Life Near the Mississippi

…or Bumbling Ineptitude

Mark Twain did a remarkably clever thing when writing the memoirs of his youthful riverboating days, Life on the Mississippi, recapturing that long absent and nostalgic time when he was learning the multiplex and intimidating skills required of a riverboat pilot. The writer “invented” a “character,” the naïve and bumbling Sam, his younger self caught in the coils of his apprenticeship. (At least this character creation gimmick is what the critics frequently say.) Sam really is a goof, constantly missing the point of his pilot mastersʼ instruction, doing the wrong thing (almost inevitably), and suffering immense frustration at the overhwhelming quantity of learning being imposed on him. Sam is pretty comical, which is of course Twainʼs point, and the young manʼs scatterbrained ineptitude is good for plenty of laughs in the book. (And as I have myself demonstrated on this blog, it is the lot of younger selves to be mocked by their older versions in the good fulness of time.)

Actually, although I have read the book twice, my favorite and most familiar connection to the story is the John Deere-funded movie adaptation on public television from back in the early Eighties, which I showed annually to the American Literature and English III students as part of their Mark Twain units just before they began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The screenwriter did an incredible job of boiling down Twainʼs meandering and often disconnected recollections (with quite a few supervising pilots) to a straightforward story of the youthful Sam irritating his master Horace Bixby, originally just one of the many pilots from the book. And the actors, exceptionally well cast, did a wonderful job bringing the late 1850s and Twainʼs treasured recollections to life (which is the reason I liked to show it to the students, other than the fact that I love the movie — to permit them to visualize and perhaps even participate in that historical past).

Anything by Twain is highly recommended, Life on the Mississippi ranking very high among all the rest of his writing, right up there with Huckleberry Finn itself, the book Hemingway said was the original source of all American writing. But I bring up the character of Sam for a mostly nonliterary reason. Undergoing training as a novice, even at my doddering and hoary age, for my current job with USDA APHIS PPQ, I notice my behavior and incompentence mimicking the bumbling young Clemens. And I begin to wonder if a halting and frustrated inadequacy isnʼt the rightful and unfortunately necessary lot of trainees.

What the possibly semi-fictional Sam and I have in common is learning by doing on the job under the tutelage of experts who are not themselves teachers. Teachers get trained to be aware of the need to explain (and re-explain and even explain again in a whole different way) concepts and skills to their youthful charges. Workers assigned to train a newbie donʼt have that educational expertise, and so their explanations tend to be slight and even vague. As Mr. Bixby says, both in the book (I think) and the film, “I canʼt explain how, but someday youʼll just know the difference naturally.” That same point covers my training in the recognition of ash trees — a few details (like the tight diamondness of the bark, the opposite branching and not much else) and reassurances that with experience “youʼll just start to get it.”

Iʼm not complaining about the instruction I received, although I am fairly sure my supervisors and partners may have some complaints about my level of acumen and skill (just like the nebbish Sam). I simply recognize what I first experienced in literature being absolutely true in real life. Absolutely and sadly true.

And tomorrow my big boss from Des Moines is coming out to “ride with me.” I am sure thatʼll be an eye-opening experience for him…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Long Time No Post… Whatʼs Up?

Iʼve been a long time gone from Wakdjunkagaʼs Blog. However, plenty has been happening to keep me busy since I last posted.

Initially, over the last two days of last week, I worked my final two stints as a substitute teacher for this school year. I did history/social studies, and the kids were very good, generally cooperative and decently behaved. Even as I sat in class, however, my mind was racing elsewhere, because last week was the big build-up to the hideous and dreaded federal government shut-down. (Remember? It all seems so long ago now — at least to me.)

