Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Peek at This Blog's Top Posts

Once in a while, statistics will show you startling things. Like the fact that the most popular posts -- at least the top two -- remain the top two most popular posts on this blog. One more startling thing: it just a few more months, it'll be two years since I had a new post break into the top o' the blog.

Behold, the most popular posts:

My babblings about the Yoo-Hoo bird remain as popular as ever, as does the conclusion to a novel that's changed quite a bit since that conclusion was written. The top five from the last time I checked the stats -- and I have to confess I don't remember when that was -- are still the top five.

So I have to wonder: Did I peak as a blogger in 2013? Have I written nothing worthy of the top posts since then? Apparently so.

But since no one's bothered to correct me on anything in the Yoo-Hoo bird post, I can probably rest assured I got things in that post mostly right. Or the real anal retentive bird-lovers haven't visited yet because they don't have to Google Yoo-Hoo bird to know what someone's talking about.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Last Christmas Gift

This is a review of The Last Christmas Gift by Nathan Shumate. It's an honest review, given in exchange for a free electronic copy of the book.

I wanted more out of The Last Christmas Gift.

Don't get me wrong -- this novella by Nathan Shumate is a wonderfully creepy tale of dead grandfathers, voodoo dolls and about the creepiest zombie I've ever encountered in print (if you think regular zombies are creepy, consider a suspected pedophile zombie as even creepier -- eeeough). it works on the creepy zombie novella level. It could have gone up another notch or two, however -- skipping the notch of mawkish Christmas tales completely -- with a heavier whisper of message (likely not Shumate's goal) that wouldn't even have to be all that Christmassy.

Shumate does have an ear for looking at death through a child's eye. His main character Malcolm reacts to death (he attends a few funerals, lives across the street from a cemetery, has to spend the night with his Grandpap's dead body in the same house) with the same kind of questioning and assumptions I recall from when my grandmother died when I was nine. (In contrast, the passing of my father fifteen years ago brings back memories and feeling that are nothing like what Shumate has Malcolm experience, adding to the veracity of his storytelling.)

What's the more I'm missing? I can't quite put my finger on it, but the books' tone shifts (obviously) at the moment Malcolm's voodoo chant (enabled by instructions found in a doll his father sends from Vietnam) summons the dead from the cemetery across the street. The tale shifts from a bittersweet story of a kid dealing with his grandpap's death do dead grandpap and kid defending the house against zombies (including the aforementioned suspected pedophile). Shumate doesn't get mawkish with sentiment -- but he does so by avoiding the sentiment of a reanimated father figure almost completely in exchange for a pedestrian telling of zombie hijinx.

One question for zombiephiles out there: Does the freshness of a zombie corpse influence behavior? Cause grandpap is grandpap, while everyone else (including grandpap's reanimated wife) is just the typical rotting shuffling zombie, motivated by what I'm not exactly sure, given that I'm not a regular reader of zombie literature nor do I watch zombie movies.

This isn't the first Christmas story to involve the netherworlds -- Dickens' A Christmas Carol certainly comes to mind. But Dickens' wasn't just a spook-fest, either.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


The cat walked into the room silently, its eyes reflecting the firelight.

Somewhere in the room was the catnip snake, the snake that crinkled when she bit it and smelled like green grass and dead mice and freedom. But it’s not just a matter of walking into the room and straight to the snake. She knew well where it was, tucked under the corner of the skin rug near the heart where the firelight danced. To go straight to it, however, could not be done.

Enter the room, pause. Eyes wide, saucers of black rimmed with a pale green. There on the mantelpiece, the great horned helmet. Walk three paces, pause, front left forepaw in the air. There by the chair, the massive arm slumped off the arm rest, rings catching the light of the dying fire. Left forepaw down, sniff the stone floor. Two sniffs, for show.  Three more quick paces then sit upright on her bottom, watching for the big bearded head to turn to see the light reflecting green from her eyes. 

Pause to lick a paw and rub it on an eyebrow. Then the other.

