Friday, June 29, 2007

Adulthood Sucks (and so does adjunct-hood)

Remember that sweatshop essay you wrote for freshman composition? Or, if you didn’t write one, certainly your classmates did--I’ve read multiple versions of this essay in portfolio committees and General Education Assessment Review committees.

No doubt, you pointed to unfair conditions, substandard wages, and blamed callous CEOs whose only concern was the almighty dollar—let any unhappy workers leave. You probably noted that those CEOs cited even worse conditions elsewhere—hell, those workers were damn lucky to work for these low wages, as it let them climb out of poverty.

If you were particularly insightful, you noted that those CEOs work for share holders who expect a robust return on their investments, and thus, share holders, not specifically CEOs, should be held accountable. Perhaps you even realized that a free market economy would not likely achieve equitable treatment, and hence government would need to intervene (I haven’t read many of those essays).

In the case of education, you are all those share holders. Despite how people like to complain about it, you elect the government. The school boards run the schools, the governor runs SUNY (The State University of New York)—but YOU elect these “CEOs.”

SUNY colleges—universities, ag/tech colleges, community colleges—all rely on sweatshop labor. We call them adjunct professors, and we pay them around $2600 per course, or based on the work load of full time professors (three courses per term), just over $15,000 a year. Statewide, roughly 60% of instructors are so paid. (And while SUNY colleges offer these people health insurance, many others in community colleges go without.)

A few departments in a few colleges have consistently fought against such glaring injustice, pioneering and expanding, for example, hiring adjuncts as full time lecturers. Yet even here, although this development is certainly welcome, the sweatshop continues. Full time lecturers are paid just over $30,000 to teach four courses per term, and they are denied access to tenure. Thus, many of them will work, grateful they can at least pay the bills, but will retire in poverty with little to no savings. Others cover their liability by continuing to teach as many as six courses a term at other institutions ON TOP of their full time obligations, as well as a wide assortment of outside occupations--all to earn just what a typical full professor earns, but at the expense of their personal lives.

Additionally, English professors in particular do so at virtually impossible odds. First year students arrive, convinced they know everything about writing, unable to identify the subject and verb of a sentence, let alone write a specific thesis statement, angry at instructors who challenge them to grow, annoyed they have to take writing courses at all. Even worse perhaps, I consistently see Juniors and Seniors—English majors, Professional Writing majors, Education majors and so forth—who can’t write without such basic errors as comma splice run-ons, subject/verb agreement, pronoun/antecedent agreement, misplaced modifiers, faulty parallelism—let alone effective paragraphs, sentences, rhetorical purpose. Those instructors who push this face the wrath of students seeking the easiest way through their course work possible, encouraged by administrative policies that abdicate responsibility for oversight to the course evaluation forms students complete at the end of each course, thus encouraging faculty to teach to make students happy, rather than prepare them for the outside world. So we graduate students who can’t write.

Well, suppose students want to learn in such an environment: where are all these instructors in the face of such obstacles? In their cars, on the way to their next college job—or jobs.

The pattern isn’t new—why are so many high school graduates, “A” papers in hand, so poorly prepared? Large class sizes, overly protective parents, ideologically focused school boards? Hard to tell—probably several interlocking reasons.

Here’s where you, the share holder, come in.

Changing this takes money. This means paying more in taxes—or giving up other services. I can complain all I want about my “bill burden,” but my choices are (1) increase income or (2) cut expenses. Government is no different.

Here’s the reality—you own a sweatshop. What will you do?

Is education important? Are fair employment practices? Is this what you want for your family, your community, your society?

We frequently see complaints about high taxes, but we pay a fraction of the taxes most industrial nations pay (we are also the ONLY industrial nation without national health care!). Washington keeps touting tax cuts to stimulate the economy, but ignores the growing discrepancy between rich and poor since the Reagan fallacy, admitted by his own people, created by the “trickle down” economics preached by the much more cynical Bush administration? Have you noticed that each federal tax cut costs you more locally? And for all those complaints about high taxes in New York—have you lived in other states? Yes, the taxes may be lower—and you also can’t get the services New Yorkers enjoy.

Sure, the mantra drones on about wasted government money. Yet, the U.S. spends more on the military than EVERY NATION ON EARTH COMBINED. Overkill?

Here’s the point—as a citizen, you are the shareholder. You, implicitly, agree with these developments. You, the shareholder, could also decide to instruct your “board of directors” otherwise. You could make it clear that education is a priority in New York State, or in whatever state or country you live, and that running sweatshops is not acceptable.

Or was that freshman composition essay just talk?


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Friendship isn’t Easy

I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch Lassie, especially the movies. Lassie kept meeting new people, had amazing adventures, then had to move on. It was so sad. Why couldn’t they just all live near each other? Then Lassie could visit all of them each day. I cried every time.

Of course, life’s more complicated than that.

My first close friend was Michael, the kid who lived upstairs in the country home my parents rented when I was two. Seriously. I remember. He had a bottle collection, each carrying a fairy in the representation of a cartoon character. I couldn’t see them, but he could, and he told me. Sometimes he’d show me the flash of their sparks in the field. When my family moved away when I was ten, Michael and I continued writing and visiting each other through high school. I’ll never forget the crushing feeling when Michael’s mom, Shirley, was killed just a few days before Christmas, his twelfth birthday, on an icy road on her way to pick him up from school. The last time I visited him, we played basketball. I think he was lying about the fairies.

I had other good friends at my old house—Harold (the kid in the next house down the highway) and I were also friends for years after I moved, and although Robert (the next kid down the highway) and I weren’t as close, he always stood up for me when the school bus bullies got going.

Moving in the middle of fifth grade was not easy—back to square one friend-wise. Eventually, I became friends with Mike, whose mother edited the local paper (his dad seemed to just stay home). Mike introduced me to the game of Risk, which quickly became a passion for quite a few years. In junior high, I met Mark, a math wiz (frankly, I think cultivated by his parents to be so), and we had great fun playing logic based games, solving mathematical puzzles, and playing chess. I met Terry in Boy Scouts, and we planned a few long distance bicycle day trips (which, miraculously, our parents let us pursue independently). Terry also introduced me to sailing at scout camp, getting permission to take out the sailboat after politely but thoroughly embarrassing the boat keeper by demonstrating beyond any doubt that he knew far more about sailing than the adult supervisor.

By high school, all these friendships had fallen away (all new people again), and Les became my best friend. We met because he was the only other male flutist in the band. He was smart, and funny. We liked a lot of the same music. I had managed to join the elite Jazz Band as the guitarist when just a freshman, playing with my hero, a keyboardist with a local rock band and his excellent bass-player/girlfriend. They were seniors, though, and I taught Les to play bass (as a senior, he was the bassist for the state-wide Jazz Band). When I got too down on myself, Les would talk sense, something like, “Look, a lot of people have inferiority complexes, and they’re right, they ARE inferior, but you’re not…” and such. An AV volunteer, Les also had access to keys around the entire high school—and we made copies. We also learned how to break into locked rooms—just for the challenge of it, but when we were finally caught (my fault), administration was not amused. As high school faded away, so did the friendship.

In college, a state school, all I could afford, I met Gary, a gifted pianist who quickly became my best friend, accompanist (I was a bassoon major), tennis partner and roommate. One of those eerie connections—you know what each other is thinking, when the other calls before it happens, that sort of thing. Gary introduced me to a new, pop pianist I’d grow to appreciate, but when he brought this first album home, I asked, “Who the hell is Billy Joel?” [I introduced him to Emerson, Lake and Palmer.] We once had a long debate over Beethoven’s fifth, each wondering how the other could think such thoughts, until we eventually realized I was talking about the Fifth Symphony while Gary meant the fifth piano concerto. Entering music school, I was terrified I’d never be able to compete. Once there, I was appalled at the low quality. Finally, Gary pointed out that if all I was going to do was bitch, I owed it to myself to transfer. He was right. I auditioned, secured a performance scholarship from Ithaca College, and started my sophomore year once again a stranger.

I met Gordon in Art History class—as soon as the lights went out, so did Gordon—but he was also a music major, a trombonist, and we quickly became fast friends. Twice my weight and a foot taller, Gordon and I wrestled anyway, arm wrestled, went running, played baseball and football, quizzed each other on obscure music points (Gordon was a Stravinsky fanatic; I was a Classicist and Bartok enthusiast), and shared mutual acquaintances. We became housemates along with some other students and our friend Joe, a bass trombonist, in a complicated rental deal I put together to escape dorm life—a great year. I stayed summers at his family’s house in New Jersey, playing music festivals in the New York City area—and helping out when his father suffered a lesion in his brain.

When we graduated, Gordon hooked up with a former French horn classmate, and soon, Joe and I were invited to a wedding at her parent’s estate in Maine. The invitation included welcoming us to spend a week or two, before and after the ceremony, enjoying the land and the lake. Hey, why not?! When we got there, we found out why—we were cheap labor (which would have been OK, we were used to work), and not really particularly welcome to use the facilities, sailboats, etc. We stewed, but bit our lips for Gordon’s sake. The wedding finally came, followed by a few hours of reception before Gordon and Deb drove off on their honeymoon. Joe and I waved warmly until they were gone, looked at each other, were packed and on our way home inside of ten minutes.

I visited Gordon and Deb a few times at their home on the Hudson, but Deb and I had never been close, they had a new daughter, and Gordon was put off by my new focus on my management and writing interests for profit: “It’s like my friend is gone and replaced by this businessman.” We grew apart. Ironically, Gordon took his piano tuning college course and turned it into a piano technician business. Joe joined the Navy band and got so sick of playing that he became a CPA, got married, and moved to Oregon. He has two kids. His wife sends a Christmas card each year. I’m the only one of my classmates to fulfill our aspirations of performing professionally.

Since then, I’ve had a lot of wonderful acquaintances, housemates, colleagues, many of which I remember warmly, but no real close friends for years. Maybe I had just learned to stay aloof. [Notice that we’re just leaving girlfriends out of this discussion—another story entirely.] My career led to offers to teach music, then to teach writing, then to do so at better colleges, and those pursuits have largely been my focus.

Today, I have two people I’d count as close friends, both colleagues, both colorful characters.

