Bridge Over Troubled Water

(Editor’s note: myevette is on holiday this week, so Brian has graciously offered this post to fill her slot.)

Brian picPromises, promises, we make so many promises—like the ones in the famous Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1970). The song is sweetness and melancholy in wrenching combination.

Speaking of bridge, I got hooked on the game of bridge in college. It is analytical and psychological, so much so that it would make an excellent college course. Love for the game and its accompanying books of famous hands took a lot of time—way more than helpful for a college student.

041224-N-4757S-194   Persian Gulf Onboard USS Monterey. Sailors enjoy a Christmas Eve Ice Cream Social on the mess decks of the cruiser, USS Monterey (CG 61).  USS Monterey is currently attached to USS Harry S. Truman's Carrier Strike Group TEN (CSG 10) and is on a regularly scheduled deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism. (United States Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Third Class Craig Spiering.) (RELEASED)

When I got married, Tandy had no interest in bridge, and yet it remained my consuming pastime as a new groom and new ensign in the navy. It is hard to be in the navy, be married, and play bridge. Something would have to go.

A fellow shipmate was my bridge partner for local duplicate matches. On top of that, other friends played rubber bridge daily and kept the pressure on to play, and that took hours most evenings.

Meanwhile, Tandy would read magazines, and read books, and read—well anything, while hanging out as we played. She never threatened me. It was just obvious that there was a bridge, and there was troubled water, and that signaled needing to put the clues together and do something.

spadesBridge had to go. I would like to say that I could play an occasional game of bridge in those days, but not so, and there was no point in trying. It is a good thing to recognize when an activity is such a bothersome trigger that it is not worth engaging.

It’s not that bridge is wrong; it is a beautiful thing, just not for me. Now and then, almost 45 years later, my grandsons and our oldest son need me to be a 4th for a game of spades. It is very competitive, and grandparents and parents need to be good at playing for real, but not being real vested in winning or losing.

The human race has likely always loved games. Why not. The sane person learns, however, when it is time to put down a game and keep other bridges from closing down and fading away. For me, to enjoy my “silvergirl” and see her “shine” meant getting off of my own bridge and walking more on hers.

Bridge_Over_Troubled_Water_by_stellated

 

I Sorta Like Sorting

Karen3On rainy days when I was a little girl, my dear mom, no doubt at the end of her patience with the busy and inquisitive child that I was, would sometimes allow me access to her button box. She was a talented and frugal seamstress, and she kept a dazzling stash of buttons, most harvested from discarded garments, in a fancy fruitcake tin. I loved to sit on the floor and sort the buttons into stacks by shape and color. Maybe it’s a genetic trait. A favorite aunt, a notoriously demanding nursing instructor, once told me that her ideal job would be sorting oranges. Buttons

Sorting is a skill that can help you succeed in the game of school. Once you start to figure out what goes with what, memorizing facts and writing papers gets a lot easier. Establishing how to sort things has made many scientists’ reputations…just ask Linnaeus. Sadly, some students’ childhoods must have lacked a button box, because they struggle with sorting tasks.

It doesn’t help that we apply intimidating labels, like “dichotomous keys,” to tasks that are basically just sorting, and simple sorting at that. For example, identifying an unknown bacteria with a dichotomous key boils down to plain old sorting. It just looks scary when depicted like this:dichotomouskey

What’s a teacher to do? I like to lead students from what they know to what they don’t by taking small steps. Many of them are familiar with the game “Guess Who?,” so I dragged ours from the depths of the family game closet. Two willing students played a round that lasted less than a minute, identifying the culprit after only five yes/no questions.guesswho

Then I showed them a silly example from mental_floss magazine, including this one:presidents

Next, they worked in pairs to quickly complete a nuts-and-bolts sorting task using a dichotomous key I found on the internet:

bolts

Finally, they were ready to see how a multi-test identification for bacteria is basically just a fancy, colorful dichotomous key, a bit like having a group of tiny elves in a tube answering a series of yes/no questions for you while you sleep. What could be more fun?enterotube

If you have anything that needs sorting, give me a call…happy to help.

Grades

Brian picA bright student and exceptional writer came through one of my classes, but she had no idea at first where she was on the map. She said that none of her high school teachers ever engaged her about her aptitude and performance. This means that grades did not tell the story since a student can make an A in a string of English classes but still have unanswered questions.

This does not imply blame toward high school teachers, not at all. Classes can be large, with student behavior a constant challenge. Teachers may have to put out fires continually while trying to maintain an orderly classroom. Then too, some students are shy, non-assertive, or show no signs of blooming.grades

This is not to bash grades; they are a necessary evil. Considered as a measurement in the moment, grades might be seen in a purely objective light; but students, families, and institutions often put various kinds of spin on grades.

When I was young, the first pressures about grades were parental. After my father took off never to return, when I was in the fifth grade, slippage concerning grades might have occurred except that friendly competition formed in the classroom. It is hard to resist a fellow student’s question, “What did you get on the test?” This was a good thing since my mother had refreshed her elementary school teaching certificate, and with four kids was weary of body at the end of a day. She could only cheer us on so much.

armwrestleIn high school, a competitive friend came along. We played chess, pool, guitars, and sports. All of this was very competitive—heads on with one thing after another, including the classroom. His parents were very particular about education, so the atmosphere of education hovered over everyone who came over. Fortunately, competition was friendly, likely with a tad of goading now and then, though all I remember is that my friend constantly pressed me to do my best.

