At times, our government can seem petty and churlish, and perhaps nothing embodies that quite like the United States Supreme Court. After all, there’s only nine justices, and they serve for life. (Technically, the Constitution says they serve “during good behavior,” but historically no one has seemed to care if they were assholes; even Samuel Chase was acquitted.) As you might imagine, then, determining just who becomes one of those nine justices is important.
I was upset when Republicans blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland. Not because I knew anything about Merrick Garland, but the very effort of doing so seemed to cheapen the way our government was supposed to work. Of course, as soon as a new President came along, the Republicans remembered how to confirm justices again, and they appointed Neil Gorsuch. Then came Brett Kavanaugh. By the time Amy Coney Barrett got pushed through, it was pretty obvious these Republicans had a plan.
Earlier today, a leaked document published by Politico made that plan apparent: The Supreme Court -- well, most of it, anyway -- is fed up with deadbeat dads.
If there is one bipartisan issue upon which I hope we can all agree, it’s that many American men have been jerks and idiots for quite some time. That manifests in a host of ways, but one example happens when American men impregnate women but then flee from their responsibilities in child-rearing.
So it appears I owe the Republicans an apology. I, too, think those who are fathers should do their part in the raising of their children, whether in actual parenting or in the financial support of those who do the actual parenting. Kudos to these brave five justices who want to ensure more money gets provided to America’s mothers.
But I admit, I never expected five justices would feel so strongly about deadbeat dads they would work to ensure America would have even more of them. I could not have foreseen the Court would want to ramp up the number of American pregnancies just to get as much money into women’s hands as possible.
It’s almost like Republicans recognize America’s women are owed for the historic injustices perpetrated against them and have decided the only way to make those wrongs right is financial compensation. Let hope this trend continues, and Republicans already have a plan to get money into the hands of America’s Black and Native populations, too.
And yeah, I know all the arguments the whining liberals have against this move. I mean, sure, some women are going to go to other countries to get an abortion, but c'mon -- only the rich ones! And sure, among the poor and middle class, some women will get illegal abortions, but if we catch them, they'll help bolster our anemic incarceration numbers. Even if we don't catch them, some of them will die because their abortions were unsafe, just as some who choose not to have those unsafe abortions will die in the process of Court-mandated childbirth. But it's high time for America to realize that the preventable deaths of people Republicans don't care about is just the cost of Freedom.
But this website isn't supposed to be about politics; it's supposed to be about finding pieces of good news when the world seems ready to provide us with so much bad news. So here's the good news: All of this came to light in advance of the midterm elections. When the time comes, vote your conscience. Or maybe this time, vote your ovaries. If you don't have ovaries, vote for your mothers and sisters and daughters and friends and loved ones who do.
The Story of a Novel, Part One
One of the long-term joys in my life is writing. Whether it’s this blog, long-winded emails to colleagues (sorry, colleagues), letters to friends, or any other form, I have always found a certain measure of satisfaction in putting words upon a page. Most recently, that joy has found expression in The Historian’s Lament, a book I released earlier this month.
The Historian’s Lament was not the book I expected to write. I flirted with a number of genres in my life before settling on Fantasy, but was already writing a trilogy. I had self-published the first book and was working diligently on the second, and I felt as though I had enough to say that I should be able to move on to the third in relatively short order.
Then, on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. If you supported President Trump, good for you; I’d really rather not have the same old tired debates that went on throughout his Presidency. For my own part, he worried me. I thought he was unqualified. I thought he was a bully. I thought he appealed to the baser elements of the American psyche, and that four years with him in charge might do irreparable damage to a nation I love.
So the next day, I started writing The Historian’s Lament.
I didn’t know what the book was going to be when I started. I knew it would be a fantasy, but only in the sense it would take place in a fictional world. It would be a fantasy without magic, or elves, or dwarves, or special powers, or divine intervention, or any of the things one might usually suspect a fantasy novel would have, but it had to take place in a land that had never existed.
I also knew it would be somewhat political. Since I was set on fantasy, it wasn’t going to be about President Trump – or any other president or world leader – but rather about what good government is supposed to look like in the first place. I intended to do this by negative example; that is, show bad government and then have characters work to overthrow it. Somehow, my book would attack the concept of tyranny in general and the rulers who have been tyrants and bullies throughout history. But if I had no magic swords and no epic quest, exactly how would any of my characters try to overthrow the tyrants?
Thankfully, I’m a history teacher—or I was when this book began, anyway—and I read a lot of non-fiction. At the time, I was reading James Baldwin, whose eloquence in advance of and all through the Civil Rights Movement has always been both educational and inspirational to me. But that got me thinking about writing in general.
What if my characters tried to overthrow a government through the written word? What if they weren’t all wizards and warriors? What if they were writers? Within the context of the fantasy world I hoped to create, they couldn’t really be bestselling novelists or bloggers, but they could be historians. What if I looked at the concepts of good government and revolution through the very historians who would write about those things?
We have a tendency, here in America, to be proud of our efforts during the American Revolution, and I believe we should be. But we also tend to forget just how much writing went into that effort. When the concept of revolution came up initially, most American colonists didn’t want it. It was only after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, only after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence that the people of what would become this great nation decided they had had enough with King George III. The American Revolution would become a war, obviously, but it didn’t start with a war. It started with ideas, and it really started when those ideas began to get written down. It would happen again less than fifteen years later, when The Federalist Papers of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay became instrumental in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
That’s how The Historian’s Lament began: As a fantasy where a writer could use words to begin the effort of creating better government. I thought the idea was fairly solid, and I wasn’t sure I had ever read a non-magical fantasy about political philosophy, so I had a chance to be first in that field. I knew a book like that would probably never sell, but other than that, what could go wrong?
