Monthly Archives: September 2008

Language class

Tonight’s the big night.

I managed to get approval from the recreation center to use one of their classrooms, I worked up a good curriculum, and I have two people who say they will come, three if you count the rec center director who wants to sit in.

Not the resounding success I had hoped for, but ya gotta start somewhere.

I suspect that this particular class will go the way of the writing groups I have tried to start in the past, which is nowhere fast.

But I have come up with several positive points to dwell on so that I don’t get discouraged:

  • Scheduling this class, whether it flies or not, gave me the incentive to put together a few weeks worth of conversation class curriculum, something I have wanted to do for a couple of years but always stopped myself with the thought, why?  What particular group of students am I directing it at?  etc.  Planning this class has focussed me enough to get it done.
  • Perhaps I will impress the director with my class packet and my teaching style and he will list my class in the next rec center schedule, which may generate more students than my pitiful few fliers around town
  • I will have put the wheels in motion  (As Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”)  This includes having the incentive to buy a dry erase board with necessary accoutrements, ten-sided dice (for practicing numbers), and to make a picture file for use in demonstrating vocab/generating conversation.

I know it sounds like I’m being negative in my assumption that this particular class won’t go anywhere, but I have a list for that too:

  • I feel more comfortable assuming the worst, and being pleasantly surprised when things don’t completely suck
  • It feels more emotionally responsible to see this as the first small step/attempt and not set myself up for crushing disappointment by thinking, “This is it!  It’s this or nothing!”
  • I feel like evaluating things realistically is the only way to figure out how to succeed, to know what is working, to change the things that don’t work

None of it feels like work to me.  When I come up with activities, worksheets, dialogues, conversation starters, etc. I do not feel the effort required but am carried away by my enthusiasm and interest.  I find myself looking forward to this kind of work.  In fact I have to be careful to remind myself that it is important, because I tend to put it off too long the way I would set aside reading a book or watching a tv show or any other form of entertainment that must wait indefinitely because I have to cook and clean and mind the kids.  That’s how much I enjoy planning a class.  If that isn’t the ultimate in nerddom, I’m not sure what is.

So we shall see what comes of it this evening.  If there is anything of interest to report, I will write a post about it tomorrow.  Otherwise, I will write a post whenever I get to step two!

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Quilting

Sherrieh reminds me of one of the hobbies I love so much and how I’d love to take it further, into the realms of appliqué…

All the quilts I’ve done thus far have been simple cut-and-piece-together quilt tops.

This is the first quilt I ever did, specially for the handsome gentleman in the photo (my eldest son) when he was 3.  A friend helped me with it, and I blame her for the massive error (don’t you just love how I take responsibility for my own mistakes!)  The big green squares are supposed to be the darker leafy material and vice versa.  I tried to make it look like “I meant to do that” by quilting some designs into some of the squares: a heart, a sword, a star…  But despite the grand foul-up, I was hooked on quilting.

This was my second.  The colors are kind of loud, but that’s how I like to do baby quilts.  (That’s the baby it was for in the picture, five years later!)  Babies don’t like to look at pastels, in my opinion.  They’d rather see some obnoxiously contrasting crazy colors… really seems to perk up their interest.

Talk about obnoxious… and massive errors.  This was my brilliant idea to use up a bunch of scraps I had.  There are pieces from three other quilts I’d made, bits from a little hand bag I’d made, plus scraps of one of my daughter’s old dresses, and the backing is an old sheet.  This is supposed to be the pattern “Tumbling Blocks” but I was not careful enough about matching the light and dark bits so the effect is quite diluted.  To add to its dark history, there’s the fact that I sobbed hysterically while sewing the long strips of hexagons together because they just wouldn’t match up right.  Hours and hours of sobbing.  So, needless to say, this isn’t one of my favorites.  Luckily it is not the special baby blanket of anyone and gets to be used by overnight guests, who never know of its pathetic history.

This next one is a pattern called “Ocean Waves” that I wanted to try for so long.  I was finally talked into doing it for my oldest daughter (and BY my oldest daughter, coincidentally!)  The thing about quilting that amazing me is the optical illusion aspect, wherein one takes simple shapes, cuts them out of different colors and puts them together so that they come alive, like this quilt that almost seems to move like swelling waves, though all the shapes have flat edges and corners:

This next quilt is called “Window Pane” and I thought I was terribly clever using the cloudy sky for the view out the window.  It was for my nephew, and I especially love the blue flames, first of all because of the contrast/wild color theory I mentioned before, but also because his parents think they are all wild and crazy, so I knew they would dig it.  What was kind of amazing to me was that I managed to do the whole thing by hand, since I’d sold my machine before we left Oregon.  Usually I piece together the quilt top, add the edging, and sometimes do the actual quilting by machine.  But every single stitch in here was by hand.  (I’m still tired.)

