Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Author's Hand - Part 1

One thing the Van Winkle Project has accomplished for me in the past year is that it's opened up some time in my life.

I've estimated that I may have gained as much as an hour a day.

Formerly this time was devoted to reading the newspaper, watching the evening news, leafing through Newsweek.

Or I'd indulge in those little "cheat breaks" when I'd open a new tab on my web browser and dip into the NY Times on-line as an escape from what I was supposed to really be doing.

The extra time that has bounced back my way has allowed me to become better acquainted with the books I have in my library at home.

Squiggles on a Page
At some point I realized that I was mentally  tallying the number of autographed copies of certain books I'd been fortunate to accumulate over the years. Sometimes these acquisitions weren't even  by design. More than once I've simply bought a used book, opened it, and discovered it was signed by the author. Happy day! A real analogue bonus feature!

I picked up this copy of short stories at the annual
library book sale. It was signed by the author!

Most of the time I end up with a signed book in the usual way. I stand in line at a special event and meet up with the author at a table piled high with books.

Once it was even less calculated. I was at conference and I spotted the author of one of my favorite books as a child, A Wrinkle in Time. She was sitting by herself in a wheel chair. She proved approachable and very kind when I made a clumsy compliment and held out a book to be signed.

So not long ago I pulled out Ms. L'Engle's book and others and started looking at the signatures and reminiscing. That's when it occurred to me that maybe I could go to eBay or some other on-line source and add to my collection. Would it be affordable?

Well, it might be if I set a budget and refused to pay over a set amount per book.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Andy Rooney's Eyebrows - A Mini-Rant

Andy Rooney = Grumpiness and social nit-picking
elevated to prime time art form.
I never thought I'd say that I really need Andy Rooney.

Oh, when he first popped up at the end of 60 Minutes back in 1978 I liked him well enough.

Andy was an amusing old guy.

He singled out absurdities in the consumer society including poorly designed or silly products and illogical ways in which we behaved.

He wasn't so much a curmudgeon with a scalpel edge as a dull paring knife. An everyday whiner like the rest of us.

And he came at his critique from the angle and predilections of the oldtimers, people who grew up in those white picket fence days of pure Americana and came of age during World War II and now they wondered what in tarnation was wrong with everyone with their Pepsis and loud music.

But Andy began to wear on me. He complained about the lyrics to Michael Jackson's song "Bad." Andy's great insight, which he shared with the 60 Minutes audience by writingon a chalk board  the entire lyrics to the song, was this: "This song is repetitious. All the Great Gloved One says over and over is...":

"I'm bad. I'm bad. I'm really really bad."

Andy missed the point. No one except him cared about the lyrics to this song. "Bad" was not the national anthem, It wasn't Cole Porter. An MJ song was for dancing.

After that I started watching Andy's eyebrows. They seemed to grow even as he spoke on TV. I decided that if they were a country they would need their own military and domestic staff, especially skilled Japanese gardeners.

And people were making fun of Andy on Saturday Night Live, a sure sign that, like Barbara Walters (Barbara Wa-Wa per SNL) he had ceased to be an innovative bit of TV programming and was now just another institution ripe for parody.

Nowadays I'm not allowed to watch TV, but even pre-VWP I had stopped getting off at the CBS whistle stop called 60 Minutes. I hear that at age 92 Andy is still doing his thing at the end of the show. If so, more power to him and it's time to make a small confession.

I do have a bit of an Inner Andy Rooney.

You see there are some annoyances that plague my life. They lead to my private pathetic whinings. Grumblings that won't make one iota of difference. Cranky old man mini-rant. I have three of them.

Two leaders of the free world meet to solve the global crisis.
1- People Who Greet Me With "Hey!"

What is going on here? This supposed salutation is nearly as bad as the absurd "Whas-up?" It used to be that "Hey!" was what you said when you wanted to get someone's attention.

"Hey! Your fly is unzipped!"

"Hey! You're about to press the wrong button and make the nuclear reactor melt down!"

"Hey! What's this quill in your bed? Last night when you were drunk did you have sex with a porcupine?"

Now this half-hearted exhalation of not exactly real verbiage is directed at me whenever an acquaintance sees me.

"Hey, Al."

"Excuse me?"

When I asked around, someone suggested to me that "Hey" is a Southernism. Southerners are famous for condensing language as if it takes the same BIG effort to speak as it does to set down the sweet tea, get out of the porch swing and amble out into the sunlight and see if that's a coon or a cat up in the tree.

