Ungainly birds at that. They smell like fish, they look like lounge singers, and they move like the third place finishers at a sack race. But they're just fascinating, and we spent a lot of time watching them. "Look! It moved!" we would say. And then one would swim up to us, and our day would be made.

That night Dave took us all out to Treasure Island, in the bay, so we could see the city at night. It was lovely, as you would expect, but by then the weather had turned drizzly, windy and raw, so we didn't stay long.

Nor did we stay long in San Francisco after that. We packed up our stuff, and the next morning we were back on the plane and headed home. Other than the sheer incongruity of being able to wait in the airport rather than hurtling chairs in order to make onto the plane in time, it was a pretty uneventful trip.

We did stop off for burgers on the drive home from the airport, though. We're not in San Francisco anymore, after all.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Our Trip to San Francisco - Day 3

Nobody jaywalks in San Francisco.

Nobody is that stupid - not even Tea Party members, a conglomeration of people who voluntarily chose to be identified as "teabaggers" before angrily insisting we call them something else. "Whackaloons" doesn't seem to make them any happier. Nor do "paranoid obsessives," "treasonous windbags" or any of a whole raft of similarly descriptive labels. You can't really call them "The Tea Party" with a straight face either, since tea parties usually require the sort of civility, decorum and intelligent conversation notably absent at their functions. But even those folks would know better than to try to jaywalk in a city where cars outnumber parking spaces by up to 40%. Any space large enough to step off the curb from is a potential parking place in San Francisco, even those clearly labeled as crosswalks and bus stops, and contesting those spaces with San Francisco drivers is a no-win situation. You wait at the corner for the light to change, or you die. Simple as that.

San Francisco is an educational city that way.

It's also educational in a number of other ways, such as the plethora of fine museums housed within its borders. On Day 3 of our trip out there, we decided to take advantage of this - although we did stop ahead of time at a corner sandwich shop not too far from Geoff and Dave's apartment to stock up on lunch.

Yes, we parked in the crosswalk. But the pedestrians seemed to accept this as perfectly normal and did not yell at us, vandalize the car or call the police. It's an adventure, but a cooperative adventure.

We spent much of the day at the Exploratorium, which is a giant kids' museum not all that far from Crissy Field. We got there just as it opened, which meant we actually found a parking spot that could be defined as legal, and we made it through the doors about five minutes ahead of the school groups, so we had a moment or two to scope out the place before it was swallowed up in a mass of humanity.

And what a place!

Imagine a warehouse full of giant-sized toys, all of which are educational and yet surprisingly fun. You can play with them all you want. So we did.

We took a break for lunch and went outside, where it was a beautiful spring day. We hiked down the path to the Palace of Fine Arts, which began life as an exhibit at a World Fair and was so popular they tore down the flimsy structures and built exact replicas out of actual construction materials. There's a pond - complete with all varieties of ducks, swans and sea birds looking for a handout - and even some climbing trees.

Lunch does not get better than that, even if it does involve yogurt, which Tabitha does not like.

As near as I could tell, the highlights of the museum for the girls were two. First, they had a science demonstration on the upper floor where you could watch a staffer dissect an actual cow's eye. Tabitha eventually wandered off, but Lauren was just mesmerized by the whole thing and stayed to watch every last detail. And second, they had a swinging board that they had rigged up with a marker contraption so you could make art out of it. The pictures were huge - and good luck taking them home on the airplane - but they turned out really well.

We got back to the apartment in the late afternoon, in time for some downtime. The thing about vacations is that you often spend so much of your day chasing experiences that you forget that a good part of why you are doing this is to relax a bit.

The highlight of this downtime was a short hike down the block to the Bombay Bazar (why do Indian stores always include that word and why do they always misspell it?) to browse around things that you simply cannot find in Our Little Town in Wisconsin. They had cool trinkets and exotic foods and it was just a pleasure to absorb it all. The girls even found some bangles they liked.

Geoff and the girls cooked dinner that night - spaghetti and meatballs, with a strawberry pie for dessert. It went surprisingly well.

After dinner Dave took Kim and me to Yoshi's in Oakland, which is probably the world's only combination jazz club and sushi bar. Because they mix so well, you see. It was packed, which was surprising on a Tuesday evening, but the bass player in this group - a slip of a thing named Esperanza Spaulding - is apparently an up and comer in jazz circles and people wanted to check her out. And she was indeed a talented and entertaining musician, it must be said.