All I needed was the historian. In the end, I decided to go with two historians, and I’ll be happy to introduce you to both in the second part of this series. Thanks for reading.
Operation Remington Five
If you know me, then one of the things you may already know about me is I collect typewriters, kind of. I buy and sell and amass typewriters. I then get tired of my typewriters and sell some or give some away. Then I get to a point where I think, “Hey now, fifteen typewriters is not nearly enough typewriters,” and I start all over again.
I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and in all that time, the model of typewriter I have owned most often is a Remington 5. I have owned four different Remington 5’s. I find them to be among the most beautiful typewriters ever made – Art Nouveau, clean lines, gleaming black frame, nickel-plated keys… I could go on, but here’s a picture, instead.
One reason I have had so many Remington 5’s is that others seem to like them, too, and so—while they are difficult to part with—they are easy to sell. I love my typewriters, but I like cash, too. My first four Remington 5’s cost me a total of $45, and sold for a total of over $700. My typewriter collection is therefore part typewriter collection, and part stock market for dorks.
Having been a kind-of-collector for this long, I can tell you that the days of finding a typewriter for $10 at a yard sale haven’t totally disappeared, but the days of finding a Remington 5 for that price most certainly have. Still, I am drawn to this model for one other reason: It’s my wife’s favorite typewriter. Most of the time, I suspect Mrs. B wishes I collected spoons or thimbles or anything else that could fit in one drawer and be hidden away, but she never minds one bit when we have a Remington 5 on a shelf.
The universe began to align about a week-and-a-half ago. Recently, I joined some typewriter groups on Facebook, and shortly thereafter, I found a gentleman who was selling a serviced, working Remington 5 for what I felt was a very reasonable price. I decided I would be happy to own that typewriter, but there was only one problem: I was in Wisconsin, and he was in Minnesota. I know quite a few people who live in Minnesota, so I reached out and asked this gentleman if I could have one of my friends make the purchase on my behalf. He was fine with that, though of course he wanted to conclude our business as quickly as possible.
If you know me, one thing you may not know about me is that I have been blessed in this lifetime to know a great many people who are far better friends to me than I have been to them. I could get into my social anxiety and my imposter syndrome and all the other things that make this true, but this is not a post about my mental health; it’s a post about typewriters and friends.
Knowing I needed to move quickly to procure this typewriter, I put out an all-call to my Facebook friends, wondering if anyone might be willing to pick up this typewriter if I sent them the money, and hold it until I could get to Minnesota to retrieve it. To give you some idea of the quality of my friends, I had multiple offers, but in the end I chose my friend Cathy.
She’ll hate that I include this paragraph, but Cathy is amazing. She’s instantly likeable. She’s an accomplished pianist. She’s incredibly clever, with an endearing bit of snarkiness I find charming. If you know her, you already love her, and if you don’t, your life would be better if you did; certainly my life has been. I selected her for the job because she seemed weirdly honored to be asked. She promised she didn’t mind doing it. When I told her one condition was that I had to buy her lunch when I came to pick up the typewriter, and she told me I could do that but I should know she had expensive taste.
Seriously, Cathy is incredible.
So Cathy came on board, and we commenced what I began to call Operation Remington Five, because I felt like a handler on a really dorky spy mission. I began to coordinate their meetup, direct messaging the seller and Cathy at the same time, bopping back and forth between them and laughing at the comments of both. Eventually a time and place were set for noon last week Friday, I sent Cathy the money to purchase the typewriter, and I waited for fate to run its course.
Noon last Friday was a joy. I was in my classroom, when both Cathy and the seller began messaging me again, both clearly enjoying this semi-clandestine typewriter exchange in the parking lot of a local business. “I feel like I should be wearing a wire!” Cathy sent as she sat in the parking lot waiting, and then came the message I had waited for: “The eagle has landed!” Cathy sent, as she loaded the typewriter in her car.
A week later, Cathy messaged to say she still wanted an expensive lunch, but would be driving from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee, and was willing to meet for her second typewriter exchange in a week. I had nothing going on that couldn’t be interrupted, so we chose the most Wisconsin-ish place possible to meet: a Kwik Trip parking lot in Wisconsin Dells.
More messaging back and forth moved our noon meeting to 11:30 – “Sorry, I must be driving like a bat out of h***” she messaged – and I arrived at 11:22. She arrived six minutes later, and in those six minutes I had time to reflect on the weird confluence of circumstances that marked Operation Remington Five, but mostly on the kind of person Cathy is.
Everything I told you earlier about Cathy is true. The one thing I didn’t tell you is that the qualities I mentioned are ones I remember, because until yesterday, when Operation Remington Five reached its conclusion, I hadn’t seen my friend Cathy in 37 years. The last time I spoke with her in person, I was in high school. We spent 10 minutes standing in a parking lot in the middle of a rain/snow mix, and it could easily have been a conversation we started almost four decades ago but never had a chance to finish. I am not a person who enjoys photographs, but even I felt compelled to take a dorky selfie to mark the occasion.
“We can have no better clue to a man’s character than the company he keeps,” Nicolo Machiavelli wrote almost 500 years ago. I’ve never agreed with that, simply because the company I keep is made up of individuals of far greater character than I possess. Cathy had no need to get involved in any part of this, but she not only completed the purchase and delivered the typewriter in question: she also let me know she’d be willing to do it again if this seller and I find other ways to do business.
I suppose I could make some comment about how typewriters can help bring us all together, and as a purveyor of dorky joy I even believe that to be true. But this past week-and-a-half ended up being far less about a typewriter and far more about gratitude. It’s a very nice Remington 5—the nicest I have owned—but the quality of the typewriter pales in comparison to the quality of my friend.
