Friday, October 31, 2014


And so we reach an even dozen.

Lauren loves her birthday.  Loves it with the heat of a thousand suns.  She looks forward to it all year, and as soon as it is over she starts looking forward to the next one.

This is a difficult thing in a family that by and large tends to glide right by birthdays without noticing too much.  I’ve forgotten my own birthday more often than not over the last couple of decades.

This year she has reached the point in her life where friends and events are beginning to take over, and she asked us to celebrate it next weekend when she had more time.  So there will be a party then, with the usual sorts of things, and we will have a good time.  Tonight however there will be costumes and friends and trick-or-treating, and there is only so much you can do at once really.

But it is her birthday today, our Halloween girl.  And she is right – it should be celebrated.

Happy birthday, Lauren.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Look at All Those Zeros

My car hit 100,000 miles last night.

It had been approaching this milestone for a while now, as I drove back and forth to Mid-Range Campus, and even just the usual day in and day out running around that one does added far more miles than I would have ever thought possible if I weren’t already used to it.  I am consistently amazed at how much I drive just to run errands around town.  Sometimes I think that all I really need out of life is a comfortable mattress and a decent car, as I spend about half my time in one or the other of those places.

Last night was another one of those Performing Arts things that I supervise – a talk given by one of the Home Campus faculty members on the subject of Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies I have mostly never seen.  The only Hitchcock movie I’ve ever watched all the way through was The Birds, which I saw when I was about 8 over at my friend Nick’s house one Saturday afternoon.  It made an impression, let me tell you.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of Psycho, and I inherited from my grandmother a book of creepy short stories that was put out in the late 1960s under Hitchcock’s label (“The kind of rock Alfie digs always has a death date on it!”).  He wrote an introduction to it, and his picture is painted on the cover.  He’s riding a motorcycle with a gravestone in the sidecar, in case you didn’t catch the tagline the first time. 

The Sixties: you had to be there.

But as far as the movies go there is a reason why I was once described as “cinematically illiterate” and that reason is still valid.

I don’t have to do a whole lot for these talks – I show up early, straighten out the room, get the signs up so people know where to go, and then greet people when they come.  I also give a half-minute introduction letting people know what other things we’re doing, and then I sit back and enjoy.  Then I lock up when it’s over.  It was a nice talk, and I learned a few things.  So it was an evening well spent that way.

The odometer turned over just as I hit the driveway to Home Campus on the way in.  I got to watch it flip over, although that was kind of anticlimactic.  So many things are these days.  The digital odometers in the new cars change instantly rather than slowly rolling over the way the old analogue ones used to do – “Look, kids!  There go the 9s and here come the 0s!” – and they have a slot there for the 1 so it ends up saying “100,000” rather than “00000” like the old ones.  It’s not the fresh start that it once was.  Still, there you go.  Kind of cool anyway.

I don’t remember what we did when the station wagon hit that milestone a few years back.  I’m sure we did something, if nothing more than just saying, “Huh, there it goes.”  You can’t let that sort of thing pass completely unnoticed, after all.

The only one of these rollovers I recall clearly was the one in the 1964 Chevy that we got from my grandparents when I was a kid.  That was an ocean liner of a vehicle, with bench seats that could hold an entire baseball team and room for several concession stands in the trunk.  It was metallic turquoise and did not need a key to start – you just twisted the flanges surrounding the keyhole and it fired right up.  It was a great car for a family.

When it got right up on 100,000 miles we all piled into it and drove around until the 9s disappeared and the 0s took their place.

Things felt different somehow, after that.

I’m not really sure what’s going to happen now with my car.  New cars are much better engineered than they used to be so hitting this milestone is expected rather than surprising now.  And it should last about that long again, if all goes well.  So for all the 0s and talk of milestones, it’s pretty much just another day.

But with more zeros.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


We’re getting closer to Halloween, which means that Lauren is slowly reaching a boiling point.

