Monthly Archives: November 2014

This issue’s featured family is currently unavailable. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Sometimes I feel that a bit more space in our little house is the answer. To that end I truck things off to storage and good will, pare down my possessions, try to convince my spouse and kids to let go of a few more items from the dozens of boxes there, condense, find creative storage solutions. I actually enjoy the sense of movement, of change and renewal, as well as the physical work and creativity of designing and creating solutions for a small space, in contrast to the cultural pressure to upgrade. I want to be content, want to embrace simplicity, want to prove that what we have is enough. Do you know we get three “neighborhood magazines” now—three, all spawned within a year of one another, featuring happy local families in their apparently showpiece houses with their apparently showpiece lifestyles. More than half of the “featured families”—far more than half—are in real estate or financial planning, attested by the same faces showing up on the ads in the later pages. When I posted a comment to the neighborhood website calling the first rag I received “silly” and mentioned the real estate connection, I was reprimanded from various quarters for my lack of community spirit, since after all the publisher actually lived nearby and was doing this project “out of pocket.” The publisher, mildly affronted, said my family could be featured as well, though I shuddered at the thought of what a production that would be. Everyone dressing up, acting just so, posing for a family style fun activity that we all typically do together (pillow fight taken, bike rides too–maybe a family chore day, half watching a football game and half working on laptops, or going to a swim meet?). So I withdrew from attacking that particular veneer with my coarse grade sandpaper. The next three featured families were in other professions–one was even a public school teacher–who could think any advertising revenue could come from that? Then I saw his financial planner spouse featured a few pages on…

Still, there is a real community here. It’s not primarily about social media posts,¬† nor advertising revenue. And I can’t say I feel I’ve contributed much to it, other than chatting a bit with folks walking their dogs, helping neighbors with recycling day, trying to get some ride sharing going, and an attempt at a women’s tea years ago. And generating some private enjoyment for folks that agree with my “antisocial” views but are too diplomatic to air them publicly.

Back to the house, though, and I’m hoping that the topic has some relevance for others out there: There’s still a mismatch between the space, and the stuff we want to fit in it. We don’t want to let go of our specialty tools and supplies, our books, games, clothes for all seasons, bulk food storage, clippings and photos and artwork eventually to be organized and put on display. I bring up the open discussion of whether we should add on, trade up, rent a little office/project space. I want, I want, I don’t want to want more. But anyway the savings aren’t there yet, college expenses are coming up, our jobs aren’t secure, and the kind of place we want has never shown up in the right area at the right price, especially considering the 6% real estate fee. And after all, half of our kids will be launched to other domains in the next two years. There will be a bedroom for each of the rest then, and we’ll get the garage back for storage and projects. The discipline of waiting, of contentment, of letting go. Embracing what positive changes really are within my sphere of influence.

Maybe it’s help with the housework I need. I know it was a huge relief in the past, changed my demeanor, took such a burden off. At about what I’d earn per hour as a substitute teacher, I see it as a good trade. On cleaning days I’d come home and just bask in the beauty of a clean, orderly home, and a surge of creative energy–the kind that results in a lot of the messes, in fact–would wash over my soul. I’d put on some Bach, start some muffins, take out my sewing stuff and sew away until it was time to feed the kids, or go shopping, or organize the bills.

Now the main reason the house feels too small is that the tube is on in the heart of the house every weekend for at least half of the day. No civil cure for that now, though years of resistance kept it at bay. I can keep my frustration at bay with exercise, productive work, and leaving for chunks of each networks dominated day. Right now I can hear the muffled sounds of the three hour pre-game show over the music pumping our of my ear buds as I write. I was going to go to church, see if I could lure some of the family out since some old homeschool friends’ are the string quartet for the service. The pastor is a football fan, which elevates him in my eyes as a guy willing to forgo for higher goals. Though occasionally a parishioner will share an update from a smart phone. But it’s half time already, I’m still here writing, and my husband is rallying the kids to clean up from breakfast.

As for the positively trite ending that I still am tempted to make, I can only say that there must be more required of me than to form my days out of complaints about my perceived constraints. I know from looking back on my life that I too often live timidly, in reaction rather in proactivity, and deceive myself into believing that I am trapped by the choices of others, that my life would be better if only I either rebelled completely and rejected all efforts to make me compromise (which out of patient tolerance and loyalty I do not do), or convinced those others to adopt all my values and plans (an impossible task). I look for higher values by which to live my life, as a free agent without divine powers, and the courage and confidence to live, in the words of a guy whose books I’m too proud to read, my best life now.