For a season in college, studies got bumped down in priority. Living in a dorm 600 miles from home, it took time for the craziness to settle down. Early on, it was just not cool to study too much.

In later years, grades have communicated two perspectives. Grades are grades, and the world runs on competition and comparison. However, it is a fine thing to arrive at comparing one’s self more with personal possibilities and not so much with others. Many intangibles come into play like effort, energy, persistence, and strategy.

Life is lived mostly without grades. Yes, grades are on those transcripts—as they should be. Of more importance, however, are the choices about what to learn that one makes over the years. Out the vast sea of knowledge come the particular magnets that draw me the individual and you the individual.Mikhail-Baryshnikov-Quote-Lg

Early in life, it feels normal to gravitate toward what represents a certain earning power. Later on, learning evolves toward what draws us. Attraction woos a person to pick up that certain book or magazine, to watch that particular documentary, and to visit that kind of museum.

The ideal is for occupation and learning interests to be one and the same. That does not always happen, but it can, either early or late in the land of the free.

Ending on an Up Note: Puppy Love

Admission of bias: I adore Julep, my PWC (Pembroke Welsh Corgi, for the cuteness-deprived). I’ve learned a lot from that little dog during our six years together, including the value of humor and surprise in improving my attitude. It may not be practical to unleash a wagonload of puppies on your class when you see your students’ eyes glazing over. Still, with a bit of creative thought, you can probably come up with a way to up the pleasureinlearning quotient by adding a touch of humor and surprise. For evidence of efficacy, watch this:

Enjoy your weekend.

Ah, Emily Said It Best

ReadingthuRsday-R2

There is no frigate like a book
To take us Lands away.
Emily Dickinson

Emily knew the truth. During this last weekend as I made a quick road trip, I listened to several books while I traveled miles along a familiar highway. My selections were an odd assortment with little connection to each other except I liked the titles. I am so glad I let this bit of whimsy guide me.nofrigate

I started my trip with The Bear in the Attic by Patrick F. McManus. I am sad to say I was unfamiliar with his curmudgeonly essays, but I quickly became a fan as I listened and laughed. Pat had many encounters with the great outdoors as he hunted, fished, and generally just got into trouble, both as a young lad and as an adult. I constantly thought of my friend Steve who is an avid outdoorsman, and I could imagine him on the many adventures I was listening to as I rolled down the highway. Patrick rode with me all the way to my destination and for about 30 minutes of my return trip.

Then I went on a ghostly adventure with Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. In the play, a séance conjures up the dead wife of the host. The current wife is not real happy with sharing her husband and house with a former wife, dead or not. The play is funny and energetic and quickly paced. Once again, I found myself laughing as I rolled through some beautiful spring filled countryside.

1 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyHowever, I really hit the jackpot with my third choice. I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie: A Novel (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) without even reading about its contents. I just love the name. I fell in love with the folks in Guernsey just like Juliet Ashton did as she corresponded with the residents through a series of letters. The novel is set in the years just after World War II, and the letters provide a description of the way of life for the people in Guernsey during the German occupation. As a matter of fact, the entire Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie organization is formed as an alibi for being out after hours. Since a Literary society was then a matter of record, some of the residents who had really never read much before began to read and share their thoughts on their books. New lands and new people and new events could fill their time as they tried to survive the food shortages and evils of a World War. Juliet feels their story is so important she begins to toy with the idea of forming them into a book. I am just now to the part where Juliet has decided she must go to Guernsey to meet the people she only knows through letters. I am excited to see how it all works out.

So in a very short weekend road trip, I also managed to travel to lands away and adventures away and people away. I am better for the journey.

 

Handing Them Their Lives

Karen3I recently began teaching medical microbiology, a challenging but intensely rewarding class. The students in the class are mostly those I’ve now had for three terms, and they’re the cream of the crop. I tease them about being “border collies,” always ready to work and apt to get into trouble if I don’t find interesting things for them to do. They love the hands-on nature of the class, and their skill set has expanded at a remarkable rate. They quickly mastered the techniques for preparing bacterial smears and examining them under the daunting “oil immersion” lens of their microscopes. The first day that they tried this, one student jubilantly hollered, “I FOUND something!”

We decided to attempt observation of living organisms by a technique called “hanging drop.” I concocted couple of different jars of nasty liquids (“effusions,” to the sciencey folks), and we went hunting for microbes. Many of the little critters swim fast, and students were challenged to show their colleagues and me their dashing discoveries. Several students reported telling their family members about what they had observed. amoebaproteus450

All this reminded me of what is possibly my favorite passage of prose in the entire English language, taken from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Probably because Dillard’s experience was so similar to my own, I know it almost by heart:

“Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba.  The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park: it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was a blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.”

Dillard then recounts how she ran upstairs to urge her parents to come view her find. “Chance of a lifetime” in her estimation. But her mother, while pleased for her, declined to join her in her basement lab. As Annie returned to the basement, she had an epiphany:

“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine.  She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”

microscopeHow very fortunate I am to be able to share “my private passion for the thing itself” with a group of students who seem to share that passion. The quote at the end of my campus email is from Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters. Could anything be more fun?”