Thursday, September 30, 2010

At Play in the Fields of the Corn

Saturday was Corn Maze day here in Our Little Town.

Every year one of the farms around here devises a maze in one of their corn fields. There’s a different theme for each maze, and they take aerial photos so you can appreciate the artistry of it. And you really do have to appreciate the artistry of it, in a “think about how much better the planet would be if people put this kind of effort into real issues instead of stuff like this” kind of way. But people don’t, so all that is left to do is enjoy the stuff they do put effort into. Like corn mazes.

And hot cider donuts, which can be had in the barn/gift-shop/snack-bar just a few steps away from the corn maze. Really, there is nothing better than fresh hot cider donuts on a brisk fall day, especially if they come with a nice tall glass of apple cider on the side.

Fall – the best season of the year.

It was a bright, brisk fall day when we went. We had gotten some kind of coupon for the mazes that we thought would get us in for half price but turned out to be a fundraiser for Not Bad Elementary. We paid regular price, and the school got half, which sounded okay by us.

And into the maze we went.

It's a lot warmer in those corn fields than out on the open, I'll tell you that. No wonder the children hide there.

If I ever have to save the world by navigating through fields of corn with only a ballpoint pen and a map, we’re in good shape.  We followed the maze - both mazes, actually, since this year there were two: the normal one and the "impossible" one that turned out to be fairly possible even so - around to all of the various stations, punching our map with the clicker that they have hanging there. At the end you turn the map in with all the punches and you get a chance to win a prize.

This may be more than we bargained for.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

She Turned Me Into A Newt, But I Got Better

This working for a living thing, it’s really eating into my blogging time.

I have a number of things I want to write about, but they will have to wait until I have time to get them organized in my head. This stuff doesn’t happen by itself, you know. It may seem effortless and flowing (or lazy and rambling – however you want to phrase it) but it’s a labor of love.

And right now all my labor is going into other things.

So for now I will just tell a story, one of my favorites from my US1 class and one I will get to tell tomorrow, as Monday’s class ran long and I didn’t get to it then. There are a number of versions of this story, most of which vary slightly in one detail or another, but this is the story as it was told to me.

Did you know that Pennsylvania had its own witchcraft trial?

Everyone knows the famous ones in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The Puritans made sure of it, for one thing – they were quite proud of themselves. And if you can get into their heads a bit, you can almost understand why. The 1670s, 1680s and early 1690s were miserable times in New England for a lot of reasons. The Puritans lived in a mental world where everything had a spiritual cause and purpose – a world saturated with religion in a way modern Americans, even the most fervent evangelicals roistering about on the Christian right, simply cannot grasp. In a world where everything is spiritual, clearly their problems were spiritual, and spiritual problems call for spiritual solutions. Witches are in the Bible. The Bible is fairly clear that they are not the sort of people Puritans ought to be tolerating (not that Puritans tolerated anyone who wasn’t Puritan – that was the whole point of setting up New England, after all, not to have to do that). Get rid of the witches and the secular problems go away too, because they really weren’t secular problems at all.

Q. E. D.

Everybody always asks why the witchcraft trials happened in Salem, but the real question is why they didn’t happen everywhere else. And when they did happen, why did they end up so differently? They all read the same Bible. If God had servants, then it just stood to reason that the Devil had them too. Why not have the same results?

If you boil it down, the answer is basically this: not everyone was as saturated with spirituality as the Puritans. Not everyone saw the world as just a physical manifestation of religious currents the way they did. And when you take that out of the equation, things turn out different.

Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers in 1682, and was owned by William Penn, lock, stock and barrel – that’s what being the proprietor of a colony meant. It was his, just like his shoes were, and he could do what he wanted with it. Fortunately, mostly what he wanted was to establish a refuge for Quakers and anyone else who promised to get along and not make trouble.

His main town, Philadelphia, was built not far from a former Swedish colony, and there were still a few Swedes floating around when he got there. One of them was an old woman named Margaret Mattson, who lived near Ridley Creek in what is now Delaware County, just outside the modern city of Philadelphia and not all that far from where I grew up. Mattson quickly found herself accused of being a witch and of doing the sorts of things that witches did back then – casting spells, flying through the air on a broomstick, bewitching animals, and so on. And in 1683 she went to trial.

William Penn himself presided over this trial, and as 17th-century judges were wont to do he took a much more active role in the questioning than modern judges do.

He started big. “Art thou a witch?” he asked Mattson, in the pointedly familiar style that Quakers used. No, she replied.

