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:

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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:

IMG_2303

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.

A Journey Into Navajoland

On our recent trip through the Southwest, I found an old book called The Navaho (sic) by Clyde Kluckhohn in a used bookstore on Tucson’s 4th Ave. I’ve been enjoying fiction books with Native American characters (i.e. Sherman Alexie novels, Margaret Coel’s mystery series, etc.) and this book had chapters on Navajo spiritual beliefs, which promised to be intriguing.

I cracked the book open as we were driving towards Tombstone, but it turned out to be far more compelling than I expected and I quickly plowed through the entire book. It was written in the late 1940s, just as Navajo population was recovering from its low, and had reached a level that the area of the Navajo reservation was no longer large enough to sustain the people via their traditional subsistence sheep farming. As a result, the people were no longer as isolated and had more contact with “Anglos” but the cultures clashed, for the same reasons they always had. The author managed to understand the Native point of view, and was explaining how it was different so that we could get along better, with just a few adaptations.

There’s already a few things I’m aware of in Native culture, for better or worse. A Native might not tell you something you didn’t specifically ask about. For instance, when we were in Seattle, Peter called a comic book shop to find out where it was located, and got directions. When we got there, the store was closed, with posted information that it wasn’t to open for another hour yet, and we called back. We got a profuse apology, but I noticed the person on the other end of the line had a Northeastern Native accent, and I just knew it happened because we hadn’t also asked the equally important question of when do you open. Likewise, there’s also Indian Time, which is not the posted time, but rather the time when everyone gets there. It works both ways: you might have to wait for a store to open, or you might not have to put up with a surly clerk giving you the stink eye through a locked door if you’re hoping to get in 5 minutes early. Indian Time makes sense in rural, rough terrain, especially with unreliable modes of transportation. Better to practice a little patience than to have someone die rushing to get there.

The earlier issue — of not getting information about something you hadn’t asked about — was certainly a problem for Anglo settlers. If you came along and asked the head of a local clan if you could set up a homestead over by the creek, without fear of retaliation from his clan, he might certainly say yes — because that area just happened to be someone else’s territory. So then when that other clan took righteous offense at some strangers squatting near their flock’s watering hole, the settlers got equally offended, having believed they had been dealing with liars and thieves. But for the Natives, it would be offensive to imply that the others were ignorant of something they hadn’t asked.

I found the linguistic differences between English and Navajo one of the most interesting chapters. To speak Navajo is a different state of mind, and at the time of the book, 71% of the people only spoke Navajo. In particular, it’s verb centric, and a lot of what’s happening is within the verb itself, and Navajo has a lot of different verbs. For instance, if you want to say “we went to the store,” there’s a myriad of verbs you have to choose from, depending on some specifics. Was it you and me who went to the store, or a group of us? Did we walk, drive/ride, go in a wagon, or fly there? And if we went by car/horse (i.e. rode), how fast did we go there: walking pace, trotting pace, running pace? On top of that when you drop, put down, or reach for an object, the verb includes whether that object is round, pointy, hard, soft, etc. Oh, and it has tones, like Chinese, and it’s less forgiving of tonal mistakes. In one way it’s not idiomatic (you can’t say I flew over to say you rushed unless you really flew) and on the other, it has the possibility for infinitive dry wit, as you can say “the round object is being put in place” as the fat guy sits down.

As it turned out, our travels took us right around Navajoland, and even (unexpectedly) to it. But to begin, all through Arizona and New Mexico, there are roadside stops along the freeway which sell Indian jewelery and blankets. The book I’d read said the Navajo would sell blankets of their own design, but preferred to buy and use Pendleton blankets for their own use. Looking at the label on one of the blankets in a roadside shop, I saw the currently offered blankets were neither Pendleton nor Navajo:

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There were people here and there throughout our trip who I thought might be Native, or not, but when we got to Santa Fe, the local Natives were clearly out and about. There were Native artisans all along the Palace of the Governors selling their own wares. The craftsmanship was way beyond the pounded aluminum bracelets with blue stones in the roadside shops. I shyly stopped to examine a $15 guitar pick made from pounded copper inlaid with an intricate silver design, even though I have no practical use for such a guitar pick, nor for jewelery. An accordion player and his friend were busking in the square:

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But Santa Fe was not our style. Peter described it as the art festival that took over a town. That isn’t a bad thing, but our scruffy road-worn family didn’t jibe with the posh retirees and the twee faux-dobe. I was so intimidated by the upscale of the place, I was terrified to ask any of the craftspeople if Navajo art would still have one element missing, for good luck, as Kluckhohn had described. And I never did ask anyone.

