Friday, November 22, 2013

Toto, We're Not in Salt Lake Anymore

We've been here three months, and in this short time several events have transpired to remind us that we are not in Salt Lake anymore.  People here ask us where we're from, and as soon as I say, "Salt Lake City," with a great big smile (how I do miss the place!), they respond, with a significant look, "Wow. BIG change."  They couldn't have said  it better.  (There was even that one time when the followup question was a conspiratorial, "Are you a Mormon?"  to which I wish I had whispered in response, equally as conspiratorially, "No. But are you a hippie?")

So, what are some big differences, you ask?  Here are a few we've found so far.  I must admit I am sad to report that the list does not include meeting any hippies, or even having one conversation with a dreadlocked member of society in which my conversant utters a "Whoa. Faaaar out, man," which before coming here I was really looking forward to.  Since we're not leaving til May, there's still time for me to amble up and down Telegraph Ave. calling, "Here, hippies, hippies, hippies!"

1. Quakes.  Within the first month of our arrival, we felt our first quake [Richter 3], which apparently wasn't notable enough to anyone but me, but nevertheless had me running to the store to stock up on emergency water the next day.  A week later, there was a second little rumble, which reminded me to stock up on candles, too, but nothing since then.

2. Diversity. Every newsletter, announcement, or email that comes home from school is accompanied by the Spanish translation on the back.  School presentations for parents, (e.g., "Kindergarten Orientation," etc.) are conducted in both Spanish and English.  And with a quick glance around the Rosa Parks playground, one can easily pick out at least five or six different ethnic backgrounds. This diversity means we spend a lot more time learning about "Dia de los Muertos," and other cross- and multicultural events.  And enjoy authentic tamales from the grocery store. Arriba!

3. Food.  OK, everyone likes food, and we have some truly awesome restaurants in Salt Lake, so difference here is not that they have better food here in Berkeley, but they have more of it.  And there is an obsession here with food that goes above and beyond what I would consider the norm. Berkeley is seeped in the culture of food, from the gardening and cooking classes offered in every public school, to the grocery stores devoted only to produce (e.g. Monterey Market) or fish (Tokyo Fish Market), to the internet foodie sites. Berkeley Yelp plays a central role in determining whether a business here, particularly a restaurant, dies or thrives. Yelp has made the consumer king, regardless of whether the consumer is fit to review a place or not (I've found that college kids tend to give great reviews to mediocre joints just because the food is cheap and plentiful, but they also don't hesitate to knock a place down if slighted by service the least little bit).  

There's also an obsession with healthy eating. For example, it's against the school rule to pack a lunch with a small chocolate treat in it. Gummy fruit snacks and juice boxes are also frowned upon. A mom shared some cookies on the playground with some kids after school and another mom chided, "Oh, I see you give in to that stuff."  The first mom said, "Yep, it's just who I am. I have a sweet tooth and I can't help it."  Chocoholic that I am, I liked her instantly, and delightedly accepted my cookie from her when she offered. 

The Berkeley Bowl, a grocery superstore that functions like an every day Farmer's Market (and do not doubt they have a Farmer's Market in various spots of Berkeley almost every day of the week, too, in case you need to eat your vegetables literally within minutes of them being plucked from the ground), carries a huge array organic and non-organic produce. Because of the sheer vastness of organic, non-GMO, pasture-raised, cage free produce offered, even a "quick" trip to this place can take upwards of two hours.  I have stood for several minutes in an aisle completely dedicated to different kinds of tofu, at a loss for what item to get.  "That place makes you grumpy," +Suresh has observed. Well, yes, after having devoted a whole fifteen minutes of my life to pondering the benefits of organic, vitamin-infused, silken or firm tofu, and then another significant chunk of time in front of the free range, cage free, pasture-raised, Omega-3 fatty acid eggs, and another in the produce section wondering what people do with banana flowers and how to prepare nopales, and then coming out of the store two hours later with just bread, milk and eggs (all organic, mind you), overwhelmed by choice, I am a little grumpy.

The intimidating Aisle of Tofu (Pictured: 1/3 of the aisle)

Banana flowers?
How do I eat banana flowers?
(Center, top shelf)
An item I'd never considered food before now.

4. Walking.  Berkeley is a walking town.  It's great to be able to walk to Semifreddi's Bakery in the morning for the crispy croissant or morning roll and coffee, to walk the kids to their pottery class at a lovely little studio run by a professional potter after school, to take a short bus ride to the public library, to walk to the pool.  Everyone walks, and it's a great town for doing it in.  The difficulty is having to constantly look out for walkers, whether they decide to take the crosswalk or not, while behind the wheel.  And parking: well, let's just say I figure in an extra 15 minutes for any trip with the car just for circling around looking for a space on the street.

