Tag Archives: memoir

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.

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“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

351. Who Is Listening?

When EDGE accepted Cyan for publication, I was less than enthused about publishing in eBook format. I’ve changed my mind.

It wasn’t the notion that science fiction authors should embrace technology that got to me. It was who responded to my website.

Building a website has been a learning experience, and I sometimes feel I’ve only begun. At first, no one was reading, but I expected that. Eventually, views began. Even later, likes began. I kept writing. I knew that gaining readership is a long-haul process.

I found it addictive to view the websites of the people who responded to me. One of the most surprising things I found was the number of respondents who were clearly from somewhere in the world other than America.

I regularly put out eight posts a week, many of which require research, and I have a life to live. That doesn’t leave me a lot of time to spend under the hood of WordPress, but I did find 

           https://wordpress.com/stats/day/(insert your own url here) 

which lets you click see how many views and visitors you had on any given day. More interesting, it shows a map that tells you which countries those views came from.

I was blown away.

To be specific, these are the results from this year, January 1 through April 21.

USA                    45%
Canada              28%
India                   8%
Australia            5%
U K                      4%
Switzerland       3%
South Africa       2%
Hong Kong       about 1%
Morocco           about 1%
Ukraine             about 1%
Romania          about 1%
Singapore        about 1%
Ireland             about 1%
Czech Rep.      less than 1%
Spain               less than 1%
Philippines      less than 1%
Japan               less than 1%
Kenya              less than 1%
Germany         less than 1%
Jordan             less than 1%
Israel               less than 1%

Global, indeed.

So, back to the initial statement — Yes, I would like to have Cyan on every bookstore shelf and in every library, not just available on line. However, no matter what happens from now on, I will insist that whatever I publish in the future will also be released as an eBook.

This goes back the the very beginning, to my childhood. Growing up on a farm, at first I had only G&D books (Tom Swift and the like) purchased from a local hobby store. Then I found the county library. I didn’t see a real bookstore until I was in college.

Those books were my window to the world.

Today, a book hungry young person with access to the internet can find — and afford — eBooks, even if her or she lives in India, South Africa, or Ukraine. I like that, and I’m proud to be part of it.

347. Prenatal Algebra

I wrote a post some time ago on the subject of No Child Left Behind, without saying one good thing about the program. I know almost nothing about Common Core, since it came on the scene just as I was leaving. When I retired, I retired. I enjoyed my days of teaching, but twenty-seven years was enough.

Without reference to the latest nonsense, I can say as a general and probably universal rule that a lot of BS floats down onto teachers from above. And from whom?

Everyone knows the saying, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Like most sayings, it isn’t always true, but sometimes it feels true. There is another saying that only teachers know. “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.” Again, not universally true, but I have known some Professors of Education who fit the aphorism with sad precision. And I’ve seen a lot of self-appointed experts who make the circuit of schools, giving training programs they devised themselves, who could spin out reams of self-evident drivel as if they were conveying the word of God.

It makes you wonder. Could it be that they weren’t fitted by their education to work outside of the schools, but they would do anything to get away from kids? I don’t know. I never knew any of them personally. I can tell you that of the hundred or so trainers I endured while teaching, only one or two had anything worthwhile to say.

I can also tell you that there should be a banner on the State Board of Education building that reads, “If it doesn’t work, do more of it.” They double down on every bad idea.

________________

The French scholar Jean Piaget, studying children back in the 1930s, discovered that there are stages of readiness for learning. If you try to teach a skill before the readiness is there, it won’t take. I can’t say that is a shocking conclusion. What is shocking is that eighty years later the educational establishment is pretending that it isn’t true.

Everyone can learn. Okay, that’s probably true, but an administrator who says it, means this: Everyone can learn everything. And that’s a lie.

Worse, in their actions, in the textbooks they approve and the tests they give, they are really saying: Everyone can learn everything, and all at the same age, on the schedule we set. And that’s just bullshit.

In California about the time I retired, students in eighth grade had to take algebra, whether they were ready or not, whether they could pass or not — whether they would ever be ready or not. But as soon as they were in ninth grade, and presumably a year more advanced, they could opt out of algebra and take something easier.

Read that three times and it still won’t make sense.

The general rule is this: the state assigns a skill to a certain grade. Some kids get it, some don’t. Does the state let the latter group try when they’re older and more mentally developed? No. They say the students lacked readiness, but they don’t mean readiness in the way Piaget meant it. The state thinks readiness can be taught, so teachers have to try.

