Thursday, May 29, 2014

Discoveries Close to Home

Today was, in all likelihood, the last day of Fiddle Club down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.  The year is winding down, the concert happened last week, and at this point they’re just playing out the string.

Or, in this case, strings.

Lauren loves Fiddle Club days, because those are the days we head out to get snacks while we wait for Tabitha to be done fiddling around with her friends.  These days I mostly just watch the snacking, but it’s still a nice tradition really.  I’m going to miss it next year.

Today we had a different mission, though.  When I made up this week’s dinner menu I decided that homemade egg rolls would be one night’s fare.  We found a recipe for them somewhere years ago and while they do a very effective job of using every pot, bowl, and utensil in the kitchen, they also are quite tasty and provide endless leftovers.   Our local grocery carries only wheat-based egg-roll wrappers, however, and this is no longer really an option for Kim.

Not that I remembered this at the time, says the man with two packages of wheat-based egg-roll wrappers taking up space in the fridge right now.  It’s tricky, sometimes, remembering who can’t eat what.  Fortunately this is one of those problems that can indeed be solved by throwing money at it – and not much money at that.  Somewhere, there must be rice-based egg-roll wrappers.  They simply need to be located, purchased, and brought back home.

It’s like the old caveman days, only more artisanal.  Need wrappers!  Find wrappers!  Slay wrappers!  Bring home for feast!  URGH!

So while Fiddle Club raged on, Lauren and I ventured into the Asian market here in Our Little Town in search of rice-based egg-roll wrappers.

We actually have an Asian market here these days.  I’d never set foot in it before today, but I liked the fact that it was there and making the place a bit more diverse than it used to be.  Our Little Town is not much of a hotbed for diversity.  It’s better than it was when I moved in, but this remains a town where a brown-eyed man could wreak havoc on the gene pool in many ways.  So having this store always made me feel like we were moving in a congenial direction here, culturally, even if I never could quite manage to stop in as I drove on by.

Why on earth have I not been shopping in this place?

So many fun things!

Granted, many of them were things that I would not eat under duress.  The bags of deep-fried sesame-coated anchovies, for example, struck me as something best left for other people in other time zones, and the multitudinous forms of durian (fresh, frozen, preserved, and – most intriguingly, in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way you can be fascinated by something without really having any interest in letting it get within hailing distance – candied) just left me with a deep appreciation for how easily led astray the human mind can get when confronted by something that is only edible by the rather generous standard of not being immediately lethal.

Yes, I know.  I’ve actually had durian before.  It’s not bad if you can get past the smell.  Next time you have a bad head cold, you should try some.

On the plus side, though, there were about a hundred different kinds of tea.  Thirty kinds of hot sauce.  More noodles made from more different kinds of grain than you’d have thought existed in the multiverse.  Crackers of myriad shapes, sizes, and flavorings including some that became more intriguing – in that same liberal arts sense – the more I thought about them.  Cookies in alternate flavors and wrappings.

They even had those weird Japanese sodas that come in the glass bottles with the little glass marble on top that you have to punch down with the special implement included free with your purchase.  Leave it to the Japanese to turn food packaging into a contest of strength.

It’s tasty soda, though.

My big find was a kind of canned chai tea that was made in Thailand and available for a very reasonable cost – a Thai chai buy – that was absolutely delicious despite its vibrant rust-orange color.  Apparently they sell it by the case.  This is a very dangerous thing for me to know.

Lauren and I ended up getting our snacks there at the store - some oddly shaped cookies and a bag of thin coconut-flavored crackers that looked like they might be fun.  We never did find any rice-based egg-roll wrappers, though.  All of the ones there were wheat-based.  We’ll have to forage elsewhere for our desired wrappers.


Monday, May 26, 2014

Spring Cleaning

I’m not going to write about Memorial Day today.  What began as a time of reflection meant to honor those who have died in the larger service of the nation and then became a harmless weekend of picnics and parades has now morphed into yet another chest-beating display of patriotic machismo in which I am repeatedly informed that I am not a real American because I don’t support arming puppies in their struggle against totalitarian health care.  Sort of takes the meaning out of the day as far as I am concerned.

Don’t even get me started on the festival of ideological pornography that the Fourth of July has become, here in the New Gilded Age.

So I focus on small things, homely things, the things that make up the daily give and take of life, because those things are what define us.  And those definitions are much less offensive than the things I see in the larger world around me now.

The semester now being over, I have devoted much of the last few days to my semi-annual attempt to rezero my office.  I’ve been digging out from the avalanche of paper that inevitably subsides over every available flat surface.  Some of it goes into various files to be stored either in the drawer units I have in my office itself or the storage boxes down in the basement for the longer-term stuff.  The rest either gets added to the large and ever-growing pile of scratch paper that sits on the left side of my desk, or – if it is printed or written on both sides – into the recycling bin.

All those words, all those documents, that were once needed and are now put away. 

You need to do that, now and then – clear the decks, start over. 

There’s the practical side of it, of course.  Without such efforts I would eventually lose the ability to walk into the room and even if I did manage to make it to my desk to try to get some work done there would be a shuffling kind of rumble and then they’d dig out my mummified corpse sometime in the next century.  “The Great Paperlanche of 2014,” they’d call it.  I’d get written up in all the archeological journals, which would be something of a compliment I suppose but not one I really need.

More to the point, there is the intangible side of such deck clearing.  You get to put a period to one thing and move on to another.  The old gets put away.  The new gets a clean slate upon which to write.  It’s good for the spirit.  Even historians know this.

One of the things I like about being an academic is that the year is divided into very discrete units.  You teach for a semester and then you’re done.  You teach for the next semester, and then you’re done with that one too.  Sure, there are long-term projects also, but mostly they’re background things simmering away that you pick up and put down as needs dictate.  It’s a very deadline-oriented sort of career, and once things pass they pass.  There’s a lot of the theater in teaching, in many ways.

The down side, of course, is that after a while you can get pretty jaded about those cycles – if this one goes completely pear-shaped there’s always another one coming along.  You have to guard against that sort of thing, because for the students it is their one shot at your class and they deserve the best you can give them.

I give them my best.  What they do with it is their business.  Some take advantage, some don’t.  And the cycle moves on.

