Category Archives: Etc.

Helen Huhta: A Life

“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.

After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.

It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.

“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather). To the end,

Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:

I love you too.

Fun New Things

Some fun stuff I’ve been enjoying lately:

“This Machine Kills Fascists” Pencils

From Frog & Toad Press in Rhode Island, which has several other colorfully messaged pencils and other goodies available.

Library Extension for Chrome

Not sure where I found out about this, but I’ve been digging it thus far not only with my personal browsing but for work as well. The wizards behind this extension, which will show you if a book you’re browsing on Goodreads or Amazon is in your local library catalog, were very quick to fix an error I pointed out, and seem to be fast overall with adding new libraries by request. I asked them if functionality with CDs and DVDs could be added, and they said it’s possible in a future release.

Library Life sticker pack for iPhone Messages (via TILT)

I mean, when isn’t it appropriate to use emojis like these?

The Ultimate (Frisbee) Theory of Immigration

Sunday afternoons there’s an amateur pickup game of ultimate frisbee at a nearby park I play in when I’m not working weekends or otherwise occupied. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. I get good exercise in fresh air and get to compete in a friendly atmosphere. There’s a core group of about a dozen people who come consistently, though it varies week to week.

One week, one of the regular high schoolers invited about ten of his ultimate frisbee teammates from school. Like most teens, they were in their own world. Their group split up between teams, so half of them were playing each other.

The problem was, in their minds they were only playing each other. They were basically goofing off, making silly throws just to impress each other. Meanwhile, the rest of us, those who come regularly to actually play and compete, felt our game dissolve into a chaotic free-for-all. Suddenly the game we’d all come to play wasn’t so fun anymore, and several people ended up leaving much sooner than usual.

This experience popped into my mind as I listened to the (pre-election) story on This American Life about the residents of St. Cloud, Minnesota, who felt alienated and sometimes threatened by the influx of Muslim immigrants to their small town. I suddenly felt a pang of recognition in a complicated political issue I hadn’t given much critical thought.

Setting aside the clear religious differences between the Protestants and Muslims of St. Cloud, the cultural differences alone are strong enough to cause friction. Since whatever culture we’re brought up in carries with it assumptions, parameters, and values that differ from other cultures, anytime a “new” culture arrives with overwhelming force, the change can feel much more disruptive than beneficial, regardless of the benefits it can also bring.

In frisbee, those of us in the usual crowd had a way of playing we all understood and participated in. We knew the “rules” (the amateur versions, anyway) and had played under those rules for a long time. And any week a new person or two joined, the existing culture could easily accommodate them because adding a few new people infuses new energy into the game, adds fresh legs, and hopefully improves the talent on either team. But when it was 10 or 12 new people joining at once instead of one or two, that new energy was so overwhelming that it became its own source of gravity, bending the very fabric of the frisbee continuum.

Not sure how far I can extend the frisbee analogy, but I hope the point is clear. I’m far from anti-immigration. I once was the new guy at frisbee, and am ever grateful for being welcomed into the culture. New people have joined since I’ve been going who have been great additions to the talent pool, and who make Sunday afternoons fun for me.

But we have to face the reality that immigration is hard on everyone, and that the “welcome to America!” romanticism and talent infusion exist alongside the culture clashes, economic strain, and perceived potential for violent religious extremism. Trump has become the avatar for this belief. You don’t have to like him to understand why, nor do you have to support the extreme anti-immigration measures he’s cultivating to acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns he represents.

It’s a hard issue without an easy remedy, made worse by the Syrian refugee crisis and a clumsy first attempt by the president to do something about it. But I think we can discuss the very real consequences of unchecked immigration—legal or otherwise—without calling its opponents xenophobes and without faulting its proponents for defending the vulnerable immigrants—legal or otherwise—who make this country run.

Winter was always winter

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter:

Winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step. Creatures abroad at this season of the year live intensely, stimulated by cold, using all their powers, all their capacities, to survive. Gone is the languor of August heat waves. Winter provides the testing months, the time of fortitude and courage. For innumerable seeds and insect eggs, this period of cold is essential to sprouting or hatching. For trees, winter is a time of rest. It is also a season of hope. The days are lengthening. The sun is returning. The whole year is beginning. All nature, with bud and seed and egg, looks forward with optimism.