He then went through the list of the things she had been accused of, asking her if she had done any of them. Mattson’s answer was always no.

Finally he asked, “Hast thou ever ridden thine broomstick through the night sky over Philadelphia?”

Now, imagine this from Margaret Mattson’s perspective. Here she is, on trial for her life. She barely speaks the language – some versions of this story have it that she didn’t speak English at all and there were interpreters involved – and her questioner is the proprietor of the entire colony, the biggest of the big wigs, the weightiest Quaker in the New World. It was a little intimidating.

And she got so flustered that she said yes, yes she had in fact ridden her broomstick through the night sky over Philadelphia.

Tradition has it that at this point William Penn paused and thought about that for a moment. And then he turned to the prosecutor and said that as far as he was aware, that wasn’t illegal in Philadelphia.

And at that point the trial was effectively over.

Mattson was convicted of having the reputation of a witch, though not of actually being a witch, and released. Pennsylvania never again tried anyone on charges of witchcraft.

It’s a great story, and I wish it were as widely known as the other, more tragic one in Salem.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In Defiance of Emerson

After nearly three decades, I have finally filled my quote book.

When I was in 9th grade it occurred to me that I did not have a quote for my senior yearbook. I have no idea why this thought occurred to me three years in advance. It’s not like I’m all that good at planning ahead for stuff that actually matters, let alone figuring out what pithy little thing I was going to have them print under my yearbook picture when I left high school. But for some reason, this struck 14-year-old me as a crisis that needed to be addressed.

So I started writing down quotes that struck me as interesting, or particularly well said, or simply evocative of larger things. For a while I kept this collection on random scraps of paper, but even at that age the random-scrap-of-paper quotient in my world was high enough that the various categories of random scraps were hard to keep straight, and eventually I went out and bought a blank book to write them down.

It was a lot easier to keep track of than the random scraps, at least.

The thing is, though, that I discovered that I enjoyed collecting quotes. Sometimes I liked them because of what they said or how they said it, and sometimes it was just the context in which I discovered them – reading a book I particularly liked, or hearing them from certain people at certain times of my life. There are a number of quotes in there that probably won’t mean anything to anyone but me, but I remember where I was and who I was with when I heard them, and you know, it’s my book.

But now it’s full and I need to go out and find another one.

In the meantime, here are some of my favorites:

  • Sometimes I would rather have people take away years of my life than to take away a moment. (Pearl Bailey)
  • Learn what the magician knows and it’s not magic anymore. (Richard Bach)
  • I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use. (Galileo)
  • Is it progress if a cannibal uses a knife and fork? (Stanislaw Lec)
  • Preach not to others what they should eat, but eat as becomes you, and be silent. (Epictetus)
  • On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time. (George Orwell)
  • Not knowing what they are dealing with, they understandably have small success in dealing with it. (Erving Goffman)
  • Real men don’t own pink cats. (Keith McKay)
  • You think you can put up a kind of shield. But remembering don’t come to a man face forward – it corners around sideways. (Carson McCullers)
  • You live and learn, and you die and forget. (Ray Lum)
  • Peace is an idea we have deduced from the fact that there are intervals between wars. (Gwynne Dyer)
  • You can’t simplify complicated things, but you can make them understandable. (John Madden)
  • Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people. (Heinrich Heine)
  • When skating on thin ice, one’s safety is in one’s speed. (Martin Greenberg)
  • God writes a lot of comedy. The trouble is He’s stuck with a lot of bad actors who don’t know how to play funny. (Garrison Keillor)
  • If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. (Thomas Pynchon)
  • Never try to sell a house that’s full of termites to a guy with a wooden leg. (Bud Grace)
  • Life is short. Live it up. (Nikita Khrushchev)
  • You don’t know what good advice is until you know what you wish you had known before you did something. (Mike Naragon)
  • You think what I do is playing God, but you presume you know what God wants. Do you think that’s not playing God? (John Irving)
  • When a well-clothed philosopher on a bitter winter’s night sits in a warm room well-lighted for his purpose and writes with pen and ink in the arbitrary characters of a highly developed language the statement that civilization is the result of natural laws and that man’s duty is to let nature alone so that untrammeled it may work out a higher civilization, he simply ignores every circumstance of his existence and deliberately closes his eyes to every fact within range of his faculties. (Lester Ward)
  • Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. (Philip K. Dick)
  • It is a black art, the writing of history, is it not? To resurrect the dead and animate their bones, as historians do? I think historians must be melancholy creatures, rather like poets, perhaps, or doctors. (Patrick McGrath)
  • It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • My father taught me to work. He did not teach me to love it. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. (G. K. Chesterton)
  • Children see magic because they look for it. (Christopher Moore)
  • I believe there is a God. I believe that God is merciful and just. But if man desires to destroy himself, I believe God will not save him. (Whitney R. Harris, prosecutor, Nuremburg War Crimes Trials)
  • One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. (Bill Moyers)
  • There are times when everything that you can do has been done and there’s nothing for it now but to curl up and wait for the thunder to die down. (Terry Pratchett)
  • When you mix politics and religion, you get politics. (Rev. Gene Carlson)
  • The tree of nonsense is watered by error, and from its branches swing the pumpkins of disaster. (Nick Harkaway)
  • You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them. (Malcolm Forbes)

