Berkeley’s Naked Guy and Columbia’s Mattress Girl: Roles that Lead to Madness

I have followed the stories of Columbia’s “Mattress Girl” with an increasing sense of horror. Regardless of the circumstances that led her to carry a mattress around her campus in the name of artistic expression, the fact that this led to national news was devastating. People eagerly fall into the roles that garner them attention from their fellow human beings, and once this young woman came to be recognized for this act, it was as if she couldn’t stop.

The art class for which she’d created the “performance art” was over. The young man she had called a criminal lodged a lawsuit against her and the university. For most people, it would be a good point to stop or pause the performance, but she kept on going. Subsequently, she carried her mattress onto the stage at her graduation, despite the fact that the university explicitly crated a rule against carrying such objects on stage, exactly because they feared they couldn’t stop. And then she released a pornographic video recreating/re-imagining her inspiration for her art piece. I don’t know what’s next, but I fear there’s more, and it’s just going to get worse.

It reminded me of another university student who got national recognition for going beyond the bounds of normal behavior on his college campus. Back in the 1990s, a Cupertino football player started going to his classes at UC Berkeley naked. It may have been a joke to begin with, but by the time he was getting known for it, he explained his continued behavior as a protest. Protest noted, national attention gained, but the act went on – and on. His act became to disruptive and notorious that both the school and the city of Berkeley, both of whom are known for being fairly loose on weirdess, banned nudity. (In fact, at the time fat, ugly, naked buskers were a regular staple on Telegraph Avenue.) Now known more as The Naked Guy than by his real name or for any of his other life’s accomplishments, he couldn’t put his clothes on, and resume going to classes.

Instead, the Naked Guy dropped out. He went on talk shows and posed nude for a adult magazine. He was arrested (in Berkeley) for violating the anti-nudity ordinance which had been created explicitly for him. But, as with any kooky behavior, and as will be the case with Mattress Girl, the public got bored of the Naked Guy act and moved on to other temporary diversions.

So Naked Guy finally got dressed again. But he didn’t go back to school. And he couldn’t get a job. He began to show signs of mental illness and difficulty functioning in the community at large. Was it because he played a role society no longer paid attention to? Or had it been nascent mental illness that had made him incapable of dropping the role before it consumed his whole identity? A little more than a decade after his time of infamy, the once Naked Guy got into a fight at a halfway house which got him placed in the county jail, where he committed suicide. It was a tragic end, and something unexpected for someone who’d once been a student-athlete smart and accomplished enough to get into Cal; but not so unexpected for anyone you just know as “Naked Guy.”

I can’t predict what will happen to Mattress Girl, but the pattern doesn’t bode well. But when you’re gone so far that you disrespect rules that have been set up to help you protect yourself from further embarrassment, and when you find yourself doing pornography, the role has already been taken beyond the bounds of normalcy. And that is not healthy.

How Mount Holyoke Prevented Date Rape in the 80s

Stories of college rapes have caught my eye, in particular since my son will be going off to college (yeah, UCLA!) in a few months. Some of the stories sound like all too many women are making themselves vulnerable by drinking too much, and that there are men on college campuses foolish enough (or too drunk themselves) to sleep with the drunk girl. Some notorious cases of college rape have been taken to court as false, though I know of none which have been resolved for the plaintiff, yet.

I may come from the crotchety world of “things were different in my day,” but IMO people are the same as they ever were. I did go to an all women’s college, where the chances of encountering a male rapist, especially on a weekday, were particularly low, and the odds of having said rapist, or even bad hook-up, in any of your classes, was even lower. But date rape was a hot topic, and as a campus focused on its women students, the Mount Holyoke administration took on protecting its students seriously.

We had blue lit emergency poles installed on campus within easy running distance of each other, so, say, should some UMass miscreant find himself groping the unwilling in the midst of our campus, we had only to send the alert and our campus security guard (affectionately known as Stormin’ Norman) would send him packing, and god help the young man if our rugby team got there first! (Such a thing never happened while I was there, though I suspect the emergency lights are useful for other emergencies, like falling on the %$^&# ice).

