Monday, September 24, 2007

Book Review: A Wind in the Door

This is the second in Madeleine L'Engle's quintet (quilogy?) concerning the Murry Family.

Charles Wallace has started First Grade and life is not going well. When the other children are in the class, they announce they have chickens or that our bodies are made up of skin and bones and "stuff." Charles Wallace announces he is currently fascinated by mitochondria and farandolae. He then starts to explain that these are prokaryotes that were incorporated into our cells.

His teacher tells him to stop making stuff up and moves on the next child.

Because he is different, Charles Wallace is beaten up every day at school or on the way home. The principal's response is that Charles Wallace must learn to "adapt."

I had to check the copyright date at this point. Could it be possible that a teacher and a principal would not know about mitochondria? Would a principal really allow a child to be beaten up regularly on the way home from school and tell the parents (and Meg, Charles Wallace's older sister) that the child must learn to adapt?

Well, the copyright is 1973, which means Ms. L'Engle was probably writing the book in 1971-72. Mitochondria (and other cell organelles) certainly were in my high school biology textbook at that time. And I knew about prokaryote and eukaryotes. But I was actually interested in that kind of stuff. So I'm not the best example of what was commonly known!

The reason Charles Wallace is interested in mitochondria and farandolae is there is something seriously wrong with his. He has no energy, becoming winded walking across the orchard on the Murry family farm. His mother, a biologist, is worried and suspects the problem is with his farandolae, but she doesn't know what.

But all this comes later. The novel starts with Charles Wallace telling Meg, "There are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden." Turns out this particular entity is not really a dragon after all, but a cherubim. And this cheubim, named Proginoskes, is a Namer. And, he solemnly informs Meg, so is she. "Progo," as he is nicknamed, is accompanied by a Teacher--and it turns out that the twins, their pet snake, and the family doctor are all Teachers. Or, in the case of the twins, will be.

In the meantime, darkness threatens the world, caused by beings called the Echthroi, who are busy "unNaming" the universe, causing sections to become nought. The Ecthroi are wreaking havoc with Charles Wallace's farandolae because Charles Wallace is Special.

Meg learns to kythe, which is kind of like mental telepathy, but stronger. Meg and Progo must use their kything and their naming to save Charles Wallace and the universe--and Mr. Jenkins, Meg's former principal and nemesis from junior high.

Calvin is there to keep Meg grounded and because he has some special abilities, too, although what they are isn't made clear. Meg, meanwhile, is a very typical 14-y.o. girl, which means she whines, "Why me?" a lot and doubts her abilities even though everyone around her tells her that she underestimates herself and she is a lot smarter/prettier/stronger/etc. than she realizes. Since a 14-y.o. female currently resides with me, I can confirm that Mrs. L'Engle certainly got that part right! I became so annoyed with Meg, I wanted to shake her, although I undoubtedly would have been more sympathetic if I were also fourteen. (Yeah, I was pretty annoying.)

Besides the science, there is a lot of religious symbolism and mythology in this story. Names are important--and since they are mostly Latin and Greek, Mrs. L'Engle does explain some of them. But she also relies on the reader's knowledge of cherubim and a familiarity of the responsibility God gives Adam in Genesis to name all the creatures of the land, the air, and the sea. I wonder if teachers explore this background information with their junior high students? Unfortunately, these concepts are not really explored in depth. The book is rather short and moves kind of quickly. Perhaps the series is meant to be taken as a whole.

On the March Hare scale: 3.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

A Silver Moment

The second highest award in Girl Scouting is the Silver Award. For those familiar with the Boy Scout program, this is the equivalent of Life Scout. There are prerequisites, including leadership, career exploration, interest patches (badges), and reflection. And then there is the Project, which must take at least 40 hours, including planning and doing.

Unlike Boy Scouts, the girl must do all the prerequisites and the project in the three years from seventh through ninth grade.

DD#2 thought that she would like to do a "Welcome Back to Girl Scouting" event for the troops in our neighborhood to get the school year started. Our neighborhood had penciled in a "Songfest" event--a chance to get together and sing at just the right time. Next thing she knew, DD#2 was in charge.

"But I hate leading songs!" she protested to me.

