The What Happens Next Machine

I was given a snowblower and a wood stove late last summer.   The woodstove has been a grand and glorious thing, but it hadn’t snowed enough to need a snowblower up until rather recently.

We tried to use it Saturday and found that it was too heavy to use on a hill.

That didn’t make sense to me.  I know New England girls aren’t supposed to be the delicate flowers that we Virginians with our softer winters are.  But, the idea that I wasn’t strong enough to push a snow blower up a hill and use it didn’t set with what I figure the design parameters of the machine oughta be.  I’m as strong as some men…  And really wasn’t at home to dealing with shoveling a 17″ snowfall all on my lonesome if I could figure out a solution.

So, I called upon a technique hammered into me from before I could read.  It’s called the “What Happens Next Machine“.  You might remember it from your Sesame Street viewing if you’re between 35 and 45.   This is actually a fantastic lesson in theory v. practice, but it’s also a good lesson in tracing the problem.

So,  my snowblower…

Each handle has a lever you squeeze.  The left one controls whether or not the snow is blowing.  The right one controls… Oh. Wow.  It controls the drive mechanism on the wheels.  It is, in fact, a self-propelling machine.  (I kinda figured it had to be since it had a reverse control and all…)

So, using the principles of “What Happens Next”, I traced the cable from the right hand control to the machine.  It’s supposed to be a pull lever, but it’s loose.  Further examination shows that it is not hooked around a wheel that will pull it taut and decrease the friction on the cable when it’s pulled.   Voila!

So I sit down in the snow to fix it.  (My butt is still cold!)  What I don’t own is a toolbox with all the tools I really should have for things like this.  You know, ratchet wrench….   God, it took me forever to unscrew one confounded little bolt and because I was wearing sweats and not snow pants, my butt got wet.  But still, I fixed it and cleared off the driveway — mostly.   Snow blowers aren’t made to go down all the way to the pavement, darn it.  Good thing I have a 13 year old to take care of the rest.

I want a Girl Genius T-shirt, darn it.

Books and Their Effects

For all that I’m a compulsive reader, you could hardly call me a lover of “great literature”.   Oh sure, I like Shakespeare, but understanding that mode of English was hardly a leap.   My church gave out Bibles to its first graders when I was a kid and we got the King James Version1.  So we were educated in Late Tudor/Early Stewart English from nearly babyhood.

But when I look at the books that really hit me between the eyes, that move me and that make me think/feel on a deeper level, they’re generally not considered “great literature”.  Stranger in a Strange Land, the later Discworld novels, American Gods, Shogun, The Lord of the Rings...  We’re talkin’ pop literature here.

And yet I’m so culturally (or perhaps emotionally) backwards and dense that this stuff does move me deeply.  I find the climax of Wintersmith — a kid’s book, can move me to tears2.

I often struggle with the fact that my fiction isn’t very good.  Sometimes I wonder if it is my taste in books.  I wanna move people like I am moved by some works.  I know of one person who admitted he cried at the end of Stranger in a Strange Land and have never known anyone who has spoken of Terry Prachett as doing anything other than be funny.  Sure, Prachett is funny, but his best work3 isn’t a comic piece even if it does have humorous bits.  It’s why I like him.  He’s funny, but his stuff generally has a point.

Russian novels (sorry Prof. Barnstead) leave me clammy.   The Brontë sisters?  No.  Oh, I like Dickens well enough.  Mark Twain is amazing.  But “serious literature”?  Not so much.  They don’t move me.  They don’t inspire me.  They don’t make me want to reach beyond myself.

But I like that stuff to be candy-coated, too.  Inspirational literature as a genre makes me shudder.   Mostly, I think, it’s because I can’t relate to the characters.  I get John Blackthorne just fine.  Granny Weatherwax or Sam Vimes and their personal struggles with themselves?  Oh my goodness do I grok them!

I just don’t connect with what’s generally accepted as “great literature”.   I wanna be told a story, be affected with pity and terror.  I want something that moves me, even if it’s not all that highbrow.

1In spite of its translation faults, I still favor the KJV when reading the Bible. Early training, I expect, but it just sounds better.

2The last scene does, too, but that was meant for the Pratchett fans who are parents and would catch the power of that metaphor, I think.

3Nation, his latest. It’s really fantastic.