Tim was an enigma from the start—a college custodian who also taught in the English department. Strange, but also well liked, easy going, with long experience, published, wonderfully clever sense of humor, Mensa member. We shared an affinity for puns, and traded several. We shared stories—Tim, the son of a Cornell scientist, had planned to become a large animal veterinarian, but severe arthritis ended those plans (Tim’s posture now resembles a question mark). We really got to know each other well when Tim broke his neck in a fall and had to spend six moths at home with a metal frame drilled into his head to hold it in place. Calm as he is, he was going stir-crazy, so since I had a regular church music job a few miles from his home, I spent each Sunday with Tim, hanging out, reading the paper, watching strange cable shows, solving the world’s problems. Since then we’re not as close—he took early retirement, and spends most of his time concerned with his grandchildren. “As it should be,” as Mary Poppins would say. We still talk from time to time, especially about gardening concerns.

Joe was an acquaintance, another affable colleague--until the day I had a long dispute with the woman then the department chair, one of these people who thinks that college means every student should be happy no matter what. “Well, here goes my career,” I only half jested, having finished the response I’d spent two weeks composing. “May I see it?” Joe asked. He read carefully, then looked up, and said quietly but firmly, “Do not send this letter. This is a bridge-burning document, and I’d hate to see that happen to you.” He spent the next three hours on a Friday afternoon helping me turn it into a still pointed but more balanced document. I deeply appreciated his help. He respected my sharing something so personal. We became friends.

Joe is also a musician, a self-trained banjo player active in the local music scene. He’s also no stranger to management—he started his own non-profit organization to bring world-quality folk music performers to the area. We’re fellow techies (along with Tim), and the first people to get asked such questions by our colleagues. Good thing we work together, though, or we’d never see each other. Joe was on the tennis team in school, and we talked about playing after classes, but we were just too busy. Ditto getting together just to visit. Then he met Kristen (I went to their wedding), and his time is mainly tied up there. And, of course, I’m certainly buried in my own work.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

When Did We Become the Soviet Union?

When I was a child growing up in the 1960s, our school regularly held “bomb drills” where we would either (1) crawl under our desks or (2) march into the hall and put our heads against our lockers. Yeah, I know, that’s a ridiculous response to the perceived threat of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, but that was the policy.

Our teachers also taught us about the Soviet Union—mostly that “Russia” was not the proper term, and that living in the Soviet Union was horribly oppressive. People couldn’t live where they wanted to live. People couldn’t leave the country if they chose. The totalitarian government made all the decisions. Evil. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And the evil was defeated. Or just replaced.

My girlfriend and I waited six months while she got permission to come to the U.S. from Canada. Yes—Canada and the U.S., a border I’ve crossed frequently with no more than a brief conversation with the border guards. She applied for a new passport, even paid for expedited service, but to date has not seen her passport, even though she’s been assured that everything is in order, that it’s just waiting for someone in Ottawa to stamp it. Canada finally issued her a letter indicating her application was in process and allowed her to travel on that.

The U.S. holds an equally bizarre stance. Passport applications are months behind, including those with expedited payments, and all to accomplish WHAT? [My state’s senator, Chuck Schumer, has called for a refund for those folks who didn’t get the expedited service they purchased. Imagine.] Deadlines have been adjusted and readjusted, but if you want to go to Canada, you’ll need a passport to get back. Nothing else will do.


“Homeland Security” has nothing to do with this (unless the government is hopelessly stupid). ANYONE with an iota of common sense, determined to do so, can cross this border. Hell, in many places, a small boat or plane will do the job—in some places you can just walk across. Even if somehow we sealed this line, we have oceans on each side. It’s just not hard.

Then why the increase in “security”? Remember—the 9/11 hijackers were all in the country LEGALLY. If we’re addressing security here, it’s only the illusion of security, the administration once more betting on the foolishness or inattention of the American public. So far a safe bet.

The Bush folks wanted a national ID card, and couldn’t get it. They substituted the passport. They cut taxes and ballooned the national debt. The passport fiasco generates significant extra income. They put in place a policy they couldn’t sustain with infrastructure, and so couldn’t deliver. Anyone see a pattern?

Logic has nothing to do with any of this. While jingoistic ideologues debate toothless immigration policy, reality seems immaterial. My girl, for example, lives with me, has her own income from her share of a business interest in Canada, has her own health insurance from Canada, but the U.S. figures too many Canadians already live in the U.S. Hardly the immigration message you heard on the news.

Look at this another way—suppose she visited (she can visit for three months, then has to go back for 48 hours, then can visit again) and lost her passport (or letter, or imagine they were stolen—a popular target soon, I’ll bet). She’d be unable to reenter Canada. She’d then be an unwitting illegal alien in the U.S. What’s she supposed to do? In the U.S. at least, immigration cases don’t get the protections citizens are afforded—meaning they can hold you indefinitely for no reason. Imagine you go to Canada. Your luggage is stolen, along with your passport. How are you going to get back? The administration’s position is that you can’t return.

So let me see if I’ve got this straight. You can’t leave the country without government approval, through a State department approved passport, which you must purchase but will get whenever, maybe. If you don’t have your papers, you can’t return.

Yeah, hopefully, the Consulate can help you.

But truthfully, and I do NOT say this lightly—

The war on terror? The fight against “those who hate freedom”? Osama bin Laden won it six years ago, and the Bush administration features his top generals.


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

“I am a Lineman for the Kitty…”

My dog saw it first—a cat sitting on top of the utility pole just outside my home. The cat sat calmly atop the pole, while my dog jumped up periodically in enthusiasm, if to no avail. I called off said dog and tried to coax down the cat, a grey, short-haired cat I’d never seen before—also to no avail.

I can, at least, see WHY the cat climbed the pole. This was the traditional post of a red-winged blackbird, a clear and welcome target. Every morning I’d walk out to his incessant “Chit! Chit! Chit!” call. Over time, I realized that he was the look-out (and what better place?), warning that I was in the vicinity, even tracking me as I worked about the place. One day, as I got too close to a nest 100 feet away, this guy smoothly but swiftly glided down just two feet over the nest, let out a single, soft, musical note—and the female took off immediately. Beautiful teamwork. Once I realized that, I fretted for a nest another year when the male disappeared, fate unknown. Sure enough—a week later the nest had been overturned, no sign of its former contents.

Anyway, the feline pole sitter remained, and eventually I called my vet’s office for advice. They had no ideas other than the ones I’d already tried, and suggested a wildlife nuisance expert. I called. He listened patiently. “OK, look,” he started, in a very nice voice, “I don’t mean this harshly. I have four cats myself.” I listened. “You just don’t find cat skeletons in trees. We get calls like this all the time. Chances are, we’d climb one side of the pole, and the cat would run down the other. When it’s hungry, it will finally come down. It got up there; it can find it’s way down—probably when things quiet down.” Reluctantly, I had to agree. I’d just wait.

My dog certainly wasn’t helping, spending the bulk of her time guarding the pole, intently watching the aerialist intruder (“and I want you more than need you…”). The cat certainly had things to do, other than occasionally changing from sitting to lying atop its perch. After all, my cats LOVE watching birds from their vantage point inside my windows, so just imagine from the top of the utility pole! And not just red-winged blackbirds—robins, sparrows, finches, and much more so frequent that vicinity that every morning at 5 a.m. brings a cacophony so raucous that sleeping in can, at best, mean rolling over and going back to sleep, even over the purr of the air conditioner and fan. A cat’s dream (“I hear you singing on the wires…”). Indoors, I’ve seen cats sit for several hours, calmly waiting out a mouse. Or perhaps the cat was just practicing Zen, but “Zen for Cats” is essentially meant to be funny, and I find cats don’t really get humor. Additionally, as one cartoon depicted with a cat sleeping on a poor reader’s open newspaper, “cats don’t read, and they don’t want you to read either.”

I called my dog, and she happily bounded in to dinner, her shift over, oblivious that we didn’t have a night shift. She curled up at my feet as I worked. I looked out the window. Cat. When I finally went to bed, late that night, I looked out—dark shape atop the utility pole. So it continued, me anxious, dog watching, cat unmoved (“I know I need a small vacation…”). At least it didn’t look like rain. I started to feel the strain.

On the morning of the third day, I looked out, and the cat was gone. I rushed outside for evidence of what happened, but found nothing. No sign of egress, descension, ascension, recinsion, or any other kind of cension. No tracks, no fur, no claw marks, no carcass, no skeleton, no nothing.

I guess you just need to know…

…which cats are linemen…

Dunno. But I’m still on the line. Another overload.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Fifteen Tons (and a garden rake)

Each day, as I look through my windshield up the 150+ feet to the road, I feel a sense of pride. The driveway itself might not appear so inspirational, as it’s only a smooth layer of crushed stone. It IS, however, a smooth layer of crushed stone—15 tons worth, all raked out by yours truly with a garden rake.

A contractor constructed the original driveway (and the utility pole, the septic tank, and such), laying crushed limestone by driving slowly while gradually dumping the cargo, but in a few years, the stone sank into the clay soil, particularly when heavy fuel trucks hazarded the drive. So, years later, a new neighbor, also a contractor, offered to drive his small dump truck to the quarry for a load of crusher—and the problem was solved with a new layer of stone.

Sort of. Over the years, erosion chipped away until the ruts were so bad that negotiating the drive required noting high ground for the tires. My neighbor had moved, so I turned to the phone book late one afternoon.

I explained my problem, and started asking questions. “Hang on,” interrupted the woman on the other end of the phone. “I’ll get the guy you need to talk to.” OK.

When “the guy” (who turned out to be the owner of the business) came to the phone, I started again. After asking me questions about area and depth, he gave me a very reasonable price on five tons of crusher—but wasn’t sure if he could do it that day. “That’s fine,” I explained, understanding this was late in the day, and the job certainly wasn’t urgent. “No, no—I just need to find if we have a free truck” (they were out at construction sites). “Let me call you back in five minutes.” Gotta love a guy who gets business—here’s a customer, checkbook in hand, ready to deal. Get the man some stone.

He didn’t call back—he showed up 20 minutes later (impressive, since his business is 15 minutes away). We talked, I explained where I wanted the stone, he said he’d try, did an awesome spread—and noted that he’d given me a few extra tons. I could see that. Roughly, he grabbed a truck with two tons of crusher, added the five tons, and dumped what he had. From our chat, he was clearly building a new business, and I was certainly a satisfied customer.

I spent a few weeks raking out the stone with a rake—not an easy task, working on it a few hours a day (and nursing my sore muscles). But, as the sea of stone gradually settled, I realized I would need another load to finish the job.

