Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday cheer at Five O’Clock Somewhere

Christmas is a little different in northern New Mexico

At last, we’re up north for Christmas. Originally, we had hoped to get here a couple of days sooner, but then there was a Christmas party to go to in the Albuquerque area, and then there was some shopping to do, and some business to take care of today, before businesses closed for the holiday.

So we didn’t get started on the journey north until mid-afternoon, and we stopped in Española for groceries; the Wal Mart Supercenter was an absolute zoo – and that was just the parking lot – so we went to the little grocery store that had been the main one in town before Wal Mart arrived on the scene. Sure, the prices were higher, but the atmosphere was much nicer, with far fewer frenzied shoppers per square yard.

Española is an interesting town, and the little grocery store reflects that. Much of the town’s population is Hispanic, descendants of families who settled in the valley more than three hundred years ago. But there has also been a wave of new immigrants from Mexico in recent years. So the store carries a huge selection of local produce, including chile products and locally grown spices, plus jams and jellies and other goodies. In addition, there are a lot of imports from Mexico, including Mexican Coca-Cola, which is made with cane sugar instead of the high-fructose corn syrup now used in the American version. There were three languages spoken in that store – Northern New Mexico Spanish, Mexican Spanish, and English – and while the place may not have been as shiny or modern as Wal Mart, the shopping experience was much nicer.

As we left Española, it was getting dark, and driving up into the mountains, we could see Christmas Eve lights at many of the houses and ranchos that we passed. In addition to electric lights and illuminated Nativity displays, Christmas Eve is the big night for the luminarias – votive candles in paper bags, descended from the traditional small bonfires used to light the way for the Christ Child. Unlike two weeks ago at Elephant Butte, there was wind but not so much as to destroy the luminarias, although it was enough to blow a few out here and there – keeping them lit is a labor of love on the part of those who use them, especially with temperatures in the teens and twenties. (Yes, there are such things as electric luminarias, but purists stick with candles.) The entire village of Los Ojos was completely lined with the luminarias; the Christ Child will definitely be able to find his way there.

Now we’re up at Five O’Clock Somewhere, and there’s about six inches of snow on the ground, with deer wandering through now and again. Pat and Gerald have built a fire in the fireplace and set out our luminarias in front of the house, and I have Christmas food underway in the kitchen. This year, I’m doing a new twist on the sweet holiday tamales – the Albuquerque Journal this year published a variation using pumpkin. I may also do the ones with cinnamon and raisins as well; I haven’t decided yet. Right now I’m making dulce de leche, a thickened, caramelized version of condensed milk that will be served with the tamales. Once that’s done, I’ll be able to steam the tamales, since the tamale pot is the only one I have that’s deep enough to submerge the can of condensed milk to cook it into dulce de leche.

Gerald’s now working on decorating the Christmas tree, and Dulce is sitting on the back of the sofa to supervise. The Chargers just won their football game, and now the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is on television, and we’re finally getting to feel like it’s actually Christmas time. This year has been a stressful one, and we’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit up until now.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

2007 Holiday Greetings from the Byrnes family

As usual, we're late getting our holiday letter out ... if you want the hard-copy version, with photos, send an email with your snail mail address.

Wow! Another year has gone by, and this one sure went fast, with more than the usual share of ups and downs.

Pat is still working for Ktech, a contractor at Sandia National Laboratories, but the project that he had been working on suffered a funding cut. Right now, he’s doing miscellaneous short-term assignments and odd jobs while he and Ktech look for a more permanent full-time position. His most frequent assignment is “meeting support.”

Carol Anne is still teaching at Central New Mexico Community College (formerly known as TVI), in developmental English. She still teaches primarily evening and night classes, in which many of the students are older, returning students with a more mature approach to life than the straight-out-of-high school set.

This year, as in previous years, she participated in National Novel Writing Month during November. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. As in the past, she made the 50,000 words, but the novel, Murder at the Family Reunion, isn’t finished yet … she’s up to 71,137 words, and there’s probably another 20,000 or so to finish the story.

