Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Some things are better if you know history

The usual answer to "why do we need to learn history?" typically involves doom and repetition. An alternative answer is that it lets you into a special club in which all manner of things mean a whole lot more. For instance:

I was listening to a favorite song of mine, "Brand New '64 Dodge" by Greg Brown. Mostly, it's just the musings of a boy who thinks it's odd to be riding in a '64 Dodge in 1963.
Money comes out of Dad's billfold,
Hankies come out of Mom's purse.
The engine hardly makes a sound
Even when you put it in reverse.

But then later he muses about the girl he likes.

Her little brother is retarded,
But Jesus loves him, too.
And Jesus loves our president, 
Even though he's a Catholic.

Then if you know history, you know he's singing about John Kennedy, because he was the first Catholic president, and some people were worried that a Catholic president would have to obey the pope. Turned out not to matter so much, but that's what people worried about back then.

The world is big and full of autumn,
And I'm as hungry as can be!
We're in our new '64 Dodge
November of '63. November.

He repeats that month, to make sure you don't miss it, as if it's important that it is November. Because it is. If you know a little history, you know that in November of 1963, John Kennedy was shot and killed. And suddenly you know what this song is about. It isn't about a car at all. It's about the Kennedy Assassination. It's about a great tragedy that's going to come crashing down on this innocent little boy, a big smack of reality into the face of a kid who's been told all his life that the world is a good and safe and wonderful place, and all these questions he's been pondering are suddenly going to seem like they don't mean anything at all. It's about innocence destroyed.

But if you don't know history? ...Then it's just about a car.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Isabelle has decided she wants to raise chickens in our back yard. (For those who don't know, our house stands on 0.14 acres. A back yard not quite big enough to play kickball with a six year-old.) Carrie and I both said, "I don't think so."

But Isabelle has quite a bit more chutzpah than I ever did. She solicited from us all our "concerns" about raising chickens, and announced she was going to launch a campaign to change our minds. She's spent the past two days researching chicken care, and looking up the Barre City regulations on the keeping of poultry, and measuring the yard to find a place a chicken coop could be the required thirty feet away from anyone else's house.

We shall see. If she can really address all the issues, I might have to agree, if for nothing else out of admiration for her spirit. Hopefully it will resolve agreeably, however it goes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Home," or How Bad Can Hollywood Get?

Isabelle wanted to see Home, the Hollywood adaptation of Adam Rex's fantastic book The True Meaning of Smekday, so, being a good dad, I gritted my teeth and brought her. All I can say is, what inspires us, that we find it necessary to take a thing of brilliance and beauty, and rip it to shreds? Are we humans no better than Gorg? Not the cute little starfish in the movie, the Gorg, as in "If you took all the Gorg in the world and stacked them one on top of the other, the Gorg would kill you." Are we truly as pathetic as the Boov think we are?

Adam Rex produced a thinly veiled indictment of Euroamerican colonialism, in a hysterical book that simultaneously was also able to convey the devastation of an eleven year-old girl whose single mother has been violently taken away from her. Yes, he really did get all three of those into a single children's adventure tale. If Hollywood made it into a silly romp, that would have been predictably bad. But to paste on a moral that only humans truly understand love and faith and courage, and the human capacity for friendship triumphs over all, is self-righteous horseshit. (Pardon my language.)

No, I was not expecting that Hollywood could adapt this book into a movie. Not even the folks who did a fine job with The Fault in Our Stars. But I am not able to fathom the depth of our banality. These people must be the sort who would paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

(I remember hearing that a review should always find something good to say, so here it is: the producers did not chicken out of showing Tip's family as biracial. Kudos.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Best Opening Lines

So, my survey of the best opening lines by independent authors has concluded. Participation was limited, results are not scientific, but here they are. The top vote-getter was a professional, Candas Jane Dorsey topped the votes with the opening sentence from Black Wine: "There is a scarred, twisted old madwoman in a cage in the courtyard."

But as promised the official winners are only the independent writers.

I apologize for throwing my own work into the mix. Submissions were few enough that it wouldn't have made a very exciting contest without a couple extras.

First Place At the end of this story a baby will be born, and touch off an insurrection.Shock and AweEugene Fairfield
Second Place (tie) Mesmerized by its beauty, I found myself staring at the sky with its only sun.The Legacy: FateGG Atcheson
Second Place (tie)The ravenous hunger that had formed a knot in my stomach pulled me out of my rest. The Legacy: Destiny  GG Atcheson
Third Place It all started with the bowling ball.The Prophecy of ShieldIsabelle Wightman 

Congratulations to the winners.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rhubarb Soda

Follow this link for my rhubarb syrup recipe.