I’m going to hold you to that lunch, Cathy. Order whatever you like.
February 21st, 2022
Finding Joy in the Garbage
My wife and I received a notice in the mail about two months ago. It seems our little township had been negotiating with various waste disposal services, and--for the first time since we moved in--had decided to go with a different provider.
That led to more notices in the mail, mostly from the different provider, and the subject of those notices was Change. With the new company, we could only put out our recycling every other week, not every week as we had under the old company. With the new company, we would no longer put our garbage on the curb on Day A, but instead it would have to go out on Day B. Most notably, the new company would be delivering its own containers for our garbage and recycling, and we should expect to see those in time for New Year's.
I like waste removal. This is not a post about landfills or the need to recycle or Saving The Planet or anything like that -- if you want one of those, I'm sure you can find it somewhere on the internet. All I am saying is I like the fact that someone comes and takes away my garbage. I grew up in a rural area, and well remember taking trips to The Dump when I was a kid. As a kid, more often than not it was my job to throw that garbage out of the truck while my father sat behind the wheel and waited for me to finish. That was a workable system--especially for Dad--but I am grateful I now have a different workable system where I need to walk no further than my curb.
I am not someone who is afraid of change, but I am someone who gets peevish about change merely for the sake of change. Maybe the village got a deal, and maybe that deal would keep my taxes down, but the system that had been in place since we moved in worked, and if it ain't broke--well, you know the rest.
What got me, quite honestly, were the new containers. I came home one day and there was a brand new shiny plastic garbage can at the end of my driveway. It was in the center of my driveway, too, so I had to stop the car and move it in order to get into the driveway, then walk back to the curb to get it and haul it up to the house. What most disturbed me about the new container was its size. My wife and I already owned garbage cans--two of them, in fact--and those cans were large enough to deal with all our disposal needs. But this new garbage can was MASSIVE. It was so big I couldn't find a way to keep it in the garage that allowed my wife to pull her car in. Two days later, another MASSIVE can showed up for recycling, and my problems doubled. Just how many people did the waste disposal company think lived at my house? And what was I supposed to do with my old, less massive containers -- throw them in the garbage?
Of course, I had no choice but to grow accustomed to change (unless I wanted to resume the practice of going to The Dump, which wasn't a huge draw for me). I found a spot where the cans could reside. I put our old cans in the shed. I got on with the rest of my life, in which I occasionally threw things away.
We approached our first Garbage Day. It was a day later than it used to be under the old company, but a lot of my neighbors put their cans on the curb at the old time. (This, incidentally, gave great joy to my dog, whose favorite day for a walk is Garbage Day, because SO MANY SMELLS! My thanks to those neighbors who not only helped ease my puppy's transition, but also provided TWO Garbage Days that week; you made an Aussie Shepherd mix very happy.)
The night of the old Garbage Day, I went through the house and emptied all the wastebaskets in preparation for the new Garbage Day, and I took a couple of bags out to the new MASSIVE garbage can, and noticed it was less than a third full. How ridiculous! Why did this garbage can have to be so MASSIVE? Still, it was the only approved garbage can I now owned, so I wheeled it to the curb to the side of the driveway, facing out, label-to-the-front-and-wheels-to-the-back as one of the various notices we had received had dictated. The new company dutifully came sometime during the day and took away my garbage, and when I got home from work I collected the can and wheeled it back up to the house. Life went on.
The next week, as Garbage Day approached, the can was once again less than a third full. This seemed both stupid and wasteful (pardon the pun), so I moved through the house, looking for something else I might possibly throw away to help fill this ridiculously MASSIVE can, and I found Ricardo.
Ricardo, if you're curious, is the name of my old suitcase. I bought it when I was working at a department store. Ricardo was the biggest suitcase I could find at the time, one of those soft-sided monsters with the fold-out hanging garment section. It had an extendable handle and the little wheels so you didn't actually have to carry it. I didn't need a suitcase that big, but I had been married almost ten years by that time, and had plenty of opportunity to realize my wife was going to pack her suitcase until it weighed precisely 49.8 pounds and then approach me with the rest of the things she wanted to take with her and say, "Do you have any room in your suitcase?"
So, during the brief span of time I worked in the department store, I used my employee discount to buy Ricardo. But the years that followed were not kind to Ricardo. A faux-leather strap got peeled off by an airline carousel. The garment bag portion had a busted zipper. And--when I used Ricardo to haul an antique typewriter back from Phoenix, one of the wheels broke and the extendable handle had decided it had extended quite enough already, thank you.
I tell you all of that stuff about Ricardo to let you know this was not a carry-on, by any stretch. But when I took Ricardo out to the new MASSIVE garbage can and shoved him inside of it, Ricardo fit, and with room to spare. The lid closed neatly. I wheeled Ricardo to the curb, and that was the last I saw of him.
Still, it was that moment, as I sealed Ricardo's fate, that my entire viewpoint changed.
Most of us have a few things we could probably live without but just can't seem to throw away. I collect typewriters, for crying out loud, so I probably have more of these things than others. Now, I also had a MASSIVE new garbage can I could never possibly hope to fill with my usual household trash, so each week has become a hunt. As Garbage Day approaches, I scour my house, knowing I still have two-thirds of a container left to fill. Each week, something I have not quite known what to do with gets loaded into this new container and sent to the curb.
For those finding me wasteful (there's that word again) please understand I do not discard that which can be donated. No self-respecting thrift store would have wanted Ricardo in the shape he was in. No one ever would have looked at the various pieces of Styrofoam that had come in various packages and said, "How can you throw that away?" What I do each week is merely fulfilling my duty to the waste removal company: I am--quite literally--"taking out the trash."