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Posted by on November 30, 2014 in Personal Growth


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How not to be diplomatic

How could I have been so dumb? The staff in the high school in which I have been subbing was really liking my work, appreciating how I knew the content, kept the ball rolling for the teacher on sick leave, related to the students and other teachers. Every day I’d check in with the principal’s secretary (who keeps the sub keys hanging in her office, a nice way to touch base each morning), and she was warm, appreciative, and yesterday let me know I was a safe bet for the regular sub list and a good candidate for future openings.

But today on the way to school I listened to an interview with Betty Krawczyk, who explained why in protesting the advance of the Kinder Morgan pipeline work in Burnaby Mountain, it was unthinkable to apologize for one’s actions just to be released from jail. Fresh from fist pumping and cheering her as I parked in the school lot, I came in to pick up my key from the secretary. And didn’t I just go and mention that I’d listened to an “inspirational” interview, and summarize what it was about, to that nice, conservative secretary, on whom I depend for my reputation thereabouts? And didn’t she look startled and even disappointed? So I added, “Not that I’m like that..,” which was extremely lame, and too late, and even a kind of betrayal of my heroine’s values, which I had acted like I shared.

As I walked down the hall, I regretted more the last comment than anything else, my dissociating myself from the actions of someone I admired. She sets an example to which I aspire, or some form of it–even in the work I hope to do as a public school teacher. And so be it. I think in this town there’s a place for a teacher with environmentalist views. And to think I used to be nervous about being mistaken for a young Earth creationist, so would purposely neglect to certain studies and activities in my resume.



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How not to be tracked

I just completed several completely untrackable searches and movements about town. I slipped by Google, Microsoft, Asian hackers, global mobile device corporation IT departments, data mining specialists, even Homeland Security and CSIS. And I’m willing to share my techniques with you. In layperson language, easy to understand and with step by step instructions that even tech-challenged information users can follow.

The enormous divide in levels of privacy between inputting queries to the web and my method is startling. You know it is, from watching “Mission Impossible” and all the newer films about what can be quickly discovered about anyone who uses the internet, cell phones, credit cards, GPS equipped vehicles and other devices, membership cards, and even digital home electric meters. Think about that…with the meters, for example, someone can remotely tell when you’re home using your appliances, and when the house is likely empty with the lights dimmed. Vehicle and mobile device GPS is good for ascertaining your location on the move, credit cards or store membership cards good for tracking location plus purchase habits and linked characteristics, such as whether you have children and their approximate ages, special dietary needs in the household, pregnancies, sexual activity, physical or mental illness, reading and viewing habits, and occasional or frequent incontinence.

With Microsoft supplying laptops and Google supplying Chromebooks to schools and developing a plethora of student-friendly apps, classrooms are also a trove of trackable data. When linked with lunchroom records, attendance and activity logging and eye movement trackers, it’s only a matter of time before the corpsy corps that run that part of the Cloud will be able not only to test kids keyable knowledge, but predict test results ahead of time. As well as determine every market-relevant trend coursing through school kid culture.

Those of you who see all these changes with giddy acceptance, as the “smell of progress” (what our great grandparents called the stench of the pulp mills and factories of that era), can stop reading now. The rest is only for those interested in restoring some portion of their private lives and narrowing the circle of society that is able to watch over their comings and goings.

When I share my techniques, they’ll be surprisingly familiar to you, but you may see them in a whole new light, as I did–as beacons of freedom, places of safety in a hostile world, havens from the rat race, miraculous privileges conferred instead of just your right, your natural right. These practices may be known to you, but they are in danger of being lost to this generation. So this is in a sense an opportunity to re-skill.

First there’s the travel aspect. Whether you choose to walk, ride your unregistered bicycle, or pay cash fare to ride the bus, you will be minimally tracked in each case, dependent on the number of security cameras along your route.

Second, it is sometimes possible to purchase goods at stores or markets and pay with cash, avoiding giving one’s phone number, membership card, or zip code. No one but the merchant need know, and they have too much to do to remember anyway. Trading and bartering is even better, as even your bank need not know you are making an exchange.

Last, it is possible to obtain information and cultural content without being tracked in several ways. The most secure source of information is your own mind. Your mental repository of experiences, memorized facts, figures, music, skills, and methodologies may be out of practice, but the human mind is a powerful tool and can be reconditioned. Even more powerful is the resource of contemporary community knowledge which we may access through sharing information with other live human beings using the medium of spoken or unspoken language. Further non-trackable information and other types of searches are possible with the use of books, radio, an other free broadcasting, while those media continue to exist.