That partisan battle over the federal budget overdrafting had the whole nation (well, the less than thirty-five percent that pays attention to what we laughably call “the news”) on tenterhooks of suspense. Would we return in springtime to the Clintonian echoes of excess from two Januaries in the Nineties? Would steely-eyed tightwads of the Right or easily-caving Leftie liberals blink first? I lived the week (well, until Friday) under the impression that if no agreement were reached (at first by the end of business on Tuesday, later day by day and night by night) the government would with no budget cease operations on Friday. Pure hype, of course. Because Friday dawned with no agreement, and government went on as usual (albeit a bit more uncomfortably and uneasily than on other, more normal days), and the debate/discussion/negotiations dragged on through the whole day, until the President finally interrupted our midwestern nightly local news broadcasts, after 10:00 PM Friday, to announce an agreement had been made, a deal cut, and the government would remain open for, uh, business, if the Right can accept that term.

This affected me because this past Monday, after the weekend of the potential shutdown, I was to get myself to Des Moines to train as a trapper for USDA APHIS PPQ*** in its emerald ash borer program. The shutdown was of real interest because if the two sides couldnʼt reach an agreement and the government did close (all “nonessential” services), then I would not have any reason for The Lovely One to drive me halfway across our state on Saturday in order to stay overnight with me at the assigned hotel (on our own dime[s]) before hurrying herself back home on Sunday to be ready for the work week. On the other hand, if there was no shutdown, I had better have my sorry dexterior in Urbandale at the Iowa USDA APHIS PPQ*** offices fairly early Monday morning.

I arranged with my boss to check for a definite plan during my free time (educators, read “preparation period”) last Friday, which I did. He had ably worked out a solution to my dilemma, by simply asking my partner, who already had her GOV (“government owned vehicle,”* the reason I had to be left without a car was that, during training, I would receive my own GOV in which to head back to eastern Iowa), to drive a little out of her way to pick me up on Monday morning, thus saving me concern and worry and the government 51¢ a mile for Janetʼs wifely driving in our own POV.** Perfect.

And so, when there was no shutdown, I hopped into my partnerʼs vehicle early on Monday, and we arrived in time to train for three days before returning to my local part of the state to begin work already on Thursday.

Yep. I am fully employed again. Again (as with the Census a year ago) with the federal government (strange coincidence). And thatʼs why there has been no new post for so long. Until today. Expect more such gaps ahead (we are on a four-day work week, ten hours a day).

* More on governmental acronyms to come perhaps (because, boy, did I get reacquainted with FedGovJargonese all over again during training).

** “Personally owned vehicle,” in case the expansion is necessary.

*** Oh, yes, also, just to make sure (that I know what it means)  — USDA APHIS PPQ: “United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Plant Protection and Quarantine.”

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Visitations (or “Family Values”)

Some families are less outgoing than others…

Today the parents-in-law get their new computer and network installed. To ease their initiation into the digital etherspace, I promised that I would be present when the Geek Squad arrives this morning (sometime — the appointment is between 8:00 and noon) to help with questions or concerns the pair might have. And to get them actively online with at least one e-mail address and an awareness (I hope) of what a browser is.

Since retirement began, I have visited them on my own a couple of times, generally to help with something or to get their help (like acquiring their used lawn mower last spring). And those two are the only parents of any kind that I have on earth these days (fortunately, they’re the kind of spouse’s parents who accept their sons-in-law and daughter-in-law and actually seem like another set of parents). But it’s still kind of odd visiting with one’s in-laws, no matter how much the mutual appreciation. For instance, I adore Janet’s sister, Diane, but when she visits I do realize that the two women spend long, unwearying hours together while I generally read or something for parts of the weekend, leaving them on their own, sometimes for hours.

That was not my pattern last weekend when my sister, Margaret, came to visit. She and I were talking (not as nonstop as Janet and Diane, but then our family is far from as social as theirs) from Friday afternoon until noon on Sunday. And although Janet made herself much more present than I tend to do (notice that comment about Wakdjunkaga’s family sociability index above), she was the one being silent for long stretches and on Saturday night retiring two hours earlier than the siblings.