Alone among the seasons, winter extends across the boundary line into two calendars. It is the double season. We meet it twice in each twelve months. It embraces the end and the beginning of the year. It includes the great holiday times of Christmas and New Year’s. Alone among the seasons it retains its original Anglo-Saxon spelling. Spring began as springen, literally “to spring” as the grass springs up; summer as sumer; and fall as feallan, referring to the falling leaves. But winter was always winter.

’16 Going On ’17

Here at the end of all things 2016, let’s look back on the resolutions I made last year at this time, shall we?

Podcast less. I started the year with 21 podcasts in my feed, and currently have… 32. In my defense, I was much quicker to delete episodes this year, many of the podcasts publish infrequently, and some of them I’m on a trial run with. I also have been listening to more audiobooks. But the spirit of the goal was to have more time when I’m not listening to anything. So this one’s a work in progress, and probably a goal for 2017.

Reflect more. Though I have the free time to continue to plow through books and movies, I think I’ve done a better job writing about the ones that spark thoughts in me and allowing myself to not read or watch something.

Write more. My goal was to write 52 posts for the year, one for each week. Though I didn’t have at least one a week, I ended 2016 with 67 posts. I probably could have done more, but as this is a strictly At Whim enterprise, I’m not too concerned about quotas.

Overall I think I actually did pretty good! Keeping the goals simple, attainable, and somewhat measurable certainly helped.

2017 Goals

Complete a woodworking project. This is something I’ve been pondering for a while. I’ve yet to find the plans for something I want to make, but this is a big one for this year: to put my hands to use on a tangible and practical project. We need a new bookshelf, so I was thinking about that. Any suggestions?

Run a race. Like woodworking, running in an official race is something I’ve thought would be a nice thing to do but have never pulled the trigger. But I’ve come to realize if I ever plan on completing things, I need concrete deadlines to make them happen. A specific race of a specific length will help me in this, I hope.

Improve my Spanish. I’ve had a decent grasp of it at various points in my life—in high school when I was in classes, during a summer stay in Guatemala, during a post-college stay in Colombia—but I’ve never gotten close to fluent. Short of an immersion program or living in a Latin American country, don’t know if I’ll ever be, but I’d like to get closer. And since it’ll only get harder as I get older, there’s no day but today.

Thousands

Tonight I was standing in a private room of a restaurant for a party when a middle-aged Asian woman in a kimono entered the room and approached me. She was holding a stack of leaflets and shoved one in front of me.

“I’d like to talk to you about who to vote for on Tuesday,” she said.

“Actually, I voted last week,” I said.

Disappointed, she continued. “OK, well, who did you vote for?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “But who did you want me to vote for?”

“Trump!” she said, quite pleased.

“There’s no way,” I replied.

She folded her arms and in an animated fashion, as if she’d prepared for this, said, “Really? Give me one reason why not.”

“I have thousands,” I said.

And at this, she turned away and walked out of the room, disappearing back into the restaurant.

Because other people around me saw me talking to this woman, I can confirm that she was not in fact an apparition or my imagination run amok. But it does make me wonder: was she the extent of the Trump campaign’s ground game in Illinois?

10 Years

Yesterday was my tenth anniversary of blogging. I started the second month into my freshman year of college, which also would have been right after I joined Facebook. Away from home and beginning to learn new and exciting things, I think like most writers I desired an outlet that felt at once private and public: somewhere I could express ideas into the anonymous void of the internet, but also allowed for others to respond.

I’ve used a few blogging services over the years: first it was Blogspot, then WordPress, then temporary stints at Squarespace and Tumblr before becoming self-hosted with my own domain name. As I learned HTML and CSS I created a few simple designs along the way, but the constant fiddling got tiresome, so I just start using pre-made templates.

In honor of my ten years blogging, I went through my entire archive and picked out two posts from each year I thought were representative of my interests or writing style at the time. It was fun to see trends emerge and decline over the years: lots of Oscar-related umbrage early on, current events commentary in the middle period, and many more book and movie reviews in the last few years. I suppose that’s the fun/terror of keeping a blog or diary: it’s a living archive of where you’ve been, how you’ve changed, and what you’ve thought about at any given time. And it can’t lie.

These aren’t necessarily my best posts — just some choice memories, meditations, and meaningful mutterings from a decade of writing on the ‘net.

