We wanted proper Halloween decorations this year, and this is what we ended up creating. I say “we” but it was really the rest of the family. Mostly I just fetched stuff, and wrote this chronicle. The background behind this fantabulous scene: it’s largely made up of set pieces from Aileen’s theater productions of the past. She has a storage building out back full of set pieces and bins of props and costume pieces.
The head in the center is a set piece from the Wizard of Oz. It was donated to Aileen’s theater company from another production, though she never used it. I did help with digging it out and transporting it (it’s huge and quite heavy), as well as securing it with bungee cords. It makes a great centerpiece; I think it looks like some mad scientist supervillain.
The gravestones/tombstones are made of styrofoam and were used in Aileen’s production of Dracula in 2016. The urns in front are also styrofoam and may or may not have been used in a set. Those pieces all came out of the attic, where a part of Aileen’s huge costume collection is kept (a lot more is at the theater where she works).
The skeleton on the left was in the storage building, and the reason you only see part of it is that it was a bit decayed. Another frightening fact about it is that when Aileen went to retrieve it, she unleashed a swarm of wasps! Some type of paper wasp had constructed a nest inside that was attached to the spinal cord. She fled the building, then after a bit sprayed the nest, and a day or two later we gingerly retrieved the skeleton and removed the paper nest (the wasps were still in the building, clustering on a nearby window).
The skeleton on the right was a new purchase; it has red LED eyes! The lights in the center were also a new purchase. The flood lights, however, have been with Aileen’s theater company for ages. They are outdoor flood lights, so safe to keep in front of the porch, and it’s a good thing they are, because it has been raining a lot lately. The candles you can see here and there are battery powered and are a staple in Aileen’s productions.
The best part of the tableau is the pumpkinhead guy in the back. That was put together by Aileen’s son Tiernan, who used a mask he wore in a previous Halloween costume, and some orange fabric. It’s sitting on a top of this weird lamp that has plastic strands or tubes lit up by LEDs; I don’t know what to call it. Two of the tubes are twisted up and inserted behind the mask to light up the eyes. The lamp was used as a fairy tree in a production of Midsummer’s Night Dream. Now it’s a spooky pumpkin tree!
I hope you enjoyed this detailed look at our 2021 Halloween scene, which you can see in person if you ever drive through Morgantown, Pennsylvania this month.
This is the story of my recent visits to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in an effort to acquire a valid driver’s license that meets Homeland Security’s Real ID security standards.
It all started when I moved to Pennsylvania and got my PA driver’s license, back in 2018. This license was set to expire in September of 2021, which of course is now, and had the address of my apartment in West Chester. Then there was a pandemic, and I moved to Morgantown. Being a good citizen, I let PennDOT know. When it came time to renew my license, they sent me a “camera card” with my new address. I was supposed to take the camera card to a PennDOT location to get a new photo taken and have my new license printed up. I put the camera card in my wallet, with my license, so that I had proof of my correct address with me when I was driving.
I delayed getting this done for a few weeks, but time was running out. My camera card was only valid until the end of September. I decided to get my new photo and license this Monday, during my lunch break. I had two locations to choose between, and I decided to go to the one that I figured would be less crowded. That morning after I awoke, I took a shower and put on a nice shirt. I did a load of laundry, then went to work (meaning upstairs in the home office). As it got close to noon, I logged off and got ready to go. I was so excited!
I had this vague idea that I would see if I could get a Real ID while I was at it, and I knew that required me to bring my birth certificate and my SSN card, both of which I had. My SSN card is really old and worn out; it’s from when I was a child. I got them together, and my checkbook in case I needed it to pay because they didn’t take cards, but where was my wallet? I realized that I had left it in my pants when I did the laundry! It had gone completely through the wash, and my camera card was in there!
I extracted the still damp camera card and stuck it between two paper towels. It still seemed legible to me, despite the ink being smeared. Maybe I would be OK. I took all the plastic out of the wallet, including my expired license, and with this pile of documents I headed out to Pottstown.
