Saturday, September 27, 2014

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,

—It Won’t Be the First Time
In discussing the proposals to battle the effects of global warming, specifically ambitious carbon reduction, Thomas Donohoe, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, “There is no way this can be done without fundamentally changing the American way of life.”

Now there is no way to know what aspects of the American way of life he was referring to; the ongoing effort to eliminate the middle class, our fascination with guns, our propensity towards violence as a first line of defense for matters big and small, our love affair with mediocre T.V. and lots of it, our dependency on fast food, our refusal to avoid HOV lanes at all cost, or our determination to live in the past even when we know the past wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

My guess is it is the last one. We continue to think, as Jerry Lee Lewis expressed so aptly a half century ago—Has it been that long?—that we Americans really “have the bull by the horn-a.”

Has fundamentally changing a way of life ever been a good thing?

The obvious answer is ah…well…ah yes, yes it has—especially when that fundamental way of life doesn’t seem to be working.

Living in filth during the Black Plague seemed like the only way to go until someone got the bright idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness. It took a while because Europe was a pretty big cesspool but in time and with a great deal of effort and expense, Europe cleaned up its act and eliminated a deadly disease in the process. And when it was over, the only question being asked was, what the hell took us so long.

Of course, the answer to that question was that for a long time not everyone was walking around in the filth but when they learned that you didn’t have to actually walk around in the filth to be affected by it, fundamental changes occurred and plagues, for the most part, now only turn up in children’s nursery rhymes.

But you can go back even further, right to the beginning in fact. There was a time, and people tend to forget this, but there was a time when men lived in caves. Not only did he live in caves but he was damn happy to be doing so. He had his fire going, a bed of straw, a coat of fur, and a stack of rocks to keep the neighbors out of his yards.

Then someone came up with the bright idea that they could do better and the natural response was, “What, better than this?”

That was a cave man trying to hold on to his fundamental way of life. That was a caveman flat out rejecting the idea that while bear coats might be appropriate for everyday wear, deerskins might be better for formal events.

The world that has been continually changing from day one. And no faction of society has successfully been able to apply the brakes to change. So again the question becomes, why do we still fear it?

The answer is no one really fears change. But some people have a stake in avoiding it.

So the next time someone—someone in the oil business, say, makes the argument—yes, we could go to wind power and solar power, and it would be cleaner, but do we really want to turn our backs on dirty coal?

You tell him not to let the windmill blade hit him on the way out of the 20th century. And remind him that today’s fundamental way of life is yesterday’s old news and today’s new ideas will be tomorrow’s fundamental way of life—but not forever.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Writing will improve when readers demand it. Reading will improve when there's something worth reading.

A recent article entitled, “SOL SCORE STAGNATION” highlighted the fact that
reading and writing scores are down. State officials point out that like math scores, which were once also down but are now on the rise, reading and writing scores will also rise once students become more comfortable with the tests. Interesting. They do not say that reading and writing will become better—only that scores will get better.

I garnered this information from my Thursday edition of the Virginian-Pilot but the vast majority of people getting this news will pull the story off the Internet. There, they will be free to go immediately to the comment section and read what anonymous people everywhere were saying about the story; and by the fifth or sixth comment also discover what these anonymous people were saying about everything and anything else under the sun while breaking every imaginable grammar rule in the book—assuming there still are grammar books.

They can then Tweet and text their friends about the article. The good news is no one will be grading those.

Reading and writing scores are down because reading and writing serve no purpose in the modern world—at least not reading and writing the way it used to be. Today, words are out, punctuation is out, complete sentences are out, and coherent ideas are out.

LOL, !!!!!, & :'(  (for crying out loud) are in.

For the past year, I have been transcribing letters between my father, when he was a POW in Germany and my mother, a WAVE serving in Pensacola, Florida. Their engagement, like those of most of their friends from that era, was carried on through the mail. These letters help to point out the stark differences between then and now. They also say something about reading and writing.

Most importantly, I can hold these letters, which are over 70 years old in my hand just as my parents did when they sent and received them. Most of the millions of Tweets and comments that have been posted online over just the short time I have been writing this have already been forgotten and been moved down the page—never to be seen again, replaced by even less important and equally forgettable stuff.

My father was captured in Sicily on July 22, 1943. She continued writing even though her letters were being returned, “addressee missing in action.”  He continued to write not knowing if his letters were even being received. Finally, on February 4, 1944 he receive his first letter from home. He responded immediately, “Finally received a letter from home. You can imagine what it meant to me.”

Waiting for something makes it more important. Knowing that someone else is waiting for your response makes what you say and how you say it even more important.

Today, if something is posted on Facebook and doesn’t receive a “Like” within a reasonable amount of time—usually a few hours—the poster wants to know what happened. With so many words going out to so many people so many times on so many subject, the obvious question becomes, “How can any of it be important?”

The answer is, it isn’t.

And neither are the writing skills that go into texting and Tweeting. Once you become used to reading misspelled words and miss-punctuated sentences, not to mention sentences that don’t even make sense to begin with, it’s not long before reading skills also go out the window.

In today’s world, speed is of the essence. That and ease—easy to write, easy to read. If it isn’t easy and it isn’t fast, then it isn’t getting done. In today’s world of low reading and writing scores, nobody is going to wait almost a year for a response. Who has that kind of time?

Lest a young reader think I’m just another disgruntled old dinosaur out of touch with the always changing times, I’d point out that when I was their age we had abbreviated, coded messages, too.

Whether as students away at college or soldiers in Vietnam, our correspondence often contained the cryptic message S.W.A.K. (sealed with a kiss) on the flap of the envelope. The only difference between then and now is that we also had a written letter inside that could be held in our hands and read. Some of us still have those letters.