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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Put in the Good Writing; Kick out the Bad

As writers, we all go through a long and arduous process of learning our strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, I discovered I hosted a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Over the years, I devoured books and magazines on writing. I networked. I attended conferences. I finally learned that all writing is a mixture of good and bad. Even those writers who have best seller after best seller turn out sentences and ideas that are real stinkers.

I have a digital camera. I suppose in the last six years, I’ve taken a couple thousand shots. Most of them are insignificant as far as the art of photography is concerned.

A few, a very few, are pretty good. How did they come about? Beats me.
But, I think the fact might be why professional photographers take so many shots. They’re looking for that single exposure that reflects the mood or concept for which they are striving.

Ansel Adams’ striking black and white photographs have no equal, but I’ve no doubt for each one with which he was satisfied, he snapped a thousand—well maybe a couple hundred.

Say you attend an art show. The finished product on the wall might have taken years to perfect, years struggling with mismatched highlights, lack of contrast, and half-a-dozen other artistic techniques of which I am in complete ignorance.

Of course, you will always see those weird paintings that look like an eight-year-old dipped a chicken in a bucket of multi-colored paint and tossed it on a canvas. I’ve even seen published books like that. (to each his own, I suppose)

When each of us sit at that desk that very first time and begin our sojourn into the world of writing, we write bad sentences. Bad, bad sentences, but usually stuck back in that myriad of very forgettable prose will be one or two structures that are actually good.

Separate the good ones from the bad. Next figure out why some were keepers and others throwbacks. When you figure that out, keep the good ones and throw the others away.

How do you know what is good or bad? By writing and writing and writing; by showing your writing. If you are ever so fortunate to discover an honest critic willing to read your stuff and be candid with you, cherish them; learn from their comments; buy them nice Christmas presents, grovel at their feet.

If you can’t find such a gem, learn by reading and critiquing good writers. Who is good? Ask a dozen folks and you’ll get a dozen different answers.

No one, absolutely no one writes seventy thousand perfect words at the first sitting. No one. And you won’t, so don’t sweat it. Just keep plugging away.

But regardless of how fluid and graceful your words, unless there is a point to each sentence, to each paragraph, and to each scene, they are no more than fragile sand castles on the beach.

Search for those moments in your story that are most important. Explore them.
Pick important moments. Forget about the good guy hopping out of bed, showering and shaving, grabbing toast, and racing for the elevator just so you can get him from one place to the other.

Instead, put him at the operating table with a scalpel in his hand. Put him facing a deranged killer holding a child as hostage. Such conflict is much more riveting that grabbing a piece of burned toast.

Do all that, and I promise you, your writing will be noticed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Legends of the Alamo

One hundred and seventy-five years ago as you read this, Santa Anna was assaulting the walls of the Alamo in the sleepy village of San Antonio, back then sometimes called Bexar.

Not too many actual facts exist regarding the battle. We know the Mexican army assailed the walls for thirteen days. We know the Alamo fell. We know over one hundred and eighty defenders perished. We know that neither Travis, Bowie, nor Crockett walked away from the battle. We know the bodies were burned.

Other than those few absolutes, the rest of the story is based upon hearsay.
One interesting facet of the story is that the wheels for the battle were set in motion twenty-three years earlier.

According to Lee Paul, on April 6, 1813, Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara spoke to an impassioned crowd of Mexican citizens tired of Spain’s oppression and planted the seed of revolt that led to Mexico’s independence from the tyrant country in 1821, some eight years later.

Upon gaining her freedom, Mexico unknowingly gained another tyrant, Santa Anna, a self proclaimed President and Dictator of all Mexico.

Santa Anna swore to rid Mexico of all intruders, including emigrants from the United States living in Texas. After fifteen years, the dictator still had not rid the country of those he deemed unfit. When he learned his brother-in-law, General Cos had been defeated in San Antonio in December of 1835, he exploded. He swore revenge, and began his arduous trek into Texas.

In his way, stood a rundown church called the Alamo. Behind its wall stood 183 (189) men from dozens of states, all determined that the ‘Napoleon of the West’ should not succeed.

The most well known combatant was Davy Crockett who raced in with seventeen men only a few yards ahead of a Mexican patrol of lancers hot on their tail.

Innumerable stories have been told of his death. None can be verified. So, take your pick from some of the more widely claimed assertions. The truth is, no one will very know how he died.