Gerald is keeping very busy in his senior year of high school, and he has had many accomplishments this year. He wasn’t able to get the calculus class he needed at his high school, so he’s now enrolled at CNM. By the time he graduates from high school, he will already have 8 hours of college credit – four credit hours of calculus, three of political science, and one credit hour for a special mini-course in mining engineering that he took this summer at New Mexico Tech.

In his high school, he’s taking advanced placement English, orchestra, and a special class called We The People, in which students study the Constitution and also current events. The class is also a competitive team that represents Highland High School. The competition involves making presentations and then being grilled by a panel of judges, and it simulates a Congressional hearing. Highland won the state championship, which was held in hearing rooms in the State Capitol; in the spring, the team will head to Washington, D.C., for the national championship, in which Highland usually does well.

Meanwhile, he’s still playing both cello and bass, and he’s a cellist in the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra, a city-wide orchestra made up of some very talented young musicians. At this level, rehearsals are serious business, and practicing hard is also a must.

Another activity that Gerald takes part in is Boy Scouts. This year, he earned his Eagle award, the highest rank and one that requires a whole lot of work and commitment. Now that he’s 18, he’s officially an adult and a full-fledged Assistant Scoutmaster.

Yet another group that Gerald is involved with is Key Club. The club has organized food drives and given time to assist a local food bank, and helped to remodel visitation rooms at the state Children, Youth, and Families Department. The club also helps its parent organization, the Kiwanis Club, running the parking concession at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

One more item on Gerald’s schedule is a German class trip to Germany this coming spring. The students are scheduled to spend three days in Berlin, then have home stays with German families in Ulm for several days, and finish up with three days in Munich.

As this is Gerald’s senior year, he’s making plans for college. He’s interested in architecture and in several kinds of engineering and materials science, and he’d like to go somewhere that he can pursue both music and sailing, not as major fields of study but as serious hobbies. He’s considering Rice University, where Pat and Carol Anne met, and before that, Carol Anne’s parents. He’s also considering New Mexico Tech, which now, believe it or not, actually has a sailing club.

We did have a bit of a scare this summer as Gerald was on the way to Socorro for the mini-course. Carol Anne got a phone call: “Mom, I’m OK. The car’s not.” The second sentence was an understatement. A tire had blown at full freeway speed, and the Cavalier did some ricocheting off both guardrails, very thoroughly smashing it on all sides. Chalk another save to seat belts and air bags; Gerald was uninjured except for breaking his glasses and getting a burn on his chin from the air bag.

Another of the downs this year was the loss of one of our cats, Tres. He had been suffering from a metabolic disorder, and just when we thought he was doing better, he took a sudden turn for the worse, and he died before we could get to the vet. Our other cat, Dulce, is now adjusting to being a single cat. We will all miss Tres very much; he was the most affectionate and empathic cat we have ever known.

We’ve still been doing a lot with sailing and the sailing clubs, especially with Pat as (soon to be past) commodore of the New Mexico Sailing Club and vice commodore of the Rio Grande Sailing Club. Pat spent a lot of time working on the marina that the NMSC operates at Heron Lake, reinforcing old docks to increase their lifespan, and working on a new gangway arrangement that will allow better access to the marina even when the lake level is low. The NMSC also hosted a regatta pm Labor Day weekend with 20 sailboats and crews from three states.

We’re still racing the Etchells, Black Magic, although we have cut back our plans for the coming year due to financial uncertainty. We did go to the Dillon Open Regatta in Colorado this year, and we enjoyed it, especially the condo that we stayed in, but overall the experience was a bit disappointing, and there’s a family reunion (on the ocean at Big Sur, no less!) that will conflict with it next year. So we’re going to save our money by not hauling the boat up into the mountains outside New Mexico next year.

The aftermath of the Dillon Open was another down – we came home to find out that the house in Albuquerque had been burglarized. What the burglars took had very little monetary value, less than the deductible on our insurance, but there were some things of sentimental value that are now long gone.

Another sailing related activity that Pat and Carol Anne did this year was a race management seminar in Houston. They both passed the test at the regional level, which is one step toward certification; another step is getting on-the-water experience running and helping run regattas. Pat has logged enough experience that he has earned club level certification, and he’s working on getting to regional level. Carol Anne hasn’t gotten around to submitting her log; once she does, she should be club-level certified too.