Perhaps, like me, you already joined FaceBook or some other social media site and listed your birth date, educational, employment, residence and travel history, your list of family members, friends and associates, all your likes, and personal photos, for the benefit of the Facebook advertising department, and are now receiving startlingly relevant advertising popups. Even if you later removed your information, it’s no doubt been collected and is being stored by someone for some purpose or other. Well, it can’t be helped. But this is the first day of the rest of your life, and the whole world is still open to you. Enjoy it, and may we never know anything about it unless you want us to.


Posted by on November 25, 2014 in How to, Ideas, Media


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Yay! Mass Production! Just in time for the holidays

Being a handy person, I never feel right about buying a gift I could make myself. Especially when the item is so basic that no one would make it at home anyway, and the only reason anyone would buy it at all is that it’s on a cool rack with hundreds of others looking all trendy. As I stood by the bookstore checkout waiting for the clerk to finish entering my order of David Adams Richards’s River of the Brokenhearted, I scanned a nearby display of colorful magnets announcing, “Yay! Chocolate!” “Yay, compost!” “Yay! Mom!” “Yay! Gay!” And all I could think was, this is weird. Not the words or the meanings, which were merely conversational and affirming, but that someone could make a living selling these things. They don’t really qualify as a craft or art, because what crafty person would say, What a good idea–I think I’ll make some myself as gifts. They’re definitely a step own from the “Life is good” T-shirts that have made a killing in the last few years, which at least are wearable, good quality, and have cute little stick figures doing stuff on them. But they too have been elevated in status by mass production which gives them that aura of homey pop culture. Did you know the phrase “Life is Good”on clothing is copyright protected? As I walked up the stairs to park myself in a booth with my laptop and a cup of coffee, I tried to think of a crafted item that could work in reverse, as in be useful, attractive, good quality, but not susceptible to low quality mass production copying. Here it is: a shopping/tote bag designed to sling over the shoulder and last many years of carrying heavy things, end embroidered or hand painted with, “Down with Mass Produced Junk. Up with Quality”. I’ve been thinking about this theme for years, most intensely when I step too far into a bargain department store and see the crap that we ship here from the sweatshops of the world to pawn off on our poor or tightwad rich: plastic toys, cellophane gift bags, figurines, housewares, cleaning supplies, poorly made clothing, reusable, recycled shopping bags that can’t handle anything heavier than a few bags of chips, and food that will keep months without microorganisms ever being interested in taking a toxic nibble. I often feel physically nauseated at such an experience–not only the reminder of that awful appetite for consumption, but that ordinary human beings in my own community support such a system, as even I do in my quest to appease a child who “has to” have a certain item for a team gift exchange. I’m under no illusion that just because buying the same gift bag at the “nicer” store costs eight times as much, that anyone at the bottom of the economic ladder is benefiting from the extra cash. Do we really need to keep the economy running on such poor fuel? Now that we’re starting to count the costs of our throw away culture, what alternatives will we come up with? Homemade takes so much time, and who has that? There are always kits, complete with instructions–for cement garden stepping stones, E-Z sew Disney theme fleece pillows, pre-designed memory albums. And to save money there are or cheap, imported, plastic craft supplies–sparkly beads, styrofoam flower arrangement bases, prefab paintable birdhouses, synthetic yarn, and squeezable puff paint, all priced subject to economy of scale. No need to source alpaca wool, wood knitting needles and quality crafting tools.And anyway, “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches,” as our Brave New World has taught us, and we didn’t even have to be asleep to soak it in as a mantra to live by. Buying good quality homemade items at the local artisans’ fair is another option, but prices there are pretty hard to swallow after years of comparison shopping¬† online. And in my experience, artisans cater to a limited range of esthetics, and items truly useful over the long term are rare. One can use only so many landscape paintings, earrings, Christmas tree decorations, scented soaps and candles, found item collages, hand bags, ceramic hors d’oeuvres dishes, and funky fleece hats. The products available through developing world fair trade artisan coops are gorgeous, but also not always very practical, and/or they fit best within the culture in which they are made, with all their bright colors and cultural symbolism. I’ve been working on an idea about this—I’ve heard there’s at least some appetite for it—to teach kids to make things with their hands. In the name not only of training them in useful skills such as woodworking, sewing, and equipping a life, but also as a counter the present dearth of opportunities to practice creativity, depth of concentration, problem solving in real time and space, and a priority on quality. I picture teaching some good basic skills with the materials, whatever they be, and encouraging students to take it from there and express something of their personality and values, working some special esthetic into their pieces. Engaging in an artful productivity, a beautiful practicality. With conversations about the hidden costs of economies of scale, outsourcing, and making it big.


Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Culture & Society, Economics


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The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards

I picked up a The Friends of Meager Fortune by David Adams Richards after hearing about it on CBC, and just finished. It’s pretty amazing. Based near where my mother grew up in New Brunswick, in the time when logging was by horse team. The teamsters were incredibly strong men, in so many senses of the word, though uneducated and completely cut off from the urbane existence of those who lived in the mansions and used the furniture constructed of the trees they cut. The story tells of Owen, the brother of a deceased lumber baron, coming home after the war to help the business survive as he carries around the awareness of a prophesy that spells his failure and demise. Though wounded and not the woodsman his brother was, nor as respected by local men except as a war hero, Owen decides to cut and haul out the huge trees on Good Friday Mountain, where no one else had the guts to work because of the steepness of the trails that had to be made and used. The story tells of the kindling of rumors that grow and fester about the man and a young woman of the village whose husband has gone away, how the folks of the town feed their own “inner famine” by condemning and judging others, how corruption enters the camp, and how the kind and simple minded cook, named Meager Fortune, keeps the men alive until their final loads come crashing down. One gets the impression that the story is based on actual events, even in how it leads to the narrator’s origin (not the author) and attempts to understand his heritage. It ends in his wandering through those woods and finding the decayed implements of those lumber operations, and through the graveyard containing the crumbling stones of those who lived and died in that era.

It’s not romance, not cliche, but a kind of honoring of that way of work, which required a kind of strength that has passed away with those times. At the same time the workings out of the “inner famine” of those seeking importance in the community, revenge, or justification leave a pall on the memory of that life, from which Owen failed to escape.

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Posted by on November 16, 2014 in Culture & Society, Writers & Books


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New sub job: seems like we’ve made a good beginning.

Two days into my indefinite semi-regular subbing position, and so far so good. I received a warm welcome from the secretary to the principal, who took the time to show me the route way back to my classroom and made sure I knew all the routines, and that I could drop in or call any time with questions. Later snagged me to introduced me to the top four in the main office, the principal coming across as a kind, rather than driven, leader, and the assistant principals maybe more intense, but that’s only momentary impression. It was a step up from the lowly semi-anonymous role of sub in a too hectic, just jump in and sink or swim elementary / middle school environment (which is okay too, there being more important people to attend to, as in the students). My fellow biology teachers were helpful and welcoming, and one turned out to be a neighbor whose chicken our husky killed a few months ago. All water under the bridge now, with her two new chickens filling the void.

Interesting being with these older kids. They don’t seek the connection that the younger ones do, don’t seem to need the same kind of affirmation and encouragement, and certainly not so much quasi policing, as ten-to thirteen year olds. I have more mental space to consider the planning of the actual scope and sequence of content, with the help of two other biology teachers, the one I’m subbing for being too embroiled in medical concerns to contribute at this point.¬† The other two teachers have shown a perfect balance, really, of being available to problem solve and offer suggestions, and trusting me to figure it out as best I can until things get settled. The main thing for me is to get things moving so the students’ time doesn’t get wasted and they learn what the syllabus says they should.

It turns out high school biology hasn’t changed much. The first day we wheeled in the microscopes and did the same cells lab I did decades ago. Plant and animal cells actually still contain the same organelles as they did back then. I expect that our experiments on growing plants under different light conditions will have predictable results, though I hope to show at some point, say in the spring, that seeds really do grow fruit and vegetables, and not just sickly root bound things that are thrown in the garbage after a being watered and measured for a few weeks. Saving the revelation that bean seeds can really produce beans really shouldn’t be reserved for advanced agriculture students in this day and age, in my opinion. And that late November is not really seed starting season. I do believe I once saw a greenhouse at the side of this school building–another thing to explore. Maybe we can start a plot of strawberries and compare my new organic fertilizer mix to miracle grow. Strawberries in June would be sweet!

To help the students review cell structure and function, I had them sketch and narrate to one another in pairs (each had to choose someone they hadn’t worked with before, which worked well–seems many didn’t even know one anothers’ names). Told them how small, frequent encounters with information in various modes would alert the brain that this ought to be long term memory material. They were pretty successful at this, seemed pretty engaged, maybe even pleased to work with someone new. They’re expecting a quiz Monday. Then it’s on to photosynthesis, my favorite subject.


