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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dumbing down?

I know educators mean well, but have they really thought the issue out?

I recently ran across an “adaptation” of The Wind in the Willows that nearly made me throw up. Sentences were shortened and converted to simpler grammatical forms; shorter words were substituted for longer (and more poetic and more precise) words; and the text was rendered so flat and lifeless that I don’t believe any self-respecting third-grader would WANT to read it. The Wind in the Willows is ALREADY a children’s book, and so what if the language is a bit challenging? That didn’t stop the Harry Potter books from being devoured by millions of youngsters.

In fact, researchers have found that reading complex language such as Shakespeare’s causes the brain to become more active and engaged, while reading less complex language triggers much less brain activity. I have found with my own students that when I give them something complicated to read, they generally work harder and get more out of the work.

Yes, there are those who argue that giving students something difficult to read may frustrate them and make them give up on the struggle, to the point, even, of hating school and everything about it. Thus, books should be “dumbed down” to make them more accessible.

I disagree. I believe that giving students something challenging to read will give them a greater feeling of accomplishment when they discover it isn’t really “too hard” after all. And being bored with school work—rather than being frustrated with it—is a major reason students disengage with education and drop out of school.

Take, for example, this sentence from the original The Wind in the Willows:
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely NOTHING—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

And this from the adaptation:
“If you’re doing it in a boat, it’s the best time ever!”

Which of these is more likely to benefit a third-grader?

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Belated Cat Herders Day

Better late than never ...
Alas, I was so busy herding cats that I didn't get a chance to post my usual annual blog post in honor of National Cat Herders Day. But, to make up for not getting a post up on time, here is a video about someone who is probably the world champion cat herder: The Lady with 700 Cats. She makes my cat-herding friends Zorro and Juli look like rank amateurs.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Gettin’ edjicated

Been on the receiving end of a lot of schooling lately …

I just had a really odd dream. I dreamed that the community college where I teach and the university just up the road got together to provide a workshop for instructors working to prepare students for careers in film production, not just instructors in the film programs, but those teaching such things as English (e.g., script writing) and accounting (production budgeting, etc.). It was a really intense workshop, a week long, and it involved not only classroom work but field work as well; participants were picked up from their campuses by bus and taken to each day’s lesson site. One day involved going out on the water in boats – the one I was assigned to was a nasty green aluminum runabout that seemed designed to make sure its occupants ended up soaking wet and very cold.

At the end of each day of study, there were gatherings to dine and socialize in a large banquet hall at the university. At the end of the final day of the program, spouses were invited, and all went well until Pat tried to hog all of the bread in the bread basket on the table. Then he was told he had to pay for the bread.

As the gathering broke up, many of the participants said they would be looking forward to the next year’s program, but the folks running the show said there would be no repeat – this had cost too much money and was too much hassle to put on.

As Pat and I were hiking out to where he had parked the car, it was uphill. And then it was even more steeply uphill. And I was tired, and getting more and more tired, and my muscles were aching. And the path kept getting steeper, and I kept getting more tired, until finally, I couldn’t stand up anymore, and I was crawling toward the car, which kept getting farther and farther away.

I woke up, and I was still aching. Ugh.

But the whole idea of a workshop like the one I dreamed about really seems like a good idea, since New Mexico is trying to encourage the film industry to produce more movies in-state. We already have good programs in place to train support personnel, and it would be great to have more higher-level personnel close to home.

In real life, Pat and I have been spending a lot of time lately in classes, although these classes are related much more to sailboat racing than film production.

In early November, we headed up to Denver, where we took two workshops over the weekend, one on race management, and one on race judging. Our time there coincided with the first snowstorm of the season, small by Colorado standards, but still enough to ice things over. One of the highlights of that weekend was meeting people from regional and national organizations, including a bit of information about changes in the rules that will be taking place in the new year. We also enjoyed the company of some of our classmates, such as the commodore of the Aspen Yacht Club (yes, there IS a yacht club in Aspen!), and some people we’d already worked with at regattas in Colorado. Part of the idea is to get people doing race management in places other than their immediate home waters, in order to get regional race management certification.

Later in November, we came to Arizona for another workshop. This one was put on by the Arizona Yacht Club, and it featured Dick Rose, who is one of the people who actually wrote the new rules. It was great to learn not only what the major changes in the rules are, but also why those changes were implemented. For example, there is a new rule (although I suspect the vast majority of sailors were already abiding by the practice) that bans intentionally putting trash in the water. There are some adjustments to rule changes made four years ago, for example, fine-tuning the rules about outside assistance.

Once my fall teaching was over, it was back to Arizona for a long-term stay and another training session, this time in handling powerboats and in operating such boats in support of a sailing regatta. There were two four-hour classroom sessions, and then there was a day out on the water, in order to learn hands-on how to operate a powerboat, and in particular how to operate the boats that belong to the Arizona Yacht Club – after a couple of incidents, the club decided to make a rule that those who wish to serve on race committee duty must learn how to operate the boats. The classroom sessions went well – they covered a lot of material, very quickly, since the people attending the class were already reasonably familiar with boats and the water.

The on-the-water session, however, was another story. It was cloudy and rainy, and although the forecast said the weather would be clearing out by midday, it never did. We worked on low-speed maneuvers, and we began to do the capsized-boat recovery, but by that time, it was raining heavily, and it was breezy as well. I was on the first team to attempt the recovery, on a nasty green aluminum runabout that seemed designed to make sure its occupants ended up soaking wet and very cold. The 14-foot boat that we were to recover didn’t just capsize; it turned all the way upside down, making the recovery even harder. One of my classmates on the boat commented that the instructor had certainly arranged realistic conditions, unlike the videos we had seen in the classroom, shot in calm water and clear weather. The instructor decided to declare a break, go to the marina restaurant to dry off, warm up, and decide what to do next. Eventually, the decision was made to finish the training at a later date, with better weather.

