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Scene from my youth

Somebody mentioned on the radio today that it’s been fifty years since the 1967 Israeli Six-Day War.

I remember that summer well. The live telecasts of UN meetings, the speeches. Abba Eban addressing the General Assembly.

But mostly I remember my summer job.

I didn’t generally have summer jobs as a kid. I lived on a farm. That was my summer job. Hoeing thistles and pulling mustard weeds, fence repair; there was pretty much always something to do.

But that summer I was an orderly. For my mother.

Mom had broken her leg. She’d stood on the kitchen table to clean an overhead hot air register, and the table collapsed. The break was bad, and she came home with a big cast on her leg.

The folks asked me to take care of her for the summer. They’d pay me for it. So I jockeyed bed pans down to our basement bathroom for three months.

One day I was given some job or other to do up in the hay loft above the barn. I forget what I was doing – probably just re-stacking the hay bales. Sometimes that had to be done. I don’t know where my dad and brothers were that day. Mom didn’t need me for a while; I’d left her with the TV on and a book to read.

I heard a car pulling into the driveway.

I stuck my head out the hatch, looking out over the top of the ladder I’d climbed to get up there. Our guest was our pastor. Continue reading Scene from my youth

‘The Viking Battalion’

Viking Battalion

Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.

As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.

There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.

Linkage

Marcus Selmer photograph

The wonderful Mirabilis.ca shares a link to information on the Dano-Norwegian photographer Marcus Selmer, who left remarkable images of 19th Century Norwegian peasants.

And Dave Lull passes on news about a planned TV series based on Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis books.

I expect they’ll ruin it by making Milo a militant gay, but the news is interesting anyway.

Lars’ Labors Lost

What a weird night last night was.

It was as if God was playing a practical joke on me (which, in my theology, is not entirely inconceivable).

I told you in my last installment how I accidentally scheduled myself for two appointments at nearly the same time yesterday. First, at 6:00, a meeting at a restaurant with an elderly man who wanted translation help. Then, at 6:30, my annual meeting with my tax preparer.

I didn’t have the elderly man’s phone number, so I decided to be at the restaurant, catch him going in, apologize for having to leave right away, and reschedule.

I arrived ten minutes early. I stood (couldn’t sit in my car because the nearest spot was behind a big van) in a pretty chilly wind for 25 minutes, waiting for the man. Nobody of his description showed up. At 6:05 I went inside to see if he’d beaten me there and was waiting. The only old guy present told me (rather alarmed at my Ancient Mariner aspect, I think) that he wasn’t the guy I wanted. I don’t think he actually said, “Don’t hurt me,” but he looked like he wanted to.

So I went to my tax appointment. (I later got a call from the elderly guy. He’d been detained, and will call again to reschedule).

When I walked in to the tax place, the receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to reach you.” Turned out they wanted to reschedule, and had left a message on my home answering machine. Which I never got to hear, because I’d been waiting at the restaurant.

As it was, somebody was there to help me, so I got the ordeal over with.

The final score is that, of the two overlapping appointments I so worried about, neither one was actually operative. I could have skipped out on one or both without a problem.

But I had no way of knowing that. So I kept my promises.

Sometimes that’s the best you can do in this life.

Thus endeth the lesson.

The Ethereal Artist Hercules Segers

Even in his most representational works, like a wonderfully detailed View Through the Window of his spacious house in Amsterdam, Segers introduced fanciful elements—a line of trees in the distance, for example, when the actual view consisted of houses and other buildings. He let accidents dictate content. Cutting up a printing-plate he had used for a large ship, he turned the fragments into landscapes instead, with the rigging and mast morphing into tree branches. In a fascinating related development, the steps of which are documented in the exhibition, Rembrandt took a plate that Segers had etched of the biblical subject of Tobias dragging a big fish, made some adjustments, and transformed it into Joseph leading a donkey, with Mary aboard, on the Flight to Egypt. But whether Rembrandt was inspired by Segers’s own experiments with recycled images or thought he could improve on Segers’s figures, is unknown.

(via Prufrock News)

Slave to the calendar

When you’re me (I’ll agree the odds of that are fairly low), one thing you should never have to worry about is non-job-related schedule conflicts. When you have half a dozen appointments per month (at most) during your own time, the odds are against lightning striking twice on the same day, let alone the same hour.

Yet here I am, with a conflict that’s not only inconvenient, but embarrassing.

Of course, pretty much everything embarrasses me.

Sunday morning I was getting ready for church when I got a call. It was from an elderly gentleman who’d gotten my name and number somehow. He had some documents in Norwegian, related to his family, that he wanted translated. He’s from my town, and he wanted to meet at a restaurant. I told him, off the top of my head, that we could meet Tuesday evening at 6:00.

After we ended the call, I checked my pocket calendar. What do you know – my annual appointment with my tax preparer is Tuesday at 6:30. There isn’t time for both things.