Personally, I think "Hey" is ubiquitous in places other than south of the Mason Dixon Line. This makes it a national problem. Okay, I know we're not supposed to care about such matters in our democratic, it's-all-good, casual, rumpled shirts and pants, no pretenses society, but, "Hey!" think about it. This word doesn't sound very intelligent or articulate, does it? We already have a surfeit of wrinkled wardrobes (see any J. Crew men's catalog). Do we have to have wrinkled greetings?

Guess who has the gall to tar me with the gimmicky "guy"?
2 - Restaurant Servers Who Call Us "Guys"

This began not long after servers took to introducing themselves by first name. "Hello, I'm Courtney. I'll be serving you tonight."

That didn't bother me. Research shows that people leave a better tip when they feel like they're dealing with a person with a name, a life, and rent to pay and maybe even porcupines in their bed. I believe the server ought to make a decent living.

But do they have to call my wife, son, and me "guys"? We're not a football team ("You guys need to run it up the middle, then kick the field goal"). Strictly speaking, one of us is not even a "guy." The assumed familiarity is jarring, but worse is the style of it. "Guys" bespeaks beer, pizza, and a leather couch from Wal-mart, not fine dining.

The golden era: She knew to have a good
day (or not) without anyone commanding it.
3 - Cashiers Who Urge Me to "Have a Good Day!"

I've long thought that much of what passes for conversation in our society is just what I call "tail wagging behavior." It's how we approach one another and signal that I'm okay with you and I'm not going to bite and, all rightie now, I'm going to leave you.

"Have a good day!" is tail wagging behavior par excellence. It's a gray flannel piece of verbiage.

I've heard rumors (unconfirmed) that it was invented in a good manners factory in Peoria circa 1976 when someone realized that we had long ago become too secular to say goodbye to strangers with a simple "God bless!" or "God be with you!"

What should fill the gap? How could we show that we wished the person well?

Maybe "We salute you, heroes of commerce!"

No, no. There had to be something better and more bursting with imperialistic designs upon the emotional state of millions of strangers.

"Have a nice day!"

Although this has morphed into "Have a good day!" it remains stupid and intrusive and nonsensical. And I'm not even talking about how the cashier will say "Have a good day!" at 9 p.m. when I go to the store for ice cream and the day is essentially over, is it not?

The real problem is that every single day I'm supposed to have a good day? And what would that look like? What if I don't want to have a good day? Is America going to decline? Will the American Dream turn to nightmare?

Let me ask this: Is a good day for every citizen that necessary to one's health and welfare? Is my having a good day really the only option? Maybe I want to have an excellent day or a challenging one or even a bluesy 24 hours that has a lot of texture and sad songs and chocolate built into it.

So it's time to pose the following impertinent question. Why should a person whose chief retail skill is passing items over a scanner be told by his or her employer that they're supposed to attempt to make a contribution to my psychological state of mind upon leaving the store?

Also, not to be overlooked is what this phrase does to a person who is actually, perish the thought!, already having a bad day. I can't begin to describe the nails pounded into flesh feeling I had when this phrase was mindlessly trotted out everywhere I went the week my mother had died and I was trying to stagger my way toward her funeral.

A Solution?
I believe if we apply ourselves can nip these Andy Rooneyistic terrible tongue tropes right in the bud. It will involve some assertion and photocopying.

To lead to a utopia of sane speech, I have prepared a convenient form that you can distribute to key people you're about to interface with. If they can read words on a page, our problems may be solved. If not, try sending them a text or a tweet. Something has to be done! - V.W.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Near Death Experience

Today I realized that this month represents a sobering anniversary.

Forty years ago I was lying in the Intensive Care Unit of the old Community Hospital (now demolished) in Anchorage, Alaska.

I was 18 years old and I was paralyzed up to my neck.

I could turn my head from side to side and that was it. I couldn't even close my eyelids.

The only reason I was alive was because I was connected to a respirator that breathed for me.

All of it happened very suddenly.

An Odd Tingling...
In Alaska the summers can be short and laden with a kind of northern sweetness. Under the kind auspices of the midnight sun, the alders, birch, fireweed, and other vegetation characteristic of the alpine forest stretch and grow around the clock as if they know that the time of green will soon be a thing of the past.

By the end of July the skies gray over, daily drizzle arrives, and the temperature starts to drop back into the 55-62 degree F range. Leaves on the trees at higher elevations turn yellow and gold even before the first official frost in September, By October comes the day that everyone in Anchorage wakes up, looks out the window, and the world has changed colors again.


