Friday, April 30, 2010

Google is SO Goshdarn Helpful

So I love it when you do a google search for "Search Phrase A," and google very helpfully offers up a suggestion with an alternate spelling, like, "Did you mean Search Phrase Aa?"

So you scratch your head, and then you say, "Well, Google knows all. So yes, perhaps I DID mean 'Search Phrase Aa."

So you click on their helpful link to "Search Phrase Aa" and you get back:

"Sorry. Your search returned no results."

Yeah, Google. Thanks for that. Very helpful.

Language Learning and Hardened Brains

When my youngest son was in kindergarten, there was a girl in his class who was newly arrived from Japan. She spoke no English. In September I watched her walk through her days with a panicked, deer-in-the-headlights look and thought, "Oh, that poor child! She'll never..."

And yet she did. Within months, she was functional in the classroom. By the end of the year she was nearly fluent.

So learning English is easy, right?

Well, yes. Kind of. If you're a kid.

The thing is -- and I'm speaking here as a Speech and Language major, an ESL teacher, and a person whose ongoing project is learning French as an adult -- everybody is born with the capacity to learn any language, and multiple languages. A child raised around people speaking English, Arabic and Chinese will learn English, Arabic and Chinese. No problem.

Right around puberty, though, a switch is thrown. Our brains say, "Okay! Language learning complete! Let's move onto other stuff!" From that point forward, your native language is your native language.

(This is why waiting till high school for foreign language instruction, like they do in our district, is so stupid.)

Obviously, it's not that people can't learn new languages; they do it every day. It's just that once your brain "hardens" (figuratively speaking) into its main language, from that point forward it will learn new language(s) by comparing all new language learning to its old language. Its real language.

So my working-to-learn-French brain says, "Wait. Genders? For inanimate nouns? Saying 'one does this' instead of 'we do this'? Putting modifiers after subjects? That's...that's...that's not how we do things!"

So yes, it's absolutely possible. But it's freaking hard. And the older you get, the harder it is, and the longer it takes to become fluent. (I studied French for five years in school. I read it at least a little every day. I listen whenever I get the chance. Yet I consider myself lucky to pick up 25% of what I hear.) I have students who have studied English for years in their native country, only to arrive here and be completely lost.

It can be expensive, too. The non-profit I volunteer for teaches free classes up to Level 3 -- a level which allows people to function, but barely. After that, to become truly fluent, people have to pay the several hundred dollars per quarter to go to places like community colleges -- if they're lucky enough to live near one, and if their lives and schedules can make it happen.

Add in the fact that native speakers do not speak the slow, gramnatical, non-idiomatic version of the language that is taught in classes, and the fact that many native speakers are NOT patient with people who are learning (take it from me, it's terrifying to speak to a native speaker at first), and it's a small miracle that anybody even makes the attempt.

And yet they do. I have never met an immigrant who did not desperately WANT to learn English. Sure, there are some who just can't make it happen, but the want is pretty much universal.

Must say, my students amaze me every week with their curiosity and desire. The process is slower and harder than they would like, but they hang in there, and they keep trying, and they celebrate the small victories and joys. ("My co-worker, she do not understand what a customer is saying, so she asks ME to translate!" Rapture, to be the knowledgeable one at last.)

This is why I get so frustrated with the (almost universally monolingual) "Just speak the damn language!" folks. I find myself wishing that God would just drop them down in a foreign land so they could experience firsthand what it's like to try to learn a language as an adult.

You know. What it's like to try to unharden their brains.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


So today I read a headline that said, "Dear Sandra Bullock, I can relate." It was a long and involved open letter about a husband leaving after the arrival of a baby.

The other day it was, "Oh, Kate Hudson, how can you get breast implants?!?" by someone who took it personally.

I kind of rolled my eyes, the way I did with the whole Tiger Woods thing. I mean, seriously, people? These celebrities are not actually a part of your life.

And then I realized that I consider an entire professional soccer team "my boys."

I guess overidentification is in the eye of the beholder, yeah?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Things My Dog Doesn't Understand, Part 1


I realized today that my dog has abolutely no comprehension of the concept of the "Personal Space Bubble."

(Yo. Dude. Back off. I'm a WASP.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Goldman Sachs Fraud for Busy People (and Why You Should Care)

As I understand things, here's a quick rundown of the Goldman Sachs fraud for people too busy to read the long stuff:

1) "Company P" looks at the high-risk mortgage loans being made by banks, sees that people who can't pay the money back are gonna be HUGE problem, and wants to make some money from it.

