Tuesday, November 28, 2006

He'd like to come and meet us but he thinks he'll blow our minds

According to one of these weird photographs taken with a machine I don't understand by a person I've never met before...

It's a boy.

(I don't really understand why I distrust my eyes more than my ears... it's not like the Doppler of the heartbeat would be any harder to fake. But I have to admit a certain reaction of c'mon, now, you expect me to believe something on TV?)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Walk right in it's around the back

It's been a glorious weekend in Central Ohio. It's gotten up to the mid-60s every day, and on Thanksgiving, the sky was impossibly, flawlessly blue, the color of television tuned to a dead channel.
Poor William Gibson. The guy writes one of the all-time great opening lines of a novel, probably the best in science fiction since "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time", and 10 years later, the metaphor's been broken by digital cable. Ah, sic transit somethingorother.
I'm pretty sure I stole this insight from Wil Wheaton sometime in the last few months. But Neil Gaiman hit on it in Neverwhere 10 years ago, so we're in good company.

Nice tangent. Where was I? Oh, Thanksgiving.

That perfect weather did make me long for the days of the Turkey Bowl. The year after we graduated high school, something like 35 of us reunited on the Good Counsel High School field for a game of pickup, full contact, no pads football. (An uncharitable person might refer to this as "criminal trespass.")

Full contact only lasted for a year or so, and we went to 2-hand touch. The group dwindled down as we went our separate ways. (The Best Turkey Bowl of all was '92 or '93, when my friend Chris was the only other one who showed up. He rolled down the window, threw the football to me, and said "good game, let's go to the Royal Mile Pub." He never cut the engine to his car.) Eventually, my friend Matt rolled Chris, Pat, and myself into his family's game. That was really all the high school reunion we needed anyway, and you can have some fun when the 60 year old quarterback is making completions to his 14 year old grandson (and all the guys pushing 30 are sucking wind).

The traditions are different now. For my folks, this was the first Thanksgiving none of the kids came home. They hosted some of my mom's family, and it sounds like they had a good time. For us, we had friends over, and discovered why Thanksgiving is the Holiday of the Traditional Casserole.

The nice thing about a traditional casserole is that you know how the recipe goes, and it only takes up oven space. Whereas if you think the New York Times had some interesting ideas and start trying new recipes, you can run out of burners on the stove real quick. And then there's a little stressing, and some raised voices, and lots of randomly standing smack in the center of the kitchen wondering just where the hell you're going to put this pot of boiled sweet potatoes.

Strangely enough, it all turns out well. Nobody knows how. It's a mystery.

The hashed brussel sprouts with garlic and lemon zest turned out fantastic. (I honestly had no idea you could serve sliced brussel sprouts... I figured there was a law protecting the cole slaw manufacturers or something.) Shirley's recipe for mashed potatoes worked like a champ, again, and Alison's idea for mashed sweet potatoes with crab boil seasoning was just about perfect. We decided to forgo in-the-bird stuffing this year, and I did miss that savory mush, but we had a darn nice cornbread dressing anyway. (That loaf of cornbread was a golden dome of beauty when it came out of the oven - almost a shame to crumble it up.)

We weren't bold enough to try the Cook's Illustrated salted turkey, but we used their recipe for spice rubbed turkey. And here's a testament to brining for you: their procedure calls for a 14-pound bird, and ours was only 8. Almost a glorified chicken. We put in the instant read thermometer, and the needle spun around until it said "is this trip really necessary?" By rights, it should've been a charcoal briquette with wings, but it was fragrant and moist and just right. (And our friend Bruce smoked his 10-pounder into the best poultry barbecue I've ever had in my life.)

And at the end of the day, with the guests gone and the dishwasher running for the umpteenth time of the day, my beautiful wife found my favorite thing on TV: a countdown show. Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies ever. Something to argue at and laugh with... what could be better?

I never got last year's overwhelming moment. Maybe that's OK. How could surprise be a tradition anyway? Last year was about being in the moment, but this year I can see that where I've been was good, and it's all leading up to something wonderful.

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving, and I still thank you for your support.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I am the modren man

Voting in Maryland was terrific in the '80s and '90s. You got a paper ballot and put it in a hole punch. You lined the big red arrow up with your chosen candidate's name, pressed the gleaming steel handle, and exercised your franchise with a satisfying basso Ka-CHUNK. Repeat for each race. I can't ever recall hearing someone complaining about a hanging chad or unclear technology, and we always got our results in a timely fashion.

