Writer’s Workshop: Homework: Yea or Nay?

Let’s start with some appropriate music: Otis Rush, “Homework.”

The J. Geils Band did a version of this on their live album, 1972’s Full House. It was the version I heard first, because I didn’t have access to the Otis Rush version until… well, just now.

But that’s neither here no there.

I have never been a parent, so I don’t know what it’s like having to be like Simon Legree and stand over kids while they do their homework under duress. But I was a kid once and remember what it was like having to do my homework under duress, and believe me, I hated it. There were better things to do at night, like watch TV, listen to a White Sox game, play my guitar, read a book besides a textbook, read the newspaper or magazine, or even go to bed early.

Evidently, quite a few teachers have stopped assigning daily homework. They’ve come to the conclusion that the kids have better things to do than yank out their schoolbooks after spending six hours with it and do more of it. A lot of teachers now look for their students to do twenty minutes of reading, then fill out some kind of a log that their parents have to sign of on, that goes to the teacher, but that’s still homework, even if it’s not a textbook. So they’ve stopped demanding a reading log, too.

Believe me, I would have loved it as a kid. So much of it was just busywork (“for homework, do the hundred problems on this page”), and if the teacher didn’t check it, I was more likely not to do it. I was a pretty lousy student. I was smart and got good grades through grammar school (grades 1-8), and was usually able to bluff my way through most assignments, which was what I did nine times out of ten. That wasn’t so easy when I got to high school, and by the time I went to “university,” it really became a struggle to keep my head above water.

So, I can see good things about not having daily homework, but can also see some undesirable things happening. Still, if it means that kids have more time to read or get some sleep, I’m all for it. Mom, who taught for 37 years, always said if you could read, you could learn anything. I had a friend in college who I learned later had my mother in fourth grade. He couldn’t read, so Mom told him he had to read a book every week and turn in a book report every Monday. He ended up going to medical school, so I guess he learned to read.

I don’t have kids, so I’ll have to defer to the mothers here: what do you think? Do your kids get homework every day? Do you have to stand over them with a whip to get them to do it? Does homework help or hurt? To quote Ross Perot, I’m all ears…

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Time May Change Me, But I Can’t Trace Time (Writer’s Workshop)

I feel a song coming on… From 1979, The Little River Band, “Cool Change.”

I talked about “yacht rock” on Monday, which is just a form of “lite rock” (or, as I like to call it, “lite rawk”), and much of the Little River Band’s music fits the description, which is basically “light rock listened to by wealthy Yuppies while they’re on their yachts.”

You don’t hear about Yuppies (“young urban professionals,” if you aren’t familiar with the term) anymore. They’re still around, I’m sure, but they’re not called that anymore. At least I don’t think so. They’ve morphed into something different. I mean, the original Yuppies were Baby Boomers and are now all in their late fifties, early sixties, and I think the term was used so disparagingly that members of subsequent generations (their children, maybe?) did their best not to become them.

I never watched the TV show How I Met Your Mother, but the Neil Patrick Harris character (“Barney,” I think was his name) was kind of the quintessential Yuppie. Suit and tie, attitude, at least from what I gather.


Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother (source)

Anyway, enough of that.

There used to be a lot of radio stations that had a “lite rock” format, such as WCLR in Chicago, which started out playing beautiful music, then changed formats.

Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, and Frank Sinatra, “lite rock” artists? That was the Seventies for you. Anyway, they changed formats in 1989 to “hot adult contemporary” and their call letters to WTMX, “The Mix.” Changing call letters generally goes along with a change in format, but WQXI-FM in Atlanta changed their call letters to WSTR-FM and continued playing the same music. Go figure.

Speaking of “change” music (well, I was earlier), here’s another “yacht rock” favorite, Jimmy Buffett’s “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” from 1977.

And, while I’m at it… here’s David Bowie, from 1972. Not yacht rock, but it fits.

