Friday, October 31, 2008

Why a College Education is Overrated

A summary of an article by Marty Nemko, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, via The Week, Oct 31:

Americans now believe that every young person can benefit from going to college, said Marty Nemko. It's just not so. For students who graduate high school in the bottom 40 percent of their class, college is usually a waste of money: More than two-thirds of such students who enroll as freshman, research shows, fail to earn a college degree. Colleges, which are businesses first and foremost, gladly admit these ill-prepared students, cashing their tuition payments but doing little to prepare them for the real world. When they wind up dropping out, these failed students leave campus "with a mountains of debt and devastated self-esteem from their unsuccessful struggles." When high school students show no aptitude for or interest in academics, their parents do them no favors by insisting on college. Such young people are far better off earning a career-oriented associate degree at a community college, joining the military, or enrolling in job-training programs in a thriving small business. They may not get an expensive diploma to hang on the wall - but they will get the skills they need to hold good jobs and lead happy, productive lives.


Why don't mummies take vacations?
They're afraid they'll relax and unwind.

It's perfect for Halloween, but it also applies to a lot of mummies I know - if they relax too much, they might not be willing to take up the yoke again when the vacation is over...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

October Black Cats

What is it about October that makes black cats sit out in fields? We have a black cat in our neighborhood that only shows up in October; then it sits on the lawn across the road and looks at our house. And today I saw a black cat sitting in a field; it was still there when I came home two hours later. I know mown fields make it easier to see cats and black cats are easier to see than other colors, but this is more than that. Luckily, it will be gone at the end of the week.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why My Kids Like Homeschooling

My son avoided getting up this morning by taking an assigned book with him last night. That way, he and his dog could enjoy lying in bed past the usual start time, guilt-free and nag-free.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Good Acknowledgement Page

Author Acknowledgements are normally boring lists of everyone the author has ever worked with, with gushing thanks to the editor and spouse, and I skip over them quickly. But I enjoyed reading Raymond Loewy's acknowledgements in Never Leave Well Enough Alone, the "personal record of an industrial designer from lipsticks to locomotives" published in 1951.
My indebtedness to the Atlantic Ocean must be acknowledged first. In perverse conspiration with the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, it lengthened my crossing to Europe and compelled me to remain in my stateroom for the greater part of the journey. To this forced immobilization can be attributed the first sixty-two pages of this thing. For continued encouragement, I am deeply grateful to G.D. Searle and Company, makers of Dramamin, a new seasickness remedy.

Thanks are in order to the Pullman Company, whose new type of automatic folding toilets makes me appreciate the joys of staying home. To home, where a defective incinerator poisons my daily life, thanks for making me appreciate the joys of travel. For continual criticism of what I was thinking, doing, planning to do or write, thanks to my beloved wife, Viola, without whom this book might otherwise have been much longer. Selection of the text was greatly facilitated by my secretary, Miss Peters, whose well-timed loss of a particularly boring chapter in a New York taxicab led to its complete elimination, and my blissful relief. To the mosquitoes who made writing unbearable on the beach at Porquerolles, and chased me to Zermatt, I must credit a lovely month of June in the shadow of the Matterhorn.

To the makers of my ball point pens, may I extend the thanks of the dry cleaning industry, which has been kept busy removing spots from most of my bedsheets, pajamas, tablecloth, evening shirts, white poodles, upholstery, and Lanvin neckties during the genesis of this book. To the airlines, thanks are in order for the countless hours of leisurely waiting at airports and bus terminals, where many chapters have been written on empty popcorn boxes, travel folders to Mexico, and other deadly airline literature. Acknowledgements are in order to Ella, my cook, who reduced the printing cost of this book by conveniently dropping a saucerful of hollandaise on a batch of illustrations, thereby materially cutting down printing expenses.

Finally, my heartfelt thanks to my dear friend Peggy (Mrs. Howard) Cullman, who, after reading the first two parts of the ms., assured me that she had read much worse, thereby supplying the final dose of enthusiasm that I so badly needed to finish the job.

He got his revenge on the airline industry, at least, with a detailed description of a fiasco of a trip across the US.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Foggy Morning

The morning started out foggy but gradually cleared, leaving remnants in the valley.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Wish You Enough

Sometimes the sappy emails making the rounds hit a nerve and are worth keeping. For me, this one is, with its acknowledgement that every life needs both sunshine and rain.

Recently I overheard a mother and daughter in their last moments together at the airport. They had announced the departure. Standing near the security gate, they hugged and the mother said, "I love you and I wish you enough." The daughter replied, "Mom, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough, too, Mom." They kissed and the daughter left.

The mother walked over to the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see she wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on her privacy but she welcomed me in by asking, "Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?"

"Yes, I have," I replied. "Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?"

"I am old and she lives so far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is - the next trip back will be for my funeral," she said.

"When you were saying good-bye, I heard you say, 'I wish you enough'. May I ask what that means?"

She began to smile. "That's a wish that has been handed down from other generations. My parents used to say it to everyone." She paused a moment and looked up as if trying to remember it in detail and she smiled even more. "When we said , 'I wish you enough', we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them." Then turning toward me, she shared the following as if she were reciting it from memory.

