Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

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Location: Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, United States

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Yes, I’m still alive

But not very …

Some of you may have been wondering why I seem to have disappeared off the face of the Earth. I've missed two important holidays, National Punctuation Day and World Rivers Day. I also had a day of racing with Zorro (good) in very light air (not so good), that I want to report on.

Meanwhile, my Internet access has been limited. Something seems to be wrong with the wireless connection in my laptop, so it will no longer communicate with wi-fi or Bluetooth – it used to be great friends with my mobile phone, but now the two are not talking to each other. My wireless switch is on, but the computer acts as if it is off. So I don't have access at work except through computers owned by my employer, and those are limited to academic purposes only.

Then over the weekend, we were staying at a place that usually has high-speed Internet but didn't this weekend. I had been hoping to get a post up about World Rivers Day on the day itself, but that was not to happen.

It looks like I'm going to have to take my beloved laptop to the shop for repairs. I hope it's just something simple like a loose connection, because Pat and I don't have money to pay for any really serious repairs. If I'm lucky, the college can lend me a laptop to cover for while mine is in the shop – since the college has gone paperless, I need a computer in the classroom to take roll, record homework completion, and make on-the-spot updates to the class websites.

Meanwhile, the past couple of days have been very windy in Albuquerque, and the pollen counts for ragweed and sagebrush are way up. My sinuses have been making sure that I'm not having fun. On the bright side, the powers-that-be at the college have decided, as part of the effort to minimize the effects of an H1N1 flu outbreak, to issue all instructors with a box of tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer to be taken to all classes so students can use them as necessary. The tissues are not going to waste. I'm not the only allergy sufferer around; several of my students have allergies as well. It's a small box of tissues, and it's going to run out quickly; I hope the powers-that-be will be willing to issue a new box when this one runs out.

Anyhow, I am still here … just not as often.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Aaarrrrhhh, matey!

It's International Talk Like A Pirate Day …

Every blog should have its own favorite holiday, and my brother Jer's blog, Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, has chosen International (formerly National) Talk Like A Pirate Day. The holiday first started when a couple of guys were playing around talking like pirates, and they hit on the idea of naming September 19 (the birthday of the now-ex-wife of one of them) Talk Like A Pirate Day.

It was while celebrating this holiday that Jer and my other brother, fuego, got the inspiration for the cult classic short film Pirates of the White Sand.

I'm almost late in acknowledging this holiday, but if I don't get this post up by midnight, well … it's still not yet midnight in Samoa.

So hoist a tankard of grog, watch out for the F-117s, and say aaarrrhhh!

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The Pony, part 2

The story continues

Now we get to the fun part of the assignment: starting an argument between the two characters. Here goes …

Steve was late getting home. First, there were those two customers who decided to buy exercisers at the last minute, and their orders had to be written up. Then he'd been called into Mr. Orvis' office for a private conference. And then there'd been that important business of getting Rachel's birthday present. That took even longer than he had thought it would.

At the sound of Steve's key rattling in the lock, Rachel jumped off the bed and ran to the front door. "Daddy! Did you get my pony?"

Steve tossed the Kay-Bee shopping bag onto the sofa next to Lisa and picked Rachel up. "Happy birthday, Princess. How've you been?"

"Where's my pony? You didn't forget?"

"Daddy would never forget his Princess' birthday, now, would he?" He put Rachel down and picked up the bag. "But you'll have to wait until after supper for your present."

"You didn't get my pony."

"Shut up," Emily said. "I can't hear the TV."

Steve started toward the master bedroom. Rachel followed. "You didn't get my pony!"

"Rachel, Princess, you know we can't get a pony unless Daddy gets a raise."

"You got the Nintendo for Lisa. You got the Barbie Dream House for Emily. You like them better than me."

"No, Princess, you know that's not true – "

"You hate me!"

"Wait a minute – "

"They get what they want. I want my pony!"

