Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Wait, Didn't You Have One of These Last Year?

So today I became the parent of a fourteen-year-old.

I am no more sure of how this happened now than I was last year at this time, or indeed any of the previous years where I have made pretty much this exact observation every time.  What can I say?  It always surprises me.  The basic physical and biological facts remain the same – not much has changed that way over the millennia, no matter how much every generation feels it invents that stuff anew – but the general sense of how I got from Point A (defined variously as “a single man,” “a married man with no children,” and/or “the parent of a toddler”) to Point B (defined as “having a child nearly old enough to drive in this state”) remains something of a mystery to me.

You would think, as a professional historian, I would be better at keeping track of such things – or at least learning from the past, since this seems to happen every year – but you’d be wrong.

One of the side-effects of having a birthday during Christmas break is that scheduling a birthday party is always a bit of a chore – especially when that birthday falls on a holiday as well.  Friends are out of town.  Other plans have been made.  Things like that.  New Year’s Eve is a good night to stay home anyway, really.  It’s Amateur Night out there on the highways, the bottom fell out of the thermometer a few days ago and hasn't been seen since, and it will be a fine evening to batten down the hatches and turn inward.  There will be a small family sort of thing at home tonight, with another more friend-inclusive event sometime later, when there is time for it. 

So tonight will be quiet.  There will be a dinner of Tabitha’s choosing.  She loves to bake, so she will make her own cake (a much less ambitious project than the buche de noel from last year, which was marvelous but took all day).  We will hang out, perhaps play a few games, and watch the New Year festivities on television when the time comes.  We’ll watch the ball drop in New York, just down the road from the cousins we saw last week.  In fact, we’ll probably watch it twice – once live, and then once more when it’s actually midnight here in Wisconsin an hour later.  We’re a bit behind the times here.

There will be cards and, depending on delivery schedules, perhaps presents as well.  We might even sing, depending on how excruciatingly embarrassing that turns out to be.

It is a strange thing to watch your children grow up, to see them mature into interesting and capable people.  But that’s how it is supposed to work, really.  That’s what parenting is all about, getting your children to the point where they can go out into the world in all its messy and sharp-edged glory.  It means that things are going well.

And so they are.

Happy birthday, Tabitha.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Back Home

If there actually is such a thing as purgatory, it probably looks a great deal like the Hampton Inn in Maumee, Ohio.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Hampton Inn in Maumee, Ohio, is a fine hotel.  It is clean and well maintained.  It has a heated indoor pool, a polite and friendly staff, and a decent hot breakfast as far as hotel breakfasts go.  There is a Five Guys just across the street now, for those so inclined.  We’ve stayed there a number of times on our trips back east, and we’ll likely stay there again.  It is, in fact, a hotel I would recommend to whoever happens to be in the Maumee vicinity and in need of hotel services.  Book with confidence, gentle reader.

But the thing about the place – about all such places – is that it is neither here nor there.  It is betwixt and between, a waystation somewhere on the route from where you were to where you are headed.  It is, in short, a placeholder.  It fills the gap on the map and provides a resting spot while you sort out your other business. 

Also, it’s reasonably quiet, so if you have some sins you’d like to contemplate you can do that in a blandly comfortable environment that won’t distract you from whatever conclusions you should be drawing, such as how you really wish you had the chance to go back and commit most of them all over again except that youth is wasted on the young and now all you want to do is sleep. 

I’m not sure what the theologians would say, but really – can you imagine a better setting for that sort of thing?  Someone should write a monograph on this, is all I’m saying.

We were there last night.

We had spent the previous week back in the Philadelphia area, hanging out with family and generally celebrating the various holidays that needed to be celebrated – Christmas, Christmas Eve (a far bigger holiday in my family), a couple of birthdays.  It was a grand time, and there will be a post or two about the week coming soon.

Now we are home, back in Our Little Town, where tonight’s low will dip into Brass Monkey Weather.  But the driveway is cleared of snow, the bags are in the house, the cats and rabbits are fed, and we have no plans for tonight beyond warm beverages, good books, and perhaps a football game or two, so we will remain cozy and snug in our own home.

It’s good to see family and friends.  It’s good to come home.

In between?

Well, it’s a fine hotel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I Got Yer Merry Little Christmas Right Here

Every year around this time I am inundated by Christmas carols.

On the one hand, this is not such a bad thing, all things considered.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, and some of the songs are kind of catchy when you listen to them.  Every once in a while some of my favorites get some air time as well, though not as often as I would hope.  But you have to be glad for those moments when they do.

On the other hand, it does have its odd moments.

It has been years since I have been able to take “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” seriously, for example, and for this I blame Andrei Codrescu.

For those of you who did not listen to National Public Radio in the 90s, well, you missed out.  Codrescu was one of their regular contributors, someone who would come on just before the top of the hour and fill the last three or four minutes before the day’s headlines.  He had a deep gravelly voice, heavily accented by his native Romanian, and an even deeper sense of the absurd that was likely even more heavily accented by his native Romanian.

“There are some strange jobs in this world,” he said one time.  “My friend Larry once had a job nailing Jesus to the cross.  Literally.  The crosses came from Bolivia and the Jesuses came from Brazil.  The place he worked for, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, put them together and sold them in religious shops.  He didn't feel too good about it.  But a job's a job.”

I always looked forward to his stories.

One afternoon, shortly before Christmas and not long after Kim and I were married, I was sitting in our apartment not getting any work done – a surprisingly common state of affairs, really, and one of the reasons my dissertation took so long to write – when he came on the radio with a piece about how the gates of Hell had been located here on earth, according to one or another supermarket tabloid.  He was particularly tickled about the fact that said gates were located in Brazil, a tropical country known in the US at that time mostly for Carnival and soccer, which were fun and therefore no doubt just the kinds of activities that would erupt near such gates.  He rambled on about that for a while, parsing out the ramifications of Hell on earth being easily accessible these days and what that might mean for us as a culture, and then signed off.

At which point NPR played “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the Nanci Griffith version, with her delicate, quavering voice and the simple piano accompaniment that went with it.

The contrast still makes me laugh, even now.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, indeed.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Of Cookies and Cowboys

Every afternoon I drive over to Not Bad President Elementary School and wait for Lauren to get out.

She’s bigger now, so I no longer have to brave the scrum in front of the school itself.  Between the psychotic parents driving their 6L 900hp Ford Compensators (with heated seats!) and waving the drivers licenses that they clearly drew themselves earlier that morning using purple crayons and lined Big Chief notebook paper on the one hand, and the random ministrations of the local constabulary in full “I don’t have to listen to you, citizen, now do as I say” mode on the other hand, that’s a combat zone I’m more than happy to avoid.

So I wait up the street a block or so, legally parked and out of the fray.

In the past year or so I’ve even found a buddy.  He drives by in a little blue car and – usually on Mondays or Tuesdays – he’ll stop as he drives by and we’ll chat for a bit. 

Mostly we talk football.  This is an odd thing, really.  You see, I am – as befits my upbringing in the City of Brotherly Love – an Eagles fan.  I have been an Eagles fan for as long as I can remember.  I have been to a grand total of one professional football game in my life, when I was about six or so, and it was an Eagles game down at the old Vet when it was still the new Vet.  They lost of course – I think the Eagles won a grand total of five games during the entire Nixon Administration – but there my loyalties lie.  And my buddy is a Cowboys fan.

There was a time when we probably would not have spoken to one another.  The Eagles and Cowboys fought some hard games over the years, and the fan bases of each side regarded the other as somewhere between cockroaches and industrial effluvia on the desirability scale.  At one point the District Attorney of Philadelphia – a man who would go on to become the Mayor of Philadelphia and, eventually, the Governor of Pennsylvania – sat in the cheap seats and offered $10 to anyone who could hit the Cowboys coach with a snowball.  Many people tried.  I don’t know if anyone collected.  We all cheered anyway.