(I decided to exclude the posts that were originally published in my college newspaper; you can see those here.)

2006

you’re coming alive to me — Just some freshman year philosophizing.

The Prestige — The first of many reviews I put online.

2007

Soundtrack of the moment, part II — One of three “soundtrack of the moment” posts that provide a great snapshot of the music I was into and getting into at that time.

he’s very good — On my encounter with Henry Winkler.

2008

Kristen Wiig = Hilarious — An appreciation of an exceptional SNL cast member.

Introverts: A Misunderstood Bunch — Still the blog’s most-read post.

2009

Breaking News: Jesus Christ Registers As A Republican — My attempt at Onion-style satire. Definitely not as funny as The Onion.

The Ten Commandments Of Watching LOST In A Group — This was a thing at the time.

2010

Sarah Palin is Not a Serious Person — She was a thing at the time.

On the River — A short essay on a kayak trip. If you detect a hint of Hemingway, it’s because I was reading a lot of him at the time, as overly introspective young men are wont to do.

2011

7 Beautiful Movie Music Moments — Man, they all still get me.

Love And Illusion In Midnight In Paris And Me And Orson Welles — I’ve done a few comparative analyses of two films, but this one’s my favorite.

2012

Bringing Old Orthodoxies to a Boil — A review of Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan and its modern implications.

Best For The Best: Nights of The Animal Years — Why I love one of my favorite albums.

2013

Rutherford B. Hazy — In my ongoing quest to reading a biography of every U.S. president, Hayes has been my biggest surprise.

Silence is Beholden — Walking on silence in Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

2014

Encountering Robin — On meeting Robin Williams and the burden of celebrity.

This Is Martin Bonner — A meditation masquerading as a movie review.

2015

Wherein I Missed Third-Grade Field Day and Encountered Cosmic Futility — Exorcising some old demons as I walked through my grade school for the first time since leaving it.

No Quarter — I pillaged my U.S. state quarters collection for laundry fare, which my grandma would have found amusing.

2016

The Shepherd’s Life — Some reflections on one of my favorite books of 2015.

How to Win My Vote — Still relevant on the eve of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad election.

Mugs Shot

2016-08-13 11.50.29

We didn’t get to choose which ones survived.

Ten mugs hang safely on the mug tree that sits next to our coffee maker on the small Ikea table by the kitchen window. Every few weeks I rotate which mugs get to be on the tree for coffee duty. I didn’t know when I put those eight there that they would end up survivors, the silent witnesses of their brethren sitting dutifully in the middle cupboard before on a Friday afternoon tumbling out of the cupboard after the plastic pegs holding up their shelf gave way.

Had I known, I would have been much more selective, would have made the impossible decisions about which darlings to save and which to let die. The process would have been anguishing—more than it ought to be, realistically, but we are Mug People, so we are not realistic about our mugs.

But I didn’t know. Mugs that were filled with meaning—inside jokes, souvenirs from faraway places and unforgettable experiences—that were for some unknown reason not the Chosen Ones cascaded to early deaths in a flash, and there was nothing we could do about it. It didn’t happen like Jenga, after placing one too many atop each other and seeing the tenuous heap collapse before my eyes. Then I would have, might have, been able to avert an avalanche and save a few more mugs from shattering on the floor. But it happened during the day, while we were at work and none the wiser.

I got the pictures from my wife: shards of ceramic and glass littering the counter and kitchen floor. I could make out some of the designs and logos and familiar features of our reliable morning friends in the larger fragments that stood out amidst the particulates. Didn’t matter. They were dead and gone, and the remainders were accidents.

We don’t get to choose. We can just say goodbye after it’s too late.

The world doesn’t need more thinkpieces about Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but I’ll just say her advice about thanking the things you give away for the meaning they provided in their time of service… it’s good advice. Especially for Mug People who lost most of their mugs against their will.

Stuff is stuff is stuff, except when it isn’t.

Looking for a Mind at Housework

The other day I cleaned the bathroom, swept the porch, kitchen, and living room, washed and dried my clothes, and washed the dishes. There was plenty more I could have done. But I knew I’d be doing those chores again eventually, some sooner and some later, and would have to do others at some point as well.

