12/26/2009

Weird Moment

In 1977-78 I was dating MC, an handsome older student at the local suburban high school I attended. The crush I had on him was severe and everything he liked, did, or touched seemed just magical to me. It is safe to say he was truly my "first love". At the time, I was 17 years old and taking a heavy academic load at school and did not have a part-time job. I remember wanting to buy him a Christmas or birthday gift (can't remember which) but had no money to do so; I asked my mother for some allowance or pocket money to shop for him. His favorite cologne at the time was Aramis, which seemed truly sophisticated to me in 1978 as it was only sold at Neiman-Marcus. Without remembering why or where I came up with the idea, I do remember I wanted to buy him something made by Aramis, and settled on the idea of a soap-on-a-rope, which was the least expensive item in the product line. My mother and I had a hideous, colossal yelling screaming fight about the issue, that went on for days, and she refused to give me the money to buy it - she said it was too expensive. A recent google search for this item turned up a pretty consistent price of $14.00 currently, and I extrapolate back to think it cost about the equivalent of that much, 30 years ago.
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Instead of giving me the money, my mother went to some discount drugstore and bought a cheap soap-on-a-rope for me to give him, instead. I think the one she bought was made by Pierre Cardin and looked strangely phallic in shape. It was truly embarrassing to look at (and odd that my mother, so Puritanical in her view of the world, didn't "see" it.).
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I vacillated for days, agonizing over the issue, b/c it boiled down to essentially no money = no gift or else the ugly creepy totally-not-the-right-one my mother had bought. Eventually I caved and gave MC the cheap hideous thing, figuring it was better than nothing. He was charming and polite and accepted it with grace. I felt agonizingly embarrassed.
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Skip ahead 30+ years....I had completely forgotten about the incident. (Maybe this was why I got a job shortly thereafter, and have worked continually ever since, so I have almost never put myself in a cashless, powerless position like that, again. ) Imagine my surprise this Christmas when my two sons opened their gifts from my mother this year....and they each got Aramis soap-on-a-ropes. My mother had no idea why this was the thing to buy them - in her aging forgetfulness, she had also forgotten the original incident. I know, b/c I queried her at length. She just knew they were special, but couldn't remember why.

12/25/2009

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Snow is such a rarity in north Texas....and a White Christmas has never officially been documented since records started being kept in the late 1800's - until now. 2009 draws to a close with two, yes two ! Texas snowfalls in the month of December, one the very first week of the month, and the most recent one falling on Christmas Eve. It was such an unusual, exciting event, people felt they just had to get out and dance in it !
The snow started falling in the morning, but did not stick to anything for hours, because it had been sunny and in the 70's the day before. That's Texas weather for you. By mid-afternoon the ground temps had cooled enough that the snow, still falling (and not, I must add, our normal ice pellets which pass for snow around here, either, but real fluffy flakes of it) finally began to accumulate. Frantic last-minute Christmas shoppers attacked the mall in a frenzy. Traffic all over the DFW metroplex slowed to a snarl as highway overpasses began to slick over. (Sand trucks ? Snow plows? No one knows what those things are around here; we are the only people we know who even own a snow shovel- and we brought it with us from Va. They don't sell those things south of the Mason-Dixon line.) Fortunately hubster, who had just returned from visiting relatives during the Great East Coast Blizzard of '09, managed to fly in before the Texas snowstorm hit, and just narrowly avoiding being stranded on a plane or in an airport somewhere else and missing Christmas.
It was an unusual, welcome, beautiful Christmas present. Many churches started canceling their Christmas eve services, worried about folk driving in the weather as the sun went down and road conditions grew worse. Our little family carried on, easily making it to church but by the time the service was over, the drifts made it impossible to see where the road ended and the curbs began. We made it home safely, just in time for our family feast. My sons are getting to that age where they'd rather play video games than slide down the hill in the nearby park on giant pieces of cardboard ( what passes for sleds around these parts), and that saddens me, a little.

12/21/2009

Я люблю все русское!

My family's ethnic identity is German on my father's side, and mostly English (little bit of French, little bit Cherokee) on my mother's side. Yet for some reason, even as a youngish child, I became fascinated and fixated with various aspects of Russian culture. I think it all started with the PBS production of "War and Peace", which I remember held me spellbound in the early 70's for the several months that it took to run its course. Anthony Hopkins just sizzled in his break-out role as Pierre, the bumbling idealistic aristocrat rebel-without-a-cause. (He was the first of several of these types I was drawn to.) My bff Monica and I soon were re-enacting various plot lines from this long soap opera with our little dollhouse villages and reciting bits of dialogue while avoiding strenuous activity in the hideous p e classes we shared, which we likened to working in the Gulag or Napoleon's March home from Moscow in the bitter winter snow. (One of hubster's fave anecdotes in the field of metallurgy concerns the buttons on the French army's uniforms....) The tv mini series of "War and Peace" inspired me to read Tolstoy's novel at age 12, and I found that it was not (as it is often jokingly referred to) a particularly Herculean task. No longer than Twilight, Gone With the Wind, an Anne Rice or Steven King novel or any other dense tome that people love to bury themselves in, the only tricky thing is keeping track of the 30+ main characters with long Russian 3 or 4 part names. I simply give them nicknames, and skim through the long passages substituting the nicknames for the 3 or 4 part-ers when I read. I enjoyed War and Peace so much that I frequently re-read it, along with other Tolstoy works , and soon became immersed in other Russian authors such as Chekhov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.
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I also loved the movie "Dr Zhivago" as a child, and was inspired to read Pasternak's novel from which the movie drew its inspiration. If you ever undertake this task yourself, you will quickly realize that the plot of the film comprises only about half of the novel, and that the author's chief allegory of the literary work (each woman Zhivago gets involved with represents a different stage of the Revolution) is completely lost, as the final third of the novel (and final lover of Zhivago) is entirely omitted in the film. The love story between Zhivago and Lara is blown out of proportion and the author's point is completely obliterated in the sappiness of their movie romance. That happens, sometimes, when a novel is turned in to a film.
I wasn't one of those little girls who grew up taking ballet lessons ( lord knows why, my mother dragged me to art lessons and sewing lessons and many other kinds of lessons) but I wanted to be. I never got to experience the thrill of partaking in a student performance of "The Nutcracker" ballet until a little friend of my younger son was coerced into playing all the boy roles, because his sister was one of those little girls who studied ballet, and as each year passed, she rose through the ranks of her particular academe, starting out playing flowers or snowflakes and eventually working her way up to major roles in our small town production. So it became a kind of holiday tradition to show support and go watch my son's friend sullenly be one of the boys at the party, or Clara's brother, a dancing Chinaman, etc, as he danced alongside his sister, willingly or not. Who knows? Perhaps some of the great male ballerinas got their start in similar fashion. I couldn't help but think of this as I recently watched the San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" production on tv one night. What a fresh new vision (costumes, set, staging) for this (sometimes stale, yet beloved) holiday classic. I haven't been this entranced since seeing Baryshnikov perform it....truly magical. The music never ceases to enchant; I love even Disney's version from "Fantasia". (It must be noted, I am a true curmudgeon, and many Disney films.......dare I say it ? Grate on my nerves. Too many singing __________! (fill in the blank: mice, butterflies, candlesticks, sea creatures, frogs, whatever.) Yet I can watch "Fantasia" endlessly and never grow irritable. The music is that wonderful.

