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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

On running second

As you can tell from the homemade tile with which I’ve replaced my Dieterian “Gates” photo, this humble blog has pulled off a very curious kind of victory in the 2005 Koufax Awards: I placed second to Firedoglake’s (that is, Jane Hamsher’s and Christy Hardin Smith’s) coverage of the Plame scandal for “Best Series.”

OK, I know I throw “this humble blog” around just to fill out a line of dactylic hexameter here and there (like “Hektor of the shining helm” or “resourceful Odysseus” or “Trojans, breakers of horses"), but this time I really am stunned.  The competition in “Best Series” was serious competition devoted to serious stuff: along with Firedoglake on a breach of national security for petty (really petty) partisan gain, there was Josh Marshall’s successful campaign against Social Security privatization, My Left Wing’s Iraq War Grief Daily Witness, Scott Lemieux’s brilliant Supreme Court coverage, eRiposte on the Niger forgeries, Katherine and Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings on the quite-literally-fascist Bingaman/ Graham Amendment, Holden’s obsession with Scotty and the Gannons Gaggle, The Fat Lady’s hair-raisin’ tale of Subic Bay, the Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with George Bush, and of course PZ’s infamous NSFW series on invertebrate sex.  Myers, he got all kinds.  He got your lobster, he got your octopus, he got your spider Kama Sutra, he got your tentacles, he got your tentacles sequel, he even got your worm porn with real moving worms.  There’s just no way I can compete with material like that, you know.  Not with a bunch of stories about my younger son and his adventures in living.

In mid-March I had a lengthy email exchange about this with a friend.  He likes my writing on Jamie (actually, he considers it my best writing on any subject), but he wondered if my appearance in the Koufax Finals under the “Best Series” heading wasn’t a little bit strange.  Set next to many of the other series, which are devoted to explicitly political subjects near and dear to the hearts of liberals everywhere, my series looked something like this: Tonight, we continue our coverage of the United States’ precipitous slide into theoconservative plutocracy!  And in other news, a kid with Down syndrome in central Pennsylvania loses his retainers when his addled father tosses them into the trash at a local pizza place! I wrote back to say yeah, I thought of my presence in the K-Finals for best series, best post, most humorous post, and most humorous blog as pleasant little asides, and that I was rooting for the Jamie stuff in the first two (while rooting for other people in the other two) despite my sense that I was the George Mason of the bunch.  Best Writing, however, that’s another matter.  I care about that one simply because writing is what I do: even when I screw up and drop seven paragraphs from a recycled post (cough, cough, hack), I devote most of my failing energies to the actual writing and polishing of these posts, and I tend to think of myself (that is, in terms of my being-in-the-world) as a writer.  Of course, where the Koufaxes are concerned this is all vanity, vanity, because going up against the formidable Digby for Best Writing is like taking the ice against the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s or late 1970s: it’s a minor triumph just to stay on the same playing surface.

In other words, I hoped to stay close in Best Writing, and never dreamed of coming close in Best Series.  And I certainly wasn’t ready for Dwight’s extraordinarily kind words about my Jamie posts, which left me wandering around late yesterday afternoon in a kind of praise-stupor.  Yes, I’ve been exceptionally distracted lately, but suddenly I became extra special bonus exceptionally distracted.  But at least I remembered to tell Jamie that thousands of people like to read about him on their computers.  He took the news in stride, with great aplomb.  He knows there’s a book about him, he knows I write and speak about him—he just assumes he’s famous around the world.

A hearty congratulations to Digby (and also to Tristero, the Steve Shutt to Digby’s Guy Lafleur) and to the hard-workin’ and sharp-writin’ Susie Madrak for a fine showing as runnerup. (Hey, I voted for her last year as “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition,” and behold!  she won that one and then got wider recognition!) And kudos to Firedoglake of the shining helm, whose series on the Plame affair is most worthy of the Koufax.  This humble and genuinely surprised blog salutes all Koufax winners, finalists, and nominees, especially fabulous and unclassifiable comrade Chris Clarke, who may or may not be a feminist, but is very definitely a great soul and a mensch all at once.