The Lovely One has let me know that perhaps not everyone is enchanted with my political insights (and I don’t mean wisdom, but everything that all-too-easy internet research has made terrifyingly visible to me over the past year or so — it is a very scary Dextreme out there, selfRighteous and wrongheaded religiously and lunatic politically), nor amused by incessant discussion of science fiction and fantasy or childhood recollections or my various analyses of Homer’s Odyssey (about which I really should write, having been reminded of those arguable theses in debate with my sister), nor enthralled with theological discussions (Margaret taught me about “adoptionism” and about a half dozen or more contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars, Saturday night). Clearly role reversal, for sure, dependent on which family is visiting.

Antigone burying/honoring Polyneices

One’s own family is the one that one knows and that knows one the best. (Like that? The objective third person derives from helping sophomores with their persuasive essays for the last month — their real teacher doesn’t appreciate writers using first and second person, so utterly unlike this blog, for instance…) That profundity reminds me of another, critical literary observation I used to impose on certain classes: about Antigone — so obsessively infatuated with death, purity and finality — choosing her original family into which she was born over the potential and future family she might have made for herself (electing to bury her dead and dishonored brother instead of marrying her espoused cousin, who himself, on another hand, elects to die with/for her, his unrealized bride, against his father).

And oneʼs own family alters, blooms and grows wider in compass. Margaretʼs husband, Brian, was one of the best goads and inspirations in my life, brimming with wisdom, learning and wit (his spirit surely supervised and stimulated our sibling conversation this past Saturday night). Yet so many think of in-laws as pests or problems somehow… Dianeʼs husband, Steve, is, I think, no actual nameable relation to me (is oneʼs sister-in-lawʼs husband considered to be related to one?), but he is an important part of my family, right along with his son, one of my two nephews (a named relationship interestingly, although the two nephews — one on Janetʼs side and one from mine — arenʼt themselves related. Are they?). And my brotherʼs son is going to get married this summer…

Oneʼs family is a living entity, not a narrowly predefined cold case.

Antigone and contemporary zealots are wrong. Real families grow and change, sharing the love, as the anonymous They like to say (some time). And unlike the “views” of mindlessly vanderplaatzed Tighty Righty radicals selfsnared in their rigid, irrational Dextremity, real “family values” accept and embrace those innumerable, questionable and uncertain strangers who bring the future — surprising and disorienting, breathing life and renewal, embodied as their neoteric present and beloved selves.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Just Like Starting Over

I turned in my hourly work record for the final six days of of my month-long substitute teaching tenure in what had once been my old job about 4:00 yesterday afternoon. Give it a few more days, and I will know just how much cash that extensive period of work will have earned me. (I hadn’t known until part way into the stint that a sub’s pay increases after a certain period of time. Really bright, aren’t I? Most workers investigate that kind of thing, monetary rewards and benefits and all, before starting a job.) I am looking forward to perhaps a thousand new dollars in my account overall.

The canines have all been safe hereabouts throughout March…

What I know already is what the job has cost me. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic (really just creating a monetary metaphor for contrast), but time lost can never be regained, and I don’t think I made the best use of what time the job left me during March. First, I spent time early on dreading the responsibility of returning (even temporarily) to that old (more than) fulltime job. I tried to rest up for those far-too-extended days (such as I mentioned in yesterday’s post), and that urge to have slept well before a huge day at school kept me in bed each morning when I could (and should) have been out for a run.

Yes. I haven’t really gotten any exercise since this month got going (as I never did). In particular, until this morning I haven’t done a daily run (with the normal excuses/revisions as actually just a slovenly and slothful slog — even slacker than a jog). And until a few hours after this post appears, I won’t know if I managed to drag my sorry behind from the warm bed today. (After all, I believed each evening as I retired that I was going to get up and get going the next predawn. And all month I never did.) After that immense and lazy gap, the first time out is going to feel exactly like the title of today’s post.

I just hope it is/was/will be this morning that felt just like starting over. The longer I put it off, the worse that new beginning is going to be.

One of these days (or months) I must sign up for the workout facility at the local hospital, too. I quit my membership in the local Y (the membership that I notoriously never used more than a handful of times), intending to shift my loyalties and improve my performance with the county health center this month. What with long days at school, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

And all too soon, I’ll be starting over in another way with a brand new summer job, as well. (At least that employment provides the personal benefit of working outdoors — even on rainy days — and providing the opportunity of plentiful exercise. Using my upper body for anything is going to feel altogether new all over again, too.)

