Blowing & Drifting

Screenertia

One of the most interesting chains of phenomena of my workday is encountering a mental block while sitting at my desk, getting up and walking out of my office, and almost immediately thinking of a way past that block. Sitting at the computer screen induces "screenertia," I've decided. The foyer to Laird Hall is the best known antidote. On three different occasions last Friday, the twenty steps to that foyer resulted in eurekas that I put to use back at my desk a few minutes later. Granted, these a-ha moments concern the best color scheme for an Excel table, a better structure for a letter of inquiry, or a definitive judgment of whether my pants match my shirt, not curing cancer.

Still, I like having these little burst of cognitive energy, and I especially like the regularity with which they can be induced simply by walking down the hall. But the trick, after having the initial brainstorm, is to take just long enough doing X, Y, or Z that the nascent idea can mature usefully, but not so long that it grows old and withers away before I can get back to my keyboard.

Ameriikan Poijat

I spent an hour this afternoon at Bridge Square, listening to the Ameriikan Poijat (Boys of America), an amazing brass septet based here in Northfield (and headed by a music professor at St. Olaf). Performing as part of this weekend's very cool Vintage Band Festival, the Poijat played a wide variety of Finnish and Finnish-American music: a number of marches and waltzes, a couple schottisches, and the odd polka and polonaise, as well as one wonderful tango. Though I don't know much about those kinds of music, I found every piece to be very beautiful, even those that, like the tango, featured a subtle but distinctly Finnish(-American) sense of mournfulness. This quiet, sad, wintry mood was quite at odds with the suffocating heat and humidity, but it made me helped me imagine that my grandpa and grandma, when they weren't much older than me in the 1930s, might have heard pieces like these performed by a band like the Poijat at a concert in north Ironwood, Michigan. The thought made me happy.

It's Not the Heat

It's the tongues of flames lapping at your feet. Northfield made like Shadrach today and journeyed into the furnace. At the zenith nadir most hellish moment, at around 3:30 this afternoon, the heat index was 116. The fricking-fracking dewpoint was over eighty.

That's not right. Nor was it right that I avoided taking a shower. There just wasn't time until 10 p.m., and then why bother?

It's even more wrong that tomorrow is supposed to be hotter.

Baby Genius Edutainment Complex, or, This Blogger Rants

A while ago, I read Alissa Quart's excellent analysis of the "child-enrichment business" which she calls the "Baby Genius Edutainment Complex" (subscription required). Quart asks, "Whose purpose does all of this aggressive early learning serve?" and comes up with exactly the right answers: the stuff in the Baby Einstein/Leapfrog aisle at Target is for parents, not kids; a child's boredom is actually a valuable inducement to the development of new interests and motivations which are otherwise squelched by constant stimulation; perfectly adequate and often excellent learning can easily be found good old-fashioned, no batteries required toys and books; and above all, there's scant science to show that any of this stuff "works" - but lots of business models to show that it sells.

In short, I'm persuaded, and I'm looking forward to Quart's book, Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. I'm always game for a good critique of how capitalism drives social engineering. I'm also eager to find a deeper ground for my own loathing - or at least dislike - of these kinds of products. Not to say that they're always and everywhere useless: a borrowed Leapfrog "music table" undeniably was the single most important aid to Julia learning the whole alphabet, including the mystery letter "quar," which comes between P and R.

But that example notwithstanding, I'm also surprised by the sheer shittiness of many "baby edutainment" products, especially from Baby Einstein. My key example is a B.E. bath book, What Floats? It's only ten pages long, but it rankles me to no end. The first four pages are bad largely because of the crummy versification:

I float beside my mommy/As quiet as can be/Beside me floats a bubble-/Now what else can I see?/There's a froggy on a lily pad/A turtle on a log/A long-nosed alligator, green/All floating in the bog

An alligator in a bog? Did anyone at Baby Einstein do ten seconds of research into bogs? They're usually found in temperate and alligator-free places, like Michigan or Finland. What's more, you can more often walk on a bog than float on it. But no matter, because on pages five and six we suddenly shift venues:

I look around the quiet lake-/Who's paddling two by two?/A kitten and a puppy dog/Aboard a red canoe!

Alas, the illustration does not show a "kitten and a puppy dog" "paddling two by two." Sitting front and back in a canoe are one cat and one dog. That's not "two by two." This is "two by two," and so is this. Anyhow, I substitute "paddling right on through." I'm not going to teach my kid to incorrectly use a phrase like "two by two."

