Saturday, August 13, 2016

Summer pics, day 3

Reprint from wading in the river:

Mr Bunches, explorer:

They are America.

Sunset over the "Classic McDonald's" near the end of Mr. F's nightly ride route.

Elephant statue at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens

This is at the Veteran's Museum on Capitol Square. There is a working periscope in the room commemorating the various wars Wisconsin residents have fought in. Mr Bunches is looking through it:

... and this is the view of the Capitol you can see through that periscope:

This is a diorama of Wisconsin soldiers fighting in the Pacific in World War II.

Bald eagle at Veteran's Museum:

Close up of bust from Capitol:

Friday, August 12, 2016

More summer pictures

Continuing from yesterday. This is another shot of Lake Pepin from my trip up north:

It is hard to tell from this, but that is a bald eagle. I saw 6 or 7 of them flying around that day. That's only the second time I've seen a bald eagle in the wild.

This is the sunset over Lake Mendota, looking from Madison across the lake (roughly) towards my house on the other side (and up the hill from the lake a bit.)

Sometimes when Mr F needs calming down, I take him for long rides down to downtown Madison, and we drive back through the UW-Madison campus. One night, we drove down a little dead-end street among a variety of student housing, and found it ended in a cul de sac that looks over Lake Mendota. That's where I took this picture.

This is from a park about a quarter-mile walk from our house. We walked there one night to wade, and found they'd put in a beach to swim. It was early June and we had the entire beach, and seemingly the entire lake, to ourselves.

This is my grandson; on the 4th of July we watched him, and were going to go to the beach with him and the boys. It was rainy and cold, so we went to the McDonald's nearby for breakfast and playing. He was dancing in an apparent effort to impress a little girl that was just out of the frame.

One night, while building a Lego Angry Birds castle with Mr Bunches, Sweetie was upstairs reading, and I noted that Mr F had been very quiet over by the couch; he was on the floor in front of the couch and I couldn't see him. So told Mr Bunches to peek over and see what he was doing.

"Is he okay?" I asked.

"Yeah he's fine," Mr Bunches said.

Five minutes later when I got up to get a drink, I saw that "fine" means "taking all the stuffing out of a couch cushion."

And here is that castle:

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I haven't posted that many pictures here lately

So I'll make up for that over the next couple of weeks, posting some of my favorite pictures from the 72/90ths of summer that has already gone by.

Sculptures on the east side of Madison:

A mouse that was hiding in a sink drain in the changing room at a beach we went to:

Mr F raises the roof at B B Clarke beach in Madison:

Mr F relaxes as "rock beach" near our house, on Lake Mendota:

Motor trailer in a town along the Mississippi River in Northwest Wisconsin; I had to go about 4 1/2 hours north to interview a witness, and drove back along the Mississippi:

This is a bridge over the Mississippi. Technically, if you are driving from a location in Wisconsin to another location in Wisconsin, you should not have to cross the Mississippi River, which forms the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. But if you have a GPS, which, when you punch in the street and number of your house, decides to send you to that street and number in a town in Minnesota, you will get to cross the Old Miss, and then you will realize that you are going to be very late for dinner:

Storm clouds over a farm, western Wisconsin. (Yep, i was back in Wisconsin by this point.)

Marina on the Mississippi:

Beach on the Mississippi:

Scenic overlook. This is not the Mississippi anymore, but Lake Pepin in Wisconsin. Fort St. Antoine was a fort built in the 1680s in Wisconsin, by the French. The French would control this area of Wisconsin until the end of the 7 Years' War, in 1763, the result of which was the French ceding all land east of the Mississippi to England.

Had France won that war, it's possible that people in Wisconsin would speak French and have French traditions, the way Quebec does in Canada.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Book 59: How many humor writers does it take to wreck a joke about light bulbs?

Humor has a shelf life. Back about 20 years ago, I was a big fan of Dave Barry's, as were many of the people I know, including Sweetie.  Barry was a newspaper columnist whose weekly humor columns traded in the same sort of broad strokes that megapopular sitcoms do -- as would be expected, for someone who has to appeal to a broad spectrum.  You can't be too 'edgy' if you want 30 million people to read you.

