Thursday, April 29, 2010

She (un)blinded me with science

This story originally was written in an e-mail last night to my junior-high science teacher (who, it turns out, still is a junior-high science teacher, 30 years later). I've removed some names here and there, but otherwise, it's exactly as it happened. The periodic-table chant mentioned in the first paragraph was an assignment Mrs. V____ gave us in which we had to memorize, recite, and decode a lengthy mnemonic for remembering each item in the Periodic Table of Elements, in order. To this day, I can remember the first part: "Hi-hee-Li-Bee, B-ka-nof, Nee-Nah, My Gal Sips Chlorine" (Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Potassium, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine, Neon, Sodium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Chlorine). She remembered the chant itself, but not the contract grade it had been part of, so I sat down to tell her the story of what a watershed moment that quarter had been for me.

The contract grade had 16 parts. The periodic-table chant was one of them, and may even have been four of them, since I think you taught it to us in four chains. (I tried to look it up today and only found ONE hit, a 1932 article called, "Methods versus the Mechanics of Instruction," in Science Educator. I'd love to read it if I can find it in a library; online it appears to be part of a proprietary database one must pay to use.) One related gimmick that I picked up from you was that as I recall, we received a grade in one quarter for memorizing the chant and being able to tell you what each one was, and then ANOTHER 100 if we still remembered it weeks later. I used that trick when I was teaching ninth-grade English and would do a poetry unit that involved memorizing and reciting any poem from the textbook that was at least 12 lines long. If I ever get on "Jeopardy!" I'm sure that trick will help.

Another item of the 16 had something to do with clipping and summarizing articles about science. I can still see myself sitting on the brick hearth of our house on M______, clipping articles from
Reader's Digest and really enjoying reading them.

The list was set up so that if we did the first 14 items -- surely to some acceptable standard, yet it was clear that there was a minimum of judgment calls, because I remember very much liking that the element of doubt that I mentioned previously was not there (the hidden "catch" that always seemed to me to be there as a kid - more on that, later) -- then we would unquestionably receive a 'C.' This aspect gave me the confidence to try to do it, because while 14 tasks was a long list, it was a finite one and I could be sure of the positive outcome. Initially I *only* aimed at the 'C,' having found that hard enough to achieve. When those 14 were done, the fact that I had 14 down, just 1 to go, if I wanted a 'B' tempted me into doing #15, a model of something -- the solar system? an atom? -- with sticks and Styrofoam balls that I had to paint yellow, blue, and red.

So there I was, with #1-15 under my belt and still some time left in the quarter. The 'B' that I so rarely earned in those days, especially in science, was all mine, and I could rest. Except ... once again, there was one lone task between me and the 'A's I almost NEVER got in anything, even my good subjects.

What you didn't know, and my mother still vividly remembers discovering, was that I had an absolute and unswerving conviction that I was too dumb to figure out any of the things people had to figure out for science fair projects. In 5th grade at S____, I had to wait for the school bus with my neighbor J_____, and I remember her showing me one day a model she had built that showed how a battery worked. With God as my witness, ma'am: **** I THOUGHT SHE HAD FIGURED THAT OUT ALL BY HERSELF!!! **** She was "only" in High Ac, and I was in TAG
["Talented and Gifted"], but if she could figure out on her own how a battery worked, then it was obvious I didn't have the right kind of mind for a science fair.

Every year, teachers told us to do a science-fair project, and some even gave us an 'F' if we didn't (pretty sure I got one from you in 7th for that). To me, there was no question or option of doing one, because there wasn't anything of the kind that I could figure out alone.

In sixth-grade TAG, we had had to do a yearlong project, guided by a model of the scientific method. Much of the curriculum in that class, I didn't do, for reasons long since lost to me. I suspect part of it is that it was so unstructured, and left to my own devices, I always would choose reading over any other activity. One day when kids were teasing me as they inevitably did in those days, my teacher stopped the class and gave them a long talk about how they should (a) mind their own business about who did what work and (b) reconsider their assessment of my mind, because she'd had a kid like me before and he read the whole encyclopedia from A to Z. After that, he asked for a medical encyclopedia. Eventually he became a doctor. The punchline, basically, was: "I'm not worried about her, and it's between the two of us what she learns, so you quit worrying yourselves about something that's not your business." :) As you can see, I never, ever forgot that. She's over at B_______ Elementary today, as she was when I drove out to see her the week of graduation to show off and to thank her.

I was so impressed I started reading through the
World Book myself, though I never got past the C volumes because there was so much fascinating material there. One topic that particularly grabbed me was about color, in paint and in light. It had this great illustration of an experiment one could do with a light bulb, some wires, and those colored sheets of film that spotlights use. I wanted to do my yearlong project on that topic, but when I went to draw the 16-frame storyboard, I couldn't think what to do after square #3, so I abandoned the project. For the rest of the year, I earned my grade by helping others with their projects instead; one was on sharks, and Sarah B_____'s was on how animated films are made, giving me a chance to help her do a stop-motion animation.

This brings us back to eighth-grade physical science and that tantalizing chance to earn an 'A,' if only I could overcome my phobia of Science Fair. So I went to my mother with my dilemma -- I want an 'A' so much, but how can I get one if it means having to do the impossible and come up with something like that battery model? Her stunning reply: "Well, then let's go up to the library and see if we can find something in the science-fair project books." Me:
THERE ARE BOOKS?!?!?!?!?!?!

The relief, dear lady, the relief! Never had it crossed my mind to think anything other than that J_____, with some hidden depth of genius, had dismantled a battery and deciphered its inner workings. Since I'd known I couldn't do that, then Q.E.D., I was incapable of a science-fair project, even when it meant certain failure. To discover now that all I had to do was find some already-done concept, follow the steps correctly, and show a known principle, was a burst of immense joy and excitement. As Mom and I pored over the books along the back wall of the branch library, it crossed my mind: What about that contraption in the encyclopedia? Would that be anything like these projects? Indeed, I was told, it would.