I called the same business. This time, I got a very pleasant, witty young woman who, in the course of our conversation, revealed that she had recently been hired—the business was growing. I placed my request for another five tons of crusher, and by chance, it was again late in the afternoon. As before, my point that I didn’t need delivery that day was rebuffed, they’d find someone, and 20 minutes later, a very large dump truck arrived, driven by a polite but clearly not happy man. He surveyed the job. “I don’t like to spread uphill,” he noted, and given the size of his truck, I could see his point—we’d definitely be testing that thing’s center of gravity. “That’s fine,” I explained. “Just spread downhill and back up over it.” He agreed.

When he had done this, a significant load of crusher still lay in the dump truck’s bed. “Just leave the rest up here in a pile,” I asked, gesturing toward a depression near the road. “I expect to rake it out anyway.” He hesitated, then got into his truck, gingerly backed to the indicated spot (carefully avoiding the mailbox) and dumped the entire contents—clearly far more than the five tons I’d ordered (I estimate at least eight tons). “I gave you a little extra,” he said. “Thanks,” I answered, paid the man, and let him get home.

I’m reminded of graduate school in Cambridge. My housemates and I were struggling with difficult studies and difficult finances in an expensive corner of the world. We split up duties as best we could for mutual benefit, mine including visiting Boston’s Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall one a week for produce and seafood. This was a two day affair, Friday and Saturday, but I always went on Saturdays, around four o’clock, an hour before the end of the market. I’d walk around, buying nothing, just seeing what was available. Before long, though, merchants would realize they had unsold fish and fruit that wasn’t going to keep another week, and suddenly bananas were $1 a bunch, fresh seafood ridiculously inexpensive. Nor did I need to push my way through to the bargain table, since other merchants immediately took up the tune. I returned each week with two grocery bags full of food, $10 worth, all I could carry back home via the subway.

“Tons of work” certainly took on new meaning. Even wearing heavy work gloves, I had blisters all over both hands. I tried to use a shovel and wheelbarrow to move some of that stone pile, but I found that so unproductive that I settled for just gradually raking it down the drive. I’d work for a while and check the time—oh, just five minutes. Sigh. I hurt in places I didn’t know I had places. But every day a little more, and then every day a little adjustment, and eventually—done.

Now it’s a work of art. And now, as usual, I have a ton of work to do, and I can’t imagine how I’ll accomplish it. But I have a rake.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Houses and Horses

Every house in my neighborhood has changed hands at least once since I moved here—one of only a few homes at the time.

Some moved to opportunities elsewhere. One lady bought a new, overpriced house and sold it two months later because she didn’t find it social enough (we live WAY out in the country). A few other people never talked to anyone, so who knows. Another, apparently, lost his house to the government when he tried to supplement his income with cocaine he brought up from Florida. But most people lost their homes to the bank (or in anticipation of same).

Why? Lots of reasons—the economy, changing business in the area, for example—but the main reason, frankly, is people over-reaching their means. This pattern exists throughout the community—and it continues.

“My electric bill is $545!” complains my next-door neighbor, saddled with past due amounts, unable to pay it, just as the last neighbor started—one of those homes that sat vacant for a year or two. I can certainly understand financial hardship, but what I can’t understand is this: she bought a horse.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that she only has a few acres, hardly enough, and the horse has only a small tree for shade or shelter. No barn. Ninety degree weather? Lightning storm? The horse is outside, exposed.

WHY does she have a horse? It’s what you do in the country. Half of my neighbors, even those living in trailers, have horses (with equally small yards). None of them ride, other than once in a great while, and then only around the fenced pasture. None of them have horse trailers either, so they certainly aren’t going to take them for an outing on the nearby state lands or horse trails. My next-door neighbor has daughters, tweens, so maybe she figured this would be good for them? If so, the plan isn’t working—feeling a bit like Alice Walker in “Am I Blue?”, I offer our equine friend an apple or carrot periodically. As their horse trotted over to get his carrot, I asked the girls, “Would you like to give it to him? I’ll show you how” (you want to feed a horse with a flat palm, so you aren’t unintentionally bit). “Um…you do it…” the girls answered, nervously.

Horses are expensive. They’re expensive to feed. The veterinary care is expensive (Against the odds, I’m hoping these horses get that care). Why have one, just to have? People do the same with dogs—chain it to a doghouse and forget about it. Why? And why for such expensive, unused livestock, especially when money is so obviously tight?

The phenomenon doesn’t stop at horses and houses. You’d think such struggling families would drive jalopies, right? No. Virtually every home features a late model pickup. Some of these are the size of houseboats. Certainly I can see times when I could use a truck, but not for what it would cost. When I bought my 2007 manual transmission Toyota Yaris, at a cost of $12,500 (my Toyota Echo threw a rod at 199, 974 miles), the dealer offered financing up to 96 months. I thought he was joking at first. Finance a car for eight years? That’s no loan—that’s a mini-mortgage, and the car will shortly be worth less than the value of the loan. Bruce Williams, in his long-running radio show, often claimed, “If you’re buying a car you have to finance more than three years, you’re buying a car you can ill afford.” He’s right. Yes, the new cars are more expensive—that doesn’t make them suddenly affordable.

In addition to looking only at the monthly payment instead of the true financial impact, people clearly aren’t taking mileage seriously. I literally get twice the mileage as my truckin’ neighbors. That trip that costs me $3.24 (and nine tenths) costs a pickup driver $6.49 (and eight tenths). And the truck certainly isn’t to pull the non-existent horse trailer. Maybe they plan to get one. Why that needs a late model truck, though, I can’t imagine.

I am, of course, the community oddball, if one settled here long enough to be seen as benign. You’d have to drive quite a ways to find another Yaris. People only gradually appreciated my insanity for planting a few thousand trees on my 3 ½ acres, now that my land looks like a park, that the trees significantly curtail the area of grass I have to cut, that those evergreens slow wind and snow, that blistering summer heat is mitigated. Those trees also shield from critical eyes my modest home—the one I could afford, pay for and hang on to for twenty years. (Imagine—NO mortgage payment! None!) Those trees also shield from critical eyes the large sheds I built on opposite sides of my home that cut my annual fuel oil by 800 gallons and my electric bill by half (not to mention that now I can work outside even in February).

The horse is getting his barn—going up as I write this. I tipped off my neighbor that people were talking about turning her into animal cruelty (for no shelter). “Oh no,” she replied, “I’ve already ordered the wood. It’ll be up soon.” Maybe. I doubt it, but that’s not important anymore—her ex-husband is out there sweating his ass off while the horse in question watches with curiosity as his new home arises.

Honestly, I think people just believe in financial magic. Every week customers at the local store dump $20-50 into lottery tickets while the rest of us wait in line behind them. If they took that same money and put it in an index fund over, say, 30 thirty years, assuming just historical average market returns—it would, in the end, be like winning four times their money each week (I just ran the math). Instead, the odds dictate they’ll lose at least half of their “investment,” funding a variety of state initiatives at the same time they complain about high taxes.

Waiting for their horse to come in, I suppose.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Home Insecurity

[I wrote this during Bush’s first term. Considering the recent cases involving reading the government reading email and tracking Internet viewing, I thought it worth a second look.]

“Get back in your car!” came the angry order.

“I live here!” I answered, only to hear the angry order repeated.

I’d just returned from Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, a bit after 8 p.m., and I was listening the to rest of an NPR story (I can’t get NPR inside my country home). I wasn’t even sure about the source of the order, since no lights were flashing, and I wasn’t entirely sure the truck I saw suddenly swing around belonged to the Sheriff’s department. I certainly couldn’t tell at the time, since the truck was parked at an angle in the nearest lane, lights shining in my face, all I could see. I had tried to get out to explain that all was well.

The eventual terse conversation clarified the officer’s stated position that he didn’t know if I needed roadside assistance (I certainly hope this isn’t his usual roadside manner) and that since he doesn’t know me, he’s safer approaching me (like I’m safe from an unknown driver spinning around and accosting me). I was saved further harassment primarily after pointing out to the officer that I had only been sitting there five minutes or so, as evidenced by my fresh tire tracks--clearly indicating I’d backed into my parking spot intentionally.

Technology probably saved me further difficulties that Thanksgiving evening. The officer twice asked me my name, and certainly he could from there check my story--the phone book would do, but the patrol car laptop would also suffice--as well as checking my registration, insurance, and any possible prior incidents.

But in short, I was accosted in my own driveway, way out in the country, for listening to the radio, and primarily because the officer in question found listening to the radio in a driveway foreign. Hence, I’m even more concerned than before about the surveillance measures the Bush administration has pursued so relentlessly. Will other people’s perception of what is normal and acceptable become, ipso facto, the law?

I fear that’s so. The Bush administration is constructing an information system to combine all available data in one central location. All activities, all purchases, all Internet queries and more will be available without a search warrant. And in charge of this data? None other than John Poindexter, convicted of conspiracy, lying to Congress, defrauding the government, and destroying evidence in the Iran Contra scandal, convictions later overturned during George H’s presidential tenure on the grounds that despite the truth of Poindexter’s testimony, he’d made an immunity deal in return for his testimony.

The information system is nominally a response to the “War against Terrorism,” an extremely unfortunate characterization. Certainly there’s a serious threat that needs serious consideration, but crediting the Bush administration for its response to this threat has serious problems: (1) such a broadly defined “war” will never have an end, leaving every president with broad and ambiguous power to do whatever in the name of national security forever, since such a war can never be declared “over” with certainty; (2) the Bush Administration could have prevented the 9/11 attacks by seriously considering instead of dismissing the Clinton administration’s reports about the growing threat; (3) naming Henry Kissinger, architect of the secret bombings in Cambodia and Laos to lead an investigation into the current administration’s failure to address 9/11 seems to have only one logical reason--Kissinger won’t embarrass the president (and replacing him with Tom Kean, a man with virtually no intelligence experience, underscores that the point of the investigation is to find nothing); (4) while Attorney General John Ashcroft insists the government needs greater powers to protect Americans against terrorists, he also refuses to allow tracking firearms as a violation of Constitutional rights, a bizarre contradiction in priorities (and does anyone really believe that a group of militia folk could hold off a hostile U.S. government with the state of weapons technology today? Should U.S. citizens be allowed to become nuclear powers?).

