Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20

Okay, I've been out of it for a little bit. Still sick and disoriented, but alert enough to read on the computer again. 

But as we are moving this summer, my husband has begun thinning out things for our move as I lie here listening to the rustlings of his sorting. 

Given how many times we have moved, you would think that we would have winnowed down our lot to a reasonable amount. Not true. 

And given that either of us is going to continue teaching K-12 after this move, you'd think we could get rid of the mountains of things we have collected to teach different grades and subjects. Also untrue. 

And if there is anyone who can relate to the amount of stuff that a teacher collects for the sake of future's teachers. 

All of our non-teacher friends seriously doubt that over half of our junk could really be teaching related. And they probably are wondering why it won't be as simple as dumping it with the first second-hand place on Colfax Avenue. I

But in each year we have taught, we have hunted to find just the right thing to use in a unit or to engage a particular student...and every year, the pile would build. It is hard to think of giving away all of it. But, really, what is the use in keeping any of it? 

Now is the step where we have to find the right people to pass things to because that will make it feel okay to give it away. I wish I could just whisk it all off to Goodwill, but each thing needs to be in its right home. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16

Thinking about tomorrow being St. Patrick's Day, I told my daughter about when I was in elementary school. I thought it was great to wear green on St. Patrick's Day. Only one boy in our grade was Irish American, but it was fun nonetheless. Problem was, I didn't have much green. I told my daughter that at my school, my classmates loved to pinch students who forgot to wear green on them (did anyone else have this "tradition"?).So I found myself coming up with lame excuses that I had something green on such as, "My underwear have flowers on, and the leaves have green. Right here." That, of course, necessitated revealing some of my underwear, so that started to seem like a bad idea after a few tries. Anyway, not much to tell tonight. I just thought I'd share my childhood goofiness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15

Job Math

This is just something I take stock of every so often to see where I am in the process, to see if I am on-track.

9 weeks = end of school
8 weeks = elective classes
65 students = 40 days for OOBEE trips
Instructional time (3rd/4th grades) = 2 hrs/wk x 8 wks = 16 hrs
Instructional time (K-2) = 45 mins/wk x 8 wks = 6 hrs
110 report cards = 1 week
1 week = 4 library shelves relabeled = 2 rolls of thin tape = 1 roll of thick tape = 150 to 200 barcodes
9 weeks = relabeling 36 more shelves = 9 more sets of stacks

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14

It has been hard to write since the earthquake hit Japan. Everything I think of seems trivial. And the trivial things I want to write about seem even moreso.

It is hard to imagine days without food and water, being trapped, not knowing anything of family or friends, and having to find housing or a job out of nowhere.

At first, I was relieved to see the tidal waves from above, so it did not look as fearful as it might to me on a ground level. I thought I might have nightmares watching video footage of the wave as it approached. I did not realize that what was most frightening for me was seeing the imminent danger approaching and that people knew the tidal waves were coming but still were going to have trouble escaping. Watching the fires of houses burning next to many other houses, or knowing that the nuclear reactors would keep heating up--these are outcomes that will certainly happen, but it is simply a question of when. It has been very overwhelming to think about these things when I sit down to write something that will mean something to me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March 13

Why do you teach? Why do you teach what you teach? Personally, I have had a long and positive relationship with education. I have enjoyed school ever since I was in preschool, and only in college and graduate school has the number of good teachers diminished. I enjoy teaching, and I like being a positive presence for my students, whether they go into language or not. But I can recall meeting people in college who had terrible memories of school. Some felt they learned nothing, and some could remember a single person who made a change on their lives—a person who encouraged them to be themselves, or a person who encouraged them to apply to college. Others told me about the one teacher who assured the student that they would never amount to anything. For them, a good education was an act of defiance. It alarmed me that others could not think of a single person who made a positive impact on their education. It made me realize that people get into teaching for all sorts of reasons, often a combination of them. 

Would anyone care to share their reasons or motivations? Has it worked out as you thought it would?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12

I did not ask for help as a kid. This is something that took me a long time to realize; I can get frustrated easily doing things incorrectly or inefficiently because I make up my own way. I do not know if it is because I was conditioned this way, taught it explicitly, or if it is my natural tendency. What I do know is that I have a few distinct memories about certain times when I did ask for help and that I regretted it.These are my memories about asking for help with math.

From my child's point of view, every time that I asked for help, it yielded extra work for me. There was no point in asking for help if it meant extra work.

