A Completely Ridiculous Amount of Homework for a Fifth-Grader

Tell me if this sounds normal for fifth grade:

  • An average of 2-1/2 hours of homework and study each day–often including Saturdays and Sundays;
  • Anywhere from 5-7 tests and quizzes per week.

At first, I thought this was just a way to get the students back into the school year after summer. But we are approaching the end of December and this relentless schedule has persisted undiminished. Indeed, it seems that nothing can alter this regiment. Discussions with the teacher at parent-teacher conferences don’t seem to make a difference. A meeting with the principal has not yet resulted in any notable changes.

As I see it, there are four problems with this much work for a fifth grader:

  1. It does not encourage learning, but instead teaches them to know what they need to pass the test. The Little Man gets very good grades for his hard work, but I’m not sure that, if tested a week later on the same material, he would do as well. He’s learning to pass a test, not learning to learn.
  2. It breeds competition for time. With so many tests and quizzes each week, and a limited supply of time, each test competes with the other for study time. That means making deliberate decisions about what to study and what to ignore. This adds stress to someone who wants to do well on everything, but can’t because there just isn’t the time to keep up.
  3. It is disheartening to the students to get to the end of a week of hard work, only to realize that they still have to study over the weekend for the tests early the following week. It’s an unforgiving schedule that makes the students feel as if they are never quite caught up.
  4. It creates havoc with work-life balance. Our kids have to start their homework as soon as they get some from school and have a snack. With all of the work and study required for fifth grade, the Little Man gets started around 3:30 pm and is rushing to wrap-up by 6 pm, and often is continuing to study while we are eating dinner.

Granted it was a long time ago, but I don’t recall having nearly this much homework and study in fifth grade. Indeed, I don’t recall having this much homework and study in high school, until I got to my senior year, when AP physics homework took a long time. I’ve read of a rough standard of 10 minutes per grade, which means 50 minutes of homework/study for fifth graders. Our fifth grader is averaging three times that much each day. With a school day that is already over seven hours long, this additional work gives him nearly a 10-hour day.

The value of homework has been questioned in K-5, and indeed, some schools around here don’t assign homework in those grades. I have no opposition to homework, and fifty minutes sounds perfectly reasonable to me. But with so many tests and quizzes competing with one another for study time on top of the homework, it seems almost certain the the law of diminishing returns is at play. Student might do well on a test, but how much are they really learning?

The silver lining to this, I suppose, is that it prepares these kids for the real world. Homework is a part of life in many jobs. Learning to find a balance between work and home life is a valuable skill. It just seems to me that fifth grade is too early to be learning this skill so abruptly.

Kelly jokes that she has a second, part-time job, doing nothing but helping our fifth grader study. I’ve been at a slow burn for what seems like months now, seeing how hard the Little Man has to work each day. What really gets me is when I leave the house around 3:30 pm or so, and arrive back home two hours later only to find the Little Man and Kelly still studying and working on his homework.

Perhaps I’m just thrown because the amount of homework increased very steadily through forth grade–and then jumped dramatically this year. Still, it seems to me that the amount of work and studying the Little Man has is a completely ridiculous amount of homework for a fifth-grader.

Not the Best Books of 2019

With less than 20 days remaining in the year, I debated writing my “best reads of 2019” post, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This is not the best books of 2019. Best-of-the-year posts start as early as November, and it is a bitter disappointment to books born and read in the last 30-45 days of the year. Books born in the late months of the year get overlooked on best-of lists because of their birthdate. Review editors want the lists in time for the holiday shopping season. It doesn’t seem fair to me and I won’t condone such behavior by participating in it. My “Best of 2019” list will come out after the new year has been put to bed.

Instead, I looked at the stacks of books, physical and virtual, patiently awaiting my attention. I decided to list the books I plan to read before the decade is over and the roaring twenties begin.

Let’s start with what I am reading at the moment: Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusment Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow.

I recently read An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. This is the first volume of a trilogy that describes the liberation of Europe in the Second World War. After the current book, I’ll likely start on The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 and follow that up with The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 both by Atkinson.

Earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger. The book looks beautiful, almost textbook quality, and looks fascinating. It should also provide a lighter fare from the battles of Europe.

Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

Sticking with the baseball theme, I’ve been wanting to read Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, for some time now. Add that to the list.

Finally, if I can manage it, I want to tackle H. W. Brands’s latest book, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.

That’s a lot of reading to squeeze into the last 20 days of the year, but I’ll be on vacation for the last 10 days or so and will have more time than usual. The Atkinson books are long, so realistically, I might only manage to make it through those books before the year is out.

I present this list with the usual caveats, especially recalling to you the butterfly effect of reading which more often than not has its way with me.

And I see as I complete this that my monthly Audible credits have arrived, which means I can begin to scout out what books I will read in 2020. The first book I read in the 2010s was C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich. I wonder what the first read in the new decade will be?

