Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas to All Everywhere

Wherever you are in the world, we are thinking of you and wishing we could see you! May the blessings of a small child, born in a stable so long ago, be with you and yours on Christmas Day and in the coming year. Love, Mark, Carla, Cameron, Noah, and Ava

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ah...Christmas Memories

My mother is kind of a saint. She doesn't glow or anything like that. She was not above spanking and grounding us as we needed it (and we all did need it quite badly at different times, trust me). I can't ever remember her raising her voice and really yelling (clearly that part of my and my sister's personalities came from the other side of the gene pool). And she would have had puh-lenty to yell about. My father left when I was about 10 years old to work overseas and was never really around much after that. His mother, my grandmother, came to live with us and was not the easiest person to spend a lot of time with. She managed all of that, plus 30 acres, and a job, and did it very well.

Nothing seemed to faze her. Once she almost hit a bear over the head with a shovel. When I was 10 years old, I broke my arm falling off a horse (rather seriously, as it turned out). "Oh, you'll be fine tomorrow," she said as she put me to bed. And I was, too, after getting my arm set and casted. I tend to be the same way (although I did manage to get my own daughter to the ER in less than 24 hours when she broke her arm).

She always tried to do things that I think were about creating some family traditions. Sadly, we often scoffed at them and I think she probably felt like she was paddling upstream on many of those times and I'm sad to report that if there were Christmas traditions, they are a little fuzzy to me now. But we always went to church on Christmas Eve. I still love Christma Eve services, and don't really care about going on Christmas Day. There's something about the darkness outside and the light and warmth in the sanctuary. It's very calming and reflective. It's the time when I know I will feel that sense of awe at what we really celebrating, what happened so long ago, what it really means, and I look forward to that after all the "getting ready for Chistmas" activities that go on. Going to church on Christmas Eve sets a tone for the next 24 hours in a way that doesn't seem to happen when we go on Christmas Day.

We sat down to a big taco feast that night. My sister was dolled up in a sweet dress, pefect for a Christmas service. She had amazing blond curls that set off the wine taffeta and black velvet and looked the way I want Ava to look at Christmas. After eating a taco or two, she announced that she was not feeling very well. I don't know about any of you, but that's a common statment uttered around our house. Sometimes it's to avoid eating something, sometimes it's someone's eaten too much of a good thing, sometimes I wonder if it's not just something to say, a sort of conversation starter. Like my mother, I've generally learned to pay little attention. "Oh, honey, you're fine. Just go lay down for a minute," was probably what she said.

As we filed into church, I remember that we must have been late. Late because the church was packed and we were sitting right up in front, a seat that no Lutheran worth his or her salt would dare occupy unless there were no other options. We settled in and wished the family that squeezed in with us a "Merry Christmas."

It was a lovely service, really. The organ that so often reminded me of the one that played at the roller skating rink, was heavenly. All the best Christmas songs were on tap. It was Christmas and when we got home we were going to be allowed to open 1 small gift to tide us over until the next morning. I settled back with a contended sigh. That's when my sister bent over and threw up. A LOT. She must have been 4 or 5, so a couple tacos is some amount of food, especially when you're seeing it the second time around.

And my mother did what any good self-respecting mother would do when pinned into the pew in the front of a packed church. Faster than speeding...faster than speeding vomit, she reached down, grabbed my sister's black skirt and pulled it up over her little face, thereby trapping the tacos. Unfortunately, they were trapped on her face. And in her hair. My mother then rose and carried her out of the church. And here's the best part. No one, not one person, not even the family sitting next to us, had any idea what just happened. Not a speck of reguritated meat hit the floor. Not even a hint of sour odor to alert suspicion. My mother, bless her heart, had contained all the damage on my sister's head. As a mother myself, I can only look back on that with a serious amount of respect and hope that I can manage damage control so quickly and quietly.

We didn't have any extended family living near us. I don't remember much about presents. I don't have memories of sitting down to a Christmas dinner with my aunts and uncles and cousins. We didn't have a lot of traditions. I just learned to take my Christmas memories where I could get 'em.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

...Perchance to Dream...

Darn it, Calandria! She's gone and put her "I want to to run away and start a new life" post on her blog. She never wants to run away to cold places like Helsinki--it always seems to be warm, Mediterranean places, where the sun shines, the pace is slow, and the food is great (to be fair, I think she may have at some time mentioned some place in Ireland, too, which is where the sun doesn't often shine, but that may be an ancestral pull, I don't know). Anyway, how serendipitous that after reading her post I spied my copy of Under the Tuscan Sun just sitting on my bookcase. So I took it down. Again.

It's not that it's the best book ever written. It may not be the best book about Tuscany ever written. (It is the source of one of the worst movie adaptations, in my opinion). Anyway, there's just something about that makes me want to do what she did. Of course there are some obstacles.

