Recalling my year in New Zealand with AFS

Starting in January 1987 and all the way through that year, I had the incomparably good fortune to live in New Zealand as an exchange student through AFS.

Founded by workers with the Ambulance Field Service appalled by the carnage of World War I, AFS has a simple, straightforward goal: Promote world peace by sending high school students from all around the world to live in another country for a year. Let them discover another culture, another people, and find a new set of eyes to see the world with. The understanding they gain can change the world and help to keep us from plunging off the brink again.

I lived a year in Rotorua, on the North Island, where I attended sixth form in Edmund Rice College, later renamed John Paul College. (For those needing something to anchor this to, this was Harry Potter’s year at Hogwart’s in “The Half Blood Prince.”)

AFS had a number of get-togethers over the course of the year. I never thought about it at the time, but in hindsight it makes complete sense. Wherever we were from, we were in sync, going through the same highs and lows of culture shock, homesickness, conflict with our host families, bullying and acceptance at school.

I didn’t get on with many of the other American students, but I made a number of friends from Thailand, Indonesia, Iceland, Spain, Japan and other countries.

Two in particular stood out: Alwin Keil and Anushka Pedris. Every time we had one of these get-togethers, the three of us would end up hanging out together. I compared the three of us recently to Harry, Ron and Hermione; I cannot imagine that year without the two of them.

This was in the days before widespread email and long before the Internet had moved into the home. The sun set on 1987; and Anushka returned to Sri Lanka, Alwin returned to West Germany, and I returned to Pittsburgh. The times and distance being what they were, we fell out of touch.

I’ve thought about them a lot the past 30 years, but when I’ve looked for them online, it’s been like trying to find one particular drop of water in the ocean, or a specific grain of sand in the Gobi. You can Google “Hinako Tanaka,” but if you don’t know Japanese, good luck understanding the results. And Facebook helps you find only people who use it.

I still haven’t found Alwin.

But I connected with Anushka last week, and that 17-year-old I used to be is somewhere inside, doing cartwheels in a school uniform I haven’t worn in three decades.


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Finding the best approach to math with Common Core

Daughter is learning Common Core math.

Common Core, despite the brouhaha a few years ago, simply involves teaching multiple ways to solve the same problem. This is because there are many ways to solve the same problem, and some make far more sense to some children than borrowing and carrying ever will. By using different approaches, Common Core lets kids find the approach that works best for them..

Daughter said they were told not to ask their parents for help because we wouldn’t understand the method they were taught, since it’s not how we were taught when we were their age.

Ready for the irony? She solved today’s math worksheet by borrowing and carrying, and then reverse-engineered the method the teachers had taught them so she could “show her work.”

I looked at the sample problem on the worksheet they had given, and understood it immediately.

That’s pretty much how I’ve been doing subtraction in my head for years.

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The third kind of love

There’s the kind of love that burns sometimes like a candle, and sometimes like a forest fire. It’s the love that desires; it consumes, and it possesses a terrible glory that overwhelms you to look at. That’s the love for a partner.

Then there’s the kind of love that is like the noon sun on a field of fresh snow. It’s a precious beauty that hurts to have, and it’s all you can see, no matter where you look. That’s the love for your children.

There’s a third kind, though, one that we don’t often think about because we take it for granted. It’s as solid as the earth beneath our feet: steady, dependable, remarkable for being unremarkable. Often we notice it only when it disappears, because without it we might as well be falling through the air, with no end in sight.

Love you, mom and dad.

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Keeping Moloch happy

The ancient Phoenicians used to worship a god we now know as Moloch.

Moloch was pretty generous as gods go. His priests promised his followers that they would receive security, prosperity, health, long life, and good harvests. Significantly, they were told, he was the only god who could provide these things. All Moloch asked in return was the occasional sacrifice. He preferred children, but he wasn’t picky. He’d take adults too.

Texas casualties today: 26
Las Vegas shooting Oct. 1: 58 dead
Pulse nightclub shooting June 12, 2016: 49 dead

Moloch’s still doing pretty well, all things considered; and his high priests still insist that more sacrifices are the only way to guarantee our safety, our freedom and our prosperity.

Gotta keep feeding him, though. Moloch is a hungry god. He never stays satisfied for long.

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Kitchen stove, stuff of nightmares

It was the worst nightmare I’d had since I was a child dreaming that Sleestak, reptile men from “The Land of the Lost,”  were invading our house through a hole in the basement wall.