The Golden Age of Television

I keep reading that we are in a golden age of television. Given how little I watch television these days, I have no direct experience to speak from. I assume that what is meant by “golden age of television” is the programs. But as I wander through my house, I might be convinced otherwise. Somehow, we’ve gone from a couple of televisions to 5 televisions. We have a great big one above the fireplace in the living room; one in our bedroom; one in the guest room/exercise room; one in the family room, and one in the playroom/Xbox room, I’m not really sure how this happened.

These are “smart TVs.” I don’t know how smart they really are, but they are slowly making the remote control obsolete, and anything that makes the remote obsolete is a sign of progress. Maybe we should call them “progressive TVs” instead. I’ve counted 9 remotes for these 5 TVs. Fortunately, most of them can be controlled by voice, so the remotes collect dust somewhere between the couch cushions. It took a while, but I no longer feel awkward asking Alexa to turn off the living room TV, or turning the volume down.

I suspect that when someone speaks of the golden age of television, they are not talking about television sets, but the programming. Specifically, I suspect they are talking about the premium programs that seem to be everywhere. We subscribe to HBO (through the cable company), Netflix, Disney+, and as Amazon Prime members, we also have access to Amazon Prime videos. I also managed to get a year of Apple TV+ for free, although I am still not certain how that came about. All of these produce original programming which, because it is subscription-based, has the potential for being high-quality.

I watched the first 2 episodes of The Mandalorian, and while I am a fan of both Star Wars and westerns, I was bored out of my mind after the first two and gave up.

Most of my entertainment comes from reading. I used to turn to television for something that I could dip into without thinking much about it. The problem these days is that most series have morphed into serials. You can’t dip into one episode, without watching the next, and the next, and the next. And thus, binge-watching is born. I don’t want to spend a lot of time watching. I want something where I can allow my brain to relax for 20 or 40 minutes between books without any cliff-hanger. Then, too, television dramas have become too over the top for me. On those instance when I do watch a drama, I often come away feeling totally wiped out.

The TVs, smart and progressive as they may be, are really just superfluous. I can watch Netflix, Disney+, HBO, and Amazon Prime on my phone, iPad, computer, and on the XBox. Indeed, with our cable, I can watch any of the hundreds of channels we get on my phone, iPad, computer, etc. so long as I am connected to the home network. In that kind of environment, we really don’t need one television, let alone five of them.

Golden age or not, I see a promising future for television, both from the devices and the programming. The nice thing I have discovered about watching a movie like Star Wars on the big TV over the fireplace is that, with the lights dimmed, it feels like I’m sitting in a movie theater. I see almost no value to going to the movies these days. No movie is worth the parking headaches, the cost of the tickets, popcorn, hotdog, or soda. I’d just as soon stay home and wait for the movie to be released on one of the streaming services. And yet… when I do go to the movie theater, usually about once a year, it always seems the theater is virtually empty.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution would be to take advantage of the high quality smart TVs and the streaming services and just send the movies direct to the services, forgoing the theater experience entirely. For me, it would be a win. I’m not sure what people get out of the movie theater experience these days, other than being able to see a picture a few months before everyone else. Eliminate that and there’s really no need for movie theaters any more. Imagine being able to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on release day in the comfort of your own house, with the lights dimmed, and munching on food you already have in the pantry. Even better: when you have to get up in the middle of Act 3 because you drank all of those sodas, you can pause the movie to ensure you don’t miss anything. Gone will be the days of millions of middle-aged men scampering back to their seats in a dark theater and whispering to their significant other, “What’d I miss?”

And what of the movie theater? Many will perish, but I imagine there will be one theater nearby that will show second runs of classic picture, and do so in style. It will be an occasion to dress for. Dinner and show will be an elegant affair the way it once was. All things come full circle.

Little Irritations Breed Big Satisfactions

Little irritations breed big satisfactions. Not long ago I noticed that the hinges of the bathroom door squeaked when the door opened or closed. This was not a problem during the day. In the middle of the night, I always forgot about the squeak and when I heard it, I was certain it would awaken everyone in the house. Today I sprayed some WD40 on the hinges and the squeaking is gone.

The kids’ backpacks and jackets were scattered all over the living room, mainly because there was no good place to put them. Kelly found some hooks and I installed them and now the jackets and backpacks can be hung up out of the way. Can be. That doesn’t mean will be, but it was satisfying to know there was a solution in place.

Given how little I watch TV, it irritates me to see cables dangling from behind the screens. On a TV I’d mounted in the family room downstairs, the cable box hung down from behind the TV like a vine because there was no good place to put it. It finally irritated me enough. I duct-taped it to the back of the TV. The next day, the box was dangling again. This time, I duct-taped it to the frame of the mount itself, and did it in such a way that I’m certain it won’t come down any time soon. Now, when I go into the family room, I’m satisfied that no cables are dangling. I just pretend not know know what the jumble of cables and duct tape behind the TV screen looks like.

The flapper in the powder room was worn. In the middle of the night, I’d heard the water turn on and fill the bowl back to level after enough had drained through the flapper. Everything sounds louder in the middle of the night. I went to the hardware store and picked up a replacement flapper and replaced it, and I’m no longer awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of running water.

