Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Paying Attention vs Writing About It

I have been trying very hard to avoid politics of late.

For much of this past year I have been immersed in political matters, particularly those of Wisconsin. When there are people in your own government working to undermine not only the policies that have made your state and nation prosperous, safe and worthwhile but also the values, traditions and institutions that made such policies possible, you really have no choice but to get involved. I have marched. I have written, here and directly to the various political leaders who claim to represent me. I have written to the local paper. I have organized.

This is what democracy looks like.

But I am not, by nature, an optimist. I grew up in Philadelphia – pessimism is my birthright. As I watch the baseball season tick down, for example, with the Phillies guaranteed home field for the duration of the playoffs and possessing the best rotation in the sport, I remain firmly convinced that not only will they not win the World Series this year but also that they will figure out a way to lose the one they won back in 2008. And when I look at the political situation these days, it just seems to me that the thugs are winning. It always seems that way to me.

They cheer at the thought of the uninsured dying. They boo American soldiers for being gay. They insist that disaster relief be held up for partisan advantage and offset by further cuts to the very people they should be helping. They are a moral disgrace, a political outhouse, and a savvy and powerful minority hell bent on destroying the United States of America and replacing it with the sort of backward authoritarian nightmare that, with a single change in religion, would not be all that different from the goals of the jihadists in the Middle East.

That sort of thing wears on a body, and especially this semester I find I have precious few mental reserves with which to deal with it.

When I was on vacation in August I was unable to keep in touch with political developments, and you know what? I felt better for it.

With the presidential elections in full swing now and the recall campaign against Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) about to get underway, I don’t suppose I can avoid political issues for much longer. I may not be looking for politics right now, but politics is very much looking for me – and it will find me eventually.

And when it does, look out.

But until then I will go about my days and try to focus on what is in front me. Sometimes you just need a break.

Monday, September 26, 2011

These Are the Conversations We Have On the Way Home From School

Riiiiiing! Riiiiiing!

Hello! You have reached the offices of The Avenger (tm), wholesale suppliers of retributive justice at affordable rates. “If you’ve been wronged, we’ll make them pay.”

Unfortunately we are either on the phone or away from our desk right now and cannot answer your call. Please do not despair! Your call is important to us!

If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911.

Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed.

Para continuar en espanol, oprima el dos.

If this is about a family feud, press 1. Be prepared to specify degree of kinship, age of consent in your jurisdiction, value of property destroyed or stolen, and whether alcohol was involved in the original incident. Rates may vary depending upon the specific conditions described.

If this is about a business dealing, drug run or gambling debt, press 3.

If your baby done you wrong, press 4.

If you are a Supreme Agent of Evil (SAE) fulfilling an ancient prophecy and have been thwarted by a goatherder who has only recently discovered he is the Chosen Hero, press 5.

If you are an SAE betrayed by love, ambitious underlings, scandalous press or divine intervention, press 6.

For all sports-related issues, including rivalry games, press 7.

For all work-related issues, press 8. Please note that we no longer accept commissions from academics regarding the scheduling of Friday classes, as we regard such things as within the boundaries of normal duties and not within the parameters of “betrayal” as defined in The Avenger (tm) Manual. Seriously, dude. Live with it.

If you are calling about a planned paranoid drug-fueled spree of destruction right down the middle of Main Street USA that will show them all, every last one of them – whether accompanied by maniacal laughter or not – please hang up and contact a local mental health center or substance abuse program immediately.

For all other concerns, please stay on the line and one of our trained specialists will assist you in determining the level of vengeance appropriate for your case and budget.

Remember, when it’s all about you, you’re all about us.

Thank you, and have a great day!


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Friday Night Lights

The girls went to their first high school football game last night.

One of the things about Kim’s new job is that it is a position of high visibility in the community. This has certain implications, one of them being a pressure to attend events like community fundraisers. And as the First Mate, I get to go along.

I never liked those things even when they were benefiting an organization I was running.

Oh, they’re pleasant enough, really. Lots of community-minded people gathering together for a good cause, a silent auction full of interesting things, a decent meal and some good entertainment – in this case, a very good 12-piece Latin band – but I’m just one of those people who would rather stay home and read. My hearing has never been all that great and my voice does not carry well, so I find it hard to have conversations in such environments, and whenever I find myself in a room full of strangers my first reaction is just to sit quietly and observe until it is time to go home.

So the festivities are kind of lost on me, is what I’m saying.