For weeks I assembled the parts. A friend from church had a son who worked the spotlights for her at W____ High -- eventually he became a professional production designer -- and he wrote down for me the gels I needed and the store to visit. It took a lot of tinkering with the light bulb to get it to come on when needed. Who even remembers whether it worked on the big day? What stays in mind is the project itself and the fact that I (I!) at last had managed to do one.

It wasn't until I was 20 years old and taking education classes in college that I got my first hint of what had been wrong all those years of feeling like Charlie Brown with Lucy's eternal football-snatching ways. Not until I was 30, and in my third year of a combined masters/Ph.D. program (having been admitted to the Ph.D. program despite only having my bachelors' under my belt), did I find out for sure that the stumbling block that had all my classmates -- and some years of middle-school, even me myself -- convinced I was dumb and didn't belong in Honors classes with the likes of them. (Your dad's class, BTW, was where I got my first indisputable proof to the contrary: I received my PSAT scores an hour after everyone else, so I didn't know how they'd done until the person behind me -- instead of passing back my score to me -- started passing it around the room to the others. I'd gotten a selection index of 217, outscoring not only the whole class of '85, but also everyone in the class of '84 save the valedictorian. The kids thought it was a fluke until we got the same results junior year. ;-> )

Finding out I had ADD-Inattentive Type changed my entire life, and my entire viewpoint on my schooling. And interestingly, though I majored in Education in college, and Curriculum and Instruction in graduate school, until that third year of Ph.D. study, not one teacher ever raised the possibility that I might have any kind of disability. I'm not saying that to blame *anyone*, because I don't; I just marvel at how we all can miss the obvious, especially with what some people call the "twice exceptional," kids who are gifted AND handicapped. Documenting my educational history for the diagnostic procedure was actually fun, as the guy couldn't believe how ample the documentation really was. I had all my report cards from second grade at [private school] onward, with their contradictory comments to illustrate just how far back it went.

So the upshot, where you're concerned at least, is --
THANK YOU. That contract grade was one of the single most positive experiences of my entire 1-12 career, and it showed me some hidden depths in myself I might not have found out any other way.

Friday, June 05, 2009

On that day

There it was. The photo. The news. The terrifying "How can anyone be doing this to another human being?" moment. All the excitement of being young grown-ups studying in a foreign metropolis ground to a halt as we dealt with the paralyzing humanity of that one person against the inhumanity of those (human-driven) tanks.

Just the words, "Tianenmen Square" bring me back to that horrible, horrible moment. We were 20-something Christian-college kids, braving the amazing adventure of studying in Guadalajara, Mexico. Our prof had taken us for a side trip to Mexico City, and we'd just gotten out from our Sunday morning church service. I'd developed a fondness for TIME International edition, and made everyone stop by the newsstand so I could get my fix.

I've looked it up, and June 4 was a Sunday. By the time we were slapped in the face with it, the connected and up-to-date people had been coping for a week. This was before the Internet, before CNN, before it became nearly impossible in a city of that size to be a full week behind on the news. To know that the whole time we'd been jaunting around ... to put it in words seems to trivialize it by making this international event all about us privileged U.S. kids wishing we were back in the familiar embrace of our families. It was -- and IS -- soooo not about us. 

Yet it IS about us -- as a part of the larger "us." As college students, the very group that was facing down the Chinese government crackdown. As world citizens, sharing the outrage and violation. As people of faith, trying to believe that a fallen world can be improved and that people disconnected with their human side can still be reached. 

We must keep trying. We must find whatever in our own lives is as scary and painful to face as those tanks, and not just admire "Tank Guy" and turn the page.

Get up, stand up
Stand up for your rights
Don't give up the fight
-- Bob Marley, "Get Up, Stand Up"

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Does no one remember the Christian lyrics for "Carol of the Bells"?

Growing up in the '70s, one of the staples of my family's Christmas revels was the We Wish You a Merry Christmas album from Ray Conniff and the Ray Conniff Singers. You may think it isn't part of your own celebration, but if you have lived in the United States during one or more Christmas seasons and have set foot anywhere that Christmas recordings were being played, you've probably taken in at least one number from this album. It's quite popular with the malls and those radio stations that start playing holiday music on Thanksgiving Day and keep going through the night of Dec. 25th. But don't hold that against Ray Conniff or his singers! It's a well-produced album with nifty, creative arrangements -- albeit staged within a fake-holiday-party context that bears a slight whiff of "cheesy" fragrance -- and a nice mix of secular and religious songs.

As a teenager, I once ran across a cassette at my grandparents' house that featured me, at age 4, trying not only to sing these songs, but to reproduce the full ensemble arrangement with my lone voice. The medley with "We Three Kings of Orient Are" includes me making a segue between songs by oddly belting out the first word in the phrase, "STAR of wonder, STAR of light... ." As an adult, I was so happy when I discovered the CD version (our old vinyl version was beyond worn out by now), I bought one for myself, one for my parents, and one for my brother. Every year we load it into the car's CD player before heading to East Texas, though we're surely going to sing all the songs ourselves as a quartet-on-wheels both coming and going.

So it amazed me when I sang in a barbershop chorus as an adult and discovered that the song I'd always known as "Ring Christmas Bells," with beloved lyrics like "Ring, Christmas bells, merrily ring / Tell all the world Jesus is king," was known to most people as "Carol of the Bells" and had totally different, essentially nonsensical lyrics. It was painful learning to sing such inanity as, "Ding dong, ding dong / That is their song," and even lines like "All seem to say, throw cares away / Christmas is here, bringing good cheer" leave me cold. It seems almost a parody of the version I know, although I realize it's likely that the better-known version predates it.

