Election Day in Wisconsin today; every other state with an April primary moved theirs, but not us. The state legislature, seeing that a contagious illness centered in Milwaukee would be good for depressing Democratic turnout, decided the show must go on. I sent in my vote by mail. But a lot of other people tried to as well, upwards of a million, and the overburdened clerks couldn’t get all the absentee ballots mailed out in time. Some people still don’t have theirs, and that means they don’t get to vote.
I went to Metcalfe’s instead of Trader Joe’s because they have a better Passover selection, and because Trader Joe’s was closed after a worker there tested positive. Wore a mask again. This time the proportion of mask-wearers was close to half and included some of the employees. Metcalfe’s made its aisles one-way to avoid people passing each other, but the signage was confusing and compliance was weak. Shelves were pretty fully stocked but toilet paper/paper towels/hand sanitizers were one to a customer. I bought a giant brisket for seder, which is in the oven now. I’ve never cooked seder dinner before because we always have it at Dr. Mrs. Q’s mom’s house. This time we’re bringing her in via Zoom and hoping for the best.
The only store I saw open in the mall besides the grocery was the Sprint cellphone store. More restaurants than I’d have thought were open for takeout, but we haven’t gotten any takeout yet. The last meal I ate that I didn’t cook myself was a burrito at the Tucson airport on March 9.
“School” has begun. It seems they won’t be doing very much real-time instruction, which I think is for the best; mostly short meetings where teachers give and explain assignments for kids to do in their own time.
I now have two friends who’ve had COVID; both have recovered. I don’t know anyone who’s died.
AB and I have been playing frisbee in the backyard, trying to learn how to throw a forehand reliably. We’re getting sort of OK. Two houses down from us, two guys were working on the roof; one of them coughed at least three times, and wasn’t wearing a mask. Wear a mask! For the sake of your fellow roofer!
Actually, I arrived on October 31, but who can resist a gratuitous Blade Runner reference?
I was in town for the always-interesting meeting of the IPAM science board. Keep an eye on their schedule; there are great workshops coming up!
There was chaos and anger at LAX when I landed, because the airport just this week moved Lyft/Uber/taxi pickups offsite. For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has led to long waits for rideshare cars. For reasons I understand even less, people are waiting an hour for their Lyft to show up when the regular taxi stand is right there, and you can — I did — just hop in a cab with no wait and go. (Yes, a VC-subsidized Lyft is cheaper than a cab, if it’s not surge time. But the bus is cheaper still, and once you’re not saving time with the Lyft, what’s the point?)
So I got in my cab and went to the beach, and watched the sunset over the ocean. Clear view of a really nice Moon-Jupiter conjunction and Venus still visible down at the horizon. Last time I went to Dockweiler Beach I was all alone, but this time there were several groups of people in Halloween costumes around bonfires. That was probably the most Blade Runner thing about this trip and it wasn’t even November 2019 yet!
I have a first cousin in LA, and good luck for me — my first cousin’s first baby was born my first morning in town! So on Saturday after the meeting I got to go see my first cousin once removed on his second day alive. I haven’t seen a one-day-old baby in a really long time! And it’s true what they say; I both remember my own kids being that age and I don’t. It’s more like I remember remembering it. I thought I was going to have a lot of advice but mostly all I had to say to them was that they are going to be amazing parents, because they are.
The hospital was in East Hollywood, a neighborhood I don’t know at all. Walking around afterwards, I saw a sign for an art-food festival in a park, so I walked up the hill into the park, where there wasn’t really an art-food festival, but there was a great Frank Lloyd Wright mansion I’d never heard of, Hollyhock House:
As with most FLW houses, there’s a lot more to it than you can see in the picture. A lot of it is just the pleasurable three-dimensional superimposition of rectangular parallelipipeds, and that doesn’t project well onto the plane.