"Princess, I told you – "

"I want my pony! I hate you!" Rachel charged at Steve, pounding her fist into his stomach. Taken by surprise, he dropped the bag. As it bounced off the corner of the bed, it tipped over and a cardboard carton fell to the floor. Rachel turned and looked at it. About a foot wide and nine inches tall, it had a picture of a tan-and-white pony and the words "Misty of Chincoteague Gift Set."

Steve knelt down to face Rachel. "I know it's not a real pony. But it's a really pretty model, not a silly toy. And I can read to you from the book after supper. It was one of Mommy's favorite books when she was a little girl."

"No! I want a real pony!" Tears streamed down her face.

"Princess – "

Rachel picked up the box. "I hate it! I hate you! I hate Mommy!"

So fast that neither Steve nor Rachel saw it, Steve's hand snapped out and smacked across Rachel's face.

"I hate you!" Rachel flung the box at Steve's head. Steve ducked and the box glanced off the top of his head and hit the wall behind him. Rachel spun around and dashed out of the room. Steve heard the apartment door slamming and Rachel's feet thundering down the stairs.

Halfway down the stairs, Rachel came to a sudden halt. Daddy's car was parked in the fire lane, parallel to the curb, a small horse trailer hitched behind it.

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The Pony

This is a gift for Harlean

Harlean says she wants a pony. I don't have the wherewithal to give her one. But I can give what I wrote for a writing exercise when I took an Honors English course in fantasy writing, taught by an author who was writing about vampires long before vampires were trendy.

This piece came about in stages. In the first stage, we students were to write a description of some random person whom we had seen somewhere, someone whom we did not know but whose image stuck in our minds for some reason. Then we were to imagine someone else who was in some way connected to this person. Then we were to imagine the thoughts that each person had about the other person. The final step was to create an argument between these two people.

It took me some time to find the things I had written, as I do not understand Pat's filing system. I took this course in the summer 1993 term, and I found a file drawer where Pat has stored a whole lot of stuff from 1986 through 1989, plus some stuff from 1998 through 1999. I actually had to move some furniture to get to the shelf where he has stored the material from about 1991 to about 1995. I still don't know where the 1989 through 1991 stuff is, nor the 1995 through 1998.

You can probably guess by now that these documents don't exist in an electronic form – they're all papyrus or dead-trees. In order to make this project available online, I'm going to have to type it in. As I do so, I will be making some changes, such as replacing brand names with generic terms, and I may do some editing for grammar, but otherwise I will reproduce the passages exactly, unless I make a typo, which I don't plan to do.

Character #1

He is clean-shaven with short – but not radically short – light brown hair. His face is boy-next-door handsome, wholesome, tanned, with just a trace of crows-feet beginning to show at the corners of the gray eyes. He is wearing a light blue polo shirt that's just tight enough to show that his pectorals and biceps are in great shape, and a pair of tan sweat pants that are so clean and pressed they look like casual slacks. He is showing a customer how to use one of the pieces of exercise equipment at the physical-fitness equipment store at the mall; he pauses briefly to squat down and greet the customer's little boy.

"That reminds me – I'd better get a birthday present for Rachel before I get home tonight. She's six already. Where did the time go? I wonder what I can get. She's asking for a pony – as usual – but Heaven knows we can't afford that. Maybe in a couple of years we can build that house in Cedar Crest that Beverley's dreaming of, and then we can get the pony. But for now, what does Daddy get for his princess? Some princess, actually .She hasn't worn a dress since she got out of diapers! She's not into dolls or dress-up, just keeps talking about that pony. I could get her a toy pony, I suppose. Or a book about a pony. When she was born, we said we'd get her lots of books, give her an 'enriched environment.' Some enrichment she got – two big sisters competing with her for space in that tiny bedroom. It will be nice when we can move someplace with a big yard, give them lots of room to be active in. I don't want to end up with three plump little couch potatoes for daughters. Maybe we can go the playground for a game of catch before the birthday party – Beverley always takes such a long time over the cake, getting it perfect."

