Saturday, December 15, 2007

Winter 2007 Newsletter

Now that our family has been spread apart for more than a year, I am really feeling what the empty nest syndrome is all about.

John is again teaching his class on Severe and Unusual Weather in Illinois this fall, with the resultant, rather long commute to also work half time in Alaska. He is still working on global climate, with a specialization in the Arctic and has been involved in writing the IPCC report, which, along with Al Gore, won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. John says that his portion of the prize amounts to about 78 cents, given all of the thousands of scientists who worked on the report.

Rachel returned from Suriname at the beginning of August, after spending a bit more than 8 months in the jungle watching monkeys, although I think they had close encounters with other beasts, too (See the picture of the caiman at left.). They worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, and she says, “It was awesome.”

While Rachel was cavorting with capuchins, her mother was busy monitoring grad school applications and making travel arrangements for visiting said schools. Rachel finally decided on Berkeley, where she is currently working on a Ph. D. in Integrative Biology. Not only did she receive a Berkeley fellowship, but she also received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, so she is off to a good start.

I visited Rachel at Berkeley briefly when we went to my sister, Wynell’s for Thanksgiving. Rachel’s apartment is fairly small, but isn’t terribly expensive for Berkeley and she has a nice room.

We had a good time at Wynell’s. It was great to see Lindsey and meet Bill. We drove up Highway one and had a gorgeous day. In Aptos, we stayed with Aunt Win and got to see Paula, Tom, and Nate (Gabe was off gallivanting with some girl ☺).

I also got to take the trip of a lifetime to visit Alyssa when she was in Egypt. We took an 8-day tour that included a 4-day cruise on the Nile from Aswan to Luxor and a flight to and from Abu Simbel on the southern Egyptian border. It was a fascinating trip, not just for a look at the antiquities, but also as a look into current Egyptian culture.

And Alyssa was quite a traveler while she was in Egypt, with trips to Switzerland, Scotland, France, England, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Jordan. I wish I could include all of her pictures from her travels, as they are fascinating, but here, at least is one.

This fall, Alyssa is back at the University of Illinois for her senior year. Her major is International Relations and she is anticipating graduation in May 2008. She also has a new baby. His name is Sark, he is an orange tabby and he is adorable.

I have continued subbing and am enjoying it most days. I especially enjoy 3rd through 6th grades.

Just before Rachel got back from Suriname, Kathryn (aka Kay) and I went down to visit our mother in Alabama. At 92 now, she is still doing pretty well and we had a nice visit.

I am still enjoying the cats – Hobbes (aka Piggy) is now two years old and is large, furry, and sweet. Cookie is not healthy, but she has been more affectionate, with age and illness now taking their toll.

Alaska is gorgeous at this time of year – with the low sun turning the sky to pastels and gold. I know a lot of people think only of how dark and cold it must be, but I marvel nearly every day at how beautiful it is. This is sunrise from our deck in Alaska.

I wish you all a happy holiday season.
Love, Laura

Monday, July 23, 2007

Intelligent Life in the Classroom by Karen Isaacson and Tamara Fisher

Parts of this book are interesting and parts of it I found annoying. The part that I find most annoying is that I didn't see any acknowledgement that teachers often do not have much choice in the material they present or the manner in which it is presented. For instance, the district I sub in has adopted curricula in all of the subject areas in the elementary grades. For reading and math, the adopted curricula include textbooks that have mostly scripted lessons. This past year, since the math program was new, teachers were urged to follow the program explicitly. That meant that the lesson was pretty much pre-planned and there was very little chance to deviate from it. In fact, the textbooks and teachers' manuals are so overwhelming that very few teachers were able to include all of the material they were supposed to cover - there was simply too much.

Now, I know this book is supposed to be about taking GT kids into account and believe me, I think that is super important, but how does the regular classroom teacher have time to do that? When the teachers are struggling to just get through the regular material, how do they have time or energy to do the extension activities or even, for that matter, the activities for English language learners or those for kids who need more support? When the book fails to take any of this into account, it seems completely unrealistic to me. Sure, it would be lovely to be able to chuck your whole lesson because one of your students was super interested in mold. But teachers have this thing called accountability and they can't do that very often. Yes, that is a fault of the system, but to present it as though the teachers have a choice in the matter is a bit unfair.

