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March, 2009:

The Last 290 Miles…

…were without incident, but not without irritation: Virtually the entire 200 miles to Denver I had to fight a 30 MPH crosswind, and I was very glad that our good bright sun had dried out the roads before we left Ogallala at 11:00 AM. QBit started getting kennel fever in the great big featureless nowhere that I-76 crosses in northeast Colorado, and Carol had to put him in her lap to keep him from chewing a leg off.

We took a short detour up to Lake McConaughy before setting out this morning, and found that the lake is now two feet higher than we’ve ever seen it, and higher in fact than it’s been since the now-fading drought got serious in 2001. Whatever’s been eating Nebraska’s climate seems to have gotten fixed somehow, and since our atmospheric CO2 level has kept increasing all the while, I can only conclude that–gasp!–climate changes all by itself, in ways that we simply can’t predict because, like the Wizard of Oz admitted in the basket of the Omaha State Fair balloon, we don’t know how it works.

Anyway. The short form is that we’re back in Colorado Springs, where last Thursday’s blizzard shows a bare few remnants in habitual shadows but has otherwise melted into the soil. The house smells like plasticizers (as it always does when we’re gone for a month) but the plants survived, and although we’re exhausted and will be digging out for a day or two, the trip is over and I can get back to work on the book. I’m a little late with Chapter 8, but I’m now 105,000 words in (of about 175,000 words total) and I suspect I’ll make the rest of the deadlines with a little scrambled eggs and caffeine.

Aero Gets the Point

We made 460 miles today, from West Des Moines to Ogallala, Nebraska. I would have posted last night, save that the iBahn Internet system used by the Sheraton in West Des Moines simply wouldn’t work. They want $10 a day for the service, which could not complete a DHCP transaction to save its pointless little life. They gave me my money back, at least. And let’s be clear on this: The hotel is excellent, with some of the best beds we’ve found anywhere along I-80. The food is great, the service wonderful…why is Internet access so hard for them? i-Bah-n.

So here we are, at the Holiday Inn Express in Ogallala, watching an already soggy world freeze solid right outside our window, while the wind howls like something out of a bad Vincent Price movie. (So much for Global Warming.) The last 50 miles were a bit of a thrill ride. It had been sunny and 62 degrees noonish when we blew through Omaha (which, alas, has recently begun looking like the name of our President, at least from the corner of my eye) with the temps dropping steadily after that, amidst a constant 25 MPH crosswind. Come North Platte we were seeing light rain, which soon turned to sloppy snow. By the time we got off I-80, things were starting to look like black ice, and I was very glad to be done with the day’s wander.

But enough about the weather. On Sunday, Aero decided that pulled pork trumps the desire to jump on the other contestants, and on the second day of the Clinton Iowa Kennel Club dog show, he beat Leeward’s Ron Stoppable and got his sixth point. (Ron, a formidable 2-year-old recently arrived from Finland, got the point on Saturday by beating Aero.) Nine more (plus a second major win, meaning a win against at least three other dogs of his sex) and he’s an official champion.

It was the way we like our dog shows: two contestants, and each one takes home a point. Nobody loses, everybody gets some pulled pork, and the whole gang goes home happy. If only the Hugo Awards and government bailouts would work as well.

Between DeWitt and Clinton

Carol and Aero at the Clinton Kennel Club show, March 28, 2009

Carol and Aero at the Clinton Kennel Club show, March 28, 2009

Carol and I left Chicago yesterday afternoon, and made it to Clinton, Iowa by suppertime. We’re now camped out at a Best Western on US 30 somewhere between Clinton and the next town west, DeWitt. I’m still depressed over Mike Sargent’s death and haven’t felt much like posting anything here, but judging from this morning’s email, people are starting to worry about me, so I figured I’d better surface and at least wave.

Hey, I’m all right. I get quiet when I’m sad, and between the ongoing crap weather and all the death and illness among friends and family, I haven’t had much to feel good about.