I was thinking about these little irritations and the big satisfactions I get from them because of something that happened the other day. Kelly and I tend to be modest gift-givers to each other for birthdays and holidays. We take the family on two vacations each year and that seems to be gift enough for both of us. Occasionally, however, there will be something too good to pass up. After some careful research (read: a quick Google search), I announced to Kelly that I’d bought us a Christmas present.

Kelly looked at me with trepidation in her eyes. “What is it?” she said.

“A replacement silverware basket for the dishwasher,” I told her.

“Oh, that is a good present,” she said, both relieved and, I assume, mildly satisfied. The GE dishwasher that came with the new house had a silverware basket that had numerous holes in the bottom. Knives and forks were alway slipping through and either falling into the bottom of the dishwasher, or getting caught so that it made it difficult to pull out or push in the lower tray.

The tray should arrive in the next couple of days and it will be satisfying to have a silverware tray through which no silverware can slip.

The satisfaction I get from correcting these small irritations is out of all proportion to the irritation itself. I think it is because so many things in the world are so difficult to fix, that I take inordinate pleasure at fixing something, no matter how small. I can’t prevent all the bathroom doors in the world from squeaking, but I can prevent my bathroom door from doing so. Now, when I find myself with a thorny problem to solve the solution of which eludes me, I take stroll around the house, looking for little things that irritate me in the hope of finding something that I can fix.

(Not) Getting Things Done

There is so much to do, I hardly know where to begin. Life these days has become so interrupt-driven that I desperately try to recall what life was like when I was a kid in the late 70s, when the only thing there was to interrupt you was the telephone or the doorbell. Not only is it virtually impossible to finish something I start without interruption (I can’t remember the last time I made it through a 20 minute sit-com without stopping), there is no longer a straight line between two tasks. There are roadblocks and detours all the way.

Take this weekend for example. I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn, his Pulitzer prize-winning book about the war in North Africa from 1942-1943. There was a passage in there in which Roosevelt, hinting at where he would be making a clandestine trip to, showed a group of friends a new film called Casablanca. I scratched a note to myself to watch that movie again. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it and I’ve mostly forgotten it.

There was lots happening on Saturday. Two basketball games (one for the Little Miss and one for the Little Man) as well as a surprise party to attend in the evening. At some point, when I had five minutes, I started to look to see if Casablanca was playing on any of the streaming services we subscribe to. That led me, somehow, to The Dick Van Dyke show, and I was reminded that we never finished watching the last season and a half or so. I decided I wanted to finish that, and made a note of it.

My search took me back to the Apple store, and there I saw that Rambo: Last Blood was out. I’d seen the first movie years ago, but never any of the others. I was curious, but it seemed silly to jump and watch the fifth movie when I’d barely seen the previous four. It turned out, however, that there was a special on the 5-pack and it was ridiculously cheap, so I bought it. I set about watching the first several movies, always fragmented. I never watched one straight through. On Sunday, I watched the last two. I was, of course, no closer to Casablanca.

Atkinson’s book reminded me that I wanted to re-read Andy Rooney’s My War. I read it when it first came out, and I thought it was a great memoir of the war years as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. A few years ago, I read Timothy M. Gay’s Assignment to Hell which was about many of the WW-II reporters, Rooney included. So I decided to start reading it, and put Casablanca on the back-burner. At this rate I’ll be lucky if I ever manage to see the movie again.

My desk is cluttered with pages of lists torn from a yellow legal pad. One list one do it these days. I have a list for things to do today, a list of things I need to get done for a work project, a list of things to do around the house. I wanted to go to the store today to get some WD-40 because the bathroom door has been squeaking. But it rained much of the day and I decided I would squeeze in some extra walking before it became too rainy to go outside. I never did get the WD-40 and the door is still squeaking.

There are all kinds of systems that purport to tell you how to better manage your time. I’ve tried many of them, and am suspect of all of them. Instead of getting things done, I am learning systems. I’ve come to the conclusion that feeling busy is not the same as being busy. I am busy at this moment, as I write this. I am busy writing. Feeling busy is the sense of utter chaos at everything you have to do, coupled with the knowledge that it is hopeless. There’s no way you’ll get it all done.

I managed to write this entire post without interruption. That’s not saying much, since I was supposed to be cleaning off my desk so that it wouldn’t be so cluttered when I start work in the morning. That’s okay. I’ll clear off my desk in the morning, in order to avoid some other task that I should be doing instead.

All I Want for Christmas Is To Be A Syndicated Columnist

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I’ve been daydreaming. When I daydream–something that occurs with increasing frequency these days–I often find myself having imaginary conversations with people. Sometimes these are people I know, and other times they are constructs, like characters in a story, that allow the conversation to progress the way I want it to. Recently, in on one of these daydreams, someone asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” Without hesitating I replied, “All I want for Christmas is to be a syndicated columnist.” Perhaps the most telling piece is that, while the conversation was imagined, I spoke those words aloud.

