Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nature Boy

I don’t really get nature.

Not long after Kim and I started dating we went up to northern Wisconsin.  Kim grew up in that part of the state and still had friends there.  Still does, in fact.

It’s beautiful country, really, if that’s your thing, all rolling hills and winding roads.  Kim’s friends lived in a house on a hill.  As far as I could tell they had no neighbors – you could walk all the way around the building and not see another house.  It’s way out there.

This was way before any of us had kids, so it was just the four of us.  We got up there late in the day, and the next morning I found myself the only person in the house.  Everyone else had either gone to their jobs or – in Kim’s case – gone along with them. 

I was still in graduate school at the time and – as graduate students will – I had a pile of reading to do, so I took my monographs and articles out onto the deck that overlooked the road hidden below, set up a beverage and a snack, and dug in.  I spent the whole morning happily reading, taking notes, and snacking.  Other than the note-taking part, this still sounds like a great day to me.

Sometime around lunchtime Kim called to check in on me. 

“What are you doing?”


“Why don’t you go for a walk?”

There was a long pause as I carefully examined my surroundings without seeing any restaurants, book stores, or other signs of human civilization that would serve as plausible destinations.

“Where would I go?” I finally asked.

“Go out and take a walk in the woods!”

"Why would I do that?"

"You can go see the trees!"

“I can see the trees fine from here.”

And yet she still married me.  Your guess is as good as mine.

We just got back from a few days up that way again, visiting friends and hanging out.  I’ll get some stories and photos posted soon.  We had a very nice time.

But I’m happy to be home.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On Tour

Tabitha started her new job this week.

She’s actually been going to training sessions for a while now.  There were some official training sessions last week, and some unofficial ones before that.  And before that?  Well, let’s just say that she’s familiar with the place.

My first full-fledged History Job out of graduate school was not actually in academia but in the far broader field of public history.  Public history is less focused on scholarship and teaching and more on preservation, access, and keeping history alive for people who are not necessarily students.  It is teaching, in a way, but not in the classroom.  It’s museums, historical societies, archives, displays, and the like.

It was an interesting transition to make for someone trained as an academic historian.

For one thing, “public history” involves a great deal of “public” and – given the fact that there are only so many hours in the day – rather less “history.”  We had a handful of buildings, all of which dated from the mid-19th century and all of which needed to be maintained.  We had a number of employees, some seasonal and some permanent, all of whom needed to be paid.  We had a vast and ever-shifting cadre of volunteers who needed tasks and supervision.  Volunteers have to be managed differently than employees, and if you forget that you very quickly end up with no volunteers.  We had relationships with the city government, the local media, nearby schools, and the neighboring historical societies that all had to be maintained and cultivated.  And since public history institutions are non-profits in every conceivable sense, we had a never-ending rotation of fundraising events.  While I was of course not the only one doing all these things, ultimately all of these activities were my responsibility, which meant I never did get to explore the history of the place as much as I would have liked to have done.

Not that I didn’t seize my opportunities when they came, naturally.

For another thing, my main task when I was there was to manage a rather large construction project.  Our main building was – and remains – a National Historic Landmark, a good portion of which had collapsed in 1948 and the remainder of which needed work.  Our project was designed to fix up the old building and put up a new structure on the footprint of the part that was no longer there.  This meant grants (applications, disbursals, compliance reports, etc.), construction management, and a crash course in Byzantine bureaucracy.  Doing a construction project on a National Historic Landmark using federal, state, and local money involves more agencies with mutually exclusive demands and more self-important bureaucrats all powerful in their tiny little fiefdoms than the average human mind can envision, and at least two of those bureaucrats were bound and determined to sabotage the entire project.  One nearly did.  So that was my day, most days.

On the plus side, the people I worked with were great.  My board of directors at the time was very involved and supportive, and my co-workers and volunteers were generally a lot of fun.  And I got to give a lot of tours.  I loved doing the tours.  It was as close as I got to teaching while I was there, and even after I left to go back into academia I continued to give tours for a few years.

The main building was open for tours and we usually ran about five to eight thousand people a year through it when I was there.  School tours were our bread and butter, but during the summer months we hired high school kids as docents and were open for walk-ins.