But we are both older now, he and I, and far from our respective homes.  We have mellowed.  It is nice to have someone who remembers the old battles, even someone from the other side.  And so we have become friends, in that special “guy” sense of the word that means we can talk sports and sincerely wish each other’s team luck even if we don’t actually know each other’s names.

It’s been a hard year for the both of us, fandom-wise.  The Eagles have had a couple of runs of smoke-and-mirror success but are at least a year away from being a team anyone needs to take seriously in the post-season.  The Cowboys started off well but have entered their annual crash and burn period – a tradition for the entire 21st century – which ordinarily makes me feel just fine except that I do feel bad for my buddy. 

The whole division stinks.  For a while I was convinced that six wins would take the NFC East, but it appears that eight might do it, and nine definitely will.  Yesterday the Eagles got destroyed by a team with three wins, on its third-string quarterback, missing its two best players on offense.  And the Cowboys gagged up a loss to the Packers so transcendently awful that will likely be the hot topic of conversation among the sports knobs on the radio for weeks.

I didn’t actually see much of any of it, to be honest.  They didn’t show the Eagles here in Wisconsin for some reason (I know, right?), and by the time I realized the Packers and Cowboys were on most of the game was over.  Instead, I spent the better part of the afternoon avoiding my grading by taking the girls Christmas shopping and by baking a stack of pizzelles about two feet high.  For those of you who don’t know, pizzelles are Italian cookies.  They’re anise-flavored, and you make them in what is essentially a glorified waffle iron.  My grandmother used to make them for the holidays, and it is a tradition that I enjoy upholding.  Plus the house smells wonderfully when you’re done.

Most of the pizzelles went to today's big Home Campus potluck that we have every semester.

But I did save a few for my NBPE road buddy, because even Cowboy fans should have something nice after a tough loss.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gearing Up For the Holiday

The problem with Christmas, as I see it, is that it arrives far more quickly than I am prepared for it to get here these days.

You would think this would not be such a problem, calendars being what they are.  There are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, all year long.  No day is longer than any other, though they may seem so.  Theoretically the arrival of any particular day should be a fairly standard thing.

And indeed, Christmas used to take just forever to arrive.  When I was a kid there were years where I was convinced it would never get here, that I was stuck in some hellish loop that ran from November 29th through December 8th, over and over again, a loop that somehow seemed to contain mostly Thursdays.

Now?  Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, how is it suddenly the 14th?

I’m finally ready for the holiday now, though.  Classes are over and all that are left are exams.  I have made my peace with the incessant buzzing of carols from radio stations and sound systems in shops everywhere I go.  I’ve begun to think about the logistics of the holiday – who needs to be where on what day.  And I have finally, finally gotten up for the retail end of all this holiday. 

Yes, I am ready to go Christmas shopping.

This is the point where Kim looks over at me and just sighs. 

Kim is a planner.  She is a doer.  She is one of those people for whom the concept of sitting still would be anathema if she could even conceive of it at all. 

She has already done the Christmas shopping

Boxes have been arriving here daily, containing within them all sorts of things to be distributed – several of which I have been expressly forbidden from opening under pain of, well, something painful I’m sure.  Given my December last year I’m not sure she could top that, but then she knows me pretty well so I’m not really all that interested in testing that theory.

So here I am, all ready to go full metal retail and without any need to do it.

I may just do so anyway, because it is Christmas and because it is fun to find things for people.  It’s not the main point of the holiday, but it can be a nice thing when you’re up for it.

I’m ready now.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Meaningful Books

There’s a Facebook meme that’s going around now about books.  Normally I’d just respond to it there, since I like those memes and they’re usually pretty mindless, but this one seemed worth thinking about a bit more.  This is somewhat ironic because the meme specifically says not to think about it too hard.  But there you have it.  Irony: it's what's for dinner.

Find ten books that have stuck with you in some way, the meme commands.  They don’t have to be Great Works or prize specimens of Literature – just books that influenced you, that you find yourself thinking about long after you read them, that have become part of who you are in some way.

For someone like me, who reads reflexively, obsessively, and continually, the hard part was trying to narrow it down to ten.  I did not succeed.  But then I figured what would they do to me if I did go up to eleven?  Or more?  And who are “they” anyway?  It’s not like at the grocery store where some manager will storm out to the Express Lane and throw my extra groceries to the floor and then force me to put them away properly if I showed up with a dozen items in the “10 Items or Less” lane, right?

Come to think of it, neither is the Express Lane.  But that’s a whole other problem.

So – ten books, or maybe fifteen, in no particular order other than the one in which they occurred to me.

1. The Lord of the Rings  (JRR Tolkien)

This was my introduction to both SF/F as a genre – the sorts of books I read most these days – and to Deep History.  Nobody but nobody does backstory like Tolkien, and it was fascinating to read a story where everything that happened had been set in motion by events centuries or even millennia earlier.  This book is in many ways responsible for me being a professional historian today.

2. Capitalism and a New Social Order (Joyce Appleby)

This is a slim book, not even 200 pages, but it explored the intellectual history of early republican American politics in such a fascinating way that I was hooked.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of Appleby’s arguments, but her presentation of what it was possible to think about in connection with that period stays with me still.

3. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)

Arguably the best and certainly the darkest of the Discworld books, this not only combines sharp humor with a solid humanistic moral framework the way the rest of the series does, but also presents a quandary that, as a historian, sticks with me.  If you could go back to a time of crisis and do it over, would you?  Historical contingency is a complex thing.

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

A lightweight, laugh-out-loud-funny book that provided not only a lifetime’s worth of quotes and references but also a shibboleth for much of my circle of friends at many points in my life.  If you didn’t love this book, we didn’t know what to make of you.

5. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)

One of my favorites as a kid, and still in many ways a useful exploration of how the world is and ought to be run.  The fact that my own children loved it too made me absurdly happy.

6. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)

This book takes as its starting point the idea that Jesus was exactly who he said he was, but that he had friends who were not similarly divine.  What would his life look like to those friends?  This is the single funniest book I have ever read and one that I have recommended to friends and family who span the gamut from atheist to evangelical.  It raises interesting questions about the nuts and bolts of divinity against a human backdrop.

7. A Canticle for Liebowitz (Walter Miller Jr.)

The first post-apocalyptic book I ever read and the source of a persistent fascination with that genre ever since, this exercise in Deep History spans 1500 years as human civilization struggles to recover from nuclear war.  “Listen, are we doomed to do it again and again,” it asks. 

8. Slapstick (Kurt Vonnegut)

This book was recommended to me by a friend who thought I would like it, and she was right.  Vonnegut’s pessimistic humanism struck a chord with me and eventually I went on to read everything he ever wrote.

9. Letters From the Earth (Mark Twain)

I picked this up at Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut, oddly enough, and it opened my eyes to just how dark his humor could be and how much he spoke to the sorts of things I thought about anyway.  If all you know about Twain is the Disney version of Huck Finn, this will surprise you.

10.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)

How do paradigms shift?  How do we move from one way of thinking to another?  There are a great many answers to these questions – almost as many as there are people asking – but I find Kuhn’s answers to be most useful in everyday life. 

11.  The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)

Nobody has more fun with the English language than Harkaway, and he stands as a model for the exuberance that storytelling can be.  Tom Robbins is very much in the same vein that way (particularly Skinny Legs and All), but Harkaway is better.

