Friday, June 27, 2014

A Man Named Don

We went up to northern Wisconsin this past weekend to go to a high school graduation party for the daughter of some friends of ours.  It’s a strange thing to realize that this is the stage of life we’re in these days.  We’ve been going to a lot of these events this month, though most of them are much closer to home.

It was a lovely little gathering – we got there late, but they held the baked potato bar open for us and we spent the evening hanging out and catching up.  Lauren got her hair highlighted in the kitchen.  Eventually the girls spent the night there while Kim and I retreated to our hotel.  We are long past the age of sleeping on air mattresses on the floor.

The next day we decided to cut our stay short and drive home in order to stop at a 25th Anniversary party for one of Kim’s colleagues that was on the way.  So the question became whether we could get our money back for the second night of our planned stay.

And therein hangs a tale.

The online service we used said they’d go for it as long as the hotel approved.  This required them to speak to the manager.  This, in turn, proved impossible.

The manager was nowhere to be found.  The clerk behind the counter said she had no idea when the manager was planning to be in, where he was, or how to contact him.  This raised all sorts of interesting red flags about this particular hotel, to be honest.

We checked out anyway.

After a couple of missed phone calls this week, I finally managed to track down the manager on Wednesday.

Let me tell you a story about a man named Don.

By the time I got hold of him (two phone calls in ten minutes, the first mysteriously cut off before he answered) it was clear that he knew all about my request.  And it was clear that he had no intention of granting it.

Now, as I see it, at this point Don had two options.

Option A was to be a grown-up professional about things and simply say, “I’m sorry, but our policy requires a 24-hour notice for cancellations,” and leave it at that.  While disappointing, this would have been a reasonable response and one that would have left us simply chalking the whole thing up to experience.

Option B was to launch into an immediate 30-minute tirade as soon as he answered the phone, without even giving me a chance to speak, about how this was a waste of his precious time – time that was far more valuable than mine, a point he made no less than four times and which, given the length of his tirade, I can only assume was evidence of either a highly developed sense of irony or a complete inability to understand his own words. 

This option also included things such as:

- talking over me while I tried to explain and being both smug and aggressive about his right not to hear me out.

- referring to anyone who used online booking services as both stupid and greedy

- telling long irrelevant stories meant to showcase his divine wisdom

- repeating himself verbatim in a louder voice when asked to clarify his position and then demanding to know why it wasn’t clearer this time

And on and on.  Option B certainly offered a wealth of opportunity for someone in the service sector to demonstrate why this would be a poor career choice for them.

Guess which option Don chose.

Given the cost of meals out that we saved by coming home a day early the whole thing was pretty much a wash, financially, so I’m not too worried about that.  But there will be no future stays at that inn for us, or indeed at that chain of inns ever again.

On the plus side, we did see a full-arc rainbow on the drive home on Sunday.  It lasted for nearly half an hour and gave the whole trip a nice little ending.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


All of the websites I visit are being redesigned to make them utterly useless.

Oh, that’s not what they tell you when you visit.  You go to the site, expecting to see the same comforting interface that was there as little as an hour earlier, but instead you are greeted with a welcome screen that blocks your way and promises new features, ease of access, eye-pleasing graphics, greater success with the gender of your choice, wealth beyond measure, calorie-free chocolate, and possibly dancing lessons.  When you finally manage to make that screen go away, nothing is where it used to be.

Hell, half of what you’re looking for isn’t there at all. 

What is there is a confusing mix of all of the features that you never wanted and didn’t ask for, plus a startling grab bag of new ways for the web site to invade your privacy unless you follow the link (carefully hidden) to the steps (multiple pages long) that will let you opt out until the next time you visit, at which point you will be automatically opted in unless you repeat the process.  Using the web site at any point without going through that process constitutes permanent and irrevocable acceptance of the site’s right to cash your paycheck, sleep on your bed, change your pets' food, rearrange your furniture, edit your movie collection, and monitor your every move whether on or off line and don’t even think about trying to hide because now they have drones and you just gave them the right not only to use them but also to arm them with water guns filled with cherry soda, the sickly sweet kind that sticks everywhere and is impossible to wash out.  They also have the right to watch you try to wash it out, so smile pretty for the cameras! 

The right to move or eliminate the opt-out link is implied simply by the fact that the web site exists at all.

When you add all this together, the technical term for it among computer types is “upgrade.” 

Sometimes I am willing to go along with all this.  I figure out how to undo as much of the privacy grab as I can and write off the rest.  I work out which features remain and how to access them.  And I get on with my original plan, which was to drop by the site for a few moments of reading before moving on with my day, such as it was.

But other times the whole thing strikes me as more trouble than it is worth and I delete the bookmark.  It’s been years since I’ve looked at some of the sites that upgraded beyond my tolerance.

I am not sure why there is this compulsive need to optimize things that already work perfectly well, but I have long since resigned myself to the insane whims of designers and engineers – there is no escape other than to throw up your hands and ignore whatever new iteration appears for as long as you can.

Eventually everything on the internet will be upgraded to the point of no return and I will have no choice but to go back to reality and stay there.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Things I Like About This Year's World Cup

1. No vuvuzelas.

2. I actually understand the game a lot better than I did in 2010.  I get the obvious stuff – possession, scoring, offsides, and so on – but now I have a much better feel for strategy and what ought to be happening rather than just what actually is happening.  Also, by the end of this tournament I may actually be able to figure out the difference between a non-call, a foul, and a yellow card, which would put me one up on some of the officials.