Tabitha is now one of the summer docents.  Wheels within wheels.

She grew up in that museum in some ways.  She was not quite three when I started there and not quite eight when I left, and she spent much of that time at various functions and events.  She would close up the museum with me some nights.  It’s kind of like coming home for her that way.

I don’t get much involved in the place these days.  The director who came in after me is still there and I always look forward to hanging out with her, but as I told her when she got there, “I’m not in charge anymore.  If I wanted to be the one telling people how to run this place, I’d still be employed here.”  And as my teaching load has gotten heavier over the last couple of years I find I don’t have time to do the tours either.

I’m happy that Tabitha is giving tours now.  She had her first solo tour on Monday, and by all accounts it went well.  There’s a lot to talk about in that place, and every docent gives a slightly different tour.  We talk about it on our drive home, two docents comparing notes.

Sunrise, sunset.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Heffalumps and Woozels

My new glasses arrived this week.

I did not pick them out.  Lauren insists that I have no style whatsoever, which is an outright falsehood.  I have a style.  It is just not one that anyone would choose voluntarily or that looks good on actual human beings.  When I explain this to her she just rolls her eyes.  “That's the same thing, Dad,” she says.

Honestly, where does this attitude come from?

So we went over to the eye care place and spent an evening picking out frames.  There are a lot of frames in that place.  They line the walls, spill out into the aisles, and constitute a fire hazard.  Someone should look into this.  Except that the people who walk into places like that cannot – pretty much by definition – look very closely or accurately at the problem.  And so the problem continues unabated. 

Won’t someone think of the myopic?

Eventually we settled on two frames, because they had a “buy one get one free” offer.  Then they explained how much the lenses cost – they sell them by the lens, not the pair, in case you’re thinking of the “pre-WWI German aristocrat” monocle look – and we agreed that perhaps one pair was sufficient for now thank you very much. 

And then we waited.

The glasses actually came in on Wednesday, which was of course the day that my back decided it no longer wanted to function.  It does that every couple of years, often for no reason at all.  I did quite a number on it back in the 90s, and once that happens it never quite heals and all you have to do to get it to do it again is exist incorrectly, which is something I am apparently quite good at.  I cannot tell you how often people insist on correcting me on that point.  So going over to get the new specs on Wednesday was not much of a priority.

I got them Thursday, but despite testing them in the shop they turned out to be too loose when I got them home, so I had to go back and get them tightened on Friday.  And now here they are.

It’s always a bit of an adjustment, new glasses.  Everything looks all warped and woozely, like I’m staring out of the bottom of a wine glass, as if I need further incentive to do that.  I expect to find heffalumps soon.  Actually, this might explain a lot about Winnie the Pooh.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Maybe It's Maybelline

This past Saturday was Rabbit Fun Day here in Our Little Town.

Rabbit Fun Day is the pre-County-Fair show, the one that doesn’t take place in the middle of thousands of people.  It’s just the Rabbit Project members and the judges.  It’s kind of low key that way.

Lauren and I showed up Friday night to help set the thing up, and a good thing we did since other than the Project Leader and one other 4H member, we were the entire crew.  Fortunately rabbits are a lot less intensive than cats – the cat show requires setting up dozens of the special tables that 4H uses, the ones constructed of depleted uranium and grief, as well as 50-75 wire cages and a pile of chairs.  Rabbits only need about a dozen of those tables, the same pile of chairs, and no cages. 

We showed up at 7:30 the next morning with Maybelline, Lauren’s Dwarf Hotot rabbit.  This is Maybelline’s first show, and she took it like a professional, all calm and cool and collected.  Presidential candidates could take lessons from Maybelline.

The other nice thing about Rabbit Fun Day is that it is brief.

There is a period of judging, where Maybelline’s relative merits can be weighed by someone more qualified than I am.  Granted, this is not saying much.  But I know this particular judge, and she is fully rabbit-qualified.  You can also go over to the corner and do your Showmanship routine, which tests the rabbit knowledge of each exhibitor.

Maybelline got Best in Breed, which is impressive even if there weren’t any other Dwarf Hotots there.  They don’t have to give that ribbon at all.  So we were happy about that.

Then comes the Best in Show judging, where all of the Best of Breed bunnies come together for a final round of judging by both of the judges.

