Thursday, June 30, 2011

A New Milestone

I started this blog in the fall of 2008. It was my second attempt at a blog. The first one ran from 1999 to 2004 and featured posts that appeared anywhere from monthly to quarterly and which ran up to 35 pages each when you printed them out. They were a lot of fun to write, but I eventually just ran out of time. These smaller, more frequent posts are a lot easier.

What got me back into blogging was a sense that I wanted to tell stories – to record thoughts and events as they came so that someday I could remember it all, the usual historian’s motivation for just about anything, really. And if I could write these well enough, perhaps others might read them and enjoy them too.

Since a lot of writing is about reading, I went off in search of other blogs to read. I wanted to find people who could write, and more importantly people who could tell stories – people who had something to say, whether it was just about what crossed their mind that day or about big ideas and issues. It’s all good if it’s done well.

I found a bunch of those blogs. There really are a lot of talented people out there in teh intarweebs.

One group of bloggers in particular seemed to have an organization – the UCF. I found Jim Wright’s Stonekettle Station first. From there I found Janiece’s Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men, Eric’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets, Nathan’s Polybloggimous, Vince’s Reality is Frequently Inaccurate, and several others that were worth reading as well. If I could remember how to make those names into links I would, but you will notice that there are no links to anything anywhere on this site other than what commenters have posted, so you will just have to look them up yourselves.

And you should, because they’re worth reading.

Someday I will put up one of those blogroll things that Blogger lets you do, and you’ll see then, won’t you? Yes you will.

Nathan liked the post about the Atomic Pepper Sauce enough that it set off a few of his own memories, which he linked to in the comment section of that post. And in the comments of Nathan’s post, I seem to have been ordained as an Auxiliary UCF member.

I find this highly flattering.

I'm not sure what this means in concrete terms other than that apparently I am responsible for baked goods – originally pies and cakes, but since my talents lie in other baking directions I am hoping that they will accept cookies. Except that cookies don’t travel well through the internet, so really all I can do is post a couple of recipes here and hope someone tries them out.

So for Nathan who likes oatmeal raisin cookies, I give you my friend Tiffany’s “Oaties:”

  1. Cream together 1 cup butter, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, 2 eggs and 1 tsp of vanilla extract.
  2. Add 1.25 cups flour, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp cinnamon, 0.5 tsp ground cloves and 0.5 tsp nutmeg and mix well.
  3. Stir in 3 cups rolled oats, 1.5 cups raisins and 1 bag chocolate chips (that used to be 16 oz, but has since been shrink-rayed down to 12).
  4. Chill dough 30 minutes then drop by rounded teaspoonfuls 2” apart on a cookie sheet. Bake 10 minutes at 350F and cool.

And for WendyB, who likes chocolate, I give you Swedish Chocolate Balls, which is not a straight line at all.

  1. Cream together 0.5 lb butter and 1.5 cups sugar. Blend in 2 eggs. Add 0.5 cups strong cold coffee (instant espresso works well), 1 tbsp vanilla extract and 1 cup cocoa and mix well.
  2. Grind 4 cups of uncooked Quick-cooking oats in a blender (oat flour will work but the texture is wrong) and mix into batter.
  3. Chill 1-2 hours minimum.
  4. Shape dough into balls roughly 0.75 to 1 inch across (a very messy process). Roll balls in sweetened shredded coconut flakes.
  5. Store in an airtight container in the fridge. Makes 4-5 dozen.

I am not sure what other responsibilities come with my Auxiliary Membership. But it's cool to be part of it, no matter how tangentially.  And I will keep writing and telling stories, because that’s what I came here to do.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

File That One Away

I have a new filing cabinet.

Unless you are an academic or other variety of papervore, you probably don’t understand why this is such thrilling news to me. Great, you say, rolling your eyes, you have a new storage unit for things you probably won’t ever look at again – how nice.

Poor, poor you.

I’ve been trying to organize my papers recently, since I am an inveterate archivist and also organizing papers is a nearly productive way to avoid actual work and my World History Prior to 1500 class is kicking my butt three ways to Sunday. The problem is that historians are papervores. We ingest paper. We emit paper. We surround ourselves with mounds of paper. And we can’t really bear to part with any of it. If you don’t keep it organized it will eventually mulch down and raise your insurance rates.

Spontaneous combustion? Historians.

The problem is that filing cabinets are expensive, especially if you want one that isn’t made of tin foil. So I wandered on down to the used office furniture supply place here in Our Little Town – a place full of the detritus of failed enterprises, which are fairly common in this part of the economy – to see what they had that I could afford.

And I found the perfect filing cabinet for my needs, a two-drawer legal-sized thing made of depleted uranium and sad stories and heavy enough to cause distortions in space/time. I can look in the drawer and find things I haven't even written yet, which is handy. Perhaps my class will show up sometime soon and all I'll have to do is copy it over in my own handwriting. It's worth a shot.

It also came with an assortment of highlighters and a couple of CDs full of corporate information from the original owner. I kept the pens, but the CDs I gave to the office supply guy. “You wouldn’t believe the things people leave in those cabinets,” he said.

Getting it into the house was a trick that involved a dolly, an improvised ramp and a slight but statistically significant expansion of the boundaries of the English language’s already vast category of obscenities. If I could only remember them I’d send a list off to the copyright office in order to get royalties whenever someone else buys one of these filing cabinets.

The one thing I forgot to do was measure the height of the space I had, though. My desk at home is a steel door resting on two other filing cabinets, both of which were a bit over two inches shorter than my new best friend and I was just NOT going to take that thing back to the store. So an afternoon of clearing my desk and shimming up the other cabinet with 1x3’s and old shelves and I’m back in business.