But between Kim’s job and mine we don’t get much chance to see each other, so I went. And this required us to find somewhere to stash the girls for the night. Fortunately, some friends were going to the Other High School’s homecoming game and volunteered to take them along.

There are two high schools here in Our Little Town – the one the girls will go to eventually, assuming the local voters haven’t decided to defund the schools entirely (a disturbingly realistic scenario these days), and the other one across town.

Neither Tabitha nor Lauren is really much into football – Lauren at least cheers for certain teams based on her parents’ allegiances, though when I tried to explain to her what exactly a “touchdown” was yesterday she tuned me out fairly quickly. “You’re not interested in learning this, are you Lauren?” I asked. “Not really,” she replied. Tabitha cares even less.

But there were friends there, and their favorite babysitter is one of the cheerleaders, so they were excited about going.

We left the fundraiser and got to the game just as halftime ended, so we sat there through a quarter and a half before it got too cold to stay any longer, talking with our friends and watching the game unfold.

The last time I was at a high school football game was when I was still in high school, back in the depths of the 1980s. I didn’t go to many games. I had friends in the band, so a couple times I went to hang out with them, and I made it to the Big Rivalry Game most years (it’s the oldest public high school rivalry in the country, and if we won we got half a day off).

The games don’t seem to have changed.

There was a lot of offense – I saw only one punt in the time we were there, and that resulted in a penalty that gave the ball back to the punting team for a first down – and most of it was on the ground. Only two of the dozen or so pass plays actually worked. And most of the people in the stands were students who seemed more interested in hanging out with each other than following the game.

On the other hand, the field-goal kicker for the home team was a girl and nobody seemed to notice or care, which is something that would not have happened back when I was attending these games. Real progress is attained when equality becomes unremarkable.

When I was in grad school, one of my friends told me there were three stages of living in a small town. First, you’re just a visitor and you don’t really pay much attention to the local high school football team. Then you do pay attention, because you start to know people involved – friends who have kids on the team or in the stands, students who once played, that sort of thing. And finally, you start to care whether they win or lose, just because.

So when I checked the score this morning in the local paper and discovered that the home team lost on a touchdown with six seconds left I thought, well, perhaps I’ve lived here long enough to have gone through the cycle.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Evenings Well Spent

The girls and I have been reading The Phantom Tollbooth at bedtime for a while now.

I used to be the bedtime story reader. When they were little we’d get the girls upstairs, get them into their jammies and make them brush their teeth, and then I’d settle in and read whatever it was they wanted to hear. It took a lot of time, but it was worth every minute – there weren’t many other ways to spend an evening that were more rewarding, and those nights fly by fast.

As, indeed, they did.

Eventually the girls discovered that Kim was a much better reader than I was. I read like the narrator, but Kim reads like the characters. And so for the last couple of years, whenever there were books to be read at bedtime it would be Kim’s task to do so. And now that they’re both older and can read their own stories, even that had seemed to be on the way out.

But I have always loved The Phantom Tollbooth and I wanted to share it with them. For those of you who have not read it, well, what is wrong with you? Go out and read it! Now! I’ll wait.

See? It’s amazing.

We’re having fun following the adventures of Milo (a boy who never before knew what to do with his time), Tock (a watchdog – literally, a dog with a watch for a body – who, in a tragic family mix-up, says “tick-tick-tick”) and the Humbug (a large insect clearly modeled on a WC Fields character) as they travel through the decaying Kingdom of Wisdom on their quest to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the Castle in the Air, way up in the Mountains of Ignorance.

Yes, the whole book is a long series of puns and anthropomorphisms designed to appeal to anyone with a sense of humor.

Lauren’s favorite part so far has been the chapter where we meet The World’s Smallest Giant (who is also The World’s Largest Midget, among other things). Tabitha seems to prefer the long diversion through the Valley of Sound, wherein we meet Dr. Kokophonus A. Dyschord and his assistant, the Awful Dynne. I have a sneaking fondness for Officer Shrift of the Dictionopolis police, who is, of course, short.

We’re almost done now. Milo and crew have left Digitopolis, where numbers are mined, and are headed into the wilds. Eventually the story will come to an end, and once again I will be on the outside looking in come story time.

But for a while, even as big as they are now, they still want Dad to read them a story at bedtime.

So I shall.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pet News

There’s been quite a bit of turnover with our pets this month.