I actually enjoyed the supporting cast more than the headliner of the group, a sax player named Joe. Joe was really into "hot" jazz, a musical form built on minor seconds, fast runs, syncopations, and a general sense that you're watching a play entitled, "Five Characters in Search of the Melody." But the pianist was excellent, both (both!) of the drummers were clearly having a very good time, the bass was as noted superb, and even Joe demonstrated once in a while that he could slow things down and carry a tune. And Dave's friend Motty even spotted us drinks. So it was a fine evening.

Tabitha and Lauren stayed home with Geoff and Denise to dye Easter eggs. Judging from the seventy photos that they took of the process (really - seventy), they had a grand time. Geoff taught them how to use clear nail polish as a way to create designs in multiple colors on the eggs. Methinks this may come back to haunt us later this week, when we dye our own eggs, but so be it. Sometimes you just have to live dangerously.

But not when crossing streets in San Francisco. There are limits.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Our Trip to San Francisco - Day 2

San Francisco is a triumph of urban planning over geography.

Sometime back in the middle of the nineteenth century, some enterprising public citizen turned to whatever companions were standing nearby and said to them, "You see those mountains over there? The ones that go straight up and down? The ones on the end of that peninsula sticking out into the sea, so there's no room to go around them and no place to go if there were? I'm going to put a city there, one that will have no ability whatsoever to expand when its population grows, and when I do it will have a grid-system of streets that will pay no attention to topography at all." Whereupon those companions promptly dosed him liberally with opium, dressed him in tails and had him run for Congress - anything to get him away from California.

But the next guy who had that same idea? He made it stick.

Now, we've known about this for years now - we're not newcomers to San Francisco, having visited Geoff and Dave several times before this trip. But living in the midwest, where the definition of "hill" is often a matter of conjecture and debate, it does take some time to reacclimate to a place where the notion of "flat" is similarly open to discussion. We re-discovered all this on our second day in the city, sometime shortly before lunch.

We spent the morning happily trolling the beach around Crissy Field, which is on the grounds of the Presidio, an old Army base now slowly being converted into any number of civilian uses. It is, as most places in San Francisco are, a beautifully scenic location, and not all that far from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Apparently, there used to be whales there.  They're gone, but their bones remain.

It is now a haven for dogs. In the hour or two that we spent hanging around the beach we must have seen a bezillion dogs (that's slightly less than a bejillion and rather more than a metric butt-load, for those interested in the math). They played in the surf and let the girls play with them as well, and all was meet, just and good.

Eventually we worked our way up to the gift shop (of course it had a gift shop - don't be silly), where I learned a very valuable lesson about San Francisco: never ask anyone for a plastic bag. Just don't. They will stare daggers at you, as if you had just asked them an unspeakably obscene question involving the family pet, three rubber bands and a jar of mayonnaise, and then they will icily inform you that there are no such bags to be had here, thank you very much.

At least they did that when I asked. I don't know - your mileage may vary - but I wouldn't try it if I were you.

There was also a short pier next to the gift shop where the Park Service rangers were in the process of borrowing sea creatures caught by some of the nearby fishermen so they could show them to a school group they had visiting. The fishermen were pretty cool about it, though, and they let us play with the various crabs and starfish as well. So: fun and educational.

On our way back to the Mission District for lunch, we made a detour so we could fulfill one of the conditions of the trip and drive down Lombard Street.

Lombard Street has been on Lauren's list of things to do ever since I introduced the girls to the old Bill Cosby routine, "Driving in San Francisco" - a classic that my brother and I memorized as children by listening to our parents' old 33rpm LP of it. Now get off my lawn. In that routine Cosby notes, "They built a street out there called Lombard Street that goes straight down, and they're not satisfied with you killing yourself that way. They put grooves and curves in it and then they put flowers there where they bury the people who've killed themselves. Lombard Street, wonderful street."

How could we miss this?

So we went to the top of Lombard Street, and very slowly and carefully made our way down the eight switchbacks that allow you to drive the one-block-long famous section of Lombard Street with the flowers.

And when Dave found a parking spot at the bottom (mirabile dictu) we started up on foot.

On the way up we met the mailman, who clearly drew the short straw somewhere along the line since he was hauling a pile of mail up and down a street that had stairs instead of sidewalks. But he was pleasant, and we made it to the top without incident. We even made it down to the bottom similarly unscathed - down is harder, simply because when you fall going up you just lie there, but when you fall going down you tend to roll.

Anyway, check one item off Lauren's to-do list.

Lunch was back in the Mission District, at the Pakistani restaurant around the corner from Geoff and Dave's apartment. We ordered up a storm of food that you cannot find in Our Little Town and tucked in with enthusiasm. Even Tabitha, normally not someone who will eat anything more adventurous than a plain cheeseburger (meat, cheese, bun) enjoyed the chicken biryani and - even more surprising - the rather spicy chicken dish that we got as well. There is hope after all.