I’ve got a week to get my summer class prepared now.  The rhythms of the year bang on and on, defining my world.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Clare College, Cambridge, England. 1990

Some photographs are all about a moment.  Others, though, are the end of a long, complicated story.  This is one of the latter photographs, though the story involved is a happy one.  Most of those stories aren’t, for some reason, but sometimes you get lucky.

Julia and I have known each other for a long time now.  We went to neighboring high schools, and met when I took a day off from mine to walk around hers with my friend Matt.  We didn’t get to know each other well until later, though, through a different group of friends that was mostly centered around her church but had tentacles in several of the local high schools as well.  We dated briefly in the summer after our sophomore years, and when she moved several states away at the end of that summer we remained close friends.  We’ve been close friends now for over thirty years.

That’s her, on the far right.

The big takeaway from our personal history as far as this story goes is that we mostly knew each other outside of the context of our own high schools.  We didn’t know most of each other’s high school friends.  That becomes important later.

Fast forward most of a decade.  We’ve both graduated from college, and in our own separate ways headed off to graduate school.  I’m living in Pittsburgh, fighting my way through the first year of my MA in American history.  She is at Cambridge University, in England. 

By this point her parents had moved back to the Philadelphia area, so when I went home for semester break we managed to get together for a bit and trade stories about our respective lives.  Keeping in touch was harder back then, kiddies, in that dark pre-internet era.  Clare College – the particular sub-institution at Cambridge where Julia was a student – didn’t even have telephones in the dorm rooms, as I had discovered much to my frustration a couple of years earlier when she had been an exchange student there.  Sometimes you have news to impart more quickly than the technology will allow, but that is a different story for another time.

As we caught up, it became clear that she was feeling rather down about her life at Cambridge.  She had just broken up with her latest boyfriend a few weeks earlier, and – looking down the road – she realized she had nobody to go to the May Ball with her.

The May Ball – which happens in June, for reasons that I was assured make sense to the English – is the big festival with which Cambridge University ends its academic year.  You get dressed up to the nines, go out to dinner, and then head on over to the specific college you are attending, where you stay until dawn.  There are entertainers.  There is a vast quantity of food.  You can even go punting up and down the Cam, which for my American readers does not involve kicking anything.  Think “Venetian gondoliers,” only without the singing.

Well, I thought, sign me up!  I’d never been to England before.  The May Ball sounded like fun.  I even owned a tuxedo at that point in my life, a requirement of the choir I had joined in Pittsburgh earlier that academic year.  And it would be nice to go visit Julia in her new home.  We’d have a ball! 

Pun fully intended.

So we made plans for me to fly over to the UK that spring – my first ever airplane flight, it turned out.  I ended up taking a tiny little puddle-jumper from Philadelphia to New York – one of those propeller-driven aircraft with one row of seats on each side of the aisle that make you think it needs a new suspension system because of the way you get bounced around up there until you realize that there is no suspension system unless you count the wings and that bouncing? well, that’s just how it flies – and it was a good thing I enjoyed the experience because I had six hours at JFK International Airport to think about it before getting on the trans-Atlantic flight, which was at least on a much bigger plane.

And that’s where things stood in mid-January when I got a letter from Julia outlining what she felt was a problem with our plans. 

It seemed that she had found herself a new boyfriend – a very nice man named Richard, it turned out – and that this presented complications for our plan to attend the May Ball together.  But she also had a friend at Cambridge, another American, who would be happy to go with Richard, and then we could all hang out together.

This struck me as unnecessarily complicated.  So I wrote back and said, “Why don’t I just go with your friend and you can go with Richard?”  It was supposed to be a friendly good time, and I could certainly do that with her friend just as well as I could with Julia. 

It turned out this was a fairly good plan for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, about six weeks later I got another letter from Julia announcing that she and Richard were now engaged (and wouldn’t that have made a rather awkward May Ball otherwise?).  They’ve been together ever since, and we’ve traded family visits between here and there a couple of times over the years.  So, win!

For another thing, Julia’s friend turned out to be Pam, whom I had been friends with in high school but had lost track of after we had both graduated.  I don’t believe Julia knew of this connection between Pam and me when she originally set this up – remember, we didn’t know each other’s high school friends beyond that one church group that she was in and that I had joined for a short while.  So I ended up traveling across the Atlantic to go to a May Ball in June with a different high school friend from the one I had originally planned to accompany.

It’s a small world, sometimes.

Before the May Ball we went out onto the unofficial balcony at Clare and had someone take this photo.  I’m on the far left, with Pam in the green dress next to me.  That’s Richard with his arms around Julia.  It took months to set up this photograph, but there we are, about to head off to the May Ball, all sorted out.

We had a grand time at the May Ball, after all that.  How could we not?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Music, Music, Music (and Logistics)

Working my way back through what I can remember of this month, it occurs to me that there has been a lot of music in it.  This is a good thing, especially since much of that music was produced in part by my own children.  I’ve already covered Lauren’s piano recital here, but that was only the beginning.

This past Monday, for example, was the big concert down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School. 

I went down early with Tabitha to drop her off for rehearsal and then stayed, since a) making another round trip home was sort of pointless in the time allotted and b) these events involve a lot of kids, which means a lot of parents, which means get your seats early.  So I saved a couple of seats for Kim and Lauren, read my book for a while (of course I brought a book – don’t be silly), and chatted with friends nearby. 

They do these things by grade, mostly, so we sat through the 6th-grade orchestra (quite good) and the 7th-grade orchestra (still needs some work) before Tabitha took the stage.  The Fiddle Club was first.  Once a week throughout most of the school year a bunch of string players stay after school to learn new pieces, and then they get to perform them at these concerts.  They did a very nice job.

Then came the 8th-grade orchestra for a couple of songs, which they did nicely, and then came the entire group of everyone, plus the band – a full orchestra – for one final number that went well.  It was a grand night out, down at MCGMS, and you should have been there.

The thing about that night was that it was easy.  There was only one concert.  There was only one venue.  This was not true for the evening of music earlier this month, when we discovered that the key to life is logistics.