On the down side, we still haven’t located Tria and after two and a half weeks hopes begin to dim. The girls have been coping with this as best they can and doing a good job of it, but it is a sad thing and it is appropriate to be sad about it, so we let them. It isn’t any better for the grown-ups, and that seems to help in a “we’re in this together” kind of way. If things don't change by next month we will probably have some kind of memorial and look into getting another cat, if only to keep Mithra from losing what few marbles she retains.

And today we confirmed that The Oldest Living Hamster In Captivity has vacated her title. This, at least, was not unexpected. Hamsters have a lifespan of about 18 months, on average, and we’d gotten this one full-grown 26 months ago. For all we know she was older than we are - a Victorian lady hamster adrift in the modern world. We’re still not sure whether it was Hammy or Vee, but it seems kind of moot now.

She had a good life.

Every dinner time she’d come rocketing toward the edge of her cage, looking for a handout, and every dinner time we’d give her one. Seriously, why not – at some point you have to stop trying to watch their health for the future and just let them ride. If I make it to the magical age of 90 I will spend my last years living on Reeses Peanut Butter Cups and black tea so sweet it would cause cavities in statues. So we let the hamster eat grilled cheese and veggies and rice and chicken and whatever else we were having for dinner. And she would eat whatever we gave her, too – she’d grab it eventually (we’re pretty sure she was blind at the end) and sit there chewing and doddering. She actually doddered.

We had a simple burial service out in the rain this morning. Godspeed, little one, and may you find nibblies wherever you are.

On the plus side, though, we now have two rabbits.

There is a little black one named Milo after the main character of The Phantom Tollbooth, which the girls and I are reading together now. He’s a tiny little thing with short stubby ears and soulful brown eyes, and his great joy in life is melting into a puddle in the arms of a child. Can’t fault him for that, I suppose. The other is a larger brown one named Hazel, who is about twice the size of Milo and has a ruff around her neck but otherwise looks much the same.

They like to come inside and hop about the living room, much to Mithra’s dismay, although so far she hasn’t tried to eat either one of them.

Milo and Hazel are part of Lauren’s 4H project this year, although neither of them is likely to be a show rabbit. Hazel is too old and fat to show (which, frankly, makes me sympathize with her a bit more than I otherwise would), and Milo is not a purebred bunny with papers.

In other news, there are purebred bunnies with papers.

So they live in a big wooden hutch out by the garage, and so far they seem to be doing just fine. We’ll see how that goes come wintertime.

Lots going on around here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation

When we weren’t dodging Nature’s fury, we had a pretty good vacation.

Yes, the last bit of August was time for our mostly-annual trek out to the wilds of the Jersey shore, where sand, family and beautiful Cape May awaited us. Cape May is the kind of place where you can bring kids and know that they will not have to deal with anyone who looks like they fell off an MTV promotional tour or who will try to sell them timeshares – it’s a nice place that way. My parents started renting a house there for a week in the summers about a decade ago, and it’s become something we all look forward to immensely. We head in from Wisconsin and my brother and his family come down from New York. The cousins get to hang out with each other and do all the beach things that one does amidst sand and surf, and the adults get to talk and have margaritas.


Even before the various outside crises we knew it was going to be an abbreviated trip, though. Kim’s new post as Interim Dean is a time-crunch of a job so we would have to cut the beginning of the vacation fairly short, and since the house we like was only available in the last full week of August (darn those owners wanting to use their own house all summer…) and the girls started school in Wisconsin on September 1, that meant cutting the end fairly close as well.

Among other things, the practical upshot of that was that there was a list of friends whom we wanted to see but didn’t even bother telling we were headed out since we knew there wasn’t going to be time to see them anyway. Next time we’re out, we’ll have to correct that.

Still, it was worth it. We did get to see a couple of our friends, and of course we spent a week with various configurations of family down at the shore, and that’s a good thing no matter how you slice it.

We arrived on Saturday August 20th via the Cape May – Lewes ferry, a novelty for us, which we had never done before. Kim likes new things – she truly believes that anything done twice intentionally qualifies as a rut, which amazes me since I find that sort of repetition comforting. Between us we make a whole person. And this time she won, which turned out to be a good thing since the ferry was rather a fun experience. You drive down to central Delaware and then onto a boat that’s roughly the size of an office block, and for 90 minutes you steam across the Delaware Bay toward New Jersey. It made for a suitably dramatic entrance, we thought.

This was moored right next to the ferry in Lewes, which made it even cooler.

