Monday, May 28, 2007

Starting those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days

It may not be officially summer yet, according to the calendar. The first day of summer is June 21. But the summer season is underway for all practical purposes. Memorial Day is the traditional beginning of the summer season.

Schools let out for the summer sometime around Memorial Day weekend. It is the time when more campers and motor homes are seen on the highways. One telling sign of summer is the steep increase in the price of gasoline as families take to the roads and skies on their summer vacation journeys.

For me, Memorial Day often evokes memories of Kentucky. When I was young, my mom and my Aunt Ruby would spend hours in the kitchen on the days leading up to Memorial Day. They were not cooking; they were creating artificial flowers out of crepe paper and wax.

Nobody went to the store or the flower shop to buy expensive wreathes or bouquets to decorate the graves of our family members who had passed on. Mom and my aunt gave it the personal touch. Then, on the holiday itself, we would climb in the car for the long trip down to Columbia, Ky.

My aunt always called the holiday Decoration Day. That was the old name for it. Its primary focus was honoring the nation’s war dead. When it changed to Memorial Day, the focus shifted to include honoring anyone who had died, making it more of a family observance.

In recent years, the family gathering place has moved from Kentucky to Rest Haven Cemetery in Edinburgh. Aunt Ruby is buried there, as are other family members including my father and my wife, Donna.

But after our remembrances, we still do what many other families do on Memorial Day Weekend: We gather in the back yard and have a barbecue, weather permitting. Then, I look forward to a long summer vacation away from my 8th graders.

I had a three-day weekend this week, as most people did. Now I’m enduring the final four days before summer break. I can’t resist teasing some of my brothers that my three-day weekend is over, but in a few days, I’ll have a two-and-a-half month weekend.

I often get asked if I am going to teach summer school or get a part-time job somewhere. My reply is that I don’t do either, because that would defeat one of the major perks of being a teacher: Time off.

I don’t do a lot of working over the summer. Sometimes I take care of some long-overdue household chores, but that’s about it. I do like going on vacation, but only by ground transportation. This year, I’m considering taking the train somewhere. I’ve never done that.

I didn’t inherit a compulsion to work from my mother. She’s been retired for several years but rarely has a day off. I, on the other hand, sometimes think I was born to be retired.

But in the mean time, I’ll just enjoy my summers off. They tend to go by far too quickly these days.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Kids Should be Taught More Science, Less Mythology

One of my brothers attends a large Christian church whose doctrine lines up solidly on the right. Although the congregation is apparently more diverse than most fundamentalist churches, the ministry preaches the six-day creation of Genesis.

During my nephew’s graduation party, my brother introduced me to one of the ministers of the church. He told me that they were having a guest from the newly-opened Creation Museum in Kentucky and wanted to know if I would be interested in publicly debating the guest on the topic of evolution versus creation.

I told him I had no interest in such a debate and briefly explained why. I did engage in such a debate once, and learned my lesson. Oh, I came out ok, but nobody ever really wins those debates anyway.

Creationist debaters come armed with slick audio-visual presentations designed to wow the audience and slam evolution with innuendos and half-truths. The pro-evolution debater then has about two minutes to teach the audience the science of evolution. I’m a science teacher and it takes me the good part of a month to cover the subject, and then it’s a rather superficial treatment. There is no way a debater can present the evidence for evolution in the span of a two-minute debate with a minute of rebuttal.

On top of that, the creationist debaters always have their vast following of fundamentalists crowding the auditorium. Evolutionists have no organized followers. There is no church of evolution. Scientists are busy in their labs. They all already know that evolution is true and proven by evidence, so they have no need to debate. Besides, a person of science debating a creationist lends credibility where none exists.

After the minister left, I told my brother he seemed like a nice guy and asked if he was the head minister. My brother told me no, that he was the education minister.

My immediate reaction was, “Now that’s scary.” And then I proceeded to tell him how I had already written a piece for the Indianapolis Star stating my opinion about the museum.

He said that just because I didn’t believe in it didn’t mean I had to go around bashing it publicly and that my belief didn’t make it wrong to have such a place.

But it is wrong. I understand freedom of religion and I support it. People are free to believe whatever mythology they like. But the Creation Museum is a detriment to society, not just a place where people can profess one belief or another. It actively teaches children that the earth was created in six days only a few thousand years ago and that all species of life were individually created within that span of time by God.