"So ask someone else to lead the songs," I answered calmly. "You just have to plan it and make sure everything is covered. You don't have to actually do it all."

Now DD#2 has been going to Scout campfires (Boy Scout, Girl Scout, and Cub Scout) since she was a year old. She's watched me lead them, her brothers, her sister, other Scout leaders, camp counselors, other troops. She's led songs at Day Camp and at Camporee. So why did she suddenly insist that she didn't know how to put this event--which was essentially a campfire at the beach--together?

Because she's never been in charge before. Events sure look different when their success or failure hinge on you.

The most difficult part for me was not taking over.

"Has she done this yet?" asked the neighborhood coordinator.

"I don't know. You'll have to ask her," became my standard reply. My other job was to be a sounding board, to ask her questions like, "What usually happens? What are your favorite songs? What are your options?"

And to keep Hubs from driving her crazy. She is, after all, his baby, too. Worse, since he doesn't often get to see her in a leadership role, he forgets that she is pretty competent. She knows her stuff, even if she doesn't always realize she does.

The flyers were done, the registration happened, the s'more supplies were purchased, the fire laid.

"How do I start?" was her last agonized whisper to me.

"Well, you should probably welcome everyone and introduce yourself and your song leaders," I said. "Then go from there."

The neighborhood coordinator referred to DD#2's look as "deer-in-the-headlights." As the program got underway and the group (there were about 75-80 people) settled in and started singing, DD#2 became more sure of herself and lost that look. We had enough wood and enough s'more supplies. We did not set the grass on fire (Hubs' biggest concern, although there was little chance of that happening). It did not rain.

Now there is the final paperwork and the patches to be ordered. The feedback we're receiving is very positive--everyone had fun, which means our neighborhood will probably hold a similar event next year.

I'm very interested to hear DD#2's evaluation of the event. She did an excellent job, but she has my tendency to focus on what went wrong rather than what went right. And she may not enjoy leading songs, but she's good at it--and I wonder if her opinion will change after she completes a year of public speaking (which includes competitions).

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Thought It Was Just Me...

When I left for Japan at the end of July, I was actually looking forward to not hearing about Presidential primaries, immigration, and the war in Iraq. I was going to be in a foreign country where I did not understand the language and I was going to be so busy I wasn't going to have time to watch TV.

However, I was rather reluctant to jump back into the fray when I came home. I avoided newspapers, TV news and opinion programs, and most blogs.

I'm finally coming around to "catching up," and what I'm finding is that many bloggers--especially women bloggers--especially women bloggers with children--have also stepped back from political commentary.

The Anchoress, one of my favorite bloggers, commenting on the immigration debate, responded to comments, "One of the reasons I stopped posting on this issue was because people kept going round and round and round, saying the same damn things over and over again. This is still the case. No one is saying anything new on immigration." Frankly, the same could be said of just about all the major issues. Just this weekend, at a local community fair, I was asked if I was interested in signing a petition to impeach President Bush and V.P. Cheney. The woman who asked me was my age. We were looking at some handcrafted jewelry. I was wearing a red shirt with a big black eagle against a yellow sun (it's our Boy Scout troop T-shirt). She was very polite about it, so I very politely answered, "No."

What I felt like saying was, "What has either man done that's an impeachable offense? In sixteen months they will both be out of the White House anyway. And it will take about that long for the dog-and-pony show to conclude if there is any reason to impeach. And if Nancy Pelosi did become President (and steal Mrs. Clinton's place in history as the first woman president), she'd have about four months before the newly elected President took office.

"Oh, and by the way, we're in the middle of a war."

Speaker Pelosi did not get to her position of power by being politically stupid. Being President means you represent the entire country, including the "flyover" states, not just those who belong to MoveOn. And, yes, I think Mrs. Pelosi is smart enough to realize that she wouldn't be able to just govern from the Left.

Basta! as the Italian grandmothers in my home parish would say. Enough! You don't talk business at the dinner table.