Working at Home and Self-Discipline

I’ve had people comment from time to time that they don’t have the self-discipline to work from home or be self-employed.

Ironically, it’s not unusual for me to get this comment from people I consider more self-disciplined than I am1.

I think that it has a lot to do with one’s view of  “should” v. “want to”.  I like working from home and having the freedom that I do a whole lot.  I might be a good writer, but to explain how much I like it would be difficult. I don’t know, necessarily, how much self-discipline it takes to do what you passionately want.  In fact, I’d say it doesn’t take all that much discipline, really.

That’s something I think we often miss in our lives.  We don’t separate out what we think we should be doing or should want from what we passionately want with all our hearts and souls.

Does this mean we should necessarily make our livings from our passions?  No, not really.  When you can, it’s really cool.  I’m not gonna lie about that.  Thing is, it looks a lot more virtuous than it is.  When you wake up excited about doing something, and that something is your job, you look all focused and motivated and virtuous and disciplined.  Friends, going into a toy store and grabbing everything in sight is about as far from disciplined as you can get!

I’m going to be taking a trip down to visit my family soon.  I’m taking the train at least in part so I can work on the way down.   I love being able to do that.  It’s hard to describe the kick I get out of it.   The kick I get out of sitting here in my writin’ chair listening to Dire Straits (playing Money for Nothing, ironically enough), and working on a project for a client feels so very good.  I used to dream of being able to do exactly this when I was a kid.  I’d read science fiction stories about people with hand computers (and remember these were written when computers were as big as a bedroom!) able to access datanets anywhere, write stuff, do work and go anywhere while they were doing it.

I wanted that so badly.  It’s part of why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.  When I was a kid, it was the only portable profession I knew about.  Being a computer professional wasn’t yet all that portable — as  I well knew when I watched my father leave the house as I got up to get ready for school.  But I’d take my notebook into the woods behind my friend Mindy’s house, write, and fantasize about the day when I’d be making a living doing that.

When you want something that badly, when you dream about something so much that it stops being a dream but just an internalized part of you waking and sleeping, discipline isn’t the issue any more.  It’s just… what you do.

1 I actually consider myself pretty undisciplined, really. I’m just pig-headed.

Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 23

1Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

2Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

3All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

4For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

5But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

6And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

7And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

8But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

9And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

10Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

11But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

12And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

13But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

14Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

15Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

16Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

17Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

18And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.

19Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

20Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

21And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.

22And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

23Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

24Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

25Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

26Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

28Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,

30And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

31Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

32Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

33Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

34Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

35That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

36Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

37O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

38Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

39For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

I have always found public smugness about one’s religion distasteful.  No, worse than distasteful.

If I had a religion, which I don’t, I’d call that a sin and a particularly nasty one.  I really would.  And by the way, you Pagans who think you’re all cool and not prone to this shit ’cause you’re Pagan?

Naw.  Sorry, I see it there, too.

Teaching Writing as a Technical Skill

I have been complaining fairly steadily for the past eight years or so that public schools do not teach writing.  Recently my local paper ran an article about new strategies to teach writing — all of which were fuzzy, and rather appalling, nonsense.   I’ve been grumbling off and on about it for about a week when it finally hit me between the eyeballs this morning the true nature of the problem.

Most people confuse writing with the process of being an artist.  Because of that, teaching writing as a technical skill seems limiting, as if it is killing creativity.

I first ran across this when I was tutoring a fifth grader some years ago1.  The child did not know what a five paragraph essay was.   My own son, now a teenager, does know.  He knows because it was a format I taught him.  They don’t teach it in the local schools here, either.  The excuse given is that it is too rigid and will not teach children to write well.  What they’re saying is that writing as art is the important thing, so formula is not important.

The problem comes in because there is a certain level of formula to good writing2.   There are people who do it intuitively, who are not conscious that they are adhering to a formula.  Many of them are teaching Language Arts to kids, too.    Because they don’t know consciously what it is that they do to write well, there isn’t a hope in hell of teaching it.  Sometimes there’s an air of throwing up the hands, and excuses like, “Oh, he’s science-oriented,” as if this is a reasonable excuse for not being able to write well.  Sometimes there is the mistaken dichotomy between art and science that makes it okay to be bad at writing because one is good at math or vice versa.  I got this as a kid, especially from my father who believed the theories about the art/science dichotomies3.