Since many of the guys who showed up for parties had to drive to our remote campus, the administration also put up a block to a common plea: that said visitor had had too much to drink, or was too tired, and a lady wouldn’t put a guy out in the cold, now would she? For them, the college set up a former small dormitory as a place where they could crash for the night for free. Another student and I worked the morning shift there one semester, and we only had guests twice. One was a pair of guys from Dartmouth, who thought it was awesome, and thanked us. They could do the 2 hour drive back to New Hampshire clear-headed and unembarrassed, though they could honestly also say they were greeted cheerfully in the morning by Mount Holyoke students. The other was a guy from Harvard Law who was thoroughly pissed off he had spent the night in the dorm rather than in someone’s bed; I suspect his friend with the car had disappeared and left him alone. But who’d want an arrogant, entitled jerk like that anyway? I thought our guest dorm for men was an extraordinarily nice move by my college, and it gave me a great job.

And also, “no” means “no,” as it did then and as it does now, regardless of the fact that you may have aced your final on Foucault. I still remember arguing until 4 am with a date from Amherst about the value of one-night stands. He was for them, and wanted to have one; I was against them, and didn’t. Why did we argue about it in my student center until 4 am, until I’d had enough coffee and told him to go back to Amherst? I don’t know, but I think I enjoyed refuting his argument, and I probably liked him enough to argue with him. I never saw him again, but I suspect he succeeded in finding his succession of fun one-night stands with willing partners.

So I don’t know what’s changed so much. People will still plea (and ply) for sex; some men are more unscrupulous than others; and when you’re drunk/high, you are vulnerable, so watch your intake or make sure you have someone sober to watch out for you. It doesn’t seem that complicated, and certainly years ago, before campus rape was so prevalent, extraordinary steps were already being taken to protect us.

The California Stop and Asshole Parking

My teenage son, Neil,  just got his driver’s permit. To get the all-star prize of a California State driver’s license, he’s required to drive for at least 50 hours within the next 6 months under the supervision of someone 21 years or older who has earned a driver’s license already. I’m probably the worst candidate to help Neil. I had to have a professional teach me how to drive. And even then, the first day I got my driver’s license, I crashed into my friends’ parents’ fence. Thereafter, when my mischievous friend Patty found out I had a car and a driver’s license, she persuaded me to take her to a party that was broken up because of underage drinking (not me), whereupon we followed/chased after her friend’s boyfriend’s truck. Said boyfriend thought it was hilareeeous to make me chase him when I’d just gotten a driver’s license. People like this may be why, since I got my license to so many years ago, California doesn’t let underage drivers drive around other teens any more, unless there is an adult present.

But I have a lot of little errands to run each day, and a good way for Neil to get his practice is to do the driving for me. He quickly noticed that many other drivers don’t actually stop at stop signs. If there is no cross traffic, they’ll slow down and roll through. I explained to him that this is called the California Stop and it has been how Californians drive since before I learned how to drive. Everyone does it, but don’t you do it, I told him. It is officially illegal, and if the local cops are in a bad mood, or the city needs money, or you hit something or someone, you will get a ticket. It’s quite the metaphor for how Californians live in general. We have lots of rules and laws we’re supposed to follow, but most Californians conveniently ignore those which get in their way.

When we got to the bank, he had to park. He was very concerned about parking properly between the lines, as well as leaving some space on either side. I told him he was fine as long as he wasn’t over either of the white lines. It would be up to anyone who parked in the other space to make sure they had enough space to exit and enter their car again. And then I explained to him what Asshole Parking is. Usually practiced by assholes who have bought themselves a new sports car and wish to avoid getting door dings, it means parking directly over the white line, and in effect take over 2 parking spaces so there is extra room on either side. Asshole Parking doesn’t work, however, since someone in a beat-up car will need parking bad enough to try to squeeze into the half space that is left and create worse dings than might have been caused by non-asshole parking. Needless to say, Neil conscientiously straightened out the car.

I am looking forward to when he does get his own driver’s license, and I don’t need to educate him on the subtleties of driving any more.

California’s Educational Brain Drain

In today’s news, the regent of the University of California said, that in response to political pressure, the UC system would limit the number of out-of-state and foreign students it accepts, but that the number of Californian students would remain the same. Currently about 30% of the students at UCLA and UC Berkeley are higher-paying non-Californians, and the regent said we could easily bring that to 50% with the demand for a California education by high-paying out-of-state and out-of-country families who are willing to pay $50,000/year for the privilege.

On the one hand, it’s pleasing to know that our state schools are so well-regarded that they have worldwide appeal; on the other, how well does the state serve its own next generation, raised here by its own taxpayers and in its own institutions? And does it want to keep its next generation here, or effectively find out its intellectual capital is now largely imported?

