One of my students (I'll call her Rachel) told me of a friend of hers with whom she took a class. Although her friend understood the subject matter, English was not her first language, and her work was consistently downgraded for spelling and grammatical errors. Rachel helped her friend by proofreading and correcting those errors and her friend's grades and English skills improved. Rachel mentioned how she felt downgrading those errors was unfair, since her friend knew the material. I felt otherwise, though. Her friend was not failing the course, her work just wasn't receiving outstanding marks. I think that is fair.

I think too many people these days blur the lines between passable and outstanding work. For whatever reason, people feel entitled to be credited with outstanding work when the work they're doing is really just satisfactory. Maybe I'm contributing to that by adding the "just" to satisfactory. Most people are "average." There is nothing wrong with that, but for whatever reason, it's seen as substandard when it really is the standard.

Rachel's friend's work was good, but not outstanding, because she couldn't communicate well in the language in which the course was taught. She wasn't failing, she just didn't receive superior marks. There is nothing wrong with that! If anything, we need to see this not as a barrier to a degree, but as an opportunity to learn and improve in the language of choice. People have a better chance of excelling professionally and socially if they know how to communicate effectively with those around them. Schools should enforce that.

...By the way, if there are any current students who happen by this posting, I highly recommend having friends and family proofread your work before submitting it, and try NOT to have the same proofreader every time. Sometimes it's easier for others to catch small errors, and sometimes others can give you a perspective you may not have thought of...

Within the educational system, the value of the degrees we confer is lessened when we pass people just for enrolling in our classes. I admit, this is a blurry line, and some happy medium between one extreme of teaching to overly rigid standards to the detriment of all else and the other of not having a consistent set of criteria to judge progress has yet to be found. But it seems as though the value of our degrees is already compromised. I taught a computer skills course a few years back, and when we covered formulas in Excel, I had to give a basic Algebra lesson for the younger students. The older students may have been a bit rusty, but it came back to them much more quickly when I said "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally."

In terms of the individual, when we award students grades they haven't earned, we do them no favors. In a sense, we are setting them up for failure at the next step or perhaps beyond. I would rather have someone have the opportunity to work on their weak points than send them on ill-equipped for what comes next by ignoring them.

All this said, I don't know what the solution is. I know a lot of primary and secondary level teachers who are dedicated professionals saddled with overly crowded classrooms and not enough resources to do even small things like make photocopies for their students. The masses want to place all the blame for the system's shortcomings onto them. Yes, there are a few bad eggs, but those exist in pretty much all professions. A lot of the problems lie in the dense and inefficient administrative/bureaucratic structures created by a bunch of separate laws implemented by tacking their requirements on wherever they may sort of fit, rather than something created as an integrated system.


I Forgot Dogs are Predators

Many years ago I had a Sheltie mix named Moonshine.  Shelties were originally bred as herding dogs, and therefore tend to be high-strung and can have a fairly strong predatory instinct.  Unfortunately, the inclination to hunt was very strong in Moonshine, and from what I can remember, she killed several rats, two opossums, one bird, one skunk... and one cat.

It was a hot, sunny July afternoon and I had most the windows and doors open to let air circulate through the house.  I was inside and realized I hadn't heard Moonshine in awhile. Shelties are also notoriously yappy -- when my niece was very young, she thought the dog's name was "Shut Up Moonshine" -- so it was unusual not to hear her barking.  I walked out the the back porch, and looked into the yard.  Moonshine had a gray cat pinned down with one paw while fighting with another.

In my most authoritative voice, I yelled "Moonshine, off!" and took off down the stairs.  She completely ignored me, grabbed the cat she had pinned by the throat, and began shaking her head viciously back and forth.  The cat yowled as it was jerked off the ground, its cries mingling with the dog's low growl.  And then, in the few seconds it took me to run across the yard, it was suddenly silent.  The other cat took off across the yard and safely over the fence to my neighbor's yard.  My stomach turned as I scruffed the dog and yanked her up onto her hind legs.  The cat, still in her mouth, was horribly limp.

"Drop it!!!"  My voice was way too high pitched to sound anything resembling alpha, I was so grief stricken.  She clamped her mouth down tightly and growled.  I had to pry her jaws open to make her drop her prey, a skinny, unkempt, probably feral, young cat/old kitten, somewhere around a year old.  All I could do for several minutes was sit there, sobbing uncontrollably while the dog paced in front of me.  It was the first time I had ever witnessed one animal intentionally kill another in person, and while I could intellectualize the whole predator/prey relationship before that day, I was completely unprepared for the brutality of the act of killing itself.

I hadn't thought about that incident for several years until last night.  I was in my home officesitting at my desk.  Piglet was lying on the floor next to me, and my cat, Mini, was on her perch in the corner across the room.  Piglet is part Border Collie, another herding breed, and Mini is a nervous cat, deathly afraid of dogs.  The cat hisses at the dog, who barks at her, and if the dog comes too close for comfort, the cat bolts, the worst possible thing to do with a border collie, because it will always give chase.

Last night, for some reason, the back and forth was worse than usual, and the two constantly eyed each-other.  Three or four times, Piglet stood up, barking at Mini.  Three or four times, I turned to Piglet, yelled "Leave It!" in the lowest voice I could muster.  Three or four times, the dog lay back down at my feet, still staring at the cat.

Piglet jumped up one more time, but this time she growled low in her throat and her bark was lower and hoarser than previously.  She lunged across the room.  I pushed back from my desk and followed, again yelling "Leave It!"  And like Moonshine that July day, Piglet ignored me.  And again, in a very un-alpha way, I screamed "Piglet, no!!!"  