Refreshed and recharged, we took the BART down to Geoff's workplace, where we bought all sorts of good snacks, were introduced to a significant chunk of the staff and had our picture taken with the cold drinks, just because we could.  We're just that way, really.

And then it was Cable Car Time!

You can't go to San Francisco and not ride the cable cars. Yes, it's touristy, but sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, people, we're tourists. And it's fun. You get used to it after a while and it becomes just another form of public transportation but it's still unspeakably cool even so. So we bought our day passes, waited in the long line, and hopped on board.

It's quite a ride, especially if you're standing on the running board, hanging on as the cable car scales the peaks of San Francisco's streets and turns corners without slowing down appreciably. Fortunately I spent five years as a volunteer firefighter back when they still had tailboards on fire engines, so all that experience came in handy.

We stopped off at the Cable Car Museum, which is essentially the central hub of the cable system with a few exhibits and a gift shop grafted onto it. If you like to see how things work, it is just amazing - they have the actual cables there running around on their gears and disappearing underneath the streets, and there are all sorts of models and actual pieces of cable cars showing you exactly how they grip the cables and make those turns. There's even a faded old movie from the 70s on a continuous loop, directed by a young Robert Altman no less, that shows you in the ponderous documentary style of the day how it all comes together. All this and free admission! It does not get better than that.  No it does not.

We hopped back on the cable car after that and headed down to Chinatown and Little Italy, which run cheek by jowl together, where we hung out at the City Lights Bookstore for a while before heading over to another one of the parks (again with the dogs - Lauren's campaign for us to get a dog reached fever pitch in San Francisco). Geoff joined us when he got off work and we found a nice Italian restaurant that managed to squeeze the six of us into tables (nothing in San Francisco has much space, and since we had to split up they gave us each a free glass of wine - cheers!) and serve us a good meal.

It was a good day, in other words.

Our Trip to San Francisco - Day 1

This "taking care of your own needs" thing is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

We just got back from nearly a week in San Francisco, followed by a frantic day of trying to do all of the normal things that one does - go to school, go to work, and so on - and today we are just hanging around not doing much of anything. The girls have spent most of the day watching television of varying quality, Kim has laid low trying to get rid of a headache, and I've been doing an exceptional job of avoiding all of the grading of papers that I have to do sometime this weekend.

But we had a very good time in San Francisco.

We left the house at 4:35am on Sunday in order to get to the airport in time for our flight and all of the assorted folderol that goes with flying these days. There was a time when flying meant getting dressed up rather than strip-searched, but that was a long time ago and you have to plan for how long it takes for all that nowadays.

And it might have been less stressful except for two things.

First, we left the house the second time at 4:55am, having gone back to get Kim's cell phone. And second, we got all the way into Milwaukee only to discover that the exit we needed to get off one highway and onto another headed toward the airport was closed for construction, so we had to wiggle our way through the city for a bit before we finally made it.

Then the line to check in was backed up pretty much all the way back to the non-functioning exit - an astonishing sight at 6:25am on a Sunday, really. Fortunately we only had one bag to check in, since they charge you for every bag these days, so that went fairly quickly. Security check went reasonably quickly as well, and then we got dressed and ran for the gate, where we made it onto the plane with about three minutes to spare. We even managed to convince people to move around so we could all sit together ("Hey, would you like to sit next to my daughter? She gets motion sick, but nothing you couldn't handle, really. Or we could trade? Your choice. Gee, thanks, mister!").  People can be surprisingly reasonable when given a chance.

And then we were airborne.

The flights were actually pretty uneventful, as you hope flights will be. We bounced our way to Kansas City, waited while our companions filed off and new ones filed on, and then flew relatively smoothly to San Francisco. The girls are pretty good travelers by now, and aside from Tabitha's refusal to do much to help her ears and a short discussion with Lauren about the precise difference between "We're descending" and "We're going down" when one is on an airplane, there isn't much to recall about the flights themselves.

Although there were some happy moments when the pretzels came out.

Uncle Wall-E (so nicknamed for his spot-on imitation of the robot) picked us up at the airport and took us back to the apartment he shares with Kim's brother Geoff, and we spent a nice day taking it easy and getting acclimated to the city.

Geoff and Dave live in the Mission District, which is sort of the concentrated essence of San Francisco in the sense of being a place where you have to recalibrate your Weird-Meter, otherwise you spend all of your time with it pegged into the red zone. It's a gloriously diverse and non-obvious place, by Wisconsin standards, and one of the many reasons we go there is to make sure that Tabitha and Lauren do not grow up confusing "familiar" with "normal" or "right" the way so many Americans seem to do these days. It's a big bright colorful world out there, folks - try not to see it in black and white.

