Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Icon of Communism Is Melting

I just finished reading Darragh McKeon's book, "All That Is Solid Melts into Air".  Even though I can't pronounce his first name, I enjoyed the place where his book took me.  It's part dystopian novel, part historical fiction, part poetry. Simultaneously beautiful and yet disturbing.  Like when I dance.  Only beautiful. 

It was set in the late 80s as the former Soviet Union was unraveling. (This was an important time for me because it was my high school and college years.) It is the story of everyday people who live their lives of fear while things inexplicably fall apart around them. 

I was intrigued by this novel because the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, just a few weeks before I graduated from high school. As I was preparing to start college as a physics major, the news was telling frightening stories of physics-gone-bad.  But honestly, this wasn't too shocking at the time.  As far back as the third grade, I can remember having disaster drills at my elementary school that included preparing for nuclear strikes.  The hallways at our school had signs in the hall that said "Fallout Shelter".  In retrospect, this seems an outrageous and fear-spawning thing to do to elementary school children.  But it was the Cold War. It was part life.  For example, as a young child I knew the names "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" were given to the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  I knew what ICBM stood for.  (That's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.) This was how life was at the time.

The book's prose is often beautiful and filled with delightful details such as thoughtful observations of the shadows of a bridge over a frozen river or the motes of dust in a film projector's cone of light. The title is a quotation from Marx's Communist Manifesto; but ironically, this time it is the icon of communism that is melting.

Chernobyl is an apt symbol of the former Soviet Union: a meltdown was considered as inconceivable as its collapse, and yet both vaporized, leaving behind toxic clouds for Marx's masses to ingest like poison opiates. In the chapter on the accident itself, they find the section titled "Operational Procedures in the Event of a Reactor Meltdown" has actually been redacted from the nuclear plant's operations manual. "An event such as this cannot be tolerated, cannot be conceived, such a thing can never be planned for, surely as it can never happen. The system will not fail, the system cannot fail, the system is the glorious motherland."

And a few years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, a happier symbol of the collapse of the USSR, I was graduating from college. In the preceding years I had largely been to busy or too self absorbed to understand glasnost or perestroika, but I remember when a 19 year old West German flew a small plane all the way into Red Square.  I remember when the USSR shot down a Korean airliner that strayed into its airspace.  All these details were brought back to me in a way that made me reflect on just how significant those times were.

What will the world be like 30 years from now?  Will Putin reestablish the motherland? Will nuclear power be made safe, or clean, or banned altogether? Will my grandchildren look back on the United States as I do the USSR?  I suppose we can only dance on, dear readers, each in our own beautifully disturbing way.

Friday, August 22, 2014

My Unfading Introverted Tendancies

Intergalactic aliens are invading my home. I know, I know, it's unexpected.  Just when I was getting used to the place, too.  They've only just arrived in my kitchen as if Jodi Foster called to them by phase modulating my microwave oven through the satellite dish.  Will that cost me a roaming fee?

Their behavior is strange to me, it's unpredictable and erratic, but they also appear to exhibit some kind of intelligence.  I am fearful they will knock over my lamps, invade my personal space, or ask me embarrassing questions.  Finally, they speak to me:

"We are freshmen engineering majors.  We come in pieces."

That's when I remember that I signed up for the Faculty Dinner.  All the incoming freshmen are paired up with faculty volunteers for a dinner before classes start next week.  My group was all engineering majors.  The goal is to foster relationships between students and faculty as soon as possible. Studies show this leads to student success and retention, but I'm in it for the free dinner.

This is my fourteenth year to teach at Baylor, and yet I felt nervous about them coming over. Some of my jokes about aliens are actually on target. I feared they may ask me embarrassing questions in their youthful naiveté and nervous energy. But this is not so different from when I go to a party of adults; I feel much the same way then too.  I suppose you can take the boy out of the introvert but you can't take the introvert out of the boy.

[A couple of seasoned veterans helped run things and make it easy for me.] 

 [I fed them at our big table, but then they asked if I had any pie.  I said yes, but its circumference was only a little more than three times its diameter.  They groaned and said my jokes were irrational.]

[All but two of them are from out of state. I'm the old guy in the back.]

Much to my relief, we actually had a nice time. Everyone was very polite and friendly, and no one embarrassed me or themselves. Martha was great with them and was very engaged. She mingles naturally while I nervously stuff my mouth with brownies purchased for the students.  She learns things about their lives quickly and easily. She easily fosters relationships, and I foster Jodi Foster.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

David Turns 10010 (18 in Binary)

When I started this blog, David was 11 years old. My second post ever was about him. It's called A Preteen Thanksgiving Miracle.  I cannot really believe it, but a few weeks ago he turned 18. I'm so proud of him - he has surpassed my expectations in so many ways.

He's had a few birthday celebrations already. We had a nice dinner at home one night. Another night he and some friends went to a movie. And last Friday he had another batch of friends over to go kayaking on the Brazos river, eat dinner at our home, and then hang out at a downtown coffee shop. Here are some photo highlights!

[Lookin' for adventure...]

[Canoe canoe?]

