30 June 2011

Four Things Society Needs to do Differently

People often ask me, "Jason, how can we make the world a better place?" I often have a good answer, and am often interrupted by some variation of "Ugh. The question was rhetorical. I'm not listening."

Today's blog will put a few of these tidbits down in writing, so that when someone actually wants to know, the answers will be ready.

Get rid of the word "indescribable"

Quoting a dictionary,
indescribable adj 1 : that cannot be described

Note the part of a speech. It's an adjective. What is an adjective? It's a word that describes a noun. Therefore, "indescribable" describes something that (allegedly) cannot be described. It is a self-contained contradiction and therefore has no meaning. Q.E.D.

Stop electing politicians by district

I wasn't the first to come up with this idea (Robert Heinlein and L. Niel Smith have both mentioned it), but it occurred to me quite independently.

Having a government run by district-elected politicians is like having no literature available except movies that cost $50 million or more to produce. None of the small-budget films would be around. Books would be entirely excluded. You couldn't be on the market unless you had mass appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Fortunately, we don't have that system for literature. A book doesn't have to sell 100,000 copies in the ninth district of Washington to be a viable market commodity. A book can appeal to scattered elite throughout the country; and if it's really good, it will stick around, eventually get noticed, and maybe even influence some of the people who ignored it the first time around and spent their money renting Transformers 5: We've Stopped Pretending This is Live Action and Just Made a Cartoon.

But district-based elections ignore minorities. Worse, perhaps, they can barely address a complicated issue where there's a significant split of three or more (as opposed to the theoretically perfect two) viewpoints. In a geographically homogenous country, every politician runs on the same "centrist" or "majoratorian" platform, with only slight variances here and there (which have much more to do with regional business concerns and location-specific federal grants than any difference in the populace's ability to understand national issues). Then when the Senate votes 97-3 in favor of a bill, there is a false perception that they are representing a near-unanimous national opinion-- when, in actuality, it's probably closer to 55%. When they vote 55-45 in favor of a bill, they're likely representing something like 35% of the population, with another 30% opposed and the remainder uncaring or unknowing.

Require that Scrabble words be used in a sentence

Clever as I am, you might think I'm a dab hand at Scrabble. I'm not, really, because the game doesn't reward adroit language skill. Scrabble only requires that you know something is a word, not that you actually understand the word.

With advances in computer algorithms, it would not be difficult to create an impartial judge. So each time a player places a word, he/she also forms a sentence, and the computer judge determines whether or not that sentence conveys the meaning of the word; bonus points for more original usage and better demonstration of meaning.

Partly, I like this idea because it will improve our language skills as a society. But mostly, I think it will improve my Scrabble game.

Stop thinking bears are cute

Why bears? Is it because they can stand up on their hind legs and look vaguely anthropomorphic? Is it because we've seen too many Coke commercials of CG bears sharing a refreshing cola? And why doesn't that Coke freeze?

Male bears reproduce via hit-and-run tactics, leaving the lady-bear knocked up and without support. Is that cute? Let's transfer some of that affection to less-obviously-cute animals with good family values, like hyenas and vultures.

Polar bears have become a poster child for global warming concern. And if they help raise awareness of environmental problems, then rah rah, I'm all for it. But the bears themselves are worthless. They eat seals. Whup. Sharks and cetaceans can pick up the slack, I'm sure. As for their more southerly cousins in temperate forests, do they even do as much as the polar bear? Is there a danger of exploding, out-of-control berry population? And if it weren't bad enough that bears are useless, no single animal can do as much damage to a hive of honeybees as a bear. And they do it.

And if you don't like bees, then we have nothing to talk about.


29 June 2011

Reading at the Soul of Writing

Today is Writing Wednesday. I should logically be sharing some precious nugget related to writing that I managed to find in the course of living a life when I barely have time to breathe. There must be something, and even if there is nothing, I could speak about why I have not even attempted the Burrow Novel Writing Month Challenge. But everytime I have sat down to write this post, only one idea has floated into my mind, and that has to do not with Writing, but with Reading. And since it refuses to go away, I have no choice but to write about it.

The truth universally recognised is that unless you are a Reader, it is unlikely that you can call yourself a Writer. It is by reading that you assimilate the ideas, structures, thoughts and techniques which are needed to become a Writer. But does the converse hold? 

If you are a writer, does that mean you are also a good reader? Logically yes, but in reality, I wonder. The other day, I was witness to a long exchange on something unrelated to writing. Two people had been arguing about something, and since both were supposedly talking about something else while carrying on their altercation, I told them both that it may be best to open up a discussion specifically on that topic. They agreed long enough to decide which of them would start the discussion off. The first post was a mature one- the writer had tried his best to present both sides, though it was clear where his sympathies lay. The other person responded underlying his contention- another reasonably mature post. And after that the discussion degenerated. The first person kept shouting his viewpoint, the second person his. Both were yelling at each other, neither bothered to listen to what the other was saying, and when new people joined the discussion, they chose sides and continued just adding their voice to the cacophony. After a lot of shouting and yelling, both parties decided to call off the debate.

As a bystander, I could only marvel at the entire exchange. Beautiful pieces of prose, coherently and elegantly offering up their opinions. Responses in equally forceful language. It should have been good, except, it was not because while everyone was busy writing, nobody was reading. 

Had either party read what the other wrote, they would have found loopholes, and might even have been able to win. But they chose not to read, and therefore got nowhere.

As we struggle towards finishing the writing we have each embarked on, can we make a pledge? That even while we write, we will also read, listen and assimilate. As writers, we owe it to other writers that their words are read, and their thoughts interpreted. And there is no better way of improving as a writer than by reading.

28 June 2011

Hypocritical much?

I'm well aware that Japan and the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami is out of international news by now. It's been long replaced with other stories, such as Libya, Syria, other countries that end with -ia, and politicians tweeting their wieners. If covered at all, chances are that what you hear from Japan has the word "Fukushima" in it, since that seems to be the preferable way news desks worldwide see the potential for scaring people into buying papers.

That might sound cynical, but I've been monitoring foreign coverage of Japan lately, and it's not encouraging. If you have spotted Japan in the news recently, there's a good chance you think the entire country is a wasteland. If you haven't, though, there is an equally good chance you think everything is back to normal.

Neither is particularly close to the truth.

First of all, there are areas where the tsunami left entire societies in pieces, many of which are still not rebuilt, some of which it will take years to fix. Many of the people - those who survived - previously living in these societies, have not been able to return yet. Some are still living in shelters - high schools and sports centers and whatnot - while others have moved to temporary housing of the slightly more permanent kind. But even here there are problems. Some of these houses do not have tap water, or if they do, it might not be drinkable. Some of them are located far away from shops and other facilities, which is unfortunate since many of the residents are elderly and/or without cars (a substantial number of cars were washed away or destroyed in the disaster).

Then there is Fukushima. It is still very much a topic - both because it is ongoing, even though the reports of new developments are few and less spectacular now than they were in the beginning. But there remain unanswered questions. How much radiation was actually released, and can we trust the measuring now? What sort of impact does this, and the still heightened levels surrounding the defunct power plant, have on the people living there, the food produced close by, or the fish in the surrounding sea?

In addition, there is a political crisis in the country. The Prime Minister is sitting on a bit of a catapult seat (the details of which you can find in a rant from yours truly, here). While it seems to me that the Japanese population isn't particularly happy about changing the head of the government right in the middle of a crisis, the members of the parliament seem intent to do so. Further, the political crisis might have direct influence on the general crisis, since passing of laws and bills (such as the reconstruction budgets, for instance) requires political agreement.

