Friday, October 31, 2014

The Wiener Roast

I don’t know how long the McClure family has been having a wiener roast in the fall, but it’s been a long time. I have used all the usual methods ways of putting these things on some kind of a timeline stretching from now into the past. When was the first one? Who was there? I can’t figure it out.

We used to take the tractor and manure spreader down to our own patch of willows south of the barn that grew in a soggy place between the fields. They were wiped out when Dad put in the waterway, and then we had to leave the place to find them. We’d cut whole willows, bring them home, cut off the leafy tops and sharpen the branch ends, whittling them white and thin with our pocket knives, so we could thread hot dogs on the ends. Fresh green willows won't burn. You can hold them over the hottest fire and only blacken the bark.

We would go across the hard road to the timber and get wood before we began burning the fence posts. There were always fallen trees in the timber to harvest. But after we pulled up the hedge posts, and stacked them standing up around a big tree in the sheep lot, we would take the manure spreader over there and load up a dozen or so to burn at the wiener roast. It burned wonderfully hot and clean, that old dried hedge. I wish I had some here at the shack for my stove.

It would be just my Dad and me when my siblings were married and gone, getting things ready sometime during the week leading up to the wiener roast. At some point we switched to getting the willows and wood with the pickup truck, a green 66 GMC, straight six, three speed on the column. I later drove it to high school. It was usually in the middle of corn harvest, but Dad didn’t mind taking a break from picking corn to get ready for the wiener roast.

Either the morning of, or the night before, Dad would tell me to go up in the hay mow and throw ten bales of straw into the hay chute. The pastures would be petering out by then and we were starting to feed the dairy cows some hay but it wasn’t cold enough to keep them in their stanchions at night. We would carry the bales out to the driveway from the barn and arrange them in a circle around the same general spot in the gravel driveway. Our house was set back from the hard road and we had a driveway that curled around a big front yard, led to the garage, branched off to the barn. Where it was widest we would set up the fire, a pile of wood with extra on the lawn, straw bales in a circle around it, some lawn chairs. Mom did all the rest, which was considerable.

Mom baked pies; pumpkin and apple. The apple had that good cinnamon sugar sprinkle on top instead of a crust. Homemade chocolate chip cookies in coffee cans and a big pan of brownies with that rich icing she made out of powdered sugar, butter, cocoa and coffee. She made a giant bowl of potato salad and a big pot of baked beans. The wieners, not franks, she packed in a rectangular aluminum cake pan covered with a dish towel and stored in the fridge. Bag after bag of hot dog buns, mustard and ketchup, a couple of onions chopped into a bowl, a jar of pickle relish. Don’t forget the stuff for s’mores and hot cocoa mix. Paper plates we could burn in the fire. Mom put it all together, we helped her carry it out to a folding table on the driveway.

But the most important of Mom’s tasks, between the band of time that we stopped buying presents for everyone and gave up Christmas on the farm all together, was putting our names on little pieces of paper, putting them in a hat, and making sure before anyone left that we all drew names for Christmas. The wiener roast was the start of Christmas. Mom was insistent on us keeping Christmas at the farm, and we did until she passed away. We had to give up our family Christmas, but we hope to continue roasting wieners in October like we always did on the farm.

Back then the married couples and their kids began arriving early. If you were hungry you could make yourself a sandwich. We didn’t roast the wieners till evening after chores. Until we ate we tended the fire with a pitchfork, threw a football around the yard, talked about the Cubs, just spent time together. It was usually October. In 1984 we had the wiener roast on the Sunday when the Cubs got beat in game five of the National League championship by San Diego after winning the first two. Leon Durham, in his last game as a Cub, let a ground ball go through at first base that began their downfall. At that moment we knew it would be an awful day for the Cubs, and it was. We commiserated together.

My daughter was a baby then at her second wiener roast. We had announced Colleen being pregnant at the wiener roast two years before. It is a family event and a great opportunity to announce big news to everyone at once. If you hadn’t seen your brother or sister, or cousins, you could count on seeing them at the wiener roast on the farm. When we were together we realized how much we missed each other, missed being together on the farm. When I traveled and was out of the country I imagined them on that driveway, sitting on bales of straw, looking into the fire, roasting wieners. I loved the fire after dark, and the closeness of us around it.

A wiener roast is sort of a poor man’s pig roast. There’s an art to roasting a wiener on an open fire, and when you do it right there’s nothing quite like it. Everyone has their own method. My advice is this; make sure your wiener is on your willow stick securely and keep it out of the flames. What you want to do is position it the right distance away from a glowing red hot log or a bed of coals. Ideal is a gap between two glowing logs so you can hold your wiener equidistant from the two and roast both sides at once. That takes away the need to roll and turn your wiener stick, which increases the risk of dropping your wiener into the fire. I hate it when that happens. I like mine blistered not charred. But in truth, you can eat wieners raw with no ill effect. Warm it up some way. You can’t go wrong.