And now my chair fits all the way under my desk too! I tell you, it was a banner day here in Baja Canada.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The 509th Condiment Group

We were up in Madison on Friday, demonstrating to Lauren that being the younger sister who is left home when the older sister is off on a weekend trip with her friend is not necessarily the end of the world.

We had a grand time with this – a visit to the zoo, a Chinese dinner, and a bit of retail therapy at the nearby Weird Stuff Emporium, followed by Saturday’s deployment of our free water park passes, a stop at a friend’s son’s high school graduation party, and an evening back in Our Little Town at the annual Great Evangelical Fireworks Show (because artillery is what Jesus was all about, as everyone knows). It’s been busy.

While we were at the zoo we stopped in at the gift shop, because no trip to the zoo is complete without it. It’s a form of donation, and we get neat stuff in the bargain. Lauren came home with a stuffed red panda that she named Rennie and who has not left her sight since.

For my part, I bought a bottle of hot sauce.

Now, I like hot sauce. I’m one of those people who puts hot sauce on pretty much everything, which is what makes me such a joy to eat with. I even made my own a couple of years ago and plan to do it again this summer. But this bottle I bought as a prop, because it is “Atomic Pepper Sauce.”

Every time I teach the atomic bomb class I reserve some time on the last day of the semester to discuss the many and varied ways in which the bomb has become part of the general culture. I have a couple of bottles of “Atomic Apple Juice” and several bars of “Nuclear Chocolate.” I pass out Atomic Fireballs – the old hot cinnamon jawbreakers that I am always somewhat surprised to see still being sold. I tell them the story of Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs, which I detailed in this space last summer. I bring in a box full of after-the-bomb novels and several CDs with songs on the theme. I even hold up a copy of a lad mag that I forced myself to purchase because it had a cover headline promising the reader “Atomic Sex!” I am not sure why that would be desirable, but apparently there is a segment of the magazine-buying public that finds it so and the class seems to get a kick out of it.

But the laughter is always a bit nervous, because after you’ve spent a week reading about Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and 90 minutes debating whether those bombings were justified or not – the apple juice and lad mags seem curiously out of place.

And that’s the point of that exercise.

It’s odd how we domesticate the unthinkable – how we turn catastrophes into manageably tame experiences. I suppose there’s not really much else to do with them, if you want to live your life in any fashion beyond curled up in a fetal position and marinated in cheap gin, but it’s an interesting process when you actually take the time to examine it.

I’m sure that the Atomic Pepper Sauce is a perfectly find product, and at some point I probably will open it up and try it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Hovel of My Own

If you ever want to destroy your faith in humanity, all you need to do is read the comments section under any article published on the Internet by any major news outlet.

Oddly enough, the same is generally not true with most blogs – certainly not the ones I tend to read, and not here either – unless they are explicitly and entirely political in focus. For some reason people are much more civil when it’s a personal site than an institutional one.

Quite some time ago I was given the opportunity to become one of the stable of community bloggers for the Daily Paper here in Our Little Town. They were trying to expand into the online world and somehow – I later did find out how – they got hold of my name, identified me as a local and made me an offer.

After some back and forth and an initial acceptance, my world went through one of its periodic cave-ins, so I backed out of the deal and wrote about the experience here on this blog. And with that I figured that was the end of the story, though the editor down at the Daily Paper was nice enough to leave the door open a bit for me should I change my mind.

With all of the hullabaloo going on here in Fitzwalkerstan this year I have more than once thought about going back to see if that door is still open. It isn’t every day you see an American state subverted from within by an extremist junta, and the opportunity to write about it on a reasonably large stage does have its attractions. Even with my world far busier now than it was when I initially declined the offer, the temptation is there.

And then I go read the comment sections of any random news article on any random major news outlet’s website, and I’m pretty much cured of that.

It's like pulling up to Mos Eisely, every time that happens - that same sense of foreboding, for the same reason.

And it’s not like the trolls are limited to political articles, either. I’ve seen comments degenerate into verbal urination competitions on articles about sports victories, health issues, fluff pieces about minor celebrities, tech news, and consumer reports. Apparently there is a subset of Internet users who feel it is their duty to drag the level of discourse down to their level – whether for fun or profit I cannot tell – and invariably they succeed.

It worries me that such folks have the same right to vote as normal people, though it does explain a lot about the current sorry state of our nation.

I believe I will avoid the comments on the major news outlets for a while, as my faith in humanity at large was never all that great to begin with and I still have to get up in the morning without screaming or heading toward the nearest clock tower.

Should any of those discussions result in anything of importance, if someone would please let me know I'd be grateful.

I won't hold my breath, though.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Story for Father's Day

It was a beautiful spring day, with clear skies and a pleasant breeze, when the big blue Victorian house on the street behind ours caught fire.

The house was a three-bay Georgian, a match to the red one next door to us, and it had seen better days. When we moved into the neighborhood in early 1979 it was owned by the sort of family that the local police would routinely visit upon notification of any property crime in the township, on the not-unreasonable assumption that one or more of the family members living there was behind it. It was simply a matter of figuring out which one. This could often easily be resolved by asking which one was out of jail at the moment. Their back yard and ours were separated by a chain link fence and a steep hill that ran down to our house – the base of the fence was maybe twenty yards from our house and sat higher than our rooftop – so despite the many parties they threw they didn’t bother us too much. We were sort of relieved when they moved, though.

The new owners set about trying to renovate the place. They put a lot of money into fixing up the interior, redoing the roof, repainting the outside, and so on. But one of their contractors left something hot next to something that had a low ignition point, and there was no way that was going to end well. In the end the fire damaged a couple of rooms but the house was saved and repaired, and it stands to this day.