And let's not forget the economic crisis while we're at it. The disaster sent Japan into its first trade deficit for more than a decade. That alone isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that exports have gone down - more or less the only thing that was pulling the already sluggish Japanese economy - is not good. However, by now a lot of the production in Japan is nearing its pre-crisis level. That opens for exports again, and thus there might be light at the end of the tunnel. But Japan already faced tremendous economic challenges before the crisis, and so far it's looking like the impact of the crisis has been all bad (without even the small benefit of inflation, as some economists hoped for).

Apart from this, however, most of Japan is functioning as usual. It's not dangerous to travel here - unless you insist on going to the no-go zone around the Fukushima-power plant... Same goes for food produced in Japan - I don't worry about that anymore. I trust that the tests the authorities in cooperation with international organizations such as WHO perform are as good as they can get, and that the food here probably will not kill me anymore than food produced elsewhere would (e.coli in Europe, anyone?). And despite all the bad things I said about the Japanese economy in the previous paragraph, I do think it's safe and wise to invest here again. The tsunami did not wash away the Japanese innovative spirit. They *will* recover, and foreign investments will be much needed (and probably much rewarded, with time).

As for quakes? Yes, there is still the occasional aftershock, but by now they are mostly down to the pre-disaster levels. Japan has always been, and will always be, a seismically active country. Those of us who have spent some time here know this, and by now I'm not even as edgy about them as I was. I had the following conversation with a friend from back home the other day:

"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, my cold is getting better..."
"I meant the earthquake..."
"Earthquake? Oh, you mean the 6,7 we had this morning? Yeah, didn't feel it. Don't think it did any damage. No biggie."

So that's not so much an issue anymore.

What IS an issue, though, is the energy supply, and what will happen with it during summer.

You probably knew that the Fukushima plants are now closed (or as closed as they get, since they are still struggling to cool them down). But did you also know that a good 30 others of Japan's total 54 reactors are closed for the time being? Due to interruptions of regular security checks after 3/11, many plants were shut down as a safety measure. Japan has relied quite heavily on nuclear power, and thus this is putting a severe strain on the energy supply. During the summer, when the sweltering heat makes living and working without air-conditioning seem almost impossible, it is feared that the country will face blackouts. This coincides with industries trying their best to make up for lost production by running the assembly lines at top speed. And at a time when fossil fuels are running at an all-time high cost precisely due to the incidents in Japan, and those in the Middle East.

Japan is trying. The Prime Minister - from his catapult seat - is promoting renewable energies. It's a good cause, and an important one if Japan is to find economically and environmentally affordable energy sources in the future. But "future" is a keyword here. You cannot exchange nuclear for solar, geothermic, wind and hydro power overnight. The time frame Prime Minister Kan has set is "20% by early 2020s". It's commendable, ambitious and perhaps even possible. But it doesn't solve the problem right now, this summer.

People living here are also trying to save energy. They turn off their AC, or at least set the temperatures higher. In order to make this more feasible, the "Super Cool Biz" campaign  (a intensification of the regular "Cool Biz", where people are encouraged to loosen [or remove] their ties and jackets to better cope with the summer temperatures) is running. I haven't seen many Hawaii-shirts in Tokyo streets yet, but who knows - perhaps this will be the end of the traditional Japanese salaryman "uniform" - black suit, white shirts and ties?

It's difficult, though. Have you tried working in an office environment where the temperatures rise above 25, 30, 35 degrees (celcius)? It doesn't really matter if your shirt is white or Hawaiian, I can assure you. And the same ting goes for my house. Lately I've been sleeping poorly, waking up every hour or so, guiltily letting the AC run for a few minutes. I can't open the window - since the mosquitoes here seem intent to eat me alive - and it wouldn't do me much good anyway with the still hot night air flowing in with the bugs. It's not comfortable, and it's not healthy. And this is just the start. Summer in Tokyo is hot and humid, and June is nowhere near as bad as July or August. The worst is yet to come. Some claim that the nuclear lobby - a considerable force in this country - are keeping a low profile until the worst commotion has settled down. Then, when summer sets in for real, they might remind people how one again can afford using cooling systems. It might be a conspiracy strategy, but it really sounds quite effective...

The Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry is saying that it is safe to turn the nuclear reactors closed due to the security check interruptions back on. Prime Minister Kan admits that a (near) future without nuclear power in Japan is hard to imagine. The population, I don't know... As often is the case here, they generally don't speak up much. We've had some demonstrations, but we're talking a few hundred people. Out of 127 million. The newspaper Asahi Shimbun recently published an interesting survey, however. 74 percent said that they supported a gradual termination of nuclear power. I think this is probably the closest to the truth you get. Japanese people are pragmatic. They understand that shutting down all reactors tomorrow is impossible. But they also don't want another Fukushima.

Personally I see a lot of problems with nuclear power plants. If it were up to me, we'd have nothing of them. We'd go all the way for renewable energy (and when I say renewable, I mean that, and not pseudo-renewable as nuclear is, since it leaves HUGE infrastructural and logistic problems once the reactors are too old. They will continue to demand attention [and potentially costs] for centuries or millennia after they stop producing values). I'd like solar panels on every rooftop, windmills, and every other environmentally friendly energy form there is to dominate the market.

But for now it is an illusion. Maybe Japan will manage 20 by 2020. In the meantime, however, it's difficult not feeling like a hypocrite. I don't want them to turn the reactors back on, but I also don't want to live through the summer feeling like a raisin-zombie. I'll be leaving mid-July, so probably I'm not even going to see the worst of it. Which makes me an even bigger hypocrite.

But there you go. The world works as it always does. We all want too much. I want my cake, and I want to eat it too. And since I will leave the cake soon (stretching the metaphor here now, I know...), I feel that my nibbling at its edges won't make that big a difference. I'm good at turning off the light when I'm not in the room, after all... But of course it does, if we all think that way. Thus, I can only hope for Japan's sake that the rest of the people living here are not as big hypocrites as I am...

27 June 2011

Reading Monday: A Little of Everything

I will not lie. I have not been really reading any books lately. I've been actually keeping up with the media. Very unlike me but with my busy schedule, I only have time for short news articles, mainly science and national news, and The Color Purple that I am teaching my English class. It's been difficult to really focus on anything lately. So today I picked up Maximum Ride and began rereading the series. I needed something that was light, quick and not too taxing.

However, I do not wish to disappoint. So here we go . . .

I read this book some time ago but thought that for Stephanie Meyer, it was an excellent read. The Host: A Novel is about Melanie Stryder , a young woman who was infected with an altruistic alien parasite. These non-violent aliens quietly invade Earth and all war ends. There is no more illness but also no need for sexual intercourse since they reproduce via mitosis. Melanie has an internal struggle with her alien, Wanderer, and floods her with vivid memories of her long lost love, Jared. Wanderer gives in and they begin the journey of searching for Jared in a free colony of humans who have resisted against the alien invasion. The book is very well written and is truly an adult novel. So if you want to see a different side of Stephanie Meyer's writing, this is the book for you.

Now I am all for classics, so the next book I recommend is actually a play. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennesse Williams is a wonderful play about a married couple, Stella and Stanley, who are visited by Stella's sister, Blanche. Now stop ogling the young Marlon Brandon and pay attention. Yes, over here. Now Blanche has problems. She is an alcoholic, she's penniless and she likes them young. Blanche and all her issues bring nothing but discontent to Stanley's home. If you love a story with multitude layers, this is the play for you! Strictly adult though since there are sexual situations. If you end up loving this one, try The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Talk about a dysfunctional family!