Most importantly, cook your wiener the way you like it. Do two. If you don’t eat the second one someone else will. Load them up with condiments or eat them plain. It’s the wiener that gives you that good flavor, that blend of who knows what packed in the little tube. It’s a tradition. Have some potato salad and baked beans. When you’re done throw your plate in the fire. Wash it all down with a beer. Early on in the old days on the farm Mom wouldn’t allow it. Two weekends ago we had a keg of ‘A Little Sumpin, Sumpin’ from the Lagunitas brewery in Chicago. Things have changed considerably.

We had a good turnout for the McClure wiener roast in Ottawa. I was glad to see it. Around thirty five nice people connected as family gathered in our back yard at the fire pit outside the shack. I have known no people in the world longer than these. Because I was the baby my siblings have known me from birth. My brother in law Del came up from Texas with his wife Olive. I met Del when I was five and he was twenty something and married my sister Peggy. Del is a long time and veteran wiener roaster.

My brother Denny was here having moved to Elgin from California with his wife Sandi. Our sister in law Cheryl came with her friend Brice and her family, my nephew Don, named for my brother Don, his wife Becky and three of his four kids Bailey, Megan, and Katie. Don’s sister Devyn was here with her husband Ben and the newest member of their family, my newest great nephew, baby D.J.. Cheryl remains close with our family since her husband, our brother Don, passed away as Del has since our sister Peggy died so many years ago. My brother Darwin and his wife Sheryl were here from Danvers with their daughter Rhonda, her friend Casey, and one of her daughters, Emma. Emma is so grown up. If or when Emma or her sister Allison have children they will great great nieces or nephews to me. Holy Cow.

My two kids, Dean and Maureen were here. Maureen brought her friend Don. It was the first time in a long time Colleen and I and our kids have all been together at a wiener roast. My kids did a lot of long distance travel and we’re happy to have them back home and close. Kathy and Kim came up from Bloomington with their son Keegan. Kurt and Polly came too. My sister Deanelle, her husband Ron, their son Brad with his wife Jen and their three kids Emma, Ben, and Eli were here.

We talked about those of us living away in New York, Texas, Colorado, Germany, and those in the area who couldn’t make it. We did an awful lot of talking. Talking face to face, I find, beats e mails and texting, even Skyping, all to hell. We forget that sometimes.

Did I get everybody? I hope so. If not let me know. This thing is easily edited.

If you’re reading this thanks for coming. There’s nothing like family. We stay close through these traditions and preserve that special place in our hearts for one another by keeping them. Having worked with families who struggled to stay together I think I appreciate my own more. I wish every family could have had the life we enjoyed growing up, and continue to have now that we’re apart, each with our own lives and families. My Mom and Dad, perhaps your grandma and grandpa, would be glad we were together. Thanks for coming. It means a lot.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ebola Fever

When I left work on September 11, 2001 there were long lines at the gas station in Ottawa. Cars clogged the drive of the Clark Station on Jefferson, and Conroy’s up by Route 80. I stopped by Kroger, not in reaction to the death and destruction in New York but because we were out of eggs. The aisles were jammed with shoppers buying canned goods, bread, and milk. I’d never seen it, the type of group fear that human beings exhibit when they sense danger, but there it was. Bad things had happened in the homeland, every airplane in the nation was grounded, the future was uncertain, and America was hunkering down.

Hunkering down for good reason. 2,996 people died that day at the hands of foreign terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon with commercial airplanes loaded with passengers. We knew in our gut that America would soon be at war somewhere in the world. We panicked. Everything changed, but most importantly both our sense of security and our view of the world were wholly different after that day. It’s hard to remember the relative innocence of pre 9-11 America, but it’s safe to say we have never been the same.

Something similar and yet entirely different has happened during the past week.

The parents of children attending the public middle school in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, a town of 4,000 people about 30 miles South of Jackson on Interstate 55, mobbed the school, demanding their children be released to their custody. This was reportedly fueled by Face Book posts that Principal Lee Wannik had recently returned from Africa after attending the funeral of his brother (true) and that he was either infected with Ebola or exposed to someone infected (false). Video of the incident shot by Channel 16 WAFT out of Jackson shows a hall full of angry parents being directed to the cafeteria to sign forms to take their children out of school. Mr. Wannik recently returned from the African country of Zambia, a country not part of the recent outbreak. No cases of Ebola have been reported to exist in Zambia and it is very, very far from the African countries being monitored by authorities.

I watched a very calm middle school superintendent, John Sullivan, explain on the news clip that Principal Wannik traveled to Zambia to attend the funeral of his brother and, after realizing the concern (think hysteria) present among parents, voluntarily chose to stay at home for a period of time “so that he would not be a distraction to the educational process.”

I don’t know how these things work, having not been forced to deal with large groups of irrational people often (thank you god) but I wonder if Superintendent Sullivan, having an audience of parents in the cafeteria, might have seized it as a teaching moment and talked to them about the facts of the situation. The talk might have gone like this.

“Folks if I could just have your attention for a few moments I’d like to give you some information. I know you have come to take your children home out of a concern for their safety, and that is your right, but before you do if you would just give me a few moments of your time.