When news of the massacre spread, rumors raced rampant across the country. One claimed he had not died with his men. Another claimed he along with two others survived but were put to death by the enraged Santa Anna.

Another story has it that Santa Anna instructed Alcalde Francisco Ruis to identify the bodies of the dead Texans, especially the leaders. The mayor said, “Toward the west end, we found the body of Colonel Crockett.”

But, from his prison cell in Anahuac after San Jacinto, General Cos told his doctor that Crockett survived by locking himself in a room, then asking for mercy, but Santa Anna refused.

Four years later, word spread around the country that Crockett had survived the siege and was serving a prison sentence in the Salinas Mine near Guadalajara, says Lee Paul who researched the issue.

Forty-two years later, Joseph Conn Guild claimed Crockett and five others survived. They surrendered to General Manuel Castrillon under promise of his protection, a promise rendered worthless by Santa Anna.

According to Guild, “Crockett fell with a dozen swords sheathed in his breast.”
Probably the most believable story came from the lips of Susanna Dickinson, wife of Almeron Dickinson, Travis’s lieutenant. She knew Crockett on sight. She stated in her memoirs that she saw Crockett and a handful of others lying mangled and mutilated between the "church and the two-story barrack building. She even remembered seeing his peculiar cap by his side as she was led from the scene by a Mexican officer.

So what is the truth?

We’ll never know.

What most of us will always believe the truth is the rendering of the heroic figure in the painting that hung on the north wall of the chapel for years. It portrayed Crockett standing in the thickest of the fighting, using his flintlock like a club until Mexican bayonets and bullets cut him down.

That’s how I see him, a John Wayne hurling a torch into the powder room as lances
slam into his body.

So maybe legend has supplanted fact.

I can live with that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Twenty-First Century Education

Where has the time gone? It’s almost as if some sneaky shyster stole eighteen hours from every twenty-four. And most of you approaching three score know what I’m talking about.

I’ve suddenly reached the age that when I look in the mirror, I see my Dad. And it is now easy for me to understand my grandparents’ wonder at the drastic changes that took place during their lifespan.

My paternal grandmother who came to Texas in a covered wagon saw not only the first automobile, but also the first airplane and then the first moon landing. That had to be one heck of a cultural shock for her.

And now, as many old codgers, I find myself in the same confusing dilemma. I remember the old crystal radios, and today—golly, we have the internet and twit or tweeter or twickel—whatever those things are.

But, I don’t believe anything has changed so dramatically as public schools. I spent forty-one years in education. I enjoyed it. From time to time over the last five or six years, I’d even toyed with the idea of doing some substitute teaching, but then a very good friend told me, “Kent, you wouldn’t survive. You and me,” he said. “Could never fit into it today.”

And I guess maybe he’s right.

Last year, the coach at Texas Tech was canned because he allegedly stuck a player in a dark room. Can you believe it? I couldn’t help laughing—not at the consequences, but at the idea a dark room was some kind of punishment.

I must have spent a third of my grade school days in the book room. Now, I’m not going to say I sought punishment just to go there, but being a book room, there was all kinds of books in the book room. Duh! (this was well before the days of sleaze)
One of my favorites was the pen and paper sketchbook with dialogue of the birth of Texas. I just about memorized that booklet. I still have one. For someone like me, the book room was a treasure trove of reading, whether it was old library books or literature books. I remember one set of ancient encyclopedias called ‘The Book of Knowledge’. There were about twenty volumes, and each had not only several stories, but also eight or ten of Aesop’s Fables.

Punishment? Not hardly. I was Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. Remember that?

Until you’ve had the palm of your hand torn up by a ruler or an apple switch wrapped around your legs, you don’t know what punishment is. You hear talk about the sting of a willow switch, but I kid you not, apple switches put the puny willow to shame.

Something is out of kilter today. Schools punish kids for being kids. A kindergarten boy gives a classmate a kiss on the cheek, and he is suspended. I’m surprised that some of those idiots who call themselves administrators haven’t tried to file sexual harassment charges in such situations.

Oops! I apologize. In Canton, Ohio, a six-year-old boy was taking a bath, naked naturally, when he heard the school bus approaching. He ran outside to stop it. Yes, he was still naked. And the school, it all its smug idiocy, suspended him for sexual harassment.

Such stupidity isn’t confined to Ohio. At Denair Middle School in California, a young boy rode his bike to school. For two months, he flew the American flag on the bike. Students complained, and the boy was ordered to remove it because it was racist.

