Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Welcome the Year of the Dog

Gung hay fat choy! (roughly translates to "may you be prosperous" or so I am told) Many Asian cultures celebrated the lunar new year on Sunday with all sorts of different traditions. In one way or another, most begin their celebrations by cleaning out the old and bringing in the new. This means a thorough cleaning of the house, getting rid of anything you don't need, getting new hair cuts, new clothes, and lots of fresh food. Feasting around the hotpot is common for many groups, and some sort of sticky rice treat seems to be a staple as well. Some also have traditions surrounding the eating of long noodles for a long life.

2006 is supposed to be the year of the metal dog. According to Chinese astrology (if you buy all that) this could be a very good thing for international affairs. During the year of the metal dog, the world can expect:

"The year of the Yang Dog teaches the lessons of watchfulness, defense of the weak and fair play. International justice will be the order of the year. Causes, protests and the righting of wrongs defines Dog years. Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge...."

I can't say that I really go in for astrology, but it's a comforting prediction. No matter what you think of it all, the idea of starting new, fresh, and clean is enticing. Perhaps I will actually manage to finish unpacking all those boxes...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Total Disgust

Sometimes I really hate American culture. No, no that's not fair. Sometimes I really hate PARTS of American culture. I have always disliked Abercrombie & Fitch, and all that it represents. Now I understand why. Recently, I ran across a reference to an interview with Mike Jeffries, the current head of the Abercrombie empire. As if the charming sentiment in the picture were not enough, it turns out that this company really is making a concerted effort to be hideous. Jeffries held forth on his company's philosophy:

"[Sex is] almost everything. That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that."

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

This is the company that brought you g-string panties for middle-schoolers. You can find the entire article on Salon, but make sure your not eating at the time because this guy will make you nauseous.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pity Party

Five whole months I made it without giving in. However, I am now the victim of a cold, and not just a small, sniffly cold either. Usually colds start in my throat and move up to my head or down to my chest. This one is an equal opportunity congestor. Tea and cough drops don't even seem to touch it, and I have the strangest dreams all night long. The "best" part is that I am losing my voice. I sound like I am channeling either Barry White or one of the muppets. Also Mark is still on his business trip, so, all taken together; I'm inclined to be a little mopey. I know, I know, I should be tough and independent, but I still miss him.

Still, I can't manage TOO much self pity because yesterday we got sun. Not just watery winter sun, but real, warm sunshine. It didn't last long, but it did happen to pour into my classroom during the last two periods of the day. It made us all very happy. You just can't feel grim when you get sun in January. Also, we have bulbs coming up in our front yard. I thought we would never be able to grow any because of all the squirrels, but here they are coming up all on their own. They're only little green thumbs right now, but they are coming on fast. Any flowers would be nice, but I'm crossing my fingers for daffodils or tulips.


Just a note to let people know that I've changed the comment setting to "anyone." You still have to go through word verification (so I don't get a whole bunch of spam) but it is not difficult at all. Please feel free to leave comments whenever you like.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Three Good Books

Over the winter break, I was actually able to get some real reading in for once. It was such a pleasure just to sit on the sofa for a few hours and read something really absorbing.

The first book of my vacation was Blink by Malcom Gladwell. This time, Gladwell is interested in the power, and danger, of snap judgments. First he lays out the frequency with which people make sudden decisions about things. For example, an art curator can often spot a fake in the first moment. She doesn't analyze and think it out carefully; she just seems to "know." There are many other examples of such judgments, but they are not always a good thing.

The second books was Spook by Mary Roach, and it appealed to me right away because the author is a self-confessed skeptic. The basic premise is that the author's mother passed away, and so the author thought she should investigate all the spiritual/religious claims about what comes next. She tries, really tries, to get excited about mediums, angels, reincarnation, ghosts, and the physical weight of sheep souls (you'll just have to read for that story). Her story is hugely entertaining as long as you have a sense of humor about such things.

The last of the three was Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Now, I have learned from long experience that you should take whatever an economist says with the proverbial grain of salt. However, this author has some very interesting points to make about how life actually works from a numbers perspective. Levitt looks at everything from the link between legal abortion and reduced crime to how realtors behave differently when selling their own houses to the power of names. It's a mishmash of topics, but his main message is about putting aside "common sense" and looking at the actual statistics. Fascinating, disturbing (in spots), and especially good when read along side the first book.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Dark Days

It has certainly been quite a week here at school. When the councilors are in a bad mood, you know it's been a very rough time indeed. Last week the mother of one of our students went missing. She was supposed go to an appointment, and she just never appeared. She stayed missing for several days, and the worry over her whereabouts got more and more intense in the community. Some people were genuinely worried about her, while many others were just interested in the mystery. Finally, last Friday they found her car parked downtown (next to the police station actually, but it still took them four days to notice it). She had driven it there, climbed into the backseat where the windows were tinted, and then shot herself. Her kids were nine and thirteen.