And what a joy to see these items go away! How lovely it is, to open my hall closet and see a Ricardo-sized hole of empty space! I still own too many typewriters, and don't even get me started on the books, but I am beginning to appreciate how minimalists could be happy. I can see how Marie Kondo made a career of this--and isn't it some delicious irony that my new MASSIVE garbage can is one of the things that sparks joy?
If you have read all the way to the bottom of this post and are now expecting some kind of point to all this, I am afraid I am about to disappoint you. Still, this blog started as a way for me to try to find more joyful moments in a life that didn't always seem to have them, at the time. It was my way of looking toward the positive instead of dwelling in the negative. And if I can find honest-to-goodness joy in taking out the garbage, then perhaps I am well on my way to accomplishing what this blog was designed to do. I hope you are also finding joy in your day-to-day. If not, come on over to my house. Bring something that bothers you or a thing you don't know what to do with, and I will try to show you how much better you'll feel when you just throw that thing away.
Happy Is A Five-Letter Word
I am not the kind of person who tends to do popular things. I collect typewriters. I alternate my reading selections between fiction and non-fiction. Left to my own devices, I would almost certainly be found at home, either typing or reading. I tend to stay away from the "latest craze." I don't know if I could name anyone who recently won a Grammy or an Oscar. I still haven't seen Jaws or E.T., so I certainly could not tell you which--if any--of the Avengers are alive and well.
As you imagine, then, I don't play Wordle. I have nothing against Wordle, but I don't play. I have played, but when I did it was several years ago in my classroom. The students and I were playing "Hangman" during some free time and another student said, "Hey, I know a game!" and proceeded to tell us how every word had five letters. He would put a circle around a letter if it belonged somewhere in that word, and a square around it if it belonged in exactly that spot in the word. It filled about 15 minutes of my day, and then it disappeared.
Now, of course, it's everywhere. A bunch of my Facebook friends are posting their results for the day, with a "3/6" or something next to it (if you don't play, that means they solved it in three out of a possible six attempts). They seem to enjoy it. It seems to make them happy.
I also see a growing Wordle backlash, and this is something I don't quite understand. Some of those I know on social media seem annoyed--and in some cases actually offended--when others post their Wordle results. Some have gone so far as to comment and say things like, "No one cares!" A few have even gone so far as to create posts about it, and thus far all of those posts I have seen are along the lines of, "Stop putting your Wordle results on your feed! No one needs to see that shit!"
Obviously, social media can be used to connect us, and it can be used to divide us. I estimate that about three of every ten people who have asked to be my Facebook friend over the years have gone on to dump that friendship over something I posted about politics. And certainly, we can and do have friends--both online and in real life--whose opinions differ from our own, and sometimes we take to Facebook or other social media to vent about those opinions.
But, c'mon... over Wordle?
Politics, I understand. Abortion rights, I can understand. Even loyalty to certain sports teams or taste in music, I can understand. I don't always like the conflict (even conflict I help create), but there are issues in America and in the world where vocal disagreement seems to be part of the process. But who bashes someone else--someone who, allegedly, is supposed to be a friend--over playing a word game? Are we getting so used to being divided about things that we have to invent new things to divide us?
Wordle-bashing is kind of silly, in my opinion, on two fronts. First of all, it's just a game, and like any game out there, if you don't enjoy it, you don't have to play. You could disengage from the process entirely, and we'd all probably be better for it. I don't play Wordle, but I also don't see the point in purposely taking time out of my day to bash others who play Wordle. I might humbly suggest that there's little to no point in you taking that time, either.
Secondly -- and this one goes out to all the Wordle-bashers in the world: Where have you been? What have you been doing before now with all this pent-up rage you seem to carry inside of you? Were you griping about those who did crossword puzzles? Word searches, maybe? Did those Sudoku-loving S.O.B's just somehow make your blood boil? Knitters, maybe -- how does anyone "Pearl Two" anyway, and what is up with those needles? Those who crochet, perhaps? They can't even operate a knitting needle, for crying out loud! And by God, don't get me started on embroidery!
Folks, we've got enough trouble in the world without peeing on someone's picnic just because they play word games. If you can't stand Wordle, just ignore it. I can't stand beets, but I don't go online to bitch about them; I just don't eat beets.
So please, Wordle-bashers, do the rest of us--and yourselves--a favor, and calm down. It's a word game. A person you claim as a friend seems to enjoy it. It gives them a sense of accomplishment. It makes them happy, and shouldn't we all want our friends to be happy?
If solving a Wordle puzzle brings joy to someone I value and count as a friend, good for them. It has nothing to do with me, so I'll just be over here minding my own business. Solving a Wordle, for them, is one of life's little victories, but we could all use a victory now and again, no matter the size.
So calm down, Wordle-bashers. Find your own happy. Maybe do a jigsaw puzzle; when you finish, we'll even let you put a picture of it online.
Happy Goat Tag Day!
If it seems to you as though we have far too many "days" lately, I happen to agree. All kinds of things get their own national day. We celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17 (I happen to be in favor of that one), but this year that was also Betty White Day (can't really get too ticked off about that, either), but it was also National Classy Day, National Bootlegger's Day, and National Hot Buttered Rum Day, all in one little square on the calendar.
If you missed it, January 18 marked Winnie-The-Pooh Day. The 19th was National Popcorn Day. The 20th was National Cheese Lover's Day, and Friday the 21st was not only National Hugging Day, but also Squirrel Appreciation Day, and--lest we forget--National Hyaluronic Acid Day. It's got a little out of hand, so I feel a bit guilty about the title of this blog post, because--whether you know or not--today is the 14th annual Goat Tag Day.