12. What’s the Matter with Kansas?  (Thomas Frank)

Thomas Frank does more to explain the shift in modern American politics from money issues to values issues and what that shift means than almost any other author.  This is one of a small set of books (along with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein and White Protestant Nation by Allan J. Lichtmann) that really set my thinking on how late 20th century American politics worked and why early 21st-century American politics doesn’t.

13. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Richard Hofstadter)

The first book-length examination of the American distrust and disdain for trained intellect.   I wrote my dissertation to challenge one of Hofstadter’s arguments.

14. The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

Witty, allusive, and a great way to approach literature, this book and its many sequels have kept me entertained through many rereadings.

15. Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson)

I’ve never been much of a traveler, but this book taught me to see the humor in it and for that I am grateful.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Faces of Lauren, 2013

About this time every year I go through the year’s photographs looking for something to put on the annual Christmas card, which sometimes doesn’t go out until February but it’s the thought that counts.  Unless you’re thinking of donuts, in which case the thought needs to take a back seat to the reality, and then the reality eventually gives me more of a back seat.  Thus we see the circle of life.

While I am doing this (the photo searching, not the donuts, although I suppose I could be eating donuts at the same time if I would only plan ahead for this sort of thing), I invariably find myself getting sidetracked by the various faces that Lauren makes – faces that kind of spoil the photos as far as the Christmas card goes (unless we only plan to send it to people with a very specific sense of humor), but which I find amusing anyway.

I’ve been collecting and posting these photos for a few years now, and it has gotten to be a fun tradition that Lauren and I share.  So she and I went through them and here they are, for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Concerts! More Concerts!

December is the season of concerts.

It’s just structural, really.  School starts in September.  By the time everyone gets their instruments assigned and the groups get organized it’s a few weeks later.  You get two months to practice and then you have to get the concert in before there is a long vacation and everyone forgets everything.  And then you get to start over in January for the next round of concerts. 

Thus, last night we found ourselves at Tabitha’s orchestra concert, down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.

For certain values of “we.”

You see, December is also the season of, well, just about everything.  Between the onrushing holiday season, the end of the semester, and the general sense that the year is winding down and there is still half a “to-do” list to go from January, it gets busy.  Last night was also the big 4H Dance & Games Party, organized by Lauren and her friend Taryn.

Forces would have to be divided to accomplish a multiple-front mission.

So Kim, who is a much better planner than I am, handled the 4H end of things.  There was a lot of baking, punch-making, games-gathering, and general riding herd, and I never did get to see any of it in action because the party ended at about the same time that the concert did.

I went to the concert.  Grandma and Grandpa came down for the evening as well and went to the concert too.  So we had a good group turned out in support for our second concert down at MCGMS in a week.

This was a rather longer concert than Lauren’s, mostly because the songs were longer.  There was a short introductory set by a group of 5th grade musicians, and then the various MCGMS orchestras began their performances, youngest to oldest.

As an 8th grader, Tabitha is now at the top of the MCGMS heap and thus got the pivotal “last word” position for the evening.

It was a lovely show.  They played with enthusiasm on a cold winter night, and we had a grand time.

Good work, Tabitha.  I’m proud of you.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Clocking In

Kim has a new bedside clock these days.  I’m not sure how long it’s going to last.

For the last few years she has had something called a Chumby, which sounds either Australian or cheerfully obscene or both, there often being just the finest of lines between those two things.  I’ve always thought Australia would be a fun place to visit that way. 

But the Chumby was neither Australian nor obscene.  It was just a pleasant little electronic box about a cubic hands-breadth in size, with a screen occupying the entire front face.  Originally you could download apps for the Chumby and have them cycle through on the screen, but the Chumby business model was apparently flawed and the apps all disappeared some months ago, leaving it just a clock radio.

And then that died too.

There was a period of mourning, which I understood completely.  I’d feel the same way if my clocks went belly-up.

I actually have two bedside clocks.  One is a little rectangular alarm clock with big red LED numbers that my grandmother gave me when I was in high school, which means that clock has outlived her by nearly three decades now.  I’ll miss that one when it goes, purely for the sentimental attachment, though I don’t use it as an alarm clock anymore because it has the world’s most annoying alarm – an insistent buzz saw of a sound that would drive Ghandi to take up the axe. 

So a few years back my daughters gave me something called a Clocky, which is a 60’s-turquoise plastic thing about the size of a George RR Martin paperback, with an LCD display on the front and large white plastic wheels at either end.  It has a tweedly little alarm that manages to wake me up without destroying my nervous system every morning the way the other clock would do, and if you set it right it will also take off on those wheels and force you to look for it in order to shut the alarm off.  Other than a few test runs on this I must confess I’ve left it stationary.  It’s hard enough to get up in the morning without frantically chasing an inanimate object across your bedroom.  But I’ll miss this one too when the time comes, for many of the same sentimental reasons.

So I was sympathetic about the Chumby.

After a while, though, Kim got tired of not having an alarm clock and sent away for a new one.  It arrived this week.

Imagine if you will something that looks like a cross between a lava lamp and a nuclear cooling tower.  The actual clock face – the part with the display that tells you what time it is – is only about one inch by two, way down toward the bottom, and it shows the time with a dot-matrix of orange circles that looks straight out of the dark ages of computing.  The rest of the thing is a white plastic conical section about a foot high and about half that in diameter at the bottom, that expands out a bit before narrowing to about four inches at the truncated top.

It’s impressively large for something that is supposed to sit on your nightstand and share space with all the other nonsense that accumulates on one’s nightstand.  Perhaps it is designed to get you to clean off that clutter.  I don’t know.  Mostly it just forces you to shove stuff aside.

Part of the reason it is so big is that there is a light bulb inside of it.  I know.  Someone probably won an award for that.

There is an actual scientific purpose behind this, it turns out.  Apparently someone did some research and found that that darkness is bad for you if you want to wake up.

This finding certainly set me back.  I would never have guessed.

The theory behind putting a light bulb into the cooling tower alarm clock is that it will provide you with the light you need to make waking up a joyful and painless transition from sleep to wakefulness.  No, seriously – that’s what it said in the manual.  The theory here is that the light will turn itself on at the lowest possible setting about half an hour before your alarm is set to go off, and it will get gradually brighter, easing your mind into consciousness slowly until by the time the alarm actually sounds you will merely slap the Off button and bound out into the day with a cheerful smile and a song in your heart.

That’s the theory.

So far what has actually happened is that somewhere around the midpoint of this cycle the room becomes uncomfortably bright and you end up wanting to throw something hard at it so that the light will go out and you can get those last few precious moments of sleep in before the day begins in earnest, except that the thing looks like a cooling tower and you have this subconscious reluctance to throw anything at it in case you crack it and have to evacuate everyone in a three-state radius before they start to glow.

Of course if they start to glow gradually then I suppose you wouldn’t need the light bulb after all, and so we come full circle.

It’s been less than a week so far, so we’ll see how it works out.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Strike Up the Band

Last night down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School the assembled band members from a number of elementary schools here in Our Little Town – including Not Bad President Elementary – gathered together to play their first concert.

You should have been there.

Now, it must be said that the music was a bit rough.  Even Lauren, who was in the middle of it all, admitted that afterward.  Many of these kids have only been working with these instruments for a couple of months, after all, and the first time they had assembled together as a full-sized band was when they were on stage.  There were a lot of them, and there simply wasn’t room even in rehearsals. 

But you have to start somewhere, and it might as well be here.

We got to MCGMS on time and found out seats, right in the middle for proper acoustics – though we needn’t have worried about that all too much since 75 fifth-graders wielding brass and woodwind instruments can generate a fair bit of noise, particularly for the opening notes of songs when everyone is just bursting to charge ahead.  Enthusiastic bunch, yes indeed.

