Thursday, March 31, 2011

Magical Socks

Yup -- Magical Socks -- and prescription-grade :)   These will immediately be pressed into service to aid and abet my fight against coughing.  If you're confused, see my last post on pedi-"cures."  :)

They're magical because although the pattern is utterly plain Jane (straight stockinette with a ribbed cuff), the yarn I used was inspired by the character "Hedwig" from the Harry Potter series.  "Opal" has a line of Potter-esque sock yarns they created in conjunction with the release of the 6th movie ("Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince or, as it appears on the label "und der Halbblut-Prinz.")  The line has been discontinued, but I was able to snag this skein, along with a few others at a yarn store in Studio City!  So far I've knit these and the "Dumbledore" pair.  I seem to be on a sock jag because before I even took pictures of these I cast on yet another pair.  Oh well, I suppose no harm can come from cozy feet!

And yes, those are dolls strewn all over my floor.  We just received a huge bundle of doll clothes we bid on from ebay and the girls are merrily enjoying their loot.  Knitting and play -- it's a good day!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

How to Get Rid of a Cough... Feet First! A True Pedi "Cure" :)

Many of you know that I've been on a quest to conquer my unfortunate tendency to get a cold and then cough horrifically for two months afterwards.  This has been one of the most serious plagues of my adult life and I'm determined to find a cure before I seriously give myself a hernia -- I cough really hard.  Many close to me will swear they've heard me cough up a lung, multiple times.  I'm not a smoker or anything -- I just have a really serious tendency toward bronchitis for some reason.

Last October when I got a cold, I decided to test recent research that held that theobromine (a substance found in dark chocolate) was a better cough suppressant than any prescription medicine -- 30% better even than codeine!  I decided I was going to enjoy this experiment and believe me, never has any scientific questioner more wanted a hypothesis to be true.  But, alas.... no.  How sad is that?  Wouldn't life have been just that much more bearable if such a thing actually worked?  After two weeks of eating dark chocolate, I actually did nearly give myself a hernia.  I coughed so hard one night, I was in a panic at the extreme pain in my lower abdominal area.  I survived, but it put the fear o'God in me and I swore I would not let my cough get so bad again.

Two days before the massive storm hit last week, trapping us in the house with no power for several days, I got another cold.  Two a year is about par for the course for me -- really not bad considering all the coughing, sneezing, drippy nose students I spend my days with.  But, everyone thinks I'm sick "all the time" because my coughs linger and linger and linger and linger.... well, you get the point.

Stuck in the house though, I didn't have a lot of options.  But before the power went out, I spent a sleepless, snotty night scouring the internet for wacky cough cures and came across reports of the miraculous cough crushing potential of Vicks Vapor Rub ---- if.... wait for it.... it's rubbed on your feet.  Bizarre?  Yes, but I was desperate and decided to try it.

My Dad is a big advocate of good 'ol Vicks and when I was a child, he always urged me to rub it on my chest for coughs and congestion.  I never thought it did much good, but it definitely made me smell weird.  Wasn't a fan of that.  Never though, had he suggested I rub it on my feet.

All week though, I've dutifully rubbed globs of it on my feet, covered them with socks and walked around stinking of methol.... but NOT coughing.  Sometimes I'd forget and go too long without renewing my little pedi - "cure" and I'd start coughing.  I'd rub the goop back on and stop coughing.  Last night, I tried some cough syrup with codeine I had leftover from a prescription last October.  I coughed my head off until 2am and then boinked myself on said head, remembering I'd forgotten my Vicks Foot Rub.  I nearly ran downstairs to my almost empty bottle, smeared the goo on my feet, threw the socks back on and slept like a baby for the rest of the night.

Now, I realize some of you may still be doubters -- thinking to yourself that somehow it was the power of suggestion or something, but rest assured there's not a placebo on the planet that could touch my miserable hacking cough once I get going.  I will continue to test the efficacy of this particular cure, but so far -- I'm a believer and I plan to invest many a pretty penny in boatloads of this stuff to make sure I always have it on hand.

So, if you see me next week and I reek of mentholatum -- you'll know why :)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Snowed In!

This was the view out of my window late last Sunday morning, just before the power went out.  Power was already out down the road in Pine Mountain Club and there were reports of dangerous roads cluttered with fallen tree limbs and debris.  The power on our street failed shortly after the girls and I attempted to dig a path to our car (I had the silly idea, that maybe we'd bail and go stay with my parents in warmer climes).  But there was no way -- roads weren't plowed and the van was already pretty deeply buried.  Soaking wet, we came back in and I jumped in the shower.  Mid-shampoo, the lights went out in my windowless bathroom.  I was lucky.... as standing in water is not the ideal place to be when electricity is going haywire.  Our power failed when a heavily snow-laden tree limb across the street broke and fell on several wires.   