I was in the Alaska rhythm that summer forty years ago, moving through the long days like a plant trying to pull into itself the last morsels of the warmth Alaska had to offer. I had a job in a grocery store. In the meat department my union-scale task was to clean up the trimmings the butchers left behind. I had just graduated from high school and I was about to head off to college on the East Coast.

I saw lots of red that summer at my job...in the form of meat.

There was a lot to be done and money to be saved and all was well. Even the rain that last week in July seemed more normal than ominous. I remember stepping around the puddles as I got out of the car gingerly and made my way to a doctor's office. I had suddenly started experiencing lower back pain. And my hands and feet were tingling oddly.

I was sent home with pain medication and orders to soak my sore back in the bathtub. The diagnosis was that I must have lifted something too heavy at my job. Well, that was a relief. Take it easy for a few days and I would be back to normal. The rain was keeping everyone in-doors anyway, so I wasn't missing a thing.

Less than a week later it was still raining and I returned to the doctor. The back pain had become excruciating to the point that I was lying in the floor and howling. And I was having trouble with my balance when I tried to walk. I felt generally weak all over.

"I'm sending you to the hospital for tests," the doctor said.


"Right now."

I didn't know it, but when I walked into the hospital I was taking the last steps I would be able to make for the next two months.

The old Anchorage Community Hospital at 8th and L Streets

The Ascending Phase
Here's a funny thing about being halfway to one's own funeral. If you're young and no one tells you that you might be dieing, well, then it's not necessarily going to occur to you. And why would the doctors or parents tell me something like that, anyway? I didn't have a terminal disease. What I had was Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

GBS is a rare nerve disease that afflicts 1 in 100,000 people. Technically it is "an acute inflamatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (AIDP)" that is caused by a malfunction in the person's immune system.Often there is a precursor illness in the form of flu or intestinal upset. Afterwards antibodies begin attacking one's own nerve cells and destroying their myelin sheath. When the nerve cells are damaged, paralysis results. In GBS there is a characteristic pattern of ascension from the feet upwards.

Not everyone with GBS is fully paralyzed. And there is other possible good news. The paralysis after ascending is not permanent. It descends. The last body parts to become paralyzed are the first to move again. In most cases, the patient, especially if young, can expect a full recovery. It may take months or it may take longer.

So I was delivered the different flavors of news as I lay in my bed. Good: I didn't have a brain tumor or meningitis. Good: I didn't have polio or MS. Bad: I had a weird nerve disease that would play with turning my body into concrete for an uncertain length of time. Good: When it was done, it would give my body back to me. Bad: I would have to learn to walk all over again. Good: I should return to normal.

Since the trach tube in my throat kept me from speaking I communicated by clicking my tongue. One of my parents held up a chart of the alphabet and I would click when their finger arrived at the letter I wanted. Click, click, click. Click, click, click, click.

H-o-w  l-o-n-g?

That would be my obsessive question from that point forward. When was I going to get out of the hospital? I was no longer in pain, but from the time I woke up around 6 a.m. to when I finally fell asleep late at night I lay in bed yoked to a great slab of boredom. What do you do when there's nothing you can do and you can't even sleep through it?

My obsession with being freed so I could go on to college and the life I had so carefully planned, probably served me well. It shut out darker thoughts, more realistic and chilling ones.

Turn for the Worse
It wasn't long before lying flat in a bed and breathing via a ventilator took a toll on my respiratory system. I developed pneumonia in both lungs.

I had two doctors, a husband and wife team. Dr. Shirley Fraser was my neurologist; Dr. Robert Fraser was a pulmonary specialist. From the beginning Dr. Shirley was the pessimist saying I might not walk for a year. Dr. Robert was the optimist who spoke in terms of a month or so of paralysis.

Later it was Dr. Robert who would tell my parents that on my worst night when I was burning with fever his optimism dissolved. He left the hospital, went home to Dr. Shirley, and said, "I wouldn't give a nickel for that kid's chances."

My parents were providing updates to relatives in the Lower 48. My grandmother in Oklahoma wrote, concerned because she'd heard that "Al got worse..."

I wouldn't hear this story of my taking a "bad turn" until much later after I was home and walking again. The reality of it would be hard to process. At the time I had never thought I was dieing.

It explained a lot of things, though. Why my parents seemed so drawn and serious as they took turns keeping vigil around my bed. 