I hadn't though about Dave Barry for years, but last week when I finished up my audiobook, none of the ones I really wanted were available. I briefly listened to a couple hours of Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker, whose book The Fermata had been creative and interesting and whose Vox had at least been creative. But Traveling Sprinkler grew old pretty fast: it's more or less an internal monologue from a poet who is turning 55, and after a few hours it hadn't developed anything resembling momentum; while the voice was interesting enough and had a way with words, eventually it grew tiresome and I looked for a new audiobook from the library. After about 20 minutes of searching I came across Barry's book and thought it might be worth a try.  It wasn't, really.

Barry's humor is best in small doses of weekly columns, and best twenty years ago, too.  Like Stephen Colbert's book, repeated lengthy exposures to Barry's particular persona grow boring and overwhelming.  In Barry's case, the persona is a bumbling dad caught up in various forms of maleness: there are jokes about beer, and jokes about colonoscopies, and jokes about hooking up electronics. In Barry's world, women obsess about kids' birthday parties and own 60 pairs of shoes.

That some of these things are sometimes true doesn't make them particularly funny, or at least not funny enough to merit an entire book. I laughed a few times, but mostly each joke was exactly what was expected, which overall was disappointing.  There were two excruciating parodies, one of the tv show 24 (this book is probably almost a decade old by now) and one of Twilight. They were every bit as funny and original as you would guess parodies of 24 or Twilight would be, which is to say: not at

On that note: there is a brand of humor I call Tumblr Humor, after the kinds of jokes you see on Tumblr and Twitter and the like. The platonic ideal of Tumblr Humor was the blog Eli Manning Looking At Things, a series of pictures that were posted after a picture of Eli Manning looking at some hurricane damage went viral. People photoshopping Eli Manning into various things, with Eli looking at them. Tumblr Humor is a joke that the moment you say it, it is no longer funny: it is a joke whose every iteration is embodied in the joke itself, so that posting 100 pictures of Eli Manning looking at the flag raising on Iwo Jima, or the Marianas trench, or whatever, is not necessary.  Parodies of 24 and Twilight are a branch of Tumblr Humor. Those things are so readily aped that there is no effort in the parody, and because the jokes are obvious, and immediate, the humor never arises.  Tumblr Humor is in the same vein as meeting someone with the same name as a famous person: if it occurs to you, immediately, to say something humorous about that person's name, you can assume it has occurred to everyone else that quickly too, and so everyone has heard it.  When you read 50 Shades Of Gray and think of how funny it would be to write a parody, the faster you think of your parody the more likely it is that it's not funny because everyone already thought of it.

Humor's a funny thing that way: I think the things that are funniest are a combination of a recognition of ourselves, combined with surprise. The best humorists and comedians manage to somehow look at us in a new way, causing us to think wow I never thought of that. At least that's what it is to me. Absent that surprise, that unexpected, I fail to see the funny part of an observation. Jerry Seinfeld wasn't funny because he talked about airline peanuts; he was funny because he talked about them in a way that we hadn't thought of, but which, as soon as he said it, we thought yeah that's right.

Dave Barry has lost the ability to surprise me, and I don't really see anybody mirrored in his humor. Yes, soccer parents are annoying and yell a lot at their kids, but observing that is nothing new or original. And are there guys who still insist on not asking for directions, or not reading the manual for an electronic device they have to assemble? I suppose there might be, but guys like that are already parodies of themselves, and making fun of them requires no more wit than it takes to make fun of Twilight.

There's not really an original moment in this book; if I told you the topics, you could probably write the jokes yourself, and even if you didn't put much effort into it -- as it appears Barry did not -- you'd probably come pretty close to his exact stories. I wouldn't waste your time with this book.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Book 58: Now I am reading something a bit lighter.

Last night when I went to bed, I was 90% done with Broken Harbor, and up until that point it had been a solid entry in Tana French's Murder Squad series, which is the set of books Sweetie and I are reading for our book club, which is just the two of us because neither of us really cares for people, but we both like to read.