Those of you who know me have heard the many bizarre stories about my mother-in-law, especially in the realm (that's another blog entry!) of gift giving. Yet a few years back, she gave me a truly wonderful present for Christmas, why I have no idea, and I have treasured it above all others. It seems she had recently visited St Petersberg, which I really want to do, esp after reading my book club's selection The Madonnas of Leningrad awhile back, a beautiful little book and not long or difficult to read. It is the story of the Siege of Leningrad, and how the citizens, esp the employees of the Hermitage, survive. As they are slowly starving to death, they play a game of remembering ALL the artwork - which has been hidden away for safety, and all they have to look at are bare walls - and where it hung, what it looked like, the artist, its provenance. Along the way, reality and fantasy begin to blur....... If you love art history or WWII, you will love this book! Anyways, my m-in-law had been to St P, and for some quixotic reason, bought me a beautiful enameled jewelry box painted with a scene from "The Firebird" on it. It charmed me immediately, and ( almost) made me forget all the tense moments we have had, previously.

11/27/2009

Multi Cultural Weekend

One of the most anticipated social events of my year is the annual meeting of local Buddhists each November. This gala celebration, which coincides with founder Dawa's (owner of local store "Juliet's Jewels") birthday, always involves a visit by the "Jolly Lama" (Lama Dudjam Dorjee) and a wonderfully gourmet vegetarian potluck lunch. The crowd that turns up at this event is eclectic - various Asian nationals for whom Buddhism is a native faith, as well as a fair number of college kids, swingers, Unitarians, ex-hippies, curious, seekers, fruits, and weirdos. I am not sure which category of these I fit into...but the hi-lite this year, in addition to the Lama's speech (sort of like a church sermon, only far less annoying and more thoughtful) was some old geezer walking up to my gf "C" and I , and trying to pick us up. Now, GFT is a middle aged mom, far past her prime, who most days is about as noticed by most men as the wallpaper of your grandmother's house. My gf C is an attractive female who is several years older than GFT. We had spent the entire morning trying to set up C's friend D, a recent widow, with various men at this event, with no success. The mere fact that anyone would try to pick me up - and to this day C and I will argue about which of us, exactly, the guy was hitting on - we agreed to settle the argument with the decision that he thought we were a swingin' duo, a pair of chicks who would be willing and interested in forming a threesome with him - was hilarious. Never mind the fact that C's long-suffering husband, aka "Saint", was sitting next to us, talking to some random other metrosexual man. We figured the guy hitting on us assumed Saint was gay, and we're sticking to that assumption. No matter the truth of the situation, this event perked us up so much, we've been riding the natural high that followed for weeks now.
By a strange celestial coincidence, it happened that this year the weekend of the Buddhist fest was also the same one that the Indian Student Association at UNT decided to celebrate Diwali (a major holiday in the Hindu faith, somewhat analogous to Christmas.). So I got to have an all Indian multi-cultural weekend, and I loved it! The Diwali fest at UNT is a 5-7 hour long talent show, full of students in traditional costumes dancing and singing karaoke to Indian pop music. At the end of all this comes a dinner, which is always wonderful. The first year hubster and I attended, neophytes that we were, we went to the talent show portion ( agonizing hours spent listening to our student guides promising us "just one more - you must listen/see to this one!" before we could even sneak out to use the restroom) . Now that we are more savvy, we skip the talent show and just show up for the food. It is a large group and well attended- the food is always catered by a DFW area restaurant deemed "authentic" by the ISA. We had a great time visiting with friends and colleagues.....and the gastro-intestinal fallout of eating food that was spicier by several factors than what I typically eat, lasted for days.

If You Were on "Madmen", Who Would You Be ?

11/26/2009

I Was Called to the Principal's Office # 2


It is no secret that I am a teacher…..I have kept my mouth closed all these years about what really goes on in your child’s school. But enough is enough.

I have been teaching what we used to call “honors” and which is sometimes now referred to as “pre-AP” as well as AP English classes for nearly 30 years, when  I encountered a bunch of particularly whiney, entitled, demanding students (and their parents) one school year. Over the course of one particular autumn, I was called in to my principal’s office on a near weekly basis, and told the following things:

1) Principal called me down: ”You are not allowed to assign reading of a novel of over 100 pages, without breaking it up into smaller sections.” Me: “But I am teaching the same novel as the other teachers in my grade and subject, and teaching it in the same way with the same assignments and pacing.” Principal: “Does not matter. Change the assignment.” Guess what? I cancelled the reading assignment of that novel, or any other, over 100 pages. Because even in an “honors” pre-AP and /or AP English class….”parents are complaining.”

2) A few weeks later, I get called down again ….Principal says, ”I do not like the way you handled the (mandatory ”volunteer”) school holiday project. You put too much pressure on the students to participate. They are upset. Not all can do as you suggest.” Me: ”I just read the script you gave us, from the faculty meeting, and told us to read. I didn’t say or add anything else. I just did and said what I was told, by you, to do.” Principal: “You must go back to your class and correct what you said.” Guess what ? I cancelled my class’s participation in the program, forever more.

3) Principal called me down: “Parents are complaining that your recent assignment was graded unfairly. You will change the way you graded it.” Me: ”I have a rubric, which I gave the students beforehand, and went over it with them as to what was expected, and taught them how to do the taks involved. For those who did not follow it, I offered the opportunity to fix the assignment in tutorials, for a re-grade.” Principal: “Does not matter. You will issue a grade of “excused” for x, y, and z students, whose parents complained.” Guess what I did? I cancelled the assignment, for evermore. Even though the other teachers of my subject continue to do it.

4) Principal called me down, says: “You taught a poem yesterday that has the word ‘breast” it in. Parents are complaining. You will not teach this poem again.” Me: “In this poem, the word ‘breast’ is not sexual; it is a 19th century word that means chest, male or female. Also, the poem is in our textbook, part of our assigned AP curriculum, follows the TEKS (state curriculum standards) and has been approved by the state of Texas and the College Board. “Principal: “Does not matter. Parents are complaining.” Guess what ? I stopped teaching that poem.

5) Principal called me down:”Students are complaining that the group work you have assigned them is unfairly graded.” Me:”I don’t have any group work assignments, for that very reason.” Principal: “Nevertheless, you will stop it.” Me???? How do I handle or “fix” something that does not happen?

6) Principal called me down to her office: ”Students and parents are complaining that you are never available for tutorials before or after school. ”Me: ”I have been working and present on campus, available in my classroom for students and parents,  from 8 am till 6 om or later for the past several years. If a student cannot find me for tutorials during those hours, then he or she isn’t really looking.”Principal: “Never-the-less, you will post your tutorial times on your wall and be available for students.” Me: “OK, but my times are already posted on my wall. Have been for years. I see a dozen or more students before or after school, already, as it is, every day.” Principal: “You will fix this. I had better not hear one more complaint.” Me:?????? How do I handle or “fix” something that does not happen?