But today I think we turned a corner. Carol and I got Aero cleaned up and brushed out this morning and entered him in the Clinton Kennel Club dog show at the Clinton County 4H grounds in DeWitt. Carol’s been working very hard at sculpting his coat (under the tutelage of master groomer Jimi Henton) and he looks better now than he ever has in his two short years. He performed reasonably well this morning, in a small slate that included only one other male bichon. He probably would have won, but instead of prancing sedately around the show ring under the judge’s watchful eye (the judge’s name is Fred Bassett, by the way) Aero kept acting up and turning around to look at the dog behind him and get into play posture. Carol has tried various treats to keep his attention at shows, including the usual cocktail sausages and raw meat, all to no avail. Today we tried little pieces of Twizzler licorice, which didn’t work any better than raw meat. He’s a hard dog to motivate, I guess.

The second day of the show is tomorrow, and Aero gets another chance to behave and perhaps win a point. We’ve brainstormed what to wave in the air to keep him focused, and we’re down to desperate possibilities like dead squirrels and dirty diapers. We have a chunk of a fair bacon cheeseburger in the mini-fridge, and if that doesn’t work, I’d be scanning US 30 for roadkill…except that tomorrow is the last day, and after that we’re (finally!) heading for home.

Mike Sargent 1969-2009

I am still sick and numb. My good friend Jim Strickland messaged me Friday morning to let me know that our mutual friend Mike Sargent had been killed by a 20-year-old drunk in a pickup truck Thursday night on his way home from work. I’ve been trying to get myself to write something here since then, and, well, failed.

I hadn’t known Mike very long. Jim introduced us a year or so ago, and we became fast friends, though Mike’s work schedule generally didn’t allow him to attend our semiregular Saturday night nerd parties. But my own schedule allowed Mike and me to do some geeky things like spend a couple of Monday afternoon hours recently at the moving sale of the enormous greasy pile of geek detritus known as OEM Parts in Colorado Springs, where I have found everything from exotic resistors to kite sticks. He and his wife Peggy cooked a spectacular Mardi Gras cajun feast for us back in February, and that was the last time I saw them. Mike and I were planning an expedition up into Fishers Canyon when the weather improved, and I am going to miss that opportunity greatly. Mike was beginning to explore his powers as an SF writer, and we were already discussing a promising concept for a Drumlins story targeted at the shared world anthology I still intend to do.

Mike was spectacularly intelligent, and unusual in a way that matters a great deal to me: He was a great raving optimist, with a faith in the benevolence of the future that I strive for but often fail to achieve. He contributed to The Speculist, a podcast-oriented futurist site where the optimism is so intense it approaches mania. When I’ve had enough of phony climate catastrophism and Obamanomics, I go spend half an hour there to get my spirits back up. The Speculist belongs on my blogroll and yours, and deserves a regular read. (I don’t technically have a blogroll and need to establish one soonest, for this and other good topic-oriented sites.)

I’d say more but I’m not sure I can. I’m at that age where my older friends have begun to die, simply because that’s the part of the curve that they’re on. The curve is changing shape in response to our still-early efforts at life extension–one of Mike’s favorite topics–and had Mike been allowed to remain on the curve, he might well have hit the point where the curve breaks free of the grave and goes asymptotic for parts (truly) unknown. I’ll give it a good shot but I’m sure I’m already too old for that, just as sure as Mike was way too young to die.

Farewell, good friend, and keep your faith in the future. You (and I) will live to see it, just not from here.

Hell Hath No Power Like a Bad Haircut


I guess anybody in a Buster Brown ‘do starts to look like the Golem after awhile.