We were eager to get down to the beach on Sunday, since that is what we were there to do. Well, that and drink margaritas, but since you can’t bring those onto the beach we save them for after. We are responsible citizens of Cape May in this regard. Plus, if you drink all the margaritas down at the beach you will likely not be able to find your way back to the house – not the tequila-intensive way I make margaritas, anyway. You’ll stagger about for a while until you fall over in the sand and fry until you either die or look like a House Majority Leader or, possibly both (does anyone actually have conclusive proof that that man is not undead?), whereas back at the house afterward you can drink all the margaritas you want and you’re already there! And if you fall over, you’re still already there!

It’s as if there were a plan already in place...

So we gathered up the troops, packed our supplies, hoisted anchor and invaded the Philippines.

No, it just felt like we did. We do not travel light, no we do not. For one thing, you never know when you just might want that one more little item and since the number of one more little items in the world is potentially infinite, well, you can see the problem. And for another thing, even when we limit ourselves to necessities such as beach umbrellas, they’re still heavy. At least ours are. The blue one in the photo below dates back to the Truman Administration and is made from sailcloth, oak and wrought iron. This turned out to be a good thing, though, since Sunday’s sustained winds were somewhere around 30mph and were sufficient to turn the more modern, space-age umbrellas (mylar, aluminum, and soap bubbles) into pretty little kites attached to spears, at least one of which managed to stab poor Cousin Josh in the leg. He is a brave young man, though, and was back out in the waves before you knew it.

We had an excellent time, wind notwithstanding. The girls picked up right where they left off with their boogie boards and their cousins, getting the most out of every beach day, and when it wasn’t a hurricane it was actually beautiful out there.

The adults also picked up right were we left off, with our conversations and our general willingness to let the rest of the world go hang while we relaxed.

For lunches we decided to skip the pretence of being at all concerned with our health and just go get food from Hot Dog Tommy’s little hole in the wall walk-up window just off the beach. The girls had been jonesing for Tommy Dogs all summer long, and you know what? Nutrition is for normal life. For vacations, there are only Tommy Dogs. I enjoyed my Buffal Dogs (all beef dogs with bleu cheese and hot sauce, no onions – “hold the O” as Tommy says) and my tribal-sized can of Arizona Iced Tea, and I can cut back on sugar, salt and fat now that I’m back in the more mundane normality that is my life.

Well I could, you know. It’s entirely possible. It is.

We hit most of our favorite spots while we were there. We went mini-golfing one night, for example, or at least the kids did. The grown-ups mostly watched, as otherwise we’d still be there, somewhere around the 14th hole, arguing over whose turn it was and yes she DID hit my golf ball with hers and why CAN’T I use the club as a cue stick? We also went to Sunset Beach, where the old concrete ship went down in the 1920s. The light is always so nice there.

There were some strange moments on this trip.

For one thing, I spent one morning getting my hair cut, which is not something I usually do on vacations. But everyone – even me – agreed that my hair had gotten too long and was approaching “comb-over” status, which I find annoying. So my brother and I went to a barbershop, since a) Keith lives in New York now and thus has a sense of Style, something I will never have no matter where I live, and b) a barbershop is infinitely to be preferred to a salon when it comes to getting a haircut without too many fripperies. There are too many guys named Serge in this world who own salons and want to design your hair and not enough guys named Tony who work in barbershops and want to cut it. We ended up with Tony’s wife or mother or possibly great aunt, a woman whose New Jersey accent could have sliced open soda cans at thirty paces and whose voice sounded like three miles of unpaved road. But between her and Keith I came away with a much more reasonable looking, if much less covered, head. I can live with that.

The other thing that struck me as odd was that at some point there must have been an Austin Healey convention, since all of the sudden the streets were swarming with dozens of impractical little British sports cars, all of them bearing Quebec license plates for some reason. I will pause here to let you, the reader, guess the gender and approximate vintage of every one of the drivers I saw. Sometimes you just want to grab people by the shirt collar and yell at them – “Don’t! Confirm! My! Stereotypes!” But so it goes.

On what turned out to be the last day we spent down in Cape May, Kim decided that it would be fun if people went kayaking. The girls were all up for this, as were their cousins Josh and Sara and their father, Keith. And since Lori and I were to remain safely on dry land, we agreed that this was a fine plan. So we made our way over to the kayak rental place (of course there was a kayak rental place in Cape May – don’t be silly) and they got kitted out.

After a smooth launch into the water, off they went.

Apparently a very good time was had by all.

We got home for lunch, and then it was a blur until we suddenly found ourselves back in Philadelphia, waiting for the hurricane, as described a few posts ago.