Around 1996, I was singing with a church chorus when they prepared a Christmas program, and was disappointed that even they seemed familiar only with the pallid version that urges generalized "good cheer" for no particular reason. Don't get me wrong; I am not one of those people who sees some kind of "war on Christmas" or has a problem with expressions like "Happy Holidays." It simply seems sad to me that this far more inspiring version of the song doesn't seem to have made its way even into Christian circles, much less into holiday settings that play other religious Christmas carols and other selections from this very album. Tonight I Googled various phrases from the song, figuring that surely by now someone had posted the lyrics online. Incredibly, they had not, so I will do so here; there is no attribution for the lyrics on my CD or album, so if they are of known authorship, I hope someone will see this and alert me. :)

Ring, Christmas bells,
merrily ring
Tell all the world
Jesus is king

Loudly proclaim
with one accord
the happy tale
bound [*] from the Lord

Ring, Christmas bells,
Sound far and near
Comfort the old
Jesus is here

Carol the news [**]
to old and young
Tell it to all
in every tongue

Ring, Christmas bells,
merrily ring
tell all the world
Jesus is king

Ring, Christmas bells,
toll loud and long --
your message sweet
peal and prolong

Come all ye people
Join in the singing
Repeat the story
told by the ringing

[ring, ring, ring, ring]

Ring, Christmas bells,
throughout the earth
Tell the good news
of Jesus' birth

Loudly proclaim
with one accord
the happy tale
bound [*] from the Lord

Ring, Christmas bells,
merrily ring
Tell all the world
Jesus is king

Ring, Christmas bells,
merrily ring
Tell all the world
Jesus is king

Loudly proclaim
with one accord
the happy tale
bound [*] from the Lord

Ring, Christmas bells,
sound far and near
Comfort the old
Jesus is here

Carol the news [**]
to old and young
Tell it to all
In every tongue

[ring, ring, ring, ring, ring ...]

transcription is mine
[*] this word is unclear, even after several listening tries; I put what I always thought it said
[**] the word rendered "carol" may be "herald," which would fit as well

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The home of the brave enough for criticism

... o'er the land of the free
and the home of the brave.

-- "The Star-Spangled Banner," by Francis Scott Key

The U.S. government currently has a new proposed rule under consideration that would, at last, expand the ability of the public to attend presidential inaugural parades, including the ability of those who attend for purposes of protest. I consider this an immensely patriotic and important rule to support, and I would urge fellow U.S. citizens to go promptly to to comment on this rule, as the comment period will end September 22, 2008.

My own submitted comment follows:

"The government of communist China recently claimed it would permit protesters, etc., during the Beijing Olympics, but only in specified areas far from the venues, and only with permits, which they then proceeded to deny. This type of behavior is to be expected from a communist country, which has much to fear from its people being permitted free speech that might criticize them. It is undignified and unworthy of a free and democratic republic whose constitution and its amendments were written with the express intention of protecting its citizens' rights to critique their leadership.

"Yet this restriction and distancing have been typical of certain parties' political onventions and then of their approach to inaugural-festivities access. It is vital that he public have access to inaugural events even when -- perhaps especially when -- they choose to use that access for non-violent expressions of political views that may differ from that of the president-elect and supporters. While a new president's friends and supporters from the American citizenry should have a right to attend as well, the fact is that it will always be easy for such people to have a president's ear, even if they were unable to attend the inaugural event; opponents, on the other hand, may never receive a better venue for airing their grievances, and to allow them to do so is one of the most American actions my government can take. It is historic, it is honest, it is necessary, and it is unquestionably an appropriate and patriotic display to go with a new president's swearing to 'uphold and defend' the Constitution that protects this very right."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The great Jester Hairston

Gossip, gossip, evil t'ing
Much unhappiness it bring
If you can't say somet'ing nice
Don't talk at all, is my advice
-- Jester Hairston

Every so often, I think back on the once in a lifetime opportunity we had at the Christian College Choral Festival. It's a great tradition, and one that I fear may have died out in recent years. From my first year in college, I looked forward to it every winter, and grieved the year that the weather was too bad for us to go. The festival provided a chance to learn from terrific clinicians and to be exposed to the musical stylings of other schools, including Southwestern Christian College of Terrell, Texas, which I'd never even heard of before that first year, but never again forgot. While the integration of colleges and other schools represents undeniable progress that was denied for far too long, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities developed their own great legacy, and SWCC is just one proof.

Imagine the honor for a pitiful little white girl like me to sing for magnificent musician Jester Hairston and to be selected for a solo under his direction. That year's group choral performance consisted of several of what he still called "Negro spirituals," each of which he'd either written or arranged, titles represented here as they were on the title pages: "Amen," "Lay Yo' Head in De Winduh, Jesus," "Home in Dat Rock," "Elijah Rock," among others. One of the strongest memories is of his teaching us the proper way to perform his classic "Amen," from The Lilies of the Field. (Incidentally, the version on the soundtrack is Mr. Hairston; the inimitable Sidney Poitier freely admits that he lip-synched to Hairston's recording.)

He complained that too often, people begin that rhythmic clapping even during the early verses, when Jesus is just a seemingly unimportant baby or a small child. They clap, too, when tragic events are being told. Jester Hairston firmly maintained that the better way was to let the tension build up during all those early verses, waiting to clap until the line "but he rose on Easter" is reached, and continuing through the final verse about "and he lives forever."

The pièce de résistance was his teaching us a calypso song while explaining about the ancient traditions of "call and response" and "lining out" a hymn: teaching a song line by line and having the learners repeat the line verbatim. My recollection is that this song is of his own authorship, but I'm hoping to be corrected if there is another author; I only ask that you not try to make a case that it is a folk song without authorship, as that is often believed about calypso songs even in cases where it's not true. :)

Note: Wish I could thank the two unknown Danish bloggers whose missives contained the verse I'd forgotten over the years -- I've placed it first because it works there, though I can't guarantee that's the correct order. This song is so catchy that when the rehearsals took a lunch break and went to a Lubbock cafeteria to eat, we all caught ourselves unwittingly singing the song while standing in the cashier's line, provoking a grand applause by the diners at song's end.