When the news hit school (via an idiot parent who called their child at lunchtime) the students went mad. Well, I should say the girls went mad. They dissolved into tears, the wailed and cried. The boys do things in a different way. The stood around and looked stoic. Many of them were upset because they knew her, or because they knew her child. However, many more were upset to the point of hysteria because "a mom did that." They were shocked to the core that a mom, anyone's mom, could actually kill herself. Moms die sometimes, they understand that, but moms DO NOT kill themselves. They are moms, so they just can't.

I watched the kids get picked up that day. One big, tough boy hugged and hugged his mom when she came, and judging by her face I think it was an unusual thing. Another girl just kept patting her mom on the sholder as if she was making sure of something. Hopefully these kids will have learned more than just saddness from this event. There is certainly no way to kow why she did what she did since she left no note, but there is not doubt that her "furious goodbye" had a huge impact on the people she left behind.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sofas for the Bourgeoisie

What an experience is shopping in Western Washington. You would think that all the Microsoft money would have cured salespeople of making judgments about people based on their appearance. However, it seems to me that age and clothes still make a huge impact on how you are treated. The effect seems also to be magnified when the items you are considering are of the "big ticket" variety. Two weeks ago Mark and I made our first foray into the world of sofas. Since we moved into the new house we've been thinking a nice, new sofa would be good for the front room. Thus we went out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and stopped into a nearby Lazyboy store. Our sales lady took a very good look at my ratty sneakers, fleece, and ponytail, and just about turned around again. Now, to be fair, Mark thinks I may be overly sensitive on this one, but our experience at Bassett cannot be doubted.

Dressed a little (but not much) better this time, we ventured into Bassett just to see what was available. We wandered around and found that it was very hard, no pretty well impossible, to catch a salesperson's eye. Finally, we actually went up to the counter and stood in front of the two people working there. They flatly refused to look at us or break their own conversation. We walked out, question unasked, and sofa unpurchased. We then had nearly the same treatment at Macy's. Granted, weekends are busy in furniture stores, but this seems a little extreme to me.

In the end, we are going to buy the sofa from one of the two small shops we visited on the side. In both cases the salespeople were polite and attentive, but they still made sure to mention the payment plan right away. I guess next time we should break out the tweed and cashmere before we go shopping so we can be sure to impress the right people.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King Jr.

" I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

The first is beautiful and, of course, very famous. The second is painfully appropriate now.

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of now way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

(Martin Luther King Jr.)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Just Call Me Alex

About a week ago I got the honor (curse?) of being the moderator for a school-level bee. Believe it or not they hold bees for many more subjects than just spelling. There are math bees, geography bees, vocabulary and writing bees, and so on. This bee was held for the ten students who won the classroom level competitions.

There we are at school. Its 6:30 in the evening so most rooms are dark, and there are very few people around except those attending the bee. The students are seated in a row along the stage; my timer (Mark) and my scorekeeper (another teacher) are at a table behind me. I am doing my best to sound official without being callous (I don't want to be Ben Stein or worse!). For each round, every child gets one question. I ask these questions in turn, wait for the answer, and then tell them if they are correct. At the end of each round we assess. Anyone with two wrong answers must leave the stage. The timer times; the scorer scores (no joke!). The air is tense with teenage nerves.

Then, half way through the competition I am in the middle of asking a question when I notice to small girls standing just outside the door. They cannot be more than six and eight years old; far too young to attend middle school. They are both in tears. Only the people on my end of the stage can see the children because they are mostly hidden by the shadow of the doorway. I finish the question, but everyone is wondering why I am so distracted. The scorekeeper suddenly jumps up, says "I know those girls!" and takes off with them. Now I am standing on stage, wondering who they are, and trying to figure out how to finish the round without a scorekeeper. I call a pause. Surely the kids need a moment to relax right? I call my brother out of the audience for emergency scorer training, and within a few minutes we're off again. We finish the bee with a clear winner. The winner gets his medal, I thank everyone for their participation, and people file out.

