Sunday, March 27, 2011

it dawned clear & cold this morning, much better than yesterday which was very cold, blustery, rainy, almost freezing, a martyr-day special on the soccer field. my wife called it that because she was out of town and i was left with the two games, which took place in the morning, in blustery cold wind; parents froze on the sidelines, and kids tried to run around, sometimes with their hands in their pockets; they were the lucky ones, because they could keep moving. the second game featured the older boy, and these teams really ran around the field, but again the parents about froze, and rain came, and then got stronger, and then lightning and thunder came, and they called it, gratefully, toward the end of the second half.

this was not how i would have liked to spend my saturday morning, though i normally like soccer, and don't mind watching the boys running around doing their best. i hsve noticed that the more i care, the more my younger son chases butterflies; he can't handle the pressure, and gets more involved in personal relations with other players than in actually chasing or kicking a ball. but other parents are worse; they have so much invested in their kids, that if there isn't a goal as outcome, the poor kids suffer double, not only running around in the cold, but also somehow having disappointed the father. i have vowed not to be a parent like this, and have commended my son for getting in there and trying even when he somewhat lackadasically lets the ball get by him for another of the opponent's scores. they were winning something like 7-0 (though we aren't to mention scores at the game) when they lent us a player and we finally got one, but, the fever didn't catch, and that one was all we got for the rest of the game. at the older boys' game, which was really much more of a game, with real soccer being played, we are actually lucky to be on a pretty good team this year, which actually wins often, if not every time. but all that good soccer was superceded by cold, and rain, and bleak weather, which left our toes numb and our cheeks permanently red.

upon coming home i engaged in my addiction, which is online boggle, in which you get three minutes to make as many words as you can out of a 4 X 4 square of letters; it goes 24 hours a day; it offers support for addicts which i decline; it is highly competitive; but, the good news is, i occasionally see my brother and sister on there, so we compete together (team leverett) and, if we play well, can often win or at least place in the top ten. by myself i rarely place in the top half, but i've gotten better and can do that once in a while; my sister, who is well aware of the addictive nature of it, says getting better at it is a bad sign. my older brother, who has been seen playing, and winning, by himself, in the middle of the week, during working hours, can often place in the top five or ten even by himself, in the evening, when we play (when it's much more competitive); he could probably tell you the good points of long-term addiction. less likelihood of early dementia, maybe, since it's like sudoku, it activates the brain. the problem for me is that it's a perfect balance for a week in which i deal with students who can listen and speak, and hassle me, but can't read a single word well, and spell words poorly, so that boggle is like restoring order in a chaotic life, silent, restorative, like gardening is to my wife only without the fresh air.

the competition these days goes by names such as onion dip (long-time competitor), left nut, jack grace, team axolotl, team join me, and others. one becomes more aware of whether certain combinations are words, words such as gim, gip, rup, fug, lan, pag, etc. i'm not sure whether this is really important, in the big picture.

so today, fresh blue skies, spring peeking out and green, the colors and the trees, the red, the salmon bushes, the pears, seem to have survived the bluster (though it was a blizzard in st. louis, my wife says, and was supposed to snow here also) seems as if spring is finally on its way. time to plant the garden, and get outside for a change, get the bicycle tires filled up with air, and get control of this addiction. life is too short. the other thing we've been doing is watching this one television show, icarly, which is very entertaining, and gives me something to do with the littlest, that we both do, and do together, perhaps too much. but addiction is a sneaky thing. i pull myself off the bog, go back and be with him watching the television, which is not as good as, say, building a tree house, or playing baseball, but is still with him, unlike the bog, where we are all in our own separate worlds (i'll bog, and they'll both play their ds, involved in games like mario, and pokemon, and whatever, and we'll criticize their addiction, yet have no basis for criticism, being too busy, or too addicted, in my case, and content to let them have theirs while i have mine). it's a terrible situation, and it sucks up hours, the prime ones sometimes, and parts of weekends, sometimes major parts. sure, they both have friends; friends come over, and they show them the ds, and then everyone plays. i'm watching them, distracted often, unable to get involved in a larger project, so i bog, hoping to relax for a few minutes at a time and thus willing and set up to be interrupted. a cruel vicious cycle.