Or the day I asked my father to take a Polaroid photo of me so I could see what I looked like hooked up to the breathing machine. My response when he showed the image to me: "I look like a corpse!" His response: A horrified look on his face.

Or the time when they plugged my trach hole briefly so I could gasp a few words and I said, "I quit!" and Dad stuck his tongue between his teeth and bit down on it, a sure sign he was furious. He let me know in so many words that my quitting was not something he was about to tolerate.

A Descending Phase
So now I know that I am a survivor. If there hadn't been that respirator unit at the hospital (the only one of its kind between Anchorage and Seattle I was told), I wouldn't be writing this today.

If I hadn't had two doctors who became personally and emotionally invested in my case, I might not be here either.

If on the "night of the nickel" as I think of it, something inside me had bounced the other way, I would have closed my eyes, heedless to what was happening, and I would never have awakened from the blackness.

And there were all those cards coming in every day to the hospital. The testimonies that people were praying for me. Does that kind of thing make a difference?

Cards and notes of concern poured in.
I've kept them in this box.

There came a day at the end of August when my father held up my right hand and challenged me to move a finger. We'd done this before. Always nothing. But this time...

My index finger quivered, just the slightest, tiniest amount. Absolute elation. It was as if I'd stepped to the plate and hit a bases loaded home run. It was like I'd gotten 1600 on my SAT.

He told me not to try to do it again until he could call someone to witness this first sign that the nerves were healing.

We celebrated that day.

Not long after that, I was able to breathe on my own and I left ICU. It had been nearly 30 days. An ambulance took me to an "extended care facility," which in this case was an old folks home dressed up in euphemistic terminology. I lived for a month with the aged and blatantly demented and went to daily rehab there to learn to walk again and do other things I'd always taken for granted--like fasten buttons on my shirt, hold a pencil, pucker my lips and whistle.

It would be quite some time before my legs returned to full strength and I could actually do something familiar like run or jump. Still, I would go to college, albeit one year later than originally planned.

In the end my life would turn out well. A couple of books published, then a wife, and a while later a son and a secure job at a university and a comfortable home. It's been easy to forget what was going on back in those days when the sky was dark and I had nothing to do but listen to the rain coming down outside my hospital window and dream of how great it would be to bite into a hamburger and drink a Coke on ice instead of have pink slurry forced down a tube into my stomach.

You'd think that anyone who had survived something like that would become a sort of spokesperson for LIFE! That I would run through the streets shouting, "Wake up, people! You're alive! You can actually walk and talk and make choices. Do you know how exceptional and tentative all that is! Make the most of it!"

I should be like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life after the angel has shown him enough that he finally "gets it."

A man transfigured by standing on the brink.

And perhaps I am changed by this experience. Now. All these years later. But it's too much to demand of the young. When we're young, unless circumstances slap us in the face, we always expect to live. We think the world exists to sustain us instead of the other way around. We just don't know any better. You can call that ignorance or fearlessness; I think it's both. - V.W.


Friday, August 19, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Coffee Mug

Since the Van Winkle Project is about avoiding not just the news but everything "new," I've tried to not know about product launches and cultural phenomenon. This has included books just appearing on bookstore shelves.

Giving up fantastic books that have appeared on the scene in the last 340-some days of my project would be difficult if it were not for the fact that there are already so many old ones lying around my house that I need to read.

So I finally got to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (first appearance in English 2008).

I'd heard the buzz about this book. I'd heard it might very well keep me up all night.

I misunderstood.

I thought the fans of this "international publishing sensation" meant by "buzz" that everyone was saying "You've got to read this!" and "Get ready for the film version!" I thought  "up all night" had to do with the high suspense factor of this book.

Now I know. They were actually talking about all the coffee.

Literary Beverages and More...
I seriously like coffee, so the coffee motif in TGWTDT was something I could not overlook as I read it. Fact is, if I even smell coffee, I'm like a hound that has a whiff of bacon. But even someone like myself who fires up the coffee maker twice a day was taken aback  by what Larsson was doing.

Now I know what you're going to say: "It's just coffee!" But you haven't seen an addictive substance abused like this before.

It's true that Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was the literary equivalent of a well stocked bar and wine cellar with it's copious references to characters drinking absinthes, beer, whiskey, champagne, and other libations.

Hemingway pours the booze.

In the liquor department John Cheever was no slouch either. His businessmen, all of them templates for the cable series Madmen, were equipped with a briefcase in one hand a whiskey soda or rye or martini in the other.