For Kids and Adults:

Add 2-3 Tbspn Rhubarb Syrup to 1 can seltzer. If the syrup is frozen, it helps to mash it up first, and use a room-temperature seltzer, if available.

Note that this drink has significantly less sugar than a regular soft drink. I can't say how much, since a lot of the sugar used to make the syrup went with the compote, but I'm guessing probably about half.

For Adults:

Add 2-3 Tbspn Rhubarb Syrup to 2 oz Vodka. Mix thoroughly. Then add 1 can seltzer. Don't forget this drink is alcoholic, as it will go down very easily.

Rhubarb Compote & Syrup

This is a double purpose recipe. The same procedure creates two fabulous things. Rhubarb Compote is a fabulous topping for pancakes, or filling for tarts. Rhubarb syrup can be used to make fabulous drinks, both for kids and adults.

Makes about 1 cup each of compote and syrup.
  • Mix 2 cups chopped rhubarb stalks with 1 to 1½  cups sugar.
  • Add a little water. (maybe 1 Tbspn)
  • place in saucepan and simmer over low to moderate heat, stirring occasionally, particularly early on as the juice is releasing.
  • Cook until the rhubarb softens and the liquid is just a little syrupy. I stop before the rhubarb is mush.
  • place a sieve over a bowl and pour the mixture in. You will get more syrup if you press with the back of a spoon, but it will be clearer if you don't.
The compote is what is left in the sieve. The syrup is in the bowl. Both will keep refrigerated for a couple days. The syrup may be frozen.

To peel or not to peel. It's a personal taste thing. The red color is mostly in the skin, so if you peel, the syrup will be yellowy green. If you don't, it will be pinker. I don't believe the skin detracts from this recipe.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger -- a big empty place inside me

To paraphrase myself
I cannot remember a time without Pete Seeger, and I cannot remember a time without the music.
 I could be three, or four years old, skipping around a living room in a house that I cannot remember, singing "Put your finger in the air, in the air." Or what was then the funniest line I'd ever heard in song: [regarding the color of flowers for the imminently dying Henry] "Green and yeller. GREEEEN and yeller."

I could be six years old, at vacation bible school, singing, "If I had a hammer," which I then thought was a silly song, because if he really wanted a hammer, why didn't he just go get one.

Nine years old, at summer camp.

Fourteen years old, watching him on TV, calling out, "Split wood, not atoms." He looked like an older man to me, then. It was 1979. He was 59.

Eighteen years old, at vacation bible school, leading the kids in singing, "If I had a hammer," which I then thought was a marvelous song. I sang other songs with them to. And sometimes, I sang as I had learned from him, though I did not remember where I had learned it, "join in on the chorus when it comes round."

Twenty years old, at Oberlin College. He came to play. But I was twenty, and full of twenty, and though I wanted to go, something else called me away (I don't even think it was a girl).

I remember thinking later, that Muddy Waters had come to Oberlin, and died that same year. Then Count Bassie came to Oberlin, and died that same year, and I was sure that the curse would hit Pete Seeger next, and I had missed my one chance to see him. It was 1985, he was 65. Most people retire at 65. I was wrong about the curse, but I was right that that had been my last chance.

He came to Oberlin in 1956, too. In 1985 he filled Finney Chapel, the largest venue we had. In 1956 he filled the living room of Johnson House, which was just a living room. He was on McCarthy's black list and in contempt of Congress for not answering their questions. My mother was there. She could have reached out and touched him.

Twenty-one, still at Oberlin, having a protest in support of the campus minister who had just been let go. We sang "We Shall Overcome", until a group of black students pointed out that the song was precious to them, for the Civil Rights struggle, and could we not co-opt it, please.

Jump ahead. 2005, I'm 40 and a dad. I just got a USB turntable to convert my old vinyl to digital format. I pounce on my parents' scratchy old record collection and pull out four albums to borrow and convert. Half of them are Pete Seeger.

He was "wholesome," in a way nobody is anymore. The only one I think of as a peer to him was Woody Guthrie, but I wouldn't use that adjective for Guthrie. Seeger also could sing. I mean he could SING. Whether it was his songs for children ("Here's to cheshire, here's to cheese,") or Carnegie Hall ("If you see me at the back of the bus"), his voice soared.

