Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding the Best in Four Christmases

I had four Christmases this year. Considering I wasn't expecting to have one (or at least to enjoy one), this was certainly promising. Most important, of course, was that I realized how fortunate I am for the family and friends I have in my life.

So, my four Christmases ...

1. Christmas Eve at my Dad's House.
We always have Christmas Eve at my dad's house. Before he and my mom were divorced, we went to my grandparents' house (my dad's parents) for Christmas Eve. That side of the family has just always owned Christmas Eve. We got to hang out with my dad, stepmother, and my half-sister and half-brother. My dad is a Christmas maniac (there are Christmas decorations up at his house all year long), but as you can imagine, he really goes all out for the big day. There was music and food and family and all those nice Christmas feelings. The only negative was I learned that my dad is having surgery, and I am of course very worried. The surgery is tomorrow, so hopefully that goes well. My dad is a well-intentioned, intelligent, humorous, kind man, and he has certainly changed the world for the better.

2. Christmas Morning at my Mom's House.
Ah, another tradition--Christmas brunch at my mom's house. Addie, Belle, and I were already here, of course, and my sister Mary, brother-in-law (I can't remember the name I've given him on this blog, so I'm renaming him: it's Harrison), and their six-month-old son Eddie were here as well. We woke up, did stockings, then waited for my brother Adam and his eight-month-old baby, Pete, to arrive. At that point, we did presents and ate brunch and just in general hung out. Mary, Harrison, and Eddie left for a three hour drive to Connecticut to be with Harrison's family (they're coming back on Wednesday and will be here until Sunday), then Pete got very fussy (he's teething), so I made a Walgreen's run for Infant Tylenol. It was very low-key. It was the oddest, quietest, most depressing Christmas my family has ever had ... and I'm not even sure why.

3. Dinner at a Chinese Restaurant with Pythagorus.
Yes, I'm serious. Frankly, I'm just glad that Pythagorus wanted to see Belle on Christmas since she would have been devestated if he'd blown her off. Addie didn't come, by the way, since she adamantly refuses to see Pythagorus--this is of course her prerogative, but I don't want anyone to be like, "What about your other child?" Since he is not comfortable at my mom's house and I am not welcome at his family's house--er, his family's trailer--because they are a bunch of Jerry Springer-esque whack jobs who somehow feel that Pythagorus' severe drinking problem is my fault and that, now that he has returned to the bosom of his family, he will be just fine as long as he never sees me--and, by proxy, Belle--again (I swear, I will write a book about that family one day. I will have to call it fiction, though, because nobody would believe the ugly, tawdry, trashy truths). Anyway, we ate Chinese food and opened presents and laughed about how awkward it was. The good thing is, we all laughed--we were on the same wavelength, which doesn't always happen. To me, that was the best Christmas present Pythagorus could have given me.

4. Playdate at Andy's.
Since I had to bring Pythagorus home (an hour and twenty minute venture), Andy asked if Belle and I wanted to stop in at his house afterwards (his house is about a quarter of the way home for me after I drop Pythagorus off) since his little girl Dawn wanted to have a playdate (and possibly a sleepover) with Belle. We did end up staying over at Andy's, although that was not my initial plan (fortunately I brought my toothbrush--I'm resourceful like that ;)). The girls had a ball playing games, creating "haunted houses" in Dawn's room, and telling silly jokes to each other. Andy and I watched a couple of movies (if you haven't seen Meet the Fockers, you must ... it is freaking hysterical!) and played cards. He'd made Bailey's Irish Cream fudge, and it was freaking amazing, and also heated up spiced nuts; all of that was far better than popcorn. Anyway, it was a peaceful, fun night that reminded me that friendship is just as valuable as family.

So yeah, that was my Christmas in a nutshell. It was a very simple and laid-back event. I've decided, I'm either going to cut loose for New Years Eve and walk around a big city with underwear on my head drinking from communal bottles of champagne (yes, that's an inside joke) or I'm going to sit at home with my mother and the girls and watch the ball drop on television.

Or maybe I'll find some kind of happy medium ... the way things went this Christmas, I'm starting to think that happy mediums are the way to go : )

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Marketable Skills (and my Lack Thereof)

When I went to get my car inspected in October, I almost died when the mechanic came out and told me that it failed inspection and would need work to the tune of around $2,000 (which I most decidedly do not have at this juncture in my life).

I did what I always do in those situations--I cried for awhile, then I acted like a despondent jerk for a few minutes, contemplated filing for bankruptcy ... then I asked Andy for help. Andy knows cars. He got the necessary parts (Did you know that cars have boots? They're attached to something called a caliper. I think), did the work himself and didn't charge me for labor, and saved me many hundreds of dollars. I got my car back yesterday, and it's inspected and life is good.

