Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wood Smoke

Today I remember Rob and John.

He smelled the wood smoke before he saw the house. It brought back many memories. Funny how the olfactory glands sparked memory, fired up the brain, rekindled a childhood. The road hadn’t changed. He knew each pothole, each turn, and each rock. It had been a while, two decades since he’d been here and yet it was so unchanged. Trees were wider of girth, some were felled to protect the power lines, another hit by lightning, and some new ones just starting out. He could still name the trees he had learned as a child. He stopped at a familiar place that showed the start of a path into the woods. A path he would use to escape and to fantasize a future life or to while away the day. He built forts in those woods. He built tipis of fallen trees. He tried to assemble a treehouse in a rather massive oak, without success because he refused to use manufactured wood, just found wood. He got a platform of sorts constructed, but that was it. When he discovered a hunter used it as a blind he destroyed it. They posted the land after that.
He looked in the rearview mirror to see the dirt road he had just come down and was reminded of how he used to ride his bike on this road to escape into town or to go to a friend’s house. He loved the ruts and the hills and the turns as he pretended his bike was a motorcycle navigating a motocross course. He winced in pain as he remembered the day he came around a corner face to face with a delivery truck and ended up on the hood. His face was lacerated, his arm broken, and the front wheel of the bike destroyed. With his face pressed to the windshield, he saw the terror on the driver’s face. He then knew what terror looked like. His dad took him to the doctor’s office, admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. The bike was fixed, his arm was fixed, his face was fixed; but it was a couple of months before he was fixed and able to ride his bike again.
He turned his head to peer down the path and recalled how many times he followed it to another adventure. Sometimes he carried fresh cut limbs or took things with him in a backpack. He had this saw that folded up like a jackknife and he would use it to cut saplings or dead wood so he could construct a fort or a tipi or fashion a walking stick. He was careful what he cut. He would forge though the low brush cutting as he went to create a path, not too noticeable, but a path he knew existed. He would make turns, circle back, and go in a direction away from a final destination so as to prevent interlopers happening upon him suddenly. He learned this from the turkey he’d chased through the woods after a snow. The turkey went in circles, never a straight line and when the turkey came to a tree with a fork in it the turkey would jump through the gap so that the fox chasing it would get hung up because of its belly. This was when he realized how smart the turkey was and understood why Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird. He wondered if his paths and forts or tipis still existed.
His dad had taught him how to use a chainsaw, how to split wood, and how to stack it. They used wood from their land to heat the house. His dad wanted to use wood to cook, but his mother nixed that idea. They did have a wood stove dad would use to slow cook his venison stews and keep a kettle on to provide the needed humidity in a house that burned wood. He used the oven to heat food rather than the microwave. Dad still liked to keep a foot in the past and that stove reminded them of that. Mom liked the stove when she had a party and needed more stove space to keep things warm or to do the slow cook. But she relied on the gas stove to cook, no electric stove in this house, and the microwave to reheat her cooled coffee and make popcorn. He remembered dad taught him how to make popcorn on that stove and by the time the popcorn was ready so was the melted butter. Later he found the microwave more convenient. His dad never ate that popcorn and he found he threw away more popcorn than he ate unlike the popcorn they made on the wood stove. How and why did it taste differently?
Dad and he would go into the woods and find a tree to fell. After a careful selection, which included type of wood, always a hard wood, location within a grove of like trees so they’d be thinning one out so others could grow better, and ease of felling it. After a few years, dad would let him choose a tree. Once chosen, dad hugged the tree, mumbled something, and then started up the chainsaw. Dad taught him how to make the wedge and then make the final cut to bring the tree down with a crash and without harming its neighbors. Dad would then cut the remaining stump at ground level and the boy would place that stump in the wagon they had brought to haul back their first cuts. Dad would cut the tree into logs for easy transport back to the house for splitting. The stumps would serve as the chopping block for that tree. Dad would limb the tree and the boy would haul the limbs into the woods and pile them up for safe havens for small animals fleeing larger predators or just for homes during a winter. There were many such piles littered about the woods in various forms of decay depending upon their age. The boy used to go around in the warm days to see what critters actually took up residence. He never found any animals, but he did find remnants of nuts, animal droppings, and fur where they bedded down.