[Paddling out under the historic Waco Suspension Bridge. It was built in 1869 to allow cattle from the Chisholm Trail to cross the Brazos.]

[Off they go up the Rio de los Brazos de Dios. This is what the Spanish explorers called the Brazos river. It means the River of the Arms of God.  As I prepare to send David off into the world, I am comforted that he is surrounded by the arms of God. This gives me a great deal of peace. You could say I've got peace like a river.]

[Outdoor Waco is where we rented the kayaks.  I really love that we live within walking distance now.]

[After kayaking, everyone changed clothes at our home while dinner finished cooking.  We're still unpacking and organizing, so excuse the mess in the background. While it may not seem like it, David does, indeed, have more than one male friend.] 

[When we first moved in, I was planning to remove the swing from the middle of our living room. But everyone who visits enjoys it, so we've decided to keep it.]

[Dinner was spaghetti and meat sauce with salad and french bread. Martha put the candles in the cake while it was still too hot and the bottoms of them melted and ran into the cake. Surprise!  Don't eat the silvery blobs you find in the cake.]

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Good Times with First Responders

It's 10:00 AM. I'm still sleepy and am preparing my second cup of coffee for the morning.  (Don't judge me for sleeping late, I'm on vacation.) Then it happens. A very loud beeping sound is coming from the lobby of our apartment complex. In my groggy mind I think it's the obnoxious beep beep of a forklift from Home Depot about to crash through my front door. Or perhaps it's a dump truck backing up... into my ear canal. It's so ridiculously loud that I am reminded of seeing Van Halen in 1982, a concert from which my ears are still ringing.

Then I realized it was the fire alarm. Two months ago I moved my family to a loft apartment downtown, but this was the first time the alarms have gone off since we've been here. Back at our old house, the smoke detector went off every time we used the oven. When it did, Jonathan would always say "Mama's cooking again!" and then David would press the quiet button standing flat footed but reaching the ceiling. 
[This is what I imagined: S'mores gone wild.]

We went out into the lobby but didn't see any smoke so we debated whether or not we should actually evacuate. Then we started hearing the fire engines coming down the street, so I grabbed my camera and my coffee cup while Martha got the dogs on leashes. We left the cat with a fire extinguisher and told her to take care of the place.  

We spilled outside with our neighbors as no less than four fire trucks pulled up around our building! Tough-looking firemen started coming in with helmets and oxygen tanks. I tried to tell them it was just a Home Depot forklift but they kept avoiding my eye contact.

[He said "Sir, we're grateful. Your cat seems to have extinguished the flames."]

[There was a fourth fire truck you can't see in this picture. Kinda like the smoke.]

[False Alarm, but it was a Kodak moment.]

I am reminded by all of this of an amusing memory. It was fifteen years ago when we first moved into our old house. 

Cue blurry images and harp music as we go back in time to 1999.

Martha and David went away for the weekend because I was going to work on the hardwood floors and the fumes from the polyurethane coating were very strong.  It was important that I finish because of the impending Y2K disaster.  Friday night I preheated the oven to cook a big batch of shepherd's pie to last me all weekend.  But I had forgotten that I (temporarily) stored the Tupperware in the oven. 

I know, I know, don't ridicule me. Of course, you know what happened, the Tupperware melted and dripped down on the heating element. Then it caught on fire. Then I tried to put it out with a damp rag, but it didn't work. I tried my fire extinguisher too, but it was too old and didn't work either. I did remember to turn the oven off, gratefully. I called 911 and within a minute or so the city manager/police chief/fire marshal, Yost Zakhary, came around the corner in an SUV.  He's dressed in khakis and a button down and has a walkie talkie in his hand. He grabs the milk jug from my kitchen counter and fills it with water from the sink. Then he opens the oven and dumps it all over the fire. With one billow of milky smoke and burned plastic, the problem was solved. 

He mumbled some coded message in the walkie talkie, presumably to call off the mother ship, and turned and walked out the front door.  I don't think he ever said a word to me. It was then I noticed a policeman standing in my living room.  He stayed around and told me how I could clean the melted plastic out of the oven.  No kidding. 

I guess I have a way with emergency responders. It's a gift, really.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Run Dog Run

Since we moved out of our house a couple of months ago, we have had to adjust the way we take care of the dogs. Now we live in a downtown apartment so the dogs no longer have a yard in which to run. We tried to make them use the treadmill but they ended up just piling their dirty clothes on it. We take them out on a leash several times a day to do their business.  And a few times a week we take them down to a local field and let them romp.

[This is Fern. She's a poodle-mutt that runs and jumps like a gazelle. She is so fast it makes us laugh to watch her.  Sometimes she runs with her mouth open which makes her look like she's smiling.]

[Maggie is a Cocker Spaniel. We didn't realize what a brid-lovin' dog she was until we moved downtown and saw her go crazy for the grackles.  She whimpers with excitement when she sees them!  Sometimes we take her over to the Brazos river and she tries to get the ducks.]

[They often run together but Fern is much faster than Maggie. What is really hilarious is sometimes they will be on a collision course and Fern will jump over Maggie at the last second. Sproing! I like this picture because Maggie's ears are flopping and her back paws look cute.]