After a delicious lunch of homemade beef stew we wandered over to a nearby park which, like most of San Francisco, sits at about a 45 degree angle. The girls ran around and burned off some energy while Kim, Dave and I (Geoff had to work that afternoon) sat and talked the way grownups insist on doing, much to the annoyance of children who have all that energy that needs to be burned up. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and we had a grand time not doing much of anything. That's what vacations are for, really.

After the park, Dave and I went to Trader Joe's to stock up on groceries for the week. It's an interesting store with lots of great stuff, though just about everything - from the baked goods to the cheeses to the wines and vegetables - is made with nuts. But we found some things that worked, because we are resourceful and clever shoppers.

After a lovely dinner of corned beef and cabbage with Denise, who lives in the apartment above, we finally crashed into a nice sleep. Geoff and Dave had set up a tent in the living room where the girls could sleep, much to their delight.

And there we were.

Friday, March 19, 2010


My bracket is in ruins. Well, that didn't take long.

It's March, and that means that once again I pay attention to college basketball. As I've noted before in this space, I'm not much of a basketball fan. There's just something about a sport where "good defense" consists of limiting your opponent to scoring only once every sixty seconds that just seems wrong to me, and on the whole I'd rather watch football. Or hockey. Or baseball. Or any number of other sports, up to and including European Cup soccer and Olympic curling, for that matter.  Even Iron Chef.

But once a year you have to get into the spirit of things and fill out your bracket for March Madness. And I did. I picked teams I'd heard of before. I picked teams where people I know went to school. I picked teams from places I've lived, places I'd like to visit, and places that were playing schools from places that should secede.

And while a few of them won, it is amazing to me here in the middle of the second day of the tournament - not even 3pm Central time - how forlorn my once proud choices are looking.

But you know, I'm okay with that.

This means that the Ohio Bobcats and the University of Northern Iowa Panthers and the Cornell whatever it is that the Cornell teams are called are all moving on. It means that Florida and Notre Dame are not. And all is right with the world.

Of course this also means that Cornell will be playing Wisconsin sometime soon, and my elitist Ivy-League background will be exposed to all of the people here in the Badger State who bother to ask me about it. Yes, they were our Bitter Rivals back in the day, but that only counts in-house and even then I couldn't get worked up enough about it to remember what they were called. "Them," I suppose. Whatever - it's not often the Ivy team actually wins a meaningful sporting event against non-Ivy competition, so I will be cheering for Them, even if it means being outed as "Not From Around Here."

I won't watch the game, of course - not unless they give those guys skates and pucks and tell them to actually hit each other if they want to commit a foul - but I'll keep track on my bracket.

Go, Them.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

They Know When You've Been Bad or Good...

I'm beginning to get a little worried about Facebook. Specifically, I'm wondering if the people who figure out what ads to send me have been drinking.

I've been on Facebook for over a year now, and I have to say I'm enjoying it. It took a while for Kim to convince me to join, but now I find it a useful way to keep up with friends - some of whom I don't hear from any other way - and engage in all sorts of pointless but entertaining reminiscing. I am now a member of a group that defines itself by having grown up in my old neighborhood in the 1960s and 70s, for example - a neighborhood that to this day does not have its own zip code. My old college dorm also has a group for alumni. And the school district in Our Little Town has its own fan page, whereby I get occasional dollops of information that I actually need.

So - Facebook. Win.

But some iterations back in their design they added a column on the right hand side for advertisements, suggestions and other things they want to push on me.

Now, I don't mind this. They need to make money in order to survive, so ads are just one more thing I put up with. And sometimes they suggest things I actually want to follow - people or groups that mean something to me.

But recently I've noticed a couple of things.

First and most amusing, Facebook has been trying to make me be friends with a guy whose blog I read. He lives in Alaska, and while I am a faithful reader of his blog and have exchanged an email or two with the guy, I'm not going stalk the poor man on Facebook. I've checked out his page and he's not one of those people with a million friends - he clearly thinks about who he accepts and doesn't, and some occasional e-acquaintance in the lower 48 probably won't cut it, nor should it.

More to the point, I have no idea why Facebook insists I befriend him. How would they know that I read his blog? Do they read my bookmarks on Firefox? I've never used Facebook to contact him, so I am a bit puzzled as to how Facebook knows to recommend him.

Does the CIA know about this algorithm? And if not, why not?

Second and rather more disturbing to me personally, over the last month or so almost all of the ads Facebook has seen fit to run on my page have been for the Republican Party.

Do these people not read my status updates? Do they pay no attention to my links? They certainly can't have found this blog. And yet the ads keep coming.

