Friday, February 29, 2008

It was nine o'clock by the time we got home--only six o'clock by our body clocks, but the end of a long day of travel and a long week of...everything. The boys crawled into their PJs and climbed into bed. Thing 2, in his lower bunk, ecstatically embraced all of his stuffed animals and began arranging them around his bed, making sure each one had a blanket and a pillow. Thing 1, up above, just cried. Between tears, he said, "I loved it so much, and it's hard to say goodbye."

When I was ten, I was in a play at our local summer-stock theater, up in the Berkshires (Massachusetts). I had done class plays before, but never anything this serious, this professional. It was a wonderful and overwhelming experience, and when it was all over, after closing night and the final cast party, I lay in my bed and thought about everything I had just been through, and I cried myself to sleep. Because it was so hard to say goodbye.

I look back on myself, and I watch my son cry himself to sleep, and I envy that kind of passionate attachment--that commitment to a person or a place or a thing that you welcome and let in and experience so openly and completely that it hurts you to disengage from it. I envy that...because I don't find myself very capable of it anymore. There are too many walls, too many bad experiences, too much caution and judgment. All well earned, I'm sure, and all perfectly natural. It's hard to be that open through your entire life, and keep your membranes (real and figurative) that transparent and permeable. It would just wreck us. We learn to keep our guard up.

Well...some of us do. My friend Thor was one of the exceptions. Thor was memorialized by friends and family in Washington, DC, last weekend. I had hoped to be there, but I was already scheduled to work in Hawaii that week, and had built a family vacation around my required time there. The logistics became impossible. But I visited his memorial website, once again, and scrolled through some of the pictures uploaded there. Between that website and one on Facebook, there are hundreds of pictures of him--hundreds--with an enormous cast of characters. Always smiling, always exuberant. And there are hundreds of testimonials--hundreds--some short, some long--some from the east, some from the west, some from the north, the south, Kosovo, Afghanistan....

Thor held on tight, and people held on tight to him. And the letting go has been very difficult.

Some friends have sent me photos from the weekend. I see faces of old friends, some hidden behind gray hair, or no hair, or a few distinguished wrinkles. Everyone has sad smiles--middle-aged smiles. "Here we are, together," they say, "after all these years. But one of us is missing. And we know he's just the first."

Promises were made, I'm sure: we'll keep in touch; we won't let each other slip away. And maybe we won't, and maybe we will. A year can go by the way days went by when we first knew each other.

Maybe that's why my son can cry himself to sleep after a week in paradise, seeing and hearing and tasting and experiencing brand new and exciting things. Because a week, for him, is still Serious Time. A summer can be a whole, separate life.

Whereas, for me, summer comes, and I say, "it was hot last week, wasn't it?" And then it's fall.

I'm home now, and tired. The afternoon sun is streaming through the windows. The door bursts open and voices erupt from the garage. My boys are home from school.

Keep the door open. Batter my heart.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Can We?

Young Mike is not as young as he used to be. He's pushing 30. He may have even hit that decade marker already--I don't know. When he came to my company, it was either his first or his second Real Job after college. He started as an editorial assistant and grew with the company, finally snagging the job he had always wanted, as Art Director. Management didn't come easily to him, even though he wanted it. He was, after all, young--and not in the way people have always been young.

Young is a brand in itself now. It's almost a profession. It comes with certain signs and signifiers that are hard to get rid of. Young today is Simpsons young--Daily Show young. There is an entire and all-encompassing culture of snarkiness and cynicism and that was mother's milk to him. Ironic detachment wasn't just a way of dealing with the world; it was, and is, the way. And that makes it difficult to move from labor to management--from wage slave to motivator and leader. He has had to learn on the job, and he has grown up nicely. But he's still Young Mike, and he's still pretty snarky and cynical and ironic. He may, now, be willing to move beyond that point when he has to accomplish something at work, but it's still his opening position and, clearly, where he lives most comfortably.

And yet...