I was still in high school at the time, and my dad and I were both members of the local volunteer fire company. We were out running errands that day, the two of us, when the alarm came in and we went dashing off to the firehouse.

We made the last truck out – the old red pumper – and aside from the driver we were the only guys on it. Not that we needed to worry about manpower, really. When we got to the scene there were men and equipment from two companies in our township already there, and men (and women) and equipment from the next county over there as well. The county line ran maybe twenty feet to one side or another of the big blue house, and we didn’t quibble too much about which side it was on. We were just glad for the company.

When we got there we were told to lay a supply hose back to the hydrant up the block on the corner. That way they could use the water from that hydrant for the fire.

At the corner my dad and I jumped off the truck and grabbed the stiff eight-foot-long connector hose that would link the hydrant to the truck. The pumper could then be used to regulate the flow of water down to the fire scene. That connector hose was a bear to handle – it was heavy and you could only flex it about a foot either way, so lining it up with both truck and hydrant was a tricky task. It was wide, though, so you could get a lot of water through it in a short period. We quickly got it aligned and ran up to the hydrant to hook it on.

And there we discovered that we had two female ends! Horrors! We ran back to the truck, grabbed a female-to-female adaptor and got everything connected up nice and snug.

We moved to the other end to attach it to the truck and discovered we had two male ends! More horrors! So we quickly found a male-to-male adapter and got that end taken care of.

And the water began to flow.

We sat there on the grass for a moment, idly watching the sidewalk buckle as the old water main supplying the hydrant cracked and blew water straight up (but kept supplying water to the hydrant, which was all we cared about at that moment – the water department could figure it out later, once the fire was extinguished).

“You know,” said my dad eventually, as the obvious solution of just turning the connector hose around had occurred to both of us by then. “You can think your way out of anything if you’re fast enough.”

And we walked down to the burning house to see what else we could do.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Class About What?

There is an old joke about two guys and a bear.

Actually there’s a lot of jokes that start with that setup, most of which I would not repeat on this site. My favorite of those has the punch line, “You don’t really come here to hunt, do you Bob?”

The short version of the one I’m referring to in the first paragraph has the two guys in a tent somewhere in the woods. One guy hears a noise and pokes his head out. “There’s an angry bear charging at us!” he cries. “What do we do?” The second guy starts to put his shoes on. “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!” says the first guy. “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” the second guy replies. “I just have to outrun you.”

I’ve been thinking about this joke a great deal this week.

I am a historian. My field of specialty is the political culture of the early American republic – as it says in the little bio there to the left on this blog, I actually do know what this country was founded upon, as opposed to the politicians and talking heads who routinely make this claim, and I can tell you that nobody is running on that platform today and nobody would vote for them if they did. Things have changed.

In broader terms, my expertise runs to most of American history. I’ve taught both halves of the US survey class. I’ve taught upper level classes in colonial America, the US between WWI and WWII, and the atomic bomb. I’ve done a fair bit of reading and research into the history of the separation of church and state in this country, as well as the emergence of the right-wing movement of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, WWII naval history, the breakup of the Union in the antebellum period, and a host of other things that have caught my fancy at one time or another. It’s all interesting to me.

I also have a fairly extensive background in European history. I have a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on medieval Europe, and my American field of specialty is almost inextricably linked to the history of British political thought between 1550 and 1800, with a fair bit about the general history of the Enlightenment (particularly in France and Scotland) thrown in as well. I’m fascinated by 20th-century Europe’s descent into barbarism and the cultural forces that brought us Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. This is why I have been quite comfortable teaching Western Civ II for the last few years.

So when the kind folks at Not Quite So Far Away Campus asked me to teach a class on world history prior to 1500, I was a bit surprised.

“You do know that I have no background in this whatsoever?” I asked them.

“Yes,” they replied, “but we’ve seen your teaching evaluations and we know that you’ll do a good job if you put a class together. You can explain the material the way a professional historian does, and that is what a survey class is all about.”

When my Department Chair concurred – “We’ll give you a shot at it, go ahead,” he said – it meant that I was on.

And in truth the folks at Not So Far Away Campus are right. Content is content – you can pick up the facts about things from any reference book, and if that were all there was to teaching then everyone could do it themselves and skip college entirely. Knowing what to do with content, however – how to put the facts together to tell a coherent and historically accurate story and how to tell that story in a memorable way – that I’m already good at.

Plus, I don’t have to outrun the experts. I only have to outrun my students.

So I’ve spent much of the last month trying to wrap my head around how to organize this class. I’ve looked at a bunch of other people’s syllabi, which are conveniently posted on the web. I’ve gone through a number of textbooks to see how they are arranged. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got a workable structure at this point, one that ties together a great many different stories into a coherent whole (or three coherent wholes, one for each exam). It’s still somewhat mutable at this point, as I work on endpoints for the three stories and themes I want to push forward for those stories, but I’m feeling a bit more confident about it.

I’m keeping my shoes on, though.

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Evening With the Opposition

I am such a polite young man.

Or I was when I was younger, anyway. Now I’m a polite middle-aged man, which is much the same thing only a bit greyer and rather heavier.

Tonight was the retirement party for the outgoing Dean down at Home Campus. It was a gala event, full of all sorts of people and good food. There was mingling and mixing, and not a little hobnobbing. And there were presentations and resolutions that were kept short and simple, the way they should be. All in all, it was about everything you could expect from such an evening.

Of course there was one small complication.

