Thursday, January 31, 2013


I will soon be officially certified by the local 4H as “probably not a child molester.”  You can imagine how relieved I feel.

Ever since the girls joined 4H, Kim and I have been pressed into service as volunteer leaders.  It’s just that sort of organization, only more so because not only do you have each individual club in search of leaders but you also have a half-inch-thick book of activities that every 4H member can participate in, each of which requires at least one and possibly up to half a dozen more leaders.  It’s a leader-intensive organization, 4H.

And you have to pitch in for that sort of thing.  You have to do your bit.  Unless you have gone Galt and are sitting around freeloading off the collective achievements of society while clutching your precious lucre firmly in your shriveled talons and complaining that the requirements of a civilized society are so, so unfair, you understand that you have a moral responsibility to give back to your community, especially those parts you’re taking part in.  And if you have gone Galt, well, you shouldn’t be involved in such groups to begin with.  Go cuddle with your Glock and wait for the apocalypse somewhere out of the way so the rest of us can move on without you.

Where was I?

Oh, right.  Pitching in.  Becoming a leader.  Right.

So, anyway, we’re leaders.  Low-level leaders, particularly in my case, but leaders nonetheless.  And in this day and age such a status requires certification that you are not the sort of unspeakably evil person who should be beaten senseless with the nearest available heavy object, up to and including your own severed limbs.

When I had to go through this process to be an assistant coach for Lauren’s Girl Scouts softball team, I was required to fill out a background form that was probably more detailed than the one used for prospective Cabinet members – which would explain any number of Cabinet officials in this nation’s grand and fascinating history, now that I think of it – and to submit my information for a criminal background check.  Fortunately I have led a blameless life from the criminal-background perspective, and the people they called to check up on me (yes, indeed, the Girl Scouts actually checked up on my references – the fact that they couldn’t read my handwriting and kept asking my references what they thought of “Dirk” probably didn’t matter all that much, in the long run) said I was likely harmless in that regard going forward, so I did in fact get to coach for a couple of summers.

It was fun.  And notably crime free.

For 4H, however, you have to go to a meeting.

So we showed up at the county courthouse and were directed to the jury selection room, where we and maybe a couple dozen other prospective leaders sat through a 90-minute class on how to navigate the dangerous waters of youth leadership these days.  This is a remarkably complicated task, it turns out.  Did you know that 4H leaders, like teachers, are now required to report suspicions of abuse to police?  That we are, certification notwithstanding, considered dangerous by default simply by virtue of being where we are and must take pro-active steps to avoid baseless accusations being leveled at us?  It was a long meeting.

Also, there were no cookies.  Cookies would have made all that a bit less hard to take.  I am easily swayed by cookies.  This was a definite advantage the Girl Scouts had - they were awash in cookies.

Then we submitted a check and a form to have yet another criminal background check done, because the Girl Scouts and 4H don’t share that sort of information.  There are probably rules about that.  It’s probably for the best.

I do understand why they do all this, by the way.  There are enough evil people in the world that everyone is now a suspect and everyone has to be monitored.  The consequences of not doing it outweigh the inconveniences and incongruities of doing it, and so it is done.  It’s a sad commentary, but there it is.  I don’t have to like it, but if I want to keep on being a leader in this outfit, even at my low level,  it is something I have to do anyway.

So pretty soon I’ll be certifiable.

I’ve said that for years.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

It All Cascades Down

Every time you fiddle around with anything, the world changes.

My US2 class is finally up and running, though it still needs some filling in.  At least the ground work is done and the structure is set up.  I’m one of those people who works from the top down.  Once I’ve got an outline, once I’ve thought through all the general twists and turns of where I’m headed, the rest is just grunt work.  Thinking is hard; working is easy.

I’ve taught this class before, but never in this format.  I’m teaching it from Home Campus, where I am the only dancing bear in the circus – there is just me, alone in a room, staring at a video camera and a couple of screens.  On one of the screens I can see myself.  The other is divided into three parts, and on each part is a group of high school students almost 300 miles away.  In between us is another campus – they take the feed in from the three high schools and send it down to me, and vice verse.  It’s an interesting set-up.

One of the things I learned from having US1 in this set-up last semester is that having discussions in this format does not work.  For one thing I can’t really see individual students – they’re just moving blobs at the distance I have to stand from the screen.  And for another, they can’t really interact with each other very well because of the mechanics of actually speaking in class, combined with the small lag times that you get with this sort of arrangement.  So discussions always ended up as me asking each student individually what they thought of the readings.  That's not a discussion.  That's an oral quiz.

This semester I decided I would move the discussions online.  The university has a system set up expressly for that sort of thing, and I have made use of it before for other classes.  It works pretty well, once you get the students started on it.  You have to make them post things across multiple days, because otherwise people just swoop in, post stuff, and never return – but that’s not that hard to arrange.

The problem is that once you decide to organize things this way you have to have some formal rules governing the process.  Students have to make X number of posts and each post has to have A, B, and C in it, and so on.  This is a lot more work than the previous discussions, which were (or should have been) – wait for it – discussions.  People talking. 

And if you’re going to make them work harder, you have to give them appropriate credit for doing so.  This means raising the share of the total grade that discussions are worth, devising grading rubrics so you can evaluate the students' effort and grade them appropriately, and so on.