When I grow up, I want to be a syndicated columnist. I love to write, and I need to make a living, and it seems there should be some way to combine those. Of course, I’d need something to write about, and then there’s the matter of people to read what I write. These are details, of course, but perhaps we should consider them.

What would I write about? Given that I have been heavily influenced by the writers like E. B. White and Andy Rooney, it seems like some kind of hybrid would be in order. I am not as much the farmer as E. B. was, and I am not as cynical (usually, anyway) as Andy Rooney was. So perhaps something in between. White wrote a monthly column for Harper’s from 1938-1943 or thereabout. I could write a monthly column. Andy Rooney had a column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers 3 times a week, I think. And of course he had his 3 minutes at the end of 60 Minutes. (Whenever Rooney was on vacation I called the show 57 Minutes). I think my syndicated column should be somewhere between three times a week, and once a month.

Both Andys (White went by the name “Andy” to some of his friends) wrote about ordinary, everyday events, but in their own distinct ways. Indeed, Andy the Second was heavily influenced by Andy the First, and if you don’t believe me, spend time reading some of their stuff. I can probably write about ordinary, everyday events. Occasionally, each of the Andys would write something more controversial. I could probably manage that from time-to-time as well. Indeed, it would be a great way to generate letters, and I’d finally have more than one correspondent to whom I could write real letters.

I imagine there are qualifications one needs to meet to become a syndicated columnist. First and foremost, one must be able to write, and preferably (though not a showstopper based on some columns I have read) write well. I don’t have many talents, but I’ve never had a problem putting words down on paper.

It would probably help if the writing is entertaining in some way. If readers respond to the writing in a positive way that is always a good thing. It also helps sell advertising. I like to think that my writing is entertaining, but who am I to judge.

I suppose it is a plus if a columnist is a journalist, or has some background in journalism. My degree was in political science and journalism, although really my degree was in learning how to learn. An editor would probably want some kind of c.v. for a prospective columnist. You know, have you ever done anything like this before? My c.v., humble as it is would read something like:

  • Wrote a monthly review column for a science fiction magazine.
  • Wrote a technology column for The Daily Beast.
  • Have written a blog since 2005 with 6,468 posts (including this one). Some people even like what I write and occasionally tell me so.

It occurs to me that the kind of column I would like to write is more or less the some kind of thing I write here. How would I pitch that to an editor? In my daydreams (there I go again) I picture that scene in Seinfeld, when Jerry and George pitch their pilot to NBC and when asked what the show is about, George tells them it’s a show about nothing. Well, my column wouldn’t be about nothing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the stuff that sells newspapers.

I think this blog may be the closest I come to writing a syndicated column, and I guess I should be thankful for what I have. The editor and I see eye-to-eye. No one has ever pushed a deadline on me, or told me I couldn’t say that because it would scare off half the readers (or worse, the advertisers). I have no advertisers to answer to. Really, when I think about it, the only difference between this blog and a syndicated column is maybe a few million readers, and a paycheck.

It’s disappointing, really. It means that the next time I go out walking and start to daydream, and some faceless construct asks me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I’ll have to come up with something else. Maybe a salt farm in Maine?

A Football House or a Baseball House?

Me, on the field at Yankee Stadium in 2012.

Do you come from a football house, or a baseball house? Some probably come from neither. I come from a hybrid, but I quickly found my way to baseball, which is the superior of the two. I have very early memories of baseball. I remember watching parts of the 1978 World Series in our family room. The Yankees won the Series, and I was happy because I was a Yankee fan. I remember drives out to Shea stadium to take in a Mets game, and knew from the start the Mets were a second-division team. What, but a second-rate team would build a stadium under the flight path of a major airport, so that games would have to be paused each time a 727 and L-1011 flew by?

Football was also popular in our house growing up, although I think it was more popular with my Dad than with my Mom. I remember going to a college game at Rutgers. I also attended several New England Patriots games in the early 1980s. I was unimpressed with football from the start. In one of those Patriots games, I seem to recall the goal post in one end zone falling down. How could any respectable football team allow that to happen. My Dad is a Giants fan, and I suppose I would be a Giants fan, too, if I enjoyed football. Interestingly, I don’t ever recall going to a New York Football Giants game at Giant Stadium in New Jersey.

Growing up, I played organized baseball, but disorganized football. I played the former in a league, and the latter with friends in the street, or in a field, typically with a Nerf football. Time was defined by baseball. Spring meant a new baseball season, and fall meant baseball playoffs. Football, on the other hand, always seemed to intrude on life. I grew to hate football in the mid-1980s when, while living in Los Angeles, Monday Night Football often pre-empted episodes of MacGyver. Decades later, when I had season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles (mostly to catch Yankees games), I began to loathe the August games because the scoreboard and sound system would report the current football scores during the 7th inning stretch. Hey, if you want football scores, go to a football game why don’t you?

My relationship with baseball reached its low point in 1986 when the New York Mets won the World Series. I suppose I wasn’t as disappointed as Red Sox fans were.