Little did I know that would be the beginning of three days with no power -- and no heat.  This summer we are definitely getting a wood burning stove!  Between Sunday afternoon and Monday morning we got another few feet of snow and a neighborhood littered with fallen tree limbs.  This was soggy, HEAVY snow.  

Being without power/heat for 3 days was definitely an adventure and one I would likely have enjoyed a bit more if I hadn't already been sick with a pretty severe head cold and having to scramble to get substitutes for all the classes I teach.  Still, it was charming to see the dome lit by candles and sip hot tea, while huddled cozily under our blankets.  The best part by far was the amazing heroes who helped us out.  Primary among these was my wonderful brother, Dave.  Who drove up here in his 4-wheel drive truck to bring us supplies and help me dig out.  He worked awfully hard and I'll be forever grateful.  The girls have always adored their uncle, but the loving way he came through for us will be forever etched in their memories and mine!  Our neighbors too were truly generous -- helping us try to start our generator and when it wouldn't work, letting us run a cord to theirs to power our space heater.  We only got this set up toward the very end, but it was when we needed it most.  

We also had fun with friends and thoroughly enjoyed visits with neighbors who shared our plight.  All in all, it's been a memorable week.  The girls didn't do a page of school work -- but they learned so much!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Teaching Writing with Blogs!

If you've ever tried to teach young people to write, you know it can sometimes be a bit of a slog :)  There are lots of "reluctant" young writers out there who would happily opt to clean the family toilets if they thought it might get them out of their writing assignments.  ....Wow, that's not at all the way I imagined starting this post!  Did I mention that I have a horrible cold today -- sore throat, stuffy nose, the works?  I think I'm going to blame my bluntness here on that -- it's the fever talking... no, really!

Anyway, like most writing teachers, I'm constantly trying to come up with ways to make the writing process more engaging and enjoyable for my students and this semester I'm teaching an argumentative writing class to home schooled teens and I'm using blogs to help increase their awareness of audience and encourage them to really engage with the issues we're analyzing.  (Click here to see Syllabus.)

We began the semester by taking a good long look at the task we were about to embark upon:  Writing.  I asked students to write a post in which they considered not only why writing is essential for students, but how the internet has changed the way we write.  To give you an idea of their responses, here are a few of their posts (not all students wanted their blogs circulated :)

We next moved onto book reviews:

Then, because this is a class for older students and we're incorporating a good bit of classical rhetoric, we explored the Greek rhetorical appeals (pathos, ethos, logos) along with basic identification appeals (stereotype/image) by analyzing some advertisements:

This week we've moved on to propaganda.  We're doing a two part assignment:  This week we get to play.  Everyone is writing a tongue-in-cheek propaganda piece using the techniques we discussed in class.  Next week, as we learn about logical fallacies, they'll look at issues more seriously and consider what sort of training young students should receive to arm them with the tools they'll need to recognize propaganda when they subjected to it.  As their humorous pieces get posted over the next day or so, I'll add them here:

If you visit these posts, be sure to look through the comments.  Part of their assignment is always to comment on each other's posts and I place my comments there as well.  And feel free to comment on these student blogs yourself... though I beg you, be kind to my young writers :)  They're working very hard and I'm so impressed with what they've already accomplished in just these 1st few weeks!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Never Too Many Socks....

Took yet another pair of "Monkey" socks off the needles again last night.  I didn't intend to knit the same pattern twice in a row, but when I pulled out this yarn it fairly screamed "Monkey" at me and I just felt I had no choice.  The yarn is from the stash and is one I'd wound awhile back, so although I know it was Cherry Tree Hill SuperSock Merino, the name of the color eludes me.    ....and yes I've pictured them against a Bryson book, which I just can't yet bear to take off my desk.  I read it, loved it, reviewed it and now don't want to put it away.  Must. Read. Again!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: Home - A Memoir of My Early Years (Julie Andrews)

I have been listening to Julie Andrews sing for as long as I can remember.  My father was a big fan and on long car trips, we’d all sing along to the soundtracks of My Fair Lady, Camelot and The Sound of Music.  With each song, I’d make believe I was her.  I’d be furious with Henry Higgins and irritated by Freddie Eynsford-Hill right along with her. I’d decry the unfairness of arranged marriages to St. Genevieve and then turn around and whistle with King Arthur as I fell reluctantly, but completely in love with Lancelot.  And though I never came close, always I would try to match her pure, exuberant sound.  So naturally, I was very eager to read her autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years, and discover more about what it was like to perform those fantastic roles on Broadway.