Time to get started…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Endgame

out of Wikipedia, thus credit: Wikimedia Commons

In chess the endgame is supposed to be the quick back-and-forth of rapidly reasoned moves and countermoves each side desperately has calculated to persevere in combat piece by piece to the bitter end. Or else the game has been so well crafted by one of the opponents that the endgame becomes the inexorable closing of the potential victor’s pieces on the losing side until the weaker player ultimately yields, often many moves before the unavoidable checkmate.*

In my case, the “endgame” indicates the conclusion of my near-month of substitute teaching today, on March 28. Actually, the real teacher has returned to duty. However, Monday was also the All-State Festival to honor the 2011 Outstanding Speakers from the Iowa High School Speech Association’s state individual events contest (as I had noted back toward the beginning of my extended sub service, Andrew did quite well at state, perfectly as a matter of fact, and six of the fourteen entries earned All-State — a remarkable and perhaps unique percentage**). Naturally, the real coach went along to the all-day celebration, so my last day turned out to be today, as I have hurried home to note for semi-publication here.

During the month, in addition to classroom and evaluative duties, I had helped keep the speech team on focus and practicing over their last week before state, organized and supervised the local Speech Night of state performances, and directed rehearsals for the final Andrew play (Shoestring Theatre, with strange appropriateness). I also tried to help the senior, who has been supervising and producing the weekly radio program, get his staff to record. The regular classroom part wasn’t too challenging, as that is what subs are hired to do — keep class going on, as directed by the missing instructor’s plans, in the actual teacher’s absence. With the real English, speech and drama teacherʼs extended leave, I had to do a bit more, including actual grading of papers.

I hadn’t had to grade anything since retiring (except a couple of things here and there, like fourth grade spelling quizzes) and definitely not anything that would go directly into the official grade program for each child. However, after some initial hesitation, I did review and score perhaps a hundred different papers for various assignments, trying to get third quarter officially closed (we didn’t quite succeed at that, lacking all the assignments) and fourth quarter records begun. Whether the real teacher chooses to use my several assignments is, of course, her choice. But they’re accomplished and also recorded to keep or delete.

Speech practice went pretty well (although not all the performers elected to schedule a practice during that week), and my old friend Clayton Pederson from across the hall, who served as the official speech coach my final year teaching and who has driven to the contests and helped coach previously for decades, served as assistant coach and bus driver for the contest day.*** Several of the days that first full week were long (up to nearly fifteen hours on the day of Speech Night), but I survived, and the kids seemed to remain flourishing. After all, I had coached speech for three decades and more (even the final four years as a mere unpaid assistant).

Play rehearsals were more of a challenge, simply because I sought to block both acts to help out the real teacher (blocking can be a difficult issue for novice directors) and even thrust the actors toward memorizing their first act lines during my brief substitute tenure. But I fell back in the rhythm of the thing**** (including even 6:30 AM rehearsals and practice on days without school), and I hope the cast has made some strides toward full preparation for their April 29 performance.

Click for source — excellent article

The Andrew Comment effort was even simpler, as the student producer really had everything in line. The reporters procrastinated even more extensively than when I had the responsibility, but there was a broadcast all three weekends. It’s rather sad to think that the radio program is reaching its end along with the high school. I guess that both climaxes indicate a different sort of endgame with which I was, finally, pleased to be involved in the early moves thereof.

On the other hand, I start a whole new game, a novel challenge altogether, as I set out to undertake my new job in just a few weeks. I hope this underexercised and aging body can stand up to the effort of placing those many, many traps for emerald ash borers repeatedly this summer…

* Other alternatives do exist, as you can verify by reading the linked Wikipedia article.

** 42+%, as a matter of actually calculated fact. I bet even the big-city big school with 14 Outstanding Performers at All-State canʼt touch that percentage. Way to go, Hawks! Go, Coach Kocer!!

