Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Art of Losing

Lauren kicked my butt at Battleship last night.

It was a quality win for her, as I have long since stopped going easy on the girls in games like this. When they win, they win for real. And when they lose, they learn how to lose.

This is a skill that is not valued highly enough these days.

We don’t really know how to lose anymore, and that’s a shame. Most of us will lose most of the time, pretty much by definition. There can only be one winner, after all, and statistically the odds are that it isn't going to be you.  Sometimes you beat those odds - enjoy it while it lasts.  Most times, no.

But there’s an art to losing graciously, to acknowledging that you did the best you could and still came up short, to accepting the fact that you are not the top dog this time and still seeing the good in that – the lessons learned, the experience of the contest, the fact that your opponent is not your enemy and that maybe you can learn some things from them, that maybe next time it will be the other guys learning those lessons from you. More to the point, there is the idea that there is a life outside of whatever battle you just fought and the results should be viewed in that context.

We place such an emphasis on winning in American culture that we forget how to lose with grace.

One of the lessons I hit pretty hard in my American history class is the response of the Anti-Federalists to the eventual ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The Anti-Federalists campaigned hard against the new Constitution. They feared its centralizing tendencies. They worried about what would become of the states in a new system that clearly privileged the rights of the national government over those of those of the states. They thought the Articles of Confederation, the first blueprint for the government of the United States, was fine the way it was or at worst needed only a few minor changes.

They lost.

And at that point they had a choice. They could have continued their opposition, ratcheting up the rhetoric (and believe me, as eighteenth-century gentlemen they had a command of destructive rhetoric that modern Americans can’t even grasp, let alone match) and doing their best to create gridlock in the new government. They could have done all they could think of to keep the Constitution from succeeding in order to prove that they should have won in the first place.

But they didn’t. They accepted their loss with grace, most of them, and they worked to make the new system succeed despite what they regarded as its flaws. And we are all better off for it. Imagine if our current leaders had learned this lesson when they were children playing games.

As a parent, one of the most valuable lessons you can teach your children is how to lose with grace. If they can master that, they’ll be better winners.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Seeing the Blues

The Christmas lights are up.

Every year it is a struggle to get them out of wherever it is I left them last year and onto their designated spots along the front gutter, across the little roof over the steps, and over the window of my office. It’s not a whole lot of lights, really, but it is a struggle nonetheless.

This year it was complicated by the fact that I really outdid myself putting the lights away last year. They are no doubt in a safe and secure place now, where no harm such as actually being used again can ever find them. Either that or I threw them out or recycled them, since the treacherous backstabbing little fiends didn’t work at all last year and I never bothered to figure out why. One or the other.

So I went out and bought new ones.

Fortunately the LED kind has come down considerably in price in recent years, so in the long run it was probably cost-effective just to replace them.

That was only the first of my hardware store trips, though. There was also the trip to find new clips to mount the lights to the roofline, since I did not have as many of those as I thought I had. This was several trips, in fact, as apparently everyone else on earth had stocked up on them last year to the point where manufacturers had given up hope of selling any more of them this year and thus did not supply them to most of my local retail outlets.

It took most of the morning, but the lights are all there, and they work, at least the ones on the roofline do. The net lights over the bushes are still not plugged in, since they are older and do not have grounded plugs and thus our extension cords don’t fit.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The girls always look forward to the lights going up, so I have to do it early – one year I let it go into December and by the time I had a chance there was already a foot of snow on the ground, which for me is sufficiently holiday-esque even if the girls disagreed.

The one thing that I insist on, as my prerogative as the lighting guy, is that all of our lights be blue.

I do so love houses lit up all in deep blue lights. They have always struck me as more peaceful and elegant than the usual bright colors of the holiday.

As we slide pell-mell into the controlled chaos of another Christmas season, a little peace and elegance goes a long way, I think.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Fifteen years ago today I found myself smuggling a keg of beer into the second floor of a reception hall and asking myself, “Is this any way to be spending my wedding day?”

It was a warm day for November, fortunately, and the caretaker of this particular reception hall had apparently been doing sit-ups under parked cars for most of her life and so did not notice the thump-thump-thump of the full keg up the marble steps of the hall.* So it all went off without a hitch. Mike and I got the keg into place without incident and my guests were treated to a post-Prohibition wedding reception.

It’s been quite a ride, this last decade and a half.

I’d do it again.


*She also managed to convince herself that I was at least three different people and at 8am the next morning called to complain to me about one of the other mes. “I’ll talk to him,” I told her.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dave and the Deathly Hallows

We joined the madding crowd last weekend and went to see Harry Potter 7a.

As with all of the other movies in this series it was well done and entertaining, though for the budget that they had you’d think they could have sprung for a few more lights. Yes, I get it – it’s dark and brooding and the atmosphere is supposed to reflect that, but after a while you start wishing that you could see what was going on.

I spend enough of my life bumbling around in the dark. I don’t need to go out of my way to experience that vicariously.

We took the girls with us this time, as they are now plenty old enough to enjoy the films in a way that they weren’t when this whole series started. It’s astonishing to realize that the Potter films have been going on for the better part of a decade now, and the books for nearly two. We even made it something of a festival weekend, watching Potter 5 and 6 at home before heading out to the theater for 7a. I don’t even try to remember the titles anymore. 

I’ve enjoyed them all, though – Rowling is a better story-teller than she is a writer, and she managed to create a fairly textured world that became a character in its own right in her stories and peopled that world with characters that you could care about. The movies have done a good job of capturing that.

My favorite characters are actually minor ones, the ones that flesh out the world that the main characters take for granted. They seem more real to me, and more interesting. Or maybe it’s just because I know I’m not the sort who’d become one of the heroes – if I ended up as a character in a movie like this, my credit line would probably read “third good guy from the left, classroom scene” or something like that.

Yet my favorite scene in this film was one that involved just main characters.