And if you are giving more credit for that, then you have to give less credit for something else.  You can only have 100% of a grade.  If discussions suddenly go from 10% of the grade to 40% of the grade, something else has to be worth less.  In that class, there are only exams besides that.  There used to be three of them, and they were collectively worth 90% of the grade – but now they’re only worth 60%. 

And if you are going to make them worth less, then you have to restructure them to reflect that.  This means making them a bit smaller – though not too much smaller, because you want them to keep working and learning, and if the exams get too small then they become quizzes which are a whole different animal when it comes to pedagogy and assessment.

And if you make them smaller, then you can have more of them to balance that out.  So now I have four exams, each worth 15% of the grade – half of what each exam was worth before.

And if you have more exams, then you have to rejigger your break points.  Each exam covers one unit, and each unit is a coherent story.  Where do you draw the lines?  The new line was fairly easy to figure out, actually.  I’ve long been unhappy with the post-WWII unit, since it seems to me that there ought to be a break point around 1970 – the quarter-century after WWII is a very different place from the half-century since.  But that means taking the 50s out of the middle unit and that squashes that unit of the class, so I have to move that break point back from 1917 to 1900.  It makes that unit a different story, having it run from 1900 to 1945 instead of 1917 to 1960, but no less a coherent one.  It also makes the first unit (1865 to 1900) a different story as well.  So everything has to be refocused as well as rejiggered.

So I start with one decision (“You know, the discussions would work a whole lot better online – I should try that!”) and everything else just cascades down from there.

All of life is pulling at loose threads and then wondering what happened to your sweater and why there is a pile of yarn on the floor and where did that breeze suddenly come from, anyway.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Prepping for the Semester

It’s already been a long semester, and classes haven’t even started yet.

For one thing, despite repeated assurances that I would be full time this semester, it turns out that – for the second semester running – this will not be the case.  This is one of the drawbacks to the ad-hoc lifestyle: rank has its privileges, and when you have neither there is no particular defense – not even a signed contract – against someone who has both taking one of your classes to fill their load.  On the one hand, this is a tremendous drag – not only am I getting paid for one less class, but thanks to the salary structure of my institution (which leans toward full-time people) I’m also getting paid less for the classes I have left.  I’ve calculated how much that particular setback is costing me this spring and mostly it made me glad I hadn’t thought to do that last fall.  On the other hand, though, I’m still getting paid to teach history – there is no requirement that this happen at all, and I suppose I should be glad that I have the classes I still have. 

I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

As for the classes I do still have, two of my three classes are undergoing major surgery at the moment. 

You’d think I’d learn.  You’d think I would simply find something that did the trick and just drag it out, year after year, while my notes yellowed and the world moved on around me.  But despite what you hear out there from the malcontents starving our educational system in order to fund their tax breaks for millionaires, such lethargy is in fact startlingly uncommon among teachers.  You don’t go into this field for the money.  You go into it because you love it, and because you want other people to love it just as much as you do even if they never take another class in your field again.  And this means constantly revising, tweaking, moving things about, adding new things and taking out what didn’t work the last time.  Because it can always be better, and it needs to be better so people will understand why this is the best of all possible things to study, that’s why.

Sometimes this simply means adding things onto the end.  I’m teaching the second half of the US survey class this semester (“Reconstruction to Yesterday”).  The first time I taught it was 1996.  After that I focused on finishing up my doctorate and then worked in public history for several years, so the next time I taught it was 2008.  There were two whole classes’ worth of material I had to tack on!

This time around it’s a bit more involved.  This spring will be the fifth different format in which I have taught that class (with a sixth coming up this summer), and every time you do that you have to rejigger where your break points are (because, for example, you can’t really start a discussion with 4 minutes left in the class period) and adjust your assignments and figure out what won’t work at all in this format and what to replace it with.

This, it turns out, is tricky.  And fairly intensive.  This class is going to look fairly different from my past renditions.  If it works, though, it will be a nice model going forward.

I think I’ve finally got that one mostly figured out now, which is a good thing since the first class is on Friday.

And I’ve gotten the Western Civ II class reshaped as well.  That was a class I had to put together in a hurry the first time I taught it – I was asked on 36 hours notice to replace a colleague who had fallen ill, and despite working full time elsewhere I said, “Sure!” – and I was never really happy with where some of the units started and stopped.  So this year I finally shifted things around to where everything makes a coherent story, and we’ll see how that works.

At least the third class is mostly like the last time.  It’s an online class, though, which means that there is a lot of work that you have to do that you wouldn’t have to do for face-to-face classes – a lot of the informal things that you would just do in a regular class you have to have formal processes for in an online class.  But at least I know the drill for those now.  Once you know how it functions, the rest is just work – the hard part is behind you.

Onward, ever upward.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Take Me To The Mall

I spent yesterday evening at the mall.

Lauren has been feeling a bit left out recently.  The problem with having teachers as parents is that no matter what the Teabaggers say teaching is not actually “the best part time job you’ll ever have.”  It isn’t even a full time job.  It is a job that consumes most of your waking hours, particularly during those weeks when you’re trying to get classes set up, when you have assignments that need to be graded, and when you are trying to revise what didn’t quite work the last time you tried it.  Or, in other words, pretty much most of the time.

On the plus side, you generally do have the flexibility to decide which twelve hours of the day you have to be working.  Most of what I have to do can be done just as easily if not more easily at 2am as 2pm.  This means, for example, I can take an hour and pick the girls up from school in the afternoons, even if it does lead to me working after they go to bed.  It all gets done.