Problem #1: The work. You know, I'm not really into super hard work. I might, on occasion, be considered kind of lazy. You know, in the way Barack Obama is kind of considered a Democrat. I can get up for a necessary task, sure. When we have to cut a tree down. Or I have to weed my entire yard (front and back) in just a few hours. But let's face it--am I really going to work 7 to 7, seven days a week, with sleep feeling more like a loss of consciousness? Even in Tuscany? Or...would I putz around the town, looking at platters and furniture, or sit under a tree making lists, or reading a book, roused only when it became painfully obvious that my husband was seriously cheesed at my lack of effort on a project I talked him into? Yeah, that's probably how it would go.

Problem #2: The kids. Sadly, no matter how hard I try, I have not raised television children. You know the kind--they walk into a room, say something clever, the parents smile and then suggest they run upstairs to play. And then you never see them again. Sometimes for the rest of the season. MY children, well, they're a titch more, how shall I say, obvious. They require attention. As in, I haven't completed a sentence in 13 years, much less a conversation. I have not used the toilet, taken a bath, or passed through a room without having to clean something, fix something, or settle something. It occurs to me that my life in Tuscany might be...a little less serene, let's put it that way. One of the things about having 3 kids is that one is always out of sorts. They have inherited my level of interest in work. At any one point one is content, one is in a holding pattern, and one is working on the other two. I ask you, how am I supposed to clear 5 acres, re-establish the vineyard, clear out the olive orchard, rebuild the stone wall, scrub floors, and strip paint with kids underfoot? Hypothetically speaking, of course (see problem number 1 above).

Problem #3. The cooking. This goes hand-in-hand with Problems Number 1 and 2. I like to make appetizers for a get-together. I like to cook on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. The author promises that because because everything in Tuscany is fresh and perfect, cooking is a snap. I bet it's not, really. I bet there's some effort in it. I've always wanted to make my own jam. I've spent 20 years visiting my mother in the summer--my mother, who makes jam and has all the paraphenalia for making the same. Have I ever ONCE asked her to help me make jam? No. Now why do I think I might do that in a foreign country? After all, when I couldn't get decent bread in Tanzania, I didn't make my own. I didn't even make my cook make it. I just ate crummy white bread when the good stuff wasn't around (see, this is part of Problem #1).
Then there's the kids. Here is a list of things mentioned in the book I'm very sure would go 0 for 3 in my family: veal, peppers, eggplant, arugula, onions, plums, figs, apricots, hazelnuts, custard, chickpeas, mushrooms, chard, cooked tomatoes, zucchini that isn't part of zucchini bread, beans of any kind, and apricots. To be fair to them, there are some on this list they haven't tried so it's theoretically possible that I'm selling them short. To be extra fair to them, I have eaten everything on the list and there are several that I don't like, either. They happen to be some of the things the author continuously raves about. I suspect we might subsist largely on bread, cheese, and pasta. That's not that great for the long haul. Oh, and chicken.

Problem #4: Money. The author is an author (thank you, Captain Obvious) and teaches at a university. Her husband also is a university professor. She references a divorce settlement, but describes the purchase of the farm as "costing the earth" and that they'll have to do a tremendous amount of the work themselves. Which they do. And they hire out tons of it. Whenever I read the book, I'm always wondering, just how much did the house cost? And just how much did those renovations amount to? Since she's never going to tell me, I'm left with the very distinct impression it's far more than I have. Or maybe not. We are notoriously cheap people, both in the good way (we have no debt other than our house) and in the bad way (we often don't do things that we would like to do because we think we need to save, or we by something less expensive when it would be better to buy quality). And while I do feel blessed, I always have a nagging suspicion that if something bad's gonna happen, it's gonna happen to me. None of which is conducive to renting houses around the world, falling in love with an Italian farmhouse, buying it, and then restoring it.
On the upside, I do get the feeling that Italy may be Europe's answer to Tanzania in terms of the way things get done (slowly, and all according to who you know), the distinct lack of attention to time, the going to several different places every day to buy groceries, the sky-high utility yeah, like Tanzania. Except with excellent cheese. So I'd be a step ahead in that respect.

I take comfort from a passage in the book, where the author recounts several of the houses she has rented around the world. In each place she became enamoured by her surroundings and pictured herself with new clothes, new attitudes, and a new life. Once she left each place, she never looked back. Until the house in Tuscany. At that point everything came together where she could take the plunge.

So maybe it's OK to dream when the weather is cold, to imagine another kind of life with other possibilities--and still be perfectly content with the life you have now. And the kids you have now. Because the things you have now are blessings and you do know that, don't you? Sure, I do.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Teaching at ISB

So, what is it like, teaching in China? Well, I suppose if I were teaching in a Chinese school, it would be markedly different than what I do every day. If you stepped into International School Beijing, you would see a school that looked remarkably like an American school. The building itself is HUGE and the school is very large by international standards (1850 students in EC3 – grade 12), but smaller than the middle school or high school in Eden Prairie! Having the whole school in one building means that you hardly ever get to the other divisions or meet people outside of yours.