Every year, I get a performance evaluation at work, and one of the things I am supposed to do is show how I plan to improve as an instructor in the coming year or two. Continuing education is one potential way to do that. I’m not sure, however, that my supervisors would count dreaming of an intensive film program workshop or taking sailing race-management courses toward that requirement. I guess I’ll have to find something else.

Oh, and one more thing. … I did participate in National Novel Writing Month this year, and as usual, I did get to 50,000 words, with “Murder at the Wedding.” I got to bring back some of the colorful characters from the family reunion a few years back, and various confusions, including a couple of neo-Nazi skinheads who were attempting to assassinate a cat, only to find out that the feline was more than their match. Even worse, the skinheads were the last people (other than the murderer) to see the murder victim alive, so they really didn’t have a good day.

And yes, I did, as usual, participate in National Cat Herders Day, although I was so busy herding cats that I didn’t get a chance to put up my usual post.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shopping -- the non-big-box way

Avoiding the crowds
Yes, we did some shopping today. But we didn't go anywhere near a mall or big-box store. We needed a hall table for the house in Mesa, suitable for putting mail on, so it doesn't get lost. We found the perfect table at the Shabby Shack, our go-to used furniture store for the past year and a half. There's even a drawer, perfect for putting keys and other small items that might otherwise get mistaken for cat toys. The Queen Anne style and mahogany wood match the piano perfectly.

While we were there, we also spotted a replica of a circa-1910 river steamer (I think that's Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the seat), and a carpet runner for the foyer.

Meanwhile, yesterday, the cats "helped" to set up the Christmas tree. This is Lucky's first Christmas, and he has discovered how to climb the tree. Oh, goody.

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Been a long time ...

The end of a long dry spell

It's been months since I've been out on a sailboat on a lake. While it hasn't been months since I've posted a blog post, I've posted only one, fairly recently, in nearly a year.

I need to fix both conditions. I got a start this afternoon, sailing with Pat and Zorro on Zorro's boat. Conditions were, for the most part, light, but not so light as to be disappointing. We got in several hours on the water, including some high-quality spinnaker time, and we didn't get back to the marina until well after sunset. It was similar to the experience Zorro and I had a few years back, except with Pat and without the full moon.

We've had other positive developments lately. One is that the big Bayliner we bought earlier this year has now undergone some maintenance and  repairs, and so it should be available for race committee use in the coming year. Also, Pat and I have been getting a lot of training lately, so that we can run races consistent with the Racing Rules of Sailing (including a really informative session with Dick Rose, who was one of the folks making revisions to the rules for the new 2013-2017 rule book). And soon we'll be taking an intensive course that involves both basic powerboat handling and specific ways of operating powerboats in support of sailboat racing. Once we're done with that class, we should really be able to cash in on the potential of the Bayliner.

Also, Pat has been asked to be the race committee chair for the Rio Grande Yacht Club. He's looking forward to being able to bring our training and experience (we've been doing race committee work in Arizona and Colorado) to the RGYC in order to improve the quality of racing at Elephant Butte.

Meanwhile, thanks, Zorro, for so many things. The sail today helped me to remember a whole lot of what is so special about sailing, and especially about sailing with you. And you reminded me about how important this blog used to be. I hope I can bring it back to that level of importance.

Friday, November 02, 2012

I'm baaack!

And it's NaNoWriMo time ...
After a rash of technical difficulties, I've revived the blog. And it's also November, which means it's National Novel Writing Month. So I'm once again cranking out 50,000 words in 30 days. This year's installment in the Murder at the ... series is Murder at the Wedding. After a series of misfortunes, Hannah Montgomery's wedding is finally at hand. Of course, dead bodies have a habit of turning up wherever Hannah goes, so you can sort of guess the occasion is not going to go off without a hitch. Here's the first 474 words:

Murder at the Wedding
a novel
by Carol Anne Byrnes

1.                  Meet the Bride

“There,” said the petite Oriental woman, as she zipped the dress up Hannah Montgomery’s back. “I am so glad that I waited until yesterday to make the final alterations. It fits perfectly!”

Hannah looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the wall of the dressing room of the bridal shop. She had to agree that the dress indeed fit perfectly, its slender lines making her tall, willowy figure look even more graceful, and accenting the bulge in front, which seemed to have been simply stuck onto her abdomen as an afterthought, without making any other changes to her figure. That was going to be a surprise to most of the wedding guests, she reflected, since she hadn’t let many people know about the pregnancy, and so far, wearing loose clothing had camouflaged her expanding waistline.

“Oh, Keiko, it’s perfect,” Hannah said, sweeping her hand down her side, over the shiny satin, with just enough seed pearls to give the dress a bit of a glow without overwhelming its simple lines. “You’ve done a wonderful job!”

“It was my pleasure,” Keiko Miyamura, the owner of the boutique, said. “After all, you have had so much trouble. I want your wedding to be perfect.” She ducked her head, and Hannah could tell she was trying not to look too directly at the scorch marks along one wall, where a fire had damaged the shop and threatened to destroy not only Hannah’s dress but all of the bridesmaids’ dresses as well. Hannah had to admire Keiko’s composure, but then, in her life, she had seen worse than a fire in a bridal shop. Hannah had only recently found out that Keiko had spent part of her childhood in a relocation camp, where Japanese-Americans had been sent during World War II for fear that they were enemy spies.

“I’m really thankful you decided to keep working with me,” Hannah said. “I wouldn’t blame you for backing out after what happened here. I really feel it was my fault.”

“Oh, you do not need to apologize,” Keiko said. “It is my pleasure. Now let’s try on the veil.” She went over to a counter at the side of the room, where a long, lace veil lay spread out, picked it up, and returned to Hannah, sweeping the light, sheer fabric through the air as she came. She brought over a small stepstool to stand on so she could reach the top of Hannah’s head and pin the veil’s tiara to Hannah’s soft, golden-blonde hair. “Minnie says she’s doing an up-do for you tomorrow,” Keiko said. “You will look like Princess Grace.”

Hannah smiled. “I don’t know that anyone could ever look that classy,” she said. “Just don’t put me in any Alfred Hitchcock movies.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s the most wonderful time …

Cat Herders Day is here again!