5. Start-ups and the competitive culture. When we first moved to Berkeley, both boys told me they'd like to continue piano lessons while we were here, so I immediately started searching craigslist for a piano.  We didn't need anything fancy, just something that had all 88 keys and could hold tune.  I soon found one, and after paying the owner a small deposit to hold it for us, scheduled piano movers to pick it up at a time and date compatible with the owner's schedule.  On the day of the move, I got a call from the owner, saying that he's very sorry but his company just got bought, and he's stuck in San Francisco helping to broker the deal.  Could we reschedule? Of course, I said, and texted him with alternative times and dates. After an entire week of texting back and forth with both him and the movers, and not finding a single time when he'd be home to meet the movers, we finally decided I should just get my deposit back and try again with someone else.  Where else but the Bay Area do we say, "I'm so sorry, I can't make your such and such appointment, because my company just got bought" !?  It's a fun line, and darned if I'm not going to try it sometime.  

There's a up side to being in Start Up Land, of course, and that is that nearly everyone here is fluent in internet, email, Facebook and the like. Heck, most people have their own websites, whether they own a company or not.  The downside, of course, is instability. Start ups have this nasty habit of going up and down, appearing and disappearing, thriving and failing when you least expect them to.  It means, usually, both parents have to work, and work long hours, to afford the astronomical mortgage and costs of having a family here. It means stiff competition for after school programs. It means newcomers are treated not with open, welcoming arms, but with a slight wariness, a friendliness-at-a-distance, because you, too, may come and go, appear and disappear, and in the meantime, you're just here competing with the locals for limited (organic) resources. It means that despite the near-perfect weather, the gorgeous view by the Bay, the immense cultural richness and diversity we have to celebrate here, there is the ubiquitous undercurrent of stress. A great deal of stress.  [Don't just take my word for it:  Here's what some locals said in response to KQED's poll, What Do You Give Up to Live in the Bay Area?]

I am grateful to be here experiencing the richness and the vibrancy, the energy and the beauty. And I am also grateful that I have a home in the Wasatch Mountains, a place of peace and grace, and deep friendships, to return to.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Thanks to some great Disney-going tips from my two Disneyophile friends Jeremy Schow and Jacob Perry, we were able to visit the resort at a beautiful time of year without having to fight crowds and wait for hours in line for rides.  Unfortunately, we were not able to escape the infectious cold season in California, and the trip was nearly canceled or called to a halt several times as we battled various health problems, including a fever of 101 F (Aditya), severe dehydration leading to a blinding headache on the first night (Rohan), a severely sore throat that made us consider the possibility of strep on the second day (Suresh), capped off with an accidental blow to Aditya's eye by a complete stranger on the last day.  Incidentally, we discovered a pirate's eye patch and gold earring to be far more effective cures for an elbowed eye than a visit to the park's well-meaning if somewhat overbearing nursing station:

especially if one's uninjured younger brother is able to get in on the act:

Despite these set backs, we all managed to have an unbelievably great time, made possible in part by the kindness and professionalism of the staff at Disneyland, the great weather, the beautiful attention to detail in the park itself, the thinner crowds, an app for Disneyland ride wait times by Walkee, and some prior planning using Bob Sehlinger's Unofficial Guide.

Perhaps one of our best memories will be of our triumph against the forces of Darkness:

We also of course enjoyed engaging in some underage driving,

flying in tires, zooming in rocketships, and spinning in teacups,

and soaking in the spectacular sights:

Of course,  no matter where we are, we also never pass up an opportunity to unleash our inner geeks:

or become superheroes:

Aditya also learned he loves roller coasters, such as Space Mountain and the Matterhorn, while Rohan reveled in the preponderance of cotton candy and popcorn. Suresh and I were impressed by the Aladdin show, and we all enjoyed the cartooning lesson from the Animation Academy.
All in all, a great trip. Thanks, Disneyland!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Letter to Our Son on his Sixth Birthday

Dear Rohan,

Six years ago today (October 26, 2007) I saw your little face for the first time, peeping out from under a pink-and-blue striped hat. You were swaddled so tightly that that was all I saw: your scrunched up little face, your eyes closed against the glare of lights in the delivery room, your wriggling body a small burrito in a baby blanket. As you rested in the arms of the attendant who held you just far enough away that I could not touch you, I drank in your face greedily, knowing I was only going to have the chance to see you for a few seconds before they whisked you away to the NICU.  And I saw enough, that you were a healthy pink color, you were breathing, you were alive.

It is enough for me that you are alive.  The fact that you have ten fingers and ten toes, two lovely brown eyes, and a rosebud mouth are all extras, icing on the cake.  You are alive, and that is enough.