Nightmares. We all have them. Dreams are the brain’s problem-solving mechanism working overtime while the conscious mind sleeps. When we have a nightmare, it’s because the subconscious is trying to warn us of danger. “Stop watching ‘The Land of the Lost!’” your brain screams. “Get dad to patch that hole in the basement wall.”

The truth is, there was no hole in the basement wall of the house I grew up in, although I did have an older brother Bill. We used to watch “The Land of the Lost” together on Saturday mornings, and we got along so well that sometimes he even appeared in my dreams, at least until the Sleestak got him. He stopped appearing after that.

When you get down to it, this was a fairly stupid dream to be scared over. It’s kind of like having a dream in which your oldest brother becomes a dancing skeleton, and getting so scared that you lean over the railing to your bed and throw up on your younger brother while he’s sound asleep in the lower bunk. You just can’t help but feel a little silly afterward.

This particular nightmare was nothing like that. It was legitimately terrifying, with horrors beyond anything Stephen King has given us. There were zoning law violations, bad computer coding, defaced kitchen appliances, questionable H.R. decisions, and ultimate evil loosed upon the earth after a long captivity. Nightmares don’t get worse than this.

In my dream, I was married to the president of the board at the Christian school I used to teach at in Bethlehem, Pa., and we ran a private airport out of our home. If the paperwork for that mixed use wouldn’t be bad enough, our home was also a church, an honest-to-goodness Assembly of God church with yellow padded pews and a baptismal at the front of the sanctuary.

I’d like to think that the dream at this point carried some emotional heft. My wife was leaving on a trip, taking the airport’s only plane. I’d like to say that our hearts were heavy, our faces besotted with tears that mixed with the rain as it fell, but it was sunny and my wife merely smiled in her flight suit before she donned her helmet, and flew off from the runway that doubled as the church’s rear parking lot.

Inside, I joined my friend Scott, our lone air traffic controller, in the kitchen, and we approached the stove.

Most kitchens have stoves, and most stoves are unremarkable. They have burners, and they have controls to turn up the heat. Whether your stove is gas or electric, it works pretty much the same. Turn it up, and the heat goes up; turn it down, and the heat goes down. Your stove may be black, it may be white, and it may be yellow, but probably the most memorable thing about it is how well you can use it to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

This stove was different. Years ago, someone had been faced with beings of indescribable evil, and with powerful enchantments they had locked them one after the other inside the stove. The stove had six burners, and each one held a different devil prisoner. As long as they were trapped there, the world was safe, but if they were ever set loose, we were doomed.

It was a heavy responsibility to have such a stove. As long as you were careful not to write the name of the imprisoned entity in an opening HTML tag right above the dial before lighting the burner, things were fine. You could even make a grilled cheese sandwich, and no one would be hurt.

“You need to free them,” Scott said. “Write their names.”

“But I don’t want to,” I said.

“But you have to,” Scott said. He was nothing if not persistent.

“OK,” I said. He was also persuasive. “But I want to note that I don’t agree with this.”

I wrote “<SATAN>” on one burner, and then turned it on. A blue flame blossomed amid the smell of burning gas, and the devil was loose. The horror was getting real, and I didn’t even have a grilled sandwich to show for my troubles.

Just as I don’t know what happened to Bill – did the Sleestak sacrifice him to their god, or did they torture him and turn him evil? – I don’t remember everyone who was imprisoned in the stove. Aside from Satan, the only one I remember clearly is Dr. Doom, arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four.

All I can say for certain is that in one dramatic moment, I saw the armored arm of Dr. Doom rise up from the stove, and I started awake. The room was dark and all was quiet, save for my own rapid breathing. I was coated with sweat and filled with horror that I had unleashed such tremendous evil on an unsuspecting world. (Damn you, Scott. There, I said it. Damn you and your silver-tongued arguments. Damn you to hell, sir!)

It’s been 18 years now since I had that dream. In that time, we’ve seen the worst terror attack on U.S. soil in history, and in the wake of a war that destabilized the Middle East, we’ve watched as ISIS has thrown the entire region into chaos.  Domestically our social contract has unraveled as the wealth disparity between our richest citizens and the rest of us has grown ever wider, and far right ideologues have sought to undo all the hard-won progress of the past 60 years.

When you go to sleep tonight, if you find the stove in your dreams, stay away. Remember, I lit only two burners before I awoke.

There are still four more to go.


Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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That position is already filled, were you interested?

Way back when I worked for the newspaper from hell, we came into the office one Thursday morning and found a co-worker as ebullient as all get-out.

“I got promoted,” he said. “Copy chief.”

The announcement stunned the rest of us. First, because he was incompetent, and we all knew it. Secondly, because no one had ever bothered to tell the rest of that the position was opening and that we should apply if we were interested. I’d expressed interest in it before, myself, when the previous copy editor had resigned.

It was par for the course at this place — they would hire someone with no experience, and put them on the flagship paper, for instance — but it still left a bad taste.

I confronted the regional editor after this, and while he clarified that the shift was at best a lateral move — “The idea is to get him as far away from reporting and the news as possible,” he said — I still remember how gobsmacked he looked at the umbrage I had taken.

If there’s an opportunity opening up, see who’s interested in it. If people have expressed an interest before, let them know. How hard can that be?

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Building a better mouse, one trap at a time

Some time ago, we had a mouse problem at our house.

Now, by “mouse problem” I do not mean that I was unable to beat my wife’s high score on Windows Solitaire because the tracking ball on her mouse kept getting stuck. Nor do I mean that a mouse may have been politely poking her head through a hole in the wall and demurely offering to come back later if this was a bad time to come visit.

“Ooh,” we did not coo. “You adorable little thing! You must be starved. Here, have some peanut butter and crackers.”

No, we had a problem.

I would be working at the computer and from behind me I would hear not the pitter-patter of little feet, but the skitter-skitter of tiny paws. Sometimes instead of paws I would hear tiny teeth gnawing away at the wooden struts inside the walls, or at things that had fallen unnoticed to the floor at the back of the pantry and remained there unseen. We would be abed, and my wife, a far lighter sleeper than I, would hear an unwanted guest scurrying across the floor.

This was no dramatization of Aesop’s fable. The city mouse hadn’t merely invited the country mouse to come visit her in the city. She had arranged a full family reunion from Uncle Sid to distant cousin Yeta, with our house the grand hotel, safe from the feral cats that wander through our back yard.

Admission to the family reunion cost only $200, and came complete with access to an open bar and presentations on the history of the mouse family, from the time Uncle Webster and Cousin Cyrus spread plague the length of the Ohio River down to the present breakthroughs in spreading leptospirosis.

There was a time when we would have made a trip to the store and bought some poison. I’d have opened the boxes and placed them in strategic places where the children wouldn’t see them, and where the dog couldn’t get them. The mice of course would discover them and perform a tarantella in wonder over this unexpected bonanza of delicious green pellets, right up until they died of thirst, preferably outside.

Changing rules and concerns over the wisdom of putting such poison in the hands of homeowners meant that we could no longer buy the poison ourselves, so we called an exterminator. He came, sized up the problem, and made us an offer.

“I can set some poison and get rid of them for two hundred dollars,” he said.

That’s a lot of money for something you’d like to think that you can do for yourself. So we resorted to traps, which after all are a fairly straightforward affair. You bait the trap, the bait attracts the mice, and the mice die. Maybe they fall into a bucket of water and drown, maybe they walk over glue and get stuck, or maybe they trigger a spring and it all ends with a loud snap. As long as it ends with a dead mouse, it’s a story with a happy ending.

Alas, I failed to consider the role of evolution and the population pressures that humans have been applying to mice since time immemorial.

It’s a principle of evolutionary theory that species adapt to changes in their environment, and each generation is slightly different from the one before it, and therefore harder to get rid of. Antibiotics eventually produce superbugs that are virtually unstoppable. Head lice develop a resistance to the insecticide that we place in delousing shampoo.

And mice? Ever since “Tom and Jerry” debuted, they’ve been getting uppity. They’ve learned to outrun the cat, and now they’re figuring out how to avoid traps.

I set up a bucket of water in the basement, a tin can smeared with peanut butter, resting on a metal rod over the middle of the bucket. The idea is that a mouse will climb the ramp to the rim of the bucket, walk out into the middle to get the peanut butter, and then roll into the water and drown.

The mice weren’t having it.

We set glue traps. In the morning the traps had paw prints on them, next to what I only can assume was mouse script for “Calvin was here,” written in the glue with tiny sticks.

We also set the traditional spring-loaded traps that go snap in the night. These proved to exert the biggest population pressures of all. After we eliminated the mice that were stupid enough to set off the traps, we were left with a mouse population of gradually increasing intelligence.