The truth is that technology will change multiple aspects of American life, and it probably can’t be stopped. Many of the consequences will be wonderful. Eventually, for example, people needing organ transplants will clone their own replacements, solving a current medical crisis. And, the unprecedented access to information by anyone with access to a computer and a modem is certainly beneficial. But this will come with costs. Further, given the current administration’s obvious disdain for Constitutional protections, it’s not hard to imagine that with or without official approval, illegal surveillance may already be in progress. Certainly, legal protections didn’t stop the Nixon administration.

The danger is that anyone in power can force a preconceived view of ethics on the public. There will be no escape, since any book purchase, any email, any documented action or position will be available for review. Given current political strategies of finding whatever fact can be spun and doing so negatively, America may be headed not for an era of truth, but for layers and layers of lies. Further, the electorate seems unconcerned. True, access to information is greater than ever before, but so relatively few people use this power, and even fewer evaluate that information before accepting it. Thus, although the danger from outside U.S. borders is real, the potential danger from the U.S. government is equally real.

And even if not, benignly collected data will always be in jeopardy from an outside hacker.

Consequently, everyone’s freedom--and perhaps life--is potentially in danger in the 21st century from anyone who finds any particular action or thought unsatisfactory--even listening to the radio in one’s own driveway.

George Orwell may have been correct--he just got the year wrong.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

An Open Letter to the Hawks

Dear Red-Tailed Hawks:

For quite some time, I have enjoyed watching you circle above the land, floating on the thermals, presumably looking for prey. I’ve even seen you sitting on the utility wires, and a few times standing by the side of the road. Given your strong numbers, your clear proximity, and your superior vision (eight times greater than human eyesight!), I can’t help but wonder a few things about your behavior.

My land is increasingly overrun with voles. The unsightly valleys they dig, yards and yards and yards of them, exacerbated by erosion, just get worse every year. They’ve even killed trees, and my neighbors tell similar stories, including that the problem just gets worse every year. We also all complain about rabbits, and again, they are worse every year. Last year, they destroyed my entire orchard, save one apricot tree. This year, we are all growing large gardens, even those of us who decided in past years that we just didn’t have the time, largely because the high price of gasoline has pushed the price of produce so high. We’d hate to lose this to rabbits.

The encyclopedias report that your primary diet is rodents and small game like rabbits, so we were wondering—what’s the problem? Why don’t you swoop down and help yourselves? Granted, some prey, like birds and chipmunks, keep the cover of the trees, but I can’t walk across the lawn to the garden without seeing voles, and as I strive to keep the grass cut—why don’t YOU see them? Rabbits too—they get hit in the road everyday. Is your vision overrated? Or do you just not care?

I admit my species can’t do much better. Just as we can’t seem to control the voles and rabbits, the hawks in Washington circle above the country seemingly just as aloof as you to our persistent and growing problems. A quarter of the country’s people have no health insurance, and as costs rise, that percentage does too, so people wait until they must go to the emergency room, a much higher cost to the nation than preventative care. Funding and management for natural disasters remains inadequate, and past victims are still coldly left to fend for themselves. Social Security will need some adjustments, and even though it now shows a surplus the government uses to fund its debt in other areas, and even though preventing a crisis still a few decades away is readily achievable now, the will to do so seems absent. Pollution keeps getting worse, but the government continues to study it, deny it, whitewash it, excuse it. And education is so bad that we even graduate college students who can’t write correct sentences—and yet we keep cutting funding for education.

Our hawks ARE good at attacking things when they want—but only attacking. Going after Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was one thing, but invading Iraq seems so ill-advised that even the administration’s party big-wigs advised against it; brushing off such seasoned advice, the administration arrogantly attacked anyway, confident of quick victory and ushering in a peace that would spread throughout the region, even to Palestine. Instead, we now see endless civil war in Iraq, thousands of deaths, and a drain of billions of dollars—all likely to continue for several years.

These hawks even blindly attack their own allies in their own partisan operations, to their own detriment. After hiring a well-respected Secretary of State, a seasoned general of the FIRST Iraq war, the administration side-lined him, replacing him with a Sovietologist—who has managed to sour own relations with Russia to the point where their President has threatened to re-aim missiles at Western targets. Although elder party leaders have stressed the importance of talking to regional players like Syria and Iran, the administration refuses to negotiate unless absolutely forced to do so. And when one good public servant accurately questioned the administration’s distortion of “factual” evidence, administration officials rabidly turned to punish him by destroying his wife’s CIA cover—an act of treason. They followed up by lying to the grand jury, in strict violation of the U.S. law they’re sworn to protect.

When anyone questions the hawks, those critics are ridiculed as advocating “cut and run” policies—even seeing their patriotism attacked. This is an old game, of course, as even early presidents like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were attacked as cowards when they opted to build trade with other nations instead of attacking them. Ironic that we refer to a strongly constructed woodworking joint as a “dovetail.” Building is so much harder, and takes so much more long-term courage than attacking things. No wonder that Jefferson famously observed that given the choice between government and the press, he’d prefer the press—and no wonder that the administration so hates and mistrusts the press. After all, I’ve frequently noted small birds chasing hawks away.

Perhaps, then, you hawks are simply judicious, knowing when to pursue, when to back away. Perhaps you simply choose your targets carefully, seeking balance, not vendetta. And, I suppose, you could fairly ask that since I have a dog who has already proven her competence against both vole and rabbit, why don’t I simply let her loose to address the invasion? The answer is that she wouldn’t be so focused, but would hunt indiscriminately, wandering far off our home turf.

Come to think of it, maybe we don’t have hawks in Washington after all. Maybe we have dogs.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Game

Twenty some years ago, when I was finally able to move to the country, I was fascinated by all the sights I loved so much, especially sighting wildlife: “Oh look! A deer!” “Look! Wild turkeys!” “A fox!” “Raccoons!” and so forth. I’m still glad for the change, but long since this has moved to “Would you get your damn ass out of the road?! I’ve got to get to work!!” A few days ago, I had to stop for four coyote pups considering negotiating the road, the “leader” poised with one paw raised (OK, I admit—this was wicked awesome cute).

Perhaps due to the warm weather, 2007 has been The Year of the Chipmunk. They’ve everywhere. Increases in a species aren’t unusual per se—voles have made steady incursions into my and my neighbors’ property—but this is a sudden surge. I could understand this on my own property, as I have a few thousand spruce trees, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started seeing chipmunks running across the driveway carrying pine cones larger than the chipmunks themselves—all those pine nuts! I couldn’t help but think of Chip ‘n’ Dale, Disney’s acorn throwing tree dwellers. These creatures, however, aren’t limited to my trees. Stoney Pond, where my dog Shanti and I run daily, has them lined up as if in some chipmunk suburbia. All during the fifteen minute trip down the road to the Pond, kamikaze chipmunks dash from the comparative safety of the side of the road across the road in front of the car—usually about 12-20 feet in front. Their boldness extends beyond motor vehicles, apparently—yesterday I saw one dash across the road with a sparrow RIGHT on his tail, showing the reckless critter what’s what.

Indeed, perhaps the warm weather IS the answer, since after last night’s thunderstorm ushered in much cooler air, I haven’t seen a chipmunk all day—not at home, not on the road, and not on the trails around Stoney Pond. We did come across a gray squirrel, but as they are much faster than chipmunks, even Shanti only watched as it escaped, leaving the safety of its hiding place to run across the trail and take to the trees on the other side.

But squirrels are not the only denizens of the forest, and as I ran up the curving trail, before I noticed any game was afoot, Shanti launched toward whatever it was with such force that her rush on the 26’ retractable leashed jerked me suddenly forward, wrenching my ankle (already nursing an inflamed ligament from a similar injury a few months back) as my foot sharply turned against a small stump in the path. My run abruptly interrupted, I exploded into spontaneous, improvised oratory, considerably more colorful and forceful than, “Oh, gosh golly gee wiz. That really hurts! You know, I really wish you wouldn’t do things like that. Could you perhaps refrain from such practices in the future? I’m truly in a lot of pain here…” Uncontrite, but realizing the jig was up, Shanti lay down, waiting for me to get over it, while I struggled over whether I should continue or just limp back to the car.

I continued, slowly, after issuing the firm command “Back!” Shanti dutifully trotted behind—immediately behind, so close she was stepping on my heels. “BACK!” I barked, in no mood for indulgence, and Shanti eased off a bit—until a few yards later, when she rushed past me toward a fluttering quail. I again extemporized a flurry of provocative prose. Shanti, realizing maybe she had pushed this a bit too far, lay down again. The quail twittered from a short distance away. The run—or slow jog, I should say—resumed, this time with Shanti dutifully behind, behaving.

For a while, that is. After some minutes of peace, Shanti noted that this “run” wasn’t very exciting, and resorted to one of her best tricks—get a stick. Trashing that stick from side to side, running about my heels to get my attention, inviting me to play, always eventually wins me over, and so, as usual, I grabbed the stick and held it at shoulder height—one of her favorite games. She jumps up to wrest the stick from my grasp, beat it up a bit, then come back for more. This game does have the distinct advantage of eventually tiring her out a bit—but it’s also her ticket for once again running in front, and, as usual, the ploy proved successful. We continued the run peacefully, me lost in my thoughts and plans for the work day, Shanti making the rounds of all known dwelling places of both bird and chipmunk.

Then the geese. Shanti and I, both veteran forest roamers, pad along quietly (at least when I’m not practicing invective monologues), and since many other visitors are absent on less than balmy days, we not infrequently surprise game of one sort or another. While the geese are usually alert, even adult geese can be caught off their guard (as Shanti learned as a puppy, unfortunately), and this morning, for the second time this week, we surprised a few families, sending them waddling off for the water at far too slow a pace (the goslings can’t yet fly). Thankfully, I saw them first. Adult geese can be quite intimidating, but Shanti doesn’t know the meaning of the word (literally—beyond my moods and signals, I’ve never seen her read at all). I held her at bay while her would be prey escaped to the pond.

Back in the car, we headed home. Still no chipmunks. A deer ran across the road.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007


A few years back, I stopped by the network of forest trails behind Colgate University for a walk with Sasha, my shepherd mix. The parking circle surrounds a cemetery, some of the graves more than a century old. A smaller, new section sits just outside the circle, and when I parked, I noticed a young woman, late 20s or early 30s, standing before one such grave.

I didn’t want to intrude on her reverie, and since I’m a news junkie away, I opened the newspaper—but I couldn’t help watch her over the top edge. A few small stones lay along the top of the tombstone. She carefully touched each one, turning it slowly, arranging them just so. She stood and looked for the longest time, before she finally lifted her hand to her lips, kissed them slowly, and gently pressed the transferred kiss to the face of the stone. She held it there for a moment, then rose, turned, and walked away.