What was worse, I hadn’t thought to get his phone number (my land line doesn’t remember these things). And I could only remember his last name.

So I tried to find all the locals with that name in the phone directory. Of course I don’t have an actual phone book in my house. I used to be able to find numbers easily online.

Have you tried to find a number online recently? Most of the sites won’t refine the search in greater granularity (“granularity” is a great word – I learned it in library school) than the entire metropolitan area. The rest of them are trying to sell you people-finding software.

Then I checked my calendar again and heaved a sigh of relief. The “TAXES” note I’d made in there didn’t indicate the actual appointment, but was just a reminder to make sure my records were in order the week before. Dodged the bullet, I thought.

Only today I checked again. I was looking at the wrong week. It’s tomorrow I have the tax appointment, all right. So I’m double-booked after all.

If I can’t find this guy’s number to get a rain check, I figure I’ll show up at the restaurant and apologize, and reschedule then.

What I need is people. Handlers. A retinue!

I’m an artist. I can’t work under these conditions.

Clearing up another ‘fine’ mess

The San Francisco Examiner reports on a recent fine amnesty carried out by the San Francisco Public Library. Nearly 700,000 books were returned, valued at $236,000.

Included in the recent returns were a collection of short stories titled 40 Minutes Late, which was 100 years past due, and Brass, a Novel of a Marriage by Charles Norris with a due date stamp of 1937, making the item 80 years past due. In both cases, the books were originally checked out by the returners’ great grandparents.

Read it all here.

More and more libraries are in fact abolishing fines altogether. They’ve given up the pretense of any control. They just want somebody to come and use their facilities so the cities don’t close them down.

Future shock… or present shock, anyway

Tonight I am wracked with existential angst. I am contemplating changing my very way of life; of crossing a cultural divide and becoming, after long resistance, One of Them.

I’ve decided to get a smart phone.

Not a really smart phone, of course. An Android, first of all, because I refuse to be roped into the religion of the iPhone. That would be like joining a mainline Protestant church.

OK, not really. It just feels that way, when you’re an old men being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. Or the end of the 20th Century, depending on how old a phone version I decide on. Can’t get the latest one. That would be like buying a new car – sudden and irrevocable depreciation being the wages of the sin of purchasing a time share in Vanity Fair (the town in Pilgrim’s Progress, not the magazine). Last year’s model was good enough for last year’s people, and is probably twenty years better than what I need.

What happened was I developed brake problems on Miss Ingebretsen, my PT Cruiser. Knowing I’d be without internal combustion capability tomorrow, I asked someone at work about getting a ride. He graciously agreed to do it, but mentioned Uber and Lyft. I answered, shame-faced, that I have no smart phone, and so am reduced to begging rides, like we used to do in the old days, long before he was born.

“Enough,” I said to myself. “It’s time you got some kind of smart phone. Preferably one that’s slow and prone to locking up. Like your knees.”

I tried calling my (cheap) provider after work tonight, but they said it would be a 15 minute wait, so I hung up. Who do they think they are, making me wait for 15 minutes?

I insist on at least 20. If I wanted convenience and speed, I’d get an iPhone.

“Library hand”

Library joined hand

A character I had to read a lot about in the previous couple years was Melvil Dewey (a spelling reformer, he reformed his own first name), the father of modern librarianship and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. He was a crank generally, but he left his mark.

Atlas Obscura today has an article about another of Dewey’s projects — he didn’t invent it, but he promoted it heavily. “Library hand” was a form of handwriting librarians were expected to master before typewriters became ubiquitous.

Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. “The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” read a New York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. “Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

My MLIS training was deficient. They didn’t teach us a thing about this.

Killing Cupid

I haven’t written for The American Spectator much recently, because – frankly – I’m having trouble finding anything to say. Mere anarchy, it seems to me, has been unleashed upon the world, and it’s hard to find a side to defend.

But Robert Stacy McCain is a braver man than I, and he wrote a piece for Valentine’s Day that I wish I’d written. Instead, I linked to it on Facebook. I quoted the following passage there:

Of course, even if a young woman today did want Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, he might be afraid to attempt it. If he admired Cinderella’s beauty, feminists would condemn Prince Charming for objectifying her with the “male gaze.” If a man talks to a woman, whatever he says is denounced by feminists as “mansplaining.” Any man who attempts to initiate a romantic relationship with a woman is guilty of “harassment,” according to feminism, and any expectation that a woman might enjoy sexual activity with a man is “rape culture.”

This excerpt may have been poorly chosen by me. A number of the people who commented on the link assumed I’d chosen it primarily to complain about the fact that I can’t get a date. I can understand the mistake – my almost magically pathetic love life is of course one of the most noticeable things about me.

Maybe I should have quoted the following paragraph, which I almost chose instead: Continue reading Killing Cupid

Exploitation in Humanities Departments

There’s an idea that college professors should be free to pursue whatever interests them, to go wherever their professional curiosity takes them without concern for the market, but that’s close to the fantasy of fan-fiction, stories written for the fun of it without an eye on their publication (even though that too is changing).