Two days later, after seeing the VLA, Pie Town, the Petrified Forest, and a portion of Route 66, we had planned to spend the night in Winslow. But Winslow was just ugly, in a bad, bad way. And the Tripadvisor reviews of the available motels cited homeless people panhandling in the parking lot and others trying to sell used bedsheets in the lobby, we decided to move on to Flagstaff, even though it meant having to double back to see the Meteor Crater (which it turns out, wasn’t worth doubling back for.)

And what to our weary eyes should appear, off Route 40, but a big, bright shiny casino-resort? We drove over to see if they had any rooms within our budget limitations. It turned out we’d driven right into Navajo territory. The staff was all Navajo, with just a few exceptions. And here I was, without a Navajo-English phrasebook.

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But luckily, the people were well-prepared to host weary Anglos. On a Friday night, we got a posh, posh room for $116 and with a Player’s Card, a buffet dinner for $10/person (that included mutton stew!). I was relieved to see the gift shop sold Pendleton blankets, not scratchy looking blankets with geometric designs made in India. And it was a pleasantly comfortable place to have my children, which is rarely the case for a casino. We ended up working out all together in the fitness center, whereupon Peter quipped we’ll always be saying remember the time we went to the rez and decided to all work out together?

The guest room had a Discover Navajo magazine which encouraged us to check out the area, and told me about current Navajo protocol. For instance, people don’t like to make eye contact, which explained why some of the people in the casino seemed shy, when they were actually being polite. People also aren’t really into touching people they’re not related to, so no hugging, firm handshakes, or shoulder pats. A kiosk in the lobby told me the entire building had been designed with traditional Navajo beliefs in mind. I actually enjoyed that the most, since it was ethnic, but modernly stylized, so you didn’t get that museum feel. I did feel lost culturally, afraid that some of my questions would be offensive. But I will say Kluckhohn was concerned about the future of the Navajo in 1948, as they faced the struggle of how to preserve what they loved about their own culture as they had to adapt to American ways in order to succeed economically. He would have been pleased to see such a resort that incorporated Navajo into an American-style enterprise, as well as craftspeople being recognizable for their own work and quality thereof. I’d barely expected to meet any Natives on our trip, and instead, I met a lot, and learned a little.

 

Disappointing Dining in San Jose (with some exceptions)

Last night, Peter took me out to Paolo’s Restaurant to celebrate our 22nd anniversary. We honestly hadn’t been there in a dog’s age, but it has held a place in our heart thanks to previous romantic dinners there. It’s one of San Jose’s oldest restaurants, known for its elegant Italian cuisine, and Peter had a hankering for their veal saltimbocca.

Sadly, it was another disappointing upscale dining experience in San Jose. After we’d perused the wine list, our server asked if we were ready to order — and we had to point out we’d received no menus in order to see what the offerings were, other than the special of the day she’d told us about. Then when we ordered — the saltimbocca and the special (halibut) — our server confirmed by saying “the halibut and the fish, then!” and we had to call her back and make sure it was the halibut and the veal saltimbocca. The food came out surprisingly quickly, which isn’t bad and these are after all, dishes which can be cooked quickly if all the prep has been done. But I suspect the speed is also due to the fact that much of their business must be coming from the theatre patrons going to nearby shows at the Center for the Performing Arts. It may date our last visit, but then our date coincided with a show, and Paolo’s had put out a buffet to cater to people who wanted to dine and dash in style. It may be the buffet wasn’t a hit, so now all dishes are designed to come out quickly.