Which brings me to my point. I have an advanced graduate degree. I can analyze literature from poetry to philosophy and everything in between. I educate the minds of high school students. I run the school newspaper and am the sophomore class advisor. I've written a novel and three quarters of a second one. I kicked butt on the Praxis exams (think SATs for teachers).

And it all means nothing, when all is said and done. I mean, I took a couple of courses at a business college when I was pregnant with Addie so I could stay on my parents' health insurance. While there, I learned how to type and could, at one point in my life, type over a hundred words a minute (I've slowed down some in my old age). Typing is probably my only marketable skill, and it's not even like I use it all that much (other than when I'm writing ... or blogging ... okay, I type a lot, but you get what I mean).

Andy, on the other hand, dropped out of high school, got his GED, never graduated from college, and has a manual labor job where he gets paid about what I do. And he can fix cars. He is also one of the smartest people I know, and one of the kindest.

It's funny how, on paper, I look like an educated professional in a white collar field. In reality, there's not a whole lot I can do (other than motherhood--I'm pretty good at that .. and writing. Sometimes). I can't even do the laundry without screwing it up (yeah, I mixed whites and reds and have a bunch of grayish pink ... don't ask).

Do you think the dichotomy between white and blue collar is shrinking? Do people with blue collar jobs tend to have more practical skills? And why, oh why, do some people still look down on car mechanics, hairdressers, sanitation workers, and truck drivers?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The First Artificial Tree

Well, we finally got the Christmas tree put up this weekend and, for the first time, it's an artificial tree.

Christmas used to be a very special time for my family. However, between my stepdad dying two days before Christmas and now trying not to think about past Christmases when Pythagorus was with me, I am a hard-core Scrooge this year. I'm a freaking Grinch!

But Belle really wanted a Christmas tree, so my mother got an artificial tree. It's a very nice artificial tree, but it's still an artificial tree. I think we need to get a pine candle or something, I don't know ... something's missing.

Perhaps what's missing is the adventure. Pythagorus and I spent more than one happy weekend day in December over the years going and cutting a tree. It would not be the same without him (not to mention that I would probably cut my finger off with the saw or something).

Anyway, what do you think? Do you go real or artificial?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hun, I Have a Pet Peeve Here ...

I am the first to admit that I get irritated by really stupid and insignificant things. Among the stupidest and most insignificant of my pet peeves is the word "hun" as in, "Oh, don't worry, hun, it'll get better soon."

Does it matter in the great scheme of things if someone uses "hun" in written communication? Nope. Does it drive me freaking batshit? Uh ... YEAH!

I use the word "hon" (as in, short for "honey") all the time, both to my daughters and my students. I assume that this is the intent when people write "hun". According to Wikipedia, huns were "a group of nomadic pastoral people" who played a role in the collapse of the Roman Empire. The most famous, of course, was Attila the Hun, known for "cruelty and rapacity" through western Europe.

Yeah, that's a fabulous term of endearment. No, when I see "hun", it just screams out ignorance. Does that make me a linguistic snob?

Speaking of which, did you know that "funner" is in fact a word? One of my students used the word today, and I of course tried to correct him by saying, "No, hon, it's more fun." At this point, I was informed that "funner" is actually in the dictionary. I didn't believe him, of course, so I went running to look it up. It was there. Man, did I feel stupid :)

Anyway, here are a few other things related to the English language that bring out the worst in me:

1. Ect instead of Etc. (for et cetera, Latin for "and the rest")
2. When people pronounce the word supposedly so that it sounds like "supposably"

Okay, I feel much better now : )

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cult Mentality and the Care Bears

Belle has recently discovered The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation. Since I loved this movie when it first came out in 1986 (I babysat a lot ... yeah, that's my excuse ;)), I was pretty excited. However, I made a rather disturbing discovery while watching the film with Belle--there is a serious cult reference that really kind of bugs me.

Okay, I suppose a brief overview of the plotline (hey, it's got a plotline :)) is in order here. And I promise, there is a point to this post.

Basically, these two Adam and Eve-esque creatures, True Heart Bear and Noble Heart Horse, are given charge of the newborn Care Bears and Care Bear Cousins (a varied collection of animals). They float on an ark--ahem, a boat--into the clouds, where they raise the babies. Eventually, they break into two groups (for reasons I'm not exactly sure of)--the Care Bears live with True Heart in the cloud kingdom of Care-A-Lot while the Care Bear Cousins along with Noble Heart inhabit the Forest of Feelings.

Their nemesis is the wicked Dark Heart who exists as either a dark tornado shape with red eyes or a red-haired boy (and he is able to change into any animal he wants--as long as it's red).