It is time once again to celebrate Cat Herders Day, the official holiday of Five O’Clock Somewhere, tomorrow, December 15. Those of my followers in Europe are already enjoying the holiday.

The holiday was originally invented by a couple in California who have made up other wacky, offbeat holidays to celebrate. The date for this one, I’m sure, is a reflection on how busy most of us are at this time of year, with shopping, holiday arrangements, parties, entertaining, decorating, cooking, wrapping gifts, shipping gifts, writing and mailing holiday cards, traveling, coping with nasty weather, and sometimes also finishing up an academic semester or term with the accompanying final exams or portfolios and the grading thereof. Even those whose households are devoid of felines may feel like they’re herding cats.

Then there are those who are literally herding cats. Perhaps they have a house full of the critters. Perhaps they’ve taken an interest in a colony of feral cats, possibly even going to the trouble of participating in trap-neuter-release programs to reduce population growth and improve the health of cats in the colony. Perhaps they volunteer for a local animal shelter, fostering cats who need more special care than they can get in a shelter environment or providing kittens with a highly interactive environment to help them learn the socialization skills that will help them to get adopted.

This year, I’ve set up an event on Facebook for Cat Herders Day. You’re invited to come and share the ways you will be celebrating the day. You may post photos of the cats you herd and share your own cat-herding experiences, or if you don’t herd any cats yourself, express your admiration for those who do.

Of course, the Byrnes cat herd is small, consisting of only two cats.

Dulce was adopted in January 1997 from the organization now known as Animal Humane New Mexico. She had been picked up as a starving stray in a blizzard in Edgewood the previous Thanksgiving. She has been living in the lap of luxury ever since, and after all these years, I doubt she has any memory of her deprived early years.

Scratch came last year from the City of Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, and his beginnings were happier. Although he and his littermates were turned over to the shelter, they were placed in a foster home where they socialized not only with humans but with many other animals, so he was a totally friendly and outgoing young cat. Gerald hadn’t intended to adopt a cat, but Scratch picked him out at an event in the parking lot of a local sporting-goods store.

So my thanks go out to the cat herders whose efforts led to two wonderful cats ending up in our household.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Grammar Moment: Pronoun-antecedent agreement

Please remember, “they” is plural.

This past week, as I do at the end of every term, I participated in panel grading of portfolios for the Essay Writing classes. It’s a procedure we use to help maintain consistency; I hand my students’ portfolios over to other instructors for grading, and in turn, I get to grade portfolios of other instructors’ students. The idea is that we’re making sure that we’re all looking for the same characteristics, the same standards for what constitutes a passing portfolio.

This year, among the portfolios that I was grading, there was an astonishing epidemic of pronoun misuse – pronoun shifts, unclear references, case errors, and, most glaringly, agreement errors.

The basic principle is fairly simple: The pronoun must match the noun to which it refers. That means that if you have a singular noun, you must use a singular pronoun (he/him, she/her, or it), and if you have a plural noun, you must use a plural pronoun (they/them). The trick for most people is to figure out whether the noun is plural or singular. The easiest way to test this is to construct a sentence using is or are – if you use is, you have a singular noun, and if you use are, you have a plural.

· One item = singular:
The horse is in the barn.

· Two or more items = plural:
The cows are in the pasture.

· Compound using and = plural:
The horse and the mule are in the barn.

· Compound using or or nor: Match what’s closer:
Neither the cows nor the horse is hungry, OR
Neither the horse nor the cows are hungry.

· Indefinite pronoun (everybody, anyone, etc.) = singular:
Everyone is at the party.

· Topic of study or discussion = singular:
Politics is a strange art.

· Group (collective noun) = singular:
The team is enjoying a winning season.

One situation that causes problems is when there is a collective noun. I will often see, for example, a company name followed by the plural pronoun they. But a company is singular. Let’s look at the following sentence:

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of their products.

First, you can tell that The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is singular, because the writer actually acknowledges that fact by using the singular form of the verb, is. Therefore, the plural pronoun their doesn’t match. Instead, the correct version of the sentence is

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of its products.

(Slight digression: I’m not necessarily endorsing Kimberly-Clark, but the company often runs ads in writers’ magazines to encourage writers to use its brand names correctly. If you blow your nose, and the tissue into which you blow your nose is a product of some other company, you should not refer to it as a Kleenex. That is a brand name that applies only to one of Kimberly-Clark’s product lines. I go into more details in my lesson on proper capitalization, which I haven’t yet put online but plan to soon.)

The other situation in which the plural pronoun is improperly used is when the writer is trying to be gender-neutral:

A student should keep their backpack neat.

The problem with this sentence is that A student is clearly singular, but their is plural. If we’re going to refer to a singular noun, we need to use a singular pronoun. For many years, the solution was to use the male gender:

A student should keep his backpack neat.

That worked fine for centuries. But then, somewhere around 1970, somebody realized that about half of the human race was NOT male. One solution was to use slashes:

A student should keep his/her backpack neat.

That works, sort of. It’s a little bit awkward; for example, how are you going to pronounce it – “hizzer”? Some people like this kind of slash construction; Pat used to work with engineers who loved the supposed efficiency of slashes. He even came up with a universal all-purpose third-person pronoun to make fun of the engineers’ love of slashes: “s/he/it.” (In case you don’t know how to pronounce it, he’s from Texas.) So, at least when slash constructions come across my desk, that’s what I think of.

OK, so that still leaves us searching for a good pronoun solution. Here’s a possibility:

A student should keep his or her backpack neat.

That’s not so bad, at least in small doses. The occasional his or her or she or he in a paper is fine. It does solve the problem of being grammatically correct while also being gender-neutral. The problem arises when you have a whole paper full of such references. Piling on repeated uses of such phrases makes your writing wordy and tedious, and ultimately, you may lose your reader’s full attention.