A snort from the figure in the chair and her paw frozen at her lips.

Boots still on, she saw, resting on  hewn log ready for the fire.

She continued to lick. Lick and rub, lick and rub.

The hand on the arm dangling from the chair idly fingered the oiled handle of the square hammer, its metal blue in the dim orange light. The hand picked up the hammer and tapped it gently on the stones and sparks danced on the floor and scurried like fireflies under chairs and over the booted legs and into and out of the fire where the sparks left holes in the flame that wavered blue and green until they sealed and burned orange again.

Her eyes watched the sparks dance and their light traced comet trails across the black saucers of her eyes.

Four more steps, then a pause under the table, watching the man in the chair, now snoring lightly.
Where he went and who he saw maybe she cared about, and maybe not. She sniffed at the smells he brought into the room: sweat and blood, pine and sage, mutton and mint and mead.

And her snake waited under the corner of the skin rug, ready to crinkle.

Six swift steps and under the chair now, its knobbed legs vibrating gently as the man in the chair snored. She turned to the left to sniff at the hammer, which sat blue and cold and idle as the master’s hand rested on the round knob at its pommel.

The snake.

The cat crouched under the chair and watched the snake, oblivious to her as it rested. She stared at it as the fire crackled and listened to the wood pop and smack as the black of her eyes grew wider as she stared at the snake and imagined the comets of the sparks from the hammer dancing around the room and staring at the snake with her.

Then the snake forgotten.

She emerged from underneath the chair and mewed.

The man in the chair rumbled and smacked his lips, but his eyes, hidden in the deep furrow beneath his eyebrows, remained closed.

The cat mewed again and jumped into his lap.

The man murmured and his right hand reached up and reflexively stroked the cat’s back.
The cat arched her back up to meet his hand and she mewed again. She spun slowly as the hand stroked her back and she began to purr and knead the fur-lined leather of his tunic.

“Katt,” the man said, half asleep.

He said it as “cot,” the K bouncing off the walls and the Ts off the floor and ceiling so both the cat and the hammer danced.

The cat mewed and turned her rump to the man’s face, arching her back as the hand stroked her head.
The man opened an eye.
“Katt,” he said. “Always with the butt of love, you are.” The cat mewed and arched her back higher. The man cupped her head in his massive hand, stroking it gently. The cat breathed deep the smell of the fur the man wore, and with each stroke she lowered her back until she lay on the man’s belly, purring as he snored.

The fire grew dimmer as cat and man slept until the only light in the room was a faint red glow from the coals.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Speck in the Universe

There was a time, I have to remember, that Pluto was a speck in the universe.

A speck.

But no more. Because, as Kleinman said, space is small; only the planets are big.

And Pluto is huge. As much surface area as the nation of Russia, which swallowed tens of thousands of men into the gulags of Siberia, which took the blast of Tunguska and spared the world that hardly knew what had happened.

And Charon has on it chasms larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, with the surface area of Texas, but with no Texans there to wear hats, drill for oil, or to remember the Alamo.

Pluto is huge. As Clyde Tombaugh knew it would be.

When I was a boy, Pluto was a world of physics and geology. Physics that kept it in its misshapen orbit about the sun, geology influenced by the cold of space and the sparse energy the sun could cast its way.

Now it is a planet of history – though through the human view it is a history of hours as that spacecraft barreled by at fourteen kilometers a second. A second. And though it is but switching one set of arbitrary numbers for another, that is 8.7 miles per second. Five hundred twenty-one miles a minute. Or 31,284 miles per hour.

Pluto’s is a history, in human terms, written in mere hours.

As is the history of the moon of Earth. How long did the astronauts spend there, altogether, walking or hopping or roaming in their moon buggies? Not even eighty hours. Barely 3 ½ days, stretched over six Apollo missions.

Now the number is higher as space shrinks and the moons and planets grow ever larger. Countless hours now walked on the Moon, Mars, Titan, Europa, Ganeymede. Tenuous steps on the dark side of Mercury; ill-fated steps on the surface of Venus.