I get ads telling me to call my Congressbots and tell them to vote no on health care reform. Now, I have my problems with Obama's bill - namely that it doesn't go far enough - but I'm happy to take my half a loaf and run with it, secure in the knowledge that once the principle of the thing gets established tweaking the details will be easier. It's like Social Security that way.

I get campaign announcements from one of the conservative candidates running for Wisconsin governor - a candidate well known in Our Little Town, where the last time he ran for public office several dozen of his personal acquaintances here took out a full-page ad detailing the many reasons why he should never be entrusted with public responsibility. Even the local Catholic archbishop criticized him for being too conservative, and the dioceses here (even the Protestant ones) are notorious for their resistance to modern thought - modern being defined here as anything that can refer to Rutherford B. Hayes in the past tense.

I get campaign announcements for all kinds of right-wing candidates, actually, some of whom are living and some of whom, well, are not. You would not believe how many ads I've gotten from people trying to sell me "Reagan for President" t-shirts. I didn't vote for the guy when he was alive and I'm not sure I want a zombie president now, though it would be interesting to see what such a leader's perspective on health care reform would be. But seriously, folks - I know conservativism is supposed to worship the past, but isn't trying to elect dead people taking it a bit far?

At least liberals only ask the dead to vote.

Whatever the people at Facebook are drinking, I'd like some.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thoughts on the Late Unpleasantness in Texas

When did stupid become patriotic?

As a historian, I try to avoid thinking too hard about the periodic battles over textbook standards that emerge out of Texas every few years like zombies rising from the swamp to consume the brains of the living. Nothing good ever comes out of those battles - certainly nothing good for the education of my children or the study of American history, anyway - and all you get for paying attention is the sickening feeling of brain cells dying from exposure to people who would rather indoctrinate than educate.

Let me be clear on this:

The people who decide what the standards are for Texas - and, though the magic of the marketplace, for the civilized portion of the US as well - are clearly not capable of comprehending, let alone directing, the study of American history. They seek to recreate a United States that never existed in the first place. They seem to feel that this nation was composed entirely of white people and happy dancing slaves, once upon a time, and was founded on Christian beliefs of the most extreme and narrow-minded variety. They worship at the altar of Hoover and Reagan and would just as soon our children never hear the words Kennedy or Roosevelt. Either Roosevelt. They live in a wing-nut fantasy land of laissez-faire economics and theocracy that would be unrecognizable to the vast majority of Americans since 1607, up to and including the Founding Fathers they say they know better than the rest of us do. They claim to be conservatives, and yet are utterly, appallingly ignorant of what they claim to be conserving.

And they want your children to be similarly ignorant.

The money quote in all this, by the way? This comes from the chairman of the committee that wrote these new educational standards, a dentist by trade. "Someone has to stand up to the experts," he said.

Consider that statement for a moment. Experts - in this case historians, people like myself who have spent significant portions of their lives actually examining the evidence at hand and trying to understand the reality of the past rather than simply assuming that the past conformed to their private fantasies - are, by definition, people who know more about a subject than most people do. Apparently in Texas the more you know the less you are to be trusted. Conversely, one assumes, the less you know the more control you should be given over education, and the closer you approach to negative intelligence - the more you can suck facts out of a room simply by walking in and opening your mouth - the more authority you should have.

We should have let them secede when we had the chance.

Now, none of this is new. This has been going on for decades now, with every iteration of the process bringing it one step further along on the trail of making sure our children know nothing but partisan dogma. You'd think I would be used to it by now.

But I'm not. And I see no reason why I should be.

I think the final straw for me was when this collection of Solons decided to remove Thomas Jefferson from the standards and replace him with John Calvin. Because the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence is clearly not as important to American history as a Frenchman who burned heretics at the stake in Geneva decades before the American colonies were founded.

I will not let my children be ignorant. I will not let them be used by the stupid to further their political agendas. I will not stand idly and watch my discipline and my country reduced to craven submission to ideological fantasy.

Here I stand. I can do no other.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Merry Spring

I took down the Christmas lights today.

Yes, I know it's March. It's Pi Day, in fact - 3.14, when all good citizens of this great land should go out and have a tasty dessert full of sugary goodness. Make mine a tart cherry pie, or a chocolate silk pie. And I'll do my best to reduce its radius forthwith. Because I'm just mathematical that way.

We lost our lawn well before Christmas, and only now, after a week of Dickensian fog and occasional torrential rains, is the town not covered in snow. We didn't get the horrendous storms that they got out east this year, but we got enough that I thought to myself, "Self, I am not getting up on a ladder in the snow to take down a bunch of lights that didn't work anyway."