As the husband of the incoming Interim Dean of Home Campus (yay, Kim!) it was my privilege to sit at one of the Reserved Tables up front, which was nice since I got to be next to Kim and see the stage without craning my neck at all. My neck has not been happy lately, probably due to sleeping in odd positions, and the less craning it has to do the better. So add “cricked” to the “greyer” and “heavier” descriptions above.

But you see, the Reserved Tables were Reserved for the bigwigs (and spouses thereof), and there were many different kinds of bigwigs there – not just campus bigwigs, but community bigwigs, University System bigwigs, and state bigwigs.

Considering all that has been happening here in Wisconsin of late, that last one was a bit tricky.

I knew something was up when the PR person for the Home Campus (a friend of mine) took me aside to make sure that I could remain civil while sitting at a table with a pair of Teabaggers (my word) from the Wisconsin State Assembly. “Of course I can,” I replied. “I don’t have to agree with someone to be civil for the length of a meal.”

I think they were pretty much on the same page as I was, really. We're all a little tired of the situation, even if nobody intends to put an end to it any time soon. A break to celebrate a retirement seemed in order.

I also think that they understood how little support their attempts to gut the university system in this state would get them at an event like this. They seemed quite eager to avoid politics, in fact, and – with the exception of one person at the table who was more of a natterer than a genuinely interested partisan – we were just as eager to let them do so.

And like most people, once you get them off their power trips they turned out to be relatively pleasant company. We spent a fair amount of time discussing the intricacies of Facebook, as I recall. We all agreed that we approve of Facebook. So apparently there is something upon which one can reach bipartisan consensus in Wisconsin these days.

It gives you hope.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In re: 2011 WI 43, Decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has attempted to overturn Marbury v. Madison.

In a move which had a number of surprises, none of which were the verdict, the right-wing partisans on the Wisconsin Supreme Court made a political decision to support Governor Teabagger’s (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) assault on democracy, constitutional theory and the rule of law in America by overturning the Dane County Circuit Court’s stay of his union-busting bill.

For those of you new to this debate, the Circuit Court’s decision was based on the fact that in their haste to strip away fundamental rights from Wisconsin citizens, the Teabaggers chose not to worry about niceties such as laws or the state constitution. In particular, the State Legislature violated Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, a law that was passed with the explicit intent of applying to the Legislature’s own actions. Further, the State Legislature violated both Article I, Section 4 (“The Right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged”) and Article IV, Section 10 ("The doors of each house shall be kept open”) of the Wisconsin State Constitution as well, sections which were codified by the Open Meetings Law.

That the Supreme Court would overturn the Dane County Circuit Court’s decision was never in doubt. The Teabagger junta running Wisconsin has shown a consistent contempt for anything that would serve to limit their power in the manner in which the Founding Fathers intended power in the American republic to be limited. Anyone who thinks that right-wing extremists would vote against their own political interests in the name of the law hasn’t been paying attention.

No, the surprises in this decision were two.

First, that the Dane County Circuit Court’s decision was rejected by the right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court on the novel grounds that the courts have no right to review the actions of the legislature, a position that is so far out of the American legal mainstream as to be almost incomprehensible. And yet there it is.

Paragraph 7 of the majority opinion points out that the Wisconsin Constitution grants all legislative power to the senate and assembly, which, in point of fact, it does. It does not follow from this, however, that the courts cannot hold that legislature to account when it fails to act in accordance with other provisions of the State Constitution or with valid state law from which they have not exempted themselves.

Certainly James Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, didn’t think so when the issue was decided at the federal level in 1803. Even though the Federal Constitution of 1787 clearly states that all legislative authority is to be given to Congress, the role that the courts play in making sure that Congress does not overstep its bounds and violate the Constitution or valid federal law that Congress has not exempted itself is clear. “It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is,” Marshall wrote.

This duty was clear during the Constitutional Convention itself, as Alexander Hamilton noted in The Federalist Papers. “A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body.”

Judicial review is one of the bedrock principles of American jurisprudence, a fundamental aspect of the republicanism upon which this country was founded and the Constitution written, and without it the Congress would be unlimited in its authority and the Constitution rendered null and void.

Welcome to Wisconsin.

Which brings us to the second surprise in the decision – the unusually blunt language contained in the dissent, written by the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Shirley Abrahamson.

Judicial opinions are generally very cautious in their rhetoric. The impact of those words might be revolutionary, but the words themselves are almost always restrained and understated. Those words become part of the case law, liable to citation by future litigants. They are part of the aura of respect that judges build around themselves, that their decisions be seen as impartial, worthwhile, and just.

When a judge steps out of that character and makes clear accusations of malfeasance against colleagues on the bench, that’s surprising.

Abrahamson does just that.

First, she takes the majority to task for “giv[ing] this important case short shrift” in their rush to judgment. “In rendering a decision, a court is to provide not merely an answer but also a reasoned, accurate explanation,” she writes. “A reasoned accurate explanation is not an inconsequential nicety that this court may disregard for the sake of convenience or haste. It is the cornerstone of the legitimacy of judicial decision-making.”

And, sure enough, if you read through the decision of the majority - as indeed I have - such an explanation is not there. As noted by Abrahamson, “[E]ven on casual reading, the explanations [given by the majority] are clearly disingenuous, based on disinformation.”

That’s extraordinarily harsh language coming from the bench. And Abrahamson is not shy about noting where the lack of legitimate reasoning points.

In her stinging dissent, Abrahamson observes that the majority’s decision and the concurring opinion “are based on errors of fact and law. They inappropriately use this court’s original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties’ arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891.”

Mere paper barriers, when power is at stake.

“This kind of order seems to open the court unnecessarily to the charge that the majority has reached a pre-determined conclusion not based on the faces and the law, which undermines the majority’s ultimate decision.”

And that, dear reader, is the rub.