More musicians showed up than the teachers anticipated, so there was a slight delay while they rounded up a few extra chairs.  But eventually the stage was set and everyone came marching out into their places.

The songs were short, as you would imagine they would be under the circumstances, but what they lacked in length they made up for in volume so if you’re going by the total number of decibels per unit song it all evened out.

And then the filed off, to much applause.

We stopped by a store on the way home and bought ice cream, because it’s Wisconsin and ice cream season runs all year long and a celebration was in order.

Congratulations, Lauren.  I’m proud of you.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Training Historians and Biting My Tongue

Nullifiers!  The lot of them!

The problem with putting together discussion assignments for my students is that I feel academically obligated to give them enough evidence to argue either side of the issue.  This is how you train historians, after all – you set them loose on the evidence and let them make and defend their own interpretations.

There are several layers to this training.

The first one is to get them out of the notion that there is a Right Answer to any but the most basic questions in history.  There are Right Answers when it comes to the evidence – you either have your facts or you don’t, and if you tell me that the Civil War happened in 1350, well, you’re wrong.  The interesting questions are all interpretation, though – the sort of “who cares?” and “how does that relate to anything?” questions that everyone asks but not many people actually answer.  Those don’t have Right Answers. 

This doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid.  People who say that are just trying to sell you something.  Interpretations are Better or Worse, depending on how much evidence they explain.  If my answer explains more evidence than yours, then mine is Better and you ought to change your mind.  And vice verse.

At the level of the introductory college survey course, mostly what I’m trying to do is to get my students to understand that real history is about making interpretations and backing them up with evidence. 

Have a thesis – state your position.  Don’t worry about agreeing with what you think I think, because my job is to disagree with whatever you say.  You might as well tell me what you actually believe to be the case, because that’s easier to support.

Give me some evidence so that when I say, “I don’t believe you,” you’ve got something to come back at me with.  Interpretations without evidence are called “fiction.”  There’s nothing wrong with fiction, except that it’s not history.  You can make a good living writing fiction – if you do it well enough, they will call you a novelist.  Or a pundit.  But not a historian.

Then tell me how that evidence actually supports your point.  Evidence does not speak for itself and if you don’t tell me what it says than I can safely assume that it says nothing and you’re just padding the essay until it reaches minimum length.  I can make the connections if you'd like, but I don't work cheap and I get paid in points.  Keep that in mind come grading time.

That’s enough to work on, at this level.

What I don’t really push them on until they get to more upper level classes is the part where you, as a historian, have to prove that your interpretation is Better than mine.  That yours explains more evidence than mine.  That you can beat back my counterarguments.  Again, I'll argue whatever they don't, so which side they're on doesn't matter so much as whether they can stand up to crossfire.  It’s hard enough getting them to make the arguments in the first place, though.  They can take the next step in the next course.

But there are times when I really wish I could just say, “Stop!  Down that path perdition lies!  That answer is not the Best!  In fact, it kind of Sucks!”

Thus bringing me back to Nullification.

Nullification, for those of you not up on your John C. Calhoun, is the hallucinatory notion that any state in the US has the right to declare a federal law null and void on its own territory simply by wishing it so.  It gets more complicated than that, of course, and if you really want to delve into Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities well you go right ahead.  Be sure to take a bottle of good whiskey with you, because you’ll need it.

The bottom line on Nullification, though, is that it is utter nonsense.

You can start with the fact that the supremacy clause of the Constitution clearly states this, right up front.  You can move on to the fact that the Constitution was written explicitly to deny the kind of “states’ rights” bilgewater that had made the Articles of Confederation such a travesty of inefficiency and waste.  You can proceed to the fact that there already exists, in the Constitution, a mechanism for protesting federal laws – several of them, in fact, once you take into account the idea of the entire federal judiciary and the notion of actually winning a few elections and passing new and presumably more favorable laws. 

You do still see Nullification being bandied about as if it were an actual idea that sane people would consider – mostly on the right-wing extremes these days, which are awfully hard to tell apart from the right-wing in general – but the bottom line is that this is a discredited and pernicious idea, one that is but a half-hearted version of secession and thus constitutes treason when seriously attempted.

But as a teacher, and as someone who is trying to get students to make and defend their own interpretations, I just have to let them find out for themselves.

So last week they read Calhoun, or at least they were supposed to.  They read the various promulgations that came out of South Carolina in 1832 defending this indefensible notion.  They also read Daniel Webster’s evisceration of this nonsense, and Andrew Jackson’s brutal takedown of Calhoun’s theory as well.

The Best interpretation seemed obvious to me.

And yet so many of them sided with Calhoun. 

If they had a clear thesis, if they backed it up with evidence, if they explained how that evidence supported their point, really what could I do at this level but give them credit and weep for the future of the republic.

But next year, when they take the upper level version?  Then I argue back, whatever their initial position may be.  And we will see where that goes. 

If we do this right, if both the students and the teachers play the game the way it is supposed to be played, we’ll make historians out of them yet.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

This Time With Four-Part Harmony and Feeling

Every Thanksgiving I try to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”  It’s one of those traditions that seem to evolve over the years for no particular purpose, though it would make the holiday just that much poorer without it.

It’s easier now, in the YouTube age.  You just go there, do a quick search on the title and – BOOM! – there it is.  I still have the LP, just in case, though I have nothing to play it on anymore.  Better stick to YouTube.

Or I just sing it.

Yes, I know all the words to all eighteen minutes of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and I have been known to perform them in public.  I am a dangerous man.

I first ran into the song in high school, when my friend Julia introduced me to it one heady summer.  I had a highly developed sense of the absurd even then, and I just loved it.  Arlo Guthrie is a lot of fun that way.  At one point I also knew all the words to “The Motorcycle Song,” with its five minute digression.  I never did memorize the ten-minute introduction to “The Ballad of Reuben Clamzo in the Key of A,” which is worth the price of an album any day, but it sticks with me still.

When I got to college, I found that I was not alone in my devotion to “Alice’s Restaurant.”  My roommate Jack knew the guitar part, for example, and when we formed a band we would occasionally throw it onto the playlist.  One of my fonder memories of that band is performing “Alice’s Restaurant” during a hurricane.  The audience was puzzled but appreciative.

Jack and I actually went to see Arlo Guthrie one night while we were in college.  He didn’t do the song, but then he was only on stage for an hour or so.  It wasn’t much of a show as I recall.  His opening act – John Prine – was a lot more fun.  It didn’t diminish my affection for the song, though.

My senior year I took a class called The History of the 1960s, which absolutely floored my mother.  “Those were my glory years!” she said.  I understand that reaction a lot better now than I did then.

The professor was something of an aging hippie himself, and he actually had a transcript of the song on the reading list.  And you know?  You just can’t read “Alice’s Restaurant.”  You have to hear “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So one day Jack and I walked into this class of about 150 students and let them hear.

We did it again the following year, too.

I’ve never figured out how to work it into my US2 class.  There’s just so much to cover and never enough time.  Someday perhaps I’ll teach my own History of the 1960s class, one that won't have to cover everything that happened between 1877 and yesterday, and won’t that be a time?

It is a silly thing, this song, but it reminds me of friends and times, of goofy summers and hurricanes and classrooms.  It is a small thing to be thankful for, on a day meant to remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lining Up the Day

Some days it all more or less lines up, even though it can take a bit of scrambling to make that happen.

We already knew last Thursday was going to be busy.  On top of everything that usually happens on Thursdays around here – classes, meetings, my semi-weekly jaunt up to Not Quite So Far Away Campus, and so on – that was the day of the first concert for the Local Youth Orchestra.

