The gods-be-damned freaking mice are still in the cupboard. The cupboards I already cleaned. Time for more steel wool. And maybe napalm.

In other news, N’s house-closing went through yesterday, so he lives here now. This is, in my opinion, pretty cool. I think we will all enjoy it once the trauma of unpacking things is behind us.

Also, he just brought me pizza.

Tuesday is all over the place.

1. It’s the return of the autumnal mice. Every other year or so, as the weather gets cooler, our kitchen gets mice. This is because we a) line in a house built in 1916 or thereabouts, with the “new addition” put on in the ’40s, and is therefore porous, b) we have landscaped our yard to attract wildlife, so our yard is a thriving ecosystem friendly to rodents, and 3) it’s cold out there at night and we have food. So after finding and trapping one mouse, J and I spent yesterday stuffing steel wool into all the crevices in the kitchen cupboards we could find. I then spent the afternoon scrubbing utensils and tupperware in painfully hot, soapy water, as well as scrubbing the drawers and cupboards in which we found the mouse poop. Now, the paranoid in me wants to bleach the whole damn kitchen. I’ve read too much about hantavirus.

2. N is 98% moved in with us. He closes on the duplex tomorrow, and our house is crammed full of boxes, lamps, plants, bins, and random pieces of computers at the moment. In a week or two I expect things will be calmer.

3. Michael Bay is remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is one of the most important works of fiction in my childhood. Yes, yes, I know people typically cite more comforting things, but not me. The most influential works of fiction from my early years are likely Narnia, Oz, the X-Men, Stephen King, A Nightmare of Elm Street, the works of John Hughes, The Dark is Rising series, the works of Mercedes Lackey, the Belgariad, Bloom County, Spielberg and Lucas’s works, and Norse mythology. Not all at the same time. But I love Nightmare. Love it.

I’ve written a couple essays about NoES. The first is The Girls Who Lived. The second was a more personal piece, about the lessons of fiction, and I’ll reproduce it here.


What I Learned from A Nightmare on Elm Street

Never trust adults. You are on your own. By the time I encountered the horror movie genre I already knew these facts to be true. Watching Nightmare on Elm Street and one of its successors, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, only confirmed for me a view I already held. But confirm it they did. I learned from horror movies that no one would be able to help me, ever.

As I child I loved fiction. I knew it was fiction; I knew it was not true in a literal sense. But what I did not understand for many years was this: People frequently write fiction to describe, not the world as it is, but the world they either hope for or fear. Children’s fiction in particular is full of fears and the tools to overcome fear. It is a key, a foundation of the fairy tale that the parents be evil or dead. In children’s and “young adult” novels the adults are frequently gone, useless, or malicious. The books I loved as a child all supported this view. The L. Frank Baum Oz books. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. (Which are a particularly difficult case because to grow up is Susan’s special sin.) The Dark is Rising books by Susan Cooper. The books of Lois Duncan. The works of S.E. Hinton. There is an entire genre of teen-oriented books, the titles of which all escape me at the moment, in which adolescents are presented with evil adults. The adults in these books are kidnappers, sexual predators, or are merely alcoholic and abusive.

It did not occur to me that these books were myths of common fears. I took them to be a map of the world and of the future. I learned from them.

I was not allowed to watch much television as a child, not many films. (For the longest time the only movies I’d ever see were the Star Wars trilogy and The Wizard of Oz.) But in 1986 my family got cable tv. I was entranced. I watched as much as I could manage. Here, here were stories. Stories the like of which I’d never seen. I watched Bogart. Hitchcock. Grant, Bacall, and Astaire. I watched John Hughes and Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Jim Cameron. And I fell in fascinated dread and love with the teen slasher genre.

This. These were confirmation of my worst fears. Because, after all, they were real, were they not? I do not mean to say that I thought Freddy Krueger was real. I did not think my house was haunted, I did not think sociopaths in masks were going to kill me. I did think, though, that these movies were metaphors for something which was quite real. That adolescence was extremely hazardous, barely survivable. Oone had to keep one’s head down and avoid notice. Live until age brought you out the other side.

The movies of Wes Craven were especially resonant for me. In 1987 I think I watched Nightmare and Nightmare 3 probably a dozen time each.

In Nightmare on Elm Street we meet Nancy. Nancy is a normal nice girl. She’s the staple of the early teen-slasher flicks. She is smart but not overly geeky. She’s interested in boys but a little reserved in sexual matters. She has a friend who is a bit more wild, she has parents who are distant and uncomprehending. She is fairly normal.

Over the course of the first movie Nancy learns that her life is based on deceptions perpetrated on her by her parents. And that these deceptions are going to be paid for in her blood and death. That her parents are liars and murderers. Her life is going to be destroyed for nothing she has done. And in the end, when she needs the help of her parents the most, they not only fail her, but they actively obstruct her efforts to save her own life.

The emotional heart of this film is not fear. It’s betrayal. The scenes of death are frightening. And if you don’t believe me, watch the first Nightmare by yourself at night. Preferably far from help. But Nancy’s worst moments are not when her friends die — it’s when her friends die and she is helpless to save them because her parents have purposely stopped her. Nancy’s confrontation with her mother and father are the best emotional notes in the film. The careful revelation of their multiple betrayals is when Nancy’s heart breaks.

