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Feb. 5th, 2016

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A Dictionary for Dreamers-- For LJ Idol

I teach speaking skills, and I always include lists of vocabulary words.*

After all, a larger vocabulary is a good thing. Also, I use this to teach word stress, and the sounds of English.

When I have time, I do this as a class assignment, like this:

1) Transcribe the words from English into International Phonetic Alphabet (to show pronunciation) and mark which syllables are stressed.

2) Put that transcription on the board**.

3) Look up the meaning of the word.

4) Use the word in a sentence. (A sentence they come up with. I can usually tell when they just use the example sentences from the dictionary.)

As you can imagine, students sometimes resist this.

A few years ago, we were doing this assignment, and this particular student had the word "correlation". After a few minutes, I noticed that, while her classmates were busy doing the assignment -- a few were already at the board, in fact-- but she was just staring blankly into the middle distance.

Me: (Student's name), what are you doing?
Student: Huh?
Me: You have an assignment. Get to it.
Student: Oh, I don't need to know this word.
Me: (perturbed) Really?
Student: I already know everything I need to know.
Me: Then why are you here?
Student: What?
Me: If you already know everything you need to know, you shouldn't need any more education, so you shouldn't be here at all.
Student: (blank stare)
Me: The fact that you are sitting in a class means that you admit you need to learn things.
Student (a little defiant): I'll never need to know this word! If I needed to know this word, Jesus would have already made me know it.
Me (annoyed and a little angry): STOP! Just, stop right there.
Student: What?
Me: Do not use Jesus as your excuse.
Student: Well, Jesus...
Me: No, no, no... When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he was not thinking, "You know, I'm doing this so (student's name) can avoid doing work in class."
Student: Hey! That's... I'm offended.
Me: And I'm offended that you would use your religion to justify your laziness. So I guess we're even.
Student: ...
Me: Now, get to work.

She did, however grudgingly, go to the board.

*I take the words from SAT prep vocabulary lists.

**This is one of the things I'm known for. Everyone who takes my class knows in advance that they will be going to the board a lot.

Jan. 28th, 2016

dino head

Music for the mood -- for LJ Idol

It was a hot, humid August day in 1989, and I needed a lift. It had been a brutal week.

First, a roommate had bounced a check on me, which forced me to go to my family to get the money to cover it. My mom agreed to help, provided I went to the magistrate to get the money back.

In fact, I had just been at the magistrate's office, where we discovered that my ex-roommate had ignored the summons.

However, much, much worse had happened. The night before, my friends and I found out that two of our friends, Nicki and Terri, had been involved in a car crash in Oklahoma. Terri was badly injured, but likely to survive. Nicki had died in the crash.

You have to understand a few things about my friends. If you take all those geeky outcasts from high school and put them in one group? That was us. Only add wildly dysfunctional families to the mix.

As a result, we were bright, but most of us didn't have our acts together. Nicki was one of the few who did. That this happened at all was terrible. That it happened to someone who had a bright future ahead of her was worse.

Nicki's body was coming home to Pennsylvania for the funeral, which was going to take place a few days later.

Before the trip to the magistrate's office, I had gone out to lunch with friends, to discuss the trip to the funeral: who was going and how we were all going to get there.

I was a mess. I was managing to keep it together because a) I was so furious at my ex-roommate and b) a lot of my friends needed emotional support at the time, so I didn't feel like I could fall apart. It was like everyone needed to lean on me, which meant that I had no one to lean on.

This was the mood I was in as I walked up to my apartment building.

I saw a box at the door, and my mood lightened up, if only a little. It was my shipment of CD's from Columbia House! I had ordered these CD's several weeks back, but they finally arrived!

"This music will cheer me up!" I thought to myself as I rushed into the apartment.

I opened the box.

The first CD? Tracy Chapman's self titled album.

I remember thinking, "Well, I'll skip this one for now, but, surely, something cheerful will be in here."