And there is me. The Hermit of Iapetus. Alone to walk here, where the cyanide dust falls from the open sky and from where – on Earth – I am but a speck on a speck orbiting a bright star. A star that once, to mankind, appeared to have ears that came and went.

I am a speck in the universe. And Pluto is not.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Atticus, Atticus . . .

There’s a hullabaloo brewing over rumors – the book "Go Set A Watchman" itself isn’t out yet – that Atticus Finch, one of the most beloved characters in American literature, is racist.

Few want to believe it, though it appears the rumors are based in fact on reviews and snippets of the book coming out prior to its release this week.

Do I want to scream “say it ain’t so?”

I think I can be planted firmly in the “what did you expect from the South in the 1950s?” camp.
One fundamental thing that many people are forgetting is that Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” is told from the point of view of a child – Scout Finch, the main character in the new book, “Go Set A Watchman,” that reveals Atticus’ racism.

Through the eyes of a child, everything is idealized. Atticus, defending the innocent Tom Robinson, must be kind and sweet and look like Abraham Lincoln, as Popeye would probably put it. Scout might have been privy to the public face of the court case where her father defended Robinson on points of law – and might have seen a softer side to her father when he advised walking around in someone else’s skin to see what it’s like to be them for a while – but she wouldn’t have been privy to everything.

Her barging in on the “mob,” for example, in this clip from the celebrated movie. Do we know all the motivations there, even those of her father? Or do we just assume, like Scout, that her father’s motivations are moral and driven by social justice, rather than by justice as applied by the law? We don’t know if Atticus wants the children to leave for fear of their lives – and would the mob have killed the children to get at Tom Robinson – or because he didn’t want them to hear what came next – Atticus sharing the mob’s racist attitudes but putting them aside for the legal attitude he felt, at this moment, was more important?

We can guess. We can hope. But we don’t know, do we?

About all we do know here is that Scout has picked up a bit of legal terminology from her lawyer father – entailments – and that she’s against them. Against them not because she understands them (I barely do) but because she understands Atticus doesn’t like them. (Entailments, for those who don’t know, is “an old-fashioned form of bequeathing real property” that limits inheritance only to legitimate children. Mr. Cunningham paid Atticus in hickory nuts to help resolve such a problem (what it is we’re not clear on, since Scout herself only understands that entailments are bad). We only have Scout’s understanding because this is Scout’s interpretation of the world she and her father inhabit. She only understands Atticus’ world as explained by Atticus.

Maybe she noticed his early racism. And maybe, given this was Alabama in the1930s, it was just accepted, even by Scout, as normal. She might not understand it, as many children might not. But it was part of who her daddy was – so she accepted it just as she accepted her understanding of entailments form her father.

We’re like Scout, reading “To Kill A Mockingbird.” We want to see Atticus as an ideal. As pure. That’s what all children do with their parents.

“Go Set A Watchman” may indeed be Scout growing up, still loving her father, but now recognizing her father for what he is: A contradictory man, a man who loves the law, but is also racist.

This aspect makes me want to read the book even more.

BSA Executives Move on Gay Leadership Ban

I’ve now read this form two sources, so it must be legitimate. Here’s what the Deseret News has to say:

The executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America has unanimously approved a resolution that would end the organization's blanket ban on gay adult leaders and let individual scout units set their own policy on the long-divisive issue.

In a statement Monday, the BSA said the resolution was approved by the executive committee on Friday, and would become official policy if ratified by the organization's larger National Executive Board at a meeting on July 27.

There’s more detail at the Buzzfeed link, indulging test of the resolution.

The BSA is also talking about it, as is the LDS Church.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens at the National Executive Board meeting July 27. I've already expressed my thoughts on the matter.

Who is on that board?

Wikipedia has a list of 2011 board members – it’s not clear from this list if that’s current membership.