No, you can’t teach someone to be a great novelist or poet.    What you can do is teach someone to create a logical construction in words. The thing is, if you aren’t a great novelist or a great poet, it’s not the big deal that not being able to write well can be in Real Life.  If you’re a knowledge worker of any sort, and these days, more people are than are not, you need to be able to express yourself clearly in text.

Fortunately, this is a learnable skill.  I’ll hearken back to the Five Paragraph Essay as a classic example of this.  It is simple, it is basic and yes, it follows a very specific structure.  If that bothers you, keep in mind that a sonnet’s structure is simple, basic and formulaic and go read some Shakespeare.  He was considered an adequate writer, if I recall correctly.

For a Five Paragraph Essay, you come up with a premise and three supporting statements.  You express these in the first paragraph, then in the following three paragraphs, you explain the supporting statements.  Then you have a concluding paragraph where you more or less say, “Ha!  See, I proved it!”  This used to be a standard format taught in schools.  Do I ever use it in my own writing?  Yes, actually.  I do.  Professionally.  Nothing I do professionally is a five-paragraph essay when I finish, but when I’m stuck for an idea, I absolutely do write out the premise/three supporting facts outline to get started!  It’s simple.  It’s logical, it’s clear.  It forces you to think clearly and factually, which is quite necessary in business.

And it’s teachable.

You don’t have to throw up your hands in the air that someone has too concrete a mind to get it.  There’s nothing nebulous to “get”.  Entertaining writing might be intuitive.  You do need a voice, a rhythm to your words and a quirky hook.  I’m clueless how I do it, so I’d be clueless to teach it other than to advise people to listen to really good storytellers in the Anansi tradition.  Clear writing, without all the fun and exciting bits, is a learnable skill.

It’s also a pretty necessary one in our age of textual communication.

1My God, the boy was due to graduate from high school last spring!
2Believe it or not, more so in fiction than otherwise. Read any of the great writers. There’s serious structure to what they do.
3I often wonder why he didn’t question this when one of the first things I did when we got a computer was to write a checkbook program in BASIC.

I haven’t been in the mood to swim or lift weights lately, so I’ve been walking to make sure I get enough exercise.

I came across an interesting site in my fits of nerdliness and compulsive Internet research (hey, I have an excuse.  It’s my job).  It’s called Walkscore and it’s supposed to be a rating of how “walkable” your house is.  The basic principles of it are that you plug in your home or work address and find out how many amenities you can get to from your house.

My own address has a score of 68.  It’s moderately walkable.  The house I grew up has a score of 38.   You’re pretty much car-dependent.  (True!).  I checked out a couple of addresses where I’ve lived as an adult.  I used to live on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, VA.  That has a high walkable score indeed — 86.  (The best you can get is 100).  I remember really enjoying being able to go out of my front door and walk just anywhere.  If I ever moved back to Freddy’s Patch, I would do my best to live in town if I could possibly manage it, even considering the atrocious parking.  Being able to walk to the train station and take the VRE into Washington DC for the day was always really nice.

But lots of people don’t live places where walking to do errands is even reasonable.  I mean, I could eschew a car and do all my grocery shopping at the little town grocery store.  In fact, this month, just to force myself to walk more, I’m doing the French thing and going grocery shopping every day and walking.

It’s quite a change from someone who used to do Power Shopping.  But I’m not trying to save time in shopping for a large family.   This is to force myself to take a half hour walk every day.  So, I suppose in a way it’s a little bit of a time saver, as it’s exercise and grocery shopping all in one.

I can see where this would be a real money sink if I didn’t make sure, though, that I had a meal plan and stuck to a list!  It does increase the chance at impulse purchases.

You’d be amazed at how much you can fit in a backpack. I don’t carry groceries home in sacks because I like my hands free.   Last week I carried home about 20 lbs of pork loin and chickens on sale.  So that’s meat for quite a long time.  You don’t entirely throw out buying in bulk.  However, it’s quite a change from the warehouse store mentality.  It’s not that my kitchen shelves are empty.  They’re not.  I can still concentrate on stocking up on something if I need to, but that stocking up will be that day’s trip.

I’m lucky to live in an area where walking is a reasonable choice to get out and about.  I do like it!