"I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how gray the day may appear. I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more. I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting. I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger. I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting. I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess. I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sense of Style

My daughter has long had a much better sense of style than I do, somewhat to my frustration. She will sometimes get dressed three or four times before she is ready for the day, which baffled me until I learned that her clothes have to match her self-perception for her to be comfortable in them; so each day, she has to recalibrate her outfits to match her mood. I understand about needing your exterior to match your interior - for me it is spaces that matter - but I had never applied the idea to clothing. For me, clothes are just something to keep you decent and warm and show appropriate amounts of respect for others; once I take into account the weather and my schedule for the day, I get dressed and quit thinking about it. Clothes very seldom reflect who I perceive myself to be. Which may be why I lack any real sense of style. (Something my daughter is working hard to change!)

One advantage to her approach to clothing is that I can easily read her mood just by looking at what she is wearing. Another is that she always looks great.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Early Snow

The first snowstorm presaging winter usually comes in mid-October. It arrived this weekend, especially east of the Continental Divide. Bozeman got about 4" of snow Friday and Saturday nights, but most of it melted on Saturday, so we only saw about 2" at a time.

Billings got all the snow we missed:

Red Lodge, south of Billings, got 40" in 24 hours and schools were closed today (which is highly unusual in Montana). It's not so much the amount of snow that is unusual, but how early in the season it arrived - almost no one has their snow tires on their cars yet, and they really aren't ready for winter yet!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Scorpions in Montana

Several years ago, my kids claimed that they had seen a scorpion in the bluffs north of Lewistown. Everyone knows that scorpions don't live in Montana, but the picture they drew was definitely a scorpion. And it turns out that the northern scorpion lives in eastern Montana, so they were right. It is a small nocturnal scorpion that glows under black light; it isn't fatal to humans, which is nice to know!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fleeting Fall Color

This morning, the yellow ash leaves and crimson chokecherry were perfectly set off by the green and blue background.
By noon, half the leaves on the ash tree were gone, and by late afternoon, there were about 8 leaves left on it. The forecast is for 4-6 inches of snow in the valley tonight.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


"...marriage supplies a happy ending for the hapless sex." This nice turn of phrase by Stephanie Coontz suddenly made me wonder what the root hap- means. According to my handy dictionary, it is an archaic word for "Fortune, chance". That makes "happy" a synonym for "fortunate" and "hapless" a synonym of "unfortunate", which makes sense.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Teaching Literature

I was looking through a high school literature text yesterday and was stunned by the contents. In one year, the text whips through 25 short stories, 3 plays, 5 biographies, 12 essays, 48 poems, stories from 7 epics, and 2 novels; the content ranges from Annie Dillard to Sophocles to Basho to Shakespeare to Sundiata, in a whirlwind of centuries and continents. All that's missing is meaningful context. This is literature free-floating, untethered from the people and places and times that created it. The emphasis on strictly formal aspects is, I suppose, just a different way of looking at literature, and the best literature is still worth reading without context; but it seems to me that once stripped of the culture in which it was created, most literature loses much of its meaning and power.

I prefer to teach literature in context, so that the stories inform the study of history and culture, while the history clarifies and enriches the stories. Basho's haiku illustrate the medieval Japanese aesthetic, and the aesthetic explains the haiku; in a vacuum, the haiku is just pretty words. Plato's scheme to take children away from their parents and raise them communally makes sense now that I know that in his time, scheming parents maneuvering to position their children well were a major threat to the stability of Athens. Literature gains immensely in power when the context is known, even imperfectly.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Needed: Hands-on Experience

In the Sunday paper this week, there were two articles that are more interesting together. One article described a children's event connected with Hatchfest, in which kids built things with wood scraps and real tools; the man behind the event worked construction before he went into films and is concerned that kids aren't picking up trades the way they used to. Tradesmen are aging, and there won't be anyone to build things.

The second article was about large-animal veterinarians, especially those who work with cows, pigs, sheep, and other food animals. They are getting harder to find, apparently because kids aren't growing up on family farms and learning about the animals early. Without hands-on experience, kids don't have the interest or the background to follow the profession.

So thanks to our increasing emphasis on computers and urban living, we may be starving our construction and agricultural future. That is good news for the few people who do want to build things or take care of farm animals, but not for the rest of us.

Showy Milkweed

One of my favorite plants this time of year is the showy milkweed. Most of the year, it is just a rangy weed along the roads, but come fall, the seed pods are fabulous: The seeds gradually separate from the cone as the pod dries and opens, then the parachutes float the seeds on the wind for long distances. But for me, the magical part is the contrast of the tightly-packed brown seeds and the silky white filaments of the parachutes.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Porcupine Buffet

Throughout ponderosa forests, there are lots of trunks with areas of missing bark: The bark is eaten by porcupines, who have long claws to cling to the tree and strong teeth to pull the bark off with. They eat the inner bark (phloem) and needles in the late summer, fall, and winter when the green plants they eat in the spring and summer are no longer green and tender. When the porcupines eat the bark in a complete ring around the tree, it is girdled and nutrients can no longer flow from the roots to the needles and back, killing the tree. But most trees are left enough bark to stay alive and continue feeding more porcupines.