They’d haul the logs home, stack them for further cutting and then splitting. The boy learned to bury the wedge with a light tap of the maul and then in two maybe three whacks split the log. With each tree they chose a different pattern to stack the wood. Sometimes between two trees, free standing in a crisscross pattern, or the combination of the two as they built crisscrossed columns and stacked the wood between two columns. Dad rarely covered the stacks. He would use thin limbs cut to the length of the stacks and place them on top like a ridged roof so the snow would not collect on the stacks. The air would do the rest to age the wood. It was some of these limbs the boy would use to make his forts or tipis and that treehouse platform.
He sat there in the car and remembered the day he felled his first tree. As they were walking in the woods looking for the tree to fell, dad turned and said, “Today you are going to pick the tree, fell it, and then cut it up for transport.” During their previous trips, dad had gone through this process; he would talk out loud so the boy would learn the process. Dad was teaching the boy. It was similar to Samuel Clemens recalling how he became a Mississippi River boat pilot and obtained his new name, Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi. The boy, like Twain and most students, listened but not as carefully as he should have. It was another reminder that we learn by doing. The boy found a tall and straight ash tree amongst many and decided this grove needed some space. Dad approved and so the boy fired up the chainsaw and cut the wedge and then made the final cut as the tree fell gracefully and softly. All went perfectly.  He cut the stump, which his dad then hauled off to the wagon. He and his dad had changed jobs. The boy proceed to limb the tree when all of a sudden he found himself lifted off the ground, out of breath, with a screaming chainsaw flying by his head, out of his hands only to land sputtering to a halt a few yards from where he ended up on his butt gasping for air. Just before the accident, he heard his dad screaming, “NO!!” The boy had made a cardinal error. He was positioned all wrong and he tried to cut a trapped limb he should never have cut. It was spring-loaded and when he cut it the cut limb sprung right at him and caught him in the chest.  It could have killed him. Father and son sat there for a while assessing the situation and dad retrieved the saw and asked if his son wanted to continue. The boy knew that when he fell off the bike, he had to get back on. He applied this logic to the chainsaw and fired it up and deconstructed that tree with respect and skill. Dad took him to the doctor to assess the damage admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. Nothing was broken, but he would be sore for a few days. He gained a special reverence for that tree as he split the wood. When he placed the first log from that tree on the fire that fall he mumbled “thank you.”
As he sat in the car, he touched his chest and remembered the pain. He felt his heart beat and smiled as he remembered the night he lost his virginity in front of the fireplace. He was a junior in high school and a popular girl took an interest in him. His parents took off to the big city two hours away for a party. They weren’t going to be home until three or four in the morning, so he decided to bring his girlfriend over to eat popcorn, watch a movie, and makeout. One thing led to another and he lost his virginity while they lay on the floor in front of a roaring fire. As he drove her home in silence, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and told him not to worry about her getting pregnant because she was on the pill. He didn’t even think about pregnancy or any other complications that may arise. He was stunned into silence at what just happened. He didn’t know that this was the last time he’d have sex with her or any woman until he went to college. In a few days he felt itching and then saw a rash developing on his penis. He told his dad about it and dad asked his son if he had sex. The boy was embarrassed when he said yes. Dad drove him to the doctor admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. The doctor remarked at how quickly the boy had grown up and gave him some ointment and a prescription. His dad gave him a pack of condoms with the filled prescription when he came out of the drug store and told his son to use them the next time he had sex. He instructed his son to put one in his wallet, which wasn’t used until his freshman year of college when a girl put it on him so she wouldn’t get pregnant. It was much better lovemaking.  He and she had a good first semester of college. He wondered where she was now.
He had sat there long enough and resumed his journey down that familiar dirt road. When he turned the last bend in the road, he saw the house, the source of the wood smoke and smiled. He stopped the car and just watched the smoke escape the chimney, follow the ridgeline, and meander into the woods to defuse into many streams as a warning to the trees that this is what they may become one day.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Unseen World by Liz Moore

The Unseen World by Liz Moore is a fantasy.

“Virtual reality, she thought, was the unseen world. Or had the capacity to be. In fact, it could be said that all computer systems were such: universes that operated outside the realm of human experience, planets that spun continuously in some unseeable alternate stratosphere, present but undiscovered.”

