Monday, September 15, 2014

Summer Gone

This year was the year of the wet, cool summer in Baltimore. Oh, there was a day here and there when the temps were uncomfortable, but mainly it was a cool summer. Last winter was cold and bitter--and if we believe the Farmer's Almanac--it will be cold and bitter this coming winter.

Right now, though, it's cool, sunny and fallish. Here and there the leaves are starting to turn. In some parts of our country, it's not cool or sunny or wet. Some places are suffering from drought. Some are facing another round of floods from Hurricane Odile in the southwest. The country is pretty much in weather flux.

For all the influence the weather has on our lives, I find it odd how little attention we pay to it. Every time there's a disaster, folks say things like, "I didn't realize it would be this bad." Or, "Wow! I didn't know it was supposed to rain (snow, spawn tornadoes, hail, or climb into the triple digits)." We have the greatest collection of scientific weather tools we've ever had. Why are we failing to take advantage of them?

Well. Summer's rolling out. Fall will whiz by with all the colored leaves and pumpkins and Halloween. Then bam!  Winter will be here. So before that happens, enjoy the sunny days. Get out there and breathe. Let the sun kiss your face. Walk beneath the trees while they still have leaves. Listen to the birds before they all fly south. Summer's going, going, almost gone...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Common Core

Back in the 'olden' days, I learned how to count with dried pinto beans, or buttons, or used match sticks. Then some idjet came along and decided that beans, buttons, and match sticks were dangerous objects in the hands of first graders so they substituted paper strips. The strips were harder for small hands to manipulate and weren't nearly as hardy, but there ya go. It was still low tech learning.

We learned how to read by a combination of phonics and sounding out words. If you knew the phonics code, you could put together the various letter blocks together to make word. Pick + lock = picklock. Cat + nap = catnap. And so on. In the same way, you could deconstruct a word to sound it out.

Then the REAL idiots came along and decided that wasn't complicated enough. Phonics was baaaaad. Counting with paper strips was baaaaad. And lo, some nudjit with power in the school systems decreed that would no longer be the way kids learned.

Sight reading and New Math were introduced. Now we have a nation of adults who can't read OR add or subtract. So someone had a bright idea. We'll go back to the OLD way. Everyone got on the bandwagon. Educators saw the light! Most children learned.

As all things work, a new cycle rolled around and someone decided they had a better way. Because some children had difficulty learning. Instead of focusing on WHY they didn't learn--instead of giving them personal help--someone decided EVERYONE should learn at the same level. And our government made it a law, totally ignoring reality. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.

The truth is some children will NEVER learn more than basic skills. Some will be fortunate to learn to dress themselves and feed themselves. And some children are so advanced they can do high school work in second grade. The vast majority are in the middle. Every child should be challenged to the best of his ability. But we can't do that by treating them as cookie cutter kids. And we can't do it by inventing gibberish ways to teach them.

Now we have something called Common Core. The math problem above is an example. I foresee a new generation of kids who can't add or subtract. But that's okay! They'll have electronic devices to think for them. Of course, no one is considering what will happen when all our devices fail. Folks who have graduated in the last forty years have far fewer skills than those before that. Every generation depends more on technology and less on personal knowledge and skill. Whenever that happens, a small core of individuals ends up with all the political power. That's what we see happening now.

Common Core. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!

A fake weather forecast from Empire News is making its way around the Internet. It forecasts unimaginable snowfall and incredibly cold temps. It was well written and fooled a lot of folks. That doesn't particularly bother me. People need to read with discrimination. Really.

But it does bring up the question of whether anyone would pay attention if the warning was serious. Our government--and others--frequently make the excuse of possible wide-spread panic for failing to warn their populations about various catastrophic possibilities. I believe so few people would pay attention that it wouldn't matter if they announced aliens were going to land tomorrow. Most folks would A) shrug and go on about their business, or B) be so busy reading about the latest celebrity scandal they'd never know about it. (Until the aliens were rounding them up to ship them off to some distant planet. Then they'd think it was a movie stunt.)