ISB is an international school, but teaches an American curriculum. The school population is predominantly (over 50%) North American, with the next largest group Korean. In order to attend the school (and I think most international schools in China) families need to be working under a Z visa, which means that no Chinese nationals attend the school. Because of their unique status, though, Chinese who hold passports from Hong Kong and Taiwan are allowed. You might imagine, then, a school with a predominance of white faces, but no. The overwhelming majority of students are ethnically Asian. Some have just arrived in China after living their whole lives in the States or Canada and speak with a distinct Chinese accent and are very traditional in their attitudes and values. Others have lived in China all their lives and sound like your neighbor. Others, especially diplomatic children, have moved every 2-3 years, often in the middle of a school year, for as long as they can remember. When you step into a classroom, you may see 1-3 white children in a class of 17-20.

ISB also has a large China Link program, designed to promote Chinese culture, history, and language among students and staff. Although French is available from 1st through 12th grade (and Spanish at the high school level), over 1500 students take Chinese. China Link also highlights cultural opportunities around Beijing, schedules outings, and helps staff to arrange for hotels and guides when we want to travel in China.

We have extracurricular activities for grades 1-5 5 days a week—crafts, sports, music, etc. Teachers are required to offer at least 1 activity a year and many are run by parents or other local people. Some are in Chinese, but most are in English. Middle school students take enrichment classes during their day. There are sports teams, theatre, orchestra, band, etc. just like any other middle or high school. Teams play in tournaments around Beijing and also travel to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, etc. for tournaments as well, which I guess is a little more exotic than just going to Shakopee or Duluth!

I teach in the Learning Support program for grades 3, 4, and 5. In the States I was a special education teacher (middle school) and learning support is the support system for kids who are not working up to grade level. We also offer ESOL services for kids who are not academically fluent in English. Most of the students I work with would not qualify for services in the States. They are behind for a variety of reasons—maybe they do have a small disability, sometimes they are transitioning from a different curriculum that doesn't match ours and there are gaps, sometimes the child has moved numerous times, often in the middle of school years, and has missed information along the way. Some may just be "late bloomers" for some unknown reason. We can provide students services for up to an hour a day, so students can't be too severely discrepant. If they are, they may end up having to change schools. I work with 3rd graders and 5th graders in their classrooms during their writing workshops, a 5th grade class during math, and I have a class of 1 student where we do language and vocabulary. I also teach 4 sections of additional spelling for kids who are not catching on the way they should. It's very similar to what I did in the States, except I don't teach an actual class myself this year.

The biggest difference between us and schools we've been before—ISB is a private school and as such, can be selective about the students it accepts and works with. Coming from a public school background, where no one is turned away and we find ways to work with a huge range of abilities, ISB's population is very narrow by comparison. The kids tend to be high achieving, from high-achieving families, families who place a high priority on more than success, but on excellence. Nothing is just dashed off here—when a child puts the pencil to the paper, they give 100%. All the time. You'd think that would be a dream for a teacher but it does mean that you always have a number of students who are stressed and frazzled to keep up that level of work in everything they do all the time.

The other big difference is the Asian attitude toward schooling and time. Asian cultures don't have the same values about down time and play that we do. They value school and work and getting ahead and being the best. So kids have tutors—for swimming, for drawing, for extra Chinese, for Korean culture/language, for violin, for piano, for writing, for math. It is not that unusual for an 8 year old to be tutored in 5-7 different things 6 days a week from after school until 9-10:00 at night. It is also not unusual for the parents to be gone at work until 8:00 or so every night, either. That means for those of us who don't share that work value, our kids can have a hard time competing or keeping up in some activities. When Cameron started in algebra this year (an advanced class for 8th grade) every student in the class that wasn't white had already been tutored that summer through the whole textbook, so the pace was really fast, too fast for a student who hadn't (or wasn't going to) do tutoring like that. The slower-paced algebra class available in 9th grade—no Asian students are in it. That kind of attitude toward work is part of the corporate world, too, so parents can often find themselves pulled by the work expectations and their family obligations. We have learned to appreciate the fact that our kids are going to school in a place where they are surrounded by high expectations and hard workers, but have also learned to rethink what we consider to be "success" and emphasize our own values that we don't sacrifice—hence, no rugby on Sundays at 9:00. No extra Chinese tutoring 3 nights a week at the expense of an extracurricular activity so Cameron can skip a grade next year. If the teacher says "read for 20 minutes" we read for 20 minutes and then play a game, rather than reading for 60!

I think teaching here really is a lot like teaching in the States. The quality of the school and the resources mean that teachers do a lot of things regarding student data collection and monitoring that often get sidelined in the States. Classes are small—20 max in elementary school, so teachers have fewer students to manage. Top of the line materials and equipment (smart boards, document cameras, laptops, etc.) also help. Of course there are times when I'm less than thrilled about something, but that would be the case with everything. The more the kids settle and are comfortable, the more we both feel settled as well, able to concentrate more on our work than on our children. I work with great kids and very supportive parents, and thankfully virtually no discipline or behavior issues, which has never been the case, so that's a great change!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Christmas Highlight

So, we are going to Thailand after Christmas for a week. We're going to the northern mountain area called Chiang Mai, which everyone says is fantastic. Since the protesters have cleared out from the airports and the PM resigned, there hasn't been any news from Thailand, so everyone that was going there or going through there is back on with their vacation plans. The temps will be in the 80s during the day and the 50s at night--what I like to call "heavenly" and what we're really looking forward to. We have a general list of things to choose from for activities including elephant trekking, white water rafting, temple touring, shopping at the night market and touring the city, arts and crafts (batiks), and mountain biking (Cameron and Dad). We heard rumors that we can rent motorcycles/scooters for getting around, which would be a lot of fun.