Thinking back, football and baseball weren’t the only two sports my family watched, although I think they were the preferred sports. I seem to recall a lot of basketball games on the television. Watching basketball seems boring to me, except for the last few minutes of the game. I suppose people think the same thing of baseball. My Dad watched hockey games, but I think he was the only one. I tried, but I could never follow what was happening on ice, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that basketball, soccer, and hockey are all variants of Lacrosse. I have John McPhee to thank for that.

There must have been some kind of sports hierarchy in our house because if baseball or football or basketball or hockey wasn’t on the TV, then golf was, although I hesitate to call golf a sport. Golf is a mystery to me. I had a golf lessons for my 16th birthday, but I don’t think they helped to reveal the mystery to me. My Mom is a very good golfer. My Dad is a very good golf-watcher. The last time I played golf with him, he got fed up halfway though, and stormed off to the clubhouse, swearing he’d never play again. He left his wallet in the golf bag which he had, just then, willed to my brother.

He did play again.

If golf was not on television, then it was tennis. Tennis was even worse on television than golf. At least with golf there was scenery. Tennis is nothing more than watching two people hit a ball back and forth. And while I am sure there is some valued tradition behind it, tennis has the most ludicrous way to keep score of any sport I know. Keeping score should be simple. In baseball, each time someone crossed home plate safely, it adds one run to the score. Soccer and hockey are also simple. Football and basketball are more complex because different actions have different score values: a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3, a safety is two, etc. Tennis’s scoring system is baroque. Why is no score called “love”? Why do you get 15 points each the first two times you score, but only 10 on the third time?

Boxing was on TV in our house now and then, but rarely any of the so-called “good” fights because those required Pay-Per-View and we didn’t have Pay-Per-View. I had no interest in boxing whatsoever when I was a kid. I had no interest in it as an adult either, at least until I read The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling a few years ago. After that, I decided that if I could go back into time and take in some of the small club fights in the 1950s, I’d do it.

When all else failed, there was horse-racing. I’ve watched a few horse races over the years, and the two minutes during which the race is taking place is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in sports. If the television broadcast started at the bell and ended when the horses crossed the finish line, I might consider horse-racing among my favorite sports. Unfortunately, the broadcasts last forever, and that spoils the entire event.

Many people consider this time of year to be football season. Growing up in a hybrid household as I did, my brother, my Dad, and possibly my Mom consider it so. But really, it’s just baseball’s “off-season” where all kinds of interesting things are happening. You could read about it in agate type in the sports pages, if the sports pages still printed the transactions in agate type, or any type for that matter. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

My Busy-ness Number

There ought to be a measurement, like the temperature, that we can use to easily indicate to family, friends, and colleagues how busy we are. It would be nice to be able to say, “Sorry, I can’t meet for lunch, my busy-ness number is at 8 today.” There are all kinds of tools and gadgets that try to measure this. You can look at a calendar for instance, to get s sense of busy-ness. Last month, our family calendar (not counting work-related events) looked like this:

Family calendar

There are other measurements, too, I’m sure, but none give a good sense of immediacy. How busy am I right now? That’s what I want to know.

It was sunny when I went for my morning walk, early today. The sun was right on the horizon as I walked east. When I went for my afternoon walk, the sky was completely overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It got me thinking. Back when I was flying, I remember studying weather and there were different meanings for cloud cover. The clouds could obscure none of the sky, a quarter, of the sky, half of the sky, etc. It was a good, simple measurement that reflected reality in an accurate and useful way.

Upon arriving home, I returned to my office and looked at my desk. Ever since moving to the new house, I’ve had the fortune of having the u-shape I have always wanted for my working area.

My u-shaped desk

What I noticed about my desk, was that it was like the overcast clouds that had rolled in: much of it seemed to be covered, and in disarray. I tend to turn to the desk to my left to write things down, open books, read magazines, etc. but that part of my desk is hopeless at the moment. It is covered in to-do lists scribble on legal paper, with piles of books, and magazines and Post-Its and other stuff.

Desk in disarray

Whenever my desk is like this, I am usually overwhelmed. I start making lists. I begin to wonder if the critical things that I am working on are more important than clearing up some surface area. That’s when it occurred to me that I have the perfect measurement to gauge my own level of busy-ness: desk-coverage.

It works like cloud coverage and is measured in eighths. A completely empty surface is a “clear” desk and a sign that I’ve got some time on my hands. Next, there is 1/8th coverage, then 1/4, then 1/2. You get the idea. Between 1/4 and 1/2 might be called “partly covered,” and 5/8-7/8 would be “mostly covered.” 8/8th would be “overcast.” The closer to overcast I am, the busier I am. I’d estimate that right now, I’m somewhere between 3/4 – 7/8th covered, which puts me in the “mostly covered” category.

I think that from now on, when someone asks me for some of my time, I’m going to look at my desk, and say, “Sorry, can’t do it. my desk is partly covered today, but the forecast is calling for overcast tomorrow.”