I try not to take anything about you or your brother for granted. You were born at 29 weeks, 11 weeks early, and only weighed in at 2 lbs 12 oz.  Your skin was a thin membrane through which I could see the blood in your capillaries, the color of your internal organs.  We were not allowed to touch you for ten days after you were born because your skin was too fragile, and could tear with our touch. Your whole body trembled with the respirator that kept your oxygen saturation levels high enough in your neonatal blood.  They told me you required three plasma transfusions and dopamine to keep your pressure high enough and your respiratory functions going.  That you had needed CPR to get your Apgar score up from 1 to 9 at birth.  That you would need a PICC line inserted into a vessel leading to your heart for IV fluids. That you would need brain scans to check for brain bleeds and neural damage, and later, eye exams to check for abnormal retinal development due to the low oxygen levels you were exposed to at birth. As I watched you through the NICU incubator walls, saw all the tiny leads leading from your body to different machines, machines that monitored your heart and respiration, your oxygen saturation levels, and helped you feed and breathe, I saw you wriggling. You were a fighter, even then.

After a few weeks, the nurses started to jokingly call you "Tiger," because of the way you screamed at them in protest to any procedure, from changing your electrodes to changing your diaper.  You would turn bright red from the crown of your head to the tips of your flexed toes and scream so loudly the plexiglass incubator walls could not keep the sound from reverberating throughout the NICU.  One nurse covered a name card with tiger stickers and placed it on top of your name placard. I saw you, in a fit of rage, throw your binky out of the incubator at a nurse once, as well.

As I saw all this, I knew you were going to make it.  You were a fighter, you wanted to live, and nothing was going to stop you. I respected that.  I quietly delighted in it, and it was that knowledge that pulled me through the long days and nights without you at home with us, your family.

Two months later, you were home.  You continued to scream in protest at anything we did that bothered you.  But you also started to smile, and when you smiled, the whole world lit up.  You share the internal bright flame in your eyes with your father and your older brother, and that sparkle is a joy to see.

On this day, your birthday, we celebrate the boy you have become, the vegetarian-by-choice who decided he did not want to hurt animals and stuck to his commitment despite being surrounded by omnivores, the friend to everyone who always strives to make others laugh, the openly, fearlessly loving boy who can laugh through his own tears, the goofy dancer who can shake his booty like no other.  We celebrate the fighter in you, and the passionate smiler as well. We celebrate you, and we are also unspeakably grateful that you are here, gracing our lives every day.  Your existence started off very fragilely, and that is why, every day, and especially every birthday, we are grateful beyond words.

With so much love,

Mama and Papa

Monday, October 28, 2013

What does the FOCS say?

The setting is the Doubletree Hotel, perched on the edge of the Berkeley Marina. It's evening, and participants in the Annual Symposium of Foundations of Computer Science (referred to fondly as FOCS) mill around, some shaking hands and chatting, others sitting on lobby easy chairs staring at laptop screens, starting to unwind after a long day of talks. The conference reception takes place in one of the hotel's ballrooms in which a bar has been set up in one corner and tables laden with hors d'oeuvres line the walls.  Conference attendees, name tags still prominent on jeans pockets and lapels, start to spill into the ballroom while the evening's entertainment, a band called the Positive Eigenvalues, sets up to play.

The Positive Eigenvalues, as the name suggests, is no ordinary band.  It is comprised of computer science faculty and graduate students*, two of whom are also FOCS conference goers.  One of these happens to be my husband, who decided joining these guys and gals would be a very 'sabbatical' thing to do. For the set tonight, he plays guitar, bongos, cowbell, egg shaker, and he's also lead singer for the band's encore song, Radiohead's "Creep."  Here's a video clip:

The band was entirely enjoyable to listen to, and some of the more adventurous CS folks were really getting into it and boogeying along by the end.  Aditya, Rohan, and their new friend Emilio, son of the drum player Michael Jordan and honorary Positive Eigenvalue,  bopped along as well.  The three female vocalists, grad students of Cal's CS Department, were outstanding.  Two highly entertaining geek songs with original lyrics (by keyboardist and faculty member Christos Papadimitriou) paid tribute to CS Theory and theoreticians.  The lyrics can be viewed  here.   So this year at FOCS, we had a Ring-ding-ding-ding-ding-e-ring-e-ding and Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow of a good time (to borrow from Ylvis).