We weren’t expecting much this round, since Maybelline is a junior doe and Best in Show generally goes to senior rabbits, but for a while there the judges were paying rather close attention to her.  Eventually they gave her an Honorable Mention, which means she was ranked 3rd or 4th out of the forty or so rabbits there.  Not too bad.

Add to that the blue ribbon Lauren got for Showmanship, and it was a successful day.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Random Thoughts on Watching the Women's World Cup (so far)

1. What drooling moron decided to put all of these games on artificial turf?  The on-pitch temperatures are hotter, the ball moves in strange and unnatural ways, and every time a player slides on that surface they come up covered in little balls of rubber.  There is no reason to have artificial turf in any professional sport for any event, let alone at the world’s premier event for a sport, and whoever made that decision really needs to be dunked in maple syrup and abandoned in a forest with nothing but a compass and a pair of hiking boots.

2. The pace of the games is slower than it is for the men’s games, which means that the players have to rely on things like skill and strategy rather than just blowing past people on sheer brute force.  It makes it an interesting game to watch.

3.  Someone should really alert the broadcasting teams that there are games going on so they can interrupt their human interest stories and vague recollections of past glory now and then to let us know what is happening.

4. Whoever clues in the broadcasting teams can also drop a note down to the producers so they can choose to broadcast the feeds from cameras that are actually showing the game rather than those that are showing slo-mo closeups of individual players or, worse, of coaches or random groups of fans.  It gets rather irritating after a while, this constant returning to the game only to find that the run of play has proceeded rather far from where we left off.

5. Watching Thailand play Ivory Coast was a lot of fun, since neither of those teams has any chance at all of advancing very far and they were just there playing their hearts out for the sake of playing.  I thought one Ivory Coast player was going to have an absolute meltdown after missing a fairly easy goal toward the end.  Passion – it matters.

6. I like having the tournament in Canada, since all the time zones work out and the games aren’t being played at 4am here the way they will be during the next two Men’s World Cups.  Go Canada!

7. I have now watched enough soccer over the last two years that I can get legitimately upset at the poor level of officiating that I’ve seen so far.  Honestly, between the refs, the commentators, and the producers, it’s like they just sent the B-team out for this.  The players and fans deserve better than that.

8. I missed the US-Australia game due to a prior commitment and may well miss most of the US-Sweden game tonight depending on how the rest of my life shakes out, but I entertain high hopes of seeing them play at some point.

9. The next time an announcer describes one of the players as “the Female [Insert Name of Male Star Here]” I’m going to go spare. 

10. The more I watch soccer, the less I care about American football.  Eventually I will become That Guy and lose touch with my culture completely.  Unless I already have.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Article 4, Section 4 of the Federal Constitution of 1787 begins with a simple declarative clause.  “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.”

This does not mean that the modern Republican Party is guaranteed power, nor does it mean that any infringement on their absolute rule is by definition illegitimate and that anything they do in order to perpetuate their iron grip on power – even if it is expressly forbidden by laws, ethics, or constitutions – is therefore not only justified but absolutely morally sanctified by Jebus Armor-Plated Christ Hissownself (a heavily armed and bitterly partisan figure not to be confused with any actual Savior or Deity).  Someone should really let them in on this little fact.  It will come as a bitter surprise to them, no doubt.

Instead, that clause means that the states must have a government that fits the definition of republicanism as understood by the Founding Fathers.

Fortunately this is a fairly flexible arrangement – the Founders were excellent historians and understood that times change and Constitutions needed the ability to change with them.  But there are a few non-negotiable points even so.

The most important of these points is the notion of balanced republican government, a concept I have discussed at length elsewhere in this blog, such as here, here and here.  For my purposes in this post, the key thing you have to remember about balanced republican government is that it is divided government.  There are three branches – a One, a Few, and a Many – and they each have the power to check the others.

In the American context – which is slightly amended from the English context that the Founders inherited, simply because the English context didn’t exist on this side of the Atlantic – the One is the Executive, the Few is the Judiciary, and the Many is the Legislature.  This is called “the separation of powers.”  You have to have all of these things, and they have to have the power to check the other two, or you don’t have a Republican form of Government as defined by the Constitution.