So we’re often working in the evenings, is what I’m trying to say here.

Now, this generally does not bother Tabitha much.  She’s older, for one thing, and for another she’s always been comfortable doing things on her own.  When it’s just the two of us in the house together, we will often go hours without seeing each other.

But Lauren is a people person.  She wants to do things with you.  She wants you to do things with her.  And we want to do things with her, though this can be difficult when your job extends into the evening hours.  You have to make it something of a conscious effort, particularly when the siren call of the internet starts up and you (read: “I”) are tempted to get sucked into useless web surfing until bedtime.  Something has to give.

Yesterday she and I decided to go spend the gift certificate she received to the Kid Jewelry Store.

Have you been in a KJS recently?

They’re not big, for one thing.  The malls usually give them the tiny storefronts, which makes a certain amount of sense since their merchandise and their clientele are, in fact, small. 

They’re brightly colored, for another thing.  Everything in the store is shiny, sparkly, and/or dyed a brilliant non-pastel shade of something, unless it is black, in which case it is very, very black.  Kids are not known for the subtlety of their tastes, and this store knows its target demographic quite well.

And they’re loud.  Really loud.  Loud with the strains of all the latest boy bands and bubblegum pop hits, the sort of music that girls 10-14 years old gravitate toward.  Loud with music that people of my age and gender were never meant to hear.  Loud with sounds that make people like me look for lawns to shout at kids to get off of.  Loud.

Bottom line, your basic KJS is about two hundred cubic yards of sensory overload and glitter, all of it designed to appeal to girls in their tweens.

I was the only male anywhere near the place.  It’s like there is a force field around the entrance that extends halfway out into the mall and around the corner to the candy store.  But a man does what needs to be done, and if that means a trip to the KJS with his daughter, then that’s what you do.  Respect, dignity, and treating your children well – it’s a Dad Life.  So in I went, open-eyed.

My, but they have made great strides in pre-teen jewelry, haven’t they?

Lauren is currently on a panda kick, so she got a few pairs of earrings with panda motifs – including one featuring pandas that had mustaches like 19th-century baseball players, which I found rather odd, or would have found odd except that mustaches are apparently quite stylish now and the KJS featured a wide variety of things with mustaches painted on, enameled on, or – in the case of the hipster glasses – attached to the bottom by little glittery chains, at which point we graduated from “odd” to “bizarre.”

I was also impressed by the creative genius who decided to market Hello Kitty things with Kiss designs.  I’ll bet Gene Simmons never saw that one coming back in the day.

Lauren, it must be said, had a marvelous time picking out things.  She must have looked at every item in the shop at least three times and she picked out a number of very nice bits of jewelry, as well as a hat and some gloves.  She wore the hat and gloves to school today, as well as the Base Ball Panda earrings.  She looked good, and she was happy.

Sometimes you just have to make the time, even if it means spending an evening at KJS.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stick Shift

I don’t know how to drive a stick shift car.

There are people in this world who are utterly appalled by this fact.  I’m not sure why.  Apparently not knowing how to drive a stick shift car is tantamount to being the sort of person who would use “tantamount” in a conversation. 

I know!

And yet I seem to be able to transport myself and my family across this great nation of ours without too much psychological harm and most of that attributable to other causes.  (You want to take years off your life?  Try to get into and out of a traffic circle [excuse me: “rotary”] in Boston sometime.)  I live in the midwest, where people think nothing of driving two hours each way to have dinner or go see a movie.  I am fully highway-compatible.

Just not in a stick shift.

It’s not like I haven’t tried.  Twice in my life, people near and dear to me have vowed that they would teach me this skill – they would take me out on the public streets and erase this shameful gap in my skill set.

The first was my dad.  I was in high school at the time, and the rest of my family was going away for a few days.  I didn’t want to go – at some point in your life you reach a place where you just want to hang out with your friends, and my parents were smart enough not to fight that.  It’s not like I was the sort of kid who would get into much trouble, either, at least not any more trouble than I would have gotten into anyway.  So they let me stay home.

This would have been 1983 or 1984, I guess.  We had two cars at the time.  One was a relatively new automatic transmission car, and that was the one they were going to take on this trip because nobody in their right mind would have taken the other one anywhere out of the zip code.  It was a 1973 Chevy Nova, chocolate brown, with a standard transmission that mostly worked as designed if you swore at it long enough.

My dad decided that I would need a car while I was alone and since The Brown Bomb was the one that would stay behind with me, I needed to learn how to drive it.

We lived on a hill.  Not a steep hill, mind you, but the nearest flat surface was a good half mile away.  Keep that in mind.

So one afternoon, not long before they were headed out, my dad told me to get into the Nova and and we’d go for a drive.  I’d drive.  I made it all the way to the end of the driveway – a journey of roughly fifteen feet – before stalling.  After several further failed attempts, I finally got the car pointed up the street toward the traffic light at the top of the hill, and managed to get it smartly stopped at the red light.  The light turned green.

Comedy ensued.

Eventually I got the car out onto the main roads of our suburban neighborhood and we drove around for a good couple of hours.  I managed to get the hang of things as long as the car was moving, more or less, but getting from 0mph to 1mph was a trial.  At some point my dad must have gotten tired of the grinding noises and the smoke, and – fearing for the future existence of both son and automobile – took over and drove home.