Is it a case of the authorities crying "Wolf!" too often? I don't think so. I suspect it's more a case of people who are too oblivious to their surroundings to care. Perhaps there's also a lack of perception or insight about what is important as opposed to what is entertainment. People don't want to be anxious about everyday living.

The hunk and I have been watching a mystery series set during World War II. There is a considerable bit of the show that portrays what the general populace endures in their day to day existence. Blackouts, shortages, rationing, air raids. And always, there are those individuals who refuse to accept reality, who deny that any of it is necessary--because the enemy can't be 'that bad'. Why should they be deprived just because the government wants to instill panic?

We see a similar attitude every time we're warned about hurricanes or blizzards. People don't want to accept the inconvenience of preparation. Then, there's a huge disaster like Katrina or Sandy and all those folks who didn't prepare for the worst, for the unimaginable, are busy pointing fingers at the authorities. "You should have warned us," they cry.

I want to know, were you listening? Probably not. Did you pay attention to the warnings and take responsibility for your own welfare? No. Every year we hear the same refrain after major disasters--where it the government? Why aren't they here, helping us, rescuing us? These are the same people who ignored the warnings.

When did we become so weak as a country that we can't figure out how to prepare for our family's safety? Are we really that hopeless? What if there was no prospect of help? Think about all the pictures we see on the news of refugees fleeing from war, or flood, or earthquakes.

Now. Picture what our country would be without our various agencies. Yes, yes, yes, I know you think they don't move fast enough. But what if they weren't there at all? Are you ready? Are you aware of possible catastrophe? Are you listening? Or do you think they're just crying, "Wolf?"

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On Strike

A good friend and fellow author wrote about burnout. She had some excellent things to say. Check our her post HERE. Burnout is often brushed to the side or pooh-poohed by folks as unimportant or imaginary. Last year I confessed to another writer that I just wasn't interested in writing and he fired back a pithy suggestion to get with the program.

Well, that's not always possible. 

I would point out that writing--as any creative endeavor--is not something you just sit down and do like counting matchsticks or doing sit-ups. There's an element requiring thought and imagination. And sometimes, sadly, our imagination and thought processes go on strike. Unfortunately, those around us, our significant others, our peers, and our friends can't see the picket signs waving inside our brains. 

When we see striking workers on the street, we generally have an idea about what they want. Their demands are right there on the picket signs. More money. Shorter hours. Benefits.

But when a writer goes on strike, it's difficult to make out what the problem might be. I suspect for a lot of writers the number one demand is Feed Me. Not the junk food and coffee writers seem to inhale by the barrel as they write, but real food--a balanced diet-- and water. We can't write well on shoddy fuel.

Second on the list is probably Go Outside. Walk around. Take pictures. Talk to people other than your family. Observe the world around you. Writing is a solitary occupation. You can't do it without mental input. With the best of intentions you can't get that input by reading, watching television, or texting. It requires interaction with others.

Third would definitely be Exercise. Jogging is not required. Movement is. For the most part, writing, researching, planning are all sedentary. Our bodies are not designed to be sedentary. If there's a great issue our descendants will pay for, it's the sedentary life technology has fostered. Turn on the radio and dance. Sing while you vacuum. Park at the far end of the parking lot. Go swimming. There are real mental benefits in movement. Sitting leads to sluggishness. That's why we get so many good ideas in the shower.

Finally, the last demand might be Visit Your Doctor. As much as we want to deny it, we're aging every single day. And with aging (no matter what your current age is) things change. Particularly with the sedentary life, there are a zillion things that can happen. High blood pressure. Thyroid changes. Diabetes. High cholesterol. The first symptom of many of these conditions is...fuzzy thinking. That's the signal. Go. Talk to your doc about how you're really feeling. The truth. The WHOLE truth.