2) They go to Goldman Sachs (richest and most powerful investment bank in the US with LOTS of political connections) and say, "Make me a really bad investment vehicle that I can bet against."

3) Goldman says, "Sure! What do you want us to put in it? (Got that? They let the people who wanted the investment to go bad pick out the assets they thought would best suit their purposes.)

4) Goldman then sells the investment (which, remember, has been hand-picked to go bad) to investors. As if there's nothing wrong with it.

5) The subprime market implodes, as expected, and investors in the deal lose all their money. But Company P makes a boatload because they bet against the investment vehicle. (Yes, you can make money in the market by betting that investments will go bad.)

6) I am not making this up.

These are the people Washington is now trying to regulate. But, because they are very, very rich (due partly to investments like this one), they're fighting with very large donations and promises of post-Washington jobs. Jobs where former politicians will be able to make this kind of money too.

Which makes it kind of hard to get regulation passed.

Outraged? You should be.

UPDATE: In July, 2011, Goldman Sachs settled the SEC's fraud charges for $550 million -- the largest amount ever paid by a Wall Street firm. By paying, they kept full details from going public through a trial. They got off easy.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why I Like My Family

So my son today is doing battle with his 9th grade Project. The BIG one. Project with a capital "P." (His is on the slow death of the Great Barrier Reef.) This happens to be occurring at the same time as the six-hour-per-day tech rehearsals for the school play, which takes place next weekend.

He's spent this weekend downstairs on the computer doing research, popping up only occasionally for food and/or moral support. (But mostly food. Remember, he's fifteen.)

And every time he heads back downstairs, I say, "Good luck in the war."

(It's an everyday expression I picked up from the wife of a co-worker of my husband's. She's Israeli. She knows what she's talking about.)

Today at the store I picked up fresh strawberries -- our first of the season. I fixed him some earlier, hulled, with just a teensy bit of sugar.

Half an hour later, he came up for a second dose.

I hulled a few more, sprinkled them with just a bit of sugar, handed them to him and said, "Good luck in the war."

He replied, "Thanks. I appreciate your victory garden."

I laughed.

He gets it. I get it.

That's why I love my family.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lost In Translation, Again

So last night in ESL class, we were talking about restaurants. Our goal was to discuss as many situations as possible that our students might run into when eating out. I was the "waitress."

"Would you like an appetizer?" I asked.

Our students looked puzzled.

"Something to eat before the main course," explained my co-teacher as i wrote the word "appetizer" on the board. "Like...chips with dip? Or...spring rolls?"

Our Chinese students still looked puzzled. Then one said, "Oh! Spring rolls! Like...the Vietnamese?"

Which means, apparently, that American Chinese restaurants aren't exactly, y'know...authentic.

I know. I was shocked too.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Go, Fetch!

My dog is...Labrador + something else. We were told German Shepherd, but a couple of people have told us they think maybe border collie.

But what he definitely is, is "retriever." If there is something to be retrieved, he'll retrieve it. It's so hard-wired into his brain that he is incapable of not retrieving. Once the gate got left open while he was out, and I came back two hours later to discover the shoes from the front porch moved to the back, the dog toys from the back porch moved to the front, a six-foot-long rubber planter divider dug up and placed in the yard, and a kid's beach pail, complete with sand, in the driveway.

(There are no small children in our neighborhood. Despite effort, I never did find out who the pail belonged to. If it was yours, my dog and I apologize. But in his defense, he's a retriever. He couldn't help himself.)

And being a retriever, he loves to fetch things. Our back door is on the second floor and leads out to a deck. He loves nothing more than to have us hurl dog toys off the deck, causing him to leap down the stairs, gallop across the lawn, catch the dog toy (frequently in mid-bounce) and bound back up the stairs.

But this is where the game usually ends. Because even though he is incredibly well-trained (he doesn't jump on people, won't enter the house without permission, won't set a toenail on the hardwood kitchen floor, and goes immediately to "bed" -- his crate -- when commanded), we have never been able to make him learn the command "drop."

It's not for lack of trying. For six years we've been trying. (Okay, not that hard. This does not have "I don't want muddy pawprints on my clothes" importance.) But for all these six years, he'll bound up the stairs, see me on the deck, start toward me, change his mind and trot away with his treasure.