Meanwhile, I have smaller, humbler, more immediate concerns. Is DS#1 going to be able to stay focused on his classes while living away from home and on his own? Is DD#2 going to find her passion and go on to a university next fall or is she going to succumb to the lure of making money? Will DS#2 survive his Junior year--especially his English teacher? Will he ever finish the paperwork for Eagle? Will he do well in the SATs and PSATs, especially the writing portion? Will DD#2 survive her Silver Award project? How much reminding should I do? Will she fit in with her new high school classmates, especially since they are in a different income bracket? (DS#2 doesn't mind, but girls can be really nasty about appearances and brand names.) Will Hubs exercise and lose weight? And how much can I nag him about that?

So talk to me when somebody says something new, something different, something thoughtful. Until then I have cell organelles to name, ingredients for s'mores to buy, groceries to stock, lunches to pack, dinners to make.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Meditations on a Beach

Today was Coastal Cleanup Day in California. For the last ten years or so, I've taken my Cub Scout Den or my Girl Scout Troop out to a particular on the bay. It's not too far from our neighborhood; but it's not in town, so there aren't as many volunteers as in other areas. We tend to pick up plenty of garbage--a bag or two per person.

Last year, Junior ROTC groups from San Francisco and Oakland showed up to help. This year, San Francisco no longer offers the JROTC program in its high schools, so there were only the students from Oakland Tech High. But there were several corporate groups: Chevron, whose refinery is nearby, and Starbucks, who provided coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks. More local corporations donated the trash bags and gloves.

DD#2 came with me and we walked along the beach, enjoying the day, commenting on the number of shells littering the beach, especially crab shells. Picking up litter is a boring job, especially plastic bags and containers that crumble in your hands, but that must be picked up so the seagulls and marine life don't think it's food. Plastic grocery bags resemble kelp and jelly fish, so we were especially on the look out for those.

The irony that we were using plastic trash bags didn't escape me.

I had ample time, though, to think about Christian stewardship and Corporate Responsibility and how the two are related. Some would argue that Christian attitudes--particularly Western Christian attitudes--lead to the destruction and desecration of the Earth. Our civilization should take their cues from other cultures, where all life is sacred, not just human. And, yet, these same attitudes have given us the standard of living and the freedoms that we now enjoy.

Not having the wisdom of angels, we mere humans struggle to find the balance between use and abuse, not only with the world of Nature but also in relationships among our fellow humans. The sick need to be cared for but what if they refuse it? The homeless need shelter but what kind? The unemployed need jobs but what if they don't have the skills? Is it always better to teach someone to fish rather than giving them one? What if they don't want to learn how to fish or have no aptitude for it?

Over the years, the idea of what the obligations are of society and its institutions has changed. The park I helped clean is in a prime location--beautiful vistas of the Bay, great weather, a haven for birds, bats, and butterflies. The reason that it wasn't built up with housing is that it was the site of a dynamite manufacturing plant. There had to be a lot of empty space in case of explosions--and there were several. The trees were planted to act as buffer for the shock waves. The company provided housing, as did many of the other refineries and chemical plants located in the area. They provided stores in these remote locations, in an era before chain stores.

The problem, of course, is that once you were no longer employed by the company, you no longer had a home or a way to buy food. This was especially devastating for women whose husbands were killed--they were forced to move out.

The companies got out of the housing and the food markets, selling their homes to their employees first and then to the general market. But where do their employees, especially the young ones, find an affordable place to live? In outlying areas, forcing them to commute in, sometimes from long distances.

Few of those old companies remain and those that have find themselves surrounded by houses and schools instead of empty fields and communities that are as likely to sue them as to be grateful for providing local employment. Chevron, as an oil refining company, is an easy target. They are constantly trying to polish their image: adopting schools, providing mentoring programs for local high school students, donating grants for environmental efforts, encouraging their employees to volunteer in the community.

In other words, acting on those Christian stewardship values that had the Board of Directors followed them from the beginning, would have been so much a part of their corporate culture that I wouldn't notice their effort.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Plethora of Politicians

I will admit that I am sick of politicians. Nancy, Gavin, Rudy, Fred, Hillary, Barack--their words run together. They are either for the War in Iraq or they're not. Undocumented immigrants are either victims or criminals. Earth is getting hotter or it's not. America is the Savior of the World or it's not. We're in a Health Care Crisis or we're not.