Once the hurricane got sorted out it was time to head back to the nation’s tender midsection. It was just the girls and me on the drive home, and they were troopers. On the way we stopped in Pittsburgh for some O-Fries, a move which is fast becoming a tradition. That’s a medium order of fries, by the way.

We landed at a hotel somewhere in Ohio after that. It was a nice place, I suppose – the train tracks ran right behind it and there was no elevator, but it was clean and it had a pool and that is all the girls care about when it comes to hotels. They spent most of the evening splashing about, since they’d noshed their way across the time zone and weren’t hungry for dinner, but eventually we found a place that served decent food and had paper placemats that we could make into origami objects. I was actually kind of pleased that I remembered how to make those inflatable paper balls that so enlivened my junior high years. Now that Tabitha’s in middle school she’ll need to know things like that.

The next day we were home.

It’s good to be home.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why I Will Not Be Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

I remember where I was that day. Of course I do. Who over the age of 20 doesn’t? This was the most recent Pearl Harbor, the newest JFK Assassination – if you were alive and old enough to know about the world beyond your friends and neighborhood, you remember what happened. I’ve been through three of those events in my 45 years, and I’m not sure why the other two qualified for that level but they did. I remember where I was when I found out that Reagan had been shot. I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up. And I remember 9/11.

It was a tragedy of mind-numbing proportions. The slaughter of the innocent always is.

About two weeks after the events I sent out a survey to about a hundred people – basically the mailing list for the updates on my first blog, which was a more focused and less frequent affair than this one. Where were you when you found out? When did you realize it was so serious? What did you do the rest of the day? What sticks with you from that day more than anything else? Basic questions, focused on the specifics of human experience.

Comedy can be broad. Tragedy is always specific.

I got an overwhelming number of responses to that survey, and rather than send out a compilation as an email – as was my original intent – I posted them as a web page. It’s still out there, if you know where to look. I found myself reading it last week.

It is still surprisingly raw.

The final question of the survey was something along the lines of “What do you think you will say to someone thirty years from now when they ask you what it was like?” As with the other questions, the answers were thoughtful. What impressed me, though, was that they were also surprisingly hopeful – there were a great many responses that talked about how the US would be changed forever, how it brought us together, how there would be a silver lining even in a cloud that dark.

It didn’t work out that way.

The innocent dead were immediately put to work for partisan advantage. They were used to justify not one war – a war that was at least related to their deaths – but two, the second being that Freudian farce of a conflict in Iraq, where the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House sought to outdo what his daddy had tried a decade earlier. They were made the excuse to gut the Constitution and the rights that the Founding Fathers had placed in there for the protection of the citizens, ironic since the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House made such a big deal about how the innocent dead were murdered because of our freedoms and then went to such great lengths to take those freedoms away. And perhaps most shamefully, they were prostituted as political campaign fodder.

I think the final straw for me was when the Honorable Runner-Up in the White House came out with a campaign commercial for his second try at winning a majority of the votes, a commercial that prominently featured the New York City firefighters marching bravely to their duties and their deaths, as if their heroism and sacrifice somehow justified his sordid ambitions.

There are things that are sacred.

There are things that cross lines that should never be crossed. There are things that are unforgivable. There are things that cannot be undone. “Have you no decency, sir?” Robert Welch once asked another political opportunist, “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

And the answer, on both occasions, was no.

The honored dead are not honored by being made into tawdry political symbols. They weren’t there to be heroes. They were just going about their lives and were murdered in the name of political fanaticism. And we responded with fanaticism of our own.

I am not convinced that sinking to that level was the proper response.

Nor am I convinced that the use of the innocent dead as political cudgels to beat dissenters and enforce a narrow, ideologically charged patriotism is worthy of commemoration.

Ten years later I remain sickened by the horror of that tragedy. And I am no less sickened by the way that tragedy has been twisted to suit our increasingly fanatic, ideologically extreme partisan politics. We have not changed forever, nor for the better, and reading the answers to my survey today, a decade after the fact, was an exercise in lost hopes and the bitter taste of opportunities squandered.

I will remember the innocent dead on this day – the specific individuals, men and women with families, with stories, with lives brutally cut short in the name of other people’s extremism. I will remember them and I will mourn.

But I will not commemorate this political monstrosity called “9/11.”

No, I will not.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Report from the Arts

When I was an undergraduate, all of the foreign language classes on campus were taught in the same building.