Finally, a teen book which I found to be surprisingly enjoyable is Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare Book 1 by Darren Shan. This is the tale of a young man who bites off more than he can chew, no pun intended. Darren Shan, yes this is the main character and the author's name, goes to a freak show with his disgruntled best friend, Steve. They meet up with Mr. Crepsley, a spider loving vampire. Darren steals the spider and the spider ends up biting Steve. A deal is made and Darren becomes Mr. Crepsley's apprentice to save the life of his ungrateful friend. This is where Darren's journey begins as the vampire's assistant. Darren becomes entangled in the war of vampires against the vampanese, vampires who completely consume the life of their prey. Eventually Darren is pitted against Steve, who sides with the evil vampanese and they begin to fulfill their destinies. I can't wait to begin reading the second book!

However, all books will have to wait until all my other activities (homebuying, beginning of summer school with my students, exams, registering for a second master's degree and family) come to a close. Happy reading!

The Host attribution
Streetcar attribution
Cirque attribution

24 June 2011

Trivia Night

So y'all may have gathered that I have one of those brains that rather resembles an antique shop - tons and tons of old junk in no apparent order, but the owner knows exactly what and where everything is. As you can probably guess, this makes me a pretty good addition to your standard pub trivia team, if I do say so myself.

A bunch of my (current and former) coworkers and I head out to a local watering hole every Tuesday night in an attempt to win a $25 gift certificate towards our food and drinks (and rest assured, there's an awful lot of both consumed over the course of the evening), both by knowing or guessing the right answers and by carefully betting our allotted points. It's all kinds of complicated, our trivia night... lemme explain:

First thing we get is a picture round. 10 pics of who-knows-what - this week was famous Houstonians, sometimes it's alien movies, one-eyed characters, cartoon dogs, you name it, we've probably had it. This is where I tend to be reasonably useless - I just don't do faces. Fortunately, this is why we have a team.

Then comes the first quarter, with four questions, and here's where the strategy comes in. Point values are 1, 3, 5, and 7, each to be used only once; but the trivia jockey doesn't assign them, we do, so the trick is to put the higher values on the ones we know and save the low ones for when we're stumped. Second quarter, same deal.

Halftime throws another wrench into the works - we get a total of 5 clues to someone's identity, and the number of points we earn depends on how soon we get the right answer (10 if we get it on the first clue, only 2 if it takes all 5). Screw it up, though, and you lose 5 points, so we tend to be more careful on this one. I love it when I can get it from the birthdate alone - this is why I run around Wikipedia when I can't sleep and read all the pages for the actors in whatever movie I've just watched (I've gotten 3 that way {if you care, they were Ellen Page, Orlando Bloom, and Joaquin Phoenix}).

In the third and fourth quarters, we have to bet 2, 4, 6 or 8 points per question, and there's a third quarter bonus as well. Sometimes we knock these out of the park - one week it was Broadway musicals, we were all over that one - and sometimes we suck miserably, like this week when it was namesakes for roads. Erm, no.

All this leads up to the two-question final, which is (duh) two questions; gotta bet even numbers on this one, 'cause if you get it wrong, you lose half of whatever you wager. Again, strategy is important here - this week we were two points down going into the final, and the team ahead of us gave the same answers we did (one right, one wrong), but we bet 10 on the right one and 4 on the wrong one and they did the reverse, so we won. Even with 3/4 of the team missing - oh, did I mention there was a wedding on the team last weekend? :-)

Most of the team.

So ta-da! This is pretty much what passes for a social life in my strange little world. We win about 60 or 70% of the time, which helps, but for the love of Guinness, keep the sports questions to a minimum!

23 June 2011

Y'all know I'm a therapist right? I mean a PSYCHOtherapist? Yep. And you want me to write about delusional stuff? Yep. OK. But instead of my therapy hat (which is a soft grey slouchy thing), I'm going to wear my writer's cap - it is a beret. Orange with a bobble.

Because I'm a writer and my tools are words I want to talk about some that often get mishandled by the ham-fisted among us word wrasslers. Let's look at the first two up for grabs : illusion and delusion.
An illusion is a false mental image produced by misinterpretation of things that actually exist: 'A mirage is an illusion produced by reflection of light against the sky'.... A delusion is a persistent false belief: A' paranoiac has delusions of persecution'.
Random House Dictionary.
An illusion is fleeting, it is ephemeral - a delusion is a persistent false belief. Persistent. No matter how many times I smack my head on the overhead beam in my friend's basement - I still persist in thinking that I'm shorter than I am. As I fall to the cellar floor I see what I believe to be stars sparkling in the firmament. They aren't. They are illusions caused by the whack to my head.

But if I look up the word illusory - it starts to all get very sketchy:

illusory - based on or having the nature of an illusion; "illusive hopes of finding a better job"; "Secret activities offer presidents the alluring but often illusory promise that they can achieve foreign policy goals without the bothersome debate and open decision that are staples of democracy"

Do you see what I mean or is it only me? With this second definition the 'hopes' are illusive. What are they based on that makes them illusive rather than delusional? Is it that it isn't a persistent hope...yet? And with the secret activities statement is the promise really illusory or is it is just nicer to say that than 'offer presidents the alluring but delusional promise that they can achieve foreign policy goals etc...' I mean, surely to goodness, we can see the foregoing is a PERSISTENT delusion, not just a passing whimsy. Come on.
Let's go on to a few other views on this debate: Here is part of an article written by psychology professor, David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.
Just recently in my introductory psychology course, a student did not know the difference between an "illusion" and a "delusion." Since this is a common source of confusion, it is worth explaining.
An illusion is a misleading perception, usually visual. You see something, but you consistently misjudge its length, shape, motion or direction. To avoid further confusion, illusions are distinctly different from hallucinations – which involve sensing something that is not actually present. In contrast, illusions deal with stimuli that are actually present, but they are misinterpreted or hard to interpret.

"An illusion is a perceptual disturbance,
while a delusion is a belief disturbance.

On the other hand, a delusion is a deeply held false belief that is maintained – even when other information contradicts the belief. The contradictory information is either ignored completely or discounted in some way. Many prejudices rely on stereotypes that apply to a small minority in a group, but these stereotypes become delusional when they are used to judge everyone in that group.

Another way to think of this is to remember that magicians perform acts of illusion NOT delusion. We might be delusioned when we realize that there is no magic involved however.

What do you think of this pair of words? Do you have any other pairs of confusing words to share with us today? I mean besides bear and bare, aural and oral, discreet and discrete and amoral and immoral? Just wondering....

22 June 2011

Writing Wednesdays: BuNoWriMo Update

Well, it seems like I dropped the ball. Twice. First, I was supposed to have this post done by last night and ready for this morning. However, I'm overwhelmed. Between state exams, grading, proctoring exams, my three children, my husband and my 121 students, it's been a hell of a week. So please forgive me.

Secondly, I began writing for the BuNoWriMo. I am only at 2,000 words. Pitiful but on the bright side, that is 2,000 more words than I had before. So congrats to me! Also, congrats to the participants. I have been following many individuals on the Facebook BuNoWriMo page and wow! I am so happy to see that there are so many people who are almost at the 50,000 word mark and we still have a week left. If you are one of those individuals, shout yourself out and leave a comment with a status update! Good luck and happy writing.

21 June 2011

Harry Birthday Solstice

Erm... that may look like gibberish, and I won't try to convince you it's not, because gibberish IS in fact something I am fluent in... but there are a couple big things going on, and I really CAN'T ignore any of them. For once there is a topical Tuesday where I KNOW about some stuff!

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Summer Solstice!

Today marks the LONGEST day of the year and in many cultures for... forever, basically... a big celebration... midsummer's eve (though honestly, this is FIRST summer, so I don't know why they call it the middle). The majority of the cultures where this has been traditionally important are those northern places where light varies so much over the course of the year. Understandable that the longest day would be a pretty big deal.