They borrowed another car for their trip and left me the automatic transmission one.

The next person to try to teach me to drive a stick shift was Kim.

We each brought a car into our marriage.  Mine was a 1986 K-Car that I had christened “Emilio” because it just looked like an Emilio to me.  Hers was a red Pontiac Sunbird with a manual transmission.  When we traveled we generally took Emilio because that one I could drive, but there was one trip early on where we took the Sunbird.

This turned out to be a mistake.

Kim was determined that I should learn how to drive that car.  We spent a fair amount of time before the trip trying to make that happen, with about as much success as I had enjoyed with The Brown Bomb.  But we kept trying.

Things came to a head in Pittsburgh, where we were staying with some friends on our way to Philadelphia.  Our friends also lived on a hill, which frankly is just another way of saying that they lived in or near Pittsburgh.  Pittsburghers sometimes travel out to Ohio just to see what flat ground looks like.  It’s a field trip to them.  Sometimes they bring cameras.

That morning Kim told me to get in the car, as I would be driving for a while.

The car absolutely would not start.  The engine would not turn over for me, no matter what I did.  Kim got into the driver’s seat and it started right up.  I got in and – nothing.  Repeat.  That car knew what was going to happen and it absolutely refused to participate.

Whenever people tell me that machines have no feelings, I think about that car.

Eventually Kim just drove for the rest of the trip.  I still can’t drive a stick shift car.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Back Where We Belong

So now that I have my computer back, I have more sympathy for alcoholics.

Sometime last fall I got an email from Apple telling me that my computer was broken.  I had not noticed that this was so, to be honest – once I had exchanged the original “electronic wino” computer they had sent me, the one with shakes and the random blackouts, the new one had been chugging along quite nicely.  But Apple assured me that the hard drive was so defective that they would in fact replace it with a brand new one!


Naturally my hard-won internet suspicions kicked in.  This must be some sort of phishing scam.  So I went to the web, found the phone number for the nearest Apple store, and called them.  And you know what?  It was real.  Who knew?

But I use my computer every day.  I use it for work.  I use it for recreation.  I use it whenever I can’t think of anything better to do, which is a shockingly high percentage of my day.  If my computer contained alcohol I would have been sent to a rehab facility long ago, but computers are still considered reasonably respectable so all that happens is that I am a) rewarded with continued employment for being so productive with my work, b) rewarded with continued friends and readers for staying in touch online and writing this blog, and c) pitied for being such a dweeb.  Hey – two out of three ain’t bad.

So I did not want to give my computer to the kind folks at the Apple Store, not during the semester anyway.

But it is no longer the semester.  It is, in fact, between semesters.  There was no avoiding it.  So I called the Apple Store folks back this week and we set up an appointment for them to do their thing.

On the plus side, well, it gave me an excuse to do a real back up.  Yes, Apple gives you the Time Machine option, which is a wonderful thing and has saved my carcass several times.  But now I have another back up of my important files – my documents, my photos, my emails, and so on.  I like this.  It makes me happy.

On the down side, though, bringing the computer up to the Apple Store did not make me happy.

For one thing, it was a deeply foggy day here in southern Wisconsin, and I spent the entire drive to the store wondering where the other side of the road had gotten to.

For another, have you ever been in an Apple Store?  Who designed those places, ghosts?  Everything is white, chrome or transparent, everything is sterile and barren, and if your blood temperature doesn’t drop by at least four degrees Fahrenheit just by walking in there you may want to check to make sure you’re not blind.  And this is from someone who has been a faithful Apple customer since 1989.  Seriously, folks – “color”: use some.

And for a third thing, well.  They kept my computer!  Overnight!  What on earth was I supposed to do with myself?  Talk to my family?  Who does that?

In the end we watched some of The Lord of the Rings, which Tabitha is working through now.  We read the book together a while ago, and the movies are just right for her now.  For some reason the character of Gollum resonated with me a bit more than usual.  Can’t imagine why.

Yesterday was “Retrieve The Computer” Day, and there was much rejoicing.  And not simply because the computer was coming home and I could stop shaking – no, it was because we had also decided that yesterday was Retail Therapy Day as well. 

There is a Mega Book Store right near the Apple Store, and we did some damage there.

There is also a Weird Stuff From Around The World Store not too far away, which is always good for some funky snacks.

And my computer is now back in its accustomed place.  As am I.

My precioussss.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Of Fandom and Hockey

So apparently there will be a hockey season after all.

You’d think I would be more cheered up by that news than I am.  I like hockey, really I do.  Among the sports most often televised on American channels it is the one I most prefer to watch, in keeping with my general tendency to be out of step with my own culture.  But somehow, I find myself rather unimpressed with the news.

There are four main levels of fandom in sports.*

At the very bottom are people who simply don’t care at all.  They find the game uninteresting.  They can’t understand why otherwise rational people are so fascinated.  The game makes no sense when they watch it and even less sense when someone tries to explain it, and they don’t see why this situation needs to be corrected.  Given a choice between attending a game in this particular sport and doing chores around the house, they’d have to think long and hard before coming up with an answer. 