The evening started when we all met from our different directions at the local burger joint.  Kim’s parents joined us, so they could be in on the evening’s festivities as well.  I left early to drop off Lauren at Not Bad President Elementary – so she could rehearse for her band concert – and then drop off Tabitha at Home Campus for her Youth Orchestra concert.  While she waited for her rehearsal to start she could hang out with the 4H Drama group, who had a rehearsal of their own going on just downstairs from there.

The grown-ups met up again at NBPE.

This was also the night of the NBPE Art Show.  Lauren only had one piece up this year, and eventually we found it and were duly impressed. 

But the main point of the evening was the music, so we made our way to the gym for the concert. 

It was a lovely show, with the band members giving it their all and the music coming out just fine.

Pay attention to the sign under the basketball hoop in that group picture.  It’s good advice for life.

The nice thing about elementary band concerts is that they are short – there were five pieces of music, each one roughly 90 seconds long – so we had plenty of time to scoop everyone up and head over to Home Campus for the next round.  Lauren disappeared into the 4H Drama rehearsal – she had a number of important lines in that show, and with that production only days away it was good to get a few more repetitions under her belt – and the grown-ups filed into the auditorium for Tabitha’s concert.

They play more ambitious pieces at this level – this is a community orchestra, open to anyone between 6th grade and the grave – and Tabitha has really enjoyed the various pieces they’ve played.  She's been particularly happy with the various Beatles medleys that they've done.  It's interesting to know that the Beatles are now considered classical music.

If you look carefully at the close-up, you can see Gus the Fly peeking out from her pocket.  It’s always nice to have a mascot.

Good work, ladies.  I’m proud of you both.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Inside Track

Now that I have turned in my grades, I have about a week and a half to get ready for my summer class.  I should be preparing for that, but naturally I have decided to take some of that time and get some things down here, because that’s just how I roll. 


Looking back over the last few weeks of my life during this period of sparse blogging, it appears that there are several themes I could visit, some of them more likely than others.  Much of my time not spent frantically trying to keep my head above water at work has been spent on events that my children have participated in.  So today I will talk about running.  Tomorrow there will be music.


They always look to the side.

When I ran track, eons ago, the one useful thing that the coaches taught me – other than the fact that I was not cut out for a career in track – was that nothing that happened to my right or to my left was relevant.  The only thing I should focus on was the space in front of me.  That’s where the finish line was.  That’s where the next guy in the relay was waiting for the baton.  That’s where the divot on the track waiting to trip me up was.  The guys to the sides?  Nothing I could do about them.  Might as well ignore them.

If I could go around to all the elementary schools here in Our Little Town and give the 5th-graders one piece of advice for their track events, that would be it.  Look forward.  Never look around, and for the love of all that you hold dear, never look back.  It will catch up to you soon enough.

Yesterday was the Big 5th-Grade Track Meet here in Our Little Town, an annual event that takes place every May here, in all sorts of weather.  Including the similar 4th-Grade Track Meets, we’ve done four of these things now – two in what appeared to be late November and two in early July.  Yesterday was one of the July days – bright, clear, hot.  Everyone came home with a mild case of sunburn, since we’ve spent most of the last seven months huddled indoors trying to keep warm and there is always that period of adjustment once the sun comes out.

I dropped Lauren off at Not Bad President Elementary and headed over to the stadium where both of the local high schools play, over by the river, to claim my seat.  NBPE gets prime seats in the middle, right by the finish line for the 50-yard dash, and they fill up fast.  That’s actually a pretty nice problem to have.  It’s good to see the parents come out to support the kids.

Most of Lauren’s events were right up front, except for her last one, which was right at the end.  So we were there for the morning.

They called her right away for the long jump.

You get two tries at the long jump, and her first one didn’t go all that well, she told me later.  It’s hard to tell from the parental vantage point, way off in the stands.  But she reared back for her second try and let fly – and she ended up winning!  Go Lauren! 

She immediately headed over to the 50-yard dash area, where she made the cut after her first heat and then came in third in the finals, which was also quite an achievement.

Then came the high jump, an event that I could never have done with all that launching yourself headfirst into the unknown.  Lauren loves the field events, though, and she won this one too!

There followed a long, long break while the rest of the track meet unfolded before our slowly roasting eyes.  It’s quite an event, a track meet, if you’ve never been to one.  There’s always half a dozen things going on at once.  The announcer is a constant drone, directing athletes to their stations and announcing results as they come in.  The crowd gets up, walks around, talks at high volume, sits back down.  It’s a festival of motion.

Finally it came time for the 6x50 relays, the last event of the day.  I have always had a sneaking fondness for this event the way they run it here in Our Little Town, since it looks like the jailbreak scene from The Golden Compass except with fewer wolves.  They line the kids up on the infield of the track – half of them on the 50-yard line, half on the goal line, eight or ten teams across.  Then the starting gun goes off and what appears to be a riot breaks out.  But if you look closely, it’s slightly more organized than your average riot and nobody seems to be hitting anyone.  There are kids running for all they’re worth across the field to the other side, handing off the baton with greater or lesser degrees of success, and then new kids running the opposite way to repeat the process.

Lanes?  We don’t need your stinking lanes.

Lauren’s team made the cut to get into the final round, but a missed baton pass left them in 5th place overall, which is not bad for the day.

So Lauren came home with two 1sts, a 3rd and a 5th.  Well done, Lauren!  I’m proud of you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Welcome to the 4H Zone!

This is the first Saturday in weeks where I haven’t had to rocket out of bed at a thoroughly ridiculous hour in order to accomplish something. 

Oh, there is still plenty to accomplish.  There are two piles of exams that need to be graded.  I finally got the lawn mower running yesterday – a surprisingly complex process this year – but ran out of time to mow the lawn, so that task remains on the list.  I’d like to start excavating my office from the avalanche of paper that has buried most of it over the course of the semester.  On and on.  But that is something for a later time, a more civilized hour.

Last Saturday was an early Saturday.

It was the 4H Drama Fest down at Home Campus, an event for which our troupe has been putting in long hours for months.  We write our own play (he said, as if he had anything to do with it – thanks, Addie and Jamie!).  Kim and Jamie handle the actors – casting the play, directing it, coming up with blocking and props and such.  Kris made the cast shirts for the first act, which were adorable in a gross-out kind of way.  We built a time machine, painted backdrops and hung them from the flyspace, and wrote lighting cues.  And there were rehearsals – weekly, then as the event grew closer twice-weekly.