Character #2

Rachel sits on the lower bunk, a large picture book open on her folded legs. Lisa and Emily are in the living room watching TV, so she has the room to herself. She has curly blond hair, cut as short as Mommy will allow, and Daddy's gray eyes. She is wearing a T-shirt with Smurfs on it (Lisa and Emily's hand-me-downs were always horribly cute) and orange denim shorts with a small hole in the seat. She has lost interest in the book and is gazing at the wall opposite, where she has taped up every single picture of horse, pony or donkey, from every single magazine Mommy and Daddy ever get.

"I wonder what Daddy's getting me for my birthday? Maybe a pony? Daddy and Mommy are always talking about not having enough money, and we'd better wait until we get a house in the country so we have room to keep a pony, but I bet that's just stories. When Daddy has a present for Mommy, he pretends he doesn't and lets her think he forgot and then surprise, he has the present anyways. I bet he's doing that with my pony. I wonder if he'll get home early tonight for my birthday? I love it when he comes home early because we can play ball. Lisa and Emily don't like to play ball with Daddy, but I do. When I make a good catch, he picks me up and gives me a big hug, and I like that, too. He smells so good, especially when he's hot. He's the best-smelling grown-up in the world."

Okay, so these are the characters. Stay tuned for the argument …

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unclear on the concept

Being well-meaning is good, but it's not enough …

Something that bugs me a whole lot is people who are all gung-ho about saving the planet (reducing our carbon footprint, saving energy, saving water, saving the whales, saving … whatever) but who don't really have a good idea how to go about all of that saving.

One of my pet peeves is the so-called "water-saving" toilets that flush themselves whenever they feel like it. How does it save water for a toilet to flush itself when flushing is not needed, especially when somebody is seated upon said toilet and isn't finished? And then, to make matters worse, once the person IS finished, there is often not a manual flush option, so matter that should be flushed goes unflushed. Don't the powers-that-be trust the general public to flush the toilet when a flush is needed? Just give us toilets that use very little water per flush; let us decide when to flush.

Many of the people who are most vocal about saving the planet are also not terribly well in tune with it. It seems they often come from urban or privileged suburban backgrounds, and they aren't so aware of the realities. One current example is a project called the WaterPod, in which a colony of artists is attempting to create a self-sustaining ecosystem on a barge. They found out it wasn't so easy as they thought it would be. "I kind of thought we'd just be able to float around," one crew member said. NOT! Gardening takes work, and so does maintaining a boat. It's not the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, if this crew learns from the experience, it will be A Good Thing.

One of the most horrible examples of "unclear on the concept" was the 20th anniversary Earth Day celebration in New York City in 1990. Pat and I had been to a conference of Girl Scout leaders in upstate New York, and we had a weekend in the big city before returning home to Iowa and Minnesota and Kansas and Alaska and New Mexico. First, there was a parade. It consisted of a bunch of people dressed up in primitive costumes mostly depicting endangered species, with the occasional unicorn or mermaid thrown in, carrying banners saying things like "Save the Wales" (yes, that's how it was spelled, although the guys carrying that banner were wearing little other than some body paint that seemed to depict orcas). Yes, the participants in the parade had a lot of enthusiasm, but they really didn't seem to go much beyond trendy sayings. There was no meaning.

Worse was the rally in Central Park following the parade. Pat and I didn't know how awful it really was until after we got home and we saw the footage on the television news showing the bulldozers corralling the 600 tons of garbage that had been left in the park by the rally participants. Here we were, a group of people from an organization that abides by the saying, "Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it," and we were observing an event that was supposed to be about saving the planet, and the people participating in that event were completely clueless. We may have been just hicks from the sticks, but we were utterly aghast. I don't think that an Earth Day event in Iowa or Minnesota or Kansas or Alaska or New Mexico would have resulted in much trash to pick up at all – maybe if the trash cans or recycling bins got full, there would be some overflow.