Adjunct professor Kevin Birmingham brings up this point among others in his talk on the native exploitation by college humanities and English departments. On the one hand, adjuncts aren’t paid well.

An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

These teachers are easily hired, easily dismissed. Funding for actual classroom instruction has been declining, but administrative roles are increasing. Apparently, teaching students is a declining priority for many of our universities, which makes news of another closure more tolerable.

On the other hand, graduate programs are milling out Ph.Ds at a rate that far exceeds the need. Universities, Birmingham explains, have the only job market for these graduates, but they produce roughly four times the number of candidates for the available jobs and availability is shrinking.

English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

Like a migrant worker system.

Many market principles could be learned here. One broad one would be morality cannot be based on market realities (or just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should). Colleges exist to teach, and qualified teachers should receive the honor and compensation they are due. When you have the money to pay them well, you should.

But another one may be that if some universities don’t care to teach, others should be able to pick up that slack and grow, keeping a focus on their students’ well-being in mind and not treating them like grist for the sake of the program.

In person, one night only

In case you’re in the area…

I will be speaking on The Viking Sagas on Monday, February 13, 2016 for the Vennekretsen Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Anoka, Minn. They meet at Zion Lutheran Church, 1601 4th Ave., Anoka. The time is 6:30 p.m. for the lodge meeting, 7:00 for the program. I will be selling books.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this lecture do not necessarily represent the ideas and opinions of Vennekretsen Lodge, the Sons of Norway, or of real persons, living or dead.

Where dragons walked

Siegfried and the dragon
Siegried slays the dragon, in an illustration by Arthur Rackham. This is one of the set of illustrations for Wagner’s Ring operas that fascinated C.S. Lewis as a boy.

An article at Wonders and Marvels suggests that the legends of medieval dragons in Germany, most particularly that of Siegfried the Dragonslayer, may arise from fossil tracks still visible in that country.

Notably, conspicuous fossil trackways of two types of massive dinosaurs are found in Germany. In 1941, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated that observations of Triassic dinosaur tracks in sandstone near Siegfriedsburg in the Rhine Valley of western Germany might have been the inspiration for the legend about the dragon Fafnir’s footprints.

I share this, of course, purely for your amusement. All sensible people know that dragons survived in Europe well into the early medieval period, when they were slain by Christian saints.

Hat tip: Mirabilis.

New ‘Viking’ trailer

I’m weary of the world tonight. Can’t think of anything to write that I wouldn’t regret tomorrow.

So here’s the latest trailer for the new Russian Viking movie. My reenactor friends complain that the costumes aren’t accurate, but in my view they look punctilious compared to the costumes on the History Channel.

The latest news I’ve seen says international rights have been sold, but there’s been no announcement of a US release date.

Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017)

Mary Tyler Moore

Years ago, a friend of mine told me he’d met Mary Tyler Moore in connection with his business. I realized at that point that that was pretty much my personal definition of Making It In Life – getting to meet Mary Tyler Moore. I never did, of course.

I remember when the Mary Tyler Moore Show began. I was away at college, and I’d read in the paper that she was doing a situation comedy set in Minneapolis. “Well that’s bound to bomb,” I said. “Nothing set in Minnesota ever succeeds. Look at the Twins.”

Not for the first time, I was spectacularly wrong. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a monster hit, back in the days when the whole country watched just three networks. It was a new thing – a character-driven comedy, the harbinger of a series of great shows that followed, two with Bob Newhart, Cheers, Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, etc. I don’t think they do such shows anymore.

In the Twin Cities, we can’t help but think of her as one of our own. She put us on the map, in a new cultural way. There’s a statue of her throwing her tam in the air on the Nicollet Mall (though I believe they moved it recently, and I don’t know if it’s been returned to the spot. I don’t get to the Mall much anymore. It’s pretty Mary Tyler Moribund).

She got her big break with The Dick Van Dyke Show. According to the story, the project began as a vehicle for Carl Reiner, who played the TV writer husband living in New Rochelle, NY. But the pilot failed, and Reiner was humble enough to accept audience feedback that said they just didn’t like him in the role. So they cast a rising young comic named Dick Van Dyke in his place. As they searched for an actress to play the wife, producer Danny Thomas remembered a girl he’d auditioned as his daughter on his own show. She was great, but he thought nobody would ever believe a girl with such a tiny little nose could be his daughter (Sherry Jackson got the part). They auditioned Mary, and the rest is legend.

She had a copyright on “adorable.” In the years since her two big series, she was active in a number of causes, including campaigning for fetal stem cell research (she was a diabetic). She also did the pro-suicide play “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” on Broadway.

But pretty girls get a break with me. And nobody was prettier than her. Few brought more joy through their work either. RIP.