The part of the book that I found interesting was the description of the pullout classes. I ran pullout classes for 5 years and remember them fondly. I never had any particular child as outstanding as the girls described in this book, but we did some very interesting and worthwhile stuff. One of my favorites was dissecting old computers and then dissecting fetal pigs and comparing them as systems. I would love to do that kind of thing again.

This isn't a bad book - a bit condescending in places and, as described above, a bit unrealistic. But it might make a reasonable introduction to giftedness for some teachers. There are better books in terms of practicality, but this one is OK for motivation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Driving the Dalton Highway

We had house guests this past week. They were husband/wife scientists studying the effects of ground cover on climate and weather. While they were here, they wanted to drive up to the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, looking at and photographing vegetation and land forms on the trip.

So, last weekend we drove the Dalton Highway with them. It is a 13 hour drive up and also back (i.e., each way) and was a real experience. It is a good thing we did it in a rental car or our car would have taken a real beating. We were bombarded with rocks on long stretches of bumpy "road" and by the time we got back, the car was covered in mud, from where they spray the road with a solution of calcium chloride and water to try to keep the dust down. Of course, it was even worse on the motorcyclists, of which there were, surprisingly, quite a few.

On the plus side, we saw lots of caribou, quite a few sik-sik (aka arctic ground squirrels), swans, geese, and 4 moose. We also saw lots of gorgeous scenery - mountains, hills, wild flowers, etc. And I learned about pingos, tundra polygons, and solifluction lobes.

On the negative side: Deadhorse is a dump. It is purely functional, with virtually nothing aesthetic around. It is a good thing the trip up and back provided for a lot of that. We took a tour of Prudhoe Bay. The tour guide was very interested in giving us good oil company PR. I would have welcomed more candor. There wasn't one word about the fact that they had to shut down a huge portion of the oil fields in the past year, due to massive leaks in the pipes and in the pipeline itself.

We did, however, also get a chance to go into the Arctic Ocean on the tour. It is - surprise - VERY COLD. I went in - just wading and got a certificate and our guests did, too. My husband didn't - he said he had gone in when he was in Barrow and that was enough.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Rainbows after midnight.
Fourth of July fireworks in the middle of the winter, when it is dark enough.
Foxes tackling each other in the back yard.
A moose lying down chewing her cud - do moose do that?
A porcupine digging in the grass.
All this less than 5 miles from the center of town.
Lilacs blooming in the middle of June.
Sunset and sunrise in the north, one rapidly following the other.
Waking up in the middle of the "night" and being confused about whether it is 3:00 am or 3:00 pm on the clock.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Watching Foxes

The foxes have been in the back yard off and on now for two weeks. There is a rather mangy looking mother. She seems to have lost a lot of fur around her neck and off of her back. For all that, she seems healthy, but worse for wear. At various times, I see her with one, two, or three kits. The kits started out about as big as my cat, but they seem to be growing pretty fast.

In addition to the regular mother fox, I have also seen what I think might be another mother, but she only seemed to have one kit. She also seemed quite a bit younger than the mom. I was wondering if maybe this was a previous year's daughter.

Then, one day I looked out and there was the regular mom with six kits - and the other mom was nowhere in sight. I think maybe regular mom was doing day care for busy fox mothers. She has her work cut out for her. The kits are pretty active - running, pouncing, attacking each other, exploring. They don't stay still for very long.

I tried to get their pictures once, but the regular mom was startled when I opened the door to the deck and she gave this barking call - and the kits ran for cover immediately. I was afraid then that they wouldn't be back, now that I had violated their feelings of safety. But they have been back several times since then. Sometimes they look at the windows and I can tell they can see me, but as long as I am inside, they don't run away.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Foxes in the Back Yard

A few days ago, there were, at different times, a porcupine and a moose. Today, a family of foxes is playing back there. Mom sits patiently in the sun, while the kits, four of them, frolic at the edge of the trees and the yard, in the bushes and tree litter. I wouldn't have thought that, this close to town, I would get so much wildlife, but I am glad for it. I would love to take pictures of them, but I am afraid that opening the door to the deck would scare them away and taking pictures through the window doesn't seem to work well.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Morphing Brown Thing

I often sit at my computer and look out the window. I have a fantastic view of the Alaska Range and I never seem to grow tired of looking at it.

The other morning, I was looking out the window and noticed a brown lumpy thing at the edge of our lawn - and it was moving. After much searching of the Internet, I decided that, although I couldn't really see quills, it must be a porcupine, since all of the other choices were obviously wrong - it wasn't a badger, no stripes - it was too big for a marmot, etc. I watched it for a long time and then it just seemed to go to sleep and I gradually forgot about it and went off to work.