And if I wasn't going to do that, then it didn't seem worthwhile to take down the little spiral tree-like thing that I put on the lawn itself, either. They were a set, really. It seemed a shame to take down one and not the other.

But now they're gone, and technically I got this done while it was still winter.

Spring is coming, though.  Heh heh heh.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Magnum Trivium Redux

And again: if you want trivia, go to the source.

Last night the team from Home Campus swept the field in the local literacy council's trivia contest, for the second year running - our fourth trivia victory in a row over the last two years. This may be getting somewhat counterproductive, as neither Local Tech nor Nearby Private College bothered to field a team this time. I think we've intimidated them. And while this feels good from a competitive standpoint, it does lessen the effectiveness of these events as fundraisers. Perhaps we'll retire after this - go out on top, leaving only fond memories and the afterglow of our blaze of glory on the communal retina.

It's a small blaze, but it's ours.

They changed the format a bit this year. In addition to the two rounds of questions (over which we scored a cumulative 94% - don't mess with academics when it comes to trivia) there was a round of "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader?" which featured a team of people randomly chosen from the various teams (ours not among them) facing off against a team of actual fifth-graders from nearby Isolationist President Elementary. The grown-ups won by a point. Either we're not as bright as we like to think we are or the educational system in Our Little Town is doing a pretty good job with the fifth-graders.

At the end they had us face off against the second-place team - a team from the local hospital that at one time used to taunt us with claims of being the "real" doctors, as opposed to us mere PhDs, although they don't do that much anymore. Hey - I don't treat broken bones, you don't pretend to have stockpiles of useless information. We'll all be happier that way. But instead of being team-oriented, the final round was up on stage in front of everyone in a Family Feud sort of style, where you had to go up on your own and press the buzzer and answer the question. I got the history questions, naturally, and with the Dean in the audience there was no pressure at all. None. It's just my job on the line, really.

But we won, and I got two of my three questions correct (who was the last English king to die in battle, anyway?), and now the large and ungainly trophy below will safely reside at Home Campus for another year.

Maybe we should treat it like the Stanley Cup and everyone gets to take it home for a week.

Go us!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Invisible Man

I spent last night at Lauren’s Daisy troop meeting blowing up balloons. That is one of the benefits of being a historian – one always has a steady supply of hot air.

I go to a lot of these meetings. Lauren’s Daisy troop meets every other Tuesday at Greatest President Elementary, while Tabitha’s Junior troop meets on the off-cycle Mondays at Rigid Moralist President Elementary, a mile or two away. I am not sure why Our Little Town decided to name all of its elementary schools after presidents or why they chose these particular presidents, but it does make for some interesting history lessons and that’s all to the good.

Nobody ever names schools after Chester Alan Arthur, though. Or Franklin Pierce. Or Benjamin Harrison. We've had some pretty dismal presidents in our time, and I'm sure they'll all get their own schools eventually - somewhere deep in the heart of a county where ten gallon hats have never gone out of style and irony is thought to be a town in Mexico I am sure there are plans even now for grade-schoolers to attend an institution of edumacashun named after our most recent ex-president - but nobody thinks to name schools for the earnest non-entities like Arthur. I find this terribly sad, since in some sense he is a role model for us all. It's astonishing how high you can advance in society without any particular talent or agenda, and that's comforting, really.

But that isn't much to do with the Girl Scouts.

The thing about these meetings is that they are very much the preserve of women, even beyond the fact that they are Girl Scouts events. The leaders are women, the parents who hang around are almost all women – it makes me stand out a bit, it does. I get this when I volunteer at PTA events at Not Bad President Elementary, too, where I am often the only adult present with a Y chromosome.

They never know quite what to do with me there.

When Kim goes to these things she gets pulled in to the fray – asked to pitch in, detailed with part of the task load, and so on – whereas most of the time I am simply left alone. They don't even talk to me much. It’s like I’m not supposed to be there at all. I don’t get the feeling that I’m intruding, really, just that I’m rather like a polka-dot cat. Interesting, but what do you do with it?

I read Jasper Fforde's most recent book, Shades of Grey, recently, and there's a character in there who never gets a name but is referred to simply as "the naked man." Officially he does not exist, and therefore people simply refuse to see him. So he wanders in and out, taking food off people's plates, living in people's houses, and generally existing the hell out of his days despite the party line.

It's like that, only with clothes.

This is why I go to so many of these meetings, by the way. Not the naked thing, but the not-there thing. By the end of the day Kim is tired and being dragooned into serving as a junior troop leader is not what she bargained for, whereas I can just go and be not-there. The downside is that she’s much better at remembering the little details, such as when the next meeting will be held and what paperwork has to be filled out beforehand. It’s rather more exciting when I’m in charge, in a “we’ll figure out the next meeting when we get there” sort of way, but excitement is overrated when it comes to paperwork.