Abusing a phrase with a fixed, conventional meaning to achieve a poor rhyme isn't bad enough, so on the very next facing pages we go straight into tautology:

All these things are floating/But basically, I think,/Shells and stones and rocks and sand/Don't float because they sink!

You think they "don't float because they sink"? With that kind of education in clear reasoning, our kids have absolutely no chance, twenty-thirty years from now, of reducing the budget deficit, ending the 40-year occupation of Iraq, or figuring out how to impeach Jenna Bush. My substitute for this crap line scans badly, but at least it's physically accurate - more or less: "Don't float because their weight is greater than that of the water they displace."

Given the foregoing intellectual flaccidity, the last pages are especially rankling:

It's curious how a ship floats by/As heavy as can be/While a pebble drops with a little plop/And sinks beneath the sea!

Yeah. Thanks for that. If it didn't suck harder than a barnful of milking machines, the book could have actually helped a kid understand why a ship floats but a pebble doesn't. Instead we get mangled English, worse rhymes, and bad science. For $6.99 (US).

The near-total inability of Baby Einstein products to actually teach what they claim to teach is awful, and maddening. Reading tripe like What Floats? makes me long for the relative simplicity of the bath-book reprint of a Golden Book like The Fuzzy Duckling Quack, Quack! Then again, the first two lines are

The fuzzy duckling went for a walk/Who did he meet?

Whom! "Whom did he meet?"! Geez. Subject, verb, object.

Sumping Woke Julia Up

For whatever reason - bright late-evening light, her sister's impending arrival, toddlerish recalcitrance, whimsical needs to have this or that stuffed-animal "friend" in bed, thirst for "icy water" - Julia has been struggling lately with her evening bedtimes. I didn't help matters the other day when I let the access door to our garage slam shut, just below her room. The bang woke up, and I had to go up there to tell her that, no, it wasn't thunder; it was Daddy and I am sorry and now it's time to go back to sleep.

Since then, each night's bedtime routine included some discussion of the possible sounds that she might hear but that she can nonetheless go back to sleep after hearing: trucks on the street, "dunder and lighting" outside, the toilet flushing, dogs barking, etc. She internalized this pretty well and went to sleep fairly easily for a few nights. But, in that who-knows-how way that's now perfectly commonplace with Julia (and I suppose with all kids), her "seepytime" concern with noises that might wake her up has shifted to a "wakeup time" recitation of things that woke her up. Since she's awake, it stands to reason that something woke her up, right?

The other morning, after lolling in her bed for a few minutes, she suddenly sat up and insistently told me, "Sumping woke Julia up!" I asked, "What was it?" She narrowed her eyes in a very serious way and said, "The Erf made a noise and woke Julia up. And the moon! The moon made a noise, and woke Julia up." I knew the Earth was up to no good, but I didn't think I couldn't trust the moon. Damn those celestial bodies.

Pop Song (Weasel Mix) - updated

Pop Song (Weasel Mix) - updated

Phil Spector, fire the lawyers. Jay-Z, stay in the boardroom. Danger Mouse, start planning the next Gnarls Barkley album. Nigel Goodrich, pray Thom has more solo stuff cooking. There's a hot new producer in the house, and here's proof. No Red Bull needed. (If you're in the main blog page and it's not immediately obvious how to play the song, try clicking on the post title or date stamp or the icon above; this should take you to the post's own page, where you should see a controller that will let you hit "play." Please let me know if that's the case. I'm still trying to work out the kinks with this new application.)

"Where's Baby Sister?"

We took our mandatory tour of the maternity ward First Touch Birth Center at the Northfield Hospital today. Though warned, in a deeply ironic way, not to bring kids, we brought Julia anyhow. She was a model citizen the whole time, except for that one point where she demanded (unsuccessfully) to be permitted to eat a raisin she's dropped on the floor, just a few feet from a laboring bed where countless pints of god-knows-what had been spilled. The tour was interesting and useful, though largely only in a "the main desk is right here; the rooms look like this" way. More than anything else, I was struck by how much the whole hospital, including the immaculate maternity ward, resembled a nice mid-range hotel. It'll be especially odd for me to be coming and going during Shannon's stay - bringing Julia back and forth, going home to take care of things, bringing large Heath Bar Blizzards to the patient, etc. In contrast, Julia's own delivery was a decidedly stationary event.