And suddenly, there it was: showtime.

Of course, if you’ve worked in theater long enough you know that nothing ever quite goes off as planned.  The sound guy basically forgot about the entire event and never did set anything up, so as someone who is both involved in this project as a parent and employed by Home Campus as part of the performing arts staff, I got a call at about 7:50am asking if I could come in and figure something out.  Fortunately I was already up and planning to come in early – one of the other acts our troupe was presenting was four of the younger girls singing an adorable old Dinah Shore song, and that happened close to the beginning of the day – so in I went.

Now, what I know about sound could be stuffed into a thimble with room left over for a libertarian’s social conscience and a donut.  I’m a lighting guy, not a sound guy.  Fortunately one of the big singing groups there had a sound system that we could use, and all I needed to do was make it possible for that to happen, which involved a fair amount of running about, opening locked doors, and making sure that equipment was in fact turned on.  It was a frantic hour or two, but it all got done.

And suddenly, this time for real: showtime.

It’s a day-long festival, this event.  4H clubs from all over the county get 20-minute blocks to get their plays loaded in, performed, and struck, after which the judges give them both critiques and – in the grand tradition of 4H – ribbons.  Recently they’ve added entre-acte singing groups – while the judging is going on, small groups of singers can perform onstage to keep things moving forward.  They’re not judged, but it’s fun.

For our troupe, the singers went on in the morning and the play was scheduled for the afternoon.

Technically I was in charge of the singers, having been volunteered as a group leader earlier this year.  In practice, this meant that I signed the paperwork and the mothers took care of the rehearsing and the actual work, which ended up working out just fine.  They chose the old song “Sweet Violets,” and spent some time in the morning rehearsing out on the grass before we shuffled them in and onstage.  I didn’t get any pictures of them onstage, as I was the shuffler that day and got to see them perform from the vantage point of the stage-right wing, but they did a marvelous job.  The audience laughed in all the right places, the girls hit all their lines, and a good time was had by all.

Eventually we got to the play.

This is the 100th Anniversary of 4H here in Wisconsin, so our intrepid playwrights decided to write something on that theme.  A bunch of the 4Hers went to the local library to do some research on this and discovered an interesting fact – about a hundred years ago there were campaigns all across the country (including right here in Our Little Town) to kill flies.  You’d get 10 cents for every hundred flies turned in, which was pretty good money in 1914.  One particular boy here turned in 14,800 flies and presumably spent the rest of his life living in luxury off the proceeds.  So our playwrights decided to write a play based on the idea that this is what caught on rather than 4H – that instead of having a 4H Fair every year, there’d be Fly Fest.  And what if someone went back in time and changed that back to 4H?  Well, then you’d have a drama, wouldn’t you?

We got into places.  As a backstage guy I think it’s important that the crew get some credit – there’s always photos of the cast, but the crew is often overlooked – so here they are, our sound op, lighting board op, and fly op.

The play opens with preparations being made for this year’s Fly Fest, an annual event dedicated to continuing the Great Work of the past century, and also a few other things – note the silver time machine that will be exhibited.  I can’t tell you how much I loved those Fly Fest shirts.  I keep thinking we should sell them as a fundraiser.  I’d buy one.  The narrator - in the black and white top - gives us the basic set up, and then the game is afoot.

Soon the conversation turns to the difficulties of time travel and the dangers of making changes in the past that could erase the world as we know it!  This is something our heroine finds strangely appealing, however, and when it becomes clear that the time machine might actually work, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

At this point there are all sorts of cues – theme songs from Doctor Who or The Twilight Zone, lighting special effects, and a changing of the backdrop as it flies up and out of sight.  And suddenly – BOOM! – 1914.

In a cornfield.  Because that’s what you get in 1914 if you’re not on the Western Front.

We meet the locals, who are preparing for the initial fly-catching event and talking about all the things they plan to do with their newfound money (“I’m going to buy marbles!  I lost mine…”)

Our heroine is aghast!  What if things go on the way they actually did!  She will be stuck catching flies for her entire youth!  She shares this fear with her newfound friends – who, truth be told, are more worried about this stranger’s unusual interest in their great-grandchildren than they are about the long term consequences of fly-catching. But when she explains her idea for this great new club (4H, naturally), they become interested.

Mission accomplished, our heroine heads for home (accompanied by further appropriate tech cues), only to arrive at a rather different – and strangely familiar – place.

There she meets her friends, who have no idea what she’s blithering on about flies for, nor do they believe her when she says that 4H was her idea.  It’s been around for a century!  What are you talking about, crazy person?

They head off for cream puffs, because that’s what we do in all of our plays, and then the narrator comes back on to talk about how things can change if you dream and have access to a working time machine.  Or maybe I’m just inserting that last bit on my own.  It seemed important in context.


Then came the judging.  The judges were suitably impressed, and awarded the troupe blue ribbons in honor of their hard work, creativity, and talent.  The players and crew were immensely proud of their achievement, as well they should be.

Most people went home at that point – it had been a long day after a long couple of months – but a few stuck around for the final award ceremony.  The 4H people had gotten a state representative to stay for the duration and he graciously handed out the medals and certificates for the grand awards. 

We cleaned up.

In addition to certificates for Outstanding Cloverbud and Youth Director, our troupe won Best Lead Actress, Best Use of Props, Best Original Play, and Best Overall Production.  So, yeah us!

The oddly funny down side to this was that there was only one girl who had volunteered to go up and collect whatever awards we won, and she was kept very busy racing from the back of the auditorium to the stage every time our troupe was called.  She got to shake the representative’s hand so often it probably left marks on her palm.  But hey – small price to pay for glory, right?

All four of the remaining troupe members went up for the Best Overall Play award, as was fitting.

Congratulations, players and tech.  Well done, and well performed.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

News and Updates

1. So the frantic period of the spring has now come to something of a close.  There are still way too many things to do – honestly, I don’t know anyone with free time anymore, and ain’t that just life in the New Gilded Age? – but none of them are the sorts of things that keep me up at night worrying about how exactly I’m going to finish them before the deadline.  So that’s a plus.