Most relevant to today, you had to have an independent judiciary.

The American judiciary was elevated from being mere servants of the King’s will to being a fully independent arm of a balanced republican government by John Adams in his Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which in turn was the model for the Federal Constitution of 1787 that so many modern Americans claim to worship in ways that border on blasphemy but who show no signs of actually having read. 

American judges must have the ability to overturn laws passed by the legislature and signed by the executive if those laws violate the Constitution – either the state or federal constitution, depending on what level of judges you’re looking at.  Without that ability they are nothing, mere servants of a corrupt political system.

For the Founders, securing the independence of the judiciary meant doing several things. 

First, it meant insulating them from political pressure from below.  There is a reason why federal judges are appointed for life (on good conduct).  Otherwise they are mere politicians, as has been amply demonstrated by the partisan debacle that Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has become in the last few years.

Second, it meant insulating them from above, mostly by making sure that their salaries and funding could not be tampered with by executives or legislatures unhappy with their verdicts.  Those judges had to have the ability to rule for the Constitution without fear of financial reprisal.  An executive who overstepped his bounds and threatened this would be, in the words of the Founding Fathers, a tyrant, a rebel against the Constitution, and subject to fierce and unrelenting punishment.

Which of course brings us to Sam Brownback, would-be tyrant of Kansas.

Brownback, for those of you not up on your right-wing extremists here in the US of A, is the Teabagger poster child.  He is even more of a puppet of the Koch brothers than Wisconsin’s own Fearless Leader, and with the aid of a compliant and bent-over legislature he has fully implemented the radical right’s extreme agenda.  And in a development that has surprised nobody with more than four working brain cells, this has resulted in absolute catastrophe for Kansas.  Their economy is in ruins.  Their educational system is now a laughing stock.  Their political system has been reduced to servility.  They are an international model of how not to run a civil society, and they are doubling down on their insanity every six to eight weeks on top of it.

The near-sighted regime in Wisconsin has taken this as a model to be emulated rather than a warning to be heeded, because reasons.  It's been quite a ride here, and getting more so every day.  Things have gotten so bad in Kansas, however, that even some Republicans are starting to wonder.  This has had no impact, though.  The modern American right-wing extremist has a notoriously thin skin when it comes to dissent of any kind, and this is fully evident in Kansas. 

On June 4, 2015, Sam Brownback, would-be tyrant of Kansas, signed a bill that threatens the entire state judiciary of Kansas with destruction if it rules against a law he favors.  The Kansas Supreme Court had ruled against his effort to destroy the public schools in that state, and with that issue now coming back before the Court Brownback and the Kansas legislature have now explicitly threatened to cancel all funding for the entire Kansas judiciary if it rules against him.

Think about that.  No courts.  No trials.  No lawsuits.  No legal system.  All because the Kansas courts were doing their constitutionally mandated job.  Yeah, that's the kind of thing the Founding Fathers had in mind all right, said nobody ever.  At least nobody who hadn't been eating lead paint and high-powered hallucinogens as mainstays of their diets since they were toddlers, anyway.

The breathtaking arrogance and criminality of this bill is staggering.  Whatever this may imply for the Kansas Constitution, this assault on judicial independence would be a direct violation of Article 4, Section 4 of the Federal Constitution.

Threatening the existence of an independent judiciary is a classic sign of tyranny, both in the 18th-century sense of the executive overreaching its authority and in the modern sense of a dictatorial power grab.  It would destroy the balanced republican government of the state of Kansas, the one that the Constitution guarantees, and substitute the fiat rule of a self-created emperor. 

Merely by announcing this threat Brownback and his supporters have placed themselves in opposition to the Constitution of the United States.  By enacting the law that encompasses this threat they have announced themselves to be subversives.  If they make good on their threat they will explicitly declare themselves to be rebels.

Brownback and anyone associated with this effort should have been removed from office by now and placed in holding cells awaiting trial, but in a one-party state like Kansas there is no real possibility of that unless the federal government gets directly involved.  The fact that officials can seriously propose such irresponsible legislation in the United States of today is nothing short of appalling, and the fact that they are walking around freely having done so in a state entirely controlled by the GOP is a sign of just how corrupt and destructive the modern Republican Party has become and an ominous development for the long-term viability of the American republic.