There was no real decision made by the majority other than to support the political aspirations of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) by whatever means necessary. It was a foregone partisan decision, without merit or redeeming feature, and as such deserves no respect from a free citizen of a republic.

The future of Wisconsin government looks rather grim, from where I sit.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Night at the Ball Game

It’s not really a baseball game unless you have food that would kill you if you tried to eat it more than once a week.

Tonight was our first trip this year to see the local minor league team play – they’re a Single-A team, which means that they spend a lot of time working on things like hitting cut-off men, rounding first base in the proper fashion, and remembering which end of the bat is the one you hit the ball with, and that’s about my speed these days. You can take a family of four to a game without going bankrupt and they always have little promotions between innings, most of which involve a child doing something that will likely end up on YouTube someday. What’s not to love?

It was actually a double-header, thanks to bad weather that canceled a game a week or two ago, so there you go – bonus for us. There were two 7-inning games, because nobody really wants to sit through 18 innings of Single-A ball in one night, not even the players. The good guys lost the first one 3-1, and were scoreless in the third of the nightcap when the wind chill finally got to us and we went home.

Yes, wind chill. The last six weeks have either been 95 degrees or 55 degrees, with very little in between. Tonight was in the latter category.

In keeping with the requirement that this be an actual baseball experience, we purchased and consumed all sorts of lethal food-like substances from the concession stand – my share went for nachos, a hot dog slathered in mustard and jalapeno slices, and a bag of salted peanuts in the shell – and it was good. Tomorrow I shall exist on carrots and oatmeal in order to balance it out, I suppose, but once in a while one must do one’s bit for sport. This is about as much bit as I do anymore.

There were about a hundred people in the stands when we got there. My guess is that most people didn’t know about the extra game, which was added on the early side of the originally scheduled one. And sure enough by the start of the second one there were maybe five hundred, although it was hard to tell since only a few dozen were actually sitting down at once.

Minor league games are fairly tranquil on the field – except when the umpire calls a line drive off the left field fence a foul ball when it was clearly fair by about three feet, then it gets exciting – but they are hives of activity up in the stands. Kids run up and down the bleachers, across the aisles and down into the play area behind the first-base stands. Parents wander from place to place buying food, visiting friends, or just walking around to warm up in the face of the gale-force winds and autumn-like temperatures.

It was 4H Night, so we got in on the girls’ 4H club’s dime. It was also Postal Workers’ Night, so there were a great many letter carriers in attendance, including our old one. He even got to throw out the first pitch for the second game, and it made it to home plate on only one hop. Keep your day job, son.

It’s been years since I went to a major league game. I’ve gotten used to the slower pace and weirdly informal atmosphere of the minor leagues, and I’m happy there.

I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The End of the Year

School let out on Friday, and that makes Tabitha officially a middle-schooler and Lauren officially a third-grader.

I am not entirely sure how this happened.

Well, yes, I know how it happened – we keep feeding them and sending them to school and they keep eating and doing their assignments and it all works out – but still, I’m not entirely sure how so much time has gone by so quickly. It’s the Standard Parental Response to this sort of thing, and I’m going to wallow in it for a while.

Just wait until they get married. Won’t that be a trip and a half?

It was a good year for them. Tabitha was a safety – they wear yellow vests down at Not Bad President Elementary these days rather than the orange belts that were popular when I was in grade school. Lauren was on the Student Council. Both had significant roles in their class plays, and both won the school citizenship award, for which they had to be nominated by their teachers. Both have won it before. They made good friends, did well on their report cards, and generally made me proud beyond all measure.

So of course we have been celebrating a bit.

Our first stop was to the mall-sprawl on the northern edge of Our Little Town, where Tabitha chose as her prize a giant barrel of cheese puffs (now mostly gone), while Lauren got something gooey and sticky as well as a resin zebra for her collection of “sculptures.” And we had dinner at the buffet place, where we can get an astonishing variety and quantity of fair-to-middling food for a reasonable sum. We got there a bit early and so were surrounded by young children and old people, and we had a grand time.

Saturday was the annual Sorting Ritual, which has nothing to do with Gryffindor vs. Slytherin and everything to do with taking the immense pile of paper that each girl has generated since September and dividing it into two smaller piles – Keep and Recycle. It’s fun to go through all that old stuff, and we try to limit the Keep pile to things like stories and art rather than math homework. Someday they might want to read their old stories again. Not even math teachers want to see their old multiplication worksheets.

Tomorrow it will be Monday and nobody here has to wake up early. The girls are off and their other commitments haven’t picked up yet. My summer class doesn’t start until the 21st and is a night class anyway. I’ve got a list of things I need to do that’s two single-spaced pages long, but none of them require me to be anywhere early on a Monday morning. Kim only gets paid to go in on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer, and while she will likely end up volunteering a lot of her time anyway it will not be tomorrow.

So we’re going to enjoy our time with each other.

Schoooooooooool’s out! For! Summer!

And yes, one of the things I need to do is introduce Tabitha to the original for that song. Perhaps I will do that now.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Almost every weekday for the last six school years, I have gone down to Not Bad President Elementary to pick up one or more of my children. And every time I have done so, I have found myself confronted with this:

And invariably I ask myself, “Why would an elementary school reserve an entire driveway just for kissing?”

After all, this seems like something more appropriate for a high school or a college campus – an effort to confine all of the public displays of affection into one central location where those who favor such things could freely indulge and those who find such things aggravating or too much of a reminder of being recently in the former group could just avoid them.

Of course if I were in charge of such a place, I think I’d want to have an area set aside that wasn’t mostly asphalt. Also, I’d move it to the back of the building, in case activities progressed in their natural order to other things. Mustn’t scare the horses, and all that.