It's OK if you didn't know that; very few do. That's because Goat Tag Day began in my World History classroom 14 years ago. The assignment was a dreaded Group Project whereby we attempted to illustrate the shift from Medieval Guilds toward individual enterprise as the Middle Ages moved toward the Renaissance.
And let me be the first to admit: it was kind of a dumb project. I was a fairly new teacher, looking for something to break up the monotony that World History so easily becomes if we're not careful, so I slapped this together to see what would happen. I calculated the supplies based on whatever I had in my classroom closet. I don't even remember what they were, exactly, but each group got something like 10 index cards, 16 paper clips, 5 rubber bands, 2 colored pencils (their choice), a ruler, a scissors, 8 pieces of different-colored copy paper, and 18 inches of clear tape. They did not have to use everything, but their job was to create a new product that might be something someone could produce in the Late Middle Ages that could be sold for a profit; they were not only to create the thing, but make as many as possible in the time provided.
You're probably already thinking, "This sounds like a disaster." It largely was. One group made paper airplanes, and though it was decided those could not be sold at profit, that group had fun throwing them around. A different group bunched up all of the pieces of paper, wrapped them loosely in some tape, and tried to sell stress balls, and so on. I will say, almost everyone had a fairly good time, but almost no one made anything practical.
But one group created a shape and cut as many as possible from the index cards and paper. They used the colored pencils to mark up those shapes. The broke the paper clips in half (or so I recall), and punched them through the paper, and on and on, and by the time they were done, they had created close to 30 ear tags for goats, figuring farmers and herders of the Middle Ages might want some way to keep track of their livestock that was more humane than branding.
And I thought, dannnnng.
Fourteen years later, I sometimes forget to have fun days at school. After Lockdown and Hybrid and Virtual and Asynchronous, and "Please pull your mask up over your nose," I sometimes forget to allow creativity to flourish, even if that creativity is not in service of the most amazing lesson plan that's ever been designed. A couple members of Goat Tag group are still friends with me on Facebook, and every so often we reach out to one another and post something about "Goat Tag Day" to recall at least one morning in my classroom when a little bit of learning was a lot of fun.
Fourteen years later, it seems selfish to keep Goat Tag Day to myself and a small group of former students. I don't wish to step on the toes of National Freedom Day (I'm also in favor of that one), but February 1 is also National Baked Alaska Day, National Serpent Day, and National Get Up Day--whatever that is--so maybe it's not too much to ask to add Goat Tag Day to the mix. Tomorrow we're going to allow a sleepy rodent to predict the weather, so I'm not that far out in left field on this one.
And so, my friends, I hope you have a fantastic National Goat Tag Day. It may not have all the fireworks and sizzle of National Hyaluronic Acid Day, but I hope you'll join me in celebration, anyway. All you need to do is get creative with whatever you have in your closet, learn a little, and have some fun. Have a great day, one and all.
Long ago, I began this blog as a way to explore ways to be happy in my own life. I have tried and succeeded, and tried and failed, but the experiment is still worthy, and so after a long hiatus here I am again, offering ideas that at least two people might read.
My wife and I flew to Arizona for Winter Break. We had not flown in I-don't-know-how-long; the last time we tried, we canceled a flight on March 13, 2020, the day most everyone in America locked down. But as we hadn't been away for some time, and as we were both vaxxed and boosted, we decided this year we would get away.
I like flying. I rarely do it, largely due to economics, but I am always fascinated by it. As a former history teacher, it seems odd to me how we forget just how far along aviation came, and in how little time. Less than 120 years ago, the Wright Brothers owned a bicycle shop. Less than 60 years ago, two Americans walked on the moon.
On those rare occasions when I do fly, I am equally fascinated--for entirely different reasons--at those who seem to find it the worst time of their lives. I'm a cautious flyer: I get there early. I check my bags and find my gate and sit down near it, and rarely move unless I choose to risk a trip to the bathroom. That gives me a lot of time to watch people. Let me tell you: as I watch these people, a lot of them are miserable.
There are delays at the airport. Cancelled flights are a real thing. People get upset by this. People seem to dislike the TSA agents, as though working to keep us safe was more of a pain in the backside than the possibility of being unsafe. I have my own issues with TSA. Well, only one issue, really; they take my belt. I am an overweight individual with a belly, and I am often unnerved at having to give away my belt and then stand with my arms over my head. I know TSA agents make me do this to make certain no unauthorized weaponry makes it onto the plane -- and I approve of that -- but it also makes me pose with my hands up while clenching my buttcheeks in the hopes my beltless pants don't fall to my ankles while I'm standing in line in airport security.
Still: the joy of flying is not in all the things necessary in getting to the gate; the joy of flying is in the actual flying. Once I'm seated on the plane and as comfy as I can be, usually with a book I've been waiting to read, all is well. Flight attendants offer me various enticements, but I always refuse, because I have a book, so I'm good. Then the plane taxis out, and I feel that push in the center of my back and then I and all my fellow passengers are flying through the air, and my gosh, isn't that amazing?
I think so. But not everyone does. And honestly, I don't know how to help those people. Those people who are unhappy on flights just seem to me to be missing the miracle. If you're one of those people, I mean you no offense, but I hope you'll learn to stay in the moment.
The pilot gets on the P.A. system and does her or his whole thing, which on my most recent flight was, "We'll be climbing to a cruising altitude of just over 30,000 feet," and I thought, "Are you kidding me? We're on the limits of outer space!" Most flights these days have a little screen on the seat in front of them, and while they offer movies and sports and things, I ignore those -- I think I mentioned, I brought a book -- but I like the Flight Tracker option, where I can see roughly where we are in the journey, the outside temps, our rough trajectory, and our traveling speed.