Good intentions alone are not going to save the planet. The good intentions have to be backed up by good science and realistic expectations. Carrying a misspelled banner while wearing body paint to look like an orca is not going to save the orcas. Thinking that operating a self-sustaining ecosystem will be like the Garden of Eden is utterly unrealistic. Toilets that flush themselves when they don't need to be flushed will not save water. Holding a rally to promote ecological consciousness while producing 600 tons of trash is completely counter-productive.

The WaterPod people might perhaps learn from the EarthShip people. It's a similar concept – create an ecologically self-sustaining dwelling – and while it's in a different environment (the desert near Taos, New Mexico, as opposed to the water off New York City), many of the same principles apply. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the EarthShip was at a similar level of development as the WaterPod is today: idealistic people planning an idealistic way of living. Early on, the EarthShip had similar problems to the WaterPod, such as people discovering that idealism alone isn't enough to make a project successful; some hard work is involved as well, and there are hardships in the lifestyle that many modern Americans aren't willing to tolerate. The good news is that, with four decades' worth of improvements, the EarthShip has become a viable mode of living. Houses are spacious and comfortable, and improvements in technology have led to better solar and wind electricity generation, more efficient storage battery systems, and appliances that consume far less energy while providing greater convenience.

But even with all the improvements, EarthShips aren't for everyone. It's important to provide ways that people can contribute to the well-being of the planet without making a huge sacrifice, and without moving to the desert outside of Taos. Mainstream developers need to provide housing that people will buy that is also environmentally friendly. Artistic Homes is such a developer. People who buy in one of Artistic's green subdivisions have three options: a small photovoltaic system on the roof that provides for about a third of the house's electricity needs; a larger system that provides for all of the needs of an all-electric home; or, for those who prefer to use natural gas for heating and cooking, a yet larger photovoltaic system that provides more power than the house needs, with the surplus to be sold to the electric company to pay for the cost of the natural gas. All three options also have a direct-heat solar system for heating water. The idealists may scoff at such a conformist solution, especially one that is produced by a big-business developer, but the thing is, it's realistic and doable, and the only sacrifice people have to make is paying more for their homes – and that added cost is offset at least partially by tax incentives.

Meanwhile, people who already own homes and aren't looking to buy new ones can – if they have money – install solar or wind powered electrical generating systems. While it might be romantic to be "off the grid," being on the grid is actually an advantage nowadays, because a battery storage system becomes unnecessary. The way it works here in Albuquerque is typical – if a customer has a "cogeneration facility" (solar or wind power generation system), then when the customer is producing more power than the customer is consuming, the meter runs backward. If the customer consumes more than the customer feeds into the system, the customer is charged the retail price for the electricity. But if the customer generates more than is consumed, the power company pays the customer the wholesale price. Essentially, the customer becomes one of the providers of the product, and the power company resells it for the usual profit margin.

That's good for those people who have the wherewithal to install their own generating systems. The power company here in Albuquerque has proposed a way of allowing people with less money to get in on the action – the power company will lease space on the customer's roof for a photovoltaic system owned by the power company, and the power company will pay the customer rent for the rooftop plus a royalty based on how much the system produces beyond what the customer uses. At first glance, that looks good. The customer doesn't have to come up with the upfront cash to buy the system. However, in asking state regulators for permission to create this plan, the electric company has requested a tradeoff – that the electric company be allowed to regulate the number of customers with their own cogeneration facilities, and the size of those facilities. That's not good. We want to encourage cogeneration, not put caps on it. The question now is whether public outcry can sway the overtly corrupt regulators. This is where we need the fanatics – except they don't seem to understand the issue. They're just blindly opposed to anything the power company wants, and they don't produce any sound reasoning to back up their arguments.

Yes, we want to save the planet. Yes, we admire the idealists. But the actual saving of the planet is going to happen when sound thinking replaces fanatical and ignorant idealism. And sometimes, corporate America is an ally rather than an enemy.

