Thursday, January 22, 2009

I am the Worst Teacher

So, today in class, we were going over a rather complex essay titled "The Selfless Gene" by Olivia Judson (a play on Richard Dawkins' book titled The Selfish Gene). In this essay, the author argues that the impulses toward self-sacrifice and altruism could possibly be a trait passed on genetically. I'm not going into the particulars of the essay because that's not the reason I'm posting. I want to talk about my classes.

Once students got through some of the major ideas, they debated the merits and delved in the philosophical depths. Some were rather Hobbesian: the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And others took issue with the evolutionary underpinnings of her argument ("It's just a theory"), etc.

Since the essay used many examples from the animal kingdom to prove her point, one student posited that characteristics can be passed on. After all, we breed dogs to have certain temperaments. I thought this was a good point although I was slightly galled that an international student who I had just told that he could not do a "how-to" speech on "how to train dogs for dog-fighting," was nodding enthusiastically (and I agreed with him).

Another student piped up about her dogs and I asked her what breeds they were (both were versions of Labrador and Golden Retrievers). I then asked the class "why these breeds were most popular family dogs in America?" They answered, of course, that they were friendly and good with children. This same student objected, stating that she had had another Golden Retriever which had bitten a few people and her parents had given it away.

In a low, but audible, voice, I said "Your parents didn't give him away." I immediately regretted saying it because her mouth dropped open and she turned a little red as the ramifications of my words dawned on her. Most of the class began to rib her a bit, and I apologized profusely.

As a friend put it "you won't be accused of mollycoddling your students." Such is life and death. Thank God I don't teach Elementary school students, right?

Fortunately, I held back from another student's comment about recessive genes -- she has different colored eyes than her family....

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Poem

This is a fine thread to pluck.
Follow it down to the darkness and the source.
Let it be your thread to what is
and what will never be. Sing the thread,
let it reverberate. No silence.

It is the poem that sees love
in the grains of wood, hears music
in a train's groan, and feels
every texture of fabric
while dressing the dead.

It weaves what we are,
and what we will become
and whether it be not true or real
is drowned in the tendons of our muscles
violently shaking.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Feeling chilly?

Yeah, we know it's cold enough for us. Stop asking. This is one of those weather systems where one could be wearing every piece of clothing in one's closet and feel like one would be just as cold, standing naked and doused with water in the middle of the street.

In the spirit of the QOE's movie reviews, here are some movies that you should watch when you are feeling cold.

Stray Dog (1949) by Akira Kurosawa, starring a very young Toshiro Mifune. Why for a cold day? Well, Mifune plays a cop who has lost his gun and spends the moving tracking it down. It happens in the middle of a heatwave. Everybody is sweating bullets and looking miserable.

Sunshine (2007) by Danny Boyle (he of Slumdog Millionaire fame), starring Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and other familiar faces one often sees as second-tier actors. It's a science fiction story about some astronauts going to "jumpstart" the sun, which is dying. They have to get very close to the sun and it gets very hot. Fun film. Not the best but different from the usual science fiction fare. You get a sense that all of the astronauts are a bunch of nerds -- which I appreciate over the manliness of say, Armageddon, etc. The twist is a little silly and I admit that I watched this on a dying TV so I had a very difficult time discerning some of the arty action.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
(1994), an Aussie film by Stephan Elliot. Lots of sweatydrag queens as their bus breaks down in the desert. Great roles by Terance Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) by (of course) David Lean. Just watch the scene when Peter O'Toole crosses the desert and demands a drink at the bar. He's sunburned and his lips are cracking.

Well, those gems should keep you warm for the moment.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Busy Weekend -- part two

Please excuse the brief tangent on birds -- back to Friday night and the retirement party. Well, there was a full program to honor my colleague, and it was very much keeping in tune with her personality. There was singing, dancing, and sea shanties. Yes, you read that correctly, sea shanties by an amateur sea shanty singing group. I've jumped ahead -- here are the highlights:

A waltz by the ballroom dancing club. Many of these were former students of mine! They were lovely.

A tribute by a former student who told Faye that she was a model and an inspiration for all "us nerds."