My maps software helpfully guided me to the PennDOT location, which was right in the middle of town. It was a small building. A sign on the door implored, “please wear a face mask,” which of course I was doing since the pandemic is not over. Inside the building there were two rooms I could enter; and since the one on the right had the camera setup, that seemed like the obvious choice. Maybe a dozen or so people were already there, most of whom were ignoring the mask sign. There was a dispenser to grab a ticket with a number on it, so I took my number and sat on a chair against the wall.
It appeared I was in the right place, and shortly my number was called. There was just a young guy behind a desk who took my ticket, and a woman who was behind a nearby counter doing most of the work (both employees were masked). I showed the young guy my laundered camera card and explained the situation. He made a little of fun of me for washing my wallet, then gave the card to the woman, along with my driver’s license. She tried to scan the card, but it wouldn’t read. She told me that she wouldn’t be able to help me. I would need a new camera card, but they had no way to get me that here, though I might be able to go across the hall and get one, or go to a “full service” PennDOT location.
So I went across the hall. It was another small room, with two employees behind a counter, neither one masked, but at least they had plexiglass set up. Each one was busy with a customer. Both of these customers had some super complicated thing to do involving tag or title transfer, and I stood there waiting for a good while. It was hot and stuffy, because the AC wasn’t working, which I overheard one of the employees mention. Behind me, a line started to form. I was the only one with a face mask, and feeling uncomfortable.
At one point the same employee who had commented on the AC not working called out to the people in line, to tell them that if they were here to get a photo taken, they were in the wrong room. She wanted to make sure they knew to go across the hall. I took advantage of the opportunity to engage her, even though her customer was still at her counter. I told her I was here to get a new camera card. She said that would be possible, but I wouldn’t get it right away. It would be mailed to me.
That was of no use to me, so I left. I drove back home, feeling cranky. Trying to keep a sense of humor, I joked to my housemates that our supposed advanced civilization doesn’t even have the capability to scan a camera card just because you decided to send it through one cycle in the washing machine. You couldn’t even do one cycle in the washing machine without the whole system breaking down! My BFF gently reminded me that it was my own fault and I should own the responsibility.
I went online and looked at what my options might be. I found the DL-80 form to get a new camera card, but it had to be notarized. So I couldn’t even conveniently request the card from home and just sit on the problem for another week or so; I would have to go out again. I resolved to go to the alternate location in Reading, which I believed was probably a “full service” PennDOT. I would leave first thing in the morning. It opened at 8:30 AM. I let work know I was going to be offline in the AM the next day.
So on Tuesday I woke up early, showered, and put on the same shirt. I had a cup of coffee and a protein bar, and headed out as soon as I could. I got to the PennDOT location at 8:45 AM. There as a huge line of people in front of the building, at least thirty or more. But I was resolved. I approached the building, and discerned that there were multiple lines. A man in a guard’s uniform was there, and when I went up to him he asked me what I was there for. I tentatively replied that I wanted to get a Real ID, and he directed me to the proper line.
Luckily, it wasn’t too hot out yet. Also, most, though not all, of the people in line were wearing face masks. The crowd’s mood was generally positive, and slowly but surely the lines advanced into the building. It seemed they were letting in one person from each line on a rotating basis. In about 45 minutes I was in the building, in a consolidated line at the entrance. It was a very large room, with rows and rows of seats with people in them on one side, and a row of counters on the other. Two different gentlemen were processing the newcomers at the entrance.
Suddenly I saw the same young guy who had first taken my number the previous day, walking right by me. He was working at this location today. I called to him that I recognized him from Pottstown, and excitedly told him that I was having a DMV adventure this week. He gave me a quick sideways glance and slight smile, then hurried off.
One of the two gentlemen in front summoned me up to his counter with a hand wave. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to get Real ID, and also that I had a camera card that had gone through the washing machine. He made a little fun of me for washing my camera card, then told me I would be able to get a new one here, and listed what I needed to get Real ID. Birth certificate; I had that. Social security card, had to be the real thing, not a photocopy; I had that. Two proofs of address. Oh oh. I hadn’t brought that.
Not to fear, he assured me. The camera card had my address, so that was one. And if I had a vehicle registration or proof of insurance card, those could work, too. Those were in the car, I told him, and he had me run out to get them, then come immediately back to him. I ran out, clutching my precious bundle of documents, added the registration and proof of insurance to the pile, then returned. He was seeing another customer, but as soon as he was done, beckoned to me again.