And yet I hear that Young Mike is campaigning actively for Barack Obama. I moved away from the Home Office over a year ago, so I don't know what goes on, day to day. But I hear things. And I heard that Young Mike was in it to win it--that he was giving up his time and energy for the campaign, though in what ways and to what extent, I don't know. What I do know is that he is not shy about it. His "away from the desk" message on AOL Instant Messenger is "Yes We Can."

There's been a lot of talk about how Obama could win not only the nomination but the presidency if he can tap into the untapped energy of The Disenfranchised Young. He's doing it already, and they may ride him all the way to the White House. But I wonder how long a President Obama will want The Young in his car. Next February, after the inaugural balls are over and the hard work begins, does Obama say to his supporters, in essence, "Thanks for the help; we'll take it from here"? Or does he say to them, "It's just beginning. Now yes we can has to become yes we will. Now you need to keep the pressure on Congress, and on business, and say yes you'd damn well better. Because I can't do it without you"?

After 9/11/01, we were ready to be asked for a sacrifice. We looked to our president and waited for him to call upon us. And he said, "Go shopping." And, sadly, we complied, and settled down, and forgot, for the most part, how we had felt on that day after The Day.

People are comparing Obama to Kennedy--mostly because of youth and charisma. But I wonder if the comparison will continue. I wonder if a President Obama will be willing to challenge the cynicism and solipsisim and lazy selfishness of us all, and say (in his own idiom), "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Because it's time. And there is much to be done. And we've simply got to stop thinking that there's somebody else whose job it is to do it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Funny, He Doesn't Look Manchurian

Fasten your seat belts, children. It's going to be a bumpy ride from now till election day. The craziness begins:
Barack Obama is the new man, of course. His mixed race is a symbol of that....But maybe it's not so simple....I don't know how Barack Obama's parents met. But the Kincaid article referenced above makes a very convincing case that Obama's family, later,(mid 1970s) in Hawaii, had close relations with a known black communist intellectual.

Oh, just go read it. It gets battier and scarier, the deeper into it you read.

Etymology Can Be Fun!

Who says philology and large breasts can't co-exist peacefully?

Many thanks to Living in Syn, who really needs to get out more.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Love: Prove It!

Dedicated as we are to the pursuit of knowledge through rigorous, scientific testing (especially if we, ourselves, don't have to perform said testing), we are proud to present (several days late, but with a really sweet card):


Herewith, a short sample:
HYPOTHESIS #1. “All we need is love.”

EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN: We chose an experimental male subject that had been engaged in a long-term, healthy, loving relationship for many years. The subject was removed from his native environment, stripped naked, and dropped onto a barren patch of Arctic tundra without food, protection from the elements, or means of communication. The subject was afforded only ‘love’, in the form of a parcel of romantic letters written by his sweetheart.


You know, people are always asking me what my positions are on matters of education and learning (well, not really--but let's pretend for the purpose of this blog post).

I'll let Groucho speak on my behalf.

And as the great man himself said: These are my positions. If you don't like them, I have others.

The Bookish Questionnaire

Questions via Kim du Toit, who got them elsewhere. I found them interesting enough to lift them and start pondering answers of my own. Do thou likewise, if you feel so inclined.

Which [type of] book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Fanstasy for sure, unless it's got a long track record, like Tolkien. Most science fiction, though there are authors and titles I've loved over the years. I'd say romance, but when does it ever get positive reviews?

If you could bring three [fictional] characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

In no particular order, and with the caveat that tomorrow, or later today, I would come up with a different three:
1. Taylor, from The Bean Trees. I dig Taylor. I'm not sure I even consider her fictional.
2. Charles Ryder, from Brideshead Revisited. I always felt an affinity for old Charles, sitting calmy (ish) at the center of a storm of crazy friends. Sure, he's a bit stuffy and repressed when we see him as an older man, but I think he gets over it.
3. My friend Thor. He was more fictional than real, and he's gone, and I want him back. Yeah, it's a cheat answer, but I don't care. It's early Saturday morning and there's only so much of this "thinking" stuff I can manage.