John Cheever: Armed for action...
Lastly, you can't read J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey without starting to have your eyes water from all the cigarettes being lit and the smoke rising into the air.

J. D. Salinger: Light me another one!
But I believe the late Steig Larsson outdoes all these literary gentleman. You have not seen coffee like this ever before.

The brazenness of preparing it over an open flame on the stove. The lacivious push of the lever of the pump pot.The sheer quantity swallowed and all those Adams apples dancing with delight.

If you're shy and not comfortable around these matters, do not (I repeat) do not read on.

Kaffe Spelled Backwards is Effak
Steig Larsson has a lot of tricks, surprises, and reversals lying in wait in his clockwork-like plot, but the coffee is right out in the open. The naughtiness, in fact, begins unpologetically on the first page:

Then one gets caught up in the story and hardly notices, but the references come often.

And it's not just our hero Blomkvist. It's our heroine Lisbeth Salander, too.

Together or alone, these 21st century sleuths are drinking coffee. And so are the people they meet.

Larsson's murder mystery and milieu are marinated in coffee.

Sweden Rocks (and ABBA Spelled Backwards is ABBA)
I've said already that I like coffee and I'll admit I like Sweden, too. We were once serial Saabs owners.

And I just remembered...I like Swedish pancakes. And I once went through an IKEA phase when all I could afford in my home was furniture held together with hex screws. And Alfred Nobel (a Swede!) invented dynamite. Then there was ABBA and they definitely did not rock, but we'll table further discussion of that...

The larger mystery Larsson brings to mind is one about Sweden itself. What's going on up north with the coffee? Are the Swedes as a people not getting enough sleep to make it through the day?

Whatever the answer to the riddle, others have noted the TGWTDT coffee phenomenon and written about it in cyberspace. One writer (who must have had an e-Reader making it easy to do a word search) found the word "coffee" 92 times in the novel. By her reckoning "coffee" occurs twice as many times as the word "murder."

It's nice to know that Steig Larsson had his priorities in order.

Coffee Futures
I'm wondering now what the impact of Larsson's so-called Milennium Trilogy has had on the world coffee market. Are people drinking more of the black stuff? Are they seeking out the Swedish roasters (Gevalia is the biggie in the U.S.)? Whenever they feel stressed, for example, feeling as if someone might be sighting them in with a moose rifle and drawing a bead on their cranium, do they shake the awful feeling with a good spoon-stiffening shot of coffee?

I guess my biggest concern is whether the average person who is not really initiated into and innoculated to coffee can withstand such large doses of what Mr. Larsson pours out of his pen.

This is a dark novel, in every sense of the word. To enjoy it, my advice is to stay the hand that would pour the cream or add the spoonful of sugar. You must either take the story as it is or keep your distance. Salander is raped and tortured by a S/M enthusiast. Blomkvist falls into the iron dungeon lair of a serial killer whose crimes are recounted in nauseating detail. This is stern stuff, but I think it's nothing compared to the coffee, oh, the coffee, the multiple cups of coffee...

Scalding. Black. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent mystery, well told with memorable characters. If you haven't read it, proceed at your own risk. If, on the other hand, you think you can handle it, pick up a copy, cue up the suggested soundtrack below, and start to enjoy. - V.W.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For the Teachers

Tomorrow our son gets up, slings his new backpack onto his shoulders, and returns to school.

His teachers, of course, have already gone to work and begun making their classrooms welcoming, prepared lesson plans, and sat through the inevitable meetings. At the university where my wife and I teach we will follow suit next week.

This seems like a good time to reflect upon just what it means to teach.

There a lot of popular ideas on this subject these days. One of them is "outcomes assessment"-based learning. The way I see it, the ideawhen separated from its academic jargoncomes down to something like this.

The classroom is a sort of factory and the teacher is earnestly pressing a mold over each student. By the time the teacher is done, one should be able to come in and measure the newly molded students and make sure they fit within the parameters and tolerances that have been mandated by experts in advance.

If the data (which must be collected frequently and presented in numerical form) shows the teacher achieving desired "outcomes," then students are taken off the assembly line and passed to the next level.

Long ago a fictional character who (along with Huck Finn)  is surely in the running for the title of "World's Worst Student" imagined an ideal classroom in which the students themselves were in charge of the educational factory.

I speak, of course, of the famous Pippi Longstocking and her fantasy about the best schools in the world.