Not only that, it teaches it using what appears to be some sort of scientific methodology. It’s a museum that shows fossils and dinosaur exhibits like a real science museum does. It uses scientific terminology. It tries to make itself legitimate by masquerading as a legitimate science when, in fact, it is simply a religious belief that not even all Christians subscribe to.

In that respect, it is dangerous. It is far worse than simply being wrong, it is being deceitful. I don’t have any problem with the museum per se. And if they posted a clear disclaimer stating that the views therein were religious dogma and not in any way intended to reflect a scientific viewpoint, I wouldn’t be complaining.

But the curators want the public to believe their presentations and displays have scientific merit. And in that respect, they’re liars. As such, the mainstream Christian community ought to crusade vehemently against such deceitful organizations.

In recent polls, nearly half of all Americans said they believe the creation myth of the bible. Yet only small minorities of Christians are fundamentalists. The mainstream denominations, such as the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Catholics, and Jews have no problem accepting evolutionary science. But a significant percentage of their congregations don’t believe the science because they have been listening to the steady drumbeat of the fundamentalist brainwashers who have the money and resources to promote their pseudoscience.

It’s very unfortunate that the only ones teaching our kids true science are the science teachers, and not even all of them. Many have become discouraged or jaded and have simply given up the battle.

I’m not there yet. Hopefully I can soldier on, because it’s a war worth winning for the sake of our youth. They need to be taught how to think for themselves instead of following the mindless drivel of the right-wing zealots. They need to know that there is a real, rational method for discovering the truth. That method is science.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

It's the Merry, Memorable Month of May

As a kid, I looked forward to the month of May. I had two reasons to love May. First of all, it meant that summer vacation was just around the corner. Secondly, my birthday is in May.

After I graduated college, I became a teacher. So the reasons for loving May were still very much present. I didn’t relish my birthday as much as I did when I was young, but it was still fun.

After the first 13 years of teaching, I decided it was time to try something else. And by then, birthdays meant little more than that I was a year older. So without the summer break, and with birthdays becoming more annoyance than revelry, May lost its luster.

Despite the coming vacation and my birthday, springtime was never really my favorite time of year. I don’t really know why. I never did like thunderstorms very well, and there are more of them in the spring. I never did like hot weather very much and springtime is the vanguard of the heat and humidity to come.

Aside for the weather, springtime also didn’t have that wonderful feeling of hominess I got in the fall. Fall is the holiday season. As a kid, I loved Halloween. Later, I liked the beauty of the fall foliage, the pumpkins, and the whole idea of harvest. Although I was never a farmer, I looked forward to fall because it meant the fields were about to bear fruit, and a feeling of bounty was always in the air.

In addition, Thanksgiving is in the fall and it is the harbinger of that most wonderful season of year, Christmas. So with the crisp, clear skies, cooling atmosphere, colorful leaves, holidays, and a cozy, homey feeling, the autumn has always been my favorite time of year, despite the fact that it also meant that school had started again.

But even the displeasure of having to start another school year was mitigated by the fact that it was a different school year, not the same one. It meant new teachers (or new students once I became a teacher), and a whole new beginning.

Still, no matter how good the beginning, it was always nice to know the school year was winding down. And, thus, May became a favorite month, too. As a kid, it meant endless hours of playing and watching TV. As a teacher, it means no more lesson plans or bratty underachievers. It also means lots of free time.

When some people retire, the first thing they do is find themselves a part-time job. My mom is in that category. She lives to work. On the other hand, I was born to be retired. And for a teacher who chooses not to teach summer school or get a summer job, the two-and-a-half months of summer break is a good indication of what retirement might be like.

If it were not for those annoying birthdays that must come between now and the time I retire, I would wish for it to come early. In the mean time, I’ll just enjoy looking forward to May and to my summers off.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Using New Technology to Answer Old Questions

When I was in college I listened to a radio station that offered up a canned play list of songs that included a mix of oldies and contemporary songs, but nothing too harsh. As today, I didn’t care much for the hard-hitting rock music. Of course, by today’s standards, even the hardest rock in the 1970s was rather mild.

They played this one song quite often. I liked it, but I didn’t know what the title was or who sang it. I knew it was a bit of an oldie, but not too old. I wanted to own the single, if only I could figure out who the artist was.

In those days, Tom Pickett had a record store in Columbus, on 25th Street. He always had a nice collection of older 45s, so I decided to go in and check it out. I told the clerk about the song I was looking for, but since didn’t know the title, I sang him a couple of lines.

He immediately told me it was Linda Ronstadt. He then went to the oldies bin and pulled it out. After weeks of not knowing, I finally got my song.