Interesting times.

Friday, June 5, 2015


We’re still not allowed to keep chickens here in Our Little Town.  I’ve been drafted into a group that is seeking to change that – I’ve been to one meeting so far, and mostly I discovered that chicken people overlap considerably with Doctor Who people, though what deeper significance that may have I cannot tell you – but so far it’s all in the planning stages.  Our chickens are not street legal here.  We have to keep them outside of the municipal borders.

Fortunately we have a friend who has a barn just outside of town, and she has been very generous for the last two years about letting us keep our chickens (and now turkeys) there.  Every day we drive out to feed them, collect the eggs, and generally see to whatever tasks need to be done.

On the way home we pass a billboard.

Usually it has some upcoming event to advertise or product to sell.  The message varies month to month.  The billboard sits on the main route into town from the west, so I imagine it gets a lot of traffic and is a desirable billboard, as billboards go.  Lots of people want to put up their ad there.

But even popular billboards have down times.  Usually the billboard company will just keep the old one up there – free advertising for the last customer, until the next one comes along – but sometimes they don’t.  I imagine that decision is based on whether there is a deadline on the previous design (“Come to the Show on This Date!”) or if they find that particular customer pleasant to work with or not.  It never hurts to be pleasant, people.

When they have down time the billboard company usually puts up its own ads, mostly urging people to buy time on their billboard. 

I get that, really I do.  But sometimes you have to ask yourself what people are thinking when they write the copy for these ads. 

Recently the billboard seems to have fallen into a fallow period between paying advertisers, so the billboard company has put up a plea to the rest of us.  See how useful this sign can be!  This is your opportunity!  You should rent this sign for your ad!  It’s here just for you!  Or words to that effect. 

What it actually says is: “Here’s your sign!”

Has Bill Engvall been so thoroughly forgotten that this is now considered a decent tagline for advertisements?  Certainly Lauren had no idea why I nearly drove off the road laughing the first time I saw this billboard.  All things considered, I’m not really sure that this is the way you want to advertise your services.

For those of you who live under rocks or are younger than 13, Bill Engvall is a comedian with a routine that I believe is officially entitled “I Hate Stupid People” but which everyone knows as the “Here’s Your Sign” routine.  The premise is simple: stupid people should be forced to wear signs so that the rest of us would know not to rely on them or take them seriously.  And how would we know who to give the signs to?  Well, that would be obvious.

At one point in the routine, for example, he tells a story about pulling into a service station with a flat tire.  The attendant came out, looked at it, and asked, “So, tire go flat?”  “Nope,” Engvall replied.  “I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me!  Here’s your sign.”

So you kind of have to wonder who this billboard is being pitched to, really. 

“Hey!  Want to spend money in the fond hopes that it will increase your business or make your event more successful?  Here’s your sign.”

It’s a dangerous thing having a sense of humor and a decent memory, particularly at highway speeds.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Old Friends

You know you are a midwesterner when the idea of driving 90 miles to have dinner with an old friend strikes you as a perfectly reasonable thing to do on a Wednesday night.

Lori was a friend of mine in high school.  We managed to keep in touch through college, lost track of each other for a while, and then reconnected again.  These days, through the magic of Facebook, we can follow each other’s lives pretty well – for all of the many and valid complaints people have about Facebook, it’s a worthwhile service as far as I’m concerned – but we hadn’t actually seen each other since – what? – 1990 or thereabouts.  So when she said she’d be in Chicagoland on business this week, we figured it would be a good time to catch up.

And it was.

We spent the evening in conversation, and it was just a lovely time.

On the drive home I got to thinking about things, the way one does on an American interstate when there is nothing on the radio except the wrong team winning a Stanley Cup Final game and the most interesting thing to look at is the license plate of the car in front of you.  Your mind tends to wander in that situation, is what I’m saying.  At least mine does.  Someday it will wander off and never come back, and then I will run for President.  Until then, though, I will think about things.

One of the nicer parts of my life these days is the fact that I am able to keep in touch with so many old friends, people I have known for decades now and who knew me when.  They remember the old stories, and that is a rare and precious thing in a world as transient as ours.  We also create new stories, because you cannot live in the past – I am a trained historian, and I know these things.  There isn’t much better than that combination, not really, and people like that are not as common as you are led to believe they are when you are younger.  Being able to keep them in your life is a good thing.