And no, at this point I’m not worried about spoilers. The book was a major best seller three years ago and has entered the culture as a point of reference, and the movie follows as closely as time and space will allow. If you don’t know the story by now that’s your issue, not mine. Read on at your peril.

For much of the movie Harry and Hermione are running from the bad guys, just the two of them, camping out in one of those marvelous tents that they have in their world, the ones that are so much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. They’re cut off, even from their respective significant others, and it starts to weigh on them. They’re teenagers in the film, after all, and young love cuts deeply.

And at one point, with a song playing on the radio, Harry gets Hermione to dance with him.

This scene could have been such a disaster. And yet it worked out so well.

Several people have asked me if I thought the director was trying to imply that there was something romantic between the two characters, and that’s precisely the way the scene could have been fouled up. And you know that if this were not based on a best-seller with legions of fans who would picket any studio dumb enough to make serious alterations to the basic storyline, or if this were an American film, with our customary mandatory need to see happily-ever-after romance in a world that usually does not support such claims, that’s what would have happened. But that’s not how they handled it, and for that I was glad.

They dance for a bit – two sad and lonely people who care about each other and are trying to cheer each other up, and for a brief space it works. And then it stops working. There is pain you just have to experience until it stops, and Hermione turns away. It’s a very bittersweet moment, the kind you rarely find in films of any description anymore, let alone films aimed at young adults and kids.

I really liked how they let Hermione turn away into her own pain, and how they let Harry understand that, accept it, and still be there for her.

It was a heartbreakingly lovely moment, and it was the one I took with me as I left.

Baking The Night Away

There’s a whole lotta bakin’ going on.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and we’re in charge of desserts this year. This means apple-cranberry pie (with cornmeal crust), apple crisp, and a mound of peanut butter cookies big enough to land aircraft on. Somehow we need to get all this up to Kim’s parents’ house for the holiday dinner without eating them all in transit, which is harder than you’d think because those are some really good desserts and the car is not so big that we can't reach them wherever we stash them on the ride.  So if we get halfway there and turn around, you'll know why.

Tabitha is making the cookies, all on her own.

She’s decided that she likes baking, which is fine by us. This means more cookies, and there is no way that can go wrong.

Although when you add in all the Girl Scout cookies that are still cluttering up my office, this might - might, mind you - amount to overkill. We got rid of most of the cookies last week, and then on Monday night the second wave crested and broke all over my desk, leaving delicious, delicious destruction in its wake. And now that we’ve finally located the sheets that tell us who ordered what so that we can possibly get these things distributed, life is good. 

So we’ve got a lot of baked goods around here and are expecting more.

I’ve always liked Thanksgiving as a holiday. It is full of good food and good company, and there is always the possibility of a decent football game breaking out, although not likely. There’s a bit of suspense, you see – otherwise it would all be too predictable.

I am thankful for many things.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 19, 2010

And the Hat Came Back

The hat has made a comeback.

Every year at Christmas we play The Game – a gift-swapping game that is a fun and entertaining substitute for the usual slog of presents among the older generations of our family on both sides, since at this point we can just get what we want ourselves and save the real gift-buying for stuff for the kids. I’ve described this game before so I’m not going to go into detail here except to note that The Game requires each participant to contribute one nice gift and one goofy one.

Five years ago, one of the goofy ones was, for lack of a better description, a pimp hat – a poofy cap made of pink velour and covered with reflective silver sequins.

This ended up in the possession of either my cousin Paula or her husband Randall, who both looked quite smart in it.

Even so, they were happy to donate it to the girls when Tabitha expressed her interest, because they are generous people that way.  Plus, they live in the South, where it is usually too warm to be sporting a stylin' lid like that and you can't let something so right go to waste.

And so we returned to Baja Canada hat in hand.

The hat kicked around for a few years as an occasional piece before being relegated to the Dress-up Box down in the cellar. The Dress-up Box is where you put things that are too old, too weird, too fantastical or too clunky to wear to school, and as such is a lot like my normal wardrobe except with a lot more pink and definitely a lot more flashing LEDs.

But this year the hat made it back upstairs into the big leagues when Kim gathered up anything that could even vaguely be described as “winter gear” and deposited it into two big fabric boxes in the mudroom. And that’s where Lauren discovered it.

She rocks that hat.

Although I always have to fight the urge to buy a newspaper off of her when she’s wearing it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Modest Proposal

One of the reasons my dissertation took so long was that the newspapers of the 1790s had not invented the headline yet, so I had to read them pretty much straight through to find what I was looking for. And this meant I ended up reading a lot of fascinating things that I very much wanted to work into my dissertation but which my advisor found expendable.

This story, based on a long 1799 article in the Aurora and General Advertiser, one of the two main newspapers of the day, made it through several drafts before I finally conceded and deleted it.

But I still think it was funny.


The 1790s were plague years in Philadelphia.

In 1793, three decades after its last previous appearance, yellow fever returned to Philadelphia and the city essentially collapsed. Both the national and state governments fled into the countryside, taking with them almost half of the city's population and leaving an undermanned municipal government (at times consisting of only Mayor Samuel Clarkson and a volunteer Committee of Assistants) to deal with the crisis as best it could. Mail delivery ground to a halt, meetings of every description were postponed or cancelled, and every newspaper but one in the city stilled its presses. People died in the streets and were buried without ceremonies, coffins or mourners.

By the time the epidemic abated in the fall 4,044 people had been identified and reported as having died from the disease, with the actual total probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,500. With a population of about 55,000 at the time, Philadelphia was quite literally decimated by the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Yellow fever would return repeatedly throughout the decade and into the next, with smaller outbreaks in 1794, 1796, 1797, 1799 and 1803, as well as a major outbreak in 1798 that took the lives of the editors of both the Aurora and the Gazette of the United States and once again brought the city to a standstill.

What made the yellow fever epidemics so unsettling to Philadelphians was not only the staggering mortality and ghastly appearance of the disease but also the fact that nobody really understood what caused it.

Theories abounded, however.