Racist, mind you. Racist! Only in California. (if enough of us wish for it, maybe it will fall into the ocean)

He did as he was told, but when word spread, and it did, over two hundred American veterans on their Harleys escorted him to school, each one waving a flag.
The school backed down.

And then elsewhere in California, during art class in one middle school, the teacher asked the students to draw a picture of whatever they chose. One young girl drew an American flag with the words ‘God Bless America’ written between the red stripes.
Her teacher said it was offensive, and in the next breath, praises another girl for her drawing of Obama.

The teacher refused to explain why she considered the drawing of the American flag offensive. In all fairness to the administration, after several months and numerous complaints, moved the teacher to elementary.

Smart move, huh?

Now she can mess with the little elementary kids’ minds.

Someone like that has no place in education.

Ask any educator, current or retired, and he can name half a dozen people who don’t need to be in the business. And I wager in every case, administration is well aware of the problem. They do nothing for they want no trouble.

Today, it is extremely difficult to fail a student. The most painless solution, the one that keeps the parents off the school’s back, off the principal’s back as well as the teacher’s, is to pass them. Let someone else worry about them.

Is it any wonder that colleges must offer more and more remediation classes for incoming freshmen?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Teaching Kids about Work

Nederland, Texas is a small town mid-way between Beaumont and Port Arthur, down on the Texas coast. This is a column I wrote for local papers.

Good Job, Nederland Rotary

I had an enjoyable morning last Tuesday. Not only was the sun shining brightly, but there was not a single cloud in the sky. And I was looking forward to visiting with a group of Nederland eighth graders.

The previous week, I had agreed to be one of the guests for Nederland Rotary’s Annual Career Day for Nederland eighth graders at the Montagne Center.

Having spent around ten years in the English classroom and the next thirty or so in Career and Technology Education at Port Neches-Groves ISD, I was no stranger to Career Days. For years, we held them at the Christian Church down on Ninth Avenue. Those Mid-County Rotary guys did a bang up job. I don’t know if my old district still has them or not, but if they don’t they should.

Youngsters don’t learn about different career fields by osmosis, although I have run into more than one individual who seemed to believe that was the way for them to learn, that time away from school to listen to people talk about jobs was a waste of time.

I’ll say this about Nederland Rotary. They did a superb job, and they are to be complimented for the work and effort that went into the planning and carrying out of such a prodigious event.

One of the reasons I believe Career Day is so exceptional is because it gives students an opportunity to listen to and question experts in three or four career fields in which the young person has interest.

Nederland’s Career Day offered around fifteen broad occupational areas with eighty or so specific occupations. A big logistical job, but they pulled it off in spades.

Bright-eyed and alert, students expressed keen interest in the various breakout sessions, peppering the speakers with questions, some perceptive, some humorous, but all enlightening.

I was in the Art, Audio/Video Tech & Communications. In my group were an artist, photographer, meteorologist, radio/tv, advertising, and editor/writer/reporter.

The photographer was from Nederland, and she spent several minutes giving the youngsters an excellent overview of the various types of photography and how they could prepare for the occupation.

The gentleman from the advertising agency provided students a clear picture of his business, what it entailed, the number of different skills the business demanded.

The meteorologist did an excellent job. We’ve all seen him on Channel 6, James Brown. He instantly captivated the students with his humor and pertinent information regarding his field. The kids loved him.

Luckily, I made my short presentation before him. He’s a hard act to follow.

One important fact all speakers covered however was that upon graduation from high school, a young person’s education is not over.

Whether he goes on to college or the military or to work in a craft, he has to learn the mechanics of the career he’s chosen. And in this age of exploding technology, learning is never over.

Unfortunately, many school districts insist its counselors guide students toward college. Some districts don’t even have interests inventories to suggest to students their strengths and weaknesses. When asked how they guided students into fields of interest, one counselor blithely stated, “We ask them.” When further asked about interest inventories, the counselor dismissed the measure with the same indifference. “Why? We ask them.”

You might be puzzled at such indifference, but when you realized that the higher percentage of seniors entering college is a plus for the district, you can understand (but not agree) why.

Another reason I was so impressed with the program developed by Nederland Rotary and Nederland ISD was they recognized that not all graduates are cut out for college. In fact, do some checking, and you will discover almost two-thirds of jobs in Southeast Texas, the country for that matter, do not require a college education.