Tabitha signed up for that this year.  She got tired of the violin lessons but not of actually playing the violin, and she decided that joining the LYO was an acceptable compromise.  We thought this was fine.  So for the last few weeks – in between the various colds and flus that have plagued her this semester – Tabitha has been going to rehearsals and trying out the new music, which she says was much more entertaining than the old music.


And then, as I was heading into a meeting up at NQSFAC my phone buzzed.

Normally when that happens it can mean only one of two things.  Most often it means that my cell phone provider has finally decided to forward along a voicemail message – a process which can take up to three weeks from the actual leaving of the message, which means that most of the time I don’t get too worried about checking them in any hurry.  Sometimes it means that someone has tried to text me, and since most people know that I don’t text at all this is also something I don’t worry about checking in any hurry.  It’s almost always the cell phone provider trying to get me to buy more services anyway. 

So I went to my meeting, and then retreated to my office to meet with the inevitable flood of students that wash up after you hand back an exam.  “Yes, I know you know that, but I can only grade you on what you wrote.”  “Did you read the study guide?”  “Yes, THAT study guide.”  “The one with the exam stuff on it, yes.”  And so on.  Honestly, sometimes I think I could just write up a checklist of responses and hand it out.

Eventually they all left, so I checked my phone and discovered that it was in fact a text meant for me, and from a dear old friend I have not seen in a while.  Fortunately, she also sent me a Facebook message, which meant that I knew how to respond.  Nadja was coming though Our Little Town that afternoon on her way between states and wondered if we could get together.


So I drove home, frantically Potemkin-ized the house (“it looks good from one angle for 24 hours – don’t stray from the path”) and got ready. 

But traffic and weather conspired to make her late and eventually we worked out that she could a) stay overnight, since she still had quite a journey the next day, and b) meet us over at Home Campus for the LYO concert.

Fortunately Nadja is a professional musician, so she was happy to attend.

The concert went very well.  Tabitha and her compatriots marched smartly onto the stage and spent a solid hour entertaining us with good music.  I was quite proud of her, as is only fitting.

And then we all went home and hung out.

Some days it all works out.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Good Day

It’s been eighteen years now since that crisp fall day, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Eighteen years since our friends and family gathered together in the grey stone church.  Eighteen years since Kim and I were married.

We’re legal now.  Imagine the trouble we can get up to!

We’ve crossed a number of rivers since then.  We have a house now, with all of the attendant projects, stress and coziness that such a thing entails.  We had a daughter and then, with the full weight of experience and foreknowledge behind us, we had another.  Voluntarily!  Smart move, really, as they have brought us joy.  They also balanced out some of the losses – the grandparents and friends who were there that day but live on only in our memory now.  We tell stories about them, because that’s what you do to keep them alive.  I earned my PhD.  Kim has tried out any number of jobs.  We’ve traveled.

But at the core of all that there is us.  Two people sharing a life, filling it with love.

Eighteen years in, a lifetime to go. 

Happy anniversary.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Day of the Day of the Doctor

We already had the door.

When Kim and I moved into our house here in Our Little Town, way back when in the 90s, the door was still painted primer grey.  This was fine by me, as I tend not to notice such things – I figured that as long as it kept the heat in and the burglars out it was doing its job and after that I didn’t need to think about it anymore.  This didn’t sit well with Kim, who has a strongly expressed optimizer gene.  So perhaps a year or two after we moved in, after a fair amount of planning and a trip the local hardware store, she painted it blue.

TARDIS blue, it turned out.

So when yesterday’s 50th Anniversary show for Doctor Who rolled around, decorating it was easy.

Who needs to give directions, when you’ve already got the landmark right there?

Like most Doctor Who fans new and old (somehow I still stumble over the word “Whovian” – I suppose that too will pass) we have been looking forward to the big 50th Anniversary show.  For those of you who aren’t fans, well, it’s kind of hard to describe the dedicated pocket universe that the show has created for itself and its devotees – it’s like I stumbled into this entire subculture that existed alongside of the normal reality I had lived in all my life.  Actually, no.  It’s not like that.  It is that. 

And now I find myself part of it.  Huh.

So we sent out the word to those whom we knew were also part of the fandom, cleaned up the house, set the DVR onto record, and had us a party. 

Kim made a cake like the one she made for Lauren’s birthday.

And another one that was already quite moist.

There were time vortex cookies and Lauren and her friend Autumn made little Adipose figures out of marshmallows.

There was also custard and, well not fish fingers because those are not cool no matter what Matt Smith says, but graham crackers instead.  Yes, I understand the irony of that coming so quickly on the heels of my post on Rev. Graham, but hey – they taste good and we don’t need to be scaring the horses.  And chili, because somewhere in there you have to have something real to eat.  Friends came and brought all sorts of good food on top of that.  We were set.

It was a good show.  I’m not sure what the various critics have said about it but neither do I really care.  We got to see David Tennant clearly having an awful lot of fun with Matt Smith.  John Hurt did a wonderful job with his character.  There were all sorts of references (including at least one Monty Python reference) that were fun to figure out.  And they devoted a pleasing amount of screen time to Billie Piper.

Really, what more could you ask?

So it was a good day.

We may leave the decorations up on the door for a while, just because they’re kind of fun to have there.  They may even become a Christmas tradition, which would make a certain amount of sense given the history of the show.

You have your traditions, we are creating ours.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Strange Saga of Sylvester Graham, in the Key of A

This one is for Lucy, because he asked for it.


One of the stories that students always seem to enjoy in my US1 class is the tale of Reverend Sylvester Graham.  But if you want to understand him, you need to know the context.

The second quarter of the nineteenth century was an anxious time for many Americans.  Most times are, really, but what made this period special was the fact that the anxiety was focused on the rapid and permanent changes in everyday life that were going on at the time.  It’s one thing when governments are rising and falling, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when your daily routine gets transformed.

This was the era when the Long Revolutions of the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Transportation Revolution, the Demographic Revolution – were beginning to make themselves felt.  Oh, they’d started decades earlier, even as far back as the eighteenth century.  But it’s not until you get into the 1820s that people really start to have to change to accommodate them.

This is when the mills at Lowell become a national issue, raising questions about what was the nature of work, how rigidly should we measure time, what were the proper roles for men and women, how separate or intermixed were work and leisure or work and home.  This is when the new techniques of the Agricultural Revolution began to make the farm population surplus, driving them off their rural lands and into the industrializing cities.  This is when the Demographic Revolution took off in America, as cities grew and multiplied and the population soared far faster than Americans were used to.  And faster?  Let’s talk about the Transportation Revolution – canals, to start, and then after 1830 the railroads.  The railroads were the first major advance in the speed of overland travel since the domestication of the horse, and they put an end to the 3mph world that humanity had inhabited since it first started to migrate.

It was a profoundly unsettling time.

And the fact that it was happening at a time of relative political stability just made it easier to notice all those other changes.

As is our habit in times of great societal stress, Americans responded to this with a blizzard of moral reform efforts.  This is just one of the things that we do as a culture to pass the time – much like baseball and creating new and ever more deadly deep-fried foods.  But the Moral Reform Movements of the 1820s, 30s and 40s were in a league by themselves – the only such period in our history that historians tend to capitalize when describing.