No formal event required. Just a comfortable place to hang out and some good scotch and bourbon.

See, I could have said Gatsby, or Huck Finn, or any number of other favorite characters. But do I really want them over to my house? Probably not.

You are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Something by Balzac. I'm just assuming here--so if he's actually fascinating, I'll take a lousy translation.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

I don't think I've pretended to read something I've never touched. But I may have claimed to have read all of Moby Dick. God knows, I've tried. I can't get through it, or even very deeply into it. When I start it, I say, "This is amazingly good and modern and..." And then, before I reach page 100, I'm out of it.

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book?

I don't think so. Though I've certainly read reviews and said "That was what it was all about?"

You’ve been appointed Book Advisor to a VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP.

I'd have to agree with the blogger from whom I stole this survey: short stories or short essays. The VIPs I know have dangerously short attention spans and not much time to spare. For stories, I'd go with Lorrie Moore, maybe. Richard Russo and Evelyn Waugh. I'm not a big short story reader, so I don't know all the heavy hitters. For essays, it would depend on their interest. Lewis Thomas for science and overall wonder, George Orwell for politics and overall bemusement, and Annie Dillard, just because she's wonderful.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Ancient Greek. I would love to be able to read the plays, the Odyssey, and Plato...without having to do the hard work of getting there.

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

The Great Gatsby. No question.
But I'd try to sneak Leaves of Grass in as well, and/or Collected Poems by ee cummings. A man needs a little poetry to get through life.

What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from reading blogs, comments, or other websites (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Oo, this is a tough one. I've skipped it and saved it for last, not knowing what to say. Now I've done all the other questions, and I still don't know what to say. I've certainly sampled blogs and websites I never would have dreamed of reading, and have found wisdom, compelling argument, and humanity in places where most of my friends would probably never bother looking. Like all reading, it can open you up to opinions and points of view you otherwise would have no access to, and forces you to re-evaluate what you knew, or thought you knew.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Dark and warm--burgundy walls, very comfortable chairs, good sound system. Big windows that can either stay covered, for better reading, or open up onto a spectacular view, for post-reading ruminating. A few signed editions, maybe: Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera. In the Intense Fantasy category, a signed first edition of the next Thursday Next novel, by Jasper Fforde, with the inscription, "To my dear friend A____, without whom I couldn't possibly come up with all of these devilishly clever ideas."

And a first folio Shakespeare, just cuz.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What Was Your First Clue, Bubba?

Fort Lauderdale International Airport. Midnight. My hotel shuttle bus creeps along the front of the terminal, preparing to exit to the road. We pause at a stop sign. Nearby, five sideways-baseball-capped, unshaven, mouth-breathing Einsteins in baggy shorts are waiting for a vision. They look up at the van, on which is embossed an enormous letter "S" and the word SHERATON. They stare at the van for a long time. Then they yell out to the driver, through his open window, "Hilton?"

(Actually, it came out more like "Hill-in? You goin' to the Hill-in?")

And me without a two-by-four handy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boys 2 Men

There's an interesting article in City Journal about the plight of young men in our current society--or, more accurately, the plight of our current society in dealing with young men: single, childish, id-centered, with no compelling reasons to grow up.

There are plenty of good quotes to entice you. Here's just one:
Men are “more unfinished as people....” Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.

It's a fascinating point, and one I've been thinking about for some time. There was an article I saw years ago, somewhere, that showed a picture of a ten-year-old boy standing next to a 26-year old. They were wearing identical clothes. The article talked about the differences between boys and men, and how those differences had eroded or elided over the years. Here are a couple:

1. Men used to wear clothing unavailable to boys. Boys wore short pants; men wore long pants. At some rite-of-passage, or some birthday, or something, boys got their first pair of long pants. It mattered. Okay, it wasn't ritual scarification or a hunting initiation, but it was something. Men didn't wear sneakers, unless they were playing sports. Men wore ties and hats. EVERYWHERE. You look at a picture of a baseball game from the 1950s, and every man in the crowd--at a game--is wearing a shirt and tie. That, in itself, is a whole different world. I'm not saying it's one I want to go back to. I'm just saying.