Hubs loves to listen to the Talking Head on Fox and listen to them on the radio. I leave the room.

This summer I had a chance to really talk with a teacher in the trenches. Because she was a first grade teacher, she had 20 kids in her classroom. Of the 20 she started with, three remained in her class at the end of the year. The other 17 were transfers. One of her temporary students was in three different schools in two different school districts during the year. The teacher is fluent in Spanish and was helping a Spanish-speaking parent of a different student fill out some paperwork. She spelled the name of the school, using the Spanish names for the letters. The parent didn't recognize the name for the letter "Y."

How can parents help their children with their homework if the parents can't read?

Another teacher I know, a math teacher at the high school that serves the same area as the first grade teacher, acknowledges the problem. How do you teach geometry to kids who are reading at the third grade level?

And yet, in the Central Valley, children of the Hmong, who have no written language at all, excel. They excel, in part, because their parents realize education is important and because their children work hard so they are not a disgrace to their family and their community.

The teachers I know complain about having to "teach to the test." On the other hand, I've read job applications and interviewed high school graduates whose applications were illegible, misspelled, and incorrect. How do we enforce standards without "teaching to the test"?

The California Teachers Association has begun running ads stressing that academic excellence is a partnership among students, parents, and teachers. Students have to study. Parents have to be involved and make sure their children have a time and place to study where distractions are at a minimum. The ads don't really say what the teacher's job is. I guess that's implied.

Of course, Nancy, Gavin, Rudy, et al, have their theories. Most involve money. Most imply a "one size fits all" solution. But the difficulties facing Hmong students in the Central Valley are different from those faced by Latino students in San Pablo or the African-American kids in Oakland. And these African-American students have different problems than the African-American students in the Mississippi Delta.

And that's just Education. Imagine trying to find--or trying to pretend to find--a "one size" solution for the problems of health care, housing, food, employment.

Assuming, of course, that those areas are problems. Let's face it--if there are no problems, then there is no need for politicians.

Just think: what if we actually had a politician who was willing to stand up and say, "This is your problem, not the government's. It's up to you to solve it."

Previously, I wouldn't have to think about the primary until June. But the State Legislature--who can't seem to figure out how to get a major bridge repaired--have decided that June is too late and that California does not receive its due as the Most Populous State. So they moved the primary election to February. As did several other states. Because they didn't want to be left out, either.

Talk to me after Christmas. Better, after New Year, when I may have time between high school and college finals and before Girl Scout Cookie Sales to pay attention. Assuming, of course, that the politicians have anything serious to say.

Book Review: A Wrinkle in Time

I found a matching three book set in the local thrift store while DD#2 was shopping for school clothes. And I'm a sucker for matched sets. So, even though we must have a couple of copies of this book thanks to school assignments, I bought the set anyway.

And then I read that the author, Madeleine L'Engle, has just died. She was 88. Spooky.

The Murry family is highly unusual. Mother has a double Ph.D in biology and chemistry. Father has Ph.D.s in physics and math. Meg, the oldest and only daughter, has a gift for math, but is a misfit in high school. Her mother is a beauty, while Meg has mousy brown hair, braces, and glasses. She has twin brothers, Dennys and Sandy, who are also smart, but manage to blend in with their peers.

And then there is the baby brother, Charles Wallace. Charles was a late talker, but when he did begin to talk, he spoke in complete sentences. He also can "read" his mother and Meg, understanding their deepest thoughts.

At this point, Father has been missing for about a year. The townspeople whisper about the family. Mother ignores it, but Meg is acutely aware of what is being said about her family.

Charles has befriended three unusual women: Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. That they are not quite of this world becomes evident the night that they run into Calvin O'Keefe, a popular basketball player at Meg's high school who has family problems of his own. Mrs. Who introduces Meg, Charles, and Calvin to the other two and, as it turns out, they know where Dr. Murry is. And when he is.

Ms. L'Engle manages to pack a lot of information into this relatively short (203 pages in my edition) book. There are quotes from Virgil, Seneca, and other famous people, in their native language and in English. The idea of a tesseract and folding time is introduced, along with the ideas about free will and predestination. And how one's strengths can become weaknesses and how weaknesses can be strengths.