We also still have the vacation place, Five O’Clock Somewhere, up at Heron Lake, although Carol Anne didn’t get to spend as much time up there as usual, since we’re now short a car (the insurance on the Cavalier wasn’t enough to buy another car, so it went to pay bills instead). As usual, if any of you find yourselves traveling in or near northern New Mexico, drop us a line – we have plenty of room for guests, with two guest rooms with queen size beds, a queen size hide-a-bed in the den, an extra futon in Gerald’s room, and an air mattress and several sleeping bags that can be deployed as needed.

The Byrnes family
Pat, Carol Anne, Gerald and Dulce

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NCLB and outside-the-box education

More thoughts on what kids really need to learn

This is a response to kn_parent, who commented on the previous post. Originally, I thought I would make a responding comment, but then I realized I had more to say than would be suitable for a comment; rather, a whole new post is in order.

One of the points that kn_parent agreed with me on was that children need more than just the book learning that they get in regular school. The sort of education that the kids got participating in the Kid Nation reality show involved community building and problem solving, skills that are not given much emphasis in modern school curricula.

Part of the blame can be attributed to the No Child Left Behind act. While the general purpose of the act is well intended, the execution has not been good. The emphasis is now on students being able to pass standardized tests, with harsh penalties for schools whose students don’t do so well. The result is that teachers feel pressured to teach “to the test” – that is, they concentrate on making the students memorize the material that will be covered in the standard tests, rather than teaching more useful skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.

Before President Dubya came to Washington, he was the governor of Texas. Under his administration, Texas implemented a form of NCLB that was highly successful. The success of the Texas program was part of the reason Congress enthusiastically approved NCLB for the whole nation.

In Texas back then, as in the nation as a whole now, there were worries about how well NCLB would work. One of the biggest fears, then as now, was that teachers would stop teaching what students really needed to learn and just concentrate on passing the standardized tests. Texas Monthly magazine reported on a study that analyzed the effects of Texas’ NCLB program a few years after it was begun. (It was 1996, if I remember correctly, in the September issue.)

The interesting finding of the study was that the students who did best on the standardized testing were NOT the ones whose teachers taught “to the test”; rather, the students who did best were those whose teachers taught problem solving and critical thinking. In other words, force-feeding a bunch of facts for kids to memorize, even if those facts were aimed specifically at the tests, was less effective than teaching kids how to think. What matters most is not knowing the answer; it’s knowing how to arrive at the answer. If you think about it, it makes sense – which is better, memorizing a million facts, or learning a couple hundred principles that lead to those million facts, and a few million more?

I see this with some of my own students. In their previous educational experiences, they have been presented, for example, with a run-on sentence, and they’re supposed to tell whether it’s a run-on sentence, a sentence fragment, or grammatically correct. They just make random guesses. They have never been shown how to take a sentence apart and figure out what the parts are. What I show them is how to dismantle the pieces and see how they work together.

The kids on Kid Nation were given the opportunity to go way outside the box. Those who weren’t home-schooled exchanged 25 days of NCLB-oriented indoctrination for 40 days of problem solving and critical thinking, in a healthful outdoor environment. If the results from Texas a decade ago are any indication, the Kid Nation kids ought to do just fine on the NCLB tests.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Child abuse or child empowerment?

One “summer camp” that worked well

With the movie and television screenwriters on strike, we’re in for a whole lot of reality television in the near future. I’ve seen promotions for the old standbys, and for spinoffs from them. And there are new ones, such as a battle between church gospel choirs – that one has potential for reaching either new lows or new highs (not just of the musical variety), depending on how well it’s managed.

One reality show that, at least so far, doesn’t seem scheduled for a repeat is the one that I have been watching for this past season, Kid Nation. I started watching both because it was filmed in New Mexico and also because there was some controversy about it, and I wanted to see what the big deal was. I kept watching because I found it to be really enjoyable and also uplifting.

The premise of the show was to take forty kids, ages 8 to 15, put them together in a ghost town (actually, a movie set Western town), and let them govern themselves for 40 days. Every three days (every weekly episode), they have a showdown in which four teams compete against each other, and there’s a town hall in which the town leadership council awards a gold star worth $20,000 to the town member that they consider the most deserving.