"We have all heard of Ebola and we both know it is a terrible disease that we want to avoid at any cost. However, I would like to offer a few facts for you to consider. First, Mr. Wannik is fine. I was with him this morning. Aside from just having lost his brother he is healthy and fit. He feels well and is not sick. He is most likely the same as when you saw him last.”
“Mr. Wannik’s former home, where many of his family still live, is in the African country of Zambia. That is the only country he visited while he was in Africa. He flew to Zambia and he flew home. Zambia is in the southern portion of the large continent of Africa.”

“If you think of Africa as being in the shape of a hatchet Zambia is where you might grab the hatchet by its handle. The countries the world is concerned about, which are experiencing the current outbreak of the Ebola virus are Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. They are located on the blade of the hatchet in the North Central and Western portion of Africa. My staff prepared a map which we’ll project on the wall for you. There. Outlined in red are the countries just mentioned. Way over here, in blue, is Zambia. The distance between the closest country experiencing the Ebola outbreak, Liberia, and Zambia where Mr. Wannik attended his brother’s funeral, is 2,897 miles. Let me repeat that. 2,897 miles.”

“I tried to find some place that far away so I could better appreciate that distance. In choosing an example of a how far Zambia is from the affected Ebola area of Africa I searched for a city or an area of the world that is the same distance from where we are now in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. It wasn’t easy. No part of the United States is that far away from us. In fact, if you took a string that represented that distance to scale and swung it around a tack in a map stuck in Hazelhurst it would extend North to mostly arctic parts of Canada where no towns exist. And then of course you have the oceans to the East and West. So I extended that string to the South, using a computer program called “As the Crow Flies” and there is a point South of us that is just about the same distance from Hazelhurst as Zambia is from Liberia. That point is, could we have the next slide please? That point is Iquitos, Peru in the Amazon basin. I think that visual, for me at least, of a town far away in South America gives me a better idea of how far Mr. Wannik was from the dangers of the Ebola virus during his trip to Africa.”

“Just as many of us have never ventured so far away as to be in Iquitos, Peru, South America so the people of Zambia rarely if ever travel so far as to be in contact with people in the Ebola affected countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and vice versa. In fact, given the widespread poverty that exists in those nations, few people have the means or the opportunity to travel around the continent at all. They largely stay at home. There have in fact been no cases of Ebola reported in Zambia. Let me say that again. There have been no cases of Ebola virus reported in Zambia, the only country Mr. Wannik visited, and Zambia is over 2,800 miles from the problem area of Africa.”

“So I repeat, Mr. Wannik is fine and he assures me, and you, that he was not in contact with anyone who was ill with the Ebola disease. And so he believes, as I believe, that your children, their teachers, and you are safe at Halzelhurst Middle School in his presence. As your superintendent I urge you not to remove your children from their school. You have the right to do so if you choose, but I hope you choose to leave your kids in school so we can do our job of teaching them. In fact, by leaving them here you set an example for your kids of choosing reason over fear. Thanks for your time.”

Would that have made a difference? I’m not sure. By the looks of the crowd on the video maybe not. Some parents even removed their children from the high school, a separate building removed from the middle school where Mr. Wannik worked. It would be fair to say what Hazelhurst experienced was community wide panic, fueled by Face Book and social media rumor. If you view the video, you can see that parents were indignant when asked by reporters why they were removing their children from school saying “I would rather be safe than sorry” or “you can’t be too careful” or “because I want to.” Refreshingly, one Dad, when posed the question ‘Why are you taking your children out of school’ tried to respond and in the end admitted ‘I don’t really know why.’ Clearly a factor was that everyone else was doing so. I know we get emotional about our kids, but I like to think we can also be reasonable given objective fact.

Maybe Mr. Wannik and Mr. Sullivan had a short meeting where they weighed the phone calls received, the anger, the apparent fear and decided between them and the school board ‘let the parents do what they want, and you get the hell out of here.’ In the end Mr. Wannik took voluntary paid leave and went home for an undisclosed period of time. But when we make decisions that give in to fear, when we fold up in the face of ignorance and misinformation don’t we just reinforce and reward wrong thinking? That’s the kind of thinking that negatively stigmatizes others, justifies hate, and condones extreme behavior. It is us at our worst.

The United States has had one death attributed to Ebola in America. One. We have an extensive health care system. We have news and communication resources that will alert us immediately to real danger, and we have the attention of the entire nation including the U.S. government. We’ve got this. Let’s all back up a step and chill.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Last Round of the Year

We picked Thursday because it promised to be the warmest day of the week. A friend from Chicago, who had to be back in the city late afternoon, picked a park district course by Joliet neither of us had golfed before. It was easier for me to reach than him, though it was about halfway. He had to fight the morning traffic some. We were to meet at ten, tee off at eleven.

As I drove there, raindrops twice covered my windshield but only briefly. The sun we had hoped for was covered by thick gray clouds. It would not show itself until we were both home that evening. When I was getting my clubs out of the trunk a gust of cold wind chased me to my windbreaker in the back seat. Kind of wished I had brought something warmer.