The next CD? Don McLean's American Pie and Other Hits.

I just sighed and pulled out the next one.

Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall

Finally, Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits

The most cheerful CD in the lot was Simon and Garfunkel.

It just struck me as so damned funny. I was trying to escape feeling sad and overwhelmed through music that was, at best, melancholy.

I started laughing. Then, I started crying. I put in the Simon and Garfunkel, and lay there, on the floor, singing along with them, sobbing my eyes out, yet still laughing a little at the absurdity of it all.


This was for LJ Idol, the topic is "Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

Jan. 22nd, 2016

dino head

I can't even -- why I had to quit a seminar For LJ Idol

I don"t do seminars at work much anymore. This is part of the reason why.Collapse )

Jan. 15th, 2016

dino head

For LJ Idol: A tale from my undergraduate days

When I was an undergraduate, I was originally a Chemistry major.

During my last semester as a Chemistry major, I took Organic Chemistry II and its lab.

One day, about a third of the way into the term, I walked into the laboratory, where I was promptly handed all sorts of safety gear. We always wore goggles, but this time, we were also wearing aprons, breathing masks, gloves and even caps to keep our hair back.

Then our lab T.A. told us that the one of the compounds we would be working with was a powerful carcinogen, so we had to take all these precautions for the first part of the experiment. (OChem labs were always multi-week affairs.)

So, my labmates and I were all extremely careful that first session. We handled lots of things with tongs. We didn't really even talk to one another.

The second session? Well, by then, the carcinogen had reacted with the other chemicals we were playing with and was no longer toxic.

However, the new compounds were all in solution, and we needed to extract one of them from the others. We used a separatory funnel to do this. You pour your liquid in the funnel, gently rock it back and forth, and then the liquids separate into layers, sort of like oil and vinegar in salad dressing.

No one told me how quickly pressure built up in the funnel. See, after rocking back and forth a few times, you had to open it up a little to release pressure.

Either I overfilled it or I rocked it too hard, because, suddenly, the stop cock bounced off my chest and the contents of the funnel spilled all over my shirt.

Staring down at the mess, I realized that I had two choices:

a) Tell my TA and restart the experiment.
b) Take my shirt off, wring out the liquid into a beaker and keep going.

I was not about to start all over again, so I chose option B.

After I wrung out my shirt, I I briefly rinsed it out and splashed some water onto my chest. then, satisfied that I had taken care of the problem, I went back to work.

Did I know that this wasn't a good idea? Yes. But, honestly, I was about 20 years old at the time, and good decisions were just not in my wheelhouse.

Well, about half an hour later, Iwas working and suddenly I saw tiny puffs of smoke and smelled something burning.

I ignored it, because we were working with open flames. I just assumed the guy I shared a bench with had dropped something on his Bunsen burner.

A few minutes later, my chest and stomach started to itch something fierce, and the smoke was getting more intense. Further, I noticed it wasn't coming from his area, it was coming from mine.

Then, I had what I call a Looney Tunes moment: you know the cartoons where Bugs Bunny is sitting in stew pot and asking his antagonist what's cooking? And Bugs is all "Mmm... rabbit stew. That's tasty. WAIT... I'M A RABBIT!"

Well, that was sort of my reaction. See, I looked down and saw that my shirt was smouldering. The smoke was getting more intense, so I ran to the men's room, ripped my shirt off, and put it under running water in a sink.

Meantime, I could see splotches where the chemicals had irritated my skin, and it was not pretty. Well, I took that hideous pink soap college bathrooms have and smeared it all over my chest and stomach.

While I was doing this, a custodian walked in. He took one look at me, shook his head, and said, "I just don't want to know," and left.

After washing my chest and thoroughly rinsing out my shirt, I went back to the lab.

I looked strange, like my torso had been caught in a monsoon, but the rest of me was dry.

As you can imagine, my experiment failed spectacularly.