The #1 activity that is on our list, however, is called Flight of the Gibbon. We saw it on "Amazing Race, Asia" and when we found that it's in Chiang Mai, we were all hooked. Take a look:

SHUT UP EVERYONE WHO KNOWS ME. I am seriously going to do this. Never mind that I FAINTED in college when I went rapelling. Don't mention about how I can't stand on a chair without vertigo. Just forget that all my most terrifying nightmares involve things like paragliding. This is different. Somehow.

For one thing, I'm actually considering this. And paying for it. Unlike bungee jumping, paragliding, and most amusement park rides, I'm not looking at this and immediately getting that feeling that says "if someone put a gun to my head and said, 'do it', I'd have to say 'pull the trigger, buddy'" (oooh, that was good punctuation right there). I do watch it and get a little sqirmish, but I figure the fact that I just spent money to be there and everyone else will ditch me in a heartbeat makes me believe I'll do it.

It does look like a lot of fun, though, doesn't it?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Take 2 Minutes and GET INSPIRED.

Two weeks until Christmas. You WANT peaceful family harmony. You NEED to attend 17 school functions, buy 45 presents at 37 different locations, ship 19 of those presents to 7 different addresses, bake 8 dozen cookies, decorate the house and the tree, and donate to at least 5 different charities. WHEW!

So take 2 minutes and 15 seconds and get some oomph to press on.

Embarassing Admission: I get a little shiver on a couple of the scenes. How corny is that?!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Kidlets are Stars!

Ava and Noah played their first concert today. Ava has been playing the violin since September. Noah started the cello toward the end of October. We were seriously doubtful that his interest would last after the first or second week, but he really enjoys it. Of course, playing in a full group is very motivating!

Cameron had so much fun at Probability Night last night that he had to stay home sick today. He and Zach are counting up their loot (and hoping for a good grade).

We really are so very proud of them! It's hard to imagine how life is when your parents make these wacky decisions to move to different countries, promising wonderful exciting adventures and then ripping them out of their comfort zone. When I was in school, I lived in fear of moving, even though there was never any indication that we would. To me, moving would have been the most horrible thing in the world. As an adult, there is plenty about moving that is pretty yucky. I don't like to meet new people. I hate having to go to church and work and wherever not knowing anyone. So it takes me forever to feel settled. But we did it by choice. The kids are captive to our choices. There's only so much you can do--there is a certain amount of fear and loneliness and pain they have to work through. Our kids all share our rather introverted stay at home attitudes. And they've done such a great job at settling in. They really are great.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Memories. Or, Have the Aliens Landed?

Once upon a time, I decided we needed two Christmas trees. I grew up in Montana where you could cut your own tree in a real forest or get one from a tree farm. The former sounds very Norman Rockwell, but it always ended up with a tree that had be turned a certain way to hide a big gaping spot and required several yards of twine to hold it straight up. The latter is a bit less romantic-sounding, but yielded a perfectly conical conifer, one where you had to balance the ornaments on the outside because you couldn't breach the dense foliage. Being part of a family of the former, I naturally preferred the latter.

I grew up and married a wonderful man, also from a family of the former. This wonderful man does not believe in paying for something God has provided naturally. Paying for a tree would be akin to paying for, oh, I don’t know, grass. Once we were seduced by the thrill of living in the big city, we left the “free tree” zone. The perfectly proportioned trees on the lots were kind of expensive. And they dropped needles immediately because they had been cut back in August. So I took the plunge and bought a big beautiful fat artificial tree, and, aside from the fact that setting it up takes 3 hours and bleeds every ounce of Christmas cheer from my soul, I absolutely loved it. LOVED IT.

Then we had children. Beautiful children. Smart children. Creative children. Children who attended preschools and daycares where they made gummy sticky asymmetrical ornaments. Ornaments they wanted to hang on the tree. It was at that point in my life that I learned something about myself. I was selfish. Now that I was in charge, I had an idea of how my tree should look. It did not include tinsel garland. It did not include silver tinsel, the kind we applied by the pound to cover those bare spots from the trees in my youth. It did not include big “Clark Griswold” lights. And it apparently didn’t include paper glitter ornaments, either.

What to do? Children have no tact—they actually ask why they can’t hang their treasures on the tree. They pester you to hang their bits. They cry when you say no. Don’t think you’ll ever find someone who will support you on this—I was cast out of an ECFE class for admitting that I threw away quite a few art projects from those preschool years, saving those that I knew had a great story behind it but chucking volumes of the other stuff.