We're not supposed to take Pippi's amusing fantasy seriously. After all, this is a recipe for education as anarchy, the inmates running the asylum. But there's something that gives me pause. It's what Pippi says about the role of the teacher.

There's no molding followed by measuring going on here. The teacher does one thing and does it well.

She (or he) unwraps the candy, throwing away the distracting tin foil and paper that's getting in the way, and tries to help the students eat as much sweet stuff as possible.

Hmm. What if we were to think of that metaphorically? What if a classroom's candy amounted to a ridiculously large, delicious storehouse of the world's knowledge, including all the history, archaeology, math, science, culture, art, language, literature, and other discoveries humans have made over time?

What if the teacher realized that knowledge presented in the correct way is nothing like force-feeding bran or sawdust or cardboard to students in order to inflate them to a predetermined size and weight, but rather a matter of distributing the tastiest thing in the world and letting it work its magic?

I know. Most students don't think of school as sweet at all. It's hard, it's necessary, it's compulsory. It's something to ultimately escape. And these students never fall in love with the full-range of learning. Which is not the same as saying they never learn.

It seems like the most human trait one might single out is how both he dullest and brightest of us keep on learning something. Eventually every person finds something that is so much funa video game, a sport, tuning an engine, fashion, talking about Twilightthat they forget that they are learning.

The teacher's job is to get students to broaden their menu.

Maybe it's time for them to try something other than the usual cheap milk chocolates and caramels readily available on the popular culture market.

Belgium dark chocolate? Silky semi-sweet?

And, if I'm a good enough teacher, I may even get my students involved in challenging jawbreakers or licorice sticks of knowledge.

Calculus perhaps? Organic chemistry? Moby Dick?

But first I have to convince them that it's all candy.

This is why I teach with a persona that may resemble at times a man on a sugar high. I'm unwrapping the candy and saying, "You've got to hear this!" and "What do you think about that?" and "Isn't this amazing?" and "Let's all take the next half hour and try it out for ourselves!"

I can't help it. All forms of knowledge are candy to me and I'm eager to get it out there where people can taste it.

At the same time I have to admit that the majority of my teachers, especially from junior high on through college, came across as rather dry and unenthused. On their worst days they unwrapped the candy as if it were a fillet of week-old fish enshrined in newspapers. No wonder we doodled in the margins of our notebooks, yawned, looked out the window.

Years and years of this go on and what does a new teacher face? The prospect of trying to wake the dead.

Here's a teacher who knows how to unwrap the candy.

Enter Dead Poet's Society. It's an easy movie to understand in the context of the problems I've just described. Then Mr. Manic himself, Robin Williams, walks in as the  teacher. Yes! It almost takes an excess bordering on craziness to really get turned-off students' attention, especially if they're signed up for a subject they have already decided is intrinsically dull.

The solution? Unwrap the candy as if there is a famine in the land and you've just shattered a giant pinata. I don't care what subject the teacher is assigned to teach, if he or she acts like a mad person and stands on the desk or whatever may be out of the ordinary, it can't help making students interested in the things the teacher is personally passionate about.

I know. Some critics call this edu-tainment. They say teachers are being drawn down to the level of a TV show or other entertainment. I disagree. Humans from the beginning of time have paid attention best, remembered best, and ultimately learned when there's drama involved. Take a look at Sophocles and Euripides.

A teacher without some degree of enticing delivery may have all the information in the world and every fact lined up correctly, which is perfect for the "quality control" people who stand ready to measure; however, if there's not a memorable experience of learning provided, we teachers may very well fail along with some of our students. - V.W.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Breaking News: H2O Discovery

I opened the front door. Looked out and yes!
And finally it rained! This was the kind of news that even Van Winkle had to pay attention to...

At 3 o'clock I took the dog out for a walk. There was something odd about the sky. It wasn't all bunsen burner flame-blue.

I saw some gray bellies of clouds.

I was noticing something else. Maybe I was crazy, but the air felt a little less fierce than its usual 105 degrees. That's when some drops of water began to splat on the street.

Bullwinkle shied away. Crazy dog. He has webbed toes, yet he hates water. He has to run reconnaissance missions on his own dog dish before he finally, reluctantly goes forward and laps himself a drink. This time there was nowhere to hide.

"Mr. Bull, those are real raindrops falling out of the sky..."

A blue pickup truck pulled up beside us and the window rolled down. A father shouted at me across his son who was seated on the passenger side.