Gossip, gossip, evil thing
Much unhappiness it bring
If you can't say something nice
Don't talk at all is my advice

If you talk about somebody
even what you say is true
when it comes back it is double talk, to what it was when it left you


Once I told me friend me secret
And he promise not to tell
Now community and strangers all know me secret very well


Take me wife, now, there's a gossip
What an ear for news has she
Knows a thing or two about everyone in our whole community


If there's one thing 'bout a gossip
Let me tell you this is true
If you tell she 'bout somebody, she tell somebody else about you

Words to live by.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Who SINGS this, and where can I get it?

Wake up, you sleepyhead

Get up, get out of bed

Wake up, the sun is shining

Stand up and touch your toes

Tell them it's time to go

You've got a lot to do today

This song pops into my head many mornings, Saturdays especially. They used to play it from time to time on 1530 AM in Raleigh, NC, on a Saturday-morning Christian radio show for children that I used to listen to in grad school. (And no, that's not a typo of "grade school." What can I say? It was relaxing!) Someday when we have kids around this place, I'm going to want to sing them that song, and in the meantime, I sing it to Marco from time to time. It's a delightful little tune, and I'd love to find a recording of it if only someone could tell me the artist(s)'s name(s). Thanks!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Scenes from a Mall (El Salvador, Day 3)

Thursday, July 19: Today was all about sisters. We went over to San Miguel to take Cruz to look at a truck she was considering buying -- presumably with her compañero -- but after quite a bit of looking to find the place, it turned out the man had grossly misrepresented the vehicle and we had to move on. We ended up going over to Metrocentro, the first shopping mall I've ever been to in El Salvador; I thought they were all in the capital. This was also the first time I'd ever worn shorts on one of my visits, having been cautioned all my international-traveling life about the stereotype of fat Americans in shorts, lugging their cameras and being oblivious to local standards or culture. This year I decided that it was just too hot to wear my usual jeans, and that after all, one of the few advantages of having gained so much weight is that I'd hardly be mistaken for a sex object by anyone but my loving husband!

I picked the wrong day to start, though, because although the shorts were more comfortable in terms of temperature, I felt distinctly UNcomfortable wearing them in a mall surrounded by elegant people in professional dress. To give you more of a sense of the mall, as I took few pictures there: Most stores have a glass door, with an armed guard simultaneously opening the door for you and making sure you are entering with legitimate business. They have some of the same shops and restaurants, such as Radio Shack and Wendy's, along with national companies such as SIMAN, a department store that advertises in the national newspapers and on TACA Airlines. The stores are air-conditioned, but it was so warm inside the mall that I couldn't tell whether it has no A/C or whether the doors simply are open too much of the time for the cool air to stay in.

After buying a couple of items, we called Marco's sister Angélica, said to be living in San Miguel with her boyfriend's family since dropping out of school at said boyfriend's suggestion. We and her parents were deeply disappointed by that turn of events, as she's always been the most diligent and sensible of his siblings and, having graduated from ninth grade, she was the most educated person in his whole family. For Marco's generation, a good education was largely a pipe dream; between poverty, the civil war's fierceness in the region (and related shanghai-ing of young boys that led to their parents' hiding them at home), the distance of the school in his day, and so forth, his experience of entering school at age 11 and finishing only four years before family needs caused him to drop out at 17 was pretty typical. Some of his younger siblings only finished first grade.

The youngest ones, though, grew up after the peace accords and after a school was established just a few minutes' walk up the road. They have been able to progress at a rate closer to normal, though school sessions still last only four hours and thus finishing one grade per year doesn't always happen. All the same, one by one they've dropped out: one sister due to pregnancy and nursing at 15, another sister due to eye trouble, a brother who was sent up here to work at 17 (done behind our backs, believe me). So when this one stayed in school, we rewarded that by paying for band and drill team uniforms and, eventually, a private school when the local one couldn't offer 10th grade and up. The last time we were there, in 2004, I sat her down and had a long talk about the facts of life and the importance of prioritizing education. I pointed out that while her older sister is fond of her children, she had initially wanted to stay in school and now had far fewer options due to bearing children so early in life. Angélica seemed to listen attentively and always before had followed my advice closely ...

She'd only been at the private school a couple of months when she met this young man. Somehow everything else went out the window, including consideration of the fact that he soon would leave for the U.S. and she'd be left behind. In the time we've been away, she'd grown older than I realized, and I can see how at 19, it's easy to think that "real life" is passing you by. Those who may think it's too strict of us to think that a 19-year-old shouldn't date, aren't aware that's not how it works where they live. There is no "dating." A couple are either platonic friends or novios, a word often translated "boyfriend/girlfriend" but actually tracing back to the days when friendship was followed by engagement. Novios these days typically turn into compañeros, used in this sense to mean living together as if married. (Most people don't even bother to distinguish linguistically between those who are formally married and those who simply shack up -- the latter is referred to as "getting married" by most country people in El Salvador and Guatemala.)

We got her to meet us at the mall, as Marco wasn't ready to go over to her "mother-in-law's" house and appear to sanction her impetuous decision. She shyly came over and hugged me, and I took her aside to say what I had to say (for Marco as well, whom I'd consulted beforehand). The message, greatly condensed: It hurt her parents very much that she had basically hidden herself from them and cut off contact ... probably she was doing this in order to avoid being scolded, but she should realize the criticism was earned and "suck it up." We love her and care about her, but that didn't mean we weren't angry that after all everyone had done to give her a better life and more options, she couldn't see that any man worth the trouble will still be there when she finishes school. The example she's setting for younger siblings and the nieces and nephews, who already have seen so many drop out, also came up in the conversation. Probably the hardest part for her was hearing that her brother had forbidden me even to speak her name to him because it hurt him so to think of her, and that this generous man now said he felt like he never wanted to help anyone again. By this time, I was crying as I told her how it hurt not to see her or hear from her when that's always one of the highlights of our visits -- she's been as much a little sister to me as to my husband -- and within seconds the tears were more than mutual.