Unfortunately, Peter’s veal saltimbocca was disappointing. He thought it tasted frozen. Not having tasted it myself, it might just have been too dry or overcooked (having made saltimbocca myself, I know it’s really easy to accidentally overcook it.) He bit down on something hard and found the stem of a large sage leaf inside. When our waitress came up to “see how things are” (note to restaurants — on a romantic date, I don’t want to be talking to your staff unless I need their attention), I thought I may as well point out the stem, and that the chef may want to be more careful in prep, because it was an off-note. She offered Peter a refire, but once you have to send back a dish on a romantic date, the experience is ruined, as the lovers have to take turns watching each other eat. It wasn’t that bad, but it really wasn’t that good. My halibut was ok, with no faults on the chef. It’s a bland fish to begin with, and it was seasoned and cooked just enough. But then the waitress sent up the a manager to quiz us about our concerns, and I thought I would just die. He told us we’d get an extra dessert to make up for it, and I imagined the chef spitting in it in anger. For the record, we ate the desserts, which were delicious, and I’m pretty sure (I hope), they had no markings of kitchen revenge.

Unfortunately, it’s not our first disappointment with a San Jose restaurant that should have been better. We celebrated Valentine’s Day at McCormick and Schmick’s. First of all, they confused our reservation, which was for 5:30 pm. They couldn’t find us, but seated us anyway. Later, at 7:30, Peter got a call asking if we were a no-show, and had to tell them we had shown up at 5:30, the time we’d scheduled dinner, and the time we’d confirmed before coming over, only to have confused people at the front. Peter’s steak was still bloody on the inside, and he did have to send it back for a refire, so I was almost done with my steelhead before he got his dinner. It has a nice location, looking over at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, but we left a big tip for the waiter, and I don’t think we’ll be back.

And then there’s Morton’s, which I’ve already written about. And A.P. Stump’s, with such boring bland food it’s demise was overdue.

So is there any decent romantic dining to be had in San Jose? Yes, but in unexpected places. A former employee told us about 71 St. Peter , a small romantic bistro (at 71 San Pedro street — get it?). The menu is always small, and seems to be different each time we go, but whatever we order, it’s always delicious. If your timing is right, you can get a seat outside, right on San Pedro street, so you can enjoy the party people strolling past. We’ve twice dined there during the zombie crawl (which often coincides with our anniversary, go figure), and luckily, the restaurant has some voodoo which keeps the zombies at bay. The staff always hits the right note, making sure you’re comfortable, but not interrupting conversation. And while the dishes are just as good, they’re less expensive than they are at other San Jose counterparts.

Another personal favorite of mine is Chez Sovan, the Cambodian restaurant on Bascom Avenue. It’s also not marketed as quite as upscale, but the food is delicious. Peter doesn’t like Asian cuisine so much so it’s only a destination for my celebrations (like my birthday), but their appetizers were fine for his palette. And then I got such delicious ice cream for dessert.

So I don’t know what’s up with fine dining in San Jose. For one thing, Peter and I cook nice food at home more often now, so we know grades of meat, we know what should be in a dish, and our own quirky preferences (i.e. I like my pasta mushy, so I don’t order pasta dishes, because my special request is an affront to pasta-loving chefs.) San Francisco restaurants typically don’t disappoint — the only one I can remember as bad was a sorry pizza place in North Beach. So why can’t San Jose deliver? I understand it may be difficult to bring forth one’s cooking talent at an upscale McChain or with  56 year old recipes, but, good god, it can be done. (At the very least, you should be able to cook a steak to the proper temperature.) Looking at Yelp, it looks like the gourmands are fleeing our downtown for Saratoga and Cupertino, but I’d rather have someplace great to eat in my own city. So I keep hoping, but it may just be that the little places like 71 St. Peter and Chez Sovan are really where the San Jose’s dining soul lives.

Three Crazy Things I Did This Summer

Kelly and me in front of the glider we just flew down from 6000 feet elevation.

Kelly and me in front of the glider we just flew down from 6000 feet elevation August 2014

This summer, despite my plans to have one particularly lazy and low-key, I did not one, not two, but three crazy things I’ve never done before and hadn’t even imagined doing.