Pay attention to those strike pickets. Changes just might make them go away. And then we can all get back to what we love best. Writing.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Plot Craters and TSTL Characters

Whilst knitting away at the sock factory, the hunk and I have been watching various re-runs (mostly mysteries) on Netflix. I entertain myself by pointing out the plot holes for the hunk. Some of them are sooooo huge, though, he spots them even before I do. We also critique the TSTL (too stupid to live) characters--the ones who inevitably die before the first break. And lastly, we make wagers on whether folks will scream when they find a body.

It's minor entertainment, but our own.

One memorable episode had it all. It opened with this woman flinging her second story window open and screaming, "Help! There's someone in my house!" It was the middle of the night. And I know no one who would dress and go to see what was going on. Why not telephone the police?

Anyway, all these men from the village arrive to rescue her, only to be stymied by a way to get in. No one seemed inclined to break down the door as they were more entertained by her nightie. Never fear, it turned out she kept a spare key under a flower pot by the front door. Problem solved. No intruder was found, but the police were called--and a report made.

Next night. She lets her dog out, in heavy rain. Afterwards, she locks up and goes to bed. And later wakes to discover her back door is open and there are boot prints on the floor by the back door. Where is the dog? No mention of him. No barking. However, she decides someone is in her house and calls the police inspector, then grabs a knife from the kitchen before running screaming into the rain. Really?

Police arrive. LOTS of police. And they discover a body in the garden. Ahhhhh. The plot starts to pick up speed. Cops suggest she change her locks so the next day she arranges for the local handyman to change the locks. When she arrives home from work, he demonstrates all the improvements he's made, then providentially produces a bottle of wine to share with her. And idiot that she is, she agrees. Later, when he pronounces he's too drunk to drive home, she suggests he can sleep it off in her summer house.

In the middle of the night she wakes up and decides to go check on this turkey in the summer house. In the pouring rain. (It rained every night in this episode!) And guess what? The handyman is dead--murdered.

Police arrive. LOTS of police. Blah, blah, blah.

Next day, she invites a different man (her neighbor) to spend the evening because she's afraid. He agrees. Then she suggests he spend the night in her spare room. He agrees. Then, in the middle of the night she sleepwalks into the spare room and...well, when he objects, she wakes up screaming. The entire village pours out to see what's up. The police arrive. LOTS of police. (By now, I would have rented a room in the village!) And she suggests they lock her up--the first sensible suggestion in this show. BTW, after the first night, the dog pretty much disappears. So what happened to the dog?

In the meantime, the other villagers have been planning their annual festival night complete with dinner and auction to raise money to repair the village hall. Two factions have formed. One wants to have a fancy new dinner with 'high class wealthy' guests and expensive items to auction. The other plans to carry on the way they always have. One particularly obnoxious social climbing woman is the leader for the new plan. This story line is interwoven with the main plot line.

Suddenly, with almost no preparation, the police inspector arrives at the solution to the murders. There's no explanation for how he arrived at his conclusion, but ta-da! In a few moments, with his sidekicks, he demonstrates how it all was done and reveals the killer.

BUT, there was one redeeming feature of this story. It turned out that the murderer was the snobby woman's husband. And in one brilliant stroke, she totally gets her comeuppance. Yes!

Now. Guess what the dippy heroine did for a living? She was a school teacher. Really.

The hunk and I have watched this episode several times...and we get a lot of laughs each time. What were the writers thinking? 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kissing A Frog

You can't ever tell what you'll get when you kiss a frog. You might just get warts. Frogs can be deceiving. The most beautiful frog could turn out to be a serial killer. The ugliest frog could be a man or woman of loving compassion. Choosing a frog based on appearance is an iffy proposition.

A lot of men and women develop online 'relationships' based solely on the personality their friend displays for them...with no idea whether there is truth or falsity behind the image. They're kissing the frog without having a clue whether they'll get a prince or the court jester or even the hangman.

I worry about folks who share all sorts of intimate details with their online friends. I'm not even talking about things like identity theft or online scams. What about predators that use their online disguise to stalk their victims? How easy does the average person make it for a predator?