This is how I feel about basketball.  Basketball has always struck me as a complete waste of time on every possible level – from playing it to watching it to reading about it – and I once cheerfully passed up a chance to see in person, for free, one of the great players of today in order to go to a high school play with my daughters.  I am aware that other people disagree with me on the merits of basketball and to those people I say “Bully for you – enjoy yourselves.  But if you bother me about it I will yawn so hard the airflow will strip the plating off your jewelry.”

The next level up are people who will watch the home team.  They like when the local folks are in the mix for something good, and you never know when something interesting might happen.  They understand the game but don’t particularly go out of their way to make time for it.  The idea of watching a game that doesn’t have the home team in it strikes them as nonsensical. 

This is how I now feel about baseball.  I grew up a Phillies fan, and I try to keep tabs on them.  If they’re on, I’ll sometimes watch.  Admittedly I pay more attention to them when they’re doing well then when they’re not, but so it goes.  I don’t know if that makes me a bandwagon fan, since I’ve been on that bandwagon since the early 1970s and there is no other Major League team that I would declare myself a fan of, but there it is.   I used to be more of a fan, back in the day, but I lost a lot of interest after the 1994 strike cancelled the season and have never really gotten it back.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen a Major League game in person that none of the three stadiums where I attended games exists anymore.  We do have a minor league team not too far from Our Little Town, though, and I enjoy going to those games.  I even wear their hat around town because I like the logo and it’s nice to have a team nearby that I can cheer for.  So perhaps my fandom for baseball will one day rise up a level or two again.

The next level up are people who will also watch games that don’t involve the home team as long as the teams are talented and/or there is some importance attached to the game.  They’ll follow the local team, and when there are playoffs or championship games or even games that might have some kind of bearing on a) the fortunes of the home team, b) the general set of the playoffs or c) the championship game they’ll happily tune in.  They know the game, appreciate it, but don’t really get too worried about missing out if they don’t see things.  They’ll read about it later, or find someone else to talk about it with.

This is how I feel about football.  I am a confirmed Eagles fan and will watch them most of the chances I get – not all, particularly as my general interest in the sport is a bit thin of late, but I’ll generally watch.  And I live here in Packer country, so I’ll watch the Packers too.  It’s also fun to watch good teams play even if they aren’t the Eagles or Packers, and I do try to keep an eye on how things affect their playoff chances.  This was easy with the Eagles this year, as they were eliminated sometime around Halloween, but the Packers are still in it as of this writing so that took some figuring to get all the ins and outs straight in my head – and I was willing to do that figuring.  I understand the game well enough to know what is happening, what should be happening, and even in most cases what could be happening.  But it’s not the next level.

The next level up are people who just love the sport.  People who will watch any random game between any two teams that are playing the game, regardless of talent level, distance from the home team or any other team that matters to them, or significance in the standings for anyone in the league.  They’ll talk your ear off about the game, and they know all the little rules that get enforced maybe once a season.

That was me and hockey for a long, long time.  I’d watch the Flyers.  I’d watch the other division teams.  I’d watch games played by random teams in other divisions.  I’d even watch meaningless late-season games between teams so far out of playoff contention that they had already been eliminated from next season’s playoffs.  It’s a fun sport to watch just because it is, at least I think so.  For most Americans, hockey is roughly the equivalent of basketball to me – something that happens for reasons that are never adequately explained and best not thought about.  But for me, it’s the gold standard of American sports.

But you know, it’s been months since the season was supposed to start, and there was no hockey.

Life is a liquid.  You take hockey out of it and there is no hockey-shaped hole remaining to put hockey back into later – everything else sloshes in and fills up that space, and if you want to put hockey back into your life you have to find somewhere else to squeeze it into the corners.  That’s what happened with me and baseball after 1994.  It wasn’t that I had somehow sworn off baseball in a fit of pique, never to return.  It’s just that other things filled up the baseball-sized hole in my life and I’ve never quite managed to squeeze baseball back in the same way.

I’ll still watch hockey games.  I’ll still cheer for the Flyers.  And the Penguins.  And a host of other teams that I like, in descending order.  I might even pay attention to all the little things around the league again – personnel moves, injuries, things like that.  Or I might not.

And that’s a shame, really.  It’s a great sport.  It’s fun to watch.

But it’s on the outside of my life looking in, now, and I just don’t know where it will fit anymore.


*Yes, I know there are more.  I’m simplifying here.  There are levels between levels, subcategories of levels, and then there are levels beyond levels that I would just prefer not to think about.  Don’t even get me started on the volume of fanaticism that it takes to get involved in a fantasy league in any sport.  It’s complicated enough trying to figure out why you should care about a group of highly paid professionals playing a game without trying to figure out why you should also care about an imaginary group of highly paid professionals of the same names playing a slightly edited version of that game a day later on a spreadsheet.  If your world reaches that point, I say skip the introductory fiddling and go straight for the whiskey.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Doppler-Shifted Weekend

It’s been a busy weekend and we’ve still got one more day of it to go. 

Friday night was Tabitha’s birthday party – the one where we invite her friends over instead of just family.  So a handful of 6th- and 7th-grade girls descended upon our house for the festivities, and festivities were had.

The easy part about birthday parties at this age is that they really don’t want much parental involvement.  You open the front door, tell them where to put their stuff, and watch them disappear.  Eventually you call them back into the dining room for pizza (the required food for all sleepover parties), and before they scatter too far you feed them cake.  Toward the end of the evening you gather them again into a central spot, lay out their sleeping bags, turn on a movie and let them wind their way down to sleep while you do likewise in your own bedroom.  Other than that, really, your main task as a parent is simply to make sure the house doesn’t burn down.  I can do that.

