Thursday, July 30, 2015

Judging the Animals at the Fair

There is something of a gradient of ownership at the Fair.

Over on the east side of the fairgrounds is the midway.  Any rube can walk through the midway and many of them do.  It’s a fun place, even if it is too loud and I’m too old.  There are games and prizes – it’s one of the few places on earth where you regularly see muscular tattooed men carrying large teddy bears – and right next to it is the food area where anyone with a few dollars and no concern for their long-term health can find tasty things to eat.  This is the public part of the Fair.

In the middle of the fairground is the big stage, which is open to everyone during the day but at night it closes down and you have to pay extra to get in.  They have a variety of musical acts that call to mind the evocative quote from The Blues Brothers (“We’ve got both kinds!  Country and Western!”) and every so often they get someone else who is running the county fair circuit to perform.  Once in a while they score and book someone who hits the big time right before the Fair – one year they had a band named for a political division somewhere in the south and the closest parking spot that night was somewhere in Indiana.  So the middle is a mixed place.  It’s public, but restricted.

Further west come the small animals – the rabbits, the poultry, and so on.  You get some of the crowd in there, of course, but mostly this belongs to the kids who have raised those animals and are now showing them off.

And then come the big animals – dairy, beef, pigs, sheep, and so on.  Goats if you’re inclined to put them up in this category.  Mostly the people you see here are the kids and their families and friends.  Not as many other people wander this far over.

So far we’ve made it to the third level, with the small animals.  This is where you feel you own the Fair – it’s yours, and everyone else is just visiting.  Lauren keeps encouraging us to take the next step to level four, which would involve owning some kind of hoofed mammal, but we’ve successfully resisted her entreaties to this point.

She remains optimistic, however.

Lauren is the animal exhibitor in our household.  Tabitha used to do cats, but our cats finally had enough of that and she had to stop.  So we’re in for rabbits, chickens, and – new this year – turkeys, and that’s quite enough really.

Rabbit judging was yesterday.

The first step with rabbits is showmanship, where the goal is to demonstrate to a judge that you actually do know a thing or two about your animal.  There’s a whole ritual involved – you pose the animal, flip it around, point out every small feature on it as if you are some kind of tour guide for fleas looking for a new home, and answer questions as they arise.

You also wait a lot, since that is a prerequisite for just about anything.

Lauren has moved up a class to Intermediate, which meant that her Showmanship wasn’t until after lunch.  Not that this kept her from coming in early – she still had poultry to take care of, and it was Wristband Day after all – but she spent much of her morning grooming Maybelline and getting ready for her audience with the judge.

It went well.  She ended up scoring 96/100 on the exam, which is a solid Blue ribbon in anyone’s book.

There was then a long interval of midway rides, since that is the whole point of Wristband Day.  Lauren took off with her friends and Tabitha took off with hers and Kim and I just went home since we are not the target audience for those rides anyway.  It’s nice that they are old enough to roam the Fair on their own now.

Rabbit judging starts at 5pm and goes until the next Mayan apocalypse.  They close down the Rabbit Barn so that even the parents cannot get in – a new feature this year which was inconvenient but which, in hindsight and as a teacher, I can understand.  Kim and I hadn’t planned to be back until around 6 or 6:30, but Lauren called so we came by and stood outside the building and talked to her through the screen until she just told us to go away, after which we wandered around the fair for a while.  Eventually we found our way back to the Stock Pavilion, where the judging takes place, and we waited.

It’s probably good for the kids that the judges are thorough and take the time to explain things to them.  The audience grows ever older and more infirm, but the 4Hers do well out of it so really how much can you complain?  Lauren’s rabbit class didn’t come up until nearly 7:30, and didn’t finish until after 8.

She had the same judge as her showmanship.

Maybelline ended up scoring a Blue ribbon, which is precisely the sweet spot between being disappointed (Red) and having to stick around for another two or three rounds of judging (Top Blue) when there is still fun to be wrung out of Wristband Day.

Today began far too early, because poultry waits for no man, woman, or child.

Poultry is a bit more free-form than rabbits, in that showmanship happens whenever the kids wander over to the judge rather than on a schedule and the actual judging is rather more fluid, but it all goes well even so.  There are a lot more birds than rabbits, in a lot more categories, so you do what you have to in order to make it work.

Turkeys came first.

This is Lauren’s first year with turkeys, so we didn’t quite know what to expect.  It turns out that from the exhibitor’s perspective turkey judging is the easiest animal in the Fair.  They don’t even have to be taken out of their cages (which is good when you’re talking about a 35lb bird) – the judge just walks among them, examining them, grabbing them now and then, once in a while setting them free to roam to see how they move.  Easy.

Our Fair recognizes four categories of turkey – white and bronze, tom and hen.  Lauren’s birds are bronze, and she had one of each – a tom and a hen.

Norman was judged first of the two.  We were worried about his tail feathers, since Maica had been worrying them for weeks, but it turned out that must be quite common since his tail looked better than almost every other turkey there.  So win for Norman.  There were a lot of bronze toms, and in the end Norman came out as the Top Blue – the best bronze tom at the Fair!

The judge was particularly impressed with his musculature – he said that it was clear he had a lot of room to walk around and his legs looked good – and with his eagerness to puff up and display himself, which the judge said was a sign that Norman had been played with a lot.  This in fact was true.  He’s been a well-taken-care-of bird.

Maica also did well, scoring a Blue.  She might have done better if she had been willing to walk for the judge, but every time she came out of the cage she stopped pacing immediately and sat down.  Oh well.  That’s what happens with animals – they do what they do.  The judge later told us that she wouldn’t have gotten Top Blue anyway, since she’s a bit on the narrow side, but that she was a very good looking bird who had obviously been cared for very well.  That was nice to hear.

Eventually it came down to the four Top Blues, and Norman came out as the Reserve Grand Champion turkey.  For those of you who are Fair-impaired, this means he was the second-best turkey of all of them, and that’s quite an achievement for a first-year turkey exhibitor.

Congratulations, Lauren!

Then it was time for chickens.  I missed most of this, unfortunately, since I had to run back to Home Campus and give a final exam to my summer class.  I didn’t want to be there, the students didn’t want to be there, and yet there we were. 

I did get to see Lauren show her first chicken – the Sultan pullet she named Santana, who scored a Red.

I missed the Buff Orpington cockerel (Simon, who got a Red also), the Buff Orpington pullet (Pumpkin, who scored a Blue), the Faverolle cockerel (Rhett, another Blue) and the Faverolle pullet (Mocha, who not only got a Blue but was declared to be the Top Bird in her group, so we’re going to call that a Top Blue and leave it at that).

I got back in time to see Lauren’s chicken showmanship, though, which went well (another Blue!).  She had the same judge as the turkeys that morning.

All in all, a successful day at the Fair.

The animals are now done until the Fur and Feather Sale on Saturday.  Tomorrow will just be barn duty, general fair-going, and perhaps something of a break.  Or not.  We’ll see.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Further Bulletins from the Fair

I had chicken for lunch today, because I could.

They’re wonderful little birds, really they are, but after a while you just have had enough of the beady-eyed little things and you find yourself saying to them, “You know what you are?  Vehicles for condiments, that’s what you are,” and pulling into the nearest drive-through line for a box of deep-fried chicken bits and as many of those little vats of sauce that they will give you for free.

And that's when you know you should probably take a short break.

The Fair is now in full swing around here, and my hasn’t it been a time.