2. I have a backlog of things to post here, as you would expect from a week spent running around doing the sorts of things that I’d like to talk about.  Many of them come with pictures.  How many of them I will actually get around to posting is an interesting question, or at least it’s interesting to me.

3. The house is no longer full of chickens.  I spent most of my Sunday converting a dairy stall into a chicken coop, which is fairly high up on the list of Sentences I Never In My Life Thought Would Fall From My Lips.  Lauren’s chickens had gotten big enough that they were starting to smell like, well, a barn full of chickens, and even Sully and Rosey (the two bantams) were too big for their Rubbermaid bins anymore.  Our friend Lois said we could put them in her barn, so we sheathed a dairy stall in chicken wire to keep out the weasels and foxes and then left the two big Cochins and the biggest Australorp (seriously) there for a couple of days to make sure it all worked.  I came back from an event last night to find that the other six had made the trip as well.  You know, it does seem a bit strange not to have the living room full of clucking noises anymore.

4. It is time to mow the lawn.  It is also 40F and raining here in Our Little Town.  These two things may not be compatible.

5. Shouldn’t it be warmer in May?  I seem to recall something about it being spring.  Hell, it’s only five weeks from being officially summer.  Not that I am complaining too much – you can always add clothing but the reverse is not necessarily true, especially in this country.

6. I have gotten almost no reading done over the last week, and that feels very strange.  I am looking forward to having an open book in front me again.  I don’t know how the average American can stand not reading books.  Add that to the list of things that marks me as not really fitting in with my own culture.

7. My office is an explosion of paper.

8. One of the benefits of having your physician give you attitude about the general state of your health is that it does inspire you to try to fix that.  So far I’m down about 15 pounds from where I was in January, which is a good thing.  Soon I will be Ripped and Buff, or at least Less Lumpish, which I’ll take.

9. At some point Midgie will learn not to sleep on the landing at the top of the steps.  How many more boots to the head that will take is an open question.

10. We postponed Mother’s Day here because neither of us had time for it last Sunday.  The original plan was to move it to this Sunday, but that may not be feasible either.  Eventually we may merge it with Father’s Day and just have a general Parent Day.  Life is easier when the holidays move to accommodate your schedule.

11. Happy Horton Day!  Go out and be nice to someone.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ten Days in May

Looking back over the archives of this blog, I find that there are definite patterns in the frequency of posting here.  I post a lot in January, when I am between semesters and all of the time I need to do what I need to do to get ready for the semester seems to stretch on into infinity.  I post a fair bit in September, when I’m buckling down to the new year.

I’m an academic.  Of course the new year begins in September.

This time of year, however, is often kind of sparse.  And when I consider my world at this present moment, I can see why.

Here is what my world looks like for the first ten days of May:

On Thursday the first, I spent most of the day frantically writing new lectures for my History 102 class.  I should have done that in January, but – as noted – there were a lot of days in there that seemed to stretch on to eternity for this to get done, and darned if they didn’t just stretch all the way into May.  I collected the girls from school – Tabitha called early in the day to let me know that they were not having Fiddle Club, so I should pick her up at normal time.  This was good in one sense, as Lauren and I didn’t have to hang out for 45 minutes waiting, but on the other hand we generally use that time to hit up the local pharmacy for snacks and the direct route home left a yawning hole in our junk food consumption.

Not that I have been doing much of that recently.  This was one of the lessons my physician pounded into my skull during my last checkup.  Thou Shalt Cut Out Much Of The Crap You Consume, or words to that effect.  Oh well.  I’ve held to that pretty well so far, but I can still dream.

That night we had rehearsal for 4H Drama.  The kids have been in rehearsal for months now.  They’re pretty much got their lines down now, and the tech (my responsibility) is coming along.  Our lighting board op has her cues squared away – there aren’t that many, but then she’s never run a board before either – and the fly op did that last year so she’s good to go.  Tabitha’s got the sound cues safely stored on Lauren’s iPod, since hers is currently telling her that it will let her retry her password in 23,222,206 minutes, which might well be the next millennium for all I can do the math.  I was also in charge of getting the food for these kids, and thus made the happy and rather dangerous discovery that the local Taco Bell will let you call ahead with orders if they think you sound responsible (i.e. not stoned). 

How that fits into my new diet I prefer not to think about any further.

On Friday the 2nd I held my class in the morning.  It was one of the new lectures I’ve written this semester, on the subject of the emergence of the New Right and how it differs drastically from the traditional definition of American conservatism.  The definition of “conservative” in the American context undergoes radical alteration between 1968 and 1980, and then undergoes even further extreme changes in the decades since.  My students do not know this – they labor under the all-too-common delusion that however things are now is how they have always been.  They do not understand that Richard Nixon could not be elected as a Republican today.  Hell, Ronald Reagan couldn’t get elected as a Republican today.  Things have changed.

From there it was time to mooch off the Natural Sciences Potluck Lunch over at Home Campus, though since Kim was in charge of it I suppose I could have counted as a guest rather than a mooch.  It’s such a fine line, so very often.  Discovery of the day: Sriracha on a hamburger is actually quite good.

But staying late was not an option!  Lauren’s big 5th-grade musical over at Not Bad President Elementary was scheduled to start at 1:30, which meant that if you wanted a seat you had to be there by 1:00 or know someone who was.  I got there in time to get a seat, saved it with my jacket for Kim (who was cleaning up the potluck), and then went to the back – Photographer’s Row – where I could stand and take photos without bothering anyone behind me.

It was a lovely show, all about the wonders of Jazz – more of a concert than a play, really.  Lauren had speaking roles in two of the songs, and she did a very nice job with them.

That evening was the setup for the 4H Cat Show, which meant heading over to the county fairgrounds and trying to figure out what was going on for the food booth, which the usual stalwarts were running.  There’s four or five of us who seem to have fallen into this role, and while my position was a little less involved than it had been for last month’s Pre-Fair Cat Show, it was still mostly just us.  The advantage to the food booth, though, is that I no longer feel obligated to set up the tables.  Those tables are made of depleted uranium and grief, and my back is now officially too old for such things.