Once I was in the second grade, early in the year, and I was learning how to add two-digit numbers. My worksheet had a page of problems, but there was no symbol to indicate what I was to do with them. Even though the instructions tersely stated, "Add," I was confused why there was no "+" symbol. It didn't make any sense. We had never seen problems like this before. In addition, I was not clear on the concept of carrying units from the ones to the tens, and I often miscounted in the first place, counting one of the numbers itself, as in "11+12" to mean I would count on my fingers or number line: "11, 12, 13, 14, 15...22"...or is is "12, 13, 14...23?" I never did get the idea right in Kindergarten, so I kept repeating the same problem with everything I added.

In any case, the combination of confusing factors led me to ask for help. There was one too many items that had thrown off my orientation, and I needed assurance. Mistakenly, i went to a parent: my dad. My dad is an engineer by training, and he is very strong in math such that he estimates large and irregular numbers whenever we are roughly calculating numbers, percentages, or rates. It's almost like a magic trick to me. Poof! And he can come up with something akin to a calculator response. My daughter and oldest nephew love to test him versus the calculator to see how close he can get to accuracy with multi-step problems or very large numbers. Especially in today's computer age when computations can be quick and accurate, the human brain is truly spectacular at its ability to challenge something that appears automatic and mechanical.

But being his daughter, I did not really know that asking for math help should be out of the ordinary. Maybe other dads did this sort of mathemagical thing. Maybe other kids needed math help. Maybe he was the right person to ask, as all adults appeared to be. I was wrong. First, my dad explained that it was always assumed to be addition when a mathematical sign was absent because that was the default. Other symbols were always written in. This baffled me because it seemed illogical. Why wouldn't the workbook authors simply take the time to include the symbol and stop confusing me? Textbooks always included the symbol. It was just a law of nature. I was still looking quizzical when he went on to address my second issue: carrying over to the tens' column. I was not strong on the concept, so his quick explanation escaped me as I was probably still mulling over the issue of including or not including the math symbol for the function. His tone turned serious when he realized I was lost, and he buckled down to see if I was needing an explanation of the concept. This is where things turned very hairy.

My dad likes concepts. And he liked to make sure I understood them--conceptually. I was not a conceptual math thinker. I was a reproducer. I could reproduce models over and over, but they had to be the same way. By doing this many times, I finally figured out patterns and, at some point much further down the pipeline--probably much further along than was truly acceptable by math teacher standards--I "got" the concept. It was a backwards approach for me, but I was willing to take math on faith. No proof was needed. And if proof were eventually given, I was even more pleased, for I could now apply this idea in many ways and in new contexts unlike my rote approach prior to my gestalt. However, this would take years for me to realize, and I was happy at the time to simply accept math wisdom as it was handed down through my workbooks.

My father, however, was not. He realized how inflexible my thinking was and that this would not serve when thinking about the nature of a problem. Problems needed to be understood on a conceptual level or the answers could not be scrutinized as appropriate or out-of-the-ballpark. The test of reason always had to be applied to a solution. This was starting to look like a very involved math tutoring session. I was remorseful for ever having asked. When I struggled through the problems I was given, trying to use this "conceptual" approach, he harumphed in his dissatisfied way and proceeded to write out a page of math problems for me of his own. He used a thin, almost college-rule pad of paper with a greenish tint on which he wrote his "business" work. He was just rolling up his sleeves. After I finished the page to the lowest level of acceptable quality, I hoped I was out of the woods though I knew in my heart of hearts, there must be more. But what?

He then asked about my subtraction abilities. All I knew was that I was even worse in subtraction. He wrote out a page of those, and he included a number of two-digit subtraction problems. I had not seen those yet, but he was not concerned. "Conceptually," they were the reverse of the addition. The concept should apply regardless. I was lost. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no idea how to solve them. My teacher must have believed I could not for she had not even taught me this yet. I was sunk. I knew I could not get out of these exercises until I could prove I "got" them, but that enlightenment was so far off as to be statistically impossible. I do not remember how it ended or that it ended at all, but I do remember that I only asked for math help twice after that: once in middle school and once in high school. They were moments of clear desperation, and I vowed to avoid my dad as a possible source of help for anything in the future, especially if it were quantitative.