But Nancy, like all the slasher heroines, is stronger than even she knows. And she is smart, and she gets through. In Nightmare, Nancy defeats the monster by stepping outside of the game. She refuses to run. Refuses to hide. She refuses to be a part of her familial legacy and demands that she be freed. Not through the assistance of any outside agency, no. But through her own force of will.

Much of this power is subverted in Dream Warriors, aka Nightmare on Elm Street 3. But while it is subverted to keep the fiscal power of the franchise going, I think Wes Craven managed to remain largely faithful to his original vision.

In Nightmare 3 we are introduced to Kristen. Kristen’s situation is perilous from the beginning. She’s not only experiencing the nightmares with which the audience is familiar, but her home life is precarious. Her mother is a more than uncomprehending, she is actively hostile to her daughter. Kristen is, again, bright and motivated, but she is trapped by her age and its attendant lack or real power.

Here’s the thing about power; when you have no small power, you are left with only the big guns. People who are systematically thwarted in their small assertions of autonomy are forced to grander gestures. This is seen again and again in teen fiction. The teen who is prohibited from dancing begins drinking and having sex. The teen who is prevented from dating begins having an affair with a married adult. The teen who is not allowed to dress as they please turn to sex and drugs and rock and roll. This trope is evident even in the teen comedies. In the dramas and the cautionary tales all these escalate towards suicide. The final power, the nuclear option of teen autonomy. If I can exert no other authority in my life, I can at least do this.

Nightmare 3 plays on this in the opening scenes. Kristen’s nightmare blends the reality of her unsatisfactory home life with the threat of Freddy to attempt her death. The attempt is hidden as a suicide attempt, making Kristen’s pleas for understanding and assistance even less plausible, less credible, to her mother and the other adult authorities. When we next see Kristen the adults authorities are in the process of stripping away her last, most basic, physical autonomy. They are going to tie her down and force her to sleep. This removes even the suicide option from her, removes her last defenses against Freddy.

Kristen does receive some help from adults on Nightmare 3. Nancy is now an adult, albeit a very odd one. We are told, very early on, that Nancy is essentially crazy. This reduces her power in the adult world and makes her an effective teen for the narrative purposes. Her other ally, Dr. Gordon, is at first unhelpful and uncomprehending. As his comprehension grows his power at the hospital shrinks. (His last remnant of adult power comes in the odd and not-quite-satisfying confrontation with Nancy’s father.)

Over the course of Nightmare 3 we see adult incomprehension move from obtuse to actively malevolent. The true horror in this film is not the deaths available — spectacular though they may be. The horror in the grinding powerlessness. The disbelief by authority. The willful injuries inflicted on the youths by those who have sworn to care for them.

The Nightmare of Elm Street movies are of a time. Of a place and a genre and a specific moment. They are fables of fear, the fears everyone has of powerlessness. The fears teens have of being trapped in youth and instability. I see that now. But I didn’t then. I learned things from the Nightmare movies, from Wes Craven and Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette. I learned to to solve any problems my friends and I might have by myself, by ourselves. That confidences to adults would be betrayed. That no one would help.


I was, in case it has escaped your notice, Dear Reader, a rather melodramatic teenager. But I did love those movies, I love them still, and I am waiting with elation and dread for Michael Bay’s remake. Elation and dread.

Homeschool, today’s edition

I deeply love the things my kids learn.

Today we reviewed Middle East geography. I gave the kids a blank map of the Middle East and began calling out countries. The kids tried to identify them on the map and color them in. I gave hints. The kids used to have the world map memorized, when we did geography every day. Now it takes a little more prodding. Frankly, I can’t blame them. Turkmenistan still throws me. I mean, I had the world map memorized — in 1985. All these pesky ‘Stans weren’t around then. I am old now, and my brain is congealed, and I have trouble memorizing new things!

We then worked on writing/English/reading/grammar. By which I mean M wrote thank-yous — or, at least, ONE thank you, which was all I had patience for. He then identified questions vs. statements and filled in the correct punctuation in each case. Karla worked on generating rhyming words and writing them on a worksheet.

After that we tackled math. Each kid did single-digit subtraction and two-digit addition (no carrying required.) The kids are getting better at knowing their sums by heart. They still have to think it through, but no longer need manipulatives or fingers to do addition. (They still need the help on the subtraction.)

Then I read a chapter from The Wizard of Oz, read the book Tomten by Astrid Lingren, and read two pages about the element Sulphur. We discussed reactivity, sulfides and oxides, and read chemical equations aloud together.

After that K read a short “spooky” story aloud to M.

That took about two hours. Earlier this morning K practiced piano, and we all spent fifteen minutes reading the BBC website for the day’s news. And, when the kids got up, K had read a book to M. A book about farting, but, well, there you have it. Reading is the gateway to all knowledge, including knowledge about the relative smelliness of elephant farts.

Circus Juventas, Fall 2009

Fall classes have started here at Circus Juventas!