Obviously, it’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds. And it will unfold the week we’re at Scout Camp. Maybe the news will penetrate the news blackout you experience in the woods. Maybe not. As for me, I'm not ready to put on the sackcloth and ashes.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Teaching ESL Students -- A BYU-Idaho Perspective

This is the roughest of rough drafts. I'm hoping for some feedback.

I don’t remember the joke, nor even the punchline. Just how Dad said the first line:

“So, dere was dis black doot. . .” and the joke goes on. But many people stopped listening after the joke’s sixth word. And some were shaky at the second.

He told the joke everywhere. And once – only once, to my recollection – did anyone ever interrupt the joke to ask the vital question: “What’s a ‘doot’?”

The problem: Dad’s native language is Dutch, not English. Even after forty years in the United States, his accent persisted (though he denied it by saying, often “It’s does Germans who have trouble wit de ‘T-H’”).

Most people understood Dad pretty well. (Doot, by the way, is how he says the word ‘dude’.)There were times, however, where it was a good thing I or one of his other sons were there as he discussed a construction job with a potential customer. We had to interpret. And sometimes others have to interpret for us. With practice, for instance, we can pronounce the word cat with the nasally A English requires. Otherwise, we pronounce it the way Dad did: ‘cot’ as in the thing you sleep on, not the thing that sheds fur on your clothing.

Dad had many friends in the same linguistic boat. He and a neighbor would use their native Dutch to cheat at Pinochle. One fellow, Tony Lanzio, made the best chicken cacciatore in the world but was, generally, incomprehensible, as his thick Italian accent was also punctuated with French and German words he knew. (I was lucky enough to serve a mission in France; upon my return, I found Tony at least one-third easier to comprehend.)

And my French: A lot worse, I’m certain, than Dad’s or Tony’s English. Most of the people I met in France were kind in listening to the American speaking his pidgin French, and I did manage a French minor at university for my bachelor’s, but I know were I to take a full college course in French at a French school being taught by a French native, I would be intimidated beyond all reason.

So now I’m teaching students at an English-language school. Many of these students, depending on the semester, are from as far away geographically and linguistically as Russia, Ukraine, Ghana, and Brazil. They possess varying levels of English proficiency. How am I, as an English instructor, best to help them progress through the course and on their journey to greater English proficiency without crushing their spirits or giving them a free ride?

That’s what I’m hoping to find out.

So far, this has been the most helpful resource: 

It’s a site sponsored by the Frankfurt International School, an English-language school with grades (in the American equivalent) from kindergarten through 12th grade.

What impressed me the most is how closely some of the advice they offer mirrors the BYU-Idaho learning model. To wit, their answer to the question “What’s the most important thing I should know about the ESL students I teach?”:

Who they are! It is essential to know which of the non-native students in your class are ESL students and what level of ESL they are in. This will give you some idea how much English they know and will help you to have realistic expectations of what they will be able to understand and do in your lessons.

I like to think their “who they are” is more than just matching up names with English proficiency, but rather it’s knowing them on a personal level so they become Paulo or Vasily, not “that ESL student from Brazil or Russia.” In learning a different language, they’re working to break down a barrier. We should not allow a label to put up a different barrier than the one they think they’re tearing down.

Principle Five of the BYU-Idaho Learning Model states: “Learners and teachers at BYU-Idaho love, serve, and teach one another.” We are further reminded in the learning model pamphlet that “when learners and teacher view one another charitably, they create safe learning environments where all can stretch and stumble without fear. All learners – students and faculty – serve others through diligent preparation, cooperative effort, and teaching one another; thus charity replaces competition.” The foundation of such learning, charity, and love, is getting to know each other. When we learn who our students are, we’re better tuned to the spirit and begin building an environment where we can get past some of the defenses and roadblocks we all put up when we enter a new situation.