with spring, the prospect of mud, a shovel, seeds, fresh dirt, the sun shining finally, and green things coming up slowly. the landscape has become colorful as the turning of buds from orange through rust and salmon, into green, has begun. soon it will be too hot, and we'll go inside for the summer, so it's important now to remember: in spite of the papers, the twenty hours a week, the endless complaints and weekend grading, it's my mandate to get out in the sun. plant. put my feet on the earth. quick, before it's too late! pictures coming, i hope.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

there are real fears, or rather fears of real things, justifiable fears, and then there are fears that are based on memories, or images, things that have been twisted or enlarged in your own mind over the years that have become more symbolic than anything else. but every once in a while you get to clean out the files and throw a bit of it in the recycling. i think an entire file was labeled with "nuclear disaster in japan," because we used to spend parts of school days huddled under desks and in hallways as schoolchildren during the cuban missile crisis, and when i asked why we had to do this kind of thing the answers led to pictures of japanese nuclear disaster. so nuclear disaster in japan unleashed a lot of subconscious anxiousness that built up as i prepared to leave my family for a short trip to new orleans.

what i didn't reckon with was that my own memories of traveling thirty-seven years ago contributed a little to my anxiety; out of forty-eight states that i hitchhiked in, new orleans was one of maybe only two or three where i got a ticket for hitchhiking (my memory is unclear on exactly what happened) but really the only one where the police were actually mean to me, and, in fact, they were meaner still to some guy who i saw on bourbon street getting beat up and shoved into a van. now it's true, it was before mardi gras, and, they were about to go on strike, this came out in their conversation. but i believe they started in on me simply because i was walking barefoot (through a park), and, our argument really was about whether a table-knife was an appropriate thing for a young traveler to carry around.

this time around i was traveling in style, in a rented car, and staying with a friend, so i could park the car there and walk into town for a convention that, for me, was the most fantastic of conventions only because it had a small zydeco band playing in the lobby of the convention center. new orleans was its usual self: beautiful, grand, with old metal balconies, faded facades, buildings sinking slowly into the soft ground; the river coming right down through the place and higher really than the city itself. the people were genuinely happy, often drunk, good-spirited; drunks would run into me accidentally, and i'd check my pants for my wallet, and it would still be there. after a while my mood softened and i found the saint patrick's day parade which was a small, bright-green version of mardi gras i'm sure. bands would ride in floats through the city, but, unlike those in carbondale's parades, they played good music, in tune, and pleasant to listen to.

there's an art to throwing beads, and apparently it happens often enough in new orleans so most of the people who do it are pretty good at it. at one point i got a little spot on a corner at bourbon street and a woman on a float saw me, and just pitched one at me, and i caught it. it made my evening, since i'd missed mardi gras many years ago, and in fact missed it for the following thirty-seven years. i no longer get drunk for such things; i no longer spend the last penny partying as many of these people were surely doing. but the spirit of the thing lifted me. i came back in a much better mood.

on the drive down, mississippi seemed dreamy: spring colors coming out from behind tall pines, with the sun backlighting them, and most of the old junk cars and refrigerators safely hidden from the road which was almost entirely surrounded by trees for the entire five or six hours. when i got off the road i'd see the red clay, the old trucks, the mississippi i knew was there. on the way back it seemed plainer, and the only restaurant signs were for mcdonalds, as if anything better just didn't bother, or wasn't able, to get one of those highway signs. finally, in jackson, i got off the road, and drove until i came to a barbecue place whose smell was filling the neighborhood. here, barbecue and fried okra were my lunch; it was wonderful, and this was all of mississippi i really needed to experience.