Some said it was caused by miasma from the swamps, or from the stench of the markets and the canal. Others blamed the recent flood of immigrants from war-torn San Domingue [Haiti], or the faltering morality of the nation's capital. Still others came tantalizingly close to the realization that mosquitoes, more common than usual in 1793, were to blame. As the disease returned again and again throughout the 1790s, Philadelphians struggled to understand yellow fever so that they might be able to do something about it.

Even without a real understanding of the details of the connection between the two actions, Philadelphians in the late 1790s moved toward preventing yellow fever by beginning to construct the first major public water works in the country.

A 1797 petition to the Select and Common Councils stated the case bluntly, arguing that the city government had the duty to build such a system, no matter the cost, as a way to prevent the yellow fever from returning. The Councils agreed and by 1801, in the intersection of Broad and High Streets where City Hall now stands, the first of several attempts at a public water system would be up and running. By 1822 the whole operation had been moved to the banks of the Schuylkill River, on the western edge of town, where it was a resounding success.

Decades before most Americans, Philadelphians were enjoying the benefits of clean, reliable water, and yellow fever slowly faded into memory.

The connection between the water works and the prevention of yellow fever was not universally accepted at the time, however, and there were those in Philadelphia who did not consider the water works to be money well spent.

One critic of the proposed system wrote to the Aurora in 1799 with what he presented as a better plan. "TIMOTHY DEEP," philosopher and insistent purveyor of social utopian "schemes," declared that the problem with the water works was that it sought to provide the citizens of Philadelphia with water.

This was unimaginative and not a good return on the investment, as far as he was concerned.

"[Y]ou must know," he wrote, “that I have lately formed a plan for improving the water works at present carrying on in this city, by converting them to the purpose of supplying the citizens with BEER; which I am sure will be more acceptable, and prevent those rising clamours among the people on account of the water Tax, already assessed, and shortly to be levied to a most enormous amount, at least so say the canal speculators. I believe few people would think hard of paying a much heavier tax than the one proposed, if they could be daily accommodated with a certain quantity of that wholesome beverage or of good gin twist, instead of the muddy water of the Schuylkill[.]”

Well aware that some might see this plan as impractical, Timothy reassured his readers that he could "prove by an algebraical involution, that the thing is not only practicable, but very easy."

Most people who have consumed the muddy water of the Schuylkill would probably consider this a good trade, but even with his algebraical involution supported by a host of Latin phrases Timothy reported great difficulties in getting his latest scheme approved by the people who might help him enact it.

A maltster, who "did not understand Algebra," balked at the twenty acres of malt houses Timothy's plan would require.

A brewer ridiculed Timothy's formulas, saying that they "looked more like a charm to cure a tooth ache, than anything else he could compare it to" and causing Timothy to storm out in a huff.

A local politician beat him about the head and shoulders and threw him out into the street when he tried to explain his plan.

What could "a poor philosopher" do in the face of such willful ignorance?

Exhausted and dispirited, Timothy set out for home and before long was hopelessly lost, both in thought and in the streets of Philadelphia. Eventually he was taken in by his old friend Dick Kindly, who fed him and sent him straight home as one would do with any wayward child.

Philadelphians would just have to settle for water.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Feline Physics

The cat goes out.

The cat comes in.

Elections come and go. Promises are made, kept, broken and forgotten. Administrations bluster into existence, collide with cold reality, disintegrate into competing memoirs, and get relegated to footnotes in survey-level textbooks. Empires rise and fall.

The cat goes out.

The cat comes in.

Spring leaves bud out on the trees as the green grass emerges from under its blanket of snow. Temperatures climb and then first the grass and then the leaves turn brown, and then white under the frost once more.

The cat goes out.

The cat comes in.

Children are born. They stay up all night. They sleep through the night. They sleep through the morning and stay up all night again. They meet lovers and have children of their own.

The cat goes out.

The cat comes in.

Doors open and doors shut. Windows tilt in, slide up, slide down. Openings are left for just a split second, for a forgotten morning, for days.

The cat goes out.

The cat comes in.

There is no force on earth as constant as a cat on the wrong side of the door.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Get Thee Behind Me, Girl Scouts

I am awash in Girl Scout Cookies.

They are everywhere. Boxes of them, all neatly crated up and calling out to me with their siren sugary voices, urging me to forget about the people who actually ordered them, forget about dividing them up into bags so they can be delivered, and go ahead and eat them now. For breakfast.

Must. Resist. Temptation.

You would think I'd be better at this. It happens every year, after all. The girls go out and about the neighborhood with me in the background, hitting up the neighbors for some fundraising. Kim drops off the order forms in strategic locations around Home Campus for people to sign up. Orders roll in.  And my office turns into a place that could induce diabetes at a distance of a hundred paces.

To make that even better, sometime later this week there will be more orders coming in – the “second chance” order that I turned in last night when the girls and I went down to pick up the first chance order.

Cruelty, thy name is Girl Scouts.

I will be good. I will not rip open a box of Thin Mints and eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one breath, as they were clearly meant by Nature and Nature's God to be eaten. I will not snarf up a box of Peanut Butter Patties despite their uncanny resemblance to the Tastykakes of my youth. I will not open up a package of that new kind – the one with the chocolate, the one that comes in a tube rather than a box – just to see what it is like.

Okay, maybe just one.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Election Fallout - Part the Second

I have solved the deficit problem.

Today’s New York Times online has a nice little interactive feature on its website that allows you – yes, you personally – to solve the financial problems facing the federal government these days. Because for all the talk about such problems that got floated around in the recent unpleasantness billed as an election, there were precious few actual solutions proposed. There’s an awful lot of rhetoric in politics these days, but not much substance.