It’s her birthday, after all, and Lauren takes her birthday very seriously.  “We should think of something special to do!” she’s been saying for weeks now.  “I will only turn twelve once in my lifetime!”  Which is true, as far as it goes, although the same could be said for any particular day.  She does not really appreciate me pointing this out, but that is what parents are for – to prepare children for the world.

Fortunately, she has decided that she would like to have her birthday a week after her actual birthday, as it gives her time to get all the planning done.  We’re good with that.

Now we can focus on Halloween.

And one of the traditions which the girls have happily taken over from us entirely these days is the carving of the pumpkin.  Or, pumpkins, as there are multiple girls and therefore there must be multiple pumpkins.

We were driving home from a family event yesterday when we passed one of those roadside pumpkin stands that one sees in rural areas – sixty or seventy thousand pumpkins (by my rough estimate) surrounding an honor box where you can deposit money when you’ve made your selections.  They chose a couple of likely looking pumpkins, we deposited the correct change, and away we went.

Today was carving day.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

They took their pumpkins out to the back and set about slicing, dicing, and conducting unauthorized medical experiments, most of which seemed to involve some kind of brain surgery.

Eventually designs emerged, and now the finished pumpkins are guarding our house – keeping away the evil spirits which lurk in our neighborhood trying to convince us to vote for various candidates.  Whose bright idea was it to put election day so close to Halloween anyway?

These are Tabitha’s.

And this one is Lauren’s.

I figure we’re safe now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Get in the Flivver and Head Into Town

So this past weekend I was a gangster.

Not a “gangsta.”  Gangstas are hip young men with too many gold chains and not enough taste in popular music, and they make me feel even older than I am.  Get off my lawn, you kids!  No, not those people.  Gangsters were serious men in serious suits with serious hats, men who may or may not know anything about popular music but who were very good at bootleg liquor. 

I had to impersonate one of these down at the local library.

I’m not entirely sure whether my hat was serious or not and I am confident that my suit was nowhere near up to that level of sobriety, but I did my best.  I had spats!  And a cigar that I bought specifically for the occasion and used as a pointer during conversations.  That has to count for something.

I’m not entirely sure how I ended up doing this.  I do not have time for such things, especially not this semester when I am teaching more than full time for three (or four, depending on how you count) campuses in two university systems as well as all the rest of the things I usually do.  Plus, in my three-plus decades in theater I have generally stuck to backstage roles – lighting, mostly, though I served my time in set construction and for one memorable show I ended up in charge of publicity, which meant designing the program.  There’s a reason I was never asked to do that again, and that reason is that other people do not have a sense of humor.  But here I was, front of house, because they asked nicely and it seemed like a good thing to do.

That’s how theater works, really.  Nobody ever really has time for it.  You just do it.

My role was to play Lucky Coleman, speakeasy owner, dashing man about town, and doomed head of the local mob – a bootleg king about to be dethroned by the new gang in town.  This meant that I spent the entire evening in character, speaking as I imagined a 1920s-era gangster would speak.  This, it turns out, is more or less a vaguely Yiddish-inflected version of my Great Aunt Josephine.  I am not sure she would have approved of that.  I am even less sure that anyone named “Coleman” would speak in that particular cadence.  But there it is.  Such is my muse.  Such is my art.

Kim was my moll.  We got to have a serious row, which is not something we have much practice in doing.  The hardest part was keeping a straight face, since – among other things – I have never been able to memorize anything very well so it was all I could do to keep to the gist of my lines and this meant a certain amount of ad-libbing, which in turn meant a certain amount of sarcasm.  Sarcasm is just one of the many services I offer.

The unfortunate deceased was one of Lucky’s employees, with whom Lucky may or may not have been carrying on.  Thus the row with Kim.  I imagine, given the general gist of the plot, that had there been a sequel it would have been Lucky’s turn to be the next victim and for this reason I am glad that we only ran one night.