They seemed to have a good time, at least.  And they plowed through the cake – a four-layer tower we built to sop up all the extra frosting from the buche de noel.  Good times + sugar and fat = even better times.

On Saturday morning we jacked them up early, fed them a hearty breakfast, and took them curling.

For those of you who live in warmer climates, well, you’re missing out.  Curling is like shuffleboard on ice, except at the Olympic level you get to wear pants that would embarrass a 1970s-era golfer.  You slide these big granite stones down the ice toward a target and score points based on how close you get, after which you eat, which makes everything good.  It’s a very sociable game – just right for this audience – and there was much amusement to be had.

And then, without even going home, we left for our big excursion around the state.

First, we got a new rabbit.

Lauren has been without a 4H-show-quality rabbit since Hazel succumbed to the heat last summer.  Milo, for all his super powers, is not a pedigreed bunny, which strikes me as an odd concern to begin with, but there you go.  The rabbit people get very serious about that sort of thing, however, far more than you would think anyone could get regarding a creature as ridiculous as a rabbit, and they make the rules.  So if Lauren was to continue exhibiting her rabbits at the 4H County Fair, we’d either need to forge a pedigree for Milo (“Says here his grandfather was a wolverine and his mother once singlehandedly put out an oil-rig fire by throwing carrots at it”) or get a new rabbit.  The new rabbit seemed simpler.

Lauren has been jonesing for a Dwarf Hotot rabbit for months now.  Show quality Dwarf Hotots (pronounced “HOE-totes”) are the Theda Bara of the rabbit world, with plain white fur except for a ring of black around their eyes that makes you think they should be vamping around in a Flapper dress and drinking bootleg gin. 

It turns out that there are not that many Dwarf Hotot breeders in Wisconsin, and many of them had also suffered serious losses in last summer’s heat (good thing the climate’s not shifting, because otherwise, you know, I’d be worried…).  But there was one out toward Fond du Lac who finally had some to sell and since we were going to Grandma and Grandpa’s anyway and it wouldn’t be all that far out of the way to get there, we decided that Saturday was the day.

This is Milkshake.

He’s almost full-grown, and so far has been remarkably friendly for a breed that comes with all sorts of cautions about their aggressive nature.  The cats have been curious, and Milo has checked him out thoroughly.  No incidents have been reported.  Mostly Milkshake just huddles, or when placed on the floor, stands up on his hind legs and tries to get his bearings in such a new and strange place.  I can sympathize with that.

We look forward to good times with Milkshake.

From there we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the last stop on our Christmas tour – Ukrainian Christmas, a festival of pierogies, sausage, family and (this being Wisconsin) the Green Bay Packer playoff game.

There was an intense amount of good food, as there always is on these occasions, and then it was time for gifts.  We’ve mostly downplayed the gift thing in recent years, at least for the adults – but the kids, well, that’s one of the great pleasures of life.  There was much rejoicing.

And then it was time for The Game.  Every year the adults do this, no matter which side of the family we’re visiting.  You buy two gifts – one nice one, one goofy one – and put them in six piles.  You roll a die to see which pile you can pick from, and eventually you end up with two gifts that are different from the ones you came in with.  And then there’s five minutes where a couple of pairs of dice are passed around, and if you roll doubles you can switch with someone else.

There was much commentary, as there always is.  Because in some sense that is the point of The Game, after all.

Eventually we had to go home, though.  All of the gifts were distributed, the Packers had won, and there was a long drive ahead of us.

One more Christmas in the books.  It was a good one.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Milo travels in style.

Not many rabbits do.  But Milo is a rabbit among rabbits, a paragon of dignity and discernment.  Not for Milo is the ordinary humdrum of paws against carpet or floor.  Milo laughs at such pedestrian things.

Milo always intends the puns he makes.  He is a living metaphor in an alien language, a personal link to a better life, and a master of the telling detail.  He cannot be assimilated.

Chuck Norris wants to be Milo but does not have the ears for it. 

When there is a need to be elsewhere, Milo goes.  Every police officer in a five county radius knows not to impede Milo, for what good would that do?  Tickets disappear, records are cleansed, and justice is served with a side order of fries wherever Milo passes.

Milo is that he is.

That is all.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Thoughts on the Second Amendment

One of the things that is nice about becoming somewhat more widely read is that people sometimes ask me questions about things, and as a teacher there is nothing more fun than explaining how something works.  So when Ross wrote to me about the Second Amendment a couple of weeks ago I was happy to discuss it with him.  And the more I think about it, the more I think I should put that here too.

So, thanks, Ross!  A lot of this should look familiar to you.

The question on the table is whether the Second Amendment creates an individual right to own a firearm in this country.  The short answer is, “Now it does.”  The long answer, as with anything worth thinking about, is complicated.

On the one hand, the Founding Fathers did not create such a right. 

That was not their intention, nor did they write the Second Amendment to say any such thing.  If people would simply read the entire amendment instead of the mangled out-of-context bit that the NRA insists is the whole, they would see that fairly clearly.  The Second Amendment was written to provide a collective right for states to defend themselves against an encroaching tyranny (a very specific thing, mind you, as I will discuss below) should one arise, by allowing for a “well-regulated militia” to counter such a threat.