Mini panicked, and jumped down to a lower shelf on her perch in an attempt to make a run for it.  Piglet, attracted to the movement, reached out a paw, swiped Mini off her perch, and pinned her to the ground.  Just as Piglet lowered her head to pick up the cat, I scruffed her.  I managed to pull her head back several inches, but a 70 pound border collie is considerably stronger than a 30 pound sheltie.  Piglet dragged me forward a bit as she lowered her head again.  I reached out with my other arm, locking it under her neck, paying no heed to Mini's slashing claws.  I jerked my arm, pulling Piglet back, then rolled her onto her back and growled as deeply as I could and yelled "Leave It!!!"  I also threw in a "Bad Dog!" which I feel bad about, although I don't think Piglet understands English that well.  Steven locked Piglet in a room for about an hour, and we ignored her.  She seems to know what she did wrong.

As I type this entry, I am at my desk in my home office.  Piglet, who has been relatively subdued, and even apologetic, since I came home from work, is lying at my feet.  Mini is on her perch in the corner across the room.  So far tonight, there has been no stare-down, no barking or hissing, and no fight to break up.  I am grateful for this temporary reprieve, but am worried about this situation in the long-term.


Comfort Food

One thing I missed this summer was the abundance of a variety of super-fresh produce and specialty grocery items unless I wanted a long commute. I can understand the produce issue, as California's terroir supports a variety of crops almost year-round, while England has a relatively limited growing season. However, being a fairly large port city, Bristol should have ready access to a variety of "exotic" items. Perhaps I didn't explore the right places.  I did find out about a local organic market the week before I left, and I'm disappointed I didn't have the chance to explore it.

I also missed being able to cook in my kitchen on my stove with my cooking paraphernalia, so on my first opportunity after returning home, I decided to make oden, a stew, and chawan mushi, a savory custard.  I made the stock (or dashi) first, a deceptively simple task.  It is easy to make from scratch, but also easily ruined if you don't pay attention.  Good dashi has the faintest tint, a subtly earthy scent and an equally subtle, but rich flavor.  This batch was not my best, but it was good, and worlds better than the instant version that is mixed with water.

I began the prep, enjoying the weight and feel of the well-balanced Wüsthof chef's knife inherited from my grandmother, and the precision of the sashimi knife (also inherited -- carbon steel, a pain to care for, but worth the effort).  I even appreciated my faithful wood cutting board, which is still in pristine condition for the most part, because it's hand washed and oiled regularly.

As I reached for the age (pron. ah' geh), a spongy fried form of tofu, I realized it, and Piglet, were missing.  Arrggghh!!!  I ran to the living room and there on the back porch was the dog, swallowing her prize and attempting to look innocent.  Easy come, easy go, I guess.  I headed back to the kitchen, grabbed two new age sheets chopped them into manageable pieces.

While the stew simmered and the custard steamed, I picked a few lemons from my trees to squeeze on the jicama and little yellow pear tomatoes (it didn't fit with the rest of the meal, but I was in the mood for it).  My grandfather planted Meyer lemons long before they were popular.  Until recently, most of the people taking the fruits were my neighbors, which is okay, because I can't use them all and I live in a working class neighborhood, where sharing is always appreciated.  In the last 10 years, people from "good" neighborhoods who wanted free Meyers began stealing them, so I stripped them of their loot and chased them off, because they could afford them.  Yeah, I'm mean.

Back inside, I pulled the custard from the steamer, plated the stew and salad, and sat down with a bottle of nigori sake to wash it down.  As usual, Steve drank most of the bottle, and I drank enough for moral support.  I savored the warm, soft custard, filled with bits of shiitake, chicken, carrot and shallots - it is one of my favorite comfort foods. 

After we ate, Steve came to my room holding the leftover konyaku, a yam cake with an unusual texture that is an acquired taste for most people.  I had used it in the oden.  He asked "hey, are you missing this?"

"Umm, I don't think so, but I haven't been back in the kitchen."

"Well, Piglet had it in her little corner.  I don't think she liked it though, because it's still intact."

One thing I didn't miss this summer was having to keep constant watch on my food.


Home Again

A month has passed since my return home, and my last entry.  Settling back in has been difficult.  I am suddenly not as comfortable at home, and I long to immerse myself in new experiences, meet new people, and explore new places.

On a happy note, my housemate started a new job as Technical Director at a local arts organization.  I took him out for a drink last week to celebrate at a local dive bar, where the bartender poured a fairly generous shot of Jack for me, which I drank on an empty stomach (that's the recently-poured shot in the photo -- good thing I didn't order a double!).  I was soon plastered, and completely oblivious to the conversation around me.  Steven had to drive home.

My company is closing the Bay Area office at the end of October, and I will probably work from home until I finish teaching in Mid-December.  And then?  I have the option of moving first to the UK, and then possibly Paris with this company.  But I am restless, and in a way I want to test myself.  I am beginning a search for a new job in Europe to see what comes up.

And I have to admit I want to be closer to someone I think has the potential to be very special to me.  A frightening prospect, considering we've only spent a total of one week together and I'm basing my opinion of him on a "gut" feeling.  But the heart wants what it wants, and I need to follow where it leads, so I won't have regrets later.

I sent a "hey, I'm looking for a job far away from home and need suggestions" message to a third of the people in my address book Saturday night.  So far, I received many words of encouragement, a few suggestions and an outright offer of help from a college friend who now works near Nürnberg, Germany.  I may have a bunch of visa/work permit questions for him!