I wanted to be, among other things, a disc jockey when I was younger (I bet that comes as a great shock to you, doesn’t it?), but somewhere along the way, I changed. I miss that kid who used to play disc jockey in his room. And the kid who dreamed of being a big rock star. I sit sometimes and wonder when the hell all that changed.

Writer’s Workshop: XIV

I don’t know if they still teach Roman numerals in school; I have no kids, or at my age, grandkids, so what goes on in the schools we pay lots of tax dollars to support is a total mystery. Anyway, XIV is 14 in Roman numerals, if you didn’t know, and even if you did know, it’s still 14, as was Martin Prado, now of the Miami Marlins, when he was with the Atlanta Braves.


#14, Martin Prado (source: Braves Nation Blog). Rio Ruiz, another third baseman, sports #14 now.

There used to be a TV production company called Ziv Television Programs, Inc. that was started by Fredrick Ziv in 1948 to provide syndicated content to the brand-new TV industry. Some of the shows he produced were Sea Hunt, Whirlybirds, The Everglades, and my personal favorite, Highway Patrol, starring Broderick Crawford. At the end, the shows would display the company logo, the word “ZIV” in capital letters surrounded by a box that looked like a TV screen. Once I got past being scared of the logo (yeah, logos used to scare me to death, what about it?), I would see the word ZIV and think it was Roman numerals for something, but couldn’t figure out what the Z stood for. “Ziv” is the Hebrew word for “light” or “glow,” apropos of a company whose products glow from a TV set, don’t you think?

Speaking of scary logos, my friend Ben Minnotte (I don’t know the guy, I just call him that because I like the videos he makes for his YouTube channel, Oddity Archive) did a video on scary logos, which of course includes the Viacom “flying V OF DEATH!”

I don’t know if the schools around here teach cursive writing, but I do know that’s kind of a hot topic, because a lot of school districts are looking to eliminate it, rendering the current and future generations of youngsters incapable of reading things that their parents, grandparents, people they don’t know etc. wrote. Cursive writing was a hard thing for me to learn… no, it was easy for me to learn, almost impossible for me to produce to the satisfaction of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, who insisted that we should write as well (i.e. prettily — it’s a word now) as they did, and doing it using a cartridge pen, which I discussed in my first A to Z Challenge back in 2012 (which you can read here, if you’ve a mind to). I no longer write longhand, as my right hand was affected by the stroke and I never learned to write left-handed, which is probably just as well: even at its best, my handwriting was illegible. Sometimes even to me…

And that puts me at twelve lines. Which means this is the fourteenth, which was how many lines I was supposed to write…

Writer’s Workshop: A New Route To Work

I think I’ve done most of my good bus stories (here and here are two of them), but the “Write a post based on the word ‘bus'” prompt is calling me, mostly because the others don’t.

When you live in a city that has a great public transit system as Chicago does, you learn how to get just about anywhere on the buses and trains. Grandma Holton used to drag her sister Florence around Chicago all the time on the buses, and said she could go nearly anywhere she wanted for a quarter. The price of a bus ride has gone up dramatically since Grandma was truckin’ around Chicago, but still, it’s a relatively inexpensive method of travel, and everyone uses it if they’re going downtown, because it costs an arm and a leg to park there.

I worked downtown when I was younger. My office was at Monroe and Franklin, a block away from the Sears Tower. (They renamed it the Willis Center a few years ago, but to someone who grew up in Chicago, it’ll always be the Sears Tower, just as the store at State and Randolph with a big clock will always be Marshall Field’s. I don’t care how much Macy’s paid to put their name on the door.)


Marshall Field’s actually has two clocks, one at Randolph and State, the other at Washington and State. This is the latter. (Source: Wikipedia)

Where was I? Oh yeah.

My normal route to work was to take the #47 bus to what was then called the Lake-Dan Ryan Rapid Transit station at 47th Street (now it’s the Red Line Rapid Transit), ride the train to Adams and Wabash, and hike across the Loop to Monroe and Franklin, about half a mile in whatever weather was going on, whether it was 95° and 95% humidity or -10° and the wind blowing at 15 mph (that’s a wind chill of -32°) or anything in between.