The final time that I asked for help, I remember I was stuck one of two challenge problems that my teacher had given me. I don't know if my teacher thought that students would actually solve each of the problems assigned. Maybe an attempt was decent. For me, homework was homework, and it must be completed on time. So I worked and worked, but I could not solve this final problem of the night. Realizing that I might never solve it, and realizing that my only source of help might be retiring to bed soon, I went to him and asked. Having my few prior experiences with him over math homework, I was trying my best to make clear what I needed: this was the Book's way of solving these types of problems; these were all of the Book's examples. I did not want any deviations from the Book. I liked the Book. But this problem was a variation that was not handled in the examples, so I needed some guidance about how I was misapplying these approaches so that I could then apply the Tried-and-True Approaches to find a solution.

My dad must not have heard a single thing I said. Immediately, he began tackling the problem using an approach that was completely dissimilar to anything I had learned to this point. I had no idea what he was doing. His first attempt failed. He was puzzled. His second attempt came to nothing. He was most intrigued by this math problem. I was thinking, "Holy crap! What kind of math is this book covering that my dad can't even solve it?...and that I'm supposed to!?!?" Finally he arrived at a solution. He had to explain it to me about three times. The first time, I simply lamented that nothing he said matched up with the Book's explanations. There was nothing I could hang onto. The second time, I realized he had to rely on other mathematical truths about arcs, diameters, radii, lines, and angles to put together a few steps to solve for the unknown. The third time, I was able to understand what he had done so that I could explain how I had cheated on this final problem the next day in class.

When I got to class, we went over the problem set and finally, we arrived at the two challenge problems. For the last one, the teacher asked if anyone had gotten the solution. No one raised a hand. After a few seconds, one of the smartest math students in class raised her hand. She explained her answer (which was also different from the Book's), and the teacher was impressed. We all continued to bow down on the ground she walked on. After no one else came forward, I admitted that my dad, not I, had solved the problem, but that he had taken a different approach than either the Book's or the student's. I explained how he had calculated for different pieces to set up a problem that he could solve for. I was embarrassed and felt cheap.Everyone in class oohed and aahhed over the thinking behind it. My teacher was amazed. She was stunned by the cleverness of the approach. In the end, it was quite elegant and simple.

Elegant? Simple? Clever? Amazing? Was this how other people viewed my father? I was shocked to think that these words might apply to My Dad. My Dad?! Wow, this was a different view than I had ever taken to his way of teaching math. For the rest of the day, I pondered this awe about my dad. I couldn't wait until he came home for dinner late that night, and I told him how his approach had been received by my classmates and teacher. He smiled happily with his hands folded across his tummy, saying nothing. Though my resolve continued to be that I not ask for help unless critically needed, I was able to enjoy the moment, that I felt proud that he felt appreciated.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10

I am somewhat intrigued by this whole debate about The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, or "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior to American Mothers" (which was in the news a number of weeks ago) because this is not at all how I was raised. Although my parents were certainly very demanding, my parents were actually the opposite of this mom who wrote the book and article. My parents essentially ignored me. Not in a bad way, but I had a sister who was my same age, and we played together and were in each other's company all the time (sometimes it felt like too much of the time), and there was no need to have parents "play" with me. They expected my sister and me to be independent and self-sufficient the vast majority of time time. Adults were for supervision and height- or skill-related aid.

This is, of course, very different from how I am with my child. I like to attend things that she does and go for hikes or play a card game. But this actually pretty foreign to me on a fundamental level as I don't have a model of parents who play with their children. My parents always had work to do or errands. So when my sister and I did not have to do chores, or while we were still too young to do them, I can recall spending a lot of my free time with her or our pets. We had a big back yard (it was gigantic from my preschool point of view). We played in the sandbox that my dad had built, and I recall the regular activity of removing sand from the box. I used cups, buckets, hands, shovels, whatever there was. My goal was often to move the sand to the grass. After a while, the sand would get crunchy, hard, damp, or uncomfortable, and I would stop going there for a number of days or weeks until my dad bought more sand to put in there. That was a happy day for me. I would climb back in and slowly chip away at removing the sand before the sand got hard or damp all over again.

One day my sister and I were playing in the backyard near the sand box. We had a number of plastic cubes that were colorful and large. We could stack them or use them to make buildings, though they were always too few to make any elaborate buildings. In any case, we had run out of cubes, so we started to look around for additional building materials. We found some hollow tile cement blocks that did not weigh very much, but they were more than I normally carried. My sister and I tried this out, and to our surprise, I could carry them. I think she thought this was a bad idea, as my parents did not usually let us do anything with the cement blocks, but I figured that it was all fine so long as I could carry them. Unfortunately, my sister was right, and I stumbled carrying one, dropping it directly on her big toe. She screamed and started crying. I was trying to figure out how to shush her since my parents were napping and I was sure we could figure something out. She was trying, but the tears and sobbing just wouldn't stop--and neither did the bleeding--so I figured I could do nothing but let her report this to my parents. Somehow, her distress distracted them enough that I did not get the punishment that I was anticipating, so I was rather relieved.