Another solution is to use his half the time and her half the time. You may alternate every other paragraph, or you may flip a coin to decide which gender you’re going to use each time. A former teacher of mine recommended a “subtle feminist agenda”: use his when a negative connotation is involved and her when the connotation is positive, as in, “A good driver keeps her car well tuned; a bad driver has no idea what’s going on under his hood.”

But there is one other solution that avoids this whole issue altogether. Remember when I said that you can’t use the plural they to refer to singular nouns? Well, that’s true, but you CAN use they to refer to a PLURAL noun. Instead of fiddling with the pronoun, you can simply go back to the noun and make everything plural:

Students should keep their backpacks neat.

Presto! Problem solved! You now have a pronoun that is gender-neutral, and it agrees with the noun because the noun is plural. Probably 99 percent of all of your pronoun-antecedent problems can be fixed this way, by just making everything plural. Once in a while, you may have to keep to a singular form, but in the vast majority of situations, you can fix everything by going plural.

And believe me, your English teacher will love you for it when you get the pronouns right.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

How many cats is a three dog night worth?

Trying to keep warm

It’s a cold night in Albuquerque. It’s also a windy night. The predicted low is 24 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the winds are howling, gusting to 50 mph and sometimes even higher. According to NOAA, the wind chill means it really feels like 12 degrees or colder.

During the day, a wind gust of 78 mph was clocked in the far northeast part of Albuquerque, and the Sunport reported a gust of 53. Our storm door was flung off its hinges, and in the process, the hydraulic closing cylinder punched a hole in the front door. The result is that the door is letting cold air in, so it’s hard to keep the house warm.

I was listening to my favorite radio station on the way home from work, as my little Vibe was getting knocked all over the road by gusts of wind, and the DJ commented that it was going to be a “three dog night,” as a segue into a song by the band named after that concept.

For those who don’t know, the phrase comes from medieval times, when home heating was, to put it mildly, not exactly efficient. On an especially cold night, the humans in a house would derive extra warmth by having their dogs, often large ones, in their beds to help keep them warm. A “three dog night” was an especially cold one, as it required three dogs to keep the bed warm enough.

Unfortunately, all Pat and I have is a cat. And Dulce is not exactly a large cat – she probably weighs in at about six pounds. So she’s about a tenth of a large dog.

Now, we do have friends who could be described as cat herders. These friends have large numbers of cats on hand. And those cats are probably larger than Dulce – I’m guessing the average cat is 10 pounds or more. Also, cats’ normal body temperature is slightly higher than that of dogs, so maybe it doesn’t take as much mass of cat as of dog to produce the same amount of heat.

So I open this question up to the cat herders I know: If it’s a three dog night, how many cats is it?

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

One more NaNo under the bridge

This year's National Novel Writing Month effort seemed much harder than in past years. For most of the month, I was far more behind on word count that I've ever been before. It was only through a heroic effort in the last week that I got to the finish -- I hit the magic 50K mark on the 28th, took a rest on the 29th, and then cranked out another 2278 words on the 30th.

Here, on record for posterity, are the last 1000 or so words I officially registered this year.

Hannah arrived at the park about ten minutes early. The park had only a few cars in the parking lot, and only a few visitors strolling on the beach, basking on beach towels, surfing, or otherwise enjoying the out of doors, in spite of it being a beautiful (at least compared to the past few days) sunny day in late spring. She parked at the end of the parking lot closest to the fire pit, shut down the car engine, and waited. She hoped Walton would be in his personal car, and not one of the white SUVs the newspaper owned – even though they were unmarked, everyone on the police department knew what the Capitan’s reporters drove. Not that there would likely be any police officers around specifically looking for someone having a clandestine meeting with a reporter. But Hannah wanted to keep things as secret as possible.

A car pulled up next to Hannah’s, an older sports car, with slightly fading purple paint, and Hannah recognized the driver as the reporter she had followed out of the newsroom on the way to the incident at Callahan’s. He got out of his car, and she got out of hers. She noticed that the badging on his car had been slightly altered – it was no longer labeled “Probe” but rather “Prose.” Hannah pointed to the car. “‘Purple Prose,’” she commented. “Seems a more appropriate car for a sports reporter than a news jockey.”

“I used to be a sports reporter,” Walton said, “back in my home town where the newspaper came out twice a week. I got put on the city desk when I moved up to the big city with the daily newspaper. Not as much fun, but hey, it pays the bills.”

“So did your editor clear me as a confidential source?” Hannah asked.

“Yes, she did,” Walton said. “She also tentatively gave me permission to use that other person – the one you were talking to while you were on the phone with me – if he has a good reason to keep secret that he talked with me.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hannah said. “I know everything he does, maybe even a bit more.”

“Let’s take a walk along the beach path,” Walton said. “We shouldn’t let this good weather go to waste.”

“Amen to that,” Hannah said. The two set out strolling along the concrete pathway, almost undisturbed. Again, Hannah was surprised at how few bicyclists and skateboarders had to be dodged. It was as if, even in daylight, this stretch of beach was haunted and nobody wanted to go there.

“So you have information about another crime that was committed last night?” Walton asked, pulling a small voice recorder out of an inner pocket of his windbreaker.

“Well, it’s not exactly a crime,” Hannah said, “at least not yet. It’s not even anything officially reportable yet. A man’s gone missing, and the man who has been his father figure thinks foul play is involved. Based on what I know, I have to agree with him. And the time frame puts the disappearance in the same window as the other incidents that are being pinned on Harry O’Malley.”

“Interesting,” Walton said. “Tell me more.” He leaned in closer with the voice recorder, shielding it from the view of anybody who might look closely at him and Hannah. Anybody who didn’t look closely would simply assume they were two people who were very fond of each other, taking a sunny Saturday walk together, Hannah reflected. At least Walton was fairly tall, so Hannah was only slightly taller than he was – there wouldn’t be people taking note of any great disparity to remember them by later.

Hannah went on to tell Walton about Igor Krumski and his disappearance from the lab the night before, and of Professor Egglehoffer’s insistence that foul play had been involved. She described how Igor had pulled the prank of getting her and Harry thoroughly lost in the hallways of the photography building on Thursday, and the incident she had witnessed between Igor and Katrina M’Bomo Friday afternoon. She also mentioned the pages torn out of her notebook and the key that had been moved on her key ring.