in new orleans, the nights would turn, late, and have an edge to them, as if there were a little too many broke and desperate folks hanging around, and i didn't much want to push my luck. once, in a small crowd of friends, one jumped in front of a police car at a don't-walk sign, and another followed him; in a split second, i did too, brazenly pushing my luck. only a canadian woman stayed behind, and we waited for her; she said she didn't jump, because it was the police, and it said, don't walk. i laughed a bit to think of it. this time, i had a tie on, and maybe that made a difference. i danced a little too, the music was so good. it felt good to shake out old ghosts, the memory of having to take a bus to baton rouge, because the freeway exit was right in front of the police office, and people were watching. those old memories last forever. but, they can be replaced, washed clean, or at least washed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the cold chill hasn't left yet; it's mid-march and i still haven't been out to put a shovel in the garden. the kids are trapped inside also, so i stay with them most of the day, and then go in to work on my presentation late at night. while we are around the house, i obsess about japan, play the bog, and do facebook. i occasionally cook dinner, do the dishes, do laundry, or get my wife an ice pack.

the nuclear disaster just gives everyone chills and nightmares, and the news keeps getting worse with people somehow saying that there's no danger in tokyo, or california, or wherever, though it might by now be as bad as chernobyl. chernobyl killed reindeer way up in lapland but i can't remember the details, all i remember is that things have been going pretty much downhill in eastern and western europe ever since then, and you can't expect this radiation stuff to just ease up and into space and out of our way. an entirely devastated, radiated japan strikes at our earliest memories although i was born nine years after it happened; i guess anyone who is over 66 would surely have that imprinted in their souls for a lifetime, as will anyone who lives through this one. checking facebook, i occasionally hear from various japanese students & ex-students. other people have gone on living their lives; i can barely figure out how. i feel paralyzed, unwilling to leave my family (i'm expected to leave on thursday for new orleans & probably will)...but just want to hold everyone tight. let's skip the nightmares & just hold each other.

the campus is totally empty but for a few cars, a few researchers studying. i've simplified considerably in order to get out the door. the place is a little creepy when it's entirely empty but i get a lot done. i also took a trip down to a small town to take the cat to the vet, earlier in the day; it was still cold, and rainy, but it was good to get away and the cat, the one with the smashed-in face, is well-known in that vet clinic where they saved her life. these small towns are weird, though, in the way everyone looks at you if they don't know you; they try to figure out where you come from and how you got there. this happened because we went to the nearby wal-mart; at the clinic, they already knew who we were. the wal-mart had a bit of age settling into it and a few empty shelves which always looks bad. i gave up looking for kitchen trash bags; i'm sure i could have found them, but i didn't have all day. near that wal-mart is a 'trail-of-tears convenience store' - i'm not sure i could live near this place without coming to terms with that. perhaps i could buy the place and simply change the name. or, there might be other solutions. the vet clinic somehow doesn't mind; they are at that very corner; they look out at the place; they keep on doing their business, healing animals, and don't seem to mind an alcohol-cigarette-gasoline outlet, named after an indian massacre. or a dusty wal-mart, right behind it.

the japanese are trying to figure out how one handles high levels of radiation, in the air, in the ground, in the food, etc. i don't know if it's possible to 'evacuate'...since it will ultimately find it's way throughout a small island and possibly farther. we'll soon find out the dangers of putting radioactive material all in one place, i have a feeling of dread, obsession turned to a cold, scary need to curl up in bed, and stay there for a while.

Monday, March 14, 2011

it's the first monday of our spring break, so we took our time waking up and now the boys are in full gear, running around the house, demanding sugar, watching television or playing video games; at one point we tried to play monopoly but the attention span was too low. it was pouring down rain outside at the start; vast pools of water in the back; water trying to get down the street to an overflowing sewer, water everywhere you look. now the rain has stopped, but it's still too cold, too wet, too saturated, to go outside.

for the most part i remain glued to my facebook, where friends one by one trickle in to say they are ok or someone we know is ok. it occurs to me that i know hundreds of people somewhere in japan and some of them surely must be in the affected area; naturally those will be slowest to check in. one old student from several years ago checked in and said she was evacuated on the first day but is basically ok. this leaves me wondering who else i have not heard from. i can imagine the feeling of nuclear disaster coming one's way but can only imagine what one would do about it, how one would protect oneself and loved ones. how horrible!