This is why I will probably never be in such a position, now that I think about it. That and my utter lack of qualifications for such jobs.

Although that never stopped anyone before, so I suppose the option is still there.

There is also the possibility that the sign is referring to a specific form of transportation, usually yellow, often found near schools, although I would prefer not to believe that as it would imply that the organization responsible for educating my children has not only made a simple spelling error but also – and more importantly – has not bothered to correct this error for the better part of a decade.

Perhaps if I can convince Kim to come down there with me sometime, we can test out my first theory.

If you don’t hear back, though, you can assume we were hit by a bus.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Teabaggers and Elections: A Rant

You know, every time I think the Teabaggers have hit rock bottom, I turn around to discover that they have begun to dig.

In response to their dictatorial over-reach of the recent months, Wisconsin citizens have successfully recalled six of the eight Teabagger state senators, with elections to determine whether those six should be replaced by people who uphold American values or returned to office by the sort of popular acclaim that dictators always say they have scheduled to take place next month. Given the sad state of the American electorate, it’s an open question. I certainly wouldn't want to put money on it.

It is to be noted that while the Teabagger recalls have all been certified as conforming to Wisconsin state law by the Teabagger-controlled agency that certifies such things, not even that agency could swallow whole the cynical ploys used to recall the three Democratic state senators that they managed to submit petitions for. Apparently having your petition drive run by an out-of-state corporation that refused to file the required financial disclosure statements, hired convicted felons as signature gatherers (at least one of whom continued his felonious ways while in the Teabagger employ), paid said gatherers by the signature and instructed them to tell whatever lies and make whatever bribes necessary to gather such signatures is a bit much, even for this state.

I know.

Oddly, even as the civil service Teabaggers have finally taken a stand with the law, the elected Teabaggers they serve continue to insist that none of those things were problematic. Not that they dispute them. Just that they don’t see why there’s a problem.

So it should perhaps have come as no surprise when, at a public meeting of their party, Teabagger representatives were caught on tape urging their members to find stooges to run against the Democratic challengers in the recall election – fake candidates who would siphon off enough votes to throw the whole election their way.

On the one hand, this is a flat out admission by the Teabaggers that they really don’t give a damn about democracy, that they fear and hate the electorate they claim to represent, that they know very well that in a free and fair election they would lose, and that they will do anything in their power to disrupt any such free and fair elections in order to retain their shriveled vice-grip on power.

It’s nice to have that out in the open.

On the other hand, at least they were properly chagrined at the exposure of this plan. Indeed, they have filed suit, saying that a public figure at a public meeting in a public place should not have their words recorded and disseminated to the public, on the grounds that it is bad for the Teabagger image.

Notice: no shame at the tactic. Just the exposure.

And today that lack of shame was reinforced not only by the executive director of the state’s Republican Party (odd how they still insist on using that name), but also by Governor Teabagger’s lead minion himself, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Stephen Thompson, state Teabagger in charge, today issued a statement justifying a tactic that his own predecessor called a “nasty, cynical ploy” when accusing an independent candidate in last year’s general election of the same thing. That this candidate was neither recruited nor endorsed by the state’s Democratic Party seems a significant difference to me, but what do I know?

Fitzgerald, for his part, is aggressively pushing his fake candidates, actively recruiting them and arguing for the state to make it legal to do so. “It gives us another month to campaign,” he said.

And, really, that’s all this is about. It’s just another ploy by a would-be tyrannical autocracy, one that does not respect the rule of law, the Constitution, or democracy either in principal or in application. It is of a piece with the Voter Suppression Act of 2011, the illegal shenanigans in the State Legislature, the threats to call out the National Guard against peaceful demonstrators, and the open discussion to sow those demonstrations with Teabagger troublemakers. It is the hallmark of pantsless buffoons drunk with power and feeling above the law. And it’s troubling.

I do believe that we have finally reached the point where the United States in general and Wisconsin in particular would be better off without this party. I really wish that someone would come along to espouse in a democratic, lawful fashion, consistent with American values, the conservative principles that I, myself, disagree with. I would be grateful for an opposition that I could regard as principled and constructive rather than as soulless automatons of tyranny bent on destroying everything that makes this country great in their mad quest for absolute power.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Investment Advice

Sometimes I read things in the news that just make me want to grab people by the shirt collar and shake the stupid right out of them.

There I’d be, standing in a big sloppy puddle of gooey stupid with a person dangling six inches off the ground, held up in my hands, markedly smaller than they were when this whole ordeal began, and I’d say, “There, doesn’t that feel better?” And it would. We would agree on that, and go get something to eat after.

I got this feeling this morning while looking at the latest exploits of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and the reactions that decent people have when confronted by such exploits. Just because Wisconsin isn’t on your local news every night doesn’t mean that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his cronies, minions and lackeys aren’t still hard at work betraying our past, impoverishing our present and selling out our future. They are nothing if not industrious that way, much like termites, and every day here in Baja Canada is a fecal storm of wonderment at their latest endeavors.

The specific issue today is education.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) clearly has no interest in an educated citizenry, such a thing being rather counterproductive to his agenda, and his cronies, minions and lackeys in the legislature have been aggressive – to the point of actually denying the minority party the right even to vote on bills – in pursuing that policy. Even as the cronies &c. have been chopping nearly a billion dollars out of Wisconsin’s public schools, they have still found time to give hundreds of millions of dollars in political welfare checks to their wealthy and connected patrons in the form of tax cuts that will, next budget cycle, force even more money to be cut from education. It’s a neatly self-reinforcing process that way.

