Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Center of Our Concerns

 The Center of our Concerns

By Bobby Neal Winters

The way we center our lives is different now than it was when I was growing up.  I got to thinking of this when I was out mowing.

I like “The Big Bang Theory.”  In particular, I like Sheldon’s mom.  Whatever the other faults of the show, they got East Texas right.  I know this because East Texas is just a warmer and more humid version of eastern Oklahoma; the people are exactly the same.  They will hang us all on the same tree, as my daddy used to say.

On “Young Sheldon,” which is a spin-off of “The Big Bang Theory,” they are dealing with one of my dad’s favorite teaching issues.  Sheldon’s elder brother gets a young woman pregnant. The series has spent several episodes exploring the familial and cultural ramifications of this.  So far they’ve been true to the culture.

By culture here I mean what are the standard ways that have been developed to deal with the issues of living.

In his “Tiffany Aching” series, Terry Pratchett has described how the country folk in England (well, Discworld, but really England) handled such things. A young man and woman would get together at a fair. A few months later a bump appeared. The girl’s mother would talk to the girl’s dad.  The girl’s dad would talk to the boy’s dad over a pint at the pub, and it would all just be worked out.

This was similar to the way that dad taught. 

Dad was a simple man and he gave simple advice.  If you get a girl pregnant, you are going to marry her.  He did recognize complications could arise, such as maybe the two people involved didn’t like each other.  His response was thought-out ahead of time: If you don’t think that you can live with the girl, then maybe you shouldn’t be having sex with her. He also said it was a lot more fun to get along with your spouse than to fight all the time.

He was a simple man; it was a simple time. 

As I look back on it, I see that his philosophy--this cultural way of doing things that goes way back--was based on the idea that once that little human being came into existence its needs were paramount. 

This was a lecture I heard from Dad more than once. I think he had it playing on a loop somewhere in his head.  It came out whenever we were working in the garden; when we were hunting; when we were fishing.  “When you get married, your loafing days are over.  Don’t spend time out with your buddies. You need to be home with your family. You need to concentrate on putting beans on the table.”

This is very much a blue-collar, working-class philosophy. It is fitting because Dad was very much a blue-collar, working-class man.

He wasn’t speaking out of abstract concerns either. He had plenty of empirical data.  He could name numerous young men, who had faced just this challenge.  They’d made the trip to city hall or the preacher or whatever.  They’d been given a clothes basket full of household items and taken to their new home.  

While this is often referred to as a “Shotgun Wedding,” no shotguns were involved because they didn’t have to be. The young people involved had been raised in this same tradition.  I could name--but I won’t--quite a few grown people with children and grandchildren who are in existence today because of this. It ain’t pretty, but it’s life.

It is a cultural practice that is centered on the child. The idea is a child needs the support of a whole family: mother, father, and grandparents. It works better if the parents are living together and happy about it. That means marriage, de facto if not de jure. 

There was a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The House You Live in”: “Stay calm in the face / of all common disgraces.” 

I think that “disgrace” is a strong word to use there, but from the moment I heard this to me it has meant reacting in a calm, measured way to something that is, as my dad would always say, “just human nature.”  If there wasn’t something in us that drove us this way, the human race would’ve died out a long time ago.

Times have changed since my dad was bringing up his sons.  Human nature has not.  We are creating new problems and new solutions.  Maybe, just maybe, one principle we can stick with is making our children the center of our concerns.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )

 


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Spoons, knives, boiled eggs, and beans

 Spoons, knives, boiled eggs, and beans

By Bobby Neal Winters

Consider the spoon. I will wait a moment while you get yourself to thinking spoon-shaped thoughts.  If you are eating your breakfast cereal, you might want to hold it in your hand and look at it.  

The spoon is an incredibly useful thing. We use it to stir milk and sugar into our coffee. (An unconnected aside: After many years of horrible ignorance, I’ve gained a greater insight into T.S. Eliot’s line “I’ve measured my life with coffee spoons. There is such a thing as a coffee spoon instead of a teaspoon. Coffee spoons are incredibly tiny.) We use it to eat cereal, soup, and beans.  One could say that the canonical use of a spoon is to eat liquid or semi-liquid food.

But a number of years ago, the lady who taught my daughters Home-Ec showed me that you can use a teaspoon to peel an orange or a boiled egg.  Indeed, they are incredibly useful in peeling boiled eggs.

Is that their proper use?  I don’t know if I can say.  There is a hierarchy of usgage.  I am old enough and from a part of the world where we were taught in school it was not proper to eat our beans with a knife.  There is even kind of a poem about it:

 

I eat my peas with honey /

I've done it all my life /

It makes the peas taste funny /

But it keeps them on the knife 

So there is this phenomenon. A tool is created for a purpose, but in using it we find other things we can do with it. The use of a spoon can be expanded to peeling boiled eggs and that is very satisfactory; a knife can be used to eat your pinto beans with which is non-optimal if you have a spoon around, but is better than eating them with your fingers, perhaps. You can also use a spoon to cut cake with, but if there is a knife around, why?