* Credits to the Positive Eigenvalues:
David Culler (Department Chair) - lead
Ben Recht (Assistant Professor)  - bass
Michael Jordan (Professor) - drums
Christos Papadimitriou (Professor) - keyboards
Suresh Venkatasubramanian (Visiting Professor) - guitar, percussion, vocals
Rebbeca Sorla Pottenger (Student) - vocals
Emmeline Kao (Student) - vocals
Aminy Ostfeld (Student) - vocals
Emilio Jordan (age 7) - percussion

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons from Lizard Skin: Throwing in the Towel when the Time is Right

When we brought Aditya home from the hospital as a newborn, I was full of new-mother, hormone-fuelled, big dreams.  I would stare in awe at the little guy's perfect face and think, "I'm going to change the world for you."  And then the chronic sleep deprivation set in.  I couldn't spell my name, let alone change the world.  So by the time his first birthday rolled around I had pared down my to-do list considerably: as a symbol of my devotion, I would simply start by making all of his and his brother's birthday cakes from scratch, starting with the low-sugar, completely organic applesauce muffins that I made the first year.  At his first birthday party, Aditya poked and prodded his muffin, squished it and then pulverized it, and during the process even took a tentative lick or two. The rest ended up as crumbs dusting the floor in a concentric ring around his high chair.  Undaunted, each year, I'd make a cake from scratch.  One year I set the oven on fire. One year I couldn't get the cake out of the cake pan and scraped the sawdust-like material out while I dissolved in frustrated tears. One year I forgot to add oil, resulting in a hard but edible creation, and another year the cake came out perfectly. But the icing on that cake, oh the icing. The home-made, whipped-from-scratch icing had rubbery flecks in it, the largest piece of which had the feel and consistency of lizard skin. Unfortunately I hadn't realized this until I took my first triumphant bite ... and choked up a disgusting little rubber morsel. My mistake?  I had added the gelatin in its solid power form and not pre-dissolved, and it had caked up (pun intended) and congealed in its own little rubbery way throughout the entire batch of icing, which had been, sadly, already spread all over the perfect cake. That was the last year I made cakes from scratch.

Lizard skin from cake icing: my crowning cake-making achievement

Calling it quits when the time is right is a skill.  And now, it's time to call it quits on the Great Homeschooling Adventure.  Its demise was largely brought about by the Berkeley Unified School District (here referred to as BUSD) itself:  after having multiple, desperate conversations with the district office, the Admissions Office, an elementary school's PTA president, and indirect exchanges with a certain school official who seems to be related in some way to Voldemort, it became clear that we nevertheless were going to lose the battle.  The battle was about the fact that as participants of the district's Independent Study program, we were at a significant disadvantage in finding after school enrichment programs for our boys to participate in. We fought the good fight, with the independent study teachers, program director, and one PTA member on our side, but we lost anyway.  The crux of the matter:  I wanted the children to participate in programs with other school children so that they could make new friends, and I also wanted several significant blocks of time away from them so that I could prepare logically constructed homeschooling lessons as well as accomplish some tasks for the amazing little company, Lineagen, that I work for back home.  The best, most straightforward way to achieve this, I thought, was to sign the boys up for after school enrichment programs at the local neighborhood BUSD school, but no. This was not to be done, since the fact that we were homeschooling created a logistical mess for the Unified District powers-that-be.  In the end, since we couldn't beat 'em, we joined 'em, and we're very happy to have, at last, the solution to all our woes.  It turns out, once you get past the Admissions Office and its convoluted processes for school assignments, life can be quite good.

The boys were at first very loathe to try out a new school -- because the one that mom taught was "fun, and easy" -- but by the time we finished the tour of Rosa Parks Elementary School (a public school within the BUSD, but a 20 minute drive from where we live, and with NO parking), they were in love with the idea of going to "real" school again.  I was thrilled that they made new friends on their very first day there (yesterday), and how they both came home bubbling with excitement.

And here's the change in the boys that was so remarkable to me:  my boys had used various behavioral strategies to avoid school work every day when I was teaching them.  Every five minutes, they were whining about something or other, they were too hot or too cold, they needed a snack, they needed a drink, they were fidgeting in their seats, something hurt, something itched, something wasn't comfortable, or they were wandering around the house at a loss for what to do despite the clear instructions and worksheets given them. I was frantic with the thought that, in my presence, they were not capable of displaying the mental focus of a goldfish. And despite my admonitions and (from my point of view) downright inspiring lectures on the value of education and self-discipline, this behavior pattern continued for the three long weeks we homeschooled.  (In retrospect, I understand what was going on and bear no hard feelings: to these boys, the roles of 'mother' and 'teacher' are played by two very different types of people.  One nurtures and loves them and, to some extent, coddles them and caters to their needs. The other teaches them, asks them to do their best, expects discipline and proper behavior, and elicits effort and consistent focus.  They were testing me to to see which of those personae was going to win out during homeschooling, and rightly so.