Not that this is new, really – I quite literally earned a PhD studying the political rhetoric of the Founding Fathers, whose passions often took them somewhat wider around the curve than the reality track could contain – but it does get discouraging to see how little has changed other than a steady decrease in the literacy of such rhetoric. Eighteenth-century invective was just so much more elegant than the semi-human gibberish that passes for hard-hitting these days. If Glenn Beck were to find himself magically transported back to the 1790s to try out his schtick, I doubt the Revolutionary Generation would have been able to stop laughing at him long enough to eat him alive, which for him at least would be to the good.

Be that as it may, the Times has given us a chance to put our money where our mouth is. And how could I pass this up?

It turns out that solving the deficit is remarkably easy to do. Who knew? And why isn’t it getting done in Washington?

All it takes is a clear sense of priorities, a general willingness to make sacrifices for the public good, and a recognition that taxes are not evil and spending is not sacred.

See how I answered my own question there? That’s called rhetorical strategy. Benjamin Franklin Bache and William Cobbett taught me that.

The goal of this exercise is to resolve the projected federal shortfalls for 2015 ($418,000,000,000.00) and 2030 ($1,355,000,000,000.00), on the theory that if you can stick those points the rest will fall into place. You get a series of options to check, and each time you do the site automatically calculates how much you’ve done for both years.

Please note how I used all of the zeros in those dollar amounts. Words don’t convey just how big those numbers really are, otherwise.

My solution required 45% of its actions come in the form of tax increases, and 55% - the majority, for those of you bad at math – in the form of spending cuts. So I’m not sure where this places me on the current spectrum of American politics, other than possibly outside of it.  This is not a point of pride.

On the spending cut side, I cut 250,000 federal contractors from the payroll, on the theory that we’ve already got enough of those and frankly if the federal government wants something done it should just hire someone and train them properly. Contractors haven’t worked to well in Iraq, for example, and they’re just sucking up space and money here.

I also reduced the size of the military in some ways, though not in others.

I think we can get along fine with a mere 1050 nuclear warheads, for example – there isn’t a country on earth we couldn’t vaporize with that and still have enough left over for whomever’s next – and I’m not convinced that having as many troops as we have in Europe, Iraq or Afghanistan is materially contributing to our security. It’s not 1946 – Europeans are well able to take care of themselves. Neither is it 1980, and the Soviet Union is gone. And to be blunt, for all the everyday heroism of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan I remain unconvinced that the larger mission is worthy of their sacrifices.

On the other hand, reducing military pay and benefits strikes me as short-sighted at best and ungrateful at worst, and I tend to support the Navy’s mission of force projection.

I also think that Medicare and Social Security can wait until I’m 68 – the original logic behind picking 65 as the starting point was that not many people lived that long, and therefore the system could remain solvent. I also think that if I should somehow strike it rich by the time I’m 68, my benefits would probably do more good going to someone who hadn’t done so.

Much of the tax side of this equation follows along from that last point. The wealthy don’t need tax breaks. Supply-side economics doesn’t work in a demand-side economy – that was the lesson of the Great Depression, and no matter how often claims are made to the contrary it is still true today. If we ever switch from the modern consumer economy and return to a producer economy like we had in the 1880s, maybe we’ll talk. Otherwise, no.

So estate taxes on millionaires? Capital gains taxes on the wealthy? Eliminating tax cuts for the top 2% of household incomes? It all sounds good to me.

On the other hand, the tax system we have now is bizarrely complex and if you could eliminate most of the loopholes, you could probably reduce overall tax rates, even on the wealthy, and still increase income. I’m for that. I’m sure that’s a lot harder than the Times made it sound, but it does serve as a useful goal.

And a carbon tax. We should have one of those. This would likely be self-reducing, as businesses sought technological improvements to cut down their emissions and thus their taxes. And if both go to zero, well, then everyone wins.

When you add all this up, I’ve saved $532,000,000,000.00 for 2015 and $1,700,000,000,000.00 for 2030, giving us a tidy little surplus that we might be able to put toward paying off all the debts accumulated by less forward-thinking leaders.

Now, on to a well-deserved vacation.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Across the Gloaming

It was a grey, chill November day here today in Our Little Town, the first day that’s felt like fall in a while.

Most of this week has been in the 70s, in fact, making it feel more like May than November. Boy, it’s a good thing that Global Climate Change is a hoax, otherwise I’d be worried.

Wait, what?

I love these grey fall days when the leaves are turning and the air has a bit of a nip to it. Maybe it’s being an academic and living in a world where the year begins in the fall and everything is fresh and new when everything is fading and brown. Maybe it’s the fact that I can finally drink my tea without breaking a sweat. Maybe it’s just the quieting down of the year, after the frantic activity of the summer.

And maybe it’s the bagpipes.

I always think of bagpipes on grey November days.

When I was a kid, the church I went to had a Holiday Fair every November. It was our big fundraiser. There’d be booths set up in the Parish Hall selling all sorts of things (except the one booth that sold cheeses and sausages – for some reason the guy who ran that booth always made sure to sell out his supply ahead of time so all he had to do was wait for people to pick up their orders, and nobody could ever convince him to order more for walk-in customers) and a midway down in the basement, and special dinners both nights – spaghetti on Friday and roast beef on Saturday.

I was always on clean-up for the dinners, so even when I hadn’t spent the day down at the Fair I still had to get there by around 4pm, which was getting dark at that time of year.

One year when I was around 14 or 15 I set out on foot to get to the church for my clean-up shift. It wasn’t a bad walk, really – maybe three-quarters of a mile or so, and the route took me past one of the neighborhood parks, which had a good-sized creek burbling through it. This particular year as I approached the park I heard the sharp sound of bagpipes carrying through the gathering gloom.

It was a chilly afternoon, with a fading grey light that still held the bare limbs of the trees, and the pipes called over the creek and escorted me on my way, at once lonely and beautiful.

You remember a moment like that.

My friend Bob and I later tracked the piper down. He struck us as an old guy then, though I doubt he was much older than I am now. He was learning the bagpipes and his wife had exiled him from the house for his practice sessions, a not unreasonable demand when you think about it. Remember the old Scottish proverb – “Lord save ye from a beginner on the pipes.”