I was intrigued, so when she was safely out of sight, I let my dog out to run, walked over to the stone, and read the centered lettering on the polished face of the black granite marker:

JUNE 7, 1998
FEBRUARY 4, 2000

Tears filled my eyes. Twenty months. Twenty months! To lose a child after just twenty months! What a horrible fate for any mother (as I assumed the woman to be). In the years that followed, whenever I passed that grave site, I always checked to be sure the stones on top were in their proper place (they always were). I didn’t know why, but I knew that somehow, they were very important.

I haven’t been by in quite some time (my current dog is much more feisty, and I didn’t want her to disturb the stones—although I could see from a distance a few additions), but I stopped to take a look today. Now nine stones line the top of the marker—one for each year of Ian’s age had he lived, his latest birthday just a week and a half ago. A small sculpture, roughly the size of a hand, depicts a moose in a boat fishing with his younger moose—something Ian would have done with his dad, presumably. To the right of the marker stands a log sculpture about two feet high of an animal—a boy’s dog, judging from the one cocked ear. To the left of the marker, a wreath of thin twigs is tied with a light blue ribbon. And in front of the stone—nine plants featuring small, red flowers.

A bit of research quickly turned up Colgate’s alumni newsletter, a wealth of information. Ian’s grandfather wrote a grateful letter thanking the community for their support through such a difficult time, noting that Ian’s death was sudden and unexpected. I learned that Mom graduated in ’89 (confirming my guess about her age), that both parents worked in Colgate’s administration, and that they met at the wedding of another alum. A community development non-profit organization newsletter reports about improvements to the town’s Village Green, noting, “A new pavilion, in memory of Ian Porter Hale, has provided a focus for events and a performance venue for visiting artists.”

Rest well, Ian Porter Hale. You are deeply loved and dearly missed.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Voice (Or, Writing like a Musician)

Mindful of the persistent student perception that their grades simply depend on who reads their work, I tried an experiment. I took one of my pieces and, acting as if a student wrote it, asked a colleague what she thought of it (sharing student work is not an uncommon practice—we frequently share pieces for help with difficult grading calls). My experiment failed inside of a minute—she turned to me and said with firm conviction, “YOU wrote this.” I admitted the ploy, and asked how she knew so quickly. “I was halfway through the first sentence,” she replied, “when I thought ‘I KNOW this voice!’”

I should have known. A former girlfriend, Jean, once read me a passage she wanted to share. “Nice!” I noted. “Do you know who it is?” she asked (Jean was fanatically competitive and given to provocation). “No,” I answered, “but it sounds like Joyce.” “It is Joyce,” she confessed.

In college, I used to look for my fellow music major and best friend Gordon, a trombonist, simply by walking around the practice rooms—I knew his sound from the other trombonists. One day in the snack bar, scarfing down my cheeseburger and fries over lively conversation, I suddenly stopped, exclaiming, “That’s Phil Woods!” recognizing the alto saxophone work I admired on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” playing on the radio, a song new to me that day. Much more recently, a writing colleague and friend called me to excitedly say “Turn on the radio!” I did. He was listening to a classical piece and wanted to purchase the recording. “Do you know what it is?” he asked. “No,” I responded, “but it’s Beethoven.” Then the violin took over. “Oh!” I explained, “It must be the Beethoven Violin Concerto,” a judgment the announcer later confirmed.

In a few seconds, I can tell the difference between Baroque and Classical, Stravinsky and Ravel, even which orchestra and conductor are performing—and so can any other musician. [I’m reminded of a cartoon depicting a smug looking music listener and his agitated wife, saying, “Why can’t you just say ‘Scarlatti,’ instead of ‘Scarlatti, of course!’”] We also talk about “an ear for language,” and why not? I’m in the midst of reviewing a new text for my Intro to Poetry class, and the emphasis there on slight variations in sound, meter, rhythm and their permutations will be enough to send the average undergraduate into utter despair over ever passing the course. [I’ll work on fixing that problem.]

My fellow writing professors understand this about language, but they also notice a difference between us. Looking over my shoulder while I composed a piece on my laptop during a contentious faculty meeting, one colleague noted admiringly, “You’re just so fluent at this stuff.” Another colleague on a previous occasion remarked, “I can see the poetry in your writing.” A bit confused (since I’m primarily an essayist), I shared that with Tim, another colleague and friend, who nodded and said, “You don’t write poems, but you do write poetry.” My department chair, after visiting my class (on my request), had a single comment afterward: “You should be editing MY writing.”

None of this is to my credit—it’s just who I am. My colleagues are excellent writers, but different writers. And I can see the difference they mention too—my friend and colleague Joe and I see writing much the same way, but we also couldn’t be more different. Joe always wanted to be an English professor, and his frame of reference is continually focused on that perspective. Joe is also a musician, but he sees the world in terms of his English background. I NEVER intended to teach writing (not that I’m sorry), pursuing instead a career in music—which led to music business, which led to writing for those businesses, which led to free lancing, which led to offers to teach, which led to teaching at better colleges—and while Joe and I see writing in similar ways, my approach to the world is that of a musician, and it colors my writing.

How, then, does one write as a musician? Well, when I recorded my albums, I designed first the overall idea, the structure—then added other elements quite freely (jazz background kicking in here). In many ways, I could have played anything over the underlying structure, as long as it reflected and either reinforced or developed the overall idea. This is how I write too. The piece needs an overall flow, but it also needs percussive elements arranged in a pattern that both keeps the piece moving forward and adds interest and vitality. This isn’t easy to explain. Jazz musicians call this approach “feel.” We just know it when we hear it. Many music writers have noted sentiments like “Many people note that music is expressive, but when asked to explain what it expresses, fall silent.”

Aaron Copland may have summarized this best in his essay “How We Listen”:

“My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music must has a certain meaning behind the notes and that that meaning behind the notes constitute, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, “’Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’ Therein lies the difficulty.”

After all, what does a Bach fugue mean? Or a John Coltrane improvisation? Sure, songs have lyrics, but change the underlying music, and your favorite songs could easily become silly. Imagine ZZ Top in their standard style performing the theme from “Titanic.” Um…could change it a bit. [Could be fun, though: “Word goin’ round….ship goin’ down….by an iceberg round North seas…”]

Improvising over a song structure is not a matter of just going nuts, but rather mining the original piece for essential elements and reconstructing those pieces in multiple, original, creative ways. Classical composers do the same thing—look what Beethoven does in his Fifth Symphony with just a few notes. How does a musician learn to play like this on demand, live? Practice. Lots and lots and lots and lots of it. For me, writing is the same. All that reading? All that studying? All those drafts? These become tools and material ready to use to develop a motive on the page.

How does this translate to writing? First, I choose a direction. Sometimes, as in an argument, I can state that purpose explicitly, others, it’s just a feeling, as in a piece of music, and only implicit. From that starting point, I choose the major “events” that will happen along the way, looking for a good flow of ideas toward a meaningful climax and satisfactory denouement—whether I can explain it literally or not. And I remember that no musician grows without taking chances, exploring new territory, going out on a limb…(substitute your favorite cliché here—see the point?).

For a good musical example of how I see writing, download Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” [or buy this excellent album—“Still Life (Talking)”]. It starts quietly. The drummer is pushing a very quick regular “train” background consistently through what comes off as a slow, easy song. Listen and you’ll see what I mean about this song and writing.

Then it builds in the middle, adding (what else?!)—voices.


Sunday, June 17, 2007


My Dad taught me to play chess. He had joined a local chess group and brought the hobby home. I was enticed—such an interesting and complex game far outshone any of the Parker Brothers game boxes on the top shelf of the closet (even Monopoly, Clue, and—my favorite, Risk). He taught me fun tricks like Fool’s Mate (winning in just four moves), but also more important concepts, like playing for position, controlling the center of the board, not trapping my own pieces, and so forth.

I lost all the games, but I loved chess, and pestered Dad to play as often as possible. I started reading about chess—various opening strategies, gambits, defenses and such. I played the game with friends. I joined the school chess club (not a strong organization, unfortunately). Dad drifted away from his chess group. I started winning games. We didn’t play as often—then hardly ever.

My many bike rides around our neighborhood streets introduced me to a lot of regular porch sitters, including one man, late twenties or early thirties I’d guess (although I’m relying on childhood memory and perspective here), an avid chess player. I don’t know why he was at leisure to sit at home daily (I was too young to think to wonder or ask), but our conversations led to him inviting me in for a game.

He had a small, special enclosed back porch set up especially for chess, including a small table in the center of the room, two chairs, a few plants—and a chess clock. I had never seen one, the concept of timing moves new to me. Still, I was enticed, and I visited quite frequently, looking for a game. He always won, of course, but he was also an excellent teacher. I was most stunned and impressed by a practice begun at the end of our first game—he reset the pieces and reviewed the game from memory, move by move, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of my approaches. Aside from my amazement what I saw as an almost magical talent, I started to see chess as strategy, not an ongoing battle of moves, and games as thought patterns, not mere diversions.

I played chess with a few college friends here and there, but I found that not a lot of people play this game, so I didn’t get to play often. I run across people who respond to my interest in silly ways: "Oh, teach me--I bet I could beat you," for example, usually out of pure ego. I smile and look for ways to change the subject.

Twenty years ago, when I moved to my current home in the country, I met a bass player at a symphony gig who lived just a few miles from me—John Teeple (featured in the award winning documentary “Brothers Keeper,” a film I got to watch as it was made). John was much older than I, but we became close friends with many shared interests, from trees to gardens to home building to music to writing (he was working on a comprehensive time line of global history)--including regular chess games. I was the stronger player, but the time spent was well worth the while—not to mention the free ranging conversation.

These days my infrequent chess-playing is relegated to taking on my computer. In the early days of chess programs, I could sometimes beat the computer—although it would never admit it, opting to crash instead—but now playing is just an exercise in flagging mistakes. This is worthwhile for development, of course, but it’s just not the same as facing a person, analyzing the opposing tactics, choosing a strategy—and connecting in a meaningful, thoughtful way with a real, caring person.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bloggin’ for Nothin’ (and the clicks are free)

A few months ago, I started a blog. Primarily, I wanted a place to write away from the distractions of work place politics, mere reactions to discussion board debates, and generally other people’s expectations about what I should write, all colored by what I’ve written, where I’ve written and so forth. I chose to blog anonymously, without benefit of reputation, resume (or infamy). Only a few of my closest and most trusted friends and colleagues know my blog address (I wanted to feel free to write about anything), so I couldn’t start with the boost of predictable readers. I had to start from scratch.