“You know, some of that evidence really does point to Harry O’Malley,” Walton said.

“But there’s other evidence that points away from him,” Hannah said. “His assistant, the guy who took him home from Callahan’s, left him passed out in the bed at home. When I got home, he was still in that bed, still passed out. It stretches credibility that he would come to, drive to the university, do something to Igor, drive to the bridal shop, set fire to the place, crash the truck into the fire hydrant, flee the scene – so nimbly that he could get away from the witness who tried to chase him – get home, and once again be passed out in the bed when I got there.”

“How do you know he wasn’t faking being passed out?” Walton asked.

“He was practically drowning in his own vomit,” Hannah said. “He partially regained consciousness while I was cleaning him up – he was literally stinking drunk – and began to sing Irish ballads off-key. That’s standard with Harry when he gets seriously drunk.” She decided Walton didn’t need to know about the other activity that accompanied the off-key singing.

They arrived at a park bench alongside the path, facing the ocean. Walton gestured to Hannah to sit down, and they sat side by side, watching the surf that was nearly devoid of surfers.

“So does he get drunk often?” Walton asked.

“Almost never,” Hannah said. “Yesterday … well, let’s say that he had a serious shock to trigger the binge – something that doesn’t really need to get published in the paper.”

“I heard what he was shouting at you at Callahan’s,” Walton said. “I take it at least some of that was true.”

“It was,” Hannah said. “But we really don’t need to go into details. Harry and I are trying to work it out.”

“Now that he needs you to help defend him on criminal charges,” Walton said. “Are you really that sure that he’s innocent, and that you’re willing to go back to him?”

“I know that he’s innocent,” Hannah said. “And I know that I love him. And I know that he loves me. And now, I think I’ve told you enough. What can you give me about the witness to the truck crash – the one who tried to chase the driver but couldn’t catch him or her?”

“I have a name,” Walton said. “I have an address and phone number. And I have an interview that I did with him earlier today.”

“Great!” Hannah said. “What did the witness say?”

“It’s all on here,” Walton said, tapping the voice recorder. “And I have a transcript in my car for you. But there’s one hitch.”

“What’s that?” Hannah asked.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Don't bait your English teacher; you may regret it

My National Novel Writing Month adventures continue. I've fallen behind in my word count, so I'm trying to catch up. In this excerpt, Hannah has given her class an exercise similar to the one that I give in this post, in creating descriptive writing that aims to show, rather than tell, a highly emotional moment in the students' past. In case you're wondering, yes, this sort of thing has actually happened to me, more than once. And no, I didn't respond quite as, um, graphically as Hannah does -- much as I would have liked to -- or I probably wouldn't still have my job. But I did respond in a toned-down version of Hannah's response. Since this is an all-ages blog, I'm also redacting what the student actually wrote.

When she got to the end of the descriptive writing exercise, she had one student volunteer to read his piece, a student who had been something of a class clown while completing almost no homework and turning in essays that were so under-developed that they were really just outlines. As he stood to read, he and the other members of his group started to snicker. He held up his paper, on which Hannah could see he had scrawled only a couple of lines, and began to read: “I went in the room with the girl and she took her clothes off and laid down on the bed. I took my clothes off and laid on top of her, and then I ----ed her and she said she liked it and I did it again and she said I was the best that she ever had and it was my first time.”

By the time he got to the end of his reading, his group-mates were having a hard time containing themselves, but the student himself was looking less and less sure of himself, his voice becoming weaker and his face turning red. Hannah guessed he was now beginning to regret that his buddies had talked him into this. Still, she knew the original plan the the four of them had hatched was probably intended to shock her or otherwise disrupt her composure. She decided to take the offering with a straight face. “Surely you can do better than that,” she said. “We want description, and you had only two adjectives and only two adverbs in that entire piece – and two of those were in what the girl said to you. Since it was your first time, surely your memory of it was more vivid than that.

“What did the girl look like? Short? Tall? Young? Old? What color was her hair, blonde, brunette, red? Was it natural, or did she have roots of another color? Was she fat or skinny? What did her body look like after she took off her clothes – and what sort of clothes were they in the first place? How did you meet her, at a party or on the street or in a brothel? What did you say to each other before you went to the room? What kind of room was it – a motel room, the girl’s bedroom in her parents’ house, some other sort of room? What condition was the room in – was it clean, dirty, with new furnishings or beat-up stuff? What did the air smell like, musty, smoky, flowery air freshener? Was the air in the room cold or hot or just right? Was the lighting dim or bright?

“When you got into the bed with her, what did she smell like – was it some sort of perfume or just sweat or something else? What did the bed sheets smell like – were they clean, or did they smell sour from being used a whole lot since they were last washed? Were they smooth or rough? Did the bed springs creak when you moved? Did the girl make any sounds? When she told you that she liked it and that you were the best that she had ever had, what were her exact words? How did she say them? Did she have any sort of accent?”

Hannah knew that this line of questioning was perhaps a bit cruel. But what she wanted to get across was that vivid descriptions were essential to effective writing, no matter what the subject matter. She knew the old saying about people with inadequate vocabularies being the ones who resorted to obscenities, and perhaps that was the case with this student. She was hoping that thinking a little more deeply would lead the student to write a little more deeply. This was a student who turned in essays that were three-quarters of a page long, triple spaced, and she was trying to get him to stretch a bit. If he wanted to write porn, more power to him, if doing so helped him to provide descriptive words and phrases.

The student was now seriously red-faced, as were his group-mates. The rest of the class had mixed reactions. Some had gone red, some had gone pale, and a few had started laughing, especially a couple of the young women in the class who had previously found this student’s behavior annoying or maybe even offensive. They clearly enjoyed seeing him get some comeuppance.

“Um, Ms. Montgomery,” the student said in a somewhat subdued voice, “I’ll have to get back to you on those answers.”