And so I'll say, "Fine. Stay outside, then," and come back inside, alone, and close the door.

And the look on his face is always, every time, "I'm outside, alone? Again? Cr*p. How does this happen?"

(I love my dog.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Quilt Guild!

First thing I want to say is that I am NOT a joiner. I generally don't seek out things to join. I am an introvert. Large gatherings of people, while fun, are something I need to recharge from, not something I run to.

But I am a quilter, and quilters join quilt guilds. It's how you meet other quilters. And it's how you get your quilts in shows for other people to ooh and ah over. Which is somehow important, even in the age of the internet. Because real-life quilt shows are tactile, the way quilts are supposed to be experienced.

And so a few years back I joined my local guild, the one that meets in my area. And it was not a good fit. I'm sure they were all very nice people, but I found the group as a whole a bit...cold. My first warning should have been when, during the committee reports in my first meeting, one chair used her time to complain about how she was being treated by other guild members, especially the leadership.

And then it was the other stuff, like when I volunteered to quilt some charity quilts. Since these were going to kids, I put some creativity into them, filling the empty spaces with flowers and butterflies and other kid-friendly stuff. I didn't expect gratitude, since a lot of people contribute a lot of talent. But what I also didn't expect was a sniffed, "You know, meandering is just fine for these quilts." (Meandering being just filling the spaces to get it done. Perfectly fine on a lot of quilts, but not on these. Especially since they were going to sick kids.)

And so I stuck it out long enough to show my bright-colored brick quilt in the show, then never went back. That was 2005 or '06.

But I've still felt the pull of wanting to work and share with other quilters, especially when I go to the Quilters Anonymous quilt show every March. The quilts are beautiful, yes, but more than that: This is a warm group. People are nice, both to the people they know and the people the don't.

But this was not my local guild, and the 20+ mile drive was a barrier.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I was back at their show and I felt myself pulled as if by magnets to the membership table. And the women there were incredibly nice. And the membership fee was reasonable. And the meeting times matched my schedule. And there were smaller satellite groups in the towns on either side of mine.

Still, I walked away from the table undecided. (I'm not a joiner, remember?) Undecided until I saw that one of the charities they support with quilts in the University of Washington cancer center, where my son had his surgery and treatment.

And so I joined. Tonight is my first meeting. And I've already been contacted by two people who've reached out to make me feel welcome.

I think I may have come home.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Concerts and Goofs and Unexpected Gifts

(I realized recently that a lot happened last spring that meant to write about but never did, given that I kind of got distracted by the whole cancer thing. So... No time like the present?)

If you've parented a child through his/her teens, chances are you've done The Concert Thing. Because, if you've parented a teen, you know that music is bigger than life, and it somehow manages to capture those roiling and churning emotions the way mere prose can't. And the musicians created this music, so they become a bit magical themselves. And so you have do the concerts.

With our daughter, I did Hanson, Backstreet Boys, and N'Sync. (Yes, with earplugs, partly for the music volume and partly to drown out the screaming girls. And yes, I had a great time. Probably because of the earplugs.) My husband got the concerts with our older son -- musicians whose names I can't recall, and who haven't been heard from since, but who, at the time, gave him a safe outlet for all his alt-punk leanings.

Last spring, it was time for the rite of passage for our youngest, and the objects of his desire were Coldplay tickets. And so, for his fourteenth birthday his dear father stood in line forever and scored three for Saturday, June 21. He told me the date, I concurred (because I'd read about it on the internet, don't ya know.) And then I took the tickets and stuck them in the filing cabinet and went on with life.

Between that day and the concert, of course, his brother was diagnosed with cancer. And the thing about cancer is this: Everybody says, "It's a family disease," but nobody says quite what that means. So let me try.

Cancer means the whole family gets sucked down the vortex, and they're trying to survive while spinning under the water. It means -- at least until you find your footing and it becomes your new normal -- that you consider yourself lucky when you can force your head up enough above water to grab one more breath. And you're trying to take care of everybody you love, but there's just so much else sucking you down that you're not always successful.

And so the Coldplay concert, taking place three weeks after Peter's brother's surgery, was significant.

And -- since it was taking place at the same time as the youth group's mission trip to a local camp, where they'd be spending a week doing maintenance work -- staging this was like staging the Normandy invasion. First, my son had to pick a friend to bring. But, since the concert was 2 1/2 hours away, and well on the way to the camp, it would be best if it could be a friend who could also go on the mission trip. And because they and my husband would be spending the night of the concert at a hotel, it had to be a boy. And, since the mission trip started on Saturday, but they wouldn't be joining till Sunday, they had to find out where the church group would be on Sunday morning so they could meet up... And on and on, detail after detail after detail.