Then there’s the one that’s on my bed as we speak, the one I started two years ago for my husband and I and just finished up before we made our last move a couple of months ago.  I wanted to have something fresh and meaningful to start our new life here.  I made it simple, huge, warm, bright, using some scraps from the past and some brand new material, just like I want our marriage to be.

 And that’s what it’s all about for me, a blanket to celebrate something, a lasting reminder to a dear one that someone loves them enough to go to a heck of a lot of trouble, or if you make it for yourself, then a constant reminder that life is worth living and making more beautiful with careful crafting by your own hands.

 I know we all have different ways of showing our love and devotion… quilting happens to be one of mine.

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The Wary Eater’s Field Guide to Tofu

In today’s health- and weight-conscious society, where the often disparaged tofu waits on the sidelines for the chance to demonstrate its delightful dietary dynamo, an introduction is needed for people who don’t know about the positive aspects of tofu but have heard that it is kryptonite to the taste buds.  I am certain that with a bit of hands-on, or rather “teeth-on,” exploration of this little-understood and much maligned food, their culinary horizons will be expanded to encompass the enviable opportunity to pompously exclaim, “You’ve NEVER eaten tofu?  How sad…”



Titles I considered:
 “Tofu – One Woman’s Quest for Calcium”


“Tofu – Not as Disgusting as You Think!”


“Tofu – Eat It or You Don’t Get Any Ice Cream!”



Tofu is a cool food we got from the Chinese, who have eaten it for thousands of years without ever feeling the need to ridicule each other about it. They refer to it as “the meat without bones;” in fact, it was first developed as a meat substitute for the Buddhist monks who are strict vegetarians. Tofu is a relatively inexpensive, highly digestible protein that has no cholesterol, is low in calories, high in calcium and also provides iron. People will complain that it is high in fat while stuffing the last of a quart of ice cream into their mouths. The truth is, a person eating a healthy diet is not going to max out on fat intake by enjoying a tofu entrée.



People also whine that tofu is “tasteless,” but this is precisely what gives it its versatility. It can be mixed with seasonings and baked into all kinds of shapes like “meatballs,” “meatloaf,” and “burgers,” or sautéed with just about any kind of sauce.

 It can even be used in a variety of desserts.

If it helps, think of it as eating beans – tofu is simply processed soybeans where the curd is mixed with a coagulant so it sticks together in a block like soft cheese. Picture refried beans out of a can… it doesn’t look so much like pinto beans as like brown goo, but people enjoy it. So don’t think “weird,” think “bean.”



I understand firsthand the deeply entrenched resistance to eating tofu; it has been a running gag in American culture for so long that even my own daughter is prejudiced. She’ll eat it disguised as a tofu burger or hot dog, but the other day I had her taste a really obvious piece that I had sautéed until crispy in oil and soy sauce (I only had to pay her a dollar), and she concluded, “It tastes pretty good, except I hate tofu.”



So for folks who are similarly wary of trying tofu, I highly recommend starting out with the aforementioned burgers and hot dogs. These can often be found in the frozen food section of a major grocery store, though it may be necessary to venture out to a health food store, especially in a region whose specialty dish is spelled “B-B-Q.” The burger and hot dog shapes lend credibility through their superstar status in American tradition and thus are a better bet that they’ll take the first bite if you’re going for the bait and switch approach with the kids (this technique also works on your own inner child): “Here, eat this… do you like it? It’s tofu.”



When you’re bored of this game and are ready to make a meal using raw tofu (I promise it’s far less disgusting than handling a slab of bloody meat), I recommend starting with recipes that lend themselves to best-selling vegetarian cookbook author Mollie Katzen’s wise advice on how to serve tofu to children (this includes disdainful spouses, by the way): “Lots of ketchup!!!” This harkens back to the previous suggestion of “make it at least vaguely recognizable as something they’ve managed to choke down before.” I find that “crispy with ketchup” fits the bill.