That’s enough for now. Probably too much, but I call “author’s prerogative” and declare that I’m leaving them in anyway.  Being a blogger comes with very little in the way of powers, but this is one of them.

And my senior quotes?

I started with one that I typed it up and turned in before deciding that it was just too cynical (no matter how appropriate or valid) and replacing it with two others.

The one I replaced was, “If you keep your mind sufficiently open, people will throw a lot of rubbish into it.” (William A. Orton).

The ones that took its place were “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” (Susan Ertz) and an in-joke reference to one of my dad’s favorite sayings at the time, “Teach a donkey a few tricks and you’ve got a smart-ass on your hands.”

And so you do.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Kids and Time

Last week a friend of mine who does not have children asked me what the biggest difference having kids made in my life.

There are a lot of them, really. It’s hard to pick one or two. But I came up with an answer, and the more I think about it, the more I think I was onto something. I don’t get that feeling very often, so naturally I figured I had to put it up here.

Of all the things that the girls have taught me, the one that stood out during that phone call was that they made me think about the world beyond just me.

Now, I knew this even before I had kids. There are a lot of people in the world with concerns and issues that aren’t mine. The world was here long before I was (trust me, I’m a historian, I know these things), and it will continue long after I am gone. None of that was news.

But it hits home more when you have children.

I’m 44 years old now. Realistically, if all goes well, I’ve got maybe 35 more years left on this planet. Perhaps a bit more – my family is rather long-lived on average. Perhaps a bit less – most of that longevity is confined to the female half of the family, and you never know what is going to come down the pike even in the best of times. But from a demographic perspective, another three to three and a half decades is probably close.

This means that if it were just me, realistically I wouldn’t have to worry about anything that would happen after 2045. I wouldn’t be here to see it. It wouldn’t affect me directly. And while there is always that sense of larger responsibility that you have toward communities, the fact is that a short-term perspective is all too common in that context.

But in 2045 Tabitha will be about my age now and Lauren will be just a few years younger. They too will have another 35 years or so to go on this planet. And you think about that, as a parent, in a way that you don’t when you’re not, at least in my experience. It’s personal now. These little people that you have brought into the world are going to have to live in that world long after you are gone, and it becomes important to you what that world will look like. You need to plan for the long term, longer even than you will be around. It’s not just retirement – it’s posterity.

In short, you find yourself much more tied into the fabric of the ongoing human community. It’s not just you. It’s your family. And that family is embedded in the community around you, a community that needs you – yes, you personally – to work to make it better now so that it will be better then.

And this sense of community fabric works backwards, too.

I find myself more anxious to preserve stories and memories now that there is someone to pass them on to, someone for whom they’ll have more meaning than just random bits of historical trivia.

Not that there’s anything wrong with random bits of historical trivia (vide supra, “trust me, &c.”), but that sort of thing doesn’t hold your interest for very long. When I was at the museum we were deluged with random bits of historical trivia that people had lost interest in. That’s where most of our collections came from. Their grandparents passed away and up in the attic they found all sorts of old photos, objects and whatnot that they had never seen before and didn’t know anything about. So they gave them to us. It was that or landfill them.

Objects without stories just take up space.

So when the girls ask to look through old photos or want to know what the story is behind a knick-knack here or there, I try to tell them the stories behind them so these things will have some meaning for them. It’s an ongoing struggle to do that, with the demands on one’s time that everyone has these days, and I don’t always succeed in pushing those demands back enough to make room for those stories. But I try, because it’s important.

And if I succeed, perhaps they will see themselves as part of that larger fabric as well, of family and community that preceded them and will last beyond them.