2. Boys had toys; men had "real things." And for the most part, the toys boys played with were facsimilies of real adult things: guns, cars, horses, airplanes, and so on. There were some fantasy toys, of course--like rocket ships, long before there were rocket ships. Lots of kids played Cowboys and Indians long after that game had any connection to real life. But to a large degree, what kids played with were kid versions of things they would use as grownups. That meant that one aspect of kid play was practice for adult life. No more. Boys and men play with identical toys, and they are nearly 100% escapist and fantasy. Some of the video games have the appearance of reality, but they are not practice for adult life--they are escapist fantasies. Kids have much less of a sense of what "adult life" means then they did a hundred years ago--because of this point, and also because so much of adult life happens away from them, somewhere else.

There were more points, but I've forgotten them. But it's an interesting point: as a culture, we have removed all of the demarkations of adulthood that served as rites of passage. And rites of passage are important. They are put in place very deliberately--to keep people from stagnating or moving backward. The reason you carve scars into the face of the adolescent is to mark him as an adult, so that he cannot hang out with the kids anymore. It is a one-way valve, pushing people along into new roles. Why have so many cultures, in so many places, for so much of human history, put adolescent rites of passage in place for their young men? Read the linked article and you'll have your answer. Because without any such rites, and without any such distinction between boys and men, boys have no reason to become men.

I think this is one of those places where our economy and our culture are at war. Economically, we thrive on rootless young men. They have lots of money and no obligations. They can spend money on all kinds of crap: video games, beer, home theatres, expensive cars, travel, beer. They're a gold mine. You never hear about young single women being such a demographic goldmine to marketers. God knows what they're spending their money on--probably saving up to take over the world.

But I don't think our larger culture is done much good by having masses of rootless, obligation-less id-monsters on the loose. The world needs grown-ups. And not just grown-up women. Men and women are different--and even though there are plenty of stereotypically-male women out there, and stereotypically-female men, the traits do adhere to the genders enough, statistically, to make the generalizations more or less apt. Which means that the things we have historically looked to men to do and be will more or less be absent from our culture if our men can't do and be them. We've spent the last few decades saying "good bye and good riddance" to most of those things, but that may have been a wee tiny bit of a hysterical overreaction. And even if it wasn't, most is not all.

The Wife and I are certainly not any kind of 1950s throwback, but in some ways, we parent in fairly traditional ways. And it's obvious to see, as I watch my sons respond to me and to her, that they would not be as happy or as healthy or as balanced with only one of us on the scene. And it's not just because two provides more balance than one. I don't believe that "any two people" is equivalent to "mom and dad." They are distinctly different and complentary energies, and they're both needed. If the two people on hand provide those two distinct energies and points of view, regardless of gender, then okay.

Growing up in the middle of the feminist movement, as I did, I heard all of the standard, disparaging arguments--because every discussion of difference was also a disparagement--such were the simplistic arguments being put forth ("men and women are different in this way: women are soulful and loving, while men are pigs."). They're nonsense. The differences are in degree and approach, not in larger qualities. Women are caretakers and men are not? Bullshit. But the ways in which women (stereotypically, speaking in generalizations) take care of their families is different from the ways in which men do--the aspects of care that men have historically seen as their purview. And because men were left out of the dialogue, their point of view and their connection was left unspoken in the whole "how do we need to change things?" discussion.

So here we are: we have a voracious and insatiable economy that lives off the conspicuous consumption of children; plus a couple of generations of young people who have been raised in a culture that sees men as useless fools (at best)--many of whom have also been raised by single mothers; plus an arts and media culture that thrives on irony and sarcasm, and attacks as foolish anything that smacks of commitment, concern, or belief. It's a perfect storm.