However, I did get an A on the lab, because I explained exactly, step-by-step, what went wrong. It was so funny that my TA shared it with his colleagues.

The burns healed relatively quickly. That shirt, however, fell apart when I did laundry a few days later.

I dropped out of college after that semester. When I went back, three years later, I decided to double major in French and Spanish. I wasn't going to accidentally set myself on fire in those majors.
this has been for LJ Idol, the topic, Organic.

Jan. 8th, 2016

dino head

Terrorism in 2015-2016: Are we getting numb? For LJ Idol

9/11/2001 was a Tuesday. I remember it well. I was in graduate school in Illinois. The night before, I had gone out with friends: we watched football and played trivia.

I didn't get in until late, so I slept in. When I got up, I turned on my TV just as the first tower at the World Trade Center fell.

I couldn't believe what I was watching. Then, I saw the crawl,which said that planes had also crashed into the Pentagon and "south of Pittsburgh".

Almost all of my family and many of my friends live in the suburbs south of Pittsburgh, so I panicked.

So, I called every number i knew in Pittsburgh until I got a friend who told me that the plane went down in a field in Somerset County, far from anyone.

I was relieved, though I was still in shock.

9/11 shocked most Americans, me included.

This past November, on the day of the Paris attacks, I was out of touch, at a conference.

I didn't find out about them until i got back home.

I was still horrified, but I jave to admot that I wasn't as badly shocked as I has been after earlier attacks.

My reaction has changed from "How can this happen?" To "Oh, no, where now?"

It's not numbness: it's more of a sad resignation that these attacks happen.

I don't think we're becoming numb.I hope that we aren't becoming numb. If that were to happen, I think we would lose a portion of our humanity.

I hope that we, as a people, are not numb to this violence. That would be dangerous. I think we would lose a latge part of our humanity if that were to happen.

Dec. 14th, 2015

dino head

Boomerang -- a tale from the midnight shift

When I was working midnight shift at the gas station/convenience store back in the late 80s, I got used to lots of odd things.

People showing up at 3 am looking for mayonnaise, pop tarts and envelopes, for instance.

But one group of people really stood out: there were six of them, and they all loved punk rock: two of them had Mohawks (one died bright blue), they all wore black leather jackets, several wore diaper pins in their piercings, etc.

They were among my most polite customers. They'd occasionally bring me food or alcohol.

One of them, the one with the blue Mohawk, was in the store at least twice a week. We talked all the time.

They were great. I honestly wished I had more customers like them.

About two weeks after I started working there, they came in, walked over to the snack food, and just stood there, pointing and giggling.

This freaked me out. I mean, who does that?

The donut delivery guy told me what was going on:

Me: They are really bothering me.
Donut dude*: They're okay.
Me: What are they doing?
DD (in this "isn't this obvious" voice"): They're laughing at the potato chips.
Me (deadpan): That seems strange.
DD: Oh, you don't know! Those kids live down the street. They drop acid, then they come in here and laugh at the potato chips.
Me: That? What... I? But the potato chips aren't doing anything.
DD: Dude. They DROPPED ACID. The potato chips don't have to be doing anything. Anyway, it's okay. They'll laugh at the potato chips for a while, then go home.

They did this about every other week or so. After the second time, I got used to it. They didn't bother anyone. They would just stand there, point and giggle.

Several years later, while I was working at the bank, a man came over to talk to me.

Man: Sean! It's been years!
Me (trying hard to figure out who this is): It has! When did we last see each other?
Man: At the Gulf Station. Don't you remember?
Me (drawing a complete blank): I am so sorry, but I don't... I knew lots of folks from the gas station.
Man: I figured you'd remember me. I had a blue mohawk...
Me: Oh my God! You used to laugh at the potato chips!
Man: And here I am all respectable in a suit and tie.
Me: Too bad. The mohawk suited you.
Man: Thanks.
Me: Sit... sit... I have a question...
Man: Why the potato chips?
Me: Yes.
Man: I don't know. We were high. Maybe because of the way the light hit the packaging?