What I didn't know, until I started looking, is that the celebration hasn't always been just the day, but a FEW days... June 21st – 24th... and this extension of the midsummer's thing makes me really happy for this very strange reason...

Created by Joris Ammerlaan
Birthday Week at the Burrow!!!

This little span of days includes 3 Burrow Birthdays. Considering we are only a dozen in total (and it is three of seven of us who blog here). Jason has a birthday tomorrow, I have one the next day, and Rayna has an IMPORTANT one the day after that (along with our buddy Leigh, who was born the exact same day as Rayna, year and everything and one of my Harry Potter friends who was born exact same day same year as ME, Auriga).

(and Chary's was just last week!)

So there is something about this stretch that compels people to write, I think. I've always attributed it to the Gemini cusp of Cancer. Which is probably not unrelated (emotion meets communication), but the fact that it is midsummer, too... Sort of puts a little more magic into all of us finding each other.

Respectfully borrrowed, Pottermore.com
And for MY Birthday... JK Rowling is giving me a PRESENT!!!

The first clue was this: http://www.pottermore.com/
And then there is the YouTube thing...: Apparently a dedicated channel...

So on June 23rd at midnight, there will be an announcement by JK Rowling as to what this Pottermore.com website is all about. Now it has been said it's not a BOOK, and I have my doubts Jo would make anything quite so personal for anything to do with the movies or theme parks... She launched the site on June 16th, and I fell immediately into my fangirl SQUEEE speculation. But going there only gives a countdown clock at the moment.

Of course if you are looking for what this is... why not go to MTVs blog where they give it some guesses. I mean... everyone who's anyone goes there for their news anymore, Jon Stewart being the last remaining honest news guy...

But whatever the case, we have a big, exciting couple days ahead... All of which surely call for you to dance naked and celebrate...

20 June 2011

Dragons, Part Deux!

Alphabetical alliteration now? All right, all right, I'll stop after this one. Meanwhile, I have been busily getting up to speed on even MORE dragon lit, so here's another pile for my fellow fanciers of fewmets (okay, that's pushing it - fewmets, for those of you not familiar with the term, are, erm, well, dragon poo).

Dragon Quartet - Marjorie Kellogg

A fascinating take on the "four elements" - earth, air, fire, and water - except, you know, with dragons! The series takes us through many disparate times and places - from medieval Germany to some very strange and futuristic lands - and introduces four dragons and four humans who share the names of those elements. Like the Hobb at the end of this list, there are elements of eco-fantasy here, but it doesn't bash you over the head or anything. These are available in two volumes of two books each; not sure if they were ever published separately, to be honest.

The Last Dragon - Sylvana de Mari

This could just as easily have been called "The Last Elf", but I'm glad it isn't because then I might have missed it. It's about more than dragons and elves, though, even more than prophecies and fate, and in fact it tackles quite a number of hot button issues (like racism and even genocide - there's a reason he's the LAST elf). It's translated from the Italian original (which doesn't seem to happen too often, I've only seen a couple of other kids' books coming out of Italy into the English-speaking market). Anyway, it can be read on several levels depending on the age of the audience, so give it a whirl with your favourite dragon nut and see what you think.

The Last Dragonslayer - Jasper Fforde

The proposed beginning of a trilogy, this one is, as far as I can tell anyway, not easily available in the US. Clearly that hasn't stopped me, mostly because I have wonderful friends who live in Europe and can get me things. Anyway, I adore Fforde for his mad wordplay and generally irreverent take on pretty much everything, so turn him loose with dragons in the mix and I am one happy dragon nut. In an alternate UK (but not the same one as in his Thursday Next series) where magic is commonplace (if fading) and huge tracts of land (ahem... no really, it's actually land) are set aside for the use of dragons, the very last dragon is due to kick the bucket and an awful lot of people want to be the first across the border when he dies so they can claim part of the land for themselves. Foundlings, wizards, knights (or something like it), and petty warring rulers of course - can't wait for the next one!

Voices of Dragons - Carrie Vaughn

Vaughn is better known for her adult series of "Kitty" novels; her YA debut is set in an alternate USA where much of the Western part of the continent has been given over to the use of - you guessed it - dragons. Kay is perfectly well aware of the fact that she's really not supposed to be hanging out near the border, but sometimes you just have to get AWAY from things... but after a climbing accident when she is saved by a dragon, all bets are off. The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, but as Vaughn's most recent book is more about pirates than dragons, if she is planning to return to this world it's probably not going to be soon.

Dragons of Darkness - Antonia Michaelis

I originally picked this up because, duh, it said "Dragons" on it, but I kept it because it takes place in Nepal, a country I've come to know more about than I ever thought I would after my best friend married a guy who spent his Peace Corps years over there. Drawing on both real-world Nepali culture (from the Maoists in the mountains to monasteries and the monarchy) and pure fantasy (an invisible prince and the colour dragons), it's both a classic buddy story and political commentary. Christopher, a German boy who more closely resembles his Nepali grandmother, is inexplicably transported to Nepal after his (taller, blonder) older brother vanishes there. The whole book is translated from German; it's not a fast read, but it's a very good one.

City of Fire - Laurence Yep

I meant to include the second book of this trilogy in this post, but like an idiot I bought it today and then forgot to bring it home. So it'll have to be just the first book. Anyway, there's a lot more going on here than just dragons, and the dragons aren't dragons all the time, either - they're shapeshifters. It's set in an alternate version of 1941, and starts in San Francisco before spending quite a bit of time in Hawaii (the second one heads to the Arctic). I have to admit, the first 5 chapters were awfully slow, but then, hey, creatures go rogue and there's a giant battle scene and things suddenly get interesting and, luckily, they stay there. Scirye and her lap griffin, a couple of street kids called Leech and Koko who each have things to hide, Bayang (one of the shapeshifting dragons), and oh yeah, the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, are up against a very rich, very unscrupulous fellow known as Mr. Roland who (big surprise) pretty much wants to rule the world. Once you get past the beginning, this is a great story.

The Coming of the Dragon - Rebecca Barnhouse

So you know the very end of Beowulf, where the dragon shows up? That's where this story takes off. Or rather, it starts with a baby being found in a boat, and Beowulf himself decrees that he shall not be killed, but rather fostered with an elderly woman, though sent to the king's hall for weapons training each year. Fast-forward until the boy is about 16 and some idiot wakes up the dragon. There's a fair bit of standard Norse fare, along with good character-building and a suspenseful storyline, capped off by the revelation of our foundling's identity.

Dragon Orb - Mark Robson

This series of four books landed on this side of the Pond fairly recently, and they're an interesting mix of fantasy and - not steampunk, exactly, but when our protagonists wander into the middle of WWI aerial battles while crossing between worlds, well, you can imagine what early pilots would have thought if instead of a plane they were facing a dragon! The dragons are differentiated by when they hatched, making four distinct types with different traits and abilities. Each is paired with a human, who may not be born until the dragon has lived for centuries, but when they arrive, they know it. The series is concerned with the quest for four orbs (hence the title) to restore the spirit of all dragon-kind; well-drawn characters and riddling prophecies make it well worth the read.

Rain Wild Chronicles - Robin Hobb

See, I said I'd get to Hobb and I did. :-) It seems that this new series is tied in with several others, but they stand alone quite well (I'm sure I'd get more out of it if I'd read the related books too, but I'll get there eventually, I swear!). These fall rather under the heading of eco-fantasy - the Rain Wilds are a diverse and fascinating ecosystem which has profound effects on its inhabitants, both human and dragon. The first book spends most of its time setting up the second, which is where things really get going. There's a large cast of characters, though the list in the front of the books is helpful to keep them straight at first - once you've met them, they're easy to tell apart. It all begins with one dragon offering her help in repelling invaders in exchange for aid raising a new hatching of dragons - but they hatch deformed and weak and become more of a nuisance than a help. Rather than give away the plot twists, I'll leave them for you to discover - do buy both at once though, as you won't want to leave it after just one.