If students can’t understand algebra in eighth grade, the schools could teach it to those who are ready, and teach another year of more basic math to the others. Fat chance. Instead the state requires pre-algebra of seventh graders so they will be ready for algebra in eighth. And when that doesn’t work? Let’s try pre-pre-algebra in sixth grade? Where will it end — with expectant mothers sleeping with opened algebra books on their baby bumps?

Read that three times. No, read it 4(2N+3) where N=9 times. It still won’t make sense.

Like it says in the title, get ready for prenatal algebra.

________________

All right, if any of you are young and want to change the world by becoming teachers, more power to you. You are needed.

But first, buy yourself a big pair of hip boots. It’s a swamp out there.

346. Science, just for fun

rat-hereTeaching should be fun for teacher and student alike. That’s my perspective, but I have to admit that I had it easy on that front because I taught science. Science is full of falling things, and flying things, and squishy things, and stinky things. If I had to teach English, or social studies, or math, I would certainly have a different view of how much fun teaching is.

Here is an example. CH4 is the formula for methane gas. Teaching chemical formulas could get a little obscure and uninteresting if you let it, but there are always “interesting facts” that you can throw in to help keep things rolling. For instance, methane is what comes out of the gas pipes that you cook with if you live in a city. It’s also what comes out of cows and ends up in the news as a bovine generated greenhouse gas. If you leave a stove on without lighting it, you smell it, but methane is odorless. How does this happen? The gas company puts a chemical in with the methane that stinks when fresh, but burns up without stinking if a fire is lit.

This is the point when some wiseacre will say, “If methane is odorless, why do farts stink?”

And you can answer with a straight face, “Well, if you consider where they come from, and what the gasses have to push their way through, and the little particles they are carrying with them . . .”

If you can’t make science fun, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

One of the things that come up in middle school science is the conservation of matter. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, except in nuclear reactions; it just changes form. Methane gas combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water. You know the equation, and you’ve probably had to balance it. My students had to do it, too. You have to do the work if you are going to learn.

But there is nothing wrong with spicing things up occasionally with an illustrative story. Even Jesus used parables.

Consider the story of Billy, who never believed what he was told.

I would begin this story with a drawing on the board like the one at the top of this post, except that there would be a cartoon of a dead rat, on its back, where the word “rat” is.

The story begins — When Billy came into science class one day, his teacher had put a dead rat on a scale and covered it with a bell jar. The scale read 7262.5 grams, the weight of the bell jar plus the rat. Billy’s teacher said, “This is part of a two week long experiment. Don’t touch the setup.” Then he taught something else.

The next day, things didn’t change. After the third day, the rat had started to swell up. (I didn’t take two weeks for this. The whole story took about fifteen minutes. At this point I erased and redrew the rat with a distended belly.)

By Friday, the rat was huge, and it was all Billy could do to keep from lifting the bell jar and poking it. But he didn’t. Even though the rat was huge, the scale still said 7262.5 grams.

Over the weekend, the rat blew up. When Billy came in on Monday, there was nothing left but a skeleton wrapped in a busted skin, with a few oozing guts. The air around the rat was kind of brown and the scale still said 7262.5 grams

(At this point I had redrawn the rat to match the description. This was also the point when I elicited from my students just what was happening and why the scale still read the same.)

Billy just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why the scale stayed the same when the rat was reduced to almost nothing. His teacher had explained that the rat’s mass had been converted to gasses which were trapped in the bell jar. Since the gasses could not escape, the scale had no reason to change.

Billy didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. While his teacher was across the room, helping one of his fellow students, Billy slipped up to the teacher’s desk, took hold of the bell jar, tipped it back . . .

There was a pop and a hiss as the bell jar came unstuck. The scale dropped to 6571.3 grams. The students in the room screamed, leaped up holding their noses and yelling at Billy, and ran for the back of the room . . .

You get the point. They got the point. And we had a lot of fun besides.

344. Teachers

This is teacher appreciation week, and I certainly do appreciate teachers. Most of them anyway. I’ve known a few who needed to find another profession, and a very few who needed to be shot. Sorry if that offends you, but I stand by it.

The overwhelming majority of the teachers I have known have been hard working, caring, dedicated and competent. I understand that better than most people, because I was one of them, and working along side of them. How I came to be a teacher, is another story.

First I wanted to be an astronaut, but claustrophobia and bad eyesight killed that dream before I got to high school. Then I wanted to be a scientist studying ecology, but I got to college when everyone was infatuated with the double helix, ten years before ecology burst on the scene. I studied South Asia as an anthropology major for five years, through my first MA, before reality set in and I realized that I would hate the field work. That was when I started writing, and started my second MA in History. Now I had found something I could have loved writing and teaching at the college level, but about that time there were two would-be professors for every available position.