Dark Heart for some reason lays siege on a summer camp, where several of the kids are suffering some bullying for always losing at camp activities. Two of the kids--blonde twins John and Dawn--are whisked off to the home of the Care Bears where they help take care of the baby cubs and gain a sense of responsibility, pride, and the realization that everyone is good at something.

Their friend Christy, however, is not so lucky. She encounters Dark Heart in the forest and strikes a dangerous deal with him, agreeing to do a favor for him if he gives her the magic power to be "Camp Champ". Anyway, Christy ends up helping Dark Heart trap the Care Bears while True Heart and Noble Heart are off on a wild goose chase for Dark Heart's shadow (it sounds weird, I know, but it makes sense if you see it). Christy becomes tormented by what she's done, but she is never really evil; she shows her true goodness by diving into the water to save Dark Heart after he falls out of a canoe they're in, hits his head, and nearly drowns. However, she is unwilling to give up the new status given her through Dark Heart's evil magic.

Before long, there are only a few Care Bears and Cousins left. They conspire with Dawn and John to get caught intentionally because they know that their magic is strongest when they're with the other Care Bears; the twins, meanwhile, are left to bring Christy to her senses.

Before the children can reach Dark Heart's lair, though, the evil whatever-he-is transforms each member of the Care Bear family into a piece of glass in a crystal chandalier. The kids argue with Dark Heart, and things come to a climax when Noble Heart and True Heart show up. Christy stands in front of the little furry guys, protecting them from Dark Heart's magic attack. Even when Dark Heart takes away the strength and skill he had given her, she holds firm. She is injured in the process but manages to free the others through shooting a marble (the one skill she'd always possessed on her own) at the chandalier, sending it crashing down and breaking the spell. Dark Heart goes nuts and sends magic bolts everywhere, and Christy is critically injured, much to the distress of everyone ... including Dark Heart.

And this is where the cult mentality comes in. As Dark Heart cradles Christy in his arms, True Heart instructs the others to get into a circle and focus on how much they care. They oblige, chanting, "We care! We care! We care!" in a frightening unison as True Heart struts around like a televangelist spouting off, "Say it! Shout it! We care!" I mean, I was half expecting her to shout, "Can I get an hallelujah? Could you give me an amen?" It was really horribly creepy, and it got me thinking about the religious undertones (and there are many) in this movie. Here's a YouTube clip of this ... what do you think?

Chanting animals in a circle, moving simultaneously with joined hands as a "leader" raises them to higher glory ... is it just me, or is that a little weird? Am I putting too much thought into a movie made for children? Or, perhaps most importantly, is it really a movie made for children?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What Difference do YOU Make?

Maybe it's the holiday season, but there seems to be a recent trend toward focusing on the positive differences that we as people make. I think this is a great thing, natch, but it's harder to do than you'd think, scary as that is.

One of my internet connections, Erinn, has started a blog focusing on being nice to strangers, and it's really very interestng. Honestly, I'm pretty much in awe of her for the amazing and original ideas she's come up with and her reactions to how they go over. Very thought-provoking.

What's kind of ironic is that, completely unintentionally, the weekly paper topic I gave my students last week was, "What Difference do YOU Make?" It seemed like a good thing to get them thinking about, but it combined with Erinn's blog experiment really got me thinking instead (amazing how that happens sometimes :)).

What occurred to me is how difficult it is to make a concerted effort to be nice ... and that kind of bothered me about myself. Part of me was like, "Hey, you get a pass, you teach high school students every day, there's no question that you make a difference," but I honestly felt like that's kind of a cop-out. It might be true, but it's still a cop-out. After all, I am paid to make a difference to my students--isn't there more I should do in reality?

So in that vein, I thought I found a golden opportunity when I saw a woman with a cane while at Rite Aid getting poster board and markers for Addie's Biology project. I should probably mention that it's snowing like nobody's business, the plow trucks aren't really out in full force, and the driving is horrible ... and the floor of Rite Aid was so wet and slippery that it brought ice skates to mind. Anyway, I pretty much stalked this poor woman on my quest to help her.

I don't know what I was thinking, just that maybe she'd need help carrying things or something ... epic fail, as Addie would say. I ended up dropping everything I was carrying and nearly knocking her over with my klutziness. So I went to grab some stuff in the grocery section, and we met again at the cash register ... at which point she looked at me, looked at the cashier, and said, "I think I'll let this lady go ahead of me."

Wow. I felt like a complete idiot. She was very polite about it, but I was clearly rebuffed. And then I got all pissed off at myself for having the mindset that a woman would need help just because she had a cane, and ...

Clearly I'm just not good at making a difference in reality. This is something I will be working harder on. It's something I hope all of you will think about, since I think the world would be so much more beautiful if everyone gave just a little bit more thought to others.