Switch to our meeting this Monday with the Principal of Rosa Parks, a kind man with a warm smile and an obvious and genuine affection for children.  He ushered our family into his office, where our children took seats without fidgeting, folded their hands, sat quietly, and snapped to attention.  I nearly gaped at my own children,  barely recognizing the well-behaved beings they instantly became. At one point, Rohan sat bolt upright in his seat.  His hand shot in the air.  I gave this bespectacled boy a double-take. Was this the same child, who couldn't sit still for me for five minutes at any given time over the last three weeks, who had been sitting patiently through fifteen minutes of administrative mumbo jumbo, and who was now raising his hand to ask a question?  (Incidentally, his burning question was whether or not kindergarteners got their own desks at this school.  He grinned so hard his dimple showed when he learned that in fact, they did.). Aditya's performance matched Rohan's:  he sat quietly and looked oddly interested in the scintillating topics of school busing routes and the cost of hot lunch. Clearly, these boys were made for public school. We had, at last, come to the right place.  (Of course, it also helps my little geeky heart to know that they are now enrolled in Berkeley's environmental science magnet, which boasts its own lab and dedicated science teacher, wheee!)

So, the Homeschooling Adventure has come to a sudden and bittersweet end.  Bitter for me, since I had entertained fantasies of the three of us having wild adventures in the Bay Area for an entire year, sweet for all of us because the wild adventures were in reality less adventures, and just plain wild:  think of all three of us stumbling around, without direction, hot, cold, itchy, hungry and uncomfortable (by the children's report, any way) at the same time, and just plain lost in academic wilderness.   Sometimes, it's good to know when to stop a thing and cut your losses and move on.  There are some who brilliantly succeed at homeschooling, and I am not one of them.  Just as there are some who make the most scrumptious, moist, made-for-heaven cakes from scratch, there are those of us who don't. It doesn't mean we love our children any less, it simply means we need to know our limits and accept when our love should be expressed not with offerings of lizard skin, but in some decidedly different way.

So, here we go again:

And once again, the boys seem extremely concerned about the whole proceeding:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Extracurricular Activities

My efforts to teach some semblance of a core curriculum notwithstanding,  Suresh and I seem to have been covering the extracurriculars fairly well.  In addition to visiting many dear Bay Area friends and meeting (some for the first time!) their wonderful children, we've done our best to pack our weekends full of adventures and new experiences. Here's a glimpse of what we've been up to.

This was the San Jose Lego Kids Fest, where throngs of people waited in line to see Lego's newest offerings and participate in Lego Challenges, and every five minutes the name of a lost parent or child was announced over the loudspeaker for pick-up. Thankfully, I was not to be found among the lost. This time.

Despite the allowed diet of only celery and lettuce (no carrots, please!), the local livestock seemed appreciative and inordinately voracious, considering how many celery bunches had been offered to them immediately before ours.  This is Tilden Regional Park's Little Farm in Berkeley:

 ... and this is us getting a little silly in a tree just outside Little Farm, where a flock of wild turkeys had just fled into the woods.  It's a good day when you can out-silly a bunch of turkeys.

Two weekends ago, this fierce ogre got himself into a duel, complete with styrofoam scimitars, with a young roaming vagabond who was advertising a role playing club for teens during the Solano Stroll and Parade. It was an honorable duel, resulting in a draw when it was apparent that the scimitars might give way before the combatants did.

      Meanwhile, Ogre's younger brother checked out the rides.

Lush and verdant forests of Northern California will always have a hold on me. We had planned an easy hike in Muir Woods, but got waylaid by the more challenging allure of the Dipsea trail:

Finally, last weekend we took the ferry across the San Francisco Bay to enjoy the Autumn Moon Festival in Chinatown.  There was a showing of traditional Chinese music, Lion Dances, Chinese yo-yo demonstrations, and of course, Dim Sum and moon cake eating.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ode to a Dung Beetle

There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Ho-Venkat household lately, and that should explain the relative silence that's befallen this little corner of the internet quite tidily. Don't worry, the wailing isn't coming from Suresh, who described his delightfully planned, well-tempered days at the Simons Institute in his post here, and who just today enjoyed a "Vendor Fair" at Google in which snack vendors thrust free samples into the hands of Google employees in an attempt to win bids for Google's (free-food-for-employees) business.  No gnashing of teeth is being conducted by the boys, who are quite happy to go hopping on their pogo sticks in the backyard in lieu of doing schoolwork.  No, I am the sole wailer and gnasher, but I've been doing enough of it lately to make up for the others' slack.