3. I know when the ref blows a call and I can grouse right along with the announcers, who are doing an admirable job of demonstrating the pointlessness of having objective announcers by clearly siding with their favorites.  I thought they were going to have a collective aneurism when the ref missed a clear yellow card by Uruguay on an England player.  It adds color to the event.

4. Did I mention no vuvuzelas?  That’s really nice.  Really, really nice.

5. The US team has actually managed to win a game they had no right to win.  This means that no matter what happens from this point on they will have exceeded everyone’s expectations, including their own coach’s.

6. It has become a family sort of thing.  Not only does Kim watch when she can, but also Tabitha and Lauren will often join me of their own free will in front of the games and contribute to the general fun of them.  Other than favoring the US and England (and Lauren’s strange antipathy to any Russian team in any sport, up to and including the Olympics) we really have no rooting interests, so we just pick teams as the games come on.  Often we end up on opposite sides.  This makes it even more fun, particularly when one of our random teams comes from behind to defeat the random team favored by someone else watching.  Go Belgium!

7. I actually have the time to watch a lot of the games.  I’m teaching online this summer, so I get to work from home.  Most of my other tasks also allow me to work from home, and sometimes not in front of my computer.  So GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAL!

8. Seriously, not a vuvuzela in sight.

9. Hockey is over, American football won’t start until the fall, and baseball won’t get interesting until 2016 at the earliest, depending on how long the rebuilding process lasts for the Phillies. 

10.  There is no chance of a repeat champion anymore.  Dynasties are boring.

11. It’s interesting to think that this is the most popular sporting event in the world, even if 90% of the people within 500 miles of me are completely unaware that it is happening at all.  The other day Lauren had a friend over and they sat with me for a bit of a game while Lauren chattered on about all sorts of World Cup stuff and her friend just looked confused.  It's a big old world out there.  It's nice to see things beyond the local.

12. Vuvuzelas?  Not a one.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Keyless World

You know what’s strange about the new minivan?  You don’t need a key to start it.

Seriously, you don’t.  They give you this little fob that you stick on your keychain, and as long as it’s anywhere in the vicinity of the car when you sit down all you have to do is push a button and there you go.

We had a car like that when I was a kid.  It was a 1964 Malibu, metallic turquoise and roughly the size of the apartment I lived in when I was in Pittsburgh.  It had been my grandfather’s, and when he bought a new one in 1971 he gave the Malibu to us.  All you had to do to start it was twist the flanges on the keyslot – no key required.

My mother never locked that car.  She always maintained that if someone was desperate enough to steal it they probably ought to have it.  Eventually we sold it to the neighbor for $50 and he ran it back and forth to the Jersey shore for years.  Last we heard, in the early 80s, he sold it to a college kid for $25.  It may yet be running.

On the one hand, the whole fob thing is convenient, I suppose.  You just keep it in your pocket and you’re always ready.  No more fumbling around with keys when you’re trying to carry things.  No contorting your body to find your keys in your pocket after you’ve already sat down and buckled in.  Plus, Kim discovered last night that our fobs are different and that the minivan can recognize that.  This means that we can set up our preferences separately and it will automatically adjust to whomever is in the car.

On the other hand, well.

How does it know who is driving and who just has their fob with them in the passenger seat?  Will there be duels?  Can it triangulate who is closest to the steering wheel or will it just choose randomly? 

And when did vehicles stop being machines and start being sentient?  When did cars develop preferences?  That’s kind of disturbing.  Someday I fully expect to try to start it up and hear “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that,” and then it will set things up the way it thinks they ought to be set up and I’ll end up trapped in some never-ending loop of air-conditioning and John Tesh, forever on the move and only rolling by the house at lunchtime so Kim can toss me a sandwich like I’m Charlie on the MTA.

Plus, I still find myself scrabbling around for the key every time I go to turn it off.  I sort of gently flail at where the key ought to be for a while before it occurs to me that I no longer need to do that. 

The other thing that is odd about the whole fob thing is that you can use it to unlock the car just by having it in your pocket and pulling gently on the door handle.  There will be a little beep, and then everything is unlocked.  Convenient!

Except that you can never be sure that you’ve actually locked the doors, because every time you go to test whether they’re locked or not there will be a little beep and everything is unlocked. 

So we’re still getting used to having the new minivan, is what I’m saying.

We have made progress on naming front, though.  Currently the leading candidate is “Carl,” which is a perfectly fine name though if it wins I can already see pressure to change the name of the other car to “Ellie.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Lower Merion, PA, 1984

Memory is what God gave us that we might have roses in December.  (James Barrie)

I remember almost nothing about my high school graduation ceremony.

On the one hand, this is unusual for me.  Even at that age I had a historian’s focus on memory and stories, and I find I can often recall more about that period of my life than I can about why I have gone to the grocery store today.  There I am, standing in the produce aisle wondering what I was supposed to get, and suddenly – BOOM! – all I can think of are the innumerable hangman games that got me through 10th grade (thanks, Carl!).  Such is the peril of filling up your brain at an early age, I suppose.