Having said that, I hasten to add that those who pursue the majority of those fields and seek additional education in the way of certifications, associate degrees, or degrees will find their income rises accordingly.

Education is wealth.

We have an obligation to provide our children with essential information to make sound career choices. Anything less is shameful.

I’m sure there are many other districts like Nederland who have their act together. And those that don’t, should.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Truth about Health Bill

Despite the lockstep mentality so prevalent in Washington for the last few decades, the newly elected Congressmen and Senators are making themselves heard. And well they should for they comprise a considerable percentage of both legislative bodies.

One of the Republican mantras has been ‘repeal Obamacare’, a mantra not shared by many of the newly elected. From what I’ve been able to discern by listening to them and reading their opinions, they are indeed in favor of health reform, but not the government-controlled reform engendered by the recently passed conglomeration they call a health bill.

That’s why last week, we talked about eight or nine of the health care claims and promises made by the administration and its supporters, pointing out the truth in cold hard facts, not with their pie in the sky assurance made with a lick and a promise.

Another promise made by the proponents of this bill was that it employs nearly every cost control idea available to bring down costs.

The truth is, the bill does not bring down costs and leaves out nearly every key cost control measure including: Public Option; Medicare buy-in; Drug reimportation; Medicare drug price negotiation; and a shorter pathway to generic biologics (some doubt the cost-saving effectives of generic substitutes for biologic drugs).

Then they promise us that the bill will require big companies like WalMart to provide insurance for their employees.

Are you ready for this? The bill was written so that most WalMart employees will qualify for subsidies to pay for their insurance, and the U.S. taxpayers will pick up a large portion of the cost of their coverage.

I can’t count the number of times I heard the remark, “the bill “bends the cost curve” on health care.”

No, no, no. According to watchdog group, Firedoglake, the bill ignored proven ways to cut health care costs and still leaves 24 million people uninsured, all while slightly raising total annual costs by $234 million in 2019.“Bends the cost curve” is a misleading and trivial claim, as the US would still spend far more for care than other advanced countries.

In 2009, health care costs were 17.3% of GDP. In 2019, the cost of health care in 2019 will be 20.9% of the GDP.

A great deal has been made about uninsured for pre-existing condition. The bill claims immediate access to the uninsured because of a pre-existing condition.

Sad to say, but access to the “high risk pool” is limited, and despite the astronomical premiums, the pool is underfunded. It will cover few people, and it will run out of money in 2011 or 2012. On top of that, only those who have been uninsured for more than six months will qualify for the high risk pool.

You cannot be dropped in individual plans from coverage when you get sick.

The bill does not include a regulatory body to keep people from being dropped when they’re sick.

Many states have laws prohibiting people from being dropped when they’re sick, but they have no agency to enforce the laws. Without an enforcement mechanism, there is little to hold the insurance companies in check.

The bill does say consumers have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to challenge new insurance plan decisions. The “internal appeals process” is in the hands of the insurance companies. The “external” one is up to each state.

Internal appeals simply means the insurance companies have to review their own decisions. And each state is to provide an external appeals process. There is no funding or regulatory agency at the federal level.

Time and again we heard proponents claim this bill will stop insurance companies from hiking rates 30%-40% per year.

Another lie. The bill does not limit insurance company rate hikes. Private insurers continue to be exempt from anti-trust laws, and are free to raise rates without fear of competition in many areas of the country.

The claim that the bill creates that much ballyhooed pathway for single payer(a concept that could possibly help relieve our deficit) is hard to believe.

You see, the waiver does not start until 2017, and does not cover the Department of Labor. That being the case, it is nearly impossible to see how it gets around the laws of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974..

The bill will end medical bankruptcy and provide all Americans with peace of mind.

If you know someone who filed bankruptcy for medical purposes, you’ll find they probably had insurance. That’s the case with most. Out-of-pocket expenses will continue to be a burden on the middle class.

In 2009, 62% of bankruptcies were medically related, and according to Firedoglake, three-quarters of those had health insurance.

And now, to add a little fuel to the fire, did you know that the Obama administration has granted over 740 healthcare-reform waivers to unions, corporations, and nonprofits in order to stave off massive policy cancellations and rate hikes affecting 1.5 million workers? And that information comes straight from documents posted online by the Department of Health and Human Services.

What I'd like to know is when do I get my waiver?