Go read the article. She says it better than I can. But I guess that's why she makes money at it, while I...well, I'm going to go make breakfast for my boys.

Friday, February 8, 2008

I'm a Little Bit Country

Did I say suburban Louisiana, a few posts ago? I was deeply mistaken. The place I flew into was not a city so much as a dense arrangement of strip malls. And whatever lay outside of it was not a collection of suburbs--it was flat, swampy country, dotted with occasional small towns. It was mad rural, yo.


As I was driving up towards Natchitoches (pronounced...well...who the hell knows? But it's nothing like you'd expect), a deer emerged from the woods on the left and ran across four lanes of traffic. Because we were out in the country, and the road was flat and straight for miles, the speed limit was 70 and people's actual speed was...a lot faster. I saw the deer coming and was back far enough to slow down. Amazingly, he made it past the leftmost lanes, but got hit by the driver in the right, who should have had ample time to see him coming. But he didn't. He smashed into the animal at high speed, sending him flying up into the air in a spray of blood and viscera (sorry: just reporting the facts). It was not a pretty sight, nor one I'm likely to forget soon.

The town where I was working with teachers, about twenty miles outside of Natchitoches (prononciation hint: it sounds like considerably fewer syllables than it actually has) had a newish and lovely high school building. But I was warned before I set out to stop at a store en route and buy something for lunch, because there was nothing to eat anywhere near the school. And this turned out to be true. I have no idea where the town was--if, in fact, there was a town. But the school was smack dab in the middle of nothing.

The airport. Ah, the airport. When I returned to fly out, I discovered that rental cars were to be returned in the paid parking lot. In other words, you had to take a ticket and go through the barricade, just as if it were your own car. This made so little sense to me that I actually refused to enter, at first, and circled the airport looking for something more logical. On my second pass, I took the ticket, went into the lot, and dumped the car. I looked around for an attendent of some sort--you know, the kind that exists in every airport rental car place in the world. No such person. So I took my belongings, locked the car, and went into the terminal, figuring I had to drop off my keys at the rental car desk. But there was no one there. Just a sign saying "be back soon"

Soon turned out to be 20 minutes. Okay, I had plenty of time before my flight. So I waited. The girl came back eventually and asked what the mileage was on the car. I told her I didn't know, and she told me that I had to go back out to the parking lot and write it down. "It would have been nice if someone had told me that when I rented the car," I said, as politely as I could. And off I trudged, back to the lot, to read the odometer.

I came back, turned in the keys, and went over to the check-in desk, to get rid of my bag. Once again, no one was there. I waited another 20 minutes. Finally someone emerged and checked me in. I went up to security and found a locked gate. A TSA worker sat nearby, reading a science fiction novel. She said, "We're opening at 6:00. There's nothing going on till then, and, honestly, there's nothing past security, so you might as well stay out here." I looked around. If there was nothing past security, there was an equal amount of nothing on the near side of it. There was some kind of snack stand, but it, too, was gated shut. So I sat and waited. And waited. And waited.

When they finally opened the security gate, I was the only one waiting to go through. It was like I had my own, personal airport. Once I got through, I discovered that there were only three people on my flight. For a long time, it looked like it might just be me.

Rural, people. I mean, I've been to small airports before. My home airport is small. But I've never seen anything like this.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Louisiana is Different

They say the South is different, and I've lived in the South, and they're right. Of course, the people who say that ("They") don't live in the South, and when they say "different," what they really mean is "weird," if not "backward." They're just trying to be what passes for polite among Yankees. And they're half-right about that, too. The South is weird--especially once you get outside the cities that have been infiltrated for decades by Yankees looking to escape the winter, and get out into the real country. As for "backward," well...I've seen some behavior on New York City subways that defies the laws of natural selection--forget about mere civilization.