We didn’t have anything Fair-related to do on Sunday.  Well, not officially.  There were still projects to finish and animals to prep and any number of things to think about, collect, organize, and/or stow away.  But the actual Fair-related things didn’t happen until Monday.

Actually, Monday’s story goes all the way back to Saturday.  It’s a long story.  Bear with me.

Over at Local Businessman High School they have a summer musical program that gathers together kids from all over the southern half of the state to put on Vast Theatrical Experiences for the masses.  Being kind of theatered-out after the Shakespeare and the pick-up rehearsals for our 4H Drama Club’s performance at the County Fair this week (see how it all spirals in on itself?) I declined to join Tabitha and Kim when they went on Friday.  Naturally, they came home raving about it and Kim more or less ordered me to go see it on Saturday night.  Tabitha joined me, and I will say that it was quite a production and we had a very good time.  There is a lot of talent around these parts.

But when we got home we walked into Crisis.

Milkshake, Lauren’s previous show bunny (now retired) had come down with some kind of vicious eye infection and looked like The Rabbit of the Living Dead.  He was not in a good way, and this being Saturday night there really wasn’t anyone to take him to go see.  So Kim and Lauren talked with the Rabbit Project person in our 4H club and began dosing him with the antibiotics we’d bought for another animal (which checked out as acceptable, according to reputable experts online), and we spent Sunday trying to take care of him.

Monday morning started at 7:30am with a call to the veterinarian, who saw us an hour later.  He said to keep doing what we were doing, gave us some better anti-inflammatories than the Children’s Ibuprofen we’d been using, and told us to bring him back in a week to see if surgery is required.  He’s already blind in that eye, and it might be the best course of action anyway.  We’ll see.  He’s looking slightly better today, actually, so perhaps he’s on the mend.  We're hoping, anyway.  Poor Milkshake.

So that was much of the morning.

That afternoon I took Tabitha back over to the Fair, since it was her turn for Drawing and Painting judging.  She had three pieces in the mix this year, two of which she had been diligently working on for weeks and one of which was a last-minute substitution for a larger project that wasn’t going to happen and which she didn’t want to rush.  You have to have an entry for each category you sign up for, though, so she had to put something in.

Her mixed media entry got a Top Blue.

As did her watercolor.

This means that both of them are eligible for either Merit or State Fair consideration, which would be quite a thing.  We’ll find out about them soon enough, I imagine, but two Top Blues is well done, I think.

The acrylic painting got a Red, which isn’t bad for the amount of time she had to pull it together.  We were all pretty happy with the results.  Nice going, Tabitha! 

The judging only took a bit over an hour, which turned out to be good since the rest of the afternoon was spent washing chickens.

Have you ever tried to give a chicken a bath?  It’s a surprisingly complicated process.

It takes four or five buckets of water, each of which has a different additive (poultry protector, glycerin, etc.).  They have to be kept at a relatively warm temperature so as not to panic the birds, because you’ve got a wet chicken in a bucket and adding “panicked” to that description just bodes well for nobody.  And then you have to wrap them in a towel so they dry off and stay warm, since they’re body temperatures are high and the air – even on a hot summer day – is cool

There is nothing on this earth quite as ridiculous as a wet chicken.

We shanghaied the birds to our own backyard for this, since the barn outside of town where we keep them has no running water.  Our backyard became a chicken-bathing assembly line.  And then we set up some enclosures for them in the garage, since returning them to the barn seemed counterproductive at that point. 

This of course made us Chicken Scofflaws, since technically we are not allowed to keep chickens in Our Little Town.  But there comes a time when one must stand up to The Man and demand justice!  Liberty!  And freedom!  Besides, by 8am this morning they were no longer in our garage and we figured we could get away with it.  And we did.

We are such renegades.

Monday night was time to get Maybelline over to the Rabbit Barn.  Since our usual rabbit travel carrier was serving as a recovery room for Milkshake, we ended up taking her over in an old bamboo shopping basket that Kim’s grandmother left us.  It says “Made in Occupied Japan” on the bottom.  It’s really cool, actually.

Getting the rabbits loaded in is always a time-consuming process.  You stand there in line, not moving and wondering why, until you finally get up to the front and then you understand.  Every rabbit – and people often bring six or seven of them – has to get examined, noted, and recorded.  The tattoo on their ear gets announced and written down.  And then the next one happens. 

But we got Maybelline situated and Lauren’s rabbit paraphernalia put away in the bin with our club name on it, and then we were good for all Fair-related activities for at least twelve hours.

Bear in mind that the Fair still hadn’t officially opened yet.

This morning dawned bright and early, and fortunately the chickens were completely unaware of it in the darkness of the garage.  Particularly the roosters, who have begun to get their rooster on and crow now and then.  We don’t need that.

We loaded them into cages and then took the two big dog kennel cages that my friend Jon lent us and caravanned over to the barn where the turkeys were still residing. 

It is surprisingly easy to convince turkeys to get into cages.  You just gently herd them along until they walk right in (Norman) or pick them up and deposit them inside (Maica).  It took two of us to get them into the cars – Norman goes a good 35lb, according to the estimate of the turkey expert at the Fair and Maica is not all that much smaller, and when you combine that kind of weight with the awkward bulk of the cages, well, two people is definitely the way to go.

Have you ever driven any length of highway with a turkey in the back?  It’s an experience, let me tell you. 

We eventually arrived at the Fairgrounds, where we unloaded the turkeys first – I wheeled Maica in her cage on a dolly, while Lauren just herded Norman along to the barn – and then got the chickens situated in their end of the barn.

Then it was home, shower, breakfast, and off to teach my class, which is in its last week.  And you know what that means, kiddies!  That’s right!  Final exam on Thursday.  Grading.  Oh well.

We went back to the Fair tonight, mostly to hang out and enjoy it.  We ran into some friends.  We made sure the birds and the rabbit were doing okay (it’s hot here in Baja Canada today).  We ate food that we probably shouldn’t have eaten at our age.  It was a good time.

And tomorrow, we do it again.  Though the transporting of animals is at least for now complete.

For that I am truly grateful.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Let the Fair Week Begin

And so begins Fair Week.

Lauren looks forward to this week more than any other week of the year.  More than the first week after school lets out, more than spring break, more than Christmas – it’s the high point of her year.  Tabitha enjoys it, I’m sure (who doesn’t?), but not as much as Lauren.

Me?  I just try to make it from one end to the other without dropping anything important, which is most of how I go through life in general, really.  There are projects to ride herd upon, animals to transport, plays to shepherd, and meals to plan – meals that are non-lethal only in the broadest possible sense, meals that revolve around deep-fried things on sticks and vats of fresh lemonade so large that they have their own weather systems (and discounted refills!).

This year I get to do it during the last week of my summer class, when the students are turning in two major assignments that need to be graded by the weekend.  Because reasons.  I’m just glad I got to teach that class again before Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) implemented his plan to end education in this state entirely.  Timing is everything, folks!  Remember: Sir Francis Drake was knighted for annoying the Spanish, but Sir Walter Raleigh was executed for doing the same.

We started Fair Week in earnest yesterday, when the judging opened.  Judging runs for several days prior to the fair for all the non-animal projects (there are some animal projects that get judged before the fair too, such as cats, but they’re weeks or months before rather than days before).  The relevant categories for us were Photography and Visual Arts.

Lauren does Photography.  She’s remarkably good at it.  She’s never failed to get a Blue ribbon on at least one of her entries, and twice she’s made it all the way to Merit, which is one notch down from qualifying for the State Fair.  This year she had two entries – one in the four-photo category (buildings, landscape, people, animals) and one in the “my favorite photo” category.