Afterwards, we discover that the little girls were dropped off at an elementary school a few blocks away for an evening event. The mom did not go in to the school, so she did not know that the event had been cancelled. The little girls, finding the school dark and empty, began walking up the road toward out school. What a nightmare for a kid! They wandered in hoping to find someone who could help. It turns out that the scorer recognized them from her church, so she was able to take them outside and let them call their dad. Dad came, with much apology (save it for your kids!) and picked them up a bit later. I felt so badly for those little girls. It is the kind of event that could really cause some lasting trouble for a kid. It was certainly a much more memorable bee than any other we've had at school.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Yard Work

We finally did it. Last weekend, Mark and I broke down and did yard work. Granted, there is not that much to be done at this time of year, but we still needed to get out there. This was my first real experience with raking leaves. Now this may sound funny to some, I mean come on what could be a more perfect example of a suburban American chore. However, you must remember that I am not from Suburban America. In the country no sane person rakes their leaves. If you tried, you would end up with raw palms after only the firsts acre or two. Thus I found myself standing in the yard wondering how you are supposed to get the leaves into the yard waste bin. Raking them into a pile was easy, but this next bit escapes me. Are you just supposed to pick up armfuls and not worry about getting covered in dirt and worms? Is there some tool I am missing? TV and movies are full of leaf raking moments, but it's sort of like fictional dinner parties, you only see the picturesque beginning. I am at a loss. Mark, resourceful person that he is, eventually invented a dual shovel and rake combination that seemed to work pretty well, but I still feel there is a better answer out there somewhere.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

What is Religion Anyhow?

Upon coming back from break, my class began a unit on world religions. To begin, I broke them into groups, and asked them to list for me what they think are the major world religions. Here is what I got from one group:

1. Christans
2. Aitheists
3. Catholics
4. Jewish
5. Sonnians (I'm guessing they meant Sunnis?)

Luckily, other groups came up with more reasonable answers, so I know there is hope. I think many kids don't know about anything other than their own tradition, and many more don't know about any tradition at all. I can't say I'm really surprised by this.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sleepy and Gray Day

Today my whole class seems to have SAD. They are low, slow, and sleepy, and it is not just an excuse to avoid work. Part of it definitely has to do with it being Monday. Another piece is certainly the gray, gloomy skies outside. However, I think the biggest impact on their mood is the time of morning they are forced to arrive. Because we are the second of three in bus order (High-schooler get transported first, then they come for us, and lastly they come for the little kids) most kids have to be up and out the door well before 7:00am. I think this is really early for a bunch of pre-adolescents to be getting up. Most of the research says that teens are "off" by about one hour in their Circadian Rhythms, so 7:00am feels more like 6:00am to them. I'm sure this will come as a huge shock, but the research also says that kids perform better on tests and at problem solving later in the morning. With all this research floating around about later starts, you might be wondering why we don't have them here. The answer, of course, is money. We would need more busses for a later start, so never mind what it does to the kids, we have to start early.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Relative Wealth

The following is a comparison chart I made for my 7th grade Social Studies students. The info is off the internet, so I do warn them about taking it with a grain of salt. We also talk about the importance of per capita GDP (Luxemborg, for example). Still, the comparison is pretty surprising:

7 billion--- Spent by Americans on video games
7 billion--- Total GDP of Iceland

8 billion--- Spent by Americans on Christmas decorations and d├ęcor
8 billion--- Total GDP of Zambia

16.8 billion--- Spent by Americans on professional yard services
17 billion--- Total GDP of Honduras

17 billion--- Spent by Americans on pet food
17 billion--- Total GDP of Panama

20 billion--- Spent by Americans on non-food, non-vet, pet supplies
20 billion--- Total GDP of Latvia

20 billion--- Spent by Americans on ice cream
20 billion--- Total GDP of Luxembourg

20 billion--- Spent by Americans on jewelry
21 billion--- Total GDP of Bolivia

25 billion--- Spent by Americans on beer
25 billion--- Total GDP of Cuba

30 billion--- Spent by Americans on gifts bought online
30 billion--- Total GDP of El Salvador

40 billion--- Spent by Americans on books and other products related to dieting
41 billion--- Total GDP of Ecuador

110 billion--- Spent by Americans on fast food
114 billion--- Total GDP of Ireland

Monday, January 02, 2006

World Concerns

Probably a post like this is more appropriate before the end of an old year. Nevertheless, I think it is still worth notice even if I'm only getting to it now. The subject of this post, then, is the world at large. I know, I know, one of my New Year's Resolutions was to worry and complain less, but I think this may be, what, cathartic perhaps?