Julia took in all of the waiting and watching and walking around the ward with her usual aplomb. On the way home, though, she asked pipsqueakingly from the back seat, "Where's Baby Sister?" She clearly thought that the visit would entail taking care of that whole thing where "Mama getting bigger, bigger, bigger!" Not yet, kid.

Dope?

Exactly a week after his miraculous ride back to contention in the Tour de France, Floyd Landis was today publicly identified as having failed a test to detect unusually high ratios of testosterone to epitestosterone.

This is profoundly depressing to me, having found Landis' Stage 17 ride to be an inspiration. Landis' "B" sample will  be tested on Friday, confirming or disconfirming the test on the "A" sample. I hope to the cycling gods that the second sample doesn't come back showing an excessive T/E ratio, in which case Landis will surely be stripped of his title and permanently disgraced. If he did dope, of course he deserves to be sanctioned.

On the one hand, I can't say Landis sounds convincingly indignant:

One reporter asked Landis whether he had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs.

"I'll say no," Landis said. "The problem I have here again is that most of the public has an idea about cycling because of the way things have gone in the past. So I'll say no, knowing a lot of people are going to assume I'm guilty before I've had a chance to defend myself."

"All I want to do is ask that everybody take a step back. I don't know what your position is now. And I wouldn't blame you if it was a bit skeptical because of what cycling has been through in the past and the way other cases have gone. All I'm asking for is just that I be given a chance to prove that I'm innocent. Cycling has a traditional way of trying people in the court of public opinion before they ever get a chance to do anything else. I can't stop that. But I would like to be assumed innocent until proven guilty, since that's the way we do things in America." 

On the other hand, this test is apparently not exactly the most reliable test around. According to ex-pro Jonathan Vaughters, "The majority of T/E tests are over-turned... The guy will probably be proven innocent in eight months time, but in the short-term, the media is killing him. Floyd is basically paying for the sins of all the morons who came before him, who have denied, denied, denied." If in fact Landis had unusually high testosterone levels (since the test finds a ratio, it's possible his epitestosterone were unusually low), I'd like to know why: what gain could there be to increasing testosterone like that? Surely the stereotypical "aggression" of a steroids user wouldn't have helped Landis on the escapade to Morzine - at least, not as much as, say, hideous quantities of caffeine. According to numerous sports scientists and physicians quoted in the Times, the T/E ratio can vary widely (from a "normal" ratio of 1:1 to a high value of 6:1), testosterone has no clear effects on endurance, and the standard test is fraught with problems.

I can only hope for the right outcome here, whatever it is.

Nocturne

See what a toddler needs to get to sleep.

Jargon-free since October - updated

Compared with my last place of employment, Carleton is to jargon as the top of Everest is to oxygen. I am continually surprised by how few au courant terms sneak into speech and writing by faculty and staff. Perhaps I should have expected to find so few business buzzwords: no self-respecting academic talks about "thinking outside the box" except ironically, and often only then when spurred by the presence of an actual carton in the corner of the room. But the lack of academic jargon? Very interesting. When someone talks about a "paradigm shift" (granted, this is a big crossover term), they're more than likely talking about Kuhn. When some term from my former life slips into a proposal, my boss almost always redlines it.

Still, the occasional buzzword does slip into conversation and prose. Several times this summer, I've heard someone refer to a person, group, or situation as a "canary." This was pretty opaque to me until, at a meeting this morning, the speaker expanded on it: a certain group of students are "canaries" because if a new program benefits them, it's likely to benefit everyone. It's a reference to "the canary in the coal mine," only not really: those poor yellow birds only conveyed useful information when they died. If there was more oxygen in the mine than usual, they didn't, like, complete their chem major more quickly or master calculus with less effort. They probably just sat in their cages, wondering why the hell they were in a coal mine.

UPDATE (7/26/06): In a long meeting today with many of the same principals as yesterday's meeting, I heard three different people invoke the canary, all in this inverted way. All were also chemists. Maybe they're attuned to methane in a different way than the rest of us.