Odd Lots

  • Back when I was in college in the early 70s, a woman friend told me, “The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you’re too damned happy!” Maybe this is the answer.
  • Numerous people have sent me links to “St. Patrick Drives the Snakes Out of Ireland” cartoons, and while they’re all good (use Google Images and you’ll see them) they’re not the one I remember, which I’m now pretty sure was published in National Lampoon circa 1974.
  • I misunderstood what my sister said about Crayola crayons in my March 13, 2009 Odd Lots. Crayola (once made by Binney & Smith, now part of the Hallmark empire) manufactures a line of washable crayons, and these are what Gretchen prefers that Katie have, given my elder godchild’s penchant for seeing all the world as her coloring book. The washable crayons have no particular smell to them, but the other day when Gretchen and Bill and the girls and I were in the Mount Prospect Hobby Lobby, Gretchen opened a conventional box of 16 Different Crayola Colors and let me sniff them. Yup. That’s the one. Perhaps some things really are forever.
  • I’ve thought that the name of the Sci-Fi Channel has been an embarrassment for 16 years. (Actually, so have most of their house-bred feature-length films.) But now, they’re changing their name to…Syfy. And adding professional wrestling to the lineup. The dork-in-chief over there says that he’s been trying since the 1990s to “…distance the network from science fiction.” Mission accomplished, dood.
  • From Baron Waste comes a largish drawn panel by Dusty Abell that somehow represents (as far as I know) every significant SF TV show to come out of the 70s. It’s a good proxy for how much TV you watched at the time, muddied by what you may have seen at cons in the middle of the night in intervening years. I can name perhaps a quarter of the shows represented, so I guess I wasn’t particularly tuned in. (I will admit with some embarrassment that the first whose title came to mind was “The Greatest American Hero.”) And although that little robot golem looks familiar, I can’t place the show that it was on.
  • From Pete Albrecht comes a page introducing the Decatron tube, which presents for display a circle of thirty neon-lit points that can be configured to move a group of three around the circle each time a pulse enters the circuit. (Follow the links for more detailed information, especially this one.) The tube “remembers” which group of points is illuminated, and so it can be used to build a decade counter, or a divide-by-10 prescaler for slower mechanical counters. Very slick, and reminds us that technology was perhaps a little more sophisticated in 1954 than we remember–because much of it didn’t sit in the corner of the living room.
  • Here’s a new kind of egoscan, at least for technical writers: Search Google Patents for your name. I’ve been cited 27 times in patent filings.
  • Rich Rostrom reminded me (after I reported close encounters with numerous tumbleweeds on the plains heading out to Chicago) that tumbleweeds are Eurasian imports that hitched a ride along with shipments of agricultural flaxseed from Europe in the 19th Century. Along with other things that we consider iconically American, tumbleweeds actually came from somewhere else. (I guess that makes us the Ecosphere of Immigrants.)
  • I didn’t know that Global Warming™ has made it impossible to build good violins. Um…I still don’t.

Top O’ the Genome To You!

St. Patrick’s day, albeit one marred by a headcold due to lack of sleep. I had one (very) Irish grandmother, and St. Patrick’s Day was always a big deal at our house, though less so since my grandmother Sade Prendergast Duntemann left us in 1965, and my Aunt Kathleen (Sade’s daughter) in 1999. If I don’t get too wobbly today, I’ll be going over to Gretchen’s this evening for a corned beef feast. I’m not quite Irish enough to be wild about boiled cabbage, but corned beef, bring it on! (We’ll be having Diet Green River on the side–sodas don’t get no greener than that!)

I wish I still had a cartoon I cut out of a magazine many years ago, of a mitered bishop behind the wheel of a convertible, with the back seat full of goofy-looking snakes, and the caption, “St. Patrick Drives the Snakes Out of Ireland.”

And I sometimes look out at the pantheon of ethnic saints and wish there were one for thoroughgoing mongrels like myself. I had an Irish grandparent and a German grandparent, and ostensibly two Polish grandparents–but my Polish grandmother is said to have had a French mother (this has not been proven) and they both had Austrian citizenship, though what that may mean ethnically is unclear. So I’m all over the map. Is there a St. Heinz somewhere, with eight great-grandparents of entirely separate ethnicities? How about a St. Heinz’ Day feast, in which no two items can be from the same country?

If there’s no guy (or gal) like that in the Calendar of Saints, could we please canonize one soonest?

In the meantime, I will close with the first stanza of one of my favorite prayers, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” which captures the faith that filled the man, and the gonzo exuberance that drove him:

I arise today by the power of heaven!
Invoking the Trinity;
Believing in the Threeness,
Confessing the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation!