Of course, they may not really get that until they have children of their own, and as this would make me a grandfather, I suppose that would be just fine too.

No rush, though.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back to the Future

Saturday was Old World Wisconsin day here.

If you’ve never been to Old World Wisconsin, you should. It’s one of the large number of things in Wisconsin that are kind of hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but not as sooty as the Thresheree or as twisted as The House on the Rock.

There is a reason why Neil Gaiman set part of a book at The House on the Rock. No other genre does it justice.

But Old World Wisconsin is more straightforward. It is a giant, open-air museum dedicated to the recreation of 19th-century Wisconsin life, though perhaps “recreation” is not quite the right word. They’re a bit more authentic than that. At some point in the distant past (defined as “before I got here and far enough back that finding out the answer would require real research, and thus we remain satisfied with mythology”) the state decided that it would be a really cool idea to scoop up several dozen historic buildings from all over and plop them down into ethnic villages on nearly 600 acres of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

And you know what? It really was cool. Who’d have thought?

This is a place that the girls like, and we try to encourage their interest in historical things. We’ve been there before, but not since the tornado landed in their parking lot this past summer. So it was quite a shock, actually, when we got there.

The bottom picture is what the parking lot used to look like, and if you look closely at the top left of the dotted area you can see the roof of the round barn that serves as the cafeteria. The barn is a whole lot more visible in the top picture, which was taken a couple of days after the tornado hit.

Fortunately none of the historic structures were damaged. We found out why when we visited the German village (containing farm houses built by – wait for it – German immigrants). Those old buildings are held together by mortar & tenon joints, which flex a lot more than nailed joints do, according to the guy dressed as a 19th-century German farmer.

Well, there you go. Not all progress is progress.

We had a grand time cruising through several of the villages – you can’t possibly see it all in one day, even with the trams they provide to get you from one village to the next. We listened to any number of interpreters describe the lives that were led by those who had built those homes and farms originally. Tabitha even won second prize in a “declaiming contest” at the County Fair they were holding at one of the villages.

I was impressed with the roving brass bands that they had prowling about. You never know when a brass band will pop up – they are surprisingly stealthy. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s true.

Lauren was most excited by the cemeteries that had been reconstructed around the African-American homestead. She tells us she is fascinated by graveyards, so perhaps we will have to do a bit of exploring around Our Little Town, where there are a few older ones.

We told her she looked like Rod Stewart. She had no idea who that was. We’re not really sure if this is a bad thing or not.

Greetings from Old World Wisconsin!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pool Night

I spent last night playing pool.

This is not a game I am any good at, though I do enjoy it. So when a friend of mine invited me over to one of his “guys’ pool nights,” I thought I’d go. I’ve been to a couple of them before and enjoyed them.

I learned to play pool in a church.

When I was a kid, most of the Sundays I spent in church I spent in the basement, where the Sunday school was. We’d sit up in the nave for the first half of the service, and then – in a rite of rather dubious religious significance, now that I think about it – the flag-bearers would come down the aisle, one with the American flag and one with what we were told was the Episcopal flag, do-si-do at the end, and head back up to the front. The American flag was always supposed to be on the right for some reason. And we kids would follow along behind them and out the door, to head down to the basement, while the grown-ups listened to the sermon. I think they envied us.

And there in the basement I learned all of the basics of Christianity as well as a few social skills that have served me well since then – notably that one should know one’s audience prior to making any jokes.

I’m not sure when it occurred to us that in one of those rooms was a pool table, and it certainly never occurred to us that this was in any way odd until much, much later. You just knew that in the first room on the right after you came down the stairs – the unfinished one that led to the boiler room – there was a fully-equipped pool table.

We played for souls.

We spent a lot of happy hours down there in that room, the bunch of us, especially during the annual Church Fair when the basement was set up as a midway - it was a small church, and the kids anywhere close to my age I could count on my fingers.  We didn't know many of the actual rules except that you generally tried to get the 8-ball in last, but we made up our own.

So I’m not unfamiliar with the game, despite the evidence presented last night.  They did insist on using actual rules, though, so that might explain my results.  My talent cannot be confined by artificial rules.

Nor can it be discerned by high-powered instruments, but that is another story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Adventures in Home Repair

We may have to mudjack the driveway again sometime soon. I’m a bit concerned about this, however. It didn’t go so well last time.