I thought I'd read for about 20 minutes, but when that was up I was near the end of a chapter, so I thought well I'll just finish this chapter and then so on until I'd finished the entire book in an hour-plus of solid reading. It wasn't even just reading, though: I felt like I was sort of holding on to the book and it was pulling me along. The ending of Broken Harbor is one of the greatest, and most chilling, endings to a book I've ever read.

Broken Harbor, like each book before it, takes a character from an earlier book and focuses on him or her. This time it's "Scorcher" Kennedy, the detective who was working on the murder in Faithful Place only to screw it up and have someone else get credit for the case. At the start of Broken Harbor Kennedy is getting out of the doghouse after a long while and is put on a new case, a family murdered in a subdivision being built out of an old harbor where, it turns out, Kennedy and his family used to vacation way back when.

The murdered family is two little kids and a husband; the wife is still living, barely, but not able to discuss the murders right away, and like all such murder mysteries, the heat is on. Kennedy is paired up with Richie, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks on his first big murder investigation; Kennedy gets Richie because he's never wanted a full-time partner, so he trains all the new guys and then passes them on to someone else.

Like French's other books, the story is as much about the characters as the murder; while the mystery is solid (the first walkthrough of the crime scene is excellent; this is easily French's creepiest book yet), it's the background on Kennedy and Richie and the family and everyone else we run into in the course of the investigation.

Kennedy's got baggage on this one: his family stopped going to Broken Harbor (now renamed a bland subdivision name) when his mom walked into the ocean and drowned herself one year, setting off what seemed to be schizophrenia in his youngest sister, Dina. He realizes that Broken Harbor appearing in the news is going to set her off again, and it does, so he's trying to investigate a murder while also keeping tabs on Dina, who is breaking down fast. Torn apart on all sides, he finds himself actually getting to like Richie as a potential permanent partner, even as the two argue about who is a more likely suspect, a friend of the family or the dead husband in a murder-suicide.

That all sounds good enough, but the mystery is layers and layers deeper than that; it's French's most complex mystery yet, and there are easily three or four different possible solutions to it, so even with my penchant for guessing that each new character is the murderer, I never even came close.

But that's not what makes the ending of the book like a black hole of suspense and intensity. What French does in the end is tie up, in a way, a running theme in the book: Whether there is a why to the murder.  At the outset, Kennedy tells Richie that random murders are rare, that in nearly every case the dead people somehow brought murder into their lives: they hung around the wrong people or embezzled or cheated on their wives or beat them or something.  Richie argues back that good people can sometimes just have bad things happen without causing it themselves, even indirectly, and Kennedy has the same sort of argument with Dina, when he tells her that he thinks she was made crazy by their mom committing suicide.  "There is no why," Dina tells him, but Kennedy refuses to accept this.

I can't tell you how French resolves the argument, or even really if she does, without revealing a bit too much, because that's the larger mystery at work here: is there a why? The family, they learn, was unraveling, in part because of the financial crisis (the book is set during the recent recession, a setting that has made its way into fiction way faster than you'd imagine, marking it as what I thought it might end up being when it started: the single most significant event of modern life. If the Depression and World War II marked the "Greatest Generation," then 9/11 and the Great Recession will mark our generation, and how we respond to them will demonstrate if we can rise to greatness, or if we will instead curl up and hide from responsibility. So far, all evidence points to the latter, given that we've wiped out civil liberties, handed all the money to an elite few in society, and allowed police to become a paramilitary organization charged with enforcing a new sort of Jim Crow, a fatal sort of Jim Crow.)

Anyway,  the husband had been laid off at the start of the recession and the family had started withdrawing from the neighborhood, such as it is -- and it's not much of a neighborhood, at that -- and Kennedy and Richie wonder whether that might have set someone off.  At one point in the investigation, Kennedy almost loses it seeking a motive -- the why -- and French, at the end reveals why it's so important to him that there be a why, that there be rules which govern us.

Is there a why? And if so, is why ever so simple? We watch the news and say that people killed others because of guns, because of drugs, because of poverty. Wars start because 'they hate us.' We seek cause and effect, cause and effect, cause and effect.  And we probably blame ourselves for being the cause even as we feel we are the effects of other causes.