On the other hand, well, it was thirty years ago after all.  You can’t be expected to remember everything.  Not even historians can do that.

I remember some of the lead-in for the ceremony – the fussing around with the gown beforehand, and things like that.  And I remember what we did afterward.  The school district, knowing full well that most of us were eighteen and therefore legally allowed to do all kinds of catastrophically stupid things if we so chose, herded us directly from the ceremony onto buses and then locked us into a hotel complex for the night, where we were carefully monitored so as not to ascend up to the actual hotel rooms (vide supra, re: eighteen years old) and plied with food, non-alcoholic beverages, and enough entertainment to keep us busy until dawn, whereupon they herded us back onto the buses, returned us to the school cafeteria, and fed us breakfast.  They even held an enormous raffle, where almost everyone won something.

My prize was a vast bottle of cologne with the unlikely name of “Aqua di Selva,” which more or less translates as “Jungle Juice.”  What became of that is yet another of the things that has long escaped my memory, though my guess is that there might be records of it somewhere in the case files of the EPA.

Of the ceremony itself, I remember only three things.

One was the location.  My graduating class was somewhere just shy of 400 people, and there was no way we were all going to squeeze into the auditorium or even the gymnasium (though had it rained they would have tried).  We were instead arrayed in chairs set up on the infield of the track, and our families, friends, significant others, and assorted well-wishers were up in the bleachers.  It was quite a crowd.

Another was that they called our names individually to be recognized, a time-consuming exercise that I nevertheless appreciated.  We’d all worked hard to be there, and it’s nice to be recognized for that by name.  We were supposed to stand when our name was called, and most people dutifully did so.  Me?  When I heard my name I shot up like a rocket and in one fluid motion snatched off my cap and executed a flourishing bow that would have done credit to a vaudeville magician.  I got a nice round of applause for that.

The other thing I remember was this moment:

We had a few brief minutes between the end of the ceremony and the bus ride to the hotel and I took my opportunity to head into the bleachers.  My family was there, as was Jenny.  Jenny and I had been together for about six months at that point, and we were hopelessly in love in a way that somehow seems to come easier when you’re young.  You learn to protect your heart as you get older.

Although looking back on it, I knew I wanted to marry Kim after only a couple of months together, so perhaps that is a lesson I never really learned after all.  And good for me, I say.  I have never once regretted falling in love.

What I like most about this photograph is how happy we are in it.  I’m trying – and clearly failing – to put my cap on Jenny’s head, an exercise in joyous silliness.  It was a day of celebration and the world in all of its manifold blessings lay open before us.  You get so few moments of pure joy in this life, and for one to be caught on film like that is a rare thing indeed.

Moments are fleeting by their very nature, though.  Things change.  That's why we have memory.

I went away to college at the end of the summer – the first of three universities I would attend, each one further from home than the last.  Eventually I made a new home.  Jenny and I broke up about halfway through my freshman year, though after three decades and as many as fifteen time zones between us at one time or another, we remain close friends.  They tore down my old high school a few years back and built a snazzy new one in its place.  I’ve never gone back to see it.  Nobody I knew is there anymore.

I don’t mind not remembering most of the graduation itself.  Those ceremonies come and go, and they’re mostly alike anyway.

I remember this moment of happiness, though. 

I’m glad for that.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Story of a Monday, Part 3: Minivanity

You would think that with two graduations in one day there would be little else to achieve on a Monday, but then you’d be wrong.

When Tabitha was born we quickly discovered that there is a reason why parents do not own two-door cars in this day and age.  Oh, sure, back in the day you could just toss your kid through the window and into the back seat and let her roll around while you drove to the liquor store at highway speeds through neighborhood streets (extra points for cornering on two wheels!), but the only approved method of endangering your children in the US these days is with high powered firearms (‘MURCA!”) of which I own exactly zero and plan to keep it that way.  If you want to transport a small child by car in today’s world you need carseats rugged enough to protect overripe cantaloupes from oncoming trains, and if you think you can swing one of those into the back seat of a two-door car more than a handful of times without twisting your spine into a rotini noodle, well, think again.

So we traded in Kim’s little red sports car for a green Saturn wagon.

It was a great car.  Sturdy, reliable, and roomy enough to transport an entire soap show booth (including the 2x4s and the big patio umbrella we used instead of a tent), it had great acceleration and a radio that could pick up stations on other continents.  We took that thing all over the midwest, northeast, and upper south, and to every part of Wisconsin.  We even took it into Canada one year, shortly after all the paranoia about terrorists sneaking in from Ontario to spread poutine across our menus reached its peak.  The border guard took one look at our green station wagon filled with Disney movies, popcorn, beverages, crumbs, blankets, and toys, and just waved us through.

Clearly we were no threat to anyone but ourselves.

But the thing about children is that they grow.  Tabitha is now pretty much as tall as I am, and Lauren has officially surpassed both grandmothers.  It gets harder and harder to stuff them into the back seats on long trips, especially since I am the only person in this household who can leave home for more than six hours without bringing the entire contents of the house with me “in case we need it.”

Kim once attempted to bring 25 feet of garden hose with us on a cross-country camping trip, for example.  That’s a story for another time, though.

The other thing about children is that they acquire friends.  Friends that they insist on actually being able to go places with, often at the same time as the other child wants to go places with their friends.