When George W. won the first election, the only way I could deal with my depression was to limit my own access to news. Now I know you must be thinking how irresponsible this was, but it was really my only way of avoiding total black despair. I call it the "head-in-sand" approach to life, and it served me well for those first terrible months. However, I realized pretty quickly that complete disconnection from news was not a good idea, so I started reading The New York Times online. This allowed me to control which stories I read, and it prevented me from having to hear G.W.'s whiney little voice. Now, some time into our unconscionable second Bush term, I am once again listening to my favorite news source, NPR. From these sources, and a few others, I've pulled a few of the stories that worried me the most (at least as far as I can remember) in 2005:

The Problem---The War in Iraq
How could this one not make the list. While I don't disagree that Saddam Hussein was a despot of the worst kind, I really don't think that is why "we" invaded Iraq. This is a war for the sake of having one, and it has just about killed any good feelings the rest of the world may have had for us.
On the brighter side---Well, I guess the war really is making Bush look bad, and I suppose some Iraqis are better off. However, I'm really having trouble seeing much of a silver lining in this one. "Exit strategy?" is becoming a common refrain.

The Problem---Bush begins second term
How can this happen? Because Democrats flounder around trying to "capture the middle" while in fact alienating the very group they are supposed to represent- the left. Democratic party leaders think they need to capture that small margin of "swing voters" in order to win elections. I think they should ignore the middle and focus on getting liberal democrats to actually vote. The simple fact is there are more Democrats than Republicans registered in the U.S., so the party has no excuse for losing to a monkey's butt. Did I digress from the stated topic? Perhaps.
On the brighter side---Is there a brighter side to Bush being president? I guess I'm glad that Cheney doesn't have the job.

The Problem---The "War on Terror" aka The War on Civil Liberties
This is one of those problems where the more you read about what is actually going on, the angrier you get. It makes me think of that bumper sticker "If you aren't completely appalled, you haven't been paying attention." From illegal wiretaps to access to you library record, the Bush government took 9/11 as a wonderful opportunity to corrode civil protections.
On the brighter side---Even some members of congress who supported the act are now looking at things a little differently. Plus, the ACLU has been very busy lately.

The Problem---Hurricane Katrina
Aside from the obvious, I think the problem with Katrina is the way people see the disaster. Many people seem to see this (and the Tsunami come to think of it) as being random, truly natural, disasters. However, most of the science news is saying that these unusual weather patterns have a cause- and it's us.
On the brighter side---The reconstruction can now begin, but maybe on a little higher ground? Also, this whole thing has precipitated some pretty interesting conversations about emergency preparedness and about race and economics.

The Problem---Earthquakes in Southern Asia
One of the worst earthquakes in history, and because the people are brown, Muslim, and far away, we don't seem overly interested in helping them. Far more charity has gone to Katrina victims, who are eligible for FEMA and such, than the people in Pakistan.
On the brighter side---See Katrina

The Problem---Intelligent design in public schools
Once again, the creationists are trying to slide their religious bias into science class. Time and again the courts have said that there must be a separation of church and state because we have this thing we like to call the constitution. Ever undaunted, they changed the name of their "theory" to Intelligent Design, and began their campaign all over again. Kansas and several other states either adopted or considered adopting I.D. as a part of science class.
On the brighter side---Okay it's true; I saved this one for last because it actually has a brighter side. We win! We win! One court recently called I.D. "a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory" and banned it's inclusion in classrooms.

Why do a whole long post about things that make me anxious? Because, as I said, talking about them seems to help, but also because there are some bright spots here and there. We can go into 2006 hoping (and praying if you're the type) that all sorts of things are on the proverbial mend. Plus, there are all sorts of good things already happening in the world. For example, the prospect of President Schwarzenegger is slowly but surely fading into the distance.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

2005 was a wonderful, eventful year. There were many very good things like rewarding work, lots of travel (Hawaii, Washington D.C., South Africa), buying a new house (wow!), and selling the condo (whew!). We had great fun with our friends and local family. We were happy for the time we got to spend with our out-of-town (or country!) family, but we always wish for more time and opportunities. Once again I am overwhelmed by how lucky we really are.

As to the new year, I hope we can continue with all the good stuff, but I would still like to work on improving in one or two areas. Thus, my New Year's resolutions are as follows:

1. Be less judgmental (what me?! why would anyone say that?! they must be stupid!)
2. Listen very carefully to others (no glazing over!)
3. Worry and complain less (lying awake at night will not produce an exit strategy)
4. Be more organized; keep the details straight (become one with the personal planner)
5. Plan more engaging, interactive lessons (more doing, less outlining)
6. Read more to prepare for new social studies content
7. Finish icky old Professional Certification
8. Get more exercise (I will not be flabby! I will not be flabby!)
9. Keep away from naughty foods
10.Do projects to spruce up new house (Just pick a room and get started)
11. Plant a garden, and keep it up (this one should be fun)
12. Truly stop to appreciate ALL the good things

Happy New Year everyone!