First, the intrepid chef must find the ingredient. Clever places tofu will hide: in the refrigerated section near the eggs or in the produce department near those over-priced lettuce mixes. It might be necessary to ask a store employee. I promise they won’t laugh, unless of course they don’t carry it, in which case the correct move is to laugh self-righteously back at them and say, “You don’t carry TOFU?!? This IS the 21st century, you know!” and flounce out of the store. It will be fun.



So, having scored some bean curd (buy a pound of “firm” for this), proceed to the kitchen, heat up a non-stick frying pan to medium-high, cover the bottom of the pan with about two tablespoons of vegetable oil and, while it’s getting hot, cut the tofu into “chicken-strip” sized slices. Sometimes I like to get fancy by dipping each slice in beaten egg and then in seasoned bread crumbs before cooking. Fry for about three to five minutes on one side, add some soy sauce (about a tablespoon), then flip them and sauté the other side until they are golden brown.  More soy sauce can then be added, to taste, or even teriyaki, peanut or BBQ sauce… the possibilities are endless.  The kids, of course, are liable to want ketchup.

Another easy and delicious dish can be made by crumbling the tofu, mixing in some salt and pepper and adding some minced onions, bell peppers, and/or mushrooms before sautéing (a pinch of turmeric will make it look yellow like scrambled eggs.) Just make sure the tofu is cooked until good and crispy, and a bit salty, so it goes with all the ketchup. Or try adding grated cheese and salsa after cooking for a “huevos rancheros” deal.



Mollie Katzen also suggests tricking kids by sneaking mashed tofu into mashed potatoes. This ruse may work for tiny kids who don’t know any better, or for kids who play video games with one hand and eat with the other. But most people unmask snuck food eventually, and then they’ll probably hate tofu just for spite. An honest approach is best – “It’s not your usual dead cow, I know, but it’s what I cooked, so eat it or you don’t get any ice cream.”



Freezing tofu first gives it a more meaty texture when used in any of the above recipes. They say this preparation makes the tofu a great substitute for ground beef or cubed chicken in common recipes. As far as “meat-substitute” goes, however, I find the best bet is just to make friends with a new food. The only way tofu could ever satisfy a hankering for charred flesh is if a person were a Buddhist monk. So just give it a chance as its own individual foodstuff.



And enjoy!

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Death and Yardwork

Wow, as I sat down to write about my day, that title came out of nowhere, and immediately made me think of two men in my family who died, years apart, of heart attacks while working in the hot sun in their yards: my Uncle Ray and my grandfather-in-law (he would be my ex-grandfather-in-law now, but he will always be dear to me no matter what his grandson does… or refuses to do).  May they both rest in peace.

But that wasn’t what I was going to talk about.  I was going to mention the sunflowers I ripped out of the ground today before I mowed.  They were big ‘uns, a few of them over six feet, maybe seven, I should have had my husband stand next to them so I could measure.  They had been done, hanging over, some laying on the ground, for a week now.

If I owned my own home and had planted them in the backyard, I would have left them awhile.  As I grow older I find I enjoy even this stage in my garden and am loathe to hide it by removing the evidence of the plant’s death too soon.  

It has always been easy to love the spring groundbreaking, getting sore muscles and blisters from working that shovel.  And of course the new sprouts are very exciting, the tall strong stalks very pleasant, the flowers and fruit then being the climax of summer’s joy.  I can’t think of many better ways to spend an afternoon than wandering barefoot in the garden, sun on my shoulders, and grazing on the sweet goodies.

But the decay is special too.  There is a magic in watching life turn back into dirt.  The quietness, the lack of excitement that lets you think straight, really contemplate the whole circle.  I have come to appreciate the sight of jack-o-lanterns rotting on the compost heap, bean vines drying into a brown lifeless maze on the trellis, and yes, the tired, nodding heads of sunflowers, sinking to the earth to release the gems that will be next year’s flowers.

But I don’t own my own house and my back yard is a small slit of grass in perpetual shade at the bottom of a hill.  I am not anxious to hear any neighbors whine about my “neglected” front yard or have any of the other renters call the landlord to tattle.  

So I’ll just have to find something else to remind me.  Maybe when the leaves turn and fall, maybe when it starts to be dark early, and cold, maybe that will give me the inspiration to remember what so many people try to hide: that we’re all heading back into the dirt, slowly but surely, and we should bloom where we’re planted now, while we have the chance.

Maybe I’ll try to keep those two special ancestors in my thoughts, along with all the others, so that their flowers can live on.

 

Sidenote:  I read the phrase “bloom where you are planted” somewhere once, and though I don’t know who to give credit to, I don’t want to take the credit for it myself.