Believe it or not, that's STILL not it - but I'm going to knock it off on the dragons for a bit (erm, no, not that kind of bit). Enjoy!

17 June 2011

Who Am I- A Mother? Or more?

Things came to a head when my seven year old came home from school and informed me he had got 2 out of 20 in his latest Maths Assessment. I'm not ashamed to say I let him have it. Having grown up with a mother who would not hesitate to display her annoyance if her daughter got anything less than full marks in all subjects, I'd always consciously set lower expectations from my son. Even though I cringed inwardly to see those marks, his 17/20s merited a hug and a "that's really good", and the 12/20's got a "that's not too bad, but you really can do better, can't you?", but 2/20??? Wasn't it practically impossible to get a 2/20 unless there was something fundamentally wrong? And had there been something that drastically wrong, how could I have missed it? Since there was less than a week to his Christmas break, I decided to put of thinking about the problem till the holidays.

Two days later, I juggled my schedule to attend a carnival in his school. When I finally managed to locate my son, he was almost unrecognizable. Always small for his age, he was so distant and withdrawn, he seemed smaller than ever. He refused to meet my eye, or talk to me, or show me around. When his best friend's mother tried to talk to him, he melted behind my back. "If this is how happy you are to see me, why did you even ask me to come?" I yelled in exasperation. He slipped his hand into mine, but refused to say a word.

The picture of my son slinking around his school haunted me all week. Could this skittish creature be my lovely first-born? The son I knew was a warm-hearted, compassionate child. "My child adores your son," was the first thing I heard from the mothers of all the younger children in the apartment. Unlike his mother, my son had time for everyone - he was the one who consoled babies who were crying, and shared his sweets with others - and they responded by doting on him. This scared creature couldn't be my son. Something was wrong. Asking him wouldn't help. I could only hope I'd find out someday.

There was one thing I could do, however. Work on his Maths. I may barely make passing grade as a Mother, but if there is one thing I am good at, it is teaching. Two weeks of concentrated effort was enough for me to be satisfied with my son's Maths skills. Soon enough he came bounding up to me one day - "Mamma, guess how much I got in my Maths Assessment?"
"Sixteen?" I suggested cautiously, not wanting to think of what I knew he was now capable of.
"Guess again!"
"Seventeen? Eighteen?" I broke out into a grin when I realized he had managed to max the test. Things should now be better, I thought.

For a couple of weeks, he did seem to be his old normal self. But then the mood swings started again. He was doing well in class. He seemed cheerful when talking about his friends. What then could the problem be? The answer, when it came, couldn't have come at a worse time.

It had been one of those days when I was physically and mentally exhausted. All I wanted to do was crash, but I had a conference the next day that I hadn't even started preparing for. And, the kid was refusing to go to sleep.
"We've read enough," I finally told him. "Go to sleep, and let me get on with my work." I switched off the light, and walking out of the room started shutting the door behind me.
"Mamma, I'm a Loser!" A little softer, and I would have missed the whisper. I swung around. Now where had that come from?
"What did you say?"
"I am a Loser!"
I didn't want to deal with this. I couldn't deal with this. But if I let this moment pass, it might never come back. I forced myself back into the room.
"What makes you think you are a loser?" I asked in my most gentle voice. "You are the loveliest boy any mother could ask for. You are not a loser!"
"But I am." Bit by bit, the story emerged. Sports day practice. 100 meter races. My son coming last, always. Being called a loser. Believing it.
"So what? The other kids are better at sports. That doesn't make you a loser. You just happen to be the slowest in your class."
"But I am a loser. I always come last." Was this the time to tell him his mother was lousy at sports too? That she never made the class team in anything. Would that make things better or worse? Before I could decide either way, he continued, "How would you know. You are so good at Sports."
"And what makes you think that?"
"Because you went for that race and got a medal. None of the other kids have mothers who win medals."
Without realizing it, he had shown me the way out. "And do you know why I got the medal?" I asked. "Not for running fast, but for finishing the race. I am a very slow runner, but I don't give up."
"But do people run faster than you?"
"Almost everyone runs faster than me, but most of them get tired before the end, and stop. I may be slow, but I finished. And that's why I got the medal."
"You mean you came last, and still you got the medal."
A couple of white lies shouldn't matter. "Yes, I was last. But because I finished, I got the medal."
"Can I see your medal?" He made me dig out the medal I got for completing the full marathon, and held it with both hands. For a long time, he just stared at the medal, and let his fingers trace the lines. "You got this even though you came last?"
I nodded. "Do you want to keep the medal?", I asked.
His eyes lit up. "Can I?"
"Sure you may."
"And not share it with my brother?"
"Okay. But on one condition. When you are old enough, you have to run a marathon and give your medal to me."
"Will you also run with me?"
There was hope in those eyes, and longing. It would be many years before he would be old enough to compete. I might no longer be running then. How could I make a promise I may not be able to keep? I opened my mouth to tell him so, then shut it. It wasn't too much my son was asking me. I had to be able to give him at least this much.
It was a promise. A covenant. Whether I can, or not, I have to run/ walk/ hobble that one race with my son, someday.

Even now, he often takes that medal out and caresses it gently before putting it back in the cupboard. He's a changed child in school. His teachers adore him, pat themselves on the back for how far he has come as a student and as a person- I don't tell them about what went on behind the scenes. That is our own little secret- my son's and mine.

One crisis averted, I can now wait for the next one, because I know it will turn up someday. And till then, I have to brace myself for many more years of running- I can't let down my end of the promise, can I?

Had I known what Motherhood would actually entail, would I have signed up for it? Perhaps not. But then I would have lost out on more joy than I thought possible.

15 June 2011

When To Pull The Plug

So we're at the the half-way point of this year's BuNoWriMo, and guess what? I'm not at all happy with what I have so far, so I am starting afresh.

Say what???

Yup, I'm starting afresh. I'm already several thousand words behind (or, er, nearing ten thousand words behind, actually), and the twelve thousand and something words that I do have, suck. And I do mean suck. Like, Dementor Suck. Now this is not a self-confidence problem, or a Bad Day problem, it's a story problem. The story sucks. I'm not enjoying writing it, I don't know (or even like) my characters, and the getting from A to B in the plot feels like I'm walking over hot coals.

It's just not working, and there are several reasons why. Primarily it is because I stupidly decided to try writing a different genre than what I am used to. To be fair, this has worked for me before, so it wasn't a completely 'out there' idea for me. Sadly it just hasn't flowed this time around. Another big reason is that I just haven't got my two main characters straight in my head. At the moment, their names come from suggestions from a friend, and this just hasn't worked for me. I didn't name them myself so I can't get to 'know' them (if that makes sense).

The good news is that I'm still happy with my general idea, and I still know how I want to end the novel, so the idea isn't completely null and void. Starting over at this stage of the WriMo is probably not the best thing to do, but writing something that feels like you are pulling teeth isn't exactly recommended either. I figure if I don't enjoy writing it, no-one will enjoy reading it, and if no-one will enjoy reading it, what is the point of writing it?

Not that I'm being hasty and deleting the file, mind you. There are bits here and there that I like, and they may come in handy at some point. But as from today, my word count is a big fat zero all over again, and I am going to humbly aim for thirty thousand words - 2k a day - for my final count. Not a full novel by all means, but half of one at the very least. I'd much rather thirty thousand words that I can use than fifty thousand words that will bog me down every time I look at them.