So pardon me if I don't much truck with these new-fangled voting computers.
As a certain college president I know is fond of saying, it smacks of "have I got a tool for you!" Sure, they're brighter and shinier and better for Diebold shareholders. But is a digital solution really the best one?

A technophile librarian can get some grief for saying that computerized is not always best. But I respect paper as a magnificent technology. It's ubiquitous, it's universal, it's straightforward yet flexible, and it's been around long enough that we shouldn't be surprised by it very often. Why should we turn away from that just because it doesn't have a power cord? (One of these days I have to get around to reading some Henry Petroski.)

In 2000, the Florida election was a mess because of a badly designed paper ballot, but it's not right to blame paper itself for that. And in 2004, the Gambier elections were a mess because of old computers, but again, new computers aren't necessarily the only answer.

(To be fair, there are two obvious benefits to voting on computer. It's a lot easier to correct a mistake on a digital ballot than a paper one. You don't have to look at a person and admit you messed up. Theoretically, electronic voting could also be a lot more accessible to the handicapped or illiterate. Zooming screens and audio output are a given in personal computers; they ought to be available for voting machines.)

The computer security issues get a lot of press, but it's not an argument that holds up to scrutiny. Hacking the software assumes a high level of access to the machines. So in fact, the first issue is physical security, just as it is for paper ballots. If election workers are so poorly trained that they let cabbies picked at random deliver voting machines, well, securing the software is about one hundred forty-fifth on the list of things to worry about.

For that matter, why would a political party take the time, energy, and risk to devise an undercover vote hacking assault when you can disenfranchise an entire polling place with a shotgun and a map of the electrical grid? Some buckshot in a transformer ought to snarl things up real good, and be a much easier secret to keep than a multi-person hacking conspiracy. Paper ballots can be cast by candlelight if need be, and the average poll worker knows why they have to be physically protected.

Paper has soul. It's a connection to our history. Touchscreens just ain't got no Elvis in 'em. Maybe it's just an old fogey Luddite view, but holes in paper were good enough for Alan Turing to beat the Nazis, and I bet they're good enough for me to choose between these bozos.

Friday, November 03, 2006

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people

Professor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky gave a wonderful address at Founders' Day today, centered on the metaphor of the well which Philander Chase dug when he founded Kenyon College.

And I thought of my favorite words from Bertolt Brecht...

Caesar conquered the Gauls.
Did he bring not even a cook with him?

An interesting metaphor for All Souls' Day. I was raised to remember this as the day when we pray for the Poor Souls in Purgatory.1 It turns out that neither All Souls' nor Purgatory are ecumenically accepted beliefs, but I like them. I believe that not even death can stop us from aiding and comforting one another. I affirm that not even death stops our responsibility to give aid and comfort.

It's been on my mind a lot lately, how we're all in it together. I've been thinking about it when that Chevy commercial with the John Mellencamp song comes on. (Which is every 10 minutes during any sporting event, apparently). I can't believe that anyone who looked a survivor in the eye could use images of the Towers or the Lower 9th Ward to see trucks. I wish I could grab that designer by the throat and show him what I see every time I pass a blue tarp on a roof.

But the strongest images of people in that ad are of teams of helping people. The trucks go with relief workers and firemen, with kindness. If the message is "buy Chevy and help people," well, maybe that's not the worst message I've ever heard in a 60-second car ad.

I've also been thinking about Rob McElroy lately. Rob was on my high school speech and debate team. There were some kids on that team with natural talents for public speaking, and Bob, well, I'm not sure he was one. But he worked incredibly hard, and he really wanted to get better, and it seemed like he always had a positive attitude. It was easy to root for Rob, and to want to help him improve. Some people aren't leaders, but they're the glue that holds groups together, and Bob was one of those.

Bob came down with leukemia in high school. I remember him missing a lot of time, and coming back to school with pale skin, and wearing a hat to cover his bald spot. He tired easily, and he was still hard working and positive. His debating continued to get better, and the team went wild when he won.

Bob didn't make it. I saw the plaque on the wall, there with the other deceased alumni, a year or two after I graduated. It was surreal in its insufficiency.

A few years after that, CUA held a drive to get registrations in the National Marrow Donor Program. A pin prick, some test tubes, a membership card. One more chance at a long shot coming in for somebody. I can't say I did it "for" Bob, but I know he was part of the process on some level.

Perhaps, on All Souls' Day, we shouldn't just think about what we might do for the dead. We need to be open to what their memories might still do for us. As Mother Jones put it, pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living.

1 "Poor Souls In Purgatory" would be an awesome band name.