I don’t know if that’s an actual Scottish proverb, but I’m guessing it should be.

Exiled but determined, he had found an isolated spot on the other side of the creek and would practice there from time to time, and it was just luck that I first heard him that crisp fall day.  I don't think we ever got his name, and we only found him the one time, several months after the Fair.

But I still think of him and his bagpipes, every November without fail.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Armistice Day!

Today is Veterans Day here in the United States.

Today is the day we set aside to honor those who go to war on our behalf – the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who put their lives on the line every day so that we can go about our lives without having to do so. Not all of them see combat, but they all take that chance when they sign up. They train for it. They expect it. And they’re very good at it.

If there is anyone who deserves a day of honor, it is the people who go to war. Stand up a little straighter when you see a veteran today, because they deserve that respect from you.

But it didn’t used to be Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day.

The reason this day happens when it does is because it originally commemorated the end of World War I, when at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the big guns finally fell silent along the Western Front and the grinding war of attrition that was The Great War finally came to a halt. It didn’t end in a peace treaty, and for that the world would ultimately pay with a repeat performance – bigger, badder and more deadly – a generation later. It ended, instead, with an armistice. A simple agreement that enough was enough, that the shooting had to stop, and that the rest could be worked out later.

Armistice Day doesn’t celebrate the people who go to war. It celebrates the people who come home from war.

There is a difference.

It didn’t become Veterans Day until after World War II. And World War II was The Good War, at least to the extent that any war – particularly one that consumed lives and treasure at the rate World War II did – can be considered good. Really, in many ways it spins out as a morality play.

There were clear-cut good guys – the Americans, of course, since this is an American story and we are always the heroes of our own stories, plus the “plucky” British, the “gallant” French, and even the “stalwart” Soviets who bore the brunt of the vast majority of the combat, a fact Americans tended to forget as soon as the Cold War started.

There were clear-cut bad guys – it takes very little imaginative effort to see the Nazis and the militarist leaders of Japan as the embodiments of evil.

There was even a clown, as all morality plays are required to have – Mussolini, the prancing fool who probably cost the Axis more in remediation efforts than he brought to the table

And as with all good morality plays, there was a clear-cut resolution. The good guys won – thoroughly, convincingly, totally. The situation on the ground changed dramatically from what it had been before the war. Britain, France and the Soviet Union remained unconquered. The Nazis were destroyed. Germany and Japan were rebuilt to become vibrant democracies and upstanding members of the international community. In the United States the Great Depression ended, the Baby Boom started, and American power waxed ascendant. The war, in other words, made a difference – all that sacrifice, all that blood, all that destruction had been for Something.

That’s the sort of thing people like to celebrate. And so – Veterans Day. A day put aside to honor those who went to war and made this happen.

But World War I was not like that.

World War I was a catastrophic war in many ways. It was the bloodiest war in history up to that point. At least on the Western Front, where American forces would join the fight in 1917, it was a war defined by trench warfare – a particularly brutal kind of war, with opposing sides often mere yards apart, separated by barbed wire, machine-gun fire, and the bodies of the slain. It was an industrial war, where individual heroism counted for almost nothing and what mattered was equipment, manpower, and a willingness to sacrifice both until one side or the other ran out – once you get to the point where both sides realize they can’t break the trenches, that’s more or less the strategy they come up with. And perhaps most crushingly, it was a war that changed almost nothing, and what it did change didn’t change for the better by anyone’s account.

There were no clear-cut good guys or bad guys. There wasn’t even a clown.

There was no clear-cut resolution. There was an armistice – a cease-fire. There were consequences that would follow, of course, but those were separate. There was no real resolution.

The war had begun with an almost surreal sense of joy among its major combatants, that something was being done, that this would be a great and glorious campaign, and that it would be over by Christmas. Four years later, people looked up from the smoking ruins of their civilization and asked themselves why – what had been accomplished by all that?

And they found no answers. They found only relief that the pointless butchery had ended, and at last everyone could go home if they had a home left to go to.  It hadn't been for Something.  It had all been for Nothing.

Thus, Armistice Day – a day to celebrate not those who went to war, but those who came home.

It’s a quieter holiday, a little more thoughtful, a lot less celebratory, and I always regret that it got absorbed by Veterans Day.

Maybe we should have both.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Best Lines on Television

As a father, part of my job is to introduce my children to the high points of the surrounding culture. You would be surprised at how hard this can be, sometimes, finding high points in a surrounding culture that considers American Idol to be a legitimate form of entertainment (and for the record, the girls just adore American Idol, for reasons that escape me completely). This only makes it imperative that when actual high points come along, I seize the opportunity to introduce them to my children before some other bit of nonsense comes along and muscles them aside.

Thus we found ourselves watching the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati tonight.

There was no finer show on television than WKRP, and yes I am fully aware of just how slightingly that praise can be taken if that’s how you want to go. But really – just because a lot of what is on television is a waste of electrons doesn’t mean all of what is on television is a waste of electrons. There’s actually a fair amount of good stuff out there, hiding among the nonsense.

I am an inveterate list-maker. The internet is a medium that rewards lists as category – they’re fun to write and more fun to argue about. And so my list of the four best lines in television history, dating back as far as I can remember, which is about the mid1970s or so.

Yes, the WKRP Thanksgiving episode is on that list. You can stop wondering now.

Here they are, to the best of my recollection:

Number four is a line from the show St. Elsewhere. In this episode, it is winter. One of the doctors – a bumbling soul – has a friend visiting from California, and in the way of these shows he ends up at the house of the head doctor, an uptight, no-nonsense, rather intimidating figure. Apparently there is to be a wedding at the head doctor’s house, and the friend is part of the wedding party for some reason. About halfway through the episode, the friend says to the head doctor that he has to relieve himself. “Down the hall, to the right,” the head doctor tells him. “No, man,” the friend replies, “I’m a natural man! Where’s your back yard?” The head doctor looks at him, shrugs, and points to the back door.