For instance, Neil has applied to UCLA (and yeah, I wish he’d applied to other UC campuses or our undergraduate-education focused CSUs.) UCLA also just happens to be the most popular college in the US (possibly in the world) to apply to. In the meantime, he’s gotten letters from Arizona State, University of Texas – Dallas, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Alabama, all offering discounted or free tuition, making out-of-state education cheaper for him than staying in the state he was born and raised in. I don’t think those state legislatures are dangling those offers in front of him (and kids like him) out of charity and kindness. I fully suspect they’ll take in our kids and get them a degree knowing the odds that they’ll become former Californians, settle in their new states, and become productive tax-payers there, funding their adoptive schools and states.

Hey, I sure don’t mind that China and Massachusetts (et al.) are sending their future money-makers to my fine state, and paying a premium price to do so. But I do not like the fact that the promise of giving our own state’s kids a quality low-cost higher education is being done better and less expensively by other states, and that for us to even give them a $25,000/year tab at our state schools, we need to have an ever-increasingly high percentage of monied outsiders subsidizing that.

Obamacare and Lowered Economic Expectations

One of the many flaws of Obamacare (grotesquely officially mis-named the “Affordable” Care Act) is its perverse incentive for the self-employed to deliberately lower their economic expectations.

Both my husband and I are self-employed, and from year to year our income verges wildly, depending on factors largely out of our control, such as whether that big client has the funds to give one of us a long-term contract, or whether the world’s creeps choose this year to steal a car or rip-off one of our businesses.

Our 2013 income was too high for us to qualify for any subsidies, and without that, we were looking at paying $1000/month for our family of 4, for a “bronze” plan with a $10,000 deductible. That meant we’d be spending $24,000 for insurance which we’d only get any benefit from if we had more than $10,000 of medical expenses. We’re all fairly healthy and take good care of ourselves, so we had no chronic conditions that would bring us close to that expense. And in case of catastrophe, I know from having had times when we’ve gone without health insurance before, that we can still get care, and the care providers, whether doctor’s office or hospital, will happily work directly with me, so that I can pay and they can get paid, without having to have an insurer involved. And, yeah, paying up front often gets you a discount as well. So we didn’t buy health insurance in 2014, and our health expenses consisted of a physical for me with blood work confirming my good health, and dental cleanings for each of us.

I just finished up my 2014 taxes, and we earned considerably less than we did in 2013. I plugged our 2014 numbers into the Covered California site, and discovered we could not get that same “bronze” plan for less than $400 a month, with the “government subsidy” picking up over $500 of the tab. As insouciant as I am about our good health, it would be nice to actually have health insurance, in case we do need it. And at that price, I was willing to buy.

But wait, that price was only good based on our 2014 income, but how much we actually have to pay depends on what we earn in 2015. What if we make more in 2015? It turned out the magic income number we may not exceed in order to get health insurance for less than $400 is $97,400 a year. If at the end of 2015, we tallied our gains and losses for the year, and earned $97,401, the government would demand every penny of the $6000 or so in subsidies it had “paid” the health insurance company back, immediately, and possibly with interest.

Ah, well, ok, freelancers and contractors can pick and choose their work. So should we find ourselves mid-way through 2015 and being offered a contract that would take us over the magic number (which for all we know, could be a different one when the IRS figures out what it should be), we could just turn it down. But what kind of crap life is that? To insist that the freelancers and entrepreneurs of our country diminish one’s own prospects in order to keep a government subsidy is obscene. Clients do not want to hear some spiel about how I can only afford to work only a short contract or need a sizeably larger one in order for it to make sense for me by the dictates of the government bureaucracy. And why should I curtail my opportunities: for all I know that contract might lead to the exact opportunities I need in order to build my career. But here I have to play a perverse game each year guessing whether this upcoming year is the year I will need close to or more than $10,000 in medical care, and/or whether this year I’ll make less than whatever the amount the government thinks makes me needy enough to have a subsidy, which is actually subsidized by, um, me, in my good years.

Years ago, before our Democrat “betters” in Congress decided to shove Obamacare through, unread, in the middle of the night, against the popular sentiment of a people who hated it so much Massachusetts even elected a Republican in order to stop it, we were able to afford our health insurance — without any government involvement needed. It was crappy health insurance, which like the “bronze” plan I was looking at, and had a high deductible – though back then it was only $5000 for the family. It cost $424/month for our family, and I think I only used it once to cover a $200 mammogram. I paid cash for physicals and vaccinations, and that served us just fine, since using the insurance would have us paying nearly as much in co-pays. And that served us just fine, and I knew it would be there in case of a real expensive emergency.