7) Principal called me down: “You need to change your overall grading. You must have a weekly quiz over material you have taught. You may not assign homework. You may not have completion grades.  You must have one grade per week – no more, no less. You must allow students an infinite number of re-takes on daily quizzes or any other assignment, including tests and essays. You cannot penalize a student for not following directions, or turning in late work.” Me: “This will destroy academic standards, and lower student learning outcomes. Testing scores will decline; students will not be prepared for college.” Principal: “This is the rule. Our board and curriculum have voted on it.” Me: “OK” (To myself: I already do this, so????) Ironically, the principal STILL says this statement on a WEEKLY basis to EVERY teacher at our faculty meetings. Which leads me to suspect that some teachers are not doing it….but not me. I am doing it.

8) Principal called me down: “You are not allowed to have reading assignments that fall over student’s holidays.” Me: “I don’t. My reading assignments, and pacing (due dates and such) follow our department and campus guidelines. I do what all the other teachers do. Students are assigned reading during the school calendar days, but if they are reading it over the holidays, that’s their own choice.” Principal: “Parents are complaining. You will stop this.” Guess what?????

9) Principal called me down: “You haven’t been teaching “x”. I want to know why.” Me: “On the computer generated printout that you gave me at the first of the year – the one that shows my name, and my schedule, with the code numbers –  and the classes I am teaching, it says I am teaching “y”. “Y” is what’s on the schedule. I didn’t know I was supposed to be teaching “x”. Principal: “We sent you to that one conference for a day, a few years ago. You are trained in “x” now. Me: “Yes, but our campus (i.e. “you”) never bought the texts that went with that course. All I have available to me are the texts for “y”. After several requests for the associated textbooks, and being told “no”, and going with the printout from administration that shows what I am to be teaching, I just thought decisions had actively been made, and that I was to be teaching “y”. No one ever had a conversation with me about we should do in this matter, and my efforts to ask about it were always rebuffed.”

10) Principal called me down: “You are getting a new student tomorrow. (Four weeks from the end of the school year.) “Susie” has no credits in x, y, or z and we want you to teach her all of them in the remaining time we have left, so she can earn her credits and graduate. We are putting her in your “z” class (with 30 other students). You will devise some packets for her to complete that cover the material.”

11) Principal called me down: “We hired Mr A as coach, and he’s going to be teaching some classes, too. He’s not certified in teaching yet, so , as a work around, we are going to be putting your name on all his classes, but don’t worry, he’ll do all the teaching, grading, and paperwork. It’ll just have your name on it.”

12) Principal called me down: “I want to know why you haven’t published as many issues of the school newspaper this year.” Me: “My budget was cut to $0 this year. We have no textbooks, no computers, no typewriters, no photography equipment; we have no supplies of any kind.” Principal: “That is no excuse.” Me: “I went to the book-keeper and asked for funds, and he refused. I asked you several ties back in the fall, and you told me ‘there was no money’. I just do not know how to run a student newspaper and actually publish work without a budget or classroom supplies of any kind.”

13) Principal called me down: “We will not be able to fill your request for a set of classroom textbooks this year.” Me: ”What can we do to fix this problem? I really need those books to teach my classes…..” Long conversation ensues…..turns out “someone” had made an “accounting error” and “mistakenly” reported that we had tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of textbooks that we didn’t actually have. They went "missing" somehow......


And, for the record: a) My student test scores on TAKS and STAAR have continually been 10% higher than anyone else in my campus, district and state. My AP test takers scored 3’s, 4’s and 5’s 75% more often than local, state, or national test-takers. My PDAS (teacher evaluation system) rating has always been high.  I am not a lazy teacher - I am a good teacher. I care about my students, about their learning, and the skills that prepare them for whatever lies ahead. I follow the rules, and keep my head down and my mouth shut.

10/31/2009

Fall Road Trips : Vermont

View through the barn at Sherbourne Farms of local fall scenery
It is an oft-repeated cocktail party banter on my part that many of my teacher friends, as soon as they retire, take a fall trip to Vermont to see the leaves change, mostly because they can. While school teachers do get plenty of time off at summer and Christmas, and some schools have the odd fall or spring break (here in the DFW area we get spring break but not fall break) our vacations tend to only fall at those prescribed holidays, and are often quite crowded due to the fact that this is the only time kids get out of school, and hence that's when their parents tend to travel with them. As teachers, we get lots of time off, but little flexibility as to when we can take it. Spring and fall are often the best times to travel, for various reasons - popular destinations in Europe or other spots are often at their best during these shoulder seasons, precisely because no one else is there, they are all still in school, the weather is great, the sites are less crowded, etc. At any rate, this is a very long-winded way of saying that I have always wanted to go see Vermont in the fall, and this year I finally got the chance.
Riding a ferry across Lake Champlain
Hubster typically travels to work related conferences and events an average of 6-8 weeks of the year - just one of the perks of that fabulous college professor lifestyle. If he goes somewhere interesting to me, and it is convenient and workable ( i.e. someone can watch the kids-even more important now that they are teenagers, and likely to get into so much more trouble than ever), I often travel with him. The two of us have been to Montreal, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Colorado on these little junkets, and we have friends, an older couple who are 20 years further down the professorial highway than we are, who regularly visit Barcelona, Bombay, Iceland, London, and Phuket on similar ventures. I am looking forward to the carefree, childless golden twilight of our life......and really hoping we will be healthy and solvent enough to enjoy them.
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As part of his duties directing the Texas Governor's School of Math and Science, hubster gets to attend the annual conference of governors schools all across America. Last year, the conference was in held in Memphis, and was hi-lited by a dinner jazz riverboat cruise that had an Elvis impersonator entertaining the crowd. Hard to beat that......This year, the conference was held in Burlington , Vt. In spite of the fact that I lived in Westchester Co, NY, in the early 1990's, I never made it up to Vt and was excited to be able to go along. While hubster sat in meetings all day, I got to toodle around the area, riding a ferry across Lake Champlain, visiting Stowe (home of famous ski resorts, Ben and Jerry's ice cream factory, lots of great scenery, some covered bridges, as well as the family ski lodge owned by the Von Trapp family, of Sound of Music fame) and shop. Evenings we spent at receptions for the members of this conference and their guests - one was the local ECHO Center , a charming little science-history museum where we had a private tour and catered dinner, and I learned all about Nessie, the Loch Ness type monster that supposedly inhabits Lake Champlain.
View near Stowe, Vt
Our trip was about two weeks "post peak" of the leaf viewing season, but it was still a lovely time to visit. This visit was made even more fun by the presence of several friends and co-workers, who made the dinners and day trips even more jolly. We sampled a lot of great local cuisine- all of it organic, free range, hand crafted and sustainably farmed, I might add - and toured some fun sites, such as Sherbourne Farms, which reminded me very much of Biltmore, near Asheville, N.C., where we got to take a tour given by a family member of the original inhabitants, and see how cheese is made.
Eating out with friends at SweetWaters in Burlington, Vt