Nothing more is said about this until the very end, the last scene before the credits roll. It’s a tight close-up on the head doctor as he reads his paper, with the wedding obviously over and everyone else gone home. From offstage you hear his wife.

“Dear,” she says, “Come here. You have to see this.”
“What?” he replies.
“He wrote his name in the snow.”
The doctor puts down his newspaper. “Script or print?”
“This I have to see.”

Number three is from a show called Scrubs, which I have only ever seen once. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone back to see it again, as it was very funny, but there you go. It’s a medical show, set in a hospital, and this particular line was a throwaway – a single element of what was clearly a much longer conversation that we will be left forever to wonder about, which is part of the humor.

As the camera pans across the conversation, all you hear is, “No, no! It’s pronounced ‘analgesic.’ You put it in your mouth!”

Number two is the WKRP episode. It’s coming up on Thanksgiving and Mr. Carlson, the station manager, has an idea for a promotion that will amaze everyone. He won’t tell anyone what it is. The whole show builds up to the very last bit, where most of the characters are in the DJ booth of the radio station, listening to the live feed from the newsman on the spot, Les Nessman – you never actually see the promotion other than through his descriptions. Les, out at the Pinedale Shopping Mall, reports the arrival of a helicopter on the scene, followed by a series of small objects falling out of the helicopter. You hear him slowly trying to figure out what’s going on, and then - “Oh my God, they’re turkeys!” he cries, as panic takes over the shopping center. If you know what you’re listening to, Les’ narration of events is an almost word-for-word repeat of the radio reports from the Hindenberg disaster, which he name-checks.

At the end, a disheveled and humbled Mr. Carlson returns to the station and goes into his office. And then, right as the credits roll, he comes back out, looks at his employees, and says, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

And finally, my candidate for the best line in television history comes from Northern Exposure. One of the characters, Holling, insists that his family lives to be 150 years old or so, which makes him at 75 a middle-aged man. So naturally he is dating a teenager. In this episode, an old flame comes by and the two of them end up sitting around a table reminiscing, while his current girlfriend throws in the occasional question. And thus you get the following dialogue:

Remember Harold?
Oh, yes. Wasn’t that sad about Harold?
Yes, it was.
That was really sad.
Why? What happened to Harold?
Well, Harold worked down at the cannery, and one day he fell into one of the machines and he died.
Oh, that was sad.
Yes it was.
Remember the funeral? All those little cans…

There are probably a lot of good lines that I’ve forgotten, but those are my favorites.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Election Fallout - Part the First

So it seems that the good citizens of Oklahoma have just banned the Ten Commandments.

Pardon me while I laugh until my sides hurt.

Of course that wasn’t their intention, at least one assumes that it wasn’t, anyway. At a certain point Teh Stoopid becomes its own parody and it gets hard to tell exactly what people intended, but my guess is that this wasn’t it.

No, this was pretty straightforward bigotry.

Apparently the voters in Oklahoma were concerned that their state courts might begin to enforce Sharia law, because you know if there is one thing that is likely to happen in the great state of Oklahoma it is the application of Islamic law by the state courts. And so, as if by magic, Oklahoma Ballot Measure 755 appeared before the electorate this year to solve this imminent crisis. It was overwhelmingly approved in last week’s election.

Now, certain things need to be cleared up before we move further into this farce.

First and most important, the Constitution of the United States already bans the imposition of Islamic law or any other form of religious law, by state courts. That’s one of the many things the Establishment Clause is good for – keeping church (or, in this case, mosque) and state separate that way. So the only substantive achievement produced by voting for this ballot measure is for the good citizens of Oklahoma to express their ignorance of their own government.

Which purpose it served astonishingly well, I might add.

Second and accordingly, it is clear that Oklahomans in general do not understand that, by the strict orders of the Founding Fathers whom they claim to revere so much, religious laws are not to be foisted off on the general public. My guess is that since they seem to blithely assume the right to impose on the rest of us the lunatic fringe version of Christianity so popular among the right wing these days, they therefore assume that others have the right - if not necessarily the power - to impose their own religious laws upon them as well.

See point one, above re: Church and State, Separation thereof. Methinks they dost protest too much.

Third, I do not claim to be an expert on the demographics of Oklahoma, but my guess is that the Muslim community there could fit into a phone booth, with a total political clout measured accordingly. Even if state courts were actually inclined to violate the Constitution in this manner, sheer political self-interest would seem to restrain such things. And if you can’t trust the political system to act in terms of its own self-interest, what can you trust?

Phone booths, children, were tiny little shacks that had telephones and occasionally superheroes in them. They were placed on street corners for public use in the days before everyone had cell phones. Ask your grandparents about them.

So the actual threat of Sharia being imposed was fairly limited, one could say.

Now it’s not bad enough that these boneheads decided to take a gratuitous swipe at a fifth of the world’s population and expose the entire United States to ridicule by association. Worse, they botched it. If you’re going to be an idiot, you should at least be clever about it. But no, not these guys.  Other countries have highly trained and literate Nativists - we get the Keystone Kops version.  Lucky us.

The language of the ballot measure is written fairly broadly – always a dangerous move when employed by people who have already proven they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. And the relevant section reads as follows:

“This measure amends the State Constitution. It changes a section that deals with the courts of this state. It would amend Article 7, Section 1. It makes courts rely on federal and state law when deciding cases. It forbids courts from considering or using international law. It forbids courts from considering or using Sharia Law.”

To the best of my knowledge – and perhaps someone from Oklahoma can enlighten me on this – the Ten Commandments were not written in the United States. They are thus, by definition, “international law" and banned in the state of Oklahoma by popular acclaim.

So I’ll be interested to see how this falls out.

Perhaps there will be a second ballot measure, one that declares that the state courts of Oklahoma may (or, even better, must) use the Ten Commandments in their decision-making, despite the express prohibition of using religious law in that manner laid down by the Constitution, as described above.