But now all medical plans come larded up with all sorts of mandated services we will never need. So any physical or mammogram is totally “free” now, but now so are sex change operations, sterilizations, and acupuncture. I suppose that’s handy if you’re Dave the homeless guy who now wants to be Doris the acupuncturist, but those aren’t services I’ve ever wanted, yet the fact that they’re mandated more than doubles what I have to pay.

So once again, we are playing chicken, and opting to save the $10,000 or $8,000 or $24,000 we would spend on dictated health insurance, and planning to pay our own way straight. F*&^k you, politicians. I want my freedom back.

Comic-Con vs. Creation Con

Last Saturday was my first time going to a for-profit fan convention; my previous experiences have been with comic book conventions as exhibitor support, most notably (and for more than 20 years) Comic-Con.

As anyone who’s been there lately knows, Comic-Con has evolved from a regional comic book show into a pop culture powerhouse. The press of the massive crowd and the should-be-simple logistics of lodging and transportation drive me so insane that I refuse to go there any longer, and yet you still only have to say “hoteloween” or “ACE parking permit” to get my blood pressure up.

It might seem that Comic-Con is a better deal for the all-around fan than Creation Con. At Comic Con, for one base price, you get access to all the panels; a huge exhibitor floor, many of them offering exclusives and give-aways; a veritable army of cosplayers; and the opportunity to see your favorite actors as they have a few drinks or rush over to a free signing. It sure sounds nice, but the reality has an ugly side. You can get trampled if you accidentally find yourself near a booth that’s just put up a new exclusive item, hotel rooms in the vicinity book out in minutes with only a fraction of fans being able to book them, and there are lines for everything, with no promise of anything. For instance, if you want to get an autograph, you have to get in line to enter a lottery, so you better not have your heart set too hard on meeting any specific actor.

And the line for Hall H — the biggest hall in the convention center, which features the most popular panels — has become so mind-bogglingly long it is now a regular annual news story. You can get into the line, sure, but there is no guarantee you will ever get into the hall; it can only accommodate about 5% of the attendees at any one time. And if you do get in to any panel, you’ll find it already packed with people who are parking themselves there for the day. At that 2008 convention, I went to the Jim Butcher panel (in another convention room, thus a smaller one with less of a wait). While it seemed most of his fans got in to that 3 pm event, the front of the room were all taken up with DragonBall Z fans, who spent their time texting each other. The few of us who’d made it in to see the writer, including two super-fans dressed as Harry Dresden, had to wade through them if they wanted to go up and ask a question. Given that so many don’t get what they wanted, the whining gets off the charts.

The Creation Con Supernatural San Francisco show, on the other hand, had a basic price ($50) for a single day general admission to all the panels — which were (obviously) specific to a single TV show and in a smaller single hall. There were upcharges for almost everything else. It cost more to have a reserved seat in the center sections; more on top of that to get closer seats, culminating in $869 for 3 days of being able to sit in the front row. To get a photograph with the actors (singly or in a set) cost between $50-$299 per star; autographs were $20-$99 with you providing the material to be signed; and several private “meet-and-greet” opportunities were available for only 20 at a time and cost about $200.

In my opinion, having access priced out seemed far more pleasant to me than having to fight for such a scarce resource, or finding myself in the midst of such mayhem. The Supernatural convention was specialized, but everyone who came was guaranteed a seat. General seating on either side, plus video screens, gave us all we needed to enjoy the show, but if I go again, I’d be willing to spring another $20 to have a seat that I can count on finding instead of having to look for a free space.

Those who bought in to the premium access to the actors got far more than a grip-and-grin or a glassy eyed “how are ya?”. I saw some of the pictures which came out of the picture sessions and care had obviously been taken to capture personality and interaction between fan and star. The “high-rollers” in the front rows got extra attention (and better photographs) and could sleep in before the show started rather than sitting on a sidewalk all night for their primo spot. And since the meet-and-greets also had limited availability to the first 20 to purchase the time, they were a personalized experience as well.

In my opinion, it made for a happier show and a better experience. I suspect Comic Con remains non-profit just so the comic book dealers who used to be the backbone of the show can still afford to go, because (given that there is a years-long wait list for exhibitor space) we’d certainly be priced out at market rates. But the people who are there to see the entertainment previews are now the majority, and the most enthusiastic. Were Comic Con to sell reserved seats for its panels, they would certainly find buyers; and they could still keep a general seating section for those who prefer to pay with time rather than money to see a studio promotion and its actors. And with the seats changing for each panel, the permanent parkers wouldn’t be taking the spaces for the fans specific to a particular promotion. It may be anathema to the masochistic “culture” that has sprung up within the infrastructure struggles of Comic-Con, but it’s a saner way to serve a fan-base.