It was a fundraiser, one of those Murder Mystery Parties that people do these days.  You set things up, mingle a bit in character, have a few expository scenes to get some information across to the guests – I was in two of the three, actually, including the row, which is one of those words that cannot be repeated often enough, apparently – and eventually the “crime” gets committed and then the audience has to figure out whodunit by questioning you.

I must have done a good job of deflecting interest and casting guilt onto others, as only two people decided that I was the murderer.  Of course, some of that might also have been due to the fact that I was never out of sight the entire evening, but as I explained to those who asked, “I got people for that sort of thing now,” so it might still have been me.

Well, it could have.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Modest Proposal

You learn a lot when you grade exams.  Mostly you learn how much of what you say doesn’t really translate into what your students hear, which can be a humbling experience.  But a stack of exams can also provide inspiration for the astute educator – a catastrophe is just an opportunity viewed from a different angle, after all.  So with that in mind, I have a proposition for the world.

I think there needs to be a course entitled “How To Be A Student.”  It should be offered at every university in the world, and if you can’t pass the class you won’t be allowed to proceed to a degree.

It will have units such as:

How to Take a Test.

This unit will cover such things as putting your name on the front page, remembering to answer all of the questions (even the ones on the back page), and answering the easy stuff first so you don’t run out of time and lose points for no reason.  There will also be an entire week devoted to reading directions, with prizes for students who can successfully explain that yes the professor is actually serious about that and will in fact take off points for not following those directions, just as said professor promised to do beforehand, and no, you should not expect to bargain those points back onto your score afterward no matter how sorrowful you strive to appear.

How to Read a Question.

This is related to the first unit, but will focus on specific examples, including such things as “How not to say that the Spanish-American War was a war fought between the US and any country other than Spain,” “How to correctly identify the starting date of the War of 1812,” and “Why World War II cannot possibly have been the first one.”

Studying: What’s In It For You?

A fair amount, it turns out, as this unit will cover.  For as much as your professors enjoy those plaintive little notes halfway through the exam essay questions confessing your sins and saying you’ll study harder next time (honest!), we’d enjoy coherent answers even more.  And so will you, come grade time.

You’re Not A Physician, So Write Legibly

Doctors can get away with scrawled notes that look like the last staggering efforts of a swarm of drunken spiders on their way to Teetotal Bible Camp after one final bender, and when you have your MD and can blame pharmacists and nurses for misreading your instructions then you can get away with that too.  In the meantime, remember that anything the professor can’t read on your exams or homework is by definition wrong.  If you were right, you’d have made it legible enough to get credit.

How to Read a Clock

This is for advanced students, those who have somehow managed to enroll themselves in other classes.  This unit will cover such topics as “Class Start Time: Suggestion or Damned Good Idea?”, “Class End Time: Why It Does Not Start Earlier Than It Does,” and “You Are Not Powerful Enough or French Enough to Stroll In 15 Minutes Late to Anything.”


Why Cheating Is More Work Than It Is Worth

The subtitle for this unit is, “Your Professors Know How Google Works, Too.”  We can check up on things.  We know the “corrupted file” trick.  We can tell when your writing suddenly switches voice, cadence, vocabulary level, and grammatical expertise.  If you really want to get away with cheating you are going to have to do a considerable amount of legwork, and if you’re going to put in that much work you might as well do the original assignment.

This class will be offered every semester, including summer sessions.  It will be offered at night for students who work during the day, and during the day for students who work at night.  It will be offered online, face-to-face, by mail, and by semaphore for all the ships at sea.

And universities across the world will function more smoothly for it.

No need to thank me, citizen.  It is merely a service I offer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

News and Updates

1. I am deeply annoyed at the world right now because – for reasons I am not about to get into in this forum – it has decided to be exceedingly unkind to a number of people I know and love.  It would be nice if we could rewind things back a bit and get a do-over, but the world does not work that way and so I am left to be annoyed at it.  Deeply, deeply annoyed.