What about you? Are you kissing the wrong frogs?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Threads

This morning I saw a weather forecast from Farmer's Almanac for the coming winter. It's grim. Back in the days when the Farmer's Almanac was the Weather Channel of its day, such a forecast was a warning to immediately make preparations for bad weather. For the women, that meant extra canning and stocking up on food supplies. For the men, it meant chopping wood, repairing the family buildings and possessions, even possibly stocking extra food for their animals. And of course, the women prepared their families with warm clothing.

With the advent of sock knitting machines--and the easy availability of socks--home sock knitting faded away. In recent years, there's been an increased interest in sock knitting. Those of you who follow my blog know the hunk and I have started knitting socks. I'm sure many of you are scratching your heads and asking, "Why?" As my son commented, "Just go to Wal-Mart..."

But there are lessons to be learned (aside from the actual knitting) when you sit down to knit a sock. As many of you know, I write romances and I started knitting socks as something of a research project because one of my heroes was a sock knitter. I wanted to be accurate when I mentioned any actions on his part that referred to knitting socks. Right off the bat, I discovered my hero was possessed of great wells of patience. Otherwise, he would have thrown the needles and yarn across the room (exactly as the hunk did this last weekend).

Then there's the necessity for concentration. Distraction will result in unraveling huge hunks of sock because you've skipped a step or knitted when you should have purled or did some other boneheaded thing. A couple weeks back I posted a pic of my sock when I did exactly that. Time was lost while I picked out my mistake.

And of course, the most important thing is the ability to FINISH. There are a lot of things we attempt in life that somehow never get finished. We grow bored. We surrender to fatigue. We lose interest. In the end, we cast the project to the side and move on to something else. When knitting socks, there are numerous points that tempt us to quit. But if we do...we don't have socks to warm our feet.

Imagine those days gone by when the entire family depended on one or two people to knit enough socks to warm their feet through winter. What if they'd quit? Given up? Especially for the pioneers, it wasn't a matter of running down to the store to buy a pair. Most folks did without unless they could afford to buy a pair from someone in their village. Even then, it was an expensive proposition.

Socks do more than warm the feet. They protect the feet from sweaty shoes. And keep the feet clean. Guard them from bacteria. Provide a cushion against blisters. Yeah. Socks are more important than we think...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Love and Weddings

The hunk and I went to a wedding yesterday. My best friend, Jane married the love of her life, Charlie. It was the most joyful wedding I've ever attended. There was laughter and (a few) tears, hugs, kisses and more laughter. Every person attending was delighted for the happy couple.

I think it was because both the bride and groom have been through the fire...and FINALLY, I say FINALLY they are embarking on a new life together. They're perfect for each other. I wish for them great happiness, joy, and most of all never-ending love.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How To?

I'm reasonably intelligent and unlike most of the males in our species, I'm not averse to reading directions, maps, recipes, patterns or diagrams. If I want to learn something, I search for the appropriate information and I go for it. The first attempt might not be a success, but I'll stick with it until I've mastered it.

As long as the directions are complete!

After struggling with recipes, patterns, and directions in the past two or three weeks, I've reached the inescapable conclusion there should be a college course on process writing. You know...step one, step two, etc.

Writing directions requires an elementary talent--breaking down the process to the most basic steps. Most of the directions I've encountered in the last year or so skip some of the most important steps and then render the remaining steps in pure gobbledygook.

It's worse when the pattern/directions have strange exotic terms or acronyms that only apply to the job at hand. Such terms should be explained the first time you encounter them. I don't care if the term was explained back on page 16. Why must I go looking for it? For instance, WYB. Why not simply say WYB (With Yarn in Back) and go on about the business?

Now, I confess my brain does not process strings of random letters very well. A minor stroke will do that to you. But once I firmly attach a meaning to the random string, I do just fine. I recognize it for what it is and go on.

However, when steps are left entirely out, that's a different story. What am I supposed to do with part A? Where exactly is tab H supposed to be inserted?