Because our house is about three paces too wide for the lot it currently sits on (which is not the lot it was built on) our driveway runs right along the north foundation wall. The joint where they meet has always been problematic because water gets down into it, seeps through the wall and runs into our basement. I may not be Mr. Fixit, but even I know this is suboptimal.

Over the years we have tried a number of remedies. We put this stuff called “bridge tape” - eight-inch-wide asphalt tape – over the joint once, and that held up for a couple of years. But the root of the problem was that the driveway slabs angled water toward the house rather than away. So one hot summer a number of years ago we decided solve this problem at its source and have somebody come over, drill strategic holes in the various slabs, and pump slurry underneath so as to jack the slabs up and angle them away from the house.

This worked just fine, really. It did exactly what we wanted it to do, in fact.  But as always with home repair projects, there was a small unforeseen complication.

The mudjacking, as intended, raised the driveway edge closest to the house by a couple of inches. This in turn created a gap between the driveway slabs and the house. The mudjacker told me that he could fill that gap for an unholy amount of money, or I could just fill it with sand to about a half-inch from the top and fill the rest in with self-leveling concrete caulk. As he really did not want to hang around any longer, not even for the astonishing sums quoted, he assured me that even I, historian though I might be, could handle this job.

Now, two things you should keep in mind at this point. First, it’s self-leveling because it’s very liquid at the time of application – it has the consistency of latex paint and takes about a week to cure fully. And second, I am the proud owner of two cats with the collective brainpower of Who Hash.

These are not good things to have in combination.

It was a hot day when I did the caulking, but the guy was right – even I could handle this job. When I was finished, I headed off toward a well-deserved shower, at the end of which I heard an awful caterwauling coming from somewhere.

I figured that someone had locked one or both of the cats in the closet again, something that happened fairly often with the girls being as young as they were at the time. You got used to it, really, and the standard procedure was for whoever stopped laughing first to go and let them out. So I made my way downstairs, only to find Kim standing over the kitchen sink scraping caulk off of one very annoyed grey cat. Apparently Mithra had decided that liquid caulk would be fun to roll around in – perhaps as a complement to her coat, since it was about the same color.

She was very, very wrong.  Oh, so wrong.

Kim managed to get most of the caulk off, leaving Mithra looking like a radiation victim for a while, with random patches of bald scattered around her body. But there was one big clump of caulk right at the end of her tail that was too close to the skin to remove, so Kim figured she’d let the fur grow out a bit before trimming it off.

Do you know what cats do with their tails? I had never really had occasion to consider this before. It turns out that they twitch them back and forth a great deal, particularly when they are annoyed – which, having a large clump of dried caulk on the end of her tail, Mithra was continuously for about two weeks before we got it off. She especially liked to let us know how annoyed she was while perched on the hardwood floor.

It was like living with a metronome.

You’d be sitting there, quietly doing something, minding your own business, when you would slowly become aware of a rhythmic noise in the background – clip, clop, clip, clop, clip, clop – and you’d look over and there she’d be, The Tell-Tale Cat, reminding you of your sins.

I don’t have a lot of time or energy left over for sinning anymore, but even so – it does give me pause when I think about mudjacking the driveway again.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Oh, this cannot be good.

After two years of this blog (really – passed that milestone on September 4, with about as much fanfare as I usually allot to my own birthday, which I have more than once forgotten about entirely) I have finally discovered what the little tab marked “Stats” does on the Blogger Dashboard.

So I’m not the most inquisitive person in the world when it comes to technology. Sue me.

But there I was, noodling around the Dashboard, clicking on random things, hoping that I didn’t end up either a) nuking Moscow or b) deleting the entire blog, and idly wondering which of these would be the worse fate for me, personally, because it is, after all, all about me, when I happened to try that tab.

Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit, look at that.

I can see page views! Apparently this blog has been accessed something on the order of 1700 times since it first started, although I’m guessing that a fair amount of those were mine, just checking the spelling. But I can dream.

I can see maps of visitors! Most are in the US, but there are a number of people who seem to log in consistently from other places in the world, which I find unspeakably cool.

I can see referring sites! So far Google in its various incarnations seems to be the big one, but not the only one.

I can see popular posts! Apparently you liked the Fourteenth Amendment post, which makes me feel good. It was a heartfelt one.

It even breaks things down by operating system and browser. Firefox is especially popular among readers here.

And I can see the questions and search terms people use to get to me.

Seriously, what is wrong with some people?