Her favorite photo was of Norman, the tom turkey out at the barn.  Lauren loves close-up shots, and this one came out quite well, I think.

For this she got a Top Blue ribbon, which is one step above Blue but not quite Merit.  Honestly, Lauren and I both thought it was better than some of the ones that got Merit though not quite as good as the ones that got State.  So goes it when judging is involved – it’s subjective.  You give it your best and move on.

Her four-photo entry had the following shots:

My personal favorite was the buildings shot, just because the lines work out so well.  It’s essentially unedited – that’s the view you get from Dolores Park in San Francisco, looking back out across the city – but masterfully framed.  This project got a Blue overall.

From Photography we trekked over to the Visual Arts judging, which went vastly more smoothly and quickly than ever before.  Visual Arts can sometimes take up to three hours or more, but this year we were in and out – including Photography, another occasionally slow project – in about 45 minutes total.  So win for the 4H volunteers, I say.

Tabitha’s entry was a stuffed dragon.  She spent most of the last fortnight working on this, doing everything from designing the pattern and picking out the fabric to sewing and stuffing.  The horns are baked Sculpy, with holes carefully left in before they were baked so they could be sewn on like buttons.  Each of the paws has fishing weights at the bottom to keep it from tipping over.  And the eyes and swirls were all painted on.

She got a Blue for it, which was disappointing in the sense that she felt the judge didn’t take enough time to look at it fully.  But a Blue is quite a thing, and she should be proud of it.  I was impressed, let me tell you.

Lauren’s Visual Arts entry was a cloud sculpture.  It’s basically three paper lanterns covered with pillow fluff and stuffed with LED Christmas lights, the lot of them strung from a bar.  It’s a clever concept and she did a good job of it, but it wasn’t really her main priority and she got a Red for her efforts.  It’s still pretty cool, though.

This morning Lauren, Kim, and I were back on the Fairgrounds bright and early to help set up the Rabbit barn.  4H swims in a sea of volunteers, and the place was crowded.  We got all of the cages set up, and then our club set up its decorations (as did several others).  We kind of know how it goes now, so it went pretty smoothly.  Rabbit load-in comes on Monday night.

Fortunately the Poultry barn was already done by this morning, so we all got an extra hour to sleep.

We’re going to need it.  It’s Fair Week, after all.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Twilight of the Turkeys

It’s getting kind of melancholy out at the barn.

The County Fair starts officially next week, though the judging process starts tomorrow.  We’ll be there with Lauren’s photography and visual art project and Tabitha’s sewing project, and we’ll get the exhibitor wristbands that allow the girls to come and go as they please without paying admission every time.  Then comes barn set up on Saturday (poultry and rabbits), more judging on Monday (Tabitha’s artwork), and on Tuesday we load in Lauren’s animals – the chickens, rabbit, and turkeys.

The chickens and the rabbit will come home when it is all over.  Depending on how efficient the whole process is, the turkeys may not.  Norman – the tom – will be sold at the Fur and Feather Auction, and Jamaica – the hen, generally referred to as Maica – will likely not long outlive him.  That’s how it is with livestock.  We never planned to winter them over.

Lauren’s okay with this in broad outline.  We’ve discussed it with her, and she understands how it works.  She’d rather not eat these particular turkeys come the holidays, and that seems fair.  Someone else will get to do that.

The thing is, though, that while Norman is a big, lumbering boulder of a bird with about that much personality to him, Maica has got some zip to her.  She tracks you and stares you down.  She nibbles at whatever she can grab.  She’s kind of fun.

And their time is so short.

It’s a good lesson, really.  Treasure the time you have with the creatures you care for, as it is always shorter than you’d like even if it is planned.  And that goes doubly for the people in your world.

It’s kind of bittersweet.

We’ve taken to letting them roam a bit more these days, out on the grass.  They don’t go far – they’re flock animals, so they stick close together, and mostly they want to be wherever we are.  Several times they’ve startled the chickens by wandering into their pens while we were feeding them.  They mostly seemed curious.  They’re big, amiable birds that way, and it seems right to let them have a bit more freedom here in the twilight of their summer.

I’ll miss them, oddly enough.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


I live in a nation where Donald Trump is a serious contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party.  I cannot tell you how disheartening that is. 

Donald Trump should not be allowed near the Oval Office, not even as a tourist.  In a just world, if he should so much as step foot on the grounds of the White House the Secret Service would have orders to shoot him so full of tranquilizer darts that he would wake up weeks later convinced he was a mermaid. 

And yet there he is.

It could be his opposition, I suppose.  After all, there’s – what? – six or eight hundred other declared candidates for the GOP nomination, and a quick look at them is all you need to disprove Darwinian Natural Selection, the Enlightenment’s optimism regarding human nature, and the entire idea that the cream rises to the top.  As my grandmother used to say when confronted by similar sentiments, “shit floats too.”  She was a lot of fun, my grandmother.

But really, who else does the Republican Party have?

According to one website that I checked, a site whose sole purpose is to keep track of the bouncing wigs in the GOP clown car, there are a total of 32 declared candidates for the nomination of that party.  Half of them are what are defined as minor candidates – people nobody outside of their own families has ever heard of and who will likely never even appear on the ballot in any state.  Some of them are clearly unstable, and the rest are merely deluded.  You get a lot of that in American politics, where the entry barriers to running for office are fairly low, and that’s just how it goes.  You can’t blame the Republicans for that.

The other sixteen are “major” candidates – people who seriously think they have a shot at the nomination, and who even more seriously think they can actually become president.  It is a stellar list of people who should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to wield political power, and the fact that these people seriously think such things and feel right at home in that party, given the ludicrous and gratuitously cruel things that they routinely say in public, is in fact a damning indictment of the modern GOP.

After all, when you look at the list you find that Trump is competing against:

Ted Cruz, a walking advertisement for the importance of taking one’s medications.

Ben Carson, for people who think Ted Cruz is too sane.

Chris Christie, wannabe traffic cop.

Mike Huckabee, who seems to be campaigning to be the Chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention rather than President of the United States.

Bobby Jindal, Huey Long reincarnated and gone Galt.

Carly Fiorina, who singlehandedly ran a Fortune 500 company nearly into the ground.

Rand Paul, a Gilded Age relic just like his old man, because wasn’t 1877 fun?

Scott Walker, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries and a man whose rhetorical skills and grasp of complex issues have been compared unfavorably to those of the former half-term governor of Alaska.

Rick Santorum, a man voted in a bipartisan poll of Congressional staffers as the dumbest man in the legislature back when he was a Senator.

Rick Perry, secessionist from Texas, currently under indictment in his home state (but with snazzy new specs!).

Jeb! Bush, the man who brought you the Terry Schiavo fiasco and who is fully capable of giving four completely different answers to the same simple question within 72 hours, apparently in an effort to make his brother seem like the smart one.

Marco Rubio, because what the US needs is even more reason to hate Florida.

George Pataki, whom nobody outside of his home state has ever heard of and nobody ever will.

And, finally, Lindsey Graham, who may actually have a brain in there but who hides it under a thick layer of invective because he has figured out that having a brain is a distinct liability in the GOP primaries.

That’s not a candidate roster.  That’s an awkward holiday dinner table full of weird uncles (and one aunt, so far).  So Trump has that going for him, I suppose.

Except for the fact that Trump himself is an ignorant blowhard, a national embarrassment, and a bullshit salesman who has yet to express a single coherent policy or idea.  Hell, even Scott Walker has policies, catastrophic as they are.  Not The Donald.  He doesn’t have ideas.  He has junior-high-level nastiness and an ego that expands to fill whatever space is available.