While I was out seeing the sights, several of my companions started talking about their "bucket list". This concept and lingo stems from the popular movie by the same name that played in theaters a year or so back - Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are a couple of old guys dying of cancer or something, Jack is rich and Morgan poor, (natch) and Jack takes them both all around the world to see and do everything they always wanted to do , before they die. Along the way, they fight, Jack learns a Big Lesson About Life, and they eventually make up. So now the word has entered the lexicon, and random everyday people talk about having their own personal bucket lists. As I was talking with my companions while we were out searching for covered bridges, someone mentioned that now that we had seen them in person, we could "scratch another item off the bucket list." So I started thinking to myself, what are the remaining items on my own personal bucket list ? Most folk would say: the pyramids, the Nile, Paris, London, Rome, the Acropolis, the Blue Grotto, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon, etc. I am fortunate that I have traveled to these places already, and seen all these things. Places things in the world I would still like to see before I die are : Most of the national parks in the US west (Monument Valley, Glacier, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, etc), nearly all of Oregon and Washington St, Hawaii, a cruise of Alaska's inner passage, that train ride across the Canadian Rockies - all fairly close to home. Further away and more exotic, I'd like to get to the Great Wall of China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Tibet, as well as Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. In spite of all my European travels, I've never been to Ireland, Spain, or Russia, and I'd like to spend more time in Greece, Turkey, Italy and France. What items are on your bucket list ?
Covered bridge near Stowe, Vt

10/28/2009

Fall Road Trips : Houston

Spring and fall are great times to take a road trip in Texas, and one of my favorite destinations is Houston. I lived in this city from 1979-1991, and still consider it my "young adult home"; some days I miss it mightily. Almost any excuse will do to drive down I-45 and take in the sights. Late September, early Oct offer plenty of events : the International Quilt Show, a Rice football game or Homecoming event, and I keep memberships in several museums in Houston, which often pull in world class traveling exhibits. All the stars lined up this year and I managed to hit two birds with one stone at the same time: the Quilt Show and a touring museum exhibit of "Terra Cotta Warriors ", those statues buried in the emperor's tomb from China. I loaded up my mother, one of my sons and his friend, and off we headed.
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We had a marvelous time, eating in all my fave local restaurants, visiting all my old hang-outs, shops, and special places. (Driving the streets around Rice, and through Rice campus, with those majestic 100+ year old live oaks, never ceases to bring me near to tears of joy. I'm a tree worshipper, must be my Celtic heritage....they are wonderful specimens.) The "Terra Cotta Warriors" exhibit was showing at the Houston Museum of Science and History - for some reason, this little museum pulls in just world class exhibits, the likes of which DFW area never gets. Last year we went to see "Lucy", the fossilized remains of an early hominid discovered by the Leakeys in Kenya, one of the "missing links". The Houston museum was the only place, outside of Kenya, that the exhibit went. How does this little museum do it ? Perhaps it is subsidized by all those rich and powerful oil companies that call Houston home....there certainly are many large exhibits inside the museum, paying homage to the oil industry, and all the science/ecology/geology that spins off of it. "Terra Cotta Warriors" was well done and very interesting - definitely worth the trip. China remains on my personal "bucket list", but just in case I never make it there, it's good to have seen some of the art it is famous for.
Next up on our agenda this trip was the Houston International Quilt Show. I have no idea why this quilt show, which is one of the largest in the USA, is held in Houston each year . I tend to think, perhaps stereotypically, of quilts and quilters as being from the mid-west, not "Space City". Perhaps it is just a central location (relative to east and west coast quilters) with reliably mild weather, but whatever the reason, in Houston it is held, year after year. Not really a sew-er myself, it used to be I just visited this event for the incredible shopping - a convention center hall the size of three football fields, filled with clothing, baskets, jewelry, arts and crafts, antiques, imports, as well as sewing and quilting supplies, fabric, patterns, equipment and tools. Over time, I enjoyed more and more seeing the incredible beauty of the quilts that are entered into various competitions. It is even more fun now that I have friends and know people who have entries in the contests.
The quilts exhibited at this event range the gamut from traditional, to modern, but one thing is certain : these aren't just blankets, this is art !

9/27/2009

News Flash : Woman's Extended Birthday Takes 30 Days to Celebrate

October is my birthday month !
My birthday falls in early October, and autumn brings a series of festivals and events, many of which I have attended since I was a baby. Over the years, the line between individual birthday celebrations and fall festivals has become blurred, and I tend to think of the weeks from late September through early November as a long celebratory period of favorite things I love to do. Of course, I share these fun events with my nearest and dearest, and have even gone so far as to have dragged various past boyfriends from all over the country to attend, so the joy isn't mine alone.
Oktoberfest- some day I'll get to Munich for the REAL celebration
My little town on the prairie is well served with a wide variety of surprisingly decent Asian restaurants (perhaps due to the student population of nearby universities) but lacks choice in other ethnic eateries. The Big City nearby offers a token spot for many ethnicities, but quality varies considerably. Taking in a festival or two, even if the food represents primarily junk food offerings for that culture/cuisine, provides variety we don't normally get in the boondocks. So it is no wonder I look forward with excitement to the local Oktoberfest and Greekfest. The fact that my family heritage is German, and son # 1 is half Greek via his father (ex # 1), gives us an added excuse to celebrate.

I love the Dallas Greek fest - OPA !!!!
The biggest fall event in these parts, by far, is the State Fair of Texas. The largest fair in the USA, this event offers something for everyone. In days of old, it existed as a primary venue for farmers and ranchers, a central place where they could bring in their show animals or garden produce for a friendly competition, and gather together to learn all the latest info about tractors and farm-related implements, trends, or methodology. The midway evolved to entertain the kids while the parents caught up on the ranching/farming business.
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I grew up a city child in the 1960's, and my family spent most of our day at the fair looking at cooking competitions, craft exhibits, seeing the latest in vacuum cleaners or new-fangled gadgets being sold. Ginsu knives, anyone ? My parents often took us to see the Dallas Musicals that also appear at this venue (road shows of venerable Broadway stalwart productions. This year's offering is "Mary Poppins".)
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I spent a memorable 3 weeks working at the fair, one year while in high school, as part of a service project for Junior Achievement. Our job was to hand out Heinz pickle pins at the Heinz booth. After days of saying 1000's of times, "Welcome to the Heinz pickle booth! Would you like a Heinz pickle pin?", I ran off one afternoon with a boy I had a mad crush on. We played hooky from our job and hid from our boss on the other side of the fairgrounds, ate Belgian Waffles (crispy waffles with fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar) while lolling on the grass under some trees, alternately eating our treats and making out. Is it my imagination, or was it a real experience, that I seem to remember fireworks going off across the reflecting pool near where we lay ?
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Nowadays my little brood tends to follow more or less the same path each visit : visit the exotic animal petting zoo ( the kids, no matter how old, never seem to grow tired of this one), munch on Fletcher's corny dogs while listening to the Killdares ( hubster loves this new wave Irish band), daydream about new car purchases at the auto show, and finish off the day at the midway, watching the kids go round and round till they start to turn green. Most years we take in a show as well - the best one was the flying circus dogs, a few years back.

"Our state fair is the best state fair, don't miss it, don't even be late" is a song my mother used to sing
The festival season for me is not complete without a quick trip down to Houston for the International Houston Quilt show, one of the largest quilt shows in the USA. I don't even like to sew - dismally failed that section of home economics in school - but this is still a fun event. Modern quilts are works of art that are often three dimensional and abstract in design - this is not your grandma's quilt show. This is ART !!! I do have several friends who quilt, some in traditional styles, some in the more abstract modern styles, so it is fun to see their work and who has won various competitions . Along with the quilt gallery is a HUGE market hall full (several football fields big) of vendors, selling everything from custom jewelry, hand-woven baskets, fabric and sewing supplies, beads and jewelry-making tools, ready-made clothing, crafts, Christmas items, home decor, antiques and more.