I spent a happy few days watching the various numbers go up and down, being very pleased that people enjoy reading what I write.  I’ve always felt that authors need to keep in mind that readers don’t owe them time – you have to make it worthwhile for readers. But you know, I’ve decided that I need to stop looking at this tab, because otherwise it just gets too much. I start to obsess over these things, and then it stops being fun. I am just that way.

So it was good while it lasted, but for my own sanity I think I’ll continue on in the blissful ignorance that I so often wish I could attain in other areas of my life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Not On My Watch

Here in the land of the free we often have to put up with a lot of people who don’t use their brains for anything more constructive than keeping their ears a set distance apart. A disturbing number of these people claim to be clergy, which suggests to me that God has a stranger sense of humor than most people think.

The latest nitwit to test the outer limits of what Americans are allowed to do (as opposed to what they really ought to have the brains not to do – a crucial if often overlooked distinction) is a guy in Florida who has managed to create an international incident out of his own stupidity. For those of you hiding under rocks this week who have managed not to hear this story, well, you’ve missed a humdinger.

This guy claims to be a Christian minister, though I have not had the patience to figure out the specifics of how, precisely, he blasphemes my faith. Such people abound in this country, particularly (though not exclusively) in the South for some reason. Maybe the harsh northern winters thin them out a bit up here, I don’t know. Regardless, this guy has decided that the proper way to express his hateful ignorance toward a billion or so of God’s fellow children is to burn their holiest book. Because clearly that’s what Jesus would do. It’s right there in the beatitudes – “blessed are the hatemongers, for they shall reap what they sow.”

Wait, that’s not in the Bible? Well, I’ll be.

Now, maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t think this plan is going to help anything.

At first I wondered if he were an agent of the same radicals who set up 9/11 and want to have more of them, since a better recruiting tool for their cause could not be devised by teams of experts. Just because someone is evil doesn’t mean that they can’t be clever too – life is not like the movies where the good guys are smarter just because they’re the good guys. So I was willing to entertain the notion that this guy was an agent provocateur the likes of which we have not seen in quite some time.

But then I got a look at the guy and listened to some of what he was saying, and I thought, “Nobody's that good at disguises.”

He clearly fits into our own homegrown mold of idiots. Sorry, folks. This one’s ours.

This country has a long and inglorious history of self-appointed zealots who make it their mission to make a hell of this world in order to promote their vision of the next. Putting up with these clowns is the price we pay for the freedoms we enjoy.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It doesn’t mean I have to respect it. And it certainly doesn’t mean I have to sit still and let wastes of space like that define what my country and my faith should stand for.

He and the horse he rode in on are hereby cordially invited to find other things with which to occupy their time.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ten Things I Wish I Could Tell My Students

In honor of the first day of the new semester, some words of advice from a teacher to his students:

1. If your primary email address is something like “hotbabe01” or “always420” you probably ought to consider getting a new one. Or using your official school email address for school purposes. You know, I’m just not going to open any email from an address like that.

2. I can see you. Really. I can. Consider the physics – I’m standing up in front of the room and you’re sitting down in the back of the room. The optics work in my favor.

3. Whether I choose to do anything about what I see is entirely up to me, as is the timing of whatever I choose to do. And remember, it’s a long semester.

4. Part of the reason why I require frequent hand-written short essays is that I get to know your writing style that way. Consider that if you’re thinking of using someone else’s writing style for one of the bigger essays.

5. If you’re honest when I catch you doing something, I’ll probably go easier on you.

6. Attendance and good note-taking skills can overcome a lot of academic shortcomings. Ninety percent of life is showing up, and grades are part of life.

7. The reason I don’t remember your name is that there are a lot of you and only one of me. Don’t take it personally – if I knew you well enough to make it personal, I’d remember your name.

8. I’ll remember you better if you drop by and say hi once in a while. This won’t help your grade any, but it will make the semester a lot more enjoyable for both of us.

9. I have an agenda – to get you to learn certain material and skills. You have an agenda – to get the maximum credit for the minimum amount of work. These are not compatible, but you’d be surprised at how painless total capitulation to my demands can be in the long run.

10. I do this because I love it. I don’t expect you to go into my field and I’d be pleasantly shocked if you ended up loving the subject as much as I do. But if I can get you at least to understand why I love it as much as I do, I’ll count that a success.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Leisurely Stroll

I went for a walk today. You would have thought I had decided to grow a third arm.

Today was errand-running day. My classes all start up tomorrow and I’m still trying to catch up on all the things I swore I was going to do this summer. I’m not sure how this happens every year, but it does. You’d think I’d catch on eventually, but then you’d be wrong.