Finally, thank you, Dwight, and everyone at Wampum.  That post means more to me than an award in any category.  And best wishes to everyone in your families from everyone in mine.

Posted by Michael on 04/04 at 11:28 AM
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Monday, April 03, 2006


(This post has been repaired, and its missing seven paragraphs restored.)

I’m still not ready to resume ordinary blogging.  Sorry about that.  The copyediting crush is intense, but even more intense is the graduate seminar crush: freewheelin’ fellow though I appear to be, I have actual teaching duties, and for some reason I have to take care of them before I have myself any bloggy fun.  Why, I’m even doing a one-on-one independent study this semester, too.  So I probably won’t have any time for new stuff before Thursday.  In the meantime, I want to thank a pair of commenters in the previous thread for giving me such a commanding lead in the race for the 2006 Cobb Awards in the “Worst Community” competition.  I also want to nominate a late arrival to that thread for a brand new award, “Worst Laura Kipnis Impersonation.”

While I was away, Janet was hit with one Jamie science project after another.  I would call home every night and ask how things were going, and Janet would say, with a sigh, “he has to construct an ecosystem by Friday,” or “we had to replicate the Larry Summers ‘two trucks’ experiment,” or “we were up late trying to isolate Bismuth-38.” Maybe she was putting me on.  It’s hard to tell.  During my two-day sojourn at home, mid-March, I was charged with helping Jamie set up his mold experiment; this time around, I was told that I had to help him construct a model of an angiosperm.

One brief note on that task.  Though no one sent me the memo, yesterday was Staring Day.  Jamie and I did our usual drill, swimming at the Y, playing basketball, and running sundry errands around town, and two or three times in the course of the day, people just gawked at him as if they’d never seen a person with Down syndrome in public before.  When we were in Target getting some of the materials for his science project, one kid, who looked about 10 or 11, stopped in his tracks, backed up a few steps, and peered around an aisle to look at Jamie.  So I decided to give this kid something to think about.  “Jamie,” I said.  “What are we supposed to be building again?” (This was a real question, by the way.  I kept calling the thing an “angioplast,” because I am not always so wise in the ways of science.) “Angiosperm,” Jamie replied.  “Right,” I said.  “Monocot or dicot?” “Monocot,” Jamie said.  “OK, and do you want purple or blue for the petals?” I asked.  “Hmmm,” Jamie mused, “maybe aqua.” We left that kid mid-aisle in a slack-jawed stupor.  In a pleasant way, of course.  Let’s hope we advanced the common good.

So, then, while we’re on the subject of science projects, here’s an ancient post (from almost exactly two years ago).  I do hope you will all find the final paragraph amusing beyond measure.


April 1, 2004

Today Jamie presented his science project to his fifth grade class.  Which means, of course, that Jamie presented the science project that he completed with the “help” of Janet.  I was pretty much out of the loop on this one, although I did have the presence of mind to point out that we could help Jamie construct a model volcano—for that was his assignment—out of the Volcano Kit he’d received as a birthday present from a classmate 18 months ago.  So last night he and Janet built this volcano out of concrete mix, ran the little plastic tube through its center, and painted the sides of the volcano green and brown (leaving the top white—his model was supposed to be Mount Fuji).  This afternoon Janet and I showed up at his classroom at 1:30 to help him with the demonstration, which involved putting baking powder in the cone and then running vinegar, dish soap and food coloring through the tube—Insta-Magma.  I spent half an hour this morning doing the lettering for his sign, “Jamie Berube Exploding Volcano,” realizing as I worked on the “lod” of “Exploding” (I remember from graphic design class that you do your lettering from the center outwards) that volcanos don’t explode, they erupt, and that this was in fact one of the lessons the science project was supposed to impart.  So I fixed the sign by taping one oaktag poster over another, and stenciling “Erupting Volcano” over “Exploding Volcano.” Janet brought examples of the three kinds of volcanic rock for Jamie to distribute to the class (pumice, basalt, obsidian, of course); all month long they’ve been doing plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanos, trenches, fault-block mountains, and varieties of igneous rock.  Jamie’s fifth-grade class will be tested on their knowledge not only of the characteristics of the Earth’s core, mantle, and crust, but also of the names of all the plates shuffling around under our feet (we’ve been having Jamie decorate each plate with a different color—we think the Juan de Fuca Plate looks best in turquoise).