i went to a website that always has good commentary on events in africa; it pointed out several things, one of which was that the ongoing crisis in ivory coast has been almost completely overshadowed by events elsewhere. one comment was that events of the world seem to be happening faster now, as if we go through two years of news within a single week, countries left and right suffering upheaval and overthrow of some unjust tinhorn-style dictatorship; this indeed has sure seemed to be true, i can't argue with a word. we don't know anyone in bahrain, but have friends in yemen, libya, saudi (hundreds), and scores of other countries where i imagine people are glued to their news sources to not only make sure their families are ok, but also to check in on national crises that totally affect national image and self-esteem.

a japanese friend, former student, wrote first thing on facebook, a solidarity-oriented message: we japanese are strong; we have to pull together to get through this; this is a huge problem but we'll persevere. i was touched and moved. the next one was longer, but all in japanese; it occurred to me that he was being pulled in a nationalist direction but partly it turns out because he's here, actually cut off from the national grief and mobilization that his country is going through. it must be somewhat like 9/11 in its ability to mobilize a nation but also to bring out the patriotism, or xenophobia (the narrower version) - and, in fact, one couldn't blame japanese for associating nuclear disaster with the u.s., or at least with whoever talked them into putting a nuke plant on a fault line. seems like we're going to bear some of the brunt of this, and that japan also is going to go through a little soul-searching, identity crisis, as it figures out how to survive in the modern era. and that's not to mention, figure out how to handle thousands dead, nuclear radiation sweeping across the land, part of the coast falling into the sea, etc. i'm not an expert, but i'd think we're in for some rocky times here.

the cold rain lingers; i've been unable to get out in the garden, or the mud, to set it up and get anything planted. i'd also like to get the bicycles out, get tires pumped up, get ready a bit for the better weather, which lasts about a month, until it gets too hot right around the first of may. got all these plans, but it drizzles and rains, and stays cold and muddy, so i stay inside trying to fend off the boys, trying to keep them occupied. i don't like television or computer games any more than the next parent, but i've not only failed to prohibit them, i've even encouraged them, just to get a moment's peace or blogging. what i need is a list of things that work, things they like, things that are healthy and that even involve them working or playing together, getting fresh air, or becoming healthier in some way. maybe i'll make a pond out in the back yard, where they can go fishing, and which has a creek leading up to it, where one can get lost, find frogs, and spend entire summer afternoons. that is, summer afternoons in the sense that i grew up with them, when you could actually hang around, comfortably, outside, without stifling heat or overwhelming bug attacks, throughout entire months like june and july, when the days are long, and there doesn't seem to be any time limit.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

it's thousands of miles from tokyo to this small town in rural illinois, and they are worlds apart culturally too. we are often reminded how far apart they are, but i was reminded again recently when, on the day of the earthquake near sendai, a guy arrived in town here from tokyo and visited us. i will call him t.s.; he had become a.b.d. many years ago, almost finishing his ph.d. from here; he had gone home, but, his father had a heart attack, and his aunt went into a coma, and he, an only child, was left to care for both. six or seven years later, he's teaching part-time at two different universities; he's also working part-time at a television station going through reuters news and reinterprting it for the station. his work involves constant travel through tokyo which he bears.

visiting here he wants to reinstate himself into the program so he can finish his ph.d., but he also wants to visit personally and make sure he's in good standing with my wife, his professor, and this is where i come in; i drive him home, and then back out to the mall where he will catch his ride to the airport and from there back to tokyo. at our house he gives us fine chocolates (for my wife), and squid for me which still lingers in my mouth...i love ths stuff. i am practically overjoyed to meet him and for some reason it happens on a day that i don't mind leaving my office, and just driving around town with this guy. i can tell, as we drive through the neighborhoods, that even the houses look strange and exotic to him, yet to me they are the same old stuff i drive by every day. he says at one point, that though he listens to english news every day, he never speaks; this is his first chance in several years. actually his pronunciation is very good. and he's very polite. he's gracious and appreciates the rides and the help he is getting to be reinstated as a ph.d. student.