On good days, I’d take a walk at lunchtime, sometimes through the Loop, sometimes away from the Loop. One day, while walking away from the Loop, I discovered that Greek Town was within relatively easy walking distance of the office. Greek Town was on Halsted Street, one of those very long streets that stretches practically through the entire city. I knew it crossed over 47th Street, and that the #8 bus ran down it.

Now, this isn’t really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but to me, this was a revelation. I was starting to get bored with my usual route to the office, and was tired of having to stand most of the way on the train, especially after a hard day when it was hot. I decided to try taking the Halsted bus home that evening. If it really sucked, I’d go back to my usual route, but at least I’d have another way to the office if one was needed.

That afternoon, I hiked over to Halsted and caught the southbound #8 bus. I got a seat right away; the bus was never more than half-full on the entire trip. It was a quiet ride, and I was able to finish the crossword puzzle in the Sun-Times well before I had to transfer. Best of all, I got home about fifteen minutes earlier. The commute the next morning was just as stress-free. I didn’t have to battle the crowds in the Loop, I was able to have some quiet time after spending the day at work, I was getting good exercise with all the walking (I was about 200 lb. lighter then), and occasionally I’d meet some interesting people. A win-win all around.

Writer’s Workshop: Mighty Fighter of Foo!

A guy I worked with once used the line “Buy ’em books, buy ’em books, all they do is chew the covers off.” I thought it was hilarious, even though I didn’t understand what he meant. I remembered it when I saw the prompt for this week was “books.”

Still not quite getting what it meant some 40 years later, I decided to look it up, and evidently there are two possible explanations.

  • It’s in roughly the same vein as “Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
  • It’s about doing something for someone that they don’t fully appreciate.

A slightly different take is “You buy them books and send them to school, and all they do is eat the pages.” Which then reminded someone on a message board who went by the name “Smokey Stover” of a cartoon they had seen years before, where a cannibal chief is saying, “Buy them books, send them to school, and they eat the teacher.”

Which brings me to the true purpose of this essay, Bill Holman, a cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune who drew the cartoon Smokey Stover. I used to read the cartoon every Sunday, and decided the guy was either crazy or on something, maybe both. But I liked it.


Smokey Stover comic book cover, from Wikipedia (Fair Use)

Smokey was a fireman, or in his parlance, a “foo fighter.” (Now you know where the band’s name came from.) His chief, who he referred to as “Chiefy,” was named Cash U. Nutt. The strip was loaded with puns, not necessarily related to the story of the strip; they appeared as a sort of picture-within-the-picture, in part of the comic frame that would otherwise be unoccupied. (An example: a picture might be labeled “Whipped Cream” and depict a cream pitcher being lashed with a cat-o’-nine-tails.) Or a tag might be attached to an item in the picture, such as a dog’s bone bearing the tag “Ca c’est bone.”

In addition to “foo,” Holman always managed to squeeze the phrase “Notary Sojac” into the comic somewhere, on a street sign, a wall, or even as a sheet of paper if he couldn’t find anywhere else to put it. He always explained that it was an approximation of “Nollaig Shona Dhuit,” the Gaelic phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.” For a time, he would also include the phrase “1506 nix nix,” no doubt an inside joke.

The cartoon, many examples of which can be seen on the website, was so unique that, when Holman retired in 1973 after having drawn it for roughly forty years, the strip merely ended. No one took it over, because no one could. It was unique to Holman and his loony sense of humor. It hasn’t totally died, though: the word “foo,” generally in conjunction with the word “bar,” shows up all the time in computer science textbooks, generally as variables, e.g. foo = 1; bar = 2; That, in turn, refers to the military term FUBAR, which politely translates as “badly screwed up.”

To bring this full circle, I checked Amazon for books of Smokey Stover comics, and it appears that most of them are antiques. Seems a shame to let humor like his die out…