In spite of the weather the place was crawling with old guys. Maybe they had been cooped up at home all week too. A very slight, seriously stooped gray haired man, hearing from the starter the course was “cart path only”, meaning we were not allowed to drive carts onto the fairway, came back into the pro shop asking for handicapped flags, bright blue pennants to clip onto your cart giving permission to cut ruts into the bent grass where ever you chose in order to drive right up to your ball. As I watched him walk away, briskly, I thought he walked pretty well, you know, for an old guy.

“Are we using the senior rate today?” the boy by the cash register asked as he rang up the cost of my round.

“How old do you have to be?” I asked.


“Then yes we are.”

Why do people use “we” as the subject of a sentence directed clearly at "you" anyway? Is it to create some kind of verbal camaraderie, as if we’re in something together, the something in this case being old age? The kid working the register couldn’t have been more than 35. Outside of the building we were both standing in, we weren’t in anything together.

I started golfing in high school with a buddy at Bluegrass Creek, a nice country course near Minier. No one I knew golfed except my older brother with whom I never played a round. My Dad talked about golfing in Chicago with an uncle I barely knew, Uncle Wick. We had a set of old clubs on the farm from somewhere. Each of the irons; 3,5,7,9 were of different makes. The three woods, 1,2,3 were all the same and made of real wood with brass plates and screws on the bottom. A simple thin blade putter completed the skinny blue bag. We were on our own, my friend and I, farm kids flailing away on summer afternoons with little idea what constituted a good swing. We had fun.

I didn’t golf again till the kids were born. Bought a set of knock off Callaway irons in the late 80’s and still have them, though I’ve used a bunch of different woods, now metal. Used to play a lot, every Saturday, and then the building of the shack soaked up my weekends. It’s easy to get away from good habits. I liked golf because it took my mind away from everything else. The guys I golfed with knew nothing about social work and rarely spoke of interpersonal problems. We talked about golf; the lie, the green, the clubs, the hazards, the next shot. And when it was over we had a few beers. It was simple. I miss it.

My Chicago friend and I set up a time to golf because it gave us a chance to be together for most of a day. He’s a good guy to be with. We have a lot in common. He plays golf better than I, used to be on a golf team, and has higher standards. I’m a hacker, thought I can occasionally put together a good round. Neither of us golfed that well Thursday. Maybe it was the cold. Maybe it was our stiff old backs and creaky joints. But we were out there, with the old guys, staying on the cart path for the most part, taking our swings and trying our best. Pretty much our best. Most of the time. It was a casual game. We didn’t keep score except in our heads.

I’ve never been on an ugly golf course, but this one was prettier than most. With the summer we had, and all the rain, the fairways and the greens were pristine green. The trees lining the fairway, some ancient, some recently planted, were brilliant with fall colors. We kept hoping for some sun to spike up the reds and yellows, a little brightness to make them pop. But that wasn’t to be. I took my windbreaker off for a few holes after warming up, but put it back on. We rolled a few balls under fallen leaves. Some we found and others we lost. We didn’t look long for the missing. But like always we found a few that others gave up on, so in the end we came out about even.

After a good lunch in the clubhouse we attacked the second nine by playing two man best ball, just to improve our chances. It buoyed our spirits. We found new hope in reaching the green in regulation, creating birdie tries, strategizing. It became a team game, playing against no one. Despite the weather we found ourselves enjoying a few laughs.

We also found ourselves straying from golf there on a few holes.

“Do you ever wonder just why our country has to constantly be at war? Our president won the Nobel Peace Prize and yet we almost demand of him, of every president, that they be quick to bomb recalcitrant nations, usually between Europe and Asia, and now we’re bombing two, Iraq and Syria, and not even them per se, but some group of militants. We just learned their name about a month before we started killing them, and no one can quite agree on that even.”

“We are convinced they threaten us I guess. We accept the fear and believe collectively, I suppose, given the lack of opposition, that we have no choice. It seems we always find a way to villainize someone, or some group, and as a result our military, now paid and professional, is constantly deployed, actively opposing one demon or another while the rest of us applaud service men and women at sports events and go on our merry way. We sleep without worry while the drones carry out their missions. And somehow we think the two things are connected, that our peace depends on someone else’s slaughter.”

“Yeah, I heard something the other day that seems so true. Globally we have 21st century weapons but 15th century peacemaking skills. We’re not getting anywhere.”

We found we agreed, us two old guys nearing 65 on a golf course in the fall of 2014. We are both of an age in which we escaped the Vietnam War, were never drafted, and are not sure others in our country care to listen to our views as they were heard in the sixties and seventies. We understood the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy and saw the impact of real participation in politics. We knew then that we were part of something, that we brought an early end to an unjust, senseless, and wasteful war, and that being involved could make a difference.

