Friday, February 24, 2006

A red bag

When I was a kid, I had a red canvas tote bag with a rainbow on it. For a while, I carried my school books in it, until I grew out of it and discovered that a backpack is a more comfortable way to carry heavy textbooks.

After that, I used the bag when I went babysitting. I collected a few storybooks that I had outgrown and headed off to somebody's house for the evening, to earn my $2.50 per hour. I had learned from experience that a couple of good books, especially ones the child hadn't heard before, kept both me and the children entertained and out of trouble for an hour or two. For littler kids, it was also an effective distraction from the sometimes unsettling idea that the parents were away.

One little girl was two or three years old at the time. She learned quickly that the red bag held wonderful stories, and she started clamoring to hear them as soon as I walked in with the bag. I had to hold her off long enough to get instructions and see the parents off, but I'm glad the stories were a hit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Each one, teach one

(A note to beryl and anyone else reading)

If you find Erika's story inspring, please do more than hope for her future. You can help in many ways, big and small. I don't know what happened to Erika, but there are many, many more like her. Immigrants, coming by choice or by necessity, regularly find their English insufficient for daily life. Some grew up here in the U.S., but didn't learn to read as children for whatever reason. Perhaps they moved around a lot as a child, or had to work. Perhaps a learning disorder went unnoticed or unaddressed. Some simply slipped through the cracks. Whatever the circumstances, reading is fundamental. Can you imagine remembering an appointment for six months because you couldn't write it down? I know a woman who has done just that.

Here are some ways you can put that inspiration to work.

  • Nourish and indulge your own love of reading and writing.
  • Become a regular, conscientious patron of your local library.
  • Volunteer your time or donate money to your local library, according to what you can offer.
  • Donate books you have finished to your library (ask first if they want them) or to the world.
  • Encourage elected officials to support education, libraries, and literacy in your area.
  • Help build free and open references that anyone may use.
  • Find out if there is a literacy tutoring program in your area and volunteer as a tutor. If your library does not offer one, check with this organization, or help people online.

I personally volunteer as a tutor. My learner tells of holding out money and letting the clerk take the right amount to buy groceries, because she didn't understand when she arrived. Despite such initial terrors, she earned her GED and her citizenship. She attended junior college, and she'll start at a university later this year. I spend two hours per week (often wandering joyously into three) guiding, encouraging, and explaining, and she does the rest. In exchange for a bit of my time, I learn about her life, find inspiration in her courage and celebrate her accomplishments.

You, too, have the power to help change a life.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Cereal box science

Another from the archives. I'm cleaning out some old files today.

As I ate my Wheaties one morning, I read the box. This particular box congratulated the finally-victorious Boston Red Sox and quoted three experts on sports nutrition who recommend Wheaties as a source of whole grains and complex carbohydrates. Wheaties have long touted their value as good fuel for athletes, so this sort of marketing is to be expected, and the claims of good nutrition are reasonable as prepackaged foods go.

However, there is a “scientific” diagram on the back, in the upper left corner, depicting a muscular diagrammatic person on a very scientific-looking grid background, clutching a bowl and spoon. Inside him, a tube from his mouth branches into three tubes. One tube leads down his torso, roughly where I expect it to lead, and the other two lead directly into his beefy, diagrammatic biceps. There are no such tubes in the human body, and if there were, they would not result in more-muscular arms. Some blue spheres in an inset appear to be flowing through these tubes. Do the experts know they were quoted alongside this diagram?

The marketing trend of condensing science into oversimplified sound bites is bad enough when the science comes out fundamentally intact. This same box includes a “Box Top$ for Education” decal on the top. If General Mills values education as more than a way to sell more cereal, they could begin by not promulgating marketing misinformation in the guise of science.

The power of literacy

I found this hunting through some old papers. I wrote it in 1994, but my interest and concern for teaching English and literacy had begun to show signs, even then. It's about the library at my high school, and a memorable student.

Erika took me to the library again yesterday. Although I needed to leave, I went with her because she seemed so eager. I think the stuffy building with its burnt orange carpet holds a kind of magic for her. I showed her the books in Spanish, then stood back as she pounced. After she selected one, I showed her the Spanish dictionaries.