And he’s winning.

The last poll I looked at had him with 24% of the vote for the Republican nomination for president, which is quite an achievement even at this early stage in a field of sixteen.  For the math impaired, this means that right now nearly one out of every four Republican base voters has looked at this guy and said, “yes, this is the guy I want with his finger on the nuclear button.”  If that doesn’t scare you, then you aren’t thinking clearly.

Honestly, though, I think Trump has the GOP over a barrel.

He’s stupid enough to say the things that they all think but won’t say publicly, and clever enough to know that it won’t hurt him with the batshit insanity that is the modern Republican base.  The thinking Republicans – the ones who actually know how things work, a small and declining group in that party but not one without clout – can’t repudiate him because if they do they lose their most committed party members.  They’ve spent years building up a base of rabid carny barkers susceptible to extreme right-wing rhetoric and now they’ve got a guy saying all those dog-whistle things in the clear and if they shut him down they lose the base that determines who wins the primaries.  There will be howling and gnashing of teeth if that happens.  But if they let him go on saying those things they alienate pretty much everyone who isn’t a hardcore right-wing social conservative Teabagger, which is well over three quarters of the population and not a recipe for success in the general election.

They’re stuck.  If I worked for the Democratic Party, I don’t think I could devise a better weapon against the GOP than Donald Trump.

Oh, I have no doubt that The Donald will implode at some point.  He will finally say something too outrageous, too close to the bone, and his popularity will wane.  He’s already tried by criticizing John McCain’s status as a war hero.  But then the Republicans were perfectly fine slandering other genuine war heroes like John Kerry, Max Cleland, and Tammy Duckworth, so this won’t actually hurt Trump in the least.  The GOP has no use for veterans beyond creating them by the bushel basket in wars designed to enrich their friends who make weaponry, and their policy decisions and Congressional votes over the last decade or so make that crystal clear.  Trump will survive this.

But eventually he will trip himself up.

And then what?  Will he go quietly into the night?  I think not.  Perhaps he sets himself up as an independent candidate – he’s got the money and the ego.  Perhaps he becomes a go-to commentator – he makes interesting copy, whatever you think of him.  The last thing he’s going to do is shut up and play nice with his classmates.  He’ll stay active.

At that point, the only question will be how much damage he does to the Republicans before it’s all over.

They created him.  They earned him.  They have him now.  And we’re left holding the bag.

I’m not sure I want to live in a country where millions of people think he’s a viable candidate for anything.  It speaks poorly of the future survival of the republic.

But here we are.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Much Ado About Something

Well, the show is over.  Neither storms nor heat nor the gloom of realizing that the humidity had reached levels that actually had weight could stay these troupers from their appointed roles.  We got fairly good audiences by Home Campus standards, even during the monsoon performance.  And now it is done.

Theater is an ephemeral art.  You rehearse for weeks or months (or, in the case of a last-minute substitution such as myself, for a frenetic eight days or so), and then it’s showtime [insert Jazz Hands here].  You give your performances to the open air and then they are gone, living only in the memories of the people who were there, for as long as they care to remember.

As a historian I like to write things down so I can remember them for that much longer.  How much less ephemeral that makes them, here in the jiggling electrons of the internet, is an open question I suppose, but there you have it. 

So: a few things I wish to remember about Much Ado About Nothing.

1. Never underestimate the ability of a cast and crew to change nearly everything on a moment's notice.

Our first performance took placed in a driving rainstorm, which is usually somewhat problematic for an outdoor show.  I was there around 4pm helping the director put some finishing touches on the set and we debated moving the performance indoors for a while before he made the call to do so.

That was a really good decision on his part, though it meant making a lot of adjustments on the fly. 

We had never even rehearsed in the space where the show happened that night, and the set was far too big to move indoors even if we had had the time.  Three black curtains became the house and central doorway.  Two ladders hidden behind the stage right black curtain became our balcony.  Since we used not only the stage but also a good portion of the open courtyard in the original staging, we had to figure out all of our entrances, exits, and resting places (my character, for example, spends about half a scene sitting on a bench next to the audience and an analogous spot had to be found).  The lighting could be skipped, since we didn't need it for that space, but the sound all had to be configured and set up anew.

All of that happened in less than an hour, with a 7pm curtain.

By the time we got everything settled the rain was alternating between driving downpours and false pauses and we weren’t sure if anyone would even come, but they did and they got a great show.

2.  Theater runs on fast food and bottled water.

I was most involved in theater when I was in high school and college, which meant that my schedule was fairly flexible and I could often find time for real meals before shows.  Except for show week, of course, since show weeks expand to fill the time available and then some.

This show was all show week for me, latecomer that I was to the party.  And I now work for a living and have kids, which means that I am required to be in certain places at certain times, which in turn means that there are limited opportunities for real meals.

Enter, stage right, unreal meals.  You can’t go too far wrong with General Tso Chicken, extra spicy, I think.

On the other hand, our director provided us with cases of cold bottled water during show nights, and when weather forecasters start throwing around terms like “heat index” like regrets after a night in Vegas, that sort of thing comes in handy.

3. Theater people are good people.

I didn’t have anything to contribute to the first act, and to be honest I really couldn’t tell you what happened in it.  It’s Shakespeare – I’m sure there were verbal duels, attempts at deception and trickery, and more than a few examples of how not to live a happy life, but that’s pretty standard really.  Other than opening night, when we all got crowded into the same room for the entire show, I missed the particulars.

This is because the play was (mostly) outside, and during the run of the show the entire Dogberry group spent the first act indoors in what is usually the dining commons for Home Campus (which is where we preformed on monsoon night, actually).  We were joined by most of the cast, at one time or another, and we had a grand time talking about the show, about books, about various and sundry aspects of our individual lives.  Honestly, I think it was my favorite part of the show.

People are interesting – they have lives that were in full swing long before you meet them and will continue long after the show is over (one hopes, anyway).  It’s fascinating to hear what they have done and what they think, and to find out a bit about who they are.

I discovered two people whose taste in reading overlaps a great deal with my own.  Another who got a PhD in Australia, a country I’ve always wanted to visit.  Two ran local organizations that at one time or another I had been involved with but am no longer – maybe I should go back.  There were conversations about chickens, fishing, concerts, movies, and tree trimming contests that were interesting because they meant something to the people involved.  People had traveled.  People had lived abroad.  People had held jobs you wouldn’t think they’d held.  People had been involved in theater for years and seen things that are still funny even now.

It’s a good time being backstage.

And when it continues at the local Mexican restaurant for an evening?  Well, so much the better.

5. If you can’t do it right, make it convincing.

I don’t think any of the four performances matched any of the others.  It’s a long play, and with the instability among the cast there were actors learning large parts fairly late in the process.  I’m always amazed at people who can do that.  It was all I could do to get my thirteen lines straight.

So things varied.  I know my scenes did, at least.  I assume I was not alone in this.

Some nights the lines got paraphrased.  Other nights one or more got skipped.  But as long as everyone kept on going and made it look like that was what was supposed to happen, it all went well.

6. The show isn’t over until strike is over.

We spent today taking everything down.  Whoever it was who invented the cordless drill capable of holding a Philips-head screwdriver bit deserves a medal and a lifetime supply of pizza with all the toppings they desire.  It was a fairly large and solidly-built set – one that had survived several severe storms, mostly intact – and it came down and was put away in less than three hours.