But eventually we got everything settled. And on Friday the 20th, I went through the day like normal. Saw Coldplay on the cover of the Weekend section of the paper and smiled, because that was the concert my enamored son would be seeing.

Of course, I didn't get around to actually reading the paper till late afternoon. And when I did, I saw, "Coldplay, at the Gorge, Saturday, June 21."

Waitwaitwait. Back up a bit. THE GORGE? The Gorge was halfway across the state! They couldn't be playing the 21st at The Gorge, because they were playing in Vancouver!

I ran downstairs and grabbed the tickets. Sure enough, the date for the Vancouver show read, "June 20." That night. Three hours from that minute, at a venue that even in the best of traffic takes two-and-a-half hours to get to. And a summer Friday rush hour on I-5 is guaranteed to NOT provide the best of traffic.

I took a deep breath and made some mental calculations. My husband was traveling that day, so if Peter was going to go, it would have to be me. And we wouldn't make the 7:30 start time, but if we left right away we might get there for most of the main event. I called my son on his cellphone and explained the situation. He was shockingly great about it, and he agreed that we should go for it.

His friend wasn't able to change his plans, and none of his other friends were able to come on such short notice, so it would be just he and I. We grabbed a blanket for the grass, and he grabbed a book and some of his favorite CDs for the drive, and we were off.

And we decided on one thing before we left: If I hadn't looked at the paper, he would have missed the concert altogether. That was the default we were starting from, so we agreed that anything beyond that would be a plus. So no stressing or negativity allowed from either of us.

As expected, traffic was awful. We hit jams in Bellevue, Renton, Federal Way, Tacoma... But then things miraculously lightened up. And the music he'd brought along was good, and the sunset was gorgeous. And we chatted about everything and nothing -- about his friends, and the mission trip, the book he was reading... Friendly, pleasant, companionable. Like spending several hours with a good friend.

We pulled into the parking lot at the ampitheater right at 8:30, less than four hours after I saw the newspaper headline. We found parking (free!), grabbed our stuff, gave away our spare ticket to a very grateful young man hanging around outside the gate, and went inside. And noticed...complete silence. We'd missed the opening act entirely, but Coldplay hadn't even come on stage.

The performance area was packed, of course, since it was general admission and everyone else had arrived on time. Yet there was a spot on the grass big enough for our blanket, (albeit with a view blocked to a large pillar.) So Peter settled himself in and I went out to the concessions area to buy us some dinner.

And ten minutes later, as I was heading back to our seats loaded down with chicken strips and pop, the lights went down and the music began.

This would be what is known as "perfect timing."

We ate together for a few minutes and enjoyed the music, then he asked if I'd mind if he went and stood up front. I hesitated for just a second (this is my baby, after all, and this crowd wasn't necessarily sober), but in the end I said okay. (Because what's a cellphone for if not to serve as an invisible tether from mom to teen?)

So he disappeared, and night fell, and I sat there under the stars on this warm summer night and people-watched and let the music wash over me. Peter would check back periodically, having the time of his life, and then disappear again. At one point the band moved their instruments out into the crowd for a song or two, and afterwards his face was alight. "I was this close!" he exclaimed, holding his arms at shoulder-width. "I was this close to them!"

And it occurred to me that sometimes, when you're getting sucked down the vortex, God throws you an unexpected life-ring.

After the last strains of The Scientist died away, we joined the throngs heading to the cars and received our free CD, which we played for the full hour it took to get our car out. And then he dozed as I drove.

We got home about 2:00. He had to be at church at 6:45 to join the mission trip, but somehow that was okay too.

It was one of rare, magical, parent-of-a-teen nights, y'know? The kind of night where your expectations are low and yet the reality soars over even what you would have imagined if you'd set them high. And the fact that it's just so...much...more than you thought it would be somehow makes it even better.

In the months since, I've lost count of the times where he'll look and me, or I'll look at him, and one of us will say, "Remember Coldplay? Remember Vancouver?" And the other will smile (because we can't help it) and say, "Yeah, that was such a fantastic night."

I think that maybe some of our best and most unexpected gifts in parenting come from unexpected goofs. Y'know?

Viva la vida!