There were a lot of folks sitting on blankets on the hillside, even though there was no art-food festival, because it turns out Barnsdall Park is where you and your 20-something moderately hipster friends go to watch the sunset in LA (unless it’s Halloween, in which case I guess you dress up and build a bonfire on Dockweiler Beach.) Sunset:
My Lyft driver on the way back was a 27-year-old guy from Florida who’s working on an album. That’s no surprise; my Lyft driver yesterday was also working on an album. Your Lyft driver in LA, unless they are a comic, is always working on an album. (My Lyft driver yesterday was also a comic.) This ride was a little deeper, though. This guy was a first-generation college student who went to school out-of-state on a soccer scholarship, majored in biology, and thought about getting a Ph.D. but was too stressed out about the GRE. He said whenever he started studying for the math part he was troubled by deep questions about foundations. Pi, he asked me: what is it? How can anyone really know it goes on forever? For that matter, what about two? Why is there such a thing as two? He also wanted to be a perfusionist but sat in on an open-heart surgery and decided it wasn’t for him, not in the long term. He started asking himself: is biology what I really want to do? So he’s driving a Lyft and working on his album. He also told me about how he doubts he’ll be able to make a long-term relationship work because he doesn’t believe in sex before marriage (he said: “out of wedlock”) and how he had dabbled in Hasidic Judiasm and how he was surprised I was Jewish because I didn’t look it (“no offense.”) Anyway, it just made me think about how normal and maybe universal his existential doubts and worries are for a 27-year-old dude; but for an upper-middle-class 27-year-old dude from an elite educational background, those existential doubts and worries would be something to process while you continued climbing on up that staircase to a stable professional career. That would just be a given. For this guy, the world said “You’re not sure you want that? Fine, don’t have it.”
Now I’m in LAX about to go get on the flight home to Madison, the direct flight we so gloriously now have. The last time I was in this LAX breakfast place, there was a big tumult around somebody else eating there and I realized it must be a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him at all, and it turned out it was Gene Simmons. In LA people know what Gene Simmons looks like without the Kiss makeup! I do not. For all I know he could be in here right now. Are you here, Gene Simmons?
New Year’s Eve is a time to think about what we’ll remember from the year about to expire, so this is a post about memory.
A few years back, Christina Nunez, who went to high school with me, wrote a blog post which included this recollection of the history class we both took:
This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.
Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.
Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs…
So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.
Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.
That’s a pretty great story! It obviously made a big impression on Christina, and why not? I did something memorably crazy and out of the ordinary.
But I don’t remember it. Not at all. Not even with this reminder.
It happened, though. Here’s how I know. Because what I do remember is that I wasn’t allowed in Mr. C’s classroom. I remember sitting outside in the hall day after day while all the other kids were in class. Who knows how long? I remember I was reading a Beckett play I got out of the school library. I think it was Krapp’s Last Tape. It never occurred to me, in the thirty years between then and now, to wonder what I did to get kicked out of class to read Beckett by myself while my friends were open quote learning close quote history.
I opened up a Facebook thread and asked my classmates about Christina’s story. It happened; they remembered it. I still didn’t. And I still don’t.
It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would do, does it? It doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing I would do. My memory of high school is that I followed all the rules. I went to football games. I went to pep rallies. I liked high school. Or did I? Maybe, because I think of myself as somebody who liked high school, I’ve just edited out the moments when I didn’t like it. Who knows what else I don’t remember? Who knows who else I was angry at, who else I defied or denounced, what else got edited out because it didn’t fit the theme of the story?
And who knows what’s happening now that I’ll later edit out of my 2018? Maybe a lot. Most things don’t get blogged. They just get lost. You can’t have a new year unless you get rid of the old year. You keep some things, you lose more. And what you lose isn’t random. You decide what to remove from yourself, and, having decided, you lose the decision, too.
The nursery school, therefore, appears as a counter influence against the almost hidden processes by which society through the parents undertakes the premature exploitation of children’s interests in behalf of its own conventionalized and not very natural program of life. It thus happens that one of the first considerations in a nursery school program is that after satisfying the expectations of the family with regard to the physical care of children it should keep its further thinking in firm alignment with biological rather than social understandings with regard to the present and future welfare of the child, and this no matter what new problem it sets for parents, and no matter what amount of diversity of opinion may arise between them and the school.
(Frederick W. Ellis, introduction to Harriet M. Johnson’s Children in the Nursery School, 1928.)