The next morning, I looked to see if it was back and saw a much larger brown thing exactly where the smaller brown thing had been the previous day. It had morphed.  [There was a moose picture here, but the link to it has been broken.]

I haven't seen one of these for months - and now, here it is in the back yard, serenely munching away.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Egypt - A Sweet Memory

We went to visit the Citadel and the mosque of Mohammed Ali. It was a holiday of sorts and there were a lot of school groups around. I mentioned in an earlier message that they had found that over 80% of Egyptian children had never seen important parts of Egypt's cultural heritage. Since then, there has been a great effort expended in taking kids to visit these monuments and see the artifacts.

Our guide explained that many of the school groups there came from the countryside and that they would be curious about us, because many had never seen tourists before.

So, we walked from the bus stop up to the entrance of the citadel, encompassed by a crowd of both tourists and school children. At the entrance, we took off our shoes and carried them with us. If the people at the door thought anyone wasn't sufficiently covered up, they were given a grass green cape with ties to put on. Two members of our group of 16 were given a cape to wear.

The first place we saw was a courtyard with a large fountain in the middle. This is the place where you are supposed to cleanse yourself. The fountain wasn't actually in operation, as far as I could tell, but was being used for pictures and shade.

Off to the side of the courtyard was the entrance to the mosque. As is befitting a Muslim mosque, it was elegantly symmetrical and elaborately decorated throughout. The carpet, though worn, is the original carpeting.

We sat in a circle around our guide, while he explained the history, the layout, and the activities going on in the mosque. Many people stood around our circle and listened to the guide, as he delivered his explanations.

I was sitting a little outside the circle and pretty soon a group of school girls came up behind us. They were intrigued by the guide speaking English and by us, the foreigners. One young lady, probably about 12 or 13 years old, sat down next to me and tried to practice her English. She asked me my name - and I told her. Then she related what I said to all of her friends who furiously whispered the news around them. They then suggested the next question she should ask, "Where are you from?" My response again was greeted with furious whispering, as the news was spread throughout her small group. This continued for several rounds. They were so eager to find out more about us - and I must admit, as a teacher, I was eager to interact more with them. The enthusiasm and simple pleasure of the whispered conversation was joyous. But before I could get my chance to reciprocate their questions, their leader gathered them and took them away. Still, it was a precious moment for me.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Egypt - Style of Dress

One of the things that was interesting to me was the customary dress of the local people. Men seem to wear a wide variety of clothes, from shorts and short sleeved tops to long galabiyas, which are long sleeved, full-length dress-like garments, which are worn on top of t-shirts and often ankle length pants - linen or denim or plain cotton. It was amazing to me that, in the, to me, oppressive heat, there were lots of people wearing sweaters, jackets, and even parkas. I guess it is a matter of getting used to it, but it is still amazing to see.

The guide said that the only edicts from Islam about dress specify only that people must dress modestly. There is nothing any more specific than that, according to him.

The dress of the women is also interesting. Although it is acceptable for women not to wear a hijab (a head scarf, worn to cover most of the hair) in Egypt, probably a slight majority of women do wear one. One of the reasons seems to be that women wearing a hijab are less frequently the target of unwanted male attention. Many young women wear conservative clothing to protect their reputations and the reputations of their families. It is almost a way of saying, "Leave me alone; I am not interested." The most severe form of dress for women is the complete covering. Burqas are not seen in Egypt, but there are women who cover up everything except their eyes, even wearing gloves and socks to cover hands and feet. On the other hand, at the mall, we saw quite a few young women wearing hijabs, flamboyant face makeup, tight-fitting tops, and skin-tight jeans.

As tourists, we were very frequently the target of repeated, and annoying economic harassment. My daughter, who is living in Egypt this year while attending the American University in Cairo, said that verbal harassment is quite common, and it sometimes gets a bit more physical than that. We never felt endangered, but it is irritating. But, apparently, there is no real defense against it. Egyptians do not like to see foreigners imitating their customs either, i.e., it doesn't help for the American tourist to wear a scarf.