The vehicle registration had my current address, so I was in luck, although the insurance card was old and did not. He gave me a ticket with a number and had me go sit down in the rows of chairs. I picked a corner, as far away from other people as possible. Waiting here, though, wasn’t as bad as it had been at the other location the previous day. Here, the air conditioning was working. The building was much more spacious, and almost everyone was wearing a face mask.
My number was called over the PA system, along with the number of the counter I was to go to. A woman there took all my documents and listened to my story and my request. She made gentle fun of the fact that I had washed my wallet. She also told me that, unfortunately, I would not be able to use my camera card as one of the two proofs of my address to get a Real ID compliant license, since it was associated with my old driver’s license which had my old address on it. I pointed out that the camera card itself had the new address on it, but she insisted that was not how it worked. If my driver’s license was current, with my current address, I would be able to use it. But not as things stood.
So wait, I continued, attempting an argument. I had everything I needed to renew my license, right? The answer was yes. And once I had a new license, with my current address, I would be able to get the Real ID, right? The answer was yes. So why not just let me get the Real ID with what I had, since it was the same information? That wasn’t how it worked. It was the federal government, you see. Very strict. But I could get my renewed driver’s license and come through again for the Real ID? Absolutely. She told me to do that, and just come directly to her after getting my license.
The path before me was now clear. The woman behind the counter printed me up a new camera card, which cost me 5 bucks. I returned to my seat to wait for my number to be called again, and when it was I was directed to one of the counters where the photos were taken. A woman there directed me to sit in a chair facing a camera. I set my pile of documents, now in disarray, down on the counter and then did as instructed. I did my best to smile cheerfully at the camera. Calm blue ocean. She snapped my picture, then had me come up to the counter to go through a brief questionnaire on a touch screen. It was hard for me to read, and I kept having to shift my glasses to see it properly. One of the annoying things about growing old.
Once that was done, I grabbed my document pile, seated myself near the photo section, and waited some more. My name was called, and I was given my license, which I had to verify and then sign for. I immediately went to the other counter where the first woman was, and hovered until she beckoned me forward. She processed me again, scanning all of the documents that proved to the federal government that I was who I said I was. She gave me yet another camera card, and charged me 60 bucks this time. She also gave me a new number for getting my photo taken.
Back to a seat to wait. I had been at the building for over two hours now. I looked around, wondering if I would recognize any faces of customers who had been there when I originally showed up. I saw one. This wait ended up being the longest, or maybe it just felt that way, since I was so close to the finish line. After half an hour, I was getting nervous. Maybe my new number wouldn’t work, because the woman at the counter hadn’t entered it correctly into the system. I was getting close to getting up to ask her if there was an issue, when a number very close to mine got called.
That gave me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel. A little while later, my number was indeed called. I rushed up to the photo counter. It was the same one I had gone to originally. I couldn’t tell if the woman there recognized me from before. She just processed me like I was any other customer. Smile for the camera. Fill out the questionnaire, eyes squinting to read the questions. This time, that was the last step. My Real ID compliant driver’s license would come in the mail, and would be good for eight years.
The saga was complete. It had come to a fairy tale ending. Not only was I Real according to the federal government, I was going to have a driver’s license (if not eyesight) that was good until 2029! And I had a valid one in my wallet at the very moment. As a bonus, I had my amusing tale of hidebound bureaucracy and its cumbersome processes, which I told several times to my housemates and friends, and have now shared with you, dear reader. In all truth, PennDOT did a wonderful job, and bless them for keeping up with their work in this time of corona.
I have actually had my mindspring.com email since the late 1990s. You see, I have this stubborn resistance to upgrading tech or adopting new tech. I didn’t get my first smartphone until 2014 and I don’t even own a smartwatch now. I even continue to maintain an old flat HTML web site like it was still 2002 or something.
That is, I was maintaining it until EarthLink (which bought MindSpring) took it down; I guess they were tired of supporting free web sites for their email users. Whatever. I finally got around to scrounging up some basic hosting and put the old clunker back on the interwebs. It wasn’t too much of an ordeal, though there was quite a bit of search and replace of hardcoded URLs.