And from there, the discussion continued. We worked in different departments, but we saw each other on break about once a week.

Getting to know this man a second time, in very different circumstances was really cool.

We've since lost touch. We both moved. Maybe, someday, we'll run into each other again. Stranger things have happened.

Dec. 7th, 2015

dino head

Cut the cards -- for LJ Idol

After my father's death, my mom had to go back to work. I was three at the time.

This was the early 1970s, so daycares were at best uncommon. My Aunt Ann and my great-grandfather (I called him Pup-up) took care of me during the day.

By this time, Pup-up was in his 80s. He was a big man, and I remember being a little scared of him when I first saw him, but he quickly became a big old playmate.

Pup-up genuinely loved spending time with kids, so we played a lot. In particular, he taught me all sorts of card games. Crazy eights, poker, gin... but his favorite game was Blackjack.

Every day, we would play blackjack. It was fun. I loved spending time with Pup-up. When he thought no one was looking, he would let me sip his beer.

My Aunt Ann didn't care about the blackjack (the beer was another matter). She was a retired elementary school teacher, and she thought that this would help teach me math.

Which it did. In a matter of weeks, I could add... to twenty-one. anything higher than that wasn't important to me, because that meant that the hand went bust.

It didn't bother my grandmother either. I was another person to play cards with. She loved playing cards. It was a great way to pass some time on a Sunday night after dinner.

However, this really upset my mom. She was worried about what the neighbors would think. After all, how many of them had three-year-olds who could add to exactly twenty-one?

My grandma let her ramble on about this for a while and then said, "So don't tell them it's only to twenty-one. How many of them have three year olds who can add at all? They'll just be impressed that he can add."

Mom hadn't thought about it like that, but acknowledged that my grandma was right, and stopped worrying.

Of course, my Aunt Ann also took it upon herself to teach me more about basic math skills, so I wasn't adding just to twenty-one for very long.

This is how I started down my road to geekdom. (and I'm good with that.)

Nov. 28th, 2015

history, reading

Great (?) Moments in Pedagogy

Every class has its own personality.

The class I'm teaching this term, for example has two interesting traits:

1) The students do good work, as long as I'm standing over them. Left to their own devices, well over a third of them will simply choose to do nothing.

2) They have a dark, dark set of interests.

We have, in the course of class this term, discussed all sorts of things: kidnapping cases (The Lindbergh Baby), the Etan Patz case, bombings, tsunamis, etc.

By and large, they brought them up.

Now, I teach linguistics and speaking skills, but I feel that if students are interested in something, I should address it if possible, and I know something about it.

I introduce my students to the sound system of standard American English and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). I have many IPA worksheets, wherein my students have to transcribe words and phrases from IPA into English.

So, I decided to try something. I put together a themed worksheet: disasters, both types of disasters (hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, etc.) and specific disasters (Krakatoa, Katrina, etc.)

They loved it. One of them suggested I do one on serial killers and famous murder cases.

Well over half the class enthusiastically agreed.

So, that's what I'm doing. On Monday, I'll finish it, and we'll do it as an in-class exercise this week. After all, it reinforces what I'm teaching them, using something that they're interested in.

I'm thankful when this sort of thing happens. It keeps the students engaged and encourages class discussion.
This is for LJ Idol, the topic is "The Giving of Thanks".

Nov. 20th, 2015

dino head

Intro -- for LJ Idol

I think this should tell you everything you need to know about me.

A print of this painting was produced at the Morgan Museum as a card:

I loved it, and used it as my Christmas Card that year.

This is what I wrote in it:


Merry Christmas,
Love, Sean

So, yeah, that's how my brain works.
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Nov. 9th, 2015

dino head

LJ Idol: Friends and Rivals

Let's do this!

I'm totally in!

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