But Louisiana is a whole different kind of different...and weird. As evidence, I offer these Honest To God Real Things That Were Said To Me Today:

"Everybody hunts. I mean, you never seen so much camoflauge in your life. Everybody hunts. We've even got a day in spring called "report card day," which is just the start of squirrel season, is what it is. But we call it "report card day" because no one's showing up to school that day anyway, so we just made it a day off. And we've had kids expelled from school for bringing in guns, because they been out hunting in the morning before school, and forgot they still had their guns in the back of their trucks."

"I had to marry off two daughters, and the first thing you gotta do if you're planning a wedding is, first you gotta check the LSU schedule to see when there's a game. That's first. Then you gotta check to make sure it's not the opening of any hunting season. That's second. And then...well, honestly, what you ought to do is just say: Hey, y'all, first rainy weekend in March, that's when we're having it."

"People come here, and all they want to see is alligators. They think we got alligators crawling all over the place here, like I got an alligator in my back yard, which I don't. Course, my neighbor does, but I think that's cause she must have fed it once, and it just keeps on coming back. Speaking of which, look over there, off the side of the road--there's one right there! I can see his eyes!"

"I think you're doing a wonderful job and this session is great, but could you not use the GD word? Please? If you don't mind?"

This last was said to me twice--by a man and a woman. I don't think I said "goddamned" in the presentation, which was my first guess at what "GD" was. I think it must just have been the word "God," as used thusly: "We don't want our kids to look at the test and say, 'Oh, my God, how am I ever going to finish this?'" I was, of course, humble and repentent, and tried to watch my heathenish tongue thereafter.

The school leadership is struggling with low performance and a non-academic culture, very similar to what I encountered (and blogged about earlier) in Hawaii:

"You know what they say about things here: Laissez les bon temps roullez. And it's true. Lot of people, all they want to do is drink beer, watch the game, hunt...and you don't have to work hard to manage that, most of the time. They say, 'I'm just gonna work on my daddy's farm--who cares if I can read Shakespeare?' Or they go down to the coast and work the fishing boats. And they can make a lot of money there--a lot of money. And that's fine when they're in their 20s, 30s, maybe up to 40. But what are they gonna do then? Or what if they break a leg and can't work the boats anymore? They've got no options, and we're not raising them to have any options."

The woman who said the piece above also told me that there's a real fear of college and academic achievement among some parents, because they worry that they're going to lose their children. The kids will go off to school, acquire different ideas and different tastes, move to the city somewhere, and be utterly lost to them forever. So they don't push them academically, and they adopt a "this is good enough" attitude. Which for some kids is fine--what they have here is good enough to satisfy them (while it lasts). But the kids aren't being given the chance to have any other dreams. Their parents have dreamed their dreams for them, and no other dreams are necessary.

Whatever happend to, "I spent my whole life working at the _____ (insert back-breaking manual job) so you wouldn't have to"? Have we really replaced that with "If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for you"?

Nobody Here Gets Out Alive

Lawrence Welk does "One Toke Over the Line."

Oh, yes.

Can any of us really be said to have survived the seventies?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It's Not the Heat; It's the Humiliation

I find myself in central Louisiana tonight--swampy, humid, flat Louisisana--preparing for a series of teacher training sessions in some smallish towns near this smallish city into which I flew. The airport here is a former air force base that was closed several years ago. A native on my flight in said this was the "prototype of what military base closures could be." I'm not sure about that, but it's a nice enough airport. The problems begin once you leave the airport.

I had mapquest directions leading me from the airport to the hotel--a trek of no more than three miles. And I know, I know--mapquest is problematic sometimes. But the problem here wasn't mapquest; the problem was that none of the streets were marked.

I know I'm prone to exaggeration for effect, but seriously, people, none of the streets were marked. I drove and drove, hoping to find a street sign at some point, somewhere, at some godforsaken intersection. After turning around and changing plans twice, I found the hotel completely by accident. It was, after all, only three miles from the airport.

The hotel looks brand new and nearly empty. I think it probably serves airline pilots and flight attendants exclusively, since, honestly, who the hell else would ever fly here, unless they lived here?