A tribute by Department Head and friend who gave away the Department gifts -- the best of which was an award to be given in her name, yearly, to the best Freshman writer. (Okay, I really teared up at this one).

A speech by the Admiral, who doesn't know her very well but spent two hours reading her Live Journal and freakin' QUOTED it at the ceremony. Let that be a lesson to you all. But the Admiral is very funny and has an extremely dry delivery. Though self-described as "boring," Kate leaned over to me and said "he's pretty funny." Hey, power and a sense of humor -- not a bad combination.

Faye said a few words as well, in which she quoted poetry and sang. She also made a reference to Bilbo's birthday party. All of this was very much in keeping with her personality. Very sweet.

I kinda wished I had begged to be on the program now.

Then she joined the Sea Shanty group which got the entire crowd to chime in on the chorus (including the Glee club which were having a great time). One member even improvised a verse for Faye on the spot.

I'm sure I've left out some other high points to which Kate and Gene can add. These were my favorite moments. We then left to go out into the cold and to the reception. Surprisingly, given the state of chaos in the afternoon, it was a wonderful reception. The noodle kugel was sublime (that should be the title of a novel) and I was so hungry, I ate a lot.

Our fears that the cake was not going to big enough were way off. A lot of people declined, even though I helped in serving and cajoled many attendees to have a piece. Boy, was it sweet!

At the reception, there were a few more presents and speeches, but all in all, it was pretty informal. I never even got to talk to Faye much since she had so many friends -- some of whom were from out of town-- that I could only hug her as we were leaving.

Kate and Gene stayed over. we had a few drinks, watched some crazy anime as I am wont to thrust upon them. Then it was up for lox and bagels and to Elena and Rod's for lunch. Unfortunately, since I'm such a wuss in the snow, once I saw any accumulation on the roads, I was out of there. Some of the hardy souls I left behind went sledding down the golf course behind their house (in the summertime, when attending bbqs there, the course lends a sense of danger that one will be beaned by a golfball). Okay, I fulfilled my promise and told the rest of the story.

Monday, January 12, 2009

speaking of favorite birds

Here's a really funny post from Mike O'Connor, who writes a column called Ask the Bird Folks for the Cape Codder. You can read all his posts online, and he has a book out too.

Dear Bird Folks:

At a party the other night we were discussing our favorite birds. Then we started wondering what your favorite bird is. We all took a guess and my job was to write to you to find out if any of us were right. So, what is your favorite bird?

-Monica, Barnstable

Really Monica,

You went to a party and played "Name your favorite bird?" Talk about living life on the edge. I hope your kids don't find out what you do at night. Did the cops come by to break it up?

My favorite bird eh? I feel like I'm being interviewed for a teen magazine. Fine, I'll tell you my favorite bird. Maybe next week I'll tell you my favorite movie, my sign, and my turn ons and turn offs.

As far as I'm concerned, all birds are great. They all have fascinating behavior, incredible survival skills and diversified beauty. Yet only one bird has all the best qualities wrapped up in one package. The Black-capped Chickadee is by far the best bird ever invented. I know, right now there are millions of readers (or at least dozens) screaming "Chickadee, no way!" To which I reply, "way". Chickadees have it all. Let us count the ways.

First of all they are so stinkin' cute. Many birds have flashier colors, but with the fancy colors comes a snotty attitude. The beautiful spring warblers can't be bothered coming close enough for us to appreciate their colors. They zip about high in the tree tops and could care less that we must suffer permanent neck damage staring straight up for hours, hoping for a glimpse. Meanwhile, the inquisitive little chickadee will come to the branch just above your head, or it will even land on your head if you are pleasant enough.

As a guy who makes a living selling bird stuff, chickadees are the perfect bird. They eat just about every type of seed. They love suet. They nest in birdhouses and they come to birdbaths. Chickadees alone could put my kids through college, if, for some reason, one of my kids was accepted to a college.