Hold on to your hats, folks. We could end up miles from here.

Now excuse me while I go rest my aching sides.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

I grew up during the Cold War.

I was a child during the Vietnam War. I spent most of grade school with the ups and downs of detente running in the background. My high school years took place in the depths of the early Reagan years, when the Cold War became both frostier and hotter – a neat thermodynamic trick, when you think about it.

So my earliest perceptions of Russians were as the Communist Menace – dour, plodding leaders and their grim followers, people opposed to all that was Good, True and Happy and who would just as soon nuke me as look at me.

And then I met some of them.

Turns out they’re a lot of fun.

I have always worn a lot of hats down at Home Campus, and about a dozen years ago one of them was as Assistant to the Dean. For the most part this meant filing papers, answering the phone, and generally doing light secretarial work while I focused most of my energies on graduate school. It had some odd moments – I was responsible for scheduling the interviews for the person who eventually took the teaching job I was hoping to get, for example, and I still feel bad even now for spacing out and giving her bum directions to the campus. But for the most part it was fairly straightforward.

My main task, however, was a bit out of the ordinary.

This particular Dean had joined the Rotary as a way to get the campus a bit more integrated into the local business community – the people who hire our students and support our Foundation with donations. And the Rotary had a project they were working on – they had teamed up with an outfit in San Francisco that ran programs designed to bring Russian business executives to the United States so they could see how their businesses worked in a country that hadn’t considered private property to be theft for most of the previous century.

The Dean volunteered the campus to set the curriculum of this visit, and somehow this got delegated all the way down to me.

So I spent the better part of the summer and early fall making phone calls.

A lot of that was calling local businesses to get them to donate a morning or an afternoon to explaining their practices to a group of Russian executives and their translators. Most businesses I contacted were surprisingly willing to do that – some even went far beyond anything I asked. We ended up with a very nice program that started with a bank and a local government, so the delegates (the executives were always called “delegates,” don’t ask me why) could get some context, moved through about a dozen local businesses in their field, and ended with a couple of places designed to get them thinking about what happened to their products after they left the factories in this country. I was particularly happy when the recycling center signed on.

I stumbled into two extra translators when Kim and I went out to eat one day and heard two girls chatting in Russian behind us. They were exchange students, both 19 and in their own separate ways gorgeous (one was a waif of a thing, while the other likely had not seen her feet in years – just sayin’). They were, shall we say, fan favorites when the delegates arrived. Their host family just shrugged. “Well,” the mother said, “they’re of age.”

I managed to find housing in the community for them all, which put me in touch with a segment of the community I seldom met – for example, one of the hosts offered, on about a month’s notice, to take them all to a Green Bay Packers game. I cannot conceive of the amount of money and power that it would take to make that offer a reality – the Packers have a season-ticket waiting list that is literally measured in millennia. I didn’t take him up on that, but instead planned other activities – a hockey game with the nearest minor-league team (hockey I figured they’d understand – American football takes a mountain of explanation if you haven’t grown up with it), any number of parties and gatherings, and so on. I had a lot of help in this – people were very happy to come up with ideas and donate their time, energy and houses – and it all worked out pretty well.

I was also the van driver, which meant that for seventeen days these guys saw an awful lot of me.

There were maybe fifteen of them, a surprising number of whom were named Vladimir or Mikhail. They varied considerably in personality, as you would expect, though none even remotely matched the Cold War stereotype I had grown up with. I ended up getting closest to one each of the Vladimirs and Mikhails – the Vladimir was a reserved man, the kind of guy you know would tell you something and sooner die than go back on his word, while the Mikhail was, for lack of a better word, sweet. The only woman in the crew was the translator they brought from Russia, a friendly soul named Irina. The most outgoing was Alex, who was probably in his late 50s, balding, and the sort of guy who could – and often did – take over a party.

Great guys, the lot of them.

It’s been a long time since then, but there are still a few things that stand out.

They were utterly amazed by the six-foot hoagie that we had brought in for lunch one day. Apparently this craze had not hit Russia by the late 1990s, although with the number of photographs they took of it there were ample models to work from when they got back home if they wanted to start.

They never did understand the American preference for coffee over tea. Frankly, neither do I.

We went out for barbecue one night, and the restaurant convinced one of their waitresses to get into the giant pig costume that was their mascot. It was one of the Vladimir’s birthday that evening (different Vladimir), and he decided that he wanted to see who was under the costume. It was some time before we could translate the idea that the poor woman had a chinstrap holding the head of her costume in place and that he should let her take it off instead.

It was an election year, so I took them to vote with me. They were interested in seeing how this process worked here - elections being fairly new at the time in Russia - and the elementary students whose school had been taken over as a polling place were fascinated by them. “Where are you from?” they asked. “From RUSSIA!” Alex exclaimed, to general acclaim.

I had to buy them American flags as souvenirs, but they wanted them to be made in the USA. Do you have any idea how hard those were to find?

Probably my favorite night of the whole visit, though, was Halloween. Kim and I were in the habit of having a Chili Festival every Halloween in those days, so we decided to do that and have everyone come in costume.

The delegates, naturally, did not have costumes with them, so I went up to the Home Campus theater department and said, “Mark,” (for that was his name), “can I borrow some costumes?” So the delegates spent a happy afternoon pawing through the costume racks in the theater. They came up with some great stuff. Vitaly in particular – a stout man with an unfortunate resemblance to his fellow Georgian, Stalin – made a surprisingly effective Pancho Villa.

We invited all of the delegates, all of their host families and interpreters, all three of the local Rotary clubs, everyone on Home Campus, all of our friends, and all of the businesses we visited before the party happened.

And as near as we could tell, they all came.

At one point we figured there were somewhere around 75 people in our house. To get from the kitchen to the living room it was actually easier to go out the back door and come back in the front. Fortunately it was a warm night, unusual in this part of the world where it snows on Halloween one year in five.

With the possible exception of a similarly excessive party from my college days, this was without a doubt the best party I’ve ever hosted.