Divesting myself of the old email address might be a bit more of an effort, since it is linked to so many services. So let’s see if I can keep it alive for another decade or two.
Would you believe that I live, work and play in Sweden? Or, rather, what used to be Sweden? That’s right – the Kingdom of Sweden once laid claim to a part of the east coast of North America, back in the colonial era before England snatched it all up. It was established in the lower Delaware Valley, in what would today be called the tri-state area. The sites of what are now Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA are included in the former colony.
There’s even a famous ship involved in the founding, akin to the Mayflower that legendarily landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swedish ship was called the Kalmar Nyckel, and it came to North America with Swedish colonists in 1638. The settlement they founded was Fort Christina, named after the Queen of Sweden. There’s a replica of the ship that plies the former waters of New Sweden for the benefit of tourists, and I sometimes see it when I am at work in Wilmington. But all that remains of the fort is a marker.
There is a little bit left of the old colony of New Sweden in the urban landscape of the area, mainly in the form of three churches known as the Old Swedes Churches. There is one in Wilmington and two in Philadelphia. The one in Wilmington is a National Historic Park, and you can visit and get a tour for $5. When I went, the guide first wanted to know if I am of Swedish heritage, which I am not, because many Americans who are of Swedish extraction come to the church out of, I guess, genealogical curiosity. Then he showed me around the church and grounds, and told me a little history. It’s a remarkable site to visit, with its many very old graves, and original masonry dating from the late 1600s.
As the guide related it to me, the Europeans who first settled here weren’t in New Sweden for very long. The colony was ceded to the Dutch after a war and became part of New Netherland. But even that status was brief, as it all went to England in 1676. By then the Kalmar Nyckel had been sunk in battle. Now the people who lived here got along with their lives pretty well no matter who was officially in charge – it really didn’t matter to them which monarch on the other side of the Atlantic ocean ostensibly ruled them. Part of the logic, I suppose, of living in the New World, which eventually would lead to complete independence from European monarchy.
New Sweden is something of a very minor footnote in American history. The Dutch influence was actually greater in the early colonial era – I’m sure you know what old New York used to be called. And most Swedish-Americans today live in the midwest and descend from immigrants who came in the late 19th century. But I am reminded of the Old Swedes’ historical presence every time I cross Swedesford road, on the northern edge of the former colony of New Sweden. America’s old history remains faintly visible through its modern facade.
Don’t you just love beautiful rural country? When I am driving through rolling, wooded terrain that is cut through by small waterways and dotted with rustic buildings, it takes me back to a part of the country where I spent a great portion of my young life. When I’m driving through this kind of country, I always say, “this reminds me of Virginia.” Where I live now, just west of Philadelphia, the countryside of Chester, Berks and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania is most certainly like this. It can be quite rugged, even though it is so close to the coast, and often feels like I’m back in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where I went to college.
If you look at a topographic map of the Eastern United States, you can see why this is so – below the Mason-Dixon line, the eastern mountain chain lies far from the Atlantic Ocean, and there is a vast coastal plain (the sandy pine lands of the South), but north of that line, the mountain chain veers eastward and the plains dwindle away, so that the foothills lie very close to the coast. This is the land where I live now. I still find it a bit startling that there is rural, mountainous terrain so near the urban coastal strip where I work, since it’s not what I have been used to my whole life.
In addition to the difference in terrain, there is also an apparent cultural difference between the inland counties and the urbanized coast. Inland, I don’t see nearly as many non-white people, and it feels like I am back in the Appalachian mountains of my youth. In fact, central Pennsylvania is actually Northern Appalachia, and shares much in culture, ethnicity, and political outlook as the rest of the mountainous east. Now, I say “apparent” cultural difference because I know that many people, such as myself, move freely in and out of this milieu. They may sometimes just be dabbling in rural life.
Which was basically what I was doing this past weekend when I attended the annual Hay Creek Apple Festival, sponsored by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association and held at Joanna Furnace. This is an old iron smelter that was active in the 1800s, before the once prosperous and powerful iron industry died out in the region, and has since been renovated and turned into a historical site that is open to the public.
Last weekend the site was filled with food vendors selling food that in large part involved apples (hence the name of the festival), which are widely grown in Pennsylvania. This state actually has a huge agricultural sector, and much of the beautiful rural country of which I write is farmland. In fact, with the presence of so many Amish and Mennonites, traveling through this farmland can feel like going back in time.