This is how I ended up rattling around in the way back of the wagon on a trip home from Madison one night this spring.  That sort of thing was fun back in the 1970s (vide supra) but wears thin pretty quickly at my age.

Plus, the car was 14 years old, had 165,000 miles on it, had hit the “minor but costly repair every quarter” stage of its existence, and was made by a company that no longer existed, which called into question the continued availability of spare parts.  This was not a good set of circumstances, particularly when combined with the growing children issues raised above.

Clearly something needed to change.

Fortunately, I’ve never been all that worried about minivans.  They’re useful vehicles, and I was never cool even when I was young and cared.  So we spent much of the latter part of May looking into the purchase of one.

In practice, this meant Kim scouring the internet for reviews and specs.  She likes to go into things prepared, which is good since my automotive knowledge could be stuffed into a thimble with room left over for a Teabagger’s conscience and a donut.  Eventually we settled on two different minivans, and went out for test drives.

Both of them were fine vehicles, really.  They’ve vastly improved them from back in the 1980s, the last time I drove one regularly – Penn used to have a van service for picking up students stranded in West Philadelphia, and it used Ford Aerostars for the first couple of years when I was driving.  They were underpowered, oversized barges but they got the job done.

Now?  Stomp on the accelerator of either of those vans and they’ll pin you to the back of your seat.  They have safety features undreamed of back in the day, and room for an entire dinner party.  Plus dessert.  

So we settled on a Honda Odyssey and began the paperwork process, some of which has already been described in this space.  It took a fair amount of legwork, but eventually everything was set.  All we had to do was fill out the forms and hand over the check.

Lauren and I got back to the house on Monday and everyone just hung out for a bit, absorbing the events of the day, before we all headed over to the dealership. 

They were very nice there, and walked us through the process of trading a significant portion of our future income for a midnight blue minivan.  It has more features on it than I will ever figure out, including a radio that has to be programmed by engineers and multiple cameras designed to tell you what’s behind you or to the right.  Every time you start the van, though, a little screen comes up to let you know that you should pay attention to the road too and not trust the cameras to do that work for you.  That’s kind of reassuring, in a way.  It took the better part of three hours, but we drove it off the showroom floor.

We sold the wagon to a friend of ours, which was sad but had to be done.

So far the minivan has been a success, which is good because we're going to have this thing for the next decade and a half or so if past practice is any guide.  The only difficulty has been what to name it.  Lauren wants to call it Dory, because it is blue.  This makes more sense than her first suggestion, which was Frenchie for some reason.  I’m holding out for Homer, because I am a nerd that way.  We shall see.

It was quite a Monday, really.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Story of a Monday, Part 2: Farewell to NBPE

They don’t have graduation ceremonies for fifth graders here in Our Little Town.  Or promotion ceremonies, either.  You just go to school one morning as a fifth grader, walking into the same elementary school you’ve attended for years by that point, and you leave at the end of the day as a rising sixth grader, headed toward middle school, and that’s all there is to it.

It seems kind of anti-climactic, really.

Kim took Tabitha home after her promotion ceremony on Monday, while I headed over to Not Bad President Elementary to pick up Lauren from her last day of fifth grade.  I sat there in my car, in my usual spot, reading my book the way I always do.  It was a lovely day.  Eventually the bell rang and Lauren came out with her friends, walking up the street and talking as they have done most afternoons for years now.  She got into the car, and we drove off.

And thus, after two children and nine years, we left NBPE behind.

Our daughters weren’t even supposed to go to NBPE.  We live in what is called a “choice district,” almost exactly halfway between two other elementary schools, and we could have sent them to either of them.  Instead, one decision made years earlier sent them to NBPE.

We put Tabitha into daycare when she was a toddler so that I could have a couple of days a week to write up my dissertation.  It was a friendly place with a name something like “Creative Kids,” and she enjoyed going there.  Then they got bought out by evangelicals and the place became “Born Again Babies” or something equally ridiculous.  We had a long talk with the new owners on the subject of who was responsible for the spiritual well being of our child (i.e. not them) and what we expected of them when our daughter was in their care (i.e. to keep that first point uppermost in their minds at all times).  And for a while it seemed to work.

But at six months and one day after the new people took over every single one of the old staff left, and within a week Tabitha hated the place, so we left too.  We found a Montessori school right on the way to Home Campus, and Tabitha soon grew to love it there.  Lauren did as well, in her turn.

When it came time for elementary school, NBPE was right down the block.  The Montessori folks would walk them down and then pick them back up.  It was ideal.  So we transferred Tabitha – and eventually Lauren – over.  And, it turned out, we came to be very glad that it worked out that way.  NBPE is a great school, with wonderful teachers and a caring staff, and both of our children thrived there.

Lauren started there even before she was old enough for kindergarten.  They had a program called Early Childhood, which in the year she was there ended up being a class full of hearing-impaired girls and a couple of non-hearing-impaired girls who served as peer mentors.  Lauren loved the experience, and was always proud of her sign language skills.

Once, when we were at a restaurant and she noticed a family signing at each other, she rushed over to them and began madly signing away.  We have no idea what she said.  “Fish!  Bicycle!  My hovercraft is full of eels!”  Who knows?  But they were gracious about it, and she was so happy.