CBS did make some mistakes in filming the show, and those mistakes led to most of the controversy. First, the network chose New Mexico for filming because this state, at the time, had more lax child labor laws (the State Legislature has since toughened the rules). Then, because even New Mexico’s old law limited child actors to working at most 8 hours per day, but Kid Nation was filming 24/7, CBS decided to call the filming “summer camp.” There were a couple of problems with that – one is that the filming happened in March and April, rather than the summer, and the other is that CBS didn’t bother to seek state accreditation as a summer camp.

Some other accusations leveled at the CBS powers-that-be were that there was not enough supervision to ensure the safety of the child participants, and that these children were missing several weeks of school without any formal education plan to keep them from falling behind in their work. Parents also had to sign a waiver that essentially said CBS wasn’t responsible for anything that happened to the kids, including death, injury, STDs, and pregnancy. One parent sued, alleging that the lack of supervision led her daughter to suffer minor burns on her face from splattering cooking oil, and there was another incident in which four of the kids accidentally drank water containing bleach that was intended for rinsing freshly washed dishes to sanitize them.

There are certainly things CBS could have done better. If the network people really wanted to define Kid Nation as a “summer camp,” they could have gone through proper channels. Camps are not required to run only in the summer, and it wouldn’t have been too tough to meet standards. In fact, the bleach water sanitizing rinse is part of the requirements for a youth camp when there isn’t an industrial automatic dishwasher available. I’m willing to guess that CBS already met most of the criteria, and it probably wouldn’t have taken too much effort to meet the rest.

As for adult supervision, even though the promotions for the show emphasized that the kids would be in charge, they were surrounded by adults at all times – camera operators and other production staff, the host who helped to coach the kids through their community building efforts, and, most important, qualified medical personnel who could take care of injuries on the set. Even at home, people (not just kids) get hot grease spatters on their faces when frying food, and if the bleach solution used to rinse dishes at Kid Nation was the same weak concentration as has been used at Girl Scout camp from the time I was a Brownie, it wasn’t hazardous.

Then there’s the question of whether the kids’ education suffered because they came to Kid Nation for 40 days. First, they didn’t really miss 40 days of school. Filming of the show was scheduled such that the time on the set would include each kid’s spring break. And the kids wouldn’t have been in school on weekends either. So the actual time in class that these kids missed was 25 days.

Yes, 25 days is still a lot of school to miss; that’s part of why film industry regulations require on-set tutors for child actors. But what I observed was kids getting the sort of education that school just can’t provide. They were given some structure to work within and guidelines to work with, but then they had to develop their own leadership and solve problems on their own, rather than turning to an adult for support. They had to learn teamwork. They had to cope with natural disasters, such as the wind storm that blew all of the outhouses over – that most definitely wasn’t in the planned program!

What I saw over the course of the program was a whole lot of growth. These kids learned flexibility and resilience in the face of adversity. They also learned how to work together as a community toward community goals. Every episode featured a showdown challenge, in which four teams competed against each other, but all four teams had to complete the challenge in order for the community as a whole to get a bonus prize – some of the more memorable were additional outhouses (so the 40 kids would have 8 to share, rather than just 2) and a collection of religious books, which allowed the kids to learn about and understand one another’s beliefs through open discussion.

I saw kids who started out as spoiled brats develop a sense of community responsibility. I saw kids who started out as above-it-all tough guys develop genuine caring for their fellow pioneers. I saw kids who started out with no self-confidence whatsoever grow into poised, brave individuals. I saw kids who had never been challenged before grow into problem solvers.

They also forged a lot of personal friendships that are going to be meaningful, possibly for a long time, and maybe even for a lifetime. They had to learn to work together, and at the end of the 40 days, there were a whole lot of tears shed as people who had bonded so closely had to part.

In other words, what these kids got from being in Kid Nation is far more valuable than what they would have gotten from 25 days in school.

As Gerald was growing up, Pat and I used to joke that we might get charged with child abuse. We left him to his own devices much of the time. We never did his homework for him, although we did give him some coaching. We made him do household chores – well, actually, we didn’t make him do the chores; we just expected him to do them, and he did.