Summer Evenings

With an eye toward trying this in 2008 (the soonest I'm likely to be able to be ready and to take a solo or familial day trip), I've been spending a lot of time running and rollerskiing around Northfield. It's the most training exercise I've done in years, and though it's soon to be interrupted, it's also put me right through the wayback machine: the hundreds of summer hours spent running or biking up and down the abandoned railroad right-of-way between Hancock and Calumet, Michigan, training to run high school cross-country that fall. Was it really ten miles to Calumet? Could I really run twenty miles round trip? I didn't even know it. The path was covered in rough gravel and cinders, with a stray railroad tie here and there; "rails to trails" was unknown. In my memory, it seems to always be about 8:30 on a hot summer night. More often than not I'd only see coyotes and rabbits - no people, not even teenagers out on a binge in woods. God only knows how much copper dust I inhaled.

And while I stagger to run five miles now, Northfield has it over the Copper Country for scenery.  Tthe Arb is fantastically beautiful in almost any season. And then there's the quality of the sky: even on an overcast day like this one, the clouds are towering and backlit by an orange sun.

Webpage Redesign

I'm contemplating what to do with tassava.com (the main pages, not the blog), and wouldn't you know it but someone already stole all my best ideas.

Twigone-ometry

One of our very favorite things on the Carleton campus is "Twigonometry," a beautiful piece of public sculpture that's simultaneously Earthy and otherworldly. (A Carleton librarian has Flickr'd a nice set of photos of the work.) Julia has been in love with Twigonometry since she saw it the first time, when she called it "Nests." Since then it's been "the Big Sculptures." We have visited it at least once a week since we moved here last December, not least because the individual pieces allow anyone - but especially toddlers - to walk through them, making them great for hide and seek or just for pretending to find mousies and kitties.

Alas: this spring Twigonometry started to fall down. Put up in 2002, it was only supposed to last two years, so it's had a good run. Today, Carleton had a public farewell party for the sculptures. We went to enjoy a popsicle or three, write (and color) a farewell note, and walk through them one last time. Julia even waved goodbye quite appropriately.

That's not all, though. It turns out - as my boss and the college's curator both, separately, told me - that the whole event was staged because the sculptures were so deeply loved by one Northfield resident: Julia! I had told my boss several times how much she liked to troop through the sculptures, so when he got a note from the higher-ups about the work's imminent demise, he asked what, ideally, I thought the college should do. I mumbled something about having a chance to say goodbye, meaning we'd like to know when the pieces were going to disappear, mostly so that we could visit one last time and avoid the heartache of finding, one day, empty spots on the ground. Being the superlatively good citizen he is, he conveyed this upstairs. Lo and behold, a month later, 100 people showed up in 95-degree heat to salute the late, great Twigonometry. All at a toddler's word! Things like this indicate just how easy it is to work at Carleton.

Still and all, I'll dearly miss seeing the sculptures. And so will Julia.

Lovey Dovey

Shannon and Julia are a match made in heaven. Yesterday Julia decided that she loved and had had had to have this funny little kidney-shaped pillow which Shannon uses to mitigate her 34th-week hip aches. The pilllow is soft, sure, but her main attraction to the pillow is that it's Mama's. Shannon needs it too, but she gave it up. Julia slept with it all night long, and its in her bed right now.

Phonakered

Perhaps Floyd Landis winning the Tour de France is a good enough reason to write a little bit about my own fun with Phonak. It has been almost exactly four months since I went bionic by starting to wear two Phonak "hearing instruments" - hearing aids, for those of you trapped in a 20th-c. hearist mindset.

I think that the experience has, over all, been a good one. I mean, as good as it can get when I've just spent a huge sum of money on two "hearing devices" that will only mask the fact that I'm slowly going deaf. But that sure beats the alternatives - going deaf quickly, not being able to hear your wife, etc. And anyhow, you, too, are slowly going deaf. Only I'm slowly doing it more quickly.

And but so, wearing the hearing aids has been a good thing. Just as advertised (by a slightly creepy snow owl), they do in fact help me hear a lot better. Taking them out each night on going to bed, I'm always struck by just how quiet the world gets. Most of the same sounds are there - the air conditioner thrumming, the baby monitor picking up the white noise machine in Julia's room, a car on the street - but all of the sounds are dampened, muffled, flattened. There's no detail to them. And anything Shannon says then, she might as well just say three times.

Conversely, putting the aids in each morning - which isn't really a pleasant experience, though not really unpleasant, either: just imagine sliding a wad of plastic into each ear canal (specifically, the external auditory meatus - if only it meant something to brag about my augmented meatus) - makes the world seem a lot richer. In the few minutes it takes for the brain to adjust after I put them in, I perform several very loud acts. Combing my hair, for instance, sounds like raking very dry leaves.