Halloween, Mardi Gras, or Virtual Reality is for us to change form, shape, and identity. The Unseen World is that place too. People change names, become someone else, and yet the old self is still there, unseen. But not gone.
During a time in American history when it wasn’t safe to be who you were, people changed identities and became someone else. In a world where machines outlive their creators, we are confronted with the flaws of mankind. A daughter is the product of a surrogate mother and a scientist who isn’t who he says he is. He is a creator of humans and machines. He is flawed and yet his creations are more perfect. The daughter, too, is flawed and creates a human and a machine. Always the humans are flawed and the machines outlive the creators. And yet, it is always about humanity, even about the machines that want to be more human and the humans more machine-like. That is the story of this fantasy novel.
Life is a puzzle and this book presents many puzzles to be solved. It is a way a parent teaches the child, through a puzzle to be solved without actually providing the answers. She must discover on her own.
Many believe that specters or ghosts may surround us. We wonder about an afterlife, reincarnation, and other levels of existence. The Unseen World is such a place for us to imagine.  We assume that machines will make our lives easier and more complete, but here that is not so. This book considers the idea of humans passing on and the machines are left alone without them. The lives of the characters aren’t made easier, they are made more complicated because of the machines. People who have trouble interacting with humans make machines. The joy of this novel is watching these humans become more human and less machine like. That which is unseen is the human element, the soul, our being.
When it is just the character and the machine interacting all the wrong things happen. After all it is the human that programs the machine. When the humans interact with themselves problems are solved, dreams are realized, and life is better because they are more human than they are machine.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Make America Smart Again

Facts and Truths have taken a real hit this past election cycle. Lies dominated and directed the conversations and the results. When I taught English, my students had (139 characters) to defend their statements with at least three facts from the texts they read when they wrote their 300+ word essays. Today Twitter writers can’t defend their posts and provide facts in their allotted 140 character posts. To Make America Great Again we must Make America Smart Again. America has been dumbed down since NCLB. That president didn’t get the popular votes either and look at what happened. Before NCLB, we used essays and some Multiple Choice questions to assess our students. Since NCLB, we have seen fewer essays if not no essays and more Multiple Choice questions on our assessment tools. Analogies have been eliminated from the SAT exams. Metaphors are essential in higher order thinking. With Multiple Choice questions we lose the ability, as assessors, to see why and how a student makes a choice. With an essay we see thinking and problem solving going on. When I used Multiple Choice as assessment tools, I provided a few lines for the students to explain each of their choices. By asking for explanations, I had some access to their thinking and problem solving. The problem with Twitter, as a form of communication and as a form of media used by millions for their information, is that it is limited to 140 characters, which limits vocabulary use, as most evident in our president elects’ tweets and the lack of supporting facts. In researching the question of his vocabulary, I discovered a number of sites that deal with it and the consensus is that Trump’s vocabulary is around a fifth or sixth grade level. No wonder he has trouble reading some of our news media whose reading levels are at a higher level. (312 words)
I don’t blame Trump or his supporters; I blame our educational system. When we abandoned essays for more MC tests for our assessment tools, we began the dumbing down of America. When we stopped asking ourselves to defend and prove our points with facts, we lost an important part of our discussion. We were looking for a quick and easy way to assess and to move on. Education was taking a beating and resembled the business model of doing more in less time. It seemed as if we were in a rush to get some place quicker. Where that was and why is still unclear to me. Education takes time as does conversation and debate.
The proof of this failure is all around us. Manufacturing and industry failed in this country because workers were incapable of keeping up with the technological changes that required more education and better reading skills. Computers began replacing human workers and too many humans were incapable of interacting with these dumb computers. We see it on a daily basis when we go shopping or drive on our roads: self-check out with fewer cashiers, EZ Pass instead of toll takers, and self-serve gas pumps. Count the number of checkout lines in a store and notice how many are closed. Start at any super store, which are some of the worst employers in America. We went from a manufacturing country to a service country to a computer age self-service country in a lifetime. “Made in America” is not a common label on what we own. We changed how we interact moving from human contact to computer interfacing. Just stop and watch people walk down the street, drive a car, sit at a bar or in a restaurant, and on a date. The common element is a hand held. We are losing our humanity.