It probably wasn’t good for my back, which has been giving me grief all summer long, but it was nice to see everyone one more time.

7. It’s kind of bittersweet when the show ends, but it’s nice to get your life back.

The thing about theater is that is intense.  You’re there for hours and hours, and during show week it’s every day.  You get to know people.  And then it’s over, and you may or may not see them again.  I suppose I’ll see some of them, perhaps even most.  It’s a small town, and a smaller community.  And there is Facebook, of course.  But still.

On the other hand, everything that I put on hold for the last week or so is still there, calling to me for attention.  There are chickens and turkeys to look after.  There are classes to prepare and papers to grade.  There is a small group of people who apparently live in my house and claim to be my family whom I should probably get to know again.  It will be nice to stay home and have a real meal or two, though 4H is rearing its head and may make that more of an aspiration than a reality.  We’ll see.

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do this.  I don’t know if I will do it again.  But I’m glad I did it this time, and that’s enough.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Becoming Shakespearean

The last time I was on stage as an actor was back in high school.  I’ve done a couple of small performances since then, and you can make a decent argument that teaching is a form of acting.  But in terms of actually striding about on a stage with a set and lighting, trying to hit marks, speak lines, and stay in character, high school it is.

That was a long time ago.

I took a Shakespeare class my senior year, since it was one of the electives and it seemed more interesting than the others.  When the teacher got sick and assigned us small group projects in his absence, the class decided to change our many small group projects into a single big group project and put on scenes from Macbeth.  The sub didn’t care, since we were quietly working on Shakespeare-related things as far as he could tell, and the teacher was smart enough to roll with it once he got back. 

The performance worked out pretty well for me, I have to say.  My teacher thought enough of my acting to try to recruit me for the next school play, which held no interest for this particular backstage crew member but was nice to hear.  And one lovely young lady in the audience decided that night that maybe I was more interesting than she had previously thought, which held considerable interest for me once I found out.

So I’ve always had a soft spot for Shakespeare.

I am also friends with the theater professor down at Home Campus.  This is perhaps why, when he rather suddenly had to fill a small role on this summer’s outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing, my name floated up to the surface of his mind.  It’s hard to find actors in the summer, apparently.  The cast had lost something like seven actors over the previous five weeks, and if I took the part they could move another actor up to a bigger part.

It turns out that the category of "things you do for friends" apparently includes being an actor for the first time in three decades.  While I’ve done a lot of theater in that time – possibly close to a hundred shows, depending on how you count – my home is backstage, not onstage.  I’m far more comfortable there.  But here I am.

Fortunately mine is a very small part.  I play Verges, who as near as I can figure out is essentially the Elizabethan version of Barney Fife.  He’s kind of dim, mostly a decent guy as far as I can tell, and would like very much to be taken seriously as a law enforcement officer, which is something that should never be allowed to happen under any circumstances if people wish the law to be enforced in any reasonable manner.  I’m comic relief, and pretty much expendable as far as the plot is concerned.

I joined the rehearsals last week, and have spent every day but one since then learning the part, either in full rehearsals on campus or in meetings of “the Dogberry group” (so named for the Andy Griffith to my Barney Fife) that take place in a park here in town.  Somehow I have managed to learn my baker’s dozen lines and stand in the right places most of the time.

Actually, the hardest part so far has been not laughing out loud during the interrogation scene when my partner demands of a captured criminal, “WHAT … is your name!”  All I can think of at that point is “Arthur, King of the Britons!” and that is just another sign that I am old, old, old.

We open today.  Maybe.  If the thunderstorms hold off.  The set is huge and cannot be easily moved inside, so we’re just hoping that it stays dry from 7pm to 9pm.  It will be a good show.

If you’re anywhere near Our Little Town, you should come by!

I have enjoyed the production far more than I thought I would, mostly because the people involved have been a lot of fun and it has been fascinating getting to know them even the little bit that I have.  It’s the people who make anything enjoyable, really.  I don’t foresee any future career as an actor – honestly, if the math holds true my next foray into Shakespeare would be long after my allotted three score and ten – but it’s been a good time here and now. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Triumphant Return of Normal Rabbit Conditions

We’re back up to our full complement of rabbits now.

Milo, Milkshake, and Maybelline live in their hutches out in the back yard.  They are not luxury accommodations, but then they are inhabited by rabbits and – last I checked – rabbits are not all that interested in Danish Modern furniture or high-end electronics.  They’d probably chew on that sort of thing, and the furniture would end up looking like “College Student Eclectic” and the high end electronics would simply electrocute them.

So rustic it is.  They seem happy.

Except when they get a chance to escape, as happened over the weekend.  Milkshake and Milo share a common set of doors that need to be latched, and if they aren’t latched then the rabbits can push the doors open and jump down to the ground.

They’ve done this before, and mostly we find them hanging around the hutch with a slightly dazed expression on their faces, which is kind of hard to tell apart from the normal expression that rabbits wear unless you know them pretty well. 

This time, however, was different.  Milkshake and Milo are both guy rabbits, and when it’s just guys they can be stupid together without causing too much harm to anything.  But Maybelline is a girl rabbit.  When two guys are set loose in front of an available female the stupid can get ramped up to toxic levels remarkably quickly, and it’s the same with rabbits.

This is why we woke up Friday morning to a lawn full of rabbit fur and a dazed and vaguely triumphant-looking Milkshake standing woozily by the empty hutch.  Milo was nowhere to be seen. 

We looked for him, of course.  We looked at dusk and at dawn, when rabbits are most active.  We looked in the black raspberry bramble and the brush pile.  We left tubs of water out for him.  We thought about calling his name, but quickly realized that he is a rabbit and only marginally more intelligent than the chickens.  It’s not like he ever came when called before.

And then, just as hope was running out on Sunday, one of the neighbors behind us knocked on our door with Milo in her arms.

There was much rejoicing.

So now he’s back, safely locked away in his hutch.  We’re not sure what Milkshake thinks of all this, other than a sad sort of resignation about having to do it all over again next time they get out, but Milkshake will just have to deal with it.

It’s good to have you back, Milo.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the Right of Marriage

Mildred Jeter was born in 1939, only a couple of months before the official start of World War II.  A woman of mixed African and Native American heritage in the Jim Crow south, she grew up in a time and place where she was routinely treated as a second-class citizen because of her race.  Laws put in place after the collapse of Reconstruction in the late nineteenth century meant that things whites could do routinely and without penalty were forbidden to her.  In a world where schools and other public services are rigidly segregated, the idea of the United States as “the land of the free” is a vicious little joke played by those at the top on American citizens who differ from them on some supposedly important criteria.

She couldn’t even marry who she wanted, since Virginia – like the majority of states at the time – forbid interracial marriages.  Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 declared that anyone with any trace of nonwhite ancestry (“blood” in the language of the day) was legally nonwhite, and that marriages between whites and nonwhites were banned.  Such bans were overwhelmingly popular among the white population, and opposition to them was rare enough to be noteworthy.

If rights really were legitimately subject to popular vote, interracial marriage would have failed miserably.

Richard Loving was, under the terms of the Virginia law, a white man.  By all accounts he was a fairly typical young man of the day in most respects.  He enjoyed hanging out with his friends, for example, and he took part in the innumerable drag races that were popular in that time and place.

What was perhaps not typical was that he also fell in love with Mildred Jeter, and after dating on and off for a couple of years, the couple was married on June 2, 1958, in Washington DC where such marriages were legal.  Afterward they returned to Virginia to set up house.  In later interviews both families seemed happy for Richard and Mildred.  The law was not.