Hence, the 2nd tree. It was the perfect solution. A tree of their very own. With one discount purchase at Frank’s I was transformed from selfish control freak to generous child-centered mother. As an added bonus, I’d get a tree for the other living room. The kids, of course, were thrilled. They rifled through the ornament box, pulling out their ornaments from Grammy and their little handmade works of art. They went to Target and bought boxes of glass balls—green, said Cameron, to match the tree. They bought lights—green, said Noah, to match Cameron’s decorations. I said, “Go for it.” What did I care? I had my tree. I could afford to be magnanimous. It was, after all, their tree. We spent a wonderful day decorating the trees and the house. Suddenly, on their tree, their ornaments looked sweet, and I realized that I’d had a change of heart. On their tree, I could picture years of their ornaments. I'd be saving them for years to come.
Night settled over the neighborhood. Snowflakes drifted down from the heavens, wrapping the house in a blanket of homey comfort. The fire hissed and crackled and candlelight played across the walls, casting shadows of the snowmen and Santas that watched events unfold.

“Plug it in, Mommy!” chirped Noah.

“Yeah, Mommy! Turn it on. TURN IT ON!”

As I leaned over to plug in the lights, I thought, this is what it’s all about. The being together, the anticipation, the beginning of years of memories. I pictured the tree covered with ornaments painstakingly made by little hands, the stories that we would tell each year about who made which one. I sighed, and plugged it in.

The room exploded in a searing attack of blinding light. I’m sure the neighbors thought we were the victims of an alien invasion. Light shot out of every window, bathing the front yard in a toxic green sheen. Mark and I looked at each, momentarily struck dumb. I reached up to dab my eyes, certain they would be bleeding. It was more than intense. It was shocking-violent-garish-and-every-other-word-in-the-thesaurus kind of green.

And then I looked down. Cameron and Noah were also stunned into silence. But their faces, green as mold on cheese, were beaming. Their eyes were lit up with complete and utter joy. They had done this. They had created a masterpiece. It was wonderful-beautiful-spectacular-and-every-other-word-in-the-thesaurus kind of perfect.

Memories were made. Children rejoiced in the magic of Christmas. A family came together in that way that only families can when the unexpected happens. And, as is so often the case, you couldn’t plan it any better.

Merry Christmas memories.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.

It snowed today. The kids went crazy--not my kids, but every other kid in school, it seemed! For many of them, it was the first or second time they've ever seen snow. In my afternoon class, they worked extra hard so they could get 10-15 minutes or so as a special treat outside!

Of course, by "snow" I'm being very very generous. It's so dry here that it hardly ever snows...but when I walked out of the house this morning, it had that "snow" feeling in the air and by the time I got to work there were little flurries. Which is all it ever really did, and nothing stuck, so if you happened to be Canadian or from Montana or Minnesota, you might have been excused if the most you could muster was a *sniff* at today's effort. Some of us just have the bar for "snow" set higher than others.
By contrast, this is Cameron in Glacier National Park at the end of July. When we got there 3 weeks earlier, we saw snow 15 feet deep! IN JULY. But it was hard not to smile at the kids trying so hard to work, but not able to resist sneaking peaks out of the window. One thing I have learned--something I suspected for a long time now--is that I can live the rest of my life having winter be a concept, not a reality in my life. I never really liked winter anyway, but as long as skiing was close and convenient, well, I'm for it. I spent most of my time in Minnesota grousing about the weather, too. Because I also don't like to sweat, even though I love being hot.
As an aside, I do know that I sometimes tend to see the glass as half-full, that on I tend to see the dust on the table, not the rose in the vase. But I have consistently been unhappy about two things in my life--my hair and the weather. Even when I have a perfect day or week, I just think ahead to how it will get cold, or whatever. But in Tanzania, I realized I stopped that. For whatever else living in Tanzania was, it was perfect weather-wise. Even during the rainy season--it was still warm. Even in the winter--i could stay warm with a long sleeve shirt. *sigh*
I'm seriously becoming more committed to the image of me being a condo grammy in Arizona or some retirement town in Florida.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Footy Star!

This was in one of our local magazines. Look at Noah's face...happy happy happy boy! As much as he can drive me crazy some days, he really is pretty happy most of the time! Especially when it comes to soccer...he absolutely is mad about it. He played his final game on Saturday (brrrrr) and did a fantastic job, scoring 4 goals in 3 games. It was a hard decision to come indoors for basketball for the winter (he actually worried he'd lose his soccer skills) but he's going to be playing on a school league for couple months, then it's back to the pitch in the spring.


Friday, December 05, 2008

School Update...

God Bless 1st grade (and probably 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade teachers as well)! This friendly note was in Ava's Friday newsletter:

Finger biting and nose picking - Unfortunately this just has to be said! Many (nearly all!) of the students in Class 1-S have been picking their noses or sucking/biting their fingers. Since this is a bad habit that also can spread germs, please speak to your child about this and we can work together to end it! Thanks for your help!

It's worth mentioning. Yesterday during a writing session, the class was absolutely, completely, totally silent. It was much easier to hear the sniffling, snorting, honking, and hacking from each and every student in the room!