But this is just one example of being left alone, with or without my sister. It was a pattern that was completely normal for us. My sister was much more social, so this was harder on her as she wanted a playmate, and I preferred to sit and read. In general, my parents would only attend something if it was production-ready. The finals. The event. Nothing in between. It just felt natural--that no one would want to see something unless it was ready. So it built this outlook of mine that if I wanted to do something, I had better want to do it in my heart of hearts, because no one was going to cheer whether I did well or not, nor would anyone be concerned if I was slacking on my commitment. There just wasn't anyone looking over my shoulder to see if I was performing as they wanted me to; it was all about what level I wanted to perform at.

One of the few times I remember being challenged by this assumption about the world order was when I was in the fourth grade. It was the first time that our school had ever done a science fair, so none of the teachers or students knew what it entailed in terms of preparation, support, or follow through. I chose whales as a topic of study, not knowing that the scientific process required each of the steps to be followed. Not just whichever suited me. So it never occurred to me that I had no question about whales nor did I have any way of observing and researching to test out my non-existent whale question. And since my teacher never checked in to see what I had chosen nor how I was progressing, this problem never surfaced. I went to the public library after school on many occasions, and I read a number of books and encyclopedias about the ten whales I had chosen to study. Regarding the encyclopedias, I remember thinking that a lot of the information in the encyclopedias was redundant, but I found little pieces of information that were new here and there, so it showed me that there was value in reading things that seemed to be about what you already know. After a month of this, I was flagging. I did not know how I would bring this project to an end. I could keep adding whales ad infinitum. I was waking up around 5 or 6 o'clock on the weekends to read, and I did not feel like I was getting enough done.

My mother, who has always been an early riser, would find me on Saturdays or Sundays and come to kiss me. At some point, she realized how overwhelming this project seemed to me, and every weekend after that, she would check in with me to buoy my spirits with a kiss and hug if I was feeling discouraged. She continued this for years afterward, long past when I had learned from the evaluating committee that the whale project did not truly qualify for the science fair as it was not science-based at all. Still, because I had learned that everything I do must be for my own reward and not that of others, I felt that the project was worth the while even though it went unclarified for me as to what "science" was. The equally valuable part of this experience for me was that it was one of my few memories where I interacted with a parent during the "process" as my parents had traditionally been "product" oriented. It communicated a message of care and concern even though she did not show it in ways that are recognized today as attached or involved parenting.

March 9

Hmm...there are so many things I still wonder, having read the responses to my question about why we write. I agree with all of the responses, and I think some of it could be compelling to a "non-writer"--or should I say, someone who is not yet convinced of the value of writing.

Everyone's responses were about "communication" or being known. I particularly liked the response by one writer whose family prefer speaking to writing, yet they still value the communication. Perhaps that is the piece that is hard to "fit" with kids who are at different stages on their journey toward better communication in a large societal sense: students may not take it on faith (or care) that strong communication is a skill worth having. However, it does seem that it is a human quality to want to be known (can I generalize that much?). In that sense, a person will try to achieve that through whichever manner is most comfortable, natural, convenient, or familiar. To the extent that teaching writing can link up with a student's perceived most-valuable-way-of-communicating, then writing can take off. (Geez, that was clunky! Apologies.)

It seems that being known is the way to tap in, and that writing is one means of helping share pieces of yourself, of getting to be known.

...On a tangent: how is it possible to be known when class sizes just increased to 45 in California and 60 in parts of Michigan (just to pick on my husband's and my own home states, as I just read in the paper)?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March 8

What is writing for?

Whether you are or aren't a writer, just about everyone has a need to write. Expression, reflection, communication of information, persuasion, entertainment, memory. But is writing for everyone? Why do we teach it (other than to improve the skill of expressing, reflecting, communicating, persuading, entertaining, or remembering)? 

Not being an English teacher per se, I realize I build in writing even though my subject area even though it does not necessarily need to be there. So what am I assuming? I am terrible at a number of subject areas from movement to math. Though I was exposed to each one at multiple points on my life's trajectory, I can remember disliking some of them very much. That does not negate the value of trying or learning. But how competent am I in those areas? Why know them? 