slowly my friends from japan check in from the earthquake; their families are ok; for the most part they live way in the south and the earthquake was way in the north. one was in niigata, home of s.i.u.'s old campus, in the northwest, and we know lots of people there; however, 6.6 is not so bad in the big picture and nothing compared to the 8.9 of the sendai quake in the northeast; everyone in niigata seems to be fine too. and in tokyo itself, home of massive huge skyscrapers, they were prepared, having built buildings earthquake-proof, so that everything swayed, but didn't fall. the earthquake and tsunami dealt a massive blow to a single area, but of dozens and dozens of friends and former students, and even americans working over there, none that i know were in sendai or even near it.

the hard part for the people i know well, and this starts with students and people i'm working with at the moment, is being so far from a tragedy of such massive proportions. they watch on television and can only imagine the horror; many are glued to the set, and this also has been true of people from various countries that went through national traumas such as libya, tunisia, and egypt. they can hardly concentrate on their day or their routine business. even though their family is ok, the enormity of the change to the national landscape is so hard to fathom, they have to concentrate on it.

t.s. is aware of the irony of having worked and saved for many years, to be able to come over here, get reestablished, and finish a long-delayed degree, only to find that japan shudders, shifts, burns and falls into the sea the moment he leaves. it adds to the drama of the trip, to be sure. i tell him the one story from tokyo that i know. i have an old friend; he was a guitar player at the time i was starting on my banjo, a raffish member of a counter-culture like myself who played music around at many opportunities, never likely to make the big-time here in the states (also like me). however, he married a tokyo girl and moved to tokyo, where he found that he could not only assemble a halfway-decent rock band (there were many japanese bass players, apparently, in the tokyo area, who had grown up on old rock classics), and there was a market for american rockers like himself in that situation; and, he made it, in a sense, because he had plenty of work, and a good band, and a good name, for many years. it was a dream come true, and he knew it could never really come true here, but he took it as it was, and rode with it as long as he could. finally he got tired of it though and went into teaching english, which is where and how i met him again; i'm not sure how the two professions compare, never having made it in music, myself, at all.

t.s. hears this story and asks a few questions. they are not the first people to straddle the two worlds, tokyo and small-town midwest u.s.a., getting stuck for a moment straddling the fence. t.s. studied youth, and deviance, and the media portraying young punks, that kind of thing; i'm not sure. i wonder how it would be different, here and in tokyo. i wonder what a small town like this looks like, to the guy who has been riding the bullet train for years. i can only imagine. in the same way, we look at the pictures of cities devastated, japan's north coast flooded and destroyed, and try to imagine. i dropped t.s. at the mall, where he would get gifts to take back with him to tokyo; back on facebook, more friends checked in to say, everything was ok; they'd survived, and their family was fine too. the earth is changing a lot, doing violent things in order to adjust or shake us up or whatever; it's really scary, but it's also a little comforting to know we have friends on almost every corner of the globe, and, in an impulse to reach out to the affected, we actually can; we can find them, and make sure they're ok. i sure hope they are, anyway.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

even a trip to the orthopedic center is a journey to the heart of southern illinois, considering that the average person is going to be out there, and you have to take the main highway through southern illinois to get there, and, to slow way down, and look at your environment, always makes a trip of any kind noteworthy.

that main road, called thirteen, leaves carbondale at wal-mart and goes through some lowland woods that are pretty flooded these days; so is the lake, which is very high, and there is high water everywhere. it's been grim, and cold, and rainy, but mostly rainy, and the rivers are swollen and we could see water just popping out from the ground in all kinds of places. at the orthopedic center a couple of guys in the waiting room were talking about black lung and the coal miner's life; that's really the history of this area. i wondered about their lives, and those of their families; their wives were now in the center, getting some kind of shoulder or knee treatment. my wife also was getting knee surgery; she feels it's from waitressing days, and not from running, but it has been hurting her, and the operation would supposedly help. on the way back we stopped at home and, coming into the house, she fell; her legs buckled, but i caught her, and she was heard later to say she'd always known i was a good catch. in fact i felt that being a loyal husband, right there for her, was something i'd learned from my dad, but i'd got at least part of it right. she's now in bed; the kids are settling in; it's still cold, but we're coming into a spring break.