So my writerly 'advice' for today is to be brave enough to know when you're flogging a dead horse. If it feels like it isn't working, then it's probably time to take a step back. Work on something else for a while then go back to it. If it still feels hokey, save and close your file and store it away from your desktop (or close your notebook and stash it in the back of your junk cupboard). Forget about it for a while and go with something new. You may never get back to it, true, but on the other hand you may come across it one day and be hit with inspiration all over again.

I don't know about anyone else, but when I try to keep working on a project that feels awkward, I end up feeling really negative about my writing, and that's the last thing I need when I am trying to finish something. When it gets to that point, it's time to pull the plug.

14 June 2011

When fiction is NOT okay

Say what? Isn't this a writing blog? We're all fiction writers, are we not? We make stuff up all the time. Here's the thing, though - when we make stuff up, we let people know that's what we're doing.

Now, I admit it - I'm not really a very good blogger. I suck at getting links and pictures into posts, I barely pop 'round to read a few others, and most of those are either writing or humour; hell, I don't even have my own, I just share this one with the Burrow crew. But it has come to light under even my narrow view that there's quite a flap happening over one particular blog this week - A Gay Girl in Damascus, to be specific. You'd have to have had your head under a rock and your ears plugged with dirt to have missed what's been going on in the Middle East lately; this blog (a very popular one, by all accounts) was purportedly by an out lesbian living in Syria - not the safest situation.

From what I can tell, there was a message posted, supposedly by a cousin, that the blogger, Amina, had been kidnapped. So, all kinds of uproar and people trying to help track her down. Then came the first big shocker - that the photographs she'd said were of herself were actually of a woman living in London who'd never heard of her. Facebook page? More stolen photos. IP addresses? Hang on, they're coming from Scotland? (Now, y'all know I love Scotland but it sure as shite ain't Syria.)

Turns out this whole thing was an immensely wide-ranging hoax, with parts of the internet persona dating back years (in addition to the Facebook profile, there was one from a dating site and - possibly most worrisome - a Canadian woman she was supposedly in a long-distance relationship with {and it's not the gay part I'm disturbed by, let me tell you}). 'Cause the Syrian-American lesbian is actually a white dude named Tom from good ol' Georgia (and studying in Scotland, hence the IPs). Looks to me like that kidnap message was an excuse not to blog for a few days, 'cause oh, oops, he's on vacation in Turkey with his wife.

There is a time and a place for fiction, buddy (actually, many times and many places), but this is sure as hell not one of them. For further reading, check out this article by the Washington Post, as well as this discussion thread.

13 June 2011

What am I reading? What are you reading? What are we reading?

A novel that I'm reading is one I read ages ago and someone just returned. I must be in a lazy frame of mind - it is called Fits Like a Rubber Dress and it is by Canadian Roxane Ward. It is sharp and funny and very current and youthful. It is about a young married woman named Indigo Blackwell (cool huh?) who is fed up with her mind and her life and her dopey marriage. The scene that made me craziest so far was with her AWFUL father. Yikes. Made me want to murderalize him.

I just finished Happenstance by Carol Shields. I read it years ago too - it is about a marriage and the book is in two parts. From one side you read the wife's view of the story and then you flip it over and read the male's or the other way around. Reminded me of my first husband's weird sci fi books in the early 70's. Now, my guy is reading it. He was reading an awful book that I bought at a bookstore cuz the author was there and I felt guilty - no, I'm not going to name it. He put it down and said "Enough of this nonsense - got something for me to read?" I handed him Happenstance and he started right in. After a few minutes he sighed with delight and said, "Now I'm reading a real book." Ha!

What else am I reading? I'm reading a wonderful book by friend Andy Karr, Contemplating Reality - A Practioner's Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. I'm reading this as part of my daily meditation practice. It is a guide and it gives me certain views of Buddhism for me to wrestle with in contemplation. Yes, I'm afraid I don't quite get it but any day now!

I'm also reading a biography Vanessa Bell by Frances Spalding. Bell was the sister of Virginia Woolf, an artist and a central figure in the Bloomsbury Circle. This is not a sparkling read but I'm enjoying it. I love this gang so it is interesting to read about them.

What are you reading? Do you have different books on the go for different times in the day or week?

Do you think you should be reading something yet can't quite do it?
What is the zeigeist on reading right now? Is reading over?
Has reading saved your life? Tell me about it. Let's have a conversation about reading. Right here and right now, now, now...

10 June 2011

Who am I? Friday: Successes

For those who do not know me, I am a special educator in a general education high school. My students with disabilities are included in regular education classrooms. And by this, I mean fully included - all subjects, phys. ed. and all extracurricular activities. I am currently co-teaching 11th grade English, US History and Chemistry.

Yesterday, at my subject area meeting, the teachers were asked to share some successes that we have had this year. I have had three great successes this year. For confidentiality purposes, I have changed their names.

Success #1

I had a student, whom we will call Bob, that was classified as emotional disturbance. As a child, Bob had difficulty controlling his anger and his emotions. He threw chairs, cursed out teachers, and had a general lack of respect for any type of authority. As he grew older, these displays of inappropriate behavior diminished but it was evident from various assessments that his learning was severely impacted.

Last November, he wanted out of special education. I tried to reason with him and convince him to keep the services for at least one more year. Bob said "NO! I should not be punished for the rest of my life for mistakes I committed in my past. I am a bird and I want to fly!" Well, we decertified and his parting words were, "I'm gonna prove you wrong, Miss." I am happy to say that he did prove me wrong. Not only is Bob doing well in all his classes without support, he is excelling on all the predictive state assessments. Needless to say, I cried, hugged him, apologized and told him he was absolutely right!

Success #2

I have a student, Brian, who was absent for about 50% of his 9th grade year and 60% of his 10th grade year. Now in his 11th grade year, he decided to make a change. Brian asked me for support in all of the classes in which I co-teach. I give him encouragement when he feels he just can't do it anymore. I provide him coping strategies for when he feels like giving up and I give him guidance when he feels unsure about himself. Yesterday, I told Brian, "You are one of my successes this year and I made sure every 11th grade teacher knew it. I praised all of your hard work and your improved attendance. Keep it up!" He smiled from ear to ear and had a little pep in his step when he walked into my US History class. When I shared this with my co-teacher, I cried yet again.

Success #3

This one is dear to my heart. I have a student, Bill, who has a learning disability. He has difficulty reading grade level text, deficits in reading comprehension and challenges transcribing his thoughts in writing. Bill did absolutely no work from September to December. From what my colleagues have shared, Bill has a difficult home life and it affected his ability to concentrate in school. However, in February, Bill began to attempt writing tasks, he was more vocal (he has a lovely deep baritone voice) during class discussions and he began volunteering for roles in collaborative activities. My co-teacher and I attribute this to the 11th grade Washington DC trip where the students visited various colleges. He saw himself sitting in the lecture hall and envisioned himself a success. It makes a difference when a student can see him or herself in a positive environment and becoming successful.

I told Bill that I was so proud of him. I explained to him that I noticed the improvement in his work and the progress he was making in credit accumulation. I suggested that he explore radio internships since he had a great voice and a presence that made people stop when he spoke. He smiled, blushed and said, "Miss, I won't fail you." Again, I cried and hugged him.

Upon reflection, I didn't do anything special that other teachers have not already done. However, it takes just a positive remark and letting someone know that you care and feel that they are worth something. Pass along a kind word to someone today and help facilitate that person to blossom.

I am feeling so good that I have crazily joined the BuNoWriMo! :D

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

09 June 2011


[and if you have been properly initiated, you know the next line... say it with me...]

“You're a loony...”

Whereby I explore life without limitations...