This is just a question I wanted to put out there because I realize our society is very reliant on writing (and reading), but is this the main reason why we teach it? Any writing teachers or writers wish to respond? 

Monday, March 7, 2011

March 7

For an introverted person, I actually draw a lot of positive energy from people--close friends and family. Ever since I can remember, I used to hide when my parents invited over friends. They didn't invite new friends or people from work all too often. It was usually the same old, same old. Our closest family friends were the Honbos and the Lumsdaines, both friends of Dad's since he was in Kindergarten. It was no surprise when they came over. You'd think I would have adjusted eventually. When I was younger than 5, I didn't have a great place to hide. At my first home, I just remember feeling terrified that people were coming and that I was stuck in the open for so long. I have no idea if people talked to me. I only remember looking forward to seeing Robin, the Lumsdaine's daughter. She was 7 years older, so she was like a nice adult. Not as big as one, but not as dreadful as another kid my age. Or worse: someone younger.

But year after year, visit after visit, it really didn't get better. Later, we moved to our permanent house where I would grow up and leave when I went away for college. All throughout elementary school, I would hide behind the front door when people arrived. I would peek out through the crack in the door as people walked in, hugging and greeting my parents. At other times, I would hide behind the large L-shaped sofa or behind the wall that separated the hallway and the living room, where everyone would gather and talk. Sometimes I would just lie under my twin bed and rest on the cool nubbly carpet, listening to people's voices and hoping that I would not get summoned by my parents to be social.

At school, however, I was very social. I tended to hang out with one friend and only one friend. I was not a two-friend person, really, although I generally got along quite well with all the people in my grade. I also made an effort to get to know most everyone in the whole school, particularly the people in the class below me and the class above me. We took so many classes together because we were in the Gifted and Talented program, and we did many activities together. Eventually, however, I left for middle school at a 7-12th grade school--a tiny private school in West LA. From the beginning, I had social problems. It was back to being introverted for me because quiet time calmed me.

I had never been to a school where there were drug problems and heavy partying. No one seemed to know grammar or spelling, and no one seemed to actually do the homework. I was appalled. What kind of school was this? I felt like an oddball because I wasn't having sex or doing drugs. I was a complete geek. I didn't feel at home, and I could not find a way to fit in with anyone. I decided, though, that I could be nothing else since that is all I felt like doing, so I spent every lunchtime reading in the hallway. I had never read a series before, and certainly not a fantasy book. But the founder of the school suggested that I might like a Piers Anthony book since I enjoyed word play so much. I thought she was out of her mind. Fantasy books were full of unicorns and dragons and all sorts of stupid purple and pink flying things and girls in flowy, gauzy tunics using magic to escape real life. Boy, was this going to be a waste of time.

But I began reading, and by the first page, I was hooked. Thank goodness that Piers Anthony wrote many, many series. I had no idea what else I should be reading, so I simply read as many books as I could by him, series after series, during lunch time. I usually sat by the math department door in the carpeted hallway of this Boy-Scout-lodge-turned-school since the only teacher I liked was a math teacher and I could see her every once in a while if I sat by her door. It finally got to the point where I was reading very adult-themed sci-fi (still by Piers Anthony--I had no mind to change: if it ain't broke...), but it was downright embarrassing. I did not like romantic books (I was only an 8th grader), and these books were getting pretty racy! Still, it was better than having to talk with someone, and I could enjoy the silent hallway alone.

Once again, I tried to find only one friend: a boy who was half-Japanese, half-white American. But he was from Wyoming and would return there by the year's end, and boys did not hang out with girls, so I had chosen the wrong friend. He was also a terrible student, which was also disappointing to me. But he was in my Latin class, as were a few other extremely introverted kids in this class of seven, and over time, three of them became my friends even though the boy from Wyoming left as planned.

As close as I was to these few friends, all introverted boys and one girl, a close friend from elementary school whom I cajoled into attending school with me, I always wondered if it wouldn't be more valuable to have many friends. Whether it was or was not, I would never know because I was just how I was. My friends were few, but straight-forward and loyal. They, too, were late bloomers, they knew that friendship was precious. These were easy friends to trust, unlike most of the girls and the popular boys.