various aspects of our coal mining heritage here in this area pop up occasionally. i have a coal-mining mentality about the whole union thing, although unions for teachers are so entirely different from unions for miners. mining country taught me two things: one, unions are always right; two, too bad it always has to turn violent. i have no idea about how well these apply to teachers unions in rust belt states. it could be that we are coming into union issues here and it might be better for me to stop discussing it; however, i'm so rar removed from sources of power in either the university OR the union, i couldn't possibly be taken seriously, no matter what i'd have to say.

so tired now, i'm beginning to fall asleep at the keys again, so i'll put it aside, but there's more to say. birthdays in the family, things happening at work and at home, and it seems maybe the earth is spinning just a bit. i get a vague fear from this depression, lack of jobs, continually worse and worse economy for everyone everywhere all the time. what's up with that? and will it ever become spring? the young boys play their ds, but i'm about ready to teach them how to grow a garden, and get myself also, a few more real marketable survival skills. just teaching saudis who are several levels above their ability, isn't sleeping well, and is making me feel somewhat expendable. not to mention, with a precarious sense that i could be on much more stable ground. i'll dream black lung, and be glad i'm not down there scraping away at the black stuff and hoping it doesn't all cave in on me. we teachers are, in fact, lucky, though that's no reason to run us over with a shopping cart.

Monday, March 07, 2011

it's a busy time at work: end of term, papers flying, final exams being made, students visiting hoping for the light of my divine grace to save them from the certain doom that their lack of skills deserves. a wretched cold hangs over the land, unexpectedly late into the season, when usually we have gardens by now (and some people in fact do, but only if you can run out there every day with a plastic contraption to protect it from continual frost). the chill hangs around, refusing to budge, keeping the croci at bay, while the birds also nervously wait for something, anything, to break the spell.

the boys seem to do ok in this stuff. the temperature hangs around 32, a little higher, a little lower, and they know that by refusing to wear a jacket everywhere, they will eternally get more attention, people will think their parents are bad parents, and they will have 'won' in the battle to assert their will, and at the same time, live a bit on the edge, feel a bit more intensely, adjust their bodies to the variation. Avoiding the jacket, or better yet leaving it somewhere, becomes their goal in life, a way to assert their control over both their parents and their environment, their own little way of being in charge of the one thing they can. and, at very little price: they mostly go from the car to the house, and back, or little else. it's not like they're sitting on the stoop, watching the traffic. they're not. they're mostly watching mario jump up and bash bricks with his head.

i just feel that, if mostly what they do is mario, and watch tv, and eat, and walk around without their jackets, i'm kind of missing out on a rich part of life. time to get a whiffle ball maybe, or a horse. or a new set of bicycles. i could take them out ghost-hunting, but, then, lots of people would disapprove of that. maybe we ought to just become familiar enough with the nearby woods that we know when the water's high, when the path becomes overgrown, where the good hiding spots are. not sure they would follow me even that far; it's about three blocks before you get to the woods itself, and they aren't generally much for walking, especially in the cold, though you never know, now that the weather is finally about due to warm up a bit. somehow, i have to get them out to experience a critter or two.

a trip to new orleans looms; though it is now mardi gras down there, happy mardi gras, this trip will not be for another week and a half, or so, and the arrangements aren't totally made yet. my mind wanders. it's hard to concentrate at work. spring beckons, there, if not here. my spirit is restless.

what i really need to do is finish my novel, and stop messing around with three collections of stories that i keep trying to print myself in a feeble attempt to be my own printer, and get friends and relatives to give me positive comments. heck with that. i can't even make enough to supply the demand, and don't have time to hang around the print shop in my free time, running off little booklets. time to let the pros do it, and turn my attention to graphic arts. if the novel doesn't write itself, maybe i need more time, not less, to ruminate about it, and some motivational drive through mississippi to clear out the kudzu. i could get off the road in oxford, miss., home of faulkner, and see what shakes around some old tumble-down mississippi college town. could be, i could write about my own yauknapatawpha. of course, a mississippi jail is what would really shake me out of my slump, and that would happen if i forgot where i was and just stuck my foot on the gas ignoring miles of kudzu forest and hidden speed-traps behind the old convenience stores. time for cruise control, i'm sure, one way or the other.