Eventually we sat down and caught up a little. Turns out her companion's mother has been telling her to go back to school as well, making many of the same points I did: she has nothing to do now anyway, it would distract her in the short run as well as helping her in the long run, who knows how long this fellow will be in the States. (The mother also urged us to tell Marco's mother that she had had no idea of her son's plans and would have discouraged them had she known; she had no idea until he showed up with girlfriend in tow.) For now, she insists she will go back to school in January when the new term starts, either at her old school near her parents or at one that her "suegra" recommended in San Miguel. The next step was getting her and Marco talking. I finally told her that if she waited for him to approach her, it could be years. She didn't know what to say, and I didn't know what to tell her; after all, I said, I couldn't suggest what I'd say in her position because I could scarcely imagine making the choices she had made. After a time, she sat down and they made some awkward small talk for about half an hour.

We bought her a $5 phone card before we left, on the understanding she'd use it to call her parents. She assured us she would call before we left and try to come for a visit (not that her mother bought that when we got home and told her).

And now that I come to write this, it occurs to me to go back and look at the photos to see if there's any hint she might be pregnant, because if so, it's going to be even harder to turn back the tide ...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

As Rocco shills away and another "Top Chef" wannabe flames out

Does your chewing gum lose its flavour
on the bedpost overnight?
If your mother says don't bite it,
do you swallow it in spite?
Can you catch it on your tonsils
as you heave it left and right?
Does your chewing gum lose its flavour
on the bedpost overnight?
Lonnie Donegan and His Skiffle Group, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)?"

Please pardon this brief interruption of our (ir)regularly scheduled blog while we have a sing-along!

This post from the blog Dishin' Dat combines so many of my favorite things: (1) music (what's the name of this blog, again?); (2) "Top Chef" recaps and blogs; and most of all, (3) witty parodies, preferably whipped up on short order [hey! cooking pun! score!]. If you follow "TC" as well -- 'cause it'll make little sense without watching the latest episode -- check out this brilliant "Top Chef" satirical episode parodying the classic Lonnie Donegan skiffle tune.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

School days & a look back at the revolution
(El Salvador Day 2)

We got up bright and early, thanks to roosters who decided that just because it's only 3:30 in the morning is no reason to wait to start crowing. Once we'd had our pan y café, we played a little while with the youngest of my brothers-in-law and nephews -- you can see Marco testing his weightlifting skills in the picture at right -- then went a little ways down the hill for my first visit EVER to the local school. (We normally come in December, halfway through the vacation period.) At the school, we came along just as classes broke for a mid-morning snack. I unexpectedly ran across our niece, who is now in second grade, and her teacher's pride. Couldn't get any pictures of her that day, though, as she's always been a bit camera-shy. The other kids were tickled pink to be photographed; once they saw you can look at the digital picture right away, it was hard to get a picture at all for all the kids that crowded into the frame! Eventually I ended up using the video feature because it was the only way to get a clear shot of everyone. The children were adorable, and when the bell rang for them to return to class, I practically had to chase some of them back to their teachers. In the afternoon, we headed over to Perquín for the second of our planned "tourist" stops, a visit to the Museum of the Revolution. On the way, I took a number of snaps of the political symbolism that's painted on everything that doesn't move. The last time we were in the country, the northern and eastern departments mostly had FMLN's red-and-white colors with the star logo, whereas this time around there's far more ARENA support evident than before, as well as minor parties unfamiliar to me: PCN, CD, FDR. When I see ARENA's red-white-and-blue, I can't help wondering if that choice of colors was made at the founding of the party as a tip of the hat to the country that had so copiously funded the government's counter-revolutionary attacks; by some sources, U.S. support at the height of the 1980s civil war reached $1 million per day. ARENA is the party of the president, and was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who is honored even today despite being widely recognized as a leader of the death squads and most likely the one who gave the order for the murder of Archibishop Óscar Romero (according to the UN investigations). Many people I spoke with in the area either believe that ARENA stole local elections, while others argue they simply were successful in the scare tactics they used, such as warning people that electing the leftist FMLN would result in soured Salvadoran-U.S. relations that could end in their relatives' being deported, which would mean the end of the remittances on which many, especially the poorest, have come to depend. Even though I consider that a sleazy way to stay in office, I can't say that it's necessarily untrue, especially in the current U.S. climate. By the time we reached Perquín, it was pouring rain and I wasn't sure we were going to be able to make it to the museum site. Someone who rented that truck before us must have used the 4x4 on flat highway roads, because it didn't grab nearly as well as the two vehicles we had last time (first an SUV and later a pickup). After considerable driving around, we found the museum and parked across the road, which meant waiting about half an hour under a shelter for the torrents to subside. There was a little shop outside that I was hoping to check out on the way back to the vehicle, but we ended up without time because we needed to run an errand in Gotera on the way and we spent quite the long visit once inside. You aren't permitted to take any photos inside, which is understandable but frustrating, as I could never hope to capture all the information that covers the walls of the five interior rooms. I had a little orange felt-tip and a single sheet of paper, which I covered front and back with tiny writing in an attempt to reproduce as much as possible of the printed material and the layout of the displays. Later this week, I'll transcribe my notes, but for now I'll try to rough it out. The first room tells the beginning and foreshadowings of the war ... poor living conditions, particularly in the north and east, student protests that were put down brutally in 1975. One particularly moving picture shows a naked child facing off with a phalanx of armed government men with their faces obscured, large weapons over their shoulders and those big plastic shields out in front -- the picture bears the legend, "La represión sin rostro, la inocencia desnuda." (Faceless repression, naked innocence) I don't deny that such pictures are chosen to evoke specific emotions, but it's effective. On another wall was a tribute to those massacred at El Mozote in 1981, a shameful event whose cover-up and denial both by Salvadoran leaders eager to curry favor and by Reagan-administration types eager to be curried and loathe to accept that perhaps it was time to cut off funds. I doubt I will stop wondering any time before heaven how different things might have been if Carter had followed through on Romero's pleas to end the support, or if people hadn't been so eager to deny that a government we supported killed a village of some 900 people, mostly children, and labeled even babies as "subversives." (Look it up if you don't believe me.) Others have written about the surrealism of displays of ordinary machine guns, the remnants of a helicopter that carried Atlacatl Battalion co-leader Lt. Col. Monterrosa, the outer room with its reproduction of a Radio Venceremos installation, complete with cardboard egg cartons lining the walls as makeshift acoustical tile. A room midway through the inside quarters shows support posters from all over the world, many in German or Valencian, others from France, Italy, Ireland, and Mexico. Artifacts included everyday items such as shirts, bags, patches, even a calculator marked "Genovelio." A related exhibit is marked "Life in the camps," and shows medicines, first aid kits, and backpacks, together with other items arranged around the theme of the "four fronts": western, central, paracentral, and eastern. Outside the museum is a large crater, made by the dropping of a 500-pound U.S.-made bomb. A disarmed sample of just such a bomb appears in front of the crater, and the guide told us that was the smallest of the three bomb sizes used: 500, 750 and 1000 pounds.