Through the years Lauren has wrung just about everything she could out of NBPE.  She has had speaking roles in multiple plays.  She has been a safety, served on the student council, played in the band, and stayed after school as an art helper.  She has learned a great deal from some very talented teachers, and has made some close friends.

And now it is her turn to move up to Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.

It’s a big step, but she’ll do just fine. 

It will be strange not to have to report to NBPE anymore.  We’ll miss the place.  But new things are on the horizon, and they will have their own charms.

Congratulations, Lauren!  I’m proud of you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Story of a Monday, Part 1: A Graduation at MCGMS

Time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening all at once.

By that standard there has been a breakdown in time recently, as pretty much everything has been happening all at the same time.  The theoretical physics folks need to know about this, because as space and time collapse toward singularity there will be ample opportunities to convert this into large grants for those who are on top of things.

A lot happened on Monday.  I thought about putting it all into one big post, but then that seemed kind of unfair to the various events and the people in them.  So I’m going to parse the three biggest events out into their own posts, because it’s my blog and I get to do that.


I’d never spent much time in the gym down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School before Monday. 

There are good reasons for this.  For one, there was never any real call for me to do so.  None of the events that I attended or volunteered to help at required me to be there, really, and for a middle-aged man to hang out at a middle school gym without being required by some outside force to do so is just way too creepy.  For another, well, imagine stuffing a finite space – even a large finite space – with dozens of unwashed 13-year-olds and telling them to run around for 47 minutes, eight times a day, 36 weeks a year and see how much the thought of wandering in there appeals to you on the last day of school.

But when the event is important enough, you go. 

It was a lovely day – a bit on the warm side, but with a nice breeze that was amplified by several large ventilation fans the size of draft horses.  The bleachers were rolled out, most of the basketball hoops were pulled back toward the ceiling, and the floor was covered with plastic deck chairs, for today was the Promotion Ceremony for the 8th-graders.

They don’t call it a graduation ceremony anymore.  I guess that’s reserved for high school and college these days, on the theory that it implies that you’re headed outward, toward new institutions and systems, whereas a promotion ceremony is more for moving up within the same system.  I suppose it makes sense.  So do we call them “promoteds” now instead of “graduates”?  Nobody ever thinks about things like that when they make those changes, so now it’s my job.  You’re welcome.  I’ll get back to you with a decision eventually.  In the meantime, enjoy the ceremony.

The ceremony began at 1pm and parents began filtering into the bleachers sometime around noon, I think.  At any rate, I got there about 12:30 and the place was already about half full.  I found myself a spot in the bleachers, and Kim joined me not too long afterward.

The 8th-grade band serenaded us while we waited.  They were pretty good, actually.

Then the graduates marched in and took their seats.

Tabitha said they only practiced this troop movement once, and given that I have to say they did a nice job of it.  It’s hard to move that many people into rows of deck chairs with any kind of grace, and they managed it well.  Nobody fell over, at any rate, and that’s always the hallmark of a successful procession as far as I am concerned.

Next there were a couple of speeches.  The principal gave a very nice – and refreshingly succinct – welcome.  Two students talked a bit about their experiences and some of the teachers.  The academic and athletic award winners stood up and were recognized.  The whole thing moved along nicely.

Then came the moment we were all waiting for – the awarding of what was, in accordance with the whole “Promotion Ceremony” aspect, being called a “promotion certificate” rather than a diploma.  They called each kid’s name individually and let them walk across the front of the room to shake hands with the two student speakers and the principal and pick up their certificate, which was a nice touch.  So many times in your life you get lumped together with everyone else that it is nice to have one thing where they actually call your name for everyone to hear.

The students walked across.  They bopped and jived.  Some of them practically danced.  Others hurried along as if anxious to get back into the safety of the crowd.  They all got applauded.  Some were wildly cheered, none more so than the one learning disabled girl who seemed so overwhelmed by it all.  It was a lovely sort of ceremony, really.

Eventually it was Tabitha’s turn.

They’re a lot more casual about these things than they used to be, really.  Back in the Paleolithic, when I was graduating from 8th grade, we had to dress up – jackets and ties for the boys, dresses for the girls.  Since I had exactly one suit, bought for the spate of bar mitzvahs that I attended in 7th grade, and since the gap between 7th and 8th grade is fairly significant for boys, clothing-size-wise, I looked like your basic scarecrow.  It’s much more comfortable now.  Some of the kids were dressed up, but most were wearing nicer versions of what they always wear.

Tabitha chose to wear her Mondrian/Doctor Who shirt, which I felt was an excellent choice for an event that rewards learning.

I don’t really have any photos of her accepting her certificate from the principal, since she was a long way across the room and the shutterspeed was simply too slow to catch anything in focus, but trust me it happened.  You can see the basic set up here, a few moments later.

And then it was over, as quickly as it began.

If that isn’t a summary of Tabitha’s whole time down at MCGMS, I don’t know what is.  It’s the essence of parenthood.  The story of life.  Pay attention, folks – don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

Next year she will attend Local Businessman High School.  Having climbed to the top of one ladder, she will find herself at the bottom of the next one.  There will be challenges, of course, and new people to meet.

She will do just fine.

It took a lot of hard work to get to that ceremony, and I’m glad that they called her name.  I’m proud of you, Tabitha.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Wolf et al v. Walker et al

So, apparently the Constitution applies to the State of Wisconsin too.  Who knew?