On Saturday the 3rd I was back at the Cat Show at 7:45am, getting things set up for the actual show.  The crew was there, and things were running smoothly.  And this time around, Kim had not been called away to furthest northern Wisconsin for a meeting, which meant that the girls didn’t have to come rocketing in with me at o’dark:thirty to open up the food booth.

We sold a lot of food.

Kim brought Tabitha and Lauren in at a more reasonable hour, along with Midgie.  Midgie hates the Cat Show.  Hates, hates, hates it.  But she is a good cat and mostly just puts up with it.

Fortunately for her there is only one round of judging this time instead of three, and she managed to get a red ribbon – 4H-code for a second class finish, which is better than third at least.  We’re guessing that the reason she didn’t get a first class is that she was so stressed out by that point that she was drooling.  The judge actually called Tabitha up to the judging stand and told her privately, “Take this cat home before she worries herself sick.”  So Midgie got to skip out early, and was much happier.

We spent most of the day there, between the cats and the cleanup, and then we went home to crash for an hour or so before heading back out to Home Campus for some more 4H Drama – this time for some tech work.  Our family and the family of the other adult leaders of this troupe spent most of Saturday evening painting backdrops, putting the finishing touches on the time machine (it’s a big part of the play), and then hanging the backdrops so they can go up in the fly section.

The glory of late nights doing tech is that by the time you’re ready to eat dinner, there’s no crowd at the local burger barn anymore.  Except that it was Prom Weekend, apparently, so there were a few couples out in their finery, munching on fries together.  I was particularly impressed by the one young lady in a dress dyed the same vocal yellow that fire trucks now come in.  No way her date will lose her in the dark.  Although whether having a dress you can’t lose fits with the larger tradition of the prom is an interesting question, I suppose.

Sunday the 4th started way too early, though not as early as the previous day, at least.  While Kim and the girls did some fast Potemkinizing of the house (think Czarist Russia, if the reference escapes you) I ran up to the next town north of us to collect some artifacts for the presentation I was giving for Lauren’s class on Monday.  This turned out to be rather complicated, since they’ve completely redone the highway since the last time I went up to my old museum and instead of taking you right to the front door it takes you several miles away.  You have to exit, go through a pair of traffic circles (which Wisconsin drivers have yet to figure out, so good luck with that if anyone else is coming along) and come at the place from the other side. 

But eventually I made it back home, artifacts in hand, only to fall into a four-cook frenzy of lunch-making, since Kim’s parents were coming down.  Lunch was in fact served.  And then we went to Lauren’s piano recital, at a new location this year.

Lauren has been taking piano lessons for five and half years now, and every year around this time her teacher gathers her students together for a public performance.  This year Lauren was scheduled to do a duet with another student, but that student backed out and I ended up stepping in.  I had a week to get this ready, and we spent a fair amount of time practicing.

We did well, I think.  And then Lauren had her own piece to do, after which we could relax and listen to the other performers without worrying.  Food came next, because this is Wisconsin and there is always food.  People in Wisconsin would bring food to a hunger strike.  And you know what?  They’d eat it, and everyone would be better off.

I spent much of the rest of Sunday frantically doing all of the things that I meant to do earlier.  Grocery shopping.  Lecture writing.  Grading.  And, last and certainly least on the scale of “things I would rather be doing,” writing out the bills.  I refuse to pay my bills online, simply because every time I turn around there is another story of viruses, hacks, worms, or security breaches and I am not going to redo my financial world every time some teenaged nerd-thug discovers a hole in someone else’s hastily done computer code.  The internet is good for many things - it is the world’s leading purveyor of conspiracy theories, cat photos, and quizzes to see which character you are out of a book you’ve never read - but I will continue to write my bills the old-fashioned way, thank you very much.

Monday the 5th – Cinco de Mayo! – was surprisingly not very Mexican in my life, although we did have tacos for dinner on Sunday so perhaps that should count for something.  I spent my morning getting various and sundry things ready and then headed down to Home Campus, there to do my Only Dancing Bear In The Circus act, wherein I stand alone in a room and teach via video hookup to three different high schools, each about 225 miles away.  Today’s class: more of why the 1980s were a dismal time from any rational political or economic perspective.  I will admit that the 80s were my glory years, such as they were – I was in high school or college for most of them, and being rather fortunate in friendship and love I had a grand time.  But the larger world just was not up that standard.

And neither was my class, for reasons that had nothing to do with my students.  One of the schools linked in but did not pay any attention to me, so I and the other two schools got to listen to a 7-minute dissertation from the teacher monitoring the students up there about how awful “that crabby professor” is.  Eventually the bell rang and his students filed off, and at that point I could get my own class started.  I’m having fun letting his superiors know about the spectacle of his performance.  Remember folks!  Always treat any microphone as if it is live!  Your world will be simpler and more hassle-free that way.

I spent the next hour running errands, stopping off at home for a brief lunch, and then headed off to Not Bad President Elementary for my talk to Lauren’s class.  This immediately became complicated by the fact that while I had the artifacts in my car I had left the talk itself at home.  No problem, I thought.  All I need is an internet connection and a printer, and I can print off another copy.  Of course, this did not take into account the fact that everyone now has far more security features on their networks than they know how to deal with, and so it took a fair bit of juggling and worry to get in.  But eventually the NBPE school secretary got me to my talk and printed it out, so three cheers for her I say.

The talk went well.  It’s a fun subject, and the kids seemed to enjoy it.  The only real problem came from a combination of a) there being several hearing-impaired kids, who sat up front to my left, b) their sign-language interpreter sat up front to my right, and c) for my public speaking roles (including teaching) I speak in a style that Kim generally refers to as “duck in a shooting gallery.”  The net result was that the poor interpreter was continually bobbing and weaving to get a line of sight to those kids so they could see her signing at them.  I tried to stay put, but it was just not feasible. 

There were a lot of questions at the end, though, and that is always the sign of a good talk.

After collecting the girls from school I went to the north side of town where I met with the current director of the museum to return the artifacts.  It was like a Cold War spy scene, there in the parking lot.  “You got the stuff?”  “I got the stuff.”  “Gimme the stuff.”  And miraculously, stuff was transferred without incident.