I don't really blame them. Much of the verbal harassment is designed to get the foreign tourist to look at the wares they are selling. The cost of the items is frequently fairly small for tourists, but that is their income and it is vital. Still, it does get tiring to have to be constantly on the alert against unwanted attention. If you look their way when you are passing their shops, you are accosted, "Take a look - no hassle!" If you reply and say, "No, thank you," that is the prompt for them to escalate their verbal assault. There is constant pressure to look at their wares, to stay there even when it is apparent that they do not have what you want, to buy even after you have decided not to, and then to suffer their scorn when you walk away ("Oh my GOD!" is the frequent parting remark.). It was uncomfortable for me. If you try to be polite, it is considered a sign of weakness. There were even many occasions on which I would probably have purchased more from the vendors if they had simply left me alone to look.

Egypt Trip - Early Observations

On the grounds of the very upscale Mena House Garden Hotel, a woman cooks bread for dinner. Interesting contrast - fancy hotel and more traditional cooking method. I even got a free sample. Yum!

Yes, here I am, in front of the pyramids. I really was there. Amazing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Back from Egypt - Taxis and Taxing

This was also posted on GT-Talk.

The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel where the tour began
was interesting in several respects. The first one was the taxi
itself. Since I was staying in a relatively expensive hotel, the
taxi contracted to take me to the hotel was upscale from the
average taxi. Nevertheless, it was a wild ride. Egyptian drivers
seem to think that lane line markers are for wimps - they are totally
irrelevant for the normal flow of traffic and are obeyed basically
by busses only. The cars weave in and out of lanes as if they
weren't marked at all. A street that is supposed to be 2 lanes
can have as many as 4 cars driving in parallel along it. Stop
lights are virtually non-existent in most of the city and where they
do appear, they are frequently not working. Red lights, in my
experience meant, though, that the taxi driver DID at least slow
down. And the drivers do usually obey the policemen who
preside over some of the busier intersections.

Surprisingly, though, there aren't that many accidents - at least
in the city. The frequent use of the horn meant that drivers
usually weren't blind-sided. At night, the cars often do not turn
on their headlights, but they do flash their lights in place of the
honking that they do during the day. But outside of Cairo is
evidently much different. The accident rate in Egypt is one of
the highest in the world. And few vehicles are insured, since
the cost of insurance is too high for most vehicle owners to be
able to afford.

Pedestrians, though, have it even more difficult. Trying to cross
a busy street is not a task to be undertaken lightly by either the
inexperienced or the infirm. I think the drivers enjoy using the
pedestrians for target practice. We missed hitting many pedestrians
and many other taxis by mere inches (or centimeters).

Taxis are not expensive, though. A ride across Cairo, from the
Nile to the airport generally costs around $10 (American dollars).

Another interesting thing about that first taxi ride was the first
impression I got of the city: it is very brown and looks like it has
been bombed out. The brownness might be expected - after all
the raw materials for building - rock, dirt, and sand - are all various
shades of brown. But the bombed out look is due to an interesting
feature of their tax law.

When Cairo began to grow rapidly many years ago now, there
was a severe lack of housing. To encourage people to build
new apartment buildings, the government decided not to tax
buildings while they were under construction. Well, it worked.
Most of the buildings, probably 90% of them, are still under
construction. Even though the lower floors of a building are
inhabited, the roof is virtually never finished. There are usually
partially finished floors at the top of every building. It gives the
city an impoverished look that isn't entirely deserved.

I discussed this tax law with our guide who seemed to feel that
there should be a time cap on building - after 5 years a building
should be taxed no matter what. I told him that the way it worked
on our property in Alaska was that assessors checked on the
value of the land and any buildings on it by comparing them to
other land and buildings in the neighborhood. Then, finished or
not, they were assessed according to their current value. He
seemed to think that was a good idea, but that it had little chance
of being implemented, as the people like not being taxed for their
"unfinished" apartments.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Egypt Trip - Preparation

I have been buying travel size things to pack - shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, etc. It is interesting to me that in the US, we don't have the same sizes of shampoo bottles that they do in Europe. When I went to Germany and my luggage was delayed, I had to buy shampoo and the regular size was about half the size of the smaller bottle that you get in the US. And the least expensive bottle in the US is gigantic - about 4 times as big, as the regular sized container in the US. I wonder what the difference in the psychology of marketing is. Do Americans shop to get a bargain and think that a giant sized container must be a bargain? Do Europeans think that they waste less when they ration out the contents of a small bottle?

I am so worried that I will forget to do something that MUST be done before I leave, or that I will forget to pack something vital. I hope that I calm down somewhat after I am underway.