Extreme Work

This happens when you have a massive deadline (read: National Institute of Health grant due next week), an employee quits and so a new one has to be hired (which means hiring two—a temp and then the one for the long haul), TWO manuscripts are accepted PENDING REVISIONS, and the special interest group of which you are secretary needs coordinating... GADS!

Extreme HOME

This happens when the home's homemaker gets a fully time job so a full time worker (read: me) becomes a full time mom on top of being a full time writer. *cough* including such atrocities as COOKING and SHOPPING (did you hear me gag at the word shopping?) and remembering we have pets and children!

Extreme Writing

JALO BuNoWriMo!!! In the first seven days I averaged more than 3000 words EVERY DAY. It's a CRAZY pace. It's been pretty easy—the story is flowing... but time consuming (and pretty much the only thing I'm not complaining about doing).

Now... if you truly aspire to lunacy invincibility, try all three TOGETHER.

It's that simple.

And HA! Whereby you get two blogs for the price of one, or... we eat crow for no writing blog yesterday... did you SEE that clever segue? We are going from BuNoWriMo as INSANITY to BuNoWriMo as a WRITING project?! Nice, eh?

Erm... or not...

The Beauty of a WriMo

I think it's the adrenaline... no the camaraderie... no the adrenaline... no the camaraderie... Man, I LOVE the group writing thing... the encouragement, the buzz... and I love to write like that... no holds barred. It is the best way, in my opinion, to crank out a first draft. I am prone to all these tangents otherwise...

It ALSO serves as a fabulous double deadline. DOUBLE, you ask?  Well sure... you have to tie up your OTHER stuff before you can START, and you have to tie up THIS first draft in a month.

But as a GROUP project, it is going GREAT. A couple people are past 20K words (including me, you may have guessed)... a couple have set alternate writing goals, Mari and Leanne are even co-writing, which has been very amusing to watch as they bat their story back and forth... a couple are getting started late--which is fine, we're easy...

But there have been discussions that help a lot of people. And there has been so much encouragement. It really has been fabulous. Now if someone were to start today, they'd need to write 2,272 words a day, which is a lot, but it could be DONE... so if you think you might wanna... Join us!

07 June 2011

Education for All - Falling through the Cracks

Eleven year old Kalimuddin's family migrated to the city of Kanpur to escape griding poverty in their village in North East India. Though they were willing to work hard, ragpicking was the only job which his parents could find. The family lives in makeshift housing near the garbage dumping grounds, and spends their entire day sifting through the garbage to find things that can be re-cycled. Kalimuddin's day begins at 5 am, when he is at the dumping ground going through the garbage to find anything that can be re-used, re-cycled or re-sold. At ten, Kalimuddin had never stepped into a school- there were no schools in his locality, and even if there were, he was too busy working to think of an education.

Kalimuddin was only mildly interested when an informal education center was opened in his community. What convinced him to enroll in the "Apna Skool" was the fact that the classes were being conducted in the afternoon after he ended his working day. He is now so passionate about going to school, that even after his family was forced to relocate to a different locality, he continues to cycle 4.5 miles to get to school, and even ferries other younger kids to school and back.

Nine year old Arthi is enrolled in grade 5 in the local government school in her village of Amirthapuram in Tamil Nadu. Though she is a regular student, who wants to learn, a year back, she was struggling with her classes because of the poor quality of teaching in her school. She could barely read simple words, and struggled to subtract double digit numbers. Arthi is the name behind the statistics thrown up in an independent study conducted on the state of learning in India - "While 99.5% children between 6-10 years of age attend primary school in the state of Tamil Nadu, more than 50% of them cannot read a simple story or subtract 2-digit numbers."

Arthi was one of the lucky ones. Her problem was spotted and she was enrolled in a remedial learning program. Today, not only has she mastered her numbers and letters, she helps other students learn the 247 syllables of the challenging Tamil-language alphabet.

Nine year old Anuj belongs to the Musahar (rat-eating) community, which has been officially notified as a "criminal community" by the Government. Though enrolled in a local school, he was discriminated against, and not allowed to attend classes with the 'higher caste' children. His widowed mother was contemplating pulling him, and this three siblings, out of school because she could not think beyond the squalid conditions in which the family had lived for centuries.

Anuj was lucky enough to be noticed by a school that offered him free education in their residential school in Patna. Anuj is now doing extremely well in school, and dreams of studying engineering in one of the top institutions in the country.

In theory, the Government of India guarantees the 'Right to Education' of every child. In reality, millions of children like Kalimuddin, Arthi and Anju manage to slip through the cracks for a host of reasons.

Drive through rural India, and the largest building in almost every village is the government primary school. Unfortunately, almost all these buildings are deserted, because few teachers, if any, choose to show up, and parents see no point in sending their children to schools where there are no teachers. In the evening, in the same villages, you find dozens of children crowded into tiny sheds which double up as private 'coaching classes'. Parents who can afford to do so send their children to these classes, often conducted by the teachers who employed to teach in the government schools, the rest of the children end up dropping out of the system.

Though it is illegal to do so, in both rural and urban schools, teachers discriminate on the basis of caste, creed, religion and gender. Students belonging to the lower castes are often forced to sit so far away from the teacher that they cannot hear what is being taught in class. Once these children drop out of school, it is almost impossible to get them back into the system.

The education system in India is stacked against girls. Many girls, especially in larger families, are often forced to drop out of school so they can tend to younger siblings while the mother goes out to work. Girls who escape that fate, are often forced to drop out of school after they attain puberty because most government schools lack proper sanitation facilities. Across the country, non-profits have found that the immediate effect of constructing toilet blocks is a drastic increase in female attendance, yet school buildings continue to be built without adequate facilities.

There is a large population of migrant laborers which spends six to nine months in the cities, and returns to their villages during the harvest season. Since there is little or no standardization in curriculum across schools, the children of these families are never enrolled in any school.

Is there a solution? Organizations working in the field will say there are. Is the Government listening?

06 June 2011

Without Reading Monday

Reading, you say? But, aren't we writing this month..?

Okay... So I joined the club. The "Oh, bugger, was it my turn to write a blog post today?"-club. I could give you a million reasons why I forgot - many of which also explains why I've "forgotten" to post at my own blog for a while (and the last time I did, it was a pretty sorry excuse for a post). I could mention the distraction of Tokyo (I'm back in love with this city). The slight discomfort I still feel whenever there is an earthquake (but they are fewer and smaller now, so it isn't much of an excuse, really). The fact that I've been working 12 hour days more often than I care to mention lately. The "aren't we writing"-comment above...

Since today is Reading Monday, however, the most appropriate excuse of all is this one: I haven't been reading all that much lately.

Well, that's only partially true. I've been reading lots about the UN Millennium Development Goals, from which I've been reminded that there are a lot of people out there who are worse off than me. Their problem isn't that they don't have the time to read, it is that they cannot read. MDG #2 - universal education (including girls, which shouldn't have to be specified, but in fact has to) - still has a long way ahead before the target is reached. As with the other MDGs, many countries are making great efforts and great results are achieved, but  there still is a lot left to do globally. "Scaling up" was a recurring topic for the conference I attended on this before the weekend. In order to reach the goals by 2015 - which at the moment isn't looking too likely - we need to work harder, better, more united. Perhaps there isn't all that much you can do as an individual, but at least you can take ten minutes out of your day and read the fact sheet where you at least can educate yourself about what has been, and what remains to be done. Universal education, y'all.

I have also been reading about international trade restrictions, national (both Norwegian and Japanese) hunting legislation, Japanese energy policies, financial targets and domestic politics (which is a bit of a thriller - or perhaps soap opera).