One of the many beautiful quilts at the Houston Quilt Show
The fact that I love and miss Houston, where I lived for over 12 years and which I still consider, in many ways, to be my young adult home, just adds to the experience. I've got old haunts to visit - Murder By the Book ( the nation's premier book store specializing in murder and detective fiction), many other shops and favorite restaurants , as well as my alma mater, Rice University. There are many great little spots to visit en route, as well - the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, the world's largest outlet mall in San Marcos. Did I mention I've got birthday money to spend ? I just love this time of year !

8/30/2009

"Julia and Julia"

Several food-related events have converged in my life lately. Most recently, hubster and I went to see the film"Julie and Julia" last night, along with all the other baby-boomers in town who remembered watching the original Julia Child on tv when we were youngsters, and felt we needed to pay homage to those memories in some form. (The college kids, who all arrived for fall semester last weekend, flocked to the violent scary things at our local metroplex. Really, the disparity was quite noticeable : 30 and unders drew long lines to see "Halloween 2", "The Final Destination", or"The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard" while all the folks streaming in to see "Julie and Julia" in our tiny little theater at the giant multiplex were all 40 or older.) My own mother, a wonderful baker but an unenthusiastic chef, tried many recipes from Ms Child's famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, back in the 60's and 70's when I was growing up. Mom's version of Julia's boeuf bourguignon came out quite tasty and I was always disappointed that she did not make it more often. (I think mom's Baptist upbringing made her feel guilty about cooking with wine.) Mom's version of Julia's chocolate cake, covered in sliced almonds, was wonderful, too. Why did she spend so much time cooking greasy baked chicken, swimming in BBQ sauce and margarine, that routinely made me gag ? The world will never know.
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"Julie and Julia" has received much press for Meryl Streep's incredible impersonation of the famous chef, most notably her quavering voice. The films was as I expected : charming, a bit too long on the modern section (Amy Adam's angsting over what she was cooking and the meaning of her life) ; we all wanted more of the older narrative about Julia Child learning to cook and struggling to get her cookbook written. The film came in a little over 2 hours and not once did I look at my watch or wonder if I needed to leave to run to the ladies room. I was entertained and that's all I really ask of a film these days.
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I've read a string of books lately through various book clubs that deal with the topics of food, the world of gourmet cooking and foodies, selecting better quality foods to eat, living in France, or all of the above. (See "Summer Reading" on this blog for more info.) Had a conversation with a gf on facebook recently about cooking coq au vin, after her attempt did not turn out well, and I shared with her my fool-proof recipe for it that never fails to taste good to me, esp on a cold winter's day after a wretched day at work; I make mine in a crock pot and coming home to this comforting dish never fails to delight. While I do not claim to be the world's greatest chef or anything, I do cook a quite a bit ( compared to most people I know) and share recipes and cooking ideas with friends. I surprised myself with the sudden realization that I have not included recipes on this blog, (perhaps b/c I keep them to myself ? trade secrets?) So, to start a new topic, here goes :

Crostini Appetizers
My neighborhood has lots of parties, dinner or otherwise, and this is one of the most-requested items. It is quick and easy to make ahead and sure-fire crowd pleaser :

1 fresh baguette
1 tub pesto ( or make your own)
3-4 Roma tomatoes
ground or shredded Parmesan cheese

Don't substitute any of the ingredients, ( for ex, other tomatoes are too large or too small, other types of bread not stiff enough to stand up to this recipe and will get soggy on you)

Preheat oven (or toaster oven) to 350 . Slice baguette into approx 1/3 inch thick slices, making little "rounds"out of the loaf. Use a cookie sheet or cake pan ( cover with foil first , for easy clean up) and lay bread slices in close rows across the sheet. Wash and slice Roma tomatoes into thin slices, as many as possible. Pick up each little "round" or bread slice, cover with thin layer of pesto. Place one thin slice of tomato on top, set down on cooking platter. When all the little bread slices are completed this way, sprinkle all with Parmesan rather heavily. (You can experiment and also use shredded mozzarella, reggiano, etc.) Bake until light golden brown around the edges (you can make this hours ahead, and wait till the last minute to toss in the oven) and what you have are little gourmet "mini-pizza" appetizers. They are very tasty and go well with alcoholic beverages of all sorts.

Bon Appetit !