In addition to food vendors, there were family-friendly activities and a large flea market. I was there to support the Morgantown Arts Center, which had a booth with arts and crafts, as well face painting. You can find the arts center on Main Street in Morgantown, PA – they have paint and sip nights, classes, open studio nights, and more.
When I did find time to step away from the booth and walk around, I checked out the buildings in the complex. There was a booth where the archaeological organization that does the renovation was set up – the structures are mostly recreated from evidence, once the foundations are located. The furnace itself is original; for practical reasons it would have been the sturdiest structure at the site. It’s basically a giant brick tower that was filled with charcoal and iron ore and burned fiercely hot until the iron melted out, but of course it isn’t operational.
The flea market was set up in a parking area and people were selling mostly antiques and collectibles, and some original art. In all, walking through the event gave me the impression that central Pennsylvania lives in its past. It’s not surprising to me that this part of the country went to Trump in 2016, since he was promising to bring the past back to them.
There’s a lot to celebrate in this part of Pennsylvania’s history, and all of the rural beauty here speaks of another time. What it will do with the future, I cannot be sure. I have to go down to the city to make my living.
I’ve been getting into art lately – painting, mainly – and wanted to share a recent experience. My BFF and I did one of those “paint and sips” where you sit with a group of people and all work on the same painting, while enjoying some wine or other such beverage. It’s a business model; you pay a little money, an instructor guides you through the process, there’s other people there, and you have a good time.
In this case the brand was “Painting with a Twist,” at a location near my apartment. We were going to be drawing a castle, and it was also “Wizard Trivia Night.” Meaning Harry Potter trivia night, though they didn’t call it that. It was BYOB, so we packed up some snacks and a bottle of red wine, with three wine glasses, since we were meeting a friend. Everything was all set up when we got there, and the canvasses had the castle (Hogwarts?) already drawn on it. We were among the first to arrive, but it wasn’t long before the space filled up.
What was interesting to me, no surprise, was the demographic breakdown of the participants. I counted 24 artists total, of whom 5 were male and 19 female. Almost everyone was from the Millennial generation, the exceptions being my BFF and me, possibly a couple of Gen-X moms, and one Boomer grandmother with her Homelander grandson. The three Millennial men present all appeared to be on dates (with women). The instructor and her assistant – a black man and the only non-white person present – were both Millennial.
It looked to me like most people did not bring food or drink. There was one other group that brought a bottle of wine, and a did see a couple of craft beers on the table, but it seems that people came for the art. Which was a lot of fun to do, and definitely easier with the help of our hostess. She was lively, as much MC as art instructor, and kept up a party atmosphere with jokes, a few fun games, and the trivia contest.
The prizes for the games and contest were either a pick off a table of painted bottles, or a $5 off coupon for another painting night. Because this was a business, after all. I think that combining the painting with a themed trivia contest helped draw in customers; it was almost a full house. That the clientele was majority Millennial is in keeping with the idea that their generation is more interested in acquiring experiences than material goods. Or perhaps it is more that this is the level of experience that young Millennials can afford.
We certainly had fun and would do it again. Check out our finished artwork below.
As a software tester I get how difficult software development is, and why software technology so often fails us. The problem space of testing for all possible scenarios is too vast to traverse within the time frame of a fundable development project. It’s likely that some scenario will be missed in the journey from design concept – which always look great on paper – to actual implementation – which often fails to meet expectations, usually because the expectations are not accurately communicated.
Therefore I was not surprised to learn that two recent Boeing 737 plane crashes were the result of software failure. This article by a former crash investigator explains it a bit, even comparing the software that aids airplane pilots to the software you use on your mobile phone. If you’ve ever been frustrated using your phone, imagine how airplane pilots must feel, operating their software-laden fly-by-wire systems. The stakes are obviously much higher for them when those devices fail.
As the article points out, there is a paradox where reliance on safety technology sometimes makes us less safe. Relying on computer software, which is bound to be error-prone, seems insane. It’s only possible because our genius system of corporate capitalism deflects liability away from individuals and underwrites risk through insurance payments. But take it from someone who has been testing software for most of his adult life: all of those automated and networked computer systems that pervade our lives are full of bugs. You won’t see me getting into a self-driving car any time soon.