I suggested books with pictures, but warned her that she wouldn't be able to read the English they contained. She lit up at possibly reading in English. I helped her check out a book of short stories in English and Spanish.

Erika arrived from Mexico about two weeks ago, knowing only "thank you" in English. Since the rest of the beginning ESL class is a semester ahead of her, I was asked to teach her the alphabet and begin saying and writing words. Using a mixture of Spanish and English, I learned that she has owned a turkey and that she has six brothers and sisters. She likes everything, it seems. Even after asking if she likes washing dishes or eating spinach, I had to ask if she liked eating soap to find an example to practice answering no.


I don't know what happened to Erika. The school year ended and we both moved on. I think Erika barely knew how to read in Spanish, but I watched and tried to guide as she picked her way a letter and a word at a time through books in English. I hope that her circumstances afforded her the opportunity to succeed. If she did not succeed fully, it was because she had too little food or needed to take care of her younger siblings while her parents worked. Her attitude and persistence were nothing short of inspiring.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day

On St. Valentine's Day in fourth grade (or was it fifth?) it rained, the worst storm of the season. Though we lived nearby, my mother drove several classmates and me home that afternoon.

During the day, we exchanged little cards, with candy hearts and other treats. As we unwrapped the contents of our construction paper mailboxes, we watched out the window as the nearby creek ceased to keep pace with the dark skies and the playgrounds out back grew into a giant mud puddle, several inches deep. The water never harmed the buildings, but the field became a lake.

Said one of the boys, "I can't wait until our next football game!"

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Not seeing red

Some of Scott's shirts have seen better days, so we went to the factory outlets in Gilroy, in search of replacements. Acres of asphalt and miles of buildings house some 145 stores, or so the sign boasts. I'd say roughly two out of three of these stores sell clothing of some description, while the other third offer a mix mostly of housewares, shoes, and luggage. A person might reasonably assume, then, that a tour of this place would yield a few shirts suitable for purchase.

One problem: Scott wants to replace the shirts he wore out. They are a few years old, and they are nice, rich, dark colors, or they were before so many washings. Navy blue, maroon and burgundy and hunter green are his staples.

The colors in these stores, by contrast, resembled nothing so much as the fake rock outcropping in the queue for the roller coaster at the local theme park. Park patrons persistently deposited their chewing gum there before departing on a wild ride, despite the park's efforts to discourage the practice*. Each store we entered greeted us with a pastel assault of pink, mint, lime green, aqua, light yellow, turquoise, salmon and the occasional baby blue or light sage, a fitting complement, I suppose, to the metallic mall music, the soft jazz echoing loudly through the stucco corridors just outside. Even Eddie Bauer, that bastion of sturdy, classic apparel, succumbed to this pasty palette. A few of the less dreadful variants of these tints interested me briefly in my young teen years. Still, I think the gum encompassed a broader range of color and served as a better expression of individuality, if not necessarily good taste, than the fashions in the stores today.

Eventually, we found a couple of dark red shirts and a darker sage color that didn't make Scott's fair skin look too washed out, but only after much wandering and pawing through discount racks of leftovers from last fall. We hope that these ones will not wear out until the colors have swung back around to some we can stomach.

How much time and money do we waste following the fashions, buying colors to keep in step with everyone else, or because last year's colors now look dated? Could a store offering sturdy basics (with pockets, please!) in a range of colors, regardless of the year, make a go of it serving people who prefer think for themselves? Or aren't there enough of us to support even one store, among 145?

*When they ultimately resorted to placing a fence in front of that corner, visitors merely stuck their gum on the fence instead.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Home cookin'

Scott cooked dinner tonight. This is newsworthy mainly because it was supposed to be my turn to cook. He was around during the afternoon, though, and faced with a case of the munchies, so he looked online and found a simple recipe for nacho sauce. He made the recipe and found it tasted like what I usually use for macaroni and cheese, so he decided simply to pour it over macaroni and call it dinner.