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

It’s November again

It’s time for that annual ritual, in which I flog myself until I’ve cranked out 50,000 words in 30 days or less, participating in National Novel Writing Month. As usual, I’m writing a mystery, featuring Hannah Montgomery, community college English instructor and amateur sleuth, into whose life dead bodies continue to fall. In this installment, she’s working on planning her wedding to police Detective Harry O’Malley. Here is the first installment, cranked out in the first half-hour of Nov. 1.

Murder in the Photo Lab

a novel

by Carol Anne Byrnes

1. Plans Afoot

Hannah Montgomery sighed wearily as she pushed herself back from her desk, shoving a lock of fine blonde hair from her face. She was supposed to be grading papers, but it wasn’t working so well. Her mind kept wandering off to other topics, like the wedding. How was she going to pull that off? She knew that most people planned for a year or more, and here she was, trying to do it in just a couple of months. So far, almost nothing was coming together. There was the catering for the reception, the rental of the banquet hall from the yacht club, hairstyling to think of, makeup, arrangements for lodging for out of town guests, trying to find a band to play at the reception, or at least a DJ, and she was sure she was forgetting something. At least the wedding dress seemed to be on track; she had already had a rough fitting, although the final adjustments would wait until just a couple of days in advance, to fit her rapidly growing baby bump perfectly on the big day.

Her phone rang, and she answered it. “Hello?”

“Hi, dear, it’s Clara.” Hannah recognized the voice of her soon-to-be mother-in-law. “I was wondering if you’d arranged a photographer for the wedding portraits yet?”

Oh, no, that’s what she’d been forgetting, Hannah realized. “Uh, no,” she said. “That, uh, had sort of slipped my mind.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Clara said. “I have an old friend from high school who’s out there, Lionel Eggleston, who’s a photography professor at Siete Mares State. Or at least he used to be. He’s now sort of retired, what they call ‘emeritus.’ I asked him if he’d do your wedding, and he said he would. I’ll pay – count it as a wedding gift to you and Harry.”

Well, that was a piece of good news, Hannah reflected. One piece of wedding planning that she’d forgotten, and it was going to be taken care of without much trouble on her part. “Oh, thank you very much,” she said. “That would be fantastic!” She hoped Clara couldn’t hear the note of desperation in her voice.

“There is one thing,” Clara said. “Lionel doesn’t like the new-fangled photography.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Hannah said. If Professor Eggleston didn’t like digital photography, well, that would mean her and Harry’s wedding portraits would be more traditional.

“No, I don’t think you understand,” Clara said. “Lionel doesn’t like that new-fangled dry film. He uses wet plates. Says it gives him a more honest look. You’ll likely have to sit very very still for a long while when you pose, and then making the prints will take a long time.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Hannah said. Actually, having an excuse to sit very very still for a while sounded pretty good. She had been running around so much lately, trying to tie up all of the loose ends. “Having wedding portraits that are totally different from anybody else’s will be something special.”

“Oh, they’ll be special all right,” Clara said. “Lionel is known for his cyanotypes. They have a lovely blue shade to them.”

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

More long and winding ...

Another long way home, this time by way of the Rio Grande Gorge.

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This time around, we took the scenic route eastward along U.S. 64, a drive best known for fall colors. This early in the year, just a few of the cottonwoods and willows along the streams were just beginning to turn gold. Unfortunately, insect ravages (tent caterpillars in the aspens, bark beetles in the firs) have made for less than vibrant colors in recent years. Still, the scenery was dramatic.

At Tres Piedras, we took a right and took the back road to Pilar. The descent into the Rio Grande Gorge is rather rough, but before the high bridge was built in 1965, that was the way to get from one side to the other. The stagecoach ride from the train station at Taos Junction into Taos must have been grueling.

By this time, it was dark, so we didn't get as much enjoyment out of the scenery as we might have. Darned days are getting shorter now.

(Stats on this journey, according to Google Maps: 214 mi.; 4 hours, 28 minutes.)

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Saturday, September 03, 2011

Rhetoric Moment: Well developed writing

Beefing up your paragraphs

When you write an essay, you need to provide sufficient supporting details to prove the point that you are making. If you don’t have enough details, your reader may not be able to figure out exactly what you mean. The same holds true for many types of writing. If all you have is a collection of broad, general ideas, you may have a picture inside your mind of what you mean, but your reader may form a totally different picture inside of her head.

Short paragraphs have their place. Carefully placed following several long paragraphs, a short paragraph packs a punch, giving special emphasis to the idea it presents. It makes the reader take notice. But if every single paragraph in your essay (or whatever else you are writing) is only one or two sentences, chances are you haven’t filled in enough details. You need to bulk up those wimpy, short paragraphs.

Let’s start with this very short one-sentence paragraph from a hypothetical essay reviewing a restaurant:

The service was crappy.

Faced with a paragraph like this, I would start by asking the student, “What do you mean by this?”

“Well,” the student might say, “it was, you know, crappy.”

“No, I don’t know. Can you tell what you mean by ‘crappy’? What did the server do that was crappy?”

“He took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had an attitude.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you know, an attitude.”

“No, I don’t know. Was it a happy attitude, or a sad attitude, or angry? How could you tell what kind of attitude he had?”

“He acted superior. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It’s like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.”

Here’s a beefed-up version of the student’s paragraph that makes use of these details:

The service was crappy. Our server took so long bringing out our food that it was cold when we got it. He was never around when we wanted our iced tea refilled. And he had a superior attitude. He never looked directly at us, and he always had a frown on his face. We had trouble getting his attention when we wanted something, as if we were invisible. It was like he didn’t want us wasting his time and energy.

Now we have a stronger, brawnier paragraph that gives the reader a clear idea of how crappy the service was and in exactly what way. If you have lots of wimpy paragraphs in your writing, see if you can ask yourself the same sorts of questions to bring out the details. Or if you have trouble thinking of questions, try to find someone else who can help you. It doesn’t have to be a teacher or tutor, either. It could be a friend, family member, or classmate – anybody who can spot where you have a vague, general term that could use more explanation.