Over the years, I have gathered friends very slowly, as usual. Not more than one a year. Nowadays, it is compromised by time, location, and if my husband can tolerate them. I have recently begun a graduate program which requires me to fly out to the Bay Area regularly, and each time I stay with a friend or with family. My cohort members always ask me with whom I am staying, and they seem amazed that I am always at someone's house and not in a hotel. The more that I get an amazed response, the more I realize how special it is that I have friends with whom I can stay--all friends whom I haven't seen in over 8 years. (I have at least seen my family once or twice since then!) It has given me pause that my friends still trust and believe in me and our relationship even though we haven't kept in regular touch. When we visit, it's as if we had just seen each other, and we pick up where we left off. Now I feel like quite a social butterfly when I think of all the people I draw on to stay with when I am out there for my graduate classes. It makes me see that there is value in being me, and that even as an introvert, I am able to enjoy what extroverts have, too.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 6

It dawned on me that this commitment to daily writing is something I can tweak for other “applications” with students. While writing every day is worthy (more worthy than I had noticed since I am now doing this every day myself), what I want to try is to have students make an on-going commitment. I have students who require reminders about their behavior way more often than they should. I have students who are not pushing themselves as they might on the final products they turn in. I have students simply do what is asked of them without thinking about how they feel about it or want to engage with the task. And students who do not take risks often. What if they made a commitment to doing something nice each day, unasked for a month? Or worked with/sat near someone they do not think of as a close friend? Or tried to ask a question each period? Tried listening? Tried reading a new genre? Anything, really. But it is the challenge of doing something daily for a longer period than might feel comfortable that might be instructive. And having the time in class to reflect on that, and share. I have learned a little more about myself, too, doing this writing challenge. It seems like an opportunity to learn something about the content, something about the effort, something about oneself. 

March 5

I realize that using the creative part of my brain for “me” is a totally different experience than using it for creating lesson plans and activities. Although my writing is not for my class, nor are my students taking the challenge since I teach beginning level foreign language to K-4, I like trying to do something that is just for me. It gives me insight to the nature of the assignment I would typically give my high school students: just write. I have found that it takes a while to build momentum, to find a topic, to narrow a topic, to edit. These entries are my foray into ‘find a topic’—not ‘edit’ or ‘narrow topic’—but to just imagine or simply to remember. The writing process is like any other learning journey for me: there is a lot of meandering, but interesting side paths appear with a lot of observant meandering. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

March 4

It is only Day 4 and I have noticed a difference. This morning, I awoke, and by the time I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth, I was thinking about things I could write about. I had been surprised about the easy with which I wrote at the Staff Retreat, and I thought that that was a big enough surprise to note about the experience of making time to write. But it is amazing that even though I am busier than I have ever felt before, I enjoy having the challenge of making time in my day to do something completely different. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 3