But as far as I'm concerned, self-flushing toilets are always the enemy.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Avoiding the sandwich

Pat and I may have lucked out on this one …

Pat has headed to South Texas again to take care of the Old Soldier and various matters relating to his finances and medical care. He is dealing with messes both physical (the house is deteriorating, and the Old Soldier's live-in companion has not been keeping up with housework or taking out the trash or stuff like that) and figurative (unpaid bills, undeposited dividend checks, a large sum of money on the verge of being sent to the state Unclaimed Property office, mixups between the nursing home, doctors, Medicare and others). When he phoned tonight, I was arriving home and mentioned that I had just found a cat mess in the hallway; Pat assured me that he would much rather be cleaning up cat vomit than what he's having to clean up there.

Often, people in Pat's and my age range get classified as the "sandwich generation" – trapped between caring for our aging parents at the same time as we're caring for our own children. At least we seem to have dodged that bullet. Gerald is largely self-maintaining now; we sent him off to college last year, and this year, he moved into an off-campus apartment. Financially, he's better off than Pat and I are, thanks to a college fund that the Old Soldier started for him when he was 5. He still has to be frugal if the money is to last for four years, so he shops at thrift shops for clothing and furnishings for the apartment, and he also got a part-time job – but he is not a financial drain on us. And he's independent enough that he doesn't need his parental units taking care of his every little problem.

Others in the blogosphere have recently written about their offspring's milestones of independence, often wistfully. Tillerman has just seen the second of his two sons get married, while Yarg ensconced his son in the son's first apartment. There are interesting resonances especially with Yarg, involving not only the same milestone as Gerald's, but also architecture (Gerald's original intended major) and Frank Lloyd Wright (a major presence in Tempe/Scottsdale and part of why Gerald chose architecture as a major and ASU for college). Gerald has since decided to switch majors from architecture to photography, but there are still the parallels.

Meanwhile, I don't seem to be feeling the same sense of loss as other parents watching the fledglings leave the nest. Maybe it's because Gerald's always been independent, and we've always encouraged that. He's been doing his own laundry since he was in middle school; he's always enjoyed cooking; the state of cleanliness (or lack thereof) of his room was pretty much his own business. His last year of high school, he wasn't home all that much, with Boy Scouts (after he turned 18, he became an Assistant Scoutmaster), the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra, Key Club, his German class trip to Germany, his We The People team trip to the national finals in Washington … so when he went off to college, there wasn't much of a change.

Instead, I'm actually feeling relief. As Pat and I – especially Pat – deal with the increasing needs of the Old Soldier, it's good to know that Gerald, rather than being an additional drain on us, is actually a support. During his summer break, he traveled to South Texas along with Pat to help take care of the Old Soldier.

Meanwhile, Gerald turns 20 in 12 days. What should Pat and I get him for his birthday?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Coincidence?

Or is this a new sort of political information gathering?

Here in Albuquerque, the race for mayor is on, with two challengers hoping to unseat the incumbent mayor. He, in turn, waited until the last minute to declare his official candidacy, turning in his paperwork late on the last day before the deadline.

When he finally did declare his candidacy, he opened an office in a small strip mall just around the corner from Gerald's old high school. The building is new, but it was completed just in time for the economic downturn, so it's nearly empty. There's only one other tenant – a psychic offering tarot and palm readings, among other services.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review: The Art of Spelling

A book that is both fun and useful, depending on who you are

Normally, I cringe when I see Pat browsing the bookshelves in a thrift shop. We already have far more books than we have shelf space for, and he inevitably brings home a few more.

The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method, by Marilyn vos Savant, which Pat picked up for two bucks, is an exception. First, it’s nice and small, so it doesn’t take up much of the precious shelf space. Second, the value of the information it contains is huge.

The first two-thirds of the book (“The Madness”) is an analysis of spelling – its importance, characteristics of good and bad spellers (less intelligent people are generally poor spellers, but poor spellers are not usually less intelligent), psycholinguistic processes involved in spelling, and why English ended up being the most infuriatingly inconsistent language to try to spell. The second section (“The Method”) has a more practical orientation: It gives the reader specific analysis and strategies to help the reader develop a customized method to deal with his or her own spelling bugaboos.