So I set off this morning on my list of appointed rounds, the first of which was to get the car into the shop for a new set of tires. The old set – the ones that came with the car when I bought it three years and 45,000 miles ago – were looking a little smooth and one of them was sagging worse than the playoff hopes of my various favorite teams, so I figured it was about time for some new ones. Throw in the oil change that I was also on the long side of due for, and the folks down at the car place said it would likely be two hours before I could get my wheels back.

No problem, I thought. I’m out in mall-sprawl land. I’ve got a pile of errands to do. This can be managed.

Right across the street was the optician, who looked at my pad-less glasses and, to her credit, did not ask me what particular variety of idiot I was for wearing glasses in that condition for what had clearly been a while. Sometimes just knowing the larger classification (“idiot”) is enough, without sweating the details.

And then it was time for a haircut.

My hair continues to thin. While I am not especially thrilled by this development, neither am I heartbroken. I may not age gracefully, but I do plan on aging openly. The problem is that what there is of it continues to grow fairly quickly, and the hair style I have had since roughly forever makes it look like a comb-over when it gets too long, which I find annoying. And so it was time to visit the local haircuttery for a serious trim.

I thought about getting a new style, but trying to explain what I wanted to the hair cutter seemed like more trouble than it was worth, even if I could have figured out what I new style I might want in the first place. “More of same, only a lot shorter” was just easier, and when it comes to my hair I’m all about the easy.

The haircuttery was about half a mile down the road, which was a nice walk on a cool and blustery day here in Our Little Town.

A mile round-trip is about fifteen or twenty minutes of walking for most people, and since I walk fairly quickly I’m guessing I was on the lower end of that scale. It was a nice day and the road was packed with cars. And not once did I see another pedestrian. People driving by looked at me as if I were some kind of time traveler from the nineteenth century whose top hat had somehow blown away in the wind.

This, it turns out, was kind of amusing.

I shall have to do this more often.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wait, what?

Sometimes I think I’m slipping.

Not that this is all that farfetched, really. “Razor-sharp” was never an adjective that people applied to me with abandon, particularly when referring to my ability to relate to my physical surroundings. I live in my head, and the material world and I have serious issues with one another. I’ve known this for a while and have long since given up trying to change it. It's part of what charm I possess.

But now and then I just have to wonder.

A while ago I noticed that the side of my nose was hurting, right about where my glasses rest. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s odd.”

A few days later it occurred to me that this situation had not changed. This inspired a moment of idle curiosity before being replaced with thoughts about less immediate things.

On Friday I decided to investigate and discovered that the pad had broken off my glasses and the metal end was resting directly on my nose. “Well,” I thought, “that certainly explains that.”

I’ve still not managed to get this situation corrected.

I understand the Coyote a lot better these days. I am sure that if I were in his place and the Roadrunner tricked me into running off a cliff, I don't think I would begin to fall into the canyon until I noticed either.

And, given that set-up, I might just make it all the way to the other side before that happened.

Go, me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tractors, Ho!

We spent today down at the Thresheree again, as we tend to do over the Labor Day weekend.

There is just no way to explain the Thresheree that does it any justice. Wisconsin is full of things like that, as anyone who has ever experienced the monument to the importance of taking one’s meds that is The House On The Rock can attest, but that doesn’t make it any fairer to the event. I tried my best to provide such an explanation last year in this space, but even so, I’m not sure I succeeded. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

We got there around noon, because this is a holiday weekend and the crack of noon is about as early as is decent to be up and moving around. Unfortunately there are a lot of indecent people in this world, and so we had to park somewhere that was only marginally closer than if we had simply left the car in our own driveway. Fortunately the Thresheree folks plan for this and provide tractor-driven shuttles to take you to the main event.

This year we took the long way around once we got inside as well, which led us into areas of the festival we seldom see, such as the rows and rows of tractors parked wheel to wheel for as far as the human mind can conceive. Red ones, green ones, yellow ones and orange ones, each with their fierce partisans, mixed in with the occasional grey or black ones that predate most of that furor.

I grew up in a tractor-deficient area so most of that is rather beyond me, but I have to confess I have developed a sneaking fondness for the old-timers – the real old-timers, the ones that are mostly wrought iron and steam, the ones that burn wood, the ones that have chains for steering and whose front wheels therefore tend to judder and shake like recovering alcoholics, the ones that are the size and shape of railroad locomotives.