On July 14, six weeks after their wedding, local police broke down their door at 2am and hauled them off to jail.  Mildred protested that they were married.  “Not here you’re not,” she was told. 

The Lovings were ultimately convicted of violating the Racial Integrity Act and effectively banished from Virginia.  In his ruling, Judge Leon Bazile stated that, “Almighty God created races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”  The level of historical ignorance that it takes even to conceive of such a statement – let alone say it in public, let alone say it from a position of authority – is staggering, but not anything unusual in context.

The Lovings lived in DC for a few years before deciding to challenge the law.  Their case wound its way through the justice system until it came before the US Supreme Court in 1967.  The arguments were fairly simple.  The attorneys for the Lovings argued that the law was a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the law and due process.  The Commonwealth of Virginia argued that the Fourteenth Amendment was not written to overturn bans on interracial marriages (bans which were common in 1868, when the amendment was ratified) and that interracial marriages were harmful to children because of the high rate of divorces in such marriage and the alleged mental instability of the people who would even consider such a thing.

Loving v. Virginia was decided unanimously.  The Court overturned Virginia’s law, and with it the laws of the remaining states who still had such laws by that point – no longer a majority of states, but a significant percentage nonetheless.  It is worth noting that those states could be easily defined: any state where you could legally hold slaves in 1861, when the Civil War broke out, still banned interracial marriage when this decision came down over a century later, and any state where you couldn’t do so did not.

The argument based on children was so utterly without merit and so obviously fraudulent that the Court dismissed it out of hand.  Virginia simply had nothing beyond conjecture and flawed data to back up its statements on this point.  Indeed, responding to the allegations of higher rates of divorces in interracial marriages, Justice Potter Stewart pointed out the circular nature of such reasoning.  “One reason that marriages of this kind are sometimes unsuccessful,” he noted, “is the existence of the kind of laws that are in issue here.”  Chief Justice Earl Warren did not consider the issue worth refuting at length in his final opinion, instead choosing focusing on the Constitutional question.

“This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court,” noted Warren, “whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.” 

The answer, he wrote, was yes.

“Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival,” Warren concluded.  “To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.  The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations.  Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.  These convictions must be reversed.  It is so ordered.”

The reaction to this was, if anything, predictable.  Conservative fear mongers railed against the idea that blacks and whites would marry, settle down, have children, and be happy, seeing it as a sign of the end times, a dire threat to the purity of the white race, and part of a plot among liberals to destroy both the United States and their version of Christianity – a blinkered and unrecognizable faith dedicated more to the preservation of antebellum plantation society than the spreading of the Gospel.

From the perspective of 2015 it is clear that such reactions were both hysterical and wrong.  The world did not end.  The white race (however one cares to define that – nobody really has a standard definition, so pick whatever one that suits you and don’t forget to explain how such an arbitrary construct can be pure in the first place) has not been noticeably changed, and whether that counts as good or bad depends on your viewpoint I suppose.  The United States continues on its way toward whatever it would have been headed toward had this decision not happened at all.  The blinkered version of Christianity espoused by those fear mongers seems to be thriving more than ever, alas.  The only concrete thing that actually happened because of this decision is that a great many Americans were given the chance to enjoy a fundamental right that had previously been denied to them by bigots.


The issue of marriage came before the Supreme Court again this year, in a case known as Obergefell v. Hodges.  At issue were laws in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee that defined marriage as a union between one man and one women – effectively reserving marriage as a privilege to be enjoyed by heterosexual Americans rather than the “fundamental freedom” described by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1967.

The plaintiffs argued that such laws were clear violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection under the law and due process.  The defendants argued that the Fourteenth Amendment was not written to overturn bans on same-sex marriage (bans which were universally understood in 1868, when the amendment was ratified) and that same-sex marriages were harmful to children. 

In a disturbingly narrow victory for marriage, a deeply divided Court overturned the laws restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.  The majority decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is very clear on this point. 

“The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. Same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” wrote Kennedy, who went on to elaborate this point in later passages. 

“The fundamental liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs” is one of those passages.  “The right of same-sex couples to marry is also derived from the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause are connected in a profound way. Rights implicit in liberty and rights secured by equal protection may rest on different precepts and are not always co-extensive, yet each may be instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other” is another. 

It’s pretty straightforward, really.

Like Warren, and for exactly the same reasons, Kennedy doesn’t really deal with the whole issue of children very deeply.  That argument is fundamentally inadequate from the get-go, based on conjecture and flawed data, and obviously not worth the space it would take up on the page.  Why, then, devote space to it?

Instead, Kennedy focuses on the Constitutional question, and the answer is clear.  “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.  The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.  It is so ordered.”

It is a sign of just how polarized American politics and culture have become in the last half century that so simple and obvious a decision was not unanimous but instead generated four separate dissenting opinions from the right wing of the Court, opinions ranging from the deranged (Scalia) to the petty (Roberts).

Justice Scalia’s main point – at least as far as I got into his opinion, since after the first few pages it began to get more than a little tiresome – is that “a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court” has somehow dared to determine what the Constitution actually means and how it applies to the law, and Justice Scalia finds this unacceptable.  I’m not sure how a sitting Supreme Court Justice can be so bone-ignorant about the proper role and function of the American judiciary and still draw a paycheck, but there it is.  Further, the fact that this complaint was repeatedly echoed in Chief Justice Roberts’ dissent is profoundly disturbing.  To be honest, Scalia’s opinion made me question his basic fitness for the job.  It’s pretty clear that he has abandoned all pretense of judicial professionalism and is simply there to present an extreme partisan viewpoint. 

Nowhere in his dissenting opinion, for example, does Scalia explain how the majority of the nine lawyers on the Court is illegitimate in this particular case, where Scalia is notably in the minority, and yet perfectly legitimate in other cases where Scalia is in a similarly narrow majority.  Just off the top of my head, I would inquire as how he would apply this dubious reasoning in such cases as DC v. Heller (which overturned centuries of legal precedent and the express intent of the Founding Fathers in order to declare gun ownership an individual rather than collective right), or the single most grotesque parody of a judicial decision of the last half century, Bush v. Gore (which appointed to the presidency a Republican with half a million fewer popular votes than his Democratic opponent, without even so much as an investigation into the widespread and substantial allegations of electoral fraud that gave that Republican his semblance of victory in the Electoral College).  But those cases furthered Scalia’s partisan agenda, and were thus somehow acceptably decided by that newfound terror in the legal system, “a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”

There’s also Chief Justice Roberts’ junior-high level invective (“Just who do we think we are?”) and petulance to consider.  “If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it,” he declared, the foot stomping nearly audible as he did so. 

Well, actually, as the majority opinion makes perfectly clear, the Constitution has everything to do with it.  But that’s apparently beside the point for him.  As for me, I will indeed celebrate the Constitution and I will celebrate its direct relevance to this decision, and as I do so I will think joyful thoughts about how uncomfortable the whole issue obviously makes Chief Justice Roberts because I can be petty too.

The dissenting opinions also brought up the issue of children, because a) heterosexual couples who choose not to have children or who cannot, for whatever reason, have children, must not exist and therefore cannot be considered in this case, and b) the overwhelming evidence that children raised in stable homes with loving parents do better than children not so raised, regardless of the gender mix of the parents, is just science and science is clearly left-wing propaganda designed to make right-wingers look bad by comparing their talking points unfavorably to reality.