The autobiography was a bit slow to me at first.  She begins by explaining the various elder branches of her family tree in a bit more detail than I was really interested in.  Still, Julie Andrews is a wonderful storyteller (as evidenced by her many successful works of fiction) and I soon was caught up in the drama of her early life.  Her stories of growing up in a broken home were heartbreaking, but even more compelling were her memories of London during WWII.  She provides a firsthand account of hiding in underground bomb shelters and literally dodging enemy attacks.  Her life was quite thoroughly in discord from within and without.

Along the way, she provides the reader with fascinating tidbits about the vaudeville scene in England, while explaining her family’s history with musical performance.  It was her step-father, whose name (Ted Andrews) she was forced to adopt, who first gave her voice lessons and who quickly and wisely insisted she move on to a more experienced vocal instructor (Madame Lilian Stiles-Allen) once he realized the potential of her power and range.  But it’s clear that there’s no love lost between her and her stepfather.  She describes him as an alcoholic, violent jerk who came close, on more than one occasion, to molesting her.

Admittedly, I was eager to get on to her career on Broadway and was a bit impatient to get past all of her family background, but her descriptions of how she learned vocal technique were fascinating and I loved learning about her early vocal performances and how she used to wow the crowds with her high F (2 ½ octaves above middle C) when she sang the aria “Je Suis Titania” from Mignon (see Youtube clip below).  Looking back at the autobiography as a whole, I’m glad she included so much of her childhood.  She really was a child prodigy and performed extensively from the age of 12 on, so those early experiences certainly shed light on who she is both as an individual and as a performer.  Nevertheless, I was grateful when she finally turned her attention to her first big lead performance in The Boy Friend and those first days in rehearsal for My Fair Lady.

Her stories about working with Lerner & Lowe, and learning her craft at the direction of Moss Hart are really the heart of the book for me.  She describes meeting various celebrities who came to see the hit show and tells hilarious tales about working with Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway.  Equally compelling is her personal story of living in New York with relatively little money, despite hobnobbing with Broadway’s elite.  She’s quite honest about her own inexperience and insecurities as she struggled over how to portray Eliza Doolittle and later Queen Guenevere.

I so wish there were film footage of her performances of My Fair Lady and Camelot.  All I’ve ever had to appreciate are the original Broadway soundtracks and I can’t help but curse the idiots in Hollywood who cast poor substitutes in what will always be quintessentially, her roles.  Reading her account of these shows in Home gave me an inkling of what they must have been like, but made me all the more sad to have never seen her.  I have of course, seen her television performance of Cinderella, filmed during this same basic time period.  It’s grainy, but still wonderful.

The autobiography concludes with her marriage to set designer Tony Walton, the birth of her daughter Emma and her call to Hollywood to film Mary Poppins.  I can’t wait for her to write Volume 2 of her fascinating story.  Even though I know the basic outline of her later life, I feel like I’ve been left with a cliffhanger and I’m eager for the sequel.    Until then, enjoy this clips from her early days as a performer:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life - Bill Bryson

Most rating systems go from one to five stars, but even given those parameters, I feel compelled to give Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, six hearty, shooting stars! How's that for containing my enthusiasm?  Bryson accomplishes so much here that is rare and invaluable.  Both as a teacher hoping to instill a true LOVE of history in my students and just as a person with basic human curiosity, I’m so very grateful for this gem of a book.

After completing the ambitious, but equally enthralling A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he assumed the daunting task of explaining scientific knowledge about the universe, Bryson decided to turn his attention toward the history of more ordinary things.  He describes his inspiration this way: “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