Has anyone alerted Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) about this?  It’s probably something he’d want to know.  That knowledge might even inspire him to change a few of his practices and policies, though my guess is that he is so far gone in ideological fantasy that this revelation will make little difference to him.  It will certainly make no difference to his cronies, minions, and lackeys in the legislature, political termites burrowing into the joists of the American republic who have made their contempt for Constitutional restrictions and the rule of law in general vividly plain over the last four years.

It’s been interesting, having a ring-side seat at the subversion of an entire American state from within, in the liberal arts sense of the word, the way three-headed frogs are “interesting.”

For those of you who missed the news out of Baja Canada yesterday, a federal judge has ruled that Wisconsin’s laws and constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage are in direct conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which requires both due process and equal protection under the law for all American citizens.

The State of Wisconsin has reacted the way you’d think a one-party dictatorship unused to challenges to its prerogatives would act when suddenly faced with opposition.  In comments worthy of disdain from toddlers, our attorney general – a man so nakedly partisan it’s almost refreshing in its lack of pretense – has simply decided to ignore the court decision and declare that “current law remains in force.”  While this is of a piece with the past actions of Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and the rogue regime he commands, all of which have been predicated on the Teabagger legal principle that “rules are meant for other people, not people like us,” it is nevertheless not a viable legal strategy in a republic based on the separation of powers and the rule of law.

Part of me hopes that they will continue to deny their responsibility to obey the law and get themselves jailed, except that they control all three branches of the Wisconsin government and such consequences will never happen (vide supra: legal principle, Teabagger). 

I said most of what I wanted to say on this issue five years ago.  Nothing has changed except that the rest of the country seems to be catching on to the idea that human rights apply to all humans, regardless of appearance, orientation, or other supposedly important qualifier.

It’s nice to be ahead of the curve sometimes.

In case you’re wondering, I have actually read the decision.  It’s 88 pages long and freely available online from any number of places.  If you’re thinking about complaining about it, my advice is to read it first.  Otherwise, you know, people may think you’re a bit of an ass for complaining about something you know nothing about.  Just saying.

It’s a fairly cautious decision, really, one that grounds itself most in the simple principle of equal protection under the laws.

Or, as Judge Barbara Crabb put it, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) and his regime “are making the same mistake as the [US Supreme] Court in Bowers when they frame the question in this case as whether there is a “right to same-sex marriage” instead of whether there is a right to marriage from which same-sex couples can be excluded.  … The question is whether the scope of that right may be restricted depending on who is exercising the right.”  (pp.32-33)  A right given to some citizens may not be withheld from other citizens without a compelling state interest in doing so, and no such interest has been demonstrated.

The fact that laws have been put into place to deny the rights of American citizens is irrelevant.  Nor is it relevant that the good citizens of the State of Wisconsin approved an amendment to their constitution enshrining such denial into that constitution.

The thing about rights is that they are not subject to such actions.

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One’s rights to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”   (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 US 624 (1943), cited in Judge Crabb’s decision on p.19).

Or, as a friend of mine once said, “If they can vote to take it away from you, then it isn’t a right.”

So for the first time in years, there is good political news coming out of Wisconsin.  The government of this state is being forced to acknowledge that they are not the only power in existence, that there are greater and more powerful forces at work than their mere ideological whims. 

And more importantly, thousands of Wisconsin citizens can now marry those they love.

That, most of all, is what matters.  I have been married for 18 years now.  I cannot imagine how impoverished my life would be if that had been denied by the small-minded bigotry of others.

I am glad that marriage in Wisconsin has now been strengthened through the inclusion of those previously shut out.

It’s a good day in the Dairy State.  A good day indeed.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: South Philadelphia, 1995

It’s been so long since I’ve seen a Major League Baseball game in person that that last three stadiums I paid to get into are no longer there.  I don’t miss those stadiums, really.  They were dumps, especially Veterans Stadium – a concrete bowl in the middle of South Philadelphia that had about as much charm as you’d think it would, as well as its own fully functional criminal court.  They’ve all been replaced with much nicer stadiums, from what I hear, even in Philadelphia, and perhaps someday I’ll see a game inside one of them.

You have to see baseball games in person.  It’s not really a sport designed for television.

I’m not the baseball fan I used to be, growing up.  I lost interest after the strike in the early 90s, and while I’ve slowly gotten back into it bit by bit – the Phillies’ World Series victory in 2008 being pivotal in that regard – it’s still fairly low down on my list of sports these days.

The fun part of baseball games, though, is that you can bring a lot of people to them and hang out together.  They’re not like football games, where you only get eight of them in your own stadium and thus it costs roughly the equivalent of the GNP of a small third world nation to go to a game (not including parking).  No, you get to choose from more than eighty home games per season, many of which are on Tuesday nights where nobody really wants to be out anyway.

Seating is not limited, in other words.

This photo is from 1995.  Someone in the seats in front of us volunteered to take it, so we’re all in it together.  We’re somewhere in the middle seats of the stadium – not down by the field, not up in the upper deck – and on the third base line, if I recall correctly.  The Phillies are playing the Astros, and if my note on the back of the photo is correct they will lose, 6-5.  We’re used to that, being Phillies fans.  Kim and I are about five months from being married – she’s been out to see my extended family twice before this trip, so she knows full well what she’s getting into.  My dad’s on the left, with my brother next to him.  And there’s my grandfather in the middle.