It is 2014. I am 48, as old as he was when I was dancing around the living room. I heard the news while driving to work, and I very nearly had to pull over at the side of the interstate because I was crying. It's been 30 years since I worried he would imminently die. He was 94 years old. And still my heart cries, "No!" No, he can't have died. There has always been Pete Seeger. He is too precious to die like any ordinary man. Or couldn't he hang on, just another ten years, so Isabelle can see him in concert when she's at school?

Back in those days there weren't any televisions or radios, and if you wanted to hear any music you just had to make it yourself. It was only the kings and queens that could afford to have somebody else make music for them. And you might not think it would be very good music, everybody making their own. But you'd be surprised.
Pete Seeger, The Children's Concert

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Boyfriend

Isabelle has a boyfriend. He's nine years old. He's told her he loves her. She concurs. They haven't kissed, but they do hug.

Today was the first day I met him, although I've seen him from a distance before. It was only afterwards that I realized I had behaved in a very atypical manner for meeting one of my daughter's friends. I approached him directly, introduced myself, shook his hand, and said it was nice to meet him. It seemed normal until I imagined doing that with any of her other friends.

I don't think this is presaging anything good for my behavior around future boyfriends. When she's thirteen, am I going to be asking, "So. What are your intentions toward my daughter, young man?" Will I go so far, when she's fifteen, as, "Gentlemen who wish to keep their testicles will have her home by ten"? Oh well. At least Gabriel got a very first taste of "meeting the father of the bride."

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Isabelle Sez

If it's a gaggle of geese, and a drive of dragons, and a pride of lions, what do you call a large group of grown-ups?

One night when the parents and grandparents were yacking unstoppably, Isabelle told us, "You should call it a 'talk' of grown-ups."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Partial Zero Emission Vehicles

I just saw that Honda is advertising a "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle," which sounds really cool. No one else is marketing a Zero Emission Vehicle right now. This is "Partial Zero," but as every 3rd grader knows, a part of zero is still zero. Try it: 1/10 * 0 = ??

I suppose it's possible that they intended to hyphenate, indicating that their car is partially a Zero-Emission-Vehicle. This makes me wonder, which part? No emissions on the left side? Or from the front? Of course, nearly all cars in good repair could be called zero emission from the front, all the emissions come out the back. So maybe the zero-emission part is just the passenger cabin. Of course, this would depend on operator skill. For instance, too much chili could compromise the zero-emission nature of the car.

Well, I'll just be mystified for the moment. In the meantime, I can't wait until some car maker remembers the actual zero emission vehicle they made in the 1990s, and decides to market it again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


The other day I was thinking about how good it is, the taste of melted ice cream in soda, and it hit me: you don't need to make an ice cream soda to do it. Here is a low-fat, low-calorie alternative to soda that is aspartame and saccharin free:

Serves 2:
to each glass:
  • Add 2 Tbsp. half-&-half
  • Add 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Add ice
  • add 1/2 a can of unflavored seltzer.
It helps if you pour the seltzer down the size of the glass, like a beer, because it will foam.

For those of you who wince at the very words "half-&-half," I provide my Nutrition Facts, with comparison to a 12oz Coke:

Cream FrizzCoke
Fat3g 9%0g
Sat. Fat2g 10%0g
Trans Fat0g0g
Cholestrol15mg 4%0mg
Sodium25mg 1%45mg 2%
Carbs1g 1%39g 13%

Apart from the fat, I win. I wouldn't drink ten of these a day, but on the whole I call them healthy enough.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Isabelle's Snowman Extravaganza

Even Carrie doesn't believe me now about the number of snowmen I counted in the back yard, so here is my photo documentation.

#2 is a baby snowman held in the Mommy snowman's arms. #5 is sledding, so deliberately on the ground.

#5 was originally holding a shovel. He dropped it overnight before I got this closeup shot.

I don't remember why #3 was built on the ground. This is a close-up of my original aerial photo, as #1 was gone by the time I took a closer shot.

Count them up and tell me if I'm lying:
  • 5 in the family set
  • 5 in the garden gang
  • 4 individuals
  • 3 in the "hidden set" by the pine tree.
The final number is... 17.

For the record, when Isabelle came in from this work, she was so tired and cold she was crying. Hot chocolate and cuddles cured that, though, and now she's happily telling everyone how she got a little hypothermia.