Very dense content for what is often considered a "children's" or "young adult" book!

I think this book is easily "misunderestimated" because the protagonists are children. My children have read this in Middle School at our local parochial school--and I think there are a lot of important ideas to discuss if the teacher isn't inhibited by political correctness or moral relativism. Because this book does discuss Evil--Evil is a tangible, real entity that Meg has to confront on her own. Not because she's brave, but because she is the one who has to. Duty is a concept not discussed much these days.

This is a book for the kids who are science geeks; the kids who are "different" from the rest of the pack. The kids who aren't hip to the latest fads or singers or styles. Kids like I was back in the day. And it's a for the adults who can remember being nerds or closet nerds in Middle or high school. I want to see the relationship between Meg and Calvin develop and find out what happens to Charles Wallace.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

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I hate it when Real Life interferes with my Cyber Life. Don't you?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Movin' On Out

Last weekend, Hubs and I went down to visit DS#1 at his new apartment in his new college town. I had never seen the campus and we also wanted to pick up the car that he usually drives. DS#1 wanted to see Hearst Castle in San Simeon, now a State Park, which none of us had ever visited.

I remembered to bring the camera.

This is the entrance to campus. It's one block from his apartment. The College of Engineering is about a half mile up the road. Which is why he chose this particular apartment.

This is the large guest house at Hearst Castle. It's 2400 square feet, which is larger than my house. It's the same size as the Reception Room at the main house.

Life as a media mogul/ politician/ businessman/ movie magnate/ rancher was very tough, indeed.

William Randolf Hearst lived at the "ranch," as he called it, most of the year. He kept tabs on his empire by telephone and by having daily editions of his newspapers flown in to his private airstrip every day. He was probably the first telecommuter.

I found myself most fascinated by the statuary that is all over the gardens, the pools, the houses. Mr. Hearst collected many objects d'art and told his architect, Julia Morgan, to find a place for them. Choir stalls from ancient churches in Spain are used as paneling. Flemish tapestries hang on the walls. Persian tiles are set in the walls.

The buildings are made of reinforced concrete and anchored in bedrock to be seismically safe--a radical innovation in the 1930's and '40's when the castle was built.

And if he didn't like the way something looked, he ordered Ms. Morgan to tear it out and rebuild it.

But because we were in a college town, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

This is Bubble Gum Alley. Generations of students have plastered their gum on these walls. (There was a reference to 1967.) There are fish made of bubble gum, words, symbols, bubble gum wrappers stuck on the wall with gum. Kind of neat in a gross sort of way.

And then on the way home, there was a fire in the hills just south of San Jose. It started in a state park and it's still burning. In fact, by Monday evening I could smell the smoke as I left work. The sun is red in the morning because of all the haze.

Golden brown hills are the norm during the summer. The fire danger is always high, especially with the warm, dry winds. Summer fires, earthquakes, fog, and winter floods are facts of life out here.

We also went to visit the local mission (this is California, after all--there are 21 missions in the state). This mission is still an active parish church, so I whispered a reminder to Hubs to take off his hat. As we walked down the center aisle, I commented on some of the art work.

DS#1, "Why are you whispering? It's not like we're in church."

Me, "Yes, this still is a church."

DS#1, "How can you tell?"

Me, "See the tabernacle and the light in front of it?"

DS#1, "Oh!"

He also noticed the microphones hanging from the ceiling in what must be the area for the choir. The mission has a gift shop (of course) and a museum near the entrance, so we looked over the artifacts, from baskets and arrowheads to altar vestments from Spain. And even pictures from the present: First Communions and blessings and fiestas. The despairing parent in me thinks this might be the only time DS#1 actually sets foot in this church, but, on the other hand, he didn't do his familiar anti-Catholic/anti-religion rant. So maybe--maybe--there's a tiny mustard seed of faith inside.

DS#1 was sad to see us go, but I think he was more sorry to lose the car. Freedom and mobility are synonymous in his mind and now he's limited to where he can walk, ride his bike, or take a bus. The train station is within walking distance and it's about a five hour ride to the Bay Area. Classes don't start for another week and right now he's bored--no TV and the local night life has limited options. Once class starts, he'll be too busy to notice!