Here’s another activity you can try for developing a beefy paragraph. Start with the sentence, “As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a(n) ____ day”; fill in the blank with an adjective of your choice. The day in question can be any day in your life – today, or some important milestone date – or something completely made-up. Now, write at least ten sentences supporting that statement. If you get on a roll and find yourself going beyond ten sentences, that’s great; keep going! But you must produce at least ten sentences describing how your day began.

These exercises may seem very hard at first. It’s going to take some work to beef up those scrawny paragraphs. But Arnold didn’t get those muscles overnight either. He had to do a lot of work. As you work on your paragraph-building, your writing will gradually bulk up its muscles, too.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back from the dead

Well, I wasn’t REALLY dead, but I don’t blame you if you thought that I was.

How time flies. I’ve been working on all sorts of other things, and now it’s been more than a month since my last post (“Father, I have sinned …”). The truth is that my life has gotten filled up with so much going on (most of it, for a change, of a happy sort) that all I’ve had time for lately is more short-attention-span media. But I hope to get back to the blog on a regular basis now.

I was teaching two classes over the summer term, which is condensed, so more time per week is required for each class, especially with the vast number of papers I have to grade. Yeah, I’ve had students suggest that if I didn’t assign so much work, I wouldn’t have to work so hard either. But then they wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth for their tuition dollars.

We’re also still dealing with Pat’s dad’s estate. The Old Soldier died a year and a half ago, and some things are still up in the air. That’s been a drain, especially on Pat’s time.

Meanwhile, in the happy news department, this spring, we closed on a house in Mesa, Arizona. “Why?” I hear the two or three people who still follow this blog ask. Well, Gerald is attending college at Arizona State in Tempe, plus taking a few classes at Mesa Community College that count for the same credit but cost less than a third as much in tuition (gotta love community colleges!). Instead of sending him rent money every month, we will now be sending him compensation for household maintenance and fixing things up. Also, we will no longer have to pay for a hotel room when we go to Arizona to visit him. In addition, at some point Pat and I will be retiring, and we already know we want to get rid of the house in Albuquerque. If we keep the cabin at Heron, we will be able to migrate seasonally between there and Mesa. Finally, home prices in Arizona are in the basement right now, but they’re bound to rebound, at least some. So we may have an investment that makes money even if we decide not to use the place as a retirement residence.

The upshot of the home purchase in Mesa is that we’ve been directing a lot of time and energy to getting that house up and running, learning the ins and outs of agricultural-style irrigation, and furnishing the place. While I was teaching, we took some long weekends for whirlwind trips out to get things done. Then the break between the summer and fall terms was only two weeks rather than the usual three, so we had to pack a lot of activity into a short time span that included a quickie trip to San Diego for some touristing.

Furnishing the house has been fun. One of our friends commented on the short-attention-span media that it must be like right after we got married. Actually, it’s lots better. When Pat and I first got married, we had no money whatsoever, so we took what we could get, which was mostly castoff furniture that friends and relatives had no use for. For nearly all of our adult lives, we’ve felt like we’ve been living in a junkyard. With this new house, we have a fresh start. We can buy things that we specifically like, and we can make things match. We’ve bought a few new things, but mostly, we’ve been getting great deals on high-quality furnishings at used-furniture stores. Serendipity plays a big part with used furniture – we may not know exactly what we want when we go into the store, but I will find something that just feels right, such as the bedroom set with the magnificent headboard that is now in the master bedroom. We also now have a place worthy of some of the art that we have picked up from family over the years – an elegant ceramic black cat, a bowl of fruit carved out of African wood, a pair pictures of prancing horses, an R.C. Gorman print, and more. It feels good to get those works out of the junkyard.

Of course, the house isn’t perfect. It was originally constructed in 2000 with high-quality materials and workmanship, but one of the previous owners took out the original bedroom flooring and replaced it with the most God-awful, crappy, plastic pseudo-laminate, and didn’t even install it properly. So we’re now replacing it with high-quality engineered wood flooring, natural red oak. Actually, Gerald’s doing most of the work – that’s part of the aforementioned compensation for home improvements instead of rent subsidies. He got most of one room done by the time we had to return to Albuquerque, but since he’s taking a heavy course load this fall, it may take him a while to get all of the bedrooms done. Still, what’s been done so far is beautiful.

Meanwhile, now that we’ve got most of the time-consuming stuff out of the way on the house, I should now have time to return to the blog. Glad to be back.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

We have a winner!

or, at least, we have visitor #100K ...

The lucky person who happened to be the 100,000th person to cross the threshold of this blog was a seeker of knowledge. He or she is a Road Runner subscriber from Cincinnati, using Windows NT/Vista and the most recent version of the world's worst browser, late Monday evening, on a search for "find out what part of speech rescue is."

For quite some time, I've wanted to visit Cincinnati. A very good friend of mine from high school now lives there (actually, just across the river in Kentucky), and I've been told that Cincinnati chili (pictured above) is a dish not to be missed.

I even know where I want to go to eat in Cincinnati. The very first year I participated in National Novel Writing Month, my attempt at a novel (it reached more than 50,000 words, but it never reached a conclusion) was not one of the mystery novels I have been successful with since then. It was an ensemble-cast action-adventure thriller, and the adventure began in Cincinnati. Since I've never been there, I researched the place and found out a lot of wonderful things about it. The railroad station is an Art Deco masterpiece that has been preserved as a science and technology museum, while still serving as an active passenger depot. The downtown area has been revitalized and is a hopping place day or night. And there are places to eat.

I looked at restaurant reviews. I had two scenes involving my narrator eating out. In one scene, he had a casual lunch downtown, and I found just the right place for him to chow down on the most authentic Cincy chili available (served over noodles, with cheese and onions on top). It was a bonus that John Madden endorsed the place on Monday Night Football the following night. For the other scene, my character needed a really classy place to eat, and I found an Italian place with great atmosphere and, according to the reviews I read, a chef who believes, as I do, that there is no such thing as too much garlic.