I even had him scrubbing the kitchen floor at the age of 6 months. No, not the way you might think – one day, just after I had fed him, I had put him down on the floor while I cleaned up the kitchen; he started splashing in the cat’s water dish, and when I ran to intercept him, I lost a shoe that had stuck to a sticky spot on the kitchen floor. I had a “eureka” moment. I put him on the floor and gave him a dishpan with about two inches of warm sudsy water (mild suds, of course). While I was putting lunch stuff away, he would splash at the water, getting sudsy water on himself as well as all over the floor. Then I would take him, wipe off the suds along with the lunch residue that had missed the bib, put a fresh romper on him, and put him down for his nap. Next, I could run the mop quickly over the kitchen floor to pick up the dirt that the suds had loosened, and I could have my own nap in five minutes.

As Gerald has grown, we have been fairly hands-off parents. He’s been doing his own laundry for several years now, and he’s very good in the kitchen. He does still need some prodding occasionally on getting his homework done, but he also understands that what he does has consequences – we’re not going to bail him out. Some other parents are surprised both at how much freedom we give him and at the idea that we aren’t going to protect him from his mistakes.

Still, I think what we’re doing is right – Gerald has earned the Boy Scout Eagle rank, and he’s in a city-wide youth orchestra, and he’s on his high school’s We The People team, which just won the state tournament and which will be going to Washington, DC, in the spring for the national finals. He got SAT and ACT scores in the 90th percentile and above. When he goes to one of the lakes, he’s always cheerfully willing to lend a hand to any sailor who needs it, whether helping with launching, repairs, or crew.

I would love to see a show in the future: Kid Nation: Ten Years Later. I’d be willing to bet that at least 30 of the original 40 will be in some sort of leadership position. These kids have come out of the experience far richer, and the real riches are not measured in the worth of the gold star (although in at least one case, the gold star means the kid can go to college, because without it, he wouldn’t have money to do so). The real thing that these kids have gained is knowledge of their own self-worth, bolstered not by doting parents who tell them they’re great, but rather by doing something significant.

So here’s my advice to CBS: Stick with Kid Nation. Get accredited as a youth camp, so you don’t run afoul of state regulations. Make the contract that parents sign more friendly and less protective of your own interests. I want to see more kids put into situations where they learn how to grow up.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Two thirds of the globe and counting ...

Right after posting that last post, I went back to Sitemeter to look up details about those visitors who had given me 15 time zones, and I noticed there was a new visitor from Ankara, Turkey. I checked the map, and sure enough, that was an additional time zone.

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Fifteen time zones!

I am now two notches closer to world domination 

Yes, it's official: Five O'Clock Somewhere has now been accessed from 15 time zones within the past 100 visits. The previous record had been 13, which has been reached a few times now.

Now, if I can just get folks in central Asia and the middle of the Pacific Ocean to pay a visit, I can expand my sphere of influence. One of these days, I may just be able to say I cover the world.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Poetry Corner: B. Kliban

You knew that since I deal with both cats and poetry, I’d end up here sooner or later

When the weather turns cold in late fall, mice begin to move indoors. Poisoning the mice is not a good idea; they have a habit of dying someplace inconvenient, such as inside a wall, where their decomposing bodies generate a stink. Or if they die someplace accessible, something else will eat them and get poisoned – a cat, dog, coyote, fox, raven, falcon, owl … something we’d usually rather remain alive. Traps aren’t usually a good idea either; in areas where hantavirus is a problem, the mice in the trap leave droppings that can spread disease.

The very best way to deal with mice is to seal all of the cracks through which mice might enter the home. That can be challenging, since they can squeeze through a quarter-inch gap.

This fall, we have had a convergence of two factors. First, the weather stripping on the bottom of the door between the garage and the house has come loose, so there’s a gap big enough for mice to get through. Second, we have only one cat now; in the past, we had two, and I think that the presence of the cats was a deterrent to rodents who might have thought about coming into the house.

The result has been a succession of mice coming into the house, only to meet their doom in Dulce’s claws. Mostly, she sees them as delightful toys, and she derives great pleasure in playing with them until such time as they lose their entertainment value (i.e., die). At this point, she usually chooses to bestow them as gifts for her human servants, but if she’s hungry, she’ll have a snack.