My grandfather was the real baseball fan in the family.  We enjoyed the games, but they were his passion as far as sports went.  If a game was being broadcast, he had it on.  He even played the game himself, way back in the early part of the last century - usually somewhere in the infield, on neighborhood teams with names like Mayo A.C., Kimball A.C., Penrose, Passyunk Square, or Cresmour.  We have a scrapbook of some of the highlights of his career.  The newspapers used to report that sort of thing.

He’s in his early 80s here in this picture.  I’m guessing this is the last Phillies game he ever went to, since his health began to fail not long after this was taken.

That’s the thing about photographs – they freeze one moment in time, and you can look at the people in them and see that they don’t know what’s coming next, but you do.  The game hasn’t been lost yet.  We’re all happy and healthy, enjoying each other’s company on a nice summer evening in South Philadelphia.  It’s a moment to remember.

The guy in the sunglasses waving at the camera, though – who’s he?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

If My Call Were Important To You, You'd Have Answered It By Now

There are moments in your life when you truly understand the Luddite desire to raze modern civilization to the sub-basement level, set it on fire, and then urinate on the ashes.  It is amazing how many of these moments follow hard on the heels of attempting to contact a major corporation and getting lost in its voicemail system.

We are attempting to make a Major Purchase these days, one that will involve a certain amount of financing.  Ordinarily, this would not be much of a problem.  Our credit scores are solid.  The financing plan is in place and simply awaits our signatures.  We have the down payment money in hand.

Except a few years ago we got a call from one of the telecom giants out there demanding to know why we hadn’t paid a rather substantial cell phone bill.

Now, we had had a contract with this company for all of three weeks, some years before receiving this call.  Their service stinks.  So we canceled it and forgot about it.  But in this data-driven world that we live in, nothing is ever forgotten and as we later discovered nothing is ever really secured.  So one of this company’s employees decided to farm out our information to his buddies, who apparently did nothing but talk on their cell phones 24/7 for several months – we got copies of the bills (which had originally been mailed to a vacant lot in Milwaukee) and were utterly astounded at how little time these folks had to do anything other than talk on the phone.  Since this was the only breach on our credit we figured this was the telecom’s own fault and they could damn well pay for it.

It took several months, two police reports, and an incredible amount of loss of goodwill, but eventually the telecom giant just dropped the whole thing and we never did pay them a dime.

The net result of this was that in order to avoid this happening again we now have a credit freeze on our accounts.  Any time we want a new form of credit, such as when we refinanced the house last year, it requires blood sacrifices to the gods of bureaucracy to get it temporarily lifted so the creditor can get our information and give us the financing we need.

Which brings me up to today.

Apparently you have to contact all three of the credit reporting agencies when you seek a temporary thaw in your credit reports, not just one.  Why this is so is an interesting question, since they collect all of this information about me without my permission from all over my life and you’d think a bit of coordination with their peers wouldn’t be beyond their capabilities.  You'd be wrong about that, of course, but there you go.  Two of the agencies were reasonably accommodating.  They had systems in place for you to make the necessary arrangements, fill out the proper information and secret code numbers, answer quiz questions to make sure you are who you are, and so on.  It was tedious and annoying, but no more so than one would expect and generally not all that hard.  One company was actually pretty hospitable about it, all things considered.

Then I got to the third one.

There is no way to contact this company.  They have a website and a phone number, but neither of them will work unless you have a magic code number, and there is no way to get a magic code number unless you have gotten their website or phone number to work.  They have no way to speak to a live human to straighten anything out. 

For all I know they are a pyramid scheme, a shell company, or simply a work of performance art masquerading as a financial services corporation, which frankly describes a lot of such companies these days.  All I know is that they have our information, they have taken steps to make our lives difficult, and there is no way for us to change this.  After going around and around with this outfit for the better part of an hour, I finally gave up. 

I’m not sure how we will work around them when it comes to our current Major Purchase situation, but we’ll figure it out by and by.

And when this company does get razed to its sub-basement, well, that will be a good day.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Chicken Wrangling

Sometimes the chickens win.

This is a powerful lesson, really.  There you are, with your opposable thumbs and your technology and your vastly superior intellect, assured of eventual triumph in the eternal struggle between poultry and primate.  You’re feeling pretty good about your odds.  But that’s the thing about statistics – they’re really good at telling you what is going to happen over the long haul, but individual encounters are much more chancy.

And the fact remains that those birds are pointy.

I spent this morning over at our friend’s farm, hauling chickens from one side of the coop to the other as a sort of one-man bucket brigade of poultry.  There are a lot of things I never thought I would say in my life, and I have found that Lauren’s poultry project is a continual source of new ones.  But if you want to show chickens at the 4H fair, you have to have them tested.

Tested for what, I’m not really sure.  Mathematical aptitude, for all I know.  The bottom line is that they had to be tested, so tested they were.

Fortunately, the guy who actually did the testing knew what he was looking for.

It was a grey and rainy morning here in Baja Canada when we all gathered at the farm.  There was an air of anticipation, or was that just the general funk of the chickens?  Who knows.  There should have been a tumbleweed drifting by, but no such luck, dramatically speaking.  We gathered up our equipment and set to work anyway.