Over the course of a year, Cape Cod is visited by close to 350 different species of birds, but very few can claim that they are here year round. Some birds (and many people) hate the heat, hate the cold or hate the crowds. To them the grass is always greener. But our chickadees are with us 24/7/365. They are able to deal with the hot, crowded summers and have learned to adapt to the freezing, boring winters. And never once do they complain about either. How many of you can say that?

Speaking of complaining, have you ever heard anyone complain about a chickadee? Has its sweet little song ever woken you up at 6:00 AM or have they ever taken a bite out of anything in your garden? Have they ever made a mess on your boat or drilled holes in the side of your house or charged anything on your credit card without your permission? I'm telling you these birds are perfect.

I know there are plenty of cardinal fans screaming that cardinals are the best. Please. Cardinals are a bunch of sissies. Think about it. Any time there is a predator around, crows, jays and chickadees are the first ones to sound the alarm. Meanwhile the cardinals are nowhere to be seen. Most of the time they don't even show up at our feeders until it's almost dark.

Keep in mind Monica, that I enjoy all birds. Just because I think chickadees are the best (and they are), that doesn't mean other birds aren't wonderful. Okay, maybe calling cardinals a bunch of sissies was a little strong, but I'm still not taking it back.

Before I sign off, here are a few other birds that are popular, but have one thing or another that keeps them from being my favorite:

Loon: Handsome in the summer, boring brown in the winter.

Hummingbird: Way, way,way too hyper. They need to chill.

Titmouse: A totally embarrassing name.

Catbird: It would be a good choice if it didn't have the "C" word in its name.

Great Blue Heron: Reminds me too much of Florida.

Peacock: Tries too hard.

Parrots: Forget it. If you want something that talks back, get a teenager.

Falcon: No way, they eat chickadees.

Pelican: Needs to work on its breath.

Sandpiper: Too confusing.

Bluebird: State bird of New York. The Yankees live in New York.

Crows: Very sad. The way they dress reminds me of the late Johnny Cash.

Ducks: They seem so distant.

Piping Plover: Hogs the headlines.

Goldfinch: Way too much molting.

Blue Jay: On the edge. They could snap any minute.

Baltimore Oriole: Hello. It's from Baltimore.

In the Spirit of ... well.. spirits

Though I promised a follow-up to my previous post, I am deviating (no comments from the peanut gallery). Since the QOE feels an affinity for the Raven and Kate is partial to the Magpie (and wombat, although this is a bird post), I have one to add to the list. I feel connected to the Northern Mockingbird. I've blogged about this before but I heard one sing in Los Angeles both summers I was there. It's amazing to me that I can pick out the same bird by song and location. That can't really be done with any other species, unless the creature builds the same nest outside your door year after year. Even then, might be some other relative or nest builder.

But what gets me, is not necessarily the song -- though it's unique and lovely and singing on full moon nights for no good reason is pretty cool. What moves me is that in the middle of the medley, also for no good reason, the bird will leap up and flash its wings, revealing broad, white bands on its wings. Then it will land and keep singing.

I want to go birdwatching soon...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Goodness, I'm Beat!

It's been a very, very long week. What with the first day of teaching and meetings and ice and parties, and visitors. Most of it has been great (parties and visitors and a little teaching), but I'm kinda glad to be snowed in tonight so I can rest up.

Let me review Friday since that was the highlight. I woke early -- for me -- 8 am, so I could pick up an extra cake for Faye's retirement. We were concerned that the other cake (that feeds 120) would not be enough. I bought it from Motta's on Route 6. I love to buy from them because I want to keep them in business. I carefully brought it to the car on the ice-slicked parking lot. The container must have opened slightly because the entire car smelled of sugar as I drove down to New London.

Then I taught at 1050 which was my Lit class. It went well although I was in a classroom with a computer I couldn't log into. Whoops! So, while they were working on poetry madlibs, I dashed to my office, dashed to the copier, and fired off the poems with the correct words in them. Then we talked about poetry in class. I have a few familiar faces this semester which is nice. After that, I went with a colleague to pick up the mega-cake. Kate took pics which I hope she will post. I'll link to them when she does. After bringing it to the reception hall, I decided to stick around and help set up. This meant I missed lunch and the speech from a big speaker at 1:00 (hence my 1:00 class was cancelled). I begged some food off of a neighbor across the hall from me (who mocked me when I yelled if she had any food -- she's many months pregnant. Of course she has food). Then I taught my 2:25 class. I only kept them for an hour but I already assigned the first paper.