But then the aids' processors kick in and choose the right settings - just enough volume, just enough bass and treble (or whatever the right terms are). On and off over the course of every day, though, the aids reset themselves to new situations - say, leaving my preternaturally quiet office and going out into the wind. Every time, there's the sensation (but not the reality) of my ears popping as the aids turn themselves waaaay down, then tick back up to the right level. Every time, I'm amazed at the thought that computers are literally controlling one of my senses. Every time, I hear a lot better in a few seconds.

Sometimes, a little too well. Sounds inside my head - chewing something crunchy, my pulse when I'm working out, the little voices - are always way too loud, and since the sounds aren't coming in through the ear canal, the instruments can't modify them. Just this evening, in the middle of a workout, I actually stopped to look behind me because my pounding pulse sounded just like footfalls. The amplification of cranial sounds is one of the two main drawbacks to the devices. The other is their unholy smell. Suffice to say that sweat and ear wax do not combine to smell like roses. Many are the kleenexified trees which will die to ensure that I can wipe down the devices a zillion times a day.

But those of us with stinky microphonic computers in our ears are surprisingly numerous. My "completely in canal" devices are very small, so they're pretty hard to notice unless you know to look for them. Just the same, I make a point of checking out people's ears, and every few days I find another member of the club - a faculty member at Carleton, the college president. Call us the HUH - Hearing-Underwhelmed Humans. Don't fear or pity us - unless you want to chip in for the hearing aid batteries. Then you can do whatever you want. Those things are spendy.

Contre-le-montre, Conquérant de la Tour

The Tour de France turned out the way it should have, after all. As expected, Floyd Landis raced well in the "contre-le-montre" of the race's penultimate stage on Saturday, finishing third but taking enough time out of Oscar Pereiro to reassume the yellow jersey. Landis thus was assured of winning the Tour when it concluded on Sunday, capping one of the most tumultuous and surprising Tours in decades and writing himself into the history of the Tour as one of the audacious and tough riders ever. His superhuman Stage 17 must be put on a par with the best that Lance Armstrong, Jacques Anquetil, or even Eddy "the Cannnibal" Merckx ever rode. 

What You Want Is a Wollensak!

What You Want Is a Wollensak!

I want one of these, as advertised in a 1960 New Yorker. Check it - it's six feet long and made of wood. I dispute the notion of progress, but...

The Meteorologists Have 39 Names for Snow

A hot July day like this is an excellent moment to learn about the 39 different kinds of snowflakes. I hope I am never outside during a storm of P6a flakes: ouch. (Click on the graphics to see cool microphotographs of each flake.)

War Is Just Math

The history of statistics - as a mode of political and economic power, not as a kind of mathematics - is currently a minor interest of mine (and perhaps a larger one in the future). Thus, I was engrossed by this short article about the Allies' ingenious use of statistics to overcome their incomplete knowledge of the number of tanks the Germans were producing at the height of World War II.

Panache

After Floyd Landis took the yellow jersey on Tuesday with a calm, almost passive ride up l'Alpe d'Huez, the French newspaper Aujourd'hui accused him of racing without "panache." The insult must have stung on Wednesday, when Landis cracked and fell from first to eleventh in the general classification - seemingly out of contention in the race. Then came Thursday's Stage 17. In it, Landis made one of the all-time great attacks, first using his team to grind the peloton down in the early kilometers, then audaciously soloing away on the first climb of the day. With the peloton in ruins behind him, Landis hunted down every member of an 11-man breakaway, and rode alone over the colossal Col de Joux-Plane to Morzine, where he won his first-ever Tour stage and vaulted himself into third place, exactly half a minute down to the leader of the tour, Oscar Pereiro. Executed avec beaucoup volonté et panache, the ride was immediately recognized as one of the great "escapades" of the Tour de France - perhaps the greatest. And it puts Floyd and his ruined hip back in the right place for Saturday's decisive time trial. I'd be rooting for him even if I weren't bionic thanks to Phonak: today he put himself among the pantheon of the Tour de France and of endurance athletics.

Two from the Bafroom

I.