Lois was in charge of gathering chickens.  They were her birds, after all.  Lauren’s are too young to need testing, it turns out, but Lois’ birds were old enough and the testing requirement applies to all birds on the property, not just 4H fair birds, so we were not excused.  She shooed them from the coop into the enclosed area on the south side, shut the little door between the two, and then corralled the birds with a handy fishing net, one at a time.

They don’t like to get caught, those birds.  Sometimes they’d escape.  Fortunately only one made a break for the outside, where a lifetime of playing defense on team sports served me well enough to nip that little plan in the bud.  That’s the joy of playing defense – I don’t actually have to do anything in particular.  I just have to stop the other guy from doing something in particular.

Score one for high school gym.  Mr. Kratzer, wherever you are, thanks.

I was on the outside of the enclosure.  When Lois would catch one of the chickens I’d open the big door and take it from her.  Chickens, it turns out, are mostly docile when you do this – they just sit there in your hands, clucking enquiringly, their little hearts beating staccato rhythms against your palms.  Most of the time.  Some of them were determined to go down fighting, or at least trying to escape.  They make quite the kerfluffle when they go down that path.

The slow, soft rain only added to the atmosphere.

Bird secured, I’d walk it over and hand it to Dale, who sat in the main entryway of the coop.  He’d pluck off a couple of feathers, take a blood sample and mix it with a reagent, which would turn from blue to purple.  This was a good thing, apparently.  Then he’d set the bird loose.

We went through 67 birds in about an hour.  They all seemed healthy.  So the farm is clear for a year, and then we get to do this again next summer if Lauren is still in the 4H Poultry Project.

Of all the things I thought I’d be when I grew up, “chicken wrangler” wasn’t one of them.  And yet, here we are.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sports News

So apparently I get to keep watching hockey for a little longer.

I like hockey.  It’s my favorite of the four major sports in the US, which only goes to show you just how far out of touch I am with my own culture since most Americans wouldn’t think to list it as a sport until well after competitive eating or people driving around in circles at high speeds.

Don’t even get me started on what my newfound appreciation for soccer means.  Most Americans don’t even know soccer exists, which is why the fact that there is indeed a professional soccer league in the US – two, in fact, one for each gender – is frankly odd.  But the rest of the world enjoys it immensely, and I have begun to understand why.  World Cup in two weeks!

The nice part about watching soccer is that unless I’m watching international play where I know the countries involved I really don’t have any idea who to cheer for.  They broadcast the entire English Premier League season here last year and while I watched quite a few of the games (excuse me – matches), I never did develop a particular fondness for any individual team.  Lauren liked Chelsea because their uniforms were blue and they seemed to win a lot, but I tend to have a hard time cheering for Goliath.  I have no favorites, not yet, so I can just relax and enjoy the game. 

In hockey, I have favorites.

First on the list, of course, are the Flyers, my home team.  They are the coolest team in American professional sports, and it is just my bad fortune to be cheering for a team that hasn’t won a championship since Nixon was still in office. 

There are a number of other teams that I like and cheer for.  The Pittsburgh Penguins, from when I lived there and used to watch Mario Lemieux do things that even now I would swear are physically impossible.  The New Jersey Devils, because I like their name and logo – anything that ticks off the Religious Right is fine by me, and really how can you not like a successful team from New Jersey that actually advertises that it is from New Jersey?  Take that, “New York” Giants, and stick it in your Meadowlands.  I’ve long had a soft spot for the Carolina Hurricanes, mostly because I went to a game where they played the Flyers and their goalie just seemed like a decent guy.  I also like the Minnesota Wild, for no particular reason that I can discern.

Then there are teams I don’t like.  

Most of those teams are on that list because of things they’ve done to the teams I like, though the Boston Bruins are there just on principle.  I’ve never liked the Rangers, for example, and I still haven’t forgiven the Detroit Red Wings for their ruthless destruction of the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals a few years back.  Neither have I forgiven the Chicago Blackhawks, for much the same reason.

Which brings me to this year.

The Rangers – who eliminated the Flyers in the first round, only adding to their nefarious nature as far as I am concerned – are in the Finals.

The Blackhawks had fought their way back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Final to tie up the series at 3, heading home for Game 7.

My continued interest in hockey this season rested on the Los Angeles Kings.

Now, the Kings are another team that I like.  It has always struck me as faintly ridiculous that there should be a professional ice hockey team in Los Angeles, for one thing, and ridiculous things appeal to me just for their sheer absurdity.  Further, given the player moves of the past few years, they are essentially the Flyers West and it feels like cheering for my own team sometimes.

They had to win.  A Blackhawks-Rangers Final would just be a dismal end to a great season.

And so they did.  In overtime.  After clawing back from behind three separate times.  It was an exciting game to watch, for the four or five dozen of us tuned in.

Meanwhile, vastly elongated men were tossing a large orange ball into a bucket half a mile in the air in front of large television audiences.  This is why the nation is in decline, I’m sure of it.  Any sport where good defense consists of limiting your opponent to double-digit point totals is clearly a travesty, and the fact that it is inexplicably popular just confirms the imminent fall of the republic as far as I am concerned.

So I’ve got at least four more hockey games to watch – possibly as many as seven – which should tide me over to the World Cup quite nicely.

Life is good, sporting-wise.