Then a quick rush home to get Lauren over to her piano lessons, which are too long for me to just sit there and too short for me to do anything productive when I go home before having to pick her up again.  Oh well.  But she enjoys them, and I’m happy to keep taking her there. 

Tuesday the 6th got off to an energetic start.  Kim usually takes the girls in to school but she had a doctor’s appointment and I was going to be with Lauren all day anyway, so I dropped Tabitha off and parked by NBPE, for this was the day of the field trip. 

One of the advantages to being underemployed is that I have the flexibility to go to events like this on occasion, and the schools are always looking for parent chaperones.  Further, having been on the other side of these field trips when I ran the museum, I have a finely tuned sensibility regarding the appropriate behavior that chaperones ought to exhibit.  This, I have found, keeps the schools asking me back.  I ran that museum for five years and never once had to throw a student off of one of my tours.  I cannot say that about the chaperones supposedly watching them.  I try not to be that chaperone.

School buses have not changed in half a century.  You step on one today and instantly you are wafted back to your childhood, whenever that was.  I haven’t been on a school bus to go to school since the mid-80s, and it was basically the same ride then.  Close-packed high-backed green seats, two-tiered windows that slide down from the top (mostly), suspension systems plagiarized from WWII-era Sherman tanks, noise levels that could be weaponized – it’s all there.  Memories!

We headed off to an outdoor living history museum – the kind of place where you wander around all day on your own in small groups, stopping to let the re-enactors at each place give their spiel.  We hit quite a few of them – everything from the print shop and the sutler to the artillery battery and the infantry training.  Given that my group included four girls, perhaps I should not have been surprised at the fact that their favorite was the dancing barn, followed closely by the herbalist.  Although their next favorites were the saber training and the surgeon’s tent, so perhaps we’re making some progress away from the traditional roles after all.

We arrived back at school in time for me to whisk Lauren off to collect Tabitha and then back home, where I focused on grading discussion posts for my online class until it was time to head to Home Campus for another evening of 4H Drama rehearsal.

It’s coming up soon, this production, and this was our first real run-through with all the tech that we were going to have.  The backdrops ascended into the flyspace.  The time machine rode around the stage and lit up like we wanted it (one of the kids asked us how the actor was supposed to move it and we responded, “She’ll have to Flintstone it,” and they had no idea what we were talking about.  We’re getting old).  And the lights rose, fell, and flickered just as planned.  Looks like we got us a hit, I think.  And the acting went well too.

There was even dinner for all of us, which was nice since we didn’t get out of there until about an hour after we had planned.

Today is something of a slow day, really, this Wednesday May 7.  I taught my class in the morning while wearing my favorite history shirt – the one with the picture of Karl Marx on it and the slogan, “Earn Big Money!  Become a Historian!”  Nothing like a little humor to keep things light after Monday’s class.  When the girls were little they used to ask me who that was on my shirt, and I’d say, “That’s Karl Marx.”  They’d say, “Who’s that?”  “He was one of the Marx Brothers,” I’d tell them.  “There was Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Karl.  Karl was the serious one.  He left before they got famous.”  They’re too old to fall for that routine anymore, alas.

The rest of the day will be errands, dinner, and further frantic work on lectures, since Friday’s class is not yet finished.  Then there will be two more to do.  I could also work on the public presentation I have for a week from today, but merciful heavens that’s just an eternity away, isn’t it?

On the schedule for the next three days:

Thursday will be more writing, and in the evening we have Lauren’s NBPE band concert followed immediately by Tabitha’s orchestra concert down at Home Campus, so get your running shoes on.

Friday is the Madrigal Supper down at Home Campus, with Kim being one of the performers – not on the singing side of thing, but more on the “cool science-oriented demonstrations that hopefully will not set anything on fire that wasn’t meant to be on fire” side of things.

And Saturday is the 4H Drama fest, which will take up most of the day no doubt.

No wonder I don’t post much this time of year.

Does anyone have free time anymore? 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Screaming Psychotic Nightmare Show From Hell

I worked on the SPNSFH during my year between undergraduate and graduate schools.

I had a lot of weird jobs that year.  I drove a van that picked up and dropped off students all over West Philadelphia – a job that more than anything else taught me that there were many Ivy League students who could give you an in-depth analysis of the German economy off the top of their head but couldn’t be trusted not to play in traffic.  I was a paralegal working on a mass-tort disaster litigation case that got settled on a Thursday, leaving me unemployed on Friday.  I got paid to be a calligrapher.  And I signed on with a touring theater company that was putting on several shows in Philadelphia that spring.

Eventually that company settled there, bought a building and became a local fixture.  They’re still around, though under a different name.  Over Christmas we went to see a play in Center City and I was surprised to see their old name painted on the wall as a former incarnation of the company that was there now.  They even proudly listed the SPNSFH as an accomplishment of their past.

If only they knew.

They had me working on two different shows that year, actually.  One went up somewhere on the campus of the University of the Arts, from which my uncle had graduated back when it was still the Philadelphia College of Art.  I don’t remember much of it except that I dropped a cast-iron weight on my foot at one point and got sent home for the day.  I was fine.   Sometimes I wonder if that was one of the reasons they sent me over to the SPNSFH.

The SPNSFH had a lot of weirdities, but there weren’t any cast iron weights that I noticed.

That show went up in the studios of the local public television station, which becomes important later on.  It was two loosely connected theatrical dance pieces dedicated to the desaparecidos of Argentina – the victims of the violent regime that ruled there in the 1980s – so it was a real toe-tapper of an evening once we got it up and running.  Perfect for a first date, really.  Nothing like leather-clad dancers twirling about while a strapping young man in a black mask sings in a minor key about sexually abusing prisoners to make your romantic evening complete, gentlemen!  Order your tickets now!

The problem with the SPNSFH wasn’t the subject matter, though, grim as that was.  Consider Les Miserables, after all.  You can cover pretty much anything if you do it well.  No, the reason the SPNSFH was the SPNSFH was the fact that the tech side was run by people who clearly were in over their heads.  I’d worked on student-run college productions that were better organized.  Hell, I’d worked on high school productions that were, too.