I wrote this story. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
A Star Above
Not Quite a Christmas Story
Millions of years ago, in a time long forgotten, the shape of the land was not the same as it is today, and the Earth was ruled by the Saurians.
And it came to pass, one winter’s season, that a bright star shone in the sky above. It was so bright that the Saurians were certain it was a portent. So they asked the wisest among them what the star might signify.
The most wise of all the Saurians had a vision, and told it unto the others. “This star signifies that a child is hatched! A child who heralds a new age to come!”
“What will come in this new age?” cried the other wise ones.
“A new hope, and an end to the wickedness of our kind.”
“It is true that many Saurians are wicked,” agreed the others. “What shall we do now that we know of the meaning of the sign?”
“We must journey to where the child is hatched. If we follow the star it will guide us there.”
So the wisest of the Saurians, as well as two others who were fairly wise themselves, set out on a journey, walking across the great land, keeping the star ahead at all times.
“I think it is growing brighter,” said one of the three wise Saurians, one who had a large posterior and a long, sinuous neck, and came from the swampy regions.
“Yes, it must be nearing the time of the child’s hatching,” said the wisest of the three Saurians, who stood on two legs and could run very fast, and was from the grasslands.
“Is the time of the end of wickedness arriving? What should we do?” worried the last of the three, who had a shell, and a horny head, and was from the rocky places.
“Let us bring gifts to the hatchling,” said the wisest Saurian. “Do we have anything to bring?”
“I have these weeds from the swamp that I like to eat,” said the long-necked Saurian. “They smell real good.”
“I have some shiny rocks that I have collected,” said the horny-headed Saurian. “I think they are very pretty.”
“They are perfect,” said the bipedal Saurian. “We shall bring the fragrant plants and the shiny rocks as offerings to the hatchling who portends the dawn of a new age.”
So they walked on, carrying their gifts, following the star, which grew ever brighter in the sky above. At last they came to a place where a herd of Saurians grazed on the grassy hills.
The wisest Saurian spoke to one of the herd, “Have you heard of a child who is hatched, and portends a new age, as signified by the bright star above?”
“Yes,” said the other, “many of us have gone to visit the child. But it is not hatched.”
“Not hatched? It is still in its egg?”
“The child is born, but not of an egg.”
“A child born not of an egg!” cried the three wise Saurians. “Truly this is a miracle!”
So they went together to where the child was born, and saw it in a little nest, where other Saurians stood around, bowing in awe before it. It was a creature not like a Saurian, tiny and covered in fur.
“That is – different,” said the wisest of the Saurians.
“Yes,” said the other. “It is not a Saurian like us, but a Mammal. And it portends a new age.”
“We have brought gifts for the Mammal child.”
“You can just put them over there.”
And the star above grew ever brighter, and then fell to Earth, and the Saurians and their wicked ways were ended forever. And the Mammal and all of its kind came to rule the Earth in their stead, as they do to this very day.
I have always loved music. It touches the soul. As the ancient Greeks theorized, the harmonic structure of music reflects the order and harmony of the Universe. And so the joy experienced when listening to or performing music is transcendent – you really are reaching out to heaven!
I wanted to be more engaged with music, to do more than just listen to endless Spotify playlists, so last year I joined a choir. I had been in a choir in junior high school, so I figured I could jump back in (“back after a 40 year hiatus,” as they say). Of course it has been a lot of work to get up to speed on how to sing again, but it has also been tremendous fun.
One thing I love about choir is that it brings all the generations together – this is a hobby that doesn’t appeal to one particular age group only. We have choir members from every generational archetype. Yes, that’s right, we have Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers and at least one Silent. He told me himself – he was born in 1940 and even identified himself as a member for the Silent generation.
We are called The Singers for Goodness Sake, and are non-profit, performing mainly in retirement communities. Tonight is the last performance of the season, and then I will take a break for the summer, when traveling will take priority. I’ve feel like I’ve come a long way in the eight months since I started singing, and like we’ve come a long way as an ensemble. I look forward to making more music with friends of all ages.