I guess you have to have a problem/
If you want to invent a contraption

Sang Jack White on Effect & Cause:

Well in every complicated situation 

There's a human relation 
Making sense of it all 
Take a whole lot of concentration 
Well you can blame the baby 
For her pregnant ma 
And if there's one of these unavoidable laws 
 It's that you can't just take the effect and make it the cause

But what is the cause? I've told people they can't blame themselves if their kids did something they didn't like. It doesn't make you a failure as a parent.  President Obama barely knew his father, and yet credits him with instilling in his son a desire to be a great dad -- because he wasn't? Would Obama have been a great dad even if his own father had been around? I have two brothers and a sister, who are nothing like me and who I don't speak to. We were all raised by the same parents in the same household with the same rules. We turned out wildly different -- or at least I am wildly different from them.  What's the cause? What's the effect? What is the why?

As I tore through the final 10% of French's book, I was reading all the why she put in there, or lack of it, and later, after I was done, I was thinking, over and over, about the why, about whether we end up in a given place because of a set of effects, or whether we only think we are in that place because we lay a pattern over it after the fact, fitting our narrative into the way the pieces have ended up.  Well if I'd been a better father, if I'd worked harder at this, if I'd taken that class, if I'd never left that job.  We see fate where there might be random chance, and chance where we have been destined to do something.

There are definite causes, and definite effects. There is a reason that I am adamant -- that I in part left my old, terrible, law firm -- that people need a lawyer and that the lawyer should find a way to make it affordable for those people. That reason is my own, and is private, but it is a reason nonetheless, and it contributed to my dissatisfaction with my own firm and has made me, at times, unpopular with those around me.

But for the big questions, for who am I really and why am I like this and why are they like this, the why is often unknowable, if it exists.  People around the world continue to blame vaccines for autism, for example, because they don't want to believe that there could be something that so drastically, and unknowably, alters their children and we wouldn't know what it is or why it does that. So they seek superficial answers, impose a gridwork over an impossible Rorschach blob and say there, that's it that's the why. There is no other childhood condition to which people attach essentially magical thinking, even though we don't know why of other childhood problems. We know what causes them but not why it happens. There have always been mysterious things that happen, to our children, to us, and we have always engaged in witchhunts and prayers to assess them and have them make sense. In that, we are not so far removed from our ancient ancestors. They believed droughts were caused by offending the gods. We tell mothers they didn't love their children the right way, and that is why the children hurt themselves.

Off and on, for the last year or two, I've thought I knew the why, for those things I needed to know about, or wondered about. Then I tried to tell myself I didn't care, that there was no why, that it didn't matter. But of course it matters. Why is the difference between a universe that makes sense and a universe that can tear us apart in an instant. Why is storybook romance, is eventual cures, is society improving itself and everyone who goes to college getting a good job with rewarding work and decent pay.  But why is also laying blame. Why is the cause not just of happiness, but of pain. Why is a finger pointed at someone, often a finger trembling with rage or sorrow or fear.

Eventually, last night, it was time to go to sleep. It was nearly 11 p.m., and I'd been laying in bed watching TV without paying attention to it for a long time while I kicked around thoughts about this book, and about why, and about how my life led me to this point at this place with these people. I turned on my side. Everyone else in the house was asleep. I listened the dull mumble of the tv behind me, heard the water softener two floors down kicking on. The air conditioner in the window buzzed a little. You can drive yourself nuts, wondering why. You can lie awake for hours, you can drive around in the middle of the night thinking, you can stare distractedly into space when you were supposed to be washing the dishes. I fell asleep, thinking -- as I have often before -- that we can only know why, really, after everything happens. Once everything is over, we can see if the pieces really do fit together, and if they don't, we can try to make sense of the picture anyway. You can't know why until later on.

Maybe that's what Heaven is. Maybe instead of clouds and harps and palaces and golden gates, Heaven is knowing why.

Or maybe, instead, Heaven is no longer caring about why.