(My husband later showed me a dry valley near his childhood home that had been a lagoon, but dried up when the government dropped two large bombs there. "How did you hear of it -- did people tell you?" "Tell me? No, I heard the bombs with my own ears.") Another display in the early rooms shows various compañeros (comrades) who were killed in the early days, including one grouping that is exclusively women. I asked one of our guides, a man in his mid-40s, if he had known any of the people pictured on the walls, and he answered that he had known and worked closely with most of them. He was in the guerrilla from age 16 to age 22. He was most informative and reflective ... toward the end, as we were standing in the room dedicated to the ceasefire and 1992 Chapultepec peace accords, I asked if there were anything he regretted or wished his superiors had done differently. His answer, after a bit of clarification on my question: "We learned that violence is not the solution. Thank God for the peace accords -- it was a rest for us, because if after 12 years of fighting, with arms, equipment, supplies, 24-hours vigilance, being ready every day and night, we still didn't win, then we never were going to."

Monday, July 30, 2007

Burned, but Blessed

A San Miguel, yo le canto la cumbia / A Santa Ana le canto la cumbia
A La Unión yo le canto la cumbia / pa' que vengan a bailar
A Sonsonate, le canto la cumbia / A Morazán, yo le canto la cumbia
A San Vicente, le canto la cumbia / San Salvador, yo te canto esta cumbia

Y decirles, bailen la cumbia, báilenla ya (2x)

Ahuachapán, yo le canto la cumbia/ A Cuscatlán yo le canto la cumbia
La Libertad, yo te canto esta cumbia / pa' que vengan a bailar
A mi Cabañas le canto la cumbia / A mi La Paz yo le canto la cumbia
Chalatenango te canto esta cumbia/ Usulután, yo te canto esta cumbia
Esta cumbia popular ...

-- Cumbia Popular, by Los Indígenas (song to El Salvador's 14 departments, on Descarga No. 6)

Nursing a baaaad sunburn from our most recent jaunt to rural El Salvador ... we went to Playa El Espino as part of our first attempts to do any "touristic" stuff on our visits, and I forgot not only my sunscreen, but also that I had just finished a course of Cipro, which increases sensitivity to light. Yikes! The good news is that I don't report back to teach until next month, so I can sit around the house and whimper. (And blog.)

Once again we managed to see all the nieces and nephews, which is always a treat; three new ones since our last visit 30 months ago, and two more on the way -- one here in the US and the other in El Salvador. One of the youngest, Mayra, age 4, came up to me and said shyly, but formally: "I'm glad that you [Ud.] came, because it's been so long since I last saw you that I wasn't sure I remembered what you look like." This from a little darling who was scarcely two the last time!

Let's see, what all did we do? Arrived 17 July on TACA, which was far less hassle than the last time we went -- a disaster in which they refused to return our trunk to us for over a week, made us drive back across the country to get it after promising repeatedly it would be delivered, insulted me for having "married the guerrilla" merely because my husband's family lives in the northeast, and refused to reimburse us our costs in any form except for a voucher to fly with a company that at that time I never intended to use again. Only because they're so much cheaper than my preferred airlines did they get us back this time around; the flight attendants are wonderful, but ground-level staff are rude and arrogant, and for whatever reason, the flights themselves had more and worse turbulence than any other jet flights I've ever made. Maybe that last part's coincidence, but it's not something I'm looking to repeat.

We went to find our Club Rent-A-Car guy, who took us to the off-site location where they now keep the vehicles. As an aside, let me highly recommend this domestic company; we found them on our 2004 trip after Avis left us high and dry, saying they didn't have the vehicle we'd reserved but could provide something else for even more money than the absurdly high rates all the companies have to charge in El Salvador (a factor of the higher risk of theft or accident). This time around Club's offer even included use of a cellphone at no extra cost, though it runs on the usual prepaid Tigo cards most phones there use, which you have to buy for yourself. Even with having to buy the cards before you can use the phone, it's still a perk US companies never have offered me, and handy if you don't want international roaming charges on your own phone.

Four hours or so were spent driving east, first on the CA-2/CA-7 highways that are in pretty decent shape, and then later on the curving mountain roads that are narrower but still paved, and finally on the off-road type terrain that was the reason we'd rented a 4x4. Around San Miguel, it started to rain -- no surprise in rainy season ("invierno") but most frustrating, as my husband had decided at the last minute that he couldn't bother going to the store for a tarp to cover the suitcases and THEREFORE it simply wasn't going to rain. Despite being rainy season. Because the world and its conditions always bow to his convenience. (Remember that I love him dearly and think he's one of the finest men on the face of the earth; it's just this really is his assumption when he wants something to be a certain way.)