This afternoon, she bagged a mouse before suppertime. So she ate it. I was surprised how crunchy a mouse is – it sounded like she was eating her kibbles. I guess I had either imagined the cat swallowing the mouse more-or-less whole, as a snake does, or else I figured the flesh of the mouse would muffle the sound of the mouse’s bones breaking. Not so.

The whole episode reminded me of a T shirt that a cousin of mine had had during the 1970s, a cartoon by B. Kliban of a cat, strumming a guitar, with this verse:

Oh, I love to eat them mousies,
Mousies what I love to eat,
Bite they little heads off,
Nibble on they tiny feet.

I went online to learn more about this verse and about Kliban … The most useful information I found was his obit from the New York Times. He was an art school dropout who enjoyed the company of cats but who, in his own words, was “not silly” about them.

The best I can say is that he was a genius who died way too young.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Holiday spirit

We may not have been sailing this weekend, but we did have fun

This past weekend was Elephant Butte’s big holiday celebration. Festivities occur both on land and on the water, but the highlight of the weekend is the Floating Lights Boat Parade. Boat owners go all out to decorate their boats, which are judged by a panel of judges and also, for the People’s Choice award, by the general public on the beach.

Carguy decided he wanted to enter his big sailboat, Sun Kissed, in the parade, and he bought lots and lots of lights to turn it into a 40-foot-high Christmas tree, with presents underneath. He set up a generator to power the lights and also a sound system, and I created a CD of cheerful, upbeat Christmas music to go along.

Last week was the last week of the term at the community college, and so I spent Friday in a marathon portfolio-grading session. If it had ended earlier, we would have gone to the lake Friday evening, but as it was, we went to the lake Saturday. The prediction had been for temperatures in the low 60s and winds between 15 and 20 – in other words, great sailing weather. But the weather that actually happened was a bit colder, and one heck of a lot windier. The automated weather station at the state park headquarters recorded winds up to 36 mph, and most people guessed the winds were actually heavier; the weather station’s measurements aren’t all that accurate. During the previous couple of days, a horde of volunteers had set up thousands of luminarias in the state park for Saturday night’s events; by the time we got to the lake, the wind had literally flattened them.

(For those of you who come from somewhere else, luminarias are a holiday tradition in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest. The original tradition was small bonfires lit along a path to light the way for the Christ Child; that has evolved into the contemporary luminaria. To make one, take a brown paper bag (lunch bag size or slightly larger), and fold the top edge over twice to give it stiffness. Then put about two inches of sand in the bottom of the bag, and set a votive candle into the sand. Repeat as many times as necessary to produce enough luminarias to line whatever walkways, driveways, and other landscape features as you want to highlight. As darkness falls, light the candles, and hope it’s not too windy, or the candles will blow out.)

When we arrived at the boat Saturday, we found Carguy, his girlfriend, her kids, another friend and her kid, taking shelter from the wind on board the other boat that he has next to Sun Kissed – a powerboat that he’s thinking about selling because he seldom takes it out, as it takes $1000 to fill the gas tank. But at least on Saturday, it provided nice shelter.

Pat and Tadpole then went to help Carguy set up the boat. Carguy had the vision; Tadpole had the engineering skills to make that into a reality. An illuminated Christmas wreath was mounted on a triangular wooden frame; the top of the frame was attached to the jib halyard, and fourteen strands of Christmas lights were attached to the bottom of the frame. Each of those strands was connected to a second strand to make enough length to reach from the top of the mast to the rails of the boat. With nine people standing on the pier – one each at the bow and stern of the boat with ropes to hold the corners of the frame straight, and one for each two light strings to keep them from getting tangled up – Tadpole hoisted the tree. With the fierce winds, this was challenging. Once the top of the tree was at the masthead, Tadpole then had to use zip-ties to secure everything, and then he had to work out how to get everything plugged in without overloading any one circuit. Just as the sun was going down, he got the whole tree lit up.

Next was getting rectangular pieces of cardboard that Carguy and his girlfriend and her kids had already covered with gift wrap and attached lights to, and mounting those along the rail of the boat to represent the presents under the tree. That went fairly easily, as Tadpole had already planned where to plug those in.