Now, forty five years later, we both vote, though we find no peace candidates for whom to cast ballots. We worry for our kids, that they will never have the opportunities we enjoyed, that they will lose interest and confidence in government, or have enough money to live as well as we feel we have, though neither of us live extravagantly. We both were able to live fulfilling lives in America, and we don’t know what the future will bring. We worry not for ourselves but for the next people taking our place. We go on though. We pay attention, we stay informed and try to understand, and sometimes we try to change things in our own small ways. But we see little to suggest that change is coming. I think neither of us can find a party, a place, or a platform of any kind to latch onto that would represent our concerns.

We’re probably like most of the old guys on the course, though we don’t like to admit it, even the guy with the handicapped flag on his cart. By the end of the round we were pooped. My feet hurt. I was reminded that I have to get better golf shoes.

And so it ended. We played the eighteenth hole (par), stashed our clubs back in our trunks, and said good bye in the parking lot.

“That will probably be my last golf of the year,” I said.

“I’m sure it will be for me,” my friend replied.

“I hope your winter is short and better than the last.”

“I think it has to be, for both of us.” We had agreed earlier, on the seventh hole if I remember that last winter was sheer hell.

“If you’re down our way let us know, we’ll get together.”

“You too if you get up to the city.”

We hugged each other and walked to our cars. It was great seeing my friend, but there is something sad about playing the last round of the year.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Math at its Core

Future blog topics pile up: hot peppers, the Yamas, Efrain Rios Montt, a guy I knew who used to run an agency like mine. Also, as feared, other writing steals from time needed to devote to this weekly post. My nephew Sean, a senior in high school looking towards college, asked me to devote a blog post to common core math, which he says is driving him and all his friends crazy. He asked that of his Uncle Dave politely, because he’s a nice kid, but not because he knows me well. I gather from others mentioning this problem, and the change it has brought to teaching and learning mathematics, that common core math scrambles the logic of thinking out math problems into something of a long hand process. It makes the simple (and previously learned) complicated, adds steps, and creates what appears to be a new way of doing math, or running math concepts through your head. I don’t know what it is. And to write the blog that Sean wants I will be forced to research this whole thing, which is difficult.

Because I don’t think of math. My life is almost entirely math free. I seldom think of money but when I do I think in terms of math. I look at financial reports. I figure out if the cashier gives me the right change at the store, but never does my math thinking rise above multiplication or division. I see no reason that it should. There are I admit pursuits that require math, but my life rarely crosses path with them. In fact, every once in a while at the end of the day, when I’m turning off my computer in the shack and getting ready to go into the house, I have a sip of Bushmills whiskey, lean back, put my hands behind my head and think

“Another day gone by without algebra.”

I know people will say that math is all around us, that math is essential to so much of everyday life, that we take math for granted, that without math life as we know it would be impossible. And that’s probably true. But I don’t have to think about it, because I have a calculator on my phone that does math for me. And X? I have not solved for X since perhaps the late 70’s. I don’t remember what X was. Do you?

Does math help us develop our brains in some good way? Teach us logic? Have benefits that go beyond coming up with a number that is essential for one thing or another? Probably so. But I seem to be doing all right by virtually ignoring it. Let me give you an example of the depth of my need for math.

I’m building a woodshed slowly, taking on one part of it at a time. I built the foundation by making little concrete posts. I knew how long I wanted it to be and how deep. I built the floor of the woodshed, a platform really, off the ground at a convenient height so I wouldn’t have to bend over so far to pick up logs. I figured I would gap the boards about a half inch to let air flow up and dry the wood. I incorporated posts going up that would later hold a roof and determined how high I wanted it by reaching up and determining how high I could comfortably stack wood. All that was done simply with a tape measure. I did have to calculate how much wood to order for the platform. I took out my I Phone, multiplied the length of the platform in feet by twelve, converting it to inches, and then divided that number by the width of the board plus a half inch for the gap. From that number I determined I could order eight footers and cut them in two so I cut the number in half. It was calculator stuff.

Same thing with the roof. I looked at the posts sticking up in the air, imagined the kind of roof I wanted and how I wanted it to look, and invited John Liebhardt to come to the shack for coffee. John is a carpenter, a neighbor, and a good guy that has done and is doing some more work on our house. I asked him to look at my woodshed project.

“John, I want to build a pitched roof that’s asymmetrical to resemble my shack roof but I’m going to gap boards and cover this one with wood shingles. That could be lighter than a plywood sub roof with asphalt shingles. Think I need to stay with 2x6 rafters on sixteen inch centers?”

“Oh, maybe not. But I’m a fan of staying with sixteen inch centers anyway, because you know then it’s not going to sag and everything will be tied together well. It doesn’t cost that much more to put up a few more rafters. What I would do though, is when you put up your two by lumber on these 4 x 4’s, which you’ll attach the rafters to, is to bolt them on instead of nail them. And I’d do 2x8 facing boards there and 2x6 rafters. Like I say, you could maybe get by with 2x4 rafters on a small structure like this but why do it? Why not build it well and ensure it lasts longer?”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“And when you know how much overhang and basically how you want that roof I can cut you a couple of sample rafters.”