At 11:30 Tuesday night, we arrived at my in-laws' house, where we were welcomed to the recently improved extra room, which now not only had finished walls to cover the adobe that was still being scraped at the last time, but even a door and window coverings that shut; even the main house still has simple openings for windows. The bedroom has further added a loveseat and dresser. They've put in a propane-fueled gas stove since we were there, though the firewood hearth is still in use, as is the outhouse, the stone outdoor sink with fish to eat the mosquitoes, and the cement shower stall behind the house, for which I need to remember to bring a new shower curtain next time. Marco settled into the newest hammock, as they now have a luxurious three stretching across the living room. This room, for no apparent reason also now sports a traditional sofa, covered in plastic to keep off the dust and presumably also the depredations of the diaperless grandchildren, four cats, three dogs, and the various remaining members of a 22-member flock of hens, roosters, and baby chicks. No ducks or pigeons roaming the house this time, and no pig in the yard this time either, though while we were there, my sister-in-law bought two goats that were temporarily lodged on the front patio just under our window, and pulling out of the front yard now involves navigating around a cow and her calf.

Now we'll lie down to rest in the large bed with its fresh linens, turning off the still solar-powered (hurrah!) overhead light, to wake up tomorrow and take you to see all the sweethearts up the hill at the school.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A loving point of light

Tu diste luz al sendero
en mi noche sin fortuna
iluminando mi cielo
como un rayito claro de luna
-- "Rayito de Luna," Trio Los Panchos

(You lighted the path / in my luckless night / illuminating my sky / like a clear ray of light)

It's been ages since I wrote an entry, partly because I tend to work first from what I want to write about, then relate it to a song. But today, because it's been so long since I wrote, I'm going about it the other way, looking at my songlist and making a free association with the title or topic.

So today I'll write about the love of my life, who truly has been my own personal "rayito de luna." It's already evident that I tend toward the depressive, and I know better than to think that all there is in life is one other person. Yet it's true that my love often is the saving grace for me. Even when I'm in doubt about God or feeling sorry for my love that he has to go through something I or we are going through, the fact is that he keeps me going just by being alive and by loving me.

A terrific book that I highly recommend and that changed my life was God's Call to the Single Adult. The book has six key messages about being Christian and single, among which is "You are a complete person in Christ apart from any relationship you will ever have"; another is "Marriage is not God's ultimate will for your life" (read the book to fully unpack that one). I learned both lessons, and I still have them in my heart. But I also know that I am a better person for what I have learned from my husband, and I've avoided unwise choices at times by remembering how hurt he would be.

He is more patient than I, and knows far more about real hardship, which helps when I'm being a stereotypical "spoiled American" by complaining how long the food's taking to arrive at the restaurant ("Have you ever actually had to go hungry?", which he has) or fussing that the drugstore should have a couple of 15-minute parking places so we wouldn't have to park a few spaces farther away. I'm a better teacher for having the input of someone who only got a few years of school to develop formally his considerable intelligence. Falling in love with someone shy and working through those early months when he didn't know how to express, in either language, what he felt and thought has expanded my ways of seeing the universe. I only hope he can say he's a better person for what he's learned from me.

Seven years, eight months, and counting ...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Talk about "Deja vu all over again" ...

They say that breaking up is hard to do / Now I know, I know that it's true
Don't say that this is the end / Instead of breaking up, I wish that we were making up again
~ "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," version by The Carpenters

--- Forgive me for a repost of a message I wrote on another site, but it fit in really well here!

(See "What series are you breaking up with this fall?" for the premise of this letter)

Dear Studio 60,
I tried to love you. I wanted to love you. But deep down, it's just because I was so in love with your older brother for seven years, and when he left me, I thought we could keep it all in the family. But you're trying too hard to be like him, and you don't have it in you.

I could excuse your superficiality -- after all, you're up front about it and make all those cute self-deprecating jokes. The thing is, self-deprecating only is cute and romantic when the other person knows you're better than your jokes make you seem. So far, you're exactly what you pretend not to think you are.

You even copy his ideas and try to live his life. That little problem you had with the judge in Nevada? He did it better when he bailed out the Supreme Court Justice-to-be and told me about it in flashbacks while addressing a student crowd. When you tell his stories, you look like a wannabe who can only draw in disposable cartoon strips what he painted in vivid detail. I'm supposed to believe your friend Jack got to be a network president while being stupid enough as to joke about buying the judge a boat with his American Express? Your buddy Harriet isn't anywhere near as good a defender of the faith as our gal Ainsley was of her politics, nor even as good as the Kristin C. Christian that Harriet would like to become one day.

Even your attempts at fast, witty dialogue just remind me how much better at this your brother was. I'd rather just gather all my home movies of him and watch them between my dates with "The Nine" and "Heroes" -- at least hanging out with them I hear intelligent stories about believably diverse people. (It's sad, isn't it, that stories about people with magic superpowers are more believable than yours?) I'm even experimenting with "Ugly Betty" these days... so we'll see you around.

P.S. Do stay sober, honey, because it'll still give you a much better chance of finding the right one for you next time around.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A fluke?

You are a fluke
Of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not
The universe is laughing behind your back.
~"Deteriorata," National Lampoon

Wow, does this one ever capture how I'm feeling lately. All my life I have been a person of faith. Not just in the sense of being an adherent of one, but in the sense of being defined by the gift of believing, of being able to take huge steps on faith. An informed faith, yes, but still leaning more on the faith than on the information. This characteristic gave me some fantastic stories of times I stepped out in faith and received otherwise inexplicable results.

My graduate studies began as one of these. I was praying over what I should do next in life, and although the previous year's answer had been that I wasn't done yet with the work I was doing, that year I was getting the sense that it might be time to go back to school. The fellow I was involved with at the time was very into education and suggested I at least find out when the deadline was to apply to the out-of-state school I had in mind. Lo and behold, the deadline was just one week away. They had my GRE scores still on file — including that perfect 800 on the analytical subtest, which doesn't count toward the overall score but still makes me proud — so I dashed around getting letters of recommendation and writing my admissions essay between classes.