These movements drew from the leveling egalitarianism and perfectionism of the Second Great Awakening, which preached that all could be saved and all could be sinless if they so chose.  They drew from the larger political egalitarianism of the emerging Lockean Liberalism of Jacksonian democracy and laissez-faire capitalism, which said that even the most lowly should have an equal chance at success.  And most importantly, they drew from an Enlightenment view of environmentalism, in the sense that the conditions of life – the environment one found oneself – mattered more than biology.  This marked a change from the biological determinism of pre-Enlightenment thinking, a determinism that would return with a vengeance after the Civil War.  The thinking of the Moral Reform Movements held that if you could remove people from toxic environments – or better yet, eliminate those toxic environments completely – you could then create sinless people who could all be saved, in this world and in the next.

Those movements came in three basic varieties.

There were people who sought to transcend the system – to leave all of American culture behind and create something new and fresh.  They were the fewest and least influential of the reformers, though not everything in this category faded away.  The secular utopianists tended not to last.  The Fourierists fell apart.  The Noyes communities collapsed.  The Oneida community eventually became a silverplate company.  But the religious utopianists persevered.  Thus the Mormons and, after some theological rethinking when the world abjectly failed to end on schedule, the Seventh Day Adventists.

There were people who sought to challenge the system – to change it in some deep and fundamental way.  These were the most influential and controversial of the reformers.  Here you find temperance advocates calling for first a reduction in Americans’ consumption of alcohol and then its total elimination.  They succeeded – the average American consumed 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year in 1830 (roughly 1400 12-oz beers per person per year by today’s brewing standards), but by 1850 that was down to 2 gallons.  In 2010 it was still 2.2 gallons.  Here you also find the abolitionists, whose crusades will ultimately lead to Civil War.  And here also you find First Wave Feminism – the strivings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke sisters, and the Seneca Falls Declaration.  These women were disillusioned with the limited role they were given by male abolitionists and struck out on their own, a pattern that would be repeated in the Civil Rights Movements and subsequent Feminist Movements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

And finally there were the people who sought to correct the system – to leave the basic structure unchanged but fix one particular aspect of it that bothered them.  These were by far the most common, as their goals were the most limited and thus required the least effort and sacrifice, but they did have a number of lasting impacts.  This is where you get the public schools that we know today, as Horace Mann and others figured out that an educated workforce was an investment rather than an expense (something we have forgotten today).  You got reforms in the criminal justice system.  And you got a whole lot of other things as well.

Thus bringing us to Rev. Graham.

In 1834, with all of the problems facing the United States at that particular point in its history, Sylvester Graham decided that the most serious crisis, the problem most deserving of his time and energy to resolve, was what he considered to be a worrisome epidemic of masturbation across this great republic of ours.

How he came to this conclusion is not well understood, and that is probably for the best.

Nevertheless, it was in his view a problem, and in proper Moral Reform Movement fashion he decided that the root cause of all this masturbation was not any inherent biological sexual instinct but was instead due to environmental factors – specifically poor diet. 

His reasoning went like this:

People, he said, were eating impure foods.  Remember – this is at a time when people are moving off the farms and into the new cities for really the first time in American history, and they are now further from their food sources than ever before.  They were working in factories, bringing lunches and dinners with them instead of eating at home.  This sort of thing caused a lot of anxiety, and not just in the good reverend.

This caused them to think impure thoughts.  You are what you eat, after all.

And this naturally led them to take impure actions, shall we say.


Now, whatever you think of the scientific merits of this theory, it does have the signal advantage that once you frame the problem in this manner the solution becomes fairly obvious.

So he invented a special kind of flour, which he would bake into crackers.  The deal was that you would eat these crackers – which were a pure food, after all – and then you would think pure thoughts and not need to be masturbating all the time.  Your hands would thus be freed for more productive labor in the industrializing economy, as it were.

We still eat Graham crackers today.

Whether they have the therapeutic effect that Sylvester Graham believed they would have is something of an open question, however.  To my knowledge there have been no studies done on the issue – and good luck getting funding for that, really.

I will note that the invention of corn flakes sixty years later to solve the exact same problem using the exact same mechanism does suggest that perhaps the crackers were not as effective as Rev. Graham hoped they would be.

Stories like this are why I love history.  Human beings are just the most ridiculous things on the planet, and as a historian I get to study whatever I want about them, so long as it happened in the past.  You can’t beat that.

Have a s’more!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

News and Updates

It’s midterm season all around the various campuses (campii?) that have engaged my services this semester, which means that my time has been eaten up and my spirit has been beaten down and I’ve spent the better part of two weeks raging at the futility of it all – “IS THIS ALL THAT GOT THROUGH TO YOU STUDENTS?” I chant in rhythmic horror, frantically searching the house for something stronger than Yorkshire tea with which to drown my sorrows.

Until I get to a student who actually understood the material and could express that understanding clearly and concisely, which happens more often than my blackened academic heart ever suspects that it will.  Then I get a grip and go back to my tea.

So I’m lots of fun to be around these days, yes indeed I am.

Here are a few things that have come up lately that should have been real blog posts, but instead have been relegated to a list whose subtext, more or less, reads “I’m not dead yet!”

1. It is way, way too early for Christmas music.  The radio station to which most of the radios in this house have mysteriously been tuned does not agree, however.  This may not end well.

2. Students would be surprised how much their grades improve when they simply turn in the work that has been assigned to them.  Many would have to go lie down.

3. Lauren has taken to wearing my old firehouse softball league windbreaker these days, which makes me absurdly happy.  It’s a black satin jacket with “League Champions 1985” emblazoned around a drawing of an old-fashioned helmet, and my guess is that she is the only person in Wisconsin with such a jacket.  Hell, there may not be any of those jackets left even in Philadelphia.  Memories.

4. At some point this week I will either clean out the paperstorm in my office or die in an avalanche.  Vegas line says “too close to call.”

5. I stopped listening to the news on the radio almost a decade ago, when I realized I didn’t trust the Bush Administration to tell me the truth even when it would have been to their advantage to do so.  Since then I have listened mostly to sportstalk radio in the mornings as I drive up to Not Quite So Far Away Campus.  This is getting increasingly harder to take, however, as fewer topics involve actual sports and more involve lawsuits (actual or inevitable).

6. I had no idea that literary criticism of science fiction was a thing.  A colleague of mine lent me an actual journal with academic articles about the subject, and I find myself intrigued by the concept but simultaneously a bit worried by it, in the sense that analyzing the innards of a frog worries me.  You can do it and learn a lot from it, but - as the old saying goes - the frog tends to die in the process.

7. Having a tornado watch in November is a new thing for me.  It’s a good thing the climate’s not changing, because otherwise?  I’d be worried.

8. Students always love the story of Sylvester Graham.

9. Kim spent most of yesterday cleaning out her office closet, and somewhere in there she located my Emergency Clown Nose.  I find myself very tempted to wear it to the next meeting I am forced to attend.

10. Curling season has started up again for Tabitha and Lauren.  Someday I’ll join in.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Heads or Tails

In the last twenty-four hours I have found four pennies on the streets.  Three I kept, because I just cannot see disdaining free money even in that denomination.  One I left where it was.

Because that’s how I learned to do it, that’s why.

Every neighborhood has its own rituals and beliefs, and growing up on my tiny suburban street full of children we all knew that pennies were only lucky if you found them heads-up.  Those you picked up, and not only were you then one cent richer but you were also quite possibly in for some good luck.  Since you could never have too much good luck, this was a win all around.  But if you found one that was tails up that was another story.  You could tempt fate and pick those up too if you wanted, but only the bravest and most devil-may-care of us would try that.  We weren’t really a devil-may-care bunch.  The ones that were tails-up we just left where they were.

But we didn’t leave them as they were.