Needless to say, Jamie needed help with his project not because he has Down syndrome but because the real purpose of “science projects” is to get parents to build volcanos and solar systems and working models of radioactive isotopes and so forth.  And needless to say, it was pouring rain this morning, so we had to stuff everything into plastic bags and bring it into school while hunching under our umbrellas.  When we got to school and brought Jamie’s volcano into his class, we realized that—as we should have anticipated—the other kids had produced enormous, gorgeous papier-maché renditions of Mauna Loa and Mt. St. Helens, complete with villages, flora and fauna, and oaktags full of geological information (we’d managed to neglect the whole “provision of geological information” thing entirely, and will have to work with Jamie on putting this together over the weekend).

All of which reminds me of the story of Nick’s third-grade science project back in 1995.  Well before he’d heard of the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail routine, Nick decided that he would demonstrate What Floats in Water.  In part this was a response to the inconceivably bad science project I’d “designed” for him in second grade, involving a black piece of plywood with two “chutes” as a backdrop for the demonstration that objects of different size and weight fall at the same rate of speed.  Because Champaign, Illinois is a college town, of course, Nick’s classmates presented things like “Particle Accelerators You Can Build At Home” and “Controlled Nuclear Fission Can Be Fun.” The plywood eventually found some use as a golf bag holder in a deep recess of the garage.) His flotation project was just fine, and thanks to the wonders of pi, he managed to come up with the following data:

BEACH BALL:  weight 100 g, circumference 59.8 cm, radius 9.51744 cm, volume 3611.364 cc, density 0.027690.

COPPER CENSER:  weight 75 g, circumference 32.0 cm, radius 5.09295 cm, volume 553.373 cc, density 0.135532.

RUBBER BALL:  weight 70 g, circumference 27.6 cm, radius 4.39267 cm, volume 355.054 cc, density 0.197153.

TENNIS BALL:  weight 55 g, circumference 20.5 cm, radius 3.26267 cm, volume 145.489 cc, density 0.378035.

CROQUET BALL:  weight 250 g, circumference 26.4 cm, radius 4.20168 cm, volume 310.727 cc, density 0.804565.

GOLF BALL:  weight 45 g, circumference 13.4 cm, radius 2.13267 cm, volume 40.633 cc, density 1.107474.

BALL BEARING:  weight 5 g, circumference 3 cm, radius 0.47746 cm, volume .516 cc, density 9.689922.

TAE KWON DO BOARD:  weight 150 g, volume 438.672 cc, density 0.341941.

BOX OF PAPER CLIPS:  weight 50 g, volume 77.832 cc, density 0.642409.


All the objects with densities greater than 1.0 sank in 3000 ml of fresh water.  The golf ball sank slowly, and the ball bearing plummeted.  Of the objects that floated, the croquet ball was the only one that floated in the water more than half submerged (only a few cm of it were visible above the water line).

When 3000 ml of water was mixed with 100 ml of salt, all the objects were immersed a second time.  All the objects that sank in fresh water also sank in salt water, but the croquet ball floated visibly higher (.5 cm) in salt water.

Now at this point you should be asking, how come you still have this data set on your hard drive after all these years, Michael? Well, I’ll tell you.