Years later, more like decades, I was bothered by another song I had listened to frequently when I was a teenager. At this point, I must point out that when I was a teen, my musical taste was not main stream. It still isn’t, but back then I sort of cared. I tended to like Country Music way back before it became cool to listen to. My favorites were cross-over hits, though, mostly by the likes of Glen Campbell and Bobby Goldsboro.

The song, the memories of which were tormenting me, was by Glen Campbell. I remembered listening to it on a home-mixed 8-track tape. But I had paid someone to record it for me so I didn’t know the name of the song even then. I just knew I liked its melody.

But I was stuck with not knowing until the advent of the home computer and the Internet. A few years ago, I remembered the song again. I still didn’t know the title, and a thorough search of produced nothing familiar. So I went online and posted one line of the song lyrics on a message board dedicated to oldies music.

Within a few hours I had my answer. Not only did someone recognize the lyrics and reply with the name of the song, he also told me which album it was on. The problem was, the vinyl album had not been converted to CD, which is why I couldn’t find it on Amazon.

Not to fear, I just logged onto one of those song-sharing services to see if someone had converted it to digital. Someone had. I downloaded it and listened to it for the first time in about 30 years.

A few years later, the original album was finally released on CD, so I got a cleaner copy of it.

The same scenario has happened to me several times since then. And now, thanks to the Internet, I know exactly where I can find the answers to those burning questions such as, “What is the name of that song?” or “What was the other movie that guy played on?”

With sites such as the Internet Movie Database and All Music, I don’t have to wait decades to find my answers to those questions.

My computer even helps me to get my facts straight. By ALT-clicking on Linda Ronstadt’s name, a little window pops up telling me I had indeed spelled it correctly. Not only that, it shows me her picture and gives me a brief biography.

If only I could have had this much information at my fingertips when I was doing that high-school research paper….

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Waffle House Memories

Remember the Waffle House? No, I don’t mean the one with the yellow sign down by the interchange. I mean the Waffle House, the one in Franklin where my friends and I spent long hours “studying” when we were in college.

Back then, it was located in downtown Franklin. But later, it moved to an out lot near the Kroger store on U.S. 31. Dad and I used to go there to eat biscuits and gravy and drink coffee, because it was one of the few restaurants that served biscuits and gravy any time of day or night. The Hoosier Kitchen truck stop didn’t start serving it until 11:00 PM.

When we drove out of state on vacations, we would often spot Waffle House restaurants and would stop by for lunch or dinner. But it wasn’t our Waffle House. It was the one that was called Waffle & Steak in Indiana. It was a bit confusing.

I learned that the Indiana version of Waffle House was based in Indianapolis and had most of its restaurants here in this state. A few were located in Ohio, but since that other Waffle House had the naming rights in that state, our Waffle House had to be called the Waffle Iron in Ohio.

And since the Indianapolis-based restaurant chain had the Waffle House naming rights in Indiana, the other Waffle House with the yellow sign had to call itself Waffle & Steak here. Confused yet?

Well, the confusion is all but over. The little Waffle House with the yellow sign now has naming rights all over the place, including Indiana. That’s because the Indianapolis-based Waffle House sold the naming rights to the other chain and changed its own restaurants to Sunshine Café. SunQuest is the company that franchises Sunshine Cafes in Indiana.

In Indianapolis, there is only one remaining Waffle House. It is located on West Washington Street. I eat there frequently. It has good home-style food at reasonable prices. And, yes, it serves biscuits and gravy in the afternoon.

I have nothing against the other Waffle Houses, the ones with the yellow signs. I’ve eaten there and their food is good. But they’re a bit cramped, especially for a big guy. And they have no nostalgia value for me.

Thankfully, though, the owner of the old Waffle House on Washington Street has no plans to change his restaurant’s name or close it down soon. He made an agreement with the yellow-signed Waffle House that allowed him to keep the name.

He’s been in business at that location for decades and he plans to stay. He said he had the opportunity to change the name of his restaurant to Sunshine Café, but he wondered why he would want to do that. If he were going to change the name, he would just call it Kurt’s Place.

There are lots of restaurants around these days, and I think I’ve eaten at most of them. Some have fancy dishes with high prices. They have a nice atmosphere with cloth napkins and tablecloths.

And, though some of them serve quite decent food, I have found that I still prefer the meals I get at Waffle House. There’s nothing fancy about it, but the price is right. And it’s one of only a few remaining establishments that I can link back to my days in college, and remember with fondness.