The reason for all this sturm und drang is simply this:  I am not an elementary school teacher and I am not fitting very well into that role. It's been almost four decades since I've been an elementary school kid myself, and I've forgotten basically everything that I learned back then. Lack of materials or thoughtful, well-crafted teaching ideas from our coach -- the school district's elementary independent study teacher -- aren't the issue. In fact, the numerous blogs and websites with clever teaching ideas, free printables and downloads, and curricula galore only make matters worse ... I am deluged with others' ideas, overwhelmed by their cleverness, humbled by the fact that so many brilliant teachers of elementary school materials exist, and then I am downright discouraged that I am not one of them.

In the midst of this worry that my children will not be able to graduate from elementary school because of me, I was reminded recently of an NPR piece I heard almost a year ago on dung beetles. Dung beetles make their lives living off of other animals' excretions, and while fascinated by this I am also a bit repulsed by them, too. Dung beetles eat poop, they live off of poop, they feed their babies poop. When they find some fresh dung and fashion it into a nice round ball, they appear to get so happy that they climb up on top of it and dance, shimmying this way and that on its smelly surface. I know, because I've seen the nature specials.  Apparently, some researchers discovered last January that what they are actually doing is not a dance of happiness, but rather are checking the Milky Way to get a sense of their bearing.  Yes, the lowly dung beetle stares up at the skies and can navigate their dung ball back to their nests using the Milky Way. To show this, the researchers placed little cardboard hats atop the dung beetles to block out their view of the skies.  When they wore the hats, the beetles rolled their balls around in hopeless circles.  The team then confirmed the observation using a planetarium's stars to show how the beetles used the stars to orient themselves.

I never thought I'd say this, but I'd like to be a bit more like the dung beetle, and take off my cardboard dunce cap and look up at the stars and gain some grounding, some direction, some sense of bearing. Instead of floundering around in the dark, at a loss for direction, I could climb up to the highest point, raise my arms to the skies, do a little jig of happiness.  If I can be more like a creature wholly unconcerned about what the world thinks of him or her, and just focus on getting the right stuff back home to my kids and family, then I can see the world as all right again. Of course, I would like to be a little more like the dung beetle minus the dung.  But, I am also the mother of two boys, and I know that might be too much to ask.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why I Joined The Outliers (No, that doesn't say "Outlaws." Yet.)

I know people homeschool for a variety of reasons.  Some homeschool because their children are wildly gifted, and require far more academic stimulation than what a normal public school can provide.  Some homeschool because their children have special health needs, and they flourish better under the watchful eye of someone who can serve simultaneously as caregiver and teacher. Some families don't want their belief system sullied by the "Theory of Evolution" being taught in the schools, and as you can imagine (since I trained with a wonderful evolutionary biologist, Michael Akam, during my two years as a masters student in England) I don't quite fit into that category. In any case, homeschoolers have a reputation for being outliers, and not particularly a group with which I readily identify.  In my efforts to conduct a stately and dignified walk through life,* I didn't really consider it an option. From my safe vantage point, it seemed messy. Harried. And, in some cases, as with the anti-evolution homeschoolers, liable to veer off in startlingly dangerous and completely uncontrolled directions.    (* I am facing a wholesale failure on the 'stately and dignified' part of this statement as well, but that is a story for another day.).

I would most accurately describe my reasons for homeschooling as, "Harmless and Misunderstood Mom Left with No Other Choice." Here is the story, for those who have asked, of how I was misunderstood and therefore left with no other choice. (For the record, I have, unfortunately for me, always been harmless.)

First off, the Berkeley rental market is what you might call a tad competitive.  It turns out that the world wants to live in Berkeley, and Berkeley is ready and willing to welcome the world ... for a price.  That price merely includes a significant portion of your salary, your first born child, and perhaps even the donation of a kidney or two, but it decidedly does NOT include your cat.  Your cat, you see, can scratch unwitting landlords, landlords who may not necessarily even be in the vicinity of said cat. They might get scratched by your cat while on sabbatical themselves, in France. Somehow. Please don't ask me to sully this assertion with an explanation of the necessary physics involved, you understand that a landlord of Berkeley is speaking, do you not? It can also pee on hardwood floors, leaving a stain that requires the replacement of floor boards not only in that Offensive Spot, but of the entire home's hardwood contents so that every board still matches every other board, leading to thousands of dollars of loss. The cat's mere presence in the home also creates an environment in which no other person who is allergic to cats can live. Ever. No matter how well you clean the place, no matter how large the pet deposit.  You see, Berkeley is AFRAID OF CATS.  And it can afford to be, because the whole world wants to live there. All you have to do is say, "By the way, I have a ca ..." and before you utter the consonant sound, the owner is on the phone calling the next person in line for an appointment and your own Application to Rent has gone up in smoke.

 Here is a picture of our feline offender looking, well, downright offensive.