When I graduated college, I only had a few goals: to move beyond the grubby tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware; to find a job I could live off of; and to not return home. I began to look into teaching jobs, and I soon found one that was at a boarding school in CT. Although the school had a few drawbacks, there were a few key things that the job offered unlike other jobs I was considering: it came with paid housing; it came with cooking; it came with a washer and a dryer. All of this meant that I would not have to learn to drive in the snow, learn how to cook, and learn how to teach in the same year.
After my first year of teaching, I had torn my ACL and meniscus, and I was operated on the day after report writing was due. I drove down to Boston after writing reports, arrived in time for my consultation with the surgeon and anesthesiologist, and I was operated on the following morning. During the summer, I hobbled around, living in a five-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, and I decided it was time to learn how to cook. Things had been very decent food-wise at the school in CT. However, I could not stand eating with the people, so I opted to stay in my apartment as often as possible. It was then that I realized that I was not able to consistently cook the few things I thought I could cook: scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and cornbread.
I had so few cookbooks, but I guess I had exactly what I needed because it was a Sheila Luskins cookbook that presumably worked for the basic cook as well as the more party-oriented one. It had been a graduation gift from our long-time family friend, a friend of my dad’s since Kindergarten—Joycelyn. My sister had gotten a Sundays at Moosewood which was much more complicated because it was regional food around the world. And even though none of it is too difficult, when you are a beginner such as I was, I could not imagine eating the food out of Allison’s cookbook every single day, whereas the cookbook that I had would meet my daily and fancy needs.
Not having ever read a cookbook before, I did what I normally did with a nonfiction book:  I started at the beginning. I guess it doesn’t make sense to ever start at the beginning of a cookbook unless you are reading the introduction. Usually, one begins with the things one likes, whether that is to be found on page 271 or page 2. I cannot recall if I gravitated toward the front of the book because I love soups or because I felt a sense of propriety and orderliness, but that is where I began. With soups.
That summer, my very first recipe was a carrot soup recipe. I made the stock during the afternoon and I bought and prepped the ingredients while it cooked. I did not realize how expensive cooking would be. This was because I had no ingredients at all other than salt, pepper, sugar, and flour. But I liked that I didn’t have to buy cans of stock because making the stock from scratch was not only dirt cheap (and tasty, I realized later), but also very rewarding. I had to buy all ingredients in the amounts that were sold at the supermarket, and this left me with extras for which I had no use afterward. Because I had no idea how to cook those things into something else. And I had no idea what I might do to make sour cream, carrots, and onions taste good together…except in a carrot soup. Like the one I was making in the correct proportions at the moment—discarding those extra bits that didn’t fit into the recipe as it was written.
After boiling it the right amount, I was to puree it, but I only had a small Cuisinart. I had 8 cups of soup to work through, but eventually, I got it done. (And I learned that putting “more” into the Cuisinart did not make the process go faster. It only splashed out more. So I learned what “maximum capacity” was.) When I finally sat down to eat it, I was amazed. This was not only the best thing I had ever made, but the best soup—carrot soup or otherwise—that I had ever had in my life. I was sold. I would make soups all summer. So that is all I did. Every night, it was soup night. I got to be very good at soup stocks of all types.
I would teach for the next school year, eating food I knew how to make, and I would think of the thing I wanted to learn to cook the next summer: homemade Chinese dumplings and noodles, Asian meat dishes, vegetarian, Indian, breads. Eventually, I started to get the hang of it and I hopped around depending on what I could find at the library. Now, even after knowing my mother-in-law for 15 years, she does not believe me when I say that I did not know how to cook much when I met her son. I only knew how to make soups, dumplings, and a number of meat dishes. Nothing vegetarian. She thinks I must have a history of cooking somewhere in my family. And it seems I should since my mother is a great cook, my dad cooks a lot, and we all love to eat. But I can recall the second summer of teaching, after only one year of cooking, when I was with my girlfriend, Lisa Lee, her cousin Michael, and a number of friends of her husband (to-be). We were in Washington DC and she was cooking for all of us. She asked me to prepare the garlic and I slowly peeled off the skins from each clove. She scoffed at me and asked how it was that I did not know how to prepare garlic by smashing it with a cleaver. The moment that she hit it, I realized that had been the way my parents always prepared garlic and ginger. But I had had so little cooking training that I had almost never done it myself. Still, watching Lisa do this made perfect sense, and I was very comfortable doing that ever since.
Most people don’t believe that I didn’t grow up learning how to cook. I mostly helped with yard work, cleaning after the animals—all outdoor work and errands—as well as my indoor ‘job’ of studying. The few times that I was called upon to help in the kitchen, it was so tedious that I was never interested in doing any more than was asked. I prepared bouquet garni, sliced green onions, washed Romaine lettuce leaves, de-strung beans, squeezed ginger, beat eggs, measured dry ingredients for a marinade, flipped meat, sprayed down flames in the grill. (At least the spraying was exciting because I pretended I was a fireman.) But nothing I made ever led to a finished product. It was boring and messy. My mother was also low-key about keeping me in the kitchen. She had been the only daughter, a middle child in between two brothers. And her mother had relied upon my mother’s help in the kitchen with prepping, cooking, and cleaning. This was not a future she had hoped for me. Even though she has never been averse to teaching me how to cook something, we rarely shared time cooking together. Certainly not enjoyably. And since my mother-in-law is the epitome of all things maternal and female in training, she probably does not believe I could have been raised without a decent training in cooking. If nothing else, to cooking to survive. But my life was not a practical one in this way. And I have had to learn it because my taste demanded it. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March 2

It was a hot summer day, and I was captive in the car with Uncle Dick at the helm. I have no idea where we were, but in my mishmash memory of childhood, I have the image that we were in wine country. Napa Valley.

It is hard to believe that I cannot recall which adults were in charge of the four of us. It could have been Popo and Kung Kung. They drove us on many long trips far from our parents--sometimes with our parents (or some combination of them--but this time I had the distinct memory that Uncle Dick was in charge, so there must not have been any grandparents at the time.

It was lunchtime, and I was hungry. We had stopped at a deli to get breads, condiments to spread, and a number of different deli meats, most of which I did not regularly eat. The picnic table was set, and the food spread out. I was not a huge sandwich fan, but I do remember liking packaged bolony. (Nowadays, people I know would not be caught dead eating it, and they probably call it bologna, choosing the real thing and not the large, floppy, pre-sliced lunch meat I preferred with the band of removable casing around the edge.)