I didn't pay attention to all of it, because I had a good book (The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, if you're curious; I highly recommend it). But every once in a while I would glance up to check the screen. And--somewhere over Nebraska--I noticed we were traveling in excess of 600 miles per hour. Outside, the temperature was below -70 degrees Fahrenheit. And before I dropped my gaze and returned to my book, I glanced across the aisle, where the gentleman seated there was on his third double-whisky and Coke (it was Noon, Central Time), and who put that third drink down and began to frantically tap on the screen of the seat in front of him. He traveled near the limits of space. He traveled at over 600 miles per hour. Outside, it was less than 70 degrees below zero. But he had to pound on his screen while he sat in jeans and a t-shirt, because his Wi-Fi was lagging while he traveled at more than 600 m.p.h. at the limits of space, when it was -78 degrees outside!
My point is not that my neighbor across the aisle made me have a bad flight; he didn't. My point is that we seem to be losing touch with the miracle of everything around us. This blog, when it began, was dedicated to the concept of happiness. I don't always succeed as much as I might wish to, but I at least yearn toward that outcome. Many of those flying, it seems to me, are crabby even before they get to the airport.
I don't know how to fix this. Maybe non-crabby people could promise to remain non-crabby in exchange for a lower rate. Maybe those like myself who marvel at being able to read a good book on the limits of outer space could fly First Class for the same price as the crabby people in Coach.
But the truth is, I don't have to fix it. The larger point is that in 2022, I hope any and all who read this blog will take a moment to recognize how amazing all this is. I hope you'll stop pounding on the screen in front of you and enjoy a good book. And I hope you will all appreciate the miracles all around us, even if you do it with clenched buttcheeks and hands in the air. Because the truth is, you never know. Maybe this is your year. Maybe you'll get to experience something you never have before. Maybe we'll all finally get to take our masks off without worries of being branded an ignorant Republican.
And the truth is, maybe not... Sorry, but I just don't know. Still, within the last month I sat calmly and read a good book while traveling over 600 miles per hour on the edge of space. Anything is possible, my friends. Let's choose to believe good things are coming.
These Little Lights of Mine
I put my Christmas lights up Sunday.
I didn’t mean to put up my Christmas lights, to be honest. I wanted to just plug in last year’s Christmas lights–which are also my Christmas lights from the year before–to make sure they still worked. Sadly, they had other plans.
So I had a choice to make. I could try to fix the Christmas lights I put up in 2019 to make them work all over again, or I could scrap them for something new. The old Christmas lights were kind of faded (that’s what happens when Christmas lights have been out in the sun for two summers), and I bought them at a garage sale in 2017, as part of an enormous box of Christmas crap that cost me $10.
One portion of a $10 investment from 2017 did not seem worth the trouble. So I unwound our balcony railing, and the foot of our balcony railing, and the railing of the little semi-enclosed area beneath our railing. I decided some big box store probably already had all the Christmas crap I could hope to get my hands on, and I would just go and purchase new Christmas crap and throw out the mostly non-functional Christmas crap I already owned.
I decided on icicle lights. Some were blue, and some were white, and some were blue and white. Some twinkled, and some didn’t. (This was not a conscious decision, by the way; this is what happens when a guy in a hurry doesn’t think to check that other shoppers may have mixed up the boxes.) I could have fixed it at the checkout, but by then I was way on the other side of the store, so I decided to live with it. The person next to me in line looked at my mismatched light purchases and promptly announced, “Too soon!” as though I had spoken of a tragedy after it recently happened. I ignored them, and went home to put up the new Christmas lights.
It turns out, when you jam icicle lights into a small cardboard box (well, not “you” – you didn’t do it; I most likely refer to someone overseas who is horribly underpaid), the lights and cords get tangled and mangled and twisted every which way, so a small stream of curse words began to descend from our balcony as I worked, but in time I found a system and began the installation. Two neighbors, a husband and wife whom I like very much, were walking their dogs on our block and noticed me working. “Too soon!” the husband cried. I made some crack about how I would rather hang lights when it’s 60 degrees than 16 degrees, and went back to work.
And somewhere after that, a funny thing happened: I began to care about my Christmas lights. In fairness, I tend to put up Christmas lights because the love of my life cares about whether or not we have Christmas lights, and I care about her, and so: lights. But this time, I started to care for me. I figured out which were blue, and which were white, and which were blue and white. I tested to see which ones twinkled and which didn’t. And then, I actually created a plan for my Christmas lights, so the blue would go there and the blue-and-white would go there and the white would be over there and the twinklies would be on that row and the non-twinklies above that row. I zip-tied lights to the railing; I used wire staples to tack lights into the decking. I ran an extension cord and set a timer and put the timer inside a plastic bag to protect it from the future elements. And then, I waited for dark.
Since we’re waiting, let me tell you about Saturday.
First: Saturday was Daylight Savings Time, so I had to set my clocks an hour back. People get all jazzed about the possibility of an extra hour of sleep, but they usually stay up late and negate that extra hour, and even if they don’t, one extra hour of sleep is (for me) not worth several months of driving home from work in the dark. I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time, or at least I am not a fan of it in November.
The only other memorable thing that happened on Saturday was that I went to a funeral. That’s not even true. I went to something called a celebration of life, though it seemed pretty hard to be celebratory, under the circumstances. I didn’t feel all that comfortable going, to be honest, because I had never even met the deceased. I knew exactly one person at the entire event; a former student of mine who had lost her mom. I think that former student is pretty groovy, and I know from experience that losing a parent is pretty awful, so I went.