I didn’t get around to a counter for a week or two, but I received a comment right away—people had found my blog. I certainly wasn’t above promoting my new endeavor, and I added the URL to the tagline of a discussion board I frequent. Success—I received several warm emails from those folks, now regular readers. Still, traffic was irregular, so when I had a few minutes a week or so ago, I explored blog visibility, and came across BlogCatalog. What fun! Suddenly I had gmail from people I’d never met (I’m still working my way through those folks), daily comments from other bloggers, and interesting discussions from nice, intelligent, like-minded people. I was quickly seduced and addicted.

Nothing is perfect, though. MUCH of these discussions focus on “add me and I’ll add you” trades to boost blog ratings on friends lists, neighborhoods, Technorati, StumpleUpon, Digg and so forth. “Link me and I’ll link you.” Well, no real harm—just people cooperating, right?

Such a prevalent practice can only create a backlash. Start with ratings. When I see a highly rated site, I don’t assume it’s a great site—I assume someone’s good at cooking the books. When I find a blogger I like, I don’t check the friends and neighborhoods, as they aren’t necessarily recommendations at all—the blogger may not have even viewed the site. And what about the people who’ve linked to my site or my pieces in good faith—people might well ignore those links as logrolling.

I’ve been assuming, of course, that bloggers want readers, when presumably, many bloggers seek high ratings to maximize ad revenue. Many sites carry so many ads that I’ve stopped reading those blogs, simply because I don’t want to wait for all those ads to load. Indeed, some blogs take so long to load that I gave up before they finished (unread). Yes, I visit some web sites with many ads—but that’s when I’m deliberately shopping, not regularly. Even then, for example, I use Amazon over Barnes and Noble because it loads so much faster. I do read the New York Times online, and yes, it features a number of ads and takes a while to load. However, it’s also rich in content, justifying the wait. A blog updated daily, even an excellent blog, just doesn’t have that same pull.

I’m not looking for clicks—I want steady readers. I want them to enjoy my posts. I want them to bookmark my blog. I want them to recommend this blog to other readers. I want them to visit every day or few. I want them to dig through the archives. I want them to read because it’s a good read, because they’re interested, not just click to trade a favor.

I’m reminded of my music business experience. I recorded three albums, found a distributor, and enjoyed sales from Alaska to Georgia. As the independent market grew, the distributors started selling ad space to artists in their catalogs—and as the market grew more, the ad prices skyrocketed. I did the math, and realized that while I needed ads to maintain sales, at those rates, I’d essentially be buying my own project. I’d be working for nothing (I was also the manufacturer). Since the money was more important than my ego’s desire to distribute my work, I folded the enterprise. The business was no longer about selling independent music to the public—it was about selling ad space to hungry musicians.

Similarly, blog ads are fine, per se, but counterproductive. Blogging for ad revenue is an open market. Readership is spread thin, and only likely to become more so as more people blog. I read very few blogs regularly (only so many hours in the day), preferring quirky, imaginative, well-written blogs with reasonable load times. I never click on the ads.

Plans for easy riches come and go, come and go. From Amway to churning real estate, people are always ready to exploit others’ dreams of waiting wealth, the dreamers rarely stopping to think that if all were that easy, why wouldn’t the dream mongers just engage in more of the same practice themselves? Placing ads on blogs IS a good idea—for Google and other providers of that service. After all—do YOU click on blog ads? Advertisers can still be happy—they get seen, and repetition is rule one in advertising. The service providers collect fees. All those bloggers see all those ads. Success, but make no mistake—bloggers are the customers, not the suppliers.

Certainly I can see ways to successfully commercialize a blog. This would mean writing about products and pastimes that people with money who use the Internet for shopping would regularly purchase (technology comes to mind). You’re a free lance salesperson working for commission—not a great job. I suppose it could work out with genuine interests—a hiker composing reviews of new equipment, for example (although somebody’s got to foot the bill for that equipment)—but if you’re going into sales, this is just not the best approach.

If my purpose were income, I’d fold the blog and start a webzine. Why look for a few clicks? Get readers there and keep them there! You could then pack the site with ads (as long as you paid attention to design with an eye toward load time). Readers could visit multiple times, and with live content, the ‘zine could always stay fresh. Instead of posting ad links, SELL advertising space! Make deals to sell their product for a share of the margin! Use the revenue to hire more writers, web designers and salespeople as required. If you’re going into sales, GO there! Don’t ignore your creative side—create a great publication, and you can sell subscriptions too.

Or, you could start yet another blog telling other bloggers how to make major money by adding ad links and cooking the books. You’ll have lots of customers.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Accept the Amount?

I stopped by the True Value hardware store to pick up a new pair of work gloves (I mislaid the old pair). While there, I picked up a collapsible chair—I have one, but since catherine (my significant other, deliberately spelled with a small “c”) will be down from Canada just before an outdoor three day Jazz Fest, we’ll need another. I headed for the cashier, and remembering that I only had a few dollars in my wallet (I have a bad habit of carrying around paychecks instead of visiting the bank), I pulled out the plastic.

“Debit or credit?” asked the clerk. I always use debit, since it just comes out of my checking account anyway, and I don’t want to add to my credit balance. “Debit,” I said, picking up the keypad on the counter. “Push the green button to accept the amount,” she instructed. “I can’t negotiate?” I quipped.

She laughed. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” The man in line behind me was also amused. “It’d be like priceline,” he said. [I didn’t know what that was, but a little research reveals he meant, a primarily travel-based web site where visitors can, indeed, bid what they’re willing to pay. But I got the general idea.] “You should write about that,” he continued. “Places like ‘Reader’s Digest’ pay money for pieces like that.”

I should have dope slapped myself. I felt like Michael Keaton’s speech writer character Kevin in the movie “Speechless” when, after rival speech writer and love interest Julia (Geena Davis) stumps him with a simple question about specifics, he mumbles to himself, “I’m a writer; I should be prepared for stuff like this..”

“That’s an EXCELLENT idea,” I answered my fellow customer, “and I’m going to my car right now to write that down before I forget.” My husky mix, waiting comfortably in the air-conditioning but impatiently wondering when we were going to get to our morning run, had to settle down for a bit while I sketched how this might go:

KEYPAD: Accept the amount? Please press Yes or No.

ME (text messaging): I’m OK with 99¢ for the gloves, but $8.99 seems a bit much for a chair that’s essentially a little plastic “canvas” and hollow metal rods.

KEYPAD: Well, you picked the cheapest chair—we have a better model.

ME: Yes, I saw it, but $10 more for almost the same chair seems extreme. Can’t we work something out on the low end chair?

KEYPAD: We can deal with the high end chair, but our margin is just too low on the cheaper chairs—we rely on volume there.

ME: Still, I bet I could go to Oneida and find a similar chair for less.

KEYPAD: OK, let me check…


…Yes, you’re right, they do have stock at $6.99

ME: So you’ll match their price?

KEYPAD: Not so fast. With today’s gas prices, you aren’t driving to a store 20 minutes away, shopping around, then 15 minutes back to the address we have on file for you, losing at least an hour of your time, just to save two bucks.

[The machine had a point. I thought for a minute.]

ME: OK, we’re going to be sitting in the sun for three days—what if I get a beach umbrella too? Can we talk package deal?

[The machine senses the opportunity for add-on sales.]

KEYPAD: That’s possible—but you’re going to need sunscreen too, aren’t you?

[Indeed, catherine is recovering from a sunburn already.]

ME: What’s the SPF?

KEYPAD: We’ve got some SPF 30 in stock.

ME: Done.


[Displays both the regular total and the package deal total.]

Accept the amount? Please press Yes or No.

[I press Yes and enter my PIN.]


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why I Hate Sports

I didn’t have an older brother, and my dad was working while going to night school, so I never really learned how to play catch or whatever else young boys supposedly learn about sports. Consequently, when I entered school, my male classmates did the only thing sensible to another child—they ridiculed me, making sure I’d be alienated.

Gym class was worse. First, I had to change in front of other boys, then spend an hour wearing shorts. They made fun of my knees (nothing wrong with them, but I didn’t know that). The “class” consisted of little more than playing Dodge Ball, or, more properly named, Slam Anyone You Can as Hard as You Can, and the more timid the target, the better. Gee—I didn’t prosper (someone should adjust the rules to allow points for the force of the tag). Sometimes we had to climb ropes—no instruction, just a drill sergeant gym teacher screaming while students helplessly swing. Other times, we practiced on spring boards or on the horse—the purpose still escapes me.

In fifth grade, when my dad was transferred, I got to enjoy going to a new school where no one knew me. What fun. Talk about bully target! I was regularly attacked on the mile long walk home by either Claus or Robelard. I spent a lot of time on my back while someone sat on me. Even my friend Mike seemed to enjoy this pastime. I didn’t. I DID learn a lot about squirming, but I wanted as much distance from these tormentors as possible.

Looking for something more fun, I pestered my parents for a bike. Our old home had been far out in the country on a highway, but now we lived in a suburb! My parents relented—although my mother wouldn’t let my sisters or me ride in the street until we could prove we had enough control to ride around the yard without wavering handlebars. What a fascist.

I rode everywhere—for hours and hours. I rode to Mike’s house. I rode to explore the surrounding countryside. I rode across town to the village library—I loved to read. A few years later, after pestering my parents again for private music lessons (which I later learned were secretly subsidized by my grandmother), I rode to the next town for music lessons. When my Boy Scout troop proposed a 50 mile bicycle trip, my fellow scout Terry and I practiced by taking several such trips (or at least as close to them as our understanding of the maps allowed).

My parents loved to camp. Every vacation, and several weekends, we headed for forest campgrounds, where I learned to climb trees—sometimes climbing 60-80 feet (I fell once, hitting several branches on the way down—getting the wind knocked out of you is wicked awesome scary, especially when you don’t understand what’s happening). “Why don’t you shinny up the trees?” asked the fascist, noticing my choice of trees with low hanging limbs. Well! I wasn’t going to let HER win! I practiced and practiced on my many long walks on forest trails, and in time, I could climb any tree strong enough to support my weight—and quickly, too. Take that, Mom!