My Menagerie: A Catalog

E. B. White is a hero of mine. I love his writing, sure, but he did what few people manage to do, and lived to tell about it: he left the city behind for a salt water farm the country. I’ve lived my entire life in or near big cities and the older I get the more I want to escape the city for the country. It seems about as likely as setting foot on the moon. Instead, I do the next best thing: I make do with what I’ve got.

We moved into our new house six months ago today. The house backs up to a large park, a good portion of which is woodland. Over the last six months, as I take my daily walks around the park, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, and my Field Notes notebook at the ready, slowly cataloging the wildlife I’ve encountered. I may not live on a salt water farm with pigs and sheep and cows and chickens and geese and fox and raccoons. But here’s what I’ve found in my neck of the woods, so to speak:

  • 7 deer. There used to be five, and I’ve noticed two of them are smaller than the others, one of them spotted like Bambi. There is at least one buck among them. I’ve identified a few of their favorite haunts. On summer evenings, when the sun is low, they particularly like what passes for a “pasture” beside the sub-station on the east end of the park. But I have also seen them by the playground, hopping a fence in precession to nibble at grass in a backyard.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
  • 6 ducks. A morning walk doesn’t feel right if I don’t see my ducks paddling in the stream. I call them my ducks, but they hardly notice me. Today I noticed that only four of them were out, but it was late and I suspect the younger ones were home, keeping warm. These are smaller ducks than some. At another park, I’ve seen some huge ducks, which I described to a friend as looking “delicious.” I usually encounter my ducks in the stream alongside the ballfields.
A few of "my" ducks.
A few of “my” ducks.
  • Rabbits. It seems Bugs and his friends are everywhere during the summer, not just in the woods, but in our lawn, the neighbors lawns, and across the street, too. Now that it is cold, and the trees are bare, they haven’t been around, and I forgot about them, until one ran across my path in the park this evening. It was nearly dark, but its white tail stood out clearly as it bounded across the path.
  • Squirrels. These are everywhere. You can’t look at a tree or into the shrubs without seeing squirrels. There are two varieties, I think: a typically gray one, and one that looks almost black. They frequently chase each other around, and I can never tell if it is a mating ritual, or if they are playing, or fighting. Incidentally, I refer to all squirrels by their given name, Max. My grandfather fed nuts to several generations of squirrels and called them all Max. Max would come into my Grandfather’s house to get the nuts, and occasionally eat out of his hand. I think they taught this to their young. Squirrels typically live 15-18 years, but it seems to me my Grandfather was feeding them for twice that time.
  • Chipmunks. Not as numerous as squirrels–and much better looking, if you ask me. They seem like they’d make great pets when I watch them scamper around the park. But I could never have a chipmunk as a pet–I couldn’t get used to their high-pitched singing.
  • Fish. On bright days when the stream is calm and clear, there are fish in there. Many of them are very tiny, almost hard to see, but quite a few of them are several inches–I’ve estimated as much as 6-inches long. I jotted down a description of one and then proceeded to find a match, and what I came up with was a sunfish. They must hibernate because I haven’t seen any since the weather turned cold.
  • Fox. Singular. A week or two ago I was walking through part of the part in which a frisbee golf course is set into the woods and watched in amazement as a red fox ran down the long hill, across the bike path about fifty yards in front of me, and back into the woods that lead down to the stream. It is the only fox I have ever seen, and the only time I’ve ever seen it.
  • Snakes. Two of them. I noticed the first one day while looking for fish. At first, it looked like a stick was making its way upstream–against the current. Then it paused by the bank of the stream, its head soaking in the sun. I suspect it had seen some prey and was waiting to make its move. The second one I noticed when the jogger who was about to pass me stopped suddenly. I wondered when, and when I turned to her, she pointed ahead and said, “Suh-suh-snake!” Sure enough, about ten feet ahead on the bike path, a two-foot long snake slithered across the pavement and into the grass. I had walked closer to get a better look. When it disappeared, I turned to the jogger and said, “Coast is clear!” She gave me a wan smile, looked at her FitBit, and replied, “I think I’ve gone far enough today.” She turned and headed back the way she came.

There are all manner of birds, but I am about as bad at identifying birds as I am good at identifying airplanes. I am envious of people who can identify a bird by their call, though I secretly believe they are making it up half the time. I’m quite certain there are two birds I have seen, and one that I have heard. I’ve seen cardinals and robins. And I’ve heard woodpeckers. Usually on a weekend morning. Around six a.m.

And aside from the usual cadre of insects, I’ve seen one, and only one, enormous June bug that crashed into our screen door, while I saw out on the deck one summer evening. It is the 747 of the insect world.

No, no salt water farm, but it’ll have to do for now. We get some variety for a few weeks each year when we head down to Florida. The birds there are more exotic, and there are lizards everywhere. And occasionally, we catch sight of an alligator, although more often than not, we hear the alligator as it crunches the bones of some poor bird in the middle of the night.