A couple people have written and asked about the outcome of the formal dance issue I brought up a few weeks ago. Apparently, some of that information has persisted from past years. Last year all but 3-4 students attended the event, so that says something about it being an event that feels inclusive. Mark went to the initial meeting and there were several other parents who were and heard the same information and were suitably appalled and concerned. The 8th grade class is voting on whether to have formal wear or a themed party (ala Hawaiian, etc.) and whether to have a sitdown meal or a buffet-type meal. But I think there are other activities and things to do besides the dance. So....WHEW! Potential parenting hardline avoided (for now).

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Happy Birthday Karen!

I can't bake her a cake, or take her to lunch, or bring her a gift. But if I were in Minnesota, I'd do all of those things and tell her what a great friend she is and be tempted to give her a great. big. birthday. HUG.

And then I'd resist that urge, and that would be the best gift of all. Right, Karen?

So, here's a small slice of something that will bring a smile to her face. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Some More on Writing

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. I'm not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I'm not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humour (please God, let you have one)'s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close this book and do something else.

If you don't want to work your ass off , you have no business trying to write well--settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your computer station.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others--read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching) every outing is a performance because you as the creator are happy. The sort of strenuous reading and writing I advocate--4 to 6 hours a day--will not seem too strenuous if you really enjoy doing those things and have an aptitude for them.

I've been thinking about writing this past month, partly because I accepted the challenge to blog every day during the month of November and partly because I'm working with writing so much this year. Kids at all grade levels in elementary school have writing for 45 minutes a day for 5 of their 6 days in a cycle. Additionally, they have to respond to their independent reading and their reading workshops (also at least 45 minutes a day every) in writing. That's far more writing than I've ever seen. There are some aspect of the writing that I'm not totally sold on, but they are really stretched in areas like selecting a topic, writing what you know, and learning how to think, and talk, and write about what they are reading and what they are writing. The emphasis on the interaction between the written word (either a book or what the student has written) and the person is significant. There's no doubt that writing that much every day can be tiring (Noah one day proclaimed that he hadn't learned anything here because all they do is read and write) but there's no doubt that writing like that makes better writers.
I felt a tinge of that blogging every day. Of course, I harbor secret dreams of being an author. I find the quotes above from King's book to be a bit intimidating, though. I think, Geeze, I'm not that committed, I don't have that burn, etc. And he's definitely got an answer for that whine. Because the truth is that if you have the passion, you simply do it. Even when it's hard, the hours spent writing are better than the other things you're not doing, which is how I imagine Olympic athletes or musicians feel about their passions.

But...the truth was, that I found ideas to write about. I found things to comment on. And those seeds seemed to be all around me (once the crushing pressure of producing every day settled down on me). I think it's highly debatable whether what I wrote was worth reading or had much meaning (King also says "that while it is impossible to make a competant writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one"). But the process of having something to say was definitely easier by the end of the month. I used to wonder how columnists could get up columns several times a week, or even how a pastor can write a good sermon every Sunday. I think that answer is that when you're doing it, you can do it. And by writing consistently, you do get better.
Can I commit 4-6 hours a day to something beyond my current job and responsibilities? I guess if I wanted to write, I wouldn't ask. Stephen King wrote his first novel Carrie after he was teaching English all day, afraid that that job was going to bleed from him the time and energy and motivation and creativity that he needed to write. He lived in a trailer with his wife and 2 small children, without enough money to have a phone, and wrote on a child's desk balanced on his knees after a day of work. So I'd say the guy was compelled to write. I guess he wasn't asking "do I have the time?" because not to write was simply not an option. I have a couple ideas for what I think might be a really great children's book (just like every other parent/teacher/reader/person). I think there are a few experiences living abroad that would make pretty good essays for a magazine (if I can let go of worrying that I might offend someone and just write what was really going on in my head). What holds me back? Fear--of wasting my time, of not being good enough, of....what?
Maybe I should take on NaBloPoMo again in January, set some parameters (like not doing 5-6 half-baked blogs on the weekend and then whipping them up on the day I have to post), and try again. Or maybe I should commit to writing less--say twice a week and spending a couple hours on each post. See what happens...maybe other blogger/readers are interested in coming along for the ride?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

With Apologies to William Carlos Williams

This is just to say
I have eaten kilos of these sweet tiny mandarins
which the kids say I should probably have saved for them.

Forgive me
They were delicious
So sweet, so juicy, and no seeds.

Teaching Math

My 5th graders are working on long division right now. They've got a hundred different ways to show me how "their" way works better than the two we're teaching. Kind of like this.

Or this.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Christmas (up) in the Air.

Rats. I had planned to skimp a little on the buying Christmas presents thing, in light of the trip to Thailand. You know--we're going on this really cool trip and we'll get souvenirs there and do such cool stuff you won't even miss getting a whole slew of presents.