A Day at a Supernatural Fan Convention

Peter and I have been fans of the TV show Supernatural since it first aired (after we’d seen a booth promoting it at Comic-Con in 2005). He has decided I need more fun in my life, so at Christmas he bought us Saturday tickets to a Supernatural fan convention in Burlingame (near San Francisco.)

It was my first time going to a for-profit fan show as opposed to Comic Con or Wonder Con (more on that difference in another blog post), and it was definitely a lot of fun. The convention goers were largely (and by largely, I’m estimating 95%) nerdy girls. That’s great, because I’m a nerdy girl, too, as are most of my friends. Peter, obviously, loves nerdy girls because he married one. This was a crowd we could get along with. Although it soon also became clear that to fit in we needed to have binge-watched the entire Supernatural series within the last two weeks and be active members of tumblr sites I’ve never heard about.

The actors who appeared put on a good show and made sure everyone had a good time. Richard Speight, Jr. (who’d played Loki the Trickster in several amusing episodes) was the master of ceremonies, and as advertised, excellent at it. At the start of the show, he instructed the fans to get out their cell phones and videotape his announcement of the no-filming rule and advised us all to begin all our YouTube postings of the show with it. (Alas, no need because the lighting made getting good pictures nigh impossible.)

Our next hint that this wasn’t going to be standard yack-chat-trailer con fare was after Gil McKinney (Henry Winchester) took to the stage. The musician-actor band Loudon Swaine busted out the song “Under the Sea” and Osric Chau (Kevin Tran) was wheeled up to the stage in an Ariel costume.

Photo from Supernatural Cast Daily tumblr

Photo from Supernatural Cast Daily tumblr

Thereupon, he handed a white jacket to McKinney and made him wear it so he could look like Prince Eric during the panel.

Next up were Mark Pellegrino (who played Lucifer in the series) and Sebastian Roché. We had to look up the role Roché played — a degenerate angel named Balthazar — to remember him, but that wasn’t necessary, as the convention took a brief hiatus to turn into the Sebastian Roché Experience. Upon stepping on the stage, he cued the band to play a song he called “Girls, Girls, Girls,” rushed into the audience thrusting his pelvis, and goaded about a 1/3 of them including everyone in the front to join him in a lambada-like dance. In between anecdotes and impersonations, he’d briefly turn his attention to one of the hapless people waiting in line to ask a question, but interrupt them almost immediately to ask “What’s your name?” He’d them repeat the name purring, “Well, hello [insert name]… How are you?” and sidle up to the conventioneer who most of the time had completely lost her composure and had been reduced to babbling incoherently. If that hadn’t happened, Roché then misrepeated the question. And then, there was the guy who introduced himself as “D’Andre” which Roché immediately assumed was French (despite protestations thereto), whereupon Roché started speaking French, ran back up to the stage and asked all French speakers in the audience to identify themselves, insisted everyone (French speaking or not) yell out “Bon jour!” and mocked our collective bad accent. When he finally turned his attention back to D’Andre, he made D’Andre put on a fake French accent to ask the question. This was only a fraction of what happened. I think Pellegrino may have gotten a few words in, but not many, even though I think almost all of the few questions that did get through were addressed to him.

After that it was a relief the show turned its attention back to its fans. We saw some fan-created music videos which were quite impressive: one for instance, took scenes selected from 9 years worth of the show, and synced them to match the sound and vocals of an original song. Stump the Experts! featured 3 volunteers who’d binge-watched the series recently getting asked for arcane information by a just-as-keen line of their fellow fans. What is Dean’s favorite memory?  What song does he hum to himself in Series One, Episode 2?

Peter and I went out to lunch and came back in time to see Mark Sheppard (Crowley.) Amusingly, he’d send people who asked questions he deemed not worthy of answering back to their seat — when he was asked what he’d wish for if he had three wishes, he said “#1 is that you go sit back down.” But it was also the most interesting panel for us. We found out that he’d been a drummer for the anarchistic band Television Personalities in the 1980s. In response to a comment regarding a post about cyber-bullying which appeared on some social media feeds I don’t follow, he gave a poignant  talk about self-harming, that it can take on various forms, having to understand its psychological root, and the importance of reaching out to others for help and support. I really hadn’t expected that at a fan convention.