“Giving Tuesday” Morning Quarterback

Graduates of my alma mater must, be far more successful than I am. At least, I assume this is so from the 4 emails I got from my former college yesterday asking for money. These were not messages asking for $5, $10, or even $50 donation. These were bold requests. One message told me that two alumni (class of ’70 and ’88) pledged $7,500, inferring that perhaps I should follow their example. Of course, if that seemed too steep, another message told me that by making a gift of $2,000 or more I could get some exclusive swag. I suppose “gift” sounds better than “donation.” It seems to me that $2,000 I have today is better invested now, so that when my own kids head off to college, the money will (hopefully) pay for one semester’s worth of text books.

I have given money to my alma mater in the past, before I had kids, but they have to know what it costs to raise a family these days. A university’s development office probably has good metrics on what people give based on all kinds of criteria. This is what puzzles me about my alma mater‘s messages: are their graduates so successful that a $7,500 donation (or a $2,000 gift) is a drop in the hat? Then, too, with what a college education costs these days, it isn’t clear to me why a university needs funding above and beyond what they get from tuition. Of course, there is always a need for more money, but I haven’t seen this explained well by the universities. No one I know has put out a “giving guide” with the line, “With the high cost of tuitions, why are donations necessary?” and then gone on to give a reasonable explanation. I wonder how many people donating $2,000 are still saddled with student loan debt?

My alma mater was not the only institution requesting donations from me yesterday. It was “Giving Tuesday” so everyone had their hand out. I had requests from hospitals, museums, shelters, and my kids’ soccer league. It seems poor planning that “Giving Tuesday” comes right on the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For one thing, everyone is asking for money all at once, so they are competing against one another. For another, who has the money to spend after those holiday weekend shopping sprees? Perhaps integrating the giving with the shopping deals would be a better approach: “Get 25% off all purchases, and we’ll donate 5% of the proceed to _____.” People would complain about this because the business, not the consumer, would get the tax write-off. Charity should not be about tax write-offs. Then, too, some families look closely at how much we can give and where we want to make those donations as part of our annual household budgeting. By the time Giving Tuesday comes around, all of those funds have already been earmarked or donated.

Many charitable organizations offer various incentives for donations. I wish they didn’t. Or at least, I wish they didn’t have to. I made a donation to one charity a few months back because they sent me some address labels. I felt bad that they had spent the money on the address labels, but it turned out that I needed new address labels since we moved into the new house. My donation put me on a list of people who responded with cash and now it seems that every other week I received more labels from them. I wish they’d spend the money I gave them on things other than labels.

One offer from my alma mater gave me the opportunity to have my name engraved on a brick on a new building they were constructing with the donated funds. I believe that charity should be mostly anonymous. People should donate out of a sense of charity, not to advertise their generosity. This phenomenon reaches the peak of absurdity at fund-raising events for my kids’ school, which seem to be arranged so that parents openly compete with one another one-upping their “generosity.” That’s not what charity is about. Whenever possible, I make my donations anonymously.

I’m always impressed when I read about multi-million dollar donations made by an anonymous donor, but always disappointed that the recipient doesn’t name the building constructed with the funds the “Anon Library and Study Hall.”

More and more, I’ve noticed that charitable institutions use tactics similar to what hackers use to get information from people–what is sometimes referred to as social engineering. They creation a false sense of urgency by limiting the time you have to make a contribution (“We want to meet our goal of raising $25,000 on Giving Tuesday”), and raising the stakes. Almost no one is better at this than local public television and radio. I’m not much of a television watcher, and I listen to the radio not at all, but I must get a dozen letters a year from our local public television and radio each of which is a desperate plea for funds, and each of which carries the dire warning that the television/radio cannot survive much longer without these funds. While I don’t make use of their services, I know of their value to the community. Still, I’m skeptical. I have been getting these letters for seventeen years now, each one a dire plea for survival, and yet, 17 years later, the broadcasts continue.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that a person forms such a strong bond to their alma mater that, decades later, they are still willing to donate money to them. I got a good education from my school, but it was four years of my life, and I paid for it already. In full. With some interest. Isn’t that enough?

Morning Routines

After six months in the new house, I have finally settled into my morning routines. I use the plural because my routines vary by day of the week. I know this is something of an oxymoron. Routines are supposed to be consistent, and yet this is the world I live in and I have learned to adapt.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday share the same morning routine. Tuesdays and Thursdays share a different routine. Tuesdays have on added element missing from all other days. The reason for the variation is that Kelly takes the kids to school and picks them up from school on Mondays, Wednesday, and every other Friday. I take Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the Fridays in-between.

Regardless of the weekday, I am usually up by 6 am. I spend the next 40 (Tuesdays, Thursdays, every other Friday) minutes to sixty minutes (Mondays, Wednesdays, etc.) reading the news. I read three papers. I start with the New York Times because it has the best obituaries and the obituaries is where I begin my day. It sounds gloomy, but I enjoy the mini-biographies, and often find the full lives described within them an inspiring way to start the day. Occasionally, I’m caught off-guard by who appears there.