These folks apparently think that education is a privilege, one that comes with being a wealthy and connected patron of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries). If you kids wanted an education, why didn’t you become rich first so you could afford one?

The people behind most of the vocal opposition to this plan counter that education is a right, up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to deny it to anyone – especially if you’re just going to give that money to people who already have more of it than there are politicians left to buy – is thus a crime.

Neither of these positions is correct.

Education is not a privilege. It isn’t something that should be limited to the rich or powerful. It isn’t something that should only be given to a deserving few, however one wishes to separate them out from the common herd of the rest of us. It’s something that needs to be widely distributed, available to all.

Nor is it a right. It’s not like life or liberty or the pursuit of happiness, things that a free citizen of a republic owns as a birthright and which, taken from that citizen, constitute legitimate grounds for rebellion. It isn’t like free speech, suffrage or trial by jury, guaranteed by the founding document of the United States and woven deeply into the fabric of American values. It’s desirable. It’s an unmitigated good. It’s something everyone should have. But that’s not the same thing.

Education is an investment.

It’s something that a wise society does everything in its power to grant to all of its citizens. It’s something that short-sighted and greedy societies try to deny to those citizens. It’s an expense, yes it is. But it’s a necessary expense.

Education an economic investment, for both the student and for society at large.

For the student, education is a path to material success. In today’s job market, there is a direct correlation between education and income. Yes, there are exceptions. My PhD has not led to any great wealth, for example, and there are plenty of people out there without degrees making decent livings. But overall, college educated people make more money than high school educated people, and both make more money than people who never finished school.

And the reason this is something that society should be investing in is that society as a whole benefits from this.

More affluent people are better economic engines than less affluent people. We live in an economy that is driven by consumer spending, and when you run out of consumers – which is what happens when only a few people can afford to buy things and the rest just look on in envy – bad things happen. This is effectively what happened in 1929, and it is more or less the trajectory we’ve been on since 1980. Even CEOs are beginning to notice this fact now, according to news reports, and it will be interesting to see what if anything they do about it once they realize that their own bottom lines are at stake.

Furthermore, the boom in the middle class – and the consumers they became – that the United States experienced between 1945 and 1975 was in large part fueled by education, because it provided new workers with the skills they needed to get the good, high-paying jobs that provided disposable income to be used for consumption. Cut that education – stop investing in the future – and it will go away. As indeed it has.

But that affluence has to come from somewhere. It has to come from good, creative jobs that generate productivity and wealth. The kinds of jobs that require an educated work force, in other words. Sure, you can create jobs for unskilled workers, but those jobs tend to pay little and be worth less in the long run. There’s no multiplier there. So that middle class became self-reinforcing. Educated workers generated new jobs, which required new educated workers. It was a solid feedback loop that rested on a foundation of education.

A society that wants to be prosperous in the long run will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

Education is also a political investment.

That middle class? That’s the foundation of Lockean liberalism, the guiding ideology of the United States since the early 1800s. It is Lockean liberalism that stresses things like the value and worth of the individual, the importance of equal opportunity, the sacred nature of private property, the need for political and civil rights, and the central role of the free market. An Enlightenment theory, it became powerful when it was adopted by the industrial middle class in the 19th century, and so long as that middle class exists it will continue to guide American politics and values.

That middle class now rests on education, providing the foundation for its income. Gutting education now only serves to gut the middle class later. Take the middle class away, and some other political ideology will do the guiding.

Even before the dominance of Lockean liberalism, though, the Founding Fathers understood the importance of investing in education.

This country was founded as a republic. One of the few qualities about republics that all of the Founding Fathers agreed upon was that they required an educated citizenry in order to survive. Republics place great demands on their citizens. A subject – someone living under a monarchy, an aristocracy, a tyranny – needed to be kept ignorant and pliable. But a republican citizen had to be well-informed and able to use that information. He (and at the time it was always “he”) had to be able to put aside his petty private interests in the name of the public good, something that took character – character that was developed by education. This was the meaning of “virtue” when the Founding Fathers used the term.

A society that wants to remain a free republic and not degenerate into authoritarian tyranny in the long run will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

Education is also a social investment.

There are any number of statistics you could cite to support this. Educated people tend to have wider horizons than uneducated people. They are more tolerant as a group, more willing to accept that they aren’t the sole possessors of Truth In Its Most Pristine Form simply because they’ve been exposed to so many different views that make that claim. They tend to support the arts more than uneducated people do – and not just high arts but all arts. They tend to make society more interesting, more vital and more creative – all traits that make it more viable in the long run. They tell its stories, inspire its dreams, and make it want to be better than it is.

You don’t need a whole lot of education to do this. You can be perfectly well educated this way with a high school diploma. Some people even become perfectly well educated this way on their own, though it’s not as common as they’d like to think. And some folks survive a full education even through graduate degrees without ever learning any of these traits. But on the whole, it works.

A society that wants to grow, thrive and dream in the long run – a society that does not want to stagnate into an ever-contracting circle of precedent and limited goals – will bear the expense of educating its children in the short run. That’s what “investment” means.

An intelligent society, one not dominated by short-sighted greed, one whose foundation remains the idea of free citizens in a free republic rather than subjects in an authoritarian tyranny, understands that anything worthwhile comes at a cost. That you have to weigh the costs against the benefits received. That you have to spend now – sometimes a lot now – to get later. That a republican citizen must rise above his or her (now “her” too, thankfully) petty private interests and work for the public good, as those who founded this country intended them to do.

Education is an investment.

The Americans who set up public school systems, who founded colleges and universities, understood this.  They understood that they needed to sacrifice some of their own petty private interests in the name of the long term public good. They invested in their children. They invested in their future. They invested in a free republic that would inspire, dream and lead.