At first the smarter mouse would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed, and then eat the bait. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions. That in turn led to exploratory committees that investigated ways to get the food without setting off the traps, and even administrative requirements that the mice forage where there were no traps at all.

It seemed like it was all over at that point. Mouse unions had bettered the working conditions and livelihood of everyone but the people trying to kill them.

Deliverance came, of all things, from plaster of paris. Apparently if you thoroughly mix a cup of it with a cup of all-purpose flour, you create a lethal combination. Drawn to the flour, mice also will eat the plaster of paris, which turns to rock in their guts and kills them. You can add milk if you want, to create dough balls, but either way intestines of rock apparently are detrimental to a mouse’s good health.

Problem solved.

At least until the next evolutionary leap.


Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Monster Week: Let’s give it up for the ghouls

Drawing Monster Week to a conclusion after a truly epic run, is the ghoul.

22894148_10212504182512919_3328500761196625869_n[1]Ghouls come to us from Arabian mythology and folklore, where a ghoul was believed to be a nasty djinn sired by the devil. Ghouls live in the desert, where they lure the unwary into a nice sushi bar for dinner and an evening of pleasant conversation that eventually leads to friendship and a magical weekend in Aruba. After that, the ghouls suddenly cut off all contact. They don’t exactly ghost their victims, but they do refuse to take your phone calls, they return your mail unopened, and when you go to their house, they won’t answer the door. Instead they will watch, unfeeling and unsmiling from the second floor window, as you pound on the door and cry, beg, and plead for them just to talk to you so you can apologize for whatever it is you did wrong, as the tears flow like rivers from your eyes. But of course they never do, and your despair only deepens and twists while your friends and family watch, helpless to intervene, as they futilely try to turn you to old pleasures, knowing that their efforts are doomed and it’s just a matter of time.

Ha ha, no, what ghouls actually do is kill their victims, drink their blood, and eat their bodies, and then assume their appearance. Which, all things considered, is a lot more pleasant for everybody concerned than the scenario originally described.

In Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book,” Bod runs off with a group of ghouls that include the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and Victor Hugo the Famous French Novelist.

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Of mice and men

The evolution of mice and humans has converged so nicely that mice keep home with us, often quite literally. We discovered fire and built central heating, and mice gathered around and kept warm by our sides through the long, cold winters. When we built granaries to keep ourselves fed long after we had brought the harvest in, mice put on their slippers, took a seat at the table, and joined us for a meal and a nice pipe in the evening.

Mice and humans, humans and mice. In a true masterstroke, one enterprising mouse convinced pet store owners that ours was a match made in heaven, and pet stores began to sell mice to children. It’s all part of a marketing strategy to make us feel comforted by the thought of seeing brown vermin scurrying across the countertop.

Mice have been living among humans for so long that it’s even affected their evolution, and ours. Disease comes to all animals, but when they have little regular contact it’s difficult for a disease to make the leap from one species to another. That’s why beavers, which live primarily in North America and parts of northern Europe and Asia do not suffer from the skin ulceration that sometimes bedevils kangaroos.

Put different species in close contact with one another, and that balace falls away. The rinderpest virus jumps from cattle to humans and becomes measles. Cowpox makes the jump from cow to human and becomes smallpox. Anthrax leaps from cattle to humans and our skin soon erupts in painful boils before we drop dead. (Side note: Keep cows out of your house. Those things are dangerous.)

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Monster week: Cthulhu

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.”

When it comes to monsters, nothing outmonsters Cthulhu himself. Created by H.P. Lovecraft for his short story “The Mountains of Madness,” Cthulhu is one of the very old ones, whose dreams drive men mad. He existed before humanity and when he wakens he will devour all flesh. (If you’re a proper cultist, you can move to front of the queue.)

Lovecraft was a hack of a writer, but he had some memorable ideas for his stories. In the case of Cthulhu, he had a doozy. A spiritual world without meaning or revelation, terror without awe, and a promise of only a slowly constricting coil of fear within your gut. The closer someone gets to the truth of Cthulhu, the thinner the skien of sanity becomes. As the proverb goes, “No Cthulhu, know peace; know Cthulhu, no peace.”

The Cthulhu Mythos has infuenced the works of Gene Roddenberry, Larry Niven, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Yog-Soggoth! Hast’r! Ph-nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtag ekki-ekki-ekki-pitang-zoom-boing!

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