In hopes of avoiding washing the cheese sauce out of the pot, he said, "Let's just pour the sauce over the noodles on the plates and we'll call it good."

I replied, "or at least we'll eat it."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A change of pace (part 2)

After moving stations 2 and 3 to buttons 1 and 2, I started scanning the dial. First, I added a few stations in a similar vein as the one that had died, a couple of classic rock and one that tends more toward pop, though with some overlap. I never listened to rock music as a youth, so most of what's on the classic rock stations is new to me, predating either me or my listening habits. The classical station has long occupied the sixth slot, anyway, so I had 6 more FM channels to go.

In went the local NPR station, for good measure and good citizen points. (No, I hadn't bothered programming it, earlier.) It's possible I missed some stations, too, since I skipped ones that were blabbing or playing commercials when I happened past.

I found two more offbeat ones that I like, though. One is another Spanish station. This one is talk radio. I have some interest, I suppose, in the subject matter (news, weather, advice, sports), but it's good exercise for me to try to pick out what they're saying. Depending on who's talking or how fast, that's anywhere from about 30-60%. I can usually get the gist, at least.

The other that I particularly like is a local public radio station. To their credit, I have a tough time classifying their content. They have many different DJs, each with separate, shorter shows, and the music includes bluegrass, folk, Celtic, blues, and jazz, among others. Almost all of it is good music, though. One tune they played tonight was a harmonica with rhythm of clapping and stomping (I wonder whether it was one performer or two), and it was still more music than is on most of the pop stations.

A change of pace (part one)

A month and a half ago, with my mind still on vacation, I climbed into my car and set off for my first day of work for the year 2006. My radio greeted me with unfamiliar sounds of soft rock in Spanish. Now, I have nothing against Spanish. I even understand a bit of it from four years of sitting in Spanish class in high school, not feeling very challenged by the pace of my classmates, but soft rock does not figure into my listening habits in any language.

Annoyed, I punched the button for my favorite station. Nothing changed. Rats, thought I. I must have messed up the presets somewhere along the line. No problem. It's not very hard to program a radio. I glanced down. The numbers were right. Perhaps my station was playing something truly alternative. They've been known to do the occasional international segment.

A twenty minute commute and four songs later, La Romantica! was still going strong. I checked the numbers again. They even announced the call letters and the numbers on the radio. It was definitely the same frequency I had programmed before the vacation, but the format had changed drastically. Checking the website over the next couple of days confirmed it. My favorite radio station had met its demise, with no warning whatsoever. The network had pulled the plug for good, hoping for better revenue from Spanish soft rock.

I had a couple other presets, but listening to them for a day or two quickly reminded me why the other channel had been number one. One of them, dubbing itself "Mix" and touting its variety, tends to play the same handful songs (chosen, I think, by opinion polls) over and over on any given day. It's not uncommon to hear the same song going to work as coming home. It lets its DJs talk during the morning, rather than playing music. It censors "bad" words, usually to the detriment of the music. It tends to draw its weekend "variety" entirely from the 1980s, a habit which it proclaims as a feature. As a second choice, it was often palatable, but it would not do alone.

My radio can store 18 channel presets. With that, I could certainly do better. I started scanning through the freqencies, to find out what else was out there.

(to be continued...)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Just for fun

Scott and I went out to dinner last night, because I did not feel inspired to cook. We went to a soup-and-salad place, which offered eight different soups in their buffet. I remarked that I usually end up eating the same soup as last time, and several of the soups looked good. He said, jokingly, that we should do a soup sampler. So we did. We went and got sixteen of the little on-the-side cups for salad dressing, and we both tasted a few bites of each soup, kvetching and commenting as we went.

Both flavors of their chili left much to be desired, as did the chicken noodle soup. The vegetable medley, tomato parmesan, and one other were palatable, but unremarkable. Their creamy soups, broccoli cheese, corn chowder and clam chowder, impressed us more. The other people in the restaurant looked at us a little oddly as we assembled our sampler tray, but we had fun tasting everything, and now we know which soups to avoid.

Maybe we'll sample all the desserts, next time.