8/14/2009

Summer Reading

The concept of "summer reading" has loaded meaning around GFT's house, for it is no secret that I am an English teacher, and since I teach Pre-AP/AP English classes (what we used to call "honors" classes back in the day), my students routinely have summer reading assignments. Typically consisting of a book or two, (choices tend to tie in to themes or material taught in class during the school year), with a corresponding written task to accompany them, these assignments are the subject of much complaining from both my students and my own children (who routinely wait till the last possible moment to begin their work, in spite of all my nagging, threats, bribes, schedules, and other efforts to get them to spread the work out all summer long.) When school convenes each year in August, the teens I know will complain that it is all very easy to assign these projects,"since you don't have to waste your summer doing the work". What they fail to understand of course, is that : 1)Teachers have to read all the books they assign, at some point, 2)teachers often are required to attend in-services and various other training sessions, which are 1000 times worse than lazing around a pool or in a hammock reading a book, 3)any assignment we make - we shall eventually have to grade....and therein lies the rub.
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In spite of all this, I do manage to find time to read for pleasure. I keep a running list on amazon.com of books I hear about, read reviews of, are recommended to me, or are coming up soon for discussion in my various book clubs, and each payday select a few titles to add to my library. This is the one time in my life I let my choices drift with my fancy, and relish not having to read or do something as dictated by work or some other external criteria.
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As summer draws to its end, I am reading Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and really enjoying it. (If it sounds like I say "I'm really enjoying it" to everything I read, that's because, if something doesn't just captivate me in the first 50 pages - I put it down and move on. Figure I can always go back, later, if my mood changes. Used to feel guilty about this, but now I don't. Life is too short! Too many great books to read out there !) So far, Water for Elephants is the story of a young man, trained as a veterinarian, who experiences personal hardship during the Great Depression and decides to hop a train and join a circus. I am expecting he will learn all about life and love along the way as he has adventures with all the weird circus folk. People kept recommending this one to me, and for whatever reason until now, I didn't have the time to read it or the mood wasn't right. Sara Gruen is a captivating writer and I am just pulled in to this story. The "frame" for this novel is that the main character is an old man in a nursing home, remembering his adventures from long ago....and his comments about aging are spot-on (at the beginning of that slippery slope, I share many of the same sentiments, myself.) The title has been explained as a metaphor for b.s. ......which may lend a key to unraveling whether what the narrator tells us is true, or not. A fun ride; I stayed up late last night and could not put it down.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not a galloping fun wild sexy read, but a fascinating one, nonetheless. This is a non-fiction, "documentary" type analysis of the food industry and agri-business in America in the 21st century, with some historical anecdotes how we got to be where we are, why obesity is rampant, why, biochemically speaking, our health and our ecosystems are related and are both out of whack. This book is organized into 3 main sections : the mainstream sources of most foods that appear in our grocery stores, the "organic " revolution and how it has evolved over time, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Intense biology lessons (the food chain, the nitrogen-photosynthesis cycle) thrown in for good measure. I found it informative and enjoyable - but I trend towards being a foodie and a health freak and just a little bit "green", all rolled up in to one. Even if you are a beef loving steak-chomping Texas carnivore....you might want to think about about switching to more upscale organic grass-fed meat sources. It's all the rage nowadays, anyways ! As I said to some friends of mine the other day : "I will NEVER let anyone I love eat a chicken nugget again."
Jhumpa Lahiri is the beautifully poetic Indian-American (Indian as in India, not Native American) author of The Namesake, which achieved commercial success and was made into a movie (starring Kal Penn, of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle " fame), a few years back. The Namesake,which deals with themes of families across the generations, the immigrant experience, expectations we have - both for ourselves and our children, won a Pulitzer Prize. Lahiri has several newer books out that are on my list ...this is one of them. I was surprised to find that Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories ( nowhere in the reviews I read did anyone mention this fact). As I read through them, I was filled anew with many questions to myself, such as : Why has the short story nearly all but vanished as an art form in the past 20-30 years ? Who else is writing short stories today? This collection of stories puts Lahiri in a class with some of the great American writers of short stories such as Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Twain, Parker, and Lardner, for these are truly beautiful little gems, each one more poignant and perfect than the last. Her themes remain similar to her previous work: hopes and dreams, parents vs children, families - but with a fresh new twist in each. The great thing about reading a short story or a collection of them, is that if you are pressed for time you can read one, put it down, and come back and read another one, later. Because the action is compressed, the messages/themes are more intense, leaving the reader with lots to think about after one is finished. A beautiful collection; I may teach some of these gems this fall in my class.
ItalicPeople of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks (author of the Pulitzer prize winning March, the imagined story of the father in Little Women) was recommended to me awhile back by one of my librarian friends, who was so excited when she tried to talk about it that she was nearly speechless. This is a historical novel, all about a very unique and valuable haggadah (layman's terms : a special copy of the Torah, or sections thereof, designed for use during Passover), which survives 600 years of war, famine, political chaos and anti-Semitism as it is bandied about all over Europe, from one owner to the next, secretly carried and saved (at the risk, often, of the owner's life) due to the beautiful and unusual illustrations the volume has. While tracing this story, ( which goes backwards through time), one learns a great deal of history, not just about the Jewish experience in Europe, but about the history of book -making, about the history if Islam in Europe, along with some very memorable descriptions of specific places, at specific moments in time ( such as 17th century Venice). A captivating read; I could not put it down.
One of my book clubs read The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn last spring. While we all agreed that we enjoyed the escapist qualities of Flinn's account of how she left her high-powered financial job and studied at Le Cordon Bleau for a year, we also agreed that her memoir, while enjoyable , was awfully self-indulgent. Who has the time or money to abandon everything for a year, at mid-life, and attend an tres expensive cooking school ? Especially if one does not go on to become a chef, but simply intends to write about one's experiences ? We can't all be like Julia Child. In a similar vein, but as a much more compelling read, is Comfort Me With Apples by Ruth Reichl. Here our plucky heroine recounts her rise from a commune dwelling ex-hippie restaurant reviewer for a local mag in San Francisco, one who can barely pay her bills or who is ashamed to park her crappy beat-up car at the valet parking of the toney restaurants she is there to review, through her two affairs, doomed marriage, frustrating attempts to get pregnant, to her ultimate success as restaurant critic for the LA Times. Along the way we are regaled with anecdotes of famous people she has met in the gourmet foods industry, amusing and lustful tales of incredible meals all around the world, travel adventures, a few rolls-in-the-hay, and wonderful recipes. As a memoir, it is a much better read than Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, because the food adventures and the personal adventures intertwine, and the one becomes a metaphor for the other. This book is an eclectic mix that works, and another I-couldn't-put-this-one-down read.

8/10/2009

"(500) Days of Summer" and... Bergman films ?

What do popular, youth-oriented, currently-playing-in-a-theater-near-you romantic comedies have to do with cinema classics from days long gone by ? How could the charmingly sweet "(500) Days of Summer " possibly intersect with Ingmar Bergman's strangely allegorical B&W film from 1958 ? Why does having a classical education benefit you in yet one more unforeseeable aspect of your life?
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Hubster and I, upon the recommendation of a friend, went to see the delightfully painful "(500) Days of Summer" just the other night. Hubster was struck near speechless (a truly remarkable feat, ask anyone who knows him) by his own identification with the lead character, Tom Hansen, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, manages to evoke the sort of "every guy" archetype while remaining not a caricature. In this movie, Hanson falls in love with Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, who is a girl way over his level- not only in terms of attractiveness, but also in terms of emotional maturity (as most young women are vis a vis young men). The story progresses as one might predict, (guy gets girl, guy loses girl) but that does not mean this is a predictable movie. The rawness of the young man's emotions as they play across his face reveal just how far we have come since my own dating days, decades ago. Back then, guys never revealed their emotions, leaving the girls to speculate ... in endless phone calls to various gf's, while all permutations of said boyfriend's behavior were analyzed to the micro level. We were way off base, completely wrong in our assumptions, more often than not.
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I couldn't help but noticing, as hubster and I walked in to the movie theater, that we were by far the oldest folk in there; all the other couples and individuals in the theater were at least half our age. This fact was filed away and forgotten, until the sequence in the film comes where Tom goes to the movies in an attempt to get over his break up with Summer. This film has many creative moments where the narrative, which is never presented in a straight linear timeline, but reflecting current trends in fiction, instead jumps back and forth and around and around, each spin revealing this new fact or that little insight, giving the viewer much to think about once it is over as one pieces together comments or events in the story and derives deeper understanding of what just happened. There are cute sequences with split screen moments, one side revealing "expectations" and another side "reality" as our hero attends a party. ( Ah ! The influence of the video game generation!) But I knew the great cultural divide came in the scene when our hero sits in a movie theater, watching films, and instead of seeing on the screen whatever he is really there to see, he sees himself as the main character in this long kaleidoscopic series of classic foreign movies. Allusions flicker by, almost too quick to process -everything from homages to "The Red Balloon" to Marcel Marceau to Truffaut to Woody Allen to Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (where the knight plays chess on the beach with Death). Hubster and I roared with laughter to each of these cinematic references.... and the rest of the audience around us was silent.
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As a teenager, I grew up within spitting distance of The University of Texas at Dallas. This rather sterile campus, architecturally speaking, was founded (I think) so that all the engineers from nearby Texas Instruments had a close convenient place to go earn MA's or PHD's in electrical engineering or comp sci, and their wives ( this being the 1960's) could earn degrees in library science, education, or speech therapy - for it is precisely this odd mixture of disciplines that this campus used to offer. Back in the day before VCR's and DVD's, many college campuses such as UTD offered what we used to refer to as "repertory cinema" which meant the showing of older (not current) previously run movies. Before the invention of VHS, DVD, Blue Ray, Netflix, VOD, Hulu, etc. Until very recently, there weren't 5,000 channels of cable tv available , and the only movies to appear regularly on tv were "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Ten Commandments" (which was shown each year for Passover). If you had a hankering to see "Gone With the Wind" or "The Godfather", much less something a bit more esoteric, such as "The 400 Blows", well, buddy, you were out of luck. But if you had a theater (such as The Alabama in Houston, or the Inwood in Dallas, and countless others across America) that showed old movies, you were in cinema heaven. The UTD campus theater put out a calendar that was poster-sized, once a semester, and which showed the months like a regular calendar. On each day was a different film - this was how repertory theater often worked. Want to see "Casablanca"? You better catch it on the one night it was being shown. By receiving the calendar for several months ahead of time, one could put it up on the wall and plan one's life around the various films being offered. Which is exactly what my friends and I did when I was growing up.....often forgoing school or social activities and choosing instead to catch classic films, foreign films, or a cluster of films all by one director, starring one actor, or from a particular country, which was known as a " retrospective". This was the beginning of my own cinematic education. I went off to college a few years later with a taste for this type of cinema, which quickly expanded into current foreign and indie films. My college bf, bless his heart, realized that my needs in this regard were insatiable, and quickly got himself a job at the local cinema that specialized in foreign/indie films, so we could go all we wanted for free - thus saving himself the $1000's he would have spent, when I nagged him to take me to the movies.
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So in addition to all the useless but enjoyable things I have taught myself over the years from books, I also have a vast broad knowledge of foreign cinema, which is entirely useless, but enjoyable. And as I say to my students as regards literature or film, or anything else, the more you know (read/study) , the more you get the jokes.