But Thailand...well, it's not exactly inspiring a sense of Christmas cheer, is it? It's looking like we're going to have to cancel our trip. Trip insurance (not that we had it) doesn't cover "civil unrest" so we're hoping that Thai Air will allow us to rebook the tickets at a later date. We have a week off the last week in January for Chinese New Year and can hope that things will have calmed down by
then. Or maybe just wait until next Christmas if we can. Hopefully the same will work for the deposit on our hotel. We'll see. Rats.

It's looking more like that the phrase "Christmas China" may be looking more like the shot on the left than the pic on the right.

ha ha ha
Honestly, I was really looking forward to getting out of Beijing and seeing the sights. Often I feel cooped up--just going to work and running the kids to their activities and not seeing as much of the city or other areas as much as the single teachers are doing. We haven't gone on a family vacation with just the 5 of us for a long time.
I guess we'll just be bundling up and heading out and about the (indoor) sights in Beijing after all!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

NaBloPoMo--It is Finished

Whew. I don't know what made me decide to post every day for a month just after I moved and started a new job and uprooted all that is familiar. Today is the last day of November so I'm proud to say I did it. I blogged every day for a month--I didn't post just a picture or just a quote. I question whether I wrote well, or whether anything was worth reading but I find some interesting things...which I'll talk about more later.

Those of you who tune in to find out more about China, must be disappointed. I haven't had much to say--some of that is because when we're both working we just don't get out as much easily. Because we are in a major urban center we are far removed from village life (which here can mean a city of 2 million or less). Most of the Chinese that we meet are of similar social and educational class and many of them work for big corporations. Others, like my ayi, aren't but the language presents a problem in communication. We are hoping to get out again next week and hoping our trip to Thailand won't have to be cancelled and see more of the world than school!

An Evening in Tibet

The most important thing I learned about Tibet when I went furniture shopping is that if I ever do actually go to Tibet, I will bring snacks. The Tibetans are bit like the Masaai--if it comes out of a yak, then you eat it. Yak butter, yak cheese, yak butter tea, you get the idea. A bunch of us teachers headed to a Tibetan furniture store to shop and were treated to some of these delicacies. It's important to mention that I absolutely detest milk and the smell of warm or hot milk turns my stomach. So I politely declined the bowls steaming yak milk. Yak dairy products have an overwhelming, well, yak odor about them. Kind of like goat cheese, but a bit stronger. There were some other bites, though--and Pepsi, which I soon learned, can wash a log of things down! The guys at the store went to great lengths to make it festive and fun and they succeeded.

Then Mansu said he would cook us some sambas (I think that's what it was). To me cook means...cook. He showed us the ingredients--sugar, yak butter, boiling water, and a cooked flour. Pancakes is what came to my mind, for some reason. Nope. The guy melted the butter in the water, sprinkled in some sugar, and then dumped in a big helping of the flour. Then, and here's where it pays off to not be too too fussy about things, he started mixing up with his hands. Several in our group stopped being interested right then and there. But I figured a lot of tasty things are made with those
ingredients--biscuits, for one. And pie crust. And pancakes. So we waited and watched as he mixed and molded the stuff until it resembled one of those alfalfa nuggets I used to feed to the horses. I took a know how goat cheese tastes? Well, it had that taste and odor, but it combined strangely with the sweetness of the sugar. Honestly, it was different but not too bad. Dry though--thank goodness for Pepsi!

Another little plateful of gems was the cheese platter. You know me and cheese--it's hard to separate us and there's really no food that couldn't be improved by tossing on a little cheese. I'm afraid, though, that if I tossed this cheese, someone would get hurt. The gray lumps on the right are cheese. They were honestly like rocks. I have no idea how you go about eating them, unless you soften them first in tea or hot milk. Those on the left resembled spritz cookies, but the yak-y scent shouted cheese to anyone within a few feet. I took a tiny nibble and when I chucked in the bin it made a really loud CLUNK.

But the furniture--wow. It was overwhelming to see so much all at once. Tibetan furniture is bright--lots of reds and yellow--and very ornately painted. A little can go a long way for me, but each piece was so pretty! There were enormous shrines, trunks made of yak leather and wood and silver, trunks, chests, and cabinets galore. All of it brought from Tibet by the family, none of it brand new. Many of the cabinets (including this huge piece) were shrines for keeping the figures of gods and are now used for TVs, bookcases and yes, even bars.

I must be getting more comfortable here because I thought his prices were high, even though they are ridiculously low by American standards. I bought this little cabinet which looks great as a temporary TV stand. You can't tell from the picture but it's actually a trapezoid shape, narrower at the top than at the bottom. I love it.

And this small table went to Mark's office. He has the ugliest office in the school--where everyone has wonderful Asian pieces, he's got standard furniture from Staples or something. So we're on the look out for some nice things that will add some character to his space. Several things from Tanzania will be on the walls this week so it will soon look quite nice. Both the table and the cabinet are between 50 and 70 years old. The design on the table is a representation of the afterlife. It's really very pretty.
And we are now 95% unpacked and settled. Everything arrived safe and sound. I think it looks so nice and it felt so good having Thanksgiving surrounded by things that remind us of Minnesota and Montana and Tanzania. I know I've said a lot about having too much stuff and being too attached, but I'm amazed at my mood in the house now. I feel very peaceful and settled right now.The kids love the carpet upstairs. It's from Minnesota and it's been so long since they've laid on a thick carpet on the floor. I've banned all toys from the main level and Noah and Ava were up there all day yesterday and today, too. It's wonderful!