So as I drove up the interstate in the gathering gloom of an early summer night I thought about friends who have stayed in my life and how fortunate I have been to be able to see them now and then.  Not all of them – there are some I have not seen in a long, long time, who nevertheless remain good friends because that’s how good friends work.  There's always email and Facebook and telephones and other ways to keep in touch.  But I’ve managed to visit with a bunch of them in the last five years, here and there across the country and around the world, and here they are in roughly the order in which I first met them, all those years ago.

I am a lucky man.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

News and Updates

1. We have now entered into the homestretch of the school year, where everyone over at Local Businessman High School and Mighty Clever Guy Middle School is frantically trying to fit everything in before summer break.  Meanwhile Kim is up to her eyeballs in multiple projects and I’m trying to dig myself out of the hole I was in at the end of the semester.  We don’t see each other much these days, really.

2. Lauren’s band concert was the other night, and she did a very nice job.  She’s been playing percussion this year, and it was the first time I’d managed to get to see one of the concerts – they’ve always been on days where I was commuting to Mid-Range Campus and were over by the time I got home.  The theater was dark when we got there, but eventually someone told all of us parents to go in anyway.  We trundled in, sat down, and then the kids came in and belted out four songs in good order – Lauren actually got to introduce one of them – and then it was over.  It’s always amazing how much work goes into even a short performance. 

3. Midgie has figured out how to open the door to the pantry in the kitchen, where her treats are stored.  I had thought it was a poltergeist or something – every time I’d come into the kitchen the door would be open.  But no, it’s just the cat.  This may or may not be an improvement, as you can usually appease a poltergeist somehow but cats are just cats.  She’s still working on how to get the actual treats – mostly she just knocks things over and strews them about, but if she ever gets that whole “opposable thumbs” thing figured out, we’d best be careful.

4. People who wish to talk shit about others on Facebook really need to learn how Facebook works, since pretty much everything they do on Facebook is visible to the people on their friends list.  This is especially true when calling someone stupid because you have fallen for an internet hoax that you are too lazy to read all the way through to the end where the author explicitly acknowledges that it is in fact a hoax and ridicules you for being narrow-minded enough to fall for it.  It’s just so nice when you find something that confirms your ignorance and makes you feel superior to others, I suppose.  I spent some time pointing this out to the guy and his Teabagger friends in some detail, though I have since received conclusive proof that it did not shake their absolute faith in the truth of their ideological fantasies one iota.  I haven’t decided if it would be worth it to debunk everything he posts from now on until he gets sick of me.  Everyone needs a hobby, after all.

5.  On the other hand, arguing with modern right-wingers is kind of a waste of time.  When you confront them with evidence that goes against their precious worldview all they do is retreat further into their rigid ideological fantasy and double down on the batshit insanity.  I’ve had these arguments any number of times over the last few years and all I’ve ever gotten is older.  Maybe I should find a different hobby.  We’ll see.

6. Governor Teabagger may well get his wish to destroy the University of Wisconsin System – he’s certainly making good progress with this year’s budget.  It’s astonishing how wasteful the modern conservative movement is.  Here you have an institution that was built on 167 years of work and billions of dollars of investment from the citizens of this state, an institution that returns anywhere from 6 to 24 times that investment back into the economy (depending on which campus you look at) and is one of the most potent forces driving the state’s prosperity, but which is seen as a threat to total Teabagger domination and therefore must be crushed.  Profligate waste.

7. We’ve been trying to figure out vacation plans this summer.  Our summer is not cooperating.

8. I finally went out to get my new glasses prescription filled.  Apparently I waited too long, as the place where I had been getting my glasses for the last decade or so closed its doors in January and I had no idea.  Oh well.  I found a new place.  Lauren went with me, because she has appointed herself to be my style consultant.  I have no style, as she is quick to remind me.  She picked out a number of frames – all of which had frames all the way around the lenses, which is not something I’ve had in years – and I got to choose from within that group.  I pick them up sometime next week, if all goes well.  We’ll see who notices.