The first section of the book will appeal to scholars, word-lovers, history buffs, amateur psychologists, and the like. Vos Savant has put together some very good research with a few interviews with primary sources, and she presents the material in a light-hearted way that makes for more entertaining reading than the typical scholarly tome.

It’s the second section, however, that I find most useful. For ages, I have been searching for something that will be useful for those of my students who have trouble spelling (and thanks to spelling-checkers, that number is growing). These students are classified as “developmental,” although I prefer to think of them as “pre-college” – that is, they do not yet have the writing skills to succeed in college-level courses, so they’re working on developing those skills. These students are not helped by advice to “read lots and lots, because the more you read, the more you will learn how words are supposed to be spelled.” Yes, children who grow up amid great heaps of books and who therefore read a lot for pleasure will assimilate good spelling. That doesn’t help a high-school dropout who never associated reading with pleasure and who now has no time for recreational reading because she’s working two jobs to support her 3-year-old daughter and pay the rent while also attending college.

Another method of dealing with spelling is to bombard the student with a gigantic heap of “rules,” most of which aren’t really rules anyway – they’re just descriptions of how, in most cases, words operate. Not only are these rules overwhelming; because they are simply telling how spelling operates most of the time, they don’t cover all situations. A student who blindly follows such rules (assuming he can remember them all) will make mistakes.

One more piece of advice I often see about spelling is just simply to memorize and memorize and memorize. That may work for a 13-year-old spelling bee champion (although such a champion does learn shortcuts to cut down the required memorization). Rote memorization separates words from their meanings, while my students need to learn to spell words within a living paragraph, the words’ natural habitat.

For a short time, I had found a Website that gave good spelling advice, in a way that was helpful, accurate, and non-overwhelming. Unfortunately, that site was only available for about two semesters, and then it disappeared – no forwarding address. I Googled the site’s author to see whether she might show up somewhere else, but I came up dry. I was left with whatever advice was in the grammar text my community college’s department was using in a particular term (ranging from generally inadequate to totally inadequate) and my own advice (mostly inadequate).

Now, I have discovered this book, published nearly a decade ago, that in its second section deals with spelling in a way that, except for a couple of forays into erudition, is exactly what my students need. The first section of the book, with all of its scholarly stuff, will go way over their heads for the time being – but if they can get through the pre-college work and into college studies, they’ll be able to get it eventually. What’s valuable for them right now is the practical stuff in the second part of the book.

In that part of the book, vos Savant provides a couple of diagnostic tests that will allow a student to find a pattern in his or her spelling errors. This diagnosis is hugely useful: I often find that a student with poor spelling says, “I can’t spell anything right; I’m hopeless.” But what’s really the case is that the student has problems only with one or two issues, such as unaccented vowels or doubled consonants. Because the student has usually run his work through a spelling checker, I can’t always tell what that student’s error pattern is – all of the words in his essay are correctly spelled; they’re just not the right words. If the student knows what his particular spelling issues are, then when he’s proofreading (which he should do BEFORE running the spelling checker), he can look primarily for those particular problems.

In addition, vos Savant gives advice for dealing with each particular spelling problem. Once a student knows that her spelling problems deal with apostrophes, she can learn the relatively short list of rules about apostrophes, and she’s home free.

Another issue that vos Savant deals with is different learning styles. Something that works for a student with an auditory learning style may be totally useless for a student with a motor learning style. So vos Savant will recommend that a student with a motor learning style write a word (both with a pen and on a computer) repeatedly to embed the shape of the word in the student’s motor memory, while for an auditory student, she will recommend pronouncing the word carefully and hearing how its sounds reflect its spelling.

Now I have some tools that I can give to my students to help them with their spelling. Thank you, MvS.

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