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Comments on comments

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time.  I don’t think the time will ever be right, but I’m tired of having it floating around in my head.

Figuring out how the comment function “should” work in this medium has been awkward at times.  When I first started blogging, I would encounter blogs where leaving a comment met with a “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”  I check back and the writer never approved it.  A perfectly innocuous comment, agreeing with what the poster said.  I take that as my signal never to return.  Why do these people have their blog public?

Some writers are vigilant about commenting on everyone’s comments, and this is great.  It makes it a real conversation, back and forth.  But sometimes when I start to do this, it feels forced.  Sometimes I know that a comment does not require a response.  At the same time, I don’t want to make the commenter feel unheard or unappreciated.  That is a dilemma I struggle with.

There is one blogger whose writing I admire for its humor and commentary on pop culture.  I’ve left a couple of well-crafted comments, hoping maybe to strike up a conversation or let her know I like her work, and she has never responded, nor has she ever visited my site, according to the blog stats page.  She doesn’t get many comments on her site, maybe a couple for a post on a good day, or else I would just make up the excuse that she is too busy and overwhelmed by her readership.  Though I feel like a little kid standing in humble admiration, I continue to visit her page because it is worth it, even if she doesn’t have time for me.  (At least she doesn’t moderate my comments into the cyber round file!)

Another blogger whose writing I very much enjoy brought up the desire for honesty in comments, an idea to which I myself subscribe.  Respectful honesty: to me, I’ve always thought this is the goal of communication, right?  

But now I think, maybe not always.  Sometimes maybe it is good to have a place to come and just get support from people.  This world tends toward the hostile, and sometimes even respectful honesty feels hostile when you’ve had enough strife in the rest of your day.  Sometimes we just need people to relax with and not feel like we’re being criticized or picked apart every minute.  This is definitely legitimate.

A recent foot-in-mouth comment of mine leads me to consider the nature of individual blogs, what their purposes are.  I above all want to be respectful of people’s intended audience and atmosphere.  I think the most disrespectful comment is the one that tries to tear the fabric of the blog without consideration of its nature.

Which leads inevitably to the question, what is the nature of my blog?  I get the sense from people’s comments that they are inspired to think about the content, and sometimes have a good chuckle, when reading my posts.  I confess I’ve never had a disruptive comment.  Luck, I suppose, or lack of traffic!  I don’t feel like I’ve clarified the purpose of my own blog in my mind, other than having a forum to express myself and see how people react to it, how they can add to it or spin the topic in a way I hadn’t thought of.  I do really like the idea of making people laugh.  I think this is a valuable objective.  I want to cultivate my own sense of humor and learn not to stand in the way of others’.

Lately I’ve taken to commenting on some of the articles on the website of the local paper.  Most of it is democrat/republican sniping, and I like to jump into the fray if I feel there is something worth addressing.  I know the paper welcomes all comments so they can sell ads to advertisers, so there is no danger of disrespecting a certain atmosphere that someone has worked hard to create.  As you can imagine if you are familiar with how I operate, I don’t launch personal attacks or try to ridicule anyone individually.  But neither do I hold back much on what I really think.

But blogs are a different kind of public forum.  I am so blown away by bloggers who open up themselves to the world and try to make honest, real connections.  I am equally impressed with readers who take the time to digest and react in their own words to what the blogger has offered up for thought.  I have always loved books and words, and I’ve always loved to sit around and chew over some issue or other with friends, but this experience on the internet combines both activities and takes them to a whole new level.  It is amazing to be in a global conversation and I have not stopped being overwhelmed at how lucky I am to be participating in it.  Really, it is unprecedented in the history of humans.

I look forward to many years of experimenting with this great exchange.

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Tutoring

I just got my first tutoring client in our new town, and it’s going to be a short gig.  This kid’s too smart to need me for long.  Just needs a little confidence-building and he’ll be off and running.

But just a couple of sessions is enough to remind me of how much I love it.

When you teach, you have to try to gear the material to EVERYONE, an impossible task but what else are you going to do.

When you tutor, you do whatever they need.  If you can tell they need everything written down to be able to process the information, then you write it.  If you hear one or two recurring pronunciation errors (I tutor languages), you point them out.  If they need you to repeat certain things or jump over that one part or remind them of that thing they keep forgetting… you can be whoever and whatever that student needs.  Do they need you to walk them through the whole exercise?  Do they just need a nudge in the right direction?