2. It is a strange feeling when a reporter from another city calls you out of the blue to ask you questions about a political matter.  But there it is, published and out in the world.  I’m nearly famous.

3. I may have made a tactical error in having all of my classes take exams last week.  The stack of ungraded exams has haunted me ever since, and eventually I will either finish them off of they will do the same to me.  In either case, I am hoping that there will be refreshments.

4. The weather is now consistently cool enough for me to enjoy my tea without feeling uncomfortably warm.  The fall is the best season of the year.

5. Apparently it is coming on time for me to renew my driver’s license, and if I wish to provide a small stack of supporting documentation – one that appears to be only a quarter the size of my ungraded exam stack, or thereabouts – I can get something called a REAL ID instead.  I am not sure what this says about my other options, as I am far too old to need a fake ID to get into bars. 

6. We’re coming up on the election here in Baja Canada, and it seems to me that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) is feeling a wee bit defensive, if the sheer volume of his signs is any indication.  On my commute to Mid-Range Campus I am finding it harder and harder to see any of the rolling countryside of Wisconsin, hidden as it is behind signs lying to me about how wonderful a leader Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) has been and will be in the future.  I find this hopeful, actually, as I had not seriously considered the possibility that he might be defeated. 

7. My students ask lots of questions.  I like it when they ask lots of questions, because it means they are listening and want to learn about things that interest them.  But it does make it hard to get through the material.  It’s a nice problem to have.

8. One of the joys of having an older child who still likes it when you read bedtime stories to them is that you get to read much more interesting stories.  Lauren and I are now on the second of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, and we’re having a very good time with it.  It’s our time together, just the two of us, and we like it.  Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place to live.

9. The NHL season has started.  The EPL is in full swing.  There’s a new season of Doctor Who in progress, and the new Doctor has gotten some good writing to back up his acting skills.  I have a stack of books in the to-read pile, waiting for me.  It is good to remember things like that, when I am annoyed at the world.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Life on the Cutting Edge

So when did The Nightmare Before Christmas become a thing?

I remember when that movie came out.  I went to see it in the theater with some grad school friends of mine, and we were practically the only people there.  I have no idea why the place was that empty – it was a great movie, and this was a college town full of students just eager as all get out to demonstrate their cutting edge cultural bonafides.  Granted, it was Iowa, so perhaps the cutting edge was a bit blunter than it might have been elsewhere, but still.  College students are college students, and the fact was that it was a great little movie.

I really loved the main character, Jack Skellington.  He had such a goofy expression for most of the film.

But whenever I would try to talk about it with people, most of the time I would be greeted with puzzled stares and blank looks.  “What movie?” they’d ask.  “Are you sure that’s a real film and not some whiskey-induced hallucination you’re trying to ret-con your life around?

You have no idea how weird it is for me to have seen a film that others had not.  Usually it’s the other way around, and usually with films a lot more popular than the latest animated Tim Burton movie.  There was a period of my life – stretching from, oh, all of it to the rest of it – where I was fairly unlikely even to see the Oscar winners, let alone anything less mainstream.  And yet here I was, a proto-hipster shilling for a film nobody else seemed to have heard of, except that I really wanted them to have heard of it.  I’ve never understood the whole thing about only liking the obscure and unpopular.  It seems to me that if you like something you should let people know so that whoever made it might be inspired to make more things like it.

And now it’s a thing.

A big thing.

I went over to the nearby Big Chain Drugstore the other day to collect some small subset of the pharmaceuticals which course through out house and what should appear before my wondering eyes but an entire endcap of Nightmare Before Christmas tchotchkes.

You can get your own Jack Skellington figure in sizes ranging from a hand-width up to taller than you are.  You can get Oogie-Boogie Man dolls that light up (no word on whether they come with their own sawmill blades).  You can get notebooks, mugs, and other assorted paraphernalia.  I keep thinking I should get one of those Jack Skellington figures to hang in my office.

It’s kind of a cool thing, really, to see the film become so popular so long after it was released.

I should go watch it again.