I also read the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. I skim the headlines, and usually tackle features and profiles, then the columns. I look for guest editorials. I sometimes read the letters to the editor to see what people are complaining about. I do this in all three papers, and after an hour or so, I generally feel like I have a good sense of what is going on in the world.

If it’s my day, I get the kids up, make them breakfast, and get them ready for school. We are out the door at 7:30 am, and I’m back home 10 minutes later. Then I go for my morning walk. Our house backs up to a park, and I walk two miles each morning. I walk regardless of heat or cold. Drizzle and light snow won’t stop me. Only pouring rain keeps me indoors. I listen to whatever audiobook I happen to be reading while I walk.

Back home I make myself breakfast, usually scrambled eggs, or oatmeal. I read a magazine article while I eat breakfast. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and I’ve found that the only way I can reasonably keep up is to read one feature article a day. I cross the article off in the table of contents when I finish reading it so I know what I’ve read. When all of the features of a given magazine are crossed off, it goes in the recycling bin.

With breakfast finished, I turn to my work computer, sign in, and begin my workday. I mostly work from home these days and so I can skip the commute, which saves an enormous amount of time.

What got me thinking about my morning routines was the exception to the rule. Tuesday mornings are different than all other mornings. There is one added feature to my Tuesday mornings. When I wake up, I don’t check the obits first thing. Instead, I go to Audible and see what the new releases for the week are. I can spend 30 minutes sifting through the hundreds of audiobooks released to see if there are any gems that need to be added to my wishlist.

I don’t know how it was decided that Tuesdays would be the day to release new books. It seems like a strange day to do it. Maybe the distributors needed Monday to deliver the books to bookstores. With so many books sold online and in digital formats these days, it seems like a new book could be released any day of the week. But I shouldn’t complain. Publishers and distributors have their routines, just like I do, and who am I to disturb them.

Incidentally, I am usually less well-informed about the world on Tuesday mornings because I have to rush through the news after spending so much time seeing what new books have been released. But I still still read the obits.

And if you are curious, this morning’s article was “Escape from a Black Hole” by Steven B. Giddings in the December 2019 issue of Scientific American.

Restless Reading

Few things are as frustrating as not being able to fall asleep when I am tired. I toss and turn. I get up and walk around. I lay down again. I drink some milk. I debate whether or not I should take a Tylenol PM. I worry over the time, 5 hours left, now 4 hours. At some point, I am certain that sleep will never come, not just tonight, but never again. I daydream about the good sleeps I recall. I marvel at how my three year-old can sleep so quickly and soundly. No, I will never sleep again. Of course, I do sleep again, but those nights when sleep won’t come seem endless. There is almost nothing as frustrating. Almost.

One thing more frustrating than sleepless nights are days when I can’t figure out what to read next. There are similarities between sleepless nights and what I call restless reading. I start a book that I think I will like. Almost at once I can tell there is a problem. One common symptom is that I am already thinking about what I want to read next. Other symptoms include browsing my bookshelf, or skimming my Audible library for alternatives. Generally speaking, what I am reading doesn’t fit the mood of what I want to be reading.

This is never so frustrating as when I manage to dig deep into a long book, hopeful for its promise, but increasingly nervous that it isn’t going to work out between us. This is what has happened today, when I made the rare decision to give up on a book that I had managed to read more than half of. I started reading Eye of the World by Robert Jordan while in New York this past weekend. The series is so big and vast, that I’ve been fascinated by what kind of story it could tell. I stuck with it, although I could feel my disappointment growing. Finally, this morning, after having made it more than halfway through the book, I set it aside and looked for something else.

I don’t track the books I don’t finish reading. To make it onto my reading list, I have to finish the book. But I do have a pretty good memory of what I have tried and failed to finish. Recently, list includes:

  • Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
  • The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert MacFarlane
  • Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds
  • The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

Rarely do I give up because the book is bad. More often, it is a bad fit for what I am craving at the moment. Right now, I am not craving fiction, and it was silly for me to try Jordan’s series at a time when I know I am not craving fiction. While reading the book, though, I found it slow. I kept thinking to myself, I could re-read The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear and have a better time.

Usually, I can identify the symptoms quicker than this, often within the first few pages, or maybe a chapter or two. That leads to a struggle of its own. I can spend hours, sometime days, unable to find something that clicks with me. I scour my physical bookshelves, my e-books, and my audiobooks. I browse my wishlists. Like those nights when it seems like sleep will never come, it seems like I will never find another book that wows me, pulls me in, and from which I don’t want to leave.

There is no cure for sleepless nights, and there is no cure for restless reading. Unlike sleepless nights, however, there are mildly effective measure I take when I fumble for what to read next. I return to my reliables. Right now, where my mind is at, those reliables consist of books by Andy Rooney and E. B. White. Though I’ve read them before, they calm my mind, and allow me to read without struggle.

I know I will eventually get through this period of restless reading. In the midst of it, it seems like it will never end, and I’ve learned that I just have to be patient and hang on. Fortunately, E. B. White has made this a bit easier for me, and Andy Rooney has made me smile through my despair.