He was followed up with another part of the show I’d been looking forward to: the costume contest. I had hoped for more costumes, but I’m used to the Comic Con sort of costume, where the cosplayers are now a genre of their own. That said, there were a lot of good and imaginative costumes, but many referred to episodes I faintly remember (i.e. there were two gym coach Deans). So many people dressed up as Castiel and various aspects of Castiel that they had their own category (Castiel vs non-Castiel). I think the winner of the non-Castiel category were two fans who had dressed up as Rowena (Crowley’s witch mother) and a demon bell-boy with a slit throat. This guy won the Castiel competition:

Castiel #sfcon2015

What isn’t apparent in this photograph is that he also built the wings so that he can fold them down with a shrug, and expand them back up with a small jog, and that he’s holding a small dagger in his right hand.

I also liked this woman’s costume, though I was fuzzy enough on the series that I was surprised to see her in the Castiel portion of the costume competition:


I think it refers to this, making her that which Castiel watches rather than a Castiel. Reviewing my blurry picture of the group Castiel pictures, all of them (male and female) understood the reference, but even not knowing it, I thought that was a cool costume.

We switched over to general admission seats on the other side of the hall, expecting that it would fill up for the Misha Collins (Castiel) panel later that day. A short auction gave people a chance to scoop up souvenir packages and memorabilia, including large banners which included the actor’s autograph. If it hadn’t been obvious already, the fans here are not Twihards. If they’re watching anything else, it’s Doctor Who (which more than one fan referenced) and Firefly. A set of Twilight autographs which could likely sell for $300 or more (by our rough estimate) on eBay barely got $80.

The penultimate panel of the day featured Speight, Matt Cohen (Young John Winchester), and Rob Benedict (Chuck the prophet). We’d completely forgotten the name, and during the panel we found out we’d completely missed on what is now up with that character. As for the rest of the panel, it started with a fan asking the group to tell us what had gotten them into acting, and Speight riffing that Cohen had done so because it was one of the few careers open to him which would let him strut around in tight-fitting t-shirts and it kept going downhill from there.

So a word on the panels and the fans: there was a great interaction between the actors and the Supernatural fans. The angst of the teenage nerdgirl appeared in many of the questions: what was your most embarrassing middle school memory? what were you doing when you were a high school sophomore? how do you recommend surviving high school? The actors answered candidly. They, too, have had cringeworthy moments of embarrassment in youth and on set. And they didn’t have fun in high school, either — if they even went. Sheppard was off playing with his band; Collins advice on surviving high school was “don’t go.” I’ll say it helped assuage some of my doubts at having homeschooled my son though high school, and as my daughter shares the fears of her slightly older peers who were at the show, I think she’ll be ok if she can find her nerdgirl cohort.

These are the kind of people who can make those videos and spontaneously show up with things like this:


She’d put on a Castiel mask a friend had made, and it gave an eerie, startling effect which made me laugh. I hope next year she or one of her friends wears it the wrong way round to see if anyone starts talking to the back of her head.

The hall filled when Misha Collins came on stage. I’ll say it was the weirdest part of the convention. He brought out misshappen produce from a farmer’s market, chatted with some people in the front and handed them the vegetables (after scaring Peter and me by making us think he was going to throw a gargantuan beet in our direction.) Fans told him they had named their children after his character, and whether he’d read a certain strain of Supernatural fan-fiction, which in the end, after a quirky digression, got responded to graciously. We related to his reasons for being a sleep-deprived parent of young children: our children were exactly that way, too. And then there was the GISHWEHS discussion, which we totally didn’t understand. We kept saying “what is that? what?” to the Kate Libby next to us until she gave us a look of exasperation. The line of fans wanting to ask him a question stretched along both walls of the hall, so most of them didn’t get through, but it ended with an awkward group hug (not with us), after which he left, and so did we.

I’m not sure if I have quite the commitment to become a bona-fide Supernatural fan. If we were to do it again, I think we’d spring for reserved seats (only $20 more) and a picture with Osric Chau in his costume of the day.