Posted by on November 13, 2014 in Education, Places & Experiences


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Sub notes

Pretty tired this week, as I get used to a heavier schedule of subbing–this week in middle school as usual but also a bit of time with kindergarteners, second graders and fourth graders on a “float”day. With kindergarteners I told and illustrated a story about a spider who built a web in my car and caught two flies. The little boy who had arrived just a few days before and spoke only Chinese copied the drawing in his story book and and then the sentence written below it–perfectly. Later whispered something in my ear in Chinese. The other children wanted to convince me he couldn’t do this, couldn’t understand that, and I had to correct them, saying that they he would soon, just look at what he’d accomplished in the little time he’d been in the country. We reviewed colors, numbers, alphabet sounds–I wished I’d brought my ukelele. Later I led a round of pogo count-jumping with extra energetic boys, believing as I do that generally that’s more helpful than trying to get them to sit back down and be quiet. They didn’t want to stop until recess.

I think of my hour with second graders with a shudder, and am so relieved it was a one time job–there were kids poking other kids and making them cry, a kid doing a hip wiggly dance to entertain everyone while I was trying to explain an activity, lots of hands-on math games with no instructions and lots of small parts that got all mixed up and spread around, boys who got on the rolling cart of the computer maintenance guy and wanted to ride out of the room on it, and waves of children who couldn’t wait for their question or comment or story to be told and were blurting and mobbing me as I tried to get things rolling, others walking around visiting, causing trouble, everything so noisy, and I not knowing the signals and rituals for quiet down, sit down. No chance to get a handle on any kids’ names, since they were supposed to be rotating to different activities, and couldn’t keep their teams straight so eventually there was a table with eight kids and another with two. And a backdrop of cooperative kids ready to play the games and listen to the story and keep their hands to themselves, but could they get what they needed in the chaos? No, and I felt sorry for them. I asked the paraeducator to help get the kids to their right places, and she used the good old riot act, same one with which the regular teacher left us. Recess was a blessing, as they ran joyfully with the gusts of wind whipping up and around the soccer field and across the playground. Rumor was among the teachers that the wind was playing havoc with the kids’ spirits, winding them up to no end. Then it was back inside to try to get them to copy down words in their agendas until their teacher returned from her meeting, with frowns and stern words.

This week I also encountered middle school boys who had personally made jam and relish–the relish maker sure his recipe would be a prize winner. I asked seventh and eighth graders if they thought Google’s motives for getting internet access to remote areas of the globe by means of helium balloons was motivated purely by altruism (the only reason that was mentioned in the article they were reading), described ways to get to college without graduating from high school, read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and tried to avoid a teacher’s request that I line up a class by height, thinking it might be hurtful but finding out later it was for the purpose of arrangement in a choir. I saw a teacher show her class how to do a certain math problem, leave it illustrated on the board, and then hand me a stack of math assessments to give them as a test, with the exact question on it that she had shown them. Corruption or subversion, I don’t know.

My daughter said a curious thing after I went on a bit about how I really wanted to treat my time with students as important, that I didn’t want them to get the impression that because they had a sub it would be nothing much today. How I wanted to teach real lessons, facilitate real learning, and not just monitor study hall or games like Heads Up Seven Up. She said with conviction, “Mom, you care! You should teach; you should be a teacher, and not just a sub. Subs don’t care!” I said, Really? And she told me it was true, that most subs were just there, just got through the day, maybe had fun or were entertaining or nice, but their purpose was not education. Her words have been ringing in my ears the last few days. Don’t care? It’s true that I have heard numerous times in my brief encounters with other subs that they had come out of retirement because they were bored, so I suppose in a way my daughter was right. Still, maybe it’s a problem of low expectations that the system has of us, perhaps out of not wanting to impose unreasonable ones. Yes, we are told what we do is appreciated, but no one alludes to any real educational contribution, and there seems to be a sense of surprise when a sub can teach, or touch a heart, or bring something really valuable into the experiences of students. Or even bring a sense of refreshment, a different perspective about the children themselves, about the topics of study, the methods of work, or the atmosphere of a classroom. There’s mainly the hope that the work gets done somehow, and the kids behave.

I’m going to try out a more “regular” job next week, teaching high school biology for someone who’s out on sickness or injury, not sure how many weeks. It will be a good opportunity to get more familiar with high school work and expectations, high school professional atmosphere, see if I fit there. And, as they say, “get my foot in the door.” I’m glad to have the opportunity, but I have mixed feelings about committing to anything long term, if that opportunity comes up. Still, I might love it, and would consider it, providing I can sharpen up my biology knowledge and work it in with my present home responsibilities. Will I miss my middle schoolers? Will I enjoy the change to less emotional/intuitive work, more intellectual/organizational stuff? And will I be able to find the right shoes?


Posted by on November 7, 2014 in Education, Places & Experiences


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