I didn’t do well. As I said, I knew one person, and while my former student seemed grateful to see me, my social anxiety kicked in and I didn’t really know what to say, and then my analytical side kicked in and I figured there was nothing I could say that might express the depth of emotion one might feel at losing a parent, so I said close to nothing. I lost my parents at 30 and 31, respectively, and I thought that was bad, but this amazing young person I know is still in high school, and what was I supposed to say? "Too soon!" was what came to mind, and while that was true, it didn't seem to help. And then, of course, other people also wanted to speak with my former student, and so I stood around like an idiot while a host of people wondered, “who’s that old bald guy and what the hell is he doing here?” So when I had a chance, I found my former student once more, gave her a hug, told her to let me know if there was anything I could do (I don’t know why we all say that; what exactly are we supposed to do?), and I left. I felt horrible about it, but by then, I didn’t know how to fix it, so I resigned myself to feeling horrible.
So Sunday, I put up Christmas lights. By all accounts, I put them up too soon, but I finished putting them up at noon or so, and I moved on to other things. I wrote for a while. I took a short nap. I took a shower. I read part of a book. I started cooking dinner. I grilled ocean bass and a pair of bison tenderloins. I cedar-planked the bass and indirect grilled for 40 minutes, added the bison with 20 minutes to go and indirect-grilled that, also, but added some apple chips to smoke things up a little bit.
It was the day after Daylight Savings Time; the sky was darkening as I grilled. It was the day after a celebration of life that wasn’t all that celebratory.
And then my Christmas lights came on.
And you know, the thing is--and I’m not writing this for any kind of dramatic effect but only because it’s true--by the time the lights came on I had kind of forgotten I put them up in the first place. I hadn’t really meant for them to come on–it was “too soon!”–but I left them plugged in just to make sure the timer worked and that everything would light up and the blue would be blue and the white would be white and the twinklies would twinkle, and then WHAM! There they were.
And you know what? I know I’m biased. But they were beautiful.
I don’t know why Christmas lights became a thing. The nearest I can think of is that somewhere back in time a guy in a mostly-Christian area was coming home drunk from the tavern after the sun went down, and he whacked his head on a tree branch, and some well-meaning and caring woman who was way out of this guy’s league but who had agreed to marry him anyway said, “Well, that never would have happened if you had put some lights on that,” and then she put him to bed and nursed his wounds and the next day–like all guys who marry out of their league–this fellow realized she was right, and a tradition was born.
(Please don’t bother to correct me in the comments; I know it probably didn’t happen this way. I also know I could Google it and find out more, but I’m tired of Google. Remember when we could just not know things? Remember when you could say, “I wonder how that started?” and a buddy would say, “Yeah, I wonder,” and you would say, “Huh,” and that would be the end of it? I miss those times. I’ll find out eventually, but for now, just let me live in the mystery.)
There are all kinds of opinions regarding holidays on social media. Some people think, “Too soon!” when it comes to Christmas, and some of those people start drinking Pumpkin Spice Whatevers in the middle of August, while others don’t put their Christmas tree up until December 24 but then leave it up until St. Patrick’s Day.
And you know what? Fine.
We’re about 20 months into a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any virus in history. We’ve endured lockdowns and social distancing. We’ve seen vaccines develop and people argue about whether we should take them or whether we shouldn’t. Some of us (at least, the responsible ones) are still masking and social distancing, even with two and sometimes three shots in our arms. And a beloved former student now goes to bed each night knowing her mother is no longer with us, and she isn’t even out of high school yet, and how in the world is any of this fair?
My Christmas lights came on while I was grilling. And when they did, I learned something: in life, there is no such thing as “too soon.” Life is short–sometimes painfully so–so it’s important to do your own thing while you can. If you want a Pumpkin Spice latte in July, have at it, you Halloween-loving fool; I don’t know why you pay $8 for pumpkin-flavored-sugared coffee, but hey, you do you. If you plan for Thanksgiving beginning November 1, have at it; just make extra stuffing in case I come around, and please don't skimp on the gravy. And if you’re hanging Christmas lights on November 7 or December 23, hang them well and enjoy them, because when you get right down to it, life’s too short to care about other people’s opinions; if you’re living your life for other people’s approval, you might not be doing it right.
And all of this might be a horrible lesson—certainly it is too little, too late, for a young person who thought I might have had all the answers in history class but realized I have way too few answers for life—but it seems that all I can offer is that when all is said and done, the best we can do is to let what little light we might have shine as brightly as possible. I tried to decorate my balcony; was it “too soon”? I don’t care. I tried to comfort a former student who was hurting; did I? I do care, but I can’t know; I worry that I did not, but hope that by being there my former student will know I adore her, and I tried with all the light I had at the time.
And so, my friends: Christmas or otherwise, let your lights shine, whenever you can, and let others judge you as they must (and no doubt will). Your light defines the limits of the shadow around you, blue or white or twinkly or not. That light may not illuminate everything you desire, and that's just the way of things, but sometime between the time you show up and the time you leave, it might burn just brightly enough to show someone else you cared.
That's enough, I hope. Even if you do things poorly--as I did on Saturday--it's better to do them poorly than not at all. If your lights are worn and faded and broken, replace them. And if you can't afford to replace them, let whatever is left shine as well as it can. You never know who might appreciate it, anyway.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Princeton, Wisconsin. I wasn’t born there, but my mother was, and that’s where she was living when she and dad adopted me. Aside from a couple of weeks with an adoption service, Princeton was where I lived for the first six months of my life. My grandmother—Mom’s mom—lived there as well, in a tiny home on Canal Street with a pond and a woods behind it, which made it one of the most magical places to visit as a child, and I spent at least two weeks each summer there under Grandma’s watchful eyes.