Other than me, of course.

The guy at the desk was very helpful--chatty, even. When he saw my colorful Arizona driver's license, he pulled out his own, drabber, Louisiana license to show me and told me all about how he used to be a limo driver. The guy was desperate for conversation.

After unpacking, I set back out on the road to pick up some training materials from a Kinko's to which I had emailed files the previous day. The guy at the front desk gave me a map and some seemingly clear instructions. Once again, however, I found myself plunged into chaos.

The interstate, of course, was clearly marked. And I got off at the exit I was told to choose. But then...then all hell broke loose. I exited the highway onto a main road, with service-type-roads on both sides. Nothing was marked. One had to take the service roads to access any of the stores. I couldn't find street numbers anywhere, so I didn't know which side to look on, or whether or not I was close. The roads bent and curved, feeding into other roads and, perhaps, turning into other roads. There were crazy roundabouts from time to time. I had no idea where I was.

Somehow, magically (but not quickly or easily), I was able to turn myself around, get back on the highway, and retreat back to the safety of my hotel parking lot. I called the Kinko's and discovered that even they didn't know where they were ("Well, you're either two miles away or twelve miles away--I can't tell which").

Eventually, the nice Kinko's lady and I formulated a game plan, in which I would head five exits further south than before and then loop back up the road I needed, hoping to catch the store that way. And it worked. Of course, once I had picked up my stuff, it became impossible to go back the way I had come. I ended up going around and around a roundabout, losing all sense of direction, and getting thrown off on wrong roads (but of course I didn't know that right away since they're not marked). Somehow, magically (but, again, not quickly or easily), I was able to turn myself around, get back on the highway, and retreat back to the safety of my hotel parking lot.

It was now 7:00, and I was hungry. Too frightened to try these hideous roads again--in the dark--I had to settle for the one restaurant that was within sight: a Cracker Barrel. I ate chicken-flavored dumplings, with a side of potatoes and hush-puppy casserole (what?). Some green beans were involved as well, but not many. But I did get both corn bread and a biscuit on the side.

Now it's raining--or perhaps it's hailing. Whatever it's doing, it's enough to knock out my TV signal. Thank God "House" is over.

Can a tornado be far behind?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Now Will They Listen?

To distract myself from Thing 2's surgery today, I share with you a piece of Garrison Keillor's recent post on

And then there is the grief that old righteous people inflict on the young, such as our public schools. I'm looking at U.S. Department of Education statistics on reading achievement and see that here in Minnesota -- proud, progressive Minnesota -- on a 500-point test (average score: 225), 27 percent of fourth-graders score below basic proficiency, and black and Hispanic kids score 30-some points lower than white on average, and the 30 percent of public schoolkids who come from households in poverty (who qualify for reduced-price school lunches) score 27 points lower than those who don't come from poverty.

Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society. That 27 percent are at serious risk of crippling illiteracy is an outrageous scandal. This is a bleak picture for an old Democrat. Face it, the schools are not run by Republican oligarchs in top hats and spats but by perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres. Nice people are failing these kids, but when they are called on it, they get very huffy. When the grand poobah Ph.D.s of education stand up and blow, they speak with great confidence about theories of teaching, and considering the test results, the bums ought to be thrown out.

There is much evidence that teaching phonics really works, especially with kids with learning disabilities, a growing constituency. But because phonics is associated with behaviorism and with conservatives, and because the Current Occupant has spoken on the subject, my fellow liberals are opposed.

Liberal dogma says that each child is inherently gifted and will read if only he is read to. This was true of my grandson; it is demonstrably not true of many kids, including my sandy-haired, gap-toothed daughter. The No Child Left Behind initiative has plenty of flaws, but the Democrats who are trashing it should take another look at the Reading First program. It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children. Life is not a scrimmage. Grown-ups who stick with dogma even though it condemns children to second-class lives should be put on buses and sent to North Dakota to hoe wheat for a year.