The thing was, if you just left them alone then the next unsuspecting person either had to leave the penny there too (which was just silly – eventually somebody has to pick the thing up or it’s just a waste) or they would pick it up and get all the bad luck that came with such foolhardiness.  So if you found a penny that was tails-up it was your responsibility to turn it over so that the next person would find it heads-up and gain some luck out of it.  It was a way of paying things forward, really, and no, you couldn’t just go back and pick it up once you’d turned it over.  Once you turned it over it wasn’t yours anymore.

I’m not sure I believe in luck anymore, at least not as it pertains to pennies on the ground.  But forty years later I still flip over the tails-up pennies that I find and leave them there for the next person.

It just seems like the right thing to do.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

25 Things I Have Done That You Probably Haven't

Every once in a while I see this meme pop up, and it just startles me that I haven’t made good use of it here, at least not that I could find in the archives.  So to correct that all at once, here are twenty-five things I have done that most people reading this probably have not.

Over the course of my life, I have:

1. Run a spotlight at a concert for a Top-40 band, and gotten paid for it.

2. Sung at the funeral of a US Senator.

3. Cut my thumb with the dull end of a hammer.  Twice.

4. Had picnics at the ruins of two different medieval abbeys.

5. Asked Pete Seeger for his autograph (and gotten it).

6. Eaten pizza at a restaurant called “Sweeney Todd’s.”

7. Actually managed to finish reading Infinite Jest.

8. Walked through the streets of Philadelphia dressed as Death, complete with a six-foot-tall gnarled wooden staff.

9. Sent out a letter to all the evangelical churches in the county urging them to come to a show I was promoting on the subject of Satan in literature.

10. Became “Case Study A” in a national-level conference on how not to go through the historic preservation regulatory process.

11. Gone ice-skating with Paul Ryan (not that he knew I was there, but still).

12. Conga’d down my driveway with a dozen drunk Russians.

13. Driven through town in the back of a pickup truck, holding on to a life-sized replica of the first atomic bomb.

14. Seen Les Miserables on Broadway before it won any awards.

15. Ridden an elevator with former PA governor Dick Thornburgh, who was running for the Senate at the time.  We were the only two people there, and he didn’t say hello.  No wonder he lost.

16. Been pressed into service as an emergency umpire at a Girl Scouts softball tournament two years in a row.

17. Ridden on the tailboard of a fire truck in full turnout gear.

18. Gone Christmas caroling in a mental hospital.

19. Hung out with two actors from the most popular show on US television at the time – a show I still have never seen.  They were great guys.

20.  Broken into my high school using only a Swiss Army knife.

21. Read a 500p history of US naval operations in World War II when I was 12.

22. Delivered singing balloon-o-grams.

23.  Worked on the city’s Fourth of July fireworks crew.

24. Read every issue of every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801, about 10% of them in the original paper editions.

25. Taken four Australians to a Mexican restaurant in Wisconsin.

What have you done?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Record? What Record?

In about a year Wisconsin residents will once again go to the polls to determine who will lead this once-proud state.  The current incumbent, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries), will win that election by exactly the same margin that he won the recall election in 2012, within half a percent.

You heard it here first.

This has nothing to do with the persistent questions of electoral fraud that continue to dog his administration.  The blood red counties surrounding Milwaukee have serious ethical problems when it comes to counting votes – enough to make the current right-wing majority on the state supreme court deeply suspect and probably illegitimate (hello “Justice” Prosser!) – but for the sake of argument here I am going to assume that the vote counts of both the last gubernatorial election and the recall election were, somehow, accurate reflections of the popular will.

Nor does this have anything to do with the on-the-job record of the incumbent, a record from which any thinking candidate would run screaming. 

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came into office boasting that he would create a quarter-million jobs thanks to his 68-page jobs plan (he made such a big deal over the fact that it was 68 pages long!), which he helpfully posted on his website.  When I downloaded my own personal copy, I discovered that it was written in a font so large that it averaged about 16 words per page, plus pictures, which is the digital equivalent of writing with crayon on a napkin.  It’s about as sophisticated as you would expect it would be, and perhaps because of this his actual economic record has been, shall we say, dismal. 

As of this spring, which was the last time I had the heart to look at the numbers, all of which had declined sharply from the previous administration, under Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) Wisconsin ranked 42nd in the nation for business and 49th in job growth through 2016 (both figures from Forbes Magazine, that noted leftwing rag), 45th in wage growth (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), 49th in economic outlook (from the Federal Reserve), and 50th in short term job growth (from the US Chamber of Commerce).  If you look at the graphs, perhaps the most striking feature is that the state economy started tanking at precisely the moment his ALEC-written “budget” went into effect, in June 2011.  Balancing out the net job gains and losses, three years into his administration he’s about 160,000 jobs short (figure from PolitiFact), with a year to go.  This even as neighboring states have long been pulling out of the economic recession. 

He’s also the guy whose administration approved the illegal use of state troopers against sitting legislators and the use of violence against peaceful protestors.  He’s the guy whose administration’s demonstrated contempt for any law that gets in the way of his power is brazen enough that you’d think he was proud of it.  He’s pushing the radical right-wing fantasy of “Voter ID” laws – a failed solution to a problem that does not exist, from a statistical perspective, and one clearly designed to disenfranchise voters likely to disagree with him.  His relationship with the Koch brothers is sufficiently groveling that you wonder how he can walk with that puppeteer’s hand stuck so far up into his colon.

And on and on.  Honestly, it gets tiresome reciting the litany of failure this public figure has managed to achieve in so short a time.

Normally such a figure would have no chance in any election, but Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) isn’t a normal figure and this isn’t a normal election.  He isn’t a thinking candidate – he is a scheming candidate, a cunning candidate, a Manchurian candidate of the extreme right wing, but those are not the same things.  Besides, for a good chunk of the electorate, this isn’t about thinking anyway.

Not really.

I didn’t start out as a history major in college.  This often surprises people, most of whom know me as the professional historian I am these days.  When I started out in college I was a math major, and that lasted a surprisingly long time before it became untenable.  What surprises people even more is that history wasn’t my next choice either.  I moved from math to a psychology major and I graduated with a BA in psychology as well as history.

I can tell you not only why you are crazy, but why you were, too.

Double majoring also had the interesting side effect of canceling out all my distribution requirements, which in the long run meant that I had taken Calculus IV for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of it.  It’s a funny old world sometimes.

I enjoyed my time as a psych major.  My main focus was on social psych – the behavior of individuals in groups – and for someone who is as much of a people-watcher as I am that was the ideal major.  But there were other aspects of the discipline that I enjoyed also, and one of them was the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is one of those complicated things that can nevertheless be boiled down fairly simply.  It’s essentially rationalization.  It’s used to explain why people get so attached to and so defensive of experiences which, by any objective standard, are miserable.  The short version goes like this:  “That experience was miserable.  Only fools would expose themselves to something like that unless it was really, really worth it.  I am not a fool.  Therefore that misery must have been really, really worth it.”  In fact, if you follow the logic of how cognitive dissonance works, the more miserable of an experience it was, the more positive the person who went through it feels it really must have been in the long run.

This is why people can look back fondly on such things as boot camp, hazing, Calculus IV, triathlons, medical residencies, comprehensive exams, and any cinematic experience involving Adam Sandler.  There is a gap between what you have, objectively, experienced and what you are absolutely sure that you, as a non-fool, would allow yourself to be subjected to.  This gap is filled with an unalterable belief that the experience must have significant redeeming value, so much so that you end up approving of that experience far more than any rational analysis would lead you to do.  You will defend it from all assault.  You will praise it as worthwhile for those coming up behind you.  You will seek to inflict it on others.  None of this feeling of positive memory has anything whatsoever to do with any objective merit from the experience itself – it’s all about you and how you rationalize having subjected yourself to that misery in the first place.

Thus we come back to Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries).