What is perhaps most disturbing in all this is that Clarence Thomas also wrote a dissenting opinion, one that had it been the majority opinion would have preserved the institution of marriage as a privilege for the majority rather than as a right for all American citizens.  Given that his own marriage would have been illegal in many states prior to the Loving decision, this is an odd position to take.  One wonders if he discussed it with his wife beforehand.

Thomas of course, argued that Loving and Obergefell were not analogous at all, and in this he was joined by his dissenting brethren (it’s worth noting that all of the women on the Court voted with the majority), who heaped all sorts of derision upon the very idea that Loving v. Virginia was at all relevant here. 

The majority opinion strongly disagreed, however, starting with the basic fact that “the Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. In Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, 12 (1967), which invalidated bans on interracial unions, a unanimous Court held marriage is ‘one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men,’” and returning to this theme repeatedly throughout the decision.

“The Court’s cases touching upon the right to marry reflect this dynamic,” wrote Kennedy, referring to the interplay between the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  “In Loving the Court invalidated a prohibition on interracial marriage under both the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause. The Court first declared the prohibition invalid because of its unequal treatment of interracial couples. It stated: ‘There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.’  With this link to equal protection the Court proceeded to hold the prohibition offended central precepts of liberty: ‘To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.’  The reasons why marriage is a fundamental right became more clear and compelling from a full awareness and understanding of the hurt that resulted from laws barring interracial unions.”

Richard Loving died in a car accident in 1975, leaving Mildred a widow for the next three decades or so.  She never remarried. 

On the fortieth anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision, about a year before she died, Mildred Loving addressed the issue of marriage equality publicly.

“My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right,” she wrote.  “The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God's plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation's fears and prejudices have given way, and today's young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”

Mildred Loving’s statement is important, because – among other things – it gets to the idea of who owns the past.  She clearly felt that her own struggle in the 1950s and 1960s and the struggle for marriage equality here in the 21st century were the same.  Does Clarence Thomas have the right to deny it?

Does he?

Maybe he does.  Once you enter into the public sphere you lose control over how you are used by others.  You become a symbol for all sorts of people and causes you never wanted to be part of. 

On the other hand, though, Mildred Loving was the one who was there – it’s a story about her, after all –  and perhaps her views ought to be accorded more weight than those of Clarence Thomas.  Historians argue about this sort of thing all the time.  It’s one of the many reasons we’re fun at parties.

More importantly, however, while you can argue all you want over who owns the past it’s fairly clear who owns the future. 

In 1948, when California became the first state to legalize interracial marriage, roughly 90% of Americans opposed the idea.  In 1967, when Loving v. Virginia was decided, 72% of Americans still opposed the idea.  Interracial marriage didn’t command the support of the majority of Americans until 1991.

By contrast, at the time Obergefell was decided in 2015, a strong majority of Americans felt that marriage equality was in fact proper and Constitutional.  63% of Americans said ahead of time that the majority decision reached in Obergefell was the correct one – up from 49% in 2010.  This is especially true for younger voters.  A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 69% of Democrats and other liberals favored marriage equality, with 77% of younger Democrats doing so.  No age group of liberals was less than 62% in favor of marriage equality.  Further, in what rearguard right-wingers will no doubt see as a troubling sign, while only 39% of Republicans and other conservatives favored marriage equality and only 22% of those over 65 did, 61% of conservatives under 30 saw no justifiable legal or Constitutional barrier to marriage equality.  Indeed, 64% of self-identified Evangelical Christians under the age of 30 also support marriage equality in 2015 and did so even before the Obergefell decision was announced.

But in a sense, all that is beside the point.  However heartening it is to see majorities of Americans on both sides of our bitterly polarized political debates coming around to the simple idea that American citizens should be treated as American citizens, and however positive a sign it is for the future that this is rapidly becoming a settled issue, the fact is that there are limits to democracy and fundamental rights are among those limits.

The Supreme Court itself recognized this fact in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) when it noted that the entire point of the Constitution 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.”  The Court recognized, in other words, that  “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

As Justice Kennedy wrote when citing these passages, “It is of no moment whether advocates of same-sex marriage now enjoy or lack momentum in the democratic process. The issue before the Court here is the legal question whether the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry.”

The answer, he wrote, was yes.

It’s been sixteen days since marriage equality became legal here in the United States.  The sky has not fallen.  My heterosexual marriage is just as stable as it was before.  God has not destroyed the nation – although, honestly, if we got a free pass for slavery, the destruction of Native American cultures, and the mere existence of Donald Trump, I can’t see how this would have tipped the balance – and in fact things seem to be going along just swimmingly, or at least just as swimmingly as before.  The only concrete thing that actually happened because of this decision is that a great many Americans are now being given the chance to enjoy a fundamental right that had previously been denied to them by bigots.


For all that the United States does well, the plain fact is that we get a lot of things wrong, too.  As a historian it is my job to study both the strengths and weaknesses of this country, and we have both of them in spades.  This time we got one right.  American citizens should be treated as American citizens.  It really is as simple as that.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King Jr., echoing the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker, “but it bends toward justice.”

Justice has been done.  Love wins. 

It is so ordered.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

News and Updates

1. Well, now that the Women’s World Cup is over, I don’t know what I am going to do with my time.  It’s not like there are other things I should be doing, or should have done by now, or will likely add to my list of things to do, and I think I will stop thinking about that now.

2. It was a great tournament, though.  The final game was probably not fun for anyone who wasn’t a fan of the US team – seriously, four goals in fifteen minutes?  For those of you who are soccer-impaired, that’s roughly the equivalent of a 45-0 lead at the end of the first quarter of the Super Bowl.  But I was glad the US won, and I was even more glad to see so many well-played games throughout the WWC.  If you missed this tournament, you missed out.

3. Oh, and FIFA can go suck eggs.  They did everything they could to marginalize this event – from the artificial turf that forced players to run for 90 minutes on 120F surfaces to the amateurish refereeing to the fact that the outgoing Don of that organization didn’t even bother to show up for the trophy ceremony (which might have been because he’d likely be arrested as soon as his plane touched down, but that’s a whole other matter).  Plus it turns out that the championship team was awarded just under 6% of the prize money that the men’s championship team was awarded – barely more than men’s teams eliminated at the group stage went home with as a consolation prize.  I’m not going to go into any moral arguments for gender equality – honestly, it’s been my sad experience that moral arguments make no impression on those who don’t think gender equality is a no-brainer – but you’d at least think they’d consider the economic arguments.  Any organization as slavishly devoted to wringing every last penny from its fans as FIFA clearly is should recognize the folly of not encouraging 52% of the world’s population to join in the fleecing.  Expanding your markets, gentlemen – that, at least, you should be able to understand.

4. Tabitha has received her first paycheck!  Welcome to the working world, kiddo.  Next comes a debit card.  Eventually, when the euphoria has worn off, we’ll discuss 1040s.

5. Speaking of which, I spent about 45 minutes on the phone with the IRS this week.  According to the letter I got from them Lauren did not exist, and since she didn’t exist neither did the deduction for a dependent child so please pay this exorbitant amount within two weeks, thank you.  That’s a fine letter to receive the day before a holiday weekend.  It turned out I made a typo on her social security number back in April.  After about 20 minutes on hold, I ended up talking to a perfectly reasonable person at the IRS, and after another 25 minutes of questions, checking things up on other databases, confirming all kinds of identity information, and general repetition (this mostly from me), the problem was solved.  Easy.  I’ve had to deal directly with the IRS several times in the last decade or so, and I’ve never had a bad experience with them.