Progress demands a better education by all of us, for all of us, so we can create new kinds of jobs and then people them. We don’t have the education to do that nor the desire to be educated. I was shocked when I discovered that less than a third of Americans graduated from college. That is a very important and alarming fact. It is totally contrary to what Jefferson had expected of us as Americans. He considered education our most important tool in preserving a democracy and helped define what it meant to be an American. He started the educational system in Virginia. Just the opposite has happened.  I am still shocked at how the Rust Belt couldn’t retool and go from mining and producing one industry of energy to producing another form of energy: coal to solar and wind. Other countries have done it well, smoothly, efficiently, and successfully.  So what kind of jobs will Trump provide?
Twitter and Facebook are the new tools and are responsible for the continued dumbing down of America. Posts on these two sites are not fact checked, are not written from authority, and are pure opinion. It takes time and work, some times hard work, to write an essay that is fact based, researched, read and reread as opposed to tweets that are opinion or gut feelings or rumors that are too quickly posted. A friend of mine read me a post from one of his friends, who was a Trump supporter. The post had more than a few incorrect statements. The most glaring mistake was “the people spoke when they elected Trump.” Actually, the people spoke and voted for Clinton and not Trump. The Electoral College elected Trump. No one corrected this incorrect statement and the continuing conversation with other “friends” merely allowed this incorrect fact to continue uncorrected.  A non-truth became a truth in their minds. When I suggested to my friend he write and point out this incorrect fact, he said he didn’t want to embarrass his friend and would do it when he sees him.  YIKES!!!  The poster has already embarrassed himself and the others who failed to do the fact checking and have perpetuated a lie that has become a truth to them. This is how we got here folks. Don’t let facts get in the way of friendship or the truth. Peer review has to work better.
How is Trump going to fix those workers’ lives that work less than forty hours a week, not allowing them benefits, so employers save money?  How is he going to help those workers who have two or more jobs and still can’t make ends meet because employers want to save money and keep most of it for themselves? How is he going to put more Americans to work when they can’t read well enough to get these jobs that require some education. Coal isn’t coming back. We have to retool and that is going to require education, a better education than two thirds of Americans have. Trump can’t fix this. He settled a lawsuit brought against Trump University, so he clearly has little knowledge about education. Americans have to fix this by staying in school or by going back to school. Perhaps he should consider free education.
To be great we need to be smart. We can’t blame others for our woes; we have to blame ourselves. Heck, the immigrants have always outworked the Americans already here. That’s history folks. Just look back on our history to see how the immigrants built America. Upon retirement I reflected on my career in education and one insight was that I found myself far more impressed with the industry of my public school students than with my private school students. America is not near the top of the charts in world education achievement. To make America great we have to make America smart and that means more and better education. If we make education free, that investment, which we will get back ten-fold,  will make us smart and then great.
I am going to sport a Make America Smart Again hat and promote CyberEnglish as the tool to help us be smart again. CyberEnglish demands of its students thinking, researching, problem solving, and producing; not twits who can only handle 140 characters. If we are going to make America great again, we have to make America smart again. It’s all about education, stupid.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Willnot by James Sallis

Willnot by James Sallis is a poetic and lyrically written novel. It is a ballet of words that flow from action to philosophy, (“Why are we here, Stephen?” Doc asks a patient) to memories through dreams and then back through the course again. It is stream of consciousness, non-sequiturs, flashes from here and there, connected by the poetic prose and some fabulous puns sprinkled ever so masterfully. Road signs: “Caution Church,” Fiends are Forever,” This Property is Pasted,” “Watch for Falling Crocks,” a license plate in Texas: RVLTN, Revolution or Revelation? And my favorite “Jesus Saves with the first ‘s’ of ‘saves’ to Jesus Raves.” Is Jesus the subject of adjective? I’m always misreading road signs to my amusement and those in the car. It is a delightful and a fun and an addictive read. Wish there were more of it.