In June, I volunteered as adult staff for a week a local Girl Scout camp. Kelly’s girl scout troop leader, Allison Vickery, had capriciously decided our council needed a local camp so she became a volunteer camp director and rounded up her family and friends to help. All she had to tell me was that Kelly would get to go to camp for free, and I figured, well, I may have no idea what I’m doing, but why not? It did involve a fair amount of training before the camp. In particular, Allison stressed the importance of leaders interacting with the campers, rather than standing by the sidelines. And so it came, that over the course of a week, I learned the silliest songs like “Bill Grogan’s Goat” and “Weenie Man” and played the craziest games like “Run and Scream” (just what it sounds like) and “The Tickle Fairy” (also known as “Murder”). My group was a bunch of 9- and 10-year-old girls, and I slid down the slides, swung on the swings, and climbed up the jungle bars with them. It was a bit of a revelation to note that the more mature girls would opt to sit out with the adults when and if we did, which makes me wonder if the reason we don’t play so much as adults is because when we were young, we started copying the sedentary adults, rather than revelling in the sheer joy of running around. Also, the real counselors were middle-school-aged girls only slightly older than the campers who took on the leadership roles easily; the adults were there for gravitas and authority, but I was impressed by the young counselors. And the younger girls eagerly absorbed every personal tidbit the counselors could offer; quite a highlight was when the counselor “Superwoman” facetimed herself and her group (showing off a shelter they’d made) to a male school friend named “Taco.” Oh, the pleasure of pure girly silliness. The little Goth girl within me died a little.

In July, I hiked 20.5 miles from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the seashore. This was also not in my plans. I’d been taking Neil along on mid-week hikes with a favorite Meetup group of mine, so he naturally gravitated towards completing the Hiking merit badge towards his Eagle Scout ambitions. When one of the leaders in Neil’s troop organized a series of hikes towards the badge so that his son as well as any others in the troop could get the badge, I figured it was all taken care of. But very quickly, all the boys except for Neil and Gabriel (the leader’s son) dropped out, and since scout activities require a minimum of two adults, it was up to me or my husband to join the hikes — and Peter was busy working on ComicBase 2015. And so, on Saturdays in June, Neil and I and Steve and Gabriel were out taking long hikes through the Bay Area. I’ll say the 10-, 11-, 12- mile hikes became progressively easier and we learned how to face the typical hiking hazards of blisters and bugs and dehydration. And we set the date for our “boss battle” hike — one of 20 miles — for July 13, down Skyline-to-the-Sea from Waterman Gap to Waddell Beach, with a leg up on Sunset Trail parallelling Skyline in order to make distance. I prepared for that mentally and materially. My boots were broken in. I made a Gatorade-like drink to make sure I would stay hydrated. I had lots of snacks and sandwiches. We set out at 6 am, and Peter dropped us off on the trail at 7 am, as the redwood trees were still dripping dew. We made it to Big Basin by late morning, and set up to the waterfalls after a long break and refilling our water. We reached the waterfalls by early afternoon, and then wandered down the long fire road and got to the beach by 4:30 pm. Steve’s wife was there, waiting for us, and I was ready to pour myself into her minivan, but I’m glad she convinced us to pose in front of the kitesurfers to document our achievement:

Gabriel, Neil, Steve and me at Waddell Beach after having hiked 20+ miles from the mountains

Gabriel, Neil, Steve and me at Waddell Beach after having hiked 20+ miles from the mountains

And now, it’s August, and for my birthday, Peter bought me a ride in a glider. Kelly joined me because, well, she could, and there was room in the cabin for her. The ride officially began at 6000 feet elevation (1 mile+ up) when I released the tow line from the airplane that pulled up the glider. I had expected it to be far more frightening than it was, but it was more enjoyable than riding in a small airplane. Perhaps it’s because I instinctively understand the aeronautics of gliding on air better, or because it was a nice day and we had no countercurrents pushing the aircraft askew. We just drifted towards the ocean (which was regrettably fogged in) and glided down over the lettuce fields of Salinas and Hollister, gently circling around until we were back in sight of the airport. The hardest part, in fact, was getting down, since the heat created updrafts which wanted to keep us up.

View from above through the glider cockpit.

View from above through the glider cockpit.

And, yes, in the meantime, I’ve done other fun things (so far) to round out my summer. I saw Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Vasona Park and after having gotten context on it via a Teaching Company Course (which I got for only $1 at a Rasputin Records sale), it’s now my favorite Shakespeare play. I discovered several new authors I love, Margaret Coel being my most favorite current addiction. I swam in the waves in the ocean, and spent an afternoon speaking Russian with an emigre linguist. And I’m about to start some personal training classes, which I won in a Facebook context. So, so far, it’s been a great summer — but most of all, for the fact that I could do some crazy things, and that I did them.

by Carolyn Bickford

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