*** And the “speechers” certainly rose to the mark and beyond at state! (The Lovely One and I had several preceding obligations that weekend, some pleasant.)

**** And my experience directing is a good reminder of what’s ahead when Janet and I undertake a show for the Grand Opera House from August into October. That’s another new undertaking that lies ahead now that this little game as temporary teacher ends.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Digitally Naive

I spent the weekend more or less offline and with the neglected iMac mostly switched off in continued lonely isolation. This state of affairs would perfectly suit The Lovely One, who feels I spend altogether too much time and too much attention at the computer and online. (In fact, the brief time I was active electronically on Saturday involved reconciling my checking account, a procedure that, thanks to my recent upgrade to Office 2011, involved some loud and repetitive cursing when the program did not respond as expected/formerly usual — behavior which did not decrease her disenchantment with my digital alter-life.)

Ironically, however, my lack of presence in this cyberspace on Sunday was entirely due to my (false) computer expertise. Janet and I spent the day (a good part of it, anyway) assisting her parents in their first computer purchase.

I haven’t been particularly present online in recent weeks otherwise, continuing my (subjective) month of substitute teaching in the current version of my former job. Although I have started using the teacher’s computer to check e-mail (on one account), the blog and even Facebook newsfeed, I have attempted not to get digitally mesmerized into neglecting my temporarily academic responsibilities and classroom supervision duties (and I found that I somehow, even with what I know is the correct password, can’t at school get onto my WordPress dashboard).* So in several ways it seemed multiplicitly ironic that my electronic lack of savvy was called into play to help the parents-in-law.

Fortunately, I had few alternatives among which to choose in making what few (if important) recommendations I did propose.

My beloved appears to have an unhealthy love of Best Buy. It is where we purchased her laptop half a decade back and our “new” flatscreen TV much more recently. Admittedly, she does at present possess a mostly unused Best Buy gift card that she won in some campaign at her job (but she doesn’t ever use it, regardless how many cute hints I drop about a new iPad being the best use of her unexpended magic stash of miracle cash), and I presume some recent visits to the excessively busy atmosphere of the electronic big box store might have something to do with her unexpended freebie. It was to the big blue (-black)-and-yellow that we took her folks on Sunday.

Although I would have plumped for the greater expense of a Macintosh of some variety, I realized that The Lovely One would prefer her folks to become Windozed like the rest of the cybernet majority, so we headed straight to the displays of Hewlett-Packard desktops (of which there were but three, although with as many more unexhibited models featured on sale tags). Janet’s workplace is fully HP**-ed, as is her laptop, and her sister (or someone) had an (evidently not uncommon) dismal experience with Dell, which apparently poisoned the wifely mind against all manufacturers other than the failed Senatorial candidate in California’s former company.

After just some brief examination, we started to consider two models, settling pretty quickly on the middle-range device closely equivalent to my iMac (dual-core, 4-gig RAM, terabyte of hard drive). The packaged printer didn’t offer scanning/copier features, so I knew they unwittingly wanted an upgrade from that. We attracted the attention of a lovely staffer, Rachel, who desultorily but effectively helped steer us toward a definite decision (postponed by The Lovely One, who thought we might want to to discuss the choice in a quieter, more low-key environment, the nearby Barnes & Noble cafe). We sipped lattes while estimating costs and those extra expenses you never anticipate (always an issue at Best Buy, at least in my experience), like cables and powerstrips, modem and router. We even discussed possible ISPs.

I hadn’t realized that the parents were innocent of as much as they were, even believing they would require a whole extra phone line just for the computer (not these days, people, even in the remote wilds of nearly rural Iowa). And I am glad that even our half-baked and mostly inept support and advice made the elders feel more comfortable about this big purchase. Yep, we trundled back to the big blue box and (they) bought.

Now we’re just left with the dilemma of deciding whether we actually recommend Qwest*** as their Internet Service Provider. In light of my history there, a disturbing dilemma indeed.