Julia's morning and evening toothbrushing usually goes well. She actually likes the "big kid" aspect of holding her (Tigger-adorned) brush and the taste of the toothpaste, which she sometimes compares to flowers or ice cream. We've worked out a pretty good little routine: I put the paste on the brush, wet it all down, and hand it to her as she repeats her cryptic summary of  toothbrush turn-taking: "Julia first, then Julia," which actually means, "Julia first, then Daddy." She brushes, more or less, until it gets boring, and then she stands there, brush wedged in her maw, and says, "Daddyth's turnth." When I take over, I say, "ABCDees!" and she starts to rattle off the alphabet song.

Here, the train can run off the rails: I must not change my facial expression at all while she recites and I brush. Even though her peepy little toddler voice is never more adorable than when it's reciting the alphabet, I cannot raise my eyebrows, crack a smile, nod my head in time, murmur "N" when she skips it (as she does every time), or - god forbid - join in. If I do any of these things, she spits the toothbrush out and snaps, "Julia don't like that! Daddy, no singing/smiling/making that face." Once I'm appropriately affect-less, she allows the brushing to continue until she gets to "Next dyme won't you sing with me?" At this point, I am allowed to say, "I sure will!" unless she chirps it first. Then the brush is expelled, any spit-and-paste spills are blotted on the towel, and we're off.

II.

Julia usually loves her baths, and usually treats them as (literally) immersive experiences. She likes making shampoo and soap suds; she likes washing and rinsing herself with her hands, washcloths, and little toy cups; she likes "being a wormy/snake/shark" by lolling on her stomach in the tub; and she especially likes "plashing," which was also once called "ocean." She's never seen the ocean, but when the waves get my shirt wet, all's right in the world.

The one facet of bathing of which she's not too fond is rinsing her shampooed hair. Not only is it annoying to have the water trickle into her face (no matter how carefully we tip her head back or how well I have the washcloth covering her forehead), but her shampoo mascot adds insult to injury by ceaselessly flashing his doped-up smile. "Julia don't like that snail!" she whines. "Daddy, turn bottle around!" she commands. Shampooing starts again when the Strawberry Swirl snail kisses the wall.

Cracking under Pressure

American cyclist Floyd Landis cracked in a colossal way during today's Tour de France stage. Over the last climb of the day, he lost more than nine minutes to his main rivals and fell from first in the overall standings to eleventh (eight minutes down to the new leader, Oscar Pereiro), Unless he can make a miraculous comeback in Thurday's last Alpine stage and in Saturday's final time trial, Landis has knocked himself out of contention for the yellow jersey.

Landis's collapse ranks with other epic individual failures:

Julie Moss crawls over the line in the 1982 Ironman triathlon.

Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss staggers through the last mile of the 1982 Olympic marathon.

Lance Armstong nearly gives away the 2000 Tour on stage 16, bonking on the last climb and letting his main rival take 90 seconds from him.

And just for good measure, here's Lance Armstong inducing Jan Ullrich et al to crack on the steeps of l'Alpe d'Huez in 2001. Warning: The Look can kill.

Cats

This evening, like many, made me think the Egyptians were drunk off their hieroglyphics when they domesticated the cat. I saw several big, black, jumpy crickets in our house tonight, but did the cat mercilessly pursue and dispatch them? No. Instead, she played George W. Bush to their Osama bin Laden. Compelled to act unilaterally, I discovered that each cricket crunched nauseatingly when it underwent its extraordinary rendition in a sheet of Bounty.

Sights Seen

On a drive up to the Cities for a meeting today, I passed two interesting sights: this one and that of a postmodern farmer. Young, shirtless, and impeccably tanned, he was driving an old rust-red International Harvester Farmall tractor, towing a big disc harrow, and sporting a pair of those tell-tale white earbuds. IH meets iPod.

Welcome to Blowing and Drifting

Welcome to Blowing and Drifting.

Good old Xferen is no more. It was a good blog while it lasted (from October 2004 until June 2006), and I had a lot of fun doing it. I learned a great deal about blogging on Xferen (and on my shared blog, After School Snack, which is still very much a going concern), including how to write more concisely and sharply. In fact, I think I have learned more about writing from blogging than from doing my dissertation. Some of you won't be surprised by that statement. I also learned how hard it is to both stay focused on a particular set of topics and maintain the discipline to post daily.

