Sunday, August 30

Love the one you're with

In 1970, Stephen Stills wrote "Love the One You're With." Reading the lyrics now, I've learned that I really didn't have all of the words right, which is no big surprise, but I'm struck by the probable message behind images like "a rose in the fisted glove and the eagle flies with the dove." Those of us old enough to remember Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young singing this song in 1971 were probably more interested in the implications of these lyrics: "and if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with."

I'm not sure why that song popped into my head when I learned that 48-year-old acquaintance dropped dead this afternoon of a heart attack while playing golf. He was in good shape and played golf often. Just goes to show you. . . . what?

This morning I got an email from a former student. I hear from her every now and then. She pops in with an email that she's sending to a bunch of people. Today's was about a woman who was coming to grips with the sudden loss of her spouse and the realization that there would be no more opportunities to do a lot of things.

All of this occurs with rather thundering impact in the wake of the death and burial of Senator Ted Kennedy with all of the hoopla and attention that garnered. At least Senator Kennedy's family had some time to prepare, as much as one really can prepare for a loved one's imminent death. At least they had the opportunity to say good-bye and try to express how much he meant to them. What am I supposed to be taking from this? I'm not sure exactly, but this is what I'm taking from it at this moment.

First, it is rare that we have preparation for that final moment. There is a reason philosophers and theologians advise us to live each day as though it is our last.

Second, I really have to take care of some personal business so as not to create additional problems for those left behind. Please note: I want to be cremated and it would be really cool if my ashes could be scattered from a hot air balloon but I'm pretty sure that couldn't happen; I want my stuff given to charity or sold and the funds given to charity and no one is to wear black at any memorial service anyone may bother to have for me.

Third, I need to be sure to tell people I care about that I care about them and what they mean to me. Last year I received an email with the title "Today is your day" from a friend of mine. She sent an email to me telling me why she appreciated me and was glad to be my friend. Apparently she was going through everyone she knew to share those things with them. How cool is that?

So while I'm not you should necessarily "love the one you're with" and probably not the way it was intended in those naughty 70s, I do think you should be sure to tell the one you're with and who is important to you why that person is important to you.

Tuesday, August 18

Is handwriting really dead?

If handwriting is dead, I missed the funeral. I read an article by Claire Suddath published in the August 3 issue of TIME in which she declared that we are "witnessing the death of handwriting" (p. 48). Before I got too far in the article, I did a quick Google search, as one tends to do when encountering something that triggers the skepticism-meter.

Suddath asserts that cursive "started to lose its clout back in the 1920s" which came as a surprise to me. But then she talked more about handwriting so it occurred to me that perhaps cursive is perhaps on life support, but the necessity of handwriting seems to have a different place. Suddath states that 1990 was the "year of the great alphabet change" and that her class was "one of the last to learn the loops and squibbles" (p. 48). Wow. I missed that, too. Back to Google.

I'm old enough to remember practicing the Palmer method using that newsprint with the light blue lines that carefully demarcated where loops and tops and bottoms of letters should be. We practiced both printing and cursive. I don't use cursive any more except for my signature; I didn't get on board with the cool scribble style so I still have to write out my whole name for certain things. My handwriting has evolved, perhaps devolved, to a smooshed cursive/printing style ages ago. Somewhat surprisingly, I get compliments on my handwriting. But it is legible and I think that's what Suddath is really trying to emphasize; it's not so much that handwriting is dead or dying, but that there is less emphasis on teaching children to write legibly.

Lots of folks point to technology as the culprit. After all, typing on a laptop or a smartphone or in IM means I don't have to write by hand. Students may be taking more standardized tests, especially in earlier grades. I can't imagine that to be true, but I can imagine that teachers would find it harder and harder to find time to help students practice their handwriting.

Suddath included a puzzling observation by Linda Garcia, an elementary teacher who had taught Ms. Suddath. Garcia worries that eventually students will not be able to read cursive and I have to assume it's because they won't recognize it. I'm not sure about that, though. But Suddath also includes a statement by 15-year-old Alex McCarter who is allowed to use a computer for standardized tests because his handwriting is so bad. He's planning to keep his handwriting bad in spite of his mother's attempts to help him improve his penmanship.