So when I found out the bowling alley was for sale in Princeton, Wisconsin, that soft spot in my heart fluttered a little bit. It’s been far and away the worst year of teaching I’ve had since becoming a teacher, and while I had never really considered not teaching, here was a cute little bowling alley that needed a new owner, right there in my hometown, and suddenly I began to consider not teaching next year. I mean, sure, Princeton is over an hour’s drive from where I currently live… And yeah, I have no experience owning a bowling alley… I should still be able to make a living from the sports bar portion, even though I have never tended bar, right? I mean, honestly: What could go wrong?
In the midst of this consideration, I posted about the bowling alley on social media, and that’s when the whole idea took off. Turns out, a lot of people who know me thought it was an absolutely fantastic idea for me to own a bowling alley. I mean, a lot. Which is to say, almost everybody I know wanted to see my whole bowling alley dream become a reality, and many of them were even willing to crowdfund it. Teaching colleagues supported the idea (many teachers benefit from having a friendly place to drink). Friends from high school and college supported it, and some began to plan reunions and birthday parties. Former students supported it and told me how much they might enjoy coming in for a drink when they were in the neighborhood.
So I put together a fake-GoFundMe kind of thing and put that on social media, and the next thing I knew I had more potential donations coming than I knew what to do with. I really liked the idea of owning this bowling alley, but some of my friends seemed even more excited about it than I was, and many of them were willing to put their money on the line over it. That, of course, implied a certain obligation on my part to carry this thing through, so I did what any clueless future entrepreneur would do and called to arrange a tour of the bowling alley. That was on Friday. The tour was scheduled for this coming Thursday.
In the interim, I had a little time to think, which is almost always a good thing. I thought happily about the joy many of my friends might feel if this all worked out, and I dreamt of the reunions and the birthdays and all the other things that might happen at that little bowling alley once I owned it and once COVID was done.
But then I thought: COVID isn’t done. Owning a bowling alley still sounds cool, but going broke while sitting inside an empty bowling alley sounds a lot less cool. If I did go broke, I would go broke knowing I had wasted money entrusted to me by my friends, and that didn’t seem like a very friendly thing to do. Even if tomorrow I could own that bowling alley and operate it with lifted restrictions and at full capacity, most of my hours would be night and weekends while my wife’s hours were weekdays, and the potential joys inherent in owning a bowling alley were not nearly enough to offset a world in which I never saw my wife.
Not to mention, I love teaching. I really do. I love teaching; it’s “being a teacher” that I don’t like as much. If it has been my worst year as a teacher, that’s not the young people’s fault. Teaching—being in the classroom with the young people—remains a great job. Being a teacher—by which I mean all of the other stuff that is not associated with being in the classroom with young people—is what has been problematic. I still have teaching to do, and still feel I can do some good there, and it would be hard to walk away from that just because I don’t like the politics of the job.
And as long as I was doing all this thinking, I began to wonder: Would I have any interest in owning a bar and a bowling alley if it wasn’t this bar and bowling alley? And the answer to that question is, “No.” This bowling alley is charming, and cute, and I hope someone buys it and has a ball (pun intended). But this bowling alley is in Princeton, which is associated with so many happy memories of my youth, and while it really is a remarkable bowling alley, I wanted the town more than the business. I didn’t want a bowling alley nearly as much as I wanted happiness and the chance to remember what it was like to be young.
This morning, I canceled my tour of the bowling alley. But I’m glad this past week happened. I learned a lot, and as an educator, learning is kind of what I do, and has value.
I learned, for instance, that I still want to teach, even if that means putting up with everything else that goes into “being a teacher.” My students will almost certainly benefit from that lesson for the two months that remain of this school year, and perhaps in years to come.
I learned the dreamer in me isn’t dead yet. Even if sooner or later the pragmatic side of me comes to the forefront and says, “You do realize this is idiotic, right?” the romantic side of me is still willing to entertain flights of fancy, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t need to own a bowling alley—I had a ball (there it is again) merely entertaining the possibility of owning a bowling alley. What’s more, several people I know also had fun with this, and there is precious little that is more valuable than being the cause of someone else’s fun.
I also learned a great deal about friendship. There’s an old saying somewhere about how a man can be judged by the quality of his friends, but in my case, that old saying isn’t true: if you judge me by the quality of my friends, you will mistakenly come to believe that I am a much better man than I am, because my friends are amazing. I don’t deserve these people, but I’m grateful they seem to like me anyway. It was so strange and rewarding to have so many friends—some of whom I haven’t laid eyes on in decades—keep chiming in with “What do you need? How can we help? Count me in, let’s do this!” I know some really groovy people, and this experience has made me grateful for them all over again. Thank you, friends.
So it turns out I was meant to learn lessons more than I was meant to own a bowling alley. And who knows? Maybe I was meant to blog about a bowling alley, so that someone else might get curious about that bowling alley and start their new career. I don’t think the realtor or the seller would mind a little free advertising, and really, it’s awfully darn cute. Click here to see for yourself.
If you end up buying it, shoot me a message, if you would be so kind. I will drive over some night and maybe even rent some shoes from you and bowl a few frames. If nothing else, I’ll sit on a barstool and chat with you for a while. When it is time to go, I will walk out under the streetlights and look at what used to be the five-and-dime located across the street. I will get in my car and cruise slowly through my hometown. I will go home happy and remembering what it was like to be young, and that will be an evening well spent.
E. M. Brehm