There are probably riots going on somewhere in the world right now that were planned better than this show was.

The problems started with the lighting.  Well, that’s not quite true.  The problems started with the lighting designer, who was an idiot.

For those of you who have never lit a show, here is some simple advice:  If you have two dance pieces that need to be lit, the proper way to do that is to come up with a single lighting design that incorporates a number of areas that can be used to cover most of both pieces, and then add a few specials for each individual piece to give it some specific flavor.  That way you get maximum flexibility with minimum equipment.

What you don’t do is create two entirely separate lighting plots and then hang them both simultaneously.

There were so many lighting instruments in use for that show that we probably browned out a significant percentage of the east coast.  Most of them were overhead, hung from a figure-8-shaped aluminum grid above the stage.  Remember when I said this went up in a television studio?  Theatrical lighting instruments are much, much heavier than television lights, and the grid was simply not designed to handle that weight.  Shortly before opening night we noticed that the grid had actually cracked.  I had ended up on the ground crew by then, moving set pieces during intermission, and the crew chief actually took all of us aside and told us to take a good look at the grid.  “Find out where the holes in the figure-8 are,” he told us.  “Make sure you know where on the stage those holes are above.  If you hear any unusual noises above you while you’re out there, dive for the holes.  Do not stop to look up.  Drop what you’re doing and dive immediately for the holes.”

Well, that was reassuring.

We also set up a steel pipe across the back of the house to hang more lighting instruments from.  It was a thee-inch-diameter pipe, about twenty feet long between the supports, and by the time we were done with it the thing bowed in the middle by about fifteen inches.  To this day I’m still not sure why it didn’t just snap.

The other problem with having two separate lighting plots was that the patch panel in the back only had room for one.  It was a big squarish thing, maybe three feet to a side and four feet high, and every one of those big, heavy, black cables had to be patched into the right circuit so the lighting instruments would be controlled by the correct dimmer.  When fully patched, it looked like a termite hill of black neoprene.  And since there were two separate plots and roughly seven million cables – half of them patched in and the other half on the floor, waiting – the entire thing had to be completely repatched during intermission.  There were three guys whose sole job was to unplug all of the cables from the first act and then get the second act cables plugged in (correctly, with any luck – not an easy feat in the semi-darkness backstage) so that the show could go on.

This was one reason why the intermission for that show was forty-five minutes long.  The other reason was the set.

There were two of those as well, one for each piece.  The second one was at least partially structural – one of the pieces had to be strong enough for someone to walk on – but the first one was completely backdrop.  It could have been made of Styrofoam for all the work it had to do. 

Why it was constructed to building code specifications, mainly out of 3/4” plywood and 1/2” Masonite, was therefore somewhat unclear.

There were six pieces to that first set, each of which was about eight feet wide and twelve feet tall.  Our job was to moose those things offstage, one at a time, and then get the second group of pieces – roughly the same in terms of size and number – into place and secured.

Each piece took six men and a dolly to move.

And we were not fresh or full of vim and vigor by that point either.  The powers that were for this production had decided about three or four weeks prior to opening night that they had too many people working on it, so they cut about half the staff.  Then they figured out that they had made a mistake but were too proud or stupid to care, and the end result was that the rest of us worked for twenty-some-odd straight days, 8am to midnight, to get this turkey flying.  Given that we were professionals making time-and-a-half for overtime, this cannot have saved them any money – I know I got paid roughly twice what my original contract had stipulated for the total when I signed on.  It was a nice little pile to have when I went off to graduate school that fall.

We were so exhausted by that schedule that at one point about a week before curtain the female dancers came out modeling their prospective costumes – the highlights of which were fishnet tops almost entirely constructed of empty space – and we were too tired even to gawk.  In a room full of single men in their 20s, most of whom were straight, that’s pretty much the definition of tired.

They ended up putting something underneath those for the actual performance, unfortunately.  Win some, lose some.

We did try to keep ourselves entertained in other ways.  At one point they asked us to make a crash box, which is a box full of junk that makes horrible clanging and banging noises when you shake it.  You keep it backstage, and when an actor comes barreling off into the wings you can make it sound like they just had a spectacular and possibly fatal accident just beyond the vision of the audience.  This was a particularly well-made crash box, in that it made all sorts of awful sounds at the slightest jarring.  It was painted black, to minimize the chance that the audience would see it, but shortly before we shipped it to the next venue for this production one of the crew members decided to paint “Warning: Spare Lamps and Roundels!  Fragile!  Handle With Care!” in big white letters across each side.  We had fun imagining that panic-stricken half-second some poor soul unloading the truck would have before it became obvious what it really was.  You take your entertainment where you can find it.

The night before the first public performance the Tech Director decided we all needed to celebrate the fact that this show might, conceivably, actually open.  He took us to a local bar and bought each of us four glasses of Jack Daniels.

Not shot glasses.  Water glasses.  Half full water glasses.  And after that production month, we drank them all and ordered more.

This was one of only two or three occasions in my life where I have been certifiably hammered, and I was in good company that way.  I am not entirely sure how most of us made it home that night, nor am I sure how we were able to get back to the theater the next day, but there you go.  Mostly I remember walking through Center City to the subway station with one of the other techs and having some homeless guy throw pebbles at us.  I’m sure he had a reason for doing so, if only in his own mind.

During the run it became apparent that the theater gods hated this show as much as we did. 

It was the second show I ever worked on where we actually had to stop the performance and ask if there was a doctor in the house, for example.  You didn’t think people actually did that, but I’m here to tell you that it happens.  Both times there was, indeed, a doctor.  The first time, on one of the college productions I worked on as an undergrad, the show went on – the person needing attention was a supervisor, not directly involved with the actual performance, and was fine in any event.  But this time was more serious.  The lead dancer dislocated her shoulder onstage about halfway through the first act, and we sent everyone home and gave them their money back.  It took a couple of days to get the understudy up to speed but eventually we finished out the run.

And then we shipped the whole mess off to Spoleto, where I have no idea how it did.  I do know that it made it to Broadway the following year and folded after maybe half a dozen performances.  This gave me some hope for the American people.

The fun part of theater is the deep well of stories you end up with.