This is a simple idea.  It is a basic idea.  It is an idea that can be used in different ways.

Consider the human body.  “When we are born we are given a body.”  (I originally wrote that without the quotes, but then as I wrote the sentence I decided to add them.  Because there is a question here: Are we given the body or is the body what we are? The first way of thinking presupposes that there are a bunch of souls waiting in line to be rolled into a body; the second does not. Rather than wrestle this one out here, let’s go with the statement in quotes as being at least metaphorically true and marshall on.)

We are given a human body.  And we must figure out what to do with it.  There was a time when we didn’t have to do as much thinking.  You had to walk, run, climb, or swim everywhere that you went, so getting enough exercise wasn’t a problem.  There wasn’t so much around to eat, so you ate when there was food, and you starved when there wasn’t.

Now we have cars and don’t have to walk to get where we are going.  We have machines to help us work, or we work at sedentary jobs, so we have to learn to use our body in different ways. We need to learn the right way to eat in terms of amount and contend.  We need to learn how to maintain fitness by being active outside of work and setting aside time to exercise.

We are given a human mind. (Same discussion as above.) We need to think with that mind and we need to learn the right way to think. The right things to think about.  For example, we need to realize--to really know--that we’ve only got a short term on this globe.  What sort of mark do we want to leave?  We need to look at the end and how we want that end to look, and then we can attempt (an important word there chosen with care) to arrange our actions to get there.

This all sounds hard...and it is.  It is made easier by one thing: Tradition. (Cue up the music from Fiddler on the Roof here.) All of these things have been worked out. Most of them, anyway. When you get married, you can write your own vows, you can design the whole thing.  If you like that then bully for you. But you don’t have to.  The preacher has it in a book. You can just take it from the book.  Easy-peasy. You can now spend your time working on world hunger.

You want to learn to be a better person: Join a religion. You want people to think kindly of you when you pass: Do things for them. These are tools too and you can learn how to use them.

This learning thing never ends.  Until we die, I guess. But then there are different schools of thought on that.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )

 

 

 


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Bobby's Daughter

 Bobby’s Daughter

By Bobby Neal Winters

In Chapter 11 of the Book of Judges, there is a disturbing story about a mighty warrior named Jephthah  who swore a rash oath. You’ve likely never heard it preached on, and I will neglect retelling it here. Those with an interest, I would suggest read it before noon on a bright sunny day by themselves in a room that has a full box of Kleenex and a teddy bear.

It is about a man who rashly swore an oath, and for reasons you will know if you read it, is called “Jephthah’s Daughter.”

When our family dog Charlie died and I buried him--as is my duty as the man of the house--I vowed that I would never love another dog again.

We have to be careful when we vow.  Not because God is vengeful or spiteful.  Because we create a world with our words.  Man was given this ability by God: To create with the Word. 

We create a world around us with our words.  We have to be careful, lest we create a world we don’t want to live in.

At the time I was burying Charlie, we still had a dog named Obidiah.  We’d gotten Obidiah as a companion for Buttercup; then Buttercup passed.  We then got Charlie as a companion for Obidiah.

When Charlie died, we didn’t get Obidiah yet another companion.  I had made my vow: That was it.

It may seem heartless that we let him remain alone, and perhaps it was, but Obie had gotten to a point where he couldn’t see...or hear.  And he didn’t smell too good either. It’s not clear he ever realized he was all alone.

Then in mid-March, he quietly passed away, and I buried him in the backyard.  (You might expect him to be buried next to his old companion Charlie, but our cat Goldie had died in the interim.  Her final story is so tragic, I don’t think I will ever be able to write it, but let’s go on.)  

So we were dog free.  I could walk across the yard without watching where I placed my feet.  It was wonderful.

But “rash oaths.” 

First my youngest daughter, who now divides her time between Pittsburg and an exurb of Saint Louis, decided she wanted a dog to keep her company as she worked at a distance. (For those who think you know where this is going, I urge you to not jump there yet.) 

When she got the dog (“got” here means paid a lot of money for), she took her new role very seriously.  She was out walking him one day, when she found another dog who didn’t have an owner.

So she brought him home. Not her home in the exurb of Saint Louis, but the one here.  My home.

And it was a nice dog.  A fat dog. A lethargic dog.  A perfect old man’s dog.

The rest of the family were attempting to give him names.  I said, “Come here, Scout!”

And Scout came.

So we’ve got another dog.

Hurray for us.