From pretty much any perspective other than extreme right-wing ideological fantasy, the current administration has been a colossal failure – a national disgrace and an international embarrassment from which it will take Wisconsin a generation or more to recover.  The quick glance at the statistics from his reign that I ran through above is all you need to make that case, and there is just so much more where that came from.  His administration has been a target-rich environment that way.

And yet he remains inexplicably popular.  He is the only governor in American history ever to survive a recall election.  His approval ratings – low though they are – have not budged in years, regardless of the track record of his administration.  In point of fact, his approval rating among Republicans hovers well north of 80%, even as his approval rating among everyone else is in the single digits – a remarkably polarized set of statistics which, when combined with the fact that the number of people who have “no opinion” about him is essentially zero, is further indication of just how little will change come the next election.  On top of that, his assaults on democracy, constitutions, and the rule of law are strangely celebrated by his supporters – people who otherwise claim to revere exactly those things and have no scruples against using them as cudgels to beat those who dare disagree with them on, well, anything. 

This is simple cognitive dissonance at work. 

They voted for this man.  They supported this man.  He has been an unmitigated disaster for the state of Wisconsin.  Only a fool would support such a man.  They do not consider themselves to be fools.  Therefore there must be some redeeming value in Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) that his opponents are too evil to see.  Therefore he must be defended.  Therefore they will vote for him again next year, in exactly the same percentages as they voted for him in 2012. 


That’s a bad sign for Wisconsin.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How Could I Leave This Behind?

Last night, as part of our continuing effort to educate our children into the classics, we watched This Is Spinal Tap.

We ordered pizza and ate it off of paper plates while watching, too, because it seemed fitting.  You really can’t watch that film with anything remotely healthy in your bloodstream.  The conceptual whiplash would kill you faster than the salt and cholesterol ever will.

It would be more dangerous than getting a job as their drummer.

I first saw this film when I was in college, not too long after it came out.  The TLA, down on South Street in Philadelphia, was a repertory cinema at the time and every month they came out with a schedule of the various films that would appear, usually for a day, and then be gone.  It wedged itself into my brain almost instantly, and among my circle of friends it was required viewing.  If you didn’t love that movie, we really didn’t have any idea how to treat you.

It’s surprising how well that film has held up, really.  Other than some technological advances – nobody worries about cover art on albums anymore as it is difficult to put a cover on a download, for example, and some of the humor does rest on miscommunications that would be fairly easy to get past if everyone had a cell phone (though what new miscommunications that would create is a whole other issue) – the jokes are pretty much just as funny as they were.

It helps if you understand the musical references from the 60s and 70s, of course, and being able to identify the cameos of actors who were famous thirty years ago is a plus.  But neither of those are really necessary to the story or the humor.

It’s a story about some decently talented guys who aren’t nearly bright enough to see just how far in over their heads they actually are but who know, somewhere in the back of their minds, that there is something more to their situation than they can see at that moment, and that never gets old. 

The contrast between the seriousness with which they take their craft (the scene were Nigel Tufnel stops scraping a violin across his guitar strings in order to tune the violin springs to mind) and the sheer cluelessness with which they approach the rest of their world (“Hello, Cleveland!”) is the backbone of all sorts of modern comedy.  You find yourself repelled by their inability to understand how much they lack and simultaneously cheering for them for pretty much the same reason.

Plus, the movie is a quote machine.

The girls made it all the way through and they seemed to enjoy it.  They certainly have a better handle on some of the standard family lines around here than they did beforehand (“it goes up to eleven”).

Parenting: for the win.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Carving Out a Good Time

It should not rain on Halloween.

It can rain on Thanksgiving because mostly you’re indoors eating and hanging out with your family, although whether this makes the holiday more or less interesting depends in large part on how you feel about hanging out with your family.  It can rain on Christmas for much the same reason, though snow would be nicer.  But Halloween is one of those holidays that require you to be out and about.

Or, more importantly, kids need to be out and about. 

Whatever the original point of Halloween was – and you can get a pretty good argument started any time you want to simply by asserting in a public place any one of the theories behind that point – it has become an exercise in having the neighborhood kids go from door to door collecting candy.  There are precious few occasions for this kind of random sociability in our current age of Stand Your Ground laws, so anything that puts a damper on it is by definition a bad thing.

Plus Halloween is a fun holiday.

The girls have gotten old enough now that we leave most of the prep work to them, and this essentially boils down to getting them to carve the pumpkins.  Kim and Lauren came back from a shopping expedition a week or so ago with two pumpkins that had clearly served as carriages in someone else’s fairy tale, and upon such broad canvases is art made.


For those of you not up on your Doctor Who references, that’s a Dalek on the left (carved by Tabitha) and the TARDIS on the right (carved by Lauren).

Tabitha has reached the age where she would just as soon stay home and hand out candy, but Lauren still wants to go trick-or-treating.  Lauren has, however, reached the age where trick-or-treating with a parent is just Not Cool.  Given that most of her friends were either going out of town for trick-or-treating or staying at home and planning to use their time scaring the little kids who came by jumping out at them from behind things, this caused a momentary panic.  Fortunately she found a friend who was willing to go with her, and they are out somewhere even now shaking down the neighbors for candy.

Life is good.

Even when it rains.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Of Balloons and Scarcity

One of the things that arrived during Lauren’s birthday party was a mylar balloon filled with helium. 

It’s bright and shiny, in the way that such balloons are, and the cats are just fascinated.  It skitters around the house carried by the air currents from the furnace in a random Coriolis pattern, trailing felines and making just the sort of scraping noise that something out of a low-budget horror film would make if it were trapped in your attic, which is why we try to anchor it at night.

For a while I thought it was losing its lift, since it had settled to an altitude of about knee-height, but it turned out that Tabitha had weighted it down to make it easier for the cats to prey on it.   Lauren apparently figured that out too, and now it cruises around the ceilings once again.

It is a very nice balloon.

You don’t see them very much anymore, oddly enough.  It was only a few years ago that these helium-filled mylar balloons were everywhere – you’d go to the supermarket and they’d fill up as many as you wanted, and they were so much nicer than the old latex ones that lost their helium overnight.

But there’s a helium shortage, don’t you know.  They don’t make the stuff, being an element and all, and there are important industrial uses for it that tend to trump balloons.

It’s kind of odd, really.

We live in an age of unprecedented abundance.  By any historical standard, the modern world – particularly the industrialized part of it – is awash in goods and resources to an extent that previous generations would have found inconceivable.

We are surrounded by stuff.

We expect there to be food.

We don’t worry too much about survival.

Oh, some people do.  Poverty exists, and in some places it exists good and hard.  In those places there isn’t much stuff, and there can be even less food.  Survival is in fact something to worry about there. 

But we regard those places as exceptions, as places that have somehow missed out on the larger prosperity and abundance that defines the modern world, places that could be brought into that prosperity and abundance if only we refined our politics, our economics, our technology, our distribution networks, our ethical standards – as if it were simply a matter of choice on our part that scarcity continues to exist amid all this plenty.

It can be shocking to come face to face with the fact that those aren’t the exceptions, even in something as trivial as a helium-filled mylar balloon.

The fact is that there is only so much stuff that can be made.

That while we may have raised the Malthusian limit on food production, we have not eliminated it. 

And that any age of abundance will invariably be followed by an age of scarcity that will reach even those areas where scarcity is regarded as a problem for other people.

Humans evolved in scarcity.  We’re good at it.  Not in the numbers we have now – those, unfortunately, are not sustainable in the long run, and the faces behind those numbers are not anything you want to think about too hard if you want to sleep at night.

Such thoughts are a lot of weight for a balloon to carry.