I met up with Kate and Gene at the auditorium (also ran into my friend, Susan, and her daughter, Leah). We rushed inside because it was freakin' cold.

I would take the time now to talk about the fantastic ceremony but I'm just too pooped to create anything that would come near to capturing the event. I'll save that for next time. And I promise I will!

(spoiler: I did finally get to eat).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I work in a weird place

A colleague is now going to be Vice President Elect's Homeland Security Adviser. That's so exciting for him! I'm sure he's moving onto bigger and better things rather than being in charge of the funds for the coffee. Okay, he does a lot more than that but that's my point of contact. That and he was part of the interviewing team for my position this year. Nice guy. I will expect no more nonsense from the executive branch.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Ice Man

Has come and stayed for a bit, leaving me yet again homebound. I guess it's not so bad since I have a lot I need to do and some quiet is fine. I am missing some meetings at work which I regret. There's always something important -- although a bit that's not.

Anyway, I can't believe the first week of January is coming to a close, and I have to start teaching on Friday!

In other non-related teaching news, I'm taking a class at my synagogue on the Talmud. My medieval friends will find this particularly interesting. I never knew much about the Talmud which is a repository of commentaries on Jewish Law (everything from what is okay to eat to what should you do if you suddenly fart while praying). Right now what is most fascinating to me is the manuscript. I've put a page below. The middle column is the original law (the Mishna from Palestine, 3rd century CE) and then the original commentary (Gemara from 5th century CE from Babylonia). Then all the text around it is all the commentaries that have accrued over time. The text closest to the binding on the right is Rashi (from France, 11th century CE, which was also translated into Old French at one point). On the left, closest to the middle column are the Tosafists (thought to be students of Rashi -- France and Germany 12th to 13th centuries). Far left, cross references to other sections of the Talmud. Below that Comments of another reader (Tunis, 11th Century). The notes at the bottom are from Austria-Hungary (early 19th century) and so on and so forth.

Medievalists work with manuscripts all the time but to see a text accrue other texts like that is just something I haven't seen before. I can understand now why the Talmud is so important to Jews because it really does represent learning through the ages in one package. The image and other information about the Talmud is from here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

This Year is Off to a Rough Start

I completely blanked on a social engagement this evening. I was sitting down to dinner, and the phone rang. I was a bit put out because I was really hungry, having been out all day. I was surprised to hear from someone from work. They were all at the restaurant, waiting for me. D'oh! I feel like such an idiot.

So I had to run out of the house to drive more than twenty minutes to the place. I was very hungry by the time I got there. Fortunately, as it was that typical Connecticut Asian fusion place (we got Thai! We got Sushi! We got it all!), I ordered sushi. Though people had eaten appetizers, soup, etc., my main course got there before their main courses. It wasn't bad. The spicy yellowtail roll was actually spicy (also unusual).

I can't believe I messed up already. I need to staple my calendar to my body.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Need Creative Folk Help

So, in my previous post I said I decided to start an anime and manga blog. I was poised to do so when I was stymied by the name. Hmm. Any you creative folk out there think of something unique and fun?

My plan for the blog is kinda what Gene does for comics -- post news and reviews, etc. Since I come across a lot of anime and manga news I thought it would be a nice repository for myself and others.

To Resolve or not to resolve

I resolve the following in no particular order. Ladies and Gentlemen, please place your bets at the window for how long these will last.

I resolve to:

1. make this a year of change.
2. start an anime/manga blog.
3. try not to be such an awful procrastinator when grading papers this year.
4. accept more social invitations.
5. brush Boo more often.
6. buy health insurance (gah!)
7. write more letters. (If you are looking for a gift for me -- funky stationery is always appreciated).
8. volunteer somewhere.
9. eat more fruit.

I resolve not to:

1. be negative