As we gain each others’ trust, we’re able to teach, be teachable, and learn. We should strive to develop relationships with our students where we are mutually perceived, as was Ammon, as being “wise, yet harmless.” We encounter this phrase in Alma Chapter 18:22 where Ammon’s underlying goal is to preach the gospel. Rather than marching in with the scriptures in one hand and fire and brimstone coming out of his mouth, Ammon spends much time gaining the trust of King Lamoni and his servants, by becoming a servant to them and by getting to know them through service. Even after Ammon has the king’s attention by defending his flocks at the waters of Sebus, he maintains his efforts of “servant leadership” by going first to feed the king’s horses – following the king’s instruction – rather than following the servants into the king’s chamber to hear their bragging about his feats. “Surely,” King Lamoni says in verse 10 of that same chapter, “there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man, for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.”

Trust gained, Ammon can then be that wise, yet harmless teacher, who teaches King Lamoni and all his household and where none worry about making mistakes or being laughed at. They’re all learning, being taught by someone they know and someone they respect and love.

A tall order for teachers?

Maybe. I know I struggle with getting to know my students. But those I do get to know on a more personal level, they’re the ones who write to me after the semester is over and thank me for being their teacher. Maybe the struggle is worth it.

The Frankfurt school does, of course, offer other important information as teachers work with ESL students. But I like to think that these suggestions work in concert with teachers getting to know their students and helping them to feel comfortable in this teaching environment.

Firstly, the school recommends this: “For written work, it is important that feedback is concentrated on the content quality of the answer rather than on its grammatical accuracy. It is discouraging for students who have worked hard to give a good answer to have their work covered in red ink for mistakes that are peripheral to the main purpose of the assignment. There is also the danger that they may get the message that surface accuracy is more important than conveying ideas or showing understanding.”

“However, written work can generally be corrected without causing the student embarrassment in front of his or her peers, and you may well wish to draw attention to one or two of the grammatical mistakes that could interfere with understanding. It is also not unreasonable, for example, to expect the verbs in a piece of writing about a historical event to be in the past tense.”

Let’s look at how we might follow this advice once we get to know our students.

I have a good friend who, late last year, worked as a beta reader for a novel I’ve written. A beta reader reads a novel as it’s being worked on, to help the author get a sense of perspective on the book, to see its strengths and weaknesses. The author then takes the feedback from the beta readers to continue editing the book. As a rough draft, I knew the book likely had grammatical errors in it. But I wasn’t interested in having my grammar corrected. I wanted, rather, to know whether the story made sense, and whether it was worth the effort to continue working on the book. My faithful beta reader sent back some critical, yet constructive feedback that led me to re-write the book in a radical way, taking it through an additional two drafts before I sent it back to her and to other readers.

Had she focused on grammar and punctuation without making many comments about storyline, character, pacing and plot, I might have assumed the book was ready to go to agents after I fixed the grammatical mistakes. However, I have built a relationship of trust with this reader, and she was kind enough to reciprocate with the honesty I needed to fix the book (at least I hope I’ve fixed it; we’ll see what she says this time around). She gave me what I needed: a look at the bigger picture.

That’s the kind of feedback we can offer our students after we’ve gotten to know them and know what kind of feedback they want – this goes for ESL students as well as English native speakers.
Oh – how do we know what they want? Well, let’s go back to the Frankfurt school, which says: “Consider asking the student what kind of feedback he or she would like. Some students may welcome the chance to focus on their grammar mistakes with a view to eradicating them in future pieces of written work. Other students, however, will just completely ignore your corrections - and you can save your precious grading time!”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can knock ourselves out to offer constructive suggestions on a rough draft, and some students will take them to heart, while others will correct the grammar and just turn in the same paper. That’s their right as free thinkers. But knowing what kind of advice or feedback our students want, whether they’re ESL or not, will help us get to know our students better and give them a more valuable learning experience at BYU-Idaho.

Those people who got to know my father eventually got to understand his Dutch accent, and could laugh along with the jokes he told even if he pronounced the words in odd ways. Learning French helped me and my sister better communicate with Dad’s friend Tony Lanzio, who mixed many languages together as he spoke. And just as getting to know these two men helped those who interacted with them gain a better understanding of their lives and efforts, so too can we get to know our students better to be better servant leaders to them.