Happy Thanksgiving, on China Time (Blog #30 11/30/08)

Saturday night finally brought a proper Thanksgiving. I really liked our Tanzanian Thanksgivings--lots of people, hot weather, a turkey or always have a lot of people and never enough space in 1 room so you grab a plate and park yourself anywhere you can, knowing you'll be sitting next to an old friend--or a new one. One of the things about living in Tanzania was that we were reminded every day how much more important the people are than the trappings, decorations, or other things we often spend too much time and money fussing over.
Of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is not one that really "grabs" me. We've always celebrated with just ourselves, none of us is really crazy about turkey and the kids don't like potatoes, stuffing, or pumpkin pie. But this Thanksgiving felt good. We all sat around the table (something I'm learning that I really like to do--in my dream house I have a room big enough for a table that would seat 12 or more and wide enough for bottles of wine, platters and baskets of food, and lots of candles). We had a wonderful meal--turkey, stuffing, potatoes, orange jello, corn, and rolls and even a ham for the kids. There was pumpkin pie, cranberry-apple cobbler, and a Jello pudding dessert (from Cameron, just in case the homemade desserts weren't up to par). Which they were--both Noah and Ava proclaimed themselves pumpkin pie converts and Cameron ate almost all of the cobbler. And if the weather wasn't Tanzania, it certainly wasn't Minneapolis--about 45 degrees and sunny with blue skies!

After a pants-splitting meal, there were games. Noah is a maniac for them and learning how to play Spoons was right up his alley--lots of grabbing and flinging cards! He also shows a distinct flair for I Doubt it. Later Cameron brought out his poker set for several hands of Texas Hold 'Em. I often never get around to playing games but we all have such a great time that I need to remember that!
We ended the evening at the raucous hour of 7:30 (I think that's early enough, don't you, when you've been eating since 1:00?) by watching "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as an homage to the onset of Christmas (since whole day-after Thanksgiving shopping crush just isn't the same here). It was just perfect.

Friday, November 28, 2008

No, It's not Just an Excuse for Hugh (Blog #29 11/29/08)

Really, it's not. I call your attention to the figure that resembles not so much Nicole Kidman as some stretched tight plasticine replica.

Seriously, what is up with that? She's got spectacular hair and porcelein skin you could die for. I remember reading an article about how her mother refused to let her out in the Australian sun, even with sunscreen, because she was so fair, and how she used to hate her mother for it, but now she really appreciated her efforts because her skin was in such good shape. So, here we have a tall woman, one who probably tends to be on the thin side anyway (although it's obvious the woman has not consumed more than a lettuce leaf at any one sitting since 1997), the kind of hair that can be "lively" (right, Calandria?), and stellar skin.

And yet...she's Botoxed tighter than my jeans in 9th grade. There is not even the tiniest semblance of a line or a wrinkle. She's all tight...and shiny. The one token nod to fat cells seems to rest solely in her upper lip.

I have absolutely nothing against Botox, really. I think that if people get to a certain age (somewhere very near the age I am now) and feel like putting the brakes on Mother Nature a bit, go for it. I'd probably do it if I could afford it, even when sometimes I say I wouldn't--like you know how I say I wouldn't drive a big SUV because of the whole gas cost/pollution thing, but honestly, it's only because I can't afford one. I know that women (right or wrong) have a short shelf life in Hollywood, and that the effort to maintain starts earlier and is more aggressive. I don't even want to debate that. What I don't understand is, why doesn't her stylist, her publicist, her husband, her friends, her family have a little talk with her? Can anyone think she's "aging gracefully"? Take a look at her a few years ago.

Heck, take a look at Hugh. Granted, he's a bit younger, and lines on guys always look "rugged" but still--in this whole "Australia" love epic movie I'm having a hard time with the two of them together, largely in part of because of her plastic-y appearance. Even if she is supposed to be an English aristocrat.
Perhaps Nic should take a cue from Mrs. Jackman--I think she's around 48 (to his 40). I suspect even she has done a bit of work, and she shows up for everything--Hollywood premieres, the beach, grocery shopping--wearing her hair just like that (OK, secretly, I'd have to want her to be my friend because I'd be doing some of that, too), but I think she's got great bone structure and character and personality in her face. Oh, and expression, too.

Finally, I'd like to offer up Dame Helen Mirren. Holy cats, but she's rocking the aging process. I'm betting she, too, has done a little of the nip and tuck, but whatever she's done, it's looking very very good on her. How old is she--in her 60's? Wow. The woman doesn't appear to be hurting in the least. I seem to remember actually working, so somewhere along the line she's figured it out. Women of a certain age--those who think a fat upper lip, skeletal bone structure and the inability to show any emotion--should dig out pencil and paper and start taking notes.