The Accreditation Gap in Homeschooling aka Fearing the Bureaucrats

The New York Times recently published an article regarding Pennsylvania’s change in its regulation of homeschoolers, with a good debate on the pros and cons of the change. The comments section continues the discussion in an intelligent way. One point which caught one of my fellow homeschooler’s eye was a comment from a professor: “… As a college professor of nearly thirty years experience I often work with the result of both. By and large home-schooled kids tend to be bright, energetic, and with appalling focus issues -they are great at doing what immediately interests them, dreadful at doing ‘the boring stuff’. They also have remarkable amounts of detail about some topics and huge lacunae in other areas. …”

I know what of the commenter speaks. The one and only homeschool co-op class — a public speaking class — I sent Neil to was a dreadful mistake. I had hoped for a grade, which wasn’t a mom grade, in a non-STEM class, and a lively debate. Week after week he reported most of the other students in the class of 7 or 8 didn’t bother doing the very minimal assignments, and largely goofed off during the class. At the end, he did a Power Point presentation for a Shakespeare speech, and the teacher told him he was the only student who’d paid attention. And no, there was no grade given. Pleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease, I thought, may this not be what those who are familiar with homeschoolers think is the sort of thing we do or what we’re like. I had him work through Everything’s an Argument and debate with me for the second half of the year (as well as give a presentation at a math conference). But in that case, it wouldn’t matter what grade I gave, because it came from his mom.

It was a hard decision not to send Neil to our local high school, despite the fact that it is decidedly mediocre. But at that point, he’d already broken a math record, was being tutored by one of his heroes in computer science, and was enjoying math classes at San Jose State. I’d been having a great time teaching him science and history in a hands-on way, and introducing him to great literature that dovetailed with the other subjects he was learning. We’d come a long, long way from the run-in with a vice-principal at the local middle school who thought anyone with a child who could do calculus before the age of 13 was likely a child-abuser.

I figured I’d make up for missing high school by sending my son to college someday. That requires not only a solid education to be able to handle anything a professor throws at you, but one which has the checkboxes checked to get you past the college’s gatekeepers, i.e. their admissions office. I hate bureaucrats, but that’s for a long separate rant, and in my personal life, I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost always step around them. The funny thing is, once you can get past the first few bureaucrats, it’s less and less likely you need to go through them at all. But Neil hasn’t gotten there yet.

So for almost all of the past four years, I took on making Neil well-educated and bureaucrat-proof with determination. California gets dissed on education often, but I’ve found it a great state in which to homeschool. You have the option of registering under a public school, and getting state resources and funding, or going at it on your own, with less regulation, just a promise to teach your child all requisite subjects. Furthermore, California makes its curriculum public, and specifies a scope and sequence of classes for college readiness.

He is very advanced in math, but I made sure he fulfilled the rest of California curriculum’s scope, though not with their materials. Many classes were online or distance courses I supplemented with lab exercises, essay work, and debates. I looked to make them as challenging as my college courses. Unlike the commenter’s students, he’s focused, and besides also taking on a job, works on becoming an Eagle Scout, and has a new-found love of art and cinematography he dedicates at least an hour to each day. But what proof is there of that, beyond his loving mother’s affidavit thereto? Especially to a bureaucrat looking for an imprimatur and having to be tasked with (ugh) actually looking at accomplishments and publications instead?

I figured testing could get around that. He has aced every College Board test he’s taken: AP tests, PSAT, SAT. That produced a lot of nice numbers for the a bureaucrat to oogle, but as far as I can tell, so far all that gets you is a ton of junk mail from East Coast colleges who are hoping you’re Hispanic.

Those who’ve met him have complemented and credited me for his education, and some have even paid me the bigger complement of homeschooling their own children to get similar results.

But I’ve already fallen short of helping him past the gate-keepers. USC wanted to see even more tests that he’d already done, regardless of his scores or other accomplishments, and as much as said they would dun his application without it. He’s gotten his first college rejection, to my dismay. I’m almost ready to think there is a backlash to homeschooling coming, which sees homeschoolers not as academically advanced overachievers, or artistic iconoclasts, but rather as spoiled n’er-do-wells who will only put effort into doing what’s easy for them.




Neil and the Continuous Mathematicians

When Neil heard that Stanford was having a celebration of Joe Keller’s 90th birthday, he signed up to go to it. After all, it was for the Joe Keller, the world’s only two-time winner of the Ig Nobel Prize! The conference was free, but dinner was $30 for students, so I told Neil I’d pay for it on the condition he get a picture of himself with Keller.

To Neil’s dismay, he was by far the youngest person there. Sure, his interests skew older, but here in Silicon Valley, there’s typically a wide range of ages at any nerdy event, from precocious kids to the grey-haired pioneers. He filled me in on how things had gone when I gave him a ride from Stanford, where the talks had taken place, to Ming’s Restaurant, where the celebration banquet was taking place.