So I sit there and read, or grade papers, or prep for classes, or – once in a while – do something useful like blow up balloons, a stray man in a woman’s world. With clothes. I can't emphasize that enough. With clothes.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alley Cats

Well, I clearly need to turn in my Man Card. I turned down a free ticket to go see the Milwaukee Bucks play the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight and instead ended up taking the girls to see a local high school production of Cats.

We met up with a friend of theirs and her dad, had a nice dinner (well, a serviceable dinner - buffet places are good for that and no more - but the conversation was lively) and made it to the show with minutes to spare. We even managed to get seats that were more or less together, way over on house left, which was quite a feat. The box office lady told us we should go buy lottery tickets tonight.

They sure are more ambitious in high school theater departments these days than they were when I was part of one. We would never have tried something like this - it was all we could do to manage Oklahoma! Although it did hit me about halfway through the show that Cats has about the same chronological relationship to these students that Oklahoma! did to us, debuting on Broadway about a decade before they were born. This made me feel older than I wished to feel. I'm getting used to that, though

The students did a creditable job, really. They were strong on the dancing aspects, particularly, and the set was clever. The singing was, well, earnest. There really wasn't anyone in the cast with a particularly strong voice, though the choral numbers were well done. The director was big on quarter notes where a little syncopation would have gone well, and I get the feeling he emphasized the idea of restraint a bit more than he should have - come on, people, this was from the 80s, the decade that defined "wretched excess;" live it up a little - but overall it wasn't bad.

After the show Tabitha, Lauren and their friend Isabelle took off into the lobby where the cast members were milling around, each armed with a program and a pen. Lauren was content to walk around and gaze at the fully-costumed actors, but the older girls ended up with a fair amount of autographs from the cast. They had a wonderful time.

Honestly, a musical about cats - how could they not have a good time?

As for me, I'm sure I enjoyed this more than I would have enjoyed a professional basketball game. Kim went to the game, though - she used to be the statistician for her high school and college basketball teams, so she understands the sport in a way that escapes me now - and since she didn't have to keep stats, she could just relax and enjoy it.

So it was a win all around.

I suppose I should do something manly now, just to even things out.  Perhaps I will find a power tool of some kind and build something.  Or perhaps I'll just let the emergency room doctors have the night off instead.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Deep in the Bard-o

I finally read King Lear this week. I'm not sure it did any good.

One of my favorite genres of literature (and yes, I am the kind of person who can use that phrase without any appreciable irony - I'm loads of fun at parties) does not have a name, as far as I know. It's the one where stories are retold from the perspective of minor characters - the sorts of characters who flit about the margins of the main story without doing a whole lot to the overall plot, and you kind of wonder what they were thinking and how they got themselves mixed up in all this. Hamlet is a much different story when you hear it from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and The Wizard of Oz takes on a whole new overtone when it's the Wicked Witch of the West doing the explaining.

So I was pleased when I found out that one of my favorite authors had come out with his own take on King Lear.

And then I thought, hmmmm. Maybe I ought to read the original, just to see what the jokes are about.

You see, despite being, by any objective standard, thoroughly overeducated, I had never actually read what many scholars regard as the finest play ever written in the English language - a play whose towering majesty dwarfs all other plays as a real Philadelphia cheesesteak dwarfs all other sandwiches. All other drama looks up to the cheesy, beefy goodness of King Lear and despairs.

Excuse me while I get a snack.

This omission from my literary experiences is somewhat surprising, given that I actually took an ENTIRE COURSE on Shakespeare, once upon a time (a phrase that does not appear anywhere in the Bard - you could look it up). We had a great deal of fun with MacBeth, and we slogged through all fifteen hundred densely packed hours of Hamlet, but never made it to Lear.

And now I had a new book, and in the spirit of my head-long collision with Pride and Prejudice last year, I figured I should read the original before I read the satire.

It went about as well as it did the last time.

Because Shakespeare? That wasn't English he was writing. Oh, I'm sure historians of language will insist that it was - I even said that a couple of paragraphs back, as I recall. But I was clearly insane when I said that, and so are they. This is some sort of related tongue, like Dutch, where it looks like English if you're not paying attention but when you do clue yourself in a bit you realize that either a) this is some form of absurdist off-color humor full of phrases that sound like they might make sense but are probably just euphemisms, or b) it's Dutch. Only it's Shakespeare. Who wasn't Dutch, as far as I know, but might as well have been.