What else in life is equally as satisfying and frustrating as doing chores? The gratification that comes from emptying the sink of its dirty dishes evaporates with the realization that more dishes are coming soon. Hanging the last clean shirt in the closet reminds me I’ll have to put whatever I’m wearing now in the hamper and begin the process again. The two feelings are inextricably linked, like they share an orbit that never ends, just keeps spinning.

I was thinking about this even before reading Gracy Olmstead’s post at The American Conservative on the value of housework, which is itself a meditation on Mary Townsend’s essay in The Hedgehog Review. “The work of maintaining a home,” Olmstead writes, “is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful.”

Those ideas and mores are the key to not going crazy while undertaking the repetitive, unsexy labor that often feels more Sisyphean than sacred. As Olmstead writes, it’s work well suited not to gaining esteem, but for “cultivating virtue”:

It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day.

Pondering what any chore or responsibility does for us along with what it requires of us is a clarifying experiment. Cleaning the same square footage over and over again, Olmstead writes, “requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home.” It also requires forgiveness: towards yourself, for being frustrated about having to do the chore yet again; towards your home’s other inhabitants, for making the same mess yet again, and towards whatever you’re cleaning, for being so needy and unable to stay clean.

Like running, I tend to treat chores as things to endure, to get over with, so I usually fill them with a podcast, audiobook, or music to help distract myself from the pain and make it go by faster. But that distraction and noise can also undermine this cultivation process. Enduring the time in silence, my hands and body occupied by mindless labor, allows my mind to remain open to imagination and creativity. And as this process repeats over and over, a liturgy forms. Suddenly what’s usually an annoyance can become “a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.”

Achieving “greater happiness” through thankless labor seems antithetical to the ethos of the cult of productivity, which promises greater happiness through the latest app or relaxation technique. But thankless labor has been around a lot longer than Getting Things Done, and isn’t trademarked. It’s also abundant, self-replenishing, and always waiting for us, even when we don’t want it. I’d better get to it.

(For the record, my top five most satisfying chores: vacuuming, lawn mowing, washing dishes, mopping, and shoveling. Least satisfying: dusting, grocery shopping, raking, weeding, and laundry.)

Each’s Owned

Pictured is the haul ($8 total) from a recent afternoon browsing used bookstores, which I do once in a while, when my time is open and therefore my self-discipline is weak. But I didn’t feel bad about getting more Stuff this time, because I’m coming to something approaching terms with it.

I love books, movies, and music, but developing an extensive catalog has never been a priority. Working at a library is a factor. With easy, daily access to a plethora of titles, expanding our humble collection of books, DVDs, vinyls, and CDs seems unnecessary. Since I tend not to reread books, amassing more out of fun or bibliophilia isn’t an issue; only the most meaningful or heirloom-worthy books have secured space on our limited shelves. Ditto our LPs and CDs, which are now mostly survivors from several moves and curatorial weedings. For me, less stuff has been better. My friend jokes about being able to move me and all my stuff from college to grad school in one trip in his Geo Prizm.

That’s changed recently. I’ve rediscovered the desire to own analog media, if only as a supplemental collection to my mostly-digitized life. Also: for their tangible or aesthetic appeal, to preserve tangibility, to not be constantly tracked and advertised to, to escape the mercurial whims of licensing and arcane digital services, or to have something to do when the internet goes down.

In a way I haven’t even needed to rediscover it: the majority of my movie watching has always come from DVDs or the theater, and I’ll always prefer print over ebooks. We still have Amazon Prime for movies and Google Play for music, and they are often handy. But I need to remind myself once in a while that newer/easier/faster doesn’t always equal better.

I’m not concerned I’ll suddenly become a hoarder. In fact I’m starting to become concerned we’re not keeping enough things around we’ll regret not having later on, either as historical curios or as cultural artifacts that boomerang from modish to obsolete and back. I can’t tell you how many times, when I bring up my interest in typewriters, I’ve heard something like, Oh yeah, I had one from college, but… or My parents had one but didn’t use it anymore, so… It makes me cringe to ponder the fate of those machines. Whether it’s vinyls, typewriters, love letters, Polaroids, or anything else that doesn’t live in an app or social network, the things we think no longer matter in our lives might in time prove us wrong. And what with the internet ushering in a new Dark Ages, methinks we all should get a little more discerning on what we keep, what we don’t, and why.

But hey, to each’s own.