My kids both wanted to see the eclipse and I said “that sounds fun but it’s too far” and I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, Saturday night, I looked inward and asked myself is there really a reason we can’t do this? And the answer was no. Or rather the answer was “it might be the case that it’s totally impossible to find a place to sleep in the totality zone within 24 hours for a non-insane amount of money, and that would be a reason” so I said, if I can get a room, we’re going. Hotel Tonight did the rest. (Not the first time this last-minute hotel app has saved my bacon, by the way. I don’t use it a lot, but when I need it, it gets the job done.)
Notes on the trip:
We got to St. Louis Sunday night; the only sight still open was my favorite one, the Gateway Arch. The arch is one of those things whose size and physical strangeness a photo really doesn’t capture, like Mt. Rushmore. It works for me in the same way a Richard Serra sculpture works; it cuts the sky up in a way that doesn’t quite make sense.
I thought I was doing this to be a good dad, but in fact the total eclipse was more spectacular than I’d imagined, worth it in its own right. From the photos I imagined the whole sky going nighttime dark. But no, it’s more like twilight. That makes it better. A dark blue sky with a flaming hole in it.
Underrated aspect: the communality of it all. An experience now rare in everyday life. You’re in a field with thousands of other people there for the same reason as you, watching the same thing you’re watching. Like a baseball game! No radio call can compare with the feeling of jumping up with the crowd for a home run. You’re just one in an array of sensors, all focused on a sphere briefly suspended in the sky.
People thought it was going to be cloudy. I never read so many weather blogs as I did Monday morning. Our Hotel Tonight room was in O’Fallon, MO, right at the edge of the totality. Our original plan was to meet Patrick LaVictoire in Hermann, west of where we were. But the weather blogs said south, go south, as far as you can. That was a problem, because at the end of the day we had to drive back north. We got as far as Festus. There were still three hours to totality and we thought it might be smart to drive further, maybe even all the way to southern Illinois. But a guy outside the Comfort Inn with a telescope, who seemed to know what he was doing, told us not to bother, it was a crapshoot either way and we weren’t any better off there than here. I always trust a man with a telescope.
Google Maps (or the Waze buried within Google Maps) not really adequate to handle the surge of traffic after a one-time event. Its estimates for how long it would take us to traverse I-55 through southern Illinois were … unduly optimistic. Google sent us off the highway onto back roads, but here’s the thing — it sent the same suggestion to everyone else, which meant that instead of being in a traffic jam on the interstate we were in a traffic jam on a gravel road in the middle of a cornfield. When Google says “switch to this road, it’ll save you ten minutes,” does it take into account the effect of its own suggestion, broadcast to thousands of cars in the same jam? My optimization friends tell me this kind of secondary prediction is really hard. It would have been much better, in retrospect, for us to have chosen a back road at random; if everybody injected stochasticity that way, the traffic would have been better-distributed, you have to figure. Should Google build that stochasticity into its route suggestions?
It became clear around Springfield we weren’t going to get home until well after midnight, so we stopped for the night in David Foster Wallace’s hometown, Normal, IL, fitting, considering we did a supposedly fun thing that turned out to be an actual fun thing which we will hardly ever have the chance to, and thus may never, do again.
It scans and rhymes very nicely but makes so sense at all. What can it mean?
It seems like we are witnessing a kind of cultural hybrid; the “Jingle bells / Batman smells” of my childhood has here combined with a “Jingle bells / shotgun shells” tradition I was unaware of until now, which is actually older than the Batman version. A lot of the “shotgun shells” versions found online involve Santa meeting his death in a hail of bullets, but “shot a tree and made it pee” is not uncommon. I wonder how many utterly nonsensical kids rhymes we know are actually hybrids of different songs, each of which at some point sort of made sense?
I really like talking with AB about arithmetic and her strategies for doing problems. All this Common Core stuff about breaking up into hundreds and tens and ones that people like to make fun of? That’s how she does things. She can describe her process a lot more articulately than most grownups can, because it’s less automatic for her. I learn a lot about how to teach math by watching her learn math.
One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.
So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.
Her books are mostly for kids. Have you read them, parents? Some of the classics: Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book. The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school. The Bear’s House (1972). I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.