up here, the freezing temps keep their lock on the stale brown grasses, and keep the smart bets hidden well underground before it really warms up and stays that way for a while. the way it works is, we get some stunning weather, but it lasts only about a week or so; there is some rain, but you get busy, you get inside for a week, and then all of a sudden it's stifling hot until october. you just have to give it up for about eight months, and avoid any real enjoyment of the outdoors, once you get to the back end of spring which arrives very quickly. you think, it's only april. but in fact, it's just about all over. and you've barely got out into it.

my eyes fade; my fingers threaten to get stuck on a single button and write ten lines of a single character. time for bed; more later.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

a rainy bleak spring saturday in the house & that means i'm on this tiny computer which is ok for blogging but not really great for writing the novel, which i'd also like to do. the steady rain has left pools in the yard and water sogging up the valleys and heading ever so slowly down the slopes into the overtaxed sewer system. at home the dogs and the children are chomping at the bit as some internal clock is saying that it should be spring and time to get outside, but we can't.

yesterday, march fourth, was national grammar day, and i skipped it entirely both on this blog and the professional one where i really should parade out my views and make a public spectacle of it. the fact is that the mere mention of grammar practically gives me the hives as i'm steeped in the practice and study of it although there are so many moving targets i can barely focus on what i want. i am grammar coordinator of a large program which means dozens of tests pass under my eyes as a whole program of students study grammar forms and then struggle to integrate them successfully into their writing. there is a field-wide question of whether separating out grammar and teaching its forms discretely is actually effective and our program is not very clear evidence one way or the other; it is clearly not effective in ours (yet), but the profusion of saudi students gives us a huge disadvantage in that regard; they can reach the higher levels easily and still not know what grammar is...yet we continue to hit them where it hurts, remind them of what they don't know, and keep plugging away at it. then, i study the effects of new grammar technology on both their writing and their learning. as far as i can tell i am the only serious person doing work in this subject and it's a huge topic; my work is not very successful, but one thing i've learned is that the technology has a huge effect not only on their writing but also on their learning. and that also is a moving target; six people put "follow" tags on my blog and proceed to glean whatever wisdom they can off of what i say about its effects on international writers. i take my hat off to them; in several regards, they have made grammar technology much better than it used to be. for example, our students used to spell "definitely" as "definately" which spell-check would change to "defiantly" since it would always try to reverse letters before it tried switching them, so it was common to see the word "defiantly" in questionable locales; but, spell-check technology has caught on to the fact that the vast majority of time people really want "definitely" in this case, and has built in a better correction system; fortunately for our students, they also benefit from statistics that are based globally on all users. sometimes their mistakes are so unique or so unorthodox that the grammar technology has no way to comprehend them, but, as time goes by, the technology gets better at figuring out what things are based on the environment they're in; it's really quite a fascinating science. yet the vast majority of the teaching profession more or less turns its back, as if grammar will correct itself; it is on its own path, much like someone's pronunciation, and while you can point out key errors occasionally, you can't really alter a system that improves naturally at a general rate undisturbed by the things we make people do.

so this means that by and large i'm shouting at the waves, or making noise in a dense forest, and wasting my voice. what bothers me is that if the technology truly alters what people learn or the way they learn, or even as it alters what people say and the kinds of mistakes we do see, we are wrapped up in a sea of change with very little awareness of the nature of the changes around us. we accept it as natural, as part of the system, as what people create naturally, people and machine. what is in fact happening is that the various grammar-fixing machines including the grammar-check on your word program, are getting better simultaneously and picking up on each other's tricks, in a very competitive field, such that people's grammar is getting fixed at a much better rate and to a much higher degree than ever before; they compete, for example, to be the first to fix the their/there/they're dilemma by being able to determine what somebody meant to use based on the environment they put it in. similarly, they compete to be able to tell the writer to use its instead of it's, and they succeed, so that these errors too tend to disappear. but there are some errors they can't get rid of, like the sloppily made adverbials (trying to make a grammatical sentence, my nouns just didn't seem to match my verbs), which isn't much of a problem for our students, who don't even try these until the very end, and by that time they know more grammar than we do.