So, while I did have a couple of good suggestions from readers for what the prize should be, I have decided that Pat and I will travel to the winner's location and treat him or her to his or her favorite meal. Cincinnati was already tentatively on the itinerary for next summer anyway, since I want to visit my old friend. Assuming the winner comes back to claim the prize, I hope he or she likes either Cincinnati chili or Italian food -- although I wouldn't mind trying anything else the winner likes.

To be fair to both of the entrants in the contest, I will extend the same prize: Pat and I, when next in your neighborhood (or neighbourhood), will treat you to a dinner of your favorite local food.

Oh, and as for the answer to the question for which the winner came seeking an answer: rescue can be a noun, a verb, or an adjective.

Noun: The firefighters attempted a daring rescue.
Verb: They had only a few minutes to rescue the cat from the tree.
Adjective: The cat's owners thanked the rescue personnel warmly afterward.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writing project: approaching a milestone

So, what should the prize be this time?

This blog is about to reach a historic milestone. As I start to type this post, Sitemeter has registered 99,677 visitors. That means, in just a few days, I will be seeing the 100,000th visitor to this blog.

To mark the event, I want to provide a really cool prize to Visitor #100K. In the past, I've offered such things as dinner at my favorite brewpub or a sailing trip on Black Magic, but, alas, nobody has yet made it to New Mexico to claim such a prize.

So, I'm open to suggestions. To sweeten the deal, not only will I grant the prize to Visitor #100K, but also to whoever comes up with the winning suggestion. So, let the writing project begin. You have from now until whenever lucky Number 100,000 shows up.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Long and winding road update

One detour I wish did not have to be ...

A major section of the last route shown in the previous post is currently off-limits, and once it is no longer off limits, it may no longer be as scenic as it used to be.

The Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico began early Sunday afternoon, and within hours, it had consumed several thousand acres. This section of the road is now closed:

The fire started at one of my favorite picnic spots in the mountains, the Las Conchas recreation area just past where Highway 4 (westbound) leaves the vast grassy area called the Valle Grande, a crater caused by the collapse, about a million years ago, of a huge volcano.

The fire has spread mostly eastward but also outward in other directions. The thumbnail photo above was shot by Lupita L. Tom-yepa at Cochiti Pueblo, about 20 miles southeast of the blaze, Sunday night. Pat and I were on the way south from Heron Lake to Albuquerque, and we went through thick smoke from Española through Pojoaque and on to Santa Fe. From Pojoaque on, we could see the flames erupting from the ridgelines. We were getting gas at Santo Domingo, near Cochiti, about the same time Lupita took her photo -- alas, that tiny picture does little justice to how scary it is to see such a huge portion of the mountains on fire.

As we were driving, we tried to get news on the radio about the fire. We tuned in to KRSN, Los Alamos' local radio station. The signal was poor; the smoke plume from the fire caused a lot of interference. But there was a live interview with one of the people in charge of fighting the fire, and he was reassuring -- while there were mandatory evacuations in parts of the mountains, people in Los Alamos and White Rock with respiratory problems should evacuate, but everybody else could stay put but be prepared in case of mandatory evacuations. I had a mental flashback, to the La Mesa fire in the late 1970s, with the late, legendary Bob Burns, patriarch and owner of KRSN, reassuring everybody with his gravelly but comforting voice. The station normally signed off at 11 p.m., but during that crisis, it was on the air all night. Bob is long gone, but he is fondly remembered.

We got fed up with the poor signal and decided to change from KRSN to Albuqueruque's all-news station, KKOB. We were just in time to hear an official Emergency Broadcast System alert that there was a fire emergency in Sandoval County. Well, duh.

Just over 11 years ago, I was cleaning out the guest room in case my folks had to evacuate because of the Cerro Grande Fire. They did have to evacuate a couple of days later. Now, we're cleaning out the guest room in case they have to evacuate again. This time around, there shouldn't be as much danger, since the Cerro Grande removed much of the fuel that would take the Las Conchas into the town. But still, the flashbacks happen.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More long and winding roads

Exercises in getting from here to there, or there to here

In planning for this weekend, we had a bit of a problem. I had to return to Albuquerque to teach my classes Tuesday, but Pat has to stay at the lake until his dockmaster duties end Wednesday. So we had to drive up Friday in separate vehicles; Pat took Enterprise with the fifth-wheel, while Dulce and I had Galileo.

Being in a larger, clumsier rig, Pat took a route that emphasized big roads and faster travel. According to Google Maps, this route is 166 miles and takes 3 hours, 11 minutes. That seems about right.

Meanwhile, Dulce and I took a more scenic route. It's shorter in miles, but it's decidedly not suitable for bigger, clumsier rigs. Google Maps says it's 153 miles and takes 3 hours, 55 minutes. The time estimate is WAY off. This trip, Pat and I left at the same time, and while he had to stop for fuel and spent 15 minutes getting lunch, I arrived ahead of him by about the time he spent on fuel and lunch. On other trips, Gerald and I have arrived sooner via the scenic route than Pat on the big roads. My guess is that Google Maps underestimates the travel speed on New Mexico's state highways, some of which are unpaved but still can be traveled at a fairly high speed. Sure, I had to stop a couple of times to wait for some cattle to mosey out of the way, but, hey, that's part of the appeal of the back roads.

Then for the trip home, I chose a route that I already knew was going to be more time-consuming, but that would also be fantastically scenic. If Google Maps had an option to select the most scenic route, this is how it would tell people to go. It's 193 miles and 4 hours, 8 minutes -- an accurate assessment, probably because none of the roads are unpaved. For out-of-state visitors, the reverse of this route is what I would recommend to get from the airport to Five O'Clock Somewhere; it provides the best of the best of scenery, plus a nifty bonus: the chance to stop at Viola's Restaurant in Los Alamos for lunch. On this route, it wasn't cattle but deer that I had to stop for until they decided they wanted to wander over to the side of the road.
In case you're wondering, I hate freeways. I also dislike road construction. When a route involves both, I'd rather find some other way to go.

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