What I remember of it.

You see, I was The Man – if they remembered one person from this trip, it was probably going to be me since I was with them nearly 15 hours a day for the entire time they were in Wisconsin. And naturally they wanted to drink with me.

The one stereotype about Russians that these guys proved absolutely true is that they have an astonishing – almost frightening – capacity to absorb alcohol. Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but these guys could drink. We blew through everything Kim and I had left over from our wedding reception, everything we bought for the party, and everything they and the rest of the guests brought with them, and when that was finished they went out bar-hopping. I must have cleared off a hundred empty liquor bottles the next morning.

The way it worked was that they’d gather in a circle, and everyone would get a tumbler with about two fingers’ of vodka. Someone would have a giant dill pickle. There would be a toast, everyone would down their vodka, and the pickle would get passed around for everyone to take a giant bite.

At one point I remember thinking, “Well, I don’t have to drive home. Hell, I don’t even have to go upstairs. All I have to do is fall down.”

But they were fine.

Eventually the party moved into our garage, where the delegates staged an impromptu play (“The History of Russian Aviation in Four Drunken Acts” – seriously, go see it if it ever comes to a theater near you – it was hilarious). After the show there was dancing until the wee hours.

You grow up with that dour Cold War stereotype, and then they conga down your driveway.

I sometimes wonder what happened to those guys after they got back. Mikhail and I traded a few letters, but those faded out in the way of things. Evgeni’s daughter came back to his host family for a year of school abroad, and by all accounts that went well. But most of them just went back to their homes, their families and their lives.

I do miss them.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dipping the Night Away

It was fondue night here in Our Little Town!

Every once in a while we like to reminisce about the time in our nation’s history when the US was involved in a long-running, futile, unpopular and possibly illegal foreign war, when domestic politics was polarized to the point where morons insisted that revolution was only sensible, and when gas-guzzling cast-iron behemoths ruled the highways, and on those occasions we whomp up a cheese fondue for dinner.

Boy, things have changed a lot since 1969, haven't they?

The first time we did this was a few years ago, when we decided to have three different ones – one cheese, one hot oil and one chocolate – for a dinner party. This led to several discoveries.

First, that these things are ridiculously easy to make. You throw all the ingredients into the pot and heat them up, and then you stick things into them. It’s a culinary straight-line, and no matter how comical you are in a kitchen you can’t but help hit that one dead on.

Second, these things are popular. We served the cheese and hot oil ones first, since conceivably you could dunk enough healthy things into them to count as a meal. Eventually everyone declared themselves to be completely full, with no possible room for any further food. And then the chocolate fondue came out and I nearly lost my arm from all the people lunging at it with pointed sticks.

Never stand between a chocolate fondue and a group of people with pointed sticks, is what I’m saying.

And third, well, there is no third. Easy and popular is all you need to know.

So we drag out the fondue pot, chop up some fresh-baked bread, apples, sausage, and occasionally veggies, run the extension cord over to the dining room table and set up for dinner. Even the girls like it now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ooh, That Will Leave Marx

And so on this day when the right wing has once again taken over America, naturally we spent Western Civ class discussing Karl Marx. Irony is just one of the things that makes history fun.

My students don’t really know what to do with Marxism. They don’t understand it, and they can’t figure out why anyone would find it appealing.

The Cold War ended before most of them were born. Instead of a Soviet Union ruled by a shuddering collection of sclerotic animatrons as it was when I was in college in the 80s, now there is a supposedly capitalist Russia and its new-fangled dictator Vladimir Putin, darling of the LOLs and internet superstar. Half the countries behind the old Iron Curtain no longer exist at all, having either been absorbed into their neighbors or split into their pieces. People who mouth Marxist slogans without irony are in short supply these days.

In their place is a foaming horde of people who can’t tell the difference between Socialism, Communism, Fascism, their hindquarters and a hole in the ground, many of whom were swept to power in yesterday’s election. I fear for the republic, but what else is new?

We spent class going through the basic tenets of Socialism – first the Utopian variety, then the Marxist variety, which, while aimed at broader things, is in many ways no less utopianist – pointing out that it is very much an ideology of its place and time, designed with the concerns of the industrial working class in mind and meant to remedy the ills of their world.

This serves two purposes.

First, it helps the students understand why people would be attracted to Socialism or its Marxist variant. Our world is defined by Lockean Liberalism, the ideology of the winners of the Industrial Revolution. Americans generally have a very difficult time grasping the idea that others might not agree with this ideology, let alone the idea that they might have something else to put in its place. Understanding the context of the Industrial Revolution and what it did to the losers in that struggle – ironically enough, a group which included most of the people who made it happen on a day-to-day basis – goes a long way toward understanding why they didn’t buy into Lockean Liberalism. Socialism in general and Marxism in particular simply spoke to their world in a way that Liberalism – the ideology of the industrial middle-class – did not.

Second, the fact that the election is now over does not mean that we will no longer be inundated by talking heads who insist that Obama is somehow a Socialist, and my students need to know that whatever they may think of the current administration and its policies – and they are entitled to approve or disapprove as their consciences see fit – there is nobody taking a Socialist line in Washington today. To claim otherwise is at best historically inaccurate and at worst deliberately misleading, and I won’t have my students leaving my class that ignorant.

I always tell my students that while it is not my business to tell them what to think, it is my business to make sure they’re thinking.

The one thing I regret from today was that I forgot to wear my Karl Marx shirt. When I was at a conference a few years back I found a marvelous t-shirt with a picture of Marx on it, looking suitably disheveled and grumpy. “Earn big money!” the caption reads. “Become a historian!”

You’d think that was funny too, if you were a historian.

My daughters always ask me who that is on the shirt. “Karl Marx,” I say. “Who’s that?” they ask. “He was one of the Marx Brothers,” I respond. “There was Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Karl. Karl was the serious one. He left before they got famous.”

History is fun, even if some day it will come back to haunt me.