6. It was a busy holiday weekend, here in MURCA!  First we had family come up from Chicago for an all-too-brief stop on their way up north, and we had a lovely time with them.  They had a good time with the rabbits, chickens, and turkeys.  We had an awesome lunch.  And then there was ice cream.  Seriously – what’s not to love?

7. Then we had out annual cookout for the 4th.  More family came down, as well as a few friends, and there was food aplenty, beverages galore, and conversation all around.  We also walked over to the hospital to watch the city fireworks arc gracefully over the cardiac ward  (“Trust me!  They’ll love it!”).  Happy birthday, USA!  239 years and still working on the promises outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  We’ll get there, by and by.

8. If I read next fall’s academic calendar correctly, every single one of my courses is going to be shortchanged one class period.  I suppose we didn’t really need to cover Reconstruction anyway, since the south refuses to admit that it existed even now.

9. I am being hemmed in by road construction projects.  Pretty much everywhere I try to go here in Our Little Town is ripped up, surrounded by orange barrels, and declared off limits to non-hard-hat-wearing personnel.  Eventually I will be trapped in my own house with nothing but books, tea, and the internet to keep me company, and, um, that would be fine.

10. I keep saying yes when people ask me to do things.  It makes for a busy life.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Online Bureaucracy

Facebook ate my friend.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2008.  Like most new things that involve any digital technology at all, I was not an early adopter nor was I all that interested in joining.  Indeed, it took Kim several weeks of concerted effort just to get me to consider it, and another couple of weeks of lurking on her profile to make me think it was something I was willing to do. 

Now, of course, I’m an addict.

For all of the many and valid criticisms people make of Facebook, it has more than proven its worth to me.  I have reconnected with friends I hadn’t seen in years.  I’ve become closer to people I was still connected with.  It has been a conduit of communication for friends going through rough patches in their lives, and a way to provide comfort and assurance even if all that meant was checking in to say hello.  It has been a way to share joys as they came up.  It has become the default method of planning events and organizing large groups – both scattered across the country or the world and, surprisingly enough, just locally here in Our Little Town.  And it has replaced email as the place where the jokes get passed around.

It’s not cool, Facebook.  My children tell me that all the time.  We have told them that they need to get accounts just to keep up with a) us old people and b) the groups that need to be organized (such as 4H, which does a surprising amount of business on Facebook), and they have grudgingly accepted this ultimatum even though all the cool kids are on Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter or some other service that would instantly become uncool if I were ever to join and might have already become so merely by my mentioning it here.

I also understand that Facebook is a free service and that, accordingly, I am the product and not the consumer.  It’s been worth it to me.

But sometimes?  Facebook can be a real ass.

They’ve recently begun enforcing a policy requiring people to use their verified real names. 

On the one hand, this is probably not a bad idea – there are a lot of cowards out there hiding behind anonymity as trolls and abusers, and cracking down on them is a good idea. 

On the other hand, there are also a lot of people out there who have legitimate reasons for using alternate names.  Some of them are hiding from the trolls and abusers.  Some have alternate identities for alternate situations – one for work friends and one for non-work friends, for example, or they have a “gaming identity” for online games.  Some just don’t wish to be known to a wider public, but still want to take part in the online community.  In an online world were simply being female makes you orders of magnitude more likely to be harassed than being male, sometimes people just don’t want to spend their time dealing with assholes.  There are a lot of valid reasons for aliases, is what I’m saying.

So there is a need to make some finely honed judgments in these matters.

Unfortunately Facebook has become such a juggernaut, such a massive and impersonal force, that getting it to make those finely honed judgments is nearly impossible.  Hell, I’ve run afoul of Facebook myself.  During the Great Wisconsin Putsch of 2011 I posted so many political links that I was actually forbidden from making any further posts on my own account for days.  There was nobody to complain to.  Nobody even to explain the decision to me.  I sent off questions to the various help line slots and got exactly nothing in response.  Eventually they decided I must have been chastened and relented, except all that happened was that I learned to be sneaky and lost most of my respect for them as an organization.  They’re useful, but no more.  All this from someone who kept his account and still uses it, too.  Not like my friend.

Sad, really.

I don’t really know why my friend chose to have an online alias with Facebook, and frankly I don’t regard it as my business to ask.  I got to know them under that name, and they have been perfectly fine to me under that name – friendly, honest, and fun to have around.  I’ve even gotten to know them a bit better in the present crisis, and everything I’ve learned has made me like them more. 

I do not like it when my friends are not treated well.

No I do not.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Drive in the Country

We did a lot of things up north this past weekend.

We visited some old friends.  We went to a pig roast.  We walked onto a tennis court and proceeded to hit the ball a few times, and no that is not at all the same thing as actually playing tennis.  Playing tennis would require us to keep the ball within the high fenced in area and away from the surrounding countryside, which manifestly did not happen.  We continued to watch the Women's World Cup, and we still have no idea how the French managed to lose to the Germans (and if you think it's easy to skip the WWII jokes here, well, you try it).  We searched for the northern lights but were apparently half a week late.  We even slipped over the border into Minnesota for half an hour – the first time either of the girls had done so.  Add another state to the list!

But the one thing that will likely stay with us most from this trip was the 4x4.

We were staying at Joe’s house, which has a great deal of land attached to it – and why not, since there’s not much else around besides land.  It’s wide open country out there.  Joe was actually not home most of the weekend, as he was gallivanting around the state on other missions (we did get to see him at the very end), so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  The girls made fires in the firepit, learned not to attempt the hammock that was strung over the big pile of rocks (“it was an error in judgment,” was all Joe would say about it when asked), and generally had a marvelous time.  It's good to have friends who will let you take over their home like that.

Joe also has a 4x4 – one of those little ATVs that you can ride around the trails.  It seats two comfortably, one behind the other, and once you get it going it can move at a fairly good clip.  The girls had been on it before, on previous visits, and Lauren had been looking forward to riding it again since the moment she found out we were going north.

Except that nobody was there but us, this time.

This, of course, is one of those parenting moments that you know is coming but are nevertheless not quite prepared for.  How much freedom do you want to give them when it involves internal combustion engines and knobbly tires?  Then again, how restrictive can you be?  It’s a balancing act.

So I took the first ride solo.  I figured out how to get it to start (a simple but non-obvious process) and then scouted out a route around the property that seemed to involve minimal hazards.

When I got back I took Lauren around that route, and eventually Tabitha as well.

Then it was their turn.

They rode together for the first few times, switching off from driver to passenger.  It’s always good to have a buddy to run for help if anything happens, and Tabitha is now legally old enough to drive in Wisconsin anyway, even if she doesn't yet have the paperwork to make it official.  They went down the driveway, made the right turn around the clump of trees and came back up around the lawn, past the big bushes and back to the driveway – a loop of maybe a hundred yards length and twenty yards width. 

Eventually they got bored with that and went past the clump of trees and followed the driveway down the hill to the main road, where they turned around and came back.  You can really open it up when you come up the hill. 

This lasted two days. 

By the third day they were cruising solo.  Lauren especially enjoyed the ride – she would go out and start the thing up on her own and take off down the driveway, Joe’s big dog flying beside her like a furry flag, back and forth, around and around.

Let’s just say that one of our missions this past weekend involved refilling a couple of gas cans.

It all went well right up to about half an hour before we left, when Lauren backed it into Joe’s car.  She put a palm-sized dent just above the rear blinker, which fortunately Joe was not bothered about, and nobody got hurt.  So, win.

If there were offroad trails from there back to Our Little Town, my guess is that Lauren would have just met us at home.