Odd Lots

  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: Chicanes are small kinks placed along the course of an auto race, to make the race more…interesting. Heh.You race. I’ll watch. (But not anywhere near a chicane.) Thanks to Pete Albrecht for teaching me this one.
  • According to my good sister Gretchen, that very distinctive and extremely memorable smell of Crayola crayons was due to the animal tallow (probably beef) used in the waxy crayon base material. This is significant because Katie’s pumpkin-shaped bucket of new crayons has no smell at all. None! I may have to buy a set of “classic crayons” on eBay to smell that smell again. (Or maybe I can con my friends into each sending me one of their dupes. Unlike some people, I wouldn’t care if my set consisted of four Periwinkles, three Thistles, five Cornflowers, and a few scruffy Raw Siennas. Variety can be overrated.)
  • And just in case you like the smell of classic crayons so much that you want to smell just like them, here’s Crayon Cologne. (Would using that make me a Person of Color?)
  • Other kid smells worth recalling are Play-Doh and freshly sharpened pencils. My mother bought a canned wallpaper cleaner compound once in the 1970s that looked and smelled a great deal like Play-Doh. In sniffing around online, I found in Wikipedia that the Play-Doh compound was originally marketed as…a wallpaper cleaner. And even today, I occasionally pull the casing off my electric pencil sharpener and take a deep whiff.
  • More kid stuff: Did any of you ever have a Puffer Kite? And if so, did you live in or near Chicago? The Puffer was an inflatable kite, something like a beach toy in the shape of a pork chop, with a grommet for a string. It was patented in 1967 and I had one while I was in college, circa 1973. I’m gathering what little information exists about the Puffer Kite, and it appears to have been a Chicago product, made by the Fredricks Corporation, precise address unknown. I’ve written to a man who may be the heir of the Fredricks operation, and we’ll see what comes of it.
  • More than half of the boggling numbers of mortgage forclosures have occurred in only 35 counties across the US, with 25% occurring in only eight counties. (Alas, the crappily written article does not name them.) States like Nebraska, Kansas, and Kentucky (and most other flyover states) had no counties at all where there were over 20 foreclosures per thousand households, and yet people in small towns and rural areas are essentially bailing out big cities with their tax money. (Thanks to Michael Covington for the pointer.)
  • One of the most wonderful collection of mad-scientist backgrounder material I’ve seen in quite awhile can be found at Mike’s Electric Stuff. Geissler tubes, Nixie tubes, and (do not miss this one!) what is arguably the world’s first integrated circuit, made in 1926 and providing resistors, capacitors, and three vacuum tubes in a single glass envelope!
  • If you like your radios steampunkish, check out Sparkbench, with some of the most beautifully executed homebrew radios I’ve ever seen. More here.
  • The longest-lived person on the Duntemann family tree so far is Alvina Duntemann Wille, who lived from 1880 to 1978. She was the daughter of Louis Duntemann, my great-great grandfather’s younger brother, and lived her entire life in Mount Prospect, Illinois, in a house that stood where the Busse Car Wash stands today, right on Prospect at Maple. My great-grandmother Martha Winkelmann Duntemann did all right too, and made it to 96, outliving all four of my grandparents. I hope to do as well.

Notes on the Great Kid Adventure

Well, last night I ran down to Midway Airport and picked up Gretchen and Bill, and calmly handed kids, cat, and household back to them after four interesting days. Carol and I then retired to the condo and slept for ten hours. We had a good time and learned a lot about small children, and I’ll put down some notes here while everything’s still fresh in my mind:

  • Katie knows us as Kayol and Jep. Those are good enough names to use in an SF story someday. (Tucked away for future use.)
  • One wonders what posessed A. A. Milne (apart from simple ignorance of future cultural conventions–how dare he!) to call a teddy bear “Pooh” in a world of still-diapered but rapidly linguistifying children.
  • Joe’s O’s are a standard at Gretchen’s house, and Katie calls them “yoats,” which is as good a generic term for the genre as I could think of beyond “oat toruses.”
  • I built a Sphinx for Katie out of supersize Mega Bloks, and while I was still puzzling out how to attach a head, Katie grew impatient and asked, “What is?” I agonized over how to answer a question like that when baby sister Julie crawled over and demolished it. Problem solved. Whew.
  • The one sure way to make Julie quit fussing and smile is to get in her face and sing do-wop songs. I got very good at singing the intro to the Marcels’ cover of “Blue Moon,” if half an octave higher than their seminal bass man. “Ba-ba bomp ba-ba bomp ba bom ba bom bomp…” She also responded well to “On the Road to Shambala,” at least the parts without genuine words other than “yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.”
  • We watched a lot of videos. Katie is very fond of Rocky & Bullwinkle, who (by the way) will be 50 years old later this year. She didn’t have the CD set with the Metal-Munching Moon Mice, but we did see the counterfeit boxtops adventure, which sent an eerie shiver down my spine. Swap in bankers and the Fed for Boris Badenov and see what you get.
  • Pertinent to the above: The infectious Muppets cover of Mah-Na Mah-Na (see my entry for April 15, 2007) was the very first musical number on the very first episode of the Muppet Show (1976). We saw it several times this weekend, mon dieu.
  • I had forgotten how much I admired the Muppets brand of comedy. Something definitely went right in the 70s. Even the guest star fashions weren’t as bad as I had expected, though I saw things I hadn’t seen in a while. (Does anybody even remember what “espadrilles” are?) And watching one of the Muppets slobber paint on a taciturn, toga-clad Candace Bergen was worth the price of admission.
  • Katie seems to like kites, though Carol thinks that “fly kite!” (as Katie puts it) is now code for running around in circles in the big field outside their back gate. No matter–we didn’t have ideal kite weather, and the kite we were trying to fly is arguably an antique and probably not up to much rough handling. When we’re here in better weather, I will build a kite tailored to 2-year-olds and we will wait for a dry and blustery day.