I am still learning, of course, but in the past couple months I'd started thinking about making a fresh start - going west, as it were. I finally made the decision at the beginning of the month when my co-writer at Xferen, having only so recently arrived, lit out for her own territory, Mama in Wonderland. Honestly, I was happy to see her go, because trying to maintain her standard of frequent postings and good writing was getting exhausting. Around the same time, but otherwise unconnected to Shannon's move, Xferen was marred by some "off-line" reactions to one of its more innocuous posts; these were ugly enough for me to want to put the blog behind me - and maybe develop a syllogism:

      xferened : friends :: dooced : jobs 

And but so, here it is, technical glitches notwithstanding. I hope I can post more frequently and focus better on a smaller and, frankly, more coherent (even interesting?) set of topics. No promises, but these topics are likely to include household current affairs, quotidian life in a postmodern small town, the odd recollection, and unpopular but personal interests like nordic skiing, certain musical genres and performers, and the books that I can make time to read.

Sometimes, Your Toddler Philosophizes; Sometimes, She Doesn't

At some point last fall, Julia became enamored of a certain long-sleeved t-shirt which I occasionally wore. The color - hunter's orange - may have had something to do with it, as she began asking every day when I came home and went upstairs to change clothes, "Orangirt?" I wore it as much as possible, because why not? It made her happy enough to hug me every time I put the thing on - and a few times, she cried when I couldn't wear it. (It had to go in the laundry sometime!) As the weather warmed up, she kept asking me to wear it, but of course, increasingly I couldn't without sweating like a very sweaty guy. So I stopped putting it on (and even tucked it away where she couldn't see it), and eventually she stopped asking about it.

Until today, one of the hottest days of the year. Sitting in her cool bath, she plucked at the sleeve of my light workout t-shirt, smiled, and said, "Daddy, put on your orange shirt." I laughed and said, "Oh, honey, I can't - it's much too hot for it." She made a face that was exactly equivalent to a shrug, then said slowly and precisely, "Sometimes you wear the orange shirt, sometimes you don't."

Did You Say, "Turd Inference?"

The Tour de France just passed its midpoint, winding this weekend over the middle of France from two hard and important stages in the Pyrénées last week to three even harder and more decisive stages in the Alps next week.

In Thursday's second Pyrenean stage, the Tour's eleventh, Floyd Landis, the American riding for Phonak, took the yellow jersey from Cyril Dessel, a Frenchman on the AG2R team. I was a bit disappointed to see Dessel slide to second because, as Samuel Abt reported in the Times, he rides with a hearing aid - possibly even a Phonak device, since two years ago he rode for Phonak as a kind of riding advertisement. Sharing a hearing-aid brand is probably the oddest tie I've ever had to an elite athlete, if you're keeping track at home.

Landis gave up the jersey after wearing it for just one stage. On Saturday, he ceded it (apparently by plan) to Oscar Pereiro, who had started the day's stage in a whopping 46th place, almost a half hour down. Pereiro, of the Caisse d’Épargne team, and Jens Voigt, an aggressive rider with the weakened CSC team, were the survivors of one of the longest-ever breakaways in the Tour de France; Voigt got the stage win while Pereiro got the big prize, which he wore through the last transitional stage on Sunday and into Monday's rest day.

Now, the Alps loom. Three horrific stages include a total of five climbs so tough that they are listed as "hors categorie" (HC) - beyond classification - and will almost certainly decide the winner of the Tour. Tuesday's stage 15 forces the riders over the Col d'Izoard before ascending the storied l'Alpe d'Huez. Seventeen times, the winner of the stage to the Alpe has also won the Tour. Wednesday's even harder stage 16 includes two more HC mountains, including the 50-kilometer-long Col du Galibier and Col de la Croix Fer; its sheer difficulty may seal the previous day's results or show up the victor on the Alpe as an impostor. If there's anything left to decide after those two days, Thursday's Alpine coda, featuring one HC climb at the end of the stage, will go a long way to deciding it.

The consensus is that Landis is in control. Like the last American to win the Tour, he's a very good climber with a funny first name. And though he's never yet won a road stage in the Tour, he might as well do it this year, en route to standing atop the podium on the Champs-Élysées. Tactically, giving up the yellow jersey was a way to create a debt which Pereiro's team can balance by helping help Phonak in the Alps - an alliance that will surely strengthen Landis at the expense of other riders and teams in the Alps and thus afterwards, all the way to the time trial in the Tour's penultimate stage. We'll know how things have played out by the time the first racer hits the twenty-one switchbacks of l'Alpe d'Huez on Tuesday afternoon.