I took another look at that gym rope. It DID look like fun, just not with the drill sergeant “helping.” I snuck into the gym from time to time to practice—no spotter. Before long, I could reach the top! The next time we did this in class, my gym teacher just looked at me in disbelief. [OK, I misplaced the fascist label.]

Sixth grade featured the class going outside from time to time to play softball. I, of course, was always chosen last, and stuck far in the outfield, I was mainly bored. One day, a batter hit a foul far to the right of first base. Well, someone had to retrieve the ball, so I headed over and caught it. My team mates went wild, rushed over, and carried me back to school—I had just, unwittingly, won us the game. A few months later, when Robelard was terrorizing me over recess, suddenly he was pulled off me—a dozen of my classmates, who had watched this all year, decided enough was enough, sharing their insights with Robelard. The bullying stopped.

In Junior High School (another new school), I briefly flirted with joining the wrestling team. One of my favorite teachers, Mr. Neufang, was the coach, our school excelled in wrestling, I liked what little I had learned about it in Gym, and I also learned something about the sport—when a new bully targeted me, the new kid who couldn’t throw an effective punch, I rushed in close and pinned the stunned attacker to the ground. A nice change—but ill fated. The school nurse/doctor had to approve us before we could join a sports term, and thus, they discovered I had a heart murmur. Before I could continue, I would need to see my own doctor and get written permission. Scared the hell out of me.

My family doctor, a wonderful man who let kids feed lollypops to his very fat dog, was not concerned. My heart murmur was congenital, not a news bulletin—and, as he explained, could very well heal (it did). “You’re not going to have a career in professional football,” he jokingly explained, “Or run up mountains” (he was wrong about that one), “But you’re fine, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t join the wrestling team.” Weeks had passed, however, and I was frustrated. “I’ve decided not to make the commitment,” I explained to him as I quit the team. “OK,” he accepted, “But you do know that you’ll have to make a commitment to whatever you decide to pursue?”

I nodded. I don’t know if he believed me, but I did understand (hey, how many people remember the name of their seventh grade teacher?). Another favorite teacher in eighth grade, Mr. Wiltze, coached the track team, and I considered it, but I had just had enough.

I still rode my bike everywhere. I rode to the next town just to have an awkward conversation with Lisa, who I thought of as my girlfriend. I met the Woodruff twins on my travels, two very gregarious boys who welcomed me into their almost non-stop basketball game—and given their popularity, other participants just learned to live with my poor skills.

High School changed things. I decided I wanted to be a professional musician, I needed lessons from professional symphony musicians, and my parents (thanks, Grandma!) eventually acquiesced. “I’d like to do this piece for NYSSMA (a state music competition),” I told my teacher, indicating the Mozart flute concerto in D. “Well, to do that,” my teacher explained, trying to discourage the choice, “you’ll need to practice 3-4 hours a day.” I missed the discouragement. I had chosen my commitment, and much to the amazement of teacher and parents alike, I practiced 3-4 hours a day.

This is not a light thing. The strain on fingers alone is extreme (when I move a finger even slightly, you can see the tendons ripple up my arm). The breath control involved in mastering wind instruments (I added bassoon to hedge my bets) at a professional level is extreme—I got up at 5 a.m. each day to run five miles before breakfast (the average person at rest breathes 12-16 times a minute—I breathe 2-3 times). I didn’t have time for sports—although a musician girl friend got me into tennis and ice skating.

I continued with Boy Scouts, enjoying the down time, just having fun. I learned to swim quite well, started mile long swims, and took lifesaving lessons from an instructor who would practically drown any student giving her the slightest opening (I’m not exaggerating). I learned to canoe quite well, including how to right a capsized canoe in the middle of a lake while fully clothed. (This proved fun when, at a camp party as an adult, I took off like a rocket in a canoe across the lake. My shepherd mix, concerned she might be left behind, took off after me. As motor boats were racing about the lake, this was dangerous, so I pulled my 90 lb. dog into the canoe without capsizing it. People were impressed. I was drenched.)

College offered me my only fun taste of sports. My housemates organized a weekly baseball game, and I tagged along. Much to my surprise, though, I wasn’t stuck in the outfield, and I wasn’t buried in the lineup. My teammates took a close look at available skills. “OK, he can’t hit far—but he always gets a hit,” they noticed, so they had me bat first. First! That’s because they also noticed I could run. So, I hit the ball, the infield jogged over for an easy out, turned to throw—and found I was already comfortably settled on first base, unpacking, ordering room service. They shook their heads. From there, they had to constantly watch me, the lead runner, as our stronger hitters batted me in. We scored a lot of runs.

The field was equally fun, for once. I wasn’t stuck in the outfield—I could catch, but I still threw like a girl, so unless I caught the hit, I wasn’t much use. Well—where do you put a guy who can’t throw but can always catch (as long as you didn’t Dodge Ball me)? I became our First Baseman. We won a lot of games.

That, though, was the last of my interest in sports. Today, I just have little time. When I can free a day or two, I go hiking in the mountains. Every day, depending on the weather, to exercise my dog and to keep in shape, I either run or cross-country ski for an hour or two along forest trails with my dog. Sometimes I’ll take off for a day in my kayak. But I just don’t have time for sports.


Monday, June 11, 2007

How to Train a Husky

My shepherd mix died about five years ago just short of age 16—my constant companion, hiking buddy, best friend. Girl friends were jealous of this dog. I knew I’d get another dog, but I was in no hurry. Hiking alone wasn’t much fun, but I wanted to wait for just the right one.

My vet knew this, and when another client had a litter of husky mixes (husky and lab), she hooked us up. I thought for a few weeks. I went to see the only pup left—the smallest of the lot, a ball of short but thick white fur. “What do you know about huskies?” I asked the vet tech. “The only thing about huskies,” she replied, “When they see a squirrel or something, they just take after it.” Understatement of the century. “About how big will she get?” I asked the vet. “Oh, probably around 48 lbs.” Nice call—today she’s 48.2 lbs.

This was a small dog for me, and I wasn’t sure—but the owners eventually talked me into it. I named her Shanti, which means “peace,” and comes from a Hindu sutra:

Lead us from the unreal to the real
From darkness into light
From death to immortality
Shanti shanti

Banshee would have been a more accurate choice. She’s a V12 engine in a Chevette—incredibly fast, and far stronger than the shepherd mix twice her size. Well, I’ve always been a good trainer, I thought. No problem.

I set up a puppy area in the kitchen, a safe place for her when I was at work, by blocking the hallway with a 4’ high piece of plywood. She took one look and effortlessly sailed over the counter through the open area into the living room. OK. I puppy-proofed as much as possible, and left her the run of the place, ignoring her yips as I left for work. When I came home, she was lying outside—she had managed to break an outside door. I fixed it as much as possible, placing a 4x8 sheet of plywood in front. When I returned, she was inside—and the place looked like a cyclone had hit it. The day after that, she was outside again—went through a window. When the weekend hit, I decided to try short trips to calm her separation anxiety—15 or 20 minute trips to the store. On one, she toppled a wooden bookcase and reduced it to toothpicks. I’m not exaggerating. On another—she went through another window.

OK. Outdoor dog, at least when I’m not home. Since she was such a good jumper—and digger—I knew my fence would never hold her. I built a lean-to/doghouse, bought some hay, plenty of waterproof toys, and got her a 20’ lead of vinyl covered aerial cable--just long enough to give her some room and some shade without getting tangled around the trees. That is, until she tore the lower branches off the trees. I also learned to regularly inspect the cables—she broke a few and went on a neighborhood spree for hours.

Now comes the husky game—ask any husky owner. You get just so close—and at the last moment the dog dodges. Huskies can do this for hours, and they’re very good at it. You literally can never catch them. And they love it. Kind of a challenge for training.

“OK,” I figured. “I’ll lure her with food.” Not so fast. Huskies don’t overeat, the vet tells me, and food isn’t much of a motivator for them. Even when it sort of is…back to that “ever so close” game before that husky dodge. She knows this means the end of the romp. The only hope is to get someone else to call and grab her (huskies are very friendly)—until she figured that one out too.

Once you’ve got the dog by the collar—new problem. Immediately she’s on her hind legs, paws around your arm. I remembered my dad describing this behavior in sled dogs after his trip to Alaska. OK, fine—on your hind legs then. Not so fast. She’d just flip over on her back.

I was always the person people turned to for training advice. I’d never even owned a leash before. My last dog had been calmly heeling beside me at six months. But I was out of my league. I needed help. I asked the vet to recommend a trainer.

Training involved mostly me learning how people train a dog with leash and choke collar, and Shanti wanting to run over and play with the other dogs. I did manage to accomplish a few things—pulling up on the leash to get her to sit, for example—but to a husky, once you’ve done something like “sit,” it’s done, and now it’s time to get on with life, not just sit there. I learned to snap the leash to get her to stop pulling—OK, to lessen the problem of her pulling--but mostly I managed to teach her only that I wanted her to do these things, to recognize them…not necessarily do them.

I expressed my frustration to the trainer, pointing out the virtues of my last dog’s training, that we had been a team. “Look,” he said. “You had an exceptional dog. Now you have a normal dog.” “She listens to you,” pointed out the vet. “She’s half husky,” added her colleague. “She’s that much closer to wild. You’re doing fine.”

At six months, she was due for spaying. This meant she would have to stay inside afterwards for a few days until the incision healed; lying outside was out of the question. I was also supposed to keep her quiet. “How am I going to do that?” I asked the vet. “Well…relatively quiet.” OK. I bought a large metal dog crate and set it up in the kitchen. I picked her up from the vet as late as I could—she was yelping and yelping in the kennel when I got there, and had been all day. She was calm when I was home, but she definitely didn’t like the crate idea when I left for work in the morning.

When I came home, she was outside the crate. She had banged and banged against the door until the latch lifted enough to let her out. Then she trashed the place again. The next morning, I secured the latch. She was outside the crate when I got home—she had banged and banged against the collapsible crate until one wall caved. And she trashed the place. I secured every joint of the crate with wire. She ripped the bars from the welding and bent them back to make a hole and escape. Yes, I’m serious. I decided to risk the chance of infection outdoors.

Then I noticed something—she stood and waited at the open front door. She always does, until I say “OK.” This I could work with. Mainly I wanted to be sure I could control her as a full grown dog, so I invented a game. “Play!” I shout, and she goes nuts, jumping and slashing at my gloves (she plays very, very rough). Then “Enough,” and she sits, watching and waiting for the next “Play!” “Enough.” “Play!” “Enough.” She’s very good about it.