“I was hoping you would say that.” John did the same thing for the shack rafters.

Cutting rafters, with the bird’s mouth and the proper angle where they join the ridgepole, and stair stringers which result in steps that are equal in height and depth, requires real math. Slope, rise, span. Carpenters used to figure that all out on their framing squares. I worked for a pair of carpenters in high school who did such calculations. Mr. Walsh, the guy of the two who was better at it, would take a piece of scrap board, a pencil, some measurements, his framing square, and go off by himself to figure it out. He liked to sit on the tailgate of his pickup by himself with a cup of coffee. You could see almost see him concentrate. He would usually start by looking over his measurements and sharpening his pencil. Then he would jot some figures on the scrap lumber, consult the square, and do it all again before marking out lines on boards carefully before cutting the pattern board himself.

That’s real math that matters and I readily admit I don’t know how to do it. But fortunately others do. Actually, John tells me there is a computer program that does all that now. The markings on the framing square have pretty much gone the way of the slide rule in countries flush with capacity for computing. Somebody has figured it out for us and shared their knowledge.

After John left my math consisted of adding two feet, a foot at each end for overhang to the sixteen feet of platform the roof will cover, multiplying 18 by 12 to convert that length to inches, then dividing it by sixteen to determine the number of rafters I’ll need. I need fifteen. I should be able to get both rafter slopes out of an eight foot 2x6. Now I know what to order for rafters. Multiply and divide. Calculator.

That may prove to be the most sophisticated math I do the entire year. And it’s been that way for about forty seven years. Even when I had responsibilities to manage big budgets in my work, I found that budgets are built primarily by addition and subtraction. I used to do them on green columnar pads using a calculator from Walgreens and a Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 pencil. In the eighties I discovered that spreadsheet programs on a computer do a lot better job at those functions than we ever could. I rarely felt math deficient. I still don’t.

I am of course. I was English major. I stopped taking math in high school after I finished geometry in 1967, and I found a way to graduate from ISU without taking (I should say passing) a math course. I am by my wife’s standards, she a math major and retired math teacher, woefully under educated and extremely ignorant of the benefits and importance of higher mathematics. I admit this. However life goes on without it, and I’m happy to report it’s not bad.

There are however the occasional run ins with math majors. My wife doesn’t like to talk to me about math because she is convinced my underlying motivation in having such discussions is to make fun of it, an intent she classifies as evil. I see it as merely mischievous. As a result we don’t have those conversations anymore. I find it safer to have them outside of my marriage.

The other day I was counting the offering at church with my young friend Kevin, a math teacher at the high school. I faced a computer screen while he filled out a deposit slip by hand and gave me information, check numbers and amounts, off checks which I entered into a spreadsheet;. One was a computer check with a big string of zeros at the beginning of its identifying number. He began to read the zeros.

“Kevin, just give me the real numbers. You can skip the zeros.”

“Zero is a real number Dave.”

Oh boy, I thought. Déjà vu. I’ve had this same conversation before. Nothing I say from here on out will make any difference, because math people live in a world of such certitude. I won’t go so far as to use the word smug. Or self righteous either.

“OK. How about just giving me the integers.”

“Zero is an integer too.” I turned and tried to look at him with as little emotion as possible. Zero affect.

“What you want is just the natural numbers. Zero is not part of the natural numbers.”

“Thanks Kev. So how about we just stick with the natural numbers? Given that zero is nothing.”

“And you can’t say zero is nothing either. That’s not entirely true.”

“Yes I can. I just did. It’s nothing to me.”

Kevin began to laugh and I joined him. Kevin was putting me on, but it reminded me once again that math is a foreign language made up not of words but of numbers and symbols. At the very least it’s a unique way of thinking. And it’s thinking I don’t do.

Last night after choir practice, thinking of my nephew Sean and his common core math problem, I engaged Kevin in math talk again. After teaching all day he appeared reluctant to go into common core specifics, shaking his head and looking away sadly, so I simply asked him to go over that number classification thing. That brought sparkle to his eyes. He immediately looked for a pencil and paper. As he did I knew what ended up on the scratch paper I would carry home would not resemble a poem in any way. I have them here on my desk. I can barely make sense of them. I’m afraid I’m going to have to consult my wife.

Kevin began by drawing a big circle. “You start with rational numbers.” He put a capital R just inside the circle. Then he drew circles within circles making concentric rings that resembled the orbits of the planets in our solar system. Inside the next ring he put a capital I.

“A subset of the rational numbers is integers. Within them are whole numbers.” He labeled the next ring as W.

“And finally you get to natural numbers.” He put an N inside the little circle where the sun would be in the middle of Mercury’s tiny orbit around it. Then he began putting equal signs by the letters and within brackets started scribbling numbers and dots.

“Natural numbers begin with one and go to infinity.” N= {1,2,3…}

“Whole numbers begin with zero.” W= {0,1,2,3…} Kevin grew more excited as he went along, because clearly he really knew this stuff and liked explaining it.