Inspector Julia

Inspector Julia
Having read a certain Sesame Street book featuring Sherlock Hemlock, the street's Holmes figure, Julia suddenly became fascinated with magnifying glasses. Luckily, I had one, and she toted it around all day, "maggifying" things. Like her left eye, in a disturbing, "has your pediatrician noticed this?" way.

What's That Thing's Name?

Julia's obsession with names and relationships only grows. Yesterday at the library, we were doing puzzles across the table from a mother and boy who were loudly stage-whispering back and forth to each other. Catching on to the poor demonstration of library etiquette (if you're going to be quiet, go right ahead and be quiet), Julia paused her own puzzle-solving to turn to me, three inches from her, and whisper-shout, "What's that Mama's name?" Everyone cracked up - but the woman didn't say her name.

As amusing as that incident was, similar questions are almost as frequently heard these days as Julia's diplomatic method of refusing to do something. During today's outing downtown, she must have asked fifty times either "What's that X's name?" or "What's that's X's Y's name?" X can be anything - "lady" or "man" or "kid" or "coffee" or "car" or "shopping cart" - and "Y" can be almost anything else - "mom" or "dad" or "auntie" or "kid." The world is nothing but names and relationships.

The Cycles of Life

I'm pretty happy to be able to bike almost anywhere in Northfield. My main destination, campus, is an easy two-mile ride which compels me to make a 20-meter climb over the 3200 meter distance (a lung-busting climb that is truly Grand Bouclesque) and brings me through some quiet neighborhood streets. A couple times, I've taken detours to swing by the downtown coffeeshop, where I didn't even bother to lock my bike on the rack shared with four other unlocked bikes. Holding my to-go cup in one hand made it a bit trickier to ascend the sharp little rise between the main downtown street and campus, but I dug deep and made it, à la Armstrong on Sestriere in 1999. And a few times now, I'm biked to my dentist's office for appointments. Riding home last Thursday with a heavily Novocained jaw was an interesting experience: who knew so much saliva could drool out of my mouth over such a short distance.

Aside from the wind, which never seems to be at my back, my main impression of my rides back and forth is, "Holy crap, that's a lot of dead animals." Roadkills are as numerous as they are offensive. For weeks now, a pigeon rock dove has been decomposing just this side of the centerline on my main east-west street. Every few days, it gets flatter and further west. The pigeon's posthumous persistence rots in contrast to a dead rabbit just a few blocks east; it was there one morning (and oozingly fresh, I might add), but gone that afternoon. Thank you, Neighborhood Shoveler. In between (both literally and figuratively), I routinely see the odd crow and grackle, a red-tailed hawk, some mice or other tiny rodents, and lots and lots of squirrels. God bless them all: Goodyear sure didn't.

Independence Day Did Just Come and Go...

I think my favorite Julia utterance of recent vintage is "All my byself," which, until a few days ago, she said when did without assistance something worth noting  - putting on or taking off her sandals, holding the stair rail, eating a spoonful of a particularly tricky food, putting on her sunglasses. 

On Being a Tassava

Last week, Julia reached a major milestone in being a Tassava: she received her first award with a misspelled last name. A certificate for completing her toddler swimming class, it put her name as "Tassave" - a common mangling. Shannon corrected it by writing the final A in over the E. Get used to it, kid: it's only the first of a zillion. And just wait until some poor waiter calls out your name when your table's ready. Anything's possible then.

As hard as our last name is to spell and to say, it does offer the possibility of a large corporate family:

Caffeva - bovine insemination service

Cassava - importer of tropical root vegetables 

Taffara - weaver of shiny silken cloth

Taffava/Taffeva - maker of fine saltwater-based candies

Tassara - small-business IT networking (the most common mispelling)

Tassave - maker of bass-fishing life jackets

Clipped

My favorite barber story, continued from this post.

Stopping into the barbershop in the Foshay Tower one day a few years back, I discovered that my regular barber (a short, twitchy guy who loved to talk about fishing and replacing the windows on his house) was out, and in his place was an old and frankly quite stinky barber who talked in great detail about his upcoming wintertime RV trip to Arizona. After a few minutes, though, he got tired of talking to me and asked if I wanted something to read. "Sure," I said. These were famous last words, because he immediately dropped a copy of Playboy into my lap. I laughed uncomfortably and joked, "You must have this in the shop for the articles, right?" Famous laster words, because he replied definitively, "No, I have it here because I like looking at the poon."

email: christopher at tassava dot com