The night before the project was due, I stayed up until about 3 am typing and formatting his poster material, including those data.  At the time, Janet was out of town.  And weirdly enough, I had to host a lecture by Tricia Rose the next day; her book Black Noise:  Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America had just been published, and I was scheduled to pick Tricia up at the airport, drive her to her hotel, pick her up at 3 pm for an interview at Champaign’s only black-owned radio station (WBCP-AM), then drop her off for a book signing at the university bookstore, take her to dinner, and then introduce her lecture. 

The Tricia Rose part of the day was great.  She was the Hardest Working Woman in Academe for her visit, and the lecture, which was terrific, drew about a hundred faculty and students.  She was also much fun to talk to.  But the entire day was almost derailed by the croquet ball.

You see, after Nick had conducted his experiments, he had to bring a fish tank to school so that he could conduct them again.  Of course we wouldn’t bring in a fish tank full of water; Nick would fill the tank at school.  So while I was dropping off then-three-year-old Jamie at day care, Nick dumped the contents of the tank into the kitchen sink—including all those balls, the golf ball, the tennis ball, the ball bearing, the beach ball, the rubber ball, and the croquet ball.

The croquet ball, it turned out, was exactly the diameter of our kitchen sink’s drain (I guess that would make it 8.40336 cm).  When I returned from First United Methodist Day Care, therefore, I found a sink full of water and a drain clogged with a croquet ball that simply would not budge.  Cursing in a colorful but family-friendly fashion all the way, I drove Nick to school and assured him that I would get the croquet ball to him in time for his presentation.

But this proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined.  The ball was almost perfectly, completely wedged into the drain—it was allowing water to drain slowly, but I could not get enough traction on it to pry it loose by hand or with a butter knife.  And to make matters worse, it wasn’t even our croquet ball.  It had been loaned to us by friends, who let me know—when I called them and asked if I had their permission to drill through the ball so that I could pull it out with a small metal rod—that they were quite fond of their rather expensive croquet set and were very much looking forward to my returning the ball in the same condition in which it had left their house a few days earlier.

Fortunately, thanks to my personal history as a struggling musician, I hit upon a solution: duct tape.  Duct tape fixes everything, you know.  Attaching little ovals of duct tape (sticky side out) to each of my fingers, I managed to wiggle the ball loose and pluck it out of the drain.

Unfortunately, I did this before removing the golf ball and the ball bearing from the sink.  Sure enough, the moment the croquet ball popped out of the drain, the ball bearing and the golf ball disappeared, rolling briskly right into the goddamn garbage disposal.

I had to teach a class at 10 am that morning, and by now it was 9:30, so I gave up and dashed off to school.  Rushing back home for a band practice at noon, I tried scooping the balls out of the garbage disposal; I got the golf ball but had no luck with the ball bearing.  So in desperation I hauled out the vacuum cleaner from the basement, thinking that I could suck the ball bearing out of the drain and buy Nick another one for his demonstration.  My bandmates, Jonathan Sterne and Kevin Carollo (currently issuing The New Instructions), showed up as this hare-brained scheme was getting under way, and assured me that they would tell everyone, for years to come, that I spend part of my day fishing for ball bearings in my sink with a vacuum cleaner.  After a few obligatory minutes of mocking and deriding me, they pitched in to help, persuading me that if duct tape saved me once, it could save me again.  We attached more little sticky-side-out ovals to various kitchen implements, and after about ten or fifteen minutes managed to get a hold of the ball bearing and—more amazingly, and after only a few heartbreaking failures—thread it carefully through the rubber flaps of the drain, using the manual skills we each had developed by playing the board game Operation as children.

So Nick’s demonstration came off all right, we retained our croquet-playing friends, and I was able to fulfill my duties as Host of Tricia Rose for the rest of the day.  Thank goodness it wasn’t raining.

Anyway, today might just be the very last time we have to help a child of ours with a science project.  I will implore all known deities, yea, even unto Moloch and Ba’al, to make it so.

Posted by Michael on 04/03 at 07:25 AM
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