“And integers are all the negative and positive whole numbers.” I={-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3…}

“Those are all subsets of Rational numbers which include, in addition to all these, fractions represented by decimals that repeat. Like 5/6ths as a fraction, which is 0.833333… to infinity.”

“Then” (he drew another circle) “you have all your irrational numbers, which are fractions represented by decimals that do not repeat or end, the most famous of which is Pi.” 3.141592654…. Irrational numbers also come up often when you are using the Pythagorean theorem to figure out triangles.”

At that point Kevin got pretty animated and broke into a free form historical and improvisational Pythagoras rap, which included some fairly strong opinions about the famous old number cruncher.

“You know mathematicians way before Pythagoras knew that theory. But Pythagoras and his followers, who were pretty much of a cult, really, hung his name on it and it’s been that way ever since. I mean it was a break through, and useful as all heck, but he didn’t discover it.”

Talk to a math person for any length of time and sooner or later they’re going to throw in the name of some long ago mathematician they either admire or hate. English majors do the same thing, the way I might mention some old wordsmith like Chaucer.

Kevin looked at his diagram with a certain amount of pride and then drew a big circle around the two circles representing rational and irrational numbers.

“Put them both together and you get what is known as real numbers.”

“What about imaginary number? “ I asked innocently. Imaginary numbers were always the flash point in conversations between my wife and me about math.

“Imaginary numbers? That would be another circle yet. But you don’t really have to worry about imaginary numbers. They all revolve around the square root of negative one, which is I squared =-1.” He scribbled both things on the paper. “ Once in a while they appear in algorithms engineers use, but for the most part they cancel out before the end of the calculation. I mean you have to know what they are, but they aren’t used often in any practical sense.”

I have in the past badgered my wife about imaginary numbers following their mere mention, which resulted in her refusal to talk math further with me. It would go like this. I would say

“And why would you call numbers, any numbers, imaginary? Math is concrete and practical. Saying there are numbers that are imaginary, using imaginary as an adjective for a set of numbers, undercuts all that. It’s like having a subset of the laws of physics that are called ‘laws of physics we just pulled out of our hat’ or something. It’s stupid.”

To which she would reply “Ok. That’s it. I’m done. You don’t want to understand this. You just want to argue.”

OK, so I didn’t always use the word hat, and I probably should stop using the word stupid in that context. But there is something I don’t like about math. You might even say there is something I hate about math. It’s that smug sense of always coming out with one right answer that makes me mad. I try not to take it out on math people but I'm afraid perhaps I do. Life doesn’t have simple answers. Give me a vague passage from a Don DeLillo novel any day. Keep your love for differential equations to yourself.

I didn’t say that to Kevin. We don’t have that kind of relationship. To Kevin’s explanation of imaginary numbers I simply replied

“I see.”

And so Sean, I’m going to write that blog entry on common core math and the problems it is causing students and teachers alike. But I’m going to have to overcome some attitude to get there. I hope you understand.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Report on Thursday

I loaded new music into my CD changer in the shack this morning. I put Pat Metheny (with a touch of Lyle Mays and others) back in their cases and away into the cardboard jazz box after a good two weeks of play and brought out my Bach CD’s. A friend gave me all six Brandenburg concertos and another miscellaneous Bach disc saying he thought I needed more Germans in my line up. My CD player holds five discs so I added Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and threw in a classical Indian sitar CD for good measure. I should know the name of the Indian artist but I don’t. It’s in the changer and Bach is playing so I can’t look right now.

YMCA’s yoga sessions gave me a hankering for the sitar. Good music is part of the practice there. I think of the sitar as an Indian version of the pedal steel guitar. Indian music is wholly different than Europe’s. When the sitar and those great drums come on it gives me an entire change of pace. The Indian CD came free, glued to a package of microwave papadum I bought somewhere in the city.

My kids make gentle fun of me for not going digital with my music, downloading everything and forgoing all the Compact Discs and albums. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m computerized enough I think. I even bought a turntable for myself at Christmas. These past weeks along with the Pat Metheny CD’s I also unlocked the warm vinyl grooves of one of his best albums “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.”

I should be playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons given the sudden change of season. It seems like it happens all at once but of course it doesn’t. The autumnal equinox, when there is an equal amount of day to night, was twelve days ago. Already in Ottawa’s zip code we’ve lost a lot of daylight since then. The sun is rising at 6:54 a.m. and setting at 6:34 p.m. for eleven hours forty minutes of sunshine. That and the angle of the sun dropping in the sky, not shining as strongly or directly on us, translates into cold weather. It can’t help but happen.

I have got a lot to do before winter arrives. 2014 has not been my most productive year project wise. I got a lot of writing done but I neglected the place in many ways. My shack woodshed project, started as soon as the snow melted, is still not done. I’m a little stumped on the details of the roof. I want to get a wood box for the shack porch done along with it but that may have to wait. I won’t bore you with all the stuff on the list but it’s considerably long. I have to steel brush and polish the wood stove, get a little painting done, pick my peppers and make chili paste and jerk marinade. Do up the horseradish. Duties at church.