I've been reading a lot into things. Like emotions. If you have never been an ex-pat, you might not know the feeling of the relationships that develop in a community where everyone has different cultural backgrounds, a general open mind for new things (hence the living abroad-part..), and they are there on a limited time basis. I've met some of the greatest people I know in the world this way. Many of which I have not been in contact with for years. You see, in the bubble that is ex-pat-ness you form strong, amazing, temporary relationships. A very limited amount of them last beyond the bubble - in these days facilitated by Facebook, email, and Skype. But many of these relationships are so tied to the specific situation when they are formed that they cannot exist outside of that, and that is fine. I don't value them any less. But it does make for some confusing human interaction. Trying to read my own and everybody else's mind in all of this is (un)surprisingly difficult.

Finally, I have actually been reading fiction. Barely. My Kindle (which needs to be charged, come to think of it) is a good travel buddy, and when I do have the time to sit down and read some, I'm grateful I have a library at my hands through a few clicks. My latest buy was Game of Thrones, which I quite like so far, even if I realize it is absolutely pointless to read it. After all, I've been watching the HBO series, and it sticks very close to the book. Apart from changing the age of certain characters (to make it less controversial, I would assume), they haven't changed much. And the series have some truly gorgeous costumes, scenery and actors.

So these are the very good reasons why writing about reading wasn't on my mind today. I hope you forgive me...

03 June 2011

Who? Don't You Mean What?

Way Too Much...

Yup, it may be 'Who Am I? Friday, but it definitely should be 'What The Heck Am I Doing? Friday'. It's 10:15 am, I've been awake for a mere twenty minutes (I had a lie-in for once), and I suddenly remembered that it was my turn to write today's post. Erk.

That's not so bad - usually I leave everything until the last minute anyway, so it's not unusual - but this isn't the only window I have open on my laptop. As well as Blogger, I have two Word documents open. One of them is my BuNoWriMo novel, awaiting four thousand shiny new words today as I have to catch up from yesterday, and the other is a document titled 'Spartans 2 - Pirates of the Sparrebean' (don't ask). Then I have another Blogger window open so that I can skim through a few blogs that I'm following, and also because I'd really like to post on my main blog today because I know nothing will be added over the weekend, plus I want to try and post a couple of times a week this month at the very least.

And if four windows wasn't enough, then how about five? Obviously I need to have Facebook open so that my procrastinating urges are covered. *nods*

And this is me. Trying to do too many things at once, as usual. It's not so much biting off more than I can chew, it's more a case still trying to bite because the chunk is too big. I don't know why I do it to myself, I really don't. I mean, I know I'm going to get into trouble if I promise to do too much, but I still go ahead and promise anyway. And with my avoiding issues and dithering tendencies, you would think that I would have learned my lesson by now.

But no, here I am hastily putting a ramble together for today's blog, and I shall be moving on to my Word documents next. Technically I should really concentrate on my BuNoWriMo story first, but I have a feeling that the Spartans file will suck me in as I have the story floating in my head and it will only take a couple of thousand words to get it done.

Then again, I'm still half asleep, so Bejeweled Blitz is a good option for spending a few mindless minutes trying to wake my brain up. Or maybe Vegas Nights. Or possibly Undersea Treasure Slots.


Yup, that's me. Too many things to do, and far too many distractions to tempt me.

Image borrowed from here.

02 June 2011

Oz? I don't THINK so...

I'm writing this post Wednesday night - there is a major light show going on outside, complete with celestial percussion section, heavy rain, and tornado watches/warnings/whatever they are. Which got me to thinking, if a tornado did pick up my house and whirl it away, would Oz really be my preferred destination?

I'm thinking not. For starters, there are NO DRAGONS in Oz. Seriously? You have Munchkins and Winkies and flying effing monkeys, but no dragons? This is a major problem. So's the desert of killer sand that surrounds the place. And the wicked witches (have enough of those in my real life, thanks). Lions and tigers and bears, oh no... I think I'll head for some other fantasy land, if you don't mind.

In my personal over-the-rainbow, first of all it should never, ever, get above 70 F. Maybe 72, if it's cloudy. Mornings? Yeah, those are for sleeping, none of this early bird rubbish. Dragons, as previously mentioned; those are a must. And kitties and otters and hedgehogs (those should talk, while we're at it, just for the hell of it, though they don't need to do my laundry or anything). Lots of open spaces, and climbable trees, and absotively posilutely ginormous libraries which won't yell at you if you take their books up into the trees. Coffee is the official beverage, nobody's ever heard of cellulite, there are definitely no rude customers, and as for money, screw that. This is the land of plenty, damnit, and there sure as hell is no need for health insurance. Chocolate, damn, almost forgot that... ooh, and avocados, but not cilantro.

Hmmm. The storm seems to have passed. No tornadoes. And it's dark, so no rainbows either. Well, so much for that idea... Guess I'll be seeing you all in this reality again after all!

Image: from the 1st edition (1900)

01 June 2011

writing writing writing

As some of you who follow my blog, Jan Morrison, may know, I got a virus in my computer while simultaneously getting a virus in my self. Thus I have spent the last two days in my pyjamas drinking ginger ale (Sussex Golden - the most divine form of the elixir). And the Sweet Patootie fixed most of the computer nightmare.
I did manage to read a book. I like what happens when you read books in the transcendent state of illness. The book I read was Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson (daughter of Quentin Bell, writer; granddaughter of Vanessa Bell, painter; grand-niece of Virginia Woolf, writer). This is a wonderful book as it explores the real life of the people who chose to live outside of society from 1900 to 1939. I've long been interested in the likes of Dylan Thomas, of Roger Fry, Rebeca West, of artists and writers in Parisian garrets, living on canned sardines and free love. And Nicholson does it wonderfully. She divides the book up into very curious chapters - the first on money (or the dreadful lack of it) and others on love and sex, the children of Bohemia, the household details, cleaning (or the dreadful lack of it), clothing, travel et al. It was a delight and just amusing enough to not be too bothersome to a fluish mind.
Although these folks did what we hippies did to a great extent - only earlier and without bell bottoms - the women had one thing going against them. Nearly all middle class types at that time had servants, but the Bohemians eschewed such things. And guess who took up the slack (imagine a question mark here as I've lost those to the virus). Here is Katherine Mansfield complaining about being a skivvy to John Middleton Murry, when what she wants to do is to get at her writing:

I hate hate hate doing these things that you accept just as all men accept of their women...I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and 'Will there be enough to go round'...and you calling (whatever I am doing) 'Tig, isn't there going to be tea It's five o'clock' as though I were a dilatory housemaid.
I loathe myself, today. I detest this woman who 'superintends' you and rushes about, slamming doors and slopping water - all untidy with her blouse out and her nails grimed. I am disgusted and repelled by the creature that shouts at you, 'You might at least empty the pail and wash out the tea-leaves!' Yes, no wonder you 'come over silent'.
....All the fault of money, I suppose.
Was it, I wonder (question mark) Or was it just that old thing (question mark) You know. That same old thing. I'm blessed, absolutely blessed. I have a guy who does as much as I do about the house, who cooks and washes floors and is sweet to boot (well, not sweet to boot, you know what I mean - really should get a handle on these commas!). And still...and still the cheese wrappers are out and the compost needs to be emptied and well, we have NO servants. Do you all remember that song by Neil Young 'a man needs a maid' QUESTION MARK Maybe it is that writers and artists and other worthy bohemians need a maid, or a manservant (nudge nudge Tartlette) who will take care of thingies while we work.

I know I do. Just for a week or two. Or I need a place where nothing much happens, no kids, dogs, chicks, or men. Just writer nuns like I aspire to be. And question marks would be nice too, not that I'm complaining mind you.