During my kids’ classes I can choose to watch:

Flying Trapeze
Silks (Core)
Low Wire
Spanish Web (Core)
Cloud Swing
And some other stuff I can’t identify

The part I love the most is watching the kids who are really good at something else as they try to learn a new thing. These are gifted athletes, in fabulous shape. Watching them struggle to master new set of skills is really amazing.

I also love that there really is something for everyone. The flyers, for instance, need to be smaller and thinner. But if you are taller or wider-hipped or stockier and want to do an advanced flying act, you can do Cloud Swing or Swinging trapeze. There are similar opportunities for different bodies and skills in all the specialties. It’s pretty cool.

Okay, so what is this boondoggle? (Part 2)

So anyway.

The trainees need non-radar problems to work through. And these problems need to increase in difficulty slowly while containing set items. The first problem must include IFR clearances, interphone communication, and other items. There are checklists and formulas. The problem is, the non-radar scenarios are not consistent. From one area to the next they are not consistent, and from one scenario to the next. Also, there are too few of them.

So what I’m doing it going through the existing problems and scoring them against the metrics. What are there point values? Do they contain the required items? If they do not, I build that item in. If they have other items not required, I consider the complexity. If the problem is low-point-value, I will leave a complexity factor in place. I may move it, though, either placing the event at a different time or location in the problem. If the problem is too complex, I remove items.

In addition, I will have to build five new problems. Right now we have eleven, we need sixteen. Building the new ones will be a lot of work.

So far today I have evaluated five problems, tweaking four of them. The fifth I recommended be changed from an instructional, or graded, problem, to a familiarization problem. The scenario in question had two emergencies, a hijacking, and two military special flights. A trainee does need to learn to handle all of these things. But not, perhaps, all at the same time while being graded on performance.

Okay, so, what is this boondoggle? (Part 1)

So what am I doing, exactly, at work today?

Okay. Let me explain. (No, take too long. Lemme sum up.)

When trainees walk in the door to Minneapolis Center (aka ZMP) they have completed a training program at one of a handful of places in the country. They ought to arrive knowing how to talk on the radio, they ought to know the basic characteristics of different aircraft, they ought to know the components of air traffic control. The first thing they do once here is a classroom section where they study the 7110.65, the federal order governing ATC. They also memorize the map of the airspace to which they are assigned. They memorize the locations of airports, navaids, airways, jet routes, outer markers, IR routes, VR routes, air refueling tracks, MOAs, restricted and prohibited areas, final approach courses, sector boundaries, the minimum IFR altitudes, minimum vectoring altitudes, frequencies, adjacent facility frequencies, altitude limits and shelfs, and other things I’m not recalling at this moment. This takse about three weeks of spending all one’s living free time in memorization. The test, at the end, is a large outline of your area. Blank. You fill it in. All of it.

The next section of training is Non-Radar. You see, significant portions of the country do not have radar coverage at lower altitudes. For instance, at the airports. (Refresher: Radar sites are located on the ground and broadcast a cone-shaped signal up and out. We do not yet use satellite i.d. to track airplanes, not legally.) So when one plane wants to take off of Bemidji airport, and another is trying to land, what do you do?

Well, there are rules for this. Rules. The 5-Minute Arrival-Departure Rule, the 44-Knot Rule, the Degree-Divergence Rule — these are all real rules covering different situations. Trainees memorize the rules. Then they are sent to the non-radar lab to work simulated problems. The non-radar lab is a room with big racks (doghouses) for holding flight progress strips, aka tickets. The tickets are put in stripholders and racked in the doghouses. Each plane has a speed, an altitude, a route of flight along airways, and an initial location in the sector. From this, the trainee computes where each aircraft is supposed to be at any given point. At points where the routes of flight cross or overlap, the trainee examines the times and altitudes of the aircraft involved and makes sure they are in accordance with the rules of separation. The clock is started, and “aircraft” — another student, typically — begin to call asking for things. Departures out of airports. Clearances to land. Altitude changes. You know, stuff.

It’s the job of the trainee to hold all of this in their head, to give the aircraft what they want, and to not fall behind. To, in the parlance of my job, keep the flick.


The word “boondoggle” came into widespread use during the first year of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. Those who denigrated his federal work programs referred to the jobs as boondoggles. The universal symbol of the boondoggler was a man leaning, thoughtfully, on a shovel. Doing nothing.

In a fine tradition of contempt for people who don’t do “real” work, the controllers at my job tend to refer to all office-type details in the facility as boondoggles. Anything, in short, that takes you away from actually talking to pilots is considered useless make-work, and a dodging of traffic. Well, I’m on a boondoggle today, and I see the point.

I’m going over the non-radar lab problems, checking their difficulty levels and adding five new problems. This is work that needs doing. It needs to be done to continue our training department’s move towards actually, you know, teaching air traffic control to people. Instead of trying to “gotcha” them into failure. It’s real work, and it needs doing.

But I’ve been here since 6:00 and have gotten almost nothing accomplished. I have walked around the building and left messages for people, I have met with a supervisor for a half-hour, and I have asked to have things printed out for me. Now I am blogging while waiting for the printouts. I am considered to be “working” right now. This isn’t work. This is boondoggling.