8/09/2009

Summer Road Trip, Points East - pt 1

Ferry from Manhattan to Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

It has long been a tradition in our family to take a retro-style, load the kids up in the car, family road trip back east to visit relatives and friends each summer. Most years we have only driven as far as the Outer Banks of North Carolina-a series of barrier islands off the coast, once rustic and sleepy and undiscovered; now home to near total build-up of large upscale (pools, hot tubs, and other amenities) beach homes that rent by the week, outlet shopping malls, gourmet grocery stores that stock the New York Times and Washington Post, pirate-themed restaurants, putt-putt golf courses with giant fiberglass dinosaurs that loom out menacingly over the roadway, and several hundred outposts of a local chain named "Wings", each located about 2 blocks from the previous one, which sells cheap swim suits, surfboards, sand toys, sun tan lotion, beach towels, and 10,000 cheap tchotchkies (beaded necklaces? rubber sharks ? bamboo wind chimes? sunglasses ? rubber tubing sling shots? small scale fire crackers?) all made in China.
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We have made this trek, in good years and bad - even in 2008 when gas was $4.00 and up per gallon. I complain about it a lot - mostly the fact that this so called "vacation", during some lean years the only one I got, is ALWAYS accompanied by : a) my in-laws, and b) my having to be the chef for anywhere from 4-12 people. As my therapist says, "any vacation that involves mothers-in-law and cooking is not really a VACATION". I know, however, that in spite of my complaining, this is a rather luxurious week at the beach that few people rarely get to experience, my kids really do need to see their relatives at least once a year, and (as my therapist also said) I need to adjust how I think of it : think of it as a family reunion, as a gift to my children of sand and sea and carefree times, happy memories.......and demand another vacation that is truly a relaxing experience for me ! Which I do.....
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This year, just to put some variety and spice into our lives, we decided to extend our trip, swing north after our week in North Carolina was over, and take the kids to Washington DC and New York City. (GFT used to live in northern VA, across the river from Wash DC, in Alexandria, and son #2 was born there. My own children have been to the Washington area and dragged through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum so many times, they could scream ! However, visiting grand parents is an important duty, and one that is not likely to end, any time soon.) In recent years, we have brought various friends of my kids with us on this trip, so it was time to expose some of these neighborhood teens to the wonders and culture of the east coast.

Tom, Rick and Danny go to White Castle.....where is Will, you ask ? Good question....

Our trip this year got off to a rocky start. The night before we were set to leave, as we were packing and loading up the car, my ex-husband called and said that his father, son # 1's grand father, was near death, and could son #1 fly out to participate in the soon-to-be funeral ... right now ? I informed ex husband that we were, the very next day, embarking on a 3 week road trip from Texas to New York, but that we would try to put son #1 onto a plane at some juncture. The next day, as we were driving from DFW area to Memphis, ex-husband called again to say that his father had been moved into hospice, was near death, and his dying wish was to " see all his grand children one last time", so could son #1 get on a plane ASAP and come see him before he died ? We pulled into Nashville around midnight that night ( after stopping to eat at Neeley's BBQ in Memphis), hubster bought son#1 a plane ticket to Colorado Springs, ( through Dallas - which was not easy, or cheap), and at 6 am the next morning, we put son #1 onto a plane while the rest of us continued driving east. Which is why I've got a few photos in this album that do not have son #1 in them, at all .
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While the rest of our merry band continued our drive east ( along with the requisite stops for great meals and cheezy tourist attractions along the way), son #1 flew out to Colorado Springs, met his father and half sister who were flying in from Houston, his aunt and her kids flying in from LA, was picked up at the airport by his uncle - and all went to the hospice to visit his dying grandfather. They visited with him some, then went back to the uncle's house ( so the uncle, ex husband's older brother, once a computer programmer now a professional chef, could cook up the grandfather's favorite meal, as a sort of "last meal" offering to the dying man.) Late that night they were driving back to the hospice to bring this meal to the grandfather, when they received word that he had died. So son # 1 made had it there, just in time. All the family members - this being a Greek American family, somewhat similar to the one in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", with 200 people visiting, sleeping on the floors and the couches, and someone roasting a lamb on a spit in the back yard - went back to the uncle's house, and began ( pardon my mixed cultural references here, there really is no better way to explain all this) began sitting shiva for the old man. Son #1 , having done his duty to his grandfather and fulfilled the old man's dying wish, got back on a plane and joined our group, still travelling eastward, in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina.*

The rest of our week at the beach was rather anti-climatic. This year, we rented a larger house, and had fewer people in attendance, than in previous years, and people got along much better than we had before. More tv's, more bathrooms, plus 2 family rooms (plus an elevator for my m-in-law, who has mobility issues) as well as the requisite pool, hot tub and other amenities meant more room for folks to spread out, relax, not be all up in each other's business. My crazy militaristic right wing brother-in-law could watch Fox News all he wanted, while my pinko elitist culture junkie mother-in-law could watch PBS and CNN all day long as well....and never the twain shall meet. Each could happily shout at the tv as much as he or she wanted.....and the rest of us could find spots to be to avoid it all. It's a good thing.
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If my attitude about my former father-in-law seems rather confusing, or even cold, please remember : he's an EX father-in-law. While I hold him no ill will, and like to remind folk that he was a WW2 vet and thus deserving of our respect.....one must remember, my divorce from his son was hellishly brutal, (read "When Harry Met Sally" Dec 2007 on this blog, for particulars) and while the intervening years may have faded the rancor somewhat, son #1 had only seen this grandfather twice in his life, and barely knew him. I felt that a dying man's last wish needs to be fulfilled, if at all possible, but did not want to take son #1's only vacation entirely away from him, by having him hang in Colorado around all week, waiting for the funeral. Son#1 had just completed the Texas Governor's School, and thus had spent most of his summer studying. As a child, he was somewhat uncertain about flying across the country by himself to spend days with a family basically unknown to him....and he really needed some vacation time where he could unwind and relax before school began.