I fully realize this to do list is nothing like the one I used to maintain at work. Few if any much depend on its completion. Building or not building a wood box will not affect anyone’s paycheck, nor result in a lack of service for any family including my own. It’s not an urgent to do list mind you, but it’s a list all the same. It still fills my head in idle moments.

Yesterday I got away with my wife. Thursday is her day off from a job she’s taken helping students in a credit recovery program operated by our local Superintendent of Schools. Young people wind up, due to an amazingly wide variety of circumstances, close but short of the credits needed to graduate from their high school. The credit recovery program allows them to finish those credits and earn a diploma from their community school rather than a GED, by attending a flexible and individualized program at the IVCC satellite campus in Ottawa. Colleen helps them through math on a computer program. Lots of kids really hate math. Colleen reduces their fear, slows them down, and convinces them they can do it. Most of them do. On Thursday the annex is full and the credit recovery program is not in session. We use it as a day to do stuff.

Yesterday we bought a tree. You know what they say about trees; the best time to plant one is twenty five years ago, the next best is today. We hope to plant the ginkgo we bought yesterday next week, in the spot where our Japanese cherry tree now stands. Seems as though the cheery tree has lived out its life, perhaps shortened by last winter’s awful weather. Rather than digging the hole myself I’m having a guy come do it with equipment. With any luck he will agree to transplant the nice little burr oak sapling that is growing as a volunteer in my asparagus patch. We want to move it to where one of the big oaks used to be. When it gets there it may have some asparagus spears sprout next to it in the spring but no matter.

We have giant old oaks that cover our back yard. Losing one was like a member of the family dying. Not really, but it feels like it at first. It just seems right to replace the old oak with a new one sprouted from an acorn probably buried by a squirrel. It’s like a kid taking over for an old person, an oak sapling taking the place of a mighty tree. When I walk to the shack these days I crunch acorns with every step. It’s a banner year for nuts. The squirrels should be rejoicing. Maybe they are. I wouldn’t know how to tell.

We had a tree guy (arborist?) visit and check out our ash tree in the front yard. He thinks it’s fairly healthy and can be saved, prevented from the blight, with treatments, so we’re trying that. Ash trees you know are being wiped out by a little emerald borer. Who knew in the eighties when we chose an ash we would be in jeopardy of losing this nice big tree that shades our house from the afternoon sun? We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

While we were at the nursery, outside Millington, we checked out some other trees. I like the look of Japanese Maples, especially the ones with the feathery little red leaves. My God but they’re expensive. I think one would look good by the shack, which is near power lines. Because they don’t attain much height a little tree like that would be a good choice. I’m going to have to figure something else out, or buy a really little one, maybe a seedling
This tree planting thing, given our age, gives us pause. We’re not exactly buying them for ourselves I guess, because this ginko, three inches around the trunk, nine feet tall, will take a long time to reach maturity as will the little burr oak. Slow growing trees last the longest and are the best. But they will probably take longer to grow into adult trees than my wife and I have left on earth. So we may be planting them for the next people. What’s wrong with that?

Our trip to the nursery took us to Millington so we drove around. Nice little town off Rt. 71. We also got off the highway and drove through Millbrook and Newark. Good places all. Back on 71 we stopped at the Norway Store in Norway. I buy sardines there. Sardines on soda crackers are a staple for winter snacks in the shack. It’s hard to find the good King Oscar sardines elsewhere, the little guys double layered and packed in olive oil. You can find the big rough sardines almost anywhere, but King Oscar is the standard of sardines. They have all the King Oscar lines at the Norway Store, sardines packed in mustard, tomato, hot sauce, even the new one with sardines packed in spring water. I’m not sure I’m going to like the water packed guys but I bought some to try.

They just oiled the floors at the Norway Store. They do it twice a year. Like my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harry’s grocery store in Danvers, they have the old unfinished wood plank floors. I’m pretty sure Uncle Harry used to do them up with creosote, which had a pretty sharp smell, and probably violates some kind of public health regulation these days. I asked the guy at the lunch counter what kind of oil they used and he thought it was an edible vegetable oil.

“You know, these floors are over 140 years old,“ he said seriously. I don’t doubt him a bit.

The Norway store is pretty unique. You can get all your Scandinavian supplies there, your lingon berries, your lefske, your potato dumpling mix, your pickled herring and all. You can get about anything else there too, as it serves as the local mercantile and grocery for the little town of Norway and nearby Wilderness campground. Fill your tank with FS gasoline, buy a lottery ticket, and stock up on beer to go with your herring as well. If you are feeling shaggy there is a windowless barber shop in the back of the Norway Store with an old time barber. At the lunch counter try the pie. They bake them right there. I had the banana cream a cup of coffee. The coffee was not outstanding but the pie was. My wife had the fish sandwich and proclaimed it good. It made a nice afternoon that much better.

That was yesterday and today is a new day. I plan to swim at the Y in just a little while so I’ll close. Wagner just came on the stereo, the sun came out, and I’ve got things to do. Talk to you next week.