It was a brick pile, tucked into a space near the campus administration building, and the story on campus was that it was designed during the height of the student riots of the late 1960s or early 1970s, with special care to make it assault-resistant and siege-proof. It had narrow, vertical windows that jutted out at an angle from the building, making them both useless as entryways and convenient for defensive sniping. You entered between levels and had to take the single staircase up one flight or down one to get to a floor. After that, if you wanted to get to any of the other floors you had to go all the way down to either end of the building to the staircases there. And the top floor was accessible through a separate staircase that only went down to the floor below. It was a miracle of defensive architecture, designed to confuse, bewilder and frustrate anyone trying to do anything in a straight line.

I thought about this today while I was driving around in Minneapolis.

As the performing arts procurer down at Home Campus, one of my more pleasant duties is to go to the Midwest Arts Conference every other year (we don’t need to go every year – we’re not that big a venue). This is a four-day-long meet-and-greet between most of the venues in the upper midwest and most of the performers who want to be booked into those venues. It’s a very busy conference and a lot of work, even as a mere attendee, but it’s a lot of fun, especially now that I know a few of the people there to hang out with.

But it’s in Minneapolis.

Now, I like Minneapolis, really. It’s clean and relatively safe. There seems to be a lot going on there. And there is a used book store that specializes entirely in science fiction and fantasy books that I managed to get to last time (though not this time). It also has a network of overhead walkways so you can travel all across the downtown without ever going outside, which pleased the indoorsman in me no end and which I suspect is a wonderful idea in the dead of a Minnesota winter.

But the streets were clearly laid out by vandals.

Nothing goes in a straight line from anywhere in Minneapolis. There isn’t a two-block-long section of any street in that city that doesn’t curve, double back, or split into two or more new streets. It’s Escher-esque. Boston is a model of rectilinear clarity compared with Minneapolis.

And all of it is under construction right now.

Which means, for those of you keeping score, that if the hotel guy tells you, “Oh, it’s easy to get to the BIG HONKING INTERSTATE – just go up two blocks and make a right and it will take you right there,” and you do this but six blocks after the right turn the street disappears – literally: there was no road surface after a certain point, just dirt and traffic cones – and there are no signs anywhere to tell you what to do instead, you will spend an hour trying to find the BIG HONKING INTERSTATE that was less than a mile from the hotel door and eventually, if you are like me (and who isn’t?), you will end up on the other side of the Mississippi River with a splitting headache, shouting random obscenities at the drunkards and chemically-imbalanced goat-herders who thought it would be a good idea to lay out the streets of a major American city in just that way.

I’ll bet nobody will ever successfully invade Minneapolis, however.

The conference itself was, as noted, a lot of fun, even if I only managed to get to a couple of days’ worth of it this time. There are an astonishing number of people on this planet with completely insane amounts of talent, and many of them were doing their best to impress us so we would book them. During the days you mostly wander around the Marketplace, snarfing up literature and CDs and DVDs so you can persuade people that they should believe your reports of said talent, but in the evenings and during the big lunches, there are showcase performances. I saw a pair of jugglers do things that I would swear to you are physically impossible, the evidence of my own eyes notwithstanding, and do them all the while spouting some of the finest comedy I’ve heard in years. I saw musical acts whose mistakes were more finely presented than anything I’ve ever even attempted as a singer in the three and a half decades since I joined my first choir. It was beyond impressive, what some of those people can do.

There are certain trends in performing arts, I’ve noticed.

For one thing, there seems to be a great deal of interest in using musical instruments in ways nature never intended – there was a quartet made up of three cellists and a bongo player, for example, who regaled us with what can only be described as Baroque punk music. And it was amazing.

For another thing, most of these performers fell into several physical categories. There were beautiful young women, alone or paired with scruffy middle-aged men. There were scruffy middle-aged women, alone or paired with more scruffy middle-aged women. There were beautiful young men, always alone. And there were impeccably turned out middle-aged men in sharp tailored outfits that were clearly meant to compensate for the absence of beautiful young women. And they all, every one of them, had talent oozing out their ears and puddling around their ankles.

I have hit that period of my own scruffy middle-aged manhood where, for the first time, I noticed just how young some of these performers are. That cello group? None of them looked old enough to drink legally. The consensus break-out star of the conference – an up and coming country singer currently the subject of a bidding war among the major labels in Nashville and whose showcase performance was still the subject of buzz days later when I arrived on site – was all of 19.

I had a very nice time at this conference, nice enough to justify the sheer volume of work I now have to make up for being away from class prep for three days.

But next time? I’m bringing bread crumbs and a very large ball of twine so I can find my way back home without touring the entire city.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Have You Seen This Cat?