The trouble is this--experts who write directions forget what it was like when they weren't experts. Teaching is much the same. A brilliant mathematician might have trouble teaching beginners because he doesn't mentally walk through the steps anymore. He doesn't need to. But his students end up lost because they aren't ready to make intuitive leaps.

At my last three jobs, I wrote process books for all the numerous tasks I was responsible for. After all, even I liked to take the occasional vacation or sick day. The process books were so complete, even a new employee could carry out the tasks--if they followed the steps as outlined.

We're not all ready to make intuitive leaps, hoping for the best, when we begin a new project. There's no such thing as too much information when you're reading directions. Explain everything. Really.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dancing in the Streets

Riots come...and riots go. Generally, whatever the flashpoint, the real reason for the riots is not even remotely connected to the street wars. I lived through the sixties in Chicago. Rioters burned down much of the city. Looters stole and robbed. I remember being evacuated from my workplace in armored buses. And the violence continued.

Rioting isn't about some single injustice perpetrated by the overlords. Rioting is about anger--long term, systemic anger and resentment. Whatever the primary root cause, the result is a slowly smoldering anger that only requires an opportunistic flashpoint to flare into a roaring bonfire.

The sad thing is nothing is accomplished by rioting except loss of life and destruction. Nothing positive comes from fighting in the streets. It's exactly like a child misbehaving to get attention. The result is never what he's looking for. And the cycle continues.

As I look back at all the riots I've witnessed over the years, I see no positive outcomes. None. Dialogue is not possible when opposite sides are dodging bullets and missiles. Flames just feed on the anger. And innocent bystanders frequently find their lives in ruins through the destruction of their property. Don't tell me looting and rioting is because some young man was shot.

Looting and rioting is carried out by angry people. Anger and despair are the reasons those folks are out there throwing Molotov cocktails. The law-abiding folks are at home. Or praying in church. Or grieving their dead.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Promises

 Fifty-three years ago today, my dad and stepmother married. As you can see from the picture above, she was taking on quite a job. My brothers and I were a handful in the best of circumstances...on the good days. On the bad days? Yeah, any parent has been there for the bad days. She must have wondered what she'd gotten herself into.

They're both in their eighties now. All those hopeful kids in the photo are senior citizens with families of their own. And all of us learned something about promises and sticking it out, through thick and thin, from that young hopeful bride and groom.

When I married, the idea of divorce never crossed my mind. It wasn't an option. Oh, I know there are valid reasons for divorce. I believe there are times when there's no other choice. But back then--back when I stood next to my new stepmother in a grape-colored dress (boy, I LOVED that dress!), divorce wasn't in my universe.

Marriage was about promises. And promises only count if they're kept.

It's sad that promises don't seem to be as important today. Long-married couples are more of a rarity. Couples think they've been married forever when they reach the five year mark. Heh. Some days five minutes can seem like forever.

But fifty-three years is quite an accomplishment. They weren't young kids just out of high school when they married. I look at them now and they look soooo young and yet, I know they both had already faced grief and pain. In spite of that, they retained enough hope to face the future. Maybe that's the vital ingredient. Hope.

In any case, I wish them blessings and happiness for all their remaining years. Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

What Can I Do?

I have several friends and family members who are dealing with chronic illness, emotional distress, family issues, cancer or other serious illnesses. I speak to them on the telephone, in person (not very often because they live far away) or via various electronic means. The problems they are coping with grieve me on multiple levels, but one particular one is this: How can I help from a long distance?

It's difficult to know what I can do, other than provide a listening ear. Flowers aren't always appropriate. It seems that a card isn't enough. Telephone calls are not always convenient when the individual is trying to rest. I live too far away to cook meals or clean their homes or drive them to the doctor.

So...this is what I want to know. What can a concerned friend or relative do from long distance? How can we help bolster and support our loved ones who are struggling with terrible illnesses or stumbling through heartbreaking family problems?

I found one article--just today--about things NOT to say to folks dealing with cancer. I found it helpful on some general levels, but most of the suggestions were for friends and family that live near by. Cancer

Just tell me--what can I do? Tell me and I'll do it.