The fact that I had a head cold the entire time I was reading this play and could barely make sense of traffic signs, let alone a serious work of theater, might have had something to do with this too. You can't tell with these things.

So I made it through, and now I am reading the new one - Fool, by Christopher Moore, which is of course told from the perspective of the castle guard.

Just kidding! It's the scullery maid.

It's a good book so far, as I expected it to be - Moore writes some of the funniest dialogue out there these days - but it will likely not be read 400 years from now.

Then again, neither is King Lear, apparently.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stories of the Theater

Tabitha got the part she auditioned for in the big Not Bad President Elementary School Play, to be performed in May. She will tread the boards as Red Riding Hood, and will, with any luck, remain uneaten by wolves or drama critics.

Theater runs deep in this family.

I spent the better part of my high school and college years backstage - building sets, hanging lights, and occasionally branching out into more arcane fields such as publicity. Once I ended up in the orchestra pit, turning pages for the pianist - which was a pretty neat trick considering the rudimentary nature of my score-reading skills at that point in my life. I continued doing this sort of thing (lighting and sets, not score-page turning) after I graduated from college, too - I spent a year doing it professionally, and then picked up little bits and pieces here and there right through to this past year. Have wrench, will travel.

The thing I always loved about the theater - aside from the people, who were generally a fun bunch - is that it is a natural laboratory for stories. For one thing, it is all about stories - the whole point is to tell a story, to hold an audience's attention for a few hours with sound and fury, whatever it may signify. And for another, well, the audience never does get the good stories. Those go on backstage. If you've ever wondered why the tech crew is laughing themselves silly during a dramatic scene, it's because they know what's SUPPOSED to be happening. You only get to see what actually is happening.

They're not always the same.

When we did Hair, back in my undergraduate days, the director decided that it would be really groovy (hey, it was a play about the 60s - they talked like that) if, at the end of the first act, all the actors would run around the theater, through the aisles, dancing and singing. This actually worked better than you'd think, except that on the opening night the lead actor decided to pay a visit to us folks running the lighting board in the back of the house. Weir was a great guy but as an actor he was not really attuned to the mysteries of "cables" or why they tend to run along the floor or why having them plug all the way into the lighting board was generally considered sound theatrical practice, so when he tripped over the cables and crashed into the board he didn't see it as all that much of a problem.

To be honest, neither did we, at least not until the beginning of the second act, when we noticed that the play seemed a bit darker than it had during rehearsals.

Fortunately this was during the acid-trip scene, when things were supposed to look messed up. Eventually we figured out what the problem was and put the main cable all the way back into the lighting board - Voila!  Lights! - and made a mental note to tell the actors not to come visit us until the show was over.

The audience never suspected a thing, and we spent the rest of the evening trying not to laugh too loudly, since we were only about three feet behind the last row of seats and we didn't want to distract the audience.  You've got to maintain the illusion that you meant it to work out that way, no matter how it works out.  It's good training for life that way.

Such is theater. Welcome aboard, Tabitha. Break a leg, or - as we used to say in lighting - blow a lamp.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Lauren and I played with the world tonight.

Lauren got a globe for Christmas - a very nice one that lights up from the inside when you push a button and reveals the constellations visible from wherever you happen to be. You have to turn out all the lights to see this, and eventually the constellations will shut themselves off so it makes a sub-optimal night light, but this feature never fails to make Lauren happy.

You also need batteries that aren't dead, but that is another issue for another time.

When I was a bit older than Lauren I had a globe of my own. It didn't light up, and the countries were a bit different then (does anybody remember West Germany? or British Honduras? most of my students down at Home Campus don't even remember the Soviet Union anymore, which I find both comforting and depressing in roughly equal amounts) but I was every bit as enamoured of that thing as Lauren is of hers.

When my dad's grandmother died in the early 1970s, my grandmother came to live with us. As I've noted before in this space, I don't know what the parenting manuals would have said about her but, for any number of reasons, she was a lot of fun for a young boy to have around. I still laugh whenever I am asked to find anything, in large part because of her.

One of the games we used to play was to take the globe and spin it, and then put our finger down somewhere and make it stop. And then we'd discuss the idea of traveling there. This could be tricky on a planet whose surface area was 70% water, 10% countries on the other side of the Cold War, and 1% Deep South, but we managed to have a good time anyway. It was as close as we got to traveling, and that was close enough for us.

Lauren likes to play "Find the Country." She'll pick one at random and tell you the color, and then you have to guess which one it was. It does solve the water and Deep South problems, and the Cold War is just another mental relic these days. We had a good time.

Although teaching her were Andorra was may have been counterproductive. It's hard to find a country that doesn't have room to run its own national marathon.