Of course, once they do get online (postponing the Geek Squad’s rather expensive visit, $130, to set up the entire home network and desktop package, until after my substituting is over, permitting me to be present while the installation occurs) I will have to be careful what I choose to write about them…

* And keeping a wayward, aged sub off inappropriate connections is only good policy, however accidentally.

** Or considering the company logo, should it be: “hP-ed”?

*** And inconveniently Qwest just cut off my internet connection as I tried to proofread this post, a mere twenty minutes after booting up.

Qwest, the corporation that brought “snafu” to fully acronymic fruition.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

iPod Trials

So I have a new iPod, a little one but boasting nonetheless a sturdy flash memory, rather than a queasy, old, easily damaged hard drive. It’s still in its box, however, waiting its turn on the end of the USB cord. And although I am pecking these words out at the keyboard on Friday, it may very well still be waiting for its turn to receive that all-important initial charge and iTunes’ peculiar set-up formatting. Why?

Well, that’s a tale, the one I have to tell today.

The new Nano stands in line behind its fallen predecessor, which is currently attached where the new one wishes it could be (although as always since its problems began, iTunes ignores the wounded device’s digital presence at the USB port). In fact, the old iPod has been attached since Thursday afternoon, starting about 4:45 PM, with the computer running nonstop since. Why?

Well, that’s what I am endeavoring to explain (although not very sincerely or diligently yet).

My one vain hope, when the old Classic went belly up, gasping for mechanical/digital life, once I realized that the thing’s hard drive was probably the problem, was that I could get a disk repair utility to perceive the device and then scan and possibly fix its drive. Unfortunately, in my transition from System 9 to System X through acquiring my lovely “new” iMac, I lost all the disk utility programs I had once used. And until my digital-device March madness began, I hadn’t needed such software.

TechTool Pro in action (unfortunately after crashing over the iPod)

However, coincidentally and conveniently, MacUpdate offered via e-mail a “spring bundle” of deeply discounted shareware products (parallel to the earlier package that brought Chronories and Voila into my electronic/digital existence). And key, at least for me, among the nearly dozen programs was TechTool Pro 5.0.7 — the most current incarnation of a disk utility I had used in this century on my old systems. The serendipitous synchronicity was too neat to resist, and after hesitating for a couple days (and finally finding the time to be at home and get the long-lonely iMac booted up) I bought the package (and then, after departing for a haircut and stopping on the way home for some necessaries at “the Wal,” went a little crazy and acquired as well the Nano).

Once I got all the new software checked over, registered and running, I opened TechTool Pro and got familiar with its new interface and capabilities. And hooked up the broken-down Classic. As ever in the past few weeks, it thought itself connected, but no icon appeared in the Finder, nor did iTunes start automatically, as it should have done. I feared my hopes (and software purchase) were in vain.

But when I got back from the haircut, TechTool Pro showed the determined little music player as an actually attached device (with a plain generic icon, to be sure — but it was really there)! Unbelieving but joyful, I started a test, a “Surface Scan” for bad blocks on the drive, to which I added a later volume hierarchy check.

The test ran all evening, as I discovered, dismayed, that college basketball games had pre-empted CSI (no competitive brackets filled in the Wakdjunkaga household). Later, TechTool still showed at least 22 hours remaining when we went to bed (and it had found a single bad block by that time), so I just let it run all night. When I awoke, early, for play practice yesterday morning, the program was still grinding algorithmically away (and 40 bad blocks were listed) with sixteen hours further testing anticipated. The test still runs as I type this sentence.*

But if it ever ends, and if the software is able to isolate those bad blocks like Symantec used to do, maybe I can get the old Classic back for more appropriate uses than running (such as providing thousands and thousands of tunes for my listening pleasure in the truck). Right now, I can only hope.

* But not this one, sadly (from later yesterday). TechTool Pro crashed while I was at work Friday, so no change on the old Classic iPod: it still has 85 songs from the head of the alphabet among my “Rock” listings, and thatʼs it. Suggestions? (I guess that Nanoʼs going to be a necessity, after all — which is why itʼs connected as I finish this little article.) Suggestions are welcome…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.