There was a glitch with the sound system – apparently there was a short in one of the speakers. The Christmas songs had to be played through the boat’s own stereo speakers in the cockpit, which were less powerful.

The wind had let up a little, but not much, by the time scheduled for the light parade, and so the officials holding the parade decided it wouldn’t be safe to hold the parade. Instead, the judges and the general public came out into the marina to look at the boats. This was both a benefit and a detriment to Sun Kissed; the weaker sound system didn’t matter so much, but at close range, it was hard to appreciate the magnitude of the project. The advantage went to large houseboats that could put a whole lot of lights at eye level (and one that had hula dancers with skirts and bras made out of electric lights, who had to keep dancing the whole time to keep from freezing, as the wind was still about 20 mph, and the temperature dropped into the 40s – although the heat generated by all of those little light bulbs might have helped). From a distance, however, Sun Kissed was the one boat that really stood out.

On the beach, the luminarias were a blowout, but the other festivities went on as planned. Normally, the luminarias line paths that lead from bonfire to bonfire; the paths were still there, and so were the bonfires. At each bonfire, a local organization or business served up food for all of those who came by – yes, free food for all who attend the festival. The emphasis is on warm food, such as green chile stew, beans, and posole – lots of posole. (That’s a stew based on whole-grain hominy, traditionally augmented with bits of shredded pork and red chile seasoning, but there are variations, such as vegetarian versions and substituting green chile for red. It’s wonderful on a cold night.) Beverages are also served – hot spiced cider, hot chocolate, and the like. As we wandered from bonfire to bonfire, we met and chatted with many of the local people with whom we have become friends over the years. And there were fireworks, too – not a big display, but just enough to add to the festivity of the occasion.

As the festivities and bonfires on the beach died down, it was time to go to the awards ceremony. Boats aren’t the only things that get awards for lights during the festival; on land, awards are given for homes, businesses, and RVs. But the really big honors go to those who float upon the water, rather than those who sit upon the land near the water.

Sun Kissed took fourth place. All of the other prizes went to houseboats that could put a lot of eye candy where judges wandering through the marina could see it. Interestingly, the boat with the hula dancers got only second place from the judges, although it did win the People’s Choice award. Even the fourth place prize was worthwhile: a nice marble plaque, a $20 gift certificate to a restaurant where it’s difficult for the three of us to run up even a $10 tab, and a $50 gift certificate to a local marine supply store. Carguy kept the plaque, but he turned over the gift certificates to Tadpole as a reward for his services in making the effort a success.

Next year, Carguy plans to win this thing. This year was his first year, and he didn’t realize going in how tough the competition would be. Now he knows, and he’s going to be ready. He’s already making plans, but I can’t reveal the secret details here.

Of course, this whole thing is a lot more about having fun than about competition, much more about holiday friendship than about getting the better of somebody. In the marina, on the beach, and at the awards ceremony, the spirit was friendship, camaraderie, sharing jokes together, and coming together to resist the cold wind.

As I type this, my computer is playing a medley of Christmas tunes. But this spirit isn’t tied just to one particular religion. Even in Christian religions, Christmas is secondary to Easter in the core meaning of the religion, and in the Jewish faith, Hanukkah would be only a minor holiday if it didn’t have to compete with Christmas; Passover is much the more meaningful holiday.

No, the spirit of this time of year goes beyond religion – it’s about humans coming together to survive the winter, and to enjoy each other’s company while we’re at it.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Well, it isn't exactly The New Yorker, but still ...

I am featured on the front page of the Piker Press this week. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will recognize "What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?", the story that I serialized here last spring. Now it's getting a wider audience.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Clothes make the man

… of course, it wasn’t JUST the clothes, but they probably helped

Tadpole is participating in a program at his high school called We The People. In this program, students compete against teams from other schools in matters of Constitutional law, in a format that combines elements of academic quizzes and debate and a few other skills. Students are presented with an issue of current interest and are then required to apply Constitutional principles in discussing the issue, followed by a grilling by the judges on the issue; the idea is to present arguments as if to a congressional committee.