Okay, so let me get back to my Google searches on the new alphabet of 1990 and cursive's loss of clout. A 2006 Washington Post article by Margaret Webb Pressler doesn't confirm Suddath's assertion about the disintegration of the importance of cursive in the 1920s, but does confirm my thinking that teachers have found it harder to include handwriting instruction and/or practice in their teaching time. There were also two other interesting points.

First, Jim Mohr, a history professor at the University of Oregon, has found that students appreciate handwritten documents. "There's a kind of personal authenticity to individual writing that's hard to capture any other way."

Second, it may be that handwriting contributes to certain cognitive skills. "The neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is a highly sophisticated one" (¶ 16). Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University did a study with a group of first-graders who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. "The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex" (¶ 17).

Okay, so there is at least one good reason for kids to learn and to practice at least some fundamental handwriting skills. Legibility is probably not optional, though. As for the so-called great alphabet change, I did find a few scholarly articles on the shift in handwriting instruction, so that confirmed my impression that Suddath wasn't quite sure what she was talking about and just wanted to write a piece about penmanship and handwriting and had a certain number of space she had to fill (and how did she get away with stating that the poor penmanship of physicians results in "thousands of deaths a year" without offering an iota of support?). None of the articles made it seem like handwriting was dead or even in danger of imminent death. I did find a 1998 article about the important relationship between handwriting and cognitive skills, and a presentation that suggests that having kids learn basics of handwriting will make a difference with their fine motor skills.

So I don't think handwriting is dead. I'm not even sure it's mostly dead. Cursive might be, but I'm not going to mourn its passing. We may need Miracle Max to help change our perceptions about the importance of handwriting and we may need to work a bit harder to convince the digikids that writing has some value, but handwriting seems to be with us for a little while longer.

Wednesday, August 12

Economic indicators: Chocolate & cars

There were two articles in the August 7 edition of The Chicago Tribune that really caught my eye. The first one was a piece by Jonah Goldberg in which he discussed the economic virtues of the Cash for Clunkers program. I hadn't heard anything about this program until it was running out of money and people were discussing if Congress should throw another $2B at it.

What I learned is that buyers can get up to $4500 of taxpayer money for turning in a "clunker" to buy a more fuel efficient vehicle. The dealer has to complete a lot of paperwork for Uncle Sam and prove the clunker has been destroyed or rendered undriveable, and then Uncle Sam will, eventually, process the paperwork and reimburse the dealer. Well, you know that is going to happen with remarkable inefficiency. Federal government + paperwork = endless bureaucratic inefficiencies. I'd heard a piece on the radio--NPR, I think--in which auto recyclers were interviewed and they were more than a little miffed about having to euthanize perfectly good vehicles. The engine, apparently, is the most expensive part of the car. Dealers have to pour a silica mixture into the engine and run it until it seizes. That way there is no chance of any kind of skullduggery about recycling clunkers and trying to get an extra $4500 out of Uncle Sam for the same car. I get that, but I do have to wonder if the engines couldn't be rebuilt somehow to be more fuel efficient or if they couldn't serve some other purpose that practice for the car compactor guy.

Regardless of Mr. Goldberg's observations, and I do agree that I'm not sure there was a lot of thoughtful analysis of unintended consequences of the Cash for Clunkers program--like the fact that it would run when Ford was in its summer production hiatus which meant that Ford dealerships would have a hard time replenishing their car stock which seems a little counterproductive to me. I'm not alone in thinking the program falls a bit short. Natasha Bishop explains the program, and why it doesn't work and David Sanger of the New York Times offers considerable more insight than I.

Now let's talk about chocolate, which is the more important topic anyway. There was a lovely little chocolate shop called Ethel's Chocolate Lounge. As you walked into its lovely purple environment and inhaled the delirium-inducing scents of chocolate, then gazed into the cases at delightfully hand-painted truffles and tried not to drool on the glass, it was hard not to relax at least for a little while. I read that, alas, Mars had pulled the plug on Ethel's in the Chicago area, but then I read someone has opened a place called Anna Shea's in the Arboretum in South Barrington. Of course, it's South Barrington, which is a very posh neighborhood. But she's expanded the offerings to include coffee, gelato, fondue, and wines that go with chocolates. Well then, there was an Ethel's in Deer Park, which is fairly close to my house. But the Arboretum is only about 15 or 20 minutes from my house, which is also quite close. So I suppose I shall have to go visit. If only to inhale.