I'd love to hear from you, though--what difference do YOU make? I'm curious to see if the implementation of a simple and beautiful idea is as difficult for others as it is for me : )

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RIP, Boy

I just learned that one of my former students has passed away.

He was an extremely smart, creative, witty young man when I knew him, and a talented artist. I haven't seen him in several years, but those are the things that I remember. I don't know the circumstances of his life since he was a freshman in high school, but that really doesn't matter in the great scheme of things.

As a writer, I know that I can honor him best by capturing what I remember about him. I will do that. Tonight, in fact. I won't post it here, though. I won't post it anywhere. I have never lost a student to death before (although I've lost a few to jail), and I'm just speechless. Speechless and sad.

My heart goes out to his family and friends. I am sure that he left an indelible mark on them--as he left an indelible mark on me. In my mind, he will always be volunteering to read parts of Romeo and Juliet out loud or writing weekly papers in his distinctive handwriting. Listening to music. Telling stories.

Rest in peace, boy. I will never forget you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fiction 500 Opportunity

The Badass Geek (a.k.a. Michael Goodwin) has a site called Fiction 500, and I truly believe that anyone with interest of any sort in fiction writing check out this site (the Fiction 500 one, not Badass Geek's personal blog--although that's pretty cool, too :)).

In brief, this is what you'll find in the "About" section:
Fiction 500 is an on-going short fiction project, created in 2008. The project is based upon a simple idea: write a fictional story using no more 500 words. These stories could be part of a series, connected through characters or events, or each story could function as it's own entity. Either way, the goal is to be as concise as possible, creating a complete, stand-alone work. Telling a story in just 500 words forces the writer to get to the point and decide what the most important things to say are, and what parts of the story can be left up to the reader to come up with on their own.

There is no doubt about it: writing a complete story in only 500 words is difficult. Are you up to the challenge?

Say what you've got to say. Just keep it short.

Anyway, I just submitted my piece. I'm really excited for two reasons:
1. I actually managed to write a complete piece in 500 words. Any of you that know me well are aware that this is a minor miracle : )
2. I posted excerpts from my second novel and only got a couple of comments. I know that comments just mean that someone wrote a response and that lots of people probably read it but didn't have time to comment. Or maybe they hated it and were too polite to say so. Yeah, that's gotta be it. See, I'm a little neurotic, and writing is very difficult for me when my confidence is shaky. My confidence is shaky right now, so you can certainly help by reading the excerpts posted a couple of days ago and commenting (unless you're going to say, "You suck. Find another dream!")

Anyway, check out Badass Geek's Fiction 500 site and consider submitting. It might well be worth your while : )

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Honor Teachers: The Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference

I spent today at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference, and I have the great privilege of going back for the next two days. I learned a lot today, actually (about digital portfolios--ways to organize student work in a paperless fashion easily accessible to both students and staff--and different classroom possibilities, including Twitter (which I already had), Skype (which I now have but am not comfortable enough using it to post a link here), and Voice Thread), and I'm very excited about the next two days. Professionally, it's very exciting to be part of such cutting edge potential (my friend and co-worker John wrote a grant, so we're able to attend this conference and buy some really advanced software and such for our little school--amazing opportunity!).

What I couldn't stop thinking about, though, was the extraordinary lady for whom the conference was named, Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. A social studies teacher in Concord, New Hampshire, she was chosen from thousands of applicants to be part of NASA's "Teacher in Space" initiative. McAuliffe died when the Challenger exploded seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1985. She never got to teach the lessons she had planned to conduct from outer space, never had the opportunity to touch the stars literally ... although there is no question she touched them figuratively.

This is true of her teaching experience before she famously said, "I touch the future. I teach." For many, many children, their teachers spend more time with them than their parents do. In this day and age, educators are responsible for things way beyond the scope of their content area--manners, for example, and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, though, teachers are a voice of motivation, a "You can do this. I believe in you!" that many students around this country have little sense of. Christa McAuliffe epitomized this; according to The New York Post, she had a strong focus on the difference ordinary, everyday people can make, stating, "They are as important to the historical record as kings, politicians or generals."

When I wrote my Master's thesis, I talked about Jesus Christ and Socrates being referred to as "teacher" and how I felt a true and passionate calling to the noblest profession. I can't believe I left out Christa McAuliffe; I've lived in New Hampshire my entire life, after all, and one of my strongest memories is watching my fourth grade teacher break down in tears when the Challenger exploded.

It occurred to me at the conference today that, never mind that I was eight years old when she passed away, Christa McAuliffe is my colleague. She could have been there today in the conference center overflowing with educators striving to find innovative ways to raise the bar for their students. It made me feel very small, but I also felt a great pride.

After all, "I touch the future. I teach."

Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brou...