So my results for getting us a home: FAIL.  Results for school? Also FAIL.  While in Berkeley, I visited all the schools in the Albany School District. I visited three in the El Cerrito School District. And I visited, or rather, attempted to visit, six in the Berkeley District.  At the majority of these schools' doors, I was turned away.  Why? Because I was not a card-carrying member of the Harmless Population.  I would ask a secretary at each of these schools why I couldn't meet the principal, why I couldn't see a sample of some third graders' academic work, why I couldn't stroll the halls and visit a classroom. And each time I was given the same answer: Ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, no one without affiliation to the district (read: proof of residence) could enter the halls. I was limited to talking to receptionists about their places of employment because, well, I was Dangerous until proven Harmless. And I wasn't about to get a proof of residence and be anointed Harmless any time soon, because I had: A Cat.

At countless places I was told to never-mind about being Dangerous until proven Harmless, because, well, they were full for kindergarten and third grade anyway. Or maybe they were full for one of the grades I was interested in, but not the other, so I could face scurrying around in my car every morning shuttling one child to one school, and the other child to another.  As I visited schools' front offices and attempted to shrink in size from my fully threatening stature of 5'3" to something a little less Dangerous-seeming, I learned that Berkeley, in an effort to equalize opportunity regardless of wealth or geographic boundaries throughout the district, employs a complicated and inscrutable method of school assignment. This method, which nearly brought another father in the district office to tears as I waited in line behind him trying to look as Harmless and Cheerful as possible, involves taking into account results from Parent Preference Forms filled out by the Harmless Residents in March, coupled with a "random lottery" assignment system. Which, by the way, can be completely rescinded and changed up to ten days past the start of school.

"You mean, I am moving my kids from a school and friends they love in Salt Lake, to potentially two new schools in Berkeley at opposite ends of the district, and I'm asking them to get used to that, and then you can change it all ten days in?" I asked the district incredulously, all the while wishing I'd had the word "Harmless" printed on my business cards.  "Yes," they answered. "And we can't tell you which school your children will be assigned to until you move here in August, and even then, it could change."

I left Berkeley feeling defeated.  Feeling as though I could happily preserve my sanity by staying in Salt Lake. Did I choose the reasonable, stately, dignified choice?  Sadly, dear reader, you know I did not. I chose to buck the system. To veer into the the Dangerous and Unknown. I chose to be an Outlier, made all the more batty for that.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Animation at the Lawrence Hall of Science

Surrounded by science, Aditya was instead drawn to the animation table in the museum, where he spent several happy hours making goofy videos such as the one above.

And here is one by Rohan, in which a car seems to eat things in its path, and then a dinosaur hugs a Lego block.

Geek Mom

The most beautiful molecule in the universe. When I realized this model even shows the triple C-G bonds and the double A-T bonds, my heart gave a flutter. I couldn't help myself -- I gave the boys a little DNA-makes RNA-makes protein lecture on the spot.  Their response was to ask if they could go inside (we were on the plaza in front of the Lawrence Hall of Science), because it was getting hot. Geek Mom was crushed, but undefeated. Someday soon she will raise her head and hopes again, spreading light and joy and genetics everywhere. Never fear!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

DON'T try this at home

This post is not for the faint of heart.  If you disregard this warning and choose to read on, I accept no responsibility for the nausea, queasiness, or feelings of revulsion that may follow.

This post is about homeschooling and Bavarian headcheese.

What, you may ask, do these things have in common?  In my limited experience, they are both things that one should not, under any circumstances (unless you are a trained, licensed, bonded and insured professional) try at home.

I picked up this package of Bavarian headcheese on a whim, as an answer to Suresh's previous choice of tasty, spicy slices of capicola, from the deli. I had no idea what "headcheese" was, all I knew was that it looked interesting, had a fascinating name, and that I was in Berkeley and it was time to break out of old patterns and try new things.  Suresh and I have a long-standing tradition of hosting date-nights at home for each other, in which we'd get a bottle of wine, a hunk of cheese we had never tried before, and maybe some cold cuts and a baguette, and nibble away in front of a movie after the children were in bed.  So with something similar in mind, I tossed the headcheese into my basket without a second thought.

When we opened the package yesterday evening, a pickled meat aroma greeted us. Not to be dissuaded by the meat slices' rubbery feel (because, as you recall, I was breaking boundaries!  Experiencing new things! I am on sabbatical, dang it all!), I slid a piece of the meat-gel conglomerate into my mouth. Not bad, but not good either. Then Suresh had the brilliant idea of googling just what this stuff was, and how it got its name. (I recommend you do not do this, for your own peace of mind.). After we found out, I was nauseous the rest of the evening. I am still in shock that a) someone once thought that making congealed head parts into something edible was a good idea and b) Safeways, of all places, is allowed to sell the stuff in stores. I am also constantly checking myself for the first symptoms of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, which my over-active amygdala is quite convinced I have contracted from the experience.