But this picnic table had a whole lot more than that on it. Uncle Dick was the one making the sandwiches, and I suppose I inherently trusted he would make something I would eat, or that he would ask me what I might want to eat. But he handed me a sandwich that I did not recognize and, when asked, told me it had salami, pastrami, and tongue. I almost fainted. Did he really say that? Tongue? As in the thing I use every day to speak and eat with? He couldn't have meant the same thing. Besides, whose tongue was it? And why did I have to eat it?

By now, all us were getting our sandwiches to eat, and my cousin, Cecily, and I were stuck with tongue sandwiches. We looked at each other with wrinkled noses and I started to protest. Uncle Dick bellowed out whatever he bellowed, and all I know is that it translated to: you better eat that, or you will seriously regret it. I am not sure how I managed since I thought this was akin to giving someone a human arm sandwich. I'm not sure that Cecily protested either. Uncle Dick being her own imperious father surely gave her a lot of experience with his reactions to petty grievances or prolonged protests, so however she handled it, she, too, survived.

Whether it was through repeated exposure to unfamiliar foods (every animal, every part of the animal) or Stockholm syndrome, I eventually became more adventurous many years later, once I was on my own. Recalling my grandparents (particularly my grandmothers) who would eat the eyes out of the steamed fish, I offered the eyeball of a big eye tuna to my daughter. My dad and I had ordered this special on the menu, thinking that the focus was on the 'tuna' and not the descriptor ('big eye'). But arrive it did, and all that was there was a tuna head with, well, one big eye. I think everyone at the table was a little surprised there was almost no meat--just the cheeks and the eye. Not even the collar. Realizing that this was the whole 'dish,' I decided to find out who wanted it. I asked, and my daughter accepted, popping the whole thing in her mouth and chewing it up before realizing there was only texture and no flavor. My vegetarian husband had long since expired.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1

Today is the first day I have written for fun since the Staff Retreat.

Ever since I can remember, my father did the shopping every weekend. It was almost always on Saturday before breakfast that he would go to the supermarket and then get back home in time to eat, after which he would leave for the second run to the discount dry goods store, Fedco. Every weekend was like clockwork. And before I was five, I rarely went with him. But sometimes I would. Once I accompanied him and I convinced him to buy my sister and me Flintstone chewable vitamins. I loved these vitamins. They tasted sweet and medicinal with the metallic taste of minerals left behind after all the food coloring and the sugar. Having vitamins in the house was not a habit, but it was not so out of place, either. On this day that he agreed, I was ecstatic. I could not wait until we got home and I could tear off the top and the vacuum-sealed foil wrap which protected the freshness of the vitamins inside. But first, my sister, mother, and I had to help carry in any bags that my father could not bring in the first time. Once our chore was done, I snuck the clear plastic bottle of vitamins into my room and I ate them. One after the other. I have no idea how many I ate, but it was somewhere north of five. After while, I was sated, and I put the bottle back where it belonged.

Now, weekends were always a time for chores for my sister and me. After unloading the bags of food or dry goods, we were to help clean up after breakfast and then help with gardening, mowing, trimming the trees, and cleaning up after our two rabbits and dogs. Again, this was a regular pattern that set the rhythm for each Saturday and Sunday. Most of the chores were done by sundown Saturday, but occasionally we would plant flowers or do extra work that we could not normally get done in time on Saturday on the next day, Sunday. So it was about the time that I should have shown up to help my parents do some of the chores when I started to feel sick. I didn't know what was happening to me, but I felt out of sorts. Maybe dizzy. Maybe warm. I have no idea. But I knew that I was not the healthy 'me' that  I had been moments before. I lay down on my bed and just felt lousy. I think my parents were calling me and I don't think I even mustered up a response. I was completely focused on my body and how lost I felt in this sickness. At some point, my parents found me lolling around on my sister's bottom bunk, and they felt to see if I had a fever. They did not think so, but I was not looking good. They asked how I was, but then decided to leave me to recover. I had time enough to realize that there was a relationship between me eating all of the vitamins and how I was feeling. I realized I should never do that again. But I was never going to tell my parents about it. They would kill me.

Even though I eventually bounced back, I lay there for some time afterward. There was no such thing as leisure time that I can recall in my childhood. So I decided to take advantage of the free time that I suddenly had on a Saturday to avoid doing my chores.