"I've got to call 9-1-1," he said breathlessly. "I don't know what to do!" Then I saw he was grinning. He pointed at his windshield and the drops of rain on it.

It has been a long time since the rain has made itself known in this massive real-life Easy-Bake oven we live in. From what I've overhead, the experts have classified our entire region as being in a state of "exceptional drought." Our lack of rain in the midst of this historic heat is something I documented on a chart on a previous post.

At the moment the rain was barely falling, tap...tap, as if it were still making up its mind as to whether to stay or go. There was lots of blue sky between those clouds, but I hurried Bullwinkle inside with high hopes. I had heard a strange, foreign sound that had not reached my ears for seemingly eons.

Rumbles of thunder.

I went out on the patio and watched. The show lasted five minutes.

The workers who are extending our patio and adding new flowerbeds
had to take shelter for the first time since the project began.

I squinted and peered closely to make sure.
Yes, those were real raindrops coming down...

Then the sun came out.

So the rain ended before we could even marvel sufficiently, but I'm not going to complain. It's really true that when you don't have something, even if you formerly took it for granted, suddenly it becomes the most valuable and appreciated thing. Besides, the rain left a bonus beyond its trace amount (see below), a gift for us that lasted into the evening when we went for our family walk.

The temperature dropped down to 88 F. It was such a contrast that we joked about digging out our sweaters. Which just goes to prove something psychologists perhaps haven't yet noted. It only takes five minutes of rain and one major drought for the human mind to start to turn delusional. - V.W.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

D.I.Y. Is D.O.A. or the Not So Handy Man

I had holes in the kitchen ceiling.

We had just spent a fairly large chunk of change to hire a electrician to get up on a ladder, pull out the existing light fixtures, then climb into the attic (where it was over 110 degrees F.) and run new wire to light cans that he installed in lieu of the harsh, ugly fluorescents that came with our house.

Those old fixtures had looked better suited to illuminating somebody's garage or shop. They sometimes flickered like a pawn shop window display.

They made everything in the kitchen, including the food we prepared, feel as if it were dipped in ghostly, nausesating vanilla frosting.

The new can lights, on the other hand, gave off a natural, warm glow that didn't leave any shadowy spots in the kitchen. And Troy the electrician had installed two inset metal boxes. From these would eventually hang trendy pendant lights we had ordered on-line.

Now seemed like a good time for me  to take care of the holes left behind where those old fluorescents had been attached to the ceiling. I even thought of an inspirational song from 1967:

Back Story
"After we get done you might need to get yourself a good mud man," Troy the man from Surge Electric said.

"Mud man?" I was amused by the slang term for a man who works with drywall. Troy went on to speculate about what might happen after the holes were filled.

"If you paint over the repair, the paint might not match the rest of the ceiling. You could hire a painter to paint the whole ceiling all the way to the living room."

I had twin reactions to the thought of employing a mud man and a painter: Ugh and ugh. This is a normal biological response for many of us when we hear a little "ka-ching!" sound in our heads.

And thus is born the impulse for a man to become a D.I.Y.er who is not normally a D.I.Y.er.

I'm going to save money by Doing It Myself! Isn't that why they invented Lowe's and Home Depot in my lifetime?

Putting on My Construction Genes
I spent several days sitting at the kitchen counter and staring up at the ceiling. Rhetorical questions floated through my mind: "How diffiicult can it be?" "How long might it take?"

The answer that came back to me was always seductive, as if it had been whispered into my ear by Botoxed lips at 1 a.m. in a smoky bar:  "It will be easy,"  and "We'll only need a couple of hours."

I think part of what drove my male hubris wasn't the actual annoying residual holes in the ceiling, but a feeling that as a 21st Century male I'm too far removed from my father and all the stream of double X ancestral chromosomes before him.

You know guys who were real men. Men who took advantage of having opposable thumbs to do more than peck at keyboards and remotes and grasp steering wheels.

My father grew up on a farm. He had to do manual stuff as part of his daily chores. He went away to the war and acquired further expertise, this time in how to stay alive when people were trying to kill him. He returned to his parents' farmhouse and decided that it had been long enough. He was going to gift his folks with an indoor bathroom.

The war was over, but they still needed an indoor bathrooom on the farm.

Had he ever done any plumbing? No way! Could he watch how-to videos on the Internet? Are you kidding? This was 1946. Instead, he asked around, got a book from the library, bought his materials and set to work.