Living as he does in a home that was originally an English parsonage built in 1851, Bryson decided to take that year as his starting point. Conveniently, 1851 happens to coincide with London’s “Great Exhibition,” where people from nations all over the world gathered to display their newest inventions... many of which contributed greatly to the “comforts” enjoyed in most modern, western homes. 1851 though, is by no means a line drawn in the sand. Bryson frequently skips further back into history to explain the older origins of his various subjects. In fact, he begins his history of the HOME by exploring the question of “why people live in homes at all.” The answers allow him to take his readers on an intriguing archeological jaunt through ancient history.
Part of Bryson’s genius here is that he does not adopt the time worn structure of organizing his history chronologically. This book most definitely is not reminiscent of your old doorstop tome from the Western Civ., general ed. class you were required to take in college. Instead, with humor and his own keen interest, which is palpably alive to the reader, Bryson takes us on a tour of his house. As we proceed from room to room, he fills us in on the background traditions, historical innovations and quirky oddities pertaining to each.
For example, in the “Hall,” he traces the downward linguistic spiral of a word once used to donate the main gathering room in a castle, to the place where we “wipe feet and hang hats.” In doing so, he not only details the communal nature of ancient and medieval living situations, but also clarifies that the “board” in “room & board” literally originates from the board that served for most dining surfaces.
Upon entering “The Kitchen,” Bryson treats his hungry readers to a delicious, multi-course meal covering the history of food, its preparation and preservation. The information is fascinating, athough metaphors aside, you may wish to read this chapter on an empty stomach, as it details the many and sundry additives deceptive food sellers once used to bulk up their products. Eighteenth century tea, for example, might have included “anything from sawdust to powdered sheep’s dung.”
In his chapter on “The Fuse Box,” he provides a history of lighting, detailing our evolution from smoky, candle-lit rooms to gas lighting and electric fixtures, defusing (so to speak) the mistaken notion that our ancestors in “the pre-electric world went to bed at nightfall.” His chapter on the “Drawing Room,” provides a thorough history, and thankfully clarifies the origin for the title of this room, which has nothing in the slightest to do with artistic endeavors. In fact, he explains, “the term is a shortening of the much older Withdrawing Room, meaning a space where the family could withdraw from the rest of the household for greater privacy."
Bryson’s book is filled with fascinating nuggets like this, but it would be misleading to give anyone the impression that this is merely a book of interesting trivia. No indeed! This is a sweeping and absorbing historical account of why we live as we do and it will keep you up reading much later into the night than you’d planned. It’s that much of a page turner.
I fully plan to pass At Home along to my teen daughters as a far more palatable and exciting entrĂ© into history and I fervently hope Bryson will continue writing such fascinating books. Much as I love his travel odysseys (and I definitely do), I think it is in writing books like this one where he makes his most invaluable contributions.

An Earth Shaking Reminder

Back in October, in honor of "The Great California Shake Out," I published a post entitled, "My Pesky Neighbor:  The San Andreas Fault."  It contains important earthquake preparedness info, so I thought I'd link to it again today as we all reel from the news coverage of Japan's horrific 8.9 earthquake and ensuing tsunami.  The images are frightening and an awfully good reminder that we're overdue here in California for something similar, though please God, not so catastrophic or enormous.  The big Ft. Tejon quake on the San Andreas in 1857 was 7.9.  Far smaller than Japan's quake yesterday, but as I rode out the 6.7 Northridge Earthquake of '94 in stunned terror, my mind boggles at the thought of anything larger.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Learning Through Frustration

My aggravation today got me thinking about how we learn and what type of educational experiences stick with us the most.  I've always been a big proponent of hands-on learning and good old fashioned "figure it out for yourself" learning.  Today definitely challenged those models, but ultimately confirmed what I already knew.

I spent most of the afternoon trying to get the videos I'd taken on my iphone last night onto DVDs we could watch on our TV.  My daughters had an audition preparation session last night for their upcoming play, "Annie."  They have songs and dance routines to learn this week and I really didn't want them trying to watch them on my iphone or computer all week.  I figured it would be far simpler for all of us if they had a DVD instead.  

Turns out that transfer isn't exactly easy.  There's no nifty feature in iTunes (that I know of) that allows your to just burn a dvd from a downloaded video.  I had to search the internet for software, download it, and learn to use it through much trial and error.  Personally, I think I overdid the "error" part.  When I finally figured it out, I realized that the picture on all the videos was sideways (some odd quirk of iphones).  After screaming a string of profanities, silently.... my daughters were home after all, I found a video editing program that allowed me to fix that.

It was a horrendous struggle and I don't look forward to repeating the experience anytime soon.  Still... I learned a tremendous amount.  Would it have been easier if I'd had someone to take me step by step through the process?  Absolutely!!!!  But, I wouldn't have learned nearly as much.  Making the gazillion mistakes I made today taught me a great deal about video editing.  I was frustrated, but I did ultimately figure it out and am proud that was able to do it.

That kind of ownership only comes from figuring things out yourself.  I think we need to find more room in our educational system for this kind of learning. It's far more lasting and ultimately builds student confidence like nothing else can.  Most people have learned to use computers this way through necessity.  Computer software and technology changes so rapidly, that we simply have to figure it out as we need it.  There are no classroom teachers to explain things for us.  

So, instead of always thinking of things I can teach my kids, I'm going to work on devising a curriculum that includes this kind of autodidacticism.  I'll set them various tasks to complete.  Something like... here's $30 bucks --> go plant us a vegetable garden.  I could take them to the nursery to get seedlings, etc. and the library to find how-to books, but other than that, I'd stay hands off and let them make all the mistakes they need to in order to really learn.  It would make our "homeschooling" a lot harder to document for the charter school, but I think they'd learn a heck of a lot more!

A Student Book Review

My daughter, who is taking my blogging class at Huck, has written a Book Review of Gone with the Wind for her blog:  Pink Ribbon Eyes and I wanted to post the link here for those who'd like to see it.  So, if you're interested, check out her book review here.