one son will go off to a basketball game this afternoon; that is good, because the salukis aren't getting enough customers these days, and he'll fill the joint with his noise and his enthusiasm for the home team. i meanwhile will stay home and fret about my upcoming presentation, about which i've done virtually nothing (except think, and write, and study a bit)...i'm somewhat at a loss about how to proceed. as one who studies this stuff i might need to come up with a little better outline of what people do and what teachers should do about it, and what really happens to international students when they try to write, and what we teachers could do to make it better, and ensure that our students learn things that the machines tend to suppress. all of this will go on my other blog which you are more than welcome to join in and follow; it also appears on my main professional blog which is where i really should make a bit more of a hoopla about national grammar day and all. i tried to make a survey, but couldn't even get teachers to fill it out; i tried asking my colleagues, but we're all so busy, i couldn't really find time, even, to interview them. i paid close attention as piles and piles of papers, both typed and untyped, came under my nose for grading. patterns? i've seen patterns. i feel like a whitewater rafter, seeing patterns but noticing that if i don't respond to them immediately, i'll be drenched; at the same time, we all seem to be heading for this big open spot where there's a dull roar coming from way below and the mist rises from water smashing against rocks.

new orleans is eight hours straight south, and it's mostly driving through mississippi; i'm driving to this convention because my wife will be on crutches and it will be quicker for me to get down there, driving, than going by train and having to wait for it each way. at the convention i'll sit by a computer and explain what i know, both how to get on these programs and use them to our advantage, and how to disable them if we prefer. people may care about what i say or they may not. for some reason they continue to invite me back to present; they must find something there that is useful to somebody. i think ultimately there is at least a book in there somewhere about the topic; the book would cover the entire picture, from what happens when the average person, or the average international, uses word and its accompanying grammar-check, to the sum total of influence of machine-translators, grammar-checkers, & spell-checkers on the entire population and its learning/typing skills & habits. i don't know if i'll write this book. i feel again like the whitewater rafter, wanting to wedge my oar against a couple of rocks.

mississippi i believe, will be full of that magnolia kind of smell, come mid-march, and i've been listening to my cousin who made a cd once that included "mississippi blues", an old song that talks about drifting down to new orleans to gamble and be bad. he himself lived in southern mississippi for a spell but then went back to arizona; i really miss him and actually like his version of the song much better than the others on youtube; his however is not on youtube (yet) and i'm doing very little to alter that pattern. i have friends down there; they'll come from around the world; they'll be going out on the town at night and there's a chance i'll find them, in that brief window of time, and hang around with them a bit. i badly need some motivational influence. i'm finding writing difficult, on this tiny computer, and it's not easier on the other one either; but, it's about time to pull everything together, get organized, get this car and shoot on down the river.

the phone rings and it's one of my alumni colleges; i actually went to three, each of which calls me regularly, and worked at another and a high school and they all call me regularly also. my answer is similar for each; i'm a loyal alumnus; i have eight children but i teach for a living so i have no money for their foundation; i fully support all my alumni colleges but what can i do? if i gave a penny to one of them i'd be obliged to be fair, or perhaps give to the one which needed it the most. all do, i'm sure. and it's tough times; they're breaking the unions in places like wisconsin that always took pride in having decent teachers.

the earth remains dormant under the cold drizzly rain that has held us for days, and i, at the end of another long term of fighting students who are essentially way over their heads, am very tired, trying to rest up for the final push. the boys will go off with their friends; this will be good, because i'll get better rest and maybe even get something done. i'll get used to this tiny computer, and maybe get something written on it. i'll finish up a term and get finals written and graded, grades on the books. the grasses and flowers will pop; i'll walk outside and notice. things will change; they have to. grammar days will come and go, but we'll get a little older, and with that, maybe a little better ready for the future.