He enclosed a porch and turned it into a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. The day they turned the faucet handle and water came out and flushed the toilet my father presumably got on the tractor, chained it to the outhouse and hauled it down to the river bottom.

Why can't I be like that? It's not about being born an Einstein, it's about accessing the natural "handy" in us all.

Like a twenty-something colleague who told me that in his spare time he's a "lutier." I looked this up. It means he builds guitars from scratch. He buys the wood, cuts it, shapes it, glues it, adds a varnish, strings the strings, and there's an instrument you can use to make beautiful music.

And I bet he can patch holes in a ceiling too so that you'd never know they were there. So why not me? Then I could move on and strum my own happy song of self sufficient, hammer-clutching masculine success, and have some extra bucks in the bank to pimp my lawnmower or something...

Another D.I.Y. benefit--it's an excuse to buy new tools.
This is the finest putty knife I've ever owned. Hold it in your hand
 and you can feel the quality. It's the Rolls Royce of putty knifes...

Joint Compound, Spackle, Mud, Whatever...
In my personal and limited experience of D.I.Y. when things head south, they go all the way to Antarctica. I end up at the South Pole of Incompetence. There's not even a penguin hanging around to laugh at me. Just 80 below zero, the wind is howling, and I'm frozen with frustration...

Patch like a pro
with this stuff!
Patching the holes wasn't such a big problem. Except I had to keep patching because the repair would shrink upon drying. Never mind. Eventually I sanded them down and they were... Well, they weren't perfect but this wasn't the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was it? No, the real trouble began when I decided to try to move to Phase 2 and cover over the mismatched paint and uneven texture where the fluorescents had hung.

The ceiling texture in a can was so fun to spray that I didn't notice that it was bursting far beyond my target area. When I was done and smiling broadly at how well the sprayed areas conformed to the rest of the ceiling texture I happened to lower my eyesight.

My nemesis...arrived in a can.
That's when I noticed. The texture had blasted across the room and onto the cabinets opposite me, as well as covering the refrigerator and my espresso maker.

An absolute mess.

I spent the next two hours removing every fleck of texture from where it had gone astray. It was like reclaiming a whole shaker full of pepperflakes from your mashed potatoes.

"Running Like a Watercolor in the Rain..."
Then it was time to open a can of paint. I painted over the areas in question at least 8 times with different variants of white. I learned something via this process.

There are many shades of white paint.

Further, none of one's whites are likely to match the white that has already been on your ceiling for three years and acquired the standard kitchen off-white patina of smoke, grease, and general household dust.

Still, stubbornness can score points where competence is lacking. Or so I told myself. Days after I first began this minuscule project I felt I had arrived close enough to an end result I could live with.

Well, it all depends what light you look at it in. At 3 p.m. with the sun shining in the window and all the can lights on and glaring in your eyes you really can't tell...

The Moral of the Mess
I like to believe that things that happen to me can teach me lessons about life. That they are actually metaphors for something of significance.

It occurred to me when I was knee deep in holes that kept coming back and had to be refilled and sanded anew, whites that didn't match, ceiling texture that exuberantly obeyed the laws of gravity et cetera et cetera that most of my life is some kind of repair job.

I'm trying to fix me.

Sometimes it's probably less a repair on behalf of a noble cause than a matter of trying to avoid the embarrassment of having people notice the Swiss cheese holes in my personality and behavior. So to the extent I'm aware of these flaws I set out to do something about them.

Like become a better listener. How hard is that to fix? Pretty hard I've found out.

Or be less opinionated. Ouch! That's me biting down sharply on that thing called my "tongue"...

Or how about being less selfish about sharing my time and income. The holes there are really deep. I can't buy enough "mud" to fill them. I need a whole new panel inserted to replace the defective one.

Then I think, "Maybe I should call a professional." What would that look like? A motivational seminar? A therapist? Join a monastery? Oh, come on. Those are no fun. I want to fix this myself.

But maybe not everything is an equally good candidate for D.I.Y. Maybe I should swallow my pride from time to time and ask for some help.

And I might need to lower my standards a bit, too. Because in my experience whenever I get done with a  personal remodel, part of the old me always seems to be showing through.

Darn sloppy D.I.Y.er! Why can't I be like those guys in the videos? A few flicks of the trigger on the power tools, some graceful hand moves, and perfection!

Instead, I am what I am, the purveyor of a sub-standard repair job, but if it doesn't leak or fall down, it is what it is and that's me walking down the street and you should have seen how bad everything was before I got started... - V.W.