We no longer recognize this, because the mental world of the Founders disappeared around 1820 or so – disappeared so thoroughly that most Americans have no idea that it was ever any different.  But it was, and until you understand just how different the Second Amendment will make no sense to you.

All of modern American politics takes place within a very narrow spectrum of Lockean Liberalism today, and has since the early 1800s.  The driving force behind Liberalism is the notion of equality of opportunity – the level playing field – and depending on what playing field you most want to level and how, you will end up with very different political platforms.  If you want to level the economic playing field most of all, eventually you will find yourself touting the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism, small government, and libertarian ideals.  If you want to level the political playing field most of all, eventually you will find yourself touting the virtues of democracy, civil rights, and the strong and active government necessary to secure those rights from encroachments.  But it’s all Liberalism, one way or the other.

This is not the world of the Founders, not really.  While Liberalism was a growing force in the colonies after the First Great Awakening, the political world of the Founders remained largely defined by republicanism – “classical republicanism” or “neo-Harringtonian republicanism” if you want to get specific – until long after independence.  And in such a world the Second Amendment has a very specific meaning.

In republicanism, the driving force is not any notion of equality of opportunity.  Instead, the driving force is the conflict between liberty and power.  It is a zero-sum game – where one wins, the other by definition loses – and of the two it is far more likely for power to usurp liberty than for liberty to beat back power.  So the primary question for a good republican is how to arrange a government in such a way as to check power and preserve liberty.

The answer is to have a balanced republican government, where power is divided among different branches of government in such a way as to provide each branch with enough power to check the other two but not enough to take over the whole. 

Okay, fine.  How are you going to do that?  In other words, what are you balancing in a balanced republican government?

In classical republicanism, you are balancing social orders.  It is an ideology that assumes social hierarchy – that there is a single most important person in society (the One), a small group of nearly-that-important people (the Few), and a much larger group of everyone else (the Many).  Each order gets a branch of government – the One is the monarch, the Few is the aristocracy, and the Many is the Democracy.

Note that democracy is just one third of a balanced republican government.  We tend to forget that these days.  It’s just one more reason why the 18th-century world maps poorly onto that of the 21st century.

When the Constitution was written in 1787, one of its major intellectual achievements was adapting this republican structure to the rather flat social hierarchy of the new United States.  They did this by balancing the functions of government rather than balancing social orders – balancing the branches of government by what they do, rather than by who they represent.  So the One became the Executive Branch, the Few became the Judicial Branch, and the Many became the Legislative Branch.  But the principle is the same – you have to balance the One, the Few and the Many in order to check power and preserve liberty.

Note that the whole point of a judiciary is to tell the legislature and the executive what they can and cannot do.  That is their function in the properly balanced republican government set up by the Founding Fathers.  Remember that the next time some spittle-emitting moron starts shouting about “activist judges” getting in the way of their pet project.  That’s what the judiciary does.  It’s their job, and anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business discussing American politics with grown-ups.

Okay.  Balanced government achieved.  So what?

Well, the key question for us here is this: what happens when your government gets out of balance?

When one branch of a republican government starts to stomp on the turf of one or more of the other two, this was known as “corruption” – a jargon term in the 18th century, not the catch-all synonym for vice that we use it as today.  And depending on what form of corruption you got, the result was different.

If the Many took over, you got Anarchy.  When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, and eventually the powerful will swoop in and destroy your liberty.  If the Few took over, you got Oligarchy – a sort of dictatorship by committee.  And if the One took over, you got Tyranny – note, a jargon term with this one very specific meaning, and not a general synonym for “a government that does something I personally do not like” the way modern Americans use the term.

Of the three, the Founding Fathers feared Tyranny the most.  Anarchy is by definition self-limiting, and as far as Oligarchy goes, well, seriously – how effective are most of the committees you’ve ever been on?  But a Tyranny was efficient.  It was effective.  And those were not considered necessarily positive traits in a government in the 18th century.  A Tyranny could well and truly destroy liberty forever.

True republicans therefore had to be constantly on their guard against even small incursions by the One against the prerogatives of the Few and the Many.

And what were the warning signs of impending Tyranny?

There were quite a few, but there were two big ones.

First, there was arbitrary taxation, used by the One to bankrupt his enemies and destroy them.  Thus you get the (by any objective standard) ridiculous overreaction by the colonies to the Stamp Act and other British revenue acts in the 1760s and 1770s that led to the Revolution itself.  The British had largely abandoned republicanism decades earlier and never did fully understand why the colonists were being so unreasonable about paying their fair share of the empire.

The second warning sign of impending tyranny was a standing army in time of peace.  And thus we come back to the Second Amendment.

A standing army in time of peace could only have one function to a proper republican – to allow the One to suppress the rights and liberties of the Few and the Many.  Thus the Founders wrote into the Bill of Rights an explicit guarantee that the states could field a defensive force against any Tyranny that might emerge out of the federal government (and again, remember the definition of Tyranny, which is most emphatically not “a government that does stuff I personally don’t like.”  You’d be surprised at how many times I have had to correct people on this point).

In other words, the Second Amendment was designed as a collective right belonging to the states, not as an individual right belonging to common citizens.

And it became obsolete very, very quickly, in much the same way that the Third Amendment did.