Timing is a killer.

Money got short so I decided to do a little substitute teaching. It was a revelation.

I taught kindergarten one day and it was a disaster. I taught fourth graders — every teacher’s first choice — and almost died of boredom. I taught middle school — every teacher’s nightmare — and loved it. So I went back to college (for the fourth time), got a credential and spent the next twenty-seven years teaching sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

I have been told several times by parents that there is a special place in heaven for me because I chose to teach middle school kids. I don’t see it that way. Middle school kids are more fun than a bucket of puppies, if you don’t have to take them home with you at the end of the day. I think those parents may have been projecting some of their own feelings.

I remember one meet-the-parents night, sitting down with one of my girl students and her mother. The girl had been a fine student, not troublesome at all, and I had thought of her as mature for her age. Sitting next to her mother, she squirmed like an eight year old, talked back, and generally gave her mother hell. It was amazing to see how different her at-home personality was from her at-school persona.

Not having middle school kids at home probably accounts, in part, for liking them so much in the classroom.

I’ll tell you another secret about teaching. It takes all kinds — assuming decency and competence. Some kids will think you are great because of what you teach, or because of how you teach, or because your personality happens to mesh with theirs. Other kids will hate you for exactly the same reasons. These are your choices — if you are a good teacher, some will love you and some will hate you. If you are a bad teacher, most of them will hate you, and a few will just be happy to go to class without having to work..

If you want to be universally loved, you should choose another profession.

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

336. The Little Ice Age

Hannes Grobe/AWI – own work – redrawn, supplemented and modified graphic from John S. Schlee (2000) Our changing continent, United States Geological Survey.

The writing of this blog is a pleasure, but it is like a fireplace on a deep winter’s day — it takes a lot of fuel. Sometimes topics fall into short supply. Sometimes I don’t know where my next blog is coming from.

Sometimes I get on the internet and put my conscious mind on cruise control. I let my fingers on the keyboard seek out half remembered images, phrases I have heard, interesting titles from catalogs of books I’ve never read, and half understood events I always meant to research and write about.

Today was that kind of day. I chased down, among other things, two similar phrases I had run across: The Year Without a Summer and The Little Ice Age.

They aren’t the same thing, it turns out. The Little Ice Age was a cool period that purportedly lasted about half a millennium, but its cause, degree, beginning, and ending are frustratingly difficult to pin down. NASA suggests three separate cooling periods in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s but the UN panel !PCC suggests that it is only a series of local events, not a unified world-wide phenomenon.

Locally, the increased cold brought famines, ice blockage of harbors, and shifts in agriculture. Some have suggested that the prevalence of winter scenes in Dutch paintings of the era, and even denser wood leading to better violins by Stradivarius, are byproducts of the Little Ice Age. Yeah, right. Scientists can be frivolously imaginative when pushing their theories, especially if proofs aren’t easily measured.

The Little Ice Age is a really cool name though, no pun intended, and it caught my attention because death by ice age was a common theme in the science fiction stories I read when I was young. Visions of glaciers coming down from the north to obliterate civilization lived in my head for years. They still do, sometimes.

Fifty years ago people — science fiction writers, anyway —  were afraid of global cooling. Now we are all afraid of global warming. That doesn’t set aside what we now know about retreating glaciers, but it does cause a slight pause on the way to full acceptance.

I was late coming to the table where global warming is concerned, for reasons that were entirely sensible twenty years ago, but no longer suffice today. I’m still not convinced that the warming is entirely man made, but it doesn’t matter. That the glaciers are retreating and the polar caps are disappearing is beyond question. That fossil fuel emissions are part of the picture is reason enough for action, even if we don’t know the whole story.

Science never knows the whole story, but people have to take action based on the preponderance of the evidence.

___________________

While I was cruising the web, I also found these estimates of human population.

     1804, Earth’s population, 1 billion.
     1927, Earth’s population, 2 billion.
     1960, Earth’s population, 3 billion.
     1974, Earth’s population, 4 billion.
     1987, Earth’s population, 5 billion.
     1999, Earth’s population, 6 billion.
      2011, Earth’s population, 7 billion.

I think there’s a pattern here, don’t you?

The answer to global warming isn’t an end to the use of fossil fuels — not exactly. It is an end to the need for fossil fuels. It is fewer people.

Oh, and that other thing, The Year Without a Summer, we’ll take a look at it tomorrow.