I love the fact that everyone learns differently.  I love the challenge of figuring out what a student needs and how I might phrase something so that it makes sense to them.

I remember when I was in grade school and a teacher would explain something and a kid would ask a question, and I could always tell that there was a crossed wire between what the teacher said and what the kid heard.  So how did the teacher answer?  Most of the time: repeat exactly what they said the first time.  I knew, if they just tweaked it, came at the answer from a slightly different angle, this kid would get it.

I love to look at things from all possible angles, walk around some theory or rule or bit of information and investigate it for leaks, holes, or undiscovered treasures.  I love to be able to rotate the invisible gem and make it magically appear for someone who wants to see it.  I love to try to connect that particular piece of the world to all the others, try to fit together some big picture so we might Get It.

The best and worst case scenario in tutoring, I find, is when the student is really inspired by the subject.  Best case, because it is a total joy to watch them drink in the material, so satisfying to realize that they are listening to things I point out and that they put into practice almost everything we cover, so validating that someone else likes to study the subject I’ve devoted so much of my life to.

Worst case scenario because, like my current student, they don’t really need me.  The usual case is the concerned parents see a test score that went amiss for whatever reason and they panic a bit and want to make sure things aren’t heading in the wrong direction.  I provide a couple of sessions worth of support, a few study hints, some guidance to additional resources, and these kids will be able to fly solo.  They want to.  Like I told the parents the other night when they asked for my assessment of their child’s abilities, I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but honestly, as long as he keeps up with the school work, he’ll do really well.

I’ll just sit here and hope that a few more come along for me soon.

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Writing your own legend

My kids and I have been watching “The Grizzly Man Diaries” on Animal Planet.  I absolutely love it.

I’d seen the movie about him a few years ago, but this series gives me the chance to get a continuous drip of it.

First, I love to watch tv when I feel like my kids and I are educating ourselves at the same time: seeing the animals’ life cycles, ecology, food chain, behavior, etc.  That in itself gives the activity about 20 points right off the bat.  We have DVR, so we record the show and replay it whenever the time is right, and we constantly pause it so we can discuss things or share our thoughts.  

I love the show because it is an ongoing investigation of the idea of objective observer vs. meddler in a natural process.  This is one of the most important fundamental issues in the documentary genre as well as in the scientific community:  how much does an “objective” observer interfere with and change what they are observing, and how much should they participate in the events they are witnessing?  Most documentary filmmakers would say you should participate as little as possible, so that we usually observe from a distance things that might be heartwrenching, like a cute little bunny being eaten by a wolf or an orphaned cub starving to death.  It is generally accepted that this is the way things are and they should not be tampered with by humans.

But the Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, has a completely different take.  We saw him get up out of his tent in the middle of the night to scare the wolves away from his fox family.  We also saw him move rocks in a too-shallow creek (not enough rain that year) and create a deep channel so that some of the salmon could make it up to the lake to spawn.  He spoke to the camera and reasoned, Humans are already interfering through our development, industrialization, pollution, etc. to such a great extent, that there is no point in pretending that our hands aren’t already dirty.  Why not step in when we see things we think we could help with.  

Why not indeed.

This is perhaps the part I love most about the show:  Timothy Treadwell is very aware of what he is doing, of what his life is about, of his goals, feelings and priorities.  He submits his actions to us all on camera.  He does not appear to have a hidden agenda, he does not seem to have any dreams that he puts off for a rainy day, he does not seem to be trying to manipulate the audience.  His words and actions seem genuine and personal.  He appears to live spontaneously whatever his brain and/or heart say to him.  He knows that he is part of the story he is telling, and he is not going to conceal any of it.

He wrote his own legend.  From his diaries and videos and still photographs, the producers of the show are constructing stories, which cannot be exactly the same as how Treadwell would have put them together, which cannot be exactly the same as how the bears would have related them, which cannot be exactly the same as the story of nature without us in it, which story we can never know.  We can only know the story through our own eyes, even if we are sitting quietly and watching it on tv, we are still filtering it.  We are understanding it by making it our own.  

I myself have no desire to document every second of an ecological niche the way he did, but I am inspired by the idea of giving up the pretension that I can be objective, of accepting that I am going to have to participate in what I am observing if only by being another body in the room staring.  I am intrigued by the idea of steering my life according to what I am most passionate about, of leaving behind the things that society insists require my attention but which I no longer have time for.

I love the idea of writing my own legend, with eyes and heart open.

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