I’ve been trying to write up our recent vacation, but there have been things getting in the way.

There’s the usual run-up to the semester, which begins tomorrow. On top of everything else I’m still frantically trying to revise one class and create a second, and blogging may well be light until Christmas. Or it may be heavier as I need a study break. Whichever.

There’s Labor Day Weekend, which has all sorts of fun activities and which, in this year of unbridled Teabagger assault on the dignity of workers, holds a special meaning.

There has also been a psychic drain around here, one that has more specific causes.

Wednesday night Tria went out, as she often does. She likes the outdoors, and even though the Solons who run Our Little Town have decreed that no cats shall be allowed outside without said cats being restrained by leashes, she gets out anyway.

But she hasn’t come back. It’s not like her to miss a meal.

So it’s been a bit distracted around here.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Crisis? What Crisis?

Did you know that when you’re on the beach, an earthquake feels kind of like somebody is shoving your chair in a rhythmic, pulsing sort of way? I didn’t. Of course, being from the east coast I never really had any occasion to learn about how earthquakes felt until last month, when we hit a trifecta of natural disasters.

I don’t think they’re going to let us go east for vacations anymore.

It is a very strange feeling, being on the beach for an earthquake. First you wonder why someone is doing that to your chair. Then – after careful observation and a commendable restraint regarding just yelling randomly for people to stop messing with your chair – you realize that nobody is touching your chair except you. You check – no, you are not messing with your own chair. Because you totally could, you know. But you’re not.

Then you decide that you must have lost your mind, which is something you’d think you’d have noticed before except that losing your mind pretty much implies that you would not notice having done so, since you’d need a mind to figure that out, so it is entirely possible that your little red choochoo has gone chugging around the bend even as you truly believe you are safe and sound in Sanity Station and it is everyone else who has the problem. This explains a great deal of what passes for politics these days.

Having ascertained that you are at least as sane as you were the day before, you then look around and see that everyone around you is going through the same process, and you decide that – there being no screening of Twilight 9: Vampires on Ice! on the beach just right then – the odds of mass psychosis at that very moment are exceedingly slim and Occam’s Razor says you should find another answer.

At that point, your smartphone-enabled relatives announce that yes, indeed, that was an earthquake. And suddenly you’ve got a whole new list of things to think about.

The solution to the problem just changes the problem.

Now you do some quick math and realize that, well, there you are. There is no particular point to trying to evacuate, as there is nowhere you could possibly go in any reasonable amount of time that would provide any safety. Those islands on the Jersey shore are flat – the highest elevation on them is usually the pitcher’s mound at the school playground – and the ways in and out can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And so you reach into the cooler, grab a frosty root beer (alcoholic beverages not being permitted on the beaches of Cape May, NJ) and gaze out to sea on the chance that you might spot any incoming tsunami rising up out of the deeps and thus experience it with full foreknowledge.

What, me worry?

I realize that people on the west coast are shaking their heads at this – though whether for my cavalier attitude toward earthquake and tsunami safety procedures or my thinking that a 5.9 quake is worth writing about at all depends on who is reading – but what can I say? It was a novel experience.

And then the hurricane hit.

I had just dropped Kim off at the Atlantic City airport, since her job required her to cut her vacation short, when I returned back to the house we had rented in Cape May to find everything except my own stuff already packed and waiting to be loaded into the various cars we had converged there within. Apparently everybody’s vacation was required to be cut short. So I threw my stuff together, tetrissed everything into our car, including the children, and sped off for the Philadelphia suburbs to ride out the storm.

The mandatory evacuation order went into effect at 8am the next morning, so it turned out to be a good move for us to leave early.

The storm hit us Saturday, and except for a 14-hour power outage (mostly during sleeping hours anyway) and the toppling of a neighbor’s massive tree, we escaped without any particular impact. Even the neighbor did well – a professional lumberjack couldn’t have put that tree down in a spot that would have caused less damage. So as far as Hurricane Irene was concerned, our war stories were a complete bust – and that is good. I know a lot of people have complained that the hype and particularly the evacuations were overkill, but you know – no. They were exactly proper.

People who don’t live on the coasts don’t really understand hurricanes. They think they’re just big thunderstorms. Do you know what a Category 4 hurricane is? It’s an F-2 tornado that’s a hundred miles wide, that’s what it is. Look it up – the sustained windspeeds match. So even a Category 2 like Irene (an F-1 on the tornado scale) is not something you want to mess with. Be glad we escaped without the catastrophic damage officials were warning us about, and be quiet.