Lamar Hale, a doctor, and his partner, Richard, the “schoolmarm,” an English teacher, live in Willnot, a rural town. They have a cat named Dickens. Death is all around them since some of the doctor’s patients die; that’s what happens at the end of life. Richard’s student pass and fail; that’s what students do; and administrators forget they were once teachers. This is about life, real life; and death is part of real life as is schooling. The novel is filled with full tilt characters who are just “passing through” and those who “just keep moving.” Willnot is like a circus town as folks come and go with and without fanfare. A mass grave has been discovered; soldiers who are snipers from undeclared wars pass through; an FBI agent comes through on assignment and then finds it a good place for leisure time; truckers have accidents and die in the hospital; others come to the hospital and recover; students have physicals, ancestors come home to die. Lamar dreams of the past as he remembers his dad; sits by a dying man who has come home to his ancestral Haversham home and other ghosts of the past to help him with the here and now.
Over dinner every night, sometimes in their “periodic shutdowns” which meant no television, no radio, and no newspapers for twenty four hours, Lamar and Richard review the day’s events and bring it all into perspective as any dinner should. Each learns much from the other, but they learn more from those whose paths they cross during the day. These ramblings of Sallis are about the business of living and letting live that is a metaphor for all of us to follow in the living of life. As always parts of the past are integral in the present and eventually the future as stories are shared between the two. Stories are what we are all about and understanding those stories helps make our lives understandable. The threads of life are woven magically by Sallis and help create a most beautiful web resembling life; a thing we are all passing through and also seem to be strays in, trying to discover why we are here.
I think I’ll read this rich literary event again. And what’s with the title? O joy, oh frabjous day.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Presumption of Guilt by Archer Mayor

Presumption of Guilt by Archer Mayor is the latest installment of Joe Gunther and his special crimes unit in Vermont. The special unit is a unique collection of characters. Joe has finally made his relationship with Beverly Hillstrom, the ME public and it is hot, the gloves and the masks come off; Deputy Lester Spinney’s son, David, is now a cop allowing each to become more close with the other; and Willy Kunkle, a former NYC cop now in VT has settled down and has begun a family with his fellow cop, Sam. He brings his own unique brand of oddness and ways to the group with his observations and behavior. His most bizarre behavior is that he has hired Dan Kravitz to circumvent the law by having Dan break into houses to find information and evidence when procedure is too cumbersome. Dan Kravitz brings his local craziness to the story.  It is of course his actions that upset the whole applecart, otherwise why have them in the story? They even so far as to mock television cop shows when it comes to the speed of DNA results and other time consuming practices, like getting a search warrant. It adds to the tension and cowboyness of Willy from NYC. There is more humanity in this new addition to the Joe Gunther series.
This is a mystery that demonstrates how the past can come back to bite you in the ass, especially when everything from the past was done in the wrong way. Old gangsters have gone into another direction of seeming legitimacy, like the Kennedys and Rockefellers only to be dragged back to the sewer from which they came.
The body of Hank Mitchell has been found in cement poured forty years ago when the Yankee nuclear plant was built. He was killed and dumped at the pour out of convenience forty years ago. He was eliminated because he wanted to do the right thing and was in the way. This event during the deconstruction of said now defunct plant has opened old wounds and has made the discovery of his body an inconvenience to some. A group of people now in their sixties has had their lives upset with more murder. Incompetence has been renewed after forty years. These old guys mess it up thinking they still have it, but don’t. It is a clash of generations as always.
There are a number of familial themes examined in this tale. David Spinney is dragged into it, which provides his father some good teachable moments. In another part of the story, Dan Kravitz has involved his daughter, Sally, in his bizarre schemes. Here, too, there is an important realization about dad. Hank Mitchell’s family has some real important moments as they discovered that their dad was murdered and didn’t just run away, as many believed. This changes a lot of things for all of them. Even our curmudgeon, Willy shows signs of humanity as he takes extra precautions to safe guard his own child from what he thinks may be danger, causing his wife to see the sweeter side of him, which he reminds her is not real, but is. These glimpses into familial relationship add perfect humanity.
Comic relief comes from the exchanges between Joe and his NH counterpart, as they have to collaborate a bit in the case. Joe crosses the Connecticut River into NH, “Live, Freeze, or Die,” only to be insulted by his NH counterpart about the socialistic state of Vermont. Their exchanges are hilarious. It assures us that cops do have a sense of humor.
This is more than just another mystery; it is a tale about family, love, trust, and collegiality with murder in the background. This is a great series and I look forward to the next thriller.