While filling out the paperwork, I indicated that I was applying to a master's program in public administration, but would like to know if the School of Education thought I'd be likely to be admitted (down the road, of course) to a doctoral program there at the end of my MPA. After all, if not, I might as well apply here in Texas, where they had excellent programs for both at UT-Austin. I also check-marked a little box that said, "Indicate here if you are interested in financial aid." I'd never qualified for much aid before, but I was appreciative of my parents' being willing to finance my going back to school so long after I'd finished undergrad, and would like to help.

All this hullabaloo was back in the days when being online tied up the phone, so Mom had to get online and IM me to tell me the news. She didn't even start out with any introductory words, simply typed in the first lines of the letter, "Dear Miss _____, We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the Ph.D. program in Curriculum and Instruction at ________. ..."

I couldn't believe it. I hadn't even applied to that program, formally, and I telephoned the next day to make sure there was no misunderstanding. Did they not see that I didn't have a master's yet? The catalog indicated it was a requirement for the C&I program at that school. Yes, the director said, they knew, but there was a master's program within the School of Ed that I could do instead, and they were offering an $11,000 merit assistantship and a job supervising student teachers in my two fields, as well.

So let's tally that up, shall we? An inquiry that turned out to be just in time, success in gathering recommendation letters and writing a essay in a week when it takes others a month, admission to a doctoral program that normally didn't take bachelors-only students, and a massive scholarship for someone who merely checked a box. I should add at this point that I don't qualify for any kind of affirmative action in this case: I'm not an ethnic nor religious minority, I'm not the first in my family to go to grad school, I'm not poor, and I am a woman in a field that tends to overflow with them.

I'm not the kind of person who has stories like this for every week or every month or even every year. But I do have stories like this for various different major turning points in my life: my choice of college, my first big job after being RIFfed from my first major job, admission to grad school, and so forth.

But that was before ...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The joy of bluebonnets in spring

I'm a bluebonnet girl
From my heart to my feet
and no springtime could ever be close to complete
until I have strolled through a bluebonnet field
and thrilled to the sound of the mockingbird's trill
~"Bluebonnet Girl," Bill & Bonnie Hearne

Just a photo from April, 2005, of one of the best parts of being back in Texas at long last. We went to the Hill Country to see my cousin and took loads of traditional bluebonnet pics. (I once pointed out to a friend that although some 95% of bluebonnet pictures also contain Indian paintbrush, they always say "bluebonnets" on the caption. He looked at numerous postcards during his sojourn in the state and said it held up just as I said.) I stupidly lay down among the flowers, which made for lovely pics, but also made for an emergency trip to Walgreen's to get every Benadryl product we could find when my hyperallergic immune system kicked into high gear...

Sunday, July 09, 2006


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

... Toto, 1983 (covered by UNC Clef Hangers, 1992)

Last Saturday, we volunteered to promote World Vision child sponsorship at a local Fourth of July festival, "Celebrate Freedom." It sounded like a great idea when I first signed us up, but as my lazy, pampered feet stomped across the hard and dusty ground to hunt for the booth, I was starting to regret the impulsive move.

We took a seat under the canopy and waited. Looking around, I could see that most of the child-information folders available that day were from India, China, and a variety of African countries, though it turned out there was also a map that showed all the countries with sponsorship programs. Soon the supervisor was going over the plan. As I'd expected, we aren't expected to go out and accost other people to try to sign them up. The emphasis is on getting the information into the hands of people who come to the booth, and also on making the organization's presence at the event highly visible so that people come check it out. Because it's so easy for people not to act on their good intentions, there's a focus on getting their child sponsorship started immediately.

One of the methods for doing this was offering CDs from recording artists that support World Vision, for those who begin their sponsorships that day, and also entry to a VIP tent on site for those who begin that day and use a credit card. (One of the factors that makes World Vision one of the most respected charities of its kind is the high percentage of funds that go directly to the kids and their communities, and using credit cards greatly reduces the amount of money that has to be spent on paperwork and processing.)

The young man directing activity in the booth confided that he found it "really depressing that we have to offer the VIP tent to convince people to sponsor a child." I felt for him. Once you know how desperate these kids' situation is and how much the organization helps them, once those of us who are fortunate compare our situation to those who are not ... it's hard to have compassion for those who don't share your passion. It was discouraging seeing people turn away after finding that the VIP tent's limited space meant they could only take one guest. But I told him to think of the incentives not so much as being to get people to sponsor at all, but rather to sponsor NOW. It's important to make the good-faith assumption that the people who respond to the incentive genuinely want to sponsor a kid, but would otherwise put it off to do another time.

One woman who showed up to look into sponsorship was clearly a stronger soul than I. Whereas I was internally fussing over how my feet hurt just walking down the quarter-mile dirt lane from the road up to the booth, this lady had decided to come from the other side of Dallas despite her ride falling through. So she took a train and then walked SEVEN MILES from the train stop, in the near 100-degree July heat, just to show up for the festival.

It was great fun helping people sign up. So many didn't have a country or type of child in mind and were overwhelmed by the hundreds of folders. While certainly any child they sponsor will be blessed by the assistance, when the sponsor wants to have a sense of connection, I try to suggest ideas: sponsor a child the same age as yours (or the same age as one special to you), or a child from a country you've visited or would like to visit someday. More than one person hesitated over signing up for the Phillippines purely because they weren't sure how to spell it! Naturally I reassured them that (a) no one could really care more about their spelling than about their willingness to help children and (b) with enough time as a sponsor, they'd surely learn the spelling over time.

People are so funny. There were teens signing up together, adults signing up because they'd "never had the means before" and were grateful to have it now. There were two little girls who got separated from their family and waited at our booth; they wanted to know if it was $1 per kid for the sponsored children. So I explained how it works. I encouraged people to go in together on a sponsorship; after all, that's how I started, sharing a sponsorship with my dad back in college.

Two days later, my feet still ache, but I'm so glad we went. ~July 9, 2006 - posted September