I still have to pack. I went over what clothes I planned to take today and changed my mind almost completely about what I am taking. What a disaster!

I wish I had felt like doing more preparation for the trip. I bought a travel guide, but I didn't look at it very much.

I think my cats are going to miss me. John doesn't play with them - he will feed them and keep their stuff clean, but they need attention, too, and he probably won't give them that. I hope they don't get too bored. And I hope the older one doesn't die while I am gone. She has hyperthyroidism, which we have elected not to treat. We are letting her live out her natural life, as it were. She doesn't actually seem very sick. She still runs around and plays and has a good appetite.

Friday, March 16, 2007

World Ice Art Championships

Chambered Nautilus

Rain over Denali

A New Song

I'm not sure what the title of this one was, but it is one big insect!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Personality Test

I think this is moderately accurate, except that I am a bit more physically active than this test would tell. They asked about running for an hour. Well, I don't run, but I do swim 2/3 of a mile every other day. I am not fast, but I have good endurance. Oh, well, it was fun. At least on most of the questions for this test, I wasn't constantly trying to choose both sides of the question. I always have that problem with MBTI tests.

Advanced Global Personality Test Results
Extraversion |||||||||||||| 53%
Stability |||||||||||||| 56%
Orderliness |||||||||||||| 56%
Accommodation |||||||||||||||||||| 83%
Interdependence |||||||||||||||| 70%
Intellectual |||||||||||||||||||| 83%
Mystical || 10%
Artistic |||||| 30%
Religious || 10%
Hedonism || 10%
Materialism |||||||||||| 50%
Narcissism |||||||||||| 50%
Adventurousness |||| 16%
Work ethic |||||||||||| 50%
Self absorbed |||||||||||||| 56%
Conflict seeking |||||| 23%
Need to dominate |||||||||||| 43%
Romantic |||||||||| 36%
Avoidant |||||||||||| 43%
Anti-authority |||||||||| 36%
Wealth |||||||||||| 50%
Dependency |||||||||||||| 56%
Change averse |||||||||||| 50%
Cautiousness |||||||||||||| 56%
Individuality |||||||||||| 43%
Sexuality |||||| 23%
Peter pan complex |||||| 23%
Physical security |||||||||||||||||||| 90%
Physical Fitness || 10%
Histrionic |||| 16%
Paranoia |||||||||| 36%
Vanity |||||||||| 36%
Hypersensitivity |||||||||||||||| 63%
Female cliche |||||| 23%
Take Free Advanced Global Personality Test
personality tests by

Monday, March 12, 2007

Alyssa's White Desert Pictures

Alyssa took some pictures of the White Desert in Egypt that I love, for their shadows, forms, and colors. I am going to post some of them here (with her permission) so that I can tell people how to see them.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Another Subbing Complaint

I subbed for a third grade teacher who was out with a sick child. In the middle of the day, she called to find out how things were going. At the time, I had told all of the kids to put their heads down, because they were talking when I was trying to tell the whole class something. While I was on the phone with the regular teacher, she asked if I would return the next day for a partial day. I agreed, because I generally think it is better for the kids to have fewer, rather than more subs; and the class, while a bit too talkative, was basically a nice class.

The next day, I arrived at 11:00 and the teacher proceeded to talk to the kids about their bad behavior the previous day. She said that the kids had reported that I was nice and to her that meant that they took advantage of me by abusing my niceness. She was probably right, but it made me very uncomfortable - to be sitting there while she lectured the kids about me being too nice to them. It felt like she was really upbraiding me for not being meaner.

And, again, she was probably right. I really am not mean enough to be a good sub. I am smart, knowledgeable, resourceful, kind, interesting, interested, etc., etc., but I am not mean. I suppose that is my downfall. Maybe I should find a job where you can be nice to people and not get yelled at for being like that. I wonder if there is a job like that.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Subbing - Bad Days

I have just come off of a couple of not so good days subbing and I am questioning whether I should continue doing it. It isn't that it was horrid, it wasn't, but I feel like it was a lot of hard work for not enough compensation. Kids aren't very respectful of subs. They weren't when I was a kid either. I remember stealing the shoe of one sub (who took them off when he sat at the teacher's desk) and passing it around the class until one kid finally put it outside the window on the roof next to the classroom. And that was more than 40 years ago. But the question is whether _I_ want to put up with it. Maybe, as my brother keeps insisting, I should get a "real" job. Too bad there aren't more half time jobs. I like working, but I also like to have time to myself.