The whole notion that a militia could stand up to a professional army died an inglorious death during the War of 1812, and by that time the US had had a peacetime army for over a decade anyway.   And when republicanism dies out shortly after the War of 1812 (for other reasons), there is nobody left to pay attention to the rationale behind the Second Amendment at all.  It is a vestige of an earlier way of thinking that nobody had the forethought to repeal once that way of thinking disappeared, and here in the 21st century it has been reinterpreted to mean exactly what the Founders did not write it to mean.

This of course is the part that brings us to the “on the other hand” section of this post.

For centuries after the Second Amendment was ratified, judicial precedent largely upheld the Founders’ intent and declared that the Second Amendment did not guarantee any individual right to own a firearm.  US v Miller (1939), for example, explicitly noted that “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a [sawed-off shotgun] at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”  Unless the gun in question was connected to the collective right of states to field militias, in other words, the ordinary citizen did not have a Constitutionally guaranteed right to own it.

Note that there was nothing in the Constitution that says you couldn’t have a gun, either.  Just that owning one wasn’t a right on the same individual level as free speech.

But here’s the thing.  The Constitution is not set in stone.  It is not something handed down from on high, inviolate and obvious.  There is no legitimate “Constitutional fundamentalism” in American law.  The Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means, until such time as the Court decides to say that it means something else. 

And in DC v Heller (2008), the Court overturned more than two centuries of precedent and the expressed intent of the Founders to declare that the Second Amendment now encompasses an individual right to own a firearm unconnected with any militia or state.  This is a right created by the Court, based on their interpretation of the Constitution, in much the same way that the right to privacy was created in earlier cases.

So yes, today, the right of an individual American citizen to own a gun is now enshrined in the Constitution, regardless of anything that happened earlier, and it will remain enshrined there until such time as the Supreme Court decides to say that the Constitution means something else.

There are two things about the Heller decision that stand out, though.

First, that it was a tremendous example of judicial activism – of judges stepping in to reinterpret (or reinvent) standing law.  I have no particular issues with this – as noted above, that is the job of the judiciary under the Constitution, so even if I happen to disagree with their decision and even if I note that it runs counter to precedent and original intent, well, those thing happen.  The Founders understood quite well that times change and that the Constitution would be reinterpreted to suit them, and that was a feature not a bug.  If I want the Constitution to say something else on the matter, I suppose I need to get working on another case to bring to the Court and convince them to decide differently this time.

I do find it laughably ironic, however, that the very same crowd that usually goes red in the face and starts spluttering with incoherent rage about “activist judges” was so … eerily … quiet … about this decision.  Apparently judicial activism is okay for decisions right-wingers happen to like, but not for decisions they don’t like.

Good to know.

And second, the Court’s majority opinion in the Heller case – written by Antonin Scalia, so you know it’s as right-wing as you’re going to get – clearly states that the individual right to own a firearm, like every right in the Constitution, is not absolute.  “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” Scalia wrote.  “From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. … [N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

In other words, even under Heller, even with the newly created individual right to own firearms, and even in the eyes of the most right-wing Supreme Court Justice in modern America, the plain and simple fact is that there is nothing unconstitutional about gun control.  The Second Amendment does not block efforts to restrict the sales or availability of firearms, in principle.  The individual right to keep and bear arms, like every right in the Constitution, is subject to reasonable regulation.

Bottom line, gun ownership and use is not an absolute right, not under the Constitution, and Americans have the right to limit who can own what kind of gun and where and how they can carry the ones they do own if we choose to do so.

The question is whether we will choose to do so.  I’m guessing no, to be honest.  Americans have clearly stated that the blood of children is an acceptable price for the free availability of guns, and I do not see any marking on the wall that says, “When the pile of bodies reaches this line, things will change.”  It is a sad commentary on us as a culture, but there you have it.

Watch your back.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

We Eat of the Log of Christmas

I am now the parent of a teenager.  OMG.

I’m not entirely sure how that happened.  Oh, I get the mechanics of it – I didn’t sleep through all of 9th-grade health class, after all, and once you have a baby you have to take care of her, and then one thing leads to another and suddenly a baker’s dozen years have flown by without your noticing and it’s that last part that leaves me a bit puzzled. 

But “a bit puzzled” is sort of my ground state these days, so I’m used to it.

For her birthday cake, Tabitha decided she wanted to make a buche de noel, which as near as I can tell is French for “heart attack covered with powdered sugar.”  There are a dozen eggs in it, and seven and a half sticks of butter.  There is also 2/3 of a cup of flour, mostly I suspect so that the resulting cake doesn’t get classified as a custard.  But Tabitha loves her French class down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School and she was willing to put in the effort, so a buche de noel it was.

She and Kim spent the better part of the afternoon making this thing – the cake, the whipped frosting, the meringue mushrooms and toadstools – and it was gorgeous.

That's Midgie there in the background, keeping an eye on things.  Because you never know when kitty treats might suddenly materialize.  Cats live in a world full of magic that way.

We had a nice simple dinner and then some friends who were at loose ends for New Year’s came over and shared the buche de noel with us.  We all sang and then we ate.

It was really, really, good, in an artery-clogging sort of way.  Dangerously good.  But what is a birthday if not to live a bit larger than one does on most days, and if buche de noel is how you choose to do that, well then go with style.

Happy Birthday, Tabitha.  I’m proud of you.