Hiking is another matter. I’d love if she could just run and run, but she’s so fast that she’s gone in a flash. Usually, I just count on a dog to stay nearby to train it for hiking. Trouble is, together with her speed, she has an excellent nose. When I tried to trick her by walking off the trail (to get her to stick closer next time), I just found she could follow my trail at a dead run—including right angle turns. What do you do when her position is “I AM right with you. You’re five miles that way—I can smell you.”? Add to this that she loves people and especially other dogs and will follow them for miles until she finally decides she’s done and comes back (and in the meantime I’ve no idea where she is). I turned to the Internet and the book store. What do professional husky owners do? I soon found my answer, absolutely consistent from source to source: never let a husky loose.

Getting her to leave game alone also proved impossible. Once she sees it, she’s completely and immediately focused on nothing else, and takes off as if fired from a gun—even on her leash. I use the heavy duty 26’ retractable leashes rated for large dogs. She breaks one every few months. Miraculously, she comes right back when I call her. Most puppies will look crestfallen when scolded, but she always just looked at me, sometimes yipping some version of “What? Come on—what’s the problem? That was the third squirrel, damn it. We HAD it man, we HAD it! What’s wrong with you?” I settled for minimizing pulling—but I still have to continually repeat this, and I get a nasty jolt to wrist, shoulder, elbow, ankle, knee, and so forth regularly. Sometimes I have her walk behind me, but since she walks RIGHT behind me, no clearance at all, I usually give up (heeling doesn’t work well on narrow trails).

In the car, she’s always in the way when I get in, but jumps to the back the moment I start the engine. She now comes when I call her for our morning run, instead of standing, stretching her back legs, stretching her front legs—and lying down again. And not in a circle anymore, then only to do the husky dodge. In a straight line. Right to me. I swear (one friend and lifelong husky owner can’t quite believe it). When cars go by while we’re walking down a stretch of road to the trails, she automatically heels, watching me for the “OK.” Truly. And today she comfortably roams the yard on a 60’ lead (which still needs regular inspection for impending breaks)--without terrorizing the trees.

The most unique training was the cross-country skiing. I always had to wait for my shepherd mix to catch up, but Shanti feels only “About time you moved your ass. Best you can do?” Good, but how to keep her on a leash while my hands are occupied with ski poles? I finally hit upon wrapping a short, metal chain leash around my waist, outside my coat, threaded through the handle of the retractable leash. This also allows the leash handle to travel around me when Shanti runs back and forth, instead of wrapping the cord around me. (I used to use my belt, but she kept breaking them and ripping open my coat when she abruptly took off after game.) This works reasonably well—until we come across another dog.

The other problem is pulling—sounds like fun, but it’s often dangerous, depending on the terrain (I ski in the forest) and the conditions (like when hikers or snowshoers have packed the ski trail into a flat field of ice instead of walking in a separate, parallel trail). If another dog is ahead, she knows it, and suddenly we take off. If you see snowplow marks on a flat ski trail and wonder how that happened—that’s me. So the most important command for skiing is “Back!” You do NOT want to go skiing down a curving, forested hill with a husky pulling you faster in random directions while you’re fighting for control—or trying to slow down. Again, she follows IMMEDIATELY behind, but I’ll take it.

So how DO you train a husky? Lots of time, lots of patience, a healthy supply of Icy Hot, Mineral Ice or Tiger Balm, and plenty of ibuprofen.


Friday, June 8, 2007

Why I have little faith in High School

A bad joke at best, admittedly, but when my total at the local store came to $19.32, the clerk duly announced "Nineteen Thirty Two." “Not a good year,” I remarked.

“I wouldn’t know,” shrugged the clerk, a High School graduate.

These people know me well (I see them almost daily), so I teased, “What do they teach in High Schools these days?”

She shrugged again. “Wouldn’t know. I don’t go to school.”

I couldn’t yet give up. “What did they USED to teach in High School?”

Stymied. “Dunno. I never paid attention.” And so on with her life long career as a clerk. But I can’t say my High School experience was much better.

I remember Kindergarten—age four. My teacher read us “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” I was fascinated. My home had several books—my mother had been a librarian, my maternal grandmother was a sixth grade teacher, and my dad was going to night school—and I started to read them. I read all of the C. S. Lewis Narnia series over the next few years (along with many other works).

Then it stopped. I was failing 1st grade arithmetic—until my mother bought a pile of flashcards and forced me to go through them again and again until I mastered it. Second grade wasn’t much better—I’d learned to hate school. Third grade was the deal breaker. My teacher was a witch, and I shut down. I received a C in reading. My parents were so confused and concerned that they invested in a flurry of eyesight and hearing tests. I don’t remember fourth grade at all (but I DO remember my dad coming home early when JFK was assassinated). In one of these grades, shuffled off to art class, I showed a friend a sundial I had designed and built from cardboard—hours of work. The art “teacher” walked over and ripped it to shreds.

In 5th grade, when my dad was transferred, I moved to a new school. My parents resisted placing me in the recommended “accelerated” class, noting that perhaps I just wasn’t up to the pressure. My new teacher, then, was an extremely tall, imposing man I frankly feared a bit—Mr. Christensen. Not only is he one of the best teachers I’ve ever known, but YEARS later, when I was facilitating a “introduce the arts” class for teachers, he was among the attendees—and instantly remembered me. Ironically, a few years after that, I had his daughter in two separate college classes. Yet a few years later, now working for National Public Radio, she interviewed me for an Indian land claim piece.

6th grade clinched the turning point. When my mom arrived for a parent/teacher conference, Mr. Grudzinski (as I understand from my mom later), apparently fresh from a parental conflict, announced, “I gave your son a B because that’s the grade he deserved!” Unfazed, Mom replied, “OK…” and Mr. Grudzinski relaxed. “I’m not supposed to show you this,” he noted, “but I think you should see this,” and he showed her the results of our placement tests.

Mom came home. “You will earn “A” grades from now on,” she announced. End of story. It was OK. I loved Mr. Grudzinski—a very nice man, a very funny man, and a great teacher.

Junior High School was scary. Suddenly, I was in classes with those “accelerated” students, none of whom I knew. I withdrew again, finding refuge in only two places—mathematics and music. Mark, a math wiz, became my best friend. We both entered a county wide contest. I won a gold medal for my presentation on “Functions and their Graphs.” Mark didn’t fare so well. The next year, I wrote a paper for the same contest on differential calculus. I thought about a career as a mathematician, but I was worried, and was cautioned, that this might not be a promising field. Add computers to this and consider just how bad this advice proved to be.

Four Junior High teachers stand out—two of them surprisingly in Social Studies, a subject I had always hated: Mr. Neufang and Mr. Lane. Suddenly, I understood that this was not about boring dates and events, but about people and exciting times. Riding a horse through the White House? Got my attention. I started to care about the outside world—and learn about it. The other teachers were in science. My 7th grade teacher was so full of puns and tricks that he kept my interest—40 years later I can still name the bones of the body. But my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Wiltze, really pulled it all together. We had to write a series of correlations—Dandelions and Icebergs, for example. We had to think. We were not rewarded for mere length (I wrote 12-20 page papers). We didn’t get good grades for the hell of it (and I didn’t do so well—B grades, as I remember).

Unfortunately, that was the end of my public school education. Yes, I did have a few good teachers—I remember a geometry and a French teacher—but my education moved to what I was reading/studying outside of class. By far the worst was English—we just did the same damn thing we had done in 7th grade over and over and over, just with different reading material. To get an A, just write about some personal interest. These teachers were pathetically easy to play. No wonder students come to college so ill-prepared. I did have one excellent teacher, Mr. Wanzer, my music teacher, who taught us Music History and Appreciation with a college level text, Donald J. Grout’s “A History of Western Music.” Wanzer took us step by step, and showed us the importance of each development. He developed our talent—I directed our Jazz Band my senior year. I earned performance scholarships from the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory, entering my classes knowing far more than my classmates ever learned—no exaggeration. Of course, Wanzer was fired.

As a High School freshman, I visited my guidance counselor to choose my courses. I had a choice between Biology and Earth Science. I wasn’t (then) interested in biology, so I opted for Earth Science—but first I had a question. I DEFINITELY wanted to study physics (a passion I still hold today), so I asked for assurance that Earth Science would allow me to follow the sequence of courses I would need to get to physics in my senior year. I was given that assurance, so I took Earth Science (in a class of mostly seniors).

The bitch lied. When I wanted to enroll in the next course, Chemistry, I was told I needed Biology first. So, I completed my science education one year behind my peers. I never studied physics, except for the extensive reading I’ve done on my own.

The final straw was my senior year. When I received my schedule, it beared no semblance to reality—completely ignored my language sequence, for example, and scheduled me for three periods of study hall. Huh? I finally knew then, completely, that my education was up to me.

Working around the bandroom and Mr. Wanzer’s office, I happened upon the Master Schedule. Hmmm. I opened it. Interesting.

I threw away my course schedule and wrote my own—partly getting into my friends’ classes, but also getting myself into classes I wanted—Humanities, for example. I had no study halls. I went to the classes I had chosen, knowing that in each class, after attendance, the teachers would ask, “Is there anyone I didn’t call?” I raised my hand. “Does your schedule say you’re supposed to be here?” I nodded yes, knowing they never checked. “OK,” they said, and added me to their rosters.

Three months later—three months—my guidance counselor asked to see me. “People have been looking for you,” she said, “calling your name in study halls.” So right there, I knew she was a lying idiot—or at least I hope people wouldn’t look for a lost student by calling a name every day for three months. Obviously, they had long ago just crossed my name off their attendance lists. “Um, well, when I got my schedule,” I explained, knowing I was talking to a moron, “I realized it was a mistake, so I just went to the right classes instead.”

“You can’t just do that!” she exclaimed. Knowing I had already won this battle three months ago, I put on my most contrite face. “Gee, I’m so sorry,” I swore. “I didn’t realize. I’ll never do it again!” Of course not. I’m a senior. I’m out of here.

And thank god. I needed to learn, and I clearly wasn’t going to do it in High School. Mostly they wanted me to pursue a career as an architect, as my aptitude tests indicated (I think my dad still wishes I’d done this). This, of course, is currently a depressed field. I scored 720 on the math portion of the SATs--before they decided to lower the bar. I graduated with honors. And I knew that school did not equal learning.