Summer Road Trip, Points East, pt 2

My merry band of men on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the reflecting pool ( famous scene in "Forrest Gump") and the Washington Memorial in the back ground

After our week at the beach, we turned north and headed to the Washington DC area. Stayed with hubster's dad, who has been having serious health problems and not doing really well. (Important note : only hubster's mother and siblings join us at the beach each year, as his parents are divorced.) Spent a few days taking the kids to see all the sights, and also took some time to help hubster's dad with some home and yard maintenance issues. It was a good visit, in spite of the fact that it rained every day and the humidity was 100%, and moving around was like living in Rangoon , like swimming through an air of thick pea soup. It reminded me of the days when I used to live in Houston - the leather on my shoes started to mold. The pills in my first aid kit melted, just from the air, into moist greasy puddles.
Paddle boats in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. This is the same little pond that is ringed with cherry blossoms each spring

As hubster and I watched the kids paddle around the tidal pool at the Jefferson Memorial, we asked ourselves, "what will they remember, years from now ?" Almost simultaneously, we turned to each other and said, "paddle boats!" Ignore all that "culture" crap : the museums, the concerts, the history lessons.
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After a few days in Washington, we again turned north. Had a lovely lunch at Phillips in Baltimore's Inner Harbor- home of the world's best crab cakes. Arrived in New York City just in time to eat Pizza at John's Pizzeria ( on Bleeker St) in Greenwich Village. Spent a few days in Manhattan, seeing as many of the sights as we could.
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We've hit upon a workable formula for family travel (esp since we are frequently 5 or more people, with one or another of the kid's friends, or even my mother, sometimes dogs, always tagging along) : we always, if possible, stay at Embassy Suites. Unlike similarly named competitors, these rooms actually do have a 2 roomed suite, where you can shut the door. Plenty of beds plus a fold-out sleeper sofa mean enough room for everyone, and a little bit of privacy for me (often, the only female in this group). These rooms come complete with an all-you-can eat gourmet hot (chefs will cook eggs, omelets, and pancakes to order, as well as the usual scrambled egg-bacon-fruit-cereal-muffin-coffee-juice) breakfast buffet included in the price......not just the crappy donuts and instant coffee that competitors offer. Filling the kids up with a great breakfast really starts the day off right, and means you can see and do a lot before the "I'm hungry" whining starts up......which happens about every 5 minutes when the kids are teenagers.
We had weather in New York that was similar to what we had in Washington, but I didn't mind. I've visited NYC many times in my life, and have been there in all sorts of weather. I'll take rain every time - it sure beats a heat wave. Some of my favorite memories of NYC are in the rain, when I was young, walking hand-in-hand with a young man I loved.....I was excited to get to share all this with my little brood.
A dose of country in the Big City : Central Park

We saw and did quite a bit - several museums, the Empire St Building, (3 hour wait to get in - I do not recommend that unless it's a snowy Tuesday in February), twin towers site, Central Park, lots of great restaurants, Statue of Liberty. We were especially moved by our visit to Ellis Island, where hubster found the names of his ancestors on the wall that lists many (not nearly all) of the immigrants who came through those portals into the USA. (It must be noted that the only names etched there were the ones folks had paid to have put there, as a fund raiser, during the remodeling / refurbishing of Ellis Island several years back.) All of our adventures were guided by our marvelous family friend, the magical Uncle Bill, who regaled us with history and trivia, smoothed out the bumps of travel, and helped us country mice navigate the big city. We always love to visit him, when we can, every where we go .
Uncle Bill leads our band of merry men through the morass of Times Square

7/31/2009

Making Straw Into Gold #1


Classes-preps-student load

When I first started teaching, almost 30 years ago, I taught 4 class periods out of 6 in the school day, and two different subjects (what teachers call “preps” i.e. different subjects you need to “prepare” for.) I had a total of about 15-25 students per class, about 60-100 essays to grade for each assignment. This was a slightly lighter load for English teachers than the norm, bc we had so much grading to do. Other subject teachers at the time taught 5 out of 6. Clubs, sports and extra-curriculars, even teacher meetings, were held before or after the school day ended.

This was pretty much the same level of work load / schedule that I had while growing up. As a high school student in the late 1970’s, little had changed a decade later.

For a long time, until just a few years ago, high schools where I taught had moved to a “double block” schedule : what is called “A” days and “B” days. High schools had four 90 minute long classes, called A1, A2,A3,A4 on one day, and four different classes B1,B2,B3,B4 on the next day. This A/B schedule repeated throughout the year, with students taking 8 classes. Many teachers, especially those who taught arts, science, sports, ag, tech, theater - anything with a lab or where you had to get out equipment and do something, then put it all back, loved the long blocks, bc once you got used to the extra time, you could really dig in and get a lot accomplished.  Less time was wasted on setting up and taking down. Math and foreign language teachers weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the block schedule, bc students forgot a great deal of material from having class only every other day. Athletics coaches loved this schedule, and filled their 1st and 4th block every day with their sports teams, with spill-over before and after school. Teachers, required by law to have at least one conference period a day, loved having the extra time to do paperwork, lesson planning, grading, call parents, etc. During this period I had about 25-30 students per class, graded 150-180 essays. In the early years, English teachers had only 5 out of the 8 blocks to teach, and a study hall the remaining block, so they could grade papers. That was phased out after a while though.

Then someone, somewhere, probably one of those “efficiency experts” who specialize in these sorts of things, took a look at the A/B long block school schedule, and decided that teachers had too much free time on their hands during the school day. So we went to a “modified block”, a sort of pea shell con game, now with 5 periods in a school day: 1st and 5th were an hour long each, and 2nd, 3rd, and 4th were the usual 90 minutes.  The school day was expanded 30 minutes and lunch was cut to 20 minutes to accommodate this (with no resulting increase in wages). Administrators tried to sell this idea with the explanation that it was really the same as before, it’s just that we now saw some of our students every day, and some of our students every other day. No one believed them, however, because the simple fact is we had gone from teaching 3 out 4 periods a day to teaching 4 out of 5. This new schedule created the added challenge of now your 1st and 5th periods had 5 teaching hours a week, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th periods had either 3 hours or 4 and a half. It was hard to keep classes in sync with each other.  Teachers started cramming and skipping the material taught in the less frequent long blocks, and slowing down and fluffing with movies, make-up days, homework days, and other things to stretch the curriculum in the more frequent short blocks.  Staff meetings were moved from before and after school into the school day to accommodate the extended school hours, so teachers lost even more planning time due to meetings and conferences.  If your conference period fell on a short block, you were really screwed.  Talk is we are going to teaching 7 out of 8 next year, with a planning period only every other day.

Class size expanded as well, often reaching 35-40 students all sitting squashed together in classrooms designed to hold 20-25. No room in the aisles for teachers to walk around and monitor students; some teachers put desks in pairs or quads to fit them all in, regardless of whether all the kids could see the board. The year I had 38 students, I just divided them up into groups and took half of them into the hallway to work. I could not fit them all in my classroom.  I graded 188 papers at a time that year.

Did I mention that during these increases in workload, I taught 4 different subjects? The other teachers in my department taught 1 or 2. No one else taught 3 or 4. Just me. Apparently I am invaluable that way.

Here's the thing : Do you want teachers that have time to pay attention to your child? Do you want classrooms that are not over-crowded? All this increase in "productivity" exhausts not only teachers, but students as well. If a teacher does not have time to go to the restroom or eat lunch, her health will suffer. If a teacher is tired, worn out, and cranky from too many students, too many meetings, too much grading in too little time, her patience with her students will suffer. If a teacher has to teach too much material to too many students in less and less time - she will simply teach less.