All in all, a complete success. Carol and I are now fairly sure we made the right decision in not having children of our own, but borrowing them occasionally may not be a bad idea.

Baby (and Non-Baby) Talk

Managing small children is a gene I think I was born without, so it’s as remarkable to me as to you that Carol and I are spending a long weekend in Des Plaines looking after our two newest godchildren, aged 27 months and 10 months. Their parents are taking their first (short) vacation together absent offspring since Katie Beth’s birth in November 2006, and although we were well-briefed on things like which girl got what foods and where the mother lode of baby socks is, we knew it would be quite an education.

Katie is picking up language with frightening speed. When I last saw her she was just discovering the bare bones of complete sentences and most of her words had to be understood from context if they were to be understood at all. Now, well, we’re on the verge of genuine conversation.

Example: Yesterday we were sitting on the couch and looking at the photo montage my mother had on her wall the last few years of her life. When I asked Katie, “Where’s mommy?” she she pointed unerringly to Gretchen’s face on their 1994 wedding photo. Ditto “Where’s daddy?” and Katie’s finger pointed to Bill. The montage is short on recent photos of certain people (like me) and when I asked her, “Where’s Uncle Jeff?” she pointed to a photo of my father instead of a shot of me in college, when I still had abundant hair. I chewed my tongue for a second but let it go; she was born five years after her last grandparent died, and the whole notion of “grandparents” may have to await the birth of abstract reasoning.

So we went on to the other photos in the montage. “Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a 1957 photo of Gretchen at one year.

“Baby,” said Katie, referring to her little sister Julie, who in truth strongly resembles her mother at that age.

“No, that’s mommy!” I said.

She looked at me very funny. “What you talk about?” was her response.

But that wasn’t the best of it. Earlier this week, just after we had arrived in town and come by with QBit and Aero, QBit hit the jackpot when he discovered a very stale scone that Katie had dropped behind the livingroom couch eons ago. Carol took it away from him, and in a fit of pique he decided to go hunting. We saw him make a beeline for the stairs to the second story, and I ran right after him, remembering certain adventures up there last summer when he had dug a dirty diaper out of the wastebasket in the bathroom and was furiously shredding it to get at the gooey chocolate center. Katie ran after the both of us, and as I reached the top of the stairs and almost had QBit in my grip, Katie announced at the top of her little lungs: “Doggie chew poop!

Except that this time, I had grabbed him before he reached the bathroom, and nothing got chewed. Doggie spent most of the rest of that evening in his kennel, but I found it remarkable that Katie would remember an event that had occurred eight months earlier, when she was only nineteen months old and spoke primarily in monosyllables. (Especially the ever-popular “No!” which QBit can’t say and rarely understands.)

We flew Gretchen’s 25-year old winged fabric box kite at the playground yesterday, while Julie chewed the plastic reel holding the string and Katie chased the kite’s shadow on the grass. It’s hard work, this kid stuff, even for the kids–and we all slept very well last night. This morning at breakfast, Carol grabbed Katie’s piece of toast to cut it up for her, and Katie made her wishes plain: “Come back with that!”
The next time we’re here, well, she may not be quoting Shakespeare, but she may be quoting Space Cat. We’ll do our best to make it so.