I will need to watch my step.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )


Saturday, May 07, 2022

The Beam in Your Eye

 The Beam in Your Eye

By Bobby Neal Winters

This column is overtly religious, so if you are turned off by that, I suggest you go to the political cartoon.

I began this morning by asking myself what would the world look like if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus: Love God with all your heart and all your might; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

I rolled back from that and asked what if Christians simply followed the teachings of Christ.

At last, I come to the hardest question of all: What if I simply followed the teachings of Jesus?

There! That’s the one. 

And it has been anticipated by Jesus himself.  He was a carpenter and gave some advice that I’ve come to appreciate more since I took up woodworking: Don’t try to get a piece of sawdust out of someone else’s eye when you’ve got a 4 by 6 stuck in your own.

Concentrate first on making yourself holy.  Concentrate first on seeing your own faults.  Before you judge someone else, take a good look at yourself in the mirror.

Then proceed with love.

We are in the midst of a great culture war. They call it a culture war because the culture is losing.

It’s a big mess because the major political parties have split the Christian moral mission between them. They have turned it into an either or, where Christians have to fight against their values, against themselves, regardless of the “side” they choose.

It is a false choice.  It’s a trick.  It’s like being asked by a lawyer, yes or no: Do you still beat your wife?

As long as we seek the realm of politics to fight our battles for us, this will continue to be the case.

In the New Testament, we are warned not to take our disagreements to be settled by the government.  That advice was never better than it is now. Given the current state of our society, even if we win, we lose.

I look at what I’ve written, and see it could be interpreted as a suggestion to withdraw from being engaged in politics.  Let me answer that clearly: No, don’t. But don’t look to politics as a cheap way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven about.  

Given the increased antipathy towards religion, we have to remain engaged with civic life so as to ensure the freedom of religion, whether that religion be Christian or not or even none. 

Beyond that...

Choose to love others. Work to better yourself so as to quietly provide an example. 

And pray.  Pray to be a better person.  Pray for your family. Pray for your country.  Pray.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )



Friday, April 29, 2022

From the worlds navel to Pittsburg, Kansas

 From the World’s Navel to Pittsburg, Kansas

By Bobby Neal Winters

As I write this, it is my last day in Paraguay.  I arrived here one week ago, come 11pm tonight.  My flight will leave at 1:10am tomorrow morning, so I will have been here just two hours more than one week.

It has been recognized there are places where God seems closer to us than other places.  Jacob had a dream on a mountain top.  There are fortuitous encounters that happen at water wells.  These are places where the natural setting thins the wall that separates us from the divine.  

Asuncion is like that for me.

Perhaps it is the large number of trees in the city.  Perhaps the Jesuits who brought their missions here so long ago felt something special.  Perhaps the daily close encounters with death on the streets by motorists and pedestrians has worn the wall thin.

Who can say?

Regardless, I’ve sometimes felt God speak to me in his own coded, metaphorical language.

On our first day, we went to the Supermercado Real and bought fruit and crackers to have a picnic in the park that is just a block from our hotel.  We sat and ate among a few pigeons.  When I was close to done, I broke off a piece of cracker and tossed it among our feathered lunchmates.

We no longer had a few lunchmates; suddenly we had entered a Hitchcock movie.  We were surrounded.  I thought briefly about the piranhas in Paraguay River and wondered if pigeons were anything like those.  Would they find a pair of skeletons with US passports in a Paraguayan park?  Would there be YouTube videos 20 years from now pondering the mystery of our disappearance?

But no.  They ignored us.  The cracker occupied their entire attention.

The cracker was a problem for them.  So that you have the whole picture, you should know it wasn’t a saltine.  It was a very thin, very hard cracker with seeds in it.  The piece I had tossed out was too big for them to eat with a bite and too hard for them to break.  

This did not deter them from trying to eat it, however.  Indeed, while they couldn’t eat it, they could fight over it, and they did.

It was through this that God began to speak to me.  There was one telling point in the fight, when one bird had the cracker, another bird began fighting with him for it, and while the two birds were fighting, a third bird came along and stole the cracker piece.

The cracker piece eventually disappeared from view without ever having been usefully subdivided.

This has been bothering me during quiet moments ever since.  I’m bothered not because I have no interpretation, but because I have so many.

Are the pigeons the American people and the cracker corner tiny bits of largess the government tosses out for us to fight over?  Are the pigeons university faculty and the cracker issues that only an academic could care about?

I need a Joseph or a Daniel to unravel this for me, to tell me what this all means.

What it means in this place where I feel so very close to God.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )



Saturday, April 23, 2022

Bread Crumbs and the Endorphin Rush

 Bread Crumbs and the Endorphin Rush

By Bobby Neal Winters

In my last column, I wrote that we resist learning.  In this one, I would like to continue in that same direction by talking about ways we combat that resistance.