For this competition, Tadpole needed a black suit. The one black suit that he had in his closet was one he had probably last worn when he was about 12, and there was no way it would fit him now. So two weeks ago, we set out to buy a suit.

I have a cousin who works for a cell phone company; we chose that company, and we have been immensely satisfied with the service, in a world where cell phone companies are almost universally mediocre. I have another cousin who works for an airline, and we have been pleased enough with the airline that it is our first choice when we fly. So when it came time to buy a suit, it was a no-brainer to go to the upscale department store chain for whom another cousin works. Besides, the advertisements that this chain runs use apostrophes correctly.

It was an interesting experience. Upon entering the store, we were in a very hip, with-it, or whatever the current term is, area. As we gradually wended our way through the store, things got quieter and more refined, until we got to the end where the suits were, an area with rich red wood paneling and muted music.

We were greeted by a salesperson who led us to the suits in Tadpole’s size range. First, he tried on the jacket for the store brand suit. It did look nice; it was what was called an “athletic cut” that made Tadpole look taller and slimmer. Then he tried the major name brand. It was stunning – the feel of the fabric, and the way that it draped, and the way it caught the light were amazing. The salesperson led Tadpole back to the fitting rooms, where he tried on the pants for both suits. All the while, the salesperson was assessing how the suits fit, and giving a tutorial in “Suit 101” – how to wear the suit, how to move while wearing it, how to take care of it.

We ended up opting for the more expensive suit, and we also got a shirt and tie to match. The whole package added up to about a hundred bucks more than the paycheck I had received that day, but I figured this suit is an investment – Tadpole will be able to wear it for years, and not just for We The People competitions. It will be good for the orchestra, and for dates (there’s a girl whom he’s promised to take to the prom this coming spring), and various other occasions. Plus we can legitimately justify raiding the college fund, since the We The People program is most enriching educationally, and an excellent plus on college applications.

The suit fit nearly perfectly; ordinarily, alterations need to be made to make the seat of the pants and the back of the jacket fit exactly right, but aside from hemming the trousers, this suit needed only a tiny adjustment to the length of one sleeve – right handed people’s right arms tend to be slightly longer than their left, so the left sleeve of this suit needed to be shortened by just a quarter of an inch, a difference I would never have noticed. But this salesperson was a perfectionist of the very best sort, and he made sure that Tadpole’s suit would fit him perfectly.

The salesperson arranged a rush order on the alterations for the suit, so Tadpole would be able to pick it up in time for the dress rehearsal the following Tuesday. When he picked it up, he got a refresher course in Suit 101, a valet bag to put the suit into for travel, and a polished hardwood hanger with a special clamp to keep the trousers in place without wrinkling them.

So Saturday was the big We The People state competition in Santa Fe. The competition took place in hearing rooms in the State Capitol, and the grilling by the judges was tough. But Tadpole’s team was tough, too. The team members had been meeting since the beginning of summer to work on their program, giving up valuable vacation time, and after school started, valuable weekend time, to prepare and practice. They won the state competition, and now they will be going to Washington to the national competition. The State Legislature made the deal sweeter by appropriating $15,000 toward the team’s expenses – that will cover about half the cost.

Now, maybe the team would still have won the state competition even if Tadpole hadn’t had such a nice suit, but the suit and the deportment that comes with wearing a suit, especially guided by Suit 101, couldn’t have hurt.

Tadpole’s high school does not have a reputation for academic excellence. Rather, much of the news about it is negative – the principal who was caught with drugs and had to resign in disgrace, some incidents of racial tension that, unfortunately, got blown way out of proportion in the press, and the like. But the school’s We The People team consistently wins the state championship, and when they go to Washington for the national championship, they typically do well, in the top 15 or so states. It’s unfortunate that positive news like that doesn’t get as big of headlines as the negative stuff. These kids have worked really, really hard, and they deserve recognition.

Of course, there’s an interesting twist to the story … the cousin who now works for the department store chain would really appreciate the We The People program. He’s been politically active, and he has served a term or two in his state’s legislature. He should understand the importance of our young people being aware of issues and principles of politics and government.

Edit: If you want to learn more about the We The People program, here is a link: Center for Civic Education

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