This is precisely how a seemingly good and innocent idea (trying out something new at a grocery store) can lead to chaos, despair, and ultimately one's own demise.

The same may very well be true for homeschooling: a simple, innocent-sounding idea that can go very very wrong in the wrong hands.  Let's consider this endeavor for a moment. Two sweet young boys, with their whole lives ahead of them, and who have absolutely no say in the matter, are kept at home by their well-meaning but misguided mother who can convince herself, even momentarily, that eating something called "headcheese" is a good idea.  You begin to see what I mean. There are no pre-requisites for this year-long engagement.  I didn't have to apply for a license to teach my children (even though to be a teacher in any public school you need to have a license).  I didn't have to undertake any additional schooling for this job or even student-teach under the watchful eye of a master elementary school teacher. I simply walked into the district office, provided proof of residency, put down Independent Study as my choice for my children, and walked out, with all my documentation signed and approved. I didn't have to provide any proof that my husband and I would do a good job as the sole educators of our children. To legally drive a car, I would have had to produce several forms of identification, pay fees, fill out several forms, take a test proving that I could read, write, follow directions, and assimilate knowledge on some rudimentary level, and then I would have had to actually get in the car and prove that I could maneuver a vehicle with some degree of competence.  Not so when placed at the helm of the family's educational schooner on uncharted waters.

Well-meaning friends have looked at me when I voiced my concerns and said with all kindness and optimism, "Don't worry, you'll do fine." Perhaps they are thinking I will "do fine" because I survived stay-at-home motherhood for half a decade while the boys were still infants and toddlers relatively unscathed (not counting the numerous times I hid from the kids in the bathroom using yoga breaths to keep from hyperventillating). Perhaps it is because there is some misguided notion that if you have a PhD, then you did well at school and therefore are fully equipped to help others do well at school. What they don't realize is that a PhD is precisely the degree that you do not want to have in order to give your children a good elementary education.  Having a PhD means I have spent the last few decades of my life focusing intensely on the detailed minutiae of one tiny aspect of the universe, in my case, fruit fly and human genetics, at the expense of everything else. And in some ways, that expense can be costly. I may be able to describe how the fourth wing vein of Drosophila melanogaster is formed in intimate detail, but frankly, I don't think I could pick out Justin Timberlake from a lineup of Caucasian men. I could tell you about the putative role arbaclofen has in the treatment of types of autism and Fragile X Syndrome, but I can't keep my mind from wandering wildly as I hear a child chant his multiplication tables, waving him off with a, "That sounds fine, dear." I don't see dirty laundry on the floor, or crumbs on the kitchen countertop, or even register that my younger son has eaten a whole bag of M&Ms when I'm reading a paper, looking up something on Pubmed, or googling the function of a new gene just linked to obesity.  I am wholly unqualified to be a homeschool teacher, and yet signing up to do it was actually one of the easiest things I've done, administratively speaking, in my life.

That deep knowledge, that I am completely unqualified to be at the reins of my children's education, and have no safety net, no higher governmental authority or some kind of Council for the Welfare of Childrens' Minds to turn to, is what keeps me up at night.  Perhaps it is the PhDs of this world who actually require more watching over, more practical help, more infusions of common sense than the rest of us. After all, where was a higher authority looking over my shoulder at my shopping basket in the grocery store when I needed her?

Tomorrow we go to meet the children's Independent Study Coordinator/Teacher for the first time. I'm hoping against hope that this person will be that authority for me, looking over my shoulder when I start getting dangerous thoughts about the things I could teach my children ("Come here and let's look at your hot dog under the microscope!") and stepping in when I want to start feeding them the academic equivalent of headcheese.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Saturday in San Francisco

    Really excited to see Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. Or maybe just really excited.

Peasant Pies:  Suresh and my favorite (cheap!) eatery from grad school times on Irving in San Francisco. Alas, they stopped making my favorite spicy clam pot pie, but they use the same comforting recipe that we remember so well for everything else.

After lunch, we made our way over to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, where the koi were large, well-fed, and friendly.
(Why can't our backyard look like this?)

Rohan, sporting new glasses

You know you're on sabbatical when ... you order a soft serve cone that is so complicated that it has to be put in a bowl with the accompanying cone added on top as an afterthought. Suresh pictured here with his creation:  organic vanilla-chocolate ice cream twirl dipped in dark fair trade chocolate with strawberry sauce and rainbow sprinkles, cone askew.