The main perspective I can speak to this from is that of a math teacher.  While the resistance to learning I wrote about last week was with regard to topics other than skills, I do think I can add some value to the conversation.

Most people hate mathematics.  Indeed, it takes an odd breed of duck to love it. But it is useful and it is essential that at least a few people know it.  Within mathematics, our topics separate into two streams: techniques and problem-solving.  By techniques, I mean the mechanics of solving for x.  We call it “plug and chug” amongst ourselves. While most people find it difficult, it is not held in high regard amongst many in the practice of mathematics.

The ability to problem solve is much more prized, and much more difficult to teach.  It is a chicken-and-egg problem: We teach students to problem solve by having them problem solve. The best teachings do this by laying out bread crumbs for the students to follow.  

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bread crumb metaphor, you should think of a trap having been set for a bird. Say, you have a box propped up by a stick.  You lay out a path of bread crumbs so that the bird will follow the trail and find itself under the box, and then wham! The box falls.

In math, we’ve no boxes and no bread. We have a problem we’ve solved ourselves, and we’ve broken it into pieces.  We then ask the student questions that will lead them to understand the pieces.  The trap slams shut when they put all of the pieces together to see the big picture.

This works because we like to solve puzzles.  Our brain gives us a little chemical reward whenever we solve one; whenever we come to the right conclusion ourselves.  So mathematical traps are nice; a box doesn’t fall on you, but you get an endorphin rush instead.  

Why do you hate us so?

We can learn other things this way as well. That is to say, we can come to it ourselves.

The poets figured this out a long time ago.  The poets, the good ones, visit truths for which they have no precise language, but lead us there anyway.  We spend an amount of time wrestling with their words that we would never spend on something that was written out plain.

If you don’t believe me, think about how much time you spent trying to figure out “The Hotel California” or “Stairway to Heaven.” (Or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” if you didn’t grow up with Rock Music.) There have also been untold thousands of hours spent wrestling with the symbolic language of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.

The best teachers won’t just give you the answer. The best teachers will put scaffolding in place and let you come to it on your own.  Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime.  Lead a man to a way to teach himself; and he will be able to eat things besides fish.

I fear for this method of teaching during a time when there are so many tests in school. (Though that trend seems to have abated somewhat.) Those who have money and power will have it for their children, but not so much for those who work in the factories they own.

But I’ve laid this out too plainly.  You won’t believe me.  You’ll not take it up as your own idea. I have failed.

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )




Saturday, April 16, 2022

Die just a bit, grow just a bit

 Die just a bit, grow just a bit

By Bobby Neal Winters

We resist learning.

I wrote that as  my first paragraph because some people say you should begin with an introduction, and I thought I’d give it a try.  I am not sure that it worked, so I will try it again.

We resist learning.

I do have a PhD, but I don’t have a doctorate of education.  This means that, while I’ve had the experience of delving into the Unknown and reducing its frontiers, I don’t know any of the language that describes learning. In spite of being in the field of education for over three decades, I’ve never picked it up. Because...

We resist learning.

Even a blind hen gets a kernel now and then, however.  There are different kinds of learning.  One one level there are skills: Mathematics, computer programming, languages, woodworking, cooking, talking to narcissists.  These are all bankable things. We resist learning these because they are hard.  

But there are other things as well.  There are things that aren’t hard; somebody says them, and it doesn’t take many words; but then they will deny the truth of it.  I am not going to give a specific example here.  If I did, there would be those who would simply deny it.  They would take the other side just to do it.

And some of you have done that very thing just now, which makes my point for me.  Got you!

Have you ever had an argument with someone--perhaps a civil discussion, but one in which there was a disagreement--and you made all of your points; you countered all of theirs; you ended with a QED which any neutral observer would grant that you were correct.  Maybe you even walked off thinking you had won.  And then you heard the same person saying the same things in the same way to other people.

Yes.  He didn’t learn anything...or maybe it was you.

When we change our minds on something we believe to be important, it is a little death.  We give up something of ourselves.

A really smart person told me something once that another really smart but much more famous person said. (Famous, but I can’t remember his name.) Losing an argument is much better than winning one.  If you lose an argument, and someone convinces you that you were wrong, then you have gained more than she has.  She has learned nothing, but you have learned something.  You’ve improved yourself, while she has not. (See, I’ve learned to use gender-inclusive language.)

We improve ourselves at the price of the death of a small part of our former selves.

There are all sorts of psychological/sociological reasons for us humans being so stiff-necked, but a practical reason for our resistance is simple.  We might be right: Every idea not only has to fight to get on the stage, it has to fight to stay there.

I’ve now written almost 500 words on this topic.  There will be those of you who have read this far, but still don’t believe me.  I am okay with that. Fighting the idea is apparently part of the process.

But you’ve made my case. ((Mic drop))

Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. )