The third leg of the trifecta was actually on the ride out, when we drove into Pittsburgh completely oblivious to the flash flooding that was taking place mere miles from where we were driving. All we saw was a mild downpour.

And that’s just fine.

Aside from all that, though, it was an awesome trip.

Back to School, Part II

Today was the first actual day of school down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School, and things were hopping here at the family mansion.

We’ve been slowly easing into this transition for a while now.

The good folks at Not Bad President Elementary had a number of programs and field trips designed to introduce middle school to the graduating fifth-graders. There was an orientation evening sometime in May that I wrote about beforein this space. And we’ve been in and out of the MCGMS building several times this week trying to get caught up on all the things we missed while we were away. So it’s getting to be old hat, except not really. It’s not real until game time.

Yesterday, while Lauren was exploring the wonders of third grade, Tabitha and I went in for our Parent/Student/Teacher guidance session. We got there a little early so we could buy an MCGMS t-shirt, approved for gym class wear (a new idea, this whole “gym clothes” thing), and then found the meeting site deep in the rabbit warren that is MCGMS, where everything goes by a code. Tabitha is in the E-1 pod, and I did my best not to think of Stanley Kubrick. You find your way there by following the timeline painted along the wall, just under the ceiling. The E-1 pod is right around 14,000 BCE, which – I have discovered while researching my World History Class – was not a particularly active time. So there will be rest, and that’s good. The conference went well – we learned a great deal, signed a few forms, and had Tabitha practice her locker combination a couple of times.

We went back later to pour the bucket of back-to-school stuff into said locker, so Tabitha didn’t have to haul it in on Tuesday. It is a very spacious locker. And now it is nicely decorated as well.

Last night we went out for our traditional First Day of School celebration, wherein the girls get to choose a restaurant. This year they chose the Japanese-style hibachi grill place, and my aren’t we glad they’re getting older. They love the show – the chef comes out and grills it all right in front of you, and there is a great deal of carnival barking and wowing the rubes and it’s just fun to go along with it. And the food, while probably the Japanese equivalent of Taco Bell in terms of authenticity, is quite tasty. We had a good and filling time.

But this morning came fast and hard, and suddenly it was game time. No more meetings. No more practices. No more delays.

Tabitha was ready.

We piled into the cars and drove down to MCGMS, where we parked and gave Tabitha a hug for her first day of middle school. And then she ran across the street and into the next phase of her life.

Good luck with it, Tabitha. I’m proud of you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Back to School, Part I

Due to the staggered start that Our Little Town has for its schools this year, Tabitha did not have to go to Mighty Clever Guy Middle School today. Which of course meant that Lauren got to have her first day of 3rd grade down at Not Bad President Elementary all to herself.

She was very excited.

We got home from vacation Tuesday afternoon (more on that later) and spent most of yesterday going through the end-of-summer whiplash that naturally occurs when the interval between summer vacation and the first day of school is less than 48 hours. We went to both MCGMS and NBPE to take care of all the paperwork that was supposed to have been accomplished in a small window of time while we were away, dropped off a bucket of supplies for Lauren, took home a similar bucket meant for Tabitha (which, apparently, she will not need until Tuesday), made an appointment for Tabitha for this afternoon with her guidance counselor, presumably for some guidance, and generally got ourselves as ready for this as we were ever going to be.

Last night it was hard for poor Lauren to get to sleep. It is always hard on the night before the first day of school. But there she was, bright and early this morning, ready to go.

She had picked out her outfit weeks ago (there was also supposed to be a new army-style jacket to go with it – who knew it would be 95 degrees on the first day of September?), wolfed down her breakfast and insisted we get to school fifteen minutes early.

She even graciously permitted me to walk with her to the 3rd-grade door, where her friends awaited. At that point I was dismissed, though I did get a big hug. What more could a dad want?

Third grade was my favorite year of elementary school. I had a couple of really good friends in my class (Jon and Christine). I had my favorite elementary school teacher of all time (Mrs. Levin). And we got to do all sorts of fun things that nobody would ever let us do in these more enlightened times, such as play with Freon.

The ‘70s. What a trip.

Lauren was very happy to hear that 3rd grade was good for me. She got exactly the teacher she was hoping to get (though they’re all good ones teaching that grade at NBPE, really). She has a number of good friends in her class. And if they don’t let you roll Freon around on the palm of your hand anymore, there will probably be something else to do that will horrify future generations.

Good luck, Lauren. I’m proud of you.