These ones:

They’re pretty impressive in a lumbering sort of way, though not hard to evade. They’ve got a top speed somewhere south of “amble” and they give off plumes of black smoke that make them somewhat resistant to camouflage. But they’re cool, and that’s all that matters.

We hit most of the things we usually hit on these excursions – the calliope (which once again they wouldn’t let the girls play – I am beginning to suspect that the one occasion when they did was probably too much for somebody’s nerves in the Thresheree administration), the buckwheat and cornmeal grinders, the blacksmith and wheelwright shop where our friend Tom can usually be found plying his craft, and portions of the flea market, which is stocked with a more than adequate supply of kitsch, junk, and items of dubious taste. As a historian I confess to having a good time trying to identify the kitsch by decade or portions thereof if I can (“Amber glassware! Shades of 1974!”). One does what one has to in order to keep amused.

The last thing we did on the way out was visit the tractor rides, where for a nominal donation to the event the girls could steer their own tractor around a course. Only a couple of traffic cones died for the cause this year, but a good time was had.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Career Opportunities At Your Very Fingertips

Sometime around the mid-to-late 1990s – an eternity ago, in internet terms – Denis Leary starred in a commercial.

I have no idea what this commercial was trying to sell me, so in that sense it was a failure even though I remember bits of it to this day. Most of it was a typical Denis Leary rant of the sort you either love or hate depending on how you take Leary, this time on the subject of technology and what was then the newly emerging world wide web. “Billions of dollars of technology,” he said, “and what are we doing with it?” “Browsing,” said a bored looking woman, much to Leary’s evident disgust. Why aren’t we using this technology to make money, that’s what Leary wanted to know.

The kicker was at the end when Leary confronted an old man posting pictures of his cat, no doubt onto a Usenet bulletin board (look it up, kids) or AOL chatroom. When Leary gave the old guy attitude, the guy just looked at him. “Do you have any idea what the margin is on cat pictures, slick?” he sneered.

This, more than any other prediction concerning the internet, is the one that has proven prophetic.

With two girls in the house and a broadband connection that goes straight to YouTube, LOLcats, and a host of other similar sites, I can tell you that the margin on cat pictures on the internet is intensely profitable. And don’t tell me that people aren’t making money off these things. Somebody is making money off these things, even if it isn’t me, the people posting them, or Denis Leary.

We spent a good part of tonight watching videos of a Japanese cat named Maru, who is endearingly cute but dumber than a box of hammers. Maru likes to stick his face into enclosed spaces, for example, repeatedly and without shame, and so ends up wandering around with all sorts of cups, containers and bags on his head. He rockets from place to place, falling off of whatever he doesn’t crash into. He is a terror to all sorts of inanimate objects, and it is a good thing those objects are in fact inanimate because otherwise they would die laughing at him.

Maru also has an owner who seems to spend all of their time videotaping him, which must be nice work if you can get it. I told you someone had to be making money off this.

You know, I have two – count e’m, two – cats, neither of whom has enough brains to tempt a starving zombie.

I also have a video camera.

There must be a business plan in there somewhere.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Off To High Heights!

Today was officially the first day of school, down at Not Bad President Elementary.

Now, it must be admitted that there were mixed feelings about this around here. It has been a very nice summer, for one thing, and when the bell rang this morning that meant that this summer was officially at an end. And for another, well, let’s just say that at 7am yesterday the girls were still asleep, and leave it at that.

But we try to make this a fun day, because school should be fun. We believe this, which is one of the reasons why neither Kim nor I have ever really left. Eventually they gave us PhDs and told us to go away.

Will teach for food.

We’ve been building up to this for weeks now, buying supplies, planning outfits, and generally gearing up like MacArthur invading the Philippines. And today was the day! Lauren was headed off to second grade, and Tabitha – well, she was now officially a fifth-grader, the lords of the elementary school. No pressure.

Note the umbrellas. It was a grey and rainy sort of day today, which dampened our shoes but not our spirits, not too much. Not any more than the simple fact of being ambulatory that early in the morning had already done, anyway.

The girls graciously permitted us to accompany them to the front of the school this year, though the back – where their friends were waiting – was declared off limits to us parental types. That’s okay. Pretty soon we’ll be required to drop them off several blocks away and slink back home with only our knuckles and a periscope peeking over the dashboard to announce our presence.

But for now, we’re still okay.

Within limits.

Good luck, girls. We’re proud of you.