According to him, the conference (note this is pre-banquent!) itself had had more food stacked up for snacks and snacking than a Lutheran potluck. And if you’ve ever gone to a Lutheran potluck, you know that’s a lot of food. The only other person he knew at the conference insisted they did not know one another (later he cleared that up.) The speakers were interesting, though one of the women made snarky innuendos, possibly a consequence of being in a male-dominated field.

But the median age, apparently, skewed towards 60, and the next youngest participant was almost certainly twice Neil’s age. And worst of all, they were all continuous mathematicians, and Neil is a discrete mathematician. I had no idea what Neil was telling me. I told him I had paid for dinner, so he’d have to face up to them and try to be sociable. I suggested he smile and introduce himself with something about himself they might relate to like “I work on sliding block puzzle algorithms.” And I promised I’d stick around Palo Alto so he could call me if he wanted a ride home early.

Kelly and I hied off to Books, Inc. which is a great place to spend a few hours. And I looked up what in the world a continuous mathematician is. Oh, no, that kind of mathematician! While my sweet little kid works on artificial intelligence, those bad boys are the kind which have fun figuring out the probable extent of a zombie rampage. My mind was filled with the vision of a group of them dragging my son into the men’s bathroom at Ming’s and giving him swirlies, while saying “Hey, math boy, here’s a fluid dynamics problem for you.”

Given that idea in my head, that dinner went on forever. He still hadn’t called me by the time Books, Inc. closed, so I drove over to Ming’s. I peeked in the window for the banquet room but didn’t see Neil in it. Nervously, Kelly and I went in, and sat down in the waiting area, and read our books. Mathematicians dribbled out, looking well-fed and happy, but no Neil.

He finally appeared, also looking well-fed and happy, (and not be-swirlied at all) but confessed he had not had the courage to ask anyone to take a picture of himself with Keller. I insisted he go back. And so he got this selfie:

According to him, things had gone well. It sounded like he got seated at the “kid’s table” with grad students, and they were all happy to talk about their latest papers. Everyone except him was from Stanford, and had a connection to Keller, as having been his student, a student of one of his students, or the student of a student of one of his students, so the organizers were probably just confused about what to do with the random fan who’d shown up, too. Also, there, according to Neil, there had been an impossible amount of food. Everyone was too stuffed too eat, but then more would appear, and they’d nibble a little more.

There is a consequence of feeding a teenager too much food, and that is that they will grow. Neil fell asleep as soon as we got home and slept in to 12:30, thereby missing so much of the Sunday of the conference that it wasn’t worth going back. But when he woke up I will swear that he was at least an inch taller than he’d been the day before.

In Defense of New Year Goals

Lately, I’ve been hearing negativity about New Year Resolutions, along the lines of “I always break them, so it only gives me an excuse to over-indulge at year’s end,” or “if didn’t start doing it earlier, why is the first of the year any better than any other day.”

Peter and I look at it in a different way. Making a new year’s resolution — and keeping it — is like winning a game and declaring victory. And as with any game, you have to have a plan in place to succeed.

A few years ago, Peter made a single resolution — to do 10,000 push-ups over the course of the year. As with almost any resolution, it wasn’t something he could do all at once. He divided the 10,000 pushups by the 365 days of the year, and did 30 a day. For some circumstance I can’t remember, there was a lapse, but he recovered by upping the number to 40 push-ups a day, and finished his 10,000 with a week to go for the year.

My goals for this year are continuing to do things I want to do more (or less) of, which I’ve already started, but which I’m formalizing into a formal plan. For instance, last year I had a list of people I’d like to hang out with more. The list only got longer, but my excuses for getting together were running thin. So I threw a New Year’s Day party and invited them all. Some had already come up with their own plans for having me see them; maybe more of them will, too. Or I can throw another party if I feel my social life is running low again.

Earlier in 2014, Peter and I became each other’s work out buddies, agreeing to both work out at 8 am, first three days a week, now five days a week. To continue doing so for all of 2015 doesn’t change anything, but when the year ends, we can cheer that we did so.

I saw my cousin Tammy in September of last year, and she reminded me of how much I used to love writing. I still love writing, but I hadn’t been doing it the way I used to. So I want to write more. That’s a nebulous goal. But also setting aside an hour each day to write is more specific. And Neil’s goal is to spend an hour a day creating a work of art each day, so I can put that time into his daily lessons, and have it set aside for myself as well.

If you don’t want to do something, no amount of official resolution will get you to do it. Buying a workout DVD and saying you’ll do it every day isn’t the same as actually doing it. But if you approach it like a challenge, and one you’re willing to take on, you can be a winner, with a little bit of discipline and willpower.

by Carolyn Bickford

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