We don’t need to make those investments. There is no requirement that the United States survive indefinitely. It is entirely possible, even historically likely, that it will not. This is entirely voluntary on our part.

But if we want the United States to grow, thrive, prosper and lead for the generations to come, we will invest in education for the generations we have now.

Friday, June 3, 2011

New Schools, Old Memories

Well, I think I’m finally past the flashbacks.

Yesterday was Orientation day down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, where Tabitha will be attending in the fall, so we and the rest of the parents of fifth-graders similarly attending were there. The principal and a random assortment of staff gave a short presentation involving PowerPoint slides and comforting generalities, and then we got to go on a tour of the building, which is pleasant and well maintained if something of a rabbit warren.

And suddenly, years of carefully constructed oblivion were erased in an instant.

Junior high is an awful thing to do to people. And calling it “middle school” – taking away the 9th graders and adding in the 6th graders – doesn’t change the fact that you have a building full of kids whose hormones have begun to kick in but who haven’t quite figured out how to manage them yet. Elementary kids don’t have the hormone problems. High school students have generally adjusted to them, at least as well as they’re going to. But junior high? A mosh pit of awkwardness, plus homework.

I went to a junior high severely lacking in basic vowels. Bala Cynwyd Junior High (you could always tell the new kids by their attempts to pronounce the name) was a brick donut three stories tall that was in the process of being transformed into Bala Cynwyd Middle School when I was going there. It too was a pleasant, well-maintained building – though not really much of a rabbit warren, since if you kept going in a single direction you’d end up back where you started. The only tricky part to finding things was making sure you were on the right floor, and since the only things on the bottom floor were the shop classes most of the time you had a 50-50 chance of being right.

This was a saving grace more times than you'd think.

Of course, if you were looking for the shop classes, odds were you were late. We only had 3 minutes between classes, and the stairs were crowded. The only detentions of my public school career were because of my chronic inability to make it to woodshop on time. Not that I had a great deal of incentive to do so – the woodshop teacher was a buzz-cut martinet whose rigid standards were probably necessary to keep a room full of 7th-graders from mincing themselves into bite-sized pieces on the power tools but which nevertheless made the whole experience rather unpleasant. To this day I have no real use for tools of any description. Kim is the tool person in our house.

I spent two years in that building, generally keeping as low a profile as I could. I made some good friends along the way, and eventually figured out how to keep all the various hormones in check.  I even got most of my homework done.

And in the fall, Tabitha gets to go through the process herself.

It’s a big step, going from Not Bad President Elementary to MCGMS, but every journey has a few of those. And for all the weirdity of junior high, it’s got its high points. Yes it does.  And I'll think of them soon, just give me time.

Good luck, Tabitha.

You’ll understand about the flashbacks eventually.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Day at the Museum

The world looks different from a coach bus.

I’m used to driving the highways around here – you can’t live in the midwest and not be used to driving on highways – but I’m used to seeing them from ground level. On a coach bus, forty or fifty feet up in the air, you do get a different perspective. Especially if that coach bus is filled with fifth-graders, all keyed up for their big field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry down in Chicago. There’s a whole lot of perspective there, yes indeed.

Tabitha and I were out the door at 5:40am in order to get down to Not Bad President Elementary and be on the bus at 6. Despite the uncivilized hour everyone made it on time and the ride down was cheerfully noisy. I was on my own, of course, as Tabitha has long since reached the point of preferring to sit with her friends, but I’d brought plenty of reading material and tea so I was set. We cruised into the city without incident, and pulled up to the museum just as it was opening.

And thus were five dozen 11-year-olds in matching fluorescent yellow t-shirts set loose upon Chicago. Let the games begin.

I was put in charge of Tabitha and a couple of her friends, given a schedule of events that didn’t look all that complicated, and told to go off and have fun.

And so we did. The Museum of Science and Industry is one of those places where you can spend an entire day there and still feel as if you were missing things. But we did our best.

We cruised through a long display of antique cars, ranging from some of the first vehicles ever to move under their own power to Grand Prix racers from my childhood.

There were exhibits about the future, with robots that could talk and dance, and places to pretend you were an information packet on the Internet, and displays where you could catch projected images with your shadow. You could even make your shadow do things it never thought it could.

Probably the biggest hit of the day was the large section devoted to storms, which had plasma balls, a giant lightning generator mounted in the ceiling, a rotating avalanche disc about 15 feet across, hot air balloons, displays with two-foot high flames, and a tornado that stretched three floors up.

After a while it was movie time, so we all trooped down to the Omnimax theater to watch a film about idiots.

That wasn’t what they were called in the film. “Storm chasers,” I believe was their preferred name. These are the people who trick out their cars with armor plates and high-end photographic equipment and rush toward tornadoes in the fond hopes that the rest of us won’t call them idiots – or, given the sad fate of those who are stuck in places where these thrill-seekers are trying to go, perhaps vultures would be better – except that I do. It made an interesting movie, I suppose, even if the jittery handheld camerawork didn’t really translate well onto a hemispherical dome of a screen.

And then it was time for lunch.

When breakfast was at 5:20am and lunch isn’t until 1:15pm, my advice is not to get in the way of the people headed into the cafeteria.

We had a few minutes to keep exploring after lunch, so I convinced my charges to go see the U-505, an actual WWII German U-Boat that they have mounted in its own room. You can go inside for an additional fee and an hour’s investment of your time, but since we didn’t have those things we just wandered around the outside.

And then they wanted to see the